Monday, February 26, 2007

Ekron and the Jebusites

Among the other odd things that really interests me, is the history of ancient Israel. That's not the same thing as the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, although the Old Testament is of course our principle literary source. Nor is it the same thing as salvation history, although it is the socio- ethno - economico - politico - justabouteverything-o- context in which salvation was worked out. It involves reading the Old Testament for the contrasting voices, going out of our way to see how the great controversies it records would have looked to the people of the time. (I did something of the sort here.) I think this kind of reading will make the Old Testament seem more relevant to people who devour Christian church history or Greco-Roman history but see the history of ancient Israel except for a few exceptional passages as some kind of boring and embarrassing monologue. But just as important, once you understand the background, even brief enigmatic passages suddenly are opened up as full of theological and salvation-historical meaning.

Let me give you an example.

In Zechariah 9 there is a curious and enigmatic line.

Ashkelon shall see [the fall of Tyre], and fear; Gaza also shall see it, and be very sorrowful, and Ekron; for her expectation shall be ashamed; and the king shall perish from Gaza, and Ashkelon shall not be inhabited. And a bastard shall dwell in Ashdod, and I will cut off the pride of the Philistines. And I will take away his blood out of his mouth , and his abominations from between his teeth [blood and abominations here are unclean foods]: but he that remaineth, even he, shall be for our God, and he shall be as a governor in Judah, and Ekron as a Jebusite. And I will encamp about mine house because of the army, because of him that passeth by, and because of him that returneth: and no oppressor shall pass through them any more: for now have I seen with mine eyes.

The immediately following lines are justly famous:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.

And the preceding lines are also something even a casual Bible reader can understand:

Thus saith the LORD of hosts; In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold out of all languages of the nations, even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you.

The Christian Bible reader puts the king riding on a colt (Palm Sunday) together with the promise of the universal desire to worship the God of the Jews and sees the promise of the gospel to the Gentiles.

But what is that stuff in the middle? What is that vengeance on the Philistines, etc., business? What is this all about?

Well, actually I think it is quite relevant to the prophecies preceding and following, but first of all let's set out some of the basic facts. Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ekron are four of the five Philistine cities (the so-called Pentapolis "Five Cities"; the other one was Gath). The Jebusites was the name of those Canaanite people who lived in Jerusalem (exactly how they differed from other Canaanites seems to be unclear -- some suggestions here and here). They were one of the Canaanites who had remained unconquered from the period of Joshua, through the time of the Judges and King Saul into the time of David. (See Judges 1:21: And the children of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites that inhabited Jerusalem; but the Jebusites dwell with the children of Benjamin in Jerusalem unto this day.)

David first conquered Jerusalem and hence brought the Jebusites into his kingdom.

And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, "You will not come in here, but the blind and the lame will ward you off"--thinking, "David cannot come in here." Nevertheless, David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David. . . . And David lived in the stronghold and called it the city of David. And David built the city all around from the Millo inward. . . . (Samuel 5:6-10).

Tyre, the Phoenician city, the Philistines and the Jebusites are all connected in that all three were among the peoples of the Holy Land (as defined in the books of Moses and Joshua) whom the children of Israel were ordered to massacre in entirety. In fact as we see in Judges 1 this did not happen to anything like the degree casual Bible readers might assume.

Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages, for the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not drive them out completely. And Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites lived in Gezer among them. Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants of Kitron, or the inhabitants of Nahalol, so the Canaanites lived among them, but became subject to forced labor. Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon or of Ahlab or of Achzib or of Helbah or of Aphik or of Rehob, so the Asherites lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land, for they did not drive them out. Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh, or the inhabitants of Beth-anath, so they lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh and of Beth-anath became subject to forced labor for them. The Amorites pressed the people of Dan back into the hill country, for they did not allow them to come down to the plain. The Amorites persisted in dwelling in Mount Heres, in Aijalon, and in Shaalbim, but the hand of the house of Joseph rested heavily on them, and they became subject to forced labor.

The Philistines, however, represented pockets where the indigenous pre-conquest society remained unsubdued by the Israelites, even after the conquests of the kings Saul, David, and Solomon. Tyre and the Phoenician cities were similar.

Again, a casual Bible reader might assume that the existence of such more or less assimilated bits of pre-Israelite Canaan in the new society was viewed always and everywhere as entirely negative. That is the dominant voice in the Biblical conversation on the ethnography of post-conquest Israel. Assimilation to the Canaanites is the origin of the temptation to idolatry. But it is not the only voice.

Most of the population of post-conquest Israel was probably descended at least in part from the Canaanites, particularly in the cities and the lowlands. The Israelites had higher status, particularly after the kingdom was established, which is what those "forced labor" passages refer to. (But note: the Jebusites were never set to forced labor.) To adopt a very crude analogy, the Israelite conquest of the Canaanite was much more like the Spanish conquest of Mexico or Peru, than the Anglo-American conquest of North America; the result was not extinction or expulsion and replacement, but the formation of a mestizo, stratified conquest society.

The big difference was, that the backward mountains were the stronghold of pure-blood Israelites, where the stories of glorious conquest were handed down, while it was the cities and lowland farms which preserved both the memory of the Canaanite and a certain sympathy for the Philistines as more culturally sophisticated people. In these more sophisticated places, segregating Israelites and Canaanites would not work as policy. We can see this in the contradictory references to forced labor.

One passage in 1 Kings describes Solomon's forced labor as affecting only the Canaanites:

All the people who were left of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, who were not of the people of Israel-- their descendants who were left after them in the land, whom the people of Israel were unable to devote to destruction --these Solomon drafted to be slaves, and so they are to this day. But of the people of Israel Solomon made no slaves. They were the soldiers, they were his officials, his commanders, his captains, his chariot commanders and his horsemen.

This passage makes it sound as if no Israelites would resent the imposition of a forced labor from which they were exempt. But the reality was otherwise. Jacob's prophecy of his sons already has Issachar (the tribe of Israel dwelling in the rich Jezreel valley, around Megiddo and Ibleam) being subject to forced labor:

Issachar is a strong donkey,
crouching between the sheepfolds.
He saw that a resting place was good,
and that the land was pleasant,
so he bowed his shoulder to bear,
and became a servant at forced labor.

This would explain then why "all Israel" -- not just the remnant Canaanites -- hated Solomon's overseers of forced labor:

Then [Solomon's son and successor] King Rehoboam sent Adoram, who was taskmaster over the forced labor, and all Israel stoned him to death with stones. And King Rehoboam hurried to mount his chariot to flee to Jerusalem.

So the rise of the kings was associated with a program that in some areas, particularly the north it seems, imposed a sharper differentiation between those claiming indigenous Israelite ancestry and those claiming Canaanite ancestry. In the south (the kingdom of Judah), this differentiation was embraced, but in the north (the kingdom of Israel) it was much more controversial.

The other side of the rise of the kings, particularly David, was the creation of a central court, where paradoxically, the previous racial pride and exclusivity of the Israelites was loosened. Note when David conquered Jebus/Jerusalem what did not happen: there was no wholesale massacre, nor subjection to forced labor. The Jebusites seem to have been absorbed into the new kingdom, where they occupied geographically the central position. Nor was this a unique case. Many of David's favorite warriors and commanders were Canaanites or Philistines; not just Uriah the Hittite, but Ahimelech the Hittite as well (the Hittites of Beersheba are often associated with the Jebusties of Jerusalem). And there is Obed-Edom, Ittai and the 600 other Gittites (i.e. Philistines of Gath), and his Cherethite and Pelethite mercenaries from Philistia. (The account of David's links to Gath in 1-2 Samuel are probably only the tip of the iceberg). While David's rebellious sons, first Absalom and then Adonijah, sought the throne by winning over the more staunchly independent and rebellious Israelite population, David's non-Israelite soldiers remained loyal to him and his designated successor Solomon.

Nor was God displeased by this. This is the oddest thing of all, considering the degree to which much of Yawhistic religion in ancient Israel exalted the conquering Israelites over the native Canaanites. Yet here too there is another theme, which we might call the Canaanites as the beloved temple slaves of Jehovah. This begins with the Gibeonites who were enslaved in the conquest: But Joshua made them that day cutters of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the LORD, to this day, in the place that he should choose [i.e. wherever the ark of the covenant was].* In the account in Joshua 9, we see that this was seen as a bad thing. Perhaps for that reason, Saul killed the Gibeonites:

Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel but of the remnant of the Amorites. Although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had sought to strike them down in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah.

Saul is pursuing the racially exclusive, pure Israelite, anti-syncretist, "mountain man" agenda, attacking the decadent cities and their mongrelized population. This agenda often seems part of the prophets' religion, although Jehu, another blood-thirsty "mountain man" king, is likewise portrayed ambiguously. Yet after Saul's death, the oracle of the Lord says:

Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year. And David sought the face of the LORD. And the LORD said, "There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death."

David allows seven sons of Saul to be hanged by the Gibeonites to avert the plague. He gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them on the mountain before the LORD, and the seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of barley harvest.

Strikingly when the Israelites were terrified of plagues from God that seemed to follow the ark of the covenant, it was Obed-Edom, the Gittite (i.e. Philistine from Gath) and Araunah the Jebusite (i.e. Canaanite of Jerusalem) who were both blessed by the presence of the ark of the covenant:

And David was afraid of the LORD that day, and he said, "How can the ark of the LORD come to me?" So David was not willing to take the ark of the LORD into the city of David. But David took it aside to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. And the ark of the LORD remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months, and the LORD blessed Obed-edom and all his household.

And the angel of the LORD [dealing out death by plague] was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. Then David spoke to the LORD when he saw the angel who was striking the people, and said, "Behold, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand be against me and against my father's house."

And Gad came that day to David and said to him, "Go up, raise an altar to the LORD on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite." So David went up at Gad's word, as the LORD commanded.

And when Araunah looked down, he saw the king and his servants coming on toward him. And Araunah went out and paid homage to the king with his face to the ground. And Araunah said, "Why has my lord the king come to his servant?"

David said, "To buy the threshing floor from you, in order to build an altar to the LORD, that the plague may be averted from the people."

Then Araunah said to David, "Let my lord the king take and offer up what seems good to him. Here are the oxen for the burnt offering and the threshing sledges and the yokes of the oxen for the wood. All this, O king, Araunah gives to the king." And Araunah said to the king, "The LORD your God accept you."

But the king said to Araunah, "No, but I will buy it from you for a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing." So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver.

And David built there an altar to the LORD and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. So the LORD responded to the plea for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel.

In these three stories, it is the Canaanites, the ones who are supposed to be cursed and destroyed, who avert the plague of God's wrath from the blood-proud Israelites. David participates in and benefits from this wrath-bearing, by protecting the Canaanites as part of his policy for moving Israel from a Yahwistic tribal republic to a proper temple-centered monarchy. (Yes, the allusions to Rene Girard here are worth following up).

This conversation between blood purity and the long assimilated temple slaves continued. Centuries later, in the revelations given to Ezekiel, for example, the presence of temple slaves of Canaanite origin is still a deep offense:

And say to the rebellious house, to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: O house of Israel, enough of all your abominations, in admitting foreigners, uncircumcised in heart and flesh, to be in my sanctuary, profaning my temple, when you offer to me my food, the fat and the blood. You have broken my covenant, in addition to all your abominations. And you have not kept charge of my holy things, but you have set others to keep my charge for you in my sanctuary. "Thus says the Lord GOD: No foreigner, uncircumcised in heart and flesh, of all the foreigners who are among the people of Israel, shall enter my sanctuary. . . "

Zechariah, the post-Exilic prophet who started this essay closes with the same line:

In that day there shall be no more the Canaanite in the house of the LORD of hosts.

Yet the temple servants and the sons of Solomon's servants in Ezra 2:43ff. who returned from Exile are probably this same race. Ultimately they were the descendants of the Gibeonites and probably other, unrecorded, peoples subjugated in the conquest of Israel and made hereditary servants of the Ark of the Covenant.

Indeed the role of the Canaanites may be much closer to the heart of David and Solomon's temple cult than a casual reader would suppose. In 1 Samuel 2-3, we find the story of Eli, his wicked sons, and the prophecy of his replacement, that his sons will be replaced by a faithful priestly line. (The replacement of one line with another is introduced as a theme by Hannah's song, which is the model for Mary's Magnificat.) Now in 1 Samuel 4, Eli and his wicked sons Hophni and Phinehas die. But Phinehas has an untimely son Ichabod and through Ichabod's brother Ahitub, the priests serving Saul and David down to Abiathar traced their line. Now the prophecy was fulfilled in 1 Kings 2:26, when as punishment for supporting Adonijah as successor of David, Abiathar and his line was replaced:

And to Abiathar the priest the king said, "Go to Anathoth, to your estate, for you deserve death.** But I will not at this time put you to death, because you carried the ark of the Lord GOD before David my father, and because you shared in all my father's affliction." So Solomon expelled Abiathar from being priest to the LORD, thus fulfilling the word of the LORD that he had spoken concerning the house of Eli in Shiloh.

So if Abiathar and the descendants of Eli (also called the "priests of Nob" in 1 Samuel) were the rejected line of priesthood who was the new line? Well the new priest is Zadok (1 Kings 2:35).

So who was this Zadok? In the account of Samuel-Kings, he appears out of nowhere, in 2 Samuel 15:24ff as one of the two priests along with Abiathar. His father is Ahitub (not to be confused with the Ahitub who was Ichabod's brother) and his seed Ahimaaz and Azariah (2 Sam. 15:36-18:29; 1 Kings 4:2; cf. 1 Chron 4:8-10). But no ancestry of him is ever given in those books. In the context of the prophecy given to Eli, this "coming out of nowhere" aspect could be seen as only accentuating the judgment on Eli's family. Yet somehow it seems very unsatisfying that this long-delayed lightning seems in the end to strike in so shabby and hole-in-corner manner. Early on in 1 Samuel, it seems that Samuel as prophet will replace the decayed priestly position of Eli's line -- and there Samuel is made to be a man living in Ephraim but of the Ephrathite family (1 Sam. 1:1), either way, an entirely non-priestly tribe. Indeed, placed in the context of the New Testament, that prophecy receives a much more striking fulfillment later. In other words, Samuel-Kings raises the question of who will replace established priests and then leaves it hanging with an answer that seems quite unsatisfying.

In the book of Chronicles, Zadok is reckoned as the descendant of Phinehas (see the genealogy in 1 Chron. 6:4-15, 49-53), while Samuel and his father Elkanah are also reckoned as Levites (1 Chron. 6:22-29 and 33-38). Now both of these families are listed in 1 Chronicles 6 and later as part of the temple establishment. Given this different reckoning (from none, to clearly Aaronite, and from Ephraimite/Ephrathite to Levite), one may see an historical process by which those brought to Jerusalem and employed in the new temple were all in time given a Levite/Aaronite ancestry, one which is recorded in the great genealogies of 1 Chronicles, in line with the intense focus among the exiles on proper ancestry.*** Yet Zadok only appears in the record after Jerusalem is conquered by David. Could he, like Melchizedek of Salem who blessed Abraham, be a priest of the Jebusites who was brought into the Israelite family and religion by king David? This is speculative but it brings us back to the passage of Zechariah:

[the Philistine] that remaineth, even he, shall be for our God, and he shall be as a governor in Judah, and Ekron as a Jebusite.

Whether or not the high priests of Solomon's time on were really descendants of a Jebusite priestly family naturalized into Israel, David's conquest of the Jebusites in Jerusalem was certainly the beginning of a court establishment which played a disproportionate role in the civil and religious life of the kingdom of Judah. Here Zechariah draws on that history to promise that those Philistines who survive the day of the Lord's vengeance will be brought into Israel in the same way -- into the very center of the nation.

Modern-day Bible readers thrill to the denunciation of monarchy in 1 Samuel 8. But it is worth noting that this early "republican," anti-monarchic line of thought is also closely linked with the exclusive, blood-proud thought-trend in Israelite society as well. (One might, tongue a bit in cheek, call it the Bible's "Confederate tradition.") The incorporation of the Gentiles into God's people both as a fact and a promise is always linked to the monarchy, especially that of David's successors. That is perhaps why the rule David's son established is called the "kingdom" of God and not the "republic" of God.

*I can't help but note that the shrine of Chinggis (i.e. Genghis) Khan, now in Inner Mongolia, was also staffed by prisoners of war captured by the Mongols.
** Centuries later, Anathoth was the homeland of Jeremiah. As has been pointed out by commentators, his truth-telling to the royal and priestly elites in Jerusalem was probably eased by a family tradition of resenting this disposession.
***Isn't this accusing the Bible of error? No, if the ancestry was reckoned as real, just as Jesus is really reckoned the son of Joseph in Luke's genealogy (3:23, cf. 4:22 and John 1:45).

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Good and Bad Emperors on Feasting and Drinking

YOur assignment will consist of two passages from the famous Han shu of the writer Ban Gu. Much of the work consists of citations from imperial edicts and memorials to the throne, which fulfill much the same function that speeches do in the Greco-Roman classical historians. Here are two citations. The first is from the best emperor of the Han, emperor Xuan (r. 74-48 BC), who comforted the empire after the collossal exertions and campaigns of Han Wudi, and who reaped much of the benefit of those campaigns:

Verily the rites of marriage are the important feature of human relationships; gathering for drinking and feasting are the means whereby the rules of proper conduct and music are performed. But now in the commanderies and principalities*, some of the officials ranked at two thousand piculs arbitrarily make vexatious prohibitions, imposing prohibitions upon the common people when they give or take in marriage, so that they are not permitted to prepare feasts, to offer felicitations, or to summon each other. In this way they have abolished the rites of proper conduct for the districts and villages and have caused the common people to be without any means of enjoyment. This is not the way in which to guide the common people. Does not the Book of Odes say,
If people are lacking in virtue
They are sparing even providing dry provisions.
Do not practice such vexatious government! (from the Han shu 漢書 written by Ban Gu 班固, chapter 8, trans. Homer Dubs, History of the Former Han Dynasty, II, pp. 248-49).

*These were the subordinate districts into which the Han empire was divided. Commanderies were ruled by officials, principalities by princes of the imperial family.

The next is from a memorial by an official to Wang Mang who usurped the Han throne and under whose reign perhaps half the population of North China died or fled. His edicts and memorials were models of style, however:

Fermented drink is the most beautiful happiness from Heaven, whereby the ancient lords and kings* have nourished the whole society ("all under Heaven" 天下). Meetings for offering sacrifice, for praying for blessing, for succoring the decrpeit, for caring for the sick, and all the rites, cannot be carried on without fermented drink.

Hence the Book of Odes says,
'If I have no fermented drink, I buy it, do I,'
but the Analects says,
'[Confucius] would not drink purchased fermented drink.'
These two are not contradictory.

Verily, the ode refers to when peaceful reigns succeeded each other and the fermented drink purchased at a government office was harmonious [i.e. fairly priced], agreeable, and suited to the people, so that it could be offered to others.

In the Analects, Confucius was in the Zhou dynasty as it decayed and was in disorder, so that the sale of fermented drink was in the hands of the common people, and hence was of poor quality, bad, and not free from adulteration. For this reason he suspected it and would not drink it.

If now the whole society's fermented drink is cut off, then there will be no means of performing the rites or of cherishing others. If permission is given to brew and no limit is set to that, then it will consume wealth and injure the people. Hence , I beg that you [the hypocrite and usurper emperor Wang Mang] will imitate the ancients and order the government offices to make fermented drink . . . (from the Han shu 漢書 written by Ban Gu 班固, chapter 24B, trans. Homer Dubs, History of the Former Han Dynasty, III, p. 497-98)

**帝王 "lords and kings" here is short for the "five lords and three kings," the lawiving/prophetic kings of the distant past who revealed to mankind the proper ways of living, roughly what an anthropologist would call a "culture hero."

The passage goes on to detail the addition of a liquor monopoly to the already disastrous six monopolies of the usurping hypocrite Wang Mang who betrayed the dynasty he served and destroyed his country with impeccable repristinated scriptural justification. As Ban Gu wrote:

Whenever Wang Mang acted, he desired to imitate the ancients and did not consider what was appropriate to the times 又動欲慕古不度時宜 (ibid., p. 477).

Assignment: discuss in terms of

1) The right and wrong way for government to nourish family values
2) Liturgical practice and Eucharistic theology
3) How to rightly conduct festivals, dancing, and music
4) The "Scouring of the Shire" chapter of the Lord of the Rings
5) Psalm 104:14-15:
You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man's heart.
and Proverbs 31:4-7:
It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
it is not for kings to drink wine,
or for rulers to take strong drink,
lest they drink and forget what has been decreed
and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.
Give strong drink to the one who is perishing,
and wine to those in bitter distress;
let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.
7) The right practice of marriage as a condition of the good society
8) Legalism and repristination
9) The proper limits of government and the disasters that result from overstepping them
10) Home brews vs. commercial brews; Confucius as the patron of home brewing

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Big vs. Little Isn't a Right vs. Left Issue

Those who enjoyed the movie Babe: Pig in the City may remember the voice-over as the camera pulls back from the bucolic seen. A small place, the narrator intones, remains "somewhere to the left of the twentieth century."

The left: that phrase annoyed and intrigued me, because I thought the defense of the rural and family-centered against the urban and impersoanl was somewhere to the right of the twentieth century. Of course thinking about, if right means defense of economic growth, constantly growing property values, and new super highways, then yes, I suppose they are to the left of the twentieth century. On the other hand, if left means increasing regulation of sheep farms, steadily higher income taxes, and imposing unfunded mandates on small business then, no they are not to the left of the twentieth century.

Now there's a reason why each side, right and left, wants to seize the image of the small, honest, naive, good-hearted soul struggling against cynical and uncaring institutions: to us in the post-1960s era, it's an awfully attractive image. (Of course the image of the rational, fair, and progressive reformer struggling against the prejudices of small-town, ignorant religious fanatics is an image which hasn't run out of steam either).

In the whole debate over the Crunchy Cons, what struck me is how the language of the crunchy con supporters is a "sixties" language: valuing authentic over efficient, local over universal, and traditional over the rational. But it is often forgotten that the real target of the sixties movement was not "conservatives" (they weren't important enough to be a target), but the mainstream liberalism of JFK and Lyndon Johnson, which by contrast was entirely devoted to the efficient, the universal, and the rational, and indeed saw the defense of the authentic, the local, and the traditional to be pretty much the same thing as the segregated, the racist, and the Christian fundamentalist. That is a side of the left often forgotten today.

My son Jeff is taking AP US history and they are covering the early twentieth century. As he talks about progressive period, Teddy Roosevelt, trust-busting, the Populists and so on, I am reminded of my own history classes. And my high school teacher Mr. Jefferson -- a great teacher, and don't hold him responsible for the right-wing use I've made of his lessons -- used to emphasize that the socialists liked bigness in business, because big business was much easier to nationalize in one fell swoop than small business. And big business had economies of scale that made provision of benefits and so on much more feasible.

On the other hand, the defenders of the very local, traditional, and authentic Populist movement today are generally found on the left; and they themselves saw the banks and hard money as their greatest enemies.

So which side really believes that "small is better"? Which really owns Babe: Pig in the City? The right or the left?

Neither, I think. Rather I think the complex of values associated with big and small can be found in places on both the right and the left. Much more important seems to be time: the period from 1865 to 1965 was the time in which bigness held the ideological high ground in both right and left forms, but since 1965, the concept that "small is beautiful" has increasingly influenced both the right and the left. Much of the sixties were only accidentally "left" -- at heart it was a revolt against impersonal bigness and hence its political leanings proved highly unstable over time. Libertarianism, paleoconservatives, gay pride, black pride, feminism, crunchy conservatism, Operation Rescue, natural family planning, Christian reconstructionism, the militia movement, seamless garment Catholicism, whole/slow foods -- what these movements have in common is the sixties revolt against the nuclear family-big corporation-big government model in which universality and rationality were the concepts right and left both wanted to capture. Of course in the "real world" the sixties revolt against bigness was not entirely successful by any means and in the world making money, bigness in its progressive (Rooseveltian) and whig (Hamiltonian) forms is still big. But among thinkers and the writers it seems to me that "small is beautiful" has become, by a slim margin, the default position.

Now usually a post like this should conclude with a rousing cry of "let's get beyond the tired old cliches of left and right" and "create a new politics". Well, I'm not going to issue that cry, first because the division of left vs. right seems anything but tired to me, and second because I don't unequivocally approve of the "small is beautiful" side, any more than I do of the "big is rational" side. But I think those who support the small side would do well to recognize that small isn't inherently right or left, or even conservative or liberal, but a value that can be mixed and matched with all of these.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

Who Is "Honor Your Father and Mother" Directed To?

Rick recently posted his relief that Jesus didn't handle "Honor Your Father and Mother" in His Sermon on the Mount. He writes:

If Jesus had closed every last loophole on that commandment, can you imagine your own childhood? Who would not at one time or another have run into an unscrupulous adult using the commandment to buttress their own authority? Even if your own childhood was free of such adults, many more adults in your life would have been under the reign of abusive authority. And the effects show for life.

Now Rick and I look at this whole set of issues somewhat differently, but what I'd like to do here is to put a different slant on it, one that might enlarge the area of consensus.

When I was taking "Rice Paddies" as an undergraduate, I remember the professor Benjamin Schwartz saying something very wise. He was remarking on the Confucian emphasis on filiality and he observed (in rough paraphrase) that we mistake the emphasis if we think this is all about little children being brow-beaten into obeying parents who are already have total power over them. No, the audience for these exhortations to obey your father and mother is middle aged men. It is men at the apex of their power and influence, prosperous farmers, CEOs, heads of law firms, senior pastors of large churches, full professors, brigadier generals, and senior civil servants, healthy and wealthy, enjoying the prestige that comes when the labors of their youth pay off. It is them to whom this commandment is directed, and they are being asked to honor their frail, retired, no longer very sharp, no longer very healthy, no longer very handsome or beautiful, easily tired, somewhat absent-minded fathers and mothers.

Later on in reading this highly recommended book, I came across (implicitly) the same point. Li Zhi (Li Chih) was offering advice to officials judging cases. Now, in most cases, the Chinese legal system was somewhat like that of the Ministry of Magic's -- long on drama, short on either evidence or procedural guarantees. Li Zhi assumes that in half the cases or more, you're never going to be able to figure out who did what to whom. But you have to render a decision somehow. So he offers this rule of thumb: when in doubt, decide for the poor man over the rich man and the old man over the young man. Of course this is hardly great procedure, but notice: poor and old, rich and young go together.

So who is "Honor Your Father and Mother" actually directed to? Is it to ten year old children? Rebellious teens? Yes it has something to say to them too, but not in the first instance. Rather it is to the same one the coveting commandments are directed to: the man with a house, a wife, children, servants, and an ox and an ass -- in short, the independent head of household who is the "you" to whom God is speaking throughout His laws of Moses. He's the one who has to be reminded to honor his old and frail mother and father. And when Jesus does cite the Fourth (Fifth for the Reformed) Commandment (and He does) it is this scenario He has in mind:

For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban' (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother.

Notice who's holding the purse-strings here: the son. This is not a long-haired teen being asked to put up with it when his dad belts him one for giving him lip, this is an independent man of affairs setting up a supposedly blind trust (for that's what these sorts of gifts amounted to) to prevent his business earnings being siphoned off to pay the medical bills of his aged parents. And Jesus says no, you came first to them when you were young and weak, they come first to you when they are old and weak.

This won't resolve all of our differences on the fourth commandment, but it should give it a more accurate emotional context.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Iraq and the Reality of Moral Fatalism

What's the hardest thing to capture in writing history? The way people were feeling back in the time before some big event, when they didn't know the big event was coming up. It's hard enough for us to remember it ourselves. I have to remind myself how I felt in the 1980s, or the 1990s, or in the days after 2001.

I just finished a book on the causes of the English civil war, by Conrad Russel. What he emphasizes is that in 1639, no one would have predicted that the tensions between the Laud's party and the party of godly Reformation would have lead to a civil war. No one wanted it, no one could have conceived it happening, no one could look at how the small minority of Laudians, the rather larger but still minority of hotter Protestants, and the neutral majority all got along in their daily lives and say, "This is a country on the brink of civil war." And yet it happened, due to political decision and lacks of decisions, most of the really important ones being those in regard to Scottish and Irish affairs, not English at all.

I'm reminded of this by a few recent pieces on Iraq. One was a week in review piece in the New York Times by Sabrina Tavernise "It Has Unraveled So Quickly" (I'm including the author and title so that if the link goes dead you can google it):

Never having covered a civil war before, I learned about it together with my Iraqi friends. It is a bit like watching a slow-motion train wreck. Broken bodies fly past. Faces freeze in one's memory in the moments before impact. Passengers grab handles and doorframes that simply tear off or uselessly collapse.

I learned how much violence changes people, and how trust is chipped away, leaving society a thin layer of moth-eaten fabric that tears easily. It has unraveled so quickly. A year ago, my interviews were peppered with phrases like "Iraqis are all brothers." The subjects would get angry when you asked their sect. Now some of them introduce themselves that way.

I met Raad Jassim, a 38-year-old Shiite refugee, in a largely empty house, recently owned by Sunnis, where he now lives in western Baghdad. He moved there in the fall, after Sunni militants killed his brother and his nephew and confiscated his large chicken farm north of Baghdad. He had lived with Sunnis his whole life, but after what happened, a hatred spread through him like a disease.

"The word Sunni, it hurts me," he said, sitting on the floor in a bare room, his 7-year-old boy on his lap. "All that I have lost came from this word. I try to avoid mixing with them."

"A volcano of revenge" has built up inside him, he said. "I want to rip them up with my teeth."

In another measure of just how much things have changed, Mr. Jassim's Shiite neighborhood is relatively safe. The area is now largely free of Sunnis, after Shiite militias swept it last year, and it runs smoothly on a complex network of relationships among the local militias, the police and a powerful local council. His street is dotted with fruit stands. Boys in uniforms roughhouse. Men sit in teahouses sipping from tiny glass cups.

Just to the south, the Sunni neighborhood of Dawoodi is ghostly at almost any time of day. Wide boulevards trimmed with palm trees used to connect luxury homes. Now giant piles of trash go uncollected in the median.

And yet, as Amir Taheri points out, ethno-national mobilization is still in its infancy in Iraq. He compares it to Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe where he did reporting in the 1990s. And in Eastern Europe, as one Hungarianist once said in a seminar, every issue, if you dig down deep enough, turns into a ethnonational issue.

Unlike the unraveling Yugoslavia of the '90s, sectarianism hasn't consumed Iraq at the grass-root level. Grandmothers don't say special prayers, asking God to destroy the rival sect. Poets don't write sectarian verse. Artists don't portray members of other sects as devils incarnate. Not one of the gangsters who destroyed the golden-domed shrine in Samarra was Iraqi.

Anyone closely familiar with the situation, rather than making judgments from thousands of miles away, would know of countless cases where Sunnis and Shiites protected one another against the violence of sectarian terrorist groups. In Anbar province, where Arab Sunnis are more than 95 percent of the population, several Shiite pockets owe their survival to the protection of local tribes. In some cases, Sunni tribes have fought al Qaeda terrorists to prevent the massacre of Shiites.

Indeed, most Iraqi tribes include both Sunni and Shiite members. There are also tens of thousands of mixed families of Sunnis and Shiites, especially in Baghdad and Basra.

In many cases, the fight is between rival militias belonging to the same religious sect. Sadr's Mahdi Army, a hodgepodge of armed groups often controlled by Iran, has clashed with Abdul-Aziz Hakim's Badr Brigade, another Shiite militia partly under Iranian control.

Iraqi and U.S. troops killed hundreds of militiamen this week in a battle near Najaf. Most of those killed were Shiite followers of a charlatan who claimed to be the Last Imam. But, according to Iraqi authorities, those killed or captured also included Sunni terrorists, some from Sudan and Algeria.

Sectarian violence has displaced many Iraqis, perhaps more than a million. There have also been instances of ethnic cleansing, through the forcible expulsion of families and clans. But even such cases cannot be imputed to religious sectarianism.

Consider the Sunni families forced out of their homes in Basra and Baghdad by Shiite death-squads: In almost all cases, the death squads belong to a single group: the Sadrists, who seek to pose as the most effective defenders of Shiism against a mythical Sunni threat.

In Kirkuk, the Kurds are forcing out Shiite and Sunni Arabs - but the motives are not religious, but ethnic. In the same city, the Turkmen, both Sunnis and Shiites, act together on the basis not of religious affiliations but of ethnic origin.

There is no doubt that there is a war in Iraq. It is important to know what kind of a war this is.

If it is a civil war, we should identify the two camps and decide which to support. If it is a sectarian war, the only way to end it is either by geographical separation (as was the case with Croatia and Serbia) or through massive foreign occupation, as in Bosnia.

What is happening in Iraq, however, is neither a civil nor a sectarian war (although elements of both exist within the broader context). This war is a political one . . . .

He's right, far righter than the smug and arrogant outsiders who say "We gave them freedom and look what they've done with it." Nothing drives me up the wall like the assumption that "we" are rational and "they" are irrational. Viewed in the mass: all people are rational; all of them have common sense. What is the purpose of pretending otherwise? To maintain the delusion that we are in charge of our own destinies morally, to avoid the truth that we don't have control over whether we are good people or bad.

Mencius said, "In good years the children of the people are most of them good, while in bad years the most of them abandon themselves to evil. It is not owing to any difference of their natural powers conferred by Heaven that they are thus different. The abandonment is owing to the circumstance through which they allow their minds to be ensnared and drowned in evil (VI.A.7) .

This is the truth! Imagine a Muslim historian of the seventeenth century who wrote: "The English Civil War broke out because the English were childish and irrational." What an idiot he would be. To say the Iraqis are fighting now because they are childish and irrational is to be a similar sort of idiot.

Remember 2003? Remember reading how when Iraqis interviewed would get angry if the foreign reporter asked "Sunni or Shiite?" I remember reading that -- Sabrina Tavernise did not make that up. The civil war in Iraq didn't just spring up -- it was being delicately and carefully nursed for over three years by ambitious political forces. Three years is a long time -- as Amir Taheri pointed out, the civil war planners had to overcome tremendous resistance to the taboo on using violence against your neighbors who worship a bit differently, just as happened in England in 1640.

All so true, but I can't get much hope from it. Political civil wars have ways of consuming the political center and creating politically defined sects, just as much as any other civil war. And unfortunately, it seems Amir Taheri is suffering under the delusion that somehow "religious wars" are different from "ethnic" or "political" wars (probably because religious wars are "irrational" and political wars are "rational" -- there's that meaningless distinction again!) Walker Connor in Ethnonationalism shows how saying that Northern Ireland is a religious conflict, South Africa a racial one, and Malaysia a language one, and then trying to decide which type of conflict is more fundamental because "race is more fundamental" or "religion generates more conflict," etc., is profoundly misleading. No -- all of them are struggles of teams, and the teams simply happened to be marked by different characteristics. A small minority of Sunni Arabs and a small minority of Shiites may be motivated by specifically religious concerns, but for most it is the imperative of group membership and group hurt. And those hurts are being inflicted by the seeing men in this struggle, as they strive to make the blind see things their way. But do these seeing men know that they are digging their own graves?

So what am I saying? I guess it comes down to this: I don't care what you think about the invasion/ situation/ war/ whatever of Iraq. I don't care which group of political leaders you hate the most for it. Call it a criminal act. Call it a liberation that went sour. Hate Bush and Blair for it. Hate the Baathists and al Qaeda in Iraq for it. Hate Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army for it. But please don't blame the tormented people of Iraq for the fact that they will, if they have to, fight for survival. Don't put that fight into some little box where irrational people do irrational things. Don't stroke your own delusional sense of moral superiority by saying that "Well if a car bomb killed my kids one week and then another car bomb killed some neighbors of mine a week, I would never sink so low as to support a sectarian militia merely to get some kind of security." Don't even think that if you did say that, you would be superior.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Archaic Law: To Recapitulate It or Spiritually Repudiate It?

I have been reading Rene Girard lately and find it immensely stimulating, even though I often feel, like Marx with Hegel, that to be read correctly he has to be stood on his head. Even so, the insights gained are tremendous. Let me cite here simply his definition of religion:

Any phenomenon associated with acts of remembering, commemorating, and perpetuating a unanimity that springs from the murder of a surrogate victim can be termed "religious" (Reader, pp. 26-27).

In this sense, one may indeed wonder whether Buddhism for example, is a religion, but one can be in no doubt that every conquest or revolution is a religious act, and every state founded by revolution or conquest -- and that about covers them -- is a religion in the Girardian sense. Girard tends to avoid the political realm, but it is unavoidable in this connection. When he does touch on it, he produces similarly brilliantly illuminating apothegms:

Political power has been rooted in the crowd since the foundation of the world (p. 214).

In the Secret History of the Mongols, for example, Chinggis Khan's killing of his half-brother Begter, and of his blood-brother Jamugha is a presented implicitly as the sacrifice of a surrogate victim, which produces unanimity and a blessing.

Girard is quite popular with both First Things writers (here, here, and here, for example) and the Reformed Dougs in Moscow, Idaho and their supporters (here, here, and here, for example). I wonder very much about whether they have in fact understood him, since in many ways his interpretation appears to be rather contradictory to Catholic or Refomed theology. Let's note a few things that might cause problems: he acknowledges that he is the first person to read the Gospels in the way that he does (p. 183), that the orthodox "sacrificial" interpretation of the Gospels has obscured its true utterly anti-sacrificial significance from the first years of the apostles (p. 193), that the appropriation of the logic of the Gospel for the defense of culture and social order is in fact the work of Christians who are the Antichrist (p. 207), and that Girard himself rediscovered it solely through reading the text of Scripture (pp. 183-84). Every plank of radical restorationism is in place. Know what you are getting into, if you read him.

And yet, somehow it doesn't feel like heresy. Let's leave aside the extraordinary light he sheds upon his favorite Biblical texts. Let's take his reading of the founding fall. It is not Adam and Eve, whom he virtually never mentions, but Cain's murder of Abel. This is heresy -- or is it? Isn't this the basis for John saying that Satan was a liar and a murderer from the beginning? That instigating murder was Satan's primal intervention into our history? And although Girard seems unaware of the fact, Prudentius's Christian poems also treat Cain's murder of Abel as the real inception of sinful humanity. To rediscover by chance strands of ancient Christian thought long ago consigned to the attic; that is something worth paying attention to.

But the reading of Girard has suffered from inadequate contextualization. What is the context in which we ought to read him; what is his fundamental problem? He began as a literary scholar, reading the nineteenth century novels. He then turned to anthropology, exploring the byways of obscure native religions. Most of his writing now centers on Biblical interpretation and exegesis. However he got there, however, his mature writings are fundamentally an attempt to resolve a single problem: what is the relation of the Old Covenant and the New? Or to put it a bit differently (and perhaps a bit misleadingly for Augsburg Evangelicals): what is the relation of the Law and the Gospel?

But it must be always remembered Girard is a thinker who relates Christian revelation to the full scale of human cultural diversity. Or to put it differently, he emphasizes how the Christian Gospels are the fulfillment and supersession not simply of the Mosaic Law, but of all sacrificial law, all sacrificial "mythology" (i.e. all the historical, yet mysticized murders of innocent substitutes). In short, one could take the python myth of the Venda in South Africa, and show how the life and death of Jesus exposes and unwinds the mechanism commemorated and sanctified by that myth, just as it exposes and unwinds the mechanism commemorated and sanctified by the death of Achan (to chose a Biblical example not addressed by Girard).

Let me put Girard and the Law-Gospel problem in historical context. The religious legacy of mankind goes back to five archaic Laws given to peoples in a band from west to east in Eurasia, and embodied in the scriptures reverenced in continuous line until today. They are Homer, Hesiod and the Homeric hymns in Greek, the Law of Moses and the Former Prophets (Joshua-2 Kings) in Hebrew, the Avestan in Old Persian, the Vedas in Sanskrit, and the Five Classics in Chinese. This is the earliest stratum of the cultural heritage, directly or vicariously, of virtually all of humanity.

What do these have in common? That they are Laws for theocratic states in which the divine will is knowable through divination (urim and thummim, the milfoil straws, entrails), in which the divinity takes pleasure in the sweet savor of burnt animal offerings, in which purity regulations govern all aspects of life, particularly relating to discharges from the body (semen, blood, spit, etc.), in which the duty to procreate is universal and in which both war, the death penalty, slavery, and polygamy/concubinage are accepted without remark as part of the order of life, and in which revelation comes in one sacred language to one sacred people surrounded by barbarian gentiles.

What is the problem of Girard? It is the perennial problem since the middle of the first millennium BC, of what to do with this era of revelation, when so much of it seems so barbaric and primitive, so much superseded by the later revelations of the prophets and sages. Yet those prophets and sages themselves, paradoxically, reverenced these revelations as being the classic patterns of ideal society.

In general, the problem of religious diversity and cultural heritage has been approached by trying to identify which of these five languages holds the truest and the best revelation. What should we take as the text teaching us the true and fundamental pattern of life? The Iliad and the Odyssey? The Law of Moses? The Vedas and Upanishads? Once that is decided, then we decide which interpretation of that Law is the truest. (This is the procedure of Pascal, more or less: start with the Jews who are obviously a unique people, and then ask whether the New Testament makes sense as a fulfillment of the Jewish Law.) But Girard offers implicitly another way of conceptualizing the problem: given that all of these archaic texts share so much, perhaps we should ask, what is the general type of relation which these archaic texts have to the later revelation of Truth? What should our relation be to the Laws for a theocratic kingdom of sacrificial scapegoats and purity laws separating clean insiders and unclean outsiders? Not least because each one of them came under radical attack by foreign conquest, intellectual questioning, and the importation of new teachings and texts.

There are five possibilities:

1) Repristination: to reemphasize these laws and in so doing rebuild the sacral social order. The Confucians were fortunate in having a kingdom still found on the land and in having archaic classics which seems to be among the least "archaic" in spirit (perhaps because large chunks achieved final form only in the first century BC), and at times followed this. The laws of Islam seem also to have the features of repristination of a streamlined and modernized law of Moses. (One of the peculiar aspects of Islam is how a highly "advanced," not to say philosophical, concept of God is yoked to an archaic-seeming law.) The theonomist stream of Puritanism was in some ways another example of this.

2) Rationalist Dismissal: the whole archaic law has no normative value whatsoever, and probably was forged. It is primitive, backward, and superstitious. Stop reading it, and if you read it, dont take it seriously. This position has been greatly strengthened since the eighteenth century by the increasing doubts over authenticity surrounding all the archaic classics.

3) Reinterpretation: Here the archaic Law is seen not as something intended to be applied in real life but to teach us about the control of the passions, or the soul's search for God. Much of later Confucian interpretation of the Yijing, or Talmudic midrash and allegorical readings of the Scriptures would belong here, as would Neo-Platonic allegorical exegesis of Homer and other myths. Much of Vaishnavite and Shaivite Hinduism has this relation to the Vedas, I would guess.

4) Spiritual Repudiation: The old law did not teach the right way of liberation or salvation, which was revealed only later. While many of its basically religious, supernatural presuppositions are still accepted, as texts, the archaic laws are a source only of cultural and historical heritage devoid of normative force. Buddhism largely takes this line toward the Sanskrit scriptures, and Quakerism and Marcionism do the same for the Law of Moses, while Stoicism does the same with the Greco-Roman religious law.

5) Recapitulation: The old law is recapitulated, summed up, in one episode or instance or prophetic life, which is then perpetuated by reenactment. The old law is thus not exactly rejected, but not repristinated either. I don't know enough about Mithraism or Manichaeism to say if this definitedly is, as I suspect, the primary model of how they relate to Zoroastrianism, but this certainly is St. Irenaeus's interpretation of the relation of Christianity to the Law of Moses.

What is Girard saying then? Two things he is certainly rejecting: repristination and rationalist rejection. Likewise allegorical reinterpretation is not on the agenda. Girard wishes to take the archaic law at its word -- it really is about pleasing God and sacralizing the socio-political order by offering up innocent victims in sacrifice. The real question is, then, is he offering a new spiritual repudiationist reading, in which Christ points out the nullity of the old law, or else a recapitulationist reading? Repudiation might seem the obvious choice, except that it seems to lead into rationalist dismissal, which he likewise repudiates. He also sees the Mosaic Law as less clearly archaic than the archaic laws of other peoples: the Law is the message of Christ struggling to get out from a still partly archaic and sacrificial context. Since I believe he is not really correct about this and that the basic features of the archaic law are visible at the heart of the Hebrew classics, one could say that in a sense he is a offering a reinterpretation, along the lines of the wheat and the chaff.

But this is the red thread running so much of human literary, religious, and humanistic culture today: what do we do with the archaic classics and the ideal they present of sacralized theocracy founded on sacrifice and ritual cleanliness? If we don't dismiss them, can we ever get free of war and violence? But if we do dismiss them, do we become strangers not just to our own ancestors, but to ourselves? And if we reinterpret them, aren't we being dishonest? I do believe that recapitulation is the only way to reject the ideal of archaic theocracy but still understand ourselves and our ancestors, and that Christianity is the only viable program of recapitulation, and hence the only point of view from which the archaic classics -- not just the Hebrew ones, but any of them -- can be understood in the twenty-first century (the example of this type of analysis done here might explain what I mean). But that means it is all the more necessary that we get recapitulation, and how it sums up all the archaic classics, right.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

No Wonder He Preferred Saddam In Power

I've always wondered if I was being a little over the top in suggesting that simple prejudice against Shiites and a preference for Sunni Arabs as the legitimate ruling race in the Middle East has been driving a lot of international opinion on Iraq. Turns out I needn't have worried. Here's Jacques Chirac gaffing it up in a truly amazing interview (text and news report):

The Shiites are very particular people. The Shiites, since the beginning, are people who have a culture of minorities. They are minorities, they have a culture of minorities. They do not react like the Sunnis or the Europeans.

The reporters, Elaine Sciolino and Katrin Benhold assure that Mr. Chirac

. . . over the years in private meetings has expressed distrust of Shiite Muslims.

Those people just don't think like us . . . (which, sotto voce, is why a guy like Saddam was doing the world a favor by keeping them down).

The funny thing is that, of course, this was not the big gaffe (the thing that everyone knows is true, but no one is supposed to say in public). No, the gaffe is that President Chirac said that a nuke or two for Iran would not be a big danger because if they used them on Israel, Tehran would be razed -- both of which are completely true, of course. The diplomats went into overdrive and President Chirac call the reporters in again to insist "Iran must not have nukes!" and that any use of nuclear weapons would be met not with retaliation, but with (non-existent) missile defense capability, etc., etc., the whole fantasy mode.

I have come to the conclusion that one can only understand the anti-nuclear proliferation mindset as the same kind of control-centered obsession that drives gun-control domestically. Here it is in the case of Iran when every government official and moderate in the world is supposedly terrified that President Bush will start a war with Iran, and yet those same government officials continue to insist that Iran "must not be allowed to have nuclear weapons!" Of course they also insist that a few concessions will make Iran a responsible player on the international scene. Do they realize that this makes no sense at all? That any country that will give up a nuclear program in return for economic and security guarantees is by that token a rational actor (even if they are Shiites, and hence nuts with a chip on their shoulder), and hence deterrable by the threat of retaliation? And that insisting "Iran must not have nukes!" ("Why not?" "Because," (lowers voice) "they're nuts, you know, Shiites") feeds the kind of thinking that would make war with Iran seem justified?

So we have a completely incoherent policy that encourages exactly the tendencies in the US government that the arms control wallas most abhor: does that make the arms controllers stop and think that maybe for once they could stop feeding the hysteria? No, apparently not. The rage to bind the world with rules, the bureaucratic dementia that got Mohammed ElBaradei the Nobel Peace Prize is a true obsession, and cannot be turned off at will.

Oh, and by the way, in case you haven't noticed, we too have switched sides in Iraq. Now we're on the Sunni Arab side too, and against the Shiites. This has proceeded entirely without comment in Washington from the right or the left. But the Iraqis don't have the luxury of not noticing:

A growing number of Iraqis are saying that the United States is to blame for creating conditions that led to the worst single suicide bombing in the war, which devastated a Shiite market in Baghdad on Saturday. They argued that the Americans had been slow in completing the vaunted new American security plan, making Shiite neighborhoods much more vulnerable to such horrific attacks.

A funeral was held in Najaf on Sunday for some of the victims. Many Shiites believe the Mahdi Army should be allowed to protect them.

The critics said the new plan, which the Americans have started to execute, had emasculated the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia that is considered responsible for many attacks on Sunnis, but that many Shiites say had been the only effective deterrent against sectarian reprisal attacks in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhoods. Even some Iraqi supporters of the plan, like Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister who is a Kurd, said delays in carrying it out had caused great disappointment.

In advance of the plan, which would flood Baghdad with thousands of new American and Iraqi troops, many Mahdi Army checkpoints were dismantled and its leaders were either in hiding or under arrest, which was one of the plan’s intended goals to reduce sectarian fighting. But with no immediate influx of new security forces to fill the void, Shiites say, Sunni militants and other anti-Shiite forces have been emboldened to plot the type of attack that obliterated the bustling Sadriya market on Saturday, killing at least 135 people and wounding more than 300 from a suicide driver's truck bomb.

Good thing Sunni Arabs think like good Europeans, not those resentful Shiites. Otherwise they might do something irrational.

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