Tuesday, February 19, 2008


To continue on with my reflections on the Deuteronomistic history, I finished 2 Samuel, with the coda of 1 Kings 1, on Monday. After reading it, I read Matthew Henry's commentary as a representative of typical Christian interpretation. All of which confirmed my existing impression that 1) Joab gets an incredibly bad rap in typical Christian commentary; 2) that David is a highly ambivalent figure (and no, I don't mean just with the standard Uriah-Bathsheba story, the only aspect of David's history ever paid attention to by Christians today); and 3) the whole thing is a lot more like Three Kingdoms (which I finished for the third time on Saturday) than the Gospels.

(Interestingly, Jewish midrash on Joab is much more favorable than Christian commentary. Compared to them, the "critical" position discussed at the end simply assumes a flat-footedly unironic reading of the history).

Quick version: Joab is Zhuge Liang, David is Liu Bei, and the killing of Abner is like the occupation of Sichuan and the seizing of Liu Zhang's land.

In Three Kingdoms, the turning point comes when the brilliant, single-minded advisor Zhuge Liang insists that his leader Liu Bei follow the entreaties of the local officials and by betraying his host and kinsman, Liu Zhang, seize Sichuan as a base. Liu Bei's acquiescence marks the end of Liu Bei's political innocence and his realization that full integrity is in reality incompatible with founding a new regime. David's acquiescence in Joab's murder of Abner has the same significance. And in both cases, the ruler's tears of regret, however sincere, are secondary to his acceptance of the fruits of the betrayal.

The idea that Abner's survival would have been compatible with David ruling in actuality is simply absurd; having disposed of Ishbosheth, Abner would have soon disposed of David the same way. And of course the fact that Abner humiliating Ishbosheth by taking one of Saul's concubines is the very same thing that Solomon executed his half-brother Adonijah for merely proposing only confirms it. Joab's betrayal by David (who slyly waited to have his son Solomon do deed) is only the mirror image of the betrayals Joab had to commit to build David's kingdom.

What is the archetypal image of David's rise and rule, almost from the beginning? It is him mourning over the immensely convenient death of every rival, and so winning over the rival's people. The pattern starts with Nabal and Abigail, continues with David mourning the death of Saul and Jonathan that brought him to power in Judah, continues with him mourning the death of Abner, and Absalom, and Amasa. While it was the Philistines who do the job on Saul and Jonathan, and Joab who was the man stuck with the job of whacking Abner, Uriah, Absalom, and Amasa, God Himself was the hatchet man in the first archetypal case, that of Nabal. Regardless of the mechanics, Joab is a man who has identified himself with God's purpose as He founds the Davidic dynasty: that while David will keep his hands clean, all those who stand between him and the throne are doomed. (Not to speak of that opponent's wife and people being made over to David.)

Another facet is Joab's position (along with the priest Abiathar) as the leader of the old Israelites, as opposed to the purely royal and heavily non-Israelite establishment coalesced around the David's royal establishment, with his Cherethite and Pelethite guards, the mysterious Jerusalem priest Zadok, and Bathsheba, the former wife of the Hittite Uriah and her son Solomon. It is thus no accident that it is Joab alone, not Nathan or any other prophet, who speaks against David's plan to conduct a census and hence to tax Israelite and non-Israelite together without any reference to the old tabernacle tax. (The coronation of Solomon was the nightmare come true for the palaeo-conservatives of ancient Israel -- an alliance of immigrants, alien mercenaries, new-fangled big-city religion, and royal taxation agents.)

So who was right? Joab or Benaiah, Adonijah or Solomon? Abiathar or Zadok? Well, I prefer what the reactionary Ariq-Böke said when his defiance of his progressive brother Qubilai Qa'an reached its bankruptcy:

When he arrived at the Court of the Qa'an orders were given for a large body of troops to be stationed there, and the Qa'an ordered him [i.e. Ariq Böke] to make his submission. Now it is their custom in such cases to cast the door of the tent over the shoulders of the evil-doer. He made submission covered in this manner and after a while was given permission and entered. He took his stand among the bitikchis [scribes]. The Qa'an looked at him for a time and was moved with brotherly feeling and sorrow. Ariq Böke wept and tears came to [his brother] the Qa'an's eyes also. He wiped them and asked: "Dear brother, in this strife and contention were we in the right or you?" Ariq-Böke answered: "We were then and you are today" (Successors of Genghis Khan, p. 261).

The dynasty must be founded, and Joab has do wield the hatchet necessary to found it, so that the founder David may have clean hands. And the dynasty once founded must evolve beyond the narrow rural provincialism, and the hoar head of Joab and his militiamen must go down in blood before the Jerusalem temple-state. He was right then and Solomon is right now. And Jeremiah, descendant of the rejected priest Abiathar, who wrote the book, weeps for him and for Judah.

But it will not surprise anyone familiar with the political style preferred by those Protestant pastors who like to talk politics that their commentaries are always written in a pile-on delight in partisanship, and never in tears.

I doubt any one will read this, but it helped clarify my thoughts. The fact that Joab's story, utterly absorbing in the Bible, is unknown, is a testimony that the Deuteronomistic History, Jeremiah's story of the rise and fall of a kingdom, is today read as anything but that of the rise and fall of a kingdom.

Labels: , ,


Saturday, February 02, 2008

Facts (Not Cherry Picked) on Abortion and Social Democracy

Recently John H at the Boar's Head Tavern recommended as "superb" a post on "One Salient Oversight" about abortion. One Salient Oversight's take home message is, abortion rates are lowered by legalizing abortion and then implementing vigorous programs of sex education and unintended pregnancy prevention. Reducing abortion to zero by this process is eminently possible, he claims.

Reducing abortion to zero through education and changes in public attitudes will take time - but it will happen. Every year we can expect abortion rates to drop.

The only thing standing in the way, he argues, is the "hardline stance" of pro-life groups. As a rule with this blogger it is yoked with a criticism of American conservatives, implying that, as the prime pro-life force in the world, American conservatives are responsible for all the abortions in America, and maybe the world as a whole.

Not exactly.

Let's start with the study he references. This is a world wide study of abortion rates here. One Salient Oversight says proudly "I am a fan of measurable outcomes" and so am I. We should be able to examine his handling of evidence and see estimate the quality of his analysis.

He claims:

There are some rather important lessons to learn from this 1999 study. First of all, abortion rates in western countries are much lower than in developing countries.

Actually neither is not the case. The abortion ratio (abortions per 100 pregnancies) in developed countries is 43 per 100 pregnancies, while that in developing countries is 23 per 100 pregnancies. Dramatic difference, eh? Yes, but in the wrong direction.

In fact the reality is neither "Western" nor "developing" is the important category here. As the study itself shows, take Eastern Europe out of "developed" and the developed world aborts 26 per 100 pregnancies, while minus China the developing world aborts 20 out of 100 pregnancies, a much smaller difference, but still going the wrong way. You would have thought that after writing "Countries that have large abortion rates include Bulgaria (51.3), Belarus (67.5), China (26.1), Romania (78.0) and Vietnam (83.3)," One Salient Oversight might have noticed that all of those countries have legal abortion, and as far as I know, none has an noticeably active pro-life movement. (Check the handy-dandy Wikipedia map of abortion laws here.)

It is true that Western Europe as a whole has low abortion ratios, averaging 17 per 100 pregnancies. But what One Salient Oversight doesn't tell you is that Northern Europe (Scandinavia, etc.), hardly a land of conservative yahoos and hard-line pro-lifers, has a rather higher ratio: 23 per 100 pregnancies, not much different from the United States's 25.9. Britishers may congratulate themselves that their abortion debate is less polarized than in the United States, due to the absence of those loathsome pro-lifers, but their abortion ratio isn't much better: a 1996 figure of 20.5 in England and Wales compared to 25.9 in the US (hardly "much lower" pace John H here.) In Southern Europe, the abortion ratio is rather higher than in the United States: 34 per 100 pregnancies.

But many developing regions have abortion ratios just as low, if not lower: 12 to 16 per 100 pregnancies in the regions of Africa, 18 per 100 in South Asia, and 20 per 100 in the Middle East. Eastern Europe, by contrast, has sky-high abortion high rate (65 abortions per 100 pregnancies!)

OK, having thoroughly traduced the evidence to manufacture one conclusion, One Salient Oversight gives us his second one:

Second of all, countries which legalise abortion have lower abortion rates than countries where it is illegal.

Actually the authors of the study, friends of legalizing abortion, yes, but scholars aware of the low rates in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East and the high rates in Eastern Europe make no such claim. Instead they write:

abortion rates are no lower overall in areas where abortion is generally restricted by law (and where many abortions are performed under unsafe conditions) than in areas where abortion is legally permitted . . . Stringent legal restrictions do not guarantee a low abortion rate.

Saying legal prohibitions do not guarantee a low abortion rate is an important conclusion, but it is very different from saying legalizing abortion guarantees a low abortion rate.

Again take a look at the map I linked to above of abortion law regimes. Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia have strict laws and low abortion ratios. Latin America has strict laws and rather higher ratios (30 per 100 in South America, but only 21 per 100 in Central America; the Caribbean's ratio of 35 per 100 is distorted by Cuba, which like most Communist or former Communist countries is abortion heaven: 57 per 100.). Western Europe has a loose regime and a low rates, North America and northern Europe a loose regime and medium rates, East Asia has a loose abortion regime and a high rate (34 out of 100).

This claim that legalizing it means less of it leads to his bizarre deterministic model that if we just implement sex education we will automatically get a low abortion ratio. The key is this: women in these countries [of Western Europe] are better educated in sexual health and prevent conception - and the education has come from publicly funded sources.

The result? Again that jaw-dropping claim: Reducing abortion to zero through education and changes in public attitudes will take time - but it will happen. Every year we can expect abortion rates to drop.

OK, let's find a place where such a program of state-financed education in sexual health (actually what he means is divorcing sex from procreation and family formation) is being tried with the almost unanimous approval of society and little opposition from benighted pro-lifers. How about Sweden? They've been at if for decades now. Let's get a look at those year by year decreasing ratios, and try to catch them before they hit zero (here for the data).

Abortion ratios per 100 pregnancies (rounded to the nearest number):

1985: 24
1986-1989: 25
1990-91: 23
1992: 22
1993-94: 23
1995: 24
1996: 25
1997-2003: 26
2004: 25
2005: 26
2006: 25

So where are the regular year by year dropping abortion rates predicted by One Salient Oversight?

But in the US abortion ratio per 100 pregnancies in 2000 was 24.5, 5% lower than in 1996 a trend in decline of abortions that is continuing (here, nice graphic here) despite the continued existence of conservatives and pro-lifers in this country.

So looking at the source he supposedly used, One Salient Oversight's "superb" post is easily seen to be in fact a fantasy composed of cherry-picked facts taped together with wishful thinking and anti-conservative bile.

Christians who assent to have as a national doctrine taught in the schools to their children that sex has nothing to do with family formation may get a lower abortion rate -- but then again they might not. They might end up like the Swedes with rates higher than in the United States.

But they will probably get one thing along with it: an unsustainably low rate of procreation. (It is worth noting that the great stars in low abortion ratios per 100 pregnancies -- Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland -- have off-the-charts low birthrates as well.)

And finally of course they will certainly, by definition, get another thing: a national consensus that on sex, the second most important practical question of how to live your life (the first being money), the Christian church is and always has been wrong. Unless that is, one wishes to fashion a Christianity which agrees that sex has nothing to do with family formation.

One Salient Oversight's use of statistic recalls how a drunk uses a lamppost, for support, not illumination. But if we want to really use it for illumination, what do the world patterns of abortion suggest?

The most important is that abortion/infanticide is a regular part of human behavior. In this it resembles telling lies, drinking alcohol, and theft, to cite three things with very different legal and religious statuses in world laws and religions.

Whether it's because we are fallen and living in a world of scarcity, or because we inherited it from the great apes (more here), statistically it's a predictable and regular part of human behavior. No large society will ever stamp it out completely; it will never just fade away without real efforts being made to get rid of it. Some, actually most, societies do not wish to make that effort and will live with high abortion rates. (One very clear rule is: no matter where you try it, and whether you stick with it or not, experiments in Communism saddles countries with sky-high rates of abortion.)

To date two different models have been used to eliminate abortion: the "traditional" one of linking sex firmly to procreation, by banning abortion in law, stigmatizing it in social practice, and being thoroughly pro-natal and pro-family: the southern and northern African abortion ratios of 12 per 100 are probably around the lowest you can go by that route.

The other model is the social democratic one of deliberately and firmly decoupling sex and procreation, legalizing abortion, stigmatizing its enemies, and being neutral at best on procreation and family formation. The Western European abortion ratios of around 17 per 100 are probably about as lowest as you can go by that route.

There is no predictable difference between the success of either policy pursued in a real society, in the real messiness of life. Neither route will eliminate abortion. Either route, can probably deeply reduce it. But either route to be successful, must be pursued single-mindedly and with real social conviction. That seems to be a condition, but is certainly not a guarantee, of a low abortion rate.

An additional question for Christians is, is there any future for them and their moral teachings in a society that has firmly and single-mindedly decided to decouple sex from family?

Labels: ,