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Sunday, April 24, 2005

Just finished 'Moneyball'

Thanks to JH, BE, and JBC for recommending it. It has helped rekindled the love of baseball that I thought had been lost to big salaries, advertising on the bases, Rupert Murdoch, and Kevin Malone.

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Thursday, April 21, 2005

It's Not The World That's Flat, It's Thomas Friedman's Ear

So I tried not to think about it. But when I heard the book was actually coming out, I started to worry. Among other things, I knew I would be asked to write the review. The usual ratio of Friedman criticism is 2:1, i.e., two human words to make sense of each single word of Friedmanese. Friedman is such a genius of literary incompetence that even his most innocent passages invite feature-length essays. I'll give you an example, drawn at random from
The World Is Flat. On page 174, Friedman is describing a flight he took on Southwest Airlines from Baltimore to Hartford, Connecticut. (Friedman never forgets to name the company or the brand name; if he had written The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa would have awoken from uneasy dreams in a Sealy Posturepedic.) Here's what he says:

I stomped off, went through security, bought a Cinnabon, and glumly sat at the back of the B line, waiting to be herded on board so that I could hunt for space in the overhead bins.

Forget the Cinnabon. Name me a herd animal that hunts. Name me one.

This would be a small thing were it not for the overall pattern. Thomas Friedman does not get these things right even by accident. It's not that he occasionally screws up and fails to make his metaphors and images agree. It's that he
always screws it up. He has an anti-ear, and it's absolutely infallible; he is a Joyce or a Flaubert in reverse, incapable of rendering even the smallest details without genius. The difference between Friedman and an ordinary bad writer is that an ordinary bad writer will, say, call some businessman a shark and have him say some tired, uninspired piece of dialogue: Friedman will have him spout it. And that's guaranteed, every single time. He never misses. Read Full Story

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

My New Mitt

For the love of a glove: a baseball mitt just isn't a necessary piece of equipment, it's a part of life for many players
Larry Stone

THERE'S JUST SOMETHING ABOUT the smell of a new mitt (or even better, an old mitt)--"the smell of baseball," as former Mariners infielder Rafael Bournigal once said.

There's just something about the look of a mitt, new or old--as aesthetically pleasing, arguably, as any utilitarian device known to humankind. Noted sculptor Claes Oldenburg made a 12-foot-high, 5,800-pound first baseman's glove out of lead and wood and explained to skeptics, "Cezanne painted apples. I make mitts."

The other senses are taken care of, too, from the resounding thwack of a Randy Johnson fastball meeting the leather of his catcher's mitt, to the loving care with which Ichiro faithfully oils his glove every night during the season.

"The baseball glove is the one piece of sports equipment that molds to your body," said Noah Liberman, author of the definitive glove history, Glove Affairs: The Romance, History and Tradition of the Baseball Glove. "It fits you, and only you."

Taste is a tough one, but there must be some gustatory appeal to the leather of a baseball glove, at least to some species. Otherwise, why would a large portion of the repair work at Fran Fleet's famous shop in Cotati, California, be the result of dogs having munched the stricken gloves?

"Dogs are truly my best friend," Fleet said cheerfully. "A lot of times when I send back a glove where I've done dog work, I'll put a dog bone in it. They'll work their way around a glove, starling with the knots. And if you're still not home when they're done with the knots, then they'll get the glove. I like to think of the knots as an appetizer, the glove as a main dish."

No one has ever called Nomar Garciaparra a dog, but he can be seen between pitches ritualistically chewing on the extra-long laces of his glove as he stands at shortstop. The brother of Holden Caulfield, in J.D. Salinger's classic, The Catcher in the Rye, had a different use for his glove to pass the time between pitches:

"He had poems written all over the fingers and the pocket and everywhere," Satinger wrote. "In green ink. He wrote them on it so that he'd have something to read when he was in the field and nobody was up to bat."

Most major league players would agree that there's a certain poetry to their leather (although Glenallen Hill or Dick "Dr. Strangeglove" Stuart haven't weighed in on the subject).

There is, indeed, a lexicon unique to gloves, exotic terms that can be translated only by those who speak the language of Rawlings and Wilson--otherwise inscrutable phrases like "Trapeze," "Grip-Tite Pocket" and "Edge-U-Cated Heel."

"They were sort of the code words of childhood, in a way," Liberman said.

Ichiro believes his glove is animated with a spirit, an idea taught to him by his Buddhist father.

"Maybe he's got something," said teammate Rich Aurilia, who has been using the same increasingly ragged glove for going on five years. "I just throw some stuff on mine, spit on it and throw dirt on it, and usually that does the job."

Woe unto anyone who dares besmirch the lyricism of a major leaguer's leather by touching the mitt, or, even worse, trying it on. As shortstop Royce Clayton put it to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "I don't mess with your wife, so you don't touch my glove."

Mariner Dave Hansen has three different gloves on hand in the dugout because of all the positions he might play. Mariners utility man Willie Bloomquist strongly adheres to the same code.

"I don't mind so much when someone has small hands and puts them in it," he said. "But when someone's got big old meathooks and crams it in there and stretches out the finger holes, that ticks me off."

Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett used to call his collection of gloves "my babies." Many players assign their mitts a feminine pronoun, as in, "She's a good one."

Some have gone so far as to name their gloves--outfielders Mel Hall and Brett Butler each called their mitt "Lucille." Shortstop Wait Weiss' beaten-up model was "The Creature." Smooth-fielding first baseman George Scott had "Black Beauty," while third baseman Charlie Hayes dubbed his "Slump," because that's what it helped put batters into.

Ex-Mariner Dave Valle had a teammate, a pitcher, who kept his glove wrapped up for a year or longer before deeming it ready to unveil.

"When he unwrapped that baby, it was ready to go," Valle said. "It was like a bottle of wine: Let it ferment. Let it age nicely."

Though major leaguers typically are entitled two free gloves a year from the company with which they sign an endorsement deal, many find one they like and stick with it. Among the players who used the same piece of leather for most or all their careers were third basemen Aurelio Rodriguez (who painted his black and dubbed it "The Black Hand") and Tim Wallach, shortstop Shawon Dunston, outfielders Amos Otis and Brady Anderson, and catcher Mike Scioscia.

Pitcher Jim Kant, who won a record 16 Gold Gloves for fielding excellence, used the same glove for 15 years.

"I still have it," said Kaat, now a Yankees broadcaster. "If you threw it on the floor, no one would even pick it up. It's got friction tape on the back. The trainer used to sew it up. But you get comfortable with it, like an old pair of jeans."

In a 1990 Sports Illustrated article on mitts rifled (as many in the genre are) "Glove Story," former player and manager Phil Garner went so far as to say, "Players become sexually attached to their glove," an assertion for which we offer no proof, or even comment.

But we have heard of players who put their gloves under their mattress, or even under their pillows, at night.

Larry Duncan, proprietor of Duncan and Sons, a leather shop that has been called upon for many an emergency repair job on Mariners gloves over the years, can attest to the ardent affection major leaguers have for their gloves.

"Put it under the heading of superstitious extensions of the hand," he said.

On the Mariners, both Scott Spiezio and Aurilia have used their gloves for years, and it shows in the cracks and fraying on the pocket. Early this season, Duncan had to make a quick patch job on Spiezio's mitt to have it ready for a road trip.

Mind you, they're not nearly as bad off as the glove of Robby Thompson, former Gold Glove second baseman, who was mortally offended in 1990 when a San Francisco Chronicle story on his glove (with the headline, "Thompson's Ugly, Pathetic Glove Is a Gem"), claimed that "to someone other than Thompson, who cherishes it, the glove would qualify as a piece of junk."

Aurilia, who played next to Thompson when he came up with the Giants, has the same aesthetic when it comes to glove retention.

"I think by the time Robby was done, the glove mainly consisted of pine tar and chew spit," Aurilia said. "I don't even know how much leather was left in it. I know for a fact Robby still has that glove. It's a bond between a player and his glove, I guess."

Added Spiezio of his old glove, "Unless it disintegrates, it's going as long as I go."

Kenny Jenkins, a noted glove repairman who was formerly employed by Rawlings, finally had to tell some of his major league clients who wanted to retain their doddering old gloves, "I'll do what I can with the glove, but if you get your teeth knocked out, it's your fault, because it's shot."

Now, mind you, not all players are so fanatical about their gloves. The old Twins shortstop, Zoilo Versalles, used to throw his away after each error (eventually alienating his glove company so much he had to go to sporting-goods stores to replenish his supply).

Last year, Yankees pitcher David Wells used a new glove for each of his starts, putting the discarded one for sale on his Web site to raise money for charity. Ozzie Smith, considered by many to be the greatest fielding shortstop of all time, changed his mitt every six months. And while many players are incredibly finicky and precise about how they break in their glove, Barry Bonds takes his out of the box, puts it on his hand and is ready to play.

"I haven't broken in a glove for years," Bonds told the Orlando Sentinel in the mid-1990s.

Another superb defender, Omar Vizquel, had such uncharacteristic fielding problems early this season that his teammates took it upon themselves to "sacrifice" the offending glove, which Omar had borrowed from teammate Zach Sorensen. In a scene inspired by the movie "Major League," they constructed an altar containing the glove, a bottle of wine, a hanging roast chicken, a Buddha-like figure, 14 candles, incense, two rosaries and a baseball with "the curse is killed" written on it.

However, Rawlings representative Jim Hughes, who has spent 22 years as the liaison between the company and its major league clients, believes that today's players are not as fanatical about their equipment "young kids get so much free stuff, it doesn't mean as much," he said. "It's almost a throwaway society."

It's not just major leaguers who have a reverential attachment to their glove, a fact verifiable by anyone who has ever owned a glove--a demographic that includes almost all males of any age, and an increasing number of women.

Glove repairmen, invariably called glove "doctors," can tell a zillion stories of customers bringing in their old childhood mitt in hopes of restoring it, often to pass on to their child.

"It's hard to figure how it becomes something magical, but it does," said Bronx-based John Golomb, aka "The Sports Doctor," who produces custom-made gloves. "The transformation is remarkable. Your dad gave you a glove, or you got it as a Christmas gift, and it becomes the glove of your life."

Kevin Johnson of Sports Artifacts, a major dealer of vintage gloves, still gets a boyish excitement when he runs across an especially evocative model at a garage sale or flea market.

"It's like finding gold," he said. "You see that beautiful leather, and it's like gold shining in the sun."

Collector Joe Phillips of Dallas, who publishes the influential "Glove Collector" newsletter, knew a fellow collector who tried on a glove he had purchased at a flea market, and thought in dismay that one of the finger holes was plugged by a dead insect or rat. He shook it out, and to and behold, bills start pouring out--$3,000, all in wadded up hundreds.

"Probably some guy put his stash in there," Phillips said.

The first President Bush, a former Yale first baseman, kept his old Rawlings "Trapper Claw" glove in the desk drawer of the Oval Office, often putting it on to pound on the pocket while listening to an advisor.

"A glove evokes a nostalgic memory," said Liberman. "You associate it with the freedom of youth, the warmth of summer and everything else."

Like John Fogerty's mythical center fielder, all you need is a "beat-up glove, a homemade bat and a brand-new pair of shoes" to give the game a ride. In the 19th century, however, the use of a glove was considered the province of weaklings.

"Padding hands like that to prevent injuries or not feel pain was an unmanly act," said Erik Strohl, the assistant curator of history and research at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. "The first experiences were made fun of and derided."

Inevitably, however, glove use eventually caught on, their acceptance hastened by the advent of overhand pitching in the latter 1800s.

"Like all things American, the urge to win eventually overran personal pride," Strohl said. "Players said, 'It's OK if people make fun of us as long as we win."

Strohl said that Hall of Fame inductees who tour the museum are invariably most fascinated by the display of old gloves, with one universal reaction: "How in God's name did they play ball with those things?"

Early gloves, in fact, were little more than glorified work gloves. Casey Stengel claims to have worn his in his wedding.

"Didn't have any dress gloves," he said once, "so I put my baseball glove on. That took care of my right hand, and I kept my left hand in my pocket."

Glove historians point to two epochal moments in glove advancement--the Bill Doak model by Rawlings in 1920, the first with a rudimentary pocket, and the Wilson A-2000 model in 1957, considered the prototype of the modern glove. Of the latter, Fleet said, "Are you facing East? As far as I'm concerned, it's the creme de la creme."

Edo Vanni, the legendary former Seattle Rainiers player, now 85, marvels at the size of the modern glove.

"Today, you could put three suits and a sports coat in the glove," he said. "Back in the old days, you'd think we were a brakeman on the Great Northern."

But one thing hasn't changed over the years, even as the leather and design itself has evolved--the bond between a player and his glove. Retired pitcher Rick Wise called the mitt "a part of your soul."

And it smells good, too.

Breaking in A Glove--From GLOVE AFFAIRS by Noah Liebermann

"The softest part had to be the pocket, because that was where all the fee was, I'd take shaving cream with lanolin and rub it in the pocket-that's the part I tried to form the quickest. Shaving cream or baby oil--I never took and used a lot of water. That to me only makes the glove heavy, like sweat. The morn you use the glove the more sweat-logged it is and it dries out the leather. When I got done with my glove after a game, I would stick a ball in help pocket to keep the shape.

--Ozzi Smith, 13-time Gold Glove winning Hall of Fame shortstop

"I just catch a lot of Found balls, I don't like to put oils or shaving cream on it. Some guys tie it up with balls or put it in a microwave, but I don't like any of that. I let it take its regular shape:

--Omar Vizque/nine-time Gold Glove winning shortstop

COPYRIGHT 2004 Century Publishing
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Late Richard Popkin

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Professor Popkin died last Thursday at the age of 81.  He was head of the philosopy department at UCSD at the time I was a philosophy undergrad.  His classes were always small (12 - 15 students at most).  He would come in each day, set up his recorder, and begin to lecture.  We understood that his talk and our questions and discussion would be the material for his next book.  He made us feel involved in the historical process.  He had the ability to make a recondite philosophical argument transparent and accessible.  He overlaid all discussion with a ribald humor mixed with gossipy anecdotes about the private lives of the 'Great Men'.  I enjoyed his classes tremendously and continue, to the present, to consult his works whenever a recondite philosophical question comes my way.  I still have my old 1960 edition of 'The History of Scepticism From Erasmus To Descartes', which, upon closer scrutiny, i apparently checked out of the philosophy department library in 1969 and neglected to return.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Is It The Hippocratic Oath Or The Hypocritical Oath?

via ctx3

ABCnews reports that physicians all over America are being awarded the distinction of "Physician of the Year". Seems strange that so many people can get such an award in any given year. There is one stipulation that you make a $1,250 contribution to the National Republican Congressional Committee. The reward is the opportunity to travel to Washington for the scheduled events March 14-15, which included a tax-reform workshop as well as appearances by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and President Bush.

Seems like an ethical no-no, but Delay is involved so it must be legit. But it gets more suspicious, "The Republicans, under the direction of DeLay, came up with the idea for the awards five years ago as a means of helping to raise funds for the congressional campaign efforts for their party. ... In fact, signs reading "A Celebration of the House Republican Majority" and "Moving America's Agenda" decorated the hotel ballroom where last month's events were held."

This last statement sums it up, "A Republican spokesman said there were thousands of doctors around the country content with their Physicians of the Year awards, and that there was nothing about the program to apologize for."

That's right and if I see one of these awards in physician's waiting room I will promtly use my free will and leave. Perhaps to find one of the other Physicians of the Year.

While Mr. Bush Was Getting His 'C's At Yale, The World Was Changing

Published on Wednesday, April 6, 2005 by the Los Angeles Times

How Does It Feel ... 40 Years Later?

by Greil Marcus

 A drum beat like a pistol shot.

24 July 1965 was the day Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" hit the charts. It was on the radio all across the U.S.A. and heading straight up. When drummer Bobby Gregg brought his stick down for the opening noise of the six-minute single, the sound --a kind of announcement, then a void of silence, then a rising fanfare, then the song — fixed a moment when all those caught up in modern music found themselves engaged in a running battle for a prize no one bothered to name: the greatest record ever made, perhaps, or the greatest record that ever would be made. "Where are we going?" To the top?" the Beatles would ask themselves in the early 1960s, when no one but they knew. "To the toppermost of the poppermost," they promised.

But by 1965, everyone -- the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and whoever else could catch a ride on the train -- was topping each other month by month, as if carried by a flood. Was it the fear and possibility that had flooded much of the West since the assassination of President Kennedy less than two years before, a kind of nihilist freedom in which old certainties were swept away like trees and cars? Was it the utopian revolt of the civil rights movement, or the strange cultures appearing in college towns and cities across the nation, in England, in Germany? No one heard the music on the radio as part of a separate reality. Every new hit seemed full of novelty, as if its goal was not only to top the charts but to stop the world in its tracks and then start it up again.

What was the top? Fame and fortune, glamour and style, or something else? A sound that you could leave behind, to mark your presence on the Earth; something that would circulate in the ether of lost radio signals, somehow received by generations to come, or apprehended even by those who were already gone? The chance to make the times speak in your own voice, or the chance to discover the voice of the times?

Early in the year, the Beatles had kicked off the race with the shimmering thrill of the opening and closing chords of "Eight Days a Week." In March, the Rolling Stones put out the deathly, oddly quiet "Play with Fire," a single that seemed to call the whole pop equation of happiness, speed and excitement into question: to suspend the contest in a cul-de-sac of doubt. Three months later, they came back with "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." It erased the doubt, and the race was on again.

Dylan had not really come close with "Subterranean Homesick Blues" in April, his first rock 'n' roll record after four albums-- four folk albums that had nevertheless redrawn the pop map -- and his first entry into the singles charts. The Beatles would dominate the second half of the year with "Yesterday." Barry McGuire would reach No. 1 with "Eve of Destruction," an imitation-Dylan big-beat protest song that was so formulaic, so plainly a jump on a trend, that the formula and the trend became hooks in themselves.

In the pop arena, it seemed anything could happen; it seemed that month by month everything did. The race was not only between the Beatles, Dylan, the Rolling Stones and everyone else. The pop world was in a race with the greater world, the world of wars and elections, work and leisure, poverty and riches, white people and black people, women and men, and in 1965 you could feel that pop was winning.

When people first heard about it, "Like a Rolling Stone" seemed less like a piece of music than a stroke of upmanship beyond pop ken. "Eight of the Top 10 songs were Beatles songs," Dylan would remember years later, casting back to a day in Colorado, listening to John, Paul, George and Ringo soon after their arrival in the United States in 1964. "I knew they were pointing the direction where music had to go." That was the moment that took Dylan out of his folk singer's clothes — and now here he was, outflanking the Rolling Stones with a song about them. That was the word.

The pop moment, in that season, really was that delirious. But when the song hit the radio, when people heard it, when they discovered that it wasn't about a band, they realized that the song did not explain itself at all, and that they didn't care. Few grasped that the pull of the past was as strong as the pull of the future. Few wondered how many dead or vanished voices the song contained, or realized that along with the song's own named characters -- Miss Lonely, the Mystery Tramp, the Diplomat -- also present were the likes of Phil Spector and the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling" from only a few months before, Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba" from 1958, Son House, of Mississippi, with "My Black Mama" from 1930, Hank Williams with "Lost Highway" from 1949, or Muddy Waters in 1950 with "Rollin' Stone."

What people understood in the wash of words and instruments was that the song was a rewrite of the world itself. An old world was facing a dare it wasn't ready for; as the song traced its long arc across the radio, a world that was taking shape seemed altogether in flux.

Greil Marcus' newest book, "Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads," was published this month by PublicAffairs.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

What Fun It Was To Be A Fan In Those Days

Wooden's Last Hurrah a Vivid Memory

Marques Johnson says he can't believe it has been 30 years since the 10th of the coach's titles, but his life lessons apply as much today as ever.
By Diane Pucin
Times Staff Writer

April 3, 2005

ST. LOUIS — When it was happening, Marques Johnson didn't know how lucky he was.

When his UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, would stop practice to make sure his socks were straightened, Johnson rolled his eyes the way any 18-year-old boy would. "But he did that," Johnson says, "to make sure the socks didn't cause blisters."

When Wooden would stop practice because somebody hadn't come forward to meet the pass or failed to run the right cut, Johnson would bite the inside of his lips because Wooden would spew nothing harsher than "Oh my goodness gracious." But, Johnson says, "That counted for double the amount of obscenities from a normal coach."

It has been 30 years since Wooden won the last of his 10 national championships, in 1975. "It's not possible," Johnson said from this Final Four where he has come as a fan and a spectator. "It's just not possible."

Playing a team not nearly as deep as many and not as heavily favored as the other nine national champions he had coached, Wooden and UCLA beat Kentucky, 92-85, in the national championship game at San Diego. The Bruins used only six players. Four of them — Dave Meyers, Richard Washington, Andre McCarter and Pete Trgovich — played all 40 minutes of the championship game.

At the end, the crowd gave Wooden a four-minute standing ovation because the unassuming, bespectacled coach had told his team two days earlier, after a heart-stopping overtime victory over Louisville, that the championship game would be his last.

"It was just a total shock," Johnson said. "It was total disbelief. We sat in that locker room filled with all sorts of emotions. We were giddy because we had just won this amazing overtime game and totally sad because coach wasn't coming back. And there was this great pressure for a minute because nobody wanted to be the player on the team that lost Coach Wooden's final game."

Johnson, who is a television broadcaster and does many UCLA games, looks at the landscape of basketball today, which he finds filled with players who don't understand the fundamentals of a good block out or a proper bounce pass and who certainly wouldn't care how to put their socks on correctly. He says Wooden could step into a warm-up and start coaching immediately.

"He is not a dinosaur," Johnson said. "He was a teacher and he still is. His lessons made sense then and they make sense now. His principles weren't only about basketball, they were about life. And the thing is, he knew how to treat everybody as an individual."

Johnson remembers his sophomore year when he was recovering from hepatitis. Johnson's body was tired and he would get frustrated with himself for lagging in drills.

"I was under orders to work myself back slowly," Johnson said, "and I was real frustrated. So one day in practice, I came down on a fastbreak and I dunked hard on Ralph Drollinger, just to get my anger out. Two plays later, Gavin Smith, he came down, he was a great athlete, and he did the same thing, dunked the ball on Drollinger. Coach didn't say a word to me but he jumped all over Gavin, told him if he ever did that again he'd get kicked out of practice.

"It wasn't until several years later that I realized what coach was doing. He knew I was feeling bad and he sympathized with what I was going through. He realized I dunked out of frustration and Gavin was just flaunting his talent."

The 1975 team had jelled after the loss of Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes to graduation. After the Bruins had beaten Kentucky in a game played at a furious pace, Meyers, who scored 24 points, told reporters after the game, "I wanted to do it for Coach all season. He's done a masterful job with the team that had lost Walton and Wilkes."

Johnson said there was more a sense of duty than destiny, even after the 75-74 win over Louisville that had come on a last-second shot by Washington.

While the Bruins were still whooping and hollering in the locker room, Johnson said, Wooden told the team to sit quiet. "He told us to pipe down, pipe down, I've got something to say," Johnson said. "He told us the next game would be his last and we were all shocked, caught off guard, just totally flabbergasted. We were on this incredible emotional high from Richard's shot and then I just wanted to cry and I was feeling like my heart sank."

Over the last 30 years, Johnson said, he has realized that Wooden's lessons had become buried in his head even when he didn't know it. The ones about tying your shoes right, the ones about preparing well, the ones about approaching every task with respect.

"I've got five kids," Johnson said, "and they're all looking for discipline and direction, the basic lessons of life. Coach Wooden can teach those as well today as he did 30 years ago."


Wooden's Titles

The 10 NCAA basketball championships won under John Wooden, with championship game results:


Kansas City, Mo.

Portland, Ore.

Louisville, Ky.

Los Angeles
North Carolina

Louisville, Ky.

College Park, Md.


Los Angeles
Florida State

St. Louis
Memphis State

San Diego

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Original Ten Commandments: A Declaration Of Independence From Religion?

March 29, 2005

Anarchism Against the Laws of Kings

The Subversive Commandments

Ignoring government assaults on the Bill of Rights (for which, admittedly, the remedy under the present US Constitution is impeachment, the responsibility of Congress) the US Supreme Court has instead fastened its attention on a political fetish-object: the Ten Commandments. In the midst of an illegal war, a torture scandal, and lawless administration actions -- such as imprisoning an American citizen, Jose Padilla, for almost three years now without trial or charge -- the court recently heard arguments on the question (as the New York Times put it), "what does it mean for the government to display a copy of the Ten Commandments? ... a six-foot red granite monument that has sat since 1961 on the grounds of the Texas Capitol, and framed copies of the Ten Commandments that were hung five years ago on the walls of two Kentucky courthouses."

In an impressive confirmation of the Postmodernist-cum-Humpty-Dumpty theory of the meaning of words ("The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master -- that's all"), both sides (as we say) tell us what the Ten Commandments mean. Conservatives defend the postings in Kentucky and Texas on the grounds that the Ten Commandments "formed the foundation of American legal tradition." Liberals on the other hand insist that the posting is an "establishment of religion," contrary to the first amendment to the Constitution. In fact, both are wrong: the Ten Commandments in their historical setting are a revolutionary manifesto, dedicated to the overthrow of traditional authority and religion.

The Ten Commandments (unnumbered) were written down perhaps as early as the fifth century BCE in two passages in the Hebrew bible (Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21), but they represent a view that goes back perhaps another eight centuries to the beginnings of the people of Israel -- who were probably not originally what we would call "an ethnic group." As described by Norman Gottwald in his magisterial
The Tribes of Yahweh, the Israelites as a people began in a revolution of slaves against the Egyptian empire, a massive rejection of the society of the time. That society was one of authority and religion, presided over by a king whose position was guaranteed by the gods. The Hebrews (the word seems originally to have meant "outlaws") rejected both the kings and the gods.

The Exodus events of perhaps the thirteenth century BCE were not so much a migration (as is pictured in the bible story) but a "going out" (exodus) from a society and its assumptions. The Ten Commandments are a proclamation of that revolution, a "Declaration of Independence of Liberated Israel."

The text begins with the presentation of a liberator, styled YHWH (a form of the Hebrew verb "to be"), "who brought you out of the house of slavery." YHWH is not a god in the sense of the surrounding society. Gods guarantee authority, and YHWH destroys it: "You shall have no gods." Idolatry is the greatest sin in Judaism, Christianity and Islam because it means bowing down before symbols of oppression. Even an image of YHWH is forbidden -- the only image of YHWH is humanity (Genesis 1:26). To "misuse" the name of YHWH is not a matter of saying "goddamn": it is to use the name to wield numinous power, as was done with the names of the gods -- that is to say, it is to practice religion. The Ten Commandments forbid religion (Exodus 20: 1-7).

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