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Filtering by Category: News

A Lesson from the Digitization of Leonardo's Notebooks

Thomas Whitley

Leonardo's Notebook Digitized in All Its Befuddling Glory | The Atlantic: The British Library has been digitizing some of its prize pieces and they announced a new round of six artifacts had been completed including Beowulf, a gold-ink penned Gospel, and one of Leonardo Da Vinci's notebooks.

I continue to be fascinated by how far technology has brought us with regard to manuscript access. The fact that I can access thousands of ancient manuscripts that are housed in hundreds of museums and libraries around the world while sitting in my apartment in Tallahassee, FL is amazing. The digitization of manuscripts has the ability to revolutionize many fields and areas of research, making intense manuscript study possible for more and more people.

There was, however, another note by the author of this story in The Atlantic that resonated with me:

But there is a fundamental inscrutability to these texts to the untrained eye. Not only is the language unfamiliar, and the script, in Leonardo's case, a simple code, but without the context of the times, it's hard to make heads or tails of them, aside from aesthetic appreciation.

Of course, I'm happy such objects exist in more accessible, digital formats, but what the primary documents remind me is how important the interpreters of these works are. The raw documents do not make sense without the added layer of analysis that comes from the scholars who study these works.

Perhaps we can read this as a kind of parable for opening up data and archives. The digitization of key historical artifacts does not replace historians so much as make their work more visible to different audiences. The necessity of what they do is made plain.

Every little bit of validation that I can get for the work I do is nice and it seems that the digitization of manuscripts has done just what this author suggested - made others aware of just how necessary historians and specialists are. For any member of the "generally educated public" can access Leonardo's notebooks or any of the thousands of New Testament manuscripts, but most of them will only ever be able to appreciate the documents on aesthetic grounds. I'm grateful to the historians, scholars, and specialists that have opened up so much history to me and hope that one day I can help history come alive for others as well.

Thanks to Sam for the link.

Christianity is Under Attack

Thomas Whitley

Okay, so I may have fibbed a little in the title . . . or a lot. Pew's study on the Global Religious Landscape tells the story that many of us knew to be true, yet the "persecuted Christian minority" seems never to grasp. Size of Major Religious Groups, 2010

 

The first thing that we notice from the study is that Christianity remains the religion with the greatest number of adherents in the world, beating Islam by over half a billion adherents (2.2 billion to 1.6 billion).

Also interesting is the fact that the third largest group is the religiously unaffiliated. Now, this does not mean strictly agnostics or atheists. From Pew: "Surveys indicate that many of the unaffiliated hold some religious or spiritual beliefs (such as belief in God or a universal spirit) even though they do not identify with a particular faith."

The next thing that stuck out to me in the study is just how stark the Christian majority worldwide is when seen in map form.

Majority Religion, by Country

 

The countries colored red represent places where Christianity is the majority religion. Yet conservative Christianity in this country continues to be gripped by a persecution complex with no evidence to back up their views. Not only does 78.4% of this country self-identify as Christian (while 0.6% of this country is Muslim, it should be noted), but the USA contains 11.2% of the world's Christians, the highest percentage of any country, with Brazil coming in a distant second at 8%.

What continues to be interesting to me is that Christians of all stripes are constantly engaged in the politics of identity formation. Thus, certain groups of Christians can continue to spread their "we're a persecuted minority" lie by the way in which they define "we" and "Christian" such that they are "in" and those whom they dislike or with whom they disagree on certain issues are "out."

Christianity is not under attack, but the idea that it is sure is a powerfully persuasive rhetorical tool.

Where Was God? Mike Huckabee Knows

Thomas Whitley

Mike Huckabee has taken to his Facebook account to ask his followers to share a clip of him explaining just where God was during the massacre in Newtown, CT. Here's the clip. If you haven't seen it, watch it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MR39j1KMOsE

Huckabee dismisses the criticisms of the "predictable Left" in the course of his monologue on God and Newtown, which comes as no surprise. I don't expect Mike Huckabee to change his mind any time soon, but as I've watched the clip a few times, trying to maintain an open view to his perspective about why we shouldn't be surprised that the massacre occurred, a few things continue to bug me.

1. His "we've taken God out of schools, so obviously bad things will happen there" argument is just nonsensical. Many other developed nations are much more secular than America yet have significantly lower rates of firearm related deaths and of school massacres like this one. As I mentioned recently, when compared with other high-income countries, our countries firearm homicide rates are 19.5 times higher.

If God cares as much about public and official government recognition as Huckabee seems to think God does and if the lack of that means that we should expect evil things to happen to our children, then why aren't countries like Britain, Germany, and Sweden experiencing school massacres on a regular basis?

2. Huckabee expressly says that he did not mean that if we had state-sanctioned prayer in schools that the shooting would not have occurred, but then goes on to say that the people in this country who are trying to make sure that we uphold both the Free Exercise and Establishment clauses of our Constitution are the problem. I fail to see how a lawsuit that argues for not allowing one religious tradition to do something without affording all religious traditions the same opportunity (holiday messages or displays in town squares and at court houses, for instance) is the cause of someone deciding to massacre kindergarteners and their teachers.

3. "Tax-funded abortion pills." Come on Mike Huckabee, you work for a "news" organization, you should know better than this. There is no such thing as a "tax-funded abortion pill."

4. God did show up in Newtown once the tragedy began. Huckabee says that God did actually show up in Newtown in teachers saving students' lives, in comfort offered to others, in Obama's remarks, etc. It seems to me that the logical question is, "Why didn't God show up 30 minutes earlier and stop the tragedy altogether?" It's not exactly comforting or logical for Huckabee to claim that we shouldn't be surprised when God doesn't show up and horrible tragedies like this take place one minute and - literally - the next minute to say that God did actually show up, just not in time to save the lives of 6 adults and 20 children. What kind of morbid God is that?

5. Simply teaching and observing "thou shalt not kill" will somehow make all of this stop. Haven't Jews and Christians been teaching this very teaching for thousands of years now and yet we still have violence, and a lot of it, in our world. Yet, oddly, in a country where 78.4% of the population identifies as "Christian" and this message is no doubt taught on a regular basis, we have the worst crime rate of all similarly industrialized countries, many of which are significantly less "Christian" than we are. Also, this simple solution that Huckabee is offering wasn't able to stop the God-condoned genocide in the Bible's conquest narratives, the Crusades, or the bombing of abortion clinics by Christians. Not to mention the utter lack of care that our country - a "Christian nation" - kills innocent men, women, and children around the world on a regular basis with drone strikes and gets away with it by labeling them - even children - as "enemy combatants." Something tells me that simply teaching the 6th commandment isn't going to fix our country's penchant for killing each other.

I truly can appreciate that Mike Huckabee is offering what he thinks is the right response in the wake of this tragedy. Also, I'm not saying he isn't really a Christian or that his response isn't the "Christian response" to the shootings. But I am saying that I think he is wrong and that his statements are simply illogical.

I understand the conservative evangelical perspective on matters like these, having grown up in that vein of Christianity and having even received a Master of Divinity degree from a (moderate) baptist divinity school. I know that to answer the problem of evil - how can the following simultaneously co-exist: God is all-powerful, God is all-good, and evil exists? - evangelical Christianity rests on the doctrine of "the Fall." But I also know that this is not the only response to evil in the world, even within the Christian tradition, and, in my opinion, it is neither the most compelling nor the most logical. (I'd be glad to have a discussion at some point about various Christian responses to the problem of evil, but this post is already long enough).

Our country has a lot of problems, but truly honoring principles of religious freedom and working against a state-sponsored religion so that every citizen, regardless of religious affiliation, can be treated with dignity and respect is not one of them.

 

P.S. For some responses to the tragedy by other Christian voices read Rachel Held Evans' latest piece, "God can't be kept out," or following Diana Butler Bass on twitter.

Dead Sea Scrolls Online

Thomas Whitley

The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library: The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) is very proud to present the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library, a free online digitized virtual library of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Hundreds of manuscripts made up of thousands of fragments – discovered from 1947 and until the early 1960’s in the Judean Desert along the western shore of the Dead Sea – are now available to the public online.

I see this being immensely helpful to both scholars and the general public. For starters, these high quality digital images are often easier to read and reveal more about the texts than can be seen by examining the scrolls in person with a magnifying glass or microscope. We need more efforts like this to digitize manuscripts and make them available for free to scholars and the general public.

Bonus: Short video about the project with the great Emanuel Tov, with NASA and Google shout-outs to boot.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Yp6nLMPt-og

Our Country's Value Problem

Thomas Whitley

That our country has a gun problem is undeniable. Since 1982 there have been at least 62 mass shootings. When compared with other high-income countries, our countries firearm homicide rates are 19.5 times higher. When we look at the 23 countries whose firearm homicide, firearm suicide, and unintentional firearm deaths statistics from 2003 were studied in this report, we get this sobering sentence:

Among these 23 countries, 80% of all firearm deaths occurred in the United States, 86% of women killed by firearms were US women, and 87% of all children aged 0 to 14 killed by firearms were US children.

Over the past 24 hours I've seen many Christians proclaim confidently that we don't have a gun problem, but rather that we have a God problem. Mike Huckabee, failed Republican presidential contender and Fox News host, said that we should not be surprised in the least by the shooting in Newtown, CT:

We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?

This is the same Huckabee who said, after the shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado this summer, that

We don't have a crime problem, a gun problem or even a violence problem. What we have is a sin problem, and since we've ordered God out of our schools, and communities, the military and public conversations, you know we really shouldn't act so surprised ... when all hell breaks loose.

John Piper has taken it upon himself to explain to all us "the mind of God" in the midst of this tragedy. He sees a very specific lesson here for all of us and it's one that places an equal amount of guilt on all of us in responding to the shooting as it does the perpetrator of the crime:

Because both are a sin against God, not just man. Jesus’s threat of hell is owing not to the seriousness of murder against man, but to the seriousness of treason against God. In the mind of Jesus — the mind of God — heartfelt verbal invective against God’s image is an assault on the infinite dignity of God, the infinite worth of God. It is, therefore, in Jesus’s mind, worthy of God’s righteous judgment.

So what we saw yesterday in the Newtown murders was a picture of the seriousness of our own corruption. None of us escapes the charge of sinful anger and verbal venom. So we are all under the just sentence of God’s penalty.

So, do we have a gun problem or a sin problem? Am I just as guilty as the shooter in all of this because of my anger toward the situation? Aren't the people of God supposed to be outraged at injustice of every kind?

Our country has major problems; there can be no denying that. And I think that one of those problems is a value problem. For many yesterday, one of their first reactions to the massacre was, "Now the liberals are going to come for my guns." My Twitter feed and Facebook newsfeed were full of citizens proudly declaring that they will never give up their second amendment right, as if their right to own a hunting rifle were more important, more precious, more valuable than a kindergartener's right to live a full and healthy life.

The truth is, I'm not trying to take away anyone's guns or calling for legislation to do that. I know scores of responsible gun owners and certainly appreciate the sport (hunting) and protection that they can afford. I grew up with guns in my house and with a dad who taught me about responsible gun ownership. But I also lost an uncle way too early to a firearm death and I mourn for fellow citizens whom I have never met when they die as a result of a firearm death. If you ask me (and yes I fully understand that no one has), the second amendment should be interpreted much more narrowly since our country no longer has need of a militia of any sort.

But this is not the only issue here, and may not even be the biggest issue here. What dumbfounds me most is that our country seems to be in a place where we simply do not value the lives of our fellow citizens enough to even have a conversation about what we could do differently to try to prevent these tragedies. No one can even think about changing our gun laws. So what, if it's harder to buy Sudafed than it is to buy a gun, we have a RIGHT to own our guns and carry them wherever we so desire; the kindergarteners and teachers who were gunned down in their school yesterday are, apparently, just collateral damage.

Society, you're a crazy breed.

At a Window

Thomas Whitley

Finding words with which to address the tragedy in Newtown, CT today is not an easy task, so I have turned to W. H. Auden. From As I Walked Out One Evening:

'O look, look in the mirror, O look in your distress: Life remains a blessing Although you cannot bless

'O stand, stand at a window As the tears scald and start; You shall love your crooked neighbour With your crooked heart.'

 

Maria Lactans

Thomas Whitley

The Virgin Mary suckling Jesus, 1530, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), oil on canvas.

Mary Breastfeeding Jesus: Christmas' Missing Icon: "It was the takeover of the crucifixion as the major symbol of God's love for humanity" that supplanted the breast-feeding icon, she said. And that was a decisive shift from the earliest days of Christianity when "the virgin's nursing breast, the lactating virgin, was the primary symbol of God's love for humanity."

I won't deny that a suckling Jesus was a popular medieval image (and can be found in some early Christian art), but to call it the "primary symbol" of Christianity in the "earliest days" seems like a bit of overreach to me. And from someone who's book is titled A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750 (NB to HuffingtonPost: Book titles should be italicized, not put in quotation marks; those represent article titles).

Regardless, how would you react to receiving a Christmas card with a breastfeeding Mary and Jesus on it?

Election Aftermath: 13 Initial Reactions

Thomas Whitley

1. My map was wrong. I had Obama at 290 electoral votes and Mitt Romney at 248. I only got 2 states wrong but when those two states are Virginia and Florida, that changes the math quickly. (Yes, I know they haven't called Florida for Obama yet, but every indication is that it will go for him). 2. No, this does not mean that Obama is now coming for your guns or that he's suddenly going to implement Sharia law or Marxism. He is still a moderate evangelical Protestant Christian. And what many from the right seem not to understand is something many of us on the left have known for a long time: Obama is a centrist. And I believe he will continue to govern as one.

3. Re: a mandate election. I like what Ezra Klein said:

There's no such thing as mandate. There's only what you can get done with the Congress voters gave you.

That is, Republicans don't stop being Republican because they lost a presidential election. Both sides still have to compromise to get things done. That's part of the beauty of our system.

4. As I said last night, I really do understand Republicans being shocked and disappointed. I know I would be just as shocked and disappointed had Obama lost.

5. Conservative Christians need to get their story straight. Has God turned God's back on America or is God in control? Was it Sandy (a so-called "act of God") that cost Mitt Romney the election? Will the Billy Graham Evangelical Association now revert to their earlier views that Mormonism is a cult (after all, they did only take the claim off their website a few weeks ago)?

6. America is not all of a sudden going to shrivel up an die.

7. For those of you wanting to now move out of America, where are you going to go? Seriously.

8. I'm still not sure how much Mitt Romney's consistent lies hurt his campaign, though I do think his last Jeep ad sent him over the edge in Ohio.

9. It was a good thing that Romney's Mormonism was not a big deal in this election, but we have not completely gotten to having no religious test for office. Neither a Muslim nor an atheist could be elected President today. We still have a long way to go.

10. Conservatives' refusal to believe the preponderance of evidence produced by state level polling highlights the general anti-science stance in the party that is certainly not helping them. This was on full display last night as Karl Rove and other Fox News hosts were questioning Fox News' own experts when they called Ohio for Obama, refusing to concede, even after the Ohio Republican party had packed up and gone home.

11. It was a bad day for white male republicans who have particularly offensive views on women, rape, and abortion and astonishingly share these views with the country, as both Todd "legitimate rape" Akin and Richard "God intended rape" Mourdock lost. It was, consequentially, a good day for America.

12. America will now have its first openly gay senator: Tammy Baldwin from Wisconsin. Again, good day for America.

13. The Republicans have a huge demographic problem that needs to be dealt with or they will quickly become a thing of the past. First, on Obama's demographic edge:

What happened last night was a demographic time bomb that had been ticking and that blew up in GOP faces. As the Obama campaign had assumed more than a year ago, the white portion of the electorate dropped to 72%, and the president won just 39% of that vote. But he carried a whopping 93% of black voters (representing 13% of the electorate), 71% of Latinos (representing 10%), and also 73% of Asians (3%). What’s more, despite all the predictions that youth turnout would be down, voters 18-29 made up 19% of last night’s voting population -- up from 18% four years ago -- and President Obama took 60% from that group.

And what this means for Romney's (and thereby the Republicans') demographic problem:

It can no longer rely on white voters to win national elections anymore, especially in presidential cycles. Indeed, according to the exit poll, 89% of all votes Mitt Romney won last night came from whites (compared with 56% for Obama). So the Republicans are maximizing their share with white voters; they just aren’t getting the rest. And come 2016, the white portion of the electorate will probably drop another couple of points to 70%.

Now, who's excited for 2014 and 2016?

Political Auspices

Thomas Whitley

From the USA Today piece:

Did Cam Newton and the Panthers predict a Romney Win?: In the 18 presidential elections that have taken place since the Redskins moved to Washington in 1937, 17 have been predicted by the team's performance in its final home game prior to the election. If the Redskins win at home, the incumbent party usually wins the presidential election. If the Redskins lose at home, the challenger usually prevails.

So, what do you do when the the actual odds and polling averages aren't in your favor? You turn to omens and auspices of course. I predict we see televised extispicy before all the votes are tallied Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning.

Obama's New Religion Doctrine

Thomas Whitley

On Tuesday President Obama gave a speech at the UN that caught the ears of many. It did not contain the lofty rhetoric that many have come to expect from President Obama, but rather was a somewhat harsh rebuke of how people around the world have handled (or not handled) religious tolerance. From it, some have begun talking about Obama's new "religion doctrine." The Huffington Post has identified five points of this doctrine

  1. Blasphemy must be tolerated, however intolerable
  2. Religious respect is a two-way street
  3. Turn the other cheek
  4. One nation under God
  5. The danger of extremism

This is, as you will see when you read the article and listen to the speech, as much a Free Speech Doctrine as a Religion Doctrine. President Obama gave a full-throated defense of the value of free speech and spoke to the realities of living in a pluralistic world.

What do you think of this new "Religion Doctrine"?

The Gospel of Jesus' Wife and Rejecting Normative Christianity

Thomas Whitley

Many have no doubt by now heard of the newly discovered papyrus fragment titled the Gospel of Jesus' Wife. This fragment contains the phrase "Jesus said to them, My wife..." Here is a line-by-line translation of the fragment provided by Karen King with Coptic on the left and English on the right. Line 4 is the line in question:

To be sure, the story is being sensationalized by experts and non-experts alike. Many see this as proof that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. Others have already decried it as a forgery. Time and more tests will bear out the authenticity of the fragment and those of us in the field will wait patiently, while doing the necessary work to answer questions asked of us about the fragment intelligently and with due caution.

In an interesting turn of events, though, Al Mohler has provided a rather clear distillation of the desired result of Karen King and Elaine Pagels that publishing this fragment has.

The Gospel of Jesus' Wife? When Sensationalism Masquerades as Scholarship: They argue for the superiority of heterodoxy over orthodoxy. In the Smithsonian article, King’s scholarship is described as “a kind of sustained critique of what she called the ‘master story’ of Christianity: a narrative that casts the canonical texts of the New Testament as a divine revelation that passed through Jesus in ‘an unbroken chain’ to the apostles and their successors — church fathers, ministers, priests and bishops who carried  these truths into the present day.” ... King actually argues against the use of terms like “heresy” and even “Gnostic,” claiming that the very use of these terms gives power to the forces of orthodoxy and normative Christianity.

Mohler tweeted the link to his article saying that the "real agenda behind" this papyrus is "the rejection of normative Christianity." You know what? I think he's right.

As scholars, it is our job to, to the best of our ability, show what the world was really like and this means dispelling the myth that Christianity has always been some pure, singular entity that was never "defiled" by competing ideas and that all of the ideas that did not make the cut to become "Tradition" are in reality "heresy." What the scholar of early Christianity know, and what King and Pagels consistently do a good job of showing, is that since its infancy, Christianity was really Christianities and that numerous ideas were competing for dominance. Yes, those that later come to be understood as "orthodox" call their opponents "heretics," but so too do these groups call the "orthodox" Christians "heretics." These charges flew back and forth between Christian groups in the first few centuries and they've never really stopped.

So, though Mohler cannot fathom someone who does not blindly accept the "divine inspiration of the New Testament," the scholar will be patiently working to chip away at the myth of Christianity that so many perpetuate, that it has always and only ever been one single, pure thing. That sounds nice and it makes teaching and preaching in churches and seminaries a lot easier, but it simply isn't true.

Mohler has the right to believe that certain early Christian texts were inspired by God and that others weren't, but just stating that there weren't other competing ideas, many of which gained prominence for some time, doesn't make it true.

Karen King has this to say about why she works so hard to expose this myth for what it is in her conclusion to What is Gnosticism?:

The goal is not to destroy tradition but to open up space for alternative or marginalized voices to be heard within it. A fuller historical portrait of religious piety can enrich the funds of religious tradition, providing more complex theological resources to attend to the complex issues of our own day. One's own faith is not diminished by hearing other voices; it may even be strengthened and enriched (246).

The point has never been to simply replace "orthodox" normative Christianity with "heretical" normative Christianity. The point is precisely that all claims to normative Christianity should be rejected.

Word Searching God

Thomas Whitley

UPDATE: Democrats add "God" back into the party's platform at President Obama's insistence. It's inevitable really. Whenever a major speech is given or a political party's platform is released, scores of articles begin appearing that comment on how many times a particular word was used. Michelle Obama's speech at the DNC, for instance, never once said Mitt Romney's name and she only once said "Republican" to say it doesn't matter "whether you're a Democrat, a Republican, or none of the above." Nevertheless, it was clear to most observers that her speech was a step-by-step take down of Mitt Romney and the GOP's policies.

In like manner, criticisms are being leveled against the Democrats because the official platform they adopted in Charlotte, NC does not contain the word "God." These criticisms began in conservative and Republican-leaning online publications like the National Review and the Weekly Standard, but have found their way into more mainstream news organizations like CNN and ABC. This type of word search journalism can capture a news cycle or be used to create caricatures of one's opponent, but it rarely results in thoughtful analysis of the speech or the platform.

Many are quite unhappy about the removal of "God" from the 2012 DNC platform (the 2008 platform used "God" once and the 2004 platform seven times). I, though, see it as a step in the right direction, as far as the separation of church and state is concerned.

The platform's section on "Faith" recognizes the importance of faith to the American story:

Faith has always been a central part of the American story, and it has been a driving force of progress and justice throughout our history. We know that our nation, our communities, and our lives are made vastly stronger and richer by faith and the countless acts of justice and mercy it inspires.

It also goes on to speak to church-state separation specifically:

We believe in constitutionally sound, evidence-based partnerships with faith-based and other non-profit organizations to serve those in need and advance our shared interests. There is no conflict between supporting faith-based institutions and respecting our Constitution, and a full commitment to both principles is essential for the continued flourishing of both faith and country.

Both the church and the state are vital institutions in American society, but working for a proper balance between the two is essential if both will be able to thrive. Moreover, the platform seems to recognize that millions in our country believe in no God at all and they are no less an integral part of our great democracy.

But just what should be the relationship between my personal faith and my politics? While I am an ardent supporter of the separation of church and state my faith influences my personal politics at almost every level. It is precisely because of my faith that I choose to vote for whom I vote. One party will not win my vote simply by including "God" in their party's platform more than the other party and a party will not lose my vote for not including "God."

Instead, I study the rest of the platform to see their position on things like war, poverty, upholding individual freedoms, supporting equality for all, etc. and compare those with my understanding of the work I think God wants the people of God to be involved in. Just as speaking Spanish is not enough to win over Latino voters and having female speakers is not enough to win over women, so including overtly religious language does not guarantee that I will vote for your party. If the language is not accompanied by supporting policies, then it is nothing but lip-service.

You see, I believe that policies, like budgets, are moral documents. They expose what our real priorities. I am a Christian, but I will not have a blind affiliation to a political party that thinks they hold the monopoly on "God" and the Christians in this country simply because they have included the word "God" in a platform that very few will ever read. My religious beliefs have a different effect on my political views than do others' religious beliefs. I respect that difference and celebrate it even, but party platform writers and journalists seem yet to have learned that there is no such thing as "the religious vote." Christians (like Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists, and so on) are complicated and intricate people with a plethora of life experiences and religious beliefs that influence how we understand everything from economic to foreign policy - just take a moment to think about the difference between Southern Baptists, Cooperative Baptists, and Alliance Baptists.

Religious people in this country are a diverse, multifaceted bunch and applying a simple word search to a party platform cannot tell the whole story of a political party's relationship with the complicated topics of faith, religion, and God, nor does this word search understand how deeply intertwined our faith is with our politics, for we often don't even know ourselves.

Who Built It?

Thomas Whitley

That fateful July day in Roanoke, Virginia when Obama said "If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that." It was a poor choice of words. It seems clear that he did not mean people did not build their business but that they did not build the infrastructure that makes their success possible, the context makes that much clear.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

Yet, context hasn't stopped the Republicans and the Romney campaign from constantly repeating the line. It goes something like this, "President Obama says that if you've got a business, you didn't build that. Well, I'm here to tell you today, Mr. President, that we did build it!" They even devoted an entire day to this "theme" at last week's Republican National Convention. A lot of questions come to mind when I see the Republicans so blatantly taking the phrase out of context - such as how desperate must they be to devote an entire day at the RNC to an out-of-context Obama quote - but the one the puzzles me the most is who exactly they think "built that"?

President Obama's message seems to have been that as a country we help each other out. He praised individual ingenuity in the same speech, but was making the particular point that government spending and government programs have made it possible for your hard work and risk-taking to actually pay off and allow you to be successful. It's really a rather benign message and it's one that Mitt Romney agrees with.

ROMNEY: I know that you recognize a lot of people help you in a business. Perhaps the bank, the investors. There is no question your mom and dad, your school teachers. The people who provide roads, the fire, the police. A lot of people help. But let me ask you this. Did you build your business? If you did, raise your hand. Take that Mr. President! This is what’s happening in this country. These people are entrepreneurs.

In case Mitt Romney forgot, teachers, schools, roads, firefighters, and police officers are all instances of government spending. To be fair, I do understand the idea of rugged American individualism and I wholly support and celebrate entrepreneurs who take risks and provide services that we as consumers want. But the idea that anyone person did it all on their own is not just wrong, it's laughably wrong.

In a few years when I graduate with my PhD and am honored by being called Dr. Whitley I would never think of saying, "I did this all on my own and have no one to thank but myself." Did I have to make a lot of tough choices and sacrifices? Absolutely. I've lived for years making very little money as a student. I picked up am moved to a state I had only visited a handful of times to live in a city I have never set foot in to follow my dream. I passed up opportunities to get out of academia and make decent money. Yet, at the end my thoughts will not be on how great I am because I took the risks and I did the reading and I wrote the papers and I passed the exams. No, I will think of my wife who sacrificed living close to her family, friends, and a great job to move to Florida with me. I'll think of my parents who supported me emotionally and financially for so long. I'll think of my professors who gave so freely of their knowledge and their time. And I'll also think of another group - taxpayers, because when I finish at FSU, 2 of my 4 degrees will have come from state universities that are funded by taxpayer money and I want to provide a good return on investment by giving back what I can to the society that has given me so much.

So, while I've not started a business, I know what it's like to take risks, to make sacrifices, and to work ridiculously hard in pursuit of a dream, but I also know that I never would have made it by myself. On this Labor Day, I want to take a moment to thank those who work and those who provide work. We do live in a great country and we've done some amazing things, but we didn't get here on our own.

Looking Fair

Thomas Whitley

Before GOP Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan's speech at the RNC was over last night the interwebs were exploding with claims of lies and extremely misleading points on the part of Ryan. These lies and deceptions are easy to spot and much of the media has been pointing them out all morning. Fox News even got into the game saying Ryan's speech was "deceiving" and that

to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to facts, Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech. On this measure, while it was Romney who ran the Olympics, Ryan earned the gold.

For some time now it has been clear that the Romney/Ryan ticket has had a facts-be-damned modus operandi. The campaign has continued to run a welfare ad that claims Obama is "gutting" the work requirements from welfare, this claim has been exposed as a flat out lie by numerous news and fact-checking organizations.

Ryan's speech last night attempted to blame President Obama for the closure of a GM plant in Janesville, OH - Ryan's hometown - which closed in December 2008, under President Bush. Compounding the Romney/Ryan campaign's belief that they can lie with impunity is the fact that many news organizations are squeamish about calling out all the lies. They have, instead, said that his speech took "factual shortcuts" and that it made "questionable claims."

I have said for some while that I was becoming quite disappointed with news organizations attempting to look fair by placing equal blame on both parties, whether equal blame was actually called for or not. Ezra Klein, though, in the most honest piece I've seen by a journalist examining Ryan's speech had this to say:

But Ryan’s claims weren’t even arguably true. You simply can’t say the president hasn’t released a deficit reduction plan. The plan is right here. You simply can’t say the president broke his promise to keep your GM plant open. The decision to close the plant was made before he entered office — and, by the way, the guy at the top of your ticket opposed the auto bailout. You simply can’t argue that the Affordable Care Act was a government takeover of the health-care system. My doctor still works for Kaiser Permanente, a private company that the government does not own. You simply can’t say that Obama, who was willing to follow historical precedent and sign a clean debt ceiling increase, caused the S&P downgrade, when S&P clearly said it was due to congressional gridlock and even wrote that it was partly due to the GOP’s dogmatic position on taxes.

And of his verdict that Ryan's speech had many more lies than truths and that "the Romney campaign isn’t adhering to the minimum standards required for a real policy conversation" he had this bit of reflection:

I don’t like that conclusion. It doesn’t look “fair” when you say that. We’ve been conditioned to want to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame, and the fact of the matter is, I would like to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame. I’d personally feel better if our coverage didn’t look so lopsided. But first the campaigns have to be relatively equal. So far in this campaign, you can look fair, or you can be fair, but you can’t be both.

Would that all journalists understood their job and their responsibility in the way that Klein does.

In Case You Thought We Were Now in a Post-Racial World

Thomas Whitley

There has been some heated debate on my Facebook page over a comment that Mitt Romney made last week while he was in Michigan:

No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate; they know that this is the place that we were born and raised.

Some (like me) saw this as directly referencing the "birther" controversy and while not being a racist himself, saw Mitt Romney as playing race up a bit, albeit in his subtext, to shore up the enthusiasm of the parts of his base that are racist or racially resentful. Others thought that we were way out of line.

Ezra Klein has weighed in on the unusual place that race has taken in the 2012 election.

Race and the 2012 Election | Ezra Klein | Washington Post: Most of the issues dominating the 2012 election make sense. There’s the economy, of course. The budget deficit. Medicare. Obamacare.

But click through the “videos” section of Mitt Romney’s Web site and you’ll see something odd: His campaign is running more ads about welfare than just about any other issue. Of the 12 most recent ads posted, five are about welfare. That’s more than the number dedicated to health care (four) or introducing Paul Ryan (one) or the economy (one).

This is quite telling. For starters, it tells us that Romney's welfare ads are working particularly well. Beyond this, though, studies have been done to examine the role of race in the 2008 election and in people's response to a Romney welfare ad.

“Among those who saw it,” reports Tesler, “racial resentment affected whether people thought Romney will help the poor, the middle class and African Americans. Moreover, seeing the ad did not activate other attitudes, such as party or ideological self-identification. It only primed racial resentment.”

This is where things get tricky. Romney’s welfare ads are not racist. But the evidence suggests that they work particularly well if the viewer is racist, or at least racially resentful. And these are the ads that are working so unexpectedly well that welfare is now the spine of Romney’s 2012 on-air message in the battleground states.

Klein also references a study done by Harvard economics research Seth Stephens-Davidowitz wherein he gathered data from Google searches, looking at how frequently racist search terms were entered and he ranked areas of the country based on the data. This data was then used to compare Obama's share of the vote (2008) with John Kerry's share of the vote (2004) in those areas.

The result? Stephens-Davidowitz found that Obama had lost 3 percent to 5 percent of the popular vote compared to what you would have expected. Or as he put it, Obama’s race, gave “his opponent the equivalent of a home-state advantage countrywide.”

You should go read Klein's piece and the studies he references. Race, racism, race-baiting, and the like are all difficult subjects to talk about. Many fear being labeled a racist or unjustly labeling someone else a racist. This is understandable. But this is a conversation that needs to be had and it's one that should be had in reality, with evidence and data.

We are learning what many of us have known or suspect for some while now. The election of Barack Obama as President did not suddenly make racial issues go away; in fact, a lot of data shows that racial polarization has increased in the past 4 years. We have a long way to go.

Finally, I will state again here as I have elsewhere: I do not think Mitt Romney is a racist or that most Republicans are racist, but certainly some elements of the base that Mitt Romney hopes will vote for him are racist or somehow racially resentful. His campaign knows this and his welfare ads are playing into the racially-charged opinions of some viewers (notice that all of the hardworking people are white). And to think that the Romney campaign is completely oblivious to this fact is quite naive. So, do I think Mitt Romney is trying to play on the racist sentiments of a group of his constituents? Without a doubt. And it's a shameful, but potentially politically smart, move to make.

Todd Akin is Only the Tip of the Iceberg

Thomas Whitley

After Todd Akin's offensive and grossly misinformed comments about "legitimate rape" and a woman's ability to just "shut that whole thing down" saying that women who are raped rarely get pregnant, countless citizens, public leaders, and politicians have been calling for him to drop out of his Senate race. I do think these calls are appropriate. It is obvious that Mr. Akin lacks even an elementary understanding of biology and, more importantly, lacks respect for women. Akin has since apologized and vowed to stay in the race. He says he used the "wrong words" and that his words did not convey his "compassionate heart for the victims of sexual assault." Maybe that's true, but I suspect it's not. To be clear, I believe that he thinks he has a deep sense of respect and compassion for women, but his actions do not back up his words. The point he was making in the original interview was that even if a woman does get pregnant from a rape, abortion should not be an option: “I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.” To be clear, the medical community does not consider conception to equal pregnancy; that comes at the stage of implantation. Regardless, Todd Akin co-sponsored a bill (with GOP VP candidate Paul Ryan, no less) that seeks to offer personhood status to a fertilized egg, a law that would then render various forms of birth control (e.g., "morning after" pill, IUDS) and processes like in vitro fertilization illegal.

The calls from the Republican party for Akin to step down have sounded great (well some of them at least - the Romney/Ryan ticket's initial response was that they "disagreed" with Akin and that a Romney/Ryan administration would allow for abortion in the case of rape), but he is merely symptomatic of a deeper disease in the GOP. Their party platform, which will be supported with much fanfare next week at the Republican National Convention, calls for a personhood amendment to the US Constitution and is at odds with what Romney said his position was this week, as it does not allow for abortion in any case, except when the life of the mother is in danger.

It is clear that Republicans suffer from a gender gap - Obama currently leads Romney by 9 points and that lead jumps to 45 (!) points among women 18-29 years old - I expect to see this gap widen again as more and more women learn that Todd Akin is just the tip of the iceberg (Chris Cillizza wrote about this back in April). To be sure, he was the idiot who spoke out in the midst of a Senate race with national implications, but he is not alone in his views.

Democrats have been furiously working to link Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan with Todd Akin. In many cases the links are ripe for the picking (such H.R. 212, the so-called "Sanctity of Life" bill, which Akin and Ryan co-sponsored). In others, the linkage is more tenuous and has to do with general philosophies of women's health concerns. Some Republicans are decrying the links between Romney/Ryan and Akin for obvious reasons - they are trying to distance themselves from the toxicity of Todd Akin currently. But what women and men everywhere need to understand is that while Akin may be an outlier in his belief in magic vaginas, the policies that he supports are in lock-step with Paul Ryan and the larger Republican Party platform. Remember that Paul Ryan worked with Akin last year trying to redefine rape so that only victims of "forcible" rape would be able to use federal money to terminate a pregnancy. The implication of this is quite clear: statutory rape, date rape, spousal rape, etc. do not count as "real" rape. But what men and women across the country know is just what President Obama said in response to Akin's comments yesterday: "Rape is rape."

If any good comes from Todd Akin's senseless comments, it will be that more and more Americans will become aware of exactly what goals the Republican Party has for abortion legislation, which is to say, many want to go back to a time before Roe v. Wade. And we are now supposed to praise the more "progressive" members of the party who want to allow for exemptions to an abortion ban only in cases of (some) rape(s), incest, and when the mother's life is in danger.  Certainly, not all Republicans share Akin's horrendous knowledge of basic biology, but we must be clear that his comments allow the country to peer through the looking glass and see how the Republican party truly views women.

What 2012 Republicans Can Learn From Their 1956 Counterparts

Thomas Whitley

The charge of hypocrisy is one that seems to be made all too often in our current political climate, though the charge is often accurate (as in this example of Paul Ryan heartily defending Keynesian stimulus under President Bush when he has decried it under President Obama). Other times, it's clear that words have been twisted. In the case at hand, if hypocrisy is not the most accurate charge, then we can at least say that the Republican brand of 1956 had vastly different priorities than do Republicans today. With thanks to @JohnFugelsang for the link.

Republican Party Platforms: Republican Party Platform of 1956 | The American Presidency Project: Our Government was created by the people for all the people, and it must serve no less a purpose.

The Republican Party was formed 100 years ago to preserve the Nation's devotion to these ideals.

On its Centennial, the Republican Party again calls to the minds of all Americans the great truth first spoken by Abraham Lincoln: "The legitimate object of Government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves in their separate and individual capacities. But in all that people can individually do as well for themselves, Government ought not to interfere."

Our great President Dwight D. Eisenhower has counseled us further: "In all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be human. In all those things which deal with people's money, or their economy, or their form of government, be conservative."

It seems that where Republicans in 1956 wished to strike a legitimate balance between what the government can and should do with what should be left to the individual, many Republicans today have lost the penchant for balance. When more of our country's citizens are living in poverty than any time since the 1960's, the presumptive Republican nominee for President has chosen a running mate in Paul Ryan who has authored a budget that would realize 62% of its cuts by slashing programs for the poor. So, when people cannot help themselves and are relying on the government to help them keep a roof over their head, to keep their children fed, and to stay alive, the Republicans are proposing to cut our assistance to them. All of this while telling women that they cannot make the right decisions when it comes to their personal reproductive health and that the government needs to make those decisions for them.

The current GOP seems to have forgotten Abraham's and Eisenhower's advice. They are preaching a message of small government, but this message seems to only apply when others want to make sure that more people have health insurance and when businesses and big banks are regulated so that they can't take us down the road we all went down against our will in 2008. That message of small government seems, though, to disappear when women want to make their own choices about contraception and reproduction or when two people of the same sex fall in love and want to be married.

The Republican Party of 1956 was far from perfect, but they certainly have a few things to teach Republicans of 2012.

Why I Talk About Politics So Much

Thomas Whitley

Conventional wisdom says that one should refrain from talking about religion and politics in public. Today, "public" includes Twitter, Facebook, Google+, blogs, and various other places online. It seems that I haven't learned my lesson. I have three degrees in religion, am working on a PhD in religion, and I cohost a podcast about religion. I also cohost a podcast about politics and, as many of you have noticed, talk about politics frequently on my blog, on Twitter, and on Facebook. The two things that one isn't supposed to talk about are pretty much all I talk about. So, why do I talk about politics so much (we'll deal with religion another day)? I know it can get tiresome and a little overwhelming, especially in the lead up to a presidential election. The Pew Research Center has released a study about social networking and politics and they have some interesting findings about people deciding to block, unfriend, or hide someone on a social networking site because of something they posted about politics.

So, even when I know some people will hide my posts, unfriend me, or block me and many will just ignore what I post, why do I still post so much about politics? It's pretty simple, really - I think it matters. I mean, I think it really matters. Policy decisions made in DC, along with those made in our state capitals and in the cities and towns we live in really do affect our everyday lives.

I also think that we have a responsibility as citizens to be an educated and informed electorate - a responsibility we too often shirk. To this end, I hope to cut through some of the common political talking points and present the facts as best as I can understand them. This may mean dispelling the idea that Paul Ryan is some sort of deficit hawk, because the evidence simply does not back this up. Or it may mean informing conservatives and liberals alike that both Paul Ryan and Barack Obama "cut" Medicare - Paul Ryan in his budget proposal and Barack Obama in the Affordable Care Act (aka "Obamacare"). Except neither one really "cuts" medicare by $716 billion. The Affordable Care Act slows the rate of growth in Medicare spending by slowing how much providers (hospitals, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, etc.) are paid and changing the factors that determine how much they get paid (quality over quantity). Paul Ryan slows the rate of growth in Medicare spending by the same amount by providing beneficiaries (those people who are recipients of Medicare) with less money over time through a voucher system. So, the reality in this situation is that neither party really "cuts" Medicare (and Obama certainly has not stolen from the Medicare trust fund as Mitt Romney has alleged), but the changes that they propose to the Medicare system have very really consequences in our lives. I would like people to be able to debate the real changes that could affect them instead of recycling talking points about who is throwing whom off a cliff.

I know that politics often seems like a game, but in this case the score means something to the lives of Americans. There is no doubt that in this election I support the President and I think I have very good reasons to. I also think that a lot of other people should too and I'm more than happy to have those conversations, but the conversations are senseless if we're not going to educate ourselves about reality. I want to be able to make my mind up for myself so I seek out information devoid of talking points, independent analyses, and the actual sources (what a novel idea). It should also be noted that I don't support everything the President has done. I think the ACA should have gone further since he wasn't going to get any Republican support anyway. I realize that drone strikes cost less and tend to result in less civilian casualties than "boots on the ground," but I still have a problem with them. I don't like that Obama has stepped up deportations over the number Bush deported. I don't like that he hasn't pushed harder for money in education or that he is promoting STEM fields over the humanities - I know there are more jobs to be had in STEM fields, but the humanities also help make the world a better place.

So, before I am accused of being a blind partisan, realize that I have many qualms with the Obama presidency. Yet, I agree with his fundamental vision of the country, namely, that the government can and does often provide resources and programs that make our lives better and that the government plays a necessary role in helping us police ourselves (see financial regulations). I fundamentally disagree with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan's approaches, which assert that more money at the top is somehow better for everyone when there is no evidence to back this up and that government is almost always an intrusion into our "liberty" and we should have no government intervention in our lives because it impinges on our freedom, except, of course, when it comes to who can marry whom and what health decisions a woman can make.

If you have to tune me out until after the election (or until classes start for me and I have much less time to engage in politics), then that's ok. I understand. But I also want you to understand that I don't just talk about politics all the time because I enjoy it (though I do) or because I'm blindly following a single politician or political party (I'm a registered Independent, btw), but rather because I think it is one of the few things that really matters, that has real consequences, and can change the course of someone's life with the stroke of a pen.

Happy 77th, Social Security

Thomas Whitley

FDR's statement upon signing the Social Security Act on this day in 1935:

Today a hope of many years' standing is in large part fulfilled. The civilization of the past hundred years, with its startling industrial changes, has tended more and more to make life insecure. Young people have come to wonder what would be their lot when they came to old age. The man with a job has wondered how long the job would last.

This social security measure gives at least some protection to thirty millions of our citizens who will reap direct benefits through unemployment compensation, through old-age pensions and through increased services for the protection of children and the prevention of ill health.

We can never insure one hundred percent of the population against one hundred percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life, but we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age.

This law, too, represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete. It is a structure intended to lessen the force of possible future depressions. It will act as a protection to future Administrations against the necessity of going deeply into debt to furnish relief to the needy. The law will flatten out the peaks and valleys of deflation and of inflation. It is, in short, a law that will take care of human needs and at the same time provide the United States an economic structure of vastly greater soundness.

I congratulate all of you ladies and gentlemen, all of you in the Congress, in the executive departments and all of you who come from private life, and I thank you for your splendid efforts in behalf of this sound, needed and patriotic legislation.

If the Senate and the House of Representatives in this long and arduous session had done nothing more than pass this Bill, the session would be regarded as historic for all time.

Happy Birthday and may you have many more (seriously).

Is the Country Headed in the Right Direction?

Thomas Whitley

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are campaigning on the sentiment that thecountry is not headed in the right direction. Certainly, many of our citizens would echo that sentiment. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll has that number at 73%. But here are a few other numbers to think about.

  1. The Dow closed at 8,077.56 the day Obama was sworn in. It will open today at 13,207.95. That's a 63% increase.
  2. NASDAQ closed at 1,440.86 the day Obama was sworn in. It will open today at 3,020.86. That's a 110% increase.
  3. The S&P closed at 805.22 the day Obama was sworn in. It will open today at 1,405.87. That's a 75% increase.

Are we where we want to be? No. Are we headed in the right direction? Yes.