January 27, 2015

Bernie Sanders: Poised to take wrong fork in political road

Sen. Bernie Sanders
The Vermont Senator, officially an Independent by party classification, said yesterday that if he does run for president in 2016, it won't be on a third-party ticket because "I'm not a spoiler."

First, Sen. Sanders, we need a reality check.

Do you really think you have that much of a shot at the Democratic party nomination? I don't, unless you change some of your current core values. I've blogged about some parts of this before, but it bears repeating. Sen. Sanders, as an official Independent, and one from a small state like Vermont, you'd be sledding uphill, not just against Hillary Clinton, but also, other official Democrats.

Even if Clinton doesn't run, you'd have to fight Joe Biden, Martin O'Malley, and others. And, I just don't see you prevailing unless you suck up to Wall Street types enough to become less desirable as a candidate.

Second, "spoiler" is the wrong word.

Call yourself a "shock therapist" instead.

If you dropped hints now that you were running as a Green, you'd be able to build up the best Green presidential campaign ever. That might trickle down lower in the party. That might get you to running as a co-nominee of Socialists in some states.

As for your fear of electing a right-wing Republican? People like me will vote Green instead of Democrat, if the Democrat is somebody like Hillary Clinton, even in Ohio or Florida or Pennsylvania.

January 26, 2015

Saint Stonewall of Jackson — S.G. Gwynne swings and misses on yet another bio

Type your summary here Type rest of the post hereRebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall JacksonRebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Once again, as with previous book, Gwynne had taken a charismatic figure of American history, and delivered some good insights, but made some major, elemental errors at the same time, along with doing some major punch-pulling on interpretive history.

In "Empire of the Summer Moon," it was giving Comanche chief Quanah a white man's last name that he never had, and knowing better than to do that, being a Texan.

This time, the main factual error, or constellation of errors, in this book is promoting Jackson at the expense of James Longstreet, basically indulging old myths about Old Pete.

He perpetuates the myth that Longstreet was somehow "less than" or that Lee was often disappointed.

He also gets something flat-out wrong when claiming Lee had both promoted to lieutenant general on Oct. 10, 1862.

Longstreet's promotion was a day earlier, and Gwynne either should have known it and was lackadaisical in not actually knowing it, or else he's deliberately perpetuating a falsehood.

Indeed, most modern histories that don't have such bias make clear that Longstreet's earlier promotion was deliberate, by Lee's design.

Also, at 2nd Manassas, confuses D.H. Hill with A.P. Hill in one reference. He later corrects that, but it really shouldn't have been made in the first place. (And, per an ongoing lament of mine about the book industry, it shouldn't have gotten past copy editors, either.)

Gwynne does show that Jackson's cantankerousness toward fellow officers started long before the Civil War. He also notes that he had too much secrecy about battle plans with sub-commanders. However, in his downplaying Longstreet, he also fails to note that not only was Old Pete better at this, but that he had a better, more professional, staff in general.

That said, he also could have critiqued Jackson more than he did for not recognizing that fast pursuit against retreating foes by large "civilian" armies in the Civil War just wasn't as possible as Jackson might have wished. And, while he mentions Jackson's "black flag" ideas at the start of the war, he doesn't critique them as much as he could.

Finally, while noting Jackson's kindliness as a slaveowner, Gwynne doesn't go more into his attitude toward slavery as a whole. (As best we can tell, he "accepted" it as under the control of the same predestinarian Calvinist God that informed his religious beliefs in general.)

And, while noting Jackson's religiosity, and its depth, Gwynne has a surprisingly narrow interaction with it; besides how it impacted his views on slavery, how did it impact his views on rebellion? How did he square it with his "black flag," ie, "no quarter" ideas — already at the start of the war — for invading the North?

In short, since Gwynne is a Texan, why doesn't he look in more depth at the idea that Stonewall Jackson wanted to be some sort of Santa Anna?

I was originally going to 3-star this, but thinking more and more on how Gwynne didn't delve into these and other issues related to Jackson's known religiosity, it goes down another star.

View all my reviews

January 24, 2015

Ichiro 3K? Yeah, maybe

I would love to seek Japanese import baseball great Ichiro get to 3,000 hits in MLB, so I'm glad that he's seemingly got a gig, even if it's with the Miami Marlins. (More on that "even" in a minute.)

But, I'm not holding my breath over him getting to 3,000 hits, even if commenters on sports blogs like Hardball Talk call me a Debbie Downer and downvote me for saying that.

First, unless he's pulling a Barry Bonds and seeing a Victor Conte for the clear and the cream, he doesn't have any magic fountain of youth in his back pocket.

To put it another way? Ichiro is almost 2 years older than Alex Rodriguez, whom many Yankee fans and GM Brian Cashman are willing to consider broken down.

Yeah, let that sink in. Ichiro — 2 years older than A-Rod.

He's been on a semi-steady decline over the past five years. He had an Indian summer of sorts in the last one third of 2012, after his trade from the Mariners to the Yankees. He had another last year, perhaps fueled in part by getting more rest in 2013.

He's gonna be 41 this year. And, he's probably at fifth outfielder, not fourth outfielder level, or maybe halfway between the two. In short, unless the Fish have at least as many outfield injuries this year as the Yankees did last year, he's not getting a lot of opportunities to swing the lumber.

My guesstimates? About 315 plate appearances, and about 300 at bats. If he's in the upper .240s on batting average, that gives him about 75 hits. That's a bit less than halfway from his current 2,844 to 3,000. This is reinforced by the fact that Miami's an NL team. Except for interleague play, there's no DH to give him additional at bats. (He's not done much DHing, because he's not a prototype DH, of course, but he has done a little.)

Right now, the Fish are set for starters with the Iron Giant, Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. All three are young, and thus, barring unexpected injury, unlikely to give Ichiro much playing time, even if he is the team's first OF option off the bench. And, I'll assume Mark Canha makes the big club out of spring training; he might wind up being the first OF off the bench by the end of the year himself, or a combination of him and Enrique Hernandez, even more an IF than Canha at AAA, but who can play OF as well.

Assuming a bit more decline, and a bit less playing time, in 2016, if an MLB team gives him a contract next year, and it's one he'll accept, that leaves him about 30 hits short of 3K at the end of 2016.

So, that assumes that some MLB team wants to pay his contractual freight in 2017, too.

Since, unlike Pete Rose when chasing Ty Cobb, the Fish aren't tabbing him as a player-manager, and it's doubtful that will happen next year, either, color me skeptical of him breaking that magic hits milestone. He can't force himself in the lineup.

Plus, even more than Rose, his hits are dependent on his speed. My 75 hits for him this year may be on the high side.

He'll be  HOFer anyway.

But, is he a slam dunk? For voters, he will be.

That said, in key sabermetric issues, for his MLB career, he's likely to be below 60 WAR and surely below 30 WAA.

What if he had played his whole career here?

Well, let's say he breaks into the US majors at age 23 instead of 27. I'll give him 900 more gross hits for those four extra early years, minus losing 100 from the extra wear of 4 US MLB years versus Japanese majors years. So, we're at about 3,600 hits. 500 stolen bases.

And, on sabermetrics, maybe 75 WAR and 38 WAA.

That's not quite a slam dunk, but, to stay with basketball terminology, it's an uncontested layup.

He'd probably be about No. 8 on the JAWS scale for RF, just ahead of its current occupant, Reggie Jackson.

That said, I don't think his career OPS+ would be above 115 (actual career 110), which is just not that good for a RF. In fact, assuming he gets in, he'll have the lowest OPS+ of any right fielder.

That said, the Mariners did play him a fair amount at CF in his earlier days. As for HOFers in that position? Richie Ashburn has a career OPS+ of 111, but he's only semi-deserving, if that. More legit, if not an uncontested layup, in center, Andre Dawson had a career OPS+ of 119.

So, Ichiro, if this year starts slow — and deteriorates from there — I hope you accept it and your future with grace. Find a way to end your career back in Seattle and bow out when you need to, when the time is right. Accept that BBWAA voters will know how to recognize you.

And, at the same time, blind Ichiro touters should look at that career OPS+. They should note the relative lack of doubles, even, even with his speed.

January 22, 2015

Marcus Borg and the sometimes theological wrongness of liberal Christianity

I can agree with a liberal critical scholar of Christianity like the just-deceased Marcus Borg, when he, or others like him, note that early Christianity (by early, I mean, before 200 CE) had nowhere near one agreed-upon reason as for why Jesus was crucified. And, beyond that, of course, had no one agreed-upon understanding of Jesus' metaphysical relationship to god, and how such relationship connected to his crucifixion.

However, sometimes, the likes of Borg doth critically protest too much. Like this:
“The notion of Jesus’ death as a substitute for our sins was not found in the first 1000 years of Christianity.”


Although it does not have a line-for-line spelling out, I'd argue that, say, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed does:

he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate
Now, it's true that, technically, it doesn't say why he was crucified.

In that point of the Creed, that is.

It makes it pretty clear, earlier on:

who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven
Our salvation from "what"? Erm, sin? 

And, how? Crucifixion.

OK, there, we're at least at the point of having to discuss theories of why he was crucified. And, I think any reasonably neutral mind, knowing the Tanakh/Old Testament sacrificial system, would think that the idea of a penalty-paying death, an "atonement," is a reasonable interpretation of the theology of that creed.

And, of course, that's long before the end of the first 1,000 years of Christianity.

The only question is, who was holding the theological bank ledger of guilt? To whom was this penalty-paying death due/

Now, one could read that as being described by the "ransom" theory of atonement, discussed here at Wikipedia with other atonement theories, and call Borg technically right, in noting that it wasn't until Anselm that a full-blown atonement theory was articulated.

However, as far as the "why Jesus had to die," there's no significant difference between the "ransom" and "substitute" theories. Certainly not, for the average Christian layperson.

As Wikipedia notes, both theories are grounded on the idea of human sinfulness causing collective human indebtedness; the only difference is, is that difference owed to Yahweh or Satan? And, the "ransom" view goes back to Irenaeus, who technically is pre-200.

No, actually, it goes back to two of the three Synoptics. Here's Matthew 20:28, which is paralleled by Mark 10:45:

Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Again, the Gospeler doesn't say to whom Jesus' life was a ransom, but he does say that it was a ransom, right down to the word!

So Borg is half right — if read narrowly, and with a connotative understanding of "substitute" only.

But, in reality, he's wrong.

Things like this were key to why, when I was leaving the conservative wing of Lutheranism, I realized I couldn't stop at the liberal wing.

Sure, the Borgs of the world may be right, even if we don't go all the way to John Crossan territory, in that Jesus was "actually" a Jewish social reform leader, and maybe even a social resistance leader.

But, a guy named Paul "hijacked" that idea, if you want to put it bluntly. And, by the time of Irenaeus, the majority of Christians was trying to work out what Jesus death meant in light of Paul first, Synoptic Gospels second, and Gospel of John third (albeit, perhaps it first in certain threads of what became Eastern Orthodoxy). 

By Constantinople, the idea of Jesus' death as a penalty payment of some sort, and worth infinite value because he was also infinite God, was the "orthodox" view. So, it was seen as a payment to Satan rather than to God; it was still a payment.

And, when people think, as Christian laypeople, about "substitution" or "atonement," they're thinking first about the payment. It's only much lower, if at all, if they're asking the "to whom" question.

Recognizing that liberal Christianity couldn't fully deal with the rise of Christianity if Jesus were just a social reform leader, and that it didn't deal so well with the Pauline "hijacking," either, is part of why I moved on past liberal Christianity. 

To take Acts 15 as representative of movements, not individuals: Why did Paul win (with a sidebar from John), Peter wind up semi-incorporated into Paul, and James and his Ebionites sidelined? We know that latter happened, and we suspect (rogue interpretations of the Dead Sea Scrolls aside) that it happened because of the rise of Paul, and even more a second rise along with the Pastoral Epistles.

But, why that second rise? There have been, after all, a lot more "failed" religions than "successful" ones.

If Jesus as social crusader was that successful, why did Paul feel the need to hijack this idea of Christianity? And, if it were not, why did he think this was the best budding away from the rootstock of Judaism into which to graft (punning on Romans) his take on Jesus?

Liberal Christianity, in its academic version, it seems tries to tap-dance around the Pauline success at times, and thus tap-dance around his basic doctrines, and then their interpretations from Irenaeus on to the Council of Constantinople.

It wasn't the only reason, but it was a reason.


This statement by Borg, from that same link:
Jesus matters for Christians because he was for us the decisive disclosure of God.
Ahh, process or depth theology. Shouldn't it be capitalized as "Decisive Disclosure," like "Ground of Being"? What does that even mean? 

In reality, not a lot.

This is also why, in both critical and conservative Christianity, systematic theology is supposed to be a separate field from exegesis.

None of this is to deny that Borg was among scholars who has pushed for reinterpreting Jesus as a crusader for social reform, and just what he was challenging, including looking at Jesus' parables and sayings in a new, fresh light.

In that sense, yes, maybe he did get a lot of people to look at Jesus again for the first time, as noted here.

But, he never explained how the Jesus as perhaps accurately construed by the Jesus Seminar got trumped by Jesus the dying-rising Savior God.

That said, this is not the first time I've talked about liberal Christianity's wrongness. In the past, I mentioned that liberal Christianity, as well as even secularists, were wrong in claiming there's nothing outrightly anti-gay in the Old Testament, and making an even stronger claim to that end about the New Testament.

Final note. For anybody who claims there's one "pure" version of any or all of the great global religions, this blog post shows just how wrong you are about Christianity.

For Islam, considering the Sunni-Shi'ite split pretty much hardened by 75 years after Muhammad's death, you're wrong there.

And in Buddhism, assuming a historical Siddhartha Gautama, the forerunner of the Theravada-Mahayana split had started within a century of his death.

Needed in Texas — a goods and services tax

Houston Chronicle columnist Chris Tomlinson is right that Texas' franchise, or margin, tax, is flawed, even fatally so. He's also right that rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic won't solve the problem.

(He could have been right a third time, if he'd dipped his column's toes more explicitly into Texas GOP talking points and noted that neither the current arrangement of said deck chairs nor any revamp is likely to be very "transparent.)

There's several issues here.

First, all the lobbyist carve-outs on the current franchise tax, to dip this blog's toes very explicitly into Texas GOP talking points, raises one big one:

If Texas is such a great state in which to do business, then why does state government need to engage in so many business handouts?

Shorter answer: That's why, in the minds of Texas GOPers, it is such a great business state — precisely because of such handouts.

Now that that's been answered, let's tackle one other issue in his column.

Chris wants to kill the franchise tax. I'm there.

And replace it with more "fees."

First, if one looks at things like car registration renewal, and the various fees it adds on, including a "convenience fee" for online renewal, I'd say the last thing we need is the Lege nickel-and-diming us with yet more fees.

Second, fees are often regressive within the broader world of taxation.

Ideally, we'd amend the Texas constitution to allow an income tax, if more and more of the Joe and Jane Six Packs who vote tea party would realize they're the ones already getting stiffed by fees, fees, fees.

Of course, that ain't happening.

So, what about a New Mexico-style gross receipts tax? I'd argue it's not an income tax. But, I could structure it in a way where it covers a lot of the territory that Texas' current business margins tax does, and in a way that makes it a lot harder for lobbyists to loophole it, especially if we made it more explicitly like a European-style value added tax.

Mu to Camus on meanininglessness

Albert Camus famously or infamously said in "The Myth of Sisyphus" (summary and Wikipedia) that there is one ultimate issue in philosophy:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.
Of course, that relates to, and cornerstones, issues in his absurdist philosophy, and in the related existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and others.

Theists, especially Christian apologists, have used this as a cudgel, whacking secular existentialists over the head with the idea that they, or we, claim that life is "meaningless" and that there is therefore no recourse at end but suicide.

Well, a new essay at Massimo Pigliucci's Scientia Salon, by John G. Messerly, deals with this issue in part. And, it's stimulated me to yet further thought, reflected in part, and starting with, my second comment on the essay.

That said, let's unpack this issue a bit further. I'll then get to the second half of that second comment and go from there.

Camus, of course, said suicide was not the answer — revolt was. Which might be true.

Modern humanistic psychologists of a secularist mindset say that meaning is what we bring to the table.

But, beyond that, what if "meaningless(ness)" as traditionally defined in philosophy and psychology isn't exactly the issue?

And now, to that comment.
I think Camus was asking the wrong question.
 Life is neither meaningful nor meaningless, if we take “meaningless” to be the opposite of “meaningful.”
 If we instead, talk about “without meaning” or “meaning-less” (sic) we can hopefully understand this not as an opposition to “meaningful” but simply that the issue of “meaning” is, if not a category mistake, one of those issues about which we should be silent, or even more, per logical positivism, a question that is itself … without meaning!
 It’s true that, as part of our attempts to control our surroundings, we probably have “meaning seekers” as well as “pattern detectors” and “agency imputers” halfway hardwired into our brains.
 But, per Hume’s is ≠ ought, that doesn’t mean that we have to follow them in falsely looking for agency — or falsely imputing meaning where it doesn’t exist, or falsely looking for it when it’s not part of the issue.
Let's go a bit further.

"Meaning" and "meaninglessness" also seems to be one of those polarities, like "free will" vs. "determinism," that's wrong in other ways.

First, it's presuming that a polarity should exist.

Second, it assumes that one should, in some degree at least, "reduce" to the other, rather than both be "unified" in a larger theory, just like general relativity and quantum theory will surely "unify" rather than having one reduce to the other.

Third, like the free will half of that first duality, a desire for meaning — or, a desire to frame ordering one's life around meaning, and trying to justify how to frame it without meaning — seems based in part on religion. I've said that this seems true to some degree of many secular defenders of classical free will, on religion and guilt connecting to free will.

Indeed, the Sparknotes summary, on the first link, puts this in is vs. ought terms, as far as how Camus treats Sisyphus:
As his starting point, Camus takes up the question of whether, on the one hand, we are free agents with souls and values, or if, on the other hand, we are just matter that moves about with mindless regularity.
 Camus is interested in finding a third alternative. Can we acknowledge that life is meaningless without committing suicide? Do we have to at least hope that life has a meaning in order to live? Can we have values if we acknowledge that values are meaningless? Essentially, Camus is asking if the second of the two worldviews sketched above is livable.
But, just as I have repeatedly, most  notably here and in my own essay for Pigliucci, said that we should say “mu” to the traditional “free will versus determinism” polarity, I think we need to similarly “unask” Camus here.  (And Monty Python.)

So, per my pull quote from my comment at Massimo's, if life should not be viewed though a "meaning versus meaningless" filter, what should we then do?

Well, the reference to Farmville, Candy Crush and other Facebook games aside, in this issue of Existentialist Comics, keeping an intelligent Sisyphus happy is probably harder than this. That's especially true for those like Camus and other professional and amateur philosophers who wrestle with these questions. We are "cursed" with intelligence, and speculative intelligence in general.

That said, where do we go from here, to find a better, more authentic contentment than Sisyphus?

To me, the original existentialism, or the Zen of the east from which I get my "mu" to Camus' question, is our starting point.

Recognizing that life simply "is," not in the scientific sense, but in a philosophical and a psychological sense, is the lodestar.

From there, finding contentment comes next. Contentment, to me, is both "deeper" psychologically and less ephemeral than "happiness."

And,, it's not necessarily based on old ideas of how we "have to" find meaning, or create meaning, to be happy.

Second, per the essay that I linked that sparked these comments, as one other commenter noted, "progress" is usually defined in teleological terms. People often define meaning in the same way, which of course is another problem, and one recognized in part by existentialist and absurdist philosophers.

If your meaning is defined from achieving a goal, then you are doomed to frustration in never achieving it, or, like Sisyphus, having your "achievement clock" reset, or new layers added to it, or whatever.

And, what if you do achieve a goal of teleologically-based progress? What then? In the modern West, often, "emptiness," followed by chasing after some new goal.

So, how do we break free?

That was Camus' $64,000 question. But, if we're saying "mu" to his original dichotomy, we may need to say "mu" to his answer, too.

"Revolt" might be one way of achieving this. But, I think it needs to be somewhat more comprehensive, maybe even somewhat more Cynical, as I discuss in calling for a neo-Cynicism, than Camus realized. The revolt has to include a revolt against teleology.

At the same time (heads up, Black Bloc!) it means questioning the idea of "revolt for revolt's sake" (sorry, any hyper-Camuseans) or any other "X for X's sake."

Even "authenticity" must be put under our Cynical microscope. Too often, "authenticity" is seen in a quasi-Platonic sense, as in "There's some ideal Me out there, and that's what I want to be."

Well, no there's not.

Each one of us is the result of massive contingency in a materialist universe. There's no way any ideal Me or You exists. Therefore, any authenticity based on chasing what is even more ephemeral than a Platonic shadow isn't going to work. Besides, without the Platonic equivalent of divine revelation, how do you know what "Me" is anyway?

So, what is "authenticity"?

Authenticity, in part, means rejecting the strictures of society that don't agree with deeper layers of our selves — before they become part of those deeper layers.

In other words, it's about "congruence."

I'm not a process theologian, or anything close.

But, I will call myself a sort of "process psychologist."

As such, meaning is created, not found. And, it's created on an ongoing, not a static basis. It's part of a dialogue between a changing self, a current moment, and a current moment that is part of a larger stream of time.

And thus, meaning changes throughout life. Why wouldn't it?