King James Bible as Cultural Signifier

King James BibleSteve Benen brought my attention to a story from Louisiana. It seems that some people in the Republican controlled House thought they ought to have an official state book. And that book was, of course, the Bible. At first it was going to be the King James translation, but in committee it got changed to any translation whatsoever. That’s actually dangerous, because an atheist could translate the Bible in such a way that would make it quite embarrassing. After all, there are no explicit standards for translations. As I know from Don Quixote, translations can vary extremely far from one another and from the source material itself.

It doesn’t matter because the bill to make the Bible the official state book was withdrawn. State Representative Thomas Carmody said he didn’t want the bill to be a distraction from other more important issues. And he added that there were questions about the bill’s constitutionality. Both comments are pathetic. Certainly everyone knew that the bill was symbolic at the beginning. This is the kind of thing that Republicans do to avoid doing actual work. And if anyone thought for a minute that the bill was not constitutional then they should be thrown out of the country, or at least back to second grade civics. (Although I have little doubt that at least two justices on the Supreme Court would find it constitutional.)

But what really strikes me about the whole thing is the choice of translation: King James. Why that translation? It certainly isn’t held in high esteem by experts. The main thing you can say in its favor objectively is that the prose is nice. But the main thing about this translation is that it is the standard protestant Bible. There is no standard Catholic Bible, but among Catholics, the King James isn’t that big. And of course, those upstart Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own translation. Even the Gideons have backed away from it. So the King James translation fits into the whole “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant” myth of America. I don’t want to lay this on too thick, but that is the philosophical basis for the KKK.

I’m not suggesting this is about racism though. And the switch from the official book being the King James Bible to any Bible is indicative that the conservative Christians have largely embraced Catholics and others who they once looked at askance. What I think is going on is rather just cultural signifying. This is something I write about here a lot. And it is what I find most frustrating about American Christianity: it is mostly about culture. To these cultural Christians, there are the good, church going people and the bad, non-church going people. Of course, if people have other cultural signifiers, it doesn’t matter if they go to church. Thus: it was perfectly fine that Reagan wasn’t actually religious.

So when Thomas Carmody and his friends decided they wanted to strike a blow for their dying culture, they grabbed the default Bible. But in a very real sense, the Republican choice of the Bible to be the official book of Louisiana was not religious; it was cultural. But don’t be deceived: it is still exclusive. The whole purpose of it is to divide people into two groups: the right kind of people and the wrong kind of people. And that’s what makes this kind of effort so evil. As interfaith conferences all over the world can attest to: different religions can find enormous amounts of common ground. But the Louisiana Republicans didn’t want to use the Bible as theology; they wanted to use it as symbol—a way to sort out the worthy. And just because they have given up this battle doesn’t mean the war is over; I fear it has only begun.

A Brief History of “Hey Joe”

The Leaves - Hey JoeMost people know of the song “Hey Joe” because it was the first single released by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. But the song is like Robert Johnson’s “Crosscord”: it’s been performed by just about everyone. And to be honest, I’m not fond of most of the versions of the song. It is at base, a folk song and dressing it up really distracts from its power.

Although the song is credited as being written by the folk singer-songwriter Billy Roberts, many people would beg to differ. Some, like Len Partridge, claim they helped write it. Others, like Tim Rose, claim it is a traditional song. I don’t doubt that various people helped out with the song; that tends to be the way writing works among performing musicians. And the truth is that our copyright system absolutely doesn’t deal with issues like that. Other than the music-lyrics divide, all writers are treated equally. In that case, I suspect Roberts deserves sole credit. As for the traditional claim, that’s just nonsense. Certainly the story in the song is classic, dating back a hundred years. But otherwise, it is an original composition.

Most likely, the first recorded version of the song was by the Los Angeles band The Leaves. I really don’t like it, but it is what it is. One interesting aspect of it is that the two narrative parts are performed by two different singers. But the arrangement is so intense and frenetic that the soul of the song is destroyed:

A much better Los Angeles band, Arthur Lee’s Love picked up the song. Their version is probably the most important because it inspired so many other people to do it. Some of the more notable (but not necessarily good) versions were done by The Byrds, Cher, and Patti Smith much later. But here is Love’s version which I still really like, although not because it captures the essence of the song. It’s just that Love was great.

It was about this time that Tim Rose released his slow version—the first one that really seems to capture the feeling of the song:

It was because of Rose’s version of the song that Hendrix came to do it. It’s quite a good version, and following from Rose, it does get the feeling right. But it isn’t one of my favorite Hendrix tunes.

On the third Mothers of Invention album, Frank Zappa parodied the song as, “Hey punk where’re you going with that flower in your Hand? Well I’m going up to Frisco to join a psychedelic band.” I really liked Zappa, but there was never anything very nice about his humor. He exhibited total derision for popular music. But I still feel that in terms of technical prowess, he was probably the greatest rock guitarist ever. This is a fun little song:

But in 1975, over a decade after writing the song, Billy Roberts released his own acoustic version of the song. I think it is the best version that I have heard. But it very much hearkens back to Tim Rose’s version. But Rose’s version might follow Roberts’ earlier version. There is apparently a live version of the song Roberts recorded back in 1961. That would be interesting to hear. But I doubt it is as beautiful as this version:

Wikipedia lists over eighty different recorded versions of the song, and I don’t doubt there are far more than that. It’s kind of weird, because most people who perform it don’t especially use it to much advantage. But it is a fabulous song.

Is My Existence a Coincidence?

Arthur SchopenhauerThis American Life is doing a show, No Coincidence, No Story. Actually, it was last week’s show, but for some reason, KQED is always a week behind. I only heard a bit of it but I wasn’t terribly impressed because I’m never terribly impressed with coincidences. Our lives are filled with random events and sometimes we find some kind of connection. That’s hardly surprising because humans are really good at finding patterns, even when there are none.

What’s more, I’m a spoilsport. I just can’t help chipping away at these stories. A good example came from an episode of Radio Lab. A girl in the United Kingdom writes her name on a balloon and lets it go. It is found more than a hundred miles away by a girl with the same first and last name. Amazing, no? No. The biggest problem with the story is that it was not found by the girl. It was found by one of her neighbors who saw her name and gave it to her, as anyone would. And the girls’ name was not exactly unusual like “Elisha Pimpleton Rigby, Dane of Attenborough.” And so on.

But what really bugs me is that these coincidences are so trivial compared to the huge coincidence staring us in the face: our very existence. And that is the question that drives me crazy. How can it be that I just happen to exist? I know the obvious responses to this like, “Well you wouldn’t exist to ask the question if you didn’t!” How that is supposed to be helpful I can’t say. In the pantheon of useless answers, it is right up there with, “God is begotten, not made!”

Given the odds of my existing, I can only assume that it is not a coincidence. But don’t think I’ve gone off and got all Abrahamic on you. It could just be that the multiverse has always existed and thus given enough time (if the concept has any meaning in this context) it was necessary for me to exist. Eventually, it would have to create the quantum state that is me. But I don’t think this is the crux of the matter, even though I do more or less accept it from a mystical standpoint.

The theory I lean toward is that consciousness itself is an illusion. So that the idea that I am this thing is wrong. I am just a collection of cells that work together and, in an act of almost unimaginable hubris, think that it is something more like a god. Think about that: the Abrahamic religions think that God created us in his image. To misquote Rick Santorum, “What snobs we are!” It really is the other way around: we created God in our image. Then Man looked over all He had made, and He saw that it was very good!

This idea is what I’m getting at when I question my own existence. I don’t question that there are cells that work together that make up the thing that is writing this. It is just a problem to think of me as anything other than a trick of the will that keeps me eating every day so that all the cells continue to exist. Otherwise, I feel as real as anyone else does. But Descartes was mistaken when he claimed Cogito ergo sum. To me there is a tautology in it. What our consciousness does is think. It values thought above all else. So defining thinking as existence is just another way of putting humans at the top of the heap—more sophisticated than Genesis but no more believable.

So the next time you are on a train and you meet some man who you share a common acquaintance with, don’t be impressed. Think about the near impossibility that you just happen to be you.


I’m not much of a fan of Nietzsche. The only really interesting stuff was a direct continuation of Schopenhauer. But he is right about eternal return. If the multiverse is infinite, then I am cursed to live this exact life over and over again. Unlike most people, I don’t like the idea of eternal life. And the idea that I will sit in this chair and write this article for all time is almost too depressing to contemplate. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have it backwards: they are praying for the greatest evil imaginable.

Campaign Messages Don’t Matter to Media

The Message MattersI just read Lynn Vavreck’s excellent The Message Matters. It takes as given the fact that in presidential elections, the economy is by far the most important factor. The GNP growth during the last quarter of the year before the election and first two quarters of the election year is a shockingly good way to predict election outcomes. This is the basis for most of my thinking about national politics. What’s funny is that this information doesn’t seem to have trickled down to politicians. Mitt Romney’s campaign was based on the idea that the bad economy was good for his electoral chances. But a bad economy doesn’t matter; it is the economic trend. And in 2012, the trend was positive. But what Vavreck tries to do in her book is determine what people like Mitt Romney should have campaigned on.

Here’s the thing. The person we elect president is usually the one the economy would predict, but not always. Vavreck argues that insurgent candidates—people like Romney who are running against economic fundamentals—can win if they can change the subject. But they must pick a popular issue that they are with the public and their opponent is not and is constrained from co-opting. Romney tried to do this to a small extent, but his focus was on the economy, which was a mistake.

But even the way that Romney tried to refocus the campaign showed a lot about how the Republican Party’s lack of sensible policy cripples them. It is all based on the idea that Democrats are a bunch of Marxists and pacifists. That might all work just fine as propaganda. But Romney based his attacks on an actual belief that they were true. So it was easy for Obama to show his foreign policy was at least as belligerent as what the American people wanted. And any appeals about the economy just reminded people that things were a lot better since Obama took over from Romney’s party.

I don’t know just how useful any of this information is to candidates, because the truth is that it is really hard to control the conversation. Vavreck presented a table (4.3) where she compared what every candidate from Eisenhower through Gore campaigned on and how the media covered the campaigns. Until the end of the Cold War, the media almost always focused on foreign policy, even though that was rarely what the candidates were talking about. But okay: at least foreign policy is a real thing.

Starting in 1988, the media focused on candidate traits even though these were never what the campaigns were about. This is so disappointing although hardly surprising. We all know that the media focus on nonsense in the campaigns. And that was especially true in the 2000 campaign. Remember all the false narratives about Gore that the media couldn’t stop talking about long enough to actually fact check them? We rightly say that the Supreme Court gave the election to Bush, but it is just as correct to say that the media provided a huge assist.

What is even more disturbing is that the only time the media have focused on the economy was the Carter-Ford election of 1976. Remember: the economy is what the people care most about. Yet the supposedly liberal media aren’t interested in the subject. I don’t think it is any surprise why this is. Mainstream journalists have nice comfortable jobs that depend upon the rich media owners who do not want there to be too much discussion of our economic problems that mostly involve the government taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich.

If anyone takes anything away from this book, it will be the Democrats. And maybe it already happened. It was published in 2009, yet Obama’s campaign seemed to know that the economy was a good (though not a great) issue for them. But the Romney campaign seemed to think that the economy was a great issue for them. I guess the conservative resistance to facts doesn’t just hurt our country; it also hurts the Republican Party.

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American Impressionist Edmund Tarbell

Edmund TarbellToday I had wanted to talk about Rudolf Hess. He fascinates me, because of his flight to Scotland in 1941. It strikes me as highly idiosyncratic. And it made Hitler really angry, so you’ve got to give the man credit. But his approach to bring peace made little sense. He sent a letter to Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, who he not only didn’t know, but whom he was completely ignorant about in his position in the country. MI5 intercepted the letter, and Douglas-Hamilton never responded in any case. So Hess just got in his plane and flew to meet with this man. The thinking displays a childlike simplicity. Then there is the question of why he did it. Could he really have thought he had a chance in hell of brokering peace? There is no way that the British would ever have accepted a peace treaty with the Nazis. Even in 1938 they knew the Nazis could not be trusted. And didn’t Hess realize that his act would be seen as treasonous to Hitler? But as much as I’d like to give the day to Hess, he was still a Nazi. He was a nationalist and an imperialist and a racist. And I’m sure if he had stayed in Germany, he would have been fine with the Final Solution. But luckily, it’s a rather good day for births—especially for painters!

On this day in 1862, the great American Impressionist Edmund Tarbell was born. His life wasn’t that interesting, so forgive me for not going over it. No midnight flights to Scotland for him! But as a young man, he studied painting in Paris where he certainly picked up the Impressionist bug. Actually, I’m none too fond of his early work. It strikes me as rather too much like Monet. But even then, he had a clear talent for light. And he honed that talent in his later work that is beautiful and subtle. Here is a painting I especially admire that he did in his late forties, Girl Reading:

Girl Reading

Happy birthday Edmund Tarbell!