Real Consequences of Republicans’ “Anything But Guns” Arguments

Ted Cruz
You can have Ted Cruz’s talking points when you pry them from his cold, dead hands.

Paul Krugman wrote an excellent article this week. In it, he notes that rather than address the fact that America owns almost half of the world’s guns, Republicans are suggesting that we militarize our schools and frankly the rest of society. In other words, it’s better to live in a world where there are military checkpoints at every block than it is to live in a world where gun ownership is limited in any way whatsoever.

This is the ultimate example of American libertarianism. It’s the idea that explicit limits on what people can do are the only thing that limits their liberty. And it results in bizarre conclusions. People are now able to buy military-grade hardware but have to put up with police checkpoints that are supposedly looking for drunk drivers but arrest almost exclusively people with expired licenses and car registrations.

This is what you get when freedom is just a fetish. I find it frustrating. The people who go on and on about “freedom” don’t seem to care about it on a practical level. They will trade away tons of real freedom for talking points. And they’re able to do this because their lives are good. They aren’t the kind of people who are likely to be harassed by the police.

Guns as the Only Freedom That Matters

Not that the modern Republican Party has actually turned libertarian, even in the pathetic American sense of the word. But they have come to this libertarian approach to guns for the same reason that libertarians come to their positions: they are trying to stop specific actions in the name of liberty rather than produce the maximum amount of liberty.

The start of any conservative conversation about mass shootings and other gun deaths is always simply that we can’t talk about guns. Access to guns is defined as a libertarian ideal so important that it cannot be challenged. Nothing is as important. No other freedom can compete. Therefore we quickly move to an authoritarian state. Because that is a small price to pay for the very thing that defines liberty in their minds.

Liberty as Fetish

We wouldn’t have this problem if liberty had meaning. But for the people who love to use the word, it’s nothing but a signifier. It is the thing that is supported by the People That Are Good. Liberals might believe in freedom but they don’t believe in “Freedom”!

So it’s not surprising that roughly a quarter to a third of the nation thinks that no freedom claim can match the freedom claim of gun owners.

Of course for the politicians and activists, none of this matters. They don’t care about schools. They just care about having something they can talk about besides guns while reporters are still asking them about the latest shooting.

Real Consequences

But there are real consequences. After the Parkland massacre, Florida schools were turned into police zones. Did it help? Well, it diverted a huge amount of resources to cops, who now outnumber nurses at Florida schools. It made the children far more likely to be expelled from school and arrested at school.

But most important, the new police schools may have succeeded in doing the one thing that they were meant to do: stop the bad publicity of school shootings. Thus far, there haven’t been any major school shootings in Florida. Of course, it’s only been four years. Time will tell. But the cost is enormous. Rather than stop the war, we’ve simply armed one side. And it’s not like shooters don’t have other targets.

This shows that there are real consequences of all this happy talk meant simply to move society past the time when we’re focused on these things. Our society becomes more authoritarian even as we become less safe from the very things the authoritarianism is supposed to protect us from.

But I suppose that’s a small price to pay for the happy feeling that The People That Are Good get from knowing that “freedom” has been secured.

Tucker Carlson Will Never Be Held Accountable

Tucker Carlson

A man apparently shot 13 people, killing 10 of them, at a grocery store in Buffalo. He live-streamed it (of course). And he left what appears to be a white supremacist manifesto that discusses the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, popularized by Fox News star Tucker Carlson.

On Twitter, people made the connection. Many demanded that Carlson be taken off the air. But we all know that won’t happen, right? I wrote to a friend:

“All that will happen is that Carlson will air a segment in which he notes that his name was never mentioned and that the true outrage is that liberals are attacking him. And it will be over.”

Apologia Begins!

Well, within an hour, I saw this:

On one level, she’s right: there is no way to know if the shooter got the idea from Tucker Carlson. In fact, my guess would be that he didn’t.

But that’s not how information spreads. Information comes via an ecosystem. I fully absorbed the popular ideas of postmodernism by the age of 12 without ever having read any philosophers or even heard anyone talk about it explicitly.

This is one of the big reasons why we need to signal, as a community, that the ideas of fascism are wrong. All the happy talk about the “free market of ideas” is the road to social collapse. (Of course, I know that all the big proponents of the “free market of ideas” are the first to want to silence any ideas they don’t personally like.)

This is why Tucker Carlson should have been taken off television long ago. He spreads fascist propaganda. We don’t need 10 people to die to know that is harmful.

Useless Media

But our media industry requires that Tucker Carlson be holding a good deal more than a smoking gun. They require something to the effect of “Patriots should murder people of color in order to protect our race!” They will be fine with, “Well, you can’t prove he got the idea from me!”

The bigger problem is that we live in a country where a large part of the population believes fascism is good. For many years now, I’ve felt like I was living in a bad production of Rhinoceros.

Tucker Carlson by Gage Skidmore under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Why Democrats Don’t Want to Indict Trump

Donald Trump

Last week on Counterspin, Janine Jackson mentioned some potential reasons why the Democrats and the country at large don’t want to charge Trump for laws he almost certainly broke. She mentioned concerns that Republicans would scream and holler and that it would be presented as partisan by the press. I think these are real issues but I don’t think they are the main issue.

I think Democrats are concerned that if they charge Donald Trump with crimes, there will be retaliation. As soon as Republicans are back in power (which will almost certainly happen partially in the next year and then fully less than 3 years from now), Joe Biden and other Democrats will be charged with crimes as simple payback.

And, of course, it won’t matter at all that there is no substance to such prosecutions. It won’t even mean that no dirt will be dug up. Look at what the Republicans did when Bill Clinton allowed them an open-ended investigation. After years of digging, they found something real. It was bullshit. But it was real and it led to the most disingenuous impeachment in history.

It’s Not Turnabout

The problem is that you can never depend upon Republicans to act in a reasonable way. And that’s especially true if you are reaching out to them and trying to deal with them in good faith. They see it as simple weakness. They go for the jugular.

So not indicting Trump will not lead to the Republican Party saying, “You know, they treated us well when we were in power. Let’s do the same now that we are in power!” If anything, it will be the opposite. But more likely, it doesn’t matter. They will try to throw Biden in prison if Trump is indicted and they will try to throw Biden in prison if Trump is not indicted.

Systemic Problems

But this isn’t just an issue of some Democrats being abused. The larger issue here is that we live inside a completely fucked up political system. We know that a fascist party is going to be back in power soon. Really doesn’t matter what goes on. Our system is designed to be anti-democratic. And through the machinations of conservatives over decades, it is far less democratic still.

There is literally nothing the Republicans could do that is so bad that they won’t be re-elected every couple of terms. Look at Richard Nixon. He resigned and disgrace in late 1974. In 1976 the Republicans lost the White House in a very close election. And in 1980, they won it back in a landslide and held on to it for 12 years.

George W Bush was an absolutely horrible president who committed war crimes. And that got him two terms as president. Then America, in its great wisdom installed a reality TV star who is stupid, ignorant, small-minded, and vicious because that’s who we are.

And I think the odds are better than even that our country will elect him again in 3 years.

Minority Rule

So it’s not like the Democrats’ concern that a corrupt government will go after them are unfounded. I don’t think it does us a lot of good to focus on the weakness of politicians. We should focus on the fact that we have a government that will change every couple of terms. And it does not matter how horrible and incompetent that party is.

Of course, that might all change when the Republicans next get power. They could legislate this country into single-party minority rule. Watching how much Republicans love Viktor Orbán makes me believe that is the plan.

Finding a Way Out for Ukraine… And Putin

Ukraine War
Consequences of early shelling during Russian invasion of Ukraine

My near-universal experience of people from Eastern Bloc countries is that their hatred of the Soviet Union has everything to do with its relative egalitarianism and really nothing to do with its authoritarianism. So it has not been surprising to me to see how much the Russian people love Vladimir Putin.

Now I understand that a lot of it is simply that after the Soviet Union fell, things were really bad economically in Russia. And it’s clear that the West should have gone in and flooded them with aid. But instead, we allowed the same old disaster capitalism to take place. And the vast majority of the people suffered while a very small number of the worst people on earth thrived. Things are better under Putin, so the people like him for that alone.

But there is no doubt that the Russian people have a strong tendency towards authoritarianism. But I cannot say that it’s any stronger than it is in the United States where it seems about 40% of the people want nothing so much as an authoritarian they can follow. The idea that the Russian people will turn on Putin because he’s an authoritarian is absurd.

Danger of Trapping an Authoritarian

But given that Putin is an authoritarian, I’m very concerned with the way that we are approaching his invasion of Ukraine. Many of the people who I consider allies are saying things that bother me. I see a lot of people wanting to see Putin destroyed the same way that Hitler was. That strikes me as unlikely.

At the same time, no one is particularly keen on going to war. And while I have been impressed with the economic war that is being waged against Russia, the West is doing surprisingly little to support Ukraine militarily. Yes, some weapons and other military aid are being shipped there. But it doesn’t strike me as being up to the situation.

The truth is that if we continue how we’re going, Ukraine will fall. All those brave men and women that we are applauding on Twitter can do is to slow down that conclusion. That’s it. They can’t win without outside help.

So what can we do to stop it? I don’t think that economics is going to do the work that needs done. In the short term of the next 6 months or year, sanctions will just make the Russian people love Putin more because the truth is the West is attacking Russia. And let us not forget they are attacking Russia for doing something that the US did in Iraq less than 20 years ago with even less justification.

We can play the long game and hope that our economic war will lead to Putin’s ouster over the next 5 years. But even if that happens, it’s not at all clear that Russia will get a leader we like more. But to the point itself, defeating Putin in 5 years will not save Ukraine this year.

Saving Authoritarian Faces

The only thing that will save Ukraine is for Putin to reverse course. And since the West is not willing to wage a physical war with Russia, the only option seems to be to give Putin an out. We need to find some way to allow him to save face in this matter.

And that doesn’t seem all that hard. The truth is Russia’s invasion has gone reasonably well. And there’s no doubt if they stick it out, they will win this war. So it’s just the case of creating the framing that Putin never wanted all of Ukraine and that he sent a message to the West. And it’s all good.

Back in 2002 during the lead-up to the Iraq War, there was one thing above all others that made me realize that the Bush administration was disingenuous. They weren’t actually trying to accomplish the goals they claimed. Yes, they were asking for UN inspectors and so on but they were doing it in a way that required Saddam Hussein to be publicly humiliated. They were not providing him with any way to get out of the situation he was in.

And it was clear to me, certainly by October, that it was their intent to invade and that was the only thing they were going to do and everything else was just propaganda. They were just making the case to the American people for a war they were definitely going to start.

Well, the Bush administration was both bloodthirsty and incompetent. I think much more highly of the Biden administration. But I fear the worst. I know they can find a way out of this. But at what cost? Losing the mid-terms because the Republicans (and let’s face it: the “liberal” media) will scream about Democrats being weak?

The Price of Justice

And look. I understand that this is a mess Putin made. Sure he has his reasons. And he has concerns. And some of them are even valid. But ultimately this is his mess.

I, of course, despise the man. But I would give him a fluffy kitten and lollypop if it would make the world better. But right now, we seem to be gambling on the chance we can remove him from power eventually and that we are willing to pay the price of thousands of dead Ukrainians and the whole country’s subjugation.

I really hope more is going on here than I see and that somehow this gets turned around.

Afterword

Just to be clear here on a few points. First, I do hope the Ukrainians can stop the Russians. That doesn’t seem possible but stranger things have happened. Second, politics is always complicated and just because Russia might have some real concerns about Ukraine becoming too closely tied to the West doesn’t make the Russian invasion acceptable in the least. And third, I am aware of Russian protestors. Not everyone in the country backs Putin. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that he isn’t really popular.


Image cropped from Consequences of a Shelling During Russian Invasion of Ukraine by State Emergency Service of Ukraine under CC BY 4.0.

Similarities and Differences Between The Singing Detective and All That Jazz

All That Jazz

In the last month, I finally got around to seeing two works widely considered classics: Dennis Potter’s BBC The Singing Detective and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. I was impressed by both, although neither is exactly what I would call fun. (The lead characters aren’t very nice guys!)

It’s odd how two works of art can be so closely related, probably almost by pure coincidence. Both strongly feature a hospitalized main character ruminating over his life. Both characters regret having estranged themselves from their wives. (Both feature a moment where the character gets a boner from a nurse applying treatment!) And both are (barely) musicals, with elaborate fantasy sequences.

Jazz came out in 1979 and Detective in 1986. Yet Potter was partially adapting his own novel from 1973 and had used the same “characters break into old pop recordings” device in Pennies From Heaven in 1978. (That’s the BBC series starring Bob Hoskins although he also wrote the screenplay for the 1981 film starring Steve Martin.)

Similarities

The Singing Detective

The similarities are in the authors’ lives, as both works are partially autobiographical. (Jazz was co-written with Robert Alan Aurthur although the story is supposed to be based on his life.)

Both writers came from difficult homes. Both originally wanted to be something else (Fosse a musical film star, Potter a journalist-turned-politician). Both turned to different careers because of physical limitations (looks for Fosse, advancing psoriasis for Potter). And both men were absolutely addicted to adultery.

Another odd similarity is that both works use old songs. Fosse’s previous musicals featured original songs used in the stage production. Yet almost all the songs in Jazz are new recordings of old pop classics. All the songs in Potter are old.

Maybe both men looked back nostalgically on old music as they thought about mistakes they’d made. I’ll do that — I’ll hear a song from 1991 I haven’t heard in years, and remember the dumb decisions I was making back then.

Differences

Jazz holds up better (maybe not the “sexy airline” number). For one thing, it’s shorter. The disjointed movement between fantasy and reality in Detective repeats itself a few times over the course of six hours. Also, Jazz has two terrific star turns (Scheider as Gideon/Fosse and Leland Palmer as Gven Verdon), while Detective really only has one (Michael Gambon as Marlow/Potter).

One of the best scenes in Jazz is Verdon at rehearsal chewing out Gideon for being such a shitty husband. All the while, she continues to dance in perfect form. Detective never has a confrontation between equals like that.

Still, I’m glad I watched both. How odd to have missed two acclaimed works for years, watch them so close together, and have them share so much in common! One of life’s little coincidences.

Afterword

On Hulu, there’s a miniseries, “Fosse/Verdon” that has fantastic performances by Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams. (They’re good in everything, so no surprise.) Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is just okay. And the show’s twice as long as it needs to be. I’d seen it before. It was worth rewatching the first and last episodes to see the performances again.

The show ends with Fosse dying in Verdon’s arms outside the theater premiering the revival of “Sweet Charity that Fosse directed and Verdon’s helped with choreography. This almost happened! He died a few blocks away in real life, but it was Opening Night.

Incidentally, in the special features on the Detective and Jazz discs, Fosse comes across a bit egotistical. Potter comes off as a bit of a woman-hating psycho. Neither are ideals, of course. Just to be Judgy McJudge, though, I can forgive ego in a director/choreographer more than misogyny in a writer. OTOH, though, Potter’s physical problems were over more of his life and less a product of self-destructive behavior. Oh, well, let ye without sin cast the first wagging finger…


Images for All That Jazz and The Singing Detective taken under Fair Use.

The Trojan Horse Affair and Convenient Bigotry

Syrian School Children

Via This American Life, I learned of an 8-part investigative podcast called The Trojan Horse Affair. I was hooked from the start because it was about a great injustice: a bunch of people getting hurt by the lamest of conspiracies. But the conspiracy worked because it exploited society’s racism. So ultimately, it harmed a whole demographic of people.

The Trojan Horse Affair

You should listen to it all. But I’ll give you the basics. In Birmingham, England a fragment of a letter shows up that indicates that some “radical” Muslims are taking over the public schools in an effort to take over the world. Okay, it’s not quite that ridiculous but it definitely has a Snidely Whiplash vibe to it. You can only really take it seriously if you already want to believe it.

Now it turns out that local Muslims had been involved with the public schools. And it was helping. Graduation rates were going up for majority-Muslim areas. And government officials were applauding the results. Until the letter shows up.

“Sure It’s a Hoax, But…”

What’s interesting is that the government looks into it and finds that the letter is probably a fraud. And yet… The investigation turns up troubling things at the school. Are they real? Well, there are some problems. In particular, there seems to have been a teacher who was a sexual predator. But that only really matters if you just assume that one bad Muslim spoils the whole group. (If you haven’t been paying attention the last 21 years: yes, for most people, it does. Also: why don’t Muslims condemn terrorism?!)

Throughout the podcast, it’s almost a refrain, “Yeah, the letter was a fraud but…” And it’s clear by the end that everything that happened was only because of this letter.

And what happened? Well, for one thing, the schools got worse. Teachers were fired. The bigotry of the British people was enhanced.

Good Teacher Gone Bad?

The sad thing is that the person I think was behind it all was a Muslim. I think (and this is only my opinion based on circumstantial evidence) that Rizvana Darr, what we’d call the principal of Adderley school, created it to help in a situation she had created with four teaching assistants.

What I find fascinating about this is that everyone agrees that Darr is a fantastic teacher. If she did do this, it goes along with my theory that what is best in all of us is also what is worst. She apparently has great passion for helping her students. I can see myself allowing such passion leading to the dark places she might have gone.

If that’s the case, she solved a relatively small problem by defaming over 3 million Muslims in the UK.

It was somewhere in the sixth hour of his podcast that I realized, “This isn’t going to end well.” And I was right. Justice is not done. The Guardian published an article about Michael Gove. Otherwise, I’ve seen little mention of it. The good people lost. The weak people were harmed. And the bad people won. Like always.

Afterword

People often wonder why I like horror movies so much. Well, because they usually don’t end like The Trojan Horse Affair. I love horror films like Dolls. In it, all the bad people are punished and the good people live happily ever after. It’s a feel-good film. A very gory feel-good film!


Image cropped from Syrian primary school children by DFID under CC BY 2.0.

Where Are All the Iconoclasts?

Frank Moraes

Sometimes I think that deep down I am a conservative because I really do think there should be a reason to change things. And other times, I think that deep down I’m a liberal because I honestly like change for change’s sake. Regardless of all that, there is no doubt that I am an iconoclast.

My gut reaction to anything I hear is to disagree with it. And I’m not saying that’s a good thing. In fact, I fight against it. Because I know very well that in most cases the conventional wisdom is correct.

But what’s really bugged me over the years is that almost everyone I’ve ever met who considered themselves any kind of iconoclast was actually a conservative. It’s like they are iconoclasts only in relation to who they used to be or the people they knew at one particular point in time. And that is not really being an iconoclast.

Rise of the Iconoclasts!

But I get it. If you listen to right-wing radio shows that have literally millions of listeners, they will go on and on about how subversive they are. Even while they push the default ideas of the most powerful people in society. They are iconoclasts: attacking mean college kids and protecting billionaires!

Things only got worse during the Trump era and then especially during the pandemic. Every anti-vax person considers themselves some kind of free thinker who is striking a blow against the establishment. But all they are actually doing is picking a different side in the culture war. They have, in other words, selected a new establishment. In no way are they operating contrary to the establishment.

What I’m saying here is that there is no idiosyncrasy with regard to their beliefs. Even though some of them might say they are mask-skeptical they are not. They’re anti-mask. They are not vaccine-skeptical. They are anti-vax. And they are for one reason alone: because they’ve been told to by huge media corporations.

JAQing Off!

There is this thing that conservatives love to do: pretend that they are free thinkers — skeptics. They are “Just Asking Questions!” RationalWiki refers to this as JAQing Off.

This is very similar to the way that people who embrace radical political ideologies especially on the right often start off being ironic. And so they say offensive things ironically until they aren’t. It’s like test-driving a car.

When someone tells you that you should do your own research regards to vaccines or COVID-19 or any such technical issue they don’t actually mean that. Doing your own research would involve looking at all of the information. And when it comes to something this technical, that’s really out of the question unless you’re going to hold off on any conclusions until you spend a year or two researching it.

The Conformists

No. They are telling you to pay attention to their Facebook timeline. To look at the cherry-picked evidence that they have that is designed to manipulate you into their pre-existing conclusion. And that’s all fine as far as it goes.

People have every right to be stupid and ignorant. There is a long history of it. But to think that just because you’ve grabbed on to an ideology that was adopted from the President of the United States (!) does not make you an iconoclast. It makes you the opposite. It makes you a conformist.

The Alamo, Historical Myths, Right-Wing Outrage (And Phil Collins)

The Alamo

One of the world’s biggest collectors of Alamo memorabilia is Phil Collins. Yes, that Phil Collins. Bet you didn’t know that! And Ozzy Osbourne, away from his hotel on a raging drunken spree, once was caught accidentally peeing on an Alamo statue. (By “accidentally,” I mean the Alamo part, not the peeing part.) Bet you didn’t know that either, although you aren’t, likely, surprised.

These fun factoids appear early on in Forget The Alamo: The Rise And Fall of an American Myth. It is a recent book by Bryan Burroughs, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford, three Texas-born authors with backgrounds in history, journalism, war correspondence, and political consulting.

(I’ve read Burrough’s Barbarians At The Gate, about the 1980s hostile takeover of RJR Nabisco; in one memorable line, a top executive complains “is the fucking I’m getting worth the fucking I’m getting?”)

The book has essentially three sections:

  1. What the Alamo was actually about
  2. How the telling of its history changed with time
  3. The debates over that history today.

They’re all fascinating, in different ways. The authors usually refer to themselves as “we,” and have no compunctions expressing their personal opinions about the story they’re telling. These opinions are sometimes very funny.

What’s more, and this was a real joy for me, the footnotes are all worth reading. For example, an American negotiator sent by John Quincy Adams to try and buy Texas from Mexico, a man named Joel Roberts Poinsett, got nothing… except for bringing back “a pretty Mexican flower, which proved so popular it was named for him; the poinsetta.” (In the spirit of these, this article has two short footnotes!)

The Alamo Was About Slavery and the Famous Heroes Were Jerks

After successfully freeing itself from Spanish colonial rule, Mexico set about abolishing slavery. Texas slaveowners didn’t want that. So they rebelled against the Mexican government, lost a battle at the Alamo, used that battle as a rallying cry, won independence, kept slavery, and joined America as a slave state. So much, so familiar.

Since I’m not from Texas, and never will be, I didn’t know much more about the story than that. As is usual with such things, it’s both far more complicated and far more mundane.

To start with, the migration of Americans into Texas. It began with a dispute over the Louisiana Purchase’s boundary and eventually became a matter of interest-vs-disinterest.

Texas, at the time, was something of a worthless hinterland to the Mexican government. About the only thing it was good for, it turned out, was cotton production. Americans looking to strike it rich in the slavery “business” had a whole new area to gobble up and torture people in!

Meanwhile, their presence helped keep down the indigenous population, which Mexico was perfectly happy to have Americans do.

Enter some particularly ambitious Americans who sought to make political names for themselves, several of whom have Texas cities named after them today.

But the fact that slavery was illegal in Mexico complicated this arrangement a bit. It was one thing for smaller-scale slaveowners to quietly go about their savagery. But larger plantations (with their illegal slave trade) were another matter.

Plus, the Americans brought quite a bit of racism with them (Surprise, surprise!) and thus weren’t always the best of neighbors. Additionally (as was the case with a lot of American expansion), some of the newcomers were plain jerks. They were escaping violent criminal charges, abandoned families, financial swindles gone bad, and so on. In other words, they were riff-raff.

Enter some particularly ambitious Americans who sought to make political names for themselves, several of whom have Texas cities named after them today. When Mexico sought to compromise on the slavery thing (a timed phaseout or the freeing of slaves after a certain age), these would-be Presidents and Generals became increasingly unwilling to negotiate.

Once they grew too militant, Mexico sent a small army to deal with the annoyance, led by General Santa Anna, a man with ambitions of his own. (There was also some suspicion on the part of Mexico that America had backed the rebellion, which was untrue. Mostly.)

In an act of supreme arrogance, the rebel Texans decided to make a military stand at a small former Catholic mission in San Antonio. (The authors here describe it as such a terrible military location, there was no chance of defending it from Santa Claus, much less Santa Anna.)

This hubristic folly had drawn several of the famous names who’d slouched to Texas in failure, such as Jim Bowie (drunk) and Davy Crockett (booted out of office). Although the Texans were clearly outnumbered, their incompetent, syphilitic general, William Travis, stubbornly refused to surrender and were quickly wiped out once the battle began.

Those who were captured (some while trying to escape) were shot. Santa Anna was a pissy jerk himself.

The wipeout and rallying cry “Remember the Alamo” helped Texas raise more volunteers. Santa Anna got cocky, the Mexican army was defeated for the time being. (Of course, Mexico didn’t accept this, and later fought a war with the US Army over the matter.) So much for the minor battle of the Alamo.

Constructing A Texas Origin Myth

The story from here becomes familiar to most students of how history gets mangled, and is summed up in a famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” (The movie starring John Wayne, who played a huge role in perpetuating myths about the Alamo.)

The real facts behind the battle, more-or-less known at the time (insomuch as a battle with no survivors on one side can be known), start to be distorted for various reasons. Families of the American dead wanted their loved ones to be regarded as great heroes. Authors wanted to sell more copies of sensationalized war or western writings. Many Texans wanted to use the Alamo as an inspirational “good prevails” story during their involvement in the Civil War and during their ongoing dispossession of indigenous land.

Also, of course, there is the post-Reconstruction era, when the reality of a treasonous war to preserve slavery was redefined all over the South (and not just the South) as an idealistic “lost cause” of freedom from tyranny — while subjugating the constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms of former slaves and their descendants.

An organization, Daughters of the Republic of Texas, was formed, and among its other goals, set about sanctifying/preserving/restoring (and “improving”) the Alamo historic site.

What really seems to have made the Alamo into a holy shrine for (Anglo) Texans was a series of comics printed from 1926 to 1928 in a Dallas newspaper, and called “Texas History Movies.” Hugely popular and hugely racist, the series was eventually printed as a book, copies of which were donated (courtesy of an oil company) to every Texas seventh-grader for several decades.

Still, while the story and site (neither of which bore much resemblance to the original) became part of Texas’s origin myth, it wasn’t of much interest beyond the borders of that peculiar state. Until the Cold War happened. And television. And the movies!

The Kiddiefication Of The Alamo

Walt Disney wanted to produce kid-friendly Rah Rah ‘merica programming. His studio’s first mega-success along these lines was a miniseries about Davy Crockett, which spawned a Crockett craze among children and bore absolutely no relation to reality whatsoever. (Disney made a fortune merchandising Crockett tie-in crap, and cheated star Fess Parker out of every penny for it.)

The third episode concluded with Crockett dying heroically at the Alamo, fighting off swarming Mexican monsters with his empty rifle. In fact, he was captured and executed — something used to inspire Texas soldiers in the remainder of the war.

Then in 1960, John Wayne’s ferociously expensive, ferociously fictitious The Alamo was released. (Although historians agree that the Alamo set built for the film was amazingly accurate.)

As the authors here put it, there’s no “sense of the real men; Bowie the con artist, Travis the preening politician, Crockett the washed-up politico … women are baubles, madonnas, or whores”.

Teen idol Frankie Avalon is given a song. No portion of the Texas origin myth is left unused, making the film a staggeringly boring three hours long. It was a hit, although not a hugely profitable one given the cost. No doubt it became a Gone With The Wind for Texas; items from the movie shoot are still displayed at the Alamo site today.

A young Phil Collins was deeply moved by the film. Another young musician, David Jones, was moved by the Crockett TV show. When Jones began to receive some notice in his music career, he changed his name to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of The Monkees — he picked a character from the Disney series, and so David Jones became David Bowie. (But at this point his part in the Alamo story ends.)

The (Partial) Deconstruction Of A Myth

“Bowie the con artist, Travis the preening politician, Crockett the washed-up politico…”

In the 1970s and 1980s, American historians began to re-examine some portions of US history which had been overlooked, or so heavily biased to emphasize American exceptionalism that the stories bore little resemblance to reality.

For example, why were the heroes always white males, and why were the true horrors of indigenous genocide, slavery, and Jim Crow ignored?

These historians began publishing books and articles puncturing pieces of the Alamo myth. Few drew much attention until a childhood Disney buff named Jeff Long set about working on an Alamo book which he hoped would be “just the old hoary tale jazzed up for a modern readership.” (Long’s words.)

Simply going through the available archival material blew his mind. The book took six years to finish and involved research in both Texas and Mexico. Long worked odd construction jobs to pay for it.

Long published Duel of Eagles in 1990, which the authors here describe as “so over the top, it was as if he were physically stomping on everything written before.” While attempts at rethinking Alamo history usually caught some regional flack, Long’s book drew the attention of “professors, journalists, and amateur historians” nationwide. (Long, naturally, received death threats.)

Several works along these lines followed, and before long the Alamo’s legacy was another weapon in the culture war — especially in Texas, one of that war’s new epicenters.

One such battleground was the fight over school textbooks. (James Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me has described how textbook publishers frequently consider the sensitive feelings of Texas conservatives when composing their books, as one false move can lose sales in that entire state.)

Should textbooks include the names of Tejanos who died defending the Alamo? How should they describe the white “heroes” who did? Everything’s bigger in Texas, and the outraged wailings of “revisionist history” are as well.

Enter Phil Collins

As mentioned, Collins was a longtime Alamo fan, and in the mid-1990s, his then-wife bought him a receipt for items purchased by John W Smith (the last messenger to leave the Alamo with a plea for reinforcements, and later a mayor of San Antonio).

Collins began a collection of Alamo-related documents. He even entertained the notion that he may have been Smith in a past life. Over the following years, his collection grew to include such items as weapons and uniforms from the battle. He also established relations with antiquities dealers who began holding prized finds for this important (and wealthy) client.

Getting along in years, Collins approached the Alamo people, and decided to donate his massive collection — by then one of the world’s largest — to the state of Texas. For free. Alamo fans rejoiced; Collins was given several honorary titles by the city and the state.

Collins’s only request was that somebody build a proper museum to display them in. The Alamo as it was, mismanaged for years by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (long underfunded and a little corrupt), had become a fairly tacky tourist trap in bad need of repair. (It even has a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not wax museum.)

Everyone agreed that the site and the collection deserved a first-rate museum upgrade. The Texas General Land Office (now in charge of the site) set about raising money from state and city governments, nonprofit historical societies, and private donors (1). In 2015, the GLO announced plans for a full $450 million overhaul.

But the GLO’s commissioner made a few people mad about the plans. That commissioner’s name? George P Bush.

George Prescott Bush and Dan Patrick

As you can guess from the name, George P Bush is another in a long line of political halfwits whose career originates from a long-ago family fortune.

The son of inspiring presidential candidate Jeb, he followed family tradition by becoming first a corporate lawyer, then seeking some — any — political office, finally settling on GLO commissioner. (The GLO is primarily responsible for managing mining rights on public land in Texas, about the most Bush-y job a Bush could do.)

With staunch conservative credentials and some Hispanic heritage on his mother’s side, Bush is considered quite the rising star in Texas politics.

What was Bush’s Alamo boo-boo? What got anyone upset about a brand-new Alamo spending plan? Bush proudly boasted that the plan would involve a “reimagining” of the Alamo site.

Now, this is simply the kind of thing any politician will say when announcing a major urban spending project, be it a new convention center or sports stadium or whatever. It means “more money will mean more tourists will mean more money for us all.”

But, with “historical revisionism” a dirty word among Alamo traditionalists, some saw “reimagining” as the reddest of red flags. Bush had said the reimagined Alamo “can be a centerpiece for taking on the controversial issue of the past.” Guess how fast he’d walk even that mild statement back? Hint: he’s got every bit the spine of his political relatives!

Outraged traditionalists claimed that Bush was in the pocket of revisionists (no). That Bush wanted to rename the site Misión San Antonio de Valero (no, although that was its original name). And that, horror of horrors, Bush wanted to move a cheesy sentimental 1940 statue from the site and replace it with one of Santa Ana (no).

(Oh, and that statue, by the way? It’s the statue Ozzy pissed on.)

Jumping into the fray was Dan Patrick. A former far-right talk-show host who currently serves as Texas’s Lieutenant Governor, he has long been a favorite on the goose-loony circuit. Texas Monthly called him a bully and ideologue and the worst state senator back in 2013 when he was just considering a lieutenant governor run. He’s only gotten worse.

In the spirit of such Texas luminaries as Ted Cruz, Patrick’s a total fraud posing as a staunch super-Christian in order to win faithful support from the easily-duped.

Patrick, correctly, sensed that Bush was a fellow empty suit with boundless political ambition, and decided to use the Alamo “reimagining” line to assault him from the right.

Bush responded by immediately swerving to the right himself (becoming, naturally, an outspoken Trump supporter). Bush survived re-election to GLO commissioner. Patrick remains the lieutenant governor. And no doubt the future sparks will fly. Somebody’s got to be the Holy Christian Emperor of a future one-party American theocracy!

And gee, all this because a nice (2) soft-rock English singer tried to donate his beloved Alamo collection to Texas.

Oh, and it turns out there’s just one more problem with that…

Much Of The Collins Collection May Be Fake As Hell

Phil Collins even entertained the notion that he may have been John W Smith in a past life…

The authors of Forget The Alamo are careful to call themselves historiographers, not historians. They’re summarizing the work done by other historians, and adding some bits widely reported in the Texas press and elsewhere (such as the criticism’s of Bush and the GLO). But here they did some original research of their own.

They read Collins’s massive coffee-table book about his prized collection. They talked to the antiquities dealers who sold Collins most of his collection. And the dealers’ description of how they “found” so many Alamo items belonging to legendary figures seemed a bit sketchy. One repeatedly described using a little degreaser on antiques to discover the initials of famed Alamo dead on swords, knives, etc.

When the collection was donated to the GLO, so were some of the “proofs” of their authenticity. Through a lawsuit, the authors were able to get a look at those proofs. Some were incredibly strange, such as a forensic psychic who said of a knife supposedly belonging to James Bowie that “there is an overwhelming sadness associated with the knife.”

Other collectors in the field and Alamo antiquities buffs seemed to agree that many of the most high-profile items (you know, the ones most likely to get a prominent museum display) have dodgy authentication at best. Some could have been at the Alamo — yet likely, weren’t. Others appear improbable to have been even from the same period at all. A few outlier critics claim a majority of the collection is fake.

Not that Collins (who, after all, is donating this stuff for free) is knowingly pawning off bogus goods as real. Nor even, that the dealers who sold them to him were knowingly duping a rich hobbyist. What does seem likely is that at least a few people in that acquisition chain weren’t exactly diligent about establishing authenticity beyond a reasonable doubt. And Collins, who is in poor health, doesn’t want to talk about it. (His polite email to the authors mentions “personal stuff” keeping him busy. You don’t get much more “personal stuff” than aging-related medical maladies).

All of this, as well as the political debates surrounding the Alamo renovation itself, has put the project on hold past the start date Collins requested as a condition for his donation. Not to mention the 2020 police murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, which inspired strong worldwide pushback against monuments to former slaveholders. San Antonio is less than 30% Anglo; and less so every year.

The Whole Story Will Go On

Of course, many of the issues mentioned here are nowhere near resolution. The authors have an update on some of them (and some of the criticism of their work). In the book’s epilogue of sorts, they write:

It’s said that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it, but there are plenty who remember the Heroic Anglo Narrative and want to endlessly repeat this version of history, seeing themselves under siege by tyrannical rule to take away their guns or commit any number of cultural atrocities …

What must change is the story we tell about the Alamo. To learn the real lessons of the Texas Revolt, we need to learn the truth about Bowie, Travis, and Crockett… all three men did believe in liberty and self-determination, and Travis was one hell of a letter writer. They fought for freedom, just not everybody’s freedom … If we shift the frame just a little bit, the whole story of the Alamo is transformed. And, frankly, a lot more interesting.

If this essay seems long to you, go read Twitter! But seriously, it’s only as long as it is because I can’t recommend this book enough. I’ve summed up some of the major points, yet there’s so much more. More detail, more horror, more humor. Tales of enough greed, corruption, cruelty, and stupidity to fill a long fiction novel (or the current Texas state legislature).

I can imagine Jim Hightower laughing his ass off at it — and Molly Ivins too, in the Texas afterlife, sipping a Lone Star. Get it from your library — heck, all three copies in the San Antonio library are currently checked in, so you won’t even have to wait if you live there!


(1) One of these, billionaire Red McCombs, is well-remembered by Minnesota sports fans for his tenure as owner of the NFL Vikings team. McCombs repeatedly threatened to move the team, possibly to San Antonio, if he were not given a new stadium. After a preseason game played in San Antonio drew approximately zero ticket-buying interest, McCombs sold the Vikings to a New Jersey real-estate developer who promptly got the new stadium. You can read about that process here!

(2) One time, Aimee Mann joked at a concert that her potential Oscar speech for the Magnolia film score would be “Phil Collins sucks.” Newsweek tried to make it a big deal. In this 2000 interview, Mann says “I sent him a fax that said I was just joking, and that Newsweek is a bunch of morons. So I ran into him backstage, and he was really nice. They had a little meeting — him and his people — and decided I was joking.”

Image cropped from The Alamo by BrendaAly under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Evidence of Exceptional Stuff or “How Many People Saw Elvis Alive After He Died?”

Peter and Paul (Roman School circa 1620)

I’ve been listening to a lot of responses to Christian apologetic arguments. I like the people who create these but there is something that bothers me. They tend to demand the same level of evidence for normal matters as they do exceptional matters.

Peter and Paul

Think about the two (reasonably) well-documented post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. (These are well-documented in the Bible; they aren’t documented anywhere else. So we are starting on very favorable ground for the apologists.) Paulogia, for example, responds that one was clearly a vision (Paul) and the other (Peter) could well have been a post-bereavement hallucination.

Fair enough. But suppose you could find some well-documented source stating that all the disciples saw Jesus risen from the dead. Should we believe this?

I would certainly accept that kind of evidence if the claim were something simple, “Jesus walked 150 miles in 5 days.” Okay. That’s a lot but it is certainly plausible. I know that I could do that and that some people can run 150 miles in a day.

I’d need more than that if the claim were, “Jesus flew 150 miles in 5 days.” And that claim is far more reasonable than that Jesus died and came back to life three days later!

Motivated Reasoning

There’s another issue. Peter had an enormous amount to gain from claiming that Jesus had risen from the grave. So did Paul!

But I understand that there is a social aspect of apologist-skeptic dialog. The skeptics don’t want to be seen as dicks. They don’t want to claim that the founders of the Christian religion were charlatans.

The problem with this is that we have so many examples of modern cults starting in exactly this way. It isn’t as simple as people lying. As Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

All I’m saying is that it’s easy to convince yourself that you saw Jesus after he died when saying it is paying the bills and getting you invited to all the best suppers.

Or they could have been lying. They could have simply thought that Jesus’ teachings we so important that it made sense to fabricate the resurrection narrative. (Paulogia has suggested just that.)

Did Paul Really Persecute Christians?

One thing I’ve never seen contested is Paul’s claims that he worked for the Romans persecuting Christians before being converted. It isn’t attested to anywhere else. It’s just his claim.

Should we believe him? I doubt it.

I have seen many Christians tell exaggerated or outright false things about their pre-Christian days. Think about Mike Warnke who made a career claiming that he was a Satan Seller.

But he isn’t the only one. I’ve personally known two people who claimed they worshipped Satan when they were younger. It’s nonsense. If there were as many reformed Satanists as claimed, they’d have to be using my office at least part of the time for their orgies and goat sacrifices.

Paul’s story of his past sounds to me very much like stagecraft — a good tool to use to win converts. (And power. Just saying.)

Cults Then and Now

Everything we know about modern cults tells us that they are driven by the desire for power and grown through lies. I really can’t imagine the earliest days of Christianity being all that different from the early days of Heaven’s Gate. And even with the mass suicide, there are still believers in that cult.

Why would we think things would be more reasonable two thousand years ago?


Image via GaryStockbridge617. It is in the public domain.

How Rich Elites Promote Cryptocurrencies With Facile Talking Points and Strained Apologetics

Kathryn Haun

Kathryn Haun was recently on The Ezra Klein Show. I don’t see much in terms of considered opinion coming out of the pro-crypto camp. It’s much more, “Gimme a B! Gimme an I!” What’s that spell? Propaganda!

So normally, I wouldn’t have even listened to the podcast. But Klein doesn’t bring loons on his show. And the truth is, I continue to look for people who can make a good case for crypto. I really do want there to be something with it. But I have begun to despair. It’s looking more or more like a simple scam. (Not that it started that way.)

Haun did approach the podcast with the seriousness that it deserves. But it was quickly revealed that she was not there for an honest discussion of the issues. It reminded me of a Christian apologist going on an atheist talk show. They know they are in a dangerous place so they don’t come on aggressively. But they are only there to push their canned talking points.

Decentralization

Haun trumpeted the glories of sending money with Bitcoin. You see, you can do it without a centralized authority! This is true. People make millions of dollars every year “mining” Bitcoin to allow just that. But who cares?

What bothers me about credit cards is not that there’s some authority involved in the transaction. I’ve been using Banks since I was about 5 years old. I’m fine with it. What bothers me is that it costs me money (indirectly). I think most people feel the same way.

And guess what? Cryptocurrencies cost money when you transfer them! In fact, they cost a lot more! But you’re not beholden to a centralized bank — oh, no! Instead, you are beholding to a distributed group of crypto miners. Hooray!

Ignorance Is Fueling It

The sad thing is that most people who are into crypto simply don’t understand it. That’s not true of Haun, of course. But the current market capitalization of a trillion dollars is built on ignorance. And people in the middle of a bull market tend not to notice that their brokers are siphoning off huge amounts of money.

But eventually, the bull market ends. Then everyone is left with what? A really expensive method of exchange that adds literally nothing new to the technologies we had before?

I’m really kind of sick of this happy talk especially coming from people who clearly do understand the system. Cryptography is really interesting. But in terms of transferring valuable objects from one person to another, the system just doesn’t seem that useful.

And every time I bring this up, crypto people say, “Look at how much money it is worth!” I do see that. We all see it. We also all saw that Theranos was valued at $9 billion dollars when it was worthless.

Blockchain Will Save Musicians!

Haun mentions that you can use the blockchain to transfer other things like songs. Well okay. An artist could release songs on the blockchain. And maybe that would be more efficient than using rights management software.

I don’t really know but I’m open to it because I hate rights management software. But again that’s a case where crypto is just a different way of doing the same old thing. And that’s great! Finding new and better ways to do things is good.

But this is clearly a post hoc rationalization. Bitcoin started as a currency. As time has gone on and it has failed as a currency, true believers continue to look for ways to justify the technology. Certainly, we are better off looking for a way to replace rights management software rather than trying to shoehorn that solution into a technology that has failed at being a currency. Right?

Of course, we aren’t looking for a way to replace rights management software. And as I will discuss below, there is a reason for that. Hint: it involves the interests of powerful people. You know, people like Kathryn Haun!

Interoperability

She also mentions interoperability. Oh, the irony! Over 6,000 different cryptocurrencies have been created. As I write this, there are over one hundred cryptocurrencies with a market cap above a billion dollars. Doctor, heal thyself!

Why is it that the blockchain is what is going to fix our interoperability problems? Consider this: why did we have cassette and 8-track tapes at the same time? Why did we have Beta and VHS at the same time? What about Sirius and XM? We had them because there was a difference of opinion about which was best. Ultimately, the issue was resolved. But how would this work with all these crypto blockchains that are, you know, not controlled by anyone?

Another thing Haun says is that when you buy digital music you don’t own it. Guess what? When you buy an LP you don’t own it either. The problem is not the technology. The problem is our broken IP system.

As with licensing, she’s desperately looking for ways to make crypto relevant. She doesn’t care about rights management. She doesn’t care about IP law. She just cares about use cases that make crypo seem like it isn’t a waste of everyone’s time.

Concentrated Power

It bothers me how much Spotify and other platforms charge. It bothers me even more that TextBroker takes 35% of what I pay writers. But in both cases, this money goes to connecting one person to another. How exactly is a new freelance writer going to find clients? Hell, how is an established one?

Yes: the amount that TextBroker charges strikes me as exploitative. We ought to do something about that. But the blockchain doesn’t seem a particularly fruitful avenue to pursue.

Think about what she’s suggesting: musicians put their songs on the blockchain and you buy it and then own that particular copy! (Again: IP law makes it so you do not own it.) Is that going to happen? No! Spotify or some other powerful interest will find a way to offer the songs for sale even as they are “sold” on a blockchain. So we’ll have a new technology with the exact same system.

This is where we get to the issue of power. And to his credit, Ezra Klein pushed back. Musicians and listeners are getting ripped off not because of the technology but because of the power. But Haun counters that the technology simply isn’t here yet. That just goes to show she doesn’t understand the issue.

Powerful interests are always able to use technology to their own benefit. Yes, there are minor cases here and there where that doesn’t happen. But those in power learn quickly and errors are not repeated. Technological fixes do not stand in their way.

Vertical Marketing to the Rescue

Many times, Haun brought up some form of the idea that early fans might be able to make an investment in an artist. It’s just multi-level marketing. What’s more, there are much better ways to do this.

Dean Baker’s idea of The Artistic Freedom Voucher is great. But it requires a change in the system that harnesses the fact that people want to help out struggling artists that they admire. They wouldn’t do it because they think they’re going to make money off it later.

Virtual Handbags

Haun also notes that Gucci handbags cost more in the Roblox virtual world than they do in reality. But of course that Gucci handbag can only be used in that game. Imagine what it would be like if you could take that handbag to any virtual world?

She isn’t making a joke. She’s deadly serious. Here you have people paying a lot of money for something useless. And she thinks it’s a game-changer that they might be able to have that useless thing in more areas. This is all so absurd!

Of course, I should be clear that most of this is all about fashion. I don’t care about fashion in the real world and so I don’t care about it in the virtual world. So I’m probably a particularly bad person to discuss this kind of thing.

Bitcoin Energy Consumption

She pushed back on the idea that Bitcoin uses a huge amount of energy. She knows quite rightly that newer cryptocurrencies are using Proof of Stake. But as I’ve been ranting about for well over a year now, Bitcoin is by far the biggest and has no plans to change from Proof of Work.

And her solution for the fact that you can’t just change Bitcoin is that most miners are trying to use more renewable energy. Well, no shit! The cost of energy is the main thing limiting profits.

But imagine that Bitcoin was powered by solar energy. It isn’t causing global warming. Hooray! There’s still a huge opportunity cost here. That energy could be going to do something useful. Bitcoin needs all of this energy just to maintain itself. Meanwhile, I have cash in my wallet that works just as well and doesn’t take any energy!

I’m not saying that energy use by Bitcoin isn’t a huge problem. But the moment the issue came up in the conversation, her first reaction was to come out with two or three talking points to minimize it. She’s nothing but a propagandist.

Horror Film Crowdfunding

She said there was a recent movie that was crowdfunded with crypto — apparently Braid (2018). Despite what people argue, there is nothing new about the way that the film was crowdsourced. You can crowdsource dollars and give people a cut of the profits.

The solution is not technology. The solution is collective action. The solution is changing the system.

The Reveal!

For most of the podcast, I assumed Kathryn Haun was a true believer with utopian dreams like I shared with many on the late 1980s internet. But then I learned she was a general partner at the venture capital company Andreessen Horowitz, which manages almost $20 billion.

She’s also on the board of Open Sea! For those who don’t know, Open Sea is “the world’s first & largest NFT marketplace.” And for those who don’t know, NFTs are a scam.

But what really bugs me about Haun (and others like her) is that she probably got into this because it really appealed to her and she was a true believer. But she saw that there was a huge amount of money to be made.

She’s not putting money into a non-profit. No Aaron Swartz she!

Conclusion

The takeaway here is that Bitcoin was sold to us as this great technological innovation for currency. And it has failed absolutely. It continues to go up in value but it doesn’t work as a currency. So just as this realization finally seems to be seeping through, we get these new justifications for the cryptocurrency industry.

It’s hard to see the whole crypto world as anything but a giant con for a group of elite people. And sadly it is sustained to a large extent by a lot of utopian idealism pushed by rich elites like Kathryn Haun.


Image of Kathryn Haun taken from her Twitter profile under Fair Use.

Heroes Aren’t Saints

Thomas Jefferson

Heroes are a difficult subject for Americans. They aren’t really for me because of years of disappointment. Now I’ve come to terms with the imperfection of all people, which seems like the adult way to think about heroes.

But in politics, we see a lot of people holding on to the perfection of their heroes. People try to gloss over Thomas Jefferson’s many bad beliefs and behaviors. They apparently don’t think it’s okay for a hero to be great in one way and terrible in another.

To be honest I don’t think any of the founding fathers are hero material. They were all just men of a certain social class. There wasn’t anything especially remarkable about them. For one thing, they weren’t the ones getting shot in the field. Just like always, the Revolutionary War was ultimately a poor man’s fight.

Thomas Jefferson

But the bigger issue is that it shouldn’t be a problem to have a hero who is imperfect. Admittedly, Jefferson is a particularly bad case because he was a man who was a slave owner who was very clear in his writings that he understood just how horrible it was. (In fairness to Jefferson, like most of the founding fathers, he was a white supremacist, at least in private.)

Personally, I tend more towards loose cannons when it comes to my heroes. That’s why I like Thomas Paine so much. I don’t have to fret too much about him because the man was not all that interested in holding power. Had he ever had power, well, then he would probably have been a disappointment. But instead, he was a rabble-rouser and he was really good at that!

Interestingly, my favorite thing about Thomas Jefferson is that he was Paine’s friend and he sneaked him back into the country when Paine was widely hated for his book The Age of Reason. Although I suspect that, like today, the vast majority of people hated him because they had been told to; few people would have actually read The Age of Reason.

Low-Budget Filmmaking

But in order to be a lover of low-budget and psychotronic films, you get used to accepting that your heroes will be imperfect. Imperfect?! That’s an understatement!

Getting a film completed is very hard and most of the directors I admire we’re by and large total dicks. It seems to be almost impossible to do it if you aren’t one.

But that doesn’t make their films any less valuable. And the fact that Thomas Jefferson was a racist asshole doesn’t make the founding of America any less valuable.

Heroes and Saints

But I know that Americans by and large want to pretend that their heroes are perfect. It’s because they approach politics in a religious sense. For these people, John Adams or Robert E Lee are not men so much as demigods. Or if you prefer: saints.

But as with most modern problems in America, it’s really all comes down to the fact that we as a people are really stunted emotionally. We act like children.

Exponential Misuse of Pascal’s Wager by Apologetics Squared

Blaise Pascal

Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot more use of Pascal’s Wager by Christians. I’m not sure what’s up with that given that I thought that long ago everyone had agreed that it was stupid if not blasphemous. Oh well. It’s not like being let down by religious people is a new thing to me.

For those who don’t know, Pascal’s Wager is a philosophical argument for believing in God. Basically, it says you get little from not believing in God and infinite happiness if you do believe in God so you should believe in God. Some formulations of the argument are more sophisticated than others but this is what they all come down to.

Criticisms of Pascal’s Wager

There are lots of criticisms of this argument. The most obvious is that it assumes a god that cares that you believe in it and will reward you for this. But personally, I find a religious argument more compelling: Do you seriously think you can con God?! That God won’t notice that you are only “believing” because you ran the odds?!

Imagine if you took this approach in proposing to your significant other: “You aren’t even close to what I most desire but I’ve run the numbers and based on the fact that I’m ugly with few prospects, I’ve determined you are the best I can do. Will you marry me?!” I don’t think that would get a verbal answer — more likely a kick in the teeth.

Apologetics Squared

But then I saw this video by Apologetics Squared. It is by a young guy who, in a spiritual sense, “Knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Of course, even with it, he plays fast and loose with the concept of infinity. Remember: Infinity is not a number! You need to be really careful with it.

What strikes me about the use that young Mr Squared makes of Pascal’s Wager is that he does a pretty good job with the formal logic but pays no attention to his premises. Basically, there’s no downside to believing in God and a huge upside.

But wait. For every god you can imagine that will reward you for believing in it, there is at least one god that will damn you to Hell for eternity and who will reward you with Infinity Constant Orgasm Time simply for not believing in that other god.

So if you want to go there, the odds seem to indicate that belief in Christianity is a bad bet. So it really comes down to, again, what you actually believe in. That is to say: Pascal’s Wager is bullshit.

Subgenius

Apologetics Squared is a classic subgenius: smart but not that smart. The truth is, there is a whole field of mathematics that deals with low-probability events. I don’t know much about it. In my years of study, I’ve come upon it a few times. But it’s clear that Mr to the Second Power knows nothing at all about it.

As a result, Christian apologists like him are better off studying their own faith rather than trying to make clever arguments against atheists. And please, can’t we bury Pascal’s Wager once and for all. Non-believers think it is a stupid argument. And believers should find it repellant.

I have a hunch that Christians who use Pascal’s Wager aren’t really that serious about their faith. But given my experience is that few Christians of any stripe are serious about their faith, this is hardly surprising.


Cropped from Blaise Pascal a copy of the painting of François II Quesnel under CC BY 3.0.