The Book of Mormon

A reader to Andrew Sullivan’s blog writes:

“I’m not trying to be mean or snide in noting this. But these are not doctrinal issues. They are historical claims made in a book that, by the account of those who believe it, should be read literally. For me, whatever I believe about Jesus or Paul or the claims of the New Testament, I know a city called Jerusalem existed. I know that the cities Paul traveled to were real.”

This is to compare apples and oranges. The Book of Mormon is also of the opinion that Jerusalem existed. The historicity of Paul and the authorship of at least some of the epistles is beyond serious question. However, the work of recent archaeologists has cast doubts on the historicity on some of the most central historical claims of the Old Testament. Archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman have argued that there is no independent evidence that the Exodus ever occurred, which would have to make Moses essentially a fictional character, and that if there was a historical David, he bears little resemblance to the Biblical portrait. I can imagine a liberalized version of any of the Abrahamic religions without an Adam and Eve. But I don’t know what it would even mean to be an adherent to any of them and think that there was no Moses. Though unsurprisingly, their work does not command universal assent, it is a serious contender for the truth.

Years ago I became interested in the question discussed by some of whether the Book of Enoch, a pseudepigraphical work, should have been included in the Bible. Based on all we know about the construction of the Old Testament, I came to the conclusion that the only real difference between canon and pseudepigrapha is the sheer fact of acceptance itself. The only test of truth for the latter, in the end, is its agreement with the former.

The Book of Mormon therefore ought to rattle adherents of the Abrahamic religions, because it isn’t fundamentally different from much of Biblical text. The difference is that in the former case we can’t help but know that it’s fiction and in the latter case, well, we can help it.

God: Not Dead Yet

“The truth is that (as the decision in the Arizona case should remind us) the current Court is certainly not simply the legal equivalent of the Sean Hannity, no matter how many crazed partisan rants Scalia might indulge himself in. We might get there in the future (or not), and we might get some decisions that sure look very partisan, but that’s not where we are now. It’s simply not true that there are five solid votes (or even four solid votes) for whatever wacky, ad-hoc legal theories GOP spinmeisters come up with.” — Jonathan Bernstein [here]

The partisan hacks interpretation entirely depends, I’m convinced, on the false hypothesis that Citizens United is nothing but the obedient work of the puppets of corporate paymasters, as opposed to a side in a contribution to a ‘reasonable people can differ’ debate about how much the federal government can regulate election season expressive acts without falling afoul of the First Amendment (I never tire of stressing that what the group Citizens United had done that was allegedly unlawful was say bad things about Hillary Clinton in public during an election cycle). If you accept that this is a genuine question, and you note in passing alleged partisan hack Anthony Kennedy’s two pro-gay opinions, Scalia’s one pro-gay opinion and one pro enemy combatant detainee opinion, that pretty much kills the partisan hack hypothesis dead. Or else at least two of them are utterly incompetent partisan hacks.

God Is Dead

“I’ve only mispredicted one big Supreme Court case in the last 20  years. That was Bush v. Gore. And I was able to internalize that by saying they only had a few minutes to think about it and they leapt to the wrong conclusion. If they decide this by 5-4, then yes, it’s disheartening to me, because my life was a fraud. Here I was, in my silly little office, thinking law mattered, and it really didn’t. What mattered was politics, money, party, and party loyalty.” — Akhil Amar, Yale Law School Professor and Originalist

Source, Ezra Klein, WaPo

A Tax By Any Other Name

I don’t understand why the media and everyone who reads it thought the Anti-Injunction Act phase of the Supreme Court oral arguments over Obamacare was silly and technical. Because if the predicate for holding that the Anti-Injunction Act applies is met (the case isn’t ripe because you can’t complain about a tax not yet collected), not only does that mean that the case isn’t ripe: it also means the tax penalty, formerly known as the “mandate,” is constitutional, just like every other tax penalty. Which isn’t an arcane “technicality” at all, since it decides the core issue of the case. If I were Kennedy or Roberts, I’d say that, and then say in dicta “and it’s hard to see how such a tax penalty, any more than any other tax penalty, could possibly be unconstitutional should the case come before us when it is ripe.”

Consider this parlay [ht Slate] with Justice Kagan in oral argument: “Suppose a person does not purchase insurance … pays the penalty instead, and that person finds herself in a position where she is asked the question, ‘have you ever violated any federal law,’ would that person have violated a federal law?” Solicitor General Don Verrili says in reply, “If they pay the tax, then they are in compliance with the law.” Which sounds exactly right to me.

Personally I think this is the right analysis. But I would also think it would be a smart move for any Justice uncomfortable with transforming our commerce clause jurisprudence (one way or another) overnight, as any other approach would necessarily do. A “conservative” (in the dictionary sense of the word) would do it. The question is: how many conservatives on the court are there? One? Two? We shall see.

Update: Apparently the Supreme Court more of less agrees with me. “Our precedent demonstrates that Congress had the power to impose the exaction in Section 5000A under the taxing power, and that Section 5000A need not be read to do more than impose a tax. This is sufficient to sustain it.”

The majority of twenty-one top law professors told reporters at Bloomberg that it would be overturned. The Poseidonian did not receive a query from Bloomberg.

Of course, the Court did not hold that it was a tax for Anti-Injunction Act purposes, but it did hold that it was authorized as a tax penalty. Apart from that, though it does appear that Roberts’ commitment to judicial restraint was what guided him, he was obviously not motivated by a desire to avoid impact on Commerce Clause jurisprudence, since he joined with the dissenters in rejecting the government’s argument that the mandate was authorized by the Commerce Clause.

A Jar of Ooze

[Spoilers galore.] Prometheus probably can’t be judged until they finish the story in the sequel. The negatives were pretty clear: monsters suspenselessly attacking characters too stupid to live. I mean, seriously, who approaches something that looks like an albino cobra as if it was a kitten? At least that one looked real for a moment. The other monsters, being almost entirely CGI, never frightened since they never seemed real at all (compare Carpenter’s Thing with the unfortunate re-remake recently for another example). Serious failures of realism, as to the science, the mission, the secondary characters, also distracted. For a trillion dollars (perhaps still a lot of money decades hence, despite current casualness about the federal deficit) the whole operation is remarkably haphazard and slipshod. The scientific team doesn’t even know why they are there until they are there? Rather than seeming an allusion to 2001, this just seemed like exceptionally poor planning. And given that they are looking for extraterrestrial life, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of attention paid to biohazard protocols. I suppose it is excessively fussy to complain that seeding a prebiotic Earth with human DNA, from which all life emerges, last but not least humans, who also have human DNA (which presumably all the nonhuman species also seeded from it do not) makes no sense. The characters mostly don’t make sense either (the captain’s willingness to die for a speculative hypothesis about what is going on, even if it is partly his own hypothesis, is simply not credible enough, and that of his two underlings, not credible at all). Only Elizabeth herself (and the robot David, ironically), seem real.

Despite all that, the film works. It’s clearly a kind of Rheingold for a much longer story, and Rheingold isn’t exactly stellar in the narrative tightness and plausibility department either. What is the story, then? It is a combination of two things. First, this is a dark parody of Contact, with Noomi Rapace in for far more grief and disappointment than Jodie Foster could have ever imagined: her quest for cosmic parental substitutes leads to the unfortunate discovery that they do indeed exist, and want her and her planet to suffer something awful. Second, it is an attempt to explore this Joban nightmare without smothering it in our excess of interest in the Judeo-Christian, by making the god interrogated a pagan: Zeus. He has not appeared yet, but he will. He has to.

Why? In order to maintain the film’s surprisingly tight use of Greek mythology. Why has no one mentioned this? Well, in part naming the ship Prometheus and having it be launched by a stereotypically self-assertive tycoon induces the assumption that the only work the word is doing is to invoke the promethean qualities of humanity. But this is really obtuse! The Engineers are so carefully drawn to resemble Greek Gods and Titans, that you would think someone would crack open their Bullfinch’s Mythology for a minute here. I’ll give you some hints: Prometheus created mankind. Prometheus stole something powerful from Zeus. Zeus punishes him with an unpleasant challenge to his bodily integrity. As the beneficiaries of the crime, we in turn are punished by a slew of evils (including diseases) that had been sealed in a jar: alas, a woman named Pandora opens it and unleashes these horrors upon us. And yet through her, there is hope. In short, the answer to her Joban question is one that can’t really arise within the Judeo-Christian tradition: the higher beings who determine our destiny, Gods and Titans, are divided amongst themselves. Some are friends and some are foes. So despite the more hum-drum inadequacies of the film, it is setting us up for a potentially quite satisfying theodicy, albeit a pagan one. Or as Vickers says, “A king has his time, and then he dies. It’s inevitable.” A moment’s reflection on the lineage from Uranus to Cronos to Zeus suggests that this is true even for the divine.

Refresher course here.

Great Moments in Television, I

Nursing Home

The grandmother takes Rick, Daryl, and T-Dog into a nursing home where a lot of elderly, sick patients are staying at.

Felipe: Abuela, por favor. Take me to him.

Rick realizes that the Vatos are protecting the individuals that are staying at the home. They come into the gymnasium where they find an elderly man having an asthma attack. Felipe and Glenn help him.

Felipe: All right. All right. Nice and easy. Just breathe. Just breathe. Just let it out. Just breathe. Just relax.

Rick: What the hell is this?

Glenn: An asthma attack. Couldn’t get his breath all of a sudden.

T-Dog: I thought you were being eaten by dogs, man.

They look at the dogs which are little Chihuahuas.

Rick: Could I have a word with you? You’re the dumbest son of a bitch I ever met. We walked in there ready to kill every last one of you.

Guillermo: Well, I’m glad it didn’t go down that way.

Rick: If it had, that blood would be on my hands.

Guillermo: Mine too. We’d have fought back. Wouldn’t be the first time we’ve had to. Protect the food, the medicine… what’s left of it. These people, the old ones… the staff took off, just left ’em here to die. Me and Felipe were the only ones who stayed.

Rick: What are you, doctors?

Guillermo: Felipe’s a nurse… a special care provider. Me, I’m the custodian.

Rick: What about the rest of your crew?

Guillermo: The Vatos trickle in to check on their parents, their grandparents. They see how things are and most decide to stay. It’s a good thing too. We need the muscle. The people we’ve encountered since things fell apart, the worst kind… plunderers, the kind that take by force.

Rick: That’s not who we are.

Guillermo: How was I to know? My people got attacked and you show up with Miguel hostage… appearances.

T-Dog: Guess the world changed.

Guillermo: No. It’s the same as it ever was. The weak get taken. So we do what we can here. The Vatos work on those cars, talk about getting the old people out of the city. But most can’t even get to the bathroom by themselves, still, it keeps the crew busy, and that’s worth something. So we barred all the windows, welded all the doors shut except for one entrance. The Vatos, they go out, scavenge what they can to keep us going. We watch the perimeter night and day and we wait. The people here, they all look to me now. I don’t even know why.

Rick: Because they can.

Walking Dead, S1E04