Thursday, August 30, 2007

Mephibosheth - Friend or Foe?

Odd and amazing events took place among the monarchs of the Ancient Near East; often, the events are clearly understood, but interpretations offer more than one possible reason for them.

When Saul was king of the Israelites, his son Jonathan was a friend of David. Now, David had been designated as the next king, taking away what might seem to be Jonathan's rightful inherited title. Jonathan didn't seem to mind too much, but his father Saul did, and tried unsuccessfully to assassinated David on several occasions. Both Saul and Jonathan were killed in battle, leaving the way open for David to ascend to the throne.

David now being king, he thinks kindly of his old friend Jonathan, and shows hospitality to Jonathan's only surviving heir, a son named Mephibosheth, who happened also to be physically disabled. David invites Mephibosheth to live near him in the capitol city and even dine with him at the king's table in the royal palace. What a nice guy David was, to show such kindness to the handicapped child of his dead friend!

Or is there another way to view these events?

Not only in the Ancient Near East, but in any government which functions by hereditary monarchy, rulers, and those who want to be rulers, must carefully watch networks of extended family members. With Saul and Jonathan dead, anyone who wanted to opposed David's rule, and perhaps start a revolution, might very well look to Mephibosheth as figure around which to gather a political movement, being the heir to Saul's dynasty. As long as he lived, Mephibosheth represented a possible threat to David's political power, and even to David's life, inasmuch as any revolutionaries who would use Mephibosheth as a symbolic rallying point wouldn't hesitate to attempt an assassination. So David's kind invitation to Mephibosheth might simply have been a way for David to keep an eye on Mephibosheth, to prevent him from starting any political activities, and to see who might be in contact with him.

As a logical extension of this type of thinking, later on, when David's sons have reached adulthood, they also will become leaders of subversive political groups who attempt to assassinate David and grab power. Sons leading movements to assassinate their own fathers? Yes, again, this is a pattern found among hereditary monarchies.

Two thousand years later, in a typically dysfunctional royal family in England, these same dynamics will take place, as three sons of Henry II attempt to assassinate their father, and each other, supported at times by their mother; in return, Henry will consider assassinated his own sons, and have his wife placed in jail for a number of years.

The net effect of hereditary monarchy is to cause close family members to consider assassinating each other!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

History or Propaganda?

In history class, we learn about ancient cultures, read their writings, and generally form some opinion of them. A straightforward process, right? Well, not always.

When we read what these people left behind, it is not always simply a record of their activities. For example, a guy named Pericles gave a famous funeral speech, and Thucydides recorded that speech for us in his book about the Peloponnesian War, written shortly before 395 B.C. In that funeral speech, a glowing description of the Athenian society is given. The Athenians of the era between 450 B.C. and 400 B.C. are, according to Pericles, noble, virtuous, democratic, fair, just, creative, artistic, intellectual, diplomatic, etc. Who wouldn't like Athens? But that speech was propaganda, given during a war, designed to promote a certain image for Athens. When we read how Athenians really described themselves, we see that their government based itself on practices like extortion, blackmail, bribery, intimidation, and ruthlessness toward any sign of weakness.

Or consider the Romans. We might read the speeches of Cicero, where he describes the virtues of the Republic, which is, in his speeches, the fairest and most just system of government ever devised. Cicero's praise for the Roman system is foreshadowed by similar phrases in the books of Polybius, and seem to be embodied in the books of Marcus Aurelius, who, living long after the fall of the Roman Republic, appeared to carry on the tradition of Stoic virtues in the Roman Empire. But again, this is propaganda: reading more carefully, we see that Polybius points out the corruption and flaws of the Republic and its politicians, and Marcus Aurelius acted in ways that direct contradict the peaceful and fair tone of his Stoic writings: he sat at his desk and calmly signed orders to have thousands of women and children executed, for no other reason than that they were Christians.

The lesson? Even when you're reading an ancient book, be aware that it might be shrewd propaganda. The ancient Greeks and Romans spent a lot of time and effort trying to advertise themselves. They wanted to make themselves look good.

Imagine, for a moment, that you lived a thousand years from now in the future. Looking backward as a history student, you might study the two most hateful and cruel governments of our era: the Nazi government which oppressed Germany, and the Soviet government which enslaved Russia. We know the unspeakable atrocities which these two systems committed and the millions of deaths which they inflicted on innocent civilians. Yet, if all you read was the propaganda which they wrote about themselves, you might walk away thinking that they were nice guys!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Junk Science?

Living in a world which, despite a strong post-modern leaning, is still largely modern, most of us have been educated to have a deep respect for the finding of science. But what, exactly, qualifies as "science"? Images of university researchers in which white lab coats, and computers churning out reams of statistics, come to mind. But beyond the physical appearances, there are also the phrases, which at least sound profound, about an "objective spirit of rational inquiry." And, to be sure, the great minds of people like Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and Michael Faraday deserve our respect, in part because of their noble minds, and in part because their findings have stood the test of time.

Sadly, however, there is a far-less-than-honorable industry, known as "junk science," which peddles propaganda disguised as intellectual effort.

How can you distinguish "junk science" from the real thing? There are a few clues: first, "junk science" will deal only with topics with immediate political or economic value, not with truth for truth's sake; second, it is funded by individuals or groups with a stake in the outcome; third, it proceeds with an agenda.

Consider a researcher trying to arrive at the most accurate possible value for the atomic weight of copper to fifty decimal places. This is not a social "hot button" topic; let us assume that the scientist doesn't have any preconceptions about the answer; it will be funded by those who desire only to have an accurate body of information for chemistry and physics. This is not "junk" science.

On the other hand, consider those who are paid by political parties and governments, not to find out "if" there is global warming, but rather accumulate evidence to persuade voters that there is global warming. Or those who are supported by governments and political parties, not to objectively and calmly compare Darwinism and Intelligent Design Theories, but rather to undermine and discredit those who question Darwinism. Likewise those who are paid, not to find out what causes some people to engage in homosexual behavior, but rather to support political policies about homosexual activities. None of these are intellectually respectable, and are in fact merely cleverly disguised propaganda. Whatever the word "science" might mean, these last three examples are not it.

One more example: medical research into the efficacy of various drugs is often funded by those who desire a certain outcome from the trials. Such experimentation, and the analysis of the resulting data, is often subject to financial, not scientific, pressures.

So, the next time a politician, a newspaper reporter, or an "expert" on TV or the Internet begins to tell you that there is "scientific" support for some view or opinion, beware!