blue and white and screens?

[estimated reading time 9 minutes]

we pretend the truth will set us free but it won’t. it’s not a gen-z thing. we’ve never cared about truth as humans. we only ever really cared about what we could get away with or what was socially acceptable. and we like to think that, even when we didn’t accept the truth, we knew what the truth was. but that’s not true either.

until the twentieth century, most intelligent people still thought there were gods and spirits, afterlives, fate and a predictable future. artificial intelligence isn’t why we can’t determine fact and fiction. it’s because we’re so easily convinced of things and are incredibly quick to believe things that fit our worldviews and what we want the truth to be.

the difference now isn’t that we’ve become worse at knowing what’s true. it’s that it’s a lot easier to share lies. and once you convince a few people to tell your lies for you, they become an infectious carrier of your propaganda in a way no word-of-mouth grassroots propaganda war has ever been fought before.

but that doesn’t mean the problem is intractable, unsolvable, hopeless. it just means it doesn’t have the same solution as twenty, fifty or a hundred years ago and people have become completely blinded by that.

it’s obvious that no current american presidential candidate has the slightest understanding of how young people interact with short-video social media but that’s not a complete disaster for either of the ancient fighters in that battle because it gives neither an advantage. them being completely out of touch with contemporary reality is actually a huge part of why they’re so appealing to an aging voting public. young people are far less likely to vote in an election where all the candidates are incompetent and hopeless. they know the outcome is going to be a disaster when all the choices are bad to begin with. so both major parties are connecting with a general public reminiscing about vinyl and muscle cars that thinks gender only matters if you’re learning spanish and sex is the five minutes between taking your suit jacket off and asking your wife if that was good for them too. it’s a nation of conservatives ranging from the benign democrats who think progress is using words like unhoused and critical race theory but wonder why everyone has such a problem with natural gas and cheap fashion to the theocratic republicans trying to make america faith again, one oppressed woman at a time burned at the altar of rape culture and ecological disasters.

but where this is far more visible as a mismatch of understanding is the fight between israel and terrorist organizations like hamas, hezbollah, unrwa, the palestinian authority and their iranian backers. because the israeli government at the highest level is run by mostly old men not exactly connected to the reality of the contemporary society they’re not participating in anymore. they believe news organizations shape people’s information and communicate things. they believe truth wins out over lies once you have proof. and they believe people care whether they’re on the right side of issues. but perhaps more importantly than any of that they believe being easily manipulated makes young people a problem they can’t solve. but that’s only because they’re fighting the wrong battles with the wrong strategies.

and it’s not that they’re doing the wrong things. it’s just that they’re talking about them the wrong way, to the wrong people at the wrong times. they think decisions are made by media organizations, that international opinion can be swayed by the united nations and that if you show people the truth they’ll stop spreading lies. and they should know better. but apparently they don’t.

the arab world has a highly-respected international news organization, al jazeera. and for many, many years it has covered international news and done it very well. which means it has a lot of credibility in the west with the general public. that doesn’t mean it’s not biased, just that the bias has been restricted to a particular set of stories. al jazeera has covered disasters and elections and wars all over the world and often done it better than its competitors at cnn, nbc, the new york times and the washington post. this isn’t helped by the fact that most people who watch or read the news on traditional media channels are older. that’s not how people under thirty-five consume news anymore. but when it comes to events involving israel, al jazeera becomes a blithering mess of disinformation and antisemitism. realistically, one of the most genuinely accurate news organizations in the world suddenly simps for terrorist groups and it’s not obvious to most people because they’re so used to a level of professionalism and honesty that’s simply disappeared. when that news is targeted against another country with a huge international news presence, it’s not so hard for balance to be achieved. the united states, russia, china or european countries can effectively combat disinformation from major news outlets because they have their own respected official news media pathways. israel doesn’t. average americans and europeans don’t read the jerusalem post or haaretz or watch i24 so it doesn’t matter what they publish or broadcast. not to mention a distinct lack of modern professional visuals compared to most major western media outlets.

but it’s not traditional news where the propaganda war is being lost. and people love to criticize young people in the west for not being able to tell what’s true or false but i don’t think that’s as much our fault as it may immediately appear. we have been told all our lives that journalism is about telling the truth and independent journalism is about integrity. in other words, journalists might make mistakes or be misinformed but they’re trying to tell us what’s really going on. in vietnam, afghanistan and iraq, journalists shed light on the disasters of war and failures of governments. they were courageous and probably the closest things to heroes the west has seen in centuries. independent journalists today, though some still strive for honest reporting, aren’t fitting that expectation. they’ve become mouthpieces for their personal feelings and what they’re sharing are stories intended to shock, move and enrage audiences rather than help them to understand something real. journalists participate in terrorist actions and share disinformation because it tells the story they want believed. journalists aren’t reporting the news anymore in many of these situations. they’re participating in it and manufacturing it.

what people believe now, though, is personal experience shared through short video. it’s how most young people relate to the world. they look into others’ lives and experience culture, society and places nearby and on the other side of the world far more directly than ever before. this isn’t mitigated by news outlets and conglomerates. people are relying on in-person amateur reporting and the filtration of influencers to understand the state of the world. and it’s not that this is less functional than traditional news media. it’s that it’s poorly understood by those who simply don’t live life that way, which certainly includes most people in government. while much of modern social media was developed by jews and israelis, the israeli government is so far out of touch with that side of western society they have simply dismissed it and it’s probably the most significant front in its war on terrorism. the united nations has hated israel from the day of its first general assembly meeting for many reasons but that has never been less significant than today when the united nations is so irrelevant to people in their twenties and thirties we simply don’t care what’s said or done there.

which prompts the question of why antisemitic and pro-palestinian content is so popular on social media despite at least some quality pro-israel content existing. the most obvious reason, which is certainly true, though not the main problem, is that pro-israel content is reasonable, logical and sensible while pro-palestinian content is exciting and angry. it stimulates emotions while israeli content attempts to calm the storm and dissipate the anger. people like to have these emotional extremes and the protests and anger and slogans appeal to them. we should have learned that from the rise of hitler and trump but it appears we didn’t notice. it doesn’t help that words like “zionism”, which the vast majority of people in the west probably hadn’t heard in their lives until a year ago, have been rebranded to sound like “nazi” or “fascist” and people are so afraid of “colonialism” because they know it was the source of genocide in the americas and asia but they have no idea what it actually means. so these words get thrown around as buzzwords and jargon to an audience that’s reacting more like pavlov’s pooches than the doubting and questioning people young adults are usually stereotyped as being.

and that’s certainly a problem. the content isn’t exciting, angry, feeling-tingling enough. but that’s not where the real issue lies. the much more fundamental problem is who’s creating and sharing the content. social media is a land of credibility by popularity. it’s a far more instantly-gratifying form of democratic interaction than any modern government, especially one like the united states where representation is mitigated by a complex electoral college. but what happens on social media is that popularity breeds more popularity while it propagates a sense of credibility and familiarity. you might follow someone and watch their videos and feel like you know them personally but their other two million followers may feel the same. that’s a connection at a personal level most people have never felt for television or film celebrities unless they’re obsessive stalkers or paparazzi. but social media personalities, influencers, bring us into their homes and lives. they don’t just tell us what’s happening. they share their feelings and experiences. they let us see their daily thoughts and often even their failures and mistakes. it makes them seem so much more real to us. and we believe what they say.

and that doesn’t mean that faith is misplaced. i believe most social media influencers, even the ones sharing disinformation on a massive scale, probably believe what they’re putting out. their content is authentic and that’s what makes it powerful. the problem is they’re putting out content about things they don’t know anything about and sharing things they don’t know are blatant and disastrous lies. it’s not surprising to me and shouldn’t be to anyone an influencer in california or new york doesn’t have any real understanding of what’s going on in the middle east. if they’ve never traveled in that part of the world, why would they? so when they see videos of violence and people suffering, they want to do something to help. and they have platforms with millions of eyes and ears they can use to try to make things better.

but that only explains why the problem is happening. someone creates a propaganda video where they tell lies and serious influencers watch and believe them. then they share them to their audiences and their audiences trust them to know what they’re sharing and things spiral out of control before anyone knows the difference.

the problem is there’s almost no content out there combatting it. explanations don’t get eyeballs because they’re not interesting to most viewers. they need to see and experience the reality. and that’s not being created and posted. it doesn’t help that there are less than ten million israelis and more like a half-billion arabs. not that most arabs are producing disinformation, of course. but with such a talent pool to choose from it’s not surprising there are lots of willing participants. if only 1% of arabs share content, that’s the same number as half the entire population of israel doing the same. and quantity really does matter in a world where number of subscribers and number of views determines what gets seen.

that is where some people have stopped, though, in their understanding. a tiny minority group can’t fight a massive army. but that’s not the end of the story. the vast majority of arabs and muslims out there aren’t trying to spread disinformation. it’s only a tiny fraction actually producing it. it just happens that there’s a huge ready-made willing audience to consume it. so how do we combat the lies?

well, i can tell you how we can’t combat it. politicians creating content. nobody believes politicians. and while people like eylon levy are extremely popular with a young jewish audience all over the world and are producing absolutely excellent responses to the pro-palestinian propaganda machine, they’re not getting the eyes of the non-jewish western public in any significant way. i think that’s relatively sad because the content is great and well-made. but the audience is the wrong audience. the jewish influencer world is a self-sustaining silo where it’s difficult, even with lots of shares, to get seen outside that area. much like pro-trump content is showed to trump supporters, pro-israel content is showed to israel supporters. and that’s great for morale and positive self-image but it’s not great for changing world opinions or fighting propaganda.

there is a better way, though. and it only works when you’re not trying to deceive, which is useful when you’re on the side telling the truth. it’s a solution that couldn’t possibly work for the pro-palestinians because it would completely backfire. simply put, what israel needs is non-jews on the ground, people who have no vested interest in supporting israel. mid-level popular social media influencers with hundreds of thousands or millions of followers control the narrative and they’ve been generally misled by terrorist propaganda. solving this is as easy as providing a way for those influencers – not just a select four or five but dozens from across areas of interest – to come and spend time in israel. not a whirlwind tour organized by the government for a week but an invitation to come and create content with no restrictions on movement or what can be said for months at a time. progressives and leftist content creators from fashion, social justice, health, etc, who are sharing content they think is true need to be given a chance to legitimately experience life in israel. meet survivors of hamas attacks, live through the constant threat of rockets and see the iron dome in action over and over, meet israeli jews and arabs and indians living their for years and discover what the truth really is. people would take israel up on that offer to go and share their real experiences of what’s happening. not to live in a press camp and be taken to prepared events by government representatives but to go out and explore. facilitate connections with people but really just allow them to live, perhaps hosted by israeli families, so they could get a true sense of what the war is truly about.

this solution should be obvious and why it hasn’t been implemented confuses me beyond believe other than the fact that people in the government are so detached from how younger adults interact with the world around us they are blind to why their message is being drowned out.

but we need to call on the israeli government to start inviting the content creators who could make a huge difference to come and spend months in the country, no string attached, and create whatever content they like. it would change absolutely everything and perhaps save us all from the nightmare of extremist terrorism gaining more and more momentum and strength. so, prime minister netanyahu and members of the knesset, what exactly are you waiting for? you have nothing to hide and everything to gain from more on-the-ground reporting of life in the only free country in the middle east. perhaps you should get on that.

divided nations

[estimated reading time 8 minutes]

it has apparently surprised many people that the united nations has blatantly showed itself to be a poorly-executed joke of global proportions. this has unfortunately been the case since its predecessor’s inception. the league of nations was a failure for three basic reasons. it was premised on the idea that countries would act to make the world a better place but hadn’t had the opportunity before because of lack of communication. it assumed compromise was the best solution to problems. and it believed peace was always better than war. all three were disastrous errors and combined to cause the outbreak of the second world war and, perhaps more importantly, directly lead to the holocaust.

the united nations was an upgrade only in size. it based itself on the same fundamental failed theories and managed to implement it as badly as could have been imagined. instead of actually having any power on the world stage, it just became a new arena for nations to fight each other and play politics because no nation was willing to give up even a fraction of its own authority. and without having any ability to enforce its decisions it became a meaningless arbiter of decisions nobody really cared about in the first place, mostly there to justify popular opinion and make leaders look good to their publics. beyond that, however, it has demonstrated the problem with representative government in a much more obvious way. when india and china with more than a billion people each and malta and bahrain with less than two million total have the same voice, this isn’t a sensible system. when canada, russia, the united states and china, covering a massive portion of the globe, have the same voice as monaco, lichenstein, grenada and barbados, whose land areas resemble city parks by comparison, it may be time to rethink the idea of hearing balanced voices from around the world. and when only 33 of the 193 members are classified as “full democracies” (pew research center, 2017 if anyone’s curious), considering the united nations a democratic institution is perhaps best thought of as a blatant lie.

that, however, is only the background. this week, the united nations decided it would be a wonderful idea to call on the state of israel to stop attempting to eliminate the terrorists in gaza and allow them to continue to attack and rebuild their forces for their next campaigns of terror. at exactly what point the united nations stopped simply pandering to public opinion but shifted to actively simping terrorists, it is difficult to say. but it’s now clear that’s what’s happening. while unable to actually take a stand in any meaningful way on conflicts in syria, sudan or ukraine, the united nations has instead decided to use its voice to stand up for iranian-backed terrorist regimes.

so i believe it might be good to take a quick look at what the united nations should have said instead of its painfully-ridiculous statement on the middle east.

let’s begin by looking at the goals of the conflict between israel and hamas. after decades of repeated attacks including but by no means restricted to the massacre on october 7, 2023, and based on the statements of hamas leadership (you’re welcome to read their posts and interviews and they’re very proud of these statements so they’re everywhere) that attacks would continue until every last israeli had been killed (the literal definition of genocide, by the way), israeli forces have two very obvious goals. first, to eliminate all terrorist groups targeting israel, beginning with hamas. if anyone has a problem with eliminating terrorists, it might be best to stop here because i’m just assuming we’re all on board with not wanting there to be people out there committing acts of terror. second, to restore the rule of law, freedom and equality over land currently in the hands of terrorists including gaza and the west bank. if it hasn’t already been clear to you from looking at a map (you have looked at a map, right?), “from the river to the sea” refers to the jordan river and the mediterranean sea. the “west bank” is the land on the west bank of the jordan river and gaza is part of the mediterranean coastline. so there are two very clear goals – eliminate the terrorist threat and bring the same freedom, safety and peace to everyone in those areas the rest of israel currently enjoys. these are quite reasonable goals, i believe. i can see how larger goals would be useful once these have been accomplished like eliminating terrorism in the entire region and ensuring the same peace and freedom for everyone but starting only within israel is a good beginning.

of course, war has casualties and those often include civilians. many israelis have been killed by the constant terrorist attacks to the point that an entire defensive shield had to be built to prevent more civilian casualties. if such a thing had been happening anywhere else in the world, the answer would have been immediate retaliatory war but israel was expected to take it and built the iron dome to protect its civilians. but that hasn’t stopped bombs, rockets and mortars, not to mention terrorists in-person, from killing many innocent israelis and tourists of all ethnicities and religions. many arabs have been killed, as have many jews.

but war is sometimes necessary when a group wishes to terrorize. when the nazis wished to eliminate the jews, homosexuals and various other groups and bring its empire around the world, war was necessary to prevent that and millions died in the process. extremist terror groups in the middle east, many who supported the nazis during that war, are now attempting the same thing, to exterminate jews, queers and anyone else who doesn’t follow their fundamentalist and extremist version of islam and conquer the world in a new caliphate. if you believe i am exaggerating their goals, you’re welcome to read their speeches and declarations. and even if they’re using hyperbole, which i assure you they’re not, and only wish to do this in the middle east, if you think that’s acceptable you are just racist, thinking it’s only important if it impacts the white-dominated part of the world. or perhaps you hate jews or queers so much you’re willing to sacrifice all those people to eliminate them. i’m not sure which would be worse but i hope neither of these apply to you.

but many civilians are dying. we have no idea how many because the numbers provided by hamas are obviously not correct – demonstrably false, in fact. they’re not just lying but they’re lying badly. if you look carefully at the numbers, you will discover that despite the majority of those being killed being male, the reported deaths are dramatically skewed to be female deaths. the numbers are also unrealistic in two other ways. one is that, despite different phases of the war, use of different strategies and in different areas, the number of reported dead has remained constant at all times. no deviation for anything. but more importantly there’s just nowhere for that number of dead to be hidden and they’re simply not showing up anywhere. in an area a fraction of the size of a major city, tens of thousands of dead bodies would be readily apparent if they were being killed at anywhere near the rate reported by hamas. of course, the fact that hamas is lying about the war shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone because it’s a terrorist organization. if you think a group will kill, kidnap, rape and commit acts of necrophilia live on camera broadcast to the world but consider lying to be too much of an ethical violation, you may not be thinking all that clearly. not to mention the leaders of hamas literally having admitted to the fact that lying is part of their strategy in their statements to al jazeera (yes, please look them up because there was even another declaration of their willingness to lie to get more support yesterday).

we don’t want there to be endless war in gaza, though, and innocent civilians dying isn’t the goal. so what would be a better solution to this issue? an end to fighting before the terrorists have been eliminated and gaza finally turned into a peaceful place for everyone to live together is out of the question. this solution may not make everyone very happy for ideological reasons but i think it’s far better than anything else that’s been proposed. the goal is to eliminate all terrorists and anyone who supports those terrorists while allowing anyone not supporting terrorism to live. it has been proposed a refugee camp be set up in the desert and gazans be moved there but that is a painfully shortsighted way of dealing with it. not to mention, it reminds me (and should remind everyone else) of internment camps from the world wars. there is no reason to send the population of gaza to a camp in the desert. a far better idea would be to set up a temporary processing facility somewhere near the gaza border where all gazan civilians can be transported. once cleared of terrorist links, they could then be given a choice of destinations. at first, those destinations would likely have to be within israel but other countries could certainly open their borders to those who wished to leave. that certainly shouldn’t be the goal, of course. having the people of gaza live happy lives wherever they wish to live is the goal, not trying to get everyone to leave. but giving people more options has never been a bad thing. and for those who wish to return to gaza after the war, they could be given temporary housing elsewhere until hamas has been neutralized, peace restored and new infrastructure established for safe living to begin. of course, anyone wishing to return to gaza should be given that opportunity whenever they wish but israel is a country where choosing where you want to live is a fundamental right so that’s certainly nothing unusual to guarantee people.

once the civilian population has been temporarily moved out of harm’s way, the resolution of the war would come much more swiftly. the delay has always been attempting to preserve as much civilian life as possible. with no more civilians in the conflict area, no more aid would need to be sent and no restraint would need to be used in eliminating the remaining terrorist threat. with the complete destruction of hamas in gaza, cleanup and reconstruction could begin and anyone wishing to return to gaza at that point could do that. or, of course, they could stay in their new homes.

while this is a specifically gaza-centered idea, something similar would certainly work for the elimination of hamas and other terrorist forces in the west bank once gaza has been dealt with. this would minimize innocent civilian casualties while reducing the length of the conflict. it would also mean information would be much more transparent. if arab gazans were temporarily relocated, it would be impossible for hamas to attempt to lie about their deaths because they simply wouldn’t be in harm’s way.

this would all rely, of course, on the willingness of the civilians of gaza to walk away from the terrorists. i believe the vast majority of gazans wish to have peace and live in harmony with their neighbors. those who wish to stay and support hamas are terrorist supporters while those who choose peace and safety for their families deserve to be safe and protected. the choice is certainly clear and logical for all those who don’t subscribe to a philosophy of wishing to cause death to others.

the united nations, of course, could easily recommend such a solution. i am absolutely not the first to think of this kind of project, though i’m not aware of anyone specifically proposing a more open relocation and more freedom for gazan civilians. i don’t think there’s any need for the creation of new refugee camps. that’s how we got into this mess in the first place in many ways. many arabs live happily in israeli society. there’s no reason the civilians of gaza can’t live peacefully the same way going forward. it just appears they have been stripped of that chance by the forces of terror and hate.

we owe it to the world to try to fix this problem, not by pandering to terrorists and extremists but by trying to promote peace through integration and cooperation while taking a hard stance against the violence and fundamentalist hate of hamas and its supporters.

western christianity?

[estimated reading time 7 minutes]

let’s start with some belief basics here. given what season it is, santa. this is a fictional character based on a real-life “dude” for lack of a better word who traveled around giving gifts to people to celebrate happiness and thankfulness, especially children. he was loved and made them feel special at least once a year in a world that was extremely harsh on them for their whole lives. we know he’s not real but it’s a nice idea. of course, anyone who believes in santa as an adult is looked at like they’re pretty stupid. and that’s fair because we know he’s a fictional character.

keeping with the seasonal theme, the yeti or “abominable snowman”. this is another fictional character but a bit closer to reality and may actually have existed at some point in the past, though i wouldn’t stake my life on it. what we’re talking about is an albino gorilla of abnormally large size living in the extreme cold of the tibetan mountains. not wholly unbelievable but at this point after centuries of searching i think we can assume that if such a creature ever existed – not outside the realm of possibility given the profligate nature of the great apes and their lineages – it’s now extinct. this creature has a warm-weather compatriot who’s a bit less on the albino side but just as massive and excited by secrecy known as, in all the amplified creativity of idiots the world over, “big foot”, ironically a direct translation of the ancient king of sophoclean fame, oedipus. again, though, it’s not so much that this is a childish belief but someone declaring their belief in this almost-believable animal in the present is seen as being on the fringes of society and probably a member of the conspiracy-theory set of rabbit holes from alien pyramids to jfk as the victim of collective lesbian rage. in other words, coloring with a little less than a full box of crayons and probably eating those rather quickly.

similar stories can be told of the post-dinosaur fiction known as the loch ness monster, the alien landing at area 51 and the idea that velcro was invented by the vulcans, though that last one has some pretty convincing propaganda and i think i might make an exception to my no-voting approach to life if a vulcan ever ran for office.

but i think we can agree that these childish and fringe beliefs are frowned on by western society as a whole and mocked by many, if not most in the united states and canada. and that is altogether understandable. if you’re prepared to compromise your sanity to that extent, you are probably not a functioning adult and it might be time to work on the education part of your life.

the way deities are viewed is also rather interesting in western culture. egyptian deities like ra and amun are seen as anachronistic silliness and roman and greek gods like jupiter, apollo and zeus are dismissed as ancient stories told for the benefit of the uneducated citizens of the time. not unfair characterizations, of course. indian deities like durga and shiva are accepted more as household talismans and native and african belief systems are seen as societal outliers but generally harmless. but then we come to the beliefs of an ancient and obscure tribe of guest workers in north africa.

they had, as did almost all tribes at the time, local gods. i use the word god here but gender varied and was often fluid, as is the case with many non-western belief systems. travel a few days on foot and you probably encountered another local god. not that the people in the next village believed theirs was the only one. just that it was theirs and they’d protect the village or region. it’s a clear expression of wishful thinking. if you don’t like how reality looks, you pretend it’s different and hope nobody notices. but at that point in history everyone was doing it. tribes went into battle hoping they’d be saved by their gods doing battle on their behalf and they had someone else to blame if they lost. personal responsibility may be at an all time low in the modern world but that’s not exactly a historical oddity to say the least.

as i said, they were guest-workers in north africa for quite a while and came from a collection of west-asian tribes. they were mostly concentrated in egypt but some worked as far west as modern morocco and as far south as modern ethiopia and eretrea. at one point in history, though, during the reign of the egyptian pharaoh ramases ii, they got together and most left egypt and fled east back into west asia where they set up a new independent territory. each tribe had its own gods but realistically we can think of them having one central deity each. those originally from the north had similar views on theirs while those from the south had rather different perspectives but it worked out to be two mostly-distinct personalities. when they came together and started to write religious scriptures, they gave each of these personalities names – one for the northern god, one for the southern god and another for the godly amalgam of the two. over time, though, they were all merged into a single deity whose name was generally, as was the tradition in much of the region at the time, the local linguistic version of “god”. this same process can be seen in modern islam, for example, or many north african tribes.

several thousand years later, this region was overrun by the roman empire, as was just about everything else in the western and near-eastern world. it was mostly self-governing and the romans left them alone to their belief systems as long as it didn’t impact their participation in imperial governance, which it generally didn’t. until a series of revolts, of course, nearly a century after the birth of jesus, when they were completely decimated and subjugated as a population. they were highly-educated and hard-working, though, so they survived rather under the radar even to this day.

these tribes were known as the israelites or, in modern terms, jews, an ethic classification more than a religious one, analogous to “arab” or “indian” or “chinese”. their local gods became a scriptural mashup with a singular name and overarching collection of personalities. of course, jews of the biblical period didn’t profess a single deity, just that this god was theirs as a collective tribe. in fact, the first major faith system to state the existence of only one deity was neither judaism nor christianity. it was islam. judaism was founded on the existence not only of many gods in the world but multiple jewish gods by location. christianity was based on a single jewish god transmogrified into a roman cult and applied to a regional deity but it wasn’t until more than a millennium later than any significant declaration of the singularity of the christian god was espoused, centuries after “there is no god but god” became the muslim creed of belief and submission. even today with the christian trinity the existence of one god or three in that belief system is ambiguous at best while judaism is more a philosophical system of structure and practice based on archetypes and historical traditions than anything to do with belief.

there’s something particularly new and interesting about the concept of the jewish god, though, that also hadn’t been seen before in belief history. before that point, gods were generally good, evil or ambivalent and absent. but the jewish god was responsible for everything, all-seeing, all-knowing and all-powerful. they could change anything anywhere and sometimes good things happened, sometimes bad things happened and sometimes things were completely random and unpredictable. not wholly unexpected for a god whose beginning was actually multiple deities merged into one but those personalities definitely created a combination that had almost no internal cohesion. that didn’t stop people from believing, though. absolutely not. after the fall of jerusalem a few decades after jesus’ death in 70ce, it would have been easy to imagine the extinction of belief in that particular god but, as luck would have it, a few centuries later the roman empire was in trouble and the emperor, constantine i, needed a unifying force. so he borrowed the jewish scriptures, collected the teachings and writings of the followers of jesus, merged them all together and cut out the parts he didn’t like and combined all the gods into one. a new religion was formed based on his own personal background in roman cult practice but with a huge collection of scriptural history from a tribe generally hated by the romans and some newer material from an outcast group of rebels. if this is starting to sound a lot like a star wars fanfic, you wouldn’t be far wrong.

what’s interesting, though, is that as the roman empire unified on this single belief system, it dominated the western world and eventually spread to the americas after their colonization and conquest. of course, at that point in time the idea of a deity was already of questionable usefulness and certainly no longer in keeping with the scientific knowledge of the day. by the time of the voyages of columbus and cabot and cortez, a relatively good understanding of physics and chemistry was starting to emerge and it was only a few centuries later that biology got a good start in the west, at which point any notion of the supernatural was an interesting historical tradition and often a beautiful one but belief was already far from a declaration of awareness of the world.

though we haven’t actually gotten to the most curious part of this. we are talking about north american culture being based on the belief in a jewish god it is questionable jews actually believed in as anything more than a symbol of cultural performance and order.

in the time of moses, who likely did exist, and the exodus, which definitely didn’t happen the way it’s told in scripture, though the people who eventually became known as the jews certainly were in egypt and left to found a new nation in israel, who were they, the people whose deity has been borrowed by much of the modern west as a symbol of conservative anti-logic? well, they weren’t egyptian slaves. that’s a good place to start.

they were paid guest-laborers living in pharaonic egypt employed as everything from builders and masons to scribes and architects. in other words, they are analogous to modern mexican immigrants in the united states crossing the southern border in search of better lives and becoming guest-laborers. in other words, in moses’ time, the jews were exactly the working immigrants most american christians desperately want to eliminate out of fear and hatred.

even more curious, at the time of jesus, the jews were beaten in battle and subjugated as part of their empire but seen as irritants and mostly left to fend for themselves until they became too rebellious. so we’ve moved from mexicans, who most americans seem to have problems with, to puerto-ricans, the outcasts of america.

so let’s recap. we have a set of local deities from ancient times in asia combined into a single tribe-wide deity with multiple personalities and a nasty temper who was coopted by an imperial cult. it comes from a tribe of guest-worker immigrants living under imperial and colonial rule and generally despised so much people didn’t even think they were worth completely eliminating.

in other words, the christian right is a collection of the descendants of immigrant liberals from asia. who’d have imagined such a thing to be possible? maybe the vulcans.

getting off the spectrum

[estimated reading time 4 minutes]

it’s time we started thinking, talking and understanding differently the concept we have called autism for far too long. it has been talked about as a disease, a neurological difference, a spectrum and a gift. but it is none of those things and the name itself is both misleading and curious. autism from auto (self) is perhaps the root of all these issues. at this point, knowing far more than ever about how this problem works and impacts sufferers, a more appropriate term for it is “sensory shift disorder”. beyond the name, though, it is important to remember that this is not a spectrum, a fuzzy band where people are more of less, scattered across a fluid gradient of suffering. it is two different manifestations of similar underlying symptoms with myriad potential results. there is no more or less. we are not all on some silly color pallet with aspects of the disorder and once we get far enough from “normal” we are “differently normal” or “neurologically diverse”. we have a serious problem or we do not. some handle it better. some have been luckier than others in their environment and those around them. but the underlying issues are the same.

these two forms have often been given names that can be either political (asperger’s, mute, dumb, retarded) or demeaning (high or long functioning) but the names are a problem for more than their linguistic problems in a way that is far more difficult to solve — they are inherently inaccurate. i have proposed before that these two categories be thought of as linguistic and nonlinguistic but that’s, while accurate, not completely obvious. mostly because the differentiation isn’t between those who can deal with language at all and those who can’t but those who process language symbolically and those who only process it reactively. that explanation gets lost in the terms so i propose separating the forms by their learning processes instead of their language results. the same differentiation applies but it is easier to understand. we should call these categories fast and slow ssd.

the dividing line is quite easy to place. those with slow ssd either never learn to interact with language in a meaningful way or their use of language is stilted and purely derived from patterned interaction with words and concepts. their learning process is stilted and even if they develop linguistic skills at some point their use of language and symbolic thought is never fluent. those with fast ssd are the other extreme. they usually (though not always) grasp at least one language fluently very early and think symbolically even as infants. their ability to conceptualize and focus on detail often marks them as young geniuses. this intelligence sometimes manifests in adulthood but often regresses as other children catch up.

what these two forms have in common, though, is more fundamental. ssd is not a mental disorder in the way ptsd or schizophrenia are. it is a sensory disorder with severe mental repercussions that often resemble obsessive-compulsive disorder, sociopathy and various personality disorders. the mechanism of action is quite simple. it is basically a disregulation of the sensory processing centers of the brain. this often results in hypersensitivity but may work in the other direction, leading to lack of sensitivity. it is unpredictable. the same person may have visual hyperacuity while lacking almost all sense of smell. or the variation may be moment to moment, hypersensitive in the morning and numb to all sensation that same afternoon. the combinations are what have led to the initial silliness about spectrums and universality within the population as sensory variation is common. the presence of sensory disregulation itself isn’t the issue but the severity and continuous nature of it that differentiates the disorder from normal human daily variability of feeling.

the link between the two forms, once thought of this way, is more obvious. when a child is attempting to learn language and symbolic thought, the two primary differentiating factors for human knowledge and understanding compared to animal consciousness, the overwhelming impact of sensory disregulation makes this process extremely difficult, often impossible. if, however, the impact goes in the other direction, enhancing the child’s natural sensitivity to thoughts and language, the result may be rapid development. the key here is that this sensitivity disregulation may result in the child being overwhelmed to the point of difficulty or stimulated to the point of success. low sensitivity works both ways, too, causing difficulty with learning by making word differences hard to understand or dulling inhibitions allowing children to learn quickly without worrying about mistakes and communication failures.

the difficulty often shows later in life, however. with the continuous pressure of public human interaction, hypersensitivity leads over time to physical and mental overwhelm while hyposensitivity leads to either lethargy and depression or dangerous public practices to achieve desired levels of stimulation. as the body and mind fight to regulate sensory perception, mental difficulties propagate and multiply, especially the depression and traumatic aftereffects of a lifetime of difference and segregation, whether desired or imposed. the brain develops more and more coping mechanisms and patterns to regulate a world spinning more and more wildly out of control leading to extreme ocd symptoms in most fast ssd adults.

over time slow ssd adults tend to appear mentally-disabled, working repetitive menial jobs but seemingly happy in their minimized interactions with the world around them. fast ssd adults, however, tend to disintegrate as they age, often appearing as excellent students and even child prodigies early in life, peaking in their teens and early twenties, experiencing mental collapse and overwhelm often to the point of suicide by their thirties and functionally overwhelmed beyond repair by middle-age.

of course, there is no solution to this issue and acceptance of ssd as a part of the human condition, especially as it is so severely underdiagnosed and poorly-understood, will help to give ssd adults the necessary care and treatment that had been sadly and often fatally lacking in the past. it is hoped by many that a genetic solution may someday be available to repair sensory disregulation and allow the mental and physical overwhelm of the continuous sensitivity problems to end.

understanding and acceptance are the beginning, though. perhaps once we stop looking at humanity as a spectrum of differentiation and start understanding sensory processing and whole-self overwhelm as ongoing trauma it will be easier for neurologically-default and ssd adults to better coexist peacefully. that is, at least, my personal hope.


[estimated reading time < 1 minute]

as usual
beauty eludes me completely
yet i taste it
at the edge of my consciousness
and dream i am drinking it
though whether wine or hemlock
i am still unsure
with its bittersweet prickles
against my skin
and caressing tenderness
i suspect is the prelude
to proclamations of desire
i will never return

you walk on streets
populated by men
seeming as trees
but plundering your depths
with glances different only in their trapped rapelessness
from those of their mousterian precursors
yet your footsteps pause
not an instant
as the gauntlet is neither thrown
down nor unknown to you

i stare shocked
an interloper
confused by the language swirling
in the nearly-darkness
while crazed desperation meets obsessive hatred
in an instant
and jealousy dies fiery deaths
and ice-daggers
only barely managed to remain veiled
behind the moonlight
yet sidewalks don’t open to swallow them
across styx’ currents

perhaps it is me
who has already left this world
or never once entered it
if my delusions of friendship
taste only of smiles
and shadows of aesthetics
while swirling around me
are scents of pheromones
and ownership at one phallus’ removed
and bodies become instruments of torture
only in my fractured dreams

democracy has failed us

[estimated reading time 7 minutes]

democracy doesn’t work. it never has and it is painfully incapable of functioning in a way that leads to a good society. perhaps a better one than other possibilities, at times. but not a good one because good from a moral and ethical standpoint is starkly opposed to collective desire and democracy is simply the practical representation of desire. but that’s a theoretical issue and there are dead children on the ground all around us so while you may not agree with me about the necessary failure of democracy in all its iterations it may be far less contentious to think about why it has failed in this particular instance and what can be done about it. whether you like democracy or, like me, see it as folly, we look around us and see small corpses riddled with bullets and if you are not crying you simply do not deserve to be considered human anymore. you are nothing more than flesh waiting to decompose. keeping our children safe is the most fundamental of our roles and we are failing. not just once. accidents happen in our lives. but when a situation repeats with no end in sight, when we continue to walk down a path expecting different results but change nothing about how we exist, that is not an accident. that is us being complicit, tacitly demonstrating our acceptance of the status quo. it means we either like the outcome or we don’t care enough to change it.

according to the cdc, a little over forty-five-thousand people are killed with guns every year in the united states – that’s about eighty-percent of murders. if this number isn’t striking to you, you have an interesting sense of proportion but i’ll make it more real with a comparison. if we take the official estimate of the number of people exterminated at the sobibór concentration camp during the second-world-war and average it across the whole duration of the holocaust, that’s approximately the same number of people killed every year. i’ll say that again in case it flew by so fast. the average number of people killed in the united states with a gun every year is about the same as the average number of people killed during the holocaust at the sobibór death camp.

but you were aware it was a problem before i started speaking, i have no doubt. it has been in the news for years. the subject of editorials and talkshows and more articles than anyone can count. despite this, it has continued. it hasn’t just remained a problem. it has gotten worse. i know what some people will say, of course. that there has always been violence on the streets and in schools and the fact that we have better communications technology and people are more plugged-in to a world of constant, ubiquitous access to instant information means we hear more about it. and that is certainly true. but just because you hear more about something doesn’t mean there isn’t more of it happening. statistics on shootings are increasing and have been for decades with no significant decline. even during a pandemic that kept us locked away for the majority of two years as some crimes declined in a measurable way gun violence increased – while complete statistics haven’t been released yet for part of the pandemic period for obvious reasons, those that have show absolutely no improvement and mostly a continuation of the worsening of the issue.

we agree there is a problem. the most die-hard conservative pro-gun obsessive agrees there’s a problem. we don’t all agree what the problem is but there is no lack of empathy on the conservative side of the political spectrum. republicans, i am absolutely certain, are not generally for dead children any more than non-republicans. and i’m certainly not a democrat so i’m not going to make the awkward mistake of thinking that everyone who’s anti-right-wing is necessarily pro-biden. which causes a significant issue when the democratic system is designed as an adversarial binary. either you’re for the republican party or you’re for the democratic party. and if you’re for neither…

which is where this issue raises its ugly head. democracy doesn’t work. it can’t. but specifically in this instance it isn’t just an intellectual exercise. the failure of democracy in america is resulting in children bleeding for our stupidity. i believe this must stop. but i am, sadly, not in the majority. i want to think we all care enough to prevent more death. i am, however, certain this is not the case. and the reason i know this is true is simply that after years of horrific results we have still done nothing. despite all voicing our desires to end the cycle of violence on both sides of the political aisle nothing has been accomplished. if it was important, we would have fixed it.

democracy is the application of mob rule to government. that’s not an opinion. it’s a definition. let’s take a look at how this works. the whole idea of democracy is not that the general public has a voice in making decisions, which may or may not be useful. it is that the general public, whether directly or through representation, actually makes all the decisions. this is disastrous for three reasons.

first, the general public is not well-informed about the basis for decision-making. if you want someone to make a good decision, you have to ensure they have the information required about all the options before making it. not just making that information available but guaranteeing its comprehension before the decision occurs. this is the basis for all contract law, for example. if you don’t understand the contract, you can’t legally agree to it. the fact that it is not the case in government shows exactly how much we don’t care about the decisions being made being good ones.

second, the general public is poorly-represented when making these decisions. according to polling data, the overwhelming majority of the american population is in favor of reproductive rights, strict gun-control and dramatically-increased environmental standards. yet none of those things has actually been represented in the discussions and decisions taking place in congress. whether the democratic concept of general-public-decision-making is good seems like a less-important question when faced with the issue that in a government pretending to represent those collective decisions the majority is not even being given the power to make them, simply a loud minority that happens to hold power because of voting equations and representation borders.

third, not only does the general public have a vested interest, its decisions change on an almost-constant basis. this is not a lifelong-policy question. someone who held an opinion yesterday often holds a different one today. while politicians rarely dramatically change their position on issues (or at least don’t publicly change those positions in meaningful ways), individuals truly do. this is partly because of manipulation but mostly because of lack of information. the public makes its decisions and forms its opinions from a very limited quantity of data in most instances. ask an average person how much they know about gun violence, abortion or the environment and you will discover the majority (the overwhelming majority) only has a small amount of data and that all of it has come from sound-bytes and sensationalized news broadcasts. we are showered and inundated with information on a constant basis but it fluctuates so dramatically from one topic to another, what happens to be a hot-topic today. a few weeks ago it was the war in ukraine. after that it was the supreme court. now it is the most recent school massacre. people have developed the emotional attention-spans of mosquitos and make decisions based on fluctuating interests and sensational, entertainment-focused information distribution and manipulative sources.

what this means is that we have a government system based on the notion that decisions are made by an engaged and informed public directly expressing itself to its representatives who turn those decisions into practice. setting aside whether those decisions are intended to be ethically or morally good for a moment, even if these people are intending to make the best possible decisions, they are being separated from those decisions by lack of information, an inability to actually have their decisions turned into policy and continuous manipulation and disinformation. that is the first half of the problem.

the second half of the problem is that the general public has a vested interest in the question. while that doesn’t necessarily guarantee immoral, unethical and frequently “evil” results, it’s a good place to start if that’s what you’re looking for. in taxation policy, there is a concept where the system is intended to be designed so the person making the decisions doesn’t know what their circumstances will be. it allows for far more fairness in designing tax brackets to ensure enough money is collected without causing more harm to those who are underprivileged than is necessary. it doesn’t work, of course. because the people making the decisions aren’t actually separate from the system and they have preconceived notions of what is fair that are simply not objectively true. but it’s a great theory.

the problem applies far more largely when the issue is emotional, however. people will fight for what they want. perhaps more than ever, the general public is against the idea of seeking a common, objective “good”. they don’t think in those terms. morality and ethics are no longer interesting. there was a time when people wanted to be good. they wanted to live good lives, ethically and morally. but that was a time when they were afraid of an afterlife in hell and we’ve spent about a century since those old mythical superstitions finally disappeared. sadly, without the threat of eternal damnation, we have become practical existentialists, floating from one insatiable lust to the next. we want more convenience, more money, more luxury. we want more personal freedom and don’t care how much that destroys the lives and happiness of those around us. because we come first. it’s not just cultural exceptionalism. it’s personal self-obsession.

so the result of this is that we have a system where people are supposed to come together to select good options and put them into practice. but they are poorly-informed and easily-manipulated by an entire interlocking system of media and culture. add to that the complete lack of desire to actually make choices that are good for everyone and an obsessive focus on making choices that are self-serving and you have a recipe for something. it’s not disaster. it’s worse than disaster. it’s dead children.

there are easy answers to these questions. the easy answer to children being killed with guns is not to eliminate the people who want to hurt children, though that’s a nice fairy-tale answer. it’s to remove the guns. all the guns. not just the ones people want to give up and not just the ones we think we can eliminate. we have to make gun ownership illegal. do i think that’s fair or culturally-valid? absolutely not. but we must give up our desires and our cultural background to save our children. that is what we as adults are supposed to do – sacrifice our wants and lusts and passions for pleasure in the service of those we have brought into the world that it’s our duty to protect.

these are easy answers. but our system is making them impossible to put into practice. that means the system is broken. whether we fix it is also a simple question. it’s the same as the answer to this one.

do we care if more children die?

(the statistics on gun deaths come from the centers for disease control and the pew research center with the latest official statistics being from 2020. the statistics on deaths at nazi concentration camps are those provided by the holocaust encyclopedia of the united states holocaust memorial museum. you are welcome to explore these statistics for yourself. gun deaths in 2020, 45222. total executions at sobibór in six years of the war, 250000, giving an average of 41667/year. while these statistics are likely estimates and both are conservative, their similarity is well within the range necessary for a comparison.)

linguistic overpopulation

[estimated reading time 4 minutes]

english has too many pronouns. and that’s not even counting the silly made-up ones that seem to be floating around lately that i’m not going to focus on. if we look at just the subject-form pronouns in english, what do we have? first person, “i” and “we”. ok, that seems reasonable enough, one that’s only me and another for me and others. a good distinction to be able to make. second person we have “you”. perfect. third person? this is where things really go off the rails. “he”, “she”, “it”, “they”. four. what’s the difference? grammatically, “he”, “she” and “it” are singular while “they” is singular or plural depending on circumstance. so there’s no reason to have the first three because they only do the same job “they” already does. but this causes a huge problem. “they”, even when used in singular form, takes plural verbs, which is extremely confusing to english-speakers even if they’re natives. even more confusing to learners, i assure you, as there’s no reason for it that seems apparent in the modern language.

why does “they” take plural verb forms? actually, they’re not plural forms at all and that’s why this becomes so strange. english doesn’t differentiate between singular and plural the way you might think. it’s a very fluid scale that has transformed into something fairly rigid only in the last century or so. if you look at old writing, you will find that when a speaker is being respectful (either of self or others) they use what has become the plural form and when they are being less formal they use what’s now the singular. there are reasons for this and we could talk about the “subjunctive” function plural verbs exercised in older forms of english but the easiest way to think about it is that the “modern english plural” is derived from the respectful, formal version and the “modern english singular” is derived from the more informal version. because “they” was focused on others and being respectful of others is often required in polite society it became more common to use the formal version compared to when talking about self or a specific other in everyday conversation. these connections became so strong they transformed into a differentiation between singular and plural rather than just formal and informal.

that completely aside, there’s another argument that continues to rage about whether “they” can even be singular. it shouldn’t be an argument. “they” was originally a singular pronoun with no plural function at all. there was another plural pronoun – in fact, there were several other singular ones and a variety of plural ones. “they” didn’t get its plural function until considerably later in the history of the english language. but none of that really matters. it definitely functions as either today and even the dictionary agrees. not that it ever really disagreed but people can get very focused on meaningless distinctions.

which is why i think we should leave these historical problems where they belong – in the past. english doesn’t need all these pronouns and we could very easily simplify it by eliminating the extra ones but i think that’s likely to lead to resistance and idiosyncratic whining, especially in native-speakers. so i think there’s a better solution that functions a bit more easily and streamlines the language a bit. we replace the existing pronouns with some that are simplified and others that are simply respelled. simply, english has too many pronouns so let’s add another. and remove a few.

i don’t think we need to change the first-person pronouns. “i” is simple. it’s a single letter and can’t really be any simpler than it already is. we can talk about object-form versions in a moment but let’s just focus on the subjects and assume this one is good. “we” could be improved but it wouldn’t really change anything meaningful and everyone likes it the way it is. there’s no real debate about “we” so it’s probably best to leave it that way.

the second-person pronoun is likely ok but we might as well look at it while we’re fixing pronoun problems. there’s no reason for it to have all those extra letters. two-thirds of its letters are silent. so let’s just eliminate them and spell it the way it sounds to make things easier without changing how the language is spoken at all.

so we have three pronouns – “i”, “we”, “u”. all fairly straightforward and relatively-uncontroversial so far. and this is where things get crazy and people start lighting things on fire.

let’s just eliminate all the existing third-person pronouns. they’re either unhelpful (“he”, “she”) or debated (“it”, “they”). think there’s no debate about “it”? believe me. “it” is my preferred standard pronoun. try to get people in our current age to call you “it” and everyone starts whining about disrespect and how “difficult” it is. difficult to use a two-letter word. i don’t know what’s wrong with these people. but it causes incredible problems and people have so much emotion trapped in these two words it’s better to simply discard them. which leaves us a small void. we now have to have a third-person pronoun and we’ve deleted all the existing ones. and we want it to be simple and completely without emotional baggage or history yet easy to remember.

our first and second-person pronouns are now single-letters (“we” is a single vowel-sound gloss so that’s close enough, just a strange idiosyncrasy of the awkward english spelling system) so it’s likely best to mirror that for the third-person. i suggest “e”. “he”, “she” and “they” already have that letter in them so it even looks similar and streamlines the shift in reading for those already used to text in the language. this pronoun would take singular verbs the same as “it” currently does but allow singular or plural meanings, eliminating the need for the plural verbs, another simplification english desperately needs.

now let’s take a look at object-form pronouns. there are lots of them. “me”, “us”, “him”, “her”, etc. there’s simply no need. english has strict word-order to determine subject and object. if i say “james gave linda the ball”, you know who had the ball at first and who has it now. so we don’t need different pronoun forms to tell us these things because we don’t modify the names they are replacing – we used to and some languages still do but it’s unnecessary in a language with word-order like english. so we can eliminate all the object-form versions (and all the reflexive versions like “itself” and “themselves” because they can all be simplified to “self”) and no meaning is lost.

“i gave jean the paper” or “jean gave i the paper” are easily-comprehensible so why complicate it by adding all these extra words?

english drastically requires simplification in so many ways – verbs, number, gender, spelling, etc. but the simplest of these is probably what i’ve just suggested. simplify english pronouns and at least we eliminate some needless complexity with minimal effort. thanks for exploring this idea with me today…

the second amendment

[estimated reading time 15 minutes]

i’m neither an american nor a constitutional scholar. but i am a language teacher specializing in culture and the development of contemporary language. and if that counts for nothing reading a document intended to be read by average people and understood by the masses as a guarantee of freedom, i’m not sure what better qualification would be. not that i care as i’m going to talk about it anyway and you’re welcome to move on to other writers if you prefer.

the second amendment to the constitution, passed in 1789 and ratified two years later, reads…

a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

aside from the obvious bad writing, which we can generally chalk up to it being written in the eighteenth century when the language was still rather cumbersome even by modern standards, this isn’t a particularly confusing passage. compared to most legal documents whose lengths are painful and technical jargon is incomprehensible, this is, at first glance, rather straightforward and simplistic.

except that it’s not.

the first issue is definitional. the second is attributional. the third is conditional. we’ll talk about them in that order. that’s not because that’s their order of importance or complexity, just because it’s what seems logical when looking at a passage from the perspective of language.

there are nine pieces of this sentence whose meanings are questionable. let’s take a look at each of them and try to put together a sensible unified perspective.

  1. bear arms. while this is the focus of most definition questions, i think it’s the one with the least obvious answer and perhaps the one least relevant to the issue in many ways. but we’ll explore it anyway as it’s pre-traveled ground and a good warmup. it also gives a solid argument for you to hold onto at dinner parties against anyone who happens to think this amendment justifies carrying a handgun around as they conduct their daily business. “bear arms” is an idiom. it has nothing to do with body parts or ursine militaries. in the eighteenth century, much as it does today, it meant “be part of an organized military group”. there has been a lot of argument about this centered on the notion that it had a different meaning then from its modern concept of “having a gun”. but it didn’t. not that it meant simply having a weapon then. it’s that it doesn’t mean that today either and everyone knows it. they just like to pretend it means having a personal weapon because it makes this amendment seem to say everyone can carry guns to work and the grocery store and they’ve played so many first-person-shooters and lust for violence so much that’s an appealing notion to them. this is pure silliness, though. we all know that “take up arms”, “bear arms”, “armed forces” and “being under arms” have very specific meanings in english and they’re all about organized military groups. they always have been and everyone hears them this way. they pretend not to sometimes when it’s convenient but that’s like the people who go to the desert counter and say “my wife told me i can only have one plate of cake so have you got a plate big enough to put the whole cake on?”. of course, this doesn’t specifically mean “being in the army” or even “being in the state-sponsored military”. it left interpretation open for individual groups to mount revolutionary forces. but we now live in an age where those forces are seen as insurrectionist and treasonous. in the eighteenth century, it was necessary for there to be a revolutionary army to fight against the oppression by the british and free the united states from imperial domination. that oppressive role has now been taken over by conservative politicians and we don’t need to fight them with guns. they’re the ones with the guns anyway.
  2. keep arms. here’s where things get interesting. the word “keep”, unlike phrases like “bear arms”, has changed significantly in the past two-hundred years. today, “keep” carries the meaning of ownership like “i like to keep a car because it’s convenient”. it sounds a little outdated but people still understand it. another few decades and it may have dropped from comprehension completely in that sense. it also has the meaning of “remain”, which is far more common – “keep your mouth shut”. the meaning a few hundred years ago, though, was far closer to “be responsible for”. “i keep a dog” or “i keep an army” weren’t unusual uses. what that means is that this phrase could easily have two interpretations but neither of them is the modern way of looking at them, especially in pro-gun circles. the first, more obvious perspective on it is that it means “be responsible for the use of weapons”. in other words, the right to keep arms is talking about having the right to be part of a society that uses military force to protect itself. it doesn’t in any way mean owning a personal weapon. it just means being ethically, morally and financially responsible for the state military. i think this is a valid interpretation and likely the one intended. the other option is a little more niche but it’s certainly a possibility. “keep arms” was a euphemism for “keep an army” as “arms” was just another way of saying “military force”. so what this might be talking about is the right not to have a gun but to have personal protection – bodyguards in the small-scale version but, more broadly, a local militia. the reason this comes up today is twofold. one is that it isn’t talking about individuals having the right to keep personal weapons (especially not in public places around others). it’s talking about the right to living in a safe environment – a place patrolled by security guards or an armed police force. this is, in fact, quite possibly talking about having an armed force protecting schools and public buildings, for example. while i think this interpretation is less likely to be the one intended at the time, it’s another valid way of reading the sentence and quite applicable to our current issue.
  3. right. we hear a lot about rights. i think this might be the largest problem in reading documents from the past like the constitution, though. people think they know what “right” means in this context and it’s not quite the case. you probably think of “right” as in “something i’m allowed to do” or “something nobody can stop me from doing”. and that is certainly one modern version of the term but historically it’s not really how the word was understood. remember we’re talking about a country whose people mostly left europe in search of freedom from oppression. not because they wanted more “rights” in the modern sense of the word but because they thought what they were doing was “right” as opposed to the “wrong” european governments told them it was. what were they doing? mostly practicing religious beliefs different from the catholic/anglican norms of their old countries. whether that was protestantism or judaism or something completely different, often no religion at all, they didn’t see it as “freedom of religion” as much as “freedom from state religion”. what we’re talking about here is a lack of judgment rather than a guarantee of permissibility. that’s a subtle difference but it’s quite striking in context. if you believe you have a “right” to have a personal weapon and you redefine what “right” means, it changes the inherent meaning of the sentence from “nobody can take away my weapon” to “it is ethically permissible to have a weapon”. now we’re not talking about laws anymore but morality. it’s good to have a gun. well, it might have been good in some ways in the eighteenth century even in an objective sense because we were talking about a revolution and a time of wild oppressive forces and constant government violence from various directions and countries. but is it “good” now? is it “right” in the sense of “not wrong”? and is that true for everyone? because we aren’t just supposed to be living in a free society. we’re supposed to be living in an equal society. so if it’s moral for one person it must be moral for everyone. do you want your children to have guns? what about your enemy’s children? the people you hate? the people who hate you? or would it be a more ethical perspective to have none? i’m not passing judgment on it, only asking the question. but remember this isn’t about a fundamental lack of prohibition. it’s about a question of morality and ethics. don’t forget the constitution was a document about deeply-held personal feeling and ethical truth far more than it was one of statements about behavior. we’re talking about a different age.
  4. infringed. while the largest question about the word “infringed” is about who was theoretically doing the infringing, its definition is a question more because it’s an unusual word than one that’s changed significantly with time. it’s not one you hear on a regular basis. study english for a long time and it may appear once or twice. study anything else and you might go your whole life without hearing it. it comes from the word “fringe”, of course, like “edge”. so what we’re talking about is something being seen as “outside the norm”. it’s not about “legal” or “illegal”. it’s about something being an accepted norm. once we start to understand that “right” is about a moral judgment, not a legal one, it starts to make a lot more sense. the right to bear arms is a right that can’t be declared a fringe belief – in other words, having an army to protect us from outside oppression and interference will always be socially, culturally, morally and ethically correct.
  5. miltia. this is a fancy word for an army. while it’s got a somewhat different meaning today, two-hundred years ago, it simply meant an army. like a real one with officers and soldiers. that doesn’t necessarily imply it was the official army of the government – at the time, the official government was in london, remember. so we’re talking about a revolutionary army and a variety of state armies. you already knew this, though, if you’ve studied anything about the revolutionary war. they don’t talk about the “pennsylvania army”. they call it the “pennsylvania militia” – it’s even recognized in the “militia act”. not just in pennsylvania but it’s a clear example to look at. if you hear “militia” and the first thing that comes to mind is a ragtag band vaguely approximating a mashup between the merry men of robin hood and a redneck posse going after immigrants like it’s a safari picnic, this is certainly the modern version of the word. but that’s not what people heard when it showed up at the time the constitution was being drafted. they meant uniforms and citations for bravery on organized battlefields. as organized as battlefields ever got, of course, which is a whole other issue and one of much myth and legend. but you know what i mean. drills and ranks and officers and more than anything large-group popular sanction for its actions to safeguard the general public so they wouldn’t have to fight themselves or suffer under oppression and conquest from outside. an army.
  6. necessary. this is an interesting word form a historical context. though its meaning hasn’t actually changed in any meaningful way. it just means “required”. but it’s a conditional marker. don’t forget that. we’ll come back to it in a minute. it means “true” or “needed”. and if you speak english you already know this. “conditional marker” is the key, though. we don’t speak like this anymore and that’s what makes it confusing. while you’re waiting, think about the sentence “dogs being necessary for happiness, my daughter got a puppy for her birthday”. more on that later.
  7. free state. this is where things really become striking if you are looking at this amendment – or the constitution in general – for the first time in a serious historical way. because you have to ask yourself what “free” means and what a “free state” is in the context of the eighteenth century. this means we have to ask three questions. does “free” have a particular historical meaning? what is a “state”? and what would the phrase “free state” have meant to a newly-minted american of the time – perhaps with the addition of whether this would have had different meanings, for example, if you were in georgia or virginia or pennsylvania or if you were female, black or chinese. we’ll start at the beginning. “free” refers not to the ability to do but the lack of persecution. not prosecution from a legal perspective. persecution. that’s what people declared their independence from – external judgment and control. we’re not talking about a new country saying it doesn’t want to have laws. or even one where the laws would have been different. they weren’t measurably different laws. it was the lack of persecution and oppression that was at stake here. freedom wasn’t “i can go where i want, do what i want and be who i want” – it was “i can’t be hurt because of who i am and what i believe and neither can my children”. “state” in this context was a gloss of individual states and a nation-state. there’s a lot to unravel there but it’s not relevant to the current topic so i’ll leave it alone for the moment and you can assume whether we’re talking about individual states or a collective representing them all is irrelevant to this issue but it’s something you may want to explore in terms of the rest of the constitution because it changes the way some other things are looked at. like the first amendment and what it means for hate speech and freedom of expression. but we don’t express ourselves freely from the barrel of a gun so that’s likely enough about it. “free state”, though, has a very specific historical meaning. it doesn’t mean a place where you’re free to do what you want. that might be what people hear when it’s said now but that’s not at all what was meant by it in revolutionary times. it was linguistically exactly what it sounds like. not the people in the state who were free. the state itself was free from imperial control. free from britain. free from being controlled from the outside. this isn’t a declaration of individual independence but the independence of the colonies from the british empire. i can’t express too strongly how important this difference is. this is not in any way a statement about personal freedom, though personal freedom is implied in terms of how people are supposed to be treated from ethical, moral and religious perspectives. it’s a statement about the government of virginia not being subject to laws passed in london or controlled by an army issued from london – only laws, armies and police forces from within its own borders. whether that extends to those forces in washington is a different question and one not covered in this amendment in any way. but we’re talking about the state being free, not its people. while this may be a bit of a setback if you’re looking for justification here for racial equality, it’s not ambiguous in any way. and there are other places you can look for that. this just isn’t one of them. this amendment doesn’t guarantee any personal freedom. just that you’re not british anymore. but you probably didn’t think you were.
  8. the people. “people” means humans. but “the people” isn’t nearly as general as that. it means citizens. “the people of these united states” is not a statement about people who live there. it’s about people who see themselves as “of the place” and who are recognized as being part of the society and community around them. why is this of significance? it means we’re talking about fully-integrated members of society. there’s a pretty solid argument to be made that this doesn’t include women, children, slaves or visitors. there’s even a relatively-stable perspective that this doesn’t even cover people who don’t own land and make money from it. or at least who come from a family that does. but the important part here is that in the eighteenth century this was a collective term. it isn’t about individual freedom or guarantees of freedom from prosecution. it was actually the opposite. it was about a group that was intending to be more moral, more ethical, more free from external control and oppression to create a more thoroughly-integrated community in a specific place. freedom of individual behavior was certainly a topic of discussion. but it wasn’t discussed here. this is about people as a collective body of citizens coming together to decide they need an army to protect that cohesive community identity from external actors, usually outside imperial powers like britain, france, spain and portugal. the state and its population have a collective right to have an army to keep it safe, in other words.
  9. arms. this is a bit of a bonus one. but it’s somewhat significant to the topic at hand to understand what we’re talking about if we’re actually going to make sense talking about guns in this context. yes, arms definitely included guns in the eighteenth century. but not the kind of guns we have today. automatic and semi-automatic weapons? huge cartridges of ammunition? not on your life. we’re talking about clumsy weapons, many suited for nothing more than a single volley shot to disorient an enemy. they were heavy, cumbersome, slow, inaccurate and extremely dangerous not just to the person on the receiving end. and most people didn’t immediately die from the impact from an eighteenth-century firearm. for one, they were fired in a volley manner from a huge distance so the projectiles didn’t have nearly the force. second, they weren’t generally bullets in the modern sense. third, though, most importantly, they weren’t designed to penetrate as much as to repel. so when you picture the “right” to have a weapon, it might be a thought to look at what kinds of weapons they had in mind. guns were certainly there. but swords, knives and other weapons were far more the dominant items on the minds of most citizens when they thought about fighting. nobody was carrying around a 9mm in their waistband or a police special strapped under their arm at the time of the constitution. and i suspect few ever imagined such things would be possible. a modern handgun or assault rifle would be sufficiently advanced to the eyes of a revolutionary war solider, not even thinking about an average civilian, to have seemed like sorcery and witchcraft. the weapons used in most current gun crimes were so far outside the imagination of those writing the second amendment it wouldn’t be a stretch to say they were unthinkable.

having looked at the definitions, the next question that comes to mind is the question of attribution. we’ve already alluded to it but there are two issues that must be addressed here. first, if this is about legality, who is making the laws and about what? second, if this is about morality, which is far more likely, who is doing the judging and who shouldn’t be?

the first part is clear. if we’re talking about laws, which is somewhat implied even if it’s not stated, who is making the laws? not the individual. if that’s not obvious, try to remember we’re talking about the constitution. it’s a government document as much as it was a revolutionary one. this wasn’t about individual independence. it was about collective revolution to create a self-serving government of the united states. not anarchy. personal responsibility and group freedom for the states – perhaps as a group or perhaps individually. but this much is certain. from a legal perspective, there were going to be just as many laws and perhaps just as strict if not more. they were just not going to be laws imposed from outside where the general public had no say in what they were. power to the people as a whole, one might say, not power to the individual. so who wasn’t going to infringe on those fundamental laws and truths? this isn’t about limiting the government, either of the states or the new united federal government and its congress. it was about limiting outside interference. the british couldn’t apply their laws anymore because it was no longer a colony. that’s freedom. and it still works that way.

the second part should be just as clear because it’s quite straightforward but it is often a bit fuzzy – likely intentionally but i try to give people the benefit of the doubt, assuming lack of information rather than malicious intent. assuming this is a statement about morality and ethics, which it probably is, that having an army to protect the people from outside interference and oppression is just and correct, it’s the same outside force we’re talking about. the dominant interpretation from the european side at the time, particularly the british one, was that the rulers were the ones who deserved power. it was the way of the world, how the universe and society was organized. it was correct, “right” for the king to govern the colonies and decide what was right or wrong there. this is a statement about taking that authority away. that the king would say it’s wrong for the states to have militias – revolutionary armies. that fighting against the crown, seeking freedom and independence was wrong. this is a statement that at that point and from then on for the rest of time the british and all other outside forces couldn’t “infringe” or push outside the normal and correct expectation the idea of self-preservation as a society, a collective and a new country. it’s not about whether it’s socially or ethically acceptable to have a gun. it’s about whether it’s socially acceptable to have an army to keep us safe from outside forces.

the last piece of the puzzle, though, might be the most-obvious yet least-explored.

the first part of this statement is a conditional. “a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state…” like i said, we don’t speak or write like this anymore. so we’ll use a simple example i mentioned a few minutes ago – “dogs being necessary for happiness, my daughter got a puppy for her birthday”. let’s think about what this means. it’s a complex piece of english grammar and an unusual one in our version of the language. “dogs being necessary for happiness” is a formal construction directly equivalent to one of two options – “because dogs are necessary for happiness” or “if dogs are necessary for happiness”. which meaning it has is a contextual answer based on what comes in the next piece of the sentence – “my daughter got a puppy for her birthday”. that makes the first meaning obvious. “because dogs are necessary for happiness, my daughter got a puppy for her birthday”. the other doesn’t make any sense. it’s formal and arcane. but it’s not difficult to translate to modern english. let’s try that for the second amendment. “because a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”. even without modernizing the rest of the language, it certainly makes a lot more sense in a contemporary sense. the question is whether this is true. is the conditional sensible? is, in other words, a militia necessary to secure that the united states is free from outside control? because if it’s not the rest doesn’t apply. so the sentence is far closer to “if a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state”. if it is, there needs to be one and it needs to be socially and ethically accepted. if it’s not, the rest doesn’t apply.

so let’s apply what we’ve explored and convert the second amendment to a modern statement using modern language but conveying the same message that would have been understood in the eighteenth century.

the original…

a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.


if an organized army is necessary to the nation remaining independent, it is socially and ethically acceptable for that army to be created, supported and maintained by the nation without interference from outside.

if (and only if) an army is needed to protect us from the rest of the world taking over, in other words, it’s both moral and ethical for the government to raise one and provide for it with public funds raised through taxation whether some people support it or not. is it necessary today? perhaps. that’s not for me to judge in this article, though i have a strong opinion on it. in terms of interpreting the constitution, though, it’s irrelevant. i’ll leave it to the american people to figure out whether an army is necessary for the country to remain independent. whether this has anything to do with guns or individual freedoms, though? not in the slightest.

thanks for exploring this issue with me today. enjoy your freedom…

evil, not guns

[estimated reading time 7 minutes]

in the last few days, there has been an incredible increase in the amount of discussion of gun violence. of course, that’s not particularly surprising. people in the modern world jump from one hot-topic to another more quickly than changing their underwear. seriously. every day there is extreme outrage and emotional absurdity about something and the next it has been forgotten. not that i don’t think these issues are serious. i just think they’re serious next week and that we have to solve them rather than simply throw outrage and vitriol in their directions before getting distracted. the world is on fire. extremely. and we need to put the fires out instead of just wandering around, room to room, being shocked the fires are everywhere and continually getting worse.

this week’s fire of choice, however, is gun violence, particularly gun violence in schools. uvalde, texas, a city almost nobody outside that state and probably the majority of those inside it had heard of before this week, saw a disgusting attack on children. i hear people say “innocent children” a lot lately. which is an interesting distinction to make as if a bunch of six-year-olds have the possibility of being inherently evil and we only have a responsibility to protect those who aren’t. i generally believe people aren’t good or evil, just that their actions can be and change is always possible. but when we’re talking about young children i don’t really think there’s such a thing as a bad child. you may not agree. children, however, are our responsibility to protect. as adults, we don’t have a choice. it is a huge part of our purpose for existence. even the must rudimentary of animals with the simplest brains and social structures protect their children. it’s really only humans who have given up on our offspring, leaving them to be massacred in easily-avoidable ways. even encouraging their deaths. i know we have a population problem but this can’t be anyone’s reasonable solution to it, can it?

in that tiny city, twenty-one people were killed in one of the most deadly violent crimes perpetrated by an individual in history. given how horrifically violent our society has become, that’s not particularly surprising, either. violence is getting worse with every passing week, it seems, of late. and the statistics confirm it. as does the news with protests in capitals all over the world spilling into the streets and government buildings, leaving destruction and unprovoked wars of aggression springing up in places thought stable even a decade ago.

but let’s talk about the response.

the other thing that’s happened this week is the yearly convention of the national rifle association. it’s an odd coincidence but given the frequency of shootings lately it’s not really that odd when you think about it. has there been a week when no gun violence has been in the news? sure, not quite as severe as this. but people are dying, often children, killed by guns.

and i know what people are going to say. they’re not killed by guns. they’re killed by people. and that’s a valid distinction but it doesn’t matter. here’s why.

guns kill people quickly and easily. that means a single individual can cause vastly more death and destruction more reliably with a gun than without one. could a perpetrator do something similar with a knife? a sword? a heavy piece of pipe? a hatchet, perhaps? absolutely. but (and i admit i’m no expert on killing technique but i can extrapolate from common-sense) it’s more difficult and far slower. let’s say an adult wants to kill children in a school and they don’t have a gun. they get a knife, walk into the school and force their way into a classroom where they proceed to try to stab one of the children. they might succeed but while they’re doing it they have to fight off the teacher and the mass of other students, deal with the screaming that brings other adults in the building to help and protect themself from being disarmed. they might hurt one of the children. they might even manage to kill one. but there’s very little chance it would be a larger disaster. an attack on a child is certainly unforgivable and tragic. but a potentially-fatal attack on a single child is a vast improvement on a certainly-fatal attack on dozens.

it would be wonderful if we could eliminate the desire to cause harm, cause death, perpetrate crime. but since human society began these things have existed. it is the cost of human culture – greed, hatred and violence. and we must work to erase those from our societies, most certainly. but while we wait for the impossible to happen, perhaps we can do something to prevent it. there is a sentiment about violence similar to that of racism, that we must erase it from our hearts and minds before we can erase it from our streets. and that is true. but we’re not really ever going to be able to erase violence any more than we can erase racism. a half-century after the civil-rights movement and racism is still alive and well – in many ways more prevalent than ever in the 2020s. but we fight it with legislation.

perhaps we can fight violence the same way.

we have spent a century or more taking one particular approach to violent crime – the threat of punishment. it doesn’t work. let’s look at how this is supposed to function. we pass laws that say the response to a violent crime is arrest, prosecution and incarceration in a prison. this is a deterrent for certain people but – and here’s the really important part – not the ones we need to deter. a reasonable, educated, sensible person will see the threat of prison as a huge reason not to commit a crime. they probably didn’t have much interest in the crime in the first place, though. that might be great if it’s a crime without much risk like breaking traffic laws or lying on an insurance claim document. but when it comes to a crime most people don’t want to commit in the first place like executing a classroom full of children we can’t rely on how most people hear a threat of prison. we’re talking about the tiny minority of people who actually desire to hurt kids.

or perhaps it’s not that small a minority. in fact, violent crimes are committed by vast numbers of people every year. and they’re not quite the people you’d expect. this is because our society is so fixated on self-justified violence and anger and aggression that it’s impossible to find people not impacted by it, either by being terrified or by being more angry and, as a result, more likely to be violent.

but with this rise in “acceptable anger” comes a decline in how much people care about being caught and punished. so the same argument realistically applies. the threat of punishment isn’t stopping people like it once at least somewhat did. all we end up with is more people in jail but no fewer crimes being committed – more, in fact, as time goes on and it’s more and more obvious the punishment is minimal.

so what works better than using the threat of punishment? well, as we’re talking about children, let’s think for a minute about how you stop a child from getting hurt in the home. any parent will know these basic things – or any teacher. and it sounds simple but stick with me for a minute here. we’re going somewhere important.

teaching a child to cook is an exercise in thinking about safety. take them into the kitchen and there are things they can do and things they can’t. let’s say the child is four. the first thing you’d teach an adult about cooking is probably chopping vegetables. it’s simple and quick and the result is immediately-visible. would you teach the four-year-old to pick up a sharp knife and start wailing away on some carrots and zucchinis? not likely. unless you’re a sadist, you know they’re likely to hurt themselves. the knife is dangerous. that doesn’t mean you take away their functionality in the kitchen. you just take care of them. they start by mixing ingredients for cookies, stirring, rolling out the dough for bread. they have fun, you have fun, they learn and they don’t cut off any fingers.

it’s not because the knife was evil. it’s because you’re not and you don’t want the kid to get hurt.

let’s apply that thinking to our school-shooting situation. there is only one reason to own a gun in the real world – i mean, outside target-shooting, which doesn’t happen out in the streets and could be done in a tightly-controlled environment. killing. that’s what they’re for. it’s why guns were invented. killing people or animals is their only purpose. if you bought a gun and don’t intent to kill with it, i really want to ask precisely what your purpose of it is. just threatening to kill? is that better?

i heard someone recently say “i don’t want your hunting rifles or your pistols, just your assault weapons”. no. i want your guns. all of them. would it have been a little slower to kill two-dozen children with a handgun? a little. but not much. so what difference does it make what kind of gun it was?

i’m so tired of the simple answer not being the accepted answer. i’m so tired of waking up to another story in the news about children being executed because we can’t just look at the situation and say “no, we don’t need to be armed”. in theory, we have a right to do many things that can cause harm. but we have accepted them being eliminated. there’s nothing in the constitution about taking away the right to take recreational drugs, for example. heroin, cocaine and myriad other substances are prohibited, though. and i don’t see anyone screaming on the national news about a violation of personal freedom. if you decide to take illicit substances and put them in your body, the impact is severe. and it has a knock-on result in your community. but the impact is far less immediate or deadly today than getting a gun and walking into a school.

yet we are willing to continue to sacrifice children to the notion that freedom is more important than safety, more important than lives and more important than children.

what good does it do if you’re free but your daughter was just executed?

what good is being free if you went to work this morning to take care of children and came home in a box?

yes, i want your guns. i want all of them. i want to take them away because they’re not safe.

and if you want to keep them you aren’t just part of the problem.

you are the problem.

sights and bites

[estimated reading time 5 minutes]

“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, the torah says. “retribution!”, you cry. and you are wrong.

there may be more frequently-cited phrases of biblical wisdom but i doubt it. good samaritans? needles’ eyes? solomon’s wisdom? even allusions to nudity and serpents in primeval gardens pale in comparison with this seemingly-obvious declaration of religious justification and divine instruction for retribution. it’s just what our culture is screaming out for. in an age where there is nothing more frequent than righteous indignation, nothing more desirable than justifiable anger and aggression, nothing more common than violence and no videos no more popular than payback (other than porn, which is the great equalizer in entertainment, as it has always been, though that’s another issue altogether), it sounds like not only do you have a right to be angry and demand retribution but you’ve got a god on your side when you do it.

and this is the point when you have to ask yourself a serious question. what if that really was the right way to read that statement, hear that logic?

וְאִישׁ, כִּי-יִתֵּן מוּם בַּעֲמִיתוֹ–כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, כֵּן יֵעָשֶׂה לּוֹ.
שֶׁבֶר, תַּחַת שֶׁבֶר, עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן, שֵׁן תַּחַת שֵׁן–כַּאֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן מוּם בָּאָדָם, כֵּן יִנָּתֶן בּוֹ.

there are three possible ways to read this. one is very wrong. the other two are definitely possible, though i think one’s far more appropriate than the other, especially from a contemporary perspective. but i’ll let you be the judge of that in a few minutes.

the first is the way popular culture reads it. if you kill someone, they can kill you. if you hurt someone, they can hurt you. not simply compensation but violent, equalizing payback. to look at this more carefully, it’s important to remember where this line comes from. it’s in leviticus about building a more stable society. guidance from divine speech to the israelites through moses. in other words, it’s a prescription for a better way of life after escaping from slavery. now it’s extremely important to remember that the “slavery” part here is relative. whether this was real slavery or simply economic servitude is an open question and the balance of evidence strongly favors the second – in other words, exodus is playing a bit fast-and-loose with the truth to paint a dramatic picture. but that’s ok. the message is pretty clear. things were bad in egypt and it was better to have a coherent, stable, egalitarian society in the land of israel, free from the racial and social pressures of being second-class material objects in egypt (and, for that matter, most of the levant and nubia where egypt was the ruling body at the time…). so moses led the israelites from egypt to … the middle of nowhere for realistically far too long to be sensible. was this blatant stupidity? quite possible. but that part probably really did happen. it’s the why part that’s debatable, though not really relevant to today’s thoughts.

but there’s another why question that’s quite important. why were all these rules being communicated. perhaps more significantly, why did the teachers and elders think they were so important to write and keep. don’t forget, this was a mass of mostly-disorganized people far from the only homes they’d ever known traveling to a place they didn’t even completely know existed and were hoping for divine guidance. yet with all that happening they thought it was significant enough to write a very short list of instructions on how to live. humans are vindictive and aggressive. they have been since the creation of society. in many ways, society was designed and extrapolated as an extended justification for retributive violence rather than the simple hunting-and-gathering life before pseudo-modern cultural norms began. so if the instruction was to act the way they’d already been acting and it was ok, what was the point? continue as if nothing had happened? might as well have just stayed in egypt. might as well have said nothing. if there’s going to be an instruction, it’s because something had to change. like all other human societies, the israelites were already more than happy to punish each other for anything and everything. that went without saying.

yet it was said. the next possible version, the version that was assumed to be true at the time, was compensatory retribution. i think this is a dangerous line to go down in the modern sense but at the time it made a huge amount of sense. the idea was that there was a set financial compensation for crimes against others. cause someone to be hurt and you have to give them more than the money they’d have lost from not being able to work while they recover. kill someone and you owe their family vast sums of money. and the most important part of this was that it scaled based on the simple matter of potential payment. so a rich person couldn’t just kill someone then pay their family for the privilege. the rich were given immense fines for their crimes to make them difficult to justify – it was prohibitively expensive to pay off the family of a victim. which answer the question of why this was instituted. if you understand what predated it.

the system that came before was very simple. if you hurt someone, you were dragged in front of someone who would judge you – a religious or political leader, usually the same thing but with a few subtle differences we don’t need to get into here, especially in the egyptian context. then you stated your justification. if they agreed with you, you got away with it. if they didn’t, the punishment was generally whatever the judge thought appropriate at the time. the important part, though, is that there was a pretty good chance you could get away with it if you were “justified”. this was a huge change in that concept. the idea wasn’t “an eye for an eye if it’s not justified and a tooth for a tooth if they haven’t hurt you”. it was retributive compensation for harm even if you had a good reason to do it. there was no more “getting-away-with-it” potential. why was this significant? because we’re talking about creating a stable society. the opposite of a stable society may be understood as one where people continuously fight against each other. or where one bad deed turns into hundreds, back and forth. that’s not just a theoretical state. that’s what happened in most of the levant (especially what’s now the arab lands) for many thousands of years. realistically until the rise of islam with its new brand of justice and stability, arab nomadic societies engaged in the sort of vendettas that would make sicilians surprised at their severity and length. so did the israelites. until leviticus. enter moses and standardized retributive punishment in economic terms.

but that was then, as they say. and this is a new age. so we have the third interpretative model and i think it’s just as valid from a historical perspective and far more applicable to our modern society.

“retribution by active compensation” is what i have been calling it but i think a better term is “pay-forward culture”. in other words, reparative justice rather than retributive punishment. the idea is very simple, though not exactly in keeping with “human nature” – another word for “cultural norms” because “human nature” is to be like the great apes and they don’t do retribution, just survival and preprogrammed competition for sexual procreative supremacy. how does it work? if you take a life, you must spend the rest of yours saving the lives of others. if you have caused harm, you must spend your life relieving and preventing harm to others. hurt a child? help a hundred. kill someone? save a hundred lives.

of course, this is a startlingly departure from the traditional interpretation in popular culture of the concept of retributive justice. but it’s not at all a large departure from the traditional rabbinic interpretation. while the ancient version is financial rather than activity-based, that’s not as massive a leap as you might think. what would the money, land and possessions extracted in payment have been used for? to help those who suffered at the hands of the perpetrator, certainly, but far more frequently to prevent similar harm coming to others. and that, in effect, is exactly what we’re talking about.

so give it some thought. would you rather live in a society where payback and retributive violence were accepted and the norm or not? would you rather have the potential for self-justification and vicious anger or peace? i know where i’d rather be. an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? i’m fine with that. sounds like more funding for medical care to me. thanks, moses.

thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.