Sunday, October 13, 2013

Caesar's Messiah

I watched a fascinating movie, Caesar’s Messiah, based on the book by Joseph Atwill. Atwill’s thesis is not just that Jesus did not exist, but that he was created as propaganda by writers close to the Roman Emperor Titus Flavius. The author explains his argument here.

I should confess here that not only have I not read Atwill’s book, but I have not read the Bible (though I did once search the Old Testament for the dirty parts). As a lifelong atheist, the Bible has always seemed like a tedious waste of time to read. Since there is no evidence for the existence of God, why read a bunch of lies about this supernatural being?

I laughed at one wag who, when asked if he had read the Bible, said “No, but I saw the movie.” I have used the line a few times myself, but I shouldn’t, because I have not even seen the movie. So the reader can dismiss me as biased and ignorant. Fine. You’re free to leave.

Now that I have admitted my ignorance, let me give you my uninformed opinion. Atwill’s movie convinced me maybe 40%. I have some big objections that I will raise below.

The most interesting part of Atwill’s argument is the parallels between Josephus’s account of The Wars of the Jews and the gospels. Jesus’s life follows Titus’s exploits in Palestine step by step, like a bizarre parody of the general’s war. The parallels are too numerous to be a coincidence.

My problems with Atwill’s argument are first that the Roman creation of Jesus has a dual purpose, satire and propaganda. This is an uneasy coupling. Only a state propagandist of genius could transcend the seriousness and mediocrity that usually come with his profession. A writer would be wise to pick either satire or propaganda, but to combine the two only weakens both.

Second, Atwill contends that the Romans also created Saul/Paul as a fictitious character. It would take further genius to come up with all those letters Paul wrote, and to get into his point of view so thoroughly. I can see how “Render unto Caesar” serves Roman interests, but not some of the other tenets of Christianity, such as Paul’s attacks on reason. Only a sincere, serious mystic could have written what is attributed to Paul. Moreover, Paul’s lack of details about Christ’s life make it seem as if he wrote before the gospels were written, and was ignorant of those fables.

Third, I believe there are mentions of Jesus and the Christians that predate the Flavians.

The Caesar’s Messiah thesis is a fun intellectual game, but I doubt it will persuade the faithful.

UPDATE: I don’t want to end on such a flippant note; the political and philosophic issues involved are profound. If Atwill is right, then Christianity began as a project by a totalitarian state to keep its subjects obedient. This is stunning. As the the 21st century progresses, I believe we will see that religion is still the greatest tool the ruling class has to keep people obedient.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Obama's Whimsical Foreign Policy

Obama’s Syrian fiasco has been an appalling spectacle of a President who does not seem to think that attacking a country demands serious thought and preparation. Stuart Rothenberg of Roll Call runs down the highlights:
First the president of the United States draws a red line, promising action if it is crossed. Then, when Syria crosses the line, he prepares for action, saying that absolutely, positively, a military response is necessary. 
Then, at the last minute, he apparently changes his mind and figures that passing the buck to Congress to authorize military action is a good idea. But, of course, he won’t say what he’ll do if Congress fails to authorize action. Then, after his secretary of state seeks to mollify those worried about a full-scale war by promising that the U.S. military response would be “unbelievably small,” the president responds that “the U.S. does not do pinpricks.” 
Is this an Abbott and Costello comedy routine? A Peter Sellers movie about an inept political leader?
One could go on listing the contradictions and confusions of Obama’s Syria “policy.” The interesting question is: why? Why is Obama doing this in the first place and why is he so laughably inept? Here are a few thoughts.

1. Pragmatism. Since World War II American foreign policy has flown by the seat of its pants, and the problem is bipartisan. Obama’s fecklessness goes beyond this, but without the heritage of pragmatism the current events would not happen.

2. Symbolism over substance. The purpose of Obama’s threatened use of force is not to accomplish anything but to demonstrate his altruism. Action that will do nothing but show a leftist’s good intentions? Yes, this is very much liberalism in action.

3. Leftover Cold War thinking. Leftists have long believed that US support of authoritarian regimes abroad is imperialist and evil. Obama has been willing to send the Middle East into chaos with the “Arab Spring” to show that he supports the so-called democratic movements against dictators.

4. Keeping up with Bill Clinton. I suspect that if Clinton had not bombed Serbia, where no US interests were involved, Obama would not have thought of bombing Syria. Clinton committed US forces in a purely humanitarian cause, and Obama does not want history to ask why he did not do the same.

5. Never let a crisis go to waste. When your goal is to weaken American influence abroad, it doesn’t matter if you’re inept, sloppy, stupid and unprepared. Why think something through? Let crisis and destruction take their course! Another round of golf, anyone?

Obama’s Syrian mess is very much of a piece with the rest of his presidency. Stimulus, bailouts, Obamacare, exploding regulations, “quantitative easing,” Fast and Furious, Benghazi — none of these was given much thought, and none will achieve any values but destruction. Such a record does not happen by accident.

I believe Barack Obama will be the most successful President in history. He came into office wanting to increase state power at home and weaken America’s power abroad. He did both.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Not Our Problem Anymore

Dwight Howard is moving to the Houston Rockets. As a Lakers fan, I am relieved. Actually, I'm happy, despite the fact that D12's numbers are better than any other center in the league. The man has attitude and thinking problems that get in the way on the court. He's Houston's problem now.

It was obvious he did not like the situation in Los Angeles, but he was never honest and forthright about it because he is worried about what people think of him. He's the type that hides the essential problem and says nice things to fool people into thinking he's a nice guy and everything is everyone else's fault.

Throughout the "Dwightmare" in Orlando, when he was trying to leave the team without angering anyone -- in which he ended up angering everyone -- and throughout his time with the Lakers, he has shown himself more obsessed with his image than with his performance on court. Ayn Rand had a term for this mindset: social metaphysics. The social metaphysician puts what people think above reality; opinions and perception become reality for this type.

Dwight's famous "indecision" is actually his changing his story when people are angered by his last explanation. He thinks if he can just say the right words, he can make everyone love him -- regardless of whether those words correspond to reality.

It has been clear that he had decided long ago to leave the Los Angeles Lakers, but he has gone through this kabuki theatre of pretending to consider their offer -- and it was all a dishonest show intended to make people like him.

From ESPN:

A Lakers source in the team's pitch meeting for Howard last Tuesday said they felt Howard essentially had "made up his mind" before even meeting with them and described him as "emotionless."

"He would barely look us in the eye," the source said. 
Another Lakers source said "we felt like we were wasting our time" in the meeting.

Of course, they were wasting their time. Dwight wastes everyone's time because he wants everyone to love him.

It's impossible to know his real reasons for leaving. His statements are pure PR: they say what he thinks he should say to make him look good. His thinking is so twisted that at this point Dwight Howard might not even know why he does the things he does.

He is making a big deal of how he is accepting $30 million less in Houston, as if he is a noble soul above mere greed. This is BS because the difference in state taxes makes his paycheck about the same in Texas or California.

Here is a statement from Dwight:

"... This is an opportunity for me to write my own story," he said. "It's an opportunity for me to move forward, to change the perception of what other people have tried to make of me. It starts on the court with winning and that's what I'm doing. This is a fresh start for me. It's a clean slate. I get the opportunity to start from scratch and I'm going to make the most of it. I've been working all summer already to get my body, to get myself back right and getting ready for the next couple of years. I'm just looking forward to it."

So for some mysterious reason people have a misperception of Dwight -- which could not possibly be Dwight's fault -- and the poor dear has to move to Houston to get a "fresh start" and change the way everyone thinks about him.

Houston, you have a problem.

His greatest moment in the NBA came when he dressed up as Superman and won the slam dunk contest with an amazing throw down. When a guy that big can jump like that, it gets people's attention. But dressing up as Superman in an exhibition is not winning a championship any more than a circus clown is Laurence Olivier.

I think of another iconic moment: game four against the San Antonio Spurs, when Dwight Howard quit on his teammates and got himself kicked out of the game. As he walked off he passed the hobbling Kobe Bryant, who was coming out to the bench to show solidarity with his teammates.

Dwight Howard is a good player with a phenomenal body, but he will never be great. At 27 he has nowhere near the moves of a Kareem or Olajuwon. He is overrated in a time when there are not many good centers. I'm glad he's gone.

Sunday, June 09, 2013


This morning at 1am I sat down to watch "Riverworld" on Syfy. The science-fantasy series by Philip Jose Farmer had captivated my youth with its "Oh, wow!" factor.

I should have known better than to expect anything remotely intelligent on a network called Syfy. (I can just imagine an exec there saying, "Hey, the name Sci-Fi makes people think we're like geeky, you know? Let's change it to all Y's. Wouldn't that be kewl?" If you imagine a woman saying these lines, the chauvinism is yours, not mine.)

"Riverworld" the 2010 TV movie is an abomination. The only worse adaptation of famous science fiction to the screen that I can think of is "I, Robot," where Hollywood took Isaac Asimov's enchanting series of puzzle stories revolving around the Laws of Robotics, threw out everything but the title and turned it into a mindless Will Smith action flick. I hope the Asimov estate was well paid for the title. "Riverworld" and "I, Robot" make "Dune" look good. (Doubtless, readers will think of other disasters of screen adaptation I have forgotten.)

The geniuses at Syfy did pretty much the same thing to "Riverworld." They completely rewrote the story, making the hero, the 19th century explorer Richard Burton, a bad guy. I could only watch the first hour, so he might turn into a good guy later in the story.

The great thing about Farmer's series of books is the sense of wonder. Science Fiction does sense of wonder like no other genre, and it is the reason many young people love it. Imagine everyone who ever lived, tens of billions of people dating back to the cavemen, waking up on the beach of a river that circles a world over and over, from north pole to south. Imagine a stretch of river where prudish Victorians are the ones waking up naked, and you have a captivating start to a novel. My young self thought it was awesome when this mass of naked people erupted into an orgy.

Farmer increases the sense of wonder by rarely if ever having people meet others they knew back on Earth. A man could spend decades going up and down the river searching for the woman he once loved. In this TV movie a whole group of people who knew one another on Earth wake up on the same stretch of beach.

Syfy threw out anything that smelled of wonder (scents of wonder?). There are no masses of naked people awaking on a beach. In fact, you get the impression that Riverworld is a scenic campground sparsely populated by mediocre actors. You see no one on the other side of the river. This defeats the mind-boggling idea that EVERYONE WHO EVER LIVED is there. The first book of the series, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, won a Hugo award in 1972, despite the pretentious title. This means that a lot of science fiction readers loved it Why buy such a property to delete what made it popular to readers?

Maybe Syfy knows what it is doing. Obviously, their audience is not science fiction readers. Their audience wants SF eye candy, not SF ideas. But this movie even fails at the eye candy. People on a river is not spaceships, BEM's, explosions and laser blasters.

The Farmer Riverworld series, by the way, is good for the first two or three books, then it gets tedious. Farmer had no idea how to end the thing. I fear George R.R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series is undergoing the same frustrating disintegration.

George Lucas got science fiction right in the first two Star Wars movies, although he was lambasted by envious SF writers for being 40 years behind the state of the art. Early Steven Spielberg was great with sense of wonder. Think of the look on those faces when they see the spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. ET nailed it as well. These movies broke ground that has not been well trod since. Decline comes fast in Hollywood. Rust never sleeps.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


No captain steers the ship that we’re aboard;
We’ve floated past the now forgotten beach,
And hipsters mock where once the lion roared,
And stupid teachers kill whom they should teach.
I need an ogre in my soul to keep
The mindless hordes from cutting out
My heart to feed it to the dogs that leap.
I need an ogre in my soul to doubt.
Beneath the surface swims the waiting shark.
The ocean everywhere – which way to row?
The water leaks in, soon will sink the barque,
And Yeats’s centre gave up long ago.
In five-twenty-nine AD did they know
The lamps that lit the world were burning low?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

"Mad Men"

I just finished a "Mad Men" binge. I had never seen the show before last week. Now I've seen seasons 1-5 and the first two hours of season 6. I caught up.

The show is well written, directed and acted. It is interesting, although I completely disagree with the show's point of view. The theme -- if I may be so bold as to state a theme when the naturalist writers of the show would maintain there is none -- is the conflict between the New Leftist culture and the older, less egalitarian culture it replaced. It's squares vs. hippies, and the show assumes that the hippies were on history's side. In a way, they are right: the squares are dead and political correctness reigns unchallenged in the present age. Whether history will show this to be a good thing remains to be seen.

The decade of the '60s is great for drama because it is so different, and yet so familiar. You get both worlds -- the other, as in science fiction, fantasy and historical; and the realism of contemporary life. I believe much of the show's appeal is a guilty fascination with life before the New Leftist/egalitarian cultural revolution. The clothing fashions, the attitudes and the furniture are appealing and deliciously non-PC. But even as the show uses the smoking, drinking and male-dominated office culture to keep viewers interested, it looks down on these ways with irony and sneers. The implication is that the nanny state was justified in outlawing tobacco smoke from the workplace, and of course all the isms of the New Left -- multiculturalism, environmentalism, feminism, PC -- are assumed to be positive advances.

There is a broader theme about man's nature that is shown mostly in the lead character, Don Draper, played perfectly by Jon Hamm. Draper is a man who lives a lie. To avoid spoilers, I won't go into his backstory. In the tradition of noir crime fiction, the character made a stupid decision and he struggles to live with it. Moreover, he lies to his wife and screws just about anything in a skirt. By one count he has sex with 13 different women.

The show asks if Don has a choice and if he can change. He is a tormented soul who struggles with these questions. The answer so far is unknown. Maybe the show will decide one way or another as to whether Don has free will. Jon Hamm says the underlying message about right and wrong is,
"There ain't none of us on the planet that are perfect. And I think that people recognize human frailties and foibles and f***-ups and identify with it, honestly. Superman is a cartoon character. He's not a real person. And no one is without sin, without mistakes."

Don is neither black nor white, but very gray -- and exasperatingly stupid, in my opinion. So the show is naturalism, which Ayn Rand defined as literature based on the premise that man does not have volition. If the show's creator, Matthew Weiner, reforms Don in the next two seasons, it will be interesting to see if he can pull it off believably.

As with most serious dramatic writing today, all ideas are delivered in subtext, but sometimes they are buried so deep that I wonder if I'm missing the point. (Subtext itself is a naturalistic technique; it makes characters inarticulate and incapable of consciously stating and pursuing their goals. It makes all characters ironic in Northrop Frye's meaning of the word: we look down on them, rather than admire them. Subtext is held as the the highest kind of writing today.)

The show is too slow for my taste. To have a good plot, you need more purposeful action. Not only are there no heroes in this show, there are no villains -- although in season 5 Betty Draper, Don's ex-wife, gets a little twisted by envy. I fear I might get bored in season 6.

There is one character who is supposed to be a fan of Ayn Rand, and who pushes Atlas Shrugged on his employees. This is hardly worth mentioning, because the writers show no understanding of how an Objectivist thinks. Nothing in this character sounds right. He comes off as an eccentric who liked Rand but didn't think about her philosophy for two minutes. (A typical conservative! No wonder he makes no sense.)

Anyway, it's nice to live for a while in a world where people smoke at the office, men wear hats and women wear dresses. Sadly, this world has disappeared from America and can only be experienced now in costume dramas.

UPDATE: Watched the third episode of season 6. Something snapped in me and I became bored and disgusted with the show. Those characters for whom I feel no contempt I am indifferent to. I have especially lost patience with Don Draper. Who cares about that weak, lying bastard? Same with Peter Campbell. Weiner has said he does not want to repeat himself, but men cheating on their wives gets old fast. I think they made a mistake trying to push the series into a sixth season.

Monday, April 01, 2013


I watched Kumare on Netflix. It is a documentary by Vikram Gandhi, an American of Hindu Indian descent. He is dubious of gurus, so he grows his hair and beard long, wears an orange monk-like costume and speaks in a phony Indian accent. He moves to Phoenix to operate as a guru, and actually gains a small group of followers. He creates a cult, but his followers do not know it is phony.

So far so good. As an Objectivist, the film strikes me as a dramatization of the absurdities contemporary Americans go through to find values and fulfillment (a profoundly selfish pursuit) when they have been told all their life that selfishness is evil. One woman cries because (as I remember it) she fears people will say she is selfish. Several others make a big show of saying that "helping others" is what life is all about.  All this nonsense results from altruism separating ideals from the reality of existence. The people in this film are seekers of ideals, but hopelessly lost in a sea of mysticism because modern philosophy teaches us that ideals cannot exist in reality. There is no logical thinking on display among the cultists in this documentary.

But an odd thing happens about halfway through the film. Mr. Gandhi loses his nerve. He sees that these vulnerable people believe in him, and he wants to help them. In a way, he begins to believe his lie. He gives them psychotherapeutic counseling.

He tells them to write down five things they want to accomplish and then take action to accomplish them. This is not bad advice, and many of the cult members do improve their life. Gandhi wants his followers to look within for solutions, not to a guru -- and this is good advice indeed. But one wonders if a filmmaker perpetrating a hoax, like Sasha Baron Cohen but not funny, has the right to change people's lives.

Gandhi plays a dangerous game with real people's lives, and it shows on his face as he nears the time he is supposed to reveal who he really is. In his first attempt, with his cult gathered around his backyard pool, he fails to come clean. He can't do it.

The second time he tries to reveal himself, some 40 days later in what seems to be a banquet room or community center, he does tell his real name, but the ending does not satisfy. He should have said something like, "I must apologize for perpetrating an elaborate hoax on you." But no apology comes. Instead, he maintains that he has done this for their good. He says his "ideal self is Kumare" instead of admitting that Kumare was a lie.

It is the eternal cry of meddling do-gooders: I lied to you for your own good! Sorry, I don't buy it. The most deluded fool in this film is Vikram Gandhi, who believed his own lie.