Monday, December 16, 2013

ANS -- What Jesus Wasn't: Zealot

If you have been following the controversy about Reza Aslan and his book, Zealot, then read this article.  If not, don't bother.  It's a great book review and subsequent discussion if you are interested in the subject.  He partly says that Aslan's bias is anti-Jewish, but he doesn't dwell on it.  I found that interesting. 
Find it here:   

What Jesus Wasn't: Zealot

By Allan Nadler | August 11, 2013
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Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
by Reza Aslan
Random House, 337 pp., $27

Within an hour of its online debut, the number of viewers of Reza Aslan's now notorious interview with Fox News' Lauren Green had far exceeded the number of Israelites who crossed the Red Sea under the leadership of the father of all Jewish nationalist zealots, Moses. Aslan was being interviewed on the occasion of the appearance of his book that places Jesus of Nazareth at the top of a long list of subsequent, rabidly nationalist messianic Jewish zealots.

By now, Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has come to dominate every book sales index in America, and his fifteen Fox-minutes of fame have been viewed by millions. Sales for this "scholarly" book have broken every record in the category of religious studies; the number of stops on Aslan's current speaking tour is nothing short of staggering; and it will surely require a crack team of number-crunching accountants to calculate the tax debt on Aslan's royalties and speaking fees.

Reza Aslan on Fox News.

Given such overwhelming statistics, it is perhaps understandable that Aslan himself appears to be experiencing some problems keeping his numbers, and his facts, straight. That he is numerically challenged was apparent during the Fox interview. No sooner had Green posed the first of her series of preposterous questions, all pondering what might motivate, or justify, a Muslim to publish such a provocative book about her Lord and Savior, than Aslan, with rapid-fire confidence, listed his many alleged scholarly credentials, as a "scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and a PhD in the History of Religions . . . who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades." He then went on to claim that he was a professor of religious history; that he had been working assiduously on his Jesus book for twenty years; that it contains more than "one hundred pages of endnotes"; and, finally, that Zealot is the fruit of research based on his "study of around 1,000 scholarly books."

That last greatly exaggerated claim is as good, or awkward, a place as any to begin an assessment of the credibility of the man and his work. Zealot does indeed provide a respectable, if spotty, bibliography. But it lists one hundred and fifty four, not one thousand, books.  Given his evident talent at self-promotion, it is hard to imagine that Aslan was holding back out of an abundance of humility. His claim regarding his extensive endnotes is also plainly false, since there is not a single footnote or conventional endnote to be found anywhere in Zealot. The book's chapters are, rather, appended by bibliographic essays, loosely related to their respective general themes. A cursory review of Aslan's own biography and bibliography also renders impossible his repeated claims that Zealot is the product of twenty years of "assiduous scholarly research about the origins of Christianity."

To be sure, Aslan, 41, has been very hard at work since graduating college with a dazzling array of projects­mostly having to do with Islamic religion, culture, and literature as well as Middle Eastern politics­but none of which has anything to do with his quest for the historical Jesus. He is, to quote his own website, "the founder of, an online journal for news and entertainment about the Middle East and the world, and co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of BoomGen Studios, the premier entertainment brand for creative content from and about the Greater Middle East," including comic books. Of his three graduate degrees, one is from the University of Iowa where he studied creative writing (the subject he actually teaches at the University of California, Riverside); the second was a two-year masters degree at the Harvard Divinity School, where he apparently concentrated on Islam; and his doctorate was not, as he indignantly told the hapless Green, in "the history of religions." Rather, he wrote an exceedingly brief sociological study of " Global Jihadism as a Transnational Movement," at UC Santa Barbara.

Speaking on CNN in the wake of his Fox interview, Aslan ruefully observed, "There's nothing more embarrassing than an academic having to trot out his credentials. I mean, you really come off as a jerk." Actually, there is something significantly more embarrassing, and that is when the academic trots out a long list of exaggerated claims and inflated credentials.

Perhaps it is Aslan's general fondness for breathless, and often reckless, exaggeration that explains his problems with the basic digits and facts about his own work and life. Such hyperbole alas pervades Zealot. Depicting the religious mood of first-century Palestine early on in the book, Aslan asserts that there were "countless messianic pretenders" among the Jews (there were no more than an eminently countable half-dozen). Among his most glaring overestimations is Aslan's problematic insistence that the foundational Christian belief about Jesus, namely that he was both human and divine, is "anathema to five thousand years of Jewish scripture, thought and theology." The vast chronological amplification aside, Judaism's doctrine about this matter is not nearly so simple, as Peter Schäfer demonstrated exhaustively in his very important study, The Jewish Jesus, and which Daniel Boyarin has argued even more forcefully in his latest book, The Jewish Gospels. Boyarin and Schäfer are just two of the many serious scholars whose works Aslan has clearly failed to consult.

This combination of overly confident and simplistic assertions on exceedingly complex theological matters, with stretching of truths­numerical, historical, theological, and personal­permeates Aslan's bestseller. And yet, precisely because Zealot is generating such frenzied controversy, this is all serving Aslan very well. But as it would be wrong to judge Aslan's book by its coverage, let us turn to its text.

Aslan's entire book is, as it turns out, an ambitious and single-minded polemical counter-narrative to what he imagines is the New Testament's portrayal of Jesus Christ.


The core thesis of Zealot is that the "real" Jesus of Nazareth was an illiterate peasant from the Galilee who zealously, indeed monomaniacally, aspired to depose the Roman governor of Palestine and become the King of Israel. Aslan's essentially political portrayal of Jesus thus hardly, if at all, resembles the depiction of the spiritual giant, indeed God incarnate, found in the Gospels and the letters of Paul. While Aslan spills much ink arguing his thesis, nothing he has to say is at all new or original. The scholarly quest for the historical Jesus, or the "Jewish Jesus," has been engaged by hundreds of academics for the past quarter millennium and has produced a mountain of books and a vast body of serious scholarly debate. The only novelty in Aslan's book is his relentlessly reductionist, simplistic, one-sided and often harshly polemical portrayal of Jesus as a radical, zealously nationalistic, and purely political figure. Anything beyond this that is reported by his apostles is, according to Aslan, Christological mythology, not history.

Aslan is, to be sure, a gifted writer. The book's Prologue is both titillating and bizarre. Entitled "A Different Sort of Sacrifice" it opens with a breezy depiction of the rites of the Jerusalem Temple, but very quickly descends to its ominously dark denouement: the assassination of the High Priest, Jonathan ben Ananus, on the Day of Atonement, 56 C.E., more than two decades after Jesus's death:

The assassin elbows through the crowd, pushing close enough to Jonathan to reach out an invisible hand, to grasp the sacred vestments, to pull him away from the Temple guards and hold him in place just for an instant, long enough to unsheathe a short dagger and slide it across his throat. A different sort of sacrifice.

There follows a vivid narration of the political tumult that had gripped Roman-occupied Palestine during the mid-first century, which Aslan employs to great effect in introducing readers to the bands of Jewish zealots who wreaked terror and havoc throughout Judea for almost a century. It seems like an odd way to open a book about the historical Jesus, who was crucified long before the Zealot party ever came into existence, until one catches on to what Aslan is attempting. The Prologue effectively associates Jesus, albeit as precursor, with that chillingly bloody murder by one of the many anonymous Jewish Zealots of first-century Palestine.

To address the obvious problem that the Jesus depicted in Christian Scriptures is the antithesis of a zealously political, let alone ignorant and illiterate, peasant rebel and bandit, Aslan deploys a rich arsenal of insults to dismiss any New Testament narrative that runs counter to his image of Jesus as a guerilla leader, who gathered and led a "corps" of fellow "bandits" through the back roads of the Galilee on their way to mount a surprise insurrection against Rome and its Priestly lackeys in Jerusalem. Any Gospel verse that might complicate, let alone undermine, Aslan's amazing account, he insolently dismisses as "ridiculous," "absurd," "preposterous," "fanciful," "fictional," "fabulous concoction," or just "patently impossible."

Aslan's entire book is, as it turns out, an ambitious and single-minded polemical counter-narrative to what he imagines is the New Testament's portrayal of Jesus Christ. The strawman Jesus against whom he is arguing, however, is a purely heavenly creature, far closer to the solely and absolutely unearthly Christ of the 2nd-century heretic Marcion, than the exceedingly complex man/God depicted by the Evangelists and painstakingly developed in the theological works of the early Church Fathers.

Aslan dismisses just about all of the New Testament's accounts of the early life and teachings of Jesus prior to his "storming" of Jerusalem and his subsequent arrest and crucifixion. He goes so far as to insist that Jesus's zealous assault on the Jerusalem Temple is the "singular fact that should color everything we read in the Gospels about the Messiah known as Jesus of Nazareth." Everything! Aslan goes on to assert that the very fact of his crucifixion for the crime of sedition against the Roman state is "all one has to know about the historical Jesus." Still, as the New Testament constitutes the principal primary source for these facts as well as for anything else we can know about the "life and times of Jesus,"Aslan has little choice but to rely rather heavily on certain, carefully selected New Testament narratives.

Aslan is insistently oblivious even of the powerfully resonant climax to the single act of violence on the part of any of the twelve apostles recorded in the Gospels.


The persistent problem permeating Aslan's narrative is that he never provides his readers with so much as a hint of any method for separating fact from fiction in the Gospels, a challenge that has engaged actual scholars of the New Testament for the last two centuries. Nowhere does he explain, given his overall distrust of the Gospels as contrived at best and deliberately fictitious at worst, why he trusts anything at all recorded in the New Testament. But one needn't struggle too hard to discern Aslan's selection process: Whichever verses fit the central argument of his book, he accepts as historically valid. Everything else is summarily dismissed as apologetic theological rubbish of absolutely no historical worth.

So, for example, after recounting the Romans' declaration of Jesus's guilt, he writes:

As with every criminal who hangs on a cross, Jesus is given a plaque, or titulus, detailing the crime for which he is being crucified. Jesus's titulus reads KING OF THE JEWS. His crime: striving for kingly rule, sedition. And so, like every bandit and revolutionary, every rabble-rousing zealot and apocalyptic prophet who came before or after him­ like Hezekiah and Judas, Theudas and Athronges, the Egyptian [sic] and the Samaritan [sic], Simon son of Giora and Simon son of Kochba, Jesus is executed for daring to claim the mantle of king and messiah.

(Lest the words of the titulus be mistaken for mockery, Aslan informs us that the Romans had no sense of humor, which will come as a surprise to classicists.)

Aslan is particularly fond of assembling such lists of Jesus's seditious predecessors, peers, and successors. Elsewhere, he compares Jesus's mission to Elijah's, which ended in his slaughter of the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal; on another occasion he sets Jesus alongside Judas Maccabeus, who waged a long and bloody war against the Greek Seleucids. And Jesus is made out to be a direct forerunner of the militant rebel of the second century, Simon bar Kokhba, who battled the Romans to the goriest of ends. And so on.

The crucial distinction that Aslan fails to acknowledge is that what clearly sets Jesus so radically apart from all of these figures is his adamant rejection of violence, to say nothing of the pervasively peaceful and loving content of his teachings and parables, which Aslan willfully misconstrues and at one point revealingly describes as so "abstruse and enigmatic" as to be "nearly impossible to understand."

Aslan is insistently oblivious even of the powerfully resonant climax to the single act of violence on the part of any of the twelve apostles recorded in the Gospels, which occurred during the tumult surrounding Jesus's arrest by the minions of the Jewish High Priest, Caiaphas:

While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, "Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?" When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, "Lord, should we strike with the sword?" Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, "No more of this!" And he touched his ear and healed him. (Luke 22:47-51)

Matthew's version of the same episode ends with Jesus's stern and powerful admonition against any sort of violence:

Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword."  (Matthew 26:51-52)

And in Mark's version of the story, Jesus protests his peaceful intentions to those who come to seize him violently, crying out "Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?" (Mark 14:48).
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Unsurprisingly, Aslan dismisses these passages as pure invention. One problem with this is that Aslan sometimes justifies his own selective acceptance of certain New Testament narratives by pointing to their appearance in all three of the synoptic Gospels which, he argues, lends them a degree of historical credibility.

Another problem is that one of the key texts that Aslan uses to buttress his thesis that the proto-Zealot Jesus was planning for some kind of apocalyptic showdown with his enemies, is taken from the very same chapter in Luke:

He said to them, "But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one." . . . They said, "Lord, look, here are two swords." He replied, "It is enough." (Luke 22:36, 38)

The Jesus actually depicted here is hardly prepping his "band of zealots" for a rebellion against Roman rule by strictly limiting their arsenal to two, obviously symbolic, swords.


Why would the Evangelists deliberately engage in so much wanton fabrication? Aslan offers a simple explanation:

With the Temple in ruins and the Jewish religion made pariah, the Jews who followed Jesus as messiah had an easy decision to make: they could either maintain their cultic connection to their parent religion and thus share in [sic] Rome's enmity, or they could divorce themselves from Judaism and transform their messiah from a fierce Jewish nationalist into a pacifistic preacher of good works whose kingdom was not of this world.

Allergic to ambiguities or complexities of any kind that might interfere with his Manichean dichotomy between the historical Jesus of Nazareth and mythical Jesus Christ of the Gospels, Aslan perceives everything as an either/or proposition­either the zealous, radical, and purely political Jesus of history, or the entirely fictional moral teacher and pacifistic Jesus of Christology. He takes the same approach to the Jews of Jesus's era: There existed either the violent apocalyptic Jewish bandits who mounted one rebellion after another against the Romans, or the corrupt quisling Priests, such as Caiaphas who suppressed all such activity. The passive, scholarly Pharisees who opposed both these postures, are simply ignored.

The only passage I could find in Aslan's entire book where he argues for a more nuanced approach to anything pertains to Jesus's "views on the use of violence," which he insists have been widely misunderstood:

To be clear, Jesus was not a member of the zealot party that launched the war with Rome because no such party could be said to exist for another thirty years after his death. Nor was Jesus a violent revolutionary bent on armed rebellion, though his views on violence were far more complex than it is often assumed.

And yet, elsewhere Aslan insists, that being "no fool," Jesus "understood what every other claimant to the mantle of messiah understood: God's sovereignty could not be established except through force." And it is this latter characterization which is central to Zealot.

To take account of the fact that even at the moment of Jesus's maximal zeal, when he stormed the Temple, he was also interpreting Hebrew Scriptures would seriously undermine Aslan's insistence on Jesus's illiteracy, so he ignores it. The same goes for the numerous times he is addressed, both by his disciples as well as by the Pharisees and the Romans, as "teacher" and "rabbi."

There is not so much as an allusion to be found in Zealot to the fascinating debates between Jesus and the Pharisees about the specifics of Jewish law, such as the permissibility of divorce, the proper observance of the Sabbath, the requirement to wash one's hands before eating, the dietary laws, and­most fascinating and repercussive of all­the correct understanding of the concept of resurrection, in response to a challenge by the Sadducees who rejected that doctrine tout-court.

Aslan is intent on portraying Jesus as a faithful, Torah-abiding Jew for obvious reasons: Intent on being crowned King of Israel, and as such a candidate for the highest Jewish political office, how could he be anything less than a "Torah-true" Jew? So Aslan takes at face value the Gospel's report (Matthew 5:7) of Jesus's insistence that he has not come to undermine a single law of the Torah, but rather to affirm its every ordinance.

Aslan's ignorance­if that is what it is­has serious consequences.


In this connection, alas, Aslan offers a most unflattering and skewed stereotype of Jesus as a typical Jew of his era, namely an intolerant ethnocentric nationalist prone to violence towards Gentiles and whose charity and love extend only to other Jews:

When it comes to the heart and soul of the Jewish faith­the Law of Moses­Jesus insisted that his mission was not to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). That law made a clear distinction between relations among Jews and between Jews and foreigners. The oft-repeated [sic] commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself" was originally given strictly in the context of internal relations within Israel  . . . To the Israelites, as well as to Jesus's community in first-century Palestine, "neighbor" meant one's fellow Jews. With regard to the treatment of foreigners and outsiders, oppressors and occupiers, the Torah could not be clearer: "You shall drive them out before you. You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. They shall not live in your land" (Exodus, 23:31-33)

As in his highly selective misuse of the Gospels, Aslan is here distorting the Hebrew Scriptures, conflating different categories of "foreigners," and erasing the crucial distinction between the righteous ger, or foreigner, and the pernicious idolator, as well as the radically different treatments the Torah commands towards each. He mischievously omits the Torah's many and insistent prohibitions against "taunting the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger having been strangers in the land of Egypt," and "cheating the foreigner in your gate", and, most powerfully, the injunction to "love the stranger as yourself." (See, inter alia, Exodus 22:20 & 23:9, Leviticus 19:34 and Deuteronomy 24:14.)

Aslan achieves the two central goals of his book with this distorted, and terribly unflattering, depiction of the treatment he alleges Jewish law demands of the foreigner. It at once hardens his argument about Jesus's "fierce nationalism," while at the same time creating an image of the Jews as a hateful bunch, profoundly intolerant of the mere presence of others in their land. It is difficult when reading this, and many similar blatant distortions, to suppress all suspicion of a political agenda lying just beneath the surface of Aslan's narrative.

What will prove most shocking, at least to those with some very basic Jewish education, are Aslan's many distorted, or plainly ignorant, portrayals of both the Jews and their religion in Jesus's day. Aside from his apparent unfamiliarity with the critically important recent works of Schäfer and Boyarin, Aslan seems oblivious of more than a century of scholarship on the exceedingly complex theological relationship between the earliest disciples of Jesus and the early rabbis. The foundational work of R. Travers Herford in Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (1903) and, three-quarters of a century later, Alan Segal's Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism (1977) are just two of the hundreds of vitally important books missing from his bibliography.

This ignorance­if that is what it is­has serious consequences. For it is not only the Gospels' accounts of Jesus citing Hebrew Scriptures while discussing Jewish law that belie Aslan's portrait of Jesus and his apostles as an uncouth band of Galilean peasants. As Schäfer has richly documented, Rabbinic sources contain numerous references to the original biblical exegesis of Jesus and his disciples, including accounts of rabbis who were attracted to these interpretations, even as they came ultimately to regret and repent of their "heresy." That Aslan has not read Schäfer is made most painfully clear in his pat dismissal of the Roman historian Celsus's report of having overheard a Jew declare that Jesus's real father was not the Jew, Joseph, but rather a Roman centurion named Panthera. Aslan says that this is too scurrilous to be taken seriously. While it would be unfair to expect him to be familiar with the common Yiddish designation of Jesus as Yoshke-Pandre (Yeshua, son of Panthera), one might expect him to have read the fascinating chapter devoted to this very familiar and well-attested theme in rabbinic sources, in Schäfer's Jesus in the Talmud.

On the other hand, Aslan weirdly accepts at face value, and even embellishes, the dramatic accounts in the Gospels of Jesus's entry into Jerusalem allegedly just before the Passover, as the Jewish crowds wave palm branches and chant hosannas. But were he familiar with the basic rituals of the Sukkot festival, Aslan might somewhere have acknowledged the skepticism expressed by many scholars about the Gospels' contrived timing of this dramatic event to coincide with Passover.

I will spare readers a long list of Aslan's blatant and egregious errors regarding Judaism, from his misunderstanding of the rabbinic epithet Am Ha-Aretz (the rabbinic description, fittingly enough, of an ignoramus) to his truly shocking assertion that rabbinic sources attest to Judaism's practice of crucifixion. Aslan very effectively explains why the Romans employed crucifixion to such great effect; the horrific public spectacle of the corpses of those condemned for their sedition to this most agonizing of deaths was a powerful deterrent to would-be insurrectionists. However, he seems not to understand how particularly offensive this was to the Jews, whose Torah demanded the immediate burial of executed criminals (who were to be hanged, never crucified), prohibiting their corpses to linger "even unto the morning" as this was considered a desecration of the divine image in which all men were created.

Finally, there is Aslan's description of the fate of the Jews and Judaism in the wake of the destruction of the Temple. In his account, all of the Jews were exiled from Judea, and not so much of a trace of Judaism was allowed to survive in the Holy Land after 70 C.E.. Astonishingly enough, Aslan says not a word about the tremendously important armistice arranged between the pacifistic party of Jewish moderates led by Yochanan ben Zakai, or of the academy he established at Yavneh (Jabne, or Jamnia) some forty miles northwest of Jerusalem, and which flourished for more than a half-century, breathing new life and vitality into rabbinic Judaism in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem.

Readers with no background in the history of rabbinic Judaism will be misled by Aslan to believe that its pacification was the result of the Jews total defeat and expulsion from Palestine. Aslan seems to think that rabbinic Judaism is entirely a product of diaspora Jews who, only many decades after the Temple's destruction, began to develop a less virulently and racist version of the Jewish religion, centered on Torah study. Can it be that this self-professed "historian of religions" is entirely ignorant of the Sages of the Land of Israel who flourished in the wake of the destruction of the Temple, and whose teachings are recorded in the Mishnah, and later the Jerusalem Talmud? Or is Aslan, here again, choosing deliberately to ignore inconvenient historical truths? And none is less convenient than the fact that a significant, and ultimately dominant, faction of Jews of first-century Palestine, far from being nationalist zealots, were pacifists whose accord with Vespasian gave birth to the religion we today recognize as Judaism.


Which brings us back to Aslan's awful interview on Fox. Lauren Green's questioning of Aslan's right, as a Muslim, to write his book was absolutely out of bounds, but perhaps she was, quite unwittingly, onto something about his agenda. While the form taken by Green's questions was unacceptable and made Aslan look like the victim of an intolerant right-wing ambush, might it not be the case that it was Aslan who very deftly set her up? He prefaces the book with an "Author's Note," which is a lengthy and deeply personal confession of faith. Here Aslan recounts his early years in America as an essentially secular Iranian emigré of Islamic origins with no serious attachment to his ancestral faith, his subsequent teenage conversion to evangelical Christianity and finally his return to a more intense commitment to Islam. Aslan ends this intimately personal preface by proudly declaring:

Today, I can confidently say that two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity have made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ.

This unsubtle suggestion that Evangelical Christians' discipleship and knowledge of Jesus is inferior to his own makes it rather harder to sympathize with him as an entirely innocent victim of unprovoked, ad hominem challenges regarding his book's possibly Islamist agenda. Aslan had to know that opening a book that portrays Jesus as an illiterate zealot and which repeatedly demeans the Gospels with a spiritual autobiography that concludes by belittling his earlier faith as an Evangelical Christian would prove deeply insulting to believing Christians.

And yet, if there is one thing Aslan must have learned during his years among the Evangelicals, it is that even the most rapturous among them, who pray fervently for the final apocalypse, reject even the suggestion that their messianic dream ought to be pursued through insurrection or war. In a word, they have, pace Aslan, responded appropriately to the question "what would Jesus do?"

Finally, is Aslan's insistence on the essential "Jewishness" of both Jesus and his zealous political program not also a way of suggesting that Judaism and Jesus, no less than Islam and Mohammed, are religions and prophets that share a similarly sordid history of political violence; that the messianic peasant-zealot from Nazareth was a man no more literate and no less violent than the prophet Mohammed?
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About the Author

Allan Nadler is professor of Religious Studies and director of Jewish Studies at Drew University. This year, he is Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at McGill University and rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Montreal, Canada. He is currently writing a book on the history of heresy in Jewish thought for Princeton University Press.


y2bloch on August 12, 2013 at 2:15 am
Excellent piece. I would only add that the author unfortunately reinforces Aslan's error of referring to "first-century Palestine." The Romans (later, Byzantines) did not refer to the area as Syria Palestina until well after the time of Jesus.
pbettinger on August 12, 2013 at 12:13 pm
I am an academic but certainly not a scholar of religious studies by any stretch. Having strayed from my Roman Catholic roots, I am slowly working my way back to renew my relationship. Books by Aslan and others and reviews such as provided by Dr. Nadler certainly have given me a variety of views to consider. I would have found extremely helpful in Dr. Nadler's criticism some additional details about some of Aslan's comments: "Any Gospel verse that might complicate, let alone undermine, Aslan's amazing account, he insolently dismisses as "ridiculous," "absurd," "preposterous," "fanciful," "fictional," "fabulous concoction," or just "patently impossible." How specifically were these descriptors off target?

Paul Bettinger
"Live Free or Die"
eil100 on August 13, 2013 at 10:46 am
Whatever Aslan's faults, and I am sure they are many whereas he is hardly original, Nadler too has much fact-checking to do. Imagine this mistake on his part: "the historical Jesus, who was crucified long before the Zealot party ever came into existence"
If so, then why is one of Jesus' followers called Simon the Zealot? [Matt. 10:4].

Elliott A Green
PaulDouglasHughes on August 13, 2013 at 1:31 pm
"In a media-addled age, mere scrupulous scholarship is rarely a match for shameless intellectual dishonesty or emotional derangement." David Bentley Hart
anadler on August 13, 2013 at 7:07 pm
In response to eil100's query, which indeed "imagines" my "mistake": It doesn't require "much fact-checking" (in fact in requires almost none at all) to know that the Zealot (upper-case) party, namely the adherents of what Josephus termed the "Fourth Philosophy" emerged in the context of the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule during the 7th decade, CE. Most scholars identify Judah of Gaulanitis as the founder of the Zealot Party. The adjective zealot (kana'i in Hebrew) to depict one who is zealous for the honor of God is as ancient as the Torah's account of Pinchas the zealot (see Numbers, 25:6-12), it has nothing to do with this militant party, and was not uncommonly used as a term of praise for especially, or "zealously," pious Jews, such as Simon the Zealot.
zoolion on August 13, 2013 at 8:37 pm
This was a wonderfully researched and written article. My fault is being shamelessly bemused by mythologies, thanks to the likes of Joseph Campbell. Either way, Ms. Green is clearly an idiot, and by the same token Mr. Aslan is clearly a fake. I believe the interview, which I don't wish to see in it's entirety, was a plant that Fox easily fell for. Could we expect anything less, from either side? And here ARE two sides. In closing, is there a Christian fat w on Aslan's life? I doubt it. And that, my friends, is the difference.
craigjbeckett on August 13, 2013 at 9:41 pm
As a former evangelical Christian, the historic Jesus I encountered in my university days was extremely fascinating. Unfortunately I was studying Canadian History and English I did not have too much time available for Jesus. Any books easily read by a lay person on the topic of the historical Jesus? I'm not sure I have the chops for Schafer's books at the moment.
    vincent.calabrese on August 29, 2013 at 12:45 pm 'Did Jesus Exist?:The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth,' by Bart D. Ehrman, is a good one.
      Frank Forth on November 3, 2013 at 5:00 pm Alas, I fear that Ehrman's tome on this topic is no better than Aslan's efforts on his topic. Ehrman has written a number of excellent books for the general reader. This isn't one of them.
Ews on August 14, 2013 at 6:27 pm
"If so, then why is one of Jesus' followers called Simon the Zealot? "

Pinchas, in the Old Testament, is also called Zealot. Are you suggesting that he too was a member of the Zealot party?
Background on the use of the Hebrew term "zealot" (kanai) would be useful.
janetsr on August 14, 2013 at 7:37 pm
Thanks to JRB and Dr. Nadler for this article and for the references, some of which I haven't seen before (and thanks for y2bloch for his input on calling the area "Palestine," a common error that can have political implications itself).

This is the most thorough review of "Zealot" I've seen so far. Adam Kirsch, writing for Tablet, praised the book as giving a powerful portrait of Jesus, and Adam Gopnik, of The New Yorker, thought Aslan's book not out of the ordinary as far as portraits of the historical Jesus go. I also saw an early First Things piece in which the reviewer took issue with Aslan's credentials but said he wouldn't deign to read his book.

I'd like to see even more discussion and detail.
apbrody1 on August 15, 2013 at 8:48 pm
Dear Sir:

I would have found it very useful if Professor Nadler had included references to Geza Vermes and his studies on: the historical Jesus in the context and society of his time.

Perhaps Professor Nadler would consider appending his thoughts on this subject re the studies of the late Professor Vermes.
joripo on August 15, 2013 at 10:48 pm
A serious take-down, with a real zinger at the end: Aslan as the Manchurian, nay, the Babylonian Candidate, manipulating the manipulators on Fox. The sad thing is that public life becomes viewed as a transgression by real scholars, and so along with their criticism of popular writers they relinquish their own responsibility, and possibility, to become an engaging public voice. Bravo to Professor Nadler for publishing a response in the Jewish Review. I am not suggesting he should go on Fox, but it would be nice to give Aslan credit for bringing attention to alternative readings of Jesus, and for fostering a public dialogue on this subject, as confounded as it might sometimes be.
johndavidhutsell on August 17, 2013 at 2:47 pm
thanks for an interesting, educating article. i'm going to the library to check out Schafer, Boyarin, Segal and Herford. and Celsus if i can find him.
lionsassy on August 19, 2013 at 8:40 pm
As a Catholic, I am indebted to Nadler's beautiful analysis of Aslan's book, showing his bias and rejection of Jesus's spiritualism and peace fullness. Oh, and how does a doctrinal program make a non-Jew an expert on Jewish religion and history?
luke.lea on August 21, 2013 at 10:43 pm
Aside from those quibbles, Dr. Nadler, how did you like the book?
samhilt on August 23, 2013 at 12:46 am
The argument that Jesus lived and preached as a Pharisee rabbi­without the slightest intention of founding a new religion­has been made lucidly in a series of books by Hyam Maccoby, formerly the Librarian and a Fellow of the Leo Baeck Institute in London. His background as a Talmudic scholar and his depth of knowledge of the primary languages involved first century studies gave him the wherewithal to analyze Paul's writings and to clearly demonstrate Paul's superficial knowledge of Biblical Hebrew and his ignorance of the subtleties of Talmudic argumentation. His argument that Paul was a converted pagan who created a new religion that appropriated Jesus for purposes that were never remotely his own is made with a methodological sophistication that will satisfy the most scrupulous reader. The point of entry into Maccoby's treatment of these themes is: "The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity."
ericarlsen on September 16, 2013 at 3:27 pm
I was surprised at the naivety of Dr. Nadler's essay. He is truly ignorant of a very substantial line of thinking that depicts Jesus as a Jewish nationalist zealot, or at least, sympathetic to Israel's struggle to free itself from Roman rule. Perhaps the best and most scholarly representative work along these lines is that of Dr. S.G. F.Brandon, a British scholar of Christianity's origins. His two books, Jesus and the Zealots, and The Fall of Jerusalem and the Rise of the Christian Church are required reading for anyone wishing to find out more about the enigmatic person, Jesus of Nazareth. Where Aslan goes wrong is in trivializing Jesus as an ignorant peasant, and not as a shrewd judge of men. Jesus was a proud Jew, worthy of emulation along such lines. Nothing in his earthly life suggested that he intended to found a gentile mystery-cult religion; that job was left to Paul.
eric.trott on October 4, 2013 at 1:19 am
I am not a scholar but a student of the Bible which I believe beyond a doubt to be the Word of God. Thanks first of all to Dr. Nadler for his insightful review of this book which was written by an obvious unbeliever who calls himself a one time Christian and a scholar of the New Testament and repeatedly flaunts on TV so arrogantly his "PhD". Let me say I haven't yet read this book but intend to soon. But I would be interested to know what Reza Aslan has to say about what the Bible says about him and his kind which have been around for quite some time, especially in 1 John 2 and verses 18 following.
glovie2 on November 4, 2013 at 5:11 pm
I have never made a scholarly study of religion, but as a granddaughter of a former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, and a free-thinker since age ten who studied the Bible in an Episcopal high school and classical languages and ancient cultures and history as electives in college, I have long been fascinated by and pondered the concept of religious belief and its effect on civilizations and individuals. I could not help when reading this book but assume the author's agenda was to skew the non-Muslim public's view of early Judeo-Christian principles, in particular the zenophobia and encouragement of violence, by essentially equating them to the teachings in the Koran, thus correcting what he may feel is an unjustified bias against his religion. I will be curious to hear whether the members of my bookclub, whom I host tomorrow to discuss this book, were immediately struck by the author's lack of scholarly objectivity as was I.
Jordan Monge on November 25, 2013 at 4:18 pm
This was by far, one of the best reviews I've read on this book. Thank you for writing it! You are a scholar and a gentleman!

ANS -- The Cost of Eating Healthy Versus Eating Unhealthy Revealed

This is about the relative costs of healthy versus prepared foods.  It doesn't define it, but it's a short interesting overview. 
Find it here:  

The Cost of Eating Healthy Versus Eating Unhealthy Revealed

The Cost of Eating Healthy Versus Eating Unhealthy Revealed  

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"Do Healthier Foods and Diet Patterns Cost More Than Less Healthy Options?" That's the title of a new meta-analysis (the crème de la crème of scientific studies) conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health.

The simple answer? Yes, it does cost more to eat healthy than not, according to the study, published in the British Medical Journal. These findings contradict many previous studies that have concluded healthy diets are just as affordable, but meta-analysis/review studies trump those on the scientific study hierarchy.

Now the wealthier, highly educated readers may argue they can purchase and prepare healthy foods and meals that are as cheap, if not cheaper than processed and packaged foods. However, not everyone has the knowledge, skills and/or time to do the same. It's for this reason that cheaper, ready-made food options are the solution.

Food Costs in Detail

The meta-analysis investigated results of 27 studies in 10 countries, spanning from 2000 to 2011. Researchers found that snacks/sweets, grains and oils cost significantly more for healthier options, at $0.12, $0.03 and $0.02, respectively.

The big difference in food prices however was for meats and proteins, with healthier options costing an average $0.29 more per serving than less healthy options. The price difference per serving for healthier versus unhealthier soda and juices was not significant.

The Cost Difference Adds Up

The actual differences in price seem quite small on paper when broken down, but it adds up to $1.50 per day on average.

"Over the course of a year, $1.50 per day more for eating a healthy diet would increase food costs for one person by about $550 per year," said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, the study's senior author. "This would represent a real burden for some families, and we need policies to help offset these costs."

It's worth mentioning that the $1.50 per day conclusion is based on a comparatively extreme contrast. It's like comparing a very healthy diet ­ such as one rich in fish, fruits and vegetables ­ with a diet full of processed foods and meat.

The Role of Big Food and Policy Makers

The researchers feel that unhealthy dietary habits cost less because food policies and practices focus on the production of "inexpensive, high volume" commodities, which has led to "a complex network of farming, storage, transportation, processing, manufacturing, and marketing capabilities that favor sales of highly processed food products for maximal industry profit."

Given the likely truth of their theory, the authors believe creating a similar infrastructure that supports production of healthier foods may help increase availability ­ and decrease subsequent prices ­ of more healthful diets. This is where Big Food and policy makers can play their part.

What Is the True Cost of Cheaper?

"This research provides the most complete picture to-date on true cost differences of healthy diets," said Dr. Mozaffarian.

"On the other hand," Dr. Mozaffarian goes on to say, "this price difference [$550 per year] is very small in comparison to the economic costs of diet-related chronic diseases, which would be dramatically reduced by healthy diets."

Considering the average American family's healthcare costs are now at $19,393, having doubled in the past 9 years, $550 per year on healthier food choices might be a worthwhile investment.

Over to you. Have you managed to craft a healthy shopping list that's cheaper than the processed, pre-prepared alternative?

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Friday, December 13, 2013

ANS -- Previously unknown DNA code could help humanity defy aging and death

This is just a news report, there's no real scientific information in it, but we need to know about it.  Short article. 
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Previously unknown DNA code could help humanity defy aging and death

By Travis Gettys
Friday, December 13, 2013 10:59 EST
A scientist examines an image of double-helix DNA. Photo: Shutt
Topics: genetic code University of Washington researchers
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    Scientists have discovered a second code that's been hiding within DNA that could change the way genetic instructions are read.
    A team of University of Washington researchers discovered the secondary code, which was published Friday in Science, and could help scientists better understand both disease and health.
    DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is present in the cells of all humans and most other living organisms, and scientists have assumed since the 1960s that it was used exclusively to write information about proteins.
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    But researchers discovered that information was superimposed over another set of instructions that cells use to control genes.
    "For over 40 years we have assumed that DNA changes affecting the genetic code solely impact how proteins are made," said Dr. James Stamatoyannopoulos, who led the UW team. "Now we know that this basic assumption about reading the human genome missed half of the picture. These new findings highlight that DNA is an incredibly powerful information storage device, which nature has fully exploited in unexpected ways."
    The researchers discovered that some codons, part of the 64-letter alphabet which makes up the genetic code, can have two meanings – one related to protein sequence and another related to gene control.
    These duons apparently evolved together, researchers said, and the gene control instructions appear to stabilize beneficial features of proteins and how they're made.
    The discovery has major implications for the way scientists and physicians interpret genomes and will likely change the way diseases are diagnosed and treated.
    "The fact that the genetic code can simultaneously write two kinds of information means that many DNA changes that appear to alter protein sequences may actually cause disease by disrupting gene control programs or even both mechanisms simultaneously," said Stamatoyannopoulos.

ANS -- 4 Things That Kill More Birds Than Wind Farms

Here is a short article about what kills birds.  Wind farms are not high on the list, they just get the publicity. 
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4 Things That Kill More Birds Than Wind Farms

4 Things That Kill More Birds Than Wind Farms  

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Duke Energy, the operator of two major wind farms in Wyoming, was recently fined $1 million dollars for eagles and other birds killed by wind turbines. Although I've got little love for Duke Energy (they single-handedly killed 900,000 fish in North Carolina), I do care about the continued expansion of wind power in this country.

This case brings the cyclical debate of wildlife vs. clean energy to the federal level. Yes, I meant cyclical. Here's how it usually goes (in my head):

1. "Fossil fuels are killing the planet and everything on it (including birds). Let's switch to renewables like solar and wind."
2. "Oh man, birds are being killed by wind turbines, and I love birds and believe endangered species should be protected.
3. "Punish the wind farms for killing birds!"
4. "Wait, if we stop building wind farms, or use $1 million fines to discourage companies from building them, it just continues our dependence on fossil fuels."
5. "See number 1."

Then I did a little bit of research, looking to bird conservation experts about what the biggest threats are to bald eagle and golden eagle populations (the two kinds of birds that prompted the fine in Wyoming).

Interestingly, I didn't find a single one that named wind energy development as a major threat. In fact, when you compare the numbers, wind turbines are a relatively small threat (responsible for about 13 deaths a year), and there are some easy things we can do to alert birds to this new danger.

4 Things That Kill More Protected Birds Than Wind Farms

1. DDT:
Depending on your age, you might remember that bald eagles nearly went extinct in the 1960s because of the widespread use of a pesticide called DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). While this toxin didn't kill the eagles outright, it compromised the integrity of their egg shells, killing many eagle chicks before they had the chance to be born. The eagle population plummeted until the U.S. government banned DDT in 1973. However, other countries, like Mexico, still allow its use. Unfortunately, wind carries DDT across the man-made borders, so our bird populations are still affected.

2. Electrocution: According to researchers at Vanderbilt University, electrocution is among the top five causes of bald eagle, golden eagle and raptor deaths. These fatalities occur when the large birds land on power lines, and their wings or feet accidentally touch two lines and form a circuit. Bald eagles may also fly directly into power lines that are not visible in poor weather conditions. Both situations kill the bird instantly.

3. Lead: Most people know that it's illegal to kill or harm a bald eagle in any way, so poaching, while still a problem, is rare. However, the hunting of other species can still kill these majestic birds. "Lead poisoning has become one of the primary causes of death for bald eagles. This poisoning occurs when the bald eagle feeds off carrion (dead animals) that have been shot with lead bullets," explains Particularly at risk are warm climates where the bald eagle likes to spend the winter, as these tend to be popular duck and waterfowl hunting grounds.

4. Habitat Destruction: Human development, particularly in coastal and mountainous areas, is another leading cause of eagle deaths. "…eagles depend on shoreline habitats and aquatic food sources, human development in these coveted areas poses the greatest threat to the bald eagle's survival," explains "In addition, the cutting of 'old growth forests' where bald eagles prefer to nest and perch has conflicted with the interests of people seeking lumber for housing and commercial products."

Is Renewable Energy More Important Than Conservation?

These threats to protected birds have been known for a long time, yet you don't see anyone dishing out $1 million fines to hunting organizations, commercial developers or customers of the electric company. The point is that we need to shift away from fossil fuels immediately. Oil and coal are finite resources, and every minute we spend addicted to them is speeding climate change, destroying habitat and threatening the survival of every species, including our own.

Instead of punishing wind farms, let's work to find solutions that will allow turbines and birds to coexist. At least one scientist suggested that painting wind turbines another color besides white could help, in addition to keeping wind farms away from migratory zones. Also, there's no rule that turbines have to sport three massive, bird-killing blades. Bird-safe turbine designs like this one could go along way toward minimizing fatalities

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Thursday, December 12, 2013

ANS -- In Which I See Conspiracies Everywhere

Here's a blog post from The Gods are Bored, the site of one Anne Johnson.  She's a teacher.  It's pretty short.  It's about someone trying to get rid of public education.... Then there's a second section on the War on Christmas. 
Find it here:   

Saturday, December 07, 2013

In Which I See Conspiracies Everywhere

Say what you want about conspiracy theorists. They almost always have it part right, and sometimes they have it all right. I'm going to join their ranks now. And I have some words to the wise for the conspirators. Free advice, if you will, that is free ... because they don't need my money.

On Thursday, one of my colleagues attended a teacher workshop in which some practice questions for the upcoming PARCC (don't know what those initials stand for) national high school proficiency test were revealed. One of the math questions was so difficult that the math teachers in the meeting all did it and all came up with different answers.

Cut to the conspiracy: Big business testing ($$$$) has created an "assessment" so hard that all but a few hardy, Harvard-bound individuals will fail it. When the catastrophe occurs -- trust me, reader, it will occur -- the scapegoats will be public school teachers.

Why would anyone want to vilify public school teachers? That's easy! They have collective bargaining. They have benefits. They are eligible for justly-earned pensions. Private school teachers don't get any of that stuff.

The conspirators hope that the nation's dismal performance on the upcoming national exams will have parents clamoring for charter schools, and vouchers, and "school choice" -- sending collective bargaining school teacher units into oblivion.

How do I know this is a conspiracy? Because our president, himself a graduate of a public school, is in on it.

Here's Anne's veiled threat to the conspiracy dedicated to eliminating teacher pensions: This might be a bridge too far. Our country's parents will indeed become furious when their children don't pass the proficiency test. But they might, just might, blame the test and not the teachers. I guess it might depend on who they like better -- the teacher or Fox News -- but I'm pinning my hopes on parents actually asking to see the test and to require public officials to pass it too.

A math test that even math teachers can't pass is not a test. It's an agenda.

Now to our second conspiracy: The War on Christmas.

No one has any money to spend on Christmas gifts these days. Salaries are stagnant or diminishing, and if you've got a job your credit cards are maxed out from previous gift-giving cycles. Alarmingly aware of this, our nation's retailers have solicited the help of the lunatic fringe in order to drum up business for Xmas 2013. What better way to win the War on Christmas than to buy lots of toys and electronics? Forget going to church. It's all about the swag. The so-called War on Christmas is nothing but a cynical conspiracy to get consumers into the stores. Read it and heed it: Walmart is the reason for the season.

Where this war is concerned, I'm waving the white flag. I have no money. This year it's gifts from the heart. Not that I would shop there anyway, having heard on the liberal t.v. channel that the six Waltons who own the store have as much wealth as the bottom 40 percent of our nation's population...

Six people worth the same amount as a couple hundred million Americans. You don't think there's a conspiracy or two afoot? No, of course you do! Who am I talking to here? Readers of "The Gods Are Bored!" I'm sure all three of you absolutely agree with me ... and thanks. We can all lose the war together.
Posted by Anne Johnson at 6:06 PM 5 co

Saturday, December 07, 2013

ANS -- Capitalism Has Failed: 5 Bold Ways to Build a New World

Here is an article from Sara Robinson that I recently discovered. (It's from May 2012)  I don't completely agree with everything in it* -- and isn't that unusual?  I'll have to think about it some more, and discuss it with Joyce, and you all, if you want to participate.  Lots of stuff in it to think about. 
*Principally, that growth is still necessary.  the need for growth comes from the stock market -- if no stock market is involved, businesses can remain at a steady-state profitability and still be "successful". 

Find it here:   

Capitalism Has Failed: 5 Bold Ways to Build a New World

Some new ideas and big questions are defining our economic future.
May 16, 2012 |  

As our political system sputters, a wave of innovative thinking and bold experimentation is quietly sweeping away outmoded economic models. In New Economic Visions, a special five-part AlterNet series edited by economics editor Lynn Parramore in partnership with political economist Gar Alperovitz of the Democracy Collaborative, creative thinkers come together to explore the exciting ideas and projects that are shaping the philosophical and political vision of the movement that could take our economy back.

The problem, in a nutshell, is this: The old economic model has utterly failed us. It has destroyed our communities, our democracy, our economic security, and the planet we live on. The old industrial-age systems -- state communism, fascism, free-market capitalism -- have all let us down hard, and growing numbers of us understand that going back there isn't an option.

But we also know that transitioning to some kind of a new economy -- and, probably, a new governing model to match -- will be a civilization-wrenching process. We're having to reverse deep and ancient assumptions about how we allocate goods, labor, money, and power on a rapidly shrinking, endangered, complex, and ever more populated planet. We are bolding taking the global economy -- and all 7 billion souls who depend on it -- where no economy has ever gone before.

Right now, all we have to guide us forward are an emerging set of new values and imperatives. The new system can't incentivize economic growth for its own sake, or let monopolies form and flourish. It should be as democratic as possible, but with strong mechanisms in place that protect the common wealth and the common good. It needs to put true costs to things, and hold people accountable for their actions. Above all, it needs to be rooted in the deep satisfactions -- community, nature, family, health, creativity -- that have been the source of real human happiness for most of our species' history.

As we peer out into this future, we can catch glimmers and shadows -- the first dim outlines of things that might become part of the emerging picture over the next few decades. Within this far-ranging conversation, a few dominant themes crop up over and over again. For the final chapter in this series, we'll discuss five robust visions that are forming the conceptual bridge on which our next steps toward the future are being taken.

Small Is Beautiful

Many people imagining our next economy are swept up in the romance of a return to a localized or regionalized economy, where wealth is built by local people creatively deploying local resources to meet local needs.

Relocalization is a way to restore the autonomy, security and control that have been lost now that almost every aspect of our lives has been co-opted by big, centralized, corporate-controlled systems. By bringing everything back to a more human scale, this story argues, we'll enable people to connect with their own creativity, their communities and each other. Alienation and isolation will dissipate. We'll have more time for family and friends, really free enterprise and more satisfying work. Our money will be our own, accumulated by us and re-invested in things we value. And it'll be a serious corrective to our delusional ideas about what constitutes real wealth, too.

This vision is deeply beloved. It's front and center in both the resilience and Transition Towns movement. You hear it from foodies who extol the virtues of local food, Slow Money investors who back local banks and businesses instead of Wall Street, community gardeners, and 10 million Makers. David Korten argues that capitalism is actually the enemy of truly free markets -- the kind where anybody with ideas and initiative can make a tidy living working for herself, doing something she loves. And that kind of freedom is, very naturally, small in scale.

This vision is also seductive. It holds out the promise that if people dare to let go of what they have and reach out to the future, there's a better life waiting within their grasp -- a core piece of any effective change story.  However, this model also has a few problems that haven't yet been engaged by most of its proponents, but which compromise its ability to serve as a global framework.

First: the infrastructure that will enable us to relocalize isn't thick on the ground right now. City and regional governments across the country are broke, devastated by the devaluation of their tax bases. Ironically, relocalizing may require significant federal investment -- but do we really think that the corporations that control our federal government will actually back a model that will ultimately undercut the economic and political chokehold they have on us? It seems unlikely.

Also, localization often involves trade-offs between making things efficiently -- which, in the industrial age, has meant making them in large, centralized factories -- and resilience. Making stuff locally in small batches increases resilience, and decentralizing the process means that many more people will have jobs. For example: A single factory farmer can manage thousands of acres. An organic farm might have half a dozen workers on just 20 acres.

But the fact remains that our world depends on at least a few large, complex systems (the Internet, for example) that require national or even international coordination to manage properly. Where does that coordination come from when all the power is pushed down to the regional level? Also, many of our biggest problems -- climate change, damage to the oceans, loss of species, the threat of epidemics and extreme weather events -- also require a larger and more coordinated response than any one city or region can mount. In a relocalized world, who has the authority to manage these problems?

Furthermore, what becomes of our currently high national and global standards on things like civil rights, infrastructure codes and the environment when all the power is devolved to local governments? Some places will no doubt forge ahead and raise the bar even further, but it's not hard to imagine that quite a few others will be all too glad to get back to oppressing their minorities and raping the land.

These are questions that few theorists, so far, have addressed, but it's possible they may be answered in time. A lot of the people doing the best work on relocalization right now are young, and the new enterprises they're building are untried and new. As they grow in skill and experience, and their trust in these structures grows, they may find ways to start scaling up.

Marx 2.0

Another group of theorists are updating Marx for the 21st century, proffering models that put both control and profit of enterprises into the workers' hands. In some of these, workers are also owners, with a full stake in the success or failure of the business. In others (such as the one proposed by philosopher David Schwiekart, which was based on Yugoslavia's industrial policy), the state is the owner and primary investor in the business. The workers lease the means of production, run the business, return some of the proceeds to the government, and distribute the rest of the profit between themselves.

Ironically, most of these schemes share capitalism's biggest flaw, which is its inherent reliance on growth. As a business owner, it's very hard to say, "We're big enough now. Let's stop here." (Though some, like Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, have done just that.) Most businesses have competitors who, if they're allowed to get bigger than you, will swallow you whole. If you don't stay big enough to compete, you don't survive -- and since the competitors are facing the same imperative, the race can never really end.

As noted, this kind of constant growth simply isn't sustainable on a finite planet. People will always trade -- it's an essential human activity -- but going forward, we need small-scale businesses that can stay happy and healthy without being pushed to grow. Worker ownership doesn't really address this problem, though relocalization, which roots businesses deeply in their own local markets, limiting their reach beyond those boundaries, may provide one natural brake on growth.

For many large and necessary enterprises (utilities; essential centralized manufacturing; big, capital-intensive tech industries; and so on) public ownership may be the only way to ensure that they grow no bigger than they need to be to fulfill their mission. If there are other solutions that will allow us to have complex enterprises minus the growth imperative, they're still lurking out beyond the horizon.

Systems Theory

One of the great breakthroughs in human understanding over the past 40 years has been the realization that all complex systems -- economic, political, biological, mechanical, environmental, or social -- behave according to a simple set of common principles. The rules that govern the behavior of one set of systems usually apply to other kinds of systems as well.

For example, much of what we've learned about how ecosystems work is now informing new thinking about the economy. Successful enterprises don't exist in a vacuum. They only thrive in interdependent communities of customers, suppliers, investors, employees, and related businesses. The most economically productive places -- for example, Silicon Valley -- are as dense in these interrelationships as old-growth forests are. This complex landscape allows for endless combinations of new interactions, which in turn leads to constant, easy, productive innovation. At the same time: these ecosystems are every bit as susceptible to thoughtless disruption when some critical element is disturbed.

This new awareness of the intense interdependence within healthy economies undercuts the "rugged individualist/self-made man" story that undergirds conservative economics. Seeing the world in systems makes it abundantly clear that no individual or enterprise ever succeeds on its own, or that one business alone can bring about the kind of change we need. Fostering healthy economies is the work of generations, and thanks to systems theory, we understand more about how to build them than we ever did before.

A World Like the Web

A related framework, which is being driven by technologists rather than economists, posits that economic systems like capitalism, fascism and communism all belong to an industrial age that's now passing. In the old era, we saw the world through the metaphor of the machine. Our systems were static piles of unchanging parts that you designed, defined, tinkered with, and deployed toward a desired result.

This framework argues that our transition to the Information Age (which includes not just the Internet revolution, but other technologies like nanotech, biotech, 3D printing, and so on; and which will be playing out through the rest of this century, at minimum) will require us to rearrange our economic and political orders to more closely fit the Internet metaphor. Closely related to this are emerging human-centered economic models, like behavioral economics, which jettison the mechanistic "rational actor" assumption for a more nuanced and organic understanding of how human decision-making actually works.

In these models, the economy is seen as a series of simultaneously interrelated and self-sufficient nodes, each embedded in a complex matrix of relationships that are redundant and self-healing. These could easily be strong regional economies based on natural bioregional boundaries, which are then bound together in a tight global network that fosters robust trade in goods and ideas. The foundation of capital is ideas and information -- resources that don't deplete the physical wealth of the planet. Membership in the network increases scalability and adds extra layers of resilience.

This model also implies big changes in governance. It demands new constitutions that push control down to the local level, while also integrating these regional governments into the global network. If political power can move like the Internet, we might get the best of both worlds: the small-is-beautiful dream embedded in so many of the current alternative models, plus a genuine global governance structure that's capable of getting its arms around our biggest and most universal problems (like, say, managing the global commons, creating needed accountability, or intervening collectively when one regional node has a crisis of some kind). These new governments would also establish a raft of new rights and privileges, updated for this age.

It's implicitly understood that this leap will facilitate global investment in new infrastructure that will, in turn, enable the next advance in the complexity of human systems. Technology has introduced a deep-level paradigm shift that is rapidly destroying the current order, while also providing the ontological map that shows how the distribution of power, money, organization, governance, and control should play out in the next one.

Reform, Revolution, and Evolution

All of the above discussions are also being informed by an evolving understanding of how transformative social change happens.

As long as most people assume that market capitalism is sustainable,  they'll focus on reforming it -- cleaning it up around the edges, rewriting regulations, making it work in the public interest, and so on. Many Americans, in fact, still hope that this is all it will take-- that technology, political reform and market forces, working in some magic combination, will be enough to save us from ourselves.

Others among us are holding out for a full-on revolution that overthrows the whole system in one massive push, clearing the way for something entirely new. Revolutions are tricky, though: historically, a lot of them have gone sideways when the revolutionaries couldn't hang on through the chaotic aftermath of what they'd wrought. They often get swept away by some other force that's better organized, and thus better equipped to step in and take over. Anything can happen in the wake of a revolution, and all too often, it's not the thing you hoped for.

Gar Alperovitz offers "evolutionary reconstruction" as a better alternative to either reform or revolution. Visionaries from Gandhi to Buckminster Fuller have agreed with him. This model focuses our change energy on building new parallel institutions that will, in time, supplant the old ones. Don't fight the existing system, this strategy argues. Instead, just sidestep it entirely and create a new one. As the old system collapses under its own decay, yours will gradually fill in the gaps until it becomes the new dominant paradigm.

America's right wing has used this model very successfully to take control of our culture over the past 40 years. Starting in the 1970s, they invested in a wide range of parallel education systems, media outlets, professional organizations, government watchdog groups, and so on. These groups groomed a new generation of leaders, while also developing the intellectual, policy and cultural basis for the change they wanted to create. As time passed, they took advantage of opportunities to insert people and ideas from these alternative institutions into the mainstream ones. The result was that 90 percent of the conservative revolution took place almost entirely under the radar of most Americans. One day, we simply looked up to find them in charge of everything that mattered.

We lost the country this way. And we are well on our way to getting it back this way, too. As we steadily, carefully build a new set of enterprises, the new reality will inevitably and naturally take shape around us. There's nothing stopping us from starting co-ops or worker-owned businesses or triple-bottom-line corporations; we can do all of that today, in full faith that these businesses will be far better adapted to the future than the old capitalist forms we're seeking to supplant. In time, these structures will become the new normal, and people will barely remember that we ever did it any other way.


Sara Robinson, MS, APF is a social futurist and the editor of AlterNet's Vision page. Follow her on Twitter, or subscribe to AlterNet's Vision newsletter for weekly updates.

ANS -- How one small town is holding its own against big box Black Friday

Here is one town's strategy for keeping small, one-of-a-kind businesses in business.  It's a matter of policy.  Short article.
Find it here:   

Fri Nov 29, 2013 at 09:30 AM PST

How one small town is holding its own against big box Black Friday

by Laura Clawson Follow for Daily Kos

Shoppers carrying Northampton, Massachusetts, Bag Day bags.
According to recent retail promotional tradition, Christmas shopping season starts the day after Thanksgiving­the notorious Black Friday. But the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Main Street of my hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts, was thronged with holiday shoppers. Why? Bag Day.

Northampton is a boutiquey little college town of less than 29,000. Its few chain stores include Eileen Fisher; you probably can't buy a 10-pack of tube socks on Main Street but you can buy all manner of quirky, colorful, bamboo fabric socks; independent bookstores and coffee shops rule. So its example certainly can't be replicated everywhere. But, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, more than 80 local businesses offer well-publicized discounts. The bag in Bag Day goes out in the local newspaper a few days ahead of time and entitles the holder to 20 percent off of one item in each of the stores listed on the bag. You buy your item, and the store crosses its name off. Many stores, though, offer a discount on your entire purchase, often not just for Saturday but for two or three days. It is a huge draw.

How big a draw? Bags are also available in Thornes, a small shopping center in the middle of downtown, on the morning of Bag Day. In 2010, a local television station reported that:
Bags start being distributed at 8:00 AM on the second floor. They are only giving out 1,000 bags. Jody Doele, the marketing manager at Thornes Marketplace, told 22News "I know we give all the bags out in two to three hours. It's a mob scene. It's one of the busiest, if not the biggest sales day of our whole year."

People who wouldn't ordinarily shop in downtown­people who might stick to the big malls and big box stores­come into town for Bag Day. The crowds on the sidewalks would do many Manhattan neighborhoods justice, and it seems like every other person is carrying one of those bags. The official Christmas shopping season in the area is extended by nearly a week, and it kicks off not at 6 AM Black Friday at Walmart, but the previous Saturday at locally owned stores with names like Broadside Bookshop, Artisan Gallery, and Inspirit Crystals. (Massachusetts doesn't allow most stores to open on Thanksgiving, so that bullet is dodged.)

The big answers to the big problems of a Walmart economy involve policy. Raising the minimum wage. Cracking down on wage theft. Making it easier for workers to organize without fear of retaliation. Making hugely profitable corporations pay a reasonable share of taxes. Cute little boutiques in college towns don't fix any of that. But at the same time, it's worth it for local business to keep fighting, for small towns to think creatively about keeping Main Street vibrant rather than letting all the business bleed out to the strip malls at the edge of town.

ANS -- Huh, so it IS a coordinated Wall Street Democrat campaign

Here's a short article about politics.  The establishment Democrats are trying to discredit the populist Democrats, and it's not really working, because the populists are, well, popular....
The comments are pretty good too, if you're into that sort of thing.
Find it here: #  

Tue Dec 03, 2013 at 10:30 AM PST

Huh, so it IS a coordinated Wall Street Democrat campaign

by kos Follow

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) takes part in a mock swearing i  
Wall Street's worst day.
Hmmm, so far today we've seen that Third Way op-ed in the Wall Street Journal and Sen. Chuck Schumer's comparing us to the teabaggers.

Then there is DLC dinosaur Al From with a new book and rhetorical embrace of Hillary Clinton, unreconstructed racist Richard Cohen's blasting of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Fox News "Democrats" Doug Schoen and Pat Caddell in Politico are back for another stab at that whole "radical center" nonsense.

One or two of these would be random noise. All of this, all at once? It's a coordinated counterattack by Wall Street Democrats spooked by the party's embrace of politicians like Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Tammy Baldwin and Jeff Merkley. The future of the Democratic Party is a populist one, all that's left is for time to whittle out the dead weight.

But this counterattack ... it's kinda pathetic. Warren will DOOM Democrats! Except that she is on the right side of American public opinion on issues of Wall Street dominance. That's the whole definition of being "populist" after all. But Warren can only win in a place like Massachusetts! Only if you ignore what Sherrod Brown did in Ohio with virtually identical politics. Or the way Democrats like Jon Tester and Heidi Heitkamp won their solidly red states. Hint: they didn't run Bob Kerrey's playbook of campaigning on Social Security cuts and austerity.

Wall Street can't possibly see a future in the Republican Party. It is increasingly a home for right-wing populists, the teabaggers, pushing for economy-destroying austerity, reactionary social policy, government shutdowns and national defaults. That's not good for business! And neither is blocking immigration reform. So the Democratic Party­the party that has saved capitalism by smoothing its rougher edges (it's no coincidence the stock market does better under Democratic administrations)­is the only choice. Except corporatists want less of that "smoothing the rougher edges" stuff. A lot less.

For now, Wall Street and its allies are simply trying to claim that cutting Social Security and other social programs are a path to electoral relevance­a notion laughable on its face.

But if Wall Street was really smart, they'd start getting the less crazy Republicans, like Mark Kirk and Susan Collins, to switch parties, reinforcing the ranks of Wall Street Dems in Congress and giving the corporatists a functional governing majority. And if that happened, it would be our turn for a good ol' civil war, just like the one the GOP is currently waging.

We're not there yet, but today's coordinate assault, inept as it might be, could be the first skirmish.
11:00 AM PT:
[] @markos Add @HFord2 to the coordinated attack; he just told @alexwagner  et al the way to salvation is cutting SS & Medicare
­ @laguna_bob
Even Harold Ford is coming out of the woodwork. It's a corporatist Reunion Day!

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

ANS -- 3.8%

Here's a very short article about why the very rich hate Obamacare.  It has to do with taxes. 
Find it here: #  

Wed Dec 04, 2013 at 03:05 PM PST


by RASalvatore Follow

I never see this discussed on the news, the pundit shows, or anywhere else.

Want to know the dirty little secret about why the wealthy hate Obamacare?


We hear the right-wing screaming all the time about Obamacare, of course, and how it's a travesty that will destroy freedom, take our guns and womenfolk, and will destroy Christmas! We have op-eds from people like Edie Stansby telling us of one horror after another. Even our well-to-do friends on Facebook bemoan their premium increases...while the middle class right wingers keep saying that they'll be paying the tab for the poor and the "takers," etc. It's all tied together, of course; those middle class folks are being fed that by the puppet masters.

Make no mistake about it, the wealthy hate Obamacare. And it's got nothing to do with premiums.

it's got to do with a single number: 3.8%

Remember that number. Shout that number.

You see, up until Obamacare, the truly wealthy in our society, that passive income crowd that dodged the top tax bracket by getting their compensation in capital gains and such, was EXEMPTED from the Medicare portion of FICA.

This tax (2.9%) went up .9% for incomes over 250k under PPACA. .9%'s not that bad, of course, but for those living on passive income, the hit is much larger.

Until now, this law, they were exempt from that tax.

Now they're not.

Take a guy like Romney - he makes $20,000,000 a year, most if not all of it in the form of passive income. So he was paying at the 15% rate, thanks to the special treatment for such "special" income.

That went up to 20% when parts of hte Bush tax cuts expired in 2012.

And now, to add insult to that injury, Romney's income is subjected to that dastardly Medicare tax (which, unlike the Social Security portion of FICA, doesn't cut off at $106,000, or $133,000, or whatever it is this year).

3.8% of $20,000,000 is $760,000 dollars in taxes. That has to sting that generational wealth plan Romney was hatching.

Imagine the hit the Kochs and the hedge fund guys are taking. The 25 top hedge fund guys in 2009 averaged $1Billion each...3.8% of a billion? Get your calculators out: mine says that means about $38,000,000 in new taxes for these guys.

So if they spend a few million trying to kill it, who could blame them, right?


They hate Obamacare. They hate Obama. It's pretty simple, when you think about it.

Make sure you point that out to the blue collar guy on Facebook who tells you that he's paying for the freeloaders. He is indeed, but he's looking in the wrong direction when he turns his gaze DOWN.