Our Desert Shepherd God

One constantly hears of the importance of the “Judeo-Christian tradition” to Western society and values.  Apparently Islam, which is clearly also part of the Abrahamic family, does not count, perhaps because it is so obviously at odds with the values touted in the West.  Yet apart from the fact that the West has been essentially Christian, with a smattering of Jews, it is not exactly clear how Judeo-Christian ideas are so important to modern society.

The two religions certainly espouse basic social values common to virtually all of humanity – homicide, theft, adultery, etc. are bad and family, compassion, charity, etc. are good – and they at least suggest that law and justice are vital to a well-organized society.  But does not the classical tradition also support all these values and do so within a context of rationalism, eliminating the need for any god?  Further, the Greco-Roman legacy lays the foundation for scientific enquiry and the democratic state, emphasizing a rule of law disconnected from any sort of faith.  The mainstream versions of the three Abrahamic religions ultimately accommodated, at least to some degree, rationalism and constitutional government, but this evolution took a very long time and segments of these faiths are still hostile to such Western notions.  Yahweh/God/Allah is manifestly not a democratic figure and has required unthinking acceptance of his words.

Inasmuch as they are rooted in faith rather than reason all religions are inherently silly to one degree or another, but the believer will of course only see the silliness in the other guy’s religion, especially if it is not Abrahamic.  There are, to be sure, differences in what might be called sophistication: god as a first principle behind the universe is more sophisticated than god as a personal savior requiring certain ethical behavior, which is in turn more sophisticated than god as nature spirit requiring offerings and ritual behavior.  But no matter how primitive or sophisticated all religions require a suspension of reason, and consequently Athena springing full grown from the brow of Zeus is inherently no more unreasonable than Jesus being born of a virgin mother or a Buddhist being reborn as a bug.  In fact, it is easier to make sense of the utterly anthropomorphic Olympic gods, who act just as humans do, than of the Abrahamic deity, who demands often strange behavior and proclaims his love of humanity while loosing all manner of evils upon us.

The many flocks of Abraham are of course generally oblivious to such considerations and display an arrogance possible only for a monotheist, dismissing poor benighted polytheists (the term “pagan” – “those of the countryside” – carries the contempt) as ignorant fools who cannot see how obviously false and man-made their gods are.  Ironically, the historical and cultural roots of the Abrahamic god, particularly in his Christian and Muslim incarnations, are quite evident, as obvious as the environmental origins of any weather god or fertility goddess.

The invisible tribal god of the people who would become the Hebrews readily betrays his local and west-Semitic character, particularly in his often bizarre prohibitions and punishments, many of which are common to other deities in
Syria-Palestine at the time.  Despite centuries of redactions the early books of the Old Testament still reveal signs of the polytheist and mythic past of the Judge of Nations, the creation of one time semi-nomadic stock herders.  This nameless desert shepherd god shares the original henotheistic nature possessed by many of his Canaanite colleagues, and only because of the understandable historical circumstances that detached him from nature and made him the sole god in the universe does he escape the scrap heap of religion to which they were ultimately consigned.  He becomes the ethical deity, but remains encrusted with the ritual and animal sacrifice of his early days.

His next incarnation comes out of the conjunction of a number of religious and historical factors that are found in Judea in the first century AD.  Because of the return of the Babylonian exiles, who had preserved his ancient character, and the successful nationalist revolt of the Maccabees, which helped stem the tide of Hellenism, Yahweh survived intact in a rapidly changing world.  The centuries old tradition of religious activists – the prophets – challenging the authority of a wealthy and corrupt priesthood allied with the state continued with the appearance of a charismatic preacher from Galilee.  As a heretic and potential revolutionary the popular Jesus would have to die, and his execution was approved by a Roman governor interested in maintaining order and keeping the propertied classes happy.

But because of the Greeks the story did not finish there, and Jesus did not simply join the line of martyrs for the Mosaic god.  The Hellenic wave that washed over Judea in the wake of Alexander brought with it a new religious form, the mystery cult, at the heart of which was a new idea of deity, the dying and resurrected god.  Jesus could thus live on, united with his divine father and divine spirit in a new version of the sole god, one more concerned with the downtrodden rather than the powerful, with forgiveness rather than punishment.  This was the Prince of Peace rather than the Lord of Hosts, Yahweh with a smiling face – and in a questionable three pack edition.

And the timing was perfect, which is of course why a new major religion emerged from this amalgam of ideas.  The Roman Empire allowed for the easy and rapid spread of the Christian god into the most distant corners of the Mediterranean and western Europe, and that Empire was packed with people ready to hear about the first truly poor man’s god, who preferred the powerless and offered a reward in the next life.  Facilitating all this was Saul/Paul of Tarsus, who striped the new creed of all the intimidating dietary and ritual practices of traditional Judaism.  The one ethical god was now available to the uncircumcised.

Some six hundred years later the third and seemingly final model of the god of Moses appeared, essentially the work of a single individual.  Growing up in the polytheist and socially retarded society of Red Sea Arabia, Mohammed did not have to create an Arabic supreme being from scratch but could draw upon the ideas of the Jews and Christians found in Medina.  Fully reflecting the primitive and semi-Bedouin environment, the resulting deity was a return to the more west-Semitic Jewish version, a Lord of Battles suitable for the constantly warring tribes.  Even more aniconic than his Hebrew predecessor, Allah was the ultimate desert shepherd god, who would carry his barbarian adherents to world power.

Yahweh/God/Allah is now worshipped by more than half the people on the planet, quite an achievement for a deity who started out as the tribal god of a tiny group of semi-nomadic herders.  And while he has undoubtedly satisfied the spiritual needs of millions upon millions of humans and has certainly inspired incredible art, he has equally clearly brought untold misery into the world.  Polytheists are almost relentlessly religiously tolerant (extremist Hindus only demonstrate what happens when you share a country with Arab Muslims), but monotheism introduced humanity to religious arrogance, holy war and baptism by the sword.  Two millennia after Christ and fifteen hundred years after Mohammed the world is still plagued with religious bigotry and violence and hostility towards rationalism.

Even worse, this is the no-fun god, enshrining the puritanical and narrow-minded attitudes of his herding and Bedouin progenitors and the uneducated and rural masses that underpin his worship.  Human sexuality, an inescapable element of our being, is suppressed and considered virtually an evil necessity, and the human body, celebrated by the high civilizations of Greece and India, has become an object of shame.  Islam carries the travesty even further, prohibiting alcohol, the chosen drug of the human race and the solace of millions, while its more extreme adherents seek to remove all the most colorful elements from the tapestry of life.  How is that sex and drink have fallen into the same category as theft and murder?

Suppose that priestly Judaism had disappeared under the impact of Hellenism or that the Galilean preacher had never appeared.  The educated elites in the classical world were already abandoning polytheism for a more unitary understanding of god, a divine principle rather than a personal savior.  How would that have played out without the intervention of Christianity and Islam?  In the midst of all its polytheist beliefs Hinduism has produced for the educated a more unitary notion of deity.  It is far too much to believe that humanity would have moved away from religion altogether, but the absence of the desert shepherd god would likely have resulted in a more pleasant history for the race.

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President Obama and His Stone Cold Killers

Barack Obama’s fall from grace has been startling.  The laurel of the Nobel Peace Prize rests uneasy on the brow of a man who possesses and uses the power to kill anyone virtually anywhere on the planet, seemingly free from any oversight whatsoever.  Apart from a better command of the English language it is becoming difficult to discern any difference between Obama and his predecessor, as he carries on the post-9/11 crusade of increased domestic surveillance, violation of international law and the endless war against terrorism that supposedly justifies this behavior.

Of all his promises to dismantle the immoral, legally questionable and frequently counterproductive practices of the Bush security apparatus he has kept only one: to ban the use of torture in interrogations (and one wonders how thoroughly this is observed in the back rooms and undisclosed locations of our countless intelligence agencies).  Otherwise, Guantanamo remains open, detainees will receive military trials, more troops were sent to Afghanistan, none of the provisions of the Patriot Act have been rescinded, Israel continues to determine our policy in the Middle East, the “too-big-to-fail” banks are now even bigger and the military budget continues to grow.

In contrast to that of Bush his was to be the most transparent administration in history, when in fact it may be even more opaque.  At this very moment he is using the ever popular “executive privilege” to withhold information potentially damaging to his Attorney General, Eric Holder.  But much more telling are his efforts to plug leaks to the media.  In 1917 Congress passed the Espionage Act, which, as the name suggests, was designed to provide the government with the tools to prosecute those supplying American secrets to a foreign power, i.e., spies.  In the 95 years since then the Act has been used on nine occasions to prosecute Americans responsible for leaking classified information not to a potential enemy state but rather to the American media, and thus the American public.  The legality of this use of the law has been questioned and the issue is still not settled, but this is of course a quibble for any government interested in employing this very useful political weapon.  Of those nine instances of the Espionage Act being misused six fall under the Obama administration.

On the foreign front Obama is as oblivious to traditional international standards of behavior as was Bush.  Regard for national sovereignty (except our own) continues to erode, as we carry on drone strikes in Pakistan against their wishes and violate the air space of Iran and other countries.  Despite the objections of the Afghan government our military continues launching the night raids universally hated by the Afghanis.  We are threatening a sovereign nation, Iran, with military action because they might be enriching uranium which might be used for a bomb which might be used against Israel, if the Iranian government could possibly be that stupid and suicidal.  We have implemented economic and financial sanctions against them that would be considered tantamount to an act of war if done to us.  We have fully adopted the Israeli notion that if you think a state might be a threat at some time in the future, you are justified in attacking them, an understanding of international relations that Hitler would have delighted in.  And our chief legal authority, Attorney General Holder, has assured us that all this is completely in accordance with international law.

Then there is the drone, in the use of which Obama has made Bush seem a piker.  Of course, it is cheap, it is an effective killer and it puts no Americans in harm’s way.  More than 2300 individuals, including three American citizens, have been executed by drone launched missiles, requiring us to believe that over two thousand people were so threatening to our security that we had to kill them all.  Well, not all of them were that threatening, since the figure includes hundreds of men, women and children who just happened to be too near someone the US decided was a top terrorist.  How many dead innocents?  Who knows?  The government is reluctant to release that sort of information, and in any case we have only their word that the actual target was himself worth killing.

Now we know the President keeps a “to kill” list, but exactly how one manages to get on this list is of course classified.  Given the great job the military did in rounding up innocent Afghan farmers for a stay at Club Gitmo, one might justifiably wonder about some of these deaths by Hellfire.  Naturally, the Attorney General assures us that these “enemy combatants” must be “senior operational leaders,” who are planning an attack, cannot be captured easily and live in a country that has given us permission to assassinate its people.  This apparently does not apply to operations in Pakistan, which constantly objects to our strikes.  Or in Yemen, where lack of intelligence has lead the military/CIA to conclude from “patterns of behavior” – routines, places visited, associates, etc. – whether an individual is a terrorist who deserves to be exploded.  Could this be getting out of hand?

It is wonderful to think of murdering barbarian scum being vaporized by American technology, but the problem is that many, if not most of those having their body parts scattered across the countryside are not in fact murdering scum but rather the inevitable innocent bystanders, or “splats” as the military more honestly calls them in private.  This is hardly endearing us to the populations we ostensibly want to help and only contributes to the creation of martyrs.  Another problem, more disturbing, is that in three instances the murdering scum were American citizens, meaning that the President, in consultation with his generals and spooks, has acted as judge and executioner in the deaths of Americans.  The slopes do not get more slippery than this.

I fear for the Republic.  Domestic surveillance, both legal and questionable, has increased dramatically in the wake of the destruction of the Reichstag..I mean, Twin Towers.  American citizens can now be detained without charge for some indefinite period, and the constant cries of “secret” and “national security” make all terrorism trials problematic with regard to evidence.  Somehow the CIA, an intelligence agency once prohibited from assassinating people, has now acquired heavy weaponry and the authority to blow up individuals around the world.  The President, on very dubious grounds, seemingly now has the right to send American military forces virtually anywhere, never mind Congressional authorization.  Like the dictators we frequently work with he may now order the execution of anyone he, the military and the intelligence agencies decide upon.  And like the Japanese seventy years ago and the Israelis more recently we have adopted the concept of the “protective reaction strike,” which allows us to attack anyone we deem potentially threatening.  This used to be called a “war of aggression” and we prosecuted Germans for it not so long ago.

The Obama administration is demonstrating something more cynical historians have long believed: the prime directive of any government, be it a democracy, military dictatorship, absolute monarchy or whatever, is to defend and increase its power.  No government, even one momentarily controlled by a liberal speaking President, will ever willingly surrender power.  And unfortunately the American people are demonstrating no inclination to change this situation, if it is even possible, given the utter stranglehold the Democratic and Republican parties hold over our system.

Lost Lyrics of Julia Ward Howe

The Battle Hym of the C.I.A.

Julia Ward Howe

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Drone:

It is trampling on the village where the terrorists are prone;

It hath loosed the Hellfire Missile and Its shards of death are sown:

Its truth is flying on.

Glory, glory, Lockheed Martin!

Glory, glory, Lockheed Martin!

Its truth is flying on.

I have seen It on the runways of a hundred U.S. camps,

They have builded It a hanger ‘mid the Afghan dews and damps;

I can read Its bombing schedule by electric powered lamps:

Its death is flying on.

Glory, glory, Lockheed Martin!

Glory, glory, Lockheed Martin!

Its death is flying on.

Foes have read a fiery gospel writ in guided tubes of steel:

“As ye have hurt our interests, so with you my bombs shall deal;

Let the Hellfire, born of Lockheed, crush the Muslim with its heel;

My bombs are flying on.”

Glory, glory, Lockheed Martin!

Glory, glory, Lockheed Martin!

Its bombs are flying on.

It has sounded forth the radar that shall find the hiding place;

It is snuffing out the lives of men in every tribal space;

As our Predator is searching, we are basking in Its grace;

Our Drone is flying on.

Glory, glory, Lockheed Martin!

Glory, glory, Lockheed Martin!

Our Drone is flying on.

In the bosom of the transports Drones were born across the sea,

With a glory in Their programs that transfigures you and me:

As They fire to make men corpses, let us die as Wall Street’s fee,

While Drones are flying on.

Glory, glory, Lockheed Martin!

Glory, glory, Lockheed Martin!

While Drones are flying on.

It is coming in the glory of the children in the grave,

It is profit for the mighty, It is heedless of the brave,

So the world shall be our footstool, and the soul of man our slave,

Our Drone is flying on.

Glory, glory, Lockheed Martin!

Glory, glory, Lockheed Martin!

Our Drone is flying on.

Our Best Ally and the USS Liberty

Liberty on June 9

          On June 8, 1967, a perfectly clear day, the American electronic surveillance vessel USS Liberty was in international waters about 30 miles northeast of el-Arish in the Sinai Peninsula, monitoring the signals traffic of the Israelis, Arabs and Russians.  At about 2 PM the ship was attacked by Israeli Mirage and Mysteres fighters, which strafed, bombed and napalmed the Liberty, killing nine crewmen and wounding others.  Their munitions expended, the planes broke off the attack, and the Liberty radioed for help.  The nearby 6th Fleet twice scrambled fighters, but each time they were recalled within minutes, and about 30 minutes after that the Liberty was attacked by three Israeli torpedo boats, which almost sank the vessel with torpedo hits.  They then closed and strafed the vessel, including life rafts that were being launched.  According to the Israeli military, only then did they identify the ship as American and left the scene at 3:30, returning about an hour later to offer help, which the Liberty refused.  34 crewmen were dead and 174 wounded.

The Israelis immediately apologized for what they claimed was an accident, and this explanation was immediately accepted by President Lyndon Johnson and his Secretary of War, Robert McNamara.  Many others, including members of Congress and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, were appalled and believed the attack to have been deliberate.  Surviving Liberty crew were instructed never to talk about the incident under threat of court martial, and while many received decorations, all but one citation said nothing about the identity of the attacker.  Captain William McGonagle received the Medal of Honor, but rather than being awarded the decoration in the White House by the President, as is traditional, he received it from the Secretary of the Navy in an unpublicized ceremony at the Washington Naval Yard.  Stating that it was not their intention to “rule on the culpability of the attacker,” the Navy conducted a 10 day investigation, although the chief of the court, Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd, thought the probe would require at least six months.  This was by far the briefest investigation of a naval disaster in modern American history, and the fact that official letters to families of the casualties, stating it was an accident, were sent out the day before the court convened strongly suggests the investigation was a sham.  The Navy of course concluded that the attack had been an accident.  It remains the official policy of both the Israeli and American governments that it was.

Thanks, Israel!

It was not.  Despite the withholding and editing of documents and tapes, particularly by the NSA, the evidence is overwhelming.  Retired Liberty crewmen, who after all were first-hand witnesses, are adamant in their belief that the attacking Israelis knew it was an American ship.  They have pointed out that in their initial flyovers the planes were so close they could see the faces of the pilots, making it difficult to believe the pilots in turn could not see the 13 foot American flag and other identifying marks and the plainly non-Arabic sailors.  Retired members of the intelligence community have stated they knew it was deliberate and that operators on the Liberty actually overheard the Israeli pilots telling their superiors that it was an American vessel.  Vice-Admiral William Martin claimed the fighters were recalled because it was feared the attackers were Russians, an incredible proposition, and defending the Liberty could thus start a war with the USSR.  It is now known that Johnson, who lies about the affair in his autobiography, personally ordered (through McNamara) the planes recalled, unwilling to “embarrass my ally.”  25 American sailors would subsequently die because of that decision.

Attempts in the last four decades to reopen the investigation have been met with government indifference and outright hostility, even towards the aging survivors of the Liberty.  Afraid to level even the mildest criticism against Israel, virtually no American politician will accuse them of deliberately attacking an American vessel.  There is no conclusive evidence, they say, and what possible reason could Israel have to do such a thing?

If there is no “conclusive” evidence (apart from the eyewitness accounts of the sailors and statements of retired officials), it is because the government, despite the Freedom of Information Act, has refused to release box loads of documents pertaining to the attack.  Further, analysts have concluded that a number of the released audio tapes from that day have obvious gaps.  Why would Washington cover up such a blatant attack on Americans?  As the past 45 years have demonstrated, the apparent Israeli stranglehold on American domestic politics has allowed “our best ally” to do whatever she damn well pleases, even if that includes undermining US interests and constantly violating the international law and covenants we have pledged to uphold.  They have spied on us, illegally resold our military technology, interfered in our elections, detained and abused American citizens of Palestinian origin and insulted one American President after another, yet as the recent parade of Republican candidates made startlingly clear, every national candidate must kneel at the altar of Israel.

Israel has continually demonstrated that she has absolutely no concern for anything outside her own interests and is willing even to use Jews living abroad to serve her ends.  Protected by the United States, the Israelis seem to feel they can get away with any sort of behavior, continually violating the sovereignty of other countries (as we now do), maintaining an open season on Palestinian civilians, intercepting and capturing unarmed vessels in international waters and simply murdering people without apology.             This pattern of behavior certainly supports a deliberate assault on the Liberty.  But why?  There are two possible reasons.  Shortly before the attack the Israeli army had summarily executed several hundred Egyptian POWs in el-Arish (the number is disputed but not the massacre) and may well have been concerned that the Liberty, which was in the neighborhood, had gathered evidence of this war crime.  But far more likely is the planned invasion of Syria.  Washington was putting serious pressure (!) on the Israelis, who were dependent upon American resupply, to end the war, but Israel wanted to seize the Golan Heights and was massing forces for an assault on June 9.  If the US learned of this on June 8, the operation could not take place, and here was the Liberty, monitoring all the electronic traffic in the region.  Remove the Liberty and the problem disappears, as in fact happened.  At 3 AM on June 9 Syria accepted a cease fire, and though informed of this, at 7 AM the Israelis seized the Golan, which was subsequently annexed.

Our best ally indeed.