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Unity in the Virgin

December 12, 2004 |

This weekend was the celebration of the , and if you don’t know who she is, you might as well learn, because she is well on the road to becoming as an all-American icon like St. Patrick and Saint Nicholas.

You don’t have to believe that there really was an escaped slave who spearheaded the Christianization of Ireland in order to acknowledge that Day is an inescapable element of American culture.

And you don’t have to believe that the 4th century’s in southwestern Turkey gave presents to poor people—especially to impecunious young women, so that they would have a marriage dowry, and thereby be saved from a life of prostitution.  But there’s no doubt that the St. Nicholas story traveled west, becoming especially popular with Catholics in the Netherlands.

And from there, the story jumped the Atlantic when and morphed St. Nicholas into Santa (the Spanish word for “saint”) Claus in the early 19th century.

The Virgin of Guadeloupe started out as a Mexican icon in 1531, but she has already come to your hometown.  And she has a very good chance of becoming a much bigger figure in American culture than St. Patrick, because she represents, in part, all-American values.

Let’s start at the very beginning.

Thanks to political correctness, the average American knows just a few things about the Aztecs: They had colorful feather costumes which re-enactors wear today in multicultural festivals.  They were very good at astronomy/astrology.  Their astrologers had long foretold that the end of world would occur in precisely the year that and his conquistadores actually did arrive in Mexico, and demolished the Aztec Empire.

Oh, and the Aztecs had a custom of .  History textbooks tend to elide the details of the sacrifices, and some students get the impression that the sacrifice victims were pious volunteers.  Or as Neil Young sang in : “They offered life in sacrifice, so that others could go on.  Hate was just a legend.  And war was never known.”

Not exactly.  The priests of Aztec Empire murdered about a by ripping out their living hearts.  The main victims were not Aztec volunteers, but other Indian tribes who had been conquered by the Aztecs during the Flower Wars.  The gods received the beating heart; according to anthropologist Marvin Harris in Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Culture, the Aztecs ate the rest of the body.

Children were the favorite “sacrifice” of these bloodthirsty priests.  According to Aztec religion, nothing pleased the gods more than the tears of children who were being killed.  The priests also liked to flay their victims alive, so the priests could wear the victims’ skins.

“Sacrifices” (that is, murders) were perpetrated on a massive scale.  For example, during the 1487 rededication of the (modern Mexico City), the Aztecs gloated that over 80,000 victims were slaughtered in just four days.

One of the most important reasons that the evil Aztec Empire fell to Cortez was that other Indian tribes of Mexico allied with the Spanish, and provided the great bulk of the anti-Aztec military force.

Spanish rule over Mexico was sometimes harsh, although Spain, which was a preeminent center of Catholic scholarship in the 16th century, did have influential voices which had some success in insisting that the Indians be treated decently.   is the best known, but there was also Francisco de Vitoria, who argued in De Temperantia that the Spanish had no right to enslave Indians.  That the Indians were pagans did not deprive them of their natural rights. Vitoria, who was very influential in international law, also argued that the Spanish had a moral duty to intervene to protect the Indians who would otherwise become victims of cannibalism or human sacrifice.

Around the Winter Solstice in December 1531, ten years after the Spanish conquered the Aztecs, a Catholic Indian peasant named was walking past Tepeyac hill, several miles outside of Mexico City.  He heard what seemed like unusually beautiful songbirds at the top of the rocky hill.  When he went up to investigate, “, who was standing there and told him to come hither.  Approaching her presence, he marveled greatly at her superhuman grandeur; her garments were shining like the sun; the cliff where she rested her feet, pierced with glitter, resembling an anklet of precious stones, and the earth sparkled like the rainbow.  The mezquites, nopales, and other different weeds, which grow there, appeared like emeralds, their foliage like turquoise, and their branches and thorns glistened like gold.”

He recognized her as Mary.  She addressed him affectionately as her child, and told him to tell the Bishop to have a church for her built at the top of the hill. This was the site where an Aztec temple to the earth goddess had recently been torn down.

He walked several miles to the Bishop’s office, and, after a long wait, met with the Bishop, who thought Juan Diego to be a fraud.

The next day, he again saw Mary at the top of the hill, and she requested him to keep trying with the Bishop, despite Juan Diego’s feeling that he was a poor messenger. After another long walk and long wait, Juan Diego found the Bishop no less skeptical. The Bishop asked Juan Diego to supply some kind of sign if he were really speaking the truth.

Back at Tepeyac hill the next day, Mary promised Juan Diego that she would supply a sign tomorrow, and told him to come back in the morning.

The next morning, Tuesday, December 12, Juan Diego stayed away from the hill’s summit, and instead walked around the base of the hill, so that he could avoid meeting Mary. He was more concerned with hurrying to get a priest for his uncle, who was gravely ill. Partway around the hill, he saw Mary walking down from the top, and she soon met him on the path. He explained his hurry, and promised to come back to her tomorrow. She told him not to worry and that his uncle would be alright (which was true).

She told him to go up to the top of the hill, and gather flowers. There, at the top of the craggy, rocky, weed-ridden hill, he found roses which were blooming in the dead of winter, and he placed them in an apron made from his tilma. (The tilma was the common peasant clothing, made from cactus fibers, and worn sort of like a Roman toga.) He carried the roses back to the base of the hill, where she arranged them carefully on the tilma.

Again, he walked the miles back to the Bishop’s office, and waited at length. He would have waited even longer, but some of the Bishop’s assistants spotted the roses through a fold in the tilma.

When the Bishop finally saw him, Juan Diego opened the apron, and the roses fell to the floor. So did the Bishop and all his staff, who dropped to their knees. On Juan Diego’s tilma was a he had met.

Her cape was spangled with stars, a traditional garb of an Aztec princess. She was standing on the moon and in front of the sun, which emitted brilliant rays behind her.

The church was promptly built on the spot that Mary had designated, former site of a pilgrimage temple to the Aztec earth and corn goddess .  Like Mary, Tonantzin was addressed as “Our Holy Mother," and was associated with the moon. The original church is no longer there, but a and have been built in its place, where the tilma and its painting are viewed by large crowds every day.

A normal tilma should have decayed into tatters after about 20 years, but this one is well-preserved, even though is was frequently kissed, touched, and had objects placed on it for the first century after the painting appeared. (Today, the tilma is behind glass.)

Scientists have investigated the painting several times, most recently in 1979. While, it is possible that some of the materials on the outer part of the painting may have been added in the early 1600s, there is not yet been a good explanation for how a Mexican Indian, with the paint materials available at the time (or any other painter in 1531) could have produced the picture.

Microscopic of the paining of Mary’s eyes reveals (at least to some observers) details which would have been impossible from a 16th century painter to create: matching images of a bearded man who appears to be kneeling.

There is no serious dispute that the Guadeloupe story is nearly five centuries old. A colonial Mexican from 1548 refers to the incident. The , Juan Diego’s recorded version of the Guadeloupe events, provides the details of the story as it is known today.

In any case, tens of millions of people believe the paining to be an authentic miracle, and (for purposes of assessing the painting’s impact on society), that’s all that matters.

There have been many, many reports of public apparitions of the Virgin Mary (perhaps an order of magnitude greater than the number of reported public apparitions of Jesus or any other religious figure), but the Virgin of Guadeloupe is by far the most famous and influential Marian apparition ever in the Western hemisphere.

The answer is found in the painting itself.  To begin with, Mary is not white. She is either Indian, or perhaps Mestizo (a mix of Indian and Iberian). Although she wears a traditional European dress and headscarf, her clothing is resplendent with Aztec symbols.

For example, in Aztec numerology, the numeral 4 symbolizes plentitude, and a four-petal flower appears directly over her womb. The 10 eight-petaled flowers symbolize the planet Venus, which was what the hero-god Quetzalcoatl became. (Quetzalcoatl opposed human sacrifice.)

To a Spanish Christian from the Old World, the painting’s celestial imagery had obvious ancestors. The Book of Revelation, the apocalyptic conclusion to the New Testament, describes the final battles between good and evil: “And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars…”  Biblical critics have identified her with the church, with the community of believers, , and in various other ways. But the most common identification is that .

The Revelation image was re-capitulated in a Spanish statue of the Virgin; the statue was lost for six centuries, and then re-discovered in 1326 near . It was credited with miraculous victories of the Christian Spaniards against Arab Muslims.

The beautiful lady who spoke to Juan Diego told him her name in , the Aztec language, and whatever she said sounded to the Spanish Bishop to be something like “Guadeloupe,” which is unpronounceable in Nahuatl.  (Scholars are still undecided about what the Nahuatl phrase was, but my favorite is “She who proceeds from the region of light like a fire eagle.”)

To the Aztecs, the celestial images in the painting had a very direct and personal meaning. The black crescent moon was a prime symbol of the Aztec religion. The conquerors’ sacred lady was standing (or perhaps dancing and clapping) on the Aztec moon, dominating it—as she dominated every celestial object. The constellations were mere ornaments on her dress. (The dress constellations are a depiction of the celestial globe on the Winter Solstice of 1531.)

And so the painting depicted the triumph and supremacy of Christianity over the Aztec religion. But this triumph was not of whites over Indians, or the Old World over the New. To the contrary, the Virgin had appeared to the Indians as one of them, wearing their clothes, and presenting in almost every inch of the painting. The day on which the Virgin appeared for the final time, December 12, was the earth goddess festival day.

The syncretistic Virgin of Guadeloupe thus prefigured the Mexican nation itself, in which Iberian whites and native Indians intermarried, to create a new people.

Over the centuries, the Virgin never lost her place as the preeminent symbol of the Mexican people—notwithstanding the hostility of anti-clerical governments since 1910.

The Virgin has been misused by many people who try to make her into an argument that Mexican women should let men treat them like doormats (“Be like the Virgin; her eyes are humble and downcast”). Nevertheless, for many women the Virgin of Guadeloupe has been a source of strength and empowerment.

And what has all this to do with the United States? Well, she is the “,” not just of Mexico. The massive Mexican immigration to the U.S. in the last several decades is not going to be undone, even if a Buchanan fence were erected tomorrow. And if you start keeping an eye out for the Guadeloupe image, you’ll see that it’s already very common in pick-up truck rear windows, behind the counter in family stores, ubiquitous in Catholic churches with a large Mexican congregation, and often seen even in American Catholic churches which have very few Mexicans. Much of the mainstream American press now pays far more attention to the Virgin of Guadeloupe than to any other religious event of the last 500 years.

In the United States, Santa Claus has long since forgotten his Turkish/Dutch roots, while St. Patrick is still clearly Irish. A few decades from now, the Virgin of Guadeloupe in the U.S. will probably still be associated with Americans whose ancestors came from Mexico.  The quincentenary in 1992 was somewhat overlooked, because the multiculturalists had unfairly demonized him. The Virgin’s quincentenary in 2031 is unlikely to suffer the same fate, and even magazine (which definitely does not celebrate non-European immigration) acknowledges that 2031 is going to be a very big deal in the U.S.

But I don’t think that the Virgin of Guadeloupe is going to help the multiculturalists. They abhor the melting pot, and work assiduously to divide Americans into mutually exclusive tribes, with each tribe clinging to its old culture. The centripetal forces of America, however, are too strong for the divisive multi-cultural scheme to succeed. On college campuses, engineering students whose parents came from Taiwan date communications majors whose parents came from Nigeria.

And the Virgin herself is a uniter, not a divider. In the entire history of the world, the Virgin of Guadeloupe has been one of the greatest symbols (and causes) of the mixture of white and non-white, of indigenous and immigrant, of east and west, of old and new.

By 2031, the United States may have a thriving community of Mexican immigrants who are contributing to the American dream, adding to American culture in constructive ways—as did the Germans, Irish, Italians, and other groups, after their own massive waves of immigration.  Or the U.S. in 2031 could have an angry and unassimilated lower-class population which despises the nation which welcomed them—like the Arab Muslims in the suburban ghettoes around Paris.  The enduring power of the Virgin of Guadeloupe gives us good cause to hope for the best.

December 10, 2004 |

Tonight is the fourth night of Armed Jews Week, or as it is more popularly known, Hanukkah.  Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration of the Jewish revolution against Syria in the second century B.C.  The Syrian government (a remnant of Alexander the Great’s empire) attempted to by forcing the Jews to conform to Greek culture.  Some of them refused, and a tiny militia, led by Judah the Maccabee (“the hammer”) began a guerilla war.

The Jewish militia grew in force, and much larger Syrian armies which were sent to smash the revolution.  Syria’s King Antiochus decided that the Jewish people were so much trouble that he would just get rid of them entirely—slaughtering as many as necessary, and selling all the rest into slavery.  But his wicked plans failed, and after years of war, the Jews won their independence.

During the years of Syrian tyranny, Syrian officers enjoyed the droit du seigneur—the authority to deflower virgin Jewish brides on their wedding nights, before they could join their husbands.  So some which Jewish families retell at Hanukkah, such as the Book of Judith,extol brave Jewish women who went to the tent of enemy officers who were expecting sex—but who instead met their deaths as the hands of lone Jewish women.

During centuries of oppression in Christian and Moslem lands, many Jews adopted attitudes of passivity and helplessness.  Those attitudes began to change in the late nineteenth century, with the growth of the movement.

Zionists believed that Jews had become disconnected from the physical world.  That the Jews had no homeland was the most extreme manifestation of the disconnection, but the disconnect could be seen on many levels.  Often pale and weak, Jewish boys were easy targets for bullies.  Usually passive and timid, Jewish communities were easy targets for mobs.  The root cause of Jewish physical weakness and of disrespect by gentiles was the Jewish lack of self-respect.

The Zionists set out to restore a Jewish homeland, and they recognized that such a project would require a widespread change in Jewish consciousness.

So in counties such as Russia and Israel (which was ruled as colony by the Ottoman Empire and then by the British), Zionists organized Jewish self-defense groups.  Many of the young Jewish men and women who would lead the resistance to Hitler were members of these Zionist self-defense youth groups in the 1930s in Eastern Europe.

Although there is a widespread myth that Jews in the Holocaust were passive, they were actually more active than any other conquered people.  In 1942-43, Jews constituted half of all the partisans in Poland.  Overall, about thirty thousand Jewish partisans fought in Eastern Europe.  There were armed revolts in over forty different ghettos, mostly in Eastern Poland.

In other parts of Europe, Jews likewise joined the resistance at much higher rates than the rest of the population.  Unlike in Eastern Europe, though, Jews were generally able to participate as individuals in the national resistance, rather than having to fight in separate units.

For example, in France, Jews amounted to than one percent of French population, but comprised about 15-20 percent of the French Resistance.

In Greece too, Jews were disproportionately involved in the resistance.  In Thessaly, a Jewish partisan unit in the mountains was led by the septuagenarian Rabbi Moshe Pesah, who carried his own rifle.  The Athenian Jew Jacques Costis led the team which , thereby breaking the link between the mainland and Peloponnesian Peninsula, and interfering with the delivery of supplies to Rommel’s .

One of the great centers of resistance was Vilna, Lithuania, which before the Nazi conquest had been an outstanding center of Jewish learning, .

Plans for resistance began in January 1942.  The Jews’ only weapons were smuggled in from nearby German arms factories where the Jews performed slave labor.  Hopeful of liberation by the Russian army, many of the Vilna Jews did not support the partisans.  Partisan resistance postponed by three weeks the German plans to transport all the inhabitants of the Vilna ghetto to death camps, but the deportation of 40,000 Jews was accomplished by the end of September 1943.

A young poet named Abba Kovner led the resistance movement known as the Avengers in the woods around Vilna.  His lieutenants, and bedmates, were teenage girls, Vitka Kempner and Ruzka Korczak.

The Avengers were the first partisans in Nazi Europe to blow up a German train.

Towards the end of the war, the Avengers shepherded huge numbers of Jews to Palestine, in violation of the British blockade.

Before the war, Ruzka had belonged to left-wing Zionist youth group called “The Young Guard” () which trained Jews in self-defense, and taught the older boys how to shoot.  Abba was not religious, but he was a fervent Zionist, loving to read the Bible stories of Jewish warriors, and aiming to emulate the Jewish Bible heroes.

In the Vilna Ghetto, it was who first saw that the tightening of the Nazi oppression was not just a temporary imposition by a local German official; it was a step towards the total destruction of the Jews.  The only way out, he argued, was “Revolt and armed defense.  This is the only way which promises any dignity for our people.”

Other Jews countered that revolt was hopeless because the Germans were so strong, and that collective reprisals by the Germans would just lead to more Jewish deaths.   retorted that the stories of Jewish heroism could not remain only “a part of our ancient history. They must be part of our real life as well.”  The next generation of Jews must have something to admire.  “How good will they be if their entire history is one of slaughter and extermination?  We cannot allow that.  It must also have heroic struggles, self-defense, war, even death with honor.”

Vilna was typical, in that the young people were usually the ones who wanted to fight, and the elders usually counseled against causing trouble.  Most of the partisan leaders and fighters were young.

Niuta Teitelbaum was a beautiful 24-year-old Jewish Polish woman who looked like she was sixteen.  Known as “,” she was an expert smuggler of people and weapons, and instructed women’s partisan cells.  Her units blew up trains, artillery emplacements, and other German targets.

Once, wearing traditional Polish clothing and a kerchief on her hair, she talked her way past a series of Gestapo guards, whispering that she was going to see the SS commander on “private business.”  Alone with the commander in his office, she drew a revolver, shot him dead, and calmly left the building.

Because generation after generation after generation of Jewish families told their children the heroic Hanukkah stories of and , the spirit of freedom and resistance lived in modern heroes such as Abba Kovner and Niuta Teitelbaum.

At the annual Passover Seder, Jewish families say:

In every generation, each person must look upon himself or herself as if he or she personally had come out of Egypt.  As the Book of Exodus says, “You shall tell your children on that day: it is because of what the Eternal One did for me when I went forth from Egypt.”  For it was not our fathers and mothers alone whom the Holy One redeemed.  We too were redeemed along with them.

The point has a broader application than just for Jews at Passover.  Hanukkah teaches that God’s redemption of the Jewish people is a continuing act of history—and so does Jewish armed resistance during the Holocaust.  The resistance proved to the world that Jews were active fighters, and not mere passive victims.  That resistance (most famously, in the ) was an indispensable step towards the rebirth of the modern state of Israel.

The Books of Maccabees and the Book of Judith are part of the Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, and Orthodox Bibles; the stories of resistance to the Nazis are part of the heritage of freedom-loving people everywhere.  So as Jewish families light Menorah candles during the eight days of Hanukkah, may people of good will, of all faiths, use the time as an occasion to teach their children about the inspiring Jewish and Gentile men and women who, even in the darkest times, have kept alive the sacred light of freedom.

December 9, 2004 |

The baby gap

Over the last few decades, it has become traditional in the post-Presidential election season for activist members of the losing party to engage in recriminations against their party’s standard-bearer.  Whether such recriminations make sense this year is doubtful, for John Kerry came closer to unseating a wartime President than any candidate in American history.

Indeed, the only other wartime challenger who came close was New York Governor DeWitt Clinton in 1812, who garnered 89 electoral votes, against President James Madison’s 128.  Like Kerry, Clinton could have won if he had carried one more crucial swing state—Pennsylvania, in Clinton’s case.

Kerry did much better than Democrat George McClellan (who lost 212-21 to Lincoln in 1864), or Republican Tom Dewey (who lost 432-99 to FDR in 1944).

This year, we are also seeing a new form of recriminations: blaming the electorate.  Initially, the blame-the-voters message emphasized that the red states which constitute America’s majority are the land of gun-toting gay-hating morons who watch Fox News and actually believe in Jesus.

A newer form of red-baiting claims that the supposedly moral red states are actually in a state of hypocrisy.  For example, they vote against court-imposed gay marriage, but they watch on television.

A more sophisticated red-baiting argument appears in a recent on , an enormously influential Web site among left-wing activists, and one of the highest-trafficked political Weblogs in all the blogosphere.

Kos provides a chart showing teenage birth rates by states.  Overwhelmingly, the low teenage birthrate states are blue, and the high-rate states are red.  Kos writes:

When Red States get their social problems under control, and things such as teen pregnancy down to nationwide lows, then they can try and foist their solutions on the rest of the country. But as things currently stand, on this issue (as well as others like divorce), the Red States have no ground to stand on.  Those crazy New Englad [sic] liberals are running circles around them in this tangible measure of their residents’ “values”.

But this approach is not necessarily the best guide to moral behavior.

Kos is indisputably correct that .  But the finding turns out to be an artifact of the higher marriage rates in those states.  , then the blue-state superiority disappears.

The percentage method is not perfect.  Nevada and Hawaii end up as the champion states, but I suspect the reason is that many people travel to those states to get married (and some people impulsively get married there while on vacation).  But unlike in the olden days when divorce was hard to obtain in most of the country, but easily obtained in Nevada, not many people need to travel to another state in order to get divorced.  (Nevada’s six-week residency requirement for easy divorce was a which was begun during the Depression.)

But overall, if you never get married, you can’t get divorced.  And once marriage rates are taken into account, then red states do not appear less moral than blue states.

A similar point can be made regarding teenage birth rates.  States with lower natality rates in general (such as New England) will likely have lower teenage natality rates.  As Steve Sailer demonstrates in a forthcoming for The American Conservative, the white natality rate in a particular state correlates very well with Bush’s share of the vote in that state.

More significantly, there is nothing morally wrong, according to traditional Judeo-Christian values, with a married teenager bearing a child.  Although there’s no certain proof of how old Mary was when she bore Jesus, traditional sources claim that she was a teenager, and some peg her age as low as 14.  Whether or not Mary was in fact a historical person, she is the most famous female in the world, and the existence of traditions of her as a teenage mother (with no contrary traditions claiming that she was older), suggest that “traditional values” do not regard married teenager motherhood as inherently immoral.

Under the Kos rankings, a birth to a married 19-year-old is counted as a contribution to social decay, whereas a birth to an unmarried 25 year-old is not.  The Kos method is therefore skewed against states where young people marry early, and have children early.  For example, Utah ranks 32nd in teenage birth rates (what Kos measures) but is dead last (and therefore best) in illegitimacy rates.

shows the ranking of states by illegitimate births as a percent of total births.  The ranking goes from worst to best.  I counted D.C. as a state, since it behaves like a state in the electoral college, which is where all the red/blue theorizing started.

The data are for 2001, which is the most recent year available, and come from the Statistical Abstract of the United States 2003, .

Above (meaning worse than) the national average illegitimacy rate are 8 blue states and  16 red.  At or below (better than) the national average are 12 blue and 15 red.  Among the worst 10 states, 2 are blue, and 8 are red.  Among the best ten states, 4 are blue and 6 are red.

Another key index of social decay is parental absence (for which father absence tends to be much more common).  Of course not every single-parent household is a sign of social malaise.  Sometimes mothers or fathers die before their children grow up.  Sometimes children are better off after parents divorce.  But on the whole, children tend to be better-off in married households.  And traditional values, of course, favor married households for raising children.

Using data from the Statistical Abstract of the United States, , for each state I calculated the percentage of non-married households having children under 18, as a percentage of total households with children under 18.  The results are presented in . For example, in the District of Columbia, out of every 100 households which have a child under 18 years old, 57 of those households did not include a married couple.  Conversely, in Utah, for every 100 households with a child under 18 years old, there are only 18 households without a married couple.

As with Table 1, the states are ranked in order, from worst to best.

There were 20 states which were above (worse than) the national average rate of 28% of non-married households for children. Of these 20, 14 were red states and 6 were blue states.

Of the states that were equal to or better than the national average, there were 18 red and 13 blue states.

Among the worst eleven (because of a tie of 10th place), 4 states were blue, and 7 were red. Among the best 12 (because of ties), were 4 blues and 8 reds.

Red states predominated in every category (both good and bad), apparently because there are more red states than blue states.  If we’re being competitive, then we would have to say that blue states are the winner.  The good:bad ratios for blue states were notably better than the same ratios for red states.

But it's a much more mixed picture than the one presented by Kos, in which blue states are almost the only good states, and red states are almost the only bad states.

At the far end of both scales, we see Utah as the healthiest, and the District of Columbia as the most pathological.

Regionally, the Deep South (very red) and the Southern Rocky Mountain states (slightly red, and at least partially south of the 37th parallel) were the worst.  The best regions were New England (blue), the Northern Rocky Mountains (red), and the Upper Midwest (mixed).

What the data show is that there are successes and failures all over the country, and from regions of all political persuasions.  Whatever color your state, your state could probably do better by looking at success stories in other states, without regard for whether the other states voted for Bush or Kerry.

After all, we are all citizens of the United States of America, and we all have a lot to learn from each other.  Celebrate diversity.

Table 1

Table 2

December 8, 2004 |

Audacious Judith

Hanukkah began at sundown last night, and during Hanukkah, many Jewish families retell the story of Judith, one of the many heroic women in Jewish tradition.  The story comes from the , which is part of the Apocrypha.

The Apocrypha are later Jewish writings, composed after 200 B.C.  Jews do not consider them scriptural, although they do consider the books important and worthy of study; the itself comes from the Apocrypha (in the First and Second ).  Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopalian Christians make the Apocrypha part of their own Bibles; Lutherans do not, but still recommend study of the Apocrypha.  So Judith’s story from the Apocrypha is not just a Jewish folk tale, but is also an important part of the Judeo-Christian heritage.

According to the Book of Judith, during the reign of the evil eastern King Nebuchadnezzar, Judith’s hometown of Bethulia, in Samaria (which now part of supposedly Palestinian territory, in the West Bank), was besieged by General Holofrenes. The beautiful Jewish widow Judith went out to Holofrenes’ camp, and over several days, maneuvered him into planning a great banquet where he would seduce her.

At the banquet, “Holofrenes was greatly pleased with her, and drank a great quantity of wine, much more than he had ever drunk in one day since he was born.” (Judith 12:20.)  Holofrenes’ slaves departed, so “Judith was left alone in the tent, with Holofrenes stretched out on his bed, for he was dead drunk.” (Judith 13:2.)

Judith prayed for God’s help, and then took down the sword hanging on Holofrenes’ bedpost.  “Then she struck his neck twice with all her might, and cut off his head.”  A little while later, she summoned her maid, who was waiting outside, and the head was placed in the maid’s food bag.  Judith and the maid pretended to walk away from the camp to pray.  They returned to Bethulia.

When the enemy army saw Holofrenes’ head hanging on the city wall, they panicked and fled.  The Jewish soldiers pursued them and wiped them out.  Then, Judith “went before all the people in the dance, leading all of the women, while all the men of Israel followed, bearing their arms and wearing garlands and singing hymns.” (Judith 15:13.)

Judith is quite plainly a parable, rather than literal history.  The story would not have taken place during the reign of Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar, for the Jews were carried into captivity in Babylon (Iraq) during his reign of approximately 605-562 B.C.  Moreover, Judith describes Nebuchadnezzar as king of Assyria (eastern Syria and western Iraq), when he was in fact king of Babylon.  Judith calls Nineveh the capital of the Assyrian empire, but Nineveh was destroyed in 606 B.C. or before.

So Judith combines Israel’s greatest national enemy (Assyria) and its single greatest personal enemy (Nebuchadnezzar)—like an American which began by telling about a general who attacked the United States on the orders of Adolf Hitler, the Premier of the Soviet Union.

Any literate American of today would recognize the Soviet Hitler story as a parable, containing a veiled but not literal historical truth.  Many Jews would have (and do) similarly understood Judith.

So what is the veiled historical core of Judith?  Stylistically, Judith resembles the First and Second Books of Maccabees, Apocryphal books which were near-contemporaneous accounts of the successful Jewish revolution against Syria, and the foiling of the Syrian plan to exterminate the Jewish religion and the Jewish people.  So even though Judith is set around 600 B.C., the book may have been intended to teach lessons for Jews who needed to resist the Syrians.

According to ancient Jewish sources, during the period of Syrian rule, Syrian officers in Israel had the authority to rape all Jewish brides.  The bride would be allowed to marry her husband only after submitting to the Syrian officer.

Various Midrash (rabbinic commentaries on the scriptures) tell the story of how a bride’s family defended her on her wedding day, and killed the Syrian rapist and his soldiers.  Enraged, the Syrian king besieged Jerusalem.  A Jewish widow went out to the king, and sought an audience with him.  She seduced him, got him drunk, and then decapitated him with his own sword.  She placed his head in a bag, and took it back to the city walls, where the Jews displayed it prominently.  The Syrian army, deprived of its leader, panicked and fled.

Likewise, the Talmud (a collection of the oral Jewish law, along with commentary) includes this story:

Jewish women were uniquely affected by the oppression, since the Greeks [the Syrians, who were hellenizing successors of part of Alexander the Great’s empire] decreed that every virgin bride must first submit to the local Greek commander. Hence, they too were saved by the Chanukah miracle. Further, a woman actually served as an instrument of the miraculous deliverance, for Yehudis the daughter of Yochanon, the Kohen Gadol [the Jewish high priest], fed the Greek general cheese to increase his thirst, and then gave him wine to drink until he became inebriated. She then cut off his head, and this sight caused the enemy soldiers to flee.

Scholars may never be able to determine with certainty if there was a Jewish woman who beheaded an enemy officer.  But the persistence of the story in Judith, the Midrash, and the Talmud, suggests that the story may well be true, in some form.  And the moral of the story is crystal-clear: Jews should fight to protect themselves from foreign oppressors; even when the Jews seem hopelessly outnumbered, God will protect them if they are bold and faithful.  And Jewish women (like the great Hebrew military commander Deborah, from the ) can and should use lethal force to rescue themselves and their nation.

It should be no surprise, then, that audacious Judith was a favorite subject of Renaissance painters, including , , , the Elder, Artemisia , Andrea , and .

These Christian painters, like so many people in the Judeo-Christian tradition, admired the resolute woman who rescued her small nation, defending the weak, and wielding a weapon in holy service of her community.  As I detail in the Penn State Law Review article, ”, under Jewish law there is an affirmative duty to use deadly force when necessary to protect innocents.  Judith’s very name is the feminine form of “Jewish”, and in Judith, we see virtues worthy of emulation by good people of every faith.

December 7, 2004 |

Defending the home
Thanks to strict criminal laws, working conditions in Great Britain are the safest in the Western world—that is, if your profession is burglary.  On the other hand, if you’re a law-abiding citizen quietly staying at home, you’re at much greater risk in the nearly gun-free United Kingdom, than in the gun-happy United States of America.

In late October, teacher Robert Symonds, who lived in the London suburb of Putney, was stabbed to death in his home by a burglar.  Last week, in Halifax (near Manchester), 71-year-old priest Father Ingwell was stabbed several times by a burglar.  The same week, burglars in the fancy London neighborhood of Chelsea stabbed banker John Monckton to death.  Terrifying home invasion burglaries are not rare events in England.  Overall, Great Britain has a higher violent crime rate than the United States, and a higher burglary rate.  Significantly, only about one-eighth of American burglaries take place while the victim is home, whereas over half of all British burglaries do.

One reason that British burglars are so much bolder than their American cousins is that only about 4% of British homes legally possess a gun, whereas about half of American homes do.  British police administrators require guns at home to be stored unloaded in a safe, and that ammunition be in a separate safe.  No American jurisdiction has such extreme “safe storage” requirements.  As a result, an American burglar who breaks into an occupied home faces a significant risk of getting shot.

As I detailed in an in the Arizona Law Review, when an American burglar strikes at an occupied residence, his chance of being shot is about equal to his chance of being sent to prison.  According to a study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are about half a million incidents every year in which an American burglar is scared away by a victim with a firearm.

Putting aside the issue of guns, the British homeowners are still at a terrible disadvantage.  For example, if 300 pounds of what the British call a “” (or what Americans call “white trash”) kicks down a woman’s front door, and begins pummeling her with his fists, her only hope might be to fight back with a kitchen knife.  In America, the woman’s use of the knife would be plainly legal.  In Britain, the woman would be presumed to have illegally escalated the confrontation (the yob was just using his fists, and she escalated by using a deadly weapon).  The government could put her on trial for attempted murder, and she would have to prove to the jury that she responded “proportionately” to the attack.

The has been waging a “right to fight back” campaign, which “calls for the public to be given an unqualified right to self defence against intruders in their own homes.”

As a sign that even the police bureaucracy is recognizing the intensity and breadth of the public’s feelings, Metropolitan (London) Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens now that British law should be changed so that any use of force, including deadly force, is presumed reasonable and lawful in the home.  The government would bear the burden of proving such force unreasonable in particular cases.  “The message it sends to the would-be attacker is, ‘Do not think you can come into people’s homes and people will not defend themselves with the right type of force that’s necessary.’  At the moment it seems it’s the other way round.” As Police Commissioner in London, Stevens in the highest-ranking police officer in the U.K.

The Conservative Party has also .

Besides reforming the self-defense laws, Parliament ought to reform Great Britain’s gun control laws.  Not a word in British gun control statutes actually makes it illegal for a person to own a shotgun or rifle for protection in the home.  Instead, police administrators have determined, by their , that Britain’s “subjects” may not possess defensive arms, and that sporting arms must be stored in such a way as to make them useless for home protection in an emergency.

The Blair administration could fix the problem tomorrow, by administrative decree.  Alternatively, Parliament could pass a statute affirming that home defense is a “good reason” (the British legal standard) for being granted a gun license.  Parliament (or the Blair administration) could also affirm that guns may be kept loaded in the home, while the homeowner is actually present in the home.

The alternative is to continue Britain’s disastrous current policy, whereby the only people who are safe in the home are violent intruders.

The governing Labour Party, however, has done nothing.  Instead, it has devoted its energies to ramming through Parliament a total prohibition on using hounds to hunt foxes. To evade opposition the upper house (the House of Lords), which was willing to impose additional restrictions but not a complete ban, the Labour government invoked the rarely-used to bypass the House of Lords.

As one high-ranking Labour MP recently , the fox-hunting ban is less about animal welfare than about urban-based Labour’s class warfare on the rural population. Led by the , 400,000 Britons in London against the ban in 2002, and massive civil disobedience hunts are planned on February 19, when the prohibition goes into effect.

Meanwhile, the , having outlawed what the British call “hunting” (chasing hounds with foxes) now aims to eliminate what Americans call “hunting” (shooting wild game with guns or bows).  As the LAWS Web site announces, “

While the hunting ban garnered massive attention, few people noticed the nearly simultaneous action of Parliament enacting the odious .  As detailed by and (blogs focusing on civil liberties, especially in the U.K.), the Act authorizes the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary to suspend civil liberties, and rule by decree.  The Act even allows the ruler by decree to override the protections of the , the , and the .

For centuries, the people of Great Britain fought—literally—to defend their precious and traditional rights from monarchs such as and . Yet now, the great historic rights of Englishmen have been presumptively surrendered by Parliament, and the media have barely noticed.

A bill passed by Parliament cannot become law without the Queen’s . Although the Royal Assent has not been withheld from a bill in Great Britain since 1708, the Royal Assent was withheld in 1937 from Canadian legislation which the Governor-General of Canada (the monarch’s representative in Canada) correctly identified as unconstitutional.

In an ideal world, Queen Elizabeth II would have withheld her assent from the Civil Contingencies Act, because it is a direct assault on fundamental civil liberties and democratic government.  And she would also have refused to assent to the Hunting Act, because it is a mean-spirited assault on the traditional freedoms of rural England.  At the least, the Queen and members of the Royal Family could have used their prestige to raise public consciousness about dangers to Great Britain’s ancient liberties.

As the Queen has been derelict, so has the Parliament.  Although Parliament is theoretically sovereign, over the last few decades the Parliament has become a supine rubber stamp for the Prime Minister and a small coterie of ruling party leaders.  No longer does Parliament resist the demands of Whitehall (the main office of the permanent bureaucracy) for more and more infringements on the rights of Englishmen.

Since the days of Winston Churchill, Americans and Britons have stood shoulder-to-shoulder defending freedom around the world.  Like the many Americans who cherish our heritage of Anglo-American liberty, I wish the British Parliament, the British Royal Family, and especially the British public were more vigilant about defending what Lord Scarman called “,” the traditional rights which for centuries made England one of the world’s greatest exemplars of freedom and self-government.  Restoring the natural human right to home defense would be a good first step, but there will be a very long way to go after that.

• |

The always-interesting has announced the “Most Embarrassing” junk science stories of 2004.  As is the norm with fear-mongering junk science, the mainstream media treated all of these stories as if they were authentic science. 

Some of my favorites:  Although the Bible says that “Salt is good” (), the health nannies have spent the last three decades trying to frighten people about salt.  There’s even an anti-salt lobby, (Consensus Action on Salt and Health), which is gearing up for a frightfest on the sixth annual “,” January 26, 2005.  The anti-salt lobby and their government allies claim that salt kills hundreds of thousands of people per year. 

Earlier this year, the (part of the federal ) earned 9th place in the JunkScience awards for a declaring that Americans should cut their salt consumption by 50 percent.  But as JunkScience , there is no scientific evidence for the notion that a low-sodium diet is beneficial for the population.  There are some salt-sensitive individuals who should restrict their salt intake, but telling the general public to behave as if were salt-sensitive is no more sensible than telling everyone to eat as if they all had peanut allergies.

The subtext of the war on salt is class warfare on processed food, which often has high salt content—because salt makes food taste better!  There are lots of good reasons why some people prefer fresh organic potatoes from to a bag of , even though Lay’s provides the chips in 19 different flavors.  But trying to convince people to give up processed foods (or the real objective: coercing food companies to reduce salt, and thereby deprive consumers of choice) by telling tall tales about deadly salt is like trying to scare teenagers give up “self-pleasuring” by warning that it will make them go insane.  (The warning about onanistic insanity, by the way, was the of the “public health” community from the mid-18th century until the early 20th.)

Another JunkScience award-winner for 2004 was the , for giving an award to Erin Brokovich, a paralegal who made herself rich and famous by pushing allegations that a utility made people sick.

And then there was the which claimed that normal climate cycles in the arctic were proof of global warming, and would drive polar bears to extinction.

In the mainstream media, stories which begin “Scientists say…” often end: “…and therefore more government regulation is absolutely necessary.”  , run by the prolific , is a year-round antidote to the unscientific panics incited by big government and the scientists who love it.