On Biblical Inerrancy

Greek text of RomansThe United Methodist Church, one of the largest Protestant denominations in the United States , voted on voted on Tuesday, February 26th, to affirm its official stance that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Not all Methodists agree with this view, of course, as is detailed in an article on the vote in The New York Times. Many do, though, hence the outcome of the vote. And Methodists are not the only “Christians” who consider homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching. People who hold this view usually justify it by pointing to specific passages in the New Testament that appear to support it. The question is: Does the New Testament unequivocally condemn homosexuality?

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Bible is inerrant. What are the implications of that? That means, it would appear, that the Bible can’t be wrong in either descriptive or prescriptive terms. What does it mean, though, to be “right” in those terms? Is the primary purpose of historical narrative to present an accurate reconstruction of past events, or is it to guide readers, or listeners, to teach them something about human folly, human weakness and frailty, with the aim of making humanity’s future better than its past? Is an “accurate” historical narrative one that gets the facts right or one that presents them in a way that will be optimally instructive?

My concern here is not so much with the descriptive nature of biblical narrative as with its prescriptive nature. People who believe in biblical inerrancy often do so because they believe the Bible is God’s speaking directly to humanity and that that message contains rules for how we are to behave. Even if it were the case that the Bible was God speaking directly to humanity, it would not solve the problem of determining what God meant in a particular instance because all communication is meaningful as such only after it has been interpreted, and any interpretation undertaken by people who are assumed to be marred by sin is going to be problematic. “Love your neighbor” seems fairly uncomplicated and yet for some people that means forcing their neighbor to pull himself up by his own bootstraps, while for other people it means positively assisting their neighbor in his efforts to stand on his own.

The idea, however, that the Bible is God speaking directly to humanity is foolishness. God speaking directly would be God speaking directly and not to some specific people who are then tasked with recording the divine message and passing it on to the rest of humanity. The Bible is, by definition, God speaking indirectly to humanity through the agency of specific individuals (and many more individuals, it appears now, than was originally supposed). That, in itself, does not mean the Bible cannot be inerrant, but it does complicate the task of determining what God’s message is.

Add to this the fact that much, if not all of the Bible was undisputedly written long after the events it records and in many instances in a language other than that of its source. Jesus communicated with his followers in Aramaic, so even ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ώς σεαυτόν, let alone “love your neighbor as yourself,” are not Jesus’s original words. Imagine for yourself the potential for alteration that is unavoidably associated with the translation of a message from one language to another and then the passing down of that translation orally from one generation to another for thirty, forty, fifty, or even a hundred years before it is actually written down. Anyone who has ever played a game of “Telephone” knows how badly a message can be mangled even over the course of a single evening, to say nothing of a period that transcends a generation.

Add to that the fact that it is now clear, as Bart Ehrman and others have argued, that portions of the texts of the New Testament were not merely inadvertently changed when, of necessity, they were copied by hand, but deliberately changed to make them more unequivocally reflect evolving church doctrine. Such a practice might seem sinister at first, but it is merely a result of the fact that even the earliest copyists of the writings that eventually became the New Testament realized that the texts they had inherited were themselves interpretations, products of other human hands, inevitably marred by mistakes and misinterpretations that they, with their changes, endeavored to put right.

Paul is now widely believed by scholars not to have said that women shouldn’t preach, that that injunction appeared in a letter that he didn’t even write, but which was erroneously attributed to him. In fact, quite a number of writings that have traditionally been attributed to Paul are now widely believed not to have been written by Paul but by later adherents to the new Christian faith.

But assume, for the sake of argument, that we have the original texts of the New Testament in their pristine and unadulterated form. Even that would not relieve of us the burden of interpretation. Even that would not eliminate all possibility of error in our interpretations. Take, for example, Matthew 13:12: “For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance, but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Revised Standard Version).

To him who has what? What does that passage mean? Is it a reference to how wretched is humanity that it would so order itself that the rich get would get richer and the poor get poorer? That’s how Billie Holiday interpreted it. Does it refer to love, so that it means the more love a person has, the more love that person will receive? That’s how I used to like to think of that passage. It makes sense to me that loving people would tend to be more loved than those who were less loving.

But then one day I became curious and decided to find out what the Greek term was that was translated as “has” in that passage and learned to my surprise that among the many meanings of that term, ἔχω, listed in the online edition of the Liddell-Scott dictionary of ancient Greek, was “to possess mentally, understand.” So the passage might actually mean something like “to him who understands more understanding will be given,” etc.

That meaning actually fits best both with what appears to be the meaning of the preceding passage where Jesus talks about the importance of having “ears” to hear his message, as well as with the line that immediately precedes it (i.e., Matthew 13:11) where Jesus says to his disciples “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” That is, because they understand Jesus’s basic message, they will understand his individual parables and hence gain more understanding with each new parable.

Of course it is possible that the passage means all three of these things at once. That’s part of what the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard referred to as “the genius of language,” that the same combination of words can have multiple meanings.

What, to pick a passage that is more apposite to the recent decision of the leaders of the United Methodist Church to continue to condemn homosexuality, is the meaning of Romans 1:26-27.

Therefore God gave them to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

The Oxford Annotated Bible says

[a]lthough widely read today as a reference to homosexuality, the language of ‘unnatural’ intercourse was more often used in Paul’s day to denote not the orientation of sexual desire but its immoderate indulgence, which was believed to weaken the body (the due penalty).

That makes sense because it sounds like the Greek position more generally, or at least the position of many Greek philosophers and Paul was an admirer of Greek philosophy. Passion, they believed, was suspect because it led to excess and excess is generally bad. Moderation, the Greeks believed, was to be aimed at in all things.

So what does the passage mean? Does it refer damningly to a lack of restraint? Does it mean that excessive indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh is “unnatural” and “shameless”? Does it mean such unrestrained physical passion is bad. Or does it mean only heterosexuality is pleasing to God?

I’m inclined to the former interpretation because a lack of restraint and excessive indulgence in almost anything tends to be self destructive. God’s creatures have a sacred duty to preserve and protect themselves. The main crime, according to Paul, of the people to whom Romans 1:26-27 refers was that they had turned away from God. They did not see themselves as God’s creatures. “did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking” (Romans 1:21).

A creator that loves its creatures would not want them to engage in self-destructive behavior. By the same token, however, a creator that is defined as love would presumably approve of the love its creatures had for one another. It seems not only bizarrely arbitrary, but directly counter to what most people like to think of as the core message of Christianity that God would condemn love because it was directed at a purportedly inappropriate object. Such a view doesn’t seem divine. It seems, on the contrary, all too human.

Unfortunately, much of what goes by the name “love” is not genuine love, but actually the instrumentalizing of one person by another, the use of one person merely as a means to another person’s sensuous or egoistical gratification. But that sad practice has no direct relation to sexual orientation. It is as pervasive in heterosexual relationships as in every other purportedly loving relationship including those between friends, siblings, and even parents and children.

Of course it is possible that Paul really did mean to condemn homosexuality as such. Human beings throughout history have condemned certain things as “deviant” simply because they were not the norm. That is the origin of the pejorative connotations of “sinister,” a Latin word that simply means “left.” There was a time when purportedly good, God-fearing Christians believed left-handed people were in league with Lucifer.

Fortunately, few Christians believe that now. They abandoned that view, presumably, because someone actually thought about it a little and decided that it would be inconsistent with Jesus’s teachings to condemn people simply because they were different.

So if Paul actually meant to condemn homosexuality as such rather than simply to condemn unrestrained physical passion, that would appear to be a place where he erred in his understanding of Jesus’s teaching. We don’t have to assume that’s what he meant, though, at least not in that passage. It isn’t actually all that clear what he meant. We have to try to figure that out for ourselves.

Even for those who believe in biblical inerrancy, the Bible is very far from a comprehensive set of specific rules for how to live. Human existence is just too complex; novel situations are constantly springing up. No set of rules for how to live can cover every conceivable situation. What is needed in order to give human beings instruction in how to live are not specific rules, but general ones.

“Christian revelation was intended,” asserted John Stuart Mill way back in the nineteenth century (Utilitarianism, chapter 2) “to inform the hearts and minds of mankind with a spirit which should enable them to find for themselves what is right, and incline them to do it when found, rather than to tell them, except in a very general way, what it is.”

I’m inclined, sometimes, to think of Biblical inerrancy as consisting in the inexorable quality of scripture to reveal what lies deepest in people. My mother, whose parents were both ministers in the Assemblies of God church, once said that in her experience religion made good people better and bad people worse.

Don’t be quick to judge the meaning of scripture. Even if the truth is always there somewhere its substance is arguably rarely obvious. One must look deeply into any text in order to divine its true meaning and nowhere is this more true than with the Bible, hence James’s admonition that one must “persevere” when attempting to understand it (James 1:25). Even people who believe in biblical inerrancy must look long and hard into the “mirror” of the New Testament if they want to divine God’s message to humanity there.

So look long and hard into the mirror of what you assume to be God’s word. If what is reflected back to you is anger and condemnation, then look again. Look again and keep looking.

Persevere in your looking until what is reflected back to you is love.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the March 11, 2019 edition of Counterpunch under the title “On Biblical Inerrancy: Some Reflections for United Methodists and Other “Christians.”)





Reading Plato in the Age of the Oligarchs

Sachs' Republic coverPlato has a bad reputation in many circles because his most famous work, the Republic, appears to defend all sorts of ideas that are unpalatable to most contemporary readers, ideas such as that people need to be protected from the truth, that large-scale censorship and even the deliberate dissemination of false and misleading information by governments is defensible as a means of ensuring order in a society. I believe, however, as I have argued elsewhere, that such a view of Plato is mistaken.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the positive value of a liberal arts education. I couldn’t agree more. There is much we could learn, for example, from Plato’s Republic. Despite the fact that it disparages what it calls “democracy,” the democracy it describes is not one that I believe would be recognizable as such to any Enlightenment thinker. More importantly for the purposes of the present reflections, the Republic takes nearly as dim a view of societies that value money above everything else. Such societies are generally referred to as “plutocracies,” which literally means “government by the wealthy.” Interestingly, however, Plato calls them “oligarchies” which means “government by the few,” because he believes that societies that value money above everything else will inevitably end up concentrating the wealth in the hands of a very small number of people.

I love teaching the Republic for many reasons. It is a beautiful and deeply moving book. One of the things that makes it such a joy to teach, though, is how it engages students. The city on which the book focuses is what Socrates calls an aristocracy, or “government by the best individuals.” Even this city, he acknowledges, however, in Book VIII, will inevitably succumb to a process of dissolution into a series of increasingly degenerate states, first to a timocracy, or “government in which love of honor is the ruling principle,” then to an oligarchy, which values money above everything else, from there to a democracy, which according to Socrates, values nothing at all except freedom from restraint, and finally, to a tyranny.

Students need no coaching in where to place the U.S. on this sad trajectory of political decline. They zero in on oligarchy every time, despite the fact that most of them have been raised to think of the U.S. as a democracy. Young people are a lot smarter than we tend to give them credit for being and they have little tolerance for people who value money above everything else.

I made an important discovery recently that relates to this issue, thanks to one of my students. It concerns a problem in several translations of the Republic, including Allan Bloom’s, which is considered by many scholars to be the best.

There is a personality type, asserts Socrates, that corresponds to each type of political regime. The oligarchical personality type, that is, the personality type that values money above everything else, appears to be just. He isn’t really just, though, according to Socrates. He simply needs to maintain a reputation for being just for the purposes of contractual relations, but he does this, Socrates explains, by

forcibly holding down bad desires, which are there, with some decent part of himself. He holds them down not by persuading them that they had “better not” nor by taming them with argument, but by necessity and fear. (554c7-d).

One of my students remarked that it was strange Socrates would say that the oligarchical man holds down his bad desires with some “decent” part of himself, but that despite that, he wasn’t really just, but only appeared to be just. The student wanted to know what the Greek term was that was translated as “decent.”

I looked it up. The Greek expression Plato uses in the passage where Socrates talks about how the the oligarchical man holds down his bad desires “with some decent part of himself” is ἐπιεικεῖ τινὶ έαυτοῦ. The relevant term is ἐπιεικεῖ. It means “fitting,” “meet,” or “suitable” according to Liddell-Scott, the standard dictionary for translating ancient Greek into contemporary English. It’s related to ὲπιείκεια, which means “reasonableness,” “fairness,” or “equity.”

My student was right, though, to point out that there was a problem with describing the part of the oligarchical man that holds down his bad desires as “decent.” Neither Bloom’s “decent part of himself” nor Shorey’s “better element in himself” coheres well with the point Socrates is making in the passage because the oligarchical man isn’t trying to be good. He isn’t genuinely virtuous, but only appears to be virtuous. He holds down his evil desires, according to Socrates, out of “fear,” not because he wants to be good, but because he is afraid that by giving in to those desires, he’ll get a bad reputation and no one will want to do business with him.

It isn’t any “decent” part, or “better element,” of the oligarchical man through which he restrains his evil desires. He has a desire to seem (δοκέω) just, not to be just. The desire to seem just isn’t actually a good desire. That is, it doesn’t have any positive moral worth, hence the reference to his “other evil desires” (my emphasis). Bloom omits the “other” (ἄλλας) when he refers to the oligarchical man’s holding down his “bad desires” (κακὰς ἐπιθυμίας). This omission encourages the view that there is something morally praiseworthy in the oligarchical man that is responsible for his good reputation. There isn’t.

Paul Shorey’s Loeb Classical Library version of the Republic translates this passage as “he, by some better element in himself forcibly keeps down other evil desires dwelling within.” It looks like Shorey was aware, however, that it isn’t actually anything morally positive, or “decent,” in the oligarchical man that holds down his “bad desires,” because he has a note in which he writes that “ἐπιεικεῖ is here used generally, and not in its special sense of ‘sweet reasonableness’.”

It appears ἐπιεικεῖ is being used here in the purely prudential sense of “fitting.” That is, the oligarchical man holds down some bad, or evil, desires in order more effectively to serve his evil desire to seem just. What holds down those other “evil desires” is whatever it is in him that is, in fact, capable of doing this. It isn’t some morally praiseworthy part of himself. So why have so many scholars chosen to translate it with English terms that have positive moral or ethical connotations? Such translations actually make the passage harder to understand.

The new Loeb Classical Library version of the Republic by Chris Emlyn-Jones and William Preddy has the oligarchical man using “some element of fairness within himself” to restrain his “other wrong desires.” That’s perhaps no worse than Shorey’s translation. Unfortunately, unlike Shorey, they fail to alert the reader to what is problematic in translating ἐπιεικεῖ with a morally positive expression such as “element of fairness,” so in that sense, the new Loeb Republic is a step backward.

Benjamin Jowett’s translation “has enforced virtue,” where Bloom has “decent part of himself” and that is actually better than either Bloom’s or either of the Loeb translations. The best translation of this passage, however, that I have found is, I believe, Joe Sachs’. Sachs has “quasi-decent constraint over himself” for ἐπιεικεῖ τινὶ έαυτοῦ. The qualification “quasi” is important because it makes clear, as none of the other translations does, that the constraint the oligarchical man exercises over himself only seems to be “decent.”

I haven’t used Sachs translation before, but I am going to consider using it the next time I teach the Republic. It may not be uniformly better than other translations, but it definitely seems deserving of a closer look.

It’s tempting to think that works that have already been translated many times probably don’t need to be translated anew. In fact, however, no translation is ever perfect. Language changes over time, and that translators have their own particular biases. It is therefore a good idea to re-translate important works at regular intervals, just to make sure that the language of the translation is keeping up with contemporary usage and that any bias that may have influenced earlier translations is corrected for.

Clearly Plato’s Republic deserves to be repeatedly re-translated. There is a great deal of wisdom in it, including insight into the moral bankruptcy, on both an individual and a collective level, of valuing money above everything else.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2018 issue of Counterpunch)


Reflections on “Reflections from a Hashtag”

I was sexually harassed by one of my professors in graduate school. He was the director of the graduate program and was known to host parties at his apartment for the graduate students. I assumed, when he invited me to his apartment for “dinner,” that the “dinner” in question was such an event.

I was wrong. I was the only guest for what had clearly been conceived as a romantic dinner. There was filet mignon wrapped in bacon and an excellent cabernet. I was surprised to find myself the object of such attentions, but I wasn’t frightened, not at first, anyway. The professor in question, let’s call him Professor H. (H. for “harasser”), was only a few years older than I was. We were both young and unattached. Unfortunately, though I was flattered by his interest, I didn’t reciprocate it. I tried to communicate this to him in a way that would minimize his hurt and embarrassment. He was a hard man to put off though. The evening ended, I kid you not, with his literally chasing me around the dining table. He kept moving uncomfortably close to me and I kept moving away, around and around the dining table until, finally, he seemed to get the point.

When he realized, or appeared to realize, anyway, that I was not simply playing hard-to-get, he told me that he appreciated my honesty and that what was most important to him was that we continued to have a positive professional relationship. And we did continue to have a positive professional relationship, at least for the next couple of weeks.

“Whew, dodged that bullet,” I thought to myself gratefully.

But then, things changed. He suddenly became openly hostile toward me. He would publicly disparage everything I said, both in class and outside of it. He once spent an entire class arguing to the other students present that a remark I had made in relation to what is known in philosophy as “personal identity theory” demonstrated beyond all doubt that I was an irredeemable idiot.

Professor H.’s behavior toward me became increasingly hostile as the weeks passed. Finally, the lone tenured woman in the department approached me privately and explained that she knew what was going on. She had been a victim of Professor H. herself. It was very important, she explained to me, that I complain to the chair of the department because Professor H. was disparaging me to other faculty to such an extent that I was in danger of losing my funding.

So I dutifully complained to the chair. I will never forget his first words.

“Oh, I am so sorry,” he said, “Professor H. has been warned about this.”

By that time, I knew Professor H. had a history. I just didn’t know how extensive it was. It seemed he used the graduate program as his personal dating pool. He’d started doing that, actually, even before he’d become the director of the graduate program. His behavior was so conspicuous that a group of graduate students had actually protested his appointment as director.

“Oh, I am so sorry,” the chair said. “You don’t want to make a formal complaint against him, though,” he continued, “because that would hurt his career.”

I’m not a vindictive person. It seemed to me that Professor H. was not really evil, but simply incredibly emotionally immature. I didn’t want to hurt his career (though in retrospect, I doubt very much that a formal complaint against him would have had that effect). I just wanted him to leave me alone. I wanted to have my work evaluated fairly. The chair said he would talk to Professor H., and I’m sure he did, because my funding was not revoked.

I never again enjoyed the favor, in an academic sense, I mean, of any of my professors. When I’d first arrived in the program, I’d been feted as if I were some kind of celebrity. All the professors welcomed me, commented favorably on my work, invited me to their homes, etc. Not after I had gone to the chair about Professor H., though. No one was openly hostile, the way Professor H. had been, but everyone was decidedly cool. I was grudgingly given passing grades (one of my papers from this period was later published, in the same form in which I had submitted it for a grade, and then reprinted both in English and in Chinese and Russian translations, in an anthology and a textbook). The same well-intentioned female professor again approached me privately, however, and explained to me that I should not solicit letters of recommendation from any of the faculty in my own program, that I would have to rely on what she knew was my growing list of professional contacts outside my program when it came time for me to look for a job.

Thanks to the practice of blind reviewing, which involves concealing the identity of the author of a scholarly paper when it is submitted to referees for judgment concerning whether it should be published, I was able to begin publishing scholarly articles while still a student and to build, gradually, a reputation that made it possible for me to obtain a Fulbright fellowship and then, finally, a tenure-track job.

It was a long, hard slog, though. The job market back then was no better than it is now. Philosophy is a notoriously sexist discipline and a job candidate, man or woman, who cannot present letters of recommendation from any of the faculty of their degree-granting institution is automatically thought of as suspect.

I labored mightily for years to become the best possible scholar, and amassed an impressive collection of publications, and yet I still regard it as something of a miracle that I was able to secure a tenure-track position, to get tenure, and finally, to be promoted to full “Professor.” I knew I would have to work as if my life depended on it, so I did. It seemed pointless to reflect on how unfair it was that I did not enjoy the patronage of a powerful professor that is more often than not the decisive factor in opening the door to a tenure-track position for a newly-minted Ph.D. in philosophy. That was my lot, so I tried to make the best of it.

I spent a great deal of time, however, trying to figure out how things could ever go so terribly wrong as they had for me. Why hadn’t Professor H. been read the riot act immediately after his first transgression? Why hadn’t the proverbial fear of God been placed in him by so that he would at least have been discreet, even if he’d been a victim of satyriasis and unable actually to stop himself?[1] Professor H. wasn’t the only professor in that department who abused his authority to initiate sexual liaisons with female graduate students. Not everyone did it, but many did, and those who didn’t, viewed the antics of the others as a spectator sport.

This all came rushing back to me when I read Jian Ghomeshi’s “Reflections from a Hashtag” in the New York Review of Books (October 11, 2018). Ghomeshi was a prominent Canadian broadcaster who lost his job and was publicly vilified after he was accused of sexual harassment and assault.

“When a well-known fellow broadcaster saw me with a twenty-something date at a film festival event in Toronto,” writes Jian Ghomeshi, who was then thirty-nine, “he left a voice mail saying, ‘Dude, you are the king!’ I basked in his praise,” Ghomeshi continues, “He’d never called me before and never mentioned my work; the real message was the women I was with were the true gauge of success” (p. 29).

That was the way Professor H. was viewed. He was “the king!” He eventually left the university in question and moved to another university where he continued to harass female students until one of them finally sued.

I haven’t mentioned Professor H.’s name because singling him out for blame is now pointless. You could figure out who he was, of course, if you wanted to do a little research. The purpose of my recounting these events, however, is to make clear that harassment and abuse of women is a systemic problem. It goes on for one very simple and straightforward reason: It is allowed to go on. This is partly because of what Ghomeshi correctly identifies as a “systemic culture of unhealthy masculinity” (p. 30) that leads many men not merely to derive pleasure from harassing and abusing women, but to derive pleasure from the spectacle of it.

There is more to the problem than that, though. There is what I call “the first-stone problem.” Ghomeshi writes that many male acquaintances furtively commiserated with him. “What happened to you,” they wrote, “could have been me.” People are naturally reluctant to point fingers at one another for fear of having fingers pointed back at them. Most people are not sexual predators, but there aren’t many people who don’t have something to be embarrassed about or ashamed of, something they don’t want paraded before the general public. This makes people naturally reluctant to call out the bad behavior of others.

“Professor H. didn’t mean to harass you,” the chair explained to me. “He didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable or threatened, or to coerce you into a sexual relationship.” (I’m paraphrasing now, of course, because the conversation took place many years ago and only his first words remain indelibly marked on my memory.) “He’s just emotionally immature. He reacts badly when things don’t go the way he wants them to.”

I think that was a pretty accurate depiction of Professor H.’s character. He wasn’t a bad guy. He just had an unfortunate habit of behaving badly, very badly under certain circumstances. Philosophers distinguish, however, between explanation and justification. Professor H.’s emotional immaturity explained his bad behavior, but it didn’t justify it. Bad behavior should never be tolerated just because the person engaging it isn’t normally a bad person. People need to be called on their behavior, and judgment about their character, reserved for a higher power. Unless, of course, they are being considered for a position of such authority that the question of their character, however ultimately undecidable, becomes crucially relevant.

People are so social that they tend to respond more or less appropriately to censure, even private censure, to say nothing of public censure, by someone in a position of authority. If people are called on their inappropriate behavior, unless they are serious sociopaths, they will usually, at least eventually, stop engaging in it.

Aristotle figured this out long ago (if Plato hadn’t actually figured it out before him). If you want people to behave in certain ways, he wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics (Books I and II), then the culture needs to reinforce that kind of behavior. And if there are ways you don’t want them to behave, then the culture needs to send a clear message to that effect as well.

We need, without exception, to hold individuals responsible for behaviors that violate norms of what we, as a culture, collectively feel is right. We are deluding ourselves, however, if we think that by targeting individuals in this way we are dealing effectively with what is clearly a systemic problem. It may give the impression we are doing something about the problem, but all the while, the problem waxes and thrives.


[1] Discretion is actually very important. One of the problems of the conspicuous abuse of authority to initiate sexual relationships with students is that it makes other students feel vulnerable. Not only does it create anxiety. It can lead students to think that they would be well advised to initiate such relationships themselves simply to make sure that they have a protector.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in the 1 October 2018 issue of the online political journal Counterpunch.

On Speaking Small Truths to Power

Scan 4I inherited my father’s papers after his death. I’ve been going through them, slowly, in an attempt to put them into some kind of order. My father was a journalist for most of his professional life, so his papers consist mainly of old newspaper pieces, news articles, examples from a column he had for a while called Humble Pie, and then masses of editorials from late in his career when he had become an editorial writer.

I think my father always wanted to be an editorial writer. He had to work his way up to that, though. He actually began his journalistic career as a sports writer. I haven’t found any of those articles, but I did come across a mysterious letter from 1962 that referred to one of them. The letter was from the city clerk of the city of Madison, IL. “Your column in the March 19th issue of the Evening Journal,” it reads

left a profound effect upon the officials of the City of Madison, Illinois and all loyal Madison High Basketball fans. Newspapers are generally inclined, like so many of us, to soft pedal certain controversial issues. Such was not, however, the way in which your article was written. Its frankness, while it did not give Madison a victory against Belleville, certainly brought to light the handicap to which our team was subjected.

It is therefore with the utmost sincerity and humility that I, as City Clerk, extend to you on behalf of the City Officials and citizens of the City of Madison, Illinois a thank you for a fine job of honest reporting and impartial journalism.

Very truly yours,

Percy Lux

City Clerk

Madison, Illinois

What, I wondered could have prompted such a letter? What was the “controversial issue”? Articles on the sports page don’t generally have a “profound effect” on readers. Unfortunately, I couldn’t locate the article among my father’s papers. Fortunately, I had the date and the name of the newspaper in which it appeared, so, with the help of Debbie Ross and Teri Barnett, of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, IL, I was able to get a copy.

“The Illinois High School Association has been accused of high-handed and autocratic conduct many times,” my father’s article begins. “But its incredible blunder in assigning Fred Gibson of Centralia as one of the officials in the Granite City Sectional Tournament last week will long rank in the minds of many area basketball fans as the rankest kind of injustice to Madison High School.”

Let me set the scene. Madison High School’s basketball team was scheduled to face off against Belleville High School’s team in the Granite City Sectional, part of the first round of the Illinois State High School Basketball Championships. Centralia, which had long had one of the best high school basketball teams in Illinois, was favored win its sectional game and hence to face off against the winner of the Granite City Sectional. Centralia thus had an obvious interest in the outcome of the latter game. Madison was unbeaten, but Belleville was not. So they would naturally rather face Belleville than Madison, which means they must have hoped the long-shot Belleville would win.

Fred Gibson, the man referred to in my father’s article, was, again, from Centralia. Moreover, Gibson was known to be hard on the type of “aggressive, pressing defense” employed by Madison.

“Coaches of teams involved in tournament play,” my father wrote “each list a number of officials who might be assigned to work that tournament. As nearly as possible the IHSA tries to assign to a particular tournament the two officials who received the highest ranking.” Madison’s coach had understandably rated Gibson “as low as possible” on his list of officials for the Granite City Sectional. According to the article, the assistant to the executive secretary of the IHSA had assured the coach, Madison’s principal, and a Madison High School board member, that Gibson “would not work on any game involving Madison.”

Despite these assurances, however, Gibson was selected to officiate at the Granite City Sectional, the game that would determine who his own home team would face in the next round of the state high school basketball championship.

The game did not go well for Madison. Gibson, true to form, was hard on them, with the result that their all-stater Don Freeman was “out nearly half of the game.” Madison couldn’t overcome this handicap and eventually lost.

The reaction of Centralia’s players, when they received the news of Madison’s defeat, was reportedly euphoric. According to one observer “[t]hose kids cheered like they had won the state championship.” And, indeed, they did go on to beat Belleville in the next round of the tournament.

There is no accusation in the article of foul play on the part of Referee Gibson. The charge is rather that because of Gibson’s obvious conflict of interest, the IHSA had behaved badly in picking him to officiate that game.

“Officials,” my father wrote, “like Caesar’s wife, must avoid the appearance of evil, and Gibson, a Centralia official, is not the proper man to assign to a tournament where Centralia has a consuming interest in the outcome of the tournament.”

High School basketball is to Illinois almost what high school football is to Texas. And nowhere, it appears, is it more important than at Centralia. “For nearly 70 years,” observes Robert Bittner in an article from 2004, “the Centralia Orphans have been the ‘winningest’ high school boys basketball team in the United States.” Predominantly-white Centralia had been on a more than 30-year-long winning streak by 1962 when it feared facing off against the more racially-mixed Madison. Fortunately for Centralia, the IHSA helped to ensure that those fears were not realized.

So what was the controversial issue? Was it simply that the IHSA may have been biased in favor of Centralia and may have allowed that bias to influence its selection of Gibson to officiate at the Granite City Sectional? Or could it have been even more sinister? Could the bias have stemmed from racial prejudice? I doubt there is anyone around anymore who could answer that question.

What is clear is that Madison felt cheated, and its city officials were moved that someone had the courage to make their case in print. They weren’t just moved. They were “profound[ly]” affected.

It is a small thing, a basketball game. It isn’t a small thing, though, to feel one has been cheated. Such feelings can fester for years, souring a person’s view of human nature and society. Enough such injustices, or perceived injustices, small though they may be, can eventually make it impossible for a person to be truly happy. People are profoundly social and cannot realize their full potential for happiness except as individual elements in a web of relationships that form a harmonious and mutually supportive community. A persistent lack of faith and trust in others makes for an unhappy life.

I think my father understood that, and that’s why he kept the letter from Madison’s City Officials. He went on to speak larger truths to larger powers and was often in trouble with his editors, first because of his involvement in the civil rights movement, and later because of his views on the conflict in the Middle East. I think he understood, however, that no injustice is so small that it doesn’t rankle, doesn’t pollute the psyche of its victim.

Who would have thought that an article about a high school basketball game could be so important?


(I would like to thank Debbie Ross and Teri Barnett of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, IL, both for helping me to locate my father’s article and for sending me a copy it. An earlier version of this article appeared in the 20 June 2018 issue of Counterpunch.)

Some Reflections on Mother’s Day

AlicePietyAndOneOfHerBabiesMy father said he had no memory of his mother, none that is, except for one very vague, shadowy memory of being held by a woman who was standing at a stove, cooking something. He was the third of what would eventually be five children. His mother was seventeen when he was born.

Alice Eugenia Farrar liked to write poetry. She never finished school, though, because she was forced to marry her teacher when she became pregnant by him. Her husband, Austin LeGrand Piety, protested in a letter to one of his children that he had not seduced her. He was twenty-seven when they married. She was fifteen.

Fifteen is too young, of course, to begin having children. Five children in rapid succession ruined her health. She contracted tuberculosis and was sent to the Arkansas State Tuberculosis Sanatorium when my father was still a toddler. Her husband was unable both to earn a living and take care of five children all by himself, so he deposited them in the Working Woman’s Home and Day Nursery in Little Rock. That was sometime in 1934 when my father was three years old.

As far as I can make out, he never saw his mother again. She had brief periods when her health improved, but she never fully recovered. She died of tuberculosis when my father was twelve. He told me several times that I looked like her, but that judgment must have been based on photographs rather than memory. We had a few photographs of her when I was a child. I didn’t know they were photos of her, though. I didn’t know who the subject was. They were just old photos of someone I didn’t know.

My father never talked about his mother when I was a child because he had no memories of her to share. I didn’t even know her name until I was in my thirties. It just never came up. She must have been a very good mother, though (an impressive accomplishment for someone who was herself still a child) because all her children turned out well. And by “well” I don’t mean they became successful professionals, though they did. I mean they were kind and caring people, sympathetic and empathetic with developed social consciences. Research has shown that the first two to three years in a child’s life are crucial to its development, more crucial, perhaps, than any subsequent years. A child who isn’t held enough, during this period, who isn’t nurtured and coddled enough, cooed over and talked to enough, will not develop normally in an emotional sense (see, for example, Hildyard and Wolfe, “Child neglect: developmental issues and outcomes”). I don’t mean to suggest that it is impossible for children who received insufficient attention in those crucial early years to develop into happy, well-adjusted adults. I don’t know that that is something anyone could ever know. What we do know, however, is that achievement is more difficult for them.

Alice Eugenia Farrar Piety must have been an extraordinary person. It is almost impossible now, however, to learn anything about her. There is no one alive anymore, so far as I know, who knew her when she was alive. Among my father’s papers, there is one heart-rending letter from her to her sister-in-law begging that her children not be put up for adoption.

There are also a couple of her poems. They’re unimpressive, though, compared to those of her more intellectually accomplished husband. But then, she was not allowed to become intellectually accomplished. An early pregnancy and subsequent poverty killed whatever dreams she may have had of that sort.

She doesn’t look poor in the photo at the beginning of this piece. She looks, in fact, very middle class, sitting in the backyard of a nice middle-class house, coddling a baby that her apparent age suggests she is looking after for someone else. She isn’t the child’s baby-sitter, though, she’s its mother. No one even knows anymore who the child in the photo is. The writing on the back reads simply “Alice with one of her babies.” The photo was likely taken early in her marriage, before her husband’s pay was cut in half, before he began to lose one job after another.

Scan 4The photo here, of my father and his two older brothers Philip (far left) and Louis (middle), gives a better idea of Alice’s material circumstances after her marriage and repeated pregnancies. One can just glimpse a portion of their house in the background.

James Agee wrote in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that the inability of the share croppers he studied to control how many children they had was one of the main reasons they were unable to work themselves up out of poverty. How many people, men as well as women, have been forced into marriages simply as a result of the fact that they could not control whether they would have children if they had sex? How much alcoholism, drug addiction, and child abuse can be traced back to unwanted pregnancies? How much violence more generally can be traced to anger at feeling trapped in a life over which one has no control?

My father was a life-long contributor to Planned Parenthood. He was a kind-hearted person with a soft spot for children. He didn’t like the idea of abortion, but he liked even less the idea of children being forced to become mothers, or worse, driven to acts that might end their own lives as well as those of their unborn children. Many people associate Planned Parenthood with abortion. Most Planned Parenthood clinics don’t provide abortion services, though, but only contraceptive services (see their website where they state that only “some” Planned Parenthood clinics provide abortion services), as well as more general healthcare services. (I received treatment for a bladder infection at a Planned Parenthood clinic when I was in graduate school.) Such services, my father thought, were essential to a humane and properly functioning society.

How many women’s lives have vanished, like Alice’s, because they became mothers too young?

My father was adamant about continuing his monthly contributions to Planned Parenthood, even when, late in retirement, he could ill afford them. I never asked him if this was in part because of his mother. It seems to me now, though, that she has to have been there, in the back of his mind, the shadowy figure, balancing his tiny form on her hip as she stood at the stove.


(An earlier version of this piece appeared in the 11 May issue of Counterpunch. I had erroneously indicated that Alice’s age when she married was thirteen. That was what my father had told me. My cousin Timothy, one of Louis’ children corrected me, however. He calculated Alice’s age when she married based on her birthday on her gravestone and the year his father, the oldest child, was born.)

New Vampire Novel!

_9788763832489October 31, 2017 will be the 500-year anniversary of Luther’s nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Cathedral at Wittenberg. Perhaps it was the date that gave Danish author and public intellectual Peter Tudvad the idea for his latest book, Manteuffel. “Manteuffel” is an actual German surname that literally means “man-devil.” There could not be a more appropriate name for the protagonist of Tudvad’s novel about a fictional, villainous contemporary and friend of Martin Luther, Friedrich von Manteuffel.

If it wasn’t the date of the anniversary of the birth of Protestantism that inspired Tudvad to write Manteuffel, then it was probably what he learned about Luther while doing the research for his earlier book Stadier på antisemitismens vej (stages on the way of anti-Semitism). Denmark, which still has a state church, The Danish Lutheran Church, tends to downplay Luther’s moral failings such as his anti-Semitism. Virulent anti-Semitism wasn’t Luther’s only moral failing, however. Tudvad goes into detail in Manteuffel concerning Luther’s approval of a horrifically brutal and bloody suppression of a peasant revolt led by his own fellow protestant reformer, the unfortunate Thomas Müntzer, who was tortured and executed because of his role in the revolt.

Tudvad, who has spent a great deal of time in archives while working on his earlier non-fiction works, begins the novel with a description of how the narrator purportedly discovered Manteuffel’s long-lost correspondence while working in a German archive.

Anyone who has ever researched the history of his family, country, or hero is familiar with the exalted stillness and hushed piety of an archive. It’s not like a library where students hold noisy study-group meetings, or a church, where parents allow their children to yell and scream. Despite all our democratic pretensions, archives have escaped the profanation that has transformed other cultural institutions into transit halls with flat video screens, loudspeakers and lines of people waiting for their number to be called. Here there is no librarian who paternalistically doles out the discipline of fines to those who return books late, and no priest who with maternal solicitude explains when you should rise from the pew and then sit down again.

Instead, there is an archivist who, like a sibyl is initiated into the mysteries, both large and small, of the archive. You explain your project to the archivist as well as you can, because you don’t know yourself in which of the archives the answer to your question is found. You try, though, and the archivist succeeds miraculously in finding, behind the armored door that protects the hidden treasure of the archive, precisely the document that satisfies your thirst. You sit there at the little table, where the soft light from the single small lamp falls generously on the document whose secret shall now be revealed, like a monk in his cell. It occasionally happens that your expectations are immediately disappointed, not over the content, but over your own limited abilities as you struggle to read ancient handwriting or decipher a stenographer’s shorthand. You return to the archivist, who is able not only to locate documents, but also to decipher them, and hence in the best sense reminds one more of a priest than a librarian.

When, after some time, you’ve persevered through the trials of the novice and learned to use an archive properly, entering it is like crossing the threshold to another world. You become one with the archive and all its other users who are like so many limbs on a single body. What these others are searching for is a mystery. You know only that their research is part of the eternal tidal movement of the archive itself. Documents begin to pile up on the table until you have disappeared behind a mountain of the past, while outside the present waits to become ripe enough for archiving. You learn to balance like a stylite on the precise geometrical point where the future slices into the past for the future is the family history, dissertation, or biography on which you are working, and the past is everything that is worth writing about.

Hours pass. You lose all sense of what time it is, fail to notice your own hunger, or how long you’ve sat there without eating or drinking. You remain faithful to your work, despite time wasted on unhelpful documents, like a Catholic praying the Rosary. The work brings with it its own rewards, for while the visible world was dissected and analyzed long ago, measured and counted in its depth and breadth so that it is now no longer possible to learn anything new about it, it is otherwise with the hidden world of an archive. Here you place again your requisition form in the basket on the counter, thank the archivist deferentially when he reappears at the counter with your fulfilled wish, don the white cotton gloves required of those who desire to dig down into the virginal past. And then it happens that you find what you had sought –– or find something entirely different from what you’d sought.

Count Manteuffel had a consuming interest in theological questions and hence conducted an extended correspondence with Luther, as well as with other actual historical figures such as the notorious serial killer Elizabeth Báthory. What, you may wonder, does the famous protestant reformer have in common with a serial killer? All becomes clear in this meticulously researched historical novel.

Manteuffel, it turns out, is a vampire, so there is lots of blood and gore in the book. What distinguishes it, however, from the standard vampire thriller is the richness of meticulously researched historical detail, the depth of analysis of philosophical, theological, and social-political issues, and some genuinely beautiful writing, such as in the passage above.

Luther emerges as, to put it euphemistically, somewhat unsympathetic, not simply because of his association with Manteuffel, who happens to be a particularly gruesome and bloodthirsty vampire, but because of what Tudvad reveals he actually said (or wrote) and did.

Manteuffel is, among other things, a serious indictment of the father of the Protestant Reformation and hence promises to do for Protestantism (or at least Lutheranism) what The DaVinci Code did for, or perhaps it would be better to say “to” Catholicism. Tudvad’s writing is so compelling and convincing that one Danish reviewer actually thought that he had found Manteuffel’s papers in an archive in Germany! The book is an erudite page-turner that would be a blockbuster were it dramatized for the BBC.

Unfortunately, Manteuffel has yet to be translated into English. Fortunately, there is no more opportune time for an English-language publisher to seize upon it. Increasing attention is going to be deservedly focused on Luther this fall and some of the revelations to which that attention will give rise, including the social-political ramifications of Luther’s alliance with feudal authority against peasants, will guarantee continued interest in Luther for a long time to come.

Plus, it’s a book about a vampire. What’s not to like?

(This piece originally appeared under the title “Martin Luther and the Man-Devil in the 4 September 2017 issue of Counterpunch.)

Why “Dark Shadows?”

ABC's "Dark Shadows" - File Photos

The Cast of “Dark Shadows”

Reflections on the Show After Having Made it Through all 1,245 Episodes

I was a huge fan of Dark Shadows as a kid, so I was excited to find DVDs of it a few years ago in a bookstore in Boston. I’ve been on a nostalgia kick since hitting middle age, so I relished the prospect of immersing myself again in that virtual Gothic world that had enthralled me as a child.

The experience wasn’t what I expected, though. Only a few minutes into the first show I thought to myself, “Oh my, this isn’t good.” There wasn’t much of a plot, the dialogue was completely implausible and the acting was extremely uneven. Worse, Jonathan Frid, who played Barnabas Collins, the protagonist, I guess you would say, of the series had conspicuous difficulty remembering his lines and nearly as much difficulty, apparently, locating the tele-prompters.

I was devastated. I remembered the show as compelling, mesmerizing. Could my taste have been so bad? The thing is, I wasn’t the only child, or indeed, the only person to find the show compelling and mesmerizing. It was astronomically successful. Even the actors, who appeared as guests at the height of the show’s popularity, on programs such as Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas, seem perplexed by the show’s popularity.

The idea for the show was sound enough. The writing was at its best when it appropriated plots from Gothic masterpieces such as The Turn of the Screw and Frankenstein. On top of the challenges, however, of uneven writing, gratuitously fantastical storylines, and uneven acting, was the fact that in those days soaps were effectively broadcast live. I say “effectively” because they weren’t actually broadcast live, but the production process was such that they had no opportunity to correct mistakes. So flubbed or forgotten lines, cameramen appearing on the fringes of a scene, and bits of scenery falling over or otherwise behaving in ways that exposed that they were not what they were supposed to be were common occurrences.

So why was the show so popular? People in the televisions and motion picture industries have labored for years under the mistaken impression that it was the story, and or the characters; hence the remake of the series with Ben Cross in 1991 and the recent Dark Shadows movie starring Johnny Depp. It clearly wasn’t either the story or the characters, though, that made the series so popular or these remakes would have been more successful. So what was it?

That’s a difficult question to answer. Despite my disappointment with the first few episodes when I first began watching the series again as an adult, I continued to watch it. Maybe it was just nostalgia that made me do it. I don’t know. I became increasingly caught up in it, however, the more I watched, and it wasn’t because of the cliff-hanger endings of each episode. That is, I wasn’t driven to find out what happened next. It was more that I enjoyed the experience of the production, the company of the actors.

I think the show’s success was the result of a complex combination of things. First, while some of the acting was pretty bad, much of it was superb. It took transcendently good actors to make that dialogue convincing and yet many of the Dark Shadows cast did just that. Second, the amateurish feel the show sometimes had because of the issues mentioned above gave it the feeling of a backyard production put on by one’s neighbors, or one’s neighbors’ children, and because it wasn’t unrelentingly bad but often quite good, it encouraged the viewer to root for the actors, to will them to succeed. “Will they pull it off today?” one would wonder with a mixture of hope and anxiety before the beginning of each episode.

There’s more to the show’s popularity, though. The reason for the uneven quality of the acting may well have been, at least indirectly, part of the show’s success. Dan Curtis, the originator, producer, and occasional director of the show, said in an interview included in the DVD collection of the series, that he selected people for roles because he liked them, not because they could act. He spent time with them; took them to dinner; etc. Many of the actors attest to the camaraderie that existed among the cast, and my sense is that that camaraderie gives the show an intangibly positive dynamic, a warmth that underlies the chill of the repeated curses and hauntings and thwarted love affairs that make up the story line.

This camaraderie was likely also enhanced by what several of the actors describe in interviews as the unique “energy” the show had as a result of the fact that the actors had little time to rehearse, that many were so nearsighted they couldn’t read the tele-prompters, and that there was no opportunity to edit out mistakes. So the show had an “energy” generated by anxiety on the part of the actors, and then an energy beneath the energy in terms of the affection the actors had for one another.

And then there is the fact that the show deals with the supernatural, with magic. It’s sometimes classed as science fiction, but its engagement with the fantastical is much broader. It includes not merely time travel and diabolical scientists, but ghosts and witches and crazed religious reformers.

The hegemony of scientism (the view that all of reality can be explained by natural science) in the latter part of the twentieth and this first part of the twenty-first century is oppressive. People know there is more to reality than is captured by natural science. Few people have the time or opportunity, however, to engage with scientism on a level that would enable them to definitively refute it. So instead of confronting it directly, they evade it by escaping into more emotionally satisfying alternative worlds, worlds where the bad things that happen to good people aren’t simply the result of chance, or a cold and unfeeling universe, but of malevolent forces, worlds that hold out hope that these forces can be defeated by cunning and will, worlds where love transcends time, where the dead are not gone forever, where families stay together, and where home always looks the same.

It was this combination of things, I believe, that explain the success of Dark Shadows. Each one is critical to what made the show great, and it was great, despite being occasionally pretty bad. It wasn’t the narrative, so much, that was compelling as it was the larger fictional world in which the events unfolded and the actors and the dynamic between them, the energy, that made the show great.

Some of the actors so inhabited their characters that it would be impossible to have anyone else ever play them. No one but Lara Parker could ever be Angelique; no one but David Selby could ever be Quentin; no one but Jonathan Frid could ever be Barnabas Collins; no one but Nancy Barrett could ever be Carolyn Stoddard, and no one but John Karlen could ever be Willie Loomis.

That’s why you can’t remake the show according to any traditional conception of a remake. What you could do, and what I think someone should do, is make a continuation of it. Several of the actors, notably, Lara Parker, David Selby, Nancy Barrett, Kathryn Leigh Scott, and Kate Jackson are still professionally active. A Dark Shadows that recreated the same set as the original and that cast Parker, Selby, Barrett, Scott, and Jackson in their original, but now more mature roles, but which also included new characters, could, I believe be a blockbuster success. New characters were always appearing on the old Dark Shadows after all and were taken to heart by the fans because there was still the continuity of the old characters.

There’s an enormous number of fans of the original series out there, some of them too young to have seen the show when it was first broadcast. In fact, these fans gather every year for an annual “Dark Shadows Festival.” Every one of them would tune in to watch this new series.

I like to imagine this new show sometimes. Jon Hamm would make a perfect Barnabas because he is adept at playing a character with a secret. Of course he couldn’t actually be Barnabas since only Jonathan Frid will ever be Barnabas. He could be Barnabas II, though, the illegitimate child of Angelique and Barnabas from their affair in Martinique when they first met. The child whose existence Angelique kept secret for years, the child she later “adopts” who thus now has a double secret: he is a vampire like his father (because of Angelique’s curse on Barnabas’ descendants), and he is Angelique’s (and Barnabas’) real not merely adoptive child.

The plot line of this new series could be driven by the mystery of what happened to the first Barnabas, a mystery his son would be determined to solve in order to escape his own unendurable fate. As a vampire, after all, Barnabus shouldn’t be dead. And yet Frid is dead, so Barnabas would need to be as well. How did that happen? Was it because Angelique removed the curse (which for some reason she cannot remove from her own son), or was it because Julia Hoffman, Barnabas’ personal physician succeeded, finally, in curing him?

I’m uncertain, though, how to recreate the “energy” of the original now that the production process of television series’ has become so sophisticated that anything can be redone, any mistake fixed. Perhaps that was part of the charm of the original series. It was much more like real life with all its blemishes, so when it managed to be great, the magnitude of the achievement was more conspicuous. It was great in the way the real human beings are occasionally great, genuinely great –– without the benefit of a retake.