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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

I Hope Niner Fans Were Watching

Last year, Dallas Cowboys' quarterback Dak Prescott had a great rookie season, and for the most part, his sophomore season has been going pretty well too. In fact, along with Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback Carson Wentz, who was also a rookie last year, Prescott has had one of best starts that any NFL quarterback has had in their career ("Wentz And Prescott Are The Best Second-Year QBs We’ve Seen In A While"). The last two weeks have been a bit rough for Prescott, though, especially this past Sunday against the Eagles when he had his worst game as a pro, throwing 3 interceptions (including one during garbage time) and registering a QB rating of 30.4. What changed? A key Cowboy offensive lineman, Tyron Smith, was lost to an injury, and the team's star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, is serving a 6-game suspension for domestic violence.

Hopefully, a lot of Niner fans were watching. If they were unaware of Prescott's past success, he might've reminded them of Niner quarterbacks over the past couple of years, all of which emphasizes an important fact: quarterbacks with little or no time to throw seldom experience a lot of success. It also helps when they aren't the only weapon; a talented running back helps quite a bit too. In order for quarterbacks to succeed, not only do they need to be talented, they need to be surrounded by talent. While the Niners need a talented quarterback to lead them out of the abyss created by former GM Trent Baalke and current CEO Jed York ("Win With Class? The 49ers Can't Even Lose With Class"), they need much, much more than that. But now that Baalke is gone, they may have a chance (as long as York keeps his nose out of things).

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Thanksgiving: The American Exodus Story

Beginning in the 1990s, a series of books, sermons, and articles called into question the story of the Exodus as it appears in the Bible. For example, in 1998 S. David Sperling, a professor at Hebrew Union College in New York, wrote in his book, The Original Torah, that the Exodus did not happen. "The evidence," he concluded, was decisive. "The traditions of servitude in Egypt, the tales of wandering in the desert, and the stories of the conquest of the promised land appear to be fictitious." Similarly, in 2001, David Wolpe, a Conservative Rabbi, preached a Passover sermon that called into question the Exodus's historicity. He noted "that virtually every modern archeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all." Also in 2001, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, in their popular and controversial book, The Bible Unearthed, concluded that "one can hardly accept the idea of a flight of a large group of slaves from Egypt."

As others have pointed out, however, just because there is little to no evidence that supports the Exodus story as the Bible tells it, that doesn't mean that some sort of exodus didn't happen. In fact, in his recently published book, The Exodus: How It Happened and What It Means, Richard Elliott Friedman argues that a considerable amount of evidence exists which suggests that that an Exodus did occur, albeit on a much smaller scale than the Bible says it did. In particular, he contends that a small group of individuals, later known as the Levites, left Egypt, settled in Canaan, joined with the other Israelite tribes, and eventually became their priests. And along the way, their God, Yahweh, became Israel's God, and their story of how they fled Egypt and settled in Canaan, became Israel's story.

While this may strike some as odd, as I have noted in previous posts ("Thanksgiving and American Civil Religion"), it is similar to how the story of the first Thanksgiving became a story embraced by most Americans although few actually descend from the Pilgrims:
In many ways, Thanksgiving is... the American Exodus story. Just like the ancient Israelites, many of whom probably didn't descend from the families that had fled from Pharaoh's wrath but later affiliated with those who did, most Americans don't descend from the Pilgrims. However, just as the Exodus story became the story for all who chose to worship Yahweh, the Thanksgiving story has become the story for most Americans. On the 4th Thursday of every November, most of us sit down with family and friends and either implicitly and explicitly recall the Thanksgiving story.
And like the biblical story of the Exodus, the American Thanksgiving story contains a number of fictitious elements. Nevertheless, retelling it can help us, if only for awhile, transcend our differences as we recall a story of sharing, celebration, and the welcoming of strangers to our table. And given the current political climate, that strikes me as a good thing.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Virginia Polls Missed by More than National Polls Did Last Year (But Few Seem to Have Noticed)


A year ago, a lot of left-leaning voters expressed their anger at statistician Nate Silver because his FiveThirtyEight election model gave Donald Trump "only" a 30% chance of winning. They assumed that someone with only a 30% chance of winning really had no chance of winning. Such a belief, however, reflects the fact that most of us aren't trained to think probabilistically. However, as I noted back then, a 30% chance is actually pretty high ("Don't Blame Nate Silver"). One way to cultivate just how high a 30% chance is, is to have you imagine a scenario in which bullets are placed in two of a revolver's six chambers. How many of you would be willing to spin the revolver's cylinder, place the gun to your temple, and pull the trigger? My guess is not too many even though there's "only" a 33% chance that you'll put a bullet through your head.

Unlike most of us, however, Silver does think in probabilistic terms. In fact, he repeatedly cautioned readers about overconfidence, noting that Clinton's leads in the battleground states were slim and within the range of sampling error, which meant that if the polls were slightly overestimating Clinton's support, the election could break in Trump's favor. Which, of course, is exactly what happened. But many people still blamed Nate Silver.

Silver wasn't the only one who was criticized. Polling agencies were too. However, the 2016 polls weren't too far off. Their average predicted margin of a Clinton popular vote victory was a little over 3.0%, which was only 1.0% higher than her actual (popular vote) victory of 2.1%. For a presidential election, 1.0% miss is remarkably close. In fact, the 2016 polls outperformed the 2012 polls. However, few noticed (or cared) because in 2012 the polls underestimated the Democrat candidate's popular vote share, while in 2016 they overestimated it.

Interestingly, last night in Virginia's gubernatorial election the polls performed worse than the National polls did in the 2016 presidential election. They had Democrat Ralph Northam winning by approximately 3%, but in the end he won by almost 9%. However, hardly anyone has complained (or noticed), and as far as I can tell, no one has blamed Nate Silver (one of the few who has noticed).

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation's 500 Anniversay

Tuesday marks the 500th anniversary of when Martin Luther reportedly nailed his 95 Theses ("Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences") to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg. It's uncertain whether he actually did nail the these to the door but it is certain that he sent them to his bishop, Albert of Mainz. Even if he did nail them to the door, it wouldn't have been seen as an act of defiance. The door functioned as a local bulletin board where faculty members routinely posted matters to be debated. Regardless of what happened, whether he nailed his 95 theses to the church door, mailed them to his bishop, or both, his act is symbolically seen as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

As many readers know, Luther became concerned with the selling of indulgences. The selling of indulgences is related to the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, which holds that there is an intermediate state between heaven and hell for people who die neither as saints nor as unredeemable sinners. In Purgatory, souls are cleansed by purging fires, which makes them fit for entry into heaven. Roman Catholics believe that the Pope holds the spiritual key to a “treasury of merit,” which is a superabundance of merit attained by Christ and the saints, and indulgences are certificates the Pope issues by which he transfers some of this merit to repentant sinners. If such sinners perform an adequate number of acts of penitence and devotion, a portion (or perhaps all) of their time in Purgatory can be remitted. Indulgences can also be obtained on behalf of another, living or dead. In his day, Luther believed that the practice of selling indulgences was being abused. He argued that they were being issued with little consideration for the remorsefulness of the penitents but rather more for the funds that the Church was able to collect by issuing them.

Unsurprisingly, numerous books have recently been published about the Reformation and Martin Luther (not to mention Playmobil versions of Luther -- see picture, upper right). There are so many, in fact, that it's difficult to know where to begin. A helpful resource is Peter Marshall's, The Reformation, which is part of Oxford University Press's "A Very Short Introduction" series. The Wikipedia articles on Martin Luther and The Reformation also provide good overviews, as well as links to other papers and books that offer more detailed information. Finally, the University of Washington political scientist, Anthony Gill, has recorded a series of podcasts on the Reformation (or Reformations) that feature a number of excellent scholars. These podcasts can be found at the Research of Religion website (Protestant Reformation Series) or can be downloaded from iTunes. A brief description of (and link to each of) the podcasts appears below.

James Felak on the Counter-Reformation
As a capstone to our Protestant Reformation Series, we give the “other side” its day in court to make their case. Prof. James Felak (University of Washington) discusses how the Roman Catholic Church reacted to Luther and the Protestant fervor that followed in the decades after Luther sparked a religious fire. We cover everything from the Diet of Worms to the Council of Trent, and to Jesuits, Inquisitions, and Carmelites without shoes. This is an inordinately fun exploration of the 16th century religious landscape.
Robert Nelson on Lutheranism and Nordic Social Democracy
The Nordic states are known for their high levels of socio-economic equality, good governance, and high levels of social trust. While some scholars have attributed this to their unique brand of secular social democracy, Prof. Robert Nelson (U of Maryland) argues that Nordic social democracy has deep roots in the “Lutheran ethic.” We discuss how the Lutheran ethic is different than the Calvinist ethic (as seen by Max Weber), how contemporary social democratic thought in Nordic countries has similar elements to Lutheranism, and what is in store for social democracy.
Rodney Stark on Myths of the Reformation
Many misconceptions surround the Protestant Reformation, from it being the birth of capitalism to it prompting Europe’s secularization. Noted sociologist of religion Rodney Stark (Baylor ISR) joins us to discuss these myths and more. With the 500th anniversary of the Reformation just about a month away, this is a great opportunity to refresh on some interesting talking points to engage your friends, family, and colleagues.
Emily Fisher Gray on Luther’s 95 Theses
The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation will be celebrated on October 31st of this year, marking the date that Martin Luther disseminated his famous 95 Theses on papal authority and indulgences. Prof. Emily Fisher Gray of Norwich University contextualizes this historically important document and explains how the themes of liberty and authority play out in this and other of Luther’s writings. We review the impact of this document, as well as Luther’s thoughts about a peasant uprising he inspired.
Rob Sorensen on Martin Luther’s Life
With the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his “95 Theses” to the doors of the Wittenberg Cathedral approaching, we take a pause to examine the early life of Martin Luther with Rob Sorensen, a PhD candidate at Faulkner University and author of a book on Luther’s life. Our attention is devoted mostly to Luther’s formative years leading up to his defiant act in 1517, but there are reflections on his life following excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church.
Steven Pfaff on the World of 1517
What did Europe look like economically, politically, and religiously on the eve of the Protestant Reformation? What broad historical trends facilitated the success Martin Luther’s schismatic break from the Catholic Church where others in the past had failed? Prof. Steve Pfaff (Sociology, University of Washington) discusses the factors spurring on the Protestant Reformation, sharing some of the most up-to-date research on how social movements spread.
Marion Goldman on Martin Luther and Spiritual Virtuosity
With the quincentennial anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (dated from October 31, 1517), we begin an occasional series looking at the events and people that made up this historic event. We start with Prof. Marion Goldman (sociology, University of Oregon) who argues that Martin Luther had the characteristic of a “spiritual virtuoso” and that this factor was critical to the split that transpired between the Catholic Church and Protestants. Spiritual virtuosos are individuals who are concerned with personal sanctification, are reluctant leaders, but do acknowledge their role in inspiring social movements. Our conversation also covers other similar individuals such as leaders of the Abolitionist Movement and Steve Jobs of Apple fame.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Strangers in Their Own Land

In her wonderful book, Strangers in Their Own Land, sociologist Arlie Hochschild asks us to imagine waiting in a line at the end of which lies the American Dream. However, not only are we waiting in line, but we've been waiting in line for a very long time. And while we've been waiting, people have been cutting (unfairly) into the line ahead of us, and they aren't doing it by themselves. They're getting help. In particular, they're getting help from the government, usually the federal government. Moreover, there are others (many of whom have already reached the end of the line and are openly contemptuous of how we live and what we believe), who think it's just fine for the government to help the line-cutters.

Although with far more detail and nuance than I do here, Hochschild crafted this imaginary scenario in order to illustrate what she calls the "deep story" of the Louisiana Tea Party supporters she got to know after spending five years (2011-2016) interviewing and living among them. She believes it helps explain why many of those who live in one of our nation's poorest and most polluted states vote for candidates who resist the federal government's help and oppose regulating industries such oil and gas. She argues that over the years they have come to distrust the federal government and are more inclined to place their faith in capitalism and the free market. While the former gives away jobs to others (i.e., the line-cutters), jobs which they believe rightfully belong to them, the latter does not. Instead, capitalism and the free market promises them employment, and if pollution is one of the costs, so be it.

All this leads her to conclude that to understand the appeal of someone like Donald Trump, we need to pay more attention to how emotions inform the political choices that people make. She argues that many of the people she met vote for their emotional, rather than economic, self-interest because they've grown tired over feeling marginalized, left behind, and mocked by liberal elites who typically support big government. And they see Donald Trump as someone who is willing to put an end to the line-cutting and defend their way of life.

All this sounds right to me. Elsewhere, I've argued that folks on the left need to stop mocking the beliefs of blue collar individuals ("Don't Mock Working Class Religion" "Hillbilly Elegy: A Good Place to Start"). Merely advocating for policies that will benefit them economically is not enough. Some empathy for their way of life needs to be demonstrated ("Two Cheers for Conservative Religion"). That doesn't mean that we have to agree with all that they believe and practice, but there's a difference between civilly disagreeing with someone and making fun of what they've always believe to be true. A very big difference.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

One Thing Liberals Can Thank Trump For

I know, I dangled a preposition in the title, but there's actually something political liberals should thank President Trump for.1 For the first time in a long time we don't seem to be afraid about talking about "truth." For too long we've been enamored with postmodernist notions of moral relativism, but we finally seem to be okay with the idea that not all news is "fake news," that "facts" do exist, and that not all of reality is socially constructed ("The Social Construction of Reality (Sort of)." This shift was brought home to me while reading Timothy Snyder's, On Tyranny, which contains 20 "lessons" on how to prevent the U.S. from devolving into tyranny. The tenth lesson is entitled, "Believe in Truth," in which Snyder argues that
To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is not basis on which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the the most blinding lights. ("On Tyranny," p. 65)
This does not mean that our perceptions of reality aren't colored by our social location, but it does suggest that lying behind those perceptions is a reality, a truth, that we can catch a glimpse of from time to time, and our goal should be to adopt methods for capturing that reality. So, let's thank our President for bringing us face-to-face with the fact that there really are facts. It's one of the few positive things he has wrought in the few short months he has been in the White House.

1 There I go again, but phrasing it that way makes a lot more sense than saying, "there's something for which political liberals should thank Trump." Undoubtedly, that is why Winston Churchill once remarked, “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Why We Coffee Drinkers Should Thank Starbucks

I'm sensing that it's becoming increasingly fashionable to "dis" Starbucks. Starbucks coffee is bland, it has no bite, it's become a corporate behemoth, so we should support the local coffee house instead. All that may be true, but for those of us old enough to remember, before Starbucks (and Peet's), it was hard to find a good latte. Local coffee roasters routinely burned the milk when steaming, and the beans they ground were often little better than Folgers.

But the advent of Starbucks brought consistency to the making of lattes, cappuccinos, and so on. This forced local roasters to improve what they served, or they'd go out of business (and many did). That's why most of the baristas working in coffee shops today know how to brew an excellent cup of coffee. And that is why all of us coffee drinkers should thank Starbucks (and Peet's).