Monday, March 29, 2010

Confusion About Easter

Updated on April 5, 2015.
What happened on the day of Christ's resurrection? My challenge to every Christian is to study and determine for yourself exactly what happened on the day that Christianity's most important doctrine was born.
Paul wrote in I Corinthians 15:14-15, "And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not."
I challenge you to read the account of the Easter story in each of the four Gospels. Begin at Easter morning and read to the end of each book: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20-21. You may also want to read Acts 1:3-12 and I Corinthians 15:3-8. Then, carefully arrange every detail from these separate accounts into a roughly chronological order of the events between the resurrection and the ascension. Use any method that works for you to create a plausible account of all of the facts presented in the Bible and do your best to avoid omitting any single biblical detail. I have shared below a few of the challenges I found when trying to do this for myself.

Tomb stone replica visited by tourists in Jerusalem
Tomb stone in Jerusalem
All four gospels agree that on the third day, after Jesus' crucifixion and burial, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb where Jesus was buried and found it empty. But on virtually every other detail, the Gospels disagree. I encourage careful study of the Biblical accounts by all who are interested in this topic. The best way to compare the biblical accounts it to read the verses in chronological order and to compare them in parallel.

One simple comparison is offered by the JesusWalk Bible Study Series, but the best method is to read the accounts for yourself in each of the four Gospels. Make four columns on a sheet of notebook paper, and take notes as you read. You might be amazed how much the four accounts of the story vary and contradict. Below, I highlight some of the most confusing contradictions by asking a few simple questions and then providing answers from the four Gospels.

Who went to visit Jesus' tomb?

Mattew 28:1Mark 16:1Luke 23:5John 20:1
Mary and another MaryMary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and SalmoneThe women who had come with Jesus from GalileeMary alone

Had the stone already been rolled away from the tomb?

Matthew 28:2Mark 16:4LukeJohn
The stone was rolled away from the tomb by an angel while the women where there.The stone was already rolled away when they arrived.No stone mentioned.No stone mentioned.

Whom did the women see when hey arrived at the empty tomb?

Matthew 28:5Mark 16:5Luke 24:4John
An angel.A young man.Two men.No mention of anybody besides Mary.

What did the women say about what they saw?

Matthew 28:8Mark 16:8
They told the disciples what they saw and heard.They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

If the women tell their account of the visit to the tomb, who did they tell?

Matthew 28:8 Luke 24:8John 20:2
They told only the eleven disciples.They told the eleven disciples and other people.They told Simon Peter and another unnamed disciple.

What do Jesus' disciples do when the women tell them about Jesus' resurrection?

Matthew 20:9Luke 24:11John 20:3
They have no response because Jesus immediately appears to them.The disciples think the story is a lie.The disciples go to the tomb to look for themselves.

These are just a few examples of the contradictions and irreconcilable differences in the Bible. The death and resurrection of Jesus is a critical part of the Christian faith, and yet, the four Gospels don't agree on hardly any of the details of these events. The authors of the Bible can't all be right, because their accounts of Christ's life and death conflict. I am not trying to suggest that we should ignore the entire Bible because of a few inconsistencies in some of the stories. What I am trying to suggest is that the modern versions of the Bible are not infallible or inerrant. Perhaps the true meanings of the scriptures where lost as scribes copied the texts and made corrections, omissions or additions. We can be sure that what we have today is far from what was printed in the original manuscripts.

Tourists waiting to enter a cave in Jerusalem.
This should be a photo of a line of tourists waiting to enter a small cave
Please allow me to take a brief diversion to tell you about experiences I had in Israel. I have had the pleasure of taking two business trips to Israel and I took tours of Jerusalem during both trips. On my first visit I took a very short guided tour of the ancient City of Jerusalem. The guide on my first trip spoke as if everything he had to say was a matter of fact. I tend to get a bit skeptical when people portray an ancient story so confidently, and so at one point in the tour, I pulled the guide aside to ask him some questions privately away from the others in my tour. I asked my questions quietly and privately out of respect for those on my tour who where obviously very religious and probably wouldn't appreciate the subject matter of my questions.

They say Jesus was prepared here for burial.
A flat rock surface in Jerusalem with oil lamps hanging above it.
We where standing near a flat rectangular stone that was meant to resemble the stone where Christ's body was laid to be dressed with oil and prepared for burial. Our guide had explained that religious people come from all corners of the earth to kneel down, touch the stone, and touch the oil that once touched Christ's body. When I asked him how they perpetually replenish the supply of oil on the stone, he explained how oil lamps are hung over the stone and they slowly drip oil onto the surface of the stone. I also asked him several other questions about his stories, and on every topic, our guide acknowledged that he was only telling a modern version of a story and explaining things that may or may not have happened at the places we where visiting.

Prison cell in Jerusalem.
Rock surface a in a cave with two holes where feet could have been placed
This first tour included short visits to several highlights of Israel provided by a guide and a driver who took us from Haifa down through Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, through the West Bank to the Dead Sea, and then back to Haifa. I realized that this was far too much to see in one day and so I decided to spend an entire day touring the old city of Jerusalem on my next trip. On my second trip, I and several of my colleagues decided to hire one of the independent guides who wait near Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate waiting for tourists who enter there. Our independent guide showed us many different sites and explained many different versions of several stories. He seemed not to put any faith in any of the stories and he never showed any bias toward one story or another. He just presented the stories as best as he could and let us ask questions and influence where he would take us and what he told us about what we wanted to know.

I told the story of my two Israel tours as examples of two different approaches to the study of history and historical documents. These two approaches also apply to Biblical study. You can either treat the scriptures as inerrant and infallible historical records, or you can treat them each as one man's version of the story. As with my two guides in Jerusalem, each author of the Gospels was a fallible man writing down events from memory many years after the events occurred. Each author of the Gospels obviously had an agenda, and that agenda may have influenced their memory of events, or perhaps they even embellished the story a little to support the points they where trying to make.

The Gospels also include a few strange occurrences of misquotes and misunderstandings of Old Testament prophesy. A passage in Zechariah describes a scene that sounds like the New Testament story we now call Palm Sunday.

A Bible card from the early 1900s
This is a Bible card from the early 1900s that depicts Jesus on the colt
Zechariah 9:9
"Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey."
The Gospels have conflicting accounts of the events of Palm Sunday.
Matthew 21:7Mark 11:7 and Luke 19:35John 12:14
They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them.Jesus' disciples brought a colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, and He sat on it.Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it.
Matthew's account is clearly a misunderstanding of this Old Testament prophesy. So, I think it is pretty obvious that Matthew told the story of Palm Sunday by using the literal interpretation of Zechariah's prophesy and telling a story that Christ rode on both a donkey AND a colt. The other Gospels portray the story using the obvious interpretation that there was only one animal and that animal was a colt. This begs the question, did the Palm Sunday event ever actually occur? Why would Matthew make such an obvious mistake? Or of course the other obvious conclusion is that a well-meaning scribe changed the story because he felt that Matthew's story was not an exact fulfillment of of the Old Testament prophesy.

You also have to take into account that none of the authors of the Biblical texts intended for their works to be compiled into a giant volume and presented together as one Bible for modern Christians to study. If the authors had known, perhaps they would have consulted with each other and collaborated their stories more carefully with the other authors.

The errors and conflicts in the resurrection story are not just troubling because they indicate the fallibility of the authors and scribes of the Bible. The errors and conflicts are also very troubling because the miraculous story of the resurrection is portrayed by Christians as proof that Jesus is the Son of God and his life events fulfill Old Testament prophesy. Here are just a few passages from Scripture that further demonstrate this point.

Acts 2:22-24
"Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him."

This passage continues by quoting the prophesies of David in the old testament and then making the case that David predicted Christ's resurrection.
Acts 2:31-32
"Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact."

Jesus' death and resurrection is a fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy and is used repeatedly as proof that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God. Paul was one of the early Christians who preached the story of Christ's life and death and encouraged gentiles to believe in God.
Rom. 1:1-6
"Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him and for his name's sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ."

As an open-minded student of the Bible, I cannot rule out the possibility that there may indeed be many passages that are the word of God written by men who where inspired directly by God to write His words into the scriptures. But I also have to conclude that these scriptures where passed down through the generations, written and re-written by scribes, and we can't know how much of the modern Bible is different from the events recorded therein. The present day versions of the scriptures in the modern Bible are full of contradictions and errors. The Bible makes better sense if you acknowledge its inconsistencies instead of blindly insisting that there aren't any, even when they are staring you in the face. You must carefully study the scriptures, consider them thoughtfully, question some of the assumptions and conclusions, and cautiously consider how the scriptures affect your faith and your life choices.

I think I have made the point I intended to make so I will conclude this portion of my post. For those who are interested in further reading on these topics, please consider reading the books by Bart Ehrman. I especially recommend his book called Jesus Interrupted.

You may also enjoy listening to Bart Ehrman's interview on an NPR program called Fresh Air

For those who are particularly interested in the topic of Apologetics, please continue reading. In modern times, apologists are authors, writers, editors or academic journals, and leaders known for defending the points in arguments, conflicts or positions that receive great popular scrutinies and/or are minority views. This portion of my blog post focuses specifically on Biblical Apologetics. Jesus himself was an apologist.

Jesus taught many things about the inspiration of the Old Testament:
(1) Its entirety; the whole of the Bible is inspired: In Matthew 4:4, Jesus responded to Satan’s temptation by affirming verbal plenary inspiration when He said, man is to live by every word (plenary) that proceeds out of the mouth of God (inspiration). In Matthew 5:17-18, Christ promised that the entire Old Testament, the Law and the Prophets, would be fulfilled, not abolished. In fact, He declared that not even the smallest Hebrew letter, the yodh, which looks like an apostrophe (‘), or stroke of a letter, a small distinguishing extension or protrusion of several Hebrews letters would pass away until all is fulfilled. Christ’s point is that it is all inspired and true and will be fulfilled.
(2) Its historical accuracy: Jesus spoke of the Old Testament in terms of actual history. Adam and Eve were two human beings, created by God in the beginning, who lived and acted in certain ways (Matt. 19:3-5; Mark 10:6-8). He spoke of Jonah and his experience in the belly of the great fish as an historical event (Matt. 12:40). He also verified the events of the flood in Noah’s day along with the ark (Matt. 24:38-39; Luke 17:26-27). He verified God’s destruction of Sodom and the story of Lot and his wife (Matt. 10:15; Luke 17:28-29). These are only a few illustrations; many others exist.
(3) Its reliability: Because it is God’s word, the Scripture must be fulfilled (Matt. 26:54).
(4) Its sufficiency: It is sufficient to witness to the truth of God and His salvation (Luke 16:31).
(5) Its indestructibility: Heaven and earth will not pass away until it is all fulfilled. Nothing can stop its fulfillment (Matt. 5:17-18).
(6) Its unity: The whole of the Bible speaks and witnesses to the person and work of Christ (Luke 24:27, 44).
(7) Its inerrancy: Men are often in error, but the Bible is not; it is truth (Matt. 22:29; John 17:17).
(8) Its infallibility: The Bible cannot be broken, it always stands the test (John 10:35).

E. J. Young, in "Thy Word Is Truth", his classic work on the inspiration of the Bible, gives a good definition of inerrancy: “By this word we mean that the Scriptures possess the quality of freedom from error. They are exempt from the liability to mistake, incapable of error. In all their teachings they are in perfect accord with the truth.

Stephen T. Davis, in his book titled "The Debate about the Bible" wrote, “The Bible is infallible, as I define that term, but not inerrant. That is, there are historical and scientific errors in the Bible, but I have found none on matters of faith and practice.”

A study of what Jesus said about the Old Testament of the Bible reveals not only His belief in its verbal, plenary inspiration, but that He also believed it was inerrant. In fact, the greatest testimony to the authenticity of the Bible as God’s inspired and inerrant Word is the Lord Jesus. Why is Jesus' testimony so important? Because God authenticated and proved Him to be His own divine Son by the resurrection.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Vicious And Vocal Opponents Of Health Reform

The US Congress is very close to passing a significant Health Reform bill after months of debate, concessions and amendments. As this historical moment approaches, a minority of the American people are being very vocal with their apposition to this legislation. Teabaggers are protesting in Washington and elsewhere around the country, trying desperately to be heard. In many cases, their signs and words are outrageous and offensive, and of course this increases the coverage of their actions in the media. I must say that their tactics have been quite effective, because I have seen several photos and video clips featured in many print and TV news stories, despite their relatively small numbers in comparison to the overall population.

Here is a shocking video shot by the Columbus Dispatch at a "Honk and Wave in Support of Health Care" event at Congresswoman Mary Jo Kilroy's district office.

This video includes a segment where teabaggers mock and scorn an apparent Parkinson's victim telling him "he's in the wrong end of town to ask for handouts", calling him a communist and throwing money at him to "pay for his health care". This is exactly the type of rhetoric and hateful language that is echoed to one degree or another across the country. Most opponents of the health reform bill repeat the GOP talking point about spending "other peoples money" to provide health coverage for those who have no coverage. They like to make it sound like this health reform bill will take more money from the rich and middle class to pay for the poor.

The GOP is also taking this opportunity to spread doom and gloom about the government takeover of Health Care. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is posting this countdown ticker on various web sites and placing it as a paid political ad in the middle of news stories on the Washington Post on-line edition.

A recent opinion piece by Paul Krugman explains several of the popular myths about the health care reform bill. Krugman is a Professor of Economics and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, Centenary Professor at the London School of Economics, and an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. He explains that if government funding and regulation of health care equals a takeover, then the takeover happened a long time ago. Medicare, Medicaid, and other government programs pay for about half of the nation's health costs already and private health insurance covers only about one third of health costs. The other third of health costs are paid out of pocket. The private health insurance is mostly provided by employers and is heavily subsidized by the government. The cost of private health care is very high because hospitals and doctors have to charge more to cover the treatment of uninsured patients who can't afford treatment. The expenses from uninsured patients is exactly what this bill is intended to address.

The NRCC also produced this video entitled "90 Seconds to Gov't Run Healthcare".
This video is labeled as "An explaination of the process Nancy Pelosi and Democrats are using to take away your healthcare." Yes, the RNCC are such morons, they can't even use a spell checker to get the correct spelling of the word "explaination". Thanks GOP for that extra bit of unintended humor!

The substance of the video focuses mainly upon a legislative procedure known as the self-executing rule. There was talk that House Democrats might use this tactic to push through the Senate version of the health reform bill by voting not on the measure itself, but rather a "fixes package." This procedure is also known as "Deem and pass" or "Deamon Pass" as the radicals call it. Of course the GOP is calling foul, and saying that this strategy is unfair and potentially unconstitutional. Self-executing rules are not uncommon in the House. House Republican leaders used it 36 times between 2005 and 2006 and Democrats used it 49 times in 2007 and 2008, according to an article in Politico by Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution congressional scholar.

The National Post is reporting that "Democrats in the House of Representatives said on Saturday they had secured enough support to pass a sweeping healthcare overhaul and would dump a controversial plan to avoid a direct vote on the Senate bill." So, the GOP seems to have been successful with their fear-mongering about Deem and Pass being an unconstitutional tactic. The good news here is that the Democrats are claiming that they will actually bring this issue to a vote, and that should eliminate the possibility of the courts overturning this legislation on a technicality.

CNN, the Christian Science Monitor and other news sources are reporting that the CBO projects that the final version of the health reform bill will cost $940 billion over the next ten years.

By comparison the US will spend $5.73 Trillion for ten years of defense spending. And that's not including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you doubt these numbers, I explain this cost projection in more detail at the end of this blog post, but I quoted this figure to make a point. Republicans and Teabaggers are complaining about government takeover of health care and the enormous expense to taxpayers. I'll bet you would be hard pressed to find a member of the GOP that would complain about the defense spending projections. The DoD spending plan includes funding for troops deployed in more than 150 countries around the world, with more than 369,000 of its 1,379,551 active-duty troops serving outside the United States and its territories. Many of these troops are still located at installations activated during the Cold War. See Wikipedia for these and more details.

US Military Presence

Why exactly is it so horrible to spend less than one fifth as much on health care reform as we will spend on defense? Why is it such a problem to save as many as 45,000 American lives per year?

In case you aren't familiar with that number, Researchers from Harvard Medical School published a study that concluded that lack of health coverage can be tied to about 45,000 deaths a year in the United States. The study also found that people without health insurance had a 40 percent higher risk of death than those with private health insurance as a result of being unable to obtain necessary medical care. The risk appears to have increased since 1993, when a similar study found the risk of death was 25 percent greater for the uninsured.

CBO health cost projectionAccording to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), "The federal budget is on an unsustainable path, primarily because of the rising cost of health care and the aging of the U.S. population." The CBO and the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) estimates that enacting both H.R. 3590 and the reconciliation proposal would produce a net reduction in federal deficits of $143 billion over the 2010–2019 period as result of changes in direct spending and revenues. The CBO also projects that this legislation would reduce the deficit by $1.3 trillion over the next two decades.

And finally, as promised, here I will explain how I calculated the ten year cost of defense spending.

A CBO estimate says that carrying out the Department of Defense's (DoD’s) plans would require defense resources averaging at least $573 billion annually from 2011 to 2028. This projection excludes overseas contingency operations (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and some much smaller military actions elsewhere.

another CBO estimate says that under the Obama Administration’s plan, costs related directly to the U.S. forces conducting the war in Iraq, also called Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) would total $156 billion over the 2009-2014 period.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Talking Points

This is just a quick post to demonstrate the use of "Talking Points" as a political tool. I have had a few discussions with people who doubt that members of the President's administration and members of Congress collaborate on talking points. As a news junkie, I tend to obsess a bit on this trend, and I have seen countless examples of this practice. Members of Congress are the worst offenders, and you will often see several Congressmen and Congresswomen repeat the same tired rhetoric over and over on TV news network, after TV news network.

On February 25, 2010, President Obama, in essentially a solo performance, took on the entire Republican leadership in this unprecedented meeting. The Republicans repeated many of the same talking points, most of which where committed to memory. Phrases like "scrap this bill", "start over", "clean sheet of paper" where repeated over and over and over and over throughout the meeting with Obama.

If you don't have time to watch the entire video, I have captured a few examples of Republicans reading their talking points from what appear to be 3x5 index cards, 4x11 sized lists, and letter sized printouts of materials.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN)

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, (R-W.Va)

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT)

Rep. Tom Price (R-GA)

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)

In this clip from May 2008, Keith Olbermann delivers a special comment on Countdown about the Bush Administration talking points used to promote the War on Terror. Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Sean Hanity and other talk show hosts highlight some of the more catchy phrases including "Stay the Course", "Cut and Run", 'appeasement' 'fight over there so we don't fight them here', 'they hate our freedom', and many more.

In this video clip from Sept. 2007, Katie Couric reported live from Baghdad. But instead of using that opportunity to ask tough questions and dig for the truth, Couric asked softball questions and repeated false Bush talking points.

I can't say that I blame political pundits and elected officials for sharing and repeating each other's talking points, because I am sure I would probably do the same thing on occasion if I was an elected official. It does seem a bit sad that some politicians can't always speak frankly and from the heart.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Avatar: Pandora Is Real

This post is a continuation of my previous post: Avatar: The Science Behind The Fiction.

SPOILER ALERT: Please follow my advice and go watch the movie before reading the rest of this blog post.

Jake Sully, the main character in Avatar, has a well honed survival instinct, presumably because of his paramilitary training and battle experiences. This turns out to be an advantage in gaining the trust of the native Na'vi humanoids on Pandora because they are tribal warriors and he could relate to them better than the scientists in the avatar program. Jake earns the trust of the tribal leaders and is eventually accepted as one of the Na'vi people.

Neytiri teaches Jake the skills he'll need to survive on Pandora.

Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is a typical war mongering Colonel who lives to kill and destroy anyone and everything that stands in the way of his objective. He teaches his soldiers that Pandora is a very dangerous place full of fierce animals and skilled warriors who want to kill them. Quaritch provides the orientation for soldiers arriving on Pandora and informs them that it is his job to keep them alive, but that he will not succeed, at least "not with all of you," he says.

Jake's mission throughout the movie is to gain information that can help the Resources Development Administration (RDA) gain access to the planet's most valuable natural resource called unobtanium. Throughout the movie, Jake shares with Colonel Quaritch the intelligence he has gathered on Pandora's indigenous Na'vi people during his missions with the avatar program. Quaritch promises Jake that he will receive a new pair of legs if he provides the support that the colonel needs.

The film makes several references to the dying planet Earth and also implies that there may be some sort of energy crisis back on Earth. Unobtanium is portrayed in the film as the most valuable energy source available to the RDA. The biggest obstruction to mining is the fact that the largest deposit of unobtanium lies underneath the Na'vi people's most sacred spiritual grounds. The RDA plans to take the unobtanium at any cost. Jake and the scientists in the avatar program try to convince the Na'vi people to leave their sacred "home tree" grounds voluntarily to avoid the need for forceful removal by the paramilitary forces.

Jake Sully and Colonel Quaritch discuss strategy

Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) is the Chief Administrator for RDA and He is in charge of mining operations on Pandora. Parker is determined not the let the native "blue monkeys" stand in the way of unobtanium mining, but he allows the avatar program to use diplomatic methods to try to remove the Na'vi from their sacred land for a while.

Parker has little patience for Grace's science and diplomacy missions.

Unfortunately, Jake and the rest of the avatar research team are unsuccessful in their attempts to convince the Na'vi people to evacuate their land before the paramilitary forces drive them out by force. The paramilitary forces end up using extreme force against the Na'vi people and many end up injured and dead. In the end, Jake, the avatar research team, and a few of the paramilitary troupes go rogue and help the Na'vi people fight against the paramilitary forces of the RDA.

Avatar is based on many true stories, but the happy ending is not anything like the conclusion of the true stories. Pandora exists on Earth and it is located in South and Central America, in Africa, in the Middle East and many other places. The indigenous peoples in those regions are being displaced, exploited and killed right now, in order to extract the natural resources in their native land. The names of places and peoples may be different than the movie, but the events in the film are very similar to real events in Earth history and the present day.

Avatar is a film that accurately depicts the actions of the governments and corporations of present day Earth. The ruthless approach used by RDA to acquire Pandora's resources for planet Earth are similar to the recent actions of governments and corporations around the world. Indigenous peoples around the world have been and are being displaced by wars and corporations, in order to extract the natural resources found in their territories. The most notable and well known incident was when Native Americans where forced to move from their homelands in the south to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) in the Western United States.

The Trail Of Tears

The phrase "Trail Of Tears" originated in 1831 from a description of the removal of the Choctaw Nation from their land in present-day Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana. The Cherokee, Creek and Seminole tribes where also displaced from their lands. Many Native Americans suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while en route to their destinations, and many died, including 4,000 of the 15,000 relocated Cherokee.

A recent example of exploitation involves the island nation of Haiti. The recent 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Haiti resulted in mainstream media coverage of the extreme poverty there. As you might have guessed, Haiti did not become poor by accident, but as the result of US government actions including support for violent coups and US complicity in trade and lending policies that have destroyed civil society, crushed democracy, crashed the economy and turned a food exporting country into a food importing country where few can afford to eat. Most of the food imported into Haiti comes from U.S. growers and exporters, and so the U.S. corporations benefit at the expense of the local Haitian farmers and corporations.

A man exits a Port au Prince restaurant after he looked for his belongings.
Photo by Marco Dormino / The United Nations United Nations Development Programme

In 1991 Haiti's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was removed in a military coup. As a condition for supporting his return, the U.S., the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank required that he further open up the Haitian economy to foreign trade. Haitian tariffs on rice were reduced from 35% to 3%, the lowest in the Caribbean region, and government funding was diverted away from agricultural development to servicing the nation's foreign debt. Without government support or protection, Haitian farmers were in no position to compete with their highly subsidized U.S. counterparts. Subsidies for rice producers in the U.S. totaled approximately $1.3 billion in 2003 alone, amounting to more than double Haiti's entire budget for that year.

Since 2006 the IMF has disbursed close to $170 million to Haiti under the IMF Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility for poor countries. After the January 12 earthquake, the IMF said that it would increase Haiti's existing loan program by $100 million and disburse the funds quickly to help the government rebuild from the massive earthquake. The new funding is in addition to the debts previously incurred by the country. Haiti is already burdened with debt far beyond its capacity to repay, and this new loan will cause further suffering for the impoverished island nation.

Guatemalan ladies standing in the doorway next to a Coca-Cola ad.

Another recent example of exploitation involves Coca-Cola Co. which was recently sued in New York by Guatemalans Over Anti-Union Violence. Guatemalan workers say they endured a “campaign of violence” by people working on behalf of bottling and processing plants owned by Coke after they engaged in union activities.

This same basic process of extortion has been used by the US Government, the World Bank, the IMF and Corporations in poor countries like Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. John Perkins is the author of several books including his best seller, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. This is one of his shortest talks that summarizes his book in just a few minutes.

These are only a few examples of the exploitation of Indigenous Peoples around the world. I will provide many other examples in future posts on this web site.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Avatar: The Science Behind The Fiction

James Cameron's latest and arguably his best film is called Avatar. First I must implore all readers to get to your nearest IMAX theater and witness this cinematic experience in it's intended format at least once. If you haven't already experienced this film in IMAX 3D, you must take advantage of the opportunity while this film is still screening in most IMAX theaters. No matter how you feel about the story line and the political overtones, you must experience the technically brilliant and amazing 3D experience that this film offers. Watching this film in 3D truly makes you feel as if you are on Pandora experiencing the events with the actors and animated characters.

The brilliant plot of Avatar is a creative blend of science fiction, close representations of actual life forms and life sciences including botany and marine biology, aspects of real life religious and spiritual beliefs, and many facts and stories from the anthropology of indigenous peoples and those who have terrorized and displaced them around the world.

SPOILER ALERT: Please follow my advice and go watch the movie before reading the rest of this blog post.

See the Official Avatar Movie web site

The story follows a paraplegic war veteran character named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who is invited to control an avatar that was created for his brother. Jake's brother tragically dies before he can participate in a scientific exploration and reconnaissance mission on an alien planet called Pandora. The avatar is a genetically engineered Human-Na'vi hybrid drone that was created by a corporation that seeks to profit by mining the resources of the planet Pandora. The corporation created the avatar by combining the DNA of Jake's brother and the DNA of the Na'vi who are the indigenous people of Pandora. Jake is able to control the avatar that was created for his brother because he is a close genetic match and because the corporation invested a great deal of money and resources to create the avatar.

Jake Sully and his brother's Avatar

Doctor Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is the chief scientist in charge of the avatar program which allows human 'pilots' to control the avatars. Grace seems primarily focused on conducting anthropological, biological, and spiritual studies related to the flora and fona of the planet Pandora. Grace seems completely uninterested in aiding the corporation with their quest for a valuable mineral called unobtanium, and is constantly at odds with the paramilitary thugs who are in charge of the tactical operations of their mission. Since Jake came from the ranks of the paramilitary forces, Grace initially has a very strong opposition to Jake's participation in the scientific expeditions.

Dr. Grace Augustine and Jake Sully

Jake receives an extremely abbreviated orientation into the avatar program and he is linked to his brother's avatar after only reading a technical manual. Since Jake is a paraplegic, he finds new freedom when he controls his brother's avatar and has the use of a fully functional body. The Pandora expeditions afford him the ability to walk, run and participate in other athletic activities. Jake's experiences in the avatar program are probably inspired by the brain computer interface research that is primarily intended to enable quadriplegics to control computers and robotic prosthetic arms and hands. This is an exciting field of science, but the technology is still in the very early stages of research and development.

Stanford Demonstration of a Brain Computer Interface

As Jake runs and jumps through the jungles of Pandora, the IMAX 3D media format allows you, the viewer, to experience his new-found freedom with him. He runs through fields, jumps between the tops of trees in the Pandoran jungles, and rides creatures that look like horses and flying dinosaurs. The winged reptiles called "mountain banshees" in Avatar appear to be very accurate representations of the the first flying vertebrates on earth called Pterosaurs.

Mountain Banshees attacking a helicopter

Pterosaurs have intrigued paleontologists and it is difficult to say now such large creatures could fly. Some species of pterosaurs had wingspans from 24 to 36 feet (8 to 12 meters) and probably weighed as much as a piloted hang-glider. There has been a great deal of debate about these creatures and how they solved the problems of powered flight. Efforts to explain how the pterosaurs became airborne have led to suggestions that they launched themselves by jumping from cliffs or dropping from trees. Nobody knows for sure how exactly they where able to fly. The pterosaurs in Avatar seem to be a fairly accurate artist's conception of the extinct creatures on earth.

A collection of several artist's depictions of pterosaurs

Perhaps the least controversial conclusion about the pterosaurs is that they were reptiles. Their skulls, pelvises, and hind feet are similar to those of reptiles, and the anatomy of their wings suggests that they did not evolve into the class of birds. In pterosaurs a greatly elongated fourth finger of each forelimb supported a wing-like membrane. The other fingers were short and reptilian, with sharp claws. In birds the second finger is the principal strut of the wing, which consists primarily of feathers. If the pterosaurs walked on all fours, the three short fingers may have been employed for grasping. When a pterosaur walked or remained stationary, the fourth finger, and with it the wing, could only turn upward in an extended inverted V-shape along each side of the animal’s body.

Pterosaur Wing - Image created by Nobu Tamura

Most of the plants and animals on Pandora appear to be animated, but are based closely upon life forms on earth. Some of the plants and creatures appear to be actual video of real earth plant life and sea life, but in most cases these plants and animals are way out of proportion from their real earth counterparts. For example, there is a scene in the jungle where Jake reaches out and touches some giant plants and they react by retracting their leaves into a protective stem. These giant plants could be real life footage of marine tube worms commonly known as feather dusters or fanworms.

A feather duster emerges

This is the first in a two-part series. Click here for part 2.