Those Other Messiahs…

September 2, 2009

I told a friend recently about Sabbatei Zevi, the apostate messiah who I’ve written about before (in one of my favorite posts). An excerpt:

Understandably, when Sabbetai got to Istanbul, the sultan was pissed. The sultan had him arrested for rebellion and imprisoned in Gallipoli. His followers held faithfully to their hope that this all part of the plan. While he was in prison, Armstrong reports, Sabbetai began signing his letters “I am the Lord your God, Sabbetai Zevi.” No ambiguous “Son of Man” claims here.

But, fatefully, on being brought back to Istanbul for trial, Sabbetai was back in a depressive phase. One has to wonder how history would be different if he had been in a manic, prophetic phase. Forced to choose between death (which might have made him a martyr or a savior) and conversion to Islam, Sabbetai put on the turban and took a second wife as his harem. His followers were crushed.

But while most of them fell away and became disillusioned, a core of the truly dedicated (or delusional) remained:

‘The experience of redemption had been so profound that they could not believe that God had allowed them to be deluded. It is one of the most striking instances of religious experience of salvation taking precedence over mere facts and reason. Faced with the choice of abandoning their newfound hope or accepting an apostate Messiah, a surprising number of Jews of all classes refused to submit to the hard facts of history. Nathan of Gaza devoted the rest of his life to preaching the mystery of Sabbetai: by converting to Islam, he had continued his lifelong battle with the forces of evil. Yet again, he had been impelled to violate the deepest sanctities of his people.’

I find Sabbatei Zevi particularly fascinating because he’s one of only a handful of claimants to the title of messiah who still have followers today (the most notable example being Jesus of Nazareth).

This led me to wonder just how many people have claimed to be the messiah. And, like all great questions that have been asked by humanity, this one has a Wikipedia page to answer it.

This is going to be fun reading!


Recognize the Brainwashing

January 7, 2009

One of the best ways to draw out Internet crazies is to post on someone’s favorite pet conspiracy theory in mocking, derisive tones. It’s like Will Smith dripping blood on a sidewalk in I Am Legend (a movie that had the potential to be really good, alas). I’ve done this before, rather accidentally, when posting about the 9/11 “Truth” community. It also works with Creationism, which, while not exactly a conspiracy theory (we all know that the evil Darwinists are the true conspiracy) shares a lot of the same features.

On that note, I came across a website today while exercising my conspiracy theory fetish: a list of top Conspiracy Theory Sites
:


Caption: ALIENS CAN’T PROTECT US FROM COMING WORLD WARS, OR EARTH IMPACTS BY COMETS/ASTEROIDS! FALSE SIGN OF PROTECTION COMING! RECOGNIZE THE BRAINWASHING!

It’s really hard to tell if some of these sites are serious or not, but I tend to assume they are…


Caption: Mind Deprogramming is a site to help you to protect yourself from mind control from The New World Order and The Illuminati. You can watch hundreds of videos exposing the truth the corporate controlled media do not want you to see.


The Power of Conspiracy Theories

March 30, 2008

They’re. All. True.

9/11 world trade center dust image

Just kidding.

I’ve blogged before about the “9/11 Truth” movement/ conspiracy theories. But I came across a great summation and rebuttal of many of this sub-culture’s beliefs and suspicions that I thought was worth sharing. On eSkeptic, Phile Molé gives an account of a convention hosted by 911truth.org in Chicago, goes through details of their many spurious claims, and then has this fascinating conclusion of the “power of conspiracy theories.”

We need to return to a question posed near the beginning of this discussion: Why do so many intelligent and promising people find these theories so compelling?

There are several possible answers to this question, none of them necessarily exclusive of the others. One of the first and most obvious is distrust of the American government in general, and the Bush administration in particular. This mistrust is not entirely without basis…The revelations of Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, and other nefarious schemes great and small have understandably eroded public confidence in government. Couple that with an administration, that took office after the most controversial presidential election in more than a century, and one that backed out of international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, misled citizens about the science of global warming and stem cell research, initiated a war in Iraq based on unsupportable “intelligence” about weapons of mass destruction, and failed to respond in adequately to the effects of a hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, and you have strong motivations for suspicion…

[However,] the mistakes made by our government in the past are qualitatively different from a conscious decision to kill thousands of its own citizens in order to justify the oppression of others. Most importantly, there is the fact that most of what we know about the bad decisions made by our government is only knowable due to the relative transparency with which our government operates, and the freedom to disseminate and discuss this information.

The full irony of this last point hit me while I was at the conference. Here was a group of about 400 people gathered to openly discuss the evil schemes of the U.S. government, whom they accuse of horrible atrocities in the service of establishing a police state. But if America really was a police state with such terrible secrets to protect, surely government thugs would have stormed the lecture halls and arrested many of those present…

It is notable that conspiracy theorists (and this likely applies not just to 9/11) tend to be clustered at the extreme right and left of the political spectrum–you’ll find few apathetics or moderates dedicating this much time to activities this far out of the mainstream.

Another reason for the appeal of 9/11 conspiracies is that they are easy to understand. As previously mentioned, most Americans did not know or care to know much about the Middle East until the events of 9/11 forced them to take notice…The great advantage of the 9/11 Truth Movement’s theories is that they don’t require you to know anything about the Middle East, or for that matter, to know anything significant about world history or politics. This points to another benefit of conspiracy theories — they are oddly comforting. Chaotic, threatening events are difficult to comprehend, and the steps we might take to protect ourselves are unclear. With conspiracy theory that focuses on a single human cause, the terrible randomness of life assumes an understandable order.

This may be the major thread connecting conspiracy theories to Creationism. And actually, for some believers Creationism really does function as a conspiracy theory, where they see a nefarious band of scientists denying evidence and making up fossils and such. Or just kicking the intelligent-design proponents out of academia, as the upcoming “documentary” Expelled asserts. Here Molé makes the conspiracy theory / creationism connection even more clear:

The great writer Thomas Pynchon memorably expressed this point in his novel Gravity’s Rainbow: “If there is something comforting — religious, if you want — about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.” The promiscuity of conspiracy theories toward evidence thus becomes part of their appeal — they can link virtually any ideas of interest to the theorist into a meaningful whole…

With the standards of evidence used by conspiracy theorists, there is no reason why the Freemasons, the Bavarian Illuminati, or the Elders of Zion cannot also be involved in the 9/11 plot — it just depends on what you find the most solace in believing. As it turns out, some conspiracy theorists do throw one or more of these other parties into the mix, as a popular and bogus rumor that 4,000 Jews mysteriously failed to come to work on 9/11 shows.

Solace is something all of us needed after the horrible events of 9/11, and each of us is entitled to a certain degree of freedom in its pursuit. However, there is no moral right to seek solace at the expense of truth, especially if the truth is precisely what we most need to avoid the mistakes of the past. Truth matters for its own sake, but it also matters because it is our only defense against the evils of those who cynically exploit truth claims to serve their own agendas. It is concern for the truth that leads us to criticize our own government when necessary, and to insist that others who claim to do so follow the same rigorous standards of evidence and argument.


A Straight-Shooting Questionnaire

March 27, 2008

This questionnaire is for “self-avowed heterosexuals” only.

1. What do you think caused your heterosexuality?
I’m pretty sure I was born this way, but how would I know?

2. When and how did you first decide you were a heterosexual?
Well, I guess I’ve just always been attracted to girls.

3. Is it possible your heterosexuality is just a phase you may grow out of?

Possible, but how can you ever know at the time? I’m just living my experience as I know it now.

4. Could it be that your heterosexuality stems from a neurotic fear of others of the same sex?
Quite likely. Look at where I go to school!

5. If you’ve never slept with a person of the same sex, how can you be sure you wouldn’t prefer that?

Um.. body hair?

6. To whom have you disclosed your heterosexual tendencies? How did they react?
My friends and parents know, and they’re mostly understanding.

7. Why do heterosexuals feel compelled to seduce others into their lifestyle?

Why don’t you stop beating your wife?

8. Why do you insist on flaunting your heterosexuality? Can’t you just be what you are and keep it quiet?

I was thinking of starting an annual parade actually.

9. Would you want your children to be heterosexual, knowing the problems they’d face?

Probably not. The dilemmas of rejection from the gay community and ethical questions concerning having children are just too great a burden to bear.

10. A disproportionate majority of child molesters are heterosexual men. Do you consider it safe to expose children to heterosexual male teachers, pediatricians, priests, or scoutmasters?
Probably not. We really shouldn’t let children be around men at all given these stats. That’s why I advocate schools, hospitals, churches, and scout troops with all female leaders.

11. With all the societal support for marriage, the divorce rate is spiraling. Why are there so few stable relationships among heterosexuals?
It’s hard being an oppressed majority.

12. Why do heterosexuals place so much emphasis on sex?
Because we can make babies. Deal with it.

13. Considering the menace of overpopulation, how could the human race survive if everyone were heterosexual?
Birth control?

14. Could you trust a heterosexual therapist to be objective? Don’t you fear s/he might be inclined to influence you in the direction of her/his own leanings?
I just don’t trust therapists in general.

15. Heterosexuals are notorious for assigning themselves and one another rigid, stereotyped sex roles. Why must you cling to such unhealthy role-playing?
Patriarchy.

16. With the sexually segregated living conditions of military life, isn’t heterosexuality incompatible with military service?
Probably so. I prefer the Sacred Band model.

17. How can you enjoy an emotionally fulfilling experience with a person of the other sex when there are such vast differences between you? How can a man know what pleases a woman sexually or vice-versa?
It’s probably not possible. We’re all doomed to live lives of disconnected, ambivalent oblivion.

18. Shouldn’t you ask your far-out straight cohorts, like skinheads and born-agains, to keep quiet? Wouldn’t that improve your image?

I ask them all the time, but I can’t control how they live their lives. If they want to get married to just one woman, and try and raise children who are only straight, who am I to stop them?

19. Why are heterosexuals so promiscuous?
See #12.

And then there are some more…

h/t Ian.


Help, they’re suffocating!

March 26, 2008

As an at-times-unabashed-elitist, I’m rather embarassed I like this song. But I do, so here goes. Excuse the super-cheesy music video (I guess it fits the music?)

Jordin Sparks featuring Chris Brown, “No Air”:

I think the thing that hooked me is the fact that this song is mostly just repetition of one chorus/ groove section where they continually layer more instrumentation and vocals on top of it. I’ll probably hate it in one more week.


Jonah Lehrer, Kanye West, and John Mayer

March 20, 2008

lehrerkanyemayer

Jonah Lehrer of The Frontal Cortex spoke at the Clinton School last night, and it was great. I just reviewed Lehrer’s first book Proust was a Neuroscientist and was excited to hear him speak on the purposefully outrageous title “Kanye West Was a Neuroscientist.” I also had the privilege of introducing him. I had written out the introduction, but then cut it down quite a bit, so here’s the longer version I didn’t actually get to give:

I am a student of science. Science appeals to my practical side; it took us to the Moon and back, it let us map the human genome, and science helped us eradicate smallpox, all within my parents’ life spans. Science appeals to me because the reductionist technique is an incredible tool for fighting disease and gaining knowledge about the world we inhabit.

I started my day this morning with a lab for Advanced Genetics, where we’re studying Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant species so important that only genetics students have ever heard of it. This semester we undergrads have been using the elegant techniques of science to create new, if extremely specialized, knowledge about the world. The techniques of science and the philosophy of reductionism are so powerful that it’s tempting to apply them to every field of knowledge. But we need balance.

After my genetics lab I go to the daily Chorus rehearsal. Walking into the music building for Chorus is like crossing an invisible but impenetrable barrier between entire realms of knowledge and ways of knowing. Few of my friends in the science building are active in the arts, so I have a hard time explaining the irreducible experience of singing Brahms’ German Requiem with a group of talented musicians. And hardly anyone in Chorus would stay awake if I started talking about the routine glory I see in the polymerase chain reaction.

Jonah Lehrer’s first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist is an exuberant demonstration that these barriers between science and art can and should be broken down. By taking test cases of artists, authors, musicians, and cooks who anticipated the discoveries of today’s neuroscience, Lehrer makes a strong case for the importance of the arts. And when Lehrer writes about the limitations of science, it is all the more convincing because he also writes knowledgeably about its groundbreaking successes.

Lehrer studied neuroscience at Columbia University, where he worked in the lab of Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel. Lehrer was a writer for the Columbia Spectator, a Gospel music DJ for Columbia’s radio station, and Editor-in-Chief of The Columbia Review, the university poetry magazine. He also worked as a line cook at Le Cirque 2000 and Le Bernardin.

Lehrer then studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, where he did much of the research that would become his first book. Today he is Editor at Large for Seed, a magazine about science and culture. He has written for the Boston Globe, Nature, and NPR, and writes a blog about neuroscience called the Frontal Cortex. Join me in welcoming Jonah Lehrer.

Lehrer’s talk was largely based on content from his book. He talked about Escoffier and Stravinsky, and how our love of music is rooted in our ability to recognize patterns. Great artists make good music by setting up a pattern and intentionally withholding it from us. Because we want the pattern again and don’t quite get what we want, our ears and our brain stay fascinated. This, Lehrer argued, is a key similarity between Beethoven and Kanye West. It’s almost like Stravinsky and Kanye West are evolutionarily conserved hox developmental genes in fruit flies and mammals (I’ll let you pick which is which) that have been recently discovered to be homologous. From the outside they look completely different, but what makes them tick is basically the same.

Lehrer’s speech also reminded me of the new John Mayer song I heard for the first time last week. “Say” is pretty simple–it’s the high guitar (or ukulele?) hook at the beginning that first caught my ear. But listen to the chorus too; it’s one six-word phrase repeated over and over:

This simple pattern is very catchy–it sticks in your head. I heard it once on the radio, and then once on the PA system before Bill Clinton spoke (random mix of music I’m sure) and then I had it stuck in my head the whole drive back from New Orleans. I literally flipped through stations hoping to hear the song. I thought about stopping to buy it, but never passed any music stores. At that point I didn’t know who it was or the name of the song, but I was hooked.

So I got home, found out what the song was, and bought in on iTunes. I must say, I’m already kind of tired of it. The Chorus is just too repetitive. While Mayer has some excellent other music, his singles tend to be of lower quality. The difference between a good song and an ok song, or between mere pop music and real music seems to be in these patterns. “Say” is simply too predictable. You know exactly what Mayer will say before he says it, because it’s the same thing over and over again. Really great music flirts with that repetition but never quite gives you satisfaction. And that’s why Brahms takes more effort to listen to, but will likely stand the test of time longer than John Mayer. Or at least his radio singles.


More Than Meets the Eye

July 11, 2007

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Transformers. Great summer movie–amazing effects, good action sequences, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. And, I used to be in love with the 80’s Transformers movie. So I enjoyed myself tremendously. That said,

1) Did the Air Force underwrite the entire movie or something? It was like the entire movie was product placement for USAF, and it’s probably a good plan since they’re target demographic probably likes action movies about blowing stuff up.

2) I can root for the Air Force with a much cleaner conscience when they’re indiscriminately lobbing missiles and bombs at evil robots (call me a speciesist) than when the targets are people’s houses.

3) Does the “hot girl” in the movie have to wear a gallon of makeup and fry herself in a tanning bed?

4) It’s nice that all the invading alien plots happen to focus on the U.S. Oh wait, this is Hollywood.

5) What’s with the stereotyped Mexican and South Asian characters? And why is the lead always a white male? *Steps off PC soapbox.*