Thursday, September 30, 2021

Jonathan Isaac Interview Regarding Covid Vaccination

Attached to this article by Glenn Greenwald is a short and excellent video interview with NBA player Jonathan Isaac explaining why he has declined to vaccinate for Covid-19. As a lead in to that, GG makes this personal statement with which I fully agree:

<<That the unvaccinated are inherently primitive and stupid troglodytes was always a claim as baseless and offensive as it is counter-productive. Although I personally took the vaccine the first day it was available to me — as I repeatedly said I would in every forum where I speak, including Fox News — it was always clear that there were cogent reasons why those with different circumstances and risk factors (age, health, prior COVID status) might assess their own risks differently and reach a different conclusion. And what made me most comfortable about my choice to get vaccinated, or to decide whether my kids should, was precisely that it was my choice, after informing myself: the idea of forcing someone to do it against their will, or condition people's rights and privileges on vaccine compliance — as both President Biden and the ACLU astonishingly advocated — always struck me as inconceivable.>> ( )

[Direct link to the interview for convenience of the reader: ]

Having been vaccinated myself, let me emphasize two words he uses here to describe +coercion+ to vaccinate, "offensive" and "counter-productive". The attempt to force people to vaccinate is inherently offensive to the people who have or have not yet vaccinated as it violates their bodily autonomy and their moral authority to make their own medical decisions for themselves, privately. As the author here notes, it is also offensive (or darn well ought to be!) to those of us who vaccinated willingly because it denies our choice, violates our medical privacy in being required to furnish proof of vaccination status, and enlists us to participate in an unethical scheme to coerce others. Because this scheme is inherently offensive, it is extremely counter-productive: vaccination rates have plummeted since Biden's mandate was announced.

In the video, Isaac explains his choice clearly and well. At his age and in his condition, having already had and recovered from Covid, his personal danger of severe illness from Covid-19 is tiny and the chance of side-effects from the vaccine are low but also non-zero. Is it possible that vaccinating may have a benefit in improving immunity beyond natural immunity? Sure, some results suggest this, but not all, it is not scientific certainty and it HIS call how much benefit it is to him that a vaccine could move his risk of severe disease from near-zero to slightly-nearer-to-zero.

OK, so that is his personal choice. Being at higher-than-normal risk for severe disease, my internal calculus was a bit different. What about a duty to those around him?

<<But the attempt to suggest that some type of societal good justifies denying Isaac the right to choose quickly falls into incoherence. To whom is an unvaccinated Jonathan Isaac a threat? The reason vaccines have become so celebrated — the reason I took it — is based on the claim that they offer enormous protection against serious illness or death in the event that one contracts COVID. When President Biden addressed the nation about COVID on September 9, he said that “the vaccines provide strong protections for the vaccinated” and, for that reason, “this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” In other words, according to Biden, the vaccinated are no longer endangered.>> (ibid)

So, now, Biden, having "lost patience"(*), is taking the rather contradictory view that because the chance of severe illness among the vaccinated is "not zero", the unvaccinated are an existential threat to society and need to be forced. But, as Isaac points out, the chance of side effects is also "not zero" and there is no credible scientific reason to believe that any amount of coercion will reduce the risk of severe disease to "zero", especially since even those vaccinated can still spread the virus!. It has not halted spread in totalitarian China or Australia. It has not in vaccine-mandate Israel. It has not in US prisons. Having been vaccinated personally, my risk is not and will not be zero, even if I successfully held a gun to the head of everyone around me. So why would I feel the need to soil myself to that end?

And this is to say nothing of the "difficult optics" of a largely white upper-crust allegedly-"progressive" social elite trying to say that someone like Jonathan Isaac (who happens to be black) doesn't have the unfettered right to his own body.

(*) Biden and "lost patience": nu, and I should care?

Saturday, September 25, 2021

The Commonplace Book of William Byrd II of Westover and Colonial Literacy

Having recently visited Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown and listened to an audiobook on Colonial Virginia history on the way there, I have become interested in William Byrd II of Westover, who was born in 1674. He was an author, businessman,  and statesman of the early 18th century. He left behind several diaries and a "commonplace book". A "commonplace" is a journal for random notes rather than a sequential account like a diary. The owner writes quotes, literary snippets, and discovered facts often with some kind of subject markings which can then be referred to later, further explored,  or copied out and filed elsewhere. A commonplace gives a running narrative, not of events in a person's life but the course of their self-education and research. These days, I use a tablet application to make and file very similar entries. The surviving commonplace of Byrd's is apparently only one of a number of such volumes he kept, posthumously transcribed, edited, and published.

Byrd was responsible for creating the largest library in Virginia at the time, some 4,000 volumes. Although we have a record of the books he collected, it is not necessarily known that he read and studied all of them. The commonplace gives us information about what he actually delved into, at least during the time this one volume was written. The breadth of subjects Byrd explored, referenced, and quoted is stunning. This was made easier by his early education at Felsted Grammar School in Essex starting at 7. Based on what we know of the school and Byrd's later writings:

<<He learned Greek, Latin, and Hebrew as well as mathematics, history, and other subjects. His mastery of these ancient languages is evident in his lifelong habit of reading Scripture and the classics in the original languages nearly every day.>> [Introduction to "The Commonplace Book of William Byrd II of Westover" ]

He had mastered these subjects before "university"-- in other words, as a teenager. I have not, at middle age (though I'm working at it.) Nor was this one school or single student an anomaly. Literacy during the Colonial and Founding period was very high. Many prominent men (John Adams, say), had little formal education, were largely self-taught or were simply handed books and expected to learn them, were multilingual, had a strong command of classical works-- ++and this was not thought very remarkable++. Colonial women were also highly literate-- well-read and writing frequent correspondence, often managing ledgers and farm records, here and there fully managing estates and businesses as widows. Literacy among Colonial women is thought to have reached 90% by the Revolution. Women's organizations in Northern textile mills drove and spread the literature of the Abolition movement during the early-to-mid 19th century as well as organizing for wages and labor conditions. Literacy tended to be lower in the South than the North by the Civil War, yet Confederate soldiers passed around battered copies of "Les Miserables" they read in the French.

So why are we so poor at learning/educating today? Why in a world where we have the lion's share of the collected works of humankind a few keystrokes away are we by and large +less literate+ than a day where a library of 4,000 volumes was a generational undertaking and many people still dipped pens in ink they boiled from oak galls and walnut hulls? Clearly it isn't because we need more education +money+ or more laptops/tablets in schools. Thomas Sowell (among others) writes at length of the complete lack of correlation between education funding and education +success+. Certainly schools in the US today can afford the resources available to a 17th, 18th, or early 19th-century student when books were so precious that they were named individually in wills and probate documents!

Somewhere, we have made a seriously wrong turn.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Rosh Hashannah Reflection: The ritual of Christian baptism as reported in Acts was (mostly) familiar to the period Jewish audience

So, I have been working through an in-depth commentary on the book of Acts as I have been learning and copying Acts in Latin. This passage on Pentecost and Baptism is particularly relevant right now during Rosh Hashannah 2021 (the Hebrew "New Year" preceding the Day of Atonement) as baptism, vis, ritual immersion in water as a symbol of atonement, was particularly practiced during the New Year, not inconceivably by Jesus of Nazareth Himself. It is, of course, recorded that he underwent baptism by John the Baptizer. John practiced and particulary emphasized atonement-by-immersion but hardly invented the practice.

My copy of the commentary, "El Libro de Hechos" por F.F. Bruce is in Spanish. "The Book of Acts" by F.F. Bruce is also available in English, I just don't happen to have it (nor have I the foggiest idea whether page numbers match), so I'll copy the relevant short bits of Spanish here and provide my own translation. Any mistakes are my own, almost certainly not that of F. F. Bruce. The  passage refers to Acts 2:38-41, the events immediately following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (an existing Old Testament Holy Day). Given here in English:

BSB  38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
39 This promise belongs to you and to your children and to all who are far off, to all whom the Lord our God will call to Himself.”
40 With many other words he testified, and he urged them, “Be saved from this corrupt generation.”
41 Those who embraced his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to the believers that day.

Bruce's commentary text for v. 38:

Como en la predicación de Juan, la llamada al bautismo está unida a la llamada al arrepentimiento. Aparentemente el mandamiento de ser bautizados no ocasionó sorpresa. La práctica del bautismo resultaba bastante familiar a la audiencia de Pedro, a quien (como los oyentes de Juan antes que ellos) se les requería recibir el bautismo en agua como señal externa y visible de su arrepentimiento. Pero ahora había dos características nuevas en el rito del bautismo con agua: es la administración “en el nombre del Jesucristo” y se asoció con “el don del Espíritu Santo”. Esta nueva característica enfatiza, en las palabras de G.W.H. Lampe, que el bautismo cristiano “es todavía un rito escatológico, porque apuntaba hacia la redención final, la cual está aún por venir en el regreso en gloria del Señor; pero, considerado en relación a Juan el bautista, representaba la realización y cumplimiento de la esperanza de Israel”

And my rough English:

As in the preaching of Juan, the call to baptism is joined to the call to repentence. Apparently the command to be baptized occasioned no surprise [from the Jews there assembled]. The practice of baptism, it followed, was already familiar to Peter's audience, who (as with John's listeners before them) were called upon to receive the baptism in water as a visible and external sign of their repentance. But now he [Peter] required two new characteristics in the rite of baptism in water: it is administered in the "name of Jesus Christ" and associated with "the gift of the Holy Spirit". This new characteristic is emphasized, in the words of G.W.H. Lampe, that the Christian baptism "is in whole form an escatological [that is, of or concerning the end of days] rite, because it aimed to make that surrender final which is yet to come in the glorious return of the Lord, but, when considered in relation to John the Baptizer, represents the completion of the hope of Israel." [internal citation omitted]

--- Pasaje de: "El libro de los Hechos" por F. F. Bruce. Scribd. pp 161

As the commentary goes on to describe, both the existing (pre-Christian) ritual of baptism in water and the "gift of the Holy Sprit" whose outpouring that this (Jewish) assembly had just witnessed, are tied inextricably to the honest determination to repent and turn back to YHWH. Second Temple Jews immersing themselves (particularly but not exclusively) on Rosh Hashannah prior to Yom Kippur's communal Day of Atonement did not differ in that respect. Elsewhere, archaeologists have noted that the existence of basins for ritual immersion in water can practically be used to map the post-Diaspora spread of the remnants of Israel and Judea in ancient times.

The accounting imagery (not expressly anchored in scripture but an explanatory doctrine, likely never intended to be taken literally) of the between-time after sundown on Rosh Hashannah and before sundown on Yom Kippur is that YHWH, having closed the books on the previous year is writing his budget for the next, deciding who will be blessed and cursed, who will be written in the Book of Life and who will-- not. "On Rosh Hashannah it is writren; on Yom Kippur it is sealed." This in turn is obliquely, perhaps confusingly, referred to in Christian doctrine regarding the "Book of the Lamb" or "Book of Life of the Lamb" (e.g. Revelation 13:8). To a contemporaneous audience familiar with Rosh Hashannah and its oral tradition, the reference may have been much less opaque. But the expression here is similar to what G.W.H. Lampe is quoted as saying with respect to the essential eschatology of Christian baptism: that it is a poor bargain to endlessly petition to be left in the Book of Life for merely one more year (which many of us scarcely earn) against the chance of being written into the Book of the Lamb as an inheritor of the imminent and eternal Kingdom of the annointed Messiah (which not a single one of us has earned or ever will).

That all being said, the traditional ritual of periodic immersion in water as an external and visible sign of repentence is not without its use, nor is the yearly recognition of the Appointed Times for atonement. To the contrary, we can all of us use every reminder we can get. As linear creatures, we need timely reminders of our nature and duties. These were gifts to fallible forgetful humans intended to help us recognize and walk the steep path we are meant to daily walk. With the gift of the Holy Spirit and the constant help of divine grace, the impossible path becomes possible (though seldom easy). Thus the words of the Aveinu, "Our Father", itself a summary of Hebrew tradition:

Lead us not into temptation,

Yet free us from evil.

Min-hara (מן-הרע) in Hebrew, from (the) evil (one), is a reminder of min-hahar (מן-ההר), from the mountain, merely one letter off, referring to the traditional imagery of the steep path and constant struggle for right action. Sometimes-- no matter the tradition we come from-- we need to stop and wash off the dirt of the mountain to see the image of the divine within.