Tag Archives: Richard Snow Writer

Is religion the major cause of wars? Karen Armstrong argues “No.”

Fields of Blood book coverOne only has to turn on the TV these days, or go to any internet news feed, to be confronted by horrific images of religious violence in the Middle East.  For those who saw the images of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and the gunman murdering the wounded policeman on the pavement outside those offices, the religious violence seems all around us. So: Is religion to blame for most of the mass violence in the world?

Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood (Random House, 500 pages) traces the history of warfare since the invention of settled agriculture. Armstrong, a former Catholic Nun, has become one of the English-speaking world’s foremost scholars on the history of religion. She points out that in hunter-gather societies, there is no real warfare, except occasional skirmishes with nearby tribes, since the entire population is needed for food collection, and there is no agricultural surplus to sustain a kingly priestly, or soldier class. Once settled farming begins, and farmers are producing enough to support more than their own families,  a class of rulers, soldiers and priests can emerge.

The pace of agricultural innovation is terribly slow, however, so the only way that the new ruling class can expand its wealth is to conquer another nearby area and seize its surplus. That’s the start of warfare.

Throughout history, religions have been ideologies that propped up the legitimacy of the ruling class. (Have you ever known of a society where the major religion denied the legitimacy of the ruling class? How did that work out?) Warfare, Armstrong claims, occurs at times of social and economic change, and religion becomes enlisted in the political cause, rather than being the cause.

She also argues that the major conflicts of the 20th century were not religious. The first world war was not religious, and Germany didn’t start world War II  to spread either of its two recognized religions (Catholicism, and Lutheranism).   In the 1930s, Japan didn’t invade it’s neighbors to spread Shinto and Buddhism: China already had Confucianism and Buddhism, Thailand was already Buddhist, and Korea already had Buddhism.

The most interesting sections of the book deal with the crusades of the Middle Ages, and the religious ward of the 15 and 1600s, where religion really was at the center of the conflicts. The author has a knowledge of history that leaves me for dead.  For anybody who wants to get into the history of religion in a serious way, and is prepared to wade through some serious research, this book is a five star piece of work.

For those interested in reading some further reviews before committing to an arduous read, here is one from  The Guardian,  the New York Times   and here is publisher Random House’s description of the book’s subject matter. It’s a meaty read, but it’s worth it.

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Do your Facebook friends manipulate you into re-posting their views?

Do your Facebook friends ever post things that end with “Only one percent of you will have the guts to re-post this. The other ninety-nine percent won’t”? Or “re-post if you support children with cancer? Those who don’t re-post. I suppose you don’t really care and you are not my real friends.”? Some of my friends do, and I don’t like it.

Sometimes I would re-post, except I resent being TOLD that if I don’t re-post stuff like this with these emotionally manipulative last lines, then I don’t have guts, or don’t care about kids with cancer, or don’t care about soldiers wounded in war, etc. I don’t intend to re-post these manipulative things on principle. The principle is, don’t try to guilt me into parroting your posts. I can decide for myself what I want to re-post. This is snarky emotional bullying.

Here’s a suggestion: NEVER re-post things that are based on guilting you into being a sheep. You have a mind of your own. Your friends shouldn’t need to manipulate you into supporting their social views or their favorite charity. If you feel strongly enough about something to re-post on your own, or you support a certain charity on its own merits, good. If not, why do your friends need to guilt you into being their sheep?

Instead of re-posting their posts, try cutting and pasting the text this blog entry into their Facebook post! I’m NOT suggesting that if you don’t you’re a bad person. That would be against my beliefs. But you could try it – if you feel the way I do.

Should the state kill you for being an atheist?

In seven countries, there’s a belief to do with religion that can land you in jail, or get you killed. It’s not that you belong to a different religion to the rest of your country, or even a minority group within a religion. Those things can get you killed in some places, but I’m not talking about them.

Amnest InternationalIn January 2015 Karim al-Banna, a 21-year-old Egyptian student, was sentenced to three years jail for saying on Facebook that he was  an atheist.  As the New York Times reports in the same article, “Because atheism itself is not illegal in Egypt, charges are laid under laws against blasphemy or contempt for religion. In 2012, a 27-year-old blogger, Alber Saber, received a three-year sentence on charges of blasphemy for creating a web page called “Egyptian Atheists.” In 2013, the writer and human rights activist Karam Saber (no relation) was convicted of defaming religion in his short story collection “Where Is God?”

In Indonesia, Alexander Aan was arrested for saying there is no God on Facebook, and asking “If there is a God, why do bad things happen? Aan served two years jail, although some religious groups had called for his beheading. Amnesty International took up Aan’s case, and one of the country’s leading newspapers (The Jakarta Globe) described the case as blight on Indonesia’s democratic credentials and a threat to Indonesia’s attractiveness to foreign investors.”

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The Washing Post (see map above) describes the case of a Saudi Arabian, who was arrested as he changed planes in Malaysia, deported back to Saudi Arabia, because he had declared himself to be an atheist. The article includes a map showing the seven countries where you can die for being an atheist.

It’s time we asked a simple question. Is there any place in the 21st century for laws that allow a government to jail or kill a person just because they stop believing in god, and have the courage to say this publicly? Why should this be happening?

Amnesty International takes up cases like this, and campaigns to have  such sentences set aside. If you are not a member, I strongly urge you to join. The world needs more free speech, not less. It doesn’t need people hiding in cupboards and secret on-line forums just because they hold a minority opinion that harms no one. I hope you’ll consider joining. Here’s a link: http://www.amnesty.org/

OTHER INFO

Here is a Muslim author arguing that blasphemy charges are un-Islamic.

The Huffington Post provides a list of 13 countries where publicly declaring that you are  an atheist can get you jail or death.

Why would you ever trust a human? Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

It seems ironic that I saw the new Planet of the Apes movie in the week that the news has been dominated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the shooting down of a civilian airliner over the Ukraine. An no I’m not comparing any side in this conflict to apes. What I am comparing is conflict to conflict, mistrust to mistrust, and the sad tendencies of groups to fall into factionalism, and coups.

In a post-epidemic world, humans try to reopen an electricity plant, which happens to be located in a territory controlled by apes. Leaders on both sides, the humans and the apes in this film, have underlings who conspire to overthrow them and wreck any chances of peace between the two ‘tribes.’ Each side has characters that have lost family. Caesar, the leader of the apes, wants to avoid war. Koba, his second-in-charge, betrays him and accuses him
of loving humans more than his own kind. Does any of that sound familiar? Americans who are old enough to remember the civil rights era might recall an insult flung by whites at whites who supported the black struggle for equality.

The film makes us primarily see the conflict through the eyes of the apes. After all, why should apes trust humans who kept them in cages and experimented on them? And how should apes respond when a group that has oppressed them in the past wants to restart the generation of electricity – a thing that gave humans so much power in the past?

As a film, the ‘motion capture’ technology that takes the movement of humans and translates it into animated apes is clever.  I generally dislike films that rely too much on special effects to compensate for not having a decent script. This film doesn’t have that problem, although there are more ‘action’ scenes – smash, bash, crash, boom – than I usually like in a movie.  Unfortunately, the females get relegated to the roles of grieving parents and caregivers. No female character makes a decisive change to the direction of the plot. All the ‘serious’ roles go to men, far more than in the average Hollywood movie. All that being said it’s a good movie, perhaps very good, but not brilliant.

Note: this is my blog site. For my site about thesis editing services, go to the  RichardSnowEditing site.

A day in the life – visiting Kenya

One of my friends is in Nairobi, in Kenya, This her experience of going to church there. Very different to Australia.

The Land of Increasing Sunshine

At last The Very Long Walk is but a distant memory and I’m walking properly again. It’s Sunday, so off to church we went, along with a fairly high proportion of the Nairobi population.

Religion is big in Nairobi. Historically, European colonialism and Christianity went hand-in-hand, and  for better or worse, much  Western aid is delivered via the churches today. Visually, the church is everywhere.  Large, smiling, charismatic pastors smile out from  large billboard hoardings in advertisements for Hillsong-like evangelical churches .  The slum areas along the main roads out from Nairobi are liberally sprinkled with small, congregation-built shacks with colourful Biblical names.  Gigantic white marquees act as pop-up churches, clearly visible from the air.  Hymns are often played in the supermarket and there are several Christian radio stations.  The matatus (passenger mini-buses) and buses often sport religious names and slogans.

Before I left Australia, I had tried to reach…

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The Butler: preachy propaganda or historical truth?

I saw this film just after taking a course at my local college about the history of the civil rights movement in the US. You can read the demeaning treatment of blacks in segregated facilities, or about lynchings (which often involved much grotesque tortures than just hanging someone), but movies have the power to make intellectual issues hit home emotionally in a way history books can’t.

The Butler posterCecil Gaines was born in the 1920s,and became a butler who served eight presidents, from Eisenhower to Regan. One of his sons dies in Vietnam, while the other joins the Black Panthers. The conflicts between the family members about how Gaines serves the white man, and has to pretend to have no opinions, while one of the sons decides to fight the whites with violence by joining the Black Panthers, must have torn many black families apart.

The film repeatedly comes back to the issue of equal pay. The black staff in the White House were paid 40 percent less than the white staff, and various “progressive” presidents, (including Kennedy) did nothing to change this.

The film is well acted, and the photography is good. Some critics have said it tries to cover so much history that it comes across as a series of postcards. I guess that’s inevitable when you try to capture one person’s reaction to all the major events  of a thirty-year period. There is no time to explore any one event in depth.  A lot of people under the age of 30 would have no (or little) knowledge of some of the events shown (the Freedom Rides, the Vietnam War, the Resignation of Nixon.)

I found the film’s subject matter often depressing, even tho the film attempts to end on an up-beat note, showing the elderly Gaines witnessing the election of the first black president. It’s a well-made film, and may give some non-Americans a bit of a glimpse into race relations and how they have or haven’t changed over recent decades.

The reviews are mixed. some call it “preachy.” Some say it is designed as “Oscar bait.” On Rotten Tomatoes one reviewer writes:

  • Think of it as a Trojan horse. Apparently harmless, it takes key myths about the land of the free and inflicts an impressive amount of damage.

That reviewer obviously thought the myths of the “Land of the Free” were just myths and needed debunking.  Another writes:

  • Manipulative and preachy, The Butler is redeemed by a sensitive performance from Forest Whitaker and the undeniable power of the events it depicts.

It would be hard for a film to deal with the situation of black people in America from the 1920s to the 1980s and not show that some were not as free as others. It’s good film,  but I don’t think I’d see it twice. Did it seem to you like propaganda?  Was it “Oscar bait?” I’d be interested to hear what others thought. Feel free to leave a comment!

Plain English for non-economists – what happens in a government bond sell off?

 In the last week, the mutual fund which was largest holder of short-term US government debt sold off all their holdings of US government bonds that matured in the next 90 days. So what happens next?

From Wikipedia
From Wikipedia

I need to explain a bit of arithmetic here, but please bear with me. The arithmetic will only take a minute.  A bond is a tradable IOU. Suppose I wanted to sell you an IOU that said I would pay you $100 in a year’s time. If the interest rate were 2 per cent, you’d be prepared to pay $98.04 cents for it. You get this by dividing $100 by 1.02 (1+ the interest rate as a decimal.) Why? Because if you put $98.04 in the bank at 2 per cent, you’d get $100 at the end of the year.  Suppose interest rates were 5 per cent.. you’d pay $95.23 for it. ($100/1.05)  Why? Because if you put $95.23 in the bank for a year at 5 per cent, you’d get $100 at the end of the year. If it were 7 per cent, you’d only pay $93.46 (100/1.07).

Do you see the pattern? As the interest rate goes up, the resale price of a bond goes down. Saying the bond price went down is the same thing as saying the interest rate went up. Investors  are beginning to dump US government IOUs that mature in the next 90 days, because they are afraid the US government won’t be able to pay up on time. Once a few funds begin to do this, others will be forced to follow. Investment markets work as herds. If everybody is dumping something, and you don’t, you get stuck with an asset that’s worth less than what others are holding. So if the price of US government securities fall, interest rates go up. It’s the same thing.

The next problem is how banks price interest rates on loans. They take what they regard as the “risk free interest rate”, and then add margins onto it for riskier loans. For as long as anyone can remember, US banks have regarded US government bonds as the risk free asset.

If there is a default on bond payments, what is the risk free rate? It’s very dangeerous territory, because it only happened before in 1979 (see below) and circumstances were very different then. And what would  financial institutions hold for short-term debt, if they think US bonds are unsafe? British, German or Swiss IOUs? Nobody knows.  Many personal investors have bonds in their pension funds. Many banks need short-term instruments for liquidity. A sell-off could begin to snowball, affecting bonds beyond the 90 day papers that had been sold off so far, reducing the value of other, longer-term bonds. If that happens, a lot of damage will have been done. So know you know. If a solution isn’t found, a lot of people and banks will be deep in doggy-do.

There was one incident, during the  Carter Presidency, where the US was up against its debt ceiling, and while a deal was done at the minute to raise the ceiling, the US Treasury was a late in making interest payments. Not everything was computerized as well back then. Investors knew the payments would be made, because the deal had been struck, but nevertheless, interest rates went up by 0.5 per cent, and didn’t go down again immediately the payments were made. That meant an increase in on-going interest costs and some institutions sued the US govt over the back interest.

I’m reproducing a description here from a website that gives the details of the 1979 incident, but you’d need to scroll down a long way to find these paragraphs, so I’ll reprint them here. The reference is to April 1979, when there was a fight over the debt ceiling, and a deal was made but interest was paid late.

In April of 1979, Congress failed to legislate to reach a deal in time, and the Government hit the debt ceiling. Without the ability to borrow more it had to decide who not to pay. It could ‘close down the government’ and stop paying employees or suppliers, or it could stop paying interest and maturing principal on its debts – Treasury bills, notes and bonds. It chose the latter.

In the 1979 defaults, the US Government didn’t treat all its creditors equally. Most Treasury bills, notes and bonds are held by banks and other financial institutions like insurance companies and pension funds, with a small minority held by individuals. In 1979, the Government chose to repay the main institutional creditors in full, out of fear of triggering a banking crisis, but chose to default on 6,000 individual investors.

On 26 April 1979, the US Treasury defaulted on $41 million of maturing Treasury bills. They were paid 20 days late on Thursday 17 May 1979 after the Government found some money. Then again on 3 May 1979, Treasury defaulted on another $40 million. These were also paid 14 days late. Then again on 10 May 1979, Treasury defaulted on yet another $40 million of maturing T-bills. These were also paid on 17 May.

Treasury refused investors’ demands to reimburse the $325,000 in lost interest on the late days and so investors were forced to sue the US government in a class action (Claire G. Burton v. United States, US District Court, Central District, California, D 79, 1818LTL (Gx)). Unfortunately the Court threw out the investors’ claim by relying on a 1937 Supreme Court ruling that, “interest does not run upon claims against the Government even though there has been a default in the payment of principal”. (Smyth v. United States, 302 U.S. 329, 1937). It came as a shock for Americans to discover that not only had the Government defaulted on its debts, but there was a decades old judicial precedent establishing that it didn’t legally owe interest when it failed to pay on time! When the money market opened on Friday 27 April 1979, the day after the first default, T-bill yields spiked up by 50 basis points  [Note by RS: 50 basis points mean half a percent.] and this default premium on US T-Bills remained even after the default was rectified the next month. This demonstrates that the US Government has indeed defaulted on its debt (at least temporarily), and that US T-bills are not ‘risk-free’, but are prone to a credit default premium in their pricing.  

 Quote from  http://cuffelinks.com.au/us-government-previously-defaulted-risk-free/

So, a delay of about 3 weeks in paying interest on bonds previously caused a rise of half a percent in the government’s borrowing costs. It seems plausible that a longer delay would cause a bigger rise in interest costs. Hopefully we don’t find out the answer to that.

Finally, half a percent might not sound like much. But the US has about $17 trilliion of bonds outstanding. Unless the budget moves back to surplus and the government can start buying it’s own bonds back, each of those bonds has to be replaced by a new one as it falls due. Half a percent of 17 trillion would be about 85 billion in extra interest, spread out over the life of the existing bonds.  it doesn’t hit all at once but that’s a lot of cash.

So, are you affected? Do you hold government bonds in your pension fund or 401k? What do you intend to do? And what do you think about the current situation? Does it bother you?

 

My novel Fire Damage, an action thriller, is available on Amazon Kindle, here. The novel is based on the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo, which released Sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system in the 1990s. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download the app to read it on your computer or phone from here. A paperback version is available here. It’s also available as a Kindle on Amazon UK .    twitter: @Richard_A_Snow