Transcript: Remarks by Hillary Clinton on the 2011 International Religious Freedom Report

Here’s another giant wad of transcription about the 2011 report on religious freedom, this time featuring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments on the report. She acknowledges the ongoing persecution against Christians, and notes the dangers in the current political upheavals rocking the Middle East, but it doesn’t seem like a particularly strong message of support. Christian persecution is just not high on this administration’s list of concerns. If they need to cut a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood for peace, and that deal requires throwing the Copts under the bus, you can bank on them doing so.

Transcript from the White House press office after the jump: Continue reading

Transcript: Press Conference for the 2011 International Religious Freedom Report

This just arrived on the White House press list, and I’m in the middle of a large piece of writing, so I’m going to put it out there in toto as an “FYI.” It’s the press briefing from Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook on the release of the 2011 International Religious Freedom Report. None of it strikes me as particularly forceful or brilliant. Most of it we already know. There’s a lot of language about hope and dialog and conversations and likewise, and we can assume this is accompanied by much brow-furrowing and expressions of “deep concern” or “sincere regret” or maybe even “sharp disappointment” at the monsters who routinely crush consciences around the globe, but there’s not a lot that’s concrete. (Note that this is the 2011 report, which couldn’t cover the assaults on religious liberty by the Obama administration. I’m sure if they could have, they would have given it full and fair attention. /s)

The full thing is after the break. Continue reading

Seal Depicting Samson Discovered (Or Maybe Not)

It’s hard to know what to make of this story at this point, so I’m just going to put it out there as reported.

Excavations at Tel Beit Shmesh have turned up an interesting stone seal at a level dating to about the 11th century BC. This is the seal:


It’s about 1.5 cm and shows a large animal and a human. The date places it in the period covered by the book of Judges, so some are jumping straight to Judges 14, in which Samson fights a lion. Tel Beit Shemesh is near Tel Batash, identified with Timna, the home of Samson’s wife and his destination during the encounter with the lion.

From Haaratz (behind the pay wall)

But excavation directors Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz and Dr. Zvi Lederman of Tel Aviv University say they do not suggest that the human figure on the seal is the biblical Samson. Rather, the geographical proximity to the area where Samson lived, and the time period of the seal, show that a story was being told at the time of a hero who fought a lion, and that the story eventually found its way into the biblical text and onto the seal.

Two structures were unearthed from the same period, which were apparently used for ritual purposes. Installations that Bunimovitz concedes are “enigmatic” were also found at the site, one of which is a kind of table next to which numerous animal bones were unearthed. Scholars think they might have been used for sacrifices.

Fundamental to the stories of the Beit Shemesh and Samson stories is the existence in the area of the boundary between the Philistines and the local people, first the Canaanites and later the people of Judah.

One constant in the current approach to Biblical history is the stark divergence of approaches, from Biblical literalists on one side, to those who say the Bible cannot be used as a historical reference point and we must reconstruct the history of the region using only archaeological evidence and the texts of other cultures. (Why the texts of other cultures may be trusted but not the scripture remains a mystery to me.) Somewhere in the middle, most historians try to find a balance, but even the best are prone to weird tics that cause them to either dismiss whole chunks of the Bible, or rush to see Adam in every picture of a man next to a tree.

Or, in this case, both. The team simultaneously dismisses the notion of any Samson who is more than a folktale while also seeing “Samson” in a stone bulla. I’m not even sure how they got from “creature with four legs” to “lion” so quickly. It may well be in keeping with contemporaneous depictions of lions on other artifacts, but that’s hardly a settled issue, and the minuscule size of the bulla makes it hard to determine. Maybe it’s a donkey. Or a liger. (I know the picture is pretty low-res, and I may just be imagining this, but doesn’t it look like there may be a human figure on the “lion’s” back? The ancient Hebrews were pretty awesome, but I don’t recall them being so badass as to ride around on lions.)

That’s one of the weird things about current Biblical history and archaeology. Its practitioners almost certainly entered the field with a personal background in a Biblical faith tradition that takes these stories as holy writ, yet they developed this hard, and somewhat artificial, shell of radical skepticism somewhere in their training. Thus, their minds still go to the Biblical stories they no longer believe, but their training immediately tries to explain it away. Take the Bible out of the picture, and there’s no reason at all to even mention Samson (as either a real or imaginary character) in connection with this artifact. Include the Bible in the picture, and (if you’re a skeptic) you risk bias in your conclusions. Doesn’t it make more sense to regard Genesis to Judges as oral history–real events shaped over time by the community into the form we now have them–and try to understand them in that context?

In any case, I’m not seeing a whole lot of Judges 14 in this item, but like all such finds, it’s fascinating nonetheless.

New Photographs of Bulgarian “Vampire” Skeleton

Last month I wrote about the discovery of a skeleton in Bulgaria that had been “staked” with an iron rod: an indication that people thought this was a vampire, or might become one. The skeleton is at least 700 years old, which places it long before Dracula and most modern vampire lore.

Now it turns out that not only had the skeleton been staked, but his teeth had been pulled out! It’s unclear whether people of the period did this to prevent corpses from returning as vampires, or as a way of dealing with suspected vampires. Our understanding of folk culture could allow for either interpretation.

After the story made headlines, the head of Bulgaria’s Natural History Museum admitted this kind of burial was not all unusual, claiming at least 100 other remains had been uncovered in a similar condition. In fact, many cultures have similar practices to prevent the dead from returning to life, some going back thousands of years.

“Tolerance” and Chicken Sandwiches in Oceania

Not wanting the Mayor of Boston to be the only jackass attacking the president of Chick-Fil-A for doubleplus ungoodthink, Philadelphia is going to “condemn” a private citizen because of his opinions.

City Councilman Jim Kenney, who is totally not pandering to the gay vote and trying to score some easy ink, wrote Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy to say “As an American you are legally entitled to your opinion, regardless of how insensitive and intolerant it may be, but as a fellow American and an elected member of Philadelphia City Council; I am entitled to express my opinion as well. So please – take a hike and take your intolerance with you. There is no place for this type of hate in our great City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.”

Just soak in the preening moral vanity of that. Cathy voices an opinion shared by the vast majority of the population, including the president up until a few months ago, and all of a sudden he’s Bull Connor. Kenney will be introducing a resolution officially condemning Cathy for his statement of traditional values. (Not for any actual discrimination, mind you: just for his thoughts.)

Meanwhile, Chicago don Rahm Emanuel says “What the CEO has said as it relates to gay marriage and gay couples is not what I believe, but more importantly, it’s not what the people of Chicago believe.” Really Rahm? None of the people of Chicago agree with him? Amazing.

And so the city fathers of various places are making an effort to vilify and drive out a private business–one that generates jobs and revenue in a time of severe economic distress–because they don’t like the views of its president. Dan Cathy has committed a thoughtcrime, and so he must be punished. Not, mind you, by citizens opting to spend their money elsewhere in protest. I have no problem with that at all. It’s the right, and perhaps the duty, of individuals to vote with their dollars. No, this is people with real power over zoning and approvals and police forces saying that they are going to use the mechanisms of the state to block a citizen’s ability to do his business because they hold his views in contempt.

In order to advance the progressive cause for each new generation, the left needs a constant state of conflict, whether such conflicts exist or not. A generation arises and sees no great suffragette, civil rights, free speech issue to galvanize the masses for revolution, and so one is invented: gay marriage! It’s a civil right! (Never mind that there’s a distinction between a right and privilege, and the newly minted idea of same sex “marriage” is certainly not a universal right.) Continue reading

$5000 to Play for Free

Pyro Beanie: Team Fortress 2 makes its money by selling stupid hats.

Every year around this time I begin a deeper descent into the world of gaming. As Editor-at-Large of Games Magazine, and a writer for many others, I keep up with games year round, but in July and August, I co-edit the Games Magazine 100, an annual awards issue and buyer’s guide to the best of gaming, both cardboard (traditional board and card games) and silicon (video, computer, and mobile). I create a lot of lists and examine the entire panorama of electronic entertainment, then try to extrapolate some trends and pick some titles that stand above the rest.

The biggest trend, of course, is mobile and social gaming, and it shows no real sign of cresting. In fact, it appears to be warping the entire gaming industry, leading people to expect great, fun games for a couple of bucks. Conventional electronic games are in trouble, with some estimates placing the sales fall-off in excess 25%. That’s heavy-duty for a business that only a year ago was still being called “recession proof.”

Companies are scrambling to find some way to make up the revenue shortfall, and they’re hit upon a strangely magical and counterintuitive solution: giving away their games.  Epic’s Tim Sweeney says it’s the next big thing. After Crysis 3, Crytek is doing it exclusively. John Riccitiello and Peter Moore (EA), Yves Guillemot (Ubisoft), and American Magee are saying it has a bright future. The verdict is in, and “free to play” is the new black.

When Peter Moore gets excited about something, it’s time to make sure you have a good hold on your wallet, because it’s about to get picked. You want to know what has John Riccitiello pumped? The realization that some gamers are paying $5000 a month to pay the “free” FIFA Ultimate Team.

What the money men are looking at is something called ARPU, which is “average revenue per users,” and it’s much, much higher for freemium games. You ever look in the App Store for the most profitable iOS games? Ever notice something? They’re all “free.”

Gamers are paying more, on average, to play for free than they do for $60 skus. This is because the costs tend to be hidden and the expenses creep up on you. A buck here, five bucks there; a little horse armor here, a new character set there: each microtransaction feels fairly small, and thus lowers the consumer’s natural psychological resistance to spending large amounts of money. But each of those transactions adds up very quickly. People pay more per user on freemium than they do on premium because they’re being manipulated. Riccitiello calls this a “dirty little secret.” Dirty? Yes. Little and secret? Not so much.

Serious gamers have another name for “free to play.” We call it “pay to win.” Many “free” games are only free at their lowest levels. If you get into something and expect to be anything other than a greasy spot by the side of the virtual road, you need to pay. That is not a problem on its own. Id Software made their millions through the shareware model, in which a few levels were free as a demo, and then you had to pay to get the full game. It was, essentially, the drug dealer model: first taste is free! After that …

But shareware was an interactive demo with a trigger-point: you made a choice, committed to the purchase, and you were done. Publishers have discovered that if they don’t push people to make that larger financial commitment (say $30 to $60) all at once, their resistance threshold is much, much lower. Gamers get committed, and then rather than reaching a single tipping point and investing once in a game, they make repeated, impulsive choices to invest smaller amounts, often losing track of just how much they’ve spent. As Riccitiello observed to shareholders, “When you are six hours into playing Battlefield and you run out of ammo in your clip and we ask you for a dollar to reload, you’re really not that price sensitive at that point in time.”

Just stand back and soak in the crass manipulation of that statement, and then tell me with a straight face that this is ethical marketing.

Statement from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia

“Statement from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia After Sentencing of Monsignor William Lynn” (as received):

“From the challenges the Church has faced both nationally and locally over the past decade, we understand the full gravity of sexual abuse. This year and even this week, Pennsylvania has been the epicenter of this issue, and we know there is legitimate anger in the broad community toward any incident or enabling of sexual abuse. The trial of the past several months has been especially difficult for victims, and we profoundly regret their pain.

“The public humiliation of the Church has emphasized the vital lesson that we must be constantly vigilant in our charge to protect the children in our parishes and schools. Since the events some ten years ago that were at the center of this trial, the Archdiocese has changed. We have taken dramatic steps to ensure that all young people in our care are safe, and these efforts will continue even more forcefully now and in the years ahead.

“We remain committed to protecting children and caring for victims. Fair-minded people will question the severity of the heavy, three to six year sentence imposed on Msgr. Lynn today. We hope that when this punishment is objectively reviewed, it will be adjusted.

“We pray for Msgr. Lynn and his family at this difficult time.”

More on the sentencing of Msgr. Lynn.



Msgr. Lynn is Sentenced, But Was Justice Satisfied? UPDATED

The first official of the Church to be found guilty of failing to protect children from sexual abuse has been sentenced to 3 to 6 years in prison. Monsignor William Lynn of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia oversaw the assignment of priests and addressed (or, more accurately, failed to address) accusations of abuse from from 1992 to 2004.

From Reuters:

Judge M. Teresa Sarmina said Lynn enabled “monsters in clerical garb … to destroy the souls of children, to whom you turned a hard heart.”

She added: “You knew full well what was right, Monsignor Lynn, but you chose wrong.”

A jury convicted him last month of felony child endangerment for his oversight of now-defrocked priest Edward Avery, who is serving a 2 1/2 to five-year sentence after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting an altar boy in church.

Lynn’s lawyers sought probation, arguing that few Pennsylvanians serve long prison terms for child endangerment and their client shouldn’t serve more time than abusers. Defense attorneys, who have vowed an appeal of the landmark conviction, said the seven-year maximum term advocated by the commonwealth “would merely be cruel and unusual.”

The problem with the verdict and the sentence is that it was the result of a show trial initiated by a grandstanding prosecutor and presided over by a biased judge. Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina simply lied in court when she said: “Anybody that doesn’t think there is widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is living on another planet.” She made it a trial about the Church, and not about Lynn and the actual abusers.

Catholic clergy abused at or below the levels of the general male population, and very few cases have arisen in the past decade, so for a judge to characterize the Church as somehow uniquely prone to abuse, and to imply in the face of all evidence that the problem persists at the same level to the present day, is wildly inappropriate. It also ignores that this primarily a gay male issue, with the vast majority of victims being post-pubescent males (ephebophilia, not pedophilia).

Our eagerness to see people punished for the disgusting sexual abuse scandal doesn’t mean we get to short-circuit the judicial process, and it doesn’t mean a judge gets to keep her thumb on one side of the scales of justice. The abuse crisis has struck at the very heart of our church not because there is “widespread sexual abuse in Catholic Church,” but because our leaders failed to address the issue.

Many Catholics may well choose to remain silent on the Lynn verdict because we want to see the end of this story, and jail time for a Church leader–any Church leader–when so many have gone unpunished seems to satisfy the demands of justice. To this extent, Msgr. Lynn was always going to be a kind of scapegoat, standing as proxy for the sins of many. But the sexual abuse story is far more complex than that, and one man’s crimes must always remain his crimes alone: not those of all the Catholic leadership (clergy and lay) who failed. Lynn’s prison term is close to the maximum allowed, which is unusual in child endangerment cases, particularly given the charges against him.

The nature of the trial, the public nature of the subject of clergy sexual abuse, the charges, the venue, and the judge made one thing certain: William Lynn was not merely on trial for things he failed to do. He was on trial for the entire leadership of the Church. For that reason alone, true justice–which must, above all, be fair, equal, and blind–was always going to be elusive.

UPDATE: As always, Rocco Palmo is essential reading for this story.

The Grave of Mona Lisa: Discovered?

A team of archaeologists searching the Convent of St. Ursula in Florence for the remains of Lisa del Giocondo believe they have them. Lisa, the model for Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, became a nun after the death of her husband, and lived in the convent until her death in 1542. The bones were found under the floor of the convent.

The female skull, along with various bone fragments, will be subjected to DNA testing and facial reconstruction. The claim seems a bit premature given the evidence (how many other nuns were buried in the same area?), so we’ll have to wait and see.

When I first posted on this story, there was some question of the propriety of disturbing a grave to satisfy our own curiosity. I think this is misplaced. Exhumation of remains is not at all uncommon, and indeed ancient cultures tended to keep remains near at hand. Some were buried in the floors of home, partly as one aspect of ancestor worship. Others were allowed to decay, and then the bones were moved to ossuaries after a year. This was common in the culture of ancient Israel, and persists in eastern cultures. Indeed, you don’t need to look very far to see the exposure of human remains in Catholic culture. Exhumation and display of remains is part of the process of declaring saints.

So this squeamishness about “disturbing graves” is rather a modern attitude, and rooted more in European superstition and prudishness than ancient Judeo-Christian culture and practice.