July 16, 2017

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Shells hit Russian embassy compound in Syria (Al Jazeera, 7/16/17)

Syrian state media say shells have hit the Russian embassy in Damascus causing material damage.

State news agency SANA said two shells were fired at the Russian embassy on Sunday, one hitting the compound while the other fell nearby.

Syrian rebels in the suburbs of the capital have previously struck the Russian embassy.

Posted by orrinj at 3:05 PM


Donald's Pravda: Trump and his apologists spookily echo Vladimir Putin (GARRY KASPAROV  JUL 16, 2017, NY Daily News)

For autocrats, angry denial is the first phase of responding to accurate charges against them. "No! Never! A complete fabrication!"

As evidence accumulates, this shifts to feigning ignorance and claiming misunderstanding, along with attempts to distract by slandering the accusers, blaming others for similar sins and discrediting the concept of knowable truth. "I didn't know it was wrong! The media is out to get me! Others have done worse! Who knows what really happened?"

When even this proves insufficient, it's time for the final step, confession. Not the kind that is said to be good for the soul, but the aggressive, defiant boasting of someone who is sure that they won't be punished in this life or the next for the crime they denied for so long. "I did it, but so what? There's nothing wrong with it! What are you going to do about it?"

After many months of denials, lies and distractions in an effort to dismiss the mounting evidence that the Trump campaign knowingly worked with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election, the Trump train is approaching the final station. What else is left after it was revealed last week that Donald Trump Jr. eagerly took a meeting on June 9, 2016, to receive supposedly damaging material about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government?

Last week, as the New York Times prepared to publish an exposé on the meeting, Trump Jr. released excerpts of an email chain in a bizarre effort to claim transparency. It was as if a robber was caught red-handed in the jewelry store, surrounded by police, and then asked for leniency for turning himself in.

Among other things, the emails showed that top Trump aides Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner also participated in the meeting and knew about its scurrilous content in advance. Instead of refusing the meeting or contacting the FBI, they went ahead with it. It's almost as if such an arrangement did not come as a surprise.

As usual, when news from the Trump-Russia front looks bad, it soon turns out to be even worse. [...]

The pundits of Fox News either defend Trump's latest outrages or, since many are indefensible, simply ignore them in favor of running more attacks on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- neither of whom, it should be pointed out, is the President of the United States.

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ASSUME SUPPORT (self-reference alert):

A nation on the verge of a nervous breakdown (Jeff Jacoby, 7/16/17, The Boston Globe)

"I should tell you up front that I'm not a Greenpeace fan," I said. "I'll be very happy to listen, but just to be honest with you -- you're not going to make a sale at this address."

She gave it her best shot.

"I know not everybody agrees with how Greenpeace works," she said [I'm paraphrasing from memory], "but it's more important than ever to protect the environment and the oceans and the forests, right? Especially now that Trump is president! By pulling the US out of the Paris climate accord, and what he's trying to do on immigration, and giving more power to corporations -- I'm sure you would agree that with Trump in power, things are moving in the wrong direction, wouldn't you?"

She was speaking a little too quickly. I had the sense that she was trying to hit all her talking points before I turned her down. [...]

Suddenly, to my astonishment, she was in tears.

"I'm so sorry," she said, half-sobbing, half-panting. "I'm so sorry. I don't know why I'm crying. It's just really hard, and everything is so concerning, and -- "

"Hey, shhh, that's OK," I said, coaxing her into the living room. "Sit down for a few minutes. Take a deep breath; clear your head." The tears kept coming. I hurried to the kitchen for a box of tissues. When I returned to the living room, she was still weeping.

"I don't know why I can't stop," she said. "This is so unprofessional. I think I must be dehydrated."

I brought her some cold water. My wife came to sit with us. We asked the young woman her name and introduced ourselves. As she wiped her eyes and sipped her water, she told us that she had only arrived in Boston a few days earlier and was staying at an Airbnb, having been flown in by Greenpeace from her home on the West Coast. She believes in what she is doing, but to keep her job, she has to meet a quota -- so-and-so many donations per month. Door-to-door canvassing is easier with a partner, but she is alone, and so many people are unpleasant.

"I can't believe I'm having a breakdown in your living room," she said. "But I'm really upset about what's happening. I worry about what's going to happen to people I care about." It gnaws at her to see how angry so many people are these days. She wasn't raised to hate people whose politics were different from hers, she told us. At the same time, she's frightened for the future -- her future, and her friends', and the planet's.

As a former canvasser, the folks like Mr. Jacoby were always way better to deal with than those with the PC signs on the lawn.

Posted by orrinj at 12:40 PM


The Next Chapter in Uzbekistan's Opening (Catherine Putz, July 06, 2017, The Diplomat)

A dozen years later, the BBC appears closer than ever to returning to Uzbekistan. BBC Uzbek, the BBC's Uzbek-language service, has opened advertisements for a multimedia journalist to be based in Tashkent. "The BBC is on the verge of restarting its operations in Uzbekistan after a pause," an announcement read.

"While partial readmission of the BBC marks tentative progress, Uzbekistan still has a long way to go and many other journalists continue to be denied permission to work there," EurasiaNet wrote, noting that one of its correspondents had been denied temporary accreditation earlier in 2017 "without any explicit explanation."

A related development -- the apparent willingness on Tashkent's part to accept a Human Rights Watch delegation -- also marks tentative progress. [...]delegation be allowed to visit. Komilov said the request would be granted. He did, however, also reportedly say that the delegation would need to "respect our customs and traditions" and pushed back against the idea of "universal values."

In a statement to Voice of America, Steve Swerdlow, a longtime researcher on Central Asia for HRW, said, "Human Rights Watch values the government's readiness to take steps to engage with our organization."

Following the death of Uzbekistan's first, and long-serving, President Islam Karimov last fall, new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has made definitive efforts to reengage with the region and the world. As we've covered, this started with a good neighbor initiative and continued by courting international organizations, like the EBRD, which had been pushed away by Karimov. In May, Tashkent welcomed the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein. What I wrote in May remains true: "The opening continues. While many will remain cautious in their optimism, optimism is not something many regional observers would have used in the same sentence as Uzbekistan a year ago."

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Trump approval hits new record low (Axios, 7/16/17)

An ABC News/Washington Post poll gives Trump the lowest six-month approval rating of any president in polls dating back 70 years. He has 36% approval, down 6 points from his 100-day mark, itself a low. The previous six-month low was Gerald Ford, at 39% in February 1975.

Posted by orrinj at 8:14 AM


TRUMP COWER : Donald Trump begs Theresa May to fix a 'warm welcome' for his state visit - and says he won't set a date for it until he knows he's going to get 'a better reception' (David Wooding, 15th July 2017, The Sun)

A transcript of the chat, seen by senior diplomats, reveals his touchiness. Mr Trump says: "I haven't had great coverage out there lately, Theresa."

She replies awkwardly: "Well, you know what the British press are like."

He replies: "I still want to come, but I'm in no rush.

"So, if you can fix it for me, it would make things a lot easier.

"When I know I'm going to get a better reception, I'll come and not before."

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'Dirt Is Good': Why Kids Need Exposure To Germs (Lulu Garcia-Navarro, 7/16/17, NPR Weekend Edition)

As a new parent, Jack Gilbert got a lot of different advice on how to properly look after his child: when to give him antibiotics or how often he should sterilize his pacifier, for example.

After the birth of his second child, Gilbert, a scientist who studies microbial ecosystems at the University of Chicago, decided to find out what's actually known about the risks involved when modern-day children come in contact with germs.

"It turned out that most of the exposures were actually beneficial," Gilbert says. "So that dirty pacifier that fell on the floor -- if you just stick it in your mouth and lick it, and then pop it back in little Tommy's mouth, it's actually going to stimulate their immune system. Their immune system's going to become stronger because of it."

Posted by orrinj at 7:47 AM


Incoherent Low-Income Aid Programs Are Fueling Overpayments and Fraud (Eric Pianin,   July 16, 2017, Fiscal Times)

[A] new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released Friday blames part of the problem on the unduly complicated and confusing rules of these six programs that have baffled applicants and added enormously to the administrative burden of federal and state agencies.

The scathing report points to a hodge-podge of eligibility rules, definitions, allowable deductions and conflicting federal and state jurisdictions that render the network of cash and non-cash assistance programs a nightmare to manage.

"The numerous financial and nonfinancial eligibility rules for federal low-income programs can confuse applicants and increase program administration challenges," according to the GAO report, which was commissioned by Senate Budget Committee Chair Mike Enzi (R-WY).

"For applicants, these rules have sometimes made it difficult and burdensome to navigate the application process for some programs," the report said. "For program staff, separate rules for each program mean that staff has to keep track of and apply different rules when determining eligibility."

Posted by orrinj at 7:24 AM


How We Read the Bible Rightly and Get It Wrong : Let's show mercy to those who 'misinterpret' Jeremiah 29:11 and other favorite verses. (JONATHAN T. PENNINGTON| JULY 12, 2017, Christianity Today)

On the refrigerator, holding up her unrealistic diet plan, is a magnet with a nice flowing script of Jeremiah 29:11--"For I know the plans I have for you," says the Lord. "They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope." It is obvious that this verse and this diet plan are organically related in her mind. She is taking this verse to heart every day as a promise from God for her success in shedding a few pounds.

How will you respond? Your exegetically and theologically trained mind immediately populates a list of problems with her use of this verse: this is a horrible translation of the Bible; this verse is taken out of context; this is a word spoken to the nation of Israel in the Old Covenant and therefore can't apply to her; God doesn't care about her diet, and on and on. Thankfully, you have enough sense and wisdom not to attack or mock her and her refrigerator magnet, but in your quiet moments later you face a couple of crucial questions. These questions are ours as well when we read Scripture and when we read and hear interpretations of Scripture. First, what is wrong with her interpretation/reading/application of this verse? And second, should you say anything to her about it?

What is wrong with this use of Jeremiah 29:11? In the first instance, we are right to emphasize that what a text or verse means is best approached in its own literary and theological context. Her ignorance of the overall story of the Bible and the fact that this verse is from a letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent to the elders and priests of Jerusalem who were then in exile in Babylon is a regrettable oversight. This knowledge would deepen and contextualize the significance of these lines. We may also register some concern that not every word to the nation of Israel necessarily has a direct application to the individual Christian. Other examples come to mind including details of the Mosaic law concerning diet and clothing or promises of physical blessing for obedience to Torah.

However, we must also ask what might be good about her reading. And herein lies much that we might initially overlook. Even though her reading and application of this verse may not be very sophisticated or theologically astute, I would suggest that ultimately what it possesses is greater than this deficiency. At one level her reading is in fact more theologically perceptive than our systematized view might be. That is, in a very real sense a promise like Jeremiah 29:11 does apply to the individual who is in Christ (in whom "all the promises of God are Yes and Amen"; 2 Cor. 1:20). Jeremiah's words are God's words; they reveal God's heart and disposition toward his people, who are now defined no longer ethnically but based on faith response in Jesus--that is, all Christians. To read Jeremiah Christianly is to receive this as God's promise to us, albeit in light of the full picture of Scripture in which the church is now in a time of sojourning exile awaiting the return of the Son.

Moreover, what is good--even glorious--about her reading of Jeremiah 29:11 as applied to her diet is that she has the right posture toward God and Holy Scripture as she reads. That is, she is going to the Bible looking for God to speak and guide and direct her life very personally. She expects the living God to speak to her, and she is willing to listen. She has chosen the better part. Certainly we might want her to grow in her theological knowledge and interpretive skills, but not at the expense of this simple God-ward faith and posture.

Posted by orrinj at 7:15 AM


In 'Spider-Man: Homecoming,' Greatness Starts with Becoming a Servant : Peter Parker has finally entered the Marvel Cinematic Universe--but he can't join the Avengers until he practices the heroic discipline of humility. (JULY 14, 2017, Christianity Today)

Spider-Man made his debut in 2016's hero-packed Captain America: Civil War, in which Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) recruited Peter to join Team Iron Man for a battle against Captain America and a giant-sized Ant-Man. It's easy to imagine that in Peter's eyes, this was like the best and most "spiritual"-feeling summer camp ever. But as Homecoming begins, Tony drops Peter back into his old "unspiritual" life with only a new suit to help with part-time heroics. It's nothing compared to becoming a full-time hero with the Avengers: Spider-Man is stuck in the dull web of home and school, with friends and a pretty girl, but also tests and bullies.

Director Jon Watts's team has fun with Peter's frustration but never laughs at him. Nor does the story cast Iron Man and his amazing friends as villains--even when Tony won't answer Peter's calls. And when Peter jailbreaks his own suit's tech, takes a battle into his hands, and causes a crisis, Tony arrives and steps into a new armored form: Iron Patriarch Mark I.

"I need you to be better," Tony lectures. "I'm taking back the suit."

"I'm nothing without the suit!" Peter pleads.

Tony counters: "If you're nothing without the suit, then you shouldn't have it."

A lesser movie would have taken Peter's side when he demands to be taken seriously and not treated like a kid. But Tony, despite his own immaturity and other flaws, knows this world better. He rightfully lectures and even punishes the well-meaning upstart hero.

In a way, so does the film's villain, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), leader of a band of alien tech scavengers. His arrogant response to a similar authority's correction gives the story its negative example. Toomes also personally challenges Peter's existence--and not just because he can hook into a hovercraft/jetpack and soar high like a vulture, while Peter needs buildings he can stick to. Toomes is aggressive, world-wise, and blue-collar philosophical. In one of my favorite Marvel villain scenes, he challenges Peter: Why can't Peter see that Toomes is only doing what's right to protect his people? After all, those rich heroes like Tony don't know how the real world works. They only care for themselves.

Peter's humble, intentional response, both to Tony's well-meant lessons and Toomes's villainous challenges, elevate the film even while it draws us to Peter's side. He's not a Christ-like hero; instead, he's more like us--a Christian-like hero. Like many young Christians, he is given great gifts, cast into a world of established heroes and villains, and burdened to change this world--the same world that keeps interrupting him with jerk schoolmates, barking dogs, Aunt May's probing questions, and school detention.

By the end, Peter finds that he doesn't need to reach a higher numerical score, attain special knowledge, or hit physical training goals to join the Avengers; he simply needs to mature. Through repeated discipline and self-sacrifice, he needs to become a better person. And by defining the goal so vaguely, Tony--and the story itself--incidentally point Peter and his fans in the same direction as biblical servanthood.

Note that the photo accompanying the text depicts the obligatory crucifix scene....

Posted by orrinj at 7:11 AM


It's Official: Fewer Persecuted Christians Find Refuge in America Under Trump (SARAH EEKHOFF ZYLSTRA JULY 12, 2017, Christianity Today)

Today, resettlement agencies hit Trump's new ceiling of 50,000 refugees, three months before the end of the federal government's fiscal year on September 30. And as CT predicted, persecuted Christians fell far short of last year's intake.

"At this point, World Relief expects that the only additional arriving cases after today will be individuals who have a close family member already in the US," Matthew Soerens, US director of church mobilization for the National Association of Evangelicals' humanitarian arm, told CT. ("Close family" means a parent, parent-in-law, spouse, child, adult son or daughter, son- or daughter-in-law, or sibling, according to State Department guidelines.)

A total of 22,637 Christians have been resettled in the US in fiscal 2017, compared to 36,822 in fiscal 2016, according to State Department data. [...]

The refugees were front-loaded this year, since agencies were operating for the first three months on President Barack Obama's previous target of 110,000 resettlements.

As a result, more than 30,000 were already admitted before Trump's January 27 executive order lowering the limit and temporarily banning refugees and travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

Posted by orrinj at 6:53 AM


The "God of the Gaps" is Growing (Jonathan Witt, 7/15/17, Imaginative Conservative)

 "Intelligent design, as one sees it from a scientific point of view, seems to be quite real," said Nobel Laureate Charles Townes. "This is a very special universe: it's remarkable that it came out just this way."

And this from astrophysicist and Nobel Laureate Arno Penzias: "Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say 'supernatural') plan." [...]

Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin frankly admits [...]. "We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, ... in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism," he writes. He continues:

"It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door."
The most basic of those unsubstantiated stories is the myth of an ever-shrinking god of the gaps. The myth ignores major developments in origin-of-life studies, physics, and astronomy. It ignores the reality that in significant areas, the evidence for intelligent design is not shrinking, but growing.

The renowned NASA astronomer and agnostic Robert Jastrow understood as much. He wrote that for the scientist like himself, "the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries."

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The Southern Slave Economy Was Anti-Capitalistic (Luis Pablo de la Horra, July 15, 2017, FEE)

In a nutshell, Fogel and Engerman (F&E) [Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Slavery] concluded that:

i) slavery was economically profitable;

ii) slave labor was more efficient than free labor;

iii) planters behaved as modern entrepreneurs in a capitalist economy; and

iv) the South was not as underdeveloped as it had been suggested in comparison with the North.

In short, F&E suggested that the Southern economy was mostly capitalistic despite being largely based on slave labor. To what extent are these conclusions accurate? [...]

Time on the Cross depicts slaveholders as modern-day entrepreneurs whose investments in the business of slavery were strictly motivated by market considerations. According to this view, southerners chose to allocate their capital in the slavery business after consciously analyzing the market in search of profit opportunities. Investing in slaves was not just a tradition or a way to continue with the family business but a rational business choice made by talented businessmen. Planters did not take advantage of investment opportunities due to their narrow, reactionary mentality.

It should be conceded that slaveowners were forced to manage their plantations as efficiently as possible due to competition in international agricultural markets. Yet the idealized view of slaveholders as modern entrepreneurs conveyed by F&E is deeply misleading, if not fictitious.

Planters did not take advantage of many valuable investment opportunities due to their narrow, reactionary mentality. As pointed out by economic historians Fred Bateman and Thomas Weiss, slaveholders failed to invest capital in industry even though "profits from southern manufacturing were high enough to have made investment in industry a rational choice by planters".

What prevented planters from allocating part of their profits in industrial activities? Essentially, two reasons: first, their commitment to an intensively conservative ideology based on values like hierarchy, tradition, and honor; second, their deep hatred towards the values represented by liberal democracy and capitalism, which were thought to jeopardize the traditional Southern way of life.

The Luddites and the First Contest of Man Versus Machine : Rapid technological change in 18th- and 19th-century England led to violent resistance...by Methodists. (DAVID PARRISH, Christian History)

As mechanisation increased, groups of young men began to attack factories at night and destroy the machines. They used the name of a fictional local hero, Ned Ludd, and became known as "The Luddites."

In 1812 these attacks took a more dangerous turn. William Cartwright, owner of Rawfolds Mill in Yorkshire, introduced new machinery that would weave and finish the wool cloth more cheaply than using the skills of the manual workforce.

One of his workmen, George Mellor, had served in the military, was better educated than many workers, and had natural gifts of leadership. Using his contacts with the local men at work and in the chapel, he began gathering a group of men and taking them into the hills to train and drill in what are now called insurgency tactics. The chapel meetings on Sunday and the Methodist Society mid-week meeting provided a cover for their clandestine gatherings.

William Cartwright heard of what was going on and wrote to Spencer Perceval, the prime minister, and Richard Ryder, the home secretary, and asked for help from the military. Perceval, an Anglican from the evangelical tradition, was sympathetic to reform but was a member of the aristocratic ruling elite and fearful of any kind of revolutionary movement.

On Perceval's instruction, Ryder appointed General Peregrine Maitland, an experienced army commander, to hunt down the Luddites. Some weeks later, Mellor and his men attacked the Rawfolds Mill with muskets, under the cover of darkness. As they crossed Hartshead Moor, Anglican curate Patrick Brontë spotted the raiding party, but though he knew who they were, he took no action. Perhaps his own working class origins made him sympathetic to the men. His daughter, novelist Charlotte Brontë, later recounted how their father often told them the story.

Upon reaching the mill, Mellor and his men found Cartwright had been tipped off and the mill was heavily defended. Even under heavy gunfire, some of the Luddites reached the mill door but could not break in. Mellor and the remaining men fled, leaving two of their men dying on the open ground. These casualties were taken inside and interrogated by the militia, but neither of them gave anything away.

George Mellor went into hiding, deciding to attack and kill another mill owner, William Horsfall, as a warning to other owners not to install machinery. Horsfall hated the Luddites and was quoted as saying he would ride up to his saddle in Luddite blood. One night Mellor and his accomplices laid in wait in a wood alongside the road, armed with long barrel muskets. As Horsfall rode by, they shot and fatally wounded him. Unfortunately for Mellor, Horsfall's neighbor William Parr was on the road just yards behind and saw the men. He helped Horsfall to the safety of a nearby inn, but Horsfall was too badly injured to be saved. Parr was later able to identify Mellor as one of those who attacked Horsfall.

General Maitland began the hunt for Mellor using small groups of troops to check every house and inn. They questioned the Methodist preachers, but the ministers gave nothing away about the actions of the Luddites, even though some were in their congregations. Maitland offered bribes and rewards, and Mellor was eventually betrayed, leading to the arrest of Mellor and the three men who had helped in the killing of Horsfall and 14 others accused of the attack on Rawfolds Mill.

Maitland made sure the trial in York was rigged against them. He arranged for the trial judge to be one who was known for harsh sentences given to working people for offenses like stealing and armed attack. The jury was similarly biased with over half of them drawn from the gentry and business owners.

To make matters worse, the lawyer the men had chosen to represent them was incompetent and failed to cross-examine the prosecution witnesses. The men were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. On a cold day in January 1813, the men were hanged in groups. The gallows were built high off the ground so that the public could see the men's last breaths. [...]

What made devout Christians turn to violence so uncharacteristic of their faith? General Maitland himself was plagued by this question and set out to conduct a survey of the living conditions of the poor. He found that wars with America and France were causing shortages which doubled the price of some foodstuffs. For the poor, where food was around 40 percent of their living costs, these shortages hit much harder than on the landed rich. Mechanization was rapidly destroying skilled jobs and those working in the new factories were paid starvation wages. Often whole families, including children as young as 10, had to find work in order to survive. However, the brutality of the Luddites' executions discouraged further wrecking of machines. It also provoked liberally minded politicians to seek to legislate to improve the conditions of the workers.

Within two years, the wars with America and France came to an end, trade in cotton and wool goods boomed, and wages rose. This created more jobs in the factories, and living standards improved.