Thursday, April 21, 2016

The case of the Prodigal Son: Common stories told across cultures

A new study* suggests that fairy tales that are often cross cultural were not spread from neighboring culture to neighboring culture over geographic space, but, rather, that when ancient people moved from one vicinity to another they brought with them the kernels of these stories already formed. These stories did not spread by means of cultural diffusion or "borrowing," but "came with" the development of each language from its (lost) parent language. 

*Sara Gra├ža da Silva, Jamshid J. Tehrani. "Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales."

I have been thinking for a long time about the coincidence that the parable known as “The Prodigal Son” has been attributed to both Gautama Buddha (born circa 400 B.C.), in the Lotus Sutra, and Jesus Christ (born circa 1 A.D.), in the Gospel According to Luke. My assumption has been that the story arose after the dispersion of languages and that it spread from story teller to story teller, perhaps later (first millennia B.C.) as they travelled the Silk Road or earlier (second or third millennia B.C.) as they traded across the band of early civilizations from Egypt to Mesopotamia to the Indus River Valley. (It was once thought that these ancient civilizations did not communicate with each other; then it was discovered that the Egyptians and Mesopotamians carried on a lively trade, but it was still assumed that the Indus River Valley was not in contact with the other two centers of early civilization; then archeologists found Mesopotamian artefacts in the rubble of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, the main cities of the ancient Indus Valley.) I doubted, however, and still do, that the story passed from Buddhism to Judeo-Christianity (and certainly not the other way around). I believe that it was already part of common lore when Buddha appropriated it. In other words, this story may have been spread along with the development of languages. The remaining question is whether this goes back to proto-Indo-European or whether it is even older and goes back to the much earlier development of language itself.

In connection with this, it should be mentioned that Indo-European languages are divided into Eastern (Satem) and Western (Centum) languages. The Satem languages, also called Indo-Iranian, might be the main source of the Prodigal Son, which is a safe guess because it would put the origin of the story after the split between Satem and Centum, but still an awfully long time ago. (This concept has two problems: the most obvious being that we don't know when that split occurred but we are speaking in terms of more than ten thousand years ago; the other problem being that the "east/west split" is anything but neat because there are a couple of satem-like languages in the west and more than a couple of centum-like languages in the east, including one very centum-like ancient language, Tocharian, which has been found in western China.)

Now it occurs to me that the story of the Prodigal Son might go back to an oft told tale among populations that traveled eastward from central Asia carrying the Indo-European proto-language. Of course, one of the wrinkles here is that Aramaic, the language almost certainly spoken by Jesus, is a Semitic, not an Indo-European language, with a different history as long as but not basically mingled with that of Indo-European. So, a question arises whether the Prodigal Son existed in both Semitic and Indo-European languages and perhaps had more ancient roots, or if it was learned by Semitic language speakers from the Greeks, Hittites or Persians who are Indo-European speakers. Certainly, I now realize that the source of the commonality of the Prodigal Son is more complicated than I previously guessed.

The average person, certainly in the Christian world, assumes that Jesus invented all of the stories he told, largely because we have never heard any of these stories attributed to anyone else; although some might be aware that some of the aphorisms attributed to Jesus existed in common lore before. (“A physician should not treat a member of his own family,” “A prophet is not honored in his own country.”) And many of his aphorisms are readily acknowledged to be taken from the Hebrew Scriptures. On learning that his parables were not original, however, many Christians might suppose that something is being taken from Christ’s reputation, but I would suggest that this is not at all true.

What Jesus is revealed to be is an excellent story teller. If many of his parables were not original in their basic notion, Jesus tailored each of them to express his particular message. This can be best seen by comparing the Christian version of the Prodigal Son with the Buddhist version.

The first thing that one notices is that the Christian version is succinct whereas the Buddhist version is kind of a shaggy dog story. Both stories are about forgiveness, but the Buddhist version focuses on on the problem of perception and self-realization. Jesus rather cuts to the chase and makes the act of forgiveness unequivocal and recognized by all parties, including the jealous brother who plays no role in the Buddhist version. One of the hints that this is the same story, though, is that both prodigal sons leave their fathers and go off to have adventures in the world that lead to their ruin. Buddha goes into a long account of these adventures; whereas Christ simply tells us that these adventures occurred. In the Buddhist story, so much time has gone by that the father has become an old man whom his son does not recognize, even though the father knows right away who the son is. The father makes the son work for him as a hired hand for a time (In the Christian version, the son asks his father to make him a hired hand, but the father does not.) before finally revealing that they are father and son and offering forgiveness and reward (which, Lai points out, the son no more "deserves" in the Buddhist version than in the Christian one; it is a matter of grace or fatherly love in both instances). The Buddhist father is perhaps more an advocate of "tough love" than the Christian father is, but both fathers love and forgive their sons.

Christ short-circuits the longer version of the story by having the father instantly forgive the son. In this version, it becomes crucial for the older brother to stand in for the audience and ask the father how it is fair that the older brother who stayed with the family farm and worked as a hired hand is now treated no better than the one who went away and has belatedly come back. Christ has the father imply that your reward is available anytime you see the error of your ways and come back to the Father.

Jesus Christ did not necessarily invent the stories attributed to him, but he reworked and used them to express and illustrate his particular teachings.


Whalen Lai, "The Buddhist 'Prodigal Son': A story of misperception," The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, vol. 14, no. 2, 1981, pp. 91-98.

The Gospel According to Luke 15:11-32.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The art of knowing when not to say "I don't need you"

Asked whether he needs to mend fences with rival presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz in order to shore up the support of a unified Republican Party in the 2016 presidential race, Donald Trump declared recently that he doesn't need Cruz or his supporters to win the presidency in the Fall. Funny, I remember a story from business history that they probably didn't teach but should have at the Wharton School when Trump studied finance and commerce there.

In the early 1930s, there was a rivalry between the Radio Corporation of America (RCA, a spin off of General Electric [GE] that was later reabsorbed into the parent company) and inventor Philo Farnsworth over Farnsworth's invention, fully electronic television. RCA, headed by David Sarnoff, claimed that their employee, Vladimir Zworykin, was the real inventor of television. (Zworykin actually invented a mostly mechanical television system.)

When Sarnoff visited Farnsworth's laboratory in San Francisco, he first made an insultingly low offer for Farnsworth's patents and equipment, which Farnsworth turned down. Sarnoff angrily walked away, but not before taunting, "I don't need you!" meaning that he intended to proceed to develop electronic television as if he did own all of the rights to it. A notable aspect of this story is that Farnsworth was not really authorized to turn down Sarnoff's offer out of hand. He never had enough money to invent and develop television, so he had approached a group of businessmen to finance his research and production of a prototype television system. (Farnsworth invented both the TV camera and the TV set.) So he did go to his backers and told them how much Sarnoff had offered in case they wanted to overrule him and take the offer. They did not, because Sarnoff offered considerably less than what the investors had put into Farnsworth's television work. To take Sarnoff's offer, the investors would have lost money.

Years later, the Farnsworth Corporation met with RCA to negotiate in recognition of the fact that each side needed the rights to the others patents. RCA wound up paying Farnsworth millions of dollars more than Sarnoff's earlier low ball offer. Sarnoff's haughtiness and bad temper cost his company millions that could have been saved if Sarnoff had made Farnsworth's investors a more reasonable offer. Similarly, now Trump seems to have allowed his ego to get in the way of doing what he needs to do to get what he wants.

Meanwhile, Cruz has indicated his openness to mending fences with former rival candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, despite the fact that any deal between the two cannot be made at this early date. Cruz's willingness to bury the hatchet (and Rubio's expressed desire to do so, as well) means that unity or partial unity is a real future possibility.

Incidentally, there are other candidates who have been intriguingly floated as Cruz's vice-president, even though all such considerations amount to counting chickens before they have hatched. Possible choices that have been suggested include Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) and Carly Fiorina, the business woman from California. Ideas for Trump's vice-presidential running mates have also included Rubio and Walker but not Fiorina and not Cruz. Curiously, Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) seems not to be mentioned much despite his endorsement of Trump almost on the heels of Christie's suspension of his own campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Character Matters

Ordinarily, I try not to insert as much of my political bias into "milestakesonhistory" as I do in my other blog, "prostheticgod." However, I am compelled to recognize that we are in a historical moment, and political views are very much part of it.

Donald Trump has created the most profound divide in the conservative movement. I used to think that conservatives were likeminded allies regardless of whether I might disagree with them on a few issues or about their personalities, approach or demeanor. Now I am not sure how much if at all those little differences were warnings of some deeper divide. In some cases I do not think they were, but I fear that conservatives will never look at each other in the same way again.

I believe that the United States is in very dire straits. Over the past 150 years, the power of the federal government has increased, and, more significantly, the beliefs of American leadership have more and more embraced the potential growth of the size, power and scope of government. With the rise of the Progressive movement, in the years and decades following the Civil War, people like Woodrow Wilson, who would not have been given a seat at the dinner table by any of the Founding Fathers, came more and more within the tent of acceptability in political thinking. With World War I, Progressivism became acceptable to an elite that, though out of power during much of the 1920s, always stood in the wings, their policies toward banking, legislative and executive authority enshrined in law and practiced and held at bay without having been rolled back, ready to come back in 1928 and thereafter. Since then, no one has done any more than hold the wolf of tyranny at bay, leaving it alive to stalk our liberty at the next election of someone who is ready to unleash the wolf.
In the past several administrations—including for this entire century, so far—our presidents have very much championed an imperial presidency under which the executive branch and its bureaucratic departments have taken it on themselves to promulgate regulations that are indistinguishable from laws except that no elected person voted for them, and they have exercised the authority to enforce these regulations without control or oversight. Rule by executive order has been undertaken as if the executive has the right to pass laws, which right is constitutionally only ceded to the legislature. (This is sometimes a problem at the gubernatorial level as well as the presidential.)
I do not believe that any individual as president or senator or governor or any other office can be enough to make the vital difference of reviving the ethos that does make the United States of America exceptional. That exceptionalism has been so reduced by the  ridicule of the Democratic Party that it needs to be described now. This country is among the few nations that has ever been created according to an explicit philosophy, and the only one created so deliberately according to design that it took into account the balance of power between different interests. In this, the plan was not perfect, but it was good enough to leave a long lasting structure that could yet be improved upon according to the original philosophy behind it.

Ultimately, the renewal of the United States will depend on the renewal of its people, not its leaders, who have by and large been followers of the zeitgeist not, in the contemporary parlance, “thought leaders.” But it would help if we started by electing individuals to key positions who are “with it” in terms of understanding what needs to be done. Who understand where America’s greatness came from.

In the present crisis, I am impressed that those conservatives who support Donald Trump can just as passionately as I believe that we are both in a crisis and that it is at least of some importance to elect the right person as president of the United States. And some of them, at least, perhaps realize that the right person in the presidency is not sufficient even though it might be necessary. Even so, I confess to being dumbfounded to see that they think that Trump is the right man. To me, this cannot be conceivable. Donald Trump is so abrasive that he is burning bridges behind him wherever he goes. His knowledge of politics is woefully impractical, his understanding of the principles that make America great and successful are almost utterly lacking, and his empathy for his fellow human beings is breathtakingly absent. It is not that his opponents have actively rejected him so much as that his rejection of his opponents has met them more than half-way.

Ted Cruz cannot single-handedly save America, but his character is so far ahead of Donald Trump’s that his election to the presidency will make a true start in the sense that a compass that reliably points north and guides us according to our map is true. I have difficulty understanding the thinking of people who firmly believe that Trump can save America, make it “great again” and not only that but that he is the only one who can save America.

This was the judgment of our Founders when they made George Washington the first president because they saw that he had the character to lead the new nation in the spirit of the blueprint of the Constitution. This was even the judgment of Alexander Hamilton when he spent his political capital—and ultimately risked and lost his life—to promote the election of Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr. Hamilton detested Jefferson’s politics, but he regarded him as a man of character, whereas he saw Burr as a man of the lowest character. Burr went on to kill Hamilton in a duel and later to attempt to carve his own empire out of the western territories, for which he was subsequently convicted treason. Character matters. Only Ted Cruz has it.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Donald Trump divides American talk radio and The new is Alt as a European-style right wing rises in America

I listen to a lot of conservative talk radio and still can’t say I am an expert because I cannot cover everything that is out there, but I can give my impressions of what I have heard so far in 2016.

The presidential campaign of Donald Trump has decisively caused a fracture to appear in the on-air conservative universe. There were certainly fissures before the summer of 2015, when arguments over Trump’s candidacy really took off, but the divide that has developed since then was not as easy to discern as it is now. Differences in philosophy, in what it means to say, “I’m a conservative,” were always there but not so clear as they have become.

Rush Limbaugh is a good place to start only because he is right when he only half-jokingly says, “When they say ‘talk radio’, they really mean me.” He has been on the national airwaves since 1988, and I have been listening to him since the early 1990s, when there were no other national conservative talkers. Limbaugh has always been a curious mixture. Born in 1950 and a radio personality since his teens, he knows the radio business inside and out. He can talk almost without pause for three hours a day, five days a week, with very few vacations. The grandson, son and brother of attorneys, Limbaugh has a sharp mind, but sometimes his college dropout status shows, as when he has been serially misusing a set of words, including “dichotomy,” for twenty-eight years. (I have finally decided that he is misusing those words deliberately; after a quarter century, you would think he would find out what they really mean.) There is a reason why survey have shown that most of those in Limbaugh’s audience have more education than he does: His knowledge of politics and his incisive analysis social trends are uncannily prescient.

Limbaugh has never endorsed a Republican candidate during a primary season. In 1992, Limbaugh only attacked Ross Perot out of the gate because Perot was always a third-party candidate. I always had the impression that Limbaugh calculated whether he was a conservative or a Republican first, but I believed him when he said that he was a conservative first, but that he regarded the Republican Party as the only viable vessel of conservatism. More recently, however, Limbaugh has said that he does not want to be the curator of conservatism, even as he has admitted that, among the current candidates for the Republican nomination for president, Ted Cruz is Mr. Conservative, while Donald Trump does not understand conservatism and answers questions about his purported conservative beliefs by relying on what his liberal friends have told him conservatives believe. (Hence The Donald’s expressed opinion that women who have abortions should be punished when virtually no actual conservative takes such a position.)

Limbaugh wants to keep himself pristine for the general election. After the Republican Party chooses its nominee in Cleveland this July, Limbaugh wants to be able to come out for whoever that nominee is, without having criticized said nominee up to that point. The only criticism Limbaugh has ever given Trump has taken the form of friendly advice. Strongly worded advice at one or two points, but friendly advice, nonetheless.

Another talk-show host, Mark Levin, tried at first to take a neutral position just as Limbaugh did, but this did not last. As volatile of temper as he is brilliant of intellect, and an attorney and author who worked in the administration of President Ronald Reagan for eight years, Levin began to criticize Trump for the same things that Limbaugh did, but where Limbaugh offered it as friendly advice, Levin angrily rebuked Trump’s rhetoric and below-the-belt attacks on his rivals. By March, Levin had had enough of looking the other way and trying to excuse Trump. Levin openly endorsed Cruz and declared that Trump had lost him when he turned from the issues to personal attacks, making it nearly impossible for the debates and campaigns to focus on important issues.

Transcending Limbaugh’s strict impartiality so far as the nomination is concerned, Levin has repeatedly harped on the polls that show that Trump cannot defeat likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in a general election. What good does it do to refrain from criticizing Trump, Levin implicitly is asking Limbaugh, if it means sitting by while the worst standard bearer for the Republican Party leads the party to certain defeat?

Glenn Beck is perhaps the most popular American day-time radio talk-show host. He has long been a critic of the Republican Party, but he generally supported the Republican nominees of the past several elections, even when he expressed serious policy disagreements with George W. Bush and the weak campaign tactics of the John McCain and Mitt Romney debacles. This time around, he has declared that he is tired of backing someone that he has to make excuses for. He endorsed and has actively campaigned for Ted Cruz, saying that this is the guy for whom no excuses are necessary. He has to correct people’s misconceptions, yes, but that is different from hearing criticism of a candidate and having to say, You are right but he is still better than the Democratic party’s alternative.

Donald Trump’s campaign tried to say that Beck only turned against Trump after Trump refused to go on Beck’s program; however, the evidence is clear that Beck was taking Trump to task for two or more months before he asked Trump to submit to a radio interview. Who was getting back at whom for perceived slights is the opposite way around from the way Trump would like us to think. Beck has been relentless in attacking Trump for a lack of principles in or out of politics. He goes so far as to suggest that Trump is like President Barack Obama in unflattering ways: a narcissistic know-it-all who lacks any real-world understanding of political-economy and a dictator’s approach to getting things done in government.

Other talk-show hosts have either remained neutral, like Sean Hannity, or come out in favor of Trump, like Laura Ingraham. I recently heard Betsy McCoughey, sitting in (or “standing in,” as she preferred) for Ingraham, interview Ann Coulter, a columnist and very frequent talk-show guest who has come out strongly in favor of Trump. The level of rationalization in the conversation was breath-taking as Coulter accused Trump opponents of “groupthink” without any sense of the irony that it takes enormous groupthink on her part tow the campaign party line and make excuses for Trump’s verbal and behavioral gaffes throughout his campaign in general and during the last few weeks in particular.

Everything New is Alt Right

During all of this, I have discovered, especially due to Limbaugh’s openness to listening to Trump supporters of all ilks, that there is something called “Alternative right” or Alt right for short. It turns out that this is nothing new. At its most intellectual level, this is what Beck labeled the European Right years ago. This is what Europe thinks is conservatism, an amalgamation of monarchists, authoritarians and crypto-(and-not-so-crypto)fascists. In its American branch, Alt right is not infrequently—though by no means always—neo-Nazi or Ku Klux Klan-friendly. This is not to say that all Alt-right thinkers are either monarchists or fascists. For one thing, those ideologies do not fit comfortably into Americanism, which is why Beck labeled it “European.” Instictively, I believe that many American Alt-righters think of themselves as beign in the American tradition of populism. Unfortunately, like the nineteenth-century American populists, Alt-righters are consciously or unconsciously progressives and post-constitutionalsts. To them, the U.s. Constitution has not necessarily got any answers to our problems. Cutting the Gordian knot of our social problems means putting the right people in charge and establishing the right policies, and has nothing to do with adhering to traditional American principles.

What does mark the Alt right is a visceral xenophobia that rejects flood-level immigration not because it makes cultural assimilation difficult to impossible, but because they reject assimilation virtually altogether. One gets the impression, in talking to Alt-righters, that they regard ethnic conflict as stemming from ethnicity itself and not merely from bad political-economic policies toward immigration.

To the extent that Alt-right implies nationalism, I find myself rejecting Alt right for an Alt-right reason: it isn’t American. Not that Alt right is quite nationalistic in some of its forms. The blogsite is very international in its outlook, viewing cultural purity as an aspiration of every culture. This leads to some strange bedfellows as a friendly interview treats Russian philosopher and the political theorist of “Eurasianism,” Alexader Dugin, quite seriously as he talks down U.S. hegemony while promoting Russian aggression and hegemony. The Ukraine is the aggressor in its conflict with Russia according to Dugin and his Alt-right proponents. Dugin meddles in American politics by promoting Ron Paul and Donald Trump because they both seem to favor a less energetic U.S. foreign policy. (Does Trump really? While he has suggested that the U.S. get out of NATO, Trump has also made very aggressive noises toward ISIS.) The bottom line on the Alt right is opposition to cultural mixing. Whatever else he is for, Dugin is most in synch with his Alt-right allies when he talks about keeping Britain for the Brits, France for the French, Russia for the Russians (except where the Ukraine is concerned on the grounds that the Ukraine has always been part of Russia*), and America for the Americans. He sympathizes with Trump’s position against immigration (never mind that Trump cannot keep the ins and outs of his own policy straight) as do the broad coalition of Alt-righters in the United States. Trump may not be a crypto-fascist himself, but he is pandering to crypto-fascists.

*Indeed, in medieval times the Ukraine RULED Russia; how would Dugin like to go back to that?