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September 1, 2003 Mail

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I do send out some odd email, and receive equally odd email in return.  Here I will print some of it, with, now and then, my responses.   Before I post anyone's writing, I will ask your permission to post your comments and whether I should use your name or not, or use an alias you wish to use.
The mail flies back and forth regarding the Ten Commandments in Alabama and in history, and the mail flies from Albany to Paris and back regarding a high-level practical joke ...

On Wednesday the 27th the five thousand pound granite monument of the Ten Commandments was removed from the Alabama state courthouse.  The Dow-Jones Industrial Average then closed down 6.66 points.  Coincidence, or a sign of the apocalypse coming?  You remember that 666 in the Mark of the Beast in Revelations. 
We report.  You decide.
I emailed that to my online discussion group and one fellow replied -
Cute!  And was this numerological miracle brought to us by the same cosmic forces that, on the 1st anniversary of 9/11, arranged for the winning number of New York's Cash 3 lottery to be "911"? 
Still, I'd be more convinced in this case if it were an even "666," without the decimals.  If indeed the antichrist is sending us a message, his use of "6.66" would seem to suggest a somewhat hesitant and minimalist apocalypse, don't you think?
Of course then I sent out a copy of a Christopher Hitchens article I found posted on the Slate magazine site - Moore's Law: The Immorality of the Ten Commandments.
It opens, "The row over the boulder-sized version of the so-called 'Ten Commandments,' and as to whether they should be exhibited in such massive shape on public property, misses the opportunity to consider these top-ten divine ordinances and their relationship to original intent."

Well, for once I actually agreed with Christopher Hitchens in both his argument and tone.  Here the snooty British intellectual seemed to be channeling both George Carlin and Hunter Thompson.
One is presuming (is one not?) that this is the same god who actually created the audience he was addressing. This leaves us with the insoluble mystery of why he would have molded ("in his own image," yet) a covetous, murderous, disrespectful, lying, and adulterous species. Create them sick, and then command them to be well? What a mad despot this is, and how fortunate we are that he exists only in the minds of his worshippers. 
Hitchens went on to suggest that the first four of the commandments have little to do with either law or morality, and the first three suggest a "terrific insecurity" on the part of the person supposedly issuing them. 
Well, they are about not having graven images, and making sure you don't have any other god you kind of like, and not taking God's name in vain, and making sure you keep the Sabbath - but whether starting on Friday night or Sunday morning is unclear of course.

As for the rest?
The next instruction is to honor one's parents: a harmless enough idea, but again unenforceable in law and inapplicable to the many orphans that nature or god sees fit to create. That there should be no itemized utterance enjoining the protection of children seems odd, given that the commandments are addressed in the first instance to adults. But then, the same god frequently urged his followers to exterminate various forgotten enemy tribes down to the last infant, sparing only the virgins, so this may be a case where hand-tying or absolute prohibitions were best avoided.
Then there are the commandments forbidding murder and theft, something even atheists and druids agree is just fine - forbid them.  No one likes that stuff.
But Hitchens points out that the middle-ranking commandments, of which the chief one has long been confusingly rendered "thou shalt not kill," leave us none the wiser "as to whether the almighty considers warfare to be murder, or taxation and confiscation to be theft. Tautology hovers over the whole enterprise."

And he sardonically covers the items on perjury and adultery and covetousness and concludes -
It's obviously too much to expect that a Bronze Age demagogue should have remembered to condemn drug abuse, drunken driving, or offenses against gender equality, or to demand prayer in the schools. Still, to have left rape and child abuse and genocide and slavery out of the account is to have been negligent to some degree, even by the lax standards of the time. I wonder what would happen if secularists were now to insist that the verses of the Bible that actually recommend enslavement, mutilation, stoning, and mass murder of civilians be incised on the walls of, say, public libraries? There are many more than ten commandments in the Old Testament, and I live for the day when Americans are obliged to observe all of them, including the ox-goring and witch-burning ones. (Who is Judge Moore to pick and choose?)
Too many editorialists have described the recent flap as a silly confrontation with exhibitionist fundamentalism, when the true problem is our failure to recognize that religion is not just incongruent with morality but in essential ways incompatible with it.
Strong stuff. 
And my friend wrote back:
Still, when he says that "the same god frequently urged his followers to exterminate various forgotten enemy tribes down to the last infant, sparing only the virgins," it's worth noting for the record that, as Karen Armstrong hints in her A History of God, the God of the Jews may not have been the same god in every sense of the word; that El Shaddai, the god who commanded Abraham to kill his son (before changing his mind) may not have really been Yahweh, the god that laid down the "thou shalt not kill" rule much later in Jewish history.
Also of note (although not Hitchens' point here) is that there exists more than one version of the Ten Commandments.  For one thing, the version used by Jews, as well as most Protestant, Anglicans and Orthodox Christians, has the no-graven-image commandment as number two, while Catholics and Lutherans combine that one into the first, and round out the ten by breaking the tenth, about coveting thy neighbor's stuff, into two separate commandments.  For another thing, the wording varies between the two.  So depending on which one was chosen by Judge Moore, he had to have been offending somebody.
This confusion of numbers must, of course, be awfully confusing for Saint Peter as he tries to figure out what you did wrong when you say with a smile and wink that you "repeatedly broke Commandment #7," with him frantically looking up in your file to see whether you're an Anglican or are a Lutheran.
Another friend wrote, "Then of course, there's the Mel Brooks version of the Commandments.  'God hath given me these fifteen (oops, smash, crash) - ten - Ten Commandments for all to obey!"
To which the first fellow wrote: "Yeah, I think about that version all the time!  And for all we know about real history, that's what actually happened!  Makes one wonder what five rules got lost in the shuffle."
Yep.  I wonder too.
A second exchange centered on an AFP story, carried by Associated Press and Reuters also, and lot of news services.  It seems a French TV show pulled a practical joke on the White House:
It seems US President George W. Bush is not the only person in the White House who draws the line at the French sense of humour. His chef, Walter Scheib, also found the Gauls galling after being the target of a gag for French TV, it was reported Thursday.
According to Le Parisien daily, Scheib was approached by a woman pretending to be French President Jacques Chirac's wife Bernadette with a request: Would he consider switching presidential pads to make hamburgers and pizzas for Jacques?
The answer, despite the brouhaha over "Freedom Fries", French wine boycotts and the small issue of working for a man Scheib's current boss has little time for, was "yes", the newspaper said.
But when he found out it was all a set-up for a popular Candid Camera-style programme called "On a Tout Essaye" (We've Tried Everything), Scheib grew furious.
He reportedly contacted the White House, which in turn called Chirac's office to demand that the embarrassing scene be cut from the TV show.
The newspaper said it appeared that the public network France 2 decided to bow to the request and avoid a diplomatic incident, but that the US administration had such a sour taste in its mouth it was asking for a formal apology from French officials.
I image a conservative friend of mine might say something like this:
I for one am relieved the White House took the time to demand this item never be shown on French television, and that the French complied.  It is important that our government makes sure the French public does not see certain things.  And we need to assert that although Americans have a wonderful sense of humor (see Jerry Lewis) there are limits.  We saved their cowardly sniveling butts in 1944-45 and respect is due.  This is not proper respect. 
And so on and so forth.
And a friend wrote from Paris:
  • But what about the photo of Walter Scheib in Thursday's edition of Le Parisien?  Must it be suppressed too?
  • Photo shows Walter, wearing chef's working costume, having his papers checked by gendarme at entrance to the Elysée Palace.
  • Show producer Thierry Ardisson was quoted as saying the gag worked perfectly. Le Parisien wondered if he would still be laughing if the Americans demanded 'excuses' from France.
  • From what I know about Ardisson, if the French govenment actually comes up with an apology, this will be another good, maybe better gag.
And this was wrapped up by a comment from Albany, New York - "So Bush's staff is as humorless as he is."
My final comment was that having a passing interesting in cooking, I sometimes glace at some show or other now and then on the Food Network.  Chefs who have become "important" strike me as petty, mean, arrogant and, at the core, far more humorless than most politicians.
So the joke was more about pretensions than politics?  Maybe it was.  And maybe it wasn't.