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Five Things: Where Is the Outrage?

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It's almost too easy to get outraged and worked up over the rude and brainless propaganda spouted off by a banker/politician.

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"Then did Ur-Nammu the mighty warrior, king of Ur, king of Sumer and Akkad, by the might of Nanna, lord of the city, and in accordance with the true word of Utu, establish equity in the land; he banished malediction, violence and strife, and set the monthly Temple expenses at 90 gur of barley, 30 sheep, and 30 sila of butter. He fashioned the bronze sila-measure, standardized the one-mina weight, and standardized the stone weight of a shekel of silver in relation to one mina."
- Prologue to The Code of Ur-Nammu

And so it was, the orphan was not delivered up to the rich man; the widow was not delivered up to the mighty man; the man of one shekel was not delivered up to the man of one mina. Right. That's some heavy, high-minded stuff, especially when you consider that those words were chiseled into clay more than 4,000 years ago. But like all laws made by men, for men, the nut of it is just one more case of over-promising and under-delivering.

"Then did Ur-Nammu the mighty warrior, king of Ur, king of Sumer and Akkad, by the might of Nanna, lord of the city, and in accordance with the true word of Utu, establish equity in the land; he banished malediction, violence and strife..."

Ah yes. There it is, the promise of The Code of Ur-Nammu: the banishment of malediction, violence and strife... when all that's really being delivered is the quantification of it all, the price tag, the cost. But fair enough.

History geeks and legal scholars claim the Code of Ur-Nammu is the earliest known written legal code of which a copy has been found. The code, such that it is, outlines legal remedies for various insults, injuries and adulterous activities, especially among slaves. The ancients apparently frowned on slave capers and shenanigans.

For example, "If a man's slave-woman, comparing herself to her mistress, speaks insolently to her, her mouth shall be scoured with 1 quart of salt." Also, "If a slave escapes from the city limits, and someone returns him, the owner shall pay two shekels to the one who returned him." And then there's this puzzler, "If a slave marries a slave, and that slave is set free, he does not leave the household."

To say our own legal system owes a debt of gratitude to the Code of Ur-Nammu would be an understatement. The bizarre catch-22 in that slave marriage ordinance reads like 87% of the code on our own legal books.

It's tempting to compare the several dozen surviving ancient Nammu codes to our own and conclude that as a society we're somehow "advanced", that we've "evolved" or at least made some vague notion of "progress" over the course of 4,000 years. Tempting, but wrong. And never was that more clear than it was last week while watching former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson sweating nervously before Congress and blurting out queer non-sequiturs laced with random financial acronyms.

Ordinarily, at this point I would gather a list of Paulson's quotes and parse through them like a competent journalist might, but for someone who relies on writing to "earn a living" it would be professional suicide to make a conscious effort to sit and physically type any of his sentences. Listening to them was enough. The ugly assemblage of half-truths, obfuscations, smarmy evasiveness and prickly showboating would have embarrassed Bernie Madoff. But it wasn't Bernie Madoff. It was a former United States Treasury Secretary.

But so what? It's too easy to get outraged and worked up over the rude and brainless propaganda spouted off by a banker/politician. It's like a Mets fan getting worked up when Albert Pujols hits a home run. What's the point?

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