Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Narnia, Game of Thrones, and the Stormlight Chronicles: the Reenchantmant of Fantasy (Part I)


(Happy birthday to Lionel Spiegel.)

I drive my son Kalman to and from pre-school most weekdays. In the car, he usually asks to listen to Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. You can clock an average trip as the amount of time it takes to get from the beginning of the book until Mr. Tumnus confesses that he is in the pay of the White Witch as her kidnapper. Kalman knows that the White Witch is bad because she is the government and she makes it always winter. I guess I can live with him not picking up on the "and never Christmas" part.

Lewis opened with one of the finest dedications ever. Writing to Lucy Barfield, the daughter of fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield, Lewis apologized to the teenage girl that she grew up faster than he could write but he hopes that one day she will be old enough to read fairy tales once again. This a good example of one of the key concepts in Lewis' writing, reenchantment; that one can once again fall in love with the things of childhood that one's more cynical self had abandoned as part of "growing up."

Reenchantment should be understood as a response to Max Weber's notion of disenchantment and Friederich Nietzsche's more poetic "God is dead." Disenchantment is the notion that under modernity our very way of thinking is materialistic and does not allow us to truly operate within a supernaturalist framework. For example, early in the Wardrobe, the other children are simply unable to believe that Lucy has traveled to Narnia; to them, it is simply not possible that she could be anything else but either a liar or insane. They are prejudiced against belief even though logically there is nothing to suggest that portals to other universes do not exist.

It is important to understand that contrary to conventional secularist theories of modernity, Weber was not claiming that modernity had intellectually refuted religion and people, particularly the educated, will no longer believe. On the contrary, such a prospect will cause many people to cling more tightly than ever to the outward forms of religion. Thus, it may even appear that religion is doing better than ever under modernity with more people attending church and insisting on hardline fundamentalist interpretations of the faith. That being said, such religiosity only serves to cover for the fact that religion has been fossilized into something that people practice out of tradition but lacks the ability to truly inspire its adherents. In this sense, disenchantment stands as a far graver threat to religion than simple secularism. If people were convinced by argument to abandon religion then it might be possible to engage in apologetics and win them back. On the other hand, if people stopped believing not because of any argument without even realizing that they no longer believed then it is practically impossible to ever bring them back.

In addition to religious disenchantment, Lewis, in his own personal experience, confronted a more tangible disenchantment, World War I. Lewis was part of a generation of young Englishmen, who listened to their teachers and did the "right and honorable thing;" they marched off to the French trenches to be slaughtered in the mud, sacrificed to pay for the political and military miscalculations of their elders.

World War I was the death of heroism. In an earlier generation, a man could be said to be brave to stand tall in the face of enemy fire and resolutely march forward. One might die in the attempt but one could believe that he was sacrificing himself to spur his comrades on to victory. During World War I, that became suicide. Thus, the very ethos of heroism led men to their deaths in utter futility. It should be emphasized that dying was never the issue. Young men have always been marched off to war by their elders and died in great numbers. What was new here was this sense of futility that robbed one even of the ability to honor the dead for their sacrifice. By contrast, World War II could once again offer a cause to die for even as it brought the new disenchantment of the massive aerial bombardment of urban centers. As with disenchantment with religion, what was at stake was less an intellectual attack on heroism but the inability, at a gut level, to take heroism seriously in the first place. Someone who seems heroic must either be a scoundrel trying to deceive others or a fool to have bought into such nonsense. 

As with fellow veteran J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis' use of fantasy can be seen as an attempt to become reenchanted with heroism. For example, in Narnia, the children are able to abandon the air raids of World War II for a land in which chivalry is still possible. This reenchantment must be understood as something distinct from enchantment. The horrors of the World Wars were real and there can be no going back. That being said, the fantasies of Lewis and Tolkien were attempts to acknowledge the incomprehensible horror of what they experienced yet still allow for heroism. If the blood and the mud were real, the courage shown by the men was equally real.

This project of using fantasy to resurrect heroism must be understood within a larger effort to bring about the reenchantment with religion. Was it not that earlier generation of disenchanted believers with their mixture of Christian ritual now supplemented with a sense of duty to king and country and a confidence in progress all while being hopelessly naive regarding the implications of industrialized warfare that had sent all those young men to die? Perhaps, it was not heroism that was obsolete, but the ideologies of modernity? (See Joseph Loconte's Hobbit, a Wardrobe and a Great War.)

If one could recover heroism, perhaps it could lead back to faith and to a religion that might once again be relevant to a modern world. As Screwtape, the Satan of Lewis' disenchanted world, notes, the very fact that non-believers (much like the teenage Lewis, who was then an atheist) march off to war, to give themselves to a cause larger than themselves places them at risk of becoming open to the "enemy." Part of what is going on here is the ability to believe in things that are beyond the physical senses. Disenchantment works precisely by taking the physical as the gold standard of what is real. Thus, before the debate even begins, the spiritual has already lost to be relegated to being less real. The moment we introduce something that is non-physical yet more real than the world of the senses, the spell of disenchantment is broken and the process of reenchantment can begin. 

Regardless of this wider religious context, a major aspect of Lewis and Tolkien's legacy to fantasy as a genre has been a kind of optimistic faith in heroism in the face of modern cynicism. (In Lord of the Rings, this optimism is only sharpened by the fact that the book is fundamentally a tragedy.) Thus, it could only be expected that if Lewis and Tolkien represented a kind of enchantment with heroic fantasy, it would produce a backlash of disenchanted fantasy. The most important example of this has been George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones series. This series is a repeated exercise in both the physical and ideological murder of heroism. Those like Ned Stark and his son Robb, who risk themselves doing the right thing, do not come out ahead. It is not even that they die achieving some noble goal. On the contrary, they come to ignominious ends marked by utter futility. On the other side, you have the anti-heroism of Jaime Lannister. Jaime commits regicide and incest even as the former probably saved lives and he is faithful to his sister as his one true love. To Martin's credit, Jaime fails to be a simple caricature of chivalry. Rather, (much like the more comic Harry Flashman), readers can still love Jaime for his simple honesty in knowing himself to be a scoundrel. In a world without moral absolutes, hypocrisy is the only sin and honesty in one's sinfulness the only virtue.               

Friday, November 17, 2017

War Criminals, Lone Wolves, and Terrorists: Definitions and Implications


With the recent rash of shootings has come a renewed debate over the distinction between a terrorist and a lone wolf. (Clearly, both whites and non-whites can be terrorists.) With Islamic terrorism and the Israeli-Arab conflict always in the news, there is the debate as to what is terrorism and what is a war crime. These issues tend to bog down into polemics so there is a benefit to offering specific definitions for the sake of clarity. Imagine three criminals standing before you, an SS officer, an angry white man and a member of ISIS. All three of them have murdered a classroom full of children so there is no doubt that they are all very bad people, who deserve punishment. The question becomes how they may be treated. The SS officer and the white man, as a war criminal and a lone wolf, have rights while the ISIS terrorist does not.

The SS officer is in uniform and a member of the German armed forces. As such, though he is a war criminal, he is protected by the social contract your country has with Germany. We must accept that he has rights and cannot simply be tortured to death. There is a benefit to declaring him a war criminal in that the German government, by putting him in uniform, has placed its entire leadership and population as guarantors of his good conduct. Ultimately, they are the ones truly responsible for his conduct; the fact that he is the immediate cause of the crime is incidental. Think of the uniform as a loan contract in much the same way as a paper currency that can be called in. The government can disavow the soldier; at which point the uniform becomes null and void. This would render our war criminal an out of uniform combatant and thus a spy/saboteur. As such he has no rights and can be tortured or killed at will without trial. Alternatively, his government can choose to acknowledge the soldier, but this would force them to make some kind of restitution to the satisfaction of the victim's government (or social contract insurance agency). Failure to do so would allow the government to take to seek satisfaction in blood. This would allow for the bombardment of German civilian populations and, afterward, the execution of German political leaders.

The lone wolf shooter is not protected by any uniform but, even though he is a criminal, he is still a citizen with rights. His crime does not imply a larger rejection of the social contract so the social contract continues to protect him. As such, he must be given a trial. To be clear, what makes him a lone wolf and not a terrorist is the fact that he lacks any larger material and ideological support structure. This, admittedly, can make it difficult to tell the difference between a lone wolf and a terrorist. It is quite possible that the entire distinction may rest on the discovery of a pamphlet in the person's possession or a history of visiting a terrorist website.

This brings us to the terrorist. The most important thing about a terrorist is that he is an out of uniform combatant just like a spy/saboteur. This means that not only is it permissible to not grant him any rights, it may be necessary. Consider that the distinction between soldiers and civilians is crucial to the maintenance of civilized order even and especially in a time of war. This distinction requires that soldiers be easily identifiable with uniforms. Unless the penalties for violating that distinction are severe no country would ever bother to hold them.

Not only is the terrorist, by definition, guilty of endangering civilization by undermining the social contract, the so-called human rights activist who attempts to grant the terrorist rights is also guilty as he has rendered the line between soldier and civilian meaningless. Thus, we must recognize an antinomian "true" human rights, which involves torturing the terrorist. The very act of torturing the terrorist, regardless of the information he might provide, is protecting civilians from harm. The belief in the principle that terrorists do not have rights is precisely what is giving civilians rights. The person who objects to this is himself the real violator of human rights and it is as if he personally tortured innocent people. (To be clear, what is necessary is the belief in the moral rightness of torturing terrorists, which likely requires the occasional literal fulfillment. This acceptance allows for demonstrations of mercy in individual cases. Just because the Law is righteous does not mean it is always right to fulfill the Law.)

As you recall, the distinction between a terrorist and a lone wolf killer is the existence of a material and ideological support system. What differentiates the terrorist from a war criminal is that the terrorist's support structure is not one with which we have any kind of implied social contract relationship. We need to respect the rights of the war criminal in order to demonstrate that we were true to the social contract and justify placing his country's leadership and people outside of it. By contrast, we never had any kind of social contract with the terrorist organization. Furthermore, terrorist organizations, while they may possess a leadership and funders, lack a clearly identified civilian population to pay the price for their crimes. For example, while it was morally permissible to bomb German cities for Nazi war crimes, bombing Afghani cities in retaliation for Al-Qaeda terrorist crimes would have been far more problematic. Since there are no civilians to pay for terrorist crimes, we are justified in pursuing the leadership in a more aggressive fashion. Since terrorist leaders may prove more elusive than war criminal political leaders, this leaves the captured terrorist to pay the full weight of the crime. This is despite the fact that ultimately his role was only incidental as compared to the terrorist leaders who planned the action and provided the physical and ideological support to make it possible.

A large part of the debate over who counts as a terrorist revolves around the implied assumption of a support structure. For example, if you already accept the existence of an entity called "radical Islam" or that Islam is an inherently violent religion than you will be inclined to see any violent Muslim as a terrorist. On the other hand, if you believe that complaints about Islamic extremism are simply cover for "Islamophobia" than you will dismiss any charge of terrorism. Similarly, in regards to white supremacists, if you believe that there really is something racist underlying white American culture than you are going to be more likely to see someone like Dylann Roof, who massacred a black church bible study group in Charleston, as a terrorist instead of simply as a misguided and disturbed young man.

Keep in mind that the distinction between lone wolf and terrorist lies completely within the realm of intention; was the crime committed as part of a larger conspiracy by a non-social contract organization to pursue their political goals. It is not just the individual terrorist that we need to make assumptions about but a wider network of people to the point of even calling them a group. Therefore, as none of us can read minds, we can never prove whether someone is one or the other; it is simply a judgment call. This has become even more so in recent years as the line between the terrorist support structure and its perpetrators have become more tenuous. For example, the 9/11 hijackers received direct material support from Al-Qaeda so it is very difficult to pretend that they were just some guys who decided on their own to crash planes into buildings. Contrast this with ISIS terrorists where ISIS merely has to operate a website and angry Muslims draw inspiration to engage in ramming and knifing attacks. It is hard to say that someone who happens to read an ISIS website before committing murder is an ISIS terrorist.

The consequences of who gets the terrorist label are literally a matter of life and death and demand caution. If Islamic terrorism exists. than someone operating a pro-ISIS website calling for jihad is a terrorist and can be shot on sight without the benefit of a trial. (As per the Julius Streicher principle, such speech is not really speech but a conspiracy to commit murder.) If we are wrong, then we have a martyr for free-speech on our hand. Before you give the go-ahead to killing radical Islamic bloggers consider that by the same logic we should probably recognize that white supremacists exist as a movement and not just disturbed individuals, then the government should have responded to the Charleston shooting by going door to door and executing white supremacist bloggers and radio show hosts, particularly those that directly influenced Roof.

While we can never prove anything in any particular case, we can demand intellectual consistency. If you are quick to condemn Islamic terrorism, but bend over backward to deny that there can be white supremacist terrorists there is a problem. Similarly, if you refrain from using the terrorist label unless they are white men, you are not being honest.





Monday, October 23, 2017

Sunshine: A Miami Boys Choir Vampire Musical (Part III)


(Part II)


The vampires attack Uman on Rosh Hashanah knowing that they would find many Jews with a demonstrated predilection for the dark side of idolatry and antinomianism. Rebbe Frost quickly converts the class to vampire Judaism. The only survivor is Chananya Yom Tov Lipa Katznellenbogenstein. (I know that he is a Shmuel Kunda creation, but bear with me.) Because of the events of the Magic Yarmulka, Chananya has become an excellent punchball player and a committed rationalist. He no longer believes in magic (yarmulka or otherwise) and strives to improve himself by working hard enough to match his God-given intelligence. He had refused to go on the class trip to Uman, saving his soul twice over. 


Chananya is left in a deep spiritual crisis. How could it be that his rebbe and the entire class would so easily abandon halakhic Judaism? Does not the existence of vampires prove that magic exists and refute science? Chananya decides to follow in the rationalist footsteps of the spy Caleb, who resisted the call of the antinomian spies by visiting the Cave of Machpelah to pray. He refuses to go to Rachel's Tomb because he found the Abie Rotenberg song to be idolatrous. God forbid that a monotheist Jew like Chananya would even think of praying to the patriarchs. On the contrary, Chananya only wishes to better contemplate their pious example so that his faith in reason (and the source of all reason) can be rectified.


It is therefore to Chananya's great surprise that he meets the patriarch Jacob, who had been living his undead existence in the cave for more than three-thousand years. Chananya expresses his ambiguous feelings in joining Team Jacob with "I Want to Know."


I want to know if I should care

I want to know if there is cause to fear 

Chananya wants to know if there is any point in continuing to struggle against vampire antinomianism. He also wants to know if he should be afraid that a vampire like Jacob might bite him. 


I've searched for days

And thought for nights

Chananya has searched for spiritual daylight to help bolster his intellectual rejection of vampire antinomianism that he has thought through.


Could my whole life been a meaningless plot

Could it be true, I am only half a man

Using post-modern meta-narrative, Chananya questions whether this whole musical is ridiculous and whether he is simply a screeching Jewish kid.


Then I met him, he brought me the signs

How blind I have been not to see the light
Show me the way, the only way
I've waited long for this day

Chananya met Jacob, who offers to instruct him in the Guide for the Perplexed and its esoteric vampire fighting secrets. (As a patriarch, Jacob has the chronological defying power of knowing literally all of Torah.) Chananya laments that he was never taught actual rationalist monotheist Judaism in yeshiva. He begs Jacob to instruct him in this one true religious way that allows for so many different ways.


And now I now that I should care

And now I now that there is cause to fear
But I would like to know what can I do

Now Chananya knows that there is objective truth known to reason that he should care about. He also knows that there really is a God worth fearing. This leaves Chananya, though, with a dilemma. What can he do against the vampires? He does not know the location of their secret headquarters nor does he know how to defeat such powerful enemies. 


The first problem is solved when Chananya realizes that it is pashut p'shat in Dracula that the town of Klausenberg, a city with a strong historic Jewish presence, is close to Castle Dracula. This must be the place where antinomian Jews and vampires first made their unholy alliance to take over the world. Though Chananya is eager to slay his rebbe and all his former classmates, Jacob cautions him to take heart as to the true way to defeat vampires. Together they sing "Sunshine." The song mixes their two distinct pains of loneliness, Chananya's recent and raw loss of his rebbe and classmates with Jacob's long-enduring agony of thousands of years of being a vegetarian vampire cut off from both the Jewish community and philosopher's heaven.   


Though the world's astray

And has slowly lost its way
With the goal of virtue fading


The world has been led to follow vampirism, abandoning any sense of Aristotelian virtue ethics, with its sense of objective good and bad action, in favor of brute power.

There's a steady light

That has kept away the night
With the brightness it's creating

Can we bring the world it's only sunshine

Only Torah yields the hope for mankind
Let the beauty of our song
Find the good in everyone
Through the darkness shines our faith in our times

At a practical level, it is only the rationalism of the Mishnah Torah that can defeat the vampires.  Being a Maimonidean frees you of superstition and allows you to recognize that there is nothing supernatural about vampires. They are nothing but a virus that can be eradicated. Even at night, they can be defeated with UV lights. The supposed superhuman strength of vampires is no match for a philosopher on the Maimonidean diet. At a spiritual level, Maimonideanism is a necessary antidote to vampirism. As long as people think of religion in terms of power and becoming immortal, they will inevitably be seduced by the allure of vampires and their offer of power and immortality.


Though we number just a few

We radiate the truth
Through the darkness shines our faith for all time

Maimonideans have always been a very small minority even within the Jewish community. It is really hard for them to even put a minyan together. But the moral power of their positions is so great that it radiates outward keeping idolatry in check. Even pagan Jews have to pretend to believe in God. 


Chananya journeys to Klausenberg and enters the secret underground vampire crypt. He quickly finds himself surrounded by Rebbe Frost and his former classmates. Rebbe Frost mocks philosophy as the destroyer of faith and asks Chananya what he believes in now his position is so clearly hopeless. Chananya confounds the vampires with the Averroesistic hymn, "B'siyata D'shmaya." These lyrics appear to endorse superstition while really being an ode to science.  


Have you ever felt there is nowhere to turn

Things seem feel confused 
No one's concerned
The times we live in are o so dark

The faith alights a spark
There is a vision, eases pain
Hope arises again, hope arises again

Everyone feels confused on occasion by the mysteries of the universe. A philosophical diety seems to lack the personal touch of mysticism with its idols and antinomianism. One might even turn to the darkness of vampires at a time like this when they appear to dominate. Faith in reason is a spark that protects you from the pain of a vampire bite. The philosopher with his hope that his consciousness will become part of the eternal mind will arise even after death, unlike the vampire who will not arise once properly staked but will turn to dust. 


B'siyata D'shmaya, whatever I do 

When I need him to help me, he always comes through
Never will I feel alone
Without him who can stand on their own

The Truths of physics, as embodied by the movements of the heavens, will never let a rationalist down. Chananya, even by himself, is never truly alone and has no need for the vampires' achdus hivemind. 


Prayer after prayer, tear after tear

Begging for help, for heaven to hear
When Hashem at his side
Every door is open wide
Our only hope is to look to the sky
Where he waits for our cries

What else produces tears like praying over some especially dense philosophical prose? One needs to open one's mind to hear the rational music of the heavens. When you place yourself on the side of universal, you can understand anything. There is no hope in looking to mysticism for understanding, but only in looking at the manifest laws of the universe seen in the heavens, which wait for us to cry out eureka.     


What follows is the bloodiest, most elaborate and coolest fight scene in the history of Jewish musicals. 






Next, comes a punchball duel with Simcha Stark, which explains why it was only rational for Chananya to want sunglasses in an underground crypt. Rebbe Frost is shocked that the best boy in the park could lose at punchball. He pretends to do teshuva, singing the song from the Marvelous Middos Machine. Chananya responds that he always thought Abie Rotenberg was an idolater and performs the quadruple Death by Bais Din combo needed to kill senior vampires. 

The musical ends with "Kumt Shoin." These are the last lines of the Mishnah Torah, indicating the importance of Maimonides. They also are a rejection of the kind of apocalyptic political messianism that can only lead to antinomianism and ultimately vampirism. The rabbis as opposed to the "true tzadikim," never desired the Messiah to take over the world and rule over the gentiles. On the contrary, they honestly wished to be left alone to study God's Torah.   

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Utilitarian Logic of Killing Ben Shapiro


In response to Ben Shapiro's coming visit to the University of Utah, Ian Decker defends, in a letter to the Salt Lake Tribune, the attempt to shut Shapiro down. According to Decker:

Utah is already a state with a homelessness and suicide crisis amongst LGBTQ youth. Ben Shapiro has openly called transgender people mentally ill. He portrays the gay rights movement as a conspiracy to “root out god-based institutions.” He has recently defended conversion therapy, which is nothing short of abuse.

I assume Decker's argument is that if Shapiro is allowed to speak, such right-wing beliefs will become further normalized and LGBTQ youth homelessness and suicide rates in Utah will get even worse than their current state. Otherwise, it makes no sense to even bring up the challenges to LGBTQ youth. In fact, Decker makes a point in arguing that Shapiro's visit will have material consequences. 

I am perfectly willing to accept Decker's assumptions. I lose nothing with taking down Shapiro. What interests me is Decker's logic. He has a plausible utilitarian argument that, in order to save the lives of LGBTQ youth, it is morally justifiable to interfere with the ability of University of Utah conservatives to exercise their free speech and of Shapiro to earn his livelihood traveling to college campuses to say inflammatory things. Note that Decker willingly abandons the moral high-ground of simply defending his right to publically denounce Shapiro while not physically interfering with Shapiro's ability to speak. Decker states that his purpose is "shutting down Ben Shapiro." 

If we seriously accept Decker utilitarian argument about sacrificing free speech to save lives, why stop at just shutting down Shapiro tomorrow; why not seek a more permanent solution? I know the synagogue where Shapiro prays. It would not be difficult, during the coming Jewish holidays, to walk up to him and shoot him at point-blank range. It should be noted that the empirical fact that it is childishly easy for any relevant human political actor to kill any other human is one of the foundations of any meaningful political science (try making sense of Hobbes without this assumption). Decker's politics requires this assumption more than most as he needs to postulate that Shapiro can bring about the deaths of LGBTQ youths without even ever approaching them with a gun. 

To my liberal readers, let me pose the following challenges. Is there a morally principled argument (as opposed to the practicalities of political reality) that allows you to shut Shapiro down (as opposed to just denouncing him) that cannot equally be used to justify murdering him. Keep in mind that Decker takes it as a given that Shapiro's actions do cost lives. Imagine, God forbid, that some leftist accepted my line of thinking and actually did gun down Shapiro. You are on the jury and the defense pursues an unorthodox defense. Unable to challenge the fact that the defendant killed Shapiro, they convincingly demonstrate that, since the murder, LGBTQ youth suicides have gone down. Thus, the defendant has actually saved lives through his actions. Would you be willing to vote for an acquittal?   

One recalls the Talmudic doctrine of the rodef that it can be permissible to kill someone in order to save the life of a third party. This doctrine was infamously weaponized by Yigal Amir to justify assassinating Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. With Rabin as well, the utilitarian argument was quite powerful. His policies got Israelis killed and there is nothing absurd about the idea that killing Rabin saved lives. We may be horrified by this thinking, but that does nothing to challenge the soundness of its logic. 

If you are not terrified as to the implications of arming conservatives with the rodef argument, consider what it would mean for conservatives to wake up with concrete evidence that they can be murdered in cold blood and liberal jurors will let the killer walk. That being said, such practical considerations do not count as principles. Why should Shapiro not assume that if Decker and those trying to shut him down ever took power that he would find himself on a train heading to a gas chamber? I mean, clearly LGBTQ youth lives matter.     

  



Wednesday, September 20, 2017

An Apology for Adelai: Why Malcolm Reynolds Should Have Stolen the Medicine


(Recently, I have been taking part in an online discussion group devoted to Firefly and Libertarianism, which served to inspire this piece.)

Part of the charm of Firefly for Libertarians is its rather nuanced take on the Alliance government. As the central villain of the series, it would have been easy for Joss Whedon to have turned the Alliance into something sinister akin to the Empire of Star Wars. Yet, throughout the series, we are never really given a reason to question the fact that the Alliance is competent and, in general, improves the lives of its citizens. Yes, they kidnap children and operate on them. Yes, they employ secretive and spooky agents. That being said, it is only with the discovery of Miranda at the end of the Serenity movie that we are given an example where it can be said that the Alliance messed up. Everything else is easy to defend on utilitarian grounds that the galaxy is left a better place. And even Miranda is hardly something to delegitimize the Alliance (even as it does convert the Operative). Sure the Alliance exposed people to chemicals that turned them into the zombie space barbarian Reavers. But they meant well and is this really worse than all the times the United States has armed different groups with unexpected consequences. The fact that the Alliance is a pretty good government, forces Malcolm Reynolds and his friends to fall back on principles to defend their refusal to bow to the Alliance. Having no empirical grounds for claiming that they have a plan for a better galaxy (or any plan at all), all they can demand is their right to go their own way regardless of the consequences.

One of the chief examples on the show where the Alliance comes across in a positive light is the "Train Job" episode. Here, Mal is hired by the brutal crime boss Adelai Niska to steal a crate of goods from an Alliance train. When it turns out that the crate contains needed medicine for the local townspeople of Paradiso, Mal returns the goods, giving up a valuable payday and making himself a dangerous enemy. In keeping with the theme of valuing libertarian principles over pragmatic utilitarianism, I wish to offer a defense of Niska stealing the medicine and an argument as to why Mal should not have given it back.

I assume most viewers support Mal's decision to take the job in the first place when the crate was simply some unnamed goods (perhaps the newest iPhone to be sold to the town's wealthy). As an enemy of the Alliance and a soldier in a war against them, Mal has no social contract with the Alliance that would prohibit him from robbing them. It is irrelevant that the Alliance won the war and now possesses a very real monopoly on violence throughout known space. On the contrary, the Alliance's possession of such power simply demonstrates that they are the aggressors and not Mal. Mal is justified in stealing from the Alliance despite the fact that, from a galactic utilitarian view, Mal's theft is harmful. He is not producing any goods. Once he has finished with his theft, the galactic economy will be left with the same goods minus the cost of the crew of Serenity's time and effort along with the damage done to the train and injuries to soldiers.

If you are willing to support Mal when we assumed it was just luxury goods for the rich being stolen, you should logically be willing to follow this position when it is a little less favorable to Mal. What if the crate contained aid for the poor people not immediately threatened with death? Here we have the literary example of Ragnar Danneskjold, the anti-Robin Hood privateer of Atlas Shrugged. Ragnar makes a point of only attacking government aid ships. His reasoning is that the goods have been stolen from hard working capitalists and are being used to prop up socialist regimes that will further oppress people. By robbing aid ships he is helping to bring down socialism and repay capitalists like Hank Rearden what the government stole from him in taxes. The fact that there are people who need these goods far more than Rearden does is irrelevant to Rand's philosophy.

The Alliance has stolen the goods from hard working productive individuals like Niska. We can assume that Niska is productive as people clearly want to do business with him so badly that they are willing to step outside the law and become criminals to do so. (See Defending the Undefendable by Walter Block.) We can assume that an intelligent man like Niska manages to avoid paying taxes to the Alliance. That being said, Niska indirectly pays a hefty price for being on the wrong side of Alliance law in that he is left without a suitable court to settle business disagreements. This leaves him with no choice but brutally torture people to death whenever they fail him.

In general, it is irrational to kill people as it is economically inefficient. Standard economics and Occam's Razor force us to assume that Niska is rational and is only killing people because the Alliance makes him do it and not because he is a psychopath. Even if Niska was a psychopath, his actions would still be the Alliance's fault as they made otherwise legitimate businesses illegal, creating a market that psychopaths could easily take over and become rich and powerful instead of falling to the power of the free market, which punishes people for irrational behavior far more effectively than government ever would. It should be noted that, at the end of the episode, Mal knocks one of Niska's henchmen into a spaceship engine while the later is tied up and defenseless. If you are willing to accept such cold-blooded murder as necessary under the circumstances then you should, at least hypothetically, be willing to accept that Niska needs to kill people sometimes simply to make a point and maintain his reputation.

While the residents of the town could use the aid, they never had a right to it. I assume we can accept that it would be immoral for them to turn to piracy to get their needs even if they were stealing from people who could easily spare the goods. Furthermore, it would be justifiable to respond to such piracy with deadly force. Therefore it is immoral for the town to have the Alliance use legal theft to supply the aid. There is a larger issue at stake here in that giving aid is a major propaganda boost, making the case that the Alliance really is making the galaxy a better place. This would be the same problem as accepting a donation from the Mafia no matter how noble the cause.

Now we come to the really tricky matter where, in fact, Mal is not stealing luxuries from rich or even needed aid for the poor but medical supplies, without which people are going to die. Keep in mind that we have already surrendered any claim to utility and are solely concerned with the principle of liberty. Now we should consider why Niska might have wanted to steal the medicine in the first place and what he might want to do with it. The most logical thing would be to immediately sell the medicine back to the town at an exorbitant price. Presumably, the Alliance would have to step in and come up with the money. In this case, we would be back to the first scenario where it would be no different than if the crate had been full of money. One can go so far as to argue that even if Niska was not planning on doing this, Mal would be justified in assuming that was his intention and wash his hands of the affair.   

It is possible that Niska is planning on selling the medicine to other miners who need it to live. If this were the case then Mal would be justified as the lives of Niska's people are not less valuable than that of the Alliance's. On the contrary, Niska's people have clearly committed less aggression.

What if Niska was planning on simply using the medicine to make a face cream for a celebrity or simply destroy it out of spite? Valuing silly luxuries for celebrities over medicine for poor people is something that society does every day when people throw money away on movie tickets instead of giving to charity. (Clearly, the world have Firefly still has movie theaters as Shepherd Book reserves a special place in Hell for people who talk in them.) In this case, Niska can hardly be blamed for following the same logic to its extreme conclusion. Destroying the medicine could also be seen as a worthwhile deed as it would humiliate the Alliance and demonstrate that they are not as all-powerful as most people think. This would help undermine the Alliance, which might not actually improve anyone's existence but would still be consistent with advancing liberty.

It should be understood that my entire argument rests on the assumption that it was ok for Mal to steal from the Alliance in the first place even if it was just luxury goods for the rich. This would require us to reject the Alliance's moral authority as well as any claims to utilitarian benefit. Once we start down this path than very quickly we find ourselves with a license to let people die from lack of medicine.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Homo Deus and Ontological Naturalism



A fundamental concept in understanding the relationship between religion and science is the distinction between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism. Methodological naturalism means that one operates as if there is no supernatural. Ontological naturalism is the actual belief that there really is nothing outside of nature. Methodological rationalist fields such as science and history must operate according to methodological naturalism for the simple reason that beings like God, while they may exist, cannot be analyzed using such methods. Now it is important to realize that this is not atheism or some kind of trick to smuggle in atheism. On the contrary, methodological naturalism stands as a major stumbling block to atheism as it requires us to acknowledge that science is totally inadequate for directly telling us if there is a God or not.

This is not mere theist apologetics. There is often incredible value to analytical statements that are not actually true but help us understand a field. A great example of this is the Smithian Man (Homo Economicus). Contrary to stock criticisms of economics, no economist, not even Adam Smith, actually believes that there are such super-rational and all knowing humans such as Smithian Men. That being said, imagining that such a being exists and asking how he might respond to particular situations has proven to be a productive starting point for economics.

To be clear, science may play an indirect role in promoting atheism. A universe in which the methodological naturalism of science did not offer adequate explanations for observable phenomenon (imagine if there really was something in biology that was irreducibly complex) would have a lot more theists. By contrasts, if methodological naturalism really allowed us to understand everything about nature, leaving no more questions, then atheists would have good ground to argue that methodological naturalism offers powerful reasons for taking the philosophical position of ontological naturalism. God would then follow fairies as a being that we have no reason to hypothesize about and come to ignore.  

Keep this in mind and you can dismiss most polemics from either the theist or atheist sides as nonsense. This brings me to Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. In most respects, this is an insightful book if it were not marred by the author's willingness to engage in crude atheist polemics that casually jump between methodological and ontological naturalism.

According to Harari, evolution refutes the existence of the soul. Evolution is a gradual step-by-step process while the soul, for some reason, must be indivisible.

Unfortunately, the theory of evolution rejects the ideas that my true self is some indivisible, immutable and potentially eternal essence. ... Elephants and cells have evolved gradually, as a result of new combinations and splits. Something that cannot be divided or changed cannot have come into existence through natural selection.

... the theory of evolution cannot accept the idea of souls, at least if by 'soul' we mean something indivisible, immutable and potentially eternal. Such an entity cannot possibly result from a step-by-step evolution. natural selection could produce a human eye, because the eye has parts. But the soul has no parts. If the Sapiens soul evolved step by step from the Erectus soul, what exactly were these steps? Is there some part of the soul that is more developed in Sapiens than in Erectus? But the soul has no parts.

You might argue that human souls did not evolve, but appeared one bright day in the fullness of their glory. But when exactly was that bright day? ... biology cannot explain the birth of a baby possessing an eternal soul from parents who did not have even a shred of a soul. (pg. 104-06.)

It should be noted that if we are to take Harari seriously, we should reject the foundation of classical liberalism that individuals exist. We all might just be soulless byproducts of evolution but I would hope our collections of DNA and cells can count as distinct persons with rights. It is certainly not the place of science to say otherwise. As for the soul, any person of faith, who is already comfortable with the notion of evolution should also be open to the idea that souls might exist on some kind of continuum between animals and the divine. Alternatively, why not imagine that some kind of Adam with a soul arose at some point of history born to philosophical zombie parents. Like most religious people, I treat the soul as a black box and do not have strong opinions one way or another about its precise nature (beyond rejecting on monotheist grounds the notion that the soul can, in any way, be a part of God). The idea that science should have some kind of opinion on the matter strikes me as a bad joke on par with creation science.

The bad theology and even worse science continue with Harari attempting to prove that God does not disapprove of homosexuality. Following Sam Harris, Harari wants to turn statements of ethics or religion into factual claims, which science can then weigh-in upon. We are offered the example of the Donation of Constantine, which was used to make the religious claim that the Church was the sovereign authority over Western Europe. In the fifteenth-century, Lorenzo Valla, using historical scholarship and linguistic analysis, demonstrated that this document was a medieval forgery. So, according to Harari, Valla used science to refute a religious claim. Of course, neither history nor linguistics are sciences and their claims are far more tentative. Even if one accepts, as I do, that the Donation was a forgery. This is a relatively minor blow against a belief system that was likely based upon the normative position that the Church should have sovereign power. So some anonymous scribe had Constantine say words that are spiritual facts that he clearly believed in. Why should this affect anyone's simple faith in the Church's supremacy?

Harari applies this same logic to homosexuality. The ethical position that humans should obey God hides the "factual" claim that, 3,000 years ago, God wrote a book denouncing homosexuality, leading to the practical guideline that humans should not practice homosexuality. Harari then brings out the "science" of Bible criticism to demonstrate that this opposition to homosexuality is the product of priests and rabbis rather than the almighty. Harari ends with the retort that: "If Ugandan politicians think that the power that created the cosmos, the galaxies and the black holes becomes terribly upset whenever two Homo sapiens males have a bit of fun together, then science can help disabuse them of this rather bizarre notion." (pg. 196.)

Textual criticism is not a science and any conclusions it comes to are going to be highly tentative (like any study of ancient history). Science and textual criticism can tell us nothing about the mind of God whether, assuming he was inclined to write a book, he might write the book at once while making it look like it was assembled over a period of time. Alternatively, divine providence might have manifested itself through a historical process of bringing together and redacting different documents. Taking this logic a step further, the history of religion itself might plausibly be a divine revelation allowing man to evolve into something more godly. Whether such spiritually enlightened beings will allow gay marriage or hunt gays for sport is something beyond the boundaries of science.

The problem of how a creator God can actually care about human beings at all let alone their ritual practices (whether gay sex or pig eating) has haunted monotheism from the beginning. Much like the problem of evil, science has been able to add little to what was already a serious problem. Keep in mind that, contrary to the Whig nonsense about there being a Copernican revolution to teach man that he was not the center of the universe, pre-modern Judeo-Christian Islamic theology already taught that man was not that important in the scheme of things. If several thousand years of theology has not made religious fundamentalists, whether in Uganda or in the Bible Belt, cautious about drawing straight lines between God's will and public policy, they are unlikely to listen to scientists.  

     

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Mises Institute as a Religion: A Heretical Libertarian's Response


Recently, there has been some controversy over an essay by Jeff Deist of the Mises Institute over his use of the term "blood and soil." This term has Nazi associations though I do not think anyone is actually accusing the Mises Institute of being a Nazi or otherwise white supremacist organization. I would even be open to a charitable reading of Deist as describing the reality on the ground of people being concerned with blood and soil if it were not for the fact that Deist is an exercise in totally uncharitable readings of other libertarians. What is certainly a real issue, particularly in this age of Trump, is a willingness of even elements within the libertarian movement to tolerate bigotry. This is the inheritance of a mistaken Rothbardian strategy that imagines that white men angry over desegregation and immigration are going to, somehow, turn into friends of the free market and of liberty.

I would like to call attention to another issue in the essay. At the very beginning of the piece, Deist states:  

Thanks to the great thinkers who came before us, and still among us, we don’t have to do the hard work — which is good news, because not many of us are smart enough to come up with new theory! We can all very happily serve as second-hand dealers in ideas.

This is followed by an attack on libertarians for falling in the "modernity trap" and imagining that technology might render government obsolete. To my mind, this sounds as if the Mises Institue is now treating the works of Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard as religious holy texts, "capital T truths" that must be submitted to without question. 

The essential features of a canonized religious text are that one cannot disagree with it and it must be viewed as essential to being part of the group. This serves to draw a line to establish who is a true believer in the group. For example, I consider Jesus to be a great Jewish teacher. What makes me not a Christian is that, despite my high opinion of Jesus, he does not play an essential role in my relationship with God. This renders the entire New Testament to be of historical and spiritual interest but ultimately of marginal value. One can be a good Jew and certainly a good monotheist without ever reading it. In a sense, I am worse than a heretic. It is not as if I actively reject Christianity as much as I am indifferent to it. Raised as a Jew, I never developed any emotional attachment to Christian ritual nor did I ever develop a deep seated psychological fear of burning in Hell for all eternity for rejecting it. (Haredi Hell, on the other hand, does keep me up at night.) 

As with Christianity, I would argue that Chabad, at this point, should be viewed as a separate religion from Judaism. Chabad views its texts, such as Tanya and the sichas of the late rebbe, not just as one legitimate interpretation of Judaism among many but as the True Judaism. Without the teachings of Chabad chasidus, one cannot be a truly "complete" Jew. 

To be clear, as a traditionally observant Maimonidean Jew, I do not completely reject the notion of religious texts. It is important to draw lines and establish signaling devices to decide who is in and who is out. I am not a fundamentalist and my relationship to my God and my holy books is one more of arguing than submission. That being said, just as Christians are right to reject me as a Christian for my indifference to the New Testament, I am justified in rejecting, as a theological Jew (distinct from a biological/halakhic Jew), any person who is indifferent to the Talmud and the Bible. (Like Chabad, Karaite Judaism should be seen as a related but still distinct religion from Judaism.)      

One of the problems with canonized texts and authors, in the most fanatical sense, is that, because they cannot be argued with, one can never develop a mature relationship with them and never learn from them. For example, I can learn from Plato and Aristotle because I have never been tempted to treat them as articles of faith. There has never been any need to reinterpret them to suit my ideological preferences as I have always felt willing to say that I believed that they were wrong. Ironically, this has made it possible, over time, for me to become convinced of their wisdom. I admit that, in recent years, I have gained much respect for Aristotelian virtue ethics for its ability to deal with real human beings instead of theoretical abstractions.   

Like the Gospels, Deist offers us "good news." The truths of liberty have been revealed to us. Our job is now simply to spread these truths through the entire world. This is a simple task because there is now no need to argue with anyone. The Truth of Mises and Rothbard is so obvious that only the satanically perverse would ever question it. Hence, like a good Calvinist missionary, the purpose of spreading the libertarian gospel is not to actually argue with anyone and refute their beliefs but to demonstrate that opponents actively hate the truth and were never worth arguing with from the beginning.   

From the perspective of the Mises Institute, is it possible to be a good libertarian without an understanding of Mises? Speaking for myself, I came to libertarianism largely through the questioning of my own Republican orthodoxies. Hence, I was a libertarian before I read much of libertarian thought. It was because I was a libertarian that I discovered Milton Friedman's Free to Choose as a better articulation of what I was already trying to say and then later I became aware that there was something called Austrian economics. I confess that I only read Atlas Shrugged after several years of being a libertarian. I think that this was a healthy path to liberty, one that preserved my intellectual honesty from factional politics. I do not claim to be any expert on libertarianism; I am a mere student of liberty, humbly trying to put things together for myself. 

With the Mises Institute, particularly someone like Tom Woods, I can never escape having a clearer sense of how right they believe they are than what they are right about. It is like they have received a revelation that seems to boil down to them having received a revelation, its content being secondary to the fact that it is a revelation and they are right. Thus, revelation becomes, not a book to be read, but a heavy object to beat people over the head with and claim moral supremacy over.         

Mises was never Euclid, let alone Jesus. I have a hard time believing that anyone could read through a thousand pages of Human Action, understand it, and, in good faith, claim to agree with all of it. Furthermore, even Mises himself, if he were alive today, would, despite his genius, face a challenge in how to apply his own work. How much more so with us little minds. We who cannot comprehend every word of this brilliant mind and who might even find ourselves disagreeing with him and, thus, have no recourse but to cobble together our own understandings of liberty. Not only that but we must then face the very hard task of applying our theories of liberty to a rapidly changing world. Let us face it, our arguments could be logically unassailable and people will still ignore us if we cannot show, in concrete terms, how liberty will make their lives better. 

I support a big tent libertarianism. If you are acting in good faith to decrease the power of government and increase the autonomy of individuals over their own bodies then welcome to the club. As for the details, welcome to the debate, the most fun part of being a libertarian. If you wish to be an effective participant in this debate, I can suggest a reading list of material to get you up to speed. That being said, we are not a religion with sacred texts that you must accept. On the contrary, we invite you to create your own path to liberty. 

   

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Camp Chimerical Anti-Christianity: Facing the Consequences


A few years ago, for the fast day of Tisha B'Av, I wrote a hard-hitting post, raising some uncomfortable questions about the Jewish community. As that is one of my personal favorites, I decided to follow it up for this Tisha B'Av. My purpose is not to attack anyone and, for that reason, I have avoided names. I hope that my ambiguous feelings about my camping experience rather than hatred should be clear. As is often the case with me, I am more interested in asking questions that I find myself struggling with than in offering solutions.    

When I attended Haredi summer camps, I once played a villainous Spanish Inquisitor in a play. While waving a torch, I gave a speech about Judas Iscariot as the model traitorous Jew, which included a joke reference to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as well. I remember watching another play in which a priest murders the prince, who started asking difficult theological questions regarding Judaism, in order to set the Jews up for a blood libel. Both performances can be seen as anti-Christian. The difference between them is that while I expressed a "rational" opposition to Christianity, the other person made a chimerical assertion. Spanish inquisitors are historical facts. The figure of Judas did play an important role in medieval Christian anti-Jewish rhetoric. Even Christians would agree with me on this. By contrast, there is no evidence of Christian priests murdering Christian children in order to frame Jews just as there is no evidence of Jews murdering Christians for their blood. Christians can hope to negotiate with someone possessing a legitimate negative impression of historical Christians. Such a person can be convinced that modern day Christians are different and not a threat. A person with a chimerical opposition to Christianity will never be convinced that Christians are not a threat even by the evidence of his own eyes as he already believes things about them that he never had any evidence to begin with. Such a person will inevitably sink into the black hole of conspiracy theories to the point where the lack of evidence for his beliefs will simply prove to him that there is a vast cover-up.

In regards to this story of a priest murdering a Christian to cover up the fact that Christianity is false, I am reminded of Israel Yuval's argument that Christians came to believe in the blood libel because they saw Jews kill their own children during the Crusades. If Jews would kill their own children so that they do not fall into the hands of Christians, might Jewish mothers poison their children's kugel if they thought they were attracted to Christianity? If Jews hated Christianity this much, surely Jews would gladly murder Christian children. Thus, Christians have no choice but to kill Jews in self-defense. Similarly, it would be reasonable for impressionable Jewish children in the audience, like myself, to conclude that if priests would kill Christian children to stop them from converting to Judaism, they would gladly kill Jewish children. The logical conclusion from this would be that, if we ever found ourselves in a position of power, we should kill Christians.

Let me be clear, this play about a murderous priest was in no way exceptional in how Christianity was portrayed at this Haredi camp. One of my favorite rebbes used to tell stories with his stock villain, "Father Shmutz" (dirt). When priests were not trying to start blood libels, they kidnapped Jewish children and held them in secret monasteries to try to convert them. In case you were wondering if this was just a matter of some overzealous teachers, the head-counselor of this camp used to have a radio show, "Children's Stories of Inspiration." In addition to blatantly idolatrous stories that endorsed human sacrifices to angels and a Satan capable of acting independently of God, one of his stories involved a Father Francois murdering a Christian child in order to start a blood libel. His plan was thwarted when he was forced to take hold of the hand of the dead victim, who then refused to let go.

Installing the campers with a visceral hatred of Christianity as a religion and a fear of Christians as people were part of a conscious top-down effort. I doubt the camp administration wanted us to actually go out and harm any Christians. That being said, their jobs depended on demonstrating to parents that their children were being protected from outside "negative" influences. In an exercise of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, the fact that these administrators were, ever so slightly, putting every Jew on the planet in danger clearly took a back seat.

What are the consequences of this kind of education? When the Passion movie came out, I told my father that I could not call it anti-Semitic for the simple reason that its portrayal of Jews was not worse than the portrayal of Christians that I was regularly fed in camp. My father, the assistant-head counselor of that camp, agreed with me. On a more serious note, consider the role played by Islamist schools in installing a pathological hatred of Jews, directly leading to Jews dying in terrorist attacks.


      


It is clear to me that not considering the children in this video and certainly their teachers as legitimate military targets (the kids are even in uniform and practicing military maneuvers) will lead to dead Jews. The problem is that any non-Jew can respond that Jews also indoctrinate their kids to hate and I have simply too much personal experience to point-blank deny that fact. So the administrators of my camp have real Jewish blood on their hands. Their actions have made it harder to form the necessary alliances needed to fight Islamic terrorism and save Jewish lives.

Now it needs to be said, that the people I am talking about are warm wonderful people that I gained much from. These are not anyone's stereotypes of hate mongers. I loved camp and many of my fondest memories come from there.  Coincidently, the staff member who played the murderous priest later became my tenth grade English teacher at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas and taught me Julius Caesar (he was even good at his job). At the time, I did not see myself as being indoctrinated to hate and I still have my doubts as to calling this hate. Everything was framed in such a positive and loving way, which may have made it all the more insidious. There was much good to my camp; that being said, beyond the fun times and spiritual growth lay a dark side that needs to be faced.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

History as Autobiography: The Example of Louis H. Feldman


Previously, when discussing the historical method, I argued that a historian, like any academic scholar, needs to be able to distinguish between scholarship and polemic. Scholars are allowed to have ideological beliefs but they are not allowed to use their scholarship to buttress their ideology. Once a clear connection appears between an individual's scholarship and their ideology to the point that the ideology becomes the inevitable conclusion of the scholarship that scholarship becomes tainted and opponents are allowed to point blank ignore it. This raises a serious challenge in that it is simply not possible for a scholar to spend years of their lives on an arcane topic that few other people are ever going to understand unless they feel an intense personal connection to the material that is likely to border on the ideological. How can one delve into material that has real ideological implications without becoming tainted? If all history is autobiography, how do we avoid dismissing it as such?

In my own personal life, the example of the late Prof. Louis H. Feldman is useful. Feldman's claim to fame lay in being, perhaps, the leading Josephus scholar of his generation. It does not take a psychologist to posit why Feldman devoted so many of his ninety years on this Earth to Josephus. To begin with, growing into adulthood as an Orthodox Jew in 1940s America could not have been an easy task for anyone living outside of New York, in Hartford CT as Feldman did. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for him to have pursued a doctorate in Classics at Harvard. What sort of nice Jewish boy studies Greek and Latin? This basic challenge did not go away as he spent his teaching career at Yeshiva University lecturing to classes of one or two students. In retrospect, one can say in Feldman's defense that he was like the 1970s rock band the Velvet Underground. They may have only sold thirty-thousand copies but everyone who bought one went out and started their own rock band. If Feldman only had a few dozen students, each of them went out and became a Jewish leader. Consider that his close students included people like Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Prof. Shaye J. D. Cohen, and David Berger.

At an intellectual level, Feldman's academic work was implicitly an apology for him being a religious Jew, who loved Hellenism. He crafted an ideological genealogy for himself and, by extension, for Modern Orthodox Judaism. If there was a running theme in Feldman's work it was Jews, such as Philo and Josephus, making their case to the wider Greco-Roman world that Judaism deserved a place in that culture. This covers everything from Feldman's big narrative work, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World, to his close analysis of how Philo and Josephus used the Bible for Jewish apologetics. Jews arguing, two thousand years ago,  for their legitimacy became Feldman's defense, in the twentieth century, of his own legitimacy as their heir. For Modern Orthodox Jews, there are serious implications for Feldman's work. In essence, Feldman can be read as a playbook for how Jews can thrive in a larger world that appears hostile to it. I can easily imagine assigning selections from Feldman in a class on Modern Orthodox ideology.

With all of that being said, this is the same Feldman that devoted an entire class to subjecting Josephus' autobiography to a line by line reading to make the point to us that you cannot trust what Josephus says about himself; there are just too many times that he contradicts himself. As Feldman told us: "I would not buy a used chariot from the man." If we are to say that Feldman had an ideological agenda, we must admit that Feldman was willing to fire a torpedo at this same agenda when textual analysis demanded it.

This leads me to my second point. For all that I have just written about the very real ideological implications of Feldman's work, I wish to make it clear how absent all of that was from his books and his classes. He did not preach to us about the virtues of Modern Orthodoxy. He argued from the fact that opponents of the Jews like Manetho did not point blank deny the Exodus story that Egyptian sources for the event must have existed as late as classical times. That being said, he never tried a "Josephus proves that Torah is true." If it happened that Feldman was a positive influence on his students in their Judaism, it was because his very persona testified that a living intellectually serious Judaism was possible and not just for rabbis. In this, his kindness and integrity mattered even more than his prodigious intellect.

Above everything else, a Feldman class was about reading texts and he, more than any other professor, taught me how to think critically like a historian and not just to be an encyclopedia of historical information. As a classical historian, Feldman had an advantage in this. It is hard to study ancient history avoid questions of historical epistemology. He forced us to confront the fact that major claims about the period were dependent on a few lines of text. He would often respond to questions that he wished he could answer it but that there simply was no evidence to go on. This prepared us for the task of reading texts and building a narrative from the ground up.

Every Hannukah, Feldman would give a public lecture on classical history as his "eulogy for the Greeks." Feldman had the sense of humor and the intellectual integrity to acknowledge a tension in his beliefs. Whether I always agreed with Feldman or not (and he very often disagreed with himself), Feldman was a model academic scholar. He humbly taught in his chalk covered jacket and sneakers and churned out books and articles on obscure issues of interest to almost no one. It turned out, in retrospect, that Feldman produced something of importance beyond the narrow scope of his field. His greatest accomplishment though was that, for generations of students, he was a living embodiment of what it meant to think like a historian.            

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Breaking the Goldwater Rule: A Betrayal of Methodological Rationalism


A useful example of an academic field creating a wall between the field itself and the politics of its members is the Goldwater Rule that psychiatrists are not supposed to publically comment on the mental stability of politicians. It is named after Senator Barry Goldwater, who objected to psychiatrists calling him mentally unfit to be president during the 1964 campaign. Goldwater made the very reasonable argument that those psychiatrists had violated their own professional standards by claiming to reach some kind of professional opinion about him despite the fact that none of them had ever met him in person let alone actually been his therapist. The Goldwater Rule protects psychiatrists by keeping them out of politics. Psychiatry may be very valuable in helping people but there is nothing in psychiatry that can tell you who you should vote for. Even if it turned out that psychiatrists were the most liberal people in the world, conservatives could still accept the legitimacy of their field as it has no direct bearing on politics.

This is why I find it amazing that anyone would want to eliminate the Goldwater Rule to better allow psychiatrists to attack Trump in their capacity as psychiatrists. To be clear, I oppose Trump, believe that he is a major threat to this country, and accept that he is most probably mentally unstable. That being said, I fail to understand how allowing psychiatrists to use their professional stations against Trump will actually benefit the opposition. How many people who currently believe that Trump is sane and support him will be convinced by psychiatrists otherwise? What is more likely is that Trump supporters will become more convinced than ever that psychiatry is a conspiracy designed to advance a liberal agenda. This is much the same as how many secularists are convinced that organized religion is simply a conspiracy designed to uphold conservatism. (Both of these groups may very well be correct.)

Critical to Trump's success has been a form of relativism. Beyond the specifics of any particular policy such as environmental control, Trump's supporters do not believe that there really is such a thing as an expert. This creates a world in which there are simply contending teams (warring religions if you will) with their contending sets of values. If this is the case then I want my side to win and can safely ignore any argument from the opposition. They are not arguing in good faith and any factual arguments they raise can be dismissed as distortions. Furthermore, there is no reason to ever question my own tendency to argue from values instead of facts. The other side is clearly worse so anyone trying to judge me must be trying to cover for their team. 

The best refutation for this line of thinking is the mere existence methodological rationalism such as the scientific or historical method. There exist systems of thought that transcend personal values. Professionals trained in these methods, despite their prejudices, can be trusted to follow them even to conclusions that are inconvenient. This allows academic fields to function with people of greatly differing belief systems. If I believe that there are such things as standards and experts then Trump's main appeal falls away. Whatever flaws the establishment has and whatever need for reform, Trump does not make himself subservient to any rationalist methodology. Thus, anyone who supports methodological rationalism has some hard questions to answer if they wish to support Trump. (Not that this implies that the alternative is better.) 

To the extent that Trump gives the impression that he rejects methodological rationalism, those in his camp have to consider whether their continued support implies that they are willing to reject methodology for short term partisan gain. This decision will be made in the knowledge that they will be judged by their ideological opponents, who will have to decide whether they are willing to accept them. Ideological opponents of Trump, whether liberals or libertarians, have the ability to judge which Trump supporters can still be considered methodological rationalists but open themselves, in turn, to the counter judgment that they are the ones betraying methodological rationalism for partisan gain.   

From this perspective, there is no need to consider any particular policy of Trump's (or even try to figure out what Trump holds from one minute to the next). Methodological rationalism requires the humility to recognize how little any individual really knows. It may be that Trump's policies are all going to be terrific; I lack that expertise to say otherwise. All this may be true but if they are not framed in terms recognizable to methodological rationalism, his claims must be ignored. 

I lack the psychiatric training to say that Trump is mentally unstable. As far as I can tell, any person in the position to rule on this issue is likely going to be barred from commenting by doctor/patient confidentiality. That being said, I believe in the legitimacy of a psychiatric method of thinking. To the extent that Trump demonstrates his own rejection of those standards, I am justified in not taking him seriously. I do not need to directly attack Trump and doing so will likely prove a distraction as it will open me up to the charge that I am more interested in attacking Trump than in defending methodological rationalism. The more we work on strengthening belief in methodological rationalism and do so for its own sake and not partisan gain, the more people, even conservatives, will reject Trump on their own.  

Friday, July 21, 2017

Polemic or Scholarship: A Historian's Choice

Before I begin, let me confess to having attended several conferences hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS), a group funded by the Koch brothers. I had a great time listening to lectures, I met scholars such as Michael Munger, Steve Horwitz, and Phil Magness, drank beer and had late night philosophical discussions with other graduate students from around the world. I strongly deny ever being present for any sessions outlining a plot to overthrow American democracy. In all seriousness, there was shockingly little discussion of practical policy or political strategy at all. Most of us were there because we had some kind of affection for libertarian philosophy and we engaged in a lot of talk (including disagreement) about theory. So much for there being some kind of plan, Koch hatched or otherwise.  

A basic feature scholarship is a need for a clear line to be drawn between the gathering of information and what implications might be drawn from it. This is most obvious in the realm of public policy. For example, if you were an analyst working for the Bush administration in the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq on the question of whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, you could not be in any way connected to making the argument that the United States should invade. The moment it was established that you believed in the invasion, any evidence you produced in favor of there being weapons of mass destruction must be discounted. It should be assumed that you came into your research with the agenda of making a case for invasion and therefore, perhaps even unconsciously, you fell into the trap of confirmation bias. Instead of seriously considering the possibility that there might not be weapons of mass destruction, you assumed that there were, interpreted everything in that light and came to believe that the evidence for such weapons was overwhelming. Much can be made of the fact that the Bush administration did not take such intellectual precautions and was surprised when it turned out that the weapons did not exist.           

As historians, we may have our ideological preferences but our credibility as historians requires that we submit ourselves to a historical methodology designed to keep our biases in check. It is not that upon becoming historians we stop being biased, but the method is designed to produce something close to an unbiased result from the mass work of biased people. This is much the same way as Adam Smith's hidden hand produces social good from the mass labor of selfish individuals. As with other forms of scholarship, we need to distance the gathering of facts from their implications. First, we need to recognize that we are not going to achieve any great knockout blow for our cause. Second, if we do find a text that supports our cause, we must bend over backward to read it in a fashion favorable to the other side, forsaking any advantage for our own cause. Ultimately, ideological polemic and history are distinct fields and you can only engage in one of them at a time.  

This brings us to the recent uproar over Prof. Nancy MacLean. Over the past few weeks, a guilty pleasure of mine has been following the controversy over MacLean's book, Democracy in Chains. I have not read the book (I am waiting for it to go on sale on Audible) so I will refrain from making any judgments on the book itself and restrict myself to the discussion surrounding it. What strikes me as interesting is that MacLean is plainly trying to be both a polemicist and a historian. She is a self-conscious progressive, who rejects libertarianism intellectually on its merits and, at the same time, claims to have unearthed documents that are damaging to the credibility of a particular libertarian, the late economist James M. Buchanan. It is important here to recognize that I am not attacking either MacLean's progressivism nor her evidence against Buchanan. On the contrary, for the purposes of this post, I am willing to assume that both are correct. She may be right in terms of facts but her willingness to be both polemicist and historian destroys her credibility to be the latter. 

Let us give MacLean the benefit of the doubt. Let us imagine that she snuck into the late Prof. Buchanan's office and discovered the secret protocols of the Elders of Wichita along with Buchanan's KKK membership card. While we are at it, let us throw in a letter stating: 

Dear James Kilpatrick,

John C. Calhoun is my intellectual lodestar. The southern agrarian poets are the greatest. I find myself really inspired by Donald Davidson. I never realized that Hobbes' Leviathan could be the federal government. Brown vs. Board of Education is the worst. I hate n******. I want to keep them from voting so we can overthrow democracy and put Donald Trump (our own August Pinochet) into power. MAGA

Heil Hitler, 

James M. Buchanan

P. S. Did you get the suitcase full of cash from the Koch brothers?

Assuming all of this were true, MacLean, as a historian, would have two options. The first would be to publish this information in the most charitable way possible. Perhaps Buchanan had a strange sense of humor or was an informant for the FBI. It would make sense to walk across campus to present the evidence to Michael Munger or any of the other prominent public choice theorists at Duke to get their interpretation. Under no circumstance should she imply that this evidence challenges libertarians. If other people wish to try to use this information in a polemical fashion, that is their issue. This way, despite her progressive beliefs, her scholarship would be beyond reproach. 

There could be a second option if MacLean was a supporter of public choice theory. As an admirer of Buchanan's work, she could acknowledge that she discovered a dark side to him, mainly that he was a racist, who plotted to overthrow democracy. On a serious note, as a libertarian, I readily acknowledge the existence of a dark side to libertarianism. This ranges from the personal issues of Ayn Rand to the white nationalist outreach of the paleo-libertarians. While I do not think that Murray Rothbard and Ron Paul were racists, they were certainly willing to associate with actual racists as part of a strategy of allying themselves to anyone openly hostile to the federal government. This is a problem that libertarians need to face, particularly as it led to a failure on the part of many libertarians to actively oppose Trump. Very well, Buchanan might have been of a similar stripe or worse. I am not about to reject such a position a priori.   

Understand that I can say these things about libertarianism precisely because, as part of the libertarian family, I am not trying to score ideological points. I am criticizing myself as much as anyone. These same words coming from an outsider are going to come across very differently and perhaps should not be said. This is not different from how there may be very real problems in the black community but I, as a white person, should not be the person to talk about them no matter how right I might be. No matter how good my intentions, my words are going to sound wrong and prove counter-productive. Let me address the problems of my community (libertarian, Jewish or otherwise) and leave it to others to address the problems in theirs.

If MacLean wants to engage in polemics against libertarians in her free time, in addition to her scholarship, that is fine. One can do legitimate research and have an ideology at the same time as long as they are no obvious connections. A reader should be able to buy into your scholarship completely without there being any expectation that your work will affect what they do inside a voting booth. With MacLean, not only are there obvious ideological implications, she eagerly connects her book to the ideological clashes of today all while using her status as a historian to bolster the legitimacy of her own progressive views. For example, in defending herself, she doubles down on the idea that she is the victim of a Koch attack. If she was serious about defending the integrity of her scholarship, she should have avoided any mention of ideology. She could have just explained how her critics were factually incorrect and left it at that. Let other people try to fathom the larger implications of her work; she is just a humble scholar wanting to be left alone to do research with no expectation that it should be of interest to a wider world.   

There is a place for research into the history of libertarianism, even when it turns up problematic material, and there is a place for polemics against libertarianism. I welcome both but they need to be kept in distinct spheres and carried out by different people. The moment that line is crossed, the research is tainted and must be dismissed. It is quite possible that MacLean is correct and she has real dirt on Buchanan. If that is the case, let another scholar not contaminated by progressive activism go back through her sources and write another book confirming her thesis. In the meantime, I have no choice but to reject her as an illegitimate historian who fails to follow the historical method.