Thursday, October 30, 2008

Karaites in Byzantium: A Fifty Year Retrospective

Zvi Ankori’s Karaites in Byzantium: the Formitive years, 970-1100 was published fifty years ago and remains an important text in the field. To this day Karaites are still at the margins of Jewish studies, a Jewish sect that arose sometime in the eight century which shows up from time to time but of no great consequence. Ankori (who used to teach here at Ohio State) serves to take Karaites out of their origins with Anan and even beyond the ninth century Mourners of Zion. Ankori is concerned with the next step, to go beyond narrative of great Karaite intellectuals to dealing with the creation of a dynamic Karaite community. In this, Ankori focuses specifically on the Karaite community in Byzantium during the tenth and eleventh centuries. This community serves the interests of Ankori in that it takes Karaites out of their origins, thus presenting a community in flux. This Karaite community lived outside of the Islamic world from which it sprung and now lived under Christian rule. In terms of internal communal dynamics this presented a shift away from the orbit of the Karaite community in Palestine, the center of Karaite authority up until the Crusades. This led to certain practical changes such as a shift away from Arabic toward Hebrew and the accommodation to and eventual acceptance of the rabbinic calendar. This also involved a more fundamental shift in how Karaites understood themselves and how they related to their various opponents, whether Jewish rabbinites or gentiles.

Ankori was a student of Salo W. Baron and Baron’s influence is clearly manifested. Baron opposed what he termed as the “lachrymose” view of Jewish history in which Jewish history is a catalogue of Jewish suffering at the hands of an oppressive gentile world. Such a view sees Jews as distinctively separate from this gentile world and as passive figures in this drama. Baron saw the Jewish communities in medieval Islam and Christendom as dynamic participants of the world that they lived in and not mere passive victims. Jews were affected by the same currents that affected everyone else and not simply shut away on their own. For Baron this is not a matter of were Jews “rationalists” or did they contribute their fair share to the advancement of mankind. Baron was more interested in the Jewish community being part of the medieval world and Jews being products of the general social and economic superstructure.

Because of this Baron’s style of writing has an overlay of intellectual history, but this intellectual history is rooted in a social history, focused on communal and economic structures. Eschewing essentialist views, Baron emphasized variety and change. He brought to his Social and Religious History of the Jews (This work comes out to eighteen volumes and he never even got up to the modern period.) a sense of absolute thoroughness and an emphasis on records but this came at the expense of narrative. Considering the vast scope of his work, this lack of narrative turns his history into a vast parade of material with little in the way of an overarching structure to serve as a guide. This makes his books difficult to read, even for historians, let alone for anyone else.

Ankori's approach to Karaites follows this lead. His Karaites are a part of the Jewish community and of the world at large, interact with them, and are affected by the shifts in both. While the figures of the Karaite Tobias b. Moshe and the rabbinite Tobias b. Eliezer of Castoria cast a prominent shadow through most of the book they are not the subjects of the book. Rather they serve to illustrate the dynamics of Karaite and rabbinite polemics. Ankori is not interested in the back and forth of Karaite and rabbinite debates as an end in of itself, though the book can serve that end. Rather the writings of these two Tobiases serve to illustrate the wider world of Karaite and rabbinite interactions and how fluid and interrelated these two Jewish communities were. Karaites in Byzantium is a social history, emphasizing communal and economic structures. His mastery of his source material is nothing if not awe inspiring. If there is one drawback to the book is that, as a follower of Baron, Ankori has no use for narrative, which makes him difficult to read. His analysis is often brilliant though often shows a tendency to try to overwork his sources beyond what they could possibly supply. The fact that he had to work with such meager amounts of information (He wrote this book decades before the vast Judaic collections held by the Soviet Union in Leningrad was opened to scholars.) leads one to treat this with some level of charity. Ultimately Karaites in Byzantium is a grand monument to scholarship but lacks any sustained narrative to support its wide ended scope, thus making for a book that is inaccessible to all but the few specialists in the field.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Being Part of the Disabled Community Versus Being a Member of a Minority Group (Part III)

(Part I)
(Part II)

The differences separating me, as someone on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum, from those on the lower end of the spectrum (and their parents and advocates) was starkly illustrated to me at a recent Autism Speaks Walk in Columbus. I attended the event as a member of Aspirations, an autism support group here at Ohio State. I assumed that the event would be a show of unity and support for autistics across the spectrum. The event was held at the Schottenstein Center, the basketball arena for the Buckeyes, and over nine thousand people attended. I loved the whole atmosphere and being there with my friends from Aspirations. My joy at being at this event lasted up until the moment the first speaker started talking and went down from there. I had to sit in the stands and listen as a parade of people got up and spoke about autism, how it is an “epidemic,” and a “disease” that needed to be “cured.” Sitting in the crowd and listening to these speeches, I felt like I had been used and taken advantage of. This was not what I came for. Imagine a black person going to a civil rights rally only to find himself being called an N-word and hearing that his blackness was a "disease" that needed to be cured.

Believe me, I recognize the incredible difficulties that parent of low functioning autistic children must go through. For that matter I know that I was not an easy child for my parents to raise. I am sure my parents would have benefited from having someone to explain what was going on with me and to offer support. And parents of autistic children need all the help and support they can get. But that is the point; help and support is not a cure. Even in terms of support, though, there are differences. What my parents needed was not a medical professional to make me “functional” or to act like a “normal” person. Their needs were not all that different from that of parents of gay children. They would have benefited from having a professional tell them that yes I was “different,” that this was not a bad thing, that it was not their “fault” that I was who I was and that there was nothing they could do to “fix” me. All they could do was accept me for who I was, to try to understand my alternative way of life and be the advocates and the support I needed. (All in all I think my parents did a pretty good job without any professional help.)

As someone with Asperger syndrome, I do not see myself as disabled in any fashion. On the contrary I thank God every day for giving me the gift of Asperger syndrome. I look at other people and I wonder how they live such dull neurotypical lives. My life may be lonely much of the time but it is certainly interesting. If you offered me a "cure" for my Asperger syndrome I would laugh at you and throw it in your face. More than that, though, the very notion that I would need to be "cured" is an insult; it implies that my way of life is somehow less than other's peoples. This is no different from those who would suggest that homosexuals should be "cured."

Ultimately, there were different interests at stake at this Autism Speaks Walk. It was organized primarily by parents of low functioning autistic children. For them autism is a disability that needs to be cured. For me, and others with Asperger syndrome, autism is an alternative way of life. These interests directly conflict with each other; the mere existence and public visibility of each side harms the other. Having low functioning autistics in play is detrimental to me because it opens up the charge that I, as an autistic, am disabled as well. Whether it is fair or not, I am tainted by the mere association. On the other hand, while I may be useful as an advocate for autism, I present a tremendous inconvenience for those dealing with low functioning autism. I take away from the narrative of autism as a disability. No one is going to come away from meeting me overwhelmed with pity at the horrible state of those living with autism. Furthermore the fact that I am as functional as I am raises an implicit challenge to those less fortunate than me. If I could succeed what does it say about those who do not? This may not be fair but it taints them with failure.

I have Asperger syndrome and I am proud of it. My way of life is equally legitimate to that of other people. I will continue to fight for myself and for others with Asperger syndrome so that we should be able to have our stake in our multicultural society.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ohio State is One of the Most Gay Friendly Schools in the Country

As I have been talking about gay rights on college campuses I thought it would be worthwhile to note that according to an article published today in the student newspaper, the Lantern, Ohio State has been ranked as one of the most LGBT friendly campuses in the country by the LGBT-Friendly Campus Climate Index. We were given an overall 5 out of 5. We scored perfect fives in seven out of eight categories. We only scored a 4.5 on housing, though. We were docked a half a point because we do not offer a separate residence hall for LGBT students. Following this logic it would seem that we should dock the school a half a point in terms of heterosexual housing since there is no heterosexual residence hall. Think about it. I, as a heterosexual student, have been robbed of the opportunity to live, study and grow in a gay free environment. (Not that I really care less one way or another.)

As anyone who has ever gone to Ohio State knows there is really only one thing that matters which is of course beating Michigan which we did. Michigan only scored an overall 4.5. I think this is a victory over Michigan that I could do without.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Being Part of the Disabled Community Versus Being a Member of a Minority Group (Part II)

(Part I)

The relationship between a high functioning paraplegic to the general physically disabled community parallels the relationship between Asperger syndrome and the general autistic community. My interests, as someone with Asperger syndrome, are very different from people on the lower end of the spectrum. As I have previously argued, what I require from society is not charity or help as a disabled person but to be recognized as a member of a minority group with its own, equally legitimate, way of looking at the world. I should be placed on the multiculturalism umbrella, neurodiversity in my case.

The conflicts that I tend to get into with neurotypicals are the sort of conflicts that come about when a minority is faced with a member of the majority culture, who lacks proper multicultural awareness. For example I once got a bad grade on a Spanish test. The problem was that, in keeping with my Asperger way of thinking, I took a number of questions very literally and did not give the answers that the teacher wanted. For example I listed lizards as an animal that one would find in the ocean. This is technically speaking true. A Komodo dragon is a lizard and it does spend a lot of time in the ocean. I went over to the teacher and proceeded to try to explain my case. As someone with Asperger syndrome I tend to speak in a highly theatrical manner. I speak loudly and I gesticulate a lot with my hands. I also tend to hunch my shoulders and bear down on people. So here I am, a six foot male, standing over a female, not much over five feet tall, speaking loudly, waving my hands and bearing down on her. From the perspective of someone wedded to neurotypical assumptions this looked like me threatening her. The teacher ended up asking me to go to her supervisor. Not only that but a bystander ended up calling the cops. In truth, though, I was not threatening the teacher. I was simply speaking in a manner that was in keeping with my Asperger being. From the perspective of pure reason, this mode of speaking is equally legitimate to neurotypical styles of speaking. I did not strike the teacher nor did I cause her any physical harm. It is only the neurotypical bias that interprets this as aggressive behavior. This incident is no different from a white or a heterosexual teacher misinterpreting the verbal and physical cues of a black or a gay student as something threatening. The fact that the teacher felt threatened is not my fault. (Or at least not completely.) The real fault lies with the teacher who lacked the cultural sensitivity to appreciate the utter relativity of her own cultural assumptions.

This story has a happy ending. I sent the teacher an e-mail in which I explained what Asperger syndrome was and that I was not threatening her in the least. I apologized to her for the misunderstanding and the matter was dropped. I was even awarded some of the points I had lost on the test. For better or for worse I had to be content with this. If I were black, gay or some other minority group with more cultural clot than Asperger syndrome maybe the university would have sent me an apology, assuring me of the universities commitment to maintaining a neurologically diverse environment. Maybe the teacher would have been forced to undergo sensitivity training and would have received a reprimand telling her to get with the neurodiversity agenda of the university or find other employment.

To strengthen my case, I, as someone with Asperger syndrome, actually have certain innate advantages over neurotypicals, unlike people who are black or gay who have no advantages beyond their own personal skills. Because I have Asperger syndrome I have a certain knack for interpreting texts. While I may have certain difficulties with dealing with other human beings and processing non analytical information such as body language, I am very proficient when it comes to reading analytical information such as texts. Think of Asperger syndrome handling textual information as the equivalent of being seven feet tall and playing basketball. So not only should universities recruit me as a student, create an Asperger friendly environment for and, when the time comes, hire me as a professor as a matter of neurodiversity they should be doing these things out of pure self interest. In essence I should be receiving everything that blacks and gays receive and more.

(To be continued …)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Being Part of the Disabled Community Versus Being a Member of a Minority Group (Part I)

I have a friend who is a quadriplegic. While he gets around in a wheelchair, I would not, though, view him as disabled; he leads a perfectly functional life and, to the best of my knowledge, is completely self sufficient. Everything he does, though, takes thought and planning. For example he can drive, but he needs to use a special contraption that allows him to control the breaks and the accelerator by hand. (FDR used something similar when he drove.) Getting in and out of a car is an elaborate ritual. He has to break his wheelchair down in order to get it into the back. To get out he needs to put the wheelchair back together and shift his body from the seat of the car into the chair. I admire him for how he is able to live, particularly since I am certain that I, put in a similar situation, God forbid, would not be able to cope like he does.

To make the issue of disability more complicated, my quadriplegic friend has certain advantages over other people. Since his lifestyle requires such constant awareness, he possesses a set of thinking patterns that most other people do not have. I imagine that it is only a matter of time and advocacy until people in the general business community realize that the skills that people like my friend have are a lot more valuable to a company than a functional pair of legs and start actively hiring people in wheelchairs not as a matter of charity or goodwill but as a matter of simple self interest. We may see a time when “wheel chair thinking” becomes a valuable skill to be taught even to those not in wheel chairs.

From a perspective of disability advocacy, my friend is a two edged sword. On one hand he is a poster child for what people can do even from a wheelchair. On the other hand having someone like him can be counter-productive. He does not inspire pity; people do not come away from meeting him thinking what a horrible situation he is in and how miserable it must be to be a quadriplegic. He inspires hope and hope can be a dangerous thing. He creates a standard that is hard to live up to. What does one say to those quadriplegics who never become as functional as he is; are they “failures?” As I see it, the needs of my friend are very different than that of a traditionally disabled person. His situation is a closer fit to being a minority. He does not need people to “help” him; what he requires is tolerance, a certain awareness and understanding on the part of society. People need to get over their ambulatory biases and realize that there are people who live their lives without a functional pair of legs and that this is a perfectly legitimate lifestyle option.

My friend’s situation as very high functioning quadriplegic is not that different from being black or being gay. I work and study on a college campus. We have black advocacy groups to make sure that I, as a white person from a middle class background, do not immediately assume that if a male black student comes into class wearing baggy jeans, a baseball cap in backwards and several gold necklaces that he is a criminal likely to mug me on my way home. Similarly there are gay advocacy groups to make sure that I, as a heterosexual male, do not freak out and assume that if a gay student comes over to me and compliments me on my fashion sense that this student had a crush on me and is trying to tempt me into having gay sex with him. I should not feel threatened by having gay students. As their history teacher, I should not be yelling at them that they are evil sinners, going against nature and are bound straight to hell. I should also not try to “turn” them straight or tell them that I am praying for them to change their ways. I need to understand that my way of life and my values do not apply to everyone. That other people have alternative lifestyles that are perfectly legitimate. Being on a college campus means living in a multicultural environment; if I cannot manage that I should find employment somewhere else.

(To be continued …)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Michael Moore Learns about Patriotism: Some Thoughts on American Carol

Before the film, American Carol, started there was an ad for the National Guard. It featured National Guard troops in action spliced with Dale Earnhardt Jr. driving in a NASCAR race with heavy metal music in the background. I take it as a good sign that I am capable of looking at something like this with a mixture of confusion and amusement. I take it as a sign that I am not some mindless drone of the conservative movement. I am not certain what Dale Earnhardt Jr., who I am sure is a wonderful guy, and a patriot who supports our troops, and NASCAR have to do with the National Guard. The dramatic high point of the ad was a scene in which a Humvee full of American soldiers is driving full throttle through the dusty streets of a Middle Eastern town when all of a sudden a soccer ball crosses the Humvee’s path. The Humvee breaks and comes to a complete stop right in front of the soccer ball. A soldier gets out and with a nod from his commanding officer kicks the ball over to a Muslim boy, who looks back at the American soldier with a look of awe, gratitude and respect. Upon seeing this, I broke laughing; this was too over the top to bear. I think it is a problem when you cannot tell the difference between a propaganda piece and piece of satire.

American Carol bills itself as the first conservative film to come out of mainstream Hollywood and is devoted to sticking it to the liberal establishment. (I would point to Team America: World Police as a film that preceded it.) It is a send up to Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol and spoofs Michael Moore. It features an overweight radical leftist documentary filmmaker in a Michigan State baseball cap named Michael Malone in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. Malone despises all things American, including his tall good looking all American nephew, who is serving in the Navy. He hates America so much that he wishes to abolish the Fourth of July. The night before he is to speak at an abolish the Fourth of July rally, Malone is visited by the spirits of John F. Kennedy, George S. Patton and George Washington, who teach him the true meaning of patriotism.

I laughed my heart out through the film’s eighty plus minutes and would have loved to have gotten more. I am not sure what was my favorite bit; a group of black slaves breaking out into hava nagilah while picking cotton or the shootout with ACLU zombies out to deliver injunctions to make it impossible to check the bags of potential terrorists and to destroy the Ten Commandments. (This still does not compare to season four of Twenty-Four when the villain, upon finding out that one of his people had been captured, calls a group named Amnesty Global to inform them that an innocent man was being illegally held by CTU. A lawyer from Amnesty Global then shows up with a court order, banning CTU from questioning the person they hold. Fortunately Jack Bauer ignores this and proceeds to break the guy’s fingers one by one until he gives over the information necessary to save the day and stop a nuclear device from wiping out Los Angeles.)

I feel that I can recommend this film to everyone across the political spectrum, without any sense of guilt, as a hands down brilliant piece of political satire. I am not saying this simply because I agree with film’s politics. I enjoyed watching Michael Moore’s films too. Bowling for Columbine was absolutely hilarious and even Fahrenheit 9/11 had its share of good moments. I think that Michael Moore is a brilliant filmmaker whose work can be enjoyed regardless of one’s politics. (I also think that Leni Riefenstahl’s films are genius despite the fact that they are Nazi propaganda.)

While I enjoyed the film I had a number of problems with it. These problems may seem like quibbling on my part but I do see these things as a cause for concern. The film has Patton show Malone an alternative universe where Lincoln had followed Malone in thinking that violence never solves anything and did not fight the Civil War. Malone finds that his family has moved to the South and that he is now a major slaveholder. A very funny bit without any question. The problem is that Patton came from a Confederate family. His grandfather fought under Robert E. Lee. Of all the people that the film could have picked to make their point, Patton might not have been the best choice. Patton also takes Malone to the Munich conference of 1938 where Neville Chamberlin shines the shoes of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo. It was great having Hitler strumming a guitar and singing a peace song, but, and maybe this is me being the nitpicky historian, it bothered me that Tojo were put in Munich. Japan had nothing to do with Munich.

These small historical bloopers could be laughed off if it was not for the fact that it is part of a larger assault on academia. The film clearly has a gripe with academics. Malone even gets to visit a peace studies course at Columbia University where the professors breakout into their hippy selves and sing about how it is 1968. While I have my problems with academic culture, I am not comfortable with this sort of head on attack, mainly because I suspect that what lies behind it is not just a rejection of the academic culture as it exists at present but also a rejection of academia of any sort. Whatever problems I may have with academic culture as it exists at presence I am a believer in the academic process. Universities, even the radical leftist parts, have an important role to play in our society. I am not certain, though, that the filmmakers share my concern. If they did they would have bothered to get their history right.

As an academic on the right side of the political spectrum I believe that radical changes need to be made to the university system. I think that the hard left culture that dominates campuses is a problem. That being said, I do not think that the solution is for a right wing takeover. I fear that too many on the right are not just against liberal academics but would seek to destroy all academia.

Friday, October 3, 2008

On the Comforts of Reading Isaac Asimov

I spent this past Rosh Hashana with a family in the community here in Columbus. Right before the holiday began I was wandering through their living room and I came across an Isaac Asimov novel. I picked it up and started reading simply to see what it was about and immediately fell entranced into it. Despite the fact that I had brought other books with me I ended up abandoning those books and reading the Asimov novel instead. I would compare reading Asimov to drinking a twelve dollar bottle of Moscato d’Asti. It might not be high class but it also is not some cheap junk; it requires a certain level of sophistication to appreciate, but not too much so that it ceases to be fun.

There is a simplicity to Asimov that makes him such a readable writer. While Asimov was a science fiction writer, who usually wrote about societies far across the galaxy and far into the future, he kept his work grounded in our world. One never doubts that Asimov’s characters, despite the exotic worlds they live in, are anything but twentieth century humans. This may make for bad science writing but it is great science fiction. Practically any other writer trying to do this would end up sounding drab and preachy. It is Asimov’s genius that he was able to pull it off. As with J. K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer the question that you have to ask with Asimov is not whether this is good writing in any technical sense. The question that you have to ask is, granted that this is not what is usually understood as good writing, why does it still hold together and work despite its obvious flaws.

There is a certain comfort in being able to curl up on a couch and escape into Asimov’s universe. One knows that the world that he is writing about is really our world and his version of our world has very clear cut heroes and villains and a clear message as to how to solve the issues of our day. There are the heroic scientist characters, usually professional scientists but sometimes just lay individuals who think along the lines of the scientific method. They fight to maintain and advance the flame of reason against the vast hordes of ignorance and superstition, aided and abetted if not actually caused by the forces of religion. Reading Asimov, one can lie back, just for a moment, and actually believe that the world was really that simple. This is simply a secular version of the comforting certitude of religion. Religion offers a set answers to the world that are comfortable, in large part, because they are direct and simple. Most people, I think, want some set of simple answers to make themselves comfortable; it does not really matter if it is a religious or secular set of answers.

While Asimov might not be fitting reading for Rosh Hashana this Asimov novel, Nightfall,[1] ironically enough did sort of fit the holiday spirit. Nightfall is about the apocalyptic end of a world. It is about a planet, Kalgash, that has six suns. The people on this planet have no experience dealing with darkness and are particularly unsuited for it; being exposed to darkness for even a few minutes is enough to cause nervous breakdowns and even permanent insanity. Every 2049 years, though, the planet, due to a complex alignment of the celestial spheres, undergoes a worldwide blackout. This blackout is about to happen. Over the course of a day everyone on this planet will undergo several hours of darkness. By the end the entire civilization will be destroyed as most of the population goes insane and riots, burning down entire cities just to create some light. The essential conflict of the book is the race to prepare for this end, to be in a position to pick up the pieces and rebuild a new civilization once everything has been destroyed. On one side is a scientific community centered around Saro University. On the other side is a religious cult, the Apostles of the Flame. The scientists want to save the knowledge of their civilization so that the world does not completely fall into a dark age. The Apostles of the Flame see the coming blackout as the fulfillment of the prophecies told in their book of Revelations, a book written in the aftermath of the last blackout. They believe that the blackout is a punishment from the gods upon the sinners of the world. Once the world is “cleansed” they hope to be able to establish a new godly civilization, complete with restrictions on what sort of bathing suits women will be allowed to wear.

Early in the book one is tempted to think that maybe the scientists and the religious people are really not so far apart, that they really want the same things and that they are going to be able to work together. In other words one almost thinks that Asimov, for once, got it right and created a world in which the lines between religion and science are blurry and it is not simply a matter of heroic scientists battling fanatical religion. Asimov disabuses us of this notion soon enough. The religious characters are as bad as we might have suspected them to be.

Asimov was an example of a secularist who crafted his worldview with the help of the Whig historical narrative and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in particular. (See here) Asimov’s Foundation series (his best work and what people will, hopefully, remember him for) is a science fiction retelling of Decline and Fall. Nightfall is also premised around Gibbon’s version of the end of the Roman Empire and the coming of the Middle Ages. A golden age of civilization is about to end and everything is going to fall to the forces of barbarism and religion. It is only a question of allowing some flicker of knowledge to survive so that one day the flame of progress can be reignited.

My world would be a lot simpler if it was all God, his Torah and the Jewish people, if my Rosh Hashana could be solely about going through the long prayer services, getting right with God, and doing all the fun Jewish customs, such as eating apples dipped in honey for a sweet new year. But my world also includes Asimov, his science fiction and his secularism. Not having Isaac Asimov would make things easier and a lot more comfortable and sometimes I need to curl up with a book that gives me that world. I choose, though, to live in my life in a complex world, with its God, Day of Judgment and its Asimov.

[1] I should point out that this novel was co-authored by Robert Silverberg, who I assume did most of the actual writing. This novel is based, though, on an earlier Asimov short story and is written in a very Asimov fashion. So even if Silverberg was the real author he still was imitating Asimov and probably doing it, at the very least, with Asimov’s help.