Friday, January 30, 2009

What Do Textbook Publishers Have in Common With Credit Card Companies? You Do Not Have to Still Be Alive For Them to Try to Sell to You.

The other day I was in the mailroom of the Ohio State history department and I glanced at the stacks of complimentary history textbooks being sent by textbook publishing companies. Textbook publishers usually send us complimentary copies of their textbooks in the hope that we will decide to use them and assign them to our students. The logic being that it makes sense to send a history teacher a free copy for his own use in the hope that he will make anywhere from thirty to two hundred students buy it. Considering that these textbooks regularly cost more than fifty dollars, this strikes me as a remarkably unfair business arrangement for students.

Amongst this stack of complimentary history textbooks was one addressed to Dr. Joseph Lynch. Unfortunately Dr. Lynch passed away a few weeks ago. He was a well respected medievalist. I did not know him well and never took any classes with him, but I did have one conversation with him when I first arrived at Ohio State. He struck me as a remarkable gentleman. As fine a scholar and human being as Dr. Lynch was, unless he decides to follow in the footsteps of his fellow historian Professor Binns, he will not be teaching this spring.

I really despise history textbooks. Not only are they overpriced but they are usually written under the control of committees which have no interest in history, but only want a platform to preach about tolerance and diversity. Not that I have anything against tolerance and diversity; those are fine things just as long as they are taught in some other place besides for a history class. This is the equivalent of handing the writing of science textbooks to the Kansas school board. I am strongly leaning towards not using a formal textbook this coming spring. Instead, I am thinking of either assigning Norman Davies’ Europe: a History or, since I will be teaching modern European history again, Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. Barzun might be a bit difficult for students to understand and the book certainly requires that one already possess a basic background in European history. As I see it, if you passed high school you should at least possess a basic background in European history. If you do not have such a background you did not really pass high school and have no business being a student on a college campus. Similarly one should have developed certain reading analytical skills. If you are incapable of reading and comprehending Barzun you have no business being a college student.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

History 112: The Case for Limiting Power to White Men of Property

Today we read about the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The French National Assembly viewed itself as acting “under the auspices of a Supreme Being.” A Supreme Being is not the traditional God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Supreme Being does not care if you believe in him or not, what Church you go to, or whom you sleep with. He is the watchmaker deity of Enlightenment deism, who set the world in motion, but does not interfere. In the absence of a deity running the world and granting political authority all power rests with “men.” Who counts as “men?” According to the Declaration: “men are born and remain free and equal in rights …” It should be noted that this statement goes against all empirical evidence. Everywhere we look, particularly if we are in 1789 France, we see hierarchy, people having power over other people. This lead Rousseau and most of the Enlightenment to have to bend over backwards, trying to justify this notion even though it makes no sense and all rational thought says otherwise. So ignoring all this, once we decide to buy into this “nonsensical” notion, we have to ask: who are these “men” that are born and remain free? Are they just men of property? Are black slaves included? What about women? These questions apply to the other open ended terms in the Declaration. Who is a member of this “nation” upon which sovereignty rests? Who is part this “general will,” which law is an expression of? Those who took part in the French Revolution were, themselves, not sure and the matter was hotly debated.

As moderns, who oppose slavery and support giving the laboring classes, blacks and women the right to vote, it is very tempting to look at the radical side of the Revolution, those who supported these things, as being on the side of reason and tolerance and those who opposed these things as being prejudiced, intolerant and outside the modern spirit. Therefore, if we wish to gain an understanding of past societies, it is important to make all the greater effort to understanding precisely those views which we ourselves do not agree with and which are foreign to our modern discourse.

Why might someone of an “enlightened” disposition oppose giving women the right to vote? Some of the most extreme acts of violence during the Revolution were carried out or actively supported by women. If you support rule of law and having government operate according to reason and not having pike wielding mobs chopping off heads it makes perfect sense to not want women taking part in the political process. Much better that they should stay home and be kept under the control of their husbands, who will make sure they stay out of trouble.

Why might a French Revolutionary committed to the principles of the brotherhood of man support the continued existence of slavery and the disenfranchisement of blacks? Emancipating slaves would not just harm white sugar planters in the Caribbean. It would bring down the entire French economy. It would give the advantage to countries like England which, as of the time of the Revolution, still continue to use slaves. Since we are in a struggle against the forces of monarchy, of which England is a prominent example, freeing the slaves would give the advantage to monarchism and help the cause of tyranny. All liberty loving French patriots should therefore support, for the time being, the continued existence of slavery. Furthermore the emancipation of slaves would not necessarily help those blacks living as slaves; they would be left without a place in society and without immediate means of employment. Also, as events in Saint Domingue demonstrated, freeing blacks and giving them equal rights would undermine public order and lead to violence.

Why might it not serve liberal interests to give power to the laboring classes, who are poor and lack property? As we have discussed previously, one of the major questions in political thought is why people decide to accept a government. As a person with property, one of my concerns about government is that it will decide to take it away and “redistribute” it. I have some money stashed away in a savings account. What is to stop our new president from deciding that, since I am not spending that money, I do not really need it and therefore it should be taken from me and used to pay off the national debt or go to some needy inner city family, struggling to make ends meet? If we give the poor the right to vote some demagogue might come along and get himself elected by promising poor people that he will take from those who have and give it to them. The most obvious solution is to limit the vote to those who own property or have a certain amount of wealth. Those who own property will want to protect what they already have and can be trusted to not use the government to try taking away the property of others.

During the French Revolution the main person advocating for mass enfranchisement was Maximilien Robespierre. We know what he did with this power. With the support of the urban laboring classes he took control and set off the Reign of Terror. Robespierre did not just take people’s property he had people guillotined. Rather than being a model of freedom, Robespierre was the first major mass murderer of the modern era, surpassed only in the twentieth century by people like Hitler and Stalin.

One can make a very good case that the French Revolution was fine as long as it was limited to the elites like the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. It is perfectly reasonable that the representatives of the third estate and the liberal members of the aristocracy and clergy allied with them, left to their own devices, could have worked things out with the king and brought about the necessary Enlightenment inspired reforms to the system. The problem came the moment the laboring masses and women got involved. It was they who turned to violence and brought about the mass slaughter of the Reign of Terror.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

History 112: Brave New World of Economics (Part II)

(Part I)

I would to turn to the darker side of this economic revolution, slavery. Like tobacco, the trans-Atlantic slave trade is something whose effects are still with us today and which we are still paying a price for. Those who concocted the trans-Atlantic slave trade could not have imagined the sort of problems they would be passing on to future generations.

In your reading you had a passage from the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, an African slave who bought his freedom and served as a leading abolitionist in late eighteenth century England. How is someone like Equiano useful in understanding the slave trade? As a white person living a comfortable existence in middle class America, I might be inclined to downplay the horrors of the slave trade. “It could not have really that bad. The Africans who came over must have really wanted to come, just like other immigrants to this country.” Reading Equiano might serve to shake me from such a view, just as many comfortable middle Christians in England were shaken in their views of slavery by reading Equiano. The problem, though, is that Equiano is clearly a biased source. He was an abolitionist, writing with a polemical purpose. “He must have been exaggerating and making up lurid details in order to get people to sympathize with the plight of African slaves.” What might convince me otherwise? In addition to Equiano you read a passage from a Dutch slave ship captain, Willem Bosman. His account describes pretty much the same sorts of things that we find with Equiano. Bosman had no interest in making up lurid horror stories to bring down his own profession. This makes him very believable. Ironically as this might sound, when dealing with the horrors of the slave trade, our best source are the slave traders themselves, who confirm the nightmarish picture painted by abolitionists.

Equiano appears in the film Amazing Grace, which deals with the English abolitionist movement in the eighteenth century. The main focus of the film is on William Wilberforce, a member of parliament and an abolitionist. What this film does really well is capture the strongly Evangelical motives of abolitionism. We are trying to establish the kingdom of God here under King Jesus here. All this drinking, gambling and whoring, which England is full off, has got to go. While we are at it, slavery also has to go since all men are supposed to be equal in this kingdom of God. Those people owning slave are not just not nice people, they are serving the cause of Satan and holding back the kingdom of God. If you deal in slaves you are going to go to Hell. The title of the film, Amazing Grace, refers to the famous hymn. The hymn Amazing Grace was written by John Newton, a mentor of Wilberforce. John Newton was a slave ship captain until he had a religious experience and became an Evangelical preacher. Amazing Grace is probably the greatest summation of Evangelical thinking. “Amazing grace how sweet the sound” – how great is that free and unearnable gift of grace to be able to know God and accept his salvation. “That saved a wretch like me” – Grace even saved a wretched sinful slave trader like me. “I once was lost” – I used to be lost in the web of my sinful slave trading ways. “But now am found” – Now Christ has revealed himself to me and showed me that slavery is wrong. “Was blind” – I used to think that my godless slave trading ways were not an offense to God. “But now I see” – Now I have been enlightened by scripture and see that slave traders are hellbound sinners.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

History 112: Brave New World of Economics (Part I)

For the past few sessions we have been focusing on the religious changes occurring during the early modern period. Today I would like to move into the realm of economics. By way of transition I would like to consider the thesis of Max Weber that Protestantism led to the rise of Capitalism. What do people like Martin Luther and John Calvin have to with Capitalism? Justification by faith, reading the Bible and rejecting the Pope and many of the sacraments may all be very nice things, but they do not appear to have anything to do with economics. You have just come into some money, what do you do with it? If you are a Catholic you might give it to the Church to buy Masses for yourself, to support monasteries and to adorn your local cathedral with gold adornment. Come the Reformation and you are now a Protestant; no more lavish Masses, no more cathedrals full statues to that saints (that is all papist idolatry now), no more gold crucifixes adorned with jewels. So what are you going to spend your money on? How about buying shares in a boat going to India. This is Max Weber. As we have seen from our reading, there are Catholic merchants, so things are a bit more complicated than Weber had it; Catholics are also involved in this economic revolution.

The discovery of the New World and the Age of Discovery profoundly affected life in Europe. It was not just a matter of some explorers traveling to some place that no European had been before and planting a flag in the ground. Different countries were affected in different ways. Spain and England offer useful contrasts in this.

Spain hit the monetary jackpot with Mexico and Peru as Hernan Cortez and Francisco Pizaro respectively conquered the Aztec and Incan empires. This was one of the worst things to ever happened to Spain and it was the ruin of Spanish civilization. You have heard stories of lottery winners whose lives were destroyed by winning; the same was true with Spain. People in the sixteenth century did not see things this way. The rest of Europe salivated as Spain was able to spend itself to its heart’s content; war in the Netherlands, sure thing, Spanish Armada, not a problem. Starting in the seventeenth century, though, Spain went into a decline that they never recovered from.

How could finding so much gold be a bad thing? First you should consider what gold is actually worth. You understand that paper currency has no utilitarian value and in of itself is absolutely worthless. If President Obama would decide to try boosting his approval ratings by handing out a million dollars to every single American, no one would actually be helped by it. We would simply have inflation. At the end of the day gold is really no better. Like paper currency gold has little utilitarian value in of itself. Gold from the New World brought no real wealth back to Spain. It gets even worse. Where was the biggest share of this gold going to? The Crown. Regular Spaniards did not benefit from this. Furthermore now that the Spanish monarchy was completely self sufficient, monetarily speaking, it had no need to reform itself. Previously we learned about Charles I needing parliament in order to raise funds. If you are Philip II you have no such problems and can rule as an autocrat to your heart’s content. A modern example of this is Saudi Arabia where the house of Saud is completely protected by their wealth in oil and can safely ignore any call to reform either from the West or from their own people.

England, on the other hand, had a very different experience. For example, they came to Jamestown in 1607 looking for gold. They did not find any. Probably one of the greatest things ever to happen to them. How can this be? Once the colonists, those who survived the first few years, realized that they were not going to find gold they settled down and started growing tobacco. While we know now that smoking is addictive and causes cancer and are paying the price for the introduction of tobacco into European culture, tobacco is an actual product with real value. England therefore received something that was actually worth something. More importantly they developed a culture of trade. They become a model of Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic. Spain on the other hand, as the Catholic country par excellence, become a model of Weber’s Catholic non mercantile culture.

(To be continued …)

Friday, January 16, 2009

History 112: The Challenge of Political Authority in the Seventeenth Century

The second most interesting question in political theory is why government authority fails. Yesterday we looked at the English Civil. The Monarchy of Charles I collapsed and he lost his head. This sort of collapse has happened many times in history. Think of France in 1789, the Bastille, or Berlin in 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Throughout much of the world, particularly in Africa, the collapse of a political system is a regular occurrence. This is an interesting question, one that I do not have an answer for; I cannot predict which regimes will be overthrown or when it will happen. The most interesting question, though, is why governments manage to stay up in the first place. There is a man by the name of George W. Bush. He says that he is my president and that I should pay taxes. Next week there is going to be a man named Barack Obama claiming to be my president and he also will also want me to pay taxes. Why should I care? Why do we take it as a given that, come next week, George W. Bush will peacefully step down from power and assume life as a private citizen? Maybe he will retreat to his ranch down in Crawford TX and declare himself King George W. Bush. Maybe the state of Texas will break away from the union and form their own country under Bush’s most Christian rule. Alternatively, why should Obama allow Bush to peacefully step down? It is dangerous to allow one’s leading opponent to stay alive; much safer to eliminate them. There are millions of Republicans out there who do not support Obama. Maybe Obama should send his Gestapo police knocking on doors and ship outspoken Republicans to concentration camps to be reeducated. The state capitol of Ohio is only a few miles down High St. and does not appear to be well guarded. Why not, instead of sitting around in class, grab some assault weapons, storm the capitol building so I can make myself the new governor of Ohio. Keep in mind that all of these things do happen around the world on a regular basis. Law and order functional governments are hardly the norm.
For people in England in the seventeenth century these issues were very real. We have all religion wars in Europe. England itself is going to have its own civil war and numerous revolutions. What authority can government claim that people should obey it? In your reading you have seen a number of possible answers from James I, Charles I, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

James I claimed that he ruled by divine right and used the Bible, but he also showed recourse to rational arguments. He compared himself to father of a family. He saw the state as a single organism made up off all of his subjects, with him as the head. Charles I, in making his case in front of parliament, sounds downright liberal. He argued that it was his duty to protect the liberty of his subjects and that if he would submit to parliament there would be no legitimate government authority left. Everything would therefore collapse and chaos would reign. These are perfectly plausible arguments that even an atheist could accept.

Thomas Hobbes most likely was an atheist. He was clearly not someone who accepted the authority of religion or the Bible. If we were to accept the Whig narrative than we would expect that someone like Hobbes, the one secular person we are dealing with here, would be a supporter of Liberty and Democracy. Hobbes, though, supported absolutist monarchy. John Locke on the other hand is our supporter of constitutionalism. While Locke was an Englishman, for all intents and purposes, he is one of our founding fathers. Much of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution comes straight out of Locke. Locke was also one of the premier advocates for religious toleration of his time. We might think this was due to his secularism. On the contrary Locke was trying to build a Christian state. He believed that by tolerating even non Christians such as Jews, they would come to see how wonderful Christianity was and convert, hardly a secularist agenda.

As with religion, absolutism is also part of the modern story. James I, Charles I, and Hobbes were not simply relics of the Middle Ages to be defeated by John Locke. The absolutist state, with its absolute monarch backed by a well developed bureaucracy, was a major innovation that did not exist in the Middle Ages. Those who defended absolutism were also reacting to the changes of the early modern period just as the supporters of constitutionalism were. Everyone was affected by the Reformation. There is now no one Christendom. One cannot simply appeal to God and the Bible; which God, the Catholic, the Lutheran, the Anglican or the Reformist one? In such a situation, everyone is looking for an alternative. Much of what goes on in the modern story is precisely this search for an alternative. Our liberal Democracy was simply one of the possible solutions. We should not assume that the victory of liberal Democracy was inevitable or that it was obviously the best solution.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

History 112: Who are these Folks? (How Religious People are Part of the Modern Narrative) Part II

Part I

Let us move this to the Christian context. Haredi Jews do not have the numbers to really affect American society. There are millions of fundamentalists Christians on the other hand. One of the things that I find very interesting about religious Christians is that unlike Haredim they do not dress differently and, from the outside, are completely indistinguishable from ordinary Americans. The person you meet on the street wearing a tie die shirt, cut off jeans and shoulder length hair might very well be a very religious Christian. Fundamentalist Christians have also developed their own counter culture. For example the Left Behind Series, which was mega bestseller a few years ago. Over the past few decades it has been the Evangelical churches that have been really successful and not the mainline or even liberal churches. How can this be; in our modern liberal age shouldn’t people be running to join liberal churches? Why would someone bother to join a church that accepts GLBTs and preaches that there are other means to salvation besides for Jesus Christ? If you do not have to accept Jesus as your personal savior than why bother going to church? Evangelical Christianity preaches a doctrine that is worth caring about; there is heaven and hell, sin and sinners, such as gays. The very salvation of your soul rests on you coming to church and accepting Jesus as your personal savior. The moral “decline” in our society also helps their cause. It creates an easy target to polemicize against. It is hard to justify taking an adversarial relationship to the general society when the general society holds similar values. If I am in 1950s America and there is school prayer and officially society is opposed to pre-marital sex than I do not need the Christian right.

In What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank makes the argument that there are many poor white Christians in this country who would benefit from government welfare programs and should really be voting Democrat. The Republicans, though, keep them focused on issues such as guns, gays and abortion and get them to vote against their economic interests. What Frank does not consider is how government welfare strengthens religious fundamentalists. We are used to thinking of big government advancing the cause of secular liberalism; it also, though, allows dissident groups, like fundamentalist Christians, to stand outside of mainstream America.

To reverse Frank’s question, there are a lot of fairly conservative blacks voting Democrat. For example, 70% of blacks voted for proposition 8, against gay marriage. Why are blacks who oppose things like gay marriage still voting Democrat, against their own ideological beliefs? It would seem that the two main reasons for this is that blacks associate Republicans with segregation and that they see the Democrats as the ones who will give them the government aid they require.

If you remember, back in 2000, when George W. Bush first ran for president, he ran under the banner of “Compassionate Conservatism." Compassionate Conservatism was the belief that government should be engaging in welfare programs, though in a more socially conservative friendly fashion. For example faith based initiative; government dollars would be channeled through religious organizations as a means to help those in need. This can be seen both as an attempt to protect Republicans against the sort of vulnerability outlined by Frank and to reach out to conservative minorities, particularly blacks. Poor white Christians would get the government aid they need in a manner they could feel comfortable with and would have no need to turn to the Democrats. As for conservative blacks they would finally have a Republican party they could feel comfortable with, one that took their concerns seriously and offered government aid, likewise, in way that would be consistent with their conservative beliefs. This had the potential to create a political alliance that would have kept the Republicans in power for the next generation. History, though, caught up with George W. Bush, after only a few months in office, on September 11. This radically changed his presidency and, for the most part, placed Compassionate Conservatism on the political back burner.

One can see Barack Obama as trying to put together his own version of the proposed Compassionate Conservatism coalition. When I first heard Obama speak, back in 2004, what struck me about him was that he was a Democrat who could talk intelligently and believably about faith. This man was clearly a a sincere and believing Christian. I had a flash of him running for president, canvassing Evangelical churches and talking about how he came to accept Jesus as his personal savior, bringing over white Evangelicals to the Democratic party; clearly this was a man who would be a dangerous candidate in a general election. As it turns out Obama did run on his faith; he had no need to as the Republicans fell apart. That being said, Obama has not abandoned this potential alliance with white Evangelicals. He has invited Rick Warren to speak at the inauguration. Rick Warren is an Evangelical pastor known for his interest in social welfare issues such as AIDS and the environment. As such Warren is precisely the sort of Evangelical Obama would wish to ally with and he can serve as a bridge to the larger Evangelical community. It may be possible to get many white Evangelicals to go along with such socially liberal notions as gay marriage and abortion if these things are sold the right way. As we can see, religious voters are important to American culture and to American politics and not simply as the dark forces of superstition waiting to overturn modernity.

Why have I been spending all of this time talking this topic? We are used to thinking of modernity in terms of liberalism and secularism. In the Prop 8 piece we saw at the beginning of class, the good guys of modernity are liberal. Then there are these dark scary buffoonish religious characters lurking in the background trying to ruin everything; seeming to be outside of modernity. In truth these religious characters are also part of the modern story. Much of what goes on in modernity plays into their hands and benefits them as well. If you do not understand the role of religion, even fundamentalist religion, then you have failed to understand the modern story. This goes for dealing with sixteenth century and the twenty-first century as well.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

History 112: Who are these Folks? (How Religious People are Part of the Modern Narrative) Part I

Intro: Prop 8: the Musical

Forgive me if today’s lecture veers off into modern politics. I justify it to myself, one, because I hope it will illustrate how the concepts we are discussing are relevant to how we understand the world around us today. Two, I am not taking any sides in regards to the issues of our day. So I hope I will not cause anyone offense.

One of the major forces in the popular understanding of the medieval and early modern periods is the Whig narrative. One of the weaknesses of the Whig narrative is that it relies on loaded terminology. For example the word fanatic; what does it mean to call someone a fanatic? In practice a fanatic is simply someone who has strongly held beliefs that the speaker does not approve of. It is simply a means to knock off ideas without seriously engaging them. To understand someone you need to understand them as they understand themselves. This does not mean that you agree with them. No one thinks of himself as a fanatic or as a bigot. The people who supported Proposition 8 do not see themselves as motivated by hate. So calling them haters does not get us anywhere. It is simply an act of prejudice on our part. This does not means that the supporters of Proposition 8 are right. You can be wrong and still not be a hater or a bigot. Using such terms tells us nothing about the people in question; it is simply us sticking our own values and judging them. Words like fanatic should be viewed as dirty curse words to be crossed out. Another major problem, and what we will be focusing one here, is that the Whig narrative underplays religion in history. When religion is discussed it is dealt with in simplistic and fairly derogatory terms. This has practical implications as we are left with a culture that underplays religion both as a historical phenomenon and in terms of how it plays out within the context of modern politics.

Last time I mentioned my Jewish fundamentalist relatives. The common term used for such people in the general media is ultra Orthodox. Ultra orthodox is a problematic term because it implies fanatic. In contrast the word Haredi, from the Hebrew word meaning to be fearful, is a far more useful term. It is a term they use and it describes how they see themselves. They do not view themselves as bigoted fanatics trying to bring back the Dark Ages; they see themselves as people who fear God and strive to do his will. I am willing to use the word “fundamentalist” as well, in a very narrow sense, despite the fact that it is often used as a pejorative, For me fundamentalist simply refers to the ideological position that takes a set of doctrine as the foundation of thought and argues that therefore these doctrines are by definition unchallengeable by science, scholarship or any other form of human wisdom. For example the Bible or the Koran; if the Bible or the Koran is the word of God than it cannot be challenged by human reason. Let us say there is a contradiction say with science than science is automatically wrong. I am not here to criticize such a position; it is a position that is coherent in its own terms.

Where do my relatives fit in terms of modernity? I would contend that they are not outside of it, but are in fact part and parcel of the modern story. What do I mean by this; wouldn’t these people have been better off say in 1950s America when there was more “family values,” before the rise of feminism and the gay rights movement? As counterintuitive as this might seem to you, 1950s America and early 20th century America as a whole was an absolutely toxic environment for Haredi Jews. You were up against a WASP dominated culture. Everyone, even blacks, wanted to be white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. This was not a culture where one could afford to swim against the current. Come the 1960s and multiculturalism and all of this changes. WASP hegemony had fallen in the wreckage of segregation. There was no longer just that one model of America that everyone aspired to; now there are many Americas. As a friend of mine once said: “free to be you and me means free to be Haredi.” Liberal multiculturalism means that everyone, even those who would seem to be as far as possible from liberal multiculturalism can now stand back and thumb their noses at the general culture with impunity. Furthermore, the 1960s produced the welfare state. While, when we think of beneficiaries of government programs, we are used to thinking of single mothers and racial minorities, Haredi Jews have also benefited. Government aid has served to effectively bankroll them as they have created their own alternative society in opposition to the general culture.

If you are interested in reading further about this issue of fundamentalism I would recommend Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God. She talks about religious fundamentalism in its various forms, Jewish, Christian and Islamic and places them within the context of the modern narrative. For Armstrong, religious fundamentalists do not stand outside of modernity but are active products of it in the same way that secularists are.

(To be continued …)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sex, Alcohol, Rock and Roll and Hardcore Calvinism

The New York Times last week had a fascinating article, Who Would Jesus Smack Down, on an Evangelical minister, Mark Driscoll. Driscoll, who heads a megachurch in Seattle, mixes a fairly socially libertarian world view with hard core Calvinism. Driscoll has no objections to alcohol, rock music and frank discussions about sex. On the other hand Driscoll openly preaches predestination, that people are destined either for heaven or hell. Driscoll does not seem to have much to say positively about feminism, believing, like Paul, that woman should be subordinated to their husbands and should not preach in church. I found it interesting that the article pointed out that Calvinist theology “makes Pat Robertson seem warm and fuzzy.” Our discussion of religion usually passes over the fact that Evangelicals like Pat Robertson are also products of the Enlightenment and in many respects quite “liberal.” This gets in the way of the narrative of Evangelical Christians as the dark forces of superstition trying to bring back the Middle Ages so our historically illiterate media ignores this fact. In my mind there is nothing odd about Driscoll. As a student of early modern history, this guy makes perfect sense. I found it interesting that Driscoll point blank uses Martin Luther as a model, someone who wrote with a pen in one hand and a pint of beer in the other. (I would be curious what Driscoll thinks about Luther’s anti-Semitism.) I see Driscoll as an example of how the traditional model of religion falls apart. Is he a liberal or a conservative? Driscoll is not a Victorian, but since when has nineteenth century Victorianism been the end all of the history of religion?

AJS Conference Day Three Session Two (Conversion, Anxiety, and the Rhetoric of Marginality Between Medieval Religious Communities)

Ephraim Shoham (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev)
“Gedaliyah of Oxford and Yom-Tov of London: Conversion, Madness, and Adolescent Suicide in the Late Twelfth Century”

As William Chester Jordan has noted, adolescents are prime candidates for conversion. At the very least these years are likely to create the crisis that later leads to conversion. Adolescents are going through a stage that involves a growing awareness of self and often creates an identity crisis. This identity crisis can easily lead to an open rebellion against the established adult authority structure. Adolescents commit suicide for much the same reason. In looking at medieval Jewry we see some interesting parallels between adolescent conversion and adolescent suicide. Both, it should be said, are harshly condemned and seen as a form of madness.

We have the case of the suicide of Yom Tov of London. His father did not mourn him. Later he appears in a dream and explains that a demon tormented him with a crucifix, urging him to worship idols. (i.e. he was tempted to convert) This serves as a means to rehabilitate Yom Tov. Yom Tov is seen as following in the footsteps of the martyrs of 1096. The text, though, goes on to state that such actions should not be imitated.

Another example is Gedaliyah of Oxford. Here we have a Christian source, which brings the case down within the context of discussing the miracles of St. Frideswide. There was a procession in honor of St. Frideswide, carrying her relics. Gedaliyah was standing in the crowd and he mocked the saint’s power. Interestingly enough Gedaliyah is not harmed by the Christians present. When he gets home his father yells at him for what he had done. Gedaliyah later kills himself. The author portrays this as a potential conversion gone sour. The author assumes that Gedaliyah was interested in converting, but could not bring himself to go through with it since he was under the control of demons. Driven by doubt and despairing of forgiveness, he followed in the path of Judas Iscariot and killed himself. It seems fairly reasonable to assume that there was something to this desire to convert; why else would Gedaliyah have been standing by this procession. (I have made a similar argument in my own work. Isaac Arama, in the introduction to his biblical commentary Akedat Yitzchak, talks about Jews willingly going to hear Christian sermons. I assume that such Jews are not just doing it for the fun of it, though sermons were forms of popular entertainment, but where either conversos are people considering conversion.)

All of this should serve to counter the traditional picture of Ashkenazic Jewry as being steadfast in their faith. Clearly there are cracks and signs of doubt behind this facade of absolute faith.


Chaviva Levin (Yeshiva College)
“Apostasy Imagined: The Rhetoric and Realities of Conversion in Medieval Ashkenaz”

As Peter Berger argues, the existence of converts challenges the plausibility of the community authority structure. Therefore it is necessary for the community to have some means to come to terms with converts. With Ashkenazic Jews we see a theme that Jews who convert lack self control and are only doing so in order to pursue their own lusts. Jewish converts do not accept Christianity in their heart. On the contrary they remain believing Jews. (The medieval version of Jewish Philosopher.) We have the example of the Nitzachon Yashon which says that Jews only convert for the physical benefits as opposed to Christians who could only be converting to Judaism out of their utter conviction. David Malkiel has pointed to conversion as a sign of low cultural boundaries. Jews were in contact with the Christian environment around them and were part of that culture. It is only reasonable that they would consider converting. Sefer Hasidim talks about Jews threatening to convert as a means of blackmail. It also talks about cases of scholars who convert and of students whose teacher converts; they are still allowed to quote their master anonymously. The sins of parents can cause a spiritual blemish on their children and cause them to convert. Conversion can also come about because the apostate had a Christian soul. Conversely Christians who convert had Jewish souls to begin with.


Alexandra Cuffel (Macalester College)
“Ambiguous Belonging, Shared Sanctity, and Imagined Conversion in Late Antique and Medieval Jewish Relations with Non-Jews”

John Chrysostom talks about not wanting Christians to attend Jewish festivals. We see this in other Christian sources as well. On the flip side the Talmud talks about Jews using Christian healing. Daniel Boyarin sees this as an example of hybridity, a desire to engage in both religions. In the Islamic context we know of Jews interacting with Sufism and honoring Sufi saints. We also see Muslims honoring Jewish saints. Meshullum of Volterra talks about Jews and Muslims at Rachel’s tomb. Muslims honoring Jewish saints is seen as an honor for the saint. There is no discussion of conversion. A number of Maimonides’ descendents were involved with Sufism including one who apparently attended a Sufi academy. Abraham Maimonides was attacked for using Sufi practices. He defended himself by noting that he never tried to force his practices on other people. Ironically enough this itself is a Sufi argument. Abraham Maimonides saw Sufi practices as coming from the prophets. (This is similar to what Maimonides did to Greek philosophy to justify its use.) Abraham Maimonides’ actions are similar to that of Jews who used Muslim practices. In a sense it is even more extreme because he placed Muslims over some Jews.

Friday, January 9, 2009

History 112: More on Giordano Bruno and the Challenge of Skeptical Relativisim

To continue with our discussion from the other day, you remember our friend Giordano Bruno, the renegade Dominican. If you were paying attention to your reading you may have noticed that he was mentioned in the section about Rudolph II. Rudolph II and his circle are an example of what Frances Yates argued, mainly that the Scientific Revolution had its origins in Renaissance magic. Rudolph II was into the occult and he gathered around him magicians, alchemists and astrologers from around Europe, one of them being Giordano Bruno. You might think that all this magic and occult has nothing to do with “science.” Except that one of the characters hanging around Rudolph II’s court is a man by the name of Johannes Kepler, one of the founding figures of modern physics.

Yesterday, in class, Dr. Breyfogle talked about Martin Luther and the Reformation. Having someone like Giordano Bruno offers an interesting perspective on the Reformation and the origins of modern secularism. One of the million dollar questions of early modern history is where does modern secularism come from. In the United States today only a third of all Americans go to a religious service on a weekly basis. Now America, by Western standards, is a very religious country. We have the second highest per capita level of church attendance of any Western country. Ireland is first. We tend to think of medieval Europe as being dominated by religion and people living in the Middle Ages as being very religious. Accepting this assumption, and it is actually not so simple, one is left with the question as to how and why things changed; if people were once very religious during the Middle Ages how and why did they become secular in modern times. Giordano Bruno is interesting in that he serves as a half way point. He rejected Christianity, as we are used to thinking about it, creating his own religion based on hermetic magic and Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, yet he viewed himself as a Christian trying to restore “true” Christianity, as practiced by Jesus and the Apostles, from the corruptions of the Middle Ages. In this he was like Luther. So when does someone stop being a Christian? When you deny the authority of the Pope, of Church councils and most of the sacraments, like Luther did? What about if you deny transubstantiation, like John Calvin? What if you deny the Trinity, like Isaac Newton and John Locke? Luther saw himself as restoring Christianity to the way things were in the Bible. The Bible says nothing about a pope so let us get rid of popes. Of course the Bible says nothing about transubstantiation so you have Calvin getting rid of that; no more Fourth Lateran Council. At the end of the day, though, the Bible says nothing about a Trinity so if you are Newton you can go and dump Nicaea overboard. From this perspective a Giordano Bruno makes perfect sense; you can believe in nothing and still call yourself a Christian.

As we talked about last time, in this class you will be learning about the historical method. History is a lot more than just names and dates, though you do need to have some knowledge of these things. History is a method of thinking, one that is useful beyond the narrow confines of history. Just as the scientific method is a means of thinking that goes beyond “science.” As a method of rational inquiry, the historical method, as with the scientific method, is premised on the notion that the human mind is capable of coming to know certain truths. This is the counter of what I like to refer to as the skeptical relativist position. Scientists have done a better job at presenting their method to the public. They have not had the luxury of other fields not to do so. As a historian I will never have to get up in front of a school board in Kansas or any other place and defend the proposition that the existence of a Napoleon Bonaparte is historical fact and that anyone who thinks otherwise deserves a straightjacket, a padded cell and a lifetime supply of happy pills.

Last time we considered a skeptical relativist position, that my blog, Wikipedia and the scholarship of Frances Yates are all the flawed products of the human mind and human biases and therefore are all equal; one is not really better than the other. Who would support such a position? We are used to thinking of relativism as product of liberal secularism. We are used to hearing from secularists that all values are relative and there are even those who would apply this relativism to science. Now there is another group that has the same interest, religious fundamentalists. In my opinion one of the major misunderstandings of religion in the modern world is the equation of skepticism and relativism with secularism; religious fundamentalism is also built around extreme skepticism and relativism. What is left standing if all human knowledge collapses and no longer can claim any authority? (In a Southern drawl) “The Bible! The Bible is word of God. All those so called scientists and scholars they do not really know anything. You need the Bible to set you straight.” If you have ever been around campus come summer time, you will hear people like this, standing around on the oval. Now I grew up dealing with Jewish fundamentalism, it sounds a bit different. (Yiddish accent) “Mimelah all the scientists are bunch of apikorsim (heretics) and what you need is to have emunah pshuta (simple faith) in the Torah hakodosha (the holy Bible).” This is an example of Yeshivish. Think of it as a sort of Jewbonics.

So all of you here! You are my deputy historians. We stand against skeptical relativism in both of its forms. We believe in the power of human reason and over the course of this coming quarter we are going to see the historical method in action as it takes apart texts.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

History 112: The Internet (My blog and Wikipedia versus Frances Yates)

Welcome to my class. Today we will be discussing the internet. I assume all of you use the internet. How is the internet valuable and where might it prove to be a problem; should you use the internet as a source? The fundamental problem with the internet is that there is no control.

Take for example this blog here; (I showed the class my blog) it is written by a very nice person, myself, and I decide what is written. For example if I so feel like it I can write: “the other night the Ohio State Buckeyes defeated Texas in the Fiesta Ball.” And lo and behold it is on the internet. Wikipedia is even worse. At least with my blog you know who the author is. With Wikipedia you have no idea who the author is. Most Wikipedia articles are open to anyone to edit. You want to see how easy it is to put in made up facts into Wikipedia? (I gave my students a demonstration in practical Wikipedia sabotage, changing random facts around.) Here is an article on Jewish Messiahs. The article lists Asher Kay as a Jewish messianic claimant, who lived in the early sixteenth century. The real person was named Asher Lemlein. Asher Kay is a friend of mine, who decided to take advantage of the fact that he shared a common first with Asher Lemlein to take his place in Wikipedia’s version of history.

Now take this book I have here, Frances Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Giordano Bruno was a sixteenth century renegade Dominican, who believed that the true Christianity was hermeticism and Kabbalah. He managed to run around Europe, preaching this, for a number of decades until he ended up in the hands of the Inquisition, who burned him at the stake. Frances Yates was one of the great early modern historians of the twentieth century and this book, written during the 1960s, revolutionized the field. What is the difference between this book and Wikipedia? I am sure Francis Yates was a very nice woman, she even was a professor at the University of London. Last I checked, though, Yates did not talk to God; this book is not the Bible. She wrote with a very specific agenda and it comes out in how she interprets texts. If any of you ever have the good fortune to sit down and read this book I would hope that at times you will say: “I do not buy her into what she is saying here, she completely misinterprets this document.” Yates was not perfect; she made mistakes. So if both Yates and Wikipedia are both prone to human error why is one better than the other?

Yates did not make this book up off the top of her head. Yates had an editor. The copy of her book in our hands here was published by the University of Chicago Press, a prestigious publishing house. Before this book was published numerous other scholars in the field looked it over and it passed muster with them. Furthermore Yates gives sources. If you think she is mistaken go back and read her sources for yourself. The fact that this is a printed book is also helpful. What we have here is a set text that is not going to change. The words in this book are going to stay exactly the same until it falls apart from age or is destroyed. While this does not mean this book is error proof, this gives it a level of credibility that I am actually going to take what it says seriously.

What is Wikipedia good for? I actually use Wikipedia on a regular basis. When I read I often run into names and terms I am unfamiliar with. What do I do? I look them up online and usually end up in Wikipedia. I can quickly get basic facts, dates, country and important concepts. Then I write it down. Here is a stack of flashcards I have with me. I have huge stacks of these at home. Wikipedia is also useful in that the better Wikipedia articles have footnotes and sources. So while Wikipedia, in of itself, is not a good source it can lead you to legitimate sources. If you are researching a topic you know nothing about you can go to Wikipedia and in seconds you can have a working bibliography from which to start researching.

Welcome to History 112

This quarter I am working as a TA, teaching History 112 European History from the Sixteenth Century to the Present. I would like to salute my fellow TAs, Anthony Crain and Ian Lanzillotti, and the professor, Dr. Nick Breyfogle. This is the first time I have met Dr. Breyfogle, but so far he seems to be a good guy for me to be working for. One, he is laid back and has a sense of humor, my sort of person. Two, he is a details person. He works with a detailed syllabus and a set lesson plan. This is good for me since I am not a details person. Left to my own devices I tend to teach off the cuff and go and long side tangents. This often makes for entertaining classes though I can be difficult to follow, particular for those with little formal background in history. So having a good lesson plan to rein me in is a big help. I have someone to be organized for me so I can focus on what I like doing best, putting my off kilter charming self on display and presenting history as a serious intellectual discipline.

I hope to be sharing my notes of my classes. So even if you are not in my class I am hereby welcoming you aboard into my classroom.

Friday, January 2, 2009

AJS Conference Day Three Session One (Explorations in the Society and Culture of Italian Jewry and Death and Acculturation)

(I session hopped this one in order to listen to Steven Fine so I got parts of two different sessions.)

Explorations in the Society and Culture of Italian Jewry in the Early Modern Era
Stefanie Siegmund (Jewish Theological Seminary)
"Gendered Paradigms and Gendered Prospects: Italian Jewish Converts in the Early Modern Context"

Judith Bennett talks about the need to look at historical continuity when dealing with women. Women are continuously in a subjugated position. To apply this model to the situation of Jewish women and conversion, throughout the early modern period Jewish women were less likely than men to convert to Christianity. With the exception of forced conversions converts are overwhelmingly male. Judging from cases in early seventeenth century Rome, twice as many men converted as women. What we are looking for here is a model of non conversion. Both Christian and rabbinic sources are filled with cases in which wives did not convert along with their husbands.

Jews were more likely to convert when there were economic incentives. One would therefore expect women to convert when there was something for them to gain. Now in most cases women did not have the economic incentive that men had. On the contrary by not converting women were maintaining their status. The wife of a man who converted could still hope to get a divorce and her dowry. This would make her a free woman, outside of the control of her father or husband. Women are more likely to convert along with their husbands if they were younger and had small children. Such a women might value her personal freedom less and feel the need to keep her children.

(It may very well be true that in the situation of Rome women did get divorces. In the literature on the issue of apostate husbands leaving their wives that I am familiar with, mainly from fifteenth century Spain, husbands are not giving their wives halachic divorces, leaving them as agunot. This becomes a major incentive for women to convert. An example that comes to my mind is that Isaac Arama, who frames his discussion of who is a Jew within the contexts of apostate husbands. Saying that such people were no longer Jewish would solve a major problem; their wives would be free to remarry. The consequence of accepting these men as still being Jewish is that they are free to blackmail their wives and their wives are trapped.)


Death and Acculturation in Jewish Late Antiquity
Steven Fine (Yeshiva University)
"The Jewish Community of Byzantine Zoora: Inculturation and Jewish Identity in Late Antique Palestine"

The discovery of tombstones in Zoora gives us lots of written texts, but no context. Ten percent of the tombstones are Jewish the rest are Christian. That being said these Jewish tombstones are sources for Jewish life from the fourth to the sixth century, a period in Jewish history that we know little about. Jews here use their own calendar calculations. They were cut off from the main Jewish communities. We see lots of names starting with Yud or Chet. Inscriptions are in Greek and Aramiac. Engraved tombstones cost more and make you less sloppy. Christians have lots of crosses at the bottom. Jews have menorahs, arks, shofars, and lulavs. Both Jews and Christians have birds.

We cannot say what a symbol means. We can only talk about a range of meanings. Scholarship has been dominated by the Protestant question and has focused on Jews as a collection of sects; rabbis are seen as one among many Judaisms. We need to consider the broader common culture. The Jews in Zoora may not have been "rabbinic" Jews, but they were part of an easily recognizable Jewish culture.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

AJS Conference Day Two Session Four (Insults Through the Ages)

Hartley Lachter (Muhlenberg College)
"The Little Foxes that Ruin the Vineyards: Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov on the Pernicious Influence of Jewish Philosophy"

Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov, in Sefer Emunot, refers to philosophers as foxes that ruin the vineyard of Jewish tradition. For Shem Tov it is Kabbalah that represents the true Jewish tradition. Sefer Emunot serves to educate the reader as to the true nature of Kabbalah. Shem Tov even attacks Maimonides for going after the Greek Aristotle and human reason. Shem Tov sees Maimonides as being an elitist. For Maimonides, knowledge comes to the worthy few. Shem Tov does acknowledge some philosophy as being useful; just as long as it is kept in its place by revealed tradition. The fox in Shem Tov's analogy is not just clever it also is a violator of boundaries. Their actions lead to apostasy. As such philosophers destroy the one vehicle for divine truth to reach the world. Thus it is a threat not just to Judaism but to the world as well.


Matt Goldish (Ohio State University)
"Rabbinic Insults in the Early Modern Period

There is a thanks in order to the conference for lowering their standards thus allowing for Allan Nadler to take part.

Rabbis do not pay much attention to the laws against loshon hara. The early modern period is rich in rabbinic insults. This reflects a crisis in rabbinic authority. Rabbis saw the oral law and rabbinic tradition as being under attack and they felt the need to its defense. For example we have R. Jacob Sasportas attacking the Sabbateans. Referring to the four sons of the Passover Haggadah, he comments about Nathan of Gaza that first Jacob Hagiz thought he was a Tam, a simpleton, than he realized that he was the child who does not know how to ask. Sasportas calls Sabbatai Raphael a tub of urine. Leon Modena attacks Kabbalists and asks that boiling lead be poured down the throat of Shem Tov b. Shem Tov for insulting Maimonides. According to Modena, Kabbalists have not produced a single worthwhile Talmudist. Their work is the overcoat of idiots.

Alexander Joskowicz (University of Mississippi)
"Jewish Insults in the Modern Period: On Neo-Orthodox Popes and Jewish Jesuits"

Insults serve an important role as source material. In the late nineteenth century making fun of Catholics becomes an important part of inter communal Jewish polemics in Germany. In 1876 there was the famous debate over the law of separation. This measure was supported by the Orthodox party. It allowed them to form their own separate communities outside the control of the Reform establishment. Reformers attack the Orthodox as being Jesuits. Just like the Jesuits are first and foremost loyal to the Pope and not the state so to the Orthodox refuse to remove references to Zion from their prayers, demonstrating their disloyalty to the state. We also see the counter argument that Reform rabbis are like Catholic priests; they have no natural authority and seek to simply bully people into submission. This anti Catholic sentiments can be seen as a type of pathway to modernity. Jews were taking part in the Protestant culture around them and framing their arguments within a distinctively Protestant value system.

(Allan Nadler served as the respondent for the session and stole the show. First he returned the favor to Dr. Goldish by pointing out that it was now past shkeia, sunset, so Dr. Goldish could tuck his tzitzit in. Then he introduced us to some interesting background about the name Nadler. Apparently, during the early modern period, the name Nadler was a common insult. The source for this seems to have been a family of Nadlers who were bigamists. So calling someone a Nadler was the Jewish way of calling someone a bastard. Indeed even the famous R. Joel Sirkes got involved and ruled that it violated the laws of lashon hara to call someone a Nadler.)

AJS Conference Day Two Session Three (Sixteenth-Century Kabbalah and its Aftermath)

Mor Altshuler
"Tikkun Leil Shavuot of R. Joseph Karo and the Epistle of Solomon ha-Levi Elkabetz"

The tradition of tikkun leil Shavuot, of studying all night on Shavuot, comes from the Zohar where the practice is associated with the Rashbi circle. In essence playing out the revelation of Moses at Sinai. The first historic tikkun that we have evidence of was practiced by R. Joseph Karo, R. Solomon Elkabetz and their circle in Salonika. According to Elkabetz, the voice of the Torah came out of Karo. The voice identified itself as the Shechina in exile; God had left her and her children had abandoned her for idols. The revelation of the Shechina takes them from Moses at Sinai to Joshua conquering the land of Israel. Soon afterwards there was a plague in Salonika. Karo lost his wife. This eventually led Karo and Elkabetz to moving to Safed and establishing the golden age of Safed Kabbalah.


Zohar Raviv (University of Michigan)
"Rabbi Moses Cordovero's Sefer Gerushin: Contemplation, Devotion, and the Negotiation of Landscapes"

R. Moses Cordovero's Sefer Gerushin has not been heavily studied. Lawrence Fine has done the most extensive study of it to date and he only gives it a page and a half. The main theme of the book is the exilic existence of the Shechina and how one relates to it. The book advocates the practice voluntary exile in order to enact the exile of the Shechina. By doing it specifically in the Galilee one is literally following in the footsteps of the Rashbi. One should do what was done in the Zohar in the specfic place done there. Codovero advocated a practice in which a living mystic would lie on the grave of an ancient sage whereby the person would become the Shechina and the ancient sage would take on the persona of Yesod. Underlying all this was the premise that if one understands the divine structure once can force God to do certain things.


Eitan P. Fishbane (Jewish Theological Seminary)
"Identity, Reincarnation, and Rebirth in the Writings of R. Hayyim Vital"

Belief in the afterlife and ressurection is a basic part of many religions. R. Hayyim Vital's Shar ha-Gilgulim is about the search for ones place and function in the redemptive restoration of the primal cosmic order. The identity of the person is the soul that travels from body to body. Isaac Luria's great ability was that he could identify the identity of his students' souls and understand their purpose. (See Lawrence Fine's Physician of the Soul) The actions of a person can have a cosmic affect. The intentions of a person, while having sex can affect the children born. A father's energy can make a child wild or lazy.


Lawrence B. Fine (Mount Holyoke College)
"Spiritual Friendship in Jewish Mystical Tradition: The Bet El Contracts"

There is a difficulty in studying the history of friendship. Friendship is something so universal that it is easy to ignore. One has to recognize that the concept of friendship differs from place to place. Friendship also has to be distinguished from other social realities. There is the prescriptive (what friendship should be) and the descriptive (what friendship is).

The Bet El circle is an example of community friendship. Bet El did not go the way of Hasidism; it remained an elitist and not a popular movement. They signed a pact as a group to love one another and to share in each other's merits. Members of the group were not to praise another too highly and everyone was to treat each other as equals. This pact has its precedent in the circle of David ibn Zimra. Among the people included in this pact was Isaac Luria. To go further back one can point to this model as being rooted in early Christian and early rabbinic thought.