Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Asael: Prologue - An End and a Beginning

Introduction

The night-filled streets outside the kenasia (on other worlds I hear they call these things churches) were empty so there was no one to see the two men. One, with pale white blond hair and an angelic face marred by a scar crawling up his right cheek, sat on the altar in the center, swinging his legs back and forth nervously and laughing. It was a high-pitched laugh, not human, more the howl of a long forgotten animal. He knew that people who heard his laugh couldn't tell if he was expression joy, mockery or despair. Perhaps that was for the best. At any rate, he felt no joy this night.

Roai’anot, the religion practiced by the Khazars of this town, had long since abandoned the use of animal sacrifice and the altar in each kenasia remained as a reminder of what once stood long ago. One might have thought he was praying. He was, in a manner of speaking. He had no god, not any that he expected to take him now, but still he prepared himself, whispering in a sing song chant: “He shall even be hauled out. Said the Sages: ‘Even? Even from the horns of the altar itself.'” The night air was warm yet his hands shivered. These hands that had known war, that had faced death innumerable times; why falter now? After a lifetime of facing daunting odds and never backing down, he knew how things would end. He stood against the inevitable, against what he could not fight.

From behind his grey eyes he glanced toward the entrance of the kenasia at the second man. If the blond-haired man was tall this man was massive with a torso jutting out into a thick upper body. His black hair was tied back in a knot, in keeping with the local fashion. This gave his pale face the look of a smiling skull. He did not look particularly human under the best of circumstances and the flickering lantern light from outside the kenasia gave his face a glow of something beyond this third world of Crossroads. Underneath his gold-tinged red eyes was a pair of scar-like tattoos that seemed to pull the skin of his face tight around his pointed elf-like ears.

The pale-faced man approached the altar. His penetrating glare searched the gloom of the simply decorated room for signs of another occupant but found nothing. From atop the beams he could hear the faint rustling of wings, the only thing to betray the pigeons that occupied it, but otherwise only silence filled the air around him.  The blond-haired man stood and greeted him as a friend then knelt slightly and placed his clasped hands outward as a sign of allegiance. They spoke to each other. They were alone, but even if there had been someone to happen by they would not have understood. The language they spoke was a tongue that had not been heard amongst men of the third world, Crossroads, in an Age.

The blond-haired man seemed to plead with his visitor. The pale-faced man raised his hand as if to refuse but then relented. He clasped the man to his chest and then placed one of his hands on the blond man’s forehead as if he were a priest offering benedictions. A light emanated from the pale-faced man, but the room did not brighten. He seemed to suck the light from the room into himself, making himself all the brighter. His face morphed as a helm and a half facemask sprouted out from his skin.

"With the power of Law," the pale-faced man intoned, "I judge you."


“Judgment accepted.” Despite his shaking hands, the blond-haired man looked straight upward, without blinking.


With his free hand the pale-faced man struck down and outward. The blade from his hand bit into the stomach of the man before him. The blond-haired man reached down as if to stench the bleeding. Instead of blood his hands came up with burnt pieces of flesh, which broke apart in his hands. He took a step forward, but his feet fell out from underneath him. He went down as his skin melted away. A flame burst forth from his chest and bubbled from between his clothes. His clothes caught fire but were not consumed. A shock wave of flame shot out from him catching everything in a six-foot radius. It struck the pale-faced man, who closed his eyes meditatively and stretched out his hands, embracing the flames around him, as if he could survive the flame simply by thinking through it. The flames swirled around him, returning his embrace. This was the Blackfire, the manifestation of Law in all of its purity and judgment.

“I strike not with hatred or vengeance, only Law. The Law is my salvation. As it judges others so may it judge me.”

The pale-faced man opened his eyes and stared at what remained of the man before him, still alive in the flame. There was no scream. The pale-faced man did not immediately leave, but remained watching. Finally, as the flame went down to a flicker and before the man finally perished, the pale-faced man spoke his last words to the man. The Khazars of the town would have recognized these words as belonging to what they referred to as the Old Tongue: “hadran alach achina,” farewell brother.

And then he strode off into the night, leaving behind a charred skeleton in immaculately tailored clothing. The pious, coming at daybreak to pray, would be shocked at the spectacle awaiting them, but no damage was done to their sanctuary.

Asael: Introduction and Argument

This is a story that I have had brewing in my head for a few years. It has been growing and evolving. Various acquaintances have heard bits and pieces of the story and have encouraged me to try writing it. At times it seems that the characters have been pounding on me, pleading me to bring them to life and I have been meaning to try putting it down into a written form for some time. I have held back for a number of reasons. The first being that, while I believe strongly in the story, I do not have a similar faith in my ability to tell it. The second reason has been this blog, which has taken up my spare writing time. Since part of this blog is about serving a healthy side dish of fantasy I have decided that it would be appropriate to bring in some fantasy of my devising so I will be posting this story in installments. As for my ability, I hope you will forgive my inexperience in writing fiction; this is an experiment and a rough draft so it will have its weaknesses. I do want your honest opinions and criticisms though. To all of you who wish to set out on this journey with me, welcome aboard.

The Argument:

Meet Asael bar Serariah. He makes his unofficial residence in the local monastery library, serving as the assistant to the chief librarian, Kuphdin. Asael officially lives with his uncle Rechemiah but has not resided there since he was eight due to irreconcilable differences. Asael is a knack of many talents with avoiding attention not being one of them. For one thing being a light skinned, white blond haired Khazar has always made him stick out. Match that with the fact that he is a genius studying for confirmation for the priesthood at the unheard of age of eleven. He is fluent in at least seven languages, one of which he has never heard spoken and cannot be identified. He can process certain fields of newly learned information as if on recall. Much to his annoyance this does not include Temple rites, laws of purity and impurity (of little practical value but necessary for his ordination) or higher mathematics.

With the Khazars on the verge of signing an alliance with their former enemy, Saebethia, Asael takes an interest in the Shinar war, fought over three decades earlier against the Saebethians, and the personality of a leading Khazar general, Serariah Dolstoy, Asael’s grandfather and his son Asael, Asael’s namesake. Fascinated by these relatives that he never met, Asael begins a journey to personally follow the track they marched. He is guided by his namesake’s personal copy of Roai’ana scripture with his handwritten notes on its margins and a history of the Shinar war written by a Saebethian intelligence officer with a remarkably thorough and balanced account of the Khazar’s and their religion. In addition Asael is also taking guidance from a series of dreams which he believes are memories from the war.

What Asael thought of as just history of dead relatives, though, is about to turn very personal. Something from this past has come looking for Asael and it has the jaws to match Asael’s mouth. Asael is going to have to use every bit of the considerable talent at his disposal to find answers before the object of his studies finds him.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Religious Choices: a Response to Bart

This is a response to a recent comment from Bart, who challenged me as to my consistency in choosing to follow certain laws while ignoring others. He raises some good questions. Different people may respond differently to them, here is mine.

There are two issues at hand here. There is the issue of the relationship between one’s personal values and the public policies that one supports and then there is the issue of the process of religious decision making. As to the first issue, which I think is really the side issue here, I do not believe that making laws against theft is forcing one’s values on other people as theft is an action that does direct and empirical harm to others. Someone breaking into my apartment and stealing my television is different from my atheist gay neighbor having gay sex with his boyfriend and reading PZ Myers to him in the privacy of his own home. Since I am a Libertarian and take a hard line stance on the distinction between empirical and non empirical damage I am in a far better position than most when it comes to this issue.

To transition into the second and what I think the real issue at hand. While my religion may ban me from having gay sex and, arguably, bans my neighbor from having gay sex, there is nothing in my religion that says that I have to try to stop him either through physical force or through my vote. The most my religion may ask of me is to politely “rebuke” my neighbor and point out that there are alternatives to his way of thinking and living. Even this would be assuming that I am qualified to rebuke people. There are many people out there who have taken it upon themselves to serve as rebukers, who are not qualified and do far more harm than good.

Just as I am under no obligation to stop gay sex I am under no obligation to stop gay marriage. I am sorry if I was not clear on this matter previously, but while I do not support having Judaism recognize gay marriage, I have no problem if the State of Ohio or the Federal government decides to legalize gay marriage. Homosexuality is not different than any other sin. How much sleep do you think I have lost over the government subsidizing pig farmers? Well mainly because, as a Libertarian, I oppose pretty much all government subsidies, but not because of anything having to do with Leviticus. So I am not "amending" God’s law to suit modern times. The same ban on homosexuality from biblical times is still in place in full force. I would also point out that as a Jew I am in a far better position than a Christian in regards to this issue. I do not say that homosexual sex is an abomination while pork or a shrimp cocktail (a la Prop 8: the musical) is okay.

All serious thinking people, no matter their theology, will, on a regular basis, find themselves having to weigh different issues against each other. The threat posed by Saddam Hussein weighed against the cost and dangers of trying to removing him from power. The desire to protect unborn children weighed against a person’s right to control their own bodies. (Unlike most feminists, I am actually consistent on this issue since when I talk about the right to make choices when it comes to one’s own body I am not only talking about abortion but also the right to use drugs and sell one’s organs on an open market. I do not believe in men’s rights or women’s right. I believe in human rights.) Inevitably one is going to have to make compromises. I do not believe that all those who opposed the war in Iraq wanted Saddam in power or that those who support abortion want to butcher fetuses. They made a decision to way one issue over another.

This applies to religion as well. When one engages with a religion one is engaging a whole complex tradition. For example Islam. People who quote passages in the Koran that support violence against unbelievers and compares Jews and Christians to apes are missing the point. Islam is a lot more than just the Koran; it is a whole body of different legal traditions. If you wish to understand Islam’s view of violence toward unbelievers you cannot just look in the Koran you also have to follow the issue through nearly fifteen hundred years of Islamic legal thought. The Koran deals with a situation in the seventh century where Mohammed and his followers were at war with Jews and Christians. How should Muslims in twenty-first century America apply these passages? There are a range of possibilities and a religious Muslim would possess a lot of leeway, while working under the guidance of his local Islamic religious authority and the Islamic legal tradition. There are a number of Muslims in the history department here at Ohio State. The ones that I have gotten to know are all really good people. To the best of my knowledge, none of them have tried to murder me. That does not make them bad Muslims or cafeteria Muslims, choosing to practice some things while ignoring other things. They are simply the products of a fifteen hundred year tradition in dialogue with twenty-first century America.

Here is a World War II Bugs Bunny cartoon featuring Bugs Bunny taking on a pack of Japanese soldiers. It climaxes with Bugs handing out ice cream covered grenades to apelike Japanese soldiers to blow them to bits. This is a fairly racist piece and not the sort of thing that I would want shown to children without corrective commentary. That being said I would not interpret this cartoon as Warner Brothers telling me that my Japanese neighbors in twenty-first century America are monkeys and that I should go wage jihad against them. It is self understood that this cartoon was made in a very specific context, World War II, and that it is meant only to apply to this very specific context.

This past week, in the weekly Torah portion, we read the famous (or infamous) passage of “thou shall not suffer a mechashefa (usually translated as “witch”) to live.” (Exodus 22:17) This passage has been used to justify a lot of horrible things, among the least of which has been the attempt to ban Harry Potter. As one can see from this blog, I am a very big Harry Potter fan. I do not see this as me making compromises with the modern world. As I understand the passage, it is not meant to ban the actions described in Harry Potter let alone to ban me from reading about them.

To conclude, I do not see myself as making compromises with the modern world. At no point do I simply say that something does not fit in with modern values and can therefore simply be done away with. My actions and lifestyle choices are well rooted within Jewish tradition. I grant you that there is a personal element to this. I am ultimately the one who has to make choices for myself. I am a product of twenty-first century America so the process with which I look at Jewish sources and make decisions about how to act as a Jew are going to be different than Jews who lived in first century Judea or fifteenth century Spain. This does not mean that I am making arbitrary choices simply to suit myself; there is a thought process.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ann Coulter Versus Historians

Ann Coulter takes a swipe at historians with her latest piece, “Why We Don’t Celebrate ‘Historians Day.” Her complaint is that a recent poll of historians ranked George W. Bush the seventh worst president in American history. According to Coulter:

Being ranked one of the worst presidents by "historians" is like being called "anti-American" by the Nation magazine. And by "historian," I mean a former member of the Weather Underground, who is subsidized by the taxpayer to engage in left-wing political activism in a cushy university job.

Coulter goes on to note that this is shocking as “most liberals can't even name seven U.S. presidents.”

I know many very liberal historians and yes they can name more than seven U.S. presidents. Speaking as a historian who has never been a member of the Weather Underground and has never used a cushy university job to engage in left wing political activism, if historians really wanted to go after Bush they would have placed him last. Regardless of what one thinks of his policies, and I am probably more sympathetic to them than most in my profession, it is very difficult to give Bush high marks as a president. Was he effective in rallying his party and a clear cut majority of the electorate around his policies? With the exception of the weeks after September 11, no. Was he a masterful orator? No. Maybe he was like Eisenhower and subtly controlled his advisors without anyone knowing? Time will tell, but as far we could see, this was a president controlled by his staff as few in history have been. I cannot think of one positive way that Bush affected the office of the presidency. While none of this means that Bush was a completely horrible president, he should be viewed as mediocre to well below average. Seventh worst may be a bit tough, but it is not unreasonable. If I were voting I would probably have Bush ranked somewhere between twenty-five and thirty spots from the top. But then again I am biased, I voted for the man.

Personally I do not think whe can properly evaluate and rank recent presidents. One needs some distance for that. I would say fifty years. So we are just about ready to evaluate and rank Kennedy.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

An Introduction and a Word of Explanation: a Response to Some Comments (Part II)

Part I

The place, I suspect, were I part ways with most of those writing comments is that I am a committed theist, even if it is a very abstract deity, and desire to come to terms with Him. I do not claim to be able to prove that this deity exists in any ultimate sense. I accept his existence as a more reasonable alternative to not having such a being. (I am willing to elaborate on this in future posts, but I expect that many of my readers will just have to agree to disagree with me on this one.)

When talking about secularism it is important to distinguish between several different issues. There are many things that may be labeled as secular that I support. For example I support the secularization of the political sphere. I have no interest to go back to kings presiding over Church councils to decide religious dogma. This view of the political as something divorced from religion owes itself to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas as much as it does to John Locke and John Stuart Mill. I also have no interest in trying to force my own morality on other people. I am a Libertarian and I take an even more extreme stance on this issue than most liberals. I go so far as to support the legalization of prostitution and of all drugs, including hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine. I believe that a person should have the right to control one’s body so not only do I believe in legalized abortion but I also believe that people should be able to sell their kidneys and other bodily organs on the open market. I am even willing to go along with gay marriage. (I also believe that private businesses should have the right to practice discrimination but we can save that for later.) I am perfectly willing to live my own simple puritanical life in a fully hedonistic world. This would again be an example of the Augustinian side to me. I expect the world to be sinful and corrupt so I am going to live my life and not worry too much about everyone else.

This political secularism is very different from social secularism and secular moral values. While there are many social and ethical issues that we agree on and can work together like fighting poverty and racism. That being said, there are ethical differences between me and much of the secular world. For me sexuality is an ethical issue. Sex, in of itself, is ethically problematic since it involves physically taking someone and using their body as a means to your own pleasure. (I hope to further delve into this issue in later posts) I would no more do anything to enable and encourage unmarried teenagers to have sex than I would to help them in acts of racism and intolerance that cause no physical harm to others.

There is a type of secularism that I find attractive and is where I would go if I ever decided to abandon Judaism, theistic ethical humanism. To believe in God as the creator of the laws of nature and the giver of moral law and to attempt to relate to him particularly through living an ethical life that advances the human race. This may be a more accurate description of my theology than Orthodox Judaism. (Why I remain an Orthodox Jew and do not take this option is an issue for a different post.) This brand of secularism would maintain the same moral standards as any formal religion and would still value ritual, whilst doing away with the dogma of religion; it would be a religion of reason.

Be that as it may I choose to operate within the context of Orthodox Judaism and to relate to my theoretical deity through the prism of Orthodox Judaism. More than the Bible, this means the rabbinic tradition. As with most traditions this is not a coherent whole but a stream with many different branches. I try make the decisions as to what I accept not out a sense of what is most convenient for me but with an eye to defending what I see as the best of the tradition. A big part of this is that I submit myself to religious authorities and recognize that the buck stops with them. They may get it right they may get it wrong, but someone has to make a decision.

As long as I remain within Orthodox Judaism I am going to make a serious effort to keep to Jewish practice to the best of my understanding. So for example, even when I am at the HCCO banquet and I see no other Orthodox Jews around, I am not going to sample the salmon or the chocolate chip cookies even though one could make a good case that they are kosher from the perspective of the Bible. For me, kosher is a way that I can relate to God with every bite of food that I eat. I am also a Kantian so I am going to keep those rules of my own making and am not about to cheat on those rules even if it is for a small thing of little consequences. Being consistent and true to one’s own rules is something of supreme value.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

An Introduction and a Word of Explanation: a Response to Some Comments (Part I)

My recent post on PZ Myers’ lecture has generated a lot of discussion. There were a number of excellent comments that deserve full responses. Also, since there were many first timers to this blog, I thought it would be worthwhile to put in a word of explanation as to who I am and the nature of this blog. First off, while I am a theist and a practicing Orthodox Jew, I welcome people and ideas of all sorts. I am not trying to preach to anyone or convince anyone to follow any particular system of belief and practice. I try to treat everyone with respect. For example I have received positive comments from Mormons for my postings on Mormonism, thanking me for treating them fairly. This, I think, comes out of the fact that this blog exists more for my education and my personal search than for anyone else. I wish to understand people on their own terms. So no matter whom you are or what you believe, I am interested in you and what you believe for its own sake. I want you to help me understand.

I come from a specific place, which affects what sort of questions I ask and the issues that I interest myself in. Obviously, as with the thinkers I study professionally, I am also a product of my environment and time period. If I were to put an overarching thesis to my thought it would be: I have rejected much of the Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) upbringing of my youth, but am critical of what I see in modern secularism so I am left trying to consider alternatives. Underlying this thesis are the questions of why I am not Haredi, or, for that matter, any other type of religious fundamentalist, and why am I not a secularist.

For the purposes of this blog religious fundamentalism is a response to modernity that argues that one’s sacred texts are by definition the Truth and therefore any claims made by the methods of thought developed by modernity that contradict said sacred texts are by definition false. The irony of this is that religious fundamentalism is as much a product of modernity as the secularism it is supposed to oppose. Secularism is the ideology that one should operate outside of any traditional religion. It should be noted that secular is not the same as being an atheist. One can believe in God and still choose not accept any established religion.

I strongly suspect that most of those who commented on my previous post will strongly be able to identify with my rejection of religious fundamentalism and it is likely that on that front we share a lot in common. It is the second question of why I am not a secularist that seems to befuddle many. So why am I not working “toward helping to advance humanity out of the shadows of religion toward the sunlight of secularism?” What do I have against secularism? “Is it the scientific facts underpinning secularism or the chaotic freedom of the social aspects that [I] disagree with? And if it is the latter, is that based on personal distaste for modern culture or leftover religious proscriptions? Why would a seemingly rational person like myself “who accepts facts though the lens of inquiry, not dogma” refuse to eat food that was not kosher?

I am glad that so many of you are willing to give me the benefit of doubt that I am a rational being and not some superstitious relic from an ancient world. I believe I owe you the respect to not try to preaching to you or to try to claim that my way of doing things is some unchallengeable only road to the Truth. For one thing I do not believe that myself about my own beliefs. I am just a graduate student in his mid twenties trying to make an educated rational guess as to the nature of this world and trying to come up with a plausible way of living based on that best guess. What I will try, in this post and in the future, is to prove worthy of your benefit of the doubt by making the case for my rationality.

(To be continued …)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Atheist Convention in Columbus

(For those of you who did not grow up in the Orthodox Jewish community during the mid 90s, the title refers to a song, “the Atheist Convention in L.A.” The song is about a Muslim atheist, a Christian atheist and a Jewish atheist traveling to Los Angeles for an atheist convention. During the flight there is an accident and the plane begins to go down. The three atheists, believing that they are going to die, all begin to pray. The plane mysteriously manages to right itself and everyone on board is saved. The song ends with the three atheists each returning to their ancestral faith.)

This past Saturday evening, the Humanist Community of Central Ohio hosted Pharyngula’s Dr. PZ Myers as part of their banquet in honor of Darwin Day. The event was held at the Fawcett Center, just a few blocks away from where I live. As a reader of Pharyngula, I did not want to miss the opportunity. I did not want to attend the banquet, though, since it cost $25 for students and it would not have been kosher anyway so I contacted the Humanist Community to find out if I could come just for the lecture and they very nicely said yes, though they recommended a $5 donation, which was perfectly reasonable.

PZ Myers is an atheist in the Richard Dawkins mold, known for his hard hitting polemics. I expected more of the same here. The PZ Myers I heard and got to speak briefly with afterwards managed to surprise me. He was not the internet polemicist that I was familiar with, but a scholar, a biologist and a gentleman. He spoke magnificently, putting complex ideas across in ways that a lay audience could understand without talking down to them. What particularly gained him respect in my eyes was that he avoided taking pot shots at William Paley, the nineteenth century English theologian who authored the famous watchmaker argument for design, and actually praised him. I only wish that more people could see Dr. PZ Myers of the University of Minnesota-Morris and not just PZ Myers of Pharyngula; our cultural discourse would be all the healthier for it.

Here are my notes summarizing Dr. Myers’ lecture. As always any mistakes are mine.

Darwin and Design by PZ Myers

Charles Darwin went on his famous five year sea voyage (1831-36) on the Beagle, during which time he formulated his theory, when he was twenty-two years old. We are used to thinking of Darwin as an old man with a beard, but he was really not that much older than our college students when he began his work on evolution. Darwin did not immediately publish his thoughts upon his return to England. He spent more than twenty years doing further research, particularly on barnacles. This is one of the things that scientists today so love about him.

To put Darwin’s argument in syllogistic form:

If there is a variability in a population
If success correlates to variation
If excess reproduction occurs
If variation is heritable
Than the relative frequency of the different variants must change (adaption will occur)

It should be pointed out that, in practice, there is no difference between micro and macro evolution. It is all really one thing.

It is interesting to note that Thomas Huxley, later known as “Darwin’s bulldog” started off as an opponent of evolution, but was converted upon reading a draft of the Origin of Species.

Darwin was heavily influenced by William Paley and his book, Natural Theology. Paley wished to show how complex the natural world was and how this necessitated a creator. Paley acted as a sort of scientist, though coming from a theological perspective, and you have to respect him for that. A big chunk of the Origin of Species is a rebuttal to Paley. Darwin blew Intelligent Design out of the water in 1859.

Biologists can show how complex designs can come about from simple designs. This process is called Bricolage. This term is taken from the arts; one tinkers with existing designs and creates something new from it. What we see in the natural world is cobbled together from different pieces.

It is difficult to define complexity. For example the driftwood debris at Olympia beach in Washington is complex, far more complex than a brick wall, but came about through a natural process. It would be very difficult to draw the debris and it serves a multitude of purposes, such as food for various organisms, yet it is all due to chance. Random things are much more complex than things that are designed.

Human beings are complex. Brad Pitt, for example is a metazoan. He possesses approximately 5 x 1013 cells and twenty thousand genes. 4% of these genes are for adhesion, 12% signaling and 6% act as switches. His brain consists of 1012 cells, 1011 neurons and 1014 synopses.

This is what creationists do; point out how complex life is and say that God must have done it. Of course simply saying that God did it is not very interesting. Much of what we see in such a complex metazoan as Brad Pitt is reproduced in simple organisms.

Choanoflagellates are single cell organisms that have a lot in common with sponges. We see that they are able to clump together and act as a singular organism. This could be a precursor to multi-celled organisms. The Choanoflagellate possesses things that were once thought to be unique to metazoans; they have receptors such as tyrosine kinases, cadherins and integrins. Trichoplax adhaerens are in a phylum all by themselves. Think of them as micro organic versions of the Blob. They possess genes found in complex brains like ours. In essence our brain is a glorified digestive system. What we think is special about us exists in simpler organisms, serving another purpose.

But evolution can also create things. Nylonase bacteria eat nylon, a product which did not exist before the 1930s. A Japanese nylon factory was dumping waste into the local river and sure enough within a matter of decades the bacteria had evolved to be able to eat nylon. What we have here is a frameshift where a previously useless protein turns out to be useful in binding to nylon. The bacteria were able to exploit this.

In conclusion, nature is not an engineer. The factors that play a role in change are chance, modularity, multifunctionality, incremental tinkering and contingency.

There was a question and answer session following the lecture where Dr. Myers again proved to be far more congenial and far more open to certain nuances than he is on Pharyngula. He acknowledged the need for multiple approaches such as trying to build bridges as opposed to the no holds barred method of attack usually employed by him and Dawkins. Myers noted that part of the problem with attacking organized religion is that many people out there have deeply religious relatives who are wonderful people whom they love. So when you attack religion people take it as a personal attack on their grandmother or the like. (This is somewhat disingenuous on his part as his attacks can get quite personal.) He talked a bit about the documentary Expelled. He had a great story about him trying to go see a pre-screening with Dawkins. Apparently Myers was recognized and kicked out, but nobody kicked out Dawkins. So they got the best of both worlds. He got expelled from Expelled, which allowed him to avoid having to sit through it, and Dawkins got to watch it and write a nasty review of it. As Myers sees it they made the right decision to actively oppose the film even though it made slightly more money, mostly from atheists going to see it, because at the end of the day the film was received negatively. This was a better outcome than if the film had been allowed to just pass unnoticed.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Religious Fundamentalists Gone Absolutely Insane (Or Just Gripped by a Pathological Desire to Swindle the Ignorant)

Rare 200-year-old book—now back in print—confirms the historical accuracy of the Bible!
PRE-ORDER TODAY TO GET A $10 INSTANT REBATE & FREE-SHIPPING!
The Sacred and Profane History of the World Connected Volume 1 + FREE CD-ROM
"Years ago I purchased this rare book from a widow in a small West Virginia town. Her late husband was a collector of old history books. Once I opened the book I couldn't put it down. Intricate maps of the ancient world unfolded before my eyes. Fascinating illustrations with the translation of ancient languages and charts with the ages of the Antediluvian Patriarchs were interspersed throughout the text. I've never seen Biblical and Secular history woven together in this way. I've always known that the Bible's history was true--but my faith in God's Word was strengthened like never before." — Ray Vallorani, Co-Founder of Tolle Lege Press (Publishers of the 1599 Geneva Bible)
This special edition of
The Sacred and Profane History of the World Connected Volume 1: From The Creation of the World to the Dissolution of the Assyrian Empire by Samuel Shuckford, D.D. was originally published in 1808. Inside you will find intricate fold-out maps of the ancient world such as the location of the Garden of Eden and the settlements of Noah's descendants. You'll also find charts and graphs on the ages of the patriarchs, ancient languages, and more. The author dramatically weaves the historical accounts of the Bible and secular history together into one powerful narrative. Dr. Shuckford's research confirms the accuracy of the Bible—from the Creation and Fall of Man to the Dissolution of the Assyrian Empire at the death of Sardanapalus, and to the declension of the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel, under the reigns of Ahaz and Pekah. Hardback with Leather Binding • 500 pages • Gold Foil Stamping • Gold-gilded pages
PRE-ORDER TODAY TO GET A $10 INSTANT REBATE & FREE-SHIPPING!RETAIL $39.95 • ONLY $29.95 with FREE CD-ROM! •
PRE-ORDER!
FREE BONUS ITEM WITH YOUR ORDER!: A CD-ROM of the complete book with searchable/ printable text!

I am often critical of atheists like Pharyngula for falling into hysteria over religious fundamentalists. I am someone who believes in maintaining a civil tone and measuring one’s words. I try to see some measure rationality and sanity in all. (I confess that, as someone with Asperger syndrome, this something that I myself have difficulty with and need to constantly work on.) Then there are things, like this recent ad from Townhall that make me just want to scream, tear my hair out and despair of there ever being a popular intellectually credible opposition to modern secularism. Townhall is a conservative site and I am on their daily e-mail list for conservative commentary. (I am also on a number of liberal e-mail lists.) I have not read the book in question so I am not about to pass judgment on the book itself. That being said anyone who reads two-hundred year old works of history in order to learn history does not understand the nature of historical study. The field of ancient history has changed quite a bit in two hundred years, about as much as the natural sciences have over the same period of time. For example, when this book was written the Rosetta stone had only just been discovered and scholars could still not read hieroglyphics yet. For all intents and purposes, back in 1808 we were ignorant children, who knew nothing about ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia. By definition, no book written at the time, no matter how scholarly, could be useful in supporting or undermining the historical accuracy of the Bible.

The only excuse one could have for reading such a book is if one was interested in historiography in general and in early nineteenth century Christian scholarship in particular. Townhall should be ashamed of themselves for peddling such wares to the ignorant. Any conservative writer with an ounce of intellectual credibility should refuse to allow themselves to be associated with Townhall or to allow their writing to be posted on its website. Score one for Pharyngula.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

History 112: Factory Regulations (Part II)

Part I

Apprenticeship Contract for Young Women Employed in the Silk Mills of Tarare, France, 1850s

Art. 1. To be admitted, young women must be between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, of good character and in good health, intelligent and industrious, and must have been vaccinated. They must present their birth certificate, a certificate of vaccination, and a trousseau.
We are dealing with girls from the country. How many of them have been vaccinated or have birth certificates? In order to get these things these girls are going to have to spend money, which likely means borrowing money. So many of these girls are already going to be starting off in debt. It is a lot easier to take advantage of people who are in debt and are, therefore, not in a position to leave.

Art. 4. The pupil promises to be obedient and submissive to the mistresses charged with her conduct and instruction, as well as to conform to the rules of establishment.
What does it mean to be obedient and submissive? Not to complain about conditions, report abuses or anything to upset the management.

Art. 6. If the sick pupil remains in the establishment, every care necessitated by her condition will be given to her.
Medical care for those who get sick? Not exactly. The management only has to take care of those sick girls that they decide to keep in the establishment. They can just kick out every girl who gets sick and save themselves the trouble.

Art. 8. The director along has the right to authorize or refuse leaves. Hey will be granted only on the request of the father or guardian of the pupil.
Most of these girls are not from the immediate area and their fathers are not on hand to ask for leave. A girl would have to get letter or telegram sent to their father who would then have to send a message back. So for all intents and purposes no requests to leave can be made.

Art. 10. The effective work time is twelve hours. Summer and winter, the day begins at 5 o’clock and ends at 7:15. Breakfast is from 7:30 to 8:15; lunch is from 12:00 to 1:00; snack is from 5:30; supper is at 7:15. After the second year, pupils will receive lessons in reading, writing, and arithmetic. They will be taught to sew and do a little cooking.
So these girls are to be given an education to help them move up in the world. The funny thing is that with all the emphasis on the specific times for everything there is no time given for education. So, for all intents and purposes, we can assume that these girls are not being given a meaningful education. It is not in the management’s interest to do so. People who do not have an educated have fewer options and can be forced to work for less.

Art. 12. Wages are not due until the end of the year. …
Art. 13. Any apprentice who leaves the establishment before the end of her term, or who has been dismissed for bad conduct, conspiracy, rebellion, laziness, or a serious breach of the rules loses her rights to wages for the current year; beyond this, in such a case, the father or guardian of the pupil agrees to pay the director of the establishment the sum of one hundred francs to indemnify him for the non-fulfillment of the present agreement. …
The management can decide to fire a girl in December for bad conduct, conspiracy, rebellion or laziness, which of course can mean anything that upsets the management, and the girl would lose a full year’s pay. Not only that but her father would have to pay the management.

Art. 16. On her arrival, the apprentice will submit to inspection by the house doctor. Any girl who has a skin disease or who found to be sickly will not be accepted and will be sent away immediately at her own expense.
The management can just send girls home whom they decide they do not want and do not have to pay anything. Where would these girls get the money for a return trip? Many of them would have likely needed to borrow money just to make the trip. So will they will have to borrow more money and go further into debt.

(From Documents in European Economic History, vol. 1, the Process of Industrialization, 1750-1870 and Victorian Women: a Documentary Account of Women's Lives in Nineteenth-Century England, France and the United States)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

History 112: Factory Regulations (Part I)

I would like to discuss the two examples of factory regulations in the reading. It is very easy to what is interesting in the rather lurid accounts by factory workers of their working conditions. By comparison the factory regulations seem rather prosaic. For me it is precisely these factory regulations that interest me. While a casual reading of these regulations may make them appear rather begnin, and this was most likely the intention of those who wrote them, one has to just scratch below the surface to see a far darker picture. These regulations are designed to make it impossible to engage in any form of protest and place workers completely at the mercy of the whims of those in charge.

Rules for Workers in the Foundry and Engineering Works of the Royal Overseas Trading Company, Berlin, 1844

(1) The normal working day begins at all seasons at 6 a.m. precisely and ends, after the usual break of half an hour for breakfast, an hour for dinner and half an hour for tea, at 7 p.m., and it shall be strictly observed. … The doorkeeper shall lock the door punctually at 6 a.m., 8.30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4.40 p.m. Workers arriving 2 minutes late shall lose half an hour’s wages; whoever is more than 2 minutes late may not start work until after the next break, or at least shall lose his wage until then. Any disputes about the correct time shall be settled by the clock mounted above the gatekeeper’s lodge. … They shall be unconditionally accepted as it will not be possible to enter into any discussions about them.
So we have some pretty extreme penalties for arriving late. Anyone more than two minutes late is in really serious trouble and is going to lose a significant portion of his day’s wages. If there is any dispute or any sort of extenuating circumstances the worker has no means of protest. He is not even allowed to complain.

(5) Entry to the firm’s property by any but the designated gateway, and exit by any prohibited rout, e.g., by climbing fences or walls, or by crossing the Spree, shall be punished by a fine of fifteen silver groschen to the sick fund for the first offence and dismissal for the second.
Why are the entries and exits so carefully guarded? Why is access so carefully monitored? At issue here are not outsiders coming in but the workers themselves. This does not sound like a free and open place full of happy people going about their business. This sounds like an armed fort or even a prison. One assumes that the main concern was sabotage. Why would happy content workers want to damage their own place of work? Why should factory owners be afraid of their own workers?

(7) All conversation with fellow-workers is prohibited; if any worker requires information about his work, he must turn to the overseer, or to the particular fellow-worker designated for the purpose.
This rule seems designed to forestall any attempt to organize or engage in collective action. Considering the hours these workers were putting in, they would not have had any other opportunity to talk to each other about their working conditions except during work hours. What we also have here is what was probably the most common excuse to cover such actions: “I was just asking him to explain something about work.” Again, what we clearly have is a strictly controlled environment in which workers are kept under tight vigilance.

(14) Untrue allegations against superiors or officials of the concern shall lead to stern reprimand, and may lead to dismissal. …
What is the difference between an “untrue” allegation against superiors or officials and a true one, particularly when it is these same superiors and officials who get to decide? For all intents and purposes this clause really means no allegation or complaint, no matter how well based in fact, may be put forth. Anyone who does complain will be fired on the spot.

(15) Every workman is obliged to report to his superiors any acts of dishonesty or embezzlement on the part of his fellow workmen. … Conversely, anyone denouncing a thief in such a way as to allow conviction of the thief shall receive a reward of two Thaler, and, if necessary, his name shall be kept confidential. – Further, the gatekeeper and the watchman, as well as every official, are entitled to search the baskets, parcels, aprons etc. of the women and children who are taking dinners into the works, on their departure, as well as search any worker suspected of stealing any article whatever. …
What we have is a climate where workers are being asked to spy on each other. The rule of the day is complete suspicion of everyone. If this were a government we would label it as absolutely tyrannical.

(To be continued …)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Can You Speak Post-Modern? Embedding Neoliberalism: Crisis, Sexuality and Social Reproduction

This comes from an abstract for a lecture to be given at Ohio State next week, sponsored by the Women’s Studies Department along with the Center for Latin American Studies and the Mershon Center for International Studies. The speaker is Dr. Kate Bedford of the University of Kent UK.

Embedding Neoliberalism: Crisis, Sexuality and Social Reproduction

The talk seeks to intervene in a vibrant and publicly prominent debate within development studies about the role of crisis in “postneoliberal,” or Post Washington Consensus, policymaking. Gender and, especially, sexuality are largely absent from that debate, Dr. Bedford asks: What do contemporary experiences of crisis reveal about the complex interconnections between rupture and shock on one hand, and gender and sexuality on the other? In concrete crisis conditions, which common sense groundworks of the present (re Nikolas Rose) get unsettled, which get re-entrenched, and what is the role of the development industry in this process?

The talk will address how possibilities for alternative regimes of gender and sexuality are affected by economic crisis, using a case study of the World Bank’s response to the 2001-2 Argentine crisis. Using interviews with NGOs and Bank policymakers and fieldwork on a family – strengthening loan entitled PROFAM, Dr. Bedford will argue that the denaturalization of free markets was articulated, in part, through the re-naturalization of monogamous heterosexual couplehood. Changes in the Bank’s agenda were articulated in part through discourses of restoring gender harmony disrupted by economic crisis and in part through a “civilizing” rhetoric that linked “better, more caring” development to the emergence of better, more caring couples. This raises crucial questions about the new regimes of gender and sexuality under construction in contemporary development practice.

Here is my attempted translation and commentary:

This talk is a response to an important debate (at least something that Dr. Bedford thinks is important) within the study of global capitalism’s use of crises now that we have moved past traditional Western thought and now that America is no longer that important (Cheer). Those in power and making policy decisions have not fully embraced radical leftist attempts to change how society views the relationship between men and women. Dr. Bedford asks: What do the experiences of crisis today tell us about connection between change on one hand and about the relationship between men and women on the other? In specific crisis situations, in which the basic groundworks of today (re Nikolas Rose) are removed, what are the values (that we on the left were supposed to have eliminated) that have (unfortunately) managed to survive, and what is the role of global capitalism in all of this.

The talk will suggest how the economic crisis gets in the way of (leftist) attempts to redefine the relationship between men and women, using the specific case of the World Bank’s response to the 2001-2 Argentine crisis. Using interviews with NGOs and Bank policymakers and fieldwork on a family – strengthening loan entitled PROFAM, Dr. Bedford will argue that the destruction of society perpetuated by free markets has been helped along, in part, by the strengthening of traditional marriage. Changes in the Bank’s agenda were articulated in part by arguing for traditional relations between men and women, which had been affected by the economic crisis, and in part by arguing that caring families made for a caring society. This raises concerns whether those people making policy decisions in developing countries are fully on board with (leftist) attempts to change how men and women relate to each other.

In summery the point of this piece seems to be that the World Bank is encouraging traditional family values Argentina and we should not be happy about that.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

You Can Write Anti-Israel Screeds Based on What You Read on Wikipedia and the Columbus Dispatch Will Print it as if it Were an Op-Ed

The following is a letter I wrote to the Columbus Dispatch in response to a piece they published in the Saturday edition of the paper titled Mideast conflict is based on land, not religion.

I would like to address the editorial board of the Dispatch about its decision to publish Aghlaba Peerzada’s letter, “Mideast conflict is based on land, not religion." This letter was published in such a fashion that it looked like an op-ed from the newspaper. I would say therefore that this letter should be treated, for all intents and purposes, as an op-ed and that the editorial board should be judged as if they had printed Mr. Peerzada’s piece as an op-ed.

I am sure there are many people out there who will to respond to Mr. Peerzada’s claims about Israel. I am interested, though, in the Dispatch’s decision to give him the kind of forum that it did. I understand and fully agree that the Dispatch should present a wide variety of viewpoints, particularly those viewpoints that are likely to shock and offend readers. So I have no objection if the Dispatch chooses to print pieces like Mr. Peerzada's that claim that Israel is carrying out a Holocaust. (Just as long as the Dispatch is consistent and gives similar prominent placement to letters from the Klu Klux Klan accusing blacks of perpetrating a racial genocide against whites or from flat-earthers.)

What caught my attention was that Mr. Peerzada used Wikipedia as a source. According to Mr. Peerzada:

According to the Wikipedia article "Land and Property Laws in Israel," these are some guiding principles:
• ‘The imperative to physically acquire and colonize lands vacated by Palestinians who fled or were expelled, and to prevent their return.’
• ‘The necessity of legalizing such land acquisitions in order to pre-empt any future claims made by refugees or their descendants.’
• ‘The goal of proceeding with the nationalization/Judaization process in areas of the country where Arabs still predominated.’
• The Ministry of Agriculture's right to confiscate wasteland under the guise of cultivation.
Also, the Wikipedia article said there were several absentee property laws, which were introduced as emergency ordinances issued by the Jewish leadership but which after the 1948 war were incorporated into the laws of Israel.


I teach history at the Ohio State University and one of the first things I teach my students is that Wikipedia is not an authoritative source of information and should not be used as evidence when writing a paper. Anyone can write whatever they wish on Wikipedia, without any controlling authority. For all I know Mr. Peerzada could have written the Wikipedia article himself. Again, I do not object to the Dispatch printing the ramblings and ravings of anti-Zionists. It would seem reasonable to ask, though, that the Dispatch should demand some basic standard of evidence and insist on something above the level of Wikipedia.

Mr. Peerzada clearly does not understand the meaning of critical writing. This Spring I will be teaching History 112. I extend a personal invitation to him to attend my class in order to learn about critical writing, particularly as it relates to dealing with historical events. Since it seems that the editorial board is just as ignorant they are also invited.