Sunday, May 31, 2009

Michael Oren, Thomas Friedman and Other Random Flashes of Sanity this Shavuot

On the subject of good news and sanity within the Orthodox community, I spent the holiday of Shavuot at the home of Rabbi Naphtali Weisz, the rabbi of Congregation Beth Jacob here in Columbus, and his lovely family. Also staying at the house was Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz, who was here as a scholar in residence for the holiday. Rabbi Kaplowitz heads a branch of the Jewish Learning Initiative at Brandeis. Over the holiday Rabbi Kaplowitz spoke about the question of the centrality of halacha (Jewish law) in Jewish life. He is firmly on the side that Judaism needs to be a lot more than just halacha. He also spoke about Serach bas Ashur, a female figure who is just a name in the bible but is given great prominence in rabbinic literature.

In one of our conversations, Rabbi Weis referred to an article by Michael Oren, which he then used in one of sermons over the holiday. Oren argues that Yitzchak Rabin was influenced to support negations with the PLO starting in 1992 upon being informed of the potential threat from the Iranian nuclear program. The lesson that Rabbi Weisz seems to have taken from this article is that there was a certain logic to the Oslo accords, one that the public was not aware of at the time, and that even allowing Israel to be put under siege by suicide bombers was a calculated short term risk in the face of the long term existential threat posed by an Iranian bomb. It is not often that one hears an Orthodox rabbi acknowledge that the Oslo accords were anything other than a suicidal disaster. Rabbi Weisz also showed me his heavily highlighted copy of Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded. He has become interested in environmental issues and wants to speak out more on the topic.

I greatly admire Friedman despite the fact that he regularly veers too far into mainstream liberalism for my taste. If there is one book that can convince a conservative to go green it is Hot, Flat and Crowded. Its basic premise is that our lack of willingness to cut down on fossil fuels is enriching our enemies in the Islamic world and causing us to lose the War on Terror. Friedman also appeals to two basic bedrocks of, (or at least should be) conservative principles. One, that our challenge to solve the energy needs of the world is an opportunity for individual innovation; the sort of roll up your sleeves pragmatism that is distinctly American. This book is nothing if not patriotic. For Friedman, it is America that can solve this problem and if America fails to lead the way than no one is going to be able to succeed. The second bedrock conservative principle is that sacrifices are going to be needed. We need to hold back on some of our sort term pleasures for the long term good. From my perspective (and I suspect that this is also Rabbi Weisz’s view) this is a call to action for every religious person. If we cannot get on board with the green thrift ethic than who will?

On the side the of not so sane, I ate a meal at member of the community kollel. He had a picture of Rabbi Avigdor Miller on his wall so that creeped me out from the get go. I spent a large part of the meal flipping through a copy of Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon’s With Hearts Full of Love. The title brought to my mind the song from the musical Les Miserables, “a Heart Full of Love.” I assume this is just a coincidence. Then again there might be one very sneaky and subversive Haredi editor out there. The book was essentially a guide to how to brainwash your children and protect them from all the dangerous things in the world, like the internet, competitive sports, computer games, secular books and secular libraries. (To be fair, he does have some nice things to say about playing chess.) I confess to engaging in inordinate amounts of laughter as I imagined myself as Richard Dawkins checking off passages. I am told, that my host got annoyed at the fact that I getting so much entertainment out of the book. Apparently the book is not meant as a joke. This is Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, the mashgiach of Lakewood, after all. The same Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon who stood up, in middle of the Yeshiva sex-abuse scandal and blamed bloggers for much of the evil in the world. So please hold your smirking and giggling to a minimum.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

History 112: World War II

1. The Soviet Union seems to be largely ignored and get away with all that they did during WWII in the end being one of the allies defeating Germany and keeping largely what they had won. Despite the fact that this led to the Cold War between the US and USSR, overall it seems as if the USSR got away with a lot because Germany was once again set as the major instigator of the conflicts. So, I guess the question is why that is?

Once the Soviet Union was attacked it became our good ally. Watch the Frank Capra films “Why We Fight World War II.” These were American propaganda films made for the army during the war. Soviet atrocities are completely ignored. Capra even ignores the existence of Ribbentrop-Molotov. You will hear nothing about how the Soviets were co-conspirators in this.


2. In the text it mentions a friendship pact between Hitler and Stalin. I was slightly confused by this section having never learned this throughout my schooling. So did USSR have concentration camps that they sent Polish people too? Did USSR invade countries also before the war started?

Yes the Soviet Union had concentration camps. They were called Gulags. Yes the Soviet Union engaged in genocidal activities to destroy the cultures of subjugated peoples like the Poles and the Ukrainians. The Soviet Union engaged in acts of aggression, just like the Nazis, against nations such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Romania. Unlike the Nazis, Soviet oppression did not end with 1945. It continued all the way up to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. The fact that your teacher did not see fit to pass this information on to you means that either you were not paying attention or that your teacher was some liberal with an ideological interest in ignoring Communist crimes. This is different from Nazi crimes which have the implicit lesson on the inherent evils of Fascism. Some people have a problem with unapologetically saying that Communism is an inherent evil.


3. American children learn about the atrocities of the Holocaust at an early age. Yet some may never learn about the genocide in the Ukraine we discussed last week. I was wondering if in other places, this is reversed. Do we learn more about the Holocaust because it was more terrible or because we have a large and powerful Jewish population? I find it bothersome that so many other instances of genocide, both past and current, remain largely unknown among the general American population. I'd like to know how you feel about this subject, especially since you are Jewish and you are more closely tied to these events than me.

“The Jewish lobby” plays a major role in putting the Holocaust front and center in American culture. I do not see anything sinister in this. There are many Jews in positions of cultural influence and they use it to their advantage. It helps if you can have Steven Spielberg to make movies for you. I am sure the Armenians and the Ukrainians would love to have him. That being said there is something special about the Holocaust. This was not a case of millions of people dying due to extreme government negligence nor is this a case of a breakdown in government order with armed soldiers or mobs going out of control and massacring people. The Holocaust happened because some very smart people in suits, ties and with college degrees sat down and planned it. They wished to annihilate a specific group of people and, armed with the full resources of a modern state, they pursued that goal with remarkable efficiency.


4. Davies said "The Poles thought that their task was to hold off the German advance for fifteen days until the French crossed the German frontier in the West; in fact, they faced the impossible task of holding off both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army on their own. The French launched no offensive; the British limited their assistance to dropping leaflets over Berlin," (1000-1001). Davies doesn't really go into any further detail about this, but has any other historian explored this? Was it another instance of miscommunication--as was seen in WWI with the telegraph system? Or can the British and French be partially blamed for the devastation that engulfed Poland? It seems like perhaps England and France's disregard for their Polish ally has been buried underneath their eventual victory. Why didn't they help Poland as the Polish were expecting?

Neither the British nor the French were prepared for any serious military action. This was one of the reasons why Hitler decided to make his move against Poland in September of 1939 instead of waiting. There was a French “invasion” which I am familiar with from reading William Shirer. He was an American correspondent, who worked in Germany into the war. He reports how the French made a big deal about their actions. He then went and talked to some of his contacts in the German army and find out in great detail how little the French were doing. Shirer would later go on to write the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.


5. Wouldn't it have been obvious to the German's that turning against the Soviet Union was a bad idea? I mean, it caused them to be land locked between enemies on the East and West, plus the Soviet Union, from what we read, seemed to be a world power. Why didn't Germany try to formulate a peaceful position with the Soviet Union?

You have to keep in mind that Germany was at war with England and it was a reasonable assumption that the United States would eventually come into the war on the side of England. You have to admit that there is a certain logic to trying to take out the Soviet Union while the situation in the West was still relatively quiet. This plan almost succeeded; the Soviet army was almost completely annihilated in a matter of months. You would be hard pressed to find a country that ever suffered a military disaster like what the Soviet Union did. You are not going to find a country that ever managed to come back from such a disaster.


6. This questions isn't really about the reading but over the weekend I watched the movie "Valkyrie." I was just curious to know how historically accurate the movie is? Also I am curious to know if you think the plan to overthrow Hitler ever had a good chance of success?

I have not seen the movie so I will refrain from commenting on it. The case of Valkyrie is a good litmus test as to ones views on the power of individuals. Let us imagine that everything had gone according to plan and the bomb had eliminated Hitler. Now what? The German staff officers, who planned this, put a lot of thought into how to get Hitler and they planned that part well. It failed for reasons outside of their control. They made an utter mess out of trying to seize power in the hours after the bomb went off. That was the important part, not their ability to assassinate one man. I imagine that if Hitler had died in the blast then Goebbels, Himmler and Goering would have stepped in and the Third Reich would have continued.


7. Do you believe Germany planted spies within the French/British governments?

It is not a question if they did or did not. We know for a fact that the Nazis did. The British counter-intelligence services were quite effective, though, in capturing German spies and forcing them to pass on false intelligence.


8. How did Switzerland manage to maintain its neutrality during WW2?

The official reason, at the times, was that Switzerland possessed a well trained army and an advantageous defensive position. What we now know is that the Swiss government was actively cooperating with Hitler. They helped launder gold plundered by the Nazis, some of it even from the teeth of dead concentration camp inmates.

Friday, May 22, 2009

In Defense of a Traditional Understanding of Rights: a Response to Ari Ne’eman

This past April Ari Ne’eman spoke at the NFB Disability Law Symposium. His speech was a remarkable display of insight into not just autism and disability issues but basic political theory as well. It is certainly very rare to see someone who can cover the full range from theory to practice. It is therefore, with the greatest respect, that I offer a few words of disagreement. Not in terms of neurodiversity but simply on the grounds of political theory in the hope of generating further dialogue on the nature of rights and their application to people on the autism spectrum. Like Ari, I strongly support the association of autism and the wider disability cause with that of the civil rights movement and see this as the basis of neurodiversity. In particular I take the gay rights movement as model for my autism advocacy. Up until a few decades ago homosexuality was labeled as a mental illness. Today it is accepted by most of society, in some form or another, as an alternative lifestyle. I hope that one day autism will gain similar acceptance.

Ari asks the question as to the nature of rights and where rights come from. He first raises the Enlightenment option in which rights come from a social contract. Ari objects to this for two reasons. The first objection is that a state of nature has never existed and no one has ever signed any contract to place themselves under a government. One could also suggest that a contract is signed with God, but that is also a problem in a society, such as ours, that recognizes atheism as a legitimate partner in our political discourse. His second objection is that this notion of rights is very narrow and only covers negative rights. You are protected from people doing things to you but you have no inherent right to pursue freedom in a positive sense. Following Alan Dershowitz, Ari argues that rights come from a historical recognition of wrongs having been committed to a specific group. For example the gay rights movements has succeeded in making the case to society at large that homosexuals have been mistreated and that therefore it is necessary for society to actively recognize the gay community as a wronged group and actively grant them tolerance.

As a supporter of an “Enlightenment” understanding of rights, I would like to offer an alternative understanding of rights and some thoughts on the place of autism in this system of rights. Let me first respond to the issue of the social contract. For me the social contract is not something signed in some mythical time in the past when man lived in a state of nature, but something that we sign every day with each other. There are people who would like to persecute homosexuals, ban them from the public sphere and even cause them physical harm. Why should I care, I am not gay? The reason is that many of the same people who want to harm homosexuals and stop them from living their alternative lifestyle also want to persecute me as a Jew and stop me from living my alternative, Jesus-free, lifestyle. This suggests an alliance simply on pragmatic Hobbesian grounds. I will agree to let homosexuals live their non hetero lifestyle if they let me live my Jesus free lifestyle. This is ultimately codified in a society wide cease fire agreement known as the Bill of Rights where we agree that everyone is going to be granted a list of rights and protections and we forgo the chance to stick it to our group of choice.

I think the real important difference between Ari and I is over the issue of how broadly to draw the boundaries for rights. I believe in a “right” (a deal that I am willing to make) to life, liberty and property. Liberty in this case being the right to pursue one’s own good in one’s own way as long as one does not interfere with the liberties of others. As John Stuart Mill argued, this notion of liberty could only work if one limited it to direct physical harm. The moment you try to apply liberty to a wider notion of harm you are faced with the problem that, when living in civil society, every action affects other people and causes some form of harm. For example it is of critical importance that we do not allow my Christian neighbors to kick me or my gay friends out of our homes despite the fact that our presence and our alternative life styles may be causing real psychological suffering. The moment my Christian neighbors can bring their psychological suffering into play than they get, in essence, a blank check to persecute us and the whole notion of rights, ceasing to have any meaning, collapses on itself. As part of the liberal tradition our response has to be that as long as my gay friends and I have not physically harmed anyone we are protected and we are free to live our alternative lifestyles to our heart’s content.

Ari, along with modern liberalism, fails to hold to this narrow understanding of rights and instead takes a broader more abstract understanding of rights. This leads to the ultimate betrayal of the liberal tradition when he places the source of rights within the context of a discourse between minority groups and society. As long as the issue of rights is only one of physical harm than, by definition, rights can only apply to individuals. The moment rights are something belonging to groups then they are no longer something belonging to individuals. Instead of a universal brotherhood of individuals comes the petty tribalism of different groups set against each other.
To bring this back to the realm of autism, we can agree that right now we on the autism spectrum are getting the worst of both worlds. We operate within a political discourse of group identity yet society does not recognize us as one of these groups. This leaves us in a situation where we are not being granted the sort of rights that other groups take for granted. For example let us imagine I was the parent of a gay child. Now this child being different from other children may find himself in a difficult situation, unable to make friends and subject to various forms of harassment. Our societal discourse would support my insistence on having the school protect my child, beyond even simple physical harm and allow him to be his own special person. Society will not tell me that the problem is my child and that my child needs to change to become more like other children. In our present discourse, the same does not apply to children on the autism spectrum; we are being told that the problem is us and the solution is for us to change to conform to society.

I see two possible roads ahead of us. The first, which I would prefer though I admit may not be practical within our present discourse on rights, is to embrace a traditional more limited notion of rights. This would take away certain rights from us, but these are not rights that we, in practice, ever had in the first place so it would not be any great loss. While we will not have these rights no other groups will have these rights either. This would be helpful, beyond simple Schadenfreude, in that this will allow us to turn around and make some deals with these same groups for our mutual benefit. Right now the gay community has no reason to help us as we have nothing that we can offer them. Now get rid of gay rights and open up gays to everything short of physical harm and we have a different story. I will agree to accept and support the gay child in exchange for support for my autistic child.

The second option, which is most likely the more practical option, is throw our hat into the game of expansive rights along with every other group. While I do not personally support such a view of rights I can go along with method of advocacy without hypocrisy. Just like a liberal, pocketing a Republican tax cut, I have no problem with playing the system to my own benefit. If other groups are going to benefit from this expansive notion of rights than I certainly want my group to be at the front of the line. This could even support the case for a narrow view of rights. I believe that the modern liberal expansive notion of rights is a Ponzi scheme that can only work as long as only a few groups try to cash in. Let every group come and hold society hostage to their every whim and the whole system will collapse and there will be no choice but to resort to the more restrictive understanding of rights.

I am perfectly willing to pursue either option. In truth these two options can exist side by side. One can attack the modern liberal expansive notion of rights and make the case for a more restricted notion of rights. At the same time, while we wait for society to come around, I would encourage autistics to take full advantage of the current discourse on rights. May I even say abuse it to the fullness of our imagination.

As an addendum I would like to briefly respond to two obvious objections to this piece. I readily admit that my method of thinking has a strongly “Asperger” flavor to it. I focus on individuals at the expense of society and I take a rather pragmatic attitude toward social relationships that does not leave much room for “empathy.” The most obvious objection to my argument is that I am “cold” and “heartless.” I do not see this as a problem. On the contrary I see this as an example of the strength of “Asperger” thinking. Aspergers are in a unique position to appreciate the distinction between physical and non physical harm. One of the weaknesses of neurotypical thinking is that it is so wrapped up in social relations that the two become hopelessly mixed together. I believe that being on the spectrum has helped me be a better liberal and supporter of the free society. I would also like to defend my use of the term autism in face of the fact that much of what I say would be problematic if applied to many on the spectrum. Any discussion of rights, by definition, only applies to people who have reached a certain base line of intellectual self-sufficiency. So autism rights, by definition, only apply to autistics on the higher end of the spectrum. If you are capable of reading this piece and understand what I am saying than you can rest assure that you pass the threshold. A completely different discourse would be needed for those on the lower end of the spectrum, one based on care and charity.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

History 112: The Rise of Nazi Germany (Q&A and Quiz)

1. In the reading it briefly mentions how the Nazis did not identify with mainstream religions. I watched a documentary on the Discovery Channel a while ago about the Nazi's "occult conspiracy," which talked about Hitler's dependence on astrological predictions, even leading him to have a person astrologer. How much truth is there in this? What's your opinion?

The interest by Hitler and many of the leading Nazis in the occult is quite real. For example it is believed that Hitler held back from counterattacking after the Normandy invasion on the advice of his astrologer who told him that the real allied attack would come at Calais. In what is probably the most bizarre incident of the war, Rudolph Hess grabbed a plane and crashed-landed in Scotland because his astrologer told him that he was destined to bring about a peace treaty between Germany and England. Himmler set up his own neo-pagan religion for the SS. This issue of Nazi beliefs has gained public interest, at least within the realms of internet polemics, in recent years because of the rise of the new atheism of Richard Dawkins, which argues that organized religion leads to mass murder. Opponents of Dawkins have been very quick to point to Hitler and Stalin and argue that the two most blood soaked regimes in history were militantly secular.


2. In the Davies text it mentions that Mussolini prided himself on being separate from Hitler until 1939, did the two men get along, or did they have plans to conquer each other?

The fact that Mussolini eventually joined with Hitler was never inevitable and in fact the two were quite hostile to each other into the late 1930s. It is important to keep in mind that Fascism is not a movement. It is simply a convenient label that we use in order to group certain movements together.


3. From what I gathered from the Davies reading, it seems that Hitler had the SS blackshirts and brownshirts as his "stormtroopers" or militia. What exactly were these entities and how were they different?

A major part of the early Nazi rise to power, from when they began until shortly after they took power, was their ability to use street gangs in order to beat up opponents, particularly Communists and Jews. Keep in mind that up until that later part of the 1930s there is still a meaningful distinction between Germany and the Nazi party. The Nazi party at this early stage did not have direct access to the police and military arms of the state so they needed some form of military power of their own to enforce their totalitarian agenda. One can see this with the use of the SA and SS. The SA was the armed force of the early Nazi period. These were common street thugs, not that different from our modern Crypts and Bloods. The SA are eliminated in 1934 in the “Night of the Long Knives.” The group that comes to replace the SA is the SS led by Himmler. The SS operates with the full power of the state. They are a lot more sophisticated and a whole lot more ruthless.

4. If Hitler would have died in WWI do you think there still would have been a second world war? Secondly, since I haven't asked questions for all the classes, why is it do you think that the Nazis were able to scare everyone into their party. What i have gathered about the situation was that most people were forced to be a part of the Nazi German Army.

This question is a classic example of the great man issue in history; to what extent do “great” individuals affect the course of history? Popular history tends to focus heavily on individuals because it makes a better narrative. Professional historians tend to be more weary of such a claim. Hitler was certainly a talented speaker and a forceful personality, but he was not the only person capable of doing the sorts of things that he did. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that Nazi history could have proceeded without Hitler, but with someone else at the helm. Earlier this year I had a discussion with Dr. Stephen Kern about this issue. He actually came out quite strongly on the side of no Hitler no Holocaust.

Personally I think this whole notion of saying that the German people were scared lets ordinary Germans off the hook. Hitler could not have waged World War II and the Holocaust without active willing cooperation of the vast majority of Germans. You want to know who to blame for World War II and the Holocaust? Forget about Hitler, he was just a man standing in front of a microphone. The real culprits were the millions of German citizens who went along with it. I would recommend Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. It has often been criticized for humanizing Adolph Eichmann, one of the central figures behind the Holocaust, who was kidnapped by the State of Israel, put on trial and executed. For me humanizing Eichmann turns him into every ordinary German who went along with the flow and by extension turns every ordinary German into Eichmann. On share moral grounds I would have had no moral objection to, in 1945, lining up every German man and woman over the age of eighteen who could not prove that they actively worked against the Nazi regime and shooting them. On practical grounds this could never be carried through, but there is no doubt in my mind that every one of them deserved to die.

5. How does Hitler get enough political coverage to get 96% of the German vote? Did class differences play into the voter turnout, as I am sure that it would be common people who supported him, as he was, in some limited sense, a collectivist?

When a leader is a getting 90% of the vote you know that this is not a fair election. Think how difficult it is to get 60% of Americans to agree on something. In real societies people have dissenting opinions. If you are not seeing large amounts of dissent than what you are seeing is a mirage.

6. Was Hitler only racist against Jews? Or did he just dislike everyone else other than his own people?

Nazi ideology held numerous groups to be subhuman, Slavs, gypsies, blacks, homosexuals and Jehovah Witnesses are some of the groups that come to mind. In addition to the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, the Nazis killed another four to six million people from other undesirable groups. Anti Semitism, though, clearly had a special place in Nazi ideology. For the Nazis, Jews were not just a group of undesirables; they were the undesirable group par excellence. Jews were the great enemy behind both Capitalism and Communism, which Germany would have to defeat.


For the quiz I asked the following questions:


1. What were the “Three Estates” in Old Regime France and how did their existence contribute to the breakout of the French Revolution? (2 pts)

2. What did “Liberalism” and “Conservatism” mean in the nineteenth century? How are these terms different from how we use them today? (3 pts)

3. According Karl Marx: “All hitherto history is the history of … (1 pt)

4. How did the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand lead to the start of World War I? (2 pts)

5. What were the two Russian revolutions of 1917? (2pts.)


Bonus: What peace treaty did Hitler blame Germany’s woes on? (1 pts)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Humanities on Trial






In previous posts I discussed the situation of the humanities and the challenge faced by those in these fields to justify their value in face of their lack of any utilitarian benefits. The comic strip PhD (Piled Higher and Deeper) has taken this concept quite literally and for the past few strips has put their humanities student on trial to justify his continued presence in the strip in light of the economic downturn.




























Monday, May 18, 2009

History 112: The Russian Revolution (Q&A)

In class today we did the Russian Revolution, going from Russia’s participation in World War I, the February and October revolutions, the Russian Civil War through the rise of Stalin. Like last quarter I assigned a section from John Scott’s Beyond the Urals. Scott was an American who worked in the Soviet Union during the 1930s.


1. In your opinion, do you think the revolution was brought about by Russia's involvement in WW1, or was it an inevitable occurrence?
2. Some of the readings suggested that the Russian government was already in anarchy before being overtaken by the Bolsheviks. What caused the anarchy other than the war?


The Czarist government had serious problems and World War I was a major crisis. All governments have their moments of crisis. Crises, though, have a way a bringing to light the depth or lack of which of any government. A more able government could have survived a crisis like World War I. As with the financial crisis in France which highlighted the failures of the Monarchy, World War I put the Czarist government in all of its disfunctionality on display and they did not survive.

3. For class today, I cannot help but remember how closed off I thought the Soviet Union was immediately after its revolution. How is it that this American worker was able to so easily get work and a visa into Russia at this time?
4. At which point did the Soviet Union become an enemy of the US?

The funny thing about the Soviet Union between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War II is the extent they remained in contact with the West. This is not the Cold War. At this point the Soviet Union still believed that it could win the ideological struggle with the West on economic grounds. Considering that the Great Depression was going on, this was not as implausible as it might seem. Post World War II America is an unchallengeable economic superpower. Also both sides are facing off with nuclear weapons. This makes for a far tenser situation. The post World War II Soviet Union is not a place where an American citizen would be very welcome.

5. Was this a common thing for young people to leave the US to find work in other countries?

I certainly would not view this as something common. It is a theme that shows up in a number of writers during this period. For example Ernest Hemmingway was this traveling American, doing different jobs in different countries. This formed the basis for many of his novels.

6. The whole Davies text is about the cruelties performed by Stalin. Why did the people of Russia and the politicians not over throw him if he was so crazy and killing millions of innocent people? Why was he ever allowed to get into that kind of power?

The question you have to ask yourself is who was supporting Stalin. Stalin by himself was just one man. He needed an entire bureaucratic apparatus to carry out his plans and kill millions of people for him. One of the things that I like so much about Scott is that he gives you a picture of Russian society where people are willing to go along with Stalinism because they believed that, despite the hardships, Stalin’s push to industrialism would benefit them.

7. Usually when learning about World War II you hear more about Hitler than you do Stalin, in terms of war crimes who was considered to be the worst?

I would respond by saying that it is not obvious to me that Hitler was worse. Stalin has benefited from a number of things. While most Americans see Nazi ideology as inherently evil, Communism manages to get away with at least having good intentions. People are therefore willing to “forgive” Communism for its crimes. Americans feel guilty over the persecution of Communists in this country. I guess you can say that Americans are lucky that they have never faced a homegrown Communist movement that posed a serious political threat. Jews have done an effective job at keeping the Holocaust in the public eye through Holocaust movies and school curriculums. I suspect that things would be different if you regularly had movies and lesson plans on the Ukrainian “Holocaust.”

8. I notice a lot of dictators in the past had good public speaking skills (Hitler for example). Was Stalin also one? Would you say his speeches were more about scaring people, or more about encouraging people to do what he wanted?

One of the interesting things about Stalin was that, unlike Lenin or Trotsky, he was that he was never much of an orator. He stayed isolated in the Kremlin and sent out orders from there. He was the hidden deity of the Soviet Union.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

History 112: World War I

For the class on the First World War, in addition to the usual reading form Norman Davies, I also assigned a piece written by Ohio State’s own Stephen Kern. Kern examines the role of the nineteenth century communications revolution, particularly the telegraph, in the breakdown of diplomacy in the summer of 1914. Kern argues that the new speed in communication encouraged an aggressive style of diplomacy built around extreme ultimatums; comply to all of our demands within the next week or we will declar war.

1. Was WWI avoidable? For example, if all these alliances hadn't been made, would it have remained a small conflict?

The interesting question is did these alliances make war inevitable. Once alliances were being made everyone had follow suit or risk being vulnerable. What we have here are a lot of good intentions gone completely to pot.


2. The July crisis seems like something that could never have happened without the new technologies allowing rapid communication, but at the same time it seems like rapid communication should allow for better negotiating due to the fact that it doesn't take days to relay messages from one side to the other. Perhaps the time delays for slower communication methods allowed for a cool down period, but they could also allow for more time to prepare for war during the process, so how significant is it really that new technology allowed increased speed of communication between the various sides? This is leaving aside the issue of more widespread and public knowledge of events which I view to be a mostly separate issue, though it does tie in of course.
3. Kern said in "July Crisis" that "this telegraphic exchange at the highest level dramatized the spectacular failure of diplomacy, to which telegraphy contributed with crossed messages, delays, sudden surprises, and the unpredictable timing," (268). How can he attribute it all to the failure of diplomacy when Germany pressured Austria to mobilize troops before the ultimatum was even sent to Serbia? If blame is going to be placed, couldn't it also be placed on Germany, who pressured Austria into war out of self-interest? Or am I getting this all wrong?


The timetable for mobilization is one of the main causes of World War I. The general staffs of all the countries involved had detailed war plans in place and everyone knew that the other side also had detailed plans. Everyone knew that victory depended on who could get the first jump, that precious day or two to get their armies in motion. This being the case no one could afford the luxury of sitting back trying to negotiate and make the good faith effort for peace.
The question of German responsibility is quite real. Part of the problem is that because the Versailles treaty went to such extremes it has become common to accept the German apology that everyone was equally responsible. Without question Germany was the aggressor in this war. Their biggest sin being that they trampled over Belgium’s neutrality; a treaty that they themselves had signed on to. Kern, if I am not mistaken, does acknowledge the aggression issue. The German high command made the decision to push for war based on the calculation that by 1917 Russia would have completed its rearmament program, making German war plans obsolete.

4. I was wondering, why are the telegram messages in our reading so short? Were all telegrams short? And if so, is there a reason for this? Perhaps they paid for telegrams based on the number of words? It seems like to me, longer messages would be more appropriate in determining whether to declare war or not!

Telegrams are electronic messages sent across wires using Morse code. The process is expensive and every word costs money. Think of telegrams as an early version of text-messaging; they encourage a similar thought process. Last I checked the consensus about texting is that it does not exactly encourage responsible behavior. Imagine Kaiser Wilhelm texting Czar Nicholas: “WTF! Y r dead cuz." At least the leaders of Europe were not sending nude pictures of themselves through telegraph wires.


5. If Russia had no commitment to side with Serbia, why did they do it? What would make a country want war, was it stimulating to their economy, as World War II was during the depression? Or were there other factors?

Russia saw itself as the “big brother” of all Slavs. So they wished to protect their Serbian “brothers” from the Germanic Austrians. The Serbs would not usually be inclined to accept such “brotherly assistance, otherwise known as a takeover, but in this case they were in desperate need of help.

6. Why were Germany and Great Britain so protective over defending the interests of Austria and Belgium, respectively?

Austria was allied with Germany. This was in large part due to the brilliant diplomacy of Bismarck, who made a point of giving Austria a very generous peace treaty after Germany defeated them. Both Germany and England had signed a treaty guarantying the neutrality of Belgium. Germany, under the very un-Bismarck like leadership of Kaiser Wilhelm decided to ignore this very inconvenient fact and invaded Belgium. Great Britain on the other hand kept to the treaty so they came to the defense of Belgium. They were helped in this matter in that they had an understanding with France about coming to their aid in the event of being attack by Germany. How much did Kaiser Wilhelm have to antagonize people to drive even the British into siding with the French.

7. Which side was the first to use air planes in WWI and when was the first air battle?

Airplanes were already in use before World War I. World War I certainly marked the first large scale use of airplanes. Keep in mind that airplanes had, at this point, been in existence for a little over a decade so they were still highly experimental.

8. I am a little confused, In the Davies text it says Japan declared war on Germany, and Japan was an Asian associate of the allies, but Japan had issues with China, and China joined the allies. How does this work?

For one thing China did not enter the war until much later. Countries are usually very willing to put aside long running conflicts, at least temporarily, in the face of more immediate danger. So Japan and China were willing to take a break from each other to pursue their designs on German holdings.



9. In relation to all other wars leading up to America's involvement in World War I, was this a hard decision for America to make, in terms of lives to be potentially lost, man power, and resources in general?

America, for most of the war, strongly supported neutrality. Woodrow Wilson won re-election in 1916 based on the campaign promise to keep America out of war. This failed to take into account Kaiser Wilhelm ability to antagonize the American public with his decision to wage unrestricted submarine warfare. By the time America entered the war, the American public was gripped by a xenophobic hatred of everything German to the extent that ethnic Germans were being lynched in the streets by angry mobs.

George Will and Ohio State Ticket Scalpers

George Will, one of the great defenders of capitalism, has an article, “Greed’s Saving Graces,” arguing for the self regulatory powers of unregulated markets. He discusses in particular the issue of ticket scalping. Of interest to Ohio State fans, Will uses the case of the Ohio State versus Penn State football game last year. I was one of those people trying to get tickets in the weeks before the game. The game was at Ohio State and was being played on Saturday night, unlike most college football games which are played on Saturday afternoon. As a graduate student I did not have several hundred dollars to pay for a ticket so it was the apartment building lounge for me. For those of you who are not Ohio State or Penn State fans, Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State’s new superstar quarterback blew it in the last few minutes and Ohio State lost 13-6.

I have mixed feelings about ticket scalping. As a believer in free markets I am inclined to oppose any attempt to regulate ticket scalping; ticket scalpers are just the free market at work. The problem, though, is that it is in the interest of both fans and teams to keep the price of tickets depressed below market levels. This helps the pocket book of your average fan as they usually do not have hundreds of dollars to spend on a sporting event. As for the teams, they need to cultivate a fan base and that means creating fans while they are still young. People tend to become fans of teams, particularly of the sort willing to spend hundreds of dollars, because they were taken to games when they were children. If teams do not make it economically feasible for parents to come to games with their children they are committing long term suicide.

Tickets to sporting events are freely entered contracts between parties. As a free economic entity, sports teams have the right to stipulate terms to the contracts they sign with ticket buyers and this can include stipulations against reselling to ticket at above marked prices. Since the enforcement of contracts is a legitimate function of government, the government is perfectly justified in aiding sports teams by going after scalpers.

At the end of the day I recognize that this is not going to be a plausible. It is too difficult to regulate scalpers; the market interests are just too strong. If scalping is ever to be brought down it is going to have to be the society of fans. To bring this back to Ohio State, we Ohio State fans are a community so we should look out for eachother. We know that there are only a 105,000 seats in the Horseshoe; any ticket you buy means some other fan does not get to go. If you pay above marked prices for tickets you are taking a seat away from a fan who does not have that kind of money. Furthermore you are hurting every other fan because you are encouraging scalpers to grab more tickets thus forcing other fans to pay higher prices. Any Ohio State fan that does this is therefore not real fan. Buying scalped tickets is something that Michigan fans stoop to.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Asael: A Note from the Author

Introduction, Prologue, I, II, III,IV

(This past evening I presented the prologue to Asael to my book club in order to get feedback. The response was extremely positive. Since people on the spectrum are not known for being able to engage in polite flattery, I will assume that the responses were genuine. Quite a number of typos were picked up and I am certainly thankful for that. There was a back and forth discussion about the use of footnotes. I still want to figure out a way to make them work. One of the questions I was asked was about the nature of the narrator. I let the group in on an idea that I was thinking about, that the story is being told by one of the characters. This character writes, for the most part, in the third person as an omniscient narrator. I had even been thinking about putting an author’s note beforehand to make this clear. This idea was heartedly endorsed. So here it is. This section should be read before the prologue.)

Before you begin, let me tell you that I am going to tell this story the only way I know how, my way. You may have heard of Asael bar Serariah, the fighting priest, the holy terror. I could list other names for him, some pretty, some that would melt the flesh from your bones, but you get the point. Asael is now a figure of legend. Some of the legends are even true. You may have this or that to quibble about the story that I tell. In my past life I served in many professions; none of them was that of a professional writer. I never learned to write in any school. In fact, I never actually went to school at all. I learned to read and write, Rachmana help me, the same way I learned everything else, from living. The style that I write, I am told, is in third person with an omniscient narrator; whatever that means. Again I never went to school. If you think that you can do a better job telling this story and if you have the sources to back yourself up than by all means.

Readers of this volume may find it perplexing that I invest so much space dealing with other people. If anything about Asael is true it is that he was not just an individual to himself but a web of relationships, across the present and back into the past. In particular readers are going to have to come to terms with the legacy of Asael’s uncle of the same name, General Serariah Dolstoy, Lieutenant Owen St. Victor and Vorn. I deal with Asael and Serariah Dolstoy first and St. Victor and Vorn later. These were all good men, after a fashion, though they all had their failings, some greater than others. I do not wish to make heroes or villains out of them. The greatest honor I can give them now is to tell the truth, their sins included. Our Asael may be the biggest riddle of them all. Readers may think I am trying to write some sort of apology for him. In a way I am defending him by using the one defense he would have endorsed, the full blood and damnation soaked truth.

I have never been much a fan for mysteries or for stories told in a circular fashion myself so I hope I will be forgiven for how I tell this story. I tried to tell this story in a straightforward factual manner, with no fancy literary tricks, but in the end I could only put this story across as I experienced it, in bits and pieces, shuttling back and forth in time and sudden revelations.

There are many people who helped write this story. Some of them even wrote parts of it themselves. I am the only one left and I am the one putting it all together. I guess that makes me the author, a burden I could do without. Most of what is written is based on the recollections of those involved. The rest I filled in to the best of my ability. I have some pretty solid ground for my guesses. A friend of mine, who was a historian in his former life, used to tell me that all the best things in the history books of antiquity were literary devices from the author’s imagination. If my work is remembered as such I would be honored.

Schwarz Wolf

Toward a Narrative of Anti Semitism

Recently I have been engaging in a private e-mail conversation with a person, who wishes to remain anonymous, as to the history of anti Semitism. This conversation came out of a comment I made a few months ago when posted on Yaacov Deutsch and his presentation at the AJS. I take a fairly traditional position in terms of anti Semitism, dividing anti Semitism between the medieval model and the modern model. My friend wishes to view early modern anti Semitism as part of its own category, noting in particular the increase in Christian literature on Jews and an awareness of Jews as an ethnic group. While my friend does not wish to be named, he has agreed to allow me to post the relevant parts of our conversation.

Nicholas Donin and the medieval examples that are parallel to him are marginal in comparison to the number of early modern works that reveal anti Christian hostility.
Anonymous

As to the issue of Christian attitudes toward Jews in the early modern period. I acknowledge that there is a lot more literature at this time. Also that there is a lot more about Jewish life. That being said I still see the major downturn in Jewish-Christian relations as happening during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. For example we have Nicholas Donin pointing out that present day Jews are not simply some museum piece preserved from Biblical times. Our converted Jews in the sixteenth century are pushing a more sophisticated version of this thesis. If I understood you correctly you want to argue that the big shift happens in the early modern period. I am open to being convinced of the matter, but for the moment I am still sticking to the standard view. Why this shift happens and what it consists of is of course a hotly debated matter between R. I. Moore, Jeremy Cohen and Robert Chazan.
Benzion

As for the change in the early modern period, I am not arguing that there was no change in the twelfth or thirteenth century, but that the early modern period marks another change. I would see it as a shift from writing about Judaism to writing about Jews and from writing about theology to writing about ethnicity. Prior to the sixteenth century there is almost no interest in the way Jews actually live. There are almost no descriptions of their rituals, almost nothing about their anti-Christian rituals and relatively little about their anti-Christian texts. This is the shift I am pointing to.
Anonymous

In terms of our understanding of anti-Semitism I suspect that this is more a matter of what we would emphasis as opposed to a genuine disagreement. If I were to craft a narrative of anti Semitism, for a course or for a book, I would hang it around the two poles of medieval anti-Judaism, with its origins in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and modern anti-Semitism, with its origins in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and culminating in the Holocaust. So you have medieval anti-Judaism with its belief that Jews were usurious Christ killers who murdered Christian children for their blood and tortured hosts and you have modern anti-Semitism where Jews are a race of degenerates plotting to take over the world through the simultaneous uses of both Capitalism and Communism. For this I would emphasis Gavin Langmuir notion of chimerical anti Semitism. We are not interested in other groups simply not liking Jews and saying nasty things. How do Jews go from being heretics and blasphemers to sorcerers plotting with Satan to take over the world? Our opening would cover anti Judaism in the ancient world and the early Church with our big question being how do we get to medieval anti Judaism. The first big part of the book would deal with medieval anti Judaism. Once we have explored medieval anti Judaism our next big issue would be modern anti Semitism. The sixteenth century is useful in that it serves as a transition were, out of the issues generated by medieval anti Judaism we begin to get issues of ethnicity. For example the blood laws in fifteenth century Spain, which Benzion Netanyahu makes such a big deal out of, or the works on Jewish practices written by converted Jews in Germany. From here we move to modern anti Semitism, where race issues supplant religion, culminating in the Holocaust. Then we would finish with a word about anti Semitism in the world today, particularly opposition to the state of Israel in the Arab world and on the hard left. You would make the early modern period equal or even more important than the twelfth and nineteenth centuries. I agree that there are interesting things going on in the period and that anti Judaism is not something static as Trachtenberg portrayed it. I agree that a lot of what we associate with modern anti Semitism comes into play in the early modern period. That being said I would still see the early modern period as a mutated version of medieval anti Judaism that eventually turns into modern anti Semitism. I freely admit that this may have to do more with my taste in narrative than hard fact. My challenge to you would be what does my narrative fail to take into account that your narrative does.
Benzion

Regarding you outline for a narrative of anti Semitism and the two poles you suggest. I don’t disagree that if you have to chose only two, or even to focus on the two major poles, the 12-13 century attitudes toward Jews and the modern anti Semitism would be the two poles that should be chosen. However I feel that without underlying the changes in the early modern period our understanding of modern anti Semitism is not complete. I think that the early modern period should not be seen only as a transitional period, but also as a time when important changes in Christian attitude toward Jews occurred, and without them it is hard to understand modern anti Semitism. As I said I agree with you that if we to choose only two poles they would be 12-13 century attitudes toward Jews and the modern anti Semitism, but since I don’t think we need to choose only two I think that the early modern period should get more attention when studying anti Semitism. It seems to me that the main difference between the book you suggest and the one I would suggest would be the room given to the early modern period which in my opinion should be greater than what I believe you would suggest. Another difference is the emphasis on changes that appear in the early modern period in my account as oppose to your view, that as I understand it, will focus on the early modern period as a transition period while underlying the continuation of the medieval approaches. I don’t think that the two narratives are in real disagreement rather they reflect different ideas about the importance of the early modern period and differences regarding the emphasis the early modern period should get.
Anonymous

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Fake Wikipedia Quote

In the past I have posted on the problems of using Wikipedia within the context of the classroom and in the news media. Now according to an article from the AP, ”Fake Wikipedia Quote Fools Some in the Media,” numerous newspapers managed to fall for a fake quote entered into a the Wikipedia entry of recently deceased composer Maurice Jarre. Three cheers to the author of this wonderful stunt, Shane Fitzgerald, who came up with the admittedly rather touching quote: "One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. … Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head that only I can hear." One of the newspapers to fall for this was the Guardian. So for all those wondering where the Guardian gets its information for its anti Israel material, I think we can now make a pretty good guess.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Asael IV

Introduction, Prologue, I, II, III

Asael put his hands down on the copy of Peaceful Tidings and gave Kuphdin a full-jawed grin. “Considering this new political situation maybe we could do a full study of this book. Then we could write to Reland and suggest corrections. This could be the start of a wonderful correspondence.”

“Grammaritical-theological diplomacy. I think you may be on to something,” mused Kuphdin. “Of course that will have to wait. Books need to be tended and you have exams to pass.”

And with that Asael knew that the morning political banter was at an end and that the day’s work needed to began in earnest. After loading the cart, Asael proceeded through the library with Kuphdin trotting behind. The library had long ago been designed with an eye more for maximizing space than for allowing access, a proposition that Kuphdin readily endorsed. Within the cavernous main room of the library, the shelves leaped up over fifteen amot.[1] A trip to the upper reaches of these shelves usually required the use of a ladder. It had been several years since Kuphdin was able to climb a ladder without difficulty and Asael was fairly proficient at climbing up the shelf edges while carrying books in a side bag. Asael was more than ten amot in the air reshelving when Kuphdin interjected with the day’s lesson. “In the legal codex of Tuvya bar Maimon, Tanya Oraitha,[2] he says quite explicitly that the body of a nachri could make someone ritually impure.”

Kuphdin was a strong believer in thinking on one’s feet or in this case with one’s feet hanging on a bookshelf at twice a man’s height from the ground. Asael mumbled something about the unfairness of the situation under his breath where Kuphdin could not hear. He had waged his entire defense yesterday on insisting on the absolute authority of the Tanya Oraitha to which Kuphdin was not satisfied. “I thought that the Tanya Oraitha was only fit for upstart youths in need of their tongues fried in olive oil.”

“Oh,” said Kuphdin, “but one must always be diligent in responding to upstart youths and other heretics in case a handy frying pan is not in service.”

“It would seem,” said Asael in a gruff lectural voice quoting a text almost verbatim, “that it all depends on the definition of ritual impurity. There is the ritual impurity of a human corpse, there is the ritual impurity of dead animals, the ritual impurity of insects and rodents and finally there is the ritual impurity of vessels that have touched a dead body. The bodies of human beings can be rendered to be ritually impure as they will one day be resurrected. As such the body is viewed as if something was lacking, in this case a soul. Since nachrin do not merit the resurrection of the world to come their bodies are regarded as if they are complete. Obviously bar Maimon could not have meant to say that nachrin would merit the future resurrection. He must therefore have been referring to the ritual impurity of insects and rodents.”

Kuphdin cut in. “You have misquoted Ibrahim Dawd;[3] it should be that the bodies of nachrin are like animals.”

Asael leaned his head backwards and grinned down at Kuphdin. “I am feeling remarkably pious today so I decided that Dawd’s words should be amended to take into account our more modern climate. In his day maybe it was acceptable to only compare to nachrin to animals. Today we have grown arrogant enough to view them as insects and rodents.”

The desk-bell rang as one of the monks of the Order entered. Kuphdin went to deal with the visitor, leaving Asael to continue shelving. Asael, reflecting a little too deeply on the morning's discourse, let his foot slip from the edge leaving him dangling in the air with one hand gripping the top shelf. The prospect of falling brought forth a burst of laughter from Asael; a high-pitched animal like laugh, wheezing inward and outward. The sound of Asael’s laughter reached Kuphdin as he was in middle of dealing with Yeshu bar Korcha, the monastery’s, young herbalist who was looking for some books on the use of Mullein and Lobelia. “Please excuse the racket; orangutans really do make wonderful librarians so I hear. They just require a bit of breaking in. I will get your material for you.”

Kuphdin trudged back to where Asael was hanging. As Asael moved to regain his footing, his copy of the Oraitha slipped from his pocket and fell near to where Kuphdin was standing. Kuphdin picked it up. The Oraitha was open to the cover page. On the cover page was a glossy print; the kind that was fashionable in older books. It was a scene of the faithful being burned at the stake. The martyrs joyfully played trumpets as they awaited their ascent into heaven to join the angels. Above the picture, in faded ink, was written, in a tight formal hand: “Asael bar Serariah.”

“You dropped something of yours.”

Asael looked down. “How many times do I have to tell you? It is not mine. I am simply acting as a watchman for my uncle.”

“If you are a watchman than which of the four types are you?”

Asael paused to ponder that one. “I admit that I am not really certain. I am certainly not a paid watchman nor am I a renter. I guess you can say that I am a borrower since I have the use of the object. That would make me responsible for all forms of damage. Except that I never asked to use it. That leaves me as an unpaid watchman. I guess as long as I am not negligent I am not liable for it being lost or stolen.”

[1] Measurement of length. A single amah, a hand span, is approximately a foot and half.
[2] Lit. Teaching of the Oraitha. Tuvya bar Maimon, who lived approximately three centuries after the founding of the Khazar state, was renowned as a legal scholar and philosopher. As a foundational text in Roi’ana jurisprudence the Tanya Oraitha is something that cannot be ignored. As to the universalism of bar Maimon’s philosophy, Roi’-Ana scholars of the more conservative school have done their best to sweep it under the carpet.
[3] A fourth century conservative commentator on the work of bar Maimon, responsible for removing all charges of heresy against bar Maimon, leading to his general acceptance within Roi’ana legal thought.

History 112: Imperialism and the New City

1. The readings on the Belgian Congo show that what was going on was freely admitted to be a horrible situation. Was anything done to change this after the printing of these two articles?

The main problem with the Congo was that it was under the personal control of King Leopold II of Belgium so he was free to do as he wished. No series action to remedy the situation is done until Leopold II was removed in 1908, several years after the pieces discussed in class.

2. Where these atrocities in Belgian Congo committed based more on orders of elected or crown-appointed officers or whether it was more of the appointed bureaucracy who carried the real responsibility for these actions?

When assigning blame for an atrocity one is usually faced with two different types of defenses, from the bottom and from the top. Those at the bottom will claim that they were just following orders. If one were to follow this logic the blame would go all the way to the top, in this case Leopold II, and will remain solely with him. The defense from the top will claim that what happened was simply a matter of soldiers at the bottom getting out of control. The classic example of these two defenses is the Nuremburg trial with Nazi Germany. In the case of the Congo, as with Nazi Germany, there is clearly enough blame to go from top to bottom. This includes not just the European officials but the native soldiers who carried out many of the massacres as well.

3. In the Congo reports, why was so much of the abuse inflicted on women? I understand the populating factor, but is this when genitalmutilation started happening to women?

To the best of my knowledge female circumcision is a practice that goes back long before this and appears in many cultures. Women are useful targets because they are seen as defenseless. Keep in mind that a rampaging army is full of young men out to rape anything with a skirt on; that means women.

4. I was a little confused on the China situation. In the Davies text it says China wasn't sought after for control like Africa. Why was this? If they could not rule over China what were their intentions there?

China had a long history of imperial rule. The Chinese state might have been corrupt and grossly incompetent, but at least they had some sort of government that Europeans would recognize. China has a far older political tradition than any European state. Statehood is something that European governments were going to respect for self interest if nothing else. If you are the head of a European state you do not want to send the message to your people that states with long established political traditions could be casually overthrown. Keep in mind the long list of political revolutions that have engulfed Europe over the course of the nineteenth century.


5. Was spreading religion (i.e. Catholicism) ever part of the original plans to establish colonies?

The countries leading the new imperialism are either Protestant, as with England and Germany, or secular, like France. So spreading Catholicism does not play a major role. There is certainly a strong missionary drive, but it is not nearly comparable to the imperialism of the sixteenth century.

6. The description of Paris's endless melancholy smog is an aesthetic criticism. Was there any awareness of the environmental and public health dangers of smog? If there wasn't, when did this become a governmental concern?

During the nineteenth century there is a major scare over miasmas, pockets of bad odors, being a threat to public health. This was a major driving force behind the nineteenth century drive for cleanliness. The irony of this is that this whole panic was built around faulty science. There is nothing intrinsically dangerous about bad odors.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Interdisciplinary Conference on History and Fiction

I am down for my third conference presentation. I will be speaking at an “Interdisciplinary Conference on History and Fiction,” hosted by the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at the University of West Georgia. My paper is titled “The Historian as a Speaker for the Dead: a Historian’s Perspective on the Ender Series.” It is going to be an expanded version of a piece I posted here on this blog. The conference is not until November. So between now and then I have to actually write the paper.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

War and Peace: My First Conference Presentation and My Weekend at Purdue (Part IV)

(Part I, II, III)

I was supposed to be the second of two people speaking at the third session. The other person, whom I have never met and shall remain nameless, did not show up to the conference. So I got a full session all to myself to speak about David Reubeni. This presentation was based on a paper I did for Dr. Robert Davis and I intend to use it in some form for my dissertation. My presentation was on the political thought of David Reubeni, an early sixteenth century Jew who claimed to be an ambassador from several of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Reubeni wandered around Europe for several years attempting to form alliances with various Christian powers to fight the Muslims and was taken seriously by a number of important people, including Pope Clement VII. I argue that Reubeni managed to create a power structure around himself and claimed the sort of authority usually reserved for states. His initial success in this endeavor was due to his claim that he was a representative of a political state and a man of noble birth.

Throughout his diary Reubeni continuously strives to portray himself as a man capable of using violence. Like a political state he and his followers use “legitimate” violence against those who do not have “legitimate” power and, by doing so, bring “peace,” “justice” and “order” to all. The fact that Reubeni represented a state and acting against individuals who did not represent states, by definition, meant that his acts of violence were legitimate and that they were just and that the actions of his opponents were, by definition, illegitimate. In keeping with his interest in violence, Reubeni took a great interest in the instruments of violence such as swords, armor and particularly guns and his ability to possess and use them. I offered an analysis of several episodes found in Reubeni’s diary, where we see him playing the role of a statesman, engaging in acts of violence and thereby attempting to bring about justice, order and peace.

My intention was to move beyond the traditional issues regarding Reubeni - Reubeni the messianic claimant and Reubeni the con-man. He may have been a fraud, but he was also a brilliant political thinker, with a plan of action built around issues pertaining to this world and not just apocalyptic expectations. Ultimately, and this is the main point of my dissertation, I wish to, following in the footsteps of Norman Cohn and Richard Popkin, challenge the distinction between apocalyptic Messianism and earthly politics.

If readers of this blog are interested I might post a fuller version of the paper As I was the sole presenter at this session I spoke for a little longer than my allotted twenty minutes and we had a longer than usual question and answer session afterwards. The people in attendance were simply a fantastic audience so this session ended up going on for close to the allotted hour.

After attending a conference full of post modern liberal sophistry, I was looking forward to driving back to Columbus with Cory Driver. We were driving through rural Indiana (Sarah Palin’s real America) when we stopped at a gas station. In what can only be described as something out of a comedy sketch, the gas station was named Gas America.



I went inside and did not find Achmed the Dead Terrorist behind the counter. Instead I found what looked to be a perfectly normal American girl.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Mary Beard - The Politics of Reviewing

Today Ohio State was privileged to host Dr. Mary Beard who spoke on some of the practical issues of getting reviewed and writing them, both issues that are of great practical concern to me. I must say that she was an absolute gem both as a speaker and as a human being. Here are my notes for the lecture. As always any mistakes are mine. Dr. Beard has actually posted a piece on her stay in Columbus including a brief overview of this lecture. She even refers to the blog question I asked. So see here for that.

Dr. Beard is a professor of classics at the University of Cambridge in England and one of the pioneering women in the field of classics. She is also the editor of classics section the Times Literary section (TLS) so she is on both sides of the reviewing fence. She both reviews and gets reviewed.

Any interesting book is bound to get some bad reviews so it should worry a person if they do not get any bad reviews. To start with the actual process, which is the same for any mid range literary broad sheet, no one looks at a reviewer closer than the author. Most people just glance at the beginning and maybe the end. Reviews have minimal impact on sales. Most of the impact is when you have a reasonably popular book and you get a series of popular reviews. The important thing is to get reviewed, not whether the book gets good reviews or not. Never write a review that you are not prepared to say in front of the author. People do not mind you disagreeing with them as long as you are not nasty. This is not in the financial interests of TLS but never respond to a bad review. It just draws attention to it. If need be have a friend respond.

How to get a review in TLS? It comes out every week and has a circulation of forty thousand, which translates into a readership of at least one hundred thousand. Rupert Murdoch owns TLS but, as naïve as this sounds, there is no direct interference. Likely it serves him as a useful cover when he gets accused of downgrading things. Books come in boxes and get put down by some wage slave. Most things reviewed get sent by the publishers. It helps if TLS occasionally does a foreign, non English, book every so often so those they seek out. There is more politics and favoritism than one would like to hear. There are some big names that automatically get reviewed. There is probably no person in the classics who gets that status. It helps if you can match up a book with a reviewer who can write an interesting review of it. You sometimes need some boring reviews, though. In the end, though, you do need to sell. There is bad luck but there is not much that is sinister. One should not send a book to a reviewer whose view on the book you can already predict. Beard once nearly sent a book to a reviewer who had just walked off with the author’s husband. One should try to get a reviewer slightly out of his main area of expertise. She likes to get a mix of views from reviewers. Beard may not agree with Victor Davis Hanson’s politics but he writes a good review. One has a one in forty to a one in fifty chance of getting reviewed for something in the classics. This is rather good considering that for novels it is more like one in two hundred-fifty.

Reviews are terribly important still. There is something important about critical comment to serve as a gatekeeper as things move out into society. There is much less of a problem with review assassination than with brown nosing. People are all too willing to be nice than to be critical. There is an issue of democracy. Beard worries about people reviewing books they know little about and it immediately winding up on people’s desktops. Graduate students tend to be highly patronizing. It is important to show that you have engaged the argument. She advises that one avoid adjectives like “simplistic” and “outrageous.” Do not assume that because an author did not mention something they were unaware of it. One should honestly state the argument and no one is going to object if you are critical. Her advice to graduate students who want to start reviewing is that they should start with something very technical that they in particular know something about. If it misfires it is less likely to come back to haunt them.

During the Q&A session I asked Dr. Beard about blogs. As someone in the world of established print I expected her to have a negative view. It turns out that Beard does not have the anxiety about blogs that she has about other forms of online media. With a blog you get what you see. People write about what they read last week. Everyone knows that blogs have no quality control. Publishers in England have caught on to this and have started inviting bloggers to parties. There is going to be a creeping institutionalization of blogs. As of now Beard likes what she sees though she suspects that things are going to change.

Another person asked Dr. Beard how one goes to the next step from being an academic writer, selling a thousand books, to actually becoming popular. As Beard mentioned previously, reviews do not help. What does help is getting on talks shows, into airplane magazines and front tables at book stores. It helps to get a big advance because that forces the publishers to try to sell your work. She strongly advises on to ask about the publicity budget. Finally, unless one hits it very big, one should not bother with an agent.

Dr. Beard’s final words of advice for writing reviews was not to start a review with poetry as it is a bother to set right and not to end with “thus we see.” Beard herself likes to start her reviews with an anecdote. Though admittedly this to can get rather formulaic too.

I asked her, after the lecture, if she was related to the famous early twentieth century American historian Mary Beard. She had a good laugh at that. Apparently her mother named her without ever having heard of Mary Beard. She herself only found out about her namesake as an adult.

The Faith of Jenny McCarthy and Her War on Science

I just posted a piece over at the ASAN of Central Ohio blog on Jenny McCarthy and her abuses of religion and science.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

War and Peace: My First Conference Presentation and My Weekend at Purdue (Part III)

(Part I, II)

The second panel was on the Middle East and was chaired by Rebecca Nicholson-Weir. The first speaker was my new found friend Cory Driver from Ohio State. His presentation was titled “Traces of Silvers: Remembrances of Jewish Members of a Moroccan Mixed Ethnic and Religious Community.” Driver offered a reconstruction of Jewish life in the Moroccan village of Midelt, near the Atlas Mountains. There is no longer a Jewish community in Midelt, but he did some field work in the area. Particularly he struck up a friendship with one of the local inhabitants, who proved to be a rich source of stories. Midelt was actually the second place in Morocco to get electricity. This region is rich in apples and was originally settled by Berbers. There are different tribes in the area, which have a history of not getting along and there is some questions in reconstructing their conflicts as to who attacked whom first and stole the land. Jews served as clerks to the garrison nearby. Driver’s friend, was close to a Jewish family, the Azlars. They claimed to be descended from saints and that they had the power to bless objects, a service that their Muslim neighbors made use of. (This “ecumenical” use of saints was actually quite common between Jews and Muslims in North Africa and can be traced back to the Middle Ages. They were in the habit of giving candy to the local children as a way of getting them not to steal from them. They were involved in stealing grain from the government; government workers were paid to “lose” the grain. Things turned downhill for Jews particularly after the Six Day War in 1967. We have a case were a Jew was shot and killed for celebrating the Israeli victory. The picture that one gets is that while Jewish Muslim relations should not be romanticized, there existed fair amount of pragmatic co-operation.

(I particularly liked the fact that Driver discussed some of the methodological problems with personal histories, an issue that I have discussed previously in this blog. He openly acknowledged that his source often contradicted himself with different versions of the same story. He presented what he took to be the most authoritative versions.)

The second presentation of the panel was “Conflicted Resistance: The Performance of Violence in Wild Thorns and Waltz with Bashir” by Aileen Esmat Genaidy of the University of Cincinnati. As Edward Said pointed out in Orientalism, Westerners tend to think of Arab nationalism as inherently violent. It is all a question of personal agency. Palestinian identity goes back before 1948 but has not become synonymous with the struggle with Israel. The novel Wild Thorns moves from mourning over 1948 to the romantic resistance of 1967 from the Palestinian perspective as various characters struggle to decide how best to resist Israel. The Israeli film Waltz with Bashir moves deals with the First Lebanon War. The director attempts to patch together his memories of the war. There is a narrative distance between the soldiers and the civilians. The film distorts the nature of the conflict both in terms of the actual violence and the symbols of it. Unlike Wild Thorns there is no sense of self agency for Arabs.

(So we actually had a real life anti Israel screed at this conference. During the presentation I thought I heard Genaidy use the term “Palestinian Genocide.” During the Q&A section I asked her if I had heard her correctly. She responded that yes she had used that term. She then backed off from it. So not only does she slander Israel, she does not even have the spine to defend herself. Someone else asked her about the film, the Reader, which had been criticized for taking away Jewish self agency. Lo and behold, Genaidy defended the Reader. So what we have learned is that one must be very careful to acknowledge Arab self agency, but it is perfectly ok to deny Jewish self agency.)

(To be continued ...)