Monday, November 30, 2009

The Child Voter


As I have mentioned previously, my political awakening came when I was nine years old during the summer of 1992, watching then Governor Bill Clinton run for the presidency. I saw Clinton in much the same way that many college students last year viewed "the second black president," Barack Obama. To me Clinton was "change" and "hope." At that time this country faced a major crisis, a multi-trillion dollar deficit and I believed that Clinton was the man to do that; the Republicans had clearly failed after twelve years controlling the office of the president so it seemed reasonable to hope that Clinton could change this situation so I would not have to pay this debt when grew up. (We have failed miserably at this, but I will leave it to some other time to discuss who to blame for this.) I managed to impress my grandfather with my command of the issues and rallied my friends to support Clinton in an overwhelming victory in the mock elections held at school. Despite this, our legal system did not allow me to cast a vote in the actual election. I was not able to vote in 1996 nor was I allowed to vote in the closely contested election of 2000 despite the fact that I had skipped a grade and was therefore already out of high school as I was, frustratingly still just several months short of my eighteenth birthday. Readers are free to disagree with my reasons for supporting Clinton and I have certainly evolved in my political thinking over the past seventeen years. That being said I clearly had achieved, by the age of nine, a certain baseline of political understanding where I was capable, regardless of whether I was right or not, of articulating political views in a coherent fashion. So I possessed a political consciousness roughly equal to that of the average college student yet I was not able to directly help put Clinton into office as they helped Obama.

I am not here to argue for children's suffrage, though I do not consider the whole notion as something absurd to be dismissed out of hand. I recognize that, by and large, most children do not possess the baseline of political consciousness necessary in order to take part in civic life. Most children are not economically self sufficient nor do they pay taxes. They therefore have no stake in the system. Most children are under the thrall of their parents and would vote however they told them to. I accept these arguments, but I find it strange that any liberal accepts them, because to do so a person has to accept as part of the foundation of their political thinking a premise that puts a knife through over a century of liberal thinking, which assumes that one must judge people as individuals and that any attempt to deal with people as a group is nothing but stereotyping and prejudice.

When the authors of the Constitution decided to not give people like my nine year old self a vote, a decision confirmed more recently when the voting age was brought down from twenty-one to eighteen, but not nine, they bought into the notion that, since most nine year olds lack the intelligence or the economic/social self-sufficiency to serve as citizens, all nine year olds were not to be given a vote even those nine year olds who did possess these things. Furthermore they decided that, since most twenty-one/eighteen year olds are intelligent enough and are economically/socially self-sufficient enough to serve as citizens, all twenty-one/eighteen year olds were to be given a vote, even those who did not possess these things. So today if you are eighteen years old or above, a citizen of this country, have not been convicted of any serious crimes and mentally competent enough to carry out the physical action of voting you can vote. (Considering that we dropped the voting age to eighteen at about the same time as we brought in mass college education, I find the whole economic self-sufficiency argument to be laughable. If anything we should have gone the other way and pushed the voting age to twenty-two when most people leave college and start real jobs.) I wish we could scrap the age requirement and directly demand that people pass some sort of citizenship test, like the one we give immigrants, and report a certain level of income on tax returns in order to be allowed to vote. This would make the voting process much more difficult and expensive to boot so we take a short cut and limit the vote to people of the age bracket of people who generally possess the needed qualities despite the fact that many worthy individuals are shafted by it.

At the heart of this disenfranchisement of children is the argument that it is acceptable to disenfranchise people who belong to a specific group, known for their inability to fulfill a necessary requirement for suffrage. Another way to put this is that if person x belongs to group y and z percentage of y lack characteristic a then it is acceptable to strip x of b regardless of whether x lacks a. I do not object to this, it is essentially an extension of the principle that law can only deal with generalities and not specifics, which Maimonides and the pre-modern legal tradition accepted. That being said, this should put a shiver down every one of your spines.

I can plausibly replace children, as the x in the equation with other groups. Take blacks or women in the nineteenth century for example. Were these groups as a whole, at that point in time, at some theoretical baseline of political consciousness and economic/social self-sufficiency to be allowed to vote? Need I point out that keeping them from voting was justified by comparing them to children? There would be nothing irrational or intolerant about saying that white males (or property owning white males) as a group have reached this threshold and blacks and women have not and therefore voting should be restricted to white males. You can no longer argue that there are women and blacks who personally pass the necessary thresholds and white males who do not so one should not work with generalizations or stereotypes. We have already decided that it is okay to engage in generalizations and stereotypes when it comes to children. I do not know what sin the conservative who fought against women's and black suffrage, on the grounds of their fitness, committed; I do know that the non-child suffrage supporting liberal who chastises him for being prejudiced is a hypocrite.

This notion of stripping groups of their right to vote can be brought up to date. Women have proven to be highly successful in terms of education and taking up active roles in the economy. I would say that women in the western world hit our theoretical threshold sometime during the late nineteenth century. Proof of this is the fact that it was at this point that we see a mass women's suffrage movement. This required large amounts of women with educations and outside of the social or economic control of any fathers or husbands. What about blacks and particularly black men, with their frustrating inability to become productive upwardly mobile members of society, today; have they achieved the necessary threshold? To use examples of some of my fellow bloggers, we could say that Miss S., a black woman, should be allowed to vote while MaNishtana, a black man, should not, regardless of their comparative merit. We could take down Malcolm Gladwell, a writer and thinker I am in awe of, because he is black, male and even has an afro to boot. We can say that Obama is not qualified to be president. Is it any fairer than banning me from being president just because I am not forty years old? The argument for equality and against prejudice, so crucial to modern thinking, is nothing but a cheap clay idol packed with straw that fails to aid its believers when needed.

If we are to accept the legitimacy of generalizations than we can abandon any moral pretense of believing in literal equality as the whole discussion of civil rights is reduced to a cold calculus of what exactly is our theoretical threshold for citizenship and which groups as groups fulfill it. Admittedly the whole notion of group is arbitrary and any person can be tied to a group that does not pass the threshold and can therefore be disenfranchised. If someone wanted to they could try to disenfranchise my present self by arguing, that despite my graduate education, I still belong to the autism spectrum group. Since this group as a whole might not pass the necessary threshold, I therefore I should also lose my vote. Let us be clear, we are throwing around hand grenades and they can blow up in all sorts of unwanted places. The decision to put age into play as a relevant group is just as arbitrary as gender, color or even neurological state. It is simply a convenience that we, as a society indulge ourselves even at the expense precocious nine year olds. Of course if some groups can be made to pay the price then so can others; it is only fair.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Learned Jewish Women in Sixteenth Century Italy


Renaissance Italy is usually a good place to look for precedents for liberal Jewish practices. In terms of Jewish education for women and women studying the Talmud Andree Aelion Brooks points out:

Shortly before Dona Gracia was born, a Talmud Torah for girls had opened in Rome; its women graduates emerged as poets, writers and patrons of the arts. A woman known as Pomona da Modena, living in Ferrara at the beginning of the century, was said to be as well versed in Talmud "as any man." Another member of Pomona's family, Fioretta, was constantly engaged in Hebrew and rabbinic learning. Others worked as scribes.

Then there was Bienvenida Abravanel, a niece of the famous Don Isaac Abravanel, the man who led the Jews out of Spain at the time of the Expulsion and later settled in Naples. Bienvenida was so smart and well educated that she became the tutor, and later advisor, to Leonora, daughter of the viceroy of Naples. When the Jews were expelled from Naples in 1530, it was Bienvenida who maneuvered through her court connections to have the order rescinded. After the death of Bienvenida's banker husband, Samuel, Bienvenida continued to run his banking business and use her wealth to ransom Jewish refugees captured by pirates. (Brooks, The Woman who Defied Kings pg. 27)

 
It should be noted that Isaac Abarbanel believed, in some sense, that women did not have souls and that only men possessed them. Having elite learned women does not mean that women as a group were educated. People who are wealthy and clearly intelligent are going to be allowed a fair degree of eccentric behavior no matter what society they live in and are going to be able to get away with breaking certain social taboos.

Asael XVI


This is part of my ongoing novel. Think of it as Killer Angels taking place in a musket and magic fantasy world with characters that combine the religious sensibilities of American revivalism with Beowulf-like blood feuds. All this while engaging in Talmudic style dialectics. "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition" is about to take on a whole new meaning.

 
Introduction, A Note from the Author, Prologue, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV


Kuphdin's shuffling feet in tune with the wheels of the cart could be heard coming around the row below. "I am wasting time, reading rubbish, and doing an all round fine job of turning my God given great brain to mush," Asael called down. Kuphdin looked upwards; Asael leaned out, putting his head and chest over the ledge and balancing himself with one hand as he held out the Hammer of Witch Hunters with the other. Kuphdin grunted and beckoned Asael down.

"So with three weeks to go until you stand for the priesthood do you care to explain what might possess you to be reading that thing again?"

"You know, Kuphdin, this text could be useful," said a Asael in a voice that was almost serious.

"Useful! It is nothing but cheap drivel."

Asael dropped the last several feet to the ground. "True, but what if we were to apply the sort of analysis that we would normally apply to sacred texts?"

"This sounds just a wee bit blasphemous," Kuphdin smirked, "but please go ahead. I would like to see how you intend to extricate yourself from this."

Asael put his hands together contemplatively, his eyes shining as if he were a prophet handing out a revelation. "Agreed that this is nonsense, but it is useful nonsense. Let us take Captain Eryn Vorn here. The author, Mr. Reginald Scott, is quick to deny that he was really an ordained minister or a military officer. This of course is in keeping with Scott's agenda. He is Saebethian by nationality, Melcothian by faith and a follower of the New Knowledge by ideology; Vorn is inconvenient on the first two counts and the perfect villain on the third count. So Scott simply denies the connection. He cannot deny that Vorn was Saebethian. The evidence must be too strong. This tells us that if there is one thing we can say about Vorn was that he was Saebethian. Scott does the next best thing and denies that he ever was in a position of respect such as a captain in the Saebethian military. Similarly, Scott is keen to deny that Vorn was ever someone as respectable as a minister. As a Melcothian seeking to reconcile his religion with the New Knowledge, he of course cannot bear to admit that one can be both a Melcothian and a witch-hunter. Now Scott admits that we know nothing about Vorn's early history. May I suggest that facts two and three to be added to Vorn's Saebethian nationality are that he was an ordained minister and an officer?"

Kuphdin drummed his fingers against the side of the court. "I fail to see what this gets you."

Asael smiled: "This sets the stage for the entire narrative. It explains why so many people were willing to follow him. He had connections to both the military and the clergy and no one was going to challenge him with credentials such as his."

Kuphdin chuckled: "And I thought people only followed him out of superstition!"

"Clearly not! Even by Scott's account there were many educated people, such as the judges and lawyers, taking orders from Vorn."

"In this belief in the existence of knacks, that they were witches and servants of the Dark One, and must be killed, something which all rational people know to be absurd," said Kuphdin, finally warming up to this game.

"Which, in turn, is completely ridiculous; my grandfather, Serariah Dolstoy, of blessed memory and my uncle Asael were both knacks and grandfather was a leading advocate for the New Knowledge in this country." Asael said this matter as just matter of fact as if he were simply discussing a family history of birthmarks, epilepsy or raging insanity. "I am of course not a knack. It is linked to family but not all children receive it. Ima was normal."

"Does not the claim that Vorn was both a captain and a minister strike you as a bit much?"

"Not at all! He must have started off as a soldier and then underwent some sort of spiritual conversion. I mean he was Melcothian so it could not have been a real spiritual conversion, but just some illusion cast by a demon. This spiritual delusion of his must have convinced him that people like my grandfather and my uncle served the Devil and needed to be killed."

"Why do you presume the path went one way; why not in the other direction from minister to soldier?"
"No, that would not fit. This was a man dominated by his religion. Why would a religious man pursue a religious cause by walking away from the cloth and becoming a soldier?"

"Sounds reasonable."

"So Captain Vorn, now Minister Vorn, begins to pursue knacks and to this vendetta he brings his military training as the spear tip to his religious zeal. I am even willing to bet that Vorn, as a soldier, was a member of some elite unit that specialized in torturing people."

"Kidnapping children and slicing open their livers sounds like something out of a fairy tale," said Kuphdin skeptically.

"Possibly. If something sounds like a fairy tale it probably is. "But," and Asael dropped his voice to a whisper, "Ima once told me about people called 'soul men.' They did similar things. Perhaps Vorn was one of them."

"Until he was caught."

"Yes and of course the fact that was a minister and an officer would explain why he was sentenced to labor instead of being executed."

"Where he soon slipped his chains and began his rampage in earnest."

"Vorn must have been a highly charismatic man in addition to his official positions to do this. Also keep in mind that as an officer he must have been, from the beginning, someone who could convince people to follow him. Furthermore for an adult to switch careers and become a clergyman must have required him to be downright brilliant, maybe almost as smart as me."

Kuphdin shook his head at this. It took Asael to say that and not sound arrogant. "There are some religions that value faith over reason."

"That does not make any sense Kuphdin."

"My boy, since when did religion have to make sense? Anyway it makes as much sense as your admiration for murderers." Kuphdin emphasized the plural at the end.

Asael took the implied challenge head on. "Captain Vorn might have been a murderer, but he saw himself as a hero. Hundreds of people willingly cooperated with him, damning their own souls, to say nothing of those truly decrepit people who knew better but followed after him simply out of fear. The true believers must have seen something in him and even those who were just afraid must have found something in him to muffle their own consciences. I wish to see the Vorn that they did."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Please Label Me: When I Grow Up I Can Decide What to Do With it



Ed Baker of Defense of Reason has a series of posts dealing with a new billboard campaign with the message that children should not be labeled with the religion of their parents. This is an old argument used by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins argues that children are too young to have opinions about religion and, just as we would not label a child as liberal or conservative, since children do not have political opinions, we should not label children as being members of any specific religion regardless of what their parents believe. One should be clear as to the stakes here. The main targets of Dawkins and the New Atheist campaign are closeted atheists, humanists, and otherwise unconventional believers who maintain themselves as religious believers. Such people continue, for their own reasons, to operate within that structure even after they have made their intellectual breaks with it. It is people such as these who can be tempted into secularist social structures that imitate organized religions. Such people need to be told that, contrary to what they might believe, religion is actually harmful for morality and need a shot of self-pride to get them to come out of the closet as non-believes. Such people as these continue with their religions, in large part, because they were raised in them and their identities are encapsulated within them. If such people did not have strong religious identities to begin with then their trip out of religion could be that much easier thus allowing Dawkins and company to go home with their mission accomplished. On the flip side not allowing parents to label their children would create all sorts of problems for religious people. Can Christians and Jews baptize or circumcise their children? What kind of education are parents allowed to give their children? This becomes particularly scary if we assume that the government has some sort of stake in the matter. Would secularists wish for the government to stop parents from raising their children in their faith? Dawkins believes that scaring children about a physical hell constitutes child abuse. Would Dawkins send the police into the homes of literary minded Christians to confiscate their children to protect them from being exposed to Paradise Lost?

Beyond raising certain questions to Dawkins and company as to what their attentions might be if they ever got the chance to put their ideas into practice, I believe there are more direct objections to make; I will go so far as to go the other direction and say that parents should actively seek to install strong ideological values in their children both in terms of politics and in religion. For one thing I reject the notion that children are incapable of having opinions. I had strong political opinions by the time I was nine. The reason why it took so long was that my parents were fairly apathetic when it came to politics. As the son of a rabbi, I already developed opinions about religion certainly by the time I entered kindergarten. Yes my religious opinions were heavily influenced by my father. In an ideal world maybe you could get children interested in issues by being neutral. In practice though children are attracted to intensity; they will care about things that they see the adults in their lives are truly interested in. So the choice becomes one of raising ideological children or raising apathetic children.

Parents are an important check on society and allow for honest multiculturalism. A parent not raising their children with a strong ideology means that a child is going to be raised in the values of the dominant society. There is a limit to how many viewpoints can take a leading role in the public sphere and schools. (Two would be impressive.) There can be as many ideologies to raise children in as there are parents. One of the great things about the honest sort of multiculturalism is that has checks and balances built into its very nature. Every parent raising a child serves as a check on every other parent raising their children.

Most crucially for the child's own intellectual development, a label is a place to begin one's search and a lens with which to deal with the world. Growing up as a Jewish child meant that I came into the world not as a tabula rasa, but as a part of a developed intellectual tradition. This allowed me to learn this tradition, its questions and its answers. If I did not identify so strongly as a Jew as I do than there would be no personal stake in exploring this tradition and I may never have gotten into the habit of asking the big questions at all.  Being born into a tradition does not mean that one has to be a slavish follower of this tradition. I am free to define my relationship to my tradition as I wish, even to reject it. But if I am to turn my back on Judaism, I would still be able to turn on Judaism as a Jew and thus embrace the label all the more. My father introduced me to Judaism and he has been a major influence. That being said he would be one of the first people to admit that my Judaism is very different from his.

There are limits to what parents can do to their children; I am not about to hand parents a blank check. I believe in practicing my brand of intellectual terrorism whenever I have the chance, with adults and with children. The more closed off the child the more eagerly I embrace the opportunity. The argument is sometimes put to me how dare I step on the prerogative of the parent and expose children to things that I know their parents do not wish them to be exposed to. My response is that parents do not have any intrinsic moral right to their children's minds. In theory I have an equal right to their children's minds to expose them to an ideology of my choice. Children, as beings without the full intellectual capabilities to take on the role of citizenship, are handed over to the physical control of adults, ideally the biological parents. Since the parent has authority over the child's body, he has an advantage when it comes to feeding his ideology to that child to such an extent that he can place whatever political or religious labels on the child he chooses. Since the government, the one body that can override the parent, is not allowed to have political or religious opinions it must turn a blind eye to the child's indoctrination. This, though, does not apply to individuals in society. A parent may be able to win out against society for the mind of his child, but it is at least going to be a fight.

I declare war against those parents who think that they can shut their children away and indoctrinate them as they so choose. I will carry out my moral duty to stand outside your doorstep and the moment your child steps out I will be after him. There is nothing you can do to stop me from talking to your children and giving out books and other forms of intellectual stimulation except to make an even greater effort to shut your child away to the extent that you would literally place your child in a locked cell until they are eighteen. This will also serve to raise the cost of your actions. I will make it so expensive that I will both intellectually and economically bankrupt you.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Man in Black and My Favorite Sparkly Fairy Vampire Princess: in Defense of Comedic Romantic Heroes





Today I went to see New Moon. I would like to go officially on the record at this point to admit that Twilight is wearing a bit thin on me. This comes from Twilight becoming too popular too quickly and for all the wrong reasons. I think I am going to vomit if I see one more magazine cover with the "sexy stars of Twilight" on the front. Twilight was a brilliant comic horror romance starring Bella's motor mouth. She monologues her way through vampires and werewolves all the while being unfazed by any of it, but keeping her eyes focused on her normal teenage girl issues. Twilight would collapse into absurdity the moment it tried to actually be a real love story; the characters cannot stand up to the limelight of being judged by standard fiction logic. This sums up for me why New Moon was at best a mediocre film. The first film had the good sense not to take itself too seriously and could be taken simply for laughs. New Moon crosses that line into trying to be serious, leaving us with over the top acting and way too much angst. This is particularly unfortunate as, of all the books, New Moon is Bella's story; she is off on her own without Edward for most of the book except when she purposely puts herself at risk in order to summon up images of him telling her not to do whatever she is doing.

I went alone as the girl I am now seeing opposes Twilight. I managed to hook the last two women in my life onto Twilight, but no luck in this case. (I still think she is very cool anyway.) She says that Twilight is the one romance that she would never allow her daughter to read. Her reason for this is that she finds Edward Cullen to be emotionally abusive:

Bella is essentially interacting with Edward in a way that exposes her to emotional abuse.  She stays with him, even when he insists on making all her important life choices. And the only time that she disagrees with him is when she is making a foolish, short-sighted decision (e.g. wanting to be turned, not wanting to go to college, etc.).

I do not hold this against her. Firstly because at least she admits that Alice is a great character. Secondly because I do not think she is all that far off. Considering all the teenage girls gushing over Edward and taking him seriously, I would have to admit that the risk of girls taking Edward as a romantic ideal and Bella as a model to follow may be too great. Edward's behavior is problematic and nowhere more so than in New Moon. He abandons her, leaving her in a fit of depression for months. Then, when he comes to believe that she is dead, he tries to commit suicide by angering the vampire mafia, the Volturi. No I would not want my daughter dating Edward, angst ridden sparkly emo vampire fairy princess or not. As a fictional, over the top romantic hero, though, this is fine. I would not want my daughter dating Romeo, with his panache for killing brothers-in-law in duels right after the wedding and general suicidal tendencies, either. The ending sequence of New Moon works fine if you are willing to take it for what it is; a spoof of Romeo and Juliet applied to this vampire universe.

I appeal to my favorite comic romance (and hers as well) the Princess Bride. (Many of you will have likely seen the brilliant film adaption of it. I urge you to read the even better novel from which it came. The novel makes fun of Lord of the Rings.) The story involves two lovers Buttercup and Westley. Westley leaves Buttercup to make his fortune, is captured by pirates and assumed dead, only to come to Buttercup's rescue several years later as the Dread Pirate Roberts. When he rescues her he is dressed in black and wearing a black mask. Buttercup does not recognize him, but assumes that he is the man who killed her love. The man in black is rude to spiteful to Buttercup until she pushes him down a ravine and he calls out "as you wish," his old code phrase for "I love you." Buttercups then roles down the hill herself to smother him with kisses. So Westley manages to survive the pirates and become their leader, but he does not bother to send his love a message saying "I am alive and running a successful pirate business." (This is a variation on the classic question about Joseph, who becomes the viceroy of Egypt and goes seven years without sending his father Jacob a note saying "I am fine dad, I was just sold into slavery by my brothers, but things are going pretty good now.") To top this off, Westley acts very coolly to her upon rescuing her, accusing her of abandoning him to marry Prince Humberdinck. We are never told what makes Buttercup so attractive. She spends the entire story in need of being rescued and whining. (Hardly a good feminist role model.) I would not consider this behavior the sort to be imitated. That being said I am willing to accept this as a spoof on the traditional romance, taking romantic troupes and pushing them to over the top extremes. If I wanted to get academic I would say that we are engaged in a feminist deconstruction of the traditional romance, bringing out the latent patriarchy of the genre by taking it to its reductio ad absurdum extreme.

I am willing to accept stories like Twilight and Princess Bride for what they are, comic romances which present over the top love stories with particularly domineering and moody male heroes with love-struck and submissive females with little in the way of actual personality, as long as they stay in their boundaries. The moment any future teenage daughter of mine takes any of this too seriously I think I would need to have a talk with her. (Note that memorizing the entire film of Princess Bride does not consist of taking things too seriously. Rather it is the mark of a healthy childhood and mature taste in movies.) There are fairy tales, fairy vampire princesses with sparkles and then there is real life. Fairy tales are useful as long as they are kept in their place.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Unpolemical Narratives


RVA responded to my previous post with a long comment that I believe deserves a posting in its own right:



I find both of your following contentions persuasive, that – a) History should be taught from an unpolemical stance and that we should try to understand historical events from the perspectives, rationales, and narratives which individuals in that era would view the world; and b) that we inevitably transform history into a narrative with identifiable heroes and villains.

I find attractive your theory that history should be taught from an unpolemical perspective (inasmuch as possible) because we need to equip children with analytical and critical thinking skills, rather than imposing values upon them (i.e. capitalism is good and inevitable, democracy is without flaws, etc.). Values are which are 'learned' and 'understood' are much more powerful, durable, and influential than those which are imposed upon us. It is essential that we teach our youth the ability to understand both sides of an argument, rather than pushing them to become ideologues who lack the ability and skills to analyze the effects and implications of their beliefs. It is better to teach children why communism/Nazism/fascism is attractive, and then have them internalize that perspective, which will allow them to understand why Germany voted in the Nazis, or why Lenin became a Marxist; because it will then allow students to learn the lesson that ideologies which may be attractive in theory may turn out to be dangerous in practice, or that good ideas which gain popular traction can become corrupted and perverted by leaders who succumb to the temptations of power. We often try to "otherize" the Nazis and Communists; but instead we should seek to understand that they were human and that their decisions were driven by human instincts; rather than dehumanize them, we should try to understand what aspects of human nature led to their misguided decisions and results, which can only be done by internalizing their perspectives, so that we can learn and comprehend the lessons to be learned from the history of the 20th century. Students who lack the skills to internalize the perspectives from past historical eras will be more prone to be misguided by demagogues and ideologues because they will lack the tools and skills to withstand the imposition of social and political narratives which they encounter.

I am also very intrigued by your theory that history is often turned into a narrative with identifiable with heroes and villains. I would go further and speculate that humans have an intrinsic need, desire, and addiction for narratives; that our species inevitably tries to make sense of all external stimuli, and that our common vehicle of understanding an incomprehensible universe is to turn empirical reality into narratives, into stories which cater to our desire for a) intrigue, b) triumph of good, c) finality & resolution, and d) meaning to our existence.


In this sense, the two doctrines are in conflict: First, that we should unpolemicize history; Second, that humans inevitability tend to "narrativize" history to fit our cultural and societal values. You write, "We wish to find that hero who took on the forces of darkness and forever changed the world for the better. We want it so badly that we will write him into history, running over any inconvenient facts in the process." This seems persuasive. But given that premise, I must ask you whether it is really possible for historians to write histories which are unpolemical? Even if historians are capable of writing unpolemical histories, will they have enough traction to become persuasive to other historians, or even to the general public? Does the structure and composition of History departments at American universities allow the writing of unpolemical histories? Is it possible to teach a course which doesn't implicitly assign valuations to historical events or historical figures? Is it inevitable that historians "narrativize" history? Are there societal benefits to the polemical teaching of history which outweigh an unpolemical approach? Are there benefits to making history into a narrative?



I could not have said this better myself. As historians, when we try to explain why Nazism and Communism may have been attractive to reasonable, rational and moral people we are not defending Nazism and Communism. Quite the contrary, we are trying to stop these ideologies from ever reentering the world stage. If all I understand about Nazism was that it was intolerant than I will not be able to recognize it when it comes to tempt me in real life with its offer of national unity, pride, order and the advancement of civilization. I would also point out that this applies to religion. Religious groups often make the mistake of thinking that they can shut their children away from the outside world and create straw-man images. This works up until the moment that the child comes in contact with the real outside world and realizes that his parents and teachers have misled him. In my experience there is not a more powerful way to convince a person to abandon his previous beliefs than to allow him to realize that the authority structure which he has followed has been less than honest with him even about some small issue. If my parents and teachers will lie to me about one thing what else might they have lied to me about?


As to the issue of the importance of writing non-polemical history and our need to write narrative, yes there is a conflict. We are fighting against a deeply rooted part of our nature. To make matter all the worse, we are up against the desires of a society that does not have historical interests at heart. Textbooks are passed through committees made up of non-historians who wish to use history to lobby for their own group interest. It is for this reason that I refuse to teach out of a formal textbook. Writing non-polemical history is not going to be easily accomplished if at all. This is one of the reasons why we need professional historians, who have spent years immersing themselves not just in historical documents, but in historical reasoning as well. Some gentlemen scholar writing history in his spare time as a hobby is just not going to cut it; it will get us Gibbon.


 I do believe that it is at least theoretically possible to transcend our human biases and write non-polemical history. The first thing is that history is about a method and not a narrative. As long as we are simply using the historical method to analyze texts we get around the issue of narrative and do not have to worry about bias and polemics. The second thing is that when we do eventually come to write narrative, which we must in the end, we can avoid the standard narratives. Instead of talking about conflicts with heroes and villains we can talk about evolving processes that have arisen between contesting sides. In this, Hegel was onto something, though I would not accept his attempt to enforce meta-narratives over all of history. Even if the two sides may never have been able to reconcile in life, the historian understands both sides and therefore makes a sort of peace between them.

If you are interested in the topic of historical narratives I would recommend you read Hayden White's Metahistory.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Historical Progress and Reasonable Men


Miss S. raises some issues with one of my arguments from my presentation on Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead. I argue that history should be taught with a decidedly unpolemical stance, even when dealing with societies and institutions that most people today would find morally abhorrent such as slavery or open patriarchy. History should be presented from the perspective of those who lived then. We need to ask ourselves what was going through their heads when they did these things and what they would say in their own defense. The moment one takes a judgmental stance and starts to cluck about people in the past not being open minded or tolerant than one is no longer doing history. Miss S. asks:

 
Reading your post I can't help but feel as if your method of justification for the behaviors of people from the past fails to own up to the great potential that men possess. I'll explain why in a bit, but this is surprising because you seem to view those people and those societies in/from the past in high regard; higher regard than I (a non-historian) does. By our modern definition (and maybe even a historical one) "great" men were not those who compromised too often. If anything they were incredibly stubborn and rarely achieved any accolades for their behavior while they were alive.

You present slavery as an example of a social situation where bad moral actions (even for that society, at that time) could be reasoned away by the short-sightedness of the society and their reluctance to compromise their economic foundation. Perhaps I am interpreting this entirely wrong, but why should it be encouraged for the students to empathize with such a mindset and not be critical of it? There were plenty of other individuals from that same time period who were quite critical of the institution of slavery (I don't think anyone is debating that). What you have is a situation where sociology mixes with history and you have an example as to how gross acts of immorality can exist and the society at large puts up with it. Like how the Romans watched people being mauled to death by beasts in the Coliseum for sport. Like how our society today retains very little modesty in regards to sex.

In politics, yes you routinely make "deals with the Devil"; but also, if you notice, when you look throughout history, some of the great societal changes came about because either leaders or a group did not compromise -- and took the "all but nothing" stance. Believe it or not, this is not an outright criticism of your efforts. In fact if I were your student, I would find the exercise to be an interesting one. I would just wonder how you could explain away the impetus of ideas that were uncompromising and self-serving; yet impacted history greatly. Your approach would justify the actions of American slaveholders; but not that of the American (Union) government.



George Bernard Shaw once said: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man." I think Miss S. would agree with Shaw as would most people. I cannot disprove this claim, but would point out that it is based on a flawed human perception of history. One of the common traps that people fall into, when dealing with history, is narrative thinking. When studying historical events we look for stories to tell, ones that have all the qualities of the fictional stories we manufacture out of our own imaginations simply for entertainment. A good story that will hold onto the attentions of listeners and readers is going to have a unified story, with a clear beginning, middle and end, a limited number of characters, clear heroes and villains, something important at stake, like saving the world, with a climax in which everything will stand or fall based on one person making a single decision in just one moment. Since we like these sorts of stories, we will purposely try to construct historical narratives along these lines. The problem with narrative thinking is that there is no particular reason to assume that events in the physical world really do operate like this. So we fall into the trap of a self selecting bias; we see what we want to see even if it is a product of nothing more than our imaginations.



Does history advance because of a few brave heroes who do things that others think are impossible, defy the odds, and save the world? We wish to think this so we construct heroic narratives where society progresses through conflicts in which the good guys win in the end. A more accurate view of history would be that society evolves as part of a continuous process. The mechanism for this change is not clear cut conflict, but the compromises that different factions reach as part of their ongoing dialogue. Why did the Civil Rights movement succeed? Because blacks defeated their enemies with their marching or because mainstream America became convinced that giving blacks equal rights strengthened Middle America by bringing in moderate peaceful blacks and expelling segregationist whites? Middle America made a deal with black America and we are still working out the details. The same thing goes for the gay rights movement. Their success, ironically enough, has been due to their ability to adapt themselves to mainstream culture by seeking mainstream marriage than trying to actually change mainstream culture. For all the talk about extra-marital sex among American youth, the standard is still mainstream marriage. Groups outside of the mainstream make their deals with mainstream America and both sides win in the end.



It is very easy to admire someone like John Brown who made a martyr of himself trying to free slaves. But what did John Brown accomplish; he got a lot of people killed in Kansas and most famously at Harper's Ferry. In the end he freed no one. On the other hand take Abraham Lincoln, who is often drafted in the cause of American hero. Unlike the Lincoln of popular myth, though, the real Lincoln was very much the political pragmatist. In 1860 he did not run on a platform of getting rid of slavery, just to not allow slavery into the territories. How many slaves did the Great Emancipator free, zero. The Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in territories not currently controlled by the Union. That being said it set the stage for the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments by binding the American government to the ending of slavery. It was not the moderates who were being short sighted. In a sense it was people like John Brown who were the real short sighted ones.



We wish to find that hero who took on the forces of darkness and forever changed the world for the better. We want it so badly that we will write him into history, running over any inconvenient facts in the process. When writing fantasy we could leave our Saurons and our Lord Voldemorts as being motivated just by evil. I do not understand evil as a motive. The closest I can come is the pursuit of good ends through means that are so evil that they cancel out the good at the end. For example there is trying to save the world by becoming a dark lord tyrant and nuking most of it. In fantasy one has the luxury of not having to seriously consider the "villains" and can just tell the story from the perspective of the "good guys." As a historian, though, I also have to be willing to consider "Sauron" and "Voldemort." Since it is precisely such people who represent the greatest difficulty, understanding them becomes the task which dominates my work as a historian.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Amos Funkenstein on the Modern Shift in Historical Thinking



 The late Dr. Amos Funkenstein in his short book on Maimonides, Maimonides: Nature, History and Messianic Beliefs, makes an interesting observation as to the origins of modern historical thinking. As I have noted previously, one of the foundations of historical thinking is the valuation of written documents specifically at the expense of orally transmitted memories. Funkenstein admired Maimonides willingness to attempt to create a historical context for commandments by relating them to the fight against the pagan religion of the Sabians. Maimonides, relying on a medieval forgery, believed that Sabianism was some sort of universal pagan religion and interpreted specific commandments, such as the taboo on milk and meat, as countering Sabian doctrine. Funkenstein saw Maimonides as foreshadowing sixteenth and seventeenth century views on history, which attempted to look at past events through the context of that specific time with the awareness that these periods were distinct from the present. For example the fifteenth century underwent a major linguistic revolution as scholars became aware of the gap between the Medieval Latin used in their day and the classical Latin of Cicero and attempt to revive classical Latin:

This revolutionary method of understanding historical events was far removed from the spirit of the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages, a historical event was considered to be self-evident, as it itself proclaimed whether it was important or unimportant. As a result, the historiography, i.e. writing of history, of ancient times and that of the Middle Ages regard eyewitnesses as the best historians, for historical events proclaim themselves to be important, and it is the eyewitness who records this in the most authentic way. In the medieval view, the ideal of writing of history is the noting down of historical events by one who saw them at first hand. …

 
[For moderns] Not only is there no discreet meaning to a discreet event, but it attains its meaning from the context of the other events within which it takes place. This is a view which regards the ideal historian not necessarily as the eyewitness, because often the eyewitness is not aware of the context of the event which he is relating. On the contrary, distance from a historical event enables one to see the comprehensive whole, and there is no such thing as writing history without interpretation. The historical event exist in our methodical understanding, the historical event in itself is but fiction. (pg. 48-49)

In essence the ancients saw events as having self evident meaning so for them the issue was having a reliable person to record events. Once events are recorded the process of history ends. The individual and his memory are what define history. For moderns, history is a process of critical analysis that begins once we have the information. We are interesting in precisely this act of recording history and do not take it as a given. As such the author ceases to be a positive force to be relied upon and our focus becomes the physical text and our ability to interrogate it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

My Presentation at the History and Fiction Conference at the University of West Georgia: Speaker for the Dead: a Historian’s Tale (Part II)




Post I


The three books that make up the Speaker Trilogy are about Ender's search for redemption. At the end of Ender's Game Ender secretly writes a book, called the Hivequeen and the Hegemon, to explain to humanity that the Buggers where not the monsters everyone thought they were. He writes this book under the pseudonym Speaker for the Dead. Having destroyed his own reputation, Ender disappears. The novel Speaker for the Dead opens more than three thousand years later. Ender is still alive, thanks to the laws of relativity, having spent the vast majority of these years traveling at near light speed. Over this time, Ender's book has become the holy scriptures of a major humanist religion, the Speakers for the Dead. While the Speakers do not have a deity or an afterlife, they believe in the value of all intelligent life. They try to tell the life stories of those who have departed this life in the same way that the original Speaker for the Dead spoke about the Buggers.
 Ender operates under the cover of a common speaker. With him is the last hive queen. Ender's hope is to one day find a world in which the Buggers could repopulate and where humans would no longer fear them. He takes his chance on a world called Lusitania; a world on which humanity has once again discovered an alien race, one with stone-age technology, called the Pequeninos. This new first encounter has come with its own set of misunderstandings. Already one scientist sent to study these beings has been murdered. Ender's will have to stand forth as Speaker for the Dead to not only to rectify his own xenocide, but to stop a new one.


A
speaker tells over the life stories of those who had died not to praise or condemn the dead but simply so that those hearing could understood what the deceased stood for and how they understood themselves. The motive of the speaker is that he believes that there is an inherent value to human existence and that by honestly seeking to come to an understanding of an individual one can come to a greater understanding of humanity as a whole. I see the historian as serving a similar function for modern day society. We are the stewards of the knowledge of societies and worlds that are dead and buried. Their values and all that they stood for are gone and there are few who would even understand them. (Just as our society will one day pass from this earth to be inherited by people who are incapable of even understanding our values and what we stood for.) The historian's task is to serve as a speaker for those who can no longer speak for themselves. Not out of any present day agenda, but simply because he believes that human beings have intrinsic value and that by honestly coming to terms with human beings, even those no longer here, we can come to a greater understanding of present day humanity. This is not to say that the past repeats itself, but simply that it gives a context with which to place ourselves.

The historian studies the past, but more than that he lives in the past. If the past is like a foreign country then the historian is like the intelligence officer who has spent decades living in the country he studies and has more of this country within him than that of his native land. While this intelligence officer may never become a native of the country he studies, he will never again be able to truly be a native of the country of his origin either. Not that I believe that historians are infallible oracles from whom the past radiates through. Just as a person today cannot embody anything more than just a perspective of this world so to the historian is simply an expression of one among many legitimate perspectives on the past.

Being a historian involves being both a liberal and a conservative. The historian is a liberal in that he actively seeks to challenge the status quo. He lives with an open mind and with the possibility of other ways of living one's life. On the other hand the field of history, unlike any other field of study besides for religion, is built around defending tradition, the conservative action par excellence. Not to say that the historian necessarily wants to replicate past ways of living in the present. That being said, if the historian did not believe that there was some real value to traditional ways of life he would have chosen a different field.

My goal in teaching history is to challenge students by forcing them to come to terms with the fact that there were sane, moral people who thought in ways that go against everything my students have been taught to believe. For example most societies in history have tended to be hierarchal in their structure and in particular they have been patriarchal. I take it for granted that all of my students oppose slavery. I wish for them to understand why sane, rational, moral people made different decisions.
I, living in the year 2009, oppose slavery. It is economically inefficient and it undermines the moral fabric of society, both of the slaves and of the slaveholders. The list of objections can go on. Put me back to the United States of 1850 and none of these arguments change, but they are met with different concerns. Slavery is the foundation of the southern economy and the South is unlikely to give up their slaves without a fight that will cost thousands if not hundreds of thousands of lives. As for the black slaves themselves it is questionable that most of them would benefit. They have not, by and large, been trained to live as free people or to take up the responsibilities of citizenship. With all of my visceral hatred of slavery it would not take me too long until I find myself negotiating with southern slave holders. How about we agree to allow slavery if slaves are given some legal protections, maybe some limits on work hours and bans against bodily mutilation. And if slave holders refuse to budge we can simply cave in and give them everything. Slavery, as a backwards economic system that has no place in our industrial age, will likely die eventually without anyone doing anything. I would shake hands with the Devil, knowing full well what I was doing. Now we know that those in the North who made such calculations failed. The Union did not hold, there was a civil war and over half a million Americans lost their lives. It does not mean that they were wrong.


As for the defenders of slavery themselves, it should be noted that it is possible to justify slavery without turning to racism. There is no problem as long as you operate on the assumption that society is meant to be hierarchal with some people at the top and some below. This does not even have to mean that those on top are in any way better. Even today we learn to live with the reality that we, as Americans, live on top of the economic pyramid, despite the fact that we have done nothing to deserve it, while much of the world starves. Once we enter our post-Enlightenment world where equality and not hierarchy is the presumed natural order then racism becomes the obvious tool to allow us to continue to enjoy the benefits of the hierarchal model.
I want to bring about just a glimmer of a crisis of faith; that just for a moment my students should wonder whether it is we who are wrong and Plato, Aristotle and Jefferson Davis who were right. Not that I want my students to stop believing in equality. On the contrary I want to make them stronger believers. I would want them to go from simply spouting dogma about equality to actively accepting it, fully aware of the price they pay in doing so. By being aware of the Devil's bargains made in the past my students may come to an awareness of the sorts of deals with the Devil made in the present. For is that not what politics is, a deal with the Devil as you compromise and accept a situation that you do not like in the hope of getting some of what you want and avoid getting nothing.


I often wonder how historians of the future will judge us. By treating our predecessors firmly, but with charity, maybe we can begin to set the ground to receive a similar judgment at our own coming trial when we can no longer speak for ourselves, but need a speaker for the dead to stand in our place.

My Presentation at the History and Fiction Conference at the University of West Georgia: Speaker for the Dead: a Historian’s Tale (Part I)




This weekend I was down in Carrollton GA for the History and Fiction Conference hosted by the University of West Georgia. I would like to thank Dr. Julia Farmer for helping to organize the conference and for her personal kindness to me in helping me deal with Sabbath issues. She also gave an excellent presentation on Ariosto and his conflicted attitude toward Charles V. I stayed at the Jameson Inn and the staff there was exceptionally courteous, particularly in terms of the Sabbath. The room was nice too so if anyone reading this finds themselves in the South I strongly recommend this franchise.

 
At the conference I spoke about the work of Orson Scott Card, particularly Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, and its influence on me as a historian. I am posting the draft I wrote for the speech. It is largely taken from various blog posts I have done here. My advisor has at times questioned my decision to spend the amount of time that I do writing this blog; time that could surely be better spent on other pursuits like finishing my degree. So now I have managed to actually accomplish something positive with my blog. I did not read from the text so my actual presentation differs slightly. In keeping with my style of teaching, I accompanied the lecture with a slide show of pictures and important concepts.



I would like to thank you the department for inviting me to speak. It is not often that I get to combine my role as a historian and my role as a reader of science fiction. History and science fiction have a lot more income than you might otherwise think. Science fiction, as those who are active consumers of it know, is much more than just space battles, babes in skimpy spacesuits and saving the universe from giant insects. Like history, science fiction, at its best is a study as to the nature of society. Traditionally history has been a study of states; in recent decades we have expanded to a wider conception of society. One could say that we historians are finally catching up to those in science fiction. Today I would like to discuss the work of one particular science fiction writer, Orson Scott Card, particularly his Ender series, and its influence on me as a historian. I was first introduced to Card when I was in high school by my younger brother, who had to read Ender's Game for class. He wanted me to read it so he would not have to. Well that was the start of a very fruitful relationship. The Ender series began with Ender's Game, published in 1985. Ender's Game went on to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards. This was followed the year after with Speaker for the Dead which also went on to win the Hugo and Nebula awards. Card went on to complete the story of Ender Wiggin with Xenocide (1991) and Children of the Mind (1996). In recent years Card has written a parallel series to Ender, the Shadow series, and this past year he has written a bridge novel, Ender in Exile, taking place between Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead.

On a general level the Ender series is a magnificent example of science-fiction as a tool to explore the nature of society. There is one of Card's trademark issues, the society building story. A group of random strangers, who have no particular reason to like each other, are thrown together by circumstances. What sort of relationships will they form? Will they prove willing to sacrifice for each other and if so why? Card confronts the issue of history in a more direct way with the figure of the speaker for the dead, whose task it is to explain to those living who the departed where and what they stood for.

Ender's Game is about a boy named Andrew "Ender" Wiggin who is drafted into a military training school. The premise of the school is to gather gifted children from around the world and train the next Napoleon or the next Alexander the Great to fight the Buggers, a race of insect-like aliens that have twice attempted to invade earth and destroy humanity. For those of you who have not read the book, this book is not, as you might think, spaceships, space battles and saving the world with a healthy side does of implied xenophobia, with the aliens standing in for some undesirable group. For one thing this book is only incidentally about battling aliens. This is a story about relationships and the building of a society as bonds of friends are born among the students at Battle School and a corps of future officers is formed to fight the coming war. I read Card as a running meditation as to the question of how one builds and maintains a society? What causes people to join together as a society? How does the individual relate to the surrounding society? What brings an individual to make sacrifices, sometimes the ultimate sacrifice, for the sake of his society? Ender's battle school is a group of competing societies. Ender Wiggin is a genius, his real talent is his ability to handle people. Ender is someone whom other people are willing to follow. People admire him and desire to learn from him and emulate him. Ender in turn is someone who honestly desires to help people. The narrative arch of the novel revolves around Ender building societies. Ender connects to various people and gets them to forge bounds with each other. These people become his subordinate commanders in the coming war against the Buggers.


It would be a mistake to confuse this society with a group of
friends. While the societies that populate Orson Scott Card's novels are often quite small and might be passed off as a group of friends, it is not friendship that binds them. Card's plots tend to revolve around the issue of his characters, despite the fact that there may not be any great friendship between them, attempting to build a society together. For their societies to succeed Card's characters must confront the question of what are they willing to sacrifice for it, ultimately for people whom they owe nothing to and have no logical reason to care for. What Card's societies can be are families. Families, particularly in the world of Orson Scott Card, are groups of people thrown together, with complete disregard for compatibility or love. Despite this, family members do form bounds of loyalty with each other, even with family members that they dislike and continue to dislike.

Ender's Game climaxes with Ender and his team defeating the Buggers and saving the world. Ender destroys the Bugger home world, a la the Death Star and
Alderaan, with a Molecular Disruption device. Humanity is now free to colonize the galaxy without competition and Ender goes to one of the former Bugger worlds as governor. Living happily ever after? Not exactly. The novel ends with Ender finding the last remaining Bugger hive queen and learning the truth. The Buggers, having finally realized that humans were intelligent beings even if a different kind than the Buggers, had decided to leave humanity in peace. The human fleet that Ender led had destroyed an intelligent race of beings that no longer posed any threat. He, not the Buggers, was the mass murder.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Asael XV


This is part of my ongoing novel. Think of it as Killer Angels taking place in a musket and magic fantasy world with characters that combine the religious sensibilities of American revivalism with Beowulf-like blood feuds. All this while engaging in Talmudic style dialectics. "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition" is about to take on a whole new meaning.


Introduction, A Note from the Author, Prologue, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV


Asael found himself, midmorning the next day, lying on his back reading one of his favorite books in his favorite reading place. The book was Reginald Scott's Hammer of Witch Hunters: Tales of Fanaticism and Greed and Asael was lying on top of a book shelf with a drop of more than thirty feet to his side:

In the Jaws of Captain Eryn Vorn and His Iron Mistress

 
Of all the witch hunters who have preyed upon the superstitious and the helpless over the course of this supposedly enlightened century, the Saebethian Captain Eryn Vorn will surely be remembered for his singular fanaticism and his sadistic brutality. Not much is known about Vorn, but it is safe to say that he was not a military officer or a minister of God as he liked to claim. One images that Vorn was at one time a boy, who laughed and smiled, but no reliable descriptions of the man have come down to us until the time of his blood soaked reign on the New Continent of Navon. The earliest descriptions of the man paint him as tall, bone-thin, with a long crooked nose, cracked yellow teeth and wispy grey hair. Wherever he went, the sight of his ragged army field coat and his iron-studded copy of The Peaceful Tidings was sure to strike terror in the hearts of anyone ever suspected by their neighbors of being a so-called knack. …

Vorn first gained renown in Saebethia as a wondering preacher, who offered sweets to children in return for memorizing passages from scripture and repeat back to him his sermons on the evils of knacks and how to spot them. Bringing children to him with the offer of sweets also served a hidden purpose as he poisoned children whom he suspected of being knacks. It is not known by which means he poisoned them. Vorn was too clever to resort to common poisons. Instead he made recourse to heathen recipes unknown to civilized men.

It is told that one "fortunate" lad managed to survive a full helping of Vorn's sweets due to some natural bodily defenses. Upon seeing him the next day unharmed, Vorn offered him more sweets if he would only come in the back of his cart. The naïve lad readily agreed upon which Vorn grabbed him and tied him down to a bed that he had prepared. Here Vorn proceeded to experiment upon him. These experiments were conducted dear reader not in the way of a true natural philosopher, seeking to banish superstition with the light of truth, but of a savage fiend seeking only to inflict suffering. What was done to the poor boy should not be told over in words. If I write them it is only as a stenographer of the public good and not as a purveyor of copper dreadfuls. First Vorn cut out his tongue and vocal cords to stop him from screaming. Next the boy's innards were cut open and while Vorn kept him alive, through some arcane knowledge, he proceeded to insert his poisons directly on to specific bodily organs, cutting away slices of bodily matter afterwards for closer examination and consumption. Bit by bit this boy's liver and kidneys were sliced away, fried and eaten.

By the time he was caught it is said that he had personally murdered over one hundred children. One would have expected a fiend like Vorn to be hung or, better yet, to suffer just a few of the deaths that he had inflicted upon others. Instead all men of sense stood aghast as the jury of the common rabble failed to turn in a unanimous verdict. This was due to at least one of its members being moved by a feminine misplaced sense of pity at the rumor that Vorn was an ordained minister and the pious display he made of reading from scripture. Vorn, pretending to be contrite offered to place himself into exile on the New Continent to do manual labor in the silver mines of Almurcia for the rest of his days.

If only Vorn had known then what awaited him he might have designed it so that he would be caught and sentenced to this fate. Within months of arriving in Almurica, Vorn was free of his chains and at liberty to pursue his pleasure in ways that had eluded him in more civilized realms. The settlers of Navon were largely criminals or other lowly individuals seeking to escape their wretched pasts. Even without the charges of knackery and witchcraft that were Vorn's specialty the setters of Navon had little difficulty in looking out into the darkness of the barren landscape and filling it with creatures that populated the demon-filled landscape of their superstitious imaginations. Lewfrick dogs, an odd breed of feral creatures, which, in a rational world, would have been of interest to educated society simply for the debate they sparked over whether they were dogs, wolves, a species onto themselves, or even mammals at all were turned into Hellhounds, the long lost children and servants of a dark lord from the age of myth. It was to this world that Vorn arrived and spread his tales of knacks. Free to act now without any threat of law, for he now was what little remained of law in the land, Vorn found that the only his imagination could limit his sadism. Nothing could stand between him and a confession. In his hands friend turned against friend, and brother turned against brother. Mothers even handed over their own children in order to save themselves.

Looking askance at the devices of death soaking the pages of history, Vorn fashioned his Iron Mistress. This was done at the behest of a magistrate who feebly noted that many of Vorn's victims were being brought to trial even without the prosecution being able to find any law to accuse them of breaking; let alone one that carried the death penalty. Unlike less civilized countries, Saebethia never passed such an absurd law as a ban on witchcraft on pain of death and would be no more likely to do so than to make it a crime to jump to the moon or to another world. Vorn's response was to create this Iron Mistress in which the victim would be hoisted onto a cross-beam directly in front of a blade, only inches from their face. The logic of Vorn's devilish device was simple; the blade was kept from springing forth and skewering its victims by a pair of weights in reach of the victim's hands. These same weights also kept the victim's chains in place on the cross-beam. In order to get free all the victim needed to do was let his arms and the weights they hold drop below the level of the horizontal bar. The victim, his tongue having previously been ripped out, Vorn's favorite calling card, was told that he could continue to deny the charges by holding up his hands and thus continue the torment or confess by dropping his hands and go free. Eventually the victim's hands would tire and drop upon which the clamps would unlock, dropping him to the ground, as the blade drove into the back of his throat. Thus the victim would die at his own hands, leaving the hands of the law and Vorn's cowardly magistrates spotlessly clean.



Vorn made a living executing people on the charge of being able to cause sickness with the evil eye, break bones with a thought, call down lightening by whistling and, once he arrived in Navon, to command Hellhounds through mere laughter. One may wonder why Vorn did not meet the violent end he so surely deserved at the hands of his victims. Vorn liked to claim that he was protected by Saint Krenger and the indivisible three knots of the Melcothian God. In such a way Vorn brought scorn to reason and faith.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Correction in Regards to Dr. Steven Fine and His Views Concerning Morton Smith


In the previous post I mentioned that Dr. Steven Fine believed that the late Dr. Morton Smith forged the Clement letter concerning the alternative version of Mark. He has since clarified his position, both to me and to the Biblical Archeology Review. As I often state when quoting people, "any mistakes are mine." In this case it is certainly my mistake and I take full responsibility for it; my apologies to Dr. Fine.



To the Editor

Thank you for your comprehensive and even-handed presentation of the questions surrounding Morton Smith and Pseudo-Clement.  I, for one, do not believe that that Smith forged this fascinating document.  



I understand why some suspect him, however.  Smith was uniquely brilliant, but at the same time biting, sardonic, and had very complex relationships with the religions that he studied.  The disdain of this former priest toward traditional religions was palpable, sometimes to the detriment of his scholarly writings. As one of his most loyal students wrote in a volume dedicated to Smith's memory, "Smith never tired of discomforting the faithful."  



Within my own field, the study of Judaism in the Greco-Roman period, Smith's influence has been immense.  Scholarship is only now coming out from under his spell.  



None of this makes Morton Smith a forger.  It does, however, contextualize our continuing fascination with him, as well as the lingering controversies that have followed Morton Smith to the grave.

Steven Fine
Professor of Jewish History, Yeshiva University


Director, YU Center for Israel Studies

      


Friday, November 6, 2009

Articles of Interest


Melanie talks about the recent protest against Autism Speaks at Ohio State. I was involved in the early stages of this event. I really miss the people over at our ASAN chapter.


Also on the Asperger front, Claudia Wallis writes in the New York Times about the strong possibility of Asperger syndrome being removed from the new edition of the psychiatric diagnostic manual to be merged with P.D.D.-N.O.S as autism spectrum disorder. The article goes on to quote Ari Ne'eman as supporting the view that autism is one large community. He views his identity as being "attached to being on the autism spectrum not some superior Asperger's identity." I have personally debated this issue with Ne'eman. My position regarding disabilities in general is to make a division between those who are at a baseline of physical and mental capacity and those who are not. As I see it these two groups have different interests, require different things from society and must therefore operate within different models. For those who are functional the necessary model is that of the minority group. What is needed is not charity (otherwise known as aid) from society, but an understanding that such people have a different though equally valid mode of living. This would apply to someone like me or my friend in a wheelchair, who is completely self sufficient. Now this type of disability model would not apply to those who are disabled in the more traditional sense. Such people would require charity from society. Hopefully this charity would be used with the long term goal of helping as many people as possible to move out of the non-functional disabled category to the functional category. I made the argument once that to call a group the Autistic Self Advocacy Network means that you are dealing with only those who are actually capable of engaging in self advocacy. Self advocacy on behalf of other people is a contradiction in terms. It is amazing how this type of basic tautology apparently could prove to be offensive to some people.


Also in the New York Times, Kenneth Chang has on article on the rise of modern day creationism in the Islamic world. The article points out that because Islam does not share the Genesis creation story with Jews and Christians there has been far less at stake for Muslims to stick with a young earth model. I come to the issue from a medieval perspective. In the Middle-Ages the controversial creation issue was not evolution, but the Aristotelian claim that the world existed from eternity. Muslims were far more likely to be willing to go along with the Aristotelian position because they did not have to defend Genesis. (For more on this topic see Taner Edis writing for the History of Science Society.)


Charles W. Hedrick writes in Biblical Archaeology Review about the continued controversy over Morton Smith's claim to have discovered a different and potentially far more provocative version of the story of the resurrection of Lazarus in the Gospel of Mark. Smith was probably the most colorful figure in the field of twentieth century Jewish studies. He was a former Episcopalian minister who turned Talmud scholar.

Finally Raina Kelley, in Newsweek, takes a swing at the film Precious and the growing genre of underprivileged children redeeming themselves and finding a future through the medium of writing. Kelley writes from a non-humanities perspective, arguing that mathematics is a field far more likely to allow a person to enter the middle class, but there is an inherent bias among writers to push their own profession. This is not to say that Kelley is against the humanities; there is just an acknowledgment that to write requires actual training and, contrary to myth, does not spring spontaneously from the unlettered heart. I take an Aristotelian attitude toward the humanities. The humanities have no utilitarian value and are therefore for those who do not need to make a living or for those, like me, willing to live in poverty. They do serve a purpose, though, and are necessary for anyone wishing to play an active role in society.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Haredi Open Mindedness (Not Exactly)




The late Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, writes about spiritual inoculation for children in his book Nesiveh Chinuch: Essential Perspectives on Education:


Preventative inoculation is needed to prevent spiritual maladies no less than it is needed to prevent physical disease. Just as in the physiological realm much care is given to inoculate against childhood diseases that can, Heaven forbid, be fatal, so educators must, in an orderly fashion, deliver talks to their students that are intended to serve as "spiritual vaccinations" to protect the child's spirit and soul from contracting any debilitating or fatal spiritual diseases. The mentor must administer preventative medicine that focuses on spiritual maladies to which the child may unwittingly be exposed.

Although there are many areas of moral and spiritual disease that seem far removed from young students, it is nevertheless necessary to address them before they find their way into the young charges' souls and wreak terrible spiritual havoc.

The mentor should systematically deliver an elaborate series of talks on the full array of potential spiritual diseases. It is far easier to inoculate against contracting diseases than to cure a child once he has been struck by them. (pg. 110)



So far so good here. The Slonimer Rebbe departs from the usual spiritual disease model of poison. Under the poison model, all contact with the spiritual disease (movies, television, and evolution) is by definition damaging and all those who have been in contact are by definition sick. The more a person has been in contact with the spiritual disease the sicker they are. The solution to this problem is to make sure that people are not exposed to the spiritual disease; this is doubly true for children who are presumed to be particularly vulnerable. One may wish to take this model so far as to say that not only is the spiritual disease a contaminating agent, but those who have been exposed are themselves contaminating agents. As such, one should not just avoid the spiritual disease, but people who have been exposed as well. This offers the opportunity for all sorts of insanity. I consider television to be a bad influence so I will not have it in my house. Ah, but people who watch television are also a bad influence so I am going to specifically send my child to a school where all the children come from non-television families. This creates for Haredim a "hierarchy" with those with the least exposure on top. The corollary of this is that the more ignorant you are about the world and the more bombastic you are in your statements about the world the higher you are on the Haredi pecking order.


Instead of taking about spiritual diseases as poison the Slonimer Rebbe talks about the need for inoculation. Besides for moving Haredim all the way into the eighteenth century, the inoculation model offers very different assumptions as to how to protect against the threat. Instead of trying to avoid all contact with the disease or anyone exposed to it, one actually needs to be exposed at least to some extent. Failure to be exposed, in the long run, puts the person at an even greater risk. As such the Slonimer Rebbe acknowledges that a child should be exposed to "a strain of a spiritual disease in order to save him from succumbing to the disease itself. The administration of the 'poison' must be done in a very cautious and exact manner in order to be certain that it is given in the proper amount, time and manner." (pg. 111)


I would have hoped that this would mean serious and honest discussions about the nature of the world as opposed to feeding students non-stop Haredi propaganda. I would have even been impressed if the Slonimer Rebbe had suggested that his followers make a point of befriending people who are Modern Orthodox or who were not Orthodox from birth to take advantage of their worldly experiences. Instead the Slonimer Rebbe merely takes the opportunity to allow children to be given allowance money and to go on trips. "Children must be provided with other forms of kosher relaxation and entertainment that will grant them emotional satisfaction and give them a legitimate and helpful outlet for their pent-up emotional needs." (pg. 112) In the Haredi world this is not common sense, but actually being "liberal." Recently there have been attempts by activists to ban trips and summer camps. I am, of course, still waiting for the ban on Hershey Park.


Sunday, November 1, 2009

What Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav has in common with Screwtape


Religious fundamentalism has a lot more in common with extreme secularism and even atheism than both sides would usually like to admit. They both rely on a radical skepticism to reach their conclusions. A good example of this can be seen in the thought of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1810).


For this reason our master [Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav] forbade us to study even the works of acceptable philosophers; they raise difficult and lengthy questions as to the ways of God, but when it comes to answering the questions, their answers are weak and can easily be refuted. Therefore he who looks into them and seeks to answer their questions by means of his intellect can fall into great heresy, when he sees that his answer is nothing and that the question remains. It is thus forbidden to look into (such books) at all, and one must rely on faith alone. (Art Green, Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav pg. 298)


In any other field the acknowledgment that your side cannot successfully answer the questions put forth by the opposition is an acknowledgment of defeat and acceptance of the other side. Ironically enough this position of Rabbi Nahman is almost identical to the one that C. S. Lewis has the demon Screwtape take in the Screwtape Letters. Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter out in the field, that he should make sure that his patient does not read any works of science even if it on the surface takes an atheist position, because science will put his mind onto questions of whether something is real as opposed to what feels brave and enlightened and may lead him to the "enemy." Considering this, it would seem that the position of Rabbi Nahman, despite its surface orthodoxy, should be seen as just another form of atheism or even Satanism since his assumptions are the same. Therefore any person who advocates such a position, no matter how long their beard is or how black their hat is, should be as welcome in a religious community as an atheist like Richard Dawkins or, dare I say it, an undersecretary of temptation like Screwtape.