Monday, November 29, 2010

Debate/Discussion with Baruch Pelta I

Baruch Pelta invited me to a discussion of the issue of whether parents should indoctrinate their children with an Orthodox religious identity. The idea for this discussion came out of a post of mine in defense of parents raising their children with a religious identity. Our intention is to do this via video. Baruch made the first video before Thanksgiving. Here is my video; I am sorry for the delay.

If there is one thing I wish to come out of this discussion is that it be conducted in a respectful manner. So feel free to comment on my video and please watch and comment on Baruch's original video and what I hope will be many future videos, but I ask you to respect Baruch as someone whose opinion deserves to be heard and considered.  

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Do You Trust a Politician When He Claims to Act for the Public Good? A Lesson from Cicero

If history does not teach lessons as to what to do, it does teach lessons as to how to read texts and interpret people. One of the things that I try to put across to my students is to read the statements of historical figures with a critical eye. In my 111 class, we have spent a lot of time talking about the Roman orator Cicero. If Cicero tells us that he selflessly put himself in harm's way in order to fight against corrupt officials like Verres or to save Rome itself from being taken over by Catiline we should not immediately swoon at Cicero's honesty, patriotism, and love of liberty. I wish for my students to wonder if the Sicilians, who came to Cicero for help against Verres, turned to him for his courage or because they knew him personally from his time in Sicily. Was Cicero helping foreign strangers in the cause of justice or some wealthy friends of his? Cicero charged into the Senate to finger Catiline as the ringleader of a vast conspiracy to violently take over the Roman Republic. Was Cicero the one man in Rome willing to stand in defense of the Republic or was the evidence against Catiline less than convincing to anyone who had not, like Cicero, run against Catiline for Consul the previous year? Cicero held the rights of Roman citizens to be sacrosanct and was horrified that Verres could have executed Roman citizens without trial on charges of treason. Of course, Cicero would have Catiline's followers executed without trial, but that was a "national emergency" and the men were so clearly guilty anyway. Later on, Clodius briefly forced Cicero into exile on account of him murdering Roman citizens. Once Cicero was back he defended his friend Milo on the charge of murdering Clodius, arguing essentially that Clodius deserved it. Cicero truly believed in law and order and not executing Roman citizens (unless they really deserved it or otherwise annoyed him).

These points are obvious to any classical scholar and I am grateful to Dr. Louis Feldman for teaching them to me and it is an honor to pass them on to others. In evaluating people, we historians employ a simple rule. You are automatically suspected of acting for base self-serving motives and the burden of proof is on you to show otherwise. This is done by demonstrating that the resulting action is different from what one might expect if one was acting from more self-serving motives. If an action proceeds logically from self-serving motives then you are guilty, case closed, no further questions asked.

If all I accomplished was to teach my students to chuckle at Cicero's pretensions of acting for the public good, my class would be of antiquarian interest, but with little practical relevance. The real target is not Cicero, but every politician today, whether liberal or conservative, who stands in front of the public and tries, like Cicero but without his genius, to claim that they are acting for the public benefit. If we are serious in applying our historical rule then, by definition, the only time a politician can be believed to act for the public good is when his solution involves giving less power to the government.

Considering this, can a historian be anything but a libertarian? What does it say about the intellectual honesty of those who are not?

(See Historians as a "Special Interest Group.")

And the Winner is ...

Miss S.

Congratulations and please contact me so we can arrange for your $25 gift certificate from Oh Nuts.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Isaac Abarbanel Complete with Yarmulke and Full White Beard

Believe it or not, the following passage does not come from a Haredi publication. It comes from James Reston Jr.'s Dogs of God: Columbus the Inquisition and the Defeat of the Moors.

"In King Alfonso's court, Don Isaac [Abravanel] was a popular figure, for he was urbane and voluble. He cut a striking figure: round moonface, piercing eyes, sharply defined nose, high forehead crowned with a yarmulke, and full white beard that covered his expansive chest."

The picture we have of Abarbanel is from after his lifetime. Head coverings were not ubiquitous in traditional Jewish circles until modern times even among Ashkenazic Jews, let alone Sephardim who even today do not insist upon it. So it is highly questionable if Abarbanel wore one around the Portuguese court. Furthermore in the 1470s, when Abarbanel was at the court of Alfonso V of Portugal, he was in his thirties. When Alfonso V died in 1481 Abarbanel would have been about 44. One thing about Abarbanel that we can say with confidence, barring him suffering from premature graying, he did not have a full white beard while in Portugal. Perhaps he grew one at the end of his life in Venice.

Friday, November 19, 2010

History on the Free Market

As should be clear from many of the posts I have done on the field of history, I have a particular interest in the continued relevancy of history. (See Method Thinking.) While history may not offer concrete moral lessons for us to learn from and avoid repeating, history does provide a lens and context for examining our present world and even a method with which to critically confront it.

As a libertarian, I oppose the idea of mandatory education and even publically funded schools, whether elementary, high school or college. (Publically funded education is really just another form of mandatory education as those who choose to opt out are still taxed regardless of their willingness to forgo the benefits.) People (or in the case of children their parents) should be left to decide what sort of education, if any, they wish to pursue. They should then be left to pay for it themselves or by persuading other private individuals to pay for it as an investment or as charity. As an extension of this, I also oppose the idea of general requirements. It is perfectly reasonable for someone to invest money in studying biology with the goal of receiving a piece of paper from a recognized institution to increase his chances of being hired and the salary he might command. While a private institution should be left to impose any requirement that suits them in order to receive their pieces of paper, I see no reason why there should be general requirements (like history). What does a knowledge of history have to do with competency in biology? While I believe (as it will be clear by this end of this piece) that a well rounded education in the humanities is important, that has nothing to do with the granting of a degree. I can only conclude that the insistence of general requirements is a form of "special interest" kickbacks to the departments in question to be paid for by students. (See Historians as a Special Interest Group.)

Such an ideology puts me in a funny position working at The Ohio State University, a public university, and teaching History 111, a general requirement. So here I am, a government employee, even though I am not a politician, a judge, a police officer, a member of the armed forces or holder of a position even remotely connected to protecting people from physical harm; I am standing in front of a class full students, many of whom are sane and rational, but almost none of whom actually desire to be here whether out of love for what I teach or out of a belief that it will help them become more capable of holding down a higher paying job. Neither the students nor their parents are paying the full cost of attending the university, which is being subsidized by tax payers. (In OSU's favor it should be pointed out that there are a high percentage of non-traditional students holding down jobs to pay for at least some of the cost.) On top of this, almost none of these students are history majors or even have any particular interest in history. How many of my more than forty students would have actually signed up for my class if it were not a general requirement, ten or five?

My solution to this dilemma is to teach as if mandatory education and history requirements did not exist; to pretend that the students in my class were paying for school with their money and had a choice whether or not to take History 111. In such a situation my job would be to convince those sane and rational students (the others I would be hunting down and shooting like rabid dogs for the protection of society) that I have something worth hundreds of dollars and they should spend that money plus the time required to take my class. As such my class is less about names and dates (what use is it to the cause of history if students memorize names and dates and then go on to ignore it) and more about the purpose of studying history.

This is the real test of whether I succeed as a teacher. Will students walk away from my course believing that the course was money and time well spent, recognizing that a knowledge of history is important and a desire to learn more? It is unlikely that many of them will become history majors, but perhaps some of them will become viewers of the History Channel or even just readers of historical novels. Practiced on a large scale, this will place history on solid economic ground as an industry with willing consumers able to support the continued efforts of historians.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bomb Threat at Ohio State and I am Insulted

On Tuesday, The Ohio State University was rocked by a bomb threat that closed down four buildings, including the Thompson Library and Scott Laboratory. The closing of Thompson was mightily inconvenient for me as I had a bunch of books to pick up. Scott Laboratory is right next door to Dulles Hall, the history building, where I work. I must say these terrorists (whether they are Al Qaeda or undergraduates trying to get out of midterms) have some nerve to do something like this; it was downright insulting for them to target Ohio State science programs and ignore the history department. Don't these people realize that the history department has people hard at work to bring back medieval surgery and start messianic revolutions? It is almost as if these terrorists think our work as historians has no practical relevancy. What can be more insulting then to be declared unworthy of notice even by a bunch of loser terrorists?

I insist that these terrorists apologize to historians and promise to make sure we are included in all attacks in the future.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Oh Nuts Hanukkah Giveaway

My friends at Oh Nuts are offering readers of this blog a chance to win a $25 gift certificate. You can enter in one of three ways:

1. Go to the Oh Nuts Hanukkah gifts page and choose your favorite Hanukkah Gift and leave a comment on this blog post with the name and url of the gift you like the most.

I will pick a random winner and Oh Nuts will email him or her a $25 gift certificate.

2. Go to the Oh Nuts facebook page  and post on the wall the url and name of their favorite Hanukkah Gift. You should also write "I am here via Izgad." 

3. Follow @ohnuts and on Twitter and Tweet "Win a free Hanukkah Gift from Follow @ohnuts & Retweet to enter."

I will randomly choose a winner on Nov. 23. Considering the limited number of readers of this blog, I certainly encourage everyone to give option one a shot. (No you do not have to be Jewish to enter. Oh Nuts does not discriminate in being delicious.)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Muggle Quidditch and the Revenge of the Potter Nerds

NPR has a piece on the growth of Quidditch, the wizard sport in Harry Potter. It is now being played at several dozen high schools and colleges, and there is even a move to make it an official NCAA sport. Unlike the Quidditch of Harry Potter, Muggle Quidditch does not involve flying, but players do run around with a broomstick between their legs.

I take pride in this much as I take pride in the success of television shows like Big Bang Theory, Lost and Battlestar Galactica; it is a sign of the increased cultural power of us nerds, people who relate to the world primarily through the mind as opposed to the physical or the social. This "nerd" sensibility is most obviously manifested in an attachment to reading or, in the case of television, shows with strong literary qualities. In the case of Quidditch, what we have, in a matter of fashion, is a deconstruction of athletics in which the product of a literary culture is allowed to dominate the culture of athletics, the most obvious manifestation of our physical culture. The nerd is allowed to take on this physical culture on his own terms and come out victorious. For this reason, I would support the continued use of broomsticks in the game; it maintains the sport as a parody. I suspect that Quidditch would cease to be interesting if it became just another sport, unmoored from its connection to the most successful product of literary culture. We nerds would lose our revenge.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ayn Rand Style Asperger Syndrome

I have recently started listening to Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. The novel is over fifty hours long (over 1,300 pages in print) so this is likely to take me a while, but I figured that, as a libertarian, this was a book that I needed to read. Ayn Rand, as an opponent of collectivism and a defender of radical individualism, is a heroine to many libertarians. Atlas Shrugged depicts a nightmare big government future where companies are forced to operate not for a profit but for the "public good" and do so miserably. Under the leadership of John Galt though, a collection of the nation's most talented individuals (businessmen and artists) fight back by going on strike and running away, refusing to work any longer for a system that devalues them as parasites.

I see two sides to Ayn Rand, the libertarian and the "meta-libertarian." Ayn Rand was certainly a libertarian in her opposition to government social programs and her belief that individuals are the ones who best understand their own personal good and how to pursue it. Getting the government out of people's personal lives (say by legalizing all drugs, getting rid of public schools and ending welfare and social security) is something that all libertarians can agree to. This still leaves an open question as to what should come next. As Libertarianism is the belief that people should be left to pursue their own good in their own way," by definition it can say nothing as to what good people should pursue once they are left to pursue it. It is here that Ayn Rand brings the "meta-libertarian" element. Not only was she opposed to government force being used to get people to act for the public good, but she was also categorically against people acting for the public good, to do anything not for their own personal selfish best interest.

My roommate pointed me to a recent blog post by one of our favorite writers, John Scalzi, musing about Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged. Scalzi has a lot of respect for Rand as a writer, who can turn out an entertaining novel even if it is "nerd revenge porn" and John Galt is a "genocidal prick." What particularly caught my attention was Scalzi's observation that "as with any audience with a large number of nerds in it, a non-trivial number of Atlas Shrugged readers are possibly far enough along the Asperger spectrum that they don't recognize humanity does not in fact easily suss out into Randian capitalists on one side and craven socialist losers on the other… ." I was prepared for Libertarianism to be challenged, that Asperger syndrome came into play caught me by surprise.

I do see Asperger syndrome thinking and Libertarianism as being linked even if one does not have to lead to the other. Aspergers tend to struggle with executive thinking, putting together large-scale plans with the intention of ordering around complex systems with many different parts (say even taking charge of a multi-course dinner). The Asperger is good at dealing with his own narrowly focused area of knowledge. If Libertarianism is anything it is the belief in the utter irrelevancy of large-scale executive thinking. The hidden hand of the marketplace means that millions of very "Asperger" minds can practice their particular field of expertise without the need for a "neurotypical" mind at the top to oversee and organize everything. Executive thinking will take care of itself through the power of rational self-interest. Furthermore, the Asperger mind is one that operates based on abstract laws. The strength of Libertarianism is precisely its appeal to such abstract laws. If people are supposed to be left to pursue their own good in their own way as long as they are not causing direct physical harm to others to the extent that they have the right to follow any religion or sexual orientation then they must also be left to pursue their own good to ingest or inject any substance that suits them. If people cannot be forced to pay taxes to fund a government church against their personal beliefs, how can their taxes go to pay for public schools that teach things that go against their beliefs?

Does this make me a Randian Objectivist? Hardly. While I support the individual against the government, once the government is out of the way I become an ardent communitarian. I assume that human beings are social creatures who need each other in order to survive. I have no desire to see any of this accomplished through government. Take the government out of the social sphere and let everyone man join a community of his choice (likely one organized around a traditional religion) and work through this community to benefit humanity as a whole.

So what is the relationship between Asperger syndrome and Ayn Rand? Are people on the spectrum more likely to be self-absorbed egoists, crafting theoretical towers in the sky heedless of how real people live their lives? Do not look at me. I am just a moderate libertarian.  

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

I Have Had Real Conversations Like This

Check out this parody of Orthodox Jewish matchmakers. It also works as a demonstration of the Poe Law; it is impossible to satirize religious fundamentalists as there will be someone out there for whom it is an accurate description. For those readers who have not experienced the world of Orthodox dating, it often really is this absurd.  

Monday, November 8, 2010

Class Book: The Catiline Conspiracy

For the final book of the quarter my History 111 class voted for The Catiline Conspiracyby John Maddox Roberts. The Catiline Conspiracy is a murder mystery novel and part of the SPQR series. The essential plot follows the attempted takeover of the Roman government by Lucius Catiline in 63 BCE. Hopefully this book should prove to match well with Robert Harris' Imperium, which we did earlier. While the two novels are part of different series, The Catiline Conspiracy begins right where Imperium ended. It should prove interesting to compare the different author's interpretations of the end of the Roman Republic and the leading figures of these events, particularly Marcus Cicero.

Blog readers should feel free to send their thoughts on the book and suggest other history books and novels for future use.   

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Are Humans Better Natural Theologians Than Cats?

Human beings make for modest natural theologians. Hand natural theology over to a human and what you get is an animated view of the world in which every physical object is imbued with consciousness. We know that we are living thinking beings, with will and intention; we can be bribed, flattered and convinced to follow one path or another. Such rules of the mind are outside of, though not contradictory to, the laws of physics. To use C. S. Lewis' example, the laws of physics can predict the motion of a billiard ball, when hit, as it moves across the table. What the laws of physics cannot tell you is whether I will reach down, grab the ball and throw it across the room. For that, you would need a psychiatrist. We naturally apply these assumptions of consciousness to the world around us; other people and animals are assumed to be conscious beings. Man, though, has traditionally gotten himself into trouble by making the perfectly reasonable assumption that the existence of consciousness should be extended to everything in the natural world. Clouds decide whether to rain or not; the sun decides to shine; the ground decides to give up its bounty. This leads to the conclusion that these forces can be convinced through bribery and flattery to act according to our wishes. Fashion this into a coherent system and what you have is crude polytheism. The rain, the sun, and the ground all become gods or at least manifestations of gods to pray to and offer sacrifices.

Correcting this flaw in human reasoning has proven to be a long-term project. Over the past several thousand years, starting since the union of Greek philosophy with monotheism, manifested in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and culminating in the Enlightenment, Western thought has undergone a shift, specifically away from an animated view of nature toward a mechanistic one. Today most people recognize that the rain, the sun, and the ground do not have minds; they are physical objects that operate solely according to fixed natural laws. Of course looking at how people yell at printers and computers would tell you that not much has really changed. (It is here, I would argue, that philosophical monotheism becomes important, allowing us to hold the line. We live in a world of physical laws authored by a deity. It is this same deity who has also created consciousness. Both exist as different, but equally valid and non-contradictory non-overlapping magisteria.)

There is a trap in this mechanized thinking as we risk going to the other extreme and believe in a completely naturalistic universe. In such a universe there would be no gods but there can also be no consciousness, no will, and no intention. I have had atheists tell me point-blank that there is no difference between me tossing an empty coke can into a recycling bin and the coke can moving through the air. That I think that I am thinking and making a decision to go green and recycle is simply an illusion; I too am just an object in motion, acting according to Newtonian mechanics. It cannot be overemphasized to the extent that the existence of consciousness is a trap for atheism, exceeding even that of evolution and theism. The moment I admit that we think and therefore are, we have to consider what we are. If our minds really exist and are not simply an illusion created by brain waves then we have to be something not of our bodies. We can conceive of existing while not having our bodies; we cannot conceive of existing without our minds. Call it what you will; mind, soul or spirit. Admit consciousness and you have accepted the supernatural and placed it as the foundation of existence.

That is how a human thinks. Anyone who has ever watched a cat obsessing over a piece of string or a computer cable can see that cats are natural animists as well. Cats, though, clearly have reached different and far grander conclusions from that of human beings. Does a cat believe in God? A cat has no need to believe in God; a cat knows that he is God. A cat thinks therefore he is … God. A cat looks out at his creation (whether or not he designed it, it clearly was designed for him) and sees a universe full of living beings, existing to serve him. What kind of God would our cat be if there was an object unable marvel at his greatness? Our cat keeps the universe in line by lording over creation and making sure he is properly worshipped by his creatures, giving them a good pawful smiting every once in a while to keep them in line and make sure that the universe is kept to its proper functions with him at the center. A cat, therefore, has no need to vex its minds over natural theology; it can leave that to simple more humble creatures, such as human beings. It is in human nature to wonder and doubt. Cats have better things to do, sitting in the sun and basking in the worship of all lesser creation.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Malware Alerts

A reader of this blog just informed me that he has been receiving malware alerts every time he comes to this site. Has anyone else run into this problem? Does anyone have any idea as to what this might be and how to solve it?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Turning Off All Social Networking Sites for a Day: How Not to Relate to Autism

In the latest round of presumably well-intentioned neurotypicals trying to raise money and awareness for autism while completely not understanding us, today, November 1, has been designated Communication Shutdown day. The idea is that for one day people should not use their social networking sites such as twitter and facebook. This is supposed to help you understand what it is like to be autistic.

 I have a hard time believing it, but I do not see Autism Speaks listed as one of the sponsors of this one. On the other hand, an organization such as the Autism Society, one that I thought had better sense, seems to be on board. To be fair, it is only the Colorado branch of the Autism Society. I assume there is some sort of political backstory here, but I would call upon the national office of the Autism Society to denounce this effort and remove the Colorado branch (or at least the individual culprits).

There is an irony to all of this. Internet communication is probably the closest thing we have yet to invent to approximate autistic communication. The internet does not allow for effective communication of emotion. As such, it forces people to communicate without focusing on emotions. For this reason, as it should be clear to anyone who has actually spent time listening to autistics and not simply preaching about them, autistics have been able to use the internet quite effectively. I would even go so far as to call the internet with its social networking sites the larynx of autism, giving us the voice that most autism organizations claim that we do not even have.

If you wish to understand autism, do not get off facebook or twitter for the day. On the contrary, go around with your computer and cell phone and communicate solely through text messages. Autistics are capable of communicating. They communicate differently and you just need to learn how to listen.

If you are looking for a sane perspective on autism I suggest you check out Rethinking Autism and their featuring celebrities actually talking alongside autistics.