Friday, February 26, 2010

Michael Oren: An Ambassador for Historians

I have been reading Michael Oren's Six Days of War about the Six Day War. One wonders if the people who protested his speech at UC of Irvine had read it. It probably would not have made much of a difference if they did. What struck me about Ambassador Oren, from reading his work, was the extent to which he goes to putting a human face to the Arab side. Oren uses a variety of sources to tell the story from multiple perspectives. Since he is not just using Israeli sources he is not forced into just telling the Israeli side to things. He uses American sources to bring the American government into the story, Soviet sources to bring the Soviet Union in and Arabic sources to bring the various Arab countries in. This very act of bringing Arab sources and seeking to come to terms with their narrative in of itself goes a long toward giving a balanced story. By doing this Oren, from the beginning, concedes to Arabs that they have a perspective and are not merely the satanic other. As such the story is no longer "you Arabs are the villains who must simply repent your wrong doing and accept the judgment of the world against you." This sentiment is summarized by Oren in his introduction:

My purpose is not to prove the justness of one party or another in the war, or to assign culpability for starting it. I want, simply, to understand how an event as immensely influential as this war came about – to show the context from which it sprang and the catalysts that precipitated it.

I would describe Oren's narrative as a counter to the Leon Uris narrative of Zionism, for example in his novel Exodus. The world that Oren describes is distinctively not one in which it is simply heroic Israelis, outnumbered and outgunned, fending off hordes of Arabs intent on finishing what Hitler started. This is a drama moving from political to military leaders to diplomats. The actors are motivated by various things. Probably the most interesting thing about the book is Oren's argument that war was not inevitable. Diplomacy was something that could have worked if it were not for chance and the haphazard’s of Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian foreign policy between themselves and the Soviet Union and the power of the Arab street.

Michael Oren, while writing a pro-Israel book, managed to use his skill as a historian to offer a narrative that all sides could accept as a basis for peace agreement. The fact that Oren would be a target of anti-Israel protestors demonstrates to what extent opponents of Israel are distant from ever coming to a meaningful peace. Not only do they reject Israel in practice, but they even reject the right of supporters of Israel to have any narrative of their own. There can be no negotiation, but simply the surrender of Israel as it confesses to being the villains and begs the pardon of the Arab world.

The Hamas Spy

Rich Schapiro of Daily News has an article, "Mosab Hassan Yousef: The Hamas prince who was spy for Israel" on Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of a prominent Hamas leader who served as a spy for Israel. On the surface it would appear as if this would argue against Eli Berman, about whom I posted earlier. Professor Berman makes the case that the strength of groups like Hamas is precisely their ability to weed out informants.

The answer comes at the end of the article:

In a statement from prison, he [Sheikh Hassan Yousef] said it was possible the Israelis recruited his son, but that his son had no access to the movement's secrets.

"Whether what Haaretz reported is true or not, Mosab was not an active member in Hamas or in any of its military, political or religious branches, or any other body," the elder Yousef said.

People who come through the system are more trustworthy and less likely to turn traitor than even family members. If you are going to build a terrorist organization you need a social service network, not a large family.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Book Club Classroom (or How to Destroy School)




There is another possible working model for Alfie Kohn's homework free class that is worth consideration, the book club. When I lived in Columbus I co-chaired a book club for those on the autism spectrum. Every week we would meet for an hour and discuss around fifty pages of a given book. We did books ranging from two to four hundred pages so we did a different book about every one to two months. We did short stories like Isaac Asimov's robot stories, Sherlock Holmes and H. P. Lovecraft. We also did full novels like Killer Angels, Twilight, Catch-22 and Sabriel. Like any classroom, we had a range of people in the club. In our case we ranged from graduate students in literature to people who had trouble picking up books to read to begin with. Not everyone did the reading every week (some less often than others) so we usually did not have full participation. Also not everyone came every week. No one was forced to come to book club. We were there because we liked the company and liked talking about the books.

It is not unreasonable that our book club could be used to replace a literature class. The sort of "class" this would give us would be much more democratic and there would be no mandatory homework or tests. The teacher could come to the first day of class with some suggested books and the students could come with some of their suggestions. Everyone could make their case for their book of choice and afterwards everyone could vote. The book with the most votes wins. Other books that did not win can still be considered for the next vote and it would be even expected that books (like presidential candidates) will lose in their first run, which will serve to bring it to people's attention, only to win on the next try. After choosing a book, it will be announced that we will be discussing a certain number of pages or chapters for the next class. Some people will do the reading and take part in the class discussion and others won't. When the book is finished we can vote on the next book and the process continues. Since no one has to do any of the assignments there is no reason to give tests or even to give grades. Everyone is in class because they want to be. Some people might actually want to talk about the books and others might just want to hang out.

This process could easily be adapted to history. Greetings class in modern Jewish history, I am your teacher. For this coming week would you like to talk about Hasidism, the Enlightenment, the Holocaust or the founding of the State of Israel? Once we have picked the topic I can point you to the relevant parts of the textbook, primary sources, and outside academic literature that you may wish to read. Please feel no pressure, do the reading if you feel like it and if you would like to actively take part in class. If there is a topic that really interests you, I will gladly help you do further research and will even to write a paper. I am not in charge of you; you are all here because you wish to be. I am simply here to help run discussions and so that my particularly training in these fields may be used.

The potential problem with this is its mandatory nature. Those students who do not do the non-mandatory reading are for all intents and purposes not in class and are no different from the students who do not bother to even show up to this non-mandatory class. One can certainly make a very good case that modern Jewish history and even literature are not of critical importance and that therefore there is no need for them to be mandatory. These are nice things for students to engage in and so they should be available for those students who wish to take the classes. The moment we decide that class should be mandatory then we commit ourselves to making sure that students actually come to class and actually doing work. This means that we actually have to check to see if the work is being done. This means graded homework and tests.

The question of payment raises similar issues. As long as I am doing the book club on a volunteer basis it is only something of interest to me whether anyone actually gains something from coming to book club. The moment I become a salaried teacher then I become answerable to the school, which directly pays my salary, and to parents, who indirectly pay my salary. Obviously they are paying me to run my book club classroom for a reason and it is only reasonable that I offer some hard evidence to show that their money is not being wasted. By assigning homework and tests I can procure hard empirical evidence that my students have mastered the concepts that I was paid to give over (or that my students are lazy/stupid and it is not my fault).

In theory this book club model can be used even for math and science allowing us to turn the entire school system into a series of book clubs in which students can pursue their interests without ever being forced to do homework or take a test. Teachers would either be volunteers or baby sitters hired for their particular academic training. This would mean the end the end of mandatory schooling. Let us be honest, this means my childhood dream of destroying school would come true, leaving students with clubs to attend (if they wish). The adult me might also be willing to do away with school, but is this Kohn's plan?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Between Lecturing and Homework: Alfie Kohn’s Teacher Trap





Alfie Kohn, in his book the Homework Myth, offers a challenge aimed at the very structure of how we ask questions about education. Most of the book is devoted to attacking the institution of homework. Kohn, though, wishes to completely overhaul the entire system of education. He even objects to the hierarchal authoritarian structure of the teacher lecturing and giving grades. In the dystopian description of modern day education:

Teachers are invited to consider how often they call on students to answer questions, whether they're allowing enough time for a response to be formulated, maybe even whether they are unconsciously calling on more boys than girls. But they are assuredly not prompted to think about why they are calling on students in the first place. Why should the teacher's questions, as opposed to the kids', drive the lesson? What would happen if the students didn't raise their hands – and had to figure out together how to avoid interrupting one another? What would happen if the power was shared and classrooms became more democratic? (pg. 91)

May I point out that even the Congress has an elaborate set of rules as to who gets to speak? I guess this just goes to prove that members of Congress really are a bunch of children.

I like to think of myself as an open minded/open eared conservative. My philosophy is one that would easily be recognizable to historians as that of the reforming conservative; someone who is defending the status quo, by suggesting modest changes in the hope of forestalling the radical overthrow of the system. This certainly applies to my views on education. I operate within a conservative framework; I lecture, I ask questions, I hope for responses and I most certainly do assign homework. The content of my lectures may be slightly unorthodox and my style of speaking certainly is. This does not change the fact that I operate out of distinctively orthodox foundations.

To take Kohn up on his challenge, out of sincere respect and a belief that he asks a question deserving a response, I would gladly support a more democratic classroom where the students took a more active role in deciding which questions are important. The graduate school seminar comes to mind. We would have as many as a dozen students in a room talking about a given topic. The professor would be there, but he would usually be just one of the people there taking part in the discussion to such an extent that it would not be immediately obvious to an outside observer which person was the professor, particularly since there are middle-aged graduate students. I have been in classes where every week a student was assigned to lead the discussion. Often it would be that student, and not the professor, lecturing for most of the class.

Before I get carried away by my fond dreams of graduate school and attempt to replicate the graduate classroom there is the reality that I am not dealing with graduate students. This is more than just semantics. There is a profound difference between the college and high school students that I have taught and my colleagues in graduate school. Students in a graduate level history program have usually spent years studying history. (In my case I have been actively into history since I was in second grade.) This means that our graduate students have a wealth of technical facts such as names and dates at their fingertips to give them an advantage. More importantly, our graduate students have absorbed a historical method that allows them to read and comprehend historical information. (In the interest of fairness, I happen to have a number of very smart students in my class; the sort of students that I might be tempted to try a seminar style class with.)

I probably do not know much more about fifteenth century Japan than my students do. Yet my background in European history allows me a way in so that I can read and comprehend an academic work on fifteenth century Japan and walk away from reading it with the ability to say something intelligent on the topic in ways that my students would not be able to. I know something about governments built around religious authority. I understand saying that the political authority speaks for God and that all religious dissidents are political dissidents, traitors to be killed. I am not going to get caught up in "this is so intolerant." I have the model of feudalism and can appreciate the dynamics of such a hierarchal society to come to a daimyo system. I have chivalry to help me with bushido. (My European frame of reference and bias would be a problem when I get to a higher level. You get through college by using various models. Graduate school is about learning how these models are all wrong. Right now I am concerned with getting to the stage of learning that this is all wrong.) Furthermore, while I may not have the primary source material in front of me and certainly would not be able to read such material in the original, I know enough about how primary sources work to have a good guess as to how my book is handling it and what might be some alternatives. Thus I would be able to engage the book and ask the right sort of question. My students, facing the same task, would find themselves lost, bored shortly followed by their minds' closing down. They would need someone to guide them; someone like a teacher giving lectures.

There is another problem with this approach of bringing graduate school to my high school classroom. We were supposed to come to class in graduate school after having spent hours reading through articles and even entire books. We have a word for this in the English language, it is called homework. The same sort of homework that Kohn would have us believe is the cause of so much that is wrong with education. Our graduate students need homework in order to take part in a meaningful conversation; how much more so high school students who lack a basic background in the field to begin with.

Kohn has set a no win situation for us teachers. He does not want us to hand out homework, because he believes that it kills an interest in learning. Early in the book he condescendingly tells us to give better lectures and we will have no need to assign homework. Sure I can stand up and just give out the information (which is what most of the students want). This would be a hierarchal situation where I, the adult teacher, feed the students like little children. For good reason, Kohn objects to such a situation and tells us to try including students in the process as active learners. Of course this requires having students work things out without me. This also requires that the students have some sort of knowledge base to work from that is supposed to come from some magical place known only to Kohn. In the real world we turn to homework to allow students to do these things. (I could turn my class into study hall, but that would simply be homework done in school.)

The more I lecture the more my class becomes a hierarchy and the students passive learners. On the good side, I can assign less homework. The more homework I assign the more homework my students will have to do homework. On the good side, the more they can take an active role in class as equals instead of being passive learners. As with most teachers, I believe in trying to find some middle ground between the two. This makes me guilty, to at least some degree, of creating a hierarchal classroom and killing my students' natural love of learning. I guess Kohn would think that I am a truly horrible teacher.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Porno Theaters and Aryan Coffee Shops: The Libertarian Case for Legalized Discrimination (Part IV)


(Part I, II, III) 

As with the houses of sexual sin, there is a defense against establishments of racism such as my Aryan coffee shop. Obviously, citizens of good will would have the right to congregate outside my Aryan coffee house to protest as long as no physical harm is done to any of the patrons. If white supremacists are desperate enough to walk through a protesting mob and bear their shouts (but not the spitting) in order to enjoy my Aryan coffee then that is their right. A pro-tolerance mayor would be allowed to lend his voice in moral indignation and send out the police with sandwiches to make sure that the protestors can fight for justice in orderly comfort. Besides for this, the local government would be free to put non-discrimination laws into the zoning ordinances. It is reasonable for the city to say that it is in their interest that all businesses agree to serve everyone. If the city could not guarantee blacks that they could order a cup of coffee anywhere in the city without looking out for any "whites only" signs, then blacks might choose to take their business someplace else. Furthermore protecting white supremacists from angry protestors costs money and the city has the right not to take on added expenses. (This is one reason why the city of New York has the constitutional right not to allow the Klan to march through Harlem.) The city would not, though, be allowed to close down my Aryan coffee shop out of any interest in tolerance. The government has no more interest in tolerance than they do promoting Christian brotherhood and love of Christ. This would simply be the government stuffing their morals down people's throats and violating their liberty.

Before we breathe a tolerant sigh of relief, I will warn you that there is a price to pay for allowing the use of zoning laws to eliminate segregation. The moment we acknowledge that cities can go after segregation out of purely monetary concerns, we must also acknowledge the right not only of private businesses, but local governments as well to practice segregation as long as there is some reasonable monetary justification. If Mobile AL wishes to put blacks to the back of the bus then it should be their right as long as they can show a valid city interest is at stake such as getting more whites to use the bus system or decreasing fights on buses. (If blacks wish to boycott and bring down the economy of that city then that is there right.) Obviously the city would not be allowed to bring in segregationist laws out of any concern for "protecting the Southern way of life" or "the natural order of things." Also the police would have to treat integrationist protestors no differently than any other non violent group that violated city ordinances so no hoses and attack dogs.  

The main Ohio State University campus is next to a large black neighborhood with high crime statistics. Naturally this crime spills over. During my years there I had three bikes and a front tire stolen, one assumes by a youth from this neighborhood. Now I personally believe that a tolerant racially integrated society is more important than a few bikes stolen and I am willing to pay this price, but other people might not be so generous and moral and that is their right. They may wish to pass laws saying that no black male teenager without a proper student ID is allowed to be on school grounds after nightfall. (There actually was a debate in the Lantern about neighborhood youths being allowed to use school basketball courts.) I might protest such laws, but I would essentially be in the same position as if the school had voted for free student sponsored strippers. I would have the right to sit in my room and blog about how sinful Ohio State and contemplate moving to a more godly campus like Michigan.   

Just as the government has no business getting involved in things that offend popular religious sensibilities, they have no business getting involved in general moral sensibilities. Our southern town is not doing any direct physical harm to blacks by putting them at the back of the bus or in different schools. It is not this town's problem if blacks cannot get a better deal. If blacks wish they are free to form their own black racist towns. A group that is unable to do that probably does not really deserve rights to begin with and should come back when they have further developed as a group. (This is one reason why Zionism is so important for Jews. It shows that we are capable of being full citizens and gives us something to negotiate with in terms of our host society.) I may not like it, but as a religious person in a free society I am used to people using their liberty in all sorts of ways that I cannot approve of.



Sunday, February 21, 2010

President Joseph Lieberman Wants Your Pork Sandwich





To take a short interlude from my discussion of Aryan Coffee, I ended the most recent piece by comparing, as I have done before, homosexuality to eating pork. They both violate verse in Leviticus. The question becomes to what extent may public officials interfere with homosexuality or the eating of non-kosher animals and, to reverse the issue, to what extent is the public required to grant validity to either of these two types of behavior.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, a former Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate, now the Independent senator from Connecticut, is an Orthodox Jew. He is certainly in his right not to eat pig. I would even go so far as to say that he has the right as a member of the United States Senate to vote to cut government subsidies for pig farming. He is even allowed to "discriminate" in favor of cows, and plausibly even cows being slaughtered in a kosher manner. He does not even have to offer any secular explanations for this. All he has to do is say "I do not like pigs so I am not voting for them." On the contrary, it would be Senator Lieberman's rights being violated if the nation's pig eating rights activists with the aid of a pork loving Supreme Court, ruled that pork is a fundamental right, that any attempt to restrict its eating or to favor other meat was a denial of the very being of pork lovers and, as such Senator Lieberman was constitutionally obligated to grant pigs equally funding as cows. (This is all assuming that you believe that the government is allowed to hand out subsidies and tax cuts to private industries in the first place.)

To take this a step further, imagine if Lieberman were to become President of the United States. I humbly suggest that he would be in his rights to make the White House kosher and ban pork from the premises. The same would go for an official White House Christmas tree and Easter egg hunt. If this is going to be a Jewish White House then we are free to make some new customs. Maybe a White House snatch the afikomen. It would seem that Lieberman would even be able to go so far as to pass a special presidential order banning the other white meat from the premises of all federal buildings, including embassies overseas. This would not be an act of forcing religion on anyone. It would be the eccentric actions of a politician putting his personal stamp on the government he runs. It is no different than President Hayes' first lady, Lemonade Lucy, banned alcohol from the White House. I am not suggesting that Lieberman or any other aspiring Jewish politician engage in such behavior. As a minority in this country I am content to follow my chosen lifestyle in peace and have no need to see it publically validated. Certainly Lieberman, as a senator or even as president, would not have the right to directly come after private businesses like McDonalds and make them stop serving pork. Also he would not have the right to stop federal employees from indulging their pork habits in the privacy of their own homes. But that is the crucial difference; private individuals are allowed to use their own private businesses for self validation. They have no grounds to expect the government to provide this validation. The government has no right to interfere with individuals, but otherwise is free to express the eccentricities of office holders and those who vote them in.


To the best of my knowledge, Senator Lieberman does not have a particularly conservative record when it comes to gay rights and is unlikely to be the one to stand in the breach to stop gay couples from getting their marriage licenses, but would he have the right to? Would it be any different if he voted for a special tax break for heterosexual couples without offering a similar tax break to homosexual couples than if he offered tax breaks for cows and not pigs? People raising pigs, if they were so desperate for a tax break, could, technically, switch to raising cows. Similarly homosexual couples could choose to take up partners of the opposite sex. (I am not suggesting that they should.) Lieberman would still not be able to interfere with the private homosexual activities of federal employees, but they in turn have no right to expect validation from him.

Porno Theaters and Aryan Coffee Shops: The Libertarian Case for Legalized Discrimination (Part III)



 
(Part I, II)  

 

This relatively recent redefinition of rights as protecting not just one's physical person, but one's own personal emotional well being, is one of the foundational hypocrisies of modern liberalism and a death blow to a free society. The moment we are allowed to bring non-empirical psychological suffering then all of a sudden I have a case against the sinful women of Nevada. It bothers me that such things are allowed in this country. I am kept awake at night worried about what sort of hurricanes my zealous patriarchal deity might bring to this country and if we will stop viewing us as his special chosen nation with the right to bomb other countries at will. Scott Lively will finally be able to do something about all the homosexual activity that bothers him and will be able to push through the sorts of laws that he has been helping pass in Uganda.

As John Stuart Mill understood, if liberty, as the right to pursue your own good in your own way as long as it does not interfere with the liberties of others, is to mean something, interference with the liberties of others, in essence harm, must be very narrowly understood. Living in a society, every action affects someone else and can thus open itself to the charge of harm. If harm is understood in the sense of causing psychological harm then all actions interfere with the liberties of others and therefore there ceases to be any such thing as pursuing your own good in your own way. In essence there is no meaningful difference between modern liberals, with their psychological harm, and historic conservatism, which denied the principle of liberty to begin with. At least conservatives are not hypocritical enough to pretend that they are offering anything else put privileges for select groups.

From this perspective, a major plank of the civil rights movement collapses. School segregation ceases to be an inherent violation of civil liberties as long as there is equal funding. It would simply be the absurd and immoral attempt to maintain a racial version of medieval hierarchy in the modern age. Blacks attempting to demand service in white restaurants where not fighting for liberty. On the contrary, they were trespassing on the property of others in the attempt to force their values on other people and violate their right to property, association and the pursuit of happiness. Our legal system and federal government failed in their role as they chose to pursue a series of fake manufactured rights over real and legitimate ones.

Granted, I am hard pressed to find a more deserving group for this to happen to. As all civil libertarians know, you protect the rights of those who do not deserve it, such as drug dealers, child molesters and terrorists, knowing that this harms society. You do this because you would rather be in court defending drug dealers, child molesters and terrorists than your child, your neighbor or your best friend, with the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and getting on the bad side of the wrong public official.          

Make no mistake about it; we are paying a price for violating the civil liberties of segregationists and white supremacists, no matter how much I think we are better off for them getting what they "deserved." We have allowed the left to abuse the rights of others and it is not stopping with the "bad guys." Now we have a gay rights movement taking up the mantel and claiming group victimhood and the protection of their "right" to have their lifestyles validated by society through marriage. (Note that I support gay marriage on libertarian grounds as long as it is not considered a civil right.) Our debate on same sex marriage has long since devolved from whether it is a good thing to whether someone can oppose it without being a bigot out to oppress others. By going to the courts and arguing for gay marriage on civil rights grounds, gay rights supporters have committed themselves to demonizing their opponents and using the power of government to force their values on other people. With hate crime legislation, this becomes all the more ominous. Will I lose my job or even any future theoretical children on the grounds that I am known to believe that gay sex is a sin like eating pork or, even worse, that I deny that there sex can define people any more than eating and that therefore homosexuality is about as meaningful for our discourse of rights as pig eating?     

  
(To be continued …)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Porno Theaters and Aryan Coffee Shops: The Libertarian Case for Legalized Discrimination (Part II)



 
(Part I) 

Before we continue, I think it is important to make it very clear that we are talking about discriminatory policies practiced by private businesses. Obviously the government has an obligation under the fourteenth amendment to treat everyone equally regardless of race. This is not any different from religion. The government is not allowed to have any religion, but private citizens have the right to practice their religion and even discriminate based on it. I have the right to kick you out of my synagogue or even my house for believing that Jesus is the Messiah. Let us not be naïve as to the stakes. We are talking about whether government should be able to stop private businesses from practicing discrimination. This would go for who must be served to even who can be hired. If the answer is no then you have knocked down a major pillar of modern civil rights legislation and have effectively blown a whole through modern liberalism. So should I be allowed to stick a sign out in front of my store saying "no dogs, Jews, blacks, Scottish people or people whose last name begins with the letter K?" 

When I have raised this issue of the right of private businesses to discriminate based on race with people the immediate objection is that racism, in contrast to porn, causes harm. This quickly becomes indefensible to any degree of seriousness. The "kind decent peaceful" white supremacists enjoying my Aryan coffee are not lynching anyone. No one, no matter their skin color, has any natural right to a cup of coffee or a place to sit and drink it. The only reason why we enjoy these things is because, due to the market, it is in the self serving interest of someone to provide it in exchange for compensation. If it is not in anyone's interest then no coffee. As a businessman, who mainly caters to white folk, it is likely in my economic self interest to lose the business of one undesirable minority (either explicitly with a sign or by privately telling the person that he is not welcome) in order to maintain one's larger cliental.

Some people have countered by saying that they would be willing to accept discrimination by small establishments that only deal in relatively unimportant things like coffee. Large national franchises, though, like Starbucks should not be allowed to discriminate. Furthermore critical industries like health care, real estate and car dealerships should also be forced to do business with anyone. The logic being that these industries are, unlike coffee, necessary for the day to day functioning of society and therefore the people who work in them have entered a pact with the public to serve the public good.

Why should it be a problem if we have a franchise of racist coffee shops? There are people who wish to engage in their pursuit of happiness by looking at naked women. Let bigots across the country practice their racist pursuit of happiness by going to my Aryan coffee shop in whatever city they live in. Just as Starbucks competes for the social justice dollar with their green and fair-trade coffee, let them also compete for the racist dollar with Aryan coffee. As for the issue of health care, car dealerships and real estate, why can't they practice discrimination too? If real estate can deal in porno theaters why can't they deal in racism? Find me a place in the country where there is only provider of health care, one car dealership and one real estate business, particularly in our internet age. Even if there was such a place, this would merely create the need for an alternative that the free market could easily provide. As I see it we are doing blacks and all opponents of racism a favor by allowing discrimination. I do not want to do business with racists. If business owners could come out and be openly racist then we would know who we don't want to be doing business with. The fact that such businesses are so important to society does not mean that they owe some sort of debt to society to be nice. On the contrary, it means that society owes them and should be grateful for the service they provide and keep its morals to itself. 

The final and most critical argument that people will point to is the psychological harm done through discrimination. Obviously the black man or Jew who finds himself unable to get a cup of Aryan coffee and finds himself starring through the window at our group of white supremacists drinking their coffee and having a racist good time, feels dehumanized by this. If we wish for such people to take part in society as equal citizens then the government most step in and demand that they be allowed to get a cup of coffee anywhere like anyone else. One of the fundamental shifts in American law over the past century has been this willingness to accept such psychological suffering into the equation. This has been at the foundation of much of modern civil rights law. Now it no longer matters if someone is not directly being held back from his legal rights at gun point. Most famously in the Brown case that ended school segregation. Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP presented the Warren court with psychological studies demonstrating that (big shocker) segregation negatively affected the self esteem of black children. The court accepted this argument and ruled that separate was by definition unequal even if no direct harm was caused.

 

 
(To be continued …) 

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Porno Theaters and Aryan Coffee Shops: The Libertarian Case for Legalized Discrimination (Part I)



 

(The Nazi girl's youth group, the BDM, served to corrupt the morals of German girls all around. In addition to indoctrinating adolescent and teenage girls in racism and anti-Semitism, girls were also actively encouraged to get pregnant out of wedlock to produce children for the Reich.)  

I do not think it will come as a big shock that, as a believer in civil liberties, I support the right to buy and sell pornography in person and online. I do not personally support pornography, either ideologically or monetarily. Pornography violates my religious beliefs as an Orthodox Jew. As a rationalist, I believe anything that objectifies human beings as sexual objects is a threat to society. I cannot agree with my friend Clarissa that there can be any legitimate exploration of sexuality for its own sake. I would even go so far as to say that this form of behavior, in practice, particularly harms women. I am even willing to grant that the presence of a porno theater in a neighborhood will attract potentially "undesirable" elements and indirectly cause an increase in crime. That being said I am willing to put myself out in support of the producers and consumers in this industry, despite my personal contempt for such people. This is what it means to support liberty. I am willing to protect the right of anyone to do anything that does not cause direct physical harm to other people without their informed consent. This includes those whom I oppose with all my heart. As a Libertarian, I am willing to go even further, in the name of ideological consistency, in this regard to things that regular liberals will usually back down from. I believe in a right to prostitution and drug use without any interference from the federal government. Since I accept the rational validity of engaging in extra marital sexual activity even prostitution, I cannot accept the legitimacy of any laws barring minors from engaging in sexual activity, pornography and even prostitution.  

 There is one safety mechanism that I would put into play. I recognize the right of individual cities, acting solely for the material benefit of those living there, to regulate businesses, including the sex trade. Having a house of ill repute next door affects the value of my home and thus crosses the line into my direct physical interest. In contrast to this, I cannot make a plausible case that sinful women in Nevada are causing me direct physical harm through their existence and that the federal government owes it to me to "protect" me from these women. I am not even allowed to raise the issue of zealous patriarchal deities out there that might smite the nation if we allow such ungodly behavior in our midst. Cities and neighborhoods would be able to regulate and even ban the sex trade as long as they are acting in good faith and only acting for the material benefit of its residents. Members of the local government cannot pass such laws out of any desire to protect the morals of residents or out of any personal opposition to the trade. That would violate the rights of the producers and consumers in the sex industry. Personally, despite my Libertarianism, I have no desire to live in a neighborhood in which the trade is being practiced and can lobby my local government not to allow such activity. I can tell the producers and consumers to put their faith in the free market and try setting up shop in the next town.      

This will likely get me into trouble, but I support the right of individual stores and even individual cities to practice segregation. What if someone wanted to set up an Aryan coffee shop so that middle class white supremacists can come relax, sip $4 lattes served by pretty white waitresses and not have to be bothered by the sight of any black or Jewish faces as they discuss the latest in racial theory and Holocaust denial? What is the difference between this and a strip club or even a brothel? Obviously, I am no supporter of racism. I would even go so far as to say that my personal distaste for racism exceeds my distaste for the sex industry and that I have an easier time giving such people the benefit of the doubt than I would for racists. As an Orthodox Jew, I believe that racism is a denial that human beings are all created in the image of God. (I recognize that there are plenty of Orthodox Jews who are racists. There are also plenty of Orthodox Jews looking at dirty magazines.) As a rationalist, I believe that racism denies the power of reason to save all human beings through its grace. Defining human beings by race, denies reason as the primary characteristic of human beings. I even believe that racist institutions will attract the "wrong" sort of people and indirectly lead to violence. (If you question my sincerity on this point, I will ask you to keep in mind that there are people who would question my sincerity in opposing various sexual taboos because I will not support laws banning such activity either.)   

 
(To be continued …) 

Monday, February 15, 2010

My Literacy Narrative: An Interview






Last year I gave an interview for the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN), which is a project put out by Ohio State to collect interviews about people talking about gaining literacy in various fields. Most obviously, we talk about reading literacy, but this project also wishes to study computer and internet literacy. I suspect that this archive will prove of interest to future historians as they look at the first generation to be raised on computers and the internet.

My experience with reading and the role of books, computers and the internet in my life, become launching pads for a variety of issues familiar to readers of the this blog, including Judaism, History and Asperger syndrome. I talk more directly about my personal biography than I do on this blog so that might be of interest to those wishing to learn more about me as a person. Readers of this blog, who have not met me in person, might find the pair of video clips of me speaking to be of interest to see what I am like in real life. One of the major issues with Asperger syndrome is that it affects not only how I think, but also my physical mannerisms, how I move and talk. A number of friends have commented on the difference between talking to me in person and reading me in print. I would be curious as to the opinion of readers on this.

So after seeing me, what do you see me as, leader of the free world, criminal mastermind or eccentric professor?

The Palestinian Position Requires the Demonization of Israel




In my exchanges with Off the Derech, I have been arguing for the importance of maintaining the sensibility as much as possible that other people may hold different beliefs, these beliefs may be wrong, even manifestly so, but that this does not take away from the legitimacy of the person advocating these beliefs. While I am perfectly willing to defend the right of Palestinians to oppose the State of Israel and even to peacefully protest Israeli speakers, by attempting to disrupt Michael Oren's speech at the UC of Irvine, they had crossed a line to denying the social right to hold pro-Israel views. Thus these students demonstrated an unwillingness to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate opposing views. This makes them a radical threat not just to Israel but to the free society as a whole.

I just came across a good example of this in an Al-Jezeerah op-ed by Khalid Amayreh titled "Michael Oren: Sorry, But You Represent a Nazi State." Amayreh defends the actions the UC of Irvine students and encourages his readers to engage in similar actions by arguing that Ambassador Oren is a war criminal not entitled to free speech, but only a war crimes trial. I am not interested here in the back and forth as to whether these charges are true. What I will point out is the implications of this war criminal line of defense. Amayreh's position takes it as a given that not only is Israel a Nazi State and Ambassador Oren a war criminal, but that there can be no possible legitimate contrary opinion. (Notice that I am not throwing a similar charge back by denying that reasonable can believe that Israel is a criminal State.) There are consequences to such a belief. It shuts down the possibility of any peaceful exchange of ideas and the chance that people on different sides of this issue can agree to disagree and live in peace, thus creating a state of societal war, which will likely turn into physical war.

One can support Israel and not automatically be tied to demonizing the Palestinian cause. I support a two state solution (either with Jordan or the West Bank and Gaza as a Palestinian State). I actually care about Palestinian rights. They deserve to be compensated by the State of Israel and the Arab States that forced them into refugee camps. They should be made citizens of the countries in which they reside. More importantly, Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims are invited to take part in this dialogue as equal partners. I may disagree with them, but I am willing to accept the legitimacy of their viewpoints.
The Palestinian side, as it is argued even by "moderates," requires the demonization of Israel. If Israel had the right to exist in 1948 then the Arab States were in the wrong for fighting the '48 war and bear primary responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem. If Israel had the right to fight the Six Day War then they gain at least some legitimacy for being in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel would no longer be an aggressive occupying power and would have the right to negotiate their exit from all or part of the territories as moral equals. This would undermine any legitimacy for armed insurrection against Israel. This would leave the Palestinians as a criminal and terrorist cause. As a non State, they have no inherent legitimacy to be engaging in violence in the first place. States can go to war while admitting that the other side has some legitimacy. For the Palestinians, either Israelis are Nazis or the Palestinians must confess to being terrorists and throw away their own legitimacy.  

Thus the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world do not have the option of engaging in a discussion of equals that allows for the legitimacy of both sides. There cause has been built from the beginning on an exclusivist claim to right. To surrender on that now would be to admit wrong and moral responsibility. They would have to come before the world, admit their crimes and beg for mercy.  

Letter from Michael Makovi to Dan McLeroy



Our friend Michael Makovi took the opportunity of my previous post on Mr. Dan McLeroy of the Texas school board. To be clear, as someone who teaches history, I do not support the secular narrative of modernity and much of my efforts in teaching modern history are to debunk this view. I particularly support Makovi's argument about the role of civil liberties at different levels of government. I have used a similar argument about a sliding scale of civil liberties before. In essence I become less Libertarian the further down I go in government. For example while I support the legalization of drugs and prostitution, I would support the right of individual neighborhoods to ban such activity. In fact I would wish to live in such a neighborhood. I am willing to allow Kiryat Joel and New Square to run their own little "Jewish Calvinist Geneva's" and even to ban television and English newspapers.

Mr. McLeroy,

I read with interest the article "How Christian Were the Founders?" in the New York Times. As an Orthodox Jew, I largely agree with the general tenor of your opinions. I wish to make a few remarks, however, quibbling on some of what you and your colleagues say and hold.

I. Distinction Between Facts and Opinions

First, I believe we have to make a distinction between teaching history and teaching opinions. It is one thing to teach the unbiased and objective fact THAT the Framers and Founders were religious. It is an objective fact that the king of England viewed the Revolutionary War as a Presbyterian Revolution; it is an objective fact that New England Congregationalist sermons advocating revolution against Britain, printed as pamphlets, outnumbered all other publications in America, religious or otherwise, four-to-one. It is also an objective fact that the principles of federalism and democracy were derived by John Calvin and Heinrich Bullinger and others from the Bible, and that John Locke adopted these concepts and secularized them, and that Calvin and Locke together inspired the American Revolution. (See the cartoon "An Attempt to Land a Bishop in America".)

Everything I've just said is objective fact. However, while it is indisputable THAT Locke relied on Calvin, it is something wholly else to say that WE must rely on Calvin ourselves, or even Locke for that matter. Similarly, while it is an indisputable fact that Benjamin Franklin criticized Thomas Paine's denial of individual Divine Providence, it is something wholly else to argue that WE must agree with Franklin over Paine.

My point is that we must be careful to teach indisputable historical facts, and eschew offering our own opinions of what individuals ought to believe. I believe that public schools must teach the Christian past of America, not because I am myself a Christian (on the contrary, I am in fact an Orthodox Jew), but rather, because it is simply an unassailable historical fact that America has a Christian past. Let the public schools teach objective facts, and let students choose for themselves what to believe. If students wish to become Christians, that is their prerogative. But if students such as myself will choose otherwise (I have and will remain a Jew), that is in turn their prerogative.

Similarly, then, I would oppose teaching creationism in biology class. This is not because I, as an Orthodox Jew, disagree with creationism; I do in fact, on quite religious grounds, reject creationism and instead embrace evolution, but that is not the point. Rather, I oppose teaching creationism in biology class because creationism is a religious belief, not a scientific one. If you wish you teach the scientific objections to evolution, then that certainly is admissible in a biology class. But to teach religious principles in a science class is inexcusable. Rather, religious principles should be taught in a philosophy class. And even that, students should be taught the fact THAT many religious Christians advocate creationism. Creationism can be taught very accurately and faithfully, but it should be taught as a belief that some hold, not as a belief that one must hold. Similarly, Judaism and Christianity can be taught in dispassionate objection fashions, with students being told what these two religions say, without students being told to take any particular stance. The data will be provided to students but the conclusions will be their own. I, for example, am perfectly aware of what scientists say about evolution, and what creationists say in reply. Having all the relevant data at my disposal, I have chosen to stake my claim with evolution, on both scientific and religious grounds. (Again, my embrace of evolution is quite religious in nature. See, for example, Rabbi Chanan Morrison, "Noah: The Age of the Universe." Rabbi Morrison follows the approach of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak ha-Kohen Kook, one of the greatest rabbis of recent times, and revered by both the American Modern Orthodox as well as by the Israeli far-right nationalist "settlers". Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch of 19th-century Germany, arguably THE father of Modern Orthodox Judaism, has a similar approach.)

Therefore, the proper understanding of the First Amendment depends on societal consensus. If the society is wholly and entirely Christian, then the separation of church and state will mean only that the government cannot coerce one particular Christian church; neither Catholicism nor Protestantism may be supported by the government. However, Judaism might be seen as entirely beyond the pale, and subject to coercion and punishment. That is, religious tolerance is relative; one may tolerate other Christians but not non-Christians.

Rabbi Menahem ha-Meiri of 13th-century Provence, France, is famous for tolerating Christians and Muslims and saying that in Jewish law, a Christian or Muslim is like a Jew, and that the commandment to love one's neighbor as himself includes them. But even Rabbi Menahem ha-Meiri declared that atheists could NOT be tolerated, because in his view, anyone who denied reward and punishment was liable to murder and steal and commit crimes against society. Today, however, things might be different, and one might rightly follow the general direction of Rabbi Menahem ha-Meiri, and based on his own logic, extend his tolerance to include even atheists, as long as they respect the rights of their fellow men and do not commit anti-social crimes. So the separation of church and state is relative, and must be reconsidered anew in every time and place.

II. A Nuanced Understanding of Just What Democracy and Federalism Are

Second, I believe we need to have a nuanced understanding of just what democracy and federalism are. If we search for the roots of democracy, we find them in John Calvin and Heinrich Bullinger and the like, responding to Catholic monarchs and their violation of Protestant sensibilities. We find that all the major ideas of the Calvinists were adopted by John Locke, and that Calvin and Locke together influenced the American revolutionaries. Thus, the cartoon "An Attempt to Land a Bishop in America" could depict revolutionaries holding the books of Locke and Sidney and hurling Calvin at a Brit.

What, then, is the difference between Calvin and Locke? The chief difference, I believe, is that whereas the Calvinists and Puritans were quite confident in their own religious beliefs, by contrast, Locke wrote a treatise on religious toleration. It has been put that Samuel Rutherford wrote the greatest work in favor of civil liberties and the greatest work in favor of religious intolerance. The difference between Calvin and Locke is not in their political ideas of how the government ought to uphold rights and liberties. Rather, they disagreed on just what those liberties and rights were.

In premodern Jewish societies, for example, religiosity was taken for granted, and so murder and Shabbat violation were equally heinous, and were equally violations of morality and crimes against society. However, Orthodox Jewish authorities have recognized that nowadays, most Jews are lamentably - but through no fault of their own - ignorant of Judaism, and so one cannot view Shabbat violation the same way anymore. The non-religious will simply not view efforts at curtailing their religious liberties the same way as they once would. The Orthodox authorities will still wholeheartedly advocate Shabbat observance, but they will not longer coerce it. On the other hand, however, everyone still agrees that murder is heinous, and so everyone will agree that murderers must be punished.

I have made this argument a few times; see, for example, my

My point is that democracy and federalism has NO substantive contents or beliefs. All democracy states is that the government can coerce observance of fundamentals of morality but that it cannot coerce anything else. But just what are the fundamentals of morality? For Calvin, this included every little tit and tittle of belief or practice of Calvinism, and so Calvinists could oppress Catholics just as Catholics had oppressed Protestants. But for Locke, the fundamentals of morality had to be reduced to some sort of lowest-common-denominator, viz. "life, liberty, and the pursuit of property". Any society can have whatever list of morals it desires.

Thus, one can have a Jewish democracy or a Hindu democracy or a secular democracy no less than one may have a Christian democracy. The innovation of democracy is that there is rule of law, that the government has the obligation to uphold rights and liberties and laws, and that the government is subject to the same laws as the citizens. Furthermore, on any issue which is not clearly spelled out (for example, the Bible says nothing about proper taxation rates), the will of the people prevails. But this is very subjective; one society will have a different conception of morality than another.

Therefore, for example: a Biblical Jewish theocracy might enforce Shabbat observance, while a contemporary Jewish theocracy would not. However, both Biblical and contemporary Jewish theocracies might ban Christian missionary activities in Israel, since Israelis today, even secular ones, are in general agreement that missionizing in Israel is unacceptable. If, please G-d, a religious revival in Israel occurs, then perhaps Shabbat observance will again become the norm, and it will once again become the government's prerogative to enforce.

Christians today are perfectly entitled to present their views in the public sphere, and let their ideas be weighed in the marketplace of ideas. If, for example, Christians can convince America that abortion is murder, then abortion can become illegal and punishable. But if Americans reject that abortion is such a moral fundamental, then the Christians will lose their case.

This brings us to another point of American history: if I understand the argument of Professor Barry Alan Shain's The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought, then we must realize the following: government coercion becomes more conscionable the smaller the given society is. That is, it is more justifiable for a CITY to coerce than for a STATE, and more justifiable for a STATE to coerce than a NATION. The smaller the entity, the more government coercion and societal moral censure begin to become indistinguishable. If an entire city is staunchly Protestant, then it is very justifiable for the city to force Protestantism on its inhabitants. Government coercion and general non-coercive societal moral censure become one and the same. But as the society becomes larger, i.e. when we deal with states and even more with nations, then this becomes less clear. Perhaps one state is Calvinist and another is Catholic, for example. Government coercion becomes exposed and susceptible to the argument that the government is far-away in Rome, judging those alien to it. Why should someone in California be beholden to the views of someone in Washington? In a smaller society, one may leave and relocate if he is displeased. If you live in Meah Shearim, an Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, then you cannot blame your neighbors when they try to coerce you to observe Jewish law; after all, you chose to live in that neighborhood!

But if someone in Meah Shearim tries to force Jewish law onto someone in Tel Aviv (which is mostly secular), then this is evil. John Locke's concept of the consent of the government, especially tacit consent, becomes more real and authentic with smaller communities than with extended nations or empires. If I understand Professor Shain, then he has made this argument, but in any case, I independently made the same argument myself before I ever saw Shain; see my article, "Religious Coercion, or On John Locke and the Kehilla's Right to Assess Tzedaqa."

To return to the First Amendment: the First Amendment's separation of church and state must be understood as applying to different societies in different ways. Until the 14th Amendment was passed, the Bill of Rights applied only to the national government, but not to state governments. Thus, the Federal government could not respect any religions, but individual states could respect any given religion they wanted to. I think the principle is that the smaller the society in question, the greater its ability to coerce residents. In a small town, a fantastic and incredible amount of coercion is conscionable.

My point in saying all this, is to prove the following: it is one thing for you to advocate Christianity and Christian beliefs and principles, but it is something wholly else for you to force them on someone else. For you to coerce others to believe in Christianity, you must grapple with two factors:

1) The general status quo today; the more people agree with you, the more you can coerce the minority, but the more people disagree with you, the more you must acknowledge and respect their convictions and resort to persuasion rather than to coercion;

2) The fact that coercion is more valid in smaller communities than in larger ones. The towns of New England were extremely religious, and Protestantism was taken for granted in them as a basic fact of morality and proper society. But these towns did not try to coerce people in other states to believe like them. They instead used persuasion, not coercion.

As I said, this forces us to reconsider the First Amendment in two ways:

1) The separation of church and state depends on just exactly what "church" means to that time and place. In the 18th-century, perhaps this separation put all Christian churches on an equal level but condemned non-Christians as beyond the pale. Today, things might be different.

2) The First Amendment applied to the Federal government, but not to the states. The smaller the society in question, the more it can coerce citizens, and the more liberty can become positive and not merely negative.

Therefore, while it is an unassailable fact that America's roots are Christian, it is something wholly else to claim that therefore, America should be Christian today. You should teach students only the objective historical facts, and nothing more. Let me give an analogy: On Wikipedia, one may not give his own personal views, but one can certainly objectively describe another's views. Therefore: I may NOT,on Wikipedia, record Jewish beliefs as the truth. However, I may write that according to such-and-such a book by so-and-so the rabbi, such-and-such is what Judaism says the truth is. Therefore: the proper course, I believe, is to teach students only the objective historical facts. (I am speaking of public schools; private schools may teach whatever they want, since there is Locke-ian consent of the governed. If you don't like what the school teaches, you may leave.) Once everyone is armed with the historical facts, they may make whatever decisions they desire. If the American people then choose to make America into a Christian society, then that is their prerogative.

As an aside, I believe that everything I've written has proven that democracy and theocracy do not contract at all. As I said, democracy is a METHOD of enforcing morality, but it contains no concepts of morality itself, except for the beliefs that the government is accountable to the people and that all people are equal. Other than this, democracy is a METHOD of governance, but is utterly devoid of any actual philosophical or moral beliefs. Thus, you can have a Christian democracy, a Jewish democracy, or a secular democracy, for example.

By the way: the Declaration of Independence says far more than just "the laws of Nature and Nature's God". The last paragraph of the Declaration discusses Divine Providence, and as Professor Jeffry Morrison (Assistant Professor of Government, Regent University; Faculty, James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation, Washington, D.C.) shows in his essay, "Political Theology in the Declaration of
Independence," that the last paragraphs of the Declaration is perfectly consonant with Calvinism. According to Morrison, the first paragraph of the Declaration appealed to deists, but the last paragraph appealed to very religious Calvinists.

Thank you, and sincerely,
Michael Makovi
Formerly of Silver Spring, MD
Now a student of Yeshivat Hesder Petah Tiqwa (literally: "The
IDF-Affiliated Orthodox-Jewish Theological-Seminary of Petah Tiqwa") in Petah Tiqwa, Israel

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Young Earth Creationists Want Your History Textbooks Too




Historian Russell Shorto has a long article in the New York Times magazine about school board debates as to how to teach the issue of the religious intentions of the founding fathers. Did the founding fathers wish this to be a "Christian country?" Shorto is one of the leading historians today in understanding the complex role of religion in the scientific revolution and the rise of modernity. I would have liked to have seen more of him explaining to readers why this issue defies simple ideological verdicts of yes America was founded as a Christian nation or no it was not. Instead Shorto focuses on the Texas school board and its leading conservative, Dan McLeroy. McLeroy wishes to make sure that children learn about how Ronald Reagan restored national confidence, Phyllis Schlafly, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the NRA. He is also a young Earth creationist, who believes that the Bible is the ultimate source of our legal principles. (Why can't young Earthers just stick to destroying science and leave history alone?)

Those of my readers not from the State of Texas might think to breathe a sigh of relief; McLeroy is not on your State's school board so he does not affect you. Here is the problem, the major textbook publishing companies, for a variety of reasons, take their cues from the Texas school system. They will publish their history textbooks with Texas in mind and these textbooks are then used throughout the country, including a school near you. Let us be very clear. McLeroy, through his power of blackmail, has control over what sort of history your children will be learning and he is not just out to try to teach creationism to your children; he is also trying to teach a Christian apologist narrative. Imagine if Artscroll and Rabbi Berel Wein were being put in charge of writing history textbooks. Do you believe that McLeroy cares about a historical method or any critical analysis of history?

As a Libertarian and a follower of J. S. Mill, this is a good example of why I do not support government funded public schools. I ask all of you, dear readers, who believe in government controlled public schools, how can you trust the government to not abuse this power to ideologically indoctrinate your children? Would you trust the government to run the media? Government controlled public education means that people like McLeroy will have control over your children and there is nothing you can do about it. I have every intention of making sure that no young Earth creationists have any influence in the education of my children by sending any future children of mine to a carefully picked private school. (If need be I will home school my children myself.) Every parent in this country deserves this opportunity and should not be forced into the hands of McLeroy simply because they cannot afford to pay twice over for their children's education.

As a history teacher, this is a good example of why I refuse to use official textbooks. I know that any official textbook has been held hostage to the interests of non-historians, out simply to score ideology points. Thus it is hopelessly tainted. I will stick to history books written by historians and answerable only to historians.

The Turn to Messianism (Part III)


(Part I, II)


To turn to Islam, this issue of a redeemer to come at the End of Days, the Mahdi, the rightly guided one, as he is known in Islam, lies at the fault line of the major divide that exists within Islam, that of the Sunnis and the Shi'i. According to Shi'i Islam only the descendents of Ali are allowed to assume the leadership of the Muslim community. They therefore rejected the line of Caliphs from the Umayyad line. In time this political split also came to include matters of religious law and theology as each side developed their own schools of thought.

One might easily think that the Sunni Islam would not have a concept of a Messiah as it has little need little need for a redeemer figure. Unlike Judaism and Shi'i Islam, the Sunnis have no political reasons for promulgating the concept of a redeemer and unlike both Judaism and Christianity Islam as a whole does not have any theological reasons for a redeemer. Islam does not have a concept a Temple nor of the destruction of a Temple. There is no theology of exile and by extension there can be no theology of redemption. Islam does not have animal sacrifices to be restored. Islam does not even have a concept of "Original Sin" for which people need to be redeemed. One is already redeemed through membership in the community. (See Hava Lazarus Yafeh. "Is there a concept of redemption in Islam?" Types of Redemption pg. 168.)The Sunni historical experience has much in common with the Catholic experience; they are both historical victors. Over the course of a single century following the death of Mohammed, Islam went from a religion of tribesmen in Arabia to armies marching into Francia, only to be defeated at the Battle of Tours in 732. The entire Near East and the African side of the Mediterranean basin, the Parthian Empire and much of the former Roman Empire, was now part of the Islamic world. In contrast, at this point there is still no Christian Europe. Nearly a century after this Charlemagne will still be fighting (and forcibly converting) pagans in Northern Germany. The Norsemen to the north and the Slavs to the east are must distinctively, at this point, not Christians. In essence, Sunni Islam has a better claim than even Catholicism for their religion being manifestly true as historical fact for all to see.

Despite all this and despite the fact that the Koran makes no mention of a Mahdi, the concept of a Mahdi, the rightfully guided one, exists even in Sunni Islam even though it is not a central doctrine. According to the fourteenth century Sunni historian, Ibn Khaldun:
It has been (accepted) by all Muslims in every epoch, that at the end of time a man from the family (of the Prophet) will without fail make his appearance, one who will strengthen Islam and make justice triumph. Muslims will follow him, and he will gain domination over the Muslim realm. He will be called the Mahdi. Following him, the Antichrist will appear, together with all the subsequent signs of the Day of Judgment. After the Mahdi, Jesus will descend and kill the Antichrist. Or, Jesus will descend together with the Mahdi, and help him kill (the Antichrist), and have him as the leader of his prayers. (The Mugaddimah vol. II pg. 156.)

Unlike the case of Sunnism, the concept of a Mahdi is crucial for Shi'i. As with Judaism, Shi'i Muslims must contend with the fact that they are a people defined in terms of their being on the losing side of history. They are the faction in Islam that rejected Umayyads, the first Islamic Empire. Their leader, Ali, was assassinated. Ali's son and heir, Husayn, was defeated and killed at the battle of Karbala. The Shi'i managed to eventually to help the Abbasids, who were descended from the family of Mohammad's uncle Hussein, take power, but the Abbasids betrayed them by declaring their support for Sunnism. Shi'i Islam therefore requires a redeemer not only to reverse these political misfortunes, but also to give meaning to their subjugation so that, instead of being a group of outcasts refusing to accept the verdict of history, they can be that small group of the faithful, beloved by God, that kept the faith even when everything seemed to stand against them. The issue of a Mahdi or of an Imam would break Shi'i Islam apart. There were splits in over the fifth and the seventh imams, leading to three major groups of Shi'i. Most Shiites recognized Muhammad al Bakir. There are also Zaydi Shiites who accepted Muhammad's brother, Zayid ibn 'Ali, as the legitimate imam. There was another split after the death of the sixth Imam, Ja'far al-Sadiq (d. 765). The al-Musawiyya followed the Mahdism of al-Sadq's son Musa al-Kazim (d. 799-800). They accepted the succession of eleven Alid descendants as legitimate imams. The last of these imams was Hasan al-Askari (873-78). Twelver Shiism believes that Hasan's son, Mohammad went up to heaven where he dwells as the Hidden Imam, awaiting the End of Days, when he will return to the world.

What should be very clear from this discussion is that there are two sides to Messianism, a counter-political and a side that is very much of this world and its politics. Messianism is a counter to worldly politics by those who have lost the political struggle and an effort to minimize the significance of that lose. This very rejection of worldly politics also, ironically enough, makes Messianism a distinctively political doctrine. It serves to offer a form of worldly politics for those who would otherwise not have it.

The Turn Toward Messianism (Part II)



(Part I)


This two sided millennialist heritage was passed on to medieval Western Christendom. Would Christ return to Earth in human form to reign over the physical world along with the saints in their exalted but still physical bodies? Despite the effort of the established Church to do away with such dreams of a kingdom of this world as evidence of a Judaizing influence, such beliefs would continue to manifest themselves along the periphery of the Christian theological and political establishment. The most important of these traditions comes out of the work of Abbot Joachim of Fiore. Fiore's actual writing and pseudepigrapha would continue to explicitly be at the center of almost any apocalyptic speculation through the seventeenth century. If we are to accept Marjorie Reeves, this Joachimite tradition is the engine driving not just the Franciscans, but pretty much everything of consequence in late medieval and Renaissance thought. Even within the established Catholic Church, Joachim hovered along the borders of respectability. There is no attempt to take Joachim head on and denounce his work point blank as heresy, even if the millennialist implications of his work were sidestepped. (Again the analogy to Maimonides is useful. Traditional Jewry found that they could not summarily dismiss Maimonides as he was too important a legalist, his potentially dangerous philosophical beliefs could be side stepped by ignoring his Guide to the Perplexed.) Even while the Church opposed messianism in the form of the millennialist rule of the kingdom of saints, it still accepted some form eschatology, particularly as it involved Antichrist. Joachim turned calculating the arrival of Antichrist into a European wide sport.

Joachimite thought came to be used as the intellectual justification for many of the political revolts, both before and during the Reformation, which dotted the late medieval and Renaissance landscape, such as the Fraticelli, the Taborites and the Munster uprising. As Norman Cohn argued in Pursuit of the Millennium, while medieval Christian millennial movements had a strong social basis to them, they did arise in those elements of the lower classes with strong social attachments. Instead they came about among landless peasants, unskilled and journeymen workers lacking social networks to tie them to established society and install in them traditional values.

The Protestant tradition, despite Luther's opposition, would come, by and large, to actively embrace a millennialist program. Many even come to openly embrace Joachim as a prophet and as a proto-Protestant. This is strongly contrasted by the Catholic Church, which even during the upheavals of the Reformation did not turn toward millennialism. In fact the Counter-Reformation solidified the Church's opposition. As a side note I would point out that this Joachimite millennialism plays an important role in Protestant philo-Semitism. Early modern Protestant philo-Semites are consistently also active millennialists. This is not a coincidence in that Jews play an important and even positive role in Joachimite millenarianism. The Jews are going to accept Christ, which will usher in the new era. (See Robert Lerner, The Feast of Saint Abraham: Medieval Millenarians and the Jews)

Why would the established Catholic Church seek, following the Augustine tradition, to distance itself from millennialist thinking, while those on the heterodox periphery and Protestants would embrace this tradition? For the established Catholic Church, millenarianism is both useless and threatening. The Church was the political victory. The Church might be threatened by Arian Goths, the Holy Roman Emperor, the king of France, Protestants and other manifestations of Antichrist, but this is not to question the narrative of a victorious Church. The truth of the Church could be treated as obvious fact proven by history. Forget about what you might believe about the disappearance of a body in first century Judea, Constantine converting to Christianity and the Church taking over the Roman Empire are unchallengeable historical facts. (Constantine's Donation would prove to be a different story.) Church anti-Jewish polemics are a good example of this sort of reasoning. Any claim to needing another political victory would be a denial of this victory and a call for the overthrow of the Church.

Joachim was fairly explicit in this regard; the Church was to be reformed according to the new Law of the Holy Spirit, creating a new Church order. (The Franciscans would famously embrace this as a prophecy of the coming of their order. How even the moderate Franciscans managed to avoid being killed as heretics is one of the great mysteries of medieval history.) Those outside of the established Catholic Church had no such qualms of maintaining Church victory. On the contrary they had to justify themselves in the face of this Catholic supremacy. Similarly, Protestant theology developed with the consciousness of not having a Constantine type victory. Over a hundred years of religion wars in Europe gained Protestantism some regions in Germany and France, England, Scotland, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. There would be no glorious march to Rome to strip the altar at St. Peter's. (Rome's sack in 1527 came at the hands of the Catholic Charles V.) Even within Protestantism itself there was no unifying accepted faith as Lutherans went against Calvinists and Anabaptists. What else but the return of Jesus could prove the truth of a given Protestant sect?

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Asperger Fiction Reader: Not a Contradiction in Terms




From the moment I started reading Michael Makovi's blog, I suspected that he had Asperger syndrome. This was someone who wrote about theory and was willing to follow theory to its practical implications without concern with making friends. His focus on political theory, particularly within the context of the minutia of early modern history, as opposed to practical policy could not simply be a coincidence. This was someone who did not fit into the obvious political and religious categories and who clearly formulated his view of the world from reading and not from some social group. Once he started talking about his failures with women, I was convinced. So I asked him if he was familiar with Asperger syndrome and pointed him to the Simon Baron Cohen quiz. Makovi has now posted his results. Normal people usually score a sixteen. People on the spectrum usually score above thirty. Makovi scored a 37. I would like to hereby welcome him to the club. I take this as a testament to my ever increasing power to infect people with Asperger syndrome. I usually have to bite people, I guess now I can infect people through a blogospheric evil eye. Mothers lock up your children and be afraid; I am autism and I am dangerous.

The Baron Cohen quiz is useful, though I have one objection to it. It assumes that people on the spectrum would have a problem with fiction. The quiz asks how well the following sentiments fit:

20. When I'm reading a story, I find it difficult to work out the characters' intentions.
21. I don't particularly enjoy reading fiction.

The idea here is that fiction requires the reader to consider other people's motivations and emotions. People with Asperger syndrome are not supposed to have a theory of mind, to understand that other people think differently from them, and have a difficult time putting themselves in other people's shoes. Our Asperger book club in Columbus was started and received funding to study the relationship between Asperger syndrome and fiction reading, precisely on the assumption that we would have a problem with fiction. One of the ground rules, which we were placed under, was that we had to choose works of fiction for the club and could not do non-fiction. Ironically enough they were not able to put together a separate control group of neurotypicals to see how our reactions to the reading material differed from theirs. They could not round up a group of neurotypicals to participate in a book club. 

I certainly have not done a full study of this, but in my personal experience it is not so simple. I, for one, do enjoy fiction. I would argue that my interest in reading is not despite my Asperger syndrome, but is one of the ways that I manifest Asperger behavior. Obviously I take to books much easier than people. Books are much better friends than people; they are easier to decode and you can open and close them as it suits you. Books do not misunderstand you and try to hurt you. Fiction provides precisely the sort of "human" relationship that I can deal with. The motivations of characters are written in words that I can decipher, as opposed to facial expressions.



Among the members of the group, there were quite a number of readers. Even one of the more "non-readers" is a big Tom Clancy fan. I would argue that Clancy is a good example of fiction that would be a good fit for Aspergers. It has lots of technical details, plot driven stories and characters whose motives are fairly simple to follow; there are the bad guys out to unleash some global calamity and the good guys trying to stop them. There are a number of hard core science fiction and fantasy fans in the group. Again these are types of fiction that would seem to be very well suited for the Asperger mind. The focus is less on forcing the reader to grapple with figuring out the character's emotions and motivations. Instead we have world building, where the reader gets to explore the rules of a different world and what makes it work in all its technical detail, and an action centered story, where people do things.

I am not suggesting that all Aspergers like fiction, let alone Tom Clancy, science fiction and fantasy. I do wish to argue that the fiction/non-fiction model is too simplistic. There are types of fiction that may appeal to Aspergers precisely because of their Asperger syndrome. Thus I would emend the questions on reading from simple a matter of whether someone likes fiction to whether they like non plot oriented fiction in which the point is to guess at character motivations that are never explicitly put onto the page.