Sunday, May 29, 2011

History 111: Candide and the Innate Goodness of Man (Part II)

(Part I)

If medieval and early modern Christianity had a pessimistic view of human nature in which man is innately sinful and can only be kept in check by Church and State, we moderns tend to have a rather optimistic view of human nature that stresses man's innate natural goodness. This too has consequences for both theology and politics. If man is good then it stands to reason that he can achieve salvation through his own means without the aid of the Church. Now it becomes possible to talk about human reason as the bar against which to judge all things. Only someone confident in the intrinsic goodness of human beings could allow them to judge the world around them and do it based on what is innate to them. As for politics, a belief in human goodness allows for human beings to craft their own laws. We can even begin to talk about government as a contract between equals instead of the dictates of a patriarch to his children, leading to liberal democracy.

The legacy of this notion of human goodness still presents itself in our debates over crime and punishment and foreign policy. Why do people commit crimes? A conservative would say it is because they are "bad" people, motivated by greed and malice. In order to protect itself, society must remove this person from its midsts, either through prison or even the death penalty. Punishment is something that the person deserves as his just deserts. In the liberal model crime results from either mental illness, being raised in a problematic society or simply bad education. One way or another it is not the person's fault and the purpose of any "punishment" is not to penalize the person, but "rehabilitate" them. (See "C. S. Lewis on the Implications of the Nazi Holocaust.") Why are there terrorists? The conservative will tell you that it is because they are "evil" and hate "freedom." Naturally such people can only be stopped by invading other countries and killing those people who deserve it. The liberal will tell that terrorists are the products of economic inequality, the legacy of colonialism and a fundamentalist education that preaches hate. Agree to peace talks, address the massive economic inequalities across the globe and provide a proper education for all and terrorism will disappear.

Now even the liberal acknowledges that there is much that is wrong with the world. Rather, though, then lay the blame on people, the blame is placed on society. It is society that creates inequalities and teaches prejudice. People, left to their own devices, would naturally wish to live in harmony with others, recognizing the common humanity of all, and would not be bothered by the existence of others races and creeds. People have to be taught to hate others because of the color of their skin and the deity they pray to. The good news is that people can be saved from their own prejudices. With a properly funded welfare program, civil rights legislation and tolerant education, the natural human goodness in people will reassert itself and stand against all the ills created by society in the first place. 

This brings us to Candide, a novel that represents this Enlightenment shift in how one views humanity. Candide is naturally good. Contrary to a simplistic view of the character, Candide is not stupid (a mistake made by the modern day adaptation, Forrest Gump). Candide is simply naive due to the fact that he is raised with no experience with the world. This is crucial to the character, because it is precisely this lack of worldliness that allows for Candide's goodness. Candide does not suffer from greed, does not hate anyone and only wishes to live in brotherhood with all. Candide is not even capable of understanding the possibility that other people are not like this. The reason for this is that Candide exists completely uncorrupted by society. (This idea would be taken even further by Rousseau.)

It is for this reason that Voltaire subverts the garden of Eden story. Instead of Adam and Eve committing Original Sin, willfully disobeying the divine commandment to not eat from the tree of knowledge, and being rightfully thrown out of paradise, Candide has no notion of sin. He only wishes to experiment with the laws of "cause and effect." The fact that he kisses Cunegonde is interpreted as sin by a corrupt society, leading to him being wrongfully exiled from his beloved home in Westphalia. Instead of degenerate humans needing to be saved by righteous laws, Candide is the pure one, it is the outside system that is degenerate.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Americans and First Person Shooters

Extra Credits has a video blog post on why Americans are attracted to first person shooter (FPS) video games. His argument is that this is rooted within American culture and perceptions of violence. Americans tend to focus on the individual versus society. Guns are symbols of personal freedom. Violence comes out of the struggle of the individual for freedom. This plays itself out in FPS games in which it is the individual against hordes of "others." Furthermore one's advancement through the game is mainly marked by more powerful guns, which are external interchangeable tools. Japanese culture tends to see violence as a spiritual struggle which, while manifested externally, is really a refection of an internal conflict. This plays itself out in Japanese games where weapons are not simply tools that one picks up, but extensions of the self. One advances by internalizing greater powers. The FTP has advanced enough that this model may not hold up. For example Mass Effect requires one to lead a team and use bionic powers with less emphasis placed on guns. Still this piece holds for more traditional games and is useful food for thought.

If only someone told me this argument years ago when I was a kid. Mom you have to let play Wolfenstein. I am exercising my natural American love of liberty and abusing it. If you do not let me play I may grow up to become a liberal and not support the invasion of other countries.


History 111: Candide and the Innate Goodness of Man (Part I)

(Go to 2:55 for Candide's showdown with the villainous  Jew.)

My last discussion of the early modern debate about human salvation proved surprisingly fitting for the last book we are doing, Voltaire’s Candide. Candide has the advantage of being short enough that we can go through it in two classes. If it is part of the Enlightenment, it is a critique of the old world I have spent the quarter trying to describe. If Voltaire was prejudiced against Jews, it is still one of the funniest books ever written. Candide also serves as an example of the modern shift in the understanding of human nature from a pessimistic view, in which human beings are hopelessly depraved, to a more positive view, in which humans are assumed to be innately good.

In the debate over salvation, both our Catholics and Protestants operated from the assumption of human depravity. In the Catholic model humans are just mostly depraved. We are tainted by Original Sin; while we are capable of doing good and resisting sin in specific situations, it is inevitable, barring divine intervention through grace, that we will come to sin. For example, even if I resist temptation and do not sin with a woman, the mere fact that I lusted after the woman is itself a sin; if I truly understood who God was, I never would even contemplate breaking his commandments. The fact that I would contemplate such a thing demonstrates that I am under the taint of Original Sin and of Satan. From this perspective it may be less damaging for my soul in the long run if I had given in to temptation. Now that I have not, I am in danger of believing myself to be righteous so I will never repent and I will add the sin of pride. The Catholic solution is that one needs to enter the body of the Church and come under the forgiveness earned on the cross. Being baptized and receiving the sacraments will not necessarily make me a better person; human depravity remains and I will have to answer for my sins in purgatory. By being part of the Catholic Church, though, one has access to Jesus’ atonement and can hope to eventually get out of purgatory and enter heaven.

Protestants are even more pessimistic about human nature than Catholics. Lutherans believe that man is almost completely depraved, incapable of doing any good or avoiding any sin on his own. The only redemptive feature in human nature is the ability to have faith. Calvinists are the most extreme, believing in utter human depravity and that humans can have no role in their own salvation. While, in a sense, Protestants value good works less than Catholics do, Protestants tend to agonize over the implications of their day to day works. Catholics can feel confident that, having entered the body of the Church, they are part of the saved despite their sins. With Protestantism there is no longer a set recognizable body of believers that one can belong to and be confident of salvation. Furthermore there is an assumption that one’s salvation should be manifested in good works. Thus if I am still sinning, even after being baptized as a Protestant, it is a sign that perhaps I never genuinely believed and received graced and am therefore not really one of the saved.

This view of human nature has political as well as religious implications. If I cannot hope to get right with God on my own because I am so depraved, neither can I fashion laws and a government for myself to live with others. Just as I need God to reveal his laws through the Church as I could never learn them on my own, he also needs to establish a government for me, such as a king, with rulers to keep me in line, because I could never do so on my own. Now it might happen that this king will prove corrupt as he is also a depraved human sinner. If that happens then I should take it as a punishment from God for my sins and should pray for forgiveness and ask God to change the heart of the king. Under no circumstance should I even contemplate rebellion. What basis do I have to believe that I, a depraved sinner, can possibly fashion anything better? How dare I reject the government that God saw fit, in his infinite mercy, to grant me that I may become less of a sinner.

Admittedly, already with Protestantism this model becomes more complicated. While Protestants may believe in human depravity they also believe in grace which can rectify human nature. This allows for there to be a “community of saints,” that small group of people blessed with grace. Such people would be capable of establishing their own “godly” government. It may even be their duty to seize the reins of government from an unsaved king. In the case of the English Civil War, this led to the execution of Charles I and the establishment of an English Republic under Oliver Cromwell. It also led to the Fifth Monarchy movement, which thought that Cromwell was not godly enough and tried to remove him as a limb of Satan.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Quick Guide to Christian Salvation as Applied to Early Modern Europe

I often seem to find myself in the position of defender and explanator of Christianity, particularly when I teach. For me, educating my Christian students in what they are supposed to believe ranks above even Monty Python and classic films as unofficial purposes of my class. For example the other day I spent a large part of the class explaining Christian notions of salvation (Are all people even capable of attaining salvation?) as they relate to the early modern period. I got into this topic by means of, believe or not, the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, which has a Christian missionary struggling with issues such as whether Blackbeard and mermaids can be saved. His final conclusion is that Blackbeard cannot be saved and he falls in love with a mermaid, who takes him down to the depths with her. (His ultimate fate is left open.) I must say, I cannot think of many movies with positive Christian characters with sex appeal. That being said I was confused as to the missionary’s religious affiliation. He is brought on board by Penelope Cruz’s character, who was seduced by Jack Sparrow as a girl in a convent. This would lead us to assume she is Catholic. But the missionary appears Protestant. No Spanish Catholic girl would be so careless as to entrust the salvation of her father's immortal soul to a Protestant.

Certainly the early modern period was one with much concern, debate and ultimate uncertainty about salvation. Things were fairly simple for medieval Catholics. One is saved through a combination of good works and belonging to the body of the Church, the mechanism through which Christ’s salvation is administered to the world. One does good works, such giving charity and not cheating on your wife. This leads to divine grace, which allows one to have faith and enter the body of the Church through baptism and the administration of the sacraments. All people are assumed to be capable of earning salvation through this model. People are also presumed to be responsible for their own actions and will be held liable for them in the afterlife and on Judgment Day. In fact most people will have to spend at least some time in purgatory for their sins. Time in purgatory could be shortened through having masses said and giving money to the Church.

The problem with this view of salvation is that it presumably condemns all decent non-Christians, many of whom might go their entire lives without even hearing about Christianity, as well as those who lived before Christ to everlasting hellfire. Even without modern notions of multiculturalism, this bothered medieval Christians. Hence you have the doctrine of limbo for unbaptized babies. (The modern Catholic Church has removed limbo in favor of simply sending all unbaptized babies straight to heaven.) Dante went so far as to create a “nice Hell” for all the righteous pagans such as Homer and Virgil. (Even the Muslim ruler Saladin gets to live here.)

The discovery of the New World exacerbated the problem of non-Christians living in complete ignorance of Christianity. Christians in Europe now had to face the fact that the world was a much bigger place with lots more people and almost all of them were going to Hell.

Enter Martin Luther. Luther overturned the entire model of good works and membership in the Church through baptism and the sacraments leading to salvation. For Luther it was not possible for humans to do good works on their own, because man is inherently depraved due to Original Sin. The only choice that one can make is to have faith. If you have faith you will receive grace, which will in turn allow you to engage in good works. Furthermore there is no corporate body of the Church on Earth to belong to and be saved. The sacraments and they salvation they bring do not come from the Church and its representative priest. The miracle of transubstantiation happens in the body of the believer through personal faith.

An even more extreme position was taken by John Calvin. According to Calvin, humans are so depraved that they cannot even choose to believe. All people really deserve to go to Hell. God, though, chooses to freely grant some individuals grace, which allows them to believe and be saved. From this perspective sacraments serve no purpose beyond a memorial to the last supper and transubstantiation can be done away with as human beings have absolutely no role in their own salvation.

What Luther and Calvin accomplished was to radically even further limit the number of people with a chance at salvation. Now not only are Muslims, Jews and Native Americans doomed to Hell, but even most Christians. (For this reason it is difficult to classify Luther as an anti-Semite, despite some truly horrific statement; he did not treat Jews worse than Catholics.) The advantage of this rather depressing view of human salvation is that it removes the question of why God would choose only Europeans to be saved and condemn everyone else. Europeans are mostly all going to Hell along with everyone else. This position also opens up the possibility for greater levels of tolerance for other religions. For example, Jews might still be condemned to Hell, but they are not satanic. They never willfully rejected Jesus; they just were never granted grace. Jews could even remain as the special chosen people of God and keepers of special knowledge such as the Talmud and kabbalah. Thus Protestantism produced some remarkably philo-Semitic thinkers such as, Peter Serrarius, John Dury and Samuel Hartlib.

Within Protestantism though there is going to be a backlash against this condemnation of almost the entire human race. The seventeenth century sees a revival of the revival of the views of the third century Christian thinker Origin, who believed that even Satan, let alone Jews and heathens, would eventually repent and be saved. This view had nothing to do with Enlightenment religious skepticism; it was a matter of religious Christians needing to solve a major theological crisis of how one can hope to be saved in the face of the collapse of any unified Christian theology. (See D. P. Walker's Decline of Hell.)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Look Who Just Got a Degree in History

Pittsburgh Steeler safety Troy Polamalu just graduated USC with a degree in history of all things. So can I now use this as proof that earning even a B.A. in history plays a productive role on the path to becoming a millionaire? Obviously Polamalu's unique blend of speed and linebacker strength must now be retroactively credited to his mean skills at deconstructing historical texts and not just his hair. Considering all the bone headed idiots, like Rashard Mendenhall  and Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers seem to employ its nice to know that someone on the Steelers has a brain.  

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fuzzy Aliens Learn About Theory of Mind

I found myself up early Sabbath morning so I read John Scalzi’s new novel Fuzzy Nation cover to cover. (It is not that long a book.) I find good science fiction the perfect ticket to feeling spiritual enough to actually pray. This is not Scalzi’s best novel, but considering that this is the author of Old Man’s War we are talking about, that is hardly a knock on the book. The basic premise of the book, a reboot of a novel from the 1960s, is that a prospector, Jack Holloway, finds himself at the center of a pair of major discoveries. The first a major gem stone find on a newly explored planet and the second that one of planet’s native species just might be sentient. Think of this book as Avatar with actual characters and a sense of humor. My favorite part of the book is Holloway; in classical American heroic tradition, he is a self absorbed man-child, though a charming one and one who turns out to be a much better man than even he believes. (If they ever make a movie I would want Nathan Fillion from Firefly to play him, though I would not say no to Josh Holloway of Lost.)

What particularly caught my attention was a part in which the female scientist, Isabel Wangai, gets one of the Fuzzies to make a sandwich and then is surprised that the Fuzzy “demonstrated theory of mind” by offering her the sandwich. I doubt Scalzi meant anything by it, but theory of mind (ToM) is a rather loaded term within Asperger culture thanks to the nonsensical notion put out by researchers like Tony Attwood and Simon Baron-Cohen that people with Asperger syndrome lack a “theory of mind,” the ability to recognize that other people think differently.

In truth there is no such thing as a theory of mind unless you mean it in the very narrow sense that a person, having made the Cartesian leap to recognize that they have a mind and are not simply figments of their own imagination, uses Occam’s Razor to conclude that other people also have minds along with their own likes and dislikes and are not simply figments of his imagination. As the inner workings of the minds of others lies outside of empirical science and logic, the only way to know what someone else is thinking is to guess based on one’s own mind, usually a hazardous decision, or have the person tell you what they are thinking. In this Aspergers are at a disadvantage because they think differently from neurotypicals, making it practically useless to guess based on oneself. This leaves the Asperger with only the option of asking neurotypicals to clearly state verbally what is on their minds. The proof that Aspergers have no particular lacking in theory of mind is that neurotypicals are equally ill suited at intuiting our minds as we are at intuiting theirs.

If a stranger asked me to make a sandwich, I would assume that the person was assessing me to see if I was a rational being, who could understand language and follow instructions. In other words a being who could be negotiated with in order to form social contracts and possibly even a government, a preferable alternative to coercion and violence. As I desire to build relations with other beings based on negotiated agreement and not coercion, I would happily comply with such a test and make the sandwich. While I am making the sandwich I might even regale the person with tidbits of information and stories relating to sandwiches (such as Arthur Dent serving as the prophesied sandwich maker for a group of aliens in one of the Hitchhiker books) to demonstrate that I posses culture and am therefore not some barbarian incapable of social negotiation. After my demonstration of rationality, I would eat the sandwich. Do I lack a theory of mind? Hardly. I was not informed what kind of sandwich the person liked and would be unable to come to such knowledge through logical intuition. Obviously going on my own taste would be useless here. Why would the person want me, a complete stranger whom they have no relationship with, to make them a sandwich in the first place? If they desired to make me their servant to be coerced then I do not care to feed them.

If I were a Fuzzy dealing with a human scientist, like in the book, I would be correct. The purpose of the  interaction would have been to prove that I was a rational being, who should be granted rights and left to exploit my own planet for myself and for the rest of my kind in peace.

Friday, May 20, 2011

My Article on Neil Gaiman and the Thor Movie

My friends over at Melt Magazine have put up another piece of mine; a review the recent Thor movie. As with most of my reviews, it is only incidently about the movie, which I use to discuss larger issues of interest. This time around, I talk about mythology and what I admire about fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman, whose books often directly confront classical mythological stories. (See also "In Search of a Sense of Wonder in Fantasy.")  

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Daniel Lasker - Two Models of Jewish Thought: Rabbi Judah Halevi and Maimonides

Dr. Daniel Lasker gave a second lecture, while he was in Columbus, comparing Rabbi Judah Halevi to Maimondes. Here are my notes; as always, all mistakes are mine.

There is a trend in academia to make everything applied that one should not just be sitting in an ivory tower. This is difficult for Jewish thought. Perhaps we can create nano Jewish thinkers. The purpose of this lecture is to present two Jewish thinkers and consider how they can be applied.

Judah Halevi was born somewhere in Spain around 1075. He left Spain at an advanced age for Israel. We are not certain if he ever made it. According to the legend he was run over by an Arab horseman. There are lots of problems with this story. We do not hear about it until several centuries later. Also Israel was under Christian rule during this time. Halevi wrote poems, but also a work of philosophy, the Kuzari. This is a fictional account about the conversion of the Khazars, a group of people living around Azerbaijan, who converted around the eight century. Maimonides also was born in Spain. He fled the Almohads and ended up in Fez where he may have lived for a time as a Muslim. He traveled to Israel, but was unable to make it there so he moved to Egypt where he worked as a doctor.

In looking at these two models of thought, we tend to see them as opposed to each other. Maimonides was the super rationalist and Halevi was the anti-rationalist. Setting them up as two separate models is unfair as they both came from similar assumptions. They were both concerned with reconciling religion with philosophy. For Halevi, religion of Judaism was an empirical truth. If philosophy contradicts it then we require a new philosophy. For Maimonides, philosophy has to agree to the truth of Judaism but not literally. One should reinterpret Judaism in light of philosophy. An example of this is anthropomorphism. Maimonides was successful in changing Judaism to reject the notion that God has a body, regardless of what the Bible says, because it is a philosophically untenable position. Maimonides also insisted that Hosea did not literally marry a prostitute, because that would be dishonorable for a prophet. Where one draws the line is open ended and depends on one’s allegiance to philosophy and the literal text of the Bible.

Why is Judaism a divine religion? According to Halevi, the real proof for Judaism comes from history as opposed to a simple rational religion. R. Abraham Ibn Ezra, in his commentary on the Ten Commandments, notes that Halevi asked him why the Ten Commandments begin with referring to the exodus and not creation. Ibn Ezra gives a difference explanation than Halevi. For Halevi Judaism is true because 600,000 men saw the revelation at Sinai. For Maimonides prophecy is a natural process to pick up the divine message which is constantly broadcasted. God does not change; how one receives it depends on the person. God does not choose people to be prophets. Prophets provide a framework for human society. Humans require such a framework because humans vary in their behavior in ways unlike animals. Thus all law systems ultimately come from God. The laws of the bible are different from the bylaws of Columbus in that the Bible helps one refine the intellect and obtain immortality.

What is the nature of God and how does one come to know God? For Halevi the God of Abraham is experienced while the God of Aristotle is understood. One might die for the God of Abraham, not the God of Aristotle. One can only love the God of Abraham. For Maimonides, the God of Abraham is the God of Aristotle. The beginning of Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah is a description of God based on Aristotle. Then Maimonides immediately goes to talking about sanctifying God’s name.

Halevi believed that Jews were intrinsically different from gentiles. This is based on the hierarchy of nature. He did this because he needed to explain why only Jews are prophets. Halevi went so far as to argue that even converts cannot be prophets. Maimonides believed that Jews were different because they observed the Torah. This gives them a better ability to understand the divine realm. Halevi saw Jews as having different hardware. For Maimonides it is a matter of the software.

Today we have this struggle between science and religion. Maimonides teaches that one follows science wherever it leads. Halevi stressed more the actual text even if it has to be taken allegorically. There is also the question of how one argues for religion. Maimonides' attempt to prove Judaism from the content would have a greater chance of success than a simple historical argument. One last thing is Jewish ethnocentricity. Halevi faced dominant Christian and Muslim religion, which argued for their strength. Halevi needed to therefore argue from Jewish weaknesses and Jewish willingness to sacrifice for their faith. Nowadays we are operating from more of a position of strength it may be time to move away from this point of view toward a more Maimonidean view.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Daniel Lasker - The Jewish Critique of Christianity

Here is a lecture that Dr. Daniel Lasker gave at Ohio State last Friday on Jewish polemics against Christianity. He argues that Jews in the Middle Ages were more proactive in crafting anti-Christian polemics and that this genre was not simply a response to Christian polemics. I must admit that I am not yet convinced of his argument. I am mainly interested in what happens in the thirteenth century, the "golden age" of these polemics so to speak, and for this period he fails to make an argument. Here are my notes. As always, all mistakes are mine.

When you are talking about narrative, how do you give a framework to facts? In terms of Jewish writings against Christianity we have the basic facts yet we still have to think about the narrative of this material. There are two sides to this. Christian polemics against Judaism go back to the New Testament itself. The Jewish polemics come much later. The old narrative was that Jews were responding to Christians. If Christians had not initiated there would have been no reason for Jews to write. In Jewish apologetics, Jews are the tolerant ones who believe that the righteous of all faiths have a share in the world to come.
According to Jeremy Cohen, prior to 1170 Jews did not write polemics because Christians were not interested in Jews. Instead Jews held to traditional genres like biblical commentary. At the end of the twelfth century we see Jacob b. Reuben and R. Joseph Kimhi. They were interested merely in protecting Jews, not in going on the offensive.

This narrative is very comfortable to Jews. It makes Jews out to be the tolerant ones who are always the victims. Nineteenth century Jewish historians wrote in an atmosphere that denied Jews writes so they needed to avoid anything that had Jews initiating things. Jacob Katz and Israel Yuval have helped change this model. Katz described Jews as being very comfortable with Christian culture. Yuval wrote about Jews wanting revenge against Christians when the Messiah came. Some of this comes from a discomfort with Jewish power coming from Zionism. If the past two thousand years were not simply Jews being oppressed by gentiles then Jews lose their moral blank check when it comes to dealing with the Palestinians. 

In the first nine centuries of Christian history, there are many adversus Judaeos tracts, but nothing in return. At most you get anti-Christian allusions in rabbinic literature. The rise of Islam marked a major shift. Why would Jews in Muslim countries write polemics against Christianity when there was no Christian missionary campaign? There was another upswing in early modern Italy even without an actual missionary campaign. David Berger argues that Christians were actually responding to Jewish challenges. Very few Dominicans, even in the thirteenth century, were actually involved with preaching to Jews. Some of the nastiest Jewish anti-Christian polemics were not in response to Christianity. Jacob b. Reuben told his Christian friend that he would accept Judaism if he had a brain. (Jacob b. Reuben's Wars of the Lord is a response to a Christian friend who tried to convert him.) Later writers like Crescas are actually more sober. We even see earlier works being toned down.

If the old narrative is no longer viable is there an alternative? Now the old narrative was not completely wrong. Jews did react at least somewhat to Christians. In the thirteenth century, even Ashkenazim turned to polemics. Similarly we have the fifteenth century responses to the forced Tortosa debate. Jews attacked Christianity because Christianity took for itself the Jewish birthright. The first authors of polemical treaties were philosopher theologians. These thinkers formulated a theology of the unity of God. Attacking Christianity was simply a logical extension of this. Andalusian Jews carried on this tradition in the eleventh century due to their philosophical interests. They passed this on to Ashkenazic Jews. This is the picture until the end of the twelfth century when the Christian campaigns began. Here the old narrative comes into play. This situation continued through the fifteenth century in Iberia.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Victor David Hanson on Western Military Dynamism

This past Thursday The Ohio State University hosted Victor David Hanson who spoke on “Western Military Dynamism and its Antidotes.” Hanson, in addition to being a conservative commentator, is one of the leading classicists of this generation. His presentation was a bit of both. I must admit that some of his comments made me uncomfortable and I suspect that I was one of the more conservative people in attendance. While I am willing to use the terms "West" and "East" for convenience, I think there is someone rather arbitrary about them and do not see them as reflecting hard reality. Here are my notes from the lecture; I am curious as to the thoughts of my readers. As usual all mistakes are mine.   

This talk is about the “western way of war.” When the term was first used twenty five years it brought numerous objections. Today it seems there is a problem with even using the term the "West." Until 1950 it simply was a geographic term. The Romans used it in an expansive sense. It was enriched through the adoption of Judeo-Christian values, the Renaissance and the spread of Colonialism. After 1950 the West became a state of mind. Japan and South Korea are Western in ways that Egypt is not. A Western can be of any race, but has an allegiance to constitutional government, freedom of the press and religion. The claim is not that one can draw a straight line between ancient Athens and the present. There were detours like the Inquisition.

Jared Diamond argues that there are no values just geographic determinants. He argues that the Greeks and Romans had a head start and even today Europe has an advantage. Hegel and Schopenhauer believed that there was a West but that the Romans were contaminated by other cultures. It was only in Germany that Western values were maintained.

There something intrinsic to this notion of the West; it is something cultural, but its relevancy extends even to military matters. From the Greeks onward ,when these larger protocols were applied to battle, we begin to see a paradigm of superior technology. This is not merely finding a technology; gun powder, triremes and stirrups were invented outside the West. The key issue is figuring out how to best use it. After the battle of Lepanto in 1571, many of the best Ottoman galleys were taken from the West. The Ottomans stormed Constantinople in 1453 with guns manufactured in Germany. In contrast Hernan Cortez was able to make gun powder out of ingredients he found in Mexico and even forge cannons. The Aztecs had access to this same material, but were unable to make any use of it.

The West has been able to find a way to employ capitalism. Natives flocked to Cortez to sell him necessary supplies. The U.S. coalition in 1991 had more bottled water than the Iraqis. Instead of defining bravery in terms of personal kills (Homeric values), starting from the Greeks Western countries defined bravery in terms of units. An extension of this demotion of individual military heroes, is the ability to remove generals. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was sacked during the Korean War. All the leading generals in ancient Greece were at one point audited or even sacked by their home city.

(This does not apply to the medieval warfare, which focusd on individual knights. I guess Hanson views the Middle ages as a "detour" in western history. While I agree that there is something important to this notion of a military tradition of an "esprit de corps", it contradicts the notion of Western "individualism." If the West values the individual then how did it come to take a more collective view when it came to the military? No matter how one answers this question, one would have to give up either individualism or military collectivism as "western" values.) 

Other systems needed to find ways to counter the West. This was often done by turning to asymmetrical warfare, where you change the ground on which you are fighting. The West seems less able to take casualties. We can see this in the ancient battles of Salamis in 480 BCE and Gaugamela in 331 BCE to the modern day war in Iraq. Another check is parasitism where one uses lethal weapons which one did not have to invest as a culture. This goes for Native Americans or Zulus with guns to Iraqi insurgents being able to nullify an Abrams tank. One does not have to understand the ballistics behind these weapons or even how to repair them. One can just fire these weapons until they break down.  A third check is the ability to challenge the notion of a monolithic West. In truth there is no monolithic anything. It is certainly hard to unite western cultures. You can resist a western power with the help of another western power. Persia was willing to interfere with Greek city states. More French and British soldiers died in Verdun and Somme than in ninety years of colonialism. Americans lost more soldiers in the final year of the Civil War than they ever lost in conflicts with Native Americans. Finally opponents of the West have been able to rely on the empathy of some in the West. Long before Michael Moore compared the Iraqi insurgents to the minutemen and said that Bin Laden should have attacked a red state, you had Lysistrata and Euripedies’ Trojan Women, which was a damning portrayal of the Greeks.

War is the same, regardless of the technology. Modern war is change speeded up. The issues remain the same. Why is this true? One turns to Thucydides, that the nature of man is the same. We are in a situation in which those who oppose the West do not wish to counter us on the battlefield. We are discovering ways to check those who wish to check us even as we desire to fight a more conventional war. Where does this lead us? There are certain disciplines that are invaluable in times when others are losing their sanity in this speeded up world. If you want to understand why people want to kill there is no better discipline than history.

Have a Heart (or at Least a Funnybone) for Organ Donation

A former student of mine helped put this short video together for the Halachic Organ Donation Society, which urges Orthodox Jews to agree to donate their organs.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Rishona Campbell on My Grandfather

My friend Rishona Campbell finally completed her Orthodox Jewish conversion. This took her a number of years. I amazed at her patience at the amount of junk she put up with, putting her life on hold for several years. I wish her best of luck as a Jew. Her post on her conversion story is password attached, but she was kind enough to let me  put up her statements about my grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak (Irvin) Chinn of blessed memory. (See "Eulogy for My Grandfather.")

In January, 2008 I came across an old newspaper in my Grandparents' home. I was from right before Christmas and it had a picture of Rabbi Irvin Chinn, z'tl, donating blood. It wasn't a news story or article. There was just a simple caption that McKeesport Hospital was having a blood drive and here is the rabbi from Gemilas Chesed giving blood (so you should too). It was noteworthy to me because for sure, Rabbi Chinn looked like a frum man. However the congregation was in White Oak...and area that was adjacent to my high school, so I knew it. And it wasn't very Jewish to my knowledge. But I kept the name in the back of my head.


Well my first visit to Gemilas Chesed was in July of 2008. Rabbi Chinn was nifter (deceased) the previous Purim. While I never met him, I met his progeny. No, not his natural children, they didn't live in the community (although I did eventually meet them through visits)...but his kehilla. A kehilla that he led for 50 years; who he taught to treat everyone (Jew and non-Jew) with kindness and greet them with a smile. He showed countless people the beauty of Torah observance and those people were eager to pass that on (no doubt in part to how admirable Rabbi Chinn was in how he led a Torah observant life). In spite of my personal struggle and shortcomings, how could I ever sit back and declare that there is no such thing as G-d (chas v'shalom) and that he has no involvement in our lives? Looking back, rarely did I understand what was happening to me or why certain things happened. I still don't understand...but I can see the amazing handiwork of a divine plan (in there somewhere).

Friday, May 13, 2011

Nazis in Space

Here is a trailer for a movie coming out next year called Iron Sky. I suspect that many of my readers will be offended, but to me this movie looks like pure genius. (Needless to say I have been let down by horrible movies with awesome trailers before.)

So, with Nazis in space, I think there is only one thing that can save humanity, Jews in Space.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Seeing the Big Picture

I remember seeing False Messiah’s post on the doctored photograph in Der Tzitung, a Yiddish newspaper, removing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a week ago and not thinking twice about it; this is the sort of thing I expect from a Haredi paper. Amusing and worth a chuckle at yes; making a big deal about it no. So it was to my surprise that the story exploded from the Jewish blogosphere into the mainstream news, finding its way to the Huffington Post. Clarissa went on a tear on the subject.

I don't want to hear anybody come here to screech about the so-called religious sensibilities of the nasty freakazoids who insulted women in this way. If they find the photo hurtful to their fanatical feelings, they could have avoided publishing it altogether. However, in our Western Civilization women now play an important role in all areas of existence. It is extremely insulting to have our reality that we worked hard to create being manipulated in this way to satisfy a bunch of miserable woman-haters.

Even my non-Jewish friend, whose desk is across from mine in the office, asked me about the photo. So I will throw in my own two cents on the matter, particularly as I think the wrong lesson is being learned. The focus of the story has been about women; was this disrespectful to women to censure out the most powerful woman in the country from what will likely be a historic photograph? I see this as a story of bureaucracy following its own particular kind of logic down the path into absurdity.

The feature of the bureaucratic mind on display in this story is the top-down attempt to establish a specific set of rules to cover a wide variety of people and situations. Particular emphasis is placed on satisfying those who are loudest and most extreme; the sort of people likely to take action over even, what may seem to others as, minor issues. If the proposed solution may seem to some as surrender to blackmail, without a doubt the solution will display an elegant pragmatism to lull reasonable men with the siren call of “let us get along.” For it is a reasonable man who must desires to get along with others. This leads to the empowerment of extremists along all fronts as they see they can blackmail the system and get away with it. Another problem comes when, due to the law of unforeseen consequences, a situation arises that the bureaucrat failed to see. Of course the bureaucratic mind still follows its procedures leading to disaster or if we are fortunate just absurdity. This applies to all bureaucracies, religious or otherwise.

People have all sorts of ideas about what sorts of things are appropriate to be shown in public and should be considered “obscene.” This is a difficult arena of human activity to set rules for because there is little to no logic as to what positions people take; it is just a reality that people have lines. (To anyone who thinks they are exempt, I suggest they consider what their reaction would be to pictures of little girls being raped and murdered.) For better or worse and for various historical and cultural reasons, people’s ideas about obscenity tend to focus on women and the amount of clothing they are wearing. Even the mainstream media does not show women topless, a situation that often leads to absurdity. (See "Defending the King's F-Word Speech.") Even feminists take moral positions regarding the depiction of women.

A Haredi newspaper has to deal with this same problem of what rules to set about the depiction of women as any other media outlet. To make things more difficult, a Haredi newspaper caters to an audience with a significantly lower tolerance for how women are depicted. The label Haredi, like any group, covers many different kinds of people with different temperaments, some of whom are willing to give more leeway for how women may be depicted and some less. Regardless of their actual numbers, those with a more restrictive view wield more power. They hold the moral high ground as the ones who represent “true Jewish values.” Armed with this moral high ground they are all the more likely to speak out and even boycott the paper.

How does the bureaucratic mind solve this problem and offer something that could satisfy all? Simple, just have no pictures of women. It is not like there are readers who will strongly object to there not being pictures of women. With no pictures of women the cause of all our problems will be removed and we can all read our Haredi newspaper in peace. That is, of course, until absurdity strikes in the form of a photograph of some of our leading public figures, including Hillary Clinton. Thankfully this time around the bureaucratic logic did not lead to bans that destroy people's lives.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Uthman Dey: A Humanitarian Hero for Al Nakba Day

To all of my readers, I wish you a merry Al Nakba day. In honor of Al Nakba day and the founding of the State of Israel I wish to put in a word for Uthman Dey. No, Uthman Dey was not a leading Zionist; he was the Muslim ruler of Tunisia in the early seventeenth century best known in the West as a sponsor of the Barbary corsairs, the sort of practice that today we call state-sponsored terrorism. (To be fair Christians were also guilty of this practice. See my review of Catholic Pirates, Greek Merchants.) I mention Uthman Dey because of his handling of a major humanitarian crisis at the end of his reign. In 1609 Spain expelled its Morisco population. Similar to Jewish Conversos, Moriscos were Muslims who were forced to convert to Christianity at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Because of their concentration in southern Spain, the Moriscos were successful in maintaining themselves as a separate cultural unit and actually waged a number of revolts against Spanish rule until the Spanish simply expelled them. Uthman Dey welcomed these refugees into his kingdom with open arms and integrated these quasi Muslims into Tunisian society. Needless to say many of these Moriscos soon found themselves at work in the piracy business, which gave them the opportunity to get back at Spain.  He did not put them in refugee camps for sixty-three years to rally world opinion to the pitiful state of these Moriscos and force Spain to take them back.

What does it tell you if the entire Arab world lacks the humanitarian compassion of a seventeenth century sponsor of piracy?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Religious Narrative: Medieval Catholicism, Communism and Islam

One of the surprises of the modern world has been the continued persistence of organized religion. Despite several centuries of Enlightenment criticism, religion remains a powerful force within society. Certainly within the United States the vast majority of the population subscribes at least formally to some religion. I would argue that much of this is the result of the inability of secularism to present overarching narratives. Make whatever criticism you want about religions, they tend to be quite good at formulating narratives that allow people to make sense of their lives and all the various parts of their universe. This is important not just for regular people living their social lives, but for intellectuals and in a sense especially for them; it is the people who live in the realm of ideas who need things to click together in a larger whole.

I will start by giving an example from what may be the most intellectually successful religious narrative in history, medieval Catholicism. Take the view of a Catholic living in say 1491; he benefited from living in a world that made sense in ways that we can hardly relate to. In this medieval world we have Aristotle to explain the natural world. This Aristotelian universe, with its prime mover and essences and accidents, fits neatly with Church teaching, solving the conflict between faith and reason. This system also has political implications. We are in a hierarchical universe were everything from plants, animals and people up to the planets, angels and God have their place in a natural order. Therefore it is only reasonable that human affairs should mirror this reality with a king, nobles, the Church, peasants, men and women each having their place. How does one explain and give meaning to suffering, whether the threat of Islam, schisms in the Church, war, political chaos or simply having to bury a wife and child? Mankind fell to Original Sin, giving Satan power over the Earth. That being said there is reason to hope; Christ died for our sins so we can go to heaven. If the world looks like it is falling apart we can still look forward to the imminent coming of the apocalypse and the final judgement.

Say what you want about this medieval Catholicism; call it unscientific, anti-democracy, sexist and anti-Semitic. Yes, over the next few centuries, this worldview was rocked by numerous intellectual, and political shifts so that, even if there are still Catholics today, that particular creature the medieval Catholic is now extinct. All this may be true, but medieval Catholicism was an internally consistent system and fit well into the known facts of the world at that time. I would add that this system also proved quite attractive to Jews, particularly those in Spain. (Here is a dirty little secret about pre-modern Judaism. The majority of people who left did so freely out of a desire to assimilate and not due to force or persecution.)    

In the history of modern secularism there has been only one movement to produce a narrative that could compete with organized religion and that was Communism. Try to look at the world, this time from the perspective of a Russian Jew in 1891. Traditional Judaism does not have much to offer, but to be poor, get killed in a pogrom and wait for the Messiah. Now here is Communism. It may not offer a personal God and an afterlife, but instead it offers the forces of history to guide us and promise us a better world. Faith versus reason? Science has refuted religion, but Communism is the logical extension of evolution applied to human affairs. How should we order our political and social systems? Communism replaces superstition and religious dogma with scientific rationalism, allowing us to create a just system where everyone is equal. How do you explain and offer meaning to human suffering? The problems of this world are the products by the class oppression by the aristocracy and bourgeois. This, though, simply serves to highlight the iniquities of the present systems and hasten imminent coming of the people's revolution which will create a paradise on Earth in which everyone will work together for the common good and there will be no prejudice nor anti-Semitism.

Again one can make all sorts of intellectual arguments against this Communist worldview. Ultimately it was undone by the Soviet Union itself, whose blood soaked history is a better refutation of Communism than anything else. This should not obscure the power of the Communist narrative in its time. Say what you want about Karl Marx, but he has to be viewed as one of the greatest thinkers of all time simply in terms of his ability to craft a system of thought that allows you to discuss not just politics, but history, art and science as one coherent whole. We in the United States fail to appreciate the Communist appeal largely because it failed to ever gain much traction here, but the Communists nearly did win. Forget about the Cold War, after World War I and in the wake the Russian Revolution Communists, without question, had both the intellectual and moral high ground. With that they nearly took the entire European continent without a single shot being fired. As for Jews, they walked away from traditional Judaism in mass to follow this Communist dream. (See Clarissa for a further discussion about the religious dimensions of Communism.)

Where does this leave our modern world? Try seeing things from the view of an Arab in 1991. Communism, which was a tremendous secularizing force in the Arab, has come crashing down with the fall of the Soviet Union so now what? Well there is Islam, not the watered down variety, but a "purified" form from its original source in Saudi Arabia. What is wrong with the world and how do we fix it? The West has dominated us politically, first through direct imperialism and later through the dictators they support and corrupted us culturally through secularism. Only Islam can unite the Arab peoples so they can take back what is rightfully theirs. As for science, we Arabs invented science before it was stolen from us by the West.

This narrative may lack the comprehensive elegance of either medieval Catholicism or nineteenth century Communism, but for those with no better narrative options this will likely do. I cannot say that fundamentalist Islam will likely prove a spiritual threat to Judaism, but as a physical threat it certainly is a match to either of the other narratives.         

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Hayek Vs. Keynes

So here we have a remarkably intelligent presentation of the economic debate between Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes as a rap song and a boxing match. Hayek is assisted by Ludwig van Mises, Keynes by Thomas Malthus. I must admit I am not sure how Malthus fits with Keynes. I would think of Malthus more as being with Hayek in terms of being against government spending on welfare programs. I guess the connection to Keynes is that they both saw man in animalistic terms, motivated by the passions, instead of Hayek's rational producer and consumer.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Farewell Osama Bin Ladin, Nice Knowing You

As I am sure by now my readers are aware American, forces have stormed Osama bin Laden's "evil fortress of doom," which, it turns out, was not some cave but an urban compound. I was hoping for bin Laden to go down with a pair of Gatling guns Wolfenstein boss style. It is only fair that the closest thing to a comic book villain this country has had since at least the Cold War should agree to give us the full comic book villain ending.

In thinking back on bin Laden in the shadow of the jubilant celebrations going on around the country I find that I do not hate him nor does the prospect of him being tortured by his promised seventy "Virginians" hold much appeal. Bin Laden was an enemy true, but he was a political enemy and hate, like any other emotion, has no place in politics. This is something both the Left and the Right fail to understood that their rush to bring morality into politics only serves to defeat their own desired ends.

If Bin Laden really was a monster, a being who either lacked reason or simply chose to act from malice, then there could never have been a chance for peace. How could one ever hope to negotiate with such a creature? Thus we would be left with no other option, but unrelenting Hobbesian war to the death with all moral considerations left to the wayside.

I like to believe that people, even Bin Laden, are rational and can be negotiated with. Bin Laden desired for the world to run a certain way, as a global Islamic theocracy. I do not judge him for that; I grant every man the right to want. Now it happens to be that the United States government also wanted things, such as global liberal democracy and capitalism, which conflicted with the desires of Bin Laden. Again there is nothing inherently wrong with this. It is inevitable that human beings, with their different wants, will come into conflict with each other. Now there are two ways to deal with conflict, negotiation or coercive violence. Rational beings have the advantage of being able to choose the former, unlike animals, which are limited to the latter. Bin Laden, through the act of 9/11, chose violence. An act that was surely not in my self interest, but I am not saying that he was wrong for doing so; I never had any reason to expect Bin Laden to take my self interest into consideration. For this reason, up until the day we killed him, I would have been open to negotiating some a peace agreement with bin Laden. He would not have even needed to apologize for 9/11; all I he would have needed to do was offer me an agreement that gave me a more preferable set of options than war, backed by a rational reason for me to believe that he would actually keep such an agreement.

Let every man believe as he wishes as long as he accepts the full logical consequences of those beliefs. Bin Laden believed that it was in his rational self interest to pursue war with the United States without keeping to the traditional rules of warfare such as only States wage war and war is to be limited to military personal. So be it, but in turn that means that we will have no choice but to reply in kind, waging pure unrelenting Hobbesian warfare against him, his supporters or even anyone we might scare enough into waging against him for us.

Should we have responded to 9/11 by nuking Afghanistan, killing millions of innocent civilian Muslims, or even taking out the capitols of every Muslim country? If it would have made this country safer then yes. Considering that, as long as we are considered rational enough to be negotiated with in the future, such extreme actions would make anyone in the future think twice about attacking this country; it is not obvious to me that the mass killing of even innocent civilians would have been the wrong decision. What would the Muslim world look like if Muslims on the street believed that the actions of people like bin Laden would lead to the deaths of them and their families. Whether or not bin Laden was rational and desired to live, I respect Islam enough to believe that the more than a billion ordinary Muslims are rational and do want to live.

I do not hold it against bin Laden for attacking us. Of course, since I do not see anything intrinsically wrong with such behavior, I have no objections to behaving just like him. I believe in rational people working out their differences. In support of that goal I am willing to be the worst monster in history; the sort of person that no rational being would ever seek to fight.