Showing posts with label Jonathan Sacks. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jonathan Sacks. Show all posts

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Postmodern Corporate State




In the medieval corporate state, groups negotiated for political and economic advantage. In the liberal state, individuals negotiated for the right to live as they chose so long as they did no harm to others. In the postmodern state, groups negotiate for something never before held to be the business of politics; recognition, regard, self-esteem. (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Home We Build Together pg. 55)


Dr. Haym Soloveitchik has a line that I often use with my own students: "In the pre-modern State there is no such thing as rights; there are privileges that you pay for." The common perception of the Middle Ages was that it was hierarchical and oppressive, with women, peasants, Jews and heretics being trod underfoot by the nobility and the Church. The hierarchical part of medieval politics was certainly true, though I am hardly convinced that hierarchy, in of itself as an abstract model of the universe, is necessarily bad. Certainly its replacement by an egalitarian model had far more to do with changes in the natural sciences than any sudden "enlightenment" as to the unjustness of hierarchy. The notion of the medieval State as oppressive misses the point. Knights were not treated better than peasants because of any assumption of their superiority (beyond the usual sense, common to all people in all times, that they are somehow better than other people). Knights performed a valuable service as professional soldiers; hence their services bought them special privileges. As with the changes in the natural sciences, the shift to mass "citizen's" armies did far more to bring down feudal hierarchy than any realization that it was "wrong." In highly militarized societies, where the dominant issue is not suffering sudden violent death, value is going to be predominantly determined based on military usefulness. Hence knights would be "better" than peasants and men "better" than women. The demilitarization of society (where we can now worry about social security because we expect to live long enough to receive it without suffering sudden violent death) did far more to bring down patriarchal hierarchy than any realization that there was anything "wrong" with it. Jews were tolerated sometimes in Christendom and sometimes persecuted not because Christians were "tolerant" or "intolerant," but because Jews were useful and therefore capable of directly or indirectly paying for their protection. With the economic revolutions of the late Middle Ages, Jews stopped being useful and could no longer pay for their protection; hence their expulsion from Western Europe. If there is an underlying mission to what I teach about the Middle Ages and the rise of the Modern World it is to get students out of their modern moralism, that we are somehow "better," than those living in the Middle Ages because we are "tolerant" and believe in "equality."

While I have no desire to return to a medieval feudal hierarchy (there are certainly good reasons why this form of government disappeared), I do believe that there is something very healthy about the model of privileges as opposed to rights. To be clear, I believe, and the medieval political tradition would agree with me, that there is such a thing as rights, in the sense of right and wrong and that one should not seek to persecute others simply because they are weaker than you. That being said, while I am morally obligated to support the "rights" of others, I can have no expectation that my "rights" will be respected in turn. All I can do is attempt to negotiate for my ability to live in peace by offering something, likely similar guarantees to others of my willingness to allow them to live in peace, in return. One of the fundamental weaknesses of modern liberalism is that it sees rights simply as givens, not something to be bartered for. This creates a situation where rights become a matter of groups demanding their "rights" and holding the rest of society up for blackmail. Now many of these things, whether gay marriage, equal pay for women or protection for illegal immigrants, may be perfectly legitimate. That being said, if there is no sense of negotiating and paying, then there can be no discussion, just the stomping of one's foot, demanding what you want and insisting that anyone who does not give you want you want is "intolerant" and an "enemy of the free society." The moment we stop thinking about rights and instead start talking about privileges, privileges that we pay for, then we might come to decide that certain "rights" might be too expensive and that we can do without them.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Am I a Misogynist Teacher? (Maybe a Little)




My previous post on the issue of bodily functions and its role in civil rights generated some very good comments. It was a risky piece in that I was almost asking to be misunderstood and accused of being a misogynist who believes that women should be sent "back to the kitchen." I am particularly heartened that Clarissa and Miss S. gave me a pass. I see them as my guiding lights when it comes to feminism. If they decide not to kill me then I feel that I can rest easy, knowing that I have lived up to my responsibilities a gender aware male. In a sense though, the charge of sexism has some validity in that a basic argument of modern feminism does apply to me. My subconscious model of normalcy is male. The student in my head whom I prepare to teach is male. Even my approach to teaching can be regarded as very "male." I work within a very top down model where I lecture and ask questions. My goal is to critically analyze historical texts through the rubric of clearly established rules, much as a lawyer cross examines a witness. I am not naturally inclined to focus on forming a personal relationship with students nor am I apt to ask my students how they "feel" about a text. Obviously I am aware that many of students, even usually my best students, are women. As a liberally inclined person, women are welcome into my classroom and I will treat them as "one of the guys." This, though, does not solve the problem.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in the Home We Build Together, criticizes the Enlightenment model of tolerance in that it treats minorities like guests in a hotel. Even when the West chooses to be "tolerant," it does not change the fact that this is a white European Christian system. Other people are allowed to take part in this system that was not created by them or with them in mind. They are just welcome to reside in it. Rabbi Sacks poses the challenge of how do we create a home in which everyone is allowed to take an active role in creating the system.

To apply Rabbi Sacks, my approach to teaching does create a very real problem for women since it creates a situation where they become "guests" being fit into the situation. This is a problem with our society in general. 150 years of women's rights has not changed the fact that we are still a male culture attempting to fit women in. Because I recognize the situation that women are in I go out of my way to make the effort to try to help female students feel comfortable in my class. This is particularly the case in terms of getting to talk in class; I consciously am on the look out to make sure that girls in my class are not getting shouted down by some of the louder boys in class. This in of itself, though, only exacerbates the trap we are in. By the very act of attempting to compensate for my subconscious biases I am still placing them as an "other" to be brought into a system not designed for them; in essence as "guests."

I relate to this personally on two levels, as a Jew and an Asperger. For example, growing up as an American Jew, living outside Jewish enclaves such as Brooklyn NY, every holiday season I had to come to terms with the fact that I stood outside of Christmas and thus American society as a whole. The Christmas ads and the television specials where not made with me in mind. I was simply an inconvenient reality to be tolerated and worked into the system. Because of this I developed a split perception of myself and my place in American culture. I am an American even to the extent that I have an easier time relating to American non-Jews than I do with Israeli Jews. Yet I am an American who stands outside the Christmas window display. Standing apart from American society as it celebrates Christmas becomes my part in American society and what makes me truly American. Similarly with Asperger syndrome; our society has constructed itself around the assumption that everyone is neurotypical. Of course it is undeniable that not everyone is a neurotypical and we are in the process of working out the full implications of this. I am stuck as the outsider in society peering in and observing and even tolerated, but never truly a part of things. As an outsider I welcome all other outsiders as allies and, may I say it, brothers.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Bible as the Political Foundation of the Democratic State: My Response to Dr. Lively IV


Mr. Chinn,

I did not blame the Rwandan genocide on homosexuals.  Once again, you can't trust these "gay" activists to do anything but misrepresent the facts to their political advantage.  The Box Turtle video is heavily edited in true Hitlerian style.  I used the Rwandan genocide only as an example of conduct of which only certain types of people are capable who have such an lack of "feminine" characteristics in their gender balance (vis a vis the principle of male/female duality in Genesis 1:27) that they can commit horrible atrocities without any sense of shame.  If you want to understand the context, see pages 50-56 of my book, which I was lecturing from during that segment of the seminar.  Even if I had accused the Rwandan killers of homosexuality, which I did not, I clearly stated that homosexuals of this type are fortunately very rare and that most homosexuals are not like this.  I also spoke at length about the necessity of treating homosexuals as fellow human beings who happen to suffer from a behavioral problem that the rest of us don't -- but that we all have challenges in life to address.  No one who attended my lectures and listened attentively could reasonably justify capital punishment for homosexuals based solely on my teachings.

I read Rabbi Sacks' editorial and agree with him.  I think his position is closer to mine that to yours, especially in his affirmation of natural rights as they were understood by the founding fathers.  Locke's Second Treatise of Government is precisely the sort of application of Biblical principles to government that I am recommending.

I only yielded on Shaw to make the greater point that my purpose in contacting you was not to advocate a position, but to refer you to a source that was relevant to your research.  I don't concede re Shaw, but am tabling my original assertion pending an eventual review of the source by either one of us.

I don't think you understood my arguments regarding secularism.  I do not argue for religious tests or rituals in government, but for the necessity of a Biblically-informed worldview in the leadership and culture (to the extent that government actively influences culture. I do not argue that atheists cannot be good citizens, just that their worldview cannot produce a healthy orderly society.

I don't think my discussion of Biblical principles is spiritual in the sense that you meant it.  Yes, I believe Scripture must be the final authority in spiritual matters, and I suspect (though I haven't read them) that Maimonides, et al would agree -- as I believe with some confidence based on my limited readings of Thomas Aquinas and Augustine that they would also agree. Neither do I disregard the physical commandment against homosexuality. I start with the physical commandment and the actions of God as stated in Scripture, and, like the authorities you cite, engage in deductive and inductive reasoning to extrapolate the principles.

True, this is also what the "gay" affirming heretics of the "mainline" protestant denominations have done, but that isn't proof that the method is invalid, but merely that someone is wrong in his analysis.

This method of extrapolating and applying Biblical principles is literally the essence of the common-law jurisprudence that undergirds Western Civilization. And its concept of Stare Decisis is the same philosophical assumption inherent in Catholic and Jewish approach to religious authority i.e. that once a matter has been decided by a learned man under God-granted authority, it needn't be contested the next time that same or closely similar matter arises. Why is Maimonides a great authority? Because he invented his own theology independent of the Torah or because he analyzed the meaning of the Torah so brilliantly that other great minds conceded that he was right?

Protestantism arose when great minds became unwilling to accept the conclusions of the religious authorities of their age and began to offer alternative analyses. Granted, it is a tradition that produces a lot of division, but I think its legacy via men like Locke is a vast improvement over the centralized authority of the Holy Roman Empire and is successors.

As for your final comments regarding "homophobia," I still think you're embracing politically correct assumptions in contradiction to your faith and to good logic.

Dr. Scott Lively



My response:

Dr. Lively,  

I do not trust homosexual activists nor do I trust you. For that matter I do not trust activists in general with any claim that furthers their cause. This is a basic part of the historian's training. We interrogate texts; we can tell when we our sources are being dishonest with us and we can often even make a good guess of what the truth is. Like a good police interrogator, we can take our source and turn his words against him. Your stated position is that you do not blame Rwanda on homosexuals, but simply believe that homosexuality played an important in creating the sort of people who could do such a thing. In an ivory tower of dialectics, I can recognize that between such beliefs. There would even be a distinction if we were to "legally" put homosexuals on trial for causing genocide. That being said, for a lay person on the street there is not going to be a difference. If homosexuality helps create people capable of mass murder then the future safety of the country requires that we round up and imprison homosexuals and if that proves impractical we must kill them. You did not make your arguments in a legal or genocide studies journal. You traveled to Uganda to publically make these statements. I am certainly no gay rights activist, but there is nothing unfair about that video of yours. You cannot play innocent on this one.

As to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, notice that he openly acknowledges that homosexuals were victims of the Holocaust. He does not advocate rounding up homosexuals, putting them in prison, or even trying to cure them. All that he is interested in doing is to prevent gay rights from turning into a right to go on the offense and blackmailing people of faith. In terms of the role of the Bible in government, I acknowledge that historically the rise of democratic political theory in Europe had a lot to do with the Christian, particularly Protestant, theology of the Early Modern period. Much of my efforts in teaching history go into debunking the secularist narrative that assumes that modernity was a secular project. As I often tell my student, "modernity was a Christian project that had interesting unforeseen consequences." John Locke is a very good example of this. One cannot read Locke without coming to terms with the fact that he is engaged in a Christian project to create a reformed Christian society. My friend Michael Makovi has been blogging on this issue. You might enjoy his work. He recommended an article to me by Michael McVicar on R. J. Rushdoony that I think may offer some context as to where someone like you fits into the liberal tradition.

The fact that the Bible has played an important role in the rise of free societies means that it should be a part of the historical and philosophical discussion; it does not mean that we should be trying to implement biblical law or that we need a society of Bible believers. Liberal Democracy seems to work in Japan and South Korea despite the fact that they are not a Bible believing Christian society. I am glad you recognize that atheists can, as individuals, be good citizens. For me that is all that is needed. Good law abiding atheists are welcome to join my religion neutral state. They can vote, hold public office and even attempt to convince people that atheism is the truth and that it will lead to a more ethical society. They may be wrong, but I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and accept that they came by these beliefs honestly and they are not involved in some satanic conspiracy to destroy society.

As to the influence of modern political correctness on my thought, I plead guilty as charged. I am a product of late twentieth and early twenty-first century American culture. Historians of the future who read my writing will have me quickly pegged. My historical context plays a critical role in explaining what issues interest me and what approaches I take to responding to the issues of my day. I am the son of an Orthodox rabbi, who grew up in Columbus OH and is trying to reconcile the religious sensibilities of his youth and the liberal culture that he has spent his life as a spectator of. This sense of being a spectator is reinforced by my Asperger syndrome. The attempted reconciliation has been to turn to the past toward the medieval rationalism of Maimonides and the classical liberalism of John Locke and J. S. Mill. Maybe I will be of interest to historians of the future as someone, in the twenty-first century, who still managed to be a harbinger of future thought.

How might I have thought about homosexuality if I had lived several decades ago? I probably would have thought a lot less about it since it would not have been a major political issue for my historical context. I probably would have a much stronger visceral reaction against it. For example, despite the fact that polygamy is in the Bible, I still have a strong visceral reaction to the very idea of women taking their turn with the man. I stopped reading Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series once you had the main female characters deciding that they all loved Rand and that therefore they would share him. If I spent time in a society where polygamy was accepted I would probably say that, while polygamy is not my thing, people are free to do it in the privacy of their own homes. (By the way I do believe that polygamy should be legal even if I do not support government recognition of it and that polygamous couples have the right to anything that the government chooses to give homosexual couples.) In the end I am guided by principles, principles that have little to do with modern liberalism. If I were really interested in bowing before political correctness I would not be taking the sort of positions that I do. Remember, that within the context of academia, I am what passes for a conservative.

(I think this marks the end of the conversation. It has been fun.)