Wednesday, June 13, 2012
In this hilarious skit we have Brian Keith Dalton (Mr. Deity) explaining to a supply sider why she deserves to be tortured by a sadistic Keynesian despite the fact that in all other aspects of her life she is an exemplary human being. The moral of the story, made explicit at the end, is that there is something inherently immoral about a deity that damns people for all eternity for their failure to believe the correct doctrines. Furthermore to be a believer means that one expects to spend eternity standing on the sidelines defending God to loved ones as they are tortured. Such a person is perhaps worse than the actual torturer.
As a Jew, I feel little need to come to the defense of the doctrine of eternal damnation. Even the Christian tradition regarding eternal damnation is for more complex than Christian fundamentalists and their secular critics seem to realize. (Origen for example believed that everyone, even Satan, will eventually be saved.) That being said, I feel the need to respond in defense of notion of eternal damnation for intellectual error.
Is there an intellectual error that could justify eternal damnation? How about Nazism? We tend to associate Nazism with jack booted mass murderers armed with gas chambers. The reality of Nazism was that it was enabled by millions of moral decent pious Germans (and later by people in occupied countries), who did nothing immoral themselves and might have even likely personally opposed the "excesses" of Nazism, but agreed to go along with the regime in some fashion. Some of them did so for pragmatic reasons such as rebuilding the German economy and stopping the very real threat of a Communist takeover. Others simply complied out of fear. It is certainly not my place to judge them; if I was in their place, I might not have done differently. The important thing is that we are dealing with people who we would deem good people, the kind we would want as our neighbors. Take for example Pope Benedict XVI, who by all accounts is a highly moral individual, but as a teenager was in the Hitler Youth.
Now imagine Benedict XVI coming before the heavenly tribunal only to be told that despite the upstanding life he led on Earth, he was damned for putting on that Hitler Youth uniform. His one real test in life was to be confronted with the army of Satan demanding that he join them. He had the option of not putting on their uniform; they would have killed him, but like the early Christian martyrs he would have been guaranteed a place in heaven. He put that uniform on and saved his life, but by doing so threw his soul away. God now hates him for all eternity and says that Benedict XVI made his bed and can now lie in it for all eternity with all the other popes condemned by Dante. This may not be how I would judge souls, but I am not God. If God did operate like this, I would think he was being tough, but would still have to acknowledge that he was acting within the realm of justice.
This brings us to the critical point of the position of the saved loved ones of the damned. In our German scenario that would be righteous Germans like Sophie Scholl and Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These people opposed the Nazi regime and paid the ultimate price for it. Could we hold it against them if, from their thrones of glory, they waved at all their friends, who chose to live long full lives by not opposing Nazism, saying: "see we told you so, now burn in Hell for all eternity." In particular in the case of Bonhoeffer as a critical part of his theology was the tremendous "cost of discipleship." One could not hope to get to heaven through "cheap grace," but only by taking up the cross and being willing to literally die for Christ. This was what motivated his path to martyrdom; he believed he had no other choice and that the salvation of his soul required it.
I do not assume that Benedict XVI will burn in Hell for his Catholicism or even for being in the Hitler Youth. I certainly hope I will not burn for my sympathy with supply side economics. That being said, the essential principle of eternal damnation for intellectual error is at least theoretically sound and in keeping with divine justice.
Tuesday, January 31, 2012
To turn to Rabbi Boteach's treatment of Christianity. Considering that this is a book that is about reconciling Jews and Christians, one would expect Rabbi Boteach to take a positive view of Jewish-Christian relations. And there is much within the Christian tradition to support such a view from Augustine's witness doctrine to the active philo-Semitism of early modern Protestant millenarians. This is not to let Christianity Pontius Pilate itself from numerous crimes against Jews, but there is certainly room, particularly for American Jews who have benefited so greatly from American Christian society, to be charitable to Christianity and see its crimes as crimes of Christians instead of Christianity. The account that Rabbi Boteach delivers is absolutely crude, in a sense even worse than his treatment of the Romans. For example he calls Augustine an anti-Semite. Calling John Chrysostom an anti-Semite is one thing as would calling the later writings of Martin Luther, but to accuse Augustine of anti-Semitism is to render the very term meaningless. By this logic any Christian who ever believed that Judaism is a historical relic and that Jews are better off simply converting to Christianity is an anti-Semite. That would render almost all Christians anti-Semites and leave any Christians not interested in making radical changes to his theology no reason to work with us. We would also be left with no word to describe those with a psychological obsession with Jews as incarnations of evil and wish to cause them physical harm.
If we are to accept Rabbi Boteach's narrative of Jewish-Christian relations, it all started with a misunderstanding over who killed Jesus. Early Christians for political reasons decided to blame the Jews instead of the Romans. Christians soon came to believe their own nonsense and for nearly two-thousand years, before Vatican II and the publication of Kosher Jesus, have unfortunately hated and murdered Jews. Rabbi Boteach does not paint a clear picture of this history, something about Crusades, pogroms and Pope Pious XII working arm and arm with Hitler to carry out the Holocaust. It is like Rabbi Boteach is giving a summary of Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg's Devil and the Jews, possibly through vague recollections of anti-Christian polemics heard in yeshiva, without any of the nuance, which Trachtenberg did not have much of in the first place.
Now that the misunderstanding has been clarified, thanks to Rabbi Boteach's brilliant efforts, Jews and Christians can finally come together in the recognition of their common heritage. Jews should forgive Evangelical Christians because they support Israel and uphold traditional values in American society. What Rabbi Boteach likes about Evangelical Christians efforts to uphold traditional values is unclear, because he also attacks them for causing divisiveness and for focusing too much attention on gay marriage. So it is mainly for taking right wing positions on Israel I guess. Catholics are nice to mainly because, unlike Rabbi Boteach's Evangelical friends, they are not trying to convert us these days, passed Vatican II and the two recent pope have visited synagogues. Of the greatest importance, Rabbi Boteach has personally met with Pope Benedict XVI, shaken hands with him and can assure us that he is a really nice guy.
I try to place myself in the place of Rabbi Boteach's assumed audience, Christians, and picture how I would react to this book if I were a Christian. I would be offended by the mere fact that someone from a different group has the nerve to tell me what to think about issues critical to my faith, attacks what I believe in ways that sound suspiciously like the pot calling the kettle black, and is dishonest enough to deny that he is even doing any of this. And this would be before I actually opened the book. At which point I would add that he has the hypocrisy to accuse me of blaming him for killing my Lord and the same time as he blames me for killing his grandparents. The fig leaf about not blaming people for the sins of their parents would not count for much as Rabbi Boteach himself clearly does not believe it as demonstrated by his obsessive insistence that Jews (the real ones and not the fake traitorous Jews, who obviously have no Jewish descendants alive today) did not kill Jesus. I would come away thinking that Jews are arrogant, self-righteous, think that the entire world runs around them and that only their interests matter. In other words what Aspergers are routinely accused of applied to form a mild anti-Semitic neurosis.
What was Rabbi Boteach thinking when he wrote this book? From his presentation it is clear that he is an excellent public speaker and would make for an effective politician. Thinking of him as an entertainer with political ambitions, I think, explains a lot. He is not running for public office, (though he does want to be Chief Rabbi of England) but as the rabbi for Christians. In this it is only a relatively minor annoyance that the Jewish community has yet to accept him in this role just as long as non-Jews think that he represents Judaism or at least see him as representing what Judaism should be. It says something that Rabbi Boteach brags not just of meeting the pope, but of being good friends with Christian missionaries and of having spoken at missionary training schools. Tuvia Singer at least has to make up his Christian alter-ego to present Christian missionary tactics to Jewish audience. The fact that Rabbi Boteach wrote a book about Jesus for Christians instead of Jews also says a lot. Add to it the almost messianic tone in which he writes about this book as if he expects that this one book will change Jewish-Christian relations forever. Like a politician, Rabbi Boteach does not really think in terms of ideological positions to be supported, but in personal relationships to be maintained. Ideology is a role to play in order to get on stage. The point being to get on the public stage and secure the best possible position and ideology must not be allowed to get in the way. Now that Rabbi Boteach has his public role as the rabbi he is free to use his personal charisma to make as many friendships and gain as much influence as possible even from the people he is supposed to be in opposition to.
Reading Kosher Jesus as a politician's speech explains why Rabbi Boteach thinks he can get away with offending both Jewish and Christian audiences. He had to know that Jews would be offended by the concept so he wrote a book that is in practice very Jewish in the hope that any Jewish readers would be assured of whose side he was on. On the other hand he hoped that Christians would just focus on the premise of a rabbi who likes Jesus. Like any good politician, Rabbi Boteach works in generalities in the hopes that each part of his audience will only hear the part they would already be inclined to hear. Keeping things as shallow as possible is critical, because it hinders anyone from taking him seriously intellectually and criticizing him. How can you criticize ideas that are not really there? It is the sentiments that count anyway and the beauty of sentiments is that, unlike ideas, they can contradict each other without there being a problem.
Rabbi Boteach could have written a valuable book, making the case to Jews to rethink Jesus and by extension their Christian neighbors. To defend himself he could put in something above the grade school level of scholarship that he did and presented himself as just a humble representative of a tradition. Instead Rabbi Boteach needed to be the rabbi for Christians, something unique and incredible to match his inner vision of himself; in essence he needed to be his own Kosher Jesus.
Sunday, January 29, 2012
To get back to Rabbi Boteach's view of the Romans, for an author asking readers to show some charity to Jews, Rabbi Boteach's attacks on the Romans are particularly shrill. In fact I would go so far as to say that Rabbi Boteach's statements against Rome compare to that of the most vitriolic Christian denunciations of Jews as deicides. If you think I am exaggerating, I would point out that Rabbi Boteach repeatably compares the Jewish situation under Roman rule to Jews living under Nazi occupied Poland. This is a complete distortion of the Roman record. Not to exonerate the Romans, but they were more than just oppressive conquerors, who held gladiatorial games. Far more than the power of its army, Rome succeeded because it possessed an effective bureaucracy and a legal system that others wanted to be ruled by. Rome did not just beat it's opponents into submission; it seduced them into willingly joining the empire. The same Philo and Josephus that Rabbi Boteach uses to show that Pilate committed atrocities were overall very positive about Roman rule, particularly about Augustus and Tiberius. We know from Roman sources that Julius Caesar was particularly popular with the Jews of Rome. Rabbi Boteach talks about Pompey desecrating the Temple, but somehow leaves out the fact that he was invited in by Jews to help out in a civil war. For all of Rabbi Boteach's talk about the Pharisees being Jewish patriots trying to lead their people to freedom, R. Yohanan b. Zakai smuggled himself out of the city and surrendered to Vespasian, who was such a heartless monster that he spared the city of Yavneh allowing for the survival of rabbinic Judaism. Even later generations of rabbis had a difficult time completely condemning the Romans and admitted that the Romans did benefit Israel through their building projects. Did the Romans kill many Jews? Yes. Were they great humanitarians? No. Were they the Nazis? No.
Clearly Rabbi Boteach obsession with condemning the Romans, as can be seen from the book and how he answered my question, leads him to further misunderstandings of the nature of Roman rule. He uses the fact that the Romans do not play a larger role in the Gospel stories as evidence that the texts were edited to reflect a pro Roman bias. Obviously there was such a process, which has been obvious to scholars long before Rabbi Boteach, but that is beside the point. The Romans do not show up more because part of their not completely barbaric policy of occupation was to grant large measures of native self rule to provinces in the empire. It should be no more surprising that non-Jews do not play a larger role in the Gospels than it should surprise readers to not find many non-Jews in the American edition of the Yated. The lesson we should take from the relative absence of non-Jews is that the New Testament is, for the most part, a Jewish book written for Jews.
Keeping the comparision with contemporary Jewish rhetoric is important in exonerating the New Testament from charges of anti-Semitism. Boteach claims to wish to do this, but in practice seems to do the opposite. Jesus and his followers were Jews. The books of the New Testament, for the most part, were written as Jewish books. It makes no more sense to call the New Testament anti-Semitic than it would be to call the Yated anti-Semitic for what it says about other Jews. For that matter I am sure Rabbi Boteach would not want to be called anti-Semitic for speaking out like he did against those within Chabad, who are denouncing him nor would he want his Jewish opponents labled as anti-Semites.
It is almost as if Rabbi Boteach has this fear that if his readers do not place all the blame on first century Romans they will blame twenty-first century Jews. This is a counter-productive attitude toward anti-Semitism as it makes our denial of responsibility a little too earnest, as if we have something to hide. Christians should not blame me for killing their Lord not because my ancestors were not shouting in the streets of Jerusalem for Jesus' blood to be on their hands and mine, but because I most certainly did not call for it and it should be obvious that I am the sort of person who never would think of doing so.
Sunday, June 26, 2011
As it should surprise no one, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann takes a strongly right wing stance in favor of Israel and lashes out against President Obama. One can certainly discuss whether or not Ms. Bachmann's policies would be good for Israel. What interests me here is how textbook Evangelical Protestant she is. She talks about growing up as a lover of Israel, seeing the Old Testament and biblical Israel as the necessary foundation of Christianity. She even spent time volunteering in Israel.
It is important to understand how rooted this attitude is within Protestantism, one of whose foundations is a turn to the Bible and particularly the Old Testament. In practice this emphasis on the Old Testament has consistently led to philo-Semitic views of Jews as in some sense continuing to be the chosen people of God. This holds for Protestants as long as they root themselves within the Old Testament; the moment they depart from this view, the consequences are severe. It was not a coincidence that the German Christian Church under the Nazis divested iteself from the Old Testament and even rejected "that Jewish Rabbi Paul."
Ms. Bachmann also talks about the importance of democracy. This too is rooted in her Protestant use of the Old Testament. Early modern Protestants read the Old Testament as a political document and took from it such notions covenant, which led to the contract theory of government, and individual autonomy in seeking salvation. (See The Hebrew Republic. Of course many early modern Protestants also took from the Old Testament the idea that the government should tax the wealthy to support the poor, but you cannot expect everything to pass over.)
Whether or not you support Ms. Bachmann, (and I do not) it is important to understand that her support for Israel and democracy are genuine. They just do not fit in within liberal understandings of supporting Israel and democracy. Ms. Bachmann's views, though, of the world are not rooted in liberalism, modern or classical, they are rooted in Protestantism. Any discussion of the American right today needs to start with a serious understanding of that Protestant tradition.
Friday, May 13, 2011
So, with Nazis in space, I think there is only one thing that can save humanity, Jews in Space.
Friday, December 31, 2010
Baruch Pelta, in his second post, gets nasty, accusing me of putting up a "destabilizing lie meant to pull emotional strings." Yes I have the nerve to compare his mode of dealing with opponents to that of Haredim in that, while intellectually he may understand that people disagree with him, at a psychological level he fails to internalize this. This gets him stuck on the fact that he is "objectively" correct. (Note that I did not accuse him of being a Nazi, which is what I would have done if I were trying to simply score polemical points.) One should not think ill of Baruch; this is a problem that afflicts most people. Being a true liberal, one who respects all beliefs and refuses to use any physically coercive measures, even against those he disagrees with, to force people to go against those beliefs, requires years of disciplined critical thinking. It is something I still strive to work on in myself.
A useful exercise is to think in terms of x and y instead of actual ideas. X and y are both ideas held by people living in society. In order to get x and y supporters to not force their beliefs on the other they need to be promised that the other side, in turn, will not try to force their beliefs on them. Now x might be evolution and y creationism, but that is irrelevant in face of the more abstract x and y social contract model we agree to serve. Thinking in abstract terms allows you to get around the psychological hang ups we all have about the beliefs that seem to us to be obviously true.
Working as an intellectual historian also helps. For example I have been spending much of my time these few months trying to understand Sabbatianism. It is not my place to judge those who believed that Sabbatai Sevi was the Messiah. If it seems absurd to me then I have to work all the harder as seeing Sabbatai as they might have and put myself in a frame of mind in which accepting Sabbatai as the Messiah can become reasonable. This is done by immersing oneself in the words of Sabbatians themselves and their worldview.
In terms of actual arguments, Baruch challenges my larger definition of religion, pointing out that the Constitution specifically refers to religion and not to ideas in general. Fair enough, but I would point out that in the eighteenth century the only examples of large scale organized ideological groups, the kind that might have the power to overthrow the government in hopes of being able to force their beliefs on others were religions. Keep in mind that the main "religious" concern of the Founding Fathers was to not have Catholics and Protestants repeating Europe's religion wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on American soil. I assume that they would have adjusted their terms if they were writing only several decades later and saw the communist party. At the end of the day it does not make sense to have one set of rules for the Catholic Church and another for the communist party. Baruch, are you suggesting that the beliefs of communists are outside of the first amendment? Richard Dawkins, of all people, has essentially made my argument that religion should not be treated any differently from any other belief. I agree with Dawkins that being a Quaker should not offer you special conscientious objector status not available to people who are pacifists on simple intellectual grounds.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
The plot of Atlas Shrugged occurs against the background of Friedrich Hayek's scenario. The biggest departure is that Ayn Rand never bothers to bring in a formal dictator. Even this can be seen as an astute adaption of Hayek. For Hayek the creation of a Hitler, while the endpoint, is really incidental to the whole process. The real work of Fascism was not done by the Nazis, but by the mainstream German left and right decades before. Tyranny does not corrupt the free society, but is the incidental byproduct of the corrupted free society.
In the novel the two main characters, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, are businesspeople trying to succeed against a government and a society following Hayek's downward trajectory. Dagny works in railroads and is trying to build a new line in Colorado, the state with the fewest government regulations and the most robust economy. Hank is trying to market his new "Rearden Steel." Dagny and Hank form a business relationship (and start sleeping together) with Hank providing Dagny with Rearden Steel and Dagny providing Hank the opportunity to showcase to the world what Rearden Steel can do. The problem for Dagny and Hank is that the United States which they live in is dominated by the notion that private businesses should be run in such a way as to advance "the public interest." Dagny and Hank are unaware of this change in the culture and its implications for them. They are both people consumed with pursuing their own particular interests (with almost Asperger like dedication), who assume that everyone thinks like they do. This is not the case with Dagny's brother, James Taggart, and Hank's chief competitor, Orren Boyle, who embrace this new public minded spirit and, instead of working on their businesses, devote themselves to working the corridors of Washington in service of this "public interest."
In the name of public interest James gets an "anti-dog-eat-dog rule," to limit "destructive" competition and drive his chief competitor out of business. Next, James and Boyle get an "Equalization of Opportunity Bill" passed with the help of Wesley Mouch, Hank's lobbyist, who betrays his employer. The Equalization of Opportunity Bill is a laundry list of regulations designed to serve the "public interest," but which descends into favors for special interests at the expense of someone else. The railroad unions want fewer cars to be run on each train and a lower speed limit to give more hours to workers. James, in the spirit of public mindedness, gives in to this demand when he is given a break from paying back the bonds bought by the investors Dagny brought aboard. Hank is stopped from moving his business to Colorado in order that jobs not be lost, but a limit is also placed on how much he can produce in order that other less fortunate people, like Boyle, are given a chance.
With the help of people like James Taggart and Orren Boyle, Wesley Mouch is able to become the Senior Coordinator of the Bureau of Economic Planning and Natural Resources, an unelected official with almost dictatorial power over the country. He rules through an unholy alliance of special interests, from James and Orren to Fred Kinnon of Amalgamated Labor and Dr. Floyd Ferris of the State Science Institute. Together they pass Directive 10-289, which shifts the logic of the Equalization of Opportunity Bill from corrupt meddlesome government to State Fascism. Everyone must work for the public benefit; anyone who does not is not just selfish, but a criminal. All businesses must produce the same amount as pre-depression times. Workers must work the same amount of hours and at the same pay as they did before. No one is allowed to leave their job without special permission from the "Unification Board." Everyone must spend the same amount of money as they did in previous years. There is even a rule against new books being published (including books that might be critical of these policies) so that authors whom the public had yet to read could be given a chance.
In the spirit of Hayek, Rand is most effective when confronting the issue whose public interest is at stake and the consequences of accepting unstated philosophical premises. Some of the best scenes in the book are when the various villains wave the banner of "public interest," a term that Rand turns into a curse word by the end of the book. The villains, to great comic effect, sit down and try negotiate, between themselves, which of the many "worthy" public interests need to be considered and who should have to be sacrificed in the name of the public interest. Finally there are the moments when these characters have to face up to the true consequences of their abandonment of firm moral principles for pragmatism. For example, James Taggart finds himself yelling about the sacredness of a contract, when the labor union controlled Unification Board makes him the sacrifice to their public interest, only to realize that he was the one who destroyed the value of a contract when he sacrificed his investors by not paying them for the bonds.
The crucial difference between Hayek and Rand, where Rand goes off the train tracks to become Rand, is that for Hayek this scenario is a tragedy put into place by intelligent people, who had all the right intentions. If Hayek attacked Fascism (the socialism of the right), he also was defending German culture, essentially telling his English audience: we Germans did this not because we had any natural disposition to tyrannical rule or for mindlessly obeying orders. Our liberal tradition was as good as yours if not better. We fell because we so desired for the government to advance the public interest and turned to this ideal several decades before you did. Both the left and the right accepted this until between these two forces there were no honest liberals left. If these ideas came from the left, it was the German right that truly embraced them and took them to their logical and murderous conclusions.
For Rand, the problem is not just the notion that government should act for the public interest, but that people should try acting for the good of others in the first place. Thus, in the novel, there is no spirit of tragedy, or even tragic-comedy, in which good people are brought down by the unforeseen consequences of their strengths. On the contrary, there are simply moral degenerates, who fail to live according to Objectivist values of selfishness, and therefore deserve their fates. This is played out in Rand's solution to the problems faced by her heroes. She has them join John Galt and his followers in their "strike of the mind" as they attempt to bring down the entire economy even at the expense of allowing millions of people to die of starvation. For Rand, the true villains are not Mouch and his cronies in Washington, but the millions of people who honestly believed in doing good for others and thought they were doing that by supporting Mouch's economic planning. This point is most clearly made in one particular scene in which Rand sets up a major train crash in a Taggart tunnel. Before the accident occurs, Rand offers vignettes of different anonymous people on the train about to die, including a mother with her children who had always been hostile to the rich and assumed that government regulations would only harm them. The message is that these people, including women and children, were responsible for this state of affairs and deserved to die. The heroes are those, like John Galt, who can sit back with a lit cigarette (the groups special kind, featuring the symbol of the dollar) and allow society to crumble.
Following Hayek, I recognize and honor the good intentions and intelligence of those who support government control over the economy in the name of the public good. The fact that this is a path to the destruction of liberty, takes nothing away from this. On the contrary, it makes it a tragedy to be stopped and, failing that, to be mourned for. If a libertarian society is ever going to succeed it will do so ultimately because people are willing to work for the greater good and are willing to do so even without the government whip. For me, Libertarianism is not the rejection of public responsibility it is the opportunity to finally embrace it.
Friday, July 30, 2010
Yesterday my roommate showed me a clip from Jon Stewart's Daily Show about an anti-homosexual pastor, arguing that homosexuals are exceptionally brutal since they lack any self control.
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
I had an even bigger laugh since this pastor was none other than Scott Lively, with whom I had a long series of exchanges several months ago on this very blog. My responses to Lively were more substantive, but not nearly as devastating as what Jason Jones does to him.
Sunday, June 13, 2010
I would like to continue discussing the role of theism in morality. Earlier I argued that theism is necessary for morality not because people cannot be moral without God, but because the very act of making statements about morality require distinctively theistic assumptions about the nature of the universe. When I say that slavery is wrong, I distinctively need to be saying something more than I "personally" believe that slavery is in "bad taste." In order for there even to be a conversation I need to be arguing that there is some sort of universal law, recognized even by slavers, that opposes slavery.
When I posed this argument to James Maxey on his blog he responded:
Today, many cultures regard killing and theft as bad stuff, but if you were a Viking or a Hun or a vandal, it was your day job. Rape is an especially heinous crime today, but the Roman Empire had a foundational myth that boasted of stealing women from neighboring lands and raping them. Slavery is way up at the top of the no-no list, but we revere men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who bought and sold slaves. We hold in such moral esteem that we put their faces on our money. Today, ethnic cleansing is regarded as a war crime, but see how far the Cherokee get if they start arguing we should give back Georgia and North Carolina, taken from them by force in well-documented history, by men who have statues erected to them in our nation's capital. If morality is composed of universal principles, did we just get lucky in stumbling onto them in the last fifty years or so? Had all men who existed before now been abject failures in the eyes of the universal moral authority? Or do morals change as people change?
Personally, I welcome the idea that human morals are constantly being changed by humans, for humans. For the most part, it looks like our ability to change our moral attitudes has resulted in a kinder, fairer world for blacks, women, children, not to mention you and me, than the world we would live in if some moral authority had fixed what was right and what was wrong at some point in the distant past.
Before I continue I would like to thank James for treating me in a respectable fashion during our various back and forths. He is also an extremely talented novelist and I urge readers to check out his Dragon Age books. Beyond the issue of morality, as a historian, I find James' statement to be objectionable. He brings up the issue of slavery in the United States. His narrative of how slavery ended is that values simply changed. What this ignores is the debate that went on in American culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries where abolitionists challenged the rest of society as to how they could tolerate slavery when slavery contradicted principle of "all men are created equal," a principle that even ardent slave owners claimed to believe in. Remember, it was Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, who put these words into the Declaration of Independence as a founding principle of government. It is certainly possible to justify slavery while still maintaining some form of "all men are created equal," but it requires an extensive background in classical political theory and risks rendering the entire premise meaningless. Supporters of slavery were put on the defensive, both in terms of what they had to say to society and to their own children, and, over the slow course of decades and centuries, they lost this debate. They lost the debate over slavery and eventually they even lost the debate over segregation. This debate relied upon the assumption that there are core moral truths, without which there could have been no debate. The distinctively religious nature of this debate was not a coincidence.
There are practical implications as to these differing models as to how we come to our moral beliefs. As with fashion, popular morality is subject to change. Those who attempt to fight the shift in fashions are no different than those who expect society to respect the absolute validity of their holy books. The religious fundamentalist who believes that women should dress a certain way because his holy books say so is going to be in trouble when he comes against people who reject either his interpretation of his books or reject their authority completely. James and I can only grin when this person tries to get his daughter to dress in a certain way by beating her over the head with his book as she in turn rejects that book and proceeds to pursue alternative modes of dress, such as bell-bottoms, and even alternative life styles. This scenario ceases to be funny, though, when our daughters, in addition to deciding that women and bell bottoms are hot, read Mein Kampf, watch Triumph of the Will, decide that these Aryan values speak to them and want to become lesbian Nazis in bell-bottoms. What is James going to tell his daughter; that he personally is a liberal, but he recognizes that values change and that he will respect her lifestyle choices no matter what, even if it means becoming a bell-bottom wearing lesbian Nazi? I will be able to tell my daughter that before she comes in to lecture me about my moral duty to accept her no matter her lifestyle choices, she has to accept the concept of universal morality and explain how her Aryan supremacy beliefs are consistent with this universal morality. Do that and I'll throw in the bell-bottoms and lesbian parts. Fail to do that and I will throw her out of my house, disown her as my daughter and, if the situation call for it, put a bullet in her head.
I do not question whether individual atheists, like James, can be moral. I do have my doubts, though, as to the plausibility of creating a society of moral atheists and for atheists to pass on their morality to their own children. I know that I have no control over the changes of fashion and sexual mores (maybe bell-bottoms will come back in fashion). I cannot even hope to have a discussion about fashion, let alone win it. I do hope, though, to be able to talk to my children about moral values and there is even a chance that they might listen so that even if they make different life-style choices from mine they will frame those choices in the same universal laws that I strive to live in accordance to.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
In his essay "Willing Slaves of the Welfare State," C. S. Lewis took a view that most people would associate with Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, as to the modern shift in regarding criminal punishment as no longer a debt paid to society as a matter of justice, but as a means of curing the patient of his pathological tendencies toward crime. Like Foucault, Lewis saw this shift in very negative terms as a direct assault on personal freedom, one that granted governments the power not only to enforce laws, but to reshape man in whatever image best suited to the interests of the State. Lewis goes further, by arguing that the modern view of crime was a necessary component in allowing the Holocaust to happen:
I will mention the trainloads of Jews delivered at the German gas-chambers. It seems shocking to suggest a common element, but I think one exists. On the humanitarian view all crime is pathological; it demands not retributive punishment but cure. This separates the criminal's treatment from the concepts of justice and desert; a 'just cure' is meaningless.
On the old view public opinion might protest against a punishment (it protested against our old penal code) as excessive, more than the man 'deserved'; an ethical question on which anyone might have an opinion. But a remedial treatment can be judged only by the probability of its success; a technical question on which only experts can speak.
Thus the criminal ceases to be a person, a subject of rights and duties, and becomes merely an object on which society can work. And this is, in principle, how Hitler treated the Jews. They were objects; killed not for ill desert but because, on his theories, they were a disease in society. If society can mend, remake, and unmake men at its pleasure, its pleasure may, of course, be humane or homicidal. The difference is important. But, either way, rulers have become owners. Observe how the 'humane' attitude to crime could operate. If crimes are diseases, why should diseases be treated differently from crimes? And who but the experts can define disease? One school of psychology regards my religion as a neurosis. If this neurosis ever becomes inconvenient to Government, what is to prevent my being subjected to a compulsory 'cure'? It may be painful; treatments sometimes are. But it will be no use asking, 'What have I done to deserve this?' The Straightener will reply: 'But, my dear fellow, no one's blaming you. We no longer believe in retributive justice. We're healing you.'
I take a similar attitude when teaching about the Nazis. The popular view of the Nazis as people motivated by hate, with the obvious liberal lesson of tolerance, misses the point. The Nazi leadership, by and large, particularly those directly involved in the Final Solution, was dominated by perfectly sane, reasonable and rational people. They simply believed that the world would be a better place without any Jews in it. The Jew was suffering from a disease; since the disease, in practice, could not be cured, Jews themselves would have to go. From their perspective, those who planned the Final Solution were humanitarians, taking upon themselves the morally difficult task that other people would be too squeamish to carry out themselves. Reading up on Adolf Eichmann for example, I never got the sense that he hated Jews in any conventional sense. Can anyone conceive of Eichmann losing control and going on a Hitler-like rant about the evils of the Jews? Eichmann was a highly intelligent, rational person, committed to duty, whose reading of the modern situation, Kant and Jewish literature led him to the conclusion that Jews needed to be removed, nothing personal.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
(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 …)
Sunday, January 31, 2010
Last night I received an email response to my post on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion:
At the Library of Congress is an obscure book by Samuel Igra which makes the case that "The Protocols...Zion" was actually written by George Bernard Shaw. I don't remember the title, but I read a portion in DC when I was researching another book by Igra and I remember thinking at the time that his case seemed quite plausible, though I don't remember the details now.
It is common knowledge that Shaw was a close friend of the homosexual poet Bruce Douglas, the "translator" of the Protocols.
Dr. Scott Lively
Scott Lively (I am willing to assume this email is genuine and really does come from him.) is the head of Abiding Truths Ministry and Defend the Family. He has a doctorate in theology from the School of Bible Theology Seminary and University (Take a look at the website for yourself and decide for yourselves if you feel comfortable with referring to Lively as a doctor. He has a law degree from Trinity Law School and apparently is licensed to practice law in California. Finally he has a Certificate from the Institute of International Human Rights in Strasbourg France. (I always wondered how one becames an official human rights activist.) It is in his capacity as human rights activist that Lively has taken his most important role recently with his involvement with the Uganda gay laws. Lively seems to have managed to get the Ugandan government to abandon the death penalty for homosexuals and to opt for treatment.
Doing a bit of background research on Lively certainly clarified this email a bit, explaining who he was and why he would be interested in making the connection between homosexuality and anti-Semitism. Lively is even the author of a book, the Pink Swastika, which argues that the Nazis were a homosexual movement.
Samuel Igra, Lively's source, seems to have been one of the main originators of this Nazism and homosexuality link with his 1945 book, Germany's National Vice. According to Igra, Hitler was a homosexual prostitute in Vienna and then in Munich from 1907-1914. (See Gregory Woods A History of Gay Literature: the Male Tradition pg. 251-53.) Obviously there were Nazis who were homosexual. The most famous example is Ernst Rohm of the SD. While an early member of the party, Rohm was killed off in the infamous "Night of the Long Knives" in 1934. Considering the very real persecution of homosexuals under the Nazi regime, saying that Nazism was a homosexual movement (as opposed to individual Nazis being homosexual) strikes me as the height of perversity.
Bruce Douglas was the young lover of Oscar Wilde's, whose father got into a libel suit with Wilde, which eventually brought about the downfall of Wilde in English society. Douglas did do one of the first English translations of the Protocols in 1919, nearly twenty years after it was first written. The Protocols came out of Russia, and while it was plagiarized from many sources, including one French anti-Semitic tract, it is clearly a product of reactionary Russian circles. Personally I find the idea that George Bernard Shaw would have written the Protocols to be offensive. I would have no problem accepting Shaw as an anti-Semite along the lines of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. But to think that Shaw would have written such a piece of garbage as the Protocols, boggles the mind. If Shaw had wanted to write a book about Jews plotting to rule the world, this book would have been a model of wit and would have me convinced to become an Elder.
I guess I should be grateful that Christians like Lively are concerned about anti-Semitism. All I can say is that with friends like these who needs enemies.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
The Moderate Palestinian (You Know the One Who Wants to Paint Himself Blue and Kill Zionists Like Mel Gibson Does in Braveheart)
Howard Schneider writes in the Washington Post about the Palestinians' opposite poles, comparing the lives of members of the same Palestinian family, the Barakats, living two starkly different lives in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Apparently the members of the family living in the West Bank have enjoyed some remarkable economic benefits as of late in contrast to those in Gaza. It would have been nice for someone to ask the question how is it if Palestinian poverty is because of Israeli occupation that Palestinians in Gaza, completely free of Zionist occupiers, is in so much worse shape. The article is a good example of the sort of personal human interest story that, while not anti Israel in of itself, can be problematic on a large scale. It is not anti Israel to show sympathy to the plight of Palestinians. For a news agency, though, to offer a constant stream of stories devoted to putting a human face on Palestinians in marked contrast with an unwillingness to do the same for Israelis is to create a bias against Israel.
I find it fascinating the ways in which Schneider is willing to pursue his narrative of moderate west loving Palestinians. He gushes over Odai who is leaving to study film at Eastern Mediterranean University in Cyprus:
I love Mel Gibson's Braveheart, despite its incredible historical inaccuracies and I do not begrudge Odai for liking the movie to. But the fact that he chooses to see the Palestinian conflict through the lens of Braveheart and not say Ben Kingsley's Oscar winning portrayal of Gandhi says something contrary to our moderate peace loving narrative.
Braveheart is a wonderful example of manufactured nationalism. There was no nationalism in thirteenth century Scotland; there was no country Scotland in the modern nation-state sense. This was a feudal conflict in which Edward I (Longshanks) of England attempted to pursue a feudal claim against various Scottish noblemen. This had nothing to do with a crude desire to conquer other lands and subjugate other people. Scotland was a traditional ally of France so any attempt to strengthen their position in France required that England secure its northern border. Over the course of this complex conflict many people changed sides at various points and it had nothing to do with them loving "Scotland" or "freedom" less. I can only imagine what this teaches a teenage member of a manufactured nationality, attempting restore a state that never existed in the first place.
The nineteenth century style of nationalism of Braveheart equates itself with freedom. Considering the history of the twentieth century, with the horrors of Nazism, I would hope for just a bit skepticism to any such equation. Anyone willing to make such a point blank equation between the nation and freedom can rightfully be suspected of Fascism (the Nazis were also believers in freedom if in a Rousseauian or Hegelian vein) or at least being highly at risk of Fascism. In essence this is the sort of person in need of being put on an emergency life support drip of John Locke, John Stuart Mill and the American founding fathers. This is not the sort of person you can trust with a gun or a film camera.
The English in the movie are portrayed as brutal oppressors on par with Nazis. There is not a single positive English character in the entire film. Edward attempts to eliminate the Scottish race by allowing noblemen to take "prima nocta" the bride on her wedding night. I certainly have no great love for the thirteenth century English or for Edward. Edward I expelled the Jews from England in 1290, just before the main events of the movie. That being said, any film that attempted such a hostile reductionist and one sided treatment against a non European group would correctly be labeled as racist. I can only imagine what the reaction would be if Palestinians were portrayed like this maybe in a really over the top version of Leon Uris' Exodus.
This brings us to the sort of resistance glorified by Gibson. William Wallace does not negotiate with the English or engage in passive resistance; he bashes their heads in with a mace and chain and decapitates them with his broadsword. Wallace does not just fight the English Scotland. He sacks York and sends Edward the severed head of his nephew. Hardly what I would think of as live and let live sort of behavior.
So what are we to conclude about a Palestinian who views his situation in terms of the movie Braveheart? He sees the world largely through the lens of crude nationalism. His understanding of freedom is more in tune with Fascist totalitarianism than liberal democracy. He believes that Israelis are brutal monsters who wish to enslave his people and rape his women. As such he believes that the best way to deal with Israelis is to kill them, not only in the West Bank and Gaza, but in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as well. With moderates such as these who needs fanatics.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
How the Mighty European Military State has Fallen: Jeff Sheehan – Where Have All the Soldiers Gone: The Transformation of Modern Europe
Ohio State's eHistory website has just put up my review of Jeff Sheehan's Where Have All the Soldiers Gone: The Transformation of Modern Europe. This is the second review I have done for them. Previously I reviewed Aryan Jesus on the site. Once again I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Steven Conn for giving me the opportunity to review the book and for being such a helpful editor. This one went through a long process. I read this book and wrote the first draft of the review last spring. Dr. Conn, correctly, pointed out that my review veered too much toward being an editorial and asked me to do a rewrite. I did not get back to him with a second version until after the summer, setting a rotten example for any of my students who may be reading this, one that they should most certainly not follow. You can follow the link above for the final version or you can continue reading below for my unedited slightly longer version.
Historical questions are often dictated by present day concerns. For Jeff Sheehan of Stanford University and his two-hundred page tour of twentieth century European history that question is how did it come to pass that Europeans would differ so strongly from Americans in regards to the War in Iraq and the question of Islamic terrorism. Modern questions are often a trap that professional historians are rightfully wary of. So it is to Sheehan's credit that what starts off as a modern question is allowed to flower into a judicious and unpolemical account of modern European history. Sheehan describes the evolution of European attitudes toward standing armies and to warfare, without coming down on side or the other. After a pleasurable afternoon of reading this book, I honestly have no idea if Sheehan supported the Iraq War or not. Thus Sheehan has provided what should be an enjoyable and enlightening read for those on the left and on the right.
American liberals, who opposed the War in Iraq, will rightfully object to Sheehan's generalized categorization of Americans as being pro war and Europeans as anti war. President Bush's low approval ratings and Senator John McCain's defeat by Barack Obama should demonstrate to anyone that there is more to American public opinion than simple war enthusiasm. (That is unless one accepts conservative rhetoric about there being "real Americans" as opposed other people who just happen to live in the United State.) To be fair to Sheehan, I do not believe that he intended to make any categorical judgments about Americans. The question he is trying to come to terms with might be formulated as why was it that a neo-conservative movement flourished within American culture to such an extent that it could push publish policy into going to war but not in Europe.
It is against this backdrop that Sheehan offers this overview of modern European political history with a twist. Instead of focusing on World War I, World War II, the Cold War and how the political situations deteriorated in each case into these conflicts, Sheehan examines European attitudes toward the military and to warfare outside of the context of these conflicts. Thus the major conflicts of the twentieth century become the outliers, not what defines European society. From my perspective as a non military historian, this is just delightfully subversive. I particularly admired the chapter dealing with peace efforts, most notably one by Czar Nicholas II, in the years leading up to the First World War. It serves as a useful counter to the traditional portrayal of bumbling super powers with their ironclad systems of alliances crashing toward an unforeseen but inevitable war. I owe Sheehan a debt of thanks in that I will now have one good thing to say about Czar Nicholas II to tell my students to balance out the anti-Semitism and truly tragic incompetence.
Instead of a narrative of war, Sheehan offers a narrative of conflicting ideologies. On one side stands a proudly nationalist worldview, in which statehood was understood in terms of its military. Sheehan sees this worldview as a product of the desire by nineteenth century states to create national identities. The military and making people serve in a national draft was a means of bringing the state into the lives of people living in provincial areas, who beforehand may have been outside of the authority of the centralized state. This was simply was the logical continuation of state run school systems and other social services. In essence, for Sheehan, the liberal revolutionary tradition coming out of the French Revolution, with its secular state, led directly to European militarism. This militarist perspective comes to be increasingly challenged by a worldview skeptical of state power and the nationalist and militarist ideology needed to support it. In the end, according to Sheehan, World War II effectively eliminated the former view in the minds of the vast majority of Europeans, leaving the field to the later.
One point of Sheehan's that I think is particularly noteworthy is the idea that Americans and Europeans speak very different languages when it comes to the issue of terrorism. When Americans, i.e. the American right, speak about terrorism they use the language of World War II. Islamic terrorists are Nazis and September 11 was Pearl Harbor. (Yes it was the Japanese who attacked us at Pearl Harbor; analogies do not have to be perfect.) I would point to the popularity of the term "Islamo-Fascism" within right wing circles as a very good example of this. The implications of this should be fairly clear. If the task of the "greatest generation" that fought World War II was to stop a Nazi conquest of the world then the task of this present generation must be to do battle with the forces of radical Islam and stop them from taking over the world. In pursuit of the cause one becomes justified in all sorts of actions. A trillion dollars fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq is not too high a cost to save the world. Four thousand dead in Iraq is nothing to lament when we lost more on Iwo Jima in one day. The dominant European culture views terrorism not as this Manichean struggle with the fate of the world at stake but as a simple policing problem, one that they have been facing for decades now. Such an attitude leads itself to a different set of conclusions. Rather than war the solution becomes better police protection and, at most, some international diplomacy through the European Union and the United Nations.
Sheehan does not discuss it, but this difference in thinking about terrorism also applies to Israel and its differences with the European community. If anything Israel, particularly the Israeli right, is even more entrenched in the language of World War II than even the United States. For Israel their Islamic opponents are Nazis determined to finish off what Hitler started. In this narrative, the Oslo accords of 1993 become the Munich agreement of 1938 with Israel's security being sold out for a worthless promise, broken before the ink was even dry. From this perspective statements like Nasser's "drive Israel into the sea" or Ahmadinejad's "wipe Israel off the map" are not the blustering of politicians but literal plans of action to be carried out. I am not certain what Sheehan's views are in regards to the Mid-East conflict. He does refer to Yasser Arafat in passing as the "future leader of the Palestinian resistance to Israel" (pg. 169) and juxtaposes him with Nelson Mandela. This might be simple carelessness or a sign that Sheehan shares the European perspective on this, to look at this conflict through the lens of Colonialism.
If history means, in some sense, to apologize for the past, for those ideologies that have left the world stage, than Sheehan has offered an apology for late nineteenth and early twentieth century nationalist ideologies and their implicit militarism. He connects them to the nineteenth liberal tradition and offers us an understanding as to why reasonable people believed that it would work. In the end Sheehan raises some very provocative questions about the role of warfare in the making of a state. If states have traditionally defined themselves in terms of their militaries than what does it mean to be a demilitarized state? Can the European Union ever hope to compete with the United States as a global power if it defines itself as the non military power?
Thursday, November 19, 2009
I find attractive your theory that history should be taught from an unpolemical perspective (inasmuch as possible) because we need to equip children with analytical and critical thinking skills, rather than imposing values upon them (i.e. capitalism is good and inevitable, democracy is without flaws, etc.). Values are which are 'learned' and 'understood' are much more powerful, durable, and influential than those which are imposed upon us. It is essential that we teach our youth the ability to understand both sides of an argument, rather than pushing them to become ideologues who lack the ability and skills to analyze the effects and implications of their beliefs. It is better to teach children why communism/Nazism/fascism is attractive, and then have them internalize that perspective, which will allow them to understand why Germany voted in the Nazis, or why Lenin became a Marxist; because it will then allow students to learn the lesson that ideologies which may be attractive in theory may turn out to be dangerous in practice, or that good ideas which gain popular traction can become corrupted and perverted by leaders who succumb to the temptations of power. We often try to "otherize" the Nazis and Communists; but instead we should seek to understand that they were human and that their decisions were driven by human instincts; rather than dehumanize them, we should try to understand what aspects of human nature led to their misguided decisions and results, which can only be done by internalizing their perspectives, so that we can learn and comprehend the lessons to be learned from the history of the 20th century. Students who lack the skills to internalize the perspectives from past historical eras will be more prone to be misguided by demagogues and ideologues because they will lack the tools and skills to withstand the imposition of social and political narratives which they encounter.
I am also very intrigued by your theory that history is often turned into a narrative with identifiable with heroes and villains. I would go further and speculate that humans have an intrinsic need, desire, and addiction for narratives; that our species inevitably tries to make sense of all external stimuli, and that our common vehicle of understanding an incomprehensible universe is to turn empirical reality into narratives, into stories which cater to our desire for a) intrigue, b) triumph of good, c) finality & resolution, and d) meaning to our existence.
In this sense, the two doctrines are in conflict: First, that we should unpolemicize history; Second, that humans inevitability tend to "narrativize" history to fit our cultural and societal values. You write, "We wish to find that hero who took on the forces of darkness and forever changed the world for the better. We want it so badly that we will write him into history, running over any inconvenient facts in the process." This seems persuasive. But given that premise, I must ask you whether it is really possible for historians to write histories which are unpolemical? Even if historians are capable of writing unpolemical histories, will they have enough traction to become persuasive to other historians, or even to the general public? Does the structure and composition of History departments at American universities allow the writing of unpolemical histories? Is it possible to teach a course which doesn't implicitly assign valuations to historical events or historical figures? Is it inevitable that historians "narrativize" history? Are there societal benefits to the polemical teaching of history which outweigh an unpolemical approach? Are there benefits to making history into a narrative?
I do believe that it is at least theoretically possible to transcend our human biases and write non-polemical history. The first thing is that history is about a method and not a narrative. As long as we are simply using the historical method to analyze texts we get around the issue of narrative and do not have to worry about bias and polemics. The second thing is that when we do eventually come to write narrative, which we must in the end, we can avoid the standard narratives. Instead of talking about conflicts with heroes and villains we can talk about evolving processes that have arisen between contesting sides. In this, Hegel was onto something, though I would not accept his attempt to enforce meta-narratives over all of history. Even if the two sides may never have been able to reconcile in life, the historian understands both sides and therefore makes a sort of peace between them.
Friday, October 23, 2009
Also in the New York Times, Ralph Blumenthal discusses a new documentary dealing with the controversial figure of Rudolf Kastner. Kastner negotiated with the Nazis on behalf of the Zionist government and saved the lives of over 1600 Jews, ironically enough including the Satmar rebbe. Kastner was latter murdered by another Jew on the charge that he collaborated with the Nazis in the destruction of Hungarian Jewry.
As the deadline for college applications draws nearer for my students I offer Rabbi Reuven Spolter, who makes the argument against going to a secular college. I disagree with Rabbi Spolter but I think he does an effective job in making his case and is therefore useful food for thought.
More on the topic of college as Ofri Ilani of Haaretz writes about the growth of Haredi colleges in Israel with the daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef playing a leading role. I tend to be very skeptical about the very concept of a Haredi college. For me an education means a math, a science or something in the humanities. All of these fields require the mastery of specific methods of thinking. Haredi institutions do not focus on any of these fields. Instead they teach utilitarian occupations such as physical therapy and psychology. I see this as an attempt to allow people access to jobs while avoiding giving them an actual education and risking allowing people to engage in actual serious thinking. In essence such institutions offer fake educations.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein offers a Hirschian critique of Haredi society for its willingness to ignore larger society issues. For a critique of this article see Not Brisker Yeshivish. I found this Haredi response telling in that it completely ignores the issue.
Friday, September 4, 2009
I spoke about Martin Luther the other day. I asked my Hebrew Academy students to define anti-Semitism and whether Luther was an anti-Semite. (As an early modernist, one of my personal goals is that after a year of my class my students, when they hear the name Martin Luther, should not think of a black preacher with a dream but a fat, beer drinking German.) Almost every one of my students defined anti-Semitism as hating Jews. They also all saw Luther as an anti-Semite. I sympathize with my students’ feelings. When I was younger I agreed with my students. In my ninth grade history class I called Luther a bum. The history teacher, Mr. Jesse, responded that he was a Lutheran. I guess you can say oops. (Mr. Jesse was the perfect middle school teacher. He was physically intimidating as in over six feet tall, built like a brick wall, yelled and threw stuff. He also had a basic command of the material, was a genuinely likeably person and had a great sense of humor.)
There are certainly good reasons for viewing Luther as an anti-Semite. After taking a fairly positive attitude toward Jews early in his career, Luther turned on Jews with a vengeance in On the Jews and their Lies (1543). Luther advises :
First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. …
Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues. Instead they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn, like the gypsies. …
Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.
Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.
Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside, since they are not lords, officials, tradesmen, or the like.
While this aspect of Luther was mostly ignored until the twentieth century, the Nazis made use of Luther, viewing him as a precursor of theirs. The modern Lutheran Church has officially rejected all statements of Luther’s regarding Jews.
I believe that it is important that for anti-Semitism to mean something it has to mean something more than hating Jews. The English hate the French and vice versa. At Ohio State we have a Hate Michigan Week every November. Pretty much every group on the planet has been hated by someone else, has been the subject of bigotry, discriminated against and even on occasion killed. Anti-Semitism is something beyond that. Jews are unique in the sort of hatred they have consistently evoked in so many different places and people. What other group of people have something to compare to the blood libel or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, one of the best selling books of the twentieth century? The Nazis hated lots of different groups of people yet there was something about the Jews that made them a special target. For example, the German war effort in 1944 was literally sabotaged in order to massacre Hungarian Jewry. So anti-Semitism is not just people hating Jews but people having a pathological hatred of Jews, a hatred of Jews that goes beyond reason.
When dealing with Christian-Jewish relations it is important to distinguish between Christians who were hostile to Jews for what they were and a Christian hostility that went beyond all reality. Let us be clear, medieval Jews were heretics, unbelievers and blasphemers, who hated Christians. Toldot Yeshu was accepted fact for Jews. They believed that their ancestors really did kill Jesus and were proud of it. To them Jesus was a bastard, a heretic and a magician while the Virgin Mary was a whore. From this perspective Luther was being perfectly reasonable. All his accusations were things that Jews would have admitted to. Jews curse Christians, fact. When Jews, in the sixteenth century, said the curse for heretics in the eighteen benedictions they meant Christians. Jews refer to Christians as goyim, fact. Jews call Jesus the ‘hanged one,’ fact. Jews practice usury, fact. Luther refers to the blood libel accusations. He was agnostic about these charges but argued that Jews hated Christians enough to murder Christians. Again this was a very reasonable assumption.
Luther was a polemicist, who wrote in an aggressive manner; even by the standards of the day Luther’s universe was highly Manichean one, sharply divided between the saved and the unsaved with no grey area in between. It was not just Jews whom he believed to be satanic. He believed that the Catholic Church and even fellow Protestants who disagreed with him were also of the Devil and going straight to Hell. So there was nothing particularly anti-Jewish about his demonization of Jews. The fact that they were Jews was incidental to the fact that they were people who disagreed with him.
In the pre-modern period all government authority was inherently religious. It was assumed that it was God’s will that a certain person rule. Because of this there was, almost by definition, no such thing as a non-political religious claim. Every religious claim had political implications and anyone who went against the established religion was by definition engaging in political subversion. For example, if God is not a Catholic then God clearly would not want the Catholic Charles V to rule over his German people and take care of their spiritual welfare like he has the Pope look after their spiritual welfare. Therefore anyone who was not a Catholic in early sixteenth century Germany was implicitly advocating for the overthrow of Charles V. Because of this it is impossible to ever accuse a pre-modern, Luther or anyone else, of being intolerant of other religions. Luther was perfectly in his rights to advocate the use of violence against Jews or any other religious subversives just as we accept the legitimacy of the use of violence even today against political traitors. And in fact Jews got off much easier than Luther’s Christian opponents. Luther explicitly warned against directly harming Jews. The fact that Luther only wanted to destroy Jewish property, interfere with the ability of Jews to earn a livelihood and practice their religion while at the same time advocating physical violence against Catholics and Anabaptists begs the question not why Luther was hostile to Jews but why he was not more hostile to them. One suspects that it had something to do with his strong Augustinian leanings.
In conclusion I do not think it is accurate or helpful to view Luther as an anti-Semite. He was an active opponent of Judaism which is nothing remarkable as to be a Christian, unless you are a very liberal one, requires that one be at least a passive opponent of Judaism, along with every other religion. Luther’s opposition to Judaism was internally consistent. His accusations against Jews are all grounded in solid fact; there is nothing fantastical about them. He took these things to their logical conclusion and endorsed a very reasonable sixteenth century solution to the problem. Jews today do not have any legitimate grounds for any personal animosity against Luther himself let alone to use Luther as a polemical club against modern day Lutherans.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies: What is Jewish (If Anything) in Isaiah Berlin’s Philosophy?
Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt were very different thinkers. Berlin was quite open in his contempt for her. Much of their differences can be seen in their different experiences with totalitarianism and their criticism of Enlightenment. Berlin opposed the over-rationalism of the Enlightenment. The claim that human’s are the same everywhere and should have one reason. This comes from the Platonic ideal of one universal that applies everywhere. Such monism inevitably leads to totalitarianism. Arendt, coming from her personal experience with Nazi Germany, saw the failure of human rights as something beyond any government. Her criticism is political and not philosophical. For Arendt the most important right is to have rights. Such rights are based on societies and not, as Berlin argued, with individuals.
Berlin divided liberty into positive and negative liberty; he preferred negative liberty. True liberty requires examination, active decisions; to be free is to make an unforced choice. The attraction of totalitarianism is that it allows man to avoid action. Arendt distinguished freedom from liberty. True political freedom cannot be ownership but is part of man’s essence. To be free is to act. This action must take place in a shared public space.
Berlin acknowledged a value to nationalism in that it served the need for a common culture. Arendt’s community is not national; she opposed the nation state. In its place she supported a republican alternative. This is not the classic model of republicanism; Arendt went against Rousseau in that there, for her, is no giving up of individuality to the republican state. Instead one takes on an additional identity; thus making the individual life richer.
Neither Berlin nor Arendt believed that one had to be religious. They do not use Jewish sources. Their Jewish identities, though, were dominant. Berlin celebrated Jewish holidays as a way to identity with his community and heritage, which he wanted to continue. Arendt, writing to Scholem, said that she never felt that she had to identify herself as a Jew; being a Jew was a fact of life. Berlin was a strong supporter for Zionism from the beginning. Arendt saw the power of Zionism in terms of taking responsibility for Jewish problems. She turned against Zionism, though, when she found out that it would be a Jewish national state without cooperation with the Arabs. It was a forced solution after the social one had failed.
Joshua Laurence Cherniss – Judaism, Jewishness, and Liberalism in Isaiah Berlin’s Political Thought
There is a difference between Judaism and Jewishness. Judaism here can be taken to refer to a set of given beliefs. Jewishness is to be defined in terms of a culture that one is in dialogue with. In terms of Judaism there is not much there in Berlin. He did not use Jewish texts in his writing. Conditioned by his own views of Judaism as an intellectual position, he viewed Judaism as a series of claims that were outside of reason or ethics. A pivotal example of this is God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son. Similar to Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Berlin saw this as a move against the ethical. For Berlin, to respect Judaism was to reject it.
Berlin was engaged in the situation of Jews in a post emancipation world. For Berlin this emancipation was a failure. This larger course of Jewish history comes from his experience with the Russian situation. There was more persecution, but Jewish life enjoyed a greater coherence and integrity. It was not surprising to Berlin that Zionism was more successful in Russia than in the West. Jews had a model in the Russian intelligentsia to imitate, which Berlin greatly admired this. Berlin also had his experience with British Jewry. They lacked persecution but suffered from a class conscious society. They were caught trying to fit into society that was not made for them, wearing clothes that did not fit. For Berlin liberty was a matter of choice. To be deprived of choice is to be denied the fundamental dignity of a human being. The tragedy of the Jew was that choices were not open to them.
(During the question and answer section there was some discussion of A. N. Wilson’s attack on Berlin as the “dictaphone don” in the Times Literary Supplement, which depicts Berlin in ways that were quite contrary to that of the panelists.)