Sunday, October 10, 2021

Mohammed ibn Scrooge: A Tale of Economic and Religious Liberty

 

One of the major distinctions between classical liberals and progressives is the question of whether there is a difference between civil and economic rights. Progressives going back to at least John Stuart Mill have argued that economic rights can be separated from the wider stream of civil rights. Because of this, it is possible to override claims about property if it benefits the wider public or even to deny that there is even such a thing as a right to property. On the other extreme, libertarians argue that there are only economic rights. Civil rights are only meaningful to the extent that they can be framed as economic rights. For example, freedom of speech really means that I have the right to own paper and a printing press, print books with them and distribute them to the general public. To better understand this potential distinction between economic and civil rights, I have a thought experiment.

Mohammed ibn Scrooge is a pious Muslim who studies the Koran and the Hadith in a madrasa. The government comes to Ibn Scrooge and says: "It is not right that a man of your great intellect should waste his talents on something that does not serve the public interest. We wish to draft you into medical school." When Ibn Scrooge refuses the government’s generous offer of free medical school, they threaten him: "If you insist on being so selfish as to not work to solve the national healthcare crisis, we are going to tax you based on what you would have earned as a doctor. This will allow us to fund the healthcare system, which serves the public interest."

Driven to bankruptcy and despair, Ibn Scrooge comes to the realization that he finds no meaning anymore in Islam. Instead, he decides that what he really wants out of life is a giant money bin full of gold coins that he can jump into from a diving board and swim around in. Using his Ayn Rand hero-level genius, Ibn Scrooge invents a new light bulb, a cheap clean energy motor, and a superior form of steel. He also becomes the CEO of both a railroad and a copper mining company. For a hobby, he designs skyscrapers. After many years of great intellectual labor, Ibn Scrooge becomes the richest person in the world. Before Ibn Scrooge can fulfill his dream and dive into his gold, the Beagle Boys show up waving their IRS badges to inform him that having a money bin full of gold to swim in does not serve the public interest. It is much better to "tax" Ibn Scrooge of all his gold to fund the healthcare of millions of poor children. 

Having fended off the Beagle Boys' efforts to "tax" his money bin over many years, Ibn Scrooge finally takes his first dive into his money pool. After taking a few laps, he realizes that, despite his money bin, he feels rather empty. Thinking back to the religion of his youth and how much happier he was studying in a madrasa, Ibn Scrooge vows to Allah that he will use the gold in his money bin that he wasted his life gathering to fund madrasas across the country. Ibn Scrooge is about to open his first madrasa when the government announces that they are requisitioning the madrasa buildings as they would be better used as hospitals.   

I take it as a given that most of my readers believe that it is more important to improve the quality of healthcare in this country than to advance the study of the Koran and the Hadith. That being said, I also assume most of my readers have imbibed enough of the classical liberal spirit to side with Ibn Scrooge at least in the first and third cases. This is despite the fact that the government has a very plausible argument that their actions would lead to an objectively better world.

It should be clear that the concept of rights, whether they are economic or civil, is only meaningful if they are allowed to trump the public interest. One can always make a plausible argument that violating someone's liberty is in the public interest. Does anyone deny that the government could improve the quality of healthcare if they confiscated all religious buildings and drafted religious functionaries to become healthcare workers? Keep in mind that both the French and Russian Revolutionary governments point-blank confiscated church property in order to deal with their financial problems.  

The interesting question is why would more readers not be willing to defend Ibn Scrooge in the second case when he is motivated simply by the desire to swim in a money pool of his own gold? If you are not a Muslim then Ibn Scrooge's desire to get into Muslim heaven should not demand greater public respect than his desire for his money bin. If you do not believe in economic rights, then Ibn Scrooge's right to make economic decisions with his life in all three cases should not trump the public interest in healthcare. The fact that Ibn Scrooge is motivated by the teachings of Islam should be irrelevant as it is perfectly believable that the government really is motivated by a desire to expand healthcare and not any animosity towards Islam. 

It is important to recognize that there is always going to be someone out there, likely already holding a position of power who honestly believes that you are standing in the way of their "humanitarian" attempts to make a better world and that, therefore, the right, decent, and even loving thing to do is put you in prison, a slave labor camp or even execute you. The only thing that can stop that from happening is a belief in economic liberty. People have the right to make economic decisions regarding their personal lives, whether they are motivated by religion or narcissistic greed, even when that decision leads to an objectively worse outcome for society as a whole.  

Monday, October 4, 2021

Transcending Stereotypes: A Lesson From the Artscroll Children's Siddur

 


Here is the opening paragraph for Birkat Hamazon, the Jewish grace after meals blessing, from the illustrated Artscroll Children's Siddur. This blessing deals with the idea that God feeds the entire world. Hence we are treated to an illustration of examples of animals and people from around the globe. What I find interesting about this picture is that it makes for a useful ideological Rorshach test. When looking at the picture, do you see diversity or racism?

I can honestly see how a reasonable person can come down on either side of this question. A charitable view of the illustrator would be that he recognizes that God cares to provide for the entire world and not just Jews. A less charitable view would be that the picture has set up a hierarchy of being. There are animals and highly stereotyped gentiles to be contrasted with the non-rediculous-looking Jewish boy and girl at the bottom. 

Part of the problem is that ridiculous-looking stereotypes are certainly better than the alternative. Imagine that instead of smiling children, the gentiles of the world were portrayed as the Spanish Inquisition, Cossacks, and Nazis. A world in which we patronize the other as ridiculous stereotypes really is a far superior one from where we fear the other as something monstrous. The former leads to microaggressions while the latter leads to mass murder. Furthermore, the former actually protects us from the latter. If the African and the Native-American simply like to ride around on elephants and buffalos and are not engaged in vast anti-Semitic conspiracies then harming them not only ceases to be a regretful necessity but actually becomes morally repugnant and ultimately unthinkable.

Portraying the other as ridiculous and therefore unthreatening can serve as an important step towards higher levels of acceptance. Consider the example of Apu from the Simpsons. Originally he honestly did serve a liberal purpose. In a town full of ridiculous characters, Apu with his accent and idols was one of the more endearing residents. If your daughter was going to marry someone from Springfield, Apu might be the one that you did not object to. (As opposed to either the old Jewish billionaire or the sleazy Jewish comedian.) It very well might be that Apu helped a generation of Americans become comfortable with Indians and Hinduism. None of the changes the fact that Apu is an absurd stereotype and it is understandable that many Indians find him offensive. In this sense, it is unfortunate that the Simpsons show has so greatly outlived its time.

It is easy to underestimate the challenge of transcending stereotypes. We are surrounded by progressives who claim to be such enlightened beings. In truth, progressives have no interest in accepting other cultures but only suitably neutered versions of cultures made in the progressive image. This gets in the way of having honest conversations about actual diversity.   

The problem is how do you imagine someone with a fundamentally different worldview without turning them into monsters. For example, there are people out there who believe that it is ok to murder someone for refusing to bake a gay wedding cake. Such people not only deny their heinous intent but pretend that they are human rights activists trying to fight against "hate." Perhaps LGBTQ activists do not really mean what they say and like simply shouting slogans as a social exercise. To say that would commit the sin of not taking them seriously and ultimately to unfairly reduce them to a crude stereotype. This includes many people close to me who I love and whose moral judgment I respect in all things except for the fact that they are complicit in mass murder. What can I say; like most reasonable people, I find myself unable to live my life in a way that is perfectly consistent with my values at all times.   

There are two plausible solutions to this problem. The first is to pretend that there are no real ideological conflicts as everyone actually agrees about the important things. Consider the moderate Enlightenment’s natural religion. In this model, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews all agree that the world was designed by a benevolent deity, who guides the world through providence and offers rewards and punishments. People are free to serve this deity through Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish rituals depending on their personal taste. The advantage of this model is that no one would ever think to murder their neighbors over religion because everyone really has the same religion. The problem is that you have to pretend that everyone really does believe in this natural religion and has cast off everything that makes their religion distinctive.

The alternative is to deny that other people have beliefs at all. All they consist of are a collection of strange clothes, customs, and myths. Such crude stereotypes can easily be tolerated as they lack an ideology to ever make them dangerous. Sometimes wanting to kill your opponents can be a sign of the utmost respect. You respect them enough to recognize that they really do have beliefs and that these beliefs really are in utter conflict with yours.  

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Even My Textbook Agrees That Critical Literacy is Not the Same Thing As Critical Thinking

 


I have previously argued that critical thinking is not the same thing as critical theory. The following is from the education textbook Content Area Literacy and it seems to take a similar line. 

Note that critical literacy is embedded with being culturally conscious. Make no mistake. Being culturally conscious here does not mean not making fun of a student for things like their clothes or accent. Instead, it is a willingness to define students based on their culture. According to the textbook:

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with trying to run a classroom that values respect, harmony, and cooperation as opposed to competition. It is quite possible that Native-American students are more likely to benefit from such a class. That being said, assuming that individual Native-American students are not inclined toward competition reeks of the same racist obtuseness of a sports coach trying to recruit those same Native-American students because of their people's "natural warrior spirit." Students should be treated as individuals and teachers should attempt to provide the best style of education they can for each student regardless of their culture. 

Furthermore, culture is only relevant if the student decides that it is. It is possible that our Native-American student despises everything about Native-American culture and wishes to become a Scotsman. Perhaps their love for cooperation has led them to become fanatical followers of Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments. That is their right and the teacher should respect that. There should be no assumption that just because a student is ethnically Native-American that being Native-American has any relevance to their lives. In truth, I am skeptical about the deep commitment of most kids to any minority culture in the absence of someone else consciously making an issue about it. In my experience, kids, being kids, have other things on their minds. This is to say nothing of them having a worked-out theory about how their culture affects things like their competitiveness. If parents wish to raise their children with a cultural identity that is well and good. I see no reason, as a teacher, why this should be any of my business. What I care about is their ability to use the historical method.     

This emphasis on cultural groups serves as the basis for the politics of critical reading. Critical thinking is fundamentally an apolitical act. It is a useful tool to justify telling people with ideologies to shove it so that they leave you alone. As a historian, I am constantly aware that texts were written by people with an agenda. We do not have all perspectives. For example, we lack Cathar voices as the thirteenth-century French monarchy backed by Catholic Church wiped them out. We certainly need to be careful with what our Catholic sources have to say about the Cathars. Since we lack Cathar sources, we should try to imagine what Cathar sources might say if we had them. Beyond a certain skepticism of people in power, who are likely to produce source material, there is a little in the way of practical political lessons to take from studying the Cathars.

One can make a good case that studying the Cathars has little relevance to the lives of students. In truth, that is a reason to teach Cathar History. A great virtue of studying history and a reason why we should be teaching it is precisely its disassociation from real life. In a similar vein, this is a reason to expose students to literature and theater. We want students to step out of themselves and imagine an outside perspective like Smith's impartial observer. This is an essential part of being a rational individual. Other people, not being you, cannot be relied upon to understand or sympathize with your personal truth. What can cross the divide to other minds is reason. The historical method is a set of rules that all people can embrace in order to achieve a baseline agreed-upon reality. 

By contrast, critical reading is highly political. It is not just that our sources do a better job covering the perspectives of wealthy, educated men; other groups have been silenced, implying that the authors of our sources have wronged others by the mere fact that they wrote something down. Furthermore, we are, somehow, implicated in that crime by using the sources most easily available to us. For example, we might imagine that the very act of being a primary source about the Cathars makes someone complicit in their destruction. Furthermore, someone like me, a Jew, am somehow to blame for the lack of Cathar sources. By using Catholic sources, I link my soul to the Inquisition. Keep in mind that, for critical theory, oppression has nothing to do with physically hurting anyone. You are an oppressor merely through some kind of association with an oppressive structure. If you benefit from oppression and fail to acknowledge and denounce that benefit to the satisfaction of critical theorists, you are an oppressor. 

As I understand the argument, it is because of this taint that history has not been fair in terms of both its reality and surviving sources that we have the responsibility to work for social justice. Using our classes as platforms to promote social justice allows us to atone for our insufficient teaching of non-white male history. One might ask how are students supposed to work for any kind of justice if they have been brought to that position by a study of history tainted by a desire to turn them into activists? Keep in mind that the central premise of the historical method is that the very fact that a historical source was written to support a claim makes it useless for advancing that very claim. By contrast, we readily believe sources when they undermine their original intention. For example, we do not believe our Catholic sources that tell us that Cathars conducted sex-rites. That being said, we do believe those same sources when they imply that people were attracted to Cathars by the personal piety of Cathar clergy.  

Students can take what I teach them about history seriously precisely to the extent that it has nothing to do with their lives. I honestly have no idea what studying Cathar history has to do with voting for an American political party. My job is to teach people how to process historical information. To do that job well, I cannot be doing anything else. The moment I try to do more, I risk doing nothing and being nothing more than a waste of my student's time.    

Friday, July 23, 2021

Entering the Matrix: Individual and Structural Oppression


In a previous post, I discussed what it means to be critical from the perspective of critical theory and how it differs and frankly is the diametric opposite of the conventional sense of being critical. I would like to turn here to the question of oppression. Here too, the term can mean different and even opposing things. Just like, for most people, critical reasoning is something carried out by individuals, oppression is an evil experienced by individuals. For example, slavery is evil not simply in an abstract sense but because it involves literal violence and even rape and murder. For Marxism and later critical theory, since individuals are not the primary moral unit, oppression is disconnected from the actual suffering of individuals but is the existential product of one group of people having some kind of metaphysical power over others. The problem with capitalism is not rooted in the actions of individual capitalists but in the structure of capitalism itself. For example, capitalism is evil not because workers are poorly paid and do not receive healthcare but because the workers are under the power of capitalism and are unable to develop themselves into their full consciousness. The practical difference comes down to the value of reform. If you are a good Marxist, it should mean nothing if workers unionize for shorter hours and better conditions if they are not also coming into a knowledge of themselves as workers oppressed by the structure of capitalism. 

This privileging of theoretical over physical violence becomes particularly important for understanding critical theory. By the 1920s, it was clear that capitalism in the West was not about to collapse into Dickensian horror from which a revolution might arise. Conditions for workers were not worsening so workers were not radicalizing. For critical theory, the nightmare was not that capitalists would grind workers into the dirt but, on the contrary, capitalists would seduce workers with increasing luxuries so that workers would lose all desire to rebel.   

To understand this notion of structural oppression, it is useful to look at the Matrix film, which brilliantly differentiates between individual and structural oppression. At the beginning of the movie, Neo finds himself living in what is clearly a less-than-ideal world. The computers are outdated even by 1999 standards. Furthermore, there are these superpowered agents, who do not respect people's constitutional rights. Instead of allowing Neo to call his lawyer, they cause his mouth to seal itself and allow a metallic insect to burrow itself into his belly button. The movie could have been about Neo developing his own superpowers, defeating the agents, and making the world a better place to live. 

The critical twist of the Matrix is the discovery that Neo is really living in a computer simulation run by an AI that has enslaved humanity. Accepting the existence of the Matrix upends anything one might believe about oppression and revolution. Neo believes that he is a rebel against the system but, until he takes the red pill and escapes the Matrix, nothing he does is truly productive in fighting the Matrix. On the contrary, Neo the rebel hacker actually plays into the hands of the AI as he distracts people from the real problem, which is not the computers or the agents, but the fact that the world itself is fake. Neo the rebel hacker is still as much a battery that powers the machine as the most conformist corporate drone.  

Imagine if, at the end of the trilogy, the AI were to tell the residents of the rebel human city of Zion that it has come to the realization that oppressing humans under the heel of Agent Smith was wrong. To make amends, the AI is willing to make an "improved" Matrix. There will be high-speed wi-fi; everyone will receive a lifetime subscription to Netflix, and all the computer-generated steak they can eat with no need to diet. Obviously, it would not be a happy ending if the residents of Zion were to give up their Gatling-gun mech suits and return to the Matrix. Now the interesting question is why would such an ending really be worse than the film's actual ending where the AI agrees to allow the humans the option of leaving the Matrix to live in an underground hellhole, with terrible food, under the authority of a human military that will interfere with their daily lives far more so than the agents of the Matrix.  

What should be understood here is that individual and structural oppression are distinct and, in practice, believing in structural oppression will force someone to ignore the physical well-being of individuals. For example, I have found that PETA protestors, despite all their rhetoric about the abuse of horses used for carriage rides, care very little for the actual horses. I once asked such protestors if they would be willing to continue allowing these rides if the alternative was for the horses to be slaughtered and used for glue (think of Boxer from Animal Farm). None of the protestors were willing to say save the horses. These protestors did not really care about whether these horses were being mistreated. Their real objection was horses being used by a private company to make a profit in the first place. 

We see a similar line of thinking among Palestinian activists. Imagine they had two possible futures. In the first, the political situation remains the same with Israel in charge but Israel has managed to greatly improve the Palestinian economy and Palestinians are now enjoying life as middle-class westerners so much that they have abandoned all thought of national liberation. In the second, from sea to sea Palestine is free but people are economically just as poor as they are now. The frightening reality is that many of them really would choose the second option. Consider the recent Ben & Jerry's boycott of the territories. The really odd thing is that it does nothing to benefit Palestinians on the ground. It is one thing to oppose companies selling Israel military gear to be used in the territories. Someone who cares about Palestinians as people should still want private companies to invest in the territories regardless of whether Israel is in charge so that Palestinians can have jobs. 

Political activism needs to be grounded in the real needs of people. If you cannot deliver tangible improvements to people's day-to-day lives, then all the noble theories in the world will not help. This is one of the strengths of markets. They are not a comprehensive ideology but a tool to improve people's lives a few percentage points of growth a year at a time. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The Paradox of Classical Liberalism

 

A strength of classical liberalism is that it is not supposed to be a positive value system. Instead, classical liberalism is meant to function as a structure from which one can reform existing societies. For example, classical liberals reform can societies so that they are less prone to use violence against women along with various ethnic or sexual minority groups. We call this negative liberty. You have the right to be protected against those wishing to cause you physical harm and that is the limit of your rights. It is a simple belief that can easily be explained to anyone of any race or creed and it is a profound concept that can uplift those societies where people take it to heart. This strength of classical liberalism is also a weakness. Classical liberalism, in of itself, is an empty ideology. It can oppose various visible forms of oppression but it cannot offer a positive alternative. In a classical liberal society, people should be free to pursue their own good in their own way as long as they are not causing physical harm to others. That being said, what should classical liberals actually do once they have learned to stop beating people up for looking different or believing in the wrong things?

One might say that classical liberals should become scientists and philosophers, using their reason to better comprehend the universe. Such pursuits, though, only make sense within a particular society. Consider the example of Socrates. Socrates may have believed that only the examined life was worth living but he was also someone whose life only had meaning within Athenian society. For this reason, Socrates refused to flee Athens and instead stayed to drink hemlock. Without Athens, Socrates was simply someone with a talent for deconstructing ideas; he might as well be dead.    

Whether it is a city or a religious community, classical liberalism is always going to be dependent on something outside of itself that is likely going to exist in tension with it. For example, I am both a classical liberal and a traditionally observant Jew. This is not a contradiction in the sense that I am not trying to force my Judaism on anyone else. I honestly have no interest in murdering homosexuals or even Amalekites. That being said, clearly, Judaism is not the same thing as classical liberalism. Furthermore, it is Judaism that controls how I live my day-to-day life. Classical liberalism is limited to an abstract philosophy to think about. It lacks the power of leather boxes to tie onto my biceps and on top of my head.  

The temptation is for classical liberalism to attempt to attach positive values to itself and claim the existence of positive liberty. For example, there is a difference between not beating up transgender students and a public school actively celebrating that student's life choices and handing out puberty blockers without parental consent. The problem is that the moment liberalism becomes a positive set of beliefs, it loses its moral high ground and simply becomes one more cultural system. It no longer becomes something that everyone can embrace, no matter their background, as part of their inheritance as rational human beings. This kind of liberalism is particularly dangerous because it still thinks of itself as something universal even as it has become a particular creed. This eliminates the checks that stop it from becoming totalitarian. 

If you believe that LGBTQs truly have the right to receive active positive acceptance from everyone, then you have signed on to murder anyone clinging to conservative religious values. If LGBTQs must be given acceptance and religious conservatives will not give it then the only option left is to "lovingly" murder those religious conservatives so we can have a world without "hate." 

As long as liberalism is merely the support of negative liberty to not initiate physical violence, there is no problem if we expect everyone to live by it. Do not start fights with us and we will not start fights with you. Alternatively, if liberalism is a particular creed that is only meant for "WEIRD" people on college campuses that would also be fine as there would be no reason for liberals to bother anyone else. The problem becomes when liberalism tries to be both; you then have a license to try to refashion the world according to your creed. If that means killing people then so be it.   

Consider the example of Judaism and Christianity. One of the benefits of Judaism is precisely that it is a particular creed. God entered into a covenant and offered a set of commandments to a particular group of people and not anyone else. Beyond preaching ethical monotheism, Judaism has no universal message to convert the world to. More importantly, there are no particular rituals that non-Jews need to perform. It is right and good that members of the Bahai religion continue to be Bahai. There is no good reason to try to convert them to Judaism so I am under no obligation to try. The Bahai do not have to be circumcised or celebrate the Sabbath. Christianity, by contrast, suffers from being a universalist religion. If Jesus died for the sins of the entire world, then Christians have an obligation to baptize the Bahai in his name and are not free to live and let live. Even if Judaism is not enough to make someone a classical liberal it clearly offers fewer temptations to stray from that path. 

Classical liberalism's limited vision for itself also applies to science. The power of science is precisely that it is not meant as an all-encompassing doctrine. It is merely a tool for explaining the world that does not even claim to always be right but simply to lead productive results in the long run. This allows science to be taken up by any culture because there is no contradiction between being a practicing scientist and going home and pursuing any lifestyle. Granted that a society that values science will eventually experience benefits beyond new technology. That being said, science is not a complete value system in itself and any scientist who claims otherwise, regardless of the moral value of their system, has ceased practicing science. 

There is a place for universal ideas for people in all times and places and particularist ideas for some people in some situations. Universal ideas may be the grand important ones but it is also their very nobility that limits them. To live our lives, we need particular ideas that we can bring down to our level. Unlike Judaism, classical liberalism is for everyone precisely because it is not a guide for actual living. Think of it as an invitation. Reject violence and embrace reason. The world that arises will contain many surprises but there should be a place for what is truly important to you.  

Monday, July 19, 2021

What Does It Mean to Think Critically?

 

Ideological battles are usually won or lost based on who can control the language in use. In the struggle against critical theory, one of the disadvantages we in the opposition are saddled with is that the supporters of critical theory control the word "critical." In my education classes, people like Paulo Freire are presented as supporting "critical thinking." From this perspective, who can oppose critical theory? Clearly, students should not simply take what they learn at face value. A teacher's job is to give students the tools to question what they read and see. The problem is that the word "critical" can mean very different things depending on whether you are coming from the classical liberal tradition of the Enlightenment or from critical theory. 

Enlightenment critical thinking can, perhaps, best be seen in Kant's famous What is Enlightenment? essay. Kant's Enlightenment is about the power of the individual to challenge the claims of established social and political institutions. For example, if my priest waves his Bible at me and insists that I obey him, I have the right to read the Bible for myself to decide how the Bible should be interpreted or even if it should be accepted as an authority at all. In this, Kant was the heir to the Protestant tradition that placed the individual as the primary actor in the drama of salvation as opposed to the community. It is the individual who reads the Bible and chooses to believe. 

Whether you are a Protestant or an Enlightenment philosopher, critical thinking is something carried out by individuals. Furthermore, the entire foundation of critical thinking presupposes the existence of autonomous individuals existing separate from institutions. It is only from this outside perspective that it is possible to critique institutions. It is only possible to attack Catholicism, for example, if you can first imagine yourself as a non-Catholic. If a person cannot conceive of joining another religion or rejecting all religions, then their arguments will never rise above criticisms of particular Catholics and calls to reform the Church to make it better match Catholic ideals. 

It is here that science becomes important. Science is fundamentally about a process through which one can make objective statements about the nature of the world that is disconnected from any kind of traditional authority. As such, science provides a platform outside of any particular culture by which that culture can be critically judged. For example, I can tell my priest that I do not believe that the Earth was created according to the Book of Genesis because I have science that tells me that the Earth is 5.5 billion years old. Furthermore, the truths of science are, theoretically at least, equally accessible to the Pacific Islander as the European. A native can be a perfectly competent scientist without European science missionaries coming to him with a science textbook to "believe" in or demand that he accept a wider set of European cultural values.   

The classical liberal placement of the individual as the one engaged in critical thinking explains the importance of freedom of thought. Since one of the ways we develop ideas is by talking to (and arguing with) other people, the primary manifestation of freedom of thought is freedom of expression. People have the right to come up with their own narratives of how the world works. This even includes people with absurd ideas like the sixteenth-century Italian miller Menocchio, who was murdered by the Inquisition for the crime of telling people that the universe was like a giant piece of fermenting cheese. Trying to make sense of the universe, no matter how bad we are at it, is a fundamental part of our humanity. As such it is a right that cannot simply be sacrificed merely based on a utilitarian calculus as to what is to the public benefit.   

Because critical thought is the product of individuals, there can be a distinction between words and physical violence. Assuming you are not engaged in a conspiracy to commit physical violence, your words cannot be violence. I can speak and write every blasphemy against the Christian religion and without harming any individual Christians in the slightest. As long as we assume that only individuals are truly real as moral units, there can be freedom of expression because no individual can be harmed by words. The moment we accept that a collective entity like the Catholic Church possesses an objective moral reality then this distinction between speech and violence collapses. The Church can be harmed by my blasphemy, which would make blasphemy an act of violence. Hence, all speech potentially becomes violence. This renders freedom of expression, the right to be wrong and even offensive, a dead letter.  

Contrary to the classical liberal notion of critical thinking, which is based on the autonomous individual, critical theory comes from Marxism. As such, its foundational moral unit is the group. This changes the meaning of critical thinking. For example, in classical Marxism, to think critically means to come to a recognition that economic classes and not individuals are the fundamental structure of society. The worker comes to know that he is oppressed not by his boss and landlord but by this entity called capitalism. It is capitalism that is responsible for the many seemingly disconnected problems he sees in the world. The practical implication of this is that a fundamental revolution in the nature of society is necessary. It might be possible to fix the problem with the boss and the landlord through negotiation or even legal reform. Capitalism, as something that infuses everything in society, can only be defeated through revolution. 

This basic structure of Marxist thought evolved, in the 20th century, into critical theory, which placed culture at the center of the story instead of economics. This came to include issues like race, gender, and sexuality. Hence critical theory functions as a methodology of coming to the realization, for example, of how one is oppressed by the entity of cisgender heterosexual white men and it is this structure and not just capitalism that needs to be overthrown.  

In a sense, classical liberal critical thought and critical theory mean opposite things. Classical liberal critical thought is premised on the individual coming into the consciousness of their individual reason and using it to challenge established power structures (or simply to argue with random strangers on the internet). By contrast, critical theory maintains that autonomous individual thought does not really exist. There are only forms of group thought. For example, my beliefs are not my own but are the products of my bourgeois upbringing. My classical liberalism is merely a cover for my capitalist ideology. My defense of free speech is merely an apology for the right of capitalists to use their economic power to promote their ideology.

We see this in Freire, where one is either a member of the oppressor or the oppressed class. Critical for Freire, is the idea that oppressors cannot, simply, through the power of their own reason, reject their oppressor nature and join with the oppressed. A wealthy person cannot study public policy, decide that there is a lot of oppression, and work with poor people to advocate for better laws. Even if the laws on the ground are changed, the fundamental oppressive structure would remain and might even be strengthened now that the wealthy liberal can plausibly claim to be a humanitarian and justify his continued hold onto power. The only way for the wealthy to be redeemed is through the revolution which will fundamentally refashion the very structure of society as well as human nature itself.

A similar pattern can also be seen in Robin DiAngelo's White Fragility. It needs to be emphasized that the white racist villains of her narrative who use their emotional fragility to avoid talking about race and, therefore, prop up the system of white supremacy, are not Klansmen or even Trump voters; they are the seemingly well-meaning white liberals who attend her diversity workshops but insist that they are not racist and are even offended by the idea. White people need to accept that, by virtue of growing up in American society and benefiting from white privilege, they are racists. The structural racism that permeates all aspects of American society will not disappear until white people confess their complicity in racism without even asking black people to forgive them. To ask for forgiveness is to imply that it is possible for white people, as individuals, to atone for racism without the revolutionary restructuring of society. 

DiAngelo's version of white complicity in structural racism has a lot in common with Protestant notions of total depravity where humans are so caught up in Original Sin that even their reason is tainted. A person must simultaneously accept that they are sinners, without the power to change their way, and that it does not matter because Jesus has atoned for them. For DiAngelo, it is impossible for a white person to reason themselves out of the web of privileges that they have grown up taking for granted and the prejudices used to defend them simply through rationally thinking that people should not be judged by the color of their skin. Instead, critical thinking becomes the exercise in which the white person recognizes that their reason cannot redeem them from the sin of racism.   

One of the implications of critical theory is that it undermines freedom of thought. Since we are no longer concerned with individuals but abstract forces that are granted a moral reality, words now become a form of violence. While it is axiomatic for a classical liberal that even the vilest racist taunts should be tolerated because words are not violence and people have the right to be wrong, for critical theory, the merest disagreement becomes an act of violence. If you believe that white people are not so bad, it is not just that you are wrong. Such words allow white supremacy to persist, which causes blacks to die at the hands of police. Therefore, if you reject the principles of critical theory, you are literally murdering black people on the street and deserve to be treated as a killer. 

If non-tax-payer-funded schools wish to teach critical theory, that is their right. That being said, intellectual honesty demands that those teaching critical theory be clear as to what critical theory is and how it is distinct from critical thinking. Critical thinking relies on the rationality of individuals to challenge established ways of thinking. Critical theory, on the other hand, is the very denial that such a thing is possible. Critical thinking teaches that people can be wrong in their ideas and that is fine because words are not violence. For critical theory, it is precisely words that are the true form of violence as words have the power to undermine group identities.                    

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Are You an Augustinian or a Rousseauian? Why the Origins of Evil Is Important for Conservatives and Liberals


At the heart of the debate between conservatives and liberals is the question of evil. Both conservatives and liberals may look around and recognize that much of the world is not as it ideally should be but they will disagree as to why this is the case. For a conservative, the source of evil lies in human beings themselves. The liberal will see the source of evil within society. 

The conservative view can best be seen in the thought of Augustine of Hippo, who saw even infants as sinners ruled by self-love. This flaw only becomes even more manifest in older children when they come to suspect that they are not what they should be but, rather than improve themselves, they come to actively hate the good. For example, the child hates learning Greek in school, which requires effort and discipline. His teachers are not content to leave him in his comforting idleness but desire the child's good. Therefore, the child hates them along with anyone else who might attempt to direct him onto a good path. Seeking refuge from the good with its demands, the child eventually comes to actively embrace evil. For example, stealing pears and throwing them away because he knows it is wrong. 

Self-love is so dangerous because it never goes away even when a person honestly tries to be better. The adult who decides to finally focus on his studies and earn a degree will find himself pursuing even greater depravities like becoming an honored teacher of philosophy. With his mastery of being able to talk about ethics, he will finally become truly impervious to anyone questioning his complete lack of virtue. 

In the world of Augustinian psychology, there are essentially two kinds of people, the tragically flawed and the satanically evil. There are the people who try to do what they intellectually know is the right thing even though, in the long run, they are doomed to fail. The other kind of person clings to their claim of righteousness by pretending that their self-love is actually a virtue. Such people are satanic in the sense that they do evil not out of some venial weakness of character but because they actually believe that evil is the true good. 

The solution for the conservative, even if it is a highly imperfect one, is to keep the individual, with his self-love, in check through social organizations. This includes the brute force of the law but more importantly the family and organized religion, which inculcate a person with a moral code and a conscience. This makes it possible for a person to not constantly pursue their self-love even when no one is around and there is no fear of punishment.

This notion of self-love as an inescapable fact of human psychology can also be seen in thinkers like Bernard Mandeville and Adam Smith. There is the hope that, under the right system, self-love can be harnessed for the public benefit. That being said, the starting assumption is that there is no way to remove self-love and create truly selfless people. Even the man who sacrifices his finger to save China will never escape the fact that losing that one finger will cause him greater suffering than the deaths of millions of strangers. 

If Augustine was the paradigmatic conservative, Rousseau can be seen as the paradigmatic liberal. Rousseau rejected Original Sin. People are born fundamentally good because nature is inherently good. It is society that corrupts them. People left to their own devices would be noble savages without a thought of preferring themselves to others. It was only with the invention of private property that people learned to be greedy. Education made people arrogant by causing them to assume that the greater their book learning, the wiser they were when, in truth, greater book learning simply meant less connection to the truths of nature.    

This question about the origin of evil becomes important when we consider the prospect revolution as a solution to the problem of evil. If you are an Augustinian, you are likely to recognize that human beings, with their self-love, will eventually corrupt any set of institutions they are allowed to control. As such, rather than reign in self-love, the institution will come to serve that self-love. Therefore, from time to time certain reforms must be made in order to allow those institutions to resume their job of keeping human self-love in check. What you are not going to consider is tearing institutions down in the hope that better ones will grow in their place. It would be the height of madness to assume that the same people who lack virtue even when they are kept in check will suddenly conquer their self-love once there is nothing left to stop them.  

This is the critical context for understanding Edmund Burke. It may be one thing for British colonists in America to rebel against the Crown in the name of traditional English liberties with the local colony governments remaining largely the same. This is not the same thing as the French deciding to tear down centuries of monarchial tradition because of something some of them read in Rousseau. 

The Rousseauians, like Maxmillian Robespierre, who carried out the French Revolution and eventually the Reign of Terror did not ask themselves who will guard against the revolutionaries. On the contrary, the revolutionary, by the mere fact of being a revolutionary, was assumed to be free from the taint of social corruption. If you believe that society corrupts then struggling against society should protect a person from corruption and make them virtuous. Hence, Robespierre thought of himself as incorruptible. 

From the conservative perspective, the problem with any revolutionary movement comes out of this confidence that self-love can be circumvented. We are self-loving beings who seek to pretend, especially to ourselves, that we are not in order that we should be able to pursue our self-love without being held in check by society or even our own conscience. This renders revolutionaries morally perverse. You are going to take people who are already predisposed to self-love and being deceitful about it. You are then going to allow them to overthrow the very system that keeps their self-love in check, all while telling these revolutionaries that they are above self-love. Is it any wonder that the end results are monsters, who commit mass murder? 

To be clear, Augustinian politics is no guard against corruption. This should come as no surprise as people remain tainted by self-love no matter if they become kings or even popes. On the contrary, the loftier the position the more likely they are to be seduced by their self-love, believing that their self-love is somehow really the selfless caring for humanity. That being said, Augustinian politics, because it does not believe in the perfectability of human beings, is protected from sinking to the totalitarianism that is the logical endpoint of Rousseauian politics. 

To bring this around to our modern political discourse, if you are an Augustinian, you may honestly believe that racism, as a type of tribalism that ultimately comes from self-love, is an evil that needs to be fought. One might even support laws banning discrimination. What you are not going to do is make any pretense that racism can be eradicated. You are certainly not going to engage in anything so reckless as tearing down social systems in a bid to eliminate "structural racism." You cannot change the reality that people have their thumbs on the moral scales in favor of people they perceive as being more like them. What you can do is to strengthen those social systems that will speak to people's sense of decency and keep self-love in check. 

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

When Paulo Freire Says He Loves You, Run

 

I have finished my first two courses for my teaching certification. In case you were wondering what the schools' politics are, I was strongly encouraged to read Paulo Freire. As a good student and someone who tries to keep an open mind, I bothered to read his two most famous books, Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Pedagogy of Hope, even though they were not formally assigned. The two things that really struck me about Pedagogy of the Oppressed was that it is simply a terribly written book and that very little of it actually has anything to do with education. Pedagogy of Hope is somewhat better in the sense that it is mostly understandable but it also has almost nothing to do with education. The book is best seen as a self-indulgent autobiography, focusing on the author's interactions with fans of Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  

Considering that most of Pedagogy of the Oppressed was not written for clarity, it is important to focus on those parts where Freire was remarkably clear. 

Any situation in which "A" objectively exploits "B" or hinders his and her pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression. Such a situation in itself constitutes violence, even when sweetened by false generosity because it interferes with the individual's ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human. With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun. Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence? How could they be the sponsors of something whose objective inauguration called forth their existence as oppressed? There would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation (p. 55).

Freire's universe was an utterly Manichean one in which people could be divided into oppressors and oppressed. This is not a world in which, to use Solzhenitsyn's term, the struggle between good and evil runs across every human soul. On the contrary, an oppressed person could never wrong their oppressor. Note how easy it is to be an oppressor. You do not need to physically harm anyone; you simply need to get in the way of their self-expression. If we are to take Freire seriously, my parents oppressed me through the "violence" of regular bathing and underwear changing. By this standard, the only way for Freire's bifurcation of oppressor and oppressed can make sense is by declaring, a priori, that Freire's people are the oppressed and their opponents are the oppressors. We will then cherrypick the data to show how the opposition are the oppressors while deciding that any contrary evidence is irrelevant since Freire's people are already oppressed and, therefore, can never be oppressors.   

Freire's bifurcation into oppressor and oppressed takes a truly satanic turn once you realize that he actively justified literal physical violence as long as it was carried out by those people he thought were oppressed. Such acts are not only to be deemed non-violent but are actually manifestations of "love." According to Friere:

Yet it is - paradoxical though it may seem - precisely in the response of the oppressed to the violence of their oppressors that a gesture of love may be found. ... Whereas the violence of the oppressors prevents the oppressed from being fully human, the response of the latter to this violence is grounded in the desire to pursue the right to be human. As the oppressors dehumanize others and violate their rights, they themselves also become dehumanized. As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors' power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression (p. 56). 

Keep in mind that Freire was not a pacifist. His praise of Che Guevara shows otherwise. So, when Freire talked about acting against oppression, he clearly meant to include killing. Not only did Freire believe that it was ok for his people to murder their opponents, anyone who did anything to get in their way, doing so not only did not violate their opponent's human rights but was an act of "love" that made them human once again. 

Consider how this logic can be applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israelis are, by definition, oppressors because we are going to decide that the cause of the conflict was Palestinian refugees in 1948 and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. The mere existence of the State of Israel hinders the fullest expression of Palestinian national identity so any support for Israel is an act of violence against Palestinians. Nothing else matters because Palestinians are the oppressed. Therefore, nothing that they do, even the murder of children, can be considered violence. If Israelis die, they are only suffering the results of their being oppressors. 

Since Israelis are the oppressors, they do not really count as human beings and have forfeited all claims to human rights. Hence it is not an act of anti-Semitism to call for the murder of Jews using the same tropes as Der Sturmer. On the contrary, it is an act of "love." It is only in death that the non-anti-Zionist Jew can be redeemed from the crime of Zionism and regain their lost humanity. 

It is worth noting that Freire was at least nominally a Christian and worked for the World Council of Churches. One of the great lies of Christianity is that it is a religion of love in contrast to Judaism which is supposed to be the religion of judgement. It is precisely this Christian claim to love that has served to justify over a thousand years of oppression against Jews. Historically, Jews have long known that the truest expression of Christian love was to murder Jews. 

One of the oddities of living in a post-Holocaust world is that it is precisely the more conservative branches of Christianity who are likely to have repented from this tradition of anti-Semitism. This is possible because of the doctrines of Original Sin and the divinity of Jesus. Original Sin makes it possible for Christians to imagine that they are not the hero of the story and are capable of doing truly terrible things, including crimes against the Jewish people. This is why Jesus, the true hero of the Christian story, needed to die on the Cross and not simply teach people to love their neighbors. No one, not even the most decent Christian, could ever fulfill that commandment.  

If you believe that the main point of Jesus' ministry was that he was the Son of God and needed to die for the sins of the world as opposed to teaching people to love their neighbors, then there is little need to turn the Jews into villains. Jews in the first century CE may have been the most righteous and godly people to have ever walked this Earth. They still lacked Jesus and were therefore destined to fail. The moment you believe that the point of Jesus was to teach a new morally superior doctrine then the Jews need to become the villains. If Jesus taught people to be kind even to Samaritans and prostitutes, it must be that the Jews were mean fanatical people who hated Samaritans and stoned prostitutes.  

Freire exemplifies a Christianity that has replaced the Cross with Marxist class struggle. What remained was his self-righteousness. He knew that he was one of the good guys of history because he cared about the downtrodden and oppressed. It never occurred to him that he could be the true face of evil, someone who could see murder and call it love. 


Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Privilege Trap

 


I find it interesting that one of the things mentioned in the video was whether students had attended a private school. I grew up going to a private Jewish school. It had nothing to do with my parents being rich and us being privileged. One might argue the opposite. As a minority group, we lacked the privilege of being able to attend a public school that was consistent with our values.

This is an example of how context matters. There is a danger with these kinds of exercises that, by focusing on certain privileges, they implicitly ignore other privileges. This opens the door for these exercises to function, not as tools for people to understand how they are privileged, but as an opportunity for some people to pretend that they are not privileged.

Another dangerous aspect of this exercise is that it treats the economy as a fixed pie in which whatever you get comes at the expense of someone else. Imagine that some slow kid won the $100 and refused to share. Would a fast kid, who was forced to start at the back have the moral right to take the money by force? If we agree that the slow kid does not deserve the money but the fast kid who would have won a fair race does then the slow kid is a thief and the fast kid should have the right to use force to get back what is rightfully his. 

Imagine a rich man who benefited from privilege and a poor man who did not. The poor man comes to the rich man's home, pulls out a gun and demands a share of the rich man's fortune. If the rich man goes for his gun and kills the poor man, is he a murderer? If the poor man kills the rich man, is he a murderer? Clearly, for either of them to claim self-defense, we would have to agree as to which of them had a legitimate claim on the money in the first place.    

This is not an idle question. Every day I put my life in your hands on the assumption that we fundamentally agree about the legitimacy of property rights. The moment that trust is breached, the consequences as they play out perhaps over years, are truly Hobbesian. 


Judaism As a Culture

 

When dealing with Judaism, it is very difficult to untangle what is culture and what is religion. Judaism is both an ethnic culture and a religion in which the two are inseparably linked. Part of the problem is that we have the same word "Jew" for both religion and culture. It is obvious that there is something called Irish culture as well as an Irish religion. This religion is called Catholicism. Even though the two are closely intertwined and Irish culture has been heavily influenced by Irish Catholicism, clearly these are distinct things. In differentiating Irish Catholicism from Irish culture, it helps that there are over a billion Catholics in the world who do not identify with Irish culture. In the case of Judaism, one is hard-pressed to find someone who practices the Jewish religion who does not also identify with Jewish culture. Even though Judaism does accept converts, in practice, the process of conversion also tends to involve taking on Jewish culture.

The main reason, I suspect, for this, is that the Jewish argument relies on a deep emotional connection to the Jewish nation as something that goes back to antiquity and has survived despite persecution. The Christian parallel to this would be whether you identify with the man Jesus of Nazareth. Without that identification, the theological argument of Jesus' godhood will not connect with the listener. Similarly with Judaism, if someone connects to the Jewish story then they are likely to be open to the argument that God has been using the Jewish people as part of a plan to enlighten the rest of the world with ethical monotheism. To be clear, one does not have to be Jewish to serve God and play a productive role in sanctifying the world.

As a Jew, I do not believe that I am spiritually better than anybody else. Here it is useful to apply Amy Chua's three rules for successful cultures. Judaism is something fantastic and it is a great privilege to be a Jew. That being said, I feel incredibly inadequate, as an individual, to live up to Judaism's lofty standards. While I am far from perfect, I do try to practice the discipline of Jewish ritual in an attempt to be worthy of Judaism.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Christian Microaggressions

 As a Jew whose academic training largely revolved around history, I have a complicated relationship with Christianity. On the one hand, Christianity is very similar to Judaism and shares the Hebrew Bible. That being said, there is a bloody history of Christian persecution. More importantly is the legacy of the doctrine of Versus Israel, the True Israel. The idea is that Christians have replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people and all the blessings of the Hebrew Bible now apply to Christians. An extreme version of this kind of thinking can be seen today among White Supremacist groups like the Christian Identity movement. Not all Christians subscribe to Verus Israel theology. Many Christians believe in a dual covenant theology where Jews remain the Nation of Israel with all of its blessings. Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate is a good example of this kind of thinking.  

Verus Israel can be seen as the ultimate act of cultural appropriation and the violent history behind this cannot be denied. Of course, Christians have the right to be Christians and that means that they have the right to make use of material that has its origins in Judaism. This raises a question though of where a line should be drawn and something becomes a microaggression, even an unconscious one, where our Christian engages in thinking that indicates a replacement theology that denies Judaism its cultural heritage. To make matters more complicated, our Christian may honestly be driven by a desire to show his respect for Judaism.

It seems obvious to me that Christians should be allowed to read the Hebrew Bible. It should also follow that they are allowed to read the Hebrew Bible in its original Hebrew. What about the use of Hebrew phrases? Is that a sign of respect or is it reflect even a subconscious desire to erase Judaism? What about the use of Jewish symbols like the Star of David? Can Christians make use of Jewish rituals that Christians have historically not practiced? For example, can Christians create a Passover seder for themselves? The Last Supper was a Passover Seder (unless you go with the Gospel of John) so why should Christians not take up the practice. The problem is that such activity can make it appear that the Christian is claiming the mantel of Judaism for himself.

A further wrinkle in this is Christian missionary activity. Obviously, Christians have the right to try to convince Jews to convert to Christianity just as Christians have the right to try to convert Muslims and Hindus. That being said, there are groups like Jews for Jesus who appropriate Jewish practices for themselves as part of a marketing campaign to make Christianity acceptable to Jews. There is the issue of Christians dishonestly trying to portray themselves as Jews to engage in missionary activity. Being a missionary is fine as long as you are honest about your intentions. On top of that is the issue of trying to replace Judaism.

The irony is that all of this could be dismissed over some laughs and drinks if it were not for the growing recognition of microaggressions. Considering the long and dark history of Verus Israel, any general discussion of microaggressions that did not include Christian appropriation of Jewish culture becomes its own form of microaggression. To say that microaggressions against other groups matter but that microaggressions against Jews do not, denies Jews their history as an oppressed group.

Part of the problem with microaggressions and other forms of sensitivity training is that it forces everyone into a grievance arms race. All of us have our prejudices and say things we should not. As such we are vulnerable to being discredited. This traps us into trying to discredit other people for their microaggressions before they can discredit us. In essence, this is the old noticing the speck in the other person’s eye in order to ignore the log in our own eye. This was taught by a great Jewish thinker named Jesus.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Why You Should Hire Me to Teach History

 

My chief strength is that I am very good at absorbing information, particularly when it comes to history, and organizing it in my head. Something that I regularly teach my students is that one of the best ways to remember information is if you can connect it to some other information, creating a network. For example, I can remember all the American presidents not because I sat down and tried to memorize a list of names because I associate them with things that happened during their presidencies. You can see a similar concept with music. People can absorb shocking amounts of information if it is set to a tune because that connects the different pieces together. Those who know me personally can tell you that I possess the dreadful combination of being able to sing my way through numerous musicals without actually being able to sing.

It is critical for students to start working on their storehouse of networked information early on because it sets up for a Matthew effect. The students who start off knowing more information are going to learn more. Hence, it is all the more important to make sure that students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not fall behind and are actively working to master their own store of information. 

A Paulo Freire follower would dismiss me as a banker teacher. My response would be that students are not going to be able to challenge anything unless they have a store of cultural information to begin with. Without that, they are doomed to become the puppets of the demagogue they see on TV or who stands in the front of the classroom.

To be clear, when I say that students need a store of cultural information that does not mean that I have all the information that is relevant to them. Students should turn to other teachers in school, religious and cultural leaders, and ultimately to books, including Freire's. Learning is a lifelong process. My job is to show students that it is possible to master vast quantities of information and to start them on the process of gaining their own store for themselves.

People might argue that, in a world of internet access, having a store of information, is useless. I would argue that the internet is not a replacement for memory. On the contrary, with so much information available, the more information you start with the more you can take in online. This is the Matthew effect again. Furthermore, the more you know the easier it becomes to avoid being swayed by the first thing you read on a topic. Information contradicts other information and there is reason to further explore. 

Something I have gained from my lifetime of reading is that I am at peace acknowledging that I know very little. Ask me a question and I will answer you to the best of my knowledge but then suggest that you read on for yourself. Put me in front of a classroom and that is what I will be trying to do.


Wednesday, May 5, 2021

I Believe With Complete Faith That All Students Can Learn


I am about to start work on a teaching credential at an Evangelical college. Thankfully, they have not asked me to confirm that I have undergone a personal experience of being saved. Reading through their course material, I have discovered that they do insist that a teacher must believe that all students can learn. I am curious as to what that is supposed to mean.

To use an analogy from Christian theology. Does a teacher have to follow Origen, who believed that everyone, including Satan, could be "taught?" Can someone be a "Calvinist" and believe in double prelapsarian predestination that God decided before the world was even created who is going to pass my class. God's ways are mysterious and outside our comprehension so we do not know who will pass and who will fail? Our Calvinist teacher would have to treat every student as if they could pass even though he believes that most of them will fail. To further the analogy, the purpose of Calvinist teaching would be to make sure that, when some students inevitably fail, they will not have an excuse to complain. They were given every opportunity to succeed and the only reason they did not was because of their own shortcomings. Perhaps my school follows a John Wesley approach that teachers should work with the non-elect to bridge that gap to passing. As a tutor, this was largely the attitude I took as to my role.

My position is that I do not honestly know if every student can succeed. If a student walks into my class, though, my job is to try to help. I am not allowed to give up on a student and must be willing to fight for them. A practical implication of this is that I would not actively lobby the administration to have a student removed nor would I tell a student that they should have themselves transferred to a lower class.


Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Fall of Community and the Rise of Secular Modernity


Previously, I criticized C. S. Lewis for his argument that modernity took away people's ability to judge objective truths and make life-changing positions because they believed that something was true. What I believe is missing from that argument is the role of community. Modernity is important in the rise of secularism not because people stopped judging arguments objectively, they never were good at that in the first place, but that modernity broke down traditional community authority. This flipped the incentives when it came to religion. Where once people's lived experiences made it almost impossible not to be at least somewhat religious, now people live in a secular reality that makes it quite difficult for them to be religious. 

The importance of communal authority is most obvious when dealing with Judaism as the Jewish experience with modernity (at least in Europe) involved fairly clear-cut moments where communal authority broke down. Jews went from being members of their local kehilla to being citizens of a country, leading to rapid secularization during the following generation. The Christian experience of modernity provides fewer clean breaks with religious authority, the French and Russian Revolutions being the obvious exceptions. That being said, the practical implications of the modern breakdown of community, once it happened, are relevant to Christians as well.  

It is the combination of community and ideas that forces people to make life-altering decisions. If you grow up within a particular faith community, you might be very smart and be able to come up with all kinds of challenging arguments against your religion but as long as an alternative community with a superior doctrine then it is unlikely for a formal break to happen. One thinks of the tragic life of Uriel da Costa, who fled Catholic Portugal only to find that the rabbinic Judaism of Amsterdam did not suit him either. He found himself caught in a cycle of being excommunicated for heresy and humiliating himself in order to get the community to take him back. Eventually, he committed suicide. Most people are going to avoid such a fate by accepting the parts of their religion they can accept while quietly placing anything else as beyond their understanding. 

Take away the sense of a religious community and two things happen. One, our person likely will have encountered an anti-religious ideology with which to argue against any argument for religion we might wish to make. Two, even if you get past his arguments, as long as our person has no religious community, your arguments for religion will never get past the level of interesting theory that does not need to be put into practice. Before modernity, it was unbelief that had to get past people's lived experiences and, as such, even the best arguments against religion could be dismissed as interesting theories with no relevance to "reality." Now it is religion that has to scale that wall of people's lived experience in a secular world where the a priori assumptions of the game are fixed against religion.  

The problem of community helps us understand the challenge of science and other academic disciplines. For many people, science offers a kind of objective truth. Even if particular claims of science can be refuted, the scientific method carries authority as something against which other truths are going to be judged. It is very easy to make a convincing case for Genesis if there are no ready alternatives competing for the person's attention. Introduce evolution and the mere fact that it exists as an alternative explanation makes it harder to accept Genesis as an absolute. This becomes all the more so once we accept evolution as part of science and come to see science as fundamental to how we understand the world.  

From this perspective, it does not matter if I reconcile Genesis with evolution. The moment dinosaurs living millions of years ago becomes something to take more seriously than a literal Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, my religion is going to be critically hobbled. As my brain becomes filled with all sorts of things from science, math, and history that I honestly believe in at the bottom of my heart, the religious truths I hold are going to become pushed aside to the point when, even if they are not rejected, they become relativized to the point that it will not be able to make absolute claims over my actions. The only way to escape this trap is to undermine the very authority of the academic disciplines as a means of making any claims regarding even physical reality.   

Keep in mind that most people, myself included, are not professional scientists. Even among professional scientists, the number of people who are in a position to directly evaluate the case for evolution is going to be small. It is likely that there are only a few thousand such people on the planet. Everyone else is forced to accept what such people say as a matter of faith. This is going to come down to a question of whose authority are you going to accept. If you are part of a religious thought structure then it is easy to reject evolution. Scientists are just a bunch of power-hungry fools trying to convince people to reject the obvious truth of creation. This is in contrast to our wise and virtuous gedolim (or whatever your religious leaders like to call themselves). Once this is your a priori, it is easy to find evidence to justify this belief. The moment that science becomes the basis of your lived reality then the script flips and it becomes easy to dismiss any objections to evolution as religious backwardness.   

To be clear, when I talk about secularism, I do not necessarily mean that people become outright atheists. Religion can still survive as a social hobby that people attend to on a weekly basis. This does not change the fact that such people still live in a secular reality. Religion, no longer the full-time live experience, is pushed to the margins with little hope of reaching the next generation let alone the wider society. 


Monday, March 1, 2021

The Golden Calf (The Original One)

 

This is an idea that has been sitting around in my head for a while. It seemed like the appropriate week to do it. I am sure I could have done a better job but for now here is my retelling of the Gold Calf. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Something to Yell At: R. Avigdor Miller’s Books and Audiocassettes


The most insulting thing my older brother has ever said to me was that he thought I would like R. Avigdor Miller (1908-2001). I had no idea who R. Miller was at the time so I took no offense. My brother explained that R. Miller was not his personal taste but a lot of people at his yeshiva liked him and I might as well. Sometime later, when I started high school at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, I was at a local seforim store buying school books when I came across a shelf of R. Miller books. I picked up one of them, Awake My Glory. I got back to my room and eagerly opened the book. To my horror, I discovered that I had spent $10 on a rant about the evils of atheism, evolution, Christianity, Zionism, and Reform Judaism. Eager to demonstrate the economic principle of loss aversion, I did not stop at the introduction, which set out R. Miller’s agenda. (To his credit, one could never have accused R. Miller of lacking clarity or of trying to hide his agenda.) Instead, I read the entire book. Not satisfied with that, and perhaps desirous of raising my blood pressure to new heights, I soon discovered that Torah Vodaath had a lending audio cassette library with R. Miller’s lectures. I started listening to them diligently to yell at them. This was still in the early days of the internet so the ethos of “someone on the internet is wrong” was still new to my teenage self.

I am sure I could write a book on the topic of why R. Miller was wrong and when I was a teenager, I dreamed of doing so. As I have gotten older, I have come to appreciate the limits of trying to argue against people like R. Miller. His books are readily available within the Haredi community and you can read them for yourself. You can also find clips of him speaking on YouTube. He had a rather distinctive voice. I use it as the basis for Professor Pippy Poopypants from Captain Underpants and other such characters when reading to my kids. Either you are going to be repulsed by R. Miller, in which case you hardly need a book by me, or you are not, in which case there is something deeply wrong with you and nothing I can write is going to fix that. My interest here is to explore why it was that I came to passionately loath R. Miller almost instantly even as it was hardly obvious that I would have such a reaction.

I was a yeshiva kid, R. Miller’s target audience, and my own brother thought I was the kind of person who would like R. Miller. I liked being right and had little patience for people who disagreed with me. It was around this time that I discovered Rush Limbaugh, who my teenage self found to be perfectly congenial. So, what was it about R. Miller that I found so repulsive? I suspect it was the fact that R. Miller blatantly espoused a worldview in which people like him were good and the entire rest of the world was bad without the cover of telling stories that only implied that.   

The most important thing you need to understand about my religious background is that I was raised Haredi but in Columbus, OH, where my father was a rabbi, and in McKeesport, PA, in my grandfather of blessed memory’s shul. While my father saw his “home planet” as Haredi New York, he was not raised in that world and did not raise his children there either. I spent the school year in Columbus Torah Academy where most kids were not Orthodox and spent the summer in Haredi summer camps like Camp Torah Vodaath and later, after it closed, at Camp Rayim. I was raised with American culture, including movies, television, and regular trips to the public library.

There is an irony in this as it was my father, and not his Haredi friends from his “home planet” who was being traditional. My father was raised this way and so were his friends, even those who lived in New York. It was not practical, in the 1950s and 60s to raise children any other way. There was essentially no Orthodox publishing or music industry. Parents had no choice but to allow their kids to consume American culture, which was less obviously problematic at the time anyway. Also, keep in mind that the post-war generation was still focused on entering the middle-class and gaining social acceptance for themselves. Walling oneself off from American culture was simply not an option for them.   

It was my father’s friends who changed. They made the decision, under the influence of people like R. Miller, to raise the children of my generation without American culture. They had the luxury of living in Haredi enclaves and no longer having to worry about what the gentile neighbors might think. They had Artscroll, Feldheim, Suki & Ding, R. Shmuel Kunda, Mordechai Ben David, and Avraham Fried to raise their kids. It was no longer necessary to take the chance of exposing kids to secular books let alone movies and television so those things could be disposed of. I find Haredi rabbis to be quite open about this, apologizing for the “leniency” of their parent’s generation as something necessary under the circumstances but no longer.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the early educational value of many Haredi audiocassettes produced for my generation. Thanks to my exposure to Orthodox media, Jewish studies in kindergarten and first grade were largely a waste of my time. Like any good cultural education, Orthodox media gave me the basics of Jewish life without my having to be conscious of learning it. This is particularly useful for keeping people in the fold. It is difficult to reject things that you never consciously learned in the first place. What you never consciously learned is simply what “normal” people do.

Growing up in Columbus, OH listening to religious story tapes and only actually being in Haredi society during the summer, it was easy to not realize that a major culture gap existed. An incident that does stick out in my mind was when I stormed off from the dining room table because my bunkmates were using the n-word and making racist jokes. The head-counsellor, one of my father’s best friends, supported me and said that the kids were out of line. He assured me that he was raised not to use such terms. What I took from this encounter was that the yeshiva system was about producing people like me and that my bunkmates were jerks whose values did not reflect the system in which they and not I lived.

What I did not consider at the time was the protentional Faustian bargain the head counsellor and the Haredim of his generation were making with my generation. If you had told him that the price of raising non-racist kids was that these kids would not be religious, would he be so quick to oppose racism? It was not so farfetched to believe that there is an inverse relationship between Jewish kids being raised with a strong subconscious distaste for non-Jews and the religious drop-out rate. As an inner-city black person, the “schwartze,” was a pretty useful stand-in for not-Jewish and certainly not-Haredi, so why not use him as the embodiment of what you were trying to oppose.

Being Haredi is hard. What can they offer kids to make up for the long school hours, and the forgoing of American culture? In return, kids can be rude to secular teachers and make racist jokes about black people. To be clear, it is not that anyone ever openly made this argument. It is simply a matter of following the incentives. If you have the kind of society you would expect from such an agreement then it becomes highly plausible to imagine that, at the very least, this agreement has been made subconsciously.

The camp culture was filled with more subtle forms of hate that I failed to appreciate at the time. We were fed a steady diet of stories in which Catholic priests kidnapped Jewish children in order to force them to convert to Christianity or murdered Christian children to set up blood libels. One of the rabbis gave his priest villains the name Father Shmutz (dirt). The Golem was a popular character in the stories I heard at camp. The nuance of defending the Jewish community against anti-Semites was often lost. One example I remember had a golem going into a church to beat up Christians in modern-day America. For those trying to understand this sensibility, I recommend R. Gershon Winkler’s Golem of Prague, one of my favorite Jewish books growing up. The villainous priest, Thaddeus, is obscenely over the top. Murdering a Christian for the purposes of framing the Jews is the culmination of a streak of villainous deeds. It is rather ironic that Haredim would turn the blood libel around and use it against Christians.

During the year, the head counselor put out a radio show called Chassidic Tales of Inspiration. He sent us a case of audio cassettes of the show for my older brother’s bar mitzvah. My younger brother and I listened to them to death and could quote long passages from our favorite stories. To the head counselor’s credit, he really was a fantastic storyteller and he was not even the best at camp. That being said, looking back, there was some really problematic material. For example, one of the stories has a Father Francois murder a Christian child in order to set up a blood libel. He gets caught by the not very Jewish trope of being forced to shake the corpse’s hand which then does not let go. The head counselor told this story not to a few friends after getting drunk on Purim but on the radio as if anti-Semites do not exist and do not pay attention to Jewish media with the intent of making the point that Jews hate Christians.  

Before anyone walks away with the impression that Haredi summer camps are simple hate fests, it should be stated that this head counselor was one of the most thoroughly decent, loving, not hateful people that I have ever met. I am positive that, as with racism, he would have denounced any attempt to use these anti-Christian stories as the basis for interacting with actual Christians. He was not trying to convince us to hurt Christians or even to hate them. That being said, as with racism, teaching us to not hate Christians was certainly not his priority. Parents were not paying good money to send their kids to camp so that they could become more tolerant of non-Jews. If hating non-Jews was a side effect of an educational system designed to make sure that, at a deep gut check level, there would be no plausible alternative to Haredi Judaism then so be it. All the more so if the medium of story-telling allowed him to Pontius Pilate himself of all responsibility. (If you do not know who Pontius Pilate was, you have clearly never read the New Testament and are a terrible Jew.)   

That is what is so dangerous about stories. They are not inherently normative, telling us what we should do, so you cannot say that a story teaches people to do certain things. For example, it would be the height of absurdity to claim that World War II era Looney Tunes cartoons with Bugs Bunny killing Japanese soldiers teaches people to kill their Japanese neighbors in the twenty-first century. And yet stories do have lessons even as their authors can always deny them. Furthermore, stories can become even more pernicious when you consciously disbelieve the message. It becomes all the easier to miss how the subconscious still believes. You cannot rationally escape a belief system that you never reasoned yourself into in the first place.   

My father sent my older brother to the Yeshiva of Scranton and then to South Bend. He was thrown out of both of them for refusing to comply with school restrictions on secular books and TV. By the time I was ready for high school, he was already leaving Orthodoxy. My father was determined not to repeat the same mistakes with me. He, therefore, sent me to Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, his and my grandfather’s alma mater. By the time I arrived in the Fall of 1997, there were only a few high schoolers in the dorm. This meant that the school would not be policing me like a regular yeshiva high school student and I would be able to read secular books without interference. In fact, the dorm counselor wrote me a note so I could get a library card from the Brooklyn Public Library.

As I mentioned at the beginning, it was at this point in my life that I discovered R. Miller.  He did not tell stories with a particular set of Jewish values to be simultaneously consciously ignored and subconsciously accepted as an inarguable reality of how the world works. Instead, R. Miller came right out with his ideology. It is not as if I were an atheist, a Christian or a Reform Jew. I was pretty neutral then about evolution and my Zionism was, as it still is, more pragmatic than principled yet I could not shake the sense that I, as a practicing Jew who valued general culture, was R. Miller’s real target. It is not as if atheists, Christians, or non-Orthodox Jews were ever likely to read his books.

Once I became alerted to R. Miller's existence, I began to notice his pernicious existence all over the place. It was not just that his lecture tapes were being lent out by the yeshiva. An older friend, with whom I studied with on a nightly basis, informed me that he attended R. Miller’s weekly lectures. I do regret that I never took advantage of the opportunity to join him and contented myself with yelling at his tapes. I am sure I could have found it in myself to behave myself in a public setting. One of the rabbis recommended R. Miller to me when I got into a theological discussion with him, unaware that I already detested the man.

As with the head counselor, I am willing to give R. Miller’s fans at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath the benefit of the doubt. When I asked people about R. Miller’s claim that Zionists and other secular Jews were responsible for the Holocaust or his willingness to make sweeping general statements about entire groups based on the problematic statements and actions of some of its members, they acknowledged that R. Miller said things that were out of line. He was a zealous person and the important thing to take from him was not to cherry-pick his most extreme claims but to focus on the larger picture, his love for God, the Jewish people, and his willingness to unapologetically say things that other people would not. Notice how that last statement implicitly defends R. Miller most troublesome statements even as it pretends to distance itself from them.

As with black jokes and blood libeling priests, the point was never really to convince us that non-Orthodox Jews caused the Holocaust. Rather it was to inculcate us with a sense of disgust to the non-religious. The fact that we did not really blame them for the Holocaust would simply make it difficult for us to locate that disgust with such a claim and we would conclude that our opposition was simply based on the “facts.” If some kids might go over the deep end and take these claims literally, the rabbis could deny any responsibility.

I did not last long at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. This was not the fault of the administration, which treated me with great indulgence. I look back on my time at Torah Vodaath with great fondness. I certainly cannot blame R. Miller as he never even met me. That being said, my lack of friendships with anyone my own age took its toll on me emotionally and I became clinically depressed. Later on in life, I would be diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Coming into an awareness that society was not designed for someone like me certainly did not help my mental wellbeing. By January my father had to bring me home. For the rest of high school, I attended the Yeshiva of Greater Washington in Silver Spring, MD where my parents had just moved.

Even here, I could not escape the specter of R. Miller. Our Jewish History class used him as a textbook. As a historian, R. Miller functioned as a kind of Haredi version of the 1619 Project in which occasionally legitimate skepticism regarding mainstream sources was used as cover for the wholesale acceptance of rabbinic sources.

There is an important lesson here about skepticism. Skepticism and belief are not opposites but two sides of the same coin. To be skeptical about something most always mean skeptical in contrast to something else. I take science and the historical method very seriously as tools for understanding the world. This is what allows me to treat the Haredi version of reality with skepticism as lacking by comparison. Without such a sincere belief in the methods of science and history, I would probably be one of those people who actually like R. Miller.  

As I have gotten older, I have mellowed a bit regarding R. Miller. This is strange because I am significantly to the left religiously now than I was as a teenager. I still consider myself religiously observant. This is not the case with my older brother, who abandoned orthodoxy during high school. The biggest difference between us was that none of the rabbis I encountered over the course of my education ever truly wronged me. I respected their decency and their kindness to me even as I disagreed with them about theology. It was R. Miller who made me aware that I was not really part of the Haredi world. Without him, I could have continued for far longer to focus on how much I personally liked and respected my father’s friends from his home planet (in contrast to most of the kids my age) and only hear what I wanted to hear about their theology. In this sense, R. Miller deserves credit for his honesty and willingness to openly say things that most people in the Haredi world had the good sense not to say. If I came to despise the man personally, despite never actually meeting him, that was me and my need for the Haredi world to be something to serve my needs, something it was never designed to do.