Thursday, March 29, 2007

Three Cheers For President Clinton

It has been a long time since I have had anything good to say about Bill Clinton. I got my first taste of politics back in the summer of '92 watching the news in my grandmother's kitchen. Back then I was a big follower of then Governor Clinton. What can I say, some kids get into rock stars and actors I got into politicians. My disenchantment from Clinton occurred over a long period of time. I don't think I can pin it down to any single moment. It was somewhere between my growing disenchantment with the Oslo Accords and Monica Lewinsky.
Now Clinton has gone on the attack against President Jimmy Carter, someone whom I had great respect for up until a few years ago. (link) For those of you who have really had their heads in the clouds Carter published an anti-Israel hate fest titled Peace Not Apartheid.
Thank You President Clinton for doing the right and moral thing (for once).

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Interfaith Dialogue

Jim Nimmo, a gay rights activist from Oklahoma, wrote an interesting article in the American Chronicle, (link) in which he argues that the opposition to gay marriage is linked to religion and that all religion is based on bigotry.
I sent him the following email:
As someone who supports gay marriage, I question some of your arguments. You seem to operate on the assumption that any opposition to gay marriage or to gays in general is based on homophobia and is of a religious origin. The reason why I support gay marriage is that I look around and see gay couples who are married and function in the same way as heterosexual couples so it seems reasonable to me have our marriage laws reflect this reality. Someone could be a complete atheist and look around and say that gay couples have not reached that point so we should just leave the laws as they are for the moment. If we present the argument for gay marriage like I just did then I believe we could get most of the country and even a decent percentage of people on the right to go along with it. In general I fail to see how any religious ban on gay sex would be any different then bans on eating pork or eating meat during Lent. I see homosexuality as an action that should be defended upon libertarian grounds. Not as a state of being that should be defended as a civil right. If we assume that homosexuality is a state of being then the state has the right to start asking itself what sorts of beings it prefers. Your attacks on religion are not helpful. By attacking religion you are making this about religion. Many people on the right suspect that the gay marriage movement is a conspiracy to get the courts to say that anyone who does not support gay marriage is a bigot. Hence the court would be saying that any religion that does not support gay marriage is bigoted and is no different then say the KKK.
Benzion N. Chinn
P.S The term is Hasdic Judaism not Hasdism Judaism.

He responded to my email:
Mr. Chinn,> > Thanks for reading and also for your support of gay marriage.> I think we're on the same page in regard to a libertatrian POV about> two people of any gender combination and/or religious/non-religious> status being recognized first from the civil government for a valid> marriage license. Religious ceremonies can come later, if at all.> > I think the issue IS religion and the pernicious, parasitic way it> has of infecting our civil and social atmosphere.> > I do not wish any opponent harm: I want them to leave their> prejucide out of the public forum as it always brings harm to those> whose beliefs and education differ from the oppressors.> > Until our American First Amendment is formally repealed, instead of> being simply ignored by many, we should maintain a strict seperation> of religous views from being injected into our civil codes, be they> progressive or knee-jerk beliefs.> > As I stated in my essay, why should one denomination be allowed to> hold sway over another? Is the intent of such a practice to> reinforce the inculcated bigotry some people choose to use as a> smoke screen, a bigotry which we both want to suspend?> > Thanks for the terminology correction. I knew it didn't look right> but couldn't get my head around it. Living as a goy in Oklahoma> leaves me little exposure to non-xtian practices and language.> > Best wishes.> > Jim Nimmo

To which I responded:The issue of the more extreme factions of a group being able to hold> the more moderate factions hostage is an interesting issue that goes> beyond religion. I see it all over the place.> Particularly in the case of religion, the more extreme groups (in> the case of Judaism that would be Hasidic Jews and other types of> Haredim.) do not view the more moderate groups as having any sort of> legitimacy, while the moderates still view those on the extreme as> being legitimate. The reason for this is that the general perception> is that those on the extreme are the most religious, the "true> believers." This allows those on the extreme to ignore the moderates> while the moderates have to constantly pay attention to those on the> extreme.> At the end of the day it those who are on the extreme who manage to> dictate the agenda and everyone else is caught simply trying to> react.> One of the problems with how we currently put the first amendment> into practice is that it makes it very difficult to deal with> religion in a public context. Religion becomes something that only> goes on in private religious circles, where the extremes can> dominate the conversation.> Just as I have no problem with having government paid chaplains in> the armed forces and Congress opening sessions with a prayer. I have> no problem with there being government chaplains in public schools> and there being prayer in public schools. Just as long as it does> not cross the line into becoming an active campaign to create a> dominant religion.> As to my letter. You did not answer the question of what is the> difference between banning homosexual sex and banning any other> action? Religions usually have lots of taboos, why can't> homosexuality simply be one more of them? While this may put the> members of a given religion who are homosexuals in a really tough> position, it would not make the religion homophobic.
Benzion Chinn

I have never been given any sort of answer as to why homosexuality must be treated as a state of being instead of as an action that some people enjoy doing. Of course once we start treating homosexuality as an action then the notion of gay rights collapses.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Medieval Aliens

In speaking to people about the Middle Ages I often have to disabuse them of the Whig narrative of history, which they may have imbibed. According to the Whig narrative, there was the golden era of Greece and Rome, filled with enlightenment and philosophy. This was followed by the dark Medieval age, which was dominated by intolerance and superstition. Mankind only awoke from its slumber after a thousand years, when it had the Renaissance. In dealing with the Jewish community, my cause is made particularly difficult because I have to contend with fake historians like Rabbi Berel Wein, who have hypocritically taken up this Whig narrative and use it when dealing with the Catholic church, but of course exempt Judaism from it.
I recently read a novel titled Eifelheim by Michael Flynn. It is about a group of aliens known as the Krenken, who crash near a German village during the Black Death. What I really loved about this book was its ability to portray the villagers who come in contact with these aliens and in particular the priest, father Dietrich, as being sophisticated individuals in their own uniquely medieval way.
I find the author's comments in his historical notes to be particularly comforting. He writes:
For one thing, they [people in the Middle Ages] took Christianity seriously; in many ways, more seriously than modern Bible-thumpers. At the same time, they took it more matter-of-factly. ...
Philosophers studied nature with virtually no intrusions by theologians who were themselves natural philosophers. ... Never before or since has such a large proportion of a population been educated so exclusively in logic, reason, and science.
"Key was the concept of secondary causation: God had endowed material bodies with the ability to act upon one another by their own natures. Hence, 'natural law.' If God made the entire world, then invoking God to explain the rainbow or magnetism or rectilinear motion added nothing to human understanding. Philosophers therefore sought natural explanations to natural phenomena. That a later century would invoke religion over a trivial matter of the earth's motion would likely have astonished them."
I would like to thank you Mr. Flynn for doing so successfully what we historians try and usually fail to do.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Speaker For the Dead

In Orson Scott Card’s Ender series, the main character Andrew Wiggin serves as a Speaker for the Dead. He tells over the life stories of those who had died not to praise or condemn the dead but simply so that those hearing could understood what the deceased stood for and how they understood themselves. The motive of the speaker is that he believes that there is an inherent value to human existence and that by honestly seeking to come to an understanding of an individual one can come to a greater understanding of humanity as a whole.
I see the historian as serving a similar function for modern day society. We are the stewards of the knowledge of societies and worlds that are dead and buried. Their values and all that they stood for are gone and there are few who would even understand them. (Just as our society will one day pass from this earth to be inherited by people who are incapable of even understanding our values and what we stood for.) The historian’s task is to serve as a speaker for those who can no longer speak for themselves. Not out of any present day agenda, but simply because he believes that human beings have intrinsic value and that by honestly coming to terms with human beings, even those no longer here, we can come to a greater understanding of present day humanity. This is not to say that the past repeats itself, but simply that it gives a context with which to place ourselves.
The historian studies the past, but more than that he lives in the past. If the past is like a foreign country then the historian is like the intelligence officer who has spent decades living in the country he studies and has more of this country within him than that of his native land. While this intelligence officer may never become a native of the country he studies, he will never again be able to truly be a native of the country of his origin either. Not that I believe that historians are infallible oracles from whom the past radiates through. Just as a person today cannot embody anything more then just a perspective of this world so to the historian is simply an expression of one amongst many legitimate perspectives on the past.
My goal in teaching history is to challenge students by forcing them to come to terms with the fact that there were sane, moral people who thought in ways that go against everything my students have been taught to believe. For example most societies in history have tended toward hierarchy in their structure and in particular they have been patriarchal. I take it for granted that all of my students believe in equality and in women’s rights in one form or another. I would want to bring about just a glimmer of a crisis of faith; that just for a moment my students should wonder whether it is we who are wrong and Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas and Maimonides who are right. Not that I want my students to stop believing in equality. On the contrary I want to make them stronger believers. I would want them to go from simply spouting dogma about equality to actively accepting it, fully aware of the price they pay in doing so.
Ultimately being a historian involves being both a liberal and a conservative. The historian is a liberal in that he actively seeks to challenge the status quo. He lives with an open mind and with the possibility of other ways of living ones life. On the other hand the field of history, unlike any other field of study besides for religion, is built around defending tradition, the conservative action par excellence. Not to say that the historian necessarily wants to replicate past ways of living in the present. That being said, if the historian did not believe that there was some real value to traditional ways of life he would have chosen a different field.

Postscript: Those who know me well would realize that my way of thinking is ultimately rooted within this contradiction.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Potter Prophecy

An idea recently occurred to me about the prophecy in Harry Potter. We know that the cause of Voldemort coming after the Potters, when Harry was a baby, was that Snape overheard part of the prophecy and told Voldemort. Could it be that Snape, at this point, was already working for Dumbledore and that Dumbledore told Snape to tell Voldemort about it. Dumbledore's purpose would have been to bait Voldemort into coming after Harry, thus causing the prophecy to come true and bringing about the initial downfall of Voldemort. This would mean that Dumbledore had lied to Harry in order to cover up the fact that he bore a responsibility for the death of Harry's parents. We know that Dumbledore wanted to be the Potters' secret keeper. Could it be that Dumbledore intended to somehow give Voldemort the secret himself in order that Voldemort would be able to go after the Potters. We already know that Dumbledore had refrained from telling Harry the full truth about things in the past in order to protect him. Could it also be that Dumbledore did not told Harry the full prophecy, particularly the part that was fulfilled by Snape killing Dumbledore?
This may or may not be what will happen. It would make for a really cool plot twist. It would not make Dumbledore a bad person. It would just make him someone who made some impossible moral choices.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Happy Birthday to Me

Today I have reached level 24 of glorious singlehood. I am still trying to figure out what special codes and powers I now get. I am already licensed to drive and drink, just not at the same time.
I would like to thank my best friend Ariel for the book he gave me. And for calling me a "terrorist." (When my great-aunt misread the note, which said Averroeist, she did not realize that an Averroeist is a terrorist who sneaks into innocent frum populations and spreads esoteric heresy. This is of course why you need gedolim. Only gedolim can be smart enough to understand the complex natures of our heresies.)
What did I do today? Mainly I fasted. I met with a professor who seemed to like my proposed thesis for a seminar paper. After breakfast, I celebrated over beer and Haagen-Dazs.
To an exciting action-packed year of wine, women, and papers.