Monday, January 28, 2008

A Suggested Reworking of the Magic Flute so not to Offend Feminist Ears (Part II)

(This concludes an earlier post. See here.)

Despite the Magic Flute's Enlightenment sentiments, it does not take a great leap of the imagination to see certain highly patriarchal themes within the story. The world of the Queen of the Night, consisting of women, is the evil side, while the very masculine side of Sarastro is considered to be good. In fact, the librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, was actually quite explicit on this issue. Sarastro, numerous times, declares that the darkness represented by the Queen of the Night is the result of allowing a woman to rule without the oversight of a man. Having a woman rule is against nature and results in chaos and obscuration. What is needed is for a man to rule. Only then can law and reason be maintained.

The fact that such an Enlightenment piece could build itself around the concept that women need to be kept under the authority of men, should not be a shock to any reader of Rousseau. According to Rousseau, democratic rule necessitated that women be kept out of power. Women represent autocracy and the rule of the passions. Men represent democracy and the rule of reason. (See Sarah Maza, Private Lives and Public Affairs: The Causes Celebres in Pre-Revolutionary France.)

Considering all this, I was thinking that we can redeem this “sexist” play simply by understanding it as a tragedy. Here is the real story that Mozart and his sexist cronies wanted to hide from us. The Queen of the Night rules over a happy feminist kingdom, in which men are not needed and are not allowed. Sarastro, though, tricks her daughter, Pamina to abandon her mother’s feminist paradise for his so-called Temple of Light, which is a seminary devoted to advancing the cause of patriarchal tyranny. He fills her head with thoughts of marriage and religion. He tells her that, by submitting to the patriarchal institution of marriage, she can find completion in this life. Also, he initiates her into the service of Isis and Osiris, which obviously represent the veneration of Mary and Jesus. Pamina learns that a woman should be like the Virgin Mary; she should submit herself to the whims of a patriarchal god and help bring forth the embodiment of patriarchal authority into the world. Next, she must stand idly by as the patriarchal values of blood, sacrifice and suffering are enshrined as unchallengeable religious dogmas.

The Queen of the Night, desperate to save her daughter, enlists the help of a Tamino, who, despite the fact that he is a man, seems to be an open-minded individual. He does not seek patriarchal rule but romantic love. Neither Tamino nor the Queen of the Night realize that romantic love is merely a cover for patriarchy; this is their tragic flaw. The audience is shown early on, through the character of Papageno, that romantic love necessarily leads to patriarchy. Papageno also sings of romantic love, but his idea of romance is catching women and putting them in cages.

Meanwhile, Sarastro’s Moorish servant, Monostatos, having rejected the patriarchal values of his master, who had enslaved him, and embraced the tolerance of Islam that he practiced in his youth, tries to open up Pamina’s eyes to the true nature of Sarastro’s patriarchy, but she will not listen. He tries to get her to love him, but, having absorbed racism as well as sexism from Sarastro, she turns him down.

When Tamino comes to rescue Pamina, he is caught by Sarastro. Sarastro reveals to him the true patriarchal foundations of romantic love. Tamino cannot resist the allure of patriarchy and submits himself to Sarastro’s teaching, much like Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith submits himself to the teachings of Chancellor Palpatine. The Queen of the Night makes one desperate last attempt to ward off the forces of patriarchy. Even though Monostatos comes to her aid, her forces prove unable to overcome the full force of Sarastro’s patriarchy once it is unleashed and all is lost. As the opera ends, Pamina believes that she is going to enter wedded bliss. The audience is shown, though, throw the use of Papageno and Papageno what fate really awaits her; a life of putting out babies without the barest hint of family planning.

There is a serious issue to be confronted here. I once went to a production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and the program explained that Shakespeare used this play to attack traditional concepts of hierarchy and gender roles. While I do believe that much of Shakespeare’s work is quite subversive and that Shakespeare had a keen understanding as to the role of hierarchy and gender in society, his work is hardly twenty-first-century college campus liberalism. This is particularly ridiculous as, unlike plays such as Twelfth Night and Merchant of Venice, Much Ado about Nothing has nothing directly to do with gender; the play has no women dressing up as men or vice versa. The implication of this is that the only way Shakespeare can be performed is if we pretend that all the politically incorrect material is not there. If political correctness has come to this than the arts are in serious trouble.

While Ohio State’s production of Magic Flute changed Monostatos from a Moor to a white man in Gothic clothing (Why is there no Gothic Anti-Defamation League to sue people for this?), the production still kept Mozart’s sexism and allowed us to see it in all of its glory. I congratulate them for doing something honestly controversial. They are truly standing in the frontlines of artistic freedom.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Suggested Reworking of the Magic Flute so not to Offend Feminist Ears (Part I)

This afternoon I attended a production of Mozart’s opera, the Magic Flute (Die Zauberflote), put on by the Ohio State University’s school of music. I thoroughly enjoyed it, though I suspect that opera purists would snipe at it. The opera was performed using very modern English, using such words as “crap” and “girlfriend.” The production also took certain liberties such as including lines about hamburgers and a quip from one of the male characters about not being interested in another man.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Magic Flute, it is about Tamino’s quest to achieve enlightenment and win the hand of his love, Pamina. As the story begins, Tamino is rescued from a giant serpent by the ladies of the Queen of the Night and taken to their realm. As repayment for her aid, the Queen charges Tamino with a quest to rescue her daughter, Pamina, from the hands of Sarastro, the priest of the Temple of Light. Tamino, in true romantic fashion, has fallen madly in love with Pamina merely from viewing her portrait and eagerly jumps at the chance to do this heroic deed. To aid him in this quest, Tamino receives a magic flute that can change people’s hearts and make them do his bidding. Accompanying Tamino is a bird catcher named Papageno. Pagageno’s my favorite character of the story and provides most of the comic relief. The running joke with him is that, in addition to the usual birds he tries to catch, he is also set on catching other sorts of birds, mainly women. In the end he does find himself a mate, her name is Papagena. I have every intention of learning his pieces so I can give them a proper butchering by attempting to sing them.

Tamino and Papageno go to rescue Pamina, but they discover that, contrary to what they believed, Sarastro is not the evil villain they thought him to be. On the contrary the people of the Temple of Light are really the good guys. Everyone in this realm believes in light and reason. (That is everyone except Sarastro’s traitorous Moorish servant, Monostatos.) The Queen of the Night and her ladies are the evil ones and they are trying to keep the world in darkness and superstition. While Sarastro had taken Pamina, he only did it to rescue her from her mother’s influence. Tamino and Pagageno join the Temple of Light and undergo a series of trials to prove their worth and to be allowed to enter the sacred Temple where they will be given true enlightenment.

The Queen of the Night, seeing her original plans fall to ruin, appears to Pamina tries to convince her to murder Sarastro. This leads to one of the most famous arias in opera, “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” (Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart). This is a rather infamous piece amongst singers as it requires the soprano to hit an F6 key, the highest in music. There are few people in the world, capable of singing this piece properly. Enlightenment and true love wins in the end and the force of light defeats the Queen of Night and her followers. Tamino and Pamina are wed and live happily ever after.

Like much of Mozart’s work, the Magic Flute has strung Enlightenment themes running through it. The Queen of the Night represents traditional faith, with her power built on lies and superstition. Sarastro represents the Enlightenment, particularly the Freemasons. He cuts through the obscuration of the Queen of the Night and brings forth the light of reason.

(To be continued ...)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Case of Medieval Irish Liberalism or was the Bishop Just Plain Drunk?

It is, however, interesting to note that according to the anonymous ninth-century Life of St. Brigid, Brigid was ordained as a bishop. This claim that the saint had received the Episcopal order was perhaps an attempt to explain Brigid’s unique position of honor and authority in the Church, as well as that of her successor abbesses at Kildare. According to the vita, as Brigid knelt to receive the nun’s veil, Bishop Mel “being intoxicated with the grace of God there did not recognise what he was reciting from his book, for he consecrated Brigit with the orders of a bishop. ‘This virgin alone in Ireland,’ said Mel, ‘will hold the Episcopal ordination.’ While she was being consecrated a fiery column ascended from her head.” Later versions of this story, however, attempted to discredit or dismiss this incident, arguing that it had clearly been a mistake: Bishop Mel had consecrated Brigid while he was drunk, thus making it invalid!
(Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg, Forgetful of their Sex pg. 94)

You just have to love the Irish.

I can just imagine a group of Catholic Talmud scholars learning together learning together in Yeshivish: It says in Mishnayos Pirquei Avos Ecclesia (Ethics of the Church Fathers) that he who is m'kadesh (sanctifies) a woman as a galach (priest) is oseh tipshus (makes for foolishness). Mesavai (I'll ask you a question); Masah b'Archon Mel (there was an incident with Bishop Mel) that he was m'kadesh Brigid. Lo raiah (thats not a proof); Mimelah (it would seem) he was Irish. And, as it was said in the house of Abba (father i.e. the Pope): ten measures of siquor (drunkedness) were given to the world and nine were given to the Irish.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Palestinian Illegal Immigrants

As it has been reported in news outlets throughout the world, Palestinian militants blew up a large section of the border wall between Gaza and Egypt. Taking advantage of the situation, over 350,000 Palestinians crossed over in order to buy food and other supplies. Egyptian forces at first tried to halt this mass exodus but were overwhelmed. In explaining the situation, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in a statement:

I told them to let them come in and eat and buy food and then return them later as long as they were not carrying weapons. … But today a great number of them came back because the Palestinians in Gaza are starving due to the Israeli siege. Egyptian troops accompanied them to buy food and then allowed them to return to the Gaza Strip.

I must say, it gladdens my heart to see Arabs going at each other for the entire world to see. It is important that the world understands that the problems in the Arab world have nothing to do with Israel.

What is so interesting to me about this whole affair is the fact that the Egyptians tried to keep the Palestinians from crossing the border and when they finally relented they still made sure that the Palestinians went home. Here in the United States, conservatives have been criticized for taking a hard-line stance on illegal immigrants coming over the border from Mexico; these people are coming over for work and it is inhuman to deny them that. Not that the United States is against all immigrants or even all immigrants from Latin America. It is official government policy that anyone who manages to flee Castro’s Cuba can automatically stay. This has led to thousands of Cubans braving ninety miles of shark-infested water in homemade rafts in hopes of making it to Florida and freedom. One has to wonder, why do the Egyptians not show the same humanitarian concern to their Arab brothers that the United States shows to illegal immigrants; clearly the Palestinian situation is a far graver humanitarian crisis. The Egyptians would not even have to give them citizenship. They could give all Palestinians the option of coming over to Egypt to live and work. Mubarak had his soldiers specifically escort Palestinians to make sure they did not stay in Egypt; what is he so afraid of? Surely those Palestinians who crossed should have been given the option of staying.

There should be a moratorium on anyone telling Israel to ease up on border restrictions and allow Palestinians to work in Israel and get food until the Arabs ease up on their borders and do their share to relieve the Palestinian humanitarian crisis.

Monday, January 21, 2008

We are Going to Do Feminism Like it is 1895: A Review of the Gemma Doyle Trilogy (Part III)

(This is the conclusion of a series of earlier posts. See here and here.)

While Libba Bray manages to treat the Victorian world fairly, there is an issue, that Bray jumps around, that I wish she had dealt with directly. While the Victorian world, which Gemma and her friends struggle against, might be highly patriarchal and demand absolute conformity, this same world is also offering them a life of luxury, the likes of which few in that time period could even dream about; this is a life that Gemma and her friends have not earned by any merit of theirs nor would they likely be able to gain it through their own efforts. As such they lack the moral ground with which to challenge the Victorian world. They have little in the way of marketable skills; if they had to earn their own way they would likely find themselves with the factory girls they so pity. While most of the men in these books, with a few exceptions, speak of women in ways that would make moderns blush, the men have a point. Most of the women are in fact little better than grown up children, to be kept as pets, but not to be taken too seriously.

Any attempt to argue for women’s equality in such a world would find itself up against a catch-22. Women, in this time period, are inferior. With some few exceptions, there are no female doctors and lawyers nor are there many women with more than a very elementary education. As such women are not in a position to position to demand access to power or even access to the means to gain power, such as higher education and professional careers. With nothing to bargain with, women have no choice but to submit to patriarchal power and must make do with whatever scraps men choose to throw at them.

I would have loved it if Bray would have given a character like Mrs. Nightwing a speech like this to unload on Gemma with, challenging her to earn her ability to challenge the world around her. This would set the stage for what Gemma does at the end of the trilogy, providing her motivation. (Do not worry. I will not spoil the ending.)

The books do have one weakness; they tend to wander quite a bit, without anything actually happening. Bray, in ways that are reminiscent of J.K Rowling, likes to have her characters wandering about Spence Academy and the Realms, trying to figure out what the larger story is. This becomes a particular problem with The Sweet Far Thing. It is 819 pages long, nearly double A Great and Terrible Beauty’s 416 pages and still significantly longer than Rebel Angels’ 592 pages. The reader spends The Sweet Far Thing waiting for the final climactic battle with the forces of the Winterlands. While the climax has its share of interesting moments, along with a few tragic ones, the whole affair seems to go off as a whimper. Circe, the chief villain of series, proves to be an intriguing and nuanced character; it is a pity, though, that Bray does not do more with her.

The Sweet Far Thing’s ability to go hundreds of pages without any important plot developments reminds me of the Order of the Phoenix. The difference, though, is that Rowling possessed a singular ability to keep a reader enthralled in her work; the world of Harry Potter was interesting in of itself. No matter what else may have been happening, I loved reading about Harry, Ron and Hermione. Bray, for all of her talent, lacks Rowling’s ability to be able to get away with having nothing happen. Even Rowling had difficulty keeping Order of the Phoenix afloat, Bray fails. I could happily read Rowling simply for the sake of reading Rowling, I do not love Bray to that extent. Ultimately the Sweet Far Thing should not have been more than six hundred pages; the story could have easily been told in four hundred pages.

Despite the Sweet Far Thing's failings, the Gemma Doyle trilogy is a very worthwhile read. I believe that the Orthodox audience would particularly enjoy these books; they are in a unique situation to appreciate the struggles of living within a highly structured environment and the various nuances that come out of such a world.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

We are Going to Do Feminism Like it is 1895: A Review of the Gemma Doyle Trilogy (Part II)

(This is the continuation of an earlier post. See here.)

In my mind, these books are everything that feminist literature should be. Without a question, the issue underlying the series is female empowerment and Bray makes no apologies for it. Gemma and her friends, as women, live in a world in which they have few choices and little control over their lives. The Realms offer them a world in which they have power and the possibility of being able to change the course of their lives back home.

Bray is not defending the Victorian world nor is she trying to turn back the clock. She manages, though, to bring a level of nuance that one does not usually find in literature dealing with women’s issues. There is more to her feminism than pontificating about the plight of women struggling against the tyranny of patriarchy. Bray does not feel the need to preach or pass judgment against the Victorian world. In ways that are very reminiscent of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series, Bray is willing to accept the Victorian world for what it was, warts and all, and instead of mocking it, she has fun with it.

Bray has no interest in polemicizing against men; these books do not break down into intelligent and open-minded women going up against the men, who are all stupid and bigoted. Take for example Gemma’s older brother, Tom; he can be an idiot at times, but Bray manages to keep him genuinely likable. Gemma’s love interest, an Indian boy named Kartik, is a very interesting character. Bray is willing to allow him to be Gemma’s equal, instead of turning him into a male version of a damsel in distress. In truth, the main enforcers of patriarchy in these books are not the men but the women, particularly such characters as Spence’s headmistress, Mrs. Nightwing, Gemma’s grandmother, Mrs. William Doyle, and Lady Denby. Ultimately the message here to women is not that men have wronged them and they have the right to demand their due; instead the books ask women to look inward and ask themselves if they are the cause of their own oppression and, more importantly, how are they, as women, going to take the initiative and solve the problems that face them.

I think the reason for Bray’s success in this matter lies in the fact that she not only writes good fantasy but good historical fiction as well. She has created characters that are true to the time period. Her characters do not break down into the rational, intelligent, modern sounding characters and their bigoted intolerant opponents who are essentially straw-men of premodern modes of thought. Gemma does not come across as a modern feminist in a corset; she believably inhabits the world she lives in. She is not striving to prove that she is the equal of men or that she should be able to be a doctor, lawyer or even the Prime Minister just like a man. It is not that she even rejects her world; she is simply someone who finds herself desiring to have more options and struggles with the implications of this desire. One suspects that Gemma would not fit into the modern world. She still wants and needs the structure of the Victorian world, even if it is simply a moderated version of it.

The character who is closest to modern feminism is Felicity. In a Great and Terrible Beauty, she already has gotten involved with a gypsy youth. In Rebel Angels she experiments with going to a ball in a gown with a plunging neckline. By the time we reach The Far Sweet Thing, she is dreaming of going off to Paris, wearing breeches and working as a model. There is even a hint of a lesbian relationship between her and Pippa. Bray, though, conceives Felicity’s “feminism” not as an intellectual or moral struggle against the forces of oppression, but as Felicity being a brat. Felicity is the sort of character who does whatever she wants; damn the consequences to her or anyone else. This is one of the reasons why she is such a fun character and why we love her, but Bray never tries to imbue Felicity with any sort of moral authority. Instead, she ingeniously uses Felicity to turn tables on modern feminism and mock them in turn.

It does not take a whole lot of imagination to realize how the real-life equivalents of Gemma and her friends would lead to modern feminism. Even Ann, the Neville Longbottom of the group, is, by The Sweet Far Thing, working on becoming a professional actress. It is an interesting question to speculate whether the rise of modern feminism was the inevitable result of the women’s movements of the nineteenth century, but at best this could only have been seen in hindsight. The real-life equivalents of Gemma and her friends could not have conceived that they were a movement, where this movement was heading and if they did they would not have necessarily approved of it.

(To be continued …)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Orthodox Sex in New York City

Here is an interesting article, Shomer Negiah in the City, by Matthue Roth. It deals with his experiences with the Orthodox singles scene in New York and the fact that, despite the taboos in Orthodox Judaism against touching a member of the opposite gender, let alone to have sex with them, there is a thriving hook up culture amongst young Orthodox singles. What I love about this article is that it is blunt and hard hitting but at the same time it is not voyeuristic nor is it an attack against Orthodoxy. The author is an Orthodox Jew, who is defending Jewish practice and criticizing those who choose to be lax in certain areas. I think that those who write in the Haredi press could learn a lesson from this article on how to write about Judaism. The Haredi world has a habit of trying to dodge tough issues, like with the Kolko scandal for example. This leads to the accusation, often quite justified, that they are unwilling to face up to issues within their community. Furthermore by not being willing to face up to certain issues they leave the field open to those in the secular world, who will gladly air out all of our dirty laundry for us.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

We are Going to Do Feminism Like it is 1895: A Review of the Gemma Doyle Trilogy (Part I)

This past summer a girl, that I was going out with, recommended that, since I, like her, was a Twilight fan, I should try Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty (GTB). The date proved to be lousy, but the book proved to be a wonderful suggestion. Captured by its sharp, tongue and cheek wit and its parade of references to classical literature and poetry, I quickly read A Great and Terrible Beauty along with its sequel, Rebel Angels, and waited until the end of December for the final book in the series, A Sweet Far Thing, to come out. The lesson from this, I think, is that a good book is worth a bad date.

The Gemma Doyle Trilogy is a work of historical fiction/fantasy about a nineteenth century English girl who attends a girl’s finishing school near London called Spence Academy. Gemma grew up in India as the daughter of an English official but is sent to Spence soon after her mother, Virginia Doyle, dies under mysterious circumstances. While the official story, which is put out, is that she died of cholera, Gemma saw her, in a vision, stab herself in order not to be captured by a dark creature, sent by someone named Circe in order to capture her. (I do love a book that is not afraid to kill of characters.) Gemma has to balance her visions, her attempts to come to terms with them and their implications with life at Spence. At Spence girls are fashioned into young ladies fit to play their role in high society, which is to marry well, run a household and bear children who can carry on the glory of the British Empire. This is the world of upper class Victorian England; a place in which absolute conformity is demanded and even the slightest act of deviance can destroy one’s reputation. Not that everyone actually plays by the rules; what matters is the appearance of conformity.

Gemma quickly befriends Ann Bradshaw, a poor scholarship student, who is an even bigger misfit in this school than Gemma. The two of them have to take on Felicity Worthington and her followers, Pippa Cross, Cecily Temple and Elizabeth Pool. One of the things that I really loved about this series though is that despite Felicity’s Draco Malfoy like character, Bray does not simply keep her as an antagonist. Felicity and Pippa actually end up, by the middle of GTB, becoming good friends with Gemma and Ann. Not that Felicity really reforms; she remains her arrogant, cruel manipulative self, but she is quite lovable in her own way. She may be a vicious snake, but she is our vicious snake. Pippa also is a great character. Not to give anything away, but Bray does some very interesting things with her.

One of the weaknesses of the Harry Potter series was that, up until the Half-Blood Prince, Rowling never tried to make Draco Malfoy likable or particularly effective as an antagonist to Harry. There could have been something very attractive about Draco. He has Crabbe and Goyle to protect him from any of the students. He has Severus Snape to protect him from any of the teachers. And if he gets into some real trouble he always has his father, Lucius Malfoy, to protect him from the Ministry of Magic. This boy is untouchable and he can do whatever he wants; who would not want to be him.

Gemma, Ann, Felicity and Pippa form a club centered on a diary, which Gemma discovered by following one of her visions. This diary was written by a former student at Spence named Mary Dowd. From the diary the girls learn about a magical world, the Realms, and a group of powerful women, the Order, which maintained order within the realms. Gemma soon discovers that, in addition to her visions, she also has the ability to enter the Realms and even bring people with her. Here Gemma and her friends experience a world unlike the Victorian England they know, a world in which they have power.

Needless to say, with the discovery of the Realms Gemma and her friends have far more to worry about than tea and dances. Particularly once Circe and the forces of the Winterlands come after them.

(To be continued …)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Joe's Response to Some Good Christmas Tolerance IV

I agree with that assessment. I would agree that calling a government sponsored Christmas tree persecution is going rather far, into the absurd range. But while I would not say it is persecution, I would call it unfair.

As you say, the difference between us is more about where to draw the line and how prevalent religious intolerance is than on any fundamental difference of opinion I think. That may be due to differences between the areas we grew up. I spent much of my life in areas that many people spoke of tolerance but acted on intolerance. There are too many places in the south that are very friendly only so long as you agree with them (not having spent much time outside of the south I can't say how widespread it is elsewhere). Ironically,
I have seen an interesting dichotomy (broadly generalizing here) along southern blacks and whites (discounting some of the vociferous and attention-getting blacks) wherein the poor blacks as a whole tend to be more charitable and tolerant than the whites as a whole (I say as a whole because this distinction does not hold for many people on both sides). This could be due to the fact that blacks often had to be tolerant to get by whereas the whites did not.

Certainly your point about the historical instances of religious persecution being far more blatant and severe than the current situation in the US is completely valid. The issue as I see it is that there are those, particularly in the south, that would like to see the situation get much more intolerant than it is now, such that illegal but in areas accepted acts of hatred become legal and I think we must guard against that. So I would accept that my position may be on the "liberal" side as a defense against the extreme "conservative" side. Although I really hate those terms because liberal and conservative are very poor descriptors and lump complex intertwined issues together, but that is another tirade against the imprecision of current labels. Most people really don't like to think about issues in more than a superficial way, sadly enough.

My response: I have never lived in the South so I cannot comment about southern tolerance. Maryland technically speaking is below the Mason-Dixon Line, but last I checked it still does not really count.

While we both want to draw the line between church and state in different places, there is an important difference between us. The founding fathers would have been far more likely to agree with my line, that the government cannot directly coerce people into following a given belief or give any special status to a given belief, than with your line, that the government cannot do anything that might make members of minority religions feel marginalized. (This is leaving out the fact that the first amendment does not apply to states in the first place; remember the Constitution says "Congress shall make no law ...". The idea that the first amendment applies to states was an invention of the Supreme Court.) So I have the Constitutional high ground. You can make all the moral pleas so want but you cannot say that the Constitution supports you. That being said, you do seem to have the Supreme Court on your side.

To get back to an earlier issue, why do you assume that whenever anyone tries to go after a group, which holds unpopular beliefs, that religion is to blame? You do not need religion to persecute people. Furthermore, what connection is there between the government putting up a Christmas tree and someone throwing a brick through my storefront window? As I see it people who want to engage in violence are going to find an excuse to justify it. Religion is a good excuse. If you do not have that than there is always race. If you are really desperate you can always start a fight over rival sports teams. (Here at Ohio State we have a history of sporting events turning violent, particularly if it involves Michigan.)

Why would the government putting up a Christmas tree on state property be unfair to me? There is nothing unfair with putting something up to a democratic vote. In Columbus OH the government can put up a Christmas tree, in Brooklyn NY the government put up a menorah and in suburban Detroit MI the government can put up a Crescent. Look, if I really felt a need to have a government that played to my religious sensibilities, I could always run off to Israel. I am a part of the liberal tradition. I value living with people who do not share my values. The government is therefore doing me a favor by putting up a Christmas tree; they are forcing me to be more open minded. I think my life is richer because I learned to sing Christmas carols from listening to the radio. I would not have had that opportunity if I did not live in a Christian society that was open with its Christianity.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Joe's Response to Some Good Christmas Tolerance III

This is part of an ongoing discussion that I have been having. For the earlier parts see Some Good Christmas Tolerance, Joe’s Response I and Joe’s Response II.

You raise some good points. You are quite right in that we must be careful about our assumptions of other people's actions, it is not a bad thing to be reminded of that from time to time. The following is a bit long and delves into personal experiences I have witnessed, but it may help to understand how I came to have a different opinion of this matter than you. Not saying I'm right, I just have different experiences which have given me a different perspective, but it has been refreshing and thoughtful to consider my own views more deeply by reading your thoughts on the subject, so thanks for the discussion!

To address your point about failing to catch a person and the police's feelings: the particular incident that I was thinking of was a case in which two Wiccans opened a store in Russelville, AR for those that practiced "Pagan" beliefs. In that area, most Wiccans were very secretive about their faith because many in the town were vehemently opposed to them, having the misapprehension that Wiccans were Devil worshippers. Nevertheless, these two bold people refused to cowtail to local intolerance and opened a legally operated store. The police repeatedly tried to close them down due to trumped up drug charges (the claim was that they were selling drug paraphernalia, no illegal drugs were ever found). That failed in the courts. The police ignored several complaints by the store owners of people smashing their windows with bricks and making threats. The store was torched and the people who did it were amazingly quite open about the whole affair. Concerning the obvious criminal behavior, the police did nothing. The police were also quite open about their opinion that Pagans should not be allowed in their town. In this instance, it is difficult to ascribe the actions of the police as anything other than a willful disregard for the rights of the Wiccans based on the intolerant religious views of the police and surrounding population. Many Wiccans have seen similar acts of abuse and have reason to not trust the authorities. Thankfully, this attitude is not universal and there are many places Wiccans and others can live in the US without the constant fear of violent assaults.

Thus, I should say more correctly that while freedom of religion is a US legal right, it is not upheld in all parts of the country. It is also my opinion from reading numerous articles by others that there are many in the country who feel that we should only have freedom of religion for their beliefs, but not for those who disagree, which I think is a dangerous attitude.

I agree that the concept of freedom for all is certainly not the only way, nor even the historically most popular way to run a society. But I think we can agree that most people would accept the statement that they would rather be free than a slave. I would disagree with your definition of slavery. It is not just about having a legal power over someone else. Would not we all qualify as slaves under that definition? You are quite right in that objecting to slavery a moral judgment. I have no moral outrage to past societies. They were what they were and serves me no good to attempt to judge them for how they were set up. I agree it is unfair to judge past cultures for not having our modern views. But that is no reason to accept past behaviors as acceptable today. We cannot simply say that because slavery existed in the past that it is acceptable for slavery to exist today.

I think what makes the crucial difference between a hired worker and a slave is choice. A hired worker can always quit and find a new job elsewhere. A slave has no choice. They cannot simply leave if they want. It is my belief (mind you, only my opinion), that any society that tolerates slavery like this harms everyone because if they tolerate for one group of people, there is nothing that prevents the society from tolerating for any other group of people. All that needs happen to have a society expand its acceptance of slavery to other groups is for people to not complain about the injustices to others. People will continue to transgress against others until they are stopped.So, is the concept of freedom as good and slavery bad a moral judgment? Absolutely. But then, if given the choice, which would you prefer? As a free person, you have this choice, as a slave you do not.

So, how is the government hurting you by putting up a Christmas tree. Well, they are not, right now. But then, it doesn't sound like you have been the victim of religious discrimination. Would you have the same opinion if you had bricks thrown through your window for putting up a manora? I doubt it. Allowing the government to sponsor a specific religion gives an implicit acceptance for religious zealots to impose their beliefs on others. You should feel fortunate (which it seems apparent that you do) that you have not grown up in a place where people are forced to say a pledge to a god they did not belief or were punished for believing differently than the mainstream. I however, have known too many people in the US that were not so fortunate. I think they would disagree that they have not been hurt. Since we as a society are not of one faith, I think it is wrong for our government to favor one over the other.

I should say that, as a Christian, I have not been seriously harmed by religious intolerance. But I have had several friends that have. I have known people that took the fact that since God is mentioned on our money and is mentioned in our pledge of allegiance that the government openly supports Christianity as the "right" faith and so feel emboldened to commit acts against those of other faiths. I have actually had an acquaintance tell me that since the US is Christian and that all Muslims want to kill us, that we should exterminate all Muslims. She amazingly enough thought that was still in keeping with her Christian faith. I personally think that is an incredibly twisted anti-Christian belief, but that attitude is surprisingly more popular than I used to think, judging by the many times I have heard that recently. This is why I think that the government putting up a Christmas tree while not also doing similar acts for other religions is a dangerous thing.

What I would like to see is a government sponsored highly publicized event that welcomed people of all faiths to freely celebrate together. There are privately sponsored events, but thus far I have only seen Christian-dominated government events. I think we could get over some of these culture wars by having a government that openly said it was ok to belief whatever religion you like rather than a government that said you can technically believe whatever you want, but you should really be Christian, which is how our government seems to me. But then, I have often been told that I am an idealist. :)

I say better to have ideals to strive for than condone a broken reality. Accept what is, but don't let acceptance of reality stop efforts to change it.

My Response: At the end of the day we both agree that not all policemen follow the law. The police are taken from the general population and like the general population they are capable of committing crimes. I suspect we differ in that you assume that it happens more often than I would assume. The question becomes how does this relate to the issue of how far you want to go to keep the government out of religion? This is not a question of whether or not there should be a separation between church and state. This is about what that separation should be. To give you an example from Judaism. On Passover, I do not eat unleavened bread (chametz). My stepmom's family also does not eat unleavened bread on Passover. On Passover, I eat in the same dining room in which I have eaten unleavened bread during the year. My stepmom's family is so careful to avoid any unleavened bread that they do not eat in their regular dining room but instead eat in the basement. They would say that I lack due diligence in keeping Passover and I would say that they have left the practice of Judaism behind and have taken on insanity. (They happen to be really nice people though.)

Another thing you have to consider is where do you draw the line? Considering the nature of our political discourse, it is very tempting for groups to call wolf and say they are being persecuted anytime someone does something they do not like. I am a student of Medieval and Early Modern History. When I talk about the use of state power to promote religion what I have in mind are things like the Spanish Inquisition and the religion wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. I assume this is also what the founding fathers had in mind to avoid when they created the first amendment. Coming from this perspective it seems to me to bad joke to say that putting up a Christmas tree or a baby Jesus, on state property, is an act of persecution.

For an example of the government sponsoring a Jewish event see Micah Halpern’s recent column, Eating Latkes at the White House.

There actually was a recent incident in which the governor of Florida, who is a Christian, got in trouble with the ACLU for putting a mezuzah, a Jewish ritual object put on doorposts, given to him by a Jewish supporter on his office doorpost. The ACLU charged that he was in violation of the first amendment. (See here) Explain this one to me a Christian puts up a Jewish ritual object and is accused of trying to create an established religion.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Girls Who Love Murderous Barbers (or at least those played by Johnny Depp)

My friend, Dragon, recently saw the Sweeney Todd film and has now been converted into a fan of the musical. For those of you who are not familiar with Steven Sondheim’s masterpiece. It is about a nineteenth-century London barber named Sweeney Todd and his downstairs neighbor Mrs. Lovett, who runs a pie shop. Todd likes to murder his customers as his way of taking revenge against the world and Mrs. Lovett, ever the practical one, helps dispose of the bodies by grinding them up into her delicious meat pies. What can I say; Dragon is a very cool person and she has excellent taste.

What befuddles me though is that her favorite song from this musical is Green Finch and Linnet Bird. The song introduces Johanna, Todd’s lost teenage daughter. This is a run of the mill song about a young girl coming into her womanhood and wanting to be free to experience the world. It is a pretty song but there are much more interesting versions of this type of song. I would point to Cosette’s In My Life in Les Miserables or Luisa’s Much More in Fantasticks. Much More is the source for my most fervent prayer: “Please God please don’t let me be normal.”

To me going to Sweeney Todd for a song like Green Finch completely defeats the purpose. It lacks Sondheim’s trademark complexity and furthermore, the song contains not a single reference to blood, guts or anyone getting murdered. Green Finch is not My Friends, in which consists of Todd singing to his razor blades and demonstrating a truly remarkable ability to transition up and down the music scale. Or what about Todd singing Johanna, which is him slitting the throats of his customers and singing how he no longer needs to get his daughter back as he now has something else to live for. And then there is a Little Priest in which Todd and Lovett sing a duet about how various people might taste as pies.

Mrs. Lovett: It’s priest. Have a little priest.

Todd: Is it really good?

Mrs. Lovett: Sir, it’s too good at least. Then again, they don’t commit sins of the flesh, so it’s pretty fresh.

Todd: Awful lot of fat.

Mrs. Lovett: Only where it sat.

Todd: Haven’t you got poet or something like that?

Mrs. Lovett: No, you see the trouble with poet is, how do you know it’s deceased? Try the priest.

Todd: Heavenly. Not as hearty as bishop, perhaps, but then not as bland as curate either.
Mrs. Lovett: And good for business – always leaves you wanting more. Trouble is we only get it on Sundays.

I must confess that the musical tastes of women lie outside of my field of comprehension. My musical sensibilities are rather simple. I like powerful heroic songs with loud bangs, like what you get in Richard Wagner. If it has some really dark humor and blood to go along with it, then I am all the merrier.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

On the Dangers of Having Unprotected Conversations with Guests You Meet at Your Aunt’s Sabbath Table: A Review of Unprotected

During my recent trip to Los Angeles, I stayed at my aunt and uncle. For the Sabbath meals, my aunt had a friend of her's over, Dr. Miriam Grossman. Dr. Grossman is a psychiatrist at UCLA. She and I got into a discussion about university life and political correctness and I mentioned a book that I had heard about called Unprotected, which attacked university health departments for allowing the cause of political correctness to get in the way of protecting the physical and mental health of their students. I had not read the book, but I had heard about it, as this book had become a hit in conservative circles. As it turns out Dr. Grossman happens to be the author of this book. I later got to see the Clare Booth Luce calendar, which featured her two spots away from Ann Coulter. A dubious honor I admit, but all the same not bad for a middle-aged Orthodox Jewish woman.

After the Sabbath was over, I ordered the book on Amazon and I got it soon after I got back from Los Angeles. It is a short book, at only 151 pages plus footnotes, and an easy read. The book is built around cases that Dr. Grossman has dealt with, working at UCLA, of students, who found themselves in various difficult situations, which Dr. Grossman believes came about as the result of less than medically sound advice given to these students from UCLA’s Student Health Services. For example, there is the case of Stacey, who got a Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) even though her boyfriend used a condom. There is also Heather, who shows symptoms of depression and had recently gotten into a “friends with benefits” relationship with a boy. Grossman argues that the people running Student Health Services purposely played down the potential physical and mental health risks to students such as these as part of their advocacy of “Safe-Sex.”

Besides for campus Student Health Services, Dr. Grossman lashes out against campus websites that dispense advice about sex. Her main target in this is Columbia University’s Go Ask Alice. I had actually been shown this site before, by a friend. Believe me, this is not a site for the prudish or squeamish. Ask Alice seems designed to be hauled out by conservatives in front of a congressional committee discussing whether or not to cut funding for public education. I do wish to point out that Ohio State’s sex-education website is, considering the world in which we live in, relatively responsible. It does a good job at keeping itself within the realm of medicine and out of our culture war.

There seem to be two parts to Dr. Grossman’s argument. The first is that Student Health Services are failing to properly educate students about the risks of sexual intercourse. In essence, Dr. Grossman is rehashing the abstinence movement’s case. I do not have a degree in modern medicine; I deal with people who lived in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and their ideas about the natural world. I, therefore, am not in a position to comment as to the level of risk involved in protected sex.

The second part to Dr. Grossman’s argument, and probably the most important, is that the Student Health Services across the country are being run by radical leftists who use their position, not to help students, but to refashion society according to their own agenda. If we do not accept this second part than there is little point to the book. If this was merely a matter of bad medical advice being distributed to students than one could simply deal with it as an internal professional matter, without going public and denouncing one’s own profession. In essence, for this book to work, one would have to prove there was a conspiracy at hand. The book comes up short on this front; there is no real damning evidence unearthed. The closest Dr. Grossman comes to this with a case in which the campus Student Health Services refused to give a Mormon woman, wishing to get pregnant for the sixth time, an appointment, in the near future, so she could get a prescription for the fertility drugs she wanted. This woman though was able to get an appointment by claiming that she wanted birth control pills. In defense of Dr. Grossman, I would point out that trying to make a case for a conspiracy would have taken this book down a far more polemical path. She clearly has tried to moderate her rhetoric and keep from sounding too shrill, i.e. like Ann Coulter.

There is a certain irony in this whole matter. If my understanding of the Health Services establishment is correct, their counter-argument against Dr. Grossman and the entire abstinence movement is that they, the Health Services establishment, are being forced to face down a conspiracy to promote a religious agenda. One of the main complaints against abstinence sex-education curriculums is that they contain faulty information. Recently there was a study finding serious flaws in two-thirds of the abstinence curriculums. Now, from the perspective of the opponents of the teaching of abstinence, these are not simply flaws. If they were they could simply be addressed as an internal matter. The real issue at hand is whether abstinence programs deliberately engage in misinformation in order to promote their religious agenda. In essence, their concerns mirror Dr. Grossman’s.

I would like to conclude with some questions for Dr. Grossman.

1) Do casual sexual encounters lead to depression or is it simply that people struggling with depression are more likely to seek out casual sexual encounters in order to relieve their symptoms? What evidence do you have for the former?

2) Is it possible that the reason why casual sexual encounters lead to depression in some people is that these people came from religious backgrounds, which taught them to believe that such actions are sinful and that these people still hold onto these beliefs or that these beliefs are still active within their subconsciouses? Could it be that it is guilt and not sex that is responsible for their depression? What evidence do you have to refute this argument?

3) If homosexuals really are at a much greater risk of being infected with HIV than why, if you look at the global spread of HIV, does it appear to “not discriminate” between heterosexuals and homosexuals?

What I am interested in is not a claim or a sound-bite, but in some hard arguments and evidence that makes sense to my academic, though not particularly scientific, frame of mind.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Joe's Response to Some Good Christmas Tolerance II

I am glad to see someone else use the term albeit. I love that word and constantly get criticized for using such an "archaic" term. :) And if only I could write this much on my papers to be published for my dissertation, I'd get out on time. :)

I should say out the outset that much of the following could be dismissed as isolated incidents and not indicative of the culture at large. But there are numerous individuals at work that are attempting to change that. So I think it important to pay attention to the isolated incidents and see the patterns it represents.

To answer your question, no, I would not call them truly free because if slaves are permitted, there is always the possibility that a free person could lose their freedom and become a slave. This was the situation in Greece then as I recall (admittedly, it has been a number of years since I looked at that literature) and it was certainly the case in the south. There were many white slaves, although they generally weren't called that (and they certainly don't make it into the common school history texts). They were called indentured servants or sharecroppers, but a serious look into what was going on easily sees that many were in effect slaves with no real hope of earning their freedom. Thus, that does not count as real freedom because of that potentiality to become that which one kept. But more importantly, to claim freedom for oneself but to claim the right to hold slaves at the same time is hypocrisy. How can one argue that they have the right to be free when they are holding others as slaves?

Additionally, did you know that slaves are still being kept in the US today? They are not called slaves as that is illegal, but what else do you call it when people are forced to work without pay and not allowed to leave? This is the situation in many orange orchards in Florida. The owners "pay" the workers a minimal wage, but charge for all their necessities and require the workers to buy from them, but the amount they charge is over what they are paid, so then they are not allowed to leave until they have paid what they owe, which is impossible. This is highly illegal, but the police have thus far neglected to shut the places down even after being handed solid evidence of the criminal acts. Why? Because the police are paid off. Every once in a while a new police chief or other legal person comes in and cleans it up and makes arrests, but it never seems to stay that way for long. There are other examples, but they are equally or more illegal and generally do not have as much police blindness turned toward it, so can be dismissed as not counting as much since they are not government approved. But can we truly call ourselves a free society when we permit this sort of behavior to continue?

In the USA, it is not actually always permissible for everyone to believe what they want and practice what they want. I personally know people that have had their shops and homes destroyed because they did not follow the Christian faith of their neighbors. It is not unknown for people to be killed because they did not follow accepted religious practices or because they were gay. While technically the people that committed those offenses are criminals and did not have the legal authority to commit those acts, since the local police were sympathetic to the religious criminals, no charges were brought even when the perpetrators were openly known. I have even known police to be involved. Hard to believe? Maybe, but I have personally seen it happen (chalk it up to my bitter southern upbringing:) ). That is why I support actions taken by groups such as the ACLU to enforce the separation of church and state.

Whenever religion and government mix, I find it a bad situation. Perhaps you have heard of the "faith-based initiatives" the current US administration has funded? Did you know that all of that money has gone to Christian organizations (although I must say that my information is only valid for the first two years of the program, I do not know about the rest).

Finally, to paraphrase an anonymous line by someone in Hitler's Germany (at least I don't know where it came from): "I did not complain when they came for the Gypsies, for they were thieves, nor for the Jews because they were little better. I did not complain when they took the Catholics because they did not believe as I did. But when they came for me and I asked for help, there was no one left to complain." Not exactly a quote as I don't really remember it exactly, but I think it says the point eloquently. When a people allow an injustice to some, it risks injustice to all.

That last bit could be thought of as going a bit far afield and could be seen as offensive when speaking to a Jew. If so, I did not mean to cause offense.
But it does point out I think quite effectively what ends can be reached when a populace decides that the freedoms of some people are not as important as their own. I think it important we guard against this as I do not think human nature has changed to the point that it could not happen again.

"The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." Sure wish I knew who said that, at least before Picard on Star Trek. :)

My response: I am not familiar with the incidents you describe so I really cannot comment on them. I would point out that you have to be careful in your assumptions about people’s actions. Just because the police fail to catch someone it does not mean that the police are siding with the criminals. Also it is difficult to categorize something as a hate crime. For example, let us say someone were to come up to me, call me a dirty Jew, smack me with a baseball bat and steal my wallet. Do we assume that this is a hate crime and that I was attacked because I am a Jew or do we assume that the person wanted to steal my wallet and since he was already beating me up and stealing my wallet he decided to call me a dirty Jew for good measure. Alternatively, even if he did not take my wallet, we could say that the person who attacked me was angry and looking for a fight and so he latched on to the fact that I am a Jew, without really being anti-Semitic. This is one of the reasons why I do not support hate crime legislation.

As to the freedom issue, the fact they you may end up a slave does not change the fact that you are free know. Keep in mind this whole category of a free person came about within the context of slavery. A free person was someone who was not a slave. The democratic revolution, which has occurred over the past few hundred years, has declared that everyone is free, but that is not the only way to organize society.

Let me ask you a question. Why is slavery worse than being a hired worker? In theory slavery is simply taking the reality that one person has power over another and enshrining it into law. The ancients and many of the founding fathers would have told you that it is inevitable that some people have power over other people. Slavery simply makes it official which has the advantage of making the master responsible. Now, one could point to the abuses that happen in a slave system, but that is not an argument against slavery; that is simply a reason to reform the system and make laws to protect slaves. The only reason to object to the existence of slavery is if you are going to say that freedom has an innate moral value, but that is a very modernist view. We cannot criticize the ancients for not having our value system. Their value system makes as much internal sense, if not more so, than ours.

You still have not answered my initial question. How am I harmed by the government putting up a Christmas tree? Is such an action really more harmful to me than the government sponsoring gay marriage?