Tuesday, November 25, 2008

General Exams 1: Medieval

Today I took the first of my written exams for my generals; it was for my medieval minor. The test was a take home, open book and open notes. I had twenty four hours to answer the questions given with a 2500 word limit. Dr. Daniel Hobbins gave me three questions from which I had to choose two of them.

The question that I chose not to answer was:

When R. I. Moore published The Formation of a Persecuting Society in 1987, he brought the study of marginalized groups (Jews, heretics, and lepers) to the center of attention in medieval studies. Choose any three books and discuss each author’s approach and strategies for dealing with a marginalized group in European history. You may also address whether or not the author is in any way responding to Moore.
I was seriously thinking of doing this question. What I would have done was turn the question into a discussion of why the bottom dropped out from underneath the Jews in Western Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In 1096 you had the Crusades and the massacre of Jews in the Rhineland, but this is mob violence. Jews are still protected, both by the Church and by the secular authorities. In the twelfth century the Church begins to take an interest in Jewish money lending. 1144 we see the first ritual murder charges. Later in the century we have the first expulsion of Jews, which was carried out by Philip Augustus in 1182. This was rescinded and only covered a small area, greater Paris more or less. Things get really bad during the thirteenth centuries. Jews come face to face with full blown blood libels and desecration of the Host charges. They are subjected to an intense missionizing campaign and the assault on the Talmud that came in its wake; the Talmud was burnt in Paris in 1242. By the end of the century, Jews have been expelled from England and by the beginning of the fourteenth century, they will be out of France as well. There are large scale massacres, possibly even worse than the Crusades, in Germany, effectively bringing an end to that community as well.

R. I Moore’s theory is that this turn of events was connected, one, to the general persecution of other marginal groups such as heretics and lepers and, two, that the source for this persecution was the rising clerical and merchant classes, which saw Jews as unwanted competition. In essence, Moore sees this new persecution as being intimately connected to the twelfth century humanist and economic revolutions.

There are a number of other works of scholarship that come to mind to compare Moore to. Dominique Iogna-Prat’s Order & Exclusion: Cluny and Christiandom Face Heresy, Judaism, and Islam (1000-1150) takes a very similar line to Moore. Focusing on the thought of Peter the Venerable, Iogna-Prat builds a case for a major shift amongst Christian thinkers toward viewing society as a whole as a Christian society; one that was active in a struggle with opposing forces, particularly Islam. Because of this the Church all of a sudden begins to take an interest in Jews and heretics within the borders of Christendom and begins to see them as a problem. Like Moore, Iogna-Prat sees the persecution of Jews as an extension of the move against heretics and other dissidents. Unlike Moore, Iogna-Prat directly connects this shift to the Church.

Jeremy Cohen, in his Friars and the Jews, argues that the key players in this shift were the newly formed mendicant orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. These groups, so Cohen argues, turned away from the Augustinian witness doctrine which had traditionally protected Jews. With the witness doctrine no longer applying, Jews become sitting targets for persecution.

Guido Kisch is a third perspective. His Jews in Medieval Germany, written during the 1940s, deals with Jews from the perspective of their status in various German law codes. His essential argument is that the introduction of Roman law into Germany, during the twelfth century, marked a downturn for Jews, because it specifically singled them out. No longer were Jews simply residents of the cities that they lived in; now they were in a special legal category all of their own. (Warning to all those that may be tempted into reading Kisch. Jews in Medieval Germany makes for a very effective sleeping pill and is useful for hand to hand combat. Handle with care.)

In the end I chose not to do this question as it was taking me down a highly interpretative angle and it would be a distinctively Jewish history response.

Here is the first question I did and my response:

The study of medieval religious history over the past generation has drawn much of its energy and inspiration from the study of religious women. Compare the approaches to the study of medieval women in works such as those of Bell, Bynum, Caciola, Coakley, Elliott, Schulenburg, and Voaden. You may address common themes and questions, areas of dispute or conflicting interpretations, and the strengths and/or limitations of these studies.

During the later Middle Ages we see numerous examples of female religious leaders, and movements. Women such as Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373) and Catherine of Siena (1347-80) took on highly public roles, daring to criticize the Church hierarchy. These figures have provided the gist of much of modern scholarship on medieval religious life. I wish to discuss several examples of this to show how different scholars have confronted this issue of a “women’s” Christianity.

In Holy Anorexia, Rudolph Bell offers a psychoanalytical analysis of the phenomenon of extreme fasting in the vita of Christian holy women. Bell makes the highly provocative comparison between medieval women fasting, holy anorexia, and the relatively modern phenomenon of anorexia nervosa. Anorexia nervosa is a psychological disorder disproportionally affecting upper class teenage and young adult white women. Its chief symptoms are that the affected person takes an extreme interest in dieting and losing weight. This results in the person abhorring food and refusing to eat. When forced to eat the person will simply regurgitate what they ate. If not treated, the person is likely to starve to death.

According to Bell both medieval holy anorexics and modern suffers of anorexia nervosa, are responding to a lack of control in their lives, particularly as women. The very act of fasting is itself a submission to the demands of the outside world. For modern anorexics that outside world is that of a secular middle class. For medieval women that outside world was the Christian patriarchy of the Church.

In contrast to Bell’s psychoanalytical explanation for the attitude toward food displayed by certain medieval women, Caroline Bynum’s Holy Feast, Holy Fast, attempts to approach the issue from the perspective of the medieval world view. Clearly, the women who starved themselves did not see themselves as merely trying to gain more control over their lives in the face of a patriarchal existence; they saw themselves as good Christians, acting in accordance with Christian theology or at least their understanding of Christian theology. This then becomes an opportunity for Bynum to reconstruct the theology of women in the late Middle Ages; one built around food, fasting, and the Eucharist.

Unlike Bell, who views asceticism as being separate from food, Bynum views food and fasting as being intrinsically linked to each other, rejecting the dichotomy between eating and fasting; they are all part of one continual narrative, Christ suffering in order to bring about the salvation of the world. Of course men, during this time period, also identified themselves with Christ’s humanity and enacted his suffering. Women, though, approached the issue differently from men in that women viewed this through the particular lens of their experience as women. Women, unlike men, give birth to children and nurse them. Their bodies bring forth life and sustain it; their very bodies are food. Women in the later Middle Ages saw the narrative of Christ’s birth and death in this light. The human Christ came out of the body of Mary. He is the food that the faithful literally eat. The priest bringing forth the Eucharist could be a woman bringing forth a child. Christ bleeding from the lance in his side could be a woman giving forth milk from her breast.

The other side of the image of Christ as the food that nourishes the world is his suffering on the Cross. According to Christian theology, Christ gave his very flesh to bring nourishment to the world. Women imitated this by giving over their bodies. Bynum argues that, while men also fasted, it is in the vitae of female saints that food becomes a central motif. You see women who become saints because of their fasts or because they live off of the Eucharist. With men fasting is incidental. Francis of Assisi fasted, but his fasting is seen in terms of his embodiment of the poor and naked Christ.

Dyan Elliott criticizes Bynum’s positive narrative and, in its place, offers a narrative of a downward decline in woman’s spiritual activity from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. In the twelfth century, clerics seized on woman’s Eucharistic visions as proof of the Church’s teachings on Transubstantiation. Thus the female spirituality, which Bynum sees as a mark of the independent voices of women, was really something created by the male Church hierarchy in order to promote their own power at the expense of populist brands of Christianity, which were labeled “heresies.” Many of these “heretical” groups, such as the Guglielmites, granted women a larger role than in traditional Catholicism and allowed women to preach; women even appear as leaders in these groups.

Elliott makes her case by connecting various holy women to the Inquisition. Gregory IX (r. 1227-41) was the founder of the Inquisition. He was also a major sponsor of various holy women. He supported Mary of Oigenes (1177-1213) and the Beguine movement as well as Elisabeth of Hungary (1207-1231). Elisabeth of Hungary’s confessor was Conrad of Marburg (d. 1233), a close associate of Gregory IX. Conrad of Marburg, soon after Elisabeth’s death and after he successfully pushed for her canonization, became an inquisitor. Elliott argues that Conrad gained an aura of sanctity for himself because of his association with Elisabeth. This protected him from any opposition and allowed him to pursue heretics as he wished.

Elliot connects the very practices associated with female spirituality to the Inquisition. The practice of women torturing their bodies and the veneration of women as living relics was part of a shift away from martyrdom as the ideal to a new ideal that one should be dead to the world. The reason for this was that the Church was in a struggle against heresy and was actively executing heretics. As such the Church did not wish to allow these heretics to be turned into martyrs. Instead, the Church created a new ideal of living martyrdom and offered up women as useful manifestation of it.

In the long run, this process and mechanism for examining women, to see if they were under the influence of the Holy Spirit gave way, in the fifteenth century, to the creation of the process and mechanism for examining women to see if they were under the influence of the Devil. The same Inquisition culture that promoted the veneration of women, in the end, turned around and started hunting down women as witches.

Rosalynn Voaden sees prophecy as representing one of the very few areas in which women could be empowered even within a patriarchal system such as the Church. This empowerment depended on having access to the discourses found in the formal Church structure. Educated women could form useful alliances with members of the Church hierarchy and could translate their experiences in ways that men would understand.

The focus of Voaden’s work is on the concept of discretio spirituum. This was a methodology developed by clerics in the later Middle Ages to differentiate between people acting under the influence of the Holy Spirit and those acting under the influence of the devil. Voaden uses discretio spirituum to analyze the cases of two female visionaries, Bridget of Sweden and Margery Kempe and how they were received by the Church; Bridget of Sweden was successful at navigating the discourse of discretio spirituum, while Margery Kempe failed at it. Margery comes across, in her writing, as a very forceful and independent personality while Bridget of Sweden comes across as a blank cipher. Margery Kempe took a strongly independent role for herself; even though she attempted to gain the approval of the Church, she failed to hold on to a spiritual director. While she gained the respect of many ecclesiastical authorities, she constantly quarreled with her spiritual directors and hence could not hold on to one. Bridget of Sweden succeeded in maintaining the aid of Alfonso of Jaen, who went on to advocate for her canonization. Margery Kempe seems to have been fairly unlearned, particularly in matters related to discretio spirituum, while Bridget of Sweden was relatively well educated and, in particular, understood discretio spirituum. Margery Kempe’s visions tended to be more corporeal, while Bridget of Sweden’s visions were of an intellectual nature. Margery Kempe was a married woman, who had abandoned her husband for life as a wondering pilgrim. Furthermore she engaged in activities that seemed to veer rather closely to preaching. Bridget of Sweden, though she was originally married, became a nun after the death of her husband.

Despite the fact that Bridget of Sweden was portrayed by Alfonso of Jaen as a meek passive servant of the Church, her status as a visionary made a major power. Kings and popes alike heeded her advice. She involved herself in the Hundred Years Wars, supporting the English. She played a crucial role in bringing the papacy back to Rome from Avignon. She did live as a cloistered nun, but traveled about, working to create her own order of nuns, the Bridgettines.

John Coakley in Women, Men and Spiritual Power, like Bell and Elliott, analyzes medieval female spirituality from a male-centric point of view. Unlike Bell and Elliott, though, Coakley has a more positive view of the women involved; they are more than mere puppets of their clergymen. In this sense, Coakley serves as a useful bridge to Bynum’s position. Coakley focuses on how male clergymen looked at the female mystics in their charge and integrated them into their spiritual worldview. As with Voaden, Coakley sees the subjugated state of women in the later Middle Ages as ironically serving to empower them.

Coakley builds his case around a series of case studies of various female mystics and their male clerical collaborators. The first relationship that Coakley deals with is that of Elisabeth of Schonau (1129-1164) and her brother Ekbert (c. 1120-1184). Ekbert was careful to show his control over Elisabeth. He inserted himself into his writing. It is he who decides what should be revealed to others. Ekbert was concerned with theological matters and used Elisabeth as a research assistant of sorts to help him get answers from above. For example, at one point he asks her if the Church father Origen was in Hell or not. Throughout the account of Elisabeth’s visions we find that the angels tell her to ask the learned doctors to explain to her what her visions mean. Elisabeth thus becomes a mere cipher, with which men of the Church could communicate with Heaven.

Hildegard of Bingen and Guibert of Gembloux (c. 1125-1213) had a very different sort of relationship. Guibert was different than Ekbert in that Guibert did not put himself forth as the gatekeeper for Hildegard. Guibert only came into contact with Hildegard at the end of her life. For the most part she managed to operate outside the model of female visionary male confessor champion. Guibert serves merely to record Hildegard’s actions and is of no real consequence.
While Elliott viewed James’ portrayal of Mary of Oignies in terms of being a supporter of priests with her Eucharistic devotions, Coakley sees James as granting Mary a level of power parallel to that of a priest. She did not deal with doctrine rather she was given knowledge about specific individuals. This allowed her to aid priests by letting them know about the states of the souls of the people in their care. Elliott sees this role of aider to priests, cynically, as pawns of the priesthood. Coakley sees this as a sign of independent power.

The relationship between Catherine of Siena and Raymond of Capua (1330-99) offers an excellent example of the final stage of evolution in the relationship between clergymen and female visionaries. Raymond consciously put himself forward as Catherine’s defender against those who doubted her prophecies or who questioned her refusal to eat. He is a witness to her life but is also an active partner in her labors.

Coakley, like Elliott, sees a downturn in the Church’s acceptance of female visionaries in the later part of the fourteenth century. The fact that Raymond had go as far as he did to defend Catherine’s sanctity demonstrates a growing skepticism on the part of the Church hierarchy. If the Church was beginning to show a greater level of interest in such women it was not in a way that boded well for them.

This answer of mine is essentially an abridged version of an essay that I wrote earlier in the year and posted on this blog. It is not cheating if you are cribbing off of yourself. I sent Dr. Hobbins an email asking him if I could just hand him the original paper. He said that it was fine to take from my paper but that I needed to give him a "new text." So I had to do some work on this answer.

Here the second question and my response:

The standard historiographical model of the late Middle Ages sees this period as one of crisis and even decline. Many scholars of the past generation have attempted to modify this model or to discard it entirely. Describe the different approaches to the late Middle Ages in any general surveys (Cantor, Southern, Funkenstein) or monographs that you have read (e.g., Blumenfeld-Kosinksi, Elliott, Smoller, Coleman, Iogna-Prat, or any others). Are any general trends or shifts in attitude visible in these studies? Does the standard model still appear relatively intact?

The late Middle Ages often receives short shrift. The standard historiographical model of the late Middle Ages, from the end of the thirteenth century through the early fifteenth century sees this period as one of crisis and even decline. A good example of this, at a popular level, is Barbara Tuchman’s Distant Mirror. The problem with the late Middle Ages is that it suffers from being between the Scholastic “Twelfth Century Renaissance"” and the Renaissance of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries so it is likely to be overlooked even by traditional defenders of the Middle Ages. Also, the late Middle Ages saw a number of rather cataclysmic events on a number of fronts. There was the Black Death, which wiped out approximately one-third of the European population and would come back periodically every few decades over the next few centuries to wreak its havoc. The late Middle Ages saw the series of conflicts between England and France known to us as the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). From the perspective of the Church, this was a difficult period as well, with the Great Schism splitting the Church (1378-1415) into two and briefly three factions. I would like to offer some examples of attempts to rehabilitate the late Middle Ages both in terms of the “grand narrative” and in terms of specific case studies.

Norman Cantor viewed the late Middle Ages as the “Harvest of Medieval Thought,” opting to, in essence, go with a long Renaissance and in include the later Middle Ages as part of the Renaissance:

The crisis of the later Middle Ages did not distract the intellectuals and artists of Latin Christendom from theory and creativity. On the contrary, the gloom and doom of the times made them think all the more deeply about the nature of God, the universe, mankind, and society. In the midst of devastation from pandemics, war, climatic deterioration, and economic depression, they exhibited a passion for learning of all kinds – for linguistic and literary innovation, for philosophical and scientific inquiry, for massive productivity and creativity in the visual arts. No era in western civilization left a heritage of more masterpieces in literature and painting or seminal works of philosophy and theology. (Civilization of the Middle Ages pg. 529)

Cantor holds up the work of Duns Scotus and William of Occam as the preeminent examples of late medieval thought. Particularly with Occam, Cantor saw the Scientific Revolution really as starting in the fourteenth century with the shift toward emphasizing empirical observation and the breakaway from Aristotle. This had to wait until the sixteenth century for its full flowering due to the lack of societal support, there were no University chairs devoted to empirical science in the fourteenth century, and the undeveloped state of mathematics at the time.

In light of the inherent limitations in the way of scientific progress during the late Middle Ages Cantor focuses on mystical developments. This, for Cantor, is a legitimate form of progress and not a mere sinking into superstition because he sees late medieval mysticism as being rooted in a certain individualism in that we see an emphasis on the personal relationship of the lay individual to God, to Christ and to the Eucharist, essentially unmediated by the clergy. This becomes an important bridge into Renaissance humanism. Cantor’s approach to such figures as Thomas a Kempis and Nicholas of Cusa owes a lot to his teacher Richard Southern and how he approached Anselm. For Southern, Anselm marked a major shift in Christian thought. Anselm argued that Christ had to come down in human form and died on the Cross as a man in order to pay the price of humanities sins. According to the traditional understanding Christ, by taking on a human guise, tricked the Devil into trying to take his soul. By doing this Satan broke his original agreement with God that gave him a claim over the souls of mankind and, as such, the agreement became null and void. In the traditional perspective, human beings are passive spectators in a contest between God and the Devil. Anselm made Christ’s humanity, his life as a human being and his human suffering on Calvary, of central theological importance. This set the stage for a flowering of humanist thinking that expressed itself in theology, in philosophy and even helped bring about the rise of the medieval romance.

Laura Ackerman Smoller’s History, Prophecy, and the Stars: The Christian Astrology of Pierre D’Ailly, 1450-1420 is an example of the rehabilitation of one particular late medieval thinker from being pushed aside simply as an unoriginal thinker and, as such, unworthy of scholarly interest. Smoller acknowledges that from the perspective of simply looking at D’Ailly’s parts he was not an original thinker. What interests Smoller about D’Ailly, though, is how D’Ailly brought together such widely different currents as theology, astrology, Apocalypticism and church politics, creating something uniquely his own.

D’Ailly was one of the leading French theologians in late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries and the teacher Jean Gerson, the dominant figure in fifteenth century Scholasticism. The event that dominated D’Ailly’s life and thought was the Great Schism. The main focus of D’Ailly’s thought was his attempt to place this schism within the context of Christian theology. During the early years of the schism, D’Ailly saw this event in terms of the Apocalypse and the coming of the Anti-Christ. The Church was breaking up; such a disaster must prefigure the End of Days. Later in life, as D’Ailly became one of the leading figures involved in the conciliatory movement, first at the Council of Pisa in 1409 and then at the Council of Constance from 1414-1417, to get all the papal claimants to abdicate and allow the Church to be brought back together in the leadership of a new pope. In order to justify this new turn, D’Ailly turned to astrology. According to his astrological calculations the Apocalypse would not occur until 1796, leaving plenty of time for Church reunification.

Smoller is following in the footsteps of the late Marjorie Reeves in her incorporation of prophecy into the narrative of the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the rise of naturalistic thinking. For Smoller, D’Ailly’s turn toward astrology and his attempt to work out a prophetic narrative of history has nothing to do with him being “superstitious.” D’Ailly is part and parcel of the shift toward a mechanized view of the world. D’Ailly saw history as being subjected to set laws with causes firmly rooted in the natural world; in this case the influence of the stars. This is not really all that far removed from the work of Kepler and Newton and their mechanized heavenly motions.

My final example of an attempt to rehabilitate the late Middle Ages as a time of legitimate cultural growth is Joyce Coleman’s book, Public Reading and the Reading Public in Late Medieval England and France. Coleman presents medieval literacy as being aural based. That people read aloud either to themselves or to others even when they could do otherwise because they preferred hearing texts. Coleman posits the existence of an aural reading culture thriving particularly during the late Middle Ages where people where actively interested in reading, if not by their own power than simply by taking part in hearing others read.

Running through the book and tying it all together is an analysis of Chaucer. Chaucer has traditionally served as an example of the rise of a silent reader. At various points in his famous Canterbury Tales, and his less well-known work such as Troilus and Criseyde, talks about reading and addresses himself to a reader. This has traditionally been interpreted as Chaucer's writing with the assumption that his work would be read by privately by an individual. The fact that Chaucer also talks about people listening to stories is brushed aside as Chaucer giving a nod to traditional forms of narrative. Coleman rejects this interpretation of Chaucer and offers her own analysis of Chaucer using her theory of aurality. According to her reading of Chaucer, when he talks about a reader he is referring to someone either reading his work aloud to a group or someone having his work read to him. This reading of Chaucer has the advantage over more traditional readings in that it takes into account his references to the telling over of his work and the reading of it.

For Coleman, Chaucer and the aural mode of reading that he represents is an important piece in the creation of the reading society. It is not that print was invented in the fifteenth century and all of a sudden people went from being medieval illiterates to Renaissance literates. The Middle Ages, of course, was a far more literate age than the stereotype would suggest and there was plenty of illiteracy during the Renaissance. What is crucial here, though, was that the printing revolution in the fifteenth century came in the wake of reading revolution that occurred during the late Middle Ages. This mass rise in popular reading, both for pleasure and for business, brought about the rise of print. As such the late Middle Ages must be viewed as an important cultural watershed in its own right.

The work of scholars such as Cantor, Smoller and Coleman offer an alternative perspective of the late Middle Ages. No one is trying to push away such calamities as the Black Death, the Hundred Years War and the Great Schism, but that is not the entire story. There is another side to this story which also has to be told. Similarly, on an intellectual front, there is more to the late Middle Ages than the hardening of Scholasticism into hard dogma, killing all original thought. This was also the era of Occam, of Cusa and of a Kempis. Even scholastics such as D’Ailly, who, at first glance, might seem to have been nothing more than redactors of the scholastic tradition, upon examination, also come into their own as important thinkers in their own right.

In this case, I also cribbed a little off of my earlier work, something that I posted here. I did go quite a bit over my word limit. I assume no one will really mind. Well next on the schedule is my exam is early modern with Dr. Robert Davis. It will be under the same general format as this exam. I do not expect the same luck as I had this time around. I am looking forward to it. For now, I guess I should be packing to go home for Thanksgiving. I can start panicking again once I get through the weekend.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Columbus is the Champion (in Soccer)

Yesterday the city of Columbus won its first major league professional sports championship, as the Columbus Crew defeated the New York Red Bulls 3 - 1. Granted this was in soccer, but I will take it anyway. Not that most people here could care less. The Crew winning the MLS championship is not nearly as important as the Ohio State football team stomping all over Michigan 42-7. Michigan may have been lousy this year, not even eligible for a Bowl game, but be as it may there are certain sports priorities around this town. I actually went to one of the Crew’s games during the summer and bothered to tune in to watch the championship game on television so I guess I can count myself as a fan.

During the broadcast of the championship game, the announcer said something very interesting about New York’s goalie, Danny Cepero. Cepero was actually their backup goalie, who ended up having to play for them at the end of the season after their starting goalie, Jon Conway, was suspended for using illegal substances and ended up carrying the team through the playoffs. Cepero is still a student at the University of Pennsylvania. Apparently Cepero is a history major and spent the day before the game working on a paper for school on post World War II England. All future students of mine should be forewarned; you have no excuse. If Cepero could work on a history paper the day before appearing in an national championship game I think you can make the time despite anything that life may throw you.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Twilight at Midnight

I caught a midnight showing of Twilight. The theater was packed, mostly with girls. I asked the person sitting next to me what she thought the female to male ratio was and she said 20:1; that seemed about right to me. It was great seeing the movie in a theater packed with hard core fans; it was incredible how almost every move and grimace Edward and the rest of the Cullens, made from the very beginning, got laughs. You had an audience that was clued in to the Cullens and what lay behind them. This was certainly a movie for the fans; I am not sure that those unfamiliar with the books would be so quick to appreciate what all the fuss is about. Considering the size of the fan base and the fact that this movie was made for less than forty million dollars it is fair to say that Twilight, like Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter, is one of those rare film adaptations that could succeed merely by relying on fans of the book.

As someone who absolutely loved the books, I was concerned about the film. Twilight would be a very easy book to butcher. All one would need to do is let it slide into a generic action/horror movie and abandon everything that made it special. The books had truly charming characters; to bring that to the screen one would need a good script and, even more importantly a cast of highly skilled actors. The screenplay was a model of a faithful intelligent adaptation, true to the book in spirit and basic plot while still willing to make those necessary minor changes for the sake of pacing and to tighten up the story. The biggest change was bringing James, the chief villain, in early in the film instead of having him wander into the story towards the end. James and his associates, Laurent and Victoria, get to kill two people in the Forks area. One has a far greater luxury when dealing with a book to allow a story to simply meander, without a clearly focused plot. The first Harry Potter film made the mistake of not doing something similar with Lord Voldemort; they chose to remain faithful to the book and kept Voldemort off screen until the very end. This took away much of Voldemort’s effectiveness and took away what could have been a much needed rudder to give the film some sense of plan and purpose. This is funny because unlike, the young stars of Harry Potter, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson (He played Cedric Diggory in the Harry Potter films.) prove to be more than up to the task shouldering the film.

This brings us into my second point, namely how good the acting was in this film. To take a step away from Stewart’s and Pattinson’s Bella and Edward, this film has a surprisingly rock solid supporting cast. One of the weaknesses of the books was that Stephenie Meyer (Who makes a cameo appearance in the film as a restaurant patron.) wrote really shallow human side characters. With the exception of Bella, all of Meyer’s non werewolf and vampire characters come across as cardboard cutouts. Bella’s human friends, Mike, Jessica, Angela Eric and Tyler, are remarkably dull and serve merely as fillers to the story, giving Bella some sort of life outside of Edward. Bella’s father Charlie serves mainly to be clueless about her and Edward’s relationship, particularly about the fact that Edward regularly spends the night with her. Bella’s mother, Renee, lives in Phoenix, and is nothing more than a scatter brained eccentric on the periphery of Bella’s life. The actors playing these parts, though, manage to create real characters. Maybe Meyer could afford to let these characters fall by the wayside, but these actors took on these roles and played them for all they were worth. Particular mention should be made of the actor who played Mike Newton. I particularly disliked Mike in the book; he is nothing but a jock and the fall guy, who never really stood a chance of getting Bella. He was played in the film as a bit of a geek, but really sweet. The actor who plays the role is Michael Welch; I have never seen him in anything else, but I will definitely be keeping tabs on him to see what he does in the future. I knew I recognized the actress who played Renee, but I could not place her until it hit me that she played Nina Myers in 24. She manages to do quite a bit with the little she was given. (If you really want to see her in action, watch Season One of 24. You will love her up until the end than you will hate her guts.)

The Cullen family was great. I particularly liked how they played Emmett. This is another example of someone who took a throwaway roll and made something of it, not even by speaking but just by being a presence on screen. I liked Alice, but unfortunately they did not give her much to do. The baseball scene was surprisingly good. For a movie with this sort of budget they managed to bring something that was visually quite interesting.

At the end of the day this is Stewart’s and Pattinson’s film and they shine as Bella and Edward. Neither of these are easy roles. For Bella you needed someone who could play a comic straight, one of the hardest things to do in acting; how does one be funny without obvious life lines? Bella needed to be pretty but real, someone who does not look like they spent hours working on themselves and believably dresses like someone living on the budget of a daughter of a small town sheriff. I was hoping that the film would follow the books and keep itself firmly centered on Bella. I even had the idea that they should have Bella narrating the story. This they did. Edward had to be charming, but scary. Edward goes through a lot of mood swings, something not that far off from manic depression. This has to work as a coherent whole and not collapse into “I love you/I hate you.” Pattinson never succeeds at making Edward scary, but he gets off on all other accounts. He is to die for charming and one is willing to buy into him as a manic depressive as applied to a supernatural being.

All in all, I do not think I could have asked for a better Twilight film. Anyone who was a fan of the books is going to love this film. If you have not read the books, I would suggest that you read them first. Alternatively maybe watching the film will show you what you have been missing and get you to open up one of the real literary treats of the past few years.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Worthwhile Article on the Disabled and the College Campus

In light of my earlier discussions of Asperger syndrome in the college environment and the issue the disabled as members of a minority group, I would like to present the following article by Deborah Kendrick, which appeared the other day in the Columbus Dispatch; it offers an interesting perspective on this line between being disabled and a minority, being like everyone else but just having a "different" mode of operation that needs to be taken into account by the general society. Ms. Kendrick describes her experience, as a blind person, going to college in the late 1960s. She did not have any form of disability support from her college. In fact her ability to go to school hinged on her ability to convince the college that she was not “disabled,” that despite the fact that she was blind she could operate more or less like other people and would therefore not be a problem.

Rather than simply lament how difficult her situation was and the need to grant those with disabilities special entitlements, Kendrick calls for a renewed sense of responsibility to match what they are given:

Students with disabilities are like others in their generation, and the sense of entitlement often towers above the sense of responsibility and accountability.
Students with disabilities need to learn about more than astronomy and Shakespeare. When rights are aligned with responsibilities, the campus will be a better training ground for life.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Secular Theodicy: A Review of Day of Empire (Part II)

(Part I)

I hope my readers will forgive my long discourse, but I felt it served a useful purpose; I wished to make it very clear how this theodical history game is played, who benefits from it, and to make sure that I am not accused of being a defender of religious fundamentalism (Haredi or any other brand) or of intolerance. On the flip side I do not want anyone to think that I was simply going after Haredi Jews as my target here is not Haredim but Amy Chua, a Chinese-American Law Professor who teaches at Yale. Chua may not be Haredi but in terms of playing the theodical history game for all of its intellectual dishonesty she is every bit their equal. Not that she is interested in defending divine providence; rather, walking in the Whig tradition, she has adapted the game for the cause of tolerance.

Her book, Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance and Why They Fall, analyses what Chua likes to refer to as “hyperpowers” and argues that their rise was due to their tolerance, or at least their relative tolerance, and their subsequent downfall was due to the fact that, when faced a crises, they chose to turn away from tolerance. This is comforting in that the people who do the decent, pious and moral thing come out ahead in this sort of narrative. It most overcome the hurdle of all such narratives namely that, as political thinkers such as Glaucon and Machiavelli recognized, misbehavior often does pay off in the political realm. Kicking the Jews out of your country and seizing their property or claiming Church land for yourself is a good way to raise money; money that can be used pay for an army, fight wars, oppress people living in other countries and gain even more power and renown. In effect Chua has set for herself the task of correcting the “misimpression” that one may have gotten from the casual study of history that great powers are created by being “intolerant” and being better at it than anyone else.

To play her game she has, at her disposal, two moveable pieces, tolerance and hyperpowerhood. Which societies count as being tolerant and which ones count as being hyperpowers? These concepts are so wide open that Chua can have them mean whatever she wants them to mean. She goes through the pretense of defining these things. In her introduction, she defines three conditions to be a hyperpower:

Its power clearly surpasses that of all its known contemporaneous rivals; it is not clearly inferior in economic or military strength to any other power on the planet, known to it or not; and it projects its power over so immense an area of the globe and over so immense a population that it breaks the bounds of mere local or even regional preeminence. (xxii)

She defines tolerance as: “letting very different kinds of people live, work, and prosper in your society – even if only for instrumental or strategic reasons.” (xxiii) Not that Chua is actually serious about trying to stick to these parameters. When you can say that the seventeenth century Dutch counts as a hyperpower, but sixteenth century Spain does not then the concept of a hyperpower has no meaning. (more on this later) If we were serious about using her definition of tolerance we would have to admit that Nazi Germany was a tolerant society. They did let many different people live, work and prosper in their society. The Nazi army contained people from dozens of different countries. The Nazis worked with Frenchmen, with Poles, with Hungarians and with Russians, many non-Germans prospered under Nazi rule. The Nazis were even willing, on occasion, to work with Jews. What becomes clear very quickly about Chua is that what matters for any given society is not if you were really “tolerant” or a “hyperpower” but if Chua want to make you out as one of the good guys, if she can use you as part of her morality tale that tolerance is a good thing.

If Chua was a real historian and not writing Whig propaganda for modern liberals she could have easily written a book about the paradox of tolerance and intolerance faced by great powers. Almost all great powers have found themselves ruling over multiple societies and cultures, often even hostile ones. This presents a problem. On the one hand, people are not likely to meekly submit to a power that tries to suppress their culture, ban their religion and physically wipe them out. On the other hand, in order to maintain oneself as a great power, one is going to need create a common society with a common cause. This requires that the various societies and cultures under one's dominion must, in some sense, yield and agree to merge into the general culture. The solution is to try to balance these two requirements. One makes the overt gesture of tolerance while at the same time, usually less overtly, one tries to bring pressure in order to force dissenting groups to knuckle under. One can easily show how different powers such as the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, Spain and the United States have faced this problem of dealing with multiple cultures and have followed this line of reasoning, while practicing different models of tolerance/intolerance. In essence such a book would be an expanded version of Michael Walzer’s On Toleration. This line of argument avoids a number of problems. It makes no absolute claims so it does not have to deny exceptions. This allows for one to be somewhat open ended about what counts as a great power or as a tolerant society. This argument merely tries to describe a given phenomenon; it does not judge whether tolerance is good or bad, it does not try to create some sort of historical law, it makes no predictions as to the future nor does it proscribe any given course of action or ideology. As with all good history, it offers a method of analysis, but affirms no dogmas.

(To be continued …)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Caroline Walker Bynum on Weeping Statues and Bleeding Bread

This past quarter we have had the privilege, here at Ohio State, to be visited by a pair of superstars in the field of history. A few weeks ago Richard Kagan spoke here. Kagan is one of the world’s leading scholars on early modern Spanish empire in general and of the Inquisition in particular. I recommend his book, Lucrecia’s Dreams, as a possible cure for anyone still caught up in the notion that the Spanish Inquisition was simply a group of blood thirsty religious extremists whipping up religious fanaticism and superstition amongst the populace. Yesterday Caroline Walker Bynum came to speak. I have spoken about Bynum on this blog before. She is without question my favorite women’s history person; a model of how to write about women in such a way that is respectful to women on their own terms and does not devolve into handwringing about patriarchal oppression.

Her talk, entitled Weeping Statues, Bleeding Bread: Miracles in the Late Middle Ages, treaded her usual ground of late medieval Christian spirituality and miracle claims, though she did not particularly focus on women, but dealt more with the general context of these matters. Her ability to avoid moralizing and instead present the medieval world as those who lived in it might have experienced it was on full display. She spoke about transformation miracles, such as where statues were seen to weep tears or even blood or the bleeding Eucharist. Such miracles became more important in the later Middle Ages (thirteenth -sixteenth centuries). We have stories of images that come down from the wall and even protect themselves from iconoclasts. We have what are called Dauerwunder – lasting miracles. Not only did the object, such as an Eucharist change but it remained in this changed state. For Bynum these things demonstrate an increased interest in the daily encounter with the material and the struggle to integrate the physical and the spiritual. This is in contrast to the usual picture of the Middle Ages in which body and soul are supposed to be very separate.

While Bynum acknowledges the sinister role that these miracle stories played in anti-Jewish libels, she does not allow herself to sink into generalizing condemnations. She emphasizes the variety of positions as to the nature of the Eucharist. Theologians found themselves in a bind in dealing with popular devotion to the Eucharist and the belief in animated statues. There was the danger of idolatry; that people would come to worship these things. On the other hand there were the doctrines of creation and incarnation which assumed the ability for the divine to descend into physical objects. Some theologians argued that objects were just signs made to remind the believer. Yet these same theologians attacked Hussites and Lollards, who denied the power of relics. Aquinas argued that relics did not retain the form of the saint since the soul of the saint was in heaven. Yet he still believed that the relic was the saint since it would one day be reunited with the saint’s soul. Aquinas argued that bodily remains such as the foreskin of Christ could not exist because all of Christ went up to heaven and to say that he left part of his body behind is to take away part of his perfection.

Bynum integrates the medieval discourse on animated statues and the Eucharist with medieval natural philosophy. She draws a parallel to Giles of Rome’s defense of alchemy. Early medieval theologians were skeptical about alchemy. Giles of Rome argued that alchemy was no different than human beings making glass or the acts of Pharaoh’s magicians. This was all a matter of bodies being generated from other bodies. For the medieval there was no distinction between mechanical and biological reproduction.

This belief in transubstantiation was connected with medieval conceptions of nature, which saw miracles as extensions of the laws of nature. It made perfect sense that people would therefore believe in such things. It made sense that wafers would bleed and statues would walk. The belief in weeping statues and bleeding bread was not just a matter of the incredulity of the masses, but an opportunity for serious intellectual discourse as to the nature of the physical world.

During the question and answer section, after the speech, I got the opportunity to ask a question. I asked her if, by her discussion of these naturalistic conceptions of miracles, she was siding with those who argue for an earlier dating of the Scientific Revolution to the fourteenth century instead of the sixteenth century. She responded with good humor that it seems that no one in the field of history these days seems to believe in revolutions anymore. It is all long term processes. No, she still was sticking to the sixteenth century Scientific Revolution whatever that was supposed to mean.

Another interesting comment arouse out of the question of why there was such a shift in the later Middle Ages. Bynum responded that she had no explanation and that she rejects what is the dominant view that this shift came about due to the Fourth Lateran Council and its establishment of transubstantiation as official church dogma. Bynum argued that this did not reach popular consciousness and that even within the Church itself they were still debating the issue into the Reformation. I am interested to see if Bynum, in any of her books, deals with this issue in more detail. This issue is important for Jewish history because the general view as to the origins of the Host desecration charge is that it arose in the aftermath of the Fourth Lateran Council. The Jew became a stand in for the unbeliever in the power of the Eucharist and the charge of Host desecration an implicit polemic on behalf of transubstantiation; the fact that the Jews would make the effort to steal and torture the Eucharist shows that it really is the body of Christ.

(My discussion here has been based on the notes I took during the lecture. Any mistakes made are mine.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What Would St. John Chrysostom Do? Some Thoughts on Attending the Columbus International Festival

This past weekend, I attended the Columbus International Festival. It was a rather dull event, brimming with cheap feel-good liberal slogans and advertisements for the United Nations. Not the sort of event that I would have bothered to go to on my own, but I was there a volunteer chaperone for the Columbus branch of Yachad.

I did have one interesting encounter, though, with a woman manning a booth for the St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church. The fact that someone would put up a booth under the name of St. John Chrysostom at an event like this, with its emphasis on peace, love, tolerance and implicit ecumenism, struck me as a little odd. For all of you who are not familiar with St. John Chrysostom, he was a fourth century Church father, and without question one of the most important Christian thinkers to have lived between the time of the New Testament and St. Augustine. To students of Jewish-Christians relations, Chrysostom is a central example of early Christian anti-Semitism. His Adversus Judaeos Homilies make for very interesting reading. Some choice examples:

The festivals of the pitiful and miserable Jews are soon to march upon us one after the other and in quick succession: the feast of Trumpets, the feast of Tabernacles, the fasts. There are many in our ranks who say they think as we do. Yet some of these are going to watch the festivals and others will join the Jews in keeping their feasts and observing their fasts. I wish to drive this perverse custom from the Church right now. My homilies against the Anomians can be put off to another time, and the postponement would cause no harm. But now that the Jewish festivals are close by and at the very door, if I should fail to cure those who are sick with the Judaizing disease. I am afraid that, because of their ill-suited association and deep ignorance, some Christians may partake in the Jews' transgressions; once they have done so, I fear my homilies on these transgressions will be in vain. For if they hear no word from me today, they will then join the Jews in their fasts; once they have committed this sin it will be useless for me to apply the remedy. …

But do not be surprised that I called the Jews pitiable. They really are pitiable and miserable. When so many blessings from heaven came into their hands, they thrust them aside and were at great pains to reject them. The morning Sun of Justice arose for them, but they thrust aside its rays and still sit in darkness. We, who were nurtured by darkness, drew the light to ourselves and were freed from the gloom of their error. They were the branches of that holy root, but those branches were broken. We had no share in the root, but we did reap the fruit of godliness. From their childhood they read the prophets, but they crucified him whom the prophets had foretold. We did not hear the divine prophecies but we did worship him of whom they prophesied. And so they are pitiful because they rejected the blessings which were sent to them, while others seized hold of these blessing and drew them to themselves. Although those Jews had been called to the adoption of sons, they fell to kinship with dogs; we who were dogs received the strength, through God's grace, to put aside the irrational nature which was ours and to rise to the honor of sons.

Not that I hold this against Chrysostom. I am not inclined to moralize about his “intolerance” nor would I ever attempt to lecture Christians about him or tell them that they cannot venerate him as a saint and a great thinker; Jews say plenty of nasty things about Christians and I have no intention of throwing stones in a glass house. As far as I am concerned, Christians have no need to be apologetic about Chrysostom. He was a great thinker and orator, who lived in his own time and place and had his opinions. This is still no reason, though, to bring him to a celebration of different cultures and religions. So I went ever to the woman manning the booth and asked her if she thought that Chrysostom would have approved of this event. She tried to dodge the issue but I kept on pressing the matter. Finally, she responded that he probably would not have thought that such an event could be possible.

I am sure that Chrysostom would have wanted to attend this event. He would have stood around at his booth talking to the people passing by: “Hi there. You are going straight to Hell. You are going to Hell and you and you over there in the back, Satan is putting on the flames just for you.” Unfortunately, the woman manning the booth was not acting in this spirit. She was being really nice; she was not threatening anyone or raising any fire and brimstone. I think I would have liked having Chrysostom there. We could have ecumenically hated the event together.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

An Explanation of My Beliefs in Regards to the Constitution

In a comment to my last post, I was asked some questions in regards to constructionist and activist judges. I would like to take the opportunity to respond.

What is the difference between a "constructionist" and "activist" judge? Who are some examples of each on the Supreme and Circuit courts?”

A constructionist judge believes that his job, as a judge, is to explain the Constitution. (Either in its literal meaning or based on how it was originally understood by those who wrote the relevant clauses.) An activist judge believes that the Constitution is a “living” document that must be interpreted in light of present morality or even based on International law. The activist view, in essence, is a license for judges to rule however they want; they become legislators more powerful even than Congress.

I think Scalia is a fine constructionist judge, committed to ruling based on constructionist principles. This does not mean that I agree with every decision he has ever made. I am sure if I were on the court I might make many different decisions, but it is only reasonable that people of good faith will have honest differences. Stephen Breyer is an activist judge; he has gone on the record supporting the use of foreign legal precedent in court rulings.

Barack Obama, Audacity of Hope, talks about this issue and expresses his support for Breyer’s approach. I am sure Obama means well, but I see this approach as a sitting threat to a free society.

“Also, what are some cases which serve as examples of "reinterpreting" the Constitution to "create" a "civil right?”

The classic examples of activist rulings are Griswold vs. Connecticut, which established a constitutional right to use birth control based on a mythical right to privacy, which the court made up just for this occasion, and Roe vs. Wade, which established a right to abortion. Not that I want it to be illegal to use birth control or to have an abortion. If someone were to propose amending the Constitution in order to create a right to privacy I would support it. That being said, none of these things are in the Constitution and the people who wrote the relevant amendments did not intend to cover such rights. The whole concept of a right to privacy is hypocrisy anyway. Why does the right to privacy not allow me to grow marijuana in my own basement and smoke it there? Why can’t I make a private decision with my own doctor to sell my kidneys?

More recently the Supreme Courts of Massachusetts and California have ruled that homosexuals have a “civil right” to get married. Personally, I don’t have a problem with gay marriage. It seems perfectly reasonable for the government to revise its marriage laws to cover the changed circumstances in our society. But these courts, by inventing this new civil right, have declared that all those who do not actively support gay marriage are bigots, carriers of a type of belief that the government is allowed to actively fight against even with the believers own money. Thus they have trampled the rights not of homosexuals but of all opponents of homosexuality.

“How extensive is this problem of judicial interpretation? Is it serious enough to be a deterministic factor in weighing your vote for the Presidency?”

At the end of the day, the practical differences between the parties are not that great. Both parties are pro-capitalism. Neither party is about to try to take down Wall St. On the other hand, both parties support some form of government-funded health care and government schools. No matter who is in power, billions will be spent on social welfare programs. For all the conservative talk about taxes, all of these things require money and people are going to get taxed to pay for these things. (There may even be a tax hike.) This may upset many radical Liberals but the United States military is going consume a large chunk of government spending. The day when schools will have all the funds they need and the air force has to have a bake sale in order to buy bombs is not going to come anytime soon. I am not saying that any of this is good or bad, but the way our government is set up, with its two-party system politics, one is forced to keep pretty much to the center. The biggest difference between the parties is what sort of judges they will put in.

We are in middle of a continued assault by radical Liberals/secularists to enforce their values on other people. This assault has been spearheaded by activist judges. For all the talk about Christian Fundamentalist trying to take over the country and threaten our liberties, for me the real threat comes from secularists. Their agenda goes way beyond creating a secular atmosphere and applying psychological pressure on people to confirm to their views. They wish to take direct action that will physically force people surrender their own personal beliefs.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

My Optimistic Scenario for the Next Four Years

So the election has come and gone and as expected John McCain lost and Barack Obama won. I supported McCain and continue to have serious reservations about Obama, both in terms of the American economy and in terms of Israel. The Democrats now control the presidency and have greatly strengthened their hold over Congress and the Senate. The radical left is triumphant and no doubt they will push their advantage for all it is worth. That being said I am willing to be cautiously optimistic. For one thing, despite my disagreements with Obama, I respect the man; he has always struck me as a highly intelligent individual who, despite his personal liberalism, honestly desires to reach out and cut across the traditional ideological lines. Here is my optimistic scenario for the coming four years.

I do not believe that Obama is going to turn tail and run neither in the War in Iraq, specifically, or in the War on Terror, in general. Obama has nothing to lose and everything to gain from pursuing an aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East. If he fails it will be blamed on the Bush administration and if he succeeds he will be able to take the credit for himself. I suspect that the Left in this country and the European Union will be far more willing to support an aggressive foreign policy now that it is no longer the Bush administration taking the lead. Obama may, in fact, be better suited than George W. Bush to pursue an aggressive foreign policy because he will not be caught up in the us versus them in the liberal establishment trap; Obama will have no need because the establishment will be on his side. Just as it took Richard Nixon to go to China so to it might very well require an Obama to fight the War on Terror.

Personally, my number one reason for supporting Republicans is in order to make sure that strict constructionist judges are appointed and to stop Liberals from appointing activist judges who will reinterpret the Constitution to give Liberals everything they fail to get through the democratic process and call it a "civil right." The two best things President Bush did in his eight years in office was to appoint John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. Obama defiantly will try to appoint activist judges. I do not think he will be able to too much damage. The only justice who is likely to step down over the next four years is John Paul Stevens, one of the courts most liberal members. We can assume that, one way or another, we will still have our four conservative judges (Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, Alito) and one judge (Kennedy) who usually can be relied upon.

Hopefully, Obama can be relied upon to do something stupid that will not do too much damage but will help bring about a Republican comeback in 2010 and even allow them to take back the White House in 2012. I am thinking along the lines of him going back on his campaign pledge not to raise the taxes on anyone making less than $250,000 a year. I am really keen for him to fulfill his campaign promises to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which will enshrine Roe vs. Wade into Federal law, and support equal pay laws for women. These things should be enough to alienate the American center over the next few years, particularly as their anger toward Republicans cools.

Meanwhile, the Republicans can take the opportunity of this well-deserved defeat to take stock of their situation. This defeat may serve as a badly needed intervention to save them from themselves and maybe get them back to things like small government. I think there is little chance that the Republicans could ever have changed on their own without some disaster of Obama proportions. Of all the disasters that may have struck the Republican Party, I could imagine worse than an Obama presidency.

Hopefully over the next few years we can put together a Republican Party that we can be proud of.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Secular Theodicy: A Review of Day of Empire (Part I)

The biblical narrative, particularly in Judges, Samuel and Kings, serves as a type of theodicy. The authors of these various books wish to convince the reader that the welfare of God’s chosen people rests on their obedience to God’s will. If things go well it is because the Israelites were righteous and if things do not go well it is because they sinned. While this may be true (And I am certainly inclined to think that there is something to this.), such a notion lies outside our knowledge as historians; historians are not prophets and can claim no knowledge about God’s existence, will or plan for human history. Thus the biblical theodical model of historical narrative is unusable for the writing of history. Those who attempt to write such history (Be they Rabbi Berel Wein, Rabbi Avigdor Miller or Rabbi Yosef Eisen.) are not historians but intellectual frauds.

The problem is that we have no fixed standard with which to judge whether any given society is living a godly life. Our knowledge of God’s will, even from a religious perspective, is rather open ended so we have no clear cut means of evaluating a godly society. How many points does a society have to score in order to count as godly and how many points are various actions worth? How many points does a society lose if they allow women to wear mini-skirts; what about if they tolerate club wielding hooligans beating up women over the length of their skirts? Furthermore, since every society is a mixture of good and bad, we have no way of knowing if a given society is being rewarded for the righteousness of the few or punished for the wickedness of the few. Sodom and Gomorrah being the exceptions, every society can be assumed to have at least ten righteous people. So if a wicked, ungodly society succeeds it can always be passed off as due to the intercession of the righteous few. Conversely if disaster strikes a righteous godly society it can always be passed off as punishment for the secret sins of the wicked few, hiding their idols/television sets behind their doors.

This sets the stage for radical levels of intellectual dishonesty if one wishes to try writing such a history. Since there are so many movable pieces one can fix the results to suit any desired conclusion. It is a heads I win tails you lose situation. God might have brought the Holocaust in order to punish secular Jews and saved the secular state of Israel in the Six Day War in the merit of the Orthodox minority. This of course may very well be true, but I could play this game to come up with anything that I want. For example, if you would indulge me in a little reductio ad absurdum, I could, with equal plausibility, argue that God is a Nazi, who treasures his German people, wishes to lead them to greatness if only they would follow his will and uses world Jewry to chastise them.

God gave the German people victory, as of the fall of 1941, over Poland, France and the Soviet Union as a reward for obeying their divinely sent Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, and to allow them to rid the world of the Jewish race. (God did not allow them to defeat England because he wanted there to remain a threat so that his German people would continue to cry out to him. Alternatively God was being patient with the British people, also members of the German race, and was giving them one last chance to abandon the rule of Winston Churchill and return to the Germanic fold.) The fact that things turned against Germany can be attributed to the fact that they did not pursue the destruction of world Jewry with the proper zeal and show pure undiluted faith in their Fuehrer. The fact that the Germans had to turn to gas chambers and abandon the use Einsatzgruppen as their primary mode of killing Jews showed a lack of Jew killing zeal. According to the Wannsee conference, the use of Einsatzgruppen as mobile firing squads was proving ineffective as it was having a negative on its members. Clearly if Germans had been full of the proper Jew killing zeal they should have been lining up for the honor of being able to personally shoot Jews and they should have been able to carry out this task with joy and a gladdened heart. Germans should have been able to kill Jews with the same gusto as the Poles and the Ukrainians, who, immediately upon being liberated by Germany, took it upon themselves to slaughter their Jewish neighbors. No German should have suffered negative psychological effects from carrying out such tasks. Later on at the end of the war many in the German high command thought that the elimination of Hungarian Jewry should take a back seat to fighting the advancing Soviet forces. There were even those like Himmler who wanted to make a deal with the Allies in order to save the Jews in exchange for protection after the war. It took a mere Colonel like Adolf Eichmann to see that Hungarian Jewry was dealt with. Not only did the German leadership not pursue the murder of European Jews as they should they also failed to show to the proper faith in their Fuehrer. Over and over it was demonstrated that Hitler was right yet there were those who questioned his decisions to hold the line on the Russian front and in North Africa. The lack of faith was so profound that members of the German high command attempted to assassinate Hitler. God miraculously saved Hitler by causing the bomb to be moved thus allowing for Hitler to survive with only some busted air drums and a withered hand.

Since the German people failed to properly follow God and their Fuehrer, God gave them into the hands of their enemies, the Americans and the Russians, who put an end to the Third Reich and divided Germany up into East and West. Not only that but God allowed the Jews to rebuild their state and gain victory over the Arabs so that now world Jewry could exercise their power directly and not just through the banks and Hollywood. Next God allowed for a wave of Jewish inspired liberalism to sweep the Western world, forcing all proud lovers of the German race and ideals to have to go underground and live in secret. But even in these dark times God has not abandoned his German people. As a comfort to the German race he allowed them to kill off a third of world Jewry in the Holocaust. This serves to comfort the German people and as a sign of God’s promise to completely annihilate the Jews, restore the German people to their former glory and bring about the Final Reich.

(To be continued …)

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Rape is Never Funny (Except when it Involves Shakespeare or Stanley Kubrick )

A few weeks ago, in our book club, one of the guys made a crack about rape. This elicited a heated response from a number of people, particularly one of the girls who declared: “rape is never funny.” This past week we got a visit from one of the administrators of Aspirations who spoke to us and told us in no uncertain terms that, while we were all adults and it was acceptable to talk about adult topics, jokes about rape would not be tolerated in the group. With all due respect to feminists and other concerned people, while rape is a horrible act, it is one horrible act among many others and like all other horrible acts, and, in part, because it is such a horrible act, it is subject to humor and can be very funny.

One of my all-time favorite films is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It is about the world getting blown to bits in a nuclear holocaust, courtesy of Peter Sellers (in three roles) and George C. Scott. The climax of the film is a man falling out a bomber while riding an atom bomb and waving his cowboy hat. This is soon followed by mushroom clouds going up across the globe to soft relaxing music. I may be perverse but I do find something funny about the annihilation of almost the entire human race. (Those lacking a convenient mine shaft to flee to.) It would seem only a matter of consistency that if I could laugh at the idea of billions of people dying than I should also be able to laugh at the idea of one person being raped. And Stanley Kubrick helps us on this front with Clockwork Orange, which has rape set to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

Clearly, rape can be funny; even Shakespeare uses rape for laughs. In Titus Andronicus, Demetrius and Chiron rape Titus’ daughter, Livinia, (and, for good measure, they also cut off her hands and slice out her tongue.)

Demetrius: So, now go tell, and if thy tongue can speak,
Who’t was that cut thy tongue and ravish’d thee.
Chiron: Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so
And if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.
Demetrius: She, how with signs and tokens she can scrowl.
Chiron: Go home, call for sweet water, wash thy hands.
Demetrius: She hath no tongue to call, nor hands to wash:
And so let’s leave her to her silent walks.
Chiron An ‘twere my case I should go hang myself.
Demetrius: If though hadst hands to help thee knit the cord.
[Titus Andronicus act II scene IV)

For all you feminists out there, Titus gets his revenge on Chiron and Demetrius; he cuts their throats and has Livinia hold a bowl in her stumps to catch the blood. Titus then bakes them into meat pies, (so Sweeney Todd like) which he serves to their mother Tamora. (Titus then kills Livinia to “end” her shame.)

Rape can even make for good family-friendly musical fun. Consider the Fantasticks with its Rape Song:

A pretty rape!
A literary rape!
We've the obvious open schoolboy rape,
With little mandolins
and perhaps a cape.
The rape by coach;
it's little in request.
The rape by day,
but the rape by night is best.

Just try to see it.
And you will soon agree, señors,
Why Invite regret,
When you can get the sort of rape
You'll never ever forget.
You can get the rape emphatic.
You can get the rape polite.
You can get the rape with Indians:
A very charming sight.
You can get the rape on horseback;
They'll all say it's new and gay.
So you see the sort of rape
Depends on what you pay.
It depends on what you pay.

And the song continues for several more verses, all involving suggestions of possible styles for a good “rape.” (This is meant as a staged abduction of a girl by a theatrical troupe so that her neighbor will be able to come to her “rescue” and bring about all manner of happy endings.)
I raised some of these issues with the administrator. I asked him if we would even be allowed to read something like Titus Andronicus, considering how it makes fun of rape. I also asked him if he thought the Fantasticks, with its singing about rape, could be considered funny. His response was that yes such things were funny, but that it was only funny when done by such people. Apparently, rape is only funny when it is in a published source. I am reminded of the Haredi response when faced with the fact that great rabbis in the past had done something that they now wish to ban: "it was ok for them, because they were so great and because they lived in holier times. But we should not be allowed to do this."

I am not trying to minimize the real-life horrors of rape. I also recognize that society has certain conventions about making jokes about bad things in front of people who have suffered them. (For example one does not crack Holocaust jokes in front of Holocaust survivors.) I can accept that rape is included in this convention so one must be careful in whose company one makes rape jokes. But to say that somehow rape is not funny is absolutely ludicrous. Personally, I take Shakespeare, Stanley Kubrick, and the Fantasticks as better guides to what is funny than any angry feminist.