Friday, December 31, 2010

In Support of Public Schools Teaching Intelligent Design and Other Nonsense III

Baruch Pelta, in his second post, gets nasty, accusing me of putting up a "destabilizing lie meant to pull emotional strings." Yes, I have the nerve to compare his mode of dealing with opponents to that of Haredim in that, while intellectually he may understand that people disagree with him, at a psychological level he fails to internalize this. This gets him stuck on the fact that he is "objectively" correct. (Note that I did not accuse him of being a Nazi, which is what I would have done if I were trying to simply score polemical points.) One should not think ill of Baruch; this is a problem that afflicts most people. Being a true liberal, one who respects all beliefs and refuses to use any physically coercive measures, even against those he disagrees with, to force people to go against those beliefs, requires years of disciplined critical thinking. It is something I still strive to work on in myself.

A useful exercise is to think in terms of x and y instead of actual ideas. X and y are both ideas held by people living in society. In order to get x and y supporters to not force their beliefs on the other, they need to be promised that the other side, in turn, will not try to force their beliefs on them. Now x might be evolution and y creationism, but that is irrelevant in face of the more abstract x and y social contract model we agree to serve. Thinking in abstract terms allows you to get around the psychological hang-ups we all have about the beliefs that seem to us to be obviously true.

Working as an intellectual historian also helps. For example, I have been spending much of my time these few months trying to understand Sabbatianism. It is not my place to judge those who believed that Sabbatai Sevi was the Messiah. If it seems absurd to me then I have to work all the harder as seeing Sabbatai as they might have and put myself in a frame of mind in which accepting Sabbatai as the Messiah can become reasonable. This is done by immersing oneself in the words of Sabbatians themselves and their worldview.

In terms of actual arguments, Baruch challenges my larger definition of religion, pointing out that the Constitution specifically refers to religion and not to ideas in general. Fair enough, but I would point out that, in the eighteenth century, the only examples of large-scale organized ideological groups, the kind that might have the power to overthrow the government in hopes of being able to force their beliefs on others, were religions. Keep in mind that the main "religious" concern of the Founding Fathers was to not have Catholics and Protestants repeating Europe's religion wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on American soil. I assume that they would have adjusted their terms if they were writing only several decades later and saw the Communist Party. At the end of the day, it does not make sense to have one set of rules for the Catholic Church and another for the Communist Party. Baruch, are you suggesting that the beliefs of Communists are outside of the first amendment? Richard Dawkins, of all people, has essentially made my argument that religion should not be treated any differently from any other belief. I agree with Dawkins that being a Quaker should not offer you special conscientious objector status not available to people who are pacifists on simple intellectual grounds.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Midwest Orthodoxy

There is a post up over at Dr. Alan Brill's blog about Orthodox communities in the Midwest. The author sets up a model of Orthodox life in these communities, contrasting it to the East coast, and makes the case for why Centrist Orthodoxy may no longer be viable for such communities when faced with competition from Haredi Orthodoxy and non-Orthodox movements. According to the author, Midwest Centrists operate on an immigrant narrative: "they came from Europe, they became American, and they remained Orthodox." This is in contrast to the "elitist" narrative that dominates on the East Coast. The author is not clear what he means by East coast elites. I assume he is referring to the ideals of being able to engage in advanced Talmud while going to the Ivies as exemplified by schools such as Maimonides in Boston. It is certainly the case that there are specific Orthodox congregations in cities like Boston, New York, and Washington DC that are packed with professionals with advanced degrees in a way that is just mind-boggling. Whatever the potential long term weaknesses of the elitist model, the immigrant narrative is of little use for people who are already several generations removed from Europe. What is left of this narrative is a vague Americanized cultural Orthodoxy as exemplified by shul clubs. This leaves Midwestern Centrist Orthodoxy without a firm ideology with which to stand against those from either side of the ideological spectrum.

I am a Midwesterner, the product of Columbus OH and McKeesport PA. There is a lot of truth in this model of Midwest cultural Orthodoxy and its origins in the immigrant experience. McKeesport, even in my time, was quite literally an immigrant community. (The joke was that everyone in McKeesport was Hungarian even the gentiles.) That being said, in this knocking of the Midwest, there is something missing. My religious experience growing up was very non-partisan. There was no sense of us versus them; we were Jews. There were some Jews who were more observant and there were some who were less observant. I think there is something very healthy about growing up like that. The fact that fewer Orthodox Jews growing up today, particularly those "elites" on the East coast, have this experience is unfortunate and a source of many of the problems today. Ideologies like biology are also subject to the laws of Darwinian evolution. The ideologies that survive to reproduce a next generation are not necessarily "better," just better at indoctrinating the next generation under the given circumstances. Honestly tolerant non-partisan ideologies, lacking a strong sense of us versus them, are almost always the losers in this struggle.

The Orthodox community in McKeesport has almost completely died out and Columbus shows little sign of being able to expand. Above and beyond ideology, there are pragmatic reasons for this. As a single person in his late 20s, the most obvious one is the dating pool. Dating requires a baseline pool of other available singles. No Orthodox community in the Midwest has that baseline. What happened in McKeesport, where you had just a few families and the children just married each other until everyone was related somehow, is not an option today. If you are Orthodox and single you essentially have to move to New York. This has led to communities like Washington Heights, full of Orthodox singles from Midwest communities, including Columbus. Several years ago, oblivious to these dynamics, I moved from Washington Heights back to Columbus. I did this right at the time in my life when I wanted to start seriously dating. In good consciousness, I could never recommend someone in a similar situation to do what I did and move away from my dating pool. Of course, this dooms a community like Columbus far more so than any lack of a coherent ideology.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

In Support of Public Schools Teaching Intelligent Design and Other Nonsense II

Baruch Pelta has responded to my earlier post. I think it is important to note that he is unwilling to openly come out and support the legitimacy of public schools; essentially he is "agnostic" in regards to this issue. He does raise two arguments. One, allowing the teaching of creationism and intelligent design would violate the separation of Church and State. Two, it is possible to make a distinction between religion and other ideas as demonstrated by the fact that we have a separation of Church and State. Finally, Baruch asks that I define what I mean by "liberty."

If we are going to have public schools, I do not object to these schools teaching children, as a historical fact, that Jesus is their Savior as long as this directive does not come from the government itself and no public funds are specifically earmarked for this purpose. The reason for this is rooted in how, as a libertarian, I understand the role of government. Government only has a legitimate interest in protecting people from direct physical harm. A teacher, even one working in a government funded school, standing up and trying to convince students to accept Jesus causes no physical harm. Therefore it is of no interest to the government. (If the teacher were to hand out bonus points to those who accepted Jesus then that would be a different matter.) The fact that non-Christian students might be uncomfortable in such a situation and feel left out is irrelevant. This is what it means to live in a free society. You open yourself up to every manner of non-physical torment and you must learn to live with that and accept that the government cannot in any way be used to help you in this matter.

As to the issue of Church and State, it is important to keep in mind that it is not a legitimate legal concept, but a letter from Thomas Jefferson wrongfully brought into play in the twentieth century. Regardless of that matter, I understand the Constitution's establishment clause to apply to all ideas. Outside of a belief in the legitimacy of the legal system itself, the government has no businesses declaring any idea to be true or false. This goes for Jesus dying for the sins of the world, evolution and the Holocaust. I am even willing to go so far as to argue against tolerance education. The government may tell white supremacists that they need to follow the law and not murder blacks and Jews, but the government has no business telling these people that they should support a multicultural society as something positive.

As to the definition of liberty and how it might apply to children; I understand liberty as the ability to pursue your own good in your own way as long as you do not cause direct physical harm to others. As J. S. Mill pointed out, this concept does not apply to children as they are deemed as lacking the mental capacity to engage in the give and take of ideas. Children are placed under the control of guardians who therefore also take up the liberty that the child would have exercised if it were an adult. The only limit on this is that the guardian cannot cause direct physical harm to the child. That would bring the attention of the government which would have the right to step in and remove the child and place it in an environment where it would be less likely to suffer direct physical harm. (Think of the libertarian government as a deadly trip-wire alarm system. As long as no one is being physically harmed, the government is silent to the extent that you should not even realize that it is there. The moment that someone steps on the wire and causes direct physical harm to someone else, all of a sudden the government springs into existence and takes out the offender, with physical violence if necessary.) Part of the social contract we sign is that we allow people to come to harm through their ideas. This includes their children, whom they have the right to raise according to these ideas. If someone thinks that sweatshops or even brothels are good places for a child to receive an education then so be it.

This might sound funny coming from an Asperger, but I see Baruch as suffering from a lack of a theory of mind. (See Neurotypical Mental and Emotional Handicaps.) This goes back to our original discussion about parents raising their children. At a physiological level, Baruch simply does not get that there are other people out there who believe differently from him and are equally convinced of their beliefs as he is. Baruch thinks that it is so obvious that he is right that if he repeats his arguments or has the government step in and support him as being right, those other people will eventually come to their senses; Christians, Haredim, and white supremacists will suddenly realize that they are superstitious intolerant bigots, apologize to Baruch for being such naughty children and go home. Of course when those people follow this same line of thinking and try to use government to support their ideas against Baruch then that is them being intolerant and trying to impose their values. In the real world there are true and false beliefs (gravity being a good example) and those beliefs have consequences. In the politics of a free society there is no true and false. There are just people's opinions and a system designed so that these differing opinions do not turn into people killing each other over them.

On a final note, let me give a shout out to Baruch Spinoza, a fellow opponent of public schools, who has joined in on the debate.

Monday, December 27, 2010

In Support of Public Schools Teaching Intelligent Design and Other Nonsense

The debate with Baruch Pelta seems to have fizzled out, though I think for all the right reasons. We agree, in practice, on too many things and neither of us is interested in throwing around ad hominem polemics in an attempt to manufacture a disagreement. We have, though, continued to talk in private and what we found is that my pursuit of orthodox libertarian politics may, in fact, be a far more effective generator of disagreement than any defense of the Orthodox Jewish religion. This is particularly the case when it comes to public schools and the teaching of intelligent design.

Both Baruch and I support evolution and oppose intelligent design theory. That being said Baruch adopts a traditional liberal approach and supports the existence of public schools as instruments of teaching "objective facts." He draws a line between evolution, to be enshrined as objective fact, and intelligent design, which can be dismissed as mere religion. From this perspective attempts to teach evolution in public schools, even in the face of opposing parents, are a defense of the public good while attempts to teach intelligent design, even when backed by parents and local school boards, are attacks on the freedom of religion.

As a libertarian, I oppose the existence of government-funded public schools. As J. S. Mill understood, any attempt to bring government into education, by definition, means one group trying to impose their values on others. The teaching of evolution is a good example of this. While I accept the theory of evolution and desire that my children study it as part of the private education I hope to one day purchase for them, that is simply my opinion. I recognize that there are other people who do not accept evolution and do not want it taught to their children. In a free society, I must accept the fact that their views, no matter how based in ignorance, are of equal value to mine. Because of this, I have no right to make any attempt to use government (by definition a coercive act) to advance my views, no matter how right I think I am and how good my intentions are.

To justify the teaching of evolution, its supporters need to resort to an arbitrary distinction between religion and other opinions, with one being given special protections and allowed to be forced upon children as fact. Not only that, but the government is deemed capable of deciding what counts as science and what is a religion. This is sophistry, in which facts are simply those things one agrees with and religion is that which one opposes. Thus the very concept of freedom of thought is rendered meaningless.

I have yet to meet anyone seriously willing to defend public schools as in keeping with the maintenance of free thought. What I usually get it is this defiant attitude of "public schools are here to stay and I should get with reality." As if pragmatism could ever excuse a fundamentally unjust system. So here it is; if we are going to have public schools, and it looks like we are going to be stuck with them for the near future, this is what you will need in order to minimize government infringement on personal liberties. If the government is going to decide that education is an arena worthy of its interest then the government must be prevented from putting a meaningful definition on the term. The government can give money for "education" and it will be left to parents and school boards to decide what "education" means and spend the money accordingly. If they decide that science education means intelligent design or even creationism that should be their right. To be clear, white supremacist parents should also be left to decide that holocaust denial is a form of history and use government money to teach that.

Under such circumstances, giving over a meaningful education is likely to be a problem. This is a price I am willing to pay. It is the price that every supporter of freedom agrees to pay; believing in freedom means that allowing people to pursue their own misguided and destructive beliefs, no matter how horrific the consequences, is better than employing the slightest bit of coercion. Of course, as a supporter of freedom, I am also an optimist and believe that, in the long run, getting government less involved with education will mean more good teachers giving over a meaningful education to outweigh the intelligent designers, the creationists and even the holocaust deniers.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Real Cause of Any “Dark Age”

To continue with my previous discussion of Hypatia, to blame the destruction of the Great Library Alexandria and the consequent loss of the knowledge of Greco-Roman civilization on Christian intolerance misses the point. Regardless of whether or not Christians performed the actual deed, in the long run, this knowledge was doomed to serve little practical use and be consigned to oblivion for two reasons, lack of effective means to reproduce and transmit this knowledge, and lack of an effective government under which the transmission of knowledge might be possible.

The real tragedy of the Library of Alexandria was that the tragedy was possible in the first place. Yes the Library was a true wonder, housing the intellectual wealth of the Classical world. There was a fire in the Library at some point, possibly even several fires, and with it went most of that heritage. What you have to ask yourself though is how did it come to be that so much knowledge was in one place and just one place to be destroyed in a fire? In our world of print and internet it is easy to take for granted how easy it is to reproduce texts and gain access to them. Take away print and the internet and you are left with the labor intensive project of reproducing texts by hand one at a time. Even a lover of knowledge, without an organized network to reproduce texts and pass them on is going to be trapped into single copies. An individual, or even a local group, would lack the means to do more and why should they do they as single texts cover their needs. The problem of course is that this creates situations like in Alexandria, large storehouses of texts existing only in that Library. A true monument to human achievement, but one that could do little for anyone outside of the narrow elite with access to the library and was a sitting target for the next outbreak of violence to destroy it.

From this perspective, ironically enough, the medieval Church fares better than the Roman Empire as a protector and transmitter of texts. It was the Church which successfully built knowledge networks of monasteries copying down texts and passing them along, to which we owe our knowledge of the Classics. Of course the ability of writing networks is quite limited compared to print networks, which would not come about until the early modern period. Without print, any attempt to transmit knowledge could at best only prove a holding action to the inevitable ravages of time such as natural disasters and angry mobs.

Knowledge networks, particularly fragile manuscript ones, can only exist to do whatever little good they might do under the protection of effective governments. The Romans did develop networks to pass on manuscripts, even if they were never as systematic about it as the Church. These though, could not survive the political collapse of Late Antiquity Rome. This started before the rise of Christianity. In the long run, Christianity may have failed to stop the collapse, but it certainly did not cause it. Potentially rioting murderous mobs exist in every society just below the surface, waiting to do harm. This goes even for supposedly civilized ones like Montreal in 1969, when the police went on strike for one day, as well as Late Antiquity Alexandria, which lacked an effective police system in the first place. Under such circumstances the library was doomed. It was not a matter of if the Library would be destroyed, but when and what particular spark would so happen to do it in. This has nothing to do with religion, though religion is as good as any other fuel under the right circumstances. (See Slouching Toward Bosnia.)

Even if the filmmakers had been right about Hypatia and the night before she was murdered she had cracked the big secret of the Scientific Revolution, anticipating both Copernicus and Kepler, it is unlikely that it would have changed the course of Western history. No matter how brilliant Hypatia may have been she lacked a knowledge network to pass her ideas along and allow them to become relevant to a larger society. This could exist within the political chaos of the collapsing Roman Empire. Like the Library, hers is the tragic story of a brilliant but ultimately useless monument to human genius, doomed to inevitable destruction and irrelevancy.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

And I Called Her Kitty Stew

Recently, I have been spending more time than I ought to playing Mass Effect. (Time better spent on work or this blog.) This game has great action and a truly gripping story. The basic premise is that human beings, having recently made first contact, are now stepping out into the wider galaxy as one of many races of intelligent beings. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to anyone, galactic civilization leads a precarious existence. Outside the galaxy live an artificial intelligent race known as the Reapers. Every few thousand years, they come through the galaxy and systematically destroy all advanced organic lifeforms. These Reapers are about to come once again. The main character, Commander Shepard, turns up evidence of this Reaper plot as he tracks down a rogue alien named Saren, a willing collaborator with the Reapers. Shepard has to stop Saren before he brings about the return of the Reapers and the destruction of galactic civilization. Saren is actually a really interesting villain. His logic is that, rather than suffer the inevitable destruction of all, they should submit to the Reapers, prove their usefulness in the hope that the Reapers will allow some part of civilization to be saved. This is a story about hard moral choices. At one point you are even forced to choose between the lives of two characters on your team. The choices you make actually affect the larger story, changing the actual game.

I chose to make my Commander Shepard a woman and named her Kitty Stew Shepard. My roommate asked me if this was supposed to be a nickname. Well, Kitty can be short for Katherine and Stew can be for Stewart. Hello Galaxy; meet your new savior. Katherine Stewart Shepard was born on Earth to a respectable secular Jewish family, with parents who expected her to go to law school. But she instead joined the Alliance military as the Kitty Stew Shepard of the SSV Normandy you know now. She travels throughout the galaxy armed with her pistol, shotgun, and biotics meeting new alien life forms and making difficult moral choices. Does she try to sleep with the aliens (an alien does not count as a gentile so she can bring one home to mom and dad) or just blow them all to bits? One thing is certain, whatever she does, she will look damn hot doing it.

On a side note, here is the trailer for Mass Effect 3:    

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

History 111 Book: Pursuit of the Millennium

The book club idea, doing specific topics and allowing students to pick books, proved to be a success even if I still have to work on getting more class participation. So I am going to try it again for my winter quarter 111 class. As before I am going to pick the first book for the class. This time around I am doing Norman Cohn's Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. This book contains enough comedy and tragedy to entertain and its subject matter of religious apocalyptic violence is certainly relevant. I am also interested in further testing my theory about Christianity in the classroom that both Christian and secular students left to their own devices wish to avoid talking about Christianity. Christian students feel under attack by discussions of the religion in a classroom setting and secular students feel no connection. (See Are the Greeks and Romans Just More Popular?) Considering that much of my work deals in the history of religion, if I am going to have I future I am going to need some way around this problem. On a more personal level, this book allows me to teach what I actually study professionally, medieval and early modern messianism. In fact, Cohn's work is foundational to my dissertation. In many respects what I am trying to do is apply Pursuit of the Millennium to Jews.    

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Agora’s Two Acts

I finally got around to watching Agora. My friend Lionel Spiegel got a hold of a copy and so, armed with popcorn, we got ready to wage merciless Mystery Science Theater 3000 against the movie's Whig biases. Agora tells the story of the female pagan philosopher Hypatia, who was murdered by a Christian mob, and the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria at the hands of Christians. I therefore expected a highly simplistic movie with virtuous enlightened pagans living in paradise and vicious intolerant Christians ruining everything and bringing about the "Dark Ages." I must admit, though, that the movie turned out much better than the trailers had led me to expect, managing for the most part to be fair to the actual historical events. This is until the second act of the film.

First off, full credit has to be given to the set designers for their breathtaking reconstruction of late fourth century Alexandria. This has to go down as one of the best reconstructions of a pre-modern city in the history of film. I was not even so bothered by the lack of mud; this still being the Roman Empire. Next, you have Ashraf Barhom's film stealing supporting role as the Christian monk Ammonius. If I had seen this movie earlier I would have tried showing at least parts of it to my 111 class as part of our unit on Christianity. Barhom's portrayal of Ammonius fits precisely into the Rodney Stark model of religious outreach that I presented. Ammonius preaches on the streets of Alexandria to crowds, picks debates with pagans and performs "miracles" (in his case walking through fire), but what makes Ammonius effective is his charismatic charm, which allows him to form relationships with individual people. This allows him to attract, not massive crowds in single dramatic speeches, but to slowly win over individuals, in the case of the movie Hypatia's slave Davus. This is essentially how I imagine Paul preaching and winning converts. Whatever you might think of his actions, this is a man that you like and can understand why others might change their lives around to convert to his religion and follow him.

Anchored by Barhom's Ammonius, the film actually does manage to offer a nuanced portrayal of Christianity, where, even if Christians are still the villains of the story in the end, there is a recognition that the world of late antiquity was not completely black and white. If the Christian mob ends up sacking the Library, it is only after the pagans' started the fight. In keeping with the narrative of the slow, quite non-dramatic spread of Christianity, the pagans find the tables turned on them by the unexpected size of the Christian counter-attack, leading one of the pagan leaders to exclaim: "who knew that there were so many Christians?"

If the movie had ended after the first act, I would have been on my feet acclaiming this movie as one of the greatest historical films ever, one that could allow Christians to burn down the Great Library of Alexandria and maintain some sense of nuance. The second act, though, with Hypatia's conflict with Bishop Cyril, leading to her death, manages to fall into all the Whig anachronisms I feared. First, there is Hypatia's grappling with the problem of the elaborate system epicycles, circles on top of the planet's circular orbits, in the Ptolemaic geocentric solar system. Even this is well done and worthwhile as a portrayal of the necessary thought processes on the road to heliocentrism. The fact that Hypatia is made out to be a heliocentrist is also not a problem, even if we have no evidence that she was, as the belief was found among the ancient Greeks. The film though decides to go one better and has Hypatia preempt Kepler in the theory of elliptical orbits, necessary in order to avoid the problem of epicycles. If you are going to go that far then why not have her ask why planets move in elliptical orbits and come up with Newtonian mechanics or even Einstein's Theory of Relativity? Then there is the crude misogyny of Bishop Cyril as he quotes Paul's Epistle to Timothy about the role of women. (Anyone who sits in smug judgment of pre-modern patriarchy without considering the inevitable logic of a highly militarized society, in which women do not serve in the military, has failed to engage in due historical thinking unfit to comment on historical events.) In keeping with this theme of misogyny, Cyril levels the ultimate patriarchal accusation of witchcraft against Hypatia even though the charge of witchcraft did not come into common use until the fifteenth century. (Sorcery is a completely different issue.)

No, we have no reason to assume that Hypatia could have jump started the Scientific Revolution in late antiquity Alexandria only to be stopped by Church misogyny. The story of Hypatia and the downfall of Greco-Roman civilization is tragic enough without that. By all means, go watch this movie for the first act; if you feel so inclined, try to stomach the second.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Aramaic Physics

I am in middle of watching the show Miracles. It was on back in 2003 when it suffered a similar fate as Firefly, being canceled after less than a full season. I guess certain networks have a problem with off-beat premises with a sense of humor backed by solid acting that requires actual thought on the part of the audience. The show is about a paranormal investigative team. Think X-Files or Fringe with theological content.

The following episode involves a plane that disappears briefly. When it lands it turns out that everyone aboard has undergone some sort of supernatural experience. In the scene starting at the 5:10 mark, the flight attendant starts talking in a mysterious language which turns out to be Aramaic. When the head of our investigative team points this out to the head government agent, his reaction is: "like Jesus" and then asks "that language has been dead for two thousand years you think you can understand it?" To which our investigator responds: "a little."

Jews have been keeping Aramaic alive for two thousand years. It is the language of the Talmud. Syriac Christians speak a form of it as well even today. But I guess we could not expect an idiot government agent to realize that. Later on in the episode it turns out that the flight attendant is spouting advanced physics, giving lessons on how to quantumly destroy the universe. The secrets of the universe being given in Aramaic. You have to give the show's writers credit for essentially smuggling in Kabbalah into mainstream television.  

Free Markets Not Turkey are Sending You Illiterate Immigrants

Hat tip to Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein.

Austrian MP Ewald Stadler goes on a rant against the Turkish ambassador, Ecvet Tezan. In general I find it useful to watch foreign politicians in action. It serves as a useful remainder for whenever someone says that our politics, here in the United States, are rough. For better or worse, our two party system guarantees that everyone behaves themselves and keeps to the moderate and boring center.

What caught my intention was Stadler blaming Turkey for sending Austria "all the illiterates of Anatolia" and "stone-age Islamists." (2:53) Anyone who is a libertarian understands that countries do not ship out their undesirables, unless at gun point; the market is responsible for that. People go wherever the best jobs they can get are available. This is a good thing as it allows for the maximal use of resources. If anything, Stadler should blame the State welfare programs for attracting "illiterates." (In all fairness, his BZO party seems pretty good in terms of economics.) Not that there is anything wrong with people who are illiterate beyond the fact that it is an inefficient use of a valuable and finite resource, the human brain. Once you assume that the State is supposed to fight poverty, how can you not open your borders to all human beings in need. As for stone-age Muslims wanting bury teenage girls alive, it is the responsibility of the State to make sure that everyone obeys the law and does not cause physical harm to anyone. Beyond that, let every person practice whatever stone-age belief they feel like.      

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Making Goethe Jewish

David Goldman has an article, "Faustian Bargains," on the continued importance of German cultural tradition for Judaism. Much of the article focuses on Orthodox Judaism, particularly R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, Michael Friedländer and R. Joseph Soloveitchik. Unlike most narratives, which focus on the Kantian philosophical tradition, Goldman argues for the preeminence of German literature, particularly Goethe, for understanding German-Jewish relations. According to Goldman:

Two German thinkers demarcate the opposite poles of German culture and its Jewish response. One was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), whose Critique of Pure Reason leapfrogged 2,000 years of debate about the ultimate nature of reality. We cannot penetrate into the inner nature of objects that we perceive, Kant asserted: All we can know is the mechanisms for understanding them that are hard-wired into our brains. The apogee of Enlightenment rationalism, Kant thought that reason would prescribe ethics and foster world peace. The poet and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) saw instead the dark side of the Enlightenment: Freed from constraint, tradition, and faith, modern man faced instead existential despair and self-destruction. Men use reason, Mephistopheles tells God in the prologue to Goethe’s great drama Faust, to be beastlier than any beast. Kant dismissed Judaism as a relic of ancient irrationality; Goethe learned Hebrew and drew on the Bible to make sense of the spiritual crisis of modernity.

Jews who veered toward assimilation embraced Kant’s universalism, most prominent among them Hermann Cohen, Germany’s leading academic philosopher in the last years of the 19th century. Cohen never abjured his Jewish identity and struggled until the end of his life to reconcile the unique calling of Israel with Kant’s universalism. His story has become an object lesson in failed assimilation. The Jewish encounter with Goethe in many ways is more telling, for its failures as well as successes. Some of the great rabbis of the 19th century did not hesitate to draw on Goethe’s reading of the Bible; Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik saw theological importance in Goethe’s rejection of scientific determinism.

Ayn Rand’s Road to Serfdom (Part II)

(Part I)

The plot of Atlas Shrugged occurs against the background of Friedrich Hayek's scenario. The biggest departure is that Ayn Rand never bothers to bring in a formal dictator. Even this can be seen as an astute adaption of Hayek. For Hayek the creation of a Hitler, while the endpoint, is really incidental to the whole process. The real work of Fascism was not done by the Nazis, but by the mainstream German left and right decades before. Tyranny does not corrupt the free society, but is the incidental byproduct of the corrupted free society.

In the novel the two main characters, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, are businesspeople trying to succeed against a government and a society following Hayek's downward trajectory. Dagny works in railroads and is trying to build a new line in Colorado, the state with the fewest government regulations and the most robust economy. Hank is trying to market his new "Rearden Steel." Dagny and Hank form a business relationship (and start sleeping together) with Hank providing Dagny with Rearden Steel and Dagny providing Hank the opportunity to showcase to the world what Rearden Steel can do. The problem for Dagny and Hank is that the United States which they live in is dominated by the notion that private businesses should be run in such a way as to advance "the public interest." Dagny and Hank are unaware of this change in the culture and its implications for them. They are both people consumed with pursuing their own particular interests (with almost Asperger like dedication), who assume that everyone thinks like they do. This is not the case with Dagny's brother, James Taggart, and Hank's chief competitor, Orren Boyle, who embrace this new public minded spirit and, instead of working on their businesses, devote themselves to working the corridors of Washington in service of this "public interest."

In the name of public interest James gets an "anti-dog-eat-dog rule," to limit "destructive" competition and drive his chief competitor out of business. Next, James and Boyle get an "Equalization of Opportunity Bill" passed with the help of Wesley Mouch, Hank's lobbyist, who betrays his employer. The Equalization of Opportunity Bill is a laundry list of regulations designed to serve the "public interest," but which descends into favors for special interests at the expense of someone else. The railroad unions want fewer cars to be run on each train and a lower speed limit to give more hours to workers. James, in the spirit of public mindedness, gives in to this demand when he is given a break from paying back the bonds bought by the investors Dagny brought aboard. Hank is stopped from moving his business to Colorado in order that jobs not be lost, but a limit is also placed on how much he can produce in order that other less fortunate people, like Boyle, are given a chance.

With the help of people like James Taggart and Orren Boyle, Wesley Mouch is able to become the Senior Coordinator of the Bureau of Economic Planning and Natural Resources, an unelected official with almost dictatorial power over the country. He rules through an unholy alliance of special interests, from James and Orren to Fred Kinnon of Amalgamated Labor and Dr. Floyd Ferris of the State Science Institute. Together they pass Directive 10-289, which shifts the logic of the Equalization of Opportunity Bill from corrupt meddlesome government to State Fascism. Everyone must work for the public benefit; anyone who does not is not just selfish, but a criminal. All businesses must produce the same amount as pre-depression times. Workers must work the same amount of hours and at the same pay as they did before. No one is allowed to leave their job without special permission from the "Unification Board." Everyone must spend the same amount of money as they did in previous years. There is even a rule against new books being published (including books that might be critical of these policies) so that authors whom the public had yet to read could be given a chance.

In the spirit of Hayek, Rand is most effective when confronting the issue whose public interest is at stake and the consequences of accepting unstated philosophical premises. Some of the best scenes in the book are when the various villains wave the banner of "public interest," a term that Rand turns into a curse word by the end of the book. The villains, to great comic effect, sit down and try negotiate, between themselves, which of the many "worthy" public interests need to be considered and who should have to be sacrificed in the name of the public interest. Finally there are the moments when these characters have to face up to the true consequences of their abandonment of firm moral principles for pragmatism. For example, James Taggart finds himself yelling about the sacredness of a contract, when the labor union controlled Unification Board makes him the sacrifice to their public interest, only to realize that he was the one who destroyed the value of a contract when he sacrificed his investors by not paying them for the bonds.

The crucial difference between Hayek and Rand, where Rand goes off the train tracks to become Rand, is that for Hayek this scenario is a tragedy put into place by intelligent people, who had all the right intentions. If Hayek attacked Fascism (the socialism of the right), he also was defending German culture, essentially telling his English audience: we Germans did this not because we had any natural disposition to tyrannical rule or for mindlessly obeying orders. Our liberal tradition was as good as yours if not better. We fell because we so desired for the government to advance the public interest and turned to this ideal several decades before you did. Both the left and the right accepted this until between these two forces there were no honest liberals left. If these ideas came from the left, it was the German right that truly embraced them and took them to their logical and murderous conclusions.

For Rand, the problem is not just the notion that government should act for the public interest, but that people should try acting for the good of others in the first place. Thus, in the novel, there is no spirit of tragedy, or even tragic-comedy, in which good people are brought down by the unforeseen consequences of their strengths. On the contrary, there are simply moral degenerates, who fail to live according to Objectivist values of selfishness, and therefore deserve their fates. This is played out in Rand's solution to the problems faced by her heroes. She has them join John Galt and his followers in their "strike of the mind" as they attempt to bring down the entire economy even at the expense of allowing millions of people to die of starvation. For Rand, the true villains are not Mouch and his cronies in Washington, but the millions of people who honestly believed in doing good for others and thought they were doing that by supporting Mouch's economic planning. This point is most clearly made in one particular scene in which Rand sets up a major train crash in a Taggart tunnel. Before the accident occurs, Rand offers vignettes of different anonymous people on the train about to die, including a mother with her children who had always been hostile to the rich and assumed that government regulations would only harm them. The message is that these people, including women and children, were responsible for this state of affairs and deserved to die. The heroes are those, like John Galt, who can sit back with a lit cigarette (the groups special kind, featuring the symbol of the dollar) and allow society to crumble.

Following Hayek, I recognize and honor the good intentions and intelligence of those who support government control over the economy in the name of the public good. The fact that this is a path to the destruction of liberty, takes nothing away from this. On the contrary, it makes it a tragedy to be stopped and, failing that, to be mourned for. If a libertarian society is ever going to succeed it will do so ultimately because people are willing to work for the greater good and are willing to do so even without the government whip. For me, Libertarianism is not the rejection of public responsibility it is the opportunity to finally embrace it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Ayn Rand's Latin

The Economist is in middle of hosting a debate between Lera Boroditsky and Mark Liberman over the role of language in shaping ideas. I have become interested in this issue recently from reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Pinker, as a supporter of evolutionary psychology, argues that genes are the primary arbitrator of how people think and polemicizes against those, particularly on the left, who accept it as a matter of faith that society at large, even with its power over language, truly affects people. As with Pinker's arguments against the blank slate model of  the mind, the debate about the role of language seems to be one of defining your terms. No one is really about to say that language is irrelevant for discussions about ideas and no one is about to say that language form an unbreakable chain, fating all speakers of given language to certain modes of thought.

In the opening round Liberman, in the role of the opposition, attacks the popular belief that certain languages "lack a word for x." Interestingly enough, he takes a swipe at Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged. In the novel Rand has a character claim that only Americans have a word for "making money." Liberman retortes:

But this cute theory runs aground on the shoals of fact. If we look up pecunia in Lewis and Short's Latin dictionary, we find the gloss "property, riches, wealth", and a reference to Cicero's use of the phrase "pecuniam facere", which deploys pecunia as the object of the verb facere (to make).

To be fair to Rand, there was an important shift in the early modern period regarding money, which rejected Aristotle's belief that money was something "barren." This belief was the foundation of the Church's opposition to lending money. Even in ancient times people recognized that wealth such as cattle, (the origins of the Latin word "pecunia") could be created by human hands. It was only in modern times, though, that the view of currency changed from something static to dynamic. Of course this still goes back before the United States. I guess Isaac Abarbanel was being an "American" when he defended interest lending, contrary to the Church and Aristotle, with the argument that "money could grow" by being lent out for productive uses.

The Associated Press' Israeli Center: Ehud Barak and the Labor Party

In a news article titled "Israel's Leader Does Not Want to Share Jerusalem," Amy Teibel considers Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's opposition to dividing Jerusalem and contrasts it with the position of Ehud Barak. According to Teibel:

Netanyahu's defense minister Ehud Barak of the centrist Labor Party, called for sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinians. But a government official said Barak's idea does not reflect the government's view.

So let me get this straight; Ehud Barak and the Labor Party are the center of Israeli politics? Yes I recognize that Netanyahu and the Likud are the Israeli right. Right now he is under attack from those even further on the Israeli right for not taking a stronger stance against the Palestinians. I would see Kadima as a centrist party with its willingness to remove many settlements regardless of a peace agreement. That leaves Labor as the Israeli left with its commitment to seeing the Palestinians as equal partners in the peace process. So what makes Labor the center beyond holding positions supported by the author of the article?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Ayn Rand’s Road to Serfdom (Part I)

In an earlier post I discussed my mixed feelings, as a libertarian, about Ayn Rand. She was most certainly a libertarian and Libertarianism was the foundation of her thought, without which nothing else of hers can stand. That being said the Ayn Rand that most people are familiar with and the aspect of her thought that proves to be a turnoff, her glorification of selfishness, is that which is outside of Libertarianism. For that reason, Ayn Rand proves to be a tainted gift to libertarian thought. This was brought home to me in listening to Atlas Shrugged. At its heart, the novel plays out Friedrich Hayek's Road to Serfdom scenario. Unfortunately, Ayn Rand had to taint the novel by being Ayn Rand.

To summarize Hayek's scenario: the government, backed by mass popular demand, steps forward to direct the economy in such a way as to advance the "public interest." To do this, an economic board of planning (or group of czars) is set up to regulate the major industries, "big business," to stop the very real abuses going on and make sure they act according to the best interests of the public. These sentiments are certainly very noble and for this reason, most of the population (including its intellectuals) support this board; they are convinced that under the board's rational guidance the economy will become not just more equitable for the poor, but more effective for all. The problem is that no one realizes that in addition to the principles they thought they were signing on to, they also have, de facto, signed onto three other principles which are inimical to any liberalism. One, that there is such a thing as the "public interest" for the board to advance and to which everyone must submit to. Two, that anyone who goes against this public interest is an "enemy of the people." Three, that the economic board in service of the public interest is above the rule of law.

The board honestly attempts to promote the public interest, but immediately run up against the reality that there is no public interest, but literally millions of "special interest" groups. Who is the public interest, factory workers, farmers, office secretaries or college professors? All of these groups have conflicting interests and will insist that their interests are the interests that the board needs to advance as the public interest. It also turns out that rather than the paragons of wisdom and virtue envisioned by the public, the economic board consists of human beings, forming one more special interest, armed with the human capacity for self-delusion to equate their special interest (their continued ability to control the economy) with the public interest.

Meanwhile, in an exercise in the power of unforeseen consequences, representatives of all the major industries descend on the capital eager to demonstrate their willingness to embrace this new spirit of public mindedness and to make sure that any policy crafted by the board includes just the right loopholes to not affect them and destroy their competitors. Thus, the members of the board, rather than overseeing the abuses of big business soon find themselves in bed with them, but now under the unimpeachable banner of the public interest.

Beyond the potential damage created by any of the board's policies is the fact that they have set a new tone for the society. Even if our economic planners did not intend this, now the road to success is not in producing new goods for the economy, but in being able to navigate this new game of economic policymaking. Thus the nation's best and brightest turn from producing in the private economy to becoming lobbyists. They are followed by the nation's most disreputable and criminally inclined, who rush to take the new government jobs now that they offer a means to practice real world coercion over other people. Now, instead of being in private business, where the government can keep an eye on them, they are in the government, outside of government regulation, and serving the "public interest," making them really untouchable.

The board's attempt to craft an economic plan to serve the public interest was doomed even when the people involved actually had good intentions, let alone after what happened has in the meantime. Whatever plan they come up with will not benefit the entire range of the public. There is going to be a group of people whose interests are harmed and who must be sacrificed on the altar of this public interest. (Obviously the group of people who were the least effective at heading to the capital and lobbying the economic board.) In order to justify this, the board is going to need to villainize this group. Unlike under traditional liberalism where political losers can be left to lick their wounds and try again the next election cycle, this group needs to be cast as enemies of the people. How could they be anything less if they are against the "public interest?" It helps if this group consists of members of a traditionally despised minority. To sell its economic plan, with its chosen villain, the board will launch a massive propaganda campaign, using every available medium. Every man woman and child must be taught to know the public interest and how best to advance it.

What happens when this much touted economic plan fails to bring about all the miracles the public was promised? Rather than give up power, the board will insist that the continued economic difficulties are not proof that its measures were ineffective, but, on the contrary, that the policies were not taken far enough. Not enough action was taken against the enemies of the people, who were allowed to sabotage the public interest. The public will react not by turning against the board, but by giving it expanded power. (Government bureaucracies, like organized religions, have the power to survive any disaster and even benefit from them by arguing that failure is proof that the policies in question were not practiced zealously enough.) Before too long this board will find itself with the power to ignore such traditional protections as freedom of expression, innocent until proven guilty and due process. After all who has time to bother with such quaint practices now that there is a national emergency and the State is overrun with enemies of the public interest? The nation's former disreputable element, who previously flocked to government posts, gladly offer their services in carrying out the more distasteful of these tasks.

It should be noted that all of this is going on under a democratic system. From here it is only a small matter for a demagogue to arise and promise the public to bring the economic benefits so long promised by the board. After so many years of the board's public interest policies, which has caused everyone to act in a way that is most certainly not in the public interest, and propaganda, all sense of genuine civic virtue and liberty have long since rotted away from the society. The masses flock to this demagogue, but they are soon followed by the nation's intellectuals, whom one would have expected to know better. Finally, the board lays itself at the foot of our demagogue, placing him as dictator, Duce or Fuhrer, having already created for him the propaganda machine, police system and, most importantly, the intellectual justifications for him to use them for his tyrannical reign.

(To be continued …)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Final: History 111 Fall 2010

Here is the final I gave my History 111 students. As you can see, the class has been about Greece, Rome and Early Christianity. Note the emphasis I have placed on concepts as opposed to simple historical facts.  

Identify (Pick 7): 35 pts.

1. Crassus

2. Mithridates VI

3. Marius

4. Cato

5. Peloponnesian War

6. Aphrodite

7. Pharisees

8. Gnosticism

9. Peter

10. Herodotus

Short Answers (Pick 5): 40 pts.

1. What was the major political issue for anyone living in first century Palestine?

2. How might we go about differentiating between Paul’s real letters and those which were forgeries?

3. Why did Athens believe it could defeat Sparta in the Peloponnesian War? What went wrong?

4. How committed was Cicero to making sure that no Roman citizen was executed without trial?

5. Why did Rome end up fighting so many wars? How did success in these wars pose a threat to the Republic? What was the solution to this problem and how did it trap Rome in a vicious cycle?

6. How are myths useful historical sources? Give an example.

7. What do we mean by the “power of unforeseen consequences” in history? Give an example.

Essays (Pick 1): 60 pts.

1. What sorts of things do you need to put into a story in order to make it successful (sell millions of copies and be made into a movie)? Do these things always correspond to how events transpire in real life? How does this affect the writing of historical fiction like Imperium and SPQR as well as even works that claim to be historical “fact?” Give examples.

2. How might an anthropologist (say from South Korea) go about studying college students in the American Midwest? What are some of the obstacles that this anthropologist would need to avoid? How might these same issues of method be relevant to the study of a place like Sparta? Were the Spartans really as militaristic and sexually free as some of our sources claim?

Bonus: 5 pts.

Who in modern American politics is a populist? Why is populism such an attractive ideology today?

Now I have to finish actually grading the forty or so finals.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Spain the High School Dropout

Clarissa has a short post on an analogy by one of her students, comparing Spain to a high school dropout:

After Spain expelled the Jews, it became similar to a high school dropout who constantly lags behind everybody else, can't keep up with any intelligent conversation, and has to do trivial things just to survive.

I am reminded of the rhetorical trope used by many rabbis in my youth that any country that expelled its Jews immediately went into decline. Spain (really Aragon and Castile) expelled its Jews and it fell from being a great power. Unfortunately for this theory 1492 was also in the year that Spain began its conquest of the New World. The wealth of the New World (particularly the world's largest silver mine in Peru) would eventually fund Spain's domination of the European continent for the next century.

Of course in an exercise of the power of unforeseen consequences, this conquest of the New World would eventually become the downfall of Spain, causing Spain to fail to industrialize. Worse, this wealth ended up strengthening the monarchy making it impervious to democratic reform (much as oil in Saudi Arabia protects the Saudi monarchy).

In the end I do think the Early Modern Spanish government can be compared to a modern high school dropout, not because it expelled its Jews, but in how it was corrupted by outside funding. Like the modern high school dropout who assumes that he can live off of public welfare, as if money could simply be produced, and has no incentive to knuckle down and get an education, the Spanish monarchy saw money as something that could just be produced out of the ground and never bothered to reform itself until it was too late.   

(See Secular Theodicy.)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tax Breaks for a Noah’s Ark Theme Park

  In what should have exemplified all that is wrong with the Republican Party, Gov. Steven L. Beshear of Kentucky, a democrat, is offering tax breaks to the folks over at the Creation Museum for the building of a Noah's Ark theme park. The excuse for this is that the park will create jobs and help out the economy.

While most people would object to such tax-breaks on the grounds of separation between Church and State, I object on the grounds of there being special tax-breaks in the first place. What, you might ask? Should I not, as a libertarian, be supportive of big business interests? Libertarianism has nothing to do with being pro business and this is a good example of that. For a libertarian, the purpose of government is to protect people from direct physical harm caused by other people without their consent. The government is assumed to be competent enough (if barely) to deal with something relatively simple like stopping terrorists trying to set off a nuclear bomb on our soil. The government is most certainly not competent enough to handle something as complex as the economy any more than we are going to take them seriously when it comes to leading the moral life or getting into heaven. If the economy is assumed to be beyond the understanding of government, we have no choice but to label any attempt by government officials to offer special deals to businesses as a conspiring with a special interest against the general public.

I put the challenge to my readers. If Gov. Beshear is correct in his premise that it is possible for the government to help boost the economy by providing special tax breaks to businesses for building theme parks, what grounds do you have for objecting? Surely you would not hold the Noah's Ark theme against such a project. Would you let such a minor thing as the separation of Church and State get in the way of creating jobs for the people of Kentucky? I reject his premise so this can never become an issue for me.  

Monday, December 6, 2010

Who Owns Aslan, the Author or the Voice Actor?

There is a public furor shaping up over Liam Neeson, the actor who does the voice of Aslan in the recent Narnia movies, saying that Aslan could be any spiritual leader even Mohammad or Buddha. The Narnia books of course were written by C. S. Lewis as Christian allegories with Aslan intended to represent Jesus. Similarly, I recall back when the first film came out Tilda Swinton saying that she felt her white witch character represented Aryan supremacy as opposed to the Devil as Lewis intended. I would see this as an excellent example of the post-modern question of authorship. According to post-modern thought, a text is its interpretation. From this perspective there is really no such thing as authorship and an author has no special power over his own work. The author is simply the person who incidentally performed the labor of creating the text. He may have his own personal interpretation of his own work, but that interpretation is in no way more valid than the interpretation of any of his readers. Readers in turn are free to craft an interpretation from their own personal act of reading without concern as to original authorial intent.  

So who maintains interpretive control over Aslan, C. S. Lewis, who wrote the novels, or the millions of people who have read them, including Liam Neeson? Legally of course Neeson is free to craft any "false" or "heretical" interpretation he chooses and post-modernism says that he is on solid ground for doing so. I doubt Lewis would have really objected. My sense of the man was that he was not the sort to get worked up about anything. If Lewis had a Christian message to his work, he showed little concern to force that message to others. 

As a Jewish C. S Lewis fan, I feel no emotional qualms about accepting Aslan as Jesus. (I accept both of them equally as not my personal savior.) Part of this I think comes from my experience as a historian. Historians are unable to follow the post-modern path to its fullest extreme. We require texts to have hard meanings, otherwise the historical method would be just another form of subjective literary interpretation. We also do put a special value on authorial intent. Want to understand a text? Compare it to the author's other writing and then to ideas in general currency at the time. Under no circumstances are you to bring into play concepts that did not come about until later; that is an anachronism. That being said we historians do recognize that in practice texts do evolve. People do take texts and refashion them for their own purposes. So part of the story of any text is a "post-modern" defeat of authorial intent at the hands of public reception.

I accept as historical fact that Narnia is a Christian work and that Aslan represents Jesus. Even though I am Jewish, this does not have to get in the way or my enjoyment of Narnia or force me to fashion a Narnia to better suit my own personal beliefs. My pleasure is in trying to understand texts as the author might have and seeing how other people refashion it. If Aslan becomes Mohammad to suit our more ecumenical age, that too is a topic worthy of historical study.     


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Here is a Religion I Could Go For

From China Mieville's Perdido Street Station:

Palgolak was a god of knowledge. He was depicted either as a fat, squat human reading in a bath, or a svelte vodyanoi doing the same, or, mystically, both at once. His congregation were human and vodyanoi in roughly equal proportions. He was an amiable, pleasant deity, a sage whose existence was entirely devoted t the collection, categorization, and dissemination of information.

Isaac worshipped no gods, He did not believe in the omniscience or omnipotence claimed for a few, or even the existence of many. Certainly there were creatures and essences that inhabited different aspects of existence, and certainly some of them were powerful, in human terms. But worshipping them seemed to him rather a craven activity. Even he, though, had a soft spot for Palgolak. He rather hoped the fat bastard did exist, in some form or another. Isaac liked the idea of an inter-aspectual entity so enamoured with knowledge that it just roamed from real to realm in a bath, murmuring with interest at everything it came acrosss.

Palgolak's library was at least the equal to that of the New Crobuzon University. It did not lend books, but it did allow readers in at any time of the day or the night, and there were very very few books it did not allow access to. The Palgolaki were proselytizers, holding that everything known by a worshipper was immediately known by Palgolak, which was why they were religiously charged to read voraciously. But their mission was only secondarily for the glory of Palgolak, and primarily for the glory of knowledge, which was why they were sworn to admit all who wished to enter their library. (pg. 60)  

I guess, though, my question would be how such a religion might have been able to evolve. In a pre-literate society such a religion would have excluded the vast majority of people from "salvation." (One of the reasons why Maimonidean rationalism failed to take control of Judaism during the Middle-Ages.) Also there is the problem of allowing people to read books. The problem is not heresy, per se, but the granting of authority to lay individuals to interpret ideas for themselves. How could a religious establishment maintain itself as a coherent set of beliefs under circumstances in which every man reads for himself and forms his own ideas? Protestantism learned this the hard way when they encouraged people to read just the Bible.

(See also Sazed's School of Religion.)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Why Israel Needs to Earn a Spot at the 2022 World Cup

Israel may not be a major soccer power in the world having only been to the World Cup once in 1970. But now the World Cup in 2022 is going to be held in the Arab country of Qatar. What might happen if Israel were to earn a spot? Would Qatar even allow the Israeli team to enter the country? One way or another having Israel take part should be enough to put egg in the faces of the entire Arab world much as Jesse Owens winning gold at the Berlin Olympic of 1936 was a slap at Hitler. Israelis love soccer so why not make it a national drive to get that spot. Young Israeli soccer fans can now dream of growing up and representing their country in a way that the world will not soon forget.  

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Yiddish Karate Kids

I ran into the following poster in a synagogue this past weekend in Queens NY.

The Yiddish heading reads as follows: "The Yiddish Karate Kids."

I would see this as an interesting example of acculturation going on even actively within the Haredi community. The fact that the poster has Yiddish and features a Haredi looking kid leads one to conclude that the group is designed for and run by Haredim. Whether or not Jacob used martial arts to defeat the angel in Genesis, karate is not part of the Jewish cultural tradition. (We shall see what happens to Krav Maga.) Nor is karate a ubiquitous part of American culture like baseball or football that it would be impossible to ignore it. I would also point out that other forms of loose clothing can be used in karate besides for the distinctively non-Jewish gi garment. If you are going to take a stand against not engaging in gentile practices and wearing their clothing, this would be a logical place.

So we have Haredim reaching out and taking a product not only from a gentile culture, but one that is actually pagan (something that, unlike American culture, actually does raise legitimate halachic issues). Far be it from me to encourage Haredim to ban things, but there are too many obvious issues for someone not to notice. I wish this group best of luck. It would, though, be in their best interest to be honest as to what they are doing so not to give the banners a chance to create a moral high ground for themselves. If you openly support acculturation then no one can use it to discredit you. Up front intellectual honesty is always the best form of self defense.   

Monday, November 29, 2010

Debate/Discussion with Baruch Pelta I

Baruch Pelta invited me to a discussion of the issue of whether parents should indoctrinate their children with an Orthodox religious identity. The idea for this discussion came out of a post of mine in defense of parents raising their children with a religious identity. Our intention is to do this via video. Baruch made the first video before Thanksgiving. Here is my video; I am sorry for the delay.

If there is one thing I wish to come out of this discussion is that it be conducted in a respectful manner. So feel free to comment on my video and please watch and comment on Baruch's original video and what I hope will be many future videos, but I ask you to respect Baruch as someone whose opinion deserves to be heard and considered.  

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Do You Trust a Politician When He Claims to Act for the Public Good? A Lesson from Cicero

If history does not teach lessons as to what to do, it does teach lessons as to how to read texts and interpret people. One of the things that I try to put across to my students is to read the statements of historical figures with a critical eye. In my 111 class, we have spent a lot of time talking about the Roman orator Cicero. If Cicero tells us that he selflessly put himself in harm's way in order to fight against corrupt officials like Verres or to save Rome itself from being taken over by Catiline we should not immediately swoon at Cicero's honesty, patriotism, and love of liberty. I wish for my students to wonder if the Sicilians, who came to Cicero for help against Verres, turned to him for his courage or because they knew him personally from his time in Sicily. Was Cicero helping foreign strangers in the cause of justice or some wealthy friends of his? Cicero charged into the Senate to finger Catiline as the ringleader of a vast conspiracy to violently take over the Roman Republic. Was Cicero the one man in Rome willing to stand in defense of the Republic or was the evidence against Catiline less than convincing to anyone who had not, like Cicero, run against Catiline for Consul the previous year? Cicero held the rights of Roman citizens to be sacrosanct and was horrified that Verres could have executed Roman citizens without trial on charges of treason. Of course, Cicero would have Catiline's followers executed without trial, but that was a "national emergency" and the men were so clearly guilty anyway. Later on, Clodius briefly forced Cicero into exile on account of him murdering Roman citizens. Once Cicero was back he defended his friend Milo on the charge of murdering Clodius, arguing essentially that Clodius deserved it. Cicero truly believed in law and order and not executing Roman citizens (unless they really deserved it or otherwise annoyed him).

These points are obvious to any classical scholar and I am grateful to Dr. Louis Feldman for teaching them to me and it is an honor to pass them on to others. In evaluating people, we historians employ a simple rule. You are automatically suspected of acting for base self-serving motives and the burden of proof is on you to show otherwise. This is done by demonstrating that the resulting action is different from what one might expect if one was acting from more self-serving motives. If an action proceeds logically from self-serving motives then you are guilty, case closed, no further questions asked.

If all I accomplished was to teach my students to chuckle at Cicero's pretensions of acting for the public good, my class would be of antiquarian interest, but with little practical relevance. The real target is not Cicero, but every politician today, whether liberal or conservative, who stands in front of the public and tries, like Cicero but without his genius, to claim that they are acting for the public benefit. If we are serious in applying our historical rule then, by definition, the only time a politician can be believed to act for the public good is when his solution involves giving less power to the government.

Considering this, can a historian be anything but a libertarian? What does it say about the intellectual honesty of those who are not?

(See Historians as a "Special Interest Group.")

And the Winner is ...

Miss S.

Congratulations and please contact me so we can arrange for your $25 gift certificate from Oh Nuts.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Isaac Abarbanel Complete with Yarmulke and Full White Beard

Believe it or not, the following passage does not come from a Haredi publication. It comes from James Reston Jr.'s Dogs of God: Columbus the Inquisition and the Defeat of the Moors.

"In King Alfonso's court, Don Isaac [Abravanel] was a popular figure, for he was urbane and voluble. He cut a striking figure: round moonface, piercing eyes, sharply defined nose, high forehead crowned with a yarmulke, and full white beard that covered his expansive chest."

The picture we have of Abarbanel is from after his lifetime. Head coverings were not ubiquitous in traditional Jewish circles until modern times even among Ashkenazic Jews, let alone Sephardim who even today do not insist upon it. So it is highly questionable if Abarbanel wore one around the Portuguese court. Furthermore in the 1470s, when Abarbanel was at the court of Alfonso V of Portugal, he was in his thirties. When Alfonso V died in 1481 Abarbanel would have been about 44. One thing about Abarbanel that we can say with confidence, barring him suffering from premature graying, he did not have a full white beard while in Portugal. Perhaps he grew one at the end of his life in Venice.

Friday, November 19, 2010

History on the Free Market

As should be clear from many of the posts I have done on the field of history, I have a particular interest in the continued relevancy of history. (See Method Thinking.) While history may not offer concrete moral lessons for us to learn from and avoid repeating, history does provide a lens and context for examining our present world and even a method with which to critically confront it.

As a libertarian, I oppose the idea of mandatory education and even publically funded schools, whether elementary, high school or college. (Publically funded education is really just another form of mandatory education as those who choose to opt out are still taxed regardless of their willingness to forgo the benefits.) People (or in the case of children their parents) should be left to decide what sort of education, if any, they wish to pursue. They should then be left to pay for it themselves or by persuading other private individuals to pay for it as an investment or as charity. As an extension of this, I also oppose the idea of general requirements. It is perfectly reasonable for someone to invest money in studying biology with the goal of receiving a piece of paper from a recognized institution to increase his chances of being hired and the salary he might command. While a private institution should be left to impose any requirement that suits them in order to receive their pieces of paper, I see no reason why there should be general requirements (like history). What does a knowledge of history have to do with competency in biology? While I believe (as it will be clear by this end of this piece) that a well rounded education in the humanities is important, that has nothing to do with the granting of a degree. I can only conclude that the insistence of general requirements is a form of "special interest" kickbacks to the departments in question to be paid for by students. (See Historians as a Special Interest Group.)

Such an ideology puts me in a funny position working at The Ohio State University, a public university, and teaching History 111, a general requirement. So here I am, a government employee, even though I am not a politician, a judge, a police officer, a member of the armed forces or holder of a position even remotely connected to protecting people from physical harm; I am standing in front of a class full students, many of whom are sane and rational, but almost none of whom actually desire to be here whether out of love for what I teach or out of a belief that it will help them become more capable of holding down a higher paying job. Neither the students nor their parents are paying the full cost of attending the university, which is being subsidized by tax payers. (In OSU's favor it should be pointed out that there are a high percentage of non-traditional students holding down jobs to pay for at least some of the cost.) On top of this, almost none of these students are history majors or even have any particular interest in history. How many of my more than forty students would have actually signed up for my class if it were not a general requirement, ten or five?

My solution to this dilemma is to teach as if mandatory education and history requirements did not exist; to pretend that the students in my class were paying for school with their money and had a choice whether or not to take History 111. In such a situation my job would be to convince those sane and rational students (the others I would be hunting down and shooting like rabid dogs for the protection of society) that I have something worth hundreds of dollars and they should spend that money plus the time required to take my class. As such my class is less about names and dates (what use is it to the cause of history if students memorize names and dates and then go on to ignore it) and more about the purpose of studying history.

This is the real test of whether I succeed as a teacher. Will students walk away from my course believing that the course was money and time well spent, recognizing that a knowledge of history is important and a desire to learn more? It is unlikely that many of them will become history majors, but perhaps some of them will become viewers of the History Channel or even just readers of historical novels. Practiced on a large scale, this will place history on solid economic ground as an industry with willing consumers able to support the continued efforts of historians.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bomb Threat at Ohio State and I am Insulted

On Tuesday, The Ohio State University was rocked by a bomb threat that closed down four buildings, including the Thompson Library and Scott Laboratory. The closing of Thompson was mightily inconvenient for me as I had a bunch of books to pick up. Scott Laboratory is right next door to Dulles Hall, the history building, where I work. I must say these terrorists (whether they are Al Qaeda or undergraduates trying to get out of midterms) have some nerve to do something like this; it was downright insulting for them to target Ohio State science programs and ignore the history department. Don't these people realize that the history department has people hard at work to bring back medieval surgery and start messianic revolutions? It is almost as if these terrorists think our work as historians has no practical relevancy. What can be more insulting then to be declared unworthy of notice even by a bunch of loser terrorists?

I insist that these terrorists apologize to historians and promise to make sure we are included in all attacks in the future.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Oh Nuts Hanukkah Giveaway

My friends at Oh Nuts are offering readers of this blog a chance to win a $25 gift certificate. You can enter in one of three ways:

1. Go to the Oh Nuts Hanukkah gifts page and choose your favorite Hanukkah Gift and leave a comment on this blog post with the name and url of the gift you like the most.

I will pick a random winner and Oh Nuts will email him or her a $25 gift certificate.

2. Go to the Oh Nuts facebook page  and post on the wall the url and name of their favorite Hanukkah Gift. You should also write "I am here via Izgad." 

3. Follow @ohnuts and on Twitter and Tweet "Win a free Hanukkah Gift from Follow @ohnuts & Retweet to enter."

I will randomly choose a winner on Nov. 23. Considering the limited number of readers of this blog, I certainly encourage everyone to give option one a shot. (No you do not have to be Jewish to enter. Oh Nuts does not discriminate in being delicious.)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Muggle Quidditch and the Revenge of the Potter Nerds

NPR has a piece on the growth of Quidditch, the wizard sport in Harry Potter. It is now being played at several dozen high schools and colleges, and there is even a move to make it an official NCAA sport. Unlike the Quidditch of Harry Potter, Muggle Quidditch does not involve flying, but players do run around with a broomstick between their legs.

I take pride in this much as I take pride in the success of television shows like Big Bang Theory, Lost and Battlestar Galactica; it is a sign of the increased cultural power of us nerds, people who relate to the world primarily through the mind as opposed to the physical or the social. This "nerd" sensibility is most obviously manifested in an attachment to reading or, in the case of television, shows with strong literary qualities. In the case of Quidditch, what we have, in a matter of fashion, is a deconstruction of athletics in which the product of a literary culture is allowed to dominate the culture of athletics, the most obvious manifestation of our physical culture. The nerd is allowed to take on this physical culture on his own terms and come out victorious. For this reason, I would support the continued use of broomsticks in the game; it maintains the sport as a parody. I suspect that Quidditch would cease to be interesting if it became just another sport, unmoored from its connection to the most successful product of literary culture. We nerds would lose our revenge.