Monday, March 29, 2010

The Yeshiva World on Trial: Some Thoughts on the Search Committee

I just finished reading Rabbi Marc Angel’s short novel, the Search Committee, which Chaviva was kind enough to send to me. This was certainly not a great novel, though it was entertaining and I think it could serve as a good conversation starter. I, therefore, recommend it and wish to say a few things about it. This is a rare creation, a Modern Orthodox novel. (Naomi Ragen and Michael Schweitzer would be other examples of this genre.) One of the weaknesses of the Modern Orthodox world is that it has not been diligent in putting out Modern Orthodox books, whether fiction or non-fiction. Forget about the secular world, this puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to Haredim, who have not held back from putting out works pushing for their brand of Judaism.

The premise of the Search Committee is a board of trustees looking to appoint the next Rosh Yeshiva (head) of the aptly named Yeshivas Lita. Lita is the colloquial term for Lithuania and this yeshiva is meant as a representative of the Ashkenazi Lithuanian Yeshiva tradition transplanted onto American soil. The two candidates are Rav Shimshon Grossman and Rav David Mercado. The two represent different ideological and sociological sides. Rav Grossman is the son of the previous Rosh Yeshiva, he was born into the Lithuanian system, believes the job is his almost by divine right and is a staunch conservative, rejecting all innovations. Rav Mercado is the outsider; he comes from a traditional background but did not start learning Talmud until he was in college. Furthermore, he is not Ashkenazi at all but descended from Turkish Sephardim. While he is also a product of the Yeshivas Lita and has great respect for the previous Rosh Yeshiva, he sees weaknesses in the system and the need for certain changes, particularly in terms of openness to the outside world and secular subjects. (He reminded me of Michael Makovi minus the radical politics.)

In truth, the book, despite its heading, is less a novel than a philosophical dialogue in the tradition of Judah ha-Levi’s Kuzari. In this case, though, Rabbi Angel has the characters speak, not to each other, but to the silent members of the board, presumably the reader. The book offers a lineup of pairs of speakers in favor of the two candidates. First, there are the candidates themselves, followed by their wives, two rabbis in the yeshiva, two students and finally two donors. As with most philosophical dialogues, the author’s position is never in doubt. This is Rabbi Angel’s polemic, not only against Haredim but also, as a Sephardi, against the Ashkenazi culture that has come to dominate Orthodox Judaism. I am, of course, in complete sympathy with Rabbi Angel’s position. Even if my family are Ashkenazi Jews from Hungary and Lithuania, my sympathies are with Sephardim. I even have a good excuse for this. The person I am named after, my great-great-grandfather Reb Benzion Shapiro, was an Ashkenazi who joined up with the Sephardi community in Jerusalem in the early twentieth century and served as a translator and reader for one of the leading Sephardi kabbalists.

The speeches of Rav Grossman and his wife are complete satire. They are entertaining to read, but I hold out the probably naïve belief that no Haredi rabbi would come out and speak to a board the way that they do. Of course, following the Poe Law, one can never satirize religious fundamentalists since there is going to be someone in a position of power and influence who actually fits the joke. Whether or not there are some Haredi rabbis who secretly would love the chance to do what Rav Grossman does is a separate issue. The one empathetic pro-Rav Grossman character is the donor, Clyde Robinson, who speaks powerfully about his father’s guilt over having his store open on the Sabbath. This, though, is once again an opportunity for Rabbi Angel to stick it to the Haredi world as, ironically, Mr. Robinson is not observant and all of his children are intermarried. He simply funds the yeshiva as a means of assuaging his own guilt as to not leading an observant life.

In contrast, the Mercado side gives Rabbi Angel the chance to preach his own worldview and he gives his speeches to characters that are all eminently likable. Rav Mercado is followed by his wife, who is a Greek Orthodox convert to Judaism, with a sappy but cute family story. There is also the speech by their donor, Esther Neuhaus, a diamond dealer from a German Jewish background, the one branch of Ashkenazic Jewry that Rabbi Angel admires. She challenges the yeshiva with the economic facts on the ground as to how they intend to continue to support themselves, particularly if follow Rav Grossman’s lead.

Unlike most dialogues, Rabbi Angel allows the opposition to win and has the board appoint Rav Grossman. This allows Rabbi Angel to have more fun with his character as Rav Grossman proceeds to fire not only Rav Mercado, but the entire board as well for daring to think they had any role to play in the selection at all. Rav Mercado gets to kindly tell the board that they made their bed and are free to lie in it and that in the meantime he and his wife are taking their kids to Turkey to see the island where their ancestors lived and that he was planning on moving to Jerusalem to start his own yeshiva.

I think this book would make a very good Jewish day school assembly project. We could have the students in the audience as the teachers, playing the various roles, come up and present their pieces. Each presenter would end by taking questions from the audience. At the end, the students would get to play the role of the search committee and cast their vote. For this to work in any meaningful way, though, we would need to make the Grossman side at least vaguely plausible.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Student’s Letter of Recommendation

This past week I found out that the Hebrew Academy was not going to bring me back for next year. The administration decided that even though they loved the fact that I taught at a very high level, in essence offering a college level course, I lacked the right touch for dealing with high school students. One of my students, without me asking, was kind enough to write the administration a "letter of recommendation" for me. The student sent me a copy and allowed me to reproduce part of it here.

I am writing because recently I have heard some criticisms from other students about Mr. Chinn's class, so I would like to describe my experience in Modern Jewish History. Since the beginning of the year Mr. Chinn's class has been one of my favorites. He conveys the information with great energy and he really makes the material interesting. He always manages to connect what we are learning in class to current events, which helps me learn the material much better. His quizzes and tests are challenging, but fair. They always reflect the material covered in class which is more then I can say for other classes I've taken. He encourages really thinking about the material, and will often teach by asking the students questions about, for example what the motivation of a historical figure might have been. There is always a lot of dialogue between Mr. Chinn and the students on the material, and it really makes for a charged and energized learning environment.  

In short I feel that Mr. Chinn was a really excellent teacher and I am glad to have had the privilege of taking his class.

It looks like I am going to be back in Columbus next fall to use my final year of funding. That is unless someone else has a use for an eccentric graduate student in medieval and early modern history, with a loud theatrical style of lecturing.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Am I a Misogynist Teacher? (Maybe a Little)

My previous post on the issue of bodily functions and its role in civil rights generated some very good comments. It was a risky piece in that I was almost asking to be misunderstood and accused of being a misogynist who believes that women should be sent "back to the kitchen." I am particularly heartened that Clarissa and Miss S. gave me a pass. I see them as my guiding lights when it comes to feminism. If they decide not to kill me then I feel that I can rest easy, knowing that I have lived up to my responsibilities as a gender aware male. In a sense though, the charge of sexism has some validity in that a basic argument of modern feminism does apply to me. My subconscious model of normalcy is male. The student in my head whom I prepare to teach is male. Even my approach to teaching can be regarded as very "male." I work within a very top-down model where I lecture and ask questions. My goal is to critically analyze historical texts through the rubric of clearly established rules, much as a lawyer cross-examines a witness. I am not naturally inclined to focus on forming a personal relationship with students nor am I apt to ask my students how they "feel" about a text. Obviously, I am aware that many of the students, even usually my best students, are women. As a liberally inclined person, women are welcome into my classroom and I will treat them as "one of the guys." This, though, does not solve the problem.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in the Home We Build Together, criticizes the Enlightenment model of tolerance in that it treats minorities like guests in a hotel. Even when the West chooses to be "tolerant," it does not change the fact that this is a white European Christian system. Other people are allowed to take part in this system that was not created by them or with them in mind. They are just welcome to reside in it. Rabbi Sacks poses the challenge of how do we create a home in which everyone is allowed to take an active role in creating the system.

To apply Rabbi Sacks, my approach to teaching does create a very real problem for women since it creates a situation where they become "guests" being fit into the situation. This is a problem with our society in general. 150 years of women's rights have not changed the fact that we are still a male culture attempting to fit women in. Because I recognize the situation that women are in I go out of my way to make the effort to try to help female students feel comfortable in my class. This is particularly the case in terms of getting to talk in class; I consciously am on the lookout to make sure that girls in my class are not getting shouted down by some of the louder boys in class. This in of itself, though, only exacerbates the trap we are in. By the very act of attempting to compensate for my subconscious biases I am still placing them as an "other" to be brought into a system not designed for them; in essence as "guests."

I relate to this personally on two levels, as a Jew and an Asperger. For example, growing up as an American Jew, living outside Jewish enclaves such as Brooklyn NY, every holiday season I had to come to terms with the fact that I stood outside of Christmas and thus American society as a whole. The Christmas ads and the television specials were not made with me in mind. I was simply an inconvenient reality to be tolerated and worked into the system. Because of this, I developed a split perception of myself and my place in American culture. I am an American even to the extent that I have an easier time relating to American non-Jews than I do with Israeli Jews. Yet I am an American who stands outside the Christmas window display. Standing apart from American society as it celebrates Christmas becomes my part in American society and what makes me truly American. Similarly with Asperger syndrome; our society has constructed itself around the assumption that everyone is neurotypical. Of course, it is undeniable that not everyone is a neurotypical and we are in the process of working out the full implications of this. I am stuck as the outsider in society peering in and observing and even tolerated, but never truly a part of things. As an outsider, I welcome all other outsiders as allies and, may I say it, brothers.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Meeting Patrick Rothfuss

Last night I went with Lionel Spiegel to meet Patrick Rothfuss, who was speaking at a Borders in Northern Virginia. For those of you who are not familiar with him, Rothfuss is one of the leading fantasy writers today. My only hesitation in putting him in the league of Tolkien as one of the greatest fantasy writers ever is that he has only written one book so far, the Name of the Wind. I will say that Rothfuss' Kvothe is the most interesting lead character in a fantasy since Thomas Covenant. Fantasy is a genre that usually focuses on building interesting worlds, populated by odd side characters to take over the story, leaving the main character trapped in the role of hero. It is Rothfuss' gift as a writer that can create a world as interesting as he does with so many great side characters and still have them play second to Kvothe.

I went to the bookstore simply for the pleasure of meeting a man whose work I so admired in the flesh and to hear him talk about his work, perhaps even to catch an unguarded slip as to what is going to happen in his next book, Wise Man's Fear, which fans have been waiting three years now for. What I was completely unprepared for was how much fun Rothfuss was in person as he mixed responding to questions with reading various pieces of his, including a pathologically hilarious gerbil story and yes the prologue of his next book. Writing is a solitary task and one has no reason to expect authors, even those who can create personable characters, to have it themselves. Watching Rothfuss, I was struck by the fact even if he lacked the romance cover long red hair of Kvothe, (in fact the original cover for the book was dropped because it looked too much like a romance novel) here was Kvothe, with all of his wit and charm, in the flesh. Even if I am unable to convince you to try reading a nearly 700-page work of fantasy, I would still recommend, if you have the chance, going to see Rothfuss on his book tour. He is worth it all for himself and if I cannot convince you to read him, seeing him perform might.

I will be circumspect as to what Rothfuss spoke about as he asked at the beginning that there be no video recordings for fear that something could come off the wrong way and end up on Youtube. (The speech was an adult affair, though hardly smut for smut's sake, and not for children, even if Name of the Wind is perfectly fine.) There were a few things that I think should be alright and worth mentioning. Rothfuss spoke passionately about the value of fantasy as speaking its own truth even as a work of fiction. He challenged the assembled group of, assumingly, fantasy lovers, as to what meant more to them, Narnia or Peru. (Asking forgiveness from my friend who studies Early Modern Peru, I must confess that I raised my hand for the former.) I asked him what he would advise aspiring fantasy writers as to how to avoid the trap of rewriting Tolkien and turning out clichés. (Another of Rothfuss' strengths is how he took a story with a hero going to magic school to learn to be a wizard that could have so easily turned into a cliché and made it stand on its own as something clearly within the fantasy tradition and yet so original.) His advice was to start off at the age of twelve and read a fantasy book a day. (At least that is what he did.) If you understand the genre you can work with it, know what has already been done and avoid repeating it.

If I have talked about how talented Rothfuss is, I would end by noting what a nice person he is as well. After speaking, he posed for a picture with the entire crowd and stayed to sign books. It was close to an hour by the time I got to him and there were still plenty of people behind me. These are people who have already bought the book and will likely buy the sequel no matter what. Rothfuss has nothing to gain, particularly as he does have better things, like his newborn son and the mother of his child, to deal with.

I went back and forth as to whether to bring my copy to be signed. I picked it up off a library used pile. In the end, I agreed to bring it; Rothfuss was a fellow follower of the vow of poverty known as graduate school and I do have Wise Man's Fear on pre-order whenever it comes out. Rothfuss was kind enough to sign it to Izgad. (It is easier to say and remember than Benzion.)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Blind Censor

The chief film censor in Iran, up until 1994, was blind. Well, nearly blind. Before that, he was the censor for theater. One of my playwright friends once described how he would sit in the theater wearing thick glasses that seemed to hide more than they revealed. An assistant who sat by him would explain the action onstage, and he would dictate the parts that needed to be cut.

After 1994, this censor became the head of the new television channel. There, he perfected his methods and demanded that the scriptwriters give him their scripts on audiotape; they were forbidden to make them attractive or dramatize them in any way. He then made his judgments about the scripts based on the tapes. More interesting, however, is the fact that his successor, who was not blind – not physically, that is – nonetheless followed the same system.

A few years ago some members of the Iranian Parliament set up an investigative committee to examine the content of national television. The committee issued a lengthy report in which it condemned the showing of Billy Budd, because, it claimed, the story promoted homosexuality. Ironically, the Iranian television programmers had mainly chosen that film because of its lack of female characters. The cartoon version of Around the World in Eighty Days was also castigated, because the main character – a lion – was British and the film ended in that bastion of imperialism, London. (Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books pg. 24-25.)

Who in the Christian or Jewish world would be a good stand in for the blind censor or the Iranian MP? What immediately comes to my mind are the Haredi rabbis who could not read English, but still managed to issue a ban against Rabbi Slifkin.

Of Toilet Training and Equal Rights

Call my teaching philosophy reactionary conservative, but I am a believer in students coming to class on time and prepared. (Whether students should have to go to class is one thing. Once they are in class, let us conduct a proper one.) Being prepared means having pen and paper or a laptop to take notes. It also means being able, barring unforeseen accidents or emergencies, to sit for forty minutes without needing to leave to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. (When I gave double period lectures at Ohio State, I was careful to give a five minute break in middle). To my shock, I have learned from an experienced educator, whom I have the utmost respect for, that, as a matter of policy, one is supposed to grant female students, because of their special needs, unlimited bathroom privileges (even knowing that this privilege is being abused). This strikes at what I understand as the bargain of civil rights that, among other things, allows women into my classroom to get an education in the first place. 

Being given equal rights and being treated as an equal means taking on the responsibilities taken for granted by the rest of society. For example, as the Jews of Napoleon's Sanhedrin would point out, Jews, by taking on the privileges of being equal citizens, also take on the obligations of serving in the army, taking on socially "useful" trades and making the necessary "reforms" of their religion to remove any hatred or bias against their gentile countrymen. As I so often point out in my classes, Jews gaining equal rights was not simply a matter of gentiles becoming more liberal and finally agreeing to give Jews what they "deserved." There is a bargain being made here; this is not a simple offer and their might be good reason to turn down this Enlightenment offer of emancipation. The same thing applies to women. Women are now being given the opportunity to be equal citizens, go to school and get jobs. I think this is a good thing and fully support it. The flip side of this is that women are expected to take on the same responsibilities of men.

If I were teaching history in the year 1800 to an all boys class, I would do so on the assumption that my students, barring serious emergencies, were capable of sitting in class for forty minutes without having to go to the bathroom. Those incapable of holding in their bladders are probably not fit to be in school and should probably go back to being serfs and working in the fields (where they will probably die of famine or the plague). It is interesting to note that early factory regulations had to include specific clauses telling adult male workers that they were not allowed to relieve themselves on the work floor. This was a generation of people raised on farms and used to being able to take care of their bodily functions at will. Toilet training is not something natural, but it is necessary for living in the modern society.

Over the past two hundred years we have had the women's rights movement and largely as a result of this I am now teaching a class in which there are women. As a John Stuart Mill feminist, I welcome girls into my class as "one of the guys." The same basic assumptions that I have about guys also apply to them though. It would not be an excuse for a girl to say that as a girl she has a "smaller brain," is intellectually inferior and therefore should automatically get a letter grade higher. (It is funny to read nineteenth century literature and see women unashamedly recues themselves as they are "mere weak women.") If she, as a girl, is intellectually inferior then we must admit that women's rights were a mistake and this girl should leave my class and go "back" to working in a kitchen and raising children. Similarly, a girl is only in my class in the first place because we assume that she can control her basic bodily functions. If she cannot then she has no business using her feminine situation as an excuse. On the contrary, if this is indeed a feminine problem and not just the general human laziness of one individual, she should acknowledge the failure of the women's movement and recues herself to the kindergarten classroom or to where societies that have thought of women as simply large children have usually dumped them, the kitchen.

It should be noted that concern over the female ability to control bodily functions are at the heart of women being exempt by the rabbis from various religious commandments. This "leniency" for women has, in practice, served to place women in a secondary position in that it relegates them to a position of outsiders. The man is taken as the norm and the female is the oddity to be worked into the system. The rabbinic formulation is that "women are exempt from time-bound commandments." It is taken as a given that these commandments are at the heart of normative Judaism and not extra duties to be placed on men.

It is perfectly plausible, if we are going to assume that women really are not capable of controlling their bodily functions and this is not just a matter of female students taking advantage of gullible male teachers, to say that girls should be taken out of mainstream schools. They could have their own schools, with classes they can come in and out of as it suits them; they could even take a week off once a month. We would not have to worry as to whether they are actually learning anything. Everyone would know that these were not real schools and were not meant to actually offer an education, but finishing schools meant to give "MRS" degrees. Even if this was the case, I would still wish that any girl who proved to be an exception to this rule would be allowed to attend a real school, with real classes, to get a real education. My classroom door would certainly be open.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Neurotypical Mental and Emotional Handicaps (Part III)

(Part I, II)

The neurotypical mind does not think of human beings as isolated minds. They operate on an Aristotelian "man is a political animal" model. Of course, even to talk about models, when dealing with neurotypicals is misleading because their method of thinking is a rejection of precisely the sort of abstract universal rule creation necessary for models. Neurotypicals tend to only think of human beings in terms of their interrelationship with others and the society building that results from this. This method of thinking emphasizes, not abstract rules, but arbitrary codes of behavior that serves to further the desired relationship. The neurotypical does not ask whether an action is in keeping with universal ethical imperatives, but whether it is good manners, whether, given one's place in a given social structure, it is acceptable to do something to someone else who in turn occupies their place in the social structure.

It should be obvious from this that, one, the neurotypical mind sets itself up for hierarchal non-democratic social structures. There is no reason for a neurotypical to reject hierarchy particularly as he strives to gain a favorable position in it. If one wonders as to the slow progress of democratic reform it can be placed on neurotypicals. It is the Asperger mental universe that insists that the world be governed by universal rational law applied equally to everyone as much as possible. All beings capable of a certain baseline of rational thought (including neurotypicals who reject their mental heritage) are welcome to this society as equals. Equality is inherent in that one is either capable of a baseline of reason or one is not. People like Thomas Jefferson, Immanuel Kant, and Adam Smith were most likely Aspergers; whether or not they were in fact, their thinking is distinctively Asperger. Even today, most people struggle with the notion that political rights only exist in so far as man is a creature of reason, capable of contemplating universal laws and thus come to form rules for all to live by. Modern liberalism is an attempt to force the concept of rights into a neurotypical social thought structure. Rights are said to belong to groups and defend social relations. For example, we now have the concept of gay rights and that they have some sort of right to have their social interaction of getting married recognized by the government and society. (Not that I object to gay marriage in of itself.)

The other thing that should be clear is that the neurotypical mindset is incapable of a "theory of mind." In the neurotypical mental universe, there is no such thing as individual minds. All minds exist in relationship with other minds. I have lived my life with the realization that other minds are not like mine. If I have one thing it is a theory of mind. With no hope of understanding other minds, I place my faith in reason as the only thing that can allow for the meeting of minds necessary to build a society. Neurotypicals, living in a world where people, at least on the surface, have similar minds, are not confronted with the life experiences to tell them otherwise and have no reason to form a theory of mind in the first place. Confident in the belief that everyone else is fundamentally like them they hoist their emotions on other people. These similar emotions are the product not so much of the similarity of minds, but the relationship network that passes on otherwise arbitrary sets of rules and expectations.

I would like to end with a word about emotions. Why should I not strive to be sensitive as to other people's emotions? To an extent obviously, I do make an effort. To do otherwise would be social suicide. What I refuse to do is grant moral legitimacy to emotions. One has no right to consider emotional hurt as a legitimate wrong or to counter with physical actions that could not otherwise be justified. I grant that this is an extreme position, but to say otherwise would set me up for blackmail. I am outside the relational thought structure of neurotypicals and do not understand the emotions that come from it. To say that I have to take such things into account means that I have to live my life jumping at the shadows of things I do not understand and being forced to accept whatever value other people put on their own emotions. To make things worse, since my emotions run on such a different track, as they are outside of a relational thought structure, I can never expect other people to take them into account. Thus, I would find myself enslaved to other people's emotional concerns at the same time as everyone else becomes exempt from taking my emotional concerns into account. I would de facto be relegating myself to a subhuman station; my emotional concerns being of less value than that of others. Either my emotions count the same as everyone else's or no one's emotions count. Since the former is not practical, the only ethical solution is to say that no person's emotional concerns are of any value outside of their own heads.

The only thing that can create meaningful relationships between people and ultimately create a just society is reason as we submit ourselves to universal laws that apply to all people in all times. This is not Asperger supremacy. On the contrary the authority of reason comes from the fact that it is universally accessible. This includes neurotypicals. Neurotypicals, despite their mental defects, are not beyond the saving grace of reason and are welcome to join the society of reasonable and rational beings.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Neurotypical Mental and Emotional Handicaps (Part II)

  (Part I)

To be clear, I do not wish to invalidate all non-rational pursuits. I do see a value in fiction and poetry. I read fiction and am even in the middle of writing a work of musket and magic fantasy. I gladly share this part of myself with other people and embrace their work in turn. That being said, there is a limitation to this; when I read fiction, I understand it on my terms and incorporate it into my mental universe. Thus, when I read a book, it becomes my book and no longer the author's, whose interpretation of his own work carries no greater inherent validity than mine. Similarly, I invite readers to enter the world of Asael that I am building and feel free to let it mean whatever they feel like having it mean. My only special authority as the author is that I get to decide where I am going with this. (And believe me, when I get back to writing it, we are going to be going to interesting places.)

In my experience and to my great frustration, neurotypicals lack the sort of ingrained rationalism necessary for a "theory of mind." (Of course, there are many neurotypicals to whom this does not apply. Like many mental disabilities, the neurotypical mind can be overcome with the aid of love, support, and a good rationalist education.) While there are many very intelligent neurotypicals, neurotypicals are not inclined toward "rationalism" in the sense of abstract universal rules. Instead, neurotypicals think in terms of relationships. (This argument has been made in the past about men and women. I think this goes to support Simon Baron Cohen's argument that Asperger syndrome is an extreme version of the "male brain.")

For example, I recently got into a back and forth with the family whose basement I board in over the amount of noise I make. (No I do not make a lot of noise.) I am perfectly willing to go along with any rules they choose to make as long as they agreed to play by those same rules. If they want me to use headphones I am okay with that as long as they also agree to similar restrictions. I should not have to be using headphones while they crank up their stereo or have loud conversations with friends. It is perfectly plausible for them to have conversations using pen and paper or even IM. Their position is that I, as their border, have to do whatever they want and if I have a problem with that I can leave. For me, a law that cannot be framed in general terms is, by definition, not a law, but the arbitrary whim of individuals, ending any hope of discourse. My border couple sees a hierarchal relationship structure that must be maintained. I live in the basement by their good grace and therefore must do whatever they say. Any attempt to even discuss the matter with them is deemed rude, unseemly and an attack upon the established order which forms our relationship. For me, it is of the highest good to establish reasonable and rational laws for all to follow so we may live together in brotherhood and engage in ever more ethical actions. For them there is no higher good, at least in terms of what can be expected of our relationship, than their comfort and they will deal with issues as it best suits them and when it suits them.

The Asperger mind sees conversation as a means to exchange true and accurate information as to the nature of the world, including how other people view reality and the motivations for their actions. The neurotypical mind sees conversation as a means of establishing relationships. Usually when a neurotypical asks you how you are feeling he is not actually interested in information as to the nature of your well being. Instead he wishes to establish or maintain a relationship of some sort. By practicing a meaningless ritual of maintaining the pretense of empathy, the neurotypical demonstrates his "good manners" in the hope that you will place him in a favorable position in your social construct.

I have a difficult time imagining a situation where I would point blank refuse to talk to someone, particularly if it was about something meaningful like someone trying to explain their worldview and motivation. Regardless of how I might feel about the person, this is the whole reason I talk to people in the first place. Since I wish to better live according to universal principles, it is of the utmost importance that anyone driven by circumstance from the natural position of me treating them as I wish to treat all of mankind be restored to it. For neurotypicals, though, conversation is about relationships and, as such, it can be used as a weapon against people holding an unfavorable position in your social construct. If a neurotypical decides that he no longer likes you and holds you in contempt, he will demonstrate it by not even showing you the courtesy of hearing you out.

This is the crucial distinction between ethical duties and manners. Ethics apply to all people and in all times. Manners apply only to some people and some of the time. Manners have nothing to do with good behavior; good manners are simply the other side from bad manners on a social blade designed to win a favorable place in other people's social construction and negotiate for a favorable place on yours. It is a means of manipulating people in a self serving power game.

(To be continued …)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Neurotypical Mental and Emotional Handicaps (Part I)

Here is a wonderful satirical website, the Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical (ISNT), devoted to the study of neurotypicals as mentally handicapped. The author of the website heaps particular scorn on the notion that people on the spectrum are emotionally flat and lack a "theory of mind." I have been meaning to write about this issue, particularly of this theory of the mind claim, for some time so I thought I would take the opportunity here to do so. My friends Melanie and Noranne pointed me to this site so this post is dedicated to them.

I would hope that readers of this blog would have long come to appreciate that, while I may be an Asperger, I do have emotions. I am hardly a cold-blooded calculating machine; even my more academic writing breaths with a sense of humor and a strong sense of the personality behind it. That being said, there is something different as to my emotions and one could make a good case that it might be useful to find a different word to describe my "emotional" self. The notion of a "theory of mind" is that other minds are different from my own and that what applies to me does not apply to other people. For example, I love talking about Early Modern religion wars almost as much as I like talking about my ultimate favorite topic, myself, and can go on about these topics for an hour at a time easily. Since I do not read facial expressions very well, I have a difficult time telling when people become bored with this topic. Perhaps, some might argue, I cannot even comprehend how something that so interests me could fail to at least grab the attention of others.

I would make the case for turning the rhetorical tables against neurotypicals and argue that, on the contrary to the usual charge, it is neurotypicals who lack a theory of the mind. I would describe myself as living in a Cartesian universe. Firstly because the idea of sitting in front of the fire, (or in my case my modern electric heater) wondering about issues like whether God exists, whether I am the victim of some illusion creating demon (perhaps the Matrix) or whether I am a figment of my own imagination comes naturally to me. To me, these are important issues to be taken seriously and not to be put aside in favor of "living." Second, and more importantly, I am conscious of myself as a mind floating in a metaphysical universe hemmed in by other minds which I do not comprehend. Much of my mental energy is devoted to contemplating these other minds, theorizing about them and ultimately coming to terms with the fact that I do not understand these other minds. (Confirming one's ignorance is a worthwhile task. It is not enough to know that you are ignorant about things in general. You need to have a clear idea as to what you are ignorant about.) I do not understand other minds nor do I make any pretense to. I recognize that everyone has their own little universe that is incomprehensible to everyone else.

A somewhat counter-intuitive result of this is that I am an almost fanatical rationalist. Reason, as the shared heritage of all non-mentally handicapped people, is the only thing that can navigate the metaphysical ether between minds; it is the one product of the mind that can be understood by another. As such, for all intents and purposes, it is the one thing that can be viewed as meaningful. You live in your own self-contained mind, its own metaphysical universe containing thoughts, personality, and emotions. (My atheist Asperger friends would tell me that there is no mind; that it is just an illusion created by the brain. To be clear, I am talking here about the perception of mind, not any metaphysical reality.) I grant you that all of these things are real. The problem is that these things do not translate into my self-contained mind, in its own metaphysical universe. I do not understand these things and cannot take them into account beyond recognizing their existence as a sort of metaphysical black hole. As such your personal qualities while real, for all intents and purpose, might as well not exist. You have no reason to expect that I would understand the non-rational parts of your mind. Therefore, there is no reason to expect me to take it into account. The only thing that you have that can be meaningful to me as it is to you is your reason.

(To be continued …)

Obama as Gollum

I guess this is over health care.

Monday, March 15, 2010

An Acknowledgement Page That Tells Us Something of the Time in Which it was Written

Robert K. Massie ends his biography of Peter the Great with an acknowledgement page of historical interest in of itself. Peter the Great: His Life and World was published in 1980 so it is a product of the 1970s Cold War. Massie offers his thanks to his friends and collaborators in the Soviet Union:

In writing this book, I made many trips to the Soviet Union. In museums, libraries and at historical sites, I was always made to feel welcome. This was particularly true in Leningrad when people learned that my subject was the founder of their beloved city. For reasons that would seem exaggerated to most Western readers, but that Soviet citizens will abundantly understand, I prefer not to give the names of those who helped me. They know who they are and I thank them.
I ask my readers to try to comprehend what it meant for it to be dangerous enough for a Soviet citizen to help a Westerner write a book about Czarist Russia that one could not risk being openly acknowledged. Keep in mind that this was the “liberal” Soviet Union of Détente, when the Soviet Union finally became open to Western scholarship.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Insanity at the Texas School Board

Last month I posted on the Texas school board and its attempt to turn history textbooks into conservative Christian propaganda tools. There is more on this popping into the news. It is somewhat heartening to see that the insanity is not just from the right. The Democrats on the board, all minorities, wanted to insist that Tejanos killed at the Alamo be listed by name. They also wanted to insist that hip-hop in addition to rock and roll be listed as an important cultural achievement. To be clear I do not support history being taught exclusively as a laundry list of dead white males. When talking about the Alamo (in of itself more important as a cultural symbol than as a historical event) it is worthwhile to point out that not everyone inside was a WASP. That does not mean that we should be memorizing names. There are more important names from nineteenth-century American history to memorize. A parallel example would be the case of Crispus Attucks and the Boston Massacre. Yes, he was a black man and he was killed. I would certainly encourage teachers doing the Boston Massacre to bring up Attucks and ask students to consider what having a black man listed among the dead tells us about Boston society of 1770. Should Attucks be a name that students should make the effort to memorize? No.

Of course, since this board has a 10-5 Republican majority, the important insanity to consider comes from them. The board has felt the need to remove Thomas Jefferson from the question: "Explain the impact of Enlightenment ideas from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750 to the present." The question now reads: "Explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Sir William Blackstone." First off, I should acknowledge that I was not familiar with Blackstone and had to look him up. He was an eighteenth-century English legal scholar. Let us acknowledge the purpose of this change. The board wants students to understand the religious element in the rise of modernity. I certainly support this, but what the board is doing is making the entire question meaningless.

The question, around which I teach modern history, both Jewish and general European, is how our secular society came about. Granted this very question is not as simple as most people assume; medieval society was not nearly as religious as popularly portrayed and modern society is not nearly as secular. That being said, once we get through defining what we mean by religious and secular, we are still faced with how we moved from the more religious society of the Middle Ages to our more secular society. As readers of this blog already know, this story is certainly much more complex and interesting than people all of a sudden becoming "rational" and rejecting "religious" superstition. While it is important to talk about the religious motivations of thinkers like John Locke, we should not be side-stepping modern secularism. Like him or hate him, Jefferson stands at the center of this modern divide, particularly within the American context. He wrote the Declaration of Independence and coined the term "wall separating Church and State."

Sticking Thomas Aquinas into this negates the entire question of modernity. Yes, Thomas Aquinas was an important medieval political thinker, in addition to his theology, and his work continues to be relevant. That being said, if you are going to understand this modern world of ours, one of the first things you have to acknowledge is that there is a giant wall called the American and French Revolutions separating us from the Middle Ages. I would add that there is a second wall of the early modern Reformation. John Calvin is one more thing that separates us from Aquinas; he is also, though, separated from us by the same Enlightenment revolutions that separate us from the Middle Ages. As such, while deserving of his own question about the role of theocracy and democracy, he should not be part of the modern political thinkers.

Again I challenge readers; either you are in favor of ideological government boards or you are in favor of the teaching of history. The only way that history or any other subject can hope to be taught in a responsible manner is if government is out of education.

Martin Luther was an Evil Pharisaic Jewish Rabbi

E. Michael Jones is a radical Catholic historian and moderate Jew hater. His book, the Jewish Revolutionary Spirit and Its Impact on World History is over one thousand pages devoted to the thesis that Jews have been behind every major revolutionary movement in the western world. You see Jews, having rejected Jesus, were in essence declaring war upon the Logos and divorcing themselves from it. Thus, robbed of any genuine religious sensibility, the Jewish religion descended into a mere collection of rules and legalistic hair splitting, hence the Mishnah and the Talmud. The other side of this rejection of Logos was that, having rejected the salvation of Christ because he was not offering political salvation on their terms, the Jews continued to attempt to overthrow the established political order in the hopes of achieving physical political salvation. The entire book becomes an exercise in connecting every revolutionary movement (in essence any movement that Jones does not like) to Jews. In essence this book is a more elaborate and scholarly version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. To be fair to Jones he does not attack Jews as a race, but only as a religion, so he cannot technically be classified as an anti-Semite. I would classify him as a moderate simply because he only hates Jews slightly more than he hates all non conservative Catholics like himself.

Martin Luther is someone that most would classify as an anti-Semite. Ironically enough, Jones hates Luther more than most Jews do. In fact Jones' hatred of Luther is even on par with his hatred of Jews. According to Jones, Luther was a continuation of this Jewish revolutionary heretical disease:

Luther did for Christianity what Jochanan ben Zakkai did for Judaism: he turned the evangelical Church into a debating society, in which the evangelical rabbis would offer competing interpretations of scripture with no way adjudicating differences other than splitting off from whomever one disagreed with. (pg. 266)

While Protestantism, because of its emphasis on the Old Testament, has a much stronger tradition of active philo-Semtism, as I have previously argued, I see Judaism as having more in common with Catholicism than Protestantism. Both Judaism and Catholicism are openly built around tradition. Unlike Protestantism, there is no pretense that Scripture has a plain meaning obvious to anyone who simply reads the text. As such the text of Scripture almost becomes irrelevant, what we really believe in are our respective religious traditions and their interpretations of Scripture. Protestants, in order to function as a religion, are forced at the end of the day to do the same thing. They are just hypocritical enough to deny that this is what they are doing and maintain the moral pretense that they support everyone being able to simply open Scripture for themselves to decide what it means.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

An Old Speech of Mine on Affirmative Action

For those of you interested in what I really think about affirmative action, here is the text of a speech I gave at Yeshiva University back in 2003 as part of a contest. I ended up coming in fourth place, just missing out on winning prize money. This speech was given while the Supreme Court was hearing the Michigan cases of Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger on affirmative action. The argument I offer follows a similar line of reasoning to what I offered in regards to Aryan coffee. We cannot even begin to talk about a government interest in diversity unless we also admit a government interest in conformity in which case we are trapped into accepting segregation as at least having a plausible legitimacy.

A key corollary to the fourteenth amendment is title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. According to Title VI: No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." As Senator Ribicoff explained it: "Basically, there is a constitutional restriction against discrimination in the use of federal funds; and title VI simply spells out the procedure to be used in enforcing that restriction." This sentiment was endorsed by Justice Powell in the Bakke the decision. Bakke has recently come back into the public eye. This past month the Supreme Court has heard two cases involving the issue of Racial preferences in regards to University admissions: one involving the University of Michigan's undergraduate admissions policy (Gratz v. Bollinger, 02-51), and one involving the University of Michigan's law school admissions policy (Grutter v. Bollinger 02-241). These are two very different cases. In Gratz, the undergraduate case, there is a point system, in which prospective students are given points based on such categories as where they live and how they scored on various tests. In one of these categories, twenty points are awarded to prospective students who are either athletes, come from impoverished backgrounds or are a part of specific minority groups. In Grutter, the law school admissions case, the University simply has a stated policy that it should tailor its admissions program in order to achieve a critical mass of minority students within its classes.

The argument in regards to these cases is not about whether Michigan is in violation of, at the very least the letter, of title VI. The ACLU, which has written an amicus curiae brief in support of the university, claims though, that Michigan's admissions policy is a compelling state interest since it enables the University to have a diverse student body. I ask on this; if the state, or the institutions that it funds, has the right, even the duty, to ignore title VI out of a compelling interest in diversity, as Michigan, the ACLU along with over sixty other organizations are claiming, then cannot the state also choose to ignore title VI out of other compelling interests? Diversity certainly is not the state's only compelling interest.

America, if you think about, is in a sense, for better or for worse, the great experiment in conformity. Crucial to American Civics is the notion that we are going throw Italians, Jews, Poles, Germans etc. together onto our golden streets and everybody is going to somehow turn into Americans. We generally call this phenomenon "the Melting Pot." If one can claim diversity to be a compelling state interest then certainly one can also claim that the venerable melting pot of conformity is also a compelling state interest.

Once states can get around Title VI by claiming a compelling interest in conformity then Title VI becomes absolutely meaningless. What would happen IF the University of South Carolina would decide that in keeping with its compelling interest in having a student body that conforms, the University will from now on tailor its admissions policy in a manner designed to avoid achieving a critical mass of minorities on its campus? What if South Carolina were to decide to give white applicants, along with athletes and students from impoverished backgrounds, an extra twenty points on their admissions scores? On what grounds could the University be legally stopped? Not Title VI, for the University can claim to have a compelling interest in ignoring title VI.

What the compelling state interest argument ignores is the fact that the body of Civil Rights legislation came about in order to get around the claim that the institutions of slavery and segregation were compelling state interests. The fourteenth amendment and title VI only make sense if we accept the words of Justice John Marshall Harlan, the lone dissenter in the Plessy vs. Ferguson. "Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved." The colorblind constitution is the only for the just and free society to triumph over the claims of compelling state interest.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Playing the Devil’s Advocate for Affirmative Action

I serve as the faculty advisor (otherwise known as the resident adult) for the political science club here at the Hebrew Academy. We have a very talented and outspoken group of guys and even a few girls and I am honored to be able to work with them. (I think it would make for an interesting study as to general male to female ratio in high school political science clubs. Is there something about being in a room full of people arguing with each other, often with raised voices, that pushes teenage girls away? I do make the extra effort to make sure that girls get to say their piece and are made to feel at home.) I guess it says something about white male Orthodox Jewish teenagers from middle-class backgrounds attending private school, but it is a fairly conservative group in terms of its politics. This has put me in a funny position. Politically I am what most people would view as a conservative, even if I am still to the left of many of these kids. Regardless of my politics, I do not think my role as a teacher is preaching my politics. I am here to pass on a method of critical analysis, one that will likely lead students to very different conclusions from mine. In general, I think this is the critical defense in terms of keeping one's own biases in check. It is okay to have strongly held opinions as long as you care more about the process that leads to such ideas than the actual ideas themselves. This leaves me in the ironic position where for me to be silent would be to guarantee a strongly conservative tilt to discussions. My solution to this problem has been to speak up from time to time to play the role of the "liberal." Not because I wish these students to become liberals, but because, regardless of what I might think, I am not about to allow, on my watch, students to walk away without hearing what an intelligent liberal sounds like. I may be speaking to the future leaders of the Republican Party, but a general political science club should not be the same thing as the Young Republicans.

This past week, I ended up speaking more than I usually do. The reason for this was that the topic of the week was affirmative action. Certainly a good topic to discuss since it directly affects these students in the here and now. Within a year or two, all of these students, if they have not done so already, will be applying to college, many them even to elite colleges. This is also precisely the sort of topic to bring out the most conservative tendencies in the group. The group is the very picture of an argument against affirmative action. These are white male middle-class private school students and in this case being Jewish is not going to win them any minority points. Looking around at the group, I know someone here is going to lose out on their college of choice. Essentially affirmative action in this context translates into: kids you need to sacrifice your slot at an elite college, which you have earned through your hard work and intelligence, to a total stranger for the good of society; all of this despite the fact that no one in the room, including me, is old enough to remember segregation.

So for the first time in my life, I found myself standing in front of a public audience and defending affirmative action. What I learned from the experience was that the case for affirmative action works to the extent that it is a moderate short-term pragmatic solution to a present-day problem. No, affirmative action does not mean that you are going to get a D+ black doctor working on you. It might mean that you end up with a B+ doctor, but you need to keep in mind that the focus on grades privileges the white student at the expense of other means of evaluation that might favor our black student. No one is going to be getting anything, not a job, not admittance to college, which they are not qualified for. I went to Ohio State where much of the student body comes from rural Ohio, which is predominantly white. Many of these students have grown up not personally knowing many blacks. We have a societal interest in changing this; no one should be able to go through four years of college and not regularly interact with students of a different color. You can talk all you want about improving education and that might help students in kindergarten, but we have to deal with students applying to college in the here and now. And let us be honest, you kids have benefited, even if it is just a little bit, from the legacy of racism that continues to live on in this country, just as your black competition has suffered ever so slightly from it. Is it not fair and reasonable to agree to at least a moderate level of affirmative action?

I eventually got stopped and asked: but you are a libertarian, how could you support affirmative action? I must admit that this was an argument I could not talk myself around. At the heart of my Libertarianism is an attempt to get around and deny the very relevance of the sort of liberal arguments I was using.  Only direct physical suffering is relevant to the government so all side effects of a racially charged culture are off the table. I do not recognize the existence of racial groups, only free and equal individuals. Government serves to protect people from physical harm not to make people more moral or build a more tolerant society. Bent over a barrel, I had to admit to playing the devil's advocate here. I guess I might be able to personally go along with affirmative action if we were talking about private institutions. I already am willing to put up with Aryan coffee shops.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Benjamin Linus the Christ Killing Jew

The character on the television show Lost that I relate to the most is Benjamin Linus. He is a morally ambiguous character, who always has a plan. He is the sort of character whom you may have a gun pointed at, but he really is the one who has you where he wants you. The really interesting thing that the writers have done with him is that somehow they have kept him from being a straight villain. Admittedly, he would be worth it as just a really creepy villain. The writers, though, have allowed him to be something more complex. They have gone through a tremendous amount of effort to make this work. Ben is the head of the Others. He kidnapped and plotted against our plane crash survivor heroes. He shot John Locke (the bald guy, not the philosopher) in cold blood. Later on in the show, he finally manages to do John Locke in by strangling him. He successfully murdered his own father years before the show. He stood by and allowed his foster daughter to die rather than give himself up and save her. Most shockingly of all, at the end of the last season, at the instigation of the satanic smoke monster, he murders the show's Christ figure, Jacob. In Lost's version of the passion, Ben turns on Jacob and repeatedly stabs him, getting Jacob's blood all over the temple room. Jacob is not wholly dead and continues to appear to the schizophrenic Hurley. This is like Jesus' resurrection before the apostles. Obviously, Jacob has foreseen the plot of the island's imprisoned Lucifer, the smoke monster now taking the form of a brilliantly evil John Locke, and has allowed himself to be "crucified" for some higher purpose. Despite all that Ben has done, the show has not placed him beyond redemption. He has now refused the chance to join the smoke monster and his followers even to save himself. Even knowing his crimes, the followers of Jacob step back from killing Ben and still accept him, even if begrudgingly.

I think of Ben as the Pharisee Jew. He is very learned and clever and believes that, because of these qualities, he is the chosen of the "god" figure of the island, Jacob. This belief is first challenged when he gets a tumor and the island does not miraculously heal it. Instead, a surgeon is "dropped out of the sky" in the form of Jack Shepherd of the plane crash survivors. Ben is particularly jealous of John Locke, whom the island miraculously allowed to walk again as soon as he crashed on to it. Furthermore, Locke is able to hear Jacob's voice, something never granted to Ben. Ben, therefore, Cain-like, attempts to murder Locke, but the island saves him. Finally Ben confronts Jacob, the human embodiment of the island and its power, to understand why Jacob has rejected him. Jacob refuses to offer the answers that Ben wants to hear to allow himself to finally make sense of his life and all of his pious sacrifices that he has made in service of Jacob and the island. Jacob refuses to be the straight forward savior God that Ben would like to believe in and instead continues to work in mysteries so Ben, feeling betrayed, commits his act of deicide. I see Lost playing itself out as a Joachim of Fiore type of redemption for our Jew, Ben. According to the medieval apocalyptic Joachim, the Jews were the chosen people of God, but they rejected him and God has punished them. The Jews, though, remain God's special people and, in the end of days, they are going to accept Christ and play a leading role in bringing about the Second Coming. Similarly, Ben really is a chosen person of the island, but his desire to be openly declared the one and only chosen one has caused him to stray to such an extent that he could fall under the influence of Satan serve his plan to kill God incarnate. Ben, as a chosen one, is still going to be saved. He is going to repent his past transgressions, humbly bow to Jacob's mysterious will and accept that there can be other chosen ones. He is going to join the new people of Jacob and save the island.

This season has brought another twist to Jacob's character. In the alternative timeline in which the Oceanic plane does not crash, Ben is a high-school history teacher even though he has a doctorate in European history. He attempts to teach his students about Napoleon despite the fact that most of them could not care less. He mixes a contempt for the students as a whole with a deep affection for those students who wish to learn. So here you have it, an academic history teacher working in a high school, who is really a Jew and has all sorts of plans to rule the world. I am rubbing my hands in Monty Burns glee.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Alice in Pretentious Artsy Self-Satisfied Modern Bigotry Land (Part II)

(Part I)

I wanted to scream at the audience around me: don't you people understand. This society of nineteenth-century Victorian England was one in which the vast majority of people, except for a narrow elite, lived in a poverty that we cannot even imagine. Do you know what it means to have a society in which starving to death is a real issue? The only thing saving our elites from falling in with the wretched masses is the force of tradition. Anyone who plays with convention is pulling at the spider's web that keeps not only them feed but everyone around them. I would like to see you tolerate such a person. This was particularly true for women, who were limited in their labor prospects and lacked the sort of education that might have allowed them to hold well-paying jobs even if society let them. Can you imagine the position of a widowed mother, living with the trappings of wealth and its expectations, knowing that without her husband to support them there is nothing to stop her and her daughter from sinking into abject poverty? And by poverty we do not mean food stamps, but the slow demise over years due to malnutrition and disease as you work yourself to death. The only thing saving this person is the prospect of a good match. How dare you any of you smirk or feel superior when such a person decides that whether her daughter is in "love" might not be of utter importance.

We now move from the film's pointless introduction to having Alice fall down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. My father often likes to say that comedy is the hardest genre to perform. Comedy is an either/or proposition. Either you are funny or you are not. There is no in-between or partial success. With drama you can always hope to salvage something even if the project fails as a whole. Humor is not a science; it is something that happens sometimes, but cannot be created at will. You can have genuinely talented people who get out there and, through no one's fault, the material just does not work. Without a question, there were some talented people in this production. The team of Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Helen Bonham Carter is nothing to be laughed at. (Just watch Sweeny Todd.) There is no logical reason that this team should not have once again produced something absolutely magical. Except that for some unfathomable reason the material just failed to click.

This failure may have had something to do with the fact that, as Lionel put it, they tried to mix whimsical fantasy with epic fantasy. It was not enough that Alice should explore this strange and downright psychedelic world; the film also had to have her go on a quest to defeat the Red Queen, restore the White Queen to her rightful place and defeat the Jabberwocky. Tolkien just does not go with Carroll. This could have still worked as tongue and cheek. The problem is that of all comedy, I would argue that tongue and cheek is the hardest. For tongue and cheek you have to succeed on two counts. In terms of comedy, you still have to actually be funny and as drama you still need to produce characters who make sense and whom the audience connects with on a deep emotional level. One can always try to cover trash by saying that it is only meant tongue and cheek. Saying that something is meant only tongue and cheek can in no way be an excuse for bad writing. I have so much respect for people like Joss Whedon, J. K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer who use tongue and cheek and make it work. To all those who turn their noses up at their work as popular entertainment that "anyone" could do, I say give it a try.

I could not end this without saying something about what happens back on the top side of the rabbit hole once Alice comes back to her Victorian world. She rejects her upper-class twit of the year and approaches her father's old partner about a really radical business venture, trading with China. Someone needs to offer the writers a history lesson and explain that even our stuffy Victorians were up to trading with China; there was nothing radical in the nineteenth-century about such a prospect. The West even fought several opium wars to open China to western trade. Even people in the Middle Ages were imaginative enough to try trading with China. This was how we got Columbus accidentally discovering America in the first place.

I really wanted to like this movie. I was waiting for it since I heard about it this past summer. I even had a poster of it up as my desktop background. (This proved to be a mistake as some of my little Haredi cousins wanted to use my laptop and started screaming about the not "tznisudic," immodestly dressed, girl in the picture.) However much I respect the people behind this film, it was a failure and not even having it in 3-D could save it.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein Goes Sledding

In the recent Jewish Action, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, one of the leading rabbinic authorities for Modern Orthodox Jews, reviews a collection of essays, titled the Eye of the Storm, written by his Haredi colleague Rabbi Aharon Feldman. Rav Lichtenstein attacks Rabbi Feldman, but does so in the sort of sporting gentlemanly fashion that one often despairs into thinking is out of date in this world. Rav Lichtenstein begins by recalling his childhood relationship with the older Rabbi Feldman when they both lived in Baltimore in the early 1940s. While Rav Lichtenstein hints at his disagreements with Rabbi Feldman when it comes to Zionism, feminism and Rabbi Slifkin, his real focus is on Rabbi Feldman's polemical stance. Rabbi Feldman writes out of anger and denies the very possibility that others could reasonably disagree with him. Rather than attempt to reach out to others Rabbi Feldman openly states that he is writing for members of his community, for those already agree with him. Rav Lichtenstein ends with a touching plea for mutual understanding that I think is worth sharing:

Dear Reb Aharon: That pair of juvenile prattling sledders is now well past seventy-five. Each has, besiyat diShmaya [with the help of heaven], in successive contexts, respectively, learned much Torah and has been blessed with the ability and the circumstances to enable reaching out and personally transmitting to others that which we have been endowed. It stands to reason and is, presumably, mandated by joint mission, that our worlds meet and attain mutual fruition. As we both painfully know, however, this occurs rarely.

Must the walls that separate our communities and our institutions soar quite so high, the interposing moat plunge quite so deep? Shall we never sled again?

Monday, March 8, 2010

How Theocratic Rulers Can Sometimes Help the Cause of Freedom

Robert K. Massie, in his biography of Peter the Great of Russia, notes about the Hapsburg emperors of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century were far more interested in being good Catholics and pleasing God then running their kingdom:

At heart, Leopold [I] and after him his two sons, the Emperors Joseph I and Charles VI, did not believe that a chaotic administration was a fundamental defect. The three of them, over almost a century, shared the view that the administration of government was a minor matter, infinitely less important not only for their own souls but for the future of the Hapsburg House than belief in God and support of the Catholic Church. If God was satisfied with them, He would ensure that the House continued and prospered. This, then, was the basis of their political theory and their practice of government. (Peter the Great: His Life and World pg. 222.)

This is not the usual model we associate with this period. This is the age of absolute monarchy and of Louis XIV, where monarchs at the head of centralized States, backed by formal bureaucracies, gained power at the expense of traditional aristocracies. In truth, the Hapsburgs were undergoing the truly critical political evolution of the period, the empowerment of middle-class bureaucrats, just like the rest of Europe. What particularly interests me here is the extent that this does goes contrary to the Whig model where religious piety is supposed to lead to increased autocratic behavior. The monarch rules by grace of God and is not answerable to any mortal being. Limits on monarchial political power are not only bad policy but in fact heresy. In this particular case, the theocratic view of monarchy led to less autocratic views of power. There is something to be said for having a pious king to pray on behalf of the country and leave the running of it to others.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Alice in Pretentious Artsy Self-Satisfied Modern Bigotry Land (Part I)

This afternoon I went on a belated birthday outing with my friend Lionel Spiegel to go see Alice in Wonderland. I should have been more cautious; the last time I went to the movies with him we ended up nearly laughing through Transformers wiping Israel off the map. (Since both of these were my choices, he should probably start questioning my judgment when it comes to going to movies in the future.) A number of loosely assorted observations related to the film.

We went to the Regal movie theater in downtown Silver Spring. The projector crashed right by the opening credits and had to be restarted. This resulted in the movie starting about forty minutes late. To the credit of the movie people, they offered everyone a free movie pass as an apology for the inconvenience. This is the second time I have watched a conventional movie in 3-D and so far I am not impressed. The glasses gave a shaded taint to the screen. Maybe this was a problem with how the film was shot, the theater's lighting or the glasses themselves, but I had a difficult time seeing the screen. I ended up watching a fair amount of the film without the glasses even though the screen obviously was blurry without them. The other problem with the glasses is that they are quite uncomfortable for anything more than a few minutes. When using them I found myself holding them up in front of my face instead of letting them sit on my nose. Maybe it would be a good idea if they produced opera style glasses for 3-D movies. The fact that I did not have a comfortable time may very well have influenced how I took in the actual content of the film.

The film is less an adaption of the Lewis Carroll novel as it is a sequel along the lines of the excellent Robin Williams Hook film, where a grown-up Peter Pan has to go back to Neverland to save his children from Captain Hook. Alice opens with a stereotypical display of stuffy narrow-minded hypocritical Victorians as a grown-up Alice is faced with the prospect of an arranged marriage with a nobleman, worthy of going for the Monty Python upper-class twit of the year award, in the hopes of saving her family fortune. Someone needs to give the writers a history lesson. In the nineteenth century, bankrupt aristocrats were marrying the offspring of traders and industrialists in the hopes of saving their family fortunes, not the other way around. (Tim Burton actually got this right in his earlier wonderful cartoon Corpse Bride, featuring two of the stars of this film. He even was courteous enough, in Corpse Bride, to allow for the existence of a loving arranged marriage.)

I had an idea, which Lionel thinks should be called the Chinn rule. Historical cultures should be given the same treatment as present-day ethnic groups in terms of protection from negative stereotypes. A film in which a young black woman struggles to overcome the violent brutish and ignorant black culture around her, where all the women are on welfare and on drugs and all the men are on drugs and in jail would be quickly tagged as racist. A film about a modern Arab girl that is only about her escaping a brutish culture of arranged marriages and honor killings would also be racist. (Such depictions of Arabs are still the norm, but that is a separate story. On this topic I must say that either this season of 24 is even more horrible in its treatment of Muslims than usual or I am becoming more "tolerant," God help me.) It was okay for Charles Dickens to use comical stereotypes for the nineteenth century. He was part of that time period. This is like blacks and the N-word. Blacks are allowed to use it; if you are not black you have no business saying that word.

Let us be honest, people use negative stereotypes of past cultures for the same disgusting and immoral reason as they go after present day cultures; putting other people down makes people feel better about themselves. Watching stupid intolerant Victorians make fools of themselves makes me, living in the comfort of the twenty-first century, feel intelligent and, more importantly, really tolerant just like being able to cluck my tongue at illiterate black criminals makes me, as a white person, feel civilized and sophisticated. The hypocrisy of prejudicially being able to tag others as intolerant is just sickening. At least blacks are still alive and can knock the living day lights out of bigots (not that I encourage violence) like they deserve. The Victorians, aside from sending the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, have no one, but historians like me to defend them.

(To be continued …)

Friday, March 5, 2010

Atheists Want You to Exchange Your Bible for Something More Sophisticated (Like Porn)

Ashley Tedesco over at Jewcy has an article about the students of the Atheist Agenda over at the University of Texas. They offered students the chance to exchange their Bibles for pornography, an exchange of "porn for porn." I would see this as a good example of atheists simply being out to destroy. It is easy to attack organized religion (I do it all the time) and the Bible can certainly be interpreted for the worst as so many of its detractors and supposed "defenders" do. The question becomes can you offer something better. Offer students the chance to give up reading the Bible and try sinking their teeth into Newton's Principia or even Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.

If there is one thing worthwhile about Richard Dawkins it is when he talks about his love of science and how contemplating the mysteries of the universe gives meaning and order to his life. Personally, I find, that when he does this, he almost sounds religious (in the good sense).

Thursday, March 4, 2010

See Ma! Studying Medieval and Early Modern Apocalyptic Movements Can be Useful

In the introduction to Messianic Revolution, David Katz and Richard Popkin explain that they were inspired to write the book from witnessing the Waco fiasco and how government negotiators did not understand apocalyptic reasoning even to the extent of failing to understand how the book of Isaiah might be relevant to the situation. One of the negotiators even thought that the "Seven Seals" were animals:

We know now that this failure to attend to the precise meaning of Koresh's references, compounded with the failure to understand the background of a group like the Branch Davidians, created very serious breaks in the chain of reasoning that might have led to an informed decision. The psychologists who advised the FBI concluded that Koresh was paranoid and that there was no point in trying to negotiate with him; the authorities eventually adopted a strategy of "stress escalation" that involved not only cutting off electricity to and training floodlights on the compound's buildings but also the use of other tactics including playing tapes of loud music, Tibetan chants, pleas from family members, and the sounds of animals being killed. Doomsday and death were part of the Branch Davidians' messianic plan, and when they died in the fire at Waco, they believed they were merely playing their parts in a divine script which they clearly understood.

Our sense was that we had seen this all before. On one level, the events at Waco reminded us of another siege by the forces of order, four and a half centuries earlier, at Munster in northern Germany. There, too, a group of religious radicals set up what they considered a divine community of Anabaptists behind a protective wall and held off the authorities for sixteen months, until June 25, 1535, when the gates of Munster mysteriously opened from within, allowing the capture of the Prince-Bishop Franz von Waldeck, who massacred nearly everyone inside. But even more importantly, we believe that much o modern religious radicalism can clearly be traced to earlier groups and their theologies, that it is impossible to understand sects like the Branch Davidians without this historical perspective. (pg. xi)

My mother can rest assured; there is something useful to do with the study of medieval and early modern apocalyptic movements (besides for going into the business for myself, bad health plan and all). I can go to work for the government (assuming I survive the background and sock drawer checks) as an expert in radical religious apocalyptic movements. I think that there is message in my work. Apocalyptics, even those sitting in caves, do inhabit the same physical word that we do and are part of the same political dynamics. (This becomes painfully obvious when apocalyptic visions crash planes into building and attempt to manufacture nuclear weapons.) It is important that we treat them as such.

1800 Rabbis Will Practice Their Magic Judaism for You

Here is another ad for Haredi magic Judaism idolatry.

I notice that the Haredi rabbis listed in the ad are not actually part of the event. They were just asked to attend. Which means that they have either said no or they have not gotten back to the fine people at Ateret Shlomo (which is another way of saying no).

I should send out spam emails:

Read Izgad! The blog of Rabbi Dovid Landesman, Rabbi Shalom Carmy and Malcolm Gladwell. 

(At least one of them actually reads this blog and every one of them would be welcome to offer a guest post if they so wished.)

You have to give Kupat Ha'ir credit. They at least go through the trouble to get Haredi rabbis to offer blurbs in favor of their idolatry.   

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Tour Europe and Practice Idolatry at Over 400 Graves

What particularly caught my attention was the passage: "In places that are not visited as frequently you can often have your prayers 'heard' more readily in the merit of the Tzadikim that are not visited as often." I am glad that they put the word "heard" in quotes. I would hope that they meant that God does not literally hear prayers since God is not a physical being with ears or even affected by sound. Most probably they meant to merely acknowledge that God is aware of everything and does not hear things more readily or less readily.

None of this gets this company off the hook for idolatry. Usually one can cover for praying at graves by saying that the righteous person is incidental just that if you are going to pray you might as well go to a place associated with a righteous person. One can even argue that there is a special merit in praying in a place where many other people are gathering (hence why we have synagogues in the first place) or even to pray in a place where many people have prayed at in the past. In this case we are choosing to pray at a place specifically where there have not been many prayers said. This trip only makes sense if we accept the theological premise that God wishes for human beings to honor deceased righteous people by praying at their graves to such an extent that he counts it as a special merit to those who find out of the way graves of righteous people to pray by. Hence the focus is not God. At best God only comes in as the Santa Claus at the end of the tunnel with his bag of goodies. This is about venerating dead rabbis as not just righteous people to be imitated, but spiritual forces in their own right. This is idolatry.

As a historian and a religious Jew, I strongly support touring Eastern Europe and tending the graves of Jewish leaders. These are historic landmarks for the Jewish people and just as the Bible records the locations where the Israelites traveled in the desert so to should we record the locations of past Jewish communities and the important figures that lived and were buried there. I would make a special effort to seek out those graves that have been forgotten. I would even make the effort to pray and recite Psalms there. God forbid out of any belief that they have power or any desire to make use of that power to "manipulate" God, but simply to include them within Jewish memory.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Politics of Jewish Messianism (My Proposed Dissertation Thesis)

Gershom Scholem famously distinguished between two types of Messianism, a restorative Messianism that sought to reestablish the biblical Jewish State and a utopian apocalyptic Messianism that sought the end of the physical political world as we know it. (See David Biale, Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History pg. 72.) Scholem and most students of Jewish Messianism have tended to focus on the latter type of Messianism. I would like to deal with the former kind.

On the surface, Jewish Messianism has very little to do with politics. In fact, it can be seen as a counter politics. Politics deals with earthly power as it relates to a State of this world. Messianism is usually seen as a rejection of politics and the earthly political State. Instead, it looks for an end to earthly politics through the imposition of a supernatural divine State. From this perspective, there is a vast gulf between political thinkers, such as Machiavelli and John Locke, and political revolutionaries, such as George Washington and Maximilien Robespierre, on the one hand, and messianic thinkers, such as Joachim of Fiore, and messianic claimants, such as John of Leiden, on the other. In my work, I seek to argue that, in fact, that the apocalyptic world of Messianism may not be so far removed from the realm of earthly politics. Whatever various messianic movements may have thought of the politics of their day, it cannot be denied that messianic movements by definition interact with worldly political authorities, make political claims and are thus themselves political movements of this world. 

For anyone not wedded to the Whig narrative of bifurcating the “superstitious” Middle Ages and “rational” Enlightenment and ignorant of the past few decades of scholarship, this should not be surprising or controversial. There is a well-established literature linking in various ways the “religious” messianic and apocalyptic movements of the Medieval and early modern periods with the supposedly “secular” revolutionary political movements of the modern period. To give some examples, Norman Cohn, back in the 1950s, in his Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, sought to portray movements as the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the Taborites and the Anabaptist Munster revolt as the forerunners of modern absolutist movements such as Communism and Fascism. Similarly, though working in the opposite direction, Jacob Talmon, in his Origins of Totalitarian Democracy and Political Messianism: the Romantic Phase, sought to connect modern totalitarian movements, particularly those of the Rousseauan tradition, with earlier religious apocalyptic movements. David S. Katz and the late Richard H. Popkin, in Messianic Revolution: Radical Religious Politics to the End of the Second Millennium, set forth the evolution of medieval Joachimite apocalyptic tradition into the modern apocalyptic movements of today.

I seek to bring elements of all of these works together and apply them to Jewish history. This serves a number of purposes. Even more important to me than placing messianism within a political framework is the continued effort to place Jewish history within the context of the surrounding society. I seek to place Jewish Messianism within the context of similar movements produced in the Christian and Islamic worlds. Furthermore, I propose that Messianism as a political movement offers us a way to talk about Jewish politics. Jewish history has traditionally suffered from not being able to employ the traditional State narrative, for most of recorded history there has been no such thing as a sovereign Jewish State. More important to modern scholars is the lack of a Jewish political tradition. Messianism allows us a backdoor to bring Jews as actors into the political narrative, beyond being the victims of hateful mobs and capricious rulers. Thus helping us move away from the Heinrich Graetz “Jews suffer and think” lachrymose narrative. Furthermore, by dealing with messianic theorists and their confrontation with worldly politics, we can begin to construct a tradition of Jewish political thought. For this reason, I will be discussing not just actual messianic movements such as the Sabbatians, but messianic theorists such as Maimonides and Abarbanel as well.

As a multi-disciplinary project, my work should be of use in a number of fields. This is a work on Jewish history and particularly Jewish Messianism. The models I propose should be relevant to general students of Messianism and apocalypticism. Finally this is also a work of political theory meant to aid in the understanding of how to integrate Messianism as a political phenomenon.