Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Tradition Based Conservatism of a Liberal

One of the foundational premises of my worldview is a certain Burkean conservatism. By this I mean a belief in the value of tradition as playing a necessary role in the maintenance of society. While the liberal looks around at society and sees all that is wrong and might be improved, safe in his faith in the natural goodness of human beings, the conservative wonders why we are all not being murdered in our beds as society collapses into Hobbesian warfare. The chief reason for this, our conservative soon concludes, is that people have this inclination to do and accept things simply because it has been done that way for a long time, tradition. If one digs a little deeper one comes to understand that tradition is an implicit pact we make with each other to submit ourselves to an outside authority. This can be illustrated by the trap Strepsiades falls into in Aristophanes' The Clouds. He cannot deny the validity of tradition that he is obligated to pay back his creditors without undermining the tradition that his son has to respect and obey him.

This support of tradition goes against and ultimately delegitimizes all revolutionary systems, anything that attempts to cut itself off from the past and start anew. All attempts to simply overturn the established government or society, no matter how flawed the old system, are doomed to descend into violence and tyranny. Edmund Burke understood this early on about the French Revolution even before it descended into the Reign of Terror. In modern times, in an even more blood-soaked manner, this pattern has been repeated in Russia, China, and Cambodia. The "revolutions" that worked were precisely those revolutions, like the American Revolution and the English Glorious Revolution, which actively confirmed existing established authorities and thus were not really revolutions at all. With revolution not being an option, the Burkean conservative seeks to work within the system, reforming it, but in ways that not only do not undermine the system but actively confirm its validity.

Burkean conservatism is easily misunderstood because it is often confused with another tradition based ideology that also calls itself "conservative," one that sees the maintenance of tradition and opposition to change as values in of themselves and even as the ultimate value. The most common forms of this mindset are fundamentalist religions. The weakness of this narrow conservatism, and ultimately why it is not conservative at all, is that very act of recognizing something as a tradition in need of defense against the assault of modernity and liberalism is in of itself a radical mental paradigm shift that changes the system. Thus a true conservatism can only exist in a mind that is not conscious of it and in a society with no liberals to challenge it. Living in a world where such conditions do not exist we are left with degrees of conservatism.

It is here that any conservative most face a paradoxical dilemma of having to pick their change; do you accept the obvious change offered by the liberal or do you accept the more subtle changes implied by actively opposing the liberal. Take the example of women's dress, which I have previously discussed; As an Orthodox Jew, desiring to maintain traditional Jewish law and practice in the face of modernity, what am I more concerned about, women wearing clothing that does not conform to traditional Jewish practice or the existence of goon squads enforcing such standards? Am I even comfortable with the publishing of specific guidelines as to how women should dress? What high spiritual values am I upholding as I put a tape measure to women's skirts to make sure they go x amount of inches below the knee? Whatever one believes about how women should dress, noticing that common standards of dress today do not conform with what one might read in Jewish legal codices and deciding that the letter of Jewish law must be maintained at all costs, without seriously considering the potential unintended consequences, or worse to even embrace them, is not just short-sighted, it is not even conservative. Being a conservative under such circumstances means picking your poison in regards to change and having a mature appreciation of your tradition to know what parts to defend.

An honest tradition supporting conservatism contains in itself the seeds of its own form of liberalism. It is plausible to argue that in defense of traditional Jewish values such as rabbinic authority and not having men obsessing about women one should categorically invalidate all laws pertaining to modest dress. We should declare that we no longer hold of such things and even that one is now not allowed to dress in a traditional manner (much the same way as the Lutheran Church now rejects all statements of Luther against Jews and does not allow anti-Semitism) in order to completely undermine and rip out the hearts of those who would threaten the very essence of Judaism by instituting rule by goon squad and replacing modesty with skirt lengths.

I would not go this far. In a Judaism run by me, laws concerning modest dress for men and women would remain on the books, but without any active community enforcement. In its place would be a strong push for modesty, that one should not draw attention to oneself as a physical body at the expense of the spirit and the mind, on the part of both men and women. If religious Jews, already keeping the basic essentials of Jewish practice, were to come to me and ask how to put these ideals of modesty into practice then we could bring out the sources and discuss the possibility of holding oneself to a stricter standard of dress than the society at large.

To bring this back to Burkean conservatism, I put a high value on tradition not because I see tradition as having a value in of itself or because I believe that it is somehow possible to just have tradition without changing anything, but because I see tradition as the foundation upon which one can build a stable society, the sort of society in which can afford to tolerate diversity and in which one can experiment with different possibilities even to the extent of making changes. In the long run, no tradition can go on forever without change; the choices are either moderate change, which serves to support the essentials or the downfall of the entire system. In the end, being a Burkean conservative not only allows me to be a liberal, it makes it a necessity.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

My Feminist Response to the Haredi Marriage Crisis

With all of my opposition to modern feminism, it is easy to lose track of the fact that I am a feminist if of a nineteenth-century John Stuart Mill School. I believe that human beings can better themselves through reason, as they pursue their own good in their own way. It helps if they are left to themselves and are not shackled by tyrannical governments and societies. Since women make up a little more than fifty percent of the human race, this applies to women as well. Women need to be brought in as equal partners in society and government and this can most effectively be done through education and suffrage. I do not recognize the concept of "women's rights," only human rights. Also, since I deal with rights solely within the context of protection from direct physical harm, I have no interest in waging war against "patriarchy" or deconstructing "male" modes of thinking. Feminists would be correct in criticizing me for employing a distinctively Enlightenment/male discourse and attempting to shove women into it, thus making it impossible for women to ever truly be "equal" in its most extreme sense. I do not care; what I offer is a logically consistent system and if women do not wish to take it they are free to try their luck with traditional patriarchy.

My nineteenth-century feminism was awakened by a recent article I saw on the Haredi website Cross Currents, "Avoiding Corruption in Shidduchim," by Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum, which attacked the current manifestation of marriage dowries within the Haredi world. Rabbi Rosenblum argues that the practice of insisting that the prospective in-laws of Haredi men be expected to support their future sons-law while they sit and study in order to gain their daughters a respectable match creates its own back-door materialism, as marrying the girl from the wealthiest possible family becomes a status symbol. I thought it was a very good article. That being said, I was struck by the fact that the article and subsequent comments all focused on the boys vs. in-laws dynamics. Lost in the shuffle was the fact that there are young women involved here, being asked to make life-altering decisions in support of a system that relegates them to if not second class status then at least to secondary roles. So I put up the following comment:

Something should be said here about the situation of women. I think that it is interesting that women remain passive figures even at your hands, Rabbi Rosenblum. I was just talking to a married a Haredi woman about her decision to become a speech therapist and asked her what her goals were in growing up. She responded that her goal in life was "to be a Mommy." A very wonderful girl, but there are lots of people who want to be mommies and many who might even make good mommies. Why should any bochur [young man] take someone simply because they will make a good mommy, unless this woman can support him by becoming a speech therapist or has a father who can support him? Change has to start with women valuing themselves as individuals, beings with unique talents who cannot simply be replaced like a spare part.

You can say that I was channeling Mary Wollstonecraft in seeing women's equality as starting with women taking control over their lives. To be fair, there is even here a bit of the modern feminist in that I am asking a modern question; what does it mean when one party is the activist initiator and the other remains passive to be acted upon? One can also pick up from my comment that, however I may like individual Haredi women as people, I have little respect for them as beings capable and deserving of the sort respect and equal treatment that the Haredi world is not giving them.

Cross Currents took down my comment. I guess suggesting that women need to come forth as individuals in control of their own lives is too radical for some people. I can get used to the idea. Mothers lock up your daughters for I am coming with my radical feminist doctrines. I offer them the chance to be people and even to be respected for it.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Can Pacifists Be Citizens? A Jewish Solution

As previously noted, I view government as a devil's bargain. I accept the existence of an institution with the power to engage in violence and whose main purpose is violence. This applies to fighting wars and even the punishing of criminals. Government authority means nothing if, at the end of the day, they are unable to physically harm those who defy them. The main reason why I endorse government violence is that I see it as the alternative to private vendettas. I am not about to accept a world in which "every man does what is right in his own eyes." I can fathom turning the other cheek precisely because there is a police officer out there who can strike the person for me. Thus my purpose is not to engage in violence, but to do whatever I can to limit it. Openly acknowledging the necessity of violence puts me in much the same situation as Machiavelli, begging to be misunderstood as endorsing tyranny. I would argue that, on the contrary, my willingness to acknowledge the Machiavellian reality of government allows me to be a true defender of liberty and limit government violence. I recognize what kind of deal I am making and have clear boundaries. This is different from the person who pretends to deal with government and not make compromises with liberty. Such a person has no protection when faced with the real moral dilemmas of a tyrannical government.

It is the common practice in times of war to grant draft exemptions to pacifists and "consciousness objectors." I fail to see the reason for this and fully agree with Richard Dawkins on the absurdity of giving people special protection simply because of "religion." By agreeing to be a citizen you accept the legitimacy of the government to fight wars and agree to help it do so. Since pacifists cannot agree to this, they cannot be citizens in any meaningful way. This is not a violation of anyone's religious liberties. Religious liberty only exists when you pay the door fee of becoming part of the system by accepting its validity. If you cannot pay that price then you are not part of the conversation.

The citizenship question really goes far beyond military service. If pacifists were consistent in their beliefs they would become "conscientious objectors" from jury duty and voting. By serving on a jury the government is asking you to accept their legal authority to punish people even with physical force. The government is also asking you to honestly declare whether you think a person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Maximum security prisons are directly connected to the threat of physical violence; prisoners who do not comply face being beaten and if they try to escape they may be killed. How can a pacifist ever convict someone of a violent crime? I would add that since we can assume that any violent criminal was brought in by police licensed to engage in physical violence, such violence was either used or implicitly threatened. Thus a pacifist would have to automatically throw out any case rather than be an active participant in this system of government violence. If you let a person go who you believe beyond a reasonable doubt is guilty because you object to prison conditions and police tactics you are not keeping your end of the bargain you struck with the government.

When you vote for your congressional representative, you are voting for someone licensed by the Constitution to vote to declare war. The President is the Constitutional Commander in Chief with the power to lead the United States military in battle. Participating in an election means declaring the moral validity of the Congress to declare war and the President to wage it as put down in the Constitution. Since the Constitution is a war validating document, no pacifist can ever accept the legitimacy of the Constitution without making a hypocrite of himself.

Rather than forcefully expelling or killing pacifists, I would suggest a solution from Jewish history. Up until the end of the eighteenth century, Jews even when tolerated and allowed to live in peace, were not accepted as citizens. In each city Jews lived under the authority of their own kehilla system, operating as its own semi-autonomous government. It was the kehilla that negotiated with the Christian authorities for Jews to be allowed to live in the city and practice their own religion. These negations usually involved monetary payment, call it taxes or bribery. "In the pre-modern world, there was no such thing as rights. There were privileges that you paid for." Jews were also subject to blasphemy laws which barred them from making statement offensive to Christianity. This was not due to "intolerance," simply a matter of Jews, by definition, not being able to accept the legitimacy of a Christian State, whose claim to authority rested on Christian theological claims.

Pacifists should be allowed to live in peace within this country; not because of any right to religious liberty (they lost that right the moment they rejected the government, which gives allows for religious liberty to exist), but because they are non-threatening producers, whose presence benefits society at large. Pacifists should not actually be citizens. They should not have the right to vote, they should not serve on juries but should pay an extra head tax to cover their lack of military service. They would also have no free speech protection and be barred from making any statements deemed "subversive." Since they are outside the political system they have no reason to involve themselves in it or even speak about it. Every American would have the right to put themselves down as a pacifist and pay the consequences. (Children of pacifists should have the option of going to court and rejecting the beliefs of their parents and immediately take the test and oath of citizenship without having to wait five years.) Those who do not and instead decide to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship, lose all claim to ever being "conscientious objectors."

Friday, June 25, 2010

Aspirations on the Autism Puzzle

Jerod Smalley of the Columbus NBC affiliate station interviewed some people from Aspirations, including my friends Melanie Yergeau, Patrick Meehan (who served with me on the Autism conference panel on Wednesday) and Justin Rooney, for his Autism Puzzle news segment.

I particularly recommend the discussion about humor at the end and Justin's comment about his admiration for Richard Pryor for using humor precisely in the face of all the bad in one's life. Humor plays a major role in my life as a defense mechanism. I find that I take life so seriously that if I did not laugh I would be crushed by it.

Rather than being incapable of humor, I suspect that Asperger people have a special relationship to humor in that they have a foundational narrative of humor built right into them. Take a rational person and force them to confront an absurd situation. He can continue to insist on reason, futilely beat his head into a wall and become the object of the joke or he can become the initiator of the joke as he uses his reason to face down absurdity, expose it and even to embrace it to some degree. This is one of the most basic comedic narratives, but it is also a summary of what life every day is with Asperger syndrome and the challenges that come with it.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Presenting at an Autism Conference

I spent the day at an Autism conference sponsored by Ohio State's Nisonger Center, titled "Transition: The Challenges, Strategies and Models in School, Work and Health." It is great being back in Columbus for a few days and meeting up with friends. I, along another person from the Aspirations group, took part in a panel organized by Dr. Tom Fish. The panel was on the topic of transitioning from school to the work place for those on the spectrum. I admit that there is something ironic about having me speak about this since the Hebrew Academy let me go. My learning experiences this year as a high school teacher, including the fact that things did not work out as I had hoped, were among the major points I touched upon. I am not going to talk about any clinical neuro-supremacist (that neurotypical behavior is the standard against which we judge good and bad and the purpose of the professional is to "help" people on the spectrum to be more like neurotypicals) biases. Melanie was there and I leave the matter to her and her Twitter site. I do wish to speak about the manner of presentation. This was my first experience sitting in, as part of the audience, on a professional conference presentation for a non-humanities field. I have sat through quite a number of history conferences with presentations ranging from brilliant to horrible, but there was something strikingly boring about the presentations on autism I witnessed today. I certainly do not have a large enough sample to make any judgments on the matter and would love to hear from someone with more experiences with such conferences, particularly if they also have been to conferences in the humanities fields, but here are some of my explanations.

The humanities teach rhetoric – Overall you are going to get better public speakers with people from the humanities. The humanities encourage the sort of self expression necessary as the foundation for any explicit or implicit study of rhetoric.

The humanities are a labor of love – Say what you will about the humanities, but every single person at a graduate level has made a conscious decision to turn down going into a different field and making more money. If you are in the humanities you are there because you love what you are doing and find it interesting. Even if you cannot pass this on to someone else, it is there. Take a person with no speaking skills, reading off a page with a Ben Stein drawl and the love is going to come through somehow. Professional educators and clinical researchers are doing what they are doing because it is a job to them. They might truly love what they do, but there is no reason to go looking for it.

Length – At humanities conferences I am used to 1.5–2 hour sessions with 3-4 speakers going for 20-30 minutes each plus question and answer time. This conference had single speakers going for 1.5-2 hours. There are limits to my attention span, even with skilled speakers. I also think there is something to be said for the notion that if you have a specific message that is important you should be able to deliver that message in twenty minutes. Anything over that and you have to start asking yourself some hard questions as to whether you are speaking because you actually have something to say, you do not know how to organize your own thoughts or because you simply wish to kill time and hear yourself speak. If you cannot believe with complete faith in the importance of what you are saying, why should anyone believe in its importance enough to listen?

PowerPoint – I admit that I have come to use PowerPoint a lot in my own lectures. It organizes the material for me and makes it easier for students to write down the major points, which leads to more effective memorization. I have never seen people so enslaved to their PowerPoint as some of the presenters today. PowerPoint no longer simply served as an aid; it was the center of the presentation, without which there could be no presentation. If one can more easily imagine a presentation going on without the speaker than without the PowerPoint then we have a problem. It is bad enough when lectures cease to be actual speeches, just mere reading from a text; add a second printed source, this time for the audience, and there truly is no speech to present.

My panel went well and I will only take part of the credit. We had three real people on the dais, speaking about something important to them, with a message to impart. At the end we received one of the nicest compliments I have ever heard, one truly befitting our modern age. "Your panel was the only one today during which I did not send off a single text message."

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Rev. James Lawson and the True Meaning of Pacifism

During the Korean War, Rev. James Lawson, a future Civil Rights leader, went to prison as a "conscientious objector" rather than serve. As someone involved in the clergy, he could have protected himself, but instead chose not to, in of itself an act of protest. He argued, and in this I agree with him, that it was wrong to exempt clergymen or those studying for the job from the draft and that it was simply a means to buy off established religions by protecting their people. I certainly admire much of what Rev. Lawson would later do for the Civil Rights movement and, in practice, support non-violent tactics when dealing with private individuals protesting social and government ills. That being said we need to consider the true meaning of pacifism as a consistent ideology when practiced by the likes of Rev. Lawson.

First off, let us consider the very act of being a "conscientious objector" to the Korean War. Rev. Lawson took it upon himself to stand in the way of the United States government's efforts to protect South Korea from being overrun by the forces of Communist North Korea and China. If Rev. Lawson would have had his way with the United States government, South Korea would not be one of the leading technological innovators in the world today as well as a source for millions of new converts to various denominations of Christianity; he would have sentenced millions of people in South Korea to, like those in North Korea, starve to death in the world's largest maximum security prison. Who knows to what extent people like Rev. Lawson bear a share of the blame for the millions of people still sentenced today to a living death in North Korea. (I do not know how someone sleeps with that on their conscious.) More importantly, by opposing a relatively justifiable war, out of an innate opposition to all war, Rev. Lawson had backed out of his covenantal obligations as a citizen. He grew up accepting the benefits of the United States government, a war making institution, but refused to follow through on his obligations when this war making institution followed through with its foundational purpose and went to war. (Obviously, as a black man living in segregationist America, Rev. Lawson did not enjoy the full rights he deserved. As such it would have been justifiable for him to not serve until the United States lived up to its obligations to him and all blacks.) Rev. Lawson was not just expressing his opinion or even practicing civil disobedience against a law he found unjust. He was not just objecting to our involvement in Korea. He was challenging the very legitimacy of the United States government. What are governments if not an institution authorized to use violence? As such, Rev. Lawson was guilty of a passive, relatively harmless, but still quite real form of treason. I would not go so far as to have him executed, but it was certainly reasonable for him to do hard time in prison.

While in prison, Rev. Lawson found himself threatened by the inmates and faced with the prospect of being raped. Realizing that he was not even safe in his own cell, he prepared to defend himself with a chair. This put him in a dilemma; how could he, someone who went to prison in order to avoid engaging in violence, justify using violence even to save himself from being raped.

It was at that point Lawson had one of his numinous experiences. It was as if he heard a voice explaining everything to him. Everything which had been so difficult suddenly became clear. The voice told him that he was not there of his own volition or because he had done something wrong. He had not sinned; if anything he was he was there because he had been sinned against. The voice explained his dilemma to him. "If something terrible happens to you, it's not you causing it, and what happens is not your fault. What happens would be outside your control. You are responsible for only one thing – above all you must not violate your own conscience. If something terrible happens it is because of them, not because of you. It is not about personal choice. That makes it one more thing you have to endure in order to be true to Him. It is part of the test He set out for you." When Jim Lawson heard that voice, his fear fell from him. He would not resort to physical violence to protect himself. He would endure. He prepared himself for the worst. (David Halberstam, The Children pg. 46-47.)

In the end nothing happened to Rev. Lawson. It is believed that one the prisoners he befriended put the word out that Lawson was not to be touched.

One wonders what advise Rev. Lawson would have given if it had been his daughter threatened with rape. "Daughter, do not fight these men, not even with a can of mace. When these men corner you and you have nowhere to run, just submit to them and let them do what they will." Maybe Rev. Lawson could stand by his daughter's side while this is going on and read her the passages in Augustine's City of God where he argues that it is not an evil for a woman to be raped; as long as she is unwilling her soul remains undefiled and, as such it is irrelevant what happens to the body.

Loving your neighbor as you love yourself means that in order to love other people you have to start by loving yourself. As a child of God and a creature of reason, you have value. As such you are obligated to protect yourself even if it means turning to violence. Once you are obligated to value yourself, you are also obligated to value and protect every innocent person even if it means turning to violence.

Friday, June 18, 2010

To Shoot a Man Trying to Kill Your Children: A Moral Trap for Pacifists

One of the major underlying forces behind modern political thought is pacifism; that the use of violence in of itself immoral. This is not to say that most modern people, even modern liberals, are active pacifists, but there is an admiration of pacifists (Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are two of the most revered figures of the twentieth century) and a given assumption that they hold the moral high ground. Would not the world be a better place if everyone pursued non-violence? There are real-life consequences to this sentiment as it puts anyone not following a pacifist path on the defensive, particularly when going up against an opponent with at least the pretense of pacifism. For example the State of Israel opening fire on the flotilla of aid ships. (The passengers attacked first with knives and poles, but those are just technical details.) Israel is forced to fight the moral censor from western liberals that they should pursue a more "ethical" path, one that turns away from violence. At the same time, our western liberal (particularly if they are Jewish) are allowed to, without cost to themselves, grab this moral high ground for themselves, as the opponents of violence by "both sides," and judge Israel for their lack of moral enlightenment. As such, I believe it is important to confront this ideology of pacifism head on. Not only is pacifism not a worthy ideal to be pursued, but it is also itself fundamentally immoral and those tainted by it are de facto apologists for and aiders in the abuse of human rights that they claim to oppose.

There is a challenge that I often put to people who claim to be categorically against the use of violence: a martyrdom-seeking terrorist is pointing a gun at your child with the clear intent to kill. You have a gun; do you shoot or do you allow your child to die? Alternatively, the SWAT team has the man in their sights and can take him out by sniper fire; do you call the sniper and tell him to back down? As should be clear from this example, for pacifism to be meaningful as pacifism it must be pursued even when it ceases to pragmatic, even at the expense of innocent lives. In essence, pacifism kills. There is a long tradition of people sacrificing their children for various causes and it is perfectly plausible that pacifism should simply be one more such example. But I think that most people would view someone who refused to fire as failing in their responsibility as a parent and partially responsible in the death of their own child, most certainly not a paragon of moral virtue.

The moment we decide to open fire then we have crossed an ideological Rubicon and we can no longer categorically oppose violence. All slogans of "make love not war," "war is not the answer" and "give peace a chance" fall away to be replaced by a discussion of where violence is appropriate and is even "the answer" as something virtuous. One would still be free to oppose specific military actions, such as the war in Iraq, but now the opposition must be couched in language other than simple opposition to war. Of course, no value is absolute. One does not believe in truth less because he points a potential murderer in the wrong direction away from his intended victim. The difference with pacifism is that by definition it is an absolutist ideology. One is not a pacifist if one merely does not like fighting. Furthermore, pacifism requires the denial of any virtue of those who would pursue its opposite; it cannot acknowledge any virtue in taking up arms for a just cause.

It is funny how despite the numerous times I have raised this issue with pacifist sympathizers, I have never been given a straight answer of shoot or not to shoot. They will try to dance around the issue by saying that they would not be in possession of a gun in the first place or would simply shoot to wound. The point of a moral dilemma is that it is supposed to be simple and extreme, far more so than you would likely find in real life. In our terrorist scenario, you are not in a position to stop him in any other way but to use violent force. He has a gun pointed at your child's head. Either he dies or your child goes. Whose life do you pick?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

My Constitutional Right to Run for the Senate (Despite the Fact that I am Only 27 Years Old)

(Hat tip to Religion in America.)

Recently retired Justice David Souter recently spoke at Harvard and attacked the originalist (or fair reading as he calls it) interpretation of the Constitution, which assumes that the Constitution has hard and fast meaning and it is simply the job of judges to apply these "simple" truths. Souter believes in a "living" Constitution, that the Constitution is open to reinterpretation by judges in light of current society. Souter's main argument against fair readers is that the Constitution contradicts itself so one must therefore make a value judgment and choose one part over the other. Now there are certain things that Souter believes that a fair reading can be used for.

If one of today's 21-year-old college graduates claimed a place on the ballot for one of the United States Senate seats open this year, the claim could be disposed of simply by showing the person's age, quoting the constitutional provision that a senator must be at least 30 years old, and interpreting that requirement to forbid access to the ballot to someone who could not qualify to serve if elected.  No one would be apt to respond that lawmaking was going on, or object that the age requirement did not say anything about ballot access.

I find this statement to be naïve beyond credulity. This clause in the Constitution does not require any serious creativity to get around. I have the Fourteenth Amendment:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The Constitution contradicts itself. On the one hand the Constitution itself, denies me as a twenty-seven year old equal protection under law by not allowing me to run for the Senate (as well as the office of Vice-President or President), but the Fourteenth Amendment insists on equal access. If the Fourteenth Amendment means a Constitutional right for gay marriage then it certainly must also eliminate such ageist discrimination as putting age minimum's on running for public office. Age minimums serve no other purpose but to deny that I am equal to any thirty year old. From here the matter is simple. The Fourteenth Amendment repeals all age minimums, even those explicitly placed into the Constitution.  

The only way the Constitution has any meaning is if it is read from an originalist perspective. Judges act in place of those who wrote the Constitution and its amendments, much the same way that trustees of an estate follow the desires of the deceased as expressed in a will. The Fourteenth Amendment does not eliminate age minimums for the same reason that it does not mean that gay marriage is a Constitutional right; the Radical Republicans of 1868 gave no indication that this was their intention and one would be hard pressed to say with a straight face that they would have supported such an interpretation if asked. Anything else and the Constitution simply means whatever you want it to mean and thus ceases to exist.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

My Bargain with Fearless Leader

The two defining characteristics of a State is that it is an instrument of law and an instrument of violence used to coerce people into following its laws. This makes the State different from a simple agreement between friends or a hired night watchman. If I know for a fact that you murdered someone and I kill you then I am a murderer. I am not even allowed to stick you in my basement for twenty years; that would be kidnapping. I have no right to go into other countries to chase after people who I do not like. Government is a mystical action where we take people and make them "police officers," with the power to "arrest" people, deemed to be "criminals." We put people on "trial," "convict" them, put them in "prison" and even, in extreme situations, "execute" them. We call someone a "soldier" and send him to Iraq and Afghanistan were if he sees a member of Al Qaida running away he is allowed to shoot the man in the back. All of these things, which we would never dream of allowing private individuals to do, become not only justified but even commendable simply because there is now a government label attached to it. This is a monstrous absurdity, which we accept simply because the alternative is allowing "each man to do what is right in his eyes." I do not accept government because I like government; government simply scares me only slightly less than the alternative.

Nothing should shield us from the sheer brute force at the heart of government. In a sense, this is a weakness of democratic governments. Democratic governments can hide behind the rhetoric the "will of the people" and "protecting their freedom." It is even worse with modern liberalism, with its claims that government should help people in their private lives and insists on giving the government the power to do so. I sometimes think that it would be less detrimental to the cause of liberty if we had to deal with a Hobbesian autocrat; it would allow for a more honest relationship.

Dear Mr. Fearless Leader,

I do not like nor respect you in any way. You have no particular right to rule, whether through God or through nature. You are not better than anyone else; you were just immoral, crafty or lucky enough to be the last one standing of all your competitors. As such, your government has no legitimacy; you are nothing but a tyrant and I have no objection to killing you. The only reason why I do not is because, while you are a corrupt power-hungry greedy bastard, unlike most of the corrupt power-hungry greedy bastards I have read about in history books, you seem to actually be rational and sane. I, therefore, think that I might be able to do business with you. You serve to keep my neighbors in check so they do not scalp me while I sleep, rape my wife and sell my children into slavery. The fact that there is only one of you and that you are hundreds of miles away means that you are less utterly terrifying.

I do not want you to have any part of my life. Please leave me in peace (other than making sure I do not suffer sudden violent death and have breathable air and drinkable water). I do not want your health care; I do not want your roads. I do not care what sort of deity you think I should worship or what kinds of substances you think I should or should not put into my body. I do not want to receive a lecture in morality from you (you have no morality to speak of) and will do business only with those people I wish to. I am fully capable of overseeing the education of my children and have no desire to send them to your indoctrination schools. Because I do not need you for these things, there is no need for most of your taxes.

I think we can have a very fruitful relationship. If you leave me alone, I will leave you alone. I will support your claim to power, follow your laws and even agree to serve in your army. In the meantime, I have a house stockpiled with automatic weapons and ammunition and a tank in my garage. I will use them against you if I ever decide that you are not keeping your end of the bargain.


Your Loyal Armed and Dangerous Subject (Who Can and Will Kill You If He So Chooses)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Asperger Syndrome as a High School Soap

Here is a spoof ad for a television show, Asperger High, where everyone has Asperger syndrome. I admit that the video is a bit over the top and patronizing, but I laughed my head off.

I could only wish for a mainstream television show that explored Asperger syndrome seriously. (Parenthood is doing a good job with the Max side plot, but the last few episodes I saw have been focusing on other characters.)

What might be some good plot lines for a real Asperger themed show?

When Lesbian Nazis in Bell-Bottoms Attack: The Historical Debate Over Morals

I would like to continue discussing the role of theism in morality. Earlier I argued that theism is necessary for morality not because people cannot be moral without God, but because the very act of making statements about morality require distinctively theistic assumptions about the nature of the universe. When I say that slavery is wrong, I distinctively need to be saying something more than I "personally" believe that slavery is in "bad taste." In order for there even to be a conversation I need to be arguing that there is some sort of universal law, recognized even by slavers, that opposes slavery.

When I posed this argument to James Maxey on his blog he responded:

Today, many cultures regard killing and theft as bad stuff, but if you were a Viking or a Hun or a vandal, it was your day job. Rape is an especially heinous crime today, but the Roman Empire had a foundational myth that boasted of stealing women from neighboring lands and raping them. Slavery is way up at the top of the no-no list, but we revere men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who bought and sold slaves. We hold in such moral esteem that we put their faces on our money. Today, ethnic cleansing is regarded as a war crime, but see how far the Cherokee get if they start arguing we should give back Georgia and North Carolina, taken from them by force in well-documented history, by men who have statues erected to them in our nation's capital. If morality is composed of universal principles, did we just get lucky in stumbling onto them in the last fifty years or so? Had all men who existed before now been abject failures in the eyes of the universal moral authority? Or do morals change as people change?
 Personally, I welcome the idea that human morals are constantly being changed by humans, for humans. For the most part, it looks like our ability to change our moral attitudes has resulted in a kinder, fairer world for blacks, women, children, not to mention you and me, than the world we would live in if some moral authority had fixed what was right and what was wrong at some point in the distant past.

Before I continue I would like to thank James for treating me in a respectable fashion during our various back and forths. He is also an extremely talented novelist and I urge readers to check out his Dragon Age books. Beyond the issue of morality, as a historian, I find James' statement to be objectionable. He brings up the issue of slavery in the United States. His narrative of how slavery ended is that values simply changed. What this ignores is the debate that went on in American culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries where abolitionists challenged the rest of society as to how they could tolerate slavery when slavery contradicted principle of "all men are created equal," a principle that even ardent slave owners claimed to believe in. Remember, it was Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, who put these words into the Declaration of Independence as a founding principle of government. It is certainly possible to justify slavery while still maintaining some form of "all men are created equal," but it requires an extensive background in classical political theory and risks rendering the entire premise meaningless. Supporters of slavery were put on the defensive, both in terms of what they had to say to society and to their own children, and, over the slow course of decades and centuries, they lost this debate. They lost the debate over slavery and eventually they even lost the debate over segregation. This debate relied upon the assumption that there are core moral truths, without which there could have been no debate. The distinctively religious nature of this debate was not a coincidence. 

There are practical implications as to these differing models as to how we come to our moral beliefs. As with fashion, popular morality is subject to change. Those who attempt to fight the shift in fashions are no different than those who expect society to respect the absolute validity of their holy books. The religious fundamentalist who believes that women should dress a certain way because his holy books say so is going to be in trouble when he comes against people who reject either his interpretation of his books or reject their authority completely. James and I can only grin when this person tries to get his daughter to dress in a certain way by beating her over the head with his book as she, in turn, rejects that book and proceeds to pursue alternative modes of dress, such as bell-bottoms, and even alternative lifestyles. This scenario ceases to be funny, though, when our daughters, in addition to deciding that women and bell bottoms are hot, read Mein Kampf, watch Triumph of the Will, decide that these Aryan values speak to them and want to become lesbian Nazis in bell-bottoms. What is James going to tell his daughter; that he personally is a liberal, but he recognizes that values change and that he will respect her lifestyle choices no matter what, even if it means becoming a bell-bottom wearing lesbian Nazi? I will be able to tell my daughter that before she comes in to lecture me about my moral duty to accept her no matter her lifestyle choices, she has to accept the concept of universal morality and explain how her Aryan supremacy beliefs are consistent with this universal morality. Do that and I'll throw in the bell-bottoms and lesbian parts. Fail to do that and I will throw her out of my house, disown her as my daughter and, if the situation calls for it, put a bullet in her head.  

I do not question whether individual atheists, like James, can be moral. I do have my doubts, though, as to the plausibility of creating a society of moral atheists and for atheists to pass on their morality to their own children. I know that I have no control over the changes in fashion and sexual mores (maybe bell-bottoms will come back in fashion). I cannot even hope to have a discussion about fashion, let alone win it. I do hope, though, to be able to talk to my children about moral values and there is even a chance that they might listen so that even if they make different lifestyle choices from mine they will frame those choices in the same universal laws that I strive to live in accordance to.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Gaining Arab Respect

There is a vast literature of denigration and denunciation of the Jews published in Arabic, ranging over the whole of Jewish history from remote antiquity to the present day and including all kinds of accusations culled, in the main, from European anti-Semitic literature. Paradoxically, Arab authors appear to show more respect for Israel and Zionism than for Jewish religion and history. Discussions of the former are occasionally serious and factual; on the latter, they rarely rise above the level of uninformed polemic and abuse, drawn partly from local stereotypes but relying very largely on such typical products of Christian anti-Semitism as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (Bernard Lewis, "The Anti-Zionist Resolution" pg. 56.)

This goes against the standard narrative of Arab anti-Semitism, where anti-Semitism is seen simply as a result of Zionism. In the extreme version of this argument, Neturei Karta members justify embracing the likes of Ahmadinejad on account that he is not really out to kill Jews, he only wishes to destroy "Zionists." We only need to show him that not all Zionists and his opposition to Jews will disappear. What particularly interests me about Lewis' line of argument is that he changes the narrative over from one of hatred and opposition to one of respect. Lewis does not deny that the Arab world is out to defeat Zionism and destroy the State of Israel. As he sees it, though, Arabs at least respect Zionism to the extent that some sort of dialogue might be possible. I think the reason for this is that Zionism is a political movement. Judaism without Zionism has traditionally been, by definition, outside of the political discourse. Why should a non-political entity ever be taken seriously in a political world?

So what is more important to us, gaining Arab tolerance and convincing them to not try to kill us or gaining their respect so that even if they try to kill us they should at least do so from the perspective of seeing us as human beings, who are part of the political discourse? What might the implications be for the peace process if conducted under a respect model? Under a respect model, how relevant would issues of Palestinian human rights, a State or a right of return be?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Your Bell-Bottoms Are in Such Bad Taste (As Is Your Slave Trading)

Is religion or some sort of belief in a higher power necessary for morality? Atheists are fond of arguing that one can be moral without God and there is a lot of truth to this. The theoretical belief that there is someone looking down at us waiting to punish us with hellfire is not going to keep us moral. Decades of experience with televangelists and Republican "family values" politicians and their moral lapses should be enough to convince us of that. Human beings, in the short moments while in the grip of temptation, are simply too good at rationalizing their actions away.

Following C. S. Lewis, though, I do believe that there is something to be said in terms of needing some sort of deity, not in order to be moral, but in order to make meaningful statements about morality. To give an example, I believe that plaid and bell-bottoms are out of fashion and in bad taste. These beliefs are solely the product of my imagination and in no shape or form can be traced back to any universal law, higher power, or God. The consequence of this is that I have no moral authority to enforce these beliefs upon others. When I tell people that bell-bottoms are just "wrong," what I mean is that I personally do not care for them. This is for no good reason and they should feel free to carry on with their bell-bottoms safe in the knowledge that their sense of fashion is just as valid as mine. To push the issue, even to simply say that I do not wish to associate with "unfashionable" people, would be close-minded and bigoted on my part.

Now, what happens to us when we turn from something as arbitrary and meaningless as fashion to morality? What do I mean when I tell slave traders that they are "wrong?" Presumably, what I mean is that there is some sort of universal "good," "justice," or standard of fairness that they themselves recognize, but are violating. There are practical implications to such judgmentalism; even our very "tolerant" society would be willing to endorse my decision to ostracize slave traders. Not only that, but they would even endorse the use of government force to end slavery (such as fighting the Civil War and passing the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution) and even, perhaps, to personally kill perpetrators of slavery.

If all I mean is that I am "personally" opposed to slavery and find it in bad "taste" then I have lost the debate even before it begins and might as well go home. When I say that slavery is wrong, I am not just saying that I, "personally," do not care for slavery. I am saying that they are in violation of a universal moral law. I may be wrong and I may not be able to prove the truth of this belief, but at least I am making a coherent statement. Of course, once I admit to some sort of universal law, I find myself hard-pressed to explain how my universal law is distinct from the Judeo-Christian deity or at least the Enlightenment one. Atheists wish to have it both ways. They wish to be able to make meaningful moral statements but refuse to pay the entrance fee for them. (I have yet to hear any atheists refraining from using words like "good," "just" and "fair" on account that they are gibberish. Nietzsche came closest to this.)

Despite the major differences in culture throughout the world and throughout history, there are remarkable similarities in their morality. This may very well be due to evolution. Evolution still does not explain why this morality holds any authority. We can travel from ancient Greece to modern-day Tahiti and the people we meet would agree on a number of things in terms of morality. Honesty is a good thing; one should not repay good with evil and do unto others as you would have them do to you. People may not always live up to these standards and recognize certain exceptions, but this does not change the fact everyone accepts the validity of these values. This is what allows us to even talk about morality.

You do not need any scriptures for this morality. They are knowable through reason once one accepts the notion that there is something called right and wrong as opposed to what I want or do not want. The two most basic statements of morality are Kant's two universal ethical imperatives. For ethics to be meaningful it must be universal hence you must always act according to principles that you would have as a universal rule. Also, ethics assumes the existence of ethical responsibility hence the need to treat all humans as ends, not as means.

I am not claiming that we need a higher authority to be moral. One can be an atheist and perfectly moral. The issue that I am raising is slightly different. Can one make coherent moral statements like "x is unjust" without assuming some form of moral law outside of our own collective minds? Without some sort of outside authority, statements of morality devolve into statements of taste. This does not mean that people will not hold of them. It simply is an issue of our ability to make moral statements that actually mean something and which we can expect others to take seriously.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

My Ironic Jewish Journey

On the Contrary has a post up about "Ironic Orthodoxy," outlining a form of Orthopraxy, which, while skirting the boundaries of traditional belief is deeply committed to Jewish practice and is fairly knowledgeable in terms of Jewish texts.

The Ironic Orthodox generation is the generation that comes after the Great Post-1967 Orthodox Awakening. The Ironic Orthodox are largely day-school and yeshiva educated. With their grandparents they share a certain comfort in their own Orthodox skin; to them, Orthodoxy is familiar, natural, and organizes their lives. With their parents they share a familiarity with the world of Jewish learning and are even able to access that learning to a large degree.

The Ironic Orthodox generation does not buy into the apologetics: not about the status of women, not about the integrity of the transmission of the Oral Law, not about the "timelessness" of obviously time-bound religious laws, customs, and ideas, etc. This generation is hard to inspire; its demeanor is skeptical and ironic, somewhat aloof and dispassionate. Their irony is not a dramatic irony - like Statler and Waldorf observing and criticizing the show yet remaining very much a part of it - but a jocular or sarcastic attitude or perhaps even a post-irony that simultaneously adheres to and mocks traditional religious structures. Yet it's not a bitter or angry mocking. It seems to be more of a taking-for-granted of life's absurdities and of the failure of ideology to explain or animate the full gamut of practice. It does not necessarily advocate or seek change.

The most strident example of this sort of thinking on the Jewish Blogosphere is Modern Orthoprax, who denounces traditional claims of God giving the Torah and the possibility of proving the existence of God yet claims to be traditionally observant.

In my own way, I see myself as falling under this category, if in a more moderate vein than Modern Orthoprax. While Modern Orthoprax comes and flat-out opposes divine claims for the origin of the Torah and proof for the existence of God, I believe that one can make a very plausible case for God's existence and that actively accepting God's existence is less problematic than assuming that he does not exist and I even hold out some hope for their being some historical truth to the Exodus narrative and the revelation at Sinai. That being said, I actively accept the fact that we live in a post-Enlightenment world and am not about to ignore the fact that the Enlightenment happened. To paraphrase Dr. Alan Brill, I am not about to rewrite Saadiah Gaon and the Kuzari in plain high school English as if there never was a Hume or a Kant. This means that all attempts to claim that God exists as an unchallengeable fact are out. For example, in a post-Darwinian world one can no longer simply trot out the argument from design as an end to all argument. Regardless of whether you believe in evolution, Darwinian evolution defeats the argument from design simply by existing as a plausible theory. All the intelligent design arguments in the world are not going to change the fact that there is an alternative to theistic creation. Thus, while our intelligent designer might very well exist, he can no longer be accepted as unchallengeable fact. Similarly with biblical criticism, one might be able to produce an army of Rabbi Joseph Hertzes to answer the arguments of Julius Wellhausen and his intellectual descendants (something that Orthodoxy has not done) but it will not change the fact that there is now an alternative to accepting the Bible as the literal word of God.

In a sense, faith is like innocence, once exposed to an alternative and made open to doubt something has been lost even if outward behavior remains the same. The child given a decent suit of clothes, a wallet full of cash and left to spend the night on the doorstep of a brothel is going to lose his innocence even if he does hold onto his virtue. For this reason, there is a certain logic to the Haredi attempt to hold onto the faith and innocence of their members even if it is futile. 

As I said before, I still see the debate for God as being in favor of God even if by a smaller margin and even if it is more the God of the philosophers and not the God of Abraham. The God of Abraham might exist, but to believe in him requires absolute faith. The very act of doubting him changes the relationship to one with a philosopher God. Similarly, with the Bible, it requires absolute faith. The very act of putting it before the bar of critical analysis changes the relationship and, whether you like it or not, it makes you one of the skeptics.

In the end I like to think of myself as a theistic ethical humanist (I believe that intelligent life, human or otherwise, has value, that one has ethical obligations to humans as part of a universal law placed into our hearts by a universal lawgiver), who has jumped on board the train of Hirschian Judaism and managed to make himself comfortable. I still hold out some hope for the Bible to be the true word of God and for the Exodus to have happened in a direct literal sense but I accept the reality that I cannot take it as a given. The evidence is strong enough against it that it cannot be used as a foundation for living one's life. If I did not strongly believe in God, I probably would abandon Jewish practice. As a believer in God, though, I seek some form of practice to relate to him. Judaism, even as the creation of Jewish philosophers, would still be better than any religion that I might decide to make up for myself; our Jewish philosophers can still offer tradition and community. Even if I were trying to create my own religion, it would probably end up looking a lot like Judaism anyway, just without an elaborate mythology.

As a Muppets fan, I accept for myself the role of being Judaism's Statler and Waldorf as a mark of honor (Unlike most Ironic Jews, I am theatrical and love the dramatic). If I am a heretic, so be it. I still wish to be part of the show.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Of Aspergers and Robots (They Just Might Both be Capable of Emotions)

I ended my previous post with a word in about the importance of emotions and a sense of humor even in seemingly strictly rational endeavors and I thought that the topic deserved some further discussion. As with most Aspergers, I struggle against a public perception that we are simply rational automatons, robots without emotions. Anyone who has ever spent time with Aspergers knows that this is false. Asperger syndrome is not the lack of emotions; it is the inability to effectively display emotion in a manner understandable to others. In other words, it is the "disability" of neurotypicals, who cannot understand our emotions to the same extent that we seem to be hopeless at deciphering their emotions. By emotions I mean in the positive sense of being able to desire, hope and even find joy and in the negative sense to be able to have one's feelings hurt, to be afraid and even at times to fall into despair. The hallmark of all of these things is that in of themselves they are not rational, not subject to rational control (in terms of feelings, not actions) and have no directly Utilitarian value.

There are a number of reasons why Aspergers come across as lacking emotions. The first is that we relate to the world primarily in terms of information and not social connections. So Aspergers have an affinity for strings of information, in my case primarily history, but also politics and even the lyrics of Broadway musicals (I can remember lyrics, I just cannot sing them). The obvious conclusion from seeing someone spouting information is that such a person is precisely that, just information without emotion; what a robot would do. This is only enhanced by the fact that most Aspergers do not convey facial expressions in the same way and to the same extent as neurotypicals. Just as Aspergers have trouble reading neurotypical body language, neurotypicals have trouble reading Asperger body language. (I will leave it as an open question as to whether Aspergers fail to read body language due to not having developed one of their own or whether they do not develop conventional body language due to their inability to read the body language of others.)

What should strike one as odd about this seemingly common sense view of Aspergers as information spewing robots is that it fails to explain why an Asperger would bother going through the effort of learning the information and passing it along? Might I suggest that the reason why Aspergers do this is that it makes them happy in the same irrational way that neurotypicals find happiness in the mere presence of friends and in having a relationship with them? The very act of being a "robot" it turns out is only possible for one with emotions.

One has to understand that the Asperger experience is profoundly one not of lacking emotions, but of having emotions and not having them being understood while at the same time being held hostage to the emotional demands of others. Is it any wonder that one might wish from time to time to cut away one's heart and be just pure reason? Aspergers learn from early on to attempt to distinguish between emotions and reason. Reason is that which you have some hope of being able to convey to others so that they will listen. Recently I was sitting in a lounge when I overheard a meeting for a planned student trip to Germany. What struck me was the leader's continuous emphasis on the need to distinguish between reason and emotions. It is well and good for these students to find Germany and setting foot on German soil to be emotionally trying. No one is asking them to ever become comfortable with Germany or ever wish to live there. That being said, it would not be appropriate to take these emotions out on Germans they meet, the vast majority of them being born after World War II and in no way responsible for the Holocaust. Possibly for the first time in their lives, these students were being asked to do what I do every day, recognize that their emotions have no validity outside of their own heads and cannot be used to gain moral leverage over others.

Probably the greatest proof that Aspergers have emotions is that, unfortunately, so many of us suffer from depression. It makes sense; you would also be depressed if you had to live your life cut off from other people in a world distinctively not made with you in mind. To be depressed means that you can be bothered by these things, something only possible with deep emotions. For this reason, I strongly relate to Marvin, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's depressed robot. With the exception of the Arthur Dent, Marvin is the most poignantly human character in the series. If I am going to be stuck as a robot, I would hope to transcend my depressive existence by becoming Wall-E, a trash can robot, who says almost nothing but manages to be the fictional humanist hero of the decade.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

My Search for Meaning: Let Things Mean Something

I spend more time than it is likely healthy for me contemplating the nature of other people and what motivates them. I am particularly intrigued as to how is it that the vast majority of people manage to live their lives without being plagued by the big questions such as the meaning of life, what is Truth and how can we come to any reasonable certainty as to any of these issues. To put the issue starkly, as far as I can tell, the universe existed for twelve to fifteen billion years in which time I did not exist. Before this century is out, barring major advances in technology, I will once again cease to exist and the universe will go on for billions of years without me as if I never existed in the first place. So what is the point? If I am to perish from all existence, let me at least come to some knowledge as to what this world, I find myself in, means. This lack of concern seems to infect both sides of our religious/secular divide. We have our materialistic secular culture searching for new ever greater pleasures almost as an opiate to avoid considering the obvious. I find that religious people are materialistic in their own more subtle ways just as secular people are. I would even go so far as to say that this particular brand of religious materialism is far more corrupting to the mind than anything the secular world could offer. In my experience, belief for members of organized religions is social in nature; you believe in the beliefs of your society. This can be seen as its own opiate and an attempt to avoid the obvious. In a religious setting, we can at least expect the big questions to be asked in a perfunctory manner. But since organized religious tend toward claiming that they have the answers, the questions lose their meaning. They become like the Four Questions of the Passover Seder, to be asked and perfunctorily answered so we can go on to other things.

Do not get me wrong, in many respects, I envy such people. They overall seem to be much happier than I am. If I ever were to be tempted to take some sort of pill to "cure" my Asperger syndrome, I think this would be the temptation, particularly if you threw in a sweet pleasant cute (along with other meaningless positive adjectives) woman to marry. Let us face it, my inability to engage in small social chit-chat and avoid talking about the big issues for any length of time does tend to scare people off and why I am still gloriously single. Not only do most people not actively engage the big issues, they find it objectionable to talk about these things at certain times, such as before breakfast, at dinner, on a first date or within thirty seconds of meeting them. Like hello, my name is Benzion Chinn. What do you do? I am working on a doctorate in history and write a blog. What do you think of the babel fish argument against the existence of God? (I will take the fifth as to whether I have ever literally had this exact conversation with anyone.)

People, who know me, throw my question back at me. Why do I care so much about issues? I am not so arrogant as to believe that I am a being of such intellect as to solve the mysteries of the world. It is also very clear that to go up against the limits of my intellect frustrates me. This is only exacerbated by the fact that I look around and see that most people do not care about these issues and live perfectly happy lives not banging their heads against a wall. Humor for them is simply something to be enjoyed, not a life and death defense mechanism to defend one's sanity in the face of utter despair. Would not my life be so much easier if I could only let things go?

I admit that I am stubborn, and in many respects in a self-destructive manner. My father often tells me that I would rather be right than happy and he is right. And if I did not have a sense of humor about my situation, I think I would have long ago been overwhelmed by it. I do believe there is a purpose in what I do and how I live my life. I may not be able to solve the meaning of life, but I can strive to give meaning to the world within my own mind. This means an insistence that words mean something and as such there are consequences to the words you use. Similarly, categories and ideas mean something and there are consequences to employing them. The ultimate goal of this process, which this blog is an expression of, is to create an internally coherent system of thinking. This system of thinking can then serve as a map outlining the world at large. Agree or disagree with what I write on this blog, but I challenge you to find where I am incoherent, simply throwing words around as rhetorical props, or where I am inconsistent. You may dislike what I say, but my positions are consistent, even brutally so. It may be useful to consider this blog as a long-running game of chess, played usually against hypothetical opponents, in which I hypothetically move my pieces around seeking to create the strongest position possible against any hypothetical attack.

This may be part of my Asperger personality, but I find meaning in this construction of my own logical world, populated by meaningful words and categories. Asperger syndrome itself is simply a useful category to be able to describe a particular way of thinking and place it in this neat little mental universe. It is useful as long as it contributes to the creation of a mental map of the world that is either more accurate or more easily comprehensible. I may not be able to give meaning to the universe. But at least I can be at home in my cozy orderly mind. From this cozy orderly mind, I can hope to venture forth, map in hand, into the world and hope to, at the very least, be able to have a meaningful discussion about it with other rational beings.

Let me end by making it clear that I do not deny the value of humor and the inner emotional life necessary in order for a sense of humor to be possible. On the contrary, in the universe I outline, while it may be built around rational beings, is not one of emotionless humorless robots. Humor has its place as we, together come to the limits of our reason. Rather than collectively bang our heads against a wall, have a good laugh at the absurdity of our situation and, by so doing, maintain our sanity despite everything.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Stanley Fish, Arizona and the Depoliticized Classroom

Dr. Stanley Fish has an interesting post on one particular element of the new Arizona anti illegal immigration efforts, Arizona the Gift that Keeps on Giving. Arizona now wishes to ban ethnic studies classes in public schools, which are designed to promote "race consciousness." One of the things that I admire about Fish is his willingness to stand up for a depoliticized academia and he is on form in this piece as he attacks the pedagogical theories of Paulo Freire and the Mexican American Studies Department of the Tucson Unified School District for using them as the basis for their Social Justice Education Project. Fish, though, turns around and attacks the new law for proposing "that public school pupils should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals and not be taught to resent or hate other races or other classes of people."

As readers of this blog know, I am an opponent of any attempt from either the left or the right to politicize education. When I teach history, I teach the historical method of thinking and use it to consider the who, what, when, where and why of history; I do not teach moral or political values. I see this as part of the bargain we strike together to allow us to have the sort of free society in which one can receive the sort of meaningful education that might down the road turn someone to the right or left. My objection to someone like Freire has little to do with what I might think about the existence of hegemonic cultures and thought structures and their malicious influence. My problem is that Freire not only attacks proponents of these hegemonic cultures, who we have to assume are real people and not just theoretical constructs, but delegitimizes them as well. If these proponents of hegemonic cultures are as dark and as dangerous as Freire claims, then there can be no meaningful discourse with them. Any time you take discussion off the table you have put guns on the table. In essence the pedagogy of Freire is a call for the disenfranchisement, political slavery and even murder of ideological opponents like me, all while being hypocritical enough to deny this fact and having the gall to ask people like me to financially support my own destruction.

While I support widening the circle of people whom, while I may disagree with them I still view as legitimate, as much as possible, there are going to be people who fall outside this circle, who believe things that not only go against the free society but make it impossible for them to take part in it and still have a free society in any meaningful sense. This leads to a situation where the free society must insist, as the price of admission, on the acceptance of certain beliefs. This is no different than the situation of rational skepticism, which allows you to question everything else, but the premises underlying itself. This is the price of belief you pay in order to be a skeptic. As a Jew, I am not capable of ever debating whether or not I am a member of an Elders of Zion organization. I ask that you accept on faith that I am a good American citizen and give me the benefit of the doubt and in return I agree to give you the benefit of the doubt. Since American society has decided to accept people like me into its bosom, it has had no choice but to expel white supremacists from its midst and banish them to places like rural Idaho. This would even apply to the government. I could not be an equal part of an American politics in which white supremacists are also allowed to take part in a meaningful way. As such having me in the system means that we are forced to use all means, Constitutional and extra-Constitutional to make sure white supremacists are not. Nothing personal against white supremacists, but our views are so mutually exclusive that we have no choice, in essence, but to kill each other.

Because I recognize this sort of bargain we make with each other. I have no objection for the government to come in and openly insist on certain ground rules in order to take part in the system. Particularly, everyone has to accept the authority of the government, obey the law and respect the legitimacy, as opposed to liking or agreeing with them, of all other signers of this pact. In a multi-racial United States, one has to be willing to accept, at least ex post facto, that people of all races can be legitimate American citizens. This is all of course superfluous since I oppose government funded education in the first place. I would, though, support similar language in a bill targeting who can run for public office. Yes it would be an ideological test, but one, in essence no different than swearing to uphold the Constitution.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Postmodern Corporate State

In the medieval corporate state, groups negotiated for political and economic advantage. In the liberal state, individuals negotiated for the right to live as they chose so long as they did no harm to others. In the postmodern state, groups negotiate for something never before held to be the business of politics; recognition, regard, self-esteem. (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Home We Build Together pg. 55)

Dr. Haym Soloveitchik has a line that I often use with my own students: "In the pre-modern State there was no such thing as rights; there were privileges that you paid for." The common perception of the Middle Ages was that it was hierarchical and oppressive, with women, peasants, Jews, and heretics being trodden underfoot by the nobility and the Church. The hierarchical part of medieval politics was certainly true, though I am hardly convinced that hierarchy, in of itself as an abstract model of the universe, is necessarily bad. Certainly, its replacement by an egalitarian model had far more to do with changes in the natural sciences than any sudden "enlightenment" as to the unjustness of hierarchy. The notion of the medieval State as oppressive misses the point. Knights were not treated better than peasants because of any assumption of their superiority (beyond the usual sense, common to all people in all times, that they are somehow better than other people). Knights performed a valuable service as professional soldiers; hence their services bought them special privileges. As with the changes in the natural sciences, the shift to mass "citizen's" armies did far more to bring down the feudal hierarchy than any realization that it was "wrong." In highly militarized societies, where the dominant issue is not suffering sudden violent death, value is going to be predominantly determined based on military usefulness. Hence knights would be "better" than peasants and men "better" than women. The demilitarization of society (where we can now worry about social security because we expect to live long enough to receive it without suffering sudden violent death) did far more to bring down the patriarchal hierarchy than any realization that there was anything "wrong" with it. Jews were tolerated sometimes in Christendom and sometimes persecuted not because Christians were "tolerant" or "intolerant," but because Jews were useful and therefore capable of directly or indirectly paying for their protection. With the economic revolutions of the late Middle Ages, Jews stopped being useful and could no longer pay for their protection; hence their expulsion from Western Europe. If there is an underlying mission to what I teach about the Middle Ages and the rise of the Modern World, it is to get students out of their modern moralism, that we are somehow "better," than those living in the Middle Ages because we are "tolerant" and believe in "equality."

While I have no desire to return to a medieval feudal hierarchy (there are certainly good reasons why this form of government disappeared), I do believe that there is something very healthy about the model of privileges as opposed to rights. To be clear, I believe, and the medieval political tradition would agree with me, that there is such a thing as rights, in the sense of right and wrong and that one should not seek to persecute others simply because they are weaker than you. That being said, while I am morally obligated to support the "rights" of others, I can have no expectation that my "rights" will be respected in turn. All I can do is attempt to negotiate for my ability to live in peace by offering something, likely similar guarantees to others of my willingness to allow them to live in peace, in return. One of the fundamental weaknesses of modern liberalism is that it sees rights simply as givens, not something to be bartered for. This creates a situation where rights become a matter of groups demanding their "rights" and holding the rest of society up for blackmail. Now many of these things, whether gay marriage, equal pay for women or protection for illegal immigrants, may be perfectly legitimate. That being said, if there is no sense of negotiating and paying, then there can be no discussion, just the stomping of one's foot, demanding what you want and insisting that anyone who does not give you what you want is "intolerant" and an "enemy of the free society." The moment we stop thinking about rights and instead start talking about privileges, privileges that we pay for, then we might come to decide that certain "rights" might be too expensive and that we can do without them.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Some Religions Do Make You Stupider

Andrew Newberg, a professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania, has been putting nuns and Buddhist meditators into a scanning machine (separately, of course) to measure how their brains function during spiritual experiences. He discovered that religious experiences have a profound impact on the brain: both nuns and meditators showed heightened activity in the frontal lobes of the brain when they were in spiritual states. Newberg also studied Pentecostals while they were speaking in tongues and discovered exactly the opposite phenomenon – a marked decline in the frontal lobes. (John Micklethwait and Adrain Wooldridge, God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World pg. 145-46.)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Free Shipping and the Rights of States: The Right of all States (Not Just Israel) to Wage War in its Own Self Interest

By now I assume that all of my readers have heard the news about the Israeli raid on the flotilla of aid ships in which numerous civilians were killed. This has sparked the usual internet back and forth between Israel's supporters and opponents. Several students of mine got into the thick of one such conflict on Facebook. I am very proud of them; I would like to think that this reflects positively on my teaching, at least a little bit. I am not here to defend Israel, or at least I am not here to defend just Israel. I recognize that this issue ultimately is one of legitimacy and casts a wider net than just the interception of some ships. If Israel has the right to blockade Gaza as part of its war against Hamas than it has the right to not allow ships in. If Israel has the right to not allow ships in then it has the right to intercept them. If Israel has the right to intercept ships than it has the right to use force if there is a plausible concern of being met with violence. I would even go so far as to say that Israel would be justified in firing the first shot. I am not going to sit here from behind my computer and second guess the decisions of soldiers out in the field in danger for their lives. Obviously, if Israel does not have the right to blockade Gaza than this whole discourse collapses and Israel is the aggressor no matter who fired the first shot. I am certainly on the side of the former even as I recognize that the execution of this mission was a disaster.

I would like to take a step back from Israel to consider a larger picture. When Israel comes under attack by the Leftist-Islamic alliance the gut reaction of most is to claim anti-Semitism. I agree with Mark Lilla in viewing the Leftist part of the alliance, as having more to do with an opposition to Nation-States. I would go so far as to see this as an opposition to States as a whole. There are nearly two hundred countries in the world today so it is very easy to take, for granted, what a State is. Modern liberalism likes to mumble something about States ruling over people and having the responsibility to cater to an ever-expanding list of inalienable rights and to provide services. Whatever inalienable right existing out there in some theoretical state of nature, the State is an instrument of violence to which we sacrifice many, if not most, of our theoretical rights in the hopes of being able to enjoy some of them in practice. All laws are implicitly backed by the threat of force (disobey the law and we will physically coerce you into prison or even execute you) and all relations between nations are explicitly so (if we cannot reach an agreement then we will make war upon you and force you to give us what we want). This is not to say that the State and its instruments of violence are good things. There is a reason why I am a libertarian and support a very minimal government, even as I will back that minimal government all the way. I do not seek out violence but believe in pursuing all legitimate avenues to peace.

The United States had the moral right to wage war against Imperial Japan during World War II. As Japan was a State that systematically violated every standard of human rights known to nations almost as egregiously as Germany, the traditional rules of warfare no longer applied. Therefore, the mass bombing of Japanese cities and eventually the atomic bomb was justified. One of the alternatives to using the atomic bomb on Japan was to place a blockade. This would, of course, have likely lasted for months, if not years, and cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Japanese lives. Again, considering what Japan did and the threat it presented to the world, the United States would have been justified in such actions and would have been under no obligation to allow any humanitarian aid in as all such aid would by definition be aid to the enemy. Now imagine if some humanitarian aid mission had attempted to run this blockade. Such people, despite their proclamations of being human rights activists, would be nothing less than out of uniform Japanese combatants (even if they were not actually Japanese). As such the United States Navy would have been justified in shooting them on sight.

This incident of the flotilla reminds me of Rachel Corrie, a "human rights activist" apparently run over by accident by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza. As with the flotilla, it is important to keep the political ethics of the situation. This young woman, who may have been a wonderful kind hearted person and meant well, put herself in the way of a military mission. This made her an out of uniform enemy combatant and, as such, she forfeited all legal rights, allowing for her to be shot on sight or even tortured. If she believed that Israel was a Nazi regime than she was free to take up arms and fight, with the expectation that armed force would be used in return. One way or another, no blame can be placed on Israel. I do not have anything personal against the people on the ships, but they put themselves in a military situation and thus made themselves out of uniform enemy combatants to be shot on sight. (One does not have to think that one's enemies are bad people even as you kill them.) If they wished to fight let them fight as long as they accept the consequences.

For all the talk of a clash of civilizations between the Western and Islamic worlds, I see the real conflict as within the heart of the Western world. On one hand, there are the classical liberals, who believe in Nation-States as instruments of justified violence to be kept in check by laws and treaties, and modern liberalism, which rejects such States. While modern liberalism seeks the moral high ground with its claims of pacifist peace-making, in truth its actions are de-facto apologies for the likes of Hamas and all those who seek to make war without the restraint of the systems of checks and balances built up by the West over the past centuries. It is either real war, with real causalities, but with real checks and balances, or unchecked Hobbesian war.