Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Does God Hate Deaf People? Toward New Bible Based Bigotry

In addition to the black civil rights movement, my own Asperger advocacy makes use of the models of deaf advocacy and the gay rights movement. Both are examples of groups that have been able to bring mainstream respectability to something traditionally looked down upon by society. I admire the gay rights movement in that they were able to get themselves off the listing as a psychological illness. The deaf community, going back even to the nineteenth century, has been successful, through the creation of sign language, in forming a deaf culture and by so doing has helped redefine how we think of disability, creating a social model of disability. Once you have a culture with language, literature, and artists then you can longer be defined by what you lack, say hearing, and can insist on being treated like every other culture. Furthermore, the deaf community has in the case of cochlear implants been able to fend off attempts at "curing" them even from the mainstream medical establishment.

In advocating for myself and others on the spectrum, my goals are first to get away from the medical model used by groups such as Autism Speaks, where autism is a disease to be cured, and move toward a social model of disability, where autism is viewed as an alternative and equally valid way of processing information and dealing with the world. This is neurodiversity. In the long run, I would hope to see certain elements of the autism spectrum, like Asperger syndrome, taken off the diagnostic list and turned simply into another social and cultural group.

In talking about neurodiversity with people, I make frequent use of both the deaf and gay models. For obvious reasons, when I am in more conservative company I shy away from talking about gay rights and focus more on the deaf example. Who would object to the idea that being deaf is a culture no different than Spanish, Irish or Jewish, that one could create a perfectly functional society without the use of hearing and that there is nothing wrong about being deaf that is in need of being cured? I was mistaken in this assumption.

I was recently talking to a religious person about Asperger syndrome, using the deaf example, when the person responded that being deaf went against nature; God created people with ears so, therefore, lacking the use of one's hearing was a defect not intended by God. I pressed the person, arguing that hearing is not necessary for living one's life and that perhaps human beings will evolve away from being dependent on hearing. (Bats still have eyes even though they rely primarily on a biological sonar to see.) At this point, that person retorted that the Bible spoke about deafness as an impairment. I let the conversation end by noting that I was not talking theology and that, under a secular system of politics, it is irrelevant. I would have liked to continue and ask the person whether they were willing to follow through with the implications of their views. Should we allow deaf people to do such non-Bible sanctioned activities as voting, serving on juries or even as witnesses? What business have deaf people thinking they can create their own non-sound based language? Was it among the languages used after the Tower of Babel? Might all this deaf culture really be a secular liberal plot to undermine our Bible-based traditional aural values?

I am used to the Bible being used to object to gay rights. Apparently, there are those who might consider using it against the deaf. I guess we should be grateful that the issue of deaf rights has flown below the radar screen of certain people otherwise we might end up with a defend the sanctity of aurality movement.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Bard and the Mouse

I recently attended the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of All's Well That Ends Well. It is not one of Shakespeare's better plays. The central plot is about a woman named Helena, who falls in love with Count Bertram, who rejects her. Helena succeeds in curing the King of France of an ailment with the help of a medical secret left to her by her late physician father. As a reward, she is given the choice of any man in the kingdom. She chooses Bertram. Bertram, though, runs off to Florence, resolving to never accept Helena as his wife until she can produce his ring on her finger and his child inside her. Helena pursues her Count and discovers that is seeking to bed Diana, the daughter of an innkeeper. Helena manages to switch places and gain Bertram's ring and baby. So we have a lead female character defined by her supposed intelligence and her willingness to throw herself after a man who neither wants nor deserves her. Bertram is someone who spends the entire play being a complete louse yet nothing bad actually happens to him. At the end of the play he is humiliated, but for some strange reason is now in love with the cause of his misfortune. I find this more problematic than anything in Taming of the Shrew.

There is one bright spot in the play in that, like all Shakespearean comedy, All's Well features a great comic side character, the foppish and cowardly Parolles. Parolles gets a deliciously naughty back and forth with Helena at the beginning on the uselessness of virginity and, later on, is tricked by his comrades into believing that he has been captured by the enemy and promptly agrees to sell out his own side. All's Well is worth it simply as an exercise in how Shakespeare relied on side characters, usually of relatively base origin, as comic relief and commentary on the higher born main characters. Parolles is essentially Falstaff of Henry IV parts I and II and Merry Wives of Windsor. Much Ado About Nothing has Constable Dogberry and Midsummer's Night's Dream has Puck and Bottom. All of these characters, in the hands of the right actors, are quite easily capable of taking over their respective plays.

There is another institution in modern times that does this, Disney. From almost the beginning, when Disney started to make full-length animation films, it worked on a model of taking well-established stories, adding in a few musical numbers and some wisecracking sidekicks. Pinocchio got Jiminy Cricket, a cat and a fish and Cinderella a band of talking mice. Flash forward to the more recent era of Disney animation, Little Mermaid gets a talking crab and a pair of henchmen eels; Beauty and the Beast gets talking dishes and Aladdin, a monkey and a parrot. It is almost always these side characters who are the most interesting parts of the film to the extent that the films would not work without them even though they are not that important to the actual plot.  

Considering all this, it is surprising that, with the exception of Lion King (Hamlet in the Sahara, complete with an evil uncle, a murdered king, a dithering hero and a ghost), Disney has not ventured to do Shakespeare. I, for one, would be curious to see what Disney could do with Midsummer's Night's Dream or The Tempest. Then again, considering what they did with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, maybe not.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Social Networking and Bank Robbery: Some Thoughts on The Town

Last night I went along with a friend to a sneak preview of The Town, directed by and starring Ben Affleck, unfortunately (to be fair he is actually watchable in this movie), but also featuring Mad Men's Jon Hamm. The premise of the film lies in the fact that Charlestown, a working-class neighborhood in Boston, has the highest rate in the world of producing bank robbers. To my mind, speculating as to the cause of such a phenomenon begs one to combine Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day, in which discusses gangs and the economics of drug dealing, with Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and Tipping Point. Outliers examines the societal features that enable those with genius and extreme talent to succeed. Tipping Point deals with what sort of social connections necessary to transmit ideas. Gladwell is mainly interested in phenomena like hockey players in Canada, the computer revolution and Jewish lawyers, but his argument could be applied to bank robbery.

The vast majority of people growing up in a place like Charlestown do not go out and become bank robbers. That being said, there are certain features in growing up in Charlestown that can enable such life choices. Robbing banks requires a certain level of intelligence and technical expertise. Our potential bank robber needs to be intelligent enough to work through the details of a bank job plan but be unable to get the education and social connections necessary to enter into more lucrative and physically less hazardous fields of crime such as investment fraud. Think of what might have happened to Bernie Madoff if he had never received the sorts of opportunities he did; maybe he would have been knocking over banks at the point of a gun. Once our bank robber has decided on his chosen career, he is going to need particular training of a kind not generally provided in school; things such as firearms, forensics, carjacking a getaway vehicle, video surveillance and safe-cracking. It is unlikely that one person would be able to master all of these things, which brings us to the social networking aspect of bank robbery. Robbing a bank is a team effort. Where does our bank robber find a group of other intelligent criminals, who have not gone into white collar crime, to be trusted to guard his back and not simply turn him over to the government? (Certainly not on Facebook.) The same place he went to in order to learn the trade in the first place, friends, and family. A place like Charlestown can produce bank robbers because it already has the people on the ground to pass on their knowledge and form social networks to produce new generations of bank robbers.

I would have loved to see a movie that really explored these issues. Going on a spree of bank robberies could be the culmination of a story going back decades as we follow our young future criminals on their road to bank robbery. Unfortunately, the movie decided to only deal with the social networking issues in passing in order to make way for, what Hollywood loves turning everything into, a love story. You see there is this pretty female witness briefly taken hostage in the film's opening robbery, who might be able to give our team of bank robbers away even though they had masks. The leader of the team (played by Ben Affleck) takes it upon himself sniff out what she might know and promptly falls in love with her, setting up all sorts of obvious complications. This plotline does culminate in one useful line. When the girl confronts Ben Affleck about the truth and asks him why she should believe him, he responds: "because you are not going to like what I am going to tell you." As a historian, this is a central foundation of how we evaluate information. You can gauge the truth based on how damaging it is to the speaker; incrimination equals truth.

Not that this is a bad film. On technical grounds, the film performs well; it is well written, directed, shot, and acted. There is plenty of action and good laugh lines, particularly with the sequence when they hold up an armored vehicle with assault rifles and nun's costumes. I defiantly enjoyed watching the movie and do recommend it.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Making Religion Asperger Friendly (More Texts, More Rituals and More Opportunities to be Sociable Without Having to Actually Talk to People)

There is a running debate as to the relationship between Asperger syndrome and atheism. Are Aspergers more likely than the general population to be atheists and if so why? (See John Elder Robison and James Pate) I certainly know a number of Asperger atheists and anecdotal experience indicates that people on the spectrum are more secular than the general population. I think it has less to do with religion or no religion than it does about what type of religion. The Asperger mind is not socially based like that of most people, but is more rule-based. One does not relate to people, but to abstract ideas and concepts. This creates a problem in that, not surprisingly, most religions were designed and evolved from a neurotypical perspective and to suit neurotypical needs. Particularly, they rely on social relationships as a means of forming and maintaining themselves. For the purposes of this post I will limit myself to the case of Orthodox Judaism and my own personal experience with it; I would be interested in hearing from those with practical experience with other religions as to what extent what I say here is relevant.

Judaism, as a minority and often persecuted religion, evolved a strong sense of its own vulnerability and of the need to take active measures to pass itself on to the next generation and keep its youth in the fold. What many of these methods have in common are that they rely on creating attachments to other people and, as such, are distinctively ill suited for dealing with Aspergers. Thinking in terms of my own personal experience growing up, it was no good to tell me that I was part of a link in a chain of tradition [mesorah] connecting me to my parents and grandparents and ultimately to the Exodus and the Revelation at Mount Sinai. Regardless of what I might think of the historicity of these claims, the very concept of being attached to other people was foreign to me. (As a historian let me add that the notion that you could have a tradition connecting one generation to the next to the extent that one can draw straight lines and use equal signs is an absurdity.) I was never very good at forming an attachment to a rabbi to learn from. I never found praying as part of a quorum to be spiritually uplifting. The threat of what the people around me were going to think was not going to keep me in line; I was usually blissfully unaware of what other people were thinking.

Orthodox Judaism, though, does have certain features that did speak to me; these have played a major role in keeping me within that orbit. Texts play a major role in Orthodox Judaism and, while I might not relate well to people, I do relate to texts. I might not have taken well to Talmud and being in an environment that forced me to study the subject nearly did me in. I did, though, develop an attachment to the Bible and the commentary of Isaac Abarbanel; reading him for hours on end was certainly a spiritually edifying endeavor. Something should also be said about the role of ritual; Judaism offers things for me to do every day to structure my life. If I were a Christian I do not know how I would deal with my "getting right with God;" am I a good Christian, living up to the Sermon on the Mount? As I Jew, I can wash my hands in the morning, pray, eat kosher food and believe that I am at least on the right track to forming a relationship with God. (One of the ironies of Christianity is that, while it claimed to replace the unfulfillable demands of an Old Testament deity, it is the religion that is truly unfulfillable.)

I would like to end with something that occurred to me over the previous days of Rosh Hashanah, which may sound somewhat counter-intuitive. Being stuck in a room for six hours, two straight days, reciting texts is enough to get anyone to start asking some serious questions about what he is doing and why he is doing it. My father once pointed out to me that Jewish prayer is not very interactive and, if you are an outsider experiencing it for the first time, it can prove quite boring. Most of it consists of people reciting things under their breath and a cantor to pace everyone. Ironically enough, this actually works very well for me because it allows me to be "sociable," for hours on end even, on my terms, without actually having to talk to another human being. I get to read, meditate and think about the things that I like to think about and that I normally do by myself in my room. Now, since I am doing all of this, not in my private bedroom but in a room full of other people, what was something that might have invited reprimands for being anti-social, becomes the exact opposite. Now that I have been such a good sociable person for hours on end no one should be able to deny that I have earned the right to turn back into myself to my heart's content for a few days.

This is one Asperger Jew's take on thing.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The English Language Makes Me Laugh Loudly and Immoderately

Those who have spent any significant time with me in person know that I have a rather strange laugh, something in between a hyena laughing and donkey braying. Children tend to get a kick out of my laugh, particularly when it is accompanied by me chasing after them and pontificating on the health benefits of medieval surgery and working in the mines. Adults, for some strange reason, tend to find my laugh grating and bothersome.

Recently, thanks to dictionary.com's word of the day, I discovered the word "caCHINNate."

"Cachinnate \KAK-uh-neyt\, verb: To laugh loudly or immoderately."
So the next time, someone asks me where I got such a god-awful laugh, I can respond: "Don't look at me. I am just an innocent victim of the English language."

Friday, September 3, 2010

Rebbe Judaism, the Vilna Gaon and Kupat Ha’ir

I am sitting in my room flipping through the latest Kupat Ha'ir brochure, declaring that Haredi Gedolim have ASSURED contributors "a good, sweet, year with no distress or serious ailments." Back in my day, it was enough to simply wish people a "sweet new year," a "good signing and sealing" and believe that "repentance, prayer, and charity overturn evil decrees." According to the brochure, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman are in the habit of meeting to discuss Kupat Ha'ir. "Why? There's no answer to this question. It's impossible for human logic to fathom." For those of us still bound by in the realm of human logic, Rabbi Kanievsky informs us that Kupat Ha'ir is the reason why we have not had a "Second Holocaust."

What really caught my attention in this brochure was the fact that it mentions the eighteenth century Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (the Vilna Gaon), comparing the crowds gathering outside to catch a glimpse of Rabbi Kanievsky and Rabbi Steinman talking about Kupat Ha'ir to the people, who supposedly gathered in the town of Meretz to catch a glimpse of Rabbi Elijah of Vilna when he visited. As anyone familiar with Jewish history will tell you, Rabbi Elijah of Vilna was a highly reclusive individual, who hardly left his house, and was hardly, during his lifetime, the sort of famous personality to attract crowds. His one major public act was the excommunication ban on the early Hasidic movement and his subsequent campaign against them.

One of the major shifts in Orthodox Judaism over the past few decades has been the "Hasidic" turn even among Lithuanian Jews, who claim ideological descent from Rabbi Elijah of Vilna. As Kupat Ha'ir is a good example of, even Lithuanian rabbis now offer blessings and claim miraculous powers; the sort of thing that used to be the province of Hasidic rebbes.

If Rabbi Elijah of Vilna were around today, he surely would point to Kupat Ha'ir as an example of how necessary it was to excommunicate Hasidim in the eighteenth century and proceed to excommunicate those presently involved with Kupat Ha'ir. So, how about it.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Isaac Asimov and the Submission to Law

In an earlier post, I spoke about the necessity of submission to Law as a form of salvation from "every man doing what is right in their eyes." I was recently reading an Isaac Asimov novel, The Stars, Like Dust, that, in its own way made a similar point.

Before I continue, I might as well say something about the novel as a whole. It is very typical Isaac Asimov, both in its strengths and weaknesses. It is a pan-galactic mystery novel with a square-jawed hero, Biron Farril, a female companion, Artemisia oth Hinriad, who serves no purpose but to be a mindless damsel in distress and fall madly in love with the hero midway through the book, and a wise old comically endearing scientist, Gilbret, to serve as the voice of reason, off on an adventure through space. Writing in 1951, Asimov did an incredible job covering the technicalities of hyperspace travel with plausible sounding jargon. That being said, he has his characters stick paper labels on ship controls, and smoke cigarettes on a space ship. One can only imagine: "Welcome aboard my spaceship. Please take a cigarette. No need to worry about such primitive diseases as lung cancer; you will be blown to bits by the exploding oxygen long before that." Asimov had this problem covered by something even more bizarre. He seemed to have assumed that it is necessary to constantly breathe in carbon so his spaceships have carbon in their atmosphere and his spacesuits have small carbon emitters. I have no idea where he got that idea. Perhaps one of my readers who know something about 1950s science could help me out here.

Our heroes, Biron, Artemisia and Gilbret are on the run in a stolen space cruiser from the evil Tyrannians (pun very much intended). Seeking to free the Nebula Kingdoms, our heroes search for the hidden rebel world. Along the way, another mystery keeps floating over their heads; there are references to a secret document from ancient Earth that if ever revealed would destroy the Tyrannians. While fighting for freedom and justice, our heroes have a problem; they are all noblemen and, as such, illegitimately rule over their subjects just much as the Tyrannians do over them. In fighting against the Tyrannians are they merely seeking to replace them? This ceases to be an idle question when they come up against a rebel leader who is trying to do precisely that.

After many twists and turns (and Asimov was nothing if not clever), our heroes finally find the rebellion and meet its leader. The leader, it turns out, has heard of the secret document from Earth and even has it in his possession. Biron breathlessly asks the leader to reveal what is in this document; how could a mere document be so powerful as to destroy an empire? The leader explains that, yes, this document, once revealed, will destroy the Tyrannians as well as the nobility, paving the way for a truly just government. He begins to recite the text by heart: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

And the novel ends just like that.

There is a simple beauty to Asimov with his utter faith in classical liberal principles, that a free society combined with scientific rationalism could bring the salvation of society. As ironic as this might sound talking about an agnostic scientific rationalist, but, in reading Asimov, I cannot help but feel overwhelmed by the force of his faith as it demands that I too submit myself to the power of such law and put my faith in it. (See also On the Comforts of Reading Isaac Asimov.)