Sunday, October 31, 2010

Jon Stewart is Great. Milton Friedman was Better.

Jon Stewart gave an excellent speech yesterday at his Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington DC that was a true ode to bipartisanship and a plea for mutual tolerance.

Stewart offers an example that we see every day of cars entering the Lincoln Tunnel. Drivers with Obama and NRA stickers, Evangelicals and atheists all work together to allow everyone to safely merge into the tunnel lane and do not simply cut each other off because of their political views. Stewart uses this example correctly to point out that outside of Washington and cable TV people do not live their lives as a political struggle. While I liked what Stewart was saying something was bothering me that I could not immediately put into words. It finally hit me when I realized that Milton Friedman once employed a similar line of argument in regards to the making of pencils.

Friedman pointed out that, within the seemingly simple process of manufacturing pencils, there was a powerful mechanism serving to bring about world peace. The pencil is made up of resources drawn from different parts of the world by people of different languages and creeds, who, left to their own devices, would likely not tolerate each other if they ever met in person. The fact that they are all tied together in the manufacturing process of pencils forces them, even unwittingly to cooperate in the pursuit of a common goal.

Friedman, though, included one thing that Stewart did not, something that, for Friedman, was utterly essential. Stewart never asks why the people driving into the Lincoln tunnel bother to cooperate. Stewart seems to assume that this all happens as if by "magic." This is in keeping with modern liberal thought which assumes that people are naturally good tolerant and, unless corrupted by outside forces (say right-wing talk-radio), will cooperate with others for the common good. Friedman knew better; it is the free market that allows us to buy complex devices such as pencils for mere pennies. People learn to stow away their prejudices and embrace tolerance because they do not wish to go broke and have to watch their children starve. Similarly, people learn to "tolerate" the oppositional bumper-stickers of the car in the next lane and do not try to cut that driver off, not out of any innate human goodness, but because it is not worth risking a car that one has paid for out of one's own pocket and the potential medical bills in order to not be few minutes late for something they do not want to be going to in the first place. (One can infer that any attempt on the part of the government to help people buy and insure their cars and offer them health care will lead to an increase in "intolerant" driving and accidents. Government aid will get you killed; the free market, like a seatbelt, will save your life.)

Yes, this country needs a restoration of sanity as the forces of both the left and the right seek to use physical force to impose their values on others. What is needed is for our societal struggles (whether marriage or healthcare) to be left in the capable hands of the free market.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Even Goyim Support the American Jewish World Service

Director Judd Apatow has created a PSA for the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). The piece features an A list lineup of celebrities, both Jewish and non-Jewish, making their pitch for AJWS. Some of the snippets are funnier than others. The running tagline, though, is having non-Jews like Don Johnson, Tracy Morgan and Patrick Stewart saying that they are not Jewish, but still support AJWS. This does raise a question, though; if AJWS does not primarily give aid to Jews and if it is being supported by non-Jews then is it still a Jewish organization? (Is Notre Dame Catholic?)

So you do not have to be Jewish to pitch for AJWS (or a Chabad telethon for that matter). But, just to satisfy my inner Elder of Zion, do you have to still be Jewish to work for the Jewish take over the world syndicate and do PSAs for their cover organizations? I am not sure if my love of tolerance covers plotting with gentiles to take over the world. To all my non-Jewish friends, I guess you must be satisfied with helping out AJWS.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Are the Greeks and Romans Just More Popular?

In my History 111 class we just finished Robert Harris' Imperium, a novel dealing with the life of Cicero. It proved to be a tremendous success. Harris deserves a lot of credit for crafting a suspenseful novel and making Cicero something more than just a giver of moralistic speeches. For the next book the class voted on The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece by Paul Cartledge. The Spartans ran over my other suggestions by an overwhelming majority. (The fact that a large percentage of the class has seen the movie 300 probably did not hurt.)

The book that I chose at the beginning of the quarter, Bart Ehrman's Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene, received a respectful if unenthusiastic response. Students, though, were very enthusiastic about Cicero and ancient Rome and now there is a lot of interest in ancient Greece. So, as someone who specializes in medieval and early modern history, I raise the question: is Greco-Roman civilization really so much popular than anything else in Western History? Now do not get me wrong here. I have nothing against classical history. I try to interest students in history any way I can. If the Greeks and Romans intrigue students then I will teach an entire course about the Greeks and Romans.

Perhaps Greco-Roman history is more popular because of a perception that pagan Greeks and Romans were naughtier than medieval Christians. I am reminded of a political science teacher I once had who assured us that if we were offended by Aristophanes making jokes about farting gnats in The Clouds then we should wait till we get to the Church Fathers and the rate of such sophomoric humor will drop precipitously. As I see it, Christians are more interesting because they get to misbehave, feel guilty and be scared of going to hell all at the same time. Maybe the Greeks and Romans manage to avoid being controversial? It is possible that my Christian students do not want to do a class on Christianity out of a concern that I might start bashing their religion and secular students would just rather not hear about Christianity in the first place. Thus doing the Greeks and Romans avoids the problem for everyone.

So I put the question to my readers: in your experience is there a particular interest in Greece and Rome in our society above and beyond other areas of pre-modern history and if so what do you think is the reason for this?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Ken Matesz: Libertarian Candidate for Governor of Ohio

I must admit to being torn about the upcoming gubernatorial election. Here in Ohio, we have Republican John Kasich challenging Gov. Ted Strickland. I have generally supported Republicans, but for the past few years, I have been rethinking that. What I have come to realize is that, when dealing with the Republican Party, one cannot count on them to come through with their promises of smaller government. Eight years of George W. Bush have given free markets a bad name and President Obama his opening to spew his nonsense that free markets caused our recession. What the Republicans can be counted to push through with are precisely those creepy anti-science anti-personal liberty initiatives that they usually just hint at and for which I have needed to work very hard at "hear no evil, see no evil" for. (I am no longer willing to accept candidates who dance around the evolution as I close my eyes, cover my ears and tell myself that they are not Young Earth Creationists.) Whatever problems I have with the modern liberal intellectual tradition, it is at least an intellectual tradition. Modern conservatism has sold itself out to a talk-radio tea-party culture that is fundamentally against intellectuals, whether liberal or just simple academics like me. If the Ohio Republican Party had the decency to nominate an outsider I might have been willing to go along, but John Kasich is the personification of the establishment. You want a Republican who failed to fix government spending; Kasich was on the House Budget Committee during the 90s. Want a Republican in bed with our conservative anti-intellectual culture; Kasich had a regular stint on Fox news. I actually voted for Strickland four years ago, since he struck me as a relatively moderate guy and the Republican candidate, Ken Blackwell, made me nervous, particularly the fact that he opposed abortion even in cases where a mother's life was at risk. If Strickland supports wasteful government spending at least he supports the kind that benefits me, government funded universities. At the end of the day, though, Strickland is a high profile supporter of the Obama stimulus program, which I cannot support.

Thankfully for this libertarian, there is a Libertarian Party candidate for governor of Ohio, Ken Matesz. Matesz is the kind of candidate, from what I can tell so far, supports things that I can affirm wholeheartedly such as bringing government down to its basic functions and getting rid of government service programs such as welfare and education.

I recognize that Matesz cannot win. So why bother voting for him? Am I not simply wasting my vote and helping the candidate I disagree with the most, Ted Strickland, to win? I struggle with the issue, but I have come to believe that, on the contrary, voting outside of the two party system is actually making good use of my vote. If John Kasich is going to win he is likely going to win without my vote. Matesz can actually use my vote. If he can crack that 1% barrier maybe he will get some actual attention from the mainstream media. My vote brings him that much closer to receiving just a few minutes to talk to the general public about libertarian ideas. If Matesz actually costs Kasich the election even better; that will bring attention to the fact that Republicans do not represent libertarian ideas and make them take us seriously for next time.

Addendum: For those of my readers living in New York there is Warren Redlich running as the Libertarian Party candidate for governor. Yes, he looks and sounds like someone who got his underwear pulled over his head in high school, but on the issues he is solid. I can understand and accept that my liberal readers will vote for Andrew Cuomo. Under no circumstances, though, could I accept someone voting for Carl Paladino.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Lemonade Queen Yiddish Professor

The lovely and talented Miriam Udel is a Yiddish professor at Emory University. She also just released awesome hip-hop single, Lemonade Queen. How many rap songs do you know of that deal with being a nice Jewish girl, a junior professor, breaking free from an ex-husband while raising her kids, reading Simon Schama and voting for Obama?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Historians as a “Special Interest” Group

(This exercise in irony is dedicated to the memory of the late "mercenary professor," Dr. Milton Friedman.)

I am a Special Interest. I am not like some the bad Special Interests you may hear about on the news, Big Oil, Pharmaceuticals and Wall Street though. I am a good Special Interest. How could I be anything else; I teach history. My sole motivations in life are the pursuit of knowledge and passing that knowledge over to your children. You can trust us historians to never be motivated by greed or ego and always have the public interest at heart. For this reason, you will see history departments, across the country, dedicating themselves to teaching. Show me the history department that will allow a course to be taught by anything less than a fully qualified professor. We would never throw wet behind the ears graduate students to teach classes in order to free up professors to do research and gain more prestigious posts. Universities always deliver on the high-quality teachers you think you are paying for and would never cut corners to make a quick buck. I can recall many conversations with my advisor telling me that the most important thing I need to worry about as a graduate student was teaching and that it was alright if I delayed finishing my dissertation by a year or two in order to invest more time in my students.

As a historian, I have worked hard lobbying school administrators and politicians on behalf of your children to make sure they receive a good history education regardless of whether they wanted one or not. Since we in the history profession are so wise and know what is best for people, even better than they do themselves, we have insisted on mandatory classes in history starting in grade school. History teachers would never treat their job as a means of slacking off and collecting a paycheck. And because it is so obvious from talking to any high school graduate how effective these mandatory history classes we have been teaching them all these years have been in giving over a solid understanding of the field, we can only insist that the practice continues in college. This is to make up for any deficiencies in their history education which may have come about due to you not giving us enough money and not creating more mandatory courses. You should certainly vote for those patriotic politicians who promise you to increase funding for history education, smaller class sizes and more of them so that your children become proper Americans and grow up to be like you; people who hate learning themselves, but are eager to hoist it on others just like you did to them.

Considering that I am so smart and spend my time reading history books unlike you members of the unwashed television-watching masses (whom I have the utmost respect for and whose interests I serve), it is only right that I have access to a high-quality lending library. Since I do not wish to pay for one out of the meager paycheck I have you give me for teaching history classes that I make your children take, I think I will have you pay for it instead. Have you not been listening to the politicians we historians have hoisted upon you when they tell you that our children need books in order to compete in the global economy and if we only built more libraries they will flock to them? I enjoy the quiet library full of books and librarians on call to help. One would think that the library was built just for me.

If you let us, we historians have an exciting future planned for your children. It is only proper that not only should every child in this country have to take history classes starting in kindergarten, but that every history class needs to be staffed by a teacher with a Ph.D. in the topic. I say this not to hoist a money-making scam on the public, but out of the sincere wish that every child receives the sort of high-quality history teacher they deserve. We will be very pragmatic about things. If a school is unable to find enough history teachers with doctorates they will be allowed to exempt themselves from the program by paying a small fine of several thousand dollars per child to the newly created American Board of History Educators, who will provide you with a history consultant to advise the unqualified teachers you will have to hire. This history consultant will be guaranteed base history administrative salary, to be paid for by your school, of at least a half a million dollars. Can you put a price on your child's education?

We historians serve the public out of the purest altruism. We do not have our fingers in your wallet. Every politician who speaks on our behalf telling you to give us more money does it because they recognize how indispensable we are to the nation and not because we threaten to get them voted out of office if they do not give us more of your money. It is so obvious that anyone who would question our integrity can only be an agent of some Big Business Special Interest, who wish to rob your children of the education they deserve and which only we can give them. So this November please vote for the politician who promises to give us the most funding out of dollars created magically ex nihilo as only governments can do. Your children deserve an education and I deserve a paycheck.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Hobbesian Round of Prisoner’s Dilemma

For me the most fundamental question in all politics is the one asked by Thomas Hobbes: how is that that large numbers of people live in close proximity every day without murdering one another. Instead of going to work next week, it makes perfect logical sense for me to murder my neighbors and take their clothes and any food I find in their apartment. Alternatively, I can make an alliance with my neighbors to live in peace and brotherhood and massacre the people down the street, down the river or the next State over. (Think Attila the Hun.) Of course, if I am feeling slightly humanitarian, I might spare the lives of these other people and simply enslave them formally or under the guise of some system that establishes them as my inferiors, existing only to benefit me. The fact that you and I have been fortunate to live under more "civilized" circumstances does not take away from the fact that we are the exception. The natural state of human affairs is Hobbesian war where everyone tries to kill everyone else before they are in turn killed. Of course, as Hobbes understood, it is only under civilized regimes, where people do not wake up thinking about how best to murder their neighbors, that there can be any serious cultivation of the arts or scientific progress. (It is important to understand that the point of this entire discourse is not that you should murder your neighbors. Quite the contrary, it is about how we avoid murdering our neighbors.)

I might not accept Hobbes' answer (I do not support absolute monarchy), but his framing of the question places him in the front rank of political philosophers. What fundamentally separates me from Hobbes is an Enlightenment faith in reason. If Hobbes saw man as a material animal that could only be kept in check by the brute force of government authority, I assume that man is a rational animal, who can, through force of reason, negotiate his way out of mass slaughter. One way to think of Democracy is one grand act of societal negotiation; we go to the polls to vote as an alternative to killing one another.

Game theory's prisoner's dilemma offers a useful way of posing the Hobbesian question. Prisoner's dilemma is a scenario in which the police have two people in two separate rooms and offer them the exact same deal. If you agree to talk you go free and your partner goes to jail for ten years. If both you and your partner remain silent you both go free. If both you and your partner squeal on each other then both of you will go to jail for five years. Critical to this scenario is the fact that neither party knows what the other party is going to do. The irony of prisoner's dilemma is that if both parties follow their own rational self-interest they will both squeal on the other. Talking to the police means that at worst you get five and that is only if your partner was going to talk himself and put you away for ten. Of course, having both parties follow this logic means that they both will end up in jail. Both parties are trapped and neither can afford to do the right thing and keep silent even if that will save everyone; you have to assume that the other person is going to do what is best for himself and you must, therefore, do what is best for yourself, particularly knowing that the other person has no reason to trust you and is making the exact same calculation. Those we are trapped in a cycle of selfish behavior in which both sides lose.

To apply this to Hobbes, I might like to think of myself as a moral person, but I can make no assumption that anyone else is moral. When I walk out my door, I have every reason to assume that my neighbor is plotting to kill, rob or enslave me. The object that he is reaching for in his pocket is likely a gun and not his wallet. When he goes to meet with his friends he is probably plotting with them as to how best to get me and not the latest in sports or celebrity gossip. The only solution is for me to get a gun and start shooting, or at least find allies of my own and plot with them as to the best time for shooting. I am not a bad person; I am just acting rationally in self-defense. Of course, everyone else is making the same exact calculation and is forced to come to the same conclusion, a conclusion only strengthened by the assumption that others have reached this same inevitable line of reasoning. Thus we are trapped in a cycle of violence.

Now there is a way out of prisoner's dilemma; it requires that, instead of this being a onetime deal, the players have to do repeated rounds. This changes things by bringing in the possibility of retaliation. If you squeal on your partner, you can be certain that your partner will do the same to you in the next round. Relying on the assumption that my partner is a rational being pursuing his own self-interest and will not do something that is clearly going to harm him on all the next rounds, I can safely remain silent. My partner, relying on the fact that that I am a rational being making this exact calculation, can do the same. Thus the cycle of squealing is broken.

To apply this to Hobbes, when I make the decision whether or not to turn violent against my neighbor, I also have to take into account the fact that, even if I get to my gun first and kill my neighbor, I still have to deal with the six billion other players in this game. The fact that I have just demonstrated that I am the sort of person who will go for his gun, guarantees that everyone else will reach for their guns all the faster when it comes to dealing with me. Considering my own rational self-interest, I take the chance that my neighbor is not trying to kill me, relying on the fact that, as a rational being, he, in turn, is going through this same calculation. Thus we break the cycle of violence and allow for the work of civilization to begin.

There are two principles of politics that come out of this system. One, as this method of breaking out of prisoner's dilemma only works when the threat of retaliation is swift and certain, it is necessary that anyone who goes for their gun must be viewed as an absolute threat to the entire system and wiped out without hesitation as one would a rabid dog. (The cases of Nazi Germany, Japan, and the Palestinians come to mind.) The second principle is that one can only deal with people who are highly rational in all their dealings with others. The moment that I no longer possess clearly stated lines of thinking that I can rely on my neighbor to follow and which lead me to conclude that he is not reaching for his gun, I have to assume gun and the cycle of violence begins. So the next time you hear someone say that reason does not define their politics, better reach for your gun.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Call it Midrash

Bart Ehrman's Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene deals heavily in early Christian mythology. From early on in the book, Ehrman recognizes that there is very little of use that can be said about the historical figures of Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene. Instead, Ehrman finds a far more fruitful line of discussion in using these figures to shed light on the early Christian communities; what stories did they tell about the founders of their religion and for what purpose. I find this to be a useful exercise for students in that it gets them past the trap issue of whether scripture is TRUE or not, begetting either a fundamentalist line of this is true and the academics no nothing or the New Atheist line of this is simply ridiculous and irrelevant. Both positions would render the whole study of history to be meaningless, the handmaiden of polemics.

Part of the problem here I think is that we lack a useful word for this entire process. Words like "myth" and "legend" connote something that is simply false, made up and therefore irrelevant. We need a word to cover a process of textual interpretation that fills in the narrative gaps in order to deal with weaknesses within the narrative, adds clarity and offers a final product that is useful and fits the present ideology. While the Christian tradition never produced a word for this process, the Jewish tradition has, it is called Midrash. (Islam has the concept of Hadith, but I think Midrash is the better fit here as it implies a process that is more informal and organic.)

Take the example of Abraham. Abraham enters the biblical stage at the age of seventy-five when God tells him to journey "to the land which [God] will show him" (ultimately the land of Canaan). The reader is struck by the fact that the Bible has failed to tell us anything about the first seventy-five years of Abraham's life, particularly how Abraham came to believe in God. Come the rabbis to the rescue and we are provided with the story. Little Abraham once saw a magnificent building; he concluded that something as complex as a building must have been created by a master craftsman, who was simply out of sight. Abraham looked out at the world and wondered who could have created something so unbelievably complex; the world must have a hidden designer. Abraham's father, Terah, owned an idol shop. Abraham, no longer a believer in idols, was put in charge of the shop and proceeded to dissuade customers from buying anything: why would an old person like you want to bow to something that was made yesterday? Why would you want to buy an idol to protect your home when the idol cannot even protect itself? Finally Abraham smashes all the idols in the shop, leaving only the largest in which he placed an ax. When Terah comes back, Abraham explains that the idols had gotten into a fight and the biggest one had smashed the rest. Terah smacks Abraham: what nonsense is this. Idols do not walk or talk. To which Abraham responds: then why do worship them? Abraham is taken in front of King Nimrod (just a name in the Bible, but now fleshed out into a useful villain). Nimrod throws Abraham into a fiery furnace, but God does a miracle and saves him. So here we have it, a really good story that improves on the biblical narrative, helps it make a lot more sense and on top of it all gives me useful talking points to use against my Hellenistic pagan neighbors. I should be able to prove the existence of God, refute paganism and tell an entertaining story all in under forty-five minutes. This back story about Abraham was so good that a version of it even ended up in the Koran. In looking at such a Midrash it is irrelevant as to how this story might relate to some theoretical historical Abraham. It is not really about Abraham; it is about Jews living in Classical times and interacting with their Hellenistic pagan neighbors.

Now we are doing Robert Harris' Imperium, a novel about Cicero. One can think of Harris as writing his own Midrash about Cicero, taking Plutarch's biography, Cicero's speeches and letters as the foundation material and filling the story in as a political thriller to suit a twenty-first century audience.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Reflections on the Autism Speaks Protest

So I spent Sunday morning protesting the Autism Speaks Walk. I took part in the protest as an associate of ASAN. I am not, though, an actual member of the group even if I did originally help found the Columbus chapter and even if I continue to view it as my family here. For this reason nothing that I say should be taken as representative of ASAN, a liberating position if at times I am critical of them. (Melanie, Noranne and Aspitude have already posted on the event so see them for an alternative perspective.)

We had a dozen or so people, Autism Speaks had about eighteen thousand so it gives an idea about what we are up against. Standing around waving signs is not an ideal way to win friends and influence people in the best of circumstances. In our case, the area we were given by the university to protest was away from the arena where the walk was being held, across a giant parking lot, across a busy street. People driving into the parking lot could see us and the end of the Walk was right by us, but other than that we were irrelevant. I know someone in the OSU band, who performed at the event, and she told me later that she was unaware that we were even there. Maybe it would have helped if we could have provoked some sort of reaction. In truth, though, besides for the occasional catcall of "you're stupid," "get a life" or "go home" we were pretty much ignored as we deserved. Why should anyone pay attention to some people waving signs? If anything the people of Autism Speaks were very nice to us. One of the organizers came out to offer us water if we needed it (we had brought plenty of our own). If we did not succeed on the ground we did succeed where it counts most in the twenty-first century, media. We were interviewed by the local ABC and NBC stations. The credit for those needs to go to our front office, particularly Ari Ne'eman, and to those in our group who made the phone calls. State representative Ted Celeste also stopped by. Representative Celeste is a good friend of the group, whom we have spoken to multiple times in the past. He apologized to us for having a puzzle pin on his lapel, knowing our strong opposition to its use. The fact that Celeste bothered to even talk to us in such an environment (we being outnumbered more than a thousand to one) says a lot about him.

I can only admire Autism Speaks for creating the sort of trans-generational, trans-community networks that they have. Central to their fundraising and what the Walk is meant to demonstrate is that autism is first off a family issue and second a community issue. For this reason you did not have just autistic children walking, but their entire families as well. And not just families, you had large groups of friends and neighbors as well so surrounding every autistic child is a large "team" of support. Now as someone from the group pointed out, this entire Walk was designed with neurotypicals in mind and not autistics. One can only imagine the hell some of these kids were being put through, taken off of their schedules to a place with lots of noise and people running around. A step in the right direction for Autism Speaks would be if it would openly fashion itself not as an organization for autistics, particularly as autistics are not represented in its leadership, but as a support group for the parents of autistics. However difficult it might be to go through life autistic, it cannot compare to the challenges of being the parent of an autistic child. These parents need and deserve the support of their families and communities.

This brings us to the trap that Autism Speaks has maneuvered us into, one that we have failed to solve and until we do we will not be able to stand up Autism Speaks in the public arena; Autism Speaks has pitted us, not against their front office, but against the parents of autistic children. Say what you want about the front office, their eugenics policies and their misuse of funds, but that is not going to help you deal with a parent grasping for solutions in the here and now. The toughest moment of the Walk for me was not the taunts (I am a brawler and cannot resist a fight); it was when that organizer, who offered us water, followed up by asking us who is going to speak for his son who is unable to speak. I admit that the person is not me. I have not spent a single day being the parent for that man's kid nor do I have the solution to his problems. The most that I can say is that I am the obvious ally, who would be willing to help him, as long as I am not alienated by talk of disease and cure, lines of discourse that will make it nearly impossible for me to hold down a job and eventually get married. There was a good conversation with him and the group and he was really nice to us. We spoke about advances in communication technology that offers alternatives to verbal speech. After the man left someone from the group made a crack that the man was prejudiced with his talk of "all people communicate by talking" Fine, maybe they are right and this man suffers from petty prejudices (don't we all); that simply dodges the real issue at hand that this man is on the front lines dealing with the real challenges of autism and we do not have any readymade solutions to offer.

What we need to have is a dialogue with the parents. All this rhetoric about Autism Speaks giving out $600,000 salaries and only spending four cents to the dollar on families very well may be true, but that simply makes us sound like every other political group this time of year going negative against the opposition. I do not wish to fight all those parents, friends and family who came to the Walk and they certainly deserve better than political attack ads. If given the chance, here is what I would want to say to them: I acknowledge the difficult situation that you are in and that I am in no position to judge you as to whether you are truly "tolerant." As someone on the autism spectrum I am incredibly fortunate in ways that many of your children are not and because of that I feel a sense of responsibility. Whatever the future of autism holds I am here with you for the ride. That being said we need to consider some hard realities. First off, whatever theoretical debates we can have about using a magic pill to cure autism, no magic pill is on the horizon. This leaves us with ever improving methods of schooling and therapy, all of which will remain expensive. Secondly genetic screening and finding out the root causes of autism is not going to help a single child with autism presently. Thirdly, every one of your autistic children is going to become an autistic adult and that is going to require a system of its own that is not in place at present. Autism Speaks, for all of its high sounding rhetoric, offers nothing to help you with any of these real issues. For your sakes and more importantly for the sake of your children you need to start talking to other people; perhaps to people who are on the spectrum, but are still leading productive lives. They might not be able to offer you a cure, but they can at least open up a serious conversation as to how live with autism.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Getting Ready to Protest Autism Speaks

Tomorrow morning I will be joining my friend Melanie and the rest of the gang from ASAN over at the Ohio State campus for the annual Autism Speaks Walk. We will be protesting. Those of my readers who are in the area please feel free to come along.

While this is a protest, I also like to think of it as a celebration. The Autism Speaks walk is a birthday of sorts for us. It was two years ago that I and other members of the Aspirations support group went to the Walk in good faith. Being new to autism advocacy I was not familiar with Autism Speaks ideology. At the Walk I learned from, President Gee of Ohio State no less, that I was a disease that needed to be eradicated. Wishing to take action, Melanie first wrote a letter to President Gee. Later she decided to create a chapter of ASAN and recruited me as her co-chair. So tomorrow we will not just be standing up to neurotypical bigots determined to eliminate us from the gene pool, we will also be taking the time to celebrate legitimate autism advocacy, one in which autistic people actually get to speak instead of being spoken for.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Catching Up on Things: History 111 Fall 2010

Sorry for being offline for the past two weeks. This past month, just in time for our string of three-day Jewish holidays, I moved back to Columbus and started teaching again at Ohio State. On top of all this, I did not have an internet connection at my apartment until last night. (While I might miss New York and Silver Spring, what I am paying for my half of a two-bedroom apartment goes a long way to making up for things.) I hope to be back posting on a regular basis, though likely a little less often than earlier in the year.

So to get things back on track, I would like to invite everyone on board my new teaching experiment. For this quarter I decided to run my History 111 class as a book club. Instead of using one textbook and doing a survey of European history from antiquity up until the Enlightenment, we will be doing a series of shorter books on specific topics. Ideally, I would like to do secondary sources, but I am open to doing primary sources and even good historical fiction. While I picked the first book, Bart Ehrman's Peter, Paul & Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend, subsequent books are to be picked by the class. We have already voted for the next book, Robert Harris's novel Imperium, which deals with the life of the Roman orator Cicero as told by his servant Tiro. It is similar to Robert Graves' I, Claudius, though it is, I believe, more accessible to a general audience.

I was inspired to do this in part by the wonderful book club I have here in Columbus and in part by my desire to take Alfie Kohn seriously to see what might come about with implementing some of his ideas. (See The Book Club: or How to Destroy School.) If the Alfie Kohn model of education could work anywhere it should be in a college where there is at least some degree of self-motivation among students. By allowing students to pick what books we read I am allowing the opportunity to structure the class to suit them. I still will be maintaining graded assignments, including homework. For example, as in previous years, students are supposed to email me a question or comment about the reading before class. (An idea I took from Prof. Louis Feldman.) I then structure my talk around responding to these questions. That being said, this is a rather open-ended assignment and serves to further make room for student input.

What attracted me to Ehrman was, one, he writes about the historical Jesus and early Christianity, topics of popular interest. He writes in a balanced fashion which, while not openly hostile to orthodox religious sensibilities does a very effective job of explaining how an academic approach differs from an orthodox one and for its superiority. Two, Ehrman provides an entry into the historical method as he talks his way through texts and how to use them. What Ehrman does to the New Testament is what historians do to all texts, sacred or otherwise. Part of what is subversive about the historical method, a Pandora's Box so to speak, is that it is impossible to accept it partway. If you accept the historical method then you commit yourself to applying it to all texts, the Bible just as much as Julius Caesar. Regardless of how orthodox your eventual conclusions, the moment you agree to subject the Bible to the same cross-examination as any other text you have put a knife into orthodoxy, committing yourself to the Kantian charge of placing everything before the bar of reason. There can be no return to innocent belief.

So this experiment seems to be going well even if I seem to be speaking a lot more than I might have liked. If anyone has book recommendations, please feel free to post them.