Thursday, December 22, 2011

Life Update

Sorry for not having posted anything these past few months. I have been really busy getting married and all.

There has also been my dissertation. Over the past six months I have written over one hundred pages. This is either a very good sign that I am making progress or that I am plodding down a new path in my writing that will make it run over five hundred pages and take me another year before I discover that it makes no sense and have to go back to last year.

With my very busy life, it is amazing how I still manage to indulge in my ultimate time waster, video games with complex story lines, allow me to take over the world and are just plain violent. In this case Dragon Age II.

My wife is very understanding and has even offered to get me the new Knights of the Old Republic game as a Hanukkah present. I love my wife dearly, but certain kindnesses I am probably better off without.

My conscious calls to me. Enough of this wasting time on video games, a wife and a dissertation. I need to blog more. (As Izgad was meant to raise the moral consciousness of the blogosphere, I think it is perfectly valid to consider it my consciousness.)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Rampant Obesity and Celebrating Ten Years of Idolatry: Ami at a Crossroads (Part I)

In this month's edition of Ami magazine, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein has an article, "Modern Orthodoxy at a Crossroads," on the challenge posed to Orthodoxy by Rabbi Avi Weiss and his attempt to ordain women. I respect Rabbi Adlerstein as a usually thoughtful Haredi perspective and he deserves credit for presenting Modern Orthodox Jews as human beings and serious Jews. That being said, this article is an exercise in the sort of self-congratulatory sanctimoniousness whose only purpose is to pat the author, and by extension the reader who agrees with him, on the back, while completely ignoring the issues at hand and inhibiting any actual discussion.

In Rabbi Adlerstein's narrative, a small click of supposedly "Orthodox" rabbis have conspired to undermine elements of Jewish tradition, such as having a solely male clergy and not calling women up to the Torah. These "extreme radical leftists" present themselves to the secular media as Orthodox mavericks challenging the status quo, putting pressure on more "moderate" Orthodox rabbis to go along.

As I have written previously, I am not interested in debating the issue of how Orthodoxy should respond to the social and political changes in the status women over the past century. I do not have a set solution to the problem. My concern is not over whether or not women will be ordained (I assume though that it will happen whether I like it or not) or what title they will be given. I only insist that whoever makes these decisions does so based both on traditional sources and an awareness of the social realities on the ground that brought these issues to the table. For example, it is a non-option to tell women to stick to children, kitchen and synagogue (behind the mechitza).

What concerns me about Rabbi Adlerstein is that he is someone involved in making these decisions yet he clearly does not grasp the social realities behind the issues. Just an example of how out of touch with reality he is. He dismisses the Los Angeles Jewish Journal as being "read almost exclusively by the non-Orthodox." I read it and know other Orthodox Jews who do. It should be axiomatic to him that the Jewish Journal's readers are precisely the people that Orthodoxy needs to reach out to; those Jews who care enough about Judaism to read a Jewish magazine, but for "some strange reason" are not reading Ami.  Nowhere in the article does Rabbi Adlerstein consider the possibility that his opponents, instead of "plotting" to hoist "politically correct" values on an unsuspecting Jewish community, are on the front lines of trying to save Orthodox Judaism and are having to make some hard decisions. The fact that Rabbi Adlerstein's community does not yet have to deal with these issues, should be cause for thanks to be expressed by thoughtful planning for the moment the crisis comes to have acceptable options. (I imagine that a Haredi leadership that spends the next twenty years convincing its own members that it honestly cares about women might be able to hold off on women rabbis when Haredi women decide they might want to be rabbis.) It should not be an opening for sanctimonious judgment as to who is "Orthodox."

Rabbi Adlerstein de facto eliminates any consideration of social issues by specifically knocking Modern Orthodox rabbis for their lack of source skills, while saying nothing about whether Haredi rabbis are qualified to comment about an issue regarding liberalism, without a deep understanding of liberalism and actual liberals. Education is a zero-sum game. You cannot talk about rabbis needing to be more knowledgeable about Jewish texts without also implicitly saying that they do not also need an understanding of political theory, history and a little bit about the sort of actual real life people they are going to be offering spiritual guidance to.

(To be continued ...)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Guidelines for Studying History

Clarissa recently put up some pointers for the study of history, things to remember and questions to ask:

Things to remember when reading, watching or researching history:

a. There can never be a fully objective account of history
b. Don’t read accounts of history to find out what happened. Read them to discover what their author says happened
c. Only by accessing and contrasting different accounts can we figure out what took place
d. Every account of history is always ideological
e. There is always a hidden reason for why a person writes about history

Questions to ask:

  1. Who is the author?
  2. What do I know about this author? Country of origin, political affiliation, profession, etc.
  3. How does this knowledge about the author change my understanding of his or her text?
  4. What is the goal the author is trying to achieve with this text?
  5. What kind of data is used to support the author’s conclusions?
  6. What kind of attitude does the author have towards the readers of the text?
  7. What are the central concepts that organize the author’s thinking about this subject?

My criticism: While one should initially focus on what the author says happened, the long term goal has to be to come to certain conclusions as to what really happened. All historical accounts are ideological only if you use ideology in its most general sense. Yes there is such a thing as responsible historiography even if the author is a capitalist, a communist, Jew, Christian or a goddess worshiping feminist. This is important as it gives us a standard from which to judge historians of all ideological persuasions and removes ideology as a fig leaf for poorly written history.

I think these are great points to make to students, where I would slightly differ with Clarissa is in the emphasis on the subjectivity. To be clear, we really can never actually reconstruct history "as it was" or make any claims with absolute certainty. That being said we have a historical method that allows us to recreate the past with a reasonable degree of accuracy. While moving students away from a model of "Gospel Truth," it is important not to overstate the subjectivity of historical study. Miguel Cervantes fighting at the Battle of Lepanto was real in ways his Don Quixote fighting windmills is not. To downplay the very real possibility of historical truth (lower case letters) only serves to leave the field open to the Gospel Truth crowd, which I know is the last thing that Clarissa wants. Perhaps part of the difference is one of history versus literature. With all due respect to Clarissa, as a historian it is important for me to be able to look down at literature scholars like her and thumb my nose; my field deals with objective reality and yours does not. Of course I imagine that science people thumb their noses at us historians for our lack objectivity and they in turn can be mocked by continental philosophers and analytic philosophers can feel superior to everyone.    

I would add: 

1. Figure out your source's agenda. Cross out anything that supports it and highlight everything that goes against it.
2.  Treat your sources as a police officer would a witness. You are going to wade through a lot of self serving nonsense,  but every once in a while you are going to strike gold. But even when you do not you can always count on a liar to tell the truth every once in a while if by accident. 
3. At the end of the day reasonable people are going to disagree about events and that is ok.      

Clarissa is teaching about Bartolome de Las Cases, a sixteenth century Spanish Dominican, who wrote about the Spanish conquest of the New World. Las Cases was horrified by the Spanish treatment of Native Americans, believing that such actions stood in the way of their conversion and the Second Coming. Las Cases' genuine concern for Native Americans led him to defend their rights, most famously in the Valladolid debates with Juan Gines de Sepulveda. The fact that Las Cases was a Spaniard eviscerating the Spanish, gives him a lot of credibility and I am willing to assume, based on Las Cases, that massacres of natives and their enslavement really did take place. The discovery of the New World was not just an exciting adventure in expanding human horizons. That being said I would also use Las Cases himself to paint a more nuanced picture of the Spanish. They were not all a bunch of greedy hypocritical religious bigots. Furthermore I would point to the example of Las Cases and other sixteenth century Spanish thinkers like Francisco de Vitoria, Juan de Mariana and Domingo de Soto. These were all in their own ways very "liberal" thinkers, who had all the basic "right" ideas about human rights and that non-Europeans were human beings too. They did influence Spanish policy, at least as far as Madrid was concerned, yet they ultimately failed to create the critical revolution in human thinking of the Enlightenment. This fell to seventeenth and eighteenth century thinkers in Holland, England and France. Why did all of this not happen in Spain?    


Sunday, September 4, 2011

Asperger/Autism Tutor

While I continue to work for Kline Books as their Judaica Cataloger and the writer for Tipsy, I am starting a second enterprise as a tutor for grade school and high school students with Asperger syndrome/autism. The idea is to help students on the autism spectrum navigate school, both academically and socially, and hopefully eventually prepare for college. In addition I would also serve as a bridge to negotiate between student, parents and teachers. The underlying assumption behind this is that there are a lot autistic students out there who could theoretically handle mainstream school if it were not for certain "buts." I can help pave over these "buts" by being there for students as a resource that they can talk through issues with, whether school papers or how to deal with other students and teachers.

This idea has been germinating in my mind over the past several years as it combines the different sides of my life. I taught high school and college level history, came to identify myself as an Asperger and by extension a member of the wider autistic community and served as a mentor for those following a similar path. One of the things that I took from my time with Aspirations and ASAN was the need to rethink autism from the ground up even to the point of creating a different language to discuss it from that of the medical establishment and special education.

Most of the focus on autism is on those who fit the "classic" model of autism. And there is certainly good reason for this. That being said this leaves a gap for those who do not fit the traditional model of autism, who in theory could make it in a regular school, but also need help in ways that are sometimes difficult to precisely identify. (Of course once one accepts the existence of autistics who can speak, read, write and even get a graduate degree one is forced to rethink the treatment process of those across the entire autism spectrum.) I take particular inspiration from the example of Ari Ne'eman and his successful campaign to place himself within a mainstream high school.

In a previous post I expressed some concern with emphasizing mainstream schools as the goal. I still stand by my earlier position. That being said, I do recognize that a mainstream school is preferable to any autism school based around a disability model. Schools like the Haugland Learning Center are an important step in the right direction, but it is unlikely that they could support more than a small fraction of autistic children. Even if they could, until we create an autistic version of Gallaudet University, getting autistic students ready for integration into mainstream colleges will have to be the goal even for schools like Haugland. So for now I feel perfectly comfortable in advocating for both separate and mainstream schools depending on the particular situation. Those autistics who wish to go to a mainstream school should receive the necessary help to get into and stay in one. Those who wish to go to a separate school will still need the skills to make mainstream school a viable option.

What attracts me to the idea of doing more work with autstic students, besides for allowing me to take my previous involvement with advocacy a step further, is that it fits my particular set of skills as a teacher. I relate much better to children than to adults. Children tend to like the fact that I am genuinely interested in them and do not speak down to them; furthermore they are not put off by my eccentricities. At the same time my manner of speaking is highly academic and even adults have a hard time understanding me. This could be the perfect boon to an Asperger with specific interests to have me in his life to engage in running discourses about whatever interests them.
So if anyone out there knows someone in the Los Angeles area who can use my services feel free to contact me.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tipsy on Books - A New Job and a New Blog

I mentioned previously that I have been blogging less because of my new-found social life. There was another reason for this. In July I started working as the Judaica book-cataloger for Eric Chaim Kline, Bookseller in Panorama City north of Los Angeles. This is a high end not your usual used book store (though I love shopping at those places); we handle a lot of antique and academic books. Eric is a great boss, who, in the few weeks I have been here, has taught me a bunch. What continuously strikes me about him is that he truly loves books (perhaps more than is good for a man in the business of trying to "rid" himself of them.) The greatest part of the job is that I get paid to handle all sorts of really interesting books and type in descriptions of their content and condition onto a computer. There is an inventory here of over 250,000 books so the quicker we put them into the system the quicker we can sell them.

When I first spoke to Eric before the summer about taking on this job, I suggested to him that, as part of my job, I could be his official blogger. I showed Eric some of my posts here on Izgad and he really liked the idea. So I have now started Tipsy on Books: Dispatches from the Tavern. It is going to be similar to the more academic posts I do here. It will be informative, mildly provocative with a generous sample of tongue-in-cheek. The difference is that I will be focusing on material here in this store.  So I welcome all of my readers to visit my new blog and to check out the Eric Chaim Kline, Bookseller website.  I am confident that this is going to be an even better blog. Now, instead of just me, my brain and my big mouth, it is going to be me, my brain, my big mouth and all the stuff I get to put my hands on.

Now for a bit of business. No Tipsy on Books is not going to be about trying to sell you stuff, though every book I discuss is on sale and there will be a link to the book's page on the store website if anyone wishes to buy it. That being said Eric is sponsoring the blog. As with any sponsorship if this does not lead to more sales then he is going to have to cancel this project and put me back to just book cataloging. If on the other hand Tipsy is successful then perhaps he will allow me to devote more time to it, allowing me to write more posts.

Speaking to other bloggers; if Tipsy succeeds then perhaps other businesses will take up the practice of sponsoring their own bloggers. That would be good for the entire blogging community. If you put up a link for me I would greatly appreciate it.

Eric has been kind enough to give me a job and take a chance on an unconventional advertising project so I would appreciate it if everyone could check out his site and see if there is something they could purchase. (If you mention that Tipsy sent you then all the better.) I admit that most of our collection is fairly expensive. That being said we do have top of the line material that you are not going to easily find in other places. 

It is not my intention to retire Izgad. I intend to still occasionally post material here that would not fit in with Tipsy. All past posts will remain up for your reading enjoyment. That being said, I will not be posting regularly so I will take this opportunity to say goodbye (at least for now). It has been a wonderful 4.5 years of blogging. Here is to better things, both in my personal life and to blogging.


Friday, August 5, 2011

Speaking at a Chabad House (About Messianism No Less)

In South Pasadena, where Miriam and I are living, there is not much in the way of Orthodox life. We have a Chabad house 3.5 miles away where we pray. It is a small, but very diverse group of people. They have been very good to Miriam in the past and are now very accepting of me. I am happy to be part of this family. While most of the people there became religious through Chabad, as with most Chabad places, beyond the two Chabad rabbis and their families it is not a Chabad community.

A few weeks ago someone put forth the idea to me that, as a Jewish historian, I should give a class on Jewish history possibly on what I am writing about. I am an academic historian, writing about messianism; how many sentences do you think it is going to take before the rabbi pulls the plug on me? Somehow this person managed to convince me to go for it and, even more surprisingly, convinced the rabbi to give me a platform. So this past Sabbath, I gave an "Introduction to Jewish Messianism." I guess the biggest shocker was that over twenty people stuck around in the afternoon to listen to me. It was the sort of lecture that I like giving. It went on for about an hour before tapering off into an informal question and answer session. I took a number of questions while I was speaking, which sent me off on lots of side tangents. The problem with this is that it sometimes makes me difficult to follow. I try to balance this with a sense of humor. If people have no idea what I am talking about they should at least think it is funny, whatever it is I am actually talking about. Well apparently everybody liked my presentation so it looks like we may do this again, perhaps make it a monthly event.

Believe it or not, I do have a plan as to how to keep myself from being too offensive. Keep everything theoretical. I am simply reporting on what is going on in my field. Phrase things in questions. I am simply explaining some of the major debates going on and offering points for consideration. Above all else, I should avoid talking about Chabad messianism. As a historian, I should have no problem keeping things in the eighteenth century or beforehand.

Ok, so I did talk about Chabad messianism. I raised the question of calamity based messianism; do messianic movements come about in response to major physical disasters? Isaac Abarbanel writing three books on messianism several years after the expulsion of 1492 and as the Jews of Portugal were being forcibly baptized sounds like calamity messianism. Jews in Poland responding to the Cossack attacks of 1648 by embracing Sabbatai Sevi in 1666 might be calamity messianism. (Of course, that would still not explain why Jews everywhere else did too.) Why did Chabad in the 1980s and 90s turn messianic? What great physical threat did Lubavitchers living in the United States at the end of the twentieth-century face? If you are going to say that this was in response to the Holocaust then why did the Lubavitcher Rebbe not come out in the 1950s with his "bring Moshiach" campaign? (The previous Rebbe, in the 1940s, started a messianic campaign, but it faded away for several decades.)

So no trouble yet. One of the attendees has asked me if, for my next lecture, I could talk about traditional Jewish claims that there will be no Messiah or that all messianic prophecies were already fulfilled with King Hezekiah and the Second Temple. What could possibly go wrong with this?         

Monday, August 1, 2011

Engagement Party

Miriam and I are having an engagement party on August 14th. If any of my readers from the Los Angeles area wish to come feel free to contact me and ask.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

I am Engaged to a Wonderful Jewish Asperger Girl (Part II)

(Part I)

So how did I propose to my one and only dream Jewish Asperger girl? Well, like in most relationships I suspect, she really proposed to me while allowing me the pretense of going through the motions of asking her to maintain the facade of my manly control in this relationship. So a few weeks ago Miriam announced to me that she intended to have an engagement party in August. Naturally, I was curious as to who would play the role of the groom at this engagement party and decided to volunteer my services before some other guy tried out for the part. This past Sunday, I took Miriam to the Aquarium of the Pacific. In the last post, I mentioned that Miriam's special interest is the South Pacific. It is actually much more specific than that; it is in Palau. In case you have never heard of Palau they are a group of islands several hundred miles to the east of the Philippines. (Lionel Spiegel had heard of them because of some of the tropical life off its coasts.)

(Here I passed her test to find Palau on a map, thus making myself a suitable partner for marriage. Naturally, any person with designs on world conquest has to know something about geography.)

The aquarium possesses an entire section on coral reefs based on the ones off Palau. Thus making it the perfect set piece to stand in for Miriam's favorite place in the universe.

How to make it a surprise? The disadvantage of being an Asperger is that it makes you a really bad liar. The advantage of dating an Asperger is that they are very easy to lie to. So I simply told Miriam that I was taking her out on a simple date to the aquarium with a picnic dinner. She believed me. To confirm her belief she checked on a bottle of wine we had just bought to see if it was still in its place. It was. I simply grabbed it afterward when she was not looking and stuck it in my knapsack.

So we headed to the aquarium. As a good boyfriend, I obviously let Miriam take the lead and she took me straight to the Palau exhibit. That finished we went through the rest of the museum. (For some strange reason the people who run the aquarium think that people want to do things that have no connection to Palau like pet sharks.) Heading out of the aquarium, I suggested that we go back one more time through Palau. I then told her to find the most magical place in the exhibit. She parked herself right in front of the red snapper fish. (Miriam, like me, tends to associate love with eating even as she fails to apply this philosophy to its logical conclusion of kitty and human.) While having her stare into the fish tank, I stood behind her and said: "I know nothing of the customs of Palau, how they ask certain questions, but as a western imperialist, I feel entitled to simply make up whatever Palauan customs I wish. So I going to do it this way. Miriam, would you turn around?" She turned around and I asked her the question that was burning on my mind at the moment. "Would you have dinner with me by the shore?"

So we walked to the shore and had a sunset picnic dinner with leechee fruit, which grows in Palau, for dessert. Afterward, we walked along the shore toward the setting sun. I then had Miriam look out to over the water to the sun and once again spoke to her: "This is the closest we can get to Palau without a boat or plane, but I promise we will go there eventually."

She then turned around, and I had pulled out the bottle of wine. She then went into gasps of "oh my god" a bunch of times, before eventually kindly allowing me to ask her an embarrassing question that did not involve food.

I already know where we are going for our honeymoon. I hear some of the islands near the Philippines are quite magnificent. The natives do not particularly care for nuclear weapons so I guess I will have to give up on conquest.


Friday, July 29, 2011

I am Engaged to a Wonderful Jewish Asperger Girl (Part I)

For starters, I would like to apologize for the lack of posts this past month. Things have been happening in my life that I could not talk about with my readers. Now that things are official I am very pleased to share everything you.

This past February I received a call from my aunt. She had been telling people about me and someone had contacted her about a girl in South Pasadena named Miriam Albin.

My aunt informed me that Miriam was really smart, into anthropology, had Asperger syndrome and was quite pretty. At which point I stopped my aunt to tell her that I was already looking at a picture of this girl. As soon as I heard the name I Googled her and found her Facebook page. (Life in the twenty-first century.) Soon afterward, I received an email from Miriam. Apparently, she had Googled me in turn, found this blog and failed to be offended by its contents. So we started talking, largely through Skype. (Long distance dating in the twenty-first century.)

There was something absolutely refreshing about dating an Asperger. While we do have our differences (she likes the South Pacific and is all bubbly and friendly, while I like European history am usually found lurking in a corner contemplating taking over the world), it is amazing how similar our learned defense mechanisms are. We both fear accidentally giving offense to people over things beyond our understanding so constantly ask people whether we are bothering them or what they would like. Applying this method to another Asperger leads to some good comic exchanges:

"Is it socially appropriate for me to say this?"    
"I have no idea."
"Do you care if it is socially appropriate?"
"Oh good."

And then there are the back and forth monologues to be mediated the following way:

"Sorry for going on a random side tangent. I can stop now if you are not interested."
"Is this one of your special interests and does monologuing about this topic make you happy?"
"Ok as long as you do the dishes while you monologue."

Being informed that there are aspects to building a relationship that cannot be conducted over Skype, I flew out to Los Angeles in April for a weekend. I met her parents and they found me to be an Asperger, who is also responsible. Following quid pro quo logic naturally, she flew out in June to meet my family and they found Miriam to be an Asperger, who is also lovable.

The next step was for me to make this a short distance relationship so I moved out to South Pasadena. Miriam's parents liked me so much that they agreed to put me up. Miriam lives nearby in a different house. Admittedly this was an unconventional living arrangement, but I think we both gained a lot from it. We have been doing all the day to day things that a married couple does besides actually sharing a house and sleeping together. Things like preparing dinner, cleaning the dishes and figuring out whose turn it is to monologue.   

(To be continued ...)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Orthodox Feminism or Back to the 1950s

I was just shown a brochure for a women's baalat tshuvah (newly religious) yeshiva called Shirat Devorah. I have never been to the place, I am not affiliated with it nor do I even know anyone who is. Perhaps it is a wonderful program, but some things in the brochure struck me as troubling.

For example:

Shirat Devorah engages each student's intellect, heart, body, and soul in her education. We honor the intelligence of all these aspects and use them as tools for integration. For example, the laws of Kashrut [kosher] and Shabbat can be learned from a book, but are best absorbed and understood through hands on application. In our Kitchen Laboratory, students apply these laws by cooking nutritious meals to experience what it means to live Jewishly

I am certainly not opposed to hands on education, but this suspiciously sounds like good old fashioned home economics. If you are making this the center of your school system as opposed to "mere book learning" then forgive me if I suspect you of simply training girls to pull in a man, one of few tasks in life in which being able to cook as opposed to being able to produce an independent thought and argue for it can be an advantage.

The school's non-interest in book learning show up again.

At Shirat Devorah, we use women's connection to intuition, creativity, community, and processing to create a holistic environment. During hikes, Lab, and workshops students practice the Jewish women's tradition of imparting meaning through focused intention. We thus create tangible memories that students can draw upon in the future.

How do you run a lab with a "women's intuition?" I guess the same way you gain an education through hiking. It is a mystical sort of learning beyond the understanding of non-intuitive people like me.

For a school claiming to be about using Judaism to empower women, there is surprisingly nothing about sitting down and critically interpreting texts. Instead what I hear is that women are special; since they have this intuition they do not need a solid background in in critical thinking honed through reading books and analyzing texts. I would accuse them of being sexist except that historically I know the real conclusion of this sort of thinking; women are little more than children, beautiful to behold (as well as do other things to) and can be trained to do useful tasks around the house like cooking and cleaning, but never to be taken seriously as a social and intellectual equal.  

Friday, July 1, 2011

Let Jewish Teenagers go into Monasetaries and Soon They will be Texting on Shabbos

A decade ago, when I spent my post high school year in Israel, I attended Yeshiva Ohr Hadarom, headed by Rabbi Shalom Hammer. He is a good speaker and a decent person, though we failed to get along due to a personality clash and intellectual differences. Rabbi Hammer, for all intents and purposes, is a Haredi rabbi, operating in Modern Orthodox circles due to his religious Zionist politics and, one suspects, simple economics; it would not have been practical to get a position as the head of a Haredi yeshiava, a Rosh Yeshiva, so he tried playing Rosh Yeshiva with a bunch of Modern Orthodox teenage boys in the hope that they would be in the market for that sort of thing. Much to his frustration I was not looking for a Rosh Yeshiva to give me a connection to Judaism and God. I treated him as the adult authority figure in charge; I did not and he complained about this to my face that I did not give him the respect "he deserved" as a "Rosh Yeshiva."  

In a recent blog post, Rabbi Hammer discusses an incident where a bunch of his daughters' friends went into a monastery.

Considering that all of the teenagers on the trip are from Orthodox home and that according to most Orthodox rabbis it is forbidden to enter a church or monastery, my daughters were particularly upset that this considerable group of their friends would casually breach Orthodox halacha. Even more disturbing to them was that when they told their friends that they would not enter the monastery as it was forbidden according to rabbinic halacha, the majority of the group reacted explaining that this was only a Rabbinic prohibition and not worthy of serious consideration.

Rabbi Hammer connects this willingness to be lenient in this matter to the recent scandal breaking out in the Orthodox community that many Orthodox kids text on the Sabbath. These kids believe that it is ok to make compromises in Jewish law so they pick and choose what to keep as it suits them.

I see a connection between entering a monastery and texting on the Sabbath, though it is not the connection that Rabbi Hammer makes. I certainly oppose texting on the Sabbath and would see any person who does as being outside the Orthodox community. (This, of course, does not mean that they are bad hell-bound people, with whom I will not be friends with.) That being said, I think the root of the problem, at least in part, lies in the attitude toward Jewish law taken by people like Rabbi Hammer and imbibed by the kids he tries to teach in which everything is either permitted or forbidden.

Take the example of the monastery. Now, before I continue, I should confess that I do enter churches despite the fact that I do recognize that there are real problems with doing so. (See "What Church Services have Taught Me about Prayer.") I do it because I study Christianity professionally; I also do not associate the Church with persecution nor do I see it as necessarily something idolatrous. (If I am willing to walk into a Chabad house and give Lubavitchers the benefit of the doubt of not worshipping idols despite the giant rebbe picture then I must give Christians the same benefit of the doubt with their crucifixes.)

Whether I am doing the right thing or not, any competent halachic authority would recognize that entering a church or a monastery is in a completely different league from texting on the Sabbath. For that matter, of all the places a teenager might think to go to, we should rather teenagers visit a monastery, where they just might learn something about history and other religions than go drinking at a club. This needs to be brought over to students in a tangible way beyond simply muttering something about rabbinic and biblical prohibitions. You wish to enter a monastery, fine; make the case to me, based on Jewish sources, that this is ok. If you can hold a straight face and make a plausible case then I will let you go. Regardless of whether I agree with your decision, I will accept the fact that you are part of the halachic process that is Orthodox Judaism.

What happens when rabbis and teachers take the shortcut with students and write off everything they oppose as wrong and against Judaism? The result is not that students will accept all these injunctions as serious prohibitions to be obeyed absolutely. On the contrary, they will, in turn, take shortcuts of their own and treat all prohibitions as simply an opinion to be accepted or rejected as they see fit. If going into a monastery is simply something that rabbis claim is a serious prohibition even when it is obvious that it is not, then when rabbis say you should not text on Shabbos they must also just doing what they usually do and forbidding even minor things. So one can text in good conscious and still be an Orthodox Jew.

Wishing all my readers a good non-texting Sabbath.      

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Autism Speaks Style Zionism: American Friends of Tel Aviv University Dream of Eliminating Autism

The American Friends of Tel Aviv offer scholarships for medical research and what do they think to offer as an example but the elimination of autism. It is not like we are lacking in real illnesses in need of a cure like cancer or anything. I never thought I would have anything in common with Palestinians, but I guess we are both potential targets of the Zionist enterprise.

How about this for a narrative. Once upon a time autistics lived happily in Palestine, flapping their hands under their olive trees. Then came the Autism Speaks Zionists, armed with bulldozers and an unshakable feeling of moral supremacy. Speaking so loudly that they could not listen, the Autism Speaks Zionists declared that they wished to cure the autistic Palestinians, who must be so miserable not being able to lead neurotypical social lives. In vein the autistic Palestinians tried to protest by chanting and waving signs, but the Autism Speaks Zionists failed to notice; it is not like autistics could possibly speak or write. Desperate to protect their olive trees, the autistic Palestinians began to throw rocks at the Autism Speak Zionist bulldozers. Shocked at such a display, the Autism Speaks Zionists sent a plea out to their funders to help them save the autistic Palestinians, whose violent behavior presented a clear and present danger to all civilized neurotypicals. The autistic Palestinians were quickly rounded up and sent to Tel Aviv University, where the friends of Tel Aviv University were kind enough to pay for a free frontal lobotomy for every autistic Palestinian.

And all the neurotypicals lived happily ever after.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Protestant Politics of Michele Bachmann

(Hat tip to Atlas Shrugs.)

As it should surprise no one, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann takes a strongly right wing stance in favor of Israel and lashes out against President Obama. One can certainly discuss whether or not Ms. Bachmann's policies would be good for Israel. What interests me here is how textbook Evangelical Protestant she is. She talks about growing up as a lover of Israel, seeing the Old Testament and biblical Israel as the necessary foundation of Christianity. She even spent time volunteering in Israel.

It is important to understand how rooted this attitude is within Protestantism, one of whose foundations is a turn to the Bible and particularly the Old Testament. In practice this emphasis on the Old Testament has consistently led to philo-Semitic views of Jews as in some sense continuing to be the chosen people of God. This holds for Protestants as long as they root themselves within the Old Testament; the moment they depart from this view, the consequences are severe. It was not a coincidence that the German Christian Church under the Nazis divested iteself from the Old Testament and even rejected "that Jewish Rabbi Paul."

Ms. Bachmann also talks about the importance of democracy. This too is rooted in her Protestant use of the Old Testament. Early modern Protestants read the Old Testament as a political document and took from it such notions covenant, which led to the contract theory of government, and individual autonomy in seeking salvation. (See The Hebrew Republic. Of course many early modern Protestants also took from the Old Testament the idea that the government should tax the wealthy to support the poor, but you cannot expect everything to pass over.)

Whether or not you support Ms. Bachmann, (and I do not) it is important to understand that her support for Israel and democracy are genuine. They just do not fit in within liberal understandings of supporting Israel and democracy. Ms. Bachmann's views, though, of the world are not rooted in liberalism, modern or classical, they are rooted in Protestantism. Any discussion of the American right today needs to start with a serious understanding of that Protestant tradition.

A Romantic Dish of Graduate Cooking

I am now in a dating relationship. For those of my readers who are Aspergers or members of an alien species, dating is a process in which the man, in this case yours truly, engages a certain female of interest in a ritual of semi-rational negotiation to convince said female that not only is he not an ax murderer, but that he is also intelligent, sane and useful. If all goes well the female will allow the male to get within a close proximity of her personal space at a level that would otherwise be not considered socially acceptable.

It is my understanding that, in this modern world, if one wishes to convince a female of one's intelligence and sanity one cannot merely offer free lectures on medieval apocalypticism no matter how objectively fascinating a topic it is. Women these days want a man who can show a softer side through the writing of poetry. (This must be because modern women have read G. K. Chesterton and support his argument that poets are much less prone to insanity than mathematicians and chess players.) This should be easy with all of my humanities training; I should certainly be capable of writing poems about medieval apocalypticism. (I am informed by certain sources that said romantic poems should be about the female in question. No, this is not narcissism on the part of women. Also, under no circumstances will I be allowed to write medieval apocalyptic poetry even if it features one's girlfriend as the Virgin Mary battling an evil ex-girlfriend as the dragon beast merged, through dark Japanese anime arts, with the Whore of Babylon.)

As for being useful, it is not enough to tell your girlfriend that within a few years you will finish your dissertation, become a doctor and that all doctors make loads of money. Women want a man who can clean and cook. So after moving everything presently on the floor to some other place on the floor and providing generous helpings of a natural saliva-based polish all around, I set to work proving my love by making my girlfriend a traditional graduate student dish, ramen noodles. I used a secret recipe known only to graduate students and written on the package. So not only do I demonstrate my basic cooking skills, heating water, placing a carbohydrate-laden product inside and not burning it, but also my knowledge of all the three Rs of education, reading, righting and rithmatic. My girlfriend already knows that I can write from all the time I spend on my dissertation that I will one day finish even though she has never seen it. (She is a pious girl with a lot of faith.) Now she knows that I can also read the instructions on a package as well as apply higher mathematics, taking the instructions and multiplying the ingredients by two.

Graduate student romance, reading, and applied mathematics coming together to make ramen noodles for two.

(Readers should feel free to offer their suggestions for graduate student romance that might apply to the non-deconstructed structures of the fantasy outside world and not just in the reasonable and rational ramen based world of academia.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Evidence of Civilization in Los Angeles

For the summer I am going to be in Los Angeles. There are certain social reasons for this, which I may choose to discourse in more detail at a later point depending on how things go. In the meantime I hope to be working on my dissertation and I may actually have a job as well. (Again I will provide details at a later date, depending on how things go.) I have a place to crash at short term, but I am looking to see if I can find a place to rent for at least July and August. If any of my readers know of anything, I would be much obliged.

Coming out to Los Angeles, I was concerned about giving up some of the comforts of life in Columbus OH, particularly Graeter's ice cream. For those of you not from Ohio and have not experience Graeter's, let me explain it this way. When I went home to my mother in Maryland, I told her that I brought her a present, something special from Columbus. Her response was: "you better not have tried to pack Graeter's ice cream." My mother certainly has good reason from experience to question the common sense of this ABD graduate student brain. In this case, though, her concerns were not warranted. I had brought her a jar of Graeter's raspberry topping.

So it was to my delight that, after flying in last night and jumping into a Ralph's supermarket to pick up a few things, that I beheld a delicious taste of home.

I guess there is civilized life in Los Angeles after all.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

100,000 Words

According to Microsoft Word, I have just crossed the 100,000 word mark for my dissertation. Now granted some of that is from the bibliography and footnotes and large sections are little more than gibberish. That being said I still think it is a milestone worth celebrating (most probably with more work).

Mary E. Brayton

Bryn Mawr College, where I spent the weekend, is one of the leading women's colleges in the country and has been so since its founding at the end of the nineteenth century. While examining my room I found a column of small plaques listing the various girls who had apparently dormed in the room. My historical interest aroused, I began examining the names. At the bottom was one Mary E. Brayton of '01. (That is 1901, not 2001.)

Who was this woman who first lived in the room that I briefly occupied? From a quick internet search, here is what I have discovered so far. Mary Elizabeth Brayton was born in 1880 to Thomas Edward and Martha Brayton in Fall River Mass. She was tutored as a child and attended the B. M. C. Durfee high school to prepare for Bryn Mawr, suggesting a privileged background. Mary graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1901 with a focus in French and Latin. After graduating, she eventually returned to Fall River where she married Edward Ira Marvell in 1912. The fact that Mary, as woman living in early twentieth century America did not marry until her thirties may be explained by the fact that she traveled abroad five times and was active in Episcopalian missionary activity. Mary and Edward lived on 338 Locust St. in Fall River. On a local front, Mary was active in the women's suffrage and labor movements, serving on the Bureau of Women's Educational and Industrial Union of Boston and as the treasurer of the Fall River's Working Girl's Club. She was also into theater and golf. As of 1917, Mary had a son and a daughter.

There is an Abby Slade Brayton Durfee and Mary Brayton Durfee Brown Scholarship Fund at Bryn Mawr for students of English or American descent (was this meant to exclude blacks?) and descendants of the class of 1894, which was established in 1924. Though I am not sure if there is any connection.

If have not been able so far to follow Mary's story past 1917. If any of her descendants find this blog post and wish to fill in the blanks I would be grateful.    

Friday, June 17, 2011

Presenting at the Institute for Humane Studies Seminar

Part of the IHS Scholarship and the Free Society seminar are breakout sessions in which graduate students get to present their own research. The purpose of this is to give presenters the opportunity to receive feedback from a diverse academic audience as well as gain practice in this very process. In keeping with the purpose of the seminar as a whole, which is to foster academics who not only prescribe to classical liberalism but also use it as a foundation for their scholarship, these breakout sessions also provide a forum to discuss how one's work relates to issues of interest to classical liberalism.

I was not initially invited to present when the seminar schedule was first formed, but one of the presenters did not make it so I volunteered to step in at the last minute. The seminar organizers accepted, so I ended up with a much and unexpected, but appreciated chance to do a conference presentation, speaking to a room full of classical liberals about messianism and politics. I mostly discussed the relationship between messianism and failed politics. (See "The Turn to Messianism.")

How does this issue of political messianism relate to classical liberalism? First, I am confronting the question of religion and politics and showing some of the potential pitfalls in any simple attempt to split the two. Second, my work serves to challenge a traditional liberal narrative of modernity in which modernity is defined by secular political revolutions. Following people like Norman Cohn, I argue that religious apocalypticism is not something distinct from secular politics and is, in fact, an important forbearer of it.

Considering how last minute this all was, my presentation was even more of my manic seat of the pants, loud, throwing my hands about and going into side tangents than usual. This style of speaking has its advantages and disadvantages. No matter what I am speaking about, it is difficult to accuse me of being boring. In a regular classroom, though, this can intimidate some students and even annoy those who do not wish to care. In a professional audience, like this seminar, I risk coming across as entertaining, but not professional and not someone to be taken seriously as an academic. Part of my difficulty as to why I cannot simply tone down my style is that I find myself needing the energy boost I receive from bouncing around. This is particularly the case when, as with this seminar, I have not prepared and I am really nervous. (Part of this may relate to my Asperger need for stimming.) I also struggle with a stammer, which particularly manifests itself when I am not on an emotional high.

There is a trap here; either I try and fail to play the part of the professional and risk appearing unprofessional and dull to boot or I can entertaining and even intellectually stimulating, but clearly not anyone's idea of a professional academic. I do admire those tenured academics, who can afford to walk around in jeans and a t-shirt and be eccentric to their heart's content. I simply lack the ability to play the part of the professional academic until I get to a place in which I can stop and freely be me.    

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Institute for Humane Studies Seminar: Scholarship & a Free Society

So here I am at a seminar for the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) on Scholarship & a Free Society at Bryn Mawr College, a women's college near Philadelphia. This school is absolutely gorgeous. IHS is a libertarian organization that conducts educational programs for college students. I am having a great time here. How many other places can I respond to something by discoursing on how this is an example of government inefficiency, which free markets are better equipped to handle and no one will think you are rude or engaging in an Asperger tendency to monologue? It is telling that before the lectures started and the rules were read out to us, the IHS representative appealed to us that regardless of what we might think of certain laws we should respect the private contract we have entered with IHS and which IHS has entered with Bryn Mawr and not make use of certain substances currently banned by the state of Pennsylvania.

So far we have had some truly thought-provoking lectures. I am really impressed to the extent these have not been indoctrination sessions. I suspect that part of it is that we are dealing with graduate students, who already are committed in some fashion to classical liberalism and who have a background in the field. So rather than rehash issues of like why individual liberty is important or why government is inefficient, along the lines of Milton Friedman's wonderful introductory book Free to Choose, the lecturers have moved past that and are trying to problematize these issues in some surprising ways. I hope to post my notes for at least some of them. So stay tuned.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Republican Primary Debates: I Have Produced Kids So I am Qualified to be President

I am in middle of watching the Republican Primary Debates. I find it shocking sometimes, when watching Republican politicians, to take a step back and realize how far I have come in the past decade in how little these people speak to me. For example in the opening statement, I think every candidate bothered to mention that they are married with children. Now we know the real reason why this is; it is a simple way for Republicans to claim they have "family values." There is something else here that strikes at the root of what is wrong with our politics. Here we have people running for president and what do they offer us as their qualifications, but that they are "regular" folks just like us. One little problem with this; regular folks are, by definition, not qualified to be president. I have numerous Haredi relatives who are married and have successfully raised ten or more children. None of these people are qualified to be president (even if I suspect they are less unqualified than some of these people on the podium). For that matter I, with my graduate degree, am not qualified to be president even if the Supreme Court were to recognize my constitutional right to run despite my being only twenty-eight years old. (See "My Constitutional Right to Run for the Senate.") 

What I want to hear from a presidential candidate is not how they are a regular person like me, but how they are not like me; that they are one of the most brilliant people in this country, a leading scholar in political theory, economic and foreign policy. Come to the debating podium with their framed Ph.D.s and a stack of published academic books. Barring the arrival of a world class genius I will accept a candidate who would come out and apologize to me: Sorry for having the nerve to run for president; in truth I am really a normal person just like you, with kids and and a job, and am completely unqualified for this office. If you can find it in yourself to think of me as something other then an arrogant power hungry fool, I promise to not make use of any of this power that I have not the faintest clue how to use in the first place. Instead I will leave you to live your lives and raise your children as you think best. Hopefully even people without a single graduate degree should be qualified for that.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Salman Rushdie Doing Television

This past decade has seen an interesting shift in the question of can books survive in a culture increasingly dominated by visual media. The story has become more complex than high brow literature for elites versus the crass popular entertainment of movies and television, particularly as we have seen shows such as Lost, Battlestar Galactica and Mad Men, which have used the open ended screen time of multiple seasons provided by the medium to create complex stories and characters with a literary quality that is hard to deny. Those who would see this new breed of television show as the new literature of our century may have just received some hard evidence of this. Salman Rushdie is doing a television show, noting that "he was drawn to television by the comparatively high status of the writer in the process. 'In the movies the writer is just the servant, the employee. In television, the 60-minute series, The Wire and Mad Men and so on, the writer is the primary creative artist.'"

I do not assume that this is the end of the novel, but I think this does mark a major shift in how we think about television. Will it be so obvious to our next generation of writers that novels are the respectable medium and movies and television are the popular entertainment, done for money and not respect.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Piled Higher and Deeper Movie

My life as a graduate student; just replace science with history. Now off to grade some forty finals plus a bunch of essays on Candide.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Final History 111 Spring 2011

My final was scheduled for Shavuot so I decided to simply give an online final. I just sent it out to my students. Here it is.

Pick three of the following essay questions and write 2-3 page responses. Each question is worth 50 points. Feel free to make use of your notes and do research online or in books. Your work, though, has to be your own. I will be on the lookout for plagiarism. I strongly advise everyone not to talk to their classmates about the final as this will likely cause your essays to sound too much alike. When you are finished, please email your finals to You have until Thursday midnight to finish.

You have been hired to write a screenplay about either the battle of Thermopylae, Robin Hood or pirates. Please write a summary of your proposed screenplay in order to hook a skeptical, but historically illiterate film producer into providing $100 million dollars for the making of this movie. What historical liberties do you plan on taking? Defend your decisions in terms of “narrative thinking.”

Describe life in the Middle Ages as it related to government and law enforcement. Why was life in the Middle Ages so violent despite the fact that almost everyone, at least on paper, was a Christian? What role did nationalism play in people’s minds? Give specific examples.

Does religion make people intolerant of others and hostile to democracy? Give examples from ancient Rome, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. In each of these cases, consider the role played by the specific content of their religious beliefs in the type of decisions made.

The study of history requires a great degree of skepticism. Is this skepticism absolute? What is the ironic conclusion of absolute skepticism? Is there a difference between claiming, as a historical fact, that Persia invaded Greece twice in the fifth century BCE and Mohammed spoke to the angel Gabriel?

What is “Occam’s Razor?” Why is this concept so important in one’s day to day life? What role does Occam’s Razor play in the study of history? Give an example.

What were some of the major technological innovations in warfare from antiquity up until the eighteenth century? How did some of these innovations advance the cause of democracy; how did some of them hinder democracy? What does it mean to have a “citizen’s army?” Why is it so important for the formation and maintenance of democracy?

Bonus: “Everything I needed to know in history (and life for that matter) I learned from watching Monty Python.” Defend this proposition with practical examples from the wisdom of this great British comedy team. (5 pts.)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Why Nobody Wants to be a Feminist: My Response to Clarissa

Clarissa did an excellent post a few days ago, Why Nobody Wants to be a Feminist where she challenges women to accept the full consequences of being liberated from patriarchy.

Feminism has given women a lot in the last several decades. However, new rights always come accompanied with new responsibilities and obligations. While feminism was in the process of granting women rights, they were happy to accept it. As soon as the time came to “pay the bills” and assume new obligations that came with being accepted as fully human, women abandoned the movement in droves. Unless we accept this very unpleasant truth and start doing something about it, it is my profound conviction that no amount of ethnic-specific feminisms and happy bondings between second, third and fourth generations of feminists will help attract more women to feminism. The problem does not lie within the movement. It is located outside, in people who don’t want to belong to it, who cringe when they hear the word “feminism”, or who have abandoned it.

Unless we accept that the patriarchy victimizes and rewards both women and men, we will never move on from this stalemate. Many women are standing in the way of feminism today because they are unwilling to let go of the benefits the patriarchy offered them, even as they keep enjoying the removal of constraints it used to place on their lives. In my culture, we call this “sitting on two chairs.” And that, my friends, is always a dangerous activity to engage in.

I agree with Clarissa, though I would take it a step further. At its heart, feminism has never been about a principled defense of equal rights, but simply a grab for arbitrary special privileges. If feminism was actually about equal rights then the very term "women's rights" would be dropped and everything would be framed in terms of human rights. For example, abortion would have nothing to do with a woman's "right to choose" or "control her own body;" it would simply be a plausible extension of the premise that individual human beings are the ones best suited for evaluating their own good and must be left as the sole arbitrators of matters relating to their own bodies. This leads to the conclusion that individuals should be allowed to use drugs, sell themselves as prostitutes, their own organs and possibly to have abortions. (See "The Libertarian Case Against Abortion.")
Closer to Clarissa's point, feminists themselves have proven unwilling to abandon distinctions of gender when such distinctions are beneficial to women. We see this when it comes to sports and acting awards, but more importantly the draft, which women are still protected from. (It would be worth bringing the draft back just to see men in mass refusing to serve unless women did so as well or agreed to give up the equal right to vote and hold down a job.) Either gender is rendered politically or socially meaningless like race and religion across the board or we admit that it is meaningful and negotiate where and how on the assumption that any special privilege will be paid for by accepting a form of discrimination on a different front. For example, it may be that if women desire special protection in terms of maternal leave they may have to pay for it by surrendering reproductive freedoms. The logic being that if the bearing of children is of some value to society at large so that companies should make special allowances for it then women, in turn, should submit themselves to the needs of society and fashion their reproductive lives in a way that best serves those needs.

Naturally, if the privilege is merely social then the discrimination, in turn, should also only be social. To make my own position clear. I oppose political distinctions based on gender (including women being exempted from the draft). That being said, and this is the Burkean conservative in me, I accept that, at a social level, there will for the foreseeable future continue to be social distinctions based on gender. It is my hope that, as a society, we can figure out a way to negotiate through these distinctions, men and women talking as equals.

There are consequences for this feminist unwillingness to take a principled stand on equal rights. If feminists are seen as trying to sit on two chairs with one rear end, then non-ideologically committed women can naturally only be expected to follow suit and not ask themselves the hard questions about being courted in marriage and becoming stay at home moms. Furthermore, this opens feminists to attack from different sides. Minority group feminists will attack establishment feminism as "white" feminism. If women are simply an arbitrary group grabbing for arbitrary special privileges then other arbitrary groups can arise within this already arbitrary group accuse others of wanting arbitrary special privileges and demand arbitrary special privileges of their own.

The greatest concern to any honest liberal should be how this plays into the hands of conservatives. If the people who claim to be liberals and supporters of equal rights behave like conservatives, creating arbitrary groups and handing out privileges and discriminating against at will, then we can only expect the true conservatives out there to throw away any pretext of supporting equal rights now that they no longer need to feel ashamed in the face of an honest principled liberalism.

Friday, June 3, 2011

John Constantine on Israel and the Jews

My roommate just showed me a piece from the Hellblazer comic. For those of you who are only familiar with the character of John Constantine from the Constantine movie with Keanu Reeves, the comic book version is a lot edgier. In the following piece he takes out a skinhead and gives the most pro-Israel and pro-Jewish speech you are likely to ever hear from a comic book character. Considering the amount of Jewish writers out there, it is a pity we do see more of this. Perhaps if more comics were like this we might see Jewish leaders willing to talk like this as well. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Tzabi the Israeli "Duck and Cover" Turtle

My friend Frank Blazich Jr., a fellow graduate student at Ohio State, is a specialist in American Cold War era civil defense. Right now he is working on a dissertation North Carolina's civil defense program. (Why someone would be working on North Carolina history from Ohio is a separate story that you are free to ask him.) A few months ago, he came over to me and asked me if I could translate something in Hebrew for him. Why would Hebrew be relevant to American civil defense? He had an Israeli version of the American cartoon Bert the Turtle.

I allowed the project to languish on my back burner for several months. (Frank is a much better friend than I am in reverse.) One of the reasons was that there were some terms I was not sure of and my translation is very stilted. So please go over to Frank's blog to see Tzabi the Israeli duck and cover turtle. Those of my readers with a background in Hebrew should feel free to suggest alternative translations.

It is interesting to note that the Tzabi comic was produced in 1967, presumably during the lead up to the Six Day war. Unlike Bert, there is no mention of Atomic bombs. The concern is merely that Egyptian planes might bomb Israeli cities. As a good Israeli turtle, Tzabi does not follow in the ways of the waspy Bert and wear bow-ties.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

History 111: Candide and the Innate Goodness of Man (Part II)

(Part I)

If medieval and early modern Christianity had a pessimistic view of human nature in which man is innately sinful and can only be kept in check by Church and State, we moderns tend to have a rather optimistic view of human nature that stresses man's innate natural goodness. This too has consequences for both theology and politics. If man is good then it stands to reason that he can achieve salvation through his own means without the aid of the Church. Now it becomes possible to talk about human reason as the bar against which to judge all things. Only someone confident in the intrinsic goodness of human beings could allow them to judge the world around them and do it based on what is innate to them. As for politics, a belief in human goodness allows for human beings to craft their own laws. We can even begin to talk about government as a contract between equals instead of the dictates of a patriarch to his children, leading to liberal democracy.

The legacy of this notion of human goodness still presents itself in our debates over crime and punishment and foreign policy. Why do people commit crimes? A conservative would say it is because they are "bad" people, motivated by greed and malice. In order to protect itself, society must remove this person from its midsts, either through prison or even the death penalty. Punishment is something that the person deserves as his just deserts. In the liberal model crime results from either mental illness, being raised in a problematic society or simply bad education. One way or another it is not the person's fault and the purpose of any "punishment" is not to penalize the person, but "rehabilitate" them. (See "C. S. Lewis on the Implications of the Nazi Holocaust.") Why are there terrorists? The conservative will tell you that it is because they are "evil" and hate "freedom." Naturally, such people can only be stopped by invading other countries and killing those people who deserve it. The liberal will tell that terrorists are the products of economic inequality, the legacy of colonialism and a fundamentalist education that preaches hate. Agree to peace talks, address the massive economic inequalities across the globe and provide a proper education for all and terrorism will disappear.

Now even the liberal acknowledges that there is much that is wrong with the world. Rather then lay the blame on people, the blame is placed on society. It is society that creates inequalities and teaches prejudice. People, left to their own devices, would naturally wish to live in harmony with others, recognizing the common humanity of all, and would not be bothered by the existence of other races and creeds. People have to be taught to hate others because of the color of their skin and the deity they pray to. The good news is that people can be saved from their own prejudices. With a properly funded welfare program, civil rights legislation and tolerant education, the natural human goodness in people will reassert itself and stand against all the ills created by society in the first place.

This brings us to Candide, a novel that represents this Enlightenment shift in how one views humanity. Candide is naturally good. Contrary to a simplistic view of the character, Candide is not stupid (a mistake made by the modern day adaptation, Forrest Gump). Candide is simply naive due to the fact that he is raised with no experience with the world. This is crucial to the character because it is precisely this lack of worldliness that allows for Candide's goodness. Candide does not suffer from greed, does not hate anyone and only wishes to live in brotherhood with all. Candide is not even capable of understanding the possibility that other people are not like this. The reason for this is that Candide exists completely uncorrupted by society. (This idea would be taken even further by Rousseau.)

It is for this reason that Voltaire subverts the garden of Eden story. Instead of Adam and Eve committing Original Sin, willfully disobeying the divine commandment to not eat from the tree of knowledge, and being rightfully thrown out of paradise, Candide has no notion of sin. He only wishes to experiment with the laws of "cause and effect." The fact that he kisses Cunegonde is interpreted as sin by a corrupt society, leading to him being wrongfully exiled from his beloved home in Westphalia. Instead of degenerate humans needing to be saved by righteous laws, Candide is the pure one, it is the outside system that is degenerate.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Americans and First Person Shooters

Extra Credits has a video blog post on why Americans are attracted to first-person shooter (FPS) video games. His argument is that this is rooted within American culture and perceptions of violence. Americans tend to focus on the individual versus society. Guns are symbols of personal freedom. Violence comes out of the struggle of the individual for freedom. This plays itself out in FPS games in which it is the individual against hordes of "others." Furthermore one's advancement through the game is mainly marked by more powerful guns, which are external interchangeable tools. Japanese culture tends to see violence as a spiritual struggle which, while manifested externally, is really a reflection of an internal conflict. This plays itself out in Japanese games where weapons are not simply tools that one picks up, but extensions of the self. One advances by internalizing greater powers. The FPS has advanced enough that this model may not hold up. For example, Mass Effect requires one to lead a team and use bionic powers with less emphasis placed on guns. Still, this piece holds for more traditional games and is useful food for thought.

If only someone told me this argument years ago when I was a kid. Mom, you have to let play Wolfenstein. I am exercising my natural American love of liberty and abusing it. If you do not let me play I may grow up to become a liberal and not support the invasion of other countries.


History 111: Candide and the Innate Goodness of Man (Part I)

(Go to 2:55 for Candide's showdown with the villainous  Jew.)

My last discussion of the early modern debate about human salvation proved surprisingly fitting for the last book we are doing, Voltaire’s Candide. Candide has the advantage of being short enough that we can go through it in two classes. If it is part of the Enlightenment, it is a critique of the old world I have spent the quarter trying to describe. If Voltaire was prejudiced against Jews, it is still one of the funniest books ever written. Candide also serves as an example of the modern shift in the understanding of human nature from a pessimistic view, in which human beings are hopelessly depraved, to a more positive view, in which humans are assumed to be innately good.

In the debate over salvation, both our Catholics and Protestants operated from the assumption of human depravity. In the Catholic model humans are just mostly depraved. We are tainted by Original Sin; while we are capable of doing good and resisting sin in specific situations, it is inevitable, barring divine intervention through grace, that we will come to sin. For example, even if I resist temptation and do not sin with a woman, the mere fact that I lusted after the woman is itself a sin; if I truly understood who God was, I never would even contemplate breaking his commandments. The fact that I would contemplate such a thing demonstrates that I am under the taint of Original Sin and of Satan. From this perspective it may be less damaging for my soul in the long run if I had given in to temptation. Now that I have not, I am in danger of believing myself to be righteous so I will never repent and I will add the sin of pride. The Catholic solution is that one needs to enter the body of the Church and come under the forgiveness earned on the cross. Being baptized and receiving the sacraments will not necessarily make me a better person; human depravity remains and I will have to answer for my sins in purgatory. By being part of the Catholic Church, though, one has access to Jesus’ atonement and can hope to eventually get out of purgatory and enter heaven.

Protestants are even more pessimistic about human nature than Catholics. Lutherans believe that man is almost completely depraved, incapable of doing any good or avoiding any sin on his own. The only redemptive feature in human nature is the ability to have faith. Calvinists are the most extreme, believing in utter human depravity and that humans can have no role in their own salvation. While, in a sense, Protestants value good works less than Catholics do, Protestants tend to agonize over the implications of their day to day works. Catholics can feel confident that, having entered the body of the Church, they are part of the saved despite their sins. With Protestantism there is no longer a set recognizable body of believers that one can belong to and be confident of salvation. Furthermore there is an assumption that one’s salvation should be manifested in good works. Thus if I am still sinning, even after being baptized as a Protestant, it is a sign that perhaps I never genuinely believed and received graced and am therefore not really one of the saved.

This view of human nature has political as well as religious implications. If I cannot hope to get right with God on my own because I am so depraved, neither can I fashion laws and a government for myself to live with others. Just as I need God to reveal his laws through the Church as I could never learn them on my own, he also needs to establish a government for me, such as a king, with rulers to keep me in line, because I could never do so on my own. Now it might happen that this king will prove corrupt as he is also a depraved human sinner. If that happens then I should take it as a punishment from God for my sins and should pray for forgiveness and ask God to change the heart of the king. Under no circumstance should I even contemplate rebellion. What basis do I have to believe that I, a depraved sinner, can possibly fashion anything better? How dare I reject the government that God saw fit, in his infinite mercy, to grant me that I may become less of a sinner.

Admittedly, already with Protestantism this model becomes more complicated. While Protestants may believe in human depravity they also believe in grace which can rectify human nature. This allows for there to be a “community of saints,” that small group of people blessed with grace. Such people would be capable of establishing their own “godly” government. It may even be their duty to seize the reins of government from an unsaved king. In the case of the English Civil War, this led to the execution of Charles I and the establishment of an English Republic under Oliver Cromwell. It also led to the Fifth Monarchy movement, which thought that Cromwell was not godly enough and tried to remove him as a limb of Satan.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Quick Guide to Christian Salvation as Applied to Early Modern Europe

I often seem to find myself in the position of defender and explainer of Christianity, particularly when I teach. For me, educating my Christian students in what they are supposed to believe ranks above even Monty Python and classic films as unofficial purposes of my class. For example, the other day I spent a large part of the class explaining Christian notions of salvation (Are all people even capable of attaining salvation?) as they relate to the early modern period. I got into this topic by means of, believe or not, the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, which has a Christian missionary struggling with issues such as whether Blackbeard and mermaids can be saved. His final conclusion is that Blackbeard cannot be saved and he falls in love with a mermaid, who takes him down to the depths with her. (His ultimate fate is left open.) I must say, I cannot think of many movies with positive Christian characters with sex appeal. That being said I was confused as to the missionary’s religious affiliation. He is brought on board by Penelope Cruz’s character, who was seduced by Jack Sparrow as a girl in a convent. This would lead us to assume she is Catholic. But the missionary appears Protestant. No Spanish Catholic girl would be so careless as to entrust the salvation of her father's immortal soul to a Protestant.

Certainly, the early modern period was one with much concern, debate and ultimate uncertainty about salvation. Things were fairly simple for medieval Catholics. One was saved through a combination of good works and belonging to the body of the Church, the mechanism through which Christ’s salvation was administered to the world. One did good works, such as giving charity and not cheating on your wife. This led to divine grace, which allowed one to have faith and enter the body of the Church through baptism and the administration of the sacraments. All people were assumed to be capable of earning salvation through this model. People were also presumed to be responsible for their own actions and will be held liable for them in the afterlife and on Judgment Day. In fact, most people will have to spend at least some time in purgatory for their sins. Time in purgatory could be shortened through having masses said and giving money to the Church.

The problem with this view of salvation was that it presumably condemned all decent non-Christians, many of whom might go their entire lives without even hearing about Christianity, as well as those who lived before Christ to everlasting hellfire. Even without modern notions of multiculturalism, this bothered medieval Christians. Hence you had the doctrine of limbo for unbaptized babies. (The modern Catholic Church has removed limbo in favor of simply sending all unbaptized babies straight to heaven.) Dante went so far as to create a “nice Hell” for all the righteous pagans such as Homer and Virgil. (Even the Muslim ruler Saladin gets to live here.)

The discovery of the New World exacerbated the problem of non-Christians living in complete ignorance of Christianity. Christians in Europe now had to face the fact that the world was a much bigger place with lots more people and almost all of them were going to Hell.

Enter Martin Luther. Luther overturned the entire model of good works and membership in the Church through baptism and the sacraments leading to salvation. For Luther, it was not possible for humans to do good works on their own because man was inherently depraved due to Original Sin. The only choice that one could make was to have faith. If you have faith you will receive grace, which will, in turn, allow you to engage in good works. Furthermore, there was no corporate body of the Church on Earth to belong to and be saved. The sacraments and the salvation they bring did not come from the Church and its representative priest. The miracle of transubstantiation happened in the body of the believer through personal faith.

An even more extreme position was taken by John Calvin. According to Calvin, humans were so depraved that they could not even choose to believe. All people really deserved to go to Hell. God, though, chose to freely grant some individuals grace, which allowed them to believe and be saved. From this perspective, sacraments served no purpose beyond a memorial to the last supper and transubstantiation could be done away with as human beings have absolutely no role in their own salvation.

What Luther and Calvin accomplished was to radically even further limit the number of people with a chance at salvation. Now not only were Muslims, Jews and Native Americans doomed to Hell but even most Christians. (For this reason it is difficult to classify Luther as an anti-Semite, despite some truly horrific statements; he did not treat Jews worse than Catholics.) The advantage of this rather depressing view of human salvation is that it removed the question of why God would choose only Europeans to be saved and condemn everyone else. Europeans were mostly all going to Hell along with everyone else. This position also opened up the possibility for greater levels of tolerance for other religions. For example, Jews might still be condemned to Hell, but they were not satanic. They never willfully rejected Jesus; they just were never granted grace. Jews could even remain as the special chosen people of God and keepers of special knowledge such as the Talmud and kabbalah. Thus Protestantism produced some remarkably philo-Semitic thinkers such as Peter Serrarius, John Dury and Samuel Hartlib.

Within Protestantism though there is going to be a backlash against this condemnation of almost the entire human race. The seventeenth century sees a revival of the revival of the views of the third-century Christian thinker Origin, who believed that even Satan, let alone Jews and heathens, would eventually repent and be saved. This view had nothing to do with Enlightenment religious skepticism; it was a matter of religious Christians needing to solve a major theological crisis of how one can hope to be saved in the face of the collapse of any unified Christian theology. (See D. P. Walker's Decline of Hell.)