Monday, February 28, 2011

Oh Nuts Purim Gift Basket Giveaway

My friends at Oh Nuts are having a Purim gift basket giveaway for readers of this blog. The winner will get a $30 gift certificate to use at Oh Nuts

Readers have 3 ways to enter:

1. Readers should go to the Oh Nuts Purim Basket Gift page. Choose your favorite Purim Gift and leave a comment on under this blog post with the name and url of the gift you love the most.

I will pick a random winner and Oh Nuts will send them a $30 gift certificate.

2. Readers can go to the oh nuts facebook page become a fan and post on the wall the url and name of your favorite Purim Gift Basket . You should also write "I am here via "Izgad"

3. Readers can follow @ohnuts and should Tweet " Win a Purim Basket from Follow @ohnuts and RT to Enter Daily "

Defending the King's F-Word Speech

I did not watch the Oscars last night, but I am glad to hear that the King's Speech walked away with awards for Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture. I adore this movie and cannot recommend it highly enough. Aspirations, my autism support group, is actually doing an outing to see the movie, something I pushed for. Now my roommate just pointed me to an article that says that the King's Speech is going to be edited to make it PG-13. The King's Speech is probably the cleanest most "G rated "movie with an R rating attached to it. There is no sex, no violence, just lots of good humor, inspiring moral courage and a scene in which the main character lets off a string of profanities, including several F-words.

This is a good example of how my very conservative personal values clash with my libertarian opposition to censorship and loses. This is usually because it turns out in the end that my libertarian side does a better job at defending my deeper conservative values than my conservative side. In general I am not a fan of the use of profanity and you would be hard pressed to hear me using any. That being side I find the rating system used by the film industry, largely to forestall actual government censorship, to be so arbitrary as to invite absurdity and ultimately to corrupt society into hypocrisy. Our rating system has created a situation where a movie can show people's naked back sides while having sex or hacking other people apart and still receive a PG-13 rating, but God help us if there are two F-words. As if sex and violence were ok, but we must protect children from hearing a word regularly used on the street.

This does not help traditional values, but rather corrupts them. Take for example the infamous "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Superbowl halftime show, when millions of viewers where treated to Janet Jackson's exposed nipple. I was not so lucky as I was engrossing myself in my Latin flashcards while at a Superbowl party. I heard shouts of "boobie" and I looked up and asked "boobie where?" For all of those churches and synagogues hosting Superbowl parties, who felt guilty about exposing "innocent children" to Janet Jackson's boobs, what about an entire halftime show, that as far as I could tell from looking up from my flashcards was all about sex? If you are ok with people bumping, grinding and singing about sex then you should not be bothered by a little partial nudity at the end. Why should traditional Judeo-Christian values bow before the edicts of a random board?

In general I do not like hearing the F-word. The King's Speech is one place where it should be. Any parent who would refuse to take their children to see this movie because of a few F-words can go F themselves.


Sunday, February 27, 2011

Hebrew Hovers at the Doorway of Symphonic Metal CDs

It is funny the unexpected places where one runs into Hebrew. For example the first time I read through Dune I paid little heed to the title used for Paul Muad'Dib, Kwisatz Haderach. In the novel, the Kwisatz Haderach is meant to refer to a theoretical superhuman messiah figure that the Bene Gesserit sisterhood has been working towards for thousands of years through their breeding program. It was only after I finished that a friend of mine pointed me to the index and the fact that Kwisatz Haderach is the Hebrew phrase קְפִיצַת הַדֶּרֶך meaning shortening of the way.

Today I had downloaded and was listening to the Dutch symphonic metal band Epica and their album Divine Conspiracy when I noticed the title to one of their songs "La‘fetach Chatat Rovetz." I first thought it was French until it hit me that it was the Hebrew לפתח חטאת רובץ, sin hovers at the doorway. If I were of a more Haredi disposition I might think that this was a heavenly sign warning me away from non-Jewish music.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Emes Ve-Emunah and the Horrors of a Libertarian Society

Baruch Pelta just sent me a recent post by Emes Ve-Emunah on the issue of gay marriage. It is a pretty good piece attempting to balance a principled opposition to gay marriage with an honest caring for individual homosexuals. Then at the end he drops this bit of wisdom.

The ultimate libertarian ideal is to make no value judgment at all placed on any behavior that is private and among consenting adults. As long as you do not hurt or force yourslef on others – who cares what goes on in the bedroom? Sex between siblings – if they agree - why not? Mother-son, father–daughter? …as long as they are adults and agree, why stop them? Do we as a nation really want to go down that path? Without the bible what possible objection could one have?

Do we want to go down this path? Why not? If people wish to not live under biblical principles and violate every sexual taboo in Leviticus why should it be my problem that I should risk my life and liberty threatining them with government sanctioned coercion, inviting them to retaliate in kind? I accept the Constitution, not the Bible, as the basis for our legal system. So yes I have no possible objection. (See Religious Choices.)

Jesus Versus the Backside of a Girl

College posting boards, which allow anyone to put up what ever they like as long as someone does not come afterwards to tear it down, can make for some interesting bed fellows. Take for example the posting board at the back of my classroom, with its poster for a vacation spot, featuring the backside of a girl in a bathing suit, and a collection of "Christ is Victor" pamphlets. What story can we tell about this? How about "stop just staring at the backside of the girl in the bathing suit and hand the nice lady a pamphlet about Jesus. This will give you an opportunity to stare at her from the front."

I cannot wait for the weather to clear up and the campus oval circus can come to town. This features lots of girls in bathing suits and a collection of preachers in suspenders calling them whores and threatening them with hellfire. As a hellbound Jew, I am comforted to know that my side has the pretty girls in bathing suits even if the preachers are a whole lot more entertaining.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Teaching History to Some Very Special Children

Yesterday I was invited for a second time to give a presentation to the high school of Haugland Learning Center, a special education school for autistic children. I would like to thank the absolutely wonderful and dedicated staff for allowing me to come and making me feel welcome there. The first time I came I spoke about college and dating. (My main piece of advice for dating was not to be an ax murderer.) This time around I gave a version of my presentation about research on the internet and the limits of Wikipedia. (See My Blog and Wikipedia Versus Frances Yates.) In truth both of these presentations quickly evolved into free running conversations with the kids, which is how I like to teach even as that rarely happens in my regular teaching experience.

I must admit to a rift between my inclinations as a teacher and as an academic. I am working on a doctorate in history, a path suited for teaching in a university. Left to my own devices I lecture on highly theoretical and technical topics best suited for a graduate school setting. (This is one of the reasons why I only lasted a year teaching at the Hebrew Academy.) On the other hand the people that I best relate to are children and particularly autistic children.

Children are not bothered by the fact that I am strange and that they do not always understand me. I am an adult so it is only reasonable that I am strange and not easily understood; adults can get away with this. That being said children quickly pick up on the fact that I am interested in them and respect them in ways that few other adults do. I am not very good at talking up to or down to people. I tend to speak to everyone as my equal and this includes children. For this reason children are far more willing to engage with me than adults are. This helps bring me out of a lecture mode; once I am responding to other people I can stop responding simply to the issues in my own head and deliver content understandable to the listener.

This is even more true for autistic children, who are used to adults looking down on them and thinking of them as things to be handled. I think they pick up very quickly how, on the contrary, it is a relief for me to be with them. I am not bothered by lack of formal social contact or odd gestures. With them I feel at home and I will work with them on their terms.  

If anyone knows of an autistic school looking for a general studies teacher, who, while lacking a formal training in special education, but relates well to autistic children and can serve as a bridge between special education and regular schooling feel free to contact me. (For more on my interest in working with children see My Ideal Job.)   

Monday, February 21, 2011

Kelly Hunter's Tempest Workshop

Recently Aspirations, the autism support group I work with here in Columbus, hosted Kelly Hunter to give a workshop on acting. Kelly Hunter is a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and specializes in using theater to work with autistic children. (A later search revealed that she also guest starred in an episode of Doctor Who. I will leave it up to my readers to judge for themselves as to the relative importance of the two.)   

Ms. Hunter pulled off one of the most incredible teaching sessions I have ever seen. Beyond anything she can do for children, her performance was worth it simply as an exercise in teaching. She presented Shakespeare's The Tempest to a room full of parents and children and some were more interested than others. Not using the text of the play, she had everyone group up in a series of exercises to follow the various characters. For example there was an exercise with Miranda teaching Caliban to speak and Caliban becoming a little "too friendly" with Miranda. (In the play Caliban actually tries to rape Miranda in order to produce "little Calibans.") My Caliban was inspired by Gollum in Lord of the Rings. And then there was Ariel leading Ferdinand to Miranda and the two seeing each other with "new eyes." This is followed by Prospero's objection. My Prospero was based on Sean Connery.

Such a method of teaching avoids the trap of lecturing to people, of forcing them to simply memorize information and instead invites them into the process to take it on their own terms and make it their own. Furthermore this method plays to all three varieties of learning styles, auditory, visual and above all kinetic.

Inspired by this, I attempted to apply some of these ideas in my History 111 class the next day by asking students to group up and role play two different figures from different time periods that we had been discussing, Cicero and Giordano Bruno, and have them talk to each other. The students did not take well to this exercise and I was told that they much preferred being lectured at. Well you cannot win all your battles, but I am not going to give up on more theatrical history classes.    


Saturday, February 19, 2011

History 111 Book: The Spartacus War

Proving once again that students prefer classical over medieval history, for the final book of the winter quarter my class picked The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss. The book deals with the Spartacus slave revolt of 73-71 BCE. It has much of what I like for a basic level history book. It is short, easy to read, but offers a glimpse into some of the wider complexities of the historical method. All of this while avoiding polemics. Strauss is particularly to be recommended in that he is taking a politically loaded issue such as a slave rebellion and avoids taking sides. Unlike the Kirk Douglas movie, this not about noble freedom fighters fighting for liberty against tyrannical Rome. Despite the generally negative role the Romans play in Jewish history, I admire them too much to simply dismiss them as villains.      

Friday, February 18, 2011

Arianna Huffington Crosses the Aisle to Join David Brooks in Some Bi-Partisan Bashing of the Two Party System

Arianna Huffington has a post on a recent debate in which she joined with conservative David Brooks to defend the proposition that "the two-party system is making America ungovernable" against Zev Chafets and P. J. O'Rourke. What struck me is how gracious Arianna is when talking about the event and the issue being debated, both to a conservative like Brooks and to her opponents; the piece is worth it just for her tone, regardless of content. Perhaps this has something to do with being paired with Brooks, a writer whose chief strength is, following in the tradition of William F. Buckley, in being the gentleman conservative; the sort of conservative that liberals might disagree with, but cannot help respect.

Huffington argues that:

It [the two-party system] has ossified to the point where it can only deliver short-term fixes. It has led to entrenched thinking, complacency, and the deification of conventional wisdom -- all conditions that have made it harder and harder to challenge a broken status quo.

And the two-party system has not just narrowed our choices, it's narrowed our thinking. It has deeply infected our political discourse, our media, and our politicians. To paraphrase Einstein, the problems we are facing today cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.

The hunger for change is evident on both sides of the political spectrum -- from the meteoric rise to power of an outsider candidate like Barack Obama to the lightning in a bottle creation of the Tea Party -- both the result of grassroots, anti-establishment movements. The American people clearly want alternatives.

On practically every level, potential nominees in each party are running away from the establishment label and desperately trying to show their independence from the establishment wings of the two parties that are held in such low esteem.

And the Internet and social media are making the shakeup of the two parties much more likely, with young people less and less aligned with large, established institutions -- and more empowered than ever to connect with each other and cut through the spin perpetrated by politicians and special interests.

I would like to voice my respectful and courteous disagreement, precisely in that, as I see it, it is the two-party system that allows for the thin veneer of political civility we possess. If, as I have argued previously, politics is a means of negotiating as an alternative to violence. The value of politics is, therefore, less in any specific agreements that may be reached but in the fact that all parties have committed themselves to this process and not to violence.

The virtue of our two-party system is that it forces everyone involved to the political center. Get past the political rhetoric and you will see that the two parties are fairly close to each other. Both parties are in principle committed to state-guided capitalism, with private businesses and a welfare system designed to eliminate extreme poverty. Both parties support a large military that involves itself in foreign conflicts. Both parties accept that women are to be involved in the political and social sphere. I might not like all of these principles myself, but no one can operate within our political system without convincing voters that he holds to them. Now there are certainly very real disagreements between the parties, but as all involved see the other as accepting the same principles it becomes possible to create an ethos of compromise. In our legislative system, there are few debates over principles; it is a matter of negotiating a dollar amount, how much you are going to regulate something and what kind of restrictions to put in place.

To be clear this is not to say that the actual policies put out by such a system are particularly good, often they are ridiculous. What is important here is that the various factions in our society are negotiating and not trying to force their will upon everyone else. It is very well that few people actually like how our two-party system operates and the sorts of solutions it comes up with. That being said, no one, barring the likes of the Westboro Baptist Church and Aryan Nations,  is going to point blank reject the system.

Our political system does seem to be in crisis as the divide in our society seems to be widening and the rhetoric is being ratcheted up. More and more we are seeing an "us versus them" rhetoric, the logical consequences of which is violence. Some might blame the internet or talk radio. I blame the statist logic which both parties submit to. The more government interferes with people's lives and becomes the solution to problems the more people have reason to feel threatened by the government and see it as a foreign coercive force, which can only be met by going outside the system; a path whose logical conclusion is violence and the destruction of the political system.

If you wish for a respectful civilized political discourse then you may very well have no choice but to accept the two-party system with all of its very real flaws.                


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Atlas Shrugged Trailer

So the Atlas Shrugged movie is coming out in April. If you are wondering how they are going to turn a thousand plus page book into a single movie, they are not; it is going to be a trilogy. Judging from the trailer, the first movie is going to deal with Dagney Taggart building the John Galt railroad line. It looks like they are going to take the train crash from later in the novel and place it here. Makes a sort of sense as this movie is going to need some action. No one is going to sit through a movie about building a railroad line with a new high tech metal, a plot line that was already thin in the 1950s; why do these characters spend days shuffling back and forth across the continent by train when they could just fly? If this movie is going to work they are going to need to turn to what Ayn Rand did best, political satire featuring her comic villains going into monologues about the need to protect the public interest. Do the filmmakers have the good sense to not take themselves and Ayn Rand too seriously and actually try to have some fun with this?        

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Trap of Duty in Dating

As I posted on previously, I struggle with dating in some rather ironic ways. It is not that I do not care, on the contrary at times it is because I care too much, but it is an intellectualized caring lacking formal empathy. Because of this I get hurt from both sides. I am seen as uncaring; this is a damaging accusation since, as someone who often misses social cues, I cannot manage without a certain level of charitable understanding from others that I am ever malicious. On the flip side, since I do in fact care, I open myself up to being hurt.

To give an example, from one of my past relationships. Now to be clear, this relationship, in my mind, was an extremely positive one. It lasted as long as it lasted because we both came to it with the necessary goodwill and we walked away from it, for all the right reasons, but on very good terms. There have been many women about whom I would say they wronged me. Agnes is not one of them. Agnes visited me and got to meet my family. Things went very well, though afterwards, my father made an astute observation to me. He pointed out that it was clear to him, from watching my interaction with Agnes, that I cared greatly about her. When she was in the room she was the center of my attention and what I cared about was making sure that she felt comfortable. On the other hand, my father saw nothing to indicate that the feeling was mutual.

Of course in this situation it was Agnes who had gone out of her way traveling to see me; obviously, it was my obligation to look after her and make her feel that her trip was worthwhile. (Again this has nothing to do with any personal feelings I may have had toward Agnes at a given moment. She was doing something for me; I, therefore, owed it to her to respond in kind.) Also, I must admit that there is an element here of overcompensating for being an Asperger. It was drilled into me that, if I did not want people to think I was unfeeling, I needed to actively show I cared for people and keep them in mind. So in any situation in which it becomes actually relevant to me whether someone thinks I care, I am going to make them a conscious priority. Most people can get away with caring subconsciously so they can keep it at moderate levels. Since this is something I need to do consciously if I am going to do it all, I lack a ready mechanism to moderate it.

This gap between our mutual levels of attention, though, became very readily apparent when our roles were reversed. What ended this relationship was when, after traveling to spend time with Agnes, she informed me that I would be left to my own devices Saturday night. My response to her was that if I were single I would be looking forward to spending the evening playing Mass Effect, geeky, loserish, but loads of fun. If I were dating I would be looking forward to actually be spending time with my girlfriend. What I had now seemed to be the worst of both worlds.    

Care, as I conceptualize it, is an expression of duty. For starters, I take dating and the responsibilities that come with it very seriously. If talking to someone in the first place is a big deal, how much more so if you are engaging in a series of meetings to negotiate a "till death do us part" agreement. (Part of being an Asperger is that one approaches everything with literal earnestness.) Furthermore, there is my quid pro quo morality. How can I imagine asking someone to treat me with charity, a virtual necessity living as an Asperger in a neurotypical world, if I am not prepared to give in kind? If I need to rely on other people thinking to themselves that, despite my very real flaws, they are in a relationship with me and therefore owe it to me to give me that benefit of the doubt to try to make things work then I need to feel obligated in turn to honor that relationship and always try to work things out. In practice, though, this feeling simply results in me acting out this sense of obligation for people, even those I actively dated, who do not reciprocate. To make matters worse, most seem to lack even a concept of such a quid pro quo sense of duty.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Fox Attacks Libertarianism

A major part of my political evolution these past few years has been a realization that, even as I still accept much of the conservative critique of the modern liberal establishment, I did not fit into the dominant model of conservatism as displayed on Fox news and right wing talk radio. This is not to say that I do not feel a strong affinity for John Stossel and Judge Andrew Napolitano, who both have shows on Fox. For then there are attack pieces like the following written by Kevin McCullough and posted on Fox. McCullough sees evidence of libertarians being "disrespectful" to the Republican party by "hijacking" the CPAC poll, leading to libertarian Ron Paul victory with Gary Johnson, also with strong libertarian credentials, coming in third. According to McCullough:

It has been the inclusion of the libertarian aspects of the past two years that has thrown the message of conservatism askew in a widely disproportional way.

It is the libertarian in attendance that produced the free pornographic calendar passed out to attendees in 2010. It is the libertarians in attendance who openly promote the inclusion of groups like GOProud, largely as an attempt to silence groups who would speak in strong support of traditional moral values. It is the libertarian in attendance who slandered President George Bush, by claiming his appreciation for the Constitution was best summed up as a "damn piece of paper." It is the libertarian in attendance that proclaimed the war to prevent terrorists from regathering strength and coming after our homeland as "illegal." And it is the libertarian in attendance that eschewed, booed, cajoled and screamed "war criminal" to Vice President Dick Cheney, a man who served his country with commitment and still attempts to help the world understand the threat of the radical Islamic element devising plans to eliminate us and our allies.

McCullough concludes by saying:

Libertarians and Conservatives are as different as Libertarians and Liberals. The truth is libertarians are the worst form of political affiliation in the nation. Combining the desire of economic greed, with the amoral desire to promote any behavior regardless of its cost to our culture is a stark departure from the intent of the Founding Fathers.

So what does it mean to be a libertarian? I am not sure about handing out pornographic calenders, but welcoming gays, questioning Bush's commitment to the Constitution, believing that throwing around the word "terrorism" is not a legal blank check and finding Dick Cheney to be an all round worthy target of ridicule seem like good places to begin. So if Fox conservatives decide that I am not a "good conservative," whose "greed" for money leads me to not use government to protect Christian culture I guess I can live with that.  

Monday, February 14, 2011

My Very Rational Approach to Love and Dating and Why It Has Not Worked (So Far)

The common adage that you hear about Aspergers is that we do not have emotions and we are therefore incapable of falling in love and pursuing romantic relationships. This is absolutely false. I have, for one, been in love many times, all failures to one degree or another, often with the other person not even willing to talk to me. In contrast, in circumstances where the situation has been reversed and I was aware that another person had feelings for me my position has been, whether or not I felt able to return those feelings, that the person had given me one of the nicest things possible, the knowledge that someone else cared about me, and that I, in turn, owed them something. Even if for various reasons I felt unable to return their affection, they deserved their chance to make their case and I owed it to them to hear them out with an open mind; above all else, I feel the need to avoid doing something that might hurt the other person. Following the author of Psalms, I see returning good with evil as the most unforgivable action one can do in this world. If one is to go based on my life experience it is neurotypicals, living inside their own feelings, who seem incapable of love.

Part of my problem, I have come to recognize, lies in how I conceive of love and the logical conclusions I take from it. Much as I despise Ayn Rand's concept of sexuality, there is something to be said for her notion of love as a rational decision that one chooses to make. For me, love is essentially an offer of loyalty in this difficult world. What I want is very simple; give me a girl that I am attracted to, can get a decent conversation out of and operates within traditional Jewish practice and I would be willing to offer this girl absolute loyalty. Obviously, there is more to a relationship than just this, but give me this to work on and I will figure out a way to take care of everything else. I am a rational and tolerant person, who respects the fact that other people have different and equally valid personalities from mine. Assuming that this other person is equally rational we should be able to meet each other half-way. I am also not bad looking and perfectly willing to allow the person I am dating to take charge of my wardrobe and my beard as best suits them.

So where does this entire process go wrong as it has so many times for me? For one thing, this is a very quick process for me. I should be able to figure out whether a girl fits my criteria in a matter of minutes; a few days if I really want to be sure. This creates a situation in which I have fallen in love and am willing to go all out with someone whom I have just met and who likely, at best, sees me as an interesting person. Furthermore, my instinctual reaction to falling in love is to take it very seriously. For me, there is no such thing as a person, particularly a girl, that I just casually talk to. If I am talking to a person on a regular basis at all then, by definition, the relationship is important.

This sort of relationship does not work with most girls, even the intelligent eccentric ones that catch my attention. They are likely to be turned off by my unreciprocated intensity. In this day and age, such affections are generally interpreted as marks of instability rather than honorable commitment. Also, most girls are looking for something with more empathetic depth to it. This is not something that happens in the short time schedule that I operate on. Furthermore, even in those situations in which I fail to turn someone away very quickly, the relationship still fails in the long term once the person realizes that I am not capable of developing such an empathetic relationship. What I understand is wanting something from someone else (in this case sex and affection) and making the logical assumption that the other person might want something from me (likely just for me to get out of their hair). The logical conclusion from this is that we should use reason to negotiate a mutually beneficial agreement (say if I am affectionately told to get packing). This is the extent to which I understand how to relate to people. Any relationship outside of this framework is meaningless to me.

At a philosophical level, my approach to dating suffers from the same problem as all Kantian relationships in that it is ultimately impersonal. In Kant's moral philosophy one always acts from universal principles and not from particular feelings. So one is not kind to a friend because you like their friendship. The friend as a person is irrelevant, just an object of categorical imperatives. Similarly, with my dating, the girl I am with may mean the world to me but is of little relevance in of herself. She is a person who happens to fulfill a set of categories. She could just as easily be replaced with someone else who also fit my categories and that person would mean the world to me.

Oddly enough, my approach to dating would likely work very well if I operated within the Haredi framework. For some Haredim, the practice is for the guy to meet the girl for the first time for a few hours in the girl's home with the platters for an engagement party already in place. In such a world it would come down to the girl being faced with a very simple calculation: "this Benzion guy comes from a good family, he is smart and funny. Even if he is a little odd, he is clearly not the abusive sort so why not just say yes."

I do have my sight on a girl (not actually dating her though). Let us see if, this time around, things work out differently.

Friday, February 11, 2011

If You Hired a Historian as Your Therapist

As I argued in the previous post, historians have a far superior method of analyzing human motivation than psychoanalysts do. The obvious conclusion from this is that historians should step in and offer themselves as professional psychologists. There are millions of people out there not achieving their personal goals in life, whether in business, love or in just being happy. Many of these people are at present spending thousands of dollars lying on the couches of psychoanalytic therapists, as they try to pierce the veil of their own subconscious to explain their failings. Considering the poor job market for historians, I am sure many of my fellow graduate students would jump at the chance to apply their skills in dealing with historical figures to helping real live present day people with their problems. Of course the psychiatric board would object, demand that we receive licenses from them and refuse to give them to us, but that is just a matter of them being a special interest group.

So what might it be like to have a historian as one's personal therapist? The goals of such therapy would be different from traditional psychoanalysis. For our historian therapist, the purpose in treating his patient would be to rationally examine their goals in life, the actions they have taken to achieve them, the rational reasons why such actions might have failed and how better to rationally pursue their goals in the future. Since we are applying the historical method, there would be a radical de-emphasis on talking to the patient. As historians we value written documents over personal memory. So, after an initial consultation with the patient to discuss their specific goals in therapy, the patient would turn over all relevant documents such as letters, e-mails and text messages (living in the twenty-first century is going to be a big help with this) over to the historian therapist for study. Our historian therapist would then proceed by himself to analyze these documents to get a sense of the patient and their motivation, while keeping in contact with the patient to receive biographic info to help place everything in its right context. Once our historian therapist is satisfied with the information he has he can bring in the patient for the actual therapy. Proceeding on the assumption that the patient has acted from consistent rational motivations, our historian therapist will discuss the logical possibilities over with his patient. The starting point is going to be the patent's motives as he understands them, considering that he is the one with the best knowledge of his own mind. Our historian therapist will challenge his patient by pointing out contradictions between what the patient claims and his actions as they appear from the documentary evidence and suggest other possible motives more consistent with the evidence at hand.

It is here that our historian therapist is likely to get into trouble. Therapists, as employees of their own patients, are dependent upon the good will of their patients and therefore need to create "safe" environments and offer flattering explanations that will appeal to the patient so that the patient will continue to employ them. This is one more reason why this whole psychoanalytic field is invalid as a means of gaining actual knowledge. Historians usually have the advantage of dealing with dead people and therefore we have the luxury to be as critical as we wish. Like psychoanalysts, we do not judge our subjects, but to attack and demonstrate that the subject was not as virtuous as they claimed is a basic part of the historian's task. You identify your source's agenda and ignore anything it tells you that supports this agenda; on the flip side you accept as absolute truth anything that goes against the agenda. This creates a relationship between historians and their sources more akin to that of police interrogating a subject than a therapist with a patient.

Sigmund Freud argued that, since there is much in psychoanalysis that a patient would be loathe to accept, it is necessary to create a process in which the patient comes to the proper conclusions on their own and not as the opinion of the therapist. Our historian therapist might be able to do something similar. He can teach the patient about the historical method and invite him to apply it to the events of his own life through the analysis of documents that he wrote. If nothing else, a commitment to reason and using it as a tool of self analysis should do wonders for any patient's mental well being.         

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Historical Method Versus Psychoanalysis

Founded in the nineteenth century, psychoanalysis has proven to be one of the most dominant fields in modern life. Far beyond a means of treating mentally troubled individuals, psychoanalysis today is critical for modern philosophy, literature and even law. Put broadly psychoanalysis is the belief that human beings are dominated by an irrational subconscious and that by becoming aware of this subconscious, usually by engaging in a dialogue with a professional psychoanalytical therapist, one can put a stop to much of the undesirable results of this subconscious. In the public mind, psychoanalysis will forever be associated with the specific theories of Sigmund Freud such as the subconscious Oedipus complex, the ego and and the id, even if in practice the field has moved on to other theories of the subconscious.

This may sound radical but I reject psychoanalysis. If people feel they benefit from it they are certainly free to spend their own money on therapy. If there is historical evidence that a writer made use of psychoanalysis then a literary analysis should take that into account. But under no circumstance should psychoanalysis be used to form the basis of any public policy or law. Now what basis do I have for taking such a stance? I have no formal training in psychology. What I do have is my training as a historian. History like psychoanalysis is a theory of human motivation. As a historian, I try to figure out the who, what, when and where of human events, but most importantly I consider why people do things. That being said, the historical method is quite different from psychoanalysis both in its methodology and in the sorts of conclusions it is liable to come to. 

The historical method starts with the assumption of rationality in the sense that it is assumed that people act at a given moment according to set rules. This is not to say that all or even most people act rationally, just that the only type of motivation that can be explored is the rational. Everything else quickly descends into a laundry list of actions that can only be explained by capricious whim. (If historians and psychoanalysts agree on anything it is that anyone who says they did something "just because" is not being honest and is hiding something.) At its heart, psychoanalysis comes from the assumption that human beings are fundamentally irrational and that rational action is a pretense to cover up the irrational desires, which, through the controlling power of the subconscious, are the true driving force behind the person. Sticking to reason would not in of itself eliminate psychoanalysis. In a sense psychoanalysis does in the end bind itself to a form of rationality in the sense that we can expect the person to act consistently according to the parameters set by the subconscious.

This brings us to a second major difference in methodology, the attitude toward the subconscious. The historian, unlike the psychoanalyst, focuses his attention on the conscious. We assume that people, as rational beings, have clearly thought out rational motives and will consciously act to carry out their goals in the best way their reason can conceive for them. To be clear, being rational does not mean being moral. People may very well steal out of greed or murder to gain revenge (a demonstration to others that it is not in their rational interest to wrong them). This approach to human behavior is funded upon Occam's Razor, that we look for the simplest explanation and do not bring assumptions into play unless they solve something specific that cannot be solved with the assumptions at hand. Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, is based on a willingness to ignore Occam's Razor. Instead of starting with the conscious rational motives openly at hand and only turning to consider the possibility that something else might be at play when a conscious rational motive cannot be discovered, the psychoanalyst starts with the assumption that the motivation in question is irrational and subconscious. He then seeks, much in the same way as the religious fundamentalist, to support his conclusions by lining up only the evidence that works in his favor and insist that there can be no other interpretation. 

Now the supporter of psychoanalysis might respond to this that it is all well and good for the historian to talk about rational motivation when it comes to leading statesmen, but the psychoanalyst, almost by definition, with people who are not well and who clearly are not behaving rationally. My response is that if reason is a good enough causal explanation for people who are heads of states then it is good enough for people whose only claim to insanity is to seek help from a psychoanalyst.

If I believe in the validity of the historical method as a means of analyzing human behavior then I need to support it all the way. If this method is valid for understanding early modern European heads of state then it must be valid for stressed out depressed graduate students. If I would not accept psychoanalysis as a means of analyzing historical figures (and historians above any group involved in the humanities are resistant to psychoanalysis) then I must reject psychoanalysis as well when it comes to people living today.                  

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

In Memory of Brian Jacques

My sister just informed me that Brian Jacques has passed away. For those of you not familiar with him, Brian Jacques was the author of the Redwall series. It is about mice, squirrels, badgers and hares fighting off rats, weasels, foxes and ferrets with all the blood and gore my child self could have ever asked for. The series now consists of over twenty novels, most of them bad, consisting of telling the same story over and over again, but the first six novels were truly inspired. Beyond those first novels (the only ones I recognize much as I only recognize the original Star Wars films) I owe a debt of gratitude to Jacques for, along with my mother and my grade school teacher Mrs. Kristine Coyne, helping to make me a reader. The Redwall series was my Harry Potter (and to all those people upset with Rowling for not writing more books, I ask you to look at Redwall and ask yourself if you would really want twenty Potter novels).

The Redwall books were not just a personal thing to me, but a beloved series within my family. My older brother was the first to come to them. I first learned about them after he spent an entire Sabbath reading the first novel, Redwall, coming down and drafting me for a role playing game. He would play the hero Matthias the mouse and I was to play Cluny the Scourge with   his whip-like tail. This was a variation of his usual game of him playing Beowulf and me Grendel. You can say this for my brother, he beat me up in good literary taste. Soon after this Brian Jacques came to Columbus for a book signing and my mother took my brother and the rest of us kids along. So I got to meet Brian Jacques, probably the first author I ever met, and he introduced us to starfruit, which he was eating. With such inspiration, it was only natural that I would make a go at the books, despite the fact that I was only in second grade and Redwall was by far the longest book I had read up to that point. (Long before Rowling, Jacques was breaking the unofficial 350 page limit for children's books.) It took me awhile, and by the time I got through it my older sister had also taken an interest.

At this point the series consisted of only three books, Redwall, Mossflower and Mattimeo. We had to wait for the fourth book, Mariel of Redwall to be published in the United States. When our copy finally came in by some agreement I can no longer recall, the reading order was my sister, me and then my older brother. The next morning I got up early snuck into my sister's room and nicked the book while she was sleeping in order to get a harmless jump start on the book. My parents disagreed and as a punishment, my brother got to go ahead of me. Thankfully for me, both my siblings finished within a few days.

Farewell Brian Jacques warrior of Redwall. May you find peace in the Dark Forest.       

Monday, February 7, 2011

Amish Raw Milk Smugglers

Hat tip to Dr. Alan Brill.

Besides for the fact that the Amish are pacifists and therefore should be barred from being citizens, I really admire the Amish and their way of life and have a hard time thinking of them as dangerous criminals. So all you statists out there will be shocked to here that there is an Amish smuggling ring in such dangerous products as unpasteurized "raw" milk. Yes my friends. Amish farmers prey on wealthy health food conscious New York yuppies by offering to sell them unpasteurized milk at six dollars a gallon.

Do you not feel threatened as to the possibility that your adult neighbors might be conspiring to enter into a contractual relationship with Amish people to purchase a product that the Federal government deems dangerous for their health? Would you not feel better if a SWAT team were to knock down some doors teach these ignorant yuppies about food safety, confiscate this lactate based weapon of mass destruction and spend thousands of dollars locking up these predatory Amish farmers in a maximum security prison with rapists and murderers where they will no longer be a menace to society? Selling raw milk might even prove to be an addictive gateway crime leading to the selling of marijuana.

Whether or not our Amish farmers know it, what they are essentially engaged in is the practice of libertarian Agora economics. The idea being that statist interference in the economy can be defeated by private citizens engaging in such passive resistance as refusing to operate by government regulations and instead embracing a black market. This black market could embrace anything from paying someone in cash to paint my house to avoid taxes and damage my heath with lead paint, to paying off my drug dealer and even my Amish raw milk supplier.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Thoughts for the Super Bowl: Playing According to Rules in Sports and in Life

Only a few more hours until the Super bowl begins and my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers will play the Greenbay Packers. I am not going to any Super Bowl parties, but will be at home in Columbus armed with plenty of food and alcohol. I will have my laptop on so readers should feel free to twitter  me. In the meantime I thought I would take the moment to speak about rules, both in sports and in life.

As an Asperger I struggle in social situations in large part because the only way I know how to deal with people is through clearly defined sets of rules. Other people always seem to be able to get away with general appeals to fairness and decency, which, not surprisingly, always ends with other people being able to do whatever they want and me being left to pay the bill. One of the reasons why I like sports so much, even if I personally was never any good at them, is because sports are a realm of human interaction defined solely by rules with no pretension of there being anything else. In a sport like football there are two teams trying to score more points than the other. After four quarters of fifteen minutes one team will win and the other will lose. (Unless there is a tie at which point the game goes into overtime.)

Whether or not Steeler and Packer fans like each other today, they all agree about the rules of the game. You score points by moving the ball down the field to score a touchdown or a field goal. You have four downs to move the ball ten yards or the ball is turned over. A catch is a catch, a fumble is a fumble and a sack is a sack. This goes for the formal rules on the playing field as well as the more informal rules of sportsmanship. There are no pretensions of vague pleas to socially acceptable behavior and allowing the most deserving to win. I find a comfort in these hard fixed laws, even when they do not go my way.


I have very strong memories of the first Steeler AFC championship game I ever saw. I got up that morning in January 1995 convinced that the Steelers were going to crush the San Diego Chargers and head to their first Super Bowl in my lifetime. Things did not go as planned. After jumping out to a 13-3 lead, the Steelers gave up two touchdowns in the second half. In the closing minutes of the game they drove down the field setting up a fourth and goal at the Charger three yard line. Neil O’Donnell’s pass was stuffed on the goal line and that was the end of the game. How could it be that my Steelers had lost and all those months of playing a great season had come to naught? Should not there be one final thing to be done to give the Steelers and fans like myself what we “deserved?”
The next year, the Steelers made it to the Super Bowl to play the Dallas Cowboys. No one gave the Steelers much of a chance, but, down throughout the game, they found themselves, in the final minutes down only 20-17. At which point Neil O'Donnel threw an interception and the Cowboys won 27-17.
When I was in eighth grade at the Lubavitch school in Pittsburgh, I competed in a contest in Jewish law across the Lubavitch school system in North America. I was one of four students from the school selected to go to Toronto to compete in the championship, my own personal Super Bowl I thought. The first part of the championship was a written multiple choice exam held Saturday night. As I am sure has happened to many of my readers, after going through the exam once I went back and changed several of the answers that I was not sure about only to find out later that I was right the first time. The top third of contestants got to go on to a final oral round. I was the one person from the Pittsburgh team who did not make the cut. After the names were read out, our school principal, who traveled to Toronto with us, came over to me to congratulate me for a good effort. As he walked away from me to watch the finals, in my mind I was calling out to him: "is there not something you can do, some way you can pull some strings to let me also stand in the finals?"     

Of course the rules of the game have also given me some moments of victory such as in the Super Bowl two years ago, when, down 23-20 against the Arizona Cardinals, Ben Roethlisberger threw one of the most incredible touchdown passes in Super Bowl history to Santonio Holmes.

Sorry Cardinal fans, Holmes feet were down and in. The Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl, 27-23.

Hopefully this Super Bowl, Roethlisberger will produce another incredible pass, this time perhaps to Hines Ward or Michael Wallace, to win a seventh Super Bowl. But if he comes up short like Neil O’Donnell then so be it; that is how the game is played. I only wish that people could be honest with themselves and recognize that life must also be played by rules through both winning and losing.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Great Library of Alexandria in the Golden Age of Islam

Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes is an attempt to present to Westerners an Islamic narrative of history, one that places the Islamic world and not the West at the center. If nothing else this has a value in helping readers get outside a mind frame of antiquity, middle-ages and renaissance. The book is written in a conversational apologetic tone as opposed to scholarly. On these grounds the book is quite successful. I would certainly recommend it to those Haredi authors trying to write Jewish history as a model of writing readable apologetics that do not descend into polemics and make a hash out of the actual history. Of course even the best apologetics may accidentally shoot itself in the foot. For example Ansary's discussion of early Islam's support of philosophy. According to Ansary's general description of the intellectual state of affairs during the Islamic conquest: 

Rome was virtually dead by this time, and Constantinople (for all its wealth) had degenerated into a wasteland of intellectual mediocrity, so the most original thinkers still writing in Greek were clustered in Alexandria, which fell into Arab hands early on. Alexandria possessed a great library and numerous academies, making it an intellectual capital of the Greco-Roman world. (Kindle 1885-87.)

In an earlier post I discussed the situation with the Great Library of Alexandria. We know that it was burned to the ground, but we are not sure when. It is possible that there were a number of major fires. Traditionally Christians in the early fifth century are blamed, but there have been those who blame the Muslim conquest. Now what would it mean if we are to assume that the Great Library was still standing at the time of the Muslim conquest? Not that Muslims used this library to support a new "golden age" of learning, but that they are the ones to who destroyed the Library. I assume this was not the message about Islam that Ansary wanted us to learn.    

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Speculative Fiction Readers for Libertarianism

Damien G. Walter at the Guardian has an article about the present state of science fiction and fantasy about how, despite some of the incredible work in these fields over the past decade, works of science fiction and fantasy are still overlooked by Man Booker prize judges. As Walter sees it, this does not mean that speculative fiction is being ignored just that it is still not acceptable to openly write as one. 

Over the same period, the fashion of literary fiction writers borrowing ideas from SF has continued. Putting aside concerns that novels such as Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go lag more than two decades behind in their treatment of cloning and genetics, for the Booker judges to consider SF ideas when recycled by literary authors, but to ignore the source of those ideas, only highlights the narrowness of the award's perspective.

Now one can ask why readers of science fiction and fantasy should care if they are not respected by the literary establishment to see the books they cherish receive prizes. (Yes it would be nice to see a favorite author receive some extra money beyond what you can give by buying his book.) I see this as another example of how government empowered special interests comes to affect all sorts of unexpected aspects of life. In the non-libertarian world we live in, we must all pay for government funded schools which teach literature. This of course raises the question of what counts as literature. Not an innocent question as whoever receives the legitimacy of being titled an author or expert on "literature" will receive public funds and a platform to define and shape public values. Now we have a literary establishment ranging from literature teachers to authors as well as the judges for prizes in literature. People in this establishment react like all other groups of people when faced with government involvement in their field; they form special interest groups and attempt to manipulate government to suit their own private ends.

As long as literature prizes are a path to government money, the literary establishment will act to protect their interests at the expense of people like us in the science fiction and fantasy community, who are not part of this establishment, in order that we remain outside the establishment and therefore at a disadvantage when it comes to public funds and influence. On the flip side, as long as government money is in play, I, as a science fiction and fantasy reader will insist that the literary establishment acknowledge the literature that I love and place it in school curricula. Not just because I want to read such books in class, but because I want my sort of authors to rewarded and their values to set the tone for the rest of society. 


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Name of the Rose Starring Giordano Bruno Instead of Sean Connery

I just finished reading S. J. Parris's Heresy. It is a murder mystery set at Oxford University of 1583 starring one of my favorite people from the sixteenth century, Giordano Bruno. Bruno was renegade Dominican friar, who ran around Europe as an academic celebrity, preaching his particular brand of reformed Christianity, complete with magic, Kabbalah, and heliocentrism. He eventually made the mistake of traveling to the wrong place and fell into the hands of the Inquisition who burned him at the stake.

In the novel, Bruno finds himself in England searching for a lost book from the Corpus Hermeticum of Hermes Trismegistus. This was the most important work on magic in the early modern period. It was commonly believed at the time that the Corpus Hermeticum dated from the time of Moses and contained the original religion of the ancients. While searching for this lost book, Bruno befriends Philip Sydney and through him, Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's spymaster. Walsingham recruits Bruno to seek out undercover Catholics. Bruno's duel tasks of book and heresy hunting both lead him to Oxford, where Bruno finds that just about everyone there is hiding something, he is attracted to the daughter of one of the faculty and bodies are starting to mysteriously drop all over the place to the theme of Foxe's Book of Martyrs

Heresy reminded me of another novel, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. In my mind Name of the Rose stands as probably the greatest novel about the Middle Ages ever written for its complex plot, charming if morally ambiguous characters and, most importantly, its ability to accurately present a medieval worldview without recourse to polemics about fanaticism, superstition, and misogyny. It was made into a movie starring Sean Connery. Unfortunately, the movie systematically undoes the moral complexity of the book in favor of easy to target corrupt sexually repressed monks and an oppressive Church.

The essential plot of Name of the Rose takes place in the fourteenth century and centers around a scholarly monk named William of Baskerville visiting a monastery along with his young companion Adso of Melk with the charge of looking for undercover members of the heretical Fraticelli group on behalf of inquisitor Bernard Gui. On a personal level William also seeks to examine the monastery's secret library. Before too long Adso finds himself looking into a mysterious girl, smuggled into the all-male society and bodies do start to drop with the murders all being done to the theme of the book of Revelation.

Ultimately Heresy was a fun book and certainly a much easier read than Name of the Rose. Still, the villain most certainly did not compare with Name of the Rose's. It is hard to top a blind guy armed with a poisoned copy of a lost book of Aristotle, the ultimate killer read. Still, Giordano Bruno does make for a great hero. I will even take him over Sean Connery.