Thursday, March 31, 2011

History 111 Book: Thermopylae

The spring quarter has started at Ohio State and I am back teaching History 111. For our first book, the class picked Thermopylae: The Battle for the West by Ernie Bradford (1922-86). As with the case of Spartacus, I assume pop culture played a role here. Most of the class has seen the movie 300. I certainly do not have a problem with this. I will try to interest people in history in just about any way I can. If that includes men in loin cloths with muscles to challenge even the most heterosexual male then so be it. I have started reading the book and the author writes as a very old school English Whig. I am curious how my students will react to this.  

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Wandering Through Fantasy Worlds with Kvothe and Harry Potter (Part II)

(Part I)

This focus on character and world building leads, in the cases of both Harry Potter and Kingkiller, to something that would in most writers be considered a fatal flaw, but which J. K. Rowling and Patrick Rothfuss manage to survive even if at times by the skin of their teeth, the tendency to abandon plot in favor of character and world exploration. Both of these series do have plots centered around the defeat of antagonists, Harry Potter has Lord Voldemort and Kvothe has the Chandrian, a group so mysterious that they hardly appear even in legend and who murdered his parents just for attempting to write a song about them. That being said the reader quickly realizes that these plots are only incidental to these series, a prop to be brought out when the characters need something to react to or to offer an opportunity for further world exploration.

Harry Potter is not really about Harry's hero quest arc to defeat Lord Voldemort; it is about Harry at Hogwarts with Ron Hermione, dodging Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape, with clever back and forth dialogue and the existence of magic to provide a canvas for Rowling's vivid use of language. Now even Rowling is not talented enough to keep a book afloat with just clever writing so by the end of each book she brings out some larger element of danger and ties it to this Lord Voldemort character, who serves to explain why Harry was first placed with his relatives and why he is the continued subject of the mostly unwanted attention that keeps him interesting. Now part of Rowling's genius is that she weaves her plot throughout the rest of the book, turning much of what the reader thought was just her meandering through the story into critical plot points. This also places Harry Potter among those rare books that need to be read several times to properly be appreciated. Furthermore, starting with Goblet of Fire, Rowling abandoned the stand alone year at Hogwarts adventure format of the first three books, which had served her so well, in favor of a more focused narrative surrounding the return of Lord Voldemort to a physical body. This part of the series also marked the point in which Rowling escaped the bounds of any meaningful editorial control, causing the books to balloon in size and leading to more character meandering. Not that I ever complained about this as Rowling is one of the rare writers who can hold you just with their writing, regardless of content.

Rothfuss seems to be following a similar path. Name of the Wind was only incidentally about Kvothe's quest to learn the truth about the Chandrian and really about Kvothe the poor scholar and musician trying to keep body and soul together as well as make tuition payments to stay in school, a task made almost impossibly difficult due to the spiteful animosity of Ambrose Jakis. Reading Rothfuss, I realize that Rowling missed a valuable opportunity by simply handing Harry a massive fortune at the beginning of the series, whose origins she never bothered to explain, taking care of Harry's finances so he never had to worry about tuition. Forcing Kvothe to struggle to meet his finances allowed for plot tension, will Kvothe find the money or won't he, without having to resort to placing Kvothe in constant mortal danger, a refreshing change of pace for a fantasy novel. Kvothe needing money also makes way for my favorite character in the series, besides for Kvothe, Devi. To put it bluntly, she is a loan shark, who demands that Kvothe hand over drops of his blood as security. She is also really charming and forms a delightful friendship with Kvothe, albeit one underlined by fifty percent interest rates and threats of bodily harm if he ever reneges.

In waiting four years for the second book, Wise Man's Fear, I took it as a given that now with this book the story would begin in earnest. I expected Kvothe to be thrown out at the very beginning of the book, allowing him to finally pursue the Chandrian. The first several hundred pages are more of the first book, Kvothe trying to get money and dodging Jakis. Not a bad thing in of itself as Rothfuss, like Rowling, is fun to read just for his prose. Finally, Kvothe is forced to take time off from school and takes the opportunity to do some traveling. This leads to Kvothe being placed in a new setting, but I was almost disappointed by the fact that Rothfuss simply has Kvothe do more of being Kvothe instead of actually advancing the story.

Besides for the fact that Rothfuss is still a fun writer even when meandering, what kept me in the book was the strong suspicion that Rothfuss was weaving a giant trap for Kvothe and that things were not as pointless as they seemed. This was confirmed nearly three quarters into this thousand page novel when Kvothe meets a creature called the Cthaeh, who informs him that he had already met one of the Chandrian. Now the Cthaeh, despite his small part, has to be one of the most interesting villains conceptually. He is imprisoned in a tree due to the fact that he can perfectly foresee the future and can say the exact words to any person who visits him that will cause them to do the most harm. Furthermore, since the Cthaeh knows every future conversation that the person will ever have, he can calculate how that person's words will affect every other person he will ever talk to and so on and so forth until, in theory at least, the Cthaeh has the power to destroy the entire world with just one conversation.

It is hard to actually criticize a book that held my attention or over a thousand pages, but I must admit that I liked Name of the Wind better. Wise Man's Fear for too much of the book felt like it was wandering around when I wanted things to actually happen. I eagerly await the final book in the series to see how things will turn out. Rowling did not disappoint and I have every bit of faith in Rothfuss that he can match her.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Haveil Havalim #310 The Post Purim Hangover Edition

Welcome to the March 27, 2011 edition of Haveil Havalim.

Founded by Soccer Dad, Haveil Havalim is a carnival of Jewish blogs -- a weekly collection of Jewish and Israeli blog highlights, tidbits and points of interest collected from blogs all around the world. It's hosted by different bloggers each week and coordinated by Jack.

I have decided to exert some editorial control over this blog carnival. First off I see a blog carnival as a means for quality writers to find readers. I have not included short posts that seemed dashed off or posts that simply offered or linked to other people's material. Being included in this blog carnival is a reward for your work, not for someone else's work. Understand that I am a teacher so yes I take a strong interest in authorship. Second, I see it as a fundamental part of writing that, as opposed to speaking, writing is supposed to be the victory of reason over emotion. It is inevitable that one will sometimes speak in anger. One should never write in anger; a person who does so demonstrates that they do not just have temporary lapses into anger, but that they are fundamentally people of anger and not reason. I think this is particularly important in light of the recent attack in Itamar and the tragic murder of the Fogel family. Posts that struck me as coming from a very angry place were not included. Third, I am not about to put links to blogs I would not normally feel comfortable linking to. Relevant to some submissions, I did not include posts that implied any support for the use of violence by private individuals outside of a State-based legal framework. An extension of this is that I did not include posts implying support for the transformation of any secular democratic States with theocracies. (By what natural means can this be achieved if not by violence?)

To those of you I have not included, please do not take it personally. Feel free to not include me next time you host. Those of you whom I did include should feel honored. Blogging in often a lonely task. For most it is a struggle for readers, comments and the occasional word of praise. I have included you all because I actually thought that each of you had something worthwhile.

Here is an idea. Instead of just the usual comments, readers should put down their votes for the best post of the carnival (no you cannot vote for yourself). As a prize, I agree to do a response post to any piece written by the winner over the course of this coming month.

To start this off I wish to offer pride and place to Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner of The Rebbetzin's Husband for his posts Why Publish? and How to leave your shul. I am an academic in middle of trying to finish off a dissertation and hope to eventually publish it. I struggle with the fear that my years of effort into it will not make a difference and no one will read it. In general, I always enjoy Rabbi Torczyner's posts on life as a shul rabbi as I am the son and grandson of shul rabbis, who grew up realizing how difficult such a job was.


For Purim, I offer this carnival a pair of humorous pieces of my own, My Purim Shalach Manot and How Many Jewish Historians Does it Take to Change a Light Bulb?

Yisrael Medad of My Right Word presents A Serious Purim Torah Based on a Zoharic Passage.

Benji Lovitt presents a satirical piece for Purim about the Maccabeats, Macca-Beat It: Look Who’s Getting Tough.

Marilyn Stowe of Marilyn Stowe Family Law and Divorce Blog presents an ethical and legal dilemma involving parental control of a child in Purim and the curious case of M v F & Others.

Batya of  me-ander presents Mishloach Manot From G-d.

Jay3fer of Adventures in Mama-Land debates the value of sending shalach manot in A tisket, a tasket – where’s my mother’s Purim basket???

Yisroel  of Artzeinu offers us One More Reason to Make Aliyah: 2 days of Purim.


Amanda of Blessed Little Bird gets ready for Passover and debates the value of quick seders in A Seder, b'seder....


Harry of Israelity presents Nostalgia Sunday – Old Central Bus Station: Jerusalem and The pause that refreshes.

West Bank Mama presents The Post Terror Attack Ritual.

Rivkah of Bat Aliyah presents Another Israeli First.


Elle of On Becoming Devoted discusses a new found spirituality in washing vegetables in Learning Disciplines.



Chaviva has a post on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and asks the following question: Did you learn about this in your Jewish education? Whether at Sunday School or Yeshiva or day School? Do you think this is relevant to the Jewish educational experience? Should this even be taught through a specifically Jewish lens? And, most importantly, do you think this event can be categorized as a uniquely Jewish event?

That concludes this edition. Submit your blog article to the next edition of haveil havalim using our carnival submission form.

Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Wandering through Fantasy Worlds with Kvothe and Harry Potter (Part I)

If I were to describe Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles series in one sentence it would be that it is Harry Potter's more mature and sophisticated sibling, who, instead of going to grade school to study magic, went to college. In a similar vein, my reaction to watching the first season of Heroes (the only one worth watching) was that it was the younger smarter sibling of the X-Men, who went of to university and got into heroin. (In the case of Heroes there actually is a character whose superpower is to be able to see and paint the future while high.) As with Harry Potter, Kingkiller is about a teenage orphan, Kvothe, whose parents were murdered off by dark powers, studying magic. As with J. K. Rowling, Rothfuss' chief strengths as a writer are his ability to create interesting characters, backed by witty dialogue and a world for us to explore through the eyes of these characters.

What Rothfuss has over Rowling is that, like Tolkien, he offers the impression of depth to his world; that it is not just a prop that will collapse if touched. Rowling's wizarding world, in contrast, while utterly fascinating as a concept striking deep into the collective subconsciousness of readers (I cannot think of another fantasy world that I so desperately wanted to be real), remains an immensely clever joke. Even by the end of the series one does not get the sense that Rowling ever bothered to work out the mechanics and limitations of her magical system and the inner workings of her wizarding society. Particularly the question of why wizards, even muggle loving ones like Arthur Weasley, live in secret outside of general society and in ignorance of it. (See "Yeshiva Hogwarts.") One suspects that this is the reason why Rowling kept her story so narrowly focused on Harry, only allowing us to experience the wizarding world from Harry's limited perspective and kept Harry's own experience of the wizarding world to specific set pieces, like the Weasley home, Diagon Alley, and Hogwarts. Allowing Harry broader range would have forced her to take her own wizarding world seriously and not just as a prop.  Rothfuss, in contrast, treats his magic with a level of sophistication surpassing the "science" of most science fiction. As Tolkien managed to invent several fully functional languages for Lord of the Rings that people can study today, one suspects that Rothfuss would, if pressed, be able to present a plausibly sounding "scientific" lecture on his magic. The same goes for his world's various races, religions, countries, and politics.

Rothfuss' other major advantage over Rowling is in creating, in Kvothe, a fully flesh and blood lead character the likes of which exist in few other works of fantasy. With Harry Potter the interest is always the world and characters around him. Harry serves as a means to explore Hogwarts and characters like Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, Dumbledore, Sirius, and Lupin, all of whom are far more interesting than Harry in of himself. Harry starts off the series as a star struck modern day version of T. H. White's young King Arthur, Wart, before evolving into a moody teenager. It is only in Deathly Hallows, as Harry contemplates the necessity of his death to defeat Voldemort, that Harry steps in as a worthy protagonist in his own right. (It is for this reason that, whether or not Deathly Hallows is the best book in the series, it is certainly the best written of the series and the one in which Rowling stepped into her own as a mature writer.) One suspects that this is why Rowling never allowed Harry to exist on his own, but always has him interacting with other characters, even going so far as to make Harry's chief strength his connection to his friends as opposed to Voldemort who is completely self-contained. (See "Adolescent Military Genius.") Kvothe, in contrast, is the star attraction, not just a cipher through which to tell a story. Rothfuss does not just focus his narrative on Kvothe, he tells almost his entire story from inside Kvothe's head. One almost gets the sense that Rothfuss could have eliminated his entire world, leaving Kvothe floating in ether, and still hold on to the reader's attention.

This places Kingkiller as one of those rare fantasy series that is only incidentally about fantasy. In much the same way that Orson Scott Card novels are about characters and relationships and only incidentally take place in a science-fiction universe, Rothfuss has one utterly compelling character, Kvothe, and a world for Kvothe to operate in. The fact that this world is a beautifully rendered fantasy world only serves to establish Rothfuss as one of the greatest writers of this generation of any genre. 

(To be continued ...)                

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Kvothe High on Asperger Syndrome

For my birthday present, I bought myself Patrick Rothfuss' Wise Man's Fear on Kindle. Considering how often Rothfuss has been compared to Tolkien, it would have been appropriate for me to take this "precious birthday present" and make it ours. To ensure that no one steals it we could run off to a secret cave underneath a mountain with plenty of fish. There we could read the precious all by ourselves and not share it with nasty thieving hobbit readers. As I am not Gollum I did wish to share one particular piece which, for reasons that should soon be obvious, I found humorous but also personally very meaningful.

At one point early in the novel, the hero Kvothe is tricked by his archenemy at the university, Ambrose Jakis (like Draco Malfoy but a bigger bastard), into ingesting a substance that completely takes away his ability to read social conventions. This is done right before Kvothe is supposed to be examined by the administration in order to determine his fees for the next term. This leads to the following interaction between Kvothe and his friends Simmon and Fela as Simmon tries to keep Kvothe in line with a series of number rankings as how socially not acceptable something is.

There was a knock on the door. "It's me," Sim's voice came through the wood. "Is everything all right in there?"

"You know what's strange?" I said to him through the door. "I tried to think of something funny I could do while you were gone, but I couldn't." I looked around at the room. "I think that means humor is rooted in social transgression. I can't transgress because I can't figure out what would be socially unacceptable. Everything seems the same to me."

"You might have a point," he said, then asked, "did you do something anyway?"

"No," I said. "I decided to be good. Did you find Fela?"

"I did. She's here. But before we come in, you have to promise not to do anything without asking me first. Fair?"

I laughed. "Fair enough. Just don't make me do stupid things in front of her."

I promise," Sim said. "Why don't you sit down? Just to be safe."

"I'm already sitting," I said.

Sim opened the door. I could see Fela peering over his shoulder.

"Hello Fela," I said. "I need to trade slots with you."

"First," Sim said. "You should put your shirt back on. That's about a two."

"Oh," I said. "Sorry. I was hot."

"You could have opened the window."

"I thought it would be safer if I limited my interactions with external objects," I said.

Sim raised an eyebrow. "That's actually a really good idea. It just steered you a little wrong in this case."

"Wow." I heard Fela's voice from the hallway. "Is he serious?"

"Absolutly serious," Sim said. "Honestly? I don't think it's safe for you to come in."

I tugged my shirt on. "Dressed," I said. "I'll even sit on my hands if it will make you feel better." I did just that, tucking them under my legs. Sim let Fela inside, then closed the door behind her.

"Fela, you are just gorgeous," I said. "I would give you all the money in my purse if I could just look at you naked for two minutes. I'd give everything I own. Except my lute."

It's hard to say which of them blushed a deeper red. I think it was Sim.

"I wasn't supposed to say that, was I?" I said.

No," Sim said. "That's about a five."

"But that doesn't make any sense," I said. "Women are naked in paintings. People buy paintings, don't they? Women pose for them."

Sim nodded. "That's true. But still. Just sit for a moment and don't say or do anything? Okay?

I nodded.

"I can't quite believe this," Fela said, the blush fading from her cheeks. "I can't help but think the two of you are playing some sort of elaborate joke on me."

"I wish we were," Simmon said. "This stuff is terribly dangerous."

"How can he remember naked paintings and not remember you're supposed to keep your shirt on in public? she asked Sim, her eyes never leaving me.

"It just didn't seem very important," I said. "I took my shirt off when I was whipped. That was public. It seems a strange thing to get in trouble for."

"Do you know what would happen if you tried to knife Ambrose? Simmon asked.

I thought for a second. It was like trying to remember what you'd eaten for breakfast a month ago. "There'd be a trial, I suppose," I said slowly, "and people would buy me drinks."

Fela muffled a laugh behind her hand.

"How about this? Simmon asked me. "Which is worse, stealing a pie or killing Ambrose?"

I gave it a moment's hard thought. "A meat pie, or a fruit pie?" (Kindle 1557-89.)

This has to be one of the best descriptions of Asperger logic I have ever read. Of course, if you are an Asperger you do not need to ingest anything and the effects are lifelong. By the time any Asperger has become an adult he will have developed a two-sided attitude toward social conventions. One the one hand Aspergers do not read social cues and therefore regularly step right over all sorts of conventions, giving the appearance of not caring about them and of even being downright rude. On the other hand, by the time one reaches adulthood, even an Asperger has come to realize that there are very real consequences to not operating according to social conventions. Because of this they will obsequiously bend over backward, constantly apologizing to others and asking to make sure they are acting in a socially acceptable manner. In my own personal experience, I have had a number of rather hilarious conversations with other Aspergers in which we both found ourselves apologizing and asking the other whether what we were saying was socially appropriate or not, neither of us knowing and, for that matter, neither of us caring.

This obsequiousness, in of itself, leads to a counter reaction. Much as with divine commands, eventually one gets tired of living under the burden of neurotypical social conventions that seem to make absolutely no sense, but which carry extreme consequences for their violation. This leads one to try break free, deny their value and systematically break them. This, in turn, leads to guilt, a renewed awareness of the consequences for violating social conventions and a return to bending over backward to try keeping them. Thus with Asperger adults, you will find that they both care and do not care about social conventions. This duality exists from minute to minute and even at the same time.

(Stay tuned for a full review of the novel.)

Monday, March 21, 2011

C. S. Lewis and the Scandal of the Evangelical (and Orthodox Jewish) Mind

Ryan Harper at the Huffington Post has an article on C. S. Lewis' influence on American evangelical Christianity, noting that Lewis is particularly valuable in countering arguments based on relativism. Harper argues, though, that the very strength of Lewis' ideas are having the detrimental effect of furthering Mark Noll's "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind."

As is the tendency with all powerful ideas, Lewis's arguments have become a rhetorical talisman, an epistemological panacea. Because they offer a number of compelling insights that strike at the root of important questions, they are taken to resolve all root matters. Therefore, however new the wineskins, readers of popular evangelical apologetics end up drinking some version of that sound old Oxford vintage.

The result of this Lewis-worship is a two-fold narrowing of evangelical intellectual life. First, as Lewisian thought becomes the discursive structure of critical inquiry, it ceases to be the object of critical inquiry. Lewis is never put in the dock for inspection, revision, abandonment or refinement. Lewis is the dock.

Second, an evangelical milieu that so prides itself on its "engagement" with secular thought and culture begins to count reading and rehearsing Lewisian argument as such engagement. "Engagement" thus becomes a second-hand affair -- synonymous with finding out what C.S. Lewis has said on a given topic. But the 21st century has some new topics; and while it is unwise to execute some great divorce with the past and its great thinkers, each generation must write its own books.

Lewis certainly has had an influence on me and I openly admit that when making arguments about the need to put forth coherent statements about ultimate values, that I am channeling Lewis. That being said I see myself as engaging in a conversation with Lewis, a conversation that goes to different places. For me, the bigger issue than just trying to make moral statements is trying to pass those statements on to one's children. (See "When Lesbian Nazis in Bell-Bottoms Attack.") Perhaps this is because Lewis lived in a world in which even his atheists were still deeply in touch with a traditional culture. I live several generations down this path and worry when the heritage of the Enlightenment, based ultimately on early modern Christian thought, will finally run out on us.

This problem posed by Harper needs to be taken a step further. Yes, Lewis was a powerful writer. That the evangelical community has an unhealthy relationship with him I think, though, is due to the fact that it has yet to produce a writer who can match him. Perhaps this is the true scandal of the evangelical mind. Forget about being able to match secular academic culture; it has yet to match C. S. Lewis. Thus the theological conversation never moves beyond Lewis. Readers have nothing better to read than Lewis as writers are not capable of doing anything but reproduce Lewis.

I would go so far with this as to make a comparison to Orthodox Judaism and R. Samson Raphael Hirsch. Hirsch, a nineteenth-century German rabbi, was certainly the Jewish writer that most influenced me as a teenager and college student. Now as Dr. Alan Brill once pointed out to his class, Hirsch as a major influence on American Orthodoxy is a fairly recent phenomenon, due in large part to his having many descendants who translated his work into English and got them published. The other side to this, I would point out, that in terms of looking for books on Jewish thought that were sophisticated enough to pass muster with an intelligent teenager and which took an engagement with an outside world as a given I did not have much in the way of alternative options but for Hirsch. So this millennial American Orthodox teenager found himself in a situation in which the only Orthodox Judaism he could relate to was from nineteenth-century Germany. This is not a critic of Hirsch. He was a great thinker and writer. I am sure if I would be able to read him in German I would appreciate him all the more. That being said one has to ask why I was never given any serious twentieth-century Jewish literature to relate to. (The closest thing I could think of is Herman Wouk's This is My God which is Hirsch updated for 1950s America.)

As for me, I must admit that there was something particularly dangerous in Hirsch in that, considering my Asperger mental framework, I was not intuitively aware that I was not operating in nineteenth-century Germany and that I should not be trying to be a nineteenth-century German. So I had to push forward on my own to realize that I needed to face the reality of the twenty-first century and its unique issues; all this without the help of a useful Modern Orthodox literature. More recently I have begun reading the books of R. Jonathan Sacks and at least he is a step in the right direction. But until Modern Orthodoxy builds its own literature, it will remain caught between feeding off of Haredi and secular sources, while trying to create some personal dialectic whole between the two, and reaching back to some past thinker and trying to make him relevant for the present.

(Before readers bring up the examples of R. Joseph Soloveitchik and R. Abraham Isaac Kook, let me point out that I have been writing about my own personal experience as a teenager trying to mature into an intellectually serious Orthodox adult. Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Kook were not major influences on me at that point in my life. Furthermore, neither of these thinkers set out a coherent weltanschauung like Hirsch's Horeb, certainly not one that can be presented to teenagers. Most importantly, any attempt to use thinkers like Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Kook, both of whom distinct non-products of late twentieth century American culture, runs the same risk as turning to Hirsch.)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

My Purim Shalach Manot

Today is the Jewish holiday of Purim, the classic "they tried to kill us, they failed, let's eat" festival. One of the traditions on this holiday is Shalach Manot where one is supposed to give gift baskets of food to other people. Think of it as reverse trick or treating. I guess this is part of the hobbit heritage of Jews. If gentiles go around in costume to take candy, we go around and give. Now the purpose of Shalach Manot is that it is meant to increase goodwill. That is the sort of absurd social-based thinking one naturally expects from neurotypicals. Anyone with even a hint of a properly functioning logical brain will realize that such a practice is only going to cause stress as people struggle to put together gift baskets to all their acquaintances and nothing but bad feelings to people left out or who received a smaller basket than those they gave to. In other words your basic Christmas shopping fallacy for people who are neurotic enough as it is and really do not need the encouragement. As an Asperger, I am inclined to prove my point through the scientific method. I could hand out baskets of peanuts and raw sugar to diabetics with peanut allergies with a note saying: "Dear acquaintance. I feel nothing but goodwill toward you and have no desire to cause you physical harm, not even to wage Hobbesian warfare at the moment. Please accept this gift as a token of the meaningless ritual gesture it is." I can then have a neurotypical friend measure the rate of hostile social gestures for me to see if there is a statistically significant shift. (To all you neurotypicals out there, this is what we Aspergers call a joke. We will try to explain it to you once we have taken over the world but, for now, you will just have to be patient.)

Here is an example of my actual Shalach Manot, which I am giving out to a few special people in my life. If you are not one of the people receiving one of these it does not mean that I do not like you or that I am even planning on waging Hobbesian war against you sometime in the near future. All it means is that either you are not close at hand in Silverspring MD or that I do not like you as much as some other people.

There is a hidden message in this Shalach Manot, in keeping with me being a Jewish autistic who spends way too much time exploring meta-historical narratives, Jewish Messiahs and apocalypticism, that I wish to share with everyone. At the start of history, this Chinn offers a sinfully delicious Asian pear as the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge. (How silly for European Christians to think it could be an apple.) Now that you have eaten the fruit, you are in need of a Jewish Messiah to save your soul with tasty wafers from Israel. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which autistic children still lie enslaved to parents who believe that gluten-free diets will cure them of the mercury that was not in their vaccines and did not cause their autism. For those children, I offer gluten-free potato chips to act as a replacement wafer. For my Messiah does love autistic children and desires that they not burn in hell for eternity. (As for people who actually need gluten-free diets, they can burn for all he cares, but if they entreat him very nicely he might find it in his all-encompassing heart to save them.)    

How Many Jewish Historians Does it Take to Change a Light Bulb?

How many Jewish Historians does it take to change a light bulb (or even to insert one in the first place)? Well, as with everything in Judaism, it is subject to a Talmudic style debate.

Heinrich Graetz: As the light bulb both suffers, by having an electric current pumped through it, and thinks, by lighting up, it is without question a uniquely Jewish symbol and should be placed within our Jewish Studies department where it will stand as a mark of Judaism's intrinsic rationality in contrast to the superstition and intolerance of Christians, who for some reason get the majority of the light bulbs. Since our kind civilized German gentile neighbors are unlikely to give us many light bulbs they will have to be rationed out. Historians of Kabbalah and Hasidism will not be receiving light bulbs in the hope that everyone will forget that they even exist, allowing the rest of us to avoid embarrassment at inter-departmental meetings.

Salo W. Baron: I object to this lachrymose narrative. Light bulbs have always been an intrinsic part of their surrounding socio-economic structures. And if you object to the lack of suffering being inflicted on light bulbs I will make you read my eighteen volume social and religious history of light bulbs.

Jacob Katz: I second Baron. To show how Jews and gentiles might peacefully interact let us bring in one of the Hispanic workers to symbolize the shabbos goy and insert the light bulb in our department.

Gershom Scholem: Graetz how dare you associate light bulbs with Jewish rationalism when it is clear that light bulbs really symbolize the light of Ein Sof and the spiritual anarchism of Kabbalah in its struggle against the rigid legalism of the rabbis. Having fled Germany just in time to not get slaughtered by your civilized gentile neighbors, I no longer care if they think we are rational civilized people so I will vote to hand out light bulbs not only to kabbalists and hasidim, but also give Sabbatai Sevi and Jacob Frank chairs with tenure.

Yitzchak Baer: As another German who fled just in time, I second Scholem. Graetz, your rational light bulbs cannot be considered truly Jewish. They are really members of an Averroist sect only pretending to shine for our department. The moment the budget cuts come in, these light bulbs will gladly agree to shine for the Christian theology department rather than be burned at the garbage dump. Of course, if the light bulbs agree to be tortured by the Spanish Inquisition that will prove that they are part of the greater Jewish light bulbhood.

Leo Strauss: My dear Baer, this secret Averroism of light bulbs is part of what makes them so intrinsically Jewish just like Maimonides. Of course light bulbs shine with both an exoteric and a secret esoteric light. I look forward to studying under these new light bulbs so they can shine all sorts of esoteric messages onto the texts I am reading, messages that the masses (you fellow members of the department) could never hope to understand.

Benzion Netanyahu: Baer, those traitorous assimilationist light bulbs; even if they were to be tortured by the Spanish Inquisition it would not make them Jewish. Clearly, this is all a conspiracy hatched by racial anti-Semites from the medieval department, who are lying about how these light bulbs are still Jewish in order to get fresh light bulbs untainted by use in a Jewish Studies department. We can only applaud the gentiles for destroying assimilationist light bulbs. This will serve as a sign to all Jewish light bulbs to go to Israel. That is unless they find it too socialist, at which point they are free to seek employment in a Jewish Studies department in the States, as long as they promise to raise English speaking future Israeli right-wing prime ministers.

This post was inspired by a piece that was circulated through my department listserve, written by David Leeson at Laurentian University.

Q: How many historians does it take to change a light bulb?

A: There is a great deal of debate on this issue. Up until the mid-20th century, the accepted answer was ‘one’: and this Whiggish narrative underpinned a number of works that celebrated electrification and the march of progress in light-bulb changing. Beginning in the 1960s, however, social historians increasingly rejected the ‘Great Man’ school and produced revisionist narratives that stressed the contributions of research assistants and custodial staff. This new consensus was challenged, in turn, by women’s historians, who criticized the social interpretation for marginalizing women, and who argued that light bulbs are actually changed by department secretaries. Since the 1980s, however, postmodernist scholars have deconstructed what they characterize as a repressive hegemonic discourse of light-bulb changing, with its implicit binary opposition between ‘light’ and ‘darkness,’ and its phallogocentric privileging of the bulb over the socket, which they see as colonialist, sexist, and racist. Finally, a new generation of neo-conservative historians have concluded that the light never needed changing in the first place, and have praised political leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher for bringing back the old bulb. Clearly, much additional research remains to be done.

Matthew Lavine at Mississippi State responded:

Dear Dr. Leeson,

We regret that we cannot accept your historian joke in its present form.... However, a panel of anonymous reviewers (well, anonymous to YOU, anyway) have reviewed it and made dozens of mutually contradictory suggestions for its... improvement. Please consider them carefully, except for the ones made by a man we all consider to be a dangerous crackpot but who is the only one who actually returns comments in a timely fashion.

1. This joke is unnecessarily narrow. Why not consider other sources of light? The sun lights department offices; so too do lights that aren't bulbs (e.g. fluorescents). These are rarely "changed" and never by historians. Consider moving beyond your internalist approach.

2. The joke is funny, but fails to demonstrate familiarity with the most important works on the topic. I would go so far as to say that Leeson's omission is either an unprofessional snub, or reveals troubling lacunae in his basic knowledge of the field. The works in question are Brown (1988), Brown (1992), Brown (1994a), Brown (1994b), Brown and Smith (1999), Brown (2001), Brown et al (2003), and Brown (2006).

3. Inestimably excellent and scarcely in need of revision. I have only two minor suggestions: instead of a joke, make it a haiku, and instead of light bulbs, make the subject daffodils.

4. This is a promising start, but the joke fails to address important aspects of the topic, like (a) the standard Whig answer of "one," current through the 1950s; (b) the rejection of this "Great Man" approach by the subsequent generation of social historians; (c) the approach favored by women's historians; (d) postmodernism's critique of the light bulb as discursive object which obscured the contributions of subaltern actors, and (e) the neoconservative reaction to the above. When these are included, the joke should work, but it's unacceptable in its present form.

5. I cannot find any serious fault with this joke. Leeson is fully qualified to make it, and has done so carefully and thoroughly. The joke is funny and of comparable quality to jokes found in peer journals. I score it 3/10 and recommend rejection.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

More on My Classroom Posting Board

A while back I posted on the odd pairing of ads on the posting board at the back of my classroom. Clarissa objected to the fact that there was a picture of the backside of a girl in a bathing suit and said she would refuse to teach in such a classroom. Well the girl in a bathing suit is down, but I am not sure the replacement is much of an improvement.

Now "Christ is Victor" is graced with the Young Americans for Liberty at The Ohio State University (I take it they are a libertarian group) saying that "Obama funds and supports dictators in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan ..." So I guess the new message is "Obama being the Antichrist tops Christ being the victor," the modern conservative movement in a nutshell for you.  

Monday, March 14, 2011

History 111 Final

Here is the final I gave my History 111 students today. It covers the mix of topics we covered this quarter, Cicero, Spartacus, Christian apocalypticism, the Reformation and religion wars and Giordano Bruno. Readers will likely get a kick out of my second essay question and the bonus. Like this blog, I do try to keep my classes interesting.

I. Identify (Pick 7) – 35 pts.

1. Millennium

2. Urban II

3. Crassus

4. Charles V

5. St. Jerome

6. Verres

7. John Calvin

8. John Hus

9. St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

10. Triumph

II. Short Answers (Pick 5) – 40 pts.

1. Was Rome a deeply religious society? Give specific examples.

2. Describe Tiro’s position in life. Do you see him as a victim of the Roman system?

3. Define martyrdom. What purpose does it serve a religion? In which periods did the Church encourage martyrdom and in which did they discourage it? Why?

4. What is the difference between a “top-down” and “bottom-up” strategy? Give an example of each.

5. Was Erasmus an opponent of the Catholic Church? What happened at the end of Erasmus’ life to make him appear so “dangerous?” Why did this event change how Erasmus was perceived?

6. According to Norman Cohn, what attracts people to “apocalyptic” beliefs? Do modern day Christian apocalyptics in the United States fit into Cohn’s model?

7. What were some of the popular beliefs in the mid 14th century as to the cause of the Black Death?

III. Essays (Pick 1) – 60 pts.

1. Giordano Bruno was a philosopher who believed in heliocentrism and was executed by the Catholic Church as a heretic. Yet at the same he was also very much a man of the sixteenth century. What elements in Bruno’s character make him different from modern people? Do you see Bruno as a scientist or as a magician? Was Bruno a skeptic trying to bring down Church dogma with reason or was he, like many in his time, a person of faith trying to work his way out of a religious crisis brought about through the Reformation?

2. Imagine that you are trying to interest either a powerful film producer or a mad king, who might chop off your head in the morning because he thinks that all women are naturally traitorous, in a story about Spartacus. Give me a summary of the story you would choose to tell. Feel free to take all the historical liberties you desire as long as you justify your decisions in terms of “narrative thinking.”

Bonus (5 pts.)

Why, since the 1960s, have many religious people (such as my aunt) begun wearing longer sleeves and skirts? Are they leading a revival to bring things back to the way they once were?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Haredi Sex and the City

Hat tip to Dasi Schnee.

This video is about Chaya Suri, a Haredi woman, who takes off from her husband to go on vacation to Miami. She goes on a shopping spree for shoes and finds herself at a pool sipping an alcoholic drink. The moral of the story though is that it was a good thing she had her shvim kleid on when a man stepped into view and that it is always good to dress modestly.

Apparently this video is satire. Watching it again yes it is very funny. The problem is that I, at first, thought it was real. I do not think this is because I am an Asperger and do not get jokes. I know too many people who fit this Chaya Suri character. I guess this goes once again to prove the Poe Law; you can never do satire on religious fundamentalists because somewhere out there is someone who is really like the joke. (See also I Have Had Real Conversations Like This.)  

Friday, March 11, 2011

Ban Circumcision and the Orthodox Will Finally Realize That It was Wrong All Along

I have a friend who is a Yiddishist, an atheist and a hardcore opponent of circumcision. I sent him an article about the attempt in San Francisco to ban the practice and he responded:

It's a good start that hopefully will lead to other bans until it is just illegal everywhere. Really, a consenting adult shouldn't be allowed to get himself circumcised for the same reason we don't just let consenting adults get their legs or ears or any other part cut off. Every part is equally important even though American culture doesn't respect the male genitals. Mentally healthy, un-brainwashed adults don't desire to get pieces of their bodies cut off or mutilated.


When circumcision is about to become illegal, there will be a period of angry, hostile opposition from the Orthodox Jewish community. Then they will finally calm down and acquiesce to the fact that it is wrong and it will disappear.

I bring this up not to attack my friend. He may be delusional in his hubris that not only is he right in opposing circumcision, but that it is so obvious he is right that if only Orthodox Jews were to get past their biases and seriously consider his position (say if offered the mental clarity that having a gun pointed at you provides) that they will come to accept this obvious truth, but it is the same hubristic delusion that infects everyone who seeks to use coercive force, such as the government, to advance their own personal values. Some people wish to force people to study creationism; others want to force evolution on the public. Some people want to make sure all speech is "politically correct" and that no one is insulted or demeaned. These arguments are only strengthened in the public mind when used to "protect children."  

What they all have in common with each other and my friend's desire to ban circumcision is the rather odd belief that you can threaten people with violence (and note that all government action involves the threat of violence) and expect people to simply comply. They are not afraid that those coerced will turn around and murder them in their beds. The reason for this is that people like my friend so believe that they are the good guys who want to help others that they cannot conceive that anyone might actually see them as the villains in this story, who are using violence and respond with violence in turn. 

Perhaps I could take such people more seriously if they followed Augustine in his position that, while open coercion in matters of religion was bad for society, it could be useful to see heretics ever so slightly humiliated and denied certain public privileges. This serves to open the minds of the heretic to seriously consider the orthodox position. This view formed the bases of medieval Church "tolerance," particularly as it related to Jews.  

I oppose coercion as a matter of self-interest. I am not so delusional as to believe that I can point a gun and force my values on people and not expect them to slit my throat when my back is turned. The only people I am willing to use coercion against are those people who are already threatening me with physical harm. By definition, in such cases there is no reason to "fear" violence; the violence is already very present and real. I therefore leave it to others to live their lives and raise their children as they see fit. If they wish to baptize them or induct them into any covanants of Abraham, let them. Let them cut off the foreskins of their children. Just as long as they do not point any knives at my privates; I had my circumcision when I was eight days old and I have no desire for a repeat thank you very much.        

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Madlik on Jewish Education

On the topic of interesting blogs discussing in Judaism in ways that break down some of the traditional ideological boxes, I would like to point my readers to Madlik. The author, Geoffrey Stern, is a graduate of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, got a degree in philosophy and now considers himself post-orthodox.

This week Stern has a post on the potentially corrupting influence of "high holiday" Judaism. The usual objection, when discussing the high holidays is that for so many that is their entire Judaism. For Stern the danger is in how the high holidays can become, despite it only being three days a year, the model for Jewish education.

But as anyone who has experienced the whole scope of the Jewish calendar knows, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur do not represent the mainstream of our tradition. By far the historical – experiential holidays of Sukkot, Shavuot, Purim and most of all Passover trump, or should trump the service – pietistic bend of the so-called High Holidays.

So too with education… The educational philosophy manifested by the four sons/children of the Passover Seder, their questions and sometimes snide comments remind us of what Jewish education is at its best. A noisy, rambunctious and irreverent endeavor in which each participant finds his/her own place and stakes his/her own position. ...

The vigorous, in-your-face debate of the Study Hall (Beit Midrash) of any traditional Yeshiva, where every point is debated, every premise questioned and every issue remains unresolved.. this is what is preserved at the Seder and is the bulwark of Jewish intellectual curiosity and vitality.

Just as the High Holidays have insipiently penetrated and monopolized the Jewish calendar, so too, a focus on sacrifice, service, ritual repetition (aka “continuity”) and blind-pure devotion to our beliefs, have sadly permeated Jewish education. With regard to an emphasis on Holocaust studies and the “They died in Service” mentality, it’s ironic (or is it?) that the word Holocaust comes from the Greek ὁλόκαυστος holókaustos: hólos, “whole” and kaustós, “burnt” and is ultimately a Leviticus term for a wholly burnt offering.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Stephen Brush on the Whig Narrative of Science

In response to my post yesterday about Dan Brown and early modern science, Lionel Spiegel pointed me to a piece written by Dr. Stephen G. Brush on the Whig narrative of science in the introduction to his book, Nebulous Earth: The Origin of the Solar System and the Core of the Earth from Laplace to Jeffreys. In regards to the back and forth shift in scientific consensus between the monistic dualistic theories of whether planets evolve with or without the aid of stars, Brush notes:

For the historian of science, this uncertainty about the correct answer does have one important advantage. It undermines the tendency to judge past theories as being right or wrong by modern standards. This tendency is the so called "Whig interpretation of the history of science" that one usually finds in science textbooks and popular articles. The Whig approach is to start from the present theory, assuming it to be correct, and ask how we got there. For many scientists this is the only reason for studying history at all. ...
But Whiggish history is not very stisfactory if it has to be rewritten every time the "correct answer" changes. Instead, we need to look at the cosmogonies or planetogonies of earlier centuries in terms of the theories and evidence available at the time. (Pg. 4)

This tendency to judge by modern standards unfortunately goes far beyond science and infects the entire stream of popular history, particularly all discussions about women and the interactions of people of different races or creeds. It is meaningless to talk about whether women in different societies were more free or less free or whether certain societies were "tolerant." The real questions that should be asked are what circumstances lead to more hierarchical or egalitarian relations with the underlying assumption that there are no better or worse system just different equally reasonable reactions to different circumstances.

Oh Nuts Winner

The winner of the Oh Nuts Purim raffle is Shala Darkstone.

Thank you to everyone who commented and to Oh Nuts for their kind offer. As this blog is free, the best way to show your support is to support this blog's sponsor. So please check out Oh Nuts for your Purim needs.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Thanks But No Thanks to Dan Brown for His Early Modern Science

Over this weekend I finally got around to reading Dan Brown's Lost Symbol, the sequel to the Da Vinci Code. I certainly expected a predictable plot with Robert Langdon spending several hours running around a city discovering ancient secrets with a female companion while being pursued by a creepy mystically inclined assassin while pontificating on all sorts of historical silliness. At this point, I have come to believe that Brown takes pleasure in mocking us historians and that he sticks in historical absurdities just to rub our noses in the fact that most of the public does not know, could not care less and would gladly accept his version of history over ours. This time around, though, Brown actually managed to offend me. Perhaps it was because he brought his brand of historical silliness to my area of history and makes claims that really do have the power to cause harm if taken seriously.

Take the following conversation between Langdon's mentor Peter Solomon (Peter is a Mason so the last name is a play on the Temple of Solomon, an important Masonic symbol) and his sister Katherine, who ends up serving as Langdon's female companion in this adventure, for example:

[Katherine's] brother [Peter]  ran a finger down the long shelf of cracked leather bindings and old dusty tomes. "The scientific wisdom of the ancients was staggering ... modern physics is only now beginning to comprehend it all."

"Peter," she said, "you already told me that the Egyptians understood levers and pulleys long before Newton, and that the early alchemists did work on a par with modern chemistry, but so what? Today's physics deals with concepts that would have been unimaginable to the ancients."

"Like what?"

"Well ... like entanglement theory, for one!" Subatomic research had now proven categorically that all matter was interconnected ... entangled in a single unified mesh ... a kind of universal oneness. "You're telling me the ancients sat around discussing entanglement theory?"

"Absolutely!" Peter said, pushing his long, dark bangs out of his eyes. "Entanglement was at the core of primeval beliefs. Its names are as old as history itself ... Dharmakaya, Tao, Brahman. In fact, man's oldest spiritual quest was to perceive his own entanglement, to sense his own interconnection with all things. He has always wanted to become 'one' with the universe ... to achieve the state of 'at-one-ment.'" Her brother raised his eyebrows. :To this day, Jews and Christians still strive for 'atonement' ... although most of us have forgotten it is actually 'at-one-ment' we're seeking."


"Okay, how about something as simple as polarity - the positive/negative balance of the subatomic realm. Obviously, the ancients didn't underst -"

"Hold on!" Her brother pulled down a large dusty text, which he dropped loudly on the library table. "Modern polarity is nothing but the 'dual world' described by Krishna here in the Bhagavad Gita over two thousand years ago. A dozen other books in here, including the Kybalion, talk about binary systems and the opposing forces in nature.


The showdown continued for several more minutes, and the stack of dusty books on the desk grew taller and taller. Finally Katherine threw up her hands in frustration. "Okay! You made your point, but I want to study cutting-edge theoretical physics. The future of science! I really doubt Krishna or Vyasa had much to say about superstring theory and multidimensional cosmological models."

"You're right. They didn't." Her brother paused, a smile crossing his lips. "If you're talking superstring theory ..." He wandered over to the bookshelf again. "Then you're talking this book here." He heaved out a colossal leather-bound book and dropped it with a crash onto the desk. "Thirteenth-century translation of the original medieval Aramaic."

"Superstring theory in the thirteenth century?!" Katherine wasn't buying it." Come on!"

Superstring theory was a brand-new cosmological model. Based on the most recent scientific observations, it suggested the multidimensional universe was made up not of three ... but rather of ten dimensions, which all interacted like vibrating strings, similar to resonating violin strings.

Katherine waited as her brother heaved open the book, ran through the ornately printed table of contents, and then flipped to a spot near the beginning of the book. "Read this." He pointed to a faded page of text and diagrams.

Dutifully, Katherine studied the page. The translation was old-fashioned and very hard to read, but to her utter amazement, the text and drawings clearly outlined the exact same universe heralded by modern superstring theory - a ten dimensional universe of resonating strings. As she continued reading, she suddenly gasped and recoiled. "My God, it even describes how six of the dimensions are entangled and act as one?!" She took a frightened step backward. "What is this book?!"

Her brother grinned. "Something I'm hoping you'll read one day." He flipped back to the title page, where an ornately printed plate bore three words.

The Complete Zohar.

Although Katherine had never read the Zohar, she knew it was the fundamental text of early Jewish mysticism, once believed so potent that it was reserved only for erudite rabbis.


Katherine didn't know how to respond. "But ... then why don't more people study this?"

Her brother smiled. "They will."

I don't understand."

"Katherine, we have been born into a wonderful times. A change is coming. Human beings are posed on the threshold of a new age when they will begin turning their eyes back to nature and to the old way ... back to the ideas in books like the Zohar and other ancient texts from around the world. Powerful truth has its own gravity and eventually pulls people back to it. There will come a day when modern science begins in earnest to study the wisdom of the ancients ... that will be the day that mankind begins to find answers to the big questions that still elude him." (Pg. 58-60.)

First, let us deal with that little howler about the Zohar. The Zohar was not written until the late thirteenth century. It was not printed until the mid-sixteenth century. Christian Knorr von Rosenroth's Kabbalah Denudata, which translated large segments into Latin, was not until the seventeenth century. You have to wait until the nineteenth century for an English translation. I thought string theory dealt with eleven dimensions but I will leave that one to the science people. 

At a more fundamental level, I am concerned with what Dan Brown is doing to science. Now do not get me wrong, as an early modern historian I think it is important that people understand the odd paths that created modern science. Contrary to the standard Whig narrative, science did not come about from people waking up after a thousand years in the Renaissance and deciding to be rational once again. As Frances Yates argued, the scientific revolution came about as an extension of renaissance magic which turned to texts such as the Codex Hermeticum and the Zohar in order to "recover" the "true" religion of the ancients and their magical secrets. In my 111 class, I certainly enjoy teaching my students about Giordano Bruno and how he was and was not like a modern scientist. Under no circumstance though do I wish for the science people in my class to turn around and try to be like Giordano Bruno. There are good reasons why science evolved away from turning toward ancient texts and it should stay that way.  

I do not care if Mary Magdalene carried Jesus' baby. Trying to bring back early modern science does concern me.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Dragon Age Books on Kindle

One of the things that got me through my breakup with Dragon several years ago was James Maxey's Bitterwood, the first in a trilogy of books about a human freedom fighter/terrorist named Bitterwood trying to free humanity from their dragon overlords. I guess there was something about that time in my life that made the idea of shooting down dragons with a bow and arrow and chopping them up really appealing.

For all of my readers lucky enough to already own kindles, Maxey's Dragon Age trilogy is available for $3 a book. In a recent blog post, Maxey notes that:

My dragon books haven't been quite as successful as my superhero novel. I don't think I've yet put the right covers on them, and I also think they face stiffer competition. ... If you're looking for dragon based fantasy, my books do show up in the "also bought" streamer, but on page 17 instead of page one. Still, most of my dragon books maintain sales rankings above 81,000, so I feel like I can safely say that they are in about the top 10% of Kindle books, again, not bestsellers, but also nothing to be embarrassed about.

James Maxey may feel unable, as the author, to say this so let me say for him that his dragon books deserve far better than 81,000th place. Once you get past the action hero cliches, which stop about midway through the first book, this is an incredible series that is truly not what you expect. (Yes enough dragons die to satisfy my desire for vicarious revenge against my ex-girlfriend.) There are some great action sequences, worthy of a big budget movie, but also some very interesting characters and relationships plus a powerful exploration of the concept of any technology sufficiently advanced enough will appear as magic and any being wielding such technology a god. Needless to say organized religion does not fare well in these books.

As books usually are more expensive, I am not in the habit of telling people to go out and buy them. These books are only $3. To my intelligent kindle readers, who appreciate unconventional fantasy, do yourselves a favor and get a hold of Bitterwood. You will thank me.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Wikipedia Style Revolution in Egypt

Wael Ghonim of Google makes a fascinating argument regarding the recent revolution in Egypt that raises new possibilities as to the previously unforeseen implications of the internet for politics. His essential argument is that the revolution in Egypt operated much the same way as a Wikipedia page. In Wikipedia there is no one author of an article, no planing authority. Instead people around the world contribute little pieces of information that comes together to form an article. The same with Egypt; according to Ghonim, this was a revolution with "no heroes." (Ghonim did spend twelve days in an Egyptian prison.) No one planned this revolution. Instead people came together on the internet and threw around ideas for protests, which others then took up. This gave the revolution a certain "purity" in that no one had an agenda; this really was a revolution of this people fed up with their own government and nothing else.

As a non-believer in the "great men theory of history," that historical events are shaped by a few exceptional individuals, I lean toward seeing this as not a shift in revolutions themselves, revolutions were always about regular people doing their little bit for their own personal reason, but as a shift in how we perceive revolutions. It is clear to all that the revolution in Egypt was not masterminded by any leaders. In light of this it will be interesting to see who, if anyone, tries to step in and claim the mantel of revolution. Thus perhaps the chief victim of the Egyptian revolution, more than just Mubarak, was the great man theory of history and we will have to wait to see how that changes world politics.

I am eager to get the reactions of my readers to this speech. In particular I tag Shana Carp, who blogs about the internet and its implications for communication.     

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Conservative Playbook

(See "Academia as a Bulwark Against Conservatism" parts I, II)

As someone who so obviously does not fit into the stereotype of a liberal academic, I believe that I have a special responsibility to advance the sort of liberal academic ideals I have outlined. It is quite possible that I can reach students that others cannot. At Ohio State we certainly have many students from rural Ohio, part of "red" America; as someone who does not operate on a simple liberals are good, conservatives are bad moral continuum, such students might be willing to listen to the message I have for them.

Now I always tell my students at the beginning of the quarter that, while I might refer to present-day events, the class is not about modern-day politics and it is not my wish to see the class turn into a soapbox for my politics or anyone else's. History does not translate into straight forward lessons of "do or do not do this." I do not talk about my politics in class; if students are interested they are free to read this blog. I even ask students to challenge me if they think I have crossed any lines in sticking my personal politics into the class. I think I do a good job at this and have not received any complaints.

That being said, I do discuss certain fundamental historical concepts that serve to undermine conservative modes of thought. For example, one of the things that I have been discussing and debunking in my 111 class this quarter is what I call the "conservative playbook." In essence, the conservative playbook consists of three steps. Step one, talk about how wonderful things were in a given past. Step two, show how poorly the present compares to that "glorious" past. Step three, the conclusion, we need to go back to the way things were and restore those "traditional values" that once made us great.

We see this conservative playbook all over. Cicero argued for a return to traditional Roman republican values. Both Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth century claimed to be fighting to restore the true original church of Jesus and the apostles. Needless to say, this rhetoric is bread and butter for modern-day conservatives like Glenn Beck. Even liberals often get caught up in making conservative playbook arguments. I gave the example in class of liberals who bemoan the current state of rock and roll, how it has been corrupted by corporate America and MTV, and argue that we need to bring back the spirit of 60s rock when rock was "pure" and was about waging a revolution against the "man."

There are two problems with the conservative playbook, one of them will be present in almost all versions of this argument, the other problem exists by definition. Almost all conservative playbook arguments present a rose-colored picture of the targeted past. Thus it is the job of the historian to burst such bubbles. For example, Cicero's beloved early Romans, judging by the story of Romulus and Remus and the rape of the Sabine women, were a pack of brigands of bastard parentage, who pillaged and raped anything in sight. Rome was not corrupted by empire and the importation of loose Greek morals; it was a pretty corrupt place from the beginning.

The second more fundamental problem is in the very act of trying to "go back." People who lived in our "wonderful" past did not do what they did in order to reject the values of some future generation, fight some future set of villains and go back to their present; they already lived in their present. As such the very attempt to "go back" marks a fundamental change.

Whether or not the past was so wonderful that we should want to live in it, it is not possible and no one can claim to present the past. This marks a fundamental hypocrisy in all conservative movements. Conservatives are just as much the products of their generation as the liberals they denounce; their values are just as new and also mark an irreparable break with the past. For better or worse, the past is dead and buried and no one knows that better than a historian, who lives every day with the realization of how fundamentally different people in the past were. We have two options; either we openly admit that we are a different people from those who lived in the past with different values and ways of thinking and therefore try to the do the best we can to produce the best society our minds can fathom or we can close our eyes and pretend that things really are the same. If we choose the latter, things may or may not turn out well, but I can guarantee you that the society we fashion will not be a conservative one.

Will any of this make one of my Republican students vote for Obama? No, and that is not my purpose. In the long run, though, it might just change how he approaches the fundamental questions facing our society. What those changes might be is beyond my place as a historian. I am just doing my job as a liberal academic, opening up the possibility of change.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

What Is It with Rango?

My roommate has a knack for getting sneak preview tickets so on Tuesday we went to see the new Johnny Depp cartoon, Rango. It is difficult to describe Rango. Much like Up, Rango is an exercise in throwing some bizarre ideas around to see where things might go. In the case of Rango, he is a theatrically inclined chameleon, in midst of his own dramatic narrative and trying to figure out what ironic plot twists should befall a hero such as him to make him a more interesting character and allow him to win the heart of his beloved Barbie torso, when the tank, it turns out he was living in, falls out of a moving vehicle onto a desert highway. After a series of further misadventures, Rango makes his way to an old west town called Dirt, populated by animals. Rango, armed with nothing but an ability to weave tall tales designed to sink him even deeper into whatever mess he is trying to talk his way out of, decides to refashion himself as a lawman fighter for justice, capable of taking out seven bad guys with one bullet. Soon enough Rango finds himself over his head fighting an assortment of villains as he tries to solve the mystery of the town's disappearing water supply. This is not a story designed to make much in the way of actual sense. Instead, it relies on a series of brilliantly executed characters to draw an audience into a spirit of "what are they going to pull next." The story is being narrated by a group of four owl mariachi players who interact with the characters and produce a delightful banjo rendition of Ride of the Valkyries to accompany one of the wilder chase scenes. As with most of the best cartoons of the past few years, Rango is a kids' movie that is not really for kids at all. Its plot is a running nod to Blazing Saddles and Chinatown with generous digs at organized religion and Native American political correctness.

As a production of Nickelodeon, there is a strong undercurrent in this film of being counter-Disney. The jokes are certainly more off-color than what one would expect from Disney; it was even a step beyond Shrek. The animals of Dirt have a distinctly gritty and uncuddly look to them as if designed specifically to not be churned out into millions of plush stuffed animals. Personally, I could go for a Jake, a Gatling gun touting rattlesnake. It says something that Rango, a lizard, is the closest to cuddly this movie comes. Instead of going for cuddly, the movie goes for a monster sensibility reminiscent of Muppet monsters, grim on the outside, but delightful characters once introduced. If Redwall ever is to get a proper screen treatment this is the look I would like to see it go for.

While Rango might not be quite in the same league as Wall-E or Ratatouille, it is pretty darn close and certainly worth a watch.