Wednesday, June 29, 2011

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

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

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

And all the neurotypicals lived happily ever after.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Protestant Politics of Michele Bachmann

(Hat tip to Atlas Shrugs.)

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

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

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

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

A Romantic Dish of Graduate Cooking

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Evidence of Civilization in Los Angeles

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 19, 2011

100,000 Words

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

Mary E. Brayton

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 17, 2011

Presenting at the Institute for Humane Studies Seminar

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Institute for Humane Studies Seminar: Scholarship & a Free Society

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

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

Monday, June 13, 2011

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

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

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

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Salman Rushdie Doing Television

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

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

Friday, June 10, 2011

Piled Higher and Deeper Movie

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

Monday, June 6, 2011

Final History 111 Spring 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 5, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 3, 2011

John Constantine on Israel and the Jews

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

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Tzabi the Israeli "Duck and Cover" Turtle

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

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

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