Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Shylock’s Dilemma: To Judge is to Be Judged

In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the Jewish moneylender Shylock demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh as payment for a debt. Considering that Shylock is the villain and a rather unpleasant character (whether or not he is also an anti-Semitic caricature), it is easy to lose sight of how formidable a challenge Shylock presents. His argument is unchallengeable. Antonio freely entered the contract knowing the risks and failed to pay back the loan. Shylock has every right to his pound of flesh and no power on Earth can stop him. Not even the Venetian Court can refuse Shylock as to do so would undermine the very notion of contract, the foundation of the State. To say no to Shylock would simply be to destroy the State and leave Shylock’s right to revenge unharmed. This is similar to the White Witch’s claim to kill the traitor Edmund. For Aslan to deny her a kill would be to go against the Emperor’s magic and destroy Narnia. 

Antonio’s flesh is valuable to Shylock as an excuse to kill Antonio but also to strike at the Christian society around him. It would not be enough for Shylock to knife Antonio in a dark alley with the authorities privately deciding to not pursue the matter. Shylock needs to kill Antonio in public with the court’s full agreement that he is right and that they are powerless to stop him. Thus, any attempt to argue with Shylock or ask for mercy simply demonstrates that he is right and brings him ever closer to his moment of glory when he will be able to sink his knife into Antonio's body with the full consent of a defeated court. This enflames Shylock's desire for revenge and makes him less likely to compromise. 

Portia is able to defeat Shylock, in the end, precisely because she refuses to fight him on his chosen ground. She acknowledges that he has the right to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body. The catch is, of course, that Shylock cannot shed a drop of Antonio’s blood. Portia’s insight is that Shylock, by pursuing Antonio, has also made himself vulnerable to the charge that he is trying to murder Antonio. If Shylock is going to put Antonio on trial for his pound of flesh there is no reason why Shylock should not be on trial for attempted murder, particularly as it was Shylock who decided to initiate this case in the first place. Here lies Shylock's dilemma. He might be perfectly justified in claiming Antonio's flesh but he cannot do so without convicting himself of murder. Thus, it is not enough that Shylock is right. He still loses. (My father should take note that I am conceding a point he has long tried to make to me that sometimes being right is not enough.)

One could ask, how foolish is Shylock to believe that a Christian court is actually going to let him kill one of their own. Of course, they are going to find an excuse to turn this around and punish the Jew. Shylock is blind to this possibility because he thinks that Venetian society simply hates him as a Jew even as they need him as a moneylender, demonstrating their hypocrisy. Since he believes that Venice has no intellectual case against him, it makes sense that all he needs to do is come with facts and logic and he will smash through any opposition. No amount of prejudice can deny that Antonio freely entered this grisly bargain and that the State needs contracts to be enforced even unpleasant ones.

What happens, though, once we acknowledge that Venice is not run by hateful Christians, who deep down have a guilty conscious for their intellectually indefensible prejudice? What if it is something far more dangerous; people with a well-worked out narrative in which Shylock the Jew is a harmful outsider and that Venice is better off without him? All of a sudden, Antonio's murder is not an incidental part of Shylock's quest for justice, but the primary issue as it fits into a preexisting narrative about the Jew. Now Shylock is no longer someone who offers a necessary service, but a devil who tricks good Christians into mortgaging their very flesh. Such a Shylock can be denied his bond with a clear conscious. One can even rob him of his wealth and threaten to kill him if he does not convert and believe that one is righteous for it. On the contrary, it is the people who think that Shylock has a point and should be shown mercy who are guilty of murder and the moral corruption of the city.

Here the issue of whether Shylock is part of Venice or an outsider becomes important. If Venice cannot operate without him then Shylock, even if he is unpleasant and disliked, becomes part of the society no different from, if not the heart, perhaps the large intestine within the political body. As a part of Venice, all promises to him are sacred and must be followed even to the point of death. If Shylock is a foreign parasite then all promises are null and void and he can be lied to much in the same way that, except for radical Kantians, we accept that it is ok to lie to Nazis. Nazis are outside the web of moral responsibility so there never was an obligation to be truthful with them in the first place. By pursuing his pound of flesh, Shylock reminds Venice of why they might consider him an outsider in the first place. Thus, Shylock's argument, though correct, creates a catch-22 and is invalidated by his very act of making it.

Shylock is important to our political discourse because all claims of absolute justice amount to a demand for a pound of flesh. The danger of demanding a pound of flesh is that, even when you are right, you are placing yourself on trial with your enemies, those who already possess a narrative to justify killing you, as the judges. To pursue such justice, therefore, requires a mind-blindness to not see that your enemies honestly believe that they are right to kill you and are not simply haters whose prejudices can be overcome by your carefully selected facts. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Curriculum: Education’s MacGuffin

In literature, a MacGuffin is an object or goal that motivates the characters, setting the plot in motion. For example, the plot of New Hope centers around the Death Star plans stored in R2-D2. Without the Death Star plans, Luke, Han, Chewbacca, and Obi-Wan do not team up to rescue Princess Leia. The fundamental weakness of MacGuffins is that, almost by definition, they are narrative ploys. We do not actually care whether the Rebels get the plans and save the galaxy just as long as our beloved heroes get into cool space battles and use the Force.

This does not mean that MacGuffins are bad; they are unavoidable. It is not even necessary that a character never abandon their MacGuffin. As a character changes, it can only be expected that their goals change along the way. The boy who spends the entire story trying to win a girl may decide that he does not want her after all as in the case of Stardust.

The trick is to find the right balance in which the MacGuffin does not become too important that we lose sight of the fact that it is the characters that are more important. This is the problem with just about any story where the hero has to save the world. The point of James Bond is not that he saves the world but that he should find himself in extreme situations involving some combination of sex and peril and make pithy comments. This was Sean Connery’s insight into the character and every subsequent portrayal of Bond has succeeded or failed depending on how well the actors understood this. On the other hand, a MacGuffin needs to be taken seriously as something more than a plot device. It is this latter problem that presents the greater challenge.

The real problem with MacGuffins comes when the author blatantly abandons the MacGuffin when it is no longer convenient, demonstrating that the MacGuffin was nothing more than a cheap ploy by a lazy writer. For example, most of Phantom Menace is spent trying to get our heroes to Coruscant so that the Republic can send a fleet to save Naboo from the Trade Federation when it should have been obvious to the characters, from the beginning, that the Republic lacked the resources and political will to go to war with the Trade Federation. A Republic that cannot enforce its own laws against slavery and whose currency is flat out rejected in the galaxy cannot be of much military use. Thus, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan should have never left Naboo. Act II of the film should have been them fleeing the Trade Federation on Naboo and trying to put together a resistance army. Along the way, they could have no recruited an adult Anakin as a fighter pilot.

We see a similar problem with the Star Wars sequels. The first part of Force Awakens centers around the MacGuffin of a map to Luke stored in BB-8. All of a sudden the plot switches to Star Killer (Death Star III). Having wasted the later part of the film blowing up this new Death Star and with moments left in the film, R2-D2 wakes up and, deus ex machina, hands over the critical information to find Luke. How much better it would have been if the film had continued with the quest for Luke. Kylo Ren could have still killed Han (the best scene in Star Wars since the originals). Force Awakens could have then ended with Star Killer blowing up a planet. This would have better set up Last Jedi by explaining why the New Republic simply surrenders without a fight.

Last Jedi offers a master class in how not to use MacGuffins. Luke proves useless and not worth the search. Canto Bright serves no other purpose than to allow the dreadfully boring Finn to suck the film emotionally dry. This sets up the Last Jedi’s ultimate sin of deciding that the backgrounds of Rey and Snoke didn’t matter when they were the central questions of the film. Ultimately, a bad MacGuffin amounts to the writer, much like the post-modern professor, mocking the audience for caring about a work of fiction while still intending these same fools to continue to offer their financial support.

This balancing act for MacGuffins is useful for understanding the role of curricula in education. Recently, I have begun homeschooling Kalman for kindergarten. We are using the K12 online curriculum and he has several live online classes a week with a teacher through iQ Academy California. I think the teacher is fantastic and we have developed an excellent relationship. The irony here is that our communication is far more frequent than if she was a conventional teacher. Since the foundational assumption of our relationship is that I am the teacher who needs the guidance of a professional, communication becomes a necessity. If she were a conventional classroom teacher, we likely would fall into the moral hazard of saying that it is her job to teach and my job to be grateful to her for taking Kalman off my hands during the day.

I do not think there is anything impressive about K12’s curriculum. It is highly paint by the numbers. This is perhaps necessary as an essential part of the system is that it needs to be idiot-proofed for parents. I am reminded of the joke from Herman Wouk’s Cain Mutiny that the Navy is a system designed by geniuses to be run by idiots. K12’s program is also way too easy for Kalman and I have needed to make things more challenging for him. In essence, they want to teach him phonics, while I am trying to teach him to read; they are teaching counting when I am teaching addition and subtraction.

What I admire about Kalman’s program is not the curriculum but the support staff, as I mentioned. In addition, the system gives us a list of things to check off every day. This has the advantage that even when Kalman is not into the material, he just has to get through his assignments and he is done for the day. Furthermore, having specific things to check off keeps us grounded.

In essence, the K12 curriculum works well when treated as a MacGuffin. It gets the ball rolling for our lessons and gives us structure as we try to check everything off in our daily lessons. As with any good story, it is the side things that are of true importance. One of the hardest lessons in teaching I have found is that you cannot teach anyone anything. You cannot teach someone who does not want to learn. If someone is interested in something they will learn it regardless of you. Teaching is really about facilitating, creating the right conditions for students to teach themselves.

What I hope Kalman takes away from his time homeschooling with me (whether it lasts through kindergarten or 12th grade) is that I value academics. I could inform him of this fact and even preach passionately about it but teaching does not work. Instead, what I offer is that every day I am willing to spend several hours with him, going through the curriculum and any side adventures. He sees my excitement and knows, good day or bad, I am with him. Succeed or fail, we are a team. What Kalman might learn that can be presented on a transcript is simply a MacGuffin that should not be ignored but not taken too seriously.