Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Abrahamica once more.  About five years ago I began an ambitious comparative project on the Abrahamic religions.  The results are largely embodied in my cognate blog, together with some other contributions here and there on the internet.

This research yielded some surprising results. 

1)   As we know it today, Judaism is only about 1500 years old.  To be sure, Rabbinical Judaism uses the Hebrew Bible as one of its principle sources of inspiration, though it is in no way identical with the religion documented there.  The most important innovation is the idea that their are two Torahs, the written and the oral.  The latter, whose contents are known only to the rabbis, provides many precepts not stated in the written Torah. For their own part. Christianity and Islam make much use of the Hebrew Bible without being identical with the earlier faith. 

2)  In this light it would be most accurate to speak of four Abrahamic religions, not three.  Yet the faith of ancient Israel is extinct, leaving (Rabbinic) Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the three living specimens.

3) It follows that Christianity is not the daughter of Judaism; rather, if anything, the relations are reversed, since Christianity arose about 400 years earlier.

4)  Like its precursor, known to us from the Hebrew Bible, Judaism harbors a number of polytheistic elements.

5)  In Christianity, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is effectively polytheistic.

6)  In Christianity, Trinitarianism was actually the second stage, the culmination of a more complicated development, being preceded by binitarianism, the doctrine that only God the Father and Jesus Christ were divine.  Nothing in the New Testament requires us to accept that the Holy Spirit was the third, coequal partner in the firm.

Now comes an important new book, shedding light on all these questions.  It is The Jewish Jesus: How Judaism an Christianity Shaped Each Other, by Peter Schäfer, who is Professor of Jewish Studies at Princeton University.  The title of this book would suggest that it is yet another monograph affirming the truism that Jesus was a Jew, standing alongside other books of this genre by John Dominic Crossan, E. P. Saunders, and especially Geza Vermes.

There is no need to turn to these books to acknowledge the following points, easily derivable from the four canonical Christian Gospels. From his birth Jesus was raised a Jew. He was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2.21) and bore a common Jewish name, Yeshua, "he [God] saves" (Matthew 1.21). In fact, scholars have determined that Yeshua was the fifth most common male Jewish name of the time. Joseph was the second most common male name and Mary the most common among women. The child Jesus was presented to the Lord in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 2.22; cf. Deuteronomy 18.4; Exodus 13.2,12,15),  A sacrifice was offered for him, a pair of doves and 2 young pigeons, indicating that his family were not wealthy (Leviticus 12.2,6,8; Luke 2.22-24). Thus Jesus was raised according to the law (Luke 2.39).

These points being granted, it should be noted that Jesus belonged to pre-Rabbinical Judaism, differing in many respects from the faith that came to fruition in the two Talmuds (where he is sometimes denounced, as Schäfer showed in another monograph).  One must be careful of anachronism.

Evidently, The Jewish Jesus essentially replicates the author’s German original, which I have not seen.  In translation the title of that book is “The Birth of Judaism from the Spirit of Christianity.”  This sounds very much like my point no. 3 above, with Christianity being primary and Rabbinic Judaism coming after.  At all events, in this version Schäfer prefers a more interactive model in which a number of ideas circulated freely among both parties.

The conventional view of the contrast between Judaism and Christianity is that the one is strictly monotheistic, the other tritheistic.  With regard to antiquity, especially late antiquity, Peter Schäfer assembles considerable evidence to undermine this view, exploring a whole range of partner-deities for the supposedly unique God of the Jewish tradition.  These motifs include the duality of Elohim (literally “gods”) and Yahweh in the Pentateuch; the contrast of the old god (the “ancient of days”) and the young god; the use of plural verbs in the Hebrew bible to describe divine actions; the curious figure of Metatron, ostensibly the chief of the angels; and the idea of the eternal David.

All of these nominations point in the direction of binitarianism, the idea that there are two high gods.  This notion finds a parallel in gnosticism, but Schäfer thinks that this is not very important, as in that tradition the partner tends to have a negative connotation. 

In fact, Schäfer showcases the binitarian concept.  Here Judaism, or at least some strands of it, joins with New Testament Christianity, which was basically binitarian (with the Holy Spirit not yet admitted to full partnership),  Thus Judaism was not strictly monotheistic, nor was Christianity always strictly trinitarian.  Schäfer holds that binitarianism found an important support in the imperial concept, developed by Diocletian at the end of the third century CE, of the Augustus (or chief emperor) assisted by the Caesar (or junior emperor).

This book, by a major scholar in the field, is carefully composed.  I recommend it highly.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

What is the purpose of foreign travel?  Well, it might be (as I assumed in my youth) to view important works of art and architecture in their original setting.  Or it might be to visit the land of one’s ancestors. Yet again, it might be to scope out a pleasant spot for one’s retirement.   Or (to put the matter crassly) it might be just to get laid.

On reflection, though, none of these grounds strikes me as central.  The most important reason is to advance in the understanding of oneself and one’s culture by savoring the contrast.  It is very agreeable to travel to Toronto or London (as I have done several times), but those destinations do not afford the heightened contrast of which I speak.

This challenge is posed in a splendid new film “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” which concerns seven elderly English people who have decided to “outsource” themselves to India.  Their reasons are various.  One woman, magisterially incarnated by Judi Dench, finds her first real job there. Another woman, a crotchety medical patient, has gone there for a hip replacement.  An aging Lothario (played with great panache by the aptly named Ronald Pickup) finds his last companion in Carol, a woman of English heritage who has always lived in Udaipur.  A retired high court judge, who is gay, goes there to find his first great love, an Indian man with whom he is finally reunited.

The particular interests of these people are various, but they are all confronted with the challenge of dealing with a radically different culture.  To be sure, their encounters are inflected by the heritage of the British Raj--something Americans need not cope with, at least not directly.

All the same, I found India the most problematic of all the 46 countries I have visited.  This wonderful film helps me to understand this issue better.  I plan to go and see it again.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Growing old entails not only the usual geriatric ills, but also the possibility of unwanted career news.  Consider the case of psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, who turned 80 on May 22.

He spent most of his career at Columbia University, where he was on the research faculty of the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research.  Early on he became concerned about the imprecision of the classification (nosology) of psychiatric disorders.  To address this issue he chaired the task force of the third edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) which was released in 1980.  Despite criticisms, in its successive editions the DSM has become widely accepted, and is frequently cited in support of  insurance claims.

Appearing in the 2007 BBC TV series "The Trap," Spitzer acknowledged that the DSM, by operationalizing the definitions of mental disorders while paying little attention to the context in which the symptoms occur, may have medicalized the normal human experiences of a significant number of people.  The controversy continues, even as a new edition of the DSM is being readied for publication.

In 1973, responding to urgent appeals by gay activists. Spitzer spearheaded the APA's 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.  In charge of the revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, he pondered whether homosexuality should be included in the manual. He decided against inclusion of the category as such, since mental disorders would be identified by the distress an individual felt or an impairment of functioning. Yet he stipulated  that a listing of "ego-dystonic homosexuality" be included; that is, homosexuality that seemingly causes distress to the individual.  Significantly, there was no category of “ego-dystonic heterosexuality,” a sense reported by some feminist women.

In 2001 Spitzer delivered a controversial paper, "Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Sexual Orientation?" at the annual APA meeting.  Spitzer maintained that it is possible that some highly motivated individuals could successfully change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. A 2001 Washington Post article indicates that Spitzer held 45-minute telephonic interviews with 200 people who claimed that their respective sexual orientations had changed from homosexual to heterosexual. Spitzer said he "began his study as a skeptic," but the study revealed that "66 percent of the men and 44 percent of the women had arrived at what [Spitzer] called good heterosexual functioning," defined as "being in a sustained, loving heterosexual relationship within the past year, getting enough satisfaction from the emotional relationship with their partner to rate at least seven on a 10-point scale, having satisfying heterosexual sex at least monthly and never or rarely thinking of somebody of the same sex during heterosexual sex." Spitzer also found that "89 percent of men and 95 percent of women said they were bothered only slightly, or not at all, by unwanted homosexual feelings," but that "only 11 percent of the men and 37 percent of the women reported a complete absence of homosexual indicators, including same-sex attraction." The Post reported that "[s]ome 43 percent of the individuals in the sample had been referred to Spitzer by 'ex-gay ministries,'" while "an additional 23 percent were referred by the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality." NARTH is well known for its opposition to homosexuality.

Two years later the paper was peer reviewed and published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. Two-thirds of the reviews were critical targeting its sampling methods and criteria for success.

Finally, in a 2012 interview, Spitzer said he asked to retract the study, stating that he agreed with its critics:

"In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct," he said. "The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more." He said he spoke with the editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior about writing a retraction, but the editor declined.

In a letter to Kenneth J. Zucker, editor of Journal of Sexual Behavior, Spitzer wrote:

“Several months ago I told you that because of my revised view of my 2001 study of reparative therapy changing sexual orientation, I was considering writing something that would acknowledge that I now judged the major critiques of the study as largely correct. After discussing my revised view of the study with Gabriel Arana, a reporter for American Prospect,',and with Malcolm Ritter, an Associated Press science writer, I decided that I had to make public my current thinking about the study. Here it is.

Basic Research Question. From the beginning it was: “can some version of reparative therapy enable individuals to change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual?” Realizing that the study design made it impossible to answer this question, I suggested that the study could be viewed as answering the question, “how do individuals undergoing reparative therapy describe changes in sexual orientation?” – a not very interesting question.

The Fatal Flaw in the Study  There was no way to judge the credibility of subject reports of change in sexual orientation. I offered several (unconvincing) reasons why it was reasonable to assume that the subject’s reports of change were credible and not self-deception or outright lying. But the simple fact is that there was no way to determine if the subject’s accounts of change were valid.

“I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy. I also apologize to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some “highly motivated” individuals.”

I admire Dr. Spitzer for his honesty and integrity in making this avowal.  He could have kept silent, but he did not.  This is a salutary lesson.

[For an earlier account of Robert Spitzer and the DSM, see]

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The latest number of the New York Review contains a eulogistic review by Christopher Ricks of a new ultrascholarly edition of the poems of the English reprobate Philip Larkin.  I have never had the slightest interest in Larkin, who strikes me as a person of no significance at any level.  Apparently I am not alone, as this little nosegay gathered from the Internet attests.

Philip Larkin - The Whitsun Weddings

"I hate Philip Larkin.

I hate Emily Bronte.

I hate creative writing.

I hate sitting still for 2 hours at a time."

"Philip Larkin is one of the most pathetic writers ever.
He's an emo...and a loser. He is very lame."

"Philip Larkin sucks tho. That's not opinion, it's objective fact."

"ur jus seyin philip larkn is a loser!!!
i cudnt agree mor!!!!!!!!!
mysoginistic freak!"

"Oh my God, I HATE Philip Larkin. If I wanted to be depressed, I would listen to The Used."

"I hate Philip Larkin with a passion. Creepy old man, lurking outside the dance hall watching the pretty young girls.."

"This poetry has no redemption or beauty. It is dry, sarcastic, dismal, and plain out unhealthy to the mind. It's not worth it."

"I hate Philip Larkin and his ridiculous collection of poems"

"Larkin's portrayal of life is painfully depressing. There is no sense of positivity, but rather melancholy, doom and gloom, sadness, depression, failure, misgivings, misfortune, darkness. It is not what a 17-year-old reader wishes to read about what he will endure over the coming years ... This collection is not a pick-me-up ... It is not the quality of his poems that make this colection an unwelcome read; it is the subject, the general feeling exuded. This is not a warm, cheerful book.

So whilst the poet is evidently vastly talented and whilst his talent is impressive, this book does not justify its purchase. There is adequate sadness in the world, without one paying one's money to read Larkin's arduously depressing perception of life in further detail. I regret having taken English Literature, largely because of this text - it is not a worthwhile read."

POSTSCRIPT (May 25).  At his bedside when he died Christopher Hitchens kept two books: one by P. G. Wodehouse and the other the poems of Philip Larkin.  What a sad end!  When I was in high school I loved Wodehouse, but have felt no wish to return to his trivia.  As for Larkin, with his misogyny, racism, and general grumpiness, he represents the triumph of the principle of diminished expectations.  I am old now--but not that old!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Bizarre censorship at the New York Times.  A few days ago on 42nd Street I saw a brilliant new play, “Cock,” by the British dramatist Mike Bartlett.  Treating the familiar subject of a love triangle, the play is not perfect, but it is often riveting. 

Today the production was reviewed in the New York Times, but the reviewer was not allowed to use the actual title, and had to refer to the play as “Cockfight.”  The word cock is standard English.  Why does the Times ban it?

Last season, the Gray Lady imposed a similar ban on the play “The Motherfucker with the Hat” (superb, by the way).  While this erasure was perhaps more understandable, it exposes a continuing problem with purist censorship, which prevents us from apprehending reality as it actually is.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

There are some astonishing findings regarding Christianity.

The following comments are adopted from another site:

"When asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “antihomosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers. (The next most common negative images? : “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too involved in politics.”)

"In the book that documents these findings, titled unChristian, David Kinnaman writes:   

“The gay issue has become the ‘big one, the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity’s reputation. It is also the dimensions that most clearly demonstrates the unchristian faith to young people today, surfacing in a spate of negative perceptions: judgmental, bigoted, sheltered, right-wingers, hypocritical, insincere, and uncaring. Outsiders say [Christian] hostility toward gays...has become virtually synonymous with the Christian faith.”

 "Later research, documented in Kinnaman’s You Lost Me, reveals that one of the top reasons 59 percent of young adults with a Christian background have left the church is because they perceive the church to be too exclusive, particularly regarding their LGBT friends.  Eight million twenty-somethings have left the church, and this  is one reason why. "

Are these young people really wrong?  Actually, they are probably telling it like it is.

Whatever one's views about the rather abstract notion of the existence of God, perhaps it is time to own up the fact that institutional Christianity is dysfunctional to Western civilization. It is time to abandon it.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Mendacity and self-censorship on the left.

Self-censorship of in the interest of political expediency has long hobbled the left.  During the 1930s, James Burnham and George Orwell, who had had considerable relevant experience, exposed this pattern.  A particularly egregious example occurred after August 23, 1939, when the Communists of various nations, who had previously been in the forefront of the fight against fascism, agreed to mute their criticism of Nazi Germany.  This abstention was ordered by Stalin who had arranged the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, effectively allying the USSR with Germany.  This ban lasted for twenty months, until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.

After World War II, French fellow travelers widely discounted the evidence of the Gulags, until the publication of Solzhenitsin's three-volume work forced many of them to be silent--though not of course to recant.

Now a taboo prevails in many sectors of the left regarding Islam.  We frequently hear that Islam is diverse, being fragmented into various sections and groups.  Despite this purported diversity, the official position in virtually all Muslim-majority countries is that, when detected, homosexual conduct must be severely punished; and that the legal rights of women are on principle inferior to those of men.

Until recently gays and women had been defended by most responsible sectors on the left.  But when it comes to Muslim infractions in that sphere, a taboo takes over.  Why?  An Internet friend, an Englishman who regards himself as belonging to the far left states his silence this way: "I am not playing into Islamophobia, which is now a major way of attacking immigrant working class communities in the UK, France, Germany, and the Netherlands."

He also suggests a similar abstention with regard to the beliefs and practices of Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox Judaism).  

Why not come full circle and abstain from attacking pedophilia in the Roman Catholic church because our Hispanic/Latino minorities are mostly Catholic?

The overall pattern is clear.  The further left an observer is, the less we can rely on the objectivity of his or her comments.  They are simply not reliable narrators.


In my methodology course for graduate students at Hunter College I was accustomed to include a unit on creativity: how do we get ideas?  Of the various books I consulted on the subject, I found the popular works of Edward de Bono the most useful.  As I recall, his basic principle was this: “think outside the box.” That seems a good enough rule of thumb.

Two other nuggets have stuck with me.  The first stems from the French scientist Louis Pasteur: “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” By this precept he meant that sudden flashes of insight don’t just happen they are the products of preparation.  Yet how much preparation?  Too much can serve simply to reify the conventional wisdom, 

Moreover, that principle stands in opposition to another.  That is our common experience that “poachers,” that is outsiders with no expert knowledge are often able to ask basic question that have eluded the specialists, mired in ossified thinking.  Here is an example from an introductory course I taught in the history of art.  I had been lecturing on the Romanesque period.  Afterwards a student came up and asked: Why is Romanesque architecture, with its fundamental innovations in vaulting techniques, so much more advanced than the gauche works of sculpture of the same era?”

I had no immediate response to her, but afterwards I came up with the notion that Romanesque sculpture IS advanced, just in a different way.  Still, it doesn’t look advanced.  Maybe the true answer revealed by the student’s “naive” question is that we need to discard our evolutionary notions of cultural history--notions that privilege the advanced over the traditional.

At all events, the question of creativity has been posed anew in a book by the wunderkind Jonah Lehrer: Imagine: How Creativity Works.  Attesting perhaps that the notion of creativity remains elusive, this book has not, on the whole, received a very good press, witness this review by Christopher Chabris:

Saturday, May 05, 2012

The Plague of LGBT.

A friend informs me of a current exhibition of “LGBT History” in Plymouth, England.  Doubtless one should be grateful to the organizers for gathering some hard-to-find documentation, but the title raises hackles.

Even in present-day circumstances, the clumsy acronym LGBT is eschewed when serious matters are concerned.  No one writes about “LGBT law reform,” or “LGBT marriage,” or “LGBT service in the military” (at least no one I know).  So far, so ludicrous.  Why then should this monstrosity apply when it comes to the study of the past?

One may argue that LGBT has the advantages of “inclusiveness.”  Perhaps so, but the value of such collocations must be determined individually on the merits. 

A comparison will illustrate this point.  A current acronym is BRIC, for the emerging major powers of Brazil, Russia, India, and China.  This quartet makes some sense synchronically but not diachronically,  Imagine an exhibition of BRIC History through the Ages.  Such an event might help to understand the migration of Buddhism from India to China, and on to Brazil (where there is a substantial Japanese community), but little else.

A while back a philosopher introduced the concept of "making up people."  That seems to be what has happened with the LGBT chimera.

I turn now to some more specific remarks. First,  some tentative remarks on the last element of the acronymic quartet: the Ts.

First, I strongly believe in liberty of dress, including cross-dressing.  The only objections to this principle of dress-liberty that come to mind are two: wearing a ski mask in a bank, and donning the uniform of a police officer when the intent is to deceive.  (Even the latter might be OK in certain cases, as in the forthcoming film "Magic Mike.")

I also believe that one should be able to make whatever body modifications one sees fit, whether of the breasts, genitals, or some other bodily part.

That said, it seems to me that to link these two forms of T with the other three elements of the quaternion is a category mistake. For much of the 20th century sexologists struggled to clear up a common popular confusion, one that still survives in some quarters.  This confusion links sexual orientation with cross-dressing, formerly known as eonism.  Anyone who has had any experience in the matter knows that, for example, there are many heterosexual men who like to wear female clothing.  Some heterosexual women like to don "mannish" clothing.  And so on.  In other words, the adoption of such a mode affords no conclusion as whether the adopter is gay, lesbian, or bi.  Conversely, there is no particular compulsion among these three groups to engage in cross dressing.  

As regards transsexualism, the great majority of gay men and lesbians, certainly the ones I know, prize their genitals as they are, and have no wish to modify them.

Sadly, the current addition of the T to the group reinstates this old confusion of categories.  Why this should be done baffles me.   

There are of course perfectly good grounds for studying the history and conceptualization of eonism and transsexualism.  But they need to be studied for their own sake.

Finally, there are reasons for questioning, historically at least, the collocation of gay men and lesbian women.  While there are some scattered earlier avatars of this pairing, only since 1869 with K. M. Kertbeny's coinage, has it been regarded as axiomatic.  Yet historical study, which is the aim of the proposed inquiry, strongly suggests that it is not axiomatic--that is is a matter of (recent) culture rather than nature.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Mi casa es su casa, NOT.   For a while in high school I aspired to make my mark as an avant-garde poet.  My first model was the establishment figure T. S. Eliot.  It quickly became apparent that I had no talent for poetry.  Still, the old longings occasionally revived.  In the sixties they settled on Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”  I was nothing if not eclectic.

In between was the Ezra Pound period.  Pound was then completing--concluding actually in view of the sputtering end--an epic poem of 800 pages known as “The Cantos.” This was a modernist attempt to duplicate the feat of Dante Alighieri.

I paid little attention to Pound’s anti-Semitism and other crackpot views.  Just as we don’t go to political theorists for judgments on literature, we need expect no special insights from writers about politics.

All the same, we are now seeing some stirrings of interest in Pound’s economic ideas.  This modest growth of this activity may reflect the continuing unease about the currently reigning theories, which are held, not unreasonably, to have played a part in the mess that has prevailed since 2008,

In 2006 Meghnad Desai published “The Route of All Evil: The Political Economy of Ezra Pound” (Faber).  Desai is a British academic and stalwart of the Labour Party.  Previously his sympathies seemed to lie more with Karl Marx than with any figure on the right.  Nonetheless, Desai strives mightily to find some kernels of insight in Pound’s scattered economic writings, in part by reconstructing the views adumbrated therein.

The oddest reflection of the new interest in Pound’s economic views comes from Italy, where Pound had lived for much of his life.  The year 2003 saw the emergence of a far-right political party called “CasaPound.”  With offices in several Italian cities, this improbable group even uses a rock band to promote its ideas, some of which seem more anarchist than right-wing.  Certainly one would not expect to find Rupert Murdoch comfortably ensconced in their midst--though Sean Hannity might like it.  There are some, possibly remote affinities with both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement. The CasaPoundians claim to be anticapitalist, referencing the excoriation of usury in Canto 45.

Mussolini had begun as a socialist and, utilizing the ideas of Georges Sorel, incorporated some residues of socialism in Fascism.  These mainly took the form of collectivist features of the Corporate State.  For political reasons, Mussolini was hostile to the "plutocracies" of Britain and France.  

As for Pound, in writing his strange book "Jefferson and/or Mussolini" he was seeking to glorify an agrarian, premodern America, untouched by big banks and big business, somehow akin to what Mussolini was seeking in Italy.

We live in a crazy world--and one that is getting crazier.