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The Evolutionary Perspective
Category Archives: Rationalism
Posted: November 4, 2020 at 10:48 am
Edited by: Moshe Avraham Landy] (Feldheim, 2020)By: Rabbi Dr. Aharon Chaim HaLevi ZimmermanReviewed by: Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
For the uninitiated, Rabbi Aharon Chaim Zimmerman is known as an eccentric Rosh Yeshiva and Jewish intellectual who flourished in the second half of the twentieth century. Rabbi Zimmerman was born in 1914 into an illustrious rabbinic family, as he was a nephew of Rabbi Baruch Ber Lebowitz (1862-1939)the famed Rosh Yeshiva of Kaminetz and author of Birkas Shmuel. As a young teenager, Rabbi Zimmerman, already recognized as a prodigy, was sent to study under his venerated uncle. Afterwards, he studied under Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik (1879-1941) at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University, where he received rabbinic ordination in 1939. At the tender age of 24, Rabbi Zimmerman became the youngest member of the RCA.
He was later tapped to serve as Rosh Yeshiva of the Hebrew Theological College (Skokie Yeshiva) in Chicago until his controversial dismissal in 1964. Subsequently, Rabbi Zimmerman served as Rosh Yeshiva in various other institutes, finally making Aliyah in 1972 and opening a Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Rabbi Zimmerman passed away in 1995, but his student Moshe Landy undertook to print some of his Rebbes unpublished works posthumously.
Rabbi Zimmerman penned numerous books and monographs, both in English and Hebrew, on various intricate topicsmostly relating to Halacha and Jewish Philosophy. Many of his Hebrew articles were published in the scholarly rabbinic journal HaPardes (originally edited by Rabbi Shmuel Aharon Pardes, and, from 1947, by Rabbi Simcha Elberg). Most of those articles concern various minutiae in the Halachos regarding ritual sacrifices and related laws of ritual purity/impurity. Rabbi Zimmerman also famously penned an important work entitled Agan HaSahar concerning the placement of the international dateline in Halacha. He also wrote extensively about Zionism and how the ideal Jewish State should be structured. Many of Rabbi Zimmermans English essay were originally published in the Jewish Press and were later culled together and republished as complete books.
Besides Rabbi Zimmermans prowess in Torah Studies and Halacha, he was also quite well-versed in the sciences, including advanced mathematics, philosophy, and physics. Dr. Harry Maryles relates that it was said about Rabbi Zimmerman that he understood quantum theory as well as Niels Bohr did at a time when most of the scientific community had barely even heard of it yet! Nonetheless, this eclectic Torah Scholar focused his energies and devotion to Torah Studies, and viewed that discipline as the most important of all.
This newly-published book represents only a small part of the greater edifice that makes up Rabbi Zimmermans approach to Jewish theology/philosophy. The basic premise of this book is that Halacha and Talmudic study are built on a precise logical system, which is akin to the systems of reasoning behind any of the hard sciences, like mathematics. Rabbi Zimmerman offers a thorough epistemological defense of this staunchly traditionalist view, buttressing his arguments with philosophical terms and ideas.
As mentioned above, Rabbi Zimmerman was quite at home when discussing philosophy. In this book, he cites such classical philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, and Machiavelli to bolster his assertions, while he also references later philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russel, and even Ayn Rand.
Another recurrent theme in Rabbi Zimmermans new book concerns the idea of insiders versus outsiders. In fact, Rabbi Zimmerman treats this idea at greater length in two of his previous books, Torah and Reason (1979) and Torah and Existence (1986). This aspect of Rabbi Zimmermans weltanschauung maintains that the true study of Torah must follow the time-tested traditional methodology of the mesorah, and Torah content can only be assessed through that internal logic. He makes the point that just as other disciplines can only be understood from within their own ontological system, so can Torah only be truly understood by the insider.
To illustrate this point, Rabbi Zimmerman draws an analogy in which he cites the following anecdote: Zionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky once proclaimed that as intelligent as Albert Einstein might be, he cannot understand the situation of the Jewish people unless he understands two languages that are read from right to leftHebrew and Yiddish. In the same way, Rabbi Zimmerman argued, one who is an outsider to the notion of Torah Study and has not been initiated in its inner logic/methodology cannot grasp the ideas and concepts discussed therein.
The brunt of Rabbi Dr. Zimmermans criticism is levelled against people in the mold of Heinrich Graetz, Leo Strauss, and Gershon Scholem. He polemicizes against these Jewish scholars for imposing their own manmade framework on the Torahs Divine structure, and then framing the Halacha and Jewish tradition through subjective considerations rooted in history, politics, sociology, and the like. Rabbi Zimmerman reserves his harshest condemnations for Levi (Louis) Ginzberg, one of the founders of Conservative Judaism. In fact, a 40-page section of this book is devoted to outing Ginzberg as a plagiarizer and falsifier.
In this work, Rabbi Zimmerman argues time and again how these outsiders and others like them misunderstood the original intent of the traditional rabbinic authorities and misconstrue their words to fit with their own preconceived (biased) notions. Such Jewish scholars often attribute Halachic rulings or positions to the machinations of political/social engineering, instead of to the learned conclusions of applying a traditional methodology of study.
This book, like most of Rabbi Zimmermans previous books, is actually a sort of apologetic defense of traditional Judaism. The drawback of his style is that he often makes very strongly-worded assertions without actually backing them up. In this reviewers opinion, the entire book feels like it consists of off-the-cuff remarks that Rabbi Zimmerman made without meaning to actually get into the topics he broaches. It sometimes feels as if Rabbi Zimmerman could have written an entire chapter to explain just one single sentence in this book. The reader must bear in mind that Rabb Zimmerman did not originally prepare these essays with the intention to create the book at hand, so the ambiguities and vagueness are more the editors doing than the authors.
Furthermore, in this book, Rabbi Zimmerman makes many general, sweeping statements, without going into more detail about how they play out and what exactly he means, or what examples of those ideas we can find. For example, in several chapters throughout this book, Rabbi Zimmerman variously claims that many parts of the Aggadah, Kabbalah, and Rambams philosophy are all just meshalim (parables), but he fails to tell us what the nimshal is. This comes from Rabbi Zimmermans aversion to spoon-feeding his readers/students with information. He instead tries to make certain points, but leaves the reader to do the leg work and work out the exact details. In this way, the assertions he makes are really just starting points from which the reader can begin his own personal exploration and intellectual inquiry into the subject matter.
This reviewer feels that if Rabbi Zimmerman would have buttressed his name-dropping and supped-up appeals to authority with more substantial arguments to prove his points, then this book could be an important guide to understanding Judaism from the inside. Similarly, if this book would have provided more examples of how the Halacha is based on a logical system instead of having us take his word for it, it could have a far greater impact.
In this reviewers final assessment, Rabbi Zimmermans new book is a great introduction to some of the sophisticated ideas behind traditional Judaism, and how it ranks knowledge/rational thought. The editor of this work graciously took the time to locate and provide us with footnotes that contain the exact Hebrew text for most of the sources that Rabbi Zimmerman quotes (as well as Hebrew excurses probably deemed too provocative for the English reader). Indeed, Mr. Landy prepared for publication another small part of Rabbi Zimmermans greater overarching philosophy, and we hope to see more of his unpublished writings see light in the future.
For other reviews of this work that take a different approach, see:
Torah & Rationalism Writings of the Gaon Rabbenu Aaron Chaim HaLevi Zimmerman ztl
Title: Torah & Rationalism: Understanding Torah and the Mesorah – The Jewish Press – JewishPress.com
Posted: at 10:48 am
Photo Credit: Rabbi Dr. Zimmerman / Feldheim Publishers
Title: Torah & Rationalism: Understanding Torah and the Mesorah Author: Rabbi Dr. Aharon Chaim HaLevi Zimmerman (edited by Moshe Avraham Landy)Publisher: Feldheim
For the uninitiated, Rabbi Aharon Chaim Zimmerman is known as an eccentric rosh yeshiva and Jewish intellectual who flourished in the second half of the 20th century. Rabbi Zimmerman was born in 1914 into an illustrious rabbinic family and was a nephew of Rabbi Baruch Ber Lebowitz (1862-1939), the famed rosh yeshiva of Kaminetz.
As a young teenager, Rabbi Zimmerman, already recognized as a prodigy, was sent to study under his venerated uncle. Afterwards, he studied under Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik (1879-1941) at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, where he received semicha in 1939.
At the tender age of 24, Rabbi Zimmerman became the youngest member of the Rabbinical Council of America. He later served as rosh yeshiva of the Hebrew Theological College (Skokie Yeshiva) in Chicago until his controversial dismissal in 1964.
Subsequently, Rabbi Zimmerman served as rosh yeshiva in various other institutes, finally making aliyah in 1972 and opening a yeshiva in Jerusalem. Rabbi Zimmerman passed away in 1995, but his student Rabbi Moshe Landy has undertaken to print some of his rebbes unpublished works posthumously.
Rabbi Zimmerman penned numerous books and monographs, both in English and Hebrew. Many of his Hebrew articles (mostly concerning karbanos and tumah and taharah) were published in the scholarly rabbinic journal HaPardes. Rabbi Zimmerman also famously penned an important work, Agan HaSahar, on the international dateline and wrote extensively on Zionism and how an ideal Jewish state should be structured. Many of Rabbi Zimmermans English essays were originally published in The Jewish Press and later culled together and published in book form.
Rabbi Zimmerman was also quite well-versed in the sciences, including advanced mathematics, philosophy, and physics. Rabbi Harry Maryles relates that it was said about Rabbi Zimmerman that he understood quantum theory as well as Niels Bohr at a time when most of the scientific community barely even heard of it!
The basic premise of Rabbi Zimmermans new book, Torah & Rationalism: Understanding Torah and the Mesorah, is that halacha and Gemara are built on a precise logical system akin to the systems of reasoning behind the hard sciences. Rabbi Zimmerman offers a thorough epistemological defense of this staunchly traditionalist view, buttressing his arguments with philosophical terms and ideas and citing such classical philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, and Machiavelli and referencing later philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russel, and even Ayn Rand.
A recurrent theme in the book revolves around insiders versus outsiders. (Rabbi Zimmerman treats this theme at greater length in Torah and Reason  and Torah and Existence .) He maintains that true Torah study must follow the traditional methodology of the mesorah. Just as other disciplines can only be understood from within their own ontological system, so too Torah can only be truly understood by an insider.
To illustrate this point, Rabbi Zimmerman cites the following anecdote: Zionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky once proclaimed that as intelligent as Albert Einstein might be, he cannot understand the situation of the Jewish people unless he understands two languages that are read from right to left Hebrew and Yiddish.
The brunt of Rabbi Zimmermans critique is leveled at people in the mold of Heinrich Graetz, Leo Strauss, and Gershon Scholem. He criticizes these scholars for imposing their own manmade framework on the Torahs divine structure and then framing halacha and Jewish tradition with subjective considerations rooted in history, politics, sociology, and the like.
Rabbi Zimmerman reserves his harshest condemnations for Levi (Louis) Ginzberg, one of the founders of Conservative Judaism. In fact, a 40-page section of this book is devoted to outing Ginzberg as a plagiarizer and falsifier.
Rabbi Zimmerman argues time and again that these outsiders and others like them misunderstood the original intent of the traditional rabbinic authorities and misconstrue their words to fit their own preconceived (biased) notions.
This book, like most of Rabbi Zimmermans previous works, is actually a sort of apologetic defense of traditional Judaism. Unfortunately, he often makes very strongly-worded assertions without backing them up. In this reviewers opinion, the entire book feels like a series of off-the-cuff remarks that Rabbi Zimmerman made without meaning to actually get into the topics he broaches.
It sometimes feels as if Rabbi Zimmerman could have written an entire chapter to explain just one single sentence in this book. (The reader should bear in mind that Rabbi Zimmerman did not prepare these essays for publication as a book.)
Rabbi Zimmerman also makes many general, sweeping statements without going into detail on what exactly he means. For example, in several chapters in the book, Rabbi Zimmerman claims that many parts of the Aggadah, Kabbalah, and Rambams philosophy are meshalim (parables), but he fails to tell us what the nimshalim are.
This lack of detail perhaps comes from Rabbi Zimmermans aversion to spoon-feeding his readers/students with information. He instead make certain points, leaving the reader to do the leg work and work out the exact details.
This reviewer believes that if Rabbi Zimmerman had buttressed his name-dropping and appeals to authority with more substantial arguments to prove his points, this book would have been an important guide to understanding Judaism from the inside. It also would have had greater impact had it provided more examples of how halacha is based on a logical system rather than having the reader take his word for it.
Ultimately, though, this book is a great introduction to some of the sophisticated ideas of traditional Judaism. The editor graciously took the time to provide footnotes that contain the exact Hebrew text of most of the sources Rabbi Zimmerman quotes. With this book, Rabbi Landy has prepared for publication another small part of Rabbi Zimmermans greater overarching philosophy, and we hope more of his unpublished writings see the light of day in the future.
Read the original here:
Posted: at 10:48 am
The STEM Read Podcast - Fake Ghosts and Meddling Kids (Oct. 31, 2020)
Its a Halloween Bonus! On this episode of the STEM Read Podcast, well explore Americas deep-seated literary tradition of rationalism as it has played out in more than 150 years of pop culture, from the Dime Novels of the 1870s to Scooby-Doo to the horror novels of today. STEM Read Director Gillian King-Cargile (@gkingcargile) talks with authors and experts who explore, update, and upend our traditions of fake ghosts and meddling kids.
Our guests are archivist and Dime Novel Expert Sata Prescott; author of Daphne and Velma: The Dark Deception Morgan Baden (@MorganBaden); and author of Meddling Kids Edgar Cantero (@punkahoy). Gillian is joined on the episode by Melanie Koss (@melaniekoss), associate professor of literacy at NIUs College of Education. Embrace your inner Velma and geek out with us about the spooky problems science can (and sometimes cant) solve.
Northern Illinois UniversitysSTEM Read is part of theNIU STEAMfamily of programs that explore science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math. Find more great books, lesson plans, and resources atstemread.com.
The STEM Read Podcast is produced in collaboration with WNIJ.
Posted: at 10:48 am
Written by Shiny Varghese, Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | November 3, 2020 1:23:21 pmA girl writes during a class on freedom of expression and secularism, Monday November 2, 2020 in Strasbourg, eastern France. At schools throughout the country, students will read the letter of Jean Jaurs, a 19th century French thinker and politician, to instructors urging them to teach the country's children to "know France, its geography and its history, its body and its soul." (AP Photo: Jean-Francois Badias)
Not often does a country march to the beat, I regret nothing. Its an anthem more than half a century old, but Non, je ne regrette rein by French singer Edith Piaf has crossed borders and languages as a symbol of resistance. Even as France holds its ground in its fight against Islamist separatism, it is a country that has penned, sung, fought and dreamed resistance. Recently, authors, booksellers and publishers asked the French government to make bookshops an essential service.
France gave us writers, philosophers, artists, fashion designers, filmmakers all who left indelible stamps on the world. It has never shied away from provocative expressions. Subversion, scepticism and irreverence has been the countrys cornerstone for centuries.
Theres a saying that 19th century Western literature was divided into before Hugo and after Hugo. Victor Hugos widely acclaimed novel Les Miserables (1862), which was written in exile and smuggled to France because he revolted against Napoleon, shook a complacent country out of its romantic reverie to view the poor and disenfranchised people living a tough life. Les Miserable continues to haunt the world stage with its explosive performances.
Nearly three decades later in 1898, another well-known author Emile Zola would publish a letter on the front page of the LAurore newspaper accusing the government of anti-Semitism and the unfair jailing of a Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, who was accused of treason. The letter titled Jaccuse (I accuse) left the country divided between conservative and liberal French. This conundrum gave the world the phrase, Dreyfus Affair, which points to bitter political divisions, and is even being used to explain the upcoming US Election.
Much before them though, the Father of French Revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau gave the world The Social Contract (1762). Geneva-born Rousseau made Paris his home and dreamed of a society where governments would allow for freedom for all its citizens. His fundamental question, how can humans live free in society, has shaped the principles of the UN Charter and the US Declaration of Independence.
Parisian salons and cafes were hotspots of new thought and the City of Lights bred many minds during the Age of Enlightenment, which privileged reason and inquiry above all.
It is not without wonder then that when famous philosopher Voltaire turned his guns at every religion, be it Judaism, Islam, or Christianity, the deist in him did not condone the intolerance of any sect. A prime advocate of religious tolerance, he encouraged people through his writings (from 1730s onward) to have a sense of detached rationalism mixed with observation. He also wasnt popular with the royals; he was thrown out of Paris for writing a satire on the French royal family.
This idea of critical self-image carried forward centuries later into the writings of playwright-philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. When he wrote Hell is other people in his play No Exit (1944), it was this sense of judgement that he decried. He gave the world the theory of existentialism, where he presented that every individual has the power of choice, which comes with consequences. Meanwhile his lover and companion Simone de Beauvoir wrote the seminal book The Second Sex (1949), which looked at the idea of the other and in doing presented the innate sense of distrust people have. This feminist manifesto recognised that one is not born into ones identity, be it being a woman or a man, it is imbibed. And therefore, women have always been in an inferior position in society.
Also in Explained | Frances complex relationship with Islam, and Macrons recent remarks
Thats why when writer Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary (1856), the society was scandalised that she could indulge in extramarital affairs. Flaubert even faced a court trial for the book.
Being irreverent and debunking tradition of every kind has been second nature in French culture. As Marcel Ducamp did, when he shocked the art world with his readmade objects or found objects with a urinal he called Fountain (1917). His objective was to put art back in the service of the mind, which to him had become a slave of the visual. Click to follow Express Explained on Telegram
And finally, the oft-quoted thinker Michel Foucault said power is everywhere. According to him, new governments control people by focusing on their minds. Ultimately, be it Foucault in the 20th century or Rene Descartes in the 17th century, the French have always believed in one fundamental principle: I think, therefore I am.
Also read |Explained: What explains the calls to boycott France in the Muslim world?
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Posted: at 10:48 am
Look closely. Parts of the American Jewish community are silently committing ideological suicide. Most American Jews have long embraced a liberal American dreamism that allowed many to live well while doing good. They celebrated prosperity and liberty while voting liberal and donating generously. It works surprisingly well for them so why abandon this effective survival strategy so quickly?
Thats what happened this summer. In a matter of weeks, leading parts of the mainstream Jewish community joined the media, major corporations, and their neighbors in swallowing the 1619 Projects perspective of America that racism is systemic, ineradicable, and programmed into the nations DNA.This indictment is not only contestable it also denies the expansive American identity and American Jewish identity that built the United States and American Jewry.
The 1619 Project was a series of New York Times essays pivoting American history around the first major consignment of slaves to arrive in the British North American colonies rather than the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. By repudiating Americas defining historical narrative, the project questions Americas core values. Jews are not targeted here, but American Jewrys narratives and values have become collateral damage.
Many schools are already teaching 1619s dogma. But if Jewish day schools and other Jewish institutions surrender to this worldview uncritically, they will eviscerate whatever Jewishness remains within them while erasing the proud Americanism that has made American Jewry rich, proud, free, and happy.
Noble intentions spurred this act of ideological self-destruction. Following George Floyds brutal murder in May, many Jews tried understanding African-American anguish. Mainstream organizations, including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, offered educational materials to fight racism. But the anti-racist links they shared peddled this one re-interpretation of American history based, broadly, on a rigid reading of American racism. Clicking on the sources establishment Jewish organizations provided in email after email, I did not find one article offering a liberal perspective or any alternative viewpoint. Instead,the 1619 orthodoxy has apparently become the New Blue American Gospel and the New American Jewish Gospel, too.
Joshua Griffith looks out towards the street as he awaits the start of a candlelight vigil in celebration of George Floyds 47th birthday on October 14, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
American Jews must not sweep racism under the rug. Its time to shine a light on racism in ways that are thought-provoking, not propagandizing, empowering for all Americans, not identity-shattering for most. We need healthy debates about racism that are complex and multi-dimensional, not judgmental or suffocating.
We need healthy debates about racism that are complex and multi-dimensional, not judgmental or suffocating.
By analyzing the anti-racist dogma objectively, American Jews will realize their core identity messaging is under a well-meaning, yet debilitating, attack. Rejecting the false choice between the God damn America version of history and the God bless America version, they should seek the constructive middle ground. No serious educator today peddles the cartoonish feel-good U.S. history our grandparents imbibed so theres no need to overcompensate.
As a history professor, I strive to transcend partisanship, encourage analysis, and free students from the presumption that every moment from yesterday must be exploited to demand change today. Studying history involves assessing, contextualizing, weighing, and wondering: how central are race, slavery, and other sins in understanding America, how do we assess our progress, and what deeper understandings of Americas ideals emerge? In caricaturing America too harshly, 1619 neutralizes the most effective tools Americans used to make America better. These include faith in American ideals, trust in their fellow Americans, and hope that America can continue to become that more perfect union.
A new balance acknowledging racism and racial progress, David Duke and Martin Luther King Jr. will allow us to preserve our story too: emphasizing that Jewish immigrant success was rarely on the backs of others, usually by the sweat of our brows. The American Jewish story is about being accepted (more than less) and about exploring, often expanding, Americas pathways to progress, individually and collectively. We dont deny anti-Semitism. And we shouldnt ignore racism among Jews. But we should view everything in perspective. And we celebrate Jewish distinctiveness, not because were better than others, but because we become better people when we also study our values, continue our traditions, and build our community.
A Racial Reprogramming
In August 2019, the New York Times launched the 1619 Project, which claims that anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country. The Pulitzer Center spread educational kits nationwide. This PR campaign created an instant spin for a growing anti-racist movement characterizing America as white supremacist.
1619 now so symbolizes the new backlash against American history that Donald Trump enjoys bashing it. But even leading never-Trumpers critiqued 1619: Princetons Sean Wilentz, who drafted (with Brenda Wineapple) a petition of 750 historians endorsing Trumps impeachment, joined other historians in cataloging the projects inaccuracies. Northwesterns Leslie M. Harris reported in Politico that she fact-checked 1619 and debunked the claim that the patriots fought the American Revolution to preserve slavery; the 1619 Project still published the claim. (The New York Times has since published a note on the fact and belatedly changed the original text to make clear that this was a primary motivation forsome ofthe colonists, not all.)
A headline from the 1619 Project
Nevertheless, many Jewish community resource lists promoted the 1619 articles, curricula, and podcast uncritically as Resources for Discussions about Racism, Inclusion and Justice. Leading organizations invited Jews to Engage in Racial Justice, making sure that youre doing the work, that you begin listening better.
While the pain of the testimonials about racial discrimination is searing and demanding our attention, and while some of the essays were more hopeful about healing, many of these materials were not invitations to thoughtful discussion, but to a reprogramming. In one source, for example, one interviewee deemed America irredeemably racist, finding many Jews guilty of white privilege. One recommended curriculum admitted, theres no neutral here.
Some of todays dominant anti-racist activists decree that racism has been purposely built into the system. The Yale historian Matthew Frye Jacobson claims that immigrants whiteness, not any kind of New World magnanimity opened the Golden Door. Jewish communal bulletins echo Michelle Alexanders charge that Criminal Justice is the New Jim Crow, equating todays lamentable abuses with the sweeping, systemic infrastructure of Southern segregation that oppressed millions for decades. And, in the Atlantic, Ibram X. Kendi, author of the 2019 best-seller How to be an Anti-Racist, reinterprets American individualism as seeking a constitutional freedom to harm epitomized by slaveholding. Kendi concludes that todays murderous individualists refusing to wear masks prove, as the title states, were still living and dying in the slaveholders republic.
These ideologues all promoted on Jewish communal websites keep reframing American history to attack Whiteness as a defining identity that bestows privilege, meaning unquestioned and unearned advantages, entitlements, benefits, that greedily seeks to perpetuate that power through White supremacy culture. This analysis popularizes the three-decade-old critical race theory questioning the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism and principles of constitutional law and the half-century conversation about identity politics focusing upon our own oppression.
These tendentious articles, books, and worksheets often come packaged in heavy-handed curricula. One popular syllabus that three activist-educators drafted, Scaffolded Anti-Racist Resources, starts with Contact when folks are confronted with active racism or real-world experiences that highlight their whiteness. It builds to Autonomy, where learners have done the work to recognize their own identity, so that they can effectively be anti-racist. This stage offers 22 tests of your solidarity, including becoming a disruptive presence in white spaces, challeng[ing] your countrys values. denounc[ing] our current president, endorsing costly reparations, accepting black rage, and being suspicious of predominantly white institutions.
The Privilege Checklist, the Harvard Racial Bias Test, the Anti-Racist Educator Self-Examination Questionnaire, and other recommended gut-checks monitor individual compliance because you either reinforce the dominant education structure or fight against it. Meanwhile, the Culturally Responsive Curriculum Scorecard tallies up assigned authors racial, gender, and sexual diversity. The scorecards scale ranges from Culturally Destructive which likely centers White or Eurocentric ideas and culture to Culturally Responsive, which is is likely humanizing, liberatory, and equity oriented.
In fairness, important insights spawned each politicized slogan. White privilege and White fragility, for instance, highlight whites invisible advantages in a society still struggling to eliminate racism. But, when weaponized, the concepts become toxic and illiberal, silencing some individuals and ideas, privileging others.
This gloomy Europeanized reading of America is Hobbesian at heart, assuming most lives are solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. It sees zero-sum power games everywhere. But America, at its best, was always Lockean and Jeffersonian. John Locke transcended Hobbesian despair, trusting a democratic social contract, legitimized by the consent of the governed to guarantee individuals life, liberty, and property. Americans cheered Thomas Jeffersons leap forward despite his ownership of slaves transforming property into the pursuit of happiness, affirming that all men are created equal. Thats why Americans traditionally focus on ideas more than power, on opportunities not limitations.
This optimism, this culture and politics of possibility, was one of the great gifts America bestowed on Jews and millions of others. Sadly, the Africans who arrived on slave ships received the opposite. But as Robert F. Kennedy taught, Americans do not see things as they are, and ask why, but dream of things that never were, and ask why not.
American optimism, this culture and politics of possibility, was one of the great gifts America bestowed on Jews and millions of others.
Teaching American Jewish Self-Loathing not Self-Esteem
As my inbox swelled with Jewish communal resources on race, I started wondering how Jewish day schools would now teach American history. The Forward confirmed that some Jewish schools were teaching the perspectives raised by 1619. Can Jewish schools meet the challenge of Black Lives Matter? one headline asked the again assuming unanimity. The article raised other questions: How do you teach students to understand themselves to be both a part of a historically oppressed minority and, in America, beneficiaries of a social and political system built on racism? In that piece, Professor Ronit Stahl asked, Where is the antiracist education that focuses on a reckoning with the Jewish role in American racism? Asking around, I discovered that many day school administrators felt pressured to woke up.
Reinterpreting American history as one long white attempt to suppress Blacks robs American Jews of pride in their own achievements and delight in Americas welcome. Imagine attending Jewish day school today. Your older siblings studied Americas paradoxes in history class. They learned about immigrants who succeeded and who failed. They studied the anguish of being Black in America and the improvements by 2020, compared to 1920 and 1820. They graduated appreciating individuals power, motivated by Americas expansive ideas, to improve themselves, their country, and their world.
They nodded approvingly at Ruth Bader Ginsburgs statement during her 1993 Senate Supreme Court confirmation hearings that her grandparents had the foresight to leave the old country, when Jewish ancestry and faith meant exposure to pogroms and denigration of ones human worth. What has become of me could happen only in America. Like so many others, I owe so much to the entry this Nation afforded to people yearning to breathe free.
Your history class, however, takes 1619s cue. Stewing in the legitimate grievances of Blacks and others, you may be made to feel guilty because you live in a nice house, and your parents can afford to send you to day school. How will that affect you politically, culturally, Jewishly? Now, you may risk being programmed to scoff at Justice Ginsburgs delightful riddle: What is the difference between a bookkeeper in Brooklyn and a Supreme Court Justice one generation.
As a historian, I find the inaccuracies and the simplistic, censorious interpretation dismaying. As a Jew, I find them terrifying.
American individualism has facilitated Jewish material success along with Jewish dignity and safety. Jews fall into our own forms of groupthink, frequently talking about ourselves as Jews. But at our best, this solidarity becomes a communal launching pad for the good life, not a collective life sentence to be forever oppressed. Assuming that how you look determines who you are, how you act, and what you believe is untrue and insulting.
Additionally, encasing Jews in whiteness imposes automatic guilt on Jews by caricaturing them as white, rich, and exploitative. Naturally, because they prize whiteness, true white supremacists dont count Jews as white.
Hen Mazzig identifies as an Israeli Zionist, and a Queer Jew of Color, a Black Lives Matter supporter with grandparents from Iraq and Tunisia. He observes that conversations that center on white supremacy put Jews on the defensive while minimizing the modern surge of anti-Semitism because, in America, racism is always harsher than Jew-hatred.
Its easier to raise proud Americans and proud Jews steeped in three inspiring, empowering Is individualism, ideas, and improvement rather than three toxic, paralyzing Gs groupthink, guilt, and grievance. The Hobbesian pessimism clashes with the Jewish belief in sanctity, in seeking God, goodness and tikkun olam. 1619s determinism, which characterizes America as riddled with ineradicable racist structures, contradicts the American Jewish charge to do your best, try getting ahead, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and feel good if you succeed.
Branding whiteness an original sin then claiming immigrants only prospered by exploiting Blacks creates a history of blame and despair, not responsibility and redemption. Jews do not view life as one endless power-play. Morality, spirituality, faith, goodness, hope (Hatikvah!) are not just values in Jewish life Jews in America and Israel often activated them as constructive historical forces.
Americans All? Americans Still?
Growing up as the grandson of Eastern European immigrants who reached New York before America started restricting immigrants in the 1920s, I felt we were the Chosen Peoples chosen few. Nazis chose Jews as targets. Israeli Jews chose to fight for Jewish independence in the Middle East cauldron. My grandparents chose to make it to the goldene medina and we benefited from their toughness, wisdom, and good fortune.
As a kid, I loved an already-old book from 1941 called Americans All: A Pageant of Great Americans. The list included women like Clara Barton and immigrants like Alexander Graham Bell, but neither Blacks nor Jews. Still, the title welcomed me, a Jewish kid from Queens, into the American experience. My friends and I knew we had won the Jewish history jackpot. Finally, Jewish kids were born in a country where we werent threatened; we were free, we fit in, we could even follow baseball like everyone else. Most important, we could make it.
Being born into the innocence of Americans All is like being raised believing in God or praying wholeheartedly. Youre anchored for life, rooted profoundly, even if you stray or later learn hard truths muddying the picture.
Clearly, racism deprived most African-Americans of that lofty welcome. Todays long-overdue racial reckoning challenges Jews, as parents, educators, and citizens, to find a nuanced yet patriotic message. But the 1619ers declaration that our democracys founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true is self-defeating. Ideals not yet fulfilled are not untrue. The red-white-and-blue calls for equality, for liberty, for individual dignity as beacons that many Americans in every generation pursued and that, decade by decade, we keep coming closer to realizing. Even if its not yet Americans All, its not Americans Youll Never Be either. As Jews, as Americans, a nuanced, constructive, vision could be Americans Still, even Americans Despite
Toward a New Historical Balance?
Jewish educators should consult with historians and establish blue-ribbon advisory boards to develop philosophies of history, teaching strategies, and curricula. Meanwhile, these texts could help reframe the revisionism:
From Finger-Pointing to Dreaming
Discussing Black-Jewish relations usually romanticizes past cooperation while highlighting current tensions. Lets evolve from one-way finger-pointing exercises between victimized Blacks and guilty Jews to mutual exchanges, wondering how Blacks and Jews fit in and dont fit in as fellow Americans. Piling on accusations alienates; sharing experiences heals and bonds.
1619s framework inflicts sterile conversations; it indicts but doesnt explain. Freezing America in the 1619 past while condemning it in the present risks robbing Americans of a shared future. Jews understand how yesterdays unhealed scars intensify the anguish of bigotry today. As Americans, Jews, educators, our mission is to free our children from historys traumas, never forgetting what we endured while remembering the progress we all have made. The new world we seek and have been building since 1776 requires consensus, not conflict, nuance, not negation, hope, not hatred.
Freezing America in the 1619 past while condemning it in the present risks robbing Americans of a shared future.
Its a leap and a choice. Martin Luther King knew he could react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. The choice he made proved constructively infectious and epoch-making.
I was lucky. I grew up relatively pain-free, envisioning the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court cases that keep refining our freedoms as forming a magical circle, ever-expanding to bless more Americans with more liberty. Tragically, millions of others, especially African-Americans, experienced a noose.
The message of American history and Jewish history is that we all benefit when all Americans can imagine this magic circle, working to widen and strengthen it, rather than surrendering to the haters hatred or their victims understandable, yet often-paralyzing, despair.
Gil Troy is a distinguished scholar in North American History at McGill University. The author of 10 books on presidential history, his latest works include The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s,and editing the updated version of Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr. and Fred L. IsraelsHistory of American Presidential Elections.
Interview: Shafey Kidwai, author of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Reason, Religion and Nation – Hindustan Times
Posted: at 10:48 am
The author, critic and columnist, and the chairman of the Department of Mass Communications at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), on his forthcoming book on the legacy of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder of the institution, whose birth anniversary is celebrated on October 17
Your new book, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Reason, Religion and Nation (Routledge) looks at the life and times of the founder of AMU, who was a pioneer of modern education among Muslims in India in the 19th century. What are some of his ideas that are still relevant?
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) is well known as the founder of AMU. However, his real legacy rests in his radical views and adumbrations on a wide range of issues, like the concept of blasphemy, jihad, cow sacrifice, gender equality, conversion, Hindu-Muslim unity and reservation for Muslims. In my book, I discuss his contributions beyond the sphere of education and dwell on his role as a public intellectual, as a multifaceted Muslim renaissance man in 19th century British India, gleaning his concepts from his actions and his writings. I contextualise his ideas and writings in the broader framework of political, social, and religious reforms, nationalism, and the debate on identity and subjugation. Sir Syed focused a lot on liberal values, tolerance and abhorrence of obscurantism.
One of Sir Syeds real legacies that makes him relevant even today is his tolerance and propagation of liberal values he wrote extensively on the various ways to live in a plural society. He was a great advocate of religious tolerance and constantly appealed to Muslims not to be swayed by the rhetoric-prone society of those days. He was the first Muslim scholar who attempted an Urdu commentary on the Bible, Tabin al-al-kalam Fi tafsir altawrat Wa I-injilala millat al Islam (Elucidation of the World in Commentary of the Torah and Gospel According to the Religion of Islam), which was published in three parts between 1860 and 1865. A critic of cow sacrifice, he wrote against it extensively and ensured that beef, which was freely available at that time, was not served in Aligarh.
Sir Syeds stance on blasphemy is also something that holds great relevance today. In the Islamic state, writing against Islam or the Prophet meant writing against the state which attracted capital punishment. Todays sedition law could be seen as the new, secular vocabulary for blasphemy. In 1858, Sir William Muir, a civil servant and orientalist, published two volumes of a contemptible book on Prophet Muhammad The Life of Mahomet and History of Islam to the Era of Hegira it incensed the Muslim community. But Sir Syed believed that instead of burning books, it was important to present a counter argument in the form of another book. In 1870, he came up with his rejoinder, Khutbaat-e-Ahmadiyya, debunking the misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding the Prophet after the release of Muirs book. This holds out a lesson on the effectiveness of writing back.
Routledge, December 2020
Many of Sir Syeds ideas were iconoclastic. You write that despite having studied theology, he was a rationalist who considered reason to be the deeply purest form of human intelligence that could also be exercised upon faith.
Sir Syed denounced miracles in Islam that the theologians always took as gospel truths. For instance, Gabriel is considered in Islam to be the archangel who was the messenger of God who brought His revelations verbatim to Prophet Muhammad. Besides, the crossing over of the Red Sea by Moses and the drowning of Pharaoh or Firaun (several verses in Quran describe how the Red Sea was split in two and a dry path emerged as Moses banged the water with his stick on divine inspiration), and an abortive attack on Kaaba by Abraha, a Christian ruler of Yemen, in 570 AD, are generally considered to be miracles. Sir Syed questioned these assumptions and offered a rational interpretation for them. He held that Gabriel had come in human form to bring Gods message to Mary and the divine revelation was a kind of noor (light) that glowed in the heart of the Prophet Muhammad. Similarly, Sir Syed argued that when Moses was crossing the 30 km patch known as Bay of Eden, comprising 30 islands and surrounded by mountains, the rise and fall in the level of water was due to the high and low tide. Quran describes that Abrahas army was trampled by a fleet of Ababeel (pebble-carrying birds) that, ordained by God, rained little but deadly stones on them. Contradicting this, Sir Syed claims that Abrahas army was infected with chickenpox.
According to Sir Syed, the world we live in is governed by two sets of promise by God: the word of God or the Holy Quran, and the work of God, that is the law of nature. The whole universe revolves around it. He held that one divine promise cant contradict the other and that there should be no dichotomy between the word of God and the work of God. He looked upon miracles or events that defied cause and effect as going against the elemental mechanism of creation. These interpretations were unprecedented. No Muslim scholar had ever attempted anything of this sort before Sir Syed. His religious thought helped promote rationalism among Muslims, which remains an area of huge concern even today. He wanted reason to be the arbiter of life. He was the only Muslim scholar to have a discourse on reason. Other scholars and reformists like Al-Ghazali and Shah Waliullah were against reason.
Was there any common meeting ground for his radical ideas and religious beliefs?
While advocating rational thinking, scientific temper and free enquiry, Sir Syed argued that religious beliefs, scientific knowledge and morality were mutually consistent. He held that moral values must be inculcated. He talks of truth and ikhlaaq (good behaviour). Today, living in a post-truth world, we create truth through language to fulfil our cultural needs. Sir Syed emphasised on truthfulness two centuries ago. He wrote a great deal on human traits, like sycophancy (khushamad), which he termed as a disease. Before him, nobody had touched upon these issues in Urdu writing. Many of his articles are about tehzeeb (culture), the past and inertia. In a maulvi-oppressed society, Sir Syed was the voice of reason who believed in the convergence of science and faith.
His regressive ideas on women and their education, however, come in for heavy criticism from several quarters. What shaped his views on womens education?
When it came to womens education, Sir Syed exhibited his feudal mindset; in some ways, he became the voice of patriarchy. He wanted tutor-based home education for women. He was also a proponent of purdah; it was his blind spot. He was not a supporter of co-education since he felt that girls reaching the age of puberty would make it hard for them to attend schools during their menstrual period. He wanted separate schools for both genders. He also feared that since girls usually excelled in studies, they would eventually outshine boys and, thus, end up jeopardising the institution of marriage; he considered marriage to be the ultimate goal for girls. This was very ill-conceived. After all, reform had to take place simultaneously. The Prophet didnt ask only men to follow Islam, excluding women and children, but all of them together.
However, just to absolve the social reformer, one could argue that, unlike many Urdu travelogue writers, like Yusuf Husain Kambalposh, who referred to European women as promiscuous, the male gaze is missing in the accounts of Sir Syed, who saw them as empowered. In his writings, Sir Syeds contradicts himself at several places. All great mens lives are mired in contradictions. And he is no different.
Interviewer Nawaid Anjum
What are his contributions as an administrator?
As a member of the Viceroy Council and the Public Service Commission, he stood for the codification of law and for reservation for Muslims at the political level. As an administrator, he didnt discriminate between class or religion or gender. His administrative actions were meant for every Indian. When he became a member of the public service commission, he made two demands: the age limit for the Indian Civil Service be raised to 23 from 21, and the ICS examination to also be held in Delhi or Kolkata.
In 1882, the Local Self-Government Bill spoke of direct franchise that could lead to Hindus electing Hindus and Muslims electing Muslims. He suggested that the government reserve one third seats for minorities so that they could be protected. He wanted reservation for Muslims at the political level, but not at the level of jobs, where one could empower oneself through education. He offered a flexible fee structure to poor students, which showcased how serious he was about education.
Nawaid Anjum is a Delhi-based freelance feature writer, translator and poet.
Posted: October 20, 2020 at 6:28 pm
The new Whitney building, designed by Renzo Piano, with its multiple jutting terraces between which you can clatter up and down stairwells, is a welcome addition to Manhattans art scene. From its decks you can look over what feels like the whole of downtown Manhattan in one direction, and across the Hudson River in the other. Inside its walls you can currently see America Is Hard To See, the Whitneys polemical opening exhibition, and the defining US museum show of the season.
This exhibitions mission is to reconsider American art history through highlighting 600 works from the Whitneys permanent collection. It manages this challenge convincingly in places, integrating striking works by lesser-seen artists into the American canon, and offering a welcome historicised contextualisation of Postmodern and Contemporary art against what had gone before and what you see in commercial galleries today. Most of all, it exhibits great numbers of artworks thematically, so moving through the show you grasp art historys waves anew.
The top floor predictably starts with American learnings from the European avant-gardes. Lots of collage and Futurism, and works reflecting the shadows of Americas founding and its nostalgic but irreverent adoption of elements from European culture. In this new building, and in todays field of installation, performance, digital, post-digital etc art, this top floor feels like a different world to the present, but the ideasif not the materialsin art feel the same as now. The main concerns are the sense of fracture and dystopia, and the need to change how those things are represented in art, brought on by the heightening automatism of modernisation.
The first galleries explore abstraction and the early twentieth century moderns experimentation with form that still captivates the popular eye, despite (or probably because of) having faded into conceptual simplicity against the contemporarys complications. Emphasis is emphatically placed on certain reminiscences, such as the flattened forms of Patrick Henry Bruce and Stuart Daviss 1920s paintings, John Covert and Arthur Doves morbidly forlorn palette from the decades either side, and Lyonel Feiningers Gelmeroda, VIII, from 1921 with Georgia OKeeffes 1926 Abstraction, both of which employ shadow and angularity to locate the viewer and paint modernity as serenely seductive. One of the exhibitions goals is showing that art history picks its stars by caprice, but these rooms undermine this sense by the brilliance of major stars like OKeefe whose work shines out as somehow more brilliant, more talented than its neighbours.
A romantic interlude on a single wall celebrates abstractions affinity with synaesthesia and music. Concise curation here makes it work with only six pieces: paintings by Charles Burchfield and Oscar Bluemner, and two small poised and beautiful gelatin silver prints by Imogen Cunningham and Alfred Stieglitz. The line-up has impact because its quiet; the theme continues more brashly opposite with poet EE Cummings bright swirling painting Noise Number 13 and Richmond Barths 1933 lyrical sculpture African Dancer, beside a work by Agnes Pelton, another OKeefe, and work by Stanton MacDonald-Wright who in the 1910s founded the colour-based practice Synchromism, the first abstract movement that art history considers originally American. Here Four Part Synchromy, by Synchromism co-founder Morgan Russell, and Oscar Bluemners Last Evening of the Year look fresh, even though were still in the 1920s.
Moving into the following decades, Alexander Calder, Man Ray and Theodore Roszak succinctly locate visitors in mid-century mechanisationuseful as Joseph Stellas 1939 painting The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme could be 1990s street art. Here the silvery representations of the Empire State and the Chrysler make their inevitable appearances, taking their proper place in the canon at the expense of the exhibitions promised curatorial novelty.
On the floor below, things get big, boisterous and ugly as the show lands in Americas heyday. Calders downright adorable and insanely fiddly Circus installation of miniature figures contrasts with its strong-stroked canvas neighbours, but defines the character of this floor as one of animated spectacle. Reginald Marsh and Thomas Hart Benton dish up hips and tits in grotesque social realism. Overtly queer art emerges here in Modernism, setting the scene curatorially for its blossoming a few decades later, on the gallery floors below. Gentleman lovers admire a cocknballs sculpture in work by Charles Demuth and Paul Cadmus gives his terrifying hookers and muscular sailors cartoonish full physiques with the virtuosity of Renaissance painting. Its the seedier side of a spectacular society. In a clever touch, colourful works like these are broken up at intermittent rhythmic intervals with small-scale photography and etchings; their flattering monochrome offer relief and invert the narrative of the period, foregrounding the underside in colour and putting societys glamorous echelons in the background in black and white miniatures.
The gallery opens up towards the terrace, and Willem De Koonings eye-catching Woman and Bicycle (1952-53) portrays the pin-up girl with maniacal double grin (the second being her pearl necklace) riding a bike in homage to Duchamp. Abstract Expressionism (with its Surrealist outtakes) always appears to be the art form that is most at home in big American museums, their white cubes scaled up precisely to flatter expressive gestural works like these made in vast lofts when progressive artists could afford to live in Manhattan. They look striking, are pleasingly dwarfing for the viewer and deliver that sense of awe many people seek at galleries. It inevitably feels repetitive, however, to revisit these overexposed works. Although welcome, their historical contextualisation by this show is noticeably sidelined by the sheer aesthetic experience these showpieces produce. Thats probably a result of its quality as stand-alone art though.
Three sculptures work hard in this gallery to locate their painted neighbours in time. Louise Bourgeois Quarantania (1947) of empathic ghostly painted white wood figures huddled together, John Chamberlains Velvet White (1962), a Ford Triumph crushed to resemble a figure, and Mark di Suveros domineering Hank (1960)a champion of repurposed wooden beamsdemarcate through their material forms that we are in the American pre-Now in a way the surrounding paintings cant.
Despite their overfamiliarity and the machismo of this era in art history, the stellar paintings here are moving and beautiful to re-encounter, with De Koonings luminous chalky-hued Door To The River (1960) and Rothkos heavy Four Darks In Red (1958) leading the charge to show that the adoption of these works into the vocabulary of corporate taste merely dinted their aura from afar and only for a passing moment. The Whitneys distribution of space is significant here as it gives these big guns their proportional acknowledgement without resorting to short shrift, in keeping with the realigned canon attempted by the exhibition.
Fighting With All Our Might, a gallery about the Great Depression, holds a set of gems by Jacob Lawrence. His 1940s War Series conveys struggle and suffering in graphic, nave strokes using repetition and evocative figures. The African American artist had recently served in WWII and his skill for combining colours drawn from the ocean and naval dormitories creates high-impact little paintings. Next door, George Tooker, Peter Blume and Louis Guglielmi, alongside Hopper and Man Ray, look at America after modernitys impact on the mind and society. The most outstanding works here, however, are a set of eight wood block prints from Chiura Obata depicting the American landscape in the Japanese tradition in a beguiling blend that highlights the cultural conditioning of the artistic lens.
Down further, floor six brings us into familiar early contemporary territory as brash commercialism vies for attention with minimalisms serenities. A gallery titled Large Trademark is dominated by the loud and influential imagery of people like Jasper Johns and Alex Katz, but the softer aesthetics of Diane Arbus, William Eggleston and Malcolm Bailey counterpoint with their framing of Americana through nostalgia and tragedy. Nearby, Carmen Herrera, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella and Jo Baers monochromatic works populate the White Target gallery, where minimal colour blocks appear to be the most gorgeous things youve ever seen having had your retinas seared by Tom Wesselmann and Andy Warhol.
The room called Scotch Tape is one of the most engaging, full of the strange, textural mixed media of Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Smithson, Claes Oldenburg and Bruce Conner. Particularly special is Louise Nevelsons 1959 white sculpture in painted wood called Dawn's Wedding Chapel II, and Noah Purifoys playful untitled leather figure from 1970 is a potent example of the new canon angle. Suddenly, the art here seems to have jumped ahead in time. The works in the Raw War gallery are particularly interesting having seen the responses to war on the previous level. By now its Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement; slogans, smooth photography and graphic lettering. Larry Clarke, Judith Bernstein, Bruce Nauman, Robert Morris and On Kawara are among the artists whose angry and mournful observations make this a powerful room.
Richard Tuttle, Anne Truitt, Keith Sonnier, Richard Serra and Michelle Stuart are among the artists whose clever works, often sculptures, give the segment called Irrational Rationalism its intriguing, if at times alienating, mood of being very serious about playful approaches. Overall, floor six reminds of how assemblage and Pop Art never lose their easy appeal; dynamic, witty, full of caricatures and quotation, but whats interesting is their contrast with barely-there canvases and soft-touch photography. The sheer density of images proliferating in the middle of the last century comes through on this floor, an easy ride compared with the previous, and one that marks a notable step towards the dominance of the image culture we live with today.
The last floor, level five, is the shows greatest strength, celebrating with tender polemic the art scene that gave New York its sceney kudos, and using the exploration of identity and personal narrative that dominates more recent contemporary art to support its curatorial proposition. It can sometimes feel jarring to mix works dating as far back as the 1960s with todays, framing everything as the Contemporary, but those of todays themes and artistic approaches included in the Whitney collection actually dont diverge too far from what occupied radical artists fifty years ago, meaning the selection resonates together to reflect what does feel like American art today.
Threat and Sanctuary is one gallery here; it shows the emergence of conceptual art and attempts to reform painting entirely. Aesthetically incredibly diverse, compared with higher floors, works range from Cy Twomblys subtle scribbly-handed paintings to Alma Thomass graphic bright Mars Dust (1972) and Chuck Closes photorealist portrait Phil (1969). Individual works are enticing here but thematic coherence is strained. Far tighter is the neighbouring room Learn Where The Meat Comes From. Through mainly photography and video (Lynda Benglis, Paul McCarthy, Ana Mendieta, Martha Rosler) the low-tech qualities of a grunge mood emerge. The room feels like the American subconscious memory, where hyper-performativity, sexism, and an encompassing fascination with self-image still reside today. Racing Thoughts is equally about a media-dominated society, but here it becomes glossier as the 1980s produces a Pop Art reloaded style, in contrast to the gritty realism of the previous decade. Barbara Kruger, Jeff Koons, Nam June Paik, Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring make this gallery fun, if not especially moving.
Through emotionally charged photography from artists such as Nan Goldin, David Wojnarowicz and Robert Mapplethorpe, Love Letter from the War Front portrays the tragic romanticism of the legendary 1980s and 1990s Downtown Scene during the AIDS epidemic. It also reveals the documentary turn that art took as photography became the medium for expressing the moment, giving these works more intimacy than art from previous periods, and adding poignancy to viewing it as many of the artists who made it have since died from the illness.
When you get to Guarded View, the nub of this exhibition becomes clear. The Whitney was founded on outsider-ish principles back in the 1930s, and when in the 1990s it exhibited work by gays and lesbians, women and ethnic minorities, critics complained on grounds of aesthetic taste and political correctness. Of course their exhibitions like Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art turned out to be the zeitgeist. In this room today the museum shows Matthew Barney, Catherine Opie, Jimmie Durham, David Hammons, Mike Kelley, Karen Kilimnik, Lorna Simpson, Sue Williams, and Fred Wilson, often using the body in their work to push similar themes of identity and cultural construction as defined those earlier radical shows. America Is Hard To See is aimed at re-iterating the Whitneys credibility as a change driver in American society, using the site of a new building to claim the role of the big New York museum most in tune with art and culture nowand it does so.[O]
Posted: at 6:28 pm
INDEPENDENCE is the new normal and the mainstream. This is a huge historic shift and moment. It is a dramatic change and opportunity that will require a very different politics and attitude compared to 2014.
Then, independence represented the insurgents and outsiders, the new kids on the block, shaking the insiders, taking independence in from the cold and the margins. This is independences tipping point or getting close to that point; the moment when everything changes: the argument, context and how the public see things with the potential to permanently alter perceptions well into the future.
This is politics for high stakes and with it comes huge challenges for independence, the Union and institutional and public life. Up for grabs is the future of Scotland and whether it becomes independent and what kind of independence.
Independence as an idea won the 2014 referendum something different from the detail of the official SNP offer which lost. Independence then and more so now is something that large numbers of voters find attractive and positive; this sentiment can be found across the electorate, particularly in younger voters, those under 45 and even among soft No voters. BBC Newsnights Lewis Goodall reflected on this observing that: Every time Ive interviewed young voters in Scotland and asked them if theyre in favour of independence, they look at me as if Ive asked a stupid question.
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Independence as the new mainstream fundamentally changes everything and requires a different kind of independence, in content and style. First, look at what is driving independence: 64% of all voters think Scotland and England are moving in very different political directions according to Ipsos MORI Scotland, while 63% do not trust the UK Government to act in Scotlands best interests both of which attract significant support from current No voters.
Second, as Ipsos MORIs Emily Gray points out, Boris Johnson is just toxic in Scotland. He has 76% dissatisfaction, while Nicola Sturgeon has a 72% rating. These two leaders and styles of leadership have been put in stark contrast by Covid-19 and define the independence debate. Johnsons ratings are about more than the person, as Ailsa Henderson of Edinburgh University points out, with the rise of independence in part being a proxy for dissatisfaction with a UK Government and UK Prime Minister.
Third, independence cannot become identified with the inadequacies of present-day Scotland whether health, education, local government, transport. This is a trap some SNP supporters fall into, defending every aspect of Scottish Government policy. Independence has to be about change and not just constitutional change but economic, social and environmental justice and greater democratisation, not just shifting power from London to Edinburgh, but within Scotland too.
Fourth, the detail of independence matters but so does the wider philosophy. Whether we can embrace maturing as a nation, facing our own strengths and weaknesses, and acknowledging where we fall short what Fintan OToole called the art of growing up.
Fifth, independence involves a psychological dimension about risk, uncertainty, future unknowns and how and by who these are managed. This entails acknowledging that independence involves risk as does all fundamental change, and the central issue is who assesses these and what values inform their decisions.
Running through all the above is the asymmetrical nature of the debate. This is a debate which understandably motivates independence supporters. Yet, it is one that many Unionist supporters would rather not be having as it is not their raison dtre. Look at some of the language of Unionists this week as they attempt to over-compensate.
TORY MP Andrew Bowie declared: The UK Government is back in Scotland. Get used to it. Which did make you wonder where it had been. John McTernan, previously Tony Blairs political secretary in Downing Street reacted to the 58% support for independence stating: You break it, its not ours to fix. Nothing to do with us which seemed to contain many levels of anger and displacement.
The Union argument has increasingly taking shelter in detail whether the currency, EU membership, Barnett consequentials or the economic argument. This is telling. The Union case is a retreating army conceding the principle of independence and laying its last-ditch line of defence on such detail. Such a defensive politics has little chance of winning. At best it can hold out for a period.
It puts all your eggs in one basket: transactional nationalism, Barnett and the fiscal transfers across the UK. This has three weaknesses. First, it reduces the debate to the transfers across an unequal kingdom and the concentrations of wealth and power in London and the South East. Second, it is based on the maintenance of Barnett which is under attack from right-wing English Tories. What happens if a future Tory Government proposes the abolition of Barnett?
Third, the figure cited of 1975 per head per year transfer from the UK Government to Scotland is never acknowledged in context. Scotland like the rest of the UK has suffered from 10 years of Tory austerity and could lose 2400 per head due to a No-Deal Brexit, according to LSE modelling. Pro-Unionists cannot cite the 1975 figure as one-way traffic without noting there is a financial cost of Scotland remaining in the Union: that fiscal decisions are imposed on us without us having a say and which cause us harm.
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A second dynamic is that independence has got into this place, aided by the continual misrepresentation of it by the Union case. It has been associated with an over-romanticised past, with pro-Brexit historian Robert Tombs writing in The Spectator that victimhood has always been the core of nationalism and presenting the rise of Scottish nationalism as about Bruce, Wallace, the Declaration of Arbroath, and in more modern times about Thatcher, the poll tax, Tory ascendancy in England and the decline of Labour and in this case the European Union. Often flags and symbols are added to this making the case that this is an irrational, emotional politics which will be defeated by rationalism.
The Union argument has consistently ignored the democratic legitimacy argument of independence based on experience and principle. The former has seen 32 out of the past 50 years witness Scotland getting Tory Governments it did not vote for; this has happened two-thirds of the time since 1970 and did not happen before then; the second being the principle that Scotland has the right to decide its own future.
Independence has to be careful not to fall into the same argument, caricaturing all No voters as Unionists or Yoons, completely othering the British state and presenting it as a caricature which can be hard to resist with Boris Johnson, and recognising the emotional attachment many still have to British identity and history.
The SNP are pivotal to winning independence but they cannot claim a monopoly on the project of independence. Rather independence belongs to every single person who lives in Scotland and chooses to make it their home: it is an inclusive, democratic vision.
As it becomes more popular there will be among some long-term supporters a sense of loss: the equivalent but more serious to those times when your favourite band or artist became massively popular and everyone claimed a slice of them. The Timess Kenny Farquharson put this saying that the Yes movement has to recognise that it wont own independence, and wont be able to create it in its own image. An independent Scotland will reflect all of Scotland, including the bits that didnt vote for it.
The SNPs propensity to command and control politics cannot define independence. For example, a future white paper should come from the Scottish Government but not emerge finished as a fait accompli with no warning, rather it should be owned by as wide a constituency as possible. Commentator Joyce McMillan believes that any new white paper has to be much more robust, and preferably produced by an alliance of the independence movement, rather than the SNP and learn from the disaster example of Brexit with a majority voting for something that has never been described or properly debated.
A pivotal issue is holding power to account, scrutiny and challenge. This is not an area in which we have traditionally done well, given how hierarchical and institutionally dominated society used to be. We cannot pose democracy here as just by default better than Westminster, rather we have to practice it, and the politics of centralisation and accumulating power led by the Scottish Government is an increasingly unedifying and unsustainable one.
The diversity and pluralism of an independent Scotland need to be encouraged because the character of our future is being made here and now. It is worrying that, 13 years into the SNP in office, there is still no independence-supporting mainstream think tank to engage with and listen to beyond the example of Common Weal. This is because the main party of independence looks with suspicion upon independent initiatives and ideas. Such an attitude has grown more pronounced the longer the SNP has been in office.
IN the run-up to next years elections and their aftermath there has to be a new seriousness and commitment to nurturing an ecology of debate, ideas and policies beyond the control of the SNP leadership, which is part of a bigger, more open debate. Alex Bell, formerly the First Ministers head of policy, notes: The challenge is as much about getting British thinking out of Scottish politics. We need a leap of imagination to solve issues about poverty, spending and the deficit.
The alternative to this is not an attractive one a Scotland where all the main policy ideas come from the SNP and government and the narrow insider world of corporates and lobbyists who exist in any political system and here, as elsewhere, serve their own interests.
READ MORE:Gerry Hassan: The political and moral collapse of the Conservative Party
This debate is bewildering to parts of pro-Union sentiment. But not all. Some are sanguine and will be open to persuasion to come to terms with this new dispensation. Independence has to have humility towards those not convinced. That figure of 58% is not yet permanent and includes lots of soft Yes voters as well as having the potential to rise. The Yes side has to listen to the soft Nos and ask them what do they need to hear to convince them of the merits of independence.
Finally, there is the challenge to institutional Scotland, public life and the mainstream media. The challenge to the media is an acute one: the print media has for the most part turned its back on the new Scotland emerging and dug into a Unionist bunker. But the issue of the broadcasters: BBC, ITV and Sky, is very different. The former in particular follows behind the curve of this debate, seemingly incredulous of the Scotland it sees before it and scared to take risks portraying and representing it. Stirling Universitys Iain Docherty on the back of this weeks poll observed: If independence is indeed becoming the settled will, at which point and how do the Scottish press and broadcast media pivot to recognise this?
Scotland is changing. That carries with it huge responsibilities. Next years election will be a huge historic moment and opportunity for Scotland to decide its own fate and future. This opportunity belongs to all of us and we should act and recognise that we have the power to do great things which help to shape our collective future.
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Posted: September 18, 2020 at 1:01 am
- By Grahamites
In a previous article, I briefly introduced empiricism, instrumentalism and critical rationalism. They are three different attitudes towards knowledge acquisition as well as three different theories about how to acquire knowledge. Each also has a different definition of rationality.
I won't go into the details of each school of thoughts. What resonates with me the most is critical rationalism, an idea brought about by Karl Popper in the middle of the twentieth century.
Some readers might not be familiar with Karl Popper. In my view, Popper is one of the most underappreciated thinkers who has had great impact on some of the most prominent financial figures in our time. His most famous student is George Soros (Trades, Portfolio). Nassim Taleb's thinking is also heavily influenced by Popper. Therefore, when I saw Popper's name on Li Lu's recommended list, I knew I had to read his books.
Popper's most important work, in my opinion, is his theory on scientific knowledge. He started to grapple with the problem "When should a theory be ranked as scientific?" or "Is there a criterion for the scientific character or status of a theory?" at age seventeen. He was interested in four theories then - Marx's theory of history, Freud's psycho-analysis, Alfred Adler's individual psychology and Einstein's theory of relativity.
Of them, he found Einstein's theory strikingly different because the risk involved in Einstein's prediction was very high. If observation shows that the predicted effect is absent, then his theory is simply refuted. In other words, the theory is incompatible with certain possible results of the observation. Later, Popper summed it all up by saying that the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.
Popper suggested that both science and philosophy should use the method of rational or critical analysis "of stating one's problem clearly and of examining its various proposed solutions critically." When I read Li Lu's book, I particularly noticed the frequent mentioning of scientific method and rationality. It appears to me that Li borrowed the idea from Popper. Not surprisingly, this is also what Charlie Munger (Trades, Portfolio) believes.
We often hear that value investing is partly artistic and partly scientific. If so, shouldn't we use the scientific method for the science part? Shouldn't we first clearly define what truth and rationality are?
I view this as a critical issue in value investing because value investors define rationality and truth differently. For instance, some believe in "rule of thumb" and historical valuation analysis. One issue with this approach is that you can't falsify valuation analysis. For instance, an investment thesis might be stated as Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) should trade at 14 times earnings. It's impossible to refute them because you can always argue that first of all, Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) has traded at 14 times earnings in the past multiple times. And secondly, it could trade at similar multiples in the future because it's the fair value. This is the empiricistic way of investing, which some value investors use.
On the other hand, the rationally critical value investors would propose falsifiable theories and actively seek contradictions. For instance, a falsifiable hypothesis regarding Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) would be that its cost of fund is the bank's sustainable competitive advantage. This is falsifiable because if in the future, Wells Fargo's cost of fund rises above its peers, then the hypothesis is invalid.
Above is just one example of how different ways of viewing rationality may lead to different ways of behavior. In practice, different views will inevitably lead to different approaches to research and actual investment decisions.
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Posted: at 1:01 am
Still Small Voice is a collection of 18 interviews with clergy tackling 18 questions about God, published during the month of Elul, a time of Jewish reflection and accountability. Click here to read the introduction to the series, and here to browse the collection.
When I embarked in March on a project asking rabbis and scholars to help me unpack common questions about God, I started by making a list of those questions that I hear most often from friends and readers, in synagogue and seminars, in my own head and heart.
Does God love us?
Is God good?
Is God less visible now?
I also invited each of my interview subjects to frame their own question. Rabbi Jason Rubenstein, chaplain and senior rabbi of the Hillel at Yale University, emailed me back right away: What should we do if, in our heart of hearts, we dont believe that a being like God exists, but really wish we did?
I had not considered that category: non-believers who wished they believed. This despite the fact that Im a believer married to a non-believer who has often said that deep faith is appealing to him but that he cant manufacture it.
Id reached out to Rubenstein at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale the campus Hillel whose board invited me to join its leadership two years ago because Id been a fan of Rubensteins refreshing teaching years before he moved to New Haven. I had gotten to know him when he was on the faculty of Hadar, an independent institute of learning on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I would occasionally go for lectures.
Rubenstein did not give me some easy elevator pitch to sell God to the non-believer. If I had to distill my takeaway from our conversation, its this: a life of religion lies in the hope we hold deep in our hearts, even though we cant defend or even explain it.
That felt awfully slippery to me at first: the idea that non-believers who want to believe can find God in a stubborn dream for utopia.
The Talmudic text Rubenstein chose to help explain his approach is from Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (Mandelbaum) 19).It likens stalwart optimism to a lovers faith. Its a story from ancient Rabbinic commentary about a romantic marriage that takes an abrupt turn when the husband leaves the wife without explanation.
The wife is despairing. After years of absence, every friend tells her to give up on her husband, but instead she re-reads his love letters and his marriage vows, and regains her faith in him. One day he suddenly returns home and says, I cant believe you waited for me.
Our conversation is below, edited for clarity and length. To read other interviews in this series, click here.
Image by Angelie Zaslavsky
Abigail Pogrebin: How does your love story relate to our question?
Rabbi Jason Rubenstein: So, too, the Jewish people and God.
AP: You mean the wife is the Jewish people and the husband is God? In other words, God might disappear for a while, but really never leaves us and always returns?
JR: God brought us out of Egypt, God was there at Sinai, God fed us manna in the desert, God gave us the kings in Palestine, and then God disappears, right?
AP: Yes. God seems gone when both Temples are destroyed, when the Jews are exiled, when generations are persecuted
JR: Its a long time being Jewish with a lot of suffering many people died for being Jewish. And some people could say, Look, its not working. Assimilate. Leave it. Stop having this hope.
But we go back and we read the Torah and are able to hold out hope, and eventually when God comes back, the first thing God will say is, I cant believe you waited for me.
The tables were turned on Still Small Voices Abigail Pogrebin this past week. Listen to Yehuda Kurtzer interview her about the series, her beliefs and more on his podcast here.
AP: So faith is the belief that God comes back, that the story can have a buoyant ending?
JR: Everything runs counter to that, right? The evidence is on the side of the skeptics the people who say, This isnt worth it. This doesnt make sense. Its not a grown-up, responsible, clear-headed way to live. Giving up on God would have been the rational thing to do. The world as interpreted by a reasonable person living in it would not lead you to religion.
AP: So in the midst of so much hard history and disappointment, what leads a Jew to faith?
JR: Its actually against the disenchanted, broken-hearted backdrop of all the suffering that religious institutions and Judaism have a purpose, which is to be the kind of place that enables people to hope for something that they cant defend and maybe cant even explain, but is the most important dream of theirs.
AP: Judaism helps us maintain hope in an unlikely dream? Can you make that more concrete?
JR: This is actually how I think about prayer especially the second paragraph of the Amidah when we say God is healing the sick, raising up the downtrodden; or thanking God for restoring our souls to us after our deaths, with the hope of eternal life with those we love.
I dont recite those things because I think theyre factually true about the world. I say them because they are the set of things that I dream of and long for, and I worry I might lose my ability to hope for them. So I try to repeat them every day.
AP: So people who dont believe in God but would like to they can hold both the knowledge that the ideal isnt true and a faith that the ideal is possible.
JR: Its the dream of the hopeless romantic to keep on being that hopeless romantic. Believing in the world as it should be. As you thought it would be. Because the world is going to take that away from you.
AP: Its like youre saying God is found in an insistent, almost childlike optimism that life experience can steal away.
JR: This Talmudic story captures being in a situation where you have a hazy memory of a halcyon time maybe a pre-verbal memory of the world being a different place, back where your parents could pick you up and swing you around, answer every question and have superpowers.
AP: Our younger lens, when things seemed softer and solvable.
The High Holidays are upon us and for many, that comes with meaty theological questions. Join us to talk to leading Jewish thinkers about their views on God as part of our Still Small Voice series. Register for the October 1 talk here.
JR: Right. When you were young and you saw something wrong, you would say to yourself, This is not the way things have to be. Its not the way they ought to be. I know that. There was a gut sense of injustice.
AP: But then you grow up and you realize those ideals and mini-outrages are a little naive.
JR: So how do you live with that? Its really hard because you could say, Well, that was unrealistic. I was a Socialist in my 20s, and then I realized thats dumb. Theres always going to be oppression and inequality. Thats how human beings are.
AP: Or you could resolve to try to do something about those injustices.
JR: Well, that line of thinking is very influential in Jewish circles the idea of saying, Im going to fix the world myself, or we are going to do it together. We are gonna get unemployment down to zero, were going to decrease inequality.
AP: I get the sense you think thats the wrong approach to think we have a role to play in balancing the scale?
JR: I do think its important and we can each do a lot humanity has done amazing things. But I also know that people often burn out. We actually cant fix it. Organizers and chaplainswe burn out.
So how can you go around the world mostly as an operating, functional adult who cares about people and say both?: No, this is not the world as it should be and Im going to try to fix it, and also: I realize that maybe our collective powers arent enough to remake the world into what it should be. And I just walk around with a sense of longing for a better reality that I maybe cant even fully imagine.
AP: And that longing is God? Im not sure thats a selling point for Judaism. Its pretty grim. Youre basically saying that God is in the place between the world we want and the world we have.
JR: Well, there is something grim about it. But I want to say something about the grimness, because I think its important.
Often in psychological counseling, they teach you that people try to make sense of their bad situations by claiming a false sense of agency. For example, the reason I got mugged is because I turned down that alley, but if I had done something different, it would have been okay.
The idea that we really could control the world if we just did things differently is very comforting, but its also not true. Were vulnerable. Thats just how we are. We cant always make the right choices because we dont know what alley people are in.
And I think that theres something similarly misguided in our focus on improving the world as the primary mandate of Judaism; its this reach for agency. Which is an attempt to deny or refute a deeper fear that maybe we really cant fix the world.
AP: So religion is that space for fantasy (the world as we wish it) and also reality (we cant fix the world). That rings true to me, even though its a lot to download.
Just so I understand where you sit personally: can you tell me who or what is the God you believe in?
JR: I would say that my religious life happens in the chasm between the God I believe in and the God I dream of. One of the main ways that I turn to Judaism is to help me hold that chasm open against all the forces of this world of loss and of rationalism that wear away at me to give up the dream or fantasy as childish, unrealistic, or not helpful.
AP: And God appears to you in that chasm you keep describing?
JR: Its the voice that we hear when were really in the brokenness, and also at weddings and births the voice that makes audible and maybe visible the unbridgeable gap between the world as it is and the world as it could be.
Abigail Pogrebin, a freelance journalist, author, and public speaker, is a Forward contributing writer. Follow her on Twitter, @apogrebin. Rabbi Jason Rubenstein is the Jewish Chaplain at Yale. @SlifkaCenter
Image by Angelie Zaslavsky
Still Small Voice: 18 Questions About God is a special project for the month of Elul, a traditional period of reflection and accountability. Click here to read the previous interview in the series, and here to browse the collection.