Only three-fifty?

Filed under: — Joe @ 3:56 pm

TricorderIf I happen to win the lottery (hard to do when you never play) or somehow find $350 lying around, here’s item #1 on my wishlist. It’s life-size, makes the real sounds and lights, and it’s made of heavy-duty metal, leatherette and plastic, the moire pattern spins. Basically, it’s a real tricorder. Well, a “prop reproduction.” But in a limited edition, collector’s model, with display stand, shipping in February. And oh, man, do I want one! If a good fairy happens to read this…it’s available at MasterReplicas.com :smile:.


The “Christmas Wars”

Filed under: — Joe @ 9:15 pm

I’ve been finding, over the past day or two, some real sharp and deep commentary on the “Christmas Wars.” I wanted something which would go beyond the tremendous amounts of heat, and the tiny amounts of light, in all kinds of forums (including some, unnamed, in which I’ve had the “heat” directed right at me!), that I’ve been seeing lately.

I heard Rabbi Michael Lerner on the radio this morning, but didn’t get to hear the beginning or end of what he was saying, so I took a look at Tikkun to read the whole essay. Here’s a bit of it:

Liberals and civil libertarians would be making a huge mistake to see this as merely the rantings of a few overt anti- Semites and anti-civil-liberties extremists. They articulate a legitimate concern that many Christians say privately: their children have learned that Christmas is about buying-and the person with the most expensive gifts wins!

There is a beautiful spiritual message underlying Christmas that has universal appeal: the hope that gets reborn in moments of despair, the light that gets re-lit in the darkest moments of the year, is beautifully symbolized by the story of a child born of a teenage homeless mother who had to give birth in a manger because no one would give her shelter, and escaping the cruelty of Roman imperial rule and its local surrogate Herod who already knew that such a child would grow up to challenge the entire imperialist system. To celebrate that vulnerable child as a symbol of hope that eventually the weak would triumph over the rule of the arrogant and powerful is a spiritual celebration with strong analogies to our Jewish Chanukah celebration which also celebrates the victory of the weak over the powerful. And many other spiritual traditions around the world have similar celebrations at this time of year.

The loss of this message, its subversion into a frenetic orgy of consumption, rightly disturbs Christians and other people of faith.

Yet this transformation is not a result of Jewish parents wanting to protect their children from being forced to sing Christmas carols in public school, or secularists sending Seasons Greeting cards. It derives, instead, from the power of the capitalist marketplace, operating through television, movies and marketers, to drum into everyone’s mind the notion that the only way to be a decent human being at this time of year is to buy and buy more.

That’s an analysis we haven’t heard enough of (and never will) from the mainstream media.

Then a colleague recommended an essay by James Carroll (whom I admire highly, because of that excellent Constantine’s Sword). He explains the nativity story in its original context:

The single most important fact about the birth of Jesus, as recounted in the Gospels, is one that receives almost no emphasis in the American festival of Christmas. The child who was born in Bethlehem represented a drastic political challenge to the imperial power of Rome. The nativity story is told to make the point that Rome is the enemy of God, and in Jesus, Rome’s day is over.

And goes on to explain what happened to that point, and how its disappearance fits into a pattern, an evolution (excuse the phrase) in the Church and Christianity.

In modern times, religion and politics began to be understood as occupying separate spheres, and the nativity story became spiritualized and sentimentalized, losing its political edge altogether. “Peace” replaced resistance as the main motif. The baby Jesus was universalized, removed from his decidedly Jewish context, and the narrative’s explicit critiques of imperial dominance and of wealth were blunted.

This is how it came to be that Christmas in America has turned the nativity of Jesus on its head. No surprise there, for if the story were told today with Roman imperialism at its center, questions might arise about America’s new self-understanding as an imperial power. A story of Jesus born into a land oppressed by a hated military occupation might prompt an examination of the American occupation of Iraq. A story of Jesus come decidedly to the poor might cast a pall over the festival of consumption. A story of the Jewishness of Jesus might undercut the Christian theology of replacement.

Then I took a look at beliefnet.org, where, aside from the usual blahblah about pc-excesses and banned snowflakes (from Kimberly Winston), I also found this less political, more personal, and very moving piece by Lauren Winner.

Lauren Winner started off as a Jewish kid, noticing and feeling some of the same things that so many Jewish kids experience in American schools–and especially seeing the contrasts between places like where she (and I) grew up, and places like New York City.

When I was in elementary school, I looked around my classroom at all the Christian students, felt both special and left out at the same time as they proceeded with their just-sanitized-enough-to-make-it-into-a-Virginia-public-school celebrations of all things Christmas. I was one of about three Jewish kids in my class, and I never knew quite what to think or feel about the way holidays–Jewish, Christian, or any other stripe–were treated in my classrooms. On one hand, I occasionally felt jealous that someone else’s holiday was getting all this attention. On the other hand–and bear in mind that I was a Religious Studies nerd in the making–it ticked me off that Hanukkah, which in the grand scheme of things is not a very important Jewish holiday (in fact, it doesn’t even have the Sabbath-like holiday standing of major Jewish holy days like Passover and Rosh Hashanah), was somehow the synecdoche for all things Jewish, just because it happened to fall in December. But I delighted in getting to explain Hanukkah to my classmates. I usually knew more about its origins and customs than my teachers.

I left Virginia to go to college in New York-and I have no doubt that my experience as A Lone Jew in school year after year shaped my decision to go to a college where a large portion of the student body was Jewish. I remember the first year I saw the lighting of a giant Hanukkah menorah in the center of the Columbia campus. It was, simply, extraordinary. I didn’t need to be Christian to feel like I was part of the public, part of the real America. I just needed public space to be open to my traditions, too.

But interestingly, and unusually, Ms. Winner made a conversion to Christianity. And now she sees Christmas differently, but with more nuance, and (like Lerner, and Carroll) a clearer idea of what even Christians are losing, missing, in the current Christmas “spirit.”

But I sort of freaked out last week when I walked into my bank and it was filled with Christmas trees, Santa Clauses, and a nativity scene. A bank, of course, is not a public school, and I suppose if someone felt uncomfortable, they could choose to do their banking elsewhere. But the decorations still freaked me out-and ticked me off. I imagined all my Jewish relatives and the Muslim girl in my friend’s class, having to trudge, December after December, into all those banks and hotel lobbies and grocery stores filled with Christmas. I’m not saying we need to be neurotically politically correct. Nor should we police greenery like latter-day Scrooges. We needn’t make our public squares empty. But we should be aware of the way our decisions affect our brothers and sisters in other faiths.

She goes on to explain the (quite recent, really) history of these kinds of public Christmas celebrations and displays, and then pulls out the suggestion that might get her, even as a Christian, even more heat than I’ve been taking!

But here is yet another one of life’s ironies. For me, the public Christmas bonanzas now detract from my experience of the holiday. I don’t mean to sound grim or ascetical or holier-than-thou. But here it is, the fourth week of Advent, and I have been hearing Christmas carols in the shopping mall since Halloween. “Conservative Christians” like me are, in stereotype, supposed to be outraged by the “politically correct” insistence that America’s public spaces be stripped of Christian symbols. I’m not outraged, in part because that “insistence” is exaggerated; in part because I’m not a first amendment expert; and in part because I try to focus on more genuinely spiritual concerns. It does strike me as absurd to outlaw red poinsettias. On the other hand, we Christians might also benefit from a scaling back of our public Christmas bonanzas. Do the Christmas trees in banks really help prepare us to greet our Savior? Does the fight to keep them there really embody Christian values?

I’ve now had the experience of being labelled a “bigot” and “as bad as an anti-Semite or homophobe,” and someone who “hates Christianity,” because I’ve advocated secular public schools and government, and because I’ve said that I don’t think most Christians understand how non-Christians experience the overwhelming and unwelcoming onslaught of Christmas symbols, and the insistence that they never, ever, be limited.

I said that I wished that, just for one night, others who haven’t experienced this onslaught could see what it feels like from this side. How it feels to be an outsider in your own country. It’s a silly wish, an unrealistic conceit. In fact, when I wrote it, I was thinking in the back of my head of “A Christmas Carol.” I was wishing for the kind of visits and visions which helped Scrooge.

I think that wishing for that is not in the slightest “anti-Christian.” It’s actually pro-Christian, pro-secular, pro-Muslim, pro-Jewish. It’s pro-understanding.


Normally Constituted Writers

Filed under: — Joe @ 2:34 pm

Nathaniel Martin, Assistant Surgeon on the HMS Surprise, is clearly the kind of writer I know all too well.

Martin was a thoroughly amiable man, a man of wide reading, but when he came to write he mounted upon a pair of stilts, unusually lofty stilts, and staggered along at a most ungracious pace, with an occasional awkward lurch into colloquialism, giving a strkingly false impression of himself.

And of course, to top that off, he has a very common attitude when showing his writing to others.

But it required no very great penetration to see that he was not convinced, that he still clung to his carefully balanced periods, his similes, his metaphors and his peroration. He had shown his letter to Maturin partly as a mark of confidence and esteem, being sincerely attached to him, and partly so that Maturin might praise it, possibly adding a few well-turned phrases; for like most normally constituted writers Martin had no use for any candid opinion that was not wholly favourable.

I, of course, am a “normally constituted writer!”


Chanukah Chumor

Filed under: — Joe @ 9:49 am

Todd Levin has a little bit of Chanukah humor, and although the holiday’s past, he still got me chuckling.

A sample:

You see, there is no single correct spelling of the holiday. That’s one of its many mystical qualities. “Hanukkah” is perfectly acceptable when addressing gift cards. Alternately, any of the following spellings are also acceptable:

Star Trek II: Wrath of Khanukkah
Fake Christmas


The Fundamentalist Agenda

Filed under: — Joe @ 4:40 pm

Fundamentalism is the same, and is the same kind of problem for the world, and has the same basic features, no matter what religion it springs from.

The Rev. Dr. Davidson Loehr, in this month’s UUWorld (the “UU” is “Unitarian Universalist”) has an excellent essay on this subject.

He refers to the Fundamentalism Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which, from 1988 to 1993, studied the subject, and came up with this clear distillation of the fundamentalist agenda.

(I’ll paraphrase and excerpt, but I recommend the whole essay)

  • First, their rules must be made to apply to all people, and to all areas of life. There can be no separation of church and state, or of public and private areas of life. The rigid rules of God – and they never doubt that they and only they have got these right – must become the law of the land.
  • Second, men are on top. Men are bigger and stronger, and they rule not only through physical strength but also and more importantly through their influence on the laws and rules of the land. Men set the boundaries. Men define the norms, and men enforce them. They also define women, and they define them through narrowly conceived biological functions. Women are to be supportive wives, mothers, and homemakers.
  • Third, since there is only one right picture of the world, one right set of beliefs, and one right set of roles for men, women, and children, it is imperative that this picture and these rules be communicated precisely to the next generation. Therefore, fundamentalists must control education by controlling textbooks and teaching styles, deciding what may and may not be taught.
  • Fourth, fundamentalists spurn the modern, and want to return to a nostalgic vision of a golden age that never really existed.
  • Fifth, fundamentalists deny history in a radical and idiosyncratic way.

Fundamentalism predates the religions themselves, Loehr argues, and at it’s core it’s always a conservative stance – attempting to preserve, or to revert to, the earliest (most primitive) human society. The resistance to this type of thinking, the liberal impulse, is a movement forward, rather than backward.

While society is a kind of slow dance between the conservative and liberal impulses, the liberal role is the more important one. It makes our societies humane rather than just stable and mean.
But for the liberal impulse to lead, liberals must remain in contact with the center of our territorial instinct and our need for a structure of responsibilities. Fundamentalist uprisings are a sign that the liberals have failed to provide an adequate and balanced vision, that they have not found a vision that attracts enough people to become stable.


When liberal visions work, it’s because they have kept one foot solidly in our deep territorial impulses with the other foot free to push the margin, to expand the definition of those who belong in “our” territory.
When liberal visions fail, it is often because they fail to achieve just this kind of balance between our conservative impulses and our liberal needs.

Over the past half century, many of our liberal visions have been too narrow, too self-absorbed, too unbalanced. This imbalance has been a key factor in triggering recent fundamentalist uprisings. When liberals don’t lead well, others don’t follow. And when society doesn’t follow liberal visions, liberals haven’t led.

When liberals burned the U.S. flag during the Vietnam War rather than waving it and insisting that America live up to its great tradition, they lost the most powerful territorial symbol in our culture and with it the ability to speak for our national interests. They created another moral imbalance by defining abortion in amoral terms, as simply a matter of individual rights – where only the mother, but not the developing baby, was an “individual.” And they did the same whenever they emphasized individual rights while neglecting the need to balance rights with individual responsibilities toward the larger society.


Maintaining both stability and civility, humane content and enduring form, in human societies is an unending dance between the conservative and the liberal impulses in human nature. The fundamentalist role in this dance is quite easy: All you have to do is cling tightly to a few simplistic teachings too small to do justice to the complex demands of the real world. You just have to cling to these, and then pretend that what you have done is honest and noble.

But the task of liberals is much, much harder. To be a liberal, to be an awake, responsive, and responsible liberal – that can take, and that can make, a whole life.

It’s a very intriguing approach, and a very interesting essay.


The Power of Stupidity

Filed under: — Joe @ 10:04 pm

Giancarlo Livraghi presents a great essay on Walter Pitkin’s A Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity. It’s not a work with which I was familiar, but it’s a concept, and a history with which I have far too much experience!

Livraghi excerpts Pitkin’s description of Carlo Cipolla’s Five Laws of Stupidity:

  • First Law
    We always underestimate the number of stupid people.
  • Second Law
    The probability of a person being stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
  • Third (and Golden) Law
    A stupid person is someone who causes damage to another person, or a group of people, without any advantage accruing to himself (or herself) — or even with some resultant self-damage.
  • Fourth Law
    Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid people. They constantly forget that at any moment, and in any circumstance, associating with stupid people invariably constitutes an expensive mistake.
  • Fifth Law
    A stupid person is the most dangerous person in existence.

But to make things even better, Livraghi goes on to give us his own corollaries to these laws…

  • In each of us there is a factor of stupidity, which is always larger than we suppose.
  • When the stupidity of one person combines with the stupidity of others, the impact grows geometrically — i.e. by multiplication, not addition, of the individual stupidity factors.
  • The combination of intelligence in different people has less impact than the combination of stupidity, because (Cipolla’s Fourth Law) “non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid people.”

Those are the ones that are even more important, and more scary, than the original laws!


Seeing through a different holiday lens

Filed under: — Joe @ 10:12 pm

Gemini SpecsFor a little Chanuka dinner party last night, I found these Gemini Specs cardboard glasses for the kids who were coming. At first I thought these were just like those cardboard glasses you always see, that make rainbows, double images, wavy lines, or other fun hallucinogenic visual effects. But these were different. Through some holographic magic (which I don’t pretend to understand) they surround every point of light you see through them with either a floating Star of David, or a pair of spinning dreidels. It’s the most amazing effect, and very hard to describe. But when you walk down the street at night looking through them, it transforms the world. Every street light, every headlight or tail-light on a car, and especially every Christmas light is transformed into a glowing, colorful, Chanuka decoration.

They’re very fun, but more than that, they provide a very beautiful and powerful lesson and example. I was wishing that I could, just for one night, around this time of year, make every Christian put on a pair of these and walk down the streets of their hometown. For just one night, I’d like them to be overwhelmed by multitudes, omnipresent, inescapable, of sparkling, beautiful, mystical reminders of a religion and culture which is not theirs, in their own country. It’s an experience that I don’t think they understand at all. And it’s an experience that non-Christians in America have every single Christmas season.


Call me “Director”

Filed under: — Joe @ 11:04 pm

Today the word is finally official. Effective February 1, I’m the new (never-before-seen) Director of Teaching and Learning with Technology at BMCC. I’ve been a Coordinator before, and a Deputy, and even a Chief, but never a Director. It’s rather a grand-sounding title, and it translates, practically, into a single office, all to myself, with a window, lots and lots more responsibility, lots and lots and lots more work, and absolutely no more money. It’s my chance to take a swing at planning, policy, and coordination for TLT at the college, and it’s a swing I’ve been longing to take for quite some time. It does also mean (at least for a while) that I’ll be out of the classroom. And I have to admit I’m ambivalent about that. Still, it’s a positive step, overall. And I’m glad to take it.

I think I need new business cards, for sure…and maybe a logo! 😉


Bill O’Reilly–Anti-Semitic Moron

Filed under: — Joe @ 6:42 pm

Isn’t it a great world when a talk-show moron on a major cable network (Bill O’Reilly at Fox) feels free to slam a caller (and by extension, all Jews) with the exact same slur (“go back to Israel”) that was hurled at me (along with rocks and dogshit) on my way to and from school in 7th grade?

You have a predominantly Christian nation. You have a federal holiday based on the philosopher Jesus. And you don’t wanna hear about it? Come on, [caller] — if you are really offended, you gotta go to Israel then. I mean because we live in a country founded on Judeo — and that’s your guys’ — Christian, that’s my guys’ philosophy. But overwhelmingly, America is Christian. And the holiday is a federal holiday honoring the philosopher Jesus. So, you don’t wanna hear about it? Impossible.

The “philosopher Jesus?” As others have pointed out, where’s Plato’s holiday? Where’s Heidegger’s? More to the point, where’s Spinoza’s or Maimonides’? “Philosopher.” Bah.

Abraham Foxman of the ADL responds quite appropriately, and much more politely than I would have.

More dangerously, your remark plays into one of the oldest anti-Semitic canards about Jews, that they are not full citizens of a country and are not entitled to all of the rights afforded to the majority. The notion that religious minorities have no place in a Christian America and should leave may be acceptable for extremists, but it is unacceptable coming from a popular and respected media commentator.

To add to the “moron” part of this post’s title, O’Reilly also referred to the “seven candles” of Chanuka.

Just how popular is Fox News? Far too popular. It’s frightening. “Fair and Balanced.” Bah.

(Media Matters has the full text and audio clip of O’Reilly’s offensive rant)


WordPress bug

Filed under: — Joe @ 12:41 am

Thanks to LissaKay, at GA, I heard about a serious flaw in WordPress 1.2.1 (and 1.3), which could have made this blog completely broken…even worse than I could have broken it myself.

Luckily there’s a not-too-hard fix, here. Hope that took care of it!


Happy Chanuka!

Filed under: — Joe @ 10:08 pm

MenorahFirst candle tonight, and I actually made some good choices in the gift-buying. A happy little girl–happy that latkes were ready when she got home from chess practice, happy with her presents, happy to say the blessings, light a candle, sing some songs–is the best Chanuka present a dad could ever have. We even cracked some walnuts (although I couldn’t find the dreidel) and played a game of Operation. Chanuka’s good when you’re a kid, but it can be even better when you’re a parent.


More from the great Purrington

Filed under: — Joe @ 8:28 pm

The Descent of DissentThe great Colin Purrington (remember him from this post?), in association with a graphic designer, Felix Sockwell, has turned his hilarious (and completely accurate) parody stickers of the Cobb County, Georgia textbook stickers into this great chart. And it was in Sunday’s New York Times. It’s just as good as his original stickers…even funnier, in fact, and even sharper and more accurate, too. Thanks to the NCSE for noticing!



Filed under: — Joe @ 9:50 pm

One day soon I’ll finally get my philosopher-king proposal worked out (Intellocracy), and the coup will follow shortly thereafter. I’ve had it (after this past election) with democracy. It’s a failed experiment, and it’s more than time to abandon it. In the new order, under the benevolent monarchy of the intelligentsia, all will be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things will be well.

Of course, in the meantime, we’ll probably need a century or two of plain old monarchy–beginning with me, HRH Joe I, and continuing through my descendants. After a few generations of that, we should be set.

Here’s Stephen Maturin on monarchy:

Man is a deeply illogical being, and must be ruled illogically. Whatever that frigid prig Bentham may say, there are innumerable motives that have nothing to do with utility. In good utilitarian logic a man does not sell all his goods to go crusading, nor does he build cathedrals; still less does he write verse. There are countless pieties without a name that find their focus in a crown. It is as well, I grant you, that the family should have worn it beyond the memory of man; for your recent creations do not answer – they are nothing in comparison of your priest-king, whose merit is irrelevant, whose place cannot be disputed, nor made the subject of a recurring vote.


When Gerbils Attack…

Filed under: — Joe @ 6:37 pm

GerbilChanging the bedding in my daughter’s gerbil cage, and one of the little buggers slipped out. In a frenzy to prevent one of the cats from having a gerbil snack (they were watching very attentively), I grabbed the rodent maybe a little too hard. She slipped free. I grabbed her again. She sank her teeth into the meat of my index finger. More like a pinch than a bite, but she kept a very powerful gnawing pressure. Those teeth are not too sharp, but the jaws are strong!

I got her back in the cage, and got the bedding changed, and now I’ve got a deep black and blue, with a little hole and a few drops of blood. I’m sitting here with a throbbing finger, thinking about the early symptoms of tetanus.

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