December 31, 2011
What is racial colorblindness?
Racial issues are often uncomfortable to discuss and rife with stress and controversy. Many ideas have been advanced to address this sore spot in the American psyche. Currently, the most pervasive approach is known as colorblindness. Colorblindness is the racial ideology that posits the best way to end discrimination is by treating individuals as equally as possible, without regard to race, culture, or ethnicity.
At its face value, colorblindness seems like a good thing — really taking MLK to task on his call to judge people on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. It focuses on commonalities between people, such as their shared humanity.
However, colorblindness alone is not sufficient to heal racial wounds on a national or personal level. It is only a half-measure that in the end operates as a form of racism.
December 31, 2011
The effects of technology on religious belief, and of religious belief on technology, are great but insufficiently explored. Often religious communities have been the inventors, the popularizers, or the preservers of technologies. One important example, which Lewis Mumford called to our attention long ago in his Technics and Civilization (1934), is the intimate relationship between medieval monastic life and the invention of reliable clocks. It was the need to be faithful in keeping the horæ canonicæ, the canonical hours of prayer, that stimulated the creation of accurate timepieces. But of course, this invention spread to the rest of society, and over the centuries has come to shape our experience of time in ways that affect our religious lives as much as anything else.
It is scarcely possible to overstress the importance of this development; and yet perhaps even more important are the connections between religious life and technologies of knowledge, especially those pertaining to reading and writing. This point could be illustrated in any number of ways, but with particular force in tracing the long entanglement of Christianity and the distinctive form of the book called the codex. In this history one can discern many ways in which forms of religious life shape, and in turn are shaped by, their key technologies. And as technologies change, those forms of life change too, whether their participants wish to or not. These changes can have massive social consequences, some of which we will wish to consider at the end of this brief history. Christians are, as the Koran says, “People of the Book”; in which case we might want to ask what will become of Christianity if “the book” is radically transformed or abandoned altogether.
Scroll and Sequence
In the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is engaged in his public ministry: preaching to the crowds, casting out demons. At this moment, oddly enough, a Pharisee asks him to come to dinner, and Jesus immediately accepts; but then, we are told, “the Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner.” This astonishment prompts Jesus to begin a series of “woes” — “Woe to you Pharisees! … Woe to you lawyers also!” — which in turn may prompt us to remember a comment the novelist Frederick Buechner once made: “No one ever invited a prophet home for dinner more than once.”
But to continue:
Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, “I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute, ” so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation.
Please note especially this phrase: “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah.” It is an interesting phrase in any number of ways, not least in that it designates Abel, the first murder victim, as a prophet. But the question I want to ask is: Why Zechariah?
Jesus is referring to the second book of Chronicles, which tells this story from the reign of the infidel King Joash of Judah:
Then the Spirit of God clothed Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, and he stood above the people, and said to them, “Thus says God, ‘Why do you break the commandments of the Lord, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken theLord, he has forsaken you.’” But they conspired against him, and by command of the king they stoned him with stones in the court of the house of the Lord. Thus Joash the king did not remember the kindness that Jehoiada, Zechariah’s father, had shown him, but killed his son. And when he was dying, he said, “May the Lord see and avenge!”
In referring to this story, Jesus is clearly indicating that Zechariah — not, to be clear, the one who wrote the book of Zechariah — is the last of the Bible’s prophet-martyrs, just as Abel was the first. Yet this is clearly not so: half a dozen later prophets were martyred, at least according to unanimous tradition. But there is no mistake here, neither by Jesus nor by Luke. By invoking an arc that stretches from Abel to Zechariah, Jesus is indeed imagining a strict sequence, but not that of the history of Israel: rather, he has in mind the sequence of the Bible as he knew it.
The Hebrew Bible in the time of Jesus, as now, was divided into three parts, in this order: first Torah, the Law; then Nevi’im, the prophets; then the rather miscellaneous category called Ketuvim, the Writings. The book we call 2 Chronicles is the last of the Ketuvim and therefore the last of the whole Bible. So when Jesus refers to the martyrdom of prophets “from Abel to Zechariah” he does not mean “from the Creation to the most recent moment of Israelite history,” but rather “from the first pages of the Word of God to the last.”
This is rather extraordinary, and for a number of reasons. For one thing, if we look at the history of the Hebrew Bible after the time of Jesus — which is the only reliable history we have — the order of theKetuvim is not settled. While the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud and the Masoretic text agree in placing Chronicles at the end, other very old texts — the Aleppo and Leningrad codices, for instance — place it at the beginning.
But that’s not the oddity to which I wish to call attention. Rather, I would like to think about thetechnologies of the book in the time of Jesus, and in preceding centuries of Judaic culture. Consider, for instance, the variety of writing technologies discernible just in the Old Testament: the “brick” on which Ezekiel is commanded to inscribe an image of Jerusalem (4:1), the “tablet” used by Isaiah (30:8) and Habakkuk (2:2), the stone on which the Decalogue is inscribed (Ex. 24:12, Joshua 8:32). The styli used by Isaiah (8:1) and Jeremiah (17:1) may have been used to write on metal. Clay tablets were kept in jars (Jeremiah 32:14) or boxes (Exodus 25:16, 1 Kings 8:9). But the Scriptures themselves, it is clear, were typically written on papyrus scrolls and kept in cabinets. As C. H. Roberts has noted in theCambridge History of the Bible, for the scribal culture in the centuries preceding Jesus,
The strictest rules governed the handling, the reading and the copying of the Law. Multiplication of copies by dictation was not allowed; each scroll had to be copied directly from another scroll; official copies, until a.d. 70 derived ultimately from a master copy in the Temple, were kept at first in a cupboard in each synagogue, later in a room adjoining it. The cupboard faced towards Jerusalem, and the rolls within it were the most holy objects in the synagogue.
I emphasize these technologies for one simple reason: none of them promotes the idea of sequence in texts: while they do not forbid, they certainly do not encourage the temporally linear way that Jesus thought about the text of Scripture. Thus when the Talmudic sages debate the order in which the Biblical books should be recorded, they consider various principles of organization. A key passage from the relevant tractate, Bava Batra, says:
Our Rabbis taught: The order of the Prophets is, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the Twelve Minor Prophets. Let us examine this…. Isaiah was prior to Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Then why should not Isaiah be placed first? — Because the Book of Kings ends with a record of destruction and Jeremiah speaks throughout of destruction and Ezekiel commences with destruction and ends with consolation and Isaiah is full of consolation; therefore we put destruction next to destruction and consolation next to consolation.
“Destruction next to destruction and consolation next to consolation” — historical order is explicitly rejected in favor of what we might call a theologically thematic order. Or rather, history in the relatively short term gives way to the great arc of history as a whole.
As one looks at a cabinet of scrolls, little about that technology suggests sequence. It is true that the scrolls could be organized in “reading order” — in the case of Hebrew, right to left and top to bottom — but they would not have to be so ordered. And it would be very easy in any case for scrolls to be removed from one pigeonhole and then replaced in another. Surely that was a commonplace occurrence. And this might help to explain why the rabbis were debating this matter at such a (relatively) late date in the history of the Hebrew scriptures. The canon itself had been effectively set for centuries — though there are still debates in the Talmud about whether the Song of Songs and Esther belong — yet, as we just saw, even the basic principles of organization, beyond the threefold division of Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim, are still up for grabs.
I want to suggest here that the primary reason for this debate occurring when it does, and in the way it does, is technological. That is, the question of the order or sequence of Biblical books is forced upon the rabbis by the arrival of the technology that would ultimately displace the scroll cabinet: the codex. And Jesus’ invocation of the Biblical sequence, from “Abel to Zechariah,” can be seen as both an anticipation of the rise of the codex and a commendation of that technology — or at least, a commendation of the patterns of thought the codex supports. There is an intimate connection between the Christian message, the Christian scriptures, and the codex. This may mark one central way in which Christians are “People of the Book.”…
Marginal revolutionaries: The crisis and the blogosphere have opened mainstream economics up to new attack
December 31, 2011
POINT UDALL on St Croix, one of the US Virgin Islands, is a far-flung, wind-whipped spot. You cannot travel farther east without leaving the United States. Visitors can pose next to a stone sundial commemorating America’s first dawn of the third millennium. A couple named “Sigi + Ricky” have added a memento of their own, an arrowstruck heart scrawled on the perimeter wall in memory of “us”.
Warren Mosler, an innovative carmaker, a successful bond-investor and an idiosyncratic economist, moved to St Croix in 2003 to take advantage of a hospitable tax code and clement weather. From his perch on America’s periphery, Mr Mosler champions a doctrine on the edge of economics: neo-chartalism, sometimes called “Modern Monetary Theory”. The neo-chartalists believe that because paper currency is a creature of the state, governments enjoy more financial freedom than they recognise. The fiscal authorities are free to spend whatever is required to revive their economies and restore employment. They can spend without first collecting taxes; they can borrow without fear of default. Budget-makers need not cower before the bond-market vigilantes. In fact, they need not bother with bond markets at all.
The neo-chartalists are not the only people telling governments mired in the aftermath of the global financial crisis that they could make things better if they would shed old inhibitions. “Market monetarists” favour more audacity in the monetary realm. Tight money caused America’s Great Recession, they argue, and easy money can end it. They do not think the federal government can or should rescue the economy, because they believe the Federal Reserve can.
The “Austrian” school of economics, which traces its roots to 19th-century Vienna, is more sternly pre-Freudian: more inhibition, not less, is its prescription. Its adherents believe that part of the economy’s suffering is necessary, an inevitable consequence of past excesses. They do not think the Federal Reserve can rescue the economy. They seek instead to rescue the economy from the Fed.
You tell me it’s the institution
These three schools of macroeconomic thought differ in their pedigree, in their beliefs, in their persuasiveness and in their prospects. Yet they also have a lot in common. They have thrived on the back of massive disillusion with mainstream economics, which held that the economy would grow steadily if central banks kept inflation low and stable, and that there were no great gains in the offing from fiscal expansion, nor any great cause for concern over financial instability. And they have benefited hugely from blogging.
Economics, perhaps more than any other discipline, has taken to blogs with gusto. Mainstream figures such as Paul Krugman and Greg Mankiw have commanded large online audiences for years, audiences which include many of their peers. But the crisis has made the academic establishment fractious and vulnerable. Highly credentialed economists now publicly mock each other’s ignorance and foolishness. That has created an opening for the less decorated members of the guild, and the truly peripheral. In the blogosphere anywhere can be, as the title of Mr Mosler’s blog has it, “The Center of the Universe”.
In a world beset by doubt, there are great opportunities for those happy to pursue their beliefs to their logical conclusions and thrillingly thoroughgoing in the way they do so. Is fiscal stimulus not working? Then do more of it, say the neo-chartalists. Are monopolies and price controls a problem? Then get rid of the central bank’s monopoly in setting the price of credit and the supply of government money, say the Austrians. Damn the torpedoes and never mind the naysayers—acolytes in the comments section will sort them out.
What’s more, put into the context of a pathetic response to the current crisis, the ideas offered by these very different schools all take on a similar form: that policymakers are overly worried about something that should concern them less. The Austrians see the bogeyman as deflation, the fear of which inflates bubbles. The market monetarists, diametrically opposed, see exaggerated fear of inflation. And the economy is getting too little help from fiscal stimulus, according to neo-chartalists, because of the government’s superstitious fear of insolvency.
The clearest example of the power of blogging as a way of getting fringe ideas noticed is “The Money Illusion”, a blog by Scott Sumner of Bentley University, in Waltham, Massachusetts. In the wake of the financial crisis Mr Sumner, a proponent of market monetarism, felt he had something to say, but no great hope of being heard.
We’d all love to see the plan
And so on February 2nd 2009 he started to blog. He was not, he admitted, a “natural blogger”, which is to say his posts were long, tightly-argued and self-deprecating (“consider me an eccentric economist at a small school taking potshots from the sidelines”). But he attracted thoughtful comments and replied in kind. On February 25th, he earned a link from Tyler Cowen, a professor at George Mason University whose “Marginal Revolution” blog is widely respected. And one month after he started Mr Krugman devoted a short post to rebuffing him.
To be noticed by Mr Krugman is a big thing for a blogger; all the current heterodoxies court such attention, with neo-chartalists churning up his comment threads and Austrians challenging him to set-piece debates. The more Mr Krugman wrestles with them, the more attention they garner—a correlation that has made him wary. “I’ll link to any work I find illuminating, whoever it’s from,” he writes. “I’ll link to work I think is deeply wrong only if it comes from someone who already has a following.” Otherwise, “why give him a platform?”
Mr Sumner’s blog not only revealed his market monetarism to the world at large (“I cannot go anywhere in the world of economics…without hearing his name,” says Mr Cowen). It also drew together like-minded economists, many of them at small schools some distance from the centre of the economic universe, who did not realise there were other people thinking the same way they did. They had no institutional home, no critical mass. The blogs provided one. Lars Christensen, an economist at a Danish bank who came up with the name “market monetarism”, says it is the first economic school of thought to be born in the blogosphere, with post, counter-post and comment threads replacing the intramural exchanges of more established venues.
This invisible college of bloggers focuses first on the level of spending on American products: America’s domestic output, valued at the prices people pay for it. This is what economists call “nominal” GDP (NGDP), as opposed to “real” GDP, which strips out the effects of inflation. They think the central bank should promise to keep NGDP on a steady upward path, rising at, say, 5% a year. Such growth might come about because more stuff is bought (“real” growth) or because prices are higher (inflation). Mr Sumner’s disinhibition is to encourage the Fed not to care which of the two is doing more of the work…