The nature vs. nurture debate: High Christology edition

At least since the late nineteenth century the social interpretation of biology — and of genetics in particular — has devolved repeatedly upon the nature–nurture dispute: To what extent is a human’s individual characteristics determined by a predetermined essence or nature — qualities they are born with, commonly identified with inheritance; or by nurture, the particulars of the physical and social environment in which they develop after birth. From one of the most interesting books I’ve read recently, Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, I learned that an analogous debate roiled the early Christian Church.

One of the key disputes among early followers of Jesus concerned the nature and meaning of Jesus’s divinity. At the extremes you had the “low” christology belief that Jesus was a wise man and preacher, of the same nature as any other human; and the “high” christology claim that Jesus was identical with the creator God of the Hebrew Scriptures, and only appeared to be human. (Perhaps even more extreme were the gnostic claims that Jesus was an even higher being than that nasty Yahweh, who obviously fucked up his one major task*, for possibly nefarious purposes. In between were a range of beliefs that Jesus was entirely divine and entirely human. Ehrman points out that in the ancient Mediterranean world there were two “major ways” that it was believed possible for a human to be divine:

  • By adoption or exaltation. A human being… could be made divine by an act of God or a god…
  • By nature or incarnation. A divine being… could become human, either permanently or, more commonly, temporarily.

In other words, God by nurture or God by nature. Nurture is particularly emphasised in the Gospel of Mark, Nature in the Gospel of John. Reflecting the common prejudice in favour of “nature” as the more powerful, one typically thinks of incarnation as representing a more exalted view of Jesus. A Jesus who grew up as a human, and only in adulthood was adopted by God seems less genuinely godlike than one who is, so to speak, fruit of God’s loins — hence the virgin-birth story of Matthew and Luke.

One of the more fascinating novelties of Ehrman’s account is his elucidation of adoption customs in the Roman world, particularly as regards nobles and rulers. Of course, we know that Roman emperors commonly adopted heirs — most famously, Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavian — but Ehrman explains how prevalent views of adoption were that today would be called progressive: Adoptive families are families by choice, so could be considered superior to the accidental biological families. An heir chosen by a great leader for the qualities he has demonstrated better incorporates and perpetuate’s the leader’s essence than his biological descendant.

Thus, a Christ nurtured by and ultimately adopted into the divine family by God after he had proved himself worthy is a more genuinely divine being than any merely so-to-speak genetically divine progeny, who might ultimately turn out to be a disappointment to his father.

* A classic joke with a gnostic perspective: A man goes to the tailor to order a new coat. The tailor fusses around taking measurements, asking exacting questions about the fabric, the cut, and so on. Having finished he names a price and tells the customer the jacket will be finished in three weeks. “Three weeks! The Lord created the whole world in just one week!”

The tailor shakes his head, picks up another recently completed coat, and beckons the man to come to the window. “One week you want? Look at the work here. The precision cuts. The minute stitching. The harmonious interplay of the parts. And now” gesturing out the window, “look at this world…”

May we compare Anne Frank’s case to the Holocaust?

Following up on my earlier post on the unequivocal rejection by many authorities — including the US Holocaust Museum — of any comparison between the concentration camps in which Central American migrants are being interned in the US, and Nazi atrocities. No one is being gassed, no one is being murdered, no one is being worked to death. They are simply being interned in unsafe and unsanitary conditions for indeterminate periods.

And here it occurs to me that if we are being very careful about our historical analogies, we really need to strike out one of the most celebrated stories that (erroneously) is placed in this context, that of Anne Frank. The USHMM includes a page about her life and diary, and the “Holocaust Encyclopedia” describes her as “among the most well-known of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.” But was she really? Anne and her sister were undocumented migrants in The Netherlands, rounded up in a police raid and deported to Germany. They were not sent to a death camp, but to Bergen-Belsen, which is commonly referred to as a concentration camp, but that is obviously misleading, since people could think Jews were being gassed there. Nobody killed them there. They just happened to die (like most of their fellow prisoners) of typhus.

Indeed, we should consider Primo Levi’s contention that everyone who survived Auschwitz did so because of some freak combination of exceptional events and exceptional personal qualities (not necessarily positive):

At a distance of years one can today definitely affirm that the history of the Lagers has been written almost exclusively by those who, like myself, never fathomed them to the bottom. Those who did so did not return, or their capacity for observation was paralysed by suffering and incomprehension.

So if the true generic experience of the Holocaust belonged only to those who died, maybe it is inappropriate to compare anyone’s experience to the Holocaust, including that of its victims.

Pierre Menard and Jack Malik

I very much enjoyed the new film Yesterday, a romantic comedy with a crudely drawn science-fiction premise — What if The Beatles never existed, but one lone musician still remembered their songs — but I felt disappointed at how philosophically tame it was. At various points perplexing questions are raised about the authorship of the Beatles songs in this alternative reality.

One of my favourite short stories is Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote“. In Borges’s best pseudo-academic prose it recounts the life of French author Pierre Menard, whose most important (and least known) works are “chapters nine and thirty eight of the first part of Don Quijote, and a fragment of chapter twenty-two”. The life project of Menard, it seems, was to write a modern Don Quijote. Not to write a new version of the novel, and not to copy the original, but to write the same novel, from a modern perspective. That is, he wants to lead himself, through his intellectual and life experience, to write the same words that Cervantes wrote three and a half centuries earlier. The narrator then proceeds to analyse Menard’s Quijote, and compare it to Cervantes’s version. The (very serious)’ joke is that the words are identical, but the interpretation is radically different, because of the context in which the words are being written. Continue reading “Pierre Menard and Jack Malik”

GBS, AOC, and the concentration-camp apologists

I’ve been thinking lately about what must be one of George Bernard Shaw’s final literary productions, the preface to his play Geneva. The news is full of reports of degrading, unsanitary, overcrowded conditions at concentration camps for Central American migrants in the southwestern US. Apologists attack those like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who have reported on the suffering in the camps, for using terms that for many with limited historical perspective will evoke inappropriate analogies to Nazi death camps like Auschwitz, rather than appropriate analogies to Nazi concentration camps of the 1930s like Sachsenhausen, or the US concentration camps for Filipinos in the early 20th century. Some reports have her being rude camp guards — which, I am willing to bet, history will not record as one of the more significant atrocities of this era.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum has taken what is a brave stance for a historical museum, in denying any possible relevance of history to anything else:

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary,

I think we can all agree that if the slogan “Never Again” has any meaning it can only be that we should oppose any attempts to compare anything at all to the Holocaust, unless they explicitly involve mass gassing of civilians in underground chambers. (And even then, you have to be sure that they are innocent civilians.)

The president (and many of his partisans) have defended the camps as an imperfect response to an overwhelming logistic challenge, brought on by the actions of the migrants themselves. (Trump also wrote “Many of these illegals (sic) aliens are living far better now than where they … came from, and in far safer conditions.”) And this reminded me of Shaw’s defense of the actual Nazi death camps, in similar terms.

The play itself, written in 1936-1938, is a thinly dramatised political polemic, wherein three dictators — Herr Battler, Signor Bombardone, and General Flanco (similarity to any real persons living or dead being purely a consequence of the mind’s tendency to impose order) — are summoned to appear before an international tribunal, charged with various crimes of oppression and political violence. They all appear — voluntarily, as they emphasise — to defend themselves. Successfully. They get the better of every argument. For example, there is this exchange between Battler and his Jewish accuser (designated only as THE JEW):

BATTLER. Do I stand accused? Of what, pray?

THE JEW [springing up] Of murder. Of an attempt to exterminate the flower of the human race.

BATTLER. What do you mean?

THE JEW. I am a Jew.

BATTLER. Then what right have you in my country? I exclude you as the British exclude the Chinese in Australia, as the Americans exclude the Japanese in California.

JEW. Why do the British exclude the Chinese? Because the Chinaman is so industrious, so frugal, so trustworthy, that nobody will employ a white British workman or caretaker if there is a yellow one within reach. Why do you exclude the Jew? Because you cannot compete with his intelligence, his persistence, his foresight, his grasp of finance. It is our talents, our virtues, that you fear, not our vices.

BATTLER. And am I not excluded for my virtues? I may not set foot in England until I declare that I will do no work there and that I will return to my own country in a few weeks. In every country the foreigner is a trespasser. On every coast he is confronted by officers who say you shall not land without your passport, your visa. If you are of a certain race or color you shall not land at all. Sooner than let German soldiers march through Belgium England plunged Europe into war. Every State chooses its population and selects its blood. We say that ours shall be Nordic, not Hittite: that is all.

JEW. A Jew is a human being. Has he not a right of way and settlement everywhere upon the earth?

BATTLER. Nowhere without a passport. That is the law of nations.

JEW. I have been beaten and robbed. Is that the law of nations?

BATTLER. I am sorry. I cannot be everywhere; and all my agents are not angels.

[Purely as an aside, I find ironically relevant to today this exchange, between Bombardone and a British participant in the trial, described as an obstinate-looking middle-aged man of respectable but not aristocratic appearance, speaking English like a shopkeeper from the provinces, or perhaps, by emigration, the dominions, and who is referred to throughout as The Newcomer. (The descriptor [who has no sense of humor] is appended to his name at one point.)

BBDE. When there is no leader, no king, no priest, nor any body of law established by dead kings and priests, you have mob law, lynching law, gangster law: in short, American democracy. Thank your stars you have never known democracy in England. I have rescued my country from all that by my leadership. I am a democratic institution.

NEWCOMER. Gosh. You democratic! Youve abolished democracy, you have.

BBDE. Put my leadership to the vote. Take a plebiscite. If I poll less than 95 per cent of the adult nation I will resign. If that is not democracy what is democracy?

NEWCOMER. It isnt British democracy.

BATTLER. British democracy is a lie. I have said it.

NEWCOMER. Oh, dont talk nonsense, you ignorant foreigner. Plebiscites are unEnglish, thoroughly unEnglish.

A decade later, after the war had ended, and the Nazi atrocities laid bare, the 90-year-old Shaw wrote a new preface to the play. Confronting the horror of the death camps a less doughty intellect might have trimmed his support or tergiversated. Not Shaw. Continuing the line on which Battler concluded the defense of the violent attacks on Jews, as unintended excesses and failure of political control, Shaw defended the death camps as unfortunate logistical breakdowns. Under the rubric “Incompetent governments are the cruellest” Shaw writes:

The need for confining authority to the instructed and capable has been demonstrated by terrible lessons daily for years past. As I write, dockfulls of German prisoners of war, male and female, are being tried on charges of hideous cruelties perpetrated by them at concentration camps. The witnesses describe the horrors of life and death in them; and the newspapers class the accused as fiends and monsters. But they also publish photographs of them in which they appear as ordinary human beings who could be paralleled from any crowd or army.

These Germans had to live in the camps with their prisoners. It must have been very uncomfortable and dangerous for them. But they had been placed in authority and management, and had to organize the feeding, lodging, and sanitation of more and more thousands of prisoners and refugees thrust upon them by the central government. And as they were responsible for the custody of their prisoners they had to be armed to the teeth and their prisoners completely disarmed. Only eminent leadership, experience, and organizing talent could deal with such a situation.

Well, they simply lacked these qualities. They were not fiends in human form; but they did not know what to do with the thousands thrown on their care. There was some food; but they could not distribute it except as rations among themselves. They could do nothing with their prisoners but overcrowd them within any four walls that were left standing, lock them in, and leave them almost starving to die of typhus. When further overcrowding became physically impossible they could do nothing with their unwalled prisoners but kill them and burn the corpses they could not bury. And even this they could not organize frankly and competently: they had to make their victims die of illusage instead of by military law. Under such circumstances any miscellaneous collection of irresistibly armed men would be demoralized; and the natural percentage of callous toughs among them would wallow in cruelty and in the exercise of irresponsible authority for its own sake. Man beating is better sport than bear baiting or cock fighting or even child beating, of which some sensational English cases were in the papers at home at the time. Had there been efficient handling of the situation by the authorities (assuming this to have been possible) none of these atrocities would have occurred. They occur in every war when the troops get out of hand.

Magic and class struggle

I just started reading the book Magic for Liars by Sarah Galley. I’d purchased it because of a short review, but by the time I got to read it I’d completely forgotten anything about it, so I was bemused to discover that it is sort of a hard-boiled detective murder mystery set in a boarding school for young magicians. It struck me then how odd it is that “boarding school for young magicians” has turned into a whole genre, spanning a range of works for young people and adults, and now starting to colonise completely different genres, like detective fiction.

So far as I can tell this is largely an Anglo-American literary phenomenon (though Harry Potter is certainly very popular throughout the world), and I suspect that it reflects a natural response to the class system and the power that is accrues to elite education. Surely an uneducated Briton, seeing how a mediocrity like Boris Johnson can be elevated to a position of power on the basis of pairing his hail-fellow-well-met demeanour with the Eton-Oxford training can’t really imagine what they’re learning there, but supposes it must be some sort of deep magic. That’s why the spells in Harry Potter are all Dog Latin: Unexceptional people go to these weird schools, learn these dead languages, and end up ruling the world.

Update: I have deleted a comment asserting a common etymology of magic spell and spelling (learning to write). The words (as Maria Christodoulou pointed out) in fact have completely different roots. (I’m not sure where I got this false etymology from. I would have sworn it was Mary Daly, but while Gyn/Ecology has lots of (sometimes dubious) wordplay on spell and glamour, the association spell-witchcraft-learning is not there.

True freedom of religion

I’ve just been reading David Nirenberg’s history of antisemitism Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, and I came across the interesting letter 40 of Ambrose. Ambrose was Bishop of Milan for two decades in the late 4th century, and is considered one of the Fathers of the Church. The letter, addressed to the Roman emperor Theodosius, is framed as a plea for freedom and tolerance. And what is it that the “Godfearing, merciful, gentle, and calm” Theodosius has not sufficiently tolerated? It is the religious obligation to burn down synagogues.

In 388 a mob of monks in the Mesopotamian city of Callinicum burned down the Jewish synagogue and a gnostic Christian church. The local military governor ordered that the monks be punished and that the synagogue be rebuilt, at the expense of the local bishop, who had incited the attack.

There is, then, no adequate cause for such a commotion, that the people should be so severely punished for the burning of a building, and much less since it is the burning of a synagogue, a home of unbelief, a house of impiety, a receptacle of folly, which God Himself has condemned.

Ambrose goes on to remind Theodosius of the fate of his predecessor, who was thought too solicitous of the safety of Jews and their houses of worship:

Is it not on this account that Maximus was forsaken, who, before the days of the expedition, hearing that a synagogue had been burnt in Rome, had sent an edict to Rome, as if he were the upholder of public order? Wherefore the Christian people said, No good is in store for him. That king has become a Jew.

In other words, if you defend the Jews you might be suspected of being kind of a Jew yourself.

Anyway, this reminded me of John Boswell’s Jews and Bicycle Riders, and certain cries for religious tolerance that are abroad in the land today…

Johnson is our doom

Is there somewhere an ancient manuscript sealed with eldritch lore, on which is inscribed the tale of the final days of Britain, under the rule of a mysterious BJ? I have had the feeling, over the past four years that the real agenda of government has been to evade the doom foretold of the Boris Johnson premiership. And, as in classical tragedy, the steps that are taken to prevent that fate — the Brexit referendum, Theresa May’s selection as prime minister, making him responsible for foreign policy, expelling him from the cabinet, new elections — turn out to be precisely the ones that bring it closer. At this point I could understand if some Conservatives are ready to give up fighting what is obviously a divinely ordained chastisement.

Correspondence bias and communism

Reading Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx was Right I was struck by this relatively banal observation:

In its brief but bloody career, Marxism has involved a hideous amount of violence. Both Stalin and Mao Zedong were mass murderers on an almost unimaginable scale… But what of the crimes of capitalism? What of the atrocious bloodbath known as the First World War, in which the clash of imperial nations hungry for territory sent working-class soldiers to a futile death? The history of capitalism is among other things a story of global warfare, colonial exploitation, genocide and avoidable famines.

Superficially, this looks like dialectical what-about-ism. Whose mass murder was worse? But it occurred to me that there is something here that needs explanation: Given that communism and capitalism both have long charge sheets in the court of history, how can the association with atrocity and tyranny serve so broadly as a knock-down argument against communism?

It made me think of correspondence bias, the psychological tendency of people to interpret their own behaviour as situation-dependent — I didn’t do the reading for the seminar because I had a family crisis and I was exhausted — while someone else’s behaviour is seen as representing their essential nature — too lazy or inconsiderate to do the reading. This also works between groups, as when, for instance, a man’s failure to successfully lead a research team shows that he’s not cut out for that sort of responsibility (or not yet ready for it) while a woman’s failure shows that women aren’t suited to leadership.

So it is with economic systems: Stalin reveals the fundamental nature of communism, its core evil revealed by the Ukrainian famine and the Great Purge; but but Hitler and Pinochet are only incidentally capitalists, and the explanation of their crimes must be found outside the economic sphere. The Great Irish Famine has nothing to do with capitalist ideology, even while merchants were exporting food from starving Ireland to British markets, and American slavery and the Native American genocide are particular historical events that cannot tell us anything about the general implications of capitalism.

Increasingly, climate change makes capitalism look like a global suicide pact.

There is a similar bias at work in the judgement of religious communities: Many Christians attribute violence and brutality to Islam as an essential quality of the religion, proved by selective quotes from the Koran, while dismissing Christian-motivated atrocities to “not real Christians” or special circumstances of people long ago or far away. (We Jews are in an awkward position relative to this: On the one hand, our communal experience does not incline us to trust the good faith of Christians any more than of Muslims or druids or Satanists; on the other hand, Jews have become a particular target of Muslim rage, while many of us are well assimilated in majority-Christian nations. Some are happy to repay the recent good treatment by echoing the local prejudices.)

Yeoman Trump: Saul Steinberg and the fascist politics of outer-borough resentment

Reading  How Fascism Works by Yale philosopher Jason Stanley — which is interesting, though not quite the general theory of fascism that the title promises, but something more like a Prolegomenon to a Theory of Trumpism — I was interested by his discussion of the valorisation of rural life as a fundamental feature of fascism, and of Trumpism.

Fascist politics feeds the insulting myth that hardworking rural residents pay to support lazy urban dwellers, so it is not a surprise that the base of its success is found in a country’s rural areas… Anticity rhetoric had a central role in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections… Fascist politics targets financial elites, “cosmopolitans”, liberals, and religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities. In many countries, these are characteristically urban populations. Cities therefore usefully serve as a proxy target for the classic enemies of fascist politics.

Among the many peculiarities of Trump’s appeal — the lifelong sybarite as hero of self-identified Christian conservatives, the draft-dodger as champion of the military, the man who built an empire off cheating ordinary workers as tribune of the (white) working class — is the profound support that a Manhattan real-estate developer, with an almost comically New York accent, found among anti-cosmopolitan small-town and rural voters.

This is where I think Saul Steinberg’s classic representation of New York psychology can help us. Objectively you might think that the scion of an ultra-wealthy New York real-estate empire is an urban insider. But they were from Queens. Seen from 9th Avenue, Donald Trump was just another outer borough yokel. He might as well have been digging potatoes out on Long Island. McKay Coppins described this well in The Atlantic at the start of Trump’s presidency

Though he was born into a wealthy family, partaking of the various perks and privileges afforded to millionaires’ offspring, Trump grew up in Queens—a pleasant but unfashionable borough whose residents were sometimes dismissed by snooty Manhattanites as “bridge-and-tunnel people.” From a young age, he was acutely aware of the cultural, and physical, chasm that separated himself from the city’s aristocracy. In several interviews and speeches over the years, he has recalled gazing anxiously across the East River toward Manhattan, desperate to make a name for himself among the New York elite.

The most successful politicians have a howling vortex of resentment at their core, that resonates somehow with the resentments of a large fraction of the populace. If there’s anything genuine about Trump’s political persona it is this: He genuinely shares the feeling of the average American that educated elites are looking down at them. And no amount of money or cheering crowds can fill that void.