Classes and such

A short breathing space has appeared where I can post.

My two 1010 sections are going well. I’ve introduced a class blog for the first time and already at this early date I can tell it has significantly improved the quality of the discussions. It also helps, of course, to be teaching the same class for two semesters straight, a nice arrangement that I have never done before due to strange past scheduling. I really wanted 1020, the argumentation course, but my approach to 1010 is not terribly different. I suppose all composition courses are roughly the same, to some extent, only with the hoops raised or lowered as the course number may demand, though the core assignments have changed significantly, from chiefly expressivist to more analytical, from the first classes I taught two and a half years ago. Either works; the most important thing is to have them write a lot and reflect about what they’re reading.

My reading list is looking formidable enough that I am almost convinced that I will be properly educated after I finish reading it all. I think a little later this week I should be able to sketch out a dissertation proposal, enough to bandy about to a few folks.

My Greek studies remain difficult, but I can see progress. My tutor gave me a chart of irregular verbs that has sped up translation quite a bit – double-checking the verbs slows me down the most, as I’ve gotten a decent grasp of the cases. I’m still working on 1 Thessalonians for now, though I think we’ll be able to go back to working on Mark and the other gospels soon enough.

I’ve noticed more and more, though, as my Greek improves, that none of the English translations are really adequate. I’d been assuming that the NRSV was the ’scholarly’ and best translation as in the Oxford annotated edition, but it has plenty of problems, too – sometimes it’s overly liberal (and yes, that’s an odd thing for me to say, but moderation seems to be a virtue in translation). I’m still using it as my base when I get stuck along with several Greek lexicons – the short one in the back of the Aland, Bauer’s hefty tome, and a few online, but I don’t trust it as much as I did initially.

Reading list

So it has come time for me to draft up my reading list for my comprehensive exams, which will probably happen this summer. Coming up with titles is no problem, given that there are so many journal articles and books crammed into my office. I suppose task #2 will be paring the list down. I have been told to prepare 100 titles and my initial list has at least 150.

There is a 4-hour written exam and a 2-hour oral. I don’t anticipate much problem with the written… and frankly, I don’t anticipate much problem with the oral exam, either. I’ve come a long way since I nervously stuttered through my master’s exam. I’m much more well read and confident about my ability to improvise, hold forth, and admit when I should really be looking something up or I’m outside my area of expertise. I’m much more willing to disagree with folks these days – I think that is key. Merely parroting the status quo has its place – and you have to know the status quo, otherwise you don’t know what you’re disagreeing with – but I’m at the point where I have formed my own opinions about the major issues in rhetoric and composition, and I can triangulate my opinion by citing other folks.

Jimmy Carter’s blues

Wikipedia has been maintaining an excellent page that covers the controversy over Jimmy Carter’s latest book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but plan to soon. I’ll opine further at that point.

What I have noticed, however, at this early stage before I have digested the book, is the incredible tone of the criticism against Carter. I mean, this is Jimmy Carter, architect of the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt, the Prince of Peace himself, and Alan Dershowitz and the ADL is calling him anti-Semitic? Wow. That’s just… I’m having difficulty wrapping my head around the concept.

Carter’s measured replies to his critics show that he has lost none of his intelligence or class with age; my gut instinct, based on the war of words in the press and a bit of surfing, is that the book is nothing but what he says it is – a frank criticism of Israel’s policies, which are leaning toward apartheid, toward the Palestinians.

There are still quite a few supposedly educated people, apparently, that think any criticism of Israel’s policies is anti-Semitic. It must be terribly confusing to them to find Carter, long a bastion of virtue, engaging in such frank criticism in book form. Not unsurprisingly, the counterattacks seem to be focusing on factual errors in the text and labeling Carter anti-Semitic and simple-minded (a disguised and rather offensive bit of ageism against a brilliant, idealistic guy who, if there is anyone on this earth that doesn’t work for the money, is that person); they’re not challenging his thesis – to do so would acknowledge, of course, that criticizing Israel is ok.

I’m glad Carter is spending his political capital on the notion that you can point out Israel’s every policy isn’t perfect without being a neo-Nazi skinhead – more people need to. And the arguments that apartheid is an inappropriate word to use in the context of this conflict are just as convincing as the ones that the wall in the West Bank promotes peace, alas.

Moral Politics

I finished George Lakoff’s Moral Politics a few days ago – and wrote this little review but forgot to put it up. It’s another book that I have mixed feelings on.

Lakoff, along with Mark Johnson, is the forerunner of conceptual metaphor theory, which I happen to like. This book repsresents a full-scale application of that theory to politics and morality via opposing ‘Strict Father’ and ‘Nuturant Parent’ models. Overall I have to say he’s on the right track, although I would question the delivery of the concepts as well as express some reservation over his attempt at liberal policy-making near the end.

Of the first of those two observations, the book really suffers from length. It takes way too long to develop what is in the end a relatively simple to understand opposition of two metaphor families. The text could be half its length and hit much, much harder as a result.

In the resulting saved space, I would have liked to have seen more discussion of how the Strict Father/Nuturant Parent models can co-exist, for certainly they do. I’m sure there are perfect rank-and-file Americans out there who will snap to attention with the correct stimuli, hugging their respective trees or leaving babies to cry alone & thereby toughen up, but most of us are more complex. And I would especially like to see more discussion of how the liberal-minded might turn the Strict Father set of metaphors to their advantage. Recognizing and understanding them is one thing; using them with the same deftness is another.

As to the inclusion of the author’s own politics, I was ok with it, but I felt that such opinion should be in a separate work. If you’re going to lean on the trappings of scholarship, citations and whatnot, I believe a certain neutrality has to be observed – for the duration. Lakoff maintains this neutrality scrupulously for most of the book and then abandons it in the end. The tiny, pitchfork-wielding conservative that usually dozes on my shoulder leapt up and cried, “Aha! His true agenda is revealed!” Politics and academia for me are like church and state; they’re both valuable but you should only wear one hat at a time.

Islam simplified

I just finished No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam by Reza Aslan. It’s one of those books that I feel compelled to read with a pen handy, in order to substitute, perhaps, for arguing points with the author.

I’ve been on the lookout for a good ‘intro to Islam’ that I could keep around the office for reference, but I’m not sure this one qualifies. Aslan is a fine writer, though his personal beliefs intrude, making the book much less scholarly or philosophical than I’d like. As much as I emphasize with and even prefer his version of Islam’s origins, as it justifies the possibility of a modern liberal state based on an Islamic framework, I have never finished a book and felt compelled to write a rebuttal to it on the last page, until this one. I kept putting my pen down and picking it back up.

Perhaps I am just getting increasingly cranky. I don’t think so, however. Aslan states early on that he is going to tell the ’story’ of Islam rather than claim any historical accuracy, via ‘reasonable interpretation’. Furious scribbling on my part ensued. How can you champion reason and throw historical accuracy out the door? If you want to argue about the meaning of stories, the Iliad and the Odyssey are just as good subjects. Religious texts like the Quran are more than myths, more than stories – they insist, for millions of believers, on being literal truth. A discussion about Mohammed’s life and message shouldn’t avoid historical accuracy; it should begin there. Otherwise, all this idealistic talk about emulating the real ideal of Medina, the real Quran, etc, is, to quote Nero Wolfe, pfui.

The traditions of Mohammed’s life seem to me just as hazy as the ones that depict Jesus, with numerous, conflicting traditions and transmission histories – that haziness should be embraced rather than avoided, deemed irrelevant, or cherry-picked to make a point, as Aslan does more than once.

On page 21, Aslan says, “It is not important whether the stories describing the childhood of Muhammad, Jesus, or Davis are true,” and then states their rhetorical/theological message is more important. Ok, whatever. But then, referring directly back to the irrelevancy of whether those stories are true, he says, “Even so, when combined with what is known about pre-Islamic Arabian society, one can glean important historical information from these traditions.”

Well, if it isn’t important if the stories are true, then how can you justify certain parts of them are accurate? This is a common move on his part, alas. Overall, he is quite open minded, but like a lot of theologically minded folks I’ve read while trying to figure out Christian metaphors in the last half-year or so, he shies away very quickly from interrogating the foundation of his religion. There is no question for him that Muhammad existed, the various stories about him have historical underpinnings, that the Quran was transmitted through him from God (although he’s willing to note that the hadith have a strange, corruptible transmission), and we have a pretty accurate picture of Medina and Mecca at the time. The word hazy, that I used earlier, is what I would use, alas, to describe all of the same.

Now I would agree with him that the ideal Medina society is a useful model, whether it existed as reported or not, for the current versions of Islam. Humans love myths. The SCA is testimony to that. And myths can lead to great good. But religions, like everything else, are defined from where you’re standing. If historical accuracy is not important, then an Islam that dutifully reproduces Medina as the accounts describe is not Islam – it is a kind of pseudo or synthetic Islam. And lo and behold, much of the divisions, wars, and the current lack of a modern, democratic state that is predominately Islamic stem from pseudo or synthetic Islams (Wahhabism in particular) that corrupt what Aslan sees as the original, much milder message that is worth emulating and following. So I can’t see how historical accuracy doesn’t count – and how education about that accuracy wouldn’t count even more. I find this discrepancy in the text a little strange, especially considering the lengthy discussion in chapter 6 about the old-school differences between Traditionalist and Rationalist Islam, especially the position of Ibn Rushd. But, as I said before, it’s a discrepancy I’ve seen before.

I also have a bone to pick about 262’s “As recognized nearly two hundred years by Alexis de Tocqueville, religion is the foundation of America’s political system.” and the discussion of plurality that follows, as it smells of over-simplification of both de Tocqueville and the founding of the U.S., but that’s minor, and I think I ranted about that subject last week. The book succeeded in making me think and write a bit on here – that’s always good.

We meet again, Dr. Jones!

So Indy 4 will be made soon, at long last.

I wonder what the MacGuffin will be this time.

One article I found states that Lucas’ idea for the MacGuffin was ‘originally deemed too incendiary’. Hmm. It has to be old, with something to do with a major religion, somewhat supernatural, previously undiscovered or buried, power-bestowing, and everybody has to want it. Here are a few guesses as to what it is NOT:

  • The Fountain of Youth (too obvious, and Jones has already quaffed from the Grail)
  • Noah’s Ark (the subject of an early and very bad fan screenplay)
  • The Garden of Eden (apparently an ongoing rumor, but rather dull-sounding)
  • Holy Lance / Spear of Destiny (probably not, given the Grail has been done and there’s a comic book concerning this)
  • The lost city of Atlantis (the subject of a Indy PC game, so definitely out)
  • Something Arthurian – Excalibur, Avalon, etc (probably not, given the medieval themes of the last movie)
  • Something Mayan – crystal skulls?
  • The Sargasso Sea / Bermuda Triangle, where Indy could find literally anything – I think it’s been done, though.

More promising:

  • Something Chinese, possibly involving Nurhaci (the Chinese emperor’s urn that Jones trades for the diamond in ToD)
  • Something Islamic. We’ve had the Ark (Judaism), the Sankara Stones (pseudo-Hinduism), and the Holy Grail (Christianity). Islam might be up this time, though I can’t think of any good possibilities offhand (Sword of Ali? The Nazis snatch the black stone of Mecca?).
  • Something non-religious, perhaps, like the Philosopher’s Stone (alas, Harry Potter already found that).

The MacGuffin needs what H calls ‘zappy-eye’ quality. It should either give the owner great powers, or kill them violently and messily. In Indy’s universe, the MacGuffin always has the ultimate power of moral judgment, functioning as a deus ex machina that kills the bad guy and lets Indy off the hook as he is a good-hearted adventurer who is not there for power. The long delay in a script suggests difficulty in finding a good MacGuffin; let’s hope they decided on something that is at least good as the Ark.

You’d think killing Saddam would be the easy part

My comments on Saddam’s death are a bit slow. I was just thinking that I hadn’t said anything on it, perhaps because the moment was anti-climatic. Then I slowly realized the real implications.

It’s been nearly four years after the invasion; Iraq couldn’t even get the execution of Saddam right. They let a bunch of al-Sadr’s followers in on the hanging. I’d think something as utterly basic as not having the followers of a infamous Shiite cleric around when Saddam is finally hanged would be within the powers of even a startup government. What a excellent way to make martyrdom even easier to sell.

I haven’t made any wide-sweeping comments in awhile on Iraq, but here’s another one. No matter what course Bush takes at this point, the new Iraqi government is doomed to dissolve. I don’t see it surviving much longer in its current incarnation even with the current American presence.

Joseph Biden’s largely sensible plan for decentralization, following the model of the Dayton accords, is probably also doomed because it’s a Democratic plan; I can’t see Bush, who has exhibited virtually no humility since his initial comments on the November elections, caving that far. More than likely, his new ‘plan’ announced in January will be nothing more than fast talking and various stopgap measures to minimize causalities between now and 2008, when the GOP can throw the presidential election and blame the Democratic winner and Congress for ‘losing’ Iraq, thus setting the stage for the 2010 elections when they can retake the House and Senate.

I would be pleased, of course, to be proved wrong. Bush’s upcoming State of the Union should admit at least that Iraq’s government needs to be revamped. We still have the power to do this, despite the new Iraqi constitution – all we have to do is threaten to leave to get it thrown out.

T.E. Lawrence’s requirements for a successful insurgency, laid out in that odd book of his, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, still hold true. The most damning of them all is passive support of the populace. For every article or story I hear about how most Iraqi want “freedom,” I think of all the other Iraqi – a sizable number indeed to support such such a prolonged resistance – that want their piece of the Iraq pie. As long as Lawrence’s conditions hold, Iraq will be untenable.