The Free Will of Balaam's Ass

Naive readers often claim that story tellers should just summarize the point they want to make in a few sentences rather than dress it up in a story where the reader has to do the work of extracting meaning. The answer to that is that most of the time writers are doing other things than making particular points. They are describing the customs of a society or giving you a sense of a particular character or showing how dialogue advances or impedes people understanding one another. They are rarely making philosophical points and the ones who do, like Saul Bellow or other writers of the midcentury, will simply pause in the story to tell the reader what is on his or her mind. For the most part, writers will use their learning to give their descriptions greater detail rather than the other way around, use the detail to help make an abstract point. That was certainly true of Thomas Mann’s masterpiece, “Joseph and His Brothers”. Mann was steeped in all the Biblical scholarship of his time and that allowed him to create a story where the reader is enveloped in the ritualistic culture of the ancient Middle East and sees striking characters in actions detailed enough so that the reader gets a sense of how their minds work and the reader can draw from that the observation that in some ways all people whatever the age think alike while also thinking differently. That moral is drawn by the reader as a way to organize the material in hand rather than the purpose of the author, which is to describe what life is like. But there are exceptions, times when authors are indeed trying to give you a handle on a philosophical question. One of these is the story of Balaam and his ass, told in the Book of Numbers 21-23, where the author seems intent on resolving a philosophical dilemma, which is the nature of free will, even though, for the most part, the Old Testament is not given over to metaphysical speculation but, rather, avoids it.

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Religious Heroism

Heroism, so I have been told by real heroes, such as Medal of Honor winners, is neither planned nor done out of an excess of courage, but seems either a fluke or inevitable, people only doing what they do naturally, and so the title of “hero” is worn begrudgingly. I want to call attention to a minor form of heroism of my own, one that did not put my life but only my soul at risk, which happened when I was a teenager, and so at a time when I would be wont to take risks for no reason, only later to understand the reasons why. It was my youthful religious rebellion, which is a time honored story and my own might seem a naive one to people with better religious training than I had acquired at the time.

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The Kavanaugh Confirmation

Well, despite my prediction otherwise, it now seems that something important is about to take place in politics before Mueller weighs in with his report and totally upsets the Washington apple cart. That is the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. This time, both parties are spoiling for a fight and will engage with one another and that may result in confrontations over ideas of the sort we haven’t seen in a while. That is because both parties see important issues at stake and because side thinks that  the public will side with them. The Republicans are on the brink of having a majority conservative court for a generation or two and believe that the voters will side with them in the midterms because the Court is so important to their base and this will lead the voters to not concentrate so much on making the midterms a referendum on Trump’s character. The Democrats believe that what is at stake are abortion rights and health insurance and that the voters, particularly women, will turn out in force if they believe those rights to be threatened. So it will be a gloves off confirmation hearing, no beating about the bush, however much recent confirmation hearings allowed nominees to get off the hook by claiming that they cannot opine on any matters that may appear before the Court and so have made the Senate settle for anodyne descriptions of cases from the past and what the nominees wish to present as the way judges settle cases. That way they avoided the disaster that occured with Justice Bork, where he was penalized for actually getting into substance about his own jurisprudence. I think he got the best of the argument but it also led Senators to side against him under the excuse that he was too proud of his legal acumen. A nominee is supposed to be both brilliant and modest.

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Cultural Circles

I maintain my friendships with the people I knew first as the friends of my wife but to whom, over the years, I also became close. I like them for themselves alone, and not just because they were originally my wife’s friends, but it would be less than truthful not to say that part of my current relationship with them is to preserve a part of my life that is now over. These were the circle of friends I shared with my wife and so being with them brings back that long part of my life when we were all together, now my dead wife just an absent member of the circle. I am sure they feel the same way. I suppose that part of being old is declining health or no longer having career ambitions or other sources of stress, but part of it is also being left with a leftover life to live after the magic circle of people who hung together for a long period of time has been broken. Cultural circles are also like that. What were once called people to whom we were only vicariously related also make up sets of people who belong together, that circle inhabiting an era that exists beyond a particular individual and where the characteristics of the cultural circle can be treated as providing some of the characteristics of that era.



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The Stability of Electoral Politics

The Enlightenment thinkers, whose ideas were put into practice during the Age of Democratic Revolutions at the end of the Eighteenth and the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, believed that elections could replace hereditary monarchy as a principle of stable and peaceful succession of governmental regimes. Rousseau thought there should be elections every year, a thought shared much later by the English Chartists of 1848, who wanted an annual Parliament. This idea of how to avoid the succession crises of the Roman Empire or of what to do if a king did not have legitimate offspring, which had led to general wars involving all the major European powers, or if the King had become so obnoxious that his people could no longer put up with him, was a radical idea in at least three ways. First, it meant that the life of a regime would be rather short: four years in the American system, and so long as the Prime Minister could command a majority in a Parliament subject to frequent elections, no Long Parliament, such as had kept Charles I in power, any longer allowed. How could such a short term regime build up the expertise in its leadership or its ministries so that experienced people could cope with a crisis? In an electoral system, as we who observe the political scene well know, you are up for reelection just as you are getting the hang of the thing. Thomas Jefferson confronted this problem when he said that you could train enough “natural aristocrats” so that they could manage the government. Second, elections are a rather cumbersome device. It requires gathering people at polling stations, examining their credentials and certifying the results, all of which might lead to unrest. The Founding Fathers left the governance of elections to the states while the number of seats each state would be granted in the House of Representatives was decided by a decennial census, science replacing the judgments that had led to rotten boroughs in England, where places which had lost their populations were still represented in Parliament because Parlament had long ago granted representation to those places. And, third, you are trusting to the people to make these very crucial judgments, people not as well educated as, for the most part, the people that were elected to represent them. It would have made people considering the prospects of democratic elections think that the experiment could not last very long-- and yet it has lasted more than two hundred years, and elections as the way to legitimize a ruler are respected largely everywhere, even in Russia. Putin may rig his elections but he stands for them and is somewhat concerned about public opinion, which is why he presents himself as a macho man, which is more than can be said for the leaders of China and North Korea. Why has government through elections proven to be so reliable in keeping succession orderly even if the choices made by the electorate are not always wise?

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Political Update

It is time to review the bidding on domestic and international political events. More than a year ago, I predicted that nothing much would happen until the Mueller Report, which at that time was expected in a few months. It has been a long while since then but I think that, on the whole, my prediction remains sound despite the events of the past few weeks, including the separation of children from their families at the Mexican border, which does much to besmirch the reputation of the United States, but is not nearly as bad as the things that were expected to happen under Trump when Trump was first elected.

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The Activity of Conversation

When I was a child and went to visit relatives with my parents, I thought how fortunate I was to be a child because I could go off to play in the room of my relative’s child, and use his toys as well as the ones I had brought with me, while the adults spent their time in the living room just talking. I was not aware of the activity of conversation and what were its rewards. That had to wait until I was slightly older when I would sit on the stoop outside my apartment building and go over what my friends and I had seen on television or what we knew about girls. It is worth pondering conversation as an essential human activity and how it is structured. I will leave to others, such as Roland Wulbert, the question of how we are able to exchange utterances so that they add up to something meaningful.

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The Stratification of Illness and Disability

One way to see illness and disability as topics for sociology is to see them as mediated through culture, and so, let us say, some groups report more symptoms or different ones than does another group, or researchers point out that primitive peoples saw epileptics (and gays) as people inspirited by the gods. Another way to address the issue of the social context of illness and disability is to think of illness and disability as part of the universal human condition. People's selves (or souls) inhabit a body on which they depend and sometimes those bodies fail them, either temporarily or chronically or terminally. How do people deal with the fact that there are periods of time when they cannot carry out their normal round of life? Sick and disabled people are deviant in that they cannot meet their other responsibilities. We excuse them with sick days or time off to lay in bed until they recover if their ailment is temporary, which is usually the case with infectious diseases. We make accommodations, such as wheelchair ramps, for people who have chronic or permanent problems. We supply philosophical or religious surcease for those who are terminally ill, and then we remove their remains from sight according to legally binding rituals like death certificates and socially mandated ceremonies such as funerals. Illness and disability are therefore conditions to be managed. As Goffman pointed out, a person with a colostomy will try to hide the fact and so not offend people by smelling bad. Blind people and the wheelchair bound, Goffman also noted, will call attention to their condition so as to set the non-ill and non-disabled at ease in dealing with them. Hospitals and nursing homes are places to send the ill so as to treat them but also so as to get them out of the way, hospitals originally places to send people so they could die out of sight.

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Illegal Immigrant Children

The separation of children from their parents has quickly replaced the North Korea deal as the story of the day, even as Trump brushes aside as a technicality the question of when North Korea disarms. Reporters had not sufficiently updated themselves on the new story so that they could do little more than express outrage when the Secretary of Homeland Security appeared before them three days ago. Nor did they pick up on what she said, which was devastating. She said people accompanying children would only be arrested if they could not prove they were the parents of the children. Did it not occur to the reporters to ask how that was supposed to be accomplished? Even a birth certificate would not do because those usually do not have photographs as if the photograph of a two or three day old baby looks like the two or four year old being presented at the border. A previous official, who had served in the Obama Administration, said you could see who were parents by how they interacted with the children and that was good enough for him. So what did the Secretary mean by “proof”? Moreover, she added, people who wanted to present themselves for asylum ought to present themselves at ports of entry, which means everyone who crossed elsewhere would not have to be treated as asylum seekers and so could be arrested. She went on to say that crossing the border illegally was a crime according to federal law, and so people violating it can be arrested and their children separated from them. But it is a misdemeanor rather than a felony and so such draconian measures are not required.

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NYC Test High Schools

Mayor Bill De Blasio is once again pushing a plan to eliminate a single test as the basis for admission to New York City’s elite academic high schools. Such a plan has failed in the past because so many State Senators and Assembly people attended those high schools and remember them fondly. That may change this time around because more and more legislators were on the outside looking in and don’t understand why white and Asian students should get the overwhelming number of seats. It doesn’t seem equal or fair or just. Without taking sides on the dispute, but not leaving the issue to whether people do or do not remember their high school experience fondly, I would like to review the concepts that have been rolled out and help to restore them from being the cliches they have become in educational discourse to being legitimate terms of analysis.

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The North Korea Deal

Some Presidents and diplomats think that the panoply of summit meetings distract from the hard negotiations that take place there and so they arrange for extended stays at isolated spots so that participants can dig into details and come to compromises. Carter used Camp David, Clinton also used Camp David, and Roger Holbrooke used Dayton Air Force Base. Carter and Holbrooke were successful and Clinton was not. Churchill, for his part, regarded panoply as an essential part of what was to be undertaken. Famously, he arranged for the hymns at the Anglican Church service he held on the deck of the H.M.S. Prince of Wales when Roosevelt and Churchill met off the coast of Newfoundland in 1940 to issue their proclamation of the Four Freedoms to be the same hymns that FDR might have heard at Groton when he went to school there. The purpose was to build a sense of solidarity between the two nations by showing their intimate connections with one another. Churchill fills many pages of his memoir about World War II with the toasts presented at international meetings. That was not just to fill space or to use whatever in the archives was available but to provide his sense that the toasts, in some complicated way, spelled out what the toasters really thought about their allies and what they really thought the alliances could accomplish. Trump is different or, to modify Marx, anything serious shows up sooner or later as farce. Trump likes the panoply for its own sake because he thinks that is the substance of any agreement, and so he has a win-win situation in his Singapore meeting with Kim Jong Un in that whether he walked away from it saying it had failed or, as he hoped, walked away from it proclaiming it a great victory, which he did, it would play well in America with his base and beyond, Democrats not knowing what to say to an agreement without substance, not that it mattered, in that Trump seemed confused about whether the final document did or did not refer to verification of nuclear disarmament, because he knew that denuclearization was not at the heart of the agreement, which was, rather, that the United States would normalize relations with North Korea, welcome it into the world community, never mind its nuclear weapons or its human rights abuses. And that was a very good deal indeed, no matter that critics are caught flat footed wondering what North Korea gave up in the immediate or near future in exchange for being welcomed into the world community and having some of its own security needs addressed, such as the elimination of joint US-ROK military exercises.

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Authority and Authoritarianism

Authority and authoritarianism are difficult concepts to sort out, and the device of four fold tables, once popular in sociology, can help in doing that.

Authority is the sense that being subordinate is the fitting and proper way to feel and behave, whatever the consequences. Indeed, subordination can be perceived as the only way it is possible to feel and behave in that there is no way to live without having an authority to govern one’s life, whether that is the authority of God or a government or an ethical code. Kierkegaard, of course, is the exemplar of the thinker who places such authority in God, His authority beyond the moral plane in that one should even be willing to sacrifice one’s own son if God demands it. Governments provide an authority that is like that, though they reserve only to wars as the times to demand ultimate sacrifices, governments most of the time treated by their citizens and subjects as perhaps beneficial authorities or as troublesome nuisances. Mostly, Constitutional documents are ones which are cited when one of their provisions are in dispute, but it can be said, in the United States, that the ideas of due process and equality before the law make up a set of common concerns that are of interest to most citizens. Kant is the one who most clearly posits a moral code as the ultimate authority in that the introduction of the word “should” into a sentence is sufficient excuse to demand all of the sacrifices required of a believer: to turn one’s friend into the police, to treat someone with disdain as an evil doer, to guide one in everyday undertakings. Far from being a proponent of a common sense allegiance to practical morality, such as when one is advised to do what the job dictates rather than decide to assume responsibilities for which an employee or a person may not know enough about to carry out successfully despite all good intentions, Kantianism can lead to an absolutism that says “I was just doing my job” or “Mine is to obey and not know the reason why”, although to give Kant his due, he did not have to contemplate how to morally act in Hitler’s world even if he had the historical example of Calvin’s Geneva before him. Kant didn’t think an authority would be unreasonably cruel.

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Lies and Trust

Most of the things Trump does as President are not likely to outlast him. Tax bills go in one direction under Republican Administrations and then go in the other direction under Democratic Administrations. Environmental regulations can be rolled back even as some of the changes do not even get implemented because Scott Pruitt’s EPA staff is so inept. The Federal Judiciary will, however, be impacted for a generation, but who cares how the North Korea negotiations go? They won’t move the yardstick very far no matter what happens and the next Administration can start all over again. The Europeans know that they can just outlast this Administration and the long term, bipartisan policy towards Europe will be back in place. What has changed, however, are some basic perceptions about the political culture, and I want to talk about two of those, one which is very overt and discussed, and the other not so.

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Second Half of Twentieth Century American Fiction

It is sad to sum up a lifetime of reading contemporary American fiction, as if that came anywhere near to summing up a life or the meaning that was found in it, but here goes.

Philip Roth, who died just the other day, made a big splash when his first book, the collection of short stories, "Goodbye Columbus", appeared when I was an undergraduate. All the young literary people I knew were much taken with him and not just because he was so clearly a Jewish writer. We also had Malamud and Bellow and the still then insufficiently appreciated I. B. Singer, who was the best of the lot. But we stayed with Roth because he delivered the goods-- at least his goods: his preoccupation with the lives of Jews, sex, the nature of irony, all of which seemed very repetitious until now, just this past year, when the tumescence of males has to be defended rather than, as in Roth’s day, merely recognized to be thought shocking. The themes of his late novels as in "The Human Stain" and "Everyman", become so much more universal. Often overlooked as a piece of serious literature is Roth’s “The Plot to Undermine America”, which is treated by critics as a polemic alternative history of the sort Sinclair Lewis fashioned in “It Could happen Here”, but is in fact a work which shows how welcoming America is to its Jewish residents, the Irish Newark Police Chief comforting Roth’s mother during the worst of an anti-Jewish riot by telling her that he would protect her by giving her special police protection. It is she who turns away at the door during that riot her own sister who had sided with Lindbergh as President and whose husband had set up CCC like camps for Jewish youth so as to assimilate them into American society. But Roth’s mother sees all this as malign intent against the Jews, while Roth the author sees it as non-threatening, and the demented Philip, the narrator, reflects his mother’s view, his breakdown not healed until 1963 when the alternative history becomes united with actual history on the date of JFK’s assassination. As if who is in the right is not made clear by Roth’s mother turning away her own sister at the time of the rioting. So much for blood being thicker than ideology. Would a German Jew have turned away on Kristallnacht a sister who had gone all secular? So the book is an exploration of how fantasies can turn malignant, and yet that still does not leave it as a major achievement, which is to invest the reader in a fantasy, malignant or not, from which it is not easy to awake, as is the case in Kafka and Mann and Faulkner.

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Harvey Weinstein

There are three reasons why I am indifferent to the fate of Harvey Weinstein, a man even his defense lawyer has already stipulated is gross and manipulative. The first reason is that I have opposed the #metoo movement because it was interested only in making angry denunciations of people it regarded as guilty of a number of sex offenses that ranged from the relatively innocuous to outright rape. Well, here, finally, we have someone in the dock and I have confidence that Cy Vance’s office did not bring these charges lightly, though that cannot be said of District Attorney offices throughout the country, especially when the aggrieved parties are African-American. The defendant will have a chance to face his accusers for specific crimes. The jury will have to sort out whether Weinstein’s entreaties were a negotiation to bring about a deal where services were exchanged or whether it was intimidation that constituted sexual contact without consent. I don’t know how the trial will turn out.

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What A Classicist Discovers

Classicists are awesome. Those that I know personally and those whom I have read are the smartest and most widely read people I know. They have mastered languages and history and literary criticism and whatever other fields of scholarship and social science that come to interest them. Well known classicists apply these skills far beyond the subject matter of the ancient world. Norman O. Brown became expert in psychoanalytic theory and Gary Wills has written very freshly about both the Gettysburg Address and The Declaration of Independence. Classics remains the hardest of the liberal arts, harder even then philosophy, in that classicists know ancient philosophy, and harder than history and English and the Romance languages, classicists also having to know the related disciplines of politics and art history, and classics is certainly harder than the social sciences, my own field of sociology coming out at or near the bottom of the pecking order. And so I picked up Mary Beard’s book “Confronting the Classics” with high expectations. She is a renowned classicist of this generation and I had very much admired another of her books, “SPQR”, which is a history of Rome, for its clear style and judicious appraisal of its materials and I thought that this book, which is a collection of essay-reviews, would give me an idea of how a classicist fits into her field and of the give and take of scholarly controversy in the field. The book does have her sprighty style and makes use of her vast knowledge of literature up to the present time, but it was disappointing because, to put it bluntly, the issues that she sees as concerning classical scholarship yield very little in the way of results and are resolved mainly by rhetorical flourish. Is the day to day work of classicists really such small beer?

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Universal Roles

Writers and social scientists have always given thought to the sequence of roles that dominate a person’s life and putatively apply to any and all people and so constitute “the ages of man”. Good role theorists that most of them are, they each pick out one or more salient circumstances of each stage that may be obvious but also illuminate the psychological dimensions of that stage as well as its overall meaning. Sophocles, in his riddle of the Sphinx, saw only three stages but his characterization is perhaps still the best in that it is the most minimalist: people crawl on all four as babies; walk erect as adults; and use a cane in old age. Physical frailty characterizes both the last and the first of these stages and so makes the Sophoclean sense of life very sad. Shakespeare thought there were seven stages and he characterized them, in his own vivid way, by a circumstance, an emotion, and an activity. Schoolboys head off to school with their satchels; they are unwilling to do so and whine about it; and they go to school anyway. Soldiers curse a lot, are jealous of their reputations and remain brave even while “in the cannon’s mouth”. All seven stages are portrayed in the most benign way and that suggests that Jacques is speaking in the mood of Arden rather than with the malevolence that Shakespeare usually ascribes to the human condition. That means that one should presume an expositor of universal human roles is not to be trusted, even the present author, whose descriptions are underlain with a sense of the isolation of each human being from other human beings. Erik Erikson, who  saw there to be eight stages of psychosocial development, based his view on the basic Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity. He thought that the fundamental stage of human life was the first one, when an infant sensed that he could trust the outside world to be stable and reliable. Basic trust is a form of faith. But Erikson’s idea is also based on a deep insight into what are the circumstances a baby has to manage from the baby’s point of view: the problems of nourishment and comfort. A later stage in Erikson’s schema concerns the ability to engage in a meaningful conjugal relationship, which means having to develop a capacity for intimacy rather than isolation and that challenge is certainly a version of charity. A yet later stage, that of generativity, concerns how a person can take advantage of opportunities to do productive work during one’s adult years, and that is a version of hope.

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Zones of Identity

Zones of identity are the aspects of the immediate social world that a person identifies with so strongly that the person does not feel complete without it or them. So a person is not fully that without something that is outside his brain, and so there is no getting around the fact that the social sphere is every bit as real as the psychological one, much less the neurological one, even if, obviously, a person might survive without one or another zone of identity, however diminished a life it would be, but it would also be difficult to conceptualize what a person would be without some one or another zone of identity, whether that is occupational or the comfort of having a family hearth to return to at the end of the day, that being the place where one is truly “oneself”.

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A Primer on the Family

Here is a primer on the sociology of the family. It departs from my other primers in that some of my definitions are controversial rather than simply the collected wisdom of the field as I express that in terms of role theory. I say this by way of introduction because I always promised my students, when I was teaching, that I would tell them when I was presenting a consensus of thought within the discipline or presenting a controversial issue or even just presenting my own view of the matter being discussed.

A family is a social arrangement whereby members share intimate activities or activities made intimate by taking place only or largely only within the family. So families share meals, share finances, share concerns for the welfare of other members of the family, and aid one another in crises, and the mother and father in the family also share a bed. In these ways, the family is a locus of feeling and community, given that a community is a set of families or maybe even just a set of people that share aspects of life in common, such as wheat fields or a church or a sense of identity. Communities, like families, thereby become the focus of deep emotions. In these modern times, families and communities are at odds with one another because the two loyalties conflict with one another rather than reinforce one another. The family is a nuclear unit in that its members go out into the world to make a living or to seek provisions or social nurture and so the views and interests of the family can conflict with the realm of the church or  the heartless economic world. Moreover, many of the prerogatives of the family have been usurped by the community at large. Education is delegated to the school system; medical care to the hospital system; an income to the office or factory. Indeed, all that seems left to the family is making decisions having to do with the health of its members in that final decisions about ending care for a terminal patient are left to family members, though the state is sufficiently intrusive that it is now the law that a parent seek medical assistance for an ailing child. Families are no longer free to do what they like even after the bond of making a family has been accomplished through a marriage ceremony, and yet it falls to a family to supervise the final days of a loved one or (to the mother alone) what is to be done about a problematic or unwanted foetus.

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