The Political Theology of Ecclesiastes

Why is the Teacher so depressed? When I was a teenager, the existential angst felt natural and obvious. Returning to the text as an adult who will be teaching it in class, I felt less secure. It seemed almost like an American arthouse film from the 70s, with everyone railing against an unspecified “phoniness” to which there nonetheless seemed to be no alternative. Compared to what is everything “vanity”? This is the only world, the only point of reference we have — what would it even mean for it to be meaningless?

And then it hit me: this isn’t the only point of reference, because this very “secular” text makes strategic reference (unlike Esther, for example) to God. Ecclesiastes is the lament of a man who can never be God, who lives in a world that God set up to remind you that you can never be God. The more he seeks for power, wisdom, and permanence, the more obvious it becomes that he can never be as all-powerful, as all-knowing, as eternal as God is. Indeed, the more he pushes the boundaries of what is possible for human beings — it is no accident that this text is traditionally attributed to Solomon, the pinnacle of human achievement in the Hebrew biblical tradition — the more reminders he gets.

Hence the continual advice that we should eat and drink and enjoy our toil. It’s not that those things are great or enjoyable. We are not dealing with an edifying message that we should “live for today.” The reason we should embrace fleeting pleasures and make the most of our subordination is that then we will not have to live with any painful reminders that we are not God.

In The Prince of This World, I claim that the political theology of the Hebrew Bible sets up a rivalry between God and the earthly ruler, and Ecclesiastes is arguably the only place that we see that rivalry from the first-person perspective of the ruler himself. Hence if Pharaoh is the primal root of the figure of the devil as God’s permanently humiliated rival, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes is the root of the philosophical despair of Milton’s devil, who knows for a fact that he can never defeat or replace God, but nonetheless feels compelled to keep trying — because for all his diagnoses of vanity, we never hear that the Teacher follows his own advice and abdicates the throne to become a simple laborer.

No one who has seized upon that hopeless hope can ever give up the quest to be God. Once that insane, impossible thought has entered one’s mind, there is no choice but to embrace the futility and humiliation and pain as a protest that becomes its own pleasure and satisfaction. Better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven — and better a world in which I can cast God as an illegitimate, arbitrary despot (in the very canon of Scripture!) than a world in which I cannot be God.

Worst practices in curriculum design

The current “best practice” for course/curriculum design is to start from the learning objectives and then fill in gradually more detail, only supplying the actual course content at a relatively late stage. When Shimer was going through some curriculum debates a few years ago, I opportunistically seized upon this principle as a way to open up a little more space for thinking about new and different readings, but it was a way of thinking that just didn’t work, ultimately. We had one meeting when everyone seemed to be on board, and then we got back to the traditional debates over particular readings and how we can’t remove this one thing that really “works,” etc. And I don’t think this was because my Shimer colleagues are especially hidebound — the way they do curriculum design is just the way everyone does it.

The so-called “best practices,” as usual, have virtually never been done, and that’s because they presuppose a very simplistic, unidirectional version of curriculum development. Continue reading “Worst practices in curriculum design”

Back to normal

This summer, a lot has changed in my life. We moved from the apartment and neighborhood where we had lived for seven years, which felt more like home to me even than my hometown did when I was a child. I am in the midst of a job transition as a result of North Central College’s acquisition of Shimer College, and I am also completing a manuscript that marks something of an endpoint of the “devil project” that has been guiding my research since my dissertation. I have taken the opportunity to change a lot of other, more trivial things — switching banks, opting for a Mac for my work computer after years as a hardened PC user, even changing my hairstyle — and deided to spend the last few weeks of summer vacation learning biblical Hebrew, a long-delayed goal that felt right precisely because it is something of a non-sequitur.

Yet in my unguarded moments, I realize that I still expect things to go “back to normal.” When I shared this with The Girlfriend and tried to articulate what that “normal” was, it turned out to be a relatively short window — perhaps my second or third year at Shimer, when the dog was still with us and in good health, before The Girlfriend went to grad school and changed careers. Things felt more open-ended then, like it could stay that way forever. I knew Shimer was fragile, but had no way of anticipating the obstacles we would face, nor of course any glimmer of the possibility that we would join a larger institution. I was not involved in any major projects other than translation and the occasional invited article or talk.

The fact that this situation was actually very unusual and short-lived is not lost on me. Continue reading “Back to normal”

The Strategy of Appeasement on Right-Wing Harassment

Earlier this week, a fellow academic who shall remain nameless posted a link to this story of an academic being fired for expressing their own private political views. The lesson this individual had drawn from this incident is that academics need to learn to think before they tweet. Maybe so. But colleges and universities also need to learn to think before they throw their faculty to the wolves. The crime of saying something questionable on Twitter is much less serious than the crime of destroying someone’s career.
Continue reading “The Strategy of Appeasement on Right-Wing Harassment”

Avoiding cultural appropriation may be easier than you think!

Word on the street is that the PC police are at it again. Their new unreasonable expectation is that people should avoid “cultural appropriation,” which in the minds of anti-PC columnists means that literally no one should ever engage with any cultural artifact outside of their own culture. I mean, who could possibly think that, right?! What does that even mean?

Back here in the real world, no one does actually think that. No one wants hermetically sealed cultural bubbles, other than perhaps white supremacists. In reality, the key word is appropriation. The goal is not to prevent cross-cultural dialogue, but to insist upon it. The rule is that if you want to engage with a cultural artifact, you need to engage with the real-live people who are cultivating it.

So here are a couple examples. If Eminem claimed that he invented rapping, that would be cultural appropriation. If he collaborated regularly with black artists who accepted him as a member of their artistic community, that would be healthy cross-cultural dialogue. If he became increasingly detached from that black community as his career progressed and accepted being treated as the only rapper on earth, then he would be edging toward cultural appropriation even after a non-appropriating start. If I read a book about Buddhism and decided to start a Buddhist retreat without ever talking to a single living Buddhist practioner, that would be appropriation. If I read a book on Buddhism and decided I wanted to practice and hence started consulting with actual practicing Buddhists who have a living connection with the places and communities where Buddhism originated, then that’s healthy cross-cultural dialogue. Odds are, it would take a lot of work before I got to the point where I could start a Buddhist community of my own without it constituting appropriation, and I would need to make sure that the actual pre-existing Buddhist community I had joined approved before doing that. If I thought they were being overly narrow-minded, then I would have to take responsibility for the appearance of cultural appropriation and expect to receive criticism in that regard.

There are some borderline cases. For example, I taught a couple courses on Islamic thought with only minimal engagement with real-world Islamic communities. To some extent, I think that’s justified — my whole approach to religious thought is historical rather than sociological — but it was also partly laziness and a generally anti-social predisposition. At the same time, I didn’t claim that I discovered Islam or that I was the only or best source for authentic Islamic teaching. If someone rated my performance “problematic” in this regard, I couldn’t help but hear them out and promise to do better next time. That’s life. Other things I have done have been called out as problematic as well, and I survived. Sometimes I think people’s concerns are exaggerated, but most of the time I think they have a point. It’s my decision how to respond and whether to take their criticism seriously, but if I don’t change my behavior, I don’t have a right to never be criticized. Again, that’s life — there’s no way to be perfectly insulated from all criticism in advance.

No one is perfect — and by the same token, no one is required to jump straight to the most outraged defensiveness any time someone points out a mistake that they might not have thought of on their own. If the anti-PC columnists are so concerned to preserve the great tradition of cross-cultural dialogue, they might want to try having an actual conversation with critics of cultural appropriation instead of (wait for it…) appropriating the concept of “cultural appropriation” for their own ends and defining it in whatever way they want. The best way to preserve cross-cultural dialogue is to engage in it, instead of unilaterally proclaiming your righteousness from on high.

The problem with “backlash” arguments

Yesterday, two prominent centrist luminaries, Joy Reid and Kos of Daily Kos, took to Twitter to blame low voter turnout among minorities for Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio. This is a disturbing example of victim blaming, not least because Trump actually lost the popular vote by a resounding margin. It is only the most explicit version of an increasingly popular trope in mainstream commentary, which I would call the backlash argument. If we denounce Nazis too much, then people will dig in their heels and identify as Nazis. If we use physical force in protest settings, then they will unleash even more force. If we attend too closely to the needs of racial minorities, then we will alienate white people. Etc., etc., etc.

The problem with this type of argument is that it treats reactionary opinions and actions as an immutable force of nature. Only our side has moral agency and responsibility — they are machine-like creatures of instinct, who decide what to do purely based on what we do. The underlying logic is identical to the public discourse on police shootings, which I critique in the opening of The Prince of This World: the victim always could have acted differently, always “had a choice,” whereas the police officer “just reacted.” In this type of victim-blaming rhetoric, the tendency of police officers to murder black people in cold blood is held constant as a brute fact that the victim is responsible for navigating.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t attempt to anticipate the probable effects of our actions. But if people choose to join the alt-right, it’s not the fault of people who are annoying on left-wing Tumblr — it’s their own fault. If people support Trump, it’s not the Democrats’ fault for hurting their feelings by taking identity politics seriously — it’s their own fault. The upshot of this observation is not to properly distribute blame as an end in itself, but to recognize that they are free responsible human agents who have chosen to take sides against us. They are not automatons to be manipulated through carefully calibrating our messaging to avoid triggering their poor pathetic hurt feelings, but enemies who must be defeated or, failing that, contained. Conservatives are constantly complaining that liberals are patronizing, so let’s take them seriously as fellow human beings and hold them responsible for their actions by depriving them of power.