What did Noah begin?

In Genesis 9 (facing Hebrew, NRSV), after God promises never to send another Flood to destroy all living things, our attention turns to Noah and his three sons, from whom “the whole earth was peopled” (9:19). After being reminded of their three names — “Shem, Ham, and Japheth” — which are repeated again and again, in that order, and being told of Ham’s son Caanan (surely, an unfortunate name from a biblical standpoint; 9:18), the text informs us that “Noah began” (וַיָּחֶל נֹחַ). As a man of the soil (אִישׁ הָאֲדָמָה, ish adamah, the latter term from the same cluster of Hebrew words that includes “Adam” and dam, blood), he planted a vineyard (9:20). The NRSV interprets this to mean that Noah is the first to plant a vineyard, and if that is the case, then perhaps we can excuse Noah’s drunken behavior as that of a person unacquainted with the ways of wine.

Let’s assume, though, that at some point in the 2000 years of human history, it occurred to one of the extremely long-lived (and presumably very bored) primal humans to cultivate wine. We do know, after all, that other trappings of civilization are known, including even such advanced arts as metalworking (4:22). If winemaking was a known skill, one with which Noah was well acquainted from the 600 years of his life prior to the Flood, then perhaps we can read “Noah began” more broadly: Noah began to rebuild the human world, and his first step was to make some wine. It is a promising beginning, perhaps betokening a celebration of their survival, or a ratification of their unique bond after inhabiting the ark for over six months.

But Noah takes this token of fellowship and hoards it all for himself. He drinks, and becomes drunk, and reaches such a point that he exposes himself in his tent. The unlucky Ham sees it, then tells his brothers about the unfortunate scene, leading them to cover up their father while studiously avoiding laying eyes on his nakedness. When Noah awakes, he curses the Canaan, the son of Ham, to be “a slave of slaves” (עֶבֶד עֲבָדִים), or as the NRSV puts it, “the lowest of slaves.” This passage, which was clearly intended to legitimate Israel’s conquest of Canaan, would go on to have an improbable afterlife as a prooftext for the African slave trade, as Ham later came to be seen as the father of the nations of Africa.

Even if the latter reading is a clear ideological forcing, the passage deals inescapably with a hierarchy among nations and peoples. This is what Noah is “beginning.” The first step is for Noah, as the father, to claim the beverage of fellowship all for himself. And when that assertion of authority has the unexpected side effect of humiliating him by exposing his nakedness, he creates a pecking order among his own sons. This fact is somewhat obscured by translations, which typically render Noah’s description of Ham (בְּנוֹ הַקָּטָן) as “his youngest son” (9:24). Yet prior to this, we had no reason to suspect that Ham was the youngest. The trio is always listed in an order that places Ham second, and he is the only one who is credited with having a son of his own — so if anything, we might guess that he is the oldest prior to Noah’s declaration.

More than that, in the many biblical genealogies that precede this passage, the norm has been for only the first son to be named, after which the text makes an indifferent gesture toward other sons and daughters. Among the patriarchs, only Adam and a descendent of Cain named Lamech have multiple named sons. In Adam’s case, the birth order is clearly specified. Lamech’s first two sons, Jabal and Jubal, are born to the same wife and could reasonably be assumed to be twins. Could Noah’s sons be triplets? Even leaving aside that speculation, they have been treated as equals up to this point, most often simply grouped together as unnamed “sons.”

Hence I suggest that Noah is not designating Ham as his youngest son, but — following other possible meanings for the adjectives qatan — as his smallest, most insigificant, most worthless son. I might even dare to translate it as “his shitheel son.” Noah’s assertion of paternal authority had backfired and lowered him in his sons’ eyes, and so he deflects that shame and thinks of the son in whose eyes he was most vividly diminished as himself small and worthless. What’s more, the very thing that seems to point toward equality with Noah — Ham’s status as father — is then twisted into a curse, as this son is no longer an heir but a hyperbolic “slave of slaves.”

What Noah “begins,” then, is the whole order of hierarchy and domination that had been wiped out by the Flood. Nothing in God’s behavior had pointed in this direction. Though there is a privilege granted to humanity over against the animals, in that humans can kill animals for food but not vice verse, there is no indication of any intra-human hierarchy in God’s covenant — all equally enjoy the benefits of a new food source and the assurance that no future Flood will wipe them out. The biblical author portrays hierarchy and domination as a human choice. And I think there is wisdom to be found in the biblical author’s decision to ground that curse, not in Noah’s lust for power and domination, but in his shame.

A teachable moment on “fake news”

This new tell-all book about the Trump administration (excerpted in New York Magazine) is a teachable moment for “fake news.” The author, Michael Wolff, has a reputation for exaggeration and even falsification, including conversations that are recounted in such vivid detail that they basically have to be invented on some level. Some significant portion of this book is likely to be bullshit, and even just from reading it, I think any critical thinker is going to suspect that some of it is just too good to be true.

Nonetheless, people who hate Trump are passing around the juiciest stories already, and the full book is likely to be a goldmine for months to come. The reason is that they hate Trump, and these stories are satisfying because they present Trump in an extremely humiliating light. The implication is that they believe the stories are true, though if pressed they would probably say that they don’t care if the particular details are true because the overall message is. And that’s fine. I hate Trump, too. I read and found satisfaction in the excerpt. I might well pass along select tidbits in casual conversation.

I’m not here to judge anyone, just to suggest that the other side is reading their exaggerated “fake news” stories in much the same way. I’m sure we can all imagine our conservative uncle spouting some improbable story about Hillary, then backing down if pressed but nonetheless maintaining that the overall message that Hillary is corrupt or untrustworthy is true. They don’t care if it’s true — they just find the stories somehow enjoyable because they provide further fodder to hate people they already hate.

I’m something of a broken record on this topic. Why do I think it’s important? First, I think we need to realize that political antagonism takes this form more or less universally. You decide who your enemy is first, and then you seek narratives that help support that decision. Regarding your enemy as an honorable worthy opponent is the exception rather than the rule. Such declarations are likely to be tactical moves meant to convince rivals of one’s own reasonableness, as shown by the fact that the “reasonable Republicans,” for example, are either dead, out of power, or marginal within their party.

The phenomenon of demonization is much more serious on the right than the left, of course. The conspiracy theories about Hillary are much more unhinged than anything we see about Trump. But I keep wanting to point it out on the left because the liberal’s default view is that I have rationality and discernment, whereas the primitive other takes everything literally. It goes back to the faith vs. reason distinction — those who embrace faith commit themselves, in the liberal view, to slavishly obeying authority in a machine-like way. Hence they swallow whatever “fake news” Facebook feeds them, while we are able to maintain ironic distance. In reality, though, basically every educated person is capable of taking up ironic distance toward authoritative claims, and no one — no one! — follows any type of authority, even scriptural authority, in a mechanically literal way.

Am I advocating for some kind of sympathetic recognition that our enemies are human, too, sharing our own foibles, etc., etc.? Far from it: the fact that our enemies are human is what makes them enemies. What I’m interested in is winning, and we can never win if we have such an impoverished view of the people we are struggling against. The view that our enemies will just believe whatever is put in front of them, for instance, leads down blind alleys such as the attempt to restore “truth” to reporting — as though the media wasn’t always a site of political struggle. They are not slavish followers of authority, nor are we purely logical beings. We won’t win by convincing them that Hillary wasn’t really running a child molestation ring out of a pizza parlor.

In the short run, we will win by mobilizing the people on our side and demoralizing the people on their side. And what will convince people in the long run to switch sides is not reasoned arguments, but positive changes to their lives. Those of us who have switched from being conservative to liberal, for instance, didn’t likely do so because we read a pamphlet and decided abstractly that our beliefs were wrong. We changed our views because our lives changed, because the communities formed by conservatism were no longer working for us and more progressive settings were. That is the way it is and should be — no one should make a major change to their deep convictions because of a mere argument. So if we want to convince people, for example, that the government can provide certain important goods better than for-profit companies, we need to take power and make that the case, so that people can live out that fact and see for themselves.

And honestly, if a demonizing narrative about Trump helps drive the voter turnout needed to make that happen, I’m all for it. Let a thousand tell-all books bloom! We just need to be honest about the fact that we’re involved in a genuine political struggle, not a made-up conflict between reason and irrationality.

Blog Year in Review

It’s been a slow year, which stems mainly from the fact that I have radically scaled back my blogging. In part it’s because I have been busier with other things, but in part it’s also because (seemingly with the sole exception of book events) it’s almost impossible to get an online discussion going anywhere but Twitter and Facebook. Our top post of the year came in late January, with my mockery of the infamous “ticking timebomb” scenario. Out of the top five, two were perennial favorites written long ago — Why Game of Thrones Sucks and an explanation of the Bible verse that says “he who will not work shall not eat” — while the remaining two were also on political themes — The Apocalypse is Happening Once a Week or So (on mass shootings) and On the Punch (about punching Nazis). My proudest post of the year, though, was probably Political Polarization in the Family.

Aside from me, Marika made the most contributions, mostly discussing pedagogy and course planning, along with a great list of academic writing tips and a reflection on her experience of boxing. Anthony made a triumphant return to blogging with a review of books on OOO and ecological theory. Jared Rodríguez contributed several posts, including one on racial profiling.

We only did one book event this year, on The Prince of This World, coordinated by Stephen Keating and featuring posts by Bruce Rosenstock, Linn Tonstad, Jared Rodríguez, Amaryah Armstrong, Marika Rose, and Dotan Leshem. I am grateful to Stephen and to all the participants for their engagement with my work.

Overall, I think that we are still doing the kind of work we have always done — just a little slower. Thank you to everyone for writing and reading. I can’t promise more content in the coming year, but I for one am committed to preserving what we have created in this space.

Does scholarly productivity lead to academic job offers? Report from a natural experiment

As I reflect on my academic career so far, I realize one could view it as a natural experiment on the question of whether scholarly productivity as such leads to multiple job offers. I am kind of the ideal test subject because I lack other obvious markers of prestige — my PhD is not from a top-tier school, and until recently, I taught at a place that was, shall we say, very little known. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s a boast to say that I am in the top 1% in sheer scholarly productivity among my age cohort in the humanities. So if publication volume, simply taken in itself, were a sure-fire ticket to multiple academic job offers, then I would be experiencing that. Hence I conclude that the answer is no.

This is not to say that it should. My publication record is a pretty abusive baseline expectation for a comfortable middle-class job, and if every aspiring academic published as much as I do, there would be an unimaginable glut of material. From my own perspective, I do in fact have a satisfying job at a great school. And I didn’t do all this work so that I could get a job — I did it because I enjoy it, and I have gotten the rewards (great interlocutors, invitations to come speak, etc.) that are really important to me from my work.

But for the young academics out there — no, sheer volume of publications is not a silver bullet. Write and publish as much as you want to and can, but don’t do it in the expectation that the academic job market will directly reward you for the length of your CV. And, I would say, you shouldn’t make serious sacrifices for the sake of writing projects you wouldn’t have taken on through your own sincere interest and passion, just for the sake of building your CV. That’s just not how it works. I don’t pretend to know how it does work, but I’m pretty sure at this point, I know better than anyone that it doesn’t work in this particular respect.

Some reflections on Ruth

[As some readers know, I have been studying Hebrew for the last several months. I’ve transitioned from going through a textbook to reading on my own, and one of my first projects was Ruth. These are some reflections and observations, for which I claim no originality or even correctness. Some of it stems directly from seeing the Hebrew rather than the translation, but I assume most of this just comes from the necessity of moving so much more slowly through the text.]

There are a lot of feet. Ruth uncovering Boaz’s feet gets a lot of attention, but there’s also the sandal swap to seal the deal with the other potential redeemer. Obviously the former is sexually charged to some extent, but I have a hard time thinking that’s at play between Boaz and the unnamed other dude. Could it have something to do with walking? As in, halakha, which derives from the same root as the verb for “to go or walk”?

The fact that this whole transaction is happening at the gate is significant — this is where the elders and most prominent men hang out, apparently. Clearly we are dealing with a heavy-handed symbolism of border policing. But the situation is set up so that we know Ruth will be let in — either the unnamed guy will redeem her, or it will default to Boaz. There’s no live prospect of her being excluded, once she’s decided to cleave to Naomi….

I liked the use of that verb for “to cleave,” but I don’t think it’s just about her relationship to Naomi as a possible homoerotic attachment (something my students always flatly reject as a possibility, maybe because intergenerational homoerotic relationships are less of a thing nowadays?). She’s also supposed to cleave to the women gleaning Boaz’s field, and at the end of the story the women specifically accept her and name the child and assert Naomi’s ownership of it (over Boaz’s and over the dead husband’s). At the time this was written, was Judaism already practicing matrilineal descent? And is this text arguing that “converts” who cleave to the community of Jewish women can produce Jewish children, too — even the greatest Jewish child of all, King David?

Finally, there is some weird phrasing when Boaz wants to inform the other guy about the possibility of redeeming Naomi’s property. The translation has “and I thought to disclose it unto thee” (4:4), but the Hebrew (וַאֲנִי אָמַרְתִּי אֶגְלֶה אָזְנְךָ) is more like “I said I will uncover your ears.” It seems like an odd way to put it, right? After all, it’s not like his ears are plugged, he just happens not to have that particular information. But his refusal to redeem after he learns he has to take on Ruth the Moabite may highlight the idea that Jews had closed their ears to the message that their covenant and community can and should be for everyone. Hence the other kinsman is unnamed because he stands for a generic Jew with a more ethnocentric outlook?

Anyway, these were my initial thoughts after laboriously working through this odd little text in Hebrew. Here is a website with facing Hebrew text and English translation if you want to poke around for yourself.

There is no personal pan pizza

The Girlfriend and I have a running joke about winning a personal pan pizza. During our childhoods, that was always the iconic, go-to prize for any kind of contest involving kids. Imagine the luxury, from a kid’s perspective. Kevin from Home Alone captures it well: “A beautiful cheese pizza, just for me!” You never get to pick the toppings as a kid, or at least there’s never enough of the toppings you want. In my house, we would always order one with sausage, pepperoni, or both and one execrable monstrosity with ham and green pepper (my mom’s preference). One half of the toppings correlated to one quarter of the family, who tended not to eat a lot anyway — and so I would be stuck with leftover ham and green pepper the whole rest of the week. I experimented with different methods of picking off the green peppers, but before or after microwaving made no difference. It was tainted. The gross green pepper juice had soaked into the cheese somehow, leaving green pockmarks. And years of experimentation revealed there was no “sweet spot” of microwave time that would leave the pizza warm and the ham non-rubbery. It was a struggle.

I remember vividly when I was in line for my first personal pan pizza. I was in sixth grade, and our class was doing a kind of trivia contest over a set list of young adult novels. Reading was basically all I did at that point, so I felt like I was a slam dunk. The actual contest was a big deal. We took multiple days of class for it, and it was a double-session language arts class. I showed up to my first round and answered my first question: which novel features this plot point? I knew the answer without hesitation — but I was disqualified, because I left off the initial “the” from the title. I spent the next several days at my desk, reading, occasionally glancing up at the people still competing for the personal pan pizza.

I don’t know if I even felt disappointed. There was something about the whole proceedings that I just didn’t believe, going in, and losing on a technicality felt right somehow. Better that I lose now rather than get closer and lose then, right? I had done all the work, read all the books, even taken detailed notes, all without any real sense that I would ever win.

Continue reading “There is no personal pan pizza”

The score after Year One of the Age of Trump: Bush was still worse

I am angry about the nihilistic tax cut bill that just passed the Senate. I am humiliated every day by the thought that a con artist like Trump is president, much less by the stupid shit he says every time he opens his mouth. I am disgusted at the thought that a foreign power could materially affect our elections and there would be no accountability. I am tensed up every time I call home to talk to my Trump-supporting parents, because I worry that hints of the separate epistemological regimes we live in will crop up. But one year in, Bush was still way, way worse.

The Bush tax cuts were as arbitrary as those currently under consideration. Though there was the padding of a budget surplus to stave off immediate calls for entitlement cuts, the prospects for overturning them were made worse by the complicity of the Democrats in the process — something that is completely absent in our present situation. This latter will be a recurring theme.

Trump has made climate change denial official government policy and appointed a vandal to head up the EPA. But this is just a mopping-up effort in the wake of the Bush administration’s path-breaking work. Before Bush, environmentalism was not a partisan issue. His father presided over a cap-and-trade program that helped to limit acid rain, for instance. But the Bush administration was the Revenge of the Oil Industry, and while not openly embracing climate change denial, they brought the “teach the controversy” bullshit mainstream — and meanwhile literally approved tax credits for gas-guzzling SUVs.

People are horrified by Trump’s rhetoric and stated desire for more executive power. Yet when it comes to consolidating executive power, Trump is a rank amateur compared to Bush and Cheney. Trump has issued meaningless executive orders stating campaign goals, while Bush literally signed bills into law and appended a written notice that he would not obey the resulting laws. Trump admires strongmen, while Bush administration lawyers developed the theory of the Unitary Executive. There’s a reason people turned to Carl Schmitt to understand Bush, and there’s also a reason why there hasn’t been another Schmitt vogue in the Age of Trump.

In terms of the Electoral College technicality that brought us both of the worst presidents of the 21st century, Bush’s was “better” because it came down to good old domestic corruption and family ties in Florida, rather than foreign interference. Yet by this point in his misbegotten reign, Bush had presided over the biggest foreign terrorist attack in American history. I am not a 9/11 Truther, but I believe there is concrete evidence that the Bush administration could have stopped the attacks but failed to do so due to their belief that creating fake hostilities with China was more important than continuing the Clinton administration’s focus on terrorism. I have long believed that if Gore — whom you may remember as the man who won the part of the 2000 election where people showed up and voted — had been president, he would have continued Clinton-era policies and the 9/11 attacks would have been stopped.

At this point, Trump is the least popular president in modern history, while Bush was riding around 90% for existing while 9/11 happened (again, due partly to his negligence). To his credit, Bush was less likely to openly stoke racial resentment of American Muslims in the wake of 9/11 than Trump is in the wake of… basically no reason. And yet his advisors were already pushing for a criminal war that would kill millions and destroy the life prospects for an entire generation in the Middle East — which, again, the Democrats were complicit with. Democrats were also complicit with the suspensions of civil liberties in the childishly named USA PATRIOT ACT, which contributed to the development of a global network of torture camps. Compared to this, Trump’s consistently thwarted desire to ban Muslims from entering the country — as pointless and cruel as it is, and as much damage as it has done to individuals — seems less like an abberation.

Whenever I have brought up these and similar topics, the response is invariably: just you wait! Trump is clearly evil, he clearly wants to do evil things, and when he gets around to it, it’s going to be a doozy! And sure, Trump is a terrible person whom I hate with all my heart. But short of a nuclear exchange with North Korea, what is even available to do that would be worse than the Iraq War? And how could he top legalizing torture? He has claimed he wants to reinstitute waterboarding, but so far it doesn’t seem like that has happened — and if it did, it would just be a repeat of a Bush-era innovation.

Yes, your fantasy of the worst that Trump could do is always going to top the reality of the Bush administration. But that reality is pretty grim, and the consistent complicity of the Democrats has meant that efforts at unravelling that toxic legacy have been thwarted at every turn. By contrast, Trump is hated by the public, fully opposed by the Democrats and not fully supported by his own party, and apparently too stupid and capricious to achieve anything that doesn’t involve his hiring and firing power. Yes, he’s done real damage, and no, we probably don’t appreciate the full extent of it. But the case for Trump as a unique fascist threat is pretty hollow when we recall that we had a fascist president within most of our adult lifetimes — and everyone, including the opposition party, fell in line.

And now we’re nostalgic for good old grampa W., with his cute paintings, who reminds us of the good old days before our president had an ugly combover. It’s absolutely disgusting — but quintessentially American. After all, what would America be like if we were capable of clearly recalling events from over a decade ago?