THE OPEN QUESTION IS WHETHER MOHAMMED WAS:

Was Jesus a “Jew”? (Yonatan Adler, 2/19/24, Yale University Press)

Was Jesus a “Jew”? The internet has been abuzz over this curious question in recent months. Many of those involved in the discussion have claimed that there were simply no “Jews” at all so long ago. Some have opined that Jesus was a “Judean,” an identity-category they suppose was entirely different from what we know of as “Jews.” Others have argued that Jesus was neither this nor that, but was rather a “Galilean.” Still others have claimed that he was none of the above, but instead a “Palestinian.”

The current debate had something of an earlier iteration under the Third Reich, where German scholars found themselves forced to wrestle with the apparent Jewishness of the Son of God. Nazi academics found a solution to this thorny problem by demonstrating through historical “scholarship” that Jesus was descended not from Jews … but from pure “Aryans” who migrated into Galilee from Persia!1

By this point it should be clear that all these spurious claims say more about certain deep-seated beliefs about modern-day Jews than they do about any historical reality. And that historical reality could not be clearer. For at least 2,700 years, the ancestors of today’s Jews have self-identified, and have been identified by others, with the Hebrew name “Yehudim” or its equivalent in other languages.

THE LESSON THE CROSS TAUGHT:

Thinking as a Human Being: a review of Thinking about Thinking: Mind and Meaning in the Era of Techno-Nihilism by James D. Madden (David Weinberger, 2/25/24, University Bookman)

First, thinking is not something we do in isolation. Rather, thinking entails being involved in the world. For example, to think about a summer cabin requires actual acquaintance with such a cabin, either directly (by, say, having gone to one in the past) or indirectly (by, say, a friend who has a cabin and who has shared her experience of it). Second, all thought is inextricably bound up in a web of other concepts unique to one’s personal history. For example, one’s thought of a summer cabin may entail concepts not only of “summer” and “cabin,” but also of boating, family adventures, board games, swimming, lying on the dock, bonfires, gazing at stars, laughing with friends, and myriad other concepts tied to one’s own experiential history of summer cabins. In other words, as Madden explains, “Having a mind is not to possess something, but to be involved with or a participant in, as it has been famously put, a ‘form of life.’”

What this ultimately means is that a “form of life” is not only something we participate in, but something for which we must finally take responsibility, if we wish to be authentically human. For example, we are all born into structures, traditions, and worldviews that we receive from our parents, peers, community, and culture. Yet, while we grow up as mere practitioners of the form of life we inherit, at some point responsibility demands that we subject that life to critical scrutiny to see whether it is in fact the good, right, and true form of life, or whether it ought to be abandoned for a superior one. In other words, having a mind enters us into the “space of reasons,” where we face the essential human task of critically assessing the life we lead and seeing whether it withstands rational analysis. “Thus,” Madden observes, “one must ask stark questions and face possibly dark answers about her form of life, if she really cares about it. This is what it means to refuse to live in a sham world.” As Socrates recognized long ago, the unexamined life is not worth living, so putting one’s life under scrutiny and being open to “dark answers” is essential to human authenticity. Anxiety, in other words, is the price paid for living a fully human life.

A WORLD OF MYSTERY AND WONDER:

Russian Wonder and Certainty: Like the Bible, Russian literature came to be perceived “not as a series of separate books but as a single ongoing work composed over many generations.” It is a conversation with both the present and the past simultaneously. (Lee Trepanier, 6/29/23, Public Discourse)

According to Morson, out of this exchange between writers and the intelligentsia emerged three archetypes that reflected the dominant personalities in Russian civilization. The first was the “wanderer” who was a pilgrim of ideas, often trading one theory for another, in search of the truth. Some writers experienced life-changing spiritual conversions, such as Tolstoy, as told in his Confessions, or Solzhenitsyn, as told in the Gulag Archipelago; while others accepted ideas bereft of God as the source of human salvation, such as Belinsky or Kropotkin. While both writers and intelligentsia looked to ideas for truth, the intelligentsia mistook theory for reality and thus became dedicated to a fanatical idealism. By contrast, writers like Chekhov and Dostoevsky understood the limits of theory in accounting for reality, acknowledging that mystery and wonder were at the root of human existence, and they criticized the intelligentsia for their naïve beliefs.

The second archetype was the idealist—the opposite of the wanderer, because he or she remained steadfast in loyalty to a single ideal, such as Don Quixote in his dedication to Dulcinea. In fact, the character Don Quixote was an object of fascination among Russian writers, especially Turgenev, as told in his essay, “Hamlet and Don Quixote.” In Russian literature there were two types of Don Quixote idealists: the disappointed and the incorrigible. Vsevolod Garshin was representative of the first—disillusioned with reality, accepting the ugliness that it was; Gleb Uspensky was emblematic of the second—unable to reconcile the horrid truths about the peasantry with his idealization of them. Uspensky remained incorrigibly committed to his ideals in spite of reality, leading him to praise despotism and justify policies of cruelty out of an abstract love of humanity.

The third dominant personality was the revolutionist who loved war and violence for their own sake. Bakunin, Savinkov, Lenin, Stalin, and others represented this Russian archetype. They were motivated by a metaphysical hatred of a reality that could not be explained with certainty, and, with Russian liberal acquiescence, they came to power to murder millions of Russian citizens.

All three of these archetypal personalities reveal the limitations of theoretical thinking in accounting for reality. Russian writers showed how the intelligentsia’s infallible methods of science fell short, as in the cases of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Pierre in War and Peace, and Arkady in Fathers and Children. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn explained why human freedom and moral agency existed and why suffering brought one closer to God. Human beings cannot be simply classified as good or evil; doing so, as Solzhenitsyn wrote, was the key moral error of totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany: “The line between good and evil runs not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart.”

JUST WAIT UNTIL “WE” ARE “THEY”:

Guaranteed income is the ‘solution to poverty’ we need across America (MICHAEL TUBBS AND RODNEY ELLIS, 02/24/24, The Hill)

Lucile’s story, along with countless others, inspires hope. Hope for a future where people can find better jobs, move into safer housing, and spend more time with their children. Hope for communities that need a little help — just a little help — to flourish and prosper. Hope for a country that recognizes poverty is bad for the soul and bad for the nation.

So why are some Republican lawmakers working to block and ban programs that deliver significant benefits to hard-working Americans, especially when guaranteed income programs are supported by voters on both sides of the aisle?

In a new poll, nearly two-thirds of American voters — Democrats, Republicans and independents — said that they support a guaranteed income. Voters surveyed supported programs that would directly give $500-$1,000 to individuals every month with no onerous requirements or strings attached. They understood the payments would be used by those who needed it to make necessary purchases and would empower people experiencing poverty to transform their lives.

These findings should be a political earthquake and mark the beginning of a policy transformation where leaders at every level of government work together to ensure every family across the country can thrive. But even with overwhelming bipartisan support from everyday Americans, there is a growing movement from Republican state lawmakers to thwart these anti-poverty measures.

The adoption of UBI will be driven by technology replacing the jobs of white men

ALL COMEDY IS CONSERVATIVE:

Fake clouds, seeding doubt (Evan Solomon, 2/29/24, GZero)


“Those clouds are not real,” the woman standing next me at the car pickup spot said, pointing to the overcast skies above San Diego.

I had just arrived here to speak to a group of business leaders about Eurasia Group’s Top Risk report and the political landscape ahead in a year of polarizing elections.

“Sorry?”

“It’s usually beautiful and sunny here, but now with the cloud seeding, all we get is this,” she explained, adopting that apologetic tone proud locals use when their home isn’t exhibiting its best for a visitor. She interrupted her weather flow to give me some other tips about local restaurants — “check out Roberto’s taco stand” — and hiking in the area, before returning to the weather.

“Yeah, you know all those floods we had this past month?” she asked rhetorically. “They’re from these clouds the climate folks created with their cloud seeding because they want to block out the sun to cool the Earth down.”

And then she added the kicker: “And it’s poison, you know.”

Of all the risks I had come here to talk about, the poison-fake-clouds-causing-floods risk did not make the agenda. But the theory is so pervasive in California that the LA Times just wrote a long story in order to, well, rain on the conspiracy parade. […]

If someone doesn’t believe the clouds are real, why would they believe the facts about the economy are real?

THE LAWS WE AGREE TO BIND OURSELVES BY ARE THE COMMON GOOD:

Recovering the Republican Sensibility (Andy Smarick, Winter 2024, National Affairs)

There is not an agreed-upon definition of “republicanism.” Indeed, views on republicanism have evolved over two millennia. It can, however, be generally understood to begin with a sensibility, a way of seeing citizens and public life. Five principles outline this sensibility.

First, citizens of a republic are self-ruling and equal. In a republic, the government’s legitimacy flows from its citizens. Republican citizens are on equal footing before the law; they have equal duties and powers to shape the state.

Second, citizens of a republic should demonstrate “republican virtue.” When rulers have near-total power, individuals are expected to be passive while their rulers govern; when the people have power, they have a duty to be engaged in matters affecting the community. Active, constructive participation in public life is thus essential to republican government. Citizens must behave in ways that help the community succeed, including acting with honesty and civility, avoiding corruption and self-dealing, and putting public benefit ahead of private gain.

Third, democracy is the primary means of reaching decisions in a republic. Citizens may vote directly on public matters, or they may vote for representatives who in turn vote on such matters. Republicanism allows for non-elected administrators and judges, but these officials exercise the authority delegated to them by the people, and must operate within the rules the people establish.

Fourth, citizens of a republic must advance the common good. Issues affecting the community are public, not private matters. Republicanism does not tolerate nepotism or cronyism; a citizen should never see a community issue as an opportunity to advance his personal interest or the cause of his family or friends. Similarly, community decisions are not the concern of just the elite; all citizens contribute to the community’s good. This work is the substance of citizenship and the glue that bonds a community together.

Fifth, republicanism requires an active but limited government. Republicanism intends for the state to play a role in advancing the common good, but the state isn’t authorized to do anything and everything. The state can be limited via enumerated powers, individual liberties, and rights to procedures like due process. Republicanism does not emphasize expansive negative rights, but the state cannot rule arbitrarily and cannot dominate individuals or society.

These five pillars do not amount to a formula, or even quite a formal definition. But they describe the contours of republicanism as the founders of the American system of government understood it, and as we might understand it now.

DO AS WE DO, NOT AS WE SAY:

The Awfulness of Elite Hypocrisy on Marriage (Brad Wilcox, FEBRUARY 13, 2024, The Atlantic)

“Is it morally wrong to have a baby outside of marriage?”

“No” is the answer I received from about two-thirds of my sociology-of-family class at the University of Virginia last spring, when I put that question to them in an anonymous online poll. The class of approximately 200 students was diverse geographically, racially, and ethnically. But on questions like this one—asking whether society should promote or value one type of family structure over another—the students I teach at UVA generally say it shouldn’t.

Yet when I asked these same students—who are almost all unmarried—“Do you personally plan to finish your education, work full-time, marry, and then have children?,” 97 percent said yes.

And when I asked, “If you came home at Thanksgiving and told your parents you (or your girlfriend) were having a baby, would your parents freak out?,” 99 percent said yes.

In one sense, these answers are unsurprising. The great majority of my students, about 80 percent, report hailing from an intact family with married parents. (My class at UVA is not exceptional in this regard: 73 percent of students at elite colleges and universities nationally were born to married parents who have since stayed married, versus 51 percent of high-school seniors across the country.) At the same time, a majority of my students are liberal or progressive on many social issues—they are, at a minimum, nonjudgmental about lifestyles unlike their own.

But there’s a problem with this disjunction between my students’ public family ethic and their own private family orientation, a disjunction I see regularly in elite circles. Voluminous research shows that being born into a married, stable household confers enormous benefits on children, whether the parents are rich or poor. The question I put to my students about their life plans involves a variant of what social scientists call the “success sequence.” Research clearly shows that taking three steps—(1) getting at least a high-school degree, (2) working full-time in your 20s, and (3) marrying before you have children—dramatically increases your odds of reaching the middle class or higher and minimizes the chances of your children growing up in poverty.

Yet many elites today—professors, journalists, educators, and other culture shapers—publicly discount or deny the importance of marriage, the two-parent family, and the value of doing all that you can to “stay together for the sake of the children,” even as they privately value every one of these things. On family matters, they “talk left” but “walk right”—an unusual form of hypocrisy that, however well intended, contributes to American inequality, increases misery, and borders on the immoral.

ALL MORALITY IS JUST SELF-GOVERNANCE:

Is Philosophy Self-Help?: In search of practical wisdom (Kieran Setiya, 2/19/24, The Point)

Historians often trace the origins of self-help to 1859, when the aptly monikered Samuel Smiles published Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct, a practical guide to self-improvement that became an international blockbuster. (The term itself derives from earlier writing by Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson.)1 Smiles inspired readers across the globe, from Nigeria to Japan. And he inspired imitators—thousands of them. Between his time and ours, self-help has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry.


Smiles was a social reformer, but his book tells people that reform begins at home: self-transformation is, he promises, a sure path to success. The fantasy of self-reliance is a hallmark of the genre—and a focus of political critique. According to the literary critic Beth Blum, “self-help is widely understood as a technology of neoliberal self-governance used to discipline citizens and manage populations”: the social function of self-help is to obfuscate injustice, directing us to work not on society but ourselves. As if that wasn’t bad enough, self-help provokes eye-rolling cynicism. It has become “synonymous with sentimentality, idiocy, and hucksterism”—and this from one of its foremost advocates, the bestselling Alain de Botton. According to its detractors, self-help is glib, politically obtuse and intellectually dishonest: embarrassing, if not shameful. Philosophy is better off without it.

What, then, should we make of the philosophers who write self-help books? Are they bowing to market forces, dumbing down ideas to cash in on a credulous readership? Or returning to a calling they should never have renounced, “a region that from time immemorial was regarded as the true field of philosophy”—in the words of Theodor Adorno, no admirer of dumbing down or cashing in—“but which … has lapsed into intellectual neglect, sententious whimsy and finally oblivion: the teaching of the good life”?

If self-help as a distinctive genre is an invention of the Victorian era, thinking and writing aimed at better living is not. In this broader sense, self-help was entwined with philosophy at the birth of the Western tradition. In Plato’s Republic, “the argument concerns no ordinary topic but the way we ought to live”; and in the Apology, Socrates definitively states: “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Philosophy is not just a guide to life; it’s an essential part of living well.

By philosophy, Socrates meant ethics, the systematic study of that extraordinary topic, how to live.

ON THE LINE:

The Revelations of Simone Weil: Like Alexei Navalny, she embodied her ideals despite the personal cost. (Megan Dent, Feb 25, 2024, The Dispatch)

Some may associate theology with cloisters, and mysticism with escapism. Many may associate philosophy with classrooms. Simone Weil combusts these associations. She refused to advance ideas that she had not lived or, more specifically, that she had not substantiated with her own body in the coarse complexity of the real world. She remained tenaciously committed to reality—its pain, its unpalatability, its contradictions—for all of her short and remarkable life. “She didn’t only make very strong comments, she went out and did them, which absolutely astounded people,” one scholar said recently.

In recent days, many have been similarly astounded by the example of Alexei Navalny returning to Russia in 2021, into the hands of those who’d poisoned him and who would eventually kill him. Freedom in Russia was no mere idea for Navalny. It was a hope that he carried back to his country in his own body, the novichok barely out of his bloodstream.

Much of our own politics has become the opposite: disembodied. Reductive answers to intractable questions are the bread and butter of the internet. Never has it been easier to assert, with utter conviction, ideas that are simply untethered from the irreconcilable qualities of reality. This can lead to profound dishonesty—to lies about the world as it really is. Often those making the strongest claims have the least to lose. Their own bodies aren’t on the line.

But Weil, by contrast, embodied paradoxes, evading simple political or ideological definitions. She was, in the apt words of a recent biographer, “an anarchist who espoused conservative ideals, a pacifist who fought in the Spanish Civil War, a saint who refused baptism, a mystic who was a labor militant, [and] a French Jew who was buried in the Catholic section of an English cemetery.”

THE PRIMACY OF tHE oBSERVER:

The surprising origins of wave-particle duality (Ethan Siegel, 2/20/24, Big Think)


One of the most powerful, yet counterintuitive, ideas in all of physics is wave-particle duality. It states that whenever a quantum propagates through space freely, without being observed-and-measured, it exhibits wave-like behavior, doing things like diffracting and interfering not only with other quanta, but with itself. However, whenever that very same quantum is observed-and-measured, or compelled to interact with another quantum in a fashion that reveals its quantum state, it loses its wave-like characteristics and instead behaves like a particle.