Monthly Archives: December 2013

Jesus was a person of color

As everyone knows by now, Fox News host Megyn Kelly said last week, “Jesus was a white man, too. It’s like we have, he’s a historical figure. That’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa. I just want kids to know that.”

In one sense, to say that a given historical figure was white cannot be a verifiable fact, because whiteness is not biological or otherwise scientific matter–it is a social construct that people have invented, have frequently adjusted, and can change again. On the other hand, constructs have real enough presence in the world. Race, for example, is a powerful scheme that we impose on reality. Average white American subjects classify a picture of a face as black or white within 30 milliseconds of viewing it.

So we can ask how the historical Jesus would be viewed if he walked into the room today. That is different from two other questions: how people of his day would have seen him and how people today choose to depict him:

  1. Although the status of race in antiquity is debated, at least some distinguished scholars argue that the ancients did not classify people by skin color or hair, as we are powerfully conditioned to do today. Thus the historical Jesus has a race today but he did not have one while he was alive. He was then neither white nor anything else.
  2. Today, Jesus is often shown as a blond man in America, but usually as a black man in Ethiopia. For a believer, Jesus transcends race and is naturally depicted as a familiar figure, a member of one’s own community.

A third question is how the historical Jesus would be perceived racially if people saw him today. I think Kelly believes that the answer is: White. Our only source, the New Testament, tells us that he was a Jew. That names a political/religious community that had a foundation story tracing all of its members to one ancestor: Abraham. But even according to the story, Abraham had many descendents who were not Jews, and Jews of Jesus’ time had many ancestors. Luke says that Jesus’ paternal ancestor 23 generations back had been Solomon, a Jew, who “loved many strange [foreign] women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites. … And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines” (I Kings 11).  So, according to Luke, Jesus had a lot of diversity in his family tree–as we all do.

Members of Jesus’ religious/political community lived close by and mixed with members of other communities, such as, for example, the Ammonites, Samaritans, and Nabateans. Many of these communities also spoke Jesus’ daily language, Aramaic, which is an Afroasiatic tongue related to Hausa (spoken in Nigeria), ancient Egyptian, Arabic, and Hebrew. I presume that these neighbors would have been phenotypically as well as linguistically very similar to the ancient Jews. In other words, they would have looked and sounded like ancient Jews even though they believed in different things and fell under different laws. We see a little glimpse of the multicultural milieu in the tomb inscription of the poet Meleager of Gadara (near modern Umm Qais in Jordan): “If you are Syrian, Salam [which is Aramaic]; if you are Phoenician, Naidios; if you are Greek, Xaire; and say the same yourself.”

Once the Jewish religious/political community was smashed by the Romans, many Jews went into exile in the empire, where they retained their traditions and tried to marry endogamously (i.e., within the faith). But conversion was allowed, and intermarriage would have been inevitable. One recent estimate suggests that Ashkenazi Jews have 80% non-Jewish European maternal ancestors. That means that Jesus would look less European than today’s Jews whose ancestors resided in Europe, including many (not all) modern Israelis. Furthermore, most modern Jews outside of Israel cannot speak any Afroasiatic language.

But a lot of people who lived in Jesus’ vicinity and looked and talked like him stayed there after the Roman victories in 70 and 132 CE. I assume those who remained included some Jews; it certainly included groups like the Nabateans and the Philistines. Those groups would become largely Christian by the time that Caliph Umar captured the area from the Byzantine Christian empire around 637 CE. Some still remained Christian after the conquest, while most converted to Islam, but all gradually adopted an ethno-political-linguistic identity as Arabs as a result of being incorporated into the Caliphate and its flourishing culture.

Thus someone who looked at talked like Jesus might well be seen as an Arab today, albeit one who spoke a related language (Aramaic) instead of classical or modern Arabic. That raises another question directly related to Megyn Kelly’s claim: is an Arab white?

Again, this is a meaningless question in scientific terms, but perceptions and subjective classifications are important. So the question really means: Would most people perceive any ancient person who looked and talked somewhat like a modern Arab as white? In “Not Quite White: Race Classification and the Arab American Experience,” the author traces the many different ways in which Arab immigrants to the United States have been classified. For example, under a 1978 directive from the Office of Management and the Budget, Arabs were explicitly defined as white (“persons originating in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa”), but one advocacy group now urges Arab Americans to “Check it right — you ain’t white.” In short, the question is contested, and perceptions vary.

Meanwhile, the phrase “people of color” has become much more common in the last 30 years than it was before, and one reason is its breadth. It acknowledges the advantages that come from being perceived as white in the US. By implication, everyone who is not perceived as white has some commonality of experience, despite their vast diversity. By that definition, I think Jesus would pretty clearly be a person of color.

Note …

I am not saying that Jesus was an Arab, because that word developed its current sense centuries after his death.

I am not denying he was a Jew. He was: but that places him in a religious and juridical category, not an ethnic group. The religious community of world Jewry is ethnically diverse and has changed a great deal over two thousand years.

I am not saying that you are wrong to visualize him as white–or as black. You can visualize and depict him any way you want.

I am saying that if he walked into a US airport today, he would be subject to racial profiling on the basis of his color and features, not to mention clothes and language. That is perhaps theologically apt, but it should make a Fox News anchor uncomfortable.

a technique for measuring the quality of deliberation

(Ann Arbor, MI) I’ve proposed that we can map an individual’s thinking about moral and political issues as a set of beliefs and connections. For instance, if a person says that she favors abortion rights because she is committed to individual freedom, she is linking two nodes in a mental map. Because her overall epistemic framework is a network, it will have formal properties, such as density and centrality.

When two or more individuals interact on moral or political issues (talking and/or working together), their respective network maps will come into contact and change. The community formed by people who so interact can be viewed as a larger network of beliefs and connections that also has formal properties.

Certain network structures are better than others for deliberation and interaction. If you are a good deliberator, you enrich other people’s network maps and learn from theirs; you are not rigid. In the context of a liberal democracy, you must be able to “route around” your own faith commitments. You don’t have to drop them, but you must be able to make an argument that doesn’t depend on them. Likewise, your various ideas should be connected rather than isolated, so that you can give reasons for each of your beliefs.

We should be able to observe a moral network map evolve as one person interacts with others, and we should be able to rate individuals and conversations for moral excellence (by asking independent observers to assess them) and then see whether what we posit as the formal criteria of good moral networks are actually found in the best deliberators.

For example, Bloggingheads TV organized a discussion between columnists Bryce Covert (liberal) and Ramesh Ponnuru (conservative) on the topic of why women are paid less than men and what to do about it. I assert that this is a good discussion because I think it is, but also because in a study led by my colleague Felicia Sullivan, this video and several others were shown to representative samples of Americans. Most viewers liked this particular discussion, and they tended to move toward less ideologically consistent views after they watched it–evidence that it had complicated their opinions.

In the slide show below, I begin to diagram the discussion as two interlocked networks of ideas.

I didn’t finish mapping the discussion, but I got far enough to conclude that we should be looking for:

  • The number of nodes and connections. (A higher number implies a richer discussion.)
  • The density of connections. People should tie together more, rather than fewer, of their points.
  • The overlap in the two people’s networks (They need not agree but they should address each others’ views)
  • Change in their respective networks in response to the other’s.

on snark and smarm

(on a plane heading to Ann Arbor, MI) Tom Scocca’s article “On Smarm” is getting a lot of attention, including responses by Malcom Gladwell in the New Yorker and Ryan Kearney in The New Republic.

Scocca argues that “snark” is not our problem. It is an appropriate reaction to “smarm,” which is the serious threat. His original piece is learned and insightful in the tradition of Harry Frankfurt on bullshit or Susan Sontag on camp. I recommend it and will not attempt to summarize it. I do miss two things, however. One is a set of true definitions (with necessary and sufficient conditions), as opposed to clusters of examples. What is snark? What is smarm? The other is evidence of trends over time. Everyone in this debate seems eager to posit that our moment is dominated by snark, smarm, or both. But one can easily think of examples from the distant past. (Juvenal was snarky; Augustus was smarmy.) On what basis do we think that either vice has increased of late?

I would propose that:

Snark (presumably a portmanteau of “snide” plus “remark”) means indirect critique. Instead of rebutting the facts or the logic of an argument, snark casts doubt on the sincerity or competence of the source. It is not a full-blown ad hominem argument but a suggestion that the target is untrustworthy. It is usually humorous, although humor doesn’t seem essential.

Smarm is the evocation of positive, sentimental emotions for the purpose of preempting criticism. For instance, bringing a person with Down’s syndrome onto the stage of the 2000 Republican National Convention was smarmy because it foreclosed criticism of the nominee. The particular form of smarm that concerns Scocca is the evocation of civility or niceness to preempt debate about the dominant person or established rules in a given situation.

Both snark and smarm violate a very high standard of deliberative reason, in which one should respond to any given policy, norm, or proposal by evaluating the evidence, norms, and logic behind it. A critical reaction should explicitly challenge elements of the argument, not the speaker. And the critic should be ready to propose and defend some alternative view.

Snark misses that standard because a snarky comment neither explicitly rebuts the target’s arguments nor offers an alternative position. Smarm misses the standard because it doesn’t offer an argument at all, just a sentiment.

But snark can provoke or advance a deliberative discussion. Typically, a snarky comment provokes a reaction, and that can take the form of an explicit defensive argument that then deserves a reasonable response. Thus snark can be an opening move or invitation to deliberation. Smarm, on the other hand, succeeds if it prevents a group from deliberating.

Further, snark is a tool of the marginal and dispossessed, the peanut gallery, whereas smarm (by my definition) is employed by the person in charge, whether that is the President of the United States or just a dad in the front seat of his SUV. I am therefore with Scocca that smarm is the more serious problem, and snark can be justified as a response to it. If smarm casts a feel-good spell that prevents critical thought, snark can break the spell.

tenured and tenure-track professors are worse teachers?

(Providence, RI) According to a new paper by David Figlio, Morton Schapiro, and Kevin Soter,* if you take a class with a non-tenure track (contingent) professor, you are more likely to choose to take another class in the same subject and you will get a higher grade on that next class than if you studied with a tenured professor or someone on the tenure track. You are especially likely to benefit from having a contingent professor if you scored relatively low on academic measures before the course.

The measures of success seem reasonably persuasive, and the method seems tight. (The authors compare first-semester students, who generally don’t pick their instructors, and they look at changes in the same students’ grades over time.) The main limitation is that the study only involves Northwestern University, which is certainly not typical of American higher education and could have quirks other than just being highly selective and well-resourced.

It’s also possible that the tenure-track and contingent faculty differ in other ways than their tenure status. I would like to see the results adjusted for the age of professor. I don’t want to be ageist, but that could be a factor, and given the ban on mandatory retirements and the demographics of the tenured professoriate today, it could just turn out that the contingent faculty are younger.

This study is not an argument against tenure, which has other benefits–notably, academic freedom. But it is a cautionary note. It certainly reminds us of the enormous skill and dedication of the many young scholars who are working as adjuncts today. Many would have easily gotten tenure 30 years ago and are now working for $3,000 a course. On the other hand, there is nothing completely new here. As Max Weber said in his lecture “Science as a Vocation” (1917):

According to German tradition, the universities shall do justice to the demands both of research and of instruction. Whether the abilities for both are found together in a man is a matter of absolute chance. Hence academic life is a mad hazard. If the young scholar asks for my advice with regard to habilitation [getting the most advanced degree], the responsibility of encouraging him can hardly be borne. If he is a Jew, of course one says lasciate ogni speranza [abandon all hope]. But one must ask every other man: Do you in all conscience believe that you can stand seeing mediocrity after mediocrity, year after year, climb beyond you, without becoming embittered and without coming to grief? Naturally, one always receives the answer: ‘Of course, I live only for my “calling.”‘ Yet, I have found that only a few men could endure this situation without coming to grief.

*See Figlio, D. N., Schapiro, M. O., & Soter, K. B. (2013). Are tenure track professors better teachers? (NBER Working Paper 19406). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

how to use empirical evidence

I’ve written a chapter for a forthcoming book edited by Harry Boyte (Democracy’s Education: A Symposium on Power, Public Work, and the Meaning of Citizenship, Vanderbilt University Press) in which I summarize evidence that colleges and universities can improve the economy by teaching their students civic skills and by being good institutional citizens, participating in local networks for community development.

I think the evidence is reasonably strong. But, like all empirical claims, it has exceptions and caveats. And even if civic education and engagement really do pay economic dividends, something else could work even better: for example, distance-learning, educational video games, or installing surveillance cameras in schools.

Thus we must be careful about how we generate, interpret and use empirical findings. This is where the emerging idea of Civic Studies provides guidance.

Often, social scientists presume that their job is to study a real-world practice that is already fully developed to learn whether—and why—it “works.” Usually they define success in terms of the objectives of the practitioners or their funders. In this case, we would ask whether college-level civic education and engagement generate what politicians demand: jobs.

But nothing simply “works.” Success always requires experimentation, assessment, adjustment, reflection, and new experimentation, in an iterative cycle. By the same token, many things can work if they are developed properly. One could start with civic engagement or with surveillance cameras in schools and improve either one until it enhanced students’ employment prospects.

In the best cases, the researchers who study a given practice are part of the reason that it works. They contribute to its development by offering their data and insights. They choose to work on this practice rather than something else because of a more fundamental commitment. I, for example, have studied deliberation. I want deliberation to work and I hope that the research that I produce will contribute to its success. I have no such commitment to surveillance cameras. I would not study them or strive to improve their impact.

The reason for my hope in deliberation is fundamentally moral. I think a world in which people reason and work together is better than one in which they achieve the same levels of security, income, or welfare without freely collaborating. Deeper down, I believe in a theory that the good life is a life of freedom, reflection, and mutual commitment.

Thus I hope that civic education and civic engagement boost employment because I am fundamentally committed to civic values. My colleagues and I seek evidence of economic benefit to persuade policymakers to support what they should support anyway. If the economic evidence is favorable, we will use it strategically to expand support. If not, our values and commitments should encourage us to improve civic education until it enhances democracy and also produces jobs. Regardless of the empirical results we find, we owe a public explanation of our core values.

A public defense of our values also yields criteria by which to assess the practices that we have been studying empirically. For instance, my chapter for Harry Boyte’s book is about college-level civic engagement (an input) and jobs (an output). I discuss the empirical link between the input and the output, as they exist today. But both are subject to criticism and change.

Today, many civic programs basically take the form of volunteering. But civic education can be reconceived so that it is less about volunteer service than about working on public concerns, where “working” implies serious commitment and accountability for results. “Public work,” in the phrase championed by Boyte and colleagues, means work that is done in public, by diverse citizens, on common issues. Reconfiguring civic education at the college level to look more like public work would satisfy core values that Boyte and colleagues have defended well. It might also strengthen the impact of civic education on jobs and careers. Students would be more likely to learn skills useful for employment if their civic experiences in college were more like paid work.

Meanwhile, jobs could become more public. A given job might serve only the interests of the employer and deny the worker any scope to address community problems in public with diverse other citizens. But even if the employer is a for-profit firm, the job can promote and encourage public work. For example, I presume that the corporate executives, government officials, and labor leaders who attended meetings of the Lehigh University board contributed insights from their daily work to the conversations about Lehigh and Allentown. They then brought ideas from those discussions back to their jobs. If that is true, they were doing “public work” in the Lehigh boardroom and in their own offices. Public work is obviously harder for low-paid service workers and low-ranking bureaucrats, but within many industries and professions, a struggle is underway to recover their public and democratic traditions.

If we made civic education into public work and also created jobs of greater public value, then the alignment between civic education and employment would be stronger and we would find more impressive evidence of economic impact. The data would then satisfy governors and presidents who want to see colleges produce jobs. More importantly, we would be building a better society and the educational system to support it.