The Dictionary of the Khazars, pro and con

Milorad Pavic‘s Dictionary of the Khazars (1982) was prominent at the end of the last century, translated into scores of languages and much discussed. I didn’t read it then but got to it this past summer. Its subtitle is A Lexicon Novel, and it consists of alphabetical entries that are heavily cross-referenced. To Pavic’s delight, the order of the entries is different in each translation. He says that he doesn’t want you to read it from the first to the last page (as I did) but to follow links at your own will. The book was published just when hypertext was developing, and it surely owed some of its influence to being on that cutting edge. In a current Kindle edition, you can click words to move around–but we are used to doing that now.

The topic is the story (originally from Judah Halevy) that the Khazars, a real medieval people, converted to Judaism after holding a debate among a Christian, a Moslem, and a Jew. The Dictionary consists of Christian, Moslem, and Jewish sections. The book we’re reading is supposed to have had a long and tortuous history (one edition was poisonous), and the entries concern characters and events from the original conversion period, from the 1600s, and from the 1900s. That produces a 3-by-3 grid of religions and eras into which all the specific entries fit. The whole thing is intricately symmetrical, so that there is guaranteed to be a Moslem 20th-century analogue for a Jewish 17th- century character, and so on.

The whole text is very dream-like. It’s too magical to be magic-realism: people are constantly changing form and doing amazing things for mysterious reasons. Dreams are also an explicit topic, since the Khazars’ priests were “dream hunters.” They interpreted people’s dreams and could follow a thread from one dreamer to another when the first person dreamed of the second one. According to their religion, all our dreams collectively formed the body of the original man, or Adam. As you might expect, it turns out there are still dream-hunters among us today.

The Abrahamic faiths derive scriptures from their founding eras. But they also tell many subsequent stories: tales of saints and sages and miracles. These stories are dream-like, by which I don’t necessarily mean they are false. (That is up to you to decide). They are like dreams in that they are surprising stories with strong symbolic meanings and recurrent motifs. And the three religions’ stories pervasively interconnect. The same people often figure in the dream-like tales of Jews, Christians, and Moslems, albeit sometimes bearing different names, or changing their roles from heroes to villains, or appearing in new contexts. In that sense, an interlinked series of dream-like stories is a great way to represent the world co-created by the Abrahamic faiths.

This fictional world seems cosmopolitan (since the religions are equal and related), free (you can choose your own path), ironic and subversive, and avant-garde. You may or may not enjoy it, but it seems fit for enjoyment.

On the other hand … The Khazars themselves turn out to be a self-hating people, consistently favoring the Jewish, Christian, and Moslem foreigners in their midst until they subject themselves to conversion and then actually vanish. Just for example:

As is known, when a people vanishes, the first to disappear are the upper classes, and with them literature; all that remains are books of law, which the people know by heart. The same can be said of the Khazars. In their capital, sermons in the Khazar language are expensive, whereas in Hebrew, Arabic, or Greek they are cheap or free of charge. Curiously, once they are outside their state the Khazars are reluctant to reveal their Khazar origin, preferring to avoid one another and conceal the fact that they speak and understand the Khazar language, hiding it from their own compatriots even more than from foreigners. In the country itself, people not proficient in the Khazar language, which is the official language, are more highly regarded in the civil and administrative services. Consequently, even people who are fluent in the Khazar language will often deliberately speak it incorrectly, with a foreign accent, from which they derive a manifest advantage. Even with translators – for instance, from Khazar into Hebrew, or Greek into Khazar – the people selected are those who make mistakes in the Khazar language or pretend to do so.

This is plausibly how a nationalistic professor of Serbian literature might feel about his own ethnic group inside Tito’s Yugoslavia. Thus a book that was read around the world as a postmodern ironist’s game was apparently read in Serbia as a nationalist tract.

It might be harmless for a writer to adopt aggrieved nationalism, especially in a work of fiction that is pervasively playful. Maybe it was just a stance. However, it seems that Pavic continued to espouse similar ideas even while Serbian armies were massacring other former Yugoslavs. In 1992, he said “I am a Khazar too because the fate of my family was very similar and in the end we went back to our original religion” (quoted in Wachtel, p. 638). It appears that he was completely serious about the Khazar/Serb analogy and genuinely aggrieved as a Serb. At least, he did not distance himself from the nationalistic implications of his work.

I’m not sure what I think about the ethics of having read this novel for fun. Of course, authors do not control their own texts, least of all texts like this one. So maybe the author’s political intentions are not all that important. I certainly did not become a Serbian nationalist as a result of reading the Dictionary of the Khazars, so maybe no harm done. And I deeply appreciate Pound and Eliot, notwithstanding their views. On the other hand, would I read a playful, possibly gimmicky novel that reflected one of the world’s other forms of bigotry? Caveat emptor, I suppose.

See Andrew Wachtel, “Postmodernism as Nightmare: Milorad Pavic’s Literary Demolition of Yugoslavia,” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 41, no. 4, 1997, pp. 627–644; and David Damrosch, “Death in Translation,” in Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation, edited by Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 380-398; and cf. Ivo Andric, Bosnian Chronicle, Or, The Days of the Consuls

a way forward for high culture

(This is actually a post for Labor Day, although the connection to labor and working-class culture may not be immediately obvious.)

People sometimes say: “This artifact or text is worth your effort and attention. It is less accessible than some other works; it may take more effort to understand and appreciate. But it will make you a better person, or help you improve the world, or give you insight.”

This type of claim requires a justification because it is a proposal for how other people should allocate their time and effort. The justification can be an explicit argument that the work in question is valuable. Or it can be an interpretation, explanation, or reaction to the work that helps people to understand it. Understanding enables appreciation. Like any justification, it can fail because it was not a worthy claim in the first place, or because the reasons were weak, or because they fell on infertile soil.

To say that a given work deserves unusual effort puts that item in a special category. Even if you make such a claim in an informal and unpretentious way, you are suggesting a value-judgment and implying a rough ranking from better to worse.

We could have a culture in which many people frequently exchanged such claims, coming from diverse perspectives and advocating a wide range of cultural products. People would then allocate some of their time and effort to relatively challenging works because they had been persuaded that these items have special value. “High culture” would be the list of all the works that significant numbers of people appreciated in these ways.

And we do have that kind of culture. People exchange claims about value. Subcultures can be found that love almost any challenging form of culture you can think of. However, the dialogue about which works are especially worthy is constantly challenged–or even threatened–by several factors:

  • The massive supply of culture that is profitable because it is addictive and easy to enjoy. (Believe me, I am addicted as anyone is.)
  • A certain reluctance to accept that some works can be more worthy than others. This attitude has shaken the confidence of people, such as humanities professors, who might otherwise be more active proponents of challenging culture.
  • The kind of defense of high culture that assumes it must be a traditional Eurocentric canon and that students should recognize a list of canonical authors without actually struggling with their works. In my own area of specialization, K-12 civic education, state standards often present long lists of names. Students are supposed to identify the word “locke” with a long-dead man who happened to believe in individual rights, as if that were a worthy learning objective. The backlash is inevitable.
  • The dominant role that colleges and universities play in generating and consuming culture. Higher education has limitations: it serves mostly young adults, it has been assigned an economic function, and it is run by people (like me) who chose an academic path instead of another worthy vocation. Meanwhile, unions and other working-class organizations, religious denominations, small publishing houses and magazines, and other independent sources seem relatively weak.

In “Culture as Counterculture” (New Criterion, Sept. 2021), Adam Kirsch explains how we got to where we are.  I would start a bit earlier than he does and would propose a future phase, but steps 3 to 7 in the following summary match his account:

  1. In aristocratic cultures, popularity indicates a lack of quality. Aristocrats gladly prefer to own unpopular things.
  2. In democratic cultures, popular tastes gain influence and even authority.
  3. As European cultures begin to democratize in the 1800s, people like Matthew Arnold, John Stewart Mill, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others–I would add the Uruguayan essayist Jose Enrique Rodo or the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore–argue that all citizens should have access to “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (Arnold). They hope that a classically educated public will govern better.
  4. In the 1900s, industries and governments become increasingly effective at distributing mass-produced cultural products whose markets dwarf those for traditional high culture. Leftist critics like Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Dwight Macdonald argue that mass audiences are being exploited and denied access to better works, which people would prefer if they had real access to them.
  5. In the mid-1990s, many students are still required to study canonical works in schools, under the influence of Arnold and other Victorians. A common motif in youth-oriented pop culture becomes the rejection of that canon. “My heart’s beating rhythm / And my soul keeps singing the blues / Roll over Beethoven / Tell Tchaikovsky the news.”
  6. In the wake of that revolt, some highly sophisticated critics argue in favor of pop culture and against status hierarchies. Kirsch’s example is Susan Sontag ‘s 1966 essay collection.
  7. Mass-produced, for-profit popular culture keeps expanding while the market for traditional high culture continues to shrink. Sontag decides that pop culture is mainly individualistic and consumerist; she should have resisted it, but the battle is now lost. Genres like classical music are now countercultural niches, not even worth making fun of.

Today’s surviving proponents of high culture seem somewhat diverse philosophically. They include intellectual successors of Macdonald and Sontag, who still want students to read Kafka or the Bhagavad Gita to counteract consumerist capitalism, plus conservatives who want them to read Locke and Jefferson–or at least to know those names–in order to preserve traditional values. Their choice of texts overlaps more than you might think, but the whole group is small and ineffectual, vastly outnumbered by people who don’t see much value to the humanities in any form.

Or perhaps there are still several “high culture countercultures.” Perry Link writes, “Should we compare poetry across civilizations? If we do, classical Chinese poetry wins easily. The contest is almost unfair …” Some of my fellow Americans read classical Chinese verse in the original calligraphy. Likewise, the best poetry being written in English today may take the form of rap lyrics, and some people have highly discriminating, deeply informed knowledge of rap. One could add students of the Talmud or Islamic jurisprudence, jazz aficionados, serious fans of midcentury modernism, and more.

Still, even if we combined all the diverse countercultures devoted to demanding forms of excellence, they would be badly outnumbered.

I believe we can move from step 7 to another phase, when claims of excellence are more influential again. To get there, we will need “business models” (defined broadly) for creating, sharing, and evaluating excellent and demanding forms of culture outside the monopoly of the university. Federal subsidies could help, but I would not put all my eggs in a governmental basket. The goal is not just to make fine culture available–there is already more online than you could see or hear in a lifetime–but to help it to compete for attention in marketplaces like Spotify or Amazon.

Meanwhile, there is cultural work to do. We need more–and more diverse–people to make confident, compelling arguments that specific works will reward the hard work needed to understand them. Some artifacts and texts are better than others: that is the claim. A good life incorporates some of the best works. They do not all come from any particular genre, cultural context, or tradition. One of life’s great joys is finding new forms of excellence where you didn’t expect them. Yet we are surrounded by insidiously addictive but highly profitable mediocrity, and it is up to us to do better.

See also: separating populism from anti-intellectualism; the library of Albert Shanker; “a different Shakespeare from the one I love”; the state of the classics in 2050; and the future of classics.

Tufts receives grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations to launch new curricular track in interfaith civics studies

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 1, 2021
CONTACT: Jen McAndrew | 617.627.2029

Tufts University students will soon have more opportunities to explore the complex relationships between faith and civic life in a religiously diverse world, thanks to a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations (AVDF). Building on its undergraduate Civic Studies major, the only one of its kind, Tufts University will launch a new interdisciplinary curriculum track in interfaith civic studies.  This two-year project represents an innovative collaboration between the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts’ School of Arts & Sciences Department of Religion, and the Tufts University Chaplaincy.

The AVDF grant will catalyze the development of a 6-course sequence in interfaith civic studies at Tufts, provide opportunities for faculty professional development and course design, support a cadre of new “student interfaith ambassadors,” and support a Resident Fellow to facilitate interdisciplinary, interfaith discussions at Tufts.

Peter Levine, Tisch College Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs, who is the lead principal investigator, notes, “Religious traditions, identities, institutions, and conflicts are central to civic life. This generous grant will allow Tufts to develop new insights about the relationships between faith and civic life and to educate students to be effective and ethical contributors in a religiously diverse world.”

Co-principal investigator Brian Hatcher, former Chair of the Department of Religion, adds, “The Department of Religion is excited to join with the Tufts Chaplaincy and Tisch College to develop this new initiative to promote Interfaith Studies at Tufts and Beyond. Thanks to the generous support of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, we hope to explore new avenues for integrating the academic study of religion with lived, practical approaches for promoting awareness, knowledge, and engagement among faith communities. Our aim is to help prepare students to address the challenges of interfaith collaboration and religious contestation and to find ways to foster reflection on the role of religion in civic life.”

University Chaplain and co-principal investigator Elyse Nelson Winger is committed to centering student voices in all phases of the initiative. She says, “I am thrilled that our students and University Chaplaincy team are a vital part of this new initiative.  Through experiential learning, community-building, and co-curricular programming, the Interfaith Ambassador Program will equip students from different religious, spiritual, and philosophical backgrounds to ‘live the questions’ most pertinent to interfaith engagement.” 

Jennifer Howe Peace, Senior Researcher at Tisch College and co-founder of the Interreligious/Interfaith Studies Program Unit at the American Academy of Religions, will work with colleagues across departments to design an introduction to interfaith civic studies course and coordinate the grant.  Peace comments, “Young people are eager to creatively tackle the dilemmas and opportunities of living in religiously diverse societies. This grant gives us an opportunity to harness the expertise already at Tufts to educate a new generation of civically-minded leaders with a nuanced understanding of interfaith relations.”

the Dutch secret

I have been offline because we’d been enjoying a lovely vacation in Amsterdam. While there, I read James C. Kennedy’s A Concise History of the Netherlands. His argument has general implications.

It’s an argument about why the Netherlands has been so successful–even an “enviable” country. Before addressing that question, we should acknowledge, as Kennedy does, that the Dutch participated actively and influentially in European imperialism, including the transatlantic slave trade. So their story is not entirely admirable–perhaps not mainly so. It is nevertheless an interesting question why the Dutch have frequently been more tolerant, free, equitable, and prosperous at home than their neighbors have been.

It’s common to claim that a long tradition of commercial acumen and mercantile values made the Dutch tolerant. They have been too busy to hate. But this is not really an explanation. For one thing, why were they often so good at commerce? Besides, are we sure that the causal arrow points from commercial interests to tolerance? Couldn’t a tolerant culture be good for business?

Kennedy offers a different explanation. He notes that it has typically been impossible for anyone to dominate the Low Countries. In the middle ages, the region was divided into many counties that fell within different duchies and kingdoms. It also developed many prosperous towns, which were profitable for their various feudal lords but hard to control. Later, the Reformation added several religious sects (Calvinists, Mennonites, Moravians, Anabaptists, Jews, and others, plus the many Catholics). The land has always been carved up by water, creating quite disparate regions. And after industrialization, the society split into multiple “pillars” (traditionalist Calvinist, Catholic, socialist), each with its own parties, schools, unions, and press–none strong enough to dominate the rest.

Yet the Netherlands has frequently faced grave threats: the French, the Hapsburgs, the English, and–always–the ocean. Thus the Dutch have been forced to coordinate or perish. Seeking a central authority to lead them, they broadly backed Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, to acquire titles to their whole region. But Philip had to negotiate with the cities to rule, and his descendants, the Habsburg emperors, faced a successful revolt. Later, the Orangist faction favored rule by the House of Orange as a means to centralize, but they always faced effective opposition. Voluntary association has been more common.

What were the odds that the Dutch would survive as an independent country? Things looked bad in 1421, 1672, 1795, 1940, 1953. It is risky to generalize from one case that turned out successfully. Maybe other people did the same things but failed.

However, it looks as if voluntary coordination has been a learned skill in the Netherlands. The Dutch already founded an extraordinary array of philanthropic and municipal associations, guilds, almshouses, beguine-houses, etc., during late medieval times, to which they subsequently added the world’s first true corporation, a complex republican confederal government, councils of church elders and synods, and many other innovations in self-governance. In this context, tolerance can be seen as a mode of relating to other people when you need their cooperation but you cannot dominate them. Tolerance results from polycentricism. It comes with skills of self-governance and an ability to invent new mechanisms for cooperation.

See also: polycentricity: the case for a (very) mixed economy; the UK in a polycentric Europe; modus vivendi theory; how a mixed economy shapes our mentalities; what sustains free speech?; China teaches the value of political pluralism etc.

two dimensions of debate about civics

It is good that Americans disagree about civic education. We are a free and diverse people who care about youth and the future of our republic. Agreement is not to be expected and could even be problematic. The question is whether we can disagree well while also giving our students an appropriate array of choices that they can assess for themselves.

I think there are almost as many ideas about the ideal approach to civics as there are people in the debate, and it is a mistake to assume that the field has polarized into just two or a few camps. Many individuals hold nuanced and complex views.

If I had to try to categorize views, I definitely would not use one continuum from left to right. I see two different axes that may help to organize the debate–as long as one remembers that hardly anyone chooses an extreme point on either continuum, and many see value across the whole map.

The vertical axis runs from favorable to critical of the US political system and society. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee recently tweeted that his state’s schools will teach “unapologetic American exceptionalism.” In this context, “exceptional” doesn’t usually mean atypical; it means better. That places Gov. Lee pretty close to the top of my graph. Someone who wants students to focus on historical and current injustices would fall near the bottom.

The horizontal axis runs from classroom-based work (reading, discussing, and writing about texts) to experiential learning. It may also reflect a debate about whether knowledge or skills are the most important outcomes. Lee added, “By prioritizing civics education in TN schools, we are raising a generation of young people who are knowledgeable in American history and confident in navigating their civic responsibilities.” He seems to be open to engagement as an outcome, so maybe he would support the whole top half of my graph.

These two axes are distinct and orthogonal. The most common forms of experiential civics–approaches like service-learning and student government–are often pro-system. They belong above the middle of the chart. In the Positive Youth Development field, service-learning is understood as “contributing positively to self, family, community, and, ultimately, civil society” (Chung & McBride 2015). Service-learning may also encompass critical reflection about systems (Mitchell 2008), but I think the critical aspect has been rare and often superficial.

On the other hand, if you really want to teach some version of critical theory in a K-12 classroom, you are probably interested in assigning and discussing texts. (That is why it is called “theory.”) So you likely fall the left of the middle of my chart–on the same side as the people who want to assign classical texts that they appreciate. The pedagogy is similar; the debate is about which texts to assign, which topics to discuss, and which interpretive lenses to use. Meanwhile, many of us strive to assign texts with diverse perspectives and cultivate a robust discussion within the classroom.

For what it’s worth, my own emphasis is on learning how to build and manage associations. I’d use an academic pedagogy (reading, writing, and discussing texts, data, and models) for a pragmatic purpose: making civil society work. I’d let the students decide the ultimate objectives of their own associations. This approach implies a canon of texts (Alexis de Tocqueville, Gandhi, Robert Michels, Jane Addams, Mary Parker Follett, Saul Alinsky, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, Jenny Mansbridge, Elinor Ostrom …) that is neither pro- nor anti-system, as a whole.

I would never claim that this is the only important approach, but I think it is undersupplied.

See also: NAEd Report on Educating for Civic Reasoning and Discourse; an overview of civic education in the USA and Germany; The Educating for American Democracy Roadmap; etc.