American scientific capital

August 19, 2014

A panel at a national meeting of historians I attended was devoted to the relation between the study of history and STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. One speaker explained that practical skills were widespread early in our history. Those skills, like surveying, sailing, or building canals, required both hands-on skills and the ability to perform calculations and experiment. American surveyors, navigators and builders were doing what we now call science and math, though they rarely got the credit. One surveyor wrote to a Frenchman around 1814 that no one was paying for astronomy, and no one was paying him for his astronomical investigations and calculations. But the speaker then pointed out that this gentleman was in fact being paid by the government for surveying and that his surveys required the astronomical observations he was making. He was doing the work, though not being recognized for it as his French friend would have been. Read the rest of this entry »


Misunderstanding Iran

August 12, 2014

For the last few days my wife and I attended the semi-annual meeting of the International Society for Iranian Studies. It was held in Montreal this time. Several panels were devoted to Iranian foreign policy. At one of them, scholars outlined Iran’s strategic isolation and the limited choices available to it.

The fourth panelist then launched into a comparison of what she called contextual cultures and textual cultures. I found myself thinking about the textualism of Justice Scalia and the contextualism of his more liberal colleagues. But this speaker’s point was that Iran was a contextual country in which it was the listener’s job to figure out the speaker’s meaning from surrounding circumstances. By contrast, she said, America was a textualist country, where, quoting an old saying, we “say what we mean and mean what we say.” Given that contrast, it was no wonder that we find the Iranians inscrutable and untrustworthy. Read the rest of this entry »


Tailspins for the Poor

August 5, 2014

George Gershwin wrote “I’ve got plenty of nothing, and nothing’s plenty for me.” But sometimes it seems like politics is about the art of squeezing or taking as much as possible from people who have nothing at all – the villainy of the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Robin Hood story but in modern dress. Read the rest of this entry »


A Blessing on Both Their Houses

July 29, 2014

Listeners and readers of my commentary know that I have spoken out against what I believe is Israeli misbehavior. So I get flooded with one-sided petitions condemning Israeli behavior. To make myself completely clear, I see merit and fault on both sides. I will not sign one-sided petitions.

I am reminded of my conversation with a Palestinian student who argued with me that Palestinians have the right to kill Israelis, any Israelis, military or civilian, and they have no right to shoot back, only to accept their fate. I questioned him to make sure I was hearing him accurately. What he was making clear was the attitude, or brain-washing, that dehumanized the other side. That is the attitude we have to fight against. Read the rest of this entry »


Settler War in Palestine

July 22, 2014

Returning from a meeting of historians, I’ve been thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in historical terms. Israeli settlers in the West Bank are reminiscent of the movement of settlers to our own Indian frontier until the frontier was closed in the twentieth century. Settler conflict with Native Americans over land and atrocities on both sides was continual. This isn’t the whole story but it is important.

Allies are crucial. For a century, Britain prohibited settlement west of the Appalachians and protected Indian rights in the territory they had occupied for millenia, largely preventing Indian War, except, of course, against the French. Regardless of our dispute with King George, aspects of British Indian policy were both wise and decent. Read the rest of this entry »


Madame Butterfly

July 15, 2014

I’ve been away for a week while conflict heated up in the Middle East. But all week I’ve been thinking about a different form of grief, death and cultural conflict.

I spent the week in a summer community, a kind of Brigadoon called Chautauqua, in the western corner of New York State. Chautauqua in the summer is an intellectual community, an ecumenical religious community, even a sports community, but it is also an arts community.

The first night we were there, we went to see a performance of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in the Chautauqua Amphithreater, for an audience of thousands. Read the rest of this entry »


Religion, Health, Corporations, and the Court

July 8, 2014

Last week the Supreme Court decided, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, known as RFRA, that Hobby Lobby, and other closely held profit making corporations, could claim religious exemptions from federal law, and they could withhold some forms of contraception from their health plans.[i]

RFRA was a reaction to a 1990 decision about Native American use of peyote at religious ceremonies in which Justice Scalia wrote for the Court that the First Amendment did not require a religious exemption for the “incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision.”[ii] The rule could not be targeted at any religion; it had to be “neutral.”

That seemed like a reasonable attempt to create a fair rule. But many of us reacted that there was nothing neutral in a set of rules that banned peyote but permitted wine at religious exercises, or in generally applicable rules that had obvious and discriminatory effects on Native Americans. It was a good example of how apparently neutral rules could be designed with large discriminatory consequences – think Sunday or sabbath closing laws or rules about the ways we can dress that do or don’t prevent us from wearing a yarmulka, a hajib, or a pendant with the symbols of our faiths. So Congress passed RFRA. It said people should be able to practice religion their own ways unless government had a compelling interest in making everyone conform to the general rule and there was no less restrictive way of accomplishing that purpose. RFRA was understood as restoring the rule of a Warren Court decision, Sherbert v. Verner.[iii] Read the rest of this entry »


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