Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Scientific Minds Want To Know

Book Review:

Title: The Blessed Human Race: Essays on Reconsideration
Author:  George Jochnowitz
Date Published: 2007
Publisher: Hamilton Books

The Blessed Human Race: Essays on Reconsideration
Source: Powell's Book

It's rare that I have come across a book that made me think about so many things. Things both important and very important. The Blessed Human Race, a slim volume, is such a book, and well worth reading. Intelligent and thoughtful persons reconsider their positions all the time, on many things, large and small, in the light of new evidence. That defines the scientific mind.

That greatly explains why I have quite enjoyed this book, for its thoughtfulness and its ability to make me reconsider my positions. But also for its wide assortment of essays, from Marx to Shakespeare to Salvation Through Faith to Tipping (e.g., I too have long been bothered by the practice of tipping and its various forms.)

Even so, a good part of the book, one-third in fact, is devoted to China and George Jochnowitz's trip, with his daughter Miriam, in 1989 to China—a trip undertaken as part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) southwest of Beijing. This was Jochnowitz's second trip to China in general and Hebei University in particular. During his time there, Jochnowitz ruminates about many things, the most important though are his personal recollections of the Tiananmen Square protests and eventual massacre in the spring of 1989, a seven-week period between April 17 and June 4, 1989.

In the end, it did not end well, as an estimated force of 300,000 soldiers from the People's Liberation Army (PLA) brutally crushed the protest, ending any aspirations that the students had for freedom and democracy. The number of people killed is hard to ascertain with certainty, given the Communist government's total blackout and censoring of what took place on June 4 and the days leading up to it. Best estimates report several thousand deaths and at least an equal number injured and arrested. For the leaders of the totalitarian regime, such numbers are unimportant and, more telling, the citizens of China do not have a right to know.

 China, Marxism & Blind Faith

In "China. Marx, and Islam," (chapter 5) Jochnowitz describes the relationship between Marxists and Islamists, which was established during the Bandung Conference in Indonesia. There was meeting of representatives of 29 African and Asian nations, held at Bandung, Indonesia, from April 18–25, 1955. Leaders in attendance included Ahmed Sukarno of Indonesia, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and Zhou Enlai of the People's Republic of China (PRC). This block of nations came to be known as the non-aligned movement or the Third World—both definitions to differentiate these nations from the Western world led by the United States and from the eastern bloc led by the Soviet Union.

One of the outcomes or consequences of this conference, Jochnowitz writes is that "a de-facto Marxist-Islamist alliance was formed. Bandung took the world by surprise." China, which previous to the conference, was about to agree to exchange ambassadors with Israel, became an opponent of Israel, aligning itself with its member states:
After Bandung, anti-Zionism became a central, albeit unstated, part of communist ideology. What began as a practical act—a political coalition with Islamic nations—continued even after it was no longer practical. (33)
It would take more than three decades, until the fall of communism and the fall of the Berlin wall, when eastern European nations recognized Israel that China followed suit. Much of this chapter is devoted to the limitations of Marxism, which are many, least of which is its inability to recognize freedom of speech and the need for individual dignity, placing the rights of the state over that of the individual. Jochnowitz writes: "Blind faith, whether political or religious, places restrictions on thought. It is therefore a denial of the greatness—indeed, the essence—of the human species. Blind faith is what links Islam to the ghost of Marxism."

It follows that when one places the collective over the individual, limiting what individuals need to know, for one, by limiting what they read, human dignity suffers. Having everyone believe the same thing benefits the few and results in suffering on the grand scale.

George Jochnowitz: "What makes humanity wonderful—and it is wonderful—is our ability to see how complex the world is and to keep exploring its vastness and details."
Photo Credit: Bill Cofone, 2011
A Time to Reconsider A Few Things

Then there are fourteen short chapters on reconsiderations of a number of things, from Marx to the human race. For example, in "Reconsidering Salvation Through Faith" (chapter 8), Christianity's chief doctrine is put under the light of scrutiny. Jochnowitz writes:  
A central element in Christian thinking, based on the words of Jesus, is the doctrine of justification through faith. For Catholics, salvation can be achieved through faith and works; for Protestants, through faith alone. There is no Christian doctrine of salvation exclusively through works. Jesus spoke of faith in unambiguous terms.  (63)
Such can be found in the Book of John 11:25-26, where Jesus makes the bold claim that he alone is the only way to eternal life, and belief in him becomes the ultimate reward of faith. As for those who have no faith, well, the consequences are clear and well known. Again, faith can't be derived or proved. It is by definition believing in something that you cannot know with certainty. It is not like a scientific experiment, or the scientific method. 

Judaism and its traditions also get an original insight in an thoughtful exegesis (or midrash) in a well-known narrative. In "Reconsidering Abraham" (chapter 9), Jochnowitz examines the story of Abraham and what is known in Jewish tradition as the Akedah, the binding" of Isaac. In chapter 22 of the Book of Genesis, Jochnowitz positions the narrative as being "concerned with the end of the practice of sacrificing one's first-born." After giving the reader a thorough explanation on the shortcomings of the rabbinical view, including raising the possibility that Isaac was not Abraham's biological son,  Jochnowitz sums up the primary importance of Abraham and the Akedah:
The importance of the story is that Abraham did not sacrifice Isaac. If we are to respect Abraham, it must be because he was an innovator. This remains true whether we believe there was a historical Abraham or whether we look upon the story of the binding as an allegory. (73)
Or simply put, Abraham broke with the tradition of the surrounding nations, questioning and arguing about the act of human sacrifice. In doing so, Abraham became the first Jew.

We can also question and reconsider, even things that we also view as normative in our general culture. In "Reconsidering Tipping" (chapter 15), Jochnowitz looks at an act that we often take for granted and often do without much reflection, seeing the act of tipping, whether in restaurants, hotels or taxis, as a necessary social lubricant. But, tipping is the giving of money, which takes on more the form of a gift, which he differentiates, and rightly so, I think, from a commercial transaction for services offered:
A present is not the same thing as a transaction. It is a simple act of generosity or friendship, or love. Giving is not the same as trading. Services should be paid for; gifts are gifts, not payment. (100)
It all comes down to differentiating acts, ranking them, and measuring how they contribute to individual freedom.

Science & Democracy

If I could put a neat summary to what Prof Jochnowitz is trying to achieve here with the essays, it is to encourage people—us—to think. In the end, Prof Jochnowitz's views on the value of questioning and inquiry become crystal clear, much of it emanating from and forming a great part of the Scientific Method. If you intimately know the arc of history and the great contribution such scientific thinking has made to the advancement of the human condition, then you would likely agree, as I do, with such sentiments.

To be sure, it's about the right to know, and using the best tools at our disposal, including our mind, to search honestly and sincerely for answers. The end of the book of fine essays ends as follows, and I quote without any further comment
The scientific method—questioning, testing, measuring, drawing conclusions and reconsidering them in light of fresh evidence—is precisely what we mean by free speech. The Beijing Spring Movement of 1989 was a logical consequence of the May 4th Movement of 1919. Science and democracy are the gifts of the blessed human race. Democracy is the political realization of the scientific method. (118)

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937.  He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.  His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects.  As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at george@jochnowitz.net.