Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Jan Assmann (1938-2024)

 I was saddened to learn that Jan Assmann passed away yesterday. Three short memories:

(1) After I presented a paper at the International Congress of Egyptologists in 2000, Professor Assmann pulled me aside and we had a long talk about what I had presented. I was flattered when he cited the unpublished version in his book, Tod und Jeneseits im Alten Ägypten.

(2) Professor Assmann was one of the outside reviewers for my rank advancement. I was told that he wrote a nice letter for me although I do not know the details.

(3) The last time I saw Professor Assmann was during the International Congress of Egyptologists at Rhodes in 2008. We shared a taxi back to the hotel from one of the venues. As ever, he was very gracious.

Professor Assmann will be known for his prodigious and thought-provoking output and his amazing erudition. Because fewer will know him personally, he will be less and less known for his gracious manner. He probably will not be known for his role as a father. He was tremendously proud of his daughters and their diplomatic efforts to bring peace to Iran.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Yale and BYU in the News

It is not often that two of my alma maters appear prominently in the same piece of legal analysis. Eugene Volokh uses both in his argument against secondary boycotts.

A secondary boycott is one where rather than boycott an individual or organization whom one sees as a problem, one boycotts an individual or group associated with the individual or organization whom one sees as a problem. I suppose that one can also boycott both. 

In this case, the problem is Yale's Law School's policies and their implementation go against the free speech rights of certain students but not others. (Institutionally Yale has been leaning this direction for a long time and I noticed earlier stages when I was a student there thirty years ago.) Earlier this year, Yale law students disrupted the presentation of a speaker with whom they disagreed. Yale excused the law students' bad behavior. Recently several judges have called for a boycott of hiring clerks who have graduated from Yale Law School. For a law school that has prided itself on being the number one law school in the country, having your students ineligible from receiving a clerkship based solely on attending your school is a severe blow, at least to one's pride.

As Volokh points out, this is a secondary boycott. It cannot possibly punish the perpetrators of bad policy. Instead it punishes those who are guilty of association with the perpetrators, and may be involuntary associates. I wonder how many law students decide which law school to attend based on who the dean is.

Yale's policies, however, seem to work against the preparation of effective lawyers. Law, by its nature, is an adversarial occupation. A lawyer may have to work for clients who hold opinions he or she personally is opposed to. He or she will certainly have to face legal opponents with whom he or she disagrees. Many lawyers laudably pursue conciliatory courses designed to minimize disagreements, but such a course of action may not be available in every case. Usually suppression of one's legal opponent and their right to present their case is not an option. Law schools do their students a disservice if they allow them options in law school that they are not allowed in court.

Yale Law School has since claimed to have made changes in the direction of free speech. Whether they actually have remains to be seen.

Even if Professor Volokh's understanding of the situation at BYU does not match facts on the ground (and to be fair, he proposes it as a hypothetical), his points about the problems of secondary boycotts remain.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

The Babylon Bee Strikes Again

The Babylon Bee is a satirical site that pokes fun of politics and religion. Every so often, they poke fun at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The title of one of their recent efforts says it all:

Member Of The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints Wishes There Were A Shorter Way To Say Member Of The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints

Of course, if their really wanted to point out the problem, they would have pointed out that this is much worse in Greek: μελος της Εκκλησιας του Ιησου Χριστου των Αγιων των Τελευταιων Ημερων. The Greek phrase has twenty-four syllables twice as many as the twelve of the English phrase.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Kudos to Jeffrey Chadwick

I was pleased to see that de Gruyter has published a Festschrift in honor of my BYU colleague Jeffrey Chadwick. He is a faculty member of the Department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University. Since he is an archaeologist who regularly digs in Israel, this has always seemed an unusual arrangement. The Festschrift is archaeologically oriented. I am pleased to see the de Gruyter is allowing individuals to order again.


Sunday, October 17, 2021

Cowardice, Courage, and Cancellation

 Bari Weiss has a worthwhile analysis of cancellation culture entitled "We Got Here Because of Cowardice. We Get Out With Courage." There are two quotes worth highlighting:

The first is about one of the contributing factors to cancellation culture:

The revolution has been met with almost no resistance by those who have the title CEO or leader or president or principal in front of their names. The refusal of the adults in the room to speak the truth, their refusal to say no to efforts to undermine the mission of their institutions, their fear of being called a bad name and that fear trumping their responsibility—that is how we got here.

The second is a suggestion for a solution to the problem:

All that had to change for the entire story to turn out differently was for the person in charge, the person tasked with being a steward for the newspaper or the magazine or the college or the school district or the private high school or the kindergarten, to say: No.

Cancellation culture has been around for a long time, though not under that name nor necessarily pushing the same political program. Here is an account from two millennia ago that survives in Greek:

Πρωΐας δὲ γενομένης συμβούλιον ἔλαβον πάντες οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ πρεσβύτεροι τοῦ λαοῦ κατὰ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ ὥστε θανατῶσαι αὐτόν· καὶ δήσαντες αὐτὸν ἀπήγαγον καὶ παρέδωκαν αὐτὸν Ποντίῳ Πιλάτῳ τῷ ἡγεμόνι. . . .

Ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἐστάθη ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ ἡγεμόνος· καὶ ἐπηρώτησεν αὐτὸν ὁ ἡγεμὼν λέγων, Σὺ εἶ ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἔφη, αὐτῷ Σὺ λέγεις. καὶ ἐν τῷ κατηγορεῖσθαι αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τῶν ἀρχιερέων καὶ πρεσβυτέρων οὐδὲν ἀπεκρίνατο. τότε λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Οὐκ ἀκούεις πόσα σου καταμαρτυροῦσιν; καὶ οὐκ ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῷ πρὸς οὐδὲ ἓν ῥῆμα, ὥστε θαυμάζειν τὸν ἡγεμόνα λίαν.

Κατὰ δὲ ἑορτὴν εἰώθει ὁ ἡγεμὼν ἀπολύειν ἕνα τῷ ὄχλῳ δέσμιον ὃν ἤθελον. εἶχον δὲ τότε δέσμιον ἐπίσημον λεγόμενον  Βαραββᾶν. συνηγμένων οὖν αὐτῶν εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Τίνα θέλετε ἀπολύσω ὑμῖν, τὸν Βαραββᾶν ἢ Ἰησοῦν τὸν λεγόμενον Χριστόν; ᾔδει γὰρ ὅτι διὰ φθόνον παρέδωκαν αὐτόν. Καθημένου δὲ αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ τοῦ βήματος ἀπέστειλεν πρὸς αὐτὸν ἡ γυνὴ αὐτοῦ λέγουσα, Μηδὲν σοὶ καὶ τῷ δικαίῳ ἐκείνῳ, πολλὰ γὰρ ἔπαθον σήμερον κατ’ ὄναρ δι’ αὐτόν.

Οἱ δὲ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ πρεσβύτεροι ἔπεισαν τοὺς ὄχλους ἵνα αἰτήσωνται τὸν Βαραββᾶν τὸν δὲ Ἰησοῦν ἀπολέσωσιν. ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ ἡγεμὼν εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Τίνα θέλετε ἀπὸ τῶν δύο ἀπολύσω ὑμῖν; οἱ δὲ εἶπαν, Τὸν Βαραββᾶν. λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Τί οὖν ποιήσω Ἰησοῦν τὸν λεγόμενον Χριστόν; λέγουσιν αὐτῷ πάντες, Σταυρωθήτω. ὁ δὲ ἡγεμών ἔφη, Τί γὰρ κακὸν ἐποίησεν; οἱ δὲ περισσῶς ἔκραζον λέγοντες, Σταυρωθήτω. ἰδὼν δὲ ὁ Πιλᾶτος ὅτι οὐδὲν ὠφελεῖ ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον θόρυβος γίνεται, λαβὼν ὕδωρ ἀπενίψατο τὰς χεῖρας ἀπέναντι τοῦ ὄχλου, λέγων, Ἀθῷός εἰμι ἀπὸ τοῦ αἵματος τοῦ δικαίου τούτου· ὑμεῖς ὄψεσθε.

When it was morning all the high priest and elders of the people took council against Jesus so that they could kill him, and, having bound him, they led him forth and delivered him to the ruler, Pontius Pilate. . . .

Jesus stood before the ruler and the ruler asked him saying: Are you the king of the Jews? Jesus said: So you say. And he did not begin to respond to his condemnation by the high priests and elders. Then Pilate said to him: Can't you hear how much they testify against you? And he did not answer him, so that the ruler was very surprised.

During the feast, it was customary for the ruler to release a prisoner, whom they wanted, to the mob. He then had a prisoner, a cutthroat called Bar-Abba. Having conferred with them, Pilate asked them: Whom would you like me to release to you: Bar-Abba or Jesus, who is called Christ? For he knew that they delivered him because of envy. While he was sitting on the dias, his wife sent to him saying: This righteous man is no affair for you, for I have suffered much today in a dream because of him.

The high priests and the elders persuaded the mob to ask for Bar-Abba, and to destroy Jesus. The leader asked them: Whom of the two should I release to them. They said: Bar-Abba. Pilate said to them: What then should I do to Jesus, who is called Christ. Everyone said to him: Let him be crucified. The ruler said: What crime has he done? They shouted louder: Let him be crucified. When Pilate saw that it was was no use, but rather that it would cause a bigger ruckus, he took water and washed his hands before the mob, saying: I am guiltless for the blood of this righteous man; you see to it. (Matthew 27:1–2, 11–24)

To this, we can add the appropriate observation worth pondering by those who capitulate to the mob today:

Pilate sought to refuse responsibility for deciding about Christ, but Pilate’s hands were never dirtier than just after he had washed them. (Neal A. Maxwell, "Why Not Now?" Ensign (November 1974))

Friday, October 15, 2021

Some Thoughts from the Cancelled

Two thoughtful pieces on cancel culture appeared recently, both written by individuals who have been cancelled. 

The first is by Dorian Abbot, a professor in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago. He tells about how a group of graduate students in his department decided to attack him behind his back and “demanded that my teaching and research be restricted in a way that would cripple my ability to function as a scientist.”


my detractors developed a new strategy to try to isolate me and intimidate everyone else into silence: They argued on Twitter that I should not be invited to give science seminars at other universities and coordinated replacement speakers. This is an effective and increasingly common way to ratchet up the cost of dissenting because disseminating new work to colleagues is an important part of the scientific endeavor.

Sure enough, this strategy was employed when I was chosen to give the Carlson Lecture at MIT — a major honor in my field. It is an annual public talk given to a large audience and my topic was “climate and the potential for life on other planets.” On September 22, a new Twitter mob, composed of a group of MIT students, postdocs, and recent alumni, demanded that I be uninvited.

It worked. And quickly.

MIT caved.

The root of Professor Abbot's problem was that he advocated that individuals should be rewarded for merit rather than the superficial and irrelevant classification to which they belonged. This diversity from the students' ideology cannot be tolerated.

The second piece was written by Philip Carl Salzman, an Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McGill University. He argues that the urge to cancel is influenced by a number of contributing factors:

One is that the targets tend to be successful, high-ranking, and often popular, boasting achievements in scholarship and teaching. A second is that they make some people uncomfortable by being too demanding, or too forthright in expressing opinions, or too friendly. Lower-status individuals, students, and colleagues gain prominence by attacking high-status individuals, especially if the attack is in the name of some imaginary application of “social justice.” “Once it becomes clear that attention and praise can be garnered from organizing an attack on someone’s reputation, plenty of people discover that they have an interest in doing so.”

From what I have seen, this seems to be true. I have also noticed, however, that those who attempt to gain attention and praise for attacking others quickly lose that attention and praise because they have no actual accomplishment to stand on. It reminds me of some lines from Pindar:

σοφὸς ὁ πολλὰ εἰδὼς φυᾷ· μαθόντες δὲ λάβροι 

παγγλοωσσία, κόρακες ὥς, ἄκραντα γαρύετον 

Διὸς πρὸς ὄρνιχα θεῖον. 

The nature of the wise is readily apparent, but the violent ravings of the student, is like crows uselessly cawing at the divine bird of Zeus. (Pindar, Olypmian Odes 2.86-88)

The administrators who cave to this remind me of a story that Herodotus told of Thrasybulus:

πέμψας γὰρ παρὰ Θρασύβουλον κήρυκα ἐπυνθάνετο ὅντινα ἂν τρόπον ἀσφαλέστατον καταστησάμενος τῶν πρηγμάτων κάλλιστα τὴν πόλιν ἐπιτροπεύοι. Θρασύβουλος δὲ τὸν ἐλθόντα παρὰ τοῦ Περιάνδρου ἐξῆγε ἔξω τοῦ ἄστεος, ἐσβὰς δὲ ἐς ἄρουραν ἐσπαρμένην ἅμα τε διεξήιε τὸ λήιον ἐπειρωτῶν τε καὶ ἀναποδίζων τὸν κήρυκα κατὰ τὴν ἀπὸ Κορίνθου ἄπιξιν, καὶ ἐκόλουε αἰεὶ ὅκως τινὰ ἴδοι τῶν ἀσταχύων ὑπερέχοντα, κολούων δὲ ἔρριπτε, ἐς ὃ τοῦ ληίου τὸ κάλλιστόν τε καὶ βαθύτατον διέφθειρε τρόπῳ τοιούτω: 

For, having sent a herald to Thrasybulus, he wanted to learn the way he might most safely arrange affairs in his city for the best results. Thrasybulus went and led the messenger from Periander out of the city, and when he had entered a sown field, he went through the crop asking and interrogating the messenger the reason he had left Corinth, and he was always cutting down the ears of grain that were taller, and having cut them off, cast them away, and this fashion he destroyed the best and most abundant of the crop. (Herodotus, Histories 5.92F.2)

That may be the preferred way to keep order, but it also promotes mediocrity. But this is standard fare. Hermodorus was expelled from Ephesus for excelling at something: “If he must excel, let him go and excel over somebody else!” Thus we are back to Hugh Nibley's prescient piece “How to Have a Quiet Campus, Antique Style.”

Saturday, August 14, 2021

David C. Mongomery

David Montgomery passed away this past month. I took three classes from him as an undergraduate: two on the history of the Middle East, and a senior seminar in history. 

I learned a number of things from him. One of the things I learned from him is that one cannot properly do a history of a movement (political, religious, whatever) without knowing something about the actual people involved. This can present a number of difficulties when dealing with ancient history, but is also a problem in modern society.

I regret not taking his class on the Turkish language the one time I had a chance, but that may not have been productive at the time. I grew to appreciate his level-headed approach.

Another thing I learned from Professor Montgomery was a comment he made about the abilities of undergraduates. He said that when he first started teaching that students had no problem taking in class essay tests and that they could easily write ten pages in the class hour. He said that sometime in the seventies, they suddenly stopped being able to do that. One of the older professors I had still did that. He expected students to write five one pages essays in an hour. That was our test.

I remember meeting Professor Montgomery almost twenty years ago. He had just retired. He told me that he was forced to retire because the department chair wanted to hire someone young who would be cheaper. Ironically, after almost twenty years the history department at BYU has still not found a permanent replacement for Professor Montgomery. His presence will be missed.