Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Recently, the website posted an article, "10 Questions for Every Atheist," that unsurprisingly contained ten questions for atheists. 

The first line of the article touts these questions as "Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…" [sic].  Of course, the article ends without any conclusions other than a note that the questions were copied from a website where they were asked and answered, presumably Truly and Honestly REALLY answered, by the atheist site author.

But I thought it would be a useful exercise to offer my own answers to these questions in the interest of promoting dialogue.  A good (Christian) friend recently told me that she has had to "mute" the Facebook posts of some atheists because they are unnecessarily rude and pushy.  I don't believe that being rude and pushy ever got anyone to understand anyone else's point of view.  I do find that there are plenty of Christians who are rude and pushy about their religion, too; that's basically a human failing that doesn't depend on whether you are a religious person or not. 

Anyway, here goes.

1.       How Did You Become an Atheist?

 I've written about this previously.  I would, however, like to clarify some things.  First of all, I really don't think of myself as an atheist per se, even though I am.  It seems odd to me to classify myself by what I am not, as in not a theist.  It would be like a woman saying her sex is "nonmale."  It's just odd.  Also, I find that the term "atheist" is very much incomplete.  "Atheist" encompasses, for example, Buddhists; to the extent that Buddhism reflects some sort of spirituality, I reject that as well.  It also encompasses Deists, who believe in a god who created but does not involve himself in the universe.

Indeed, I do not believe in any sort of supernatural occurrences at all.  The things that happen in the universe are explainable exclusively through physical processes and principles.

So, to define myself by positive principles, I say that I am a secular humanist.  What that means is (a) the rejection of spirituality and supernaturalism, combined with (b) a devotion to the betterment and development of humankind.

The short story of how I came to adopt that viewpoint is that I came to the recognition that I am part of a long line of humans who have struggled to understand in ever-increasing detail the way the universe works and to make life ever easier and better for an ever-wider number of humans.  My role in that chain is to do what I can with what I have to continue that process.  We are a remarkable animal, capable of so many things.

2.       What happens when we die?

To answer that question, we have to first say what happens when we are alive.  What we call life is the collected activity of trillions of cells--many of which are not even human--working together to perpetuate the existence of the organism to which they belong.  Our environment is full of constant threats to those cells.  Most of those threats come from organisms in their own right that are looking to use those cells as fuel to perpetuate their own existence. When life ends, consciousness ceases, and the body stops its defense against those threats.  Eventually the body is decomposed into nothing recognizable.

3.       What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!

This is a sort of back-door approach to what is commonly known as "Pascal's Wager."  Blaise Pascal, a brilliant French philosopher and mathematician who lived in the 17th century, devised an argument for Christianity on the basis that humans bet their lives on whether God exists or not.  Pascal concluded that even if there are real and substantial questions about the existence of God, one should nonetheless choose Christianity.  Pascal's perspective was that choosing to be a Christian if there is no God causes a person to lose nothing, while choosing to be an atheist costs a person everything if God does exist.

It's a clever argument, but its basis is errant.  It assumes that choosing to be a Christian has no effective cost.  From my perspective, this is the only life I will ever have.  If I waste time with rituals that ultimately have no meaning or effect, instead of working to better humankind, there is a very real cost, not just to me, but to all humankind.  When I think of the amount of time, energy, money, and other finite resources that humans have wasted on religious activities, I am deeply disappointed.  Of course, as a humanist, I have to accept that others have their own agency; they can do what they want to do, even if I would find it foolish or wasteful for me to do those things.

But to answer the question, if I'm wrong, I'm wrong.  There is no sense in worrying about something that may never happen, and causing that worry to waste what I already know I have.

4.       Without God, where do you get your morality from?

I make moral decisions based upon a human instinct that has evolved in us over millions of years because its application makes the survival of the species more likely.  That human instinct is expressed as "the Golden Rule":  Treat others as you would want to be treated.  It exists, in one form or another, as a core principle of every human religion that has ever survived more than a few generations.  The reason why that is, is simple:  It is our human instinct.  Humans create religions in order to assert control over our societies, but the mechanisms those religions express are essentially human; they are effectively a part of our DNA.  The details of what specific acts are considered "moral" or "immoral" is more a function of the prejudices of the human founders of those religions, but the broad strokes are all alike.

In my own life, that view is augmented by my humanism.  Treating others as I would want to be treated also means respecting the rights of others to make their own decisions, and treating them as equal participants in humanity. 

5.       If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?
I'll let you in on a secret:  I have raped and murdered as many people as I have ever wanted to.  It just so happens that I haven't wanted to rape or murder anyone.  If you believe that a belief in God is keeping you from raping and murdering people, then by all means, do what works for you.  But there are plenty of people, committed Christians, who have committed rape, murder, and all sorts of other crimes.

"God" is not required to make murder or rape illegal.  All that is required is the recognition that murder and rape are offensive acts that deny other humans their lives, their physical integrity, their choices, and their essential humanity.  We should absolutely punish murder and rape, not because God tells us so, but because of the impact of those crimes on our society and on the individuals that make up that society.

As for good deeds...those often go unrewarded anyway.  And most of the Christians I know would argue that heaven is not a reward for good deeds, but for genuine belief in Jesus Christ as a savior from sin.  If you are doing good things because of the rewards they bring, you're likely to be disappointed.

6.       If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?

The "meaning" my life has is in its significance:  Did I make use of my innate abilities?  Did I respect others?  Did I ease the pain of those who suffer?  Did I materially advance human knowledge?  Did I help others to understand and accept the equal rights of all humans?  Did I do my part to keep the species going?  "God" has nothing to do with any of those things.
7.       Where did the universe come from?

I think this question is perhaps born of a lack of understanding of what we already know about the universe.  About 14 billion years ago, as we measure time, all of the matter and energy of the universe--which is literally everything that exists--was concentrated into a singularity, a point of zero dimensions that was, by definition, infinitely hot and dense.  The singularity exploded, creating what we understand as space, which is expressed as matter and energy.  We know these things because we can literally observe their residue (up to a point).

It does not make sense to talk of what happened "before" the Big Bang, because time is a part of the universe the Big Bang created and has no meaning apart from that occurrence.

But the deeper question, to me, is why anyone believes it is necessary to have a creator, a cause, for what exists.  There are many things we do not know about the universe because we lack the technological capacity to observe them.  As we learn new things and garner new insights about the universe, we will modify and enhance our theories.  In fact, we have done more over the last 70 years to gain an understanding of the origin of the university than we did for all of human history before then.  

It would be easy to say that the universe exists because God created it, but that would eliminate the need to think about it.  When humans stop thinking, we stop growing, and we retreat a little from the long campaign to better ourselves.

8.       What about miracles? What all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?

The human mind is capable of great deception (and self-deception).  It is true that a core component of our ability to gain knowledge is that we trust what we observe.  But if we are honest, we have to recognize that we cannot necessarily trust our imperfect human brains.  Part of our ability to survive as a species is based upon the ability of the brain to rationalize stimuli into a form we can understand, even if that rationalization isn't an accurate picture of the world.  

There is a great deal of pressure in our society--perhaps most firmly within our own families, from the youngest of ages--to perpetuate the religious myth.  On several occasions, I have read posts on Facebook from Christian friends who regard their 6-, 7-, or 8-year-old children's decision to "accept Jesus" as cause for the greatest of celebrations.  So much of our participation in religious activities is driven by social expectations and the desire to please others by showing conformity.  

If I am being honest, I have to regard those who believe in "miracles" or who "have a connection with Jesus" or who have seen "saints or angels" as delusional.  I don't mean to be offensive when I say that.  I don't think less of people for being deluded.  I have my own delusions.
9.       What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?

I admire their ability to stand up for humanism in a world that is stacked so heavily against them.  There are times when they have said things that are needlessly offensive to persons who have religious beliefs.  They aren't perfect people.  But they are right about a great many things.

10.   If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?

Every society needs to maintain control over its members in some fashion.  The process of developing a civilization requires everyone to set aside some of their own interests to create something better.  When human understanding of the universe was very limited, superstitions put explanations to the unexplained because there was literally nothing else that could be done to explain natural events.  These superstitions were easy, and perhaps useful, mechanisms for control.  

I happen to think that the development of religion has been an essential element of human evolution, because it aided us in getting the species from frightened tree-dwellers to scientists and engineers and poets.  But we have outgrown its usefulness as a tool.  We, meaning humanity as a whole, are ready to push beyond all of that and to replace the rote rules with a deeper understanding of how we can achieve greater heights.

The main reason why I say that is because human progress has tended to relegate God to the "gaps."  Take lightning, for example.  When we were ignorant, we assigned responsibility for lightning to God (or "the gods").  Not only did we lack any concept of how lightning could form naturally; we also lacked the ability to gain any reasonable concept of a natural world that included random discharges of static electricity.  So if our caveman ancestor Ugg was killed by a lightning bolt, it had to be the doing of a supernatural being--and, applying our own human morality to that idea, Ugg's pals had to assume that Ugg had done something to anger that being.  Now, however, we know how and why lightning occurs--it's not God doing it.  We no longer have a gap in our knowledge, so there is no need for God to fill it.

At some point, after this happens enough times, the conclusion becomes rather obvious, that (a) we're going to have gaps in our knowledge, (b) we should work to fill them with understanding, not miracles, and (c) there's no reason to stick God in there.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Fergusons among us

Much like the situation in Israel, about which I blogged recently, the situation in Ferguson, Mo., creates for me an awkwardness.  I believe that most police officers operate with the public interest in mind.  They place themselves in difficult situations where others would--and should--run away so that people who would do us harm are stopped from doing so.  They work long and difficult hours for comparatively little pay.  They are expected to make split-second decisions that can take or save a life.  When confronted with emergencies, their first impulse is to help.

I am a big fan of the police, or at least most of them.

And yet...

It is difficult to ignore the more sensational examples of police misconduct that have made headlines in recent years, not just in Ferguson, but also in places like Oakland and New York City.  And lest you believe that these examples get more airplay because of the 24-hour news cycle, I point you to a startling statistic.

According to FBI statistics, in the United States between 2006 and 2012, on average, a white police officer killed a black person once every 3.8 days. 

That's almost two a week, 96 a year, and 672 over that time period.  Almost one in five of those killed were under 21, like Mike Brown, the teenager killed on August 9 whose death sparked the unrest in Ferguson. 

And, as the article I linked notes, not all police departments participate in the FBI's data-gathering function, so those numbers probably underreport the actual numbers.

I'd like to think that Ferguson is a unique case, or at least rare.  In Ferguson, the population is about two-thirds black.  The police force is 94.3% white.  Most of the interactions between police and citizens in Ferguson are going to involve a white police officer and a black citizen.  That is a statistical certainty.

But if I were a black citizen of Ferguson, I would look at those numbers with a high level of suspicion.  Having a police force that so poorly reflects the racial makeup of the community it nominally serves suggests that design is at work.  Part of this is, of course, history.  White people are more likely to pursue careers in law enforcement than minorities because white people have historically gotten better treatment from police than have minorities. 

One of the more pernicious effects of institutionalized racism, even after it is ended, is the way that its long fingers extend themselves into more enlightened times to suggest a natural order where there is none.  We see it in the way differences in scholastic achievement persist despite sixty years of efforts to make educational opportunities more equal across racial lines.  Such a situation gives hope to those to hold onto their racism by suggesting, falsely, that black children are simply less capable of learning than are white children.

And it suggests falsely that black people are less capable of behaving themselves as citizens of a free state than are white people.

This is not to excuse criminal conduct.  But if you believe as a first principle, as I do, that we are all equal in our rights and capable, with the right access to opportunities, of becoming the kind of model, fulfilled citizens who don't interact with police in this way, then there is a question that deserves discussion:  What can we as a society do to ensure that the effects of past institutionalized racism are mitigated?

It is foolish to think that we can resolve three hundred years of slavery and a hundred years or more of institutionalized discrimination against black people by changing a few laws.  It is particularly foolish to think we can do it when there are so many who fight every incremental change with such ferocity and who clamor to end the effort as soon as any green shoots are seen.

It occurred to me that one thing we might do to rebuild, or perhaps build in the first instance, the trust between the police and minority communities is to examine where there are instances of racial mismatches between police departments and the communities they serve.  I'm not suggesting a quota system.  But where police departments in black communities are overwhelmingly white, particularly in leadership positions, black people are deprived of seeing members of their own race in uniform and helping the community.  More importantly, white police officers are deprived of the opportunity to work with black officers who are their equals.

So, an important question arises:  In Little Rock, where the population is 40% black according to the most recent census, what are the racial proportions among the Little Rock Police Department?  The same question might be asked about many different police agencies in Arkansas.  It turns out that's not an easy question to answer online.  I'm still looking for a source that won't involve me calling individual police departments' public information offices.  I'll update when I have an answer.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Show up early

If there was ever any doubt about my policy of showing up to court early, today it was put to rest. 

I'm in New York for a status conference.  For some reason, the judges in New York like to make the attorneys make personal appearances, which means that I schlep up to Manhattan with some regularity. 

It's usually a pretty easy trip, although landing at LaGuardia can be harrowing, especially in conditions like last night--heavy rain and windy.  It didn't help that my seatmate was flying for the first time.  The last 45 minutes were rough.  I am pretty sure she gripped her armrest hard enough to bend it.  When we parked at the gate, she sprung up to be the first one off the plane.

If I have to stay overnight in New York, as I almost always have to, I like to stay at the Hotel Mulberry, a little Chinese-run boutique hotel that is extremely clean and usually very affordable.  It's on the southern end of Chinatown, just across the street from the courthouse.  The staff there is unbelievably nice; the rooms are large by Manhattan standards, and you can get phenomenally good Chinese food delivered for cheap.

But the Mulberry was booked solid, so I stayed in Flushing, Queens, near LaGuardia Airport.

My flight in was delayed several hours, so I arrived too late to get local food delivered.  New York may be The City That Never Sleeps, but nobody told the proprietors of the pizza and Chinese places that were nearby.  Dominos was two blocks away, and even though it pained me to order Dominos in New York, I was too hungry to skip.

The car service showed up a little before 9 a.m.  (If you are ever in New York and need to get around in a planned way and don't want to use the subway, use a car service.  Cabs are great for casual or spontaneous travel, but a car service will almost always be cheaper, cleaner, and much more comfortable.  The difference between a cab and a car service is that cabs can legally pick up fares on the street, while car services must be radio-dispatched.)

I have been on a program of intentionally deciding to ignore my natural shyness.  It might be hard for some of you to believe, but I am a naturally shy person.  I am trying to stretch myself out of that, so I did something I wouldn't ordinarily do.  The custom is for the passenger to ride in the back, unless there are four passengers, and somebody has to ride up front.  But I decided to turn that on its head.  "Would you mind," I asked the driver, "if I rode up front?"

He grinned broadly.  "Sure, no problem," he said.  "Nobody ever asks to do that. I'm Farouk, by the way."  He extended his hand, and I shook it.  "I'm Jim," I replied.  "Nice to meet you."

So off we went.  We chatted for a bit about the weather, the Mets (they got clobbered by the Nationals at Citi Field last night, 7-1, to Farouk's disdain), the bridges and tunnels into Manhattan (for some reason, drivers love to talk about bridges and tunnels), and Farouk's home country (he's originally from Pakistan, but he's lived here for 10 years and is working on getting his citizenship).

At one point, he said, "We're going to hit some traffic here," just as we slowed down.

"That's okay," I replied.  "As long as I'm at the courthouse by 10:45, I'll be okay."

"This judge, does he ever run late?" he asked.  In retrospect, it was a question he asked nervously.

"Not usually," I said.

We entered Manhattan via the Midtown Tunnel--my fifth different entry method, after the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, the Ed Koch Williamsburg (59th Street) Bridge, and the Queensboro Bridge.  As we neared the courthouse, Farouk turned to me and said, "You're almost going to make it.  You have three minutes."

I looked at him in puzzlement.  "I have an hour and three minutes," I said.  "My conference is at 10:45."

"Oh, 10:45," Farouk said, breathing a sigh of relief.  "I thought you said 9:45."

"Oh, no," I said, laughing.  "I know better than to leave only 45 minutes to get from Flushing to Lower Manhattan."

I thanked Farouk for his help and tipped him well.

And now to the point.  When I got to the courthouse, I didn't see my case on today's list.  So, after getting through security, I went to the clerk's office.  "I have a conference with Judge Carter today," I said.  "Judge who?" the clerk asked.  My heart sank.  Had I misread the order?  "I think it's Judge Carter, but I don't see my case on the list." 

She furrowed her brow.  "I can give you a case number," I offered.

Then a flash of recognition swept over her.  "Oh, Judge Carter," she said.  "Yes, your case isn't on the list because he sits in the other courthouse."

Mentally I uttered several curse words.  The only other courthouse I was aware of was in White Plains, well north of the city and very likely an hour away under even the best of circumstances.  How could I make such a mistake?  "The other courthouse?" I asked, hopefully.

"Well, it's the Thurgood Marshall Building, where the Second Circuit sits," she said.  "It's at Foley Square."

"Is it far away?"

"Oh, no, it's just across the street.  It's a two-minute walk."

Relieved, I got directions from her and checked my watch.  10:15.  I was going to make it.

But if I hadn't been early, I never would have.

And that's why I always show up early to court.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Brave Sir Robin ran away

I've had about 24 hours to collect my thoughts on Robin Williams.  I'd like to say something profound, but I find that my experience isn't deep enough to teach this subject. 

I don't think I could even particularly call myself a fan, at least not in any sense of devotion to him.  There are actors whom I could watch in anything--Alan Rickman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lawrence Fishburne, William H. Macy--but Robin Williams wasn't really one of them.  I liked Mork & Mindy when I was a kid, but the humor was definitely for kids. I watched a couple of episodes of his last work on TV, The Crazy Ones, and found it mostly awful (and audiences agreed; CBS canceled it after only one season). 

There were times when his stand-up comedy was sublime.  He could be a bit too frenetic at times, and therefore hard to follow, and not funny.  But when he was locked in, such as in his 2002 HBO special Live on Broadway, there was no one better.

The surprising thing for me was in coming to understand just how brilliant he was as a serious actor.  His iconic role in Good Will Hunting elevated that film to the upper echelon of American cinema.  He also guest-starred in an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street, playing the part of a man whose wife was murdered while they were vacationing.  If the mark of great acting is the audience's suspension of disbelief, then he was among the greatest of all time in that performance.

His serious roles, like that of the teacher in Dead Poets Society, were for me the most enjoyable probably because they were the most unexpected.  This was a man who was funny, but somehow it was possible to forget about that for an hour or two or three and simply have your breath taken away by an honest, brutal performance.

If my Facebook news feed is any indication, his suicide was shocking to most people.  In the cold light of reason, it really shouldn't have been.  He was plainly suffering from bipolar disorder or a related disorder.  Almost everyone has highs and lows.  The difference as I see it is in how high and how low.  The thing that gave him an excess of energy and vitality and creativity, during those times when he was off being brilliant, took away that energy and vitality and creativity and replaced it with pain and grief, during other times.

The title of this post comes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, of course.  The lyrics recount the bravery of Sir Robin, a knight of the round table; in that inimitable Python way, the minstrels accompanying Sir Robin on his quest predict in song that the knight will endure horrible trials, up to and including dismemberment (double entendre intended).  When Sir Robin protests, asking that they not sing about such terrible things, the minstrels change their song to accuse him of cowardice, of "bravely" running away from the battle, something he finds equally troubling.

There is a tendency to equate suicide with weakness, especially a lack of mental toughness, and selfishness.  I think that has it all wrong.  No matter how strong a person is, if you hand that person enough pain, enough feelings of worthlessness, the brain rationalizes itself into an act of self-destruction--drinking, using drugs, even suicide, anything to take away that pain.  It isn't a question of strength or bravery.  Everyone has limits.  Bipolar disorder forces those who suffer from it to skate too close to those limits.

The reality is that none of us truly walks in the shoes of anyone else.  We don't know Robin Williams just because he appeared on our TV or movie screens.  We don't know what he went through.  He was a brave man, though, facing his demons, until it wasn't enough, and he had to run away.

I am sorry that we have seen the last of his talent.  Somehow I feel robbed of all the great entertainment he won't provide us, as though I have some entitlement to it.  That is selfish on my part.  As much as I enjoyed being entertained by him, it seems craven that the source of that enjoyment was something inside him that he ultimately couldn't control, that caused him enough pain that he felt that ending his life was the only way to gain control.

But even when the victim of suicide isn't famous, or isn't particularly entertaining to be around, or doesn't have an obvious and magnificent talent to share with the world, suicide robs us of a member of our human family.  It is, in the end, the end of the only life that person will ever have.  That is a loss of epic proportion.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee. 
-- John Donne

I wish, probably in vain, that Robin Williams's death would provoke us to a new understanding of this terrible disease, to end the stigma of mental illness, to reach out to those who are suffering to give them hope in a new direction.  It probably won't happen.

But if you are reading this, and you find yourself heading down that path, know this:  Depression is not your friend.  It lies to you.  It makes you think things you would not think with a clear head.  Don't suffer in silence.  Tell someone.  Ask for help.  And keep asking until you get it.  (You have to ask because only you can know with any sense of certainty where your mental health stands on any given day.)  If you can't bring yourself to ask a friend or a family member, call 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  It's free, confidential, and available every hour of every day.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The choice

Two disasters, one natural and one man-made, are in the news of late.  I refer, of course, to the outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in West Africa, and to the so-called "border crisis."

These two disasters are drawing a fairly sharp line between different groups of Americans. 

It is true:  there is a genuine border crisis going on right now, today, but if you get your information from Fox "News" you might have a different conception as to what the nature of that crisis is.  The actual crisis is that tens of thousands of unaccompanied children have been making their way from Central America, through Mexico, and across the border into the United States.  They are fleeing devastating conditions in their home countries:  poverty, political unrest, crime.

Their volume is overwhelming our procedural capacity to deal with them.  The reason for that is that children in that situation are entitled by a 2008 law to special treatment that guarantees that they will not be repatriated without at least a hearing to determine what their best interests are and to decide, fairly and objectively, whether they should be taken in by this country.

There is a vocal minority of conservatives who contend that dealing with this crisis requires something on the order of military action in some respects.  Suggestions have ranged from quick deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, without a hearing, up to and including killing these children as they cross the border.

That last suggestion, however unserious and unlikely to be implemented it happens to be, is disgusting.

But the truth is that there is a dedicated core of conservatives who are more than willing to dedicate their time and energies toward harassing these children and making the U.S. as inhospitable to foreigners as possible.  One tea party favorite, an official with the ironically named American Family Association, asserted that the border must be defended against these invaders because it was ordained by God.  That proves, of course, that there is no possibility of a reasonable compromise with this person or any accommodation for his viewpoint, so I will state my position simply:

These are children.

They were sent to the United States by parents who believed that it was better that they travel thousands of miles across dangerous territory on the vague hope for a new and better life than to stay where they were.

We have the capacity to take them in.  It will cost us money, true.

But these are children.

We have no claim to moral superiority over anyone if we turn them away.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

—Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus

Do those words mean anything, or are they simply a platitude we utter as we pretend to be the greatest country on earth?

The other crisis is a public health crisis.  This outbreak of Ebola is the largest since the disease was first identified in 1976.  It has killed, as of today, nearly 1,000 people in West Africa.  About seven of every 10 people who contract the disease die of it.  Ebola is extremely transmissible if there is contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, but it is not transmitted through the air or through casual contact.  Health workers who specialize in the treatment of Ebola have rushed to Guinea, and to Liberia, and to Sierra Leone, and to Nigeria, in derogation of their own safety, to help contain this outbreak and to provide relief to the afflicted.

These people are the best kind of humans on earth.

Some of them have contracted Ebola because of their work.  Two of them, American health workers, have recently been brought here for treatment, because we have the resources and facilities to give them the best chance to survive.  The research that is undertaken in treating them, and hopefully saving them, will give us the best chance of defeating this killer of humans.

Again the conservatives howl.  Senator Jason Rapert, a preacher (and holder of an "honorary" doctorate from a noted Christian diploma mill) who got himself elected to the Arkansas Senate on a radical right-wing platform, tweeted:

I pray for a cure for Ebola, but it is ludicrous to introduce this disease on American soil, maybe even treasonous. @BarackObama @CDCgov
Bringing infected American health workers to the U.S. for treatment poses no public health risk.  We have the capacity to handle these workers' treatment, to provide them with the best chance of survival, to learn about this disease and how to treat it, and to give humanity the opportunity to solve a genuine public health crisis in Africa that will alleviate suffering.  We do these things at no risk to the American public.

Perhaps the problem is that Sen. Rapert thinks that "praying for a cure" is the best way to approach Ebola.  But again, this attitude shows that we are dealing with the worst kind of humans on earth--those who would sit idly by as human beings suffer from a horrible disease even as we have the capacity to help.  There is no compromise with these people.

So I will state my position simply. 

This is a deadly disease.

We may or may not ever have the capacity to cure or treat it, but we definitely have the capacity to try.

It will cost us money, true.

But it is a deadly disease.

We have no claim to moral superiority over anyone if we turn our faces away from this problem.

You have a choice.  Whether you are religious or not, whether you are rich or poor, you have a choice.  You can choose to isolate yourself, to fall into the old trap of jingoism and xenophobia and tribalism, to hold yourself apart from the world.  Or you can recognize that there is all of us a common humanity, that we are all a part of the world of humans, that we must all live here together for as long as we live, and that we have world over millennia to develop a human civilization that is closer today than it has ever been in the history of humankind.

You can claim to love life, but you don't, if you do not love humanity, even when there is a cost.  Especially when there is a cost.

There is no middle ground here; it's a fundamental choice.  I know what side I'm on.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A plague o' both your houses!

Israel's recent activities in Gaza have left me conflicted, no pun intended.

I am not a reflexive supporter of Israel.  I do support the concept of Israel; I think it was important to establish a homeland for a people who have historically been mistreated, to understate it, in the societies where they live.  I am very uncertain that it needed to be established in what had been British-controlled territory, just because of historical claims that the Jews had on that land.

For what ought by now to be obvious reasons, I emphatically deny the validity of the concept of the "Promised Land"--land that was supposedly promised by God to the Jews.  But historically speaking, there was once a Jewish state there, and that's not an entirely wrongful basis for establishing Israel, the modern state, where it is established.  (I note that very few people who think that's a reasonable basis for deciding such things think that we ought to return the land taken from Native Americans by white Europeans in past centuries.  Foolish consistency, I know.)

The Holocaust is the prime, but hardly the only, historical fact justifying the establishment and continuation of a Jewish state.  Many people are unaware that there was a tremendous groundswell of support for the establishment of a Jewish state in the 1910s and 1920s, even before Hitler came to power.  One of its greatest proponents during that time, Louis Brandeis, is one of my personal heroes, as regular readers are aware.  Even before the rise of the Nazis to power, Jews were treated as second-class citizens in Europe particularly.  But the slaughter of six million Jews at the hands of a maniac, fresh in the world's memory at the end of the second world war, provided the push the world needed to get behind Israel.

I have tremendous respect and admiration for the Jewish people and their culture.  It is a culture of scholarship and achievement that values knowledge, honor, and peace.

That history and my personal feelings make what I am about to say...difficult.

For all of my adult life, Israel has acted in ways that--to my eyes--appear to be no better than the actions of the historical anti-Semites whose hatred and treatment of Jews was used to justify the creation of Israel.  Reasonable minds can disagree as to whether those acts are necessary to the survival of Israel.*  But the essential truth is that the Arabs who were living in Palestine and who were displaced when Israel was created are treated as less than fully human by Israel's official acts and policies.

* - I point out, ever so gingerly, that Hitler's treatment of Jews in the lands he controlled was justified, in his mind, by the belief that those actions were necessary to the survival of Germany.  My point is only that the survival argument does not necessarily justify evil action.

That mistreatment has been brought into sharp relief in recent days.  Israel is in the process of wiping out the Palestinean population of Gaza.  Despite the availability of "smart" technology, and despite the declaration of temporary cease fires, Israel has repeatedly bombed schools and hospitals.  In many respects, this is no different from what has happened in war for centuries.  Civilians have always been caught in the crossfire of war.  But if this is a war of election on Israel's part--and I am not sure it is, for reasons that I will discuss below--then Israel's government is chargeable with the knowledge that their actions will have far-reaching, deadly impacts upon genuinely innocent civilians.

That is a horrible thing.

And yet...

Without question, Hamas is guilty of provoking this attack.  Hamas is a terrorist organization, but it is also in some respects a humanitarian organization.  That might seem contradictory, but one feeds the other.  Hamas has but one real goal:  the destruction of Israel as a state.  It seeks to achieve that goal through terrorist attacks.  But it also purports to act in the name of the Palestineans.  It has gained the broad support of Palestineans by providing services to a suffering people.  After all, when you are hungry, when your children are hungry, then you will accept help from wherever it comes.

Earlier this week, I watched part of an interview by Charlie Rose,** perhaps the finest interviewer in American television today, with the exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal.  Rose asked Meshaal, point-blank, about whether Hamas would recognize the right of Israel to exist.  After initially dodging the question, he gave a clear answer:  No.

** - If you watch a morning news program, and it's not CBS This Morning, which Rose co-hosts with Norah O'Donnell and Gayle King, do yourself a favor and switch.  The quality difference between their program and their competitors--particularly Today--is tremendous.

The failure of the world's efforts at diplomacy in Israel are rooted in a misunderstanding of the parties' (Israel's and the Palestineans') conceptions of the problem.  A little history is in order:  At the conclusion of World War I, the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and the League of Nations partitioned the lands under former Ottoman control, including Palestine.  The British were awarded the mandate over Palestine.  As the area was under the order of British control, Jews began to immigrate there and pressure built for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the area around Jerusalem, also known as the Land of Zion after a mountain near the city.  Advocates of that establishment were referred to as "Zionists."  After World War II, the United Nations was established, and Britain announced shortly thereafter its desire to end its control over the area. 

The UN developed a plan for partition that included lands allocated to a proposed Arab state, a proposed Jewish state, and an international area around Jerusalem that would belong to neither--it would be designated as an international area.  That plan was passed by the General Assembly in 1947 and came partially into force on May 15, 1948.  The Jews in Palestine accepted the plan and immediately, upon the withdrawal of British forces, declared the existence of the State of Israel.  The Arabs, however, did not accept the plan, and with the support of surrounding Arab states, began a military action to destroy the new Jewish state.  That action was unsuccessful. 

In 1967, Egypt mobilized forces on its border with Israel, and Israel launched a pre-emptive strike.  Six days later (the action became known as the "Six-Day War"), Israel held the Sinai peninsula (formerly belonging to Egypt), occupied the Golan Heights near the northern end of Israel (formerly belonging to Syria), and occupied those areas of the UN partition that had been assigned to the proposed Arab state--the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip.  The latter two territories came to be known as the "Occupied Territories."

(The military history of Israel is considerably more complex than these broad strokes, and deserves more study than I can reasonably give it in even a dozen blog entries.)

A substantial portion of the diplomacy of the world outside Israel--including efforts most prominently by the United States and Norway, as well as the United Nations--has been premised on the idea that the solution to the strife between Israel and Arabs in those territories has been arranging for Israel to disengage from the Occupied Territories.  Various plans have been proposed and implemented that would allow Israel to do so.  However, particularly when the right-wing Likud Party is in power in Israel, as a matter of official policy, Jews who wish to "settle" in the Occupied Territories have been openly supported by Israel's government, and efforts to induce Israel to stand down from those areas--known as "Land for Peace"--have repeatedly fallen aside.

Despite Likud's willingness to continue to promote settlement of Arab areas by Jews, I do sincerely believe that if Hamas, or some other organization that held the hearts of Palestinean Arabs, were to agree in a trustworthy manner to confine Arab claims to the partitioned Arab areas, even the Netanyahu government would accept that and resolve the problem.

It has become clear to me over the last couple of weeks, however, that this premise, Land for Peace, is fatally flawed.  Hamas is indeed interested in Land for Peace.  The problem is that the land it wants is the whole of the former Palestine.

When an Israeli or an American refers to the occupation, he is generally referring to Israel's control over areas designated for Arabs in the UN partition plan.

When a Palestinean refers to the occupation, he is referring to the State of Israel as a whole.

So, when Khaled Meshaal says this:

We in Hamas believe in moderation of Islam. We are not fanatics. We do not fight the Jews because they are Jews per se. We fight the occupiers. I’m ready to coexist with the Jews, with the Christians, with the Arabs, with the non-Arabs. I do coexist with other religions.
as he did in the interview with Charlie Rose, it is important to remember that "the occupiers" are the government and military of the State of Israel. 

I am more than willing to take Meshaal at his word.  After all, that word is no different from the words spoken by the leaders of Iran and Syria and Saudi Arabia.  To varying degrees, those countries--which support Hamas--are more than willing for Jews and other non-Muslims to live in Palestine.  They might even be willing to afford non-Muslims equal status in the law and government of Palestine.  But they will not accept a Jewish state in Palestine.

That, by itself, would seem to make resolution impossible.  But it does not explain the present action.  For that, blame has to be laid at the feet of Hamas.  Hamas has fired rockets into Israel, repeatedly.  Those rockets lack precision guidance; they are therefore indiscriminate attacks on civilians, not unlike the suicide bomber who blows up a bus or cafe, except with less precision and effectiveness.  Israel also has the technology to shoot down these rockets with some reliability, but that is hardly a justification for firing them in the first place.

Israel has to have the right to defend itself with military action.

Hamas has also constructed tunnels under the border between Gaza and Israel, ostensibly for the purpose of getting Palestineans into Israel to work without the continual holdups at border crossings, but more likely for the purpose of getting Palestineans and others into Israel for the purpose of conducting terrorist operations.

Hamas has also placed its military hardware in places where civilians are most likely to be found--schools, mosques, hospitals, community relief centers--in an effort either to avoid their being targeted or to gain the sympathy of the world as video of children, dead or maimed at Israel's hand, streams to desktops and televisions.  Human shields are powerful protectors or fodder for sympathy.

So, once more, there are no easy answers, and neither party is entirely virtuous.  It may well be that neither side deserves victory.  But we can weep for all of those who are affected--Arab and Jew alike--and for all who want to live in peace and who cannot because of the egos of those in power, whichever side they are on.