Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Japan week

Without any particular planning, this has turned into something of a Japan week for me. On Monday I attended a new film “Tokyo Sonata,” directed by Kiroshi Kurosawa (no relation to the other Kurosawa). The plot is set in motion by the dismissal of a mid-level office executive, whose job has been outsourced to China. A quirky mix of realism and fantasy, this movie gives a good picture of one of the little neighborhoods that make up most of the Japanese capital today. Forget about Ginza and the other flashy downtown sections; most of Tokyo consists of hundreds of microneighborhoods with narrow winding lanes crossed by abundant electrical wires and bordered (in this case at least) by a commuter rail line.

Then on Wednesday i attended a lecture at Columbia University by Donald Keene, the dean of American Japanologists, who has published a massive four-volume history of Japanese literature. The subject of the presentation was the history of the diary, that particularly Japanese form. Keene said that his interest in this subject began in World War II when he was assigned the task of reading the captured diaries of deceased Japanese soldiers. For the Japanese combatants keeping a diary was virtually mandatory. For US service personel diaries were forbidden, as they might contain militarily useful information if found.

And now I am looking forward to digging into some new books on Japanese architecture. Rarely represented on this blog, architecture is one of my passions.

As a college student my interest in Japan was first piqued by the then-startling wave of innovative Japanese films. In particular I remember “Rashomon” and “Gate of Hell.” At UCLA I took a course on Japanese literature.

I confess that I have always tended to see Japan through the eyes of China, my first love in Asia. I was never particularly a fan of Japanese prints (though I can see now that they have their points). I am drawn to the seemingly irregular forms of Japanese ceramics made for the tea ceremony--especially the one’s exhibiting the quirky aesthetics known as wabi-sabi. Still, it is the Buddhist art that most holds my attention. And Buddhism came to Japan through China. The Chinese even created Zen (they term it Chan). And of course Confucianism and Daoism are purely Chinese in origin.

Apart from my Sinocentrism, I have always felt somewhat uneasy about Japan, an uneasiness that was not dispelled by my visit there in the year 2002. The reason is the peculiar Japanese ethnocentrism. Many ordinary Japanese, even taxi drivers and waiters, live in an ethnocentric bubble, and experience something akin to panic on encountering a gaijin--an “outside person.” Today this aversion manifests itself mostly as a mild phobia, but it has had more sinister manifestations

For the most part Japan discourages immigration, even though the aging population needs the reinforcement of youthful, energetic workers. The descendants of Koreans, imported generations ago as virtual slave labor, are still treated as aliens, being required to register once a year. even though the are fully assimilated.

And there are internal exclusions. There is some attempt nowadays to make amends to the Ainu, the indigenous people living in northern Japan, even though their culture has practically disappeared. A little-known secret is the existence of the Eta, Japanese untouchables. Although the classification was officially abolished a century ago, there are clandestine handbooks listing the names of Eta families. You wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one, would you?

During the thirties and forties, the record of the Japanese occupiers in Asia was particularly appalling. Unlike the Germans, who have fully owned up to their war crimes, most Japanese remain in denial, even today.

The Nanking Massacre, commonly known as the Rape of Nanking (or Nanjing) refers to a six-week period following the capture of Nanking, then capital of the Republic of China, on December 9, 1937. International military tribunals convened at the end of World War II determined that, during this period, the Imperial Japanese Army committed atrocities such as rape, looting, arson and the execution of prisoners of war and civilians rising to the level of war crimes.

The International Military Tribunal of the Far East estimated 260,000 casualties; China's official estimate is 300,000 casualties, based on the evaluation of the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal, while some historians believe upwards of 340,000. To their enduring shame, some Japanese right-wing nationalists even deny that a widespread, systematic massacre occurred at all, claiming that the incident was fabricated for the purpose of political propaganda. These and other recurring attempts to write a revisionist history of the incident have created controversy that has reverberated in the international media, particularly in China and other East Asian nations.

In 1937 many westerners were living in the city, conducting trade or on missionary assignments. With the approach of the Japanese troops most of these individuals fled. Yet a German businessman John Rabe stayed behind and formed a committee, called the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone.

This committee established the Safety Zone in the western quarter of the city. The Japanese government had agreed not to attack parts of the city that did not contain Chinese military forces, and the members of the International Committee managed to persuade the Chinese government to remove all their troops from the area. It is said that Rabe’s courageous actions rescued between 200,000 and 250,000 Chinese people.

Most of the city remained without this protection. Eyewitness accounts from the period state that over the course of six weeks following the fall of Nanking, Japanese troops engaged in rape, murder, theft, and arson. Some accounts came from foreigners who opted to stay behind in order to protect Chinese civilians from certain harm. Others include first-person testimonies of the Nanking Massacre survivors themeselves.

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East concluded that 80,000 women were raped, including infants and the elderly. A large portion of these rapes occurred in a systematic process whereby soldiers would search door-to-door for young girls, with many women taken captive and gang raped. The women were often then killed immediately after the rape, often through mutilation, including breasts being cut off; or stabbing by bamboo (usually very long sticks), bayonet, butcher's knife, and other objects inserted into the vagina. Japanese troops forced families to commit acts of incest; sons were forced to rape their mothers, fathers were forced to rape daughters. Monks who had declared a life of celibacy were, according to some reports, forced to rape women. Not all of the victims of rape were female. "Chinese men were often sodomized or forced to perform a variety of repulsive sexual acts in front of laughing Japanese soldiers," writes Iris Chang.

On August 6, 1937, Hirohito had personally ratified his army's plan to remove the constraints of international law with regard to the treatment of Chinese prisoners. This directive advised staff officers to stop using the term "prisoner of war."

Immediately after the fall of the city, Japanese troops embarked on a determined search for former soldiers, in which thousands of young men were captured. Many were taken to the Yangtze River, where they were machine-gunned so their bodies would be carried down to Shanghai. The Japanese troops gathered 1,300 Chinese soldiers and civilians at Taiping Gate and killed them. The victims were blown up with land mines, then doused with gasoline before being set on fire. Those left alive afterwards were killed with bayonets.

Japanese officers turned the act of murder into sport. One officer would vow to kill a certain number of Chinese before another could do so. Moreover, young men would be used as human subjects for bayonet training. Their limbs would be restrained or they would be tied to a post while the Japanese soldiers took turns plunging their bayonets into the victims' bodies.

The sheer volume of murdered civilians posed a formidable logistical challenge when it came to disposing of the bodies. Many Chinese were conscripted into "burial teams," an experience they would later recall as horrifically traumatic.

One-third of Nanking was destroyed as a result of arson. According to reports, Japanese troops torched newly-built government buildings as well as the homes of many civilians. Soldiers pillaged from the poor and the wealthy alike. The lack of resistance from Chinese troops and civilians in Nanking meant that the Japanese soldiers were free to divide up the city's valuables as they saw fit.

The overall casualty count of 300,000 was first promulgated in 1938 by the journalist Harold Timperley, based on reports from contemporary eyewitnesses. Other sources, including Iris Chang's fundamental monograph “The Rape of Nanking,” also conclude that the death toll reached 300,000. In December 2007 newly declassified U.S. government documents revealed an enormous additional toll in the area surrounding Nanking before it was occupied.

Readers who have gotten this far may be asking: why is Dynes going into all this stuff now? The reason is this. The nature and extent of the Japanese atrocities in Nanking is horrifying enough. Even worse, though, is the sense that clearly transpires from the reports that the Japanese authorities and the personnel of the Imperial Japanese Army considered the Chinese to be an inferior race, to be abused and exterminated at will.

Moreover, the horrendous massacre of civilians in Nanking in 1937-38 is only the most salient Japanese crime during this period. In Manchuria Japanese scientists subjected subjects of other nationalities to atrocious medical experiments. These unfortunates were kept in freezing chambers and referred to as “logs.”

There is a great deal more that could be said. All this information points to a conclusion that is deeply taboo, but must be stated with as much clarity as one can muster. Many Japanese regard other peoples as inherently inferior--as in fact not fully human. This is particularly true of other Asian nations. Whenever I seek to discuss this matter--for which there is much evidence--my interlocutors protest. How can I be so racist? Not to put too fine a point on it, it is the Japanese who, by and large, are racist. Some truths must be spoken.

Lamentably, Westerners are ignorant of or unwilling to confront Japanese ethnocentrism. Asians know better. These lamentable xenophobic attitudes have long prevailed and persist today, despite undoubted Japanese cultural achievements.

What price culture?


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Israel attacks Gaza; US attacks Pakistan

Some of us, who could see beyond the haze generated by the pro-Israel stories that dominated the US media, made bold to describe the recent attack on Gaza as a massacre. Information has been coming out in Israel that shows that this description is correct. Here is an excerpt from a news story in The Guardian (UK):

"Striking testimony has emerged from Israeli soldiers involved in the Gaza war in which they describe shooting unarmed civilians, sometimes under orders from their officers.

One soldier described how an Israeli sniper shot dead a Palestinian mother and her two children, adding that fellow troops believed the lives of Palestinians were "very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers".

The testimony, published in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz today, gives a rare insight into how Israeli soldiers fought the war on the ground; reinforces Palestinian accounts of disproportionate Israeli force; and sharply contradicts the Israeli military's official version of events.

The accounts come from unnamed soldiers who were graduates of a pre-military course at Oranim Academic College in Tivon and who spoke in a session in mid-February. The transcript of the session was published this week and obtained by Ha'aretz.

In that transcript, one infantry squad leader said: "There was a house with a family inside … We put them in a room. Later we left the house and another platoon entered it, and a few days after that there was an order to release the family. They had set up positions upstairs. There was a sniper position on the roof.

"The platoon commander let the family go and told them to go to the right. One mother and her two children didn't understand and went to the left, but they forgot to tell the sharpshooter on the roof they had let them go and it was OK, and he should hold his fire and he ... he did what he was supposed to, like he was following his orders. The sharpshooter saw a woman and children approaching him, closer than the lines he was told no one should pass. He shot them straight away. In any case, what happened is that in the end he killed them."

The squad leader said he believed the sniper did not feel regret. "I don't think he felt too bad about it, because after all, as far as he was concerned, he did his job according to the orders he was given. And the atmosphere in general, from what I understood from most of my men who I talked to ... I don't know how to describe it ... The lives of Palestinians, let's say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers. So as far as they are concerned they can justify it that way."

A second squad leader, from the same brigade, described how a company commander ordered troops to shoot an elderly Palestinian woman who was walking on a road about 100 metres from a house the soldiers had taken over. He said he argued with his commander about the rules of engagement, particularly the way they shot without warning to clear houses.

Ha'aretz reported: "After the orders were changed, the squad leader's soldiers complained that 'We should kill everyone there [in the centre of Gaza]. Everyone there is a terrorist.'"

The squad leader said: "You do not get the impression from the officers that there is any logic to it, but they won't say anything. To write 'death to the Arabs' on the walls, to take family pictures and spit on them, just because you can. I think this is the main thing: to understand how much the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] has fallen in the realm of ethics, really. It's what I'll remember the most."

The head of the Oranim course was apparently "shocked" after hearing the soldiers' accounts of their fighting and reported his concerns to the army chief, Major General Gabi Ashkenazi. Ashkenazi's office asked for a transcript of the discussion, which was provided.

The Israeli military today first denied having "any previous knowledge or information about these incidents". Then in a later statement it admitted that the head of the course had sent a letter to the chief of staff's office "several weeks ago" describing the soldiers' accounts and that the military's chief education officer then met with the course head.


Over and over again, we heard that the rocket attacks coming from Gaza justified any Israeli response, no matter how disproportionate. Hardly ever did we hear that the rocket attacks, most of them ineffectual, were a response to the illegal Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Now let's look eastwards. Repeatedly we read of US drone airplanes sent from Afghanistan to bomb areas of Pakistan. If the rocket attacks justifed the Israeli attack, wouldn't the Pakistanis be within their rights in responding by attacking US positions in Afghanistan? I suspect that a lot of people in Pakistan are asking this very question.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Zionist myth exposed

A new monograph by Shlomo Sand provides a massive challenge to the Zionist myth of the “return” of the Jewish people to Eretz Israel. This book has appeared almost simultaneously in Hebrew and In French. My comments stem from reading the French version “Comment le peuple juif fut inventé” (Paris: Fayard, 2008). The author, who closely supervised the translation, is a professor of history at Tel Aviv University.

Sand's book--the Hebrew title translates as "When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?"--has been honored with France's Aujourd'hui Award, given by leading journalists to the best non-fiction political or historical work. Published in Israel under the Resling imprint, the book spent 19 weeks on the bestseller list. Though it has been in French bookstores for just six months, it has thus far sold 25,000 copies, placing it on the bestseller list in France as well.

Sand begins with a review of the literature on the formation of nations. Broadly speaking, those who have addressed this problem fall into two schools: the primordialists and the constructionists. The former view--widely, though incorrectly assumed to be simply common sense--assumes that ethnic essences have existed “since the mists of antiquity.” To shape this primordial heritage into a modern nation two things are necessary: an awakening of ethnic consciousness among the people, and removal of foreign domination--the latter being perceived as the key obstacle to the “organic” realization of nationhood.

This view has long attracted skeptics, who point out that reconstructions of primordial national histories are all too often laced with myth and wishful thinking.

The best-known exponent of the constructionist view (or “modernist,” as it is sometimes termed) is the British historian Benedict Anderson, who holds that a nation is a community that is socially constructed, that is to say imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group. Anderson's book, “Imagined Communities,” in which he expounds explains the concept, was published in 1983. According to this view, most modern nations are not simply the concretization of long-occulted realities, but deliberate fabrications. An imagined community differs from an actual community because it is not based on everyday face-to-face interaction between its members. Instead, members hold in their minds a mental image of their affinity. Nowadays, the media play a major role in creating and sustaining imagined communities, through targeting a mass audience or generalizing and addressing citizens as the public. These communities are understood as both limited (through the maintenance of national boundaries) and sovereign (in the perspective of populism).

Shlomo Sand’s book challenges the Zionist version of the primordialist view of the history of the Jewish people--and its presumed culmination cum restoration in the state of Israel. Conversely, he advances powerful reasons for adopting the constructionist approach.

According to Sand, the description of the Jews as a migratory and self-isolating nation of exiles, "who wandered across seas and continents, reached the ends of the earth and finally, with the advent of Zionism, reversed course, and returned en masse to their orphaned homeland," is nothing but "national mythology." Like other national movements in Europe, which sought out a splendid Golden Age as the embodiment of a heroic past --for example, ancient Rome for the Italian risorgimento or the Teutonic tribes for Germany--to prove they have existed since the beginnings of history, "so, too, the first buds of Jewish nationalism blossomed in the direction of the strong light that has its source in the mythical Kingdom of David."

More particularly, Sand shows that the idea of a “history of the Jewish people” is a relatively recent product encapsulating a series of acts of imagination. Medieval and early modern Christianity created numerous world histories coming down to the time of the writers. Islam offers something similar. Yet, as far as we know, no medieval or early modern rabbi ever attempted such a thing. For the rabbis the Bible, always glimpsed through the lenses of Mishna and Talmud, was mainly a repository of do’s and don’t. As such it was the foundation of Halakha, loosely translated as “Jewish law.”

In fact the first writer to attempt a full-scale history was a French protestant Jacques Basnage, whose “Histoire de la religion des juifs” appeared at The Hague in 1706-07. Only in 1820-28 did a German Jewish scholar Isaak Markus Jost follow suit. According to Sand, Jost was a German patriot who portrayed the Jews as simply loyal citizens of the countries in which they reside. With the massive work of Heinrich Graetz (1853-76) this historiographic enterprise takes a proto-Zionist turn, in that Graetz thinks of the Jewish people as a perennial and supranational entity. With the addition of the territorial component--return to Eretz Israel--this view became the foundation of the official histories that emerged in Mandate Palestine and its successor, the state of Israel. With the formation of the state of Israel many of its intellectual defenders sought to root its existence in the biblical record. Ostensibly they were supported by archaeology, though this supposed foundation has turned out to be chimerical.

After exploring the background, Sand turns to his major thesis, that the Jewish people is a composite and not an organic entity. The author holds that the Jews now living in Israel and other places in the world are not simply descendants of the ancient people who inhabited the Kingdom of Judea during the First and Second Temple period. In Sand’s view, their origins lie in the varied peoples that converted to Judaism during the course of history, in different corners of the Mediterranean Basin and the adjacent regions. Not only are the North African Jews for the most part descendants of pagans who converted to Judaism, but so are the Jews of Yemen (remnants of the Himyar Kingdom in the Arab Peninsula, who converted to Judaism in the fourth century) and the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe (many of them refugees from the Central Asian kingdom of the Khazars, who converted in the eighth century).

Many readers of Sand’s book have taken a fancy to Dahia al-Kahina, a leader of the Berbers in the Aurės Mountains. Although she was a proud Jewish woman, few Israelis had ever heard the name of this warrior-queen who, in the seventh century CE, united a number of Berber tribes and pushed back the Muslim army that invaded North Africa. Kahina, a kind of Jewish Boadicea, belonged to a Berber tribe that had converted to Judaism, apparently several generations before she was born, sometime around the sixth century CE. Sand believes that the Jews of al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) stemmed mainly from these Berber converts.

If the Kahina discovery has proved enchanting, not so the renewed emphasis on the Khazars. The information concerning their kingdom has long been known, in part through a popular book by Arthur Koestler, but this news has been slow to penetrate in the state of Israel. This is so, notwithstanding the recent arrival of some 500,000 Jews and wannabes from the nations of the former Soviet Union, who may well represent this Khazar heritage.

In fact, Sand holds that the most crucial demographic addition to the Jewish population of the world came in the wake of the conversion of the kingdom of Khazaria, a huge empire that arose in the Middle Ages on the steppes along the Volga River, which at its height ruled over an area that stretched from the Republic of Georgia of today to Kiev. In the eighth century, the Khazars rulers adopted the Jewish religion and made Hebrew the written language of the kingdom. Beginning in the tenth century the kingdom weakened; in the thirteenth century is was utterly defeated by Mongol invaders, and its Jewish inhabitants were dispersed.

Sand subscribes to the hypothesis, which was already proposed by historians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, according to which the Judaized Khazars constituted the main demographic source of the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.

"At the beginning of the twentieth century there is a tremendous concentration of Jews in Eastern Europe, three million Jews in Poland alone," he says. "The Zionist historiography claims that their origins are in the earlier Jewish community in Germany, but they do not succeed in explaining how a small number of Jews who came from Mainz and Worms could have founded the Yiddish people of Eastern Europe. The Jews of Eastern Europe are a mixture of Khazars and Slavs who were pushed eastward."

If this is so, one may ask: if the Jews of Eastern Europe did not come from Germany, why did they speak Yiddish, a Germanic language?

"The Jews were a class of people dependent on the German bourgeoisie in the East, and thus they adopted German words. Here I base myself on the research of linguist Paul Wechsler of Tel Aviv University, who has demonstrated that there is no etymological connection between the German Jewish language of the Middle Ages and Yiddish. As far back as 1828, the Ribal (Rabbi Isaac Ber Levinson) said that the ancient language of the Jews was not Yiddish. Even Ben Zion Dinur, the father of Israeli historiography, was not hesitant about describing the Khazars as the origin of the Jews in Eastern Europe, and describes Khazaria as 'the mother of the diasporas' in Eastern Europe. But more or less since 1967, anyone who talks about the Khazars as the ancestors of the Jews of Eastern Europe is considered naive and moonstruck."

A journalist asked Sand why the idea of the Khazar origins is so threatening?

"It is clear that the fear is of an undermining of the historic right to the land. The revelation that the Jews are not from Judea would ostensibly knock the legitimacy for our being here out from under us. Since the beginning of the period of decolonization, settlers have no longer been able to say simply: 'We came, we won and now we are here' the way the Americans, the whites in South Africa and the Australians said. There is a very deep fear that doubt will be cast on our right to exist."

It is appropriate to ask: is there no justification for this fear?

"No. I don't think that the historical myth of the exile and the wanderings is the source of the legitimization for me being here, and therefore I don't mind believing that I am Khazar in my origins. I am not afraid of the undermining of our existence, because I think that the character of the State of Israel undermines it in a much more serious way. What would constitute the basis for our existence here is not mythological historical right, but rather would be for us to start to establish an open society here of all Israeli citizens."

The implication, it seems, is that there is no such thing as a Jewish people.

"I don't recognize an international people. I recognize 'the Yiddish people' that existed in Eastern Europe, which though it is not a nation can be seen as a Yiddishist civilization with a modern popular culture. I think that Jewish nationalism grew up in the context of this 'Yiddish people.' I also recognize the existence of an Israeli people, and do not deny its right to sovereignty. But Zionism and also Arab nationalism over the years are not prepared to recognize it.”

With further regard to Jewish diversity, Shlomo Sand points out that in antiquity, culminating in the Hasmonean kingdom, there were a number of major incorporations of surrounding peoples into the Judaic nucleus. Moreover, there were no major expulsions as a result of the sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the repression of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135. Before and after, of course, there had been considerable voluntary immigration to various parts of the Roman Empire, accompanied by conversions from the surrounding gentile population. Accordingly, the myth of exile at this time is just that: myth.

"The supreme paradigm of exile was needed in order to construct a long-range memory in which an imagined and exiled nation-race was posited as the direct continuation of 'the people of the Bible' that preceded it," Sand explains. Agreeing with other historians who have treated the same issue in recent years, he argues that the exile of the Jewish people began as a Christian myth that depicted that event as divine punishment imposed on the Jews for having rejected the Christian gospel.

From all that we can learn from the historical record, most of the Jews residing in Roman Judaea remained there. What then became of them? After 324 many converted to Christianity; their descendants, most at least, in turn became Muslim. Genetically speaking, today’s Palestinians are Jews. Curiously, this view was maintained by no less a figure that David Ben Gurion in the 1920s. After the Arab uprising in 1929, however, Ben Gurion and his colleague Yitzhak Ben-Zvi abandoned the idea for political reasons.

Does Sand think that in fact the real descendants of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah are the Palestinians?

"No population remains pure over a period of thousands of years. But the chances that the Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Judaic people are much greater than the chances that you or I [his Israeli interviewer] are its descendants. The first Zionists, up until the Arab Revolt [1936-9], knew that there had been no exiling, and that the Palestinians were descended from the inhabitants of the land. They knew that farmers don't leave until they are expelled. Even Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the second president of the state of Israel, wrote in 1929 that, 'the vast majority of the peasant farmers do not have their origins in the Arab conquerors, but rather, before then, in the Jewish farmers who were numerous and a majority in the building of the land.'"

One might think that Shlomo Sand would welcome the information stemming from DNA evidence as reinforcement for his views regarding the composite nature of the Jewish people. Yet he does not, pointing to the often contradictory and ideological nature of the findings as they are reported in the press. It is true that some unlikely claims have been made, including the hailing of the so-called “Aaronic gene.” a component that has been found not only among the Palestinians, but also among Greeks and Kurds! One finding, though, is of interest to his thesis. While the genes of the Kohanim (the Cohens) prove to be largely derived from the ancient Eastern Mediterranean, the genes of Ashkenazic Levites, the other major priestly group, have a strong Central Asian component. This finding would tend to reinforce the Khazar thesis.

As Sand points out, the Y chromosome, which is usually the focus of these studies, serves only to follow the male line, since only males have this chromosome. Historical evidence suggests that at various stages of Jewish history--for example the formative years of the Ashkenazim--foreign women were involved in small numbers. The absence of evidence from the female line is embarrassing, since one’s Jewish status is determined, according to the rabbis, by whether one has a Jewish mother or not.

Sand does admit the value of genetic research in helping to detect and combat inherited disorders, such as Tay-Sachs Disease. In all likelihood, the quality of genetic research will improve. As it does, the results are likely to reinforce Shlomo Sand’s persuasive conclusions deriving from his attentive study of the historical record.

Sand’s vision stretches forwards as well as backwards. “If Israel does not develop and become an open, multicultural society we will have a Kosovo in the Galilee. The consciousness concerning the right to this place must be more flexible and varied, and if I have contributed with my book to the likelihood that I and my children will be able to live with the others here in this country in a more egalitarian situation, I will have done my bit.

"We must begin to work hard to transform our place into an Israeli republic where ethnic origin, as well as faith, will not be relevant in the eyes of the law. Anyone who is acquainted with the young elites of the Israeli Arab community can see that they will not agree to live in a country that declares it is not theirs. If I were a Palestinian I would rebel against a state like that, but even as an Israeli I am rebelling against it."


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"System Divine"

Last Sunday, members of Obama's incompetent economic team appeared on TV to wring their hands over the absurd AIG bonuses. Nothing can be done, it seems, "because of the sacredness of contracts." As I am not the first to observe, sacredness of contracts did not protect UAW workers from having their wages and benefits chipped away--contract or no contract.

What to we have lawyers for? One of the main tasks of those involved in civil cases is precisely to find ways to void contracts.

The original culprit in all this is, of course, the Democratic Congress. When they started flinging out these vast sums in the last few months of the Bush administration they should have insisted on putting in a clause forbidding such bonuses. Why didn't they? Well, one will never learn the answer from our investigative journalists. On several occasions now I have seen the shambolic Barney Frank (N. Furter) interviewed by fawning liberal TV hosts. They never asked the key question: why was he asleep at the switch. If they did ask, the Frank 'n' furter would mumble so much that no one could understand. And the pathetic Frank is our leading gay politician! Let's bring back the original Barney,

Under the present circumstances, an old leftie song from the 'thirties seems particularly appropriate:

God Bless Free Enterprise!
System Divine!
Stand beside her,
And guide her,
Just as long as the profits are mine.

Corporations, may they flourish,
Good old Wall Street, may it grow!
God Bless Free Enterprise!
The Status Quo!
God Bless Free Enterprise!
The Status Quo!

UPDATE (March 19). We now know who put in the language allowing the AIG bonuses. It was Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticutt. At first Dodd lied and said that he had not, but the following day he admitted it. Significantly, Dodd is the largest single recipient of campaign donations from AIG.

That still leaves the question of the role of the House of Representatives, in which Barney Frank so conspicuously served. Why was he not alert to this problem? Or did he receive campaign contributions from AIG too?


Sunday, March 08, 2009

Israel Firsters' latest outrage

There is fresh evidence of how tightly AIPAC and the Israel Firsters control American public opinion--and more importantly the allocation of power in Washington. The latest incident is a vociferous campaign against Charles Freeman. Who is he? You will learn this from the piece by Stephen M. Walt.

The attackers probably do not expect to reverse Freeman's appointment. Instead their intent is to send a message to any young aspirants to foreign policy jobs that they must be careful--very careful--not to question even the slightest detail of our fealty to the state of Israel.

Here is Stephen Walt.

"[We are now witnessing an] all-too-predictable smear campaign against Charles Freeman’s appointment as chairman of the National Intelligence Council. As soon as the appointment was announced, a bevy of allegedly “pro-Israel” pundits leapt to attack it, in what The Nation’s Robert Dreyfuss called a “thunderous, coordinated assault.” Freeman’s critics were the usual suspects: Jonathan Chait of the New Republic, Michael Goldfarb at the Weekly Standard, Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, Gabriel Schoenfeld (writing on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal), Jonah Goldberg of National Review, Marty Peretz on his New Republic blog, and former AIPAC official Steve Rosen (yes, the same guy who is now on trial for passing classified U.S. government information to Israel).

"What was their objection to Freeman? Did they think he’s unpatriotic, not smart enough, or that he lacks sufficient experience? Of course not. Just look at his resume:

"Freeman has worked with more than 100 foreign governments in East and South Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and both Western and Eastern Europe. He has served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d'Affaires in Bangkok and Beijing, Director of Chinese Affairs at U.S. State Department, and Distinguished Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and the Institute of National Security Studies."

"What unites this narrow band of critics is only one thing: Freeman has dared to utter some rather mild public criticisms of Israeli policy. That's the litmus test that Chait, Goldberg, Goldfarb, Peretz, Schoenfeld et al want to apply to all public servants: thou shalt not criticize Israeli policy nor question America's "special relationship" with Israel. Never mind that this policy of unconditional support has been bad for the United States and unintentionally harmful to Israel as well. If these pundits and lobbyists had their way, anyone who pointed that fact out would be automatically disqualified from public service.

"There are three reasons why the response to Freeman has been so vociferous. First, these critics undoubtedly hoped they could raise a sufficient stink that Obama and his director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, might reconsider the appointment. Or perhaps Freeman might even decide to withdraw his name, because he couldn't take the heat. Second, even if it was too late to stop Freeman from getting the job, they want to make Obama pay a price for his choice, so that he will think twice about appointing anyone else who might be willing to criticize Israeli policy or the special relationship.

"Third, and perhaps most important, attacking Freeman is intended to deter other people in the foreign policy community from speaking out on these matters. Freeman might be too smart, too senior, and too well-qualified to stop, but there are plenty of younger people eager to rise in the foreign policy establishment and they need to be reminded that their careers could be jeopardized be if they followed in Freeman’s footsteps and said what they thought. Raising a stink about Freeman reminds others that it pays to back Israel to the hilt, or at least remain silent, even when it is pursuing policies -- like building settlements on the West Bank -- that are not in America's national interest.

"If the issue didn’t have such harmful consequences for the United States, the ironies of this situation would be funny. A group of amateur strategists who loudly supported the invasion of Iraq are now questioning the strategic judgment of a man who knew that war would be a catastrophic blunder. A long-time lobbyist for Israel who is now under indictment for espionage is trying to convince us that Freeman -- a true patriot -- is a bad appointment for an intelligence position. A journalist (Jeffrey Goldberg) whose idea of "public service" was to enlist in the Israeli army is challenging the credentials of a man who devoted decades of his life to service in the U.S. government. Now that's chutzpah.

"Fortunately, the screeching of Freeman's critics has not worked; Freeman will be the head of the National Intelligence Council. In fact, this heavy-handed behavior, with its McCarthy-like overtones, may even backfire, by showing just how obsessesed his critics are with their own narrow-minded vision of U.S. Middle East policy, a vision they expect all other Americans to share. I would not be surprised if President Obama and other key figures in his administration are angry about these malicious smears, and wisely decide to pay even less attention to these individuals in the future. And rest assured that the smearing will not end.

"It's also encouraging that some key members of the pro-Israel community, like M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum, have come to Freeman’s defense, and influential bloggers like Robert Dreyfuss, Philip Weiss, Richard Silverstein and Matthew Yglesias have also defended Freeman and pointed out what is going on. The Likudnik wing of the Israel lobby is gradually losing influence, because more and more people understand that its policies are disastrous for both Israel and the United States, and because its repeated efforts to smear people and stifle debate are deeply damaging as well as un-American."

[Note that all seven of the attackers are Jewish.]

UPDATE (March 11). The Israel Lobby has prevailed, against the common interest. Here are some excerpts from a strory by Ben Smith:

"President Barack Obama's controversial pick for a top intelligence post blasted the "Israel lobby" on his way out the door Tuesday, intensifying a debate on the role Israel's allies played in the latest failed Obama appointment.

Charles W. Freeman Jr.'s abrupt withdrawal from his appointment as chairman of the National Intelligence Council came after he drew fire on a number of fronts - including questions about his financial ties to China and Saudi Arabia.

But the most heated opposition came from supporters of Israel - and Freeman's departure shows Obama's reluctance to signal a change to a U.S. policy in the Middle East that centers on standing beside Israel.

Throughout his presidential campaign, Obama jettisoned aides and backed off statements that appeared to imply a change in the Bush Administration's firm support for hawkish Israeli governments.

As president, Obama dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Middle East last week with a tough message for the Palestinians, saying it was hard for Israel to make peace with people who are hurling rockets into their country.

And the attacks on Freeman, in the end, hinged primarily on the question of Israel, something the Democratic senators who helped break the back of the nomination Tuesday made clear.

"His statements against Israel were way over the top and severely out of step with the administration," said Senator Chuck Schumer in a statement. "I repeatedly urged the White House to reject him, and I am glad they did the right thing."

Hours before the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, expressed his "regret" at Freeman's withdrawal, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) told Blair he was concerned about "statements that [Freeman]'s made that appear either to be inclined to lean against Israel or too much in favor of China."

In particular, Freeman has described "Israeli violence against Palestinians" as a key barrier to Mideast peace, and referred to violence in Tibet last year - widely seen in the United States as a revolt against Chinese occupation - as a "race riot."

Freeman left no doubt about where he places blame in a written statement after his withdrawal.

"The libels on me and their easily traceable email trails show conclusively that there is a powerful lobby determined to prevent any view other than its own from being aired, still less to factor in American understanding of trends and events in the Middle East," he wrote.

"The tactics of the Israel Lobby plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth."

Freeman's departure echoed moments during last year's presidential campaign when Obama - generally willing to ignore the daily political tempests - abandoned aides and advisers who drew strong, persistent criticism on the question of Israel, which became, in the politics of the presidential campaign, a proxy issue for more general toughness on Islamic terrorism.

He forced an informal advisor, former Clinton administration peace negotiator Rob Malley, to resign after he met with Hamas officials on behalf of the International Crisis Group. And he distanced himself from Carter National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had been, briefly, a high-profile campaign figure. Later Obama, asked about his views on Israel, dismissed Brzezinski as "not one of my key advisers."


Saturday, March 07, 2009

The letter kills, the spirit gives life

Yesterday it was my privilege to attend, at Columbia University, a special lecture by Carlo Ginzburg, in all likelihood the most profound scholar now working in the field of the history of ideas.

The son of a distinguished antifascist, Leone Ginzburg, and of Natalia, a noted writer, Carlo was born in Turin in 1939. He is one of the founders of the discipline of microhistory, as seen in his ground-breaking book, “The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller,” which vividly reconstructed the mentality of a kind of “do-it-yourself” heretic named Menocchio from Montereale Valcellina.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Ginzburg acknowledges that his “approach to microhistory has been largely inspired by the work of Erich Auerbach, the great Jewish scholar who spent his most creative years in Istanbul in exile from Nazi Germany. At the end of his masterpiece, Mimesis, written in Istanbul during the Second World War, Auerbach wrote: ‘Beneath the conflicts, and also through them, an economic and cultural leveling process is taking place. It is still a long way to a common life of mankind on earth, but the goal begins to be visible.’ . . . The ongoing unification of the world, Auerbach wrote in the conclusion of Mimesis, ‘is most concretely visible now in the unprejudiced, precise, interior and exterior representation of the random lives of different people.’”

While Ginzburg’s central interest is early modern European history, the Italian scholar has ranged widely both forward and backward. His studies of a sixteenth-century dissident group, the Benandanti, led to a speculative interpretation of the origin of witchcraft in protohistoric shamanic cults. His more recent interests are exemplified by a touchstone essay, a tour de force in which he compares Sigmund Freud, Giovanni Morelli, and Sherlock Holmes (see “Clues, Myths and the Historical Method,” 1989). He has also published an interpretation of Picasso’s Guernica.

Having taught at UCLA from 1988 to 2006, currently Ginzburg is a professor at the prestigious Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa.

Like Ginzburg, I too was influenced by Erich Auerbach, one of the crucial authors of my college years. On several occasions our paths nearly crossed--notably at the Warburg Institute in London--but this was the first time I have encountered Professor Ginzburg in person. Even though I didn’t get to ask a question afterwards, I always find it rewarding actually to see and hear a thinker whose written work has influenced me over the years.

The subject of last night’s lecture was a celebrated passage in 2 Corinthians 3:6: “for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” Perhaps because of time constraints, Ginzburg said almost nothing about the context of the passage, and the effect it might have had on the original target audience. St. Paul’s double binary (death/life; letter/spirit) is part of a larger effort to contrast the old covenant (the rigid traditionalism of the Pharisees and other observant Jews of his day) with the vibrant new covenant of Jesus Christ. In the Apostle’s view, followers of the former approach were figuratively killing themselves by their obsessive concern with detail (the letter), ignoring the larger picture (the spirit). In a broader sense, the contrast of letter and spirit joins such Greek philosophical commonplaces as the antinomies of nomos (law) versus physis (nature); and soma (body) versus psyche (soul) or pneuma (spirit).

Moreover, Ginzburg set aside any formal examination of the role the verse has played in authorizing the multilayered Christian hermeneutics of Scripture. The name of Origen of Caesarea, who inaugurated this approach, was notably absent.

Instead the audience was taken on a learned and somewhat wayward trip through the centuries, from Augustine to Nicholas of Lyra, and from Karstadt to Spinoza. I frankly confess that, while the exposition of each passage was clear enough, the purpose of the journey eluded me. The letter was there but the spirit was absent! Or perhaps I should say that I could not readily discern the figure in the carpet.

The upshot only seemed to emerge in the question period, when Mr. Ginzburg, expatiating on a book by the Franco-Bulgarian literary scholar Tsvetan Todorov, said that the advantage of the West in its conflict with other cultures (Aztecs in Todorov’s account) resided in its layered approach to truth and language. This layering, apparently, is the product of centuries of mulling over the kernel of truth in 2 Cor. 3:6.

If this interpretation is the case, the omission of Origen of Caesarea seems all the more puzzling, for he is the founder of the Western tradition of interpreting texts both literally and allegorically. Origen wrote in Greek. Early on in his presentation, Mr. Ginzburg demonstrated that, as a beneficiary of training in an Italian classical liceo, he knew Greek. What then was the fate of the Pauline motif among the Cappadocians, in the grammarians of the Middle Byzantine period, and in late Byzantine theology? And in Russia? The Eastern half of his grand mural was absent.

At all events, like President Obama Ginzburg preferred to look forward rather than backward. This approach became evident in his concluding segment, a somewhat strained interpretation of Franz Kafka’s sadistic parable, “In the Penal Colony.” The locale of this story is some European colony, evidently French or Belgian, in some Third World land. Supposedly Kafka held that b o t h the letter and the spirit kill. This finding did not convince.

To my mind a better ending would be a once-famous footnote of T.S. Eliot, found in his 1928 essay, “Baudelaire in Our Time” (“For Lancelot Andrews,” p. 70). Here Eliot proffered a daring inversion, “And the spirit killeth, but the letter giveth life.”

As an Anglo-Catholic, Eliot was referring to some superficial efforts by Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells to dismiss religious faith. Impatient with the details of religion--the letter--they moved directly to their impression--negative, but vague and uninformed--of its character, or “spirit.” This approach may be likened to the attempts to characterize “the spirit of capitalism.” I have encountered a similar problem in dealing with some respondents from the antireligion camp to my Abrahamic pieces. Despite their good intentions, these folks are impatient with the details; they spurn the hard work of deciphering religious texts, simply issuing their ukases on the spirit of religion. It is BAD, and there is an end to it.

A possible subtext of Eliot’s quip is his approach to modern poetry, his principal endeavor. As a member of a school that included such figures as Ezra Pound and H.D., Eliot believed supremely in the details of words. These poets rejected what Pound termed “emotional slither,” that is, the vague soulfulness of late-romantic verse. The latter might be termed “spirit” in the negative sense of Eliot’s aphorism, while the new poetry offered a salutary precision of detail (the “letter”).


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

A layperson reads the bible

From time to time David Plotz, editor of Slate, has been offering progress reports on his undertaking to read the entire bible from beginning to end. He has published "Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible," a volume sparked by the Slate project.

Plotz offers some conclusions in a Slate piece, which I excerpt here.

“Should you read the Bible? You probably haven't. A century ago, most well-educated Americans knew the Bible deeply. Today, biblical illiteracy is practically universal among nonreligious people. My mother and my brother, professors of literature and the best-read people I've ever met, have not done much more than skim Genesis and Exodus. Even among the faithful, Bible reading is erratic. The Catholic Church, for example, includes only a teeny fraction of the Old Testament in its official readings. Jews study the first five books of the Bible pretty well but shortchange the rest of it. Orthodox Jews generally spend more time on the Talmud and other commentary than on the Bible itself. Of the major Jewish and Christian groups, only evangelical Protestants read the whole Bible obsessively.

“Maybe it doesn't make sense for most of us to read the whole Bible. After all, there are so many difficult, repellent, confusing, and boring passages. Why not skip them and cherry-pick the best bits? After spending a year with the good book, I've become a full-on Bible thumper. Everyone should read it—all of it! In fact, the less you believe, the more you should read. . . .”

“I began the Bible as a hopeful, but indifferent, agnostic. I wished for a God, but I didn't really care. I leave the Bible as a hopeless and angry agnostic. I'm brokenhearted about God.

“After reading about the genocides, the plagues, the murders, the mass enslavements, the ruthless vengeance for minor sins (or none at all), and all that smiting—every bit of it directly performed, authorized, or approved by God—I can only conclude that the God of the Hebrew Bible, if He existed, was awful, cruel, and capricious. He gives us moments of beauty—such sublime beauty and grace!—but taken as a whole, He is no God I want to obey and no God I can love.

“When I complain to religious friends about how much He dismays me, I usually get one of two responses. Christians say: Well, yes, but this is all setup for the New Testament. Reading only the Old Testament is like leaving halfway through the movie. I'm missing all the redemption. If I want to find the grace and forgiveness and wonder, I have to read and believe in the story of Jesus Christ, which explains and redeems all. But that doesn't work for me. I'm a Jew. I don't, and can't, believe that Christ died for my sins. ...”

“The second response tends to come from Jews, who razz me for missing the chief lesson of the Hebrew Bible, which is that we can't hope to understand the ways of God. If He seems cruel or petty, that's because we can't fathom His plan for us. But I'm not buying that, either. If God made me, He made me rational and quizzical. He has given me the tools to think about Him. So I must submit Him to rational and moral inquiry. And He fails that examination. Why would anyone want to be ruled by a God who's so unmerciful, unjust, unforgiving, and unloving?”

WRD: It would seem that the Christians have the better argument; that is, that the atrocities that constitute the towering moral ugliness of the Hebrew Bible have their justification (if that is possible) as preparatory work for the final revelation of the New Testament. This conclusion suggests that the current fashion for severing the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh) from its Christian sequel may be misguided. Or maybe not, because focusing on the former set of texts allows the full horror of the unspeakable Yahweh to be clearly seen. To apologize for this vicious brute by saying that his ways are unfathomable is a rationale that could apply to any bloody dictator, say, Papa Doc Duvalier, the current president of Sudan, or any other criminal tyrant one cares to name.

Let us follow Plotz a little farther.

“Unfortunately, this line of reasoning seems to leave me with several unappealing options: 1) believing in no god; 2) believing in the awful, vindictive God of the Bible; or 3) believing in some vague "creator" who is not remotely attached to the events of the Bible, who didn't really do any of the deeds ascribed to Him in the book and thus can't be held responsible for them.

“The Bible has brought me no closer to God, if that means either believing in a deity acting in the world or experiencing the transcendent. But perhaps I'm closer to God in the sense that the Bible has put me on high alert. I came to the Bible hoping to be inspired and awed. I have been, sometimes. But mostly I've ended up in a yearlong argument with God. Why would He kill the innocent Egyptian children? And why would He delight in it? What wrong did we do Him that He should send the flood? Which of His Ten Commandments do we actually need? Yet the argument itself represents a kind of belief, because it commits me to engage with God. . . . Reading the Bible has given me a chance to start an argument with God about the most important questions there are, an argument that can last a lifetime.”

WRD; How can one have a meaningful argument with a creature who probably never existed--and who, if he did, we would wish that he hadn’t?

So we come back to the main question. Why in fact should one read the bible? The answer. it seems, is because it is full of quotations.

In the book of Judges, for example, we learn the origin of the word “shibboleth.” A real gaffe is Plotz’s claim that we learn “the most fundamental ideas about morality.” This absurdity he glosses with the Levitical prohibition of homosexuality, which calls for the death of the unfortunates. Isn’t that a happy discovery?

Of course there is rhetoric that later writers have plundered. “It was a joyful shock to me when I opened the Book of Amos and read the words that crowned Martin Luther King's ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”

The Book of Daniel is one of Plotz’s favorites. “First, Daniel is thrown in the ‘lions' den’ and King Belshazzar sees ‘the writing on the wall.’ These are two metaphors we can't live without. [People in East Asia do quite well without these metaphors. --WRD] The ‘fiery furnace’ that Daniel's friends are tossed into is the inspiration for the Fiery Furnaces, a band I listen to [wow, think of that!]. The king rolls a stone in front of the lions' den, sealing in a holy man who won't stay sealed—foreshadowing the stone rolled in front of the tomb of Jesus.”

Instead of spending a year or more to extract these gems, a single evening will suffice. My second edition of the Oxford Book of Quotations contains 28 pages of bible citations in double columns, surely enough to match the fairly pitiful harvest that we finally come down to as a result of Plotz’s labors.

On the other hand, if one wants to spend an extended period of time with the Scriptures one should consult some of the more incisive modern critical commentaries, reading them in tandem with the often-questionable translations. Plotz and others can find plentiful references to these commentaries in the files of this blog.

UPDATE (March 8). Somewhat further on is a somewhat similar report by an English secular Jew. These comments come from a talk given recently at Cambridge, England.

WRD: An atheist in my youth, I began my own struggles with the bible some fifty years ago because of my concern with the cultural treasures of Western civilization, especially in art, music, and literature. Kramer makes this point well: "Some of the richness of Western art and literature and music is lost on anyone who does not possess a good knowledge of the Bible." What he does not say--and what many otherwise fairminded Jews miss--is that this Bible-sourced richness of art and literature has been achieved almost exclusively through the medium of Christianity. Without Christianity there would be no cultural dividend. Since late antiquity Judaism has been an enclave culture, without any direct influence on the outside world. As a rule, the influence of individual Jews on Western culture--which has been enormous since about 1850--has been d e s p i t e rather than because of Judaism. Only to the extent that they abandoned Judaism have these intellectuals and opinion makers been successful and creative. To my suprise, I found that this generalization is even true of such a figure as Martin Buber. His masterpiece "I and Thou" reflects mainly German classical culture, not Judaism.

At all events, having spend some forty years of my life in college teaching this positive biblical influence--through Christianity, its indispensable context--I decided to look at the the other side of the bible: the many poisonous and evil memes it has bequeathed to us. As Kramer notes, the Bible is "too nefarious" to offer any sort of reliable moral guide.

Yet I must disagree with Kramer to this extent. The Bible--specifically the Pentateuch, Joshua, and Judges--is in fact a t e r r o r i s t document. (See Plotz, above.) Therefore it is no good trying to let the Koran off because of its similar enshrinement of those vile twins, violence and intolerance. Either you give both the Bible and the Koran a pass--a position that is scarcely viable at this point--or you must judge them by the same strict criteria. Unless one insists on burying one's head in the sand, neither text can possibly pass muster.

A problem I have with both Plotz and Kramer is their assumption that one can read bible passages--in the original if one can--and then simply comment on them. This is the sola scriptura error championed (in name if not in practice) by the Reformation. Instead, one needs constant access to commentaries by experts, lots of them, as incisive and mutually complementary/contradictory as possible.

In the past I have been critical of the Mishna and Talmud, with their many arbitrary and fantastic distortions of Scripture. Yet these commentaries have the advantage of creating dialogue. Apparently, Kramer doesn't think so. At all events, it would be far better, in my opionion to read the works of modern scholars such as the Minimalists and the members of the Jesus Seminar. Writings of those kinds are t r u l y challenging.

Here are some of Kramer's remarks:

"I began to read the Bible systematically in early 1982 because I wished to enhance my understanding of philosophy. From the medieval period through the early 20th century, virtually every Western philosopher of any consequence presupposed that his readers were intimately acquainted with the Bible. While studying Philosophy as an undergraduate, I was particularly struck by the fact that nearly all the great figures of the early modern era - Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, George Berkeley, and so forth - were thoroughly grounded in the Scriptures. Their philosophical works invoke Biblical passages and characters with easy familiarity. Even the fervid atheist Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th century displayed an impressive knowledge of the Bible. (Nietzsche's The Antichrist is a tour de force of Biblical exposition, however far-fetched some of it may be.) Thus, while I was still an undergraduate, I recognized that I could not fully understand many of the premier texts of the Western philosophical tradition without an excellent knowledge of the Bible.

"I began to study the Bible systematically (for 2-3 hours every day) during my first year as a postgraduate. I had acquired a pretty good knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures as a boy, but now I was setting out to read both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament with the eye of a philosopher. During the first 18 months, I read the Bible from cover to cover three times without writing anything beyond marginal annotations. Thereafter, however, I began to compose a passage-by-passage commentary to make sense of the text as I went along. The commentary - which for the first several years was handwritten - has now grown to approximately 3,000 pages. I've written it purely for my own edification, but over the years I've gradually polished it into something that might eventually be suitable for publication.

"At very few junctures in my commentary does my atheism become apparent. Poking holes in Biblical claims about God is far too easy and is thus uninteresting. Instead, my commentary seeks to understand those claims from the perspectives of the people who advanced them. I'm continually asking why the writer of some book of the Bible would think that the ascription to God of a certain quality or command or action or accomplishment is so important.

"My original aim of improving my understanding of Western philosophy has been realized. Though I don't write on theology or the philosophy of religion, my study of the Bible has significantly shaped my thinking about a number of issues in the areas of philosophy on which I do write. Over the years, however, that original aim has come to be supplemented by other reasons for my avocation as a Biblical scholar. Such an avocation not only improves one's understanding of Western philosophy, but also greatly enhances one's understanding of Western culture more broadly. While the Bible has heavily influenced many philosophers, it has likewise heavily influenced countless artists and writers and composers (among others). Some of the richness of Western art and literature and music is lost on anyone who does not possess a good knowledge of the Bible.

"A further benefit of Biblical study lies in the literary magnificence of many parts of the Bible. The exquisite story of Joseph and his brothers in the final quarter of Genesis is itself sufficient to ensure the Bible a place among the greatest works of world literature, yet a number of other Biblical narratives are at almost that same level of supreme excellence. Much of the Bible's poetry (in Job, quite a few of the Psalms, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, and so forth) is among the finest produced in any language. Thus, although long stretches of the Bible are tedious or repellent or baffling, a student of the Bible encounters many literary jewels as well.

"Familiarity with the Bible broadens one's mind in a number of respects. Coming to grips with cosmological assumptions and ethical assumptions very different from one's own is an edifying venture. Moreover, anyone who peruses the Bible with intellectual honesty cannot fail to be aware of its many shortcomings, some of which are egregious. One's awareness of those shortcomings can temper one's criticism of other religions. Consider, for example, the current propensity of Muslim extremists in various parts of the world to engage in murderous mayhem. On the one hand, the claim that their evil acts of carnage have nothing to do with Islam is simplistic at best. Anyone who has perused the Koran with intellectual honesty will be aware of the hideous passages on which the Islamist fanatics can and do seize in order to 'justify' their terrorism. On the other hand, the perception of a basic divide between the Koran and the Bible in this respect is likewise simplistic. The Bible teems with as many ghastly passages as the Koran. It lends itself to being cited in support of iniquities just as readily as does the Koran. . . .

"The abundance of rebarbative passages in the Bible is another reason for atheists to familiarize themselves with it. Although my commentary seldom gives voice to the atheistic repugnance that I feel toward God, my systematic study of the Bible has made me thoroughly familiar with the numerous discreditable aspects of the Biblical texts. Thus, I can retort knowledgeably to believers who suggest that moral principles are in need of God and the Bible as their foundations. Even if the correct basic principles of morality were somehow in need of foundations, the Bible would be too nefarious for the purpose. Those principles would not be strengthened by being associated with the genocidal directives of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, or with the scurrilous fulminations of Christ against his opponents, or with the Stalin-like gloating of the God of the New Testament at the thought that everyone who has not been sufficiently deferential toward Him will suffer torture for all eternity.

"Lest the foregoing paragraph may seem too glum, I'll conclude with a relatively light-hearted reason for studying the Bible. A perusal of the Biblical texts reveals a host of common sayings that have taken on meanings very different from their original meanings. Hence, a knowledge of the Bible is invaluable for anyone inclined to be pedantic. I could offer more than twenty examples of the sayings that I have in mind, but I have space here for only one. In Deuteronomy 8:3 and in Matthew's and Luke's gospels (with Christ's response to the first temptation), we encounter the aphorism 'Man does not live by bread alone'. In the present day, that maxim is almost universally taken to mean that bread is necessary but not sufficient for human flourishing. In its original Biblical context, by contrast, the maxim means that bread is sufficient but not necessary for human flourishing. (In Deuteronomy, bread was unnecessary because God sent manna instead; in the gospels, bread was unnecessary because Christ was able to survive on purely spiritual sustenance.)

"In sum, I recommend Biblical study not only for the serious reasons recounted above, but also because it is a wonderful basis for pedantic one-upmanship! "

(Matthew Kramer, Professor of Legal and Political Philosophy, Churchill College, Cambridge.)


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Gay activism: personality vs. process

Recently, I am told, the African American community has begun a beneficial process of moving beyond the cult of personality surrounding such individuals as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. The new emphasis is on process, not personality. Real change will come as many feel called to participate, and not just leave the matter to a few grandstanders.

The situation in the GLBT community has veered between two extremes. Many important contributors to the success of the gay and lesbian movement, such as Jeannette Foster, Don Slater, Arthur Warner, and Barbara Gittings, have gone to their graves without being able to enjoy anything like the recognition they deserve.

We have seen signs of a correction, as Stuart Timmons’ solid biography of Harry Hay showed some years ago. By the same token, there are indications that this correction may have gone too far.

A recent news release prompts my thoughts:

“Franklin Kameny home becomes D.C. landmark”

>Washington Business Journal - by Tierney Plumb Staff Reporter
>The home of Franklin Kameny, a longtime activist for gay rights, was
>designated by the Historic Preservation Review Board as a local landmark at
>a hearing on Thursday.
>The site, located at 5020 Cathedral Ave. NW, is the first gay, lesbian,
>bisexual and transgender site listed in D.C.’s inventory of historic sites.
>During the 1960s and the early 1970s, Kameny’s home and office served as a
>meeting ground for planning gay civil rights campaigns and strategies.
>Kameny still lives in the 54-year-old residence.
>The home functioned as the headquarters of the Mattachine Society of D.C.,
>which was co-founded by Kameny in 1961 to fight for equal rights for
>The two-story, brick neo-Colonial style house sits in the Palisades section
>of the city.
>The site was nominated by the Rainbow History Project, which promotes the
>arts, history and culture tied to D.C.’s sexually diverse community, and the
>D.C. Preservation League.
>The nomination will be passed along to the National Register of Historic
>Places with a positive recommendation for listing later this year.

It seems an extraordinary step to place a house on a list of historic sites even while the honoree is still living there. The case of the Jimmy Carter Center has been cited as a parallel. Yet surely it is not, as presidents are sui generis.

Who then is Frank Kameny to deserve this signal honor? He is an 84-year old gay activist prominent in DC LGBT circles. He holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University.

In October 1957 Kameny was fired from his job as a government astronomer. His homosexuality made him “unsuitable” for employment. After an initial period of disorientation, Kameny decided not to take the dismissal lying down, but to strike back. On its face this response was admirable, but it proved problematic in the sequel. Without any legal training, he undertook to counsel others in a similar plight, sometimes representing them at hearings. Yet government policy regarding “perverts” was set in stone--or so it seemed at the time. Kameny’s arguments were inevitably dismissed.

Initially, undertaking these interventions was understandable and praiseworthy. As time went on, though, it became clear that the effort was misguided. Kameny slogged on all the same.

When business firms continue to offer a product that is supposed to achieve a particular effect and does not, that is called false advertising. In all candor, the result is fraud.

Why did Kameny persist in what was, to put the best face on it, the equivalent of tilting at windmills? A friend suggests a plausible defense: “The way I heard it, many of his ‘clients’ came to him before they had actually lost their jobs, and his counseling was designed to try to prevent them from succumbing to the well-known guilt-ridden tendency toward being intimidated into answering improper questions.” In those ultracloseted days it seems unlikely that this initiative would have been commonly adopted by anyone who still had his or her job. In fact, Kameny’s main activity consisted of counseling people when the procedure to terminate had already begun. Given the obstinacy of the government in those days, it was folly to expect a turn-around. At all events, my friend goes on to say: “if a procedural error were discovered in the course of contesting the discharge, the discharge might have been reversible.” I doubt that this ever occurred. In fact my interlocutor concedes that “[getting one’s job back] would have been rather unlikely, but not impossible, and I don't know if anyone did. However, the very fact of resistance may have helped lay the groundwork for eventual change in government policy.”

Eventually government policy did change, and there are no longer witch hunts against homosexual personnel in government employment. However, that change was the result of a fundamental shift in society’s attitudes, and not the product of personal activity on the part of Frank Kameny. To suggest the latter is to succumb to the personalist fallacy I noted at the outset.

In DC Kameny formed a branch of Mattachine, then the leading gay-rights group. In its heyday Kameny’s group never numbered more that five or six members, and was dependent on the Mattachine Society of New York.

Kameny had not been part of the initial group gay activists who started the present movement in California in 1950. By the 1960s the energy of the pioneers had begun to flag; it was after all a discouraging era of conformity.

Kameny and other firebrands chafed at what they felt was an excessively gradualist approach. At first, though, there was not much change. From 1965 to 1969, carrying out the suggestion of two New York activists, Kameny organized a decorous set of demonstrations called the Annual Reminder,held in Philadelphia on July 4. Following a strict dress code, men had to wear coats and ties; women dresses. These events were hardly revolutionary. And yet on this slender peg rests the claim by one of Kameny’s supporters that he inaugurated a “new period of militancy in the homosexual rights movement.” Some, with Kameny’s tacit approval, have expanded this claim by promoting him to the status of the First Gay Activist.

To be sure, Frank Kameny had a marked talent for publicity. He invented the slogan “gay is good.” taking “black is beautiful” as his model.

False modesty has never been a stumbling block for Kameny. When asked in a 2006 interview if he had been intimidated in his confrontations, he replied: " I'm right and they're wrong -- that's been my underlying premise my whole life. Over the years and the issues I've taken on, I have not sought to adjust myself to society. I have adjusted society to me and society is much better off for the adjustments I've administered." In an email he remarked, without irony, that he was infallible.

The gay movement experienced a tremendous upsurge of energy thanks the the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969. Residing in Washington D.C. Kameny had nothing to do with that spontaneous event. Yet he seems to be seeking to attach his wagon to a star by claiming to have enjoyed some unusual prescience in prefiguring the shift towards a more insurrectionary mode. To reiterate, that is the personalist fallacy.

By all means let us honor those who deserve to be honored. But let us remember that this was a movement in which there were many, many participants, all contributing their bit to the “heroism of everyday life.”