The Late, Great Agnostic

Robert Green Ingersoll had many memorable things to say about a great many topics. He loved Shakespeare and Thomas Paine above all other authors. Most people have never heard of him, but he was one of America’s most famous speakers in the late nineteenth century.

Ingersoll had this to say about Darwin’s then-novel theory of evolution by natural selection:

“I believe that man came up from lower animals. When I first heard of that doctrine I did not like it. My heart was filled with sympathy for those people who have nothing to be proud of except ancestors. I thought, how terrible this will be upon the nobility of the Old World. Think of their being forced to trace their ancestry back to the duke Orang Outang, or to the princess Chimpanzee.

After thinking it over, I came to the conclusion that I liked that doctrine.”

And so should we.

Boxing Christopher Hitchens

Shmuley Boteach has a worthy rebuttal to Christopher Hitchens in today’s JPost.

As far as the New Atheist lawfirm Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins and Dennett goes, the one I’ve always been half-hearted about is Hitchens. He is an excellent writer, and it is hard not to be persuaded by him, but sometimes he comes out with such screeds that you just want to say, “Stick a sock in it, Hitch!”

Then again, free speech is to be defended.

And I believe Shmuley Boteach would agree.

Moral Blindness and the Perfect Weapon

A quote from Paul Berman:

“The anti-war Socialists wanted to understand their enemies and not just dismiss them–wanted to seek out whatever was comprehensible, the points on which everyone could agree. And so, listening to the Nazis make their wildest speeches, the anti-war Socialists, in a thoughtful mood, asked themselves: what is anti-Semitism, anyway? Does every single criticism of the Jews reflect the superstition of the Middle Ages? Surely it ought to be possible to criticize the Jews without being vilified as anti-Semites.” (Terror and Liberalism)

Of course, this meant underestimating Hitler and Nazism by assuming they clung to the same bedrock faith in human reason as the French Socialists. They wanted to give the Nazis a chance to be evaluated on equal footing, but the Nazis didn’t much care for an enlightened forum in which to test the strength of their ideas. They rest is history.

Not long after Berman published his book, which attempted to explain the roots of the Sept. 11, 2001 terroist attacks (and our general inability to comprehend their meaning), Sam Harris published a book called The End of Faith. In many ways, Harris built upon Berman’s thesis–and added a by-now-famous critique of religious faith that has made him as lionized by some as he is despised by others. Nestled in the pages of Harris’s book is a chapter called “Perfect Weapons and the Ethics of ‘Collateral Damage'”, which hasn’t received as much attention as it perhaps deserves. The crux of the argument is as follows:

“We need only imagine how any of our recent conflicts would have looked if we had possessed perfect weapons–weapons that allowed us to either temporarily impair or kill a particular person, or group, at any distance, without harming others or their property. What would we do with such technology?”

Of course, the temptation is to map out a mental chalkboard of conflicts, applying Harris’s perfect weapon hypothesis: how would the current war in Iraq look? The Iraq-Iran conflict? The recent IDF incursion in Gaza? The Second Intifada? Iran’s overtures to genocide and overarching support for suicide terrorism?

It’s a fun mental exercise. As Harris puts it, “A moment’s thought reveals that a person’s use of such a weapon would offer a perfect window onto the soul of his ethics.”

This could go on for a long while, so I’ll get to the point. Operation Cast Lead is long over. Recontruction in Gaza, including smuggling of weapons and construction of tunnels to Egypt, goes on unabated, except when Israel sends a few missiles in retaliation for the continuing rocket attacks. Caryl Churchill has written her Sophoclean dirge for the (Palestinian) victims that some have accused of the worst anti-Jewish stereotyping. Others call it a masterpiece. The victims are being counted, most of which (surprise, surprise) are Hamas men. But the world can’t wait to blame Israel for every single death in the recent conflict. After all, it was Israel that chose to retaliate with such force, unleashing the umpteenth episode of brutality against a starved, helpless population reduced to launching inexact, homemade rockets as their only recourse to dignity (now that suicide bombing has been more or less stalled, at least temporarily).

So, in this moment of relative calm and reflection, maybe we should be asking ourselves just what the IDF would have done in Gaza had it had perfect weapons. And Hamas? We should hold them both up to the same moral standard, or none at all.

Ins and Outs of Wonkdom

Here is a revealing article from today’s Jerusalem Post about the dangers of being a wonk. What’s a wonk, you ask? Roughly, a wonk is someone whoargues that Teheran’s attendance (at the Hague) signals its underlying pragmatism – and that this pragmatism could be torpedoed by obsessing over Iranian threats to destroy Israel.”

Let’s hope Obama doesn’t get carried away with optimism when dealing with these gangsters. It could be lethal, and not just for Israel.


Chain Mail

We call them chain letters. In Italy they’re referred to as “St. Anthony’s letters”, and I’m sure there’s a perfectly good explanation as to why (but I don’t know it). They arrive at your inbox, usually with a subject like, “URGENT: READ AND PASS ON” or “THIS EMAIL WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE.” Then there is the ubiquitous promise that if you send said message to five ten twenty-five fifty people, good fortune will befall you. Or at least you will have a nice day.

Today’s message reads, “The most beautiful email you will ever read.” Then it goes on to postulate a very probable situation: you are driving home in your car. On the radio you hear of a death on the other side of the world, but you think nothing of it. The next day you hear of more deaths, still far away but closer than before. Suddenly it appears an epidemic is threatening your country–and with it, the entire world. There is only one answer: create a vaccine that can be used to cure the sick. But, since almost everyone is infected and dropping like flies, good blood is hard to come by. Finally, they find someone with the kind of untainted blood they need, and he is your son. You are asked to choose: either humanity extinguishes itself as we know it from a preventable disease, or you authorize the doctors to draw your son’s blood–all of it–for the necessary vaccine to save the world. It is a question of child sacrifice. I think you can see where this is leading.

The tale ends with a tear-jerker: Would you be able to turn your son over to the doctors, while he cries, “Mommy, daddy, why are you abandoning me?”

OK, you get the point. The parents authorize the doctors to drain their son of blood, vaccinating all of humankind (yeah, sure) against the horrible virus, but the people of the world are too caught up in their own lives to notice the selfless sacrifice. The parents cry out: “Our son died for you! Don’t you care?!”

And then the little story dips into the real message: “God sacrificed his son for you! And you don’t care!!”

Man, do I dislike chain letters.

This is a man

Roberto Saviano has been living undercover since his book Gomorrah was published three years ago. It is an inconvenient book for some people, and Saviano has paid a heavy price. He walks around with seven carabinieri, frequently changes residence, and has no private life to speak of. Because of his book.

This is a man who has rendered a great and necessary service to his people, a man who has the courage to speak unequivocally about the cancer devouring his country. But Saviano’s message doesn’t stop there. His message goes beyond Naples, beyond Italy, beyond Europe (the Camorra has its tentacles all over the place) to the world. It is a message of liberty in the face of terrorism.

Last night on the Italian program Che tempo che fa, Roberto Saviano was given a two-hour platform to have his say. He was flanked by novelists Paul Auster and David Grossman, and (in New York) Indian writer Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City. What brought all these writers together was perhaps an enemy common to all: terror.

They Call it Lawfare

Two weeks ago I saw Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor give this speech at the Italian Parliament. Italy is so far the only European country to have pulled out of the Durban II Conference in Geneva, which will be held next month from April 20-24.

Anyway, the point is that NGO Monitor has assigned itself the task of carefully monitoring all those saintly NGOs like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, etc…who are themselves on the prowl for every Israeli human rights violation–even when there are  none. These NGO’s display what is called the “halo effect”, which is basically a form of infallibility. Many people feel that their humanitarian status makes them unbiased and therefore moral, and people like to have their morality spoon fed to them, especially when it comes to Israel.

In Durban, NGO participants singled out Israel for attack. Palestinian NGOs distributed copies of the anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and leaflets depicting Hitler and the caption, “What if I had won?” The answer: “There would be No Israel and No Palestinian bloodshed.”

So much for blessed neutrality.

War crimes, human rights violations and International Law are invoked these days in the destruction of Israel’s credibility. As Melanie Phillips wrote, “Israel and the Jews are being systematically delegitimized and dehumanized–a necessary prelude to their destruction.” This is the new strategy, same as the old. If you can’t destroy Israel with human bombs, Kassam rockets, daily death threats and Israeli bulldozers, you might as well give lawfare a shot.

Bloggers’ Blues

I don’t usually read the high-powered bloggers that pop up on WordPress every time I log in to this blog (mostly they’re about business, and I’m not too interested), but today one caught my eye and I clicked. Here’s what he/she had to say about life on the internet:

“Everything you say/write can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion someday, somehow. Your behavior on the web can cost you a new job, a promotion, your career, your marriage, your friendships, endorsements, and even take you out of contention for college scholarships, military/law enforcement service, or public office.

So please, please, PLEASE, for your own sake THINK about what you are about to post to the web (especially blogs, social networking sites and Twitter). Before you click “send,” “publish” or “update,” assume that everyone you know will read your comment. And by everyone, I mean your boss, coworkers, parents, grandparents, exes, recruiters, future employers, and yes, even your kids (even if you don’t have any yet).”

This is wise advice from a guy/gal who knows the ins and outs (there are a great many comments on this post) of blogging. And I’m listening. Because there is nothing the young blogger wishes for more than to be read by people he/she doesn’t know. But who really ever thinks of the consequences of what one writes? I suppose if I ever convert to Catholicism I will regret my recent post on the pope’s remark about condoms. Which brings me to the whole notion of anonymity, which has in a sense been bugging me for some time.

Not long ago, Yaacov Lozowick attempted a blog-duel (The Judeo-Arab Conspiracy) with a certain anonymous figure who turned out to be too shadowy for anyone’s good. Lozowick cancelled the blog because he had doubts about his opponent’s identity (Lozowick uses his own identity to blog). His reasoning was the following:

“Already then we had a built-in problem, in that my identity is clear and transparent, and Google will tell you all about me, while Ibrahim ibn Yusuf is not the person’s real name. I was willing to accept this, since I know from experience how hard it is, perhaps even impossible, to find an Arab willing to engage an Israeli in dialogue between equals.”

It turns out that Ibrahim ibn Yusuf wasn’t an Arab at all, which defeated the logic of their brief encounter. I have had similar discussions with people about the importance of anonymity/transparency–especially when dealing with weighty issues like the Israeli-Arab conflict or Islam in general.

As anyone can plainly see, I may be a nobody, but I have opted for transparency on this blog.

If I can’t stand by my own positions publicly, then what’s the point of going public?

US-Israel Alliance:A Good Thing?

David Rothkopf answers the question here by asking:

“What makes the idea of this particular lobby more sinister than all those farmers or Cubans or African-Americans or gays or union members or Arabs or Taiwanese or Christians?”

Elsewhere, Yoram Ettinger adds his thoughts on the matter:

“Iran’s nuclear threat is a symptom of endemic Middle East violent unpredictability and Muslim hostility toward Western democracies. It calls for an upgraded US-Israel win-win relationship, which requires a strong Israel as a national security producer. A weak Israel, pushed into a nine-15 mile sliver along the Mediterranean, pressured to concede the mountain ridges of Judea, Samaria and the Golan Heights, relying on foreign troops and guarantees, would become a national security consumer. It would be a burden rather than an asset to the US in a bad neighborhood, which is crucial for vital US interests. “