The End of Anonymity

Who are you?
Who are you?

I was catching up on Ron Rosenbaum’s recent posts when I came across this article about a super model who took her anonymous internet slanderer to court. She apparently pressed Google for the specifics (and got them), resulting in what they are calling the first case of anonymity-busting in internet history. True or not, I’m glad to see one of these anonymous bozos get whopped. There is too much abuse of anonymity–bloggers and commenters alike–and one day we will look back at now as the lawless frontier days of the early internet.

Of course, this doesn’t rule out the reality of those who are in real danger lest their identities be discovered (think Iran or China). But what these self-aggrandizing abusers are doing is damaging the online environment for those in real need of anonymous expression.  

Kevin Kelly, of Wired, wrote in Edge:

There’s a dangerous idea circulating that the option of anonymity should always be at hand, and that it is a noble antidote to technologies of control. This is like pumping up the levels of heavy metals in your body to make it stronger.

Privacy can be won only by trust, and trust requires persistent identity, if only pseudoanonymously. In the end, the more trust the better. Like all toxins, anonymity should be kept as close to zero as possible.

In a similar vein, Yaacov Lozowick suggests that the recent CiF Watch website–created to monitor the Comment is Free blog at the Guardian–would benefit from not being anonymous. He reasons thus:

The one quibble I have is their choice to remain anonymous. I’m not a fan of such decisions. They don’t live in Hamas-controlled Gaza, or Iran, or Egypt, or Syria, or all the many other places in the world where it’s dangerous to have an opinion.

Comment may be free, but opinion apparently is not.

The Obama-as-Hitler Meme and the Conspiratorial Mindset

Lexington writes:

Belief in conspiracy theories can be comforting. If everything that goes wrong is the fault of a secret cabal, that relieves you of the tedious necessity of trying to understand how a complex world really works. And you can feel smug that you are smart enough to “see through” the official version of events. But widespread paranoia has drawbacks. For a start, it makes calm, rational debate rather tricky. How can you discuss the trade-offs of health-care reform, for example, with someone who thinks the government is plotting to kill grandma?

The answer is, of course, you can’t. Which is the same reason you can’t teach a creationist evolution, or a Holocaust-denier twentieth-century history. Either they don’t want to know, or they’re so far gone down that winding road to nowhere that they can no longer process contrary information.

So, for the record, the Obama-as-Hitler meme appears not to be the imagined rantings of the Obamaniks. Nobody is saying all conservatives are wingnuts, but the wingnuts are out there and they are carrying Nazi paraphernalia diguised as “patriotism.”

Here’s the meme in all its glory (I never get tired of watching Frank nail this bozo to her seat):

The Case Against Creationism

Richard Dawkins has a new book out, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. An excerpt from it graced the Timesonline the other day, and Jonah Lehrer’s enthuisiastic review of it is here.

The elegance of evolution
The elegance of evolution

Dawkins writes:

Imagine that you are a teacher of Roman history and the Latin language, anxious to impart your enthusiasm for the ancient world — for the elegiacs of Ovid and the odes of Horace, the sinewy economy of Latin grammar as exhibited in the oratory of Cicero, the strategic niceties of the Punic Wars, the generalship of Julius Caesar and the voluptuous excesses of the later emperors. That’s a big undertaking and it takes time, concentration, dedication. Yet you find your precious time continually preyed upon, and your class’s attention distracted, by a baying pack of ignoramuses (as a Latin scholar you would know better than to say ignorami) who, with strong political and especially financial support, scurry about tirelessly attempting to persuade your unfortunate pupils that the Romans never existed. There never was a Roman Empire. The entire world came into existence only just beyond living memory. Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, Catalan, Occitan, Romansh: all these languages and their constituent dialects sprang spontaneously and separately into being, and owe nothing to any predecessor such as Latin.

Instead of devoting your full attention to the noble vocation of classical scholar and teacher, you are forced to divert your time and energy to a rearguard defence of the proposition that the Romans existed at all: a defence against an exhibition of ignorant prejudice that would make you weep if you weren’t too busy fighting it.

If my fantasy of the Latin teacher seems too wayward, here’s a more realistic example. Imagine you are a teacher of more recent history, and your lessons on 20th-century Europe are boycotted, heckled or otherwise disrupted by well-organised, well-financed and politically muscular groups of Holocaust-deniers. Unlike my hypothetical Rome-deniers, Holocaustdeniers really exist. They are vocal, superficially plausible and adept at seeming learned. They are supported by the president of at least one currently powerful state, and they include at least one bishop of the Roman Catholic Church. Imagine that, as a teacher of European history, you are continually faced with belligerent demands to “teach the controversy”, and to give “equal time” to the “alternative theory” that the Holocaust never happened but was invented by a bunch of Zionist fabricators.

Dawkins is bound to come under scrutiny for daring to suggest that creationists are as intellectually dishonest–and downright dangerous–as Holocaust-deniers. Dawkins even coins a new term, history-deniers, to define them. After all, nearly everyone who insists upon a creationist reading of the universe (IDers included) does so for religious reasons, just as the Holocaust-deniers deny the irrefutable mountains of evidence stacked up against their claims for ideological reasons. Well, the bad news is that Holocaust-denial has gone international, while history-denial just won’t go away.

So Cane Me, Already!

Choose your stick
Pick a stick

Everywhere I’ve looked today I’ve come across this story about a Malaysian woman who is getting caned for drinking beer. Oh, temptation! The BBC reports: “Malaysia’s majority Malays are subject to Islamic laws, while the large Chinese and Indian minorities are not.” Presumably, Ms. Kartika Shukarno was busted getting sloshed in a non-Islamic bar (Islamic bars only serve iced tea, I take it). Her punishment, caning, is (according to Wikipedia, which has an entire article on caning in Malaysia) the second most severe form of punishment in Malaysia–after the death penalty.

The bizzarre twist in the story comes when we learn that her sentence has been postponed until after Ramadan. Clearly, this is Islam’s version of compassion. It’s a dull story in my opinion, considering all the truly outrageous and awful things that happen in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, not to mention Iran, for similar “crimes.” But wait, here’s the finale:

Ms Kartika, a 32-year old trained nurse and mother of two, asked last week that her caning be administered in public. She had told reporters she was calm about the prospect and was willing to be caned because she respected the law.

I respect the BBC for its ability to tell this story with a straight face. If Ms. Kartika indeed respects the law, then why was she sneaking a swig of beer in the first place? Doesn’t she know that old wives’ tale about the woman and the serpent? At this point, I invite anyone reading to chant the infidel mantra with me, “It’s a beer! It’s a beer! You medieval dickwads–it’s a fucking beer!!

The Borderlands of Jewishness

A few thoughts from a thoughtful reader (I’ve regularized some of the punctuation and uncapitalized the “A” in Atheist for obvious reasons):

Halacha, Jewish religious law, is the only thing that determines Jewish identity. And the issue is very clear indeed, and always has been. The Tanakh tells us that a Jew who adopts any other faith, is an ex-Jew. An Apostate. Now this does not – as in Islam – necessitate nor involve negativity towards this ex Jew. Not at all. But it’s just a statement of fact: a Jew who becomes a Christian = a Christian, just as a Jew who becomes a Muslim = a Muslim.

As for atheism:

Rabbis and Halacha are very clear on this too. Atheism doesn’t involve embracing another, conflicting faith. An atheist Jew, is simply a non practising Jew. Simple as that. Or, if the person prefers not to identity as Jewish, then the atheist is, well, an atheist, who was born into Judaism but has now left. But according to halacha, the atheist is still part of the Jewish family whereas the ex Jew turned Christian, or ex-Jew turned Muslim, is not.

Historically, Jews that converted to other faiths, and then later wished to return to Judaism, had to formally “convert” back to Judaism. I’m slightly concerned that your poll gives the impression that popular opinion can determine who is and is not Jewish. It can’t.

Also, as I’m sure you know, there is a specific Christian Evangelical movement, whose members were never Jews to start with, yet who pose fraudulently as ‘messianic Jews’ and who knowingly lie and misrepresent Judaism and Jews. This group provokes a lot of conflict between Jews and Christians.

For my part, I tend to be skeptical when any debate over Jewish identity is resolved by invoking the overriding authority of halakha. That’s part of what got us into this mess in the first place, and since non-Orthodox Jews are the majority these days (and the source of all that Jewish pride we feel when we talk about Spinoza, Freud, Einstein and Mel Brooks) I think we should have some say in the matter.

There are no easy answers. Nothing is “simple as that” about Jewish identity. Invoking the Tanakh–a collection of ancient Jewish literature otherwise known as the Hebrew Bible–as the fount of all wisdom on matters of personal or collective cultural identity is a push in the wrong direction. We all seem to agree that non-observant Jews are nonetheless Jews, and this fact alone proves the weakness of this argument.

I’m tempted to say that all of this is a matter of opinion. That we celebrate Spinoza (who was given a hearty herem, or  rabbinic excommunication, for heresy from Europe’s most liberal and enlightened Jewish community) as one of our greatest sons only points to the fallability of halakhic law. It is malleable, elastic even, and all it takes is a shift in the way we think about ourselves to tame the once mighty voice of the the Law. God, in the end, is as subject to shifting cultural sands as the marketplace.

From a non-theistic point of view, this all borders on silliness. We know that the Bible was written by men (and likely even women) and believe that there is no supernatural authority whose word is eternal and unchanging. If there were, where is such a word to be found? The Talmud itself would be heretical as it meddles with the Torah on almost every page, adding and subtracting according to the wisdom and convention of the day. Wouldn’t the Torah itself have been enough without the addenda of the prophetic and hagoigraphic books that round out the Tanakh? I hope this brief gloss will suffice to convince the reader that there is nothing simple or clear-cut about Jewish identity.

The poll I posted (Are Jews Who Believe in Jesus Still Jews?) seeks opinions to what is one of the taboos of mainstream Jewish discourse. It does not seek irrefutable answers. Why can a Jew be a Buddhist and not a Christian? Perhaps there is something “conflicting” is the idea of a Jewish-Christian, though the earliest Christians were without exception Jews. So, clearly, this is another cultural-historical construct with no guidelines grounded in religious absolutism. Such is the nature of cultural identity.

We know there are Jews who have embraced Christianity throughout history for various reasons, ranging from personal belief to the threat of death. We also live in a society in which religious and cultural identities are a smorgasbord. There may indeed be excellent reasons why a modern Jew cannot believe in Jesus Christ and still be considered a Jew by fellow Jews (and I believe there are) but let’s not defer our reasoning to the divine think tank to understand why this is so.

The Last American Childhood

The last small town in America?
The good life

I’m visiting my sister Monica and her family in Ashland, Virginia, a small town about 20 minutes outside of Richmond. Only a few years ago, to cross Main St., one needed only wave an unassuming orange flag to bring traffic to a halt at midday. On Saturdays there’s a local farmers’ market rich with freshly-picked blackberries, strawberry lemonade ($1) and talented young bluegrass musicians pickin’-n-grinnin’ among the squash flowers. On Sundays people go to church.

I’ve been working out at the YMCA almost every day this week, and when I’m through I sometimes let my finger fall across the open bible at the entrance for an inspirational thought or two before grabbing my car keys and heading to Starbucks for an iced coffee. On the way home, almost everyone waves from their SUVs, whether you know them or not. It’s a congenial town in every way. I like it.

At the center of this galaxy of congeniality, positioned like a miniature black hole around which spirals an increasing vortex of matter and anti-matter, is my niece Lucy. At least, that’s the way it appears from my perspective.

My sister grasps the hidden irony of her smalltown life. Thirty years ago, the two of us grew up in a suburb twenty minutes outside of Baltimore, just one state to the north. We were “Sesame seeds,” a generation much heralded as being the last lucky one before childhood lost its supposed luster. We walked home alone after school with house keys dangling from a string around our necks. We were kids on the loose, like the Lost Boys in the fictional Neverland: without supervision, restrictions, community.

Here in this calm Virginian hamlet in mid-August of the year 2009, no lifestyle could seem more foreign. Children of all ages play together, horse around, eat peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, and hate to go to bed on time. Girls watch Hannah Montana on television and aspire to be the next Miley Cyrus, the very face of teenage American wholesomeness. They are polite to strangers and say thank you. All of this is engulfed by leafy greenery any city-dweller would envy. You can even see a few bright stars at night from the back porch.

“This is the last American childhood,” Monica said to me on the way home from Ukrops grocery store, where (rumor has it) they let you tote your groceries home if you happen to forget your wallet. “What makes you so sure?” I asked. She then went on to rhapsodize about the merits of smalltown life: everyone knows everyone else, the streets are safe, there’s a neighborhood watch, it’s a very close-knit community, etc…There are probably hundreds or thousands of identical hamlets strewn symmetrically across the United States, I mused. And every one of them thinks it’s unique.

When I asked her if she wasn’t afraid of everyone knowing her business, she answered that she actually liked it. It makes her feel secure, she told me. Fair enough. After eight years in New York City and six in Rome, I can appreciate the sentiment. I’ve been navigating a depersonalized environment for so long that it seems perfectly normal. People in cities can be nice, too, but they won’t wave when you pass or let you pay for your bagel the next day. And, according to legend, they might just let you bleed to death in broad daylight. There really is something idyllic about this place that makes me want to pinch myself. Is it for real?

In search of a downside, I may have found one. There is a tangible pressure to conform, for one thing. But that’s true even a proudly nonconformist neighborhood like Williamsburg, Brooklyn–only the standards there are zanier. Instead of three-button shirts and khaki shorts, you’re expected to wear Hawaiian shirts and Panama hats–as long as you “get” them. The cultural gene pool is less varied around here. Of course, this could all be an illusion. But I swear people look at me funny, even in my camouflage hunting cap.

In a few days I’ll penetrate the invisible veil that separates Ashland from the rest of the world and reenter the unexceptional, charmless existence of everyday life. Years from now, Lucy will make a similar voyage out of her protective cocoon and into the menacing world beyond the hedge.

“She’ll lose her innocence,” Monica says with a frown, as if the cellophane armor of “innocence” were the secret glue that binds this community together. For a moment, I feel like I’ve stumbled into Brigadoon. Around here they call it paradise.

Published in The American

One More Atheist in the Blogosphere

Marc Alan Di Martino has been added to The Atheist Blogroll. You will soon be able to see the blogroll in my sidebar (as soon as I figure out how to fidget with the widget). The Atheist Blogroll is a community building service provided free of charge to atheist bloggers from around the world. If you would like to join, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information.

Don’t act like you’re surprised, bubbeleh.

Ignorance Is No Longer Bliss

Dont be a pill, dude.
Don't be a pill.

Living in Italy, I don’t get the opportunity to watch American television much. I don’t even have Sky, which would enable me to watch hundreds of channels. Until a week or two ago, I lived a quiet life with four–count ‘em!–channels: one in black & white, three in color and MTV (which doesn’t count because it’s all reality shows), and most of them owned by Berlusconi. So one might say I was living in the woods.

Now, after a week in the US watching faith channels and Fox News, I’ve finally seen something interesting.Today I watched the entirety of President Obama’s townhall speech on the healthcare (or health insurance) reform bill. I had seen the Obama-with-greasepaint-mustache posters, the swastikas, and I’ve even written about Obama-bashing here. I hadn’t been following this healthcare business closely because, well, I live in Europe. That happens. Anyway, it’s unavoidable now, so when I actually listened to Obama field questions from the public I was surprised at the elegance of his vision.

I know such praise will draw hellfire from the usual quarters, but this was my gut instinct. Here’s how it appears to me, an American who has set foot in this country for the first time since Barack Obama took oath in January, and whose approval rating is supposedly falling like hail fire over Egypt.

Let me briefly preface these observations by stating that I have never taken much of an interest in such debates; nevertheless, I’ve held numerous jobs in the United States, and never have I had a healthcare plan (except for a brief period when I was a member of the auto workers’ union, but don’t ask me how that happened). In Italy I am for the first time a beneficiary of “universal health care.” It is not a dream plan, but I can see a doctor when I need to. What Obama proposed sounds better than what I have in Italy, which is better than what many Americans have in America. Something is wrong in that equation.

Of course, I understand that there is a lot of fine-tuning to be done. Nothing is exactly as it appears, and there may be huge difficulties in funding such a program. And people will probably always fall through the cracks. But let me write what I heard Obama say, and not the pundits:

1. All Americans are entitled to healthcare. No exceptions.

2. If you like your existing healthcare program, you may keep it. The government will not force you to switch to theirs.

3. Wasted money–billions and billions of dollars–will be rerouted in order to finance such a program. These are dollars presently being squandered subsidizing insurance companies, not enriching care for their patients.

4. Everyone will be able to choose the healthcare plan they feel is best. Prices will most likely go down due to a public option.

5. The elderly will not be murdered wholesale by a shadow euthanasia plan.

None of this is highbrow stuff. I did not go and look anything up afterward. Let’s make believe I was an average Joey Bag-o’-Doughnuts in attendance. This is what I would’ve taken away from the encounter.

So the question remains: what is so explosive about all this? Why shouldn’t all Americans have health insurance? It sounds like a dumb question, but I can’t seem to get a straight answer so far.

In the Realm of Hades

Who Will Write Our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive by Samuel D. Kassow

Milk can

This book almost defies description. It is as much a biography of the historian Emanuel Ringelblum as it is a history of the Oyneg Shabes, a resistance group in the Warsaw ghetto whose self-appointed mission it was to document life under Nazi occupation. The probability of their endeavor ever seeing the light of day was very small indeed. Only a few people involved in the group—originally composed of dozens of historians, economists, poets, and sociologists—survived the war. The only one who knew where to dig up the buried archives from the rubble of the destroyed ghetto saved himself by jumping from a train bound for Treblinka . Had he, too, perished it is likely that the entire archive would have been lost—as part of it still is—beneath the modern city of Warsaw.

The archive consists of documents of every type: diaries, interviews, historical and sociological studies, poems, photographs, children’s art, candy wrappers. The idea was to leave a record of what the contributors increasingly understood to be a lost civilization—that of Polish Jewry. As the ghetto went from bad to worse, and the first reports of Nazi gassings and mass murder filtered in through underground channels, the Oyneg Shabes (“Sabbath joy” in Yiddish) realized they were responsible for writing their own history, lest it be blotted out forever.

To get the flavor of the context in which these people lived, wrote and died, we might read the words of Stanislaw Rozycki, a Jew who had made his way back to his native Warsaw from Lwow (Lviv). Crossing from the “Aryan” side to the ghetto, he wrote:

“I entered. I crossed the boundary not just of a residential quarter but of a zone of reality, because what I saw and experienced cannot be understood by our reason, thoughts, or imagination…the very act of crossing reminded me of some rite of passage, a ceremonial initiation, a crossing into the realm of Hades.”

It was in this “realm of Hades” that the doomed Jews of Warsaw set down their own record of events. It was a daily struggle against poverty, hunger, displacement, disease, deportation, beatings and murder. The psychological terrorism of the Nazi program underscored all these factors, creating a hand-to-mouth existence with little or no hope for the future. If anyone ever lived “in the moment,” these people did.

Under these conditions the Jewish underground revolted in an armed struggle against the Germans. It was a heroic, last-ditch effort by a people unjustly remembered for passivity in the face of Nazi atrocities. As historian Melvin Konner put it, “It took less time and thought for the Germans to conquer the French nation than to put down the Warsaw ghetto rebellion.” Jewish resistance, Kassow’s book reminds us, had many faces.

Published in The American