Saturday, May 30, 2015

Time to Stop Denying

Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil and Bulgaria have recognized it, but not Belarus.   Arizona, Alaska and Arkansas have recognized it, but not Alabama.   Slovakia, Sweden, and Switzerland have recognized it.  Hell, even Syria recently joined their ranks.   

In total, it has been officially recognized by 28 countries and 44 of the 50 United States of America.  Famously, it was recognized by Presidential Candidate Barack Obama but not by President Barack Obama or the government that he now leads.  Nor has it been recognized by Israel – the nation created largely in response to the atrocities committed by the Nazis.   But most importantly, it has never been recognized by Turkey.  And because it is not recognized by Turkey, the vast majority of nations similarly refuse to acknowledge its existence.   They wouldn’t want to antagonize such an important geopolitical player as the land that lies strategically in between Europe and Asia.  

Genocide is a serious charge, one that is not made lightly.  Rape is bad.  Murder worse.   Mass murder, still worse.  But there is no human crime worse than genocide.  It refers to the systematic massacre of a large segment of a particular ethnic, religious, national, or racial group.   It is akin to removing a species of animal from this earth – only in this case, we are talking about a sub-species of the human animal.  Those who perpetrate genocide represent evil to the extent that word has any meaning.  And that is precisely why the descendants of the perpetrators would desperately like to avoid using the word “genocide” in reference to the conduct at issue.

Ironically, we Jews don’t like to use that word to refer to the extermination by the Nazis of our own ancestors in the 1940s.  We prefer to call that “The Holocaust” – suggesting that it was one of a kind, not merely genocide, but THE genocide, one deserving of its own term.  And indeed, I know of no slaughter of a particular ethnic group that compares to ours from a strict numbers standpoint. 
Like most Jews, I reserve a particularly cold place in my heart for those who deny the Holocaust.  This is one reason for the intensity of the enmity between my people and the Government of Iran.  In 2006, Iran held a “scientific” conference in which the Holocaust deniers gathered to hear Mahmoud Ahmadinejad refer to the Nazi extermination of Jews as a “myth.”  For all but the most self-hating of Jews, that conference was viewed as the epitome of depravity.  

Jews know what it’s like to live in a world where a number of people refuse to recognize the genocide that has been perpetrated against us.  Fortunately, the nation most responsible for our genocide has been willing to recognize it as such.  That has proven invaluable in healing our wounds.  

With that in mind, it is hard for me to believe that the nation known as the “Jewish State” refuses to recognize the genocide perpetrated by the Turks against the Armenian people beginning in 1915.  Nobody in a position of leadership in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem could seriously doubt the existence of that genocide.  Israeli officials have made enough statements over the years to indicate that they understand what happened to the Armenians in the final days of the Ottoman Empire.  The Israeli Government simply lacks the courage to identify that genocide for what it was – the extermination of as many as 1.5 million Armenians for the crime of simply being Armenian.  That, my friends, is known as genocide.   

In April 24, 2014, the Times of Israel reported the following rationalization for Israel’s silence: "Israel is a small country in a hostile neighborhood that can't afford to antagonize the few friends it has in the region. Even more powerful states refuse to employ the 'genocide' term for fear of alienating Turkey...."   I certainly understand the first of those two sentences.  But by invoking the point that even more powerful states are similarly denying this particular genocide, the writer begs the real questions.   Isn’t the raison d’etre of the Jewish State to ensure that there is a place where Jews are safe to live as Jews – meaning a place where Jews can practice their faith?   And isn’t it imperative for Jews when they practice their faith to speak out vociferously, passionately, and uncompromisingly against genocide?  And isn’t it the case that when Jews cite pragmatic parochial considerations to avoid recognizing a genocide, they start to resemble those Germans during the Holocaust who closed their eyes to what their countrymen were doing because it wasn’t in their own personal interest to get involved?    

Israel has a term for the non-Jews in Germany and other nations who risked their own safety to defend the rights of Jews during the Holocaust:  they are known as “righteous gentiles.”  If that is an apt moniker, then those Israelis who’ve refused to recognize a different genocidal episode in history merely because of selfish reasons might want to think of themselves as “non-righteous Jews.”  The Jewish State can and must do better.

Just as Israel has no excuse for burying its head in the sand, neither does the government of the United States of America.  We like to call ourselves the leader of the free world.  By that, we don’t just mean the supreme economic power or military power, but also the moral leader.  We often act as the world’s policeman.   And this role is very much at play today.  We’re not willing to put our own ground troops in harm’s way, but we are willing to use drones to take out people in foreign lands, and that includes the inevitable “collateral damage” of innocent victims.  It takes a lot of chutzpah to implement a policy like that one and yet continue to make speeches about our commitment to democracy, human rights, international law, and all the other traditional American mantras.

We’re not a small, isolated country like Israel.  We’re the 800-pound gorilla.  We can afford to call a spade a spade, even if it antagonizes another regime.   If President Obama were to repeat what Candidate Obama said and recognize the Armenian Genocide, does anyone seriously think that would be an existential threat to our existence?  Or that it would significantly threaten the security of American civilians?   I understand that an alliance with Turkey offers strategic advantages to our ability to fight wars in the Middle East, and I don’t want to trivialize those advantages.  But are they really worth our silence?   We call ourselves the land of liberty and free speech.  Why then are we so afraid to tell the truth about what happened to the Armenian people 100 years ago?  And if we are ruled by that fear, how can we possibly claim the moral authority to act as the self-appointed policeman of the world?  

So yes, I am disgusted by the positions of Israel and the United States when it comes to recognizing the Armenian Genocide.  But my deepest disgust is reserved for the government of Turkey.  As Turkey is the nation that bears the responsibility for the genocide itself, its people are the ones who most need to come clean.  Just imagine what we all would think of the Germans if their government consistently denied that their nation perpetrated genocide against the Jewish people.   That’s what the Turks are doing to their national reputation by failing to give a measure of closure to the descendants of the Armenian victims.  

I have seen different dates given for when the Armenian Genocide ended.  But suffice it to say that we have finally reached a point in history when there likely isn’t a Turk alive who was personally responsible for slaughtering Armenians.   Hopefully, then, contemporary Turkish leaders can look at this matter with a bit more objectivity than their predecessors.  But this also means that they have less of an excuse for continuing the whitewash.  Those who speak for that nation today have a fateful decision to make.  They can continue business as usual and treat the Armenians like an invisible people.  Or, they can stand up for the principles of truth, justice, reconciliation, compassion, peace, and human dignity … and turn the page, as the Germans have done.

Really, all of us have a decision to make.  For we have the opportunity to speak out and attend rallies on this subject, and put pressure on our politicians to do the right thing and not the expedient thing.  The question is simple, really: does protecting the good name of the perpetrators and currying the favors of their descendants mean more than protecting the good name of the victims and treating their descendants with a modicum of respect?   I realize that there are pragmatic reasons to continue to look the other way, but when it comes to denying genocide, pragmatism should have its limits.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Human Dignity

This being Memorial Day, there are few topics worthy of such a sacred occasion.  But recently, I read a book that dealt exclusively with one such topic.  I didn’t agree with everything the book said, but the author made me think, and for that I am appreciative. 

I wrote a short piece in response to that book and delivered it at the final session of this season’s Washington Spinoza Society meeting last Monday.  Here’s a transcript of my talk:

Shameless hypocrites.  Pathological liars.   Fraudsters.  Robbers.  Bullies.  Serial rapists.   Natural born killers.  Agents of genocide.  Deniers of genocide.

Those are just a smattering of the type of people out there who make my topic such a spicy area of interest among political philosophers.  In his recent book entitled Human Dignity, Princeton Professor George Kateb claims that, notwithstanding the variety of people’s behavior and characters, human dignity “turns out to mean in its most common use the equal dignity of every person.”  According to Kateb, “the dignity of every individual is equal to that of every other; which is to say that every human being has a status equal to that of all others.”   Kateb then goes on to say that “[T]he core idea of human dignity is that on earth, humanity is the greatest type of being  … and that every member deserves to be treated in a manner consonant with the high worth of the species.”  For Kateb, one doesn’t have to resort to theology to conclude that humanity transcends nature, for humanity alone is capable of: free agency, moral agency, written language, and self-consciousness.  Human existence and only human existence, Kateb argues, is inward looking and able to create a sense of meaning in life.  To recognize these unique capabilities is to understand that, in Kateb’s words, that “humanity is not only natural, whereas all other other species are only natural,” and “the reasons for this assertion … [have] nothing to do with theology or religion.”  Humanity is so uniquely great, in fact, that all enlightened societies would ground themselves on a system of human rights, which in turn rests on the notion of equal dignity for all.  Or so argues Professor Kateb.

There is much that attracts me to Kateb’s line of thinking.  But there are also elements that put me off.  For one thing, I find it ridiculous that we have to tie our notions of human dignity to the degree of speciesism that Kateb adopts.   I’m no animal biologist, but the idea that humans transcend nature, whereas whales and apes do not, strikes me as bad theology and even worse science.   More to the point, we don’t need to denigrate the great apes or sea mammals in order to elevate the importance of human dignity.  In fact, we don’t even need to assert our superiority over the other residents of this planet – the ones that aren’t threatening climate change and aren’t responsible for threatening the extinction of certain mammals.

Relative to the way he compares humans to animals, Kateb’s statements about the equal dignity of all human beings are much more compelling.  But they still strike me as a bit simplistic.  Let’s take the serial rapists, genocidal maniacs – and the garden-variety politicians I referenced before.   As Kateb acknowledges at one point in his book, when you’re talking about individuals, human dignity can be destroyed based on their conduct.  Hitler is anything but dignified.  To compare him, say, to Heschel in terms of dignity seems to be at least as absurd as any comparison that can be made between a human being and an ape or whale.  I would dare say that as individuals are concerned, the ape or whale would be deemed much more beautiful, less heinous, and in a very colloquial sense of the word, more “dignified” than Hitler, or his Auschwitz henchmen.

In analyzing human dignity, I think it’s important to differentiate between our focus on the individual and our focus on the species.   It may be fair to say that when we look at the species, we see all sorts of qualities that we deem to be exemplary.   And whenever we see an individual, even if we know nothing about that individual, we intuitively recognize his or her potential to manifest those qualities.   We’ve already mentioned a few of them – moral agency, written language, inwardness -- and may I add that human beings are capable of love, compassion, altruism, great feats of scientific and literary prowess.  The list goes on.  

But when we reflect on individuals with whom we’re familiar, it is clear that the reality may be very different.  Not only are human individuals capable of the most heinous crimes, but many aren’t capable of much of any mental activity.  Perhaps they’re in a coma.   Perhaps they’ve had a lobotomy.  Perhaps they were born as dull in the head as Mozart was born brilliant. 

Still, we feel compelled to treat them with dignity.   And the question is, why?  If they have behaved immorally, or if they manifest far fewer mental or physical skills than the typical chimp, why does their membership in our species nevertheless entitle them to rights that we wouldn’t extend to members of other species?   Why do we view mental vegetables and serial killers as deserving of our respect and compassion merely by virtue of their species?

For one thing, we all appreciate very vividly what happens when a society makes a practice of ignoring human dignity for a substantial portion of the population.  The resulting acts of ugliness and immorality are forever etched in our brains.     What’s more, even when we focus on the individual level, and not on the societal or species level, we recognize that when a person is treated as lacking dignity, that person could very well be us – minus a little luck.   In the immortal words of Phil Ochs, “Show me a prison, show me a jail, show me a pris’ner whose face has grown pale, and I’ll show you a young man with many reasons why, there but for fortune go you and go I.” 

But what truly drums in the notion of human dignity is to change the focus – away from the slave owner or heartless bureaucrat who ignore this concept, or for that matter the criminal or homeless person who are being denied its protections.  No, what if we consider this concept instead from the standpoint of the privileged jurist or cleric, or for that matter, the aristocratic poet or ingenou.   These are individuals upon whom fortune has smiled.  Consider now that they are being asked to reflect on what kind of society they wish to live in and in particular what it means to be human in such a society.   Clearly, they will look at the matter from all angles – that of right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and hideous. 

Which perspective dominates their thought, no less than which conclusion they draw, will depend on the person.  But for me, I opt for the aesthetic perspective and what it impels me to do is bestow an inordinate amount of honor on all human beings, even those who don’t deserve it on strictly moral grounds.  You see, I believe that it confers beauty and nobility on our species when we act as trustees for the animals of our planet, regardless of whether they spend their days as hunters or gatherers.  Similarly, I believe it confers beauty and nobility on ourselves and our societies when we elevate what it means to human, regardless of whether the humans we are elevating are gathering what is their due or hunting those who are innocent.  To make laws based on the notion of universal dignity is to honor human potential, human achievement, and human morality – which is frankly the only morality known to me.  I would oppose capital punishment even for those who would relish the opportunity to capitally punish others.  But I would do on the grounds that to uphold that human life is to honor the sacred importance of life generally and human life in particular.   It’s the same reason why I believe that even the laziest among us are entitled to a significant amount of social welfare.   Not just for the sake of them as individuals, but for the sake of our species – for what we represent as creatures who are capable of tremendous joy or suffering, not to mention the freedom of choice.   You see, we are not merely the sum of our past conduct and present character – we are each combinations of person stage (past, present and future), and the lazy bum you see one day can become a constructive member of society at some point down the road.  That assumes, of course, that our society cultivates the dignity that this so-called “bum” possesses throughout his life. 

Ultimately, human dignity is about recognizing all that we have in common – where we come from, where we’re headed, what we look like, what we’re made of, how we experience consciousness … the list is endless.  Some of us are fortunate. Others aren’t.  But let us not allow that fortune to cause us to rank one another when it comes to what it truly most fundamental.  Just as we have no business ranking ourselves vis a vis the birds that fly and the fish that swim, nor is it our place to decide that smart, industrious people are somehow deserving of life, liberty and happiness, whereas the others – well, let ‘em eat cake.  

That perspective is beneath us.  It is one thing to respect individualism as a principle of ethical and political thought.  It’s another to forget that beyond our sense of uniqueness as men or women we have an honored place as members of a species or as expressions of the one God.   You see, Professor Kateb might think that he can derive all of his philosophical beliefs from completely secular, areligious principles.  But I have neither such delusions nor such desires. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Nation That Has Said Goodbye to Proactivity

I sense a pattern.  Prior to 9/11, our intelligence agencies didn’t speak to one another.  We needed the deaths of nearly 3,000 to wake us up to the fact that fighting terrorism requires intra-government coordination and all hands on deck.   Prior to a couple of years ago, little national attention was given to the issue of racial discrimination by local police forces.   We needed to hear about fatal shootings in Missouri, Ohio and other locations before that issue could be placed before the national consciousness.   Prior to the past month, a generation of politicians and mainstream media mavens haven’t bothered to concern themselves with poverty in the inner cities.  We needed riots in Baltimore, prompted by the unexplained death of an African-American male who was held in police custody, before poverty was given one tenth the attention on the national stage that had previously been given to the Kardashians.    

The list goes on.  I would have included the fact that prior to some awful school shootings, we could never summon the national will to support moderate gun control measures.  But even after those school shootings, and even after one poll after another demonstrated strong public support for such reforms as requiring background checks at gun shows, our politicians still have refused to enact those reforms.  In the case of gun control, it would appear that no number of tragedies and no number of deaths can cause us to change our libertine policies one iota.  

But that is an anomaly.   The NRA is unusually powerful – it brooks no dissent, and politicians are afraid of any suggestion that they are wavering on the issue of gun control.  In other contexts, when major tragedies happen, we do tend to respond, at least to a degree.  Most recently, we can see what happened in Philadelphia, when the derailing of an Amtrak train left eight people dead and over 200 injured.  It was revealed that the train was traveling at twice the legal speed limit, technology existed to control a train from traveling at such an unsafe speed, and unfortunately that technology was not being used in the area where the accident occurred.  So now that we’ve been alerted to the situation, our government has taken steps to ensure that  in the near future the proper technology will be used going forward.   Problem solved, right?

Not exactly.   I am frankly appalled that in the most widely traveled train route in the nation with the world’s largest GNP, we had to wait for multiple deaths before we implemented state-of-the-art technology.  An article in the New York Times attributed the failure to implement the technology to “budgetary shortfalls, technical hurdles and bureaucratic rules.”  Yet when Speaker of the House John Boehner was asked about the role of the Amtrak funding cuts, he responded that this was a “stupid question.”  Apparently, even after a terrible accident that exposed our transportation infrastructure as abysmal, the leader of the “People’s House” doesn’t think the media has any place snooping into the issue of whether we are properly funding our nation’s railroad system.   Fortunately for Speaker Boehner, whoever asked the question was clearly out of step with the other members of her profession.   During the years leading up to this horrible crash, the media did virtually nothing to expose the safety hazards of the Amtrak system.   The fact that state-of-the-art technology wasn’t used on these incredibly busy trains should have been common knowledge in America, but the truth is that the public was totally taken by surprise.  In other words, while our transportation infrastructure might be awful, our investigative-reporting infrastructure is even worse.

Perhaps this train crash hit me particularly hard because I am a frequent passenger on that very route.  But I think the larger point should hit home for all of us.  We are not equipped as a nation to confront our worst problems unless and until they result in mass casualties or violence.  Even when we do turn our attention to these issues, it remains to be seen whether we have the patience to persevere in finding a solution.  For example, I have no doubt that the interest in fighting poverty has increased since the Baltimore riots, but I also have no doubt that this interest will wane now that the riots have stopped and the powers-that-be recognize that confronting poverty requires intelligence and commitment, not just rhetoric.   

The idea of waiting for people to die before we even open our eyes to our national nightmares is especially devastating in the area of climate change.  We’ve known about this problem for many years and we know that it is likely to be the greatest scourge on our planet by the end of the century.  What’s more, we’ve been told by countless scientists that any further delays in addressing the issue could have disastrous implications regardless of what we do in the future.  And yet, until we can point to large numbers of deaths here in America and the prospects of an even larger number of American deaths in the near future, I strongly doubt we’ll have the will to do anything meaningful about climate change.  The politicians surely won’t have the will all by themselves, but what’s worse is that our media won’t hold their feet to the fires.  As they did with Amtrak, the third estate will effectively be lying in wait for morgues to fill up with American victims of climate change.  Then and only then are we likely to get to work – putting off to the second half of this century reforms that needed to be in place by the second half of this decade.

I know I sound like Chicken Little.  But I don’t really think the sky is falling.  We live in a world with unforeseen tragedies, but also one of resilience, and I don’t wish to ignore the possibility that many lives will be saved based on developments that are unknown to us now but that are inherent in the laws of nature or can be summoned by the ingenuity of humankind.  So there, you see, the glass may not be totally empty, or even half empty.  Predicting the future is never something that can done with certainty.   Still, it’s hard to think about the great minds and noble spirits of the generations that preceded us and then reflect on the low standards to which we hold ourselves today.  We’ve grown fat, lazy, and self-obsessed.  It’s not surprising that we need to see evidence of people dying in large numbers before our leaders will begin to consider lifting a finger to help.   Otherwise, when prophets come to warn us about the dangers we’re creating, the only finger we’ll be willing to lift is the middle one.  

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Happy Mother's Day

For my mother, today was spent getting picked up at her assisted living home, taken to lunch at the restaurant of her choosing, and relaxing at the thought that her home was getting fixed up so that this week, it can finally be put on the market.    

For my wife, Mother’s Day was largely spent reflecting on her good fortune that this summer, both of our daughters will be home.   One of her daughters has been in school in Israel, the other in Minnesota, and there will be no greater (belated) mother’s day present than having them back under our roof for a while.

But perhaps the greatest Mother’s Day present was given to Hillary Clinton … and the benefactor was Jeb Bush.  First, it is leaked that he told a Jewish audience that his primary advisor on the Middle East and Israeli matters will be his brother, W.   Then, he announces that if he had been President back in 2003, he too would have invaded Iraq.  And yet somehow, he expects the American public to believe him when he says that “I love my father and my brother … but I am my own man – and my views are shaped by my own thinking and own experiences.”

It’s Hillary’s world, and we’re all just living in it.   She can screw up all she wants with respect to evading the State Department e-mail server or avoiding the appearance of impropriety with respect to her State Department activities involving entities that donated money to the Clinton Foundation.  But all those screw ups don’t matter.  Because the bottom line is that the GOP does not seem poised to pit her against an experienced, moderate statesman who is viewed by the public as a forward-looking thinker.   This may be one of those few instances in “sports” when the prevent defense actually works, and Hillary can do little of anything for the next year-and-a-half but smile, take positions that are non-controversial with Dems and Independents, and essentially say – “hey, at least I’m experienced, smart and sane, which is more than you can say about THAT guy.”

So yes, it was indeed a happy Mother’s Day for at least three mothers.  Hopefully, it has been a happy Mother’s Day for the mothers in your life as well.   All the best from the Empathic Rationalist.