Monday, May 31, 2010


Officially, the purpose of Memorial Day is to commemorate members of the military who have fallen in the service of our country, but I thought I’d use this occasion to remember one of my heroes, Ulysses S. Grant, who didn’t die in battle but was of course a great military leader and our 18th president. Years ago I read a couple of biographies and watched a good documentary about the man. My comments here stem from my recollections and so I’ll be more impressionistic than fact-based in this blog.

Grant is first and foremost my hero because without him the North would not have won the war, or least not as soon as it did. Without the war ending in the North’s favor, of course, we’d still have slavery. As I’ll point out below, Grant, unlike, say, the other great Union general from the Midwest, William Tecumseh Sherman, evinced some compassion for the plight of both Indians and blacks. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

When I was a kid my dad bought me a set of illustrated children books on the Civil War. I devoured them. I remember he took me to a Civil War reenactment too. Growing up in California, I was a Union guy all the way, even if a number of my ancestors came from the South. Later, when as a university instructor I taught Western Civilization courses and came to the Punic Wars, I’d often compare the Roman general to Scipio Africanus to Grant and the Carthaginian general Hannibal to Robert E. Lee. I’m not the first one to draw this interesting parallel, and I’ll just sketch out the similarities rather briefly and crassly here. Scipio, a brilliant field commander, had the numbers and resources; he was not afraid to throw men into the battle. Hannibal, commander of the fledgling North African Empire, was a superior strategist who had less troops and armaments but amazingly continued the war for years only to make a last-ditch effort in invading the North (as in the Roman Empire on the southern reach of the European continent). Does this sound familiar, Civil War buffs?

If pressed, I’ll agree that Robert E. Lee was a superior general and an unsurpassed leader of men; yet, Grant was hardly far behind and indisputably the better man. The fact that he was fighting for the right cause informs part of my view here. I understand that Lee was supposedly against slavery but felt an obligation to defend his beloved Virginia.  The fact remains that he supported an evil institution.  Grant's magnanimous reception of a defeated Lee at the Courthouse in Appomattox is the stuff of legend and the eternal exemplar of a face-saving and gracious victory, something the Allies should have looked to after World War I. Moreover, something about Grant’s biography, his flaws, and the hardships he faced draw me to him. Sherman, Grant’s friend and another great general in American history, is different. Though his march to Savannah ended the war sooner than later and handed Lincoln a second election, he deemed African Americans inferior and harbored a genocidal disregard for Indians.

By contrast, Grant as president advocated the so-called “Santo Domingo” policy of annexing the Caribbean island and making it a haven for freed slaves who were experiencing persecution in the postwar years. Ironically, and sadly, self-styled advocates of freedmen in congress rejected the plan because they saw it as a failure of Reconstruction. Under President Grant, African Americans benefited. Under his watch the Fifteenth Amendment gave black men the right to vote, the Ku Klux Klan Act enabled the federal government to deal with this menace, and the 1875 Civil Rights Act of which required “public accommodations” for anyone regardless of race or color. Grant was also seemed generally concerned about the U.S. government’s treatment of Indians and wanted to find a way to end the evil “wars of extermination” (his words). I love Senator Fred Thompson’s portrayal of a humane and reasonable Grant in the excellent 2007 HBO movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

Grant’s fame ultimately rests on his military record. He was a superb general and I’d love to talk about the Battle of Shiloh. For the sake of many readers who might not be as appreciative of military history, however, I’ll focus on Grant’s character. After all, what I love most about Grant has just as much to do with his actions off the battlefield! Granted, he was no prince charming. He was a drunkard, and his appetite for the bottle jeopardized his military career on more than one occasion, most notably during the Vicksburg campaign. Another blemish, I suppose, is Grant’s inability to make money, the consequences of which ultimately led to an impoverished, hardscrabble life and a corrupt presidential administration. Acknowledging his predicament, he called his first home Hardscrabble! His presidency was one of the most corrupt of the 19th century. True enough. But revisionist biographers have rehabilitated his legacy a bit, showing that Grant was more often the unwitting pawn of unscrupulous cabinet officers and businessmen than a scheming greed-driven man.

At the end of his life Grant suffered from throat cancer. Despite excruciating pain, he was determined to get his family out of bankruptcy before he died. In the photo Grant is writing his account of the war on the porch of his home in upstate New York. Though he was no man of letters, his personal memoirs are of high literary quality and he got a hefty sum of money with their publication. Grant was no saint, but when the chips were down in war or at home he rose to the occasion. I’m not a believer in holy men and I don’t hold people to utopian ideals, so I guess that’s the most that can be said of anyone.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Red Badge of Courage

The protagonist in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Henry Fleming, is an anti-hero. He shows cowardice in battle and has to deal with his guilt thereafter. He has other flaws along the way. He becomes angrier at an officer in the heat of battle than the enemy, and he takes some solace in the defeat of his regiment (so that his own flight from the enemy is not so glaring). In general the novel is conveying the reality of war, warts and all. War is utter confusion. Soldiers don’t really know what’s going on from their one-sided perspective on the frontline. They depend on gossip and the less-than-noble decisions of commanders. The author never misses an opportunity to depict individuals as flawed and their perspective myopic. At the beginning of the novel, Jim Conklin, described by the narrator as the “tall soldier,” wrongly predicts the regiment’s actions for the next day. As the battle is about to begin, Wilson, the “loud one,” hands Fleming a packet of personal items because he’s convinced he won’t survive the day; later he’ll sheepishly ask for his effects back.

Crane’s objective in writing the novel, other than an attempt to describe the real experience of war from the grunt’s perspective, is not readily apparent. One can read it as an anti-war statement, I suppose, but it’s never been condemned as such by those in the military. Just because the novel describes the “fog of war”—the confusion and disorientation of a battle experience—and the mistakes and acts of self-preservation that inevitably occur during combat doesn’t make it an anti-war statement; even Teddy Roosevelt, who would press for a war with Spain and lead the charge as an officer in the Spanish-American War, congratulated Crane on his work. Some of those who had participated in the Civil War or who at least knew something of the war could be critical of Crane in points of detail. One Civil War general thought the novel denigrated the heroism and sacrifice of patriots. But as far as I know literary critics didn’t interpret Crane’s book as simply a condemnation of war. As mentioned above, the author, wanting to avoid a conventional war narrative, portrayed Henry Fleming as an anti-hero, someone who would for instance ponder his regiment’s defeat as his personal gain.

Crane wanted to make his account of war less about particular individuals, military strategy or the political issues at stake and more about the experience of war first-hand. He achieves this approach in part by using archetypes. The protagonist is called “the youth.” The omniscient narrator refers to other soldiers as tall, loud, cheery, and tattered. Perhaps Crane’s attempt to generalize the protagonist’s experience and make his portrayal of war archetypal and introspective gave less fodder for critics and activists gleaning the novel for political statements.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Those Crazy Genocidal Maniacs!

I submit to you that most of the brutal dictators and architects of genocide throughout history—Ghenghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Mobutu, Saddam Hussein—were not insane. All of them commingled a pragmatic opportunism with a social utopianism, some inclining in one direction more than the other. Some were more sadistic, and others seemingly dispassionate. I tend to see Hitler, for instance, as an ordinary person who indeed had some peculiarities but whose rise to power resulted from luck, accident, and ambition. In the immediate aftermath of World War I he happened to discover a particular talent for inspiring listeners with a passionate speaking style. The unanswered question in my mind is to what extent Hitler was truly exceptional. Both Hitler-admirers and those who subscribe to the Hitler-was-Satan-incarnate thesis answer this question in the affirmative. I disagree with their points of view. The one group has bought into the well-cultivated Führer Myth hook, line and sinker. Hitler’s followers already started to nurture this myth in the early 1920s, linking Hitler with destiny: he was the right man at just the right time and seemed to possess divinely-ordained courage, insight and wisdom. The other group cannot come to terms with Hitler’s evil without divesting him of his humanity.

When we dehumanize a mass murderer for the purpose of safeguarding our belief in the basic goodness of humanity, especially our own self-image as a good and decent person, we inhibit an honest appraisal of the historical circumstances and consequently arrive at no conclusion that could lead to solutions or offer warning signs for the future. It’s a self-defense mechanism. Any right-thinking person like you and I would never do such a thing; yet, history is replete with murderous dictators and serial killers, who, by all appearances, were ordinary men (women in some rare cases), and, for the most part, they were. That’s the hard truth about humanity. But I’m getting into the arena of opinion and do not want to suggest that this perspective is the proper historical viewpoint. It’s a matter of interpretation that draws upon the historical record as well as our beliefs, fears and hopes about our capabilities and nature this side of paradise. The horror, the horror.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Thoughts on Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle

I spent this spring reading a few American novels and would like to share some of my thoughts on them with you.  The Jungle might be a classic by now, but literary critics have had their issues with it. While reading various views on Upton Sinclair’s novel I came across the idea that the author “hijacked” his own story and even “upstaged his own characters." This option for an essay topic would explore this idea. Part of the reason for this reaction to the novel is that the characters, with the exception of Jurgis, are not fully developed and sort of peter out by the middle of the novel. The fact that the novel originally appears in serial form might be one explanation. Sinclair perhaps didn’t really know in which direction his novel was going or have the details worked out; instead, he was submitting the next segment of the story, piece by piece. Sinclair also imposes himself onto the novel, especially in the ending chapters. His role as advocate, as an activist (for Socialism), undermines his storytelling, and only his great writing ability and attention to details keep the narrative rolling along. The last chapter, it seems to me, best illustrates the author displacing the main character. The long discussion about the merits of Socialism seems rather gratuitous, and certainly utopian, while Jurgis sits in the corner mute. He’s merely an observer in a discussion that the tendentious author, Sinclair, inserted into the story to make his (Sinclair’s) case.

One way of reading The Jungle is to see it as the moral journey of one man, Jurgis Rudkus, who must overcome one tragedy and injustice after another. As I read the novel, I couldn’t help but think of two other books I’ve read: The Book of Job in the Old Testament and Voltaire’s novel called Candide. (Oddly enough, there’s a brief reference to Job and Voltaire in The Jungle!) How does Jurgis handle the onslaught of adversity? What is evil in this novel and how does it affect the lives of people? How does Jurgis overcome the death of loved ones, the awful working conditions, the crooked dealings of others, and the corrupt mixture of politics and big business? I think Sinclair’s depiction of Jurgis is realistic in the sense that the protagonist has and doesn’t come out in flying colors—at least not until he sees the light of Socialist at the end. He becomes worldly wise, takes up a life of crime and becomes a cog in corrupt politics. But, as mentioned, Jurgis will find redemption in the bold promises of Socialism.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Civilized

Humans throughout the millennia have painstakingly created governments, laws, and social structures—collectively known as civilization—to protect us from ourselves. Once in a while a doofus like Rousseau emerges, too clever by half, arguing that civilization has corrupted humankind. Would we be better off without it, living in our pristine state of nature? No, Hobbes had it right: the life of man in a state of nature would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” You'd be better served with a sober view of the human condition and come to the realization that we humans need to be governed.  Bob Dylan, during his Christian phase, had it right in his song Gotta Serve Somebody: "It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, But you're gonna have to serve somebody."

It's vital that governments appreciate the depraved side of humankind, but sometimes regimes use this knowledge for their own nefarious purposes.  A classic case of a pessimistic view of human nature leading to oppressive government is the first Chinese empire about 200 BC or so. The emperor Q'in Shuang-di governed by means of a political ideology that historians today call Legalism. Legalists in this sense were those thinkers who had a negative view of human nature and concluded that government must be heavy-handed to put them in their place. It emphasized negative, not positive reinforcements. (The term "legalist" refers to the idea that rulers could change the laws if need be, and not slavishly adhere to tradition. So if the laws aren't working to keep the people in check, a ruler can change them.)

However, just because one embraces a pessimistic, or at least negative, view of human nature doesn't necessarily mean that one will support an oppressive, authoritarian government. Some of our own founding fathers, for instance, had a rather dim view of human nature. Men like James Madison and John Adams advocated liberty and independence from Britain, but at the same time they were suspicious of "man," and tried to construct a system that accounts for human foibles.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Women Voters in New Jersey: Vengeance is Bittersweet

In the course of the partisan rancor and culture wars that shape our American political scene nowadays, pundits and politicians will occasionally appeal to the Founding Fathers to buttress their respective views. In their hands, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and the rest are either homophobic, slave-owning chauvinist white men or they’re sagacious, enlightened souls who seemingly possessed a preternatural understanding of this nation's future. They’re both pious Christians and atheists of the Enlightenment. Well, whether you see them as reprobates or luminaries, the U.S. Constitution is an amazing document, and oppressed peoples abroad wish their government had an equivalent. This document has put us Americans on a journey toward true democracy ever since. We still have a ways to go, but we’re getting there. How strange it is that half of humanity did not have the right to vote, despite the vaulted claims of freedom and equality in our founding documents. The 19th Amendment of 1920 finally enfranchised women, but it took well over a century of struggle to make it happen.

In the opening years of the 19th century only the state of New Jersey gave women the privilege of voting. Whether it resulted from a hard-won battle fought by Quakers in the southern part of the state or from an oversight on the part of legislators, a law in the state constitution of 1776 extended the franchise to “all free inhabitants” who owned a certain amount of property. This requirement excluded most women and African Americans, but free blacks and white widows and spinsters who met the property qualification needed no convincing to capitalize on the new law. State lawmakers would change their minds over a decade later. No state would again allow women the right to vote until 1890 (Wyoming). Why could New Jersey women vote throughout the Revolutionary Era? Was there a more liberal spirit among the state's legislators who fully realized the implications of the Revolution? And why did women lose the vote? We can find answers to these questions in the specific circumstances of local politics.

Today our political culture is pockmarked with contention between two major parties. In the 1790s there was a bitter dispute between Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton and Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson over the future direction the country should take.* As today, the partisan conflict was as much visceral as philosophical. We tend to think that our present partisan politics are rather nasty: Republicans despised Clinton and Democrats despise Bush. And whatever President Obama’s merits, he hasn’t brought the healing touch of bipartisanship to Washington. But these animosities do not compare with the late eighteenth century. Amid the fear that women would take the reign of power, a larger number of women turned out to vote in the 1800 state elections, some of whom did not meet the property qualifications. The turnout was much higher than the paltry seventy-five or so women in the 1797 election when they voted against the Republican candidate John Condict. The women of New Jersey, it would seem, perceived their political importance in this revolutionary era. Years later a conflict arose between the residents of Newark and Elizabethtown. The 1806 election would determine where to place the proposed country courthouse. This issue brought new voters out of the woodworks and electoral violations were rampant. Ultimately the state legislature decided to reform election procedures in the state. In charge of the reform committee was John Condict who was determined to squash female suffrage. Despite objections from some of his colleagues, he prevailed and women had to wait another century for their national right to vote.

* The Republican, or Democratic-Republican, Party of this period was the forerunner of the Democratic Party founded in the 1830s. Today’s Republican Party, which shares some philosophical tenets with the Federalist Party, was founded in 1856. Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican President of the United States.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Of Pulpits and Primates

I’d like to address ignorant people who pontificate about religion but in reality have not thought through this topic sufficiently. You know what I’m talking about, right? For instance, some individuals will spout off about the Bible without ever having read it. I’m not referring only to those who are hostile toward the Bible. I’m also thinking of those who claim to use the Bible as their guide in life. Do they know, for instance, about the acts of genocide recorded in the Pentateuch and historical books of the Old Testament? Do they know what Elisha the Prophet did to children who made fun of his bald head?  Some people tend to be favorable toward religion, while others have a knee-jerk animosity towards it. So be it. We all bring to the table life experiences and a genetic code that have shaped our thinking about religion. Except for the enlightened few, which of course includes me, a bodhisattva if you will, the majority of those who condemn Christianity have something in common with those who defend it: their claims are more visceral than intellectual. I don't care for the adherents of either camp, for they both succumb to pronouncements about the meaning of God or religion and have done virtually no spadework in this area.  Have they really read the holy texts and sifted through the critical literature?  Have they spent their life in contemplation on these ethereal matters?  If not, why should I value their opinion?

The other day I chanced upon a television documentary on YouTube entitled “The Root of All Evil?” and hosted by Richard Dawkins. The root of all evil? Really? To be fair, and to his credit, Dawkins, I’ve since found out, wasn’t keen on the title and I gather he doesn’t subscribe to this view. Honestly, I admire Dawkins to a degree for his relentless pursuit of the truth, come what may. While those particularly of a religious persuasion find him arrogant, and though Christian apologists like William Lane Craig and Ravi Zacharias fault him for stepping out of his expertise of biology and into the realm of philosophy and religion, he’s doing the Lord’s work, to speak wryly, and forcing at least thoughtful theists, especially Christians in the Anglo-American world, to come to terms with their presuppositions and sharpen their convictions. But this idea that religion is the source of most, if not all, the evils in the world is prevalent.

I don’t believe that religion is inherently or intrinsically violent or tending toward bigotry and hate. I know this view is out there, and I understand why it is. We live in an era of Islamic terrorists and abortion-clinic bombers. One time I developed and co-taught an honors course on religious violence with another instructor. The sociologist whom I teamed up with was a flaming liberal and wanted the students to know it. My objection isn't so much her liberal persuasion but her evident proclivity to proselytize and indoctrinate rather than educate. That is, she wanted to convey to the class at seemingly every turn that religion is a force for evil in the world. I should point out that I disagree with this accepted view not because I’m openly or secretly favorable toward religion; rather, as I'll explain below, my understanding of human nature and culture dictate my thinking here. I've addressed some of my ideas in the blog entitled "Pathetic Primates," for which I received a Nobel Peace Prize; but while I was then discussing morality more widely, here I'm specifically discussing religion.

I make my assessment as an amateur biological anthropologist and a part-time social scientist, and while I’m neither a Darwinist nor a Marxist per se, I often appropriate their insights. What makes humans self-interested and nasty is not religion but our base instincts inherited through the evolutionary process. It's a dog-eat-dog world in this rat-race of an existence, and we're naughty monkeys regardless of preachers, priests and pastors telling us sinful creatures that we ought to be hog-tied and horse-whipped for not living in accordance with the Good Book. Religion is one tool that can be used as a means of domination, but it’s not the cause of hate and xenophobia. These things are hard-wired within us already. Here I’m addressing only the negative aspects of religion and not the positive. So religion and moral codes can be a means to enable certain groups to dominate over others, but, again, a tool is not the cause. So, we could get rid of all the religions in the vain hope that we’d live in a world without war and genocide and hate. However, we’d be clearing the spider webs and not killing the spider: our basic nature. Hobbes, no slouch on questions of human nature, stated in chapter 13 of Leviathan that competition, diffidence, and glory were at the root of conflict in the world. Note that he didn’t say religion.

Think of the genocides of the 20th century. Which of these perpetrating regimes wiped out a people in the name of religion? None. The Turks slaughtered the Armenians under the banner of Turkish nationalism; the Nazis operated under a secular ideology of “blood and soil”; the communist regimes of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot that led to millions upon millions of deaths were officially atheist; and in Rwanda Christians were slaughtering other Christians not because of theological or liturgical differences but in the name of a secular slogan of Hutu Power, the domination of one ethnic group over another. If one wants to argue that these ideologies are really just ersatz religions, as Christopher Hitchens does in his interesting book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, than that would certainly stretch the definition of religion beyond recognition. Even ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, which some have seen as a classic example of religious violence, is upon closer inspection more about cultural fault lines, territory, and a sense of historical injustice.  While religion appears to be the casus belli of the Religious Wars of Early Modern Europe and the ongoing violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East, we can perhaps extrapolate from the aforementioned 20th-century examples that religion, even in these instances, wasn't the real issue; rather, territory, natural resources, women, testosterone, and Hobbesian diffidence were likely the ultimate factors.  Theological disagreement provided merely a penultimate rationale.

What about the Crusades and the Inquisition and Jihad, Der Viator? Surely these nefarious episodes in history stem from religion! Listen. You can enhance, inspire or augment hate with such religious ideology, but xenophobia and egocentrism, the sine qua non of hatred and violence, are already present within us. Do you really think that white settlers would have been content staying put in the East Coast and would have avoided the genocide of North American Indians were it not for "Manifest Destiny" telling them that God wants them to take over the continent from pagan, benighted souls? Do you imagine kings tossing aside their crown and embracing popular sovereignty without the "divine right" concept of monarchy? If so, then, to quote a Judas Priest song, "you've got another thing coming!"

Historians have exaggerated the Christian roots of anti-Semitism  in the Middle Ages. I have students read an account of a pogrom in the 14th century. During the Black Death or outbreak of bubonic plague that swept through Europe after 1347, Christian communities sought scapegoats to account for God’s apparent displeasure with them. The chronicler of Strasbourg reports on the mass burning of Jews and easily gives the impression that their rejection of Christ played less a role in their slaughter than the community’s desire to seize Jewish money (see link below). I’m not saying religion does not factor in, but, again, it’s merely an ideological tool to justify lust for property and goods.

I’d like to reexamine instances of “religious violence” a bit further. I’m well aware of wars fought in the name of creeds and confessions. What better way to silence blasphemers, heretics, infidels and witches than with sword and musket? My area of expertise is the Reformation and, by extension, the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. My dissertation dealt with confessional tension and conflict between Protestant factions in Germany. Egged on by preachers and pastors, people slaughtered each other ostensibly because they differed on theological doctrine or liturgical practice. The key word here is ostensibly. I submit that God and salvation are the penultimate reasons but not the ultimate reasons for the hate and violence. That is, people, men to be specific, are really fighting to take their neighbors’ land, seize their goods, rape their women, and essentially spread their influence in a Darwinian sense—not unlike chimpanzees going on a raid (and what religion they subscribe to is unknown to me). Perhaps a better analogy is one of a superstructure and infrastructure. Religious ideology, just like any secular ideology such as democracy, communism or Nazism, is the superstructure that imposes itself on a firm base, or infrastructure, namely, our natural ethnocentric and egocentric instincts. We assume the ideology is the culprit when more often than not it’s merely a justification, a rationale, for not-so-ideological desires.

The lack of religion being a factor in many modern wars and genocides further fuel my hypothesis. The French Reign of Terror, to use yet another example, stemmed from the highest ideals of democracy and liberty, but it quickly descended into genocidal massacres in the Vendée.  The Jacobins’ persecution and execution of putative counterrevolutionaries had nothing to do with God. As mentioned before, man’s inhumanity to man has not abated in the modern age. If anything, humans have become more secular in the process of marshalling the increasing wealth and technology, a large purpose of which is to kill a greater number of their kin with greater efficiency.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say there are absolutely no instances of religiously-inspired violence. Jim Jones and David Koresh seemed sufficiently intoxicated with their understanding of the Bible and the “end times.”

The Sunnis and Shias in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East hate each other partly on religious grounds. This is true. But the Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds likewise have a troubled history. I would even argue that the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) was less about two Muslim nations fighting over the proper interpretation of the Qur’an or the succession of the caliphs than about Saddam Hussein coveting oil and a waterway to the Persian Gulf. Despite his age and reputation for piety, the Ayatollah Khomeini looked more and more like a vainglorious Persian ruler motivated by hate and pride. He even bought weapons from the infidel, Israel, in order to destroy Saddam. Was it a religious war? For the Iranian martyrs confronting Iraqi tanks with nothing but a grenade it sure was. Certainly the propaganda would depict the battle against Saddam in epic theological proportions. I think it was more about Arabs and Persians hating each other and despising their respective cultures.

People who tend to be hostile toward religion of any kind would say that religion ipso facto is the culprit. The doctrinal foundation itself is faulty. It creates an "us and them" mentality, a sense of inadequacy, a fanatical devotion to an impossible ideal, and the list goes on. The theological framework itself is to blame, not merely the hypocritical and flawed people who profess it. Other critics would say that religion is a good thing, full of ethical precepts and love for one another, etc. However, sometimes those who profess a given religion go astray and use it for evil. Jones and Koresh again come to mind here. Another idea, similarly, is that people hide behind their religion. In this sense, they don’t particularly believe or subscribe to the key tenets of the religion, whatever piety they claim to possess.

One can divide up religious-thinking, for lack of a better word, in many ways. I’ll give you three here: exclusivist, universalist, inclusivist. An exclusivist would say that her religion is the only way that a person can achieve salvation or nirvana or enlightenment. I truly understand this point of view, but one can also see the problem with it. Why didn’t God make this path clear for all to see? So the Hindu born and raised in India will not find salvation in the Christian sense just because he had the misfortune of living in India? Some are universalists.  All roads lead to salvation, they’d say. I’ll never be able to go this route, what with the contradicting claims and concepts of various religions and philosophies out there. It’s a ludicrous form of ecumenism, and besides, don’t let universalists fool you.  Those who espouse a universalist view are disingenuous, for if you probe them enough you'll find that they believe their (pseudo-) universalist belief is the right way.

I used to consider myself an “inclusivist," someone more or less rooted in a particular tradition but not to the exclusion of others. That is, I’d keep an open mind and be critical of my own tradition, even though I’d remain largely within its safe confines. Admittedly, the inclusivist position means less to me now that I’ve entered the agnostic camp more self-consciously in recent years.

My vexing journey from evangelical to non-believer is part of a growing trend in the Anglo-American world, as physicist Victor Stenger has persuasively argued in his book The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (2009).  If there is in fact no God, or gods, then, to use an inane cliché, it is what it is.  Civilization will go on and technology and science, unencumbered by archaic religion and its philistine practitioners, will make leaps forward, as Dawkins and other secular humanists have been calling for.  As iPhone-wielding and highly-caffeinated primates congregated in cities we do not need religion to make us selfish and irritable toward one another.  We've got those traits already covered—except of course me, the selfless bodhisattva who's wholesome and pure.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"We Killed God at Magdeburg"

May 20. The heavens darkened on that day, both morally and literally. I’m talking about Germany in 1631. Unfortunately, the siege of a city was never good for the city’s occupants. One thinks of the Roman legions flattening Carthage almost two millennia earlier, or, if we fast-forward three centuries, Japanese troops in Nanking (1937-8) engaged in perhaps the most sadistic and sickening orgy of rape and murder in the annals of the Homo sapiens. Better yet, to bring it closer to home, I could have focused on Charlie Company entering the hamlet of My Lai on that fateful spring day in 1968.  But today’s May 20, and so I’ve selected as the topic de jour the 17th-century destruction of Magdeburg.

Grim-faced, bloodthirsty mercenaries suddenly burst into the pastor’s home demanding money. On this spring evening a paroxysm of wanton killing and looting enveloped the city; and such loathsome and foul activities are silhouetted against the backdrop of a massive fire that ultimately will consume the city and which eyewitnesses from afar will later report having seen (though not knowing the cause thereof). There they stood: ominous, ravenous thug-soldiers, toting their muskets, accustomed to a steady diet of pillage. Only the courage and resourcefulness of the pastor’s wife saved the hapless family from a dire fate. Perhaps they had paid previous marauders for “protection,” for they had nothing left to give. Upon this revelation one of the gunmen aimed point blank at the pastor, but Frau Thodaeus managed to knock the weapon away from her husband’s head just as he fired it. She yielded the silver fasteners of her girdle to satisfy their unappeased demand for booty. This evidently worked, and they went their way. The Thodaeus family was lucky. One prominent eyewitness, Otto von Guericke, a physicist who would disprove the horror vacui hypothesis, wrote that the invaders went mercilessly from house to house threatening to torture, rape, and kill those poor souls who didn’t pay up.

Simon Prinz, his wife and four children barely got out alive. For a fee, a lieutenant-colonel agreed to escort them safely out of the city, but even he had a difficult time persuading sentries at the Sudenburg Gate to let them through. For a time the family had to separate, and Prinz, who had served hours earlier as a gun captain defending the city, found himself in what must have been both a stressful and surreal situation, drinking a toast with Imperial officers in their encampment just to survive.

Jürgen Ackermann, an officer in an Imperial regiment, gives us the invaders' perspective.  Plied with alcohol to man themselves up for the attack, Ackermann and his fellow soldiers were in the initial assault.  Having entered the city with their storm ladders, they didn't waste time plundering, even before it was safe.  "The fighting in the streets, some of which were obstructed with chains, had so exhausted our nine attacks, each by 3000 men, that we could scarcely gasp."  Fortunately for Ackermann, Imperial troops broke through the walls allowing the cavalry to chase after the city's cavalry with trumpets blaring.  According to his account, they were under orders to set fire to homes so that the residents would put away their weapons to extinguish the flames.

The destruction of the Protestant stronghold, Magdeburg, on 20 May 1631 was an especially horrific event in the minds of contemporaries. Considering the fact that the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was up until that time the worst war in European history in terms of casualties, weaponry, geographic extent, and number of combatants, we should take note when chronicles, broadsheets, diaries, letters, and pamphlets single out an event as particularly disturbing. Most historians agree that Germany took over two centuries to recover from the War, but Magdeburg, one of the largest cities in Germany at the time, became a perennial casualty, as it has ever since been a middling-sized city. I won’t get into the minutiae of this complicated war, but a few background details are necessary.

Though the war had many phases, by the early 1630s the principal combatants on each side were the Holy Roman Empire and Sweden. The latter, under the brilliant tactician King Gustavus Adolphus, the “Lion of the North” and a stalwart Lutheran, hoped to seize territory in Northern Germany and raise the banner of Protestantism. Count Tilly, the Field Marshall for the Imperial Army, laid siege to the city for months, knowing its symbolic importance and its strategic value. Located on the Elbe River, Magdeburg would provide a launching pad for the coming contest against the Swedish army. Moreover, the city had been daring enough to form an official alliance with the Swedes.  On that fateful day in May Tilly’s subordinate commander Gottfried Heinrich, the count of Pappenheim, perhaps against his wishes, stormed the city walls. The attack quickly descended into barbarity

In retrospect Tilly should have known what would happen. The residents of Magdeburg had taunted the imperial troops for months, refusing Tilly's offer of a chance to surrender. Moreover, in this final War of Religion, religious passions and sectarian hate were an extra motivating force for soldiers. The enemy's cruelty, writes Otto von Guericke, was "due in part to their common hatred of the adherents of the Augsburg Confession." The invaders seemed more devoted to Mammon than God, however; every eyewitness account attests to the looting as a priority.  The Imperial army consisted largely of mercenaries from various ethnic groups and nations. They probably had little loyalty to the Emperor. No. It was payback time, and the rank-and-file soldier wanted his due. With fire and sword wreaking their havoc, the loss of life was catastrophic. The evidence suggests that the imperial troops torched the city; 20,000 inhabitants and a number of invaders who didn’t get out in time would perish on that godforsaken day.

I know of only one movie set in the Thirty Years War—The Last Valley (1970)—and would like to cite some lines from it. It’s a movie, not a documentary, but sometimes fiction speaks more to the truth than the facts. A ragtag group of mercenary soldiers decide to take over a village tucked away somewhere at the foot of the German Alps and lay low throughout the rest of the war. Though the flick has plenty of cheesy moments, in the most poignant scene the ruthless, battle-hardened commander played by Michael Caine reflects on the toll of war. A captive who lost his family at Magdeburg asks “the Captain” if he feels close to God in this idyllic and tranquil valley. In a German accent, Caine spits back with furrowed brow some amazing lines and perfectly delivered:

Don’t talk to me of God. We killed God at Magdeburg. We laid that city flat…butchered men, women and children…20,000, 30,000. And then we burned the lot. [Why?] Vengeance. You know, that was vengeance for one of our cities…which was vengeance for one of their towns…for one of our villages, for one of their hamlets…which was probably destroyed in the first place to give some fat little princeling a better view of the Rhine. Magdeburg is that simple….We all have things we would like to forget. Magdeburg is mine.

So what did the sack of Magdeburg accomplish?  In the short-term it hurt the Holy Roman Empire, for some of the Protestant princes who had been unwilling to side openly with Sweden overcame their reservations.  The destruction of a city that had stood against the Emperor's forces a century earlier weighed heavily on Protestant Christendom, and broadsheets and songs called for vengeance.  With the same technical savvy that had spread the Reformation far and wide in the 16th century, Protestant printers got the word out.  Unfortunately, the massacre of a garrison or small town was par for the course in European warfare before the modern era.  Never mind that the great conflagration that probably killed most of the people on that day was probably an accident.  The destruction of a great city like Magdeburg was an anomaly, but the "land of poets and thinkers" would not really know the meaning of destruction until a few centuries later.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Great American

Once in a while, dear reader, I like to single out a biped mammal who's inspired me by going above and beyond the mass of humanity, that is to say, selfish and naughty primates like you and me, and adhering to their principles despite the cost.  In the darkest hour they were not found wanting.  The testimony of their life, or at least the definitive moment of their moral choice, shines a penlight on the pervasive Cimmerian gloom of the human condition.  I’ve written about Miep Gies who hid Anne Frank and her family during the Holocaust; Romeo Dallaire, who shook hands with the devil in Rwanda; Chiune Sugihara, who helped Jews escape Lithuania from the clutches of the Nazis.  We know much less of Anne Hutchinson apart from a trial transcript and a few scattered documents here and there.  We also don't know what she looked like, despite the fanciful renderings of her defiant countenance by artists over the centuries, including the sculptor of her monument (pictured above) that stands at the State House in Boston.

Anne Hutchinson was forty-six years old in November of 1637 when she was called before Governor John Winthrop (pictured below) and about forty Bay colony magistrates in the meetinghouse of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The setting was a bit unusual, for trials in the colonies never before had a female defendant. The witch trials were yet to occur. She in fact was not allowed to have legal counsel. The ultimate cause of this ordeal, it would appear, was Anne’s “presumption” to interpret the Bible on her own, question the ministers’ spiritual authority, and gather a popular audience in the process. When Anne decided to hold weekly meetings for women at her home to discuss the bible and theology, it did not take long for her to draw a large audience that included husbands as well. Consequently, the trial brought together matters of theology, biblical interpretation, church authority, and the role of women in Puritan society. Anne had two supporters among the New England clergy, the renowned theologian John Cotton and her bother-in-law John Wheelwright, but unfortunately they could not present a proper defense in this quasi-legal proceeding.

The trial was masterminded by Winthrop, whose house was located directly across the street from Anne’s and who was likely smarting over her popularity. He was alarmed that a woman should exhibit what we would call leadership skills and intellectual acumen but what he would consider craftiness and haughtiness. Winthrop’s opposition to Anne, however, was not merely personal. The Bay Colony had not even existed for a decade before the Crown, concerned about radical religious change and political discontent, threatened to revoke the charter. Moreover, the New England settlers had been fighting a gruesome war with the indigenous people for months. As the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, “a city on a hill,” Winthrop had to walk a tightrope between the establishment of a Puritan republic and the maintenance of order and discipline. The “Puritans” were so called because they wanted to purify the Anglican Church of any vestiges of the Catholic faith. This religious dispute between mainstream Protestants (Anglicans) and radical Protestants (Puritans and Congregationalists) centered on both theology and liturgy. Both Winthrop and Hutchinson were among those venturesome Puritans who had the means and the religious conviction to leave their homeland in search of a New Jerusalem.  But in all due respect, Winthrop was a prick.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


I’ve written about ethnic cleansing in the Balkans before. I keep coming back to it, I suppose, because I’m engaged in a writing project that touches upon this recent episode in history. More generally, though, I find this descent into savagery and evil intrinsically fascinating.  We're not talking about an event in the Dark Ages, nor are we referring to an impoverished thugocracy in sub-Saharan Africa.  Only fifteen years ago Europe experienced the worst act of genocide since World War II.  The disintegration of Yugoslavia just after the Cold War reminds us that barbarity and ethnic hatred can easily break through the veneer of civilization when the conditions are "right."

European statesmen created Yugoslavia after World War I. It means “Land of the Southern Slavs” and refers to the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and a host of other groups. These groups are Southern Slavs, as opposed to the Western Slavs (Czechs, Poles, Slovaks) and Eastern Slavs (Russians and Ukrainians). The southern Slavs have a grim history of ethnic hatred, interrupted at times with periods of peaceful coexistence; the cosmopolitan city of Sarajevo in Bosnia has exceptionally been a tranquil melting pot of Balkan cultures.

World War II once again unleashed these bestial animosities. Serbs formed military units like the notorious Chetniks to fight the Nazis. Croat forces under a dictatorial government formed the Ustashe. Finally, some Bosnian Muslims came together in a Yugoslav SS unit. The legacy of these violent years would lie dormant during the 40-odd year rule of Marshall Tito who, thanks to his secret police and cult of personality, managed to put a lid on the ethnic hatreds. By 1990, a decade after Tito’s death and immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall, things started to unravel, helped in no small part by Slobodan Milosevic, a communist bureaucrat who saw which way the wind was blowing and therefore exchanged his socialist clothing for Serbian nationalist garb. Serbs remembered the atrocities of the Ustashe; Croats and Muslims never forgot the crimes of the Chetniks. The Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladić, a war criminal still hiding somewhere in Serbia, lost his father in World War II.  He's pictured below in uniform sitting next to former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadžić.

The term “ethnic cleansing” is a euphemism referring to the violent removal of a people from a region. Though it emerged in the context of Bosnia, it’s technically not quite apt. The Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims are of the same ethnicity; they’re all of Slavic, or Slavonic, descent. What differentiates them is their cultural and religious differences: Serbs are largely Eastern Orthodox Christian, Croats and Roman Catholic, and Bosniaks are Muslim.

Pundits and historians at the time (and since) have talked about “ancient tribal hatreds” as a background to the violence. This centuries-long problems in the region give us important background, provided one should does not exaggerate the long-term causes at the expense of more recent political events. At the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 Ottoman Turk forces defeated Serbs and began to take over parts of the Balkans. Some Slavic groups converted to Islam in the 14th and 15th centuries (Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims), while others remained Christian (Serbs, Croats). This battle is kind of like the Alamo in U.S. history. Though a defeat, the conflict serves as a symbolic confrontation between virtuous Serbs and evil Muslims. Moreover, the “cult of Serbian victimhood” arose at this time. Serbs have often defined themselves as the victims of history. One can’t blame them too much for feeling this way; after all, various empires—Ottoman, Habsburg, Austro-Hungarian, Nazi, and Russian—had controlled their fate. Nonetheless, one could legitimately argue that they have exaggerated their victimhood—a “victimhood” that has led to the deaths and torture of other groups. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries Serbs had aspired to create a Greater Serbia that would unite the far-flung Serbians throughout the Balkan Peninsula. Slobodan Milosevic, or Slobo, as some affectionately called him, was the latest Serb demagogue to promote this agenda.

The Bosnian War (1992-1995) involved three different groups fighting each other at different times: (1) the Muslims (sometimes referred to as Bosniaks or even Bosnians); (2) Bosnian Serbs (that is, ethnic Serbs who lived in Bosnia but had cultural ties to Serbia, the motherland, on the eastern border); (3) Croats or Croatians (or more precisely Bosnian Croats, who were ethnic Croats living in Bosnia and likewise had cultural affinities with the mother country, Croatia). For a while, the Croats fought the Serbs. Then they both teamed up against the Muslims. Then, the Muslims and Croats teamed up against the Serbs. In the course of the mid Nineties these groups fought a war, committed mass rape, tortured prisoners, drove people from their homes, and confiscated property and wealth. Who’s to blame? We would be doing an injustice to say, simply, that they’re all equally to blame. Indeed, we would be committing the fallacy of moral symmetry. The Serbs were the principle aggressors. Moreover, they had unfair advantage: the resources of the Yugoslav Army were largely in the hands of the Serbs. After all, Belgrade in Serbia was the federal capital of Yugoslavia. To make matters worse, the international community (i.e., the United Nations, United States, European Union) put a ban on weapons imports. This act hindered the Bosnians (i.e., Muslims) who had few weapons and resources against the well-armed Serbs. (Both Bosnian Serbs and Serbs from Serbia proper participated in the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia.)

An American general once said: “Dealing with Bosnia is a little bit like dealing with three serial killers—one has killed 15, one has killed 10, one has killed five. Do we help the one that’s only killed five?” True enough. I like the quote because it conveys the moral dilemma. No-one was immune from committing atrocities. Nonetheless, we should distinguish between those who instigated the violence and produced most of it (Serbs) from those who acted largely in defensive actions (Bosnians, and to a lesser extent the Croats).

Monday, May 17, 2010

Great Scott!

My wife and I watched the new Ridley Scott film Robin Hood featuring a star-studded ensemble cast and plenty of medieval violence.  I have a few rules when it comes to selecting and viewing a movie.  If it contains vampires or zombies or men in tights, I'm out.  Robin Hood wouldn't usually tickle my fancy, what with self-righteous dandies like Errol Flynn and Kevin Costner prancing around; they might hold the ladies' interest but do nothing for me.  This portrayal of Robin Hood is different.  Scott is my favorite director of all time, hands down.   His work speaks for itself: Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Hannibal, 1492, Gladiator, American Gangster, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven.  Need I say more?

Scott's Robin Hood gives us the historical backdrop.  We learn that Robin Hood has a name and a past, Robin Longstride whose father became a martyr against tyranny; and we see him at the outset of the film as an archer in Richard the Lionheart's army as it returns from the Third Crusade.  Often Robin Hood stories depict the latter as a righteous (absentee) king, but the historical facts state otherwise and the film addresses this history.  Richard I, brilliantly portrayed by Danny Huston, was a spendthrift who emptied the realm's coffers for his vainglorious exploits abroad.  The Holy Roman Emperor held him as a captive until his family paid a healthy ransom for his return.  He died rather ignominiously while storming a castle in France.  Scott and the screenwriters convey their own feeling about the king's martial prowess when in one poignant scene Robin Longstride informs King Richard that his slaughter of innocent Muslims in the Holy Land will gain him no favor with God.

William Hurt and Max von Sydow play barons whose opposition to King John's wicked reign would lay the foundation for the Magna Carta of 1215.  Historians point to this document as the cornerstone of democracy, even if they're just as quick to remind us that the barons were simply looking out for their own interests and cared not a wit for commoners and peasants.  At any rate, I got goose bumps just thinking about the "charter" mentioned throughout the film, and Scott's sense of history and drama are at work here.  Moreover, there's a twist at the end.  You think King John is going to sign the thing, but he defiantly burns it before the aghast onlookers, thereby setting up another fifteen years of struggle for basic freedoms and perhaps a sequel to the movie as well.

We of course get the stock characters from the Robin Hood saga—Maid Marian, Little John, Father Tuck, and the Sheriff of Nottingham—but with greater character depth.  Above all, we see Robin Hood (who doesn't really receive this epithet until the end of the film) in a larger political context, with the collection of taxes, divine right theory of kingship, a would-be French invasion, and the grime and filth of daily living providing the cold realties of 12th-century England.  I would like to single out two of the supporting cast: the 6'6" Kevin Durand who plays Little John and the ubiquitous bald-headed Mark Stone, likewise tall, who seems to play the villain in every quality movie these days.  These actors have quite a stage presence.

From what I can gather from the internet and DVD special features, Scott possesses the attributes that I value in anyone and that no doubt make him an exceptional director.  His attention to detail and high standards are notorious.  I read somewhere that some of his favorite movies include Lawrence of Arabia and Seven Samurai, great flicks noted for their historical detail.  He oversees every aspect of the film from the props to the music.  Hans Zimmer often writes the score for Scott's films in close coordination with the director.  Scott and his cinematographers have the ability to encapsulate a larger complex issue in only a brief scene.  I think of a 40-second scene in Black Hawk Down which gives extra perspective on the coming battle of Mogadishu later in the day.  An aerial camera zooms in on a muezzin atop a minaret while mujahideen below pray on the beach with their Kalashnikov rifles before a spectacular rising sun.

I even appreciate those times when Scott's making a statement, as mentioned above when Robin Hood tells the king of his misdeeds during his Crusade; I wouldn't extend this appreciation to other directors.  Another instance is in Kingdom of Heaven, an epic likewise set during the Third Crusade. Scott wants to give Muslims a fair shake.  Saladin is a noble character and unlike his Christian counterparts is quite merciful.  True, Scott might have gone too far in depicting all Christians as greedy and rapacious, but I still appreciate the corrective.  Balian, the main character played by Orlando Bloom, evinces the same agnostic outlook as Scott.  Who knew?

The teaming up of Scott and Russell Crowe is a match made in cinematic heaven, as far as I'm concerned.  They've collaborated on five films, and I've seen three of them to date.  When I saw Gladiator some ten years ago I didn't know who Crowe was.  My sister recommended the film to me, but ancient Rome on the big screen evoked images of Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, cheesy outfits, and exaggerated Shakespearian mannerisms.  Like many other viewers (especially male, I suspect), the movie was fantastic from beginning to end and it contains one of the most memorable and inspiring statements in recent cinematic history ("My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius...").  Notwithstanding a few liberties in the opening battle sequence, including the use of Korean bows and English long bows, these twenty minutes are vintage Scott in terms of cinematography, music, drama, and historical gravitas.  Both General Maximus and the actor who portrays him are in their finest hour.

With Alien and Blade Runner Scott set the bar to a higher level.  He masterfully weaved the sci-fi, political thriller and horror genres together.  Unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, say, he brought a street-level reality to space.  The future is no less grimy and seedy than the present.  Also, these films give us a Scott trademark: strong female characters.  Likewise, Robin Hood presents us with a Marian wielding a sword and girded for battle.  By the way, another distinctive feature of Scott's work the omission of a sex scene.  He was once said that sex is boring unless you're doing it, or something to this effect.  Admittedly more of a romantic type, I appreciate leaving this sort of thing to the viewer's imagination.

I'm a big fan of the Hannibal Lecter franchise.  Silence of the Lambs and the sequel Hannibal are both great movies.  Some devoted fans might argue that the latter doesn't equal the former, but I say they're apples and oranges.  It takes a top-notch and imaginative director to make a sequel commensurate with the original.  Likewise, James Cameron's follow-up to Scott's Alien, Aliens, manages to do this more or less.  (Incidentally, it seems that Cameron and Scott exhibit the same dedication to their craft, personality quirks, and, gauging from their names, ethnic background.)

I still hope Scott will someday take on the Thirty Years War in typical Scott-fashion.  I understand that there are a number of great directors out there.  (Scott is the most successful British director in Hollywood history, I should note.)  Picking a favorite inevitably has something to do with the type of movies we like.  Scott has become a master in recreating large-scale battle sequences, but his repertoire is quite diverse.  When he directs or produces a film, pay attention.  It'll probably be good.  He knows how to draw the viewer into the world of the movie as if you're experiencing the drama yourself.  After watching Robin Hood, I just wanted to shoot the shit with Father Tuck as we poured each other a goblet or two of mead and got blinded out of our minds.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Decretum Horribile

The question of free will is a thorny one, full of hazards and pitfalls, and many wayfarers have been snared. It's ultimately a philosophical question. To what extent do we freely choose our destiny? To what extent is our destiny, or at least the parameters of choice, determined? This philosophical problem becomes a theological problem when one throws God in the mix. In the end Christianity and the other Abrahamic faiths before and after it conclude with the paradox: it's both. Some have emphasized one over the other perhaps. I suppose the extreme form of "double" predestination (often associated with Augustine and Calvin) is that those destined to heaven or hell is predetermined in the mind of God before the foundation of the world. Calvin called this a "decretum horribile," the horrible decree. It's clearly an unpleasant thought and seems unfair, absurd, even malevolent. The basic reason why someone would take this view—and of course they always put themselves in the "saints" (Elect) not the "aints" (Reprobate) category—is to preserve the basic concept of God. God is omniscient and omnipotent. That being the case, how could anything ever happen in this world that God didn't know about? If God is ever "surprised" by something that we do, some choice that we make from our free will, then God would not be God, as we understand the term. It's an attempt to be logical and apologetic to the Christian faith, but such logic comes at a price.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Modern Antisemitism

Modern antisemitism emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After the Enlightenment religion began to lose its grip on at least the intellectual elite. However, their opposition to the Jews did not diminish. Voltaire, the towering thinker of the 18th century, expressed his animosity to the Jews: “I would not be in the least surprised if these people would not some day become deadly to the human race.” The old theological antisemitism of Latin Christendom that depicted Jews as Christ-killers meant little to modern thinkers and statesmen. Socioeconomic-based antisemitism still persisted, but more so in Eastern Europe, where millions of impoverished Jews resided than in comparatively Judenfrei Western and Central Europe, where antisemitism was more ideological.

In the Imperial Age of the late 19th century, a race-based antisemitism developed from Social Darwinian ideas about the “survival of the fittest” and from early genetic theory. Consequently, Jews (and other races deemed inferior) were defined by their blood, not religion or culture. This non-Aryan blood was a pollutant that had sapped Europe of its pristine greatness through miscegenation, the original sin for any racist thinker. Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau’s views on the inequality of the races applied biological evolution to civilizations. Houston Stewart Chamberlain (pictured), an Aryan theorist and one of Hitler’s heroes, specifically related the cosmic struggle of civilizations to a contest between Jews and Aryans in his widely-read book, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century:

Let us attempt a glance into the depths of the soul. What are the specific intellectual and moral characteristics of this German race? Certain anthropologists would fain teach us that all races are equally gifted; we point to history and answer: that is a lie! The races of mankind are markedly different in the nature and also in the extent of their gift, and the Germanic races belong to the most highly gifted group, the group usually termed Aryan.

In the days of yore a persecuted Jew might have had the option of converting to Christianity. Such a public act would not end the misery of humiliation, shame and discrimination, but at least it could stave off an auto-de-fé. Racial antisemitism, however, offered no redemption to the Jew. It took its darkest form under the Nazis. For Hitler and Himmler, to be a Jew was to inherit racial characteristics; only extermination, not conversion, could solve the Jewish Question and protect the Aryan race.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Wonder Woman

The picture shows the first All Star Comics issue of Wonder Woman in 1941. According to Emily Yellin's nifty book Our Mothers' War, Dr. William Moulton Marston, creator of the female superhero, was a feminist who wanted to provide girls with a strong female character. Like Superman, who first appeared in Action Comics three years earlier, the Amazon princess a.k.a. Diana Prince would slug it out with the Nazis during the war years, as the cover above illustrates. Unfortunately, despite these magnificent feats, extensive powers, and an ever-growing readership, the male superheroes relegated her to the status of secretary in the prestigious League of Justice. Alas! The comic book, like fiction in general, can often mirror the real world. Nonetheless, girls of the Depression era and the early baby boom generation had a female role model of strength and character.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


I watched my youngest daughter play upright bass in jazz band today. Ben, the band teacher, and his students toured a few elementary schools to promote the music program at Monika's middle school and encourage the next year's freshmen to take up band.  They played about six or seven tunes.  My daughter and one of the saxophone players impressed me most.  I joined the “tour” after my optometrist appointment at noon and helped carry the drums and whatnot. Lugging this gear into the bus reminded me of those halcyon days as a keyboardist for a progressive metal band. Good times.

We named Monika Katherine after St. Augustine’s mother and Katherine Zell, a sixteenth-century Protestant woman who aided and abetted the Reformation. My fetish for the letter K is also a culprit here (my other daughters are Erika and Jessika). Her birthday is leap year day, February 29, and we joke about celebrating it only once every four years. Sometimes I think she inherited my temperament, but then again she’s more analytical and logical, or “left brain,” than me. Unlike my middle daughter Jessika, she’s not a ham; she’s content with being behind the scenes. Since infancy, it seems, Monika has been fascinated with games; she has a knack for numbers and establishing patterns. The other day she beat me at cribbage in her first game ever! If nothing else, her interest in books, attention to detail, and non-brown eyes make her a chip off the old block.

Last Sunday I watched her play soccer. She’s best as a defender and is a decent goalie. I played soccer (and baseball) back in the day too, but I was never great. She’s gifted, and she’s taken up tennis too. She’s the type of kid who's bright and excels at the particular hobbies or extracurricular activities she decides to pursue.  With her smarts and all, my only concern is that she walk in humility and not become too impatient with all the idiots and imbeciles out there.

In a way she's not an ordinary kid.  For instance, I like the fact that she would sit and watch old episodes of Columbo on Netflix with me.  Though I loved this show as a kid, I think we both ended up thinking that the show, usually clocking in at 75 minutes or so, runs too long and drags a bit by today's TV standards.  We prefer the show Monk, which also features a quirky detective who exhibits the same acumen and seemingly preternatural ability to solve crimes as does Poe's brilliant creation C. Auguste Dupin.

Those of you who have two children, or even two cats, no doubt think they're opposites.  One's extravert, the other's introvert, or whatever the case may be.  It gets more interesting when you have a third kid.  Will she exhibit the same temperament and personality as one of her older siblings, or will she represent an independent third category?  My take is that each of our daughters has her own unique temperament, but, then again, I'm the parent saying this.  I swore I would never write a blog in praise of my kids.  Who other than a parent wants to read about that, huh?  That's something mothers would do; as a rule, fathers tend to be more objective about their children's merits and demerits and more self-conscious about trumpeting their children's achievements to others.  If I'm going to hear about little Jimmy's prowess on the football field or Jennifer being the valedictorian, I'd much rather hear about it from a non-parent.  So I understand if my glowing description of Monika turns some of you off.  My wife, mother-in-law and perhaps a few female readers, I suspect, might appreciate a blog like this one for a change, though.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The New Black (2/2)

I'm mildly peeved, y'all. First of all, you know I'm peeved when I employ the atavistic contraction y'all, as if I'm reaching back to my Texan forefathers. And I say mildly because I'm not surprised. My anger has finally motivated me to write the second part of this blog. Readers will refer to March 20 for the first part. The school psychiatrist suggested that my daughter Jessi take some medication to help her with anxiety at night. To her credit, Jessi responded to her mother regarding this counsel with something like, "The best medication I need is summer vacation and it's almost here.” Way to go, Jessi!

What is this epidemic of mental ailments and disorders? I realize that I’m not the first one to question the efficacy of anti-depressants in our modern age. I’m not the first one to wander how homo sapiens for millennia got along without the pharmaceutical industry.  Last semester a student in my class periodically pointed out that historical figures like Churchill and Lincoln achieved great things in spite of their mental handicaps.  What she was really saying was that they suffered from Bi-polar Disorder just like she did.  Little did she know she was getting my goat many times over with her self-centered comment.

British psychoanalyst Darian Leader in his book The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression is speaking my language.  The subtitle of caught my eye at Barnes and Noble.  He argues that the treatment of "depression," a catch-all term that really masks a number of issues, has become a quick-fix designed to line the pockets of companies and also satisfy the demands of a public looking for easy solutions to deeply-embedded problems. We don’t want to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work of analysis, reflection, and diagnosis; rather, we’re content with throwing anti-depressants and quick-fix therapies at the problem. He writes that

we want to avoid the labour of exploring our inner lives, which means that we prefer to see symptoms as signs of some local disturbance rather than difficulties which concern our whole existence. Being able to group our feelings of malaise, anxiety or sadness under the blanket term ‘depression’ and then take a pill for will naturally seem more attractive than putting our whole life under a psychological microscope.

That we live in a quick-fix culture is no revelation, but such impatience is most lamentable in matters related to mental health. Our healthcare industry would much rather throw drugs and surface-level therapies at deep-seeded and complex issues that are particular to each individual. Physicians, psychiatrists and cognitive therapists are seemingly content with “observable behavior,” deft at pinpoint a symptom and even removing it but inattentive to the root cause. Leader gives the example of an anorexic woman who would stop eating once she reached ninety-nine pounds. This number had particular significance after hearing someone remark about her deceased grandfather weighing no more than nine-nine pounds in the casket. Leader imagines a cognitive behaviorist ignoring these details and instead determining ways (such as keeping a diary) to eradicate the behavior. “Her symptoms,” he writes, “expressed less a cognitive mistake than a subjective, personal truth, involving her identification with the devastated image of the grandfather.” Both therapy and drugs, it would seem, prevent many people from overcoming their depression or at least identifying the causes thereof. Keep in mind, dear readers, that I am an advocate of medication when it comes to schizophrenia and similar pathologies of a serious (and sometimes violent) nature.

How people cope with depression is a touchy topic to be sure. I wouldn’t venture into this forbidden terrain for no reason. Truth is, I’ve come across too many individuals who’ve highly recommended that I think about medication for myself. I don’t intend to be insensitive to those of you who suffer, or at any rate feel you suffer, from a disorder or imbalance of some kind. Prescription medicine, I submit, will help you clear the spider webs at best, but you’ll never squash the spider. To stay with the metaphor for a moment, be prepared to have more webs in the future. You might argue that anti-depressant drugs help you cope with the problem; they enable you to manage the depression better. Fine. You must honestly ask yourself, however, whether you’re better off with the drugs than without them. You should also recognize that drug companies have a vested (read: financial) interest in manufacturing and promoting their product. The pharmaceutical industry funds most of the so-called “objective” research into the safety and efficacy of drugs on the market. These drugs are not as specific as the experts and advertisements claim, and they laud the benefits, or perceived benefits in some cases, over the nasty side effects. These factors do not mean that drugs have no validity whatsoever, but they should give you pause.

Though I’m in general agreement with Leader with regard to our postmodern conception of depression and its marketplace value, I’m weary of his more theoretical discussion, especially as he interprets the work of Freud, Karl Abraham, Melanie Klein and Jacques Lacan. For instance, I find his interpretation of melancholy fascinating, but I’m not convinced that he’s actually accounting for the reality of the situation. I sometimes get this same impression with literary critics who appear to be too clever by half.

I would like to highlight some insights with which I happen to concur or resonate with me. He makes a distinction between truth and the facts. His point is that too often therapists and physicians take the latter for the former. Leader argues that “most conventional forms of healthcare” stay at the surface level and ignore the unconscious workings of the mind. Similarly, my perspicacious friend John has often noted the difference between nonfiction reporting the facts and fiction conveying the truth. One example he gives a couple of times in the book is a boy who would go inside a suitcase after the death of his father. Ostensibly this is bizarre behavior, and the fact is that he’s confined in a suitcase. But Leader suggests the truth of the matter is that he was lying in a coffin like his deceased father.

Bouncing off of Freud and psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, Leader suggests that the melancholy is still living with the dead, unable to let a loved on go and thereby inhabiting two worlds at the same time. Having a foot in both is a source of much consternation and pain. Consequently, the melancholy has a surreal sense of solitude and feels detached from the life he or she is living in the real world. The grieving process, writes Leader, should involve a killing off of the dead, as it were, so that one left behind in this world can go on. Melancholic individuals, however, do not engage in this process but instead die with the dead on a continual basis. I’m not sure I buy into this conception of melancholy. Leader is making the mistake that social scientists too often make: they tend to overemphasize nurture over nature. They don’t pay heed to the biological sciences which tell us that genetics play a key role.