Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Perennial Problem

I just watched The Dark Knight Rises!  I’m still processing how great it was, and why, going over in my mind the large ensemble cast, the brilliant screenplay, and the spectacular mise-en-scène.  I’m not an action movie kind of guy nowadays, less so when it comes to the well-trod superhero genre, but it was the best flick I’ve seen in ages.  I’m not here to talk about Batman, though.  As my wife and I were sitting in the theater, enjoying our caffeinated beverages and dark chocolate cookie, I couldn’t help but think about the victims of the now-infamous shooting at a premiere showing of the movie nearly two weeks ago in Aurora, Colorado.  I could easily picture the scene then as I looked around the theater tonight: boyfriends putting their arm around their gals; girlfriends resting their hand lovingly on their guys' thigh; teens munching on their popcorn and candy, lost in the magic of the silver screen.  Then evil enters the theater.  I say evil, an evil man, not a crazy or even deranged person: wickedness in the shape of a masked twenty-four-year-old loner wielding a lot of weaponry and a need for power and recognition.  As I was getting dressed for work yesterday with the news on, CNN was previewing a segment entitled “Where was God in Aurora?” that would show after the commercial break.  I didn’t stick around, but I know the topic well.  Ah yes, the ole “Problem of Evil,” a moral conundrum that has a venerable tradition and has left behind an equally long history of unsatisfactory answers: How does one reconcile belief in a benevolent, providential God with the existence of such evil in the world?

The eighteenth-century philosopher Voltaire, no stranger to “the oppressor’s wrong,” had much to say on this somber topic.  After a major earthquake in Lisbon killed thousands of people and destroyed the city on a church holiday, he wrote: “If the question concerning physical evil ever deserves the attention of men, it is in those melancholy events which put us in mind of the weakness of our nature.”  Philosophers and theologians distinguished physical evil, such as an earthquake or plague, and moral evil, such as the Holocaust or the “Aurora Massacre.”  I suppose atheists have less of a difficulty with the Problem of Evil; after all, if you don’t believe in a benevolent God watching over humanity, evil in the world is not quite so embarrassing or contradictory.  Still, even the atheist must confront an uncomfortable and puzzling fact about existence.  Keep in mind that I don’t use this word strictly in a theological or spiritual sense but simply to mean “worse than bad.”  That’s not a very sophisticated definition, I readily concede, but like porn or injustice we know it when we see it, even if we can’t articulate a satisfactory description of it.

I suppose I’m guilty of often thinking and writing about evil.  When questioned about such a morbid fascination, I usually retreat behind the claim that it’s a matter of academic interest.  That’s only partly true; my fascination is the chicken and my focus as a university instructor is the egg.  Why such an interest in pain and suffering?  I don’t know.  I lost a beloved sister when I was young.  Who knows exactly?  I don’t know what it is, but while I’m perhaps a bit obsessive on this topic, I’m certainly not alone in my fascination. To wit, I was sitting in a theater packed with people wanting to watch the dark knight fight his inner demons while a psychotic killer threatens to nuke the city of Gotham.  What kind of sicko would go see something like that?  Answer: sensate Homo sapiens between the ages of 7 and 72.  (I’m sure there’s an even older audience, but I’m tipping my hat to Senator Pat Leahy, 72, a Batman aficionado who has a cameo appearance in the movie.)

I’m currently teaching a summer course on “trouble spots” in the world today.  I have students reading the memoir of a Tutsi woman, Immaculée, who survived the Rwanda genocide in 1994 by hiding in a small bathroom with six other women for three months while Hutu killers massacred members of her family.  A devout Catholic, Immaculée forgives her tormenters.  On the one hand, I admire her faith and devotion to God in such dark times, though I think her statement that, and I paraphrase, there are no bad people, just good people who do very bad things, is at best a misguided platitude.  Her gratitude toward God for survival is inspirational.  She's also thankful for those rare good things that happened during the genocide.  I don't know what I'd do in her situation, but chances are I wouldn't have carried myself with the grace and magnanimity that she possesses.  On the other hand, I must pose my question, however impious it might be: For whatever small acts of kindness Immaculée experienced during this terrible ordeal, didn’t God allow this horrific orgy of sadistic mass murder in the first place, just as God sat at the helm in 1755 when an earthquake shook the bejesus out of  a devoutly Catholic city during All Saints’ Day?  I like Voltaire’s understatement of this absurd situation: “All things are doubtless arranged and not in order by Providence, but it has long been too evident, that its superintending power has not disposed them in such a manner as to promote our temporal happiness.”

Anyway, in the course of the classroom discussion I made the statement that genocide is a product of rational calculation and not the result of an irrational, spontaneous fit of passion.  A student asked: Well, that’s not normal though, right?  I qualified my statement slightly, explaining that the architects of mass murder, if not the rank and file killers on the ground, are usually making a decision behind closed doors in an office replete with maps, documents, and news reports.  Still, I think my statement holds true for most mass murderers across the board.  Without a doubt, perpetrators like the Hutu death squads and James Holmes are morally non compos mentis, but they certainly demonstrated an intellectual prowess and sharp attention to detail that would put most of us un-crazy people to shame by comparison.  As this guy sits in the courtroom with florescent orange hair and a dazed look on his face, there’s already talk of an insanity defense.  That’s to be expected.  Nonetheless, the reader will duly note that Der is rolling his eyes big time at the thought that this guy could be deemed insane after what looks like months of methodical planning, a careful selection of weaponry, and internet research for booby-trapping his apartment.

In his book Candide Voltaire developed a character named Dr. Pangloss to mock Leibniz’s view of the “best of all possible worlds.”  This know-it-all provided cold comfort to the victims of tragedy by telling them all things will work out for the best.  There’s an ultimate purpose for evil in the grand scheme of things.  God knows how it all works for the good, but we mere mortals don’t.  (Heck, with this logic, Southerners should have been praising both God and Sherman for bringing the Civil War to a quick conclusion and thus preventing the loss of even more lives and the destruction of yet more railways and homes.  Where’s that gratitude?)  Voltaire isn’t so much condemning the idea per se but the quick answers that we sometimes throw out.  Perhaps those of us who too readily label an evil person as crazy or insane wear the same rose-tinted glasses and inability to face harsh reality as Dr. Pangloss.  I don’t know.  The Dark Knight Rises, though, is a must-see!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Genocide in the Promised Land: A Sixteenth-Century Debate

The Bible is our richest source on genocide in the ancient world.  We get sparse and scattered evidence of mass murder in the historical record from other Near Eastern and Greco-Roman civilizations.  One thinks of Thucydides’ account of the Athenians wiping out the people of Melos during the Peloponnesian War or the Romans destroying the city of Carthage in the Third Punic War, allegedly sowing salt into the ground to prevent future agriculture in the region.  The bas-relief panels of the Assyrian capital at Nineveh, discovered in the nineteenth century, give grandiloquent testimony to the sadistic killing of subjugated peoples.  However, the candid narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures depicts in detail a military takeover and campaign of ethnic cleansing that purportedly took place in the Transjordan under Moses and the Western region of modern-day Palestine under Joshua.  Often the siege of a city ended with the slaughter of the men, enslavement and sexual exploitation of the women, destruction of the town, and the allotment of spoils and territory to the tribes of Israel.  Armed with an ideology of divine providence, the Chosen People conquered the peoples of Canaan, turning the “land flowing with milk and honey” into a gushing river of blood.

The lessons of divinely sanctioned mass murder were not lost on the Spanish colonists in the New World, eager to justify the brutal subjugation of the Amerindian population.  In August of 1550 two men, Aristotelian scholar Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, gathered at the court in Valladolid to debate whether the Spanish crown could in fact wage war on native people who have not yet heard the Gospel.  Imperial policy was weighed in the balance, as these Spaniards drew different applications from the biblical account.

I use Las Casas’s defense of the Amerindians as a key text in a comparative genocide course.  While I devote most of the semester to five cases of genocide in the twentieth century, I spend the opening weeks providing an overview of mass killing in pre-modern times.  I know best the early modern period (1500-1800), when Europe underwent a “military revolution” and war casualties increased exponentially.  Maritime powers established vast overseas empires, taking advantage of more sophisticated weaponry and leaving behind a trail of corpses: remnants of those who resisted European expansion on the march.  I should state at the outset that I am not an Iberian scholar, much less a Lascasista.  My research has focused on the German Reformation the religious wars it unleashed. I am presenting here mostly a pedagogical perspective based on a working knowledge of the primary and secondary literature in English translation.  Teaching Las Casas in the classroom is my theme.  I plan to explain my learning objectives, provide background and context to the “Valladolid debate,” discuss the Dominicans exegesis of the controversial biblical passages, and situate the Las Casas-Sepúlveda polemic within research trends in genocide studies today.

The principal source I have students read is chapter 13 of Las Casas’s Defense Against the Persecutors and Slanderers of the Peoples of the New World Discovered Across the Seas.  The author refutes Sepúlveda’s use of the Old Testament in defending the record of Spanish conquest in the New World.  The text allows me to accomplish five objectives.  First, it provides a nice chronological segue from the first week’s overview of genocide in the ancient and medieval eras to discussion of the twentieth century.  Second, students read and interpret primary sources—the Bible, Las Casas’ Defense, and selections from the Dominican’s better known A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies.

Third, in interpreting the past, students appreciate the cultural context and intellectual milieu of a bygone era before making a hasty value judgment.  While Las Casas and Sepúlveda differ on their arguments and objectives, they share certain assumptions about the world around them; for instance, both of them rely on biblical, patristic, and ecclesiastical precedents to determine ethical practice and government policy.  Fourth, after reading about Las Casas and the handful of contemporaries in his camp, students realize that people of the “dark ages” were not predisposed to behave as brutes; rather, they made decisions in spite of moral objections expressed by some of their contemporaries.  These individuals criticized or at least expressed severe misgivings about Spanish policy overseas.  Finally, students assess the applicability of the term genocide to the destruction of the Indies, during and beyond Las Casas’s lifetime.  The question of intent to kill massive amounts of people in connection with the spread of deadly European diseases lends itself to the search for an operational definition.

The presentation of diverse viewpoints at Valladolid was less a debate in the conventional sense and more a hearing of the issues before theological and legal experts, the Council of Fourteen,at the behest of a conscientious Charles V.  The disputation consisted of two sessions, one occurring in August and September of 1550 and the other taking place in the spring of 1551.  Las Casas and Sepúlveda never met face to face, but presented their case for and against the harsh treatment of Amerindians separately.  Well-schooled in Aristotelian thought, Sepúlveda had claimed in his treatise Democrates Alter and other writings that, given their supposed intellectual and cultural inferiority, the indigenous people of America were slaves by nature.  He argued that wars against the Amerindians were necessary to subdue and even Christianize them. 

Las Casas countered with a carefully researched point-by-point refutation of Sepúlveda’s arguments.  His experiences in Mexico and the Caribbean turned him into an implacable foe of the conquistadors and an ardent proponent of peaceful persuasion. Unable to access his adversary’s published treatise, Las Casas consulted various manuscript versions available in Spanish and relied largely on a summary of Sepúlveda’s views.  He read his enormous handwritten Defense word for word over a five-day period during the first session.  One of the judges drew up a helpful summary of the issues for the panel to work through.  They agreed to reconvene to make a decision after about a four-month recess.

Rare are those moments in history when an exchange of scholarly viewpoints can effect so much change.  Luther's defense of his views at the Diet of Worms three decades earlier was one such event, but the Valladolid debate was unique.  "Probably never before, or since," writes historian Lewis Hanke, "has a mighty emperor...ordered his conquests to cease until it was decided if they were just."   The Spanish crown was taking a keen interest in reports of abuse overseas.  The encomienda system had allotted a certain number of natives to government and military officials for the purpose of protecting and educating them; in return, the natives would pay in gold or labor.  Unfortunately, those who enforced and benefited from this system were more interested in exacting tribute than Christianizing the overworked Amerindians in their care.  When the grantees subjected the natives to hard labor and de facto enslavement, the government, encouraged by Las Casas and other whistleblowers, issued the New Laws of 1542 to prevent exploitation and ultimately abolish the abusive practice.  In the decade leading up to Valladolid, the encomenderos, defending their rights forcefully in the courts, had successfully thwarted these legal blocks.

As Bishop of Chiapa in southern Mexico, Las Casas made no friends among the conquistadors.  He refused last rites to those who failed to express deathbed contrition for their crimes against the natives.    Upon his return to Spain he continued on as a legal advocate for the Amerindians, but he would have his work cut out for him.  The encomenderos, having already circumvented the New Laws, argued hard that they should be able to hold their grants (of natives) in perpetuity.  The stakes couldn't be higher in this debate, and for this reason both scholars, Las Casas and Sepúlveda,  drew upon the Bible, church law, the church fathers, and ancient philosophers to convince the panel of experts that their position had the weight of authority behind it.

Las Casas’ argument in the aforementioned chapter of his Defense centers on the biblical precedent of mass slaughter.  On the basis of Deuteronomy and Joshua, Sepúlveda defended Spain’s subjugation of Amerindian populations: God was punishing the Indians for their crimes in the same way that God destroyed the idolatrous Canaanites.  In short, the Spanish humanist likened the Conquistadors to the Israelites as dispensers of divine judgment and the rightful possessors of a Promised Land.  The mandate to annihilate the current occupants, Las Casas counters, applied only to the “seven nations” of Canaan.  God did not command the Israelites to exterminate heathens in other lands; rather, the destruction had a particular purpose: to displace these people from the land that God had promised the Hebrews.

God made an exception for two nations outside of Canaan: the Midianites and Amalekites, who respectively led Israelite men astray and twice provoked a war.  God wanted the Israelites to avenge these wrongs.  Outside of these exceptions, the war against the seven nations is a legitimate undertaking.  (We can almost hear Las Casas using a phrase coined millennia later: manifest destiny.)  “The rigorous precept against the Canaanite nations was very special,” he writes, “and consequently, the foregoing passages commanding the massacre of idolaters must be admitted only in reference to those who lived in the Promise Land.”  By today's standard, Las Casas drew hardly a better moral lesson from these embarrassing passages of the Old Testament than did his opponent, despite his noble intention of protecting the Indians from Spanish aggression.

A skilled advocate and biblical exegete, Las Casas doesn’t pull any punches when describing his opposition's hermeneutic.  He questions Sepúlveda’s ability as an expositor of the Bible. He faults him for a selective use of biblical passages, disregard for context, a deficient method of interpretation, insufficient knowledge, and even malice.  Sepúlveda makes a general rule out of specific historic circumstances and applies it to any situation.  To use modern parlance, the Hebrew account of territorial conquest was for Las Casas more description than prescription.  If Sepúlveda claims to follow the biblical paradigm, should not the conquistadors kill everyone and draft animals as well?

While the humanist scholar cites Deuteronomy 7 to justify the slaughter of pagans, he omits reference to Deuteronomy 20 wherein God offers peace to peoples living outside the Promised Land.  Sepúlveda ought to show that divine sanction to kill the seven nations of Canaan did not extend to all idolatrous people throughout the world.  The Israelites received no marching orders to destroy the Edomites and the Egyptians, the one considered a brother and the other a host.  Such passages, explains Las Casas, “agree more with the teaching of the gospel, with the gentleness, meekness, and charity of Christ.”  Christians “in this era of grace” should behave in accordance with New Testament.  For Las Casas, the debate is essentially about biblical interpretation and Christian morality; he is less interested in Sepúlveda’s use of Aristotle.  Sepúlveda’s citations of the church fathers are likewise faulty and selective.  Did Las Casas and his polemic sparring partner twist Scriptural passages to fit their respective objectives or did their biblical hermeneutic force them to reach their conclusions?  This question has yielded good discussion in the classroom.

In the beginning of chapter 13, Las Casas justifies the biblical massacres, even if his main concern is to show that the slaughter of other idolaters, be they Edomites or Amerindians, are immoral. He also legitimates war against apostates who once affirmed the Christian faith but have returned to their pagan beliefs.  From our point of view, his defense is hardly a more moral position. He adds three additional points that explain why killing the Canaanites was a special situation that God mandated other than that these people stood in the way of a future Israel. Perhaps Las Casas wanted to buttress his argument with more points to demolish Sepúlveda’s use of these passages or perhaps he had moral compunction to provide a great rationale for such slaughter. First, with help from Gratian, he explains that the iniquity of the Canaanites had reached its peak (conveniently, we might add, as the Hebrews are exiting Egypt and in need of a homeland). In this sense the Hebrews carried out a death sentence for nations who had committed crimes against God; they were merely “executor of his will.” Second, Las Casas adds that the Hebrews, “especially prone to idolatry,” needed to remove the source of their temptations, namely women and graven images, even if God’s Chosen People could intermarry with pagan nations outside Canaan. Finally, Las Casas, citing the church fathers, argues that the special command, or “riguroso precepto,” to wipe out these peoples would be the restoration of an ancient injustice: namely, the descendants of Noah’s son Ham expelling the descendants of Noah’s son Shem, who happens to be the forefather of the Hebrews. So the Israelites were simply retaking the land possessed by their ancestors.

Sepúlveda’s failure to distinguish between the Old and New Testaments does grievous harm. He focuses on precepts from the Old Law and virtually ignores the grace and mercy of Christ.  He “opens the way for tyrants and plunderers to cruel invasion, oppression, spoliation, and harsh enslavement of harmless nations” that do not know Christ.  Again, Las Casas charges his opponent with taking description for prescription. The Hebrew Bible contains stories to learn from but they don’t necessarily serve as moral examples to follow.  Las Casas solidifies his case with quotations from Pope Gregory and Augustine.  Samuel butchered the Amalekite king, Phineas speared a Jew and Midianite woman during intercourse, and the prophet Hosea shacked up with a prostitute.  In a subsequent chapter of his Defense, he mentions the story of Elisha having a bear tear children apart.  What was once lawful then, such as polygamy, is no longer.

What both Las Casas and Sepúlveda failed to consider of course is whether the biblical account is historically accurateArchaeology does not substantiate any of the narrative of destruction in the Old Testament.  One of the most famous stories of the Old Testament is the destruction of Jericho.  After the Lord promised to deliver the city into the hands of his people, the Israelites marched around the city for six days and, after seven times around the city on the seventh day, “the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city” (Joshua 6:20). Often neglected is the next verse that records the wholesale slaughter of men, women, children, and livestock. The mound that was once ancient Jericho has yielded scant information to conform the biblical story.  Radio carbon dating shows that the city’s famous walls, dating back to the Early Bronze Age, came tumbling down long before even Abraham came onto the scene. The most plausible explanation of the biblical Jericho is that it is an etiological saga designed not only to explain the ruins that the Israelites saw around them, but it also provided a national folktale to give confidence to this small nomadic people.  Most scholars think the Israelites entered Canaan not by conquest, but by a peaceful “pastoral infiltration” of transhumance over many years.

In addition to archeology, the Biblical text itself sometimes subverts its own account of genocide. Las Casas refers to the Amalekites.  They were one of the first peoples to attack the Israelites as they were leaving Egypt. The Lord wanted vengeance. “Now go and smite Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both men, and women, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (Deuteronomy 25). Jehovah promised moreover to blot out the memory of Amalek forever. However, the Amalekites keep reappearing in the Biblical record, leaving the task of killing them to later patriarchs. As if to account for the continual presence of a people that should have been destroyed, Exodus 17 has Jehovah vowing to make war against the Amalekites “from generation to generation.” To wit, Israel’s first king Saul “utterly destroyed all the people [Amalekites] with the edge of the sword” (1 Samuel 15:2-8). The Amalekites leave the biblical record only after a further encounter with no less than King David, who “smote them from the twilight even into the evening of the next day” so that only 400 young men escaped (1 Samuel 30). Initially, God’s vengeance was to wipe them out but, perhaps due to technical difficulties—the refusal of these wily people to die en masse—God’s vengeance was transmuted into an incessant persecution "from generation to generation.”

If these events did not take place, one must of course ask, why would Jewish scribes fabricate these stories centuries later? Why brag about such foul deeds if they didnt occur? One historian has postulated that the Biblical writers were employing the “rhetoric of genocide”in order to give the impression that their forefathers had massacred the Canaanites. The Israelites wanted to instill fear in neighboring communities, essentially indicating to them what would happen if they didnt relinquish their lands or at least cease from taking up arms. This propaganda, designed to avoid or minimize conflict, was later recorded in Scripture, giving the impression that these events had actually occurred.  The ongoing saga of the Amalekites shows that the earlier statement about wiping out this people was just rhetoric, for they kept reappearing in the Biblical record.

Las Casas’ account of atrocities in the colonies formed the basis of the Black Legend, a narrative of Spanish cruelty propagated by Spain’s imperial rivals.  Competition on the high seas for lucrative trade routes, coupled with religious differences, made Spain an irresistible target for English publishers.  In more recent decades, the label Black Legend has given way to an equally problematic and propagandistic term: American Holocaust.  Reference to genocide doesn’t settle the matter, however.  If conquistadors killed indigenous people by the thousands, microbial invaders in their wake took out millions.  Though Las Casas had seen firsthand the impact of epidemics in the Caribbean, he omitted any mention of them at Valladolid.  In his major work, The History of the Indies, he conflates mass slaughter and pestilence: God sent the latter to liberate Amerindians from earthly oppression and deprive their rapacious overlords of a labor force.  Las Casas knew that massive deaths due to disease would weaken his case against the cruelties of the encomienda system.  Too often proponents of an American Holocaust subsume deaths from disease under genocide, as if every colonist and slave trader were a General Jeffrey Amherst, the oft-cited British commander who approved a plan to spread smallpox to “this Execrable Race” during the French and Indian War.

Heretofore I’ve been using the term genocide loosely and anachronistically.  No such word existed until Polish émigré Raphael Lemkin coined it at the end of World War II.  The UN definition is specific: “acts committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”  Whether the devastation of the population and cultures of the Americas for over four centuries qualifies as genocide is an open question.  Unsatisfied with the UN’s emphasis on intent, social scientists have weighed in with caveats and qualifications.  Historian Frank Chalk and sociologist Kurt Jonassohn explain that “an action is ‘intended’ even when it is carried out for different purposes but the perpetrator is likely to know that genocide is the inevitable or probable by-product of a planned action.”  With this interpretation of intention, does the word genocide apply to the countless deaths via European diseases in the New World?  Also, one must be able to discern outright genocide from ethnic cleansing, the forceful removal of a people from one area to another, or what Chalk and Jonassohn call “genocidal massacre” and sociologist Michael Mann calls “exemplary repression.”  The latter phrases refer to a government’s attempt at control over a religious or ethnic minority through brutal suppression.

I don’t get into all of the background details and historiographical debates with students, for such lengthy discussion would take us outside the purview of the course.  What  I hope they come away with, though, is the realization that while Sepúlveda’s view found acceptance among the encomenderos and their advocates, it did not meet approval with many of the Dominican priests on the ground or with theological opinion in the universities.  Moreover, Charles V had severe misgivings about imperial policy when he heard relaciones about abuse.  While Las Casas stands out as an ardent defender of Amerindians, and rightly so, he was not a lone voice crying in the wilderness.

The undergraduate has a notion of the distant past as an era of darkness, superstition and brutality, but the American Holocaust resulted more from cool minds not prevailing and of business interests and imperial policy tipping the scales than from benighted and xenophobic peoples of Europe bent on the destruction of another civilization. How will future generations view us four centuries from now?  After all, the world community has looked on within recent memory as genocides erupted in Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Darfur; all the while the United Nations, United States, and humanitarian groups have expressed concern and promised “never again.”  We see ourselves as a humane civilization, and so did the proud subjects of the Spanish crown.

Pondering such moral complexities in the classroom has elicited insightful comments from students. My ultimate goal as an instructor in the humanities is to help students think, read and write critically about the complexities of the human experience.  I provide them the tools with which they can establish a frame of reference, formulate their own questions, and seek answers to those questions.  As students grapple with Las Casas’ writings, they distinguish fact from fiction, rhetoric from reality, and propaganda from perception.  His portrait of victims at times borders on hagiography and he paints the perpetrators with a broad dark brushstroke.  They understand that they’re seeing Sepúlveda’s views through Las Casas’ eyes.  A Spanish theologian in the last century wrote: “The contents of the works and writings of Las Casas are limited and determined by the arguments of his adversaries.  They are books and writings of battle.”  Students recognize that Las Casas was at heart an activist, not a dispassionate chronicler of events, as he wanted the Spanish crown to treat the Amerindians like a Christian nation should.  

Homines sapientes have been committing genocide since time immemorial.  State-sponsored killing in the Bronze Age turned localized tribal conflict into large-scale ethnic cleansing, and authoritarian governments have not departed from this extreme form of territorial expansion ever since.  Social science has much to tell us about this horrific phenomenon in human history, but I discuss with students relevant studies in the biological sciences as well.  The extermination of other groups appears to be an adaptation in our species firmly ensconced in the human genome.  How do we reverse the curse of our evolutionary heritage?  First, we identify the problem and find language to articulate it.  We can thank Mr. Lemkin for his services in this regard.  Second, we look to another gene hardwired within us for a way out of the darkness: empathy. Bartolomé de las Casas has already lit this path for us to follow.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Orientation

Welcome to the orientation, everyone!  Please be seated.  My name is Kevin, and I’ll be guiding you through the orientation process, or I should probably say orienting you through the orientation, right?  [Kevin laughs at his own wit.]  We have a lot of red-hot tape to go through, so I’ll try to keep things lively and fun.   Now, you should find a packet under your chair and paperwork to fill out—some administrative T’s that need crossing and I’s that need dotting.  I realize that none of you want to be here, or so I presume, but you’ll have to give me due courtesy.  I'll want your undivided attention during this orientation. HR requires it, but more importantly you’ll need this information to facilitate your stay here.  I can’t do anything about the temperature, so please don’t ask.  I get that all the time.

I understand that the first day can be a bit overwhelming.  Let me first address basic policies and procedures, after which we’ll be taking a tour of the facilities.  [Kevin observes a man in the front row looking at him strangely.  He glances at the program administrator, a woman in a natty grey dress suit, standing to the side.  He chuckles.]  What?  Did you expect pitchforks and tails?  Why do they always go there, Margaret?  I know, I know: those damn movies!

Now let me continue with the orientation, as time is running out…  Oh, actually it’s not.  [Kevin laughs.]  That’s a joke, sort of.  Later my colleague Gladys will go over your benefit package with you, but you should know at the outset (and you probably figured) there are actually no benefits offered here.  [A man seated on the right raises his hand.]  Yes, there’s a question over here!  [Kevin hears the man out.] For those of you in the back, he’s asking whether he should check the box on the form that says serial killer or serial rapist because he was both.  Good question.  I’d say, check both boxes.  At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter, for, and I’m getting ahead of myself, serial killers, serial rapists and trial lawyers will be staying in the lower floor of the Dantean complex.   By the way, when I say “at the end of the day” you understand I’m just using an expression, for your day here will not come to an end.

[Another hand goes up.]  Yes, you in the blue shirt.  What’s that?  Yes, eternity is a very long time.  Duh!  I understand that a few of you here were on death row.  Well, imagine how you felt during that confinement, but amplify the feeling, say, up a million notches.  You’ll have to make the best of it, somehow.  That will be easier said than done, however.  Once we take the tour, you’ll realize that you actually have no idea what it means to inflict pain on others.  Mere child's play.  On a side but not unrelated note, you’ll soon find that the phrase, “There shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth,” has nothing to do with the pangs of remorse but rather the absolute agony of eternal and most unusual, sadistic torture.  I’m not a biblical scholar, but I find those little misinterpretations interesting, don’t you?

Okay, where was I…. Please let me finish the orientation….  [Kevin responds to some murmuring in the back.] What’s that, ma’am?  You’re an atheist?  And?  I’m an atheist too.  Oh for Christ’s sake!  Look around you.  Do you see God anywhere?  Of course you don’t!  Do you think you’re going to wake up from a bad dream or something?  What's that you say?  You don't believe in life after death?  Yes, I presume you don't.  Who said anything about life?  Think of your stay here as...well, a prolonged death, or rather prolonged dying.  I don't know if that helps, but , yeah, life is a bit of a stretch.

[The program administrator looks at her watch.]  Okay, okay.   I'm getting the look.  [Kevin grins.]  It appears we need to move on.  We were going to have a time for questions, but you’ve already used it up.  Let me just say, on behalf of the staff here, we hope you enjoy your stay.  As you probably know, there's nothing more gratifying than the feeling of accomplishment.  Rest assured, each and every one of you here today will get what he or she deserves.  Congrats!  You have earned it.  Again, welcome!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Two Men in a Canoe

Two men in a canoe are paddling their way through a pristine lake in the wilderness, one named Johannes and the other Jacobus.  They’ve gone off the grid, from one world into another, and they’re loving every minute of it.  Science would say that the boat is in motion while the shoreline and coniferous backdrop are stationary, yet two souls are transfixed as flora and fauna seem to float by, like the world passing in review and inviting reflection on life’s experiences and lessons along the way.  Inevitably, and continually, the familiar metaphors suggest themselves, metaphors well-worn but no less insightful.  The river of life, with its twists and turns, carries them to an unknown destiny, while new opportunities for exploration beckon from each shore.    What’s just beyond the bend in the river?  What will they discover?

Johannes, surveying the landscape with wide-eyed Aristotelian wonder, comments as is his wont on the vegetation like an amateur botanist.  “Let me know if you’re not interested in such details,” says the sternman to the bowman.  “I’ll keep thinking these thoughts, of course, but I’ll keep them to myself.”  Jacobus does not respond, for he is aware that Johannes very well knows the answer to his own question.  It’s a ritual.  They take in nature by both getting lost in the details and eyeing the breadth of nature's bounty from the summit.  A few bloodroot flowers shooting out of a shoreline shrub arrest their attention.  But they're not merely extending their gaze outward.  Two introverts look within, like Platonists searching for the ideal forms behind the beauty, often discovering that their true desires are not as translucent as the water lapping up against their canoe.  Likewise, their metaphysical state is not as serene as the virescent scenery in their purview, though the latter is certainly working its magic on the former.  Both men have had a similar spiritual journey, even if they arrived at the same place in their own way.  They look ahead and see another bend in the river.  What’s up ahead?  Troubled waters or the best campsite ever?   The journey is not over.  Up river is another experience they'll share, perhaps something to laugh about around the campfire.  Friendship is thus.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Partisan Blinders

There's a school of thought that says we, meaning the U.S., should tend to our own affairs, as we have many socioeconomic issues that need to be addressed.  Adherents of this viewpoint say we shouldn't intervene in conflicts and political crises throughout the world.  We have enough problems of our own!  Why should we act like the Roman Empire and send our proconsuls and armies into strange lands abroad, getting into other people’s business, when we suffer from unemployment, a huge deficit, and social injustice within our own borders?  So be it.  One could argue that, while this is certainly a valid position, it sometimes depends on one's political view and who's sitting in the White House.  For example, those on the left, whether mainstream Democrats or far-lefties, were highly critical of the Bush administration.  (Keep in mind, I'm not saying whether they were right or wrong to do so.)  They saw the Bush administration as an "Imperial Presidency."  On the other hand, President Obama has taken a similarly strident approach in foreign affairs, launching for example more Predator drone missiles than the Bush administration ever dreamed of and killing people in the area between Afghanistan and Pakistansome bad people, yes, but also "collateral damage" (read: innocent bystanders).  Yet Democrats are not so interested in this.  And to stay balanced here, Republicans say that Obama doesn't know what he's doing and that he's making a mess of our foreign policy, by for example creating hostility with Pakistan.  But they fail to acknowledge that Obama, in many respects, is carrying on with Bush-type policies, and one of the main reasons that our relationship with Pakistan has soured under Obama is that the president sent in Navy Seals to take out Osama bin Laden and didn't tell the Pakistanis ahead of time.  (Frankly, had we observed diplomatic courtesy and told the Pakistanis we had intelligence on Osama's whereabouts and were planning to take him out, Osama would still be alive today).  And if Bush or any other Republican president had strained the relationship between us and Pakistan for this reason, Republicans would be saying Pakistani  condemnation of the U.S. is a badge of honor.

To be clear, I'm not in the business of supporting or bashing Clinton, Bush or Obama.  On the other hand, some of my Facebook friends and academic colleagues are free to espouse their partisan viewpoints as if half the nation doesn't disagree with them.  People live in bubbles.  At the end of the day, what you think about President X or President Y is largely based on your upbringing and political sensibility and less about their actual policies or decisions.  (True enough, some are simply rebelling against their upbringing by taking a view that differs either from parents, church, etc.)  As I've written elsewhere, politics is more of a visceral reaction to the Other than an analytical endeavor based on sound reasoning, whatever intellectual arguments we might use as window dressing for our deeper convictions.  I think that, generally speaking, these presidents have had good intentions.   They're flawed human beings, and sometimes they make controversial decisions.  Still, at the end of the day, they made decisions with U.S. nationalist interest foremost in mind and tried to merge these interests as much as possible with the "right thing to do."  No, I'm not a blind believer in authority.  We should always question our leaders' decisions, but remember: we live in a democratic nation, and these leaders are beholden to the American people for their actions, especially in an election year!  I only ask that if things don't go the way you want in terms of presidential and congressional elections, don't act as if we live in the Democratic Republic of Congo or something.  The U.S. is not an oppressive, one-party dictatorial state, so don’t threaten to move to Canada.  (Besides, you know you won’t do it anyway.)  Please.  Bridle your bitter partisanship in the name of intellectual honesty, if nothing else.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Early Summer 2012: Novels, Whiskey, Army, and more Whiskey

Lately, all of my friends have been coming up to me and asking what I’ve been doing with myself lately.  They want to know how my summer is going so far.  First of all, thanks, mom and dad, for asking.  Well, I’m barely two weeks into the summer of 2012 and it’s proving to be a busy, yet relaxing, time for me.  With the temperature getting up to the mid to high 90s with no respite in sight, I’ve nudged my snout into the whiskey trough not infrequently.  As it turns out, my spirits cabinet comes in handy for hot weather, as it does for cold as well, not to mention climates that happen to fall between extreme hot and extreme cold.  Who knew?

I just finished reading a couple of novels, George Orwell’s 1984 and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  I’ll be co-teaching a course on “society and technology” in the fall with a literature professor; she chose these two books for her part of the course requirements.  I’ve never read 1984 in its entirety, and I’m I glad I finally finished it.  It was an excellent read, right up my alley: very dark and suggestive of human nature.  We all know some of the buzzwords and phrases from the novel as part of our cultural lexicon, such as “Big Brother is watching you,” and “doublespeak,” but Orwell’s writing demands a careful read.  (I’ve never seen  the movie, but judging from the trailer and a few YouTube clips that I’ve sampled, I’m sure it doesn’t measure up to the book, as is usually the case for fine works of literature reduced to the silver screen.)  You’d think I would have read it earlier, given my interest in totalitarianism and genocidal regimes, but I just never got around to it.  You can’t read everything, right?

Twain’s novel was somewhat enjoyable, mostly for what it says about the author’s outlook on history and progress than for the details of the plot.  Remember, folks, I’m more of a non-fiction reader, so I tend to read novels with an eye toward the historical context in which they were written or for any concepts and ideas that feed off history, politics, and philosophy.  Such an approach to these novels will certainly be my contribution to the course, though the literature professor is great on the historical context of the novels as well.

On an unrelated topic, my duties in the Army Reserve these past few weeks have been quite burdensome and unpleasant at times, but I soldier on, looking forward to the end of my tenure as a company commander.  I find most of the officers and senior NCOs in my battalion, the full-timers in particular, to be rather lazy and cantankerous.  In May I attended a week-long course for reservist commanders in Atlanta, Georgia. Presumably I’ve gained some more training to help me become an effective military leader.  I say presumably, because I’m not so sure what “death by PowerPoint,” commingled with drivel and groupthink, not to mention a ridiculous amount of acronyms thrown in for apparent good measure, can do for me.  Like last year, my unit will be going to Kentucky this summer for annual training.

As of today, July 3, I submitted grades for what was probably my last course with Hexington College (a pseudonym), where I have been an adjunct instructor intermittently since 1998.  Coupled with having quit my longstanding security job last summer, it seems I’m pulling back in terms of employment, reducing from four to two sources of income.  I need to pull back somewhere, and make my life relatively simpler; I’m all over the place, driving from city to city to this, that, and the other. After all, in addition to teaching this summer for the University of Mantua (yet another pseudonym) and the aforementioned upcoming trip to Kentucky, I need to be a father to my daughters, all two or three or four of them.  See?  I don’t even remember how many daughters I have!  You know it’s bad when you can’t remember things like that.  Then again, I might be temporarily incapacitated.  Currently I’m sitting on my lawn in my favorite camping chair in 94-friggin’-degree heat at 8:15 pm, and my shot class is empty again.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Alps Call My Name

I recall an embarrassing incident back in the Nineties, when I lived with my young family in a farm house in Inningen, a suburban town just south of Augsburg in Bavaria.  I had been working on my dissertation, taking the train into the city to work at the municipal archives.  I had always longed to hike up into the Alps, as I could see them outside my bedroom window.  I swear I could hear them calling my name one night, beckoning me to come and gaze at their splendor and trek upon their jagged peaks.  The voice became so loud and clear that I resolved to heed the call.  Taking with me only a flashlight and daypack I gave my wife a kiss, hugged my children, and made my way out into the cold night toward the voice.  As I ventured out about 200 yards in the direction of the Alps, I spotted an unshaven guy wearing a scruffy jean-jacket by the train tracks.  He was leaning up against a dumpster and offered me a cigarette as I passed by.  I was so embarrassed.  It turns out that he had been calling my name.  I thought I was following some kind of call of the wild and it ends up being some biker dude with an attitude.   All of a sudden the guy asked me: “Der, what do you really want in life?”  I had always coveted a managerial position at Pioneer Chicken, but somehow I knew he was getting at something else.  Nervously neglecting the question, I responded, “Who are you and how do you know my name?”  Before he had a chance to answer, I said exasperatingly, “Look.  Let’s pretend this incident never happened.”  Then I shamefully walked back to the house, leaving behind the dark figure by the train tracks and my dreams of an Alpine adventure.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Ted the Rat

My rat died today.  I found him in the toilet.  There wasn’t any pee or doody in it, just Ted, slumped over and bloated.  Yeah, his name was Ted, though I’m not sure if he was a he.  I liked him, I liked him a whole lot.  We got along well.  Sometimes we’d eat shelled nuts together, usually when I had the game on.  He liked to play in my backpack.  I’ve saved almost all of his droppings.  They’re for a future art project, but I still don’t know how I’d make them into art.  My mom and most of my friends didn’t know I had Ted, but I did.  Let me ask you something.  Have you ever known what it’s like to love someone so ardently that being without that individual in your life is excruciating torment, as if your heart had been ripped out of its socket?  Ted was not like that, but I’d still consider him the best friend I’ve ever had.  When it came to either my girlfriend or Ted, I chose Ted.  That was five months ago.  I’m going to call her up.  It’s been a while.  She’ll be happy that Ted’s dead.  I’m not.