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Menachem Rosensaft: "Don’t Let the Light Go Out" – from Bergen-Belsen to the White House

December 23rd, 2009 admin No comments

“Don’t Let the Light Go Out” – from Bergen-Belsen to the White House

by Menachem Rosensaft

“Don’t let the light go out, it’s lasted for so many years” sang Peter, Paul and Mary in “Light One Candle,” my favorite Hanukkah song.

In late December 1948, my parents said a very special Shehecheyanu prayer, thanking God for enabling them to reach this day, as they lit the Hanukkah candles in the Displaced Persons camp of Bergen-Belsen in Germany.

Barely five years after their entire families had been murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz , they could not truly thank God for granting them life or for sustaining them as part of the small surviving remnant of European Jewry that had emerged from the Holocaust. Too many faces were missing ­ their parents, their siblings, my mother’s first husband and her five-and-a-half year old son, my father¹s first wife and her daughter.

But for the first time, they were celebrating the festival of lights with their son ­ I was then almost eight months old ­ and their focus must have been on this moment of rebirth, of renewal. Their Shehecheyanu, I suspect, was in large part for me seeing the burning Hanukkah candles for the first time, with no memories of the past, of death and destruction, of other flames.

Fast forward 61 one years.

On the first night of Hanukkah, 2009, a display for a fragile Torah scroll which was brought from Hamburg, Germany, to the United States in 1939 by Rabbi Alfred Veis is dedicated at Congregation Ohabai Sholom in Nashville, Tennessee .

Two days later, my wife Jeanie and I attend a memorial service for Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, the long-time President and Chancellor of the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who fled Nazi Germany as a nine-year-old boy and who died three months ago. On the sixth night of Hanukkah, I am in the Grand Foyer of the White House together with several hundred other American Jews as the children of Commander Scott Moran, a U.S. Navy officer presently deployed in Iraq, light the candles on a 19th-century silver Hanukkah menorah on loan from the Jewish Museum in Prague .

Standing beside them are President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden. Hanukkah, President Obama tells us, “was a triumph of the few over the many; of right over might; of the light of freedom over the darkness of despair.”

He recalls how over the centuries “Jews have lit the Hanukkah candles as symbols of resilience in times of peace, and in times of persecution ­ in concentration camps and ghettos; war zones and unfamiliar lands. Their light inspires us to hope beyond hope; to believe that miracles are possible even in the darkest of hours.”

During the few moments I am able to speak with President Obama afterwards, he tells me of his deep admiration and affection for Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel who had accompanied him to Buchenwald earlier this year.

“Light one candle for the strength that we need to never become our own foe,” goes another verse from “Light One Candle.”

Following the ceremony, a group of us gather in one of the adjoining rooms, surrounded by Christmas wreaths, for the evening Ma’ariv service.

Rabbi Avraham Shemtov, the head of the international umbrella organization of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim, prays alongside Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism. Elsewhere, members of the liberal, peace-oriented J Street advocacy group are engaged in intense conversations with leaders of AIPAC, the more conservative pro-Israel lobby.

In the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp, the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, religious and secular, Yiddishists and Hebraists, lived and struggled together, as did Zionists covering the broad political spectrum from left to right who coexisted easily with non-Zionists.

They understood that they had suffered a shared fate and faced a common future. In the White House this week, Jewish leaders of all stripes and denominations seemed to let go of their differences, if only for a few hours, and revel in the freedom and dignity of America .

“Light one candle to find us together with peace as the song in our hearts.”

On the flight back to New York, I sit beside a stranger and we begin talking. He is David Vise, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post reporter. His grandfather was Rabbi Alfred Veis of Nashville, Tennessee. In 1939, David’s father came to the United States from Germany on the same boat as Alfred Gottschalk, and the two became good friends.

“Don’t let the light go out, let it shine through our love and our tears.”

Menachem Rosensaft is adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants

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Andy Worthington: Who Are The Four Afghans Released From Guantanamo?

December 23rd, 2009 admin No comments

Over the weekend, 12 prisoners were released from Guantánamo, as the Justice Department announced in a press release on December 20. I have previously reported the stories of the two Somalis who were released — emphasizing how nothing about their cases demonstrated that they were “the worst of the worst” — and will soon be reporting the stories of the six Yemenis transferred to the custody of the Yemeni government. For now, however, I’d like to turn to the four Afghans transferred to the custody of the Afghan government, because, in contrast to the fearmongering of opportunistic Republicans, who continue to claim that Guantánamo is full of terrorists, the stories of these four men demonstrate instead the incompetence of senior officials in the Bush administration, revealing how, instead of detaining men who had any connection to al-Qaeda, or those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, they filled Guantánamo with what Maj. Gen. Michael Dunlavey, the commander of Guantánamo in 2002, described as “Mickey Mouse” prisoners.

Sharifullah, the U.S. ally who had guarded Hamid Karzai

The first of the four Afghans, Sharifullah, who was 22 years old at the time of his capture, was seized by U.S. forces from an Afghan military compound with another man, Amir Jan Ghorzang (identified by the Pentagon as Said Amir Jan), who was released from Guantánamo in September 2007. Both men were accused of hoarding explosives for the Taliban and being involved in various plots, but insisted that they were loyal government soldiers. In Guantánamo, Sharifullah explained that he was one of the first recruits in the new Afghan army, trained by British officers, and added that he had then spent seven months as part of a group that was responsible for guarding President Karzai. When he was unable to get a promotion, however, he returned to Jalalabad, where he had just taken up a new position as an officer when he was seized.

Amir Jan Ghorzang was the more vociferous of the two in Guantánamo, lamenting the fact that the U.S. soldiers who had seized them had been duped by traitors who were taking money from both the U.S. military and al-Qaeda, and were passing off innocent men as members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. “I’m here because somebody got paid some dollars,” he explained, adding that he had been imprisoned by the Taliban for five years, because of his opposition to them, and had also worked for Haji Qadir, a commander who fought with the Americans during the battle of Tora Bora, a showdown between al-Qaeda and U.S.-backed Afghan forces in December 2001.

The cases of both men — as with many other men who had been working for the Karzai government, but had been betrayed by rivals — revealed how little the US authorities were concerned with establishing the truth about their allegations, as it would have been easy to track down witnesses in Afghanistan who could have verified their stories (as reporters for McClatchy Newspapers did in 2008, when they interviewed Ghorzang). Nevertheless, he was, in the end, more fortunate than Sharifullah, whose continued presence in Guantánamo for two years and three months after his release was, frankly, inexplicable. As Ghorzang explained in the following exchange in Sharifullah’s tribunal, when he was called as a witness:

Sharifullah: Do you know that I was involved to work in the new government? Was I honestly working and working for the new government?
Ghorzang: You were working with the new government and he was involved with the Karzai government, in support of the Karzai government.

Mohammed Hashim: the fantasist put forward for a trial by Military Commission

The story of the second man, Mohammed Hashim, remains as bewildering now as it was when he was put forward for a trial by Military Commission at Guantánamo in May 2008, and I wrote an article entitled, “Afghan fantasist to face trial at Guantánamo,” in which I stated that the decision “appear[ed] to plumb new depths of misapplied zeal.” Hashim, who was about 26 years old at the time of his capture, was first seized by Afghan forces after he was found taking measurements near the home of Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s reclusive leader, and asking locals about security arrangements. Subsequently released, he was then seized again and handed over (or sold) to U.S. forces.

If there was something about the circumstances of his initial capture that should have set alarm bells ringing, regarding his mental health, these were ignored when the U.S. authorities decided to charge him with “conducting reconnaissance missions against U.S. and coalition forces,” and “participating in a rocket attack venture on at least one occasion against U.S. forces for al-Qaeda,” and ignored the fact that, at his tribunal, his testimony revealed that he was (as I described it) “either one of the most fantastically well-connected terrorists in the very small pool of well-connected terrorists at Guantánamo, or, conversely, that he [was] a deranged fantasist. From the resounding silence that greeted his comments at his tribunal, I can only conclude that the tribunal members, like me, concluded that the latter interpretation was the more probable.”

After explaining that he had spent five years with the Taliban, because he needed the money, Hashim proceeded to claim that:

he knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance, because a man that he knew, Mohammad Khan, “used to tell me all these stories and all the details about how they were going to fly airplanes into buildings. He didn’t tell me the details, that it was New York, but he said they had 20 pilots and they were going to orchestrate the act.” What rather detracted from the shock value of this comment was Hashim’s absolutely inexplicable claim that his friend Khan, who had told him about the 9/11 plan, was with the Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s opponents, who were also implacably opposed to al-Qaeda.

Hashim also claimed that he and another man had been responsible for facilitating Osama bin Laden’s escape from Afghanistan, and that, afterwards, he had worked as a spy, and had heard about how the Syrian government had been sending weapons to Saddam Hussein, which had then been sent to Afghanistan via Iran. As I explained at the time, the cumulative effect of Hashim’s statements was that it was “impossible not to conclude that [his] story was, if not the testimony of a fantasist, then a shrewd attempt to avoid brutal interrogations by providing his interrogators with whatever he thought they wanted to hear.”

A darker truth, of course, may be that his rambling statement actually revealed the themes pursued relentlessly by the interrogators at Guantánamo: not only “what do you know about the 9/11 attacks?” and “when did you last see bin Laden?” but also, at the insistence of Vice President Dick Cheney, “what was the connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein?” As we know from the interrogations of the CIA’s most famous “ghost prisoner” Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who confessed under torture in Egypt that there were connections between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, which was later used as part of the justification for the invasion of Iraq, securing this sort of information was regarded as critical in the run-up to the invasion, even though the administration claimed that its embrace of torture (or, rather, the euphemistically named “enhanced interrogation techniques”) was designed to prevent further terrorist attacks.

Abdul Hafiz: the wrong man with a satellite phone

The third man, Abdul Hafiz, who was 42 years old when he was seized in 2003 from his village near Kandahar, was accused in his tribunal of working for a Taliban militia group and of being involved in two killings in Kabul. It was also alleged that he was captured with a satellite phone linked to one of the killings, and that he “attempted to call an al-Qaeda member who is linked to the murder of an ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] worker.”

In response, Hafiz, who described himself as “handicapped” and who repeatedly stated that he has problems with his memory, claimed that his name was Abdul Qawi, and that he had been confused with Abdul Hafiz, because Hafiz, for whom he had been working, had given him the phone at a checkpoint. As he stated, “He told me that he did not have any documents to have the phone with him. So he said, ‘You can have my phone because you are handicapped and I don’t think they will search you.’” He added that he did not even know how to use the phone.

Describing Hafiz as someone who supported the new government of Hamid Karzai and was “preaching in the village to bring the peace,” he said, “I was working for him to bring peace … He gave me the telephone in the morning and told me to keep it in my pocket. He told me to work and preach to the people not to fight. That war is not good. This is the reason that I lost my leg. Fighting is not good. War does not have good consequences.”

He also explained, “I was just in my home when they captured me and brought me here. I didn’t do anything,” and expressed frustration at not being able to see classified documents containing evidence against him, saying, “In our culture, if someone is accused of something, they are shown the evidence.” At his review in 2005, he presented the board with letters from his family — all addressed to Abdul Qari, not Abdul Hafiz — including one from his brother, which read, “My respectful brother, you didn’t have any relationship with any political people. We were hoping that you would get released very, very soon. We do not understand why you’re still detained there without a crime.” He was clearly so desperate to be freed from Guantánamo and not to be “amongst these beasts and these people” (as he described his fellow prisoners at one point), that he even offered to present the board with a letter from his wife, even though “It is a big shame in our culture to read my wife’s letter to you, but now I am in a very tough situation.”

Mohamed Rahim: a spectacular case of mistaken identity

If the continued imprisonment of Abdul Hafiz (or Abdul Qari) appeared to be inexplicable, there was, on the surface at least, more of a case against Mohamed Rahim, the fourth prisoner released at the weekend, but this too collapses spectacularly under scrutiny. A resident of a village near Ghazni, Rahim was accused, in his tribunal, of being the chief of logistics for a company providing support directly to the Taliban government, of working for the Taliban Intelligence Office, and of controlling a large weapons cache for the Taliban. In response, he explained that he had been forced to work for the Taliban, and that, because he “was sick” and unable to fight, he was made to work in an administrative post. He denied the allegation that he worked for the Taliban Intelligence Office, calling it an “outrageous” accusation, and also denied controlling a weapons cache. “This doesn’t make sense,” he said. “I was captured in my house. I have no information on these weapons.”

By the time of his next review, in 2005, numerous other allegations had been added, including a claim that he was “identifiable as a former companion of bin Laden during the jihad against the Russians,” and another that he “was among a group protecting bin Laden at his last meeting at Tora Bora.” It was also suggested that he “was entrusted by bin Laden to exfiltrate his guard forces from Afghanistan back to their countries of origin,” and that “bin Laden and his companions spent the night in a house belonging to an Afghan acquaintance of the Detainee.”

There was more in this vein, including a claim that he “attempted to export gems from Afghanistan to Germany in order to raise revenue to finance al-Qaeda,” but what was completely overlooked by his review board — and presumably, by those who were supposed to be capable of analyzing the intelligence relating to the Guantánamo prisoners — is that when he stated, “I am a sick poor farmer with enemies,” he was telling the truth for one particularly glaring reason, which only emerged in passing in his review, when his Designated Military Officer (a soldier assigned to him in place of a lawyer) pointed out that he was Hazara.

One of four main population groups in Afghanistan — the others being Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks — the Hazara, Shia Muslims who are at least partly of Mongol origin, were despised by the Sunni Taliban, who slaughtered them in their thousands. As a result, it is not only appropriate to conclude that the allegations against Rahim were invented by his enemies, but also to conclude that his enemies in Guantánamo came up with the outrageous claims that he was intimately associated with Osama bin Laden.

Release or imprisonment in Afghanistan?

With the exception of Mohamed Jawad, who was released in August after he won his habeas corpus petition, these men are the first Afghans released since January 2009, when Haji Bismullah, who worked for the government of Hamid Karzai as the chief of transportation in a region of Helmand province, was released. Of the 219 Afghans once held at Guantánamo, there are now just 21 remaining in the prison, but it is uncertain whether the four men just released will regain their freedom, or whether, in common with all the Afghan releases since August 2007 (except Jawad, whose case attracted international scrutiny), they will be imprisoned on arrival in Kabul, in a wing of the main prison, Pol-i-Charki, which was refurbished by the U.S. military, and which, although nominally under Afghan control, is reportedly overseen by Americans.

After all this time, and with such scandalous stories of ineptitude on the part of the United States, I would say that the least these men deserve is to be freed outright, and allowed to be reunited with their families.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press), and the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo.” He maintains a blog here.

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Av Sinensky: State Of Love And Trust: Pearl Jam’s Backspacer, Barack Obama, And The Nobel Peace Prize

December 22nd, 2009 admin No comments

My feelings about Pearl Jam can be summarized in eight simple words first uttered by Ben Harper when he appeared with them for a couple of songs at Madison Square Garden in 2003: “This is the greatest band in the world.” That title is not one I would use lightly (nor do I think would Mr. Ben Harper) given my love for music and my admiration for dozens of great bands. What is it then that earns Pearl Jam that title? Is it their raucous hard rock sound? Their legendary live performances? The incredible vastness of their catalog? Sure, all these things are a part of it. For me, however, what puts them a cut above other performers is the way their music, lyrics, and performances have impacted the way I see the world and have served as a reflection of the worldview of so many people. Social and political commentary is a pursuit that is often left to more traditional vocations, but Pearl Jam has never shied away from speaking their minds, be it on gun control, abortion, war, flag burning, the Religious Right, and a host of other topics. So it is of no surprise that when I am trying to understand an issue of the time, Pearl Jam will be one of the places I turn for guidance to see whether they can “shed a little light on it.”

An issue I’ve been trying to understand recently is the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama. This past Thursday, Obama became the fourth president in our nation’s history to receive this award. Speaking in Oslo, the president accepted the award with “deep gratitude and great humility.” By doing so, he reaffirmed his previous statement in October, upon learning that he would be honored, that he would view the award as a “call to action, a call for all nations to confront the challenges of the 21st century.”

The announcement of Obama’s award was met (and continues to be greeted) with much controversy. Many on the right have questioned whether Obama has achieved anything in his brief tenure as president to deserve the honor of such a prestigious award. In an official statement, Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said, “The real question Americans are asking is, ‘What has President Obama actually accomplished?’” This sentiment quickly became the conventional wisdom in the mainstream media. On the morning of the announcement, ABC News’s Jake Tapper tweeted “apparently the standards are more exacting for an ASU honorary degree these days.” (An Arizona State University spokesperson in April explained a decision to invite the president to give the commencement address without also giving him an honorary degree by saying, “His body of work is yet to come. That’s why we’re not recognizing him with a degree at the beginning of his presidency.”) As the date of Obama’s award ceremony approached, the criticism began to emerge from the left, as well. Upon arriving in Oslo for the award, he was greeted by approximately 5,000 protesters opposed to his escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

Indeed, the president himself acknowledged these criticisms in the opening portion of his acceptance speech:

“And yet I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated. In part, this is because I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage. Compared to some of the giants of history who’ve received this prize — Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela — my accomplishments are slight…But perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars.”

Pundits and commentators all over the spectrum have tried to justify and explain the Nobel committee’s choice of Obama. Personally, I see no need to justify the awarding of a prize for peace that was awarded to and never revoked from Yasser Arafat, a man who, until he took his last breath, was an unapologetic terrorist and an organizer, condoner, and propagator of mass murder. The Nobel Peace Prize is a trophy that lost its legitimacy long ago, so I don’t really care whether Obama “deserved” it or not.

Why the committee chose Obama, on the other hand, is an interesting question because it gives us an insight into the way the committee, and by extension the international community, sees our new president and our country since his election. There have been all sorts of attempts to explain their choice of Obama, including the one given by the committee itself (”extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”). But the most telling one may have come in the form of a lighthearted, off-hand remark by Ana Marie Cox on Twitter: “Apparently Nobel prizes now being awarded to anyone who is not George Bush.” George Bush was unpopular at home and especially unpopular abroad. Obama’s best quality might be that he’s not George Bush, reviving optimism among those who had lost faith in the United States. This sentiment is especially evident throughout Pearl Jam’s latest album, Backspacer.

When Pearl Jam exploded onto the national music scene in 1991, much of their success was in their ability to tap into the angst and anger of a generation. Their debut album, Ten, was an 11-track long dissertation on abuse, suicide, unrequited love, rape, death, and murder. As of April 2009, it has sold 9.6 million copies in the U.S. This trend continued throughout the 90’s, as the band continued to pump out album after album of rock songs about isolation, alienation, and lack of faith in both god and humanity. The October 25, 1993 issue of Time Magazine featured a picture of Eddie Vedder with the appropriate title “All The Rage,” as it was their anger that resonated most with their followers.

pearl-jam-timeThe turn of the century and the swearing in of a new president only made this feeling more acute and more targeted. 2003’s Riot Act featured a track titled “Bushleaguer,” a clever attack ad on our 43rd president and a song that when performed live was often accompanied by the band donning Bush masks as they played. 2006’s self-titled album was even more overtly political, featuring songs on the war in Iraq (”World Wide Suicide”), the dwindling job market (”Unemployable”), and the betrayal of our troops (”Army Reserve.”) Indeed, the band’s ire and cynicism has always been present in their lyrics. To them, the two sides of the optimism/pessimism metaphor are “half empty” and “half full of shit” (”1/2 Full”). When it comes to the American Dream, they are “disbelieving” (”Gone”). When speaking about our government, they commented that “for every tool they lend us a loss of independence” (”Grievance.”) and they remade Phil Ochs’ classic “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” with their own stanzas about George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John Roberts, and Alberto Gonzalez, urging each of them to “find another country to be part of.” Lyrics like these were typical throughout their first eight studio albums. However, with their latest release this fall, it is clear that something has changed.

Their new album Backspacer hit stores this September, a mere eight months into Obama’s presidency. While fans continue to debate its place within the band’s body of work and legacy, its distinct tone and themes as compared to their previous works are pretty much agreed upon by all. The album’s first single, “The Fixer,” tells us of someone obsessed with making things better: “when something’s dark, let me shed a little light on it…when something’s broke, I wanna put a bit of fixin on it.” Vedder described the fifth track, “Just Breathe,” as being “as close to a love song as we’ve ever gotten,” and said that the subject of the song is the happiest times of people’s lives when they should just take in the moment and “breathe for a minute.” In “Amongst the Waves,” Vedder tells us that “if not for love I would be drowning. I’ve seen it work both ways, but I am up riding high amongst the waves,” while “Supersonic” speaks of a person’s pure love for music.

The previous albums’ moods of anger and cynicism have given way to Backspacer’s hope and optimism, the two prevailing themes of Obama’s presidential campaign. Indeed, in an interview with Alan Cross, Vedder specifically credited Obama as the inspiration for the album’s hopeful lyrics.

This award may be premature and even misplaced, and while I certainly wouldn’t have selected him if given the chance, I can somewhat understand why others did. Through the simple act of his election and his rhetoric on foreign policy, Obama has already made significant strides in improving the perception of America in the world’s eye. He has made the world a more optimistic, more hopeful, and yes, more peaceful, place. He has won over foreign leaders such as French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who said the award marked “America’s return to the hearts of the world’s peoples,” and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who noted that “in a short time he has been able to set a new tone throughout the world and to create a readiness for dialogue.” He has even infused Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam with enough optimism to enable them to create an album as positive and rosy as Backspacer. And while that may not merit a Nobel Peace Prize, per se, it can certainly help us understand where the selection committee was coming from.

This article has been reprinted with the permission of the author. It originally appeared at The Vertex.

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Jacob M. Appel: Beyond Fluoride: Pharmaceuticals, Drinking Water & the Public Health

December 21st, 2009 admin No comments

This week’s New York Times Magazine draws attention to an article in The British Journal of Psychiatry that has been the talk of bioethical circles since May, when researchers at Japan’s Oita University reported that communities with increased levels of lithium in their drinking water suffered a significantly lower incidence of suicide. The Japanese data confirmed a previous study of drinking water in Texas that found a decreased incidence of both suicide and violent crime in counties with higher-than-average amounts of naturally-occurring lithium in the water. If these protective benefits are replicated–and no equally deleterious health effects of such low-dose exposures are discovered–public health authorities may soon confront the question of whether it is ethical to supplement all public water supplies with lithium.

The pioneering American psychiatrist Peter Kramer, best known for his work Listening to Prozac, first raised such a possibility at a conference in Germany earlier this year. Whether such a policy is justifiable will depend upon further study of risks and benefits. What is clear is that our society may soon stand on the brink of a public health revolution in which pharmaceuticals will be added directly to the water supply in order to further the common good.

The most well-known effort to fortify public water began in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on January 25, 1945, when H.Trendley Dean–one of our nation’s great unsuing heroes–launched an effort to add fluoride to the drinking supply. Six decades later, Surgeon General Richard Carmona was able to write that “every $1 invested in fluoridation saves $38 or more in treatment costs” and that “fluoridation is the single most effective public health measure to prevent tooth decay and improve oral health over a lifetime, for both children and adults.” The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared the fluoridation of drinking water to be “one of ten great public health achievements of the twentieth century.” That is not to say that fluoridation didn’t have its opponents–both mainstream dental scientists and an army of right-wing crackpots who viewed water fortification (and childhood vaccination) as part of a Marxist conspiracy. However, decades of evidence have proven them wrong. Our national dental hygiene is vastly improved from the pre-fluoride era, our water is no more expensive, and Soviet-style communism has not snatched away our liberty

The benefits of lithium fortification may someday prove just as dramatic. Since the doses of lithium shown to be protective in both studies are magnitudes below the therapeutic levels used to control mood swings in bipolar disorder, the Japanese researchers suggest that lithium may prevent suicide through a different mechanism, possibly increasing the production neurotrophic factors that enhance connectivity among brain cells. At such low amounts, lithium is unlikely to produce the negative side effects–hypothyroidism, nephrotoxicity, weight gain–that complicate its use as a psychiatric drug. We should certainly make sure that these risks are minimal before tampering with the public water. At the same time, if low-dose lithium proves as good as its promise, we should not allow abstract arguments about our “freedom” to drink unadulterated water to prevent us from undertaking a mass fortification effort. If we are willing to ingest fluoride to prevent tooth decay, surely we can tolerate a trace of lithium to prevent suicides.

Lithium may actually be the tip of the fortification iceberg. The cholesterol-lowering agents known as statins might also be good candidates for inclusion in the water supply, particularly if data confirms that they increase life-expectancy in otherwise health individuals and if those susceptible to rare side-effects–such as muscle breakdown–could be identified in advance. The social and economic costs of supplying free bottled water to pregnant women, young children and potential side-effect victims might prove vastly lower than those of persuading all other adults to take a daily statin pill. Similarly, fortifying water with thiamine might prevent dementia in alcoholics.

Other possible agents are still in development. If researchers could effectively isolate a chemical that safely blocks pleasure pathways involved in the use of toxic substances, such as tobacco and cocaine, those blocking agents might also be added to the water supply. Preventing nicotine highs through such a novel distribution mechanism would save millions of lives annually. Each of these proposals, of course, should be evaluated on its own merits. Our society might decide that preventing suicide or cocaine addiction is worth such a mass medication effort, but lowering the cardiovascular disease associated with high cholesterol is not. What matters is that our society approaches these questions rationally and democratically, adopting the policy positions that will reduce human suffering and save the most lives possible. Knee-jerk appeals to irrational passions should have no place in this debate.

Some nay-sayers will inevitably argue that medically fortifying the public water is a violation of individual liberty. Of course, nobody is forcing those dissident individuals to drink tap water. They are welcome to purchase bottled water, as do a few hold-outs who still fear the pernicious effects of fluoride, or to dig their own wells. (These critics could learn a lesson from existing traditionalists: The Amish, for example, do not question the majority’s right to use electricity, even though they prefer to light candles.) The difference between adding lithium to water and iodizing salt is a matter of degree, not of kind. From a libertarian perspective, the public ought to be informed which pharmaceuticals have been added to the water and should choose what to imbibe accordingly.

Unfortunately, some opponents will likely attempt to hold the public water hostage, arguing that because drug-free water is natural, is it somehow better. However, if the vast majority of people gain health benefits from fortifying the public water, and particularly if these benefits are life-saving, then there is nothing unreasonable about placing the burden not to drink upon the resistant minority. One person’s right to drink lithium-free water is no greater than another’s right to drink lithium-enhanced water. As long as the negative consequences or inconveniences are relatively minor, water fortification seems to be one of those cases where the majority’s preference and interest should prevail.

Time will reveal whether lithium is indeed the next fluoride. Far more important is the revolutionary prospect of harnessing the common water supply to deliver life-saving and health-enhancing therapies to the public at low cost. The water belongs to the public, after all, and should be used for the collective good. As someone who treasures my freedom immensely–including, I should emphasize, my inalienable right to commit suicide–I look forward to the day when I can sacrifice whatever specious “liberty” claim I might have in consuming “natural” tap water in order to help save the lives of my neighbors and fellow human beings.

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Biden Heads For Georgia, Rejects Russian Sphere Of Influence

July 22nd, 2009 admin No comments

KIEV, Ukraine — U.S. Vice President Joe Biden rejected the Russian push for a sphere of influence over former Soviet nations, saying as he headed to Georgia on Wednesday that no nation could veto another country’s choices.

It has been almost a year since Georgia’s war with Russia turned the small nation on the far frontier of Europe into the epicenter of the simmering conflict between Moscow and the West. President Barack Obama’s attempt to rebuild relations with Russia has raised concerns among some of Russia’s East European neighbors that the U.S. might abandon their interests.

Biden has been attempting to assuage those concerns on a four-day trip to Ukraine and Georgia.

“As we reset the relationship with Russia, we reaffirm our commitment to an independent Ukraine, and we recognize no sphere of influence or no ability of any other nation to veto the choices an independent nation makes,” Biden said in a speech in Kiev on Wednesday.

As the vice president headed to Georgia on Wednesday afternoon, its government was taking steps to prevent more mass demonstrations by the opposition, generated in part by Georgia’s defeat in the war.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s government was shaken this spring by mass street protests demanding his resignation. Ahead of Biden’s arrival in the Georgian capital, police were removing dozens of metal cages the opposition had erected in front of the country’s parliament to block traffic along Tbilisi’s central street.

No arrests were reported, and no resistance from opposition activists was visible along leafy Rustaveli Avenue, which remained closed to vehicles after police set up portable metal fencing. The cages were meant to represent jails – a sign, opponents say, of Saakashvili’s increasing authoritarianism.

The vice president also will meet with leading members of the opposition who had taken part in the monthslong demonstrations. Political foes blame Saakashvili for the August war’s disastrous results and accuse him of riding roughshod over democratic rights.

Saakashvili has said he tried to defend Georgia from Russian aggression, and he announced a series of political reforms Monday meant to address his critics’ complaints that his administration was restricting rights.

After Georgia used military force to try to seize a breakaway region from Moscow-backed separatists in August, Russia sent tanks and warplanes deep into Georgian territory, crushing the country’s army. The conflict ended hopes in the West that Russia, after recovering from the economic and social turmoil of the post-Soviet era, would become a docile, democratic member of the club of European nations.

Instead, Russia has tried to reclaim its historic role as an assertive regional power with global ambitions.

In the Ukraine, Biden reiterated Washington’s support for the country’s NATO membership, if Ukrainians decide to pursue that goal. Currently, more than half of the country is against it.

Biden also urged the feuding Ukrainian leaders to seek a compromise and concentrate on reforming a devastated economy. Biden met with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko on Tuesday and Wednesday.

During his two days of talks with Saakashvili and opposition leaders in Georgia, the vice president plans to demonstrate support for the loyal U.S. ally. The Russia-Georgia war capped years of increasing tensions between the West and Russia, a country key to U.S. and European efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, battle terrorism and secure Europe’s energy supplies.

Shortly after the Georgian war, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared that Moscow has a “zone of privileged interests” among former Soviet and Eastern European satellites. The U.S. and Europe have rejected sphere-of-influence geopolitics, which give great powers sway over their smaller neighbors. And they show no signs of backing down.

Neither do they seem willing to risk a confrontation with Russia on the issue.

The U.S. has pledged to support NATO membership for Georgia as well as Ukraine. But Germany and other European member states are skeptical.

Domestic support for NATO membership is significantly greater in Georgia than in Ukraine. Georgian Defense Minister David Sikharulidze told The Associated Press on Wednesday that entry into the alliance would be beneficial for NATO in peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and operations in Afghanistan. He said Russia “should not be allowed to kill these hopes.”

_____

Associated Press Writer Douglas Birch contributed to this report from Tbilisi, Georgia.

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Murray Fromson: And That’s the Way It Was…

July 22nd, 2009 admin No comments

I had dinner with Walter Cronkite the first night he arrived in Saigon on what was his personal fact finding trip “into country” after the Communists’ 1968 Tet Offensive. He was a hawk, a supporter of the conflict in Vietnam like so many Americans of his generation.

Walter clearly was troubled by the visual images from Tet contrasted with mixed messages he was getting about the war, especially LBJ’s assurance that the war was going well. In the rooftop restaurant of the Caravelle Hotel Cronkite’s frustration was apparent immediately. “How are we going to win this damned war?” he asked me.

I was hesitant to answer, but having traveled up and down the country for several months, having seen evidence of “live and let live” between the Vietnamese government and the Viet Cong, like the sharing of water and rice, I’d concluded that we were witness to a civil war that would not end until we got out of the way and let the two sides decide the future of their country by blood or diplomacy.

Walter was stunned. Like President Kennedy and so many Americans conditioned by the Cold War, he believed in the domino theory that assumed a defeat in Vietnam would lead to the communization of all of Southeast Asia. Cronkite acted as if he could not believe what he was hearing. “That’s just plain crazy,” he said.

At the dinner were Peter Kalisher, CBS’s Paris bureau chief and Cronkite’s executive producer Ernie Leiser who chimed in. “That’s the problem with you so-called ‘Old Asia hands.’ “You think you have it all figured out.” In self-defense, I replied, “Wait a minute, you guys asked me for my opinion and that’s what I gave you. Quite to the contrary, I had not yet figured it out. I only wish that I could.” The dinner ended and soon I left Saigon for the battle at Khe Sanh, but I confirmed Cronkite continued to hear similar messages from other CBS correspondents who had echoed my belief about the realities of the war.

In the weeks that followed, Walter traveled to see the war for himself in the battle for Hue. He gave no sign that he was re-evaluating his view of the Vietnam conflict, for whatever his thoughts were, he kept them to himself. Cronkite rigorously defended the Evening News as a balanced, unbiased presentation of the day’s events. But then on February 27th he summed up his Vietnam trip at the end of a CBS Special Report on the war in Vietnam with a personal departure that stunned the nation:

“To say that we are closer to victory today,” he said, “is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right.” Cronkite went on, “in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

His commentary was a shocker that stunned America; a different Cronkite than I had ever heard before, because until then he had so scrupulously avoided expressing any personal opinions on the air. The question remained, was there a single, defining event or was it the sum total of what he had seen and heard that led to his profound change of heart about the war?

By November 2002, Ernie Leiser was in declining health. Shortly before he died, I wanted to confirm my belief that he had actually written the script for which Cronkite got so much credit. Leiser confirmed my hunch. “I wrote every word of it, but,” he emphasized that “it could not have gone on the air without Walter’s approval.” He added, “When Walter was troubled by Vietnam, he sought out the friends and people he felt comfortable with from his World War II generation.” Ernie remembered the evening before their departure for home when they were invited to dinner with General Creighton Abrams, the successor to General William Westmoreland as commander of all forces in Vietnam. Cronkite knew Abrams from the Battle of the Bulge in World War II and as the daring tank commander of the 2nd Armored Division in the European campaign against Nazi Germany.

After a few drinks, Leiser recalled, Abrams declared firmly that “we cannot win this Goddamned war, and we ought to find a dignified way out.”

That, Leiser told me, “affected Walter profoundly and caused him to approve my script.” In the end, it was his comforting image of decency that enhanced his reputation as a fair-minded but troubled critic of the war. It was important to those of us in the field to know that Cronkite had the courage to risk his reputation when he could just as soon have remained silent.

Murray Fromson, a former CBS News correspondent, is a Professor Emeritus in journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. He has just completed a memoir, “The Whole Truth and Nothing But.”

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Dean Becker: Face The Inquisition

July 20th, 2009 admin No comments

Tomas de Torquemada was known as “The hammer of heretics, the light of Spain, the saviour of his country, the honour of his order”. Barbaric he may have been and was in fact the very heretic he was looking for, but he destroyed less than 2,000 lives during his 15 years as the grand inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition.

Today’s “compassionate” drug warriors have fractured the futures and pulverized the possibilities of more than 37,000,000 US citizens for the crime of possessing plant products and are responsible for tens of thousands of lives lost each year to the folly of their policy. Drug Czars are continuously lauded with platitudes and praise by their fawning minions; far more than was ever heaped on the head of Torquemada.

Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, “…exerted totalitarian control over the media, arts, and information in Germany. In that position, he perfected an understanding of the “Big Lie” technique of propaganda, which is based on the principle that a lie, if audacious enough and repeated enough times, will be believed by the masses.” – (Wikipedia)

The drug war is the first war ever declared for eternity and for nearly 100 years, we have had our own US drug war propaganda ministers; first with the director of the Bureau of Narcotics on through the more recent series of drug czars that blatantly lie for a living. It’s actually in their contracts, to forbid, dissuade, prevent or otherwise deny any talk of legalization and as stated most recently by the new drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, they will continue, hell or high-water and per Presidential guidelines to ‘believe’ that “legalization is not in my vocabulary”.

The US leads the world in its incarceration rate. Our children have the best access of all to drugs through contacts easily made in high school. The Taliban is thriving by profiting on our fear of flowers. The deadly cartels in Mexico continue making their tens of billions of dollars each year despite and because of the presence of tens of thousands of armed troops. The US gangs are prospering as well and continue to afford their high powered weaponry to shoot up our city streets by selling contaminated drugs to our children. AIDS and Hep C cases continue to rise because we are somehow afraid that users might never quit using if they had legal access to syringes.

Where are the politicians and officials who want to kill Osama’s fattest cash cow, who want to eviscerate the Latin cartels or who want to eliminate the reason for which most violent US gangs exist? Who among them wants to take away our children’s easy access to drugs or to eliminate most overdose deaths or to end the street corner shoot outs over drug sales turf?

They are too busy counting the cash they receive as part of the worlds largest scam. Too busy lying for a living to notice or care about the misery caused by their complicity.

This coming Sunday, July 26th I begin a new schedule for the Drug Truth Network radio shows. At 6:30 PM central time I will interview our guest on the Cultural Baggage program, Mr. Paul Armentano of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Paul is co-author of a book now hitting the shelves: Marijuana is Safer – So Why are We Driving People to Drink?

Here’s where you come in, following at 7PM central, Century of Lies will feature a new segment: “Face the Inquisition” where you get the chance to question Paul and I about progress in ending the marijuana wars and the forthcoming NORML conference in smoky San Francisco, September 24-26.

You can tune into both programs, live, at 6:30 central time on Pacifica’s www.kpft.org and call in your questions toll free at 1-877-9-420 420. More details available in the 4:20 report for Monday July 20th.

The two, 29:00 shows will appear along with the seven, daily, 3:00 “4:20 Drug War NEWS” reports each Monday morning, starting July 27 at http://www.drugtruth.net. (We currently have 64 affiliated, yet independent broadcast stations. With a simple email request to dean@drugtruth.net, your station can join the Drug Truth Network, free of charge.)

Future guests will include on August 2nd, the author of Drugs – America’s Holy War, by Professor Arthur Benavie.

As did Torquemada, the modern inquisitors need snitches and informants, liars and certainly a Holy War; but mostly they need you, to remain silent, to fear their venomous wrath.

How long will you allow the Big Lie of the drug war to stand, in the very bright light of now?

Face the inquisition.

PROHIBITION REVERSED

Prohibition creates more harm than drugs
Activists live and die to advance Truth
Truth becomes public consciousness
Reform sought on every continent
We will decide
Gathered at the commons
A beautiful day
The end of war
Media heeds call for human rights
Governments embrace the Truth.
Worldwide jubilation
Civilization blossoms


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Frank Schaeffer: Do Atheists Borrow Religion’s Morality?

July 19th, 2009 admin No comments

Does morality come from religion or is it merely “the language games of one’s time”? Are the most basic moral boundaries we evolved that make life easier and less chaotic a reflection of the character of God? If there is no God, or if He doesn’t care about us, then our common morality is still the result of practical, reality-based needs, which also “teach” that a good life depends on the “Do unto others…” ethic.

Richard Dawkins calls himself a “cultural Christian,” which for him is an unusually frank acknowledgment of the fact that the “viral infection” of religion may be comforting. Indeed, as the BBC reported in December 2007:

Prof. Dawkins, who has frequently spoken out against creationism and religious fundamentalism, [said], “I’m not one of those who wants to stop Christian traditions. This is historically a Christian country. I’m a cultural Christian in the same way many of my friends call themselves cultural Jews or cultural Muslims. So, yes, I like singing carols along with everybody else. I’m not one of those who wants to purge our society of our Christian history.”

As I discuss in my forthcoming book– Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don’t Like Religion (Or Atheism) — ew atheists are willing to admit that they’re borrowing ethical and aesthetic cultural traditions from religion while others, like atheist philosopher Richard Rorty and ethicist Peter Singer, have tried to avoid all assumptions of religious moral norms in their writing. Most atheists cop out, as did Sam Harris in his 2004 bestseller The End of Faith, topping his slam on religion with a helping of sophomoric, religious-sounding whine. To paraphrase: I know we all need meaning. So hey, how about we embrace a sort of secularized Eastern mysticism to help get us through the night, you know, being that hard-edged secular Truth is, well, absolutely true and all, but it hurts our feelings, being as it’s sort of like, you know, depressing.

What Harris doesn’t do is reexamine his atheistic ideas based on the fact that if he’s right (and in a raw, pure and absolutist form atheism is unpalatable to most people), then that might be an indication that there is something to all this “religion stuff” besides the temporary emotional analgesic he describes. Maybe, if wanting meaning is the way people are, and we are part of nature, then those feelings–however they express themselves–might indicate something true about the reality of nature and the way it actually is, rather than just signaling an emotional need for religious therapy.

Or, as author and brilliant writer on evolutionary psychology Robert Wright puts it in his new book The Evolution of God, “If history naturally pushes people toward moral improvement, toward moral truth, and their God, as they conceive their God, grows accordingly, becoming morally richer, then maybe this growth is evidence of some higher purpose, and maybe — conceivably — the source of that purpose is worthy of the name divinity.”

The Problem with an “Invented Vocabulary” of Morality

As I said, one atheist who tried to bite the bullet in a way that Harris lacked the testicular fortitude to do was Richard Rorty. Rorty argued that we make up morality. He believed that bright people are “ironists” who understand that we know nothing except our own “vocabularies.” He said that morality is merely “the language games of one’s time.”

Rorty was the grandson of Walter Rauschenbusch, a theologian, Baptist minister, and leader in what was called the Social Gospel movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So Rorty’s nihilism is nihilism with a twist of religious awareness. Rorty is clear about his legacy from the Social Gospel/theological liberalism of his grandfather. Maybe that’s why he brings a bare-knuckle honesty to his work that, by comparison, makes Harris seem positively wimpy. In Rorty and his Critics, Rorty writes:

The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think that the entire “American liberal establishment” is engaged in a conspiracy. The parents have a point… [W]e do our best to convince these students of the benefits of secularization. We assign first-person accounts of growing up homosexual to our homophobic students for the same reasons that German schoolteachers in the postwar period assigned The Diary of Anne Frank… So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. I am just as provincial as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Stürmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause.

Rorty was honest enough to admit that he had problems with selling his idea of an individually invented moral vocabulary because no society raises children “to make them continually dubious,” as he said. So he wrote that “ironists” like himself should keep their views secret or at least separate their “public and private vocabularies.” In other words, Rorty admitted that his ideas had to be lied about in order to succeed, because the way people actually are does not correspond to his stark atheist philosophy.

Then there is Princeton professor, atheist, and bioethicist Peter Singer. Singer also tried to invent an ethic with no nostalgic nod to religion, especially not toward Judaism or Christianity’s sanctity-of-life beliefs. He has said that some defective children should be destroyed during a trial period after their births. Similar to his argument for abortion, Singer argues in his Practical Ethics, (2nd edition, 1993) that newborns lack the characteristics of personhood (”rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness”) and that therefore “killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.” In Germany, his positions have been compared to the Nazis, and his lectures have been disrupted all over the world by groups representing the handicapped.

According to my friend Angela Creager (one of Singer’s colleagues and a professor of the history of science at Princeton), Singer is a kind man moved by compassion. Nevertheless, he seems not to understand how his ideas strike others; for instance, as evidenced by his protesters, people with disabilities. Singer gets upset when commentators compare his proposals to Nazism, because his family lost people in the Holocaust. Singer’s objections don’t seem reasonable to me.

As Michael Burleigh, a leading historian of the Third Reich, has pointed out in a commentary on Singer’s work, eliminating defectives in pre-Nazi Germany was exactly what opened the door to the Holocaust. In his book Confronting the Nazi Past, Burleigh writes, “Singer omits to mention that one of the essential elements of [Nazi] propaganda was the denial of personality to their victims.” He adds that Singer is “displaying remarkable naiveté” when he suggests that the choices that would have to be made in evaluating a prospective defective for elimination would be in trustworthy hands if doctors were in charge. Burleigh notes that the Nazi euthanasia program was led by scientists and psychiatrists, people drawn from the best-educated and most “civilized” ranks of a sophisticated secular medical class not too different from the academic class Singer himself belongs to.

Atheists say that morality isn’t derived only from religion. I think they’re right. But they seem to have problems when deciding the limits of what is permissible under the rules of their “invented vocabulary” of morality à la Rorty and Singer. Maybe the point is that religion is derived from morality.

I’m guessing that morality predates religion. We all act as if that’s the case. We don’t have long theological debates about, say, incest or wife abuse as though the jury is still out on what is wrong or that our sense of the matter depends on Bible verses. We evolved ideas that make life easier and less chaotic, as in: I don’t want to be clubbed in my sleep so let’s all agree that clubbing people in their sleep is wrong! Those ideas, including parents not taking kindly to “experts” telling them what they should do about their “defective” child, might be a reflection of the character of God. If there is no God, or if He doesn’t care about us, then our common morality is still the result of practical, reality-based needs, which also “teach” that a good life depends on the “Do unto others…” ethic. Either way, morality is a lot more than an individual’s invented vocabulary, and Singer’s ethic seems monstrous to many people for the same reason that George W. Bush’s torturing prisoners in the name of national security was a threat to us all.

I Want My Attorney and My Wife to Believe in God

How individuals are treated affects everyone. Ideas such as Singer’s and George W. Bush’s have consequences. There may indeed be babies born who’d be “better off” killed, or prisoners who “deserve” to be waterboarded or punched and exposed to hunger, cold, and snarling dogs. But the rest of us aren’t better off when morality becomes a function of expediency, be that in the name of national security or of “sensibly” getting rid of the need for all those expensive ramps for the disabled by getting rid of the disabled themselves at birth.

Who decides who’s next? Do you trust an academic ethicist like Singer to make life-and-death judgments when he’s so far removed from reality that he gets hurt feelings when his seminars are picketed by people in wheelchairs (the very sorts of human beings that Singer says might have been better off being killed at birth)? Should a Darth Vader figure like former Vice President Dick Cheney be kept handy to decide when torture is “okay”? Is national security worth preserving if it entails turning our country into a police state?

Do atheists really believe that morality doesn’t exist just because it can’t be put under a microscope? Do any atheists claim that (and, far more tellingly, live as though) moral propositions have no objective value? If Singer finds himself on a planet where disabled people are the norm and he is a minority of one, will he gladly entrust himself to a panel of experts to decide his fate as, in that context, an “abnormal” person? If Rorty had not been paid the royalties generated by the sale of his books, would he have failed to take his publishers to court had his editor argued that in the “invented moral vocabulary” of publishing, they’d just changed the rules of accounting? For that matter, when Singer gets his feelings hurt by outraged disabled people who compare him to the Nazis, isn’t that a tacit admission that there is a right way and a wrong way to treat people, including Australian ethicist/Princeton professors who feel that their benign intentions are being misrepresented?

And what if the New Atheist agenda succeeded beyond Dawkins and his followers’ wildest dreams? Would everything work out perfectly? For instance, what would happen to the environmentalist movement? The appeal of the environmentalist movement is handily compatible with the idea of stewardship. Maybe that appeal works because a sense of stewardship and a sense of the sacred in Nature are intrinsic to our natures, a part of the divine revelation we are gradually developing a capacity to experience. Watch any TV program on the wonders of life on Earth. Even if there is no religious content, the tone is reverential and a sense of the sacred permeates the hushed narration. Why?

A lot more motivation can be inspired by maintaining that one may do God’s will by conserving the earth than by telling people that their lives mean nothing in an ultimate sense, that they are slaves to their genes, conditioning, and evolutionary quirks — but, oh, by the way, they should sacrifice their comforts to save the planet for equally meaningless and deluded future gene rations that they’ll never meet. Or, as atheist apologist, Princeton University professor, and molecular biologist Lee M. Silver writes (in Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontier of Life) about the question of life having meaning and therefore a point: “I have yet to hear a good answer, other than there is no point.”

Now that will really fire people up to make sacrifices!

It seems to me the New Atheists have it wrong. If you deprive people of the solace of faith in a moral system of meaningful connection with something bigger than themselves, and bigger than mere connection to many other “meaningless” people, you aren’t just stripping away window dressing, but demolishing the supporting structure of a happy life. As I said, I think that Harris tacitly admits this by appending his squishy ending to his otherwise hard-nosed book. Atheists, too, depend on some form of spirituality for happiness. Why else do you think that Dawkins’ zeal can only be described as religious, and his followers as disciples? Maybe it’s because the need for meaning won’t be denied, even by people who gather to do just that.

Even one of the most church-hating fathers of the Enlightenment, Voltaire, to whom Christianity was an “infamy,” found the influence of faith, and of Christianity in particular, useful: “I want my attorney, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God,” he wrote, because “then I shall be robbed and cuckolded less often.”

My beef with the New Atheists and with religious fundamentalists is that their ideas just don’t seem aesthetically pleasing or imbued with the poetry that I experience in real life. Ideas about life are too small. Life trumps description, just as what some severely disabled people actually grow up to do and be trumps sage theories on whose life is “worthy to be lived.”

Is Dawkins correct when he says religious people appeal to mystery as a cop-out? Are unnamed things meaningless? Do we have to understand something in order to experience it? I don’t think so.

This essay first appeared on Religion Dispatches. Sign up for the free RD newsletter here

Frank Schaeffer is the author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back and the forthcoming Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don’t Like Religion (Or Atheism)


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Adam Hanft: Take A Bow, Bronx

July 17th, 2009 admin No comments

After listening to Sonia Sotomayor handle the crowd of white boys, you may want to gain some insight into the streets – and a sense of the place – where her Latina wisdom was formed. Hence, my reading list.

You’ll note that some of the books were written before she was born. That doesn’t matter. The life experience she talked about applies across the generational tide of the Bronx; the language shifts, the declensions change, the wisdom remains.

You can see from even this short list that the Bronx doesn’t get the creative credit it deserves; its flashier sibling boroughs — Manhattan or newly-hip Brooklyn – command the immigrant Olympics.

But the doughty, resilient Bronx has more than its share of Pulitzers, Academy Awards, and other signifiers of literary and cinematic ambition. Here’s a quick reading and viewing list that captures the spirit, contradictions and progression of the borough.

Initially, in the early part of the last century, the Bronx was often an immigrant’s second stop. The percentage of Russian Jews who lived in Manhattan dropped from 81% to 40% between 1900 and 1920; in that period the percentage of lived in the Bronx leaped from around 1% to 18%. The Bronx was their Scarsdale.

By the time Sonia Sotomayor’s family moved in, many of the Jews had exited; she was part of a large Puerto Rican influx for whom the Bronx was the first stop.

So here goes:

Bronx Accent: A Literary And Pictorial History of the Borough” by Lloyd Ultan and Barbara Unger

This is a good place to start for the borough novitiate. It begins with the Colonial period, but moves forward at a nice clip to include fiction, non-fiction and poetry from the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Sholom Aleichem, Grace Paley, Cynthia Ozick, James Baldwin, E. L. Doctorow, and others who lived in or wrote about the place.

As “The New York Observer” says (with somewhat strained lyricism) “Like some ingenious choral arrangement, the book contains scores of voices recounting, in fact and fiction, how life was lived in the Bronx from colonial times to the end of the twentieth century.”

Was it Heaven Or Hell” by Mark Twain

Twain rented the Wave Hill estate from 1901-1903, because his sick wife needed to be close to her New York doctors. He wrote “Was it Heaven or Was it Hell?” in the Bronx, but to the best of our knowledge it wasn’t about the D Train, since the subway did not reach the Bronx until 1905.

The Wanderers,” Richard Price.

Richard Price, a chronicler of jazzed-up, shot-up, methed-up urban depth and despair in his novels and screenplays – including the rifle-speed dialogue of “The Wire – grew up in a housing project in the northeast Bronx, not far from Sonia Sotomayor. (The press gets it way wrong when they say she grew up “in the shadow of Yankee Stadium.”)

His first novel, “The Wanderers” – written he was 24 – follows a gang in the 1960s Bronx. William Burroughs, not exactly a blurb whore, said it was “A deeply moving account of confused and spiritually underprivileged youth.”

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City” by Jonathan Mahler

The late and much-missed Howard Cosell uttered those words of dignified desperation during a Yankee game in 1977, and they came to capture the out-of-control death spiral of the city in that summer. It’s a period oft used as the book-end to our current scrubbed burg: a gentrified, luxurified, sanitized, soy-latte-ized New York.

The book weaves together the glorious insanity of those months of scorch: the “Son of Sam” murders; the blackout and arson and looting it provoked; and the World Series the Yankees won, despite, in the words of Publisher’s Weekly, “the collective histrionics of owner George Steinbrenner, manager Billy Martin and outfielder Reggie Jackson.”

Fort Apache, the Bronx

Four years after Howard Cosell’s grand summarization, this 1981 movie about a police station in the South Bronx became a metaphor for everything dangerous and intractable about the borough. “Fort Apache”, is what officers call their police station, and as the poster bleakly put it: “No cowboys. No Indians. No cavalry to the rescue. Only a cop.” Japanese tourists used to come by bus to see “Fort Apache; today, the South Bronx is nearly suburbanized.

Underworld, by Don DeLillo.

DeLillo was born in the Bronx, but he’s not prone to nostalgic schmooze about his childhood and immigrant Italian parents. When Tom LeClair interviewed the writer for “The Atlantic”, he was handed an engraved card reading “I DON’T Want to Talk About It.”

Talk no, write yes. DeLillo’s post-modern masterpiece, “Underworld”, is bound up in the borough; the narrative lurches backward until it lands on the Bronx in 1951.

“City Boy: The Adventures of Herbie Bookbinder,” by Herman Wouk

Wouk is one of those mid-century Book-of-the-Month Clubbish novelists who’s as desperately out of favor (and fashion) as lime jello. “The Caine Mutiny” made his reputation, but three years before that he published “City Boy”, whose subtitle reveals the author’s literary pretensions.

Nowhere near as bitterly raw as “Call it Sleep,” the book depicts a Bronx that is tough but sit-com worthy, with protective immigrant parents, business mishigas, and a summer-camp set piece.

Augie March it isn’t, and while time has dwindled its characters to Borscht Beltian stick figures, its echoey evocation of an era has it charms. And any novel with a character named “Yishy Gabelson” can’t be missed.

“South by South Bronx,” by Abraham Rodriguez.

A worth-reading contemporary, noirish, post-modern novel with multiple story lines – an NYPD Detective’s search for a drug dealer, terrorism, Leni Riefenstahl, Anne Sexton. The Daily News said it “takes the Bronx-born writer’s longtime concerns about Puerto Rican identity and street-level realism and meshes them with the structure of a classic pulp fiction narrative.”

“Bronx Primitive,” by Kate Simon

Kate Simon has plunged off the radar, and that’s a shame. Her New York Times obit called her an “acclaimed memoirist” – largely based on this book, but the poor dear even lacks a Wikipedia page (where’s her publisher?) “Bronx Primitive” is a must-read, a classic in the sensitive-child-of-immigrants-in-a-harsh-environment genre.

“Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation,” by Jeff Chang

One of the most culturally complete surveys of hip-hop. Publishers Weekly wrote that “Chang shows how hip-hop arose in the rubble of the Bronx in the 1970s, when youth unemployment hit 60%-80%; traces the music through the black-Jewish racial conflicts of 1980s New York to the West Coast scene and the L.A. riots; and follows it to the Kristal-soaked, bling-encrusted corporate rap of today.”

“Act One,” by Moss Hart

This is a classic theater autobiography. Hart was born in the Bronx, but couldn’t wait to get out. He recalls “My feet were embedded in the upper Bronx, but my eyes were set firmly towards Broadway.”

He writes movingly of his Aunt Kate, who introduced him to the theater despite his father’s wishes, and describes going to “Saturday matinees at the local stock company, and a little later to touring companies at the Bronx Opera House.” Yes, really, seriously, a Bronx Opera House.

“The Genuis,” by Theodore Dreiser

Not many know that the author of “American Tragedy” lived in the Bronx. He came as a restorative; the outrage that “Sister Carrie” provoked caused a nervous breakdown, and he settled in the village of Kingsbridge, which he described as follows:

“This village, set down among green hills…was one of the fairest and most pleasing pictures of earth that I have ever witnessed. It was a quiet old place, bereft by the flight of time…From the depot as you dismounted from the train a winding, tree-shaded road led up across Broadway…” Yes, that’s our Bronx.”

The novel “The Genius”, which was published after his death, draws inspiration from these bucolic years.

The Poetry of Heinrich Heine

The poet never set foot in the Bronx, nor wrote about. However, when anti-Semitic fervor in Germany would not permit a statue of him from being erected – even though he converted – it was moved to the Bronx. Here’s a photo.


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Adam Hanft: The Bronx List: A Borough-Wide, Confirmation-Ready, Reading (And Watching) Collection

July 17th, 2009 admin No comments

After listening to Sonia Sotomayor handle the crowd of white boys, you may want to gain some insight into the streets – and a sense of the place – where her Latina wisdom was formed. Hence, my reading list.

You’ll note that some of the books were written before she was born. That doesn’t matter. The life experience she talked about applies across the generational tide of the Bronx; the language shifts, the declensions change, the wisdom remains.

You can see from even this short list that the Bronx doesn’t get the creative credit it deserves; its flashier sibling boroughs — Manhattan or newly-hip Brooklyn – command the immigrant Olympics.

But the doughty, resilient Bronx has more than its share of Pulitzers, Academy Awards, and other signifiers of literary and cinematic ambition. Here’s a quick reading and viewing list that captures the spirit, contradictions and progression of the borough.

Initially, in the early part of the last century, the Bronx was often an immigrant’s second stop. The percentage of Russian Jews who lived in Manhattan dropped from 81% to 40% between 1900 and 1920; in that period the percentage of lived in the Bronx leaped from around 1% to 18%. The Bronx was their Scarsdale.

By the time Sonia Sotomayor’s family moved in, many of the Jews had exited; she was part of a large Puerto Rican influx for whom the Bronx was the first stop.

So here goes:

Bronx Accent: A Literary And Pictorial History of the Borough” by Lloyd Ultan and Barbara Unger

This is a good place to start for the borough novitiate. It begins with the Colonial period, but moves forward at a nice clip to include fiction, non-fiction and poetry from the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Sholom Aleichem, Grace Paley, Cynthia Ozick, James Baldwin, E. L. Doctorow, and others who lived in or wrote about the place.

As “The New York Observer” says (with somewhat strained lyricism) “Like some ingenious choral arrangement, the book contains scores of voices recounting, in fact and fiction, how life was lived in the Bronx from colonial times to the end of the twentieth century.”

Was it Heaven Or Hell” by Mark Twain

Twain rented the Wave Hill estate from 1901-1903, because his sick wife needed to be close to her New York doctors. He wrote “Was it Heaven or Was it Hell?” in the Bronx, but to the best of our knowledge it wasn’t about the D Train, since the subway did not reach the Bronx until 1905.

The Wanderers,” Richard Price.

Richard Price, a chronicler of jazzed-up, shot-up, methed-up urban depth and despair in his novels and screenplays – including the rifle-speed dialogue of “The Wire – grew up in a housing project in the northeast Bronx, not far from Sonia Sotomayor. (The press gets it way wrong when they say she grew up “in the shadow of Yankee Stadium.”)

His first novel, “The Wanderers” – written he was 24 – follows a gang in the 1960s Bronx. William Burroughs, not exactly a blurb whore, said it was “A deeply moving account of confused and spiritually underprivileged youth.”

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City” by Jonathan Mahler

The late and much-missed Howard Cosell uttered those words of dignified desperation during a Yankee game in 1977, and they came to capture the out-of-control death spiral of the city in that summer. It’s a period oft used as the book-end to our current scrubbed burg: a gentrified, luxurified, sanitized, soy-latte-ized New York.

The book weaves together the glorious insanity of those months of scorch: the “Son of Sam” murders; the blackout and arson and looting it provoked; and the World Series the Yankees won, despite, in the words of Publisher’s Weekly, “the collective histrionics of owner George Steinbrenner, manager Billy Martin and outfielder Reggie Jackson.”

Fort Apache, the Bronx

Four years after Howard Cosell’s grand summarization, this 1981 movie about a police station in the South Bronx became a metaphor for everything dangerous and intractable about the borough. “Fort Apache”, is what officers call their police station, and as the poster bleakly put it: “No cowboys. No Indians. No cavalry to the rescue. Only a cop.” Japanese tourists used to come by bus to see “Fort Apache; today, the South Bronx is nearly suburbanized.

Underworld, by Don DeLillo.

DeLillo was born in the Bronx, but he’s not prone to nostalgic schmooze about his childhood and immigrant Italian parents. When Tom LeClair interviewed the writer for “The Atlantic”, he was handed an engraved card reading “I DON’T Want to Talk About It.”

Talk no, write yes. DeLillo’s post-modern masterpiece, “Underworld”, is bound up in the borough; the narrative lurches backward until it lands on the Bronx in 1951.

“City Boy: The Adventures of Herbie Bookbinder,” by Herman Wouk

Wouk is one of those mid-century Book-of-the-Month Clubbish novelists who’s as desperately out of favor (and fashion) as lime jello. “The Caine Mutiny” made his reputation, but three years before that he published “City Boy”, whose subtitle reveals the author’s literary pretensions.

Nowhere near as bitterly raw as “Call it Sleep,” the book depicts a Bronx that is tough but sit-com worthy, with protective immigrant parents, business mishigas, and a summer-camp set piece.

Augie March it isn’t, and while time has dwindled its characters to Borscht Beltian stick figures, its echoey evocation of an era has it charms. And any novel with a character named “Yishy Gabelson” can’t be missed.

“South by South Bronx,” by Abraham Rodriguez.

A worth-reading contemporary, noirish, post-modern novel with multiple story lines – an NYPD Detective’s search for a drug dealer, terrorism, Leni Riefenstahl, Anne Sexton. The Daily News said it “takes the Bronx-born writer’s longtime concerns about Puerto Rican identity and street-level realism and meshes them with the structure of a classic pulp fiction narrative.”

“Bronx Primitive,” by Kate Simon

Kate Simon has plunged off the radar, and that’s a shame. Her New York Times obit called her an “acclaimed memoirist” – largely based on this book, but the poor dear even lacks a Wikipedia page (where’s her publisher?) “Bronx Primitive” is a must-read, a classic in the sensitive-child-of-immigrants-in-a-harsh-environment genre.

“Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation,” by Jeff Chang

One of the most culturally complete surveys of hip-hop. Publishers Weekly wrote that “Chang shows how hip-hop arose in the rubble of the Bronx in the 1970s, when youth unemployment hit 60%-80%; traces the music through the black-Jewish racial conflicts of 1980s New York to the West Coast scene and the L.A. riots; and follows it to the Kristal-soaked, bling-encrusted corporate rap of today.”

“Act One,” by Moss Hart

This is a classic theater autobiography. Hart was born in the Bronx, but couldn’t wait to get out. He recalls “My feet were embedded in the upper Bronx, but my eyes were set firmly towards Broadway.”

He writes movingly of his Aunt Kate, who introduced him to the theater despite his father’s wishes, and describes going to “Saturday matinees at the local stock company, and a little later to touring companies at the Bronx Opera House.” Yes, really, seriously, a Bronx Opera House.

“The Genuis,” by Theodore Dreiser

Not many know that the author of “American Tragedy” lived in the Bronx. He came as a restorative; the outrage that “Sister Carrie” provoked caused a nervous breakdown, and he settled in the village of Kingsbridge, which he described as follows:

“This village, set down among green hills…was one of the fairest and most pleasing pictures of earth that I have ever witnessed. It was a quiet old place, bereft by the flight of time…From the depot as you dismounted from the train a winding, tree-shaded road led up across Broadway…” Yes, that’s our Bronx.”

The novel “The Genius”, which was published after his death, draws inspiration from these bucolic years.

The Poetry of Heinrich Heine

The poet never set foot in the Bronx, nor wrote about. However, when anti-Semitic fervor in Germany would not permit a statue of him from being erected – even though he converted – it was moved to the Bronx. Here’s a photo.


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