Jonathan Rée writes a fascinating piece here, which has much about
Christian attitudes to death and to corpses, and to the doctrinal highways and byways on that. What caught my eye more especially, though, were some illuminating remarks of his about the difficulties for us rationalists on the same subject. Jonathan writes:
The decline of hardline rationalism about bereavement may be part of a global social trend towards blubbering sentimentality and public exhibitions of grief: Princess Diana and all that. But there could be something more serious behind it too: a suspicion that the no-nonsense approach to death advocated by pure-minded atheists bears a horrible resemblance to the attitudes that lie behind the great political crimes of the 20th century - Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the massified deaths of two world wars, the millions discarded as obstacles to progress in the Soviet Union and China, and of course the Nazi death camps.
If Holocaust stories are uniquely hard to bear, it is not because they describe suffering, death and humiliation on a bewildering scale, but because of the calculated impersonality and disinterested anonymity with which they were inflicted on their victims. In a restrained and startlingly beautiful new memoir called Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, the historian Otto Dov Kulka allows himself, after 70 years of reticence, to recall his life as a little boy in the grotesque quasi-normality of the "family camp" Auschwitz-Birkenau – an institution designed to provide Red Cross officials with living evidence that the inmates of the camps in Poland were happy and healthy and well looked after, though in reality they were destined for extermination like everyone else.
In a pivotal chapter Kulka prints translations of three poems, written in Czech from the point of view of a young female prisoner. One of them declares that "I'd sooner die a coward than have blood on my hands," and others speak of the prospect of leaving nothing to be remembered by: there will be no "wreaths or wrought-metal grilles" for those about to die, or for "betrayed youth" - but perhaps "no monument is needed." These are fine poems, but more than that too. They were written, as Kulka explains, on flimsy letter paper and thrust into the hands of a Kapo by a girl about to walk into a gas chamber. Later they were passed to Kulka's father, and, by a series of chances, saved from the destruction that engulfed almost everything else.
No one will ever know who the poet was, what she looked like, who she loved or where she came from: her name has been wiped from the historical record, along with any facts or memories or anecdotes that might distinguish her from six million other victims of mass murder. Maybe it's because I'm a sentimentalist that I feel twinges of reverence for the words on those frail pieces of paper. Maybe my fellow atheists will accuse me of religion-envy, but I cannot help lamenting the impossibility of an individual commemoration for the lost poet. The fact that no trace remains seems like an aggravation of a crime against humanity, a gratuitous exacerbation of injustice.
And then in conclusion:
To love someone is to treasure the hint of a smile, the strength of a hand, the set of a jaw, the plant of a foot or the curl of a lock of hair. And one of the disconcerting things about death is that it does not immediately annihilate these charms, as we might expect and even hope: more than a trace of them lingers in the cold corpse. A fuss about a trifle, of course. Or perhaps not. It is easy to mock the foibles of others; rather harder to face up to our own.
It's a fine essay, worth your time; and it brings home why the irreligious among us need to acknowledge the values religion embodies that we too should hold on to.
The Unrepentant Jacobin was born in London, and studied in Manchester, Knoxville Tennessee and Dublin. He moved to London in 2000 to study a postgraduate course in film-making, graduated as a director and became a freelance film-maker. He lives alone in North London and blogs at Jacobinism.
Why do you blog? > To explore the issues with which I have become preoccupied, and as a means of involving myself in the argument. There's no better way to learn.
What has been your best blogging experience? > My second post was about Chomskyite idiotarians Media Lens. They described it as 'beyond shameful' and 'one of the worst yet'. For me their outraged indignation constituted a great endorsement. I remain proud of that post.
What has been your worst blogging experience? > Unintentionally quote-mining Kenan Malik, a writer for whom I have a great deal of time and respect. Still not entirely sure how it happened and I corrected it as soon as it was brought to my attention, but I was mortified. There are few things more important as a polemicist than being scrupulous and fair-minded with the arguments of others.
What would be your main blogging advice to a novice blogger? > Explain and persuade, don't hector.
Who are your intellectual heroes? > Tom Paine, although I feel fairly sure he would have resisted the 'intellectual' label.
What are you reading at the moment? > An essay on the Counter-Enlightenment by Isaiah Berlin.
Who are your cultural heroes? > Bob Dylan, Pauline Kael, Norman Mailer, Buster Keaton.
What is the best novel you've ever read? > Not sure I feel qualified to select on the basis of literary quality, but my favourite novel is probably The Day of the Locust.
Can you name a major moral, political or intellectual issue on which you've ever changed your mind? > The Iraq War – although this was part of a larger change in my thinking which led to the wholesale shedding of my youthful hesperophobia.
What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to combat? > That there is no such thing as objective truth.
Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major and lasting influence on how you think about the world? > Paul Berman's polemic Terror and Liberalism had an enormous impact on me. Literary, eloquent, clear-minded and persuasive. Berman is the finest liberal essayist I've come across. His patient dismantling of anti-War pieties in that short book is breathtaking.
What is your favourite piece of political wisdom? > Rumsfeld's 'unknown unknowns'.
If you could effect one major policy change in the governing of your country, what would it be? > The dismantling of the prevailing segregationist multi-cultural model, combined with a thoroughgoing assault on the moral and cultural relativism underpinning it.
What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world? > Religious fanaticism and its hand-maidens, sectarian hatred, woman hatred and Jew hatred. A combination of these things is already tearing a number of countries to pieces before our eyes. Nuclear proliferation comes a close second.
Do you think the world (human civilization) has already passed its best point, or is that yet to come? > I disapprove of Golden Ageism. If we do slip backwards, we must simply redouble our efforts. There's still much to be done.
What would be your most important piece of advice about life? > 'Enjoy yourself. It's later than you think!'
Do you think you could ever be married to, or in a long-term relationship with, someone with radically different political views from your own? > No. But I'd find marriage to someone whose views were identical to my own extremely boring.
What do you consider the most important personal quality? > Straightforwardness.
What personal fault do you most dislike? > Flakiness.
In what circumstances would you be willing to lie? > As few as possible – not because it isn't expedient or morally justifiable sometimes, but because I'm really not very good at it.
Do you have any prejudices you're willing to acknowledge? > I dislike any ostentatious displays of religious or political affiliation. Slogan-bearing badges and t-shirts, religiously observant haircuts, dress codes and iconography of any kind.
What commonly enjoyed activities do you regard as a waste of time? > Sunbathing.
If you were to relive your life to this point, is there anything you'd do differently? > William Burroughs, when asked if he had any regrets, said: 'My god, what a question! There isn't a day that goes by where I don't regret something I've said or done. Now you're asking me about a lifetime?!' My feelings exactly.
The expression 'war on terror' just drives people potty. I thought I'd seen everything in the way of feebleness about why you can't have such a thing as a war on terror, but I underestimated the ingenuities of the human thought process.
Timothy Garton Ash is a serious commentator. He writes consistently well, thoughtfully and informatively. In today's Guardian he writes a perfectly reasonable column against banning hate speech. And then he throws in this in his concluding paragraph:
It is as foolish and futile to try to criminalise a whole emotion as it is to aspire to defeat one in a war. (The "war on terror".)
It's news to me that defeating an emotion is one of the aims of the war on terror. Defeating jihadist terrorism; defeating organizations and movements wedded to terrorism as a tactic - these are rational objectives. But trying to defeat fear as such, or hate, or whatever other emotion it might be? That would be rather silly - as is Garton Ash's suggestion that it might be anyone's aim. (Thanks: E.)
I think the biggest shift that has taken place in my thinking over the past 30 years is that I'm a lot less tolerant of relativist ideas, and multiculturalist ideas than I used to be. And that's something that when you say it, it induces shock and horror sometimes. 25 years ago, I was writing material that, if it wasn't poststructuralist, was at least 'fellow traveling' with the poststructuralists, arguing essentially anti-foundationalist ideas, arguing that the Western liberal tradition was just one tradition among other traditions, and so on. In a way, I think I was in bad faith over a lot of that. I believed that liberalism would always be there, and so one can afford to attack it. The events of the last 20 years have shown that that's really not the case, that a lot of the traditional liberal values of freedom and tolerance are seriously under attack and need to be defended. So I've become a defender of the Enlightenment project in a way that I wasn't maybe 30 years ago - that's a big shift.
There are quite a few other people who could do with making this journey.
Stian Westlake is puzzled by a tension he detects within the university system. On the one hand, British academics tend to think of 'hands-off, laissez-faire neoliberalism' as a sham and favour government regulation of many aspects of the economy. On the other hand, they are mostly very critical of the public regulation of universities themselves. He says:
There seems to be a discrepancy here. If academics believe that shopkeepers and stockbrokers and factory owners can be helped out by the wise hand of government, why are they so opposed to it in their own line of work? Why should enthusiasts for industrial policy suddenly act like members of the Hayek Appreciation Society when it comes to the business of research?
Westlake sets aside one or two putative explanations for the discrepancy that seem unpersuasive to him: university and research council managers aren't more stupid than those in other domains; and university research isn't harder to manage than other types of activity. So how to understand the whole puzzle? Are these all secret Hayekians?
Let me try a counter-proposal. I might think that children mostly fare better with loving and responsible parenting than they do if they can simply run wild and suit themselves. This wouldn't prevent me from taking a dim view of particular parental 'regimes' that I saw round and about. There's no discrepancy there whatever. And I could imagine academics who think that governement should have a major role in university education - such as, for example, in helping to finance and facilitate it - while at the same time regarding certain particular efforts at directing academic research towards economically useful areas and away from less obviously utilitarian ends as philistine and counter-productive. Logical problems in that exercise - none.
... when asked who is to blame for some particularly egregious atrocity or violation of human rights, the Western liberal's response is increasingly reducible to two short words: "we are".
In view of recent posts at normblog I don't need to say I think that James is on to something. I would, however, just like to register - as I've doneherebefore - that 'liberal' doesn't have to, and doesn't always, assume this debased meaning and neither should we let it. Liberalism has also been a brave and indispensable political tradition, one that is essential today to any left worth taking seriously; it is the repository of certain fundamental values to do with liberties, rights and the rule of law, and there are liberals for whom the protection of these values is central to why we need to fight murderous obscurantism rather than making excuses for it.
I was going to give this a miss, honest. I was going to give it a miss not only because it's Seumas Milne being himself about the Woolwich atrocity, but also because what Milne's being himself on that subject consists of is being pretty much the same as Glenn Greenwald and Terry Eagleton on the same thing and I've lately said what I wanted to say about that. So yet once more Milne takes us across the terrain: to claim that US-British wars fuel terror attacks at home is not to justify them - no way, friend - and we're back with old Doc Tezzawald.
But then I just happened to notice this (which provides my excuse for commenting on the Milne after all). He says: 'even to mention the western wars that drive these attacks is deemed to justify them'. See it - 'that drive these attacks'? Now, look at this from the same Seumas Milne in the immediate aftermath of 9/11:
... any glimmer of recognition of why people might have been driven to carry out such atrocities, sacrificing their own lives in the process - or why the United States is hated with such bitterness, not only in Arab and Muslim countries, but across the developing world - seems almost entirely absent.
They were driven to carry out the atrocities then, and Western wars still drive the terrorist attacks now. It isn't exactly the language of free or responsible human agency. So I'm having a pinch of salt on the Milne variant of the Tezzawaldian plea.
Academy Award-winner Morgan Freeman was honored this month with the Jake Eberts Key of Knowledge Award at a gala reception hosted by Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (CFHU).
The award celebrates Freeman's dedication to combating racism and promoting knowledge and education worldwide. The gala was held at the Toronto Center for the Arts and was attended by more than 700 guests.
The event raised $2 million for the Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada (IMRIC), Canada's premier institute in Israel and a symbol of the scientific cooperation and friendship between both countries.
Hebrew University President Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson presented the award to Morgan Freeman.
"In presenting this Award, the Hebrew University and its Canadian Friends association pay tribute to your long-standing commitment to humanitarian relief the world over, your affirmation of the dignity and autonomy of every human being, and your commitment to advancing education - values that we share in common," Prof. Ben-Sasson said.
"The Hebrew University, Israel's first and leading institution of higher education, is a meeting place for peoples of all beliefs and backgrounds, and an institution whose goals to seek truth and serve humanity are pursued in a spirit of openness, pluralism and tolerance.
"In the words of Albert Einstein, one of the Hebrew University's visionary founders: 'A university is a place where the universality of the human spirit manifests itself.'"
Did Einstein forget to say after 'universality of the human spirit' that this has to give way in certain fetid little corners of the Western academy, including the trade union UCU?