Thursday, July 24, 2014

Kristallnacht All Over Again

A Parisian suburb known for its multiculturalism exploded in antisemitic hatred the other day.

It's interesting that news reports emphasize that the suburb was a multicultural oasis. Multiculturalism is just a feel-good euphemism for tribalism. Wherever disparate cultures are thrown together they either assimilate or they eventually wind up at each others' throats. The concept of a mosaic of cultures living together in harmony is a liberal fantasy rooted more in an unfounded belief in the inherent goodness of human beings than in empirical historical precedent.

People will only tolerate each other if they share a common core culture - particularly language and values. The more differences there are between people the more they are seen as "other" and the more friction there'll be between them. If there's a history of conflict and bloodshed between them in the countries of origin then the hope that they will get along in their adopted multicultural environment is almost certain to be dashed. This is why celebrations of differences among cultures living together is ill-conceived. What we should celebrate are the things that make us alike. We only encourage resentment and conflict by celebrating our differences and treating others as outsiders. Nations with large minority populations should strive to be cultural melting pots, not mosaics.

Lest we think that an apparent reprise of 1938 in Paris is limited to Europe and the effete French, the same sort of hatred for Jews is simmering in American cities. Boston saw a series of protests in recent days not just against Israel, but against Jews. Antisemitic insults were hurled and police had to extract several Jewish demonstrators from a crowd of pro-Palestinian leftist demonstrators who shouted for Jews to be killed and/or sent back to extermination camps.

The last time the Jews were targeted for murder it was by extremist socialists like the Nazis. This time it's socialists simpliciter. The Left and other Palestinian sympathizers, frustrated by their inability to harm Jews living in Israel, threaten to take out their hatreds on Jews living in supposedly enlightened Europe. Of course, "enlightenment" means little when it comes to tribal hatreds. Germany in 1938 was the most enlightened place in the world. Europeans, just like all human beings, have the heart of a beast covered by a thin patina of civilization. It doesn't take much to dissolve the patina away. Antisemitism seems to be an acid that dissolves that patina more quickly than just about anything else.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Michael Ruse's Ethics

Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting recently interviewed atheist philosopher Michael Ruse for his series of interviews at the New York Times Opinionator blog. At one point in the exchange Gutting asked Ruse about his views on the relationship between religion and morality.

Gutting asked, "Is one of religion’s merits that it provides a foundation (intellectual and practical) for morality through the idea of God as divine lawgiver?" To which Ruse replied,
I am on record as an “evolutionary skeptic.” I don’t deny substantive morality — you ought to return your library books on time — but I do deny objective foundations. I think morality is a collective illusion, genetic in origin, that makes us good cooperators. And I would add that being good cooperators makes each one of us individually better off in the struggle for existence. If we are nice to other people, they are much more likely to be nice to us in return.

However, as the philosopher J.L. Mackie used to argue, I think we “objectify” substantive ethics — we think it objectively the case that we ought return library books on time. But we do this (or rather our genes make us do this) because if we didn’t we would all start to cheat and substantive ethics would collapse to the ground. So I don’t buy the moral argument for the existence of God. I think you can have all of the morality you need without God.
Ruse's response raises several questions. If morality is merely a set of "substantive" rules that we ought to follow if we want other people to treat us well, what if I can get along perfectly well in the "struggle for existence" without following these rules? Would it be wrong for me to ignore them? What if it actually promotes my chances for evolutionary success to flout the rules, would it be wrong to flout them? What if I don't give a fig for my evolutionary success, why should I follow those rules?

Consider a concrete example. I choose to ignore, let us say, the suffering of children in some other part of the world. I'm in a position to help them, I even present myself to others as one who is helping them, but in fact am not. Am I doing anything wrong by ignoring them? What obligates me to help them? Why is it wrong to pose as their benefactor when in fact I am not? On Ruse's view why is it wrong to refuse to help others who will never be in a position to ever return the favor?

Or consider a very powerful ruler who has life and death authority over his subjects. If no harm can come to him for anything he does, what's wrong, on Ruse's view, with such a man treating his political opponents cruelly? Imagine further that this man is able to deceive his people into thinking that he is in fact a kind and benevolent ruler when in fact behind the scenes he's a terribly cruel tyrant. Would Ruse think that would be wrong? It's hard to see how.

Ruse's position leads inevitably to egoism, the view that my good is the only good I need be concerned about. When he says that morality is an illusion that our genes create to get us to cooperate with each other he undercuts any ground for taking morality seriously. Why should we take an illusion seriously? Why should we think that a random, impersonal process like genetic evolution could ever impose a duty on us to behave one way rather than another?

Unless there is an objective moral law established by a transcendent moral authority able to enforce the law and hold us accountable to it there simply is no right or wrong behavior. There are only actions that some of us like and others dislike.

In other words, one can hold that it's wrong to be cruel or one can hold that there is no God (setting aside the matter of how we should properly conceptualize God), but what one cannot do is hold both of these propositions simultaneously. If one is true the other is false.

Atheist philosopher Richard Rorty saw this clearly. He famously observed that "For the secular man there's no answer to the question 'Why not be cruel?' "

On atheism, morality is nothing more than a set of subjective preferences and tastes, of no more significance than a person's preference of one flavor of ice cream over another. That being the case, when an atheist says anything more about another person's behavior than that they like it or don't like it, they're acting as if God exists while simultaneously denying that he does, and that's irrational.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Angry Atheist

A year ago a video appeared on YouTube that ultimately went viral. Perhaps you saw it but, as often happens with pop cultural phenomena, I missed it completely. Happily, it was resurrected by Hot Air's resident atheist Allahpundit who pondered whether the tirade of the man on the video was staged or genuine.

I tend to think for reasons stated by the man who filmed it that it was genuine, but that the man who is the subject of the video needs help and compassion. He seems to be suffering a psychotic episode, but may, on the other hand, not be mentally deranged at all but just be releasing a lot of pent-up anger.

In any case, one wonders how representative of contemporary atheism this man is, not in terms of his behavior so much, but in terms of his convictions. How many people out there are as angry and hate-filled as he? How many atheists are laboring under as many misconceptions about Christianity as this fellow is? For that matter, how many Christians come across to non-Christians as angry and irrational as this man comes across?

The video is both funny and sad - sad because if it's genuine this man has evidently experienced a lot of pain in his life, and funny because, well, you'll have to watch it for yourself.

The incident takes place at Sproul Plaza on Berkeley's campus and viewers are cautioned that there's a lot of obscenity. I was reluctant to post it for that reason, but I chose to do so because I believe the man gives us an important look, though he's an extreme example, at how many people view Christians and Christianity.
You might wish to read also the commentary by atheists Allahpundit and Hement Mehta at the links above.

Monday, July 21, 2014

How the Israelis Know Where to Look

I returned Saturday from a vacation in Italy having spent a week admiring that country's vast treasures of art, history, and architecture. I had been pretty much out of touch with the news while abroad but had heard bits and pieces of the attack on the Malaysian jet by Russian-supported separatists in Ukraine, the ground invasion of Gaza, and the continuing crisis on our southern border.

The globe seems to be overwhelmed with unmanageable crises and yet the President's press secretary, Josh Ernest, assures us that his boss' policies have "made the world more tranquil." Either the world looks very different to people in Washington than it does to us living in the hinterlands or Mr. Ernest has been spending too much time in Colorado availing himself of opportunities afforded by Colorado's new pot laws.

Anyway, I came across a piece at Debkafile on how Israel knows where to look to find targets for their air and ground forces. Here's an excerpt:
IDF (Israeli Defense Force) obtains its eyes on the ground either voluntarily, inadvertently or by interrogating prisoners.

The spies on the ground of the Shin Bet, IDF combat intelligence-gathering and AMAN field units, trained in clandestine operations in an Arab environment, may pick up data bonanzas from ordinary people in war zones, who are willing to talk out of various motives:

Financial: Ordinary Gazan Palestinians, in contrast to their ruling elite, are in dire financial distress. They may be persuaded to part with valuable information for a cash reward or a permit to cross into Israel.

Revenge: They are deeply fragmented by factional and personal rivalries. Certain elements may offer information to settle scores with their opponents.

Safe Guarantee: A Palestinian in Gaza may be willing to sell valuable secrets to buy an IDF guarantee of safety from attack for himself, his family and his property for the duration of the Israeli-Hamas military conflict.

Buying long-term collaborators with financial or medical rewards is one of the key HUMINT operations which are performed under cover of the IDF ground incursion.
How likely is it, do you suppose, that the Palestinians have cultivated the same sorts of sources among Israelis?

Of course, different measures are employed against captured combatants but even with these the Israelis prefer subtlety to force:
Contrary to conventional assumptions, Israeli interrogators have not found violence to be the most productive method of extracting secrets from unwilling subjects. They obtain their best results by tricks and subterfuge and, dovetailing the information obtained with the data incoming from other sources, human and other.

They also act on the premise that their subjects may be utterly faithful to their national and religious ideals, but some may also be human beings with personal ambitions, wives, aging parents or sick children in need of medical or other assistance. Therefore, a detailed rundown on the subject’s CV obtained in advance will give the investigator the advantage of knowing where to apply pressure to extract information.

This sort of pressure is apt to produce a gold mine, the key piece of information for unlocking such secrets as the locations of terrorist tunnel openings – the first of which Israel ground forces in fact found Friday night in schools, private homes and greenhouses.

It may also yield from prisoners such valuable data as the whereabouts of the booby traps Hamas rigged for invaders, the identities of contact men, the Hamas chain of command, its combat systems, its technological resources and its command and control centers.
One of the things Israeli interrogators have learned is that Hamas has built its command and control center in the basement of a hospital to protect it from Israeli air attack. They've placed their rocket launchers in schools and homes for the same reason. That is a very illuminating fact for two reasons: It's an acknowledgement that Israel tries hard to avoid civilian casualties, a fact which Hamas exploits, and it offers a stark contrast with Hamas which would not be deterred at all from bombing an Israeli hospital whether or not there were military targets therein.

As Benjamin Netanyahu said the other day, Israel uses missiles (Iron Dome) to protect it's people. Hamas uses people to protect it's missiles. Indeed, Hamas is reported to be telling people in Gaza not to flee their homes because they know that if the people flee the Israelis will be less reluctant to assault urban areas, and they also know that if the people stay and some are killed this works to Hamas' advantage in the court of world opinion.

It could in fact be argued that Hamas cares less about the welfare of the Palestinian people who are useful merely as human shields than do the Israelis. If Hamas did care about their people they would've spent a far larger percentage of the millions of dollars in aid they've received from the global community, including the U.S., on mitigating the rough edges of the poverty in which Gaza is mired and less on weaponry and tunnel building.

All of which illustrates the difference between a civilized people and barbarians.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Vacations, Mine and Yours

I'll be away until next week so Viewpoint will be on hiatus. Please feel free to browse the archives in my absence.

Speaking of absence, if you're looking for a good summer time read please consider In the Absence of God.

With as much humility as I can muster, let me say that it'd be a great book to take to the beach, or anywhere you're vacationing this summer. Thanks for considering it.

Monday, July 14, 2014

An Important Difference

The difference between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs could not have been more starkly on display than it was in the wake of the recent murders of three Israeli teens and, in retaliation, a Palestinian boys.

When the young Israelis were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas the Palestinian people celebrated. Palestinian websites praised the crimes and the perpetrators. No attempt was made by Palestinian authorities to apprehend the murderers. When the Palestinian boy was killed in retaliation the Palestinians rioted.

Nevertheless, the Israelis hunted down the killers of the Palestinian teen and arrested six Israeli suspects, some of whom have confessed and now face prosecution.

Israel acted like a civilized nation, the Palestinians acted like barbarians, and much of the Western media acted like blockheads, prominently featuring the murder of the Palestinian boy, the awful but relatively minor beating of another Arab boy who happened to be an American, and the rage of the Palestinian people, while scarcely mentioning the three murdered Israeli youngsters. In our leftist media Israeli lives seem somehow not so important.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Sermon for Our Times

Andrew Klavan packs an excellent message into these few paragraphs:
I am a skilled hiker, but a week or so ago, I made a perilous error. Carelessly neglecting my clear and accurate guide, I mistook a side path for the main trail down the mountain. As I descended along the narrow track, the way became steeper and steeper until, abruptly, it ended at a sheer cliff above a long fall. Short on water, out of breath, weakened by the blistering heat, I looked up and saw my only other option was a dauntingly vertical climb back to the main trail above. My heart misgave me.

Then three words came into my mind unbidden: Don’t be afraid.

I know who speaks those words to me. I said a quick prayer to him for courage and felt myself promptly flooded with the stuff. I began the climb, and though the way was very difficult, and even dangerous once or twice, I was surprised how quickly I found myself back on the main trail, the way home.

Our country has made a similar error, and equally perilous. We have carelessly neglected our clear and accurate guide to the governance of a free people. We have gone by another way into a steeper and steeper decline. Soon, we will reach a point where the only choice is between a catastrophic fall and a long, hard, upward journey. Our hearts may tell us the climb is impossible.
Don’t be afraid.