Relevant Comments from the Last Century

Ken Makin of the Christian Science Monitor says that, at times like this, it’s too easy to quote the final words of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, when King looked forward to the day “all of God’s children … will be able to join hands and sing … Free at last! Thank God almighty, we’re free at last!” Mr. Makin suggests we remember some of Dr. King’s other, more specific words.

From his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?:

Ever since the birth of our nation, white America has had a schizophrenic personality on the question of race. She has been torn between selves – a self in which she proudly professed the great principles of democracy and a self in which she sadly practiced the antithesis of democracy. This tragic duality has produced a strange indecisiveness and ambivalence toward the Negro, causing America to take a step backward simultaneously with every step forward on the question of racial justice, to be at once attracted to the Negro and repelled by him, to love and to hate him. There has never been a solid, unified, and determined thrust to make justice a reality for Afro-Americans.

From his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, delivered in Memphis, Tennessee, the day before he was shot:

Let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers were on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor [the mayor being one of our “sick white brothers”]. They didn’t get around to that.

And from the “I Have a Dream” speech five years earlier:

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

Spinoza Made a Difference

Baruch (sometimes Benedict) Spinoza was a 17th century Jewish philosopher who famously referred to reality as either God or nature. Scholars have been arguing about what he meant ever since, but whatever he meant helped get him “excommunicated or expelled from the people of Israel” in 1656. In 2012, a rabbi declined to remove the ban, citing Spinoza’s “preposterous ideas, where he was tearing apart the very fundamentals of our religion”.

From Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English by Jonathan Rée (Spinoza wrote in Latin but couldn’t be left out of the book):

Christians had never taken much interest in atheism: the Bible dismissed it as the delirium of “fools”… After Spinoza, Christians would find themselves doing battle not only with heresy and heathenism, but also with sheer unbelief. Atheism was still a dangerous word, however, and it was sometimes replaced by a new coinage: deism, which implied rejecting revelation, ritual and tradition, while retaining a residual belief in an impersonal divine power, perhaps on the lines of Spinoza’s “God or nature”.

Ordinary Christians were alarmed: “at this day Atheism is slily [i.e. “slyly”] called Deism by those that are indeed Atheists”, as an English pamphleteer observed in 1695: “they would disguise it by a false Name, and thereby hid the Heinousness of it”. By that time, a clandestine network of atheistic and deistic pamphleteers was operating across northern Europe, building on Protestant contempt for Catholic superstition and extending it to religion as a whole. They used the arguments of various “new philosophers” — principally Descartes, Gassendi, Hobbes and Spinoza — to attack beliefs in miracles, apparitions and omens, and derided the doctrine of transubstantiation, which asserts the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in consecrated bread and wine.

As far as they were concerned, everything in the physical world was governed by universal laws of nature, and the Bible was no holier than any other book. “Such is human malice and stupidity” — to quote a notorious  pamphlet called the Traité des trois imposteurs — that men choose to pass their lives in duping each other and worshiping a book handed down from an ignorant nation”. Manuscript copies of the Traité circulated in Latin and French in the 1690s, promoting the idea that religion is a fraud perpetrated by “the three imposters — Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. The pamphlet grew larger and bolder as time went by, and when it was printed at the Hague in 1719, it was bound with other works under a title that was not much less provocative: La Vie et l’Esprit de Spinoza….

[Sophia, Electress of Hanover, who almost became Queen of England] spent several years mingling with scholars in Heidelberg… Above all, she became an admirer of Spinoza: she described his Tractatus as “extraordinary and entirely reasonable” and supported a plan to offer him a professorship. She was appalled when he died shortly afterwards, suspecting that he had been murdered by partisans of “faith without reason”, and reflecting that “most of the human race … lives on lies”. 

Unquote.

If you’d like to know more about Spinoza’s philosophy, including his critique of religion and the Bible, as well as his liberalism and secularism, give his Theological-Political Treatise a try. When it was published, it was denounced as “godless,” “full of abominations,” “a book forged in hell . . . by the devil himself”. Stephen Nadler’s A Book Forged In Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age is another option. If anyone was ever born before his time, it was Baruch Spinoza.

Death and Fear

In the final episode of the DEVS series, which kind of made sense in the context of the show, a thoughtful software developer named Stewart stands in a corridor for no apparent reason, reciting poetic words about death. Stewart suggests to an important passerby that the words might have something to do with Mark Antony, perhaps spoken that time Antony came to bury Caesar, not praise him.

The words Stewart is reciting are actually from the poem, “Aubade”, by the 20th century English poet, Philip Larkin.

An aubade can be a poem about lovers separating at dawn or simply “a composition evoking daybreak”. This is most of Larkin’s poem (the whole poem can be found here).

Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse …
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused— …
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out …

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse….
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Note: Doctors going from house to house? It’s a poem from the 1970s.

One of the things that struck me about “Aubade” is that Larkin says “what we fear” is death’s nothingness. I don’t doubt that some people fear the nothingness, but such a fear is hardly universal. Some of us only fear the suffering that can precede death. Some, unfortunately, fear eternal damnation.

Shall I quote Nietzsche from Human, All Too Human? Why not?

Paul thought up the idea, and Calvin rethought it, that for innumerable people damnation has been decreed from eternity, and that this beautiful world plan was instituted to reveal the glory of God: heaven and hell and humanity are thus supposed to exist — to satisfy the vanity of God! What cruel and insatiable vanity must have flared in the soul of the man who thought this up first, or second.

Yes, and I’ll add that thinking up and then spreading around the idea of eternal damnation, period, even without the curse of predestination, were rotten things to do.

There are other things about death that we fear. One of the most common fears is that our loved ones will suffer as the result of our deaths.

Here’s another fear, no doubt much less common, from an anonymous contributor:

I dreamed that I died, but was still conscious. Whatever was left of me was floating in a vast, black emptiness. There was nothing to see, nothing to hear, nothing at all except my thoughts.

I was shocked, suddenly realizing that their stories were true. There is an afterlife after all.

But this afterlife will be almost empty. I will remain in this state forever, condemned to ruminate, ponder and regret for all eternity.

It was the worst, most unforgettable nightmare I’ve ever had.

Is that the same nothingness Philip Larkin had in mind? I don’t know. But the idea of nothingness and the idea of being in a void without anything to do but think and remember don’t sound the same to me.

So much for that. On a lighter note, here is the Irish novelist Kevin Barry imagining two aging gangsters speculating about the afterlife, seemingly without any fear at all. They think it might be more like a vacation:

I’m not seeing a meadow full of flowers…. Not seeing a moonful bay neither. With all your old birds there, and they lined up, waiting on you, one after the other, in the peach of their youths. Their rosy cheeks and their glad little eyes. I’m not seeing that by any means. But what I am imagining, Maurice, is a kind of…quiet. You know? Just a kind of…silence.

Lovely, Maurice Hearne says. Restful.

When you think what we put up with in our lives? Noise-wise?

It’s a cacophony, Mr. Redmond.

My own feeling is that when we go, we’re “out, out, brief candle” gone. There is nothing to fear except the timing and mode of our departure and how our passing will affect those we leave behind. One day though their troubles and joys will be behind them too, since nobody lives forever. And who would want to?

Colbert on Taking One’s Oath Seriously

Stephen Colbert is America’s most thoughtful supplier of late-night comedy. Last night, he gave a heartfelt thank you to Sen. Mitt Romney for voting to remove the “monstrous child in the White House”; excoriated Romney’s Republican colleagues for ignoring their solemn oaths to do “impartial justice”; and said some funny stuff too.

Note: The Romney family once took a trip with their dog in a crate on the roof of their car. More famously, Mr. Romney was defeated in the 2012 presidential election by Barack Obama, who Mr. Colbert definitely voted for.

Current Events

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark contrasts the killings of Saudi Arabia’s Osama bin Laden and Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani:

[Unlike bin Laden] Soleimani was no stateless outlaw. He was a decorated public figure in a nation of more than 80 million people. He was the most renowned of the Iranian generals, hugely popular within Iran — and in Iraq, where supporters of an Iranian-backed militia stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad early this week. If the killing of Soleimani was a response to that attack, it was clearly disproportionate…

… nothing in the 40 years of American struggle with Iran has indicated that it will back down from a military challenge. When [the president] stepped away from the Iran nuclear agreement in 2018 and opted instead to crush Iran with economic sanctions …, the administration should have anticipated a long, difficult struggle….

The conflict enters a new phase now: Reciprocal, escalating military actions are a good bet…

Campaigning in Iowa, Sen. Elizabeth Warren was asked if she would have ordered the attack on Soleimani:

No… Much of this started back when [the president] decided to pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal. Even though the Iranians had been certified as adhering to the terms of the deal. Even though our allies all stayed in the deal and wanted us to stay in the deal. [The president] off on his own, started escalating, escalating, escalating, until now, he has taken us to the edge of war. It is dangerous for the United States and it is dangerous for the world.

Asked about the administration’s claim there was an imminent threat, Warren said “the administration has no credibility in truth telling, either at home or around the world”.

As we wait for Iranian retaliation, Republican politicians and their propaganda machine are offering vague and inconsistent justifications for the president’s decision. Anyone who expresses doubts about the attack is already being accused of “siding with terrorists” or “not supporting the troops”. One crank with a Fox News program says we need to honor our “obligations” to “this leader” who is doing so much for us.

Shortly after it happened, Rukmini Callimachi, a correspondent for The New York Times, reported on the genesis of the attack:

I’ve had a chance to check in with sources, including two US officials who had intelligence briefings after the strike on Suleimani…. According to them, the evidence suggesting there was to be an imminent attack on American targets is “razor thin”.

In fact the evidence … came as three discrete facts: (a) A pattern of travel showing Suleimani was in Syria, Lebanon & Iraq to meet with Shia proxies. (As one source said, that’s just “business as usual” for Suleimani).

More intriguing was (b) information indicating Suleimani sought the Supreme Leader’s approval for an operation. He was told to come to Tehran for consultation and further guidance, suggesting the operation was a big deal – but again this could be anything.

And finally, c) Iran’s increasingly bellicose position towards American interests in Iraq, including the attack that killed a U.S. contractor and the recent protest outside the American embassy.

But, as one source put it, (a) + (b) + (c) is hardly evidence of an imminent attack on American interests that could kill hundreds, as the White House has since claimed. The official describes the reading of the intelligence as an illogical leap.

One official described the planning for the strike as chaotic…. Killing Suleimani was the “far out option”….

Since the strike, Iran has convened its national security chiefs. Chatter intercepted by American intelligence indicates they’re considering a range of options. Cyber-attacks, attacks on oil facilities and American personnel and diplomatic outposts have all been cited so far. But among the “menu options” … were: (1) kidnapping and execution of American citizens. (This might explain why the State Department has ordered the evacuation of all US citizens in Iraq, not just government and embassy employees).

Another is attacks on American diplomatic and military outposts not just in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, but as far afield as UAE and Bahrain. The official I spoke to was particularly concerned for American troops stationed in Iraq, some of whom are co-located with Shia militias.

… Let me just say the obvious: No one’s trying to downplay Suleimani’s crimes. The question is why now? His whereabouts have been known before. His resume of killing-by-proxy is not a secret. Hard to decouple his killing from the impeachment saga.

It sure is.

The Times published an article partly based on Callimachi’s reporting:

When [the president] chose the option of killing General Suleimani, top military officials, flabbergasted, were immediately alarmed about the prospect of Iranian retaliatory strikes on American troops in the region.

Why anyone with working neurons would present an option to the Toddler that they considered too extreme, assuming he wouldn’t choose it, is a terrific question.

A great way to understand the president’s “thinking” in this instance is to review his Twitter account. From Nancy LeTourneau of The Washington Monthly:

One of the themes that has emerged in [this era of politics] is that “there is a tweet for everything.” It refers to the fact that whenever the president says or does something, there is a tweet from his past demonstrating his hypocrisy. For example, even as the current occupant of the Oval Office has spent twice as much time on a golf course as Obama, [he] regularly complained that his predecessor played too much golf, tweeting about it 27 times from 2011 to 2016.

There is no great mystery about why there is a tweet for everything. Anyone as sociopathic as [him] engages in projection when attacking their opponents. That is because they are incapable of empathy or being able to see another person’s point of view. Absent any other point of reference, they simply project their own reactions onto others. [He] is obviously obsessed with playing golf, so regardless of the facts, he projected that obsession onto Obama.

The assassination of Qassem Soleimani and escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran led to another moment of “there is a tweet for everything” on Thursday night.

Before the Electoral College screwed us, he repeatedly claimed Obama would start a war in the Middle East in order to insure his re-election:

“@BarackObama will attack Iran in the not too distant future because it will help him win the election,” [he] tweeted on Nov. 14, 2011.

Days later, he said, “Our president will start a war with Iran because he has absolutely no ability to negotiate. He’s weak and he’s ineffective. So the only way he figures that he’s going to get reelected – and as sure as you’re sitting there – is to start a war with Iran,” according to a video posted this week by a Washington Post video editor.

“In order to get elected, @BarackObama will start a war with Iran,” he followed up on Nov. 29, 2011.

Nearly a year later, on Oct. 22, 2012, [he]repeated the same claim, writing, “Don’t let Obama play the Iran card in order to start a war in order to get elected – be careful Republicans!”

In October 2012, [he] also suggested that Obama would “launch a strike in Libya or Iran” because his “poll numbers are in tailspin.”

The president’s poll numbers haven’t gone down (they’ve been consistently negative since 2017), but he is facing re-election and, as the Times correspondent said, there is the impeachment saga. The evidence for his impeachment and removal from office continues to grow. Newly-released emails from the Office of Management and Budget to the Pentagon confirm that the president personally delayed military aid to Ukraine. A judge is allowing one of the president’s shady Ukrainian pals to give the contents of his cellphone to House Democrats. Last week, one of the president’s aides was ordered to obey a House subpoena. And there is a report from a small investigative news site that those mysterious Deutsche Bank loans were underwritten by VTB Bank. VTB is owned by the Russian government (if true, that would certainly explain a lot!).

It should also be noted that Secretary of State Pompeo and Vice President Pence have been pressuring their boss to assassinate Soleiman. Why? Because they think it might lead to something truly wonderful: the end of the world.

Again, from Nancy LeTourneau of The Washington Monthly:

[In July, Pompeo gave a speech] to a group known as Christians United for Israel (CUFI) that was the brainchild of [Texas televangelist] John Hagee… Vice President Mike Pence addressed the same group in 2017.

One of the things Hagee is known for is the elaborate charts he has created to predict the rapture and events leading up to the end times….

What we are witnessing is a secretary of state who is conducting U.S. foreign policy in alignment with Christian Zionism, with the support of the vice president. While neoconservatives like John Bolton have their own twisted logic for wanting regime change in Iran, it is the belief that events in the Middle East align with Biblical prophecy about the end times that motivates Christian Zionists like Pompeo, Pence, and Hagee.

…. Rising tensions in the Middle East are a feature, not a bug, for these folks. That’s because all of this was prophesied thousands of years ago as a prelude to the rapture. In other words, they welcome the escalation.

Enough said.