everything and nothing. not really sure yet.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

On the Shoah and the Afterlife

A couple of days ago, I was in the midst of an argument with three friends - an Atheist (J) a Muslim (H) and a Christian (E) - about G-d, religion and whatnot (for most of the argument I was more of an observer than a participator - holding neither the position of my Theist friends nor my Athiest friend - and was, if anything, arguing against everyone). There came a stage in the argument when it turned to the Afterlife. H was arguing that there would be a stage where J would realise that he was wrong, when he is presented in front of angels/jesus christ, and that he would not be judged badly for having been an atheist. J naturally argued that that was bullshit. H then called J's position pessimistic - saying that those who died in the Holocaust deserved an afterlife (the fact that both J and I are, at least technically speaking, Jewish probably informed the choice of example). This was a point that even J had to concede - he wished there was an afterlife, in order that the victims of the Shoah did not die in vain (although he went on to say that there just wasn't one). I disagreed with both of them, however, it took me a few hours to realize exactly what it is that I found not only wrong, but offensive about the suggestion.
I think that there not being an afterlife (at least not in the Heaven, everyone's in paradise lying naked with virgins feeding them grapes, sense) is extremely important for illustrating and recognizing what an extreme crime the Shoah - and, indeed, all murder - was. If there is a heaven, then the deaths of the victims of the Shoah will not only be meaningful, they will actually have been a 'good thing' (they will be in a better place). This excuses Hitler and the Germans of any real guilt - if anything, they will have been doing a public service by killing so many. The fact - as I see it - that the deaths of the Shoah were wasted life shows the monstrous nature of the crime; without that waste, no killing can be seen as an inherently bad thing. It demonstrates the extent of humanity's barbarism, or at least potential barbarism, and shows exactly what it is that we should be working against. If those who die innocent go to heaven, there is no point in preventing current or future genocides - such as Darfur. If anything, by preventing the genocide, you would actually be doing a bad thing - preventing people from reaching Paradise.
I think there is another problem with the view that, this life being temporary, the next life will be more permanent. This essentially views life as we know it as a sort of playground - it is devalued. Whatever we do in this life, there will be something else afterwards. We can bomb and rape and pillage each other to a pulp, and it will not really matter, because there's something else - something better - coming later.
I'm not saying that there definitely is no afterlife - how can anyone possibly know that?. What I am saying is that I would rather people did not try to find positive 'meaning' in horrible crimes, for which the only real 'meaning' is that they demonstrate the sort of evils we should be working against. If you consider this to be pessimistic, fine. I don't care whether you call it pessimistic, optimistic, apathetic or anything, it does not change the substance of the argument - it does not make what I have said any less relevant.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Freedom of Speech for Whom?

Recent events have prompted discussion about freedom of speech and its limits and, whilst I'd rather not weigh in on the case of Geert Wilders specifically, I would like to raise the more general and philosophical issue of freedom of speech - an issue that obviously affects the specific case in hand.
As far as those people whose views I find objectionable - such as Holocaust Deniers, Fascists, Theocrats et al - I'm generally of the opinion expressed by Evelyn Beatrice Hall (and mis-attributed to Voltaire) - "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." However, if I may play Devil's Advocate, I would like to put forward a counter argument that is specific to our time.
I will phrase this argument in the form of a question (one which, given the present climate, I cannot fully and satisfactorily answer myself):

Is it logical to grant freedom of speech to someone whose views - if accepted by a large part of the population - would put an end to freedom of speech?

This question is hinting at a clause within the principle of freedom of speech, almost a self-continuing clause, if you will, that freedom of speech should not be granted in those few times where it is possible that the result of that freedom would be the end of that freedom.
Now, generally I would disagree with this argument whole-heartedly, and I will bring up some counter arguments shortly. However, I think that it is important, when considering this question, to look at the state of the world's economy. In times of economic crisis, when the vast majority of people are doing very badly financially, extremism tends to do very well. William Cobbett's old saying, "I defy you to agitate a man on a full stomach", rings well in reverse too. Thus, it might be argued, that in the short term, we are at greater risk from political extremism. Therefore, would it not be sensible to limit the freedoms of only those few extremists whose freedom might result in the curtailment of the freedom of others, and create a very serious threat to public order. Should we not curtail a few freedoms in the short term, in order to maintain the principle of freedom in the long term? You might take Geert Wilders to be one of those people - although I probably would not, given the very small number of people for which Wilders' own brand of Islamophobia and prejudice is attractive (some might say that the electoral success of the BNP in some areas shows Wilders' threat, although I would say that the great mobiliser for the BNP is not Islam, but immigration, and alienation - although Nick Griffin may well come within the bounds of someone whose freedoms should be curtailed). You might also take Yusuf al-Qaradawi to be such an individual, and he probably has a larger audience than Geert Wilders.
There are multiple possible counter arguments (or counter counter arguments - if you will):
- Who will decide who constitutes such a great threat to our freedom? Judges? Politicians? Civil Servants? The system would be open to misuse for political reasons.
- If freedom of speech is an absolute then there can be no situation in which it should be curtailed. If you accept freedom of speech for a particular individual in most cases, why not in this case? It seems illogical that an individual who would be free to say what he pleased twelve months ago should now be prevented from doing so. The counter argument to this is the example of Adolf Hitler and the NAZI party, who gained support during the Great Depression quite rapidly, moving from being a fringe party of lunatics to a major player in the Reichstag.
- The suggestion is not applicable to modern life, as there is no extremist group that truly threatens to gain power and thus destroy our basic freedoms. I will stress that the argument is hypothetical, it is a 'what if?' not a specific point about a specific individual. However, I will once again raise the specter of Hitler and fascism to demonstrate how easy it can be in a time of crisis for people to turn to the extremes. Another example from (arguably) the other end of the spectrum, would be the Bolsheviks in 1917. In February, after the Tsar was deposed, a liberal(ish) Provisional Government was set up that was forced to work in tandem with the socialist(ish) Petrograd Soviet. The Bolsheviks, who were always a fringe organisation - even within the RSDLP - were not involved in either. They were only able to take over the Soviet - through elections, mind - due to the ongoing war and the coalescence of the more moderate Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries behind the PG's war effort. Once again, in October, they were only able to take full power due to popular unrest, greatly influenced by the PG's weakness (and by the war and the economy etc).
- One should be confident that, through argument and dialogue, one can argue succesfully for the liberal point of view. The problem with this is that it might be sound in normal prosperity, but times of crisis result in a paradigm shift that may not allow for it.
I think that I can see the case that I have put forward here - I can see that it has some validity. In my head, it sounds sensible. However, in my heart, I cannot accept it. I can also see the pervading authoritarianism of it, and the problems that entails. All-in-all, I cannot see a resolution to this problem that will overcome all the issues - it seems to be an ultimate catch-22.
In case you're wondering why this is so important:
For an example of what happens in a country where freedom of speech is curtailed to the point of non-existence, one need look no further than here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Land of Milk and Honey and Political Instability

Exit poll results are out in Israel's latest election and, if they prove accurate - which is not at all certain, Kadima, headed by Tzipi Livni, will have won a plurality, with roughly two more seats than the Likud. However, the 'centre-left bloc' that Kadima is said to be part of will likely be in the minority with about 57 seats, with the 'right-wing bloc', of which Bibi Netanyahu's Likud is the major player (along with Avigdor Lieberman and his quasi-fascist Yisrael Beiteinu) on about 63 (give or take a seat). This leads to the question: what chances are there of forming a stable coalition? The answer: virtually none.
By rights, Livni should be given the first crack at it. The problem for her is that there have been signals coming from the Labor Party (her natural coalition partner - and the current no.2 in Ehud Olmert's Kadima government) that they are considering a spell in the opposition in order to revitalise the party. This is what happened to the Likud at the last election - where they polled similar to how Labor seems to be polling now, and were bumped down to the fourth largest party. Ehud Barak and co must be looking at Netanyahu and thinking - two or three years, that could be us. Even if Labor agreed to be part of Livni's government, she would still have difficulty finding other partners. Meretz would never sit in a government with Yisrael Beiteinu, but Yisrael Beiteinu seem to be the third largest party, and conventional wisdom dictates that it would be difficult for Livni to form a coalition without them. However, a Livni coalition with Lieberman could hardly be seen as one that will advance the peace process - Livni's election promise. On top of that, it was disagreement between Shas (who normally can be bought off by anyone and everyone - my dad joked that they may as well rename themselves the Corruption Party) and Livni that resulted in this election, and there seems to be a genuine personal (and ideological) conflict here. Without Shas, or Meretz, Livni would not have a stable coalition. The only other option here would be some form of 'Grand Coalition' a la Germany, in which Kadima, Likud, and Labor join forces in the name of stability. Livni would be Prime Minister, and she would have to offer Netanyahu the Foreign Ministry (or, G-d forbid, the Finance Ministry) and Barak the Defense Ministry (or, again, Finance). It seems unlikely that Netanyahu would go for this, as he would be bringing his party into government with what is - essentially - an off-shoot of his party, but as a secondary partner, and I doubt whether the Likud faithful would agree to it. Another option might be some sort of rotation agreement - like in the 80s - but it would not be stable. Any 'Grand Coalition' would be plagued by ideological difficulties, and might find it difficult to get anything done as far as peace is concerned (given how important the centre-right Likud would be in the government).
So what about Bibi? The idea that he would be better placed to form a coalition, due to the 'right-wing bloc' having more MKs, is a false one. Avigdor Lieberman's campaign has not just hurled abuse at Israeli Arabs, but at the Ultra-Orthodox too. A key plank of Yisrael Beiteinu's program (and perhaps the only fundamental issue on which I agree with them) is the instigation of civil marriage. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Lieberman would make this a condition of his joining government. No Orthodox party - particularly Shas and United Torah Judaism, the two Charedi parties - could agree to this. A government made up of the 63-64 right wing MKs would be no more stable than a Kadima-led government, as the defection of any one small party on any one issue - such as a religious issue - would bring the government into disrepute. Lieberman might choose power over promises, but that does not mean that his whole party will follow him. Yisrael Beiteinu's fundamental base is within the Russian immigrant community, many of whom are not considered Halakhically Jewish, and thus require the instigation of civil marriage. If Lieberman is indicted, as seems highly possible, his party might even split up. The fact is, Yisrael Beiteinu is an unknown commodity, it's quite new, and it has been built on one man (and his ability to attract Russian support), and it remains to be seen how it might cope without Lieberman, or as part of a government that did not further its policy. The three planks of Yisrael Beiteinu policy were Government Reform (in a bad way - increasing the power of the President and overriding the Supreme Court with an elected Judiciary, leaning towards a sort of Populist fascism similar to Mother Russia), civil marriage, and demanding loyalty from all its citizens (particularly the Arabs, but also the ultra-Orthodox, who do not serve in the army, and who are mainly non-Zionist). Lieberman seems to be in a catch 22 - with Bibi he might get government reform, but anything else would anger the orthodox sector, with Tzipi he might get civil marriage, but anything else will anger the centrists and centre-left on which her support is based.
All-in-all, I fail to see any viable coalition coming from these exit poll results, and I doubt that whatever is formed will last very long. It might be negotiations with the Palestinians (like with Shas in the last government) that tears the next government apart, or it might be moves towards secularisation (with civil marriage), or some other issue as yet unforseen. Whatever happens, I expect that Israel will be repeating the process in the next 1-3 years.