Tuesday, November 6, 2018


Irving Wallace's "The Seven Minutes" Thoughtfully Explores Censorship, Sex and Intimacy

Irving Wallace's novel The Seven Minutes is part courtroom drama, part suspense story, part romance and part dissertation on how a democratic society must strike a delicate balance between the ideal of freedom and the reality of necessary rules. The drama, suspense, romance and dissertation all revolve around the government's attempt to ban a book for being obscene--an attempt buoyed by the alleged role that said book played to induce a man with no previous criminal record to commit rape--and a lawyer's determination to fight for free speech even at the cost of his career, his relationship and possibly even his physical safety.

Wallace's sympathies for freedom of expression are clear but he also gives a fair portrayal of the thoughts/motivations of the well-intentioned opponents of the book's publication/distribution. In a conversation after the trial, the prosecuting attorney tells the defense attorney that even a free society must have rules and boundaries: you cannot just drive your car on any side of the road that you choose at a given moment. The prosecuting attorney sincerely believes that some books are obscene, have no redeeming artistic value and pose a danger to young, impressionable minds; the defense attorney counters that for a society to remain free ideas cannot be suppressed but must be out in the open to be considered and debated. Pure hate speech and/or incitement to violence should not be protected but otherwise artists have a right to create while the public has a right to purchase/read/view or to decline to purchase/read/view.

The book's courtroom scenes and debates between various characters highlight how difficult it is to determine what is "obscene" and what is not "obscene."

Meanwhile, various characters encounter situations that cause them to question their own personal thoughts and decisions about relationships, sex and intimacy.

I have seen reviews of The Seven Minutes that wax eloquently about how great of a book it is and I have seen reviews that dismiss it as a "potboiler." It is not great literature in the classic sense--and it could have benefited from some editing in terms of both length and writing style--but Wallace dares to thoughtfully explore issues that are central to the meaning of life, of love and of freedom, so he deserves credit for his ambition. That ambition is largely fulfilled, as Wallace provides a lot of food for thought while also weaving a tale that commands your attention and piques your curiosity.

Neat the end of the book, Wallace quotes from "Last Will of Charles Lounsbury," a document that used to be widely shared among attorneys and is still worth reading more than 100 years after it was first published. The document's author, Williston Fish, drafted the fictional will as a tribute to an ancestor of his named Charles Lounsbury, a person who Fish described as "A strong, vigorous man filled with the joy of living." The piece was first published in "Harper's Weekly" in 1898 and then as a booklet in 1907 but it soon took on a life of its own, being reprinted in a variety of sources, often with numerous mistakes. Fish lamented, "Some writers can boast that their works have been translated into all foreign languages, but when I look pathetically about for some little boast, I can only say that this one of my pieces has been translated into all the idiot tongues of English."

Here is the 1897 version, which is a fitting coda to the profound themes examined by Wallace:

He was stronger and cleverer, no doubt, than other men, and in many broad lines of business he had grown rich, until his wealth exceeded exaggeration.  One morning in his office, he directed a request to his confidential lawyer to come to him in the afternoon.  He intended to have his will drawn.  A will is a solemn matter, even with a man whose life is given up to business, and who is by habit mindful of the future.  After giving his direction he took up no other matter, but sat at his desk alone and in silence.

It was a day when summer was first new.  The pale leaves upon the trees were starting forth upon the yet unbending branches.  The grass in the parks had a freshness in its green like the freshness of the blue in the sky and of the yellow of the sun - a freshness to make one wish that life might renew its youth.  The clear breezes from the South wantoned about, and then were still, as if loath to go finally away.  Half idly, half thoughtfully, the rich man wrote upon the white paper before him, beginning what he wrote with capital letters, such as he had not made since, as a boy in school, he had taken pride in his skill with the pen:

IN THE NAME OF GOD, AMEN. I, Charles Lounsbury, being of sound and disposing mind and memory, do now make and publish this, my last will and testament in order, as justly as may be, to distribute my interests in the world among succeeding men. And first, that part of my interest, which is known in law and recognized in the sheep-bound volumes of the law as my property, being inconsiderable and none account, I make no disposition in this, my will. My right to live, being but a life estate, is not at my disposal, but these things excepted, all else in the world I now proceed to devise and bequeath.

ITEM: I give to good fathers and mothers, but in trust to their children, nevertheless, all good little words of praise and all quaint pet names, and I charge said parents to use them justly, but generously, as the deeds of their children shall require.

ITEM: I leave to children exclusively, but only for the life of their childhood, all and every the dandelions of the fields and the daisies thereof, with the right to play among them freely, according to the custom of children, warning them at the same time against the thistles. And I devise to children the yellow shores of creeks and the golden sands beneath the water thereof, with the dragon flies that skim the surface of said waters, and and the odors of the willows that dip into said waters, and the white clouds that float on high above the giant trees. And I leave the children the long, long days to be merry in in a thousand ways, and the Night, and the trail of the Milky Way to wonder at; but subject, nevertheless, to the rights hereinafter given to lovers; and I give to each child the right to choose a star to be his, and I direct the father shall tell him the name of it, in order that the child shall always remember the name of that star after he has learned and forgotten astronomy.
ITEM: I devise to boys jointly all the idle fields and commons where ball may be played, all snow-clad hills where one may coast, and all streams and ponds where one may skate, to have and to hold the same for the period of their boyhood. And all meadows, with the clover-blooms and butterflies thereof; and all woods, with their appurtenances of squirrels and whirring birds and echoes and strange noises, and all distant places, which may be visited, together with the adventures there to be found. And I give to said boys, each his own place at the fireside at night, with all pictures that may be seen in the burning wood or coal, to enjoy without hindrance and without any incumbrance of cares.
ITEM: To lovers, I devise their imaginary world, with whatever they may need, as the stars of the sky, the red, red roses by the wall, the snow of the hawthorn, the sweet strains of music, and aught else they may desire to figure to each other the lastingness and beauty of their love.
ITEM: To young men jointly, being joined in a brave, mad crowd, I devise and bequeath all boisterous inspiring sports of rivalry, and I give to them the disdain of weakness and undaunted confidence in their own strength. Though they are rude, and rough, I leave them alone the power to make lasting friendships and of possessing companions, and to them exclusively I give all merry songs and brave choruses to sing, with smooth voices to troll them forth.
ITEM: And to those who are no longer children, or youths, or lovers, I leave Memory, and I leave to them the volumes of the poems of Burns and Shakespeare, and of other poets, if there are others, to the end that they may live the old days over again, freely and fully without tithe or diminution; and to those who are no longer children, or youths, or lovers, I leave, too, the knowledge of what a rare, rare world it is.

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Friday, November 2, 2018


Ray Bradbury's "Zen in the Art of Writing" Exudes Joy and Wonder

Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing is a collection of essays published between 1961 and 1986. He was 41 when the first essay was published and 66 when the last one was published. Zen is only explicitly mentioned in the title essay, but the entire book is filled with joy and wonder about not only the writing process but life itself.

The title of Bradbury's Preface captures the book's spirit: "How to climb the tree of life, throw rocks at yourself, and get down again without breaking your bones or your spirit. A preface with a title not much longer than the book."

In the Preface, Bradbury recalls that in 1929, when he was nine years old, he tore up all of his Buck Rogers comic strips because his fourth grade classmates made fun of Buck Rogers. A month later, he determined that his friends were "idiots" and he resumed collecting Buck Rogers comic strips. He declares, "Where did I find the courage to rebel, to change my life, to live alone? I don't want to over-estimate this, but damn it, I love that nine-year-old, whoever in hell he was. Without him, I could not have survived to introduce these essays."

Bradbury asserts that writing teaches us two very important lessons: (1) Life is a "gift and a privilege" that "asks for rewards back because it has favored us with animation." He acknowledges that art cannot by itself save us from the myriad forms of suffering in the world but nevertheless it "can revitalize us amidst it all"; (2) Writing is "survival. Any art, any good work, of course, is that. Not to write, for many of us, is to die."

It is hard to conceive of a better writer's creed than those brief, eloquent statements.

Bradbury says that writers must work at their craft every single day and he uses the analogy of a pianist who stated that if he missed one day of practice he would know, if he missed two days of practice his critics would know and if he missed three days of practice his audiences would know. The point is to rely on your own individual high standards and not to be satisfied to fool the audiences or the critics.

Bradbury summarizes the necessary attitude/approach: "You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you." Life is often filled with suffering and inequities but writing enables us to "use the grand and beautiful facts of existence in order to put up with the horrors that afflict us directly in our families and friends, or through the newspapers and TV."

So how do you develop your writing talents? In the essay "How to Keep and Feed a Muse," Bradbury offers simple advice: "Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don't use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition."

Reading poetry helped inspire many of Bradbury's stories and helped sharpen his writing skills. Bradbury also believes that the best stories reveal themselves to you: "My stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg--I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off. That is the kind of life I've had. Drunk and in charge of a bicycle, as an Irish police report once put it" (from the essay "Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle"). 

Bradbury laments, "By the time many people are fourteen or fifteen, they have been divested of their loves, their ancient and intuitive tastes, one by one, until when they reach maturity there is no fun left, no zest, no gusto, no flavor. Others have criticized, and they have criticized themselves, into embarrassment. When the circus pulls in at five of a dark cold summer morn, and the calliope sounds, they do not rise and run, they turn in their sleep, and life passes by" ("Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle").

It is important to never lose that spirit to "rise and run." Recall the line from Cummings' poem "Since Feeling is First": "In even the laziest creature among us, a wisdom no knowledge can kill is astir."

In the title essay, Bradbury lists three keys to incorporate Zen into your writing and he put each of them in all caps: WORK, RELAXATION and DON'T THINK!

Bradbury extols the virtue of work in its purest form, work with the purpose of honing your craft; work that is made with an eye primarily on profit and/or reputation "is a form of lying." You must instead be "curious about creativity" and seek to "make contact with that thing in yourself that is truly original. You want fame and fortune, yes, but only as rewards for work well and truly done."

When you work in that mode, you will achieve RELAXATION and that will enable you to follow Bradbury's third precept, DON'T THINK! Bradbury describes how athletes, painters, mountain climbers and Zen Buddhists become so absorbed in the purity of their work that they stop thinking and just do (Bradbury does not mention explicitly the concept of "flow" but that applies here).

It all starts with WORK--not drudgery, not busy work, but work that flows from your passion for your art. WORK that way and, Bradbury suggests, you may discover a new definition for WORK: "LOVE."

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Saturday, October 27, 2018


"Manhunter" John Pascucci and the Pervasiveness of Evil

John Pascucci's 1996 autobiography The Manhunter (co-written with Cameron Stauth) presents a sad and sobering picture of the pervasiveness of evil in the world. Pascucci worked as a U.S.Marshal from 1978-89. He lost his job after being charged with--and subsequently convicted in federal court of--several charges, including extortion; Pascucci had come up with a convoluted scheme to extract money from a married man who had a one night stand with Pascucci's former mistress. Pascucci had played fast and loose with the law for a while in pursuit of a higher good--the apprehension of some of the world's most notorious criminals--but when he played fast and loose with the law in pursuit of a personal vendetta no one could or would protect him any longer.

Pascucci is obviously deeply flawed but he also did a lot of good, and his disgust for the criminals he hunted is palpable: "Ten thousand Nazi war criminals escaped to America; so, on average, every American town or neighborhood of 25,000 became home to a Nazi murderer. The horrifying thing about evil is not so much its depth in an individual, but its breadth in the everyday world. It's so common. If you look for it, you'll find it. If you've got the guts to look hard enough, you even find some in yourself--and that's the most horrifying thing of all."

Pascucci admits that he paid a price for the mindset and methods he adopted during his career: 
Knowledge never comes for free. It always comes at a price, and I paid too much.

Far too often, the price I paid was hurting people, breaking laws, and looking too long at the dark side of life.

But I did what I had to. I was an investigator, and the currency of an investigator's trade is knowledge. Specifically, I was a fugitive investigator, a manhunter. I was chief of International Operations for the U.S. Marshals Service.

My job was to track down the most evil people on earth: terrorists, killers, spies, Nazis, neo-Nazis, and psychopaths.

I was better at fugitive investigation than anyone else in the federal government--in part because I made myself think like the people I was tracking. That was part of the price I paid.
Pascucci tracked down Konrads Kalejs, a Nazi war criminal who was responsible for murdering at least 13,000 people. Pascucci wrote:
I'd envisioned him directing a single, violent massacre of 13,000 people, with bodies falling quickly in a hail of machine-gun fire. But, according to the historians, it hadn't been like that.

It had been much slower. Much more personal. Much more cruel.

Konrads Kalejs was a strong, healthy, square-jawed 18 year old when he'd allegedly joined Latvia's Arajs Kommandos in 1941. The Kommandos, directed by the bloodthirsty Viktor Arajs, were a group of Latvian punks and thugs who terrorized their own country. Before the war, Latvia--a tiny country on the Baltic Sea--had been under the domination of the Soviet Union, and the Kommandos, who hated the Soviets, had actually been glad to see Nazi Germany take over.

The Kommandos worked for the German Security Police, the "S.D." The S.D. was the brutal secret police branch of Heinrich Himmler's notorious "S.S." In short, they were the worst of the worst.

Kalejs--more intelligent and more vicious than most Kommandos--quickly rose to the rank of senior lieutenant, and was reportedly given his own company to command. Kalejs' company was accused of being a roving death squad, which roamed the countryside, robbing, torturing, and murdering. Their primary targets were Jews. But they also killed thousands of Gypsies, Communists, homosexuals, retarded people, handicapped people, intellectuals--and anyone else who seemed rebellious or "anti-German." The tactics of Kalejs and his men were unspeakably cruel. They did not simply shoot people, but murdered them in ways that terrified the populace. They forced mothers to drown their own babies in buckets of water. They tied children to trees and lashed them to death. They castrated men, amputated their hands, then set them loose in the forests. They forced naked prisoners to exercise in snow, then shot them. They set elderly people on fire, then doused the flames, leaving their victims to die a slow death from their burns.

Kalejs later became a senior lieutenant at the Salispils concentration camp, where his penchant for torture and murder continued. At one point, he and his men were accused of invading the village of Sanniki and murdering the entire population. Then they reportedly went to surrounding smaller villages and did the same thing.

After the war, Kalejs gathered his loot and moved to Copenhagen. In 1950, he immigrated to Australia, and in 1959, he moved to the United States.

In America, he lived in the wealthy Chicago suburb of Winnetka, surrounded by priceless objects of stolen art. He spent his winters on both coasts of Florida, where he owned several properties. By all accounts, he was a happy man.

In the winter of 1984--about 10 months before I started hunting him--he had been contacted by the OSI. The next day, he'd taken about $325,000 out of his various bank accounts and had disappeared.
Pascucci apprehended Kalejs in a hotel room in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Kalejs managed to tie up his case in court for several years before he was deported to Australia. He moved to Canada and then was deported back to Australia before moving to Great Britain. After his presence in Great Britain provoked outrage, Kalejs once again moved to Australia. In May 2001, an Australian court finally ruled that Kalejs should be extradited to Latvia to stand trial for war crimes, but Kalejs died in Australia before he could be sent to Latvia.

Pascucci also found Nazi war criminal Bohdan Koziy, who took great pleasure in participating in the "Judenfrei" program designed to kill every single Jew in the Ukraine. Cold-blooded murder was not enough for Koziy; he enjoyed torturing his victims in front of their family members, before killing each victim one by one while the family members watched. Pascucci spoke with the niece of a woman whose entire family except for one aunt was killed in this fashion by Koziy. Pascucci pledged to her that if he located Koziy then he would kill him--but the vagaries of Cold War politics intervened: Koziy sought refuge from justice in Costa Rica, where he was viewed as a staunch anti-Communist, and the Costa Rican government did not act with much alacrity to pursue charges against Koziy after Pascucci found him. Koziy eventually died of a stroke as a free man in Costa Rica.

Pascucci was then assigned to track down Josef Mengele, the so-called "Angel of Death" who selected which Jews would die immediately upon arrival at Auschwitz and which Jews he would torture under the pretext of conducting "medical experiments." Mengele was a sadist who mutilated thousands and was directly responsible for the state-sanctioned murder of hundreds of thousands. After Pascucci read the detailed file on Mengele, he was disgusted not only by Mengele's crimes but also by the way that the Catholic Church helped Mengele--and 60,000 other Nazi war criminals--escape from justice via the "Rat Line." Pascucci also knew better than to expect much help from INTERPOL, an organization that was actually run by the Nazis for a period of time during World War II and that until the 1980s refused to provide any assistance in tracking down Nazi war criminals because this would purportedly constitute "political" activity. Mengele came from a wealthy family and Pascucci quickly realized that the family had enough assets and connections to hide him without any further outside assistance. Pascucci followed the evidence to Brazil and he did what no one else had been able to do: find Mengele--but what Pascucci found out was that Mengele had died several years earlier, as confirmed by a team of forensics experts who examined the body.

Pascucci ascended to his dream job as the U.S. Marshals Service Chief of International Operations, a position equivalent to brigadier general. At what seemed to be the height of his career, Pascucci instead suffered a terrible, self-inflicted fall. Pascucci makes no excuses for the illegal conduct that cost him his government career and resulted in him serving time. Some of his old colleagues told him that they thought he had received a raw deal or that if he had only handled things a little differently then his fate would have been different--but Pascucci has too much self-awareness to accept those excuses:
I totally disagreed.

Because I was my fate. If I hadn't fallen when I did, I'd have stumbled over some other kind of weasel-deal.

But let's be realistic: Without all the weasel-deals, I'd never have gotten anywhere--not against my mutts. My mutts didn't fight fair.

But I didn't see myself as a star-crossed victim. I saw myself as a star-crossed jerk. Because, let's not forget, I didn't go down fighting an evil man; I went down fighting an ex-girlfriend's ex-boyfriend. And I'd fought him mostly just for fun.

Remember how I told you, early on, that the horrifying thing about evil is that you can find it anywhere, if you look for it, and that you can even find it in yourself, if you look hard enough? Well, I found I could enjoy hurting people--and if that's not evil, I don't know what is.

Since my downfall, I've tried to overcome that part of myself, and I think I've succeeded. But I'll always know that, at least for a while, it was there. That knowledge is my punishment, and it's as painful to me as my fall from the heights of government service. It's my burden to bear, and I'll have to live with it the rest of my life.
Life is all about choices and judgment and having a moral compass that, hopefully, always points North, toward goodness, kindness and patience, and away from evil, cruelty and impatience. Life is also about realizing when your compass may not be pointing in the right direction and then making sure that you redirect your thoughts and actions accordingly.

I bought The Manhunter many years ago but I only read it recently, and it spoke to me on many levels. I hope that John Pascucci's story, and the challenges that he faced--fighting external evil while also battling his own demons--speak to you as well.

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Sunday, September 23, 2018


Wisdom from Joe Hyams' "Zen in the Martial Arts"

Joe Hyams first learned the martial arts at a time in his life when, in his own words, "I had no clear awareness of who I was or where I was going." He later became a prominent writer chronicling the lives and times of Hollywood celebrities but he also became increasingly fascinated with the martial arts. Eventually, Hyams wrote a brief book titled Zen in the Martial Arts, explaining how his studies over the years had helped him acquire greater mental discipline. Here are six key insights from Hyams' book:

1) Prior to the first time that karate master Ed Parker worked with Hyams, Parker delivered this powerful message about the teacher/student relationship: "I am not going to show you my art. I am going to share it with you. If I show it to you it becomes an exhibition, and in time it will be pushed so far into the back of your mind it will be lost. But by sharing it with you, you will not only retain it forever but I, too, will improve."

2) The difference between being "patient" and "giving oneself time," as explained to Hyams by Master Bong Soo Han: "To be patient is to have the capacity of calm endurance. To give yourself time is to actively work toward a goal without setting a limit on how long you will work."

3) Master Han once told Hyams, "You must learn to live in the present, not in the future or the past. Zen teaches that life must be seized at the moment. By living in the present you are in full contact with yourself and your environment, your energy is not dissipated and is always available. In the present there are no regrets as there are in the past. By thinking of the future, you dilute the present. The time to live is now."

4) Whenever Hyams became discouraged about his ability level relative to the ability levels of other practitioners, he reminded himself "that even masters have masters, and that we are all learners."

5) Jim Lau imparted this bit of valuable wisdom: "When you unleash your aggression or hostility on another person, it inspires aggression and hostility in return. The result then is conflict, which all true martial artists try to avoid. Anger doesn't demand action. When you act in anger, you lose self-control."

6) Hyams studied under the legendary Bruce Lee, who described a martial artist's ideal mindset: "A good martial artist puts his mind on one thing at a time. He takes each thing as it comes, finishes with it, and passes on to the next. Like a Zen master, he is not concerned with the past or the future, only with what he is doing at that moment. Because his mind is tight, he is calm and able to maintain strength in reserve. And then there will be room for only one thought, which will fill his entire being as water fills a pitcher."

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Friday, August 31, 2018


Insights From Epictetus' Manual for Living and Richard Bach's Illusions

For decades, I collected a large number of books--many more than I could read, though I did my best and read a lot of them. Recently, I have begun the process of pruning my book collection to a manageable size, reluctantly yet enthusiastically parting company with books that I realize I do not have the time and/or inclination to read. Yes, "reluctantly yet enthusiastically"--at some level I probably will always have a deep seated aversion to parting company with any book, yet I am enthusiastic about focusing my efforts on reading books as opposed to managing a book collection.

I have also made a determined effort to seek counsel, wisdom and comfort from brief yet meaningful books on days that I know will be challenging emotionally, mentally and/or physically (for example, long travel days involving my parenting time with my daughter Rachel). Last month, I read Epictetus’ Manual for Living on one such day (the specific edition is Sharon Lebell's "new interpretation" published by HarperCollins in 1994). Yesterday, I read Richard Bach’s Illusions. Both books have been in my collection for at least 20 years, yet I had never read either one before.

I wonder how my life would be different had I spent less time/effort buying books and more time/effort reading them, but that would have required me obtaining the realization that it is not possible to read EVERYTHING, which would have been a psychologically uncomfortable admission of defeat (or perceived defeat) that was inconceivable for me to make; only by reframing the issue more realistically (I can't read everything, so I better focus on reading that which is most significant/meaningful) was I able to achieve a more productive outlook. I do not completely regret my earlier mentality, as it is a worthy goal to try to gain as much knowledge as possible; I recall a reviewer noting that Norman Mailer's goal was to be the greatest novelist ever and, whether or not one believes that he achieved that distinction, it was a meaningful goal and he produced works of lasting value while pursuing that bold quest.

The Manual for Living contains several gems that resonate with me. Here are a few:

1) "Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: some things are within our control, and some things are not."

2) "From now on practice saying to everything that appears unpleasant: 'You are just an appearance and by no means what you appear to be.'" Epictetus then advises classifying the appearance as either something that one can control or something that one cannot control, and if one cannot control it then one should train oneself not to worry about it.

3) "Regardless of what others profess, they may not truly live by spiritual values. Be careful whom you associate with. It is human to imitate the habits of those with whom we interact. We inadvertently adopt their interests, their opinions, their values, and their habit of interpreting events. Though many people mean well, they can just the same have a deleterious influence on you because they are undisciplined about what is worthy and what isn't. Just because some people are nice to you doesn't mean you should spend time with them."

Three concepts from Illusions grabbed me:

1) "Like attracts like. Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright. Automatically, as we shine who we are, asking ourselves every minute is this what I really want to do, doing it only when we answer yes, automatically that turns away those who have nothing to learn from who we are and attracts those who do, and from whom we have to learn, as well."

2) "The mark of your ignorance is the depth of your belief in injustice and tragedy. What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly."

3) "Only a few people are interested in what you have to say, but that's all right. You don't tell the quality of a master by the size of his crowds..."

I will let the reader ponder five of those quotes without further commentary but I will expound on the second quote from Illusions. That quote suggests a multi-part inquiry: Do you believe that evil exists and, if so, do you believe that good ultimately triumphs over evil, either in this world or in some form of afterlife? Or, do you believe, as the quote suggests, that things which seem unjust to us are in fact part of a larger scheme of things in which injustice does not exist? My strong inclination is to believe that evil is real and that we have an individual and collective responsibility to combat evil as forcefully as possible. Regarding whether or not there is a larger picture/higher truth that we are not able to perceive from our current vantage point, I am unsure both if that is true and if it is relevant; I certainly want to believe that this is true but I also tend to incline toward the view that the Holocaust rendered some philosophies/viewpoints irrelevant, if not obscene and disrespectful to the memory of the innocent victims. I struggle to perceive a larger picture in which throwing live babies into crematoria is somehow equivalent to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. I understand conceptually the argument that the Holocaust was a failure of man, not God, but it is hard to reconcile the idea of a Being who is all-knowing/all-powerful with a Being who permits such horrors to occur.

Reframing one's perspective is a useful exercise in many aspects of life, but much like the laws of physics collapse at a singularity, many philosophies/perspectives that have great utility nevertheless seem inadequate when applied to the Holocaust (and the same could be said of other evils, though the dimensions, scale and intent of the Holocaust are unprecedented).

In the Star Wars universe, Obi-Wan Kenobi told Luke Skywalker that truth depends on your point of view. Obi-Wan had told Luke that Darth Vader betrayed and killed Luke's father Anakin, when of course what had happened was that Anakin had become Darth Vader. When Luke learned the truth and confronted Obi-Wan, Obi-Wan replied that when Anakin became Darth Vader the good man that he had been no longer existed and therefore from a "certain point of view" what Obi-Wan had said was true.

Luke tended to think in terms of absolutes. When he used the Force to perceive that his friends were in danger, he cut short his training and essentially challenged Vader and Vader's forces all by himself, defying the advice of both Obi-Wan and Yoda, who believed that from the larger perspective the highest priority was that Luke complete his Jedi training, even if Luke's friends might be killed. Luke answered simply that he could help them and that after he helped them he would return to complete his training. Is Luke a hero, is he reckless or is he both? How you answer that question depends on whether you believe that the potential death of Luke's friends is an unjust tragedy or simply part of a bigger picture.

In the end, as Yoda later pointed out, Luke's friends rescued themselves and had to rescue Luke as well, which to Yoda's way of thinking rendered Luke's mission foolhardy. Yoda's perception is that Luke should have followed his training path and let events happen as they would, while Luke felt that he had the power and the responsibility to fight evil with all of his might.

During the Holocaust, the Bielski Partisans battled the Nazis with guerilla warfare while also rescuing thousands of civilians and sheltering them from the death camps. One faction of the Bielski Partisans leadership deemed the civilians who were too young, too old or too infirm to fight as "useless eaters" but the prevailing consensus was that rescuing the helpless gave meaning to the Bielski Partisans' efforts. What would it matter if they blew up a few more supply bridges at the cost of letting their children and elderly relatives perish?

Luke Skywalker thought like a Bielski Partisan; do your best to rescue anyone who you might be able to save and don't just focus on your own training/efforts/path.

Yoda (and Richard Bach) may be right conceptually but as a human being who is pained by the injustice and suffering that I perceive (however illusory it may supposedly turn out to be from some larger perspective), I identify with Luke and the Bielski Partisans.

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Monday, June 25, 2018


Charles Krauthammer Was an Independent Thinker in an Age of Blind Partisanship

We live in an era of blind partisanship, when it is expected that a person must strictly adhere to a given party line or else be ostracized: you are either to the right or to the left and woe to the person who dares to be an independent thinker.

Charles Krauthammer, who passed away on June 21 at the age of 68, defied the norm and did not conform to partisan politics: he criticized President Barack Obama for--among other things--his Mideast policy, but he also called President Trump a "moral disgrace" for not immediately condemning the racist, white supremacist rally at Charlottesville.

Krauthammer, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, wrote commentaries that defy simple labels, as Adam Bernstein noted in Krauthammer's Washington Post obituary:
He initially defined himself as a liberal Cold Warrior, a Democrat who embraced anti-communist as well as New Deal and Great Society programs that aided the most vulnerable. His support for the robust use of American military power gradually left him alienated from the Democratic Party, however, and he found ideological succor in neoconservatism, identifying with writer Irving Kristol's definition of its adherents as onetime liberals who have been "mugged by reality."
There are many examples of Krauthammer's crisp writing and his distinct perspective. In a September 25, 2006 column titled Everyone's Jewish, Krauthammer started with a light-hearted tone but then made some serious points:
Krauthammer's Law: Everyone is Jewish until proven otherwise. I've had a fairly good run with this one. First, it turns out that John Kerry--windsurfing, French-speaking, Beacon Hill aristocrat--had two Jewish grandparents. Then Hillary Clinton--methodical Methodist--unearths a Jewish stepgrandfather in time for her run as New York senator...

For all its tongue-in-cheek irony, Krauthammer's Law works because when I say "everyone," I don't mean everyone you know personally. Depending on the history and ethnicity of your neighborhood and social circles, there may be no one you know who is Jewish. But if "everyone" means anyone that you've heard of in public life, the law works for two reasons. Ever since the Jews were allowed out of the ghetto and into European society at the dawning of the Enlightenment, they have peopled the arts and sciences, politics, and history in astonishing disproportion to their numbers.

There are 13 million Jews in the world, one-fifth of 1 percent of the world's population. Yet 20 percent of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish, a staggering hundredfold surplus of renown and genius. This is similarly true for a myriad of other "everyones"--the household names in music, literature, mathematics, physics, finance, industry, design, comedy, film and, as the doors opened, even politics.

But it is not just Jewish excellence at work here. There is a dark side to these past centuries of Jewish emancipation and achievement--an unrelenting history of persecution. The result is the other more somber and poignant reason for the Jewishness of public figures being discovered late and with surprise: concealment. 
In a January 29, 2015 column titled Do We Really Mean "Never Again"?, Krauthammer noted the "bitter irony" that in the wake of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz it was obvious that anti-Semitism was alive and well in Europe. Krauthammer lamented that the real issues were (1) Jew-hatred is the norm, not exception, throughout European history and (2) while it took Hitler and his followers years to massacre six million Jews, the state of Israel and her more than six million Jews face the dire prospect of annihilation by just one nuclear weapon:
The rise of European anti-Semitism is, in reality, just a return to the norm. For a millennium, virulent Jew-hatred--persecution, expulsions, massacres--was the norm in Europe until the shame of the Holocaust created a temporary anomaly wherein anti-Semitism became socially unacceptable.

The hiatus is over. Jew-hatred is back, recapitulating the past with impressive zeal. Italians protesting Gaza handed out leaflets calling for a boycott of Jewish merchants. As in the 1930s. A widely popular French comedian has introduced a variant of the Nazi salute. In Berlin, Gaza brought out a mob chanting, "Jew, Jew, cowardly pig, come out and fight alone!" Berlin, mind you.

European anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem, however. It's a European problem, a stain, a disease of which Europe is congenitally unable to rid itself.

From the Jewish point of view, European anti-Semitism is a sideshow. The story of European Jewry is over. It died at Auschwitz. Europe's place as the center and fulcrum of the Jewish world has been inherited by Israel. Not only is it the first independent Jewish commonwealth in 2,000 years. It is, also for the first time in 2,000 years, the largest Jewish community on the planet.

The threat to the Jewish future lies not in Europe but in the Muslim Middle East, today the heart of global anti-Semitism, a veritable factory of anti-Jewish literature, films, blood libels and calls for violence, indeed for another genocide.

The founding charter of Hamas calls not just for the eradication of Israel but for the killing of Jews everywhere. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah welcomes Jewish emigration to Israel-because it makes the killing easier: "If Jews all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide." And, of course, Iran openly declares as its sacred mission the annihilation of Israel...

Former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, known as a moderate, once characterized tiny Israel as a one-bomb country. He acknowledged Israel’s deterrent capacity but noted the asymmetry: "Application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world." Result? Israel eradicated, Islam vindicated. So much for deterrence.

And even if deterrence worked with Tehran, that's not where the story ends. Iran's very acquisition of nukes would set off a nuclear arms race with half a dozen Muslim countries from Turkey to Egypt to the Gulf states--in the most unstable part of the world. A place where you wake up in the morning to find a pro-American Yemeni government overthrown by rebels whose slogan is "God is Great. Death to America. Death to Israel. Damn the Jews. Power to Islam."

The idea that some kind of six-sided deterrence would work in this roiling cauldron of instability the way it did in the frozen bipolarity of the Cold War is simply ridiculous.

The Iranian bomb is a national security issue, an alliance issue and a regional Middle East issue. But it is also a uniquely Jewish issue because of Israel's situation as the only state on earth overtly threatened with extinction, facing a potential nuclear power overtly threatening that extinction.

On the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz, mourning dead Jews is easy. And, forgive me, cheap. Want to truly honor the dead? Show solidarity with the living--Israel and its 6 million Jews. Make "never again" more than an empty phrase. It took Nazi Germany seven years to kill 6 million Jews. It would take a nuclear Iran one day.
Krauthammer deftly wove together the history of European and Middle Eastern anti-Semitism in that column, like a boxer nimbly throwing jabs that hit the target--but he also concluded with a knockout punch that hammered home the main point and that knockout punch bears repeating for anyone who does not understand what is at stake for Israel vis a vis Iran: "It took Nazi Germany seven years to kill 6 million Jews. It would take a nuclear Iran one day."

Krauthammer used words to entertain, to enlighten and to inspire. His allegiance was to independent thought, not a particular ideology or political party. That kind of voice is rare, always needed, and will be particularly missed in our era.


Thursday, November 30, 2017


Seeing Light in the Darkest Times

November 9 was the 79th anniversary of the beginning of Kristallnacht (German for "Night of Crystal" but usually translated in this context as "Night of the Broken Glass"), a two day state-sanctioned pogrom in Nazi Germany, German-occupied Austria and German-occupied Sudetenland during which over 260 synagogues were burned to the ground, nearly 100 Jews were killed and as many as 30,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps. Nazi Germany then imposed a one billion Reichsmark fine (equivalent to $400 million in U.S. dollars at the time) on the Jewish community to make sure that the Jewish people--not German-owned insurance companies--paid the economic price for all of the destroyed Jewish properties/businesses.

Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David Stras' family experienced the horrors of Kristallnacht firsthand; his grandfather--who was 14 years old at the time--saw Jewish stores being looted, Jewish books being burned in bonfires in the street and signs declaring "Kill the Jews." Stras' great-grandfather was sent to Dachau, the Nazis' first concentration camp. Stras recently wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal about his family's experiences during Kristallnacht specifically and the Holocaust in general. Stras noted that four years ago, for the first time, he spoke publicly about what happened to his family during the Holocaust and how his grandfather narrowly survived Auschwitz. Stras explained that his grandfather never lost his faith in humanity:

My grandfather had the uncommon gift of being able to see the light of human generosity in the midst of near-total darkness...
Only after years researching their stories and reflecting on their lives do I understand the message my grandparents had tried to impart--one of hope and gratitude, not bitterness or pity. As my grandfather said in a memorial service speech in 1979, we remember those who "lost their freedom, the freedom of us and the freedom of mankind." He emphasized that "we, the survivors, have to let the world know that we will never again allow another Holocaust" and told the audience that "you, and you alone, have the responsibility to speak up for our fallen relatives and friends."
My grandparents always said they were the lucky ones, and that they were left on earth to speak for those who had perished. Their guidepost was humanity, not indulgence in their own sorrow and suffering.
The human capacity to do evil and inflict suffering is terrifying and tragic but the human capacity to endure, survive and retain compassion/hope despite suffering is inspirational.

Here is a link to the entire article (subscription required): My Grandparents Saw Light, Even After the Dark of Kristallnacht

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