30 January 2015

The junior varsity of terror: Language parsed

This week, the White House Deputy Press Secretary described the Taliban in Afghanistan as an "armed insurgency" (compared with ISL which is a terrorist group) and White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made sure that the US press corps understood that he was not labeling the group as a terrorist organization. "The threat that they (Taliban) pose is different....[it is] acute." He was comparing Taliban to Al Qaeda at the time. When asked "Aren't all terrorist groups different from every other terrorist group?" Earnest affirmed, "Yes, they are. But in this case, there is a clear difference between the aspirations that have been articulated... and the way they carry out, or the way they resort to some of their terror tactics and (in comparison to) the terror attacks that are carried out by Al Qaeda."

Back story: The Taliban killed over 120 children in their school in December. The Taliban has killed thousands of allied troops and maimed thousands of others. The National (US) Counter-terrorism Center has the Taliban on their list of terrorist groups. So does the National Security Council and the US Treasury Department.
Another back story: Bowe Bergdahl, a prisoner of the Taliban for five years, was released last US summer in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay detainees. He indeed may be charged with desertion, and CNN's Barbara Starr reported on Tuesday that a decision may come very soon. But the Fox and NBC reports explicitly said that the decision had already been reached.

Question: Is the White House working hard to avoid the breaking of US policy: "We don't negotiate with terrorists"? By changing the label on the Taliban, downgrading them to junior varsity level, does that allow the US to negotiate with them?

What did Shakespeare write Juliet's line to be? “Tis but thy name that is my enemy, thou art thyself though not a Montague. What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man. O be some other name! What‘s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; so Romeo would, were he not Romeo called, retain that dear perfection which he owes without that title/ Romeo, doff thy name and for that name, which is no part of thee, take all myself."

Juliet's advise to her suitor Romeo is to delete the names of Montague and they could run off into the fairy tale climactic ending of a Hollywood movie. Changing the name of anything doesn't change its basic nature, she affirms. Romeo is still sweet smelling and this parsing of the English language by the White House staffers this week will not change the nature of the terrorist organization The Taliban. It still stinks. It's uncivil. It's just wrong. All because (perhaps) a lawyer suggested a name change. Calling the varsity team the "junior varsity" doesn't change its game plan. They still play the same game. And we hope they lose very soon.

29 January 2015

Evil and Auschwitz: Give me a yellow star!

January 27 is the international day of remembrance about the evils that lurk in the human heart. That's not what the United Nations declared, but it's the truth. The International Day of remembrance about the Holocaust, the Shoah. And people marched, even heads of state (not US President Obama-- he sent a treasury man). And people are still bothered by what happened in World War II. 70 years ago the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet army emptied Auschwitz long after millions were killed there and throughout the concentration camp network.

Dr Chaim Bernard lives in Tel Aviv, Israel. He wrote this piece which deserves a stop and read it read. It was originally published as a letter to the editor in the European edition of the New York Times.  Read it all. Stop. Speak what you feel. Let's stop this madness.

European Edition of The NY Times (don't miss a word)
 Letter to the Editor (appearing in the European Edition of The New York Times)
Give me a yellow star!
"A dreary, cloth patch sewn in the shape of a Star of David that every Jew was forced to wear in Nazi Germany along with every country the Germans conquered; every country in Europe, some even allied with Germany; every culture looking to expose the hated Jew.
A yellow star worn by both my parents, while you, Europe, were standing by.
That's what I am to you: The guilty Jew. The filthy Jew. The stealing Jew. The disgusting Jew. The less-than-human Jew. The Jew that can only do wrong – bomb innocent Muslim children - for that is, of course, all we do, all we ever aspired to as a nation, a race.
The yellow star was forced on us. Rammed down our throats. It stood for dishonor and was associated with anti-Semitism, as you probably know. It was to be a badge of shame like Hawthorne’s Scarlet letter. But 6 million times worse.
Give me a yellow star.
I want to wear a yellow star above my left breast where six million of my brothers and sisters were forced to don one.  I want to walk around with a yellow star on every solitary piece of clothing I own. On my Armani suit, my Nike sweatshirt, Ralph Lauren sweater, my Champion hoodie, my Diesel jeans, my South Beach biker jacket.  I’ll even wear it at the beach on my bare chest if I have to.
I want to walk down the streets of Paris near the Marais and be seen by you European anti-Semites.  Outside the Great Synagogue of Stockholm, the Torah Center in Bruxelles, the Anna Frank Memorial in Amsterdam, the Holocaust Museum in Berlin, outside the Sigmund Freud House in London.
I want all of you to see me with it and hear you say: "Hey, here comes the Jew; he’s not just like the rest of us . He’s just a dirty Jew. A mass murderer. He kills Muslim children and then uses their blood for matzah, just like the rest of the Jews. They carpet bomb innocent people. They are useless except for their knowledge, their Nobel prizes, and their success. They kill children, those Jews.  Don’t you know? It’s the Jews who own Hollywood, the media, the banks. They’re the scum of the earth. They steal. Hitler was right. Let’s go spray-paint swastikas on his grandparents’ graves. Let’s go beat him up.  Let’s kill him.  Let’s murder a rabbi in Miami or Bruxelles."
I want that yellow star.
Europe, to me that yellow star is a symbol of almost everything I stand for. It’s a symbol of surviving evil. It’s heritage and knowledge. Tolerance and optimism. It’s strength and confidence in the face of the weakness and insecurity of those not being taught well enough what their mothers should have taught them.
That yellow star is education, resilience.
It’s right over wrong, and it is life.
It is testament to all who tragically died wearing it, so that their future surviving brothers and sisters know never to be afraid of who they are again.  Never to be silent again, never to apologize for surviving.  Thanks to them and indeed, for them, this yellow badge ceased being a badge of shame a long time ago. It's my badge of honor. I survived your indifference, your stupidity, your inhumanity, your hatred, and your ignorance. (edited)
It’s a star that blinds out any other emblem that preaches hatred. It drowns out the form, shape and color of swastikas, the black flags of ISIS and Al Qaeda, and the green of Hamas or the yellow of Hezbollah.
Before being herded off to the gas chambers around 70 years ago, Jews wearing their yellow star were hearing ‘Kill the Jews’, ‘Heil Hitler’, ‘The only good Jew is a dead Jew’, ‘Stealing Jew!’ – and all that, before being ostracized from their communities, stripped of their belongings, property, identities, humanity and eventually, their lives. They were hearing Words. It happened in many other countries too.  Like my father’s country.  A country he was expelled from for being a Jew.  For being a dirty Jew.
It - Always - Begins - With - Words.
The same kind of words we’re hearing now here on your social media. On your streets. At demonstrations. In conversations. Words that have nothing to do with Israel;  Palestine;  Politics; The Middle East or anything. You might not be all too happy with ISIS and Hamas, but if you aren’t trying seriously to expose them for who and what they are, then you’re not part of the solution, but part of the problem. You know nothing about your own history, nothing about the Islamic conquest of Europe from the year 626 until this very day – the holy Jihad, followed by the Islamic Caliphate.
The world’s abuzz right now with anti-Israel and anti-Semitic words. Anti-Semitic words that Jews like myself are used to. I’m talking to you, Dieudonné; Mel Gibson; Roger Waters. And the rest of you ignorant Jew-haters. And I’m talking to you, radical Islamic leaders, standing behind your pulpits preaching lies and hate and division in the name of Allah.
And to you – 'innocent' bystanders in Europe: I’m talking to you -- supposedly liberal minded people – friends of mine, even – who spend way too much time talking about Israel fighting for its existence in a defensive war, “disproportionately” ( as if the bombing of Dresden, the killing of Bin Laden, the invasion of Berlin by the Russian Army never happened) but very little talking about the hundreds of thousands being murdered in Syria.  In Iraq.  About people being murdered for being followers of any other religion save Islam. Very little talking about ISIS taking over the Middle East; displaying severed human heads on spikes; shooting people in ditches by the thousands; beheading journalists on YouTube. Very little time talking about Syrians being gassed or a semi-literate peasant turned Turkish Prime minister spewing the kind of virulent anti-Semitism which ends with only one thing.
And don’t forget 9/11, London’s 7/7, Spain’s Madrid train bombings or the Boston Marathon bombing, while you’re at it.
Take a good hard look at my yellow star. Look at where it came from. Look what was done after we, the Jews, were forced to wear it and then ask yourselves, are we doing the same to others? Us Jews? Us Israelis? Are we Jews hellbent on exterminating people? Is that really what we want? Or are others doing that which you think we’re doing! – others you refuse to be vocal about nor condemn with a simple post or click of your 'like' button.
Here is what the German cleric, Pastor Martin Niemöller wrote: “First they burned their books and their synagogues, and I didn't speak out. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me”. He wrote these lines in 1933 - too late – and he referred to the Nazis.
But these words ring equally true in view of over 10% of the population in France now being Muslim, over 8% in Germany, over 6% in England; the neo-Nazis in virtually every European country, or the Nazi, Udo Voigt holding a seat in the Civil Rights Commission of the European Parliament.
I, for one, Europe, am not going anywhere...
Never again.Though some might wish it -- NEVER AGAIN!
For anyone else reading this from afar, who might agree with what I’m saying, Jews and non-Jews alike: don’t feel sorry for me, my family, my friends. Don’t feel sorry for us. We're fine and we’re not afraid, and we’re here to stay.
Don’t be afraid for us, Europe, because I’m not intending to be a victim. None of us are. And I hope you aren’t either, despite the warning signs.
My yellow star is staring extremism in the face.
Am I cool with the yellow star? You’re damn right I am, totally!"

23 January 2015

I was on holiday

People are asking me why I didn't write after the Sydney Siege until today. It wasn't that there was nothing about which to write. It's not that I was lazy or disinterested. It's that I was on annual leave. "nuff said.  Thanks be to God for some good rest. Thank you who asked, for missing my writings. Let's see if we can do more in 2015.

Is tribalism the same as chosenpeopleism?

Elizabeth Farrelly wrote a striking piece (full article below) with this theme in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald. In the article she cites everyone's right to be offended, not to be free from offense. Check. In light of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher deli murders, sparked by a cartoon and freedom of expression, and some Islamic fundamentalists who were offended. I liked what Ms Farrelly said, until she turned a corner and made the assumption that anything tribalist is the same as what she coined as chosenpeopleism. That's a term I have never heard, but I get it. Although I don't agree with her.

Ms Farrelly invites response with this line: " But before I go, let me say this: criticism is not bullying. Dissent is not coercion. Disagreement is not hate. In fact, these things are much closer to love." So, let me explain why I disagree.

She defines tribalism here: "But there is common ground, namely, the idea that the world would be better if everyone behaved (believed, thought and spoke) just like us. This is tribalism."

She does not define chosenpeopleism, but uses it near the end of the article and makes it the same as tribalism: "But segregating children on religious grounds inculcates Chosen People Syndrome from birth. Be it Wahhabist, Jewish or Anglican, in Saudi, Paris or Bronte, chosenpeopleism makes war, not peace. This is not God's doing, though religions lend themselves to tribalism. Chosenpeopleism is practised by the excluders (American torture) and the excludees; by races, nations, creeds, professions and mafiosi. It's human."

Actually that a people (The Jewish People) are the "chosen people" is exactly God's doing. That's what the Book of Books says, "The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the LORD brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. " (recorded in Deuteronomy 7.7-8)

The author of Deuteronomy, Moses, is telling the Jewish people that even though we are fairly insignificant numerically, that God is faithful to His promises and chose us to represent Him on the planet. That gives us significance, but it doesn't give us a right to hate others or, what did Ms Farrelly say, "American torture" and "make war."

God tells us in no uncertain terms, “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Exodus 23.9)

Being chosen doesn't give us the right to taunt the unchosen. In fact, if I read the Book right, we have an obligation to be a "light to the nations" and Psalm 67 urges the nations around us to join in the anthems of honor to God, with "Let the peoples praise You, O God; Let all the peoples praise You." (verses 3, and 5) It's incumbent on the chosen people to bring in others, to (in modern terms) evangelize and welcome (Farrelly's term) excludees into the commonwealth of Israel. Evangelism is not coercion.

I watched a video from 2012 today. The youtube is here: Muslims offended There was some editing obviously but mostly fair reporting of a conversation after a protest in the streets of Sydney went violent due to the offense of some about Islam. Watch it if you have time (about half an hour), and see if offense is cause for violence or retribution or anger or... That said, I really like Ms Farrelly's summary of being PC, "In failing to draw these distinctions, in banning even the public recognition of difference, political correctness drives truth underground. This is ugly and boring. It's also dangerous."

This is a good topic to discuss and to parse. Where do you stand?

The full article is here:
Let's be clear. You do not have a right not to be offended. On the contrary I, and you, have a right to offend. Indeed, freedom to offend is a right fundamental to democracy.

In this, much as it pains me, I endorse Tony Abbott's view from 2012. The "hurt-feelings test", argued then opposition leader Abbott, is incompatible with free expression. "If free speech is to mean anything," Abbott said, "it's others' right to say what you don't like ... It's the freedom to be obnoxious and objectionable."

Pope Francis is wrong to say "you cannot make fun of the faith of others". We can, and it must be allowed.

None of us wants to hear it. We all have our inner fascist. Overheard recently in the women's loo at Bronte rockpool, two blondes, clearly locals, having a whinge about their fellow swimmers. They didn't like the fast, thrashy guys, the lane nazis. They didn't like the slow, lumbering whales. They resented breaststrokers and backstrokers, and expressed contempt for both the side-pool walkers and the "teabags" who bob and steep at pool-end. Indeed, it seemed, they didn't really welcome anyone who did things differently from themselves.

It was the same day as the first public flogging of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, sentenced to 10 years and 1000 lashes for "insulting Islam" – viz., attempting public political discourse in a regime that criminalises dissent.

Obviously, the blondes weren't Wahhabis. They'd have been wearing way more clothes. But there is common ground, namely, the idea that the world would be better if everyone behaved (believed, thought and spoke) just like us. This is tribalism.

Of course, few Australians would own such a belief. We support diversity, plurality, multiculture. But that's not how we behave. The increasing polarisation of our public discourse suggests tribal creep - from religion, from sport. It makes criticism something we fear and resist.

Almost every week I am accused of "bullying" and "hate".  I criticise cyclists, I'm called a cycle-phobe, a bully. I suggest women empathise more easily than men, I'm accused of misandry; man-hate.

Of course it's ridiculous. The trollosphere has the collective IQ of a potted daisy. Yet this constant attrition has its effect, asphyxiating debate, making critics like me yearn to farm organic goats in the Western Desert. But before I go, let me say this: criticism is not bullying. Dissent is not coercion. Disagreement is not hate. In fact, these things are much closer to love.

Criticism manifests a belief that things could be better, and a desire to move in that direction. Criticism may not feel positive to the recipient. It may cause offence. That's irrelevant. What's important is that criticism's right to exist is imperative for our collective well-being.

Curiously, criticism is inhibited both by totalitarianism and by its putative opposite. In the wake of Charlie Hebdo, commentators have noted the strange disjunct between the West's fierce defence of free speech and the mealy mouthed, self-imposed gag of political correctness.

Our schoolchildren are taught not to bully, and not to be racist. That's good. But they're also taught that equality requires every competitor to get a prize, that harmony implies universal consensus and that fairness makes one person's offence another's blame. What they're not taught is how to parse this well-meant mind mash.

So kids insist it's racist to describe someone as Chinese or black. They say it's homophobic to make a joke involving lesbians. This failure to recognise the neutrality of descriptors misdefines prejudice and demarks entire swaths of discourse as no-go zones.
Prejudice defines as discrimination based on criteria that do not properly pertain; criteria that are, literally, impertinent. This implies an element of untruth. It's not racist to say, "I need 10 black people for this film", but it is racist to say, "only black people can act".
In failing to draw these distinctions, in banning even the public recognition of difference, political correctness drives truth underground. This is ugly and boring. It's also dangerous.

We were rightly horrified at the Hebdo massacres, and at recent footage of Saudis publicly beheading Laila Bassim in a Mecca street. But it's not so long since Catholics and Protestants were burning each other with full legal approbation in the streets of London.
That wasn't religion. It was tribalism. What lifted us from the bloody morass was reason; the age of reason, separation of church and state, the Enlightenment. Of course it was flawed, and of course the process is ongoing. But two supremely important principles emerged. One, that public discussion should be as free as possible without causing harm to others. Two, that the best antidote to murderous tribalism was universalism – of law, of reason, of education.

Thus, we have a "right" to free speech, constrained by libel laws, hate-speech laws and, in many European countries, laws against Holocaust denial.

We should note here that "hate speech" is not simply expressing hatred. Hate speech, for legal purposes, is a call to action; a public incitement against an individual or group. (NSW law specifically exempts debate that has genuine scholarly, academic or artistic intent.)

I think these limits (unlike Pope Francis') reasonable. (I'd also happily ban denials of the Australian genocide, such as Andrew Bolt's recent effort, and possibly of climate change – presuming that same exception for genuine debate - which has more catastrophic potential still.)

On tribalism we're more conflicted. Easily the best counter to tribalism would be to ban religious schools. Not religion. That's fine. But segregating children on religious grounds inculcates Chosen People Syndrome from birth. Be it Wahhabist, Jewish or Anglican, in Saudi, Paris or Bronte, chosenpeopleism makes war, not peace.

This is not God's doing, though religions lend themselves to tribalism. Chosenpeopleism is practised by the excluders (American torture) and the excludees; by races, nations, creeds, professions and mafiosi. It's human.

Pope Francis got it wrong. But another Pope, Alexander, points to enlightenment on this: "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is man."
Twitter: @emfarrelly