Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Thoughts on the suicide of Robin Williams

“There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.” Albert Camus's philosophy of the absurd gives us as a metaphor for our lives, Sisyphus endlessly pushing his rock up the mountain only to see it roll back down as soon as he gains the top.

Camus's answer to the question of suicide is to be creative, to choose our own values and meaning in life, to live despite the absurdity, to rebel. In earlier works he also valued sensual pleasure:

... when I throw myself down among the absinthe plants to bring their scent into my body, I shall know, appearances to the contrary, that I am fulfilling a truth which is the sun's and which will also be my death's. In a sense, it is indeed my life that I am staking here, a life that tastes of warm stone, that is full of the signs of the sea and the rising song of the crickets. The breeze is cool and the sky blue. I love this life with abandon and wish to speak of it boldly: it makes me proud of my human condition. (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/camus/)

When life offers pleasure, whether sensual, intellectual, or meditative, how can we not agree that it is worth living? I have spent my life taking delight in simple pleasures, myself. A good meal, a walk in the woods, a mountain vista, a swim in the sea; a good novel, poem,  or film; standing before the paintings of Rembrandt, Picasso, Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin, Georgia O'Keeffe; or hearing a piano sonata by Beethoven or music of a thousand other musicians...Then, too, I have had the good fortune of love and travel, of nothing short of euphoria and ecstasy in my life. 

You will never hear from me a disparaging word about Earthly Delights. 

The joys of life, however, are too often fleeting. As John Keats said,

Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh, 
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips: 
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine, 
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine; 

There's the rub. As we grow older, the joys, though sweeter, are ever rarer. It is then that we grow more aware of suffering, not just our own private suffering, but that throughout the world. We are saddened by the wars, the natural disasters, the deaths of our friends and family, the cruelty, poverty, misery everywhere. We see how much of the misery is our own doing, the product of capitalism, greed, indifference, the inability of so many to have empathy, much less to love. Not only does the stone of Sisyphus roll back to the bottom of the mountain, it causes mass destruction in its wake, crushing homes and the people who dwell therein, killing animals, fouling the entire planet. We come to agree that "man is a useless passion," that "best is never to be born and second best to die as quickly as possible."

Robin Williams was a great actor; he conjured fine emotion and thoughtfulness from those who saw his best films. We mourn the loss of his life; few of us knowing the depths of whatever pain or thoughts may have given him anguish or despair. I dare say in the scheme of things his death should disturb us no more than the deaths of children in Gaza, or the innocent civilians in Iraq. Perhaps it moves us more because we have let his characters into our hearts and minds. His choice of death at age 63 makes us ask ourselves why we don't commit suicide, especially those of us older than he was. 

The worst thing in life is false hope, and oh, there is so much of that. Religion is the primary source of it, presenting us with the most absurd images of all, streets paved with gold in some ethereal heaven, virgins waiting to have sex with warriors, health and happiness for the poor, starving, and suffering. Wishful thinking keeps the workers turning the wheels of luxury and sensual pleasure for the rich. How many centuries have the majority of people enslaved themselves to a commanding few? As Bertrand Russell put it: 

"Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first one is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.”

My position on suicide, if you haven't figured it out, is that it is often a wise choice; but in any event, never ours to decry when another person chooses it freely. If ever there were Rights of Mankind, the right to end one's own life is fundamental. As an Epicurean who sees the value of simple pleasures, of art, of philosophy, of friendship and awareness in general, I have to bow before the choice of another to forego what joys there might be for the solace of sheer nothingness. The thought of death is comforting as I grow older: whatever pain, loss, and alienation I suffer in the years ahead will end, finally and completely. If I am able, I shall choose not to suffer the surgery and years of intense pain my mother endured in her 80s or the senility and confusion my father suffers yet in his 90s. So I conclude by saying, absurdly, Thank God for suicide*, a blessing to suffering souls everywhere; short of that, Thank God for death. 


* One caveat I have to mention is that depression and despair are not always rational or the result of one's circumstances. There is mental illness and imbalance. When this is so, or in cases of addiction, when depression is a symptom, a possible cure is surely warranted. I know this complicates cases of suicide and, in particular, this one. My overview of suicide stands, nonetheless. I think a person can come to suicide rationally, as a matter of choice, and that not everything can be made good by anti-depressants, pain killers, and tranquilizers. 

Monday, August 11, 2014


The argument that the two parties are the same is so tired and wrong. Be smug and superior and stay home and let the country go to Hell, right? Great. What difference does it make to the poor, the unemployed, the victims of war, those whose civil rights are trampled? Take a look at the records of Bernie Sanders, John Lewis and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren; then tell me they are no different from Rick Perry! Get real. If you can elect a Green Party candidate or a socialist, fine. If not, please don't turn the country over to the Tea Party.
8 hrs · Like · 7 (from a FB Thread)

Why on Earth should I support and vote for Hillary Clinton for President if she is the Democratic candidate in 2016? Is she not supported by corporations? Is she not too one-sided for Israel against the Palestinians? Has she not voted for war repeatedly while I am a pacifist? Doesn't she represent everything wrong with American Politics, it's dependency on money and polls, its deception, its continual crafty appeasement of special interests, its desire for power? Isn't Hillary no different from her husband, in the final analysis?

Oh yes, all those criticisms have truth and validity. There are plenty more we could make, too.

Whenever there is a presidential election in my country, I think of Plato's critique of Democracy. I have posted Jowett's translation in the entry below this one. I prefer Grube's or Cornford's translations since I don't read ancient Greek. The reason I think of it is because all the blatant flaws in democracy he discusses in his dialog from The Republic. Never was this more obvious than when we elected Ronald Reagan. Even an actor may become the leader in a democracy, Plato wrote. People are swayed by personality, false promises, the candidate's looks, the most absurd and empty traits of popularity. Sound bites trump substance. Watch the debates.

Right now, the U.S.  electorate is ready for a woman president. Yes, there will be some who will say-- A woman yes; but not this one. But they are the minority. Hillary Clinton is the one who can win right now; and most of us know this. She will have to posture herself to meet the Platonic requisites of popularity and appearance; but she could win.

Hillary, in my view, is not "the lesser of two evils." She has stood for many positive causes in our society, notably Universal Healthcare. She is on the side of same-sex marriage as opposed to Republicans who are adamantly against it. She fights for voter rights rather than voter suppression. She has a favorable record on dealing with climate change. She would select Justices for the Supreme Court who do not believe corporations are people. Before you say she's the same as the Republican opponent in 2016, check her record  against any of the likely Republicans:


Hillary Clinton- http://www.ontheissues.org/hillary_clinton.htm

Rick Perry http://www.ontheissues.org/Rick_Perry.htm

All the Others: http://www.ontheissues.org/default.htm

Jack Miller

Plato and Democracy

Plato and Aristotle
by Raphael

Plato on Democracy (Jowett trans)

And then democracy comes into being after the poor have conquered their opponents, slaughtering some and banishing some, while to the remainder they give an equal share of freedom and power; and this is the form of government in which the magistrates are commonly elected by lot. 

Yes, he said, that is the nature of democracy, whether the revolution has been effected by arms, or whether fear has caused the opposite party to withdraw. 

And now what is their manner of life, and what sort of a government have they? for as the government is, such will be the man. 

Clearly, he said. 
In the first place, are they not free; and is not the city full of freedom and frankness --a man may say and do what he likes? 

'Tis said so, he replied. 
And where freedom is, the individual is clearly able to order for himself his own life as he pleases? 

Then in this kind of State there will be the greatest variety of human natures? 

There will. 
This, then, seems likely to be the fairest of States, being an embroidered robe which is spangled with every sort of flower. And just as women and children think a variety of colours to be of all things most charming, so there are many men to whom this State, which is spangled with the manners and characters of mankind, will appear to be the fairest of States. 

Yes, my good Sir, and there will be no better in which to look for a government. 

Because of the liberty which reigns there --they have a complete assortment of constitutions; and he who has a mind to establish a State, as we have been doing, must go to a democracy as he would to a bazaar at which they sell them, and pick out the one that suits him; then, when he has made his choice, he may found his State. 

He will be sure to have patterns enough. 
And there being no necessity, I said, for you to govern in this State, even if you have the capacity, or to be governed, unless you like, or go to war when the rest go to war, or to be at peace when others are at peace, unless you are so disposed --there being no necessity also, because some law forbids you to hold office or be a dicast, that you should not hold office or be a dicast, if you have a fancy --is not this a way of life which for the moment is supremely delightful 

For the moment, yes. 
And is not their humanity to the condemned in some cases quite charming? Have you not observed how, in a democracy, many persons, although they have been sentenced to death or exile, just stay where they are and walk about the world --the gentleman parades like a hero, and nobody sees or cares? 

Yes, he replied, many and many a one. 
See too, I said, the forgiving spirit of democracy, and the 'don't care' about trifles, and the disregard which she shows of all the fine principles which we solemnly laid down at the foundation of the city --as when we said that, except in the case of some rarely gifted nature, there never will be a good man who has not from his childhood been used to play amid things of beauty and make of them a joy and a study --how grandly does she trample all these fine notions of ours under her feet, never giving a thought to the pursuits which make a statesman, and promoting to honour any one who professes to be the people's friend. 

Yes, she is of a noble spirit. 
These and other kindred characteristics are proper to democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike. 

We know her well. 
Consider now, I said, what manner of man the individual is, or rather consider, as in the case of the State, how he comes into being. 

Very good, he said. 
Is not this the way --he is the son of the miserly and oligarchical father who has trained him in his own habits? 

And, like his father, he keeps under by force the pleasures which are of the spending and not of the getting sort, being those which are called unnecessary? 

Would you like, for the sake of clearness, to distinguish which are the necessary and which are the unnecessary pleasures? 

I should. 
Are not necessary pleasures those of which we cannot get rid, and of which the satisfaction is a benefit to us? And they are rightly so, because we are framed by nature to desire both what is beneficial and what is necessary, and cannot help it. 

We are not wrong therefore in calling them necessary? 
We are not. 
And the desires of which a man may get rid, if he takes pains from his youth upwards --of which the presence, moreover, does no good, and in some cases the reverse of good --shall we not be right in saying that all these are unnecessary? 

Yes, certainly. 
Suppose we select an example of either kind, in order that we may have a general notion of them? 

Very good. 
Will not the desire of eating, that is, of simple food and condiments, in so far as they are required for health and strength, be of the necessary class? 

That is what I should suppose. 
The pleasure of eating is necessary in two ways; it does us good and it is essential to the continuance of life? 

But the condiments are only necessary in so far as they are good for health? 

And the desire which goes beyond this, or more delicate food, or other luxuries, which might generally be got rid of, if controlled and trained in youth, and is hurtful to the body, and hurtful to the soul in the pursuit of wisdom and virtue, may be rightly called unnecessary? 

Very true. 
May we not say that these desires spend, and that the others make money because they conduce to production? 

And of the pleasures of love, and all other pleasures, the same holds good? 

And the drone of whom we spoke was he who was surfeited in pleasures and desires of this sort, and was the slave of the unnecessary desires, whereas he who was subject o the necessary only was miserly and oligarchical? 

Very true. 
Again, let us see how the democratical man grows out of the oligarchical: the following, as I suspect, is commonly the process. 

What is the process? 
When a young man who has been brought up as we were just now describing, in a vulgar and miserly way, has tasted drones' honey and has come to associatewith fierce and crafty natures who are able to provide for him all sorts of refinements and varieties of pleasure --then, as you may imagine, the change will begin of the oligarchical principle within him into the democratical? 

And as in the city like was helping like, and the change was effected by an alliance from without assisting one division of the citizens, so too the young man is changed by a class of desires coming from without to assist the desires within him, that which is and alike again helping that which is akin and alike? 

And if there be any ally which aids the oligarchical principle within him, whether the influence of a father or of kindred, advising or rebuking him, then there arises in his soul a faction and an opposite faction, and he goes to war with himself. 

It must be so. 
And there are times when the democratical principle gives way to the oligarchical, and some of his desires die, and others are banished; a spirit of reverence enters into the young man's soul and order is restored. 

Yes, he said, that sometimes happens. 
And then, again, after the old desires have been driven out, fresh ones spring up, which are akin to them, and because he, their father, does not know how to educate them, wax fierce and numerous. 

Yes, he said, that is apt to be the way. 
They draw him to his old associates, and holding secret intercourse with them, breed and multiply in him. 

Very true. 
At length they seize upon the citadel of the young man's soul, which they perceive to be void of all accomplishments and fair pursuits and true words, which make their abode in the minds of men who are dear to the gods, and are their best guardians and sentinels. 

None better. 
False and boastful conceits and phrases mount upwards and take their place. 

They are certain to do so. 
And so the young man returns into the country of the lotus-eaters, and takes up his dwelling there in the face of all men; and if any help be sent by his friends to the oligarchical part of him, the aforesaid vain conceits shut the gate of the king's fastness; and they will neither allow the embassy itself to enter, private if private advisers offer the fatherly counsel of the aged will they listen to them or receive them. There is a battle and they gain the day, and then modesty, which they call silliness, is ignominiously thrust into exile by them, and temperance, which they nickname unmanliness, is trampled in the mire and cast forth; they persuade men that moderation and orderly expenditure are vulgarity and meanness, and so, by the help of a rabble of evil appetites, they drive them beyond the border. 

Yes, with a will. 
And when they have emptied and swept clean the soul of him who is now in their power and who is being initiated by them in great mysteries, the next thing is to bring back to their house insolence and anarchy and waste and impudence in bright array having garlands on their heads, and a great company with them, hymning their praises and calling them by sweet names; insolence they term breeding, and anarchy liberty, and waste magnificence, and impudence courage. And so the young man passes out of his original nature, which was trained in the school of necessity, into the freedom and libertinism of useless and unnecessary pleasures. 

Yes, he said, the change in him is visible enough. 
After this he lives on, spending his money and labour and time on unnecessary pleasures quite as much as on necessary ones; but if he be fortunate, and is not too much disordered in his wits, when years have elapsed, and the heyday of passion is over --supposing that he then re-admits into the city some part of the exiled virtues, and does not wholly give himself up to their successors --in that case he balances his pleasures and lives in a sort of equilibrium, putting the government of himself into the hands of the one which comes first and wins the turn; and when he has had enough of that, then into the hands of another; he despises none of them but encourages them all equally. 

Very true, he said. 
Neither does he receive or let pass into the fortress any true word of advice; if any one says to him that some pleasures are the satisfactions of good and noble desires, and others of evil desires, and that he ought to use and honour some and chastise and master the others --whenever this is repeated to him he shakes his head and says that they are all alike, and that one is as good as another. 

Yes, he said; that is the way with him. 
Yes, I said, he lives from day to day indulging the appetite of the hour; and sometimes he is lapped in drink and strains of the flute; then he becomes a water-drinker, and tries to get thin; then he takes a turn at gymnastics; sometimes idling and neglecting everything, then once more living the life of a philosopher; often he-is busy with politics, and starts to his feet and says and does whatever comes into his head; and, if he is emulous of any one who is a warrior, off he is in that direction, or of men of business, once more in that. His life has neither law nor order; and this distracted existence he terms joy and bliss and freedom; and so he goes on. 

Yes, he replied, he is all liberty and equality. 
Yes, I said; his life is motley and manifold and an epitome of the lives of many; --he answers to the State which we described as fair and spangled. And many a man and many a woman will take him for their pattern, and many a constitution and many an example of manners is contained in him. 

Just so. 
Let him then be set over against democracy; he may truly be called the democratic man. 

Let that be his place, he said. 
Last of all comes the most beautiful of all, man and State alike, tyranny and the tyrant; these we have now to consider. 

Quite true, he said. 
Say then, my friend, in what manner does tyranny arise? --that it has a democratic origin is evident. 

And does not tyranny spring from democracy in the same manner as democracy from oligarchy --I mean, after a sort? 

The good which oligarchy proposed to itself and the means by which it was maintained was excess of wealth --am I not right? 

And the insatiable desire of wealth and the neglect of all other things for the sake of money-getting was also the ruin of oligarchy? 

And democracy has her own good, of which the insatiable desire brings her to dissolution? 

What good? 
Freedom, I replied; which, as they tell you in a democracy, is the glory of the State --and that therefore in a democracy alone will the freeman of nature deign to dwell. 

Yes; the saying is in everybody's mouth. 
I was going to observe, that the insatiable desire of this and the neglect of other things introduces the change in democracy, which occasions a demand for tyranny. 

How so? 
When a democracy which is thirsting for freedom has evil cupbearers presiding over the feast, and has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very amenable and give a plentiful draught, she calls them to account and punishes them, and says that they are cursed oligarchs. 

Yes, he replied, a very common occurrence. 
Yes, I said; and loyal citizens are insultingly termed by her slaves who hug their chains and men of naught; she would have subjects who are like rulers, and rulers who are like subjects: these are men after her own heart, whom she praises and honours both in private and public. Now, in such a State, can liberty have any limit? 

Certainly not. 
By degrees the anarchy finds a way into private houses, and ends by getting among the animals and infecting them. 

How do you mean? 
I mean that the father grows accustomed to descend to the level of his sons and to fear them, and the son is on a level with his father, he having no respect or reverence for either of his parents; and this is his freedom, and metic is equal with the citizen and the citizen with the metic, and the stranger is quite as good as either. 

Yes, he said, that is the way. 
And these are not the only evils, I said --there are several lesser ones: In such a state of society the master fears and flatters his scholars, and the scholars despise their masters and tutors; young and old are all alike; and the young man is on a level with the old, and is ready to compete with him in word or deed; and old men condescend to the young and are full of pleasantry and gaiety; they are loth to be thought morose and authoritative, and therefore they adopt the manners of the young. 

Quite true, he said. 
The last extreme of popular liberty is when the slave bought with money, whether male or female, is just as free as his or her purchaser; nor must I forget to tell of the liberty and equality of the two sexes in relation to each other. 

Why not, as Aeschylus says, utter the word which rises to our lips? 
That is what I am doing, I replied; and I must add that no one who does not know would believe, how much greater is the liberty which the animals who are under the dominion of man have in a democracy than in any other State: for truly, the she-dogs, as the proverb says, are as good as their she-mistresses, and the horses and asses have a way of marching along with all the rights and dignities of freemen; and they will run at anybody who comes in their way if he does not leave the road clear for them: and all things are just ready to burst with liberty. 

When I take a country walk, he said, I often experience what you describe. You and I have dreamed the same thing. 

And above all, I said, and as the result of all, see how sensitive the citizens become; they chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority and at length, as you know, they cease to care even for the laws, written or unwritten; they will have no one over them. 

Yes, he said, I know it too well. 
Such, my friend, I said, is the fair and glorious beginning out of which springs tyranny. 

Glorious indeed, he said. But what is the next step? 
The ruin of oligarchy is the ruin of democracy; the same disease magnified and intensified by liberty overmasters democracy --the truth being that the excessive increase of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction; and this is the case not only in the seasons and in vegetable and animal life, but above all in forms of government. 

The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery. 

Yes, the natural order. 
And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty? 

As we might expect. 
That, however, was not, as I believe, your question-you rather desired to know what is that disorder which is generated alike in oligarchy and democracy, and is the ruin of both? 

Just so, he replied. 
Well, I said, I meant to refer to the class of idle spendthrifts, of whom the more courageous are the-leaders and the more timid the followers, the same whom we were comparing to drones, some stingless, and others having stings. 

A very just comparison. 
These two classes are the plagues of every city in which they are generated, being what phlegm and bile are to the body. And the good physician and lawgiver of the State ought, like the wise bee-master, to keep them at a distance and prevent, if possible, their ever coming in; and if they have anyhow found a way in, then he should have them and their cells cut out as speedily as possible. 

Yes, by all means, he said. 
Then, in order that we may see clearly what we are doing, let us imagine democracy to be divided, as indeed it is, into three classes; for in the first place freedom creates rather more drones in the democratic than there were in the oligarchical State. 

That is true. 
And in the democracy they are certainly more intensified. 
How so? 
Because in the oligarchical State they are disqualified and driven from office, and therefore they cannot train or gather strength; whereas in a democracy they are almost the entire ruling power, and while the keener sort speak and act, the rest keep buzzing about the bema and do not suffer a word to be said on the other side; hence in democracies almost everything is managed by the drones. 

Very true, he said. 
Then there is another class which is always being severed from the mass. 

What is that? 
They are the orderly class, which in a nation of traders sure to be the richest. 

Naturally so. 
They are the most squeezable persons and yield the largest amount of honey to the drones. 

Why, he said, there is little to be squeezed out of people who have little. 

And this is called the wealthy class, and the drones feed upon them. 
That is pretty much the case, he said. 
The people are a third class, consisting of those who work with their own hands; they are not politicians, and have not much to live upon. This, when assembled, is the largest and most powerful class in a democracy. 

True, he said; but then the multitude is seldom willing to congregate unless they get a little honey. 

And do they not share? I said. Do not their leaders deprive the rich of their estates and distribute them among the people; at the same time taking care to reserve the larger part for themselves? 

Why, yes, he said, to that extent the people do share. 
And the persons whose property is taken from them are compelled to defend themselves before the people as they best can? 

What else can they do? 
And then, although they may have no desire of change, the others charge them with plotting against the people and being friends of oligarchy? True. 

And the end is that when they see the people, not of their own accord, but through ignorance, and because they are deceived by informers, seeking to do them wrong, then at last they are forced to become oligarchs in reality; they do not wish to be, but the sting of the drones torments them and breeds revolution in them. 

That is exactly the truth. 
Then come impeachments and judgments and trials of one another. 
The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness. 

Yes, that is their way. 
This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears above ground he is a protector. 

Yes, that is quite clear. 
How then does a protector begin to change into a tyrant? Clearly when he does what the man is said to do in the tale of the Arcadian temple of Lycaean Zeus. 

What tale? 
The tale is that he who has tasted the entrails of a single human victim minced up with the entrails of other victims is destined to become a wolf. Did you never hear it? 

Oh, yes. 
And the protector of the people is like him; having a mob entirely at his disposal, he is not restrained from shedding the blood of kinsmen; by the favourite method of false accusation he brings them into court and murders them, making the life of man to disappear, and with unholy tongue and lips tasting the blood of his fellow citizen; some he kills and others he banishes, at the same time hinting at the abolition of debts and partition of lands: and after this, what will be his destiny? Must he not either perish at the hands of his enemies, or from being a man become a wolf --that is, a tyrant? 

This, I said, is he who begins to make a party against the rich? 
The same. 
After a while he is driven out, but comes back, in spite of his enemies, a tyrant full grown. 

That is clear. 
And if they are unable to expel him, or to get him condemned to death by a public accusation, they conspire to assassinate him. 

Yes, he said, that is their usual way. 
Then comes the famous request for a bodyguard, which is the device of all those who have got thus far in their tyrannical career --'Let not the people's friend,' as they say, 'be lost to them.' 

The people readily assent; all their fears are for him --they have none for themselves. 

Very true. 
And when a man who is wealthy and is also accused of being an enemy of the people sees this, then, my friend, as the oracle said to Croesus, 

By pebbly Hermus' shore he flees and rests not and is not ashamed to be a coward. 

And quite right too, said he, for if he were, he would never be ashamed again. 

But if he is caught he dies. 
Of course. 
And he, the protector of whom we spoke, is to be seen, not 'larding the plain' with his bulk, but himself the overthrower of many, standing up in the chariot of State with the reins in his hand, no longer protector, but tyrant absolute. 

Friday, August 01, 2014

The News is horrible; why watch it?

Palestinian girl cries as she recieves treatment at hospital 2014
 UNICEF condemned Israel's targeting of women and children
 in its ongoing assault on the Gaza Strip.

It is painful, depressing, and upsetting to no end to watch the conflict in Gaza. As our President and all of Congress give virtually unqualified support to Israel, and continue to give enormous financial support to Israel's military, I have refrained from blaming one side or the other alone for the massacre of innocents. Yet responsibility lies with Hamas for its almost ineffective rockets, and the Israeli military for bombing schools and hospitals under UN protection. Nothing is being achieved but death and destruction, as well as increased hate of one people for another. Hate begets hate.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon issues a statement on Gaza, during his visit to Costa Rica, after a school in the Palestinian territory, being used to shelter families, was shelled by Israeli forces on Wednesday. At least 15 people, mostly children and women, died when the school in Jabaliya refugee camp was hit by five shells during a night of relentless bombardment across the territory. More than 100 people were injured ...... (http://news168.co.uk/index/gaza-nothing-more-shameful-than-attacking-sleeping-children-says-ban-kimoon-video)
Why watch this bloodshed on CNN, or even read about it in every newspaper around the world? Why read the sane and well-reasoned essays of liberal Jewish intellectuals or peace loving Muslims? After all what can I do? What am I willing to do? Not much. 
Yet I continue to watch and to read because my own country is so involved in this war. I cry out for the tragedy of all these civilians who are being killed needlessly. I want to be one more voice for peace and acceptance of diversity. 
The justification for increased bombing of civilians tonight is the capture of one Israeli soldier. I mourn for him. He is 23. But he is a soldier in a war. Does his capture justify the death of hundreds of civilians? There seems no proportion or sense of morality or justice here. Terrorists are bad; Hamas is doing great wrongs. This makes it OK to continue bombing civilians who have nothing to do with Hamas? 
Like the liberal Jews (See Jonathan Freedland),  I too support a two state solution.  Let NATO or the UN help protect Israel. Then, make the new Palestine a glorious and prosperous place, lush the way Beirut once was-- a place of prosperity such that the people will abhor war.
Beirut in the 50s

There is little doubt that religion plays a major part in the perpetuation of hatred and intolerance. Given a choice, most people want their religion to be one of love, learning, moral uplift, transcendence of some sort, and peace. The fanaticism of extremist religions, of zealots who demand the obliteration of all others, cannot exist in the present world of globalization and instant universal communication. Nationalism which aggressively attacks other sovereign lands and peoples has to be resisted strongly by a consensus of world governments. 
So I watch and I share the suffering war brings. In a small way I am responsible for it. The leaders of my country are responsible for it. To turn away, to ignore it, to go about my mildly hedonistic enjoyment of life when there is such suffering is itself the kind of indifference that makes war possible, that allows leaders with too much power to use that power against the rest of us.

Monday, July 28, 2014

To Wed, or not To Wed

A thorough and well considered review and essay from:

I Do, I Do

Diana Walker/American Foundation for Equal Rights
Theodore Olson and David Boies, who led the victorious challenge to California’s ­Proposition 8, which had declared that only marriages between a man and a woman were legal
And then came the demand for gay marriage. At first many gay progressives (including me) frowned on this initiative, since it seemed only one more example of assimilation. But we began to see that it was a cause worth fighting for. If bigots oppose gay marriage so vehemently, it must be because marriage is a defining institution for them; gays will never be fully accepted until they can marry and adopt, like anyone else. It also seemed frivolous to object to same-sex marriage on any grounds, since permitting it would have a direct positive impact on countless ordinary families. As the lawyers David Boies and Theodore Olson put it in Redeeming the Dream:
We had said from the beginning that we intended to prove three things: first, that marriage was a fundamental right; second, that denying gay and lesbian citizens the right to marry seriously harmed them and the children they were raising; third, that same-sex marriage did not harm heterosexual marriage.
The culmination of a long struggle was 2013, which could clearly be labeled the Year of the Gay. State after state had legalized gay marriage, despite intense opposition from the religious right. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was struck down by the Supreme Court; as a result, legally married same-sex couples, no matter where they were living, could file federal taxes jointly, even retroactively. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the antigay policy of the armed forces, had been reversed in 2011. The Boy Scouts caved: gay boys can now become Scouts (though openly gay adults cannot become Scout leaders). In France (despite a surprisingly active opposition) marriage equality was legalized, as it was in many South American countries. The claims of conversion therapy, which had promised to turn gays straight, were renounced, even outlawed in some places.
Gays were never so visible—in politics, on television, on Facebook. It was no longer onto be discriminating against lesbians or gays. Comedians publicly apologized for using the f— word in a moment of anger. And gays were so prevalent they were becoming much more choosy about politicians; the openly lesbian New York City mayoral candidate Christine Quinn lost the gay vote to Bill de Blasio (whose black wife proudly announced that she had been a lesbian before her marriage).
If legislation in the US was mostly favoring gays, especially gay couples, in Russia, the Muslim world, and black Africa, opposition to gays was on the upswing. In every case bigotry could be attributed to religion, whether Russian Orthodoxy, shariah law, or African Christianity. American born-again right-wing federal legislators were feeding the religious frenzy in Africa (Uganda was even contemplating a kill-the-gays law); they must have recognized that their evil program had been defeated in America and that African religious conservatives provided them with the last chance to realize their fascist dreams. I say “fascist” advisedly since the Nazis were always banging on about the virtues of virility and the dangers of homosexual “decadence,” and they put gays in concentration camps.
Why did mainstream America come to accept marriage equality? Gay leaders had made a convincing case that gay families were like straight families and should have the same rights. The American spirit of fair play had been invoked. Gays had converted many people to the belief that they constituted a minority—like Jews or African-Americans or Asians. It was a strange sort of minority, truth be told, to which one’s parents didn’t belong and which was made up mostly of members who could “pass.” It was more an identity than a minority, an identity that one could assume at age six or sixty or never.
A large part of the acceptance of gays depended on the notion that they didn’t choose their sexual identity but that it was somehow genetically determined. Most out gays in the 1970s would have resented the genetic argument; we didn’t want to think our orientation was glandular but—what? Chosen? We didn’t like that option, either—we couldn’t pinpoint the moment we’d “chosen” to be gay. We decided back then that all theories about the origins of homosexuality were prejudicial. No one theorized about how children became heterosexual, we argued, which seemed equally mysterious. We said that if one got pulled into an argument about what caused homosexuality, nature or nurture, gays would always lose.
Defensible as that position seemed to us then, the genetic argument has in fact persuaded mainstream America to accept us. If the poor buggers can’t help being pansies, then why persecute them? You might as well persecute someone for the color of his skin.
At the same time gender boundaries became more and more porous. Transvestites and transsexuals became more common; in Germany a new law recognized that babies at birth can even be assigned to a third, intermediary gender. On the one hand our sexual orientation seemed to be determined while our gender seemed to be utterly fluid and arbitrary and porous.
I can remember in the 1960s I had a boyfriend who liked to take my hand in public, which made me intensely uncomfortable, even in Greenwich Village. Now it’s no big deal.
Of course there was a long history of lesbian and gay legal battles, well summarized inLaw and the Gay Rights Story, a book that deals with many issues other than the right to marry: the workplace, freedom to serve in the armed forces, freedom from violence, freedom for open gays to teach in public schools. Between 2004 and 2013 the number of Americans who would be upset if they had a gay child fell from 60 percent to 40 percent—a remarkable transformation in less than a decade. The greater visibility of gay celebrities (such as Ellen Degeneres) and the higher profile of gay films (such as the Academy Award–winning Brokeback Mountain) and TV shows (such as Will and Graceand Modern Family and Glee) and plays (such as Angels in America and The Normal Heart) undoubtedly contributed to this change of heart.
The battle for gay marriage intensified after the passage of Proposition 8, a confusingly worded referendum in California declaring that only marriages between a man and a woman were valid. The case attracted the attention of Theodore Olson, the conservative lawyer who had won the Supreme Court battle of Bush v. Gore. He regarded the gay marriage issue as one of equal protection under the law, and he recognized that this wasthe civil rights struggle of our day. As Jo Becker writes in Forcing the Spring, he said he was honored to represent lesbians and gays and offered to do so at a discounted rate of $2.9 million plus expenses, even though he got considerable blowback from conservative friends, who objected on religious or constitutional grounds.
The people behind the legal battle were Chad Griffin, a gay political consultant and now head of the gay civil rights organization Human Rights Campaign, and his friend and business partner, Kristina Schake. They teamed up with two of their clients, the movie director Rob Reiner (When Harry Met Sally) and his wife Michele, both long-standing advocates of civil rights. The team was completed when they were joined by David Boies, who’d represented Gore in the Supreme Court. The “odd couple” aspect of the Boies-Olson partnership drew a lot of press attention.
The decision to challenge Prop 8 in the courts did not sit well with the established gay leadership, who felt that an adverse decision could set back gay rights by decades. Their motto was “Make Change, Not Lawsuits,” and their agenda was to fight for the passage of marriage equality laws state by state. Of the court fight over Prop 8, Jennifer Pizer of Lambda Legal told The New York Times, “We think it’s risky and premature.” When they realized that the Boies-Olson team was going to move ahead anyway, several gay rights groups wanted to join in, but the lawyers refused them, saying they did not want their cause to be “balkanized.” They knew about ferocious gay in-fighting. In the end only the City of San Francisco was permitted by the judge to file an amicus brief.
The judge of the Ninth Circuit (which included California) who heard the case was Vaughn R. Walker, a sixty-five-year-old Reagan appointee whose nomination had been violently opposed by the gay community. Somewhat surprisingly, he turned out to be gay, which those opposed to gay marriage said should have led him to recuse himself, though most people in the legal profession thought his orientation was irrelevant. (Would an African-American judge not be allowed to hear a case involving racial prejudice? Should a judge who has been raped never be permitted to hear a sexual assault case?)
Walker wanted to televise the proceedings, since they might be instructive to the public, but the Supreme Court forbade cameras to enter the courtroom, not wanting to subject its own deliberations by extension to the glare of publicity. This was not a jury trial; the judge alone would decide. Though television was banned, the whole team made sure that every stage of the trial was well publicized, since one of their main goals was education of the public.
Boies and Olson found as plaintiffs a model male couple and a model lesbian couple, Californians who, they correctly thought, would stay together and bear up under the strain of cross-examination over what turned out to be four years, and who sincerely wanted to be married, for the dignity of the institution and not just for the fiscal benefits. The two women were also raising children.
The lawyers lined up expert witnesses who would help them establish several points: that homosexuals had been severely mistreated throughout history and were even now a persecuted minority; that the people who had promoted Prop 8 were motivated partly by malice; that children raised by a loving same-sex couple could grow up normal and healthy; that homosexuality was not a lifestyle choice but an unchangeable orientation; that same-sex marriage would not discourage heterosexual couples from getting married; that marriage carried a dignity and societal prestige not conferred by domestic partnership.

Jerome Sessini/Magnum Photos
A pro–gay marriage march, Paris, January 2013
Some of these points might seem self-evident or absurd or of minor importance, but the law, engaged as it is with precedents, must sometimes address bizarre questions. And the sponsors of Prop 8 had made some strange claims. The lawyer defending it, Chuck Cooper, could only produce two experts (whereas the plaintiffs called seventeen), and those turned out to be unsatisfactory. One, who claimed to have read a vast array of studies proving that gay marriage would be damaging, admitted under cross-examination that most of his bibliography had been assembled by his lawyers and he’d not consulted all the documents.
The second witness was David Blankenhorn, who lost steam when he had to admit that his degree from Warwick University was granted not for his study of marriage or families, but of nineteenth-century cabinetmakers. He ended up expressing ideas that helped the pro-marriage equality side:
I believe today that the principle of equal human dignity must apply to gay and lesbian persons. Insofar as we are a nation founded on this principle, we would be more American on the day we permitted same-sex marriage than we were on the day before.
Blankenhorn also agreed that there was no scientific evidence that children suffer from being raised by people of the same sex.
Even Cooper made a damning admission. When Judge Walker asked him, with regard to gay marriage, “to tell me how it would harm opposite-sex marriages,” Cooper said the fatal words, “Your Honor, my answer is: I don’t know. I don’t know.” What he meant to argue was that we have insufficient evidence of the long-term effects of gay marriage, but his actual answer was seen as an admission of defeat.
The plaintiffs needed to prove that there had been malice toward gays behind the campaign for Prop 8, which was easily established by looking at its scare-tactic television spots and by requisitioning its internal e-mails. These documents showed that the Catholic Church and the Mormons, ancient foes of homosexuality, had raised $37 million to support Prop 8. One of the most prominent sponsors, Bill Tam, a Chinese-American evangelical minister, was highly evasive but finally admitted that he had made public statements to the effect that gay marriage would lead to pedophilia, incest, and polygamy. He even said in a pamphlet that if Prop 8 lost, “one by one, other states would fall into Satan’s hand. What will be next? On their agenda list is: legalize having sex with children.”
Eventually, Tam half-admitted that there was no scientific evidence substantiating his points. The examination of him was so aggressive that one of the lawyers defending Prop 8 became indignant: “For the first time ever in an initiative process, a supporter of an initiative has been put on the stand to be examined about his political and religious views.” It was certainly true (if impolitic to say) that the three great monotheistic religions had been the most intolerant institutions against homosexuality throughout history.
Boies and Olson were able to invoke some important Supreme Court decisions to bolster their case. Loving v. Virginia (1967) was the most relevant. It had ended the ban on miscegenation and had found that “the freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.” This decision was extremely helpful to the plaintiffs. In Romer v. Evans (1996), the Supreme Court had struck down a Colorado amendment to the state constitution, approved by voters in a referendum, that had stripped lesbians and gays of certain civil rights protections. In Lawrence v. Texas (2003) the Court had struck down a Texas law criminalizing sodomy since it violated the Constitution’s due process clause, which says that the government may not “deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.”
One of the most damaging statements against same-sex marriage had been made by the Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had said that Roe v. Wade had been decided prematurely, before the country was ready for it. Perhaps, it could be argued, the country was similarly not prepared for gay marriage.
But the country was changing its mind at an astonishing pace. Ken Mehlman, a powerful gay figure in the Republican Party, joined the cause and staged an impressive fund-raiser. Obama’s opinions were “evolving.” Polls showed the rapid and widespread public change of heart. “This is the most significant, fastest shift in public opinion that we’ve seen in modern American politics,” an important Republican pundit said. At the same time there was a new wave of teenage gay suicides that proved that something needed to be done.
The closing argument in the Prop 8 case was heard on June 16, 2010. Two months later, Judge Walker handed down a decision that was a sweeping victory for the proponents of gay marriage. He wrote that “Proposition 8 was premised on the belief that same-sex couples simply are not as good as opposite sex couples…. This belief is not a proper basis on which to legislate.”
When the case appeared before the Supreme Court, it was joined by another on the Defense of Marriage Act. An elderly American woman, Edie Windsor, had legally married in Canada in 2007 another woman, Thea Spyer. Thea had died, Edie had been hospitalized with grief, and when she emerged she found that she owed the federal government $363,000 in estate taxes (had she married a man she would have owed nothing). Edie challenged DOMA on the basis that it treated married same-sex couples differently than heterosexual couples.
She won her case and toppled DOMA. There were some remarkable moments; for instance, when Cooper insisted that the purpose of marriage was procreation, Justice Kagan asked that if that were the case, would it be constitutional to deny marriage to straight couples over fifty-five? When Cooper had claimed such a couple might be fertile, Kagan assured him that “there are not a lot of children coming out of that marriage” if both partners are over fifty-five.
Uttering another memorable phrase, Justice Ginsburg observed that in the US there was “the full marriage and then this sort of skim milk kind.” In another discussion Justice Scalia demanded to be told at what precise moment denying marriage to homosexuals had become unconstitutional. As Boies and Olson argue in their amazingly lucid book,
The Court has never inquired, nor could it establish a precise moment in time, when it became unconstitutional to require students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or to pray in school, or to use different drinking fountains.
On June 26, 2013, Justice Kennedy, in his majority opinion, found that DOMA was invalid and noted that the law served to “disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.” Edith Windsor had the $363,000 she had paid in estate taxes restored plus interest. All legally married same-sex couples would be fully recognized by the federal government and would enjoy now some eleven hundred federal benefits they had previously been denied.
At the same time the Court, while clearing the way for same-sex marriage in California, left for another day the question of whether homosexual marriage must be legalized in all states where it was still banned. On the same day the Court had declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional but had ducked the larger question of national acceptance of same-sex marriage. A triumph for Boies-Olson, if a mitigated one.
The blowback to Jo Becker’s book has been considerable, especially from gay bloggers such as Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan. As early as 1989 Sullivan had published an article in The New Republic giving the conservative case for gay marriage, formulating arguments about the value of family life that were later used by pro-gay theorists. Becker has been accused of the sin of “access journalism” by Sullivan (crediting all gay-marriage victories to Chad Griffin and the Boies-Olson team, because they gave her full access to their deliberations). She has clearly overlooked the major contributions of such pioneers as Evan Wolfson, who in 2004 published the groundbreaking Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People’s Right to Marry, and Mary Bonauto, a lawyer who won same-sex couples the right to civil unions in Vermont in 2000. That was a considerable first victory in a campaign that has led (at present) to same-sex marriage in seventeen states and the District of Columbia. And counting.
On the last page of Redeeming the Dream, we are told that Americans are accepting “gays and lesbians…as normal, loving, decent members of our lives and our communities.” I shouldn’t quibble, but as a gay man in his seventies I don’t quite recognize in that description most of the flamboyant, creative, edgy, promiscuous, deeply urban gays I have known. Kenji Yoshino, a law professor, wrote a book called Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights in which “covering” is seen as downplaying a discordant trait in order to blend into the mainstream. It seems to me that gays are in danger of “covering” in order to obtain the permission to marry. Perhaps that’s a small enough price. I can’t decide.