11/28/07

Reading about Evil

I've read a lot about atrocities in the last year, and I'm struck by the difference between the different genres that deal with them. The most miserable way to read about atrocities is to pick up a straightforward work of non-fiction. I'm currently reading Holocaust: A History by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt. It's extremely well-written and informative, but so painful! Since it's a chronicle of events starting with the precursors of the Holocaust, the trajectory of the book can't be anything but consistently downhill.

The other books I've read recently avoid this trajectory, even when they deal with terrible events. For example, the superb novel What is the What, by Dave Eggers, tells the gruesome true story of a small boy's exodus from war torn southern Sudan. Passages in the book are more heartbreaking than you can imagine, but you know from the beginning this is a book about a survivor.

The same is true of memoirs by Holocaust survivors. Night, by Elie Wiesel, is heartbreaking and shocking, but the reader knows all along that Wiesel will be alive at the end of the book. You read your way into total darkness ("night"), knowing there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

Novelists can deliberately take you on an up and down journey, but even the most pitiless writer has some compassion for the reader! A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry, is a very painful portrait of life for lower caste Indians, but it's not a complete and total descent into hell. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer, is an excruciating 9/11 book, but still amusing in places.

The difference between the Holocaust history and all these other books, if you had to narrow it down to one thing, is the writer's perspective. A comprehensive, birds-eye perspective of the Holocaust can't fail to be utterly depressing. A survivor's perspective is another matter. And a storyteller's perspective is usually yet another--a good story is never all one color. Sadly enough, it just doesn't make sense to always pick the easier-to-take book. If you want to read a history of the Holocaust, Dwork and Van Pelt have written a really good one.

11/27/07

Never Let Me Go

I have a Writer’s Choice essay at Normblog today, I’m happy to report. It’s about the novel Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. (I also had a profile at Normblog not long ago.)

More today at Talking Philosophy.

11/25/07

The Holocaust and the Problem of Evil

I just spent a few days in Washington D.C., mainly visiting the U.S. Holocaust Museum. What an amazing place--both extremely informative and extremely horrifying. Before going, I read Elie Wiesel's memoir of surviving the Holocaust, Night. From a philosophical perspective it's an especially interesting book because of the way Wiesel's experiences lead him to thoughts about God.

I went through the museum thinking a lot about Wiesel and people like him. Distant relatives of mine were also pious Jews in Eastern Europe. So I walked through the museum thinking about them, and about their religious outlook.

Before the Nazis arrive, Wiesel is a devout 15 year old boy studying the Torah and Kabalah. His piety is smashed out of him by the horrific things he soon witnesses and experiences. The Holocaust Museum puts these things on display with total candor. (Wiesel was one of the founders of the museum.)

On the floor devoted to the "Final Solution" the museum displays live footage of the "mobile killing units" that killed hundreds of thousands of people in the Soviet Union. The museum has tastefully hidden video monitors behind high walls, so the visitor can choose to look or not look. I made myself look at Jewish men, women and children lining up naked next to a long, deep ditch of naked corpses, being shot, and toppling over into the pile.

Wiesel's stance is not exactly disbelief, but close to it. Hitler kills his parents and his sister, but also undermines his faith. Sometimes he seems to express anger at God, sometimes outright non-belief. But the constant is that he thinks there's no explanation why God permitted the Holocaust.

I think it ought to be a rule that no one should be allowed to debate the so-called "problem of evil" without first spending 2-3 hours in the Holocaust Museum. Not that 2-3 hours immersed in another genocide (Darfur, Rwanda, Cambodia) won't do, but the Holocaust Museum does such an incredible job of putting all the facts on display.

Let's see--a good God was watching over this depravity and could have stopped it, but treasured the free will of the perpetrators too much to do so. That might fly if you're sipping tea in a philosophy lounge somewhere, but just doesn't make sense as you watch that video behind the wall. Um, what about the victims? Did torture and then death just maybe limit their free will?

Then there's the silliness about how God allowed six million deaths because of all the virtue that was prompted as a result. The Holocaust Museum doesn't try to sugarcoat anything. We all know of the heroism of a small number of people who responded to these atrocities, but the museum makes it clear the heroes were in a very small minority. Mostly the world just stood by and watched.

Then we get the Christian-flavored story about how the suffering of the Jews gave rise to the "resurrection"--the redemptive creation of the nation of Israel. But would we really see Israel's existence as such a great good if it hadn't become necessary as an outcome of the Holocaust?

The Holocaust Museum obliterates facile stories about why God must permit evil. But then, I'd also recommend the trip to anyone who thinks the problem of evil is a one-way ticket to atheism. It fascinates me the way Elie Wiesel comes so close to saying flatly there is no God, but never quite says it. The Jews of Eastern Europe found joy and cohesion in their religious experience. Can I really say the survivors should have allowed Hitler to claim their parents and children and friends and their faith as well?

Again, there's the philosophy lounge answer--yes. The problem of evil is insuperable. There can be no God. Then there's the answer that people come to from their own personal experience. Elie Wiesel's writing is full of tension. Belief is impossible for him, but non-belief is impossible. There's no easily-defined religious outlook that can entirely satisfy him.

I came out of the museum with an armful of books, including one about Elie Wiesel and theology, but if I understand him correctly, his stance is one I have to respect.

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On a lighter but still-Jewish note: I discovered a cool website by reading Normblog today.

11/11/07

They Fought for our Freedom

I got an inside look at American patriotism when I went to a Veteran’s Day program at my kids’ elementary school last week. The school had invited family members who served in the armed forces to attend and be honored and other parents (like me) to join in.

The most moving part of the program consisted of all the 5th graders singing a medley of armed forces songs. At different points signs were held up (“Marines,” “Army,” etc.) and veterans stood up to be applauded. There were World War II veterans in wheelchairs, veterans of the Vietnam War, and veterans of the first gulf war. Maybe also veterans back from the Iraq war too, but I don’t know.

There was something touching about the juxtaposition of children’s voices and the men (and a few women) slowly rising to their feet. These people had put their lives on the line for their country, and I’m all for honoring them. I clapped enthusiastically and yes, got teary eyed like everyone else.

I bet you can hear it coming…I’m about to spoil this post with a “but”. Sorry, can’t help it. All the 5th grades had written poems and some of them were read out loud. The winning poems had certain common themes, one being the idea that veterans are people who fight for our freedom.

It would be hard to make a case that the veterans of the last three wars (Iraq, the gulf war, Vietnam) were fighting for our freedom. World War II veterans really did, I think. You might be able to force the Vietnam war into that mold if you tried hard enough. But the first gulf war and the current war in Iraq?

While I sat there clapping wildly and tearing up, I just couldn’t stop my mind from turning over a few thoughts about patriotic gatherings in other places. What would I hear if I were at an assembly at an Iranian school, for example? Probably something Americans would dismiss as propaganda. The problem is that once you get into the propaganda business, it’s hard to say your propaganda is OK, and someone else’s has gone too far.

I went home from the gathering wondering what would be a better way of explaining what veterans do. The message needs to be suitable for kids age 5 to 11. I think it ought to honor these men and women. But (I submit) it needs to be true. How about, simply--the veterans risked their lives for our country? My radical thought for today: we really do need to teach kids the truth. Simplified so it’s age appropriate, but still, the truth.

11/4/07

Anthony Flew's Conversion

The lowest form of debate is one where both sides cite luminaries who take their position. You're an atheist, so you go on and on about how Einstein was an atheist, how Mother Teresa was full of doubt, how Lance Armstrong calls himself at least an agnostic. You're a theist, so you seize on stories of famous atheists who converted to theism, or famous scientists who believe.

Naturally, I'm completely beyond such nonsense. Er, well, almost. As a non-believer, it does kind of bug me seeing the title of the new book by long-time atheist Anthony Flew--There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. But I'm happy to report this week is getting off to a fun start. There's a priceless article in the New York Times magazine today about how Flew's book was written. He wasn't quite tortured by evangelicals, but the journalist makes a very convincing case he didn't write the book.

Now, you might say, what does it matter who really wrote it? The important thing is the arguments! But of course to the intelligent design crowd behind the book, Flew's name on the cover has all the importance in the world. Apparently they've been courting him for 20 years.

If the journalist is right, the book was doubly ghost written--mainly by Roy Abraham Varghese (who is listed as a co-author), a guy without academic credentials who runs an intelligent design foundation in Dallas. And secondarily, to make it read better, by an evangelical pastor hired by HarperOne.

It's not that Flew hasn't decided to embrace a very minimalist belief system--"Aristotelian Deism," as he calls it--but that you can't take the argumentation in the book seriously as his own. The journalist says what's in the book is standard intelligent design fare, and little that comes distinctly and originally from Flew.

Buyer beware.