Aug 12, 2006

A Letter from 18 Writers



including three Nobel Prize recipients

The latest chapter of the conflict between Israel and Palestine began when Israeli forces abducted two civilians, a doctor and his brother, from Gaza. An incident scarcely reported anywhere, except in the Turkish press. The following day the Palestinians took an Israeli soldier prisoner--and proposed a negotiated exchange against prisoners taken by the Israelis--there are approximately 10,000 in Israeli jails.
That this "kidnapping" was considered an outrage, whereas the illegal military occupation of the West Bank and the systematic appropriation of its natural resources--most particularly that of water--by the Israeli Defense (!) Forces is considered a regrettable but realistic fact of life, is typical of the double standards repeatedly employed by the West in face of what has befallen the Palestinians, on the land allotted to them by international agreements, during the last seventy years.

Today outrage follows outrage; makeshift missiles cross sophisticated ones. The latter usually find their target situated where the disinherited and crowded poor live, waiting for what was once called Justice. Both categories of missile rip bodies apart horribly--who but field commanders can forget this for a moment?

Each provocation and counter-provocation is contested and preached over. But the subsequent arguments, accusations and vows, all serve as a distraction in order to divert world attention from a long-term military, economic and geographic practice whose political aim is nothing less than the liquidation of the Palestinian nation.

This has to be said loud and clear, for the practice, only half declared and often covert, is advancing fast these days, and, in our opinion, it must be unceasingly and eternally recognized for what it is and resisted.

PS: As Juliano Mer Khamis, director of the documentary film Arna's Children, asked: "Who is going to paint the 'Guernica' of Lebanon?"

John Berger, Noam Chomsky, Harold Pinter, José Saramago, Eduardo Galeano, Arundhati Roy, Naomi Klein, Howard Zinn, Charles Glass, Richard Falk, Gore Vidal, Russell Banks, Thomas Keneally, Chris Abani, Carolyn Forché, Martín Espada, Jessica Hagedorn, Toni Morrison.

This letter has been printed in newspapers throughout the world, including The Nation, Le Monde, El País, The Independent and La Repubblica.

Aug 5, 2006

Betraying Spinoza

The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein The New York Times
MONDAY, JULY 31, 2006

Thursday marked the 350th anniversary of the excommunication of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza from the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam in which he had been raised.

The Spinoza anniversary didn't get a lot of attention. But it's one worth remembering - in large measure because Spinoza's life and thought have the power to illuminate the kind of events that at the moment seem so intractable.

The exact reasons for the excommunication of the 23-year-old Spinoza remain murky, but the reasons he came to be vilified throughout all of Europe are not. Spinoza argued that no group or religion could rightly claim infallible knowledge of the creator's partiality to its beliefs and ways. After the excommunication, he spent the rest of his life - he died in 1677 at the age of 44 - studying the varieties of religious intolerance. The conclusions he drew are still of dismaying relevance.

The Jews who banished Spinoza had themselves been victims of intolerance, refugees from the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition. The Jews on the Iberian Peninsula had been forced to convert to Christianity at the end of the 15th century. In the intervening century, they had been kept under the vigilant gaze of the Inquisitors, who suspected the "New Christians" of carrying the rejection of Christ in their very blood. It can be argued that the Iberian Inquisition was Europe's first experiment in racialist ideology.

Spinoza's reaction to the religious intolerance he saw around him was to try to think his way out of all sectarian thinking. He understood the powerful tendency in each of us toward developing a view of the truth that favors the circumstances into which we happened to have been born. Self-aggrandizement ...can be the invisible scaffolding of religion, politics or ideology.

Against this tendency we have no defense but the relentless application of reason. Reason must stand guard against the self-serving false entailments that creep into our thinking, inducing us to believe that we are more cosmically important than we truly are, that we have had bestowed upon us - whether Jew or Christian or Muslim - a privileged position in the narrative of the world's unfolding. Spinoza's system is a long argument for a conclusion as radical in our day as it was in his: that to the extent that we are rational, we each partake in exactly the same identity.

Spinoza's faith in reason as our only hope and redemption is the core of his system, and its consequences reach out in many directions, including the political. Each of us has been endowed with reason, and it is our right, as well as our responsibility, to exercise it. Ceding this faculty to others, to the authorities of either the church or the state, is neither a rational nor an ethical option.

Which is why, for Spinoza, democracy was the most superior form of government. The state, in helping each person to preserve his life and well-being, can legitimately demand sacrifices from us, but it can never relieve us of our responsibility to strive to justify our beliefs in the light of evidence.

It is for this reason that he argued that a government that impedes the development of the sciences subverts the grounds for state legitimacy, which is to provide us physical safety so that we can realize our full potential. And this, too, is why he argued against the influence of clerics in government. Statecraft infused with religion is intrinsically unstable, since it must insist on its version of the truth against all others.

Spinoza's attempt to deduce everything from first principles - that is, without reliance on empirical observation - can strike us today as impractical, and yet his project of radical rationality had concrete consequences. His writings, banned by greater Christian Europe, but continuously read and discussed, played a role in the audacious experiment in rational government that gave birth to the United States.

The Declaration of Independence, that document first drafted by Thomas Jefferson, softly echoes Spinoza. John Locke, Spinoza's contemporary, is a more obvious influence on Jefferson than Spinoza was. But Locke had himself been influenced by Spinoza's ideas on tolerance, freedom and democracy.

If we can hear Locke's influence in the phrase "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," we can also catch the sound of Spinoza addressing us in Jefferson's appeal to the "laws of nature and of nature's God." This is the language of Spinoza's universalist religion, which makes no reference to revelation, but rather to ethical truths that can be discovered through human reason.

Spinoza had argued that our capacity for reason is what makes each of us a thing of inestimable worth. That each individual is worthy of ethical consideration is itself a discoverable law of nature, obviating the appeal to divine revelation. An idea that had caused outrage when Spinoza first proposed it, adding fire to the denunciation of him as a godless immoralist, had found its way into the minds of men who set out to create a government the likes of which had never before been seen.

Spinoza's dream of making us susceptible to the voice of reason might seem hopelessly quixotic now, with religion-infested politics on the march. But imagine how much more impossible a dream it would have seemed on that day 350 years ago. And imagine, too, how much even sorrier our sorry world would have been without it.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is the author, most recently, of "Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity."

Aug 3, 2006

Broken Flowers


I"ve been following Jarmush since the 1980's. This movie is probably his best since night on earth and takes us back to his early days of more is less and his road trip movies such as Mystery Train, and Stranger than Paradise (both among my Jarmush favorites). The movie also features a wonderful soundtrack of mostly Ethiopean Jazz -- itself worth buying. Below are some reviews:


Entertainment Weekly Lisa Schwarzbaum --A movie of uncommon sweetness and delight...

Chicago Sun-Times Roger Ebert--No actor is better than Bill Murray at doing nothing at all, and being fascinating while not doing it. Buster Keaton had the same gift for contemplating astonishing developments with absolute calm. Buster surrounded himself with slapstick, and in Broken Flowers Jim Jarmusch surrounds Murray with a parade of formidable women.

Portland Oregonian Shawn Levy--An engaging exercise in mature poignancy, existential consciousness and deadpan drollery, Broken Flowers is a return by Jarmusch to the road movie structure of such films as "Stranger Than Paradise," "Night on Earth" and "Dead Man."

Village Voice Jessica Winter--With elegant restraint the film subtly intimates the wintry dead end-twilight years bereft of love, partner, or vocation-that may be in store for its aged lover man. (Payne's "About Schmidt" did too, when not gorging snidely on idiot Americana.)