The ear of the eavesdropper

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi recently raised eyebrows by again poking crude fun at the looks of Democratic Party chief Rosy Bindi, his favorite punching bag. “Orcodio!” Berlusconi said in a joke involving Bindi. Roughly translated, the expression means “Fucking God!” Though the Vatican used its daily house organ, Avvenire, to deplore the vulgarity, it seemed more concerned with the damage done to an omnipotent, omniscient Creator than to mere mortal Bindi.

According to Italian law, public blaspheming of “the Divinity” through the use of “invective or offensive language” is punishable by a €51-to-€309 fine. Irish law imposes a €25,000 penalty for similar desecration. In my home state of Maryland, blasphemy was punishable through fines and imprisonment, or both, well into the 20th century. In Muslim-majority countries governed by sharia law, blasphemy can carry the death penalty.

My Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate defines blasphemy is “irreverence toward something considered sacred or inviolable.” By that definition we are all blasphemers in most foreign lands, or even in our neighbors’ living rooms. I may be a blasphemer in my own mother’s eyes.

Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so blasphemy is in the ear of the eavesdropper.

Of all the idiotic laws devised by our species, those on blasphemy are the most flagrantly boneheaded. They’re little more than an intellectual form of Prohibition, and are radically antithetical to what philosopher A.C. Grayling labeled “the fundamental civil liberty,” free speech.

What kind of all-powerful Deity needs secular law enforcement to protect it from the concerted jests of a handful of comedians, biologists and assorted demonic riffraff? In fact, the more you scrutinize the concept of blasphemy the faster you reach the conclusion that it simply does not exist — like God, I’m tempted to say.

In a brilliant article in the Italian free-thought magazine L’Ateo, Viviana Viviani attacked the inconsistency of existing legislation. “The Mother of the Christian God,” namely the Virgin Mary, she wrote, “can be publicly blasphemed in Italy with no penalty.” Mary is not technically a divinity, whatever that means.

The deft can alter a consonant and dupe the Divinity. Laws don’t protect uncles (“Zio Porco“), animals (“Zio Cane“) or people named Diaz (“Porco Diaz“). The Divinity must be a dimwit if he can’t figure that out.

As a counterpoint, a website called “Atheist Ireland” has compiled a list of 25 blasphemous quotes attributed to the likes of Jesus, Muhammad and Pope Benedict XVI. All of us, in fact, are both blasphemers and atheists when it comes to the gods and religious sensibilities of others. Protecting all concepts of the divine from offense would mean creating Stalinist network without borders to check the world’s every utterance.

If anything needs legal protection, it’s not God but freedom of speech.

The attempt to limit expression in the service of protecting the public’s religious sensibilities is a kind of sadism. In a flourishing democracy there’s no protection from opinions you don’t like. You deal with them or find somewhere more congenial to live, preferably a cave. Religion is also a personal choice — unlike ethnicity, handicap or gender. It has more in common with political affiliation or sports fandom than biological happenstance.

In Italy, all-encompassing blasphemy laws are worded to protect even minority religious opinion. Porous terms such as “the Divinity” blaspheme the One God as much as any village atheist ridiculing the faithful in the public square.

Bible readers know that the mere recognition of the plethora of ancient godlings enraged a jealous Yahweh. But Yahweh himself blasphemed to no end against the existence of Ba’al and other false gods.

Much of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, revolves around this basic tension. The result produced the kind of theocracy we see mirrored in today’s Iran, where blasphemy is a crime on par with murder and Holocaust denial is deemed the quintessence of free inquiry.

The surest way to defeat bad ideas is with better ones.

You say God exists and is omniscient. I say that is a comforting illusion.

You say Jesus was born of a virgin and rose from the dead. I say those are fairy tales.

You say Allah punishes the unbelievers. I say give him my address and phone number.

But neither of us gets a last word on the subject, one that is then enacted into law to silence the opposition. The word for that is hubris.

Published in The American

Are All New Yorkers Jewish Atheist Pornographers?

Well, Woody Allen had some fun with this meme in his latest film, Whatever Works. I’m not going to give it away, but I’ll just say that everything dissolves in the universal solvent of New York City. It’s fashionable, whenever a new Allen film comes out, to say things like, “Not his best screenplay” and then something derogatory about his latest starlet and the fact that all his movies are really the same movie, and all his male leads are really himself (all true, by the way). Of course, we’ve known this for a long time. What we never hear is that Allen’s track record for enjoyability is unmatched. So if you get nothing else from the movie than ninety minutes of unwholesome fun, shouldn’t that be worth something?

Next week a campaign will begin in NYC to promote the possibility that people can be moral without God.

The ads, which will begin appearing on posters in 12 subway stations Monday, pose the provocative question “A million New Yorkers are good without God. Are you?”

Predictably, not all New Yorkers are enthusiastic about such a campaign. But, President Obama noted in his inaugural speech, America is a country in which non-believers are citizens, too.

 A small step for humanism, a huge leap for humankind.

Carl Bernstein: Berlusconi Bordering on Stalinism

Carl Bernstein was invited on the controversial Italain political show Annozero last night. He spoke twice (from New York), and it appeared that there were indeed two separate Carl Bernsteins: one who chose journalistic prudence: “We have to be very careful of generalizations. I think many of the restrictions of good journalism are self-imposed.” He won a Pulitzer Prize, so he should know. Below is the clip, around 4:30. (Video blocked.)

Which brings us to the second Carl Bernstein. About half an hour later, the previously prudent Bernstein–who had admitted he wasn’t in any position to judge Italian politics because he didn’t really follow them–lashed out against the Berlusconi government as “a kind of Soviet Stalinism.” You can hear this at around 3:20 in the clip below. (Same story.)

What was responsible for the sudden change of heart? Even Michele Santoro, who earlier had introduced Bernstein as “played by Robert Redford in the movie”, commented: “Bernstein must have had an espresso.”

The End of Anonymity

Who are you?
Who are you?

I was catching up on Ron Rosenbaum’s recent posts when I came across this article about a super model who took her anonymous internet slanderer to court. She apparently pressed Google for the specifics (and got them), resulting in what they are calling the first case of anonymity-busting in internet history. True or not, I’m glad to see one of these anonymous bozos get whopped. There is too much abuse of anonymity–bloggers and commenters alike–and one day we will look back at now as the lawless frontier days of the early internet.

Of course, this doesn’t rule out the reality of those who are in real danger lest their identities be discovered (think Iran or China). But what these self-aggrandizing abusers are doing is damaging the online environment for those in real need of anonymous expression.  

Kevin Kelly, of Wired, wrote in Edge:

There’s a dangerous idea circulating that the option of anonymity should always be at hand, and that it is a noble antidote to technologies of control. This is like pumping up the levels of heavy metals in your body to make it stronger.

Privacy can be won only by trust, and trust requires persistent identity, if only pseudoanonymously. In the end, the more trust the better. Like all toxins, anonymity should be kept as close to zero as possible.

In a similar vein, Yaacov Lozowick suggests that the recent CiF Watch website–created to monitor the Comment is Free blog at the Guardian–would benefit from not being anonymous. He reasons thus:

The one quibble I have is their choice to remain anonymous. I’m not a fan of such decisions. They don’t live in Hamas-controlled Gaza, or Iran, or Egypt, or Syria, or all the many other places in the world where it’s dangerous to have an opinion.

Comment may be free, but opinion apparently is not.

You Don’t Need God To Be Jewish

Are you there, God? Its me, Yehudis.
Are you there, God? It's me, Yehudis.

This is the topic of much debate when Jews decide they don’t believe in God. Can’t Jews be atheists, non-theists or anti-theists? Is there a discriminatory principle according to which Jews cannot not believe in a supernatural power, just like Jews once could not own property or hold certain jobs? Don’t Jews have absolute liberty of thought like everyone else?

Most people would say yes, of course they do, but once they stop believing in God (if they ever did) they thereby stop being Jews. Baloney. Here’s an example of what I’m trying to convey:

I’m on vacation in Virginia, where I went to college. Whenever I’m in the States I watch a good amount of television in order to tap back into the lifeblood of my countrymen and women. My sister’s television has six-hundred channels, and when I get tired of giggling at Fox News and ogling the Food Network I go channel surfing until I hit the Good News stations. Every evening I watch as faith healers knock down their congregations in the spirit of Jesus, heal blindness, exorcise demons and rearrange human bones in living bodies–all on television. Of course, I don’t believe a word of it, and neither should you. Tonight I even heard a preacher tell the devil to leave his congregation’s bank accounts alone. No shit. This is unbelievable stuff–not the least bit supernatural, but still kind of incredible.

There’s even a Jewish life channel (called, imaginatively, Jewish Life). By the above-stated rule that Jews are defined by their belief in a supernatural God (curiously, not the same one that defines Christians and Muslims), one would expect Jewish Life to be full of programs about Hasidism, Kabbalah, Talmud-Torah, or whatever might interest Jewish believers. Well, tonight I jotted down what they broadcasted in the three-or-so hours I was watching while flipping back and forth between the televangelists. Here’s what I saw: a concert clip by Israeli singer Shlomo Artzi, a documentary on Birobidzhan, an endorsement for a Jewish outreach network, and some arbitrary footage of Israeli life: windsurfing on Lake Kinneret, Tel Aviv by night, Masada and people walking, praying and looking generally suspicious in Jerusalem. Add to this last night’s documentary on the Exodus (the ship, not the book), and so far not a measly mention of the man upstairs on an entirely Jewish television network.

I don’t wish to make prophecies. I don’t know if the Jewish people can survive the next three-thousand years if they were all miraculously to go secular. Then again, I don’t know if any of us will survive that long. I doubt such a scenario is possible–though it may be desirable. I am making a case in the here and now for the Jews as a people with a very complex historical identity, of which the Jewish religion plays a significant–but not dominant–role.

You don’t need God to be Jewish.

Comment-Thread Conservatives and Liberals

Ron Rosenbaum gets it right again:

“Perpetually agitated, permanently enraged” commenters: that rings a bell. (And I’m sure you comment- thread conservatives, at least the cowardly anonymity abusers, will prove us right again). I like the phrase “comment thread conservatives”, it gives new meaning to “base”. And for those who haven’t gotten it, after I’ve repeated it three times, I mean the same goes for comment-thread liberals too–it’s the cowardly anonymity that engenders the “cyber disinhibition”– lowers the IQ (and humanity) on both sides.

What I enjoy about Rosenbaum’s blog is his willingness to alienate both right and left, liberal and conservative in order to make a point that he feels needs making. While so many super-opinionated bloggers sling super-sized opinions about the political “other”, Rosenbaum cuts them all down to size. Notice that he (a self-professed liberal) blogs on Pajamas Media–a conservative stronghold. He apparently finds it liberating to be the black sheep.

Another much-needed paragraph:

While in fact commenter culture has turned into an endless war of digital lynch mobs, liberals and conservative gangs enforcing group think conformity on their respective mobs with febrile insults. Not a broader spectrum of opinion but a more narrow minded one that is incapable of little more than sub normal bozo-like displays of party line talking points for the most part. A threat to freedom in the sense that the vast tide of stupidity drowns out any attempt at intelligent discussion.

If he appears to be ranting, just take a look at the comments to this post. Apparently he’s pushed the touchy-button. We should all be so unafraid to disagree with those most like us.

For a humorous look at commenter culture, I leave you with this.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Ayaan Hirsi Ali


On the eve of Durban 2, it might be worth recalling the story of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I just rushed through the last hundred or so pages of her autobiography, Infidel. It was a much different book than I had imagined, having approached it expecting a sort of female Christopher Hitchens–a snide wit ridiculing Islam, getting in a few punches below the belt for good measure. Of course, Hitchens is better than that much of the time, but Hirsi Ali is different altogether. She has a patient style, judicious even, and tells her tale bluntly. She is not angry with God (she is an atheist, so that would be contradictory), nor is she burning with rage against the Muslim world into which she was born. Her story is probably typical of many Somali women, except that her father was a high-profile revolutionary while she was growing up. Her genitals were excised at the age of six, as is the tradition of her clan. She was educated as a traditional Muslim, and even sympathised with the Muslim Brotherhood for a period while she lived in Kenya. She believed Islam was perfect and held the answers to all of life’s questions. Then something snapped, and she grew up.

She was betrothed to a man she had never met, and pretty much forced into marriage. The facade of tradition was already cracked, and while on a stopover in Germany (on her way to Canada to become her new husband’s property) she snuck into Holland, applied for refugee status, and was eventually accepted. She learned Dutch (which, from what I can gather, is her sixth language–after Somali, Swahili, Amharic, Arabic and English), studied political science, obtained a degree, and then began to wonder what to do with so much freedom.

Fast forward to Sept. 11, 2001. Hirsi Ali began to speak out about Islam, about how suicide terrorism is not the result of ignorance and poverty. She said the attackers were acting in perfect harmony with their faith. The more she spoke, the more people began to listen. She began to receive death threats, which she didn’t take seriously at first. Then, once a member of the Dutch Parliament, Hirsi Ali dedicated herself politically to the betterment of Muslim women’s lives. That was her bone to pick. She said the Prophet Muhammad would be considered a pedophile and tyrant in modern-day Holland, which some people didn’t like. The death threats began to get serious.

Then she made this film with Theo van Gogh:



Van Gogh was murdered in broad daylight in Amsterdam not long thereafter. He didn’t take the death threats seriously. Hirsi Ali was immediately whisked into hiding, shuttled from apartment to apartment, finally ending up in a motel in smalltown Massachusetts. At times even she couldn’t know where she was being hidden. She could not use a telephone or go online for any reason. She could not risk being traced. Her potential killers could be anywhere, ready at a moment’s notice to make good on their promise to cut her throat.

Even Hirsi Ali admits in her book that all this top-security mishaguss was a bit much. But she was a member of the Dutch government, so she got the star treatment. When she was finally allowed back in Holland, she was made to resign and had her citizenship revoked on a technicality. Her neighbors even complained that her presence made them feel unsafe. They rallied to kick her out of her home. So she became a refugee, again.

Long story short, she was offered a job in the United States, where she now lives and works. Her Dutch citizenship has been reinstated.

So why all the fuss? Ask the guys in Geneva.

Italy Loves Israel!

Today’s Ynet Culture report has an edifying proclamation: “Italy loves us!”

Liron Bar Sadeh of the Israeli embassy in Rome said that Italy’s treatment of Israel was uniquely positive. “They love us and do a lot to strengthen the ties. It’s important to remember that Italy is the only country in Europe, and one of the only ones in the world, after the US and Canada, which withdrew from the Durban 2 anti-racism conference.

 “Italy said that it is appalled by the systematic discrimination of Israel and the fact it is branded a threat to the world, while other countries are not considered a threat despite their actions. Italy published positive statements and supported us throughout the war, during which the Italian media, unlike other news outlets in Europe, has been very balanced.”

None of this means that all Italians really love Israel, just that–perhaps from an Israeli perspective–things aren’t quite as bad here in Italy as in the rest of Europe. Italy has its fair share of naysayers, haters and all-around anti-Zionists, of course. Some of them even have television shows, newspapers and the like. But it’s nothing like England, one place in Europe no Israeli could exactly call chummy.

So what keeps Italy from devolving into a pit of anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic hatred–a sickness which is sucking Europe down into its vortex a mere sixty years after it nearly committed suicide? How come Italy is still the only European nation to have pulled out of the upcoming Durban 2 conference, allied only with the United States, Canada and Israel against the likes of the rest of the world. This is from yesterday’s Durban 2 draft negotiations, courtesy of UN Watch:

Syria “will never be party to a ceremonial or redundant activity,” which fails to address “the agony of millions of victims, especially within countries with a blatant, institutionalized basis of racism” (read: Israeli “racism” against Palestinians). It added, “We will never support the surviving apartheid regime.” It also railed against those who have threatened boycott of Durban II, arguing, “Threatening to boycott or walkout is no longer acceptable within the framework of international cooperation.”

No longer acceptable? What does Syria propose to do, kick them out on their behinds?

As long as freedom of speech–and freedom to criticize religion–are on the line, as well as explicit condemnation of Israel (but no other countries), the entire conference will be nothing but a farce. The fact that so few countries have had the balls to pull out is a telling sign. Will they sit still and listen when Israel is bashed to bits, as they did in 2001?

Italy, always fearful of lagging behind the rest of cultured Europe, for once is way ahead of the pack.

Who Takes Iran Seriously? Or Caryl Churchill?

Jeffery Goldberg does.

And he’s done the dirty work for you by compiling a long list of money quotes by the Iranian President about Isra…ahem, the Zionist Entity.

For instance, he said this in December, 2006:

“I want to tell [Western counties] that just as the Soviet Union was wiped out and does not exist anymore, so will the Zionist regime soon be wiped out and humanity will be free.”

The Soviet Union? Just compare Israel to any worst-regime-in-history in an all-out effort at character assassination. This is anti-Zionism 101.

And Goldberg gets my vote for the most perceptive critic of Caryl Churchill, as well:

“I think that people like Caryl Churchill have a kind of gross, sometimes pornographic interest in proving Jewish immorality. It makes them feel better. I believe that. It makes them feel less immoral if they can prove that Jews are immoral too — that the ultimate victims are just like everybody else. Or worse than everybody else!”

We should all be paying attention to him.

The Late, Great Agnostic

Robert Green Ingersoll had many memorable things to say about a great many topics. He loved Shakespeare and Thomas Paine above all other authors. Most people have never heard of him, but he was one of America’s most famous speakers in the late nineteenth century.

Ingersoll had this to say about Darwin’s then-novel theory of evolution by natural selection:

“I believe that man came up from lower animals. When I first heard of that doctrine I did not like it. My heart was filled with sympathy for those people who have nothing to be proud of except ancestors. I thought, how terrible this will be upon the nobility of the Old World. Think of their being forced to trace their ancestry back to the duke Orang Outang, or to the princess Chimpanzee.

After thinking it over, I came to the conclusion that I liked that doctrine.”

And so should we.