Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Devil Didn't Make Them Do It

It was announced yesterday that the Vatican's chief exorcist has proclaimed that Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were possessed by the devil.

Father Gabriele Amorth who is Pope Benedict XVI's 'caster out of demons' made his comments during an interview with Vatican Radio.

Father Amorth said: "Of course the Devil exists and he can not only possess a single person but also groups and entire populations.

"I am convinced that the Nazis were all possessed. All you have to do is think about what Hitler - and Stalin did. Almost certainly they were possessed by the Devil.

"You can tell by their behaviour and their actions, from the horrors they committed and the atrocities that were committed on their orders. That's why we need to defend society from demons."

According to secret Vatican documents recently released wartime pontiff Pope Pius XII attempted a "long distance" exorcism of Hitler which failed to have any effect.

Had this statement come from a small-time protestant preacher or a low level Catholic priest I would probably blow it off, but this statement comes from a man in a central position in the Catholic Church. We should all bear in mind Amorth's view on the Harry Potter books, saying "Behind Harry Potter hides the signature of the king of the darkness, the devil." Let that color how much stock you want to put in his opinion.

Amorth's--and by extension the Catholic Church's--position is troubling for the way it reduces Hitler and Stalin and the actions that their governments committed. Rather than acknowledging that the Nazis and the Soviets were human beings who committed heinous atrocities, Amorth and the Church would rather dwell in a fantasyland where people are manipulated like puppets by supernatural beings.

Christianity has often used Satan as a scapegoat; Satan was envisioned by early Judaism as an independent being who created evil in the world, and thus took the blame for suffering endured by the Jewish community, relieving the early conception of god (which was relatively holistic) . As Satan's significance in Christian mythology grew, so did the use of this icon as a political tool to demonize enemies of the Church. Today, Satan is used as an excuse for those who will not take responsibility for their own actions. This was at the heart of the Satanic Ritual Abuse hoax and the rash of supposed possessions related to it.

The assertion that Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were under demonic possession is a dangerously reductionist position that prevents us from learning the real lessons of these time periods. To say that Stalin, Hitler and their followers were possessed by the devil takes away their humanity and, most importantly, their responsibility in the atrocities of World War II. The Holocaust was not the work of the devil. It was the work of human beings who made terrible choices. Dwelling in a psycho-drama is not going to help us understand why these events happened or prevent them from happening again. It is like the mental patient who believes that a hallucination or a multiple personality made them commit a crime. The patient has to believe this because their crime is too terrible to coalesce with their conception of themselves. Treatment has to cure the hallucination and make the patient take ownership of their actions. A statement like Amorth's strengthens the crutch and the hallucination and does not bring anyone closer to enlightenment.

Monday, August 21, 2006

When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

Tonight HBO ran the first half of Spike Lee's new documentary film When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. The first half (Acts I and II) covered Hurricane Katrina's impact with the Gulf Coast, the collapse of the levees, and the immediate aftermath of the storm. The second half (Acts III and IV) will air tomorrow night.

This is easily one of the most provocative but fair, visceral but tasteful, informative but heartbreaking documentary films I have ever seen. Spike Lee has created a landmark piece of television. That it could only be made for and seen by a small television audience is a shame. Hopefully the film will be released on DVD soon. Until then, do what you can to see it.

Hurricane Katrina was one of the worst disasters in American history. While I had a vague sense of this, it was not until watching this documentary that one uncomfortable truth became apparent: the disaster in New Orleans was a bigger calamity than the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. Although Katrina's loss of life was roughly half of what it was in the World Trade Center attack, the per-acre devastation, the displacement of citizenry, and the financial cost of the recovery easily exceeds the attack on 9/11.

I am reminded of Edward R. Murrow's keynote address at the Radio-Television News Directors Association & Foundation's 1958 convention. This speech was dramatized in the film Good Night, and Good Luck.

"I am frightened by the imbalance, the constant striving to reach the largest possible audience for everything; by the absence of a sustained study of the state of the nation. Heywood Broun once said, "No body politic is healthy until it begins to itch." I would like television to produce some itching pills rather than this endless outpouring of tranquilizers. It can be done. Maybe it won't be, but it could . . . To those who say people wouldn't look; they wouldn't be interested; they're too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter's opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.

Spike Lee's new film is an example of the possibilities of television realized to their full potential. It's why I love the film medium and the documentary genre. And it is also a symbol of hope for those of us who hope to produce work that rises above overwhelming drone of celebrity gossip and canned laughter.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Warfare Lessons of the 20th Century

I found the following commentary by Bruce Herschensohn in today's LBN E-Lert very interesting:

If the 20th century can teach the people of the 21st century anything regarding warfare, three clear messages stand out; 1. We should always give significance to the announced pursuits of a hostile force. Eight decades back, few believed the goals expressed in "Mein Kampf." Today, few concern themselves with the three-word goal that is expressed in daily statements, chants, and shouts: "Death to America?" 2. The victories of the United States and its allies in World War II came only through the use of our highly disproportionate attacks, and that is how we forced the unconditional surrender of our enemies. Had we used only proportionate, balanced attacks, we would have guaranteed, at best, a stalemate. 3. Diplomacy with tyrannies proved futile. Negotiations in the most prominent disputes have produced nothing but momentary optimism followed by disaster:- Negotiations didn't succeed in 1938 in Munich when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed an agreement with Adolf Hitler, proclaiming the agreement would ensure peace. - Negotiations didn't succeed in 1945 when President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill accepted the Yalta Agreements with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, promising that those countries under Soviet occupation would be given democratic governments, and Soviet occupation would end quickly. - Negotiations didn't succeed in 1953 at Panmunjom when the U.N. command under U.S. leadership began negotiations with North Korea. That was when North Korea was a threat to South Korea alone. A half-century later, North Korea is now a nuclear threat to the entire world, and we're still negotiating. - Negotiations didn't succeed in 1972 when Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev agreed an Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In violation, the Soviet Union then built and deployed a prohibited giant phased-array radar station near Krasnoyarsk.- Negotiations didn't succeed in 1973 when North Vietnam signed the Paris peace accords with provisions that were quickly violated. Twenty-seven months later; North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam.

On Herschensohn's points, I think his first, that "We should always give significance to the announced pursuits of a hostile force, " is absolutely correct, although posturing alone does not constitute a clear and present danger. Military action, especially on a large scale, should not be considered an a priori conclusion when the body making the threat lacks the means or the intent to execute those threats.

Herschensohn's second point, "The victories of the United States and its allies in World War II came only through the use of our highly disproportionate attacks, and that is how we forced the unconditional surrender of our enemies," is also correct, although it is also important to differentiate between the nation-versus-nation conflicts of World War II and the nature of the conflicts between nations and terrorist groups (i.e. the United States versus Al Qaeda or Israel versus Hezbollah). It is however, relevant to attempts to occupy a country, demolish its previous regime, and establish a new government as we are attempting to do in Iraq.

As for Herschensohn's third point, "Diplomacy with tyrannies proved futile," it would seem to me that diplomacy will fail with any nation if it has no incentive to maintain its end of the agreement. Just because a country is democratic does not inherently make the word of its government any better than that of a dictatorship. If there is no condition maintaining the conditions set down by diplomacy, be it favorable trade agreements or mutually assured destruction, then no government is bound to follow the terms of that agreement.

As a man with a laymen's interest in history and politics, would add another lesson of 20th century warfare: don't get involved in a conflict unless you intend to win and have a coherent plan for doing so. Word War I devolved into stalemate in part because no one knew what goal they were fighting for. Again in Vietnam, there was no coherent end game and the only discernible strategy was to throw more firepower and more troops at the conflict without any sense of purpose or direction. By contrast, World War II was winnable in part because it was met with a well crafted strategy and the military was given a structure and a purpose. I fear the war in Iraq is now headed in the former direction.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

And Let the Purge Begin!

Joseph Lieberman has conceded his position as the Democratic nominee for US Senator of Connecticut to challenger Ned Lamont. This is a big win for progressives and will be even bigger if Lamont can win the position in November.

Although Lieberman will run as an independent, I don't think he stands much of a chance of splitting the ticket in the way that many allege Ralph Nader did in the 2000 presidential election. His positions have so often mirrored Republican stances--support for the war in Iraq, government intervention and regulation of the content (but not the business practices) of mass media, --that he has alienated his base and that is what caused this revolt by voters in the first place. Instead, he may actually split the ticket with the Republican nominee, which can only help Lamont.

At the same time, Tom DeLay has withdrawn from the Republican slot for a seat in the House of Representatives.

This is a great sign of what may come in November. With the war in Iraq the top priority for voters, anyone who has continued to support this disaster, or voted for it in the first place, may find their head on the chopping block.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Further Proof That It's All Gone to Hell

Related to my previous post on how conservatives are abandoning the Bush administration like bourgeois passengers on the Titanic, General John Abizaid, the head of the US Central Command, acknowledged that sectarian violence could plunge Iraq into a full blown civil war.

And related to a potential Iraqi civil war is the growing conflict between Hezbollah and Israel and the brewing tension with Iran. At the risk of over-simplification, here is a timeline that puts things in some perspective:

1979: Iran has its revolution and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini takes power, turning the country into a theocracy and rolling back social progress such as pluralistic rules that protected religious minorities and revoking voting rights for women.

Early 1980's: Hezbollah is created by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the elite unit of the Iranian military. It is founded around the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and becomes a means of carrying out radical Shiite Islamist objectives inside Iran and throughout the Middle East. It carries out terrorist activities against Israel, among other targets.

1980-88: The Iran-Iraq war is fought. Saddam Hussein opposes the spread of radical Shiite rule, although his underlying motive for war is expanding Iraq's control of the Persian Gulf, establishing dominance in the region, and expanding Iraq's oil industry. Saddam's anti-theocracy sentiment is shared by the United States, who provides Saddam with military support. In the end Saddam seals the border, but due to centuries of pilgrimages to the holy Shiite shrines of Najaf and Karbala, the cultural exchange between Iran and Iraq continues and the ideas of Khomeini have a deep impact on Iraqi Shiites, who make up about sixty-two percent of Iraq's population.

1985: Hezbollah emerges as the public representation of various pro-Iran groups combating Israel in Lebanon.

1990-1: Iraq invades Kuwait with weapons that United States sold to Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war. The US and other countries intervene and drive Iraq's forces back, but stop short of removing Saddam from power because, among other reasons, there is no satisfactory exit strategy.

2003: The United States invades Iraq under the false auspices that Saddam has chemical weapons. Saddam is removed from power and the US occupies Iraq while trying to foster a secular democracy.

2005: A car bomb kills the leader of Lebanon. The fragile government is weakened to the point that is has little practical authority in the country. Hezbollah's strength within Lebanon is increased by the instability, although it does not represent a ruling political party.

January 2006: When Iraqi's vote in a national election, they elect Khomeini-influenced politicians in control of seven of the nine southern provinces. The kind of Shiite figures who the United States had attempted to keep out of Iraqi politics in the Iran-Iraq war are now in central positions of its government through the democratic process.

August 2006: As Israel begins open conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon, large numbers of Iraqis demonstrate in support of Hezbollah. In response, United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice proclaims Iraq is not turning into a new Iran.

See also:
Hezbollah's Iranian Connection

The Iraq war is over, and the winner is . . . Iran

Lebanon's Weak Government