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Monday, December 17, 2007

Anti-Semitism: A new Gift of God ?

Well, here we have it: Monsieur Dieudonné ("Mr. Gift of God," or "Mr. G of G" for short). He's a super-sophisticated French comic, of mixed African and French background, and he has given a new voice and opened a new audience for extreme anti-Semitism. He does not like, it seems, the "Americano-Zionist Axis." But it's all in good fun, right ? His views sound extreme left-wing, but heck, hold on: his best friends, some of them, are in the Front National, and that includes the wife of Jean-Marie Le Pen. All this is told by Tom Reiss in The New Yorker of November 19, 2007. Read the whole article, and don't miss the last paragraph.

To listen to Mr. G of G in person is painful, especially if you can understand French. But, for those francophones out there blessed with a touch of masochism (or sense of humor, as G of G would no doubt have it), here is his sketch "Mes Excuses" that Reiss has described in his article:

Update, Nov. 2009: Mr. Dieudonné has announced that his friends in Iran have graciously consented to finance him in the making of "anti-Zionist" movies.

Update, January 2014:  MEMRI has presented a revealing video concerning Mr. D.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Dotage and Fame: the Case of Ferdinand Sauerbruch

Here is a story of a German physician's occupational prestige, with its concurrent power over the lives of others, and how it was able to sweep aside, at least for a time, all evidence of incapacity and senility.

At the top of this posting we see a picture of Ferdinand Sauerbruch, the most famous of German surgeons of the twentieth century. The picture is the 1932 work of the Jewish artist Max Liebermann. Sauerbruch and Liebermann were neighbors and friends, apparently even after the Nazis took power. But Sauerbruch was, at the same time, a supporter of the Nazis. As with so many other German in public life at the time, the best that can be said on this topic is that his relationship to the regime was one of ambiguity.

Sauerbruch was recognized as one of the very top scientists of his generation. He was nominated for the Nobel prize no fewer than 54 times over a period of 14 years. But then a well-known German opponent of the Nazis, Carl von Ossietzky, received the Nobel Peace prize for 1935. Hitler was furious and forbade German citizens to accept further Nobel prizes. In their stead, the Nazis created a special German prize, apparently in compensation, and Sauerbruch accepted this all-German, Nazi-sponsored prize at the annual Nazi rally of 1937.

After the war, Sauerbruch made a similar peace with the Soviet occupation of East Germany, with whose help he continued his world-famous work in the world-famous hospital in East Berlin, the Charité (it was here, by the way, if childhood memory of what I was told can be trusted, that my own father worked with Sauerbruch as a young assistant after the first world war).

But now, soon after the end of WWII, comes the sad decline of Sauerbruch's mental powers, which he steadfastly denied to himself and to others. And here is the shocker: he continued to operate on patients without realizing what he was doing, causing untold calamities, unrestrained for some years by the authorities. After the Charité finally dismissed him, he continued to see private patients, gratis, from both parts of Berlin, causing more harm. The most fascinating part of the story is the fumbling, hesitant reaction of the German medical profession. Sauerbruch's prestige had been so high that the medical authorities, for a very long time, refused to stop his mayhem. The whole story, well told by the physician-journalist Jürgen Thorwald ("The Dismissal," 1960), is now well known to German physicians. But the German general public seems to know little. The German Wikipedia article on Sauerbruch, though it dutifully lists Thornwald's book, mentions nothing of his late-life dementia, and my attempt to insert some words to this effect was immediately edited out. (There is a mention of the problem, however, in the American Wikipedia).

Old Age and Religious Views

The New York Times Magazine of November 4 has an article on the distinguished British philosopher Antony Flew. It seems that after a lifetime of espousing atheism -- as one the most trenchant and clear-thinking writers in that field -- the aging Professor Flew has recanted and now espouses a form of deism. This turn has been widely publicized, and apparently manipulated, by religionists. A new book that bears Flew's name as author, for example, does not seem to have been written by him at all, but was authored by his new religious friends. The writer of this New York Times article, Mark Oppenheimer, suggests that the turn can largely be attributed to a form of senility on the part of Professor Flew. He has interviewed Flew in his home (Mrs. Flew serving glasses of water), finding that Flew was unable to remember crucial points that were made in what is ostensibly his own new book. Nor does he seem to recall many other things. Of course all that is very sad. It is obvious that our political and philosophical views are in some sense related to our state of health. That much is obvious on its face. But it is seldom that a specific instance of psychopathology-as-philosophy, or dotage-as-religion, can be so well documented. A memorable article.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Weather Underground

The Weatherman organization, variously known as Weather Underground, etc., existed in the United States for roughly ten years, from about 1969. But it was actually only for a few months that it had a viable existence; after its members inadvertently blew up a townhouse at 18 West 11th Street in Manhattan (March 2, 1970), killing three of their own, it was all downhill. Together with its allies in the Black Panther Party, Weatherman was the most violent American opposition to the Viet Nam war. It adopted Ho Chi Minh as its ideological father.

The video shown above is but one of a number of such treatments by a largely sympathetic press. Weatherman is most often pictured as idealistic, devoted to human betterment, but as using unacceptable methods, i.e. violence.

The most informative description of Weatherman is probably that by Kirkpatrick Sale in his book "SDS," published in 1973. SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, was the large student organization of the 1960's which later morphed into Weatherman. Like most writers on the subject, Sale writes as a sympathizer of this larger "Movement," but he writes with absolute realism about the darker side of Weatherman: its violence, blind fanaticism, hopeless self-righteousness, ridiculous posturing.

We now have a new account by one of the former Weathermen, or Weatherwomen, who were in that townhouse on 11th Street when the bomb went off. In fact that building belonged to Cathy Wilkerson's father. Her book is entitled "Flying Close to the Sun," Seven Stories Press, 2007. It adds very little to our knowledge or understanding of the movement. It does have a useful table of Weatherman bombings (taken from a 1974 book by Jonah Raskin), most of which took place after Sale's book was published. Wilkerson can also tell us, as Sale could not, what it was like to be a rank-and-file member. It seem that the leaders had (literally) caviar while the followers subsisted on peanuts. And it also appears that Weathermen considered themselves above all the laws of human restraint. Wilkerson participated in a sexual orgy with fellow members (but the sex was not good) while the love of her live was in jail for a few weeks.

Wilerson lived in hiding for years and also served time for her part in the bombings, but she has now repudiated her violent past. Her account is wooden and formulaic. Ho Chi Minh, after all that has happened to the international movement of the Communist dictatorship, is still her hero. Her book is much more recent, and is written by a participant, but it lacks the understanding, the descriptive power, and yes, the intelligence of Kirkpatrick Sale.

Weatherman will continue to be of interest to students of social movements. For one thing, it invites comparison to the movements of our day.

a) Weatherman was one of the most conspicuous opponents of the Viet Nam war. Today we have the Iraq war, and a variety of movements to oppose that. One contrast, well illustrated by Weatherman, is that today's war opponents do not champion the other side. There are no "Sadam, Sadam, Sadam Husein" chants that could be compared to Weatherman's "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh."

b) Weatherman believed in direct action, violence, and the use of dynamite. In that it invites comparison to the terrorists of our day, say the Islamists. The contrast could not be more stark. Weatherman was careless in its use of bombs, but any loss of life, it would seem, was inadvertent. This surely cannot be said of the Islamists.

Weatherman, if not the only home-grown terrorist group in American history, was probably the most spectacular, certainly in modern times. But its fanaticism and violence were soon spent. It seems that there were no deep cultural American roots to sustain it in the long term.