Follow by Email

Friday, July 19, 2019

I Mentioned T____ R_______ on Facebook. I Was Banned for Seven Days.



I Mentioned T _ _ _ _  R _ _ _ _ _ _ _ on Facebook
I Was Banned for Seven Days

I spent 1988-89 as a student at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. In 1988, before the wall began to crack, Poland had felt as it had felt on previous visits – as if communism would never end. We lived our lives constantly engulfed in a spiritual gray sludge. Everything was slower, stupider, dimmer, meaner, than anywhere else I'd lived before, including impoverished nations in Africa and Asia. What kept you going were the flashes of heroism and defiance that could appear at any time, from any quarter.

In the mornings, when I walked to class, I would see patriotic graffiti. A favorite item was a stenciled profile of Jozef Pilsudski (1867-1935). As a young man, Pilsudski had been an underground organizer when Poland was still colonized by Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Poland was reborn as an independent nation in 1918. The Soviets invaded in 1920. Nikolai Bukharin promised communist takeovers beyond Warsaw, "Straight to London and Paris." Red Army commander Mikhail Tukhachevsky cried, "To the West! Over the corpse of White Poland lies the road to worldwide conflagration." "Stalin's commissars called on Polish soldiers to change sides, saying that there was no sense in dying for capitalism," writes Timothy Snyder. Instead, "The Polish population, including the peasantry and working class, surprised the Bolsheviks by its hostility."

Greatly outnumbered, Pilsudski achieved "The Miracle on the Wisla." Astoundingly, Poland, reborn as a nation after over a hundred years of colonial occupation, reeling from WW I, emerged the winner from the Polish-Soviet War.

Tukhachevsky, the defeated Russian commander, said, "There can be no doubt that if we had been victorious, the revolutionary fires would have reached the entire continent." "In Lenin's words, the Bolsheviks had 'suffered an enormous defeat.' Stalin had to take some of the blame." Stalin wasn't one for taking blame. Tukhachevsky was eventually tortured and murdered.

Pilsudski went on to be Poland's chief of state. He is associated with a generously expansive view of Polish identity. While chauvinists, influenced by the same dark energies that informed the rise of Nazism in neighboring Germany, insisted that only Polish non-Jews could be real Poles, Pilsudski was famous for embracing citizens of many religious and linguistic backgrounds, as long as they loved Poland. One could be Jewish, Catholic, Muslim or Orthodox and be a good Pole, as long as one loved the country and upheld its laws and norms.

This history gives you an idea of what stenciled graffiti of Pilsudski meant in Poland in 1988, and why, when I saw it, as I walked to my morning classes, my heart was glad.

In the afternoon, as I walked home, a different sight greeted my eyes. The handsome, chiseled silhouette of the Marshall would be painted over with white paint. Similar white paint covered the word "Solidarnosc." Solidarity was the labor union that had challenged Soviet rule. Other whitewashed graffiti included the letter P above, and attached to, the letter W, joined in the shape of an anchor. This stood for "Polska Walczaca" or "Fighting Poland." Also painted over – images of gnomes and crows, both of which had symbolic significance to those resisting Soviet rule.

Again and again, every day, patriotic resisters would paint graffiti, and every day, employees of the state would whitewash that graffiti. I wondered about those anonymous workers. Their entire lives were dedicated to hunting down and erasing the very best in Polish society. They erased hope. They erased defiance. They erased truth. They erased creativity. They erased the nation's history. They erased the nation's pride.

Who were they? True believers, like Tukhachevsky, Trotsky, and Yezhov, all of whom would eventually be murdered by Stalin's orders?

Or were they mere worker bees, soul-dead robots whose only concern was their next plate of potatoes? Were they "just following orders"?

In addition to graffiti, Poles developed a thousand little ways to resist. Once at a café a singer sang about Christmas before the war. She sang that there was a calendar hanging on the wall with a photo of Pilsudski on it. The audience gasped and broke into applause. She had dared to mention Pilsudski out loud in public. Back in 1970, forty-two protesters had been killed. Poles commemorated this in the 1980s by writing "1970" with the seven as a Christian cross.

As strangled as speech was in Poland, it was worse in Czechoslovakia. After Russian tanks crushed the 1968 Prague Spring, the Soviets allowed the Czechoslovaks more material goods, but clamped down on their ability to express themselves. Poles' material lives were poorer than their neighbors to the south, but the Poles' rebelliousness meant that Poles exercised relatively greater freedom of speech than Czechoslovaks. There was a joke in those days that attested to the human insistence on self-expression, no matter the bribes offered in exchange for silence, and no matter the threats to crush defiance. Two dogs meet at the border between Poland and Czechoslovakia. They are trying to enter each other's country. They are each astounded to see the other. "Why would you want to enter my country with all its problems?" they each ask the other.

The Polish dog says, "I want to taste meat."

The Czechoslovak dog says, "I want to bark."

I remember my Uncle John, during a visit to him in Czechoslovakia, suddenly jumping up from the kitchen table and shouting at me and my mother. We had been having what felt, to me, like an innocent conversation. I don't even remember what we were conversing about. All I remember is the panic in my otherwise manly uncle's voice. "Shut up! Shut up! Don't you realize what you are doing?" He mentioned a villager who had said, in the tavern, "Slovak som aj slovak budem." Rough translation, "I'm proud to be Slovak." The man disappeared.

Mind: we weren't in a public place. We were inside my uncle's primitive kitchen, with a wood stove and a table. No refrigerator, no place to hide surveillance equipment, on a farmstead far from any listening ears. The rules were that ingrained. My uncle, who had lived under Nazis and Soviets, knew what you could and could not say if you wanted to survive.

The rules could be boiled down to: you are not allowed to remember your history. You are not allowed to feel pride. You are not allowed to criticize those who hurt you. You are not allowed to say anything – even something whimsical – that might risk misinterpretation. Yes, even whimsy was taboo. After the Nazis invaded, the Gestapo arrested puppeteer Josef Skupa, and they also arrested his puppets, Spejbl, and Hurvinek.

Another rule: there might the illusion of a court of appeal, but like Kafka's Joseph K, you entered bureaucracies, never to emerge. "It is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary." Joseph K is told, in his fruitless search for appeal after he is falsely accused of an unnamed crime. "A melancholy conclusion," he replied. "It turns lying into a universal principle."

Poles' and Czechoslovaks' struggles with free speech all struck me as so incredibly quaint. Even as I joined the riots, and chanted "Sowieci do domu!" I was hyper-aware of the American passport in my carefully secreted money belt. I just knew that America was so much better. We had the Founding Fathers, the first amendment, free speech, a free press. Eastern Europe was a dusty museum of threats I need never worry about once I got on that plane and re-entered my real life.

***

On Monday, July 8, 2019, I posted, on what I had previously, naively thought of as "my" Facebook page, a link to a Front Page Magazine article by bestselling author Bruce Bawer. Bawer, a PhD, had gotten my attention years ago with his Christian writing in favor of gay rights. For years mainstream publications, including the New York Times, recognized Bawer as a liberal in the best sense of that word. Bawer's July 8 Front Page article addressed the state persecution of T _ _ _ _  R _ _ _ _ _ _ _, a British citizen journalist and human rights activist.

On Tuesday, July 9, Facebook sent me the following, "We removed one of your posts because it doesn't follow the Facebook Community Standards. We created our standards to help make Facebook a safe place for people to connect with the world around them." I was told I would not be allowed to post or respond to messages for seven days.

I asked why. I received another message. I was offered no explanation. This new message said, "We reviewed your post again and it doesn't follow our Community Standards." Kafka himself could not have said it better.

Did one of my Facebook friends inform on me? Possibly. I value diversity of thought and I do choose to have Facebook friends who are far left. A handful belong to what I can only call Team Anti-Western-Civilization. They, though white themselves, single out white people, Americans, Christians, and Jews, as uniquely evil, insisting that without whites to corrupt them, people of color and non-Western cultures are uniformly loving, wise, and peaceful.  

A friend announced my banning. Immediately, two members of Team Anti-Western-Civ, both far-left British women, said, paraphrase, well, she asked for it, because she posted in support of T _ _ _ _  R _ _ _ _ _ _ _. Both posted links to mainstream British media "proving" that T _ _ _ _  R _ _ _ _ _ _ _ is evil. "Rosa L." repeated twice, "I'm not the one who reported her."

I can't imagine celebrating the banning of a friend from Facebook. I also can't imagine taking advantage of a friend's banning to post, on her page, material that I know would offend her, and material to which she could not reply.

Rosa L. knows I have grown up among the Demographic that one dare not criticize on Facebook. She knows that I've had friends and loved ones from Demographic X all my life, and she knows I would never endorse anyone who posed a threat to Demographic X. Rosa knows that like Pilsudski, I believe that as long as people love a country and follow its laws and norms, they are good citizens, regardless of their religion or race. Rosa knows that I apply to Demographic X the exact same rhetorical standards that I apply to Americans, to Polish people, and to Catholics. When Catholics do something wrong, I, a Catholic, speak out, and I demand change. Yes, Rosa knows all this. Why did she say what she did? "Truth is that which serves the party." Party needs trump the bonds of truth and friendship.

What occurred on my Facebook page is now occurring in media worldwide. T _ _ _ _  R _ _ _ _ _ _ _  has been banned from Facebook, Twitter, and now YouTube. His opponents can now do exactly what Rosa did, the minute Rosa knew that I was banned from Facebook. They can publish any calumny they want, knowing that those who might disagree have been silenced.  

Not all the censorship the Soviet empire exercised was as heavy-handed as whitewashing graffiti. Other forms of thought control were as sophisticated, seductive and as chilling as the invitations of an expert drug pusher. You would go to a party that you weren't quite sure of. There would be people there. They would be much better dressed, and look much better fed, than average Poles. They had more practiced accents. They almost sounded like they were from Nebraska. Their speech was sprinkled with references to the trendiest expressions of American pop culture. They were so friendly to you. As if they'd finally met someone of worthy caliber that they'd been seeking for years. They would say things like, "All this silly nostalgia. Poland before communism was a feudal swamp. All this hand-kissing. You know Polish men only kiss women's hands as a way to keep them down. How many peasants were beaten, killed, and imprisoned under Pilsudski? We all acknowledge that there should be some adjustments to the current system. But there's no going back."

These charming, attentive sophisticates were Soviet plants. They were also factually correct. Poland was feudal. Pilsudski's rule did have a very dark side. But here's the thing. When you operate under freedom of speech, and you say, "Pilsudski's rule had a dark side," anyone can respond. Together, you can hammer out a balanced history. When you say, "Pilsudski's rule had a dark side" and anyone who offers a peep in addition to that statement is arrested, there is no balance, and there is no truth.

And that's where we are with T _ _ _ _  R _ _ _ _ _ _ _.

I've researched T _ _ _ _  R _ _ _ _ _ _ _. If I found one shred of truth to Rosa's allegations of racism and hatemongering, I would withdraw support. But here's the thing – even if what Rosa said were true, that would still not excuse the shutting down of free speech about T _ _ _ _  R _ _ _ _ _ _ _, any more than we should shut down free speech about any racist or instigator.  

Everyone's perspective is limited. No one has a monopoly on truth. We run our ideas past others. Others disagree. We research and modify our assertions and beliefs in response to criticism. This is how science is done. This is how dissertations are written. This is how the Declaration of Independence and other groundbreaking historic documents came to be, and came to change history. When we are allowed to speak only what those in power want us to speak, we live our lives constantly engulfed in a spiritual grey sludge. Opponents of free speech are attaching lead weights to human society, to the human soul, to our search for truth.

Opponents of free speech always lose. Dogs want to bark. My ancestral people showed that even under Nazis and Soviets, dogs find a way to bark. If I regain access to Facebook, I will simply do what Poles who covered walls with graffiti of crows, gnomes, and anchors did. I will resort to code that will be understood, but that will fly under the censor's radar.

How afraid is Mark Zuckerberg, and what, exactly, is he afraid of? How afraid are Rosa, the BBC, YouTube, Twitter? How afraid are the mainstream media outlets who declined to run a piece on this topic written by bestselling author, veteran feminist, and PhD scholar Phyllis Chesler? You suppress what you fear. Facebook and the rest are suppressing free speech about T _ _ _ _  R _ _ _ _ _ _ _. What about that speech frightens them so much? One can only guess.

Dr. Chesler wrote to me, "One of T _ _ _ _  R _ _ _ _ _ _ _'s judges [The Right Honorable Dame Victoria Sharp] is an aristocrat. She has punished a working class hero for having exposed the utter failure of the hard-hearted British police, media and judiciary to protect Britain’s very vulnerable citizens, namely, abused female children who were tricked, kidnapped, repeatedly raped, broken, and trafficked into lives of Hell by Muslim grooming gangs. The judges have put one man's head on a pike in the hope that no others will follow in his footsteps. Britain is lost."

Lost. A heavy word. A word I am familiar with from the first line of the Polish national anthem. "Poland is not yet lost while we remain alive." Britain is lost only temporarily. As Sam Cooke sang, "A Change is Gonna Come." That change can occur in a peaceful, civilized way that respects all human life, and all demographics. That peaceful change can occur only with the restoration of free speech. If free speech continues to be suppressed, change will come, but its arrival will not be pretty.


 This essay appears at Front Page Magazine here

Friday, July 12, 2019

Ravelry. Why You Should Care about the Fate of Eight Million Knitters




Ever save somebody's life? I have. "Elizabeth" was in her early twenties, and she was dying in a remote "hospital" in a Nepali village. A Nepali boy approached me and told me that there was an American dying nearby. He guided me to Elizabeth, lying on a rubber sheet with a hole cut in the bottom to accommodate all the fluid pouring out of her. Her skin was the color of camouflage. I harangued the village elders and would not let them rest till a jeep arrived to transport her to Kathmandu, and a flight to a real hospital.

More recent life-saving is less elevated. Heroin addicts clod like zombies through my current neighborhood. Actually, comparing heroin addicts to zombies is an insult to zombies. These mostly white addicts guarantee that my young black and Hispanic neighbors, mere children, are growing up on streets littered with hypodermics and glassine envelopes. But when an addict overdoses in my path, I dial 911 and wait till emergency personnel, looking even more annoyed than I feel, arrive with the Narcan.

Here's the footnote to these stories. Elizabeth and I had met at Peace Corps functions, and we repelled each other. Different ethnicities, social classes, politics, and taste in music. And I have no sympathy for addicts. And, yet, I have worked to help people I didn't especially like. Others, who didn't especially like me, have helped me. Why?

My hardcore second amendment friends insist that guns are the foundation of everything we enjoy. I beg to differ. I've lived and worked in societies where even little kids play with deadly weapons. In such societies, a woman or a single man is not safe doing something as simple as going for a walk, or leaving his or her possessions near any open window.

What we take most for granted in America is something we can't bottle. It's civil society. Without civil society, you can carry as much firepower as you want. You will not be safe, because someone out there will have more weaponry than you. It's why anyone with any anthropological knowledge can tell you that wars to export democracy will never work. Civil society requires building blocks that we in the West developed over four thousand years, beginning with that day when God told Abraham to "Go!"

Indeed, the phrase "civil society" is Aristotle's. "The term civil society goes back to Aristotle's phrase koinonia politike … [civil society is] characterized by a shared set of norms and ethos, in which free citizens on an equal footing lived under the rule of law. The goal of civil society was eudaimonia, often translated as human flourishing or common well-being." One of the shared norms enjoyed by citizens on equal footing with each other was free speech. The Greeks pioneered it.

Our daily life is blessed by the Founding Fathers, and the influence on our Founding Fathers from the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Greeks, and the Enlightenment, that, together, created a society where people stop at red lights, and say "please" and "thank you," and respect elections. Why do I stand on dangerous street corners in gathering dusk, listening for the siren I have summoned, while I monitor an addict who is drooling helplessly onto the sidewalk? Because we are inheritors of a tradition that hammered into our bones that we owe each other, that something we can't even see transcends all our differences, and when I make life better for you, I make life better for me.

Atheists like to tell us that we don't need our heritage, tainted as it by sins like slavery and genocide. Human beings are good at heart, and we can build brave, new worlds out of our best intentions. Again, I beg to differ. In 2011, a two-year-old Chinese girl who came to be known as Little Yue Yue was run over by two vehicles. The first driver, after hitting her with his front tires and stopping to check, continued to run over her with his back tires. Eighteen passersby walked past Little Yue Yue. In the subsequent national conversation, Chinese commentators attributed this behavior to the Confucian emphasis on filial piety. Your own family matters; outsiders, not so much. China, they pointed out, lacks a "Good Samaritan" ethic that teaches that a stranger's welfare matters.

Without civil society, we careen toward chaos, anarchy, and bloodshed, which wait, just below the surface, for our dedication to the civilization we inherited to slip. Consider how quickly doctors and nurses, confronted with Hurricane Katrina, started talking about euthanasia. Consider Gary Slutkin's research that shows that violence is a contagion that can be amped up or tamped down with something as simple as human speech.  

The rules of civil society are being rewritten. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, mainstream media, academia, and now Ravelry are redefining community. The Ravelry controversy represents the wider society in microcosm. Even folks who don't knit should care about the decision of Casey Forbes, Ravelry's founder and owner.

An article published in 2008, a year after its founding, reported that "Ravelry is an online community for knitters, crocheters, spinners, dyers, weavers, pattern designers, and all other manner of fiber artists … It is a personal organization tool, a yarn and pattern database, and an online community … Ravelry is the single greatest thing to happen to yarnies since the invention of the spinning wheel … It is just that awesome." Ravelry claims to have eight million users.

On Sunday, June 23, 2019, Casey Forbes, Ravelry's developer, owner, and administrator, released a statement forbidding users to post in support of Donald Trump. Further, Forbes equated support for Trump with white supremacy. "We cannot provide a space that is inclusive of all and also allow support for open white supremacy. Support of the Trump administration is undeniably support for white supremacy … Note that support of President Trump or his administration … all constitute hate speech." Forbes' announcement hit national media. Stephen Colbert, oozing smug, oily, self-satisfied superiority, unquestioningly accepted and gave national attention to the demonization of all Trump voters as white supremacists.

If he had taken time to investigate, Colbert would have discovered that Ravelry's members have published allegations that Forbes has allowed discussions of violence against Sarah Palin, and allowed projects that involved caricatures of Donald Trump as a voodoo-doll-like pincushion or toilet paper cover, and a Jeremy Corbyn Christmas tree topper. Note that Jeremy Corbyn is a notorious anti-Semite, and a project celebrating an anti-Semite is, again, allegedly, permitted. One YouTube video alleges that Forbes exposed the identity of a Ravelry member who wanted to remain anonymous. Another YouTube video alleges that an eleven-year-old atheist knitter group on Ravelry includes "vicious" anti-Christian material. One post in that group was a picture of a Bible with the caption, "The Good News Is Jesus Dies on Page 681" with a laughing emoji. I was told that Forbes permitted an avatar of Kathy Griffin holding a realistic replica of Donald Trump's severed head, and that Forbes rejected an avatar of Betsy Ross. I was also told that Forbes was banning some Christian-themed needlework projects. I have no idea if these allegations are true – Ravelry is not accepting new members. I did see a screencap of a particularly ugly caricature of Donald Trump that was allegedly allowed on Ravelry.

If Forbes' purge of politically incorrect knitters were made into a movie, would it be a horror movie, or a comedy? Both frightening and slapstick elements combine in this ridiculous nightmare.  

In attempting to understand this bizarre story, I read hundreds of internet posts, and watched many YouTube videos, by those who support, and who reject, Forbes' new policy. I joined two Facebook groups, one of former Ravelry members who did not support Forbes' new anti-Trump-voter policy, and one of Ravelry members who do support the anti-Trump-voter policy. In the group that rejects Forbes' policy, in my first post, I plainly identified myself as someone who is not a Trump fan.

I wish I could report to you that after I posted that I am not a Trump fan, hundreds of hooded Klan members, carrying torches, and armed with knitting needles, descended upon me. That would be much more exciting than what actually transpired. I received over two hundred replies to my posts. About five of them were mildly hostile. That's five hostile posts out of over two hundred. The remaining posts were civil. In response to the very few posts questioning my intentions, people stepped up and said, paraphrase, "Don't give her a hard time. Welcome her."

The posts in the group of people who did not support Forbes' policy were, for the most part, grammatically correct, properly punctuated, contained few obscenities, and rarely veered into all caps "shouting."

I watched ten videos by women rejecting Forbes' new policy. These women were courteous, sane, and calm. Vone Kevitz is near tears in her video. She is nervous, but determined. She is Asian-American, and she identifies as someone who has escaped a communist country. She says that she supports Trump because she is pro-life. She says it breaks her heart, as an Asian American immigrant, to be identified as a white supremacist. She repeats, again and again, that Ravelry could have banned uncivil speech, or all political talk, rather than Trump voters.

Stephanie Knipper says that she is not a Trump supporter, but she knows that the first thing dictators do when they come to power is ban speech. "Tolerance is not measured by how you treat people who agree with you. Tolerance is measured by how you treat people who disagree with you," Knipper says.

A commenter under Knipper's video wrote, "I am black, conservative and voted for Trump. I am not alone. I grew up in a military family and I served in the Air Force. I love my country. I hate that they think EVERY black person thinks alike. So I guess I am a white supremacist. I am 61 years old and grew up with discrimination. Shame on Ravelry for outright shaming of those who do not think the same as them. I prefer no political talk at all. I just love fiber arts stuff … I closed my Ravelry account. Blessings."

My experience visiting those who support Forbes' new anti-Trump-voter policy was quite different. In their posts, I found incoherent rage and hate-mongering. An example of what disturbed me in the anti-Trump-voter camp: a "Fiber Craft Political Affiliation Public List," listing fiber arts suppliers, their ethnicity, religion, and whether or not they support Forbes' policy. The version of this spreadsheet that I saw also specified which venders were Jewish, black, "trans" and "queer." Identifying crafts venders' ethnicity, skin color, and sexual orientation chills me. The list is clearly meant to encourage consumers to boycott or support venders based on their religion, ethnicity, and personal vote. We're not talking about merchants or consumers who are feeding homeless children, cleaning up toxic waste sites or teaching literacy. These are people are trafficking in yarn. And they are imagining themselves as revolutionaries risking all to create a better tomorrow. They are erecting and inhabiting a fantasy world.

Obscenities abounded in anti-Trump-voter posts. "Eat a big bag of dicks," one post said. "I don't have to listen to your b------t, a-----e" said another. "You're looking weak as f---," and "I'll pluck your eyeballs out with my S hook." One post said, "You're not supposed to deepthroat the boot." This expression means that one must not provide fellatio to oppressors. Evidently Trump supporters are, metaphorically, holding their boots over the open mouths of anti-Trump-voter knitters. The phrase is over-the-top and repugnant. Those using it crave to be participants in some large historical struggle where any shred of decency is discarded. But they lack the courage to go out and find that battle, and are limiting their pyrotechnic displays of heroism to keyboard yarn commentary. Hate-mongering politics has saturated the most petty aspects of our lives.

"I Stand With Ravelry" was condemned as "ableist," that is, discriminatory against those who cannot stand up. It was replaced with "I Support Ravelry."

Pro-Forbes posts were not limited to hatred for Trump voters only. One pro-Forbes knitter posted, "When the cops passed in the pride parade, I stood there and flipped them off the entire time … The only people who approached me with negative remarks about how much 'hate I have in my heart' were white men." Evidently, police and white men are also enemies deserving of contempt.

This same anti-cop poster demonstrated another feature of anti-Trump-voter rhetoric. She shared a post from a pro-Trump knitter. "The Joy of Knitting" urged Ravelry knitters to pray. To pray to understand the situation, to pray for those with whom they disagreed, to pray for strength and courage. The anti-Trump-voter knitter posted this entire, entirely positive message and said that the real meaning of the message was "Aka My god hates brown babies and the gays. God bless Tennessee." Two follow-up posts in this thread said that the prayerful post made them want to vomit. Another said, "She sounds like a typical deluded extreme Christian to me. I find them uncomfortable anyway and would tend to steer my business elsewhere … she’s extra gross." Others called her a "twunt," a portmanteau word combining two insults for a woman.

These posters, who attacked a Christian for praying, typify a trend I found repeatedly in anti-Trump-voter internet posts. Anti-Trump-voter posters took posts I could see and read in their entirety, that were entirely positive, and insisted that they said things that they did not say. I saw many such posts in private internet environments so I can't quote them here, but I can paraphrase them.

First Knitter: I think we should try to see the best in everyone.

Second Knitter: Oh, so you are complicit in the murder of children on the border.

First Knitter: Excuse me? Children at the border? I thought we were talking about knitting. By the way, you keep saying you want everyone to feel "safe." How "safe" do you think Jews feel around praise for Jeremy Corbyn? How safe do Christians feel when you mock the crucifixion? How safe do Americans feel when you insist that 63 million voters are KKK? I'm not KKK. I'm a Christian and I love everyone.

Second Knitter: But you support the murder of gay people.

First Knitter: That's not true! I have gay friends. Can't we all just get along?

Second Knitter: You should be killed you hater.

First Knitter: You just called me a hater! You want me to be killed! Isn't that hate speech? Aren't you being hypocritical? You want to ban support for Trump as hate speech, but you are saying hateful things to me!

Second Knitter: Colonizer! Imperialist! Stay in your lane! The Oppressor is not allowed to lecture the Oppressed! You should be silent and listen to me.

First Knitter: I'm your oppressor? Since when? I'm a mostly homebound, sixty-year-old Kentucky widow whose husband died from black lung. I make ends meet and give my life a sense of meaning by selling, on Ravelry, yarn I make myself. I have used my profits to stock a local foodbank frequented by local poor folk, many of them black. You are sabotaging my business and making it harder for me to donate that food! And for what? You're a healthy, twenty-something hipster from Portland, living off a trust fund you inherited because your dad did classified work at the Pentagon. You knitted your own Bob Marley snood for your white-boy dreadlocks and now suddenly you think you are the liberator of the peoples. How are you oppressed?

Second Knitter: Peak Whiteness! White denial! White privilege! White fragility!

First Knitter: Do you realize that you are attributing negative qualities to me based on my skin color? Is that not the very epitome of racism?

Second Knitter: CHRISTO-FASCIST TWUNT I'M REPORTING AND BLOCKING YOU.

The above is not parody. It's my attempt at a faithful if anonymous recreation of actual discourse I encountered in some closed groups. You can taste some of this madness yourself in the posts linked here. Those in the pro-Forbes group are imagining into being a monster, the hated other, the Trump voter, or even just the person who didn't support Trump but is leaving Ravelry because they support free speech. This monster is so dangerous that one must curse, swear, and threaten to destroy the monster. Thus, the keyboard trench war.

Many of my Facebook friends are Trump supporters. In spite of my direct criticisms, I have not had to ban a single one. One of these friends is a member of a black church. My Trump supporting friends do not post white supremacist material. In fact they frequently post links to black conservative authors like Thomas Sowell, Jason Riley, and Walter E. Williams.

Further, in spite of my sharp criticisms, none of my Trump supporting Facebook friends has harassed me. In short, I just do not believe Casey Forbes or his supporters. I do not believe that pro-Trump knitters are such a menace to world peace that they need to be banned, outright, from the world's premier knitting community.

Jessica Forbes, self-dubbed "Mama Rav," Casey's wife and Ravelry's co-founder, grew up in Hunterdon County, one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, in a town that has a one percent African American population. Casey Forbes is from New Hampshire, a state that also has a one percent African American population. Ravelry's webpage indicates that Ravelry's staff are all white.

In a lengthy video interview with Fruity Knitting, Jessica Forbes, sitting next to a shelf stocked with Harry Potter books, described living in Boston and "trying to figure out what to do with my life." She was working as a study abroad advisor, work she enjoyed, ironically enough, because it exposed her to diverse cultures. She was considering grad school at Harvard, where she was taking "fun extension courses," when she and her husband Casey put Ravelry together.

The Forbeses openly acknowledge that Ravelry required donations from users to get off the ground. Without these donations, they say, they would have had to move back in with their parents. They were "living off donations from users." "I don't know how we would have ever made it to the self-sustaining company that we are today without all of the generous support from our users," Casey said. "A lot of people helped us build Ravelry along the way. We built a community culture. People were invested in it." Users helped them to upload patterns into their database. Professional librarians helped them organize. "It's an amazing community. Such a friendly place to hang out," Jessica said. I did encounter Trump supporters who donated both cash and labor to the Forbeses to make their dream a reality. Now, of course, the internet site that their donations and their content helped bring into being is closed to them. The revolution eats its young.

During the Fruity Knitting interview, Casey Forbes, in contrast to his wife Jessica, rarely makes eye contact with the camera. He keeps his arms so close to his chest that he appears to be cringing, and he often crosses his arms across his chest. When speaking, he often touches his throat, almost looking as if he is attempting to protect his voice. Some knitters told me that they had met Forbes at events and that he impressed them as being uncomfortable with human contact. Forbes, the Fruity Knitting interviewer commented, was "a little bit geeky." No surprise – he was a computer programmer, and it is he who coded the Ravelry website. Casey said that, "99% of the time I am living in my yarn world so I don't have a lot of contact with other business people or other tech people." He described how his computer programming work cut him off from the outside world. It is tough, he said, "Being in my house and missing the sun for a whole summer."

The impression one gets from this video is of two well-meaning young people who, in spite of Jessica's work as a study abroad advisor, may pay lip service to diversity, but who haven't experienced much diversity in real life, and who were totally freaked out by their encounters with people who think differently from they, who live in flyover country, or vote Republican, or worship Jesus.

I did try to contact them for this piece, but received no reply. On the off chance that they ever read this piece, I'd like to say the following to Jessica, Casey, and their supporters.

Jessica, Casey, community demands that you brush up against people you don't like. The solution is not to declare these people non-persons and disappear them to the Gulag. The solution is found in our ideal of civil society, in which "free citizens on an equal footing live under the rule of law." Rather than scapegoating Trump supporters, you could have applied a universal norm about speech, for example, "Don't insult people." A norm like that treats everyone equally.

Jessica and Casey, it looks like you've lived lily white lives. I could be wrong, but I think you and many whites on the left are trying to expiate the guilt you feel by smearing all Trump voters.

The words "community," "diversity," and "tolerance" mean a lot to you. What you're doing now does damage to those three words. Your community is not based on love for each other. It's based on hatred of your scapegoated, demonized outsider: The Trump Voter. These Trump voters, who contributed financially and spiritually to your project, are now your human sacrifice, made to suffer for the real or imagined sins of all. You're building a police state where you encourage members to inform on each other.

Exactly because real community demands that we brush up against people we don't like, real community offers us opportunities for spiritual growth that we can't find in purged enclaves we imagine to be pure. I thought Elizabeth was a snob who rejected me because of my social class. Saving her life, and receiving a gracious thank-you note from her afterward, changed me for the better. If you exclude anyone from your so-called community who is different from you, you can never be blessed by that experience, that teaches you that what unites us is more important than what divides us.

Jessica and Casey, your supporters insist that this isn't about free speech, because Ravelry is your "living room." No, it isn't, and you said so yourself. You acknowledge the money, time and effort that knitters contributed, making your site what it is. Technically, yes, you are the sole occupants of the iron throne, and you can push people around however you wish. That totalitarian stance, however, defies your own ethos of cooperation and sharing.

But there's more to it than that. Ravelry is a community that is essential to yarnies. Millions of yarnies connect there, and make their living there. When participants in a community are told that certain thoughts are crimes against the state, everything in that community changes. Do you really want that kind of change? Me? I'm a Christian. I live in a world where Christians are the most likely to be persecuted for their faith. I know I've not gotten jobs because of my faith. I go to Facebook and before breakfast I see two or three anti-Christian posts, and that doesn't even factor in the anti-Jewish material, that comes from the same type of person.

I do not agitate for suppression of anti-Christian speech. I do not demand that I be "protected" and "made to feel safe." I choose environments where free speech reigns. That's because free speech makes me feel safe. Jess, Casey, I've lived in countries where there is no freedom of speech. They are more violent and less safe than America. Free speech is foundational to a civil society. The lack of free speech is the sine qua non of an oppressive, and, eventually, always, violent society. Suppression increases pressure and pressurized speech always eventually explodes.

Civil society requires human bonds. Community requires interactions with those we don't like. How do we form bonds with those we don't like? This bonding requires adherence to norms performed in neutral spaces, neutral spaces that are not the voting booth, the used car lot, the contentious schoolboard meeting. People are mocking the silliness of your controversy. "Knitting! We're talking about a silly hobby!" These critics are both right and wrong.  

To explain why needlework is a key factor in this controversy about civil society, I want to invite you into one of my favorite memories. My mother was from Slovakia; my father was Polish. I grew up at a time when Polak jokes were popular. To make things worse, we did wear hand-me-downs, there was excessive use of both alcohol and fists, and my parents did work menial jobs: we seemed to be living proof of every stereotype.

But. Slovaks produce eye-popping embroidery. The colors, the technique, the variety, are all without equal. Women in tiny, primitive villages who spent most of their lives bent over a plot of dirt produced embroidery that bested any artform from any other tradition.

I think of my mom and me in her bedroom, a single lamp illuminating us both. She is painstakingly instructing me in intricate stitches. Her voice is patient, slow, and warm. I follow her every move. My sister is at the sewing machine, or maybe on the couch, knitting. Antoinette knocks out amazing hand-knit sweaters and outfits that make her look like the richest kid in school. 

Here's the kicker – my mother abused me. Badly. And you know what? That memory of her and me embroidering is untouched by the abuse. I don't feel terror or doom. I feel comfortable and lucky. I am seeing the best in my mother, and sharing something special and unique that the other kids at school can't match.

My high school buddy Otto would understand. Otto's dad was a Nazi – a Wehrmacht corporal who won two Iron Crosses for North Africa and the Eastern Front. Otto's dad abused him. I know the rage and disappointment Otto feels. But this otherwise bad father taught Otto ironwork. When Otto talks of his dad the ironworker, Otto's face and demeanor utterly change. He glows with admiration and pride.

Through embroidery, a "silly hobby," I saw a side of my mother I did not see anywhere else. I felt joy and peace, appreciation and gratitude, as I watched her fingers create beauty on fabric. No man wants to tell his son or daughter that they are the grandchildren of an abusive Nazi. But Otto can also tell his kids that their grandfather did impressive ironwork, and that he passed that skill on. No. I'm not saying we ignore the worst in Nazis, or white supremacists, or child abusers. But the fact is we live next door to, or we ourselves are, some version of human wickedness. Establish laws that punish bad behavior, and amplify the best in every human you meet. That is how you build civil society. We have to learn to see the best in each other, or else we never truly see ourselves, because we, too, are flawed. Neutral spaces, like the sewing room or the toolshed, are vital not just so we can have warm sweaters and andirons. They are vital because they offer us a space to see the best in each other, and with that best, we bond, and build civil society.

Ravelry once was that neutral space, where Christians and atheists, coastal Harvard grads and flyover housewives, could share the same appreciation of the same beautiful artistry. For it to be that place, where the magic of civil society is forged, there must be norms. The norm, "I get to insult Christians and white people but you can't criticize me, and anyone who thinks politically incorrect thoughts must be demonized and disappeared," is not a norm that builds community. It builds monstrosities: police states, gulags, hatred. Jessica and Casey, the metaphor is so obvious you might not see it. Knitting takes short, weak, individual fibers, and, using time-tested technique handed down by our ancestors to combine these fibers, creates art and craft that is beautiful, strong, and greater than any one of its constituent parts.


This piece first appeared on Front Page here


Monday, June 24, 2019

Mortality and Faith by David Horowitz. Book Review




Mortality and Faith
An American Icon Wrestles with Life's Big Questions

David Horowitz's 2019 Regnery Press book, Mortality and Faith: Reflections on a Journey through Time, is a big, chewy chomp into life's big, hard questions. Why are you here? What is "here" anyway? What happens after we die? How does death affect life? How does one find love, and what impact does love have on life? How do we survive the loss of those we love – those we lose to changing life circumstance, and those we lose to death? What role do fate, human will, or mere chance play in our lives? How to juggle being a member of the species that can land on the moon, while inhabiting a human body that can be reduced to helplessness when a blade, wielded by a surgeon in efforts to heal, cuts just one micrometer too far? And what about the whole God thing? And, related, but not identical, the whole religion thing? What have the great thinkers said about these questions?

Mortality and Faith is a series of vignettes. The reader travels through Proust's thoughts about love – Proust was "often attracted to people who had something in them of a hawthorn hedge in bloom." The reader moves on to Horowitz kvelling about his kids, to graphic, cringe-inducing details of prostate surgery, to even more cringe-inducing portraits of human cruelty to the most defenseless among us, animals and children. What do these diverse topics have in common? More on that below. Each vignette is recounted in Horowitz's cool, clear, precise prose. Horowitz is an intelligent author who writes with the assumption that his reader is as intelligent and deep as he. This book offers no promises that life's big questions can be reduced to cozy nostrums; no ten-step program to enlightenment, no secret Biblical verse that guarantees prosperity, no happy, Hollywood ending.

There are several audiences to whom I would like to assign this book. We tend not to talk about death as frequently as our recent ancestors, for whom the deaths of children and spouses were all too frequent and occurred at home and in full view. It astounds me when I meet people who have lived for decades without mourning a death. Horowitz marches right up to the Grim Reaper and stares deeply into its cold eyes. "Year by year, the skin parches, the sinews slacken, and the bones go brittle, until one day the process stops, and we are gone."

Sharing Horowitz's encounters inevitably prompts the reader to reflect on the deaths of her own loved ones, and her own inevitable sell-by date. I've lost two siblings in the past four years and four siblings in all. There is scant space in our culture for what those losses did to me. America is so focused on the future, on success, on happiness or at least consumer satisfaction. Reading this book caused me to cry, several times, and had I not read the book, I would have had no place else to shed those tears.

I would also like to assign Mortality and Faith both to hardcore liberals and conservatives who resist communicating with their ideological opposites. David Horowitz is a favorite boogeyman of the left. The Southern Poverty Law Center devotes almost four thousand words to a main page maligning him; in August, 2018, Visa and Mastercard temporarily blocked donations to the David Horowitz Freedom Center. In 2019, Twitter temporarily suspended him. "Horowitz has no friends left," Tablet magazine declared in 2012. Horowitz wrote in his 1996 book Radical Son that he was "the most hated ex-radical of my generation." In this book, Horowitz writes, "An army of haters is eager to distort my words and my life and do me damage whenever and wherever they can." His wife fears that someone may attempt to assassinate him. In my days as a leftist in Berkeley, Horowitz was spoken of in the grave tones that pre-pubescent wizards usually reserve for discussions of Voldemort. If George Bush was in the first circle of Hell, Horowitz, as an apostate, was way down below Ronald Reagan himself.

I don't know if Horowitz would appreciate my saying this or not, but Mortality and Faith is not a right-wing book. It's not a left-wing book. It's a highly human, vulnerable, searching book. How many men would be willing to describe in detail cancer and medical interventions that strike at a man's ability to get an erection, or to be continent? There are more things that unite us than separate us. Members of all political camps have families, fall in love, suffer setbacks, and confront mortality. "None of us are outsiders," Horowitz insists. "We are all headed in the same direction." Strangely enough, in a 2017 New York Times article, author Daniel Oppenheimer said, "We're all David Horowitz now." Alas, Oppenheimer did not mean this in a complementary or philosophical way. "We're all amateur political pundits, and we're all less willing to compromise," Oppenheimer concluded. I don't know about that, but I like the beginning of the quote, and it works for Mortality and Faith. Death serves the admirable end of reminding us that, in spite of our differences, we, like Ozymandias, all face the same ultimate fate. A right-winger, left-winger, or middle-of-the-roader could be moved by Mortality and Faith.

"It's all a waste," Tablet quotes David Horowitz as saying in 2012. Indeed, Horowitz opens his book with perhaps the darkest quote from Franz Kafka, one of world literature's least cheery authors, whose main characters turn into cockroaches and, though innocent, face endless trials. "The meaning of life is that it stops," Kafka wrote. The very next quote in Mortality and Faith is from Ecclesiastes, one of history's biggest buzzkills. Horowitz doesn't go with the famous, "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity … and a striving after wind." Rather he quotes, "It is better to go to the house of mourning than of feasting, for that is the end of all." You may not find yourself singing the 1977 Kansas hit "Dust in the Wind" while reading this book, but I sure did.

Chapter one of Mortality and Faith begins with Phil Horowitz, David Horowitz's father. One of the strongest emotions I felt while reading this book was sadness for this father-son relationship. Horowitz fils depicts Horowitz pere as trapped in the wishful illusions and false utopian promises of communism. It's as if an impenetrable yet transparent wall separates father and son. The son can witness his father, lost in toxic dreams, but the son can never rescue him. Any child of a parent who invested in self-defeating patterns, for example drug addiction, might relate. The urge to smash through the impenetrable wall and rescue the parent is palpable, but of course Phil did not believe that he required rescue. Rather, he thought he was the one who would bring Messiah-like rescue to others. "All our days together I wrestled with my father's discontent and tried as best I could to overcome it." That victory would never be enjoyed by David. His father "clung to defeats like an infant to its mother's breast." Phil's death offered David no deliverance. "On crystal days" that might allow a sense of joyful abandon, "the face I had both loved and feared [would] approach on the ether of memory … an impulse to please would swell like an ocean wave inside me, and I would look out on the roll of dolphins and pelicans, and welcome my lost father to a luxury neither of us could ever have imagined would be ours." But even in imagination, Phil could not be redeemed. Even in spirit, Horowitz can "map the frown" of his father's rejection. "There was never a chance he would accept my gift or enjoy its pleasures … In my father's house there were no mansions." Here Horowitz alludes to Jesus' promise to his followers that they will receive a reward in Heaven. This is one of many instances where messianic communism and other earthbound ideologies are juxtaposed with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Horowitz travels from communing with his deceased parents' via their possibly imagined spirits to communing with prominent thinkers, including Fyodor Dostoyevsky, twentieth-century Chicago author and Nobel Prize-winner Saul Bellow, and the seventeenth-century French Catholic mathematician, physicist and inventor Blaise Pascal. I stopped frequently while reading Mortality and Faith to place orders for books mentioned therein, including Martin Amis's Koba the Dread, about Stalin.

Luminaries like Pascal – and he was hardly alone in this – were equally prominent as scientists and as believers, thus making a mockery of New Atheist dogma that science and Christian faith are mutually exclusive. Indeed, Horowitz points out that "the architects of the scientific enlightenment – Copernicus, Pascal, and Newton – were all religious believers. It was precisely their faith in a supernatural design that inspired them to search for an order in the cosmos." Pascal was brilliant, devout, and also wracked by horrible pain. "Do not pity me," his sister, after his death, quoted him as saying. "I know the perils of health and the advantages of sickness. Sickness is the natural state of Christians, because then one is as one ought to be, always under the privation of the pleasures of the senses, exempt from all the passions, without ambition, without avarice, in constant expectation of death … you have nothing else to do but to submit humbly and peacefully." One wonders, if Pascal really said this, if he was just trying to see the best in his difficult fate. Or maybe his sister was on to something. Pascal was lucky enough to be born into a family that rubbed shoulders with the likes of Cardinal Richelieu, one of the most powerful men in French history. And Pascal came to devote his life to the poor. Something – perhaps his own suffering – engendered in him a self-denying empathy. He died when he was just 39 years old. One guess is that he had stomach cancer that metastasized to his brain.

Pascal contributed to mathematics, the driest of the sciences, but he was also a mystic, who experienced a vision of God. He wrote in defense of the scientific method, preceding Karl Popper's "falsifiability" criterion by three hundred years, and he also wrote the Pensées, a defense of Christian faith. Historian Will Durant called the Pensées "the most eloquent book in French prose." Pascal was no mere theorist of the good. "I am resolved to have no other employment all my life than service of the poor," he said. He took in a poor family, who, alas, brought smallpox into his house. Though he was gravely ill himself, he told the family to stay and he tried to move out of his own home, to protect them.

Jane Muir, author of Of Men and Numbers: The Story of the Great Mathematicians, makes an astounding comment about Pascal. "If he had devoted more time than the few years that he did to mathematics and less to religion, he might stand out today among the truly great. He was well on his way to inventing the infinitesimal calculus and he probably would have if he had not had 'his eyes obscured by some evil sight' as Leibnitz later said." One sometimes encounters, among science writers, this kind of dismissive blindness to the value of Christian charity work and to exploration of humanity's spiritual horizons.

Horowitz recognizes Pascal as "one of the great poets of the human soul." Pascal gave the world "Pascal's wager," a cool calculation that encourages humans to believe in God; they lose nothing by doing so, and gain much. But he also gave the world "Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point." "The heart has its reasons which reason does not know." In other words, even so impressive a mathematician as Pascal cannot run the numbers with enough skill to compel any given agnostic, including David Horowitz, to faith in the God Pascal encountered, and whom he described as "Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars."

When Horowitz was facing daunting surgery, thirty congregants of St. John Vianney Catholic church prayed for him. After Horowitz came out of the surgery well, he wrote that he wouldn't like to think that their prayers were responsible for his good fortune. There was a young woman at the hospital who "didn't come in from the parking lot where her husband might be waiting for her." Rather, she arrived in a wheelchair pushed by her mother, from the interior of the hospital. "Her eyes had already traveled to a distant space … I could not help thinking, each time I saw her, of the many lives I had been privileged to live in my span, and those she would not." The question Horowitz raises is, if God does answer prayer, why does God answer some prayer and not others.

If Horowitz had asked me, I would have suggested to him that he and his prayer warriors pray for that girl, and let her know that they are doing so. True, such prayer would guarantee no earthly outcome. Nevertheless, we are advised to pray, and to pray together. Even Jesus, facing a horrific fate he knew he would not escape, asked his companions to pray with him in Gethsemane. One message here is that we must pray even when all is lost, and that we don't always know prayer's ultimate benefit.

"Love death." Horowitz reports that 9-11 ringleader Mohammad Atta copied this instruction from Sayyid Qutb, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, into his own journal. Formulations like "love death" were there at Islam's founding. Mohammed's friend Khalid ibn al-Walid was known as "The Friend of Death." Khalid used to threaten non-Muslims, "I bring the men who desire death as ardently as you desire life." Sounds morbid, no? But are these rhetorical flourishes any more morbid than Pascal's praise of sickness? Qutb's "love death" was used to inspire men to murder. Pascal's appreciation of the uses of adversity inspired him to take in a homeless family.

Horowitz differentiates between Christianity, whose founder acknowledged that his kingdom was not of this world, and who adjured his followers to "render unto Cesar what is Cesar's" and Islam. Qutb said that Islam would "unite heaven and earth in a single system." "This is the totalitarian idea," Horowitz says.

Then there is the atheist totalitarian ideal, Marxism. "Human beings could achieve their liberation by worshipping themselves instead of gods. This was a flattery so great that it changed the world, leaving boundless carnage in its wake," Horowitz writes. In both the case of Islam and Marxism, an enemy must be identified, and the elimination of members of that enemy class is assessed as a moral good, since the enemy is understood as the expendable barrier between mankind and Utopia. Horowitz quotes Marx, "The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness." Note the use of the passive voice: "is required." The passive here makes it sound as if some disembodied arbiter of truth lays down the requirement that religion be abolished. But of course it is Marxists themselves who require this.

Compare Marx's anti-religion mandate to Mohammed's divine commission: "I have been ordered (by Allah) to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah's Apostle." In Marxism, religion must be abolished. In Islam, religion must be established. Neither the Marxist nor the Islamic mandate cares about the person being forced to abandon or accept religion. His or her identity and personal choice are erased as unimportant, or are rendered criminal.

"The effort to redeem the future begins by making identity a crime," Horowitz observes. By this he means that totalitarian systems make selected identities criminal. If you are a property owner, or an infidel, or a heterosexual white American male, you must be reeducated or erased. But identity itself becomes a crime in the totalitarian worldview. That you dare be unique, that you dare have preferences and tastes and unique reactions to stimuli, that you wanted pistachio rather than vanilla or chocolate, that you wanted a red coat rather than a navy blue one, chokes the machinery, the bulldozer paving the way to Utopia.

I invite Horowitz to compare this attitude to Jesus, who said, "I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me." Marx and Allah impose themselves on interchangeable cogs. Jesus, God made flesh, the God who knocks (take that Walter White), the God who cherishes human individuality and human choice making, humbly waits for permission to enter, permission granted by an individual whose individuality and choice matter. Marx and Allah demand submission of entities whose only salient feature is their submission. Jesus says, "Let's grab a bite and hang out." We know how Marxists would respond to this attitude. Horowitz quotes Trotsky, "We must rid ourselves once and for all of the Quaker-Papist babble about the sanctity of life." Himmler, whom Horowitz does not quote, said something similar, "We must settle accounts with this Christianity, this greatest of plagues that could have happened to us in our history, which has weakened us in every conflict … We shall once again have to find a new scale of values for our people."

Of course Horowitz invokes the twentieth century's other totalitarian monster, Nazism. "Most of my family lineages end in 1939, the year I was born … the communities of Eastern Europe, of Moravia and Ukraine from which my ancestors came, ended up in the gas chambers and are now erased." "The more beautiful the dream, the more necessary and more total the crime," Horowitz writes.

Again, I advise Horowitz to consider the contrast between this need for purifying massacres with Jesus' words. In the parable of the wheat and the tares, Jesus quotes a farmer in whose wheat field some enemy has sown tares, or darnel, wheat's intoxicating, deadly poisonous "evil twin." The farmer's servants offer to uproot the tares. The farmer says, no, let the tares grow alongside the wheat. At harvest time, we will separate them. The message here is not "kill them all and let God sort them out." It is, "Let them all live, and God will sort them out at harvesttime," that is, upon death. Christians have interpreted this parable as instructing Christians not to massacre others just over disagreements.

But, but, the reader may protest. Certainly Christians, no less than Marxists, Jihadis, and Nazis, have participated in massacres. Indeed, yes, Christians have. And Christians have done so contrary to their own scripture. Other Christians have condemned them for that behavior, and have worked to correct it. These may seem like fine points to some, but consider Horowitz's objection to author and rabbi Joseph Telushkin's statement that evil springs from the refusal to recognize "the image of God in each human being." Horowitz dismisses the rabbi's words as a "saccharine bromide" and "folly." Horowitz cites Mohammed Atta and Satan. Wasn't Satan created in the image of God, Horowitz asks? (The Bible does not say so.) Horowitz also asks, didn't Mohammed Atta see other human beings as created in the image of God? The insistence that one loving, omnipotent creator God created man in his own image is a Jewish idea, inherited by Christians. It is not shared by the world's other religions, including Islam. Allah is unknowable. To say that man is created in Allah's image is blasphemous.

In Islam, infidel Christians and Jews are the "worst of created beings," Koran 98:6. Many Koran verses insist that Christians and Jews are not fit to be friends of Muslims. Hostility even to the basic humanity of non-Muslims is commanded repeatedly in the Koran and in hadith. Dr. Bill Warner points out that the language of Islam in dualistic. The Koran never speaks of humanity as a whole, but as a dyad, with good Muslims on one side, and low, disgusting infidels on the other. The Koran is remarkable among world scriptures for the amount of space it devotes to demonizing non-Muslims. Non-Muslims are "najis," ritually unclean, in the same category as corpses, feces, urine, dogs and pigs. So, no, Mohammed Atta was not raised with the idea that all men are created in God's image.

"If there is no God to rescue us, we are nothing," Horowitz, the agnostic, asserts. And so he moves on to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the author who is credited with saying, "If God does not exist, everything is permitted." Dostoyevsky's work presaged the obsessions of twentieth century totalitarians. In Crime and Punishment Dostoyevsky describes a "radical vanguard" who "'seek in various ways the destruction of the present for the sake of the better.' The quest for salvation breeds a self-righteousness that encourages radicals to commit crimes that are monstrous." Here Horowitz implies that Christian theology combined with humility would have served as a corrective. "A God who becomes human and suffers in the flesh to redeem human sins is one thing; ordinary human beings acting as gods to purge others of their sins is quite another." If Jesus already has the salvation role cornered, his followers don't have to aspire to "save the world" through purges.

On the other hand, a Catholic who forgot that message is the villain in Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor passage from The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoyevsky sprang from a family of mixed ethnicities and religions. He had Tatars, Orthodox Christians, and Polish Roman Catholics in his family tree. But Dostoyevsky consistently singled out Poles, Catholics, and Jews, for disdain. Dostoyevsky blamed Catholics for inventing atheism. Ironically, Dostoyevsky blamed popes for seizing territory. Ironic because Orthodox Russians participated in the late eighteenth-century territory grab that wiped Catholic Poland off the map. Poland was more westernized and had a stronger tradition of democracy than Russia. Poles engaged in armed uprisings against Russia during Dostoyevsky's lifetime, uprisings that were suppressed by Russian thugs with nicknames like "The Hangman." Horowitz is able to appreciate Dostoyevsky in spite of his anti-Semitism. That's admirable. Me, I cannot see Dostoyevsky's anti-Catholic writing as a worthy spiritual critique. I see it only as propaganda for Russian imperialism in my ancestral homeland, one my family left, my father told me, "Because the czars burned our books."

In any case, Horowitz admires "The Grand Inquisitor" passage from Dostoyevsky's 1879 novel, The Brothers Karamazov, finding in it insights into human nature and the appeal of the totalitarian. The anti-Christ villain of the piece, The Grand Inquisitor,  puts Jesus Christ himself on trial. "In giving human beings freedom," Horowitz explains, "God is the true source of their unhappiness, for 'nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom.'" The God who allows his creations to reject him torments those creations with free will. "By refusing to enter history and compel belief, God has condemned His children to live alone and lost, not knowing why they are here or where they are going, or whether what they do or who they are has any significance at all." Humans are willing to say to those who would oppress them, "'Make us your slaves, but feed us.'" Humans want not only food, but certainty. "'we shall have an answer for all … it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure in making a free decision for themselves.'"

"You lead a charmed life," Phil Horowitz once said to his son David. David was at first taken aback by the comment, but he later assessed it more positively. In his assessment, he mostly attributed the charm of his life to his own attitude. He "embraces the good and buries the bad." I say it's more than that. Horowitz lost a great deal after his break with his leftist past. Yes, his own attitude helped. But luck or fate or maybe God played a huge role. He met a woman whom he could love, and who could love him right back. His children have achieved fantastic successes. All of this is described in the autobiographical and family vignettes that are interspersed with Horowitz's encounters with the great minds and their musings. The theme of other vignettes: the problem of evil, as embodied in fictional and true accounts of child and animal abuse.

Above I asked what these diverse vignettes have in common. Horowitz walks and talks with great minds about issues that vex any thinking person. He remains an agnostic. He's not sure there is a God, or an ultimate purpose to life. But he knows he loves his kids and grandkids, and wants a better world for them. He knows he's a very lucky guy to be married to his wife.

In reading the more personal passages, this reader was reminded of an observation frequently made about Jewish spirituality. When we think of Jews' relationship to God, we might think first of pork. We know devout Jews don't eat it. Food and the body: a Jewish focus. We think of a Jewish woman blessing the Sabbath candles, in her home, with her family. Home and family: another Jewish focus. "You're not Jewish till your grandchildren are Jewish," goes the old saying. Another saying, "'Two Jews, three opinions.' So believe what you want, because ultimately Judaism doesn't care what you believe, but rather what you do," wrote American Rabbi Baruch HaLevi. Judaism emphasizes mitzvot, singular mitzvah. Observant Jews follow the commandments; more secular Jews feel compelled to do "good deeds."

In his and his wife's generous aid to abused animals, including dogs and horses, in his commitment to and love of his children, grandchildren, and family members, no matter what spot they occupy on the political spectrum, in his engagement with the deep thinkers of the past and with the day-to-day concerns of this here-and-now world, and in his unfailing doing of good deeds, with no retirement from that in sight, Horowitz's life demonstrates the influence of some of the best aspects of traditional Jewish spirituality.