Another Friday, another gallimaufry post. This one is going to be even more all over the map than the last one since I read a more diverse group of interesting stories and essays in the last few days that all deserve some mention.
First, it was good to see the Turkish Foreign Ministry speak out against the Bulgaria bombing yesterday, using the phrase “crime against humanity” and strongly condemning the terrorist attack. Turkey has often gone out of its way to note when Palestinian civilians are killed and drawn charges of displaying a double standard when Israelis are killed, and this strongly worded statement is a positive step in blunting that criticism. Matan Lurey had pointed out that Turkey was initially quiet and argued that a statement from Turkey would be important in demonstrating that Israeli-Turkish relations were not at the point of being unsalvageable, so I’m glad that Turkey came through in a forthrightly unambiguous way.
Moving from condemnation of one kind to condemnation of another, Tablet published an essay this week by Anna Breslaw in which she tried to write cogently about the television show Breaking Bad by expressing her disgust for Holocaust survivors. For a representative sample of how Breslaw thinks, try this:
I had the gut instinct that these [Holocaust survivors] were villains masquerading as victims who, solely by virtue of surviving (very likely by any means necessary), felt that they had earned the right to be heroes, their basic, animal self-interest dressed up with glorified phrases like “triumph of the human spirit.”
I wondered if anyone had alerted Hitler that in the event that the final solution didn’t pan out, only the handful of Jews who actually fulfilled the stereotype of the Judenscheisse (because every group has a few) would remain to carry on the Jewish race—conniving, indestructible, taking and taking.
After the altogether justified uproar that Tablet, a Jewish outlet, would publish such anti-Semitic drivel, editor-in-chief Alana Newhouse issued a clarification that was certainly not an apology or even arguably an acknowledgement that the essay was inappropriate on many levels, beginning with the blatant anti-Jewish bigotry and ending with the fact that concentration camp survivors were used as an analogy for a fictional drug dealing murderer. Readers who know me outside of this blog (or who have engaged with me on Twitter) will be aware that I am a free speech absolutist and that I believe in every situation that the answer to objectionable speech is more speech. If you don’t like an argument that someone has made, the proper response is not to censor them or shout them down but to counter with a better and more convincing argument. Breslaw is entitled to her own warped and disturbing opinions and she should be allowed to air them in any venue that is willing to print them. The question I have is whether Tablet, an outlet that describes itself as one for “Jewish news, ideas, and culture” should be that venue. There is a Jewish tendency to push the bounds of discourse – after all, the site that is the best known clearinghouse for hateful screeds against both Jews and Israel is run by Philip Weiss – and that is one of the reasons that Judaism is such an intellectually vibrant tradition, but I don’t quite think it is Tablet’s role to be publicizing frivolous attacks on Holocaust survivors that assail them for the crime of not dying in a gas chamber at the hands of Nazis. If Tablet disagrees and thinks that this is precisely the role that Tablet should be playing, it should come out and say so clearly and forthrightly.
While Tablet provided a terrible example of how to use a personal narrative to make a larger point, my friend Steven Cook provided a great one with his reflections on the recently departed Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Steven writes about the meetings he had over the years with Suleiman, and points out that the spymaster was so blinded by his own conceit that he himself was responsible for Egypt’s stability and could control events that he never saw the revolution coming or conceived of the possibility that the Tahrir uprising would lead to Mubarak’s ouster. The regime’s thinking, as personified by Suleiman, was way behind the thinking of Egyptians in the streets and even of foreign governments, who saw the writing on the wall before Mubarak actually stepped down, and it had real consequences as it drove the Egyptian government’s actions. This is a useful reminder that in many cases we have no real idea what authoritarian leaders are thinking or how they perceive various actions, and the net result is that while actors may intend to convey a certain message, the intended target’s takeaway might be something completely different. We assume that encircling Iran, both literally with warships and figuratively with sanctions, will convey Western seriousness about dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, but Tehran might very well be hearing the message that because no military strike has happened yet that this is all a bluff. Similarly, just because the world is warning Bashar al-Assad about the dire consequences of using chemical weapons does not forestall their use, since Assad might assume that the chances of him hanging on now are remote and that deploying chemical weapons is the best remaining path to staying in power. Just because we assume that cues are universal and will lead to what we view to be rational behavior does not mean that rationality is a fixed variable (paging Kenneth Waltz).
Finally, and on a lighter note, one of my absolute obsessions is space. If I had to choose between catching a Red Sox game at Fenway or spending the day at the Hayden Planetarium, it would be a genuinely tough decision. One of my two or three biggest regrets in life is that I was never good enough at math or science to be an astrophysicist (one of my two A+ grades in college was Astronomy, and that was relatively elementary stuff but the math still killed me), and I am constantly on the hunt for things to read or watch about the latest discoveries in astrophysics that are accessible to a non-expert audience (NOVA on PBS is a great example). If I could meet any one person, it would hands down be Neil DeGrasse Tyson. So I was intrigued when I read this week that space does not smell like what I had imagined. I always envisioned space to be the ultimate example of fresh air – cool, crisp, the way it smells on a clear night in northern New Hampshire. Turns out that space smells like a scrap metal yard or a welding plant. Kind of makes sense when you think about all of the massive dust clouds and stars burning up at unimaginable heat, but who knew?