Sunday, December 16, 2012

On Friendship's Unheralded Benefits

Personal Society

The worst solitude is to be destitute of sincere friendship.
Francis Bacon, British philosopher, scientist & statesman

Nobody sees a flower—really— it is so small it takes time—we haven't time— and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.
Georgia O'Keefe, American artist

Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another,
"What! You too? I thought I was the only one."
C.S. Lewis, British author, academic & Christian apologist

Friendship is a gift. And if you have a friend, or two, you are fortunate. A friend is someone with whom you can share your most intimate thoughts as well as your most distressing fears and your highest joys. A friend will do what he can to make your life better. In the highest case, a friend gives of himself in a selfless way, to do good, a thought that Aristotle developed in the virtue of  Philia, or Friendship
Genuine friendship must be based on goodness; what rests on pleasantness (as with the young), or on utility (as with the old), is only to be recognized conventionally as friendship. In perfection it cannot subsist without perfect mutual knowledge, and only between the good; hence it is not possible for anyone to have many real friends
Such thoughts might sound as mere idealism to some, but we need ideals to reach upward, to counter the forces of pragmatism that pull us down. Everyone yearns for true friends, even the wealthy, powerful and popular. Popularity and fame is not the same thing as friendship. Such makes friendship and having a friend or two rare.

This might come as a surprise to people who claim hundreds if not thousands of friends on social-networking sites. Can you really be friends with hundreds, thousands of people? Unlikely. Most are what we called acquaintances, companions, or business associates in my day. You are connected. You are sharing. You are commenting.

All of these are might be necessary in some form in friendship. But there's more. You share common interests, but it has not gone beyond the first tentative stages. Friendship takes work, and much more. It's not easy to make friends, despite the technology to connect people. And wishing for a friend will not necessarily bring you one. As Aristotle once said: "Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow-ripening fruit." 

Assuredly so. Friendship requires nurturing, and a listening ear, quiet time alone, the opposite of what takes place on social-networking sites. Networking has its decided benefits, to impart and share information. But it is of a different order, which alone does not make friendship. Friendship requires proximity, nearness, intimacy.

The Four Loves: C.S. Lewis: "Again, that which values the collective above the individual disparages Friendship; it is relations between men at their highest level of individuality. It withdraws men from collective 'togetherness' as surely as solitude itself could do; and more dangerously, for it withdraws them by two's and three's. Some forms of democratic sentiment are naturally hostile to it because it is selective and an affront to the few" (94).

Of the four loves, friendship is the least recognized. For others, it is of no consequence, possibly because as C.S. Lewis says, "few experience it." Yet, its virtues are undeniably real to the people who do experience it. Friendship is not the same as companionship, the getting together of two or more friends, explains C.S. Lewis, well-known British author and academic, in The Four Loves
Friendship arises out of mere companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, "What? You too? I thought I was the only one." (100)
Such explains why friendship takes much more to develop than sharing words and thoughts over the Internet or any other electronic medium. In many ways, friendship is like a marriage, a marriage of two or more persons with common interests. Friendship is sharing and caring for each other and the being there for the good and the bad: goals, desires, hurts and failures.

It involves laughing and crying, anger and tears, pulling in and pushing away. But there is always forgiveness and a gentle reminder that what brought you together is more important than what divides you.

Yes, friendship involves the whole range of human emotions. In friendship, as in marriage, you place yourself in your friend's hands, as you do a delicate flower. You have the freedom to be your self, which is a freedom denied to many. It is said that women are better than men at making friends. That might be so, for reasons that get to the heart of friendship.

There is a vulnerability, which makes friendship a difficult endeavor for many. The benefits, however, are innumerable. I have been fortunate to have a few good friends during my lifetime, to share both sorrow and joy. I have been richer for it. Today I am equally happy to report that I have a good friend, with whom I can be myself, in good times and in bad. You probably guessed it by now. My best friend is my wife.

What about you? Who is your best friend?

A version of this post was published on Perry J. Greenbaum.

Five Stories Of The Week:Ending December 15, 2012

News & Commentary

Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

U.S.and Russia Spar Over Human Rights: An article in Reuters shows that relations between Russia and the United States are as normal as they have always been.
Russia's foreign minister urged parliament on Sunday to agree a tough response to a U.S. law punishing Russian human rights violators, increasing the risk of a chill in relations with Washington. Moscow announced restrictions on meat imports from the United States on Friday although it denied suggestions it had done so in response to the U.S. Senate's passage a day earlier of the so-called Magnitsky Act.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the parliament should now respond and Alexei Pushkov, a senior parliamentary deputy from President Vladimir Putin's party, said the State Duma lower house would discuss retaliatory measures this week. "As this is an attempt to interfere in our internal affairs, I would be very interested in a reaction by the state Duma that would be collective, on a multi-party basis and representing all party groups," Lavrov said in televised remarks.
Puskhov, who heads the chamber's foreign affairs committee, said a majority of lawmakers wanted a tough response, calling for visa restrictions on U.S. citizens who have violated human rights. He did not say who this might include or what rights violations they were accused of making. "The Americans have reminded us about the way Russia is viewed on Capitol Hill," Yuri Ushakov, a foreign policy adviser to Putin, was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency. "Stereotypes about our country persist and no one can get rid of them. So the Americans have made an extremely unfriendly move against us."
Russia's views of government and democracy have long been different than those of America, and it is hardly a case of stereotypes if actions reveal otherwise. If Washington now views Russia's human-rights record as poor, Russia has itself to blame. Yuri Ushakov said a truth when he said "No one can get rid of them." Russia remains committed to the past, now more than ever. It is up to its leaders to show that it has changed, including embracing democracy and all of its institutions with firm conviction. This, however, is unlikely to occur under the administration of President Putin.

Should Doctors Alone Decide On Human End-Of-Life?: The Question on whether doctors alone ought to decide the level of care an individual receives, notably in cases that are both costly and offer little hope of recovery, is what seven Supreme Court of Canada justices must now decide. At the heart of it all is deciding the rules and regulations for end-of-life decisions for patients that physicians deem as hopeless. An article in CBC News reports:
The case is about Hassan Rasouli, who has been on a ventilator and feeding tube for the past two years at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, after bacterial meningitis destroyed parts of his brain following surgery for a brain tumour. Rasouli, at first in a coma, was deemed to be in a persistent vegetative state, but that diagnosis was changed to one of "minimal consciousness" after he seemed to wake up and could occasionally give a thumbs-up sign, or grasp a ball.
Nevertheless, Rasouli's doctors at Sunnybrook didn't change their minds that he should be taken off hydration and feeding systems and moved into palliative care. Rasouli's family sought an injunction to prevent removal of the tubes, and then argued successfully at two lower court levels that the doctors did not have to right to halt use of the life-preserving equipment. The doctors appealed those decisions to the highest court.
Outside the court in Ottawa Monday, Rasouli's daughter Mozhgan said, "My father represents the value of life … I know that he wants to be alive." She continued, "It is unfair, it is unfair — he should be treated like anyone else."
When modern medical technology can help better the lives of individual, as countless medical advances have done over the years, society lauds and applauds its efforts. And rightly so. When the technology, however, is used to prolong life but one where the individual is kept alive artificially, the medical profession considers it both futile and a poor use of resources: To wit: money.

This rubs against religious and societal ethics that says life is sacred and worth prolonging "at all costs"; and the argument is made that a miracle might happen, and the individual might recover. It's possible. Again, there are valid arguments on both sides to which people agree,which reveals much. How one views such human of cases says much about how one views many such things human. The Supreme Court justices will need the wisdom of Solomon to arrive at their decision. Its ramifications will be felt across Canada for generations.

North Korea Launches Rocket; Puts Satellite Into Orbit: The North Korean regime went ahead with its announced rocket launch, says a report in the New York Times, and in doing so defying the international community. Choe Sang-Hun and David E.Sanger of the Times write:
The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or Norad, said it had detected the launching and tracked the missile — a Galaxy-3 rocket, called the Unha-3 by the North — as its first stage appeared to fall into the Yellow Sea and the second stage into the Philippine Sea.
“Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit,” Norad said. “At no time was the missile or the resultant debris a threat to North America.”
But the timing of the launching appeared to take American officials by surprise. Just an hour or two before blastoff from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri on North Korea’s western coast, near China, American officials at a holiday reception at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Washington said they thought the North Koreans had run into technical problems that could take them weeks to resolve.
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said the rocket succeeded in the ostensible goal of putting an earth-observation satellite named Kwangmyongsong-3, or Shining Star-3, into orbit, and celebrations by members of the North Korean media were reported.
Although the launching was driven in part by domestic considerations, analysts said it carried far-reaching foreign relations implications, coming as leaders in Washington and Beijing — as well as those soon to be chosen in Tokyo and Seoul — try to form a new way of coping with North Korea after two decades of largely fruitless attempts to end its nuclear and missile ambitions. 
The launch was an important test and victory of sorts for Kim Jong-un, North Korea's young leader, who has now achieved some credibility with his military and has also shown the international community that North Korea's plans to build an intercontinental ballistic missile are real. Then there's the symbolism; the successful launch came five days before the one-year anniversary of the death of Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il. Its significance cannot be denied.

But more important, the missile launch and advancing warfare technology will do little to feed the millions of North Koreans who are impoverished and starving.

Preventing Syria's Use Of Chemical Weapons; An article in the Christian Science Monitor gives a reasonable response for making it difficult for Syria to deploy chemical weapons during its civil war. Daryl G. Kimball and Paul F. Walker write:

In the end, the fate of Syria’s deadly arsenal may depend on the decisions of a few key Syrian officers and soldiers on the ground. Consequently, one of the most important steps that can be taken is for regional leaders to issue coordinated statements that reinforce Mr. Obama’s message to Assad, as well as to military personnel now directly in charge of the chemical stockpiles, that individuals will be held accountable if the weapons are used or pilfered.
Assad’s allies in Russia, as well as in Iran – which itself suffered from chemical warfare during the 1980-1988 conflict with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – can help reinforce this message by threatening to withdraw all forms of support if Assad orders the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian opposition.
The Syrian rebel command and its emerging political leadership must also make it clear that individuals who maintain security of the weapons will be given favorable consideration in the post-Assad future. And the opposition must commit to secure these sites in the short run, without major injury or deaths, and to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention to verifiably eliminate the stockpiles over the longer term.
The eventual destruction of Syria’s remaining chemical arsenal will require international support, including technical expertise and financing. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has inspected and verified the safe destruction of over 54,000 tons of chemical weapons in six of seven declared possessor countries since 1997 (the great majority in the US and Russia). The OPCW will be needed to verify and inspect any such post-conflict operation in Syria.
It sounds as reasonable a plan as any devised thus far. Yet, during civil wars, reason is often not considered as important as conquest for each side; concomitant with that is the thirst for destruction and victory at all costs. And the deteriorating situation in Syria reminds us that we are now living in extreme times, similar to those that were present during the early part of the twentieth century..

Treating Jellyfish Stings With Zinc: Jellyfish stings are painful and can be life-threatening. An article by Chritie Wilcox in Scientific American shows how one scientist, Angel Yanagiharabitten by jellyfish in 1997, looked to find not only how the venom within the jellyfish (Chironex ) releases its toxins,but also whether she could find an effective antidote for such painful attacks.

Wilcox writes:
When human flesh brushes up against a jellyfish tentacle, the tiny stinging cells jellies carry, called cnidocytes, can discharge their painful venom in as little as 700 nanoseconds. During the winter months, Australian waters are home to an abundance of the deadliest jellyfish in the world, the box jelly Chironex fleckeri, which has been known to kill a person in less than five minutes.
Chironex even looks scary, with a bell that can be large as a basketball and tentacles up to ten feet long carrying millions upon millions of stinging cells. But Chironex didn’t earn its title as the deadliest jellyifish in the world based on looks. Anyone who has come in contact with Chironex knows its fearsome reputation is justified, as even mild stings are excruciating. Yet despite decades of research, exactly how Chironex and other jellies deal their sometimes-fatal blows has remained a fearsome mystery.
“For over 60 years researchers have sought to understand the horrifying speed and potency of the venom of the Australian box jellyfish, arguably the most venomous animal in the world,” explains Yanagihara. It’s not that scientists have been unable to isolate any toxins. Yanagihara’s initial work discovered pore-forming toxins called porins in a related species, Carybdea alata, capable of tearing holes in blood cells, and since scientists have found similar porins in every jellyfish species they’ve looked at. The conundrum is that severe sting victims don’t suffer from profound destruction of red blood cells, seemingly counting out the porins as the cause of fatal stings. But if it’s not the porins, what in jellyfish venom is to blame? How does it act so quickly, leading to such sudden cardiovascular collapse? And is there anything we can do to slow or stop its deadly activity?
Now, in a new paper published today in PLOS ONE, Yanagihara and her colleagues from the University of Hawaii have revealed the key mechanism by which Chironexvenom—and, specifically, the overlooked porins—quickly dismantle the cardiovascular system. Armed with physiology, the team was able to find a safe treatment that could be used to improve survival in sting victims.
This treatment is zinc gluconate, which is more effective than the commercially available antivenom; in animal studies, it was twice as effective as what is now used. The article adds:
Zinc gluconate isn’t a cure-all; it won’t stop all of the excruciating pain associated with severe stings, and victims are still at risk of going into shock and cardiovascular failure. But, Yanagihara is hopeful that treatment with zinc gluconate might be effective enough at prolonging survival in severe sting victims long enough to get them to medical professionals that can save their lives, and may provide welcome relief to mild sting victims.
That would be a good thing since dozens of persons in Australia and the Philippines die each year from such jellyfish stings.

& One More, Because Its Importance Extends Beyond America

Mourning In America: On Friday, a gunman killed 26 people, including 20 young children, at a U.S. school where his mother worked in some capacity. There have been too many such murders in the U.S., not only in schools, but also in shopping malls, movie theaters and public spaces. I thought that U.S. President Obama gave a thoughtful and compassionate speech after the elementary-school shooting in  Newtown, Connecticut; I too as a parent had tears in my eyes. An article in  The National Post gives the full text of the speech that President Obama eloquently delivered, often pausing to wipe away tears from his eyes; you can view and hear it here:
This afternoon, I spoke with Governor Malloy and FBI Director Mueller. I offered Governor Malloy my condolences on behalf of the nation and made it clear he will have every single resource that he needs to investigate this heinous crime, care for the victims, counsel their families.
We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years. And each time I learn the news, I react not as a president, but as anybody else would as a parent. And that was especially true today. I know there’s not a parent in America who doesn’t feel the same overwhelming grief that I do.
The majority of those who died today were children — beautiful, little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own. Among the fallen were also teachers, men and women who devoted their lives to helping our children fulfill their dreams.
So our hearts are broken today for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, and for the families of the adults who were lost.
Our hearts are broken for the parents of the survivors, as well, for as blessed as they are to have their children home tonight, they know that their children’s innocence has been torn away from them too early and there are no words that will ease their pain.
As a country, we have been through this too many times. Whether it is an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago, these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods and these children are our children. And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.
This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter, and we’ll tell them that we love them, and we’ll remind each other how deeply we love one another. But there are families in Connecticut who cannot do that tonight, and they need all of us right now. In the hard days to come, that community needs us to be at our best as Americans, and I will do everything in my power as president to help, because while nothing can fill the space of a lost child or loved one, all of us can extend a hand to those in need, to remind them that we are there for them, that we are praying for them, that the love they felt for those they lost endures not just in their memories, but also in ours.
May God bless the memory of the victims and, in the words of Scripture, heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds.
Yes, I hugged my children a little tighter and told them I love them. But there's more to be done. In the best of cases, our grief ought to to lead us to action. To make things better. To rid society of its polluting evil. Yes, in the days to come there will be all kinds of media stories on what motivated the gunman, and the media will bring in all kinds of psychiatrists and other mental-health experts  to try to explain this abnormal act, as if it were such an immensely rare act in America. It's not. So it's easy to conclude that the panel discussions analysing motives will not change anything about America's violent gun culture. (Some will argue for more guns, including inside the classroom.) It's only a needless distraction from the real problem.

President Obama hit the right tone when he said "meaningful action." Getting to the heart of the matter, I would say that there has to be a serious adult discussion in America about easy access to handguns, a weapon whose design and purpose is to kill. Too many persons invest too much energy in defending the indefensible, using the Second Amendment itself as a weapon, which says too much about what currently ails America. It is hard for me to understand America's irrational (and delusional) love affair of guns, and the concomitant need to silence all dissenting voices on that matter.  Has the Second Amendment become more important than the First Amendment?

No, and the First Amendment need be used for its chief purpose: to speak truth and dismantle falsehood. For too long, there has been a false line drawn between democracy and gun ownership; between freedom and loosening gun laws; between free speech and increasingly violent films, TV shows, videos and games aimed at the young whose end result normalizes and glorifies a culture of guns ; this all needs to be erased; education is the key and government needs to play a large role, as they successfully did with the dangers of cigarette smoking. If the will is there it can be done, and parents can take the lead.

Forget the politics; forgot the narrow interests of the gun advocates (i.e.,the NRA); forget the fallacious arguments that "guns don't kill, people do." Handguns kill and do so with greater effect and efficiency than than any other similar-sized weapon; that's its only purpose. It's not primarily a weapon of self-defence, but of self-offence. To say otherwise is simply to perpetuate a lie, and a big one too.

Personally, I would like to all handguns banned. Completely. Irrevocably. I doubt that it will ever be considered by any political party; even so, it would solve a lot and make America safer. Measurably safer. Is anyone listening?

December 15th In History
1612Simon Marius is the first individual to observe the Andromeda galaxy through a telescope;
1791: U.S. Bill of Rights ratified when Virginia gives its approval;
1877:  Thomas Edison patents the phonograph;
1917: World War I: An armistice is reached between the new Bolshevik government and the Central Powers.
1918: The American Jewish Congress holds its first meeting;
1945: During the American occupation of Japan, General Douglas MacArthur orders that Shinto be abolished as the state religion of Japan;
1961: Adolf Eichmann convicted of crimes against humanity in Israel;
1970: Soviet spacecraft Venera 7 successfully lands on Venus, making it the first successful soft landing on another planet and transmit data to earth. The craft recorded a surface temperature of 475°C.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Importance Of Being Yourself

The Human Being
Happiness can only exist in acceptance.
George Orwell

My religion is to seek for truth in life and for life in truth, even knowing that I shall not find them while I live.
Miguel de Unamuno [1864-1936], Spanish poet, philosopher and writer


by Perry J. Greenbaum

One of my favourite existential thinkers is Miguel de Unamuno. In the Tragic Sense of Life (an English translation of Del Sentimiento Trágico de la Vida), Dr. Unamuno recounts a conversation that took place with one of his best friends, one with whom he took frequent walks:
On a certain occasion this friend remarked to me; "I should like to be So-and-so (naming someone, and I said: "That is what I shall never be able to understand—that one should want to be someone else. To want to be someone else is to cease to be who one is. I understand that one should wish to have what someone else has, his wealth or his knowledge; but to be someone else, that is a thing I cannot comprehend." (9)
Neither can I. Now the expression "being yourself" might be casually thrown out too much, usually as a reminder to the person's essential being. The reason that this sentiment is universal, however, is that there is a powerful instinct within us to be precisely who we think we are, or at least meant to be in the karma wheel of life. Hence the expression "to find yourself." And, if truth be told, would you really want to live your life as someone else? That does not mean you cannot improve areas of yourself, particularly if you find them deficient in some way. There are no shortage of both serious psychological texts and self-help books that focus on making positive changes.

But, can you really change your core being? Such a being as yourself has been developed, so to speak by a combination of genetic influences and environmental effects, a combination of your parent's genes and the way that you grew up. Our obsession with trying to be someone else, like a celebrity, so as to conform to some societal notion of normal or acceptable behaviour is to deny yourself. And it's patently absurd and self-defeating. You will lose self-respect and get nothing of value in the bargain (Think Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby)

Today's times are conformist to a large degree. The individual pressure (and fear) to conform to societal notions, partly resulting from advertising interests, stigmatization of the other and self-censorship, has lead to a giving up of individuality and individual freedom. In a society with a lot of putative choices, all roads become narrow and directed. The end result is an inability to make individual choices, and a loss of human dignity. The public spaces, meant for freedom of expression, has become smaller, and the need to conform larger.

If you notice very young pre-school-age children, you will note that they are very comfortable with themselves. Of course, we do not wish to remain as children in thought, action and all behaviours. That would make us childish individuals, and there are enough of those types already. But we can have a comfort with ourselves, which brings self-respect and self-acceptance.

The struggle is to be yourself is not easy, notably when so many false values accost you daily. The trick is to be yourself without imposing your values or intruding on others' beliefs, while maintaining self-respect and self-dignity, and equally providing the same for people around you.

A version of this article appeared in Perry J Greenbaum

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending December 8, 2012

News & Commentary

Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

Russia & Others Against North Korea Missile Launch: An article in Voice of America says that Russia has asked North Korea to not go ahead with its missile launch, scheduled between December 10 and 22, close to the December 17th date of the death of former leader Kim Jong-il.:
Russia joins an international chorus expressing concern about the North's intentions. Pyongyang says the rocket will carry an earth observation satellite into orbit, but the effort is widely , suspected to be a cover for testing North Korea's ballistic missile technology. China, the North's main ally and key benefactor also said Sunday it was concerned at the launch plans.
Japan has announced the postponement of two days of talks with North Korea that had been scheduled to begin in Beijing Wednesday because of the impending launch.
Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto on Saturday ordered the military to make the necessary defensive preparations for a North Korean missile should it go off course and threaten Japanese territory. North Korea made a similar launch attempt in April that failed.
Despite the many nations lined up against it, North Korea is unlikely to heed their concerns. For Kim Jong-un, the young leader of the totalitarian state, it is more important to assert and extend his authority. On the line are his credentials as a tough and determined leader, which includes not only resisting the urgings of the international community, but also succeeding in the planned missile test.

Is Syria's Assad Thinking The Unthinkable?: Using Chemical Weapons: An article in Ynet News, reported widely and quoting from Wired magazine, raises the very real possibility that Syria's President Bashar Assad is thinking about deploying chemical weapons—in particular sarin gas—against his citizens:
Wired explained that Sarin gas has two main chemical components - isopropanol, popularly known as rubbing alcohol, and methylphosphonyl difluoride. The Assad government has more than 500 metric tons of these precursors, which it ordinarily stores separately, in so-called "binary" form, in order to prevent an accidental release of nerve gas. Last week, according to the official, that changed as the Syrian military began combining some of the binaries. "They didn’t do it on the whole arsenal, just a modest quantity,” the official was quoted by Wired as saying. "We're not sure what's the intent."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday that any use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against the opposition "is a red line for the United States. "I am not going to telegraph in any specifics what we would do in the event of credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people. But suffice it to say we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur," she said.
Later on Monday, US President Barack Obama warned Syria that the use of chemical weapons would be "totally unacceptable" and that the country's leaders would be held accountable. Obama said that if Assad made the "tragic mistake" of deploying chemical weapons, there would be consequences. Obama stopped short of detailing those consequences.
President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are both right and correct in their response to any real possibility of Syria's Assad doing the unthinkable. (Syria is a signatory of the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning chemical weapons in war.) The use of chemical weapons would inflame the region, and reluctantly but necessarily bring in other nations like the U.S., Israel, Jordan and Turkey to what has been until now a Syrian civil war.

On the part of the Syrian regime, its actions thus far have been both deplorable and despicable, and show signs of desperation, signalling that it will stop at nothing to remain in power, no matter the consequences. The sum total of its actions thus far have been horrific; this raises it to another level of depravity.

Asperger's Syndrome Dropped From Latest Psych Manual: An article in Macleans says that Asperger's Syndrome will no longer be a stand-alone diagnosis when the DSM-V, the "bible" of psychiatric disorders, is released in May 2013; it will form part of the general diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.
The fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-V, will come out in May and Asperger’s will be notably absent, replaced with the broader definition of “autism spectrum disorder.” Previously, Asperger’s was thought to be a milder form of autism. The choice to remove the definition from the DSM, sometimes referred to as the psychiatric bible, has been much-debated and is opposed by some who think the change in definition will exclude some patients from diagnosis, and could mean they don’t get the treatment and services they need.
“Our fear is that we are going to take a big step backward,” Lori Shery, president of the Asperger Syndrome Education Network, told The New York Times in January. “If clinicians say, ‘These kids don’t fit the criteria for an autism spectrum diagnosis,’ they are not going to get the supports and services they need, and they’re going to experience failure.”
Not everyone who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome disagrees, however. Joshua Muggleton, a psychology student who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, writes in The Guardian: “…after looking at the research I was forced to conclude that actually, the DSM-V is a big step in the right direction. For years, studies have been suggesting that autism and Asperger’s syndrome are the same condition, differentiated only by level of impairment.”
If such is indeed the case, and psychiatric science seems to support this assertion, then this is a step in the right direction; putting together similar diagnoses and placing them on a continuum makes perfect sense for issues of treatment. Asperger's Syndrome has received a lot of media attention, chiefly I suspect since those who have been said diagnosed, are both intelligent and articulate, yet suffer other social anxieties that somewhat impair their ability to interact socially. This is a far less severe disorder than the more severe cases of childhood autism, which deserves greater resources for both patients and their families.

Tanks Outside Presidential Palace In Egypt: The constitutional crisis continues in Egypt, pitting pro-Mubark loyalists and secularists against pro-Morsi Islamists. An article in CBC news reports:
The Egyptian army deployed tanks and gave both supporters and opponents of Mohammed Morsi a deadline to leave the area outside the presidential palace Thursday following fierce street battles that left five people dead and more than 600 injured in the worst outbreak of violence between the two sides since the Islamist leader's election.
The intensity of the overnight violence, with Morsi's Islamist backers and largely secular protesters lobbing firebombs and rocks at each other, signaled a possible turning point in the 2-week-old crisis over the president's assumption of near-absolute powers and the hurried adoption of a draft constitution.
Opposition activists defiantly called for another protest outside the palace later Thursday, raising the specter of more bloodshed as neither side showed willingness to back down.
But the army's Republican Guard, an elite unit assigned to protect the president and his palaces, gave protesters on both sides until 3 p.m. local time to clear the vicinity, according to an official statement. The statement also announced a ban on protests outside any of the nation's presidential palaces.
President Morsi seems determined to go ahead with his plans to impose a constitution on the populous, putting the interests of his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, ahead of others in Egypt. What ever takes place in the next few days, it is clear that damage has already been done to a nascent democracy. The hopes for a democracy in Egypt now seem dim indeed.

Typhoon In The Philippines: An article in CNN says that an inland area of the Philippines that was devastated by Typhoon Bhopa was supposed to be safe from devastation from typhoons.
The area is sheltered from the worst of the weather by mountains, they figured. And besides, the big typhoons that slam into the Philippines every year never come this far south, especially not this late in the year. But Bopha did. And it brought savage winds that uprooted entire banana plantations in low-lying areas, and relentless rain that unleashed torrents of rocks and mud down the mountainsides where shanty-dwelling miners dig for gold.
The epicenter of the devastation appears to have been in New Bataan, a town about 20 kilometers (12 miles) southeast of Montevista and close to the steep mountains. The flash floods hit it head-on Tuesday, washing away families huddled in their homes and soldiers stationed in a compound in the town.
Large parts of New Bataan and many of the people who lived there are now buried under mud, fallen trees and rubble, said Arnaldo Arcadio, an emergency response program manager for Catholic Relief Services, a humanitarian group. "The mood is really gloomy," he said Thursday after visiting the town, where 90% to 95% of the houses are believed to have been destroyed or damaged.
The Philippines National Disaster Agency says the number of deaths has reached 379; the number is likely to climb, The Guardian writes, "after Bopha triggered landslides and floods along the coast and in farming and mining towns inland in the provinces of Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental." What this shows, among other things, is that nature is both unpredictable and savage in its actions. Humans can plan and make more durable housing and other buildings, but even modern communities can be devastated by the effects of typhoons and hurricanes when they are severe. Sandy has shown us that much.

Meanwhile, the climate change talks at Doha, Qatar, have produced nothing substantial, only adding more hot air, excuses and posturing to our unstable, overheated atmosphere—it's not surprising, then, that they have generally been a failure.

December 8th In History

1609: Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, Italy, opens its reading room, the second public library of Europe.
1813: Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 premieres;
1849: Giuseppe Verdi's opera "Luisa Miller" premieres in Naples
1854: Pope Pius IX proclaims "Immaculate Conception," which says that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is free of Original Sin;
1876: Suriname begins compulsory education for all children aged 7 to 12;
1941: U.S. & Britain declare war on Japan, U.S. enters WW II after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor;
1966: The U.S. and the USSR sign a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons in outer space.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Why Is It So Hard To Do The Right Thing?

Our Society

by Perry J. Greenbaum

Moses ben-Maimon, also called Maimonides or Rambam, was a preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher and one of the greatest Torah scholars and physicians of the Middle Ages. (This is a 19th century portrait.). As he said: "We are obligated to be more scrupulous in fulfilling the commandment of charity than any other positive commandment because charity is the sign of a righteous man."

Source: Wikipedia

In 1997, Martha Nussbaum, the well-known American philosopher and professor at University of Chicago, wrote Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, a spirited defence of liberal education (see excellent review by Nicholas C. Burbules of Harvard Educational Review.) Among other things, Nussbaum advocates for the importance of a liberal education, for the centrality of philosophy and for cosmopolitanism.

Like many others before her, Prof. Nussbaum raises good points on the importance of liberal education, the need for Socratic reason and the importance of reading the literature of other cultures to develop as empathetic citizens of the world. Of course, she is talking about the examined life, of self-criticism, of self-development and empathy of the Other—people unlike ourselves. Nussabaum also warns about the dangers of education leading to vocationalism, where students enter higher education chiefly as a means to get a job.

That explains such university slogans as "Education for the 21st century," and "Real Education for the Real World." The screaming symbolism in such slogans is telling: only practical education leads to a better life. That is what the high priests of commerce want students to believe, if only to serve industry's desires: an educated workforce focused solely on obeying orders and getting the job done.

Or, in other words, higher education becomes a job-training institute. While getting a job is important, and no one is arguing against work and getting well paid for it, the job-training approach that many universities are emphasizing is problematic. (For an interesting take on utilitarian education, John Allemang's thought-provoking article in The Globe & Mail, Can the liberal arts cure jihadists?)

Socrates: "False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil."
Photo Credit: Qbricard, 1983.

In many cases, this equates to a high-paid job in a high-paying field, which today would be high finance, high-tech, law and medicine. It seems that the common denominator of the high-paying vocational jobs is that students graduate with little understanding or, more important, fine appreciation of art, history, philosophy and the culture in which they reside. Even so, while I applaud the merits of education in general, and liberal arts education in particular, education alone is insufficient to instill humans with humanity. It takes something more. It is important to understand that humans crave attention, respect and a sense that they are worthy and valuable members of society.

Humans are not human resources. Humans are not means of production, used and then discarded when the expiry date is near. Each individual human is born into the world as a unique individual, with the capability to contribute something worthy and beautiful to society. Truly, it doesn't take a philosopher to tell us that, although philosophers can warn us and advise us of societal trends and dangers. Even so, we can know many things of both the human heart and mind, if we observe our world and others carefully. And, more important, learn to do the right thing. Generally speaking, we will do right, if we view that all humans have value and are worthy of respect and dignity.

Yet, today's emphasis on money and wealth acquisition has made us profoundly less human. The late historian Tony Judt thought so. “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today,” he wrote in Ill Fares the Land. “For 30 years, we have made a virtue of the pursuit of material self-interest: Indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose.”

Yet, a collective purpose based on the dignity of humans tends to lead to good and honourable actions. Here's a worthy example. During the Second World war, a tiny village in southern France banded together to save 5,000 Jews from Nazi death camps, in what has been called a Conspiracy of Goodness. When asked why they risked their lives, the common response was, "it was the human thing to do." Such describes the height of human goodness.

For many, such is the exception rather than the rule.

A version of this post was originally published on Perry J. Greenbaum.

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending December 1, 2012

News & Commentary

Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

Protests In Egypt Over Presidential Decree:  Egyptians took to the streets last week to protest President Morsi's decree, which grant him unprecedented powers that many say are reminders of the previous autocratic government. The protests has divided the nation. An article in The Jerusalem Post says:
Youths clashed with police in Cairo on Saturday as protests at new powers assumed by President Mohamed Morsi stretched into a second day, confronting Egypt with a crisis that has exposed the split between newly empowered Islamists and their opponents. A handful of hardcore activists hurling rocks battled riot police in the streets near Tahrir Square, where several thousand protesters massed on Friday to demonstrate against a decree that has rallied opposition ranks against Morsi.
Following a day of violence in Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said and Suez, the smell of teargas hung over the square, the heart of the uprising that swept Hosni Mubarak from power in February 2011.
More than 300 people were injured on Friday. Offices of the Muslim Brotherhood, which propelled Morsi to power, were attacked in at least three cities. Egypt's highest judicial authority said the decree marked an "unprecedented attack" on the independence of the judiciary, the state news agency reported. Judges in the Egyptian city of Alexandria decided to go on strike on Saturday in protest of Morsi's decree, the state news agency reported. The judges' club in Alexandria said work would be suspended in all courts and prosecution offices until the decree was reversed, the agency reported.
That this comes so soon after President Morsi's successful brokering of a mideast truce between Israel and Hamas shows, among other things, that a victory on the international stage, no matter how great, has little effect on domestic matters. All governments, ultimately, succeed and fail by what they do for their citizens.

In many ways this is a battle between the old regime and the new one, between the political Islamists and the secularists, and among the various factions trying to get some say in the drafting of Egypt's new constitution. It is also about dueling legitimacies, and a natural and normal result of a nation undergoing transformation to a constitutional democracy after a long history being otherwise. No one says democracy is without its messiness, rancor and rhetoric.

Egypt is no exception, and Morsi, who seems like a pragmatic leader, might have to retract his decree, or at least those parts of it that bypass the judiciary. The international community is watching with great interest. These are important times, and what takes place in the next few days, and weeks, will tell us much about which direction Egypt is heading.

The above was written only a few days ago; and the situation has changed, the politics of power always fluid and calculating for superior advantage. Now we know that President Morsi will appeal to the people for support, calling for a national referendum slated for December 15th—a strategy that will make the divide between Islamists and secularists more pronounced. Its purpose, ostensibly to gain a vote of confidence from the people, might result in "the street" coercing the judiciary to not oppose the plans of Morsi. The sound you are hearing is the anguished cry of democracy— as we know and had hoped for—in Egypt.

Factory Fire In Bangladesh Kills More Than 100 Persons:  A fire at a garment factoryoutside the city of Dhaka, Bangladesh, has killed at least 111 persons, and injured many others who suffered burns and smoke inhalation. More than 500 Bangladeshi garment workers have died from fires at garment factories, says an article in the New York Times:
It took firefighters more than 17 hours to put out the blaze at the factory, Tazreen Fashions, after it started Saturday evening, a retired fire official said by telephone from Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital. At least 111 people were killed and scores of workers were taken to hospitals with burns and smoke inhalation injuries.
“The main difficulty was to put out the fire; the sufficient approach road was not there,” said the retired official, Salim Nawaj Bhuiyan, who now runs a fire safety company in Dhaka. “The fire service had to take great trouble to approach the factory.”
Bangladesh’s garment industry, the second largest exporter of clothing after China, has a notoriously poor record of fire safety. Since 2006, more than 500 Bangladeshi workers have died in garment factory fires, according to Clean Clothes Campaign, an anti-sweatshop advocacy group based in Amsterdam. Experts say many of the fires could have been easily avoided if the factories had taken the right precautions. Many factories are in cramped neighborhoods, have too few fire escapes and widely flout safety measures. The industry employs more than three million workers in Bangladesh, mostly women.
This is reminiscent of what took place in New York City's garment industry—notably the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911, where 146 persons, mostly women, died; many jumped to their death from the eighth, nineth and tenth floors of the Asch Building, at 23-29 Washington Place, now known as the Brown Building—a historical landmark. The fire became a symbol of poor workplace standards, and ultimately led to both legislation requiring better safety conditions for factory workers and the catalyst for union representation for workers.

Israel's Ehud Barak Announces Plans to Quit Politics: Ehud Barak, 70, Israel's defense minister  announced plans to quit politics after the January 22nd elections. An article from Reuters by Jeffrey Heller and published in The National Post says:
Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on Monday he was quitting politics, a surprise decision that deepens uncertainty over how Israel will confront Iran’s nuclear program.
Barak’s political fortunes appeared to be on the rise after Israel’s eight-day Gaza offensive ended in a truce, but polls predicted his centrist party, a junior partner in right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, would win no more than four seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament in a January 22 election.
A former head of the centre-left Labour Party, Barak has insisted he and Netanyahu have been united on policy toward Iran, an issue that has often put the prime minister at odds with U.S. President Barack Obama.
But as the only centrist member of the governing coalition of right-wing and pro-settler parties, Barak has frequently visited Washington for talks with top U.S. officials and had criticized Netanyahu for airing differences with the United States.
At a hastily called news conference, he said he would not be a candidate in the national ballot that Netanyahu’s Likud party is forecast to win. He said he would remain in his post until a new government was formed in about three months’ time, signaling his decision would have no immediate effect on Israel’s calculations on how best to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“The Iranian issue remains very important, even after I leave my position in three months. It will remain a central issue on the agenda,” said Barak, who was often seen as a moderating force in considering possible military action against Iran. The 70-year-old ex-general said he wanted to spend more time with his family. Politics, he said, “has never been a particular passion of mine, and I feel there is room to allow other people to serve in senior roles in Israel.”
All kinds of commentators, both in Israel and abroad, will now raise speculations on why Mr. Barak decided at this time to make his announcement. It might have been in the works for a while, and only delayed by the recent war-time hostilities between Israel and Hamas. We wish Mr. Ehud Barak well in his retirement from politics; he has served admirably as Israel's defense minister and as a military leader.

Saudi Center in Vienna Promotes Inter-Faith Dialogue: An article in Ynet news says that a Saudi-backed centre, in Vienna, to promote inter-faith dialogue has an Orthodox Israeli rabbi on its board: Rabbi David Rosen:
A Saudi-backed center to promote interfaith dialogue worldwide began work in Vienna on Monday by bringing hundreds of religious activists together to discuss how to promote understanding among different beliefs.Named after Saudi King Abdullah, the center is a welcome boost for bridge-building between faiths in an era of financial austerity but has drawn criticism because Saudi Arabia enforces a strict Islam and bans non-Muslim religious practice.
The center was inaugurated in the presence of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and representatives of different countries – some hostile to IsraelThe surprise of the evening was unquestionably the appointment of Rabbi David Rosen from Israel as a member of the center's board of directors."The prime purpose is to empower the active work of those in the field, whether in the field of dialogue, of social activism or of conflict resolution," Rosen said. "We want to empower you," he told an opening session where dialogue projects from Europe, the Middle East and Africa reported on how they worked to foster interfaith understanding.
Rosen, an Orthodox rabbi from Jerusalem, serves as the international director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and as an advisor on interreligious affairs to Israel's Chief Rabbinate.
Any initiative that promotes dialogue, leading to conflict resolution and tolerance, is always good and preferable one. At the heart of bridge-building is open discussion between individuals and groups with conflicting ideas. Let's hope that this initiative eventually leads to the Arab nations, led by Saudi Arabia, recognizing Israel and the Jewish people, not as enemies but as friends.

Iran Close to Plutonium Bomb: An article in PJ Media by David P. Gloldman reports that Iran is going ahead with producing a nuclear weapon, or at least producing material for a nuclear bomb.
Iran might be “on the verge of producing weapon-quality plutonium,” Germany’s daily Die Welt reported on Nov. 26. Hans Rühle, a former top official in the German defense ministry, and foreign editor Clemens Wergin cite clues pointing to an Iranian crash program to build a plutonium bomb in the just-released International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran’s nuclear activity. Rühle headed German defense policy planning during the 1980s; Wergin is one of the most capable young journalists writing in any language. Their report should be read in dead earnest.
The IAEA reported that Iran removed fuel rods from the Bushehr light water reactor—supposedly a peaceful application of nuclear energy—on October 22. There might be a technical explanation for the premature extraction of fuel rods from a light water reactor, Rühle and Wergin observe. But “it may also mean the starting point for production of weapons-grade plutonium. That would mean a dramatic expansion and acceleration of Iran’s nuclear armaments program (my translation).”
Although light water reactors are not designed to produce weapons-grade plutonium, the design can produce large amounts of weapons-grade plutonium in a short period of time. In a matter of months, the authors report, the low-enriched uranium fuel in the Bushehr reactor could yield enough plutonium for dozens of atomic bombs:

In a light water reactor, which is operated with low enriched uranium (four percent), the fuel remains in the reactor up to 60 months when the reactor is run at maximum power generation,. But it takes only a few months to produce plutonium 239, that is, weapons-grade plutonium. … In the 1970s a British company had shut down a light water reactor prematurely. The result was around 450 kilograms of plutonium, or material for about 70 bombs.
This story needs further watching and seems to dispel any doubt that Iran is going ahead with its nuclear program in some fashion. What ultimate purpose this program will serve also needs further investigation and scrutiny. The current ruling regime's record of half-truths, evasions and prevarications is leading the Islamic Republic of Iran on a dangerous course. But then again nuclear weapons in themselves are the ultimate danger to humanity; yet, for many nations their appeal is currently too great to overcome: prestige of membership in the nuclear club.

December 1st In History
1835: Hans Christian Andersen published his first book of fairy tales;
1891; James Naismith creates the game of basketball;
1887: The character of Sherlock Holmes, created by  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, first appears in print in Study in Scarlett;
1986: The Musée d'Orsay opens in Paris;
1913: The Buenos Aires Subway, the first underground railway system in the southern hemisphere and in Latin America, begins operation;
1919: Lady Astor becomes the first female Member of Parliament to take her seat in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, having been elected on November 28;
1955: American Civil Rights Movement: In Montgomery, Alabama, seamstress Rosa Parks refuses to give up her bus seat to a white man and is arrested for violating the city's racial segregation laws, an incident which leads to the Montgomery Bus Boycott.