When Philosophy Meets Politics

We’ll wager that, unless you happen to be a practicing bioethicist, you’d never heard of Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel six weeks ago. But now Emanuel, the director of the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health, finds himself labeled a "deadly doctor" by Betsy McCaughey in an opinion piece in the New York Post. And controversial conservative pundit Ann Coulter recently proclaimed that "Zeke Emanuel is on my death list."

We debunked McCaughey’s charges in an Ask FactCheck item we posted today. The short version is that McCaughey has quoted a number of passages badly out of context and twisted their meaning.

We’re not here to rule on the merits of Emanuel’s philosophical arguments, nor are we looking to get into the business of interpreting ethics papers. We’ll leave both those tasks to you and to (other) philosophers. But the Emanuel incident raises a more general point: When you interpret ethics texts, you have to be really cautious.

Indeed, Emanuel is hardly the first philosopher to find himself in hot water for views that are taken out of context. Princeton philosopher Peter Singer (whose views about doctor-assisted suicide are controversial even in their proper context) is a frequent victim of the phenomenon. Rumors about 18th century philosopher David Hume kept him from ever obtaining an academic post. And, of course, no one can really top Socrates, who was actually executed (a fate that Coulter says she’d welcome for Emanuel) for views that he arguably didn’t really hold.

As practiced as an academic discipline, ethics is devoted to talking about really difficult cases. A lot of times, those cases involve death, in some form or another. Entire courses, both undergraduate and graduate, revolve around questions of life and death. That’s not because academic ethicists are all terribly morbid, a charge I heard from more than one of my students when I taught introductory courses in philosophy and ethics. It’s because that’s where the hard questions are.

There is actually widespread agreement about what’s ethical and what’s not. Everyone pretty much agrees, for example, that murder is wrong. But we don’t always agree about whether a particular act of killing counts as a murder. What if it’s self defense? What if it’s an enemy soldier during war? Or a late-term abortion? Or if the victim is a farm animal? People have different views about these questions. And so that is where academic ethics focuses — on the areas of disagreement.

Part of the way that ethicists attempt to resolve those problems is by engaging in thought experiments. These are just what they sound like: We make up some scenario (often a pretty unlikely one) and then use that scenario as a way of getting clear on abstract ideas. In my own introductory courses, for example, I would ask students to suppose that they lost a limb to a drunk driver and then ask them how much money they would want as compensation. I would then ask students whether they would take the same sum to let me cut off that same limb.

Now the point here isn’t that I have a particular desire to cut off people’s limbs, nor is it that I think students ought to take my deal. I don’t, and they probably don’t either. Rather, the point was to help students think seriously about whether there can be trade-offs between pain and money. Your answer to that question should heavily influence your views about things like tort reform (should there be compensation for pain and suffering?) and punishment (should criminals pay monetary compensation to their victims in lieu of going to prison?).

Of course, if you were to take my offer out of context, it would look pretty alarming. In fact, I’m waiting to see how long it takes before we get a chain e-mail alleging that the Jigsaw Killer is alive and working at If you read all the way through, though, you see that that’s not at all what was going on. Pointing out what a certain view might entail is an important part of what ethicists do. Which means that you have to read ethics papers carefully in order to determine when you’re seeing someone’s actual position and when you’re seeing that person articulate some possible conclusions.

And if this is true for ethics in general, it’s especially true for bioethics, where the subject matter inevitably involves extremely sensitive issues that are, literally, about life and death.

The Bogie Horror Show

My first thought was: Good God, this man was responsible for the lives of our soldiers!

The second thought was: What’s the big surprise? You always knew what kind of person he was! After all, during his years as the army’s Chief of Staff he quietly supported the setting up of “illegal” settlement outposts all over the West Bank!

The third thought: And this person is now Vice Prime Minister and a member of the “Sextet” – the six ministers who constitute the real government of Israel.

The occasion for these frightening thoughts was the participation of Moshe (“Bogie”) Ya’alon in a gathering of the Jewish Leadership Faction. “Peace Now is a virus,” he said there. And not only they. “All the media” are also a virus. They influence the public discourse “in a distorted manner, a lying manner”. The virus also includes “the elite” in general.

In addition, the “politicians” are to blame. “Every time the politicians bring in the dove of peace, we, the army, have to clean up after it.”

His summing up: “The Jews have a right to settle in any place throughout Eretz Israel.” And if this upsets the Americans, Ya’alon has a ready answer: “I am not afraid of the Americans!”

All this was said a few days after Ya’alon paid a well publicized visit to the occupied territories, accompanied by Shas leader Eli Yishai and several other ministers of the extreme Right. This band visited the settlement outposts, which the Israeli government long ago promised the Americans to dismantle, and expressed total opposition to their evacuation. They concluded their visit in Homesh, the West Bank settlement evacuated by Ariel Sharon in the course of the “disengagement”. Ya’alon demanded the resettlement of the place.

These tones come together in a frightening melody, a tune we know all too well. It is anthem of fascism.

First: the term “elite”. In the jargon of the Israeli extreme Right, this includes everybody they hate: the intellectuals, the universities, the liberal politicians, the Supreme Court, the media.

The term is rooted in the Latin verb “eligere”, to pick out, meaning the best, the select. Since this is an undefined body, the term can be applied to different targets. When the demagogues address the Oriental Jewish masses, “the elite” clearly consists of the Ashkenazis who rule the country. When addressing the religious community, “the elite” consist of the secular, the atheist, who are strangers to Jewish Tradition. When addressing the Russian immigrants, “the elite” consists of the old established Israelis, the native born, who obstruct the path of the new immigrants.

When one bundles all these together, there emerges a picture of “them” and “us”. “Them” – the handful of arrogant old-timers, who occupy all the key positions in the state, and “us” – the simple, honest people, the patriots, the keepers of tradition, the discriminated against, the oppressed.

Every fascist group in the world entertains such a view of “the elite”.

(Never mind that Ya’alon, like most of the other demagogues, himself belongs to the elite. He was born in the country, an Ashkenazi of Ukrainian descent. His original name was Smilansky. He is still officially a member of an “elitist” kibbutz and belongs to the super-privileged senior officers’ corps.)

Second: The traitors. There is an enemy within. This is no less dangerous than the foreign enemy, indeed, much more dangerous. When Ya’alon speaks about Peace Now, he means all the peace camp, the liberal and secular section of society. That is the Fifth Column, the Trojan horse within the walls. They have to be eliminated, before one can turn to fight the foreign foe.

Third: The “politicians”. The demagogues are, of course, themselves politicians, but they exclude themselves here. Ya’alon paints a picture of “the politicians” who bring in a disgusting peace dove, whose excrement the army has to clean up.

The knavish, scheming, cowardly politicians on the one side, the clean-cut, heroic, loyal army on the other – that is a very familiar picture. The best known example was current in Germany after World War I. The “knife in the back” legend was a stepping stone to power for Adolf Hitler: the German army stood up to the enemy and had victory in its sights, when “the politicians”, the Jews, the socialists and the other “November criminals” stuck a knife in the back of the heroic fighters.

The peace dove leaves its droppings and the soldiers are compelled to clean up the filth of peace.

And also: “All the media”. That is one of the marks of fascism in Israel and throughout the world. The media are always “leftist”, “anti-national”, they are the “hostile media”. The journalists and broadcasters are a secret league of Israel-bashers, who spread lies and distort reality in order to undermine national morale, defame the army, besmirch our national values and give comfort to the enemy.

Reality is, of course, very, very different. The Israeli media slavishly repeat the official propaganda in all national and security matters. They are conformist to a high degree and mobilized from wall to wall. There is not a single leftist newspaper in the country. Most political correspondents repeat like parrots the statements of “official sources”; almost all the correspondents for Arab affairs are former army intelligence officers; and almost all military correspondents serve as unofficial army spokesmen. In the news pages and news programs, right-wing terminology reigns supreme. But because in less important matters the media criticize the government, as they are duty-bound to do in a democratic society, it is easy to portray them as “leftist” and subversive. The same is true for academia.

And finally: The “virus”. The description of political opponents as infectious agents or disgusting vermin is one of the most distinguishing features of the extreme Right. It is sufficient to remember Dr. Joseph Goebbels’ film “The Eternal Jew”, in which the Jews were shown as rats spreading disease.

If one puts all these features together - the hatred of “the elite”, the glorification of the army, the contempt for “the politicians”, the demonization of the peace camp, the incitement against the media – it’s the ugly face of fascism that emerges. Here in Israel and all over the world.

No less important are the location and the company.

Ya’alon spoke at a gathering of the “Jewish Leadership Faction”. This is a group of ultra-ultra rightists, who entered the Likud with the declared objective of conquering it from within. It is headed by one Moshe Feiglin, hence its followers are usually called “the Feiglins”.

On the eve of the last elections, Binyamin Netanyahu made an all-out effort, using kosher and not-so-kosher means, to remove Feiglin from the Likud’s list of candidates. He was determined to avoid the Likud being presented as an extreme-Right party. The Likud’s main competitor, Kadima, defined itself as a center or moderate-rightist party and tried very hard to push Netanyahu to the right. Netanyahu thought that by driving the Feiglins out he could blunt this attack.

The question is whether this was his only aim. If so, why did he raise Benny Begin, a person who personifies the far-right, into a conspicuous place on the list? And why did he enlist and embrace Moshe Ya’alon, who was already known as a person of extreme rightist views? That embrace was very costly, since in the end Kadima, against all expectations, won one seat more than the Likud.

But Netanyahu, a born politician, had more than one objective in mind. He was afraid that Feiglin would one day threaten his hold on the Likud leadership. To forestall this possibility, he denied Feiglin a seat in the Knesset.

And here comes Ya’alon, Netanyahu’s pampered protégé, and joins Feiglin of all people. As the Hebrew saying goes, the swallow went to visit the crow. But it is not quite clear who is the swallow and who the crow. Is Feiglin using Ya’alon – or is Ya’alon intending to use Feiglin in order to position himself as the leader of a big extreme-Right camp?

One should also pay attention to Ya’alon’s declaration that “I am not afraid of the Americans”. The Americans demand the freezing of the settlements? To hell with them! Who do they think they are? What, these Goyim are ordering us around? Barack Obama wants to tell us where we can settle and where we can’t?

That is another feature of the emerging Israeli fascism: the readiness to engage in an open confrontation with the United States, and especially with President Obama. Already an Israeli campaign against “Barack Saddam Hussein”, the New Hitler, is in full swing. The American Right and the Israeli Right easily find a common language. An Israeli woman in the US is heading the well publicized effort to prove that Obama was not born in the US, that his father never was a US citizen, and that he should therefore be driven out of the White House.

The whole thing borders on madness. Israel is dependent on the US for practically everything: economic assistance, arms, intelligence cooperation, diplomatic support like the veto in the Security Council. Netanyahu is trying to avoid a confrontation by using every trick of deceit and diversion. And here come Ya’alon & Co. and call for an open revolt against the USA!

There is method in this madness. The Israeli education system glorifies the Zealots, who some 1940 years ago declared war on the Roman Empire. The Zealots became the leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine and launched a revolt that had no chance at all of succeeding. The rebels were defeated, Jerusalem was destroyed, the Temple was burned to the ground.

The bogie horror show has wider ramifications.

It presents a picture of a mad group of extremists challenging the moderate, responsible Netanyahu. Netanyahu signals to Obama and his people: Help! If you pressure me on the freezing of the settlements and the dismantling of the outposts, it will be the end of me! My government will fall, and you will have to deal with the crazies!

That would be more convincing, if Netanyahu had used his legal prerogative and dismissed Ya’alon from the government, even though that represents a political risk. Instead, “Bibi” summoned “Bogie”, like a headmaster who summons a boy and orders him to write a hundred times “I shall be a good boy”. So Ya’alon remains Vice Prime Minister, Minister in Charge of Strategic Affairs and a member of the governing Sextet of Ministers (the others being Avigdor Lieberman, Benny Begin, Eli Yishai, Dan Meridor and Binyamin Netanyahu himself.)
This being so, Netanyahu cannot evade responsibility for everything Ya’alon does and says.

By Uri Avnery
12:18 08/23/2009

- Uri Avnery is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He contributed this article to

Restored Border Mires bog brings floods of joy for wildlife

Rare mosses, dragonflies and wading birds will benefit
as they recolonise the wilderness north of Hadrian's Wall
Martin Wainwright, Wednesday 12 August 2009 14.15 BST

Rehabilitation of the Border Mires, an ancient peat bog, Kielder Forest, Northumberland. Photograph: Forestry Commission

The most sinister sounding of all Britain's scientifically treasured landscapes has been rescued two years ahead of schedule and restored to its natural state as a deep bog.

Famous as the retreat of the Mosstrooper outlaws who harried villages in Northumberland and the south of Scotland, the Border Mires have been reflooded in a £700,000 project after years as part of the country's strategic timber reserve.

Rare mosses, dragonflies and wading birds have started to recolonise the revived wilderness just north of Hadrian's Wall where soggy peat hags – waterlogged blocks of peat underground – go as deep as 15 metres. Special machinery, including a tractor with tyres 2.5 metres wide to prevent it sinking, have removed the last traces of Forestry Commission conifers.

The mires, formed in the great melt after the Ice Age, stretch between Kielder Water reservoir and Butterburn in Northumberland. With the trees gone, the lonely wasteland close to the former Blue Streak rocket-testing site at Spadeadam, looks much as it would have done to Roman legionaries serving their time on the Wall.

The restoration by the Forestry Commission, Northumberland national park, the county's wildlife trust and RAF Spadeadam, includes access along boardwalks to previously unreachable parts of the mires. The wildlife is spectacular and internationally important; Britain has 13% of the world's remaining blanket bog and the mires are among the deepest.

Neville Geddes, from the Forestry Commission in Northumberland, said at an opening ceremony yesterday: "We get dazzled by the wonders of the rain forest and marvellous ancient woodlands. Bogs may lack the same immediate visual impact, but in many ways they are an even more endangered and fragile habitat."

The restoration has taken nearly four decades of "reverse landscaping", including the blocking of more than 15 miles of drains to allow water to seep back. The area was dried out after the first world war as part of a drive to renew timber supplies, a policy only reversed in 1970.

Mike Sutcliffe of Natural England's Northumberland staff, said that bog mosses had recolonised unexpectedly quickly, and the restored mires were already one of the North of England's richest dragonfly habitats. The 67 separate bogs which form the mires store more carbon that all the trees in the 155,000 acres of Kielder forest, and hold more liquid than Kielder Water, which is Europe's largest man-made lake.

* © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009