Personal Thoughts on Muath al-Kasasbeh

Muath al-KasasbehI have to say something about Muath al-Kasasbeh. But you have to understand that it is a personal thing. I have long known that death is not the worst thing; pain is. So while I am very much against murder, I think that torture is worse. Torturing someone to death is, of course, worst of all. So when I heard that the Islamic State had burned al-Kasasbeh to death, I was touched in a more profound way than I had been on hearing of the beheadings (even though they were done in a far more cruel way than necessary).

It took me so long to write about it because I needed to find out how these psychopaths did it. But I knew that I could not watch the video. As it is, I’m horrified and will continued to be haunted by it. Not to be too ghoulish about it, but there are more and less cruel ways to burn someone to death. For example, it is far more cruel to put a lobster into a vat of water and then bring it to a boil than to simply drop the lobster into boiling water. In the first case, the lobster suffers for much longer.[1] Horrifying as it is to contemplate, what these Islamic State representatives did was not as cruel as things that others have done in other places at other times.

But what they did was still unimaginably cruel. Basically, they did what Thích Quảng Đức voluntarily did to himself. Al-Kasasbeh was doused in gasoline. And then he was set on fire. He screamed and thrashed around his cage. This took something more than a minute. Then he collapsed. And then he was dead. I assume that by the time he collapsed, his pain system has stopped working and that he wasn’t really conscious. So we are talking about a minute and a half of hell on earth — far more pain than you or I will hopefully feel in our whole lives, compressed in a tiny slice of time.

When I was young, I knew little boys who enjoyed catching toads and throwing them far into the air to watch them splatter on the ground. I did not and do not understand this instinct. On the positive side, they were only children. On the negative side, these toads had done nothing wrong; there was no way that the boys could have imagined that smashing these toads was an act of justice or vengeance.

But there are similarities between the mindless brutality of the boys killing toads and the calculated torture murder of Muath al-Kasasbeh. The biggest is simply the lack of empathy. The boys did not think that the toads deserved the same concern as humans. And the Islamic State representatives clearly had reached the same conclusion about the actual human being Muath al-Kasasbeh.

This is an important aspect of fighting a war: dehumanizing the enemy. Because why else would anyone think it was all right to kill another human being? And to do it in the most cruel of ways? I’m still scarred from watching Saving Private Ryan. At one point, German soldiers are on fire, running from their their enclosures. And one of the Americans yells, “Don’t shoot! Let them burn!” That horrified me. That was one of the “good guys.”

Glenn Greenwald provided a large number of examples of another side of this cruelty, Burning Victims to Death: Still a Common Practice. It is about drone attacks. I’d never thought about it, because I figured that the targets were simply blown up — a quick death. But as a practical matter, those on the edges of an attack can be treated just the same Muath al-Kasasbeh.

From an article in The New York Times, Obama’s Forgotten Victims:

[Eight]-year-old Nabila, who, on Oct 24, had just returned from school and was playing in a field outside her house with her siblings and cousins while her grandmother picked flowers. At 2:30 pm, a Hellfire missile came out of the sky and struck right in front of Nabila. Her grandmother was badly burned and succumbed to her injuries; Nabila survived with severe burns and shrapnel wounds in her shoulder.

It isn’t my intent to equate any of this. But it is all part of the same thing. We limit our empathy. And when we do that, we are able to do anything to those we define outside our group. It is horrifying. And it is frustrating. We can send spaceships to the stars. But we can’t manage to treat each other with even the most basic of humanity. We use our great intelligence to justify why it is right or necessary. But the justifications sound hollow — like things you would hear on a grammar school playground. None of it rises much above, “He started it!” Meanwhile, the cruelty continues — as it has for all of human history.

[1] For the record, I think it is always wrong to cook lobsters alive.

Corporate-Government Collaboration Is One Way

Richard WolffIn this country, every automobile company in Detroit got subsidies from the Detroit and Michigan government. They got roads built to convenience their shipping. They got programs in the high schools to prepare people. They got very expensive government paid for benefits for decades. When they got up and left, no one said, “Excuse me, you’re not leaving unless you pay back! We helped you with the idea that you’d stay here. You wanna leave, okay. But you gotta pay back!”

—Richard Wolff
Our Economic Futures: Can Democracy Cure Capitalism?

Race as Social Construct

Race MythLast month, Jenée Desmond-Harris and Estelle Caswell wrote a great article over at Vox, The Myth of Race, Debunked in 3 Minutes. The “3 minutes” is a reference to a video they put together that I’ve embedded below. This concept should not be surprising to readers of this site. Actually, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone at this point. It’s just not a concept you can get hold of. It quickly falls apart in your hands. Even the idea of “African American” doesn’t make any sense because we all came from Africa.

There is, even more troubling, the fact that Africa is a really big place. We have seen this in discussions of the Ebola epidemic in Africa. Many people wanted to stop all flights from the continent as though Sierra Leone is the same as Kenya. (They are about 3,500 miles apart.) There is a strong sense that lumping all of Africa together is like dismissing the population as “those people” who just don’t matter.

Before there was the concept of race, we definitely had the idea of “peoples,” as in, “People of Haiti.” And that’s not to say that people weren’t just as bigoted then as they are now. As it was, people of one area often found no problem with enslaving the people of another. The United States posed a special problem for this kind of thinking, however. Michelle Alexander discusses this in her excellent book, The New Jim Crow. Early on, poor people had this annoying habit of binding together and rising up against their aristocratic oppressors. So the rich embraced this idea of the natural order of things whereby “blacks” were slaves. This allowed poor “whites” to feel superior, even in the squalor of their conditions. And this is an idea that continues to work to keep poor people down — fighting each other rather than their true oppressors.

Something I didn’t know about, however, has to do with sickle-cell anemia. This is a supposedly race-specific disease. In fact, you can still find bigots using it to justify the inferiority of blacks. But it turns out that sickle-cell anemia is simply an evolutionary response to having recent ancestors who lived in areas with Malaria. That includes Africa, but also southern Europe, Persian Gulf, and India. I don’t think that most people would think of Indians and Angolans as the same race.

All of this means that race isn’t real as in a scientific thing. But that doesn’t mean that race isn’t a real social construct. I don’t think there is much that is more fundamental to our society than racism. As a result, we can’t not talk about “African Americans” and “Latinos.” Because those constructs are real. But they don’t speak to any fact about a given individual; they just speak to our racism and how we aggregate individuals. And as a result, we need to continue to talk about it. The conservative notion is ridiculous that it is talking about these distinctions that is the real cause of racism.

As I know only too well in myself, my racist tendencies are not manifested in articles like this one. Rather they are manifested in subconscious reactions to people who don’t look like me or don’t have names like mine or any number of other things. These are the things that create the arbitrary categories that we call races. And on top of that has been built a political, social, and economic structure that physically renders these prejudices. The Vox article sums it up:

The racial categories to which we’re assigned, based on how we look to others or how we identify ourselves, can determine real-life experiences, inspire hate, drive political outcomes, and make the difference between life and death. But these important consequences are a result of a relatively new idea that was based on shaky reasoning and shady motivations.

So we continue to talk about race, because social constructs matter. And not talking about them doesn’t make them go away; it just hides them so they can fester — allowing people to believe (without thinking about it) that these constructs are based on something more than our individual and collective racism.

We Owe the Dead Because We Care for the Living

Funeral of GrisóstomoI was having a conversation with Ramona Grigg recently. You probably know her from one of her blogs Ramona’s Voice and Constant Commoner. Anyway, we were discussing the new book that Harper Lee is publishing. I became substantially less excited when I found out that it wasn’t something new, but rather a novel she had written before To Kill a Mockingbird. Generally, reading that sort of thing is disappointing — just a historical curiosity. But maybe not. We’ll see. Regardless, this led to a discussion of author’s intend.

Grigg mentioned that she had checked out a book of Willa Cather’s short stories, and discovered in the introduction that the author had explicitly said she didn’t want the included stories published. But here they were. Grigg was horrified by this and so didn’t read the book. That shows an admirable level of ethics. After all, Cather is long dead. But it got me thinking about the issue. And fundamentally, I don’t think it is a matter of Cather or any other dead person. But I do think that it is really important to respect the dead — because of the living.

In chapter 13 of the first volume of Don Quixote, this issue is discussed at the funeral of Grisóstomo. He is, from my vantage point in life, a supremely silly young man who killed himself because a young woman he loved, Marcela, didn’t love him back. But before he died, he asked that all his writing be burned with his body. As a result, his friend Ambrosio was set to do just that. But an outsider, Vivaldo, bristled at this idea. And he presented a fairly compelling argument for not following Grisóstomo’s wishes:

You would treat them even more harshly and cruelly than would their owner himself, for it is neither reasonable nor right to obey the wishes of someone who commands you to do that which goes beyond all reason. Who would have thought it right had Augustus Caesar consented to the divine Virgil’s dying wish, and allowed the Aeneid to perish? Accordingly, Señor Ambrosio, consign the body of your friend to the earth, but do not consign his writings to oblivion, what he ordered because he had been wronged, you ought not to execute out of imprudence. Rather, by preserving the life of those documents, which bear eternal witness to Marcela’s cruelty, let them serve as an example to those who live in future times, to shun and flee from such dangers.

Ambrosio won’t budge on this, because he was Grisóstomo’s friend. So Vivaldo grabs some of the papers and Ambrosio allows him to keep and read them, but will not allow more. It is all a set up for Cervantes to insert a rather long poem into the text. Cervantes always considered himself a poet above all else. But no one takes him seriously on this score — including me. Even in Spanish, they seem mediocre to me. In translation, they are usually dreck.

But this argument between Ambrosio and Vivaldo leaves out what I think is the most compelling of arguments in favor of honoring Grisóstomo’s request: the way it affects the feelings of the living about how they will be treated in death. Whether one believes in an after life or not, it can’t be that the dead care about how we treat them. Consider the ending of the Iliad. After killing Hector, Achilles drags his body around from his horse. That greatly distressed Hector’s father, King Priam. But it clearly didn’t distress Hector at that time. The idea of it, however, did greatly distress Hector while he was alive.

That is why I think honoring the wishes of the dead matters. And I suppose that puts me down on the baby side of the “save a baby or the last copy of Shakespeare’s complete works” question. It would be sad if we didn’t have the Aeneid. But I’m afraid that life is for the living. And that is why we honor the dead.


For this article, I used Burton Raffel’s excellent translation of Don Quijote.

Eubie Blake

Eubie BlakeOn this day in 1887, the great ragtime songwriter and pianist Eubie Blake was born. He was a successful musician throughout much of his life — but certainly not a star. Of particular note is his work in vaudeville as “Dixie Duo” with Noble Sissle. In early 1921, the two of them wrote a number of songs that would go on to form the basis of the musical revue, Shuffle Along. It was a huge hit, but it is also historically important because it was the first hit Broadway musical written by and about African Americans. It ran for 504 performances.

That figure needs a bit of context. Today, Broadway shows run forever — because they are test marketed crap for people who really don’t like theater. But Fiddler on the Roof was the first Broadway musical to run more than 3,000 performances. It closed in 1972. In the 1920s, Broadway plays didn’t run nearly that long. There are only two plays in the longest running Broadway plays (pretty much over 1,000 performances). And neither are musicals. So Suffle Along was hugely successful. And it was revived in 1933 and 1952.

I assume because of the success of the film The Sting, ragtime became very big in the 1970s. And as a result, Blake became a star. To some extent, it was simply because he was the only ragtime composer still alive. But he wasn’t just alive. He was still performing. It seemed he was everywhere in the 1970s — even on Saturday Night Live during its fourth season. Blake’s new found celebrity resulted in another extremely successful Broadway revue, Eubie! which ran for 439 performances.

Here he is in 1972, performing some of his best known songs in Berlin. The video doesn’t sync to the music, but it doesn’t matter. It’s the sound we care about:

Happy birthday Eubie Blake!