Letter to The Ethical Spectacle

Last month something happened that hadn't in ten years of The Ethical Spectacle: There were no letters usable for a letters column. I heard from only three people all month, all of them checking attributions on past articles.

This month makes up for it; I heard from a wide variety of people, from various parts of the world, about a large number of things I'd written. April's lead article, on Terri Schiavo, triggered more mail than anything I've done in a long time.

One thing I've learned in half a century is that I'm driven by a sense of community, particularly the pleasure of friendly, intellectually-stimulating interaction with other people, more than I am by money, pride, a drive to accomplish, or other factors. The reason I've kept publishing the Spectacle for 125 monthly issues is simply because you write to me.

Keep those cards and letters coming.

Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Spectacle Letters Column Guidelines. If you write to me about something you read in the Spectacle, I will assume the letter is for publication. If it is not, please tell me, and I will respect that. If you want the letter published, but without your name attached, I will also respect that. I will not include your email address unless you ask me to. This is in response to many of you who have expressed concern that spammers are finding your email address here. Flames are an exception. They will be published in full, with name and email address. I have actually had people follow up on a published flame by complaining that they thought they were insulting my ancestry privately. Nope, sorry.

Terri Schiavo
Dear Jonathan:

Your article on Mrs. Schiavo was informative and candid.

Great job.

Mark Antony Rossi

Dear Jonathan:

It's been a long time since I've read your site, and since I've written to you - but I thought I would share my opinion on the Terry Schiavo case - as we're on totally opposite sides.

If you've seen the brain-scans of the poor woman, you would see that more than 70% of her brain was destroyed. Further results showed that there was no activity in the brain - just in the brain-stem.

The woman that was Terry Schiavo died 15 years ago, not a few days ago. It was just an empty shell lying behind, still breathing. I find it deeply disturbing that some people want to keep people animated for so long a time after they are dead.

Personally I think it's time for me to find out what the laws on this is in Norway, where I live, and whether I can prevent someone from keeping my body animated for so long in such a Frankensteinesque manner after my departure.

Rune Kristian Viken

Dear Jonathan:

I just read your April musings and found it very agreeable on most levels. As a physician I've had the unfortunate task to help families decide on end of life issues for those terminal and in need of comfort and for those slowly going downhill mentally but who are otherwise healthy.

In many regards easing the discomfort of those terminal ill is, to put it crassly, a no brainer. While a patient's death may or may not be accelerated the provision of comfort for those with no other possible conclusion to their lives can only be considered a blessing.

For those who in one sense are gone but are healthy in other ways the issues are much harder to sort out. My general rule is to let the family decide, if no directives have been provided by the patient. To date I have not overruled a family nor have I run into a situation wherein a family is split beyond the initial denial of bad news. If I was in charge of Schiavo, knowing what I know from the news reports my inclination would be to err on the side of life. Given the additional information of potential conflicts of the spouse, which I'm surprised, was apparently not a factor in the court proceedings in the news accounts I've read, I would only hope my resistance to pulling the tube would have stiffen.

Charles Krauthammer wrote an article At http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A58464-2005Mar22.html that echoes your sentiments without the piscine references. You may find it of interest. Of note is the following:

And we do not go around euthanizing the minimally conscious in the back wards of mental hospitals on the grounds that their lives are not worth living.

Charles Krauthammer is paraplegic and I would not be surprised if hidden in this statement is concern of the slippery slope wherein euthanasia is introduced in those minimally aware of their surrounding and then gradually expanded to include those who are just a burden. As for a possible connection to abortion here is an article http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-1528319,00.html from the Times of London concerning a late term abortion for a child who was found to have a cleft palate. The article itself concerns itself about the attempt to prosecute the doctors involved in the abortion and the court's decision not to prosecute. In effect the mother obtained an abortion for a serious but not life threatening condition that would have been a burden for her.

Over the years I've become more libertarian but I do believe that morality must trump convenience. Now if only I can rectify my inconsistencies.

Two asides:


I think that there is enough in the Schiavo case to get the anti-abortion groups and the disabilities groups working together and for the conservative side. Thus while I think that Congress' actions can be interpreted on several levels, considering the wording of the bill that was passed (according to the various reports I've read) and how it differs from the verbiage I've heard from both the left (Jesse Jackson, Nader and Harkin all supported the bill and/or maintaining her life) and the most likely reason is maneuvering by a mostly conservative group to obtain a political advantage and at the same time not expecting any intervention by the federal courts. This would also beg the question was the wording of the law a compromise that prevented a full review of the case but was done in order to allow the congress appear to be doing something.


With regards to your musings a couple months ago wherein you stated that the Iraqi election should have be postponed because security could not be guaranteed by the state I think you missed an important point. For a state to be stable and empowered and democratic it must obtain its legitimacy from the people. If the state has the ability to postpone elections in advance because it is too dangerous or unsafe or whatever it assumes a patronizing role and takes away the people's power to convey legitimacy. It sets up the potential for the scenario of "One Person, One Vote One Time."

With warm regards

Joe Schuster

Dear Jonathan:

I suggest taking a look at the Abstract Appeal blog: http://abstractappeal.com/ I've found it has the best legal information and documents on the Schiavo case.

You said:

The sole witness, as I understand it, was her husband, who said she had told him she would not wish to be sustained by artificial means.

Not correct at all.

http://abstractappeal.com/archives/2005_04_01_abstractappeal_archive.html#111247 976256953671

Yet even as much of the country learned that a trial had been held and the judge found the evidence clear and convincing that Terri wished not to receive life-prolonging medical care in this sort of situation, another myth began to emerge. And this one never went away. It did not overtake everyone, but host after host, national news channel after national news channel, editorial board after editorial board -- an astounding number of media figures -- seized on, criticized, lamented, praised, or otherwise discussed something that never, ever happened:

That the clear and convincing evidence of Terri's wishes was just Michael Schiavo's word. ...

How is it possible that none of these people -- or at least the folks who feed them information -- ever read what the trial judge actually said about the evidence he relied on?

Look back at Judge Greer's February 2000 order. He explained that the clear and convincing evidence did not come from Michael's testimony alone. In fact, the judge acknowledged, without necessarily accepting, a guardian ad litem's position that Michael's testimony could not amount to clear and convincing evidence.

Looking at the trial judge's ruling, he did rely on Michael's testimony, but he also placed tremendous weight on Michael's brother and sister-in-law, Scott Schiavo and Joan Schiavo. The trial judge found their testimony and that of one of the Schindlers' witnesses to be so significant that he had their trial testimony transcribed after the trial so he could review it again. ...

I have carried many comatose people, and my understanding of "persistent vegetative state" would be that the patient lies supine, staring into space, with a vacant expression at all times.

No. It's a medical term of art, having to do with loss of higher brain functions.

But when I heard the smile described as a meaningless reflex, an automatic act, little alarm bells went off.

Well, it's true. Smiling is one of the most basic human reflexes.

It seems possible that we are assigning a woman who retains some cognition, and therefore some quality of life, to a lower mental status, for unspoken purposes.

Given the quality of the doctors on the "persistent vegetative state" side, and the lack of quality on the other, and the fairly long undisputed history of severe brain-damage, I think it's clear that as much as anything is a medical certainty - the above isn't the case here.

That something which looks identical to panic is born of some completely unrelated set of automatic responses is, of course, not impossible, but potentially violates Occam's Razor by seeking a more complicated explanation than necessary.

Ah, but the key is that it's not *COMPLETELY UNRELATED*. The same "machinery" is at the base of both. Whether that means that they are *the same thing* is different. There's actually a mind-body duality philosophical issue here. I think you're assuming mind is completely separate from body, body can take no action without mind, therefore an action indicates mind, *and so* mind must be identical (quote - "that they are feeling the same thing"). But the definition of "reflex" in this framework is almost exactly "body-action without (higher) mind". Do you mean "feeling" in terms of "sensation" (which is true is probably the same), or "feeling" in terms of "emotion" (which is probably not similar, between you and a fish). That is, the difference between "I feel cold" (sensation) and "I feel sad" (emotion).

Anyway, I recommend reading:


-- Seth Finkelstein

Everything else

Re: An Appeal to the US Army:

My name is James Powell. I am a serving military member in a allied armed force, having joined in May, 1996.

You are living in a total divorce from reality if you expected ever that your child who joined a armed force (in this case, the US Army) would not be posted to a combat arena.

When I joined up, I signed a form acknowledging "unlimited liability" for myself. This means that the orders that are given are ORDERS, not requests, and that I cannot legally refuse them. If your daughter had not eaten the salt from the military for the last 6 years, then I could understand total reluctance on her (and your) behalf to be drafted into fighting. However, she has agreed, in the same way that I have, that she would accept certain liabilities in respect to payments for her services.

She ate the (presidents) salt, and she now has to pay it back. It is that simple. Her death may result. That is the way it is. Sorry, life is like that. She (and yourselves) understood that there were risks involved, and that there was a chance that she would be posted to combat. This is clear from the questions you were asking. Therefore, without anything in paper (writing) stating that your daughter would be safe, posted only to a US base in the US, ect, you have deceived yourselves into believing that a military, which has exactly 1 role (killing people before they kill it) would take your daughters best interest into heart/concern. It won't.

I would find sympathy if your daughter had tried leaving the military for any of a wide variety of reasons prior to her posting to Iraq. I have no sympathy for either her or you to try and squelch out of her duty after she has been given orders. None. She ate the salt, now she has to pay for it, else wise someone else who has not had the benefit of 5 years of living on the militaries dollar will be replacing her.

James Powell
My Opinion, not my Employer's.

Dear Jonathan Wallace:

My name is Jeremy Maine. I am an 18 year old high school student doing a debate on if flag burning should be legal in protest. I read your article and it made me very ashamed of you. First of all I have a counter to every one of your points that you made, regardless of that though, the United states flag representes freedom that our veterans have, are and will continue to fight for. Our freedom! When someone burns the American flag they are usually mad at the government correct? so how would burning a symbol of your freedom be an insult to the government? Isn't it just spitting on the veterans that have fought for your freedom?

You talked about how the flag was a signifier and not a sign. How van you say that our flag has no meaning? When an idividual looks at a flag do you think they see a flag or do they see our country's pride? I think you need to restate that better.

Jeremy Maine

Dear Mr. Wallace:

Subject: I just your read your Natural Rights Don't Exist.

I found it very interesting because it has reflected my own musings over the last 3 decades as I live out my day to day working life, pausing every now and then to actually think.

I also recently read up on two opposite phrases that pick around the debris I find as I work out another occupation more suitable for retirement: Landlording. (I'm 59 yrs).

The two phrases are "Entitlement" vs "Victimization".

And the strangest idea of all - with God, one is neither entitled nor a victim. With God, one is in something else - I guess it would be a state of grace. The black preacher didn't spend enough time on that one for me to get into it far, so I can't say much about it.

"Natural rights" coincides with Entitlement, while I would guess that survival of the fittest (yet another tautology) aligns more with victimization.

I have oft thought that what everyone wants most is freedom FROM responsibility while I want freedom WITH responsibility. I demand, "Give me Responsibility and Freedom to do what I can to achieve it." I argue that every parent should give and demand this from their children. At first, obedience, then finally, set them loose on the world with this type of attitude, Freedom WITH Responsibility, firmly ingrained.

Since mankind have mouths, it is all about negotiation, isn't it? Yet, we so easily tire of negotiating and fall back on force. See http://antiwar.com/quotes.php

Thanks and best regards,

Herb Fisher

Dear Jonathan:

Just a quick word to say I'm absolutely rapt to see and read through your website.

Of particular interest are your words on Kent State massacre. I was 13 then, and living in Canada, so the war was just stuff on the front page of the Toronto Star that I delivered. However, I recall KSU disturbing me... as it was fairly close to home.

I can't make a donation just yet, but have bookmarked and will visit regularly. When I can, I'll put words together on other injustices, and in particular on why the act of protesting has all but died today, and send them for your consideration.

I'm hoping you'll allow me to quote from your site particularly on KSU - with full credit - in a little public radio show I do in Sydney, Australia.

You must be proud of your father and of your actions when you linked arms. We need more people like you today.

Kind regards
Robert Lee

Dear Jonathan,

I just stumbled across your article on Columbine tonight. I saw a documentary of Columbine on the History Channel tonight and wanted to read a little more about what made these 2 kids go nuts.

Anyway, in researching I came across your article and as a Father of a little girl, I too am concerned about the violence in our schools. BUT, I do believe that attacking guns and firearms are the wrong way to go about your fight. I was deeply disturbed by your thoughts and reasoning on how guns are the problem. We need to focus on the real issues.

In this documentary I saw tonight, Eric (one of the Columbine gunmen) said "I'm out of bullets, maybe I should pull out my knife and start slicing up some people...that'd be more fun". Guns are NOT the problem. If just one of those teachers, or the principal, or the security guard or anyone in the school that day had a gun other than the criminals that entire incedent could have been minimized.

Please focus continue your fight, but fight the real enemy (crime, lack of parents involvement in their childrens lives, disinterested teachers and school staff, the mad intensity to remove God and prayer out of our schools, and on and on and on)...

Thank you, James

An Auschwitz Alphabet
Dear Mr. Wallace,

I always try to find the reasons for actions taken by people, human beings. Many of my friends tell me I should think less, or at least be less theroretical. Usually, every answer I get gives me another two questions.

The way I see it:

To be very general, I believe that there is one big reason for everything that people do. Out of all the options that every man has, he always selects the one that is best for him. A man is uncapable of selecting second-best option.Option number one is given by three influences:

a.. biological (some people are prone to alcohol addiction, some to adrenaline sports, some like brunettes)

b.. environmental (values given to you by the society you live in, by your family and experiences you have)

c.. situational (decision depends on the situation you find yourself. Taken, that a single action has multiple outcomes under different conditions).

I find these three, and the fact, that a man always goes for option number one, responsible for all things people do. It may seem too simple, but that is what I believe in.

(Btw.,for me, this brings up the question whether there is such thing as -true- free will. For me free will is the outcome of balancing these three elements)

Until now, I could reason anything that people do with my theory. Including things such as a.. love
b.. suicide (taken the three mentioned aspects it may seem (or be) option number one)
c.. revenge (I find revenge irrational, but it brings emotional relief, which is given necessary by mans biological nature)
d.. hate (a positon towards something that is a threat towards your goals)
e.. happiness
f.. etc...
Of course, answer based on this theory are very simple, and bring out other "whys" and "whatifs", but for me, the idea of three influences provides a solid foundation for all reasons humans need for things they do

However, this theory of mine was shaken 4 days ago.

I went for a visit to a concentration camp in Terezin (Theresienstadt). It was the first "such place" for me to visit, and it sure gave me a lot to think about. Mainly, to bring back old thoughts, that I had when I learned about the WW2 in schools or saw a movie. But now I see there is was a lot more to the visit for me, then just seeing the place with my own eyes.

Murdering someone may become option number one for people who do not value a human life more, then their own goal or belief. (mostly environmental, partly biological) - rational. It may be an act of revenge (mostly partially biological/situational, partly environmental) - irrational.

Genocide may be a good idea for an ill-minded person (biological aspect), who can support it by arguments, that fit into his values given by the environment.

But I just cannot understand, that when this ill-minded man comes up with the idea of killing out a certain race or ethnical group, such a great, organised, machinery is created to work out the plan. So far my theory was able to supply a good answer to all questions concerning human behavior. I understand, that people are capable of doing and supporting many crazy ideas, when given a good reason in a good way.

Genocide does not fit into it. All the possible reasons (and the ones brought to practice by Nazis) just wont do. By turning people into beasts in camps, you kill the human inside yourself as well, thus destroy all the values you may believe in. How could it have been possible to pass the idea to all the people who took part in genocide? More, what could have made all these people to cause such pain, misery, humiliation to others?

I find it improbable, that they all were a bunch of sickos, who have done it partly for pleasure. The ones who made furniture and book covers out of human bones and skins must have been, but all the others involved were no better. To fit my theory, I might admit, that all people are like this by nature, and only the rationales given by environment force us not to eat each other. But I do not want to accept this.

Finally, why am I writing you all this: My visit to Terezin made me want to find more info on the topic. I came across your page. I believe you have an opinion on what i wrote. Do you mind sharing? How do you look upon my theory human reasoning? What are your explanations for genocide(s)?

Martin Korvas
Praha, Czech Republic

Dear Jonathan,

With regards to your article What I Learned From Auschwitz I'd like to mention a couple of points that I don't think were considered in the article (but by all means correct me if I'm wrong).

Firstly with regards to the use of Occam's Razor. I don't think the article's argument is that conclusive. It correctly states that Occam's Razor tells us not to search for a complicated explanation when a simple one is available. However, we need to define what it is that we're trying to explain. If we want to decide whether there's a God or not then we need to do so on the basis of all the available facts, not just Auschwitz. If some other thing (call it X) is more simply explained by the existence of God, then we need to choose between a simple explanation of X plus a more complex explanation of Auschwitz (I found one example at http://www.watchtower.org/library/dg/ ), or a simple explanation of Auschwitz plus a more complex explanation of X . Of course, X would have to be very impressive to outweigh Auschwitz.

Secondly, with regards to the inmates' resorting to ignoble behaviour to survive, and the subsequent point about it not being a "credit card" (which is based on the premise that the inmates were not helped by any ideological virtue that is perpetuated by their group, and therefore their survival cannot be used as evidence for the group's ideology being good), may I ask if you have also considered the minority groups (besides the Jews)? I'm particularly thinking of the "Bibelforscher" who were offered freedom if they'd compromise their faith and support Hitler; most rejected this offer and assisted each other to survive in the camps. That suggests to me that their ideology was (and perhaps still is) more effective than most at withstanding assaults from the society they're in (if everyone were that strong then Hitler wouldn't have had anyone to work for him). Would it be worth changing "was not an ennobling experience" into "was very rarely an ennobling experience" in any future editions?


I am 78% German and my Entire family split up in 1900 to 1910 and some stayed in Gemany,Russia,Poland the others went to America, I live in Flordia in the U.S and I am doing a project on Religious Racism and I have been looking At the Hollocoaust websites on Google.com for 4 or 5 hours now and I happend to cross this webpage and i have read it all. I do not think with reading this long and hearing storys from my great grandmother and family over in Europe and reading extensivly now that I will never Forget what happend and when my family killed one another.

there are to many websites here that repeat the same thing over and over but never do a good job, but this and some other sites have done a very good job, this site inpaticular has moved me in a diffrent way of thinking.

Thank You For Your Work,

Richie Rogers

Dear Mr. Wallace:

my name is chima palmer and i am a 1st year student at the university of central england in birmingham studying visual communication (graphic design). i just want to thank you on your very informative guide to the holocaust through your aucshwitz alphabet. At the moment my project brief requires me to inform younger people about this crime on humanity as statistics show that most havent a clue on this sad event. you have influenced me to come up with an idea of redesigning your aucshwitz alphabet to inform the younger generation using graphical devices and techniques. Just so you know this is not to be shown to anybody but my lecturer when it is graded and my sketchbook shows your original ideas as my influence.

This is just a message of thanks and appreciation.

chima palmer

Dear Mr. Wallace:

I am taking a Holocaust course at Suffolk CCC and stumbled onto your site. I have found your writings and reflections remarkably similar to my own. At moments, I wonder if you are Jewish, because of some of your statements. (Not a criticism, but amazement)

I will bookmark your site and read it in its entirety when I have more time. I am taking 6 courses and its crunch time..

I wanted to you say thank you - you have given something - to me at least. I've been embedded in the 'misery' you said could drive one to depression.

Its been like stumbling into an oasis or flower garden. Neat, crisp, to the point, but flowing thoughts..... great read..


Jack Schaper