Letters to The Ethical Spectacle

Looking out the window as I write, I can see a radio tower, and, about one third of the way up, a huge osprey's nest in its struts. Yesterday I saw one of the ospreys soaring around the tower; once I saw both of them hovering over my house. The view on all sides of me is dunes, water, and the six or seven shades of green displayed by the remarkable, hardy vegetation which survives here. Around my house I have seen foxes, rabbits, snakes and toads, and I am a short walk from an Atlantic beach where the bluefish sometimes whip the water into froth.

But I drink only bottled water here, because the local wells are all contaminated with pesticides. Brookhaven National Laboratory, which is fifty or sixty miles from me, leaks radioactive chemicals into the surrounding water and air with wild abandon, including plutonium in the Peconic River, and then holds panels of scientists who announce that radiation is good for you. About twelve miles from my house is the troubled Millstone nuclear reactor in Connecticut (named by someone with a sense of humor), whose plume would pass over me in minutes if a Chernobyl-style incident ever occurred. A few miles from here, in Long Island Sound, is the federal Centers for Disease Control facility on Plum Island, which is in the process of being upgraded to a "level three" facility, to be used to contain and study ever more frightening diseases, even though we now know that microbes have escaped from there in the past, infecting animals outside the laboratory. And some people claim Plum Island is used to create pathogens, not just study them. Various groups study "cancer clusters" in the area and try to relate them to pesticides and radiation; the occurrence of breast cancer out here far exceeds that in New York City, 110 miles away.

I remember a law school classmate, who said one day over lunch, "The environment is just not important to me....its not my issue." The only answer was, "But you live in the environment." The technological determinism we all imbibe with our milk (along with those pesticides and radiation) is stunning, when you think about it. Do we really need Brookhaven or Millstone, and should the Plum Island facility be located where it is? If we need them at all, do their benefits outweigh their terrible flaws? If so, why? Its not a valid function of a supposedly democratic government to trade my life away without my consent for ambiguous or secret ends.

Your email makes the effort of doing the Spectacle highly rewarding. I can be reached as always at jw@bway.net.

Jonathan Wallace

The July Cover
Mr. Wallace,

I regret that I must observe that you have just lowered the Ethical Spectacle's standard to somewhere below that of the "journalism" on broadcast television. The cheap shot of posting on the front page a grisly image of (I presume) the immediate aftermath of an electrocution was both gratuitous and ill-considered.

I have been reading your site (and was interested enough to read the back issues) for some time now. I am very libertarian and often disagree with the viewpoints posted--but I continued reading precisely because I disagreed with them and thus found them thought-provoking. At least previous editions of the Spectacle seemed thoughtful and well-edited.

Many things in the world are grisly, disturbing, and disgusting. Many medical procedures that bring healing are all of these things to many who are unused to seeing them. Shall we then forbid surgery because of what it looks like while in progress? Of course not--but that is the level of "logic" to which you have descended by posting that image. I am going to presume for the sake of charity that you deliberately (rather than inadvertently) crossed the line that separates reasoned argumentation from emotional attack. You are of course free to continue the tactic if you prefer, but if so I predict that I will not be the only reader who will stop paying attention to your site.

The best time for me to read your site has often been while eating lunch--but that is a risk I will not take after having seen that picture on the Spectacle's front page (fortunately not while eating, that time). As I remember, you posted in a previous edition an observation to the effect that compassion was an essential ingredient of humanity. (I cannot imagine how you can sustain being the self-appointed arbiter of who is human and who is subhuman, and why, but that needs a different discussion.) Even television broadcasters, such as they are, can be bothered to serve notice that they are about to display potentially disturbing images.

Where is your compassion for those who would prefer not to be presented with grisly images unwarned?

Cian Ross

Mr. Wallace,

I am a student in Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science, currently taking a course titled "Censorship and Intellectual Freedom." Your briefing paper "Purchase of Blocking Software by Public Libraries is Unconstitutional," was distributed as reading for the course. This is possibly the hottest topic in Library Science these days.

I support unrestricted access to the Internet for ADULTS. My own primary concern is over Internet access and safety issues for children. In your paper you mention that your site http://www.spectacle.org was blocked by CyberPatrol because of its criticism of that filtering package. I don't know what the title screen of that site looked like at the time of your article, but I looked at it today and would be happy to know that images like that one are being blocked from my child's on-line experience. There is SO much valuable material on the Internet, and well-supervised filters allow access to most of it. At the same time, use of filters can significantly reduce the risk of children being inadvertantly exposed to inappropriate material.

This is just my two cents...

J.M. Lacey julie.lacey@simmons.edu

Jonathan Wallace replies: This is the first time readers have ever been upset by an image in the Spectacle. Although this one is certainly vivid, I think it was an appropriate illustration for the Death Penalty Legend piece, which made the point that we "assimilate" executions into our polite every-day lives by persuading ourselves that they are not violent or painful.

The image in question was not of a real person, let alone a real execution. It was based on a prop in an unusual store window display the artist photographed some years ago.

It is worth noting that in March, I ran a photograph of the corpse of Allen (Tiny) Davis (warning: very disturbing) after his execution by the state of Florida the previous July. I used the picture because the mainstream press wouldn't. I think until now the press has participated in the legend-making when its proclaimed job is to root out the truth. Refusing to print the Davis photo, which was clearly newsworthy, because it might be too upsetting for readers is the same as saying that the truth is too upsetting for readers. This picture emphatically refutes the thesis that electrocution is not violence.

The Davis photo was linked from the top page of the Spectacle with a warning that it was graphic. I received not a single complaint.

To me, the illustration in the July issue is much less disturbing than the Davis photo, precisely because it is not an image of a real person being executed. As such, I do not believe it required any prior warning to the viewer.

The Death Penalty Legend
Jonathan -

For a very long time I have felt that the death penalty should NEVER be applied in a civilized society, even for the most egregious, heinous crimes. Seems to me that, as you say, it is simply barbaric, even aside from the question of potential legal miscarriages/errors.

This probably stems from one of those things from my childhood that I just can't forget. It wasn't anything I experienced personally, but simply a newspaper account. To this day I remember where I was - on my granparents' front porch, in a nice 'burb of Philadelphia - reading the incredibly graphic account of the executions of the Rosenbergs (mid '50s, IIRC) in the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer - all the graphic details, including many of the horrors you mention here - smoke, sizzling, "cooked" appearance of the face, etc, etc - just horrible & barbaric. I have never been able to forget it.

Seems to me that the cost of lifetime imprisonment would not be too burdensome a tradoff. The economic cost of incarcerations, while substantial, is, I think, inconsequential realtive to the moral outrage that we commit in the supposed public interest by doing the kind of thing, which Texas has become expert in. And, I have heard repeatedly, the supposed deterrent value of the death penalty is small to nonexistent.

BTW - this gets a lot more press, very negative, in Europe than candidate Bush seems to appreciate.

Thank you again for this very thoughtful, moral plea.

-- Best regards,
Dr. Arthur H. M. Ross a.ross@ieee.org

Dear Mr. Wallace:

What can I add?

Keep up the good work.

You would do a little more good if you put this in public domain.

Nuff said.

Jon Hedquist jahedqui@mm.com

Dear Jonathan,

Your discussion of "The Death Penalty Legend" in the July Spectacle was moving and convincing. As must be done if we are going to convince the broad spectrum of capital death supporters that state killing is murder none-the-less, you addressed the issue from many perspectives. The psychology of public murder is complex, and it has yet to be soundly refuted as a legitimate recourse in "civilized" societies in large measure because of the influential hypnosis of authority over individual choice and "morality." You neatly summed up the elements of this issue in your essay, and I recommend all who have not read it to take time out of today and do so as a matter of urgency and social responsibility.

The information you offer regarding primed and unfired muskets discovered on the battlefields of the Civil War, as indicators of individual conscience overriding obvious tension with the strong motivation to please authorities---this kind of information is empirical evidence of a morality that challenges collective inculcation into jingoistic group thinking, even under the harshest possible conditions for the survival of an individual conscience. Likewise, you explore the strong drive that compells humans to conform, even to the extent of participation in the legend-formation that permits public murder to be propagandized as if it were a limb of public morality grasping for the perfected social order.

This is among the most insightful essays I have read in many years. I highly recommend it to your readers, and suggest its eligibility for broad dissemination as we attempt to define justice in an emerging global "civilization" which is itself too comfortable with marginalizing some lives as viable and important and minimizing others as illegitimate and expendable. Your observations about the true motivations of "civilization" itself deserve keen attention, to which I eagerly direct the attentive reader of The Ethical Spectacle, urging so curious and concerned a reader to contemplation instead of practiced, easy and habitual criticism. There is too much to gain here. It should be read and absorbed, understood and acted on.

Ben G. Price BenGPrice@aol.com

A Created Universe Would Not be Proof of God
Hello Jonathan,

Hello Jonathan, I today stumbled across your web site, and have found it interesting, especially the prisoner's dilemma. While I normally dont comment on such diatribes, nevertheless I thought you mind benefit by my response. You will find it below.


Scott Daniels

In Lizard's article - "A Created Universe Would Not be Proof of God", he attempts to not only make God irrelevant to inventing a workable human ethic, but actually believes that His existence and any historical/religious writings to be ultimately destructive. One cant help but notice that he himself realizes the weakness of his argument in that he begins an Ad Homenim attack on his opposition before he even begins it - by characterizing all Christians as normally reactionary and unthinking. While I am not attempting to reciprocate, I do want to point out obvious fallacies in any philosophical argument for the benefit of the reader. The novice philosopher of course knows that when one's argument is weak, he often attacks his opponent.

Going on to a more substantive response, Lizard makes a number of assumptions which are far from unquestionable. The first assumption is his assertion that objectivity and reason is infallible. He cites scientific inquiry as a defense of its infallibility. Such however is far from the case. Scientists are men like any others in times past, and being such are subject to the same faults of holding opinions based on faith, tunnel vision, bigotry and the like. Just because they are scientists and philosophers does not make their arguments any less susceptible to fraud, deception, self-deception and mistake than those of priests and religious thinkers. One only needs to look at the fraud, religious dogma and censorship to opposing opinions practiced by those who believe in evolutionary biology to see an obvious example. Therefore, priests holding to a flat world theory are not the only ones who oppose new ideas.

The second assumption he makes is that reason is the only means to understanding. Man's capacity for understanding is highly limited by his experience or lack thereof. For an obvious example, look at a typical rebellious teenager. Their parents can argue the logical facts of the errors of his way, but the rebel will not be able to understand, his logic is insufficient. However, when the rebel has a child of his own, magically the things his parents told him now make sense. All who are parents have experienced this expansion of our human understanding within ourselves. There are possibilities of other such expansions in understanding are numerous. Until we have them however, our logic often fails us, for logic often cannot produce understanding.

The third assumption he cites is that one cannot gain understanding of moral and ethical ways from observing the Creation. To cite Christian scripture, "Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse". The reason Lizard and those like him cannot see these things are because they have cut themselves off by choice to true knowledge and understanding. As the scripture says - "the fool has said in his heart, there is no God". Which of us doesn't know innately that murder or stealing is wrong? One may cite the aberrant case in response, but it is the exception that proves the rule. No, we do know that murder and stealing are wrong. How do we know these things? By understanding, experience and observation.

To build an ethics on a foundation such as Lizard provides is like building a house on shifting sand. We have only to look at the French revolution, the Nazi regime and Stalinist Russia to see where such thinking leads. While I make one assumption in my argument - that there is a God and it is incumbent on men to seek Him, if we kick the feet out from under the shaky assumptions the Lizard makes, my assumption doesn't look so improbable. I also attest that whoever walks in it, that is seeks God, will also have his understanding enlarged and his darkened heart enlightened - mine has been.

Scott Daniels scottdky@scrtc.com

Lizard replies:

My response is simple:Which god?

There are a thousand creation myths, a million gods. There is no 'proof' of one which is not proof of several, if not all. "Seek and ye shall find"? A million seekers have found a million gods -- which are the true ones? Study the creation and you shall know the creator? Such is a fearful prospect -- the creator, if we are to judge from the creation, is both incompetant and a sadist. (I mean, what kind of sicko makes a ten thousand year old universe that LOOKS 15 billion years old -- and sets up a torture chamber for anyone who trusts what their mind tells them about the universe?)

Consider the 'logic' of Mr. Daniels:Scientists have made errors, therefore, we must turn to priests. BUT...we only know the scientists are wrong BECAUSE of the scientific method...because we know there is a knowable, objective, reality. Science carries within itself the means to detect, and correct, its errors -- religion does not. Religion relies on revelation and proclamation, and brooks no testing, no questioning, no re-evaluation. "God said it, I believe it, that settles it" is the beginning and ending of religious 'thought'. Again, this fails the first time someone asks "Which God said it?" -- which is why those who ask such questions are usually used as kindling. [1]

Objectivity and reason are not infallible, but they are the only tools we have which allow us to understand the universe. Nothing else works -- period. I'd rather have an imperfect tool than no tool at all. What Mr. Daniels is saying is, in effect:"You cannot trust your mind -- so trust my instincts. You cannot trust your eyes -- so trust my visions. You cannot trust your reason -- so trust my faith." Failure to blindly accept ones own blindness, and anothers mystical sight, means ones heart is darkened.

It's also an absolute defense against any test. "If you don't see God, it means your heart isn't pure enough, your quest isn't true enough. It's YOUR fault you don't see God!" Consider what effect this has on an intelligent, rational, human being -- being told that he is a moral failure because he cannot deactivate his mind. Small wonder we live in a psychotic world. As I've said before, the problem is not too little God, it's too much. (www.mrlizard.com\nogod.html)

As Mr. Daniels himself notes, any sane person can tell that the initiation of force is immoral by understanding, experience, and observation. We do not need a 'God' to tell us this. (Indeed, many Gods, including Yahweh, have told us just the opposite. Shortly after committing the murder of innocents in Egypt, God told his 'chosen' (suckers!) people "Thou shalt not kill" -- then ordered them to commit genocide in order to claim 'the holy land'. Why was this necessary? God could have made a new 'holy land' that was uninhabited. He could have moved every man, woman, and child in the 'holy land' to some uninhabited part of the world. Being God, and being all-knowing, he could have kept the 'holy land' sealed from habitation until it was ready to receive the chosen people. But he didn't. This leads to the following choices:

a)The God of the Bible is a murderous, incompetent, psychopath.

b)The Bible was written by a bunch of semi-literate desert nomads who, being the winners, got to write the history books.

As a final note -- why is it only Christians who are so unsure in their faith that they need scientific 'proof' of the existence of their god? I have never seen a Wiccan, Odinist, Buddhist, Jew, Hindu, or Shinto who felt that Darwin and their deities of choice could not peacefully coexist. Only Christians, and only a particularly odious subset of them, seem so weak and hesitant in their faith that they feel compelled to march into a lab instead of a church. (Which wouldn't be so bad, except they march into the lab and then clap their hands over their ears and scream 'la la la, I'm not listening to you')

[1]Which brings to mind this -- although scientists are wrong on occasion, aren't priests wrong far more often? According to Mr. Daniels, all but one of the countless millions of gods imagined are just that -- imaginary. (I, therefore, believe in only one fewer god than he does). And even the priests of his preferred god have made hideous errors, resulting in the deaths of millions. Indeed, no one can be SURE they're right until they're dead -- and then there's no way to publish your findings. I'll put my faith in science, thank you very much. Scientific errors usually just kill the scientist.


Schindler's List
Mr. Wallace,

I am responding to your article on Schindler's List. To start off, I think it is a well written article. Unfortunately, I do not agree with you, but I still think that it is well written. I was surprised, however, that you did not mention the fact that it was based on Thomas Keneally's book. This is the basis for a lot of what happens in Schindler's List. Obviously, there is going to be some creative license taken, but I think that when Spielberg directed it, he was trying to be as true to the book as possible. Perhaps there are a few similarities and common themes within Schindler's List, but I think that is because they were filmed by the same director. You also say in your article that the only film Spielberg knows how to make is E.T., yet the only examples you give to support this are Schindler and The Color Purple, which, is based on the book by Alice Walker. I understand that you were writing the article on Schindler's List, but I was not convinced that all of his movies are alike. I didn't think that there was enough evidence to support this claim. Oskar Schindler was a war profiteer who managed to see the inhuman side of the Holocaust. I don't think that the Schindler survivors, or any Holocaust survivors, for that matter, would find it to be a happy story. In your paragraph about the tough moral choices, you are correct. Schindler does not have many morality based choices to make. There is one big one, however, and that is when he decides to save his workers. You might notice in the end that he has become a fugitive. He has to make the choice between saving 1,100 people or being caught by the Nazis and put to death. He is, after all, a member of the Nazi party. Also, what about the choice that Amon Goeth must make with Helen? When he is talking to her in the basement, don't you think that he knows that he is putting himself in an unfavorable position? Or how about when he tells Oskar that he wants to take her back to Austria with him, but knows he can't? Do those not count as tough moral choices!

Our hero (Schindler) in this movie is by and large human, and humans aren't going to always make the right decisions. One good thing, I thought, was the fact that you mentioned Hollywood cannot make a film about the ordinary. This is true, but only because no one would go and see it if it were about the mainstream. People go and see films to be entertained. They are not going to see a film about everyday life because they could have just stayed at home and not paid seven or eight dollars to see it on the big screen. Hollywood, by far, is an industry, and industries have to make money. They have to do things that appeal to the consumers to make money. This is why you don't see a lot of films about the ordinary. I also don't think you are right in saying that it hasn't changed anything. Perhaps Schindler's List didn't change anything. But overall, it wasn't supposed to. It was supposed to teach, and it was supposed to teach you about the Holocaust. Again, I don't think I can stress enough that this was based on a book. If you didn't like the film, perhaps you should write an article damning the book instead.

Nikolette Killian nikolette_k@yahoo.com

An Auschwitz Alphabet
Dear Mr. Wallace:

Your Web site, Auschwitz Alphabet was included in a round-up of online Holocaust reference sites in the July 2000 issue of Booklist magazine. Booklist is published by the American Library Association.

Thank You,
Michelle Kaske
Publishing Assistant
Booklist/Reference Books Bulletin

Dear Jonathan:

Hello to you.

I came upon your web site while researching information about Dr. Hubertus Strughold. Though I am still looking for more info about how he could have escaped accountability for his apparent knowledge of human experimentation and thereby avoided the medical trials in Nuremburg, I was quickly drawn to read some of your information.

Please note: "In 1941-1945, a cloud passed over the face of Europe . . ." That cloud occurred in the previous decade. It is just that the United States formally entered the war in 1941. To someone who may be critical, the way you phrased this may cause one to discount some of the accuracy about your main topic.

Regarding: ". . . it is but the largest and most significant of the many genocides in this century . . ." I absolutely agree. I believe that it is occurring presently--and is probably a concurrent event with most wars in which various racial groups and religions have attempted to live side by side during peacetime, but when war comes . . . [examples are Cambodia, Laos, Kosovo, and various countries in Africa--even black against black]

If you will allow me to say this, however. It is not an honorable stance to mix a category of behavior (homosexualism--something of choice) with race or color: ". . .the Jews of Germany, Austria, France, . . .were decimated, along with Gypsies, homosexuals and millions of civilian bystanders to the war."

General Colin Powell while Chairman of the Joint Chiefs made that clear. As a black man, he made it clear that the social issue of racism should in no way be grouped or compared with those of that persuasion.

Perhaps you might reconsider and thereby enhance your moral position. Just my opinion.

I would finally like to comment about this: "You poke your head outside of New York City and discover that there are people who never learned about the Holocaust, universities where it is regarded exclusively as a Jewish studies issue, . . ."

I grew up in the 50's and 60's and knew of Hitler and the war and insinuations about Holocaust activities. When I entered the AF Academy as an 18 year old young man, I was quickly awakened about the horrors inflicted. We saw the actual films of murder and carnage, of the ovens and mass graves. It is real, and we must never forget--and won't because of the Holocaust Museum (and because of people like you who attempt to inform, thank you!!)

Here is wishing you the best.

Col Jim Dixon James.Dixon@brooks.af.mil