Friday, 5 February 2016

Book Note: Karin Finell’s Good-Bye to the Mermaids

 (University of Missouri Press, 2006) is an autobiographical account of life in Germany during and after WWII from the perspective of a young German (non-Jewish) girl.  I learned about this book after my book club discussed Kate Atkinson’s novel Life after Life – which is partly set in Hitler’s Germany--and another member told me about it.  (For a review of Atkinson’s novel, see my blog of January 26, 2016,
Good-Bye to the Mermaids: a Childhood Lost in Hitler’s Berlin

I read Good-Bye to the Mermaids in almost one sitting on January 30, 2016, while waiting for a delayed plane to Winnipeg from Toronto airport.  It’s quite readable, and presents a subtle understanding of what life was like for anti-Hitler but not activist Germans, simultaneously hoping for an Allied victory and fearing Allied bombing.

Born in 1933, Karin Finell came from an educated and accomplished bourgeois German family.  Unusually, her parents were divorced and she lived with her mother and grandmother.  Her father, with whom she rarely had contact, was a newspaper editor in a small town in what eventually became East Germany.  Her father’s sister was a well-known poet.  Her grandmother had grown up in the United States and was thus somewhat immunized against Hitler’s propaganda.

During the war Karin experienced bombings and barely escaped death with her mother when one of their many temporary homes was destroyed. They moved from place to place as housing became ever scarcer; in between times, Karin was sent to various schools in the countryside.

Karin joined Hitler youth group for girls, as all German girls were obliged to do. Nevertheless, she seems not to have picked up the required amount of hatred of Jews. On a bus one day, she offered to give up her seat to an old man, as she has been trained to respect her elders. She did not realizing that the interesting star he wore on his coat meant he was a pariah: another man reprimanded her for offering her seat to a Jew.

Karin believed all the propaganda she was fed and worshipped Hitler.  Her family, fearful that she would betray them if they criticized Hitler in her presence, listened quietly and without argument whenever she told them how wonderful Hitler was. She did not realize until the end of the war how she had been duped, in part because—in her still childish mind—she felt betrayed when Hitler committed suicide.  

Like many “Aryan” German families, Karin’s family had Jewish, “half-Jewish” and other assorted “impure” relatives.  Karin overheard her family talking about how her cousin Maria wore around her neck  a gold locket containing cyanide.  She did not understand why: the reason was that Maria’s deceased father was Jewish, but that her step-father, a heroic General in WWI, was protecting her.

One of her mother’s closest friends was adopted by a non-Jewish couple, but her birth mother was Jewish. The Nazis locked her up until they could figure out whether her birth father was Jewish as well, so that they could properly categorize her, and she survived the war. Tragically, her adoptive parents were killed because they would not reveal her biological origins.

Another of Karin’s mother’s old friends lost her father, one of the 1944 plotters against Hitler.  He was hanged.

Image result for Karin Finell images
Karin Finell

As the war was winding down, Karin was permitted to leave a boarding school in then East Prussia (now Poland) on account of illness.  Shortly afterwards, the school was evacuated as the Russians advanced, but not soon enough.  The Russians raped a trainload of her fellow students. Karin ran into one of her friends some time later: the friend was attended by a nurse, and her eyes were completely was vacant.

Like almost all German women, Karin, her mother and grandmother were petrified with fear when the Russians invaded Berlin. They were living in the cellar of their bombed-out building: every so often a Russian would come in and say “Frau, komm” (woman, come) and take away some women to be raped. At twelve, however, Karin was already an excellent actress (she was later offered a job in East Berlin in a theatre run by Berthold Brecht, but turned the opportunity down to move to the U.S.). She disguised herself as a filthy, disabled and drooling female, so the Russians would overlook her. It’s not clear, though, how her  still-young mother escaped the fate of so many other women. 

Karin paid frequent visits to a 14-year-old friend who had been raped and impregnated, and who also contracted syphilis. Treatments for syphilis at the time were extremely painful, as was the friend’s illegal abortion: eventually, the friend escaped to the American zone of occupied Germany.

After the Americans took over the part of Berlin in which Karin and her family lived, life improved, as they were no longer close to starvation. By contrast, Karin’s three half-brothers living with her father in East Germany were still short of food in 1952. Her father visited her shortly before his death and was horrified to see her feeding a piece of chocolate to her dog, pointing out that her brothers had not seen chocolate since the war years.

This is a very good book just for people who like to read: it’s a shame it was published by a university press and probably did not get much publicity.  I also recommend it to colleagues who teach German or WWII history to assign to their students.  It would also be good for literature courses on autobiography, for women’s studies courses, or for courses in memory studies.



Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Book Note: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

Book Note: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life was widely reviewed after it was released in 2013, and has been very popular, not least among the women in the two book clubs in Hamilton, Ontario of which I am a member. I presented this book to one of my clubs on January 18, 2016.
The heroine of Life after Life, Ursula Todd, lives several different lives. Darkness descends over one life after another, and then the heroine emerges to live a new life, starting with her death the moment she is born. It’s not surprisingly, then, that one of the themes that reviewers have picked up on is the contingency of life. The novel asks what would happen if we could change history, or re-set the clock; we all wonder, sometimes, “what if” we had taken a different path, what would our lives be like.

Kate Atkinson
Ursula dies at her birth in 1910, but then she does not.  But she might well have: the infant mortality rate in the United Kingdom was 115/1000 in 1910 (compared to 250/1000 in Russia and 250/1000 in Germany). After World War I, everyone breathes a sign of relief until the Spanish flu comes along, maybe—or maybe not—killing members of her household.
In a review in The Guardian on January 12, 2014, Justin Cartwright wrote: “human life…hang[s] by a thread…our identities are not necessarily fixed.”  This raises the question, are we now the people we were at 20? At 40? How have we changed, and are the changes good or bad?  It also raises the question of whether we are mere victims of fate.  In the novel, Ursula’s psychiatrist introduces her to the phrase amor fati, or love of fate; and I have met people who say “Oh well, it was meant to be.” But I am interested in the question of whether we can influence things, not merely our own lives, but the lives of our families and those we love, and even the larger world. And I’m also interested in the question of how much obligation we have to try to influence that world.

Image result for Life after Life imageLife after Life is a political book, though reviewers seem to have neglected that aspect of it. The book opens with Ursula in Germany in 1930, assassinating Hitler. This is something we all wish someone had done: I believe that without Hitler, there would not have been genocide, though there still might have been another war. But in another life Ursula moves to Germany and becomes friendly with Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, whom she visits at his mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden. In this life Atkinson paints Ursula and Eva as innocents, Eva attending to Hitler’s every personal need while Ursula enjoys the view and raises her daughter. To me, this raised questions of moral culpability. Were Eva and Ursula, women without clout or power living in a man’s world, nevertheless obliged to pay attention to politics? 
In another life Ursula stays in London during the war, working as a civil servant during the day and as an air-raid warden at night. In this life we don’t have to worry about her obligation to affect the world: she is “doing her bit” as a heroic British citizen should, during the Blitz. One question raised at the book club meeting was whether Ursula actually had a core personality, moving as she did among different lives. I assumed she did, and the heroic, hard-working unmarried British woman was it.

Life after Life is also a feminist book, at least for those of us who know what life was like for most women in the Western world until the sea change of second wave feminism gave us rights after about 1970. It read, to me, like a novel about what could have happened to my Scottish mother (born in 1920) and what did happen to many women, and it shows women’s powerlessness until the last third of the twentieth century.

In one of Ursula’s lives a little friend is molested and found dead. If Ursula had been molested and lived, her parents would probably not have believed what had happened to her, unless she accused a lower-class molester, perhaps one of the traumatized veterans of WWI wandering around the country lanes, bothering Ursula’s upper middle-class parents and their friends. In another version of her life her older brother’s college friend rapes her and leaves her pregnant. A woman raped in 1926 by a “respectable” young man would have had little recourse against him. And if she’d had an abortion, she would have risked death or infertility, and disgrace and imprisonment if caught.
Nor could she have kept the baby and lived a respectable life: the stigma of being an unmarried mother with very few very few resources would have been too severe. As it happens, in October of 2015 I visited the Foundling Museum in London’s Russell Square, a museum of the first British
The Foundling Museum
home for unwed mothers set up in 1793, for otherwise “respectable” women who had somehow been seduced and traduced by various bounders and cads. The women’s employers or family members had to write reference letters to the Foundling Home promising that the mothers were otherwise respectable.

In yet another life, Ursula meets a charming man and marrieds him. Then he tries to imprison her at home, beats her, and ultimately kills her. In real life, wife-beating was considered a “domestic” matter in most of the Western world up until the 1970s, or even beyond.
In her German incarnation, Ursula is also affected by the inferior status of women. When WWII starts she wants to go back to England with her German-born daughter, but she can’t because she has married a German. In those days women did not have independent citizenship; they had to take the citizenship of their husbands. This is still the case in some parts of the world today. 

Image result for Woman in Berlin book imageIn this second German incarnation Ursula stays in Berlin, rather than being pals with Eva Braun at Berchtesgaden. As Russian soldiers move in at the end of the war, she takes action to save herself and her daughter from rape: as we know from the book, Woman in Berlin, the Russians raped hundreds of thousands of German women and girls—even hidden Jewish women and girls. That these soldiers were starving, frozen, and understandable angry and distraught at the rapes and murders of their own family members by German troops does not excuse the inaction of their officers, who did nothing to restrain them. After a long struggle by feminist lawyers and activists, we now recognize mass rape in warfare as a crime against humanity, if not an aspect of genocide.    
So, I found Life after Life to be a fascinating political and feminist document. I was left wondering if the entire book was in fact a ruse to explore British and German history, from before WWI to after the defeat of the Germans in WWII, from a woman’s point of view. But even if you don’t see the book the way I did, it’s a fabulous read.  







Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Donald Trump and the Fascism Debate

Donald Trump and the Fascism Debate

There’s been a lot of media discussion in the last couple of months about whether Donald Trump, who is campaigning to become the Republican Party’s nominee for President of the United States, is actually a fascist.

Michael Marrus (source:Globe and Mail)
Michael Marrus, a distinguished historian of the Holocaust at the University of Toronto, argued in a commentary in Toronto’s newspaper The Globe and Mail (“Is Donald Trump an American Fascist?”, November 30, 2015, page A14) that European fascism of the 1930s and 40s had the following tendencies, which sound a lot like Trump:

“Fascists generally shared a common core: hyper-nationalism, militarism, xenophobia, a cult of leadership, the projection of energy, a powerful sense of having been victimized by outsiders and a sense of urgency”
Donald Trump (source: Business Insider)

Trump is certainly a hyper-nationalist, a militarist (“bomb the hell out of ISIS”), and xenophobic. He hates Mexicans and Muslims (all of them foreigners, in his view, regardless of whether they were actually born in the US). He certainly projects energy and a sense of urgency, and claims that outsiders have been victimizing Americans.

Clifford Orwin(source:University of Toronto)
In a reply to Marrus, Clifford Orwin, a professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, argued that Trump is merely “An opportunist, not a fascist” (The Globe and Mail, December 3, 2015, p. A18). He argues that the conditions for European fascism of the 1930s—recovery from warfare, mass epidemics, economic depressions, and new nation-states characterized by extreme ethnic chauvinism- do not exist today in the US. Also, he says, Trump is not building on a large social movement; he’s merely running for president. 

I am not so sure I’m persuaded by Orwin. The world and American economies have been quite insecure since 2008, and the terrorism and refugee crises emanating from the Middle East certainly impinge on the US. Trump does have a social base, although it appears to be among older white males, thankfully a declining sector of the US population. Also, you don’t need a large base ahead of time to become a fascist leader, as we know from Hitler; that base can grow as you make racist promises and blame scapegoats for all social evils, just as Hitler blamed the Jews for both World War I and the economic crisis of the 1920s.

Even the liberal international weekly, The Economist, has wondered if Trump is a fascist (“Trump in History: This land is our land,” November 28, 2015, pp. 24-25). The Economist discussed other nativist (chauvinist, anti-foreigner) periods in American history, especially the anti-Catholic movement a hundred years ago. Just as some people suspect Muslim mosques of promoting terrorism today, so people thought Catholic churches and even convents were harboring traitors and stashing arms for an invasion by the Pope. The Economist  has invented a new term for Trump alone: “bouffant fascism.”

Even if Trump himself is merely an opportunist, he is building upon incipient fascist tendencies in some groups of the American population. And his proposal to register all Muslims living in the US (including many American citizens) strikes terror not only in Muslim hearts (I assume) but also in the hearts of scholars of genocide like me. Here are some stages that lead to genocide: registration, deprivation of property, concentration, extermination. That’s what the Nazis did, making it their business to register every Jew or supposed Jew in Germany and occupied Europe, so they could eventually exterminate the entire Jewish population.

Friendly Fascism Book
In 1980 Bertram Gross, an American scholar and former official in the Roosevelt Administration, published a book called Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (Published by South End Press in Boston). He argued that the US was producing what he called “a motley array of fanatical freebooters,” including the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazis, who liked to focus attention on scapegoats such as feminists and gays and lesbians. He also thought that the white elite class was drawing in on itself—for example by building more and more gated communities—while scapegoating and neglecting the poor, especially but not only blacks.

Bertram Gross
Gross also predicted a more unbalanced economy, more integration of big business and the government, more imperialism abroad, and “informational offensives” to manage minds of the elites and immobilize the masses. And he argued that the US was producing a “vigilante-violence” culture, such as we see today in a gun lobby so strong that very little can be done about it, even though the vast majority of Americans wants more controls on sale of guns.  

Thirty-five years after Gross published his book, we can certainly see that the one per cent—actually the one-one hundredth of a per cent—of  the US population, the super-rich, is protecting its privileges, while the middle class is being hollowed out and the poor have to support themselves by talking on several part-time, low or no benefits jobs. Inequality is drastically widening. Meantime, mass incarceration of African-Americans has removed huge numbers of black males from the labor market, thereby inflating the figures on extent of employment among the (free) black males still able to work. President Obama’s attempt to reduce  mass incarceration has barely touched the problem, since most black prisoners are imprisoned by states, not the federal government.

I wonder what Bertram Gross, who died in 1997, would say if he could see that most of his predictions have come true. But even he might have been surprised by Trump’s desire to register Muslims—and like me, he would have remembered the Nazis.

Meantime up here is liberal multicultural Canada, at least one Muslim woman has been physically attacked for wearing a hijab. And I hear reports that Muslim women are fearful of waiting for the Toronto subway, where someone might try to push them onto the tracks, and Muslim men are afraid for their wives’ safety as they go about their daily business. My son, who lives in Toronto, has made it his business to keep a discreet eye on identifiable Muslim women when he’s in the subway, so he can intervene if they are harassed or attacked. 

I wonder if Canada could ever produce a Donald Trump with so much appeal, or if we could use our hate-speech laws to prevent his making xenophobic statements against Muslims and Mexicans. Some people are suggesting that he be barred from entering Canada, on the grounds that he is a hate-monger.  I wish the US had hate-speech laws as well, so that he could be prosecuted under them, whether he’s a fascist or merely an opportunist.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Book Note: Matthew Weinert's Making Human

Book Note: Matthew Weinert’s Making Human

In the past, I’ve frequently argued that both human rights and human dignity are social constructions: they are what people—society—think they should be. So human dignity, in particular, is an evolving concept. In most societies for most of human history, for example, a dignified woman was one who was willingly subservient to whichever male relatives held authority over her.  Now, in more and more societies, we think of dignified women the same way as we think of dignified men, as possessing autonomy and able to realize their own life projects, as being treated as equals and with respect by others. In the more recent past, most societies treated sexual minorities as essentially undignified and unworthy of respect; now, many societies try to afford them recognition equal to that afforded to normative heterosexuals.

Matthew Weinert (sourse: ACADEMIA)
Matthew S. Weinert is a political theorist and theorist of international relations who takes the idea of social construction one step further, showing how international (inter-state) society is constructing a world society in which the human being, not the state, takes center stage. You can read his argument in Making Human: World Order and the Global Governance of Human Dignity (University of Michigan Press, 2015).  

I had to suspend my normal skepticism while reading Weinert. I tend to assume that pronouncements about human rights and human dignity by the various state-centric organs of the United Nations, such as the Security Council, the General Assembly, and the Human Rights Council (so-called) are so much fluff, hiding the continued preoccupation with state sovereignty and the sovereign right, in practice if not in principle, to violated individual human rights. By contrast, Weinert shows how the rhetoric and discourse of the Security Council and various other organs is changing, to make the human being the centre of the world’s preoccupation.

Wienert addresses four areas of world governance where discourse—and sometimes practice—is changing. The first of these is in the Security Council itself.  Far from occupying itself only with inter-states threats to peace and security, its new preoccupations include resolutions on children and women. One might view these merely as lip service, especially when keeping in mind the way that the United States, China and the Soviet Union/Russia have utilized their vetoes since 1945 to protect their sovereign interests and those of their allies. On the other hand, women and children were not objects of the regard of international society at all until recently.

Weinert’s second area is the new discourse of human security. I’ve expressed concerns about that discourse in my article “Human Security: Undermining Human Rights?” (Human Rights Quarterly,  vol. 34, no. 1, 2012, pp. 88-112: you can find that article here But Weinert shows convincingly how the human security discourse focuses attention on the entire range of phenomena that cause human beings to feel insecure. In particular, he notes how human security tries both to protect individuals from insecurity and empower them to overcome it.  Human security is a way to combine development activities with individual human rights. It also undermines the notion that state security is always more important than the security of the entire human community.

Weinert next discusses how the system of international justice has been altered to specify human dignity. The two international tribunals on Yugoslavia and Rwanda, set up in the 1990s, have paid much attention to violations of human dignity, occasioned for example by gang rapes and various other types of sexual enslavement, such as forcing women prisoners to dance naked on tabletops for their captors. Along with the International Criminal Court, these courts have specified what human dignity means and what actions are now beyond the pale, as much crimes against humanity as genocide was seen to be in 1948, when the Genocide Convention was declared. 

Finally, Weinert presents an interesting argument about evolving, post-colonial conceptions of self-determination. Referring especially to the evolution of Kosovo from a province of Serbia to a quasi-independent state today, he explains how human suffering—massive violations of human rights for which the sovereign state offers no recourse and which indeed, it may have perpetrated-- has become a new criterion for what he calls “remedial secession.” 

Underlying Weinert’s entire argument is a deep compassion for the suffering human being. His starting point, he says, is not a thin cosmopolitanism but rather attention to cruelty. Citing Hannah Arendt, he wants everyone to have “the right to have rights.”  This might seem redundant, but it is not. Possession of rights is still contingent on membership in a sovereign state.  This means that the 12 million stateless people in the world today; refugees in precarious limbo in states not their own that take very little care of them; or “undocumented” or weakly documented migrants do not really have that right. It also means that those seen as less than human, such as women, indigenous people, sexual minorities, and ethnic, linguistic or cultural minorities, don’t really possess the right to have rights.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the many subsequent documents of the international human rights regime proclaim that all human beings are equal. That is their legal status under the regime, but it is not the actual social situation: the regime is still normative, rather than a description of fact. Wienert shows us that the subtle transformations taking place in international discourse may contribute, in the long run, to transformations in political practice. A world society of individuals, one hopes, will someday replace the international society of states.

I am neither a political theorist nor a scholar of international relations, so I probably can’t do justice to Weinert’s learned and complicated arguments. But I highly recommend this book to those who are, as well as to human rights scholars who wish to stretch their minds, as I had to do in reading Making Human. 

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Book Note: Hotel Florida by Amanda Vaill

Book Note: Hotel Florida by Amanda Vaill
book cover

I recently read Hotel Florida by Amanda Vaill, published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in 2014. Vaill is an award-winning author of what is sometimes called creative non-fiction; Hotel Florida is based on Vaill’s extensive research into diaries, archives, and newspapers of the time, but reads more like a novel than academic history.
Amanda Vaill (source: Amazon)

Vaill focuses on three couples intimately involved in Spain’s Civil War (1936-39). They were Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, American writers and reporters; Robert Capa and Gerda Caro, Hungarian and Polish-born photographers; and Arturo Barea, a Spanish author, and Ilse Kulcsar, an Austrian journalist and socialist. Other characters also populate the book. All these people congregated at one time or another in Madrid’s Hotel Florida, hence the book’s title.

The Spanish civil war started out as a conflict between an elected left-wing government and the reactionary, monarchist and militarist opposition led by Francisco Franco. The government forces were variously referred to as Republicans or Loyalists (loyal to the elected republican government), while the opposition were referred to as Nationalists, rebels, or fascists. 
The conflict quickly became a proxy war between the Soviet Union and Germany, with the Western democracies watching from the sidelines after imposing a policy of non-interference. The Soviet Union supported the Loyalists while Nazi Germany supported the Nationalists. Franco won, and became dictator of Spain until his death in 1975. Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards had to flee the country in the immediate aftermath of the war, many living in refugee camps in southern France that rival those of Syrian refugees in the Middle East today. Although Spain has been a democracy since 1975, it has never come to terms with the civil war, and there is still active debate between those who think the past should be suppressed and those who think victims should be memorialized.
Ernest Hemingway (source: wikimedia)
All three couples on whom Vaill focuses were, loosely, on the government or Loyalist side. The book shows how journalists can, in fact, be exploiters of the ones about whom they are supposed to write.  Ernest Hemingway seemed particularly oblivious to his own motives. He seemed to think that he was a member of the Loyalist forces, whereas in fact he was a swaggering, pseudo-macho camp follower, going to battles to find material for his essays and articles but staying well away from the battle lines. Martha Gellhorn was somewhat less oblivious.
Robert Capa (By Richard Whelan)

By contrast Robert Capa seems to have been aware of his ambiguous position. Perhaps Capa’s most famous photograph is of a Loyalist solider, captured in mid-fall after he is hit by a bullet.  This photograph still symbolizes the Spanish Civil War, yet it was originally staged. Capa had asked a group of resting Loyalist soldiers to re-enact a battle so that he could take some pictures. One soldier stuck a pose on the crest of a hill, but precisely at that moment a real bullet shot by a real sniper killed him. Capa had to live with that moment the rest of his life, until he himself was killed by a land mine in Viet Nam when he was covering the independence war between the Vietnamese and the French.  His partner, Gerda Caro, also a brilliant if less well-remembered photographer, was killed in Spain.

"Falling Soldier" - By Capa
Arturo Barea was a bureaucrat who was put in charge of censorship for the Loyalist government during the war, vetting reports sent out by foreign journalists.  He was assisted by the Austrian journalist, Ilse Kulcsar, who became his lover and later his wife.  
Arturo Barea (source:wikimedia)
Barea and Kulcsar were insiders, not outsiders, and Soviet agents became very suspicious of them for not toeing the Communist Party line. They escaped to France and then England. Barea later became famous for his three-volume biographical memoir, The Forge, which I read many years ago and can still recommend to anyone who wants to know more about the Spanish civil war. Barea was the journalist most familiar with and most doubtful about vicious Soviet influence, the one most willing to  oppose it. It’s interesting in this respect to note that Hemingway and his cronies ostracized the French writer, AndrĂ© Gide, after he published his book, “Return from the U.S.S.R.,” criticizing Stalin.
I do not mean here to question the ethics of all journalists. I admire those writers and photographers who risk their lives in dangerous situations today, and whose reports and films force upon our attention what would otherwise be very distant atrocities.
But I do want to point out how easy it was in Spain for Ernest Hemingway and some other pro-Loyalist journalists to overlook the atrocities perpetrated by the “good” as well as the “evil” side. Very soon after it started aiding the Loyalists, the Soviet Union sent agents to effectively take over the government, killing anyone suspected of antipathy to the Communist cause. One of the reasons for the Loyalist defeat was hostility between Spanish communists and anarchists; the Soviets disliked anarchists and made sure that they were brutally neutralized as a political force.  Carousing with Soviet officials in bars and hotels, Hemingway seemed oblivious to this larger struggle, or perhaps he just enjoyed cavorting with the powerful.
After reviewing Hotel Florida, I wish I could trot out the old adage. “Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.” But I have always wondered whether knowing history makes any difference. The policy of Western non-interference that aided in the downfall of the Spanish Republic resembled the policy of embargoing arms to all sides in the Yugoslavian wars of the early 1990s, which denied the beleaguered Muslims of Bosnia the weapons they needed. I imagine the Western democracies were hoping the Soviets and the Nazis would destroy each other in Spain, saving them the trouble. It didn’t turn out that way.      

Monday, 9 November 2015

I am an Atheist Blogger

I am an Atheist Blogger

 In recent months several atheist bloggers in the Muslim world—or people who weren’t necessarily atheists, but questioned some precepts of Islam and Hinduism--have been murdered, imprisoned and/or tortured. 
(Raif Badawi, wikimedia commons)

Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was imprisoned and sentenced to 1000 lashes, of which 50  have already been carried out, for encouraging debate about religion. His wife and children are immigrants to Canada but he is not a Canadian citizen, limiting what Canada can do to help him.

Several Bangladeshi secularist or atheist bloggers have also been killed. 

(Avijit Roy, wikipedia)

Avijit Roy was stabbed to death in February 2015: Al-Qaida in the Indian subcontinent claimed responsibility for attacking him. Roy was a US citizen of Bangladeshi origin who had returned to his homeland for a visit.

Washiqur Rahman was hacked to death in March 2015 in Dhaka, allegedly by two madrassa students.

Ananta Bijoy Das was murdered by four men with machetes in May 2015. He was a banker and edited a journal that questioned some religious precepts.

On the three people mentioned above, see According to this article by Saad Hammadi, these killings are partly in response to provocations by a hardline Islamist group in Bangladesh, Hefazat-e-Islam, which in 2013 staged a violent protest against allegedly atheist bloggers in which almost 50 people died.

 Niloy Neel, yet another atheist Bangladeshi blogger, was hacked to death in August 2015. And Faisal Abedin Deepan, a publisher of secular books including books by Avijit Roy, was killed on 31 October 2015.

I think perhaps it’s time for atheists in the Western world to proclaim themselves as such, in solidarity with these vulnerable atheists and questioners of religious dogma. You don’t necessarily have to be a blogger to do so: you can just make it public one way or another.

I am an atheist blogger but I have never felt the need to announce that I am an atheist. But now I am doing so. I am and have always been an atheist. I have never believed in God, in part because I was not raised in any religion. My mother—the daughter of parents who rejected their respective Christian denominations way back in the 1910s or 20s--called herself an agnostic, meaning she didn’t know if there is a God or not.  Recently a friend corrected me when I said I was an atheist, saying I must be an agnostic because I can’t prove there is no God.  It’s true I can’t prove it, but I am not interested in doing so. I don’t believe in God, and that’s that.  I am not what is known as a “militant atheist:” it is fine with me if other people believe in God, but I don’t. 

Yet even in North America there is still much hostility to atheists. According to an excellent article on atheism in Wikipedia there is still marginal discrimination against atheists in the US, including, for example, in child custody cases where the parents’ attendance, or non-attendance, in church is sometimes taken as an indication of fitness to raise a child. (Yes, I know it’s Wikipedia, but check out the extensive footnotes).  I’ve read reports of such cases in Canada too.

According to an article in Scientific American on January 17, 2012. by Daisy Grewal  “In Atheists We Distrust “ (describing research by Will Gervais and colleagues at the University of British Columbia),  only 45 per cent of Americans would vote for an atheist to be President, and atheists are among the “least desirable” potential sons or daughters-in-law. Atheists are also seen as much less trustworthy than Muslims or Christians. 

So being an atheist is something than can damage you in other people’s eyes, if you don’t live in the rarified world of Western academia, as I do.  I have occasionally been questioned by students or others about how I can have a system of moral beliefs if I don’t believe in God.  I’ve replied that agnostics and atheists can still think about morality, care about other people, and believe that compassion for others is better than disregard or contempt. I am sure atheists are as likely to give to charities and to work for the common good as any other social group.

When I mentioned I was thinking about writing this blog, my husband asked me what difference it would make. I am a very privileged person living in a liberal democracy where my atheism is nobody’s business but my own.  I know that Canada’s 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms begin with the words “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God;” I consider this purely symbolic, and not a threat to my rights in any way. But other atheists are threatened. 

(Gloria Steinem, wikimedia commons)
Back in the 1970s, when the second-wave women’s movement was just getting started and the right of access to abortion was a topic of much discussion, a group of 52 prominent women “came out” and announced that they had had abortions. This provided some hope to less prominent women who’d had or needed an abortion. (See the article by Jane Kramer, “Road Warrior” about the American feminist leader Gloria Steinem in the New Yorker, October 19, 2015).

So I think that those of use who are atheists and don’t have to worry about it should also come out.  We should announce it, not just keep it quiet or indeed consider it irrelevant to our everyday lives, as many if not most of us do.  If you are an atheist blogger, perhaps now is the time—in solidarity with atheists, secularists, and critics of religion in the Muslim world--to say so.