Debating the War Left and Right
I’ve been detecting Free InquIry’s tilt toward political side-taking for a while, but I tried to ignore it. Your Spring 2003 issue, however, was so much politicized as to greatly offend. The editorial statement condemning the Iraqi war, followed by Nat Hentoff and Laurence Britt’s exhortations against U.S. self-protection policies, add nothing new to the arguments already fulsomely aired in publications better suited to the task. For that reason I don’t want to rehash the arguments supporting U.S. policies, but simply to note they exist.
It is tempting to point the finger back at Paul Kurtz and observe that the real incoherence lies with: (1) disclaiming our country’s exercising power to deflect dangers that are perhaps not imminent, but intolerable; (2) arguing that precedents in foreign policy, just because they are new, are bad; (3) proclaiming that, “The entire fabric of collective security so carefully developed by the world community after the Second World War,” is being undermined by U.S. policies, rather than admitting that the fabric just wore out after the Cold War; and (4) carping about the president’s using the word evil, which of course has no explanatory power, but does nicely characterize, for instance, crimes against humanity endemic to Saddam Hussein’s regime.
So tempting, I couldn’t help it.
All these points are arguable, and I do not insist that my outlook necessarily is correct. I do, however, take exception to the editors of Free Inquiry using this publication as a forum to hawk their political views. It gives the impression that in order to remain card-carrying humanists we must despise the current U.S. administration.
In a spirit of open and honest dissent I wish to voice opposition to Paul Kurtz on Iraq: “What especially bothers us is . . . a preemptive strike.” It is fine for him to be against that war, but he needs to disabuse himself of a broad and sweeping generalization that preemptive war is always and in all circumstances inadmissable per se. Probably the greatest mistake this country ever made was not to launch a preemptive strike against Hitler. We felt very smug and comfortable, while Neville Chamberlain triumphantly declared “Peace In Our Time,” and Hitler invaded one country after another. We subscribed to the notion of the America Firsters (remember them?): “No Foreign Entanglements.” It was none of our business, was it?
What of the carnage of the Normandy Invasion, Monte Cassino, the Battle of the Bulge, and so on, all of which could have been avoided? So much misery, so much bloodshed, so many billions could have been saved, not to mention millions saved from the gas chambers, if we had stopped Hitler in his tracks—yes, preemptively. But would it have been immoral to wage such a preemptive war?
Now, it is perfectly all right to oppose the war on Iraq, but let’s use other arguments than that one. It took Pearl Harbor to drag us by the neck into the Second World War, and if it had not been for that tremendous mistake by Japan we would have sat on our hands while England, France, and you name it went down the drain. The losses in Vietnam were peanuts by comparison. The question of Iraq is generating so much emotion that I feel reason is being jettisoned while obfuscating the issue with irrelevant and confusing arguments.
Robert M. Gordon
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Kurtz and company may claim to “recognize the wide diversity of political viewpoints among secular humanists,” but that doesn’t stop them from appropriating the “secular humanist” title to support their own political views. Apparently, Free InquIry editors would gladly control the moral stance of secular humanists everywhere. How else could one explain the fact that their editorial in the Spring 2003 issue effectively tells us that moral opposition to the war in Iraq is all but required by secular humanists?
The editors have every right to speak their minds on current events, but to ground their views in a subjective definition of secular humanism is hardly fair to the rest of us. Perhaps for the editors being a secular humanist means abhorring all military action, but their apparent distaste for preemptive strikes sounds more like pacificism than secular humanism, and their remarks should have been presented as such.
It is easy to appeal to “humanism” for indignation against violence. Any school child could wonder how a person who claims to value humanity can kill other humans. But it is much harder to face those ethical dilemmas in which killing a few may save many more. Why does Kurtz the philosopher avoid the harder question and zero in on the simplistic anti-imperialistic politics of the Left?
We live only a few decades removed from a war that might have been averted by a preemptive strike and which was ultimately ended on one front by two weapons of mass destruction. Was it callous disregard for human life that led to using nuclear bombs? Or the hope that the deaths of some would save the lives of many? Critics of preemption ought to ponder these things more seriously.
May I suggest the following addition to the “Affirmations of Humanism”: “We believe that those who seek to destroy these principles and possess the weapons to do so be persuaded to change their views; but, if this proves to be impossible, then force must be applied to stop them.”
John H. Fishwick
I commend the editors of Free InquIry for their outspoken and thoughtful critique. In a time when the major media present a picture of virtually monolithic support for the war that in no way reflects the deep and widespread opposition to it, and silences correspondents who take an independent view, it is especially vital that humanists offer an alternative judgment. If our government reserves the right to replace without provocation other governments it does not approve of, it is but a short step to apply this logic internally and take “preemptive” legal or illegal actions against citizens whose philosophic views it finds offensive.
Flushing, New York
None of the arguments against assisted suicide (“Physician-Assisted Suicide, Pro and Con,” FI, Spring 2003) made any sense to me, but the article by Wesley Smith (“Why Secular Humanism Is Wrong”) indicating that assisted suicide is wrong simply because it might save individuals and society some money is downright crazy. If I am in pain with a terminal illness and would like to be able to leave something to relatives, friends, or causes, rather than have all my remaining assets wasted away in the final and increasingly expensive downward spiral, why should I be forced to be kept alive against my will? And wouldn’t it make more sense for HMOs to be able to provide better care for those who have a good chance of recovering from medical problems and who can go on for many more years of happy healthy lives, rather than have to set aside a large chunk of their asserts for those who have no hope for recovery and are getting no joy from living? I suspect that Mr. Smith is letting his religious beliefs override his logic.
Newport Beach, California
In the Spring 2003 issue all four contributors make convincing arguments for death with dignity legislation. Wesley Smith and Margaret Somerville (“The Case Against”), although arguing against such legislation, inadvertently
make a strong case for it: their reasoning is grounded in the most intrusive form of governmental interventionism from which we need protection. This is the intervention of paternalism in the most personal and ultimate decision we will ever make. For in them and their fellow believers reside the authority and power to dictate the circumstances of each of our own deaths.
Ms. Somerville’s argumentation is a poorly veiled religious sermon about the “mystery of death” and “our horizon comes closer . . . until we finally cross over.” Crossover to what? Her Christian vision of the River Jordan and heaven? But her most outrageous language is that “how we die cannot be just a matter of self-determination and personal beliefs. . . .” This is extraordinary arrogance. Has she not heard of the primacy of the individual conscience? Is there a greater exercise of conscience and free will or a more personal freedom and right than to decide for ourselves when, where and how we die?
Mr. Smith’s cynical misrepresentation of doctors, HMOs, and the Oregon experience deserves little comment. His perception of a few abuses compels him to denounce all right-to-die legislation. By this illogic we should repeal all abortion laws because a small number of women suffer complications due to legal but incompetently performed abortions. His statement, “The truth is that no one need ever die in agony,” does deserve comment. We who are physicians must continue to improve ways of alleviating pain in those who are dying and those who are going to die. But if Mr. Smith thinks we have the medical means to minimize all the indignities and pain, physical and mental, in all who suffer from the agony of terminal diseases and their terrifying complications, then he is living in a world of abstraction and wishful thinking.
The bond between patient and physician depends on more trust than many in the human community. The ultimate measure of that trust is the patient’s fervent expectation that his or her physician will never permit him or her to suffer intractable pain as death approaches. If those opposed to right-to-die legislation want to die in a state of unrelieved pain, such is their choice. To impose it upon the rest of us is an act of shameless audacity.
Nicholas K. Fowler
South Portland, Maine
Margaret Somerville responds:
Dr. Nicholas Fowler is obviously an intense individualist. As such he would believe that personal preferences and values should trump societal interests; that is, if people want to die through euthanasia they should have access to it, no matter how much harm to society would result. I believe that there must be a balance between the claims of individuals and protecting the common good and well-being of society, especially for the future. That requires us to reject euthanasia and, therefore, the claims of individuals to it.
In the context of this journal, accusing me of having a Christian vision is probably about the nastiest ad hominem insult Dr. Fowler can use. It is a common tactic to attack the person whose views are contrary to one’s own, rather than their arguments, when one has no arguments to rebut those of the other person. In fact, my views of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are not based on religious beliefs, but, as I expressly point out in my article, on secular reasons—which is not to say that I do not have spiritual beliefs.
Dr. Fowler is correct that the patient-physician bond is one of the most trustful found in the human community, which is precisely why we need to ban euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. Indeed, were they to be legalized, in order to preserve that trust, they should not be carried out by physicians but by some other authorized person — one suggestion was a specially trained group of lawyers. Studies carried out after the legalization of euthanasia in the Northern Territory of Australia (this legislation has now been repealed) showed that terminally ill patients became afraid of physicians and, importantly, the aboriginal population completely eschewed the medical system with very harmful results, especially in terms of the medical treatment of children and their vaccinations.
Dr. Fowler confuses the very serious ethical and legal obligations that we have to relieve pain with euthanasia. (This confusion is often intentional on the part of advocates of euthanasia. It is one way to promote their case. See M. Somerville, Death Talk: The Case against Euthanasia and Physician-assisted Suicide, McGill Queen’s University Press, 2001). I agree that we must kill the pain, but we must not kill the patient with the pain. Indeed, that is never necessary as total sedation, in the rare cases where pain is otherwise unrelievable, should always be available to all who need it, as, of course, should fully adequate pain relief treatment.
Congratulations on having the courage to publish Tom Flynn’s op-ed in support of the right of an individual to choose to terminate his own life (“The Final Freedom,” FI, Spring 2003). We read in other places about physician-assisted suicide for those suffering severe pain in a terminal illness, but it is time to agree that it is each person’s right to decide when to die. Few others are willing to admit that the person does not have to be terminally ill. It is time for Flynn’s bold statement to be widely publicized: “If your life is yours, then it is no one else’s business if you choose to discontinue having experiences.”
Elizabeth A. Wood
Freehold, New Jersey
Discrimination Under Siege
No lawyer, I nonetheless disagree with Wendy Kaminer (“Religion Is Under Siege, Really,” FI, Spring 2003) in her attack on the Rutgers University decision against religious groups that insist that their leaders espouse religious values. I do not know what considerations informed the Rutgers decision, but I argue that, because presumably all students pay some kind of “activity fee,” or else some portion of their university fees is dedicated to the support of recognized campus groups, then all students should be eligible to participate fully in any of those groups. It does not seem fair to require students to fund groups in which they are by charter disbarred from achieving leadership positions. Kaminer’s argument would be valid if, as she assumes, the groups were really “private,” but this term cannot apply to groups that are communally funded. The groups could rent a hall in a church or synagogue, pay for it themselves, and then legitimately restrict membership to their hearts’ and souls’ content.
Wendy Kaminer responds:
Mr. Plumsky raises a good question, but there is, I think, a good answer to it. If Rutgers University were to deny a share of student fees to student religious organizations because of their religious ideals, it would be engaging in viewpoint discrimination clearly prohibited by the First Amendment. Fees must be allocated evenly to religious and secular groups, without regard to ideology. (The Supreme Court addressed this question in 2000, in Board of Regents v. South-worth.) And, private student groups, like the Christian Fellowship, do not lose their private status and associational rights merely by accepting some student fees, anymore than private universities lose their private status when they accept federal grants.
By the way, since being sued, Rutgers has seen the light and settled with the Christian Fellowship, acknowledging the group’s right to choose its leaders according to its ideals.
Don’t Believe the Hype!
Please convey my gratitude to Dr. Mario
Mendez-Acosta for his article about Juan Diego (FI, Spring 2003). Only when I was a little boy, did I believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe and all the other nonsensical stories that made up her mystique. Of course, back then, I also believed in Santa Claus.
In one-and-a-half pages of lucid prose and unquestionable research, Dr. Mendez dismantled the myth that has clogged, for centuries already, the credulous minds of otherwise alert, creative, and intelligent Mexicans and other Latin-Americans.
La Puente, California