Zero-G kittehs

I always thought Russians were the world’s greatest cat lovers—until I saw this video.

Reader Stephen Q. Muth, better known as Butter’s Staff, sends this intriguing video of a cat (and two mice, barely visible) subjected to zero gravity on one of those airplane rides where, as a plane goes over the top of a parabolic arc, the centrifugal force cancels out gravity and one feels weightless—for about 25 seconds. That’s how they train astronauts to see what weightlessness feels like. (See here for more information).

Here an innocent kitty, named Porculpa, has the experience. I don’t think she liked it, despite the mice. Imagine an animal suddenly experiencing weightlessness for the first time. What would a cat do when turned upside down and released?

The explanation for the whole sordid affair is on Vimeo:

Porculpa is the name of a female Russian cat that I took into zero gravity onboard a parabolic aeroplane in 2008. It also means ‘Your Fault’ in Latin.

The plane left from the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center at Star City in Moscow and flew over Azerbaijan. I filmed Porculpa as she adapted to the conditions over 10 parabolas. Each parabola of the IL-76 aeroplane gives roughly 23 seconds of weightlessness. Inside the red container that you see are two mice which were meant to be released at the same time but the Russian Space Agency stipulated that they could not risk the mice getting loose and chewing wires. Both Porculpa and the mice were inside of a specially designed tent (Designer: Nick Joyce/Enigma FX) which was made from ripstack material with crash mats underneath to minimise risk. The height of the protective tent was 6’5”.

After initially considering a hummingbird to see how its flight instinct in weightlessness would be affected, and also discovering that many animals have been tested in isolation but not in relationships to one another, I decided to use a cat and mouse to frame predator prey behaviour in a zero gravity setting.

You cannot rehearse for this environment and research is no real preparation. I chose microgravity flight and animals to create a situation where I had to create a performance in which instinct is the script. In the full footage of ten parabolas, what you do see is the cat begin to adapt to the conditions and display agility and prowess in landing. It uses the container with the mice in to grab onto and turns it around. Its lack of sentience is the deciding factor in the performance.

Did they expect the cat to kill the mice in zero-G conditions? That’s a sick experiment. Fortunately, they weren’t allowed to try it. Note that comments are disabled on the video!

Whoops, I just found a video answer to my questions about cats dropped upside down, and what they do under zero-gravity. Here’s the answer, which doesn’t involve stupid predation experiments:



The cell or the pew? Courts give prostitutes choice of religion or jail

On the face of it, this sounds like a blatant violation of the First Amendment. In Arizona, prostitutes arrested by police in big sting operations are now given the choice of going to jail or participating in a  “rehabilitation program” run by Catholic Charities, which includes 36 hours of classroom instruction in a church. Although I haven’t yet been able to verify how much religion is actually given to these people, the circumstances sound suspicious. According to American United for Separation of Church and State:

The women arrested in Phoenix’s twice-yearly sex-work stings are forcibly taken to Bethany Bible Church and escorted inside in handcuffs. They are then given the option to avoid criminal prosecution by participating in a sectarian program. Critics, including Americans United, have said that Project ROSE is a clear violation of the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, it is one of a growing number of programs nationwide in which church and state have teamed up in an attempt to lower crime rates, as law enforcement officials hope that a dose of old-time religion can convince criminals to change their ways. But the reality, critics say, is that such programs don’t just raise constitutional concerns – there is also little evidence to suggest that they work.

Nevertheless, the trend is expanding, with police chaplains becoming more common and correctional offici­als increasingly open to evangelical Chris­tian programs to keep convicts from committing new crimes after release.

What instruction is given to these sex workers? Again, details are sketchy but sound goddy; here are some from VICE News:

Under the program’s rules, women picked up by police must authorize Catholic Charities to enroll them in its Prostitution Diversion Program (PDP) located in a section of Bethany Bible Church marked by a sign with a Latin cross, the Project ROSE logo and the words “Prosecutor’s Office.”

Monica [an arrested prostitute] described the class as having the religious overtones of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. In keeping with the program’s Catholicism, no condoms were provided. Neither was child care.

“I wasn’t ashamed about being a sex worker. I kept bringing this up during the diversion program,” Monica told me. “Girls would ask me why I didn’t feel this way. Well, ’cause I don’t. I have the right to my own body.”

Catholic Charities requested that Monica leave early, fearing her influence on others.

Monica’s trial is in March. The prisons she may be sentenced to are brutal. Arizona is the home of the notorious Tent City, an outdoor complex of bunks and razor wire, where prisoners’ shoes melt from the relentless heat.

This is excessive religious entanglement on two grounds. First the state becomes entangled with the Catholic Church. I find it hard to believe that no proselytizing goes on in those church classrooms. Why would Catholic Charities do it without some religious aim, furtive or not? Second, the city is using taxpayer money to funnel the accused into Church-related programs.

To compound the problem, programs like these, according to Americans United, don’t really work, with a high dropout and recidivism rate. Moreover, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the goal of the program, to “rescue” sex workers, doesn’t always jibe with how the sex workers feel about themselves.

Not only is there an apparent problem with organizing busts to send people to a church-backed charity program, but a local group, the Sex Workers Outreach Project of Phoenix, has protested the program because they don’t want to be “rescued” from anything.

Sex workers are out there to make money, not as “victims,” according to the Sex Workers Outreach Project.

Well, be that as it may, I don’t think the law should be in partnership with the church. This isn’t the only case of such unholy matrimony; there’s another one in (of course) Alabama that’s even more blatantly unconstitutional:

A police program in Montgomery, Ala., is also raising some serious constitutional concerns as pastors there have been used to fight crime. TheAtlantic reported in October that city police, facing what had been described as the worst local crime wave in decades, devised a sectarian solution to their problem: “Operation Good Shepherd” (OGS).

OGS ran during the summer of 2013 and involved training local Christian ministers so they were prepared to work crime scenes right alongside police officers. Ministers were sent to active crime scenes and instructed to pray with both victims and perpetrators. Supporters of the operation said this would serve to reinforce morality in a turbulent town.

Notably, no non-Christian clergy were part of this project, and police officials didn’t see a problem with that.

“What we want to do is combine the religious community and the Mont­gomery Police Department, and we want to unite those as one,” David Hicks, a police corporal, told local Christian radio.

Although the ministers who participated in OGS were volunteers, the Atlantic reported that the Montgomery police force is paid to train them and provide them with access to crime scenes, making this a publicly funded project. Montgomery’s official police chaplain does not seem to think that was an issue, either.

It is an issue; an even more obvious violation of the constitution given that actual religious practice (prayer) is involved, and prayer from only one denomination. That, at least, is clearly illegal.

Both Americans United and the ACLU are looking into the Phoenix case. I doubt that their letters of warning or press releases will change anything, and it may have to go to court.  But I’m not sure how cut-and-dried this will look if there is no secular alternative. People can argue that there’s no religious proselytizing, and it’s simply a nonreligious outreach by a religious organization.  But that’s not the way the ACLU and Americans United see it:

“This is an especially serious violation of religious freedom,” Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper said in a press statement on Project ROSE. “The city of Phoenix is rounding up suspects for the purpose of sending them to a religious program, and then threatening to prosecute them if they decline to participate. The government may never force its citizens to choose between religion and prison.”

I agree, although readers may not.




h/t: Tom

Once again: did Jesus exist?

UPDATE: Several readers have said in the comments that this is a non-issue: why should anyone care whether a historical Jesus existed?  I would have thought the answer was obvious, but I’ll let Sajanas, who has already commented, give it:

But so much of Christian philosophy is based around the argument for authority, that Jesus not existing at all really just crushes it. Then, they’re really no more valid than the philosophies of the Iliad or the Aeneid.

It’s important because one of the major world’s religions is based critically on the claim that a historical Jesus existed, which in principle could be supported with evidence. (It’s also supported by claims for the divinity of said Jesus.) Sometimes I get the feeling that people just say, “Who cares?” because they have a form of xkcd Syndrome.  But millions of Christians do care!


For some reason I’m very curious about whether the Jesus myth is based on a historical person. Even if such a person existed, of course, that gives no credence to his status as the divine son of God/part of God, or to the stories about him in the Bible. After all, many myths are based on historical people who are later deemed to have done miracles, been divine, and so on. “John Frum,” the iconic figure of the Pacific cargo cults, may well have been based on a real American G.I.

Christians, of course, are intensely interested in the historicity of Jesus, for if you can show that such a person existed, it at least gives a boost to their beliefs about his divinity. If, in contrast, there is little or no evidence for a Jesus-person, then the whole myth pretty much collapses, at least if you think Jesus was a real person walking about and doing stuff in Palestine. That’s why Christians are obsessed with whatever evidence exists for a historical Jesus, and why Bart Ehrman’s books substantiating such historicity are best-sellers.

The evidence for a Jesus-person, as we all know (and thanks largely to reader Ben Goren’s arguments on this site), is paper-thin. Because of this, scholars debate the issue hotly, with the “mythicists,” like Richard Carrier (who thinks that Jesus is not based on a historical person), fighting the “historicists,” like Bart Ehrman, who—while denying the divinity of Jesus—thinks that the Jesus myth is based on a real apocalyptic preacher who lived at that time.

Yet the more I look at the evidence—and I’m by no means an expert—the more dubious I become about the evidence for a historical Jesus-person. Yes, one may have existed, but where is the evidence?

As far as I can see, it lies solely in scripture: the New Testament.  There seem to be no credible extra-scriptural sources attesting to the existence of anyone like Jesus. There are no contemporary accounts of his presence and deeds, though there should have been some given the number of people who were writing then in that area of the Middle East, and the remarkable character of Jesus’s deeds. (This includes the earthquakes, renting of the Temple, and arising of zombie saints from their graves during the Crucifixion.) All the accounts come from decades or centuries after Jesus’s supposed death, by which time the myths may have begin forming—and around nobody in particular. In contrast, we have far more historical evidence for the existence of people like, say, Julius Caesar, including contemporary accounts, statues and coins with his image, and contemporary accounts.

As far as I can see, then, the “evidence” for a Jesus-person is twofold: first, that he’s described in the Bible (but so are Noah and Moses), and second, that people think that myths MUST have accreted around some historical person. The first I find unsatisfying; the second unconvincing. Myths may well have formed around no historical person at all. Was the myth of Paul Bunyan really based on some lumberjack who had a pet ox?

Yet it seems churlish—an offense to Christians—to doubt that a historical Jesus existed. It’s as if by being skeptical about that, you are deliberately trying to tick off Christians. And yet, I think, our doubt is warranted. We should not automatically concede to religionists that Jesus must have existed in some corporeal form, divine or otherwise.

This long introduction is to call attention to a new piece at Alternet by Valerie Tarico: “5 reasons to suspect Jesus never existed.” (Tarico is described as “a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington and the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of “Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light” and “Deas and Other Imaginings.” )

Her piece is a short and readable account, which I recommend, and I won’t summarize it except to give the five points that Tarico discusses in detail.

1. No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef. 

2. The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts.

3. Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts.

4. The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other.

5. Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons.

She also includes a quote from Bart Ehrman, who, curiously, thinks a historical Jesus did exist:

“What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death – even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era – there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind. I should stress that we do have a large number of documents from the time – the writings of poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, and government officials, for example, not to mention the large collection of surviving inscriptions on stone and private letters and legal documents on papyrus. In none of this vast array of surviving writings is Jesus’ name ever so much as mentioned.” (pp. 56-57 of  Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium)

Yet if that’s a real quote from Ehrman, and not taken out of context, why does he claim with such assurance that a historical Jesus existed?

h/t: Barry~


I’m in Pittsburgh for the the Pennsylvania State Atheist/Humanist Conference, which begins this evening.  I arrived a bit early to acquaint myself with a city in which I spent much of my youth (my uncles and cousins lived here). As many know, this town, once a gritty, dirty, steel-manufacturing center, has undergone a huge renovation, and is now clean, livable, and attractive. When my father went to school here—at Pitt—in the early 1940s, he told me it was so smoggy that he had to change his shirt three times a day. Now the steel mills are mostly closed, and they’re fixing up the historic downtown, which has some lovely buildings.

Here’s one: the Art Deco Gulf Tower, built between 1930-1932. The Weather Underground bombed the 29th floor in 1974. The entrance is lovely:

Gulf building

Just a random shot of the skyline:


A Henri Cartier-Bresson wannabee photo: busy Pittsburghers:


Based on a reader’s suggestion, I had dinner at the Sharp Edge Bistro close to my hotel. It specializes in craft beers, particularly Belgian ones.


They had a lot of Belgian beers on draft, which was surprising. The prices were high, but I went during happy hour, so the prices were halved.

Draft Belgians

Here are the bottled Belgian beers. I see that one of my favorites, St. Bernardus (12% alcohol), is $75 for a 1.5-liter bottle. But you can buy smaller bottles in the U.S. at a much more reasonable price.

Bottled Belgians

My dinner: a classic meal: moules (mussels, these cooked with chopped tomatoes, garlic, and beer), frites, and a Belgian beer. The server recommended the draft “Over the Edge,” at 9.5% alcohol, and brewed in Belgium for the bistro. It was excellent, with a strong hoppy flavor that didn’t overwhelm the classic fruitiness of a Belgian beer. The fries were served with a mayo/curry sauce.


Fortunately, there was a Ben & Jerry’s next door, and, on a whim, I stopped in for dessert: a waffle cone containing a scoop of salted caramel ice cream as well as an over-the-top triple chocolate pudding flavor (hidden in this view):


Tonight a friend and I have reservations at Josza Corner, an unprepossessing Hungarian restaurant that’s supposed to have terrific food. Report tomorrow. Roadfood, one of my favorite food sites, says this about it:

“Always call ahead!” is especially true of Jozsa Corner, because Alex Jozsa Bodnar provides dinner by appointment only. But with an appointment for space at the two long dining tables that fill the dining room, you can get a multi-course feast of whatever Hungarian country fare Alex decides to provide that day.

On one recent visit, the dinner included these dishes:
– sliced vegetables, cheese, stuffed grape leaves, and pork cracklings
– langos, a fried bread topped with herbs and cheese
– vinegary coleslaw topped with dill
– vegetable peasant soup with noodles
– haluska (buttered cabbage and noodles)
– spicy Hungarian kolbasz sausage
– braided peasant bread topped with poppy seeds, fresh from the oven
– Transylvanian goulash, made with pork and sauerkraut
– vinegary cucumber salad
– chicken paprikash with noodles and homemade dumplings (called nokedli)
– and dessert of langosh and prunes

Now if that doesn’t get your juices flowing, you have no stomach.




Readers’ wildlife photos

There are lots of birds today, but we have one creature for the herpers, too. American reader Joe Dickinson sends some photos from California:

From my morning walk down by Rio del Mar Beach and Aptos Creek, here are a brown pelican (Pelicanus occidentalis) sleeping on the wall adjacent to the promenade, oblivious to (or ignoring) walkers and joggers passing within 3 or 4 feet. . .


. . . and another black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) perched in exactly the same spot as the one I sent about 10 days ago, but with better light.  This one is a mature adult displaying its debonair plume.

IMG_2481 - Version 2

For contrast, I’m throwing in pelicans engaged in something of a feeding frenzy, taken about two months ago a little way along the beach.  The location of the sleeping pelican is  near the left edge of this shot.


Reader John Scanlon sends birds and a skink from Oz:

Herewith are several pics taken at Busselton, south of Perth on the west coast of southwestern Australia, that might be nearly good enough to use. Common and widespread species that I managed to get close to, so no testament to fancy skills or equipment.

Tiliqua rugosa (called Bobtail in WA, usually Shingleback in NSW, Sleepy Lizard in SA) on beachside dunes at midday, showing particularly good cryptic pattern on leaf litter and moss. One of the large Bluetongue skinks, obviously.

Red Wattlebird (Anthochaera carunculata), a common species of large honeyeater (Meliphagidae), close to camera with flash. [Australian Magpie (Cracticus tibicen) out of focus in background.]

Pacific Black Duck (Anas superciliosus), nice waddling pose, and good light.
DSCF6204 copy


Friday: Hili dialogue

As editor of Listy, Hili obviously read Matti Friedman’s piece, which Malgorzata is translating for the site.  Notice, too, that Hili makes an oblique reference to Hitchens’s book, Why Orwell Matters. Hilis’s obviously taking more interest in matters of the mind as opposed to matters of the stomach.  (Professor Ceiling Cat also recommends the book.)

Hili Why is Orwell still important?
A: Because the media are run by the wrong animals.


In Polish:

Ja: Dlaczego Orwell jest nadal ważny?
Hili: Bo mediami rządzą niewłaściwe zwierzęta.

Cat vs. deer

Here a herd of deer, wandering through a residential neighborhood, encounters a solitary white cat with a colored tail. Who will win this Meeting of the Mammals?

Note that the deer, who are usually prey, are still wary of the cat as a potential predator. But in the end, size wins out.

Meanwhile, back in Muncie. . .

Home of Ball State University (BSU), the Midwest’s outpost of the Discovery Institute, Muncie, Indiana also harbors a newspaper, the Muncie Star Press. That paper always refused to take a stand on the controversy about BSU’s intelligent-design (ID) Astronomy and Physics course of Professor Eric Hedin, a course that was finally deep-sixed when the Freedom from Religion Foundation complained and the BSU President, Jo Ann Gora (a woman of remarkable astuteness), publicly announced that ID was “not science” and would not be taught as such at her school. She’s gone now, but the Muncie Star Press continues to cater to the religious populace of its region.

Here’s a letter just published in the paper. The author, Kevin Wingate, had previously written another letter arguing that ID should be taught in science classes. I’ve put in bold every statement that is wrong.


Kevin Wingate, Muncie

The late astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan once famously said, “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” That’s wishful thinking, not a scientifically established fact.

Many have made science their god, declaring it to be the sole source of truth or the only way we have of understanding the world. Science can help us understand God’s creation, but it cannot fully describe or explain all of reality.

The material universe is one part of reality, and the invisible world, which we do not normally perceive, is another part. Just because science is unable to detect the supernatural world doesn’t mean that it is not real.

Demons are real. People have heard them, seen them and been possessed by them. Angels are real. People have heard them, seen them and even entertained them unknowingly. Satan is real. Some have seen him face to face, and all of us have seen the results of his influence.

Jehovah God is real. Millions of people have experienced his power and presence in their lives. Many have been miraculously healed of some incurable disease. Some have had a missing body part instantly replaced.

Skeptics claim that Christianity is nothing more than superstition, a religion of blind faith. In my view, atheism is the real superstition, with no evidential basis whatsoever.

Lord, lord! Where is the evidential basis for demons, Satan, Angels, and Jehovah God (as opposed to Allah God)? More important, why did the Star Press even print this? Is it trying to show how bull-goose delusional some of its citizens are? Or are they presenting this as an honest opinion worth considering. I wish I knew. One thing’s for sure: you’d never see a letter like this in any decent big-city paper in the U.S.

Why do people buy water?

While waiting in line at the airport this morning to buy coffee, I noticed that many people were buying plastic bottles of water—at $3-4 per pop (my coffee was $2.50). And this wasn’t fizzy water, but regular still water, like Dasani, that has been filtered and may have had a bit of minerals added. Other people were walking around with bottles of water in their hand, which always reminds me of infants carrying their bottles of formula or a bunch of Linuses with their blankies.

Why do people pay, and pay big, for water that is no better, and no better for you, than water you can get from the tap? Bottled water is energy-inefficient, uses fossil fuels to make, and costs more than gasoline! And it swells landfills with petroleum byproducts.

And the airport corridor was lined with water fountains, where you could swill very good Chicago tap water for free—as much as you want! I remember some years ago when Consumer Reports had people do blind tastings of bottled still water, and included New York City tap water (which comes from the Catskills, I believe) as a control. Guess which one won for flavor? Most people, I suspect, drink bottled waters for the taste, not the health effects.

Now I can understand buying water if there are no fountains available (that’s rare in the U.S.), or if the local tap water is foul-tasting (as it was in Davis, California), or you’re overseas where the water may be injurious (in India, though, I simply add iodine tablets to tap water). But otherwise it makes no sense to me.  If you need a supply to keep yourself hydrated, there are plenty of aluminum (or plastic) water bottles around that can be refilled. And, in French restaurants, I always request “une carafe d’eau, s’il vous plaît” (free) to accompany my food and wine. There is no need to be embarrassed for requesting tap water.

Bottled water seems to me, in general, a waste of money and resources, and it’s ecologically unsound.

Here are some of the costs (from How Stuff Works):

In a single year, manufacturers around the world use about 2.7 million tons of plastic to bottle water. Most of those bottles are a type of plastic called polyethylene terepthalate, or PET, which is produced from crude oil. To produce bottles to meet yearly bottled-water demand in the United States alone requires 1.5 million barrels of oil. That much oil could power about 100,000 cars for a year, according to the Earth Policy Institute.

And almost 90 percent of bottled-water bottles end up in the trash or on the ground, not in recycling bins. They can take up to 1,000 years to degrade, and when they do, they can leak harmful chemicals into the ground, contaminating ground water — ironically inducing a new cycle of pollution that means bottled water may actually be a necessity in the United States some day. Some companies, like the Colorado-based BIOTA bottled-water company, are making a concerted effort to reduce their effect on the environment. BIOTA uses a corn-based, biodegradable plastic bottle that can take fewer than three months to degrade in a compost pile.

As for recycling those bottles, don’t count on it:

. . . As a result, a lot of recycling companies in the United States won’t do it. Most recycling of plastic bottles ends up happening overseas, particularly in China. Those billions of bottles have to be shipped there, meaning even more energy is consumed to get the bottles to the point of recycling. And once they are broken down for re-use, manufacturers are typically not able to build a bottle out of recycled plastic alone. A “recycled” plastic bottle has far more virgin plastic in it than recycled plastic.

There are more costs as well, which you can learn about at the link.

Tap water: the Official Website Water™.


Two pieces on journalism in the Israel-Palestine conflict

Most readers know that I feel Israel, vis-à-vis its conflict with Palestine, has been given a raw deal in both world opinion and the world press. They also know that I don’t think that the country is blameless in the Middle East fracas (the settlements, for example, are unconscionable), but that they hold the moral high ground over the Palestinians, who are sworn to extirpate Israel and determined to kill civilians directly.  (Read the Hamas Charter, a document brimming with hatred and anti-Semitism, if you don’t believe me. It’s must reading for anyone who wants credibility on the conflict.)

At any rate, I spend a fair amount of time reading articles that excoriate Israel while ignoring the malfeasance of Hamas. The Guardian is especially vile in that respect, though the New York Times‘s reporting also seems unbalanced. I endure the calls of my fellow academics to boycott conferences in Israel, and for universities to divest in investments there.  All of the West, it seems, and many of my fellow academics as well, see Israel as predatory, and Palestinians as their innocent victims. In the meantime, anti-Semitic acts are on the rise in Europe (they’re a staple in Arab lands, of course).  I feel there is a connection between these things.

But I won’t fulminate today. Since I have read many, many anti-Israel and pro-Palestine pieces, I’ll ask you, if you think you’re open-minded on the issue, to simply read two pieces.  The first one is long, but, to me, worth it and meticulously researched. Both pieces show how the international press is in collusion with Hamas (or intimidated by Hamas) to produced biased reporting.

The first article, by Richard Behar in last week’s Forbes, “The media intifada: bad math, ugly truths, about New York Times in Israel-Hamas war,” is an eye-opener. Behar seems to have done his homework, and much of what he says is enlightening, particularly about the statistics about the dead on both sides. It’s not just about the Times‘s one-sided reporting in the region, but indicts nearly every other press outlet as well.

In The Tablet, a Jewish website, you can read a similar analysis (although a bit more impassioned) by Matti Friedman, “An insider’s guide to the most important story on earth: A former AP correspondent explains how and why reporters get Israel so wrong, and why it matters.”  (The story is three pages long.) Friedman, who lives in Israel and worked there for the Associated Press, also faults foreign media for lazy reporting, collusion with or intimidation by Hamas, biases (many reporters are strongly anti-Israeli on their social media), and downright hatred of Israel. Like Behar, Friedman claims that this promotes a kind of slanted reporting that, in turn, has seriously heightened the world’s opprobrium towards Israel. His writing is very good, and I’ll give one longish excerpt:

The Old Blank Screen

For centuries, stateless Jews played the role of a lightning rod for ill will among the majority population. They were a symbol of things that were wrong. Did you want to make the point that greed was bad? Jews were greedy. Cowardice? Jews were cowardly. Were you a Communist? Jews were capitalists. Were you a capitalist? In that case, Jews were Communists. Moral failure was the essential trait of the Jew. It was their role in Christian tradition—the only reason European society knew or cared about them in the first place.

Like many Jews who grew up late in the 20th century in friendly Western cities, I dismissed such ideas as the feverish memories of my grandparents. One thing I have learned—and I’m not alone this summer—is that I was foolish to have done so. Today, people in the West tend to believe the ills of the age are racism, colonialism, and militarism. The world’s only Jewish country has done less harm than most countries on earth, and more good—and yet when people went looking for a country that would symbolize the sins of our new post-colonial, post-militaristic, post-ethnic dream-world, the country they chose was this one.

When the people responsible for explaining the world to the world, journalists, cover the Jews’ war as more worthy of attention than any other, when they portray the Jews of Israel as the party obviously in the wrong, when they omit all possible justifications for the Jews’ actions and obscure the true face of their enemies, what they are saying to their readers—whether they intend to or not—is that Jews are the worst people on earth. The Jews are a symbol of the evils that civilized people are taught from an early age to abhor. International press coverage has become a morality play starring a familiar villain.

Some readers might remember that Britain participated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the fallout from which has now killed more than three times the number of people ever killed in the Israel-Arab conflict; yet in Britain, protesters furiously condemn Jewish militarism. White people in London and Paris whose parents not long ago had themselves fanned by dark people in the sitting rooms of Rangoon or Algiers condemn Jewish “colonialism.” Americans who live in places called “Manhattan” or “Seattle” condemn Jews for displacing the native people of Palestine. Russian reporters condemn Israel’s brutal military tactics. Belgian reporters condemn Israel’s treatment of Africans. When Israel opened a transportation service for Palestinian workers in the occupied West Bank a few years ago, American news consumers could read about Israel “segregating buses.” And there are a lot of people in Europe, and not just in Germany, who enjoy hearing the Jews accused of genocide.

You don’t need to be a history professor, or a psychiatrist, to understand what’s going on. Having rehabilitated themselves against considerable odds in a minute corner of the earth, the descendants of powerless people who were pushed out of Europe and the Islamic Middle East have become what their grandparents were—the pool into which the world spits. The Jews of Israel are the screen onto which it has become socially acceptable to project the things you hate about yourself and your own country. The tool through which this psychological projection is executed is the international press.

The last section of the piece, “Who cares if the world gets the Israel story wrong?”, which draws a parallel between current reporting in the Middle East and reporting during the Spanish Civil War when Orwell fought there, is very good.

I will say no more; I’m just recommending these pieces as balance for the vast bulk of anti-Israel reporting in the world press, and I’m sure people will give their opinions. But hell, I’ll put up an excerpt from the last section, too:

Orwell did not step off an airplane in Catalonia, stand next to a Republican cannon, and have himself filmed while confidently repeating what everyone else was saying or describing what any fool could see: weaponry, rubble, bodies. He looked beyond the ideological fantasies of his peers and knew that what was important was not necessarily visible. Spain, he understood, was not really about Spain at all—it was about a clash of totalitarian systems, German and Russian. He knew he was witnessing a threat to European civilization, and he wrote that, and he was right.

Understanding what happened in Gaza this summer means understanding Hezbollah in Lebanon, the rise of the Sunni jihadis in Syria and Iraq, and the long tentacles of Iran. It requires figuring out why countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia now see themselves as closer to Israel than to Hamas. Above all, it requires us to understand what is clear to nearly everyone in the Middle East: The ascendant force in our part of the world is not democracy or modernity. It is rather an empowered strain of Islam that assumes different and sometimes conflicting forms, and that is willing to employ extreme violence in a quest to unite the region under its control and confront the West. Those who grasp this fact will be able to look around and connect the dots.

Israel is not an idea, a symbol of good or evil, or a litmus test for liberal opinion at dinner parties. It is a small country in a scary part of the world that is getting scarier. It should be reported as critically as any other place, and understood in context and in proportion. Israel is not one of the most important stories in the world, or even in the Middle East; whatever the outcome in this region in the next decade, it will have as much to do with Israel as World War II had to do with Spain. Israel is a speck on the map—a sideshow that happens to carry an unusual emotional charge.

Many in the West clearly prefer the old comfort of parsing the moral failings of Jews, and the familiar feeling of superiority this brings them, to confronting an unhappy and confusing reality. They may convince themselves that all of this is the Jews’ problem, and indeed the Jews’ fault. But journalists engage in these fantasies at the cost of their credibility and that of their profession. And, as Orwell would tell us, the world entertains fantasies at its peril.

Even if you don’t agree with the message, the writing is superb.

h/t: Malgorzata ~



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