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European values after Auschwitz: Get Religion, October 26, 2012 October 27, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Seventy years after the Holocaust, Germany has constructed the first monument honoring the half million gypsies murdered in the Holocaust.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung  reported the news with a photo of the memorial above the fold in Wednesday’s edition along with an inside story entitled “Denkmal für die ermordeten Sinti und Roma wird eingeweiht”.

Published from Munich, the Süddeutsche Zeitung or SZ is Germany’s largest circulation daily newspaper and follows a centre-left editorial line. The SZ story reports the facts of inauguration of the monument in Berlin — and also takes a few shots at the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel for its asylum policies. The thwack it gives Germany’s interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich of the CSU party (Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern) — a local boy from Bavaria — is not unexpected. Yet its attack, voiced through the mouth of Mr. Romani Rose, the leader of Germany’s Central Council of Sinti and Roma, is expressed on the moral grounds of not being in accordance with European values.

I am sympathetic to the gypsy spokesman, Mr. Rose’s, denunciation of German attitudes and government policies towards gypsies. But what exactly are European values? Once upon a time they were Christian values, albeit imperfectly followed but piously espoused. In a post-Christian, post-Auschwitz  Europe what exactly underlies the concept of moral value?

The SZ story begins by recounting the ceremony in Berlin that marked the opening of the monument to the gypsies murdered between 1933 to 1945. The monument had been planned for almost 20 years, but disagreements with the Central Council of Sinti and Roma led to the delay in its construction. The importance of the ceremony was underscored by the presence of Germany’s chancellor, president and political leaders — a point made by Berlin’s Die Tageszeitung. The top half of the SZ story closes with this paragraph:

Mit dem Denkmal setze die Bundesregierung ein Zeichen, “das nicht allein in die Vergangenheit weist, sondern vor allem Verantwortung für Gegenwart und Zukunft symbolisiert”, betonte das Dokumentations- und Kulturzentrum Deutscher Sinti und Roma. Die zwölf Millionen Sinti und Roma in Europa seien “noch heute täglicher Diskriminierung ausgesetzt”. Der “zunehmende Rassismus in Europa” bedrohe nicht nur die Minderheiten, “sondern die europäischen Werte an sich, deren Kern die Menschenrechte und die Menschenwürde sind”.

Which roughly and imperfectly translated means:

With this monument the Federal Government has put up a sign “that points not only to the past, but is symbolic above all of its responsibility for the present and future” said the Documentation and Cultural Center of German Sinti and Roma. Europe’s twelve million Sinti and Roma are “still exposed to daily discrimination”. The “rise of racism in Europe” threatens not only minorities, “but the core European values of human rights and human dignity.”

The SZ then has fun and gives Mr. Rose the opportunity to chastise the interior minister for the government’s “discriminatory” and racist asylum policy, which he charges prevents gypsies from escaping to Germany from the Balkans. The quote provided by the minister is wonderfully pompous and bureaucratic, essentially saying that gypsies do not meet the criteria of a persecuted people in Serbia and Macedonia. In giving the minister equal space, the SZ has allowed him to make a fool of himself. The exchange is framed in such a way as to make the interior minister seem heartless — lacking in the European values of die Menschenrechte und die Menschenwürde (human rights and human dignity).

Where is the God-shaped hole in this story you ask? It is in the claim that Europe’s core values are human rights and human dignity. What does that mean?

Whose conception of rights? What understanding of dignity?

The ghosts I see hovering in the background of this story are the continuing shadow the Nazi era casts over Germany and the debate over the place of Christianity in the European identity. The place of Christianity — including the concept as to whether human rights and human dignity are innate as they are God-given, or constructs of the secular state — has animated debates over the place of God in the EU constitution.

The post-Nazi era treatment of the gypsies reflects this grappling with morality without grounding in God. The Nazis exterminated the gypsies — why? One Romani scholar noted that some histories of the Holocaust failed to understand that the “criminality” associated with gypsies

was attributed by the Nazis to a genetically transmitted and incurable disease, and was therefore ideologically racial; instead, writers focused only on the “antisocial” label resulting from it and failed to acknowledge the genetic connection made by the Nazi race scientists themselves.  In 1950 the Württemburg Ministry of the Interior issued a statement to the judges hearing war crimes restitution claims that they should keep in mind that “the Gypsies were persecuted under the National Socialist regime not for any racial reason, but because of their criminal and antisocial record,” and twenty-one years later the Bonn Convention took advantage of this as justification for not paying reparations to Romanies, claiming that the reasons for their victimization during the Nazi period were for reasons  of  security  only. Not one person spoke out to challenge that position, the consequences of which have hurt the survivors and their descendants beyond measure, though at that time the French genealogist Montandon did however observe that “everyone despises Gypsies, so why exercise restraint?  Who will avenge them? Who will complain? Who will bear witness?”

Am I a cynic, or overly fussy, when I hear newspaper talk of European values and the European ideal? How should a thoughtful journalist handle this issue? There is a danger of entering a suffering Olympics — ranking the sufferings of Jews, gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, Catholics, socialists/conservatives/communists at the hands of the Nazis. I am not speaking here about special pleading for one group, but asking how a reporter can report on the language of European morals in a post-Auschwitz world?

Or, is this a loaded question? When did you Germans stop beating your wives? Is it time to forget and move on? What say you GetReligion readers?

First printed in Get Religion.

What has God got to do with drones?: Get Religion, October 24, 2012 October 24, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Afghanistan, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,”a United States major said today. He was talking about the decision by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong.

So began Peter Arnett’s 8 Feb 1968 report from the town of Ban Tre. Published in the New York Times under the headline “Major Describes Move“, time has improved the quotation to various forms of “we had to destroy the village to save it”. Questions of the proportionality of  response to a threat have been present in war reporting from the start of the craft in the Nineteenth century to the present conflict in Afghanistan. However the questions raised by Peter Arnett have been debated for more than a millennium in the theological and philosophical speculations of “just war” theory.

The moral issues surrounding the use of unmanned drones has been been raised from time to time in the U.S. press and addressed by my colleague Mollie Hemingway on the pages of GetReligion. However, the European press has been particularly exercised over their use in the battle with the Taliban. Tuesday’s Guardian in London gave the issue the front page treatment in its story on the activation of an RAF squadron operating from Britain that will control drones flying over Afghanistan. However the Guardian approaches the issue of ethics without reference to religion.

The article entitled “UK to double number of drones in Afghanistan” begins:

The UK is to double the number of armed RAF “drones” flying combat and surveillance operations in Afghanistan and, for the first time, the aircraft will be controlled from terminals and screens in Britain.

In the new squadron of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), five Reaper drones will be sent to Afghanistan, the Guardian can reveal. It is expected they will begin operations within six weeks. Pilots based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire will fly the recently bought American-made UAVs at a hi-tech hub built on the site in the past 18 months.

Details of the new squadron’s operations are discussed and then the story moves to the moral issues involved in the use of unmanned drone attacks.

The use of drones has become one of the most controversial features of military strategy in Afghanistan. The UK has been flying them almost non-stop since 2008.

The CIA’s programme of “targeted” drone killings in Pakistan’s tribal area was last month condemned in a report by US academics. The attacks are politically counterproductive, kill large numbers of civilians and undermine respect for international law, according to the study by Stanford and New York universities’ law schools.

After raising the moral issues, the Guardian steps back somewhat and dives into eight paragraphs of operational details before resurfacing with this statement.

The MoD insists only four Afghan civilians have been killed in its strikes since 2008 and says it does everything it can to minimise civilian casualties, including aborting missions at the last moment. However, it also says it has no idea how many insurgents have died because of the “immense difficulty and risks” of verifying who has been hit. …In December 2010, David Cameron claimed that 124 insurgents had been killed in UK drone strikes. But defence officials said they had no idea where the prime minister got the figure and denied it was from the MoD.

Let me start off by commending the Guardian‘s reporter for raising the moral issues surrounding the targeted killing of America and Britain’s enemies. A story published the same day in the Washington Post on the administration’s plans to create kill lists of enemies was silent on the moral issues — though it did mention that there had been legal challenges to the government’s use of drones to kill American citizens in enemy ranks. As an aside, I am surprised by the lack of outrage over the targeted killing program from the press. America has been down this road before. The Phoenix program in Vietnam sparked congressional hearings and a steady flow of moral outrage up through the Carter Administration.

Was it sufficient for the Guardian to put forward the objections of some American law school professors when raising the moral issues of drone warfare? There are any number of philosophers and theologians who could have offered cogent critiques of the morality of drone warfare — Britain’s smartest man, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has been outspoken in his opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and has lectured on the issue of “just war” to military audiences. The choice of whom to quote, of course, lies with the author — but my sense of this story is that the religious element is outside the reporter’s knowledge. Ethics for the Guardian is not tied to religion.

This is, for me, is the journalism question in this story. There is an ethical ghost here — but what sort of ethical ghost, secular or religious?

The Christian tradition holds that morality without religion is impossible. There can be ethics without religion, but these ethics are necessarily incomplete or flawed. In his book Morality after Auschwitz, Peter Haas asked how Germany could have willingly participated in a state-sponsored program of genocide. His answer was that:

far from being contemptuous of ethics, the perpetrators acted in strict conformity with an ethic which held that, however difficult and unpleasant the task might have been, mass extermination of the Jews and Gypsies was entirely justified. . . . the Holocaust as a sustained effort was possible only because a new ethic was in place that did not define the arrest and deportation of Jews as wrong and in fact defined it as ethically tolerable and ever good.

If there is no God, there is no good and evil, no right and wrong, or as Fyodor Dostoyevsky said in the Brothers Karamazov, “If there is no immortality, then all things are permitted.”

Against this view we have philosophers and ethicists such as Prof. Peter Singer of Princeton University who have argued  “that an intellectually coherent ethic has to be independent of religion and that’s an argument that goes right back to Socrates and Plato.”

Whether unconsciously or by choice, the Guardian has come down on one side of this argument. There is no God.

For those of us who are unpersuaded that there can be right or wrong without a God, should it have provided the arguments of religious ethics when addressing morality? Or should we take another newspaper?

What say you GetReligion readers? How should intelligent journalism address this question?

First printed in GetReligion.

Buddhists behaving badly: Get Religion, May 12, 2012 May 12, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Buddhism, Gambling, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Hypocrisy sells newspapers.

This is a conclusion I have drawn in my years as a religion reporter. Story proposals on a new doctrinal development or a report on a major church conference seldom excites the interest of an editor. [A story proposal about doctrinal development discussed at a conference in Canada is the kiss of death].

But if I can work in an angle about church leaders behaving badly, it may generate a return phone call. And if there is hypocrisy involved I’m just about home. I’ve even found that a long time staple of mine — the naughty vicar story — no longer generates the same level of interest. Sex does not sell by itself. You need an element of hypocrisy in the story to close the deal with a commissioning editor.

All of which brings me to a great story from The Korea Times. While there is no sex, it has the next best thing: monks behaving badly.

Here is the lede from the article entitled from the 11 May 2012 story “Jogye Order in disarray over gambling monks”:

The leadership of Jogye, the nation’s largest Buddhist order, is being thrown into question following the disclosure Thursday of a video clip showing monks gambling, drinking and smoking in a hotel room.

The monks were seen playing poker with hundreds of millions of won, which is believed to be from donations from believers.

Many within and outside the Buddhist circle sees the case as only the tip of the iceberg, saying the government must take action to address corrupt practices in religious groups. Some activists urged the government to introduce a “tax on religion” in a bid to make their spending of donations and expenditure transparent.

Behind the revelation is an internal conflict between the head of the Jogye Order, Ven. Jaseung, and his critics.

The article lays out the disputes within the Jogye Order, which have led to lawsuits between the various factions (Who says Episcopalians have all the fun in suing each other?) And reports that the leader of the Jogye Order has issued an apology for the actions of his worldly clerics.

We deeply apologize for the behavior of several monks in our order. The monks who have caused public concern are currently being investigated and will be punished according to Buddhist regulations as soon as the truth is verified by the prosecution,” said Ven. Jaseung in a statement.

He added that his order will conduct a 108-bows ritual for 100 days starting next Tuesday to repent the misbehavior of the monks.

The Korea Times also reports on how the film of the monks made it into the public eye. It reported that the leader of the dissident faction within the Jogye Order gave the film clip to government prosecutors after he “found a USB drive containing the footage on the floor of his temple.”

I give the Korea Times great credit for playing the article straight. Imagine what another newspaper whose name contains the word “Times” would do with this story about hypocrisy in top religious leaders coupled with a extraordinary explanation of how the tape came into the possession of the dissident faction. He might as well have said it fell off the back of a truck.

The article closes with a comment from an advocate for the reform of the Buddhist orders who states:

“In Europe, religions pay taxes to the government on donations from believers and that money is redistributed to religious groups. In Korea, there’s no such system so temples or churches are not properly monitored. It’s not like the monks make money out of farming or any other work. So basically all the money comes from donations,” said Chung.

“The Jogye Order and its monks must make their financial affairs transparent and rethink the role of Buddhism in society.”

All in all this was a great article. There were opportunities galore to be cynical or to advance an agenda, but The Korea Times allowed the facts to tell the story, provided the context of the internal feuds within the Jongye Order, and closed with a note about the scandals relevance to the Korean religious scene. No hyperbole — just solid reporting. Well done.

As this article was written for an English-speaking Korean audience, or for resident foreigners in Korea, there was one angle that is not mentioned in the story that would have been helpful for a foreign reader. Is gambling, smoking and drinking problematic for Jogye Order monks? One can deduce that this is so, but it isn’t spelled out in full.

This is not a problem for a Korean newspaper as the answer would likely be self-evident in a Korean context. However, this issue leads me to a deeper journalistic issue. It begins with the question as to whether there are universal human norms of moral conduct. Couched in journalistic terms — should a reporter assume that an action that is regarded as bad behavior in the West be labeled a bad behavior when it occurs in the non-Western world? In the Christian, or post-Christian, or Jude0-Christian West hypocrisy is regarded as sinful, or bad conduct. Can we assume that this is so in non-Western cultures?

In this particular case, the Western conception of bad behavior is in line with the Buddhist, both have clearly defined standards of ethical conduct. In the Simile of the Cloth, the Buddha lists the sixteen defilements of the mind of which number 9, maya, is hypocrisy:

1. Thus have I heard. Once the Blessed One was staying at Savatthi, in Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. There he addressed the monks thus: “Monks.” — “Venerable sir,” they replied. The Blessed One said this:

2. “Monks, suppose a cloth were stained and dirty, and a dyer dipped it in some dye or other, whether blue or yellow or red or pink, it would take the dye badly and be impure in color. And why is that? Because the cloth was not clean. So too, monks, when the mind is defiled, an unhappy destination [in a future existence] may be expected.

“Monks, suppose a cloth were clean and bright, and a dyer dipped it in some dye or other, whether blue or yellow or red or pink, it would take the dye well and be pure in color. And why is that? Because the cloth was clean. So too, monks, when the mind is undefiled, a happy destination [in a future existence] may be expected.

3. “And what, monks, are the defilements of the mind? (1) Covetousness and unrighteous greed are a defilement of the mind; (2) ill will is a defilement of the mind; (3) anger is a defilement of the mind; (4) hostility…(5) denigration…(6) domineering…(7) envy…(8) jealousy…(9) hypocrisy…(10) fraud…(11) obstinacy…(12) presumption…(13) conceit…(14) arrogance…(15) vanity…(16) negligence is a defilement of the mind.

4. “Knowing, monks, covetousness and unrighteous greed to be a defilement of the mind, the monk abandons them …

There are hypocritical Buddhists just as there are hypocritical Christians, but the way this hypocrisy works itself out has different theological connotations. Shallow Buddhists have not renounced their selfish desires. Shallow Christians have not surrendered their lives to Christ’s authority.

While Western and Buddhist ethical standards matched up in this instance, they do not always do so — nor do the ethical constructs of other thought or religious systems always line up with Christian or Jewish moral teachings. If a reporter does not address this issue, is he not guilty of some form of imperialistic thinking? Is he not saying “the world operates according to my culture’s norms and shall be judged by my standards”?

In writing a story of less than 500 words a reporter is not given the opportunity to speculate on the nature of truth. Should he not then have a line in a story that states why a particular behavior offends in non-Western cultures? Or, is this stating the obvious? Or, are there non-negotiable moral norms that are present through out humanity?

What say you GetReligion readers? What is truth and where can it be found?

First printed in GetReligion.

Confucian ethics and modern China: Get Religion Oct 21, 2011 October 21, 2011

Posted by geoconger in China, Get Religion, Popular Culture, Press criticism.
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The terrible story out of China of a toddler run over by a van as she wandered alone through a market has seen extensive news coverage. As two-year old Yue Yue lay in the street badly injured, a security camera recorded 18 people passing by before a woman stopped to help. There has been an outpouring of outrage on blogs and social media, some of it prompted by the passers-by making excuses for their behavior.

The incident has sparked a debate on China’s cultural and legal strictures and the state of Chinese society.  There have been some solid pieces about China’s moral malaise as well as examinations of high profile cases involving similar issues. A few thoughtful stories have also discussed the “by-stander effect”: a phenomena best known from the 1964 case of Kitty Genovese, whose murder in a crowded stretch of Kew Gardens became known as a metaphor for moral decay after no came to her aid.

The blog The Useless Tree offers one explanation:

The problem is, at base, the rampant materialism of contemporary Chinese society that has led some people, elderly included, to extort “good Samaritans.” Here is an infamous case:

This phenomenon essentially began Nov. 20, 2006, when Xu Shuolan, a 65-year-old woman, fell and broke her hip while attempting to board a bus in Nanjing. Peng Yu, a 26-year-old, was the first to help her. He gave her 200 reminbi and escorted her to the hospital, staying with her until her family arrived. In thanks, Xu sued Peng for 136,419  reminbi, or $18,000, claiming that he was the one who knocked her down.

In one of the best-known, most important Chinese judicial rulings of the last decade, a court decided that Peng owed Xu  45,000 reminbi, or $6,076. The court didn’t have any evidence that Peng committed the crime of which he was accused by Xu. But the court, controversially, used the “daily life experience to analyze things” standard and claimed that the aid Peng gave to Xu was sufficient evidence of guilt. It wasn’t, as many outraged Chinese at the time felt, a simple act of decency.

That court case has proved to be morally corrosive, creating an incentive for fraud.  The judge’s presumption, essentially, is that only a guilty person would “help” someone in trouble; aid is an indication of guilt.  Thus, if a fraudster can induce a person to come to his or her aid, there is a chance for a payoff.  Perverse, to say the least.

Yet in all of these discussions of ethics and morals, questions about the reluctance of the Chinese to play the Good Samaritan for Yue Yue, there has been no serious examination of the religious or philosophical issues at play (that I have seen). BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day did raise the issue of faith in the Yue Yue story. The Rev. Lucy Winket argued that “some blame communism” or “Confucian philosophy” for China’s moral void. However, the C of E cleric was otherwise agnostic about the faith issues. She did observe though that “indifference and callousness is part of the human condition” — could this be an an incipient Calvinism rearing its head? Alas no. I think it is more cliche than belief in the total depravity of mankind.

A commentator for Britain’s SkyNews thought her explanation a “cop-out.”

Some responsible voices point out there is a problem in China and it does truth no service by pretending otherwise. This is not to trade in crude racial stereotypes, they say, but to deal with the reality of China’s recent history.

For decades conscience was contracted out to the Communist state — it removed the ability of people to think and act for themselves.

I cannot prove it, but I think there would be less likelihood of such a dehumanising tragedy unfolding in a country where popular morality had been shaped by a monotheistic religion like Christianity, Islam or Judaism — where charity is embedded in the theology and, ultimately, the culture. Jesus equipped his followers with the Golden Rule — do as you would be done by. Mohammed encouraged alms giving — zakat — to the poor.

In China, in the gallop towards affluence and material plenty, there does not always seem much time for the poor. However, it is encouraging to see the scale of the response to the scandal of [Yue Yue]’s suffering — from the Chinese themselves. It is a terrible wake-up call.

The vast majority of stories about Yue Yue assume a Christian worldview — one where being a Good Samaritan is a moral good. China experts note that this does not give a true picture. This 2009 article states that Confucian culture does not value the Good Samaritan. It is a foreign concept. The China Hope Live blog cites My Country and My People by Lín Yutáng to explain the faith issues at play for a non-Chinese audience.

Confucianism omitted out of the social relationships man’s social obligations toward the stranger, and great and catastrophic was the omission. Samaritan virtue was unknown and practically discouraged. Theoretically, it was provided for in the “doctrine of reciprocity” … But this relationship toward “others” was not one of the five cardinal relationships, and not so clearly defined. … In the end, as it worked out, the family became a walled castle outside which everything is legitimate loot.
The Hong Kong based psychologist, Michael Harris Bond, develops this theme further in his book Beyond the Chinese Face:
The Hong Kong based psychologist, Michael Harris Bond, develops this theme further in his book Beyond the Chinese Face:

The only principle that might guide behavior towards strangers is the Chinese ‘golden rule’ of Confucius, ‘Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.’ This counsel, however, is in the negative and prohibits harmful acts rather than promoting helpfulness. It is quite different in its consequences from doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. This Judeo-Christian dictum is another universal principle, but one that endorses an active reaching out to strangers. It finds its expression at the broader political level in constitutional safeguards for minority rights and a social welfare system; at the interpersonal level, in a greater willingness to assist the underdog. Such a principle operates less strongly in Chinese society.

In reporting context is key. Omitting the moral, historical and religious context of the Yue Yue story paints a false picture of China. While it could be possible that those who passed Yue Yue in the street were moral monsters, it is more likely they are representative of the religious and cultural flux underway in China.  I would argue that this story needs to be seen against the backdrop of Chinese history.

Since the liberalizations of the early 1980’s one of the key challenges that Chinese individuals have faced is the question, “What is the meaning of life? For what purpose do I live?”  A century of warfare culminating in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) not only undermined traditional Confucian values but shook the rhetoric and ideology of revolutionary Maoism. The new emphasis on individual freedom, prosperity and happiness stands in sharp contrast to the Maoist vision of self-sacrifice, self-discipline and self-restraint. The question for the journalist is how to tell this story in proper context.

Regardless of all the talk of the secularization of the media and culture in Europe and America, we in the West still live in Christendom. By this I mean that a Western journalist can assume that his audience has a shared Judeo-Christian worldview on base moral matters. One of these is the Good Samaritan ethic.

Is such an ethic appropriate? Is it possible for a journalist to stand outside his culture? The Yue Yue story illustrates this dilemma. Were the 18 bystanders moral monsters, or were they acting according to a different faith code? Should the Judeo-Christian worldview be the prism through which this story is told to the world? Is there a single moral good or truth? Is the enlightenment project — is reason — dead?

What say you GetReligion readers?

First published by GetReligion.