Monday, January 26, 2009

Hanna's Choice - Ethics and "The Reader"

Spoiler alert - This post reveals elements of the plot of the movie "The Reader".

In "The Reader", a recent film by director Stephen Daldry, Kate Winslet portrays Hanna Schmitz, an attractive but world-weary woman in her thirties who begins a summer-long affair with a handsome and mature-beyond-his-years 15-year-old, Michael Berg, played by David Kross.

It is 1958, and the devastation wrought on Berlin by the war is still visible. What lies unseen are moral wounds still festering beneath the surface of relatively normal German life. For these to heal they must be exposed. Scars must form so that conscience can grow anew.

Hanna comes off as intellectually uncomplicated. She is brazen in her sexual overtures to Michael, but resistant to any effort on his part to mix emotional attachment into their intense, yet touching, erotic coupling. The one demand she places on him is that he read to her as part of their encounters, and thus we learn that she is indeed capable of deep, uncensored feeling, as she weeps openly, moved by words from literary classics. Hanna's tears hint that she harbors war wounds of her own that have also not yet healed.

The affair ends abruptly when Hanna recognizes that Michael's infatuation with her is preventing him from cultivating the kind of age-appropriate relationships that he needs to grow and get on with his own life. She packs up and flees her Berlin apartment in a scene that feels in some ways like an act of reluctant self-sacrifice and in other ways like the mechanical execution of a well-rehearsed escape plan.

A half-dozen years later and Michael is attending law school in Heidelberg, wrestling in class with the questions of the ethical responsibility for the war crimes committed two decades before. The local trial of six women accused of such crimes - guards at a concentration camp assigned the task of selecting inmates to be exterminated and complicit in the deaths of hundreds more locked in a church set on fire by Allied bombs - presents Michael's professor and fellow students with the opportunity for an unusual field trip. It turns out, to Michael's surprise and dismay, that Hanna Schmitz is one of the accused.

While the trial itself explores the broader - and well-trodden - issues of having to do the just-following-orders defense of Adolph Eichmann and innumerable others, Michael finds himself confronting a different sort of ethical dilemma. During the course of the tribunal he comes to realize that Hanna is illiterate - which accounts for her insistence that he read to her as part of their lovemaking - and that her illiteracy can serve to significantly reduce the sentence that she will receive, if found guilty by the court.

Hanna is, in her childlike way, perplexed by the legal proceedings, taking full responsibility for her war-time role, and naïve enough to not appreciate that her co-defendants will use her forthrightness to make her the fall-guy for the gravest of their criminal deeds. She is, though, not so much a naif that she doesn't understand that the fact of her illiteracy may exempt her from harsher punishment. Nevertheless, she is so deeply ashamed of her inability to read that she would rather languish in prison for years than to reveal her secret in this most public way.

Michael's ethical challenge - and the central ethical question of the film - is made concrete. How do we determine whether we should act on behalf of others when our estimation of what is in their best interests contradicts their own? Is Hanna's choice to keep mum, in and of itself, an indication of a diminished capacity, or is she entitled, as other competent adults, to be the final arbiter of what it is that she holds dear? Is Michael obligated to violate Hanna's personal integrity so as to keep her from spending much of the remainder of her life behind bars?

Thus Hanna's choice becomes Michael's choice and, in doing so, it demonstrates the complexity that underlies Cain's evasion, "am I my brother's keeper?" It is a choice that dooms Michael to a life of regret, no matter how he decides, and imprisons him in much the same way that it imprisons Hanna. Perhaps this is a penitential sentence he must bear as part of the German generation born in the midst World War II, a kind of atonement for the crimes of others that can only be expunged by years of reflection and internal struggle.

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Hanna's Choice - Ethics and "The Reader" by Marc Merlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The State of the Atheist Nation

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. - Barack Obama, Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009
My fellow citizens — and non-citizens, for that matter — I come before you tonight to report that the state of atheism in this great land of ours is, if not exactly strong, improving.

Not so many decades ago a reference to Jews in a presidential address to the assembled nation would have turned a head or two. It is now entirely unexceptional. Likewise, the followers of the Islamic faith merit faithful mention, even, mercifully, in contexts having nothing to do with terrorism or with conflicts in the Middle East.

To tell the truth, the incantation, "Muslims, Christians and Jews", in any discussion of our country's religious traditions has become de rigueur. Leave any one of these out at your own political peril.

It was, though, somewhat unexpected that Hindus appear to have made their way into the A-list, at least as far as presidential inaugural speech-making goes. Like Jews before them, Hindus have taken up a far more visible role in American academic, economic and cultural life than one would predict from their representation in the population alone. The fact that India is on its way to becoming a superpower sometime this century only enhances the standing of Indians - and, by implication, Hindus - in the American political mind. It's about time we started paying more attention to them.

But, I have to admit, Barack Obama's nod to non-believers in his inaugural address took me completely by surprise.

Having fended off assaults on his own Christian bona-fides from the Bible-thumping evangelical right for the better part of the last two years, I didn't expect that he was prepared so soon to poke this stick in their cage. Let's face it, in this country you can get away with acknowledging almost any god-fearing - or gods-fearing - religion in the name of ecuminism, but recognizing non-belief is still considered to be beyond the pale in many quarters. It took some guts. Thank you, Barack.

Yet it's worth noting that our new president chose to restrict himself to using the generic term non-believers in his address. This is due in part to the fact that many agnostics, true non-believers, bridle at being called atheists. They feel that it mischaracterizes their open-minded theological stance. Fair enough. But Obama's choice of words also reminds us that there is indeed a stigma associated with the term atheism in political discourse here.

As with homosexuality, once referred to obliquely as "the love that dares not speak its name", atheists are still identified by euphemisms such as non-believer. Sounds a bit like "the creed that dares not speak its name" to me.

So, things are looking up. More and more varieties of belief - and non-belief - are being acknowledged in the public realm. But we haven't reached the promised land quite yet. Before we do, atheism must be recognized as exactly that, without hesitation or excuse. Perhaps then all references to to religion in presidential addresses will be allowed to wither away.

It is not for nothing that the Constitution opens with the undifferentiated, unqualified words, "We the people of the United States ...".

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Tale of Two Preachers

Leave it to an atheist to comment on the words of prayer offered at the beginning and end of today's inauguration of Brack Obama. But the contrast presented by the invocation given by mega-church founder, Rick Warren, and the benediction delivered by civil rights champion, Joseph Lowery, have called me to this bully pulpit

First I should say that I respect Barack Obama's decision to select Warren for the opening prayer. I think that it is a calculated, but not insincere, effort on his part to broaden his base of support in anticipation of the challenges he will face in advancing a sweeping legislative agenda. Obama is serious about doing more than just paying lip service to the word inclusion.

What was disappointing in Warren's speech was not its politics but its mediocrity. From all appearances he is no orator. To make matters worse, the content was bland, as though the ideas had been run by some sort of focus-group resulting in a string of clichés designed not to offend.

Lowery, on the other hand, generated a sense of drama even as he approached the podium. The rumble of his voice and the gradually rising intensity of his delivery were worthy of an Old Testament prophet. Here was a master of speaking, using the cadence of his words and strains of both pain and humor to "say well" for his country and its new president. Lowery's message was one of the truth of a life well-lived, inspiring both hope and, suitably, awe.

Warren, an emissary from Sarah Palin's "real" America, had offered a prayer that would do well in a suburban mega-church. It was anodyne and unchallenging. Lowery, a representative of the multi-cultural America of the here-and-now, spoke words calling us to use our diversity to address the formidable problems that lie ahead. It will be quoted for years to come.

Somehow this all seems appropriate. Rick Warren led off with a last uninspired hurrah of the Bush-Cheney years. Joseph Lowery, now 87 years old, like his colleague Martin Luther King, Jr., was able to close out the historic moment with a vision of his dream for the American future, a vision he shares with the new president.

I suspect Barack Obama knew how these two choices would play out when he made these selections and the order in which they would appear.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Speaking of Faith and of Science

What follows is an unpublished letter I submitted to the New York Times in November 2007 in response to an op-ed piece by Paul Davies, Taking Science on Faith, in which he elaborates a criticism frequently leveled at science, that is that it, too, relies on faith.

Dear Editor,

In drawing an equation between the explanatory capacity of religion and science, Paul Davies concludes that science's "claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus." Of course the scientific process is based on the assumption of a rational system of physical laws. How else could we talk about the world in any meaningful way? But such an element of faith is hardly theological, as Mr. Davies claims.

When I was a graduate student in physics in the 1970s we were taught to bring extreme skepticism to bear when considering even established physical laws. After all, discoveries of the early 20th century had demonstrated, contrary to all expectation, that measures of space and time depended upon an observer's relative motion and that the ability to determine the position of an object on the microscopic scale was forever shrouded in fundamental uncertainty.

Mr. Davies and other proponents of "separate magisteria" err in supposing that faith - even necessary faith in rational discourse - makes science and religion two of a kind. It isn't an absence of faith that distinguishes science, it is its dogged skepticism that encourages cherished beliefs to be assailed and revised, thus undergirding the development of an increasingly accurate and shared understanding of the physical universe.

Theology, though, is largely immune to such a process. How has our understanding of God been refined in any demonstrable way over the last two or three millennia? What kind of agreement over the nature of a supreme being could ever be reached that would satisfy disputing parties?

Marc Merlin

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Remembrance of Things Future - Synecdoche, New York

Whoever has no home, will never build one.
Whoever is alone, will long remain alone.

These words from the poem "Autumn Day" by Rainer Maria Rilke are a wake-up call for Schenectady community theater director Caden Cotard - literally so, since they ring forth from his clock-radio, prodding him out of bed and heralding the first day of fall. It's September 22, 2005. But it won't be for long.

By the time Caden makes it to the breakfast table, squeezing by his wife Adelle who has been dispatched to investigate their 4-year-old daughter Olivie's troubling report of "green poop", and unfolds the morning paper, he notes that Harold Pinter has won the 2005 Nobel Prize for literature. It is now October 13. Reaching into the fridge a moment later Caden remarks that the milk - dated October 20 on the carton - has expired.

Poor Caden, apparently time is not on his side.

Nor, it turns out, is his household plumbing. Before he can get fully dressed - in a scene straight out of The Amityville Horror - Caden's forehead is targeted by an exploding bathroom sink fixture, sending him scurrying for urgent medical attention and the upsetting revelation that he may be suffering from unspecified terminal disease, a brain tumor perhaps.

Sometimes it just doesn't pay to get out of bed.

Within a few days - disregarding the wall calendars that show up in the doctors' offices that Caden visits which insist that months have passed - Adelle and Olive are off to an art opening in Berlin, perhaps never to return. Caden, alone and struggling with the threatened loss of his wife and daughter, has been tapped to receive a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. Not bad for a small-town theater director whose latest stroke of genius was the rather uninspired decision to cast young actors to play the parts of the older characters in "Death of a Salesman" with the aim of somehow making the production more poignant.

We're only a few minutes into Synecdoche, New York, the new film written and directed by Charlie Kaufman and it's clear that we are in for a wild ride. Time has run amok, and it's becoming increasingly difficult for us to distinguish the real from the imagined in the world of doomed Caden Cotard.

What exactly is going on here?

Barring somehow melding minds with Mr. Kaufman - both a tantalizing and terrifying prospect - it's a stretch to answer this question with any authority. It may, though, be reasonable to try out explanations that fit the available data, so to speak.

Here is one.

We are all familiar with the notion that people, in the moments preceding certain death, witness the entirety their lives flash before their eyes. Although there is no shortage of anecdotal reports from near-death survivors who claim to have undergone this experience, the proposition, substantiated or not, serves as an all-purpose warning: conduct your life in such a way that you can be at peace when confronted with your deeds - and misdeeds - as you depart this world. Pretty good advice, in an old-fashioned, day-of-reckoning sort of way.

But what about those unfortunate souls who find themselves at death's door, with their lives unfulfilled - alone on an autumn day and facing a lonely future, having never built a home and destined to never build one, as Rilke might say? Are they condemned to endure a farewell reprise of their lives which will be little more than a depressing reminder of their solitude and their failure?

Apparently not in Charlie Kaufman's system of personal eschatology, which provides such folks, our Caden for example, a dispensation from the conventional this-was-your-life end-of-life review. Instead they are given the opportunity to dream the remainder of their unlived lives - a final chance to forestall the coming of autumn, to not be alone, to not be left without a home.

And so Caden proceeds to dream his final dream and in the course of dreaming he pursues a hoped-for masterpiece, a theatrical production so extravagant that it will require a set the size of New York City and a cast of thousands to complete. This set will be Caden's home, and its cast, his bulwark against loneliness.

Dream on, Caden, dream on!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Onward, Robot Soldiers

It is well that war is so terrible — otherwise we should grow too fond of it. - Robert E. Lee

Just when you thought that the dismally failed application of "shock and awe" to subdue enemies of the United States would have discredited further claims for technological silver bullets that would make war less terrible, at least as far as U.S. forces and civilians bystanders go, the specter of the new age of robotic armies is rearing its head.

O brave new world, that has such soldiers in't!

Send in the Clones
This supposed march of progress is promoted in two recent newspaper articles. The first, featuring the work of Georgia Tech computer scientist Ronald C. Arkin, ran in the New York Times a few weeks back and explored the possibility that robot soldiers - not being susceptible to the emotional stress of combat or the rage that accompanies the loss of comrades, for example - could provide an armed force that would always operate within the bounds of predetermined ethical constraints.

Not quite Isaac Asimov's pacifistic Three Laws of Robotics, which require that not only robots not harm humans but also that they not allow humans to come to any harm, the putative Ten Commandments for these silicon soldiers would be some firmware version of the Fourth Geneva Convention - at least for starters.

Robots to End All Wars
The second robot-army manifesto was an op-ed piece by John Pike in the Washington Post. Pike's thesis, less surprising than the proposition that robots might outperform us ethically in the heat of battle, is the old-fashioned notion that, given the choice of sacrificing blood or treasure, we should opt for treasure.

According to Pike, the kind of technology that would make robot fighters a reality is "soon - years, not decades" off and would result in the creation of highly efficient "stone-cold killers" replacing their human counterparts with the effect that "the writing of condolence letters would become a lost art."

Pike goes on to argue that the U.S. adoption of such technological means would herald the dawning of a new age in which "the large-scale organized killing that has characterized six millennia of human history could be ended by the fiat of the American Peace."

It's Not About the Technology (Right Now)
Much of the opposition to the idea of robot soldiers will come from either those more or less opposed to technology categorically or from astute technologists, people who understand how limited our capabilities actually are as far as designing computer systems that can react appropriately to complex and unanticipated real-world situations.

For now I'll leave it to others to pick these technological bones. My concerns here are more down-to-earth.

Precision Misguided Weapons
Even if we presuppose that robotic soldiers can be designed to distinguish friend from foe and genuine threat from harmless bystander across an enormous spectrum of combat scenarios - a tall order to say the least - they will nonetheless require rules of engagement that are determined by human decision makers. Accuracy in target identification, level of acceptable of non-combatant collateral casualties, priority of self-preservation, these all become parameters that must be set for each robot for each and every military mission.

The promise and failure of precision-guided munitions - i.e. smart bombs - is illustrative in this regard. I would guess that many more Iraqi and Afghani civilians have been killed and injured as collateral damage resulting from "precision" U.S. air strikes in the wars in those two countries, strikes that have stayed, for the most part, well within specified rules of engagement, than have died as a result of the actions of American soldiers who have "lost it" and run amok.

In other words, the ability to delegate ethical agency to robot soldiers - highly refined precision-guided weapons in a sense - may not insure "ethical" outcomes. On the contrary, such delegation may lead to dangerous behavior on the part of the U.S. military and its leaders by encouraging reckless adventures and by creating the appearance of a lack of personal responsibility for missions that go awry.

Whose Pax Is It Anyway?
As far as John Pike's vision of the golden age to be ushered in by robot armies enforcing some sort of Pax Americana goes, it appears so naive that I had at first thought it might be a hoax or a satire, along the lines of Johnathan Swift's, A Modest Proposal. Apparently it is not.

What surprises me most about Pike's position is not that he believes that robots might be an ultimate weapon, but that he believes any such ultimate weapon might exist at all.

It's not for nothing that the phrase "arms race" has entered our lexicon as the designation for an open-ended sequence of actions - and corresponding reactions - each a futile attempt on the part of one or the other of two competing parties to gain a final advantage over its adversary.

In the realm of biology, the unthinking forces of natural selection are responsible for this kind of undirected contest. Within the world of human affairs, the blame must be placed with those who believe - in spite of all historical precedent - that their nation alone has access to some specialized knowledge that their opponents will never, ever possess.

Whether based on gunpowder or steel or TNT or atomic bombs or MIRVs (multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles), these technology monopolies don't last forever. Indeed, in the modern world they are often short-lived. Little more than 4 years separated the first American and Soviet fission bomb detonations.

Apparently the ace that Pike believes that the U.S. military has up it's sleeve is Moore's Law, which describes how the capability of semiconductor-based technology increases at an exponential rate, with the doubling of processing speeds and a corresponding reduction in costs every two years or less, for example.

Well, I've got news for you, Mr. Pike, the U.S. doesn't have a lock on Moore's Law and the prospect of powerful and sophisticated army of Chinese robot soldiers "soon - years, not decades" is a very real one. Perhaps America will decide to engage in yet another round of the arms race as a tactical necessity, but don't be fooled for a minute into believing that it will lead to some enduring break in age-old human military conflict.

Better keep examples of those condolence letters for the loved ones of fallen soldiers handy.

War is Terrible, Really
As Robert E. Lee remarked, war is terrible. This is a fact that is unlikely to be mitigated much by creating a ethically-constrained robotic army. It is also a fact that is likely not to be evaded by misguided attempts to end the arms race once and for all by playing some sort of robot-soldier technology trump card.

The U.S., in spite of its misadventures in Iraq, has the opportunity to turn its attention again to diplomacy and the support of international law, the only realistic approaches for establishing a meaningful and enduring peace in the world. Spending billions of dollars on robot soldiers will only undermine our efforts in this regard.