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Vladimir Lenin: Tsar of the Bolsheviks

Recorded May 2007 by the Center for New Thinking.

Ulyanov was his real name. Lenin was his revolutionary name. His body still lies embalmed for public view in Red Square. Born to a bourgeois family, Lenin turned radical when his revolutionary brother was killed. Embracing Marxism, he became the boldest Marxist leader in Europe. The trauma of the First World War gave him an unexpected opportunity to seize power with his Bolshevik faction. Once in power, he became a dictator who transformed Russia. Would the story of Bolshevik Russia have been different had he not died early from a stroke?

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Karl Marx: The Promise of Utopia

Recorded in February 2007 by the Center for New Thinking.

When Karl Marx died, his disciples were few in numbers. But within ten years his followers were numerous. And within 20 years they constituted millions. Of all the varieties of socialism, Marx’s scientific socialism was the most successful. The drama of revolution, the clash of the classes and the ultimate emergence of Utopia invited popular enthusiasm. Marx believed that progress was inevitable, guided by the inexorable laws of history. Fashioned in academic isolation, the vision of Marx became the philosophy of a brutal empire.

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Jamestown and Virginia: England and America

Recorded in 2007 by the Center for New Thinking.

In the face of Spanish Catholic success the English Protestants were determined to create their own English empire in North America. Several attempts had already failed when the Virginia Company was able to found a small vulnerable settlement on a swampy island near the mouth of the James River. Both the town and the river bore the name of an English king with high political pretensions. Out of this iffy adventure emerged a viable English colony. Good management was not the cause. A noxious weed called tobacco and African slaves were the winning formula.

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Journey to Cuba: Castro and Survival

Recorded by the Center for New Thinking in 2005.

Before his death in 2007, Sherwin Wine journeyed to Cuba. He visited the Cuban interior. He talked to people who still love Castro and those who still hate him. He observed the overwhelming poverty and shabbiness of this provocative island. He also saw new development and new investment. He asked the question everybody asks. In the face of the overwhelming hostility of the United States, with its boycotts and embargos – and with the disappearance of the Soviet Union, its chief ally, how does the Castro regime manage to survive?

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Capital Punishment: Execution in the Era of Timothy McVeigh

Recorded October 1997 by the Center for New Thinking.

Michigan was the first political authority in the modern world to outlaw capital punishment. But the outrageous crime of Timothy McVeigh has raised again the question whether this prohibition is indeed immoral. Is executing anybody beneath the dignity of any ethical government? Or are there some crimes so horrible that allowing the criminal to live fails to give full expression to the moral outrage of a wounded society? Is vengeance always immoral and unjust? The Oklahoma City bombing makes us confront the issue.

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Bill and Hillary: Love, Hate and Opportunism (1999)

Recorded on 11-2-1999 by the Center for New Thinking.

Do Bill and Hillary really love each other? Or are they rank opportunists whose ambitions for power are disguised by sweet talk? Sex scandals and impeachment have made their public devotion less than credible. What is the real story behind the faces? Is there passion and disgust, love and hate? What have people who really know said about their relationship?


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Brussels 1988 – International Federation Conference

The Jewish Humanist, November 1988

Brussels 1988. An important place and time for Humanistic Judaism.

The second biennial meeting of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews produced an important document. The question “Who is a Jew?” was answered boldly, generously and with a unique voice. Never before had any Jewish movement drawn the parameters of Jewishness so broadly. Hopefully, the issuance of this statement to the Jewish press and to the Jewish world will challenge the traditional establishment and arouse useful discussion.

The meeting in Brussels also provided for emotional highs. Two hundred people from thirteen countries, speaking Hebrew, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Yiddish, created an environment of international excitement. Some came – out of secular Yiddishist backgrounds. Some came from active Zionist organizations. Some were children of the kibbutz, imbued with the results of over seventy years of humanistic experiments. Others were members of secular Jewish schools and secular Jewish culture clubs. Still others, like us, were the products of full-fledged humanistic congregations. Even famous free-floating Jewish intellectuals, like Albert Memmi and Amos Funkenstein, added to the variety of flavors.

The- main setting for the conference was the Centre Communautaire Laic Juif, a secular Jewish community center in the heart of Brussels. Established over twenty -five years ago by a charismatic couple, Simone and David Susskind, it has emerged as the major humanistic Jewish voice on the European scene. Its programs reach thousands of Jews in Brussels. Its publications, especially its French magazine Regards are read by over ten thousand Belgian Jews. Its special conferences embrace the famous leaders and intellectuals of the Jewish world and bring them together to discuss important issues.

There were many special moments. There was the triumphant conclusion of the day-long attempt to reach consensus on the Who is a Jew? statement, with regional delegations cheering and applauding-. There was the warm and inspiring message of Albert Memmi, famous writer and the honorary president of the Federation, who challenged us to respond creatively to the real world of assimilation and intermarriage. There was the simple and compelling acceptance speech of David Susskind, who received a special award for distinguished service to the cause of Jewish humanism, and who shared with us the passion of his commitment. There was the powerful challenge of Yehoshafat Harkabi, former Director of Military Intelligence for the state of Israel, who demanded that we dismiss our destructive illusions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and called us to confront the reality of Israel’s present position and the necessity for dramatic compromise. There was, of course, the incredible sense of solidarity and closeness as we all sang Hebrew and Yiddish songs with Jews from many places and many nations.

The conference made us an aware that, despite our differences, we were part of a growing world movement and that we needed to work together to make it strong. But we also recognized that context made a difference. The problems of North America were not the same as those of Europe. And the problems of Europe were distinct from those of Israel and Latin America. We discovered that we had to listen to each other very carefully so that we could really understand from where each one of us was coming and what each one of us needed.

Out of the conference came an agenda of tasks that we needed to undertake if we were going to be successful in serving the needs of secular and humanistic Jews. We needed to provide popular essays about our philosophy – in at least four languages – so that unaware secular Jews could identify with our ideology and our movement. We needed to strengthen our Institute in Jerusalem so that trained teachers and leaders would be available to serve struggling communities all over the world. We needed to develop the aesthetic and emotional side of our humanistic commitments so that shared celebrations and shared symbols would give us a heartfelt sense of Jewish identity. We needed to reach out to the thousands of Jews who had no knowledge of us but who belonged with us, especially the cultural Jews of the Soviet Union and the unaffiliated Jews of North America and Europe. We especially needed to map out an effective strategy to counter the militancy of the new orthodoxy and to help rescue the Jewish world for sanity and openness.

We left Brussels with the determination to undertake these tasks and with the comfort of knowing that we would undertake them together.

The closing event of the meeting was held at the Holocaust Memorial in Brussels, an outdoor shrine in the heart of the old ghetto where twenty-six thousand names of Nazi victims are inscribed in bronze. We stood in silent tribute and then sang the defiant song of the Jewish partisans. We felt the sadness and despair for all that was lost. We also felt deeply our connection to the suffering and survival of the Jewish people. We knew that, ultimately, we could not rely on the kindness of God. The future of the Jewish people and of humanity lay, in some small way, in our hands.

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Eight Years of The Religious Right

The Jewish Humanist, October 1988

Eight years ago Ronald Reagan was running for President for the first time. And it was quite clear that – given the difficulties of Carter – he was going to win.

Eight years ago a sinister new political force presented its face to the public in the presidential campaign. The Moral Majority, under the leadership of evangelist Jerry Falwell, made its national debut in support of Reagan.

Eight years ago the Voice of Reason was born at the Birmingham Temple. Aroused by the danger to our civil liberties in the Falwell success, many of our members decided to respond in an organized way to this organized threat.

The Voice of Reason was an important chapter in our twenty-five year old history. It was an expression of our commitment to a liberal democracy and to the separation of religion and government which it implies. For that reason we have chosen to honor the Voice of Reason as part of our anniversary celebration.

Eight years later, at the time of another presidential election, it is appropriate for us to look back at the Falwell phenomenon and assess its successes and failures.

The religious right has been successful in mobilizing a large minority of the American people as a permanent activist lobby for fundamentalist causes. Some ten to fifteen percent of the American population is fanatically committed to tearing down the “traditional” barrier between church and state. Never before in American history have so many been so focused on this issue.

For many of the people in this political lobby the entrance of religious symbols and religious values into the public sphere is the most important political goal they have.

The religious right has been successful in assuming the mantle of moral defender in our troubled society. Sensitive to the concern that so many Americans have about the decline of traditional ethical values, especially those having to do with family and sex, the fundamentalist preachers have tuned into this anxiety and provided a simple and dramatic remedy. Secularism is now identified by many Americans with either immorality or moral permissiveness. Secular state schools are now regarded as neutral or negligent in the development of either patriotism or personal character. Private religious school systems are flourishing. And millions of non-fundamentalist parents have now come to accept the argument that religious education is moral education.

The religious right has been successful in encouraging a fanatic hostility to the decisions of the Supreme Court, especially those with regard to school prayer, school Bible readings, the integrity of science and abortion. The devotees of the right are determined to replace the justices on the court who espouse any liberal or moderate views with their own spokespeople. The chief criterion for the admission of these candidates to the court is their stance on the place of religion in public life.

The religious right has been successful in intimidating public educators and forcing them on the defensive. Cautious teachers, principals and superintendents are now reluctant to offer clear and direct support to secular education in a secular state.

Hoping to appease the “nudges” of the right, they have often consented to replace scientifically respectable textbooks with more timid alternatives. They have eliminated meaningful sex education. And they have allowed fundamentalist recruiters into their schools to seduce non-religious students into religious activity.

The religious right has been successful in putting science and scientists on the defensive. Building on the new fashionable anti-intellectuality of the past two decades and the stress that new information and new technology place on the public, the fundamentalists have compelled scientists to defend tried and true scientific conclusions that were no longer challenged forty years ago. In many places the theory of evolution is experiencing the same trial as Darwin experienced over a hundred years ago in England.

The religious right has been successful in making abortion freedom as a central issue of American political life. More determined than most conventional Catholics, they have elevated their answer to this question to be the moral litmus test for all politicians. Even Jerry Falwell, borrowing a page from the left and Martin Luther King Jr., has proposed a campaign of civil disobedience to undermine abortion freedom in this country. With assaultive demonstrations at abortion clinics, the debate is heating up to explosion.

The religious right has been successful in infiltrating the Republican Party and moving it to the right. Even though Pat Robertson did not succeed in remaining a viable candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, his followers and the devotees of other fundamentalist preachers retain a strong influence on Republican decisions and strategies. The near-win of Robertson in Michigan may portend similar events in other places. For sure, no secular sentiment ever passes the lips anymore of any successful Republican candidate.

Well, as you can see, the successes of the religious right are quite impressive. But there have been several significant failures.

The religious right has failed to turn its propaganda into effective legislation. Despite the promised support of both Reagan and conservative Congressmen, most of the agenda has failed to become reality. While some abortion restrictions have passed into law, very little has been achieved with school prayer, Bible readings and anti-evolution. While the Supreme Court has helped, the ambivalence of both moderates and many economic conservatives have prevented the energies of the religious right to be transferred to the legislators.

The religious right has failed to win the support of a majority of the American people despite the title of its most powerful national organization, (Moral Majority). On the contrary, its leaders have become some of the most hated figures on the American scene. While Falwell is adored by his followers, he is feared by almost eighty percent of the American population. The intensity of the fundamentalists has produced a counter-intensity of disgust and loathing that serves as an effective wall to fundamentalist ambitions.

The religious right has failed to unite its forces or discipline its leaders. The recent delicious fiascos with Bakker and Swaggart have revealed a world of unseemly competition and hypocrisy under the moral platitudes. We now know that fundamentalists and charismatics do not like each other and that kinky sex is a prerequisite for television evangelism. People are now beginning to laugh at what they used to revere. A lot of devotees have departed the fold.

The religious right failed to win its most ambitious attempt to control the Supreme Court. Although Bork is an atheist, his staunch conservatism and sympathetic feeling for religious symbolism in public life made him a test case for fundamentalist aspirations. His defeat was an enormous disappointment to diehard conservatives and a ray of hope to frustrated separationists and civil libertarians.

Now these failures were due to a variety of causes. One was the basic centrist position of most of the American people. The second was the internal feuding among the fundamentalist leaders and the stupid and embarrassing behavior of their most visible spokesmen. The third was the dichotomy between the programs of economic conservatives and lifestyle conservatives, the former of which see no connection between free enterprise and anti-science. The fourth was the determined political effort Of the American Civil Liberties Union, the People for the American Way, and smaller organizations like the Voice of Reason (now renamed Americans for Religious Liberty) to mobilize opposition to the agenda of the religious right.

Despite the failures of the fundamentalists the successes of the “enemy” of our constitutional liberties means that we must continue to be vigilant, continue to stay organized to respond to danger. That vigilance is the meaning of our tribute to the Voice of Reason.


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Argentina and Peronism

The Jewish Humanist, February 1997

I loved Evita. I loved the musical. I loved the movie. And, I thought that Madonna was an extraordinary Eva Peron.

But seeing Evita made me reflect on the politics of the modern world. After all, the fascism of the Perons was a unique fascism, an alliance between the army and the labor unions. Historically, in most conservative countries, the army allies itself with the clergy and the upper classes. But not in Argentina under Peron. As we can tell from the frustrated oligarchy in the Webber musical, singing in their upper class accents, the old ruling class were not happy with the Perons. Eva hated them. She was happiest when she was mesmerizing the descamisados, her shirtless workers.

Fascism is on the Right. But it is not conservative. It is a radical response to the traumas of modern capitalism. Unlike Communism which glorifies the industrial worker and the international working class, fascism glorifies the peasant, the soldier and the patriot. The soldier, in particular, is the hero of fascist intellectuals. The soldier is also peasant and patriot. In a capitalistic world he is seen as the victim of the masters of money, the corrupt politicians of democracy and the effete and indifferent upper classes. His rescue can only be effected by a soldier of honor, a leader who embodies the will of the people, a hero who will turn the whole nation into an army of virtue and mutual support.

Both Hitler and Mussolini hated the upper classes. They played to the lower classes, to their sense of victimization in a cruel capitalistic world, to their hatred of urban life, to their fear of foreigners, to their yearning for self-esteem through military glory. Both Hitler and Mussolini were veterans of the First World War. Their first followers were lower class unemployed veterans, filled with hatred of the rich and the privileged, and open to any conspiracy theory that featured foreigners and Jews. The gauleiters of the Nazi Party were not aristocrats. They despised aristocrats. They preferred German leaders who talked like Huey Long, George Wallace and Pat Buchanan. Unlike the old conservative ideologies of pedigree and property, fascism had the power to mobilize the masses.

But neither Hitler or Mussolini succeeded in winning over the leaders of industrial labor. The urban workers voted against fascism. In the end, both dictators were forced to make alliances with the aristocrats they despised. It was the Perons, in the very hour when the forces of fascism experienced their terrible defeat in both Europe and Asia, who succeeded in making an alliance between the army and the labor unions. Behind the songs and biography of Evita lies an extraordinary and frightening political development.

Argentina had become a rich country by the beginning of the twentieth century. British investment, the invention of refrigeration and the European demand for Argentine beef and wheat produced enormous wealth. But this wealth was very unevenly distributed.

A small number of landed aristocrats controlled most of it. They indulged themselves with excessive luxury and monopolized all positions of political power. Needing workers for their economic empire, they imported large numbers of Spanish and Italian immigrants who transformed the port city of Buenos Aires into one of the great metropolitan centers of the world. Many of these immigrants created a new middle class who struggled with the aristocrats for political control. For a short time in the 1920’s the middle class prevailed. But most of the peasants and urban workers remained excluded, oppressed and ignored. They were the ‘losers’ of an emerging modern economy.

The key to the success of Juan and Eva was that they spoke to the ‘losers’ in a language that the lower classes could understand – language of paternal and maternal love, a language of patriotism and lower class resentment. The turn-off language of intellectual socialism and sophisticated atheism never burdened their communication. The lower classes did not want democracy. They wanted jobs, recognition and revenge. Eva understood them. That is why in poor neighborhoods in Argentina she is still remembered as ‘Santa Evita’.

In time, without Eva, the Peron regime collapsed from its own economic mismanagement. The upper and middle classes rejoiced. The army returned to its traditional alliance with the rich and the clergy. But the new government, including the present one (which is ironically Peronist without any of the programs of Peron) had not found the solution to the problem of the unhappy ‘losers’, the workers that modern capitalism so easily displaces.

Evita makes you think. In an America where so many workers are discovering that their standard of living is falling, that their jobs are disappearing to automation or to foreign competition, where foreigners abound in ethnically, mixed cities and where the separation between the winners and ‘losers’ is growing wider – is it possible that disgruntled labor could make an alliance with undemocratic politicians and soldiers in an outburst of impulsive resentment. L think not. But Evita makes me think of the danger of a world where the winners indulge their right to self-absorption and where the ‘losers’ are cast aside, alienated from the economic game, and consumed by envy and anger.

The problem of Evita will not go away.

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Bosnia – US to Intervene?

The Jewish Humanist, January 1996

Should American troops go to Bosnia?

Many Americans are having heated arguments about this question. After all, there is the risk that American soldiers will be trapped in a civil war that no outside force has the power to stop. Bosnia is not Vietnam. But it is also not Haiti.

The tragedy of Bosnia is the tragedy of Yugoslavia. Many centuries ago a single nation was split into three parts by religion. First the missionaries of Christianity divided the Slavic tribes of Yugoslavia into Catholics and Orthodox. The Croats became Catholics. The Serbs, who spoke the same language as the Croats, became Orthodox. When the Ottoman Muslim Turks conquered the area, many Serbs and Croats chose Islam. Most of the new Muslims lived in the Turkish province of Bosnia. In time the division was aggravated by literacy. The Croats wrote the language in Latin letters. The Serbs wrote the language in Cyrillic letters. And the Muslims sometimes resorted to Arabic script. What had been one became three. And, as we know, there is no hatred like the hatred inspired by religious faith.

The Serbs were the first to achieve independence. After the defeat of their Austrian and Turkish enemies in the First World War, the Serbs created Yugoslavia. The new country brought the Croatians and Muslims under Serbian domination. The forced union did not work. The arrival of Hitler and the German army in the Second World War split the new nation into a Croatian and Serbian part. With the help of the Nazis, the Croatians and their Muslim allies carried out a war of extermination against their Serbian enemies. Together with fifty thousand Jews, over six hundred thousand Serbs perished. The Serbs never forgot this genocide.

After the Second World War, the Russians and their Communist allies decided recreate Yugoslavia. For thirty-five years th federation” was preserved by the iron will a Communist dictator called Tito. Tito tried to secularize the country and encouraged the Serbs, Croats and Muslims to intermarry. But he continued to preserve Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia as sub-units of Yugoslavia. He had no alternative since the official party line did not correspond to the strong nationalist loyalties and hatreds which survived despite propaganda. The death of Tito and a world recession undid the bonds of the fragile Yugoslav nation. War was inevitable because the boundaries Tito had drawn did not correspond to the ethnic realities. The Serbs were the first aggressors, egged on by painful memories, arrogant chauvinism and the ambitions of a former Communist leader, the Serbian president Milosevic. Since the aggression in 1991, four years of war have produced three hundred thousand dead and three million refugees. And Bosnia he turned into a devastated land. Along the way genocide (euphemistically called “ethnic cleansing”) became an ordinary weapon of war.

Despite the moral outrage of the terrible genocide and the threat to peace in the Balkans, neither America, its European allies, nor the United Nations were willing or able to stop the war. America was absorbed by domestic concerns and saw no vested interest in intervention.

And Russia prolonged the war by offering its support to the Serbs. Even the nearby Germans, French and British were ineffective because their so-called unity was only a sham.

But now Clinton has decided to intervene. After all these years of indifference, his action is hardly humanitarian. It is clearly political. He needs to establish his credibility in the face of Republican victories and an aggressive Republican Congress. Having long neglected foreign affairs, he has now concluded that becoming a world leader will enhance his chances of staying in power after November 1996. What followed was the impossible “Treaty of Dayton.”

Right action often emerges from questionable motivation. The intervention in Bosnia is one of them. Regardless of Clinton’s agenda, it will provide relief to a desolate population, enhance world law and order and serve the vested interest of the United States.

World law and order depends on the power and initiative of America. There is no democratic nation able to assume the necessary role of world disciplinarian. The United Nations suffers from the disabilities of too many conflicting agendas and too many vetoes. With the fall of Communism and the balance of power provided by the Cold War, the alternative to American resolve is chaos. Worse wars than the war in Bosnia will ensue if ‘outlaw’ nations realize that there are no penalties for bad behavior.

The vested interest of America lies in a stable international economy. That economy depends on restraints being imposed on aggressive nationalism. A continuing war in Bosnia will bring the Russians and fundamentalist Muslims into the fray. It could unleash a broader war in the Balkans and destabilize fledgling democracies in the area. Anti-democratic militaristic states are more interested in arms rather than trade.

The “Treaty of Dayton” provided for the restoration of Croatia to its pre-war boundaries. It also provided for the preservation of Bosnia as a “unified” state with two parts, one Serbian and one Croatian-Muslim. It is not clear that this “new” Bosnia will be viable. In the end Bosnia may have to be divided between the Serbs and Croats, with the Muslim state becoming a protectorate of Croatia. A multiethnic Bosnia may be more illusion than reality. But, as a first step, the treaty is appropriate.

There is always the risk that Americans will be killed. But the alternative of non-intervention is worse. Educating the American people to this reality is the task of the Clinton administration.