Last Night in Sweden

At a Florida rally on February 18, 2017, Donald Trump spoke about threats of terror:

We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible. You look at what’s happening in Brussels. You look at what’s happening all over the world. Take a look at Nice. Take a look at Paris. We’ve allowed thousands and thousands of people into our country and there was no way to vet those people. There was no documentation. There was no nothing. So we’re going to keep our country safe. (NY Times)

Trump’s words suggested that something terrible had happened the night before in Sweden. Something like the terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris. Something caused by undocumented refugees. But there had been no terrorist activity in Sweden the night before (Independent). The only recent Swedish terror attack had been over a month ago: Neo-Nazi members of the Nordic Resistance Movement attacked an immigrant asylum in Gothenburg and injured one person.

Trump later said that he was referring to a report on an increase in crime in Sweden since the Syrian refugees had been accepted into the country (Independent). Swedish sources, however, however, have denied any significant recent change in crime rates.

The world is changing rapidly. It is becoming harder to know what is true and what is false. What do we know of the world? What should we believe?

Truth, Knowledge and Belief

Some comments on the philosophy of knowledge might help us determine where we stand in this new world. Epistemology considers what a subject, denoted by S, knows in terms of propositions, denoted by p, e.g. “Snow is white.” The most commonly accepted understanding is that knowledge is “justified true belief:”

S knows p if S believes p on the basis of evidence supporting p, and if p is true.

The truth condition is necessary because we may have false beliefs. This occurs when we conclude on the basis of some evidence that something is true when it is actually false. We may believe that a terror attack occurred in Sweden on January 17, 2017, because the President of the United States said so (or seemed to say so), but this is a false belief.

What is ultimately important then is not what we believe but whether what we believe is actually true. Truth is even more difficult to understand than knowledge. Most commonly we consider something as true if it corresponds to something (a “fact”) in or about the real (or “actual”) world. This approach works fairly well for propositions about the physical world, e.g. “Snow is white.” However, it does not work as well for propositions requiring judgment rather than perception, e.g. “Killing is wrong.” In this case, there may be different kinds of truth. The truth of a proposition depends on its context. “Killing is wrong” may be false in the context of self-defense.

Yet everything is true or not depending on the context. Even “Snow is white” is false in the context of colored illumination. So we have to come together and decide what we mean by things, and what we consider their appropriate contexts. Philosophy considers this state of affairs in terms of pluralist theories of truth.

These ideas become very complex when we consider predictions about what will happen. We have created laws and theories about what will happen on the basis of what has occurred before. These laws and theories are true inasmuch as the predictions they entail have not proved false when we have tested them. Laws about the physical world are more easily considered true or false than laws about human behavior. It is easier to know that the sun will rise tomorrow than that refugees will initiate terror attacks.

Most importantly, we usually have to accept the evidence of other people when we decide about what we know. We cannot personally experience everything, nor can we personally test all possible theories about the world. We depend on others to support what we believe. People in Sweden quickly pointed out that there was no terrorist attack in their country on February 18, 2017.

In evaluating the evidence of others, we have to consider several factors. Most crucial is whether those providing the evidence are trustworthy, and whether they have previously been correct in their assessment of the world. A second factor is that our beliefs must be coherent. We cannot believe that there was a terrorist attack in Sweden on February 17, 2017, and at the same time believe that no one in Sweden noticed this. Finally, we often agree with what most people believe to be true. It is difficult to insist that something happened when most people say it did not. Conforming to majority opinion is clearly not as good as finding out for ourselves, but in most cases we have neither the time nor the ability to do so.  

The Clear and Present Danger 

Given our understanding of knowledge and truth, we must realize that the present state of truth is precarious.

First is the problem of majority opinion. The vicious circle whereby innuendo becomes fact is terrifying. When Trump proposes his belief about something, many people may accept this, both because they trust their President and because it is coherent with their world-view. Then the opinion of the these many people can be used to justify the belief. David Bromwich describes this phenomenon in the London Review of Books:

Trump’s most disturbing habit is also his most ridiculous trait: he credits and is apt to repeat his professed beliefs when – and in exact proportion as – he sees other people credit them. We normally think of beliefs as something you cannot choose (unlike opinions or estimations), but Trump does choose and he correlates the numbers of his followers with truth in the physical world. So when, in an interview on 25 January, the ABC reporter David Muir inquired into his unsubstantiated belief that between three and five million people voted illegally, accounting for Hillary Clinton’s popular majority, Trump replied: ‘You know what’s important? Millions of people agree with me when I say that.’ The when-I-say-that is essential to Trump’s belief and essential to the relationship to his beliefs enjoyed by millions. His belief, triggered by impulsive attraction to something dressed as a fact, is fortified against refutation by the echo of the belief from his followers.

Second is the problem of reliable sources. The world has long depended on the Free Press to describe what is happening in the world. Sometimes reporting has been biased, but for the most part the professional media have tried their best to be objective. The internet has made available multiple other sources of information, some extremely biased and some completely fallacious. Capitalism has contributed to the problem. Monetized websites pay by the number of times they are accessed. Outrage is far more effective than truth in attracting “hits.”

Fake news has become recognized as a powerful force in molding public opinion. Yet Trump and his colleagues have now begun to call all sources that treat them critically as fake news.  Thus they attenuate any criticism of either themselves or the fraudulent news-sources that support them. As Charles Sykes in the New York Times, one of the media sources that Trump considers “dishonest,” remarks

In a stunning demonstration of the power and resiliency of our new post-factual political culture, Mr. Trump and his allies in the right media have already turned the term “fake news” against its critics, essentially draining it of any meaning.

In this world of alternative facts and fake news, we are approaching the “doublethink” of George Orwell’s 1984 (Part 2, Chapter 9):

To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies.

Even the description is impossible to pin down. We cannot even define doublethink without getting lost in contradictions.

Where to now?

How can we now “know” what is going on? On what do we base our beliefs? Somehow we must find a way of assessing the truthfulness of sources. Fact checkers are essential. Probably the most important is the non-partisan FactCheck.Org. The Washington Post runs a good fact-checking blog. Another source is, which was originally set up to evaluate urban myths but now also deals with fake news. We must support the Free Press – this may be our last bastion of reality. The internet has wreaked havoc with the financing of the press. Most people take their news from the internet for free. This may be dangerous. We must subscribe to proper journalism.

The photograph in the header showing the Stockholm City Hall is from Wikipedia.

In the Name of God

In recent years we have seen an escalation in violence inspired directly or indirectly by religion. Perhaps humanity is just by nature violent and religion is just an excuse. The terrible regimes of Hitler, Stalin and Mao show clearly how evil and violence can exist in the absence of God. Furthermore, most instances of religious violence are perversions of the religion’s true goals. As much as religion may lead to violence, so may violence call upon religion for justification. Nevertheless, the recent examples of religiously driven violence are very disheartening.

Religion can embody many of the ideals of humanity. Sometimes, it is as if we take all that we consider good and make this into God. If we so do, we must be careful not to let this process lead to evil rather than to good. We must limit the way in which we use our God. Even if we do not believe in God, we must still be careful about how we put our ideals into practice.

Ten Commandments

The Decalogue (Exodus 20: 1-17) provides the fundamentals for Judaeo-Christian morality. There are several ways to number these Ten Commandments (summary in Wikipedia). I shall follow the most common of the numbering traditions – that used by most Jewish authorities and by most Protestant churches.

The first four commandments deal with our relationship to God. The first is to have no other gods. This is easy to understand. The second is not to worship graven images. This has been interpreted in many ways. Though some say that it prohibits any representational art, it most likely means that such material objects should not be worshiped as divine. The fourth is to reserve one day of the week for God. This commandment to celebrate the Sabbath is only controversial in terms of which day is to be so honored and what types of work are not allowed on that day.

For this posting, I am particularly concerned with the third commandment not to take the name of God in vain. This commandment is not easy to understand. The following is the commandment (first half of Exodus 20:7) in the original Hebrew (from right to left), in transliterated Hebrew, in a word-by-word translation, in the King James Version (from left to right), and in spoken Hebrew:

cmd 3 tp

The Tetragrammaton

The name of God is given by four consonants, typically transliterated as YHWH (Gianotti, 1985; Meyers, 2005, pp 57-59; Durousseau, 2014). This Tetragrammaton (“four letters”) likely comes from the Hebrew verb “to be” in the third person. The first-person version of the verb is the name used by God in the episode of the burning bush – I Am That I Am (Exodus 3:14).

tetra b

. Tetragrammaton, Douglas Larsen, 2007 .

The third commandment, which specifically concerns the Tetragrammaton, has been interpreted in many different ways. Since its meaning is not clear, many pious Jews never use the name of God in any secular context, and do not speak the actual name aloud during religious worship. Various substitutes are used, most commonly Adonai (my Lord) or Elohim (God). The King James Version uses Lord in small capitals to express the Tetragrammaton. Other translations have used Jehovah, adding to the Tetragrammaton’s four consonants the vowels from the word Adonai. This has no real justification. The actual sound of the name was probably more like Yahweh.

Interpretations of the Third Commandment.

moses b


Ancient Hebrew is not easy to translate. Michelangelo’s 1515 statue of Moses in Rome’s San Pietro in Vincoli Church shows Moses with horns. This unusual depiction derived from the Vulgate’s translation of Exodus 34:29 describing Moses after he came down from Mount Sinai. The Vulgate translated the Hebrew word karan as cornuta or “horned.” It is better translated as “shining,” – “because light radiates and protrudes like a type of horn.”(Rashi’s commentary).

I have little knowledge of the Hebrew language. The following discussion of the interpretation of the third commandment therefore refers to others who know much more. The meaning of the commandment depends mainly on the verb nasa which is given in the second person (imperative) and on the word shua or shav used adverbially at the end of the commandment.

The verb nasa has been translated as “lift,” “raise,” “carry,’ “take,” and “bear.” Raising the name of the Lord suggests the idea of swearing by his holy name: one usually takes an oath by raising one’s hand (Benno, 1992, p 557). A common interpretation has therefore been that the third commandment prohibits the taking of an oath in God’s name and then not doing what one has sworn to do (Meyers, 2005). The keeping of contracts is a necessary part of social life (Teehan, 2010; Hazony, 2010). We need to trust that someone will do what he or she has promised. Winwood Reade (1872) described the importance of the oath to early societies:

But the chief benefit which religion conferred upon mankind, whether in ancient or in modern times, was undoubtedly the oath. The priests taught that if a promise was made in the name of the gods, and that promise was broken, the gods would kill those who took their name in vain. Such is the true meaning of the Third Commandment. Before that time treaties of peace and contracts of every kind in which mutual confidence was required could only be effected by the interchange of hostages. But now by means of this purely theological device a verbal form became itself a sacred pledge: men could at all times confide in one another; and foreign tribes met freely together beneath the shelter of this useful superstition which yet survives in our courts of law. In those days, however, the oath required no law of perjury to sustain its terrors: as Xenophon wrote, “He who breaks an oath defies the gods”; and it was believed that the gods never failed sooner or later to take their revenge. (Reade, 1872, p 153).

However, this interpretation makes the third commandment similar to the seventh: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbour” (Exodus, 20: 16). One might differentiate the two by saying that the third concerns promises to do something in the future and the seventh testimony about something in the past or present, but both ideas require swearing.

If the verb nasa is interpreted as “carry,” one can interpret the third commandment as forbidding hypocrisy. One must not present oneself as a follower of JHWH without living by his teachings. Matthew Henry said that the commandment prohibited “making a profession of God’s name, but not living up to that profession” (Henry, 1710, p 644).

If nasa is interpreted simply as “take,” the meaning of the commandment is determined by the adverbial shav, which describes the way in which the name is not to be taken. This word shav is uncommon and difficult to interpret. It is usually translated as “emptiness” or “vanity.” The third commandment is therefore commonly interpreted as prohibiting the profane or trivial use of God’s name. The name of God should not be associated with angry expostulations – cursing in the everyday sense of the word. The sacred name should not be thus blasphemed.

Shav can also mean “illusion,” “deception” or “falseness.” Thus the commandment can forbid the invocation of God’s name in magical conjuration (Buber, 1976, p 194; Alter, 2004 p 430) – cursing in the voodoo sense of the word. Sometimes, shav can mean a false thing such as an idol. Thus Staples (1939) suggested that the third commandment prohibited giving the name of JHWH to other gods – assimilating other false beliefs into the true faith. This interpretation, however, makes the third commandment merely a corollary of the first two.

Some commentators have interpreted shav as related to shoah, which means “devastation,”storm,” “disaster” or “destruction.” Childs (1974, p 411) also considers that the word may also include the idea of “malice” or “evil.” This is the meaning that I think the commandment intends: not to do evil in the name of God. This more general formulation would subsume those specific meanings already considered.

Evil in the Name of God

This interpretation fits with the suggestion that the third commandment should be more widely and importantly interpreted than is commonly done (e.g. Meyers, 2005). This would befit its being listed as third among the ten. Gerhard von Rad has proposed

The purpose of this command is to say “no” thoroughly and completely to that desire that lies so deep in the heart of man, the desire to infringe the freedom of God (Von Rad, 2012, pp 24-25).

This idea is not easy to understand. God’s purpose is good. We should take care lest we subvert this purpose and do evil in His name.

This is perhaps the true meaning of the commandment. Religion tends so easily to the position that believers are right and infidels are wrong. Ultimately, this leads to idea that the infidels should be destroyed. Much of the Hebrew Bible describes how the Israelites waged war on those who did not believe in their God. The times have not changed. In the past fifty years, factions within all major religions have committed atrocities in the name of their God (Juergensmeyer, 2003).

John Teehan (2010) has reviewed the evolution of religious violence. He points to the division between those who believe and those who do not, the lack of critical thinking that often goes with faith, and the idea of some cosmic battle between good and evil:

The initial move is to discriminate between an in-group and an out-group, with a set of practices and/or beliefs that function as signals of commitment to the in-group. Next, there is a differential in moral evaluation of the two sides of the divide: The in-group is owed a higher level of moral consideration and accorded a greater level of moral protection than those outside the group or those who defect from the group. Thus far, this structure is not unique to religious violence, it simply flows from the basic evolutionary strategies for allowing systems of reciprocity to develop and group cohesion to form. Religion comes into play with the integration of one or more minimally counterintuitive concepts (e.g., gods) into the moral matrix. God comes to represent the moral bonds that hold a community together and functions as both legislator and enforcer of the group’s moral code. This gives that moral code a heightened sense of significance and obligation. Commitment to that god can then function socially and psychologically as a signal of commitment to the group. Also, by clothing the social code of the group in divine authority it can relieve the individual of responsibility for the consequences of his or her decisions (“If god commands, I must obey”).
Consequent to this is that the out-group, by virtue of being the out-group, is not aligned with that god, or is not in proper relationship to that god. This further distinguishes the moral status of the two groups and leads to an escalation of the stakes at play. This becomes even more dramatic in universalist systems. In this case the out-group is not simply “other” but, in being aligned against God, is in league with evil itself. Inter-group conflict is no longer simply a competition between two groups seeking to promote their own interests, it is now a cosmic struggle with no middle ground available, and nothing short of victory acceptable. (Teehan, 2010, p 174).

Importance of the Third Commandment

I am not interpreting the Decalogue as the word of God. Or at least not in the sense that a God dictated it to Moses. Whatever one’s beliefs, the Ten Commandments are an impressive summary of the principles of human morality. They concisely delineate the behaviors that we have learned to forbid for the benefit of human society.

And I am not interpreting the God of the first three commandments as necessarily existing. Or as being a person rather than a universal force like in the Eastern religions. God could easily be considered as the abstract representation of human purpose and morality: what we have set as our goal and how we wish to get there. Human beings think in this way. To do away with such religion is to remove a powerful force for good.

The problem with the idea of believing either in a real God or in an abstract principle that we call God is that it makes us think that we know the truth. We then consider those who think of God differently and those who refuse to accept the idea of God as misguided. Perhaps even evil. Since violence is part of our nature, this may sometimes lead us to do terrible things – and to do these in the name of God.

I think that those who put together the Ten Commandments had some inkling of these problems. One should not use the name of God to justify actions such as murder that are forbidden by the later commandments. Those who counsel murder in the name of God are false prophets. I am suggesting that the third commandment urges us not to use God’s name to justify evil.



Alter, R. (2004). The five books of Moses: A translation with commentary. New York: Norton.

Buber, M. (1946). Moses. Oxford: East and West Library. The chapter “The Words on the Tablets” on pp 119-140 is reprinted in Herberg. W. (Ed.) (1974). The writings of Martin Buber.  New York: New American Library.

Childs, B. S. (1974). The book of Exodus: A critical, theological commentary. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Durousseau, C. H. (2014). Yah: A name of God. Jewish Bible Quarterly, 42, 21-26.

Gianotti, C. R. (1985). The meaning of the divine name YHWH. Bibilioteca Sacra, 142, 38-51.

Hazony, D. (2010). The Ten Commandments: how our most ancient moral text can renew modern life. New York: Scribner.

Henry, M. (1710) Commentary on the Whole Bible. Volume I. Genesis to Deuteronomy. Available at Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Jacob, B. (1940, translated by W. Jacob and Y. Elman, 1992). The second book of the Bible: Exodus. Hoboken, N.J: Ktav.

Juergensmeyer, M. (2003). Terror in the mind of God: The global rise of religious violence. 3rd Ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Meyers, C. L. (2005). Exodus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reade W. (1872). The martyrdom of man.

Staples, W. E. (1939). The Third Commandment. Journal of Biblical Literature, 58, 325-329.

Von Rad, G. (1940, translated by Neill, S., 2012). Moses. Cambridge, UK: James Clark.


Shostakovich: Music and Meaning

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was the greatest of the Soviet composers. Unlike Prokofiev, who spent many years abroad, Shostakovich lived all of his adult life in the Soviet Union (1922-1991). His relations with the state were difficult. Artists do not work easily in a dictatorship.

Shostakovich talked very little about his music. His work evokes powerful emotions, but what Shostakovich means often remains unclear. Although much of his music appeared to glorify Soviet Communism, recent writers such as Volkov (1979) and MacDonald (1990) have suggested that many of his works carried subversive meanings. His life, like his music, has had many interpretations.

This posting considers some of the issues of interpretation. In a society wherein one is afraid to say what one thinks or feels, history becomes uncertain. And music is often ambiguous.

Early Life

Dmitri Shostakovich entered the conservatory in St Petersburg in 1919 at the age of thirteen and studied both piano and composition. His graduation piece, Opus 1 Symphony No. 1 (1926) was well received. He was granted a professorship at the Leningrad Conservatory.

However, his later compositions were not as highly regarded. Dissonance did not attract the proletariat. Russia’s new society had initially embraced modernism. However, the politicians soon decided that the new forms of art were not really revolutionary but rather were symptomatic of bourgeois decadence, and called for a return to the simple forms of the people.

After his father died in 1922, the student Shostakovich earned money to support his family by playing music for the cinema (Fay, 2000, p. 28). His Opus 35 Piano Concerto No. 1 conveys in its ending a sense of the madcap pursuits of these silent movies. The piano briefly quotes Beethoven’s Opus 129 Rondo: Rage over a Lost Penny. Beethoven – ever the revolutionary – was one of the few classical composers still revered in Soviet Russia.

signed shostakovich 1930s XB




This signed photograph was taken in the early 1930s – at the time of the first piano concerto. A confident young man beginning to make his mark. However, his early success was not to last.



Lady Macbeth

Dmitri Shostakovich first ran afoul of the Communist government for his opera Opus 29 Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk which was first performed in 1934 to favorable reviews. The opera is a tale of oppression, lust and murder. Its tone veers betweeen satire and tragedy. Opera had always portrayed intense emotions. Modernism considered these high emotions in lowly people rather than aristocrats – Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is perhaps a precursor to Shostakovich’s opera.

The opera opens with Katerina Izmailova waking up from her lonely and loveless bed. The music is languid but “endowed with the lyric intonations of Russian folk song” (Taruskin, 1989):

Katerina flirts with one of the workers in her husband’s store. He later rapes her. The music of this scene is graphic:

The rape music reaches its climax with an unmistakable ejaculatio praecox, followed by a leisurely detumescence. The salacious trombone glissandos that portray the behavior of Sergei’s member achieved instant world fame when an American magazine dubbed them an exercise in “pornophony.” (Taruskin, 1989, the reference is to a review in the New York Sun).

Katerina and her lover go on to murder her father-in-law and her husband. At the end, justice is served and they are both sentenced to Siberia. Her lover rejects her and takes up with another convict. Katerina casts herself and her rival to their death in an icy river.

Stalin did not see the opera until 1936. He did not like it. Two days later an anonymous editorial in the newspaper Pravda denounced it as a “Muddle instead of Music.”

From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sound. Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this “music” is most difficult; to remember it, impossible. Thus it goes, practically throughout the entire opera. The singing on the stage is replaced by shrieks. If the composer chances to come upon the path of a clear and simple melody, he throws himself back into a wilderness of musical chaos – in places becoming cacophony. The expression which the listener expects is supplanted by wild rhythm. …

The composer of Lady Macbeth was forced to borrow from jazz its nervous, convulsive, and spasmodic music in order to lend “passion” to his characters. While our critics, including music critics, swear by the name of socialist realism, the stage serves us, in Shostakovich’s creation, the coarsest kind of naturalism. …

The composer apparently never considered the problem of what the Soviet audience looks for and expects in music. As though deliberately, he scribbles down his music, confusing all the sounds in such a way that his music would reach only the effete “formalists” who had lost all their wholesome taste. He ignored the demand of Soviet culture that all coarseness and savagery be abolished from every corner of Soviet life. Some critics call the glorification of the merchants’ lust a satire. But there is no question of satire here. The composer has tried, with all the musical and dramatic means at his command, to arouse the sympathy of the spectators for the coarse and vulgar inclinations and behavior of the merchant woman Katerina Izmailova … (from translation of review)

Many believed that the review had been written or dictated by Stalin himself. Volkov (2004, pp 105-106) points out that some of the criticisms, such as “create originality by cheap originalizing,” were nonsensical and would never have got by the editors unless they had been too frightened to change them.

What Stalin and his colleagues wanted was music to inspire the masses. In a speech to the Union of Socialist Writers in 1932, Stalin had called on them to be the “engineers of human souls” (Ross, 2007, p 225). The party fostered the idea of socialist realism – art that portrayed the triumph of the people. Art should be representational, uplifting, and easily understood by the proletariat. Formalism was anathema. Art for art’s sake was a reversion to bourgeois decadence.

Shostakovich was devastated. He withdrew his Symphony No. 4 from performance for fear it would further offend the politicians, and published no other music until Symphony No. 5 late in 1937.

The Great Terror

This was the time of the Great Terror (Conquest, 1968). Society was to be purged of those that impeded the progress of Socialism. Show trials brought politicians, generals and artists to confession and abasement. Exile to the Gulag or summary executions followed. Many of his friends and family were arrested and sent to labor camps. Shostakovich was justifiably in fear for his life.

The composer Basner (quoted in Wilson, 1994, p 126) recalled that in the spring of 1937 Shostakovich was summoned to the security police, and interrogated about his relationship to Marshal Tuckhachevsky. The Marshal, a great music lover and competent violinist, had often invited Shostakovich to his house to talk about music and to play together. Shostakovich was asked if politics were discussed at these meetings. Shostakovich denied this, but the security officer then told him to return in two days: “By that day you will without fail remember everything. You must recall every detail of the plot against Stalin of which you were a witness.” Shostakovich assumed that he would be arrested, and slept on the landing of his apartment so that the police would not disturb his family. However, on his return to the ‘big house,’ he found out that the officer who had interrogated him had himself been arrested, and Shostakovich’s name was no longer listed among the suspects. Tuckhachevsky was executed on June 12, 1937.

Symphony No. 5

During this period of fear and death, Shostakovich composed his Opus 47 Symphony No. 5, first performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra on November 21, 1937 under the direction of Yevgeny Mravinsky.

Mravinsky-Shostakovich XB

The symphony was a tremendous success. The largo moved the audience to tears and the finale had them on their feet. A member of the audience described the response:

Many of the listeners started to rise automatically from their seats during the finale, one after the other. The music had a sort of electric force. A thunderous ovation shook the columns of the white Philharmonic Hall, and Evgeny Mravinsky lifted the score high above his head so as to show that it was not he, the conductor, or the orchestra who deserved this storm of applause, these shouts of ‘bravo’; the success belonged to the creator of this work.  (Wilson, 1994, p 126)

What the symphony means remains unclear. The politically correct interpretation was that it represented the life of the Socialist artist, overcoming his initial tribulations and finally realizing the full power of the people. Shostakovich agreed to the subtitle “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism.” Taruskin (1995) summarizes an influential review of the symphony by Alexei Tolstoy:

In the first movement the author-hero’s ‘psychological torments reach their crisis and give way to ardour’, the use of the percussion instruments suggesting mounting energy. The second movement, a sort of breather, is followed by the most profound moment, the Largo. ‘Here the stanovleniye lichnosti [formation of a personality] begins. It is like a flapping of the wings before take-off. Here the personality submerges itself in the great epoch that surrounds it, and begins to resonate with the epoch.’ The finale is the culmination, in which ‘the profundity of the composer’s conception and the orchestral sonority coincide’, producing ‘an enormous optimistic lift.’

This interpretation is impossible to fit with the actual music. The crux of the symphony is the Largo, the movement that brought the audience to tears. The movement has the solemn rhythms and mystical harmonies of the Orthodox liturgy (Taruskin, 1995; Tilson Thomas, 2005). The following clip gives the last few minutes of the movement, ending on the sublime notes of harp and celesta:

It is impossible not to hear this as a lament, a requiem for the people who had died during the Great Terror. At a time when religious services were not allowed, people found solace in music. Zoya Leybin describes the audience’s response to the Largo:

They could relate to this music. It had the Russian soul in it, had a power. And people felt connected. They couldn’t pray, so music became religion. (in Tilson Thomas, 2009).

In a poem dedicated to Shostakovich, Anna Akhmatova (quoted by Bullock, 2010) described music as the friend that would never betray or deny her:

Something miraculous burns within her
And in her eyes, lines come into sharper focus.
She is the only one to speak with me,
When others are afraid to approach.
When the final friend had averted his gaze
She was with me in my grave
And sang like the first storm,
Or as if all the flowers had begun to speak.

The last movement of the symphony begins with an enthusiastic march. However, this soon ends  and echoes of the preceding movement return. Taruskin (1995) quotes Mravinsky

somewhere in the middle of the movement the quick tempo spends itself and the music seemingly leans against some sort of obstacle and then forces itself onward.

During this interlude, Shostakovich quotes some phrases from his Opus 46 setting of a Pushkin Song called Rebirth, a work that was not published or performed until much later (Ross, 2007, p 235; Bullock, 2010). One cannot tell whether the music was just in his mind, whether he wished to bring the text of the poem to mind, or whether he was relating Pushkin’s lines to Stalin’s suppression of the arts. The poem begins

A barbarian artist with a lazy brush
blackens out the painting of a genius
tracing senselessly over it
his own illegitimate drawing.

The poem then goes on to tell how over the years the paint flaked away to reveal the masterpiece. We must look below the present surface to find the original beauty.

After the interlude, the symphony goes on with a march that has led to many conflicting interpretations. According to Volkov, Shostakovich considered the exuberance of this final march as forced:

It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,’ and you rise, shakily, and go marching off, muttering ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’ (Volkov, 1979, p 183)

Volkov’s book has been considered by some as a fraud, a compendium of Shostakovich’s writings strung together with Volkov’s ideas (e.g. Fay, 2004. Taruskin, 1995). Nevertheless, some of the bitterness is undoubtedly true. And it is impossible not to consider this quote when listening to the finale.

Different conductors have used different tempos for this ending. In his documentary on Shostakovich, Aranovich (1981) juxtaposed without judgment the slow solemn rhythm of Mravinsy to the franticly rushed tempo of Bernstein. Slow is much more powerful:

Yet this does not mean that Volkov’s interpretation is correct. The message underlying the symphony’s ending is not triumph but it is also not despair. Other interpretations consider the coda as much more personal, repenting Shostakovich’s need to survive or his inability of to defeat evil with his art. I think that it conveys the resilience of humanity despite the current tragedy. We shall survive. This interpretation is not common (but see a review A Pillar to Help Humanity Prevail by Jeff Wall)

The wonder of music is that it resists only one interpretation. Margarita Mazo recalled:

For many of us, listening to a new piece by Shostakovich was a sacred experience. Was he a dissident or was he not? Was he a Communist or was he not? He was so much more complex than that. Besides, can you tell music with words? Can you say with words what this music is about? If so, then why do you need music? (quoted in Mitchinson, 2002, pp 318-9)


Shostakovich remained in Leningrad during first part of the war. He served in the fire brigade during the siege. A propaganda photograph shows a very uncomfortable Shostakovich in full uniform atop the roofs of Leningrad.

shostakovich as fireman xb

At that time Shostakovich composed his Opus 60 Symphony No. 7 Leningrad, which was performed in 1942 in the besieged city, with loudspeakers defiantly broadcasting the music to the Germans. The symphony illustrates how Shostakovich played with the meanings of his music. The opening movement of the Leningrad symphony provides an enthralling march that begins like the Pied Piper and ends as a “gargantuan, vulgar rant” (Ross, 2007, p. 247). The selection gives the middle of this transition:

Initially we cannot help but be swept up by this militaristic Bolero even when we know it represents the German invasion. Emotions are fickle – they can give force to bad ideas as well as good. And music is the mother of emotion.

Volkov claimed that this movement was composed before the German invasion and that the music represented Stalin rather than Hitler, but Fay has pointed out that this may have been a misinterpretation, since the dates on the initial autograph versions of the score are clearly after the invasion (Fay, 2000, note 7, p 313).


Despite the success of his wartime music, by 1948 Shostakovich had once again fallen into disrepute for his formalist tendencies. The criticism is hard to understand. Particularly in his symphonies, Shostakovich’s music is easy to appreciate. His melodies are memorable and moving, his orchestration always exciting.

The criticism of formalism can be invoked against abstract painting, but it is difficult to apply to music. Music is formal by nature. Music can be composed programmatically, but the much of music’s appeal is that it freely plays with the emotions independently of thought.

Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s second-in-command, singled out Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, and Khachaturyan as “the leading figures of the formalist trend in music, a trend which is fundamentally wrong.” Soviet classical music should convert the songs of the people into classical forms:

Any listener will tell you that the works of Soviet composers of the formalist type differ fundamentally from classical music. Classical music is marked by its truthfulness and realism, its ability to blend brilliant artistic form with profound content, and to combine the highest technical achievement with simplicity and intelligibility. Formalism and crude naturalism are alien to classical music in general and to Russian classical music in particular. …

The neglect of programme music is also a departure from progressive traditions. It is well known that Russian classical music was as a rule programme music. …

Melodiousness is beginning to disappear. A passionate emphasis on rhythm at the expense of melody is characteristic of modern music. Yet we know that music can give pleasure only if it contains the essential elements in a specific harmonic combination. (Zhdanov, 1948)

In his criticisms Zhdanov was harking back to the ideas that initially empowered 19th-Century Russian music. Revolutionary theories can be quite reactionary.

Shostakovich was dismissed from the Conservatory and required to repent his misdeeds before the General Assembly. He retreated into himself, and over the next few years composed mainly chamber music. Stalin did not listen to string quartets.

World Peace

However, as the most famous of the Soviet composers, Shostakovich was selected as a member of the Soviet delegation to the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York in 1949 (Saunders, 2000). Shostakovich played a piano transcription of the second movement of his Symphony No 5 and read a speech written for him by the politicians. The conference was a free-for-all. Protesters, supported by the CIA, marched outside the hotel with signs demanding Shostakovich’s defenestration:

protestors at waldorf astoria xb

At one of the conference sessions, Shostakovich was confronted by Nicolas Nabokov, a composer and first cousin of the novelist Vladimir. Though born in Russia, Nicolas had been an American citizen since 1939, and was at the time of the conference in the pay of the CIA. He publicly asked Shostakovich whether he agreed with a recent Pravda article denouncing Hindemith, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Ashen-faced, Shostakovich murmured that he supported the Pravda statements. To do otherwise would have risked his life. For Nabokov not to have realized this was cruel. Nothing is as oblivious as righteousness.

Jewish Themes

Shostakovich composed music that mixed the emotions. He was therefore fascinated by Jewish music (Scheinberg, 1995). He was intrigued by how Jewish people built a cheerful melody on sad intonations: “Why does he sing a cheerful song? Because he is sad at heart” (Fay, 2000, p. 169). During and after the war, Shostakovich befriended the composer Moishe Vainberg (or Mieczysław Weinberg), a Jewish refugee from Poland. They enjoyed discussing each other’s compositions, and learning each other’s musical traditions

In last movement of his Opus 67 Piano Trio No. 2 (1944), Shostakovich uses a Jewish theme:

Some have suggested that this trio commemorates the Holocaust (e.g. Dubinsky, 1989, pp 111-157). News of the concentration camps was becoming available at the time of the trio’s composition. Some have interpreted the last movement of the trio as representing Jews being asked to dance before they were executed. Although this idea fits the music, the trio was not specifically written to honor the victims of Nazism, but as a requiem for Shostakovich’s friend Ivan Sollertinsky.

Shostakovich directly considered the Holocaust in his Opus 113 Symphony No. 13 Babi Yar (1962). The symphony is a choral setting of poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko written to commemorate the massacre of the Ukrainian Jews at Babi Yar. The poems and the symphony were discredited by the Soviet government for placing the sufferings of the Jewish people above that of the Russians. Mravinsky refused to conduct the symphony. Though Stalin was dead, Soviet Russia continued to suppress the arts.


npg ida kar 1959 XB

Toward the end of his life, Shostakovich was bitter. The photograph on the left by Ida Kar shows Shostakovich in 1959. The anxiety is palpable. Shostakovich was angry about the way artists such as Akhmatova had been treated in Soviet Russia. He was depressed that he had not been free to compose as he wished. The bitterness comes out in Volkov’s Testimony. Although much of the book comes from prior publications, some of it was indeed based on Volkov’s interviews with the elderly composer between 1971 and 1974.


Laurel Fay points out that

Soviet history was always a work-in-progress; people, ideas and facts that became unpalatable were routinely “airbrushed “out of existence in later Soviet sources. Only rarely was anything so erased later on restored. Shostakovich himself was obliged to reinvent his past on occasion. By the time successive generations encountered the “expurgated” pages of their history, they often had lost track of what had been excised, and why. (Fay, 2000, p. 5)

Perhaps only fiction can get at the truth. Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time, a fictional retelling of Shostakovich’s life, is slated for publication early in 2016.

Shostakovich died of lung cancer in 1975. His last work was Opus 147 Sonata for Viola and Piano. The final movement of the sonata is similar in length to the last movement of Beethoven’s last sonata. However, where Beethoven is transcendent, Shostakovich is austere. The following clip gives the beginning of the last movement. The piano accompaniment makes allusion to Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata, but the violin theme is very Russian.


Aranovich, S., & Sokurov, A. (1981/2005). Dmitri Shostakovich: Sonata for Viola (DVD). Paris: Idéale Audience.

Barnes, J. (2016). The noise of time. London: Jonathan Cape.

Brown, M. H. (2004). A Shostakovich casebook. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Bullock, P. R. (2010). The composer’s voice, the poet’s echo: Monologic verse or dialogic song? In P. Fairclough (Ed.) Shostakovich Studies 2 (pp.207-227). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Conquest, R. (1968, revised 1990). The Great Terror: a reassessment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dubinsky, R. (1989). Stormy applause: Making music in a worker’s state. London: Hutchinson.

Fay, L. E. (2000). Shostakovich: A life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fay, L. E. (2004). Volkov’s Testimony reconsidered (2002). In Brown, M. H. A Shostakovich casebook. (pp 22-66). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

MacDonald, I. (1990, revised 2006). The new Shostakovich. London: Pimlico. Also webpage: Music under Soviet Rule.

Mitchinson, P. (2004). The Shostakovich variations (2000). In Brown, M. H. A Shostakovich casebook. (pp 302-324). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Ross, A. (2007). The rest is noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. (Chapter 7. The art of fear: Music in Stalin’s Russia, pp. 215-259)

Saunders, F. S. (2000). The cultural cold war: The CIA and the world of arts and letters. New York: New Press.

Scheinberg, E. (1995). Jewish existential irony as musical ethos in the music of Shostakovich. In Fanning, D. Shostakovich studies. (pp 350-367). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taruskin, R. (1989). The Opera and the Dictator: the peculiar martyrdom of Dmitri Shostakovich. The New Republic, March 20, pp. 34–40.

Taruskin, R. (1995). Public lies and unmentionable truth: interpreting Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. In Fanning, D. Shostakovich studies. (pp 17-56). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tilson Thomas, M. (2009). Keeping Score: Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 (DVD). San Francisco: SFS Media.

Volkov, S. (1979). Testimony: The memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Volkov, S. (2004). Shostakovich and Stalin: The extraordinary relationship between the great composer and the brutal dictator. New York: Knopf.

Wilson, E. (1994). Shostakovich: A life remembered. London: Faber and Faber.

Zhdanov, A. A. (1950). Essays on literature, philosophy, and music. New York: International Publishers.



We cannot choose the moment of our birth. And death usually comes in its own time, not ours. Sometimes, however, we can decide to end our life. The reasons for suicide are various. Most common is the desire to end intractable suffering. Faced with the prospect of a prolonged period of pain and suffering at the end of life, most rational people would prefer euthanasia – a “good death.” This term first came into English in Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning (Book II, X.7). Bacon was encouraging physicians to assuage the pains and agonies of death: to practice what we now call palliative care.

Over the course of time “euthanasia” became differentiated from palliative care, and now generally means the inducement of death so as to prevent intolerable pain and suffering in patients with incurable disease (Young, 2012; Sumner 2011). Euthanasia may be voluntary or involuntary, based on whether the patient provides consent or not. Involuntary euthanasia, where the patient does not provide consent although capable of so doing, is sometimes distinguished from non-voluntary euthanasia (“mercy killing”), where the patient is unable to either object or consent. Some would consider both involuntary and non-voluntary euthanasia as equivalent to murder and limit the term euthanasia to cases wherein consent is explicit. Euthanasia may be active or passive, based on whether death is induced by the administration of a lethal medication or by the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment, nutrition or hydration. Active euthanasia may be initiated by the patient, in which case it is essentially suicide, or by someone else (a physician or a nurse acting under the direction of a physician), in which case it can be described as assisted suicide or assisted dying. Sometimes voluntary euthanasia, where the lethal medication is administered to the patient, is distinguished from assisted suicide, where the patient takes the drug, but this distinction appears unnecessary. When the word is unmodified, euthanasia generally means physician-assisted suicide performed at the request of the patient.

Historical Backgound

Our attitudes to euthanasia have changed over the centuries (Dowbiggin, 2005). Developments in religion, law, and medicine have all contributed to these changes. Over the past century or so medicine has increased its ability to treat disease and manage pain. We are now more able to make end-of-life decisions than we have ever been. Nevertheless, the decisions remain extremely difficult, since they involve our cherished belief in the sanctity of human life and our ancient laws against killing (Pappas, 2012). Any proposal for euthanasia must address our general prohibition of suicide.

In the Eastern religions, suicide was not forbidden. In India, a wife could cast herself on the funeral pyre of her husband in the process of sati. Elderly yogis with no remaining responsibilities could seek death by starvation – prayopavesa. In Japan, suicide by means of seppuku could preserve one’s honor. Since one of the goals of Buddhism is to relinquish any attachment to the world, suicide might even be considered as a means to this release, though this should only come after enlightenment has been attained (Attwood, 2004). However, some Chinese and Japanese Buddhist monks sought enlightenment through a process of sokushinbutsu or self-mummification, accomplished by slow starvation and self-suffocation.

In the Abrahamic religions, however, suicide was considered an unpardonable sin, tantamount to murder (Cholbi, 2012). Suicide was contrary to the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13). The main scriptures, however, do not specifically prohibit killing oneself. The Bible provides various examples of suicide (Samson, Saul, Judas) without ever stating that this is prohibited. However, the scriptures convey a general sense that one should not interfere with divine providence: “My times are in thy hand” (Psalm 31:15). One verse of the Qur’an (4:29) is sometimes translated as “Do not kill yourselves,” though it is more usually rendered as “Do not kill each other.”

Through most of its history, the Christian Church has adamantly condemned suicide. The body of a suicide was denied burial in consecrated ground and the soul denied access to salvation. In recent years, the churches have relaxed their condemnation, though suicide is still considered a mortal sin. Until recently, suicide was illegal in almost all European countries, and the property of the suicide was confiscated by the state. Part of the reason why Christian societies have been so severe in their condemnation of suicide may have been the attractiveness of heaven. Without severe sanctions, believers might easily choose the happiness of an after-life to the suffering of a present life.

During the Renaissance and Enlightenment, thinkers began to question the Church’s stance. When one is coming to the end of life and faced with unrelenting pain, one should be able to choose a quick and painless death rather than undergo prolonged and unnecessary suffering

In Thomas More’s Utopia

…when any is taken with a torturing and lingering pain, so that there is no hope either of recovery or ease, the priests and magistrates come and exhort them, that, since they are now unable to go on with the business of life, are become a burden to themselves and to all about them, and they have really out-lived themselves, they should no longer nourish such a rooted distemper, but choose rather to die since they cannot live but in much misery; being assured that if they thus deliver themselves from torture, or are willing that others should do it, they shall be happy after death: since, by their acting thus, they lose none of the pleasures, but only the troubles of life, they think they behave not only reasonably but in a manner consistent with religion and piety; because they follow the advice given them by their priests, who are the expounders of the will of God. Such as are wrought on by these persuasions either starve themselves of their own accord, or take opium, and by that means die without pain. (More, 1516, pp 140-141).

One cannot be sure whether More was advocating euthanasia or just presenting the policy for discussion. The title of his book means “nowhere” – only later did it assume the additional connotation of eutopia or “good place.” As a devout Roman Catholic, More likely supported his church’s opposition to euthanasia. Death should come when God wills, not when we want.

In an essay that was only published posthumously, David Hume provided a rational view of suicide. He proposed that it is no more contrary to divine providence than building houses to protect ourselves from the weather or cultivating the earth to prevent ourselves from starving. Furthermore, when we become old and infirm suicide is no longer contrary to our duties to society, since we may have become more of a burden than a benefit to our fellows. Thus

both prudence and courage should engage us to rid ourselves at once of existence, when it becomes a burthen. ’Tis the only way, that we can then be useful to society, by setting an example, which, if imitated, would preserve to every one his chance for happiness in life, and would effectually free him from all danger of misery. (Hume, 1777)

In the concluding note to his essay, Hume quoted Pliny the Elder who described suicide as an advantage that man possesses over God.

Deus non sibi potest mortem consciscere, si velit, quod homini dedit optimum in tantis vitæ poenis. [God cannot put himself to death even if he wanted to, since among the many ills of life he gave away this best of boons to man]. (Pliny, 79, Book II Chapter V)

The modern interpretation of euthanasia can probably be traced to the much-discussed essay on the subject by Samuel D. Williams published in 1870 (Kemp, 2002). He proposed

That in all cases of hopeless and painful illness it should be the recognized duty of the medical attendant, whenever so desired by the patient, to administer chloroform, or such other anæsthetic as may by-and-by supersede chloroform, so as to destroy consciousness at once, and put the sufferer at once to a quick and painless death; all needful precautions being adopted to prevent any possible abuse of such duty and means being taken to establish, beyond the possibility of doubt or question, that the remedy was applied at the express wish of the patient. (Williams, 1870, p 212).

In the decades subsequent to this essay, many groups in England, Europe and North America began to advocate the legalization of euthanasia.

Unworthy Lives

In the 20th Century euthanasia became entrammeled with another idea that promoted the good of society – “eugenics.” Unfortunately, joining the “good death” with the “good birth” led to actions of great evil.

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution had proposed that humanity’s current success derives from the selection of the fittest for survival and propagation. Followers of Darwin warned that we should not alter the course of evolution by social policies to protect the weak and vulnerable. Rather we should encourage our best and brightest to have more offspring, and we should prevent the feeble-minded, criminal and insane from multiplying. These ideas formed the basis of eugenics.

In the first few decades of the 20th Century several jurisdictions in North America and Europe enacted eugenic laws enforcing the sterilization of the mentally defective and the insane. The most efficient of such programs was brought in by the German Nazi government when it came to power in1933 (Proctor, 1988, Chapter 4; Pichot, 2001, Chapter 10). The Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring required the sterilization of patients suffering from feeble mindedness, schizophrenia, manic-depression, Huntington’s chorea and alcoholism. While the program was in operation between 1933 and 1939, about 400,000 patients were sterilized (compared to about 30,000 patients over a much longer period in the USA).

A more effective eugenics program would not only prevent offspring but also remove from society the costs involved in the long-term care of feeble-minded and mentally ill patients. The possibility of the involuntary euthanasia of patients who were a burden to society had been thoroughly evaluated in the 1920 book Permitting the Destruction of Unworthy Life by Karl Binding, a legal scholar, and Alfred Hoche, a physician. They considered the question

Is there human life which has so utterly forfeited its claim to worth that its continuation has forever lost all value both for the bearer of that life and for society?

They answered affirmatively, and proposed that society was justified in putting patients with incurable disease to death.

In 1939 the war began and the German sterilization program ceased. In its place a secret program called Operation T4 was instituted to provide a mercy death (Gnadentod) for the incurably sick and mentally ill. Patients were killed either in specially constructed gas chambers or by such other means as were found expedient. The number of patients euthanized by the time the war ended was probably around 400,000 (Proctor, 1988, Chapter 7; Pichot, 2001, Chapter 11). The techniques developed in the early stages of this program were then used when the Nazi government decided to murder Jews, homosexuals, communists, Gypsies, Slavs and prisoners of war.

The history of euthanasia in Germany is a horrifying example of the “slippery slope.” By accepting that some people have more of a right to life than others or that a doctor may agree to a patient’s request for death, we slide slowly and inexorably toward complete immorality. Leo Alexander, a medical expert at the Nuremberg trials, stated the problem of the “small beginnings:”

Whatever proportions these crimes finally assumed, it became evident to all who investigated them that they had started from small beginnings. The beginnings at first were merely a subtle shift in emphasis in the basic attitude of the physicians. It started with the acceptance of the attitude, basic in the euthanasia movement, that there is such a thing as a life not worthy to be lived. This attitude in its early stages concerned itself merely with the severely and chronically sick. Gradually the sphere of those to be included in this category was enlarged to encompass the socially unproductive, the ideologically unwanted, the racially unwanted and finally all non-Germans (Alexander, 1949).

Double Effects

For many years after the war, the ethics of active euthanasia were not discussed. We became more concerned with the relief of pain. New protocols were developed to facilitate analgesia, the speciality of palliative care became a medical specialty, and hospices became available to provide a peaceful and pain-free death to patients with terminal illness.

Sometimes, when medication dosages were increased to levels sufficient to relieve severe and unrelenting pain, death also resulted. Such protocols invoked the principle of “double effect:” that an action intended to bring about a morally desirable effect (the relief of pain) is not wrong if it also leads to a morally reprehensible effect (death) even when this second effect is foreseen. This state of affairs is both morally and medically confusing (McIntyre, 2001). Who is to say what is intended and what is just foreseen? The increased pain medication probably does not in itself bring about the death of the patient. Death results from a combination of causes: limiting the patient’s nutrition and hydration adds to the effects of sedation and the ongoing disease. “Terminal sedation” should probably not be considered as an example of double effect, but simply treated as a type of euthanasia.

End-of-Life Decisions

In the second half of the 20th Century, medicine developed techniques for cardiopulmonary resuscitation and mechanical ventilation. Although these procedures often prevented unnecessary death, they sometimes resulted in unresponsive patients being maintained alive without any reasonable hope for the return of normal consciousness.

These developments led to the principle that life need not be artificially continued if recovery is futile. A patient may decide to forego resuscitation or mechanical ventilation in such situations. This decision may be made by means of an advance directive or “living will.” In cases without such directives, the decision can be made by the patient’s family and caregivers. Accepting these protocols has been a long a complicated process that is outside of the main topic of this posting (see discussion in Pappas, 2012, Chapter 4). Issues remain for patients who have no advance directives and when the family and physicians disagree on whether to maintain life support. Nevertheless we have come to general terms with the idea of passive euthanasia when a patient is unresponsive and the prognosis is futile. Outside of a few jurisdictions, however, active euthanasia remains illegal.

Legalization of Voluntary Euthanasia

Voluntary euthanasia has been legal in Oregon since 1997 (Lindsay, 2009; Lee, 2014), in Switzerland at least since 1998, and in the Netherlands (Onwuteaka-Philipsen et al., 2012) and Belgium (Cohen-Almagor, 2009) since 2002. Each of these jurisdictions requires a formal application from a patient judged competent to understand the nature of their suffering and the consequences of their request (Lewis & Black, 2013).

The incidence of voluntary euthanasia is low but varies greatly among the jurisdictions. In Oregon the incidence is 0.2% of all deaths, but in Belgium and the Netherlands the incidence is between 1.5 and 3 % (the incidence in Switzerland is not accurately known). The incidence would be significantly higher if cases of euthanasia without consent, and cases of terminal sedation were included together with those of voluntary euthanasia.

Investigations of patients undergoing voluntary euthanasia indicate no clear evidence that vulnerable populations are unfairly targeted, or that coercion plays a significant role in the patients’ decisions. In Oregon most patients requesting euthanasia were white, well-educated, and medically insured (Lindsay, 2009). Furthermore, euthanasia does not substitute for adequate palliative care, since most patients ultimately seeking euthanasia have already tried palliative care or been admitted to a hospice.

Nevertheless, two significant issues remain unanswered. The first is the incidence of euthanasia without explicit consent. Although this is not reported in Oregon, it has been documented in Belgium and the Netherlands. When faced with an incurable patient in severe pain who is not able to provide consent, a compassionate physician may nevertheless proceed with euthanasia. The incidence of this is extremely difficult to assess, particularly if one includes “terminal sedation.” The incidence of euthanasia without consent probably equals the incidence with consent (Cohen-Almagor, 2009; Lewis &Black, 2013; Meussen et al., 2010, Onwuteaka-Philipsen et al., 2012).

The second issue concerns the euthanasia of patients with psychiatric disorders. This has become particularly frequent in Belgium (Thienpont et al., 2015; Aviv, 2015). By arguing that mental anguish can cause as much suffering as physical pain, one can make a philosophical case for euthanasia to relieve “existential suffering” (Varelius, 2014). However, we usually believe that psychiatric disorders can be treated, and that even without treatment depression will alleviate with the passage of time. Psychiatric patients are certainly vulnerable and often may have difficulty providing fully informed consent. Thienpont et al. (2015) report that the female/male ratio was 3.3 for psychiatric patients requesting euthanasia and 2.9 for those patients who were ultimately euthanized. They suggest that this is in keeping with the increased incidence of psychiatric disease in women, but the ratio is nevertheless disconcerting.

Objections to Euthanasia

Euthanasia has engendered much public debate (Andorno & Baffone, 2014; Materstvedt et al., 2003; New England Journal of Medicine, 2013; Quill & Greenlaw, 2008; Somerville, 1993, 2014; Smith, 2006; Sumner, 2011, Young, 2012). The main reason for making euthanasia legal is that individuals have a right to decide that a rapid painless assisted death is preferable to one that is prolonged and painful, and to have medical assistance in bringing this about. The main objections are

(i) Euthanasia is unnecessary if there is adequate palliative care. A variant of this argument is that if euthanasia becomes legal, patients and physicians will prefer euthanasia to palliative care. Palliative and hospice care can render the end of life peaceful and pain-free in most patients. Nevertheless, pain medication must sometimes be brought to such levels that the treatment of pain becomes essentially the same as euthanasia.

(ii) Patients may not be able to provide proper informed consent. A state of state of severe pain and distress may preclude proper consent – the patient may agree to anything to stop the pain. This objection could be countered if the patient simply confirmed a previous decision made before the terminal period.

(iii) Patients near the end of life may be very vulnerable to coercion. Opponents of euthanasia suggest that families and caretakers may improperly convince disabled or elderly patients to accept euthanasia. Their ulterior motive might be to be relieved of the expense and effort involved in the care of their elderly relative or to free up an inheritance.

(iv) Allowing voluntary euthanasia is a “slippery slope” that will ultimately lead to killing all individuals whose lives are considered “unworthy.” If we become used to letting people die, we may become inured to killing and allow the old, the disabled and the mentally defective to be euthanized without consent. The story of Jack Kevorkian (Pappas, 2012, Chapter 5) represents the horrors of the slippery slope. Though there may have been some support for his early actions, ultimately he was killing patients who were obviously unable to give consent. Refutations of the slippery-slope argument hinge on strong safeguards to guarantee proper consent and strict sanctions against euthanasia outside of the legal guidelines (Stingl, 2010). The slope may be slippery but we can construct barriers to prevent us from falling into the abyss.

Public Opinion

Despite the objections, the great majority of people in North America support the legalization of voluntary euthanasia. Gallup polls (McCarthy, 2014) show that about 70% of respondents in the USA answer yes to the question

When a person has a disease that cannot be cured, do you think doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient’s life by some painless means if the patient and his or her family request it?

Support varies with the wording of the question (Saad, 2010). Only 51% agree if the question is worded:

When a person has a disease that cannot be cure and is living in severe pain, do you think that doctors should or should not be allowed by law to assist the patient to commit suicide if the patient requests it?

Both Somerville (1993) and Callahan (2008) have remarked how easily public opinion on euthanasia may be swayed by the choice of words.

In a Canadian poll taken in 2013 at the behest of an anti-euthanasia group the key findings were that

Canadians are about twice as likely to support (63%) as to oppose (32%) a law allowing physician-assisted suicide in Canada. Support is slightly lower for legalizing euthanasia (55% vs. 40% who oppose it), which is likely due in part to providing respondents with information about the rate of euthanasia deaths occurring without patient consent in Belgium. (Environics, 2013).

A year later, an Ipsos-Reid poll performed for a pro-euthanasia group showed 84% of Canadian respondents in favor of physician-assisted suicide. (Ramsay, 2015).

A final survey worth noting is one conducted by the Canadian Medical Association (2011). They found in a survey of their members that

only 20% of respondents would be willing to participate if euthanasia is legalized in Canada, while twice as many (42%) would refuse to do so. Almost a quarter of respondents (23%) are not sure how they would respond, while 15% did not answer.

The Hippocratic Oath asserts

I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asks for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy.

Most present day physicians do not swear to this oath, but the idea that a physician should not bring about death has merit. When one is sick and in pain, a physician who will not kill is preferable to one who might be willing to do so. Even if ultimately one could choose suicide.

Canadian Law

In Canada active euthanasia is a crime though suicide is not. The Canadian Supreme Courts has examined the issues of euthanasia in three cases: Rodriguez vs British Columbia (1993), R vs Latimer (2001), and Carter vs Canada (2015).

In 2001 Sue Rodriguez, suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, wished to be allowed to die by means of assisted suicide when she became totally incapacitated. She wanted to live life to its fullest, and therefore did not wish to take her life before becoming unable to do so. She proposed that the law prohibiting physician-assisted suicide was discriminatory

since it prevents persons physically unable to end their lives unassisted from choosing suicide when that option is in principle available to other members of the public without contravening the law.

The judgment of the court was that the blanket prohibition of assisted suicide was justified since its purpose was to protect life. The court expressed concerns about the possible abuse of assisted suicide were it to be legalized, the difficulties in creating appropriate safeguards against such abuse, and the need to protect those members of society who might be vulnerable to such abuse. The court therefore decided against her request. Sue Rodriguez committed suicide with the assistance of an anonymous physician in 1994.

In 1993, Robert Latimer brought about the death of his 12-year old daughter Tracy by means of carbon monoxide poisoning. Tracy suffered from severe cerebral palsy, epilepsy and mental retardation. She had undergone numerous operations to relieve her spastic and painful state. Faced with further surgery for her constantly dislocating hip, her father decided that dying would be preferable to continuing a life of pain and torture. Latimer was convicted of second degree murder and given the minimum 10-year sentence allowed for this crime. The case went through several appeals. In 2001, the Supreme Court considered a request to reduce the sentence, but affirmed both the conviction and the sentence. They found no justification for non-voluntary euthanasia. Robert Latimer began serving his sentence in 2001 and was release in 2010.

The Supreme Court of Canada re-considered the law prohibiting physician-assisted suicide in its judgment of Carter vs Canada. The case was instigated by Lee Carter, who had been forced to take her mother, suffering from an incurable neurodegenerative disease, to Switzerland for assisted suicide, since this was not legally available in Canada. The court summarized the reasoning of the 1993 Rodriguez judgment:

The object of the prohibition is not, broadly, to preserve life whatever the circumstances, but more specifically to protect vulnerable persons from being induced to commit suicide at a time of weakness.

However, the court acknowledged that since that 1993 judgment assisted suicide had been legalized in several jurisdictions and that safeguards against abuse have been effective. The court agreed that some people may wish to end their lives but not have the ability to do so without the assistance of a physician. The law prohibiting such assistance thus discriminates against these individuals:

An individual’s response to a grievous and irremediable medical condition is a matter critical to their dignity and autonomy. The prohibition denies people in this situation the right to make decisions concerning their bodily integrity and medical care and thus trenches on their liberty. And by leaving them to endure intolerable suffering, it impinges on their security of the person.

The court therefore temporarily invalidated the law prohibiting physician-assisted dying and called upon the federal government to provide new legislation more consistent with the Canadian Bill of Rights. However, the present government seems loath to address the issue, despite the weight of public opinion (Ramsay, 2015). The government of the Province of Quebec has voted to allow euthanasia, although this decision may be legally contested by the federal government.

Where Do I Stand?

Euthanasia should be legal when a patient with an incurable illness is suffering pain that cannot be adequately relieved by analgesic medication. The diagnosis and prognosis should be confirmed by at least two physicians. Modern palliative care should have been provided and demonstrated to be inadequate. Euthanasia should only be allowed at the patient’s request and only after his physicians have ensured that the request is freely made.

Terminally ill patients who are in obvious pain but unable to consent to euthanasia pose a significant problem for both medicine and the law. We need to develop guidelines and safeguards to allow consent to euthanasia from the family and caretakers in these cases. Otherwise non-voluntary euthanasia may occur and go unreported.

In the absence of unrelenting pain, euthanasia of the elderly, the demented, and the mentally defective should continue to be prohibited.

At the present time there is no adequate justification for assisted suicide for existential suffering. Euthanasia in psychiatric patients is far too susceptible to abuse to be allowed.

Physicians should not be forced to provide euthanasia. Nevertheless, any patient requesting euthanasia should be referred to other physicians who can evaluate the request, judge its validity and conduct the euthanasia. Such referrals should be readily available.



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The term “kitsch” came into being in Germany toward the end of the nineteenth century (Dorfles, 1969; Calinescu, 1987; Riout, 2004). The etiology of the word is unknown. One possible source is the verb kitschen meaning “to collect rubbish” (Rugg, 2002); another is verkitschen, “to make cheaply” (Dutton, 1998). Words used to describe kitsch – “tacky,” “tawdry,” “garish,” “chintzy,” “schmaltzy” and “cheesy” – suggest cheapness, ostentation, triteness and sentimentality. Garden gnomes are a classic example.

garden gnomes

Kitsch is bad art. However, the judgment of whether something is kitsch or not is highly subjective. Everyone has a personal idea of what is beautiful. In the words of David Hume

Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others. (Hume, 1757, section 7).

Nevertheless, Hume goes on to state that most people would agree to some general principles of beauty:

It appears then, that, amidst all the variety and caprice of taste, there are certain general principles of approbation or blame, whose influence a careful eye may trace in all operations of the mind. Some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric, are calculated to please, and others to displease (section 12).

Experience and education allow one to understand and apply these principles. Thus we develop good taste. Kitsch is the art of bad taste.

The Rise of Kitsch

Kitsch is a phenomenon of the modern age. There has always been bad art, but this never became popular or widespread. In the past, bad art did not sell. Much of kitsch’s success in modern times derives from a commercial system that encourages its production and consumption. Kitsch is the art of the consumer society.

A major factor leading to kitsch was thus the rise of the bourgeoisie (Moles, 1971; Calinescu, 1987). In the nineteenth century the middle class expanded greatly. The upper middle class wanted to buy things of beauty, but they had not the education to do so with good taste. The lower middle class became able to purchase things beyond the bare necessities, but they were unable to pay for original art and settled for imitations. Industry quickly provided these and consumer kitsch was born.

The industrial revolution gave workers leisure time. So as not to be bored during this free time, people sought activities that were pleasing without requiring effort: entertainment rather than true art. Pleasurable relaxation was the goal of most of society; kitsch was the easiest means to this end. Abraham Moles (1971) considered kitsch to be l’art de bonheur the “art of happiness.”

One might therefore consider kitsch as the art of the people. The following is from Abraham Moles (1971, p. 28, the French is elegant and my translation necessarily inexact:

Le Kitsch est à ce titre essentiellement démocratique : il est l’art acceptable, ce qui ne choque pas notre esprit par une transcendence hors de la vie quotidienne, par un effort qui nous dépasse – surtout s’il doit nous faire dépasser nous-même. Le Kitsch est à la mesure de l’homme, quand l’art en est la démesure, le Kitsch dilue l’originalité à un degré suffisant pour la faire accepter par tous. [Kitsch is in this way essentially democratic: it is acceptable art, art which does not shock us to transcend everyday life, or require any extraordinary effort – especially any surpassing of our present selves. Kitsch stays within our easy reach, whereas art exceeds our grasp; kitsch dilutes originality enough to make it accessible to all.]

However, we cannot lay all the blame on the middle class. Aristocrats have often succumbed to ostentatious displays of wealth that would be generally considered kitsch. The “rich kitsch” of fake ruins and ceiling putti is every bit as bad as the poor kitsch of garden gnomes and fuzzy dice. Furthermore, the merchant class has sometimes displayed excellent taste. Patrons of fine art have come from wealthy members of the middle class as much as from the aristocracy.

Dwight Macdonald considered kitsch as essentially the same as the “mass culture” used to exploit the masses. He distinguished it from folk art which is created spontaneously by the people, and from high culture which is created for the elite:

Mass Culture is imposed from above. It is fabricated by technicians hired by businessmen; its audiences are passive consumers, their participation limited to the choice between buying and not buying. The Lords of kitsch, in short, exploit the cultural needs of the masses in order to make a profit and/or to maintain their class rule – in Communist countries, only the second purpose obtains. (Macdonald, 1953, p. 2-3)

Macdonald painted a pessimistic picture of our artistic future:

The Lords of kitsch sell culture to the masses. It is a debased, trivial culture that voids both the deep realities (sex, death, failure, tragedy) and also the simple, spontaneous pleasures, since the realities would be too real and the pleasures too lively to induce what Mr. Seldes calls ‘the mood of consent’: i.e., a narcotised acceptance of Mass Culture and of the commodities it sells as a substitute for the unsettling and unpredictable (hence unsalable) joy, tragedy, wit, change, originality and beauty of real life. The masses, debauched by several generations of this sort of thing, in turn come to demand trivial and comfortable cultural products. (Macdonald, 1953, p. 16, the reference to Seldes is to his 1950 book The Great Audience.)

However, I am not sure that we can always fault the taste of the masses. Popular culture can promote kitsch, but it can also make significant artistic contributions. Shakespeare was notoriously beloved of the masses. Furthermore, he gave the penny public what it wanted.

Macdonald considered as kitsch everything produced by the entertainment industry – radio, television, movies, and comics. Much is but not all. Some works in these modern art forms are both beautiful and significant.


A second factor in the development of kitsch was the development of techniques for reproduction. Multiple copies of an image could be cheaply produced and widely marketed (Benjamin, 1936; Dorfles, 1969; Moles, 1971). Reproductions lack the aura (and the value) of the originals. And when used for purposes other than those of the artist, they might be considered kitsch: Renoir images on biscuit tins, Pollock paintings on silken scarves, Rodin sculptures as bookends.

And yet, and yet. Art has always been reproduced. Engravings of pictures and casts of statues allowed the dissemination of artistic creations. How else can art history be taught or learned? Reproduction is not wrong. It is not forgery. However, reproductions may sometimes be disconcertingly different from the original. The deceptive quality of kitsch may lie “in its claim to supply its consumers with essentially the same kinds of beauty as those embodied in unique or rare and inaccessible originals” (Calinescu, 1987, p 252). Yet one can also say this about original artwork, which is an artist’s reproduction of an experience, not the experience itself.

Most would agree that plastic replicas of the Eifel Tower are kitsch. They serve no aesthetic purpose. In addition, such objects demonstrate “aesthetic inadequacy” (Calinescu, 1987) – their size and the materials they are made of contradict the aesthetic properties of the original.

However, visual art can be beautiful both in itself and in its contribution to our general set of images. A reproduction refers us to the image rather than to the original. Better a scarf should represent a Pollack painting than a cute kitten. The scarf is not the same as the painting, but it may still be pleasing to the eye and thoughtful to the mind.

What makes something kitsch rather than art?

So perhaps we need some criteria in terms of what is represented rather than with how or why it is reproduced. To say exactly why kitsch is bad can be difficult. Kulka (1996, pp 14-42) proposed that kitsch fulfills three conditions:

1. Kitsch depicts objects or themes that are highly charged with stock emotions.

2. The objects or themes depicted by kitsch are instantly and effortlessly identifiable.

3. Kitsch does not substantially enrich our associations relating to the depicted objects or themes.

The next few paragraphs will consider and qualify these three conditions.

Overcharged Emotions

Kulka’s first condition is often considered as “sentimentality.” This characteristic of kitsch may have stemmed in part from the Romantic movement in art (Broch, 1969). In the late eighteenth century, art began to consider emotions much more directly than before. People enjoyed having their feelings aroused. Art sought to bring the viewer or the reader to tears. Yet this could easily be overdone, resulting in mawkishness or melodrama. Over the top can be more uncomfortable than uplifting. Tears should not be wasted inappropriately.

bouguereau jeune mendiante

Typical examples of kitsch are paintings of the poor designed to evoke feelings of pity. Pity at someone else’s suffering is an important human emotion, but it is meaningless when it does not lead to some action to relieve the suffering. It is difficult to understand why anyone would want to hang paintings of begging children on one’s walls even if they are as technically accomplished as those of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, whose Little Beggar (Petite Mendiante, 1880) is shown on the right. Bouguereau (1825-1905) was a famous academic painter who became quickly and completely forgotten after his death. He has been recently championed by Fred Ross, whose Art Renewal website reacts against the lack of figurative painting in modern art.


Kitsch often exploits pity – sentimental pictures of sad-eyed children are sold in the millions. Pity is a complicated emotion (Kimball, 2004): although it is primarily related to empathy and compassion, pity slides easily into feeling of superiority and contempt. Nothing can be done – the poor have only themselves to blame. The description of Bouguereau’s Petite Mendiante on the Art Renewal website states “She looks at the viewer with desperation and exhaustion, causing a feeling of sadness in the viewer who knows she cannot be helped.” This comforting conclusion is more rationalization than fact:  as William Blake (The Human Abstract from Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1795) said

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody Poor

Distinguishing sentimentality from other emotions may be difficult. In J. D. Salinger’s 1959 story Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters, Seymour Glass quotes the Zen scholar R. H. Blyth “We are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it” (p. 78). However, unless we know how God feels about something, this is a difficult criterion to apply. Seymour recognizes that he is being tendentious, but he is sure that God would not be as enamored as his wife of kittens with “technicolor bootees on their paws.” Yet if we cannot appeal to God or some other absolute principle, how do we decide whether sentiments are high or tacky?

Opera is an art of great emotion. The plots are usually melodramatic, and some people may feel that grand opera borders on the realm of kitsch. The emotions are high and the audience’s involvement enhanced by the music. Yet high sentiment is not sentimentality. Opera opens itself up to meanings as deep as the emotions are high.

Art cannot exist without emotion. Art must move us to feel something about the world or about ourselves. The problem is that emotions can be used inappropriately, either commercially to sell worthless trinkets or politically to unite a population behind a party or its leader.

Kundera discusses political kitsch experience in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (p 251). A senator is moved by seeing children running on the grass.

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass. The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch. The brotherhood of man or earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch. … And no one knows this better than politicians. Whenever a camera is in the offing they immediately run to the nearest child, lift it in the air, kiss it on the cheek. Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements.

It is good to feel deeply even about simple things. It is wrong to indulge in these emotions for their own sake, to be to be carried away by them to foolish ends, or to use them falsely to gain the sympathy of others. Political advertising loves kitsch for its sentimentality and its immediacy (Lugg, 1999). Kitsch is the fastest way to a voter’s heart.

In his 1936 article The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction Walter Benjamin expresses his fear about the use of art for political purposes. He chillingly quotes the futurist Marinetti about the aesthetics of war:

War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages …

This is art used to make the reader follow blindly in the path of fascism. The purpose of political kitsch it to stop critical thought. The viewer or reader succumbs to dangerous emotions and is carried away to inimical ends.

Effortless Appreciation

Kulka’s second condition is that kitsch is “immediately identifiable.” Greenberg (1939) suggested that all “academic” art – representational art created accorded to accepted conventions – is kitsch. He was reacting against the academic style of the late nineteenth century, the art of painters such as Bouguereau. He preferred modernist abstract art, which does not give its meaning easily. A skeptic might point out that some abstract art has no meaning to give. Indeed, some of the abstract art used to complement the furniture in modern dwellings is clearly kitsch. It is immediately identifiable as meaningless ornament, chosen on the basis of whether its color complements the sofa.

nerdrum self portrait with nose bleed


The art of Odd Nerdrum (1944- ) provides an interesting commentary on kitsch and its relation to representation. This Norwegian artist paints figurative rather than abstract art (Nerdrum & Li, 2007). His painting style is based on Rembrandt and Caravaggio. Some of his paintings are directly representational such as the Self-Portrait with Nosebleed on the left. The technique is breathtaking. The image is as powerful as it is disoncerting.


Most of his images are surrealist – haunting representations of embodied souls in life or afterlife. The painting below shows a group of five women and one boy lying on the ground. They are almost naked. They are wrapped in what seem to be burial shrouds. All are singing. Their eyes are closed; the two staffs suggest that perhaps two of them are blind. This dream-like image is difficult to interpret. Are they singing praises before the throne of God, awaiting the resurrection, or lamenting some tragedy?

nerdrum five singing women

Nerdrum has experienced great difficulty with art critics, who describe him as out of touch with our time. He was unable to get a university appointment despite his obvious talent. In defiant response he declared himself an “artist of kitsch” and published a manifesto to justify kitsch (Nerdrum, 1990). Although he is a painter who represents human bodies rather than abstract ideas, his work is not kitsch in the way we generally use the term. His claim is a reaction to Greenberg, who really did throw out the baby with the bathwater. Nerdrum’s impressive technique allows him to create images of great intensity. The paintings stay in the mind, slowly divulging deeper and deeper meanings.

Photography poses difficulties for the definition of kitsch, since nothing is as immediately identifiable as a photograph. Kulka tried to address some distinctions between photography and kitsch. Photography is perhaps too real to be kitsch. A photograph of a sunset is not kitsch.  It becomes kitsch if the photograph is printed on canvas to look like a painting, or on a poster with an inspirational quotation. Most photography is not art – it forms a record of something rather than an interpretation. Nevertheless, some photography can be considered art. Then the photograph captures an image in a manner that is meaningfully different from the usual, or preserves a significant moment of existence beyond the present.

Lack of Meaning

Kitsch is minimally meaningful. The image tells us nothing more than what it portrays. There are no levels of interpretation. When there is something more than meets the eye, it is no longer kitsch. Kitsch is always serious; kitsch never makes you laugh. Kitsch is always comfortable; it never unsettles you. Kitsch preserves the status quo; it is the art that is loved by dictators

Common examples of kitsch are the souvenirs that we buy to remind ourselves of an intense experience (Olalquiaga, 1998). The image has significance only for the person who had the experience. For anyone else it is meaningless. A deeply kitsch experience is watching the slide show of someone else’s holiday.

Many kitsch images involve nostalgia. They provide false memories of a time that never was, when we lived innocently in cottages with thatched roofs that never leaked and gardens that bloomed forever. Such images are immensely popular. They are the stock art of bed-and-breakfast and retirement homes. One of the most successful artists of recent times was Thomas Kinkade (1958-2012), the “painter of light” who provided reproductions of his paintings through either the internet or franchised dealers (Orlean, 2001). One of his masterpieces is Nanette’s Cottage:

nanettes cottage

The painting shows a thatched cottage at evening with all the windows ablaze with light. The chimney is reinforced with an iron ‘N’ for Nanette and a heart shaped stone for love. A small rowboat is tied up in the stream at the edge of the garden, with a teddy bear still sitting on the seat. Upstream beyond the bridge other cottages all have their windows lit in neighborly solidarity with Nanette. Although the profusion of flowers indicates high summer, the home-fires are burning and smoke ascends from all the chimneys. In the further distance, a church steeple rises high enough to touch the sky. Prints of this image can be obtained in various sizes. Special prints can be “highlighted” by artists trained by Kinkade to give them a special depth of color. This adds immensely to their cost. Art for the millions.

Pop and Camp

Any kitsch that aspires to meaning becomes pop art. Warhol’s images of soup cans consider the role of advertising in modern life, and Lichtenstein’s comic-book images comment on our simplification of reality. Pop art is infused with humor whereas kitsch is usually serious.

Another extension of kitsch is camp. The camp sensibility is difficult to pin down (Sontag, 1966). The emotions of camp are always intense and usually unrestrained – the art is usually described as “over the top.” Camp wallows in the exaggerated passions of opera and melodrama. Camp art is often associated with gender ambiguity in all its variety. Camp is simultaneously serious and satirical. Irony is a necessary feature: camp art can be considered at many different levels.

Peter Hujar’s 1974 photograph of the transvestite Candy Darling on her deathbed is one of the great images of high camp. Candy, one of Andy Warhol’s superstars, died of lymphoma. The facial makeup and silken blouse provide an erotic vitality completely at odds with imminent death. If a beautiful lady has to die, she should do so with glamour.

hujar candy b

The photograph evokes stock emotions. The death of the maiden is a story that has been told too many times. What is happening is immediately identifiable. This is a deathbed scene.

Yet this is not kitsch. The image conveys many different levels of meaning. Hripsimé Visser describes Hujar’s photographs as “permeated by a realization of the human masquerade” (Stahel & Visser, 1994). Peter Hujar was homosexual and ultimately died of AIDS in 1987. He was well aware of the ambiguities of gender, and death was a common occurrence among his friends during the AIDS epidemic.

Nevertheless, the artist of the image is as much Candy Darling as Peter Hujar. The photograph proclaims a self that was created in defiance of her birth and maintained in the face of her death. One can be whoever one wants to be. Beauty can cheat Death, even if only for a moment. This is both posture and reality, both over the top and down to earth.


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Riout, D. (2004/2014). Kitsch. In B. Cassin (Ed.) Dictionary of untranslatables: a philosophical lexicon. (translated by Rendall, S., Hubert, C., Mehlman, J., Stein, N. and Syrotinski, M., translation edited by Apter, E., Lezra, J. and Wood, M.). (pp. 538-539). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rugg, W. (2002). Kitsch. In Theories of Media. Keywords Glossary. University of Chicago.

Salinger, J. D. (1959). Raise high the roof beam, carpenters. And Seymour: an introduction. Boston: Little, Brown. (Seymour’s quotation from Blyth sounds authentic but I have not been able to find its source in Blyth’s published works).

Sontag, S. (1966). Notes on “camp.” In Against interpretation, and other essays. (pp. 275-292). New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Stahel, U. & Visser, H. (1994). Peter Hujar: A Retrospective. New York: Scalo Publishers.


Giving Offence

tout est pardonne xbCharlie Hebdo

A great outpouring of sympathy and solidarity followed the assassination of the editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo. A million people gathered in Paris in silent protest. The motto Je suis Charlie was promoted across the world. The magazine refused to restrain its irreverence. The cover of its first issue after the attack showed the Prophet forgiving the blasphemy against him (Tout est pardonné) and supporting Je suis Charlie.

Nevertheless, most Western newspapers did not reprint either this cover or the earlier cartoons that had precipitated the assassinations. Their rationale was that these would unnecessarily offend those who believe that any depiction of the Prophet is sacrilegious. For example, despite the opposition of some of its own journalists, the Toronto Star decided not to publish the cartoons:

We could run the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. There is a strong news rationale for doing so. But there are important reasons of principle not to do it. Just as we would not publish racist or pornographic images, we will exercise our judgment not to print the cartoons.
We will not print them because we have too much respect for fellow Canadians of Muslim background. We will not send a message that their way of being Canadian is less acceptable or less valuable than that of any other citizen. (Cruikshank, 2015).

The opposing viewpoint is that the act of terrorism itself justifies the further publication of the offending material. Otherwise we would be submitting to censorship by intimidation rather than by principle:

If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more. (Douthat, 2015)

As the weeks passed, there has also been some acknowledgment of the offence (e.g. Tariq Ali, 2015). Not that this could in any way justify the violence. Just that in a civil society one should respect the beliefs of others. Not to do so, particularly when the others are in a minority, is to demean them. It is far better to mock those in power than those without.

Furthermore, the vaunted freedom to satirize the beliefs and actions of Muslims is clearly out of balance with the strict limitations placed on any criticism of Jewish beliefs or history. It is far easier to defame that Prophet than to deny the Holocaust.

Rights and Limitations

The right of free speech has been championed by many authors. The basic concept is that all people should be able to express themselves freely, because only in this way will society be able to discover what is true and right. The freedom must be granted even if the opinions expressed are considered to be offensive or untrue. In the end, truth will win:

And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licencing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter. (Milton, 1644).

The basic right of free expression is listed as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948):

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Nevertheless, liberty cannot survive without limitations. John Stuart Mill acknowledged that our freedom to act as we see fit must be curtailed if it causes harm to others:

the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others (Mill, 1864, p. 22).

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (United Nations, 1960, Article 19.3) therefore grants that freedom of expression might be restricted in order to respect the “rights and reputations of others” or to protect “national security, public order, public health or morals.” The restrictions are sometimes difficult to interpret. One should not slander another person, divulge national secrets, incite riots, or spread disease. Yet what are the limits that protect the morals of society?

Pornography and Censorship

Although the main subject of this post is whether or not blasphemy should be limited, I shall briefly discuss another area wherein freedom of expression comes into conflict with morality. How should a society govern the publication and consumption of pornography? I shall use the term “pornography” to mean sexually explicit material without making any judgment of its value, i. e., I shall not distinguish between erotica and pornography (West, 2012).

Most Western countries no longer prohibit pornography. With the internet, pornography has become widely available. The general feeling is that its private consumption should not be regulated. Nevertheless, society still maintains some clear and absolute limits. Pornography with children is considered illegal. This is a clear case where exercise of freedom causes severe harm. No child should be exploited in such a way. Some have suggested that adult pornography also exploits the actors who participate in its production. Yet adult actors can provide consent, and other means of legal recourse outside of censorship are available if consent is not obtained.

A major feminist criticism of pornography is that it portrays women as objects rather than persons and thereby infringes on their rights (e.g., MacKinnon, 1987, p. 148):

Pornography, in the feminist view, is a form of forced sex, a practice of sexual politics, an institution of gender inequality. In this perspective, pornography is not harmless fantasy or a corrupt and confused misrepresentation of an otherwise natural and healthy sexuality. Along with the rape and the prostitution in which it participates, pornography institutionalizes the sexuality of male supremacy, which fuses the erotization of dominance and submission with the social construction of male and female.

In this way, pornography may demean all women, diminish their rights, and promote sexual violence. However, pornography comes in many varieties, and there is little definite evidence in Western societies that the increased consumption of pornography over the last few years has either decreased the social status of women or increased the violence against them.

If one views pornography across the world rather than just in the West, there is even less evidence that pornography limits the rights of women. States where censorship is so severe that pornography is unavailable are often those in which women have the least rights (Coetzee, 1996, p. 81). Further studies of the sociological and psychological effects of the different types of pornography are needed. Yet in the meantime, it is probably best not to increase limits. We know so little about the scope of sexual feelings, and art is one way to investigate the nature and limits of human desire.

Another consideration is that pornography certainly causes “offence” even it is claimed to be harmless. Feinberg (1985) has proposed that freedom of expression might be limited in cases where it is not directly harmful but simply offensive. The problem is to define what is meant by “offence” (Shoemaker, 2000; Dacey, 2012, pp. 74-81; van Mill, 2012). A simplistic distinction would consider harm as more physical and offence as more mental. However it is also possible to consider both along a single dimension, with offence tending to be less traumatic.

Offence can take the form of disgust, shock, resentment, shame, repulsion, embarrassment, fear, or humiliation. The offending actions or objects are considered “obscene,” a term that perhaps derives from the Latin caenum for filth. Most countries have laws against obscenity, though their usage varies.

One general principle that has been accepted for pornography is that offence should not be relevant if it need not be experienced. Though a person may be offended by the idea that pornography is freely available on the internet, this should not be considered reason for censorship since the person need not force himself or herself to be offended by viewing the material.

Obscenity laws prohibit the public display or advertisement of pornographic images. Similarly a person is not allowed to walk around naked in public or to defecate in the street. Almost everyone would agree with such regulations. A less justifiable example prohibits public broadcasters from using words such as “fuck” and “shit” (Shoemaker, 2000). Offence and obscenity are usually judged on the basis of majority views. However, this often comes down to the most vocal of the offended, and may not take into account the sensibilities of minorities.

Somehow society must determine some reasonable course to prevent unnecessary offence while still protecting the right to free expression. Judgments as to what is offensive should be especially fair. One group of persons should not be able to enforce their sensibilities more than another.

mother indiaThe injustice of allowing anyone to take offence and declare something obscene is illustrated in the case of Maqbool Fida Husain, a famous Indian painter and film director of Muslim origin. In 2006, the 90-year old artist was charged with obscenity for paintings Hindu Goddesses in the nude. Particularly singled out was his painting of Bharatmata (Mother India) illustrated on the left. The painting shows a nude women posed in the outline of India. In the center is the Ashoka Chakra (the wheel of Ashoka, an Indian emperor from the 3rd century BCE, who converted to Buddhism). This wheel, representing the law of dharma, is also represented in the Indian flag.

Multiple warrants were issued for Husain’s arrest. Having decided that it would be impossible to defend himself, Husain left India and lived in self-imposed exile in Qatar. It is difficult to view the charges against him other than in the context of anti-Muslim bigotry. The alleged offences were even more bizarre in light of the long history of Hindu erotic sculpture. In 2008, the Delhi High Court dismissed all charges against Husain and castigated the Puritanism of his accusers. However, Husain never returned to India. He died in London in 2011.


For a religious person, blasphemy can cause far greater offence than pornography. In the past, severe punishments were meted out for taking the name of God in vain:

And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death. (Leviticus 24:16).

If God were truly omnipotent, He or She would be completely unaffected by any blasphemy. The God of the Old Testament must have been both “thin-skinned and short-tempered” (Dacey, 2012, p. 18).

Although the word “blasphemy” was originally concerned with speech and with the name of God, it has come to mean any expression that holds up to mockery or contempt things held as sacred by others. “Defamation of religion” is the term most commonly used nowadays.

The UN resolution against the defamation of religions was affirmed by a majority of voters but many Western countries voted against the resolution or abstained (United Nations, 2008). They detected some hypocrisy in countries that wished to make religion sacrosanct, and yet persecuted individuals for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and of religion. In some Islamic countries, individuals can be executed for blasphemy or apostasy. A major reason for human rights legislation is to defend those without power to defend themselves. Making it a sacrilege to criticize religion easily leads to the tyranny of the majority religion.

Another argument is that making religious beliefs above criticism is discriminatory against those that are skeptical about such beliefs. Why should it be right for the religious to chastise the behavior of the secular and not vice versa?

Yet, we all take offence when something we hold dear or sacred is treated with contempt. Such offences are not always experienced in the context of religion. As Pope Francis said after the Charlie Hebdo assassinations, many people object to someone calling their mother names. People also take great offence at the desecration of their national flag, and many countries have laws against this. Patriotism is often as unthinking as religion. Belief in “my country right or wrong” has a decidedly religious ring to it.

Hate Speech

Although many Western countries still have laws against blasphemy, they tend not to be prosecuted. For example, a theater in Sault St. Marie in Canada was charged in 1980 with blasphemous libel for showing Monty Python’s Life of Brian, but the charges were stayed (Walkom, 2015).

Most cases that would have been treated as blasphemy in the past are now considered under the rubric of “hate speech” (van Mill, 2012). Many countries have laws prohibiting the incitement of people to hate others on the base of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. Typically the laws concern public speech and do not cover private conversations or internet chat-rooms. Often the laws require that there is clear and immediate danger to the group against which the invective is expressed.

Charlie Hebdo was charged with hate speech after it re-published the Danish cartoons in 2005.The trial led to the magazine being acquitted in 2007 since the cartoons were not deemed hateful of all persons of Muslim origin but only those with terrorist persuasions.

In Canada, James Keegstra was convicted of hate speech in 1984 for teaching in school that a Jewish conspiracy had distorted history for hundreds of years and invented the Holocaust. The point of the trial was that he thereby instilled a hatred of Jewish people in his students (Mertl & Ward, 1986). Although it might be acceptable under the right to free expression to deny the Holocaust, it seems clearly wrong to teach this to children as accepted fact. Yet, the school board had terminated Keegstra’s teaching contract before he was indicted for “wilfully promoting hatred” against Jews. Was the trial really necessary? It was a complex case: the conviction was overturned on appeal and then re-instated by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Hate speech is wrong. However, outside of cases when a mob is harangued to violence against a group of people on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation, or when people are specifically incited to commit murder or mayhem, or when children are indoctrinated with hatred rather than taught tolerance, it is difficult to see clearly how to set the legal limits to freedom of expression.

Society should provide some support for views that are not those of the majority. Sometimes the majority is wrong and the minority should have its say. As Milton said, the truth will be victorious if given free rein in the field of opinion. In relation to religion, surely skepticism must be tolerated. Beliefs can be criticized while still protecting the individuals that hold those beliefs. Agnès Callamard (2005) has proposed that any restriction on free speech should itself be clearly limited:

Restrictions must be formulated in a way that makes clear that its sole purpose is to protect individuals holding specific beliefs or opinions, rather than to protect belief systems from criticism. The right to freedom of expression implies that it should be possible to scrutinise, openly debate, and criticise, even harshly and unreasonably, belief systems, opinions, and institutions, as long as this does not amount to advocating hatred against an individual.


One of the principles whereby one might set limits to freedom of speech is that of fairness. Each group of persons that may be offended by the free speech of another group should be treated equally.

In this context, the argument can easily be made that Islam and Judaism are not treated equally in relation to defamation. Criticism of Judaism is much less tolerated than mockery of Islam. Part of this has to do with the Holocaust. The world recognizes the horrors entailed by anti-Semitism, and wants to eliminate any chance of these recurring (Altman, 2012).

However, should not the same privileges be granted to the religion of Islam? Does not the mockery of Islam support violent actions against Islamic countries? Over the past century, Islamic countries have been invaded and their peoples subjugated. The rights of Islamic peoples in many countries have been subject to tyrants maintained in power by the West.

A rights-based argument against the mockery of the Prophet can be formulated in much the same way as the feminist argument against pornography. Pornography may limit the rights of female persons by encouraging the general view that they are objects of desire and domination rather than individual persons. Submitting the beliefs of Muslims to continuous ridicule may likewise limit their civil rights by encouraging the idea that they are all ignorant fools with dangerous ideas.

alessandro gattoAfter the controversy of the Danish cartoons in 2005, the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri sponsored the International Holocaust Cartoon Contest to denounce Western hypocrisy on freedom of speech. The topic of the Holocaust was chosen as it was deemed as offensive to Judaism as depiction of the Prophet was to Islam. The contest did not cause much controversy and some of the cartoons were republished in Western newspapers. The main theme of many of the cartoons was the way that Israel used the Holocaust to deflect any criticism of its denial of human rights to Palestinians in the occupied territories. On the left is the entry of Alessandro Gatto, an Italian cartoonist.

Multiple Rights

Though Muslim countries have proposed that human rights legislation include provisions against the defamation of religion (United Nations, 1990, 2008), they have been highly selective in their response to the right of religious freedom as proposed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations. 1948):

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

In some Islamic countries, blasphemy and apostasy are considered punishable by death. Freedom of religion in relation to Islam does not always recognize of the “freedom to change his religion or belief.”

However, the West has also been selective in its support of human rights (Mayer, 2006). The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (United Nations, 1966) differs from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by asserting as its first article:

All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

This striking change came about in relation to the overthrow of European colonialism and the coming into being of new governments in Asian and African countries (Mayer 2006).

The Invasion of Iraq was a flagrant denial of the right to self-determination. In addition, Guantanamo and other prisons operated by the Western powers against Islamic people are a terrible rejection of the right to be free from torture (Article 5 of the Universal Declaration and Article 7 of the Covenant). The overwhelming hypocrisy is that these rights were denied in order to bring freedom and democracy to the benighted peoples of the Middle East.

The concept of human rights is multifaceted. Freedom of expression is just one of many rights. Others are equally important. Every person should have the right to work, education, and security. Many of these rights are not readily available to minorities within Western countries. Mockery or their beliefs simply compounds their sense of disenfranchisement.

Perhaps if all rights were equally available, freedom of expression would cause less offence. The rich and powerful are less harmed by mockery than the poor and powerless.

In 1993 the World Conference on Human Rights proposed that

All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms. (United Nations, 1993)

Perhaps we should work harder to give all members of our society all their rights – the full spectrum not just the ones we cherish most. Freedom of speech could then be used to enlighten rather than demean, acting as a gadfly rather than a bludgeon.

Should religion not be defamed?

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo assassinations, religious leaders both deplored the murders and called for society not to defame religious beliefs. The argument is that such defamation demeans and marginalizes those with sincere beliefs and promotes violent retribution.

il faut voiler xbThe journalists and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo have a right to be offensive. Although they have most notably mocked Islamic beliefs, they have also mocked Judaism and Christianity and invoked the ire of many different religious leaders. The cover on the right is from 2007 during the magazine’s trial (procès) for hate speech. It portrays the leaders of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all calling out for Charlie Hebdo to be censored. The use of the word voiler for censorship provides an added irony in that its non-metaphoric meaning is to “veil” or “hide from sight.” If we grant religions amnesty from ridicule, we shall soon be asked to limit our mockery of politicians, and then we would be on the slippery slope to tyranny.

We should nevertheless perhaps not flaunt the ridicule. Just as we do not put up pornographic illustrations in public places, perhaps the Charlie Hebdo cartoons should not be displayed beyond the front cover of the magazine.

In addition, we should as best as possible grant those with religious beliefs, regardless of their creed, rights equal to other citizens: rights to work, security, education, equality before the law. A civil society grants each of its members their dignity. Ridicule is better used to hold the powerful in check than to demean the powerless.

And, just as in pornography, children require special protection. They should be taught tolerance; they must not be indoctrinated to hate. Schools are not a place for either denial of the Holocaust or defamation of the Prophet. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons might be carefully discussed, though this would take a highly sensitive teacher. No child should feel herself or himself subject to ridicule because of their origins or beliefs. That would be bullying.



Altman, A. (2012). Freedom of expression and human rights law. The case of holocaust denial. In Maitra, I., & In McGowan, M. K. Speech and harm: Controversies over free speech. (pp. 24-49). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Callamard, A. (2005). Striking the right balance.

Coetzee, J. M. (1996). Giving offense: Essays on censorship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Cruikshank, J. (2015). Why we won’t run the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Toronto Star, January 16, 2015.

Dacey, A. (2012). The future of blasphemy: Speaking of the sacred in an age of human rights. London: Continuum.

Douthat, R. (2015). The blasphemy we need. New York Times. January 7,

Feinberg, J. (1985). The moral limits of the criminal law. Volume 2: Offense to others. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

MacKinnon, C. A. (1987).Feminism unmodified: Discourses on life and law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mayer, A. E. (2006). Clashing human rights priorities: How the United States and Muslim countries selectively use provisions of international human rights law. Satya Nilayam: Chennai Journal of Intercultural Philosophy, 44, 44-77.

Mertl, S., & Ward, J. (1985). Keegstra: the trial, the issues, the consequences, Saskatoon, Canada: Western Producer Prairie Books.

Mill, J. S. (1859/1864). On Liberty. 3rd Edition. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green.  (Available at

Milton, J. (1644) Areopagitica.

Shoemaker, D. W. (2000). “Dirty words” and the Offense Principle. Law and Philosophy, 19, 545-584.

Tariq Ali (2015). ‘It didn’t need to be done.’ London Review of Books. February 5, 2015.

United Nations (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

United Nations (1966). International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

United Nations (1990/1993). Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. U.N. Doc.A/CONF.157/PC/62/Add.18

United Nations (1993). Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action Adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna on 25 June 1993

United Nations (2008). Resolution 7/19. Combating defamation of religions.

van Mill, D. (2012). Freedom of speech. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Walkom. T. (2015) Blasphemy is punishable in Canada. Toronto Star, January 17, 2015.

West. C. (2012). Pornography and censorship. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


Charlie Hebdo

mahomet charlie hebdo b

The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is left-wing and strongly anti-religious. In 2006, it reprinted the controversial Muhammad cartoons from Denmark’s Jyllends Posten. The cover of that issue of Charlie Hebdo (left) had shown the prophet “overwhelmed by fundamentalists” bewailing that “it is hard to be loved by jerks.” The magazine was unsuccessfully sued by several Islamic organizations for hate crimes. Since then, and despite the firebombing of its offices in 2011, the magazine has continued its irreverence.

On January 7, 2015, three masked gunmen killed twelve people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, including the editor-in-chief Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb) and the senior cartoonist Jean Cabut (Cabu). The shooting was clearly in retaliation for the magazine’s blasphemy. The gunmen were heard to shout Allahu Akbar (“God is great”) and “Vous allez payer, car vous avez insulté le Prophète” – “You will pay for you have insulted the Prophet.” (Selow, 2015).


Blasphemy is a display of contempt for beliefs that others hold sacred. Blasphemy is typically directed against God, but it can also include the people who proclaim God’s will, their institutions, or their treasured objects. Blasphemy is usually verbal – the word comes from the Greek blasphemein meaning to “speak evil.” However, any act of desecration can be considered blasphemous.

Blasphemy is an intrinsic part of the Abrahamic religions. The third of the Ten Commandments prohibits blasphemy: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” (Exodus 20:7). In the New Testament, Jesus stated that “he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation” (Mark 3:29). The Qur’an does not have a similar injunction, but states that one should not associate with those that profane the name of Allah: “The most beautiful names belong to God; so call on him by them; but shun such men as use profanity in His names; for what they do, they will soon be requited.” (Qur’an 7:180, Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation).

Another way to take the name of God in vain is to assume to speak for Him or Her. Jesus was himself accused of blasphemy “because that thou being a man makest thyself God” (John 10:23), and this was one of the main reasons for his indictment before the Sanhedrin (Mark 14:61-64).

Blasphemy as Crime

Blasphemy is a crime in many countries. Although most commonly used in Islamic countries, laws against blasphemy persist in Europe.

Chevalier_de_la_Barre_Statue_In_Montmartre xbIn 1766, the 20 year old François-Jean Lefebvre, the Chevalier de la Barre was beheaded in Abbeville, a small town in Northern France. His crimes were not paying due respect to a procession of the Corpus Christi, singing impious songs and vandalizing a crucifix (Chassaigne, 1920). After the execution the body was burnt on a pyre along with a copy of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, which had been found in his rooms. The illustration on the right shows a memorial statue in Montmartre. In most of France, the law against blasphemy was abolished in 1791. However, the law persists in Moselle and Alsace as a holdover from the German Criminal Code.

In 1697 in Edinburgh, Thomas Aikenhead, a 20-year old student, was executed by hanging for blasphemy. He had called the Old Testament “Ezra’s fables, by a profane allusione to Esop’s fables” and had claimed that Christ had “learned magick in Egypt” so that he could conjure his supposed miracles (Graham, 2008, p 103). Blasphemy is still a crime in Scotland and Northern Ireland although no one has been prosecuted since the 19th century. The offence of blasphemy was abolished in England and Wales in 2008.

Nevertheless, even though not prosecuted as criminal, Western society does not find it acceptable to deface the Bible. In an exhibit at the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art in 2009, visitors were invited to write comments on a bible (Sherwood, 2012). Many did so. Some comments were scatological, others pointed out the injustice of many biblical stories such as the prophet Elisha causing young boys to be killed for calling him ‘baldy’ (2 Kings 2 23-25), and others added personal comments such as “Holy figures hide behind their religion … Once you have been raped by a priest, maybe you understand.” There was such a public furore that the defaced bible had to be placed in a glass case to prevent further comments.

Offence and Tolerance

Freedom of speech has become a treasured right in the Western world. It is enshrined as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.

With freedom of expression comes the freedom to give offence. Things held as sacred by some may be lampooned or insulted by others.

However, freedom of expression has often been subject to limitation. The plaintiff who makes fun of the judge will be charged with contempt of court. Pornography has its limits though these are now most often defined in terms of exploitation and incitement to violence rather than offense to common decency. Hate speech used to incite violence is prohibited in many countries However, such prohibitions should not be used to prevent the criticism of belief systems. There should be a distinction between the belief and the individual:

The right to freedom of expression implies that it should be possible to scrutinise, openly debate, and criticise, even harshly and unreasonably, belief systems, opinions, and institutions, as long as this does not amount to advocating hatred against an individual. (Callamard, 2005).

The legal suits against Charlie Hebdo in 2006 were made on the basis that publication of the offensive cartoons were an incitement to racist hatred. Blasphemy in the modern legal world has in some sense therefore mutated into hate speech. The judicial ruling was that the cartoons were against terrorism and fundamentalism rather than against Muslim people.

The liberal position on the problem that that free speech can lead to offence is that the offended are themselves free to criticize the offence: the remedy for harmful speech is more speech. However, freedom to respond may be less available to the poor or to minorities than to those in power (Nielsen, 2012). Society must therefore expend additional effort to counter inequalities.

The appropriate answer to hate speech is not just more speech – but also policies and actions to tackle the causes of inequality in all its forms and colours (Callamard, 2006).

However, sometimes “talking back” just calls attention to the offence – how should a woman respond to a racist or sexual slur? It does not seem reasonable that everyone be obliged to fight back when offended. That would just lead to a society with everyone offending everyone else. As Ross Douthat points out, although the right to blaspheme or otherwise give offense is essential to a free society, the freedom of that society is not proportional to the quantity of blasphemy it produces.

Blasphemy: A Proposal

The original religious injunctions against blasphemy were more concerned with the use of God’s name rather than its abuse. One interpretation of the third commandment was that we should not use the name of God to justify things that are not true, such as swearing by God that something made of stone is made of gold (Rashi commentary on Exodus 20).

An even wider interpretation is that we should not use the name of God to justify actions that are against God’s will. Killing another person is against God’s law. The Charlie Hebdo killers who called upon the name of God as a justification for their acts thus committed blasphemy. They were an offence to God.

strydom stephen xb

From Twitter @stephen_strydom (January 8th, 2015)

Unfortunately, the original commandment against murder is necessarily limited. A person might kill someone in self-defense or to save another innocent person. The Qur’an injunction against killing allows such exceptions: “Nor take life – which God has made sacred – except for just cause.” (Qur’an 17:33). Unfortunately, terrorists apply their own interpretation of just cause.

However, another meaning of blasphemy is to assume that one is God. To take upon oneself the administration of justice (to assume the mantle of God) is to become a false prophet. Such is itself blasphemy.

To call upon the name of God to justify murder is complete blasphemy.




Callamard, A. (2005) Striking the balance. (Callamard was the director of the human-rights organization ARTICLE 19 from 2004-2013)

Callamard, A. (2006). Freedom of speech and offence: Why blasphemy laws are not the appropriate response.

Chassaigne, M. (1920) Le procès du Chevalier de la Barre. Paris: Librairie Victor Lecoffre (J. Gabalda). Available on the Internet Archive

Graham, M. F. (2008). The blasphemies of Thomas Aikenhead: Boundaries of belief on the eve of the enlightenment. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Nielsen, L. B. (2012). Power in public: Reactions, responses, and resistance to offensive public speech.   In Maitra, I., & McGowan, M. K. (Eds.) Speech and harm: Controversies over free speech. (pp. 148- Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Seelow, S. (2015) Attentat à «Charlie Hebdo» : «Vous allez payer car vous avez insulté le Prophète » Le Monde January 9, 2015.

Sherwood, Y. (2012). Biblical blaspheming: Trials of the sacred for a secular age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Destroy the Old!

destroy the oldChina’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (无产阶级文化大革命 pinyin: Wúchǎnjiējí Wénhuà Dàgémìng) was one of the most terrifying periods in modern Chinese history. The revolution turned upon itself in a fury of denunciation and violence. The goal was to root out those who opposed the revolution. The result was a rampage of destruction. Everything old was to be done away with to make way for the new. Those associated with the old culture were punished or executed. The poster on the right (from Wikipedia) shows the Red Guard in action against symbols of religion, capitalism and culture. The slogan reads “Destroy the old world! Establish the new!” (打破旧世界 dǎ pò jiù shì jiè 创立新世界 chuàng lì xīn shì jiè ). The Cultural Revolution began in 1966, and did not really end until the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Much of the old was destroyed; nothing new was created.

Beginnings of the Cultural Revolution

In 1965 China was under great political stress. Attempts to increase the country’s industrial output – the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) – had brought agricultural disaster and widespread famine. Russia had decided for coexistence with capitalism rather than confrontation. In 1961 Mao had denounced Khrushchev’s politics as revisionism, thus initiating the Sino-Soviet Split and the withdrawal of all Russian scientific and technical support from China.

Many of those in power in China began to wonder openly about the political direction of the country. Peng Dehuai, one of the generals from the Long March and the Marshal of the People’s Army in the Korean War, had dared to criticize Mao’s policies and had been removed from office in 1959. In the early 1960s President Liu Shaoqi and Secretary Deng Xiaoping had begun to question Mao’s radical socialism and to raise the possibility of using individual incentives to enhance agricultural production. In 1962, Deng quoted an old saying “It doesn’t matter whether it is a white cat or a black cat, a cat that catches mice is a good cat.” (The proverbial cats were actually black and yellow: Stewart, 2001, p. 64)

As in any society, there were corrupt as well as honest politicians. Many members of the party had used their power for personal rather than social gain. Many regions of the country had become the fiefdoms of the party bosses. Mao knew this was wrong. The pure soul of the revolution should not be adulterated with bourgeois incentives.

In January 1964 the book Quotations of Chairman Mao ( 毛主席语录 pinyin Máo zhǔ xí yǔ lù word by word: Mao head place/seat words recorded) was published. This was the famous “Little Red Book.” One billion copies were printed over the next decade. Revolutionary orthodoxy was put into words that everyone could understand. Amid the overwhelming dullness of socialist rhetoric come occasional flashes of acuity (and warning):

A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another. (Mao Zedong, from a 1927speech, quoted in 1966, p 11-12).

maobadgeMao badges were manufactured. The cult of personality needed to be enhanced, especially after the revisionist Khrushchev had denounced the cult of Stalin. The badge on the right includes a quotation from Mao’s 1962 poem Winter Clouds: “The plum blossoms are delighted by the snow (花欢喜漫天雪 huā huan xǐ màn tiān xuě)” The next line of the poem is “and do not care about the freezing flies.” (Barnstone, 1972, p 109). Counter-revolutionary insects were soon to face their winter.

The stage was thus set for the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Indeed, many of the events had a theatrical character (Heberer, 2009). The revolution may have begun with the play, Hai Rui Dismissed from Office, written by the historian Wu Han in 1959 and first performed in 1961. This told the true story of how an honest offical had been imprisoned in 1566 by a corrupt Ming emperor. Wu Han was deputy to Peng Zhen, the mayor of Beijing and a major supporter of Deng Xiaoping. In November, 1965, a review of the play, written at Mao’s instigation, accused the author of covertly criticizing Mao for dismissing Peng Dehuai. Art must not question the revolution (or its leader).

Revolution and reason are not easy companions. Hai Rui should have been a revolutionary hero. Yet cunning and devious counter-revolutionaries must have used his story to question the leadership of Mao and derail the great revolution. Wu Han was jailed in 1966 and died in prison in 1969, possibly by suicide. Peng Zhen was deposed, but survived. The party in Beijing was in disarray. Mao could now increase his power.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was formally launched in the May 16 Notification:

Those representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the Party, the government, the army, and various spheres of culture are a bunch of counter-revolutionary revisionists. Once conditions are ripe, they will seize political power and turn the dictatorship of the proletariat into a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Some of them we have already seen through; others we have not. Some are still trusted by us and are being trained as our successors, persons like Khruschev for example, who are still nestling beside us. Party committees at all levels must pay full attention to this matter. (MacFarquhar and Schoenhals, 2006, p. 47).

Nie_Yuanzi_poster xOn May 25, Nie Yanzie, a professor in the philosophy department at Beijing University, together with some junior colleagues, wrote the first big character posters (大字报 pinyin dà zì bào) and affixed them to the walls of the university canteen (photograph at the left from Wikipedia). The text of the posters combined revolutionary rhetoric with denunciations of those in authority, in this particular instance members of the university’s party committee. Other posters were soon displayed in Tsinghua University (another university in Beijing). These were signed by a group of students calling themselves the Red Guard (红卫兵 pinyin Hóng Wèibīng character-by-character red protect soldier). Red became the symbol of the revolution and black the badge of the reactionaries. Big character posters became the revolution’s only literature.

In July, 1966, the Great Helmsman (大舵手pinyin dà duò shǒu) went swimming in the Yangtze River. A choppy side-stoke kept him afloat – no mean feat for a 72-year old overweight chronic smoker (though his fat tissue may have increased his buoyancy). The leader was ready for battle. His followers were ecstatic – everyone wanted to swim in the river of the revolution.

Mao gave a speech on August 6 supporting the big-character posters in the universities earlier that summer. Mao’s metaphorically wrote his own poster, asking the people to “bombard the headquarters” with suggestions and denunciations. The poster illustrated below commemorates the speech (source). The characters in the first line read “Bombard the Headquarters” (pinyin pào dă sī lìng bū; character-by-character: artillery strike commanding officer department). The second line reads “My first big-character poster” (wŏ de yī dà zì bào; me of one large character communication) and the third line is “Mao Zedong.” The characters on the flag mean “Revolution leads to truth” (or “To rebel is justified”): zào făn yŏu lĭ (make opposite is truth), and on the rolled up poster is dà zì bào. Both are written from right to left.


16 articles xOn August 8, Mao’s guidelines for the revolution were produced in a paper called The Sixteen Points. Although restrained, these contained the seeds of the violence that was to follow:

Trust the masses, rely on them and respect their initiative. Cast out fear. Don’t be afraid of disturbances. Chairman Mao has often told us that revolution cannot be so very refined, so gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. (Point 4)

The poster on the right shows the Red Guard encouraging the masses to follow the Sixteen Points: Study the 16 Points (xué xí shí liù tiáo). Know (shú xī) the 16 Points. Use (shǐ yòng) the 16 Points.

The Course of the Revolution

On August 18, Mao endorsed the Red Guard movement at a huge rally in Tiananmen Square. He wore the red armband that was to become the badge of the student movement. The Red Guards were encouraged to “Destroy the Four Olds and Cultivate the Four News” (破四旧立四新; pinyin: Pò Sìjiù Lì Sìxīn). The terror was unleashed.

The history of the next two years is full of violence and cruelty. Books were burned and temples were desecrated (Dahpon David Ho, 2006). The photograph below shows the burning of Buddhist statues (from MacFarquhar & Schoenhals, 2006). A video shows more destruction of religious symbols. The Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai intervened to preserve some of the great cultural buildings such as the Imperial Palace in Beijing and the Potala Palace in Lhasa Tibet. In 1967 the Red Guards were formally enjoined not to sabotage state property. The idea was promoted that cultural relics were part of the nation’s glorious revolutionary traditions. Nevertheless, much had been destroyed before the Red Guards became quiescent.

burning buddha x

peng humiliatedArtists, intellectuals, and administrators were brought before Red Guard tribunals to confess their counter-revolutionary activities. Many were harassed and publically humiliated, many were tortured, many were summarily executed. The photograph on the left shows Peng Dehuai wearing a placard telling of his sins against the revolution. (Also shown in the video). Prolonged and brutal torture did not evoke any confession, but Peng’s imprisonment continued until his death in 1974. In the provinces, the death toll ran into the thousands (Yang Su, 2006).

By 1967 the country was a shambles. Life was cheap. Fear was everywhere. Torture and death were rampant. The economy was at a standstill – people were more engaged in tearing down than building up. The universities were no longer teaching. Different factions of the Red Guards were fighting with each other to see who could be the most radical revolutionaries. The following is a description of Red Guard activity:

Then I saw the accused woman. She was perhaps in her forties, kneeling in the middle of the room, partly naked. The room was lit by a bare fifteen-watt bulb. In its shadows, the kneeling figure on the floor looked grotesque. Her hair was in a mess, and part of it seemed to be matted with blood. Her eyes were bulging out in desperation as she shrieked: ‘Red Guard Masters! I do not have a portrait of Chiang Kai-shek! I swear I do not!’ She was banging her head on the floor so hard there were loud thuds and blood oozed from her forehead. The flesh on her back was covered with cuts and bloodstains. When she lifted her bottom in a kowtow, murky patches were visible and the smell of excrement filled the air. I was so frightened that I quickly averted my eyes. Then I saw her tormentor, a seventeen-year-old boy named Chian, whom up to now I had rather liked. He was lounging in a chair with a leather belt in his hand, playing with its brass buckle. ‘Tell the truth, or I’ll hit you again,’ he said languidly. . . I murmured, trying to control the quaking in my voice, ‘Didn’t Chairman Mao teach us to use verbal struggle [wendou] rather than violent struggle [wudou]? Maybe we shouldn’t…?’ My feeble protest was echoed by several voices in the room. But Chian cast us a disgusted sideways glance and said emphatically: ‘Draw a line between yourselves and the class enemy’. Chairman Mao says, ‘Mercy to the enemy is cruelty to the people!’ If you are afraid of blood, don’t be a Red Guard!’ His face was twisted into ugliness by fanaticism. The rest of us fell silent. Although it was impossible to feel anything but revulsion at what he was doing, we could not argue with him. We had been taught to be ruthless to class enemies. Failure to do so would make us class enemies ourselves . . . Outside the door, I saw the woman informer . . . As I glanced at her face, it dawned on me that there was no portrait of Chiang Kai-shek. She had denounced the poor woman out of vindictiveness. The Red Guards were being used to settle old scores.

The country was in chaos. Yet Mao was in supreme control. He had rid the country of his main adversaries. The poster below exhorted the reader to “smash completely the Liu Deng counter-revolutionary line.” Similar posters are illustrated in Landsberger & van der Heijden (2009). Deng Xiaoping was exiled to work in a tractor factory. Liu Shaoqi was deposed, imprisoned and tortured, ultimately dying in 1969.

completely smash the capitalist roaders x

To quell the furies that he had unleashed, Mao called upon the army. Under threat, the Red Guards were disbanded and sent to the countryside to do manual labor with the peasants. The killings decreased but the fear persisted. The greatest excesses of the Cultural Revolution were largely over by the end of 1968, but the revolution continued until Mao’s death in 1976. Administrators and members of the Communist Party were denounced and exiled. The country became ungoverned.

Deng Xiaoping survived and returned to power a few years after Mao’s death. Mao’s wife and colleagues – the Gang of Four – were overthrown in 1976 and ultimately sentenced to life in prison in 1981. The Chinese Communist Party then adopted a resolution on the history of the People’s Republic of China that repudiated the Cultural Revolution as a catastrophe “responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the’ Party, the state and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic.” The resolution attributed responsibility to Mao Zedong who had “confused right and wrong and the people with the enemy.”

Violence and Youth

The terrible violence that occurred during the Cultural Revolution was largely mediated through the Red Guards. These were mainly university students. High-school students were also involved, but their actions were often more imitation than instigation. Why did these young and intelligent people turn to such cruelty?

Young people can be very passionate about ideas. Yet they lack experience. They have not learned that emotions can be mistaken. They have not seen how everything contains both good and evil. They have not understood that the right path is often not the first one.

Young people rebel against authority. Rebellion is one way to independence. Power comes to those who resist the power of others. The young had long been subservient to parents and to teachers. Some of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution may have been equivalent to exaggerated role-reversals. The Red Guards punished their victims with beatings and with dunce-caps as though they were naughty children.

Young people need a cause. They have to join together with their fellows to fight for what is right. The struggle can be against Fascism for the volunteers who went to Spain in the 30s, against the counter-revolutionaries in the Red Guards in China in the 60s, or against Western Imperialism for the Jihadists who are now in the Middle East. There is often little telling if the fight is right or wrong.


Why did this great disaster happen? The precipitating context was the impoverished state of the country. The revolution had not achieved its goals. Poverty and hunger had not been eradicated. Class structure had not been abolished. A different elite now held power: corrupt party members had replaced the capitalist exploiters. Easier to believe that the revolution had been betrayed than to consider that the revolution had been mistaken. A return to the basic principles could perhaps save the ideals of communism.

Into this state of despair came the cunning and the drive of Chairman Mao. Rather than accept any responsibility, he shifted the blame to others. He tapped the energy of the people and pulled all the strings needed to do away with all those who disagreed with him.

Mao was old and paranoid. He could not brook criticism and could not change his ways. He attempted to destroy all those who thought differently from himself. The fate of despots is to have no friends. The most amazing thing about Premier Zhou Enlai is how he was able to attenuate some of Mao’s excesses and yet survive. At the end, however, Mao even tried to erase Zhou from history, banning any public mourning after his death in 1976.

Mao had immense charisma. The leader of the Long March knew how to make people follow him. And the Chinese people were used to obedience. Mao came to be considered in much the same way as the Emperors that had ruled China for centuries. Like these emperors Mao wrote poems and practised calligraphy. The following is the beginning of his poem Liupan (Six Path) Mountain written toward the end of the Long March. The poem reads from top to bottom and from right to left in characters and in Mao’s own calligraphy:

mao calligraphy x

Dazzling sky to the far cirrus clouds
I gaze at wild geese vanishing into the south
(Barnstone translation)

The poem and the calligraphy are in the style of the old masters. In art, Mao was far from revolutionary.

Mao consciously identified himself with the Emperor Qin Shihuang (260–210 BCE). Qin is famous for unifying China, beginning the Great Wall, and constructing a huge tomb for himself filled with terracotta warriors. However, he had also executed the intellectuals by burying them alive and had burned their books. Mao is quoted as saying

What does Qin Shihuang amount to? He buried only four hundred and sixty scholars alive; we have buried forty-six thousand scholars alive. Haven’t we killed counter-revolutionary intellectuals? (quoted by Hawks, 2010, p.87)

The Chinese artist and poet Li Shu, one of the victims of the Cultural Revolution, remarked about China’s first Emperor (and indirectly about Mao):

Who truly understands the sadness of Qin Shihuang? … He tried to do the right thing but it just turned out wrong. (quoted by Hawks, 2010, p. 90)


A comprehensive review of this time is MacFarquhar & Schoenhals, 2006; briefer considerations are Heberer, 2009, Kraus, 2012, and Wikipedia.

Dahpon David Ho (2006). To protect and preserve: resisting the “Destroy the four olds” campaign, 1966-1967. In Esherick, J. W., Paul G. Pickowicz, P. G., & Walder. A. G. (Eds). The Chinese cultural revolution as history (pp. 64-95). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

Domes, J. (1985). Peng Te-huai: The man and the image. London: Hurst & Co.

Hawks, S D. (2010). Summoning Confucius: Inside Shi Lu’s Imagination. In Richard King (Ed.), Art in turmoil. The Chinese Cultural Revolution, 1966-76. (pp. 58-90).  Vancouver: University of British Columbia.

Heberer, T. (2009). The ‘‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’’: China’s modern trauma. Journal of Modern Chinese History. 3, 165–181

Jung Chang (1991). Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. London: Simon and Shuster.

Kraus, R. C. (2012). The Cultural Revolution: a very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Landsberger, S. R., & van der Heijden, M. (2009). Chinese posters: the IISH-Landsberger collections. Munich: Prestel. See also the webpage.

MacFarquhar, R., & Schoenhals, M. (2006). Mao’s last revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Mao Zedong, (1964/1966). Quotations from Mao-Tse-tung. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Mao Zedong (translated by Willis Barnstone and Ko Ching-po, 1972). The poems of Mao Tse-tung. New York: Harper & Row (reprinted 2008 by University of California Press).

Stewart, W. (2001). Deng Xiaoping: Leader in a changing China. Minneapolis: Lerner

Yang Su (2006). Mass killings in the Cultural Revolution: a study of three provinces. In Esherick, J. W., Paul G. Pickowicz, P. G., & Walder. A. G. (Eds). The Chinese cultural revolution as history (pp. 96-123). Stanford, CA: Stanford U

States of Surveillance

snowdenIn June of 2013, TV screens were filled with the image of an articulate young man in a hotel room in Hong Kong. He was telling us that the US government was monitoring what we did on the phone and on the internet. The National Security Agency (NSA), he said (transcript),

targets the communications of everyone. It ingests them by default. It collects them in its system and it filters them and it analyses them and it measures them and it stores them for periods of time simply because that’s the easiest, most efficient, and most valuable way to achieve these ends.


The speaker was Edward Snowden, a 29-year old analyst who had been working for a technology company contracted by the NSA. He was being interviewed by Glenn Greenwald, a journalist working with The Guardian. Snowden was releasing secret information about the US government’s surveillance activities because he believed that the government had not been granted the power to behave in this manner. If the government could know everything about everyone then it could overtly or covertly manipulate them to maintain or increase its power. The people would then be liable to a “turnkey tyranny.” Having elected a government (turned on the program), the people would find that they had inadvertently given it the power to become a dictatorship.

With any economic or political crisis the government could increase its powers until finally we became something like the society described in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949): a society wherein everyone is monitored, wherein no one is free to think for themselves, and wherein the state of crisis never ceases because of perpetual war. In Orwell’s dystopia, the war was among the superstates of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia; nowadays, we have our Global war on Terror.

Private information about us can easily be used to manipulate our actions. This can occur through blackmail or vindictive prosecution – everyone has done something illegal at some time. Most frighteningly, the manipulation might be done without our knowing. Not only does the internet provide the government with the ability to monitor our actions, it also allows service providers to change our emotions and ultimately to alter our behavior.

Security and Secrecy

Intelligence gathering is a necessary part of our current world. And there is a need for secrecy. However, limits must be set, and there must be proper oversight to ensure these limits are maintained. Those who work in secrecy must always be accountable. If their actions can be completely hidden, they will be able to do whatever they wish. Though most analysts and agents may follow the ideals of a just and democratic society, some may not. It is just too easy to use information to receive gain or increase power.

We abhor societies that live under the constant surveillance of a secret police. One of the most evil regimes was that of the former East Germany (German Democratic Republic). Every citizen was monitored by the STASI (State Security). The movie The Lives of Others, which won the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film in 2006, provides a frightening glimpse into their society.

The STASI was originally set up to be the “Shield and Sword” for a party whose goal was to improve the lot of the common man. It evolved into an instrument of state terror. No one could question the government without their actions being reported, and their lives destroyed.

The Lives of Others shows how this surveillance and security system was subverted to serve the purposes of those in power rather than to preserve the rights of the people. A government minister lusting after a beautiful actress directs the STASI to monitor the home of her lover so that he can be arrested and the actress made completely subservient to his desires. To think that this cannot happen with the current NSA programs is to be foolishly naïve.

The movie begins with the statements:

1984, East Berlin. Glasnost is nowhere in sight. The population of the GDR is kept under strict control by the Stasi, the East German Secret Police. Its force of 100,000 employees and 200,000 informers safeguards the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Its declared goal: “To know everything.”

This goal is chillingly similar to the current aims of the NSA which under General Keith Alexander expanded its surveillance activities until it could monitor all our electronic communications, obtaining data on everything we do. The motto of the organization is to “collect it all” (see Chapter 3 of Greenwald’s No Place to Hide, 2014). NSA works in collaboration with the intelligence agencies of Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in an alliance known as Five Eyes.

PRISM is the set of programs used by the alliance to collect and analyze data on internet usage from electronic communication service providers such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, etc.


From Snowden revelations: NSA Powerpoint Slide of “PRISM Collection Details” Wikimedia Commons


The acronym (Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization, and Management) does not in any way betray what he programs are actually used for. It brings to mind the colors of the rainbow rather than the darkness of surveillance.

Theoretically the goal of this data collection is to obtain intelligence on foreign agents who might be a danger to US Security, and the data collection is under court supervision. In fact the data is collected from everyone and the supervision is simply a rubber stamp from a committee (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) that does not report to any government agency independent of the intelligence organizations.

Vilification of the Whistleblower

What is astounding is the distance to which the US government has gone to denounce Snowden’s actions. Statements that the release of information about government surveillance has put the country at risk are patently absurd. Any actual terrorist would be fully aware that they might be under surveillance and would take care to hide their actions.

The only downside of the revelations is the embarrassment that they have caused for the government by showing how it has acted against its own people. This is a government that has recently had little experience with the proper cause of justice. The imprisonment and torture of suspects without trial in Guantanamo, and the imprisonment and conviction of Private Chelsea (Bradley) Manning are evidence that the government of a country that has led the world in its devotion to freedom and democracy is losing its way.

The suggestion by Secretary of State John Kerry that Edward Snowden should “man up” and return to the United States for a fair and just trial is an insult to anyone’s intelligence. This comes from a man who in his youth objected to his government’s policies without ever being brought to account for this opposition.

Kerry’s comments were wickedly satirized by Steve Bell in a cartoon portraying Kerry as the evil Jabberwocky and Snowden as the beamish boy who confronts him:

Steve Bell 30.5.2014


682px-Jabberwocky Tenniel 1871 Throught the Looking GlassThe cartoon was based on John Tenniel’s illustration of the Jabberwocky in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

One can only hope that the beamish boy will ultimately be able to slay the sad spectre that American Justice has become. Then the original ideas of freedom and justice that led to the United States may again prevail.

The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution ensures that

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be  searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

As Greenwald clearly states this was intended to

abolish forever in America the power of the government to subject its citizens to generalized suspicionless surveillance (Greenwald, 2014, p 3)

Another strange development is the branding of Snowden as a “narcissist” by commentators such as Jeffrey Toobin (see Greenwald, p 222). This appears to be a new way to undermine the motives of a whistleblower – insinuating that they release secrets just for personal fame, acting on ego rather than on conscience. In Snowden’s case the allegation is absurd. He currently lives an ascetic life in Moscow, staying as much as possible out of the public eye. He is in Russia not by choice but because the US government has made it impossible for him to gain sanctuary elsewhere.

Power of the Panopticon

The philosopher Jeremey Bentham (1748-1832) is most famous for the ethical concept that one should act to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. However, one of his projects did not follow this edict: the design of a prison called the Panopticon:

panopticon plan color

Panopticon (Bentham, 1791) Figure from Creature and Creator, p 358.

This cross section of one half of the circular structure derives from a drawing by William Reveley based Bentham’s description. The cells were set up in a circle around a central observation tower. The gaolers could inspect the prisoners through spy holes looking out from the inspection gallery toward the cells. Each prisoner could not see any other prisoner, and would not know whether or not they were being watched. This particular Panopticon includes in the central area a chapel where prisoners could be re-educated in morality.

The main advantage of the Panopticon was its efficiency. One gaoler could monitor many hundred prisoners. Sometimes, there might even be no gaoler, since the prisoners would not know that they were not being watched.

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault pointed out that the efficiency of the Panopticon works in many areas of human society in addition to prisons: schools, hospitals, barracks, factories, and offices. The idea is to induce in the individual subjects of an organization a sense that they are always visible. The subjects of surveillance then lose any sense of individual freedom:

He who is subject to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he inscribes in himself the power relations in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection. (Foucault, 1975, pp. 202-203).

This leads to a disciplinary or “carceral” society, wherein each individual becomes docile and acts only for the benefit of the observing others. These others are more likely members of an elite (and unobserved) group than society as a whole.

This is the type of society to which we are moving, one in which we will not wish to disagree with those in power or to freely express our ideas. This is no time for complacency. The state of mind that occurs when we are under surveillance is frightening.

tpbigbrotherOrwell described the ubiquitous poster of Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features….It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran. (p.1)

The figure on the left is loosely based on the 1983 image that Nancy Burson made by morphing the portraits of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao and Khomeini. It borrows the colors and style of the poster of Frederic Guimont, based on his graphic version of the novel.


Bentham, J. (1791, edited by Bowring, J., 1843). The works of Jeremy Bentham. Volume 4. The making of modern law. Edinburgh: William Tait. The general description of the panopticon is on pp 39-49; the description of the chapel is on pp 78-80; the drawing by Reveley is Plate 2.

Foucault, M. (1975, translated by Sheridan, A., 1978). Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. New York: Random House.

Greenwald, G. (2014). No place to hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. surveillance state. New York: Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt)

Orwell, G. (1949). Nineteen eighty-four. London: Secker & Warburg