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Primo Levi’s Natural Law

The Italian writer and scientist Primo Levi (1919-1987), best known for his Auschwitz memoir, If This Is a Man (English title: Survival in Auschwitz), was also a prolific author of essays, short stories, and other works. In his review of the newly released Complete Works of Primo Levi, Edward Mendelson writes about Levi’s moral understanding of the universe, which underlay his work both as a writer and as a chemist:

Unlike almost everyone else who wrote about science in the 20th century, Levi never imagined that science was value-free. Just as human beings were moral or immoral, so, in his eyes, were chemical elements and compounds: “Sodium is a degenerate metal”;  “chlorides in general are riffraff”; cerium “belongs to the equivocal and heretical family of the rare-earth elements.”

Morality, as Levi understood it, is not a set of rules or laws imposed by some divine power beyond ordinary reality; it is integral to reality, a matter of fact, not of opinion. In both the concentration camp and the laboratory, to lose sight of morality was to lose sight of what is real. Levi said of the Nazis who took up Nietzsche’s myth of the superman: “It is worth considering the fact that all of them, master and pupils, gradually took leave of reality at the same pace as their morals became detached from the morals common to every time and every civilization.”

The core of Nazi barbarism, as Levi saw it, was its reduction of unique human beings to anonymous things, mere instances of a collective category—Jews, for example—that can be slaughtered collectively because they have no individual value.

Read more at New York Times

More about: Friedrich Nietzsche, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Morality, Natural law, Primo Levi, Science

How the U.S. Can Strike at Iran without Risking War

In his testimony before Congress on Tuesday, Michael Doran urged the U.S. to pursue a policy of rolling back Iranian influence in the Middle East, and explained how this can be accomplished. (Video of the testimony, along with the full text, are available at the link below.)

The United States . . . has indirect ways of striking at Iran—ways that do not risk drawing the United States into a quagmire. The easiest of these is to support allies who are already in the fight. . . . In contrast to the United States, Israel is already engaged in military operations whose stated goal is to drive Iran from Syria. We should therefore ask ourselves what actions we might take to strengthen Israel’s hand. Militarily, these might include, on the passive end of the spectrum, positioning our forces so as to deter Russian counterattacks against Israel. On the [more active] end, they might include arming and training Syrian forces to engage in operations against Iran and its proxies—much as we armed the mujahedin in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Diplomatically, the United States might associate itself much more directly with the red lines that Israel has announced regarding the Iranian presence in Syria. Israel has, for example, called for pushing Iran and its proxies away from its border on the Golan Heights. Who is prepared to say that Washington has done all in its power to demonstrate to Moscow that it fully supports this goal? In short, a policy of greater coordination with Jerusalem is both possible and desirable.

In Yemen, too, greater coordination with Saudi Arabia is worth pursuing. . . . In Lebanon and Iraq, conditions will not support a hard rollback policy. In these countries the goal should be to shift the policy away from a modus vivendi [with Iran] and in the direction of containment. In Iraq, the priority, of course, is the dismantling of the militia infrastructure that the Iranians have built. In Lebanon, [it should be] using sanctions to force the Lebanese banking sector to choose between doing business with Hizballah and Iran and doing business with the United States and its financial institutions. . . .

Iran will not take a coercive American policy sitting down. It will strike back—and it will do so cleverly. . . . It almost goes without saying that the United States should begin working with its allies now to develop contingency plans for countering the tactics [Tehran is likely to use]. I say “almost” because I know from experience in the White House that contingency planning is something we extol much more than we conduct. As obvious as these tactics [against us] are, they have often taken Western decision makers by surprise, and they have proved effective in wearing down Western resolve.

Read more at Hudson

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, U.S. Foreign policy, Yemen