RIP Helen Thomas

Journalist Helen Thomas died today. She was a remarkable pioneer for women in journalism, but she was also a vital voice of dissent and a relentless practitioner of aggressive, fearless reporting. She had the courage to ask tough questions, and she did not accept political doublespeak.

She did not — as so many do these days — simply write down the talking points of both sides of a political divide, and tell the reader: “Now you figure it out.” Instead, she pursued the truth and reported it as best she could.

I found this biography from ABC to be fairly decent, and I especially like this paragraph:

She was persistent to the point of badgering. One White House press secretary described her questioning as “torture” — and he was one of her fans.

Everyone knows why she retired, and without getting into the specifics of Israel and Palestine, I will simply say that I found her comments simplistic and foolish — roughly akin to the anti-immigrant nonsense we hear in the US all the time. At the same time, I will say that her comments reflect a deep frustration that many people around the world share, owing to the harsh brutality inflicted on Palestinians by the Israeli government. (Which of course does not excuse or justify Palestinian terrorism, etc etc.)

I will also point to Gandhi’s comments on Israel and Palestine, which was a bit more nuanced than Ms. Thomas’, but not entirely opposite:

And now a word to the Jews in Palestine. I have no doubt that they are going about it in the wrong way. The Palestine of the Biblical conception is not a geographical tract. It is in their hearts. But if they must look to the Palestine of geography as their national home, it is wrong to enter it under the shadow of the British gun. A religious act cannot be performed with the aid of the bayonet or the bomb. They can settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs.

Finally, however, I wish to stress once more that we resist the temptation to make a person’s least agreeable moment the totality of that person’s identity. However you might feel about that last public episode, we owe Ms. Thomas a significant debt of gratitude for her indefatigable work in the name of democracy, justice, and peace.

EDIT: I totally forgot about her awesome video with Colbert! Thanks, Reddit.

RIP Alan Saunders

One of my favorite podcasts is The Philosopher’s Zone, a weekly half-hour program from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Today I learned that the host, Alan Saunders, died earlier this month.

Mr. Saunders (seen here with a dingo named Wollemi that he co-sponsored at a conservation sanctuary) did an amazing job with the show, making deep philosophical concepts available to ordinary people in language that was comprehensible but never simplistic. He spoke in a rich baritone about philosophical figures and movements, interrupting his guests only when necessary to provide context and background. He asked intriguing follow-up questions and dropped little pieces of humor where appropriate (and leaving out the inane puns so common to “intellectual” broadcasting in the US).

Perhaps my favorite thing about Mr. Saunders is how committed he was to exploring the vast diversity of ways in which philosophy exists in our world, and all the ways different people set out to explore its core questions. Most guests were academics, but he also brought on primary school teachers, government workers, and folks from other walks of life. He did shows about Islamic philosophy, philosophical currents in sub-saharan Africa, and various forms of Asian philosophy (all of which, fascinating and rich though they are, usually get short shrift in popular philosophy media).

The news of Mr. Saunders’ passing saddens me, in part because it was so sudden, and in part because I feel like I got to know him. After all, I spent a half-hour with him in deep conversation every week. I suppose it’s fair to say that I thought of him as a teacher, helping me as he did to understand and interrogate the world around me.

Thank you for your work, Mr. Saunders. You will be missed.