Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Cowboys and Indians and Cops and Robbers

Our rabbi said something that struck a chord with me a little while ago, and I've been mulling it over.

He said that the problem with liberals is that they don't believe in evil.

He was speaking, if I remember correctly, in reference to the recent opening of communication between the United States and Iran, but I will focus on the general question of evil for right now.

Certainly, there are evil individuals; psychopaths and pedophiles who prey on innocent children. And I think there is certainly a difference between a legitimately insane individual and one who knows right from wrong and doesn't care.

Also, I would say that there are evil philosophies and regimes; the Nazis being the best recent example, and I would argue that a lot of very evil individuals rose through the ranks very quickly until the whole system was top-heavy with psychopathy.

But to write off the Nazi chapter in human history as "those evil people" is a cop-out for the rest of humanity.

What about all the Nazis who were not psychopaths? The sheep, the onlookers, the bystanders, the ones who were "just following orders." These people made the psychopaths' world a reality; without the willing masses, the Third Reich could never have happened. And those people, all those people, were no different from you or me.

And the most important thing we have to remember is that, psychopaths aside, the Nazis thought they were the good guys. In their reality, the people who opposed them were "evil" and needed to be destroyed so that they, the good guys, could survive.

Proof that the Holocaust could have happened anywhere under the right circumstances is the Milgram experiments. (Frankly, it's a shame that Milgram's experiments aren't part of standard middle school curriculum, because this bit of psychology needs to be common knowledge.)

In 1963, Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychiatrist, designed an experiment to test how far individuals could be pushed to act against their own moral conscience under the direction of perceived authority figures. The test consisted of three participants: a scientist who was conducting the experiment (the authority figure), a volunteer who was designated the "teacher," and a "student," whom the "teacher" thought was another volunteer but was actually faking the role of "student." The volunteers thought they were participating in an experiment about memory and learning. When the student answered a question incorrectly, the teacher was instructed to push a button that would shock the student, with subsequent wrong answers requiring higher voltage shocks, the highest being 450 volts. With each successive shock, the students reacted as if they were in more and more pain, at some points pleading not to be shocked, screaming, or becoming unresponsive.

When the teacher hesitated or objected, the scientist would urge him or her to continue with four pre-scripted phrases in order:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.
The experiment ended after the teacher still refused to shock the student after the fourth prompt, or pushed the maximum 450 volt button three times.

It's important to note the teachers in this experiment were so stressed by the circumstances, that many have argued that the experiment was emotionally abusive and should never have been performed. The teachers sweated, stuttered, trembled, and dug their fingernails into their own skin.

The shocking results, which have remained consistent throughout several variations of the test administered around the globe: 65% of participants continued to the bitter end, pressing the maximum voltage button three times.

Why?

Because a perceived authority figure told them to.

Because they perceived the men in white lab coats to be "the good guys."

Because they reasoned that the authority figure was the person responsible for the pushing of the button; therefore they themselves were not responsible.

What's so important about this experiment is that the volunteers acted in a way that they knew in their gut was wrong, not because they were evil, but because they were human beings.

You see, while it's true that the Nazi regime could never have existed without the compliance of the masses; neither could Judaism, or Israel, or the Renaissance, or the United States of America. 

If every individual was a visionary leader, their visions would be for naught without large groups of people doing the work to turn vision into reality.

My argument is that it is factually inaccurate to write off an entire people (country or religion) as evil; and because the people themselves are not evil, it is morally wrong to maim or kill them if a viable alternative is possible. Moreover, if we allow ourselves to be persuaded that an entire group of people is evil and must be destroyed, then we are just as guilty of being mindless sheep as they are, and can no longer refer to ourselves as "the good guys." After all, while it is in our nature to follow authority, we do have a moral compass and we are responsible for our own actions.

I don't claim to know where the lines should be drawn when dealing with countries like Iran or Syria, or the Palestinians. I'm only saying that we must recognize that the people with whom we are fighting are exactly like us, even when they do not.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Why Universal Pre-K Will Not Happen

I'm not sure if I have ever felt more sincere sympathy for a government official as I do for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan right now.

I know he's an intelligent individual, so he is probably not so naively optimistic as the public face is wearing as he navigates from news show to news show bearing the promise that we are the cusp of passing legislation that will ensure that our most precious national resource, our children, will all have access to quality pre-K education; that from this point forward, poor children will no longer step into their first day of kindergarten a year behind their peers, a gap that studies show only widens as they progress toward their high school graduation.

I feel like Martin Bashir is a mean older cousin telling a little boy that there is no Santa Claus as he tries to bludgeon the starry-eyed Mr. Duncan with facts, such as the House's failure to pass any legislation, or even vote on any legislation that has been sent to them from the Senate. And what about the fact that the sequester has cut off access to preschool for poor children all over the country, and that many of the parents of those children have lost their jobs because they can't afford child care?

But Arne Duncan perseveres, staying on his message of hope and optimism:

Well,  folks are concerned about how government money is spent, but everyone understands that this is not an expense, this is an investment in our future as a nation.
It goes round and round like this for several minutes with Mr. Bashir pointing out that the Republicans in power care more about subsidies for big business than for poor children who can't read, and that right-wing conservatives view Obama's push for universal pre-K as tyrannical indoctrination (I mean, let's not forget that this "pre-K" business is coming from a Kenyan Socialist Atheist Muslim terrorist who is out to destroy America).

But no one is getting to the real reason why universal pre-K is going to fail.

Sure, oil companies have lobbyists and toddlers do not, but that's not the real reason.

It's the same reason why America hangs out at the bottom of lists of industrialized nations in math and science, in college graduation rates, and now even in technology education.

That's right, the explosion of job openings in silicon valley are being filled foreigners because the largest industrialized nation is turning out an anemic amount of computer engineers.

And speaking of technology education, did you know that schools in other countries are teaching computer code as a fundamental subject like math and language?

Ah, but back to the reason why the state of our nation's education is so pathetic.

Remember the "Death Tax?" That cruel government imposition that was destroying the legacy of hard-working individuals, putting family farms out of business and leaving grieving families destitute?

Yeah, that was all a lie.

The Estate Tax actually only applied to the top 0.1% of the population (that's ONE TENTH of one percent). So this tax never left anyone even close to destitute.

Furthermore, this tax was never about revenue for the government; it was about preventing the transfer of outrageous fortunes from one generation to another.

The Estate Tax was enacted in 1907 under Theodore Roosevelt to prevent the development of a ruling class, because a ruling class cannot coexist with a democracy.

Okay, hold on to that thought and stay with me...

Let's skip ahead to Franklin Roosevelt as our country is coming out of the Great Depression. He set in place series of financial regulations called the Bretton Woods system to prevent things like stock market gambling from destroying our economy ever again, and clear lines were established that separated banks and lending institutions from dealing in stock market trading (you know, so that when you place your money in a bank, it can't loan your money out to be gambled with in the stock market).

Now, at this point you should be wondering ...wait, didn't our recent economic downturn have something to do with banks and lending and stock market gambling? How did that happen if FDR enacted these regulations?

Good question!

And the answer is DE-regulation! Twenty years of deregulation that culminated with the repeal of the last remnants of the Bretton Woods system under President Clinton! (Yeah, that "economic prosperity" you remember under President Clinton was actually the dying gasp of our real economy.)

But the economy didn't die, you say? It plodded along for about another decade? Of course it did! That's what wars are for!

And the final nail in the coffin of our democracy would be the repeal of the estate tax, which at the moment is teetering on edge of extinction while the deck is being stacked in favor of the ruling class now that, on top of deciding that corporations are "people," the Supreme Court has ruled that money is "speech" and that the "speech" of corporations and insanely wealthy individuals cannot be infringed upon with limitations on campaign contributions (translation: rich people and corporations can now flat-out buy politicians).

So, what does the new American Ruling Class have to do with the sad state of our public education infrastructure and the likelihood that universal pre-K will ever see the light of day?

Because the more ignorant the population is, the easier that population is to rule.

President Obama warns with a famous Derek Bok quote, "if you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

I say that train may have already left the station.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Most Fabulous Olympics Ever!

There has been a lot of talk about boycotting the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia over the country's recent anti-gay laws.

While I understand the sentiment, we first need to think about the fact that the Olympics are much bigger than the country in which they are hosted. There are athletes who have trained their whole lives, and a lot of them only get one chance to perform on the world stage. Is it really fair to deprive our American athletes of competing in the Olympics?

Perhaps.

So we have to think about how boycotting the Olympics would help the people we are boycotting for: the homosexuals in Russia who are deprived of their human rights by these anti-gay laws, and whether there might be better ways those people could be served.

Certainly the United State's absence from the Olympics would overshadow the entire event, and shine a bright spotlight on gay rights.

But what if we outfitted all our athletes with rainbow uniforms and passed out rainbow flags to anyone who will hold it up high in front of every camera televising, for all the world to see, the most fabulous Olympics ever!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The buck goes on and on and on...

I'm going to start with a simplistic example of outsourcing. I've talked about outsourcing before in the broader context of the economy.

I work in the healthcare industry. There was a time when healthcare facilities did their own laundry. About ten to fifteen years ago, it became the norm to hire an outside company to do the laundry. It's convenient because the truck delivers clean, crisp, folded laundry at the same time that it's hauling away the dirty laundry. This is supposed to save money because the contracted company specializes in laundry and is therefore more efficient at the task. So with this service, the healthcare facility doesn't have to hire and be responsible for employees to do the laundry, and also doesn't have to buy and maintain washers and dryers.

There are several problems with this arrangement, and I'm not entirely convinced there is any money being saved in the long run.

First, there is a noticeable increase in the amount of stained and damaged laundry. So picture this: you just had cardiac surgery, infection is a primary concern for the hospital staff and yourself. While you are up in your chair, the CNA comes in with fresh linen to change your bed. She unfolds the sheet and there is a large noticeable stain. Now, this is a hospital, so that stain was almost certainly caused by some kind of bodily fluid, which is really gross. Of course this kind of thing is bound to happen once in a while, but since the hospital started outsourcing the laundry, this has been happening quite a bit.

The staff complains about the laundry, but doesn't even know who to complain to. The staff used to be able to go to the basement and show the stains or tears to the people who are doing the laundry; and no one likes to be hassled, so the people doing the laundry pay closer attention to what they're doing. But with outsourcing, you never see the people who do the laundry. The people who pick up and drop off the laundry are just truck drivers; they don't know the people doing the laundry either. So, after a while, the complaints may finally reach the person who is in charge of hiring the laundry company, and he will contact the salesperson who sold him on the company's services, and the salesperson will apologize and offer some kind of discount or refund. And all the while, the hospital staff are still unfolding stained and torn sheets over the beds of patients.

I have never seen an example of outsourcing that doesn't work something like this. There is such a complicated web where even the outsource companies outsource to other companies. The buck literally never stops.

Now, lets talk about government outsourcing.

Edward Snowden had top secret US government security clearance, but was not an employee of the US government.

And we can't talk about outsourcing government security without talking about Aaron Alexis, the shooter at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC.

How is it possible that the Rhode Island police notified the Navy that Alexis, who was on his way to Washington for a job, was paranoid, delusional, hearing voices and hallucinating, without anyone at the Navy acting on that information in the two weeks before the shooting rampage?

Perhaps the problem is that Alexis didn't work for the Navy. He worked for Hewlett-Packard. And Hewlett-Packard didn't even hire him; they hired another company called The Experts to do the hiring.

But certainly the government performs it's own background checks on people who are employed by the companies the government hires? Certainly the US government decides who gets top secret security clearance?

Ummm... no.

The Office of Personnel Management (HR for the federal government) was privatized in 1996, and the now private hiring company for the federal government doesn't do the background checks either.

They contract background investigations out to a another company called USIS.

USIS was also the company that investigated Edward Snowden's background before awarding him a level of security clearance that allowed him access to... well I don't really know, it seems like the more appropriate question to ask is, "what didn't Snowden have access to?"

More importantly, who is responsible for the actions of Snowden and Alexis? The companies that hired them? The company that did the background checks? The government?

Is NO ONE responsible for hiring the 29-year-old high school dropout/espionage mastermind, or the paranoid delusional young man who had been discharged from the Navy for behavior problems AND had a history of gun violence?

I am tempted to side with the conspiracy theorists who believe that Mr. Alexis really was being controlled by the government with Extremely Low Frequency electromagnetic waves, just so I can believe that somebody somewhere has some kind of handle on things in this country.

But my personal experience with outsourcing leads me to believe that the only convoluted scheme being played out here is the scheme to increase corporate profits while decreasing corporate responsibility.

I guess the only real question I have is, why are we tolerating this? Why are we as a country so disinterested in the fact that no one is ever held accountable for these criminal lapses in our nation's security?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Uncommon sense

Ah, another day, another mass shooting in America.

Land of the free, home of the brave.

Except, of course, for the Liberals and victims of gun violence who are constantly plotting together to try to take guns out of the hands of honest Americans.

You don't want to be a victim of gun violence?

G E T  A  G U N ! 

Duh!

And don't give me that crap about people in gun owning households being statistically more likely to be victims of gun violence. Studies like these have been deliberately skewed by liberal brainiacs who want to "prove things" using "facts" (which is why the good folks at the NRA have successfully lobbied to de-fund and even outlaw such government research).

But even with the stranglehold that the NRA maintains on Congress in order to ensure every American's right to buy deadly weapons from gun manufacturers, the liberals are not deterred from their natural desire to take away our freedom. First, they love to latch on to victims of gun violence because bleeding-heart liberals can't resist a good sob story. (Did you know Jim Brady used to be a God-fearing Republican before one stray bullet tuned him into a left-wing pansy?) Next, they try to find chinks in the armor that they can exploit to gain public support for a few minor "common sense reform" arguments, but don't be fooled!

One reform which they like to say everyone agrees with, is keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

Um, I'm sorry, I didn't know being mentally ill was a crime in this country!

And while, granted, well over half of the mass shootings in the last 25 years have been perpetrated by individuals who had symptoms of mental illnessthat does not justify impinging on the civil liberties of an entire group of people. I mean, I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that nearly 100% of all these mass shootings were perpetrated by males, so are we going to stop all male civilians from privately owning military-grade weapons of mass destruction? I mean, talk about a slippery slope, where does one even draw the line with this insanity?

The fact of the matter is that there's no way to tell who is going to be the next mass murderer. Many forms of mental illness like schizophrenia often do not present symptoms until a person is in their late teens and early twenties. Other individuals possess latent mental illnesses which may not present until a traumatic life event, if ever.

And since you often can't predict who is going to use a semiautomatic machine gun for reasons other than the harmless recreational activities for which these weapons are produced, the only way to ensure the public's safety is to make sure every citizen is properly armed.

Now, I know what you're thinking: children aren't physically capable of operating machine guns, so how can they defend themselves when the next madman opens fire at their school? Well, as usual, the free market economy has an answer for that: Crickett Firearms: Quality Firearms for American Youth.

And before you go bringing up isolated incidents of children getting injured or accidentally killing their siblings, consider this: the terrorists are already teaching THEIR kids how to use machine guns.


So, by not letting our children have machine guns, we are literally letting the terrorists win!

The next time one of these mass shootings happens, possibly next week, remember: guns are not the problem, gun victims are the problem... because they didn't have guns.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

New Beginnings

This Jewish New Year is a special one for our family, as we have recently decided to be more Kosher.

But the path is even more difficult than I had originally thought.

I stood in the grocery store holding a package of 20 eggs for $2.39. I looked up and saw a carton of 12 free range eggs for $4.99.

I can't afford that! My boys will finish 12 eggs in a few days...
I can't afford not to buy those eggs, if my family is going to respect the animals that nourish our bodies...
That's a minimum of $20 a week, for eggs alone...
But the chickens; they get to run around outside and be happy...
Well, these eggs have already been laid, I'm not responsible for how they got here...
And so, after wrestling with myself in the dairy isle, I finally did the right thing and bought the free range eggs.

A half gallon of kosher milk from cows who are allowed unrestricted access to outdoor grazing costs twice as much as a whole gallon of milk from the giant agriculture corporations whose cows are warehoused, stuffed with fatty feeds and shot up with antibiotics and growth hormones.

A kosher, free range chicken costs three times as much as a corporate warehouse chicken.

But something else happened when I sacrificed my hard-earned money for ridiculously expensive basic necessities: that food became precious. Every single egg. Every drop of milk. Precious the way food ought to be precious; it is after all, a life that is taken so that we may live.

I have always felt close to my food. I avoid processed food as much as possible, and the extra effort I put into to preparing meals for my family is important to me. But now, after taking that next step to being kosher and organic, I feel a profound connection with the animals themselves. I sacrifice money (which I don't have a lot of) in order to honor the sacrifice of these animals to nourish my family.

I take comfort in knowing that these animals were happy, healthy, and treated with the dignity they deserve.

I still don't know whether we can change the trajectory of modernity toward the insatiable corporate machinery that consumes our economy, our natural resources, our health, and our very souls.

After all, in today's fast-paced lifestyle, even the act of eating has been automated and mechanized. No time to be mindful, no time to sit down: unwrap it, eat it, on to the next task, go, go, go.

So I am looking forward to Yom Kippur a few days from now, when my family will enhance our mindfulness  of our food by fasting for 24 hours.

And to anyone else celebrating Yom Kippur this year, may you have a meaningful fast.

Monday, August 26, 2013

I haven't the wisdom to know whether we need courage or serenity.

When I was a child, the "Middle-East" was an almost fictional place that seemed to exist only in the context of evening news reports. The only thing I knew for certain was that the people there were in a constant state of conflict.

I was in middle school when Desert Storm happened, which I experienced through the lens of Channel One News. For anyone not familiar with Channel One, it broadcasts news and commercials directly into classrooms around the country, where it literally has a captive audience for marketing and political propaganda. I went to school in Ohio and also in North Carolina during the first Gulf War, and everywhere I went, Channel One was there. Of course, being a child, I saw nothing wrong with the program at the time; it broadcast the same images I saw on my television at home: night vision scenes of our highly sophisticated missiles dispensing justice on vague green outlines of buildings. It wasn't until high school, while listening to Roger Water's album, "Amused to Death" that I started to question the possible insidious intent of the ever blurring lines between news, entertainment and video games. It wasn't until college that I began to look at America's involvement in the struggles of the Middle-East as self-serving, and often destructive.

And so, with the current turmoil in Syria and Egypt, it's difficult to ascertain what the proper role of the United States should be. On one hand, these countries should be free to handle their own affairs, on the other hand, those same countries seem completely incapable of doing that.

On Egypt, I fully supported the popular movement that ousted Mubarak, and I was disappointed when Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected. I was even more disappointed when Morsi used the drafting of a new constitution as an opportunity to consolidate religious control of the government rather than foster inclusiveness and cooperation with other equally important groups in the country. At the same time, I am distrustful of General Sisi who has ousted and arrested Morsi, taken control of the government, and is violently putting down Morsi supporters. After all, Morsi was elected by the citizens of Egypt, and he wasn't shaking his fist in the air and crying, "death to Israel," so Egypt could certainly have done worse. And who knows? Now they might do just that.

On Syria, I honestly feel like the media has been going to great lengths to overlook what has been taking place there. But the most recent violence there has been impossible to ignore, especially with the internet making amateur footage so easy to share with the world. It is truly heart-wrenching to watch YouTube videos of apparent sarin gas attacks on civilian populations. Tears stream down my face as I watch a naked prepubescent girl who is in shock, still soaked with the water that was poured over her by frantic adults trying to wash away the chemicals that were killing her. She is crying out for her family, that is obvious. The man covering her with a blanket is telling her that her family is dead, according to the caption. I am overcome with sorrow and outrage, "we have to do something!"

But what?

Even if we were not a war weary country, it's difficult to say what exactly the US should do in this situation, except that we should not be doing anything unilaterally. At the same time, all of this "mulling it over" by the Obama administration certainly feels a lot like inaction.

I know I usually have more well-developed opinions before I go through the trouble of writing a blog post, but I am honestly stumped on this one.

I feel like I'm back at square one in regards to understanding what is going on in the Middle-East, except of course that they are still fighting.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Do animals have souls?

*If you are taking the time to read this post, I would like your input. Even if you disagree with me, I welcome dialogue. I don't have a blog as a platform to project my views out into the world; I want to know what YOU think.

I'm not sure that a soul exists in the form of some ethereal version of our self that is transported around this physical world inside our physical body.

So I will argue for the "more than the sum of our parts" version of a soul, the soul being that part of our essence which cannot be accounted for, even if our bodies were dismantled atom by atom.

First of all, what does it mean to say that animals do or do not have a soul?

Defining the nature of animals is really about defining ourselves. We want to believe that humanity is unique and set apart from the natural world. For the earliest humans, the natural world was chaotic and hostile. As nomadic tribes, our grasp on survival was tentative at best. We could be wiped out by a flood or a drought, eaten by animals, plagued by disease. Religious beliefs tied us to a world beyond this world, a supernatural world that was ordered and rational, to which humans alone belong. Our rituals, prayers and sacred items tie us to the supernatural world, and allow us to appeal to supernatural forces to intervene on our behalf in this chaotic and hostile physical world. So, from the beginning we were set apart from animals, and this idea has been central to who we are as human beings. (It should be noted that I am speaking in terms of Western thought and religion, which is almost unique in its view that humans are in a separate category than the natural world.)

Philosophical and scientific thought has continued to hold the idea that we are unique and set apart from animals, establishing rational reasons for this belief. The idea that animals do not have the emotions we have has been mostly abandoned in modern thought, which is why we now have laws protecting animals from abuse and neglect. It is important to note here that the humane treatment of animals has been a central tenet of Jewish law for all of recorded history.

So, we are generally in agreement that animals have emotions, yes?

I was told when I was young that the difference between man and animals is the ability to reason, but that really doesn't hold true either. I was watching a documentary in high school about training dogs to sniff out drugs. The dogs think they are playing a game. They are looking for a rolled up towel, which smells like drugs. When they find "the towel," they are rewarded with a game of tug-of-war with it. Here's where it gets interesting: a crucial part of the training involves teaching the dogs to ignore their own logic when it comes to smelling drugs in a package that is too small to hold their towel. The dog smells the drugs in the tiny package, looks at it, and then continues to sniff the surrounding packages which are large enough to hold the towel. The trainer picks up the tiny package and does a sleight of hand trick for the dog to make it look like the towel was pulled from the package. And it takes a lot of reinforcement to convince the dog that the beloved towel is a "magic towel" that can actually be found in containers that are logically too small.

So, animals are capable of reason (and just as capable as human beings of being trained to ignore reason).

OK, so what about self-awareness? Well, it turns out that self-awareness can be tested, primarily with a mirror. You put a dot on the forehead of a toddler and show him a mirror. Before a certain age, I think about 18 months, the toddler tries to rub the dot off on the mirror. After developing self awareness, when the toddler looks in the mirror, he understands that the dot is on his own head and rubs the dot there. Other animals that have proven they are self aware with similar mirror tests include: Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Gorillas, Magpies, Dolphins, Orcas, Elephants, and Orangutans. (Which is why I firmly believe that none of these animals should be held in captivity and used for the entertainment of humans.)

At the synagogue a few weeks ago, the rabbi was talking about names, and he said that he thought perhaps humans were the only animals that called each other by name. I was delighted after services to inform him that recent studies have found that dolphins do in fact have distinct names for one another (he seemed to be just as delighted to hear this as I was to tell him).

Well, what else is there? What do we have that animals do not?

When I was very young, I was also told that animals do not go to heaven. I remember thinking that heaven didn't really sound like a place I wanted to be.

And I feel the same way about the "soul." If animals do not have one, then what good is it? I cannot count the number of times in my life I have been actively comforted in a time of need by an animal who, unlike the people around me at the time, was undeterred by my well-practiced guise of "I'm OK."

When I look into the eyes of an animal, I see a being who is more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps what I am seeing is the reflection and perfection of my own soul. And if that is the case, then animals absolutely have souls; they have ours.

In addition: rats can laugh. How wonderful is that?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Repair the World


Religion has been on my mind a lot lately, and with the High Holy Days being just around the corner (seriously, where does the time go?), I'm hoping I can put together a coherent post on the subject.

First of all, I don't believe in God. I'm not saying God doesn't exist, I have no evidence to support such a claim.

Our rabbi once said that a long-time member of his congregation came up to him one day and confessed that he didn't believe in God. The rabbi replied, "God doesn't care whether you believe in him or not."

And that's what I love about Judaism.

Because Western theology as we know it sprouted from the seeds of Judaism, it's easy to forget just how different the religions are.

People ask me, for instance, "If you don't believe in God, and Heaven, and Hell, then what is your motivation to be a good person, and refrain from stealing and murdering?" My reply is that I have no desire to steal or murder, so I don't need a reason not to do those things. I desire to be a good person, so I don't need any extra incentive to be good.

And I like to counter with, "If you're only being good because you think someone is watching and keeping score, then that's not really being good; that's behaving properly."

For the most part, Christianity is grounded in the belief that people are naturally bad; born bad. We are born with Original Sin. And what was that first sin? Reaching for knowledge (eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, to be precise).

Personally, I believe that people are the same the world over, and for the most part, people are inherently good. There are bad governments, bad philosophies, ignorance, and selfishness. And there are certainly bad individuals who enjoy hurting others physically or emotionally; who enjoy having power over people and abusing that power.

Ultimately, devoting your life to ensuring you will have an exalted place in the afterlife is counterproductive to the life you are actually living right now, and it's a selfish reason to do the things you should be doing anyway. Now, just to be clear, I'm not saying Christians are selfish because I don't believe that they do good deeds because they are trying to score points with the judge. I think that, like everyone else, they do good things because they are good people who care about their neighbors and their communities. But their theology is rooted in the idea that people are naturally bad, and that people can only be fixed by believing in Jesus.

How is Judaism different?

Tikkun Olam.

We are obligated to "repair the world." THIS world. The world that matters. This is why we endeavor to keep mitzvot (commandments, or good deeds). And Tikkun Olam itself isn't even a commandment. We don't strive to repair the world because it is Biblical law, but because for the last two thousand or so years, the most learned Rabbinic scholars in Judaism have made reasoned arguments explaining why we should.

We are not waiting for this world to end. We are striving to make this world perfect, and not by proselytizing and trying to convince everyone else that they need to abide by our laws, but by trying to follow our own laws as earnestly as we can so that we might set an example for others to create harmony in their own lives and with their neighbors.

Is Judaism the shining light that sets an example for the rest of the world?

Well we are, after all, only human.

But when you consider that the Jewish people, in spite of several attempts to be wiped off the face of the planet, in spite of never constituting more than 1% of the world's population, has not only survived, but has had such a monumental influence on the world's cultures and religions... we must be doing something right.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Cloak of Anonymity

In Plato's Republic, in the course of figuring out whether any man is truly just, the idea is presented that if a man could have a ring which made him invisible, then one could truly judge his character by how he behaved,  because he wouldn't be putting on a show for the sake of appearing just and honorable.

Of course this is only a thought experiment, because if such a ring existed then the man who had it would indeed be beyond the judgement of others.

Plato could never have imagined computers and the internet in his wildest dreams. A world where people are free to say what they are thinking without being held personally accountable for their words. What we end up with is a great tool by which to judge our culture as a whole, as well as specific regions in the country. For instance, the Confederate States accounted for 90% of the explosion in hateful, racist social media comments in the days after Obama's reelection... the same states that the Supreme Court later decided are no longer in need of election law oversight by the federal government because "times have changed."

The kind of racism, sexism, antisemitism, and homophobia that is most visible in our country today is so subtle that it's almost subconscious. It's obvious to those who are the victim of it, and those who are sensitive enough to pick up on the codes that are built into our language and gestures, but when one points it out and says, "Aha! See that? That's what I'm talking about!" It's too easy for everyone else to say, "That? That was an innocent joke," or, "that would have happened to anyone regardless of their race or gender or sexual orientation."

But now, the reality of our mentality as a nation can be found in the comments section of any major website. Just go on YouTube, pick a random noncontroversial subject, and choose a video that stars a female or a person of color. To say that the comments are appalling is an understatement. These comments are not subtle, they are not lighthearted jokes, and they rarely have anything at all to do with the content of the video. They are just hateful nastiness for the sake of being hateful and nasty. Basically, the kind of behavior that was perfectly acceptable in 1950's America.

There has been a lot of brainstorming about how to censor this behavior in public forums, like forcing people to verify their identity before they can post comments. I think that would be a bad idea. Let's not go back to pretending these vile and dangerous ideas and attitudes are a thing of the past. If anything, we need to start paying more attention to these comments. Sites like YouTube and Twitter should have a running banner at the top of the screen scrolling every sexist, racist, antisemitic, and homophobic comment that is posted. For every half hour of news broadcast, two minutes should be devoted to reading these comments out loud on the air.

Because at this point, any person in this country who claims that derogatory attitudes about ethnic and gender groups is no longer a problem in our culture are either being willfully ignorant, or they are the ones making these outrageous anonymous comments.

After all, the driver of hate is fear. Fear that given opportunities outside the home, women might seek out interests other than serving men. Fear that homosexuals getting married will threaten the stability of heterosexual marriage. Fear that equal opportunities for nonwhites will result in fewer opportunities for whites.

So let's stop trying to ignore these people and start shining a bright light on the bile that they spew in our public square from under their cloaks of anonymity.

We can't make them take responsibility for their words, but we can start taking responsibility for what those words reveal about our culture.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Faggot!

There is a spot on our brain called Broca's area. It's on the posterior side of our frontal lobe, right above the temporal lobe, and it's about the size of a silver dollar. Broca's area is responsible for allowing us to express our thoughts in the form of speech (there is a different area that we use to understand speech). When Broca's area is injured by a stroke or trauma, the affected person is unable to speak, even though they may be able to comprehend what other people are saying to them.

Often people who are unable to speak because of brain damage are still able to use profanity. This means that profane speech is separate from speech in general, and is processed in a different part of the brain.

Studies on stoke victims and people with Tourette Syndrome have lead scientists to believe that profanity is processed in the basal ganglia, which is located deep in the brain in the Limbic System, also called the "primitive brain" because we share this brain structure with our earliest ancestors, such as lizards. The Limbic System is responsible for our most primal emotions: fear, lust, anger, and so on.

When I was a child, I thought that people could decide not to be offended by offensive words, and thus take the power away from those words. I was sometimes called "honky" or "cracker," but I just laughed. I didn't find the words offensive at all.

To an extent, certain groups have tried to take the power from a word by using it themselves; African Americans are one obvious example. Gay people also use the words "fag" or "faggot."

But these words still rise to the level of hateful profanity when spoken in the manner they were originally intended: as slurs against a minority group.

The implications of "the n-word" are still so raw in our language that I'm not even comfortable using the word in this post. This word is associated with lynchings, church bombings, and the horrifying torture and murder of a boy named Emmit Till. We have actually seen the pictures of Emmit Till's disfigured face, we have seen pictures of the strange fruit that hung from Southern trees, there are still people alive today who witnessed these atrocities first-hand.

It is a word of hate, violence, and murder.

The word "faggot" also speaks from our primal brain, but the true meaning of the word is buried so deep in our history that, although we can feel the hate, violence, and murder the word expresses, we have forgotten the original context of the word.

One clue remains in our modern language: the British call cigarettes "fags."

In Theory and the Premodern Text, Paul Strohm draws a straight line between the language of violence that eventually culminates into actual violence with the example of the word "faggot." A faggot is a bundle of sticks gathered for firewood. The Lollards were a heretical sect of Christianity in Britain in the mid-14th century. Like most heretical groups, the Lollards were ostracized and demonized; in particular, they were called "faggots," as in "bundles of firewood." Within a generation of being referred to as firewood their leaders were, not surprisingly, burned at the stake for treason against the church and the government.

To this day, although we may not remember the origin, the word "faggot" resonates deep in the most primal parts of our brain.

It is a word of hate, a word of violence. It is a dehumanizing word meant to justify the destruction of those who are different.

After all, they are not people.

They are merely firewood.

Friday, June 7, 2013

A Terrible Choice


I was watching Reel Time with Bill Mahar last week, and during the always heated and hilarious debate that the gathering of political opposites delivers, something strange happened.

Everyone agreed on one fact.

In the early 1990's, around the time that President Clinton took office, the crime rate in this country dropped significantly.

Of course, everyone has their pet explanations: more cops, fewer cops, tougher laws, better social safety nets...

None of these explanations are correct, of course, but the thing that really puzzled me was, why wouldn't Bill Mahar, of all people, know why the crime rate dropped in the early 1990's?

I wouldn't have known either, had it not been for Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, and their phenomenal book Freakonomics.

And the answer to the crime rate question reveals a lot about why that answer is so rarely talked about.

You see, the generation that came of age in the early 1990's had fewer young, angry men who had been born to poor, desperate mothers who lacked the resources to properly care for them.

Simply put, this generation had fewer criminals.

Why?

Because this was the generation of children born after Roe vs. Wade.

The people on the Right who want to restrict abortion love to talk about selfish, irresponsible women who are killing innocent babies without a second thought.

The reality is that abortion is a risky, physically and emotionally painful procedure that no woman wants to have. The choice to have an abortion is a difficult one, made by a woman in a difficult situation. It's not a decision she makes for herself alone, but a decision she makes for the well-being of her family.

And when that decision is left in the hands of the one person who must truly bear the weight of it, it has been proven that children, families, and society as a whole benefit.

Now, if we can just make this common knowledge before the Southern Religinuts take away any more abortion rights than they already have

Friday, May 10, 2013

Gatsby is not great.

There. I said it.

How is it that the boring book we all groaned through in high school is remembered as some enchanted and exciting saga; a pinnacle of American Literature that has kept generation after generation on the edge of their seat with genuine interest?

Our fascination with the book itself is paralleled by our collective amnesia about the bleak, gritty reality of the American caste system that F. Scott Fitzgerald was trying to portray, and we remember only the ostentatious glitz and glamour of the story, which turns out to be a crumbling facade behind which the genuine devastation of income disparity festers to this day.

What's that? You don't remember the bleak reality of income disparity portrayed in the book? Yeah, that's because hardly any of you actually read the book... because it was boring!

It's like a page out of The Emperor's New Clothes where everyone is quick to agree that the book represents some of the finest American Literature ever written, because nobody wants to admit that they didn't actually read the book.

Ah... see? That metaphor you get. Because you actually read The Emperor's New Clothes. Because it had pictures of an obstructed view of a naked fat guy.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not criticizing people who never read the book. It's boring, and it's only saving grace is that there are enough movie adaptations that you can write a passable book report without ever opening the damn thing.

I do have a point, walk with me for a moment...

One of the few benefits of my $50,000 Bachelor's Degree in Nothing (aka: English Literature) was that I was able to study American Literature beyond the scope of the official White Anglo Saxon Canon. And let me tell you, we could be giving our high school kids much better reading material that they may actually enjoy reading (of course, we would have to set aside the vengeance we enjoy bringing down on the next generation by making them read the same boring crap we were forced to read).

And you know what else? These kids might actually learn something about America if we encouraged them to step off the beaten path.

So, I have compiled a list of writers who are the contemporaries of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote the kind of stories you won't find in the official White Anglo Saxon Canon of American Literature.

Women:

Circumstance, by: Harriet Prescott Spofford

The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Revolt of "Mother" by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

Native Americans:

The School Days of an Indian Girl by Gertrude Bonnin

Our America (a little before Fitzgerald) by Jose Marti

The Promised Land, by Mary Antin

African Americans:

Cane, by Jean Toomer

Poetry:

  • Countee Cullen
  • Claude McKay
  • Zora Neale Hurston
  • Anne Spencer

Hmmm... Perhaps I'll conduct an experiment. I'll make my boys read some of these titles and do a report in the form of a guest blog post so they can share their literature experience with my readership (all three of you).

MWA-HA-HA-HA!

(seriously though, I really think they will enjoy the reading, but we'll see)


Friday, March 8, 2013

Why we need more female cops


A few nights ago, I heard cries for help and ran outside to find a half naked and badly beaten girl crouched against the curb crying.

She was a prostitute.

I put my coat around her, and my arms. I called the police and stayed with her until they came.

The police came, and the paramedics, and the firefighters.

They were all burly men, towering over the girl sitting on the curb. They did their job, but there was no compassion in their voices; no empathy in their demeanor. My own husband stood with his arms crossed, rolling his eyes.

When people talk about women being cops and firefighters, they talk about physical strength and authority.

But what about the ability to look at a prostitute and see a lost and fragile girl who has made some bad decisions, but doesn't deserve to be treated like a piece of garbage. Why shouldn't a police officer know what it feels like to be vulnerable and weak? How much safer would citizens feel if some of the people who responded to their calls for help could put their arm around them and tell them that everything is going to be ok?

My dream for women in this country, and in this world, is not that we be treated exactly the same as men, but that our strengths would be equally valued.

We're Back, Baby!


Did you hear the news??

Wall Street is back on top and the Dow Jones is hitting record highs!!

Awesome.

It's not like Wall Street's reckless pursuit of profits is what drove our economy into the ground in the first place, right?

Fear not, citizens! Take heart in knowing that as long as the insanely wealthy are making money hand over fist, there will always be enough minimum wage jobs to go around!

What's that, you say? You can't pay your bills on minimum wage? Don't you worry, kiddo, there's plenty more where that came from! Here, take two!

What? You need to feed your kids also? Well, that's what Food Stamps are for! Now, I realize that there are fewer Food Stamps available these days, but that's because the stupid government can't balance it's books when the only people paying their taxes are Middle Class chumps.

But don't you worry about that, either.

If we stay on this course, there won't be a Middle Class!

Now take your Food Stamps and run along before you miss the bus. With all these budget cuts, there are fewer buses also, so if you miss it, you are going to be late to your second job.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How our government is killing our economy

This is a two part post. Please see, "How Wall Street is killing our economy."

In order to best explain what I think is wrong with our government, I would like to spend some time talking about the autonomic nervous system (if you know me, you know how I love metaphors).

The autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts: sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest). A person is always in one state or the other, but never both at the same time.

The sympathetic nervous system takes charge during times of crisis. Blood is diverted from the brain and digestive tract and shunted to the heart and the muscles (because you need to either fight or run away). We have all seen a person or animal in panic mode, and we've all been in panic mode ourselves. We don't think when we are in panic mode; we react. In lesser states of panic (such as embarrassment or nervousness) we might notice that our mouth is dry, our hearing and vision is heightened, and in hindsight we have probably noticed that we make poor decisions under stress.

The parasympathetic nervous system takes charge when we are not under stress. Our heart rate goes down, our blood pressure drops, our muscles relax, and our body diverts resources to our brain and digestive system.

It's important to understand that while we have no conscious control over the effects of our autonomic nervous system, we often have a great deal of influence over the circumstances in our lives that trigger the "fight or flight" or "rest and digest" states. We have all noticed that some people, whether by virtue of their character or life skills, are more prone to be in constant states of panic while others seem prepared to weather any storm.

And that brings me to the current state of our government. Our government is trapped in panic mode, running around from crisis to crisis, putting out fires, with no ability to think logically and make the long-term decisions that will keep the next fire from starting. A good example of this is the sequester; in a last minute panic to come to a deal on the debt ceiling, Congress put in place a future date where all tax breaks would expire and devastating budget cuts would automatically take effect. The idea was not that this sequester would actually happen, but that both Republicans and Democrats would be forced to work together to keep it from happening. Unfortunately, ideas hatched during times of panic are rarely good ideas, and the sequester ended up being yet another fire that Congress was only able to throw a towel over at the last possible moment... and now we're on to the next debt ceiling crisis.

Our country needs leaders with vision and bold ideas. We need Manifest Destiny, infrastructure projects, a New Deal, a Space Program. But the fact is that we're not capable of doing anything great because we are too heavily invested in managing crises that we keep creating.

I hadn't yet finished this post when I watched the State of the Union address, and was surprised to see everything I wanted to talk about unfolding right before my eyes. President Obama talked about how "The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to another." He talked about bold ideas and infrastructure projects. And then Marco Rubio brought my metaphor to life by demonstrating exactly what a person in a sympathetic state looks and acts like. [Referring to Marco Rubio's Response to the State of the Union Address where he is wide-eyed, dry-mouthed, forgetting his lines and unable to so much as take a sip of water.]

I love it when a plan comes together.

Of course, I turn on the television today, and we're back to politics as usual. A whole lot of squawking and peacocking about, and no one is willing to stick their neck out and take any positive action.

You see, occasionally when a human or animal finds themselves in a sympathetic "fight or flight" mode, they become completely incapable of fighting OR fleeing.

They simply freeze and do nothing.

And then they die.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

How Wall Street is Killing Our Economy

This post will be in two parts. The first about what's wrong with our economy, the second about what's wrong with our political system. For some background on where I'm coming from, please see my previous post, "The Economy, Stupid."
[Quick link disclaimers: 1) In "The Economy, Stupid" my hopes for a prospective Obama administration were pre-Tea Party induced government paralysis and 2) I don't know what happened to the pictures.]


First, let me simplistically summarize how investing is supposed to work:

1) You have worked hard, saved money, and now you have a little extra cash that you'd like to invest.

2) You, or your broker, find some companies you really like; companies that make a great product, have a profitable business model, and maybe some characteristics you personally value, such as commitment to their workforce, or side projects that benefit the community.

3) You invest your money in the companies you have chosen.

4) The company takes the money people like you have invested and uses it to expand their production lines or open new store fronts or buy a new line of delivery trucks.

5) Over many years, if you have invested wisely, the companies in which you have invested pay you dividends because the growth of their companies was made possible by your investments. ("Over many years" is the key here! A company may not always be paying dividends because they may actually become less profitable during times they are building and expanding, but that's OK; what's important is that they are able to take those risks because in the long run, they will be better, more valuable companies.)

6) When you are ready to retire, the money you saved over the years and the money you made through your wise investments have resulted in a nice little nest egg that will make your golden years more comfortable.

This practical model of how investing money should work has been made obsolete by the systematic deregulation of our financial institutions. I talk about the error of financial deregulation in "The Economy, Stupid."

What I want to talk about now is how the current Wall Street model of investing is completely destroying the fabric of our economy.

You see, traditional investing builds companies, builds industries, and connects companies to the people they serve, both consumers and investors. It's all about building and growing and moving forward.

The current Wall Street model works more like this:

1) You take money you should be saving (because saving money is for fools; everyone knows you have to spend money to make money), and you give your money to a large corporate firm who invests the money for you.

2) These large corporate investment firms (most of whom are now intertwined with banks, further blurring the line between saving and investing) are financial powerhouses whose very investments make and break companies and entire industries.

3) Corporate investment firms are interested in two things: more money, and more money NOW.

4) Companies who sell their stock in the public market have their stock bought by these huge corporate investment firms, not based on the value of the company, but the value of the company's stock, and whether that stock will be worth more, not ten or twenty years down the road, but NOW.

Are you worth more NOW? How about NOW? Oh, you need more workers? You need to expand your factory? Well, you better figure out how you can expand and still be worth more money NOW. Why don't you just open a factory in China? OK, well while you were holding a town meeting with your factory workers, your stock prices went down the crapper and you are about to become personally bankrupt, so you are going to sell your company to Bain Capital, which will come in and turn this company around and make it profitable NOW (even if that means chopping it up like a stolen car and selling it off piece by piece).

5) You look at your stock portfolio at least every month, pleased that your wise investments are growing exponentially and scoffing at your dinosaur of an Uncle who advised you to buy bonds (seriously, what is this WWII??).

6) Rather than use any of the money from your stock portfolio, because it's making so much money where it is, you take out loans to buy your home, your cars, and even your washer and dryer because at Sears you got 12 months same as cash!

7) You wake up one morning and all the talking heads on the 24-hour-news networks are having full-on panic attacks. The middle-aged balding guy on CNN who just yesterday was wearing a fireman's hat and dancing around a prop siren proclaiming that QXS's stock had no where to go but UP, is hiding under his desk crying.

8) You run to your computer and learn that your stock portfolio has lost 70% of it's value and you now have less money than you put in to it to begin with. Tomorrow you'll learn that the retirement account through your employer was also heavily invested in the stock market. Next month you'll do the math and realize that you owe more on your house than it's worth. 18 months from now your 25-year-old daughter will move back home because the best job she can get with the business degree you'll paying off for the next 20 years is as a part-time desk clerk at a furniture store.

Now, amid all this financial chaos is the little noted fact that the rich are still getting richer. Companies are still posting record profits.

Why?

Because they are trapped in a financial system where posting record profits is literally the only way to stay afloat.

How?

I'll use a furniture store my husband used to work at as an example:

A national, iconic chain of high-end furniture.

First, and this was a long time ago, they moved the production of their goods overseas. So you have been paying more money for less quality (more profit for the investment firms).

Next, they outsourced things like delivery, repairs, and customer service to outside third-party companies. So you are paying more money for less service (more profit for the investment firms).

Next, they started buying out all of their franchises and streamlining their business model, which meant closing less profitable stores, laying off workers, and warehousing fewer items. So you are paying more money to drive further to find a store to wait longer for an inferior product to be delivered by some guy who doesn't work for the furniture company and can't answer any questions you have about the recliner he just plopped in your living room (more profit for the investment firms).

Finally, they decided to get rid of almost all of their experienced commissioned salespeople and replace them with part-time minimum-wage employees, AND pay their store managers LESS for the added responsibility of babysitting the endless turnover of young, recent college graduates who can't understand why this is the best job they can get while coming to the realization that instead of getting married and buying their first car, they will in fact be moving back in with their parents who told them not to go to design school in the first place.

So next time you're in a store upset that you can't get any service even though you are making a large purchase (which used to matter to the people selling you this crap), you can take heart in knowing that the corporation who owns the store you're buying from is making record profits by giving you, and the distracted teenager ringing up your order, the shaft.

And don't forget that the company's profit model also incorporates giving the government the shaft, because they are paying record-low taxes on their record-high profits.

And other than the occasional grandstanding over taxes, when was the last time anyone in the government addressed ANY of these issues that are tanking our economy?

President Obama has made no indication that he is even aware of the insatiable corporate greed that is forcing our industries to self-cannibalize our whole economy in the name of making more money than last year, than last quarter, than last month!

It's like watching time lapse footage of a rodent corpse bloating up with the ever-multiplying bacteria that is feasting on its entrails until those very bacteria devour the corpse entirely and die off themselves, leaving behind a barren skeleton.

When will someone in government stand up to the corporate powers-that-be, rally the population, and declare that the only way to save ourselves is to fundamentally change the way we run our economy?