Monday, April 30, 2012

Looking into the conspiracy world is like trying to find Waldo in an Escher print

I just read Among the Truthers a book by Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay.  While this books has a few factual problems it is a really interesting exploration of the way the Truther movement is like so many other conspiracy theory movements going back into history to include age-old anti-Semitic stories as well as anti-masonic, anti-royal, anti-Vatican etc. etc. etc.

One interesting thing he talks about is that for some, a conspiracy theorist often follows a pattern of a man having a midlife crisis.  A sudden change in opinion, attitude and view of reality.  Leaving behind their well-built life, they look to leave a special mark on the world they fear they will leave soon.   Kay profiles two men, one an architects who was a button down conservative.   After 9-11 he becomes an anti-neocon warrior challenging what he sees as a conservative constructed myth.  He blames the government establishment and speaks of bombs placed in the buildings and talks of a web of connections that must mean US government involvement.  Another was a Canadian poet, a far-left Chompskyite that after the towers fell became an anti-Islam activist, seeing all of Islam as the enemy of humanity taking him to the conclusion that Barack Obama was a Muslim plant.  He slipped into birtherism and now is a voice for the far right.

In both cases these men seemed to flip their world views effecting their jobs, families and financial security.  These are not uneducated men, these aren't lunatics hearing voices.  These are simply men, confronted with a situation that makes little sense that drove them to re-creating a more comfortable world in their minds.  A world where they have special knowledge that they can't seem to get the majority of people to follow.  It gets to the point that for some it an affront to their theory is an affront to them personally.  Like religious zealots, challenging some one's version of the facts in the conspiracy world makes you a heretic.  You are attacked personally, professionally and mercilessly.

A simple example is Noam Chompsky.  Chompsky, an old school liberal, has always been a hero of the left.  He has clicked off classic far-left credibility more than any scholar in the last 40 years.  Chompsky is a thinker, we don't always agree, I think he has some blinders.  But when it comes to left-wing truthers, he clearly thinks they are wrong and has done a great deal to take them down with logic. He know is attacked vigorously by the truthers, someone who shares a great deal of the same true disdain for the Neo-con movement, he sees the truthers as hurting the cause of liberalism.  That to me is an interesting position.  Chompsky has even stated that he thinks that friends of the neo-con movement are helping to support the truth movement (creating his own conspiracy) to divert from the aggressive wars of the US.  Looking into the conspiracy world is like trying to find Waldo in an Escher print.

But what gets me is the comfort that so many seem to slip into the dark world of conspiracy from a normal every day life.  Be it a terror attack, a natural disaster, an assassination or the election of someone that doesn't fit the common model, something can push a seemingly normal, intelligent human into a dark world of demons.  How can we stop it?  No idea.  But help your friends and keep pushing reality.  We can't allow sloppy thinking to drive policy but I fear in the last 10 years elections have been based on this kind of thinking for some.  That truly is the beginning of the end.  :)

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Handmaid's Tale

When I read Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale, a dystopian view of an America led by Christian religious zealots I was stunned at her creativity.  The title comes from the common Biblical practice of a female servant as a stand-in for the Jewish matriarchs who had problems conceiving a child.  They would sleep with with the man of the family to serve as an incubator for the next generation, in some cases the children being credited to the wife.  The first incident of this was Hagar, Sarah's servant who brings Ishmael into the world.  But there were two in the generation of Jacob who had children with up to 4 women while only 2 are recorded as our mothers.  This book saw a steady marching backwards of the role of women and the control government had over them.  All for their own good.

So we are now living at a time where women are under attack in many ways.  Transvaginal ultrasounds are being touted as a way to help give women an informed decision when getting an abortion, while forcing them to have something inserted into their bodies against their will.  (In some circles we have called this rape).  But rape is even being challenged as in Georgia one who calls the police on a rapist is now called an accuser but if you say someone robbed you you are still considered a victim.  Places are making it harder for domestic violence victims to get prosecutions and in Arizona a law now considers you pregnant the day of the end of your last period when counting for a legal abortion.  This can decrease the actual number of weeks pregnant by two making it harder for women to get abortions.  Cuts to Head Start, Planned Parenthood and defunding women's health programs have all led to an attack on women's freedom.  Just like Atwood's novel, the government is forcing women into a second class citizen role and saying it is for their own good.

Oh women have spoken up, Sandra Fluke for example, who spoke about the use of birth control medication to treat other complications in women.  For her effort the Republican mouth pieces called her slut and just the other day one particularly nasty woman named Monica Crowley, who I think has a serious personality disorder, made a homophobic remark about Fluke's engagement, suggesting that a woman who speaks truth to Republican power must be a lesbian.

This is the new face of the Republican party and it is only going to get worse.  We spent days on a faux outraged over a statement that a women with 7 servants helping her raise her children and a billionaire husband couldn't possibly understand the plight of working women, but there is hardly the same level of vitriol over the fact that there are women who's health care is a punchline to the "I've got mine" crowd.

People say this next election is about the economy.  It isn't to me.  It is about the very real danger of a far right wing party that wants to force women back into the kitchen or on their backs in the bedroom.  Silent unless they tow the company line.  The GOP wants good servants.  Atwood's book forced fertile women into the role of baby producers for the infertile in power.  Much like the role of the Biblical women attached to Abraham and Jacob.  I wonder what they would think if their environmental policies make their wives sterile.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Commemoration and Celebration

On Sunday a few hundred students of all the synagogues in Indianapolis gathered for the last of a series of events to commemorate the Shoah (the Holocaust) in connection to the annual Jewish day of remembering Yom HaShoah.  These students experiences lessons seeing not only the horror of the Shoah but also the hope, using the story of Janus Korczak, a polish doctor and educator who stayed with his children in a Warsaw ghetto orphanage he ran instead of saving himself.  He helped the children find a valued social role in the depths of despair and walked with them when the NAZIs cleared the ghetto and send the children with others to their deaths in the Treblinka death camps.  Korczak's work, before the war, was seen as a ground breaking view of childhood (which many argue was a 19th century invention but we will discuss that later) and his writing influenced great what would decades later become the UN Declaration of Children's Rights.  Korczak, for many, is seen as a hero who saved not lives necessarily but souls of people, especially children.  He kept despair from taking over.  And we don't truly learn about him.

For a long time Holocaust Education dominated Jewish education.  Look in any synagogue library and I would bet the largest single section is books about the Shoah.  Include novels about the war and youth fiction telling Holocaust stories and I would guess in most there are more books about Europe 1933-1945 then all the other circulation collection combined.  This is because it was a powerful reminder in the modern world (the Shoah occurred during the life time of my mother) of the kinds of atrocities that have visited on the Jewish people historically but the first time in a modern, Democratic member of a world community.  As the world globalized after WW1 there was a phrase that that war was the war to end all wars.  While Germany was highly punished for their role in WW! they were slowly being welcomed into this new world community.  They went in a different direction.  But we must remember Adolph Hitler was elected before he became the dictator he said he would.  This has also led American educators and politicians to make the Shoah a centerpiece of education to avoid this in the future.  For week each spring governments and schools hold ceremonies, invite speakers, and try to remember the history.  Even if the Jewish population is tiny or non-existent.  Some communities even turn this education into a project that defines them as seen with the documentary Paperclips.  But all this attention alone, while important and helps us understand the roots of hate that could lead to other genocides if also paints a less than complete picture of Judaism.  For Jews, this week we have another commemoration and a celebration.  We will remember the Israeli war dead in a day of remembrance but this week is also Israel Independence Day.  A day to recall and celebrate the return of a Jewish state in the land of Israel.  While politics plays a role in why this is not an important piece for non-Jews, I believe as Jews we need to embrace the temporal connection of the two days.  Not because the Nation of Israel is compensation for the horror of the Shoah, but that is part of a story beyond the camps.  I met a survivor once at a training who carries with her when she speaks a picture of her family, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  Her story is that Judaism didn't end in 1945, we are a vibrant people who still live.  Am Israel Chai.  I agree.  When we as a people spent so much time talking about the people who try to kill us, our children will wonder what the upside is to remaining connected to the Jewish people.  The Shoah not only dominated education but was worked into the Seder at Passover, Yom Kippur, and is mentioned at various times throughout the year.  For a young child wanting to embrace their tradition they are struck with a history of hate.  But even worse is that if those outside of Judaism see us as victims of European hate we fall into the category of a past people not a modern one.  And that is a a real problem  If the only time Jews are mentioned in school curriculum is the Shoah, if high schools only read Night and Number the Stars, and if the only other connection to Judaism is the stereotyped characters on TV then we become an interesting anachronism and are not seen as a modern people.

I would like to propose a new holiday, Yom Shel Chai, a Day of Life, one day after Yom HaShoah.  It is a day to celebrate the Jewish accomplishments since 1945.  A day to see the regrowth of European Judaism, the rise of Western Jews in the American disapora and a holiday that could create new rituals that honor Hebrew school students, Adult B'nai Mitzvah or conversions.  Schools and museums could couple the two days, still teaching that we cannot forget the Shoah, but we still have room in our brains for the power of all that Judaism has given the world since.  Even if it is simply our own children's ability to read Torah.  Celebrating who we are as a people will remind ourselves and others that we thrive, despite a history with darkness and death, Am Israel Chai, the Jewish people live.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Pride and Triumph

Tonight I was blessed that I was able to attend a pinning ceremony for Medtech nursing school graduates.  A friend who I respect greatly had finished her course work and with her colleagues were being honored.   The ceremony goes back to the 1800s where a new nurse will receive a badge welcoming him or her into the community of nursing.  The auditorium at a local high school was filled with happy friends, families and colleagues who came to honor the graduates.  Graduates that will soon be embarking on a career of caring.  As  I watched the people cross the stage I could see the pride in their family and friends.  Some had parents, but many has also spouses, children, siblings and others.  Through the whole ceremony it was not uncommon to hear hoots, applause, names called, and literal screams.  The people who were there had so much pride in their new nurse. I didn't know the stories of the people involved but I gleaned that for some it seemed they overcame great odds.  For others it may have been the first professional in the family.  Even others, it seemed like it was a chance to start over, to follow a dream.  We all  knew this was an accomplishment, one that required sacrificing family and friend time and some comforts.  But even more astounding to me was the real sense of community that the faculty shared with this diverse group of graduate nurses.  Faculty and administrators called names of students to receive pins and seemed to get choked up.  Hugs, tears and inside jokes were common throughout the event and in the end some 50 people will join the front line in providing care to the sick, the injured and the elderly.  They seemed to already have a community of colleagues to help smooth what is for sure a difficult profession.  

As an outsider I am sure I only saw through the proverbial knot hole in the fence.  But I am happy I caught the glimpses I did.  Congratulations to all the graduates, and to my friend Lisa, who will always have my admiration.


Sunday, April 8, 2012

False Equivalencies.

The Trayvon Martin case has captured the nation but for some it has become a way to make their own political points, and it is not who you think.  Yes, people like Al Sharpton dedicated the better part of the last month to the case, but he was invited in by Martin's parents.  But there has been a steady parade of false equivalencies.  The first came in the form of a gang related shooting in downtown Indianapolis, people like Abdul-Hakim Shabazz wondered aloud if there would be a march for dead black youth killed by other members of their own race.  Then some reached back into the last decade, when a white couple were brutally killed by a group of young African-American men and some asked "where were the marches".  (In fact I recall a few but there was a lot less national outrage), and once again today another call for some kind of march for black on black killing in Indy.  Some don't see the difference.  The marches in the Martin case had more to do with the lack of the police and district attorney's interest in following the evidence and at least investigating the crime.  In each other situation the police did their jobs and in at least two mentioned arrests were made.  Unlike the Martin case where there seemed to be more interest in the police smearing the victim's memory than finding cause to arrest the man who executed him.

So some say marches only occur when a black person is killed by someone outside of their community.  But this weekend two young white men were randomly shooting black people in Tulsa OK killing 3 and injuring 2.  The police did their jobs, there were arrests and while preliminary reports suggest that race played a role there is no call at this writing for protests.  Again the police worked with the community and did their jobs.  As the investigation moves forward as long as the law is used in an appropriate way in a week we will likely not be talking about it.  You see the protest is not that a young black man was killed in Florida when George Zimmerman stalked him and shot him.  It was that the authorities were not interested in justice.  Regardless of race we should all expect justice and frankly we should take to the streets when it doesn't come from those we hire to bring it.

While I agree we should be outraged by black and black crime, I believe that the very lack of value placed on the life of Trayvon Martin and many other African Americans by the authorities have helped lead the devaluing of life by the very young black men who throw shots at each other so comfortably.  Perhaps in the interest of moving forward we can organize a real discussion about this and not stand on soap box and scream at each other.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Crowded Seder Plate

Recently I have noticed a real uptick in the number of items finding their way into the Passover Seder for contemporary Jews.  Last year I wrote about the orange, a symbol originally meant to remind us of the LGBT community's rightful place in Klal Yisrael, which quickly morphed into being about women, with its own apocryphal story.  We had already seen the Kos Miriam, Miriam's cup come to the table to remind us of her role in the redemption of the people. But lately we see more and more produce finding its way to the table.  Olives, a symbol not only of peace but a staple in the Middle East is said to be a symbol of hope for the end of the Arab/Israeli conflict. A few days ago I saw something from an influential colleague Amichai Lau Levi, (as Hadassah Gross) he requests we add an apple to the table to remind us being a good consumers (honestly I can't tell if Amichai is being serious here and am afraid to ask) and today I got a contact with someone asking for a tomato to be included to remind us of modern day slavery.

One could ask what it happening to us as a people.  We can think of the song Tradition, from Fiddler which pleads we do things because that is the way they have always been done.  That would be a wrong read of both the Seder and the development of what it means to be Jewish.  Tradition, which is not only something we receive from our parents but the gift we give our children, is and should be influenced by every generation.  In the Seder that has clearly been the case.  Look at any 3 Haggadot (Prayer book for the Seder) in any Jewish bookstore and you will see the influence of various times on the service. Things entered and exited over the history and of course important events in the lives of the Jewish people found a reminder and a home in meal.  (For example many Haggadot written after 1960 reference the Shoah [the Holocaust]).  Even I have rewritten the section of the service as we begin to close the evening and invite Elijah the Prophet into the home.  While some writers have eliminated the words from the Bible that include a call for God to "Pour out your wrath on those who do not believe".  I explore that section in context of history but have rewritten it as a call for a true multi-faith expression asking God to pour out God's love to all who seek Godness.

But I wonder about all these new things becoming so quickly institutionalized and will they in fact lose their meaning and/or take away from the meaning of the Seder historically.  The orange is a perfect example of how a meaningful act can be so easily be changed to do exactly what it was placed on the Seder plate to avoid.  The orange evolved from an attempt for a group of lesbian students to create their own Seder.  They put a crust of bread on the seder plate as a powerful message that they were seen as having no place in Jewish life.  Susannah Heschel suggested that gays and lesbians to not violate the community of Judaism as the bread would a Seder but add something different and suggested the orange, including creating a ritual of spitting out the orange's bitter seeds as a way of symbolically spitting out the bigotry and hate.  In less than 10 years the story was changed that a male rabbi was talking about women in the Rabbinate being like bread on the Seder plate and the orange became a symbol of women's roles in Judaism, completely disappearing the importance of the symbol to gays and lesbians.

I don't want to argue that the Seder can't be changed, modified, and added to, in fact I encourage it.  But there has to be meaning for you.  Being trendy about adding something because a famous Rabbi or your local cool Education Director did it doesn't make the ritual meaningful.  There is a reason we do the Seder in the home, the Seder is yours.  There are rituals far and wide that fit neatly into family Seders.  But in the end the ritual is empty without a clear meaning.  Add more fruits to your seder if you will, ask the questions that prompt us to think beyond ourselves, but do it with great concern and kavannah (intention).  Don't do it to be cool or because that is how it has to be done.  It doesn't.  Remember, we are all suppose to see ourselves as having personally come out of Mitzraim, what is your Mitzraim?

Why Hate Crimes Laws Are the Right Thing To Do

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