Sunday, October 15, 2017

Beyond the Casting Couch

Last week, the Empathic Rationalist was compelled to point out Hollywood’s hypocrisy when it swims in violence while preaching about love.  But truly, you can’t even begin to talk about hypocrisy in Tinseltown without touching on the one other vice that “sells” even better than gore.  And I’m not talking about drugs or rock ‘n roll.

Our topic today reminds me of the old saw about the celebrated ethics professor who is caught cheating on his wife.  “Being an ethics expert means that I have to know a lot about ethics,” he responds.  “It doesn’t mean I have to be an ethical man.” 

To be sure, Hollywood knows a lot about romance.  It gives us star-crossed romances, fairy-tale romances, and romances where the hot guy falls in love with the single mom’s kid and only later falls in love with the single mom.   It gives us single-gender romances, inter-generational romances, and inter-racial romances.   It gives us visions of life-long romances -- like the old couple holding hands on the Titanic knowing that they’re about to die, but at least they’re about to die together.    You name it, if there’s a way to show two people falling in love, being in love, or tragically falling out of love, Hollywood has done it.  And the rest of us lap it up like Pavlov’s dogs. 

Then we read about the “stars” and their personal lives.   Love gurus they’re not.   If you’ve been in that town for decades and you’re only on marriage number two, that alone should qualify you for a star on Hollywood Boulevard.   But rushing in and out of love affairs is the least of Hollywood’s problems.   The far more profound issue is that many of these people seem incapable of loving in the first place.  And this stems from an attitude where they treat members of the opposite sex more as bodies than as minds.  When you combine that pervasive malady with a hierarchical power structure, you create a sub-culture that is as ugly as ugly gets.   There’s the real irony:  the environment known for producing the most “beautiful” of people may actually be producing the ugliest.  

This week, the award for Manifest Ugliness in Tinseltown doesn’t go to a narcissistic star but rather a studio executive.   While his face might not have been as recognizable as the leading men and women he promoted, Harvey Weinstein had a name known to anyone who has paid even a scintilla of attention to films.   Literally every movie goer would have been familiar with his work.  Weinstein produced, among other flicks, Gangs of New York, Pulp Fiction, and Shakespeare in Love (for which he won an Oscar).   Literally dozens of Academy Award winners have thanked him personally during their acceptance speeches.  He is, by most accounts, one of the most successful movie producers who ever lived. 

Two weeks ago, Harvey Weinstein seemed to be on top of the world.  Today, he has become a punching bag.  “I have a brother that’s indefensible and crazy,” said Weinstein’s brother Bob, who served with Harvey as a co-founder of Weinstein, Inc.  “I want him to get the justice that he deserves.”  Bob Weinstein went on to claim that brother Harvey was a “bully,” “arrogant” and “treated people like s—t all the time.”

In the past fortnight, one woman after another has made accusations against Weinstein, some of which involve horrible criminal acts.  The Empathic Rationalist is a law-free zone, and I will not comment about the specific allegations or their merit.  What I will point out is how striking it is that for years, Weinstein’s reputation was apparently well known in Hollywood but only in Hollywood.  Despite the fact that he associated with legions of liberal politicians and movie stars, many of whom are surely feminists, nobody saw fit to blow the whistle. 

What should we make of all this?

First, let’s not allow Hollywood to minimize the problem by pretending it’s not pervasive.  To suggest that Hollywood’s “casting couch” problem is merely a Weinstein problem is like saying that the performance enhancing drug problem in sports is merely a “(Mark) McGuire” problem.  From everything I’ve heard, PEDs in sports are exceedingly common, and it is precisely because that scourge is so common that sports leagues would rather address it on the margins than attempt to eliminate it root and branch.  Similarly, the problem of expecting women actresses to “perform” if they hope to get parts in films is hardly one that begins and ends with Weinstein. 

We’ve already seen the entertainment industry whiff when Bill Cosby’s antics were exposed.  He became the story, not the sexual abuse of young women.  We now have an opportunity to face the same challenge.  Do we want to make this story about Weinstein?  Or about Hollywood?  You know my vote.

Second, once we’ve recognized that this is not merely a Weinstein problem but a Hollywood problem, our work is hardly finished.  The next task is to identify what the problem is.  Is it confined to situations where men take advantage of hierarchical power structures to take advantage of women sexually?  Or should we be talking about drawing a broader line and addressing issues of sexual objectification?   In other words, do men cross the line (a) only if they misuse a hierarchical power relationship to advance sexual goals, (b) whenever they make clearly unwanted sexual advances to a woman regardless of whether they have some sort of societal position of power over the woman, (c) whenever they address a woman primarily as a sexual object rather than as a human being with dignity and intelligence, or (d) whenever they find themselves even thinking sexually about a woman with whom they are not involved romantically?

I’d rather not attempt to answer this question for any of my readers.  I simply wanted to raise it.  Personally, I don’t find myself at the most Victorian side of the continuum, but nor do I tolerate the opposite end either.  Clearly, this is a question that each of us must confront for ourselves as individuals, and if we as a society are smart, we’ll use the Weinstein moment as an opportunity to ask this question publicly and start a dialogue. 

Finally, can we please recognize that honest-to-God whistleblowers are among our society’s greatest heroes?  They know that as soon as they blow that whistle, they’ll become targeted by an entire apparatus of defense lawyers and publicists.  If they have ever done anything the least bit wrong – and who hasn’t? – their past foibles will be exposed, and the media will shy away from giving them the respect they deserve.  After all, our media likes to present stories in simple good-versus-evil terms in which our heroes can be depicted as perfect angels; by contrast, whistleblowers tend to be regular people, with warts and all.    

Our society has created all sorts of ways for powerful folks to get away with misconduct.  When they finally get caught, it’s typically because some principled soul steps up and, like a dog with a bone, just won’t let go.  Can we please show respect to those people?  And can we please not allow the whistleblower’s imperfections to get in the way of our respect?   Courageous, principled people are few and far between; we shouldn’t demand that they also attain saintly status before we give them a tip of the hat.

In conclusion, I realize that this is an inherently complex topic, one that is worthy of book-length, not blog-post, treatment.  But I am writing about this topic in my blog because it is imperative that we all consider the relevant issues before this opportunity passes.   As a husband and a father of two daughters, I cannot sit back and watch women treated as they have been in Hollywood and in so much of our society and simply pretend that this is the human condition.  This is the 21st century.  We can do better.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

America and Its Guns -- A Bi-Partisan Love Affair

According to a study by the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the rate of gun-related deaths in the United States is roughly twice as high as the Palestinian Territories’, four times India’s or Pakistan’s, five times Iran’s, eight times Canada’s, 27 times Denmark’s, 32 times Germany’s, 64 times China’s, 100 times Japan’s, and well over 100 times the rate in Singapore.  So what is our response to this scourge?   To regulate bump stocks.  Maybe.

It’s a bit like the German government reacting to the Holocaust by doing nothing more than regulating the use of Zyklon B gas?  Talk about confronting a symptom, not the disease.

In our case, the disease is clear: we love guns.  By “we,” I mean the people who run Blue as well as Red America.  And let’s face it, our leaders aren’t the only ones who’ve been smitten.  On these shores, you’ll find at least twice as many guns per capita as anywhere else.  In fact, if we buried 75% of our firearms, we’d still rank among the top 10% in the world in gun ownership. 

As of 2013, America had roughly 40 million more guns than people.  And the thought of banning handguns is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.  Whereas 60% of Americans supported such a ban in the year I was born, that percentage has now dropped to less than 25 

Lest you think this is a partisan issue, think again.  In 2008, candidate Hillary Clinton touted the American gun culture.  "You know,” she said, “my dad took me out behind the cottage that my grandfather built on a little lake called Lake Winola outside of Scranton and taught me how to shoot when I was a little girl. ...[S]ome people now continue to teach their children and their grandchildren. It's part of culture. It's part of a way of life. People enjoy hunting and shooting because it's an important part of who they are. Not because they are bitter."

Hillary is not alone among politicians in her party.  Bernie Sanders has also referred to himself as “pro gun and pro hunting.”   But to appreciate the Democrats’ love for guns, don’t simply focus on the statements of their politicians.  Focus on what their politicians are NOT saying.  Namely, focus on their conspiracy of silence in reaction to the work of some of their most reliable and powerful sets of supporters: the moguls and “stars” of Hollywood.

I’m reluctant to join in the chorus of criticism against Hollywood because it’s often a thinly veiled way of expressing anti-Semitism.  But on the issue of guns, Tinsel Town must be taken to task.  Its infatuation with guns has reached epidemic proportions. 

As any movie lover can tell you, the role of guns in movies is becoming increasingly central, and I’m not just referring to R rated movies.  Even PG13 movies are awash in gun-induced blood.  One study found that of the top-grossing movies over the past quarter century, nine out of ten contained a main character who is violent.  So not only does America love guns, we export this love to movie-watching audiences all over the world.

Believe me, I’m not simply looking back longingly for the “old days” of film.  Notably, while our on-screen heroes are becoming more and more weaponized, they are drinking less alcohol and smoking way fewer cigarettes.  Apparently, substance abuse isn’t as cool now as it used to be, thank God.  But weapons?  Those are way cool.

I’m often reminded of that line from the James Bond movie, “The Living Daylights,” in which James Bond was armed with a handgun, but Brad Whittaker carried a machine gun and delightfully so.  “You’ve had your eight,” he chuckled, “now I’ll have my 80.”  What followed was a fusillade of bullets, something that was once confined to war movies but has now become commonplace in all sorts of film genres, and especially the high budget films.

“I know what you're thinking. ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you've gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”  That was the climax of one of the most iconic scenes in the history of American cinema.  It comes from the 1971 classic, Dirty Harry, which at the time was associated with a big powerful man carrying a big powerful gun.  Today, however, that gun would be thought of as a joke.  After all, what kind of amateur would bring a six shooter now to a gun fight?  Certainly not Stephen Paddock, Omar Saddiqui Mateen, Seung-Hui Cho, or Adam Lanza.  Those men are all modern, sophisticated gun users.  They recognize that American consumers have the right to possess weapons that fire large numbers of bullets in an extremely short period of time.   They also recognize that we Americans possess these rights because, apparently, such weapons help to put us in a better position when we are hunting animals or protecting ourselves against human intruders. 

Well, please allow me to respond to Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and other Democratic politicians who are willing to praise guns in return for votes. And please allow me to respond to the Republican politicians who won’t buck the NRA no matter how many Americans are gunned down on the streets of this country, or to the Hollywood moguls who make movies involving assault weapons that kill lots of people, or to the “liberal” actors who appear in those movies.  For all of you, I offer the following response:

I hate guns.  I don’t think they are cool.  I think they are ugly.

I hate hunting.  I hate the idea that human beings shed innocent animal blood.  And yes, I hate the idea that people feel entitled to kill animals in order to eat them.    

I hate the idea that a human being would call killing a defenseless animal a “sport.” 

Yes, I understand that sometimes herds have to be thinned.  So thin them – but say the Mourners Kaddish when you do.

And yes, I understand that sometimes people need to be shot in self-defense.  But nobody in this country, except for soldiers and police officers, needs assault weapons in order to defend themselves.

As for what happened in Las Vegas last weekend, it is unspeakable.  But it is also characteristically American. 

There is an old saw that says “When you go to bed with dogs, you wake up with fleas.”  But when you go to bed with guns, you sometimes don’t wake up at all.


Sunday, October 01, 2017

A Few Personal Reflections on the News Stories du Jour

As someone who loves the United States of America and its flag, I am proud to live in a country where private citizens are allowed to choose not to stand for the national anthem.  

As someone who loves the United States of America and its flag, I take an expansive view of the ways in which private citizens should be allowed to peacefully protest.  It clearly includes kneeling down in silence.

As someone who loves the United States of America and its flag, I am reminded that here, unlike in certain Western European nations, we haven’t been tempted to ban religious face-coverings precisely because we care so much about freedom of expression.   

As someone who loves the United States of America and its flag, I hate to see all the vituperation that is being heaped against private citizens who are simply trying to stand up respectfully against a true scourge (institutional racism) and who have decided that the easiest way for their voices to be heard is by quietly kneeling during the playing of the national anthem.   I also hate to see how divided this country has become about fundamental values.  But unfortunately, that’s the situation we’re in today.


As someone who loves the game of football but also cares about the health of those who play the game on a professional level, I can think of various reasons to boycott the game.  They include, for example: allowing individuals to continue to play the game despite a proven history of concussions, taking a relatively lax attitude toward the use of performance enhancing drugs, and generally downplaying the health risks of playing this sport as a youth, an adolescent, or as a professional.  

As someone who loves the game of football but also cares about the health of those who play the game, the last (meaning worst) reason I can think of to boycott the game on a professional level is that a fraction of its players choose to take a knee during the national anthem as a protest against institutional racism.

As someone who loves the game of football but also cares about the health of those who play the game, I could care less if millions of Americans boycott the game because of peaceful protests on the part of some players.  Fans always have a right to boycott, just like players have a right to take a knee.  If your boycott results in the owners and players getting less money, I can live with that too. 

As someone who loves the game of football but also cares about the health of those who play the game, I am saddened by the statement of the President that the 15-yard penalties imposed to deter players from hitting with their helmets are “ruining the game.”  I just pray that the powers-that-be who run the sport ignore that statement and continue to call penalties designed to make the game safer. 


As someone who loves the game of football but realizes it is just a game, I am saddened by the fact that all anyone was talking about during the first few days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico was whether football players should be taking a knee during the national anthem.

As someone who loves the game of football but realizes it is just a game, I am glad that more public attention is now being given to Puerto Rican hurricane relief than to football.   Whether the people of Puerto Rico “win” or “lose” in their efforts to return to normalcy is far more important than whatever NFL team wins or loses on Sundays this fall.


As someone who cares about institutional racism, I wish the NFL players great success in figuring out a way effectively to protest against that societal scourge. 

As someone who cares about institutional racism, I feel sorry for any football fan, politician, or other citizen who seriously believes that institutional racism is purely a thing of the past.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Rabbis Talking Sense

When I was at a Yeshiva in Jerusalem in 1981, I learned the principle, “You do what you can.”  The statement was made in the context of the so-called “mitzvoth,” or commandments, that Jews are supposed to follow.  The idea was that you try to live as ritualistically observant a life as possible, while recognizing that there are also forces in our lives that may prevent us from going all the way.  So, for example, on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath), I do try to obtain from office work – but I don’t prevent myself from turning on lights, driving cars, or writing this blog.  

Today is a special Shabbat.   It is known as Shabbat Shuvah, aka the Sabbath of Return or Repentance.  This is the one that comes during the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  It is the holiest time of the Jewish year, and it definitely should not be spent blogging out bile.  So, to be respectful of the season, I’ll spare you a vituperative blogpost, like the one I was tempted to write, entitled “Spicey Goes to Hollywood.” 

Instead, I’d like to focus on two of my rabbis – one past, one present.   Together, they have reminded me about the importance of allowing ourselves to confront the oft-quoted precepts of conventional religion.  Once these precepts become clich├ęs, we tend to accept them as true – or if we don’t, we feel like heretics for doubting them.  But in fact, the problem might not be ours at all.  Religious precepts can be downright antithetical to common sense and even destructive of the kind of spirituality that can enrich the world. 

Take, for example, the saying “All things happen for a reason.”   That’s innocuous enough when said in a philosophical sense, as in “every effect has a cause.”  But what if it’s said in the religious sense, as in “all things happen according to the plan of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent Lord?”  Nobody can disprove that statement, and plenty of people believe it.  I just happen not to be one of them, which means that I agree with Rabbi Michael Feshbach.

I know Michael Feshbach from his previous gig at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase.  This past summer, he moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands to become the rabbi at one of the oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere.  Little did he know that he would be moving into Storm Central.  The Washington Post wrote a story about Rabbi Feshbach and his experiences with Hurricane Irma.  Yes, the article came out before Maria, which surely mauled his island even more.    Here’s a snippet from the article.

“’I come from a progressive religious tradition that takes spirituality and God seriously but not necessarily always in traditional ways,’ Rabbi Feshbach said. ’I do not think that things happen for a reason, as sacrilegious as that may sound.’

“God, Rabbi Feshbach said, doesn’t control the weather. God doesn’t direct some of us onto a plane doomed to crash and others into a traffic jam that keeps us from boarding that plane.
‘That’s not a God I can live with,’ he said.”

Ever since a horrible earthquake leveled Lisbon in 1755 and killed tens of thousands of people, intellectuals have debated whether or not the people who lived and the people who died were chosen based on a divine plan.   Rabbi Feshbach and I prefer to think that we live in a world in which many things – including life and death events – aren’t planned for any reason.  They just happen.  They have antecedent causes, but those causes don’t involve a conscious scheme to promote some goal, such as imparting justice.  That’s why good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people.  That’s why common sense suggests that we all must work our butts off to ensure that we take care of ourselves, rather than expecting some omnibenevolent cosmic Santa Claus to take care of us out of love. 

I wasn’t around in Lisbon in 1755, and I wasn’t around in Auschwitz in 1944.  But when I look at those times and places and confront the question of whether people died there “for a reason,” the only way I’m willing to give prayers of thanks to the One who killed some and saved others is if I assume that there was no reason -- or at least none that was thought through and designed to punish or reward based on the merit of those involved. 

That brings me to a second rabbi, Rabbi Hannah Spiro, the rabbi of the only Jewish congregation on Capitol Hill.  She happens to be one of Rabbi Feshbach’s former students – and my daughter.   Now, like her former rabbi, she too gets to preach sermons of common sense ... and heresy.

This Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Hannah slew a sacred cow that comes to us from the great late-18th/early 19th century Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.  He is often quoted for the principle that “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to fear at all.”

As Rabbi Hannah pointed out, we are not compelled to agree with that old saw.  We can widen that bridge.  And sometimes we had better be fearful.  Prudence demands nothing less.

Hannah wrote a new song to make her point.  But my primary muse is philosophy, not music, so allow me simply to cite Aristotle.  The point of labeling virtues, such as “courage,” is to identify a golden mean between a deficit-vice and an excess-vice.  Courage is the virtue for which cowardice is the deficit-vice and foolhardiness the excess-vice.  Similarly, temperance is the virtue for which (a dangerous) asceticism is the deficit-vice and gluttony the excess-vice.   The word we use for the virtue typically reflects whether we generally think people have too much or too little of the characteristic.  Thus, for example, since we think people tend generally towards cowardice, we view courage as a virtue because it is pointing away from the deficit-vice.  Whereas because we think people tend generally toward gluttony, we view temperance as a virtue because it is pointing away from the excess-vice.  But still, we can’t forget that the virtue is a golden mean, not an extreme.  And the above quote attributed to Nachman is an extreme, immoderate statement.  Common sense teaches that we can do better.

By disrespecting legitimate fear, we dishonor one of our greatest allies.  Fear is what prevents us from destroying our planet with fossil fuels – it is, by contrast, the crazy fool who guzzles gas without care, all the while counting on a supernatural God to save us.  Fear is also what thankfully prevents us from ice climbing when we’re not athletic, or from giving up our day jobs when our families need our income, or from smoking cigarettes even though we love that buzz of a good smoke.

And let’s face it – feeling frequently fearful is as natural as the love of chocolate.  So rather than experiencing pangs of guilt about these sentiments, which can destroy our ability to protect ourselves and our loved ones, why not just embrace them?  Perhaps virtue lies in plowing forward.  Perhaps not.  But that fearful feeling is something to be cherished, not detested.  At best, it can save our lives; at worst, it can remind us to think before we act.     

In short, Rabbi Nachman was indeed onto something important: courage is a virtue.   But we in the 21st century must reflect on our ancestors’ teachings with a healthy amount of skepticism and never let them get in the way of common sense.  Teachings of religion, no less than any other domain, must be subjected to the crucible of reason. And when we reflect upon them critically, we’ll find that like most other good things, they can be construed immoderately and cause us miss the mark.

In fact, the Greek word for “sin” is a term for “missing the mark” in archery.  So, if we wish to avoid sin, which is one of the key goals of the Days of Awe, we must concentrate on what it means to live in a way that hits the target as often as possible.  How do we best do that?  By consulting our common sense.  It will tell you that the hundreds of victims of the recent earthquake in Mexico may have been killed for a reason, but it sure wasn’t a good one.   Or that those who out of fear took shelter from Irma were actually thinking wisely, not out of cowardice.  They were widening that bridge that connects us all to life.

Shabbat Shalom.  Shana Tova.   And may you have a blessed year, whether you treat it as starting on September 20th or January 1st.