Sunday, May 21, 2017

Reflections on the Meaning of Progressivism

In this week’s episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, the show’s host debated with Cornell West, the public intellectual and social activist.   Maher criticized West for creating a dangerous false equivalency between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, which essentially encouraged progressive Americans either to vote for a third-party candidate or no candidate at all.  In the end, Maher claimed, lefties like West are responsible for the election of Donald J. Trump.   West, by contrast, indicated that while he always preferred candidate Clinton to candidate Trump, that doesn’t mean he should find her acceptable.  According to West, a progressive is obliged to speak out against Democratic candidates as long as they remain agents of the status quo, rather than finding solace in the fact that these individuals are less right-wing than their Republican rivals.

Score one for West.   If you are a progressive, you need to fight for the party you want, rather than settle for the so-called “lesser of two evils.”  You need to fight for authenticity.  You can’t satisfy yourself with limousine liberalism.  The Democratic party, West would contend, will continue to lose as long as its sole theme is “They’re Crazy and Evil. So Vote for Us.”  Democrats need to stand for, rather than against, something; and that “something” had better include a significant measure of change.  Hillary’s campaign did not clearly enunciate what significant transformation it was looking to make, and that – more than any other reason – is why she is not president today.

Allow me to channel West in a different context by moving forward in time by 48 hours – from Friday, when Maher’s show was taped and aired, to today.  Here we are on the verge of the first momentous foreign policy speech of Trump’s presidency.  He is in Saudi Arabia and is expected to talk about how America respects and honors Islam and hopes to work seamlessly with the Saudis and other Muslim regimes.  Yet surely, nanoseconds after he walks off the stage, mainstream liberal Americans, the ones who praised Hillary throughout her campaign, will return to their regularly-scheduled us-versus-them mockery.    Trump, they will claim, has shown himself to be a typical politician – saying one thing (bashing Islam) in front of his base, and the diametrically opposite thing (praising Islam) when traveling abroad.  Within hours, if not minutes, we’ll be watching montages of Trump’s greatest hits on the subject, showing a Muslim-bashing statement one moment followed by a Muslim-praising statement the next.   Here in Blue America, everyone will be in good spirits laughing at this Zelig of a President.   And, of course, the undercurrent of all this mockery will be a single theme: that Trump was elected by a group of stupid bigots who despise Islam as much as they love Trump, and who will rationalize today’s speech as an example of a shrewd businessman and statesperson sweet-talking his enemies into making the concessions that advance his blessed America-first agenda.

Like West, I am not here to defend what Trump has said about Muslims in the past.  Nor am I here to defend his base.  It consistently refuses to hold the President accountable for his words.  And let’s face it – that base is ridden with Islamophobia.   But the question is, for those of us who feel differently about Islamophobia – who wish to eradicate it as a scourge – is it enough simply to bash the Republican base and the politicians who cater to them?  Or do we have an affirmative obligation to embrace Islam and those who practice it?  In other words, is it appropriate to sit on our couches and mock candidate Trump for demagoguing on the issue or do we need to stick our necks out and publicize to our family and friends what is uniquely beautiful about Islam?  

I don’t always agree with Cornell West.  On the subject of Israel, for example, I would surely find myself to be far more on the Zionistic side of the spectrum.  But what I appreciate most about West is that he is an activist who fights FOR the social transformation he believes in, rather than simply fighting AGAINST the politicians he dislikes.  West has a vision of reform and he is looking to join with other change agents, rather than simply to join in mockery of those who would reform the world in the wrong direction.

On the issue of how the West must deal with Islam, I’ll be blunt: it isn’t enough to condemn Islam-inspired violence (which we must condemn) or to attack the scourge of Islamaphobia.  We must work together with our Muslim cousins on social causes and in fellowship activities.  Plus, we must dialogue with our Muslim cousins, exploring the many profound similarities among our respective faiths and cultures, and embracing the many profound differences among these faiths and cultures.  We must discern what makes Islam special – not just a tributary off the great “Judeo-Christian” river, but a faith that builds masterfully on its Jewish and Christian antecedents.  And we must study the challenges that Islamic extremism presents to the world – challenges that are in some respects far more stark and scary than the challenges we’re now experiencing from Jewish and Christian extremists.

Late in 2016, I helped to spearhead a new initiative in the Washington DC area that is known as JAM-AT:  Jews and Muslims Acting Together. Members of JAM-AT will be meeting this afternoon at a home in McLean Virginia with one goal in mind: to take Muslim-Jewish engagement in the greater Washington DC area to the next level.  

In contemplating today’s meeting, I have pictured Cornell West and Bill Maher attending such an event.   West, though a Christian, would fit in wonderfully.  He has great respect for both Judaism and Islam.    He would be what we in Muslim-Jewish circles refer to as an “Ally.”  And indeed, in the last JAM-AT meeting, everyone who was neither Jewish nor Muslim was asked to stand up so that we can applaud our “Allies” – who are invariably among the most righteous in the room.  

As for Maher, when I imagine him at a JAM-AT event, all I can envision is his discomfort and cynicism.  Most likely, he would view the rest of us as a bunch of stupid religious people, clinging to our primitive superstitions (or, in the case of Spinozist Jews like me, to our contorted rationalizations for embracing organized religion).  Maher has saved some of his meanest mockery for Islam.  He of all people can ill-afford to get on his high-horse and criticize President Trump for Islamophobia.
When I look at a Cornell West, for all our disagreements, I find a fellow traveler.   He loved Heschel as much as he loved King.  Indeed, he is a dreamer far more than he is a hater.    I’ll grant you that his rhetoric against mainstream politicians can be hyperbolic, but that is the way prophetically inspired progressives often speak.  At least I know that what he stands for is more important to him than what he stands against, and what he stands for above all else is universal human dignity.

If you find yourself inspired more by a Cornell West than a Bill Maher, then do me a favor.   Find a mosque in your area, pick a night when it is holding an Iftar that is open to the interfaith community, and break pita bread with them.  Next weekend, you see, is the start of Ramadan.  The Muslim community will be fasting from sun up until sun down throughout the month.  You don’t have to fast – just come one night and honor your hosts with your presence.  Come with an open mind, an open heart, and an empty stomach.  You will likely encounter some of the kindest, most generous people you’ll ever meet.  And if the alternative is to turn on cable TV and watch comedians pull out montages that mock Islamophobic politicians ... trust me, experiencing an Iftar is far better for your soul. 

[Note – The Empathic Rationalist will be on holiday during Memorial Day Weekend and will return on the first weekend of June.]

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Mid-Term Grades for American Democracy

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Six years ago, I quoted the above passage in this blog.  I cannot quote it enough.   Ironically, for all its wisdom, it contains one of the most patently false statements in the history of oratory, the clause that “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.”  Thankfully, the world has indeed noted what Lincoln said in Gettysburg in 1863; his entire Address has become immortalized, and for good reason.  Few can forget that it began with the words “Four score and seven years ago.”  But perhaps the Address’ most lasting portion is its ending – a plea that “government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people [] shall not perish from the earth.”

I keep finding myself reflecting on those words.  As both a small “d” democrat and a small “r” republican, I feel that Lincoln was setting the standard by which a country’s governance should be judged.  Sometimes, I even envision him as one of my professors.  Lincoln is looking at me and all other future American citizens and proclaiming that we’ll be “graded” based on the extent to which our government truly measures up to the standard he has set – a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.  It then becomes our job as students/citizens to assess our success level and actively work to ensure that failure is no longer tolerated.

I don’t know about you, but right now, I’d give us a failing grade.  And part of the problem is that while we may well remember the words Lincoln used, we seem to have forgotten what they mean and why they must be respected.

Let’s begin by analyzing the “of the people, by the people, for the people” formulation.  The first of these three phrases refers to the source of governmental power.   It was explained well by John Marshall in his famous Supreme Court opinion, McCulloch v. Maryland: “The government of the Union [...] is, emphatically and truly, a government of the people. In form, and in substance, it emanates from them. Its powers are granted by them, and are to be exercised directly on them, and for their benefit."

To further illustrate his point, Marshall could have pointed to the introduction to the Preamble to the Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence [sic], promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”   “We the people” are thus the source of our government’s power – not a work of Scripture nor a set of sovereign states, and certainly not a kingdom across the ocean, but “we the people.”   In this regard at least, I’d say that the American democracy is alive and well, for we haven’t seemed to have forgotten that the source of our government’s power resides in the citizenry.

Next, if you would allow me, I’d like to skip ahead for a moment to the third prong of Lincoln’s formulation, the idea that our government is “for the people.”  Now, we’re not talking about the source of governmental power but its beneficiary.  I hardly need to cite 17th or 18th century documents to explain this concept.  Indeed, every politician in Washington invariably claims that she acts for the betterment of “the people.”   Whether it’s the people of her district, state or nation, it’s always “the people” for whom she selflessly works.   Allegedly.

But do you really believe that’s true?  Do you really believe our politicians are consistently putting “the people” over their own party or their personal re-election chances?  Just look at the way they handle government scandals.  Whenever their party is in power, they become mum; by contrast, if the other party is in power, they become publicly outraged.  Is that what “the people” would want?   Or how about those times when Congress considers an extremely popular bill that everyone knows is going to fail because the lobbyists won’t let it succeed?  Consider, for example, gun-control legislation that is favored by 80-90 percent of “the people” but opposed by the highly-organized gun lobby.   Why do you think those measures fail?  Is it because our politicians believe that they are voting in the best interests of the (ignorant) public, or because they are taking care of their own hides?  To ask the question is to answer it.

I’ve saved for last the second item in Lincoln’s formulation: “by the people.”  Now, we’re not talking about the source or the beneficiary of government power but rather the agent of such power.   Who is doing the actual work of exercising political power?  A limited number of social or economic classes?  Or ALL the people?  My sense is that when it comes time to assigning grades, Professor Lincoln will place a special emphasis in this domain.  Why?  Because it is precisely by broadening political participation among all the people that we can best guarantee that our government will operate for the people in actuality, and not just in lip service. 

Fortunately, when it comes to grading us on our political participation, Prof. Lincoln would have actual facts and figures available to judge us.  And what he’d find is that we seem to be failing miserably.   Roughly nine of every 20 eligible Americans choose not to vote in presidential elections.  In mid-term elections, little more than one in three eligible Americans vote.  So even though we included the right to vote in the Constitution and amended that document four different times to extend that right, only a small portion of this country seems to feel strongly about exercising it.   If that’s not an F-U to Lincoln, I don’t know what is.

But don’t just blame the problem on “we the people.”  “They the Government” aren’t exactly encouraging the people to vote, now are they?  Recall that last Sunday the voters in France went to the polls.   Here in America, we vote on Tuesdays, and we don’t even get a day off from work.  It’s as if the powers-that-be are saying that “voting is a privilege, and we expect people to go out of their way to prove that they’re worthy of it.”   The result is anything but a government “by [all] the people.”  It’s a government by that portion of the people who tend to be relatively well-educated and well-heeled.  It’s not what Lincoln had in mind.

Personally, I think that there is no set of duties more sacred than those of citizenship.  Those duties include voting, but that’s just the beginning.  A citizen’s duties also include marching, canvassing, debate watching, poll watching, you name it.   Plus, they include taking stock in those societal forces that undermine civic interest and working to confront those forces.  I’d suggest that we all begin by focusing squarely and passionately on our woefully inadequate level of voting participation.  This needs to be addressed by our schools, our media, our government, and yes, by concerned private citizens like you and me.  And until this issue is addressed, we have to stop talking like we live in a functioning democracy or that “the majority” voted for this politician or that one. 

Somewhere up there, Professor Abe is waiting to grade us on how we respond to this voter-participation crisis.  And believe me, even for someone as kind as Honest Abe, 36 percent (the percentage of eligible voters who turned out for the 2014 mid-terms) merits an F.   

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Mother Earth Calls

This used to be the time in DC when spring was in full bloom.  Now, it appears, we’ve entered the season of summer - and no time too soon.  Ninety degree temperatures have arrived and just in time for the People’s Climate March.   Apparently, when the Good Lord heard that a march was planned to protest global warming, He decided to warm up this part of the globe with record-breaking temperatures.   It’s great to know that God has a sense of humor.

I was at the March for Science last week; today, I’ll be at the Climate March.  My thinking is that if I’m lucky enough to make it to the year 2050, when the death toll from Climate Change is likely to increase by a few digits, I don’t want to think of myself as having been a passive bystander to all this destruction.  I want to know that, at the very least, I took to the streets and screamed, “This is no way to treat our Mother!”

Seriously, the next time some politician or business tycoon says “We support the environment, BUT ....” just remember – when it comes to loving your mother, there is no “but.”  

Mother Earth will surely survive human recklessness.  We can wound her, but we’re not nearly powerful enough to kill her.  What we can do is kill her creatures.  Today, we’re killing the coral.  Tomorrow, we’ll be killing each other – unintentionally, but just as surely.  Climate change will create famines, bring deadly storms, and wreak havoc on the economies least able to tolerate it.   Sadly, everyone can thank the affluent among us, and that includes the so-called “upper middle class” Americans who refuse to think of ourselves as affluent.  We’re the ones who guzzle carbon like it’s flowing from Heaven. 

So, march we must. 

I honestly don’t know much about the folks who are organizing this event.  I don’t know if they will spend the entire time hurling bile that will serve only to further polarize this country.   I may indeed spend half of the time at this event shaking my head about how a march that should be a call to love (our Mother) will turn instead into a call to hate. 

But frankly, I don’t need to know who is organizing this event.  If there is a march against Climate Change, I’m coming.

Lest anyone think that fighting Climate Change is a partisan issue, just think back a few years.  How much did Barack Obama mention Climate Change in his 2012 Democratic Convention address?   If memory serves, he didn’t.  This has always been a minor issue for the Democrats – little more than an opportunity for a bit of targeted pandering.   Precious few of our mainstream politicians have behaved like this issue hits them down to their bones.   That’s because we haven’t reached 2050 yet.  People aren’t dying by the millions or tens of millions.  Yet.   That’s why it feels like a sideshow.   Boy are we short-sighted.

Next week, the Empathic Rationalist will take a week off.  I’ll be at Princeton attending a weekend long conference about Spinoza’s philosophy.  In other words, I’ll be in my element, geeking out on the esoterica of Spinoza’s Ethics and Theological-Political Treatise, both of which I’ve studied in depth.  By contrast, today (like last Saturday), I’ll surely be hearing about the work of scientists who’ve been studying disciplines that I hardly understand.  To a degree, I’ll have to take what they’re saying on faith.  And still ... with each passing year, it becomes more and more obvious that these scientists are on to something.

Our climate is changing.  We can feel it.  Winters aren’t terribly cold any more.  And even the spring is beginning to feel like summer. You don’t have to be a polar bear to notice the difference.  You just have to be willing to put propaganda aside, open your eyes, and take in the magnitude of what’s happening.

If you love your Mother and you’re in a city with a march, please join us.  And bring lots of water.   It’s easy to get dehydrated when you’re out in the hot summer sun.   

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Marching for Science

“What do we want?”  “Peace!”  “When do we want it?”  “Now!”

“What do we want?”  “Justice!”  “When do we want it?”   “Now!”

“What do we want?”  “Science!”  “When do we want it?”  “After peer review!”

That last chant was the only one of the three I heard yesterday at D.C.’s March for Science.  It has stuck in my mind because, perhaps more than anything else, it crystallizes the main lesson from the march.      

There were other themes, to be sure.   There was certainly the “Science is inherently good” theme.  I, however, think that’s bullshit.   Yes, science has cured polio and made syphilis more forgettable.    But it has also given us Zyklon B, Chernobyl, and Nagasaki.  Thanks to science, we get longer living through chemistry – but also quicker killing.  Whether science is good or not depends on the agenda of the scientist, and believe me, scientists have agendas like everyone else.  The idea that they don’t was another article of B.S. that was peddled during yesterday’s march.  The truth is that, as one speaker acknowledged, “science is political” – and anything that is political can be corrupted. 

But I’m at peace with the idea that science, for better and worse, is political.  I love it just the same.  Any important domain of knowledge can become both politically powerful and controversial, and be used both for good and for ill.  The prospect of controversy doesn’t take away from the fact that science provides the closest approximation of absolute, certain knowledge that human beings possess.   To some degree, we’re all scientists.  We all have familiarity with the scientific method, apply it in our day-to-day lives, and appreciate that some propositions are correct and others are false.  If we grab an apple from the fridge and let it go, we all know that it’s going to fall to the floor.  We know that to be true, absolutely, and we know it because we’ve done the science starting from a very early age.  Long before we study philosophy or history, we begin doing science.  It’s critical to creating a mental world full of order rather than chaos.

The existence of gravity isn’t controversial. But the idea that human industrial activity is destroying the environment is quite controversial.  So is the proposition that vaccinations do not cause autism.  The problem in these cases is that regular Joes (and here, most of us are included in that category) haven’t done the science to demonstrate to ourselves what the answer is.  We are forced to trust what we hear from professional scientists or from others who purport to summarize what the scientific community has found.   And when you’re a regular Joe, it’s difficult to trust anybody these days.

But that’s where the lessons from yesterday’s march come in.  At a time when trust is difficult, we still need working hypotheses.  We can doubt the truth of these hypotheses, for that’s what scientists do (begin every exercise with doubt), yet we need to believe something.  So why not put what little faith we have in the teachings of respected scientists who have submitted their work to peer review and arrived at theories that have been generally accepted by the scientific community as a whole?   In the case of climate change, I’ve heard the number 97% -- as in 97% of scientists agree that human activity is causing dangerous levels of climate change.  That’s 32 out of 33 scientists, which is one hell of a consensus.  To be sure, think tanks, cable news channels, politicians and industrialists can always find Mr. 1-out-of-33 and trot him out to explain why he is right and the other 32 scientists are wrong.  We regular Joes may not have the data or the training conclusively to refute Mr. 1-out-of-33, but we shouldn’t need that kind of certainty to make practical judgments.  As a matter of practical judgment, whenever we’re evaluating public policy issues involving matters of scientific controversy, it’s time to trust in the peer review process and side with the teachings of the vast majority of scientists.

You see, the paradox here is that most of us love science for its ability to demonstrate certain truth, yet when it comes to the great public policy controversies, certainty is bound to elude us laypeople.   Still, once the judgment of the scientific community has reached a near-unanimous status, it becomes the epitome of arrogance or stubbornness for a layperson to dispute that judgment – at least if we’re talking about an issue that is squarely within the domain of science.   

One of the things I love about science is that it is a skeptical field.  To think scientifically is to observe that academics and government workers can be as prejudiced as anyone else.  Just because their job responsibilities may involve “seeking the truth,” doesn’t mean they can’t be emotionally biased towards locating that truth on one side of a policy divide or another.  So let’s please not take too seriously some of the hyperbole from yesterday’s march, such as the suggestion that “science equals truth” or that it has the power to eliminate all forms of ignorance.  Science is limited, like all domains of knowledge.  Its practitioners need to be steeped in other fields and to think in an interdisciplinary fashion, lest they too fall into the trap of tunnel vision – a trap that frequently snares those who wield power on issues of public policy.  

Still, there are times when people – whether acting as workers, consumers or citizens -- simply have to take a stand.  It’s not enough to be skeptical or cynical.  We have to act.  We have to take positions on vaccines, or stem cell research, or carbon emissions.  And we have to take a position on how large a budget we think is appropriate for scientific research.  In these regards, I stand with the mainstream of the scientific community.  And I do it, not because I am scientistic (i.e., a believer in the scientific method as a cure-all for all forms of ignorance) but because I recognize that science deserves an honored place at the table of truth and beauty.

To quote Ken Wilber, I want to “give to Caesar what is Caesars, to Einstein what is Einstein’s, to Picasso what is Picasso’s, to Kant what is Kant’s, and to Christ what is Christ’s.”  That means that when it comes to matters within the domain of science, I’m going to listen to the folks like Einstein and the peers that might review his work, and not to an industrialist who stands to profit if the scientists are wrong.  The fact that the industrialist can find one scientist in 33 to agree with him is hardly going to shake my trust in the scientific mainstream.  After all, if you pay them enough, you can probably find one scientist in 33 these days who will argue that when you take an apple out of the fridge and let it go, it won’t hit the floor.  In fact, I could swear I’ve seen a few of those scientists interviewed on CNN.  

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Spicing up Our Memories of the Holocaust

In secular America, people usually wait until the end of the calendar year to wish one another a happy “Holiday Season.”  But for Jews and Christians, we are now going through a very different, but perhaps even more beloved, holiday season.   So, before I talk a bit about my own holiday, please allow me to wish all of my Christian readers the most spiritual Easter possible.  May the teachings of Jesus be forever etched in your heart and reflected by your deeds. 
Two years ago, I was blessed to spend this time of year in the Holy Land.  I will never forget the joy of arriving in Jerusalem only hours before the beginning of Passover and then spending the evening at a Seder led by three rabbinical students, one of whom was my daughter.  As the cliché goes, “It doesn’t get any better than that.”   This year, I’ve been blessed to spend the Passover season enjoying a stay-cation.  My activities have included reading the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah and making daily visits to my mother’s Assisted Living Facility, where she has been recuperating beautifully from an illness.  All in all, it has been an excellent Passover – excellent enough that I’m able to take a somewhat charitable position in response to what was surely the political gaffe of the week.  I’m referring to Sean Spicer’s comments on the very first day of Passover regarding Hitler and the use of poison gas.
By now, you have surely heard those comments.  Comparing Hitler to Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, Spicer said that “We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War Two. You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” Later, given a chance to clarify his remarks, Spicer added, “I think when you come to sarin gas, he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.”  When a reporter pointed out that Hitler had indeed targeted Jews with gas, Spicer replied that: “I appreciate that. There was not in the – he brought them into the Holocaust centers – I understand that. But I’m saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down into the middle of towns.”

In reaction to these statements, the press’ theme was consistent: Holocaust comparisons are never wise, especially when uttered by public figures.   For example, Chris Christie, on Fox News, stated that “There should be a general rule for anybody involved in public life. Whether you’re a governor, a press secretary for the President, or a host of ‘Fox & Friends,’ don’t bring up Hitler. Ever.”  Similarly, an article in offered the headline: “Sean Spicer just forgot the 1st rule of politics: Never compare anything to Hitler.”  The article itself, by Chris Cillizza, referred to Spicer’s statement as “a blatant violation of ‘Godwin’s Law’ – the idea that by invoking Hitler comparisons in any way, shape or form you are immediately putting an end to any discussion. ‘Oh yeah, well this is like when Hitler did. ...’ is a sentence that you should never, ever say. If you, like Spicer, are trying to say something is ‘worse’ than what Hitler did, you really, really just need to stop talking.

Touche.  Spicer’s comments were stupid.  Even he has admitted that what he said was reprehensible and indefensible.   But I can’t help but notice the irony of the criticism.   On the one hand, the critics are correctly pointing out that the Holocaust is a dangerous topic to bring up in public because it was not only horrific but incomparably so.  But on the other hand, Spicer is demonstrating what happens in a world in which people have been trained NOT to talk about the Holocaust for fear that they may say something stupid and offensive.  The less people speak up about the topic, the more we stop focusing on it, remove it from our hearts and minds, and live as if it never happened. 

Sean Spicer is over a decade younger than I am.  When he was born, the Holocaust had been in the history books for more than a quarter century.  Surely, a young Sean Spicer would have learned about the Holocaust in school, but let’s face it – the stuff we “learn” about in school isn’t necessarily etched into our consciousness.   Speaking personally, I was once schooled on such topics as mitochondria and ribonucleic acid, but that doesn’t mean I remember much about them.  If you want an adult to really understand something, it had better become a topic of conversation for adults, and not just something to which we’re only exposed (superficially) as school children.

Sean Spicer is a Long Island boy.  I suspect he’s been far more exposed to the Holocaust than many Americans.  If he is largely ignorant on this topic, I can only imagine how many other millions of Generation Xers and millennials have been going through life with nary a thought about the Holocaust and its implications.   And if our public figures have been taught to stay away from the subject – lest they cause a fire storm by not speaking about it delicately -- then who is going to remind these young men and women about the need to study the Holocaust?  

You certainly can’t count on Hollywood.  The days of “The Sorrow and the Pity” are long gone.  Now, when people learn about the Holocaust through film, they’re likely to hear more about those who survived or helped others survive than those who perished.   These Hollywood narratives can be heartwarming, to be sure, but they don’t exactly expose us to the real story.  In my family, for example, you either escaped Eastern Europe before the War or you died in the camps.  In other words, I don’t come from a family of “survivors” but rather of “non-survivors.”  It doesn’t make for a great film, but it does make for an honest memory. 

For better or for worse, the Holocaust has been one of my greatest influences in life.  It has largely shaped my theology, inspired me to pursue a career in public service, deeply developed my sense of ethnic identity, and limited my trust in humankind generally and in human leaders in particular.  I can’t imagine walking this earth without being steeped in the Holocaust.  Then again, I’ve been learning about it ever since, as a six or seven-year old, I found a book on the topic at my grandparents’ house and started looking at pictures of Jews who were beaten to death or who had swastikas forcibly cut into their hair. You might say I received too MUCH exposure to the Holocaust at too early an age.  But this is one topic about which I’d rather learn too much than too little.  And I get the impression that Americans are increasingly falling into the latter category.  In fact, with each passing generation, you can expect the memories of the Holocaust to recede further and further, as we are encouraged to think about happier memories and avoid mentioning touchy, dangerous topics in public. 

So, if you’re looking for lessons from Spicer’s gaffe, I say that we need to hear our public figures speak MORE about the Holocaust, not less.  Let them make stupid comments about Hitler if those are the only things they can say about him, because then at least others can point out the stupidity and set the record straight.  Mr. Spicer, Hitler did use poison gas during war time.  He used them on “his own people” – as well as millions of others – because, after all, German Jews were no less “German” than their Christian neighbors.  As for the idea of “Holocaust Centers,” every institution of higher learning, every place of worship, and every democratic government must become a “Holocaust Center” – by which I don’t mean a concentration camp, but rather a force for teaching us all to remember, study and contemplate both the facts of the Holocaust and the profound implications that it has to offer. 

So thanks, Mr. Spicer, for putting the Holocaust back into the American consciousness this Passover season.  As we Jews take stock in what it means to have been liberated from Egypt, may we remember that slavery and genocide have continued millennium after millennium and remain with us even today.  If we are to become forces of light instead of darkness in this world, we must be willing to face the horrors of our world every bit as much as the joys.   Indeed, to those who say that Judaism must become a religion of “joy” and not of “oy,” I say that escapism has no place in Judaism.  Ours is a faith for open minds, open hearts, and above all else, open eyes.