Saturday, March 25, 2017

A Blogger's Mea Culpa

In the past few weeks, some of the more interesting things I’ve heard have come from my friends.  One talked to me about the devastating earthquake in Haiti and how one of the world’s most prominent international-relief charities thoroughly squandered the money that it received from donors.  Another spoke about a scam widely perpetrated by affluent high school kids who have figured out how to get tons of extra time on their SATs by pretending to have some sort of “learning disability.”  I was also informed about how one of our nation’s top colleges is similarly pretending to have a diverse student body when, in fact, it has simply figured out how to stock up on white kids with the temerity to call themselves “Native American,” even though they may have few if any Native American ancestors.   

I’d love to know how much truth there is to these statements.  And I’d really love for our society-at-large to be informed, assuming these statements are accurate.  Because I trust my sources, I suspect there is plenty of truth in those rumors that ought to be revealed.   But most likely, the facts here will remain buried.  That’s because we have now reached the point in our society where the relevance of investigative reporting has hit rock bottom. 

Oh, the rumor mills are churning out pulp like never before.  Yet for someone like me, that provides little sustenance.  I’m not satisfied with allegations, I want demonstrated facts.  I want to read articles from respected, impartial news sources that have been meticulously researched and that quote credible witnesses or documents.  Unsubstantiated talk is cheap – and it hardly is worthy of the term “journalism.”

Perhaps I personally shoulder some of the blame.  Every week, I enter this quadrant of cyberspace and pump out my thoughts to hither and yon.  The question needs to be asked: what gives me the right to spew opinions – let alone “facts” – concerning world affairs, domestic politics, and other Empathic Rationalist staples when I work as a full-time lawyer and part time author and interfaith activist?   Please allow me to state the obvious:  I am no journalist.   I don’t take the personal risks that journalists take, I don’t take the time to serve as an investigative reporter, and I don’t have credible sources in the halls of power who talk to me when they wish to reveal the truth to the world. 

Fortunately for my soul, however, I don’t hold myself out to be a journalist.  Never have.  But lately, while watching TV news, reading the newspaper, or clicking onto the major on-line news sites, I’ve been bombarded with blather from “journalists” who don’t seem to have much more of a claim to that moniker than I do.   Perhaps that should be expected from cable news.  What is far more disturbing, though, is the weakening of investigative journalism in the newspapers.  Unless  we’re talking about unearthing the latest foray into the never-ending feud between Democrats and Republicans, neither my daily New York Times nor my daily Washington Post uncovers the kind of dark facts about our world that educated citizens need to understand.  For that matter, if some intrepid journalist did write an analysis on a topic that fell outside the domain of politically-partisan bickering, we can be sure that it would be relegated to page 13 of the newspaper and perhaps 30 seconds on CNN.   Not even MSNBC or Fox News would cover it.

It is difficult to overestimate the consequences of the death of investigative journalism.  Let’s just mention a few.  First, we can no longer expect to be a society of scientists, historians or philosophers who are driven by facts.   Instead, we will find it easier to be a society of herd animals, driven by opinions and perspectives that happen to agree with our own (and our fellow partisans).  Stated differently, if we did approach our media outlets with honest-to-God curiosity about learning truths, we’d rapidly realize that this curiosity would never be sated.  As a result, we gratify what we’re able to gratify -- the urge to get even more pissed off at the politicians or political parties that we already opposed when we picked up the newspaper or turned on the TV.  Second, even though we live in a world in which certain critical facts must be comprehended if we hope to make responsible decisions as voters or consumers (the likely effects of climate change come immediately to mind), we are condemned not to learn these facts.  As a result, we will tend to screw up when it comes time to enter the ballot box, head to the department store, support a charity, or choose a college.  Third, we will tend not to fall in love with journalism or scholarship but rather with entertainment, rhetoric, bullshit ... and those who peddle it.   In fact, because those peddlers get rich and famous doing what seemingly anyone without much discernable talent could do, that only helps us to relate to and appreciate them even more.

Spinoza once wrote that “[A]ll happiness or unhappiness depends solely on the quality of the object to which we are bound by love.”  When a citizenry is informed by investigative journalism, that beloved is the “objective truth” – or at least as objective a truth as we human beings are capable of attaining.  By contrast, when a citizenry is informed by bloggers, talking heads, and tendentious reporters, our greatest beloved becomes our own pre-determined world view ... and the closed mind that emerges from it.

As our President would say, “Sad.”

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Annual Purim Essay

Empathic Rationalists,

For this week, I will be directing you to my website, where you can find my annual essay written in honor of the Jewish holiday of Purim.  

Here's the link to my Purim talks:   Go to the bottom of the page and you'll find the essay for 2017.  I hope you enjoy it.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Save the Date – April 22, 2017 (on the National Mall)

It was a lovely day today in Bethesda, Maryland.   The mercury topped 70.  Again.   We had several such days in February.   January was colder, but rarely was it legitimately cold.   Today is March 9th, and we still haven’t had a single snow storm in a full year.   Yes, we’ve had some dustings, but I don’t believe we’ve topped an inch of snow all “winter.”  

Today, as I drove to a doctor’s appointment, I was greeted with a line of trees sporting white blossoms.   Here we are in early-March, and already it’s cherry blossom season.   This is not the Washington, D.C. I’ve known for the past 5 ½ decades.  It feels more like North Carolina or Georgia.  Who knew the South would win the Civil War after all. 

Perhaps I shouldn’t get so worked up just because the weather in a single city during a single winter has been worthy of the Twilight Zone.  So let’s look at some more global information, such as the fact that these past three years have been the three hottest years on record, with each year setting a new planetary record.  Coasts are eroding.  Ice is breaking.  The ocean is getting acidic. Coral is dying – and one aquatic species after another is sure to follow.  Storms have been getting deadlier too.   But if all of this isn’t scary enough, just consider that the effects on agriculture over time are likely to devastate the living conditions of our own species, especially in poorer parts of the earth, where people may die by the millions.

So be afraid, be very ...   Oh wait.  I didn’t get to the craziest part of this entire equation.   The real kicker is that nobody on TV or even in the newspapers is paying much attention to any of this.   The government doesn’t care – meaning neither party.  And even the media appears to be taking a bit of comfort in the nice weather.  On the radio this afternoon, I heard a reporter remark that the climate this “winter” has been good to our economy.  With less cold and icy weather, construction companies have started their work earlier in the season.   More jobs.  More warmth.  More fun.    “An Inconvenient Truth” has morphed into “Endless Summer.” 

It’s all good, right?

Well, if you believe that, I’m guessing you’re too dumb to be an Empathic Rationalist reader.  As you probably understand, just because we’ve only been playing in 70 degree (February) weather doesn’t mean we’re not playing with fire.   We’re completely blowing off our obligations to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, not to mention our duties to the world’s other species.   This is, in fact, the epitome of recklessness, and it’s taking place on the grandest possible scale.  We need to act, and we need to act now.

Saturday, April 22nd is Earth Day, and it will be celebrated as such around the world.  In Washington, D.C. on the National Mall, environmentalists from all over the nation will be joining together in an event billed as the “March for Science.”    It could be the largest outpouring of support for the environment in American history, leading to the creation of a truly sustaining movement against science-denial and in favor of honoring Mother Earth.  Or, it could be just another march – full of sound and fury but signifying nothing of consequence.

Your decision to march – and the decision of others like you – will make all the difference.   That’s because the marchers will surely become more inspired to act and more knowledgeable about how to act, but only if the march is as big as it has the potential to be.  So please, if you too are an American, whether you live in Bethesda, Boston, Berkeley or Boise, come to DC this April 22nd and help get this movement started before it’s too late.

We don’t have to sit on the sidelines – not on this issue.  There’s a way for all of us to get involved and a need for all of us to get involved.  See you in April.  

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Must See TV

This coming Tuesday, March 7th, the best show on television returns for its fifth season.   It’s called “The Americans.”  But it’s really about the Russians.  If you haven’t watched it yet, don’t start by watching the beginning of the fifth season. Purchase Amazon Prime and start with Season 1, Episode 1.   It won’t take you long before you’re finishing season 4 and ready to watch the new episodes.  It’s that good.

The premise of The Americans is that the Russian government brought together a young man and a young woman who had never previously met, gave them fake American identities, directed them to become a couple and raise a family, and employed them as spies.  We are introduced to this couple as “Philip and Elizabeth Jennings,” the all-American parents with two all-American children, Paige (age 13) and Henry (age 10).  They live in a classic upper-middle class home in that all-American suburb, Falls Church, VA, which is maybe five miles from the Washington, D.C. line.  Philip and Elizabeth work together as principals of a travel agency.   Across the street is none other than a master spy-chaser for the FBI who starts out suspecting them but quickly becomes their friend.   Since the show is about to go into Season 5 (the plan is to air six seasons in all), you already know that these spies are going to get away with murder – literally and figuratively – for dozens of episodes.  What you’ve also probably guessed is that somehow, you will be manipulated into rooting for them.  They’re Russian spies doing despicable things, and yet you’ll be rooting for them – even if you’re a Democrat.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.  Grant me that one joke, please.)

“The Americans” shines a light on the ends-justifies-the-means mentality that seems to have captured our planet today.  Whether you’re a Russian who spies on America or an American who fights Russian spies, you’re portrayed as someone who’s got a job to do and are willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish your objective.  In the world of The Americans, rules are made to be broken; there’s always way too much at stake to treat them as inviolate.  Some of the characters are largely unprincipled, others are completely unprincipled, but they’re also highly intelligent and competent.  Notably, they are additionally not lacking in humanity.  On this show, the smartest people do the worst things and yet somehow come across as dutiful, and sometimes even heroic.  That takes good acting, better characters, and superb scripts.

This is a show with many tour de forces, but perhaps none is greater than the way it pulls off an honest-to-God romance between its two lead characters.  Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have something in common with the actors who portray them (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) – they’re partners in life.   The difference, I hope, is that in real life, Rhys and Russell are faithful to each other.  Philip and Elizabeth may depend on one another more than any other couple, may work together day and night, may live together, may raise children together, and may (and apparently do) love each other, but they sure as hell aren’t physically faithful to each other.  They can’t be.  They are, after all, spies.  And every fan of James Bond knows that if you don’t have sex with different people, then damn it, you’re just not much of a spy.

So the Jennings – in the bedroom as in any other room – do what they have to do to get the job done. Often enough, it means having sex on the job.   It’s not exactly ideal for their romance, but we’re about to start Season 5, and ... well, let’s just say that they’re still together. 

I could go on singing the praises of The Americans, but I don’t want to give away too much.   Mostly, I just wanted to tell the readers of the Empathic Rationalist that this show is truly binge-worthy, and if you haven’t started watching it, consider yourself fortunate.   Because I’m up to date, I won’t be able to binge any more.  Maybe that will take part of the fun out of it.  Maybe I should be advising those of you who don’t know the Jennings to hold off until Season 6 is over and then binge away.

But that would be lousy advice.  This is, after all, a show about the Russians spying on the Americans, and it’s not being televised on CNN, MSNBC or Fox News.  No spin.  Just pure entertainment.  That’s what I call must-see TV.