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.   

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Baby Steps

In our impatient world, people understandably want to see excellence, they want it clearly manifested, and they want it now.   But excellence is a rare bird.   Progress, more often than not, comes incrementally and in camouflage form.   Still, when it does arrive, it is worthy of note.  Allow me to cite a couple of examples from the past week.

     Give Donald Trump Credit 

That’s right, you heard me.  Give Donald Trump credit.   Syria has been gassing its citizens again, and finally, an American President stepped in and said “enough.”   Let me translate that for you:  Arab lives matter.

From listening to MSNBC, you wouldn’t know that Trump did anything right.  That channel would no more praise Trump for anything than Fox News would criticize Bill O’Reilly.   But if you take a step back from the incessant Trump criticism – much of it well deserved – you might recognize some very reassuring developments on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  First, Mr. Bannon has been removed from the National Security Council.  Second, notwithstanding all the “America first” rhetoric and all the “Trump is Putin’s Minion” mockery, our President authorized a slew of missiles to be launched against Putin’s puppet regime in Syria.  This doesn’t look like the act of an isolationist or an Alt-Right ideologue.  It looks like the act of a humanitarian who says “the hell with our parochial interests, we can’t just sit back and watch as innocent people are poisoned to death.”

Last evening on my way home from work, I was listening to WPFW, Washington D.C.’s station “for jazz and justice.”  The DJ, Garland Nixon, lambasted Trump for striking back at Assad’s airfields and playing the “world’s policeman.”  Speaking as a “progressive,” Nixon said that America has no right to intervene in other countries’ business when our own interests are not being threatened.  Really?   Is that what progressivism stands for?  The duty to stay away from the next World War long enough to enable the next Hitler to slaughter six million more Jews?   Because if that’s what progressivism means, sign me up for the neo-con alternative.  

Believe me, I’m no fan of war.  I still haven’t forgiven the Democratic Party – let alone the Republicans – for the insane misadventure known as the Iraq War.  But sometimes, a humanitarian disaster reaches a point where the United States can no longer justify sitting back and doing nothing.  Syria has more than reached that point.   As the nation with the most powerful military in the world, the United States is uniquely positioned to beat down a bully that uses chemical weapons.  No, I’m not suggesting that we take over Syria the way we took over Iraq, but I am saying that just as our military can do too much in Syria, we also can do too little.  In fact, we have been doing too little for too long.  Give Trump credit for taking that first baby step away from the ideology of isolationism (and America first-ism) and toward global humanitarianism. 

    Yes Virginia, Women Can Play Golf Too

This weekend, the eyes of the sports world will be focused on Augusta, Georgia and arguably the most beautiful golf course on the planet.  You hardly need to be a golf fan to love Augusta in the spring.  You need only appreciate trees, bushes and the occasional pond.  It’s truly gorgeous.  The fact that the best golfers in the world will be whacking balls beside these pines, oaks, magnolias, and azaleas is but a bonus.

In comparison to Augusta National, the golf course at the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California is merely pedestrian.  Similarly, the quality of golf that was played there last weekend is not as high as we would expect from this weekend’s Masters.   Not surprisingly, the women who were competing at Mission Hills were relegated all weekend to the Golf Channel (and its fringe audience) because a men’s tournament was being played at the same time and, as everyone knows, men’s sports is still the “king” when it comes to the ratings. 

Well, I’m proud to say, I was part of that fringe audience watching the Golf Channel last weekend.  This was, after all, the first major tournament of the year, and I’d rather watch a major women’s tournament than a minor men’s tournament.  The overall quality of play might not be as good, but the quality of the drama is far better -- and besides, those top LPGA players are still amazingly skilled.  They might not drive the ball as far, but they can putt, chip, and hit a short iron with deadly accuracy.  If you’ve never watched them, give these ladies a chance – you won’t be disappointed.  

Last Sunday, with only about six holes to play, the LPGA tournament turned to the theater of the bizarre.  American Lexi Thompson was making her way to a decisive victory at Mission Hills when a sheepish announcer told the TV audience that Thompson would be assessed a massive four stroke penalty for inadvertently placing a ball literally one inch too close to the hole on a two-foot putt.   For those of you who follow football, that’s like being assessed a three touchdown penalty in the fourth quarter for inadvertently lining-up offsides.  What’s more, the infraction happened a day earlier.   Some Einstein noticed it on TV and reported it to the tournament officials, who then assessed Thompson a two stroke penalty for her innocuous ball placement and an additional two stroke penalty for signing an incorrect scorecard.   As it turned out, that four stroke penalty was just enough to kill her chances.  Her three stroke lead immediately turned into a one stroke deficit, and even though she valiantly fought back on the last several holes to force a playoff, she lost on the very first playoff hole.    

Like most golf fans, I was livid when I watched this spectacle unfold.  I was pissed at the rules of golf that apparently allow for no “prosecutorial discretion” or make room for a de minimis/immateriality threshold.  I was pissed at the obsequious Golf Channel announcers who didn’t dare wax indignantly about the sickening bureaucratic rigidity that was on display (Howard Cosell would have screamed bloody murder).   And I was later annoyed at Thompson’s Korean competitor who took the customary plunge into the pond as if she deserved to win the tournament when, in fact, this was a robbery worthy of Jesse James.  But days later, I realized that perhaps this was all for the best because at least people now are talking a bit about women’s golf.   Decades of exquisite play hasn’t put the sport on the map.  Maybe it needed those Kafkaesque officials to remind the sports world that women play golf too. 

Thompson may have hit a loose putt on the 18th and a loose iron on the first playoff hole, but her part in this drama was nothing short of magnificent.  After she was hit with the absurd penalty, she proceeded to nail birdie after birdie – all the while fighting off tears.   And then, once she lost, she just went about her sportsmanlike business -- signing autograph after autograph.   She never whined.  Instinctively, she must have understood that that this was a teachable moment, and the lesson was all about class.  Perhaps she also recognized that being the top-ranked woman golfer in the United States at the tender age of 22 is probably a decent enough consolation prize.  

Thompson has already won one major tournament, and something tells me that more championships are yet to follow.  Plus, given what happened last week at Mission Hills, more people will be watching.  And besides, golf is just a game.  Chemical weapons – either using them or turning a blind eye when others use them?  Now that’s real life.   

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Bitten by the Bug

Unfortunately, your humble scribe is temporarily out of commission with the flu.  The Empathic Rationalist plans to return next weekend.   Good bye for now.