Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Tribute to a Fallen Benefactor

He played second fiddle to a man who couldn’t act.  Yet he was no slouch as an actor.  The parts he played were varied, including Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof, King Arthur in Camelot, Fagin in Oliver, the King in the King and I, Paris in Mission Impossible, Goldman in The Man in the Glass Booth, and the title character in Caligula.  But who am I kidding.  Nobody remembers him playing any of those roles.  Even a Mission Impossible fan like me has long since repressed any memories of his participation in that show.   Like so many of his fans, I only want to recall him playing a single role.  A role of a lifetime.   A role that defined him to the point where he once wrote a book exclaiming that he was NOT the same person as the character he played.  As one of his greatest fans, I simply refused to believe him.   And ultimately, he came to change his mind.

Leonard Nimoy’s autobiography, I Am Spock, was published in 1995.  I have kept a copy in my bedroom ever since, not far from a biography about another favorite pop culture icon, Stanley Kubrick.  Both Kubrick and Nimoy were Jewish.  Both were born around the same time (in the late 20s/early 30s).  Kubrick always fascinated me because his art evoked three parts id and two parts superego.  Nimoy’s Spock, by contrast, was four parts superego and only one part id.   But that element of the id was always there, lurking under the surface.   Without that element, Mr. Spock would never have been one-tenth as interesting.  

I’m not one to make objective pronouncements about the quality of art.  I see it largely if not primarily as a matter of taste.  So I will make no pretense of objectivity in uttering the following two proclamations.   Mr. Spock was the most human figure in the original Star Trek.  He was also the most interesting character in the history of television.

My fascination with Spock was precisely because of how much he had to tell us about being human.  Spock’s was a life of constant struggle.  He was ostracized by his peer group as a child because, unlike them, he had a human mother.  And yet he struggled to be as rational and stoic as his Vulcan peers.  Like anyone who truly struggles to live virtuously, Spock strove to live up to his potential, and surely would have recognized his inability to do so.  Nobody is perfect, not even a Vulcan, and Spock was not one to lie to himself. 

Spock’s quest was to rise above his (half) humanity – to become, in the word of Nietzsche, an ubermensch.   Of course, his stated goal was to live as a “Vulcan,” as if he felt that the residents of that planet were superior to those from Earth.   But I never was convinced that he really felt that way.  After all, he opted to spend his time with human, all-too-human comrades, like Kirk, McCoy and the rest of the Enterprise crew.  He clearly derived energy from being around us and was 100% loyal to his human friends.  So why then did this half-breed identify with his Vulcan side rather than his human side?  Because he recognized what anyone with a sane mind would have to recognize in the 23rd century: that unless we ground ourselves in logic and reason, we’ll never make it to the 24th century.   Frankly, we have enough data to reach that kind of conclusion even now, in 2015.  Perhaps we’d all benefit from spending a few years on Vulcan studying mathematics, science, neck pinching, and mind melding.

To those of you who didn’t watch a lot of Star Trek, you may think that being a Vulcan, for all its social benefits, sounds too robotic to be worthy of a man with a human mother.  But Spock was hardly a mere robot.  At times, the writers of Star Trek found techniques to unleash his inner self – by having him fall under the influence of a drug, say, or an alien who could control his mind, or by having him go back in time to an era when Vulcans were savages.  And then there were other instances where the 23rd century Spock, without losing autonomy, found a place for simple pleasures.  We have seen him fall in love (in the episode, This Side of Paradise), enjoy the sexual companionship of a woman and the taste of cooked animal flesh (All Our Yesterdays), go into heat like an animal (Amok Time), become enraged almost to the point of homicide (again, This Side of Paradise), laugh and cry (Plato’s Stepchildren), play beautiful music (Charlie X, Requiem for Methuselah), and deceive people (countless episodes).  Spock never gave up his humanity.  He simply built that humanity on a foundation of logic.  Does that sound so crazy to you?   

Spock was a poignant character.   In the old Star Trek series, he never got the glory of being a successful ship’s captain.  To paraphrase one character, he was always by Captain Kirk’s side, “as if you’ve always been there and always will.”   The one time he was able to lead a shuttlecraft expedition was a disaster – he almost lost his life and that of his crew.   Looking back at his brief, spore-induced love affair with a character played by Jill Ireland, Spock said “For the first time in my life, I was happy.”  He wasn’t exaggerating.  Spock never allowed himself truly to let go – there was always that superego, tugging at him, reminding him that the human male, unrestrained, is a dangerous animal.  Spock didn’t want to endanger anyone else.  He always wanted to be of assistance.  He was, in his own way, a secular saint.   

And that’s what made Spock such a role model.  You didn’t have to be a half-breed to relate to him.  All you had to be is someone who is flawed, conflicted, and interested in helping out nonetheless.  Oh yeah, you also had to believe in the voice of reason.

To be sure, Spock could be over-the-top in the extent to which he denied his human side.  But I never believed those denials; I just took them to be silly attempts at caricaturing a great character.  The real Spock – the one that the show evoked when it wasn’t engaging in caricature – would never have denied his humanity.  That would be “illogical.”  It wouldn’t even pass muster with the Oracle at Delphi, let alone with the Vulcan Science Academy.   That academy wouldn’t be worthy of its name if it forced Spock to blot out his appreciation for his mother, a (human) teacher named Amanda.  Denying our greatest benefactors is not logical.  It’s not even decent.

Well, if Spock can’t engage in that sort of denial, I won’t either.   Leonard Nimoy was a great benefactor of mine.  He gave me and so many of friends the character of Spock.  He imparted Spock’s subtle humanity, his even more subtle Judaism, and his not-so-subtle intensity, intelligence, wisdom, dignity, and humility.   But above all else, he imparted Spock’s compassion.   Somehow, Spock was able to convey that trait without coming across as sentimental.  He didn’t have an ounce of phoniness.  And I’m convinced that came from the cerebral qualities and emotional sensitivities of the actor who portrayed him.

In middle school, I attended three Star Trek conventions.  But I never met Nimoy.  For some reason, I never felt compelled to thank the actor for all the inspiration that his character gave me.     Perhaps that was my mistake.   But somehow, I suspect that Nimoy ultimately realized how many young people like me were moved by his character and by the humanism of the show in which he starred.   He came to understand that the character that he gave us, the role of a lifetime, was truly eternal.

Nimoy immortalized the line “Live long and prosper.”  He did both.  And now he has left us, his fans, with the job of doing the same.  Thanks to Leonard Nimoy, neither of those tasks seems nearly as daunting.   

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Steal This Idea

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

    — Thomas Jefferson

               Yes, I admit it.  I love Jefferson.  I love to quote him.   And I don’t love him any less to recognize that he was – perish the thought – deeply flawed.   Are you any better?

               If Jefferson was alive today, he’d surely chuckle at the common use of the term “intellectual property.”   It might even become one of his favorite oxymorons.  

              Lately, I’ve been witnessing an idea of mine come alive, and I’ve enjoyed the results so much that I am encouraging anyone who reads this blogpost to please steal this idea and run with it.   I have nothing to lose if you do.  I have no intention to turn it into private property.  It belongs to the world.

             The idea involves putting on a program known as a God Panel.  The panelists are composed of a small group of people each of whom adheres to an altogether different perspective on God.  Each of the panelists must be able to behave civilly, and hopefully bring a little humor and no shortage of passion to the table.   The panel must include at least one unabashed atheist.  It must also include believers in God who come from a traditional religious perspective and a progressive (i.e., heterodox) perspective, respectively. 

             In the first part of the session, the panelists speak for no more than 3-4 minutes each in response to a series of questions.  The second and final part of the session involves Q&A with the audience.  

The questions in the Part 1 of the program are intended to elucidate, among other things: how the panelists view God; in the case of believers, what frustrates them most about non-believers, and vice versa; and what common ground the panelists have found.    It is critical that there is at least one atheist on the panel who will say, “I may not believe in God, but at least I care about the topic, and I’d like to see the members of our society engage more about it.”  That voice is critical, because it will remind everyone in the audience that just as it would be a shame not to care about art, music, literature or science, it is also a shame to remain on a third-grade level when it comes to the topics of religion and God.  You see, one of the goals of the program should be to challenge the audience both intellectually and emotionally about a topic that people are increasingly able to blow off altogether.

During the past 2 ½ months, four of us – Jew, Muslim, Christian and Atheist – have participated in God Panel sessions at numerous Washington D.C. area venues.   We have found that the program works wonderfully both at places of worship and at university settings and we even headlined a conference on science and religion.   As long as the voices are impassioned and truly diverse, the questions are rich, and the speakers are disciplined enough not to talk too long at any one sitting, the audience cannot help but be stimulated.   The best thing about this idea is it may be replicated anywhere you can find a little religious diversity and a host community willing to tolerate multiple perspectives.

So, whether you live in Dallas, Portland, London, or Tel Aviv … give it a try.   Get a panel together – hopefully one where the panelists like each other – knock on some doors, and be prepared to open some minds.  I’m not sure this idea will work in, say, Mosul, but that’s OK.  Because if you want to put on a God Panel program and find that there is neither the tolerance nor the interest in the area for such a program, you will have learned something very important.   It’s time to take out your communicator and say “Beam me up, Scotty, there’s no intelligent life down here.”

Oh wait.  That phrase was turned into a T-Shirt.  Perhaps I’ve wandered into the realm of intellectual property.  So maybe you’re wise not to use it.  Just stick with the God Panel idea.   Mr. Spock would approve … and so would Jefferson.  

Monday, February 16, 2015

A Salute to a Walking Talking American Institution

To be a blogger, it seems, usually means being a social critic.  There’s always someone out there – or some group out there – worthy of ridicule.   And even if your blog is called The Empathic Rationalist, it’s hard not to take the bait and fire away, rhetorically that is, when people behave badly.

Every now and then, though, someone steps up and distinguishes themselves in a positive way.   And toasting their accomplishments is every bit as important as criticizing others for their shortcomings.  

So with that in mind, I must take this opportunity to give a huge round of applause to one, Jon Stewart, for a job incredibly well done … and a decision to leave when he’s on top of his game.   I realize that Stewart has assembled a gifted team of comedy writers who are no doubt responsible for most of the laughs he provides us.   But Stewart himself needed to be one hell of a comedic actor to pull off the lines night after night.  Stewart himself needed to be one bright, quick-witted guy to eviscerate guests like my former classmate, Jim “Mad Money” Kramer.   Stewart himself needed the wisdom and even-handedness to mock his fellow progressives almost as much as the conservatives, unlike his counterparts on Fox News or MSNBC who clearly have consumed one type of Kool-Aid or another.  And Stewart himself needed the kind of secure ego to laugh at himself and take responsibility whenever he went too far.   Let’s face it: he’s just a talented, likeable guy, who has turned a half-hour comedy act on an obscure cable television network into arguably the best source of news in America.  That’s quite a tour de force.  

At a time when the American media is treating with respect certain European “satirists” who are truly just pornographers and hate mongers, Stewart has been a true satirist.  He’s handled himself with class, meaning that he’s used more than a modicum of restraint.  But that’s not to say he has pulled his punches.  If a public figure in America was being hypocritical, there’s a pretty good chance that Jon Stewart called him or her to task in a fun-loving, but also damning, way.  There will be a whole lot of people in politics and in television “journalism” who will be thrilled to see Jon Stewart go.

Has Stewart made a difference?   I mean a real difference?  Well, he almost single-handedly destroyed the CNN show Crossfire, in the process pointing out just how obnoxious and dangerous it is to live in a society that is completely ideologically polarized.  That may have been his single most concrete accomplishment, but he should be remembered more for simply educating the American people, for many years, about the major news stories of the day.  In a day when most Americans don’t read the newspapers, Jon Stewart has become one of our best windows to the world.

But therein lies the problem.  He only has a half hour on Comedy Central.  Roughly a third of that ime could be devoted to, oh I don’t know, flirting with Maggie Gyllenhall or listening to Brian Williams spin some yarns.  And the remaining time, as Stewart admits, needed to include the mandatory masturbation and fart jokes.  That doesn’t leave much time for hard news – especially when it takes so long to imitate a turtle who runs the Senate.  

Seriously though, the real problem with this society is that there is only so much that satirists can accomplish, when business leaders, statesmen, and mainstream journalists have all collectively decided that they are most comfortable when they are NOT rocking the boat.   Satirists provide a momentary break from the status quo, but what they do, while it can be cathartic and even insightful, is not enough to overshadow the folks who run the economy, the government, and the mainstream media.   

So, what does that mean?   Jon Stewart is going to have to (a) run for Governor of New Jersey when Chris Christie’s term is over, and (b) run for President when Hillary Clinton’s terms are over.  If a former B-movie dramatic actor like Ronald Reagan can become a transformative conservative President, then surely a former B-movie comedic actor like Jon Stewart can become a transformative progressive President.  And that is no joke.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Battle for the Soul of Zionism

                It’s starting to look more and more like Bibi Netanyahu will keep his job after the next election.  Polls indicate that he seems to have regained a lead among the only voters who count, despite being easily one of the least popular statesmen in the world.    Apparently, Bibi’s nine year tenure as leader of the Jewish State is not enough for the Israeli people.  There is something about the way he spits in the face of Hamas, Fatah, Iran, America … or should I say that there is something about Bibi’s brand of intransigence, intolerance and wagon-circling that makes Jewish-Israelis feel secure.   He claims to give them a “Bibi-sitter.”   I suspect they see him as a needed patrol officer in a very tough neighborhood.   

                Fair enough.  Bibi can have his tenure-track job.  But something happened during this election cycle that gives me hope.  Bibi’s opposition assumed a new mantle, and I love it.  They have coalesced around the term “Zionist Camp.”   Composed of both the Labor and Hatnua parties, this center-left coalition is making a point that is being heard not just in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv but around the world.   To be a Zionist today, they claim, is to be a political liberal.  When it comes to Zionism as a movement with a future, the argument continues, the two-state solution is the only one remaining – and to the extent Bibi has effectively given up on that solution, he has demonstrated that his commitment to Zionism is temporary and superficial, at best.  

                Does that message sound crazy?  At this point in time, it still might.  But I suspect that it will increasingly gain steam over the next several years as the views of those outside the “Zionist Camp” are unmasked.    

Everyone can see that the Hard Left – by which I include such Jewish-American groups as Jewish Voices for Peace – are anti-Zionist.   In these circles, Zionism is seen as a primitive, tribalist, colonialist ideology that is essentially just a form of cultural (or religious) fundamentalism.   Those who subscribe to this ideology have no problem identifying themselves as opponents of Zionism.   Indeed, as I have witnessed, when they join the peace movement and speak to Palestinians or other Arabs, they speak with disdain not only for the policies of a particular Israeli Administration but for the whole concept of a “Jewish State.”  For the Hard Left, the idea of Israel as a Jewish State is as offensive as the idea of America as an explicitly “Christian State.” 

But what about Bibi and his boys?  How does the “Zionist Camp” get off suggesting that Bibi is no Zionist?   Unlike the Hard Left, doesn’t he proclaim his devotion to Zionism?   Doesn’t he, in fact, see himself as a staunch protector of the Jewish State who is consistently elected to make sure that the bleeding heart liberals don’t lower Israel’s shields and welcome those who are poised to destroy her?  If that narrative is correct, how can anyone say that Bibi doesn’t belong at the heart of the Zionist Camp?

Consider that Bibi represents a coalition of secular and religious people who, for a variety of reasons, want Israel to expand deeper and deeper into pre-67 Palestine.   Their expansionist policies, if permitted to continue, would effective remove the prospects of a viable Palestinian State side-by-side with Israel (unless you include the Kingdom of Jordan, which is composed largely of historically-Palestinian people, but which is not the kind of democratic, Palestinian state that would satisfy the residents of Gaza and the West Bank).   To be sure, Bibi has paid lip service to his support of a two-state solution, but his actions and even some of his rhetoric suggests that he has given up on the possibility of such a solution.  Perhaps Bibi doesn’t believe that the Palestinian Arabs can truly behave as partners for peace, or perhaps he has the same kind of manifest-destiny expansionist impulses that once fueled the growth of the United States.  Whatever his thinking, the result is clear:  he wants Israel to grow to the point where there can be no viable Palestinian state, and he is willing to live with the prospect that ultimately this “one state” will be faced with the prospect of being composed primarily of Arabs rather than Jews.  Given that democracy seems to be the wave of the future, argues the “Zionist Camp,” Bibi is putting Israel in a position where eventually it will either be a pariah and Apartheid state, or a primarily Arab democracy, neither of which should be acceptable to a true Zionist.

What’s more, many of Bibi’s supporters are revealing that their desire to expand into the West Bank doesn’t stem at all from an interest in preserving the security of the Jewish State.  They want that land simply because they want THAT land.   If you look at particular places that are identified most with the stories of the Bible, far more of that Land is in the West Bank than in pre-67 Israel.   Some of the most religious Jews care less about preserving the right for Jews to have autonomy over Tel Aviv than they care about ensuring that Jews can settle in such West Bank cities as Hebron.  In other words, they would rather have all Jews and Palestinians living together in a single state with an Arab majority, than to have two states for two peoples, as long as in the One State their ability to settle in the holiest of (West Bank) places is enhanced.

Already, I see signs that folks from both the Hard Left and the Religious Right can envision a “win-win” – the walls are torn down, the Palestinians return to Haifa, and the Jews return to Hebron.    Let there be dancing – single-sexed dancing, in many cases – throughout the land!   You won’t hear Bibi advocate such a vision publicly, but what is notable is the folks who share such a vision include members of right-wing, religious parties, and ultimately, it’s those parties who help Bibi form his coalitions.  

My friends, I totally buy the theme of the so-called Zionist Camp.  I too see “Liberal Zionism” as the only Zionism that is true to the origins of the movement and the only Zionism that can possibly have staying power.  I recognize that “Liberal Zionism,” also known as “Two-State-Solution” Zionism, is not a romantic vision.  It is a vision of divorce, not of marriage, and divorce is always somewhat ugly.  But let’s face it; the Middle East has been somewhat ugly now for a long, long time.  It’s time to create a lasting peace in which every person in the region can be a citizen of an independent state.  Personally, I don’t see that as possible without at least some degree of divorce.  And frankly, I want the Jewish people to have their own peaceful state and not to have to live as minorities all over the world, including throughout the Middle East.   I think that makes me a Zionist.