Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Thanksgiving Weekend Plea

“All happiness or unhappiness depends solely on the quality of the object to which we are bound by love.”

Spinoza wrote those words in one of his earliest works, the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect.  But this morning, I’d like to tweak them a bit.   Here’s my version:  “So much happiness or unhappiness depends solely on the quality of the object to which we are bound by hatred.”

You have to pardon me, but I spent part of the last couple of days putting the finishing touches on my newest essay, entitled “Spinoza on Love and Hate.”  In my research, it became clear that of these two emotions, love took the lead role for Spinoza.  But it was also clear that Spinoza believed that hatred is both more ubiquitous and more important than most of us would like to believe.  I didn’t have to be convinced.  I’ve always thought that people are in denial when it comes to the prevalence and profundity of hatred.  

Here are some snippets from the sage of Amsterdam:  “It is rarely the case that men live by the guidance of reason; their condition is such that they are generally disposed to envy and mutual dislike.” “Men are prone to hatred and envy, and this is accentuated by their upbringing.  For parents are wont to incite their children to excellence solely by the spur of honor and envy.” “Men are far more inclined to revenge than to repay a benefit.” “Men are by nature enemies, and even when they are joined and bound together by laws they still retain their nature.” 

All of those words were written more than 300 years ago.  Do they remain true?  Or has the arc of the moral universe bent so far toward justice in the past few centuries that these statements seem antiquated?  Personally, I take some of those quotations to be a tad exaggerated, but only a tad.  It is certainly the case that envy, revenge, mistrust, bigotry, and violence are alive and well.  It is also the case that when Spinoza painted a portrait of the human condition characterized primarily by insecurity and competitiveness, he demonstrated how slowly indeed the arc of the moral universe bends.   Just turn on the television – news, drama, whatever you prefer:  are you likely to see a profile in love or in hatred?  Security or fear?   Anger or compassion?

Even the voices of “progressivism” right now are obsessed with their enemies.  For a while, it was the NRA.  Then, it was Netanyahu.  Now, it’s the xenophobes and the other bigots.  So there you have it – it is not enough for the progressives to be engulfed by hatred.  Now, they have to be hatefully obsessed with hatred itself.

While I have no idea exactly what the progressive’s obsession du jour will be tomorrow, I think it is safe to say that it will not be an object to which they will be bound by love, but rather an object to which they will be bound by hatred.  And needless to say, the same can be said about their political opponents, who may claim to be followers of Ronald Reagan, but don’t come close to having the Gipper’s positive vision of progress.  He traded on hope, whereas his contemporary “disciples” trade on fear.  And anger.  Such is life in 2015.

It is difficult to write the above words this weekend, which should be a time of gratitude.  We all have so much to be thankful for, and it is precisely those things – the objects that bind us by love, not hatred – that we need to take stock in more often.  As Spinoza argued, hatred is impossible to avoid altogether, for any time we feel pain, we are prone to feeling hatred.  But at least we can avoid the more grandiose manifestations of hatred, such as envy and anger, and we certainly should be able to avoid feeling the kind of inner-rage that seems to be on the ascendancy today, and not just in the Middle East. 

How do we defeat hatred?  Only by love.   That was Spinoza’s teaching back in the 17th century, and it remains true today.

This Thanksgiving weekend, please remind yourselves of the people you love the most, the institutions you love the most, the artists and writers you love the most, the qualities in yourself you love the most, the aspects of your planet that you love the most, and the vision of the future that you love the most.  Just for this one weekend, let yourself be defined by what you cherish, not by who you fight.   

And when you’re making your list, allow me to remind you not to forget about God.  Spinoza, for all his heresies, would require me to make that point.  After all, it was Spinoza – who many take to be an atheist – who wrote that the love toward God “cannot be stained by the emotion of envy, nor again by the emotion of jealousy,” and “there is no emotion directly contrary to this love by which this love can be destroyed.”  Accordingly, Spinoza added, our love toward God “is the most constant of all emotions … and cannot be destroyed except together with the body.”  

I would never say that the belief in God is for everyone, but I am heartened to say that for those who do believe, the Holy Name provides an incredibly powerful object of affection.  These days, I feel like we’re fortunate whenever such an object presents itself.  I’ve had enough with all the hatred.  

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Turning Washington, D.C. into a Hotbed of Reconciliation

Tomorrow, in a suburb of Washington, D.C., several dozen Muslim and Jewish religious leaders from the Greater Washington Area will assemble for the purpose of engaging in two activities.  First, we will see if we can identify a social action cause that both communities can embrace and tackle together.  Second, we will try to match up individual congregations of Jews and Muslims to form “twinning” relationships that can hopefully continue for months, or even years.

I have spent a lot of time during the past several weeks coordinating this event and am incredibly excited about the prospects.  I can see the event being a great boon to Muslim-Jewish reconciliation in this area, and yet I can also see the possibility that it will accomplish little, due to a lack of follow-up.   Ultimately, the responsibility for the event’s success lays with its participants – the rabbis, imams and lay leaders who will assemble.   It is clear to me that they all care about Muslim-Jewish reconciliation and engagement, but they are also beset with a myriad of other demands on their time.  It is not like the organizers are poised to lock them into a room for months until they’ve somehow bonded into lean, mean, interfaith machines.   We organizers are going to lead these horses to water, but we can’t make them drink.  In other words, we can’t force them to prioritize Muslim-Jewish activities above all their other duties.  Believe me, though, we’re going to try to inspire them.  And as far as I’m concerned, the world needs us to succeed.

I would love to go on and discuss the event in more detail, but because of my role and the fact that we’re only a day away, I don’t have the time to extensively blog this morning.  What I can say, however, is that I’ll accept your prayers.   Please pray that the stars align.  Pray that the speakers find their voices.  Pray that the social action cause that the group votes on is an inspired choice.  And above all else, pray that those rabbis and imams who exchange names and phone numbers tomorrow afternoon actually follow-up and pursue these relationships going forward.

Jews and Muslims are the closest of cousins.   It is time for us to recognize all that we have in common rather than to obsess exclusively about our differences.   May tomorrow afternoon provide a significant step in that direction.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Coping with Madness in the 21st Century

What a crazy morning this has been.  One minute, I’m looking at last night’s photographs from the streets of Paris – the filled body bags, the wounded survivors, the ubiquitous policemen.  The next minute, I’m looking at the photographs that have just now been released from my daughter’s wedding – the beaming bride and groom, the adoring friends, and yes, even the proud, balding father-of-the-bride.  

There is so much in life to be thankful for, and nothing quite like wedding pictures to bring that point home.  But today, it is difficult to devote ourselves to thanksgiving.  It is a day that should be devoted to contemplation – and sorrow.

I call this blog the Empathic Rationalist, based on the philosophy espoused in my first novel, The Creed Room. The centerpiece of that philosophy was a simple rallying cry: Let passion be your sail, reason your keel, and empathy your rudder.   You will note that in the name of that philosophy, the “reason” element is the noun and the “empathy” element only the adjective, but when it came time to formulate a credo, it was empathy that was featured the most.  We are advised to steer our way through life primarily using our empathy.   After all, passion can be violent, and reason can be cold.  But empathy?  It is almost always a thing of beauty.

This morning, however, I find that my empathy is being challenged.  To be sure, it’s easy enough to empathize with the victims of the Paris attacks and their families.  But for every moment I spend feeling compassion for them, I spend another moment feeling hatred for the terrorists who turned Paris into a bloodbath.  (It is OK to use the term “terrorist” for those creatures, is it not?   When civilians are killed in Israel, I note that in many circles, the terrorists/murderers are often thought of compassionately, more as soldiers than as terrorists.  But hopefully, I can use the T word for the perpetrators of last night’s massacre and not worry that there is a soul reading this blog who would use a more gentle word on their behalf.)

I keep thinking to myself, how can so many members of our species support the killing of innocent people?  Do I have to think of these killers as human, rather than simply as evil creatures?  Have they not given up their right to claim personhood status?  Or is it appropriate for us to show them at least some measure of compassion, if not because of who they are today, then at least because of who they have the potential to become in the future, if only they can somehow wake up to basic human values?
Maybe my feelings are too raw for me to answer these questions today.   Maybe I’m still too much in shock to reason intelligently about this topic.   So let’s try this.  Let me remind you of what I said in the Creed Room when I addressed this topic under more sober conditions:

“Even the greatest empaths can’t encounter everything, or every one, empathetically.   In fact, no matter how empathic the soul, at times he will encounter a person whom he finds distasteful.  We’re talking eating-a-bad-tomato distasteful.  Perhaps the person is a malicious gossip or a pathological liar.  Perhaps he’s just plain violent.

“To be empathic in these situations doesn’t require turning the other cheek.  Sometimes people have to be confronted and stopped in their tracks.  Yet, even in the darkest of encounters, an empath must act respectfully toward the ‘other.’   He must recognize that this distasteful or violent person is a human being cut from the same basic cloth as the empath himself.  

“When encountering a walking, talking bad tomato, the situation is no different from when the empath recognizes something about himself he doesn’t like.  He doesn’t wallow in self-loathing.  Where’s the respect in that?  For the same reason, he shouldn’t wallow in hatred for others.
“That said, if it turns out that an empath finds himself in the same situation that a certain writer did in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and is forced to witness the ‘other’ raping his wife before his very eyes, we suppose a heaping handful of hatred is in order.  But even then, the pilot light must at least be flickering.”

Those were my words from a decade back, as I contemplated distasteful and even violent individuals.  But what happened last night in Paris wasn’t merely a showcase of one or two distasteful or violent individuals.  The perpetrators of last night’s mayhem didn’t behave like human beings, even sick human beings – they behaved like the Borg from Star Trek.  Wikipedia defines the Borg as “a collection of species that have turned into cybernetic organisms functioning as drones in a hive mind called the Collective, or the hive.”  In the case of ISIS, we are dealing with creatures that are weaponizing themselves into instruments of terror and homicide, fueled by a belief-system based on sheer contempt for contemporary human beings.  How am I supposed to think of them as people?   Insofar as I think of them at all, how am I supposed to keep that pilot light (of love) flickering?

Nights like last night are indeed eye openers. Perhaps, for the first time, some of my fellow gun control advocates are appreciating the arguments for allowing law abiding citizens to bear arms.  And perhaps President Obama may appreciate the value of confronting extremist Islam as such – rather than using euphemisms to characterize this deadly movement that we are now facing.  I have spoken a fair bit in this post about my first book, The Creed Room. But above all else, when I’m not feeling sorrow for last night’s victims, I’m thinking about one of the themes of my second book, Moses the Heretic.  That’s the one where I spoke about the dangers of rapid and constant advancements in weapons technology.  Last night in Paris, fancy guns killed well over 100 people.  But what will happen in 50 years, when the successors of ISIS gather the most up-to-date biological or chemical weapons available and try to kill 100,000 people?  Do we really believe that can’t happen?  And if it did, are we really expected to empathize with the killers?

So there you have it -- something to think about on a grim Saturday morning.  A little oy to go with your joy.  Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Still the King

Having graduated from college in 1980, I took the following year off to travel, study, and screw around.  My longest trip, which lasted the better part of two months, was to Israel.  It was there that I checked into a yeshiva, thought long and hard about what the rabbis were saying, and decided to be a baal teshuvah, which is another way of saying a born-again Jew.  The rabbis at this yeshiva would surely be proud that they “converted” me from a secular to a religious mindset.  But they wanted more.  They wanted me to move to Israel. 

Honestly, I thought about it.  Life seemed to be more meaningful in that country.   I was overwhelmed with the history of the place and the sense of spirituality that was built in to the architecture.  I felt a greater sense of community there.   And I could relate more to the people; they made me feel at home.  But when push came to shove, I didn’t make the move.  And I recall there being two primary reasons why.  First and foremost, my parents were in America.  As an only child, I needed them and they needed me.  Secondly, and I’m not kidding, there was football.   The season had been over for a couple of months, but that didn’t matter.  I just couldn’t imagine living in a country where I wouldn’t get my constant dose of the gridiron.  Watching that sport had been a passion of mine ever since the mid-60s.   I started out as an NFL fan – a devotee of the Raiders and Vikings, to be specific.  But by the time I graduated college, I was an equally rabid college football fan.  It was my comfort food.   It was my guilty pleasure. 

Decades have elapsed since my flirtation with “making Aliyah” (as they call the decision to emigrate to Israel), but my love for football has never died.  To be sure, on more than one occasion I’ve felt compelled to boycott the sport in order to take a stand against the barons of the professional game.  Even then, however, I’ve continued to watch my beloved Stanford Cardinal.  Watching football is the closest thing I have to a drug addiction.   I’ve lost a bit of my appreciation for the violent side of the game – sadly, it was probably my favorite aspect of the sport when I was younger – but there is plenty of finesse and strategy in football, and believe me, I love every bit of it. 

I’m reflecting on the sport right now because it seems to be so much in control of the American cultural scene this fall.   During the opening weekend of this year’s NFL season, the average prime time telecast drew an audience of 20 million.   This was more than the average World Series telecast.  So basically, early-season football is more popular than baseball at its best.  

And that’s just the NFL.  In many parts of this country, college football is the biggest game in town.  I sure can’t get enough of it.   Just this afternoon, I spent my time at a crowded bar watching the Stanford-Colorado game, and there were probably six or seven other matchups on the tube that I actually cared about.  Tonight, when LSU plays Alabama, the entire Deep South will be watching.  I’ve met many people over the years from states like Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and I can’t think of one who doesn’t love college football. 

Then there’s the high school game.   As bad as my high school team was, football was still the biggest sport there.  In some small towns around here, high school football is a huge deal.  My wife teaches at one of those towns – Damascus, Maryland.  They’ve got the number two team in the Washington area, and I assure you – when that team plays, that town comes alive. 

Those of us who live in Washington DC joke that the Capitals could be in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Wizards in the NBA finals, and the Nationals in the World Series … but the people of DC would still care more about the Redskins even if they stink.  Such is life here in Washington.   Such is life here in most American cities.  There are exceptions, but those are anomalies.  We live in a football crazed country, and that doesn’t seem likely to change no matter how many players get injured or engage in off-the-field misconduct.

I’ve often joked that if you want to know who is going to win the next Presidential election, just ask yourself one question:  which of the two Parties’ nominees would you rather hear as the analyst of a National Football Conference Championship Game?   That’s another way of asking who would America rather have a beer with?   If you go back in time a few decades, you’ll find that this test works virtually every time. 

In our next election, I actually expect this method to fail.  I just don’t see how, “barring injury” (as we football fans would say) Hillary doesn’t win the election.  And Lord knows that nobody wants to hear her get in the booth and analyze the NFC Championship game.  Pot luck would be WAY better at that.

Still, on days like today, when my college team won big and is very much in the thick of things to make the Playoffs, I find myself wondering.  No matter how many reasons I can identify for why Hillary can’t lose, maybe I’m not taking the football test seriously enough.   If there is one thing that unifies Americans, it’s the love of freedom.  But the love of football and all it represents might come in a close second.  While Hillary has indeed enjoyed a charmed fall, she’s still not someone you’d want to have a beer with, let alone announce a football game.  In other words, she’s no Condoleezza Rice.  Both women served as Secretary of State, yet only one shares America’s addiction to the gridiron.  And as long as Hillary isn’t that woman, she’ll remain vulnerable in an American popularity contest.