Genies and Bottles

“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” I said.

I don’t remember what prompted my remark, but Leah, my daughter, had an interesting reaction.

“Maybe you can. What do we know about genie-world?”

I laughed.

“Well, true, but it’s an expression…”

“I know, but why is it? What are the rules of genies? Who knows?”

She had a fair point. If I Dream of Jeannie, a 1960s T.V. show that I loved when I was growing up, was any guide, genies went back into their bottles regularly. I remember the inside of Jeannie’s bottle. It was colorful and decadent with silk draped on the walls and velvet cushions. Not a bad place to hang out actually, though it seemed quite limited. Jeannie blinked, turned into purple smoke and went back in when directed by her ‘master’ or when she was angry at him and wanted to sulk. In hindsight it was a ridiculous show. I think I knew it was ridiculous at the time but couldn’t resist the romantic angle and attractive characters. But, I digress.

Sometimes when you stop and think about the expressions we use, you realize that they aren’t what they seem. In this case, the first known use of ‘letting the genie out of the bottle’ was in Tales of the Arabian Nights in 1706. We are familiar with the story of Aladdin, but there was actually another earlier one. The moral of that story, though, was the opposite of our use of the phrase today. In the original tale a quick-thinking fisherman outwitted the genie, convincing him to get back into his bottle, thus avoiding the mischief the genie might have wrought. How the message evolved to take on a different meaning, I don’t know. It is not the only example of the transformation of language or concepts over time.

The question posed by the genie and the bottle, or Pandora’s Box, is still relevant. Once an idea is out in the world, can you contain it? When I was growing up, we talked about this in the context of the threat of nuclear weapons. We wondered if the existence of nuclear weapons would inevitably lead to their use. Thankfully it hasn’t, at least not yet. They remain a threat, but steps were taken, and treaties were signed, to reduce the risk.

Today I think about it in terms of social media. Is it out of our control? Sometimes it feels like it is. Disinformation takes on a life of its own.

But social media doesn’t have to be that way. Some will find this objectionable, but regulation would help. We all know free speech isn’t unfettered, you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater, there are limits to hate speech, etc. Some of the standards that are applied in that context should be applied to the Internet. It is a matter of having the will to do it and applying the resources to the task. It needs to be a cost of doing business for Facebook and Twitter. God knows they make enough money! Newspapers and magazines have fact checkers and editors. Wikipedia has found a way to deal with the need for facts – it isn’t perfect, but it does pretty well compared to the wild west of other of social media platforms.

I know that the devil is always in the details (another expression worth examining since I’ve also heard it said that God is in the details too). I’m not suggesting it will be easy to regulate but we need to start. The fact that something is difficult doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be done. The damage to our culture of the current hands-off approach, in sowing division and inspiring violence, is a real threat to our democracy and our society.

It is indeed time to put the genie back in the bottle and I believe we can.

A Lying Liar

My parents taught me that lying was wrong.

 Their argument was five-fold:

  • First, ultimately the truth comes out; maybe not immediately, but in time it would emerge, and you would be embarrassed or ashamed to be caught in that lie.
  • Second, your lie could hurt someone, and we didn’t want to hurt other people if we could avoid it. [They did offer this caveat: If it was a white lie, intended to protect someone from harm, it might be okay.]
  • Third, it can be hard to keep track of lies and you might contradict yourself later (“What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive” –  I remember that adage from that font of all wisdom, Sargent O’Rourke on F-Troop.)
  • Fourth, if you make a practice of lying, you won’t be trusted, and when you need to be believed, you will be out of luck (see the fable ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’).
  • Finally, and possibly most important, when you lay your head down on your pillow at night you want to have a clear conscience so you can sleep peacefully.

I was convinced. I am not perfect – I can’t say I’ve never lied, but I am really bad at it. Ask my family.

It appears that our president didn’t learn this lesson, or he has conveniently forgotten it. It is hard to believe that we need to review the reasons to value honesty. Let’s take a closer look at how Trump fails:

  • The first argument assumes a person can be embarrassed. Trump has no shame. When he is caught in a lie, he doubles down on it.
  • The second argument assumes that we value not hurting people. Trump is unconcerned about people’s feelings – he puts this on display every time he mocks someone for their disability and, more generally, how he treats people in his life.
  • Trump could not care less about keeping track of his lies, he makes no attempt to do so. When a reporter brings up statements Trump has made in the past which were incorrect or contradictory, he pretends it never happened or shrugs his shoulders.
  • Trump doesn’t value relationships and doesn’t want to acknowledge dependence on anyone, so he moves through the world without worrying about whether his word means anything. He has been sued repeatedly for not fulfilling commitments. His lack of credibility has done damage to our relationships with allies across the world.
  • Considering that he is known for tweeting at all hours of the night or early morning, sleep appears to elude him.

Trump’s enablers and followers apparently didn’t learn that lying is wrong either. It frightens me for our future – lying has become normalized. What will it mean for our country if our culture no longer values personal integrity and if we believe the ends justify the means?

Trump’s lying may in fact be criminal when you consider his handling of the coronavirus. I believe he has blood on his hands.

I understand the temptation to lie when it is expedient. If a lie gets you what you want in the short term, it can be quite tempting. Sometimes we lie to avoid conflict or unpleasant conversations. Whatever the motivation, it is short-sighted. If you lie to avoid conflict, it puts off the inevitable and possibly makes it worse when you finally do have to confront it. If you lie to achieve a short-term goal, it may jeopardize more important long-range accomplishments. We need to take a longer view, in our personal relationships and in our professional lives. I think any number of societal issues we face would be improved if we did that.

I was thinking about this because of a Facebook exchange I had with a neighbor. She is a Trump supporter and she posted a comment that she wasn’t voting for Trump’s personality, but for his principles(!). What principles? I was stunned. She made this remark in response to someone that criticized Trump for lying. Incessant lying is incontrovertible evidence of a lack of principles and/or mental illness. In either case, it is not a quality that someone who is entrusted with the presidency of our country should possess. This neighbor’s world is upside down. But, that’s what happens when you depend on Fox News and talk radio for your information.

Yesterday that same neighbor criticized Biden on Facebook for being boring. I long for boring. I am exhausted after four years of outrageous statements. I can’t wait for us to turn the corner and heal from this divisive and painful time – not to mention finally getting a handle on the pandemic with thoughtful, scientific federal guidance.

Tomorrow is election day. I pray that Americans send a resounding message by rejecting the Lying Liar and those that have enabled him in the House and Senate. While I also hope that Trump is held accountable for his crimes after he is out of office, I think I will be satisfied if he and his family fade away and are no longer part of our national conversation. It is an interesting question: what is best for our country? Pursuing investigations and possible prosecution or focusing on the future and turning the page on Trump. But, I am getting ahead of myself. We can debate that question after he is sent packing.

I am practically holding my breath with anxiety – I need to remind myself, and you, to breathe until we get through this, hopefully in 48 hours.

History

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Image from JB Shreve and the End of History

What is history? The first time I realized that the word could be broken up as ‘his’ ‘story,’ it was a revelation. Most of what we learned in school was the story of men, of particular men, those in power. One could argue that telling the story of the powerful is appropriate – after all they made the rules, they shaped the future. At least more so than ‘ordinary’ people. If we are studying the founding of America, learning about Washington and Jefferson is imperative. But, of course, that doesn’t tell the full story. Telling the full story is complicated.

So many things go into defining history. First, who is writing or telling the story? Who chooses what is included in the curriculum? Until relatively recently, historians were mostly male and mostly white. While in theory facts are facts (although in TrumpWorld perhaps we have moved into a ‘post-factual’ period), we know that making connections and analyzing information are colored by the biases and assumptions we bring to it. Our understanding is broadened and deepened when a range of perspectives are brought to bear on a topic.

It becomes a matter of balance – history can’t solely be the domain of the privileged. But, we don’t have unlimited time, even if we take into account that we send children to school for 12 years, time is short. Choices are made. It is hard to pack in all the history we want our citizens to know and provide them with a global perspective, too. When I was in elementary school in New York City in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, we were taught American history by highlighting the contributions of every different group that made up our country (maybe not every different group). We learned about Crispus Attucks, Haym Salomon, Baron Von Steuben,  Tadeus Kościuszko, Marquis de Lafayette – I came away proud that so many different people, representing different ethnicities and backgrounds, contributed. We learned about Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, etc., too. The message I took home was that the Revolution was a noble cause, with many contributors.

Looking back, I recognize that there were gaping holes and many things were romanticized. When the values that inspired the American Revolution were taught, the fact that women, Native Americans and Blacks were deliberately left out of the vision of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was not given much attention – more of a passing mention. It wasn’t until 11th grade that I learned about our treatment of indigenous people – the deliberate spreading of smallpox via blankets, for example. My children spent a great deal of time in elementary school learning about the native people of New York State – changes in curriculum were made. I don’t know if they learned about the different contributors to the Revolution, as I did. I’m not suggesting there is necessarily a trade-off, I don’t know.

In talking with friends, even friends who were in school with me, not everyone remembers learning the same stuff I recall. I was interested so I paid attention. How does that factor into all of this? Sometimes when I hear criticisms of our education because some subjects weren’t included, I think to myself, but I remember learning about that. Which brings me back to my first point – what is history and who is telling it? Perhaps we can dig up the approved curriculum for 4th grade social studies in New York City in 1968, but that may or may not be what was taught in a given classroom. And, my friend may have been absent the day we learned about Crispus Attucks.

In my limited experience doing research for this blog, I have found it challenging to settle on a ‘truth’ about events. Some are small events, like when Cutie the cat leapt out of the car window. My family agrees that it happened, but not how or why. In a more serious example, when I researched the murder of my paternal grandfather’s family in Poland by the Nazis, the specifics were hard to get a handle on. The fact of their death was indisputable, but where and how many were killed, was hard to establish. It opened my eyes to the difficulty of uncovering history and how it gets reported.

Another question is: who or what is being written about? What resources were available to reconstruct events? Could my blog constitute ‘history?’ Many of my essays are memoir, recounting experiences from 50 or more years ago, or incidents from last week. Diaries and letters are great but need context and corroboration. I don’t imagine that Donald Trump keeps a diary or writes letters, but if he did, he would hardly be a reliable source. What will history have to say about him?

You may be wondering, where am I going with this? I think these questions are central to what we are going through as a country today. We are coming to grips with a fuller picture of our history. We are raising questions about the lessons we were taught. Some feel threatened by that questioning.

We are also addressing the role of monuments and museums in the telling of that history. We are recognizing that our understanding of history evolves and then what do we do with those monuments and museums? Some might argue that our history is being rewritten and resent it because it feels like sand is shifting beneath our feet.  But it is always being rewritten – there continues to be scholarship about the fall of the Roman Empire. It is right that it is rewritten and rewritten again. No doubt it can be unsettling, but it is necessary for our growth.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in history, or that we should cast aside all that we learned. But, I do think, like with most things, we need to read critically, ask questions and be open to new interpretations.

I come back to a quote from Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I think that applies to where we are now. I think we all need to be on a quest in our lives to know better, so we can do better.

White Privilege

Not that long ago ‘check your privilege’ was being bandied about. A white male student wrote a piece in the Princeton college newspaper in 2014 calling attention to the use of the phrase. Some were resentful of the comment (including the writer of that column), some were confused by it and others welcomed the dialogue. That conversation seemed to be limited to college campuses, then the moment faded away. Now we are in another moment where this idea of ‘privilege’ has currency – maybe this time it will have more traction. The murder of George Floyd was the latest example of brutality inflicted on an African American man that would be very unlikely to happen to a white one. While it is troubling to label that difference in treatment a privilege because one would hope that any living being would be treated with more respect than Mr. Floyd was afforded, what should we call it if not privilege?

My husband and I were having a discussion the other day about that idea. “I wish there was another way to say it,” Gary commented. “People reject the idea of privilege immediately, like it doesn’t apply to them. They say, ‘no one gave me anything,’ or ‘I worked hard for everything I’ve gotten.’ It’s hard to get people to see it.” Gary was reflecting on his experience talking with a range of people who come through his office – not that it comes up that often, but when it does, he has found resistance. I know he isn’t alone.

People can only see things through their own experience. If they didn’t grow up wealthy, and then they achieved a measure of success after working hard, it can be hard to accept that they were still advantaged (if that can be a verb). We want to believe in a meritocracy and that we earned what we have achieved. But the advantages can be taken for granted, and there is no reward for calling attention to it. The status quo has a lot invested in protecting itself.

The first time I read about the ‘invisible knapsack’ (otherwise known as white privilege) was in 2001. I was participating in training to be a facilitator for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in their World of Difference program. The World of Difference program is a multicultural awareness effort that had a number of components, some geared to schools, others to workplaces. I participated in five full days of exercises, each designed to examine our assumptions about all the ‘isms’ (racism, ableism, sexism, etc.) in our society. Though I had always been socially-conscious, or thought I was, I learned a great deal about the insidious ways that our biases impact our behavior. On one of the early days of the training, we were given an article to read (I highly recommend it:

https://nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEED-Texts/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack).

 

That article was first published in 1989, 31 years ago. I read it 19 years ago. It is getting attention again now.

Interestingly, the same has happened with video from a PBS special, broadcast originally in 1976. That video (written about in an article in the New York Times recently (https://www.nytimes.com/video/nyregion/100000006654178/rosedale-documentary-where-are-they-now.html or you can watch the original documentary here on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dv0n1xfNf1E&t=3619s) is from a Bill Moyers piece on Rosedale (Queens). Rosedale is the neighborhood where Gary grew up. Last week I reposted Gary’s essay on an incident that happened to him when he was a child.

On the one hand, I find this all very discouraging. We have been having the same conversation for most of my life and yet it still comes as ‘news’ to many. I don’t understand that. On the other hand, there finally seems to be more widespread acceptance of the existence of systemic racism. I am hopeful that maybe now we can finally make some meaningful change. In the course of a given day, my mood can shift from optimism on one hand to despair on the other.

I take comfort in the words of our former president, Barack Obama, when he points out that we have made progress – that for all the anger, pain and disappointment caused by continuing tragedies, we have made steps forward. Despite the setbacks, and reminders that there is still much work to be done, there are more opportunities for African Americans in America today than there was when I was born (in 1959). Of course, that isn’t enough, as we see every day, we haven’t made nearly enough progress.

One of the things I have realized over the course of my career as a school board member and as a trainer of school board members is that we need to periodically refresh our knowledge of the fundamentals. We think, since we are doing the work day-to-day, that we know the essentials. But the truth is, we forget, or at least lose sight of them. In the midst of whatever crisis, we are facing, or even when we are carrying out the mundane day-to-day tasks, we stop thinking about the fundamentals. We can easily lose our way. That is why continuing education is critical in every field – medicine, law, every workplace. It isn’t just that we need to learn about new developments, we need to be refreshed on the core values that inform our work. There is always more to learn and more awareness to be had – and this applies to being a citizen of a democracy. I hope Americans are willing to do the work.

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It’s Not Getting Easier

I thought this would get easier. When the quarantine started, I thought I would settle into the new routine without too much difficulty. After all, it wasn’t all that different from my life before coronavirus. In the beginning I didn’t feel particularly anxious – I had moments where I worried about my husband’s and our children’s health, but I wasn’t terribly fearful of getting ill myself. I was doing what I needed to do, spending more time cleaning and cooking, streaming more movies and t.v. shows, getting out to exercise. I thought, as time wore on, I would get used to it. I am surprised to be finding it harder and harder, even as restrictions are easing.

I’m thinking about why and I don’t have an answer. I have some possible explanations. Though we saw our daughter on Monday, which was wonderful, the ache of missing our kids gets deeper. Not seeing our two-year old granddaughter for three months is beyond painful. Though we FaceTime, I worry that she won’t be comfortable with us when we finally do see each other in person. When I think about it rationally, I don’t believe there will be long term damage to her or our relationship. But, that doesn’t ease the heaviness I feel.

I haven’t seen my mom in months either. On Tuesday the independent living community where she resides began a phased reopening, which is great news. Other than getting outside on her own porch, she has been confined to her one-bedroom apartment for the duration. I can’t imagine how I would have coped with that! Now she will be allowed to walk the grounds in accordance with a schedule (to maintain social distancing). I worry about the toll this has taken on her physical strength and mental acuity. It saddens me that I haven’t been to visit. Now that she can go outside, it is more practical for me to take the 3.5 hour drive to see her. I feel some relief knowing that, but again, we don’t fully understand the damage done or what the future holds. We aren’t out of the woods yet.

Before this happened, we were in the midst of planning our daughter’s wedding in December (2020) – a joyous occasion; an event I take great pleasure in helping to plan. We have not changed the date or arrangements, yet. I so want things to go off without a hitch, she deserves a great, festive celebration. Even if we didn’t have to deal with coronavirus, I would be worried about it all falling into place. Now with the specter of postponing or making major adjustments, all the unknowns weigh on me.

Perhaps more than anything, though, I am troubled by the news; I can’t tune it out. Whether it is the recent reminders that racism is alive and well or the latest effort by Trump to distract from the pandemic, I am sincerely worried about the fate of our country. I know there are good people – many of them. They may, in fact, outnumber the ignorant, ugly ones. But it seems that the latter have more power than their numbers should allow. Our president represents that ignorant, ugly strain of America. While it might be wrong to assume all of Trump’s supporters are of the same ilk, it hard for me to not think the worst. I am aware of Republicans who are ‘never Trumpers,’ but they aren’t in office and wield little power.

If all a Republican can say is that they wish Trump would ‘tone it down,’ as one person I know said recently, then they are blind to the damage being done. Toning it down doesn’t begin to undo the harm. They are unwilling to acknowledge the erosion of the rule of law, ethics and honesty. People may have been cynical about politics before his election, but after 3.5 years of Trump, the idea of virtue in public service appears to be almost dead. Can faith in public institutions be reclaimed?

I want to believe in the potential of our country, in the bedrock values that I thought were at the heart of our founding. Though we may not have fully realized those values – liberty and justice for all – I thought that the vast majority believed in those principles. I find myself asking if ethics, honesty and integrity aren’t part of the foundation of liberty and justice, then how do we achieve those ends?  We seem to have forgotten that the ends do not justify the means.

Just a couple of weeks ago, as I was walking with a friend, keeping an appropriate social distance, I was offering her optimism. She was feeling doubtful. I told her that science will triumph. A vaccine and/or treatment would be found, and we would emerge from the darkness. I still believe that scientists will find a solution to Covid-19, but I now fear that will not be enough. We are at a point where we seem to live in different realities, depending on where you get your news and your own predispositions. If a vaccine is found, will people believe in it and consent to take it? Will it be viewed as a hoax? Will it be made available to everyone?

The inequality, the inadequacy of our health care system, the vulnerability of our economy has been laid bare by coronavirus. Do we have the will to face these deeper issues? Do enough of us even see those issues? I never thought I would come to a point where I would ask these fundamental questions.

I need to reclaim my optimism. I’m not sure how to do that, other than to wait for election day and hope for a blue wave. The only thing to do is to keep on keeping on – writing, looking for constructive, productive activities, and caring for family and friends. Hopefully the gloom will lift long before November.

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I took this photo on my walk yesterday. Though I appreciated the beauty, it didn’t lift my spirits. That’s how I know I’m not in a good place.

‘Love the One You’re With’??

Recently I watched a four-episode series on Netflix called Unorthodox. It told the story of a young woman who left (escaped might be a better word) her Hasidic family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to start a new life in Berlin. Aside from being a compelling story, I found one scene particularly poignant and it resonated with me. It wasn’t my experience, but I could certainly relate to an aspect of it.

In a flashback scene, in preparation for her wedding, Esty is counseled about marital relations. All of the information is totally new to her. The woman guiding her explains how intercourse works. Esty looks at the woman in disbelief, saying that she had only one hole. She was sent into the bathroom with a hand mirror to examine herself. I was not nearly so ignorant, between my mother, books and school, I knew the facts, but I didn’t really know my body. It never occurred to me to look.

I was eleven years old when I got my period for the first time; younger than most of my peers. It didn’t terrify me; I knew what to expect. My mother had informed me, and I had read about the changes that were coming to my body. Despite that preparation, I still wasn’t ready to deal with it.

I understood that by beginning to menstruate I could become pregnant and have a baby. That idea seemed so crazy. I wasn’t even a teenager myself yet. I knew the basic biology of how that could happen, but it still seemed inconceivable, not to mention unappealing. At that age I knew I was interested in boys but not in a sexual way. I knew based on the fact that all of my crushes on stars, for me more likely to be athletes than actors or musicians, were male. I hoped that eventually there would be a boy that was interested in me, but that was the subject of fantasy, not real life and had nothing to do with sex. It seemed incongruous to have a body physically ready for something so momentous but to be so emotionally and mentally immature. I wondered why we were designed that way.

The message I received about sex from my parents was straight forward: wait until you’re married. Sex wasn’t presented as something dirty or shameful, but it was understood to be part of an intimate, committed relationship – which to my mom and dad meant being married. Not much else was said about it. My mother, to this day, describes herself as a prude. I can’t say whether she is or was, I can say that it was not something treated lightly by Mom or Dad. Off-color jokes were not part of our humor. I remember being surprised years later when I sat at my fiancé’s family’s dining room table and his brother made a ‘dirty’ joke. His parents, even his mother, laughed heartily. I wondered if my mother would have gotten the punchline.

While I was receiving my parents’ message about the seriousness and responsibility of having sex, society at large was changing. The moral code my parents offered was challenged by what I was seeing – love-ins, Woodstock, the women’s movement suggested that there were other ways to look at sex. It was confusing.

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Woodstock 1969

I became good friends with a girl in high school who had a different perspective about sex. I remember us having a conversation when we were in college about whether it was more intimate to have sex with someone or to reveal your fears or insecurities to that person. We looked at it differently. I remember saying to her that sleeping with a guy was the ultimate act of intimacy to me. She didn’t feel that way. She could be more casual about sex than she could about being vulnerable about her feelings.

Though I didn’t believe that sex should only happen in the context of marriage or only for procreating, I also didn’t think it should be treated as lightly as our other urges, like eating or drinking. I did internalize the values that my parents communicated:  that it should be part of a loving, committed relationship, it just didn’t need to be officially sanctioned by law or ceremony. I thought about my friend’s perspective, and the freer standards of the 1960s, but it didn’t feel right for me. I couldn’t be casual in that way.

I think my parents were good role models. Maybe I would have benefitted from more humor about it, a more relaxed attitude. But I can’t complain. I got a solid foundation. Dad showed respect for women. I never saw him ogle one when we were out and about. He never flirted with a waitress at a restaurant. I didn’t know men did that until I was an adult. To my knowledge he didn’t view porn, the idea of him doing that was preposterous to me. He didn’t subscribe to Playboy; I never saw him in possession of that kind of magazine. I knew those magazines existed – I knew of guys who were devoted ‘readers,’ but Dad was devoted to my mother, as far as I knew.  I respected that about him and wanted that in my own relationship. I was fortunate to find someone who shared those values and we offered those values to our children.

I still think about the idea of ‘love the one you’re with.’ Not with any sense of regret at having chosen the path I did, but wondering what is the healthiest way to view sex? Likely there is not one answer for everyone. Is it the same for men and women, heterosexuals and LGBTQ? Should it be? Are we free and honest enough to talk about it? Maybe the difficulties arise when the individuals involved are on a different page but don’t communicate their feelings. And, maybe that happens more often than we want to admit. As usual, I have more questions than answers.

The Education of an Idealist: A Book Review

I recently read The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power. To remind you, she was U.N. ambassador representing the United States during Obama’s second term as President. Prior to that she worked in his administration on the National Security Council. Hers is an interesting story. She was born in Ireland and lived there until her mother, unable to access a divorce in Ireland, took her two children and immigrated to America. Power’s and her mother’s journey is worth reading about. Not surprisingly, the issues raised in the book have spurred questions for me.

Some observations after reading the book:

It seems that immigrants have a clearer understanding of this country’s founding principles than many native-born Americans. Samantha Power and her family are examples of that. Fiona Hill and Alexander Vindman, NSC officials who testified in the House impeachment hearing, are two more examples.

Many of the events Power describes happened only four or five years ago, but I barely remember them. Or, more accurately, I remember the incident (for example, Assad gassing his own people in Syria or the killing of U.S. embassy staff in Benghazi) but have forgotten the specifics – if I ever knew them. It makes me wonder if it is information overload or a short attention span or not paying attention in the first place. Whatever the case, it is disturbing because how will we learn from these events if it all becomes an incomprehensible jumble swept under the rug.

As a person who has grappled with the causes and lasting impacts of the Holocaust, I was surprised to learn that Power made a name for herself by researching and writing a book about genocides in history (‘A Problem from Hell’ America in the Age of Genocide).  I will look for it next time I’m at the library. She was a reporter covering Bosnia in the 1990s and viewed her role as bringing the war crimes there to light so that the world would respond. I have always appreciated the importance of journalists educating us about events in far flung places, but this renewed my understanding of how crucial the press is. They may get things wrong or not tell a complete story but having eyes and ears on the ground is essential.

Reading about our conflicts with Russia, over its invasion of Ukraine and Assad’s actions in Syria, which Power had direct experience with at the U.N., brought into sharp relief the differences in values between our two countries. I studied Russian history (Soviet history at the time) when I was in college. I have some understanding of their single-minded concern with national security and their view of the world as an ‘us against them’ equation. They also have no legacy of democracy so when the Soviet Union crumbled it didn’t have a democratic tradition to call upon. Human rights never enter the equation for them. In the Russian scheme of things, what a country does in pursuit of its interests is not subject to any limitations – they don’t appear to apply a moral compass to the behavior of themselves or other nations. Power recounts her negotiations with Russia’s ambassador and those interactions illustrate very clearly that they are not our ally. We need to coexist with them, and we need to find opportunities to cooperate, but we cannot be confused about who they are. This reality makes Trump’s respect and affinity for Putin that much more frightening.

Another point that is driven home in the book is the power of politics. According to Power’s narrative, much of our country’s government action or inaction in foreign affairs is driven by perceptions of opinions/support of Congress, which, in turn, is driven both by their polling of their constituents and the influence of special interests. For example, Power describes Obama’s failure to act when Assad crossed the ‘red line’ in using chemical weapons, as mostly a political calculation based on lack of Congressional support for an air strike and fears of long-term engagement. After reading her analysis, in which she supported a military strike, I came away thinking that this was a failure of leadership on Obama’s part, but I have a better understanding of the factors that led to his inaction.

The notion of polling constituents or relying on phone calls/emails from constituents to gauge public opinion, raises a bunch of questions, some of which I thought quite a lot about when I was a school board member. The issues I faced were thankfully not life and death, but the fundamental question was the same: is my role as a representative to poll my constituents and vote accordingly; or is it to use my best judgment based on the information I have (which the public may not have) and apply my values to that data? Both paths are fraught. If I take the first approach, do I really know how my constituents feel? How many have I heard from and is it just the squeaky wheels? Do I poll on every issue, knowing that polling is not a perfect science?

If I choose the second approach, using my judgment, then I may be limited by the information I have and those who have provided it likely have an agenda. In the case of Congress, a lot of the information they rely on is supplied by special interests.

Whichever approach an elected official takes, representative democracy is flawed in some respects.

In my school board service, I generally went with the second approach. We didn’t do polling at that time, and I would have had some issues with it if we did. For me, it comes down to information, facts, data, analysis. If I could pull from different perspectives and look at data, I thought my decision-making would be stronger than basing it on a poll. Ultimately, the community would have their say in the most important poll – the voting booth. If they didn’t like where I came down on the issues, they would vote me out. Of course, I wasn’t terribly concerned about being voted out of a volunteer position. The challenge of taking my approach, relying on the data and applying one’s values, is that these days no one can seem to agree on a common set of facts or data. To make matters worse, there are those who benefit from exploiting the cynicism about science/data. At some point, we need to evaluate the information to assess its credibility and then trust in something!

So as not to leave you on a downer, I will share an example of the positive power of politics from the book. As Power describes the efforts to control and thwart the Ebola epidemic in West Africa a few years ago, the United States had the political will and resources to lead the way in addressing a terrifying public health emergency. This seemed to be a case where the data and science were believed, and political leaders overcame fear to do what needed to be done. One can only hope this problem-solving model can become the norm.

If you are interested in recent political history, and want to consider how values fit into public policy, I recommend reading The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power. By the way, I am not the only one recommending the book. It appeared on President Obama’s year-end list, too.

 

 

 

A Meditation on Christmas

Note: The following post is written by Leah Bakst, my daughter. Thank you, Leah, for your thoughtful, interesting contribution.

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I’m no expert on schizophrenia, but as I understand it there are two important categories of symptoms. Positive symptoms are things that are extra or added to the average experience. This could be something like hallucinations or delusions. Then there are negative symptoms – things that most people experience that can be absent in someone with schizophrenia. Like experiencing pleasure. Thankfully, most people have rich experiences of pleasure, but these feelings can be missing in people with schizophrenia.

In the same way that there are positive and negative symptoms associated with particular disorders, I think we also understand our identities through both things we Do and things we Don’t Do compared to the average experience. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the context of being Jewish at Christmastime.

In my experience of Judaism, there are definitely things we do:

  • Eat bagels (with cream cheese and lox!)
  • Fast on Yom Kippur
  • Hold Seders on Passover
  • Light candles on Chanukah
  • Ask lots of questions
  • Gesticulate

And many things we don’t do:

  • Eat milk and meat together
  • Eat shellfish or pig products
  • Eat leavened foods on Passover
  • Work on the Sabbath
  • Believe in Hell

There’s a lot of food-related stuff.

In my immediate family, there was one critical addition to the “Don’t Do” list: celebrate Christmas.

We did not have a tree. We did not have lights. We didn’t sing Christmas carols. Obviously, we didn’t go to church. We didn’t watch Christmas movies (with the critical exception of Die Hard, which, yes, is a Christmas movie, fight me). We didn’t have stockings or ornaments. No eggnog, or Christmas cookies. (I did taste eggnog for the first time last year, and I finally get it. It’s delicious. And mixes oh-so-well with bourbon.)

There were absolutely things we did do on Christmas. As the stereotype goes, we went to the movies where we saw many people we knew from our local synagogue. We also ate Chinese food. These were our own Christmas traditions and absolutely left me feeling like a part of my own special community.

There were challenges though. In high school, I sang in a select choir that went caroling. It was by no means mandatory, but most of my friends would bundle up and go to the local shopping plaza to sing and make merry in the few days prior to Christmas. I couldn’t imagine purposefully missing an opportunity to make music and have fun with my friends, so I went. But there was a discomfort that tugged at me. This was something that We Didn’t Do. And if I define myself by not doing that thing – not being part of the community that carols – then what does it mean if I go right ahead and sing along?

That wasn’t the first time I was presented with a challenging choice around Christmas music. In my public elementary school, we sang songs about Jesus in music class around the holidays. As a born participator, I decided that I would sing the songs only up until the lines that seemed religious. During those moments I stood silently, feeling out of place while my classmates sang with gusto around me, not knowing if the line I was walking was the right one.

Later on, the studio where I took dance classes took part in a Christmas parade. As before, I couldn’t imagine missing out and I happily danced the parade route to Mariah belting “All I Want for Christmas is You.” That one didn’t bother me so much. And I appreciate my parents letting me find my way – they certainly didn’t tell me I couldn’t dance in a Christmas parade. I guess this wasn’t something We Didn’t Do, but it wasn’t exactly something We Did Do either.

Now I’m older, and engaged to a non-Jew. My blond-haired, hazel-eyed sweetheart of Swedish descent, who formerly self-identified as a “Jesus freak.” Though he’s no longer particularly religious, he grew up very connected to the Protestant Christian faith and his family has many lovely Christmas traditions that they continue to keep.

As we work to weave together our two lives and traditions, he has lovingly embraced my areligious Judaism. He lights Chanukah candles with me, has fasted on Yom Kippur, and enthusiastically supports my quest to host Passover Seders in our small apartment. He loves the questioning nature of the Jewish faith, and the outward emotionality and warmth of many Jewish people. He has managed to embrace a set of traditions, an ethnicity, an identity that isn’t his without feeling like he has lost or diluted himself. It is a shining example of being a partner.

For some reason, it feels harder on my end. This is the second Christmas I have celebrated with his family. They are such wonderful people and have welcomed me so warmly. I feel unendingly lucky to be marrying into this loving, generous, and kind family.

But.

(There’s always a but, isn’t there.)

Christmas feels uncomfortable.

We gather in a house with a beautiful wreath on the door and single candles alight in each window. Late on Christmas Eve, we pile the presents under the tree, and set up the nativity scene on the mantle. Christmas morning we grab a cup of coffee and unwrap fabulous gifts. And only after the whole room seems fully blanketed in an array of colorful paper and ribbons, do we clean ourselves up for Christmas dinner with family friends.

None of this is particularly religious. I’d even go so far as to say it’s quite fun! But a small voice within me continues incessantly: this Isn’t Something We Do.

What do I do with that voice? That itchy feeling?

And why is it so easy for my fiancé to bring new traditions into his ken, and so much harder for me.

I know there’s an easy and obvious answer, but it isn’t really an answer at all. When he celebrates Chanukah or Yom Kippur or Passover with me, he is not at risk of being unwittingly assimilated into a dominant Jewish culture. There is literally no chance that if he’s not careful, there won’t be anyone who continues to celebrate Christmas or carry on the Christian tradition. After all, the American tradition is, by and large, a Christian one.

It’s not the same for me. My family made it through the Holocaust by the skin of their teeth. In my particular branch of the family, there are four grandchildren. That’s it. Two boys, and two girls. If things go traditionally, that means only the boys are carrying on the family name, and it is all on their shoulders to keep that alive. What a terrible and strange burden. We survived all of that only to… just kind of get swallowed up by American life?

And if part of how we define ourselves as Jews is by the things We Don’t Do, then will my children really be Jewish if they do those things? Is that the first step on a gradual slide into losing our Jewish identity?

And whether or not that’s true, do these questions fundamentally insult the many people out there (family members of mine and otherwise) who consider themselves meaningfully half-Jewish? As if their connection to the religion and tradition does not pass some purity test because they also observe some Christian traditions?

I’m really not sure where this leaves me. At the moment, I’ve been treating it all like a mosquito bite: the best remedy is not to scratch it and let it be, and trust that my body will eventually take care of itself. If I just let myself participate in these traditions, then maybe over time I’ll learn that I have not lost any of myself at all. In fact, I’ve gained a beautiful connection to my new family’s traditions. That would be a holiday movie-worthy ending.

But for right now, I don’t have that certainty. I’m just doing my best not to scratch and trusting in the knowledge that my fiancé and I can figure it all out together.

A Plea

There’s something I need to get off my chest. A thought has been percolating for well over a month and I need to put it out there. I was with a group of people and unfortunately discussion turned to politics. After some comments about the weaknesses of President Trump, a couple of people asked: But who can you vote for among the Democrats? Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am more than willing to vote for any of the Democratic candidates, except Bernie Sanders. I like a lot of the people running, actually. If Bernie were to somehow emerge as the nominee, I would either write someone else in or choose the Green candidate. Otherwise, I am prepared to vote for any of them. But that isn’t the point.

As I thought about that question I realized that I was angry about it. I don’t think that is the question at all. It is an easy out. The people asking were Republicans. They aren’t likely to support any Democrat no matter what. The question they should be asking is: Can’t our party (the GOP) offer a better candidate? Do we have to accept Trump as our candidate in 2020?

I recognize that we differ on policy matters. I’ve addressed this before on this blog (here). There is room for differences in ideas and beliefs about tax policy, immigration, environmental regulation, etc. But, it is impossible for me to believe that there are intelligent Republicans out there who don’t see Trump for the corrupt, dangerous person that he is. He is enriching himself and his family by virtue of his office. He has no ethics. He is a bully. Even if you like his policies, you have to acknowledge the harm he is doing – both domestically and internationally. His unwillingness to confront Russia about interfering in our elections is about his personal interests and his affinity for autocrats. The same can be said about Turkey’s President Erdogan.That should not be the basis of U.S. foreign policy. His willingness to enlist foreign actors to uncover dirt on his opponents is not politics as usual; he wants us to believe that everyone does the things he does. He appears to be counting on Americans’ cynicism or fatigue to get away with it. We can’t let that become the norm.

I don’t understand how the majority of Republicans aren’t demanding a change. I know that some, his base, like his style, like his bluster. They may even like his racism and misogyny. But I can’t believe that is the majority. Why are they, by and large, silent? I am aware that there are a few Republican columnists (Bill Kristol, David Frum) sounding the alarm about the harm Trump is doing. But I never hear from any elected Republican officials. And, more to the point, what about regular citizens who are members of the Republican party? Why aren’t they demanding either a change in his behavior or a different candidate for 2020? Where is the groundswell of anger that their party leader behaves so badly? People need to stand up to him – and that responsibility doesn’t fall to the Democrats. Republicans need to step up.

It is dangerous to accept that the ends justify the means. Even if you believe the US economy is doing well, can’t that be achieved with different Republican leadership? Mitch McConnell is willing to go to any lengths to put pro-life judges on the federal bench. Lindsay Graham is willing to sell his soul and whatever integrity he might have once had to be “in the room” of the powerful. I’m hopeful that karma (or their constituents) will deal with them. But what about everyone else? There must be someone who can champion the Republican agenda in 2020  – why does it have to be Trump?

I implore all Republicans with a conscience: demand an alternative to Trump! This isn’t about the Democrats at all. It is about the future of our country.

An Idea

I participate in a few writing groups. One of the groups is specifically for memoir. Last Thursday I shared a piece with that group which may be the introduction to my book. I say ‘may be’ because the project is still so raw, I can imagine that it might change. That aside, the essay I brought explored my identity as a secular Jew – a person who identifies with the culture (the values, humor, food and history) but not the faith in God. I was gratified to receive positive feedback from the group. One person in particular commented that I got it exactly right – it resonated with his own experience. It was encouraging.

Friday night I went to Sabbath services at a local reform synagogue because a friend was celebrating her bat mitzvah. It is quite an undertaking to achieve one’s bat mitzvah, especially as an adult, since it involves learning to read Hebrew and chanting in front of the congregation. My friend had been studying for a solid year. I was very pleased for her and know it was quite meaningful for her and her family.

Over the years I have flirted with the idea of studying for my bat mitzvah. When I was growing up it was not common for girls to go through the process. The first time I seriously considered it was when my children were getting further along in their Hebrew School education and I wanted to be supportive. I was the only one of the four of us who didn’t read Hebrew. We were going to services regularly at that point and I thought I would get more out of it if I studied. So, I took some classes with our rabbi. The classes had an unfortunate effect of reinforcing my lack of belief. Though I appreciated learning to read Hebrew (which I didn’t keep up so I no longer can), the discussions we had focused on the meaning of rituals and how they related to God. It left me cold. After trying a few different classes, I stopped.

I would not go so far as to claim that I am an atheist. I am in doubt as to the existence of a higher power. I am not in doubt, though, about the emptiness I feel when saying the prayers that are part of the liturgy of synagogue services. The God of those prayers, the God described in the Torah, doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t worship that God. But I like the feeling of gathering in community for common purpose.

Sitting in the sanctuary Friday night, I thought once again about becoming a bat mitzvah. And, once again, I rejected it. I keep running into the same wall – how can I go through the motions of professing a faith I simply don’t have. I do have faith, but it isn’t in that God. My faith is in the potential of humanity. (I can write about how that belief is currently being tested, but that is a subject for another time.)

I feel a kinship with other Jews – we often share a sensibility, as well as all the things I mentioned above that are part of our culture. I would like to nurture that connection.

While sitting through the service on Friday night, on the heels of my experience at Thursday night’s memoir group, I had an idea. Could there be a place for secular Jews? I started imagining a center of study (of our history), a place to explore and develop our shared values, to share food and humor. I could imagine celebrating holidays there, but without all the praying to God.

We are coming up on the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement. This period of time doesn’t need God to be meaningful to me. I have always appreciated it as a time of reflection, an opportunity for growth and to make amends with people who I have wronged. I would welcome the opportunity to gather with people to observe the holiday, to discuss the challenges that introspection brings. We could still blow the shofar as the symbolic reawakening that it is intended to be.

Does such a thing exist? One could argue that the Jewish Community Center (JCC) plays some of that role. But, it doesn’t really. Maybe it could, but so much of the emphasis there is on recreation and servicing specific populations (children and seniors) – as it should. Other programming is offered, but not what I am imagining.

The great fear of Jewish organizations is that the religion will die. After surviving centuries of persecution, it may die of neglect. The only areas of growth are among the Hasidic and Modern Orthodox. Conservative and Reform Judaism are shrinking and struggling. My future, as a Jew, will not be with Hasidism or Orthodoxy. I’m pretty sure my children won’t go that route either. Is there a viable alternative? Is it possible to create a movement of secular Jews?