Wednesday, November 9, 2016

What do we do now that Trump has been elected?

On election night, a friend asked on Facebook, “So what do we do if Trump wins?” It seems that many people had not thought about it before that moment.

I had. I’m not saying my first thoughts are great, and they should not be definitive. Here’s my list, if you’re looking for somewhere to start. Please add to it.

  1. Organize to protect Muslims, Latinos, and other immigrants and vulnerable groups from violence. Safe spaces in homes and places of worship. 
  2. In Congress, build bipartisan coalitions for the rule of law and against dictatorial excesses. 
  3. Win over non-"deplorable" Trump voters by showing them their legitimate economic concerns have been heard.
  4. Push to win state legislatures and governorships to destroy Republican gerrymandering when it's time for redistricting four years from now.
  5. Use federalism and states' rights to assert the authority of state governments to have more progressive laws than the federal government does, particularly around marriage and health care.
  6. Stop saying the country is full of idiots. Listen to On the Media’s “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” read  Arlie Hochschild's book Strangers in Their Own Land, and talk to people you think might hate you. Some of them do. (I'm not that naive.) But some of them think you're the one who hates and looks down on them, and you could both be surprised.
  7. Create Medicare-for-all health systems at the state level, because if Trump wins, the federal system is going down.
  8. Reorganize underground railroads to help women in need of abortions get to states that still have clinics performing them.
  9. Find sympathetic members of the police and National Guard who will resist unconstitutional orders. Support them. Pay their legal fees if necessary.
  10. Build a Popular Front Against Fascism. Everybody from the Greens to the Libertarians needs to find ways to work together.
  11. Form a compact of coastal states that will mutually aid one another to adapt to rising sea levels.
  12. Protect journalists. Trump has been whipping people into a frenzy against "the media" at rallies all year. More than ever, we're going to need honest reporting, investigation, and analysis. We can't get that if the journalists are in jail.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Indecent Prepositions

Are you excited for this post?

If so, you're probably a lot younger than me.

To baby boomers and our elders, "excited for" was something you said about a person. I was excited for my sister when she landed her first job.

Just recently, I was excited for my gay and lesbian friends when their marriages finally, finally became recognized all over the United States.  They are people, and they matter to me.

But I was excited about the decision that made their marriages legal. It was an event!

All prepositions are not created equal

Words like "about" and "for" are prepositions. They're the useful little signposts that point out relationships. Not the "Is Ben going to get back together with Jennifer?" kind of relationship, but the kind of relationship between words in a phrase or sentence.

But prepositions do have one thing in common with romance: if you put the wrong couple together, they are not going to get along. People observing these mismatched pairs may wonder "What are those two doing together?"

Or, they may even appear to have a different relationship than they do, and that causes confusion. Watch a guy flirting with a woman he thinks is single, and how his face falls when her husband shows up. Using the wrong preposition with the phrase can confuse people just as badly.

What's wrong, and what's just different?

"Excited for" is not wrong. I recognize that. Language changes. Meaning shifts. This particular way of saying things is so popular that I see people older than me online saying they're "excited for" an upcoming event. And nobody has trouble figuring out what it means, when they see it in a context.

(Yes, "excited for" still gives me pause, and I have to remind myself that the person saying it isn't an airhead. But that's my prejudice. It's up to me to handle.)

Similarly, language changes from one place to another. I grew up in Pittsburgh, where, when we're waiting to pay for our groceries, we stand in line. My wife grew up in New York, and she gets impatient about standing on line. She's not wrong--at least about her preposition--even though "buying something online" means something totally different today! 

Which words go together?

Sometimes, though, I see prepositions being used in phrases where they just don't belong. The person writing is just fumbling with the words, as if they were interchangeable. To my mind, there's something squalid about it.

Here are some actual examples. I am not giving the sources to avoid embarrassing the writers.
  • "It wasn't IQ that was separating successful students to the ones who struggled." No, it wasn't. You don't separate to. You separate one thing from another.
  • "Antisemitism is discriminating people just because they're Jewish." No, it's discrimination against Jews. You need the preposition!
  • "Sexual harassment is the right of every American...." That sentence appeared in an otherwise very good student essay. What the writer meant, of course, was "Freedom from sexual harassment is the right of every American."
There are other cases where the preposition you choose expresses a slightly different shade of meaning. "Arguing with" someone is not "arguing against" them. The first might be a private conversation. The second is probably a public debate.

If you choose the wrong preposition, other people may still understand you--or they may misunderstand you completely. Either way, you're making them do all the work. And you're putting yourself at the mercy of their ability to understand. Respect yourself: make the effort to learn and use the word that says what you mean.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

What's the Matter with Oregon?


I'm feeling conflicted about the takeover of federal land in Oregon. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which I respect, says there are a whole lot more so-called "militia" groups out there ready to cause an insurrection if we let them, so the feds need to crack down.
“We believe these armed extremists have been emboldened by what they saw as a clear victory at the Cliven Bundy ranch and the fact that no one was held accountable for taking up arms against agents of the federal government,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project.
And many people have pointed out the huge difference between the way the forces of law and order have treated these armed rebels--ignored them, even when they are occupying federal land--and the way they treat mainly peaceful protesters in Missouri, or at the Mall of America...or even teens carrying toy guns. I pointed out the difference myself:
These people have a wholly fictitious idea of what's in the Constitution, and they have been in open rebellion against the U.S. government for years, and they're alive, well, and armed. Because they're white.

(And I would add, they're Christian, not Muslim.)

A Threat, or a Joke?

Without denying the racism, Albert Bumeko over on Deadspin writes that these so-called militias are not a well-organized threat--just a bunch of idiots with guns.
These men are not frightening. They are jamokes. They are exactly jamokes. Their guns, on the other hand, are very frightening—for precisely and entirely the same reason and to absolutely the same degree that those same guns would be frightening in the hands of toddlers.
(And all the people lampooning them as #Y'allQaeda and making fun of them for not planning their occupation well enough to feed themselves would presumably agree.)

The Danger of Action Before Understanding

Chris Faraone, an independent journalist published on DigBoston, has been writing about these groups for a long time, and he says the situation is much more complex. True, the occupiers are the gang that couldn't shoot straight, and even local people who agree with their positions disagree with their tactics.

But that's partly the point. There are people who agree with their positions about federal government arrogance in managing public lands. They could be completely wrong, but here on the East Coast, we'll never know--because nobody is talking to them.

proclamation on Alcatraz Island tells new arrivals where they are ...

I have a new perspective on occupation of federal land since visiting Alcatraz last month. Apparently while I was busy studying for my bar mitzvah, American Indians occupied Alcatraz for a year and a half before the Nixon Administration finally moved them out. That gives me pause. 

The Nixon Administration left the occupiers in place, for nineteen months, and after three days, my liberal friends are shouting for the use of force? What's wrong with this picture?

Please tell me what you think!

And more important, how you think about the action. How do you separate fact from fiction? What are the issues worth considering and what are the distractions, and why?

P.S. I find it bitterly ironic that this occupation has taken root in a wildlife refuge called Malheur. "Malheur" is French for "unhappy misfortune." Whether this event is a bizarre one-off or a harbinger of things to come, it shows what a terrible situation the United States is in these days. I fear for my old age, and for the next generation.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Inheriting Abraham, by Jon D. Levenson

Someone once said that the U.S. and the U.K. are two nations divided by a common language. We both speak English, but oh, the different ways we speak it!

This brilliant little book by Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard, makes the same claim about Jewish, Christian, and Muslim conceptions of Abraham. Abraham is central to all of us, but in very different ways.

Abraham in Judaism

For Jews, broadly speaking, Abraham is the the first father of our people. In the Torah, God singled him out and commanded his allegiance, and Abraham proved worthy of God's trust through his actions. He circumcised himself and his sons Ishmael and Isaac, as God instructed. He didn't withhold his son Isaac when God told him to sacrifice Isaac (in the Akedah story). Abraham also argued with God about what justice required, so well that if only a few more righteous people lived in Sodom and Gomorrah, both cities would have been saved.

Some commentators go so far as to imagine that Abraham lived by the 613 commandments of the Torah even before they were given to Moses. The continuity between Abraham and the Jewish people is complete.

Jews are descendants of Abraham in a lineal way, but there are other biological descendants: the children of Ishmael. In the Torah, they are blessed with the promise of becoming great nations. Jews are blessed in the same way too, but we claim an additional legacy from Abraham. As a community, we inherit his commitment to God, and God to him. That is why converts to Judaism typically call themselves "son or daughter of Abraham" (and Sarah, in more liberal circles).
Converting to Judaism

Within the Jewish tradition, there are ways of recognizing Abraham's importance for people who are not descended from him in any way. This begins in the Torah: "All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you" (Genesis 12:3) and continues in midrash that states that throughout their travels, Abraham and Sarah brought many people to an understanding of God. Judaism is not an either/or religion, however. Abraham can be a light unto the nations (as we are commanded to be, as a people) and still be specifically Avraham Avinu, Abraham our father.

Abraham in Christianity

Christianity, of course, originally sprang from Judaism. Beginning with Paul, however, Christians interpreted the figure of Abraham both as a foreshadowing of Jesus and as a proof that they--and not the Jews--were the proper descendants of Abraham.

This interpretation rested on two readings of Genesis that the Jewish tradition would not accept.
  1. Reading Genesis 12:3 not as "All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you" but through you, instead. The Jewish reading had people saying, "May you be like Abraham!" The Christian reading had them saying "We are like Abraham, and the message that he brought flows through us."
  2. Making much of the fact that God chooses Abraham first and only later commands him to circumcise himself and his male children. In Paul's hands, this becomes proof that circumcision (and by extension, all the mitzvot, or commandments, of the Torah) are unnecessary. The nations of the world can become Christians without becoming Jews first.
For Christians, according to Levenson, Abraham's distinguishing feature was his faith in God. Since to many Christians, Jesus is God, their belief in Jesus makes them descendants of Abraham. 

From this perspective, people who do not put faith first, and people who do not believe in Jesus, are missing the point of Abraham and (in the case of Jews) spurning their inheritance. They are putting their salvation in peril. That is an unimaginable thing for a Christian to do, but not an issue that takes up much space in Judaism. Christians generally don't realize that Jews by and large leave questions of what happens after death up to God, and that Jews believe "The righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come" (Pirkei Avot 1:1). So, what is the point to Christians is beside the point to Jews.

For Christians, the meaning of Abraham is that Jews should give up rabbinic teachings and "go back to Abraham"--meaning to the Abraham imagined by Christians, who cares only for God and his own soul, not the one in Genesis who is clearly exercised over which of his biological sons will inherit from him. So, for Jews and Christians, being "Abrahamic religions" is a stumbling block to interfaith understanding as much as it is a spur to achieve it.

Abraham in Islam

No god but God, and Abraham was his prophet
 In Islam, Abraham is not the ancestor of the Jews nor the prototype of Christian faith. Abraham is a "muslim" in the literal sense: a person who submits to God.

For followers of Islam, what is most important about Abraham is his strict monotheism. The Qur'an stresses that Abraham was not a pagan or a polytheist, at a time when the vast majority of people were. In this way, Abraham the prophet was just like Muhammad the prophet, and the latter came to restore and amplify on the teachings of the former. Being a descendant of Abraham in any sense doesn't matter. What matters is sharing his belief.

The Torah shows Abraham meeting with and worshiping with priests who called God by other names than he did, and it does not show Abraham saying that only one God exists--simply that he, Abraham, will follow only one. Unlike Christians and Jews, however, Muslims are not bound by the stories in the Torah. If those stories conflict with Qur'an or with belief, they are free to regard them as garbled in transmission. So once again, Jews and Muslims being "Abrahamic" is a source of tension between them as much as it is an opportunity for mutual understanding.

One Abraham or Three?

Jew and Christians both claim to be Abraham's descendants and heirs. Muslims don't.

Jews and Muslims both think Abraham's monotheism means God has no body and no separate "persons." Christians think God has both.

Christians and Muslims both think everyone must eventually accept the truth of their religion to be saved from hell. Jews don't.

Levenson is drawing all these distinctions partly because he is a careful scholar, but partly because he is convinced that relations between Jews, Muslims, and Christians must be based on mutual respect. Sweeping these differences under the rug only keeps us from doing the more important work of understanding one another. I fully agree.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti

When I was a small boy, my father told me that it was important for a person to be able to laugh at himself. On my first day of school, the teacher gave us all name tags. On my tag, which she  pressed to my small chest, she spelled my name wrong. All during recess, I walked from child to child, pointing out the misspelling and laughing at my own name.

I couldn't understand why all the children running and shouting and playing dodge ball thought I was the weird one. I was doing what's important, after all.

Sheila, the viewpoint character in How Should a Person Be?, is in her twenties, but she's still trying to do what I did at age six: find out what's important to do and do it. Her rules don't include "Be able to laugh at yourself." If they did, perhaps this book would never have been written! Instead, she's trying to create something important, and she thinks that you judge how important a thing is by how intensely it makes you feel.

It takes a masochistic relationship with a man, the prospect of ruining her best friendship with a woman, and discarding mementos of her childhood to make her realize that there is no one way a person should be, and that she doesn't have to be a leader to be important. Each person is uniquely valuable, even Sheila.

I could sympathize with her desire to feel everything intensely, even if it hurts. That's what my early twenties were like too. And sometimes you have to cross boundaries and do ugly things just once, to find out what it's like. I also loved the way Sheila recognized people spewing theories as "just another man in the world who wanted to teach me something." It led to her realization that she had become that guy--like me on the playground, trying to show I could laugh at myself.

All through the book, however, as a feminist, every time I read about her wanting to be used by her sex partner, Israel, I wanted to shake her. Don't you know, I said in my head, that women and men already went through all that, so you don't have to? (And as a fellow Jew: what is up with naming the guy Israel when your Jewish identity shows up in the way you speak and the metaphors you use throughout the book? Seems like some unopened baggage there, still.)

So, I ended the book thinking that all the really interesting parts of Sheila's story begin when this book ends. I don't know whether that's a reflection on the book or on me. I'm glad I read it, just as I'm glad I lived my young adult life. And I would never want to do it again.