Archive for September, 2010

STUMBLING BLOCKS AND THE MEDIA

All the world’s a stage, Jaques comments in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Shakespeare, however, could not anticipate how literally that statement would be taken centuries later following the establishment of the United Nations. World leaders love to strut upon that particular stage—none more than Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Given yet another 15 minutes of fame at the UN General Assembly on September 23, Ahmadinejad offered that most of the world believes that the United Sates staged the horrific attacks of September 11. Slaughtered its own people to reverse a declining economy and save the Zionist—“Israel” remains a proscribed word—regime.

Over thirty delegations, led by the United States, walked out. Their protest did not halt Ahmadinejad’s speech. It wasn’t meant to.

Whether deliberately hateful remarks should be allowed in such a world forum raises continuing questions regarding free speech, a value the Iranian regime does not uphold. Restrictions on speech that falls short of inciting violence—drawing that particular line presents no easy task—lead down a very slippery slope. If the United Nations believes in free speech—and it does so at least in corporate theory—then vicious speakers like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be offered the podium year after year. Yet I wonder if the UN and the cause of peace it espouses might not be better served if it required world leaders to forego geopolitics and focus on issues addressing the world’s basic problems of poverty, hunger, disease, education and human rights.

The Torah offers wisdom to consider. It commands us not to “place a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev. 19:14). The Rabbis interpret “stumbling block” not as a physical item but as temptation placed before the morally blind. Leave your wallet on a restaurant table while you go to the restroom, and someone might take it—although the thief might never have considered removing it from your pocket or purse let alone threatened the use of force. Therefore we are not to aid and abet the morally weak.

Ahmadinejad and his like know that the world is their stage because the media does aid and abet. It welcomes their venom even when it is spewed for no other reason than to gain media attention. Hate speech may be bad news for those who cleave to Leviticus’ commandment to, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). But it’s good news for ratings and readership.

In truth, the media places stumbling blocks before the blind with alarming frequency. (See my previous post, “Burning Books for Fun and Profit.”) Its willingness to report hate speech invites such speech. Thus the media doesn’t just respond to the news, it helps initiate it.

What to do? I don’t propose any easy answers. To a great degree, life isn’t about answers. It’s about questions. And I’m just asking.

BURNING BOOKS FOR FUN AND PROFIT

I’m going to burn a copy of God’s Others.

During the run-up to this year’s anniversary of 9/11, I learned an important lesson in public relations. After 40 years in advertising, you’d think I’d have picked up this bit of business savvy. But I’m not embarrassed. I’m encouraged. Now I can launch a wildly successful PR campaign for God’s Others. And I can do it on the cheap.

I haven’t chosen the venue yet. We’re a little sensitive to fire here in San Francisco after a gas line exploded in nearby San Bruno, killing and injuring residents, and decimating a whole neighborhood.

But this is business. So maybe I’ll torch God’s Others on the steps of City Hall. Lots of protests take place there. Or go incendiary in front of my neighborhood bookstore, Green Apple on Clement Street, and then celebrate with coffee at the Toy Boat. No hunting for parking or paying for a garage. I can walk. I might even burn a copy atop the Marin headlands, which look down on the Golden Gate Bridge. Makes for a great visual. They shoot car ads there all the time.

What’s important is that the media will fall all over themselves to cover the event. They’ve got a track record, you know.

Now, I’m not suggesting that burning my own book rather than someone else’s—particularly another religion’s scripture—will induce comments by President Obama or General David Petraeus. Hilary Clinton probably won’t call. But is a small mention by Katy Couric or Tom Friedman too much to ask?

This I know. If I get only 10 percent of the coverage provided to the pastor of a small evangelical church in Gainesville, Florida—the guy who threatened to burn the Quran on 9/11—I’ll sell a ton of books.

Of course, I’ll need to offer a reason why I’m reducing God’s Others to ashes. But I’m a creative guy. So maybe my justification will be that garlic doesn’t agree with me. Or the Golden State Warriors haven’t won an NBA championship in over 35 years. Or too much fog envelops my neighborhood. If the garlic growers in Gilroy, the Warriors’ dancers or the Chamber of Commerce burns my effigy so much the better. You know the old saying: bad press is better than no press. Way better.

After all, what does it matter if I act like a moron? The more ridiculous I am, the more the media will expose my name and face, the more copies of God’s Others I’ll sell, the more money I’ll make and the more I’ll spend. Which will stimulate the economy and encourage the stock market while our representatives in Washington are busy campaigning.

And that’s what being for God and country is all about, isn’t it?

GROUND ZERO AND MY SYNAGOGUE

They’re coming to tear down my synagogue, San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel. Forget that our 105-year-old architectural and artistic treasure is undergoing a multi-million-dollar earthquake retrofit. They’re coming. And the reasons are obvious.

The building is large. Prominent. You can see its gray dome from quite a distance—not surprising in a city of hills. And Sherith Israel fronts on California Street, a main east-west thoroughfare. Lots of people go by.

So what’s the problem? To those on the Christian right who claim exclusive knowledge of religious truth, a magnificent synagogue sitting right out there where anyone can see it has to be cause for concern. Jews—along with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and atheists, as well as Christians who believe in live-and-let-live—have it wrong about God. By definition. And to the true believer, as I write in God’s Others, different isn’t just different. Different is bad.

Look, I’m not against anyone else’s faith, liberal or conservative. People have a right to their personal beliefs. I don’t have to agree with them, but their beliefs are their business.

But I do get bothered when others determine that my religion—or anyone else’s—is their business, too. I get bothered when private concerns—like abortion, sexual preference and gay marriage—enter the public arena without respect for all Americans’ right to figure out what they value in their private lives. I get bothered when hatred and violence replace reasoned discussion and civility. I even get bothered when a majority of New Yorkers—people in the city where I grew up—tells a Quinnipiac University pollster they don’t want a proposed Islamic center built several blocks from Ground Zero. Not on Ground Zero. Near it. Because if a majority can block that building, it can tear down my synagogue.

Regrettably, reason and civility don’t inspire true believers, who confuse faith with objective knowledge. They don’t concede the existence of objective knowledge in the first place. Rather, they adhere to a universalistic religion of a particularistic God, Who loves them and hates everyone else. Worse, they can’t wait for God’s judgment in the world to come. They seek to impose their will in the here and now.

The journalist Jeff Sharlet exposes a particularly chilling aspect of true belief in The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. A relatively small group of men serves Jesus by developing relationships in the halls of power. It doesn’t run the United States or the world. It doesn’t break any laws as far as I can tell. But it does work to create a Christian America and a Christian world order. Which leaves the rest of us where?

As to Sherith Israel, I’m confident our building and breathtaking sanctuary will be around far longer than I will. But if the Christian right ultimately has its way, will we have to move the building to a less visible site? Or even tear it down? Americans in the middle of the religious and political spectrum will decide both in elections and their daily living. I hope they believe that we’re all children of the same Creator and all deserving of the same respect.