Archive for March, 2011


You learn a lot at the supermarket. Recently, I waited behind a family of five—the children elementary-school age—as they unloaded their cart. Like many Americans, they were generously proportioned. I shy from the term obese, which now represents not only a medical condition but also a pejorative. The products they chose gave a clear reason why.

Their list was heavy on potatoes, pasta, boxes of mac and cheese, processed cheese, rice, frozen fries, frozen waffles, whole milk. Not that there wasn’t protein. But the bacon, hot dogs and packaged corned beef were all high in fat. No wimpy skinless chicken breasts for these folks. Large bottles of sugary soda? Of course. And dessert: ice cream, cookies, apple pies and whipped cream among others.

As the checker scanned their goods, I placed my own groceries on the conveyor: broccoli, green beans, a red pepper, oranges, bananas—and yes, skinless chicken breasts. Although I’d made no comment, Dad turned to me, pointed to the paper bags being filled at the end of the counter and shrugged. “What can you do? It isn’t easy feeding a family of five on a budget.” I nodded.

“It’s the kids,” said Mom. “Sure, they should be eating fruits and vegetables like you’re buying, but every time we say that… that they’ll be healthier… they throw fits. It’s just so much easier to give them what they want.”

“I understand,” I said. “Went through fits with three kids of my own. But don’t you worry that your kids will suffer from their own shortsightedness? There’s the future to think about. We’re parents. We know better.”

“You got that right,” said Dad. “But we have to live with these kids every day.” He eyed a box of donuts. “And they’re still young. How bad can their cholesterol be? When they’re older, they’ll have plenty of time for fruits and veggies. And to go to the gym. You’re only a kid once.”

Interesting how much families and Congress have in common. Both prefer to kick the can of fruit cocktail with heavy syrup down the road. It’s easier to keep sugar and fat on the menu and toss the lean meats and produce. If Americans in need of education, job training, healthcare and childcare go without while our infrastructure crumbles, so what? Voters like me—not all or even most seniors by any means—who can stand a ten or fifteen percent cut in our Social Security payments or fork over a few bucks more for our Medicare coverage will continue to fatten our wallets. We’re entitled! Touch our benefits, and we’ll drive our Mercedes and BMWs straight to anti-government rallies and raise hell. We’re entitled! Why else do we pay a volunteer military if not to protect our democratic rights?

I saw the family again in the parking lot. The kids seemed quite content as they finished packing up their very large SUV. I empathized. It’s hard to feed a family of five on a budget.

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My oldest son, Seth, recently went on a business trip to Germany. As many travelers do, he suffered some culture shock on returning: the obesity of so many Americans, TVs blaring in airports, disorderly freeway traffic. Of course, Germany is part of the West, but the differences between Western societies are notable. How much greater then are the differences between the West and the Muslim world?

I’ve just read Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Seen Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary, with whom I used to attend the Writer’s Workshop in San Francisco. An Afghan-American, he offers a highly accessible approach to Muslim history. One point in particular struck me. A nineteenth-century Iranian prime minister, Amir Kabir, began a modernization program. As Tamim notes, “By ‘modernize,’ he meant ‘industrialize.’”

Today, much of the Muslim world has embraced some level of industrialization while rejecting modernity, which is seen to cause more problems than it solves. Industrialization itself brings any society a new quotient of the good, the bad and the ugly. Material progress follows for some. That’s good. But as Tamim points out, craftsmen lose jobs and poverty spreads. For a society rooted in communal values—unlike the West’s and particularly America’s penchant for individualism—that’s bad.

Industrialization also has its ugly side. In the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, new technology applied to manufacturing. Then the telegraph and telephone started a revolution in communications. Today, smart phones and the Internet represent hallmarks of post-industrial society. People everywhere communicate with people everywhere else. Images and ideas that may be uplifting or unsettling pervade all societies.

Social conservatives find this form of modernity disturbing. Islamists use technology while abhorring the licentiousness—witness online porn—and materialism it often promotes. They respond to the free exchange of communication with repression. Their Christian conservative counterparts in the U.S. share that reaction. They rail against attacks on “family values” abetted by technology that promotes the unfettered exchange of ideas. Yet they use that same technology to communicate their own messages.

The iron fist of those who know exactly how God wants us to live will not put the genie back in the bottle. But unlimited freedom of expression comes with a price. As James Fallows writes in the April 2011 Atlantic (“Learning to Love the [Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable] New Media”), societies may become more pulverized as “people withdraw into their own separate information spheres.” Individualism will run wild.

The good, the bad and the ugly make up human nature. Technology does not create these traits but magnifies them. Supporters of the free flow of ideas take the right approach. In doing so, however, they also face an ongoing struggle with ideas they find abhorrent and even an existential threat.

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Last Saturday while I walked to my synagogue, a car filled with several young men passed me. One called out, “Hey, faggot!” The car sped on. What prompted him to say such a thing? I’m straight. But more important, what concern is my sexual orientation to anyone else? Perhaps some young people were visiting from out of town. Maybe they assumed that any man who lives in San Francisco is, by definition, gay. That such thinking is irrational would not affect them. People who hold to a set proposition rarely let facts sway them.

My stream of consciousness connected to a March 3 article by Paul Krugman in the New York Times. I don’t always agree with Krugman, although I concede that as a Nobel Prize winning economist, his views on bringing the economy back to health carry more weight than mine.

Here’s the issue: Republicans want to slash government spending. Yes, the deficit is worrying. And yes, we need to put realistic curbs on such spending. But the extent of Republicans’ proposed cuts meant to starve government would not only impact our poor and our environment but also directly or indirectly eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs. According to Krugman, “Republicans have managed to come up with spending cuts that would do double duty, both undermining America’s future and threatening to abort a nascent economic recovery.” Maybe. Maybe not.

And here’s my point: The young man who called out, “Hey, faggot,” and the far right have much in common. Ideologues, they obsess over the purity of an idea. All men in San Francisco are gay; all gays are bad. Taxes and government spending beyond defense are bad; the marketplace is infallible. No wonder that this year’s Republican freshman class in the House of Representatives has taken as its de facto motto the Tea Party mantra, “No compromise.” They don’t care what works. They don’t care what fails. All that matters is unswerving devotion to an idea that sees the world in terms of black and white.

In effect, conservatives’ faith in unregulated capitalism matches their professed Christian faith. (Yes, House majority leader Eric Cantor [R-Va.] is Jewish.) Belief trumps observed reality. They bristle at any questioning of their values—at the hint of compromise—because such questioning threatens their faith. (Gallileo, remember, was forced by the Church to recant his observation that the earth revolves around the sun.) As I state in GOD’S OTHERS, people who express the most rigid faith often do so to hide their doubts. Rather than seek new answers, they oppose new questions.

So let me suggest my own Eleventh Commandment—something we might add to the ten given at Sinai. “You shall cut each other a little slack.” We would do better to dial back the ideology, listen to each other and balance our desire for a perfect world with acknowledgment of earthly and human flaws we can temper but not control.

A few days ago, 13 people in Egypt were killed in Muslim-Christian violence. My post of 2-11-11, “Post-Mubarak Egypt and Torah,” still holds.

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Recently, I brushed shoulders with a man while I was entering a sandwich shop. He was leaving. “Sorry,” I said. “Sorry,” he answered. No harm, no foul.

“Sorry” covers a multitude of awkward but harmless situations. Yet for some people, “sorry” represents a Get Out of Jail card. They believe they can do anything, say they’re sorry and escape the consequences. Two related stories—I’m not sure if Bernard Madoff has said he’s sorry; he recently claimed that his investors would get their principal back—emerged in the last week.

John Galliano, a designer, was fired by Christian Dior for anti-Semitic statements. (Natalie Portman, the Israeli-born Oscar winner, represents Dior.) “I unreservedly apologize for my behavior in causing any offense,” said Galliano, alleged to have hurled anti-Semitic abuse at a couple sitting near him in a Paris bar. He was caught on video saying, among other things, “I love Hitler.” Who would be offended by that? And anyway, Galliano said he’s sorry.

Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, plans a run at the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. Confronted by a questioner at the University of Pennsylvania regarding his three marriages, including deserting his first wife when she had cancer and cheating on his second, Gingrich responded, “I believe in a forgiving God.” Yes harm, yes foul. But say you’re sorry as often as required, and you’re free and clear. Until Republicans start talking about family values.

Judaism offers a more behavior-oriented, three-step approach to atonement. First, one recognizes what one has done wrong. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Bernie Madoff, John Galliano and Newt Gingrich have all demonstrated a deep reluctance to admit they did the wrong thing. In effect they ask, “Did what I said or do really offend or hurt you? If so, then I’m sorry.” Second, one vows not to make the same mistake.

Finally, one doesn’t repeat the offensive words or action. Of course, we hope that the offender won’t end up telling us, “I promised I’d never shoplift another laptop, and I haven’t. But I guess I did chug half a dozen beers then drive the night they charged me with vehicular homicide. Sorry.” Action not words reveals repentance.

Our jails and prisons are full of criminals who asked for forgiveness only after they were caught and expected it to be granted without further thought. Some may have genuinely repented. Prison can focus a mind and a conscience, I am sure, although America’s recidivism rates can stand to be reduced. Still, “sorry” as a catch phrase rivals only “Can’t we move on?” as the great American cop out.

I suggest we consider the words of Micah 6:8. They instruct us to forego all the hype and keep it simple: “Only to do justice / And to love goodness / And to walk modestly with your God.” But if you think this is too heavy a burden—sorry.

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