Archive for April, 2013

THE MINIMUM STANDARD

Last Monday, NPR’s “All Things Considered” broadcast an interesting feature about prejudice. Reporter Shankar Vedantam spoke of a professor discovering that people treat members of their own racial, religious, social or professional communities better than those outside them. This takes a Ph.D.? And what does it really mean?

According to Vedantam, a Yale professor suffered a serious hand injury. In the emergency room, she announced that she was a quilter—important to her—but received ordinary treatment. When she revealed she taught at Yale, in came a team of specialists. (The cost is another story). Vedantam cited an act of prejudice involving the initial treatment—one involving sins of omission rather than commission.

I’m not so sure. The professor’s routine care was probably outstanding. This was Yale! President Obama and the Giants’ catcher Buster Posey get more comprehensive, timely medical care than I do. Yet I get very good medical care and wish that everyone received at least the same. I don’t think I’m not being treated well because I’m not famous.

Along with prestige and wealth, familiarity and comfort create weighty factors regarding how people relate to each other. Human beings, like it or not, maintain an innate suspicion of “others,” even if differences are superficial. Such fear may be irrational on the conscious level, but it exists. Group loyalty tends to be deeply ingrained—taught certainly but also seemingly part of our DNA.

What to do? The Torah tells us that every human being is created in God’s image. Moreover, we should love our fellows as ourselves. Easier said than done. Some among us may exhibit universal affections, but I suspect genuine saints are few and far between.

The Mishnah states, “Kal Yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh.” All of Israel is responsible each for the other. Jews have a special responsibility to see to the wellbeing of other Jews. This attitude is hardly unique. African Americans, the Irish, 49ers fans, Latinos, Chinese, sorority sisters, Muslims, Native Americans and Elk Lodge members all understand.

Two Army experiences come to mind. At Officer Candidate School, the Jewish chaplain at Fort Benning had each Jewish senior candidate speak man-to-man with one Jewish junior candidate. That helpful chain linked men in class after class. In Columbus (Georgia) to purchase uniforms, I went to Sugarman’s and was delighted when the storeowner warmly greeted me as a landsman—a fellow Jew. (I can’t remember if I got a price break.)

Granted, our capacity to go the extra mile for everyone every day involves limitations, because our emotional energies aren’t boundless. We don’t feel the same attachment to everyone.

Still, legitimate affinities do not permit us to ignore the needs of others. A 9/11 or a Superstorm Sandy extends our sense of connection to everyone within sight or hearing. The nation grieves. The nation helps. But even on ordinary days, we must offer every person a minimum standard of decency, integrity, attentiveness and competence.

So here’s to the minimum standard. May we apply it to the max.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at davidperlstein.com. SAN CAFÉ is available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

MARATHON IN 9.58

How fast do news stories change? Last night, I had a draft of this post ready to go. It included comments about the Boston Marathon bombings. This morning, I had to start over.

I had written: “You can imagine a number of likely suspects, foreign and domestic, in general terms, but the investigation demands time to examine all the details. While CNN and other TV networks sprint towards breaking news, the FBI and other involved agencies must run a marathon of their own.”

Well, the FBI seems to have run a marathon in 9.58 seconds—the world record for 100 meters set by Jamaica’s Usain Bolt in 2009. They found and identified the remains of the bombs. They identified suspects from security videos then came up with faces and finally, names. As you doubtless know, The two suspects—brothers and ethnic Chechens—are believed to have held up a 7-Eleven store in Cambridge, murdered a school policeman at MIT and hijacked a Mercedes.

The elder, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was shot by police in Watertown and died at Beth Israel Hospital. Law enforcement personnel are looking for the younger, Dzhokhar Tarnaev, 19, who survived the shootout. He may be captured or killed by the time you read this.

Yet the marathon metaphor remains apt. If law enforcement authorities will have one run sprint, they’ll have to run another to answer important questions. Why did the brothers engage in this act of terrorism? Should anyone have picked up signals? Did they act alone? And can we expect copycat attempts from sick individuals seeking public exposure through such acts?

Okay, the Feds run a second sprint. But then the finish line moves again. How do we tighten security to make terrorist activities harder to plot and carry out? Do cities widen the use of video cameras? Do we form a National Video Association, inspired by the National Rifle Association, to encourage citizens to video every aspect of their lives should something go wrong?

Still, the tape keeps moving no matter how fast we run. Technology gives incredible power to police and security agencies. It enabled the FBI to make connections at seeming light speed. As KCBS Radio’s political analyst Marc Sandalow mentioned this morning, does this make us feel comfortable—or threatened? Where is the balance point between security and privacy? Does one exist at all?

Finally, how do we create a world in which we prevent the causes of terrorism? How do we reconcile Western ideas of peace and freedom with countless nations and peoples who don’t share our worldview and engage in violence that kills more people daily than died in Boston?

I conclude that life is one sprint after another—a marathon. The Talmud instructs that we must try to improve the world even if we can’t achieve that goal. Events of this week remind us that the finish line is a long way off. Yet decency demands that we put one foot in front of the other, mile after mile after mile.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at davidperlstein.com. SAN CAFÉ is available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

THE “C” WORD

Words can offend. One starts with “C.” But we need to talk more about it because given the nature of the world we live in it’s more relevant than ever.

Compromise gets some people riled up. The word suggests a lack of integrity and morality. These folks believe they’re always right and opposing views are by definition flat-out wrong. No quarter ever can be given. A small step towards an opposing view only launches the righteous down a slippery slope.

The refusal to find a middle ground is nothing new. In the novel As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg, published in 1939, the Sanhedrin in Judea debates allowing the study of Greek culture. For some Jews, only Torah is legitimate. Others have drifted towards Greek philosophy, art and science leaving Torah behind. Still others strive for balance. Their faith need not crumble before Greek reason; other cultures offer something of value. When the zealots, who wish to obliterate Greek culture in Israel’s midst, rebel against Roman occupation, disaster follows. Unfortunately this is history not just literature.

Yes, the Sages teach that compromise is not always allowed. One may not commit murder or incest or bow down to idols even on pain of death. Beyond that, the real world requires acceptance of the “C” word. Those who bear direct responsibility for a nation’s wellbeing—presidents, prime ministers and even kings—often understand this. Those who sit on the sidelines—another “C” word, Congress, comes to mind—can promote ideological or selfish positions. The buck does not stop with them.

Jordan’s King Abdullah offers an insight worthy of attention. In an article by Jeffrey Goldberg in this April’s Atlantic, Abdullah notes that his efforts to establish a modern democracy face opposition from the royal family. “The further away you’re removed from this chair [the throne—DP], the more of a prince or a princess you are.”

Fortunately, several new attempts at compromise may pay great dividends.

In Jerusalem, women and men may finally get to pray together at the Kotel—the Western Wall. Natan Sharansky, Israel’s head of the Jewish Agency, presented a plan that may not give liberal Jews everything they seek in an Orthodox-controlled religious environment but nonetheless allows for major progress. The plaza in front of the Kotel would be divided into Orthodox and non-Orthodox areas. To each his—and her—own.

In Washington, Senators Joe Manchin III (D-West Virginia) and Patrick Toomey (R- Pennsylvania) have fashioned a compromise on gun control to include background checks at gun shows. The National Rifle Association, which adheres to the slippery slope theory, will try to kill the legislation in the Senate. But the spirit of compromise just might be too great. In the same vein, reasonable immigration legislation may well be fashioned in the coming weeks. It won’t be perfect, but it will help our immigration policy make more sense.

So let’s get a grip on all our “C” words. Because some should be part of any polite company’s conversation. Oops, here we go again.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at davidperlstein.com. SAN CAFÉ is available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

TIME TO HIDE?

This could be my last post for a while. I may have to go into hiding. Because powerful forces are seeking to hunt down and destroy those of us who satirize them. Witness Wednesday’s report in “The Daily Currant” (dailycurrant.com) of Egypt’s arrest order for Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show.”

Well, maybe that’s a stretch. “The Daily Currant” is a satirical news blog. And what could be sillier than Cairo seeking to arrest Jon Stewart just because he prompts some major laughs at the expense of hypocrites? Unless it’s Cairo arresting the Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef for poking fun at Egypt’s president Mohamed Morsi. And that’s no joke.

Youssef believes that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are not all they would like Egyptians—and the world—to believe. So the government—Morsi disclaimed responsibility—arrested Youssef a week ago then released him as the world media shone a bright light into a dark hole. Nonetheless, Cairo threatens to withdraw the license of his TV channel. Its response resembles that of Seinfeld’s fabled Soup Nazi: “No freedom for you!”

I could be next. My novel Slick! points a big finger at the hypocrisy of Arab politicians who rule—or seek to rule—in the name of God. (For grins I skewer Washington, too.) Maybe the Muslim Brotherhood wants to go after Jon Stewart and me in tandem—two Jews daring to say that something’s not kosher in the Arab world. And that goes beyond Egypt.

A week ago, a Palestinian Authority court upheld a one-year prison sentence handed down to the journalist Mamdouh Hamamreh for posting a photo on Facebook likening P.A. president Mahmoud Abbas to a villain on a popular Syrian TV show. The P.A. then thought better of its stupidity and released Hamamreh.

Laughter indeed is serious business. Poke fun at a powerful figure in the Middle East—or at someone like Russian president Vladimir Putin (which I’ve done)—and you take your life in your hands. Morally corrupt leaders fear one thing above all: being turned into a punch line. Incredibly, they make it so easy.

People repeatedly ask me, “How do you come up with so many ideas for novels?” My answer is simple. “Every morning, I wake up.” Each day, a malevolent despot, despot wannabe, religious leader or corporate tycoon models the foolish emperor in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” He’s the character whose vanity blinds him to the fact that he’s parading stark naked in front of his subjects—themselves willing believers. It takes an innocent young boy to reveal the truth.

Of course, satire isn’t the only weapon against hypocrisy. Drama does a fine job. Netflix’ original series “House of Cards” with Kevin Spacey offers a nasty condemnation of Washington politicians. Yet no one (publicly at least) has suggested banning the show or arresting its creators. We have the First Amendment. Also, a hint of legal action would spur more people to sign up for Netflix and watch the show.

Still, satire remains my weapon of choice. Because the smallest barb of humor often cuts more deeply than the sword.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at davidperlstein.com. SAN CAFÉ is available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.