I stood at the front of the room. I shouldn’t be standing there, I realized, as if I was the teacher, and they my students. It was upside down.
I had called them together, the wisdom teachers I had followed over the years. They had no choice but to come and sit in their chairs. This was my assembly.
Some had identifiable names and lives, most historical and actual, but a few apocryphal. Others were general, not a particular person, but a tradition or text.
Many traditions and sub-traditions were represented: Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and others. Within each tradition, no teacher could claim primacy, no superstars versus stars. There was Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. There was Jesus and Thomas Merton. There was Dogen and Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. Among themselves they might make distinctions. But as teachers who had all given me something significant, they were all at parity.
Were they talking with each other or to me? No. They sat silently, looking at me with calm intensity, waiting for me to answer the unasked question: why had I called them all together?
I did have a reason. But now I wondered if I should ask. The question was whether it was time to give up my practice of drawing wisdom from any and all of them, like a hummingbird feeding from an array of beautiful flowers. Instead, I wanted to know, should I focus on one to the exclusion of the others.
I couldn’t bring myself to ask, because I knew, or thought I knew, what they might say. What a stupid question. Or: You already know the answer. Or: There is no answer. Or: What a stupid question. Or, in the case of a Zen teacher who clung to the old ways, I might be beaten with a stick. And deserve it.
This week’s Torah portion is Acharei Mot, the second part of which is Leviticus 18. It contains very specific laws for sexual conduct, prohibiting practices that Jews must avoid on penalty of death.
Some of the prohibitions are still commonly accepted by most (though not all) in modern times and societies, including bans on incest within extended families and on bestiality. But among them is one that increasingly requires explanation in the face of changing norms–a ban on male homosexual relations. (Lesbian relations are not covered, as Robert Alter notes: “Lesbianism, which surely must have been known in the ancient Near East, is nowhere mentioned, perhaps because no wasting of seed is involved, although the reason for the omission remains unclear.”)
This demands some attention from people of faith who nevertheless believe that homosexual relations are as godly and natural as relations between men and women. The squaring of this circle is actually not that complex, though for some it remains difficult.
It is entirely possible to regard scripture as special, elevated and inspired without treating it as immutable and eternal law. That of course creates its own set of challenges, that is, which of the laws are we to embrace and which do we set aside? The ten commandments contain some valuable guidance we would like generally followed. Not lying, for example, comes immediately to mind.
Here’s the good news. We can do this, we can study and discern what is good and healthy for us individually and as communities. Here’s the inconvenient news. Study and discernment are hard, though rewarding. In my experience, discarding the Bible, or religion for that matter, because of its most pernicious elements and outcomes, is self-defeating and self-denying.
There are people who don’t eat vegetables because, to be honest, some vegetables are pretty terrible or are abysmally prepared. But vegetables are truly wondrous, as taste treats and as part of a healthful diet. You just have to be open to it and work at it a little. And not be put off by the stuff you don’t like and can’t accept.
Over the last year, as the presidential campaign grew increasingly bizarre and Donald Trump took us places we had never been before, I saw a spike in media references to Amusing Ourselves to Death, a book written by my late father, Neil Postman, which anticipated back in 1985 so much about what has become of our current public discourse….
The central argument of Amusing Ourselves is simple: there were two landmark dystopian novels written by brilliant British cultural critics – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – and we Americans had mistakenly feared and obsessed over the vision portrayed in the latter book (an information-censoring, movement-restricting, individuality-emaciating state) rather than the former (a technology-sedating, consumption-engorging, instant-gratifying bubble)….
Unfortunately, there remained a vision we Americans did need to guard against, one that was percolating right then, in the 1980s. The president was a former actor and polished communicator. Our political discourse (if you could call it that) was day by day diminished to soundbites (“Where’s the beef?” and “I’m paying for this microphone” became two “gotcha” moments, apparently testifying to the speaker’s political formidableness).
The nation increasingly got its “serious” information not from newspapers, which demand a level of deliberation and active engagement, but from television: Americans watched an average of 20 hours of TV a week. (My father noted that USA Today, which launched in 1982 and featured colorized images, quick-glance lists and charts, and much shorter stories, was really a newspaper mimicking the look and feel of TV news.)
But it wasn’t simply the magnitude of TV exposure that was troubling. It was that the audience was being conditioned to get its information faster, in a way that was less nuanced and, of course, image-based. As my father pointed out, a written sentence has a level of verifiability to it: it is true or not true – or, at the very least, we can have a meaningful discussion over its truth. (This was pre-truthiness, pre-“alternative facts”.)
But an image? One never says a picture is true or false. It either captures your attention or it doesn’t. The more TV we watched, the more we expected – and with our finger on the remote, the more we demanded – that not just our sitcoms and cop procedurals and other “junk TV” be entertaining but also our news and other issues of import. Digestible. Visually engaging. Provocative. In short, amusing. All the time. Sorry, C-Span.
This was, in spirit, the vision that Huxley predicted way back in 1931, the dystopia my father believed we should have been watching out for. He wrote:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.
1984 – the year, not the novel – looks positively quaint now. One-third of a century later, we all carry our own personalized screens on us, at all times, and rather than seven broadcast channels plus a smattering of cable, we have a virtual infinity of options….
Our public discourse has become so trivialized, it’s astounding that we still cling to the word “debates” for what our presidential candidates do onstage when facing each other. Really? Who can be shocked by the rise of a reality TV star, a man given to loud, inflammatory statements, many of which are spectacularly untrue but virtually all of which make for what used to be called “good television”?
Who can be appalled when the coin of the realm in public discourse is not experience, thoughtfulness or diplomacy but the ability to amuse – no matter how maddening or revolting the amusement?
So, yes, my dad nailed it. Did he also predict that the leader we would pick for such an age, when we had become perhaps terminally enamored of our technologies and amusements, would almost certainly possess fascistic tendencies? I believe he called this, too.
For all the ways one can define fascism (and there are many), one essential trait is its allegiance to no idea of right but its own: it is, in short, ideological narcissism. It creates a myth that is irrefutable (much in the way that an image’s “truth” cannot be disproved), in perpetuity, because of its authoritarian, unrestrained nature….
I wish I could tell you that, for all his prescience, my father also supplied a solution. He did not. He saw his job as identifying a serious, under-addressed problem, then asking a set of important questions about the problem. He knew it would be hard to find an easy answer to the damages wrought by “technopoly”. It was a systemic problem, one baked as much into our individual psyches as into our culture.
The founders of America were not fools. They knew history. They knew politics. They knew law. They knew people, good men and scoundrels.
They did their best to craft an elegant and sustainable system. They did as much as they could, and they did it well. But they knew, as we all know, that the best systems cannot build in total safeguards for their benign operation and maintenance. For that, every system depends on a sufficient number of people in control who place the best interests of the system first—before their own interests.
In the case of American democracy, that means sufficient people in positions of power who are patriots. How many patriots in power are sufficient? We can’t be sure, because in all of American history, we have never had to ask the question. We’ve assumed there would always be enough patriots in positions of power to correct our course. How many patriots in power are sufficient? We may be about to find out by falling short.
The percentage of people living in extreme poverty globally fell to a new low of 10 percent in 2015 — the latest number available — down from 11 percent in 2013, reflecting steady but slowing progress, World Bank data show. The number of people living on less than $1.90 a day fell during this period by 68 million to 736 million.
Buzz Aldrin, one of the first astronauts on the moon, says that both the US and the wider international community
“Should focus on opening the door, in our time, to the great migration of humankind to Mars.”
It’s true that humankind has been able to walk and chew gum at the same time, that is, pursue various initiatives in very different spheres. You can definitely see migration to Mars as simply the next frontier for our pioneering instincts (and our power/mercenary instincts too).
But it is also possible to see this as responsible parties turning their backs on important but seemingly intractable situations. Poverty, as just one example of the areas to address, looks a little brighter, given a one-percent reduction over five years. On the other hand, 736 million people living on $1.90 a day doesn’t sound all that great.
Human beings, as individuals and communities, want to do all kinds of exciting and forward-looking things. We shouldn’t throw gratuitous shade on those initiatives. But whatever the vision of heaven on earth, we shouldn’t pretend that we are anywhere near that.
Everybody tells the occasional fib. But whereas liars consciously conceal the truth, reckons Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher, bullshitters are shameless: they say what they want to, without even considering the truth. Bluffers seem to be everywhere: the share of Americans who believe that most people can be trusted has fallen from 48% in 1984 to just 31% today.
A new study of the phenomenon has found that North America is especially prone to speaking bull. John Jerrim, Phil Parker and Nikki Shure, three academics, have used an educational survey of 40,000 teenage students in nine English-speaking countries to find out who is most likely to spout nonsense. They inserted a section into the questionnaire which asked students how well they understood a collection of 16 mathematical concepts. Some were familiar, such as “polygon” and “probability”, but three were fake: “proper number”, “subjunctive scaling” and “declarative fraction”.
The results show substantial differences between countries. Canadian and American teenagers were especially likely to profess knowledge of these bogus topics, whereas the Scots and Irish were perfectly happy to admit their ignorance. In news that will shock nobody, in every country men claimed to be experts more often than women. The rich were more boastful than the poor. More surprising was the finding that immigrants were generally more likely to bluff about maths than native students were.
What explains these differences? The academics doubt that the bullshitters were simply trying to impress the questionnaire’s markers. The students who bluffed about maths were just as likely as the non-bluffers to admit that they had skipped school recently, for example. A more likely answer is that the blaggers over-estimated their own knowledge. They also tended to rate themselves highly when it came to gauging their own popularity, perseverance on academic tasks and problem-solving ability. The data suggest that they might not be consciously lying, but instead be weaving their own fantasies.
President Trump said on Friday that he was open to releasing migrants detained at the border into mostly Democratic “sanctuary cities,” suggesting that the idea should make liberals “very happy” because of their immigration policies.
Due to the fact that Democrats are unwilling to change our very dangerous immigration laws, we are indeed, as reported, giving strong considerations to placing Illegal Immigrants in Sanctuary Cities only….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 12, 2019
….The Radical Left always seems to have an Open Borders, Open Arms policy – so this should make them very happy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 12, 2019
Mr. Trump’s comments came a day after his administration said the policy proposal was never seriously considered. But after the president’s Twitter posts on Friday, a White House spokesman said Democrats should work with the administration to welcome migrants into their districts….
Last year, Trump administration officials had floated the idea of transporting migrants to sanctuary cities, which do not strictly adhere to federal immigration laws, as a way to address the influx of migrants crossing the border with Mexico. One of the highest-profile sanctuary cities is San Francisco, home to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is one of the president’s top political rivals and a thorn in his efforts to change American immigration laws. The White House raised the proposal again in February, suggesting it could punish Democrats for rejecting budget requests for border security.
Using captive human beings as political weapons—literally thrown at your “enemies” like some kind of virus—is cruel, heinous and monstrous. I’ve combed the Gospels for approval of this as a tactic, and I’ve come up empty. On the contrary, if you asked for a technique that is un-Christian, inhumane and immoral, the list could begin there.
Yet millions of Christians, including some at the highest rank of the Trump administration and the Senate, either enable, make excuses or stay silent. How they manage that, and how their pastors don’t speak up, is baffling and heart-rending.
Americans love to watch monsters for entertainment. It’s different when they arrive at the White House and make themselves at home.
It’s hard to know whether to say that St. Elmo’s Fire (1985) reflects the 1980s. On the one hand, it does star the so-called Brat Pack of young stars (real or wannabe) of the era. On the other hand, it is so cheesy and Hollywood-version-of-unreality, starring the so-called Brat Pack of young stars (real or wannabe) of the era:
Emilio Estevez as Kirby “Kirbo” Keager, a law student and waiter at St. Elmo’s Bar.
Rob Lowe as Billy Hicks, a saxophonist “frat boy” and reluctant husband and father.
Andrew McCarthy as Kevin Dolenz, a writer for The Washington Post with a sullen streak, and Kirby’s roommate.
Demi Moore as Julianna “Jules” Van Patten, an international banker and the “party girl” of the group.
Judd Nelson as Alec Newbury, a yuppie pursuing a career in politics.
Ally Sheedy as Leslie Hunter, a budding architect who is reluctant to marry Alec.
Mare Winningham as Wendy Beamish, a welfare clerk from a wealthy family and devoted to helping others.
If you’ve never seen it, you’ve gotta watch it. And in a twisted, ironic, completely unhistorical way, you’ve gotta love it.