Monday, April 14, 2014

Old Passover, New Passover

Tonight, Jews around the world will gather with family and friends to celebrate one of Judaism’s three most important holidays, Pesach, which translates as Passover. They will share the traditional Passover dinner, a seder. There will be a seder at The White House, once again. President and Mrs. Obama have held seders there since the President took office, and it is a non-political event: personal friends and staff only. The Obamas are the only First Family to honor this Jewish tradition.

As detailed in the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus (chapters 1-15), Passover commemorates the escape from ancient Egypt of “a nation of Hebrew slaves.” For about 100 years (give or take...), Biblical scholars and archeologists have argued about whether or not The Exodus (said to have been led by Moses and lasted 40 years in the desert), really happened, where it happened, and how many people were involved – although the archeologists acknowledge that only a fraction of ancient sites have been found (many of them having been destroyed over the ages) and only a fraction of those have been minimally excavated.

The estimated head-count of The Exodus (from religious and secular sources) varies from approximately 600,000 men, women and children to anywhere from one to three million. But whether or not the Exodus actually occurred, it has been regarded as real and holy by Jews for thousands of years – including the world’s most famous Jewish rabbi (teacher), Jesus Christ, whose holy Last Supper was a seder. This is why Passover and Christianity’s Holy Week (from Palm Sunday through Good Friday and Easter) are religiously/historically linked. Speaking of which, here’s a bit of Americana trivia: Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865 – the first night of Passover, which always begins on the 15th of the Jewish month of Nissan (usually April). (Jewish holidays traditionally begin the night before, which is why the 15th is considered the first day.)

Passover celebrates a number of other things and there are many rituals and traditions. But most important is Passover’s celebration of freedom from bondage, from slavery, which may be why, his sensitivity and respect for others aside, Passover is meaningful to our country’s first African American president and his wife, who is a direct descendant of American slaves.

So, while Jews along with non-Jewish relatives and friends celebrate Old Passover, it is urgent to remember that a New Passover is desperately needed, because slavery is alive and sick as ever worldwide, including here in the USA. Now it’s called by other names: human trafficking, sex trafficking, indentured servitude, debt bondage, attached labor, restavec: it amounts to the same thing. Slavery.

When people are held against their will, prevented from moving about freely, forced to live in disgusting, horrible conditions, beaten and tortured, forced to do unspeakable things (like making an eight year old girl have sex with more than 20 men a day), are bought and sold like inanimate objects, and are paid nothing for the misery they endure, they are slaves. And there are 21 to 30 million slaves in the modern world, suffering terribly and serving as the backbone of a $32 billion (annually) industry.

The U.S. has 60,000 slaves, ranking us 134 out of 162 countries with slaves. Many of these are women, teens and very young girls who are trafficked for sex (men and boys, too). So we’re not #1 in the slave business – India has 14 million and 4% of Mauritania’s population of 3,796,141 is enslaved – but how many is okay? Anywhere? For any reason? This is 2014!

I genuinely wish all of you happy holidays. I’m sure you and your families and friends deserve them. While our lives may not be the nightmares of slaves, many still-so-called-middle-class and working class Americans have been struggling since Katrina, Sandy, other natural disasters and the 1%-created Great Recession of 2008. I don’t have what I used to or live like I used to. But I am very grateful for my life as it is, because so many people have it so much worse.

I encourage you to keep today’s slaves in your hearts, thoughts (and prayers, if you’re so inclined) this holiday season. Then, as soon as you can, do some Internet research about modern day slavery and get the full awful picture. Figure out what you can do to help. It may start with simple things like not buying certain brands or shopping in certain stores. It may include contributing to an NGO or non-profit you trust to help support active work on the ground around the world.

But most of all, be aware of this issue and talk about it with others. And keep an eye on the people around you – your apartment building, your neighborhood, your place of work. If you see something or someone that doesn’t look right, feel right, call the cops. One or more of America’s 60,000 slaves or their slave masters may be somewhere near you. Don’t look away. Look trouble or evil in the eye and do what you can.

If our religious observances or secular social consciences mean anything, this has got to be  part of it, doesn’t it?

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Surreality of Now

April has always been a melancholy month for me, but this year the craziness of the present has overcome the wistfulness of the past, because some of the social and political events going on have left me laughing and crying at the same time.

Let’s start with a little item out of Pakistan. A nine-month old baby was officially charged with attempted murder, because he, along with his father and grandfather, were part of “…a mob protesting against gas cuts and price increases [that] stoned police and gas company workers trying to collect overdue bills…” according to an NBC News affiliate. As pictured above, the baby cried while being finger-printed; later tried to play with reporters’ microphones while the media interviewed his father; and is now in hiding in an undisclosed location. My favorite line was that this incident “…has thrown a spotlight on Pakistan's dysfunctional criminal justice system.” Yeah. And these people have the bomb…

There have been several recent articles about the growing increase in sexual desire and activity among the aging and elderly – which has resulted in an increase in STDs, but also hope for folks in their 60s (like me) and 70s and 80s, too. But my favorite story on this phenomenon came from a CBS News affiliate about a nursing home in West Babylon, NY, that was being sued by the son of one of the residents after a male stripper performed there. “A 16-member resident committee had requested the September 2012 performance and the nursing home paid the $250 fee,” explained an attorney for the home. This is a picture of one of the old ladies stuffing money into the stripper’s briefs:

I could show you a photo of the U.S. Supreme Court, but why bother? You know what that 5-to-4-Right-leaning-crowd looks like. What I can’t show you is what’s been going on in their heads lately. Their most recent decision on money in politics, McCutcheon Et Al vs. Federal Election Commission, on top of the previous Citizens United decision, as well as their gouging out a core portion of the 49-year-old Voting Rights Act, breaks my heart and blows my mind.

How can these people (the five Conservatives) truly believe that allowing more money into the already overpriced and corrupted political process is a good idea – or harmless at worst? After the blatant and still ongoing efforts in many states to make it harder to vote for young and old people and people of color, how can they think that any portion of the Voting Rights Act has become obsolete? I know that none of the justices is stupid. So what am I, or any American, to think: that they’re uninformed, or racist, or mean, or on the take? If the top court of the land is fucked up, where do we go from here?

I’ll tell you where: from Democracy to Oligarchy. If for some reason you don’t know what that is, it’s a form of government in which all power rests in the hands of a small group or class…like, say, the very, very rich and their friends: the very rich and the plain old rich. And the first order of business of an Oligarchy is to suppress the will (and possibly existence) of the vast majority that isn’t them. The second task is to make sure that the different members of that majority see each other as the enemy, the problem, rather than join forces against the tiny minority with all the money and power. The third task is to make day-to-day survival so difficult for the vast majority that they focus the rest of their time just trying to put food on the table. It also helps to do things like gut social programs as deeply as possible, keep basic education mediocre and higher education unaffordable, and turn your own religious beliefs into laws, so that people are more concerned with being sinners than citizens (that only partially works).

And whatever you do, make it harder for people to laugh – because as all survivors know, laughter makes fighting the good fight easier.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Calling Out The Orthodox Atheist

I am an Atheist. I do not believe in a personified deity called God. I don’t believe in one or more gods. I don’t believe a God created the universe, our galaxy, solar system, planet, or life of every kind on this planet. I don’t believe that any religious scripture is the Word of God, but instead is the work of numerous men (males) who, over time, wrote, revised and sometimes eliminated various myths, parables, cautionary tales, rituals, and histories (some true, some not) to give a religion’s believers a sense of who they are and guidelines for living moral, ethical lives – such as they were thought to be at the time – which was thousands and then hundreds of years ago. I do not believe in heaven or hell, or that the alleged God knows about, loves, and protects me.

However, I am also a Jew, a Spiritualist, an ordained Interfaith Minister of Spiritual Counseling (from a real seminary, not from a matchbook or a quickie online mill), and in a variety of ways, a spiritual person. I don’t believe Jesus Christ was a God, but rather a wise and compassionate human, Jewish rabbi (rabbi means teacher) whose teachings, for the most part, constitute a decent way to live and treat other people. I feel the same way about most of the Ten Commandments. If all this seems contradictory to what I wrote in the paragraph above, it’s because I haven’t gone into explanatory detail, and, I am not an Orthodox Atheist.

Considering that there are 40 million Fundamentalist/ Evangelical Christians in this country, people who take every word of the Old and New Testaments literally; who believe that what they believe is the single legitimate truth; and who have made a long, concerted, and successful effort to integrate their politically and religiously conservative views into secular American law, I am delighted that Atheists are coming out of the Belief Closet in considerable numbers and working to fight the financially rich and intellectually bankrupt Fundamentalists – who genuinely think this is a Christian country and have no working concept of the vital separation of Church and State.

The problem is that Atheists alone cannot fight Evangelical fervor and ignorance. But many have created a kind of religion of their own – and Atheists really hate it when you call Atheism a religion! – by assuming that anyone who embraces any aspect of a religion believes in all the myths and parables and is incapable of separating personal belief from intellectual understanding. Not all religious people are stupid, stubborn, silly, or determined to proselytize their way to power. They don’t all deny science, including evolution and climate change. They don’t all oppose abortion, gay rights and the legalization of marijuana. And unlike their Fundamentalist cousins, most religious people understand the importance of and support the separation of Church and State.

It’s also worth noting that not all intellectuals and scientists reject religion – notably the great Albert Einstein, whose belief in Judaism did not prevent him from being rational and devoted to scientific inquiry. It would behoove Orthodox Atheists to recognize that they can gather more allies for the fight against the worst kind of religious dogma if they recognize that not everyone who doesn't think exactly as they do is the enemy or are not sensible people. The idea that one’s own sense of truth is the only legitimate truth is a dumb religious notion – and Atheists of all people should know that.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Being and Doing

A whole lot’s been going on in the month since I last wrote a post, but I haven't enough to say about any of it to constitute a full essay. Putin’s going to keep Crimea, which a lot of its citizens seem to want and those who don’t will relocate or disappear or die. The international community won’t do anything because it doesn’t want a war, so we're just taking some of Putin’s privileges away, as if this half-naked- horse-riding, power-hungry egomaniac with lots and lots of bombs were just a naughty child, which might actually be the smart way to go. And in any case, whatever the President says or does, the Republicans will say he’s weak and wrong.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever find enough of that Malaysian plane or the 280+ persons who were on it to tell us definitively more than we already know, but that won’t stop the news channels from giving it close to 24/7 coverage until we wish we were missing. Red states across the nation will continue to take advantage of the elimination of that portion of the Voting Rights Act the Supreme Court didn’t think we needed anymore to keep advancing the suppression of voting by the young, old, and people of color.

And Republicans will keep saying outrageous things about women, then wonder why they’re not winning our hearts and minds. My current favorite is Conservative radio host Dennis Prager’s comment at a fundraiser for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: “A wife should have sex with her husband – regardless of her ‘mood’ – because it is one of the ‘mutual obligations’ of being married.” In other words, the New Normal will keep stupidly lumbering along. (And Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.)

So my concern at the moment is more philosophical – a way of thinking that has become irrelevant and downright disrespected in a society that has made the rich, even the just comfortable, extraordinarily greedy, self-centered and cruel, while the poor, even the just making it, are preoccupied with economic survival. Ideas, language and creative culture are apparently luxuries we either don’t need or can’t afford – like a liberal arts education that isn’t a straight line to a job, or well-scripted TV programs that employ good writers and actors, because trash reality TV is not only cheaper to produce, it gives us social permission to be crass, ignorant, inarticulate, and shallow.

This is why I’m particularly disturbed by what’s happening to the English language in the 21st century, a time in which language has become smaller, more banal, and used poorly and less creatively. This seems especially true among young adults, who just don’t care about language. But language and how it’s used is important, because it reflects the nature, values, and personality of a culture.

I believe this dangerous change began when we started to turn nouns into verbs, beginning  in the 80s with impact. Things used to have an impact on other things, but then things suddenly became impacted, as in “the sluggish economy has impacted government’s willingness to support vital social programs for the poor.” This matters because a noun is a person, place or thing - essentially being - while a verb describes action, which is doing.

I’m a natural intuitive, but I took psychic development classes for five years with a very wise and gifted woman who used to remind us regularly that we were human beings, not human doings. But because people now guide their lives with an abundance of digital devices, communicate in 140-character fragments with a whole new vocabulary of acronyms, and take pride in multi-tasking, we are increasingly becoming human doings rather than human beings. Expedience has become more important than style and the appreciation of good language is quickly disappearing, because people rarely hear or read it.

So we no longer keep a scrap book, we’re scrapbooking; we don’t give someone a gift, we’re gifting; we didn’t buy something at a thrift shop, we thrifted; during the recent Olympics, athletes didn’t win a medal, they medaled. And of course, we no longer laugh, we LOL and we don’t offer an opinion we IMHO. This has become so commonplace among younger people that I was recently told by two Human Resources managers they get résumés filled with such acronyms – along with ugly new words like incentivize (not to mention disincentivizes).

We don't have conversations, we dialogue, and we don't have relationships, we're in relationship. In business, a cohort isn't a chum it's a team, and silos aren't big towers that hold stuff they're departments or divisions. Writers no longer provide copy they write verbiage - as little as possible, of course. Artists don’t paint, draw or take photographs, they create images. Usually on a computer. I have a dear friend who's an artist and used to work in a variety of media (media used to be the plural of medium in art; today it just refers to technology and electronic journalism). Now he works exclusively by computer and brags that he makes art pieces in ten minutes. I’m supposed to hear this as a positive thing. I do not.

You may also have noticed that people have become things: “Tom is the guy I told you about that I went to college with,” as opposed to “who I went to college with.” Strictly speaking, it should be “Tom is the guy I told you about with whom I went to college,” but I guess one has to pick one’s battles (remember when one was something other than a number?).

The meanings of words are also changing - and not for the better. In fashion, there are no longer colors and fabrics but colorations and fabrications, instead; and couture, which is merely the French word for clothing, has lost its "haute" (the phrase haute couture used to mean high fashion, the expensive designer stuff). Now couture all by itself is used to mean haute couture, which must make us sound even more stupid to the French than we already do. In both fashion and food, decadent has become a synonym for sophisticated, and while they might be considered first or second cousins, they're not the same.

In real estate, house and home have become synonymous, which at the very least is insulting to those of us who make our homes in apartments. But whatever the structure may be, even when there are walls and doors (rather than "open concept"), there are no more rooms, there are areas. In general usage, I once heard someone compliment someone else by saying "You're totally superfluous," but I don't know if that's caught on. The one that has and makes me grit my teeth every time I hear it is downfall when what is meant is downside. I get similarly upset when I hear people say infamous, which of course mean famous for something terrible, as in "Charles Manson is infamous," but is now being used to mean very famous. I understand that new words must enter the language as new things enter the world, but I have no patience with the misuse and unnecessary changes of words. 

Given that language is my thing – along with many other things that were a routine part of my youth and even my middle age – this degradation of language hurts my heart and befuddles my brain. So does all this technology that was intended to increase communication but has only decreased it. One used to have a handful of close friends with whom one spent time and shared activities. Now people have hundreds, even thousands of “friends” through social media, people who give you a thumbs up when you put something they like on your wall.

I’ll tell you straight out: I’m 62 years old as of this month and I truly hate the 21st century. I feel I have no place in it, that I’ve outlived my time, and it’s a combination of feeling deeply lonely and being totally infuriated. I saw an online ad today; it was intended to sell a new way to send photos to people. But to me, it said it all, about language and everything else that's sick and bad and lost in the 21st century: “Lots of sharing. No attachments.”

Saturday, February 22, 2014

I Don’t Like Children. Yes, I Said It!

A few days ago, in my post entitled The Tyranny of Healthy Lifestyle Zealots, I clearly detailed my objection to the social disenfranchisement of fat people and smokers (I’m both) by people who are zealously committed to what they consider a healthy lifestyle and therefore blame people like me for the high cost of health care. I corrected this inaccuracy, as well as put forth the idea that: “…in a diverse, free society, people have different needs, wants and behaviors, and everyone can be accommodated if we accept that those who differ from us have as much of a right to be who they are as we have to be who we are.”  I also gave an example, saying in part: “I don’t have children; I don’t even like children. But I don’t begrudge them the health care (or nutrition, education, and protection from abuse and neglect) they require… I believe in the concepts of ‘each according to his needs’ and ‘live and let live’.”

To my surprise, three friends responded privately, not to my larger message, but to my having said “I don’t like children.” Since they know me, they mostly found it funny, but they were all a little shocked that I had the chutzpah to say this straight out because, they explained, it’s just not done! One person voiced concern that I would turn people off and give them the wrong impression of me, which might impede my efforts to draw a larger audience to this blog.

I was nonplussed. I know most people do like kids (particularly babies) and especially adore their own, but I had no idea that to express the opposite was verboten. I know I’m in the minority here, but I didn’t realize that people who don’t like children and have the gall to say so are even more hated than smokers and fat people combined. Now that I’ve made it public that I’m a fat smoker who doesn’t like children, is it still safe for me to leave my apartment?”

While on the phone with my blog-expansion-concerned friend, she searched the phrase “I don’t like children,” and the first thing that came up was a site called Heartless Bitches International, a humor/satire-but-they’re-not-really-kidding-site by, about and for women who don’t conform to all of the current ideals and ideas modern women espouse (those HBs are more radical). On the site was a “rant” by an unnamed woman entitled The 4 Words of the Pariah, in which she beautifully states my own feelings thusly: “I don’t like children. What that lonely little statement can do to people… So what? If someone doesn’t like children why does it bother you so much? Stop taking everything so personally.” Later in the piece, she voices one of my greatest complaints by saying: “Somewhere along the way this society started worshipping children. Everything must be about the children. Every law passed must protect the children. Every restaurant, every movie theater, every bar, every museum, every art gallery, every area of our lives and cities must be child friendly.”

I’ve finally gotten to the point in my quickly-advancing old age that I accept myself just as I am and I really don’t care what people think of me anymore. That’s why I choose to speak my mind uncensored. However, on behalf of myself and other adults who don’t like children, let me say the following. I don’t hate children. I don’t wish them ill. I believe that society, government, and parents (or whomever a child lives with) should ensure that children are well taken care of. All children should be loved by those who give birth to them or adopt/foster them or otherwise take responsibility for them. And as I said above: “I don’t begrudge them the health care (or nutrition, education, and protection from abuse and neglect) they require.” I think government should pick up the tab for whatever kids’ caretakers can’t afford and it’s clearly in society’s best interest to ensure that we don’t raise generations of damaged and/or ignorant people. Whatever taxes are needed to ensure all of this is money well and importantly spent.

That said, adults who don’t have children – often because they don’t like children – are not obliged to like or interact with them. I don’t like babies; they hold as much appeal for me as sacks of flour. I held one once and all I wanted was its mother to get it off my hands immediately. I don’t enjoy the company of children, especially young children. I find them boring, unsettling when they’re running around and yelling, and disgusting when they’re eating. I resent it that our culture increasingly revolves around children. I believe adults take priority because we’re adults! and we should therefore have child-free spaces. The needs/rights of children should co-exist with those of adults, not supersede them. So if parents don’t want their kids to do or be exposed to certain things, it’s their responsibility to supervise them to ensure that – not my responsibility to live or look or speak or behave in child-friendly ways.

I shouldn’t have the presence of children imposed on me. Children don’t belong everywhere. And I’m sick and tired of politicians speaking incessantly about “The American Family.” Not all Americans have families, or want families, at least not those that include children. There are millions of single and married Americans who don’t want or don’t like children. We’re not monsters. We’re grown-ups with different needs, tastes, and points of view. That’s called freedom. And in a democracy, freedom is a delicate but necessary balance between freedom to and freedom from. I choose to be free of children as much as humanly possible. And in the words of that old song, “ain’t nobody’s business if I do.”