Monday, November 10, 2014

Good without God

Can you be good without God? Godists and supernaturalists say no. They say that what is good is what God defined as good. If the ten commandments say "thou shalt not kill" then it is wrong to kill. Since most of us agree that it is wrong to kill, we should all agree, right?

The theory is, an action is good if God commands that it is good.

This kind of theory of morality is nice because it makes morals objective (have a truth value that is independent of what we think). We can resolve the differences between cultures by saying that there is only one right way of doing things, and that is what God commands.

Generally, arguments which rely on the existence of God are considered bad arguments. This is because the existence of God is controversial in itself. Nevertheless, a stronger way to attack such an argument is to assume that there is a God, and show that the argument doesn't work anyway. Socrates, an ancient Greek philosopher, thus managed to show how Supernalism fails as a theory.

Socrates asked: are actions good because God commands them, or does God command them because they are good? This question is very significant for Supernaturalism because it creates a dilemma.
If God commands that left handed people or blue eyed people are an evil blight then we would be right in exterminating them. If God decreed that we can only eat beets then we should. If the supernaturalist is right then these are distinct possibilities.

Some argue that God would not command such a thing. But what if he did?

Is God a slave to what is right? Can an omnipotent being not go against some other greater rule? If that is true than God is a shitty Deity. If He can than we cannot depend on this Deity for objective values.

Oddly, all the Supernaturalist I talk to use their own personal judgment to decide which of the Biblical commands to obey and which to ignore. If they can do that then why do they need the Bible to begin with? If they have the judgment then why not just use it?

You Can Have a Square Circle

Can you have a square circle? Logic says no, of course not. That is preposterous. I say yes. Now hear me out.

There is no such thing as a square or a circle. Those are abstract concepts. They are two dimensional. Geometrical ideas.  They only exist in our imaginations. Real reality has three (or four) dimensions. Depends on how you look at time.

This is a simplified reality. It is unreal. Let us take a look at real reality for a moment.
Imagine an everyday soup can. It is a cylinder.

We know this to be true. But let’s look at it from the side. From the side we see a rectangle. A tall skinny square.

From the top, we have a circle.

This is not to play a silly game with ideas but to illustrate that things are all perspective dependent. What we see is always dependent on where we look from.

Next time you imagine something impossible remember that there are other ways to see and additional dimensions from which to see a situation from.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Pope Borgia

1492 The Borgias in Rome

As the power and wealth of the papacy grew, cardinals lusted after the papal tiara with ever greater fervor, and elections rapidly became dominated by rampant simony (the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges). None, however, was worse than the conclave of 1492. Conclave, which means with keys’ or locked in. Comes from the 1268-1271 Papal Conclave where the Cardinals just never elected a pope. Eventually the people of the town locked them in and also started the tradition of feeding them only bread and water and legend has it that the town eventually took off the roof of the palace.

Back to 1492. Enter the ferociously ambitious and worldly Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia a Spaniard who would stop at nothing in his quest to become the next pope, and was reputed to have offered four mule-loads of silver and benefices worth over 10,000 ducats a year to Ascanio Sforza alone. Rome was said to have been awash with Borgia money while the election was going on. But, from Borgia’s perspective, this was money well spent: he was duly elected as Pope Alexander VI. 

In 1492 CE, was an interesting time; this was the time of Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli. It was the year in which Christopher Columbus set off on his voyage to discover Asia.
This man who desperately wanted to become the pope, Roberto Borgia was not a favorite, but he was sure with that the right amount of cunning he could pull it off. During this period, when the worst insult consisted of accusing one of being a Muslim or Jew, there was no unified Italy, but it was divided into a number of warring city-states, kingdoms and duchies and the election of the pope consisted of finding the balance between those battles. Besides the local politics, the relation between Portugal, Spain and France added more spice in the election.

Borgia entered the conclave, under an oath not to have any contact with the outside world, he was sure of six votes, but needed fourteen to win. But once the doors are closed, the cardinals start bickering over a new oath the pope elected should take. Say what you will about the modern church, but this church was rotten to the core and members could buy positions in the Curia, and they want to limit that practice. But some members oppose; they don’t want the Vicar of Christ to take man made oaths, but instead want the oath to be non-binding. Once that is resolved, Borgia approaches the Portuguese cardinal and uses his Spanish origins to bargain. Since they both are the non-Italians in the group, he proposes that they unite.

After the first round of voting, Borgia receives just six votes, as expected. He tries to convince a cardinal who received one vote (his own) to support him, but in return he calls Borgia a whore. The next day, a letter in which Pope Pius rebuked Borgia for attending an orgy, surfaces. As all attention turns to him, Borgia turns the table on his accuser. The accuser had supported Borgia in his two previous attempts to become pope and on those two occasions, he did not bring up the letter. Hence this was probably a forgery. While it calms the proceedings, it reduces his supporters by one.
The next day another letter surfaces which alleges that the King of France had paid 200,000 ducats to one of the cardinals to buy off the election. It also accuses that the forged letter against Borgia was created using French money. Accusations go back with cries of “liar” and “hypocrite”. A young cardinal, who is on his first conclave, wonders why letters are being smuggled in against all rules. The vote count following all this reduces Borgia’s count to four and it looks as if he is on his way out.

Borgia starts negotiating directly with potential supporters. When he promises money, one of them retorts that his opponent as promised double the amount and if they go back and forth of money, all money in Rome would be insufficient for the counter offers. Then Borgia offers him the position of Vice-Chancellor, a position Borga currently holds in addition to the coins. By the third day, the cardinals are offered only one whole meal a day and all of them who are used to a lavish lifestyle cannot take it. Borgia uses this opportunity to smuggle in a great meal. He also promises an abbey for one cardinal, a church for another and a harbor for the third. He even promises to banish his nephews and niece (actually his children) so that they do not become competitors to the cardinals. A cardinal from Florence was worried about the power of the Medici and Borgia promises him that if he became pope he would crush that family. In the next round of voting, his count increases to ten.

One of the losing cardinals sends a message to the king of Naples to bring his army to Rome, hoping that force would help clear the indecision. As a battle gets underway outside the, the cardinals decide that they will not suspend the conclave till the pope is chosen. The cardinal who summoned the army apologizes for his mistake and asks his supporters to vote for Borgia’s opponent as he thinks Borgia is not a true Catholic, but a Spanish Jew who converted. But by the next vote, Borgia’s tally increases to 12 and his opponent to 13. The one who gets 14 wins and it becomes critical for Borgia to get there by any means for else he will have to flee for his life to Spain.

In the final act, he negotiates directly with his competitor. He claims that he is a Roman and is concerned about reforming the church than about the politics between Milan, Naples and Florence. When that does not work, he offers the office of the Vice Chancellor. As bribery and flattery fails, Borgia takes the final weapon in his arsenal; he produces a document which alleges that the opponent’s family has Muslim blood in it. This accusation, Borgia threatens, is sufficient to put him out of business forever. The opponent succumbs and accepts the position of Vice Chancellor and the deal is closed. The next day when the votes are counted, Borgia gets 14 votes and he yells, “I am the Vicar of Christ!”

After 14 days of wrangling and intrigue by the cardinals, Rodrigo Borja  was elected Pope Alexander VI.

Rodrigo Borgia, Now Pope Alexander VI, was nephew of Alfonso Borgia, better known as Pope Callixtus III, was born in the Kingdom of Valencia, Spain. He studied law at Bologna and was appointed as cardinal by his Pope uncle.  While a cardinal, he maintained a long-term illicit relationship with Vanozza dei Cattanei of the House of Candia, with whom he had four children: Giovanni; Cesare; Lucrezia; and Geoffrey. Rodrigo also had children by other women, including one daughter with his mistress, Giulia Farnese. The general idea was not that priests were celibate (though they seemed more pious if they were) but that they did not marry.

As Alexander VI, Rodrigo was recognized as a skilled politician and diplomat, but was widely criticized during his reign for his over-spending, sale of Church offices (simony), nepotism and orgeys. Lots of orgeys. As Pope, he struggled to acquire more personal and papal power and wealth, often ennobling and enriching the Borgia family directly. He appointed his son, Giovanni, as captain-general of the papal army, his foremost military representative, and established another son, Cesare, as a cardinal.  Alexander used the marriages of his children to build alliances with powerful families in Italy and Spain. At the time, the Sforza family, which comprised the Milanese faction, was one of the most powerful in Europe, so Alexander united the two families by marrying Lucrezia to Giovanni Sforza. He also married Gioffre, his youngest son from Vannozza, to Sancia of Aragon of the Kingdom of Aragon and Naples. He established a second familial link to the Spanish royal house through Giovanni's marriage during what was a period of on-again/off-again conflict between France and Spain over the Kingdom of Naples.

In 1493, Alexander attempted to draw a line between Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence in the New World (dividing the world in half). He is also remembered for the torture and execution in 1498 of the famous Florentine preacher Savonarola, who had had the balls to denounce papal corruption and call for the removal of Alexander.

After a Papal term renound for poisonings incest (usually involving the super hot Lucrezia) and political maneuverings Pope Alexander VI died in Rome in 1503 after contracting a disease, generally believed to have been malaria.

Rodrigo Borgia's second son, Cesare, was precisely planned by his father to be a king, like his namesake. He was educated by tutors in Rome until his 12th birthday. He grew up to become a charming man skilled at war and politics.  He studied law and the humanities at the University of Perugia, then went to the University of Pisa to study theology. As soon as he graduated from the university, his father made him a cardinal.

Cesare was suspected of murdering his brother Giovanni, but there is no clear evidence to confirm this. However, Giovanni’s death cleared the path for Cesare to become a layman and gain the honors his brother received from their father, Pope Alexander VI. Although Cesare had been a cardinal, he left the priesthood to gain power and take over the position Giovanni once held, captain of the Papal Guard. This was not a common occurrence. He may have been the first Cardinal to voluntarily defrock. He was finally married to a French princess. So the Borgia was connected by marriage to all the most powerful families in Europe.

Cesare became the ally of the French king, for his father and became a leading general of Louis XII, winning some important victories in the Romagna, a city state adjacent to the papal states. He entered Rome in triumph in February, 1500, dragging behind him, in golden chains, Caterina Sforza, the Lady of two of cities he had conquered. She was imprisoned, and would have died in chains had not the French interceded for her release.

The Jubilee year of 1500 began the period of greatest decadence for Alexander and Cesare. Cesare amused the throngs of Romans by killing five bulls in St. Peter's Square, making him the hero of Rome. There were also shooting of unarmed criminals by Cesare, but Alexander, Cesare, and Lucrezia watched with amusement as fifty Roman harlots coupled with fifty palace servants, competing for prizes for "best performance" awarded by Alexander.  A drunken reveler had his tongue and hand cut off for mocking Cesare. A Venetian who had written a pamphlet criticizing Cesare was sentenced to drowning in the Tiber river.

But Cesare was not satisfied only with a return to Rome in triumph. Jubilee gifts went into his coffers, and Alexander shared with him the huge sums obtained from the creation of nine new cardinals, each paying thousands of ducats. Still, the Borgias were not satisfied.
Deciding that Lucrezia's second husband, the Duke of Bisceglie, had lost his value to them Cesare strangled him as he was recovering from wounds from an earlier attempt on his life by Cesare's henchmen. This allowed Alexander to arrange a third marriage for Lucrezia.

After Alexander's death in 1503, Cesare fled to Spain.  Cesare died in 1507, at Viana Castle in Navarre, Spain while besieging the rebellious army of Count de Lerín. The castle was held by Louis de Beaumont at the time it was besieged by Cesare Borgia and King John's army of 10,000 men in 1507. In order to attempt to breach the extremely strong, natural fortification of the castle, Cesare counted on a desperate surprise attack. Not only did he fail to take the castle, he was killed during the battle.

After a few months into his marriage to Charlotte in 1498, Cesare never saw his wife again, nor their daughter, Louise. Charlotte, however, remained loyal to her husband's memory. She and her daughter entered a convent, and lived pious lives until the death of Charlotte.

Strangely, Cesare's lasting legacy is that he served as the model for Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince, the leader who promotes himself solely through the strength of his own will. When we hear of the adjective "Machiavellian," we are once more in the presence of Borgia. There's no contest about who is the most important person in The Prince, Cesare Borgia.

Machiavelli worked for and greatly admired Cesare Borgia whose exploits Machiavelli later used as examples in The Prince. Although Borgia was corrupt and hated by many, in The Prince, Machiavelli views Borgia as a leader capable of uniting Italy.

There is also a theory that White Jesus modeled on Cesare Borgia.
Cesare Borgia and Portraits of Jesus

The theory is that people were generally not too enthusiastic about the Catholic Church’s regular massacres of Jews and Muslims, because the people they were killing looked kinda like Jesus. Brilliantly, Pope Alexander VI then ordered the destruction of all art depicting a Semitic Jesus and commissioned a number of paintings depicting a Caucasian Jesus.  His son, Cardinal Cesare Borgia, was the model for these paintings.  Thus, the nastiest of all the Borgias, became the iconic Caucasian Jesus so loved by Christians today. True? Well, paintings were famously modeled on living people and there are many similarities in the paintings of the time of Cesare and those of Jesus. But, Cesare was classically handsome and so were the portraits of Jesus. I say it could be true but it might just be that Cesare was attractive in the same way the Catholic Church thought Jesus ought to be depicted. The Middle Eastern pictures of Jesus were destroyed under Alexander VI though. That much is actual.

The Conclave of 1492 brought a fucker to the Vatican, divided the world in half, created the Machiavellian hero, Cesare, and cost uncountable lives and money. It also stained the Catholic Church for over a thousand years.

The most infamous of all the Popes, father of several children, and politician extraordinaire. The second Borgia Pope, the most misunderstood and most unexplainable character to have ever sat upon the throne of Saint Peter, dynamic, enigmatic, and intelligent, this man was a shrewd political leader, with a very clear understanding of the politics of his day. Alexander was not a Churchman, he belonged else where, yet he did not neglect his responsibilities to the Church. By no means was he an exemplary Christian, however, he did bring back a prestige and power to the Church that made Her enemies tremble, and Her faithful gasp in wonder and awe. 

Is Judaism A Religion, A Race, Or A Culture?

I'm Jewish. It is one of my identities. I say one of because I am an American and a half. Quarter Jewish (Ashkenazi from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire which also makes me Central European ancestors from around Vienna), Quarter Irish, Quarter English, and a quarter mixed bag. Last ¼ is probably eastern European, Slavic perhaps, with some more English perhaps.

So, why am I Jewish? Well, because I was raised to think I was. But culturally and not religiously. In fact I am a terrible Jew. Every few years my mother (half Jewish) would get the bright idea that we should celebrate Yom Kippur or Hanukkah or something. Mostly we were secular. We celebrated Christmas and Easter (but no Jesus in either, especially Easter as my mother was forced to watch “Passion” videos in school as a child and found the Jesus part of Easter to be barbaric and disgusting).  I often tell people I was raised as a non-practicing Unitarian.

So, what is Judaism? That question can be difficult or near impossible to answer. But, since I have had to argue with some folks on the internet over it, we shall try.  Over the past two decades, the number of American Jews who define themselves as secular has nearly doubled; in Israel, a country founded on secular and nationalistic notions of Judaism, the religious population has risen dramatically. Fifty-eight percent of Israeli Jews now consider themselves either traditional or religious, while almost half say they’re secular. Over four of ten Israeli Jews say they are secular Jews.

But all these self-definitions fail to convey what Judaism truly is. Its religious aspects can be no more easily separated from its cultural or national dimensions than secular notions of Jewishness can be divorced from their religious origins. Still, a common assumption today is that Judaism began as a religion and only gradually grew into something more broad — and that is completely wrong.

The strange thing is that this is exactly backwards: the very idea that Judaism is a religion is a distinctly modern invention. Prior to Jewish modernity — most clearly defined as the acquisition of citizenship rights for Jews, a long process that began in Europe in the late-18th century — Judaism was neither solely a religion, nor simply a matter of culture or nationality. Rather, Judaism and Jewishness were all of these at once: religion, culture and nationality. Indivisible.
The basic framework of organized Jewish life in the medieval and early modern periods was the local Jewish community. While a Jewish community’s existence depended on the whim of others (usually the nobility or royalty), pre-modern Jewish communities were unique in that they had a tremendous amount of political autonomy. Communities within communities.

Each community had its own set of bylaws administered by laypersons who, among other things, elected a rabbi for the community. Rabbis in turn had jurisdiction over ritual law and also gave credence to the laws of the community as a whole.

Each community also had its own courts, as well as its own educational, health, economic and social services systems. Outside rulers gave the Jewish community responsibility to maintain law and order, and the right to punish its members in a variety of ways, including exacting fines, imprisonment and corporal punishment.

For all these reasons, it simply was not possible in a pre-modern context to conceive of Jewish religion, nationality, and what we now call culture as distinct from one another. A Jew’s religious life was defined by, though not limited to, Jewish law, which was simultaneously religious, political and cultural in nature.

It was only in the modern period that the corporate Jewish community dissolved, and with that, political agency shifted to the individual Jew, giving him the freedom to define his identity for himself. Sort of an infusion of the Protestant idea of a “Personal Relationship” with the divine.

So where did the idea that Judaism was only a religion come from? Moses Mendelssohn.
The German Jewish philosopher, born in 1729, essentially invented it. Known as the “German Socrates,” and “the father of Reform Judaism.”     Mendelssohn thrived in both Jewish and German Enlightenment circles. Yet despite his fame, Mendelssohn, like all other Jews, had no civil rights.

When he was publicly challenged to explain why the Jews shouldn’t convert to Christianity, he argued that Judaism was wholly compatible with German Enlightenment values. But he stressed Judaism’s religious components over its corporate structure, thus giving birth to the idea that Judaism was a religion alone.

He vehemently opposed the idea that the Jewish community should retain its autonomy in matters of civil law, stressing that Jews should receive civil rights as individuals and not as a corporate entity. And he especially rejected the Jewish community’s claim, still maintained in his day, to the right to excommunicate.

It is not surprising that a century after Mendelssohn’s peak of fame, and after Jews had been granted some though not all civil rights, Rabbi Abraham Geiger, the Reform movement’s founding father, would affirm what he called Judaism’s “religious-universal” element. Though he reacted against Mendelssohn’s insistence that Jews maintain religious practices, Rabbi Geiger argued that Judaism consisted only of “spiritual achievements” because “it is precisely to its independence from political status that Judaism owes its survival.”

What is perhaps surprising is that what we today call “Orthodoxy” has as much, if not more, in common with Mendelssohn’s conception of Jewish religion than do pre-modern forms of Judaism. Despite the perception of it being ancient, Orthodox Judaism is, in other words, essentially modern. Orthodoxy’s founder was Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century German rabbi of what came to be called neo-Orthodoxy, and who stressed that a “unity of religious outlook,” and not political life, linked Jewish communal life throughout the ages.
Rabbi Hirsch never denied that non-Orthodox Jews were Jewish, but he parted company with his rabbinic predecessors in distinguishing between being Jewish and “the genuine Jew” who belonged to what he called “the true Jewish congregation.” For this reason, Rabbi Hirsch, despite his vehement criticism of liberal Judaism, made Judaism more like the Christianity of his times, much the same way Reform Judaism did.

The idea that Judaism was a secular, cultural identity was born further east, in the late-19th century. Rabbis Hirsch and Geiger’s ideas of Judaism as a religion made little sense in Eastern Europe, where Jews still, for the most part, did not possess individual rights. The cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am, born in 1856 in Kiev, rejected the idea that Judaism was a religion, arguing that Jews had attempted to eliminate their communal identity for the false promise of full equality in a modern state.

As he put it in a well-known and aptly titled essay, “Slavery in Freedom”:
“Do I envy these fellow Jews of mine their emancipation? I answer in all truth and sincerity: No! A thousand times No. ... I have at least not sold my soul for emancipation...” Instead, he believed Jews should revive their own homeland in Palestine, and one founded on a rich Hebrew culture.”

Yet while Ahad Ha’am is today often treated as a “secularist,” there can be no denying that, somewhat paradoxically, he understood religion and theology as the vital element of what he regarded as the future of Hebrew culture. Put another way, the notion of Jewish culture, or Jewish secularism, relied on religious sources. Particularly telling is how Ha’am drew inspiration from the Hebrew prophets, contending that the ethical imperative was the true meaning of prophecy and the unique contribution of Judaism to all of humanity.

So what is the answer to that very modern question: Is Judaism a religion, a secular culture or a national identity? The answer, I think, is none and all of the above. This may not be entirely satisfying, but complex questions rarely allow for simple answers.

So, what is Judaism?

Is Judaism a Religion?
Clearly, there is a religion called Judaism, a set of ideas about the world and the way we should live our lives that is called "Judaism."

However, many people who call themselves Jews do not believe in that religion at all!  Almost half of all Jews in Israel today call themselves "secular," and don't believe in God or any of the religious beliefs of Judaism. Half of all Jews in the United States don't belong to any synagogue. They may practice some of the rituals of Judaism and celebrate some of the holidays, but they don't always think of these actions as religious activities.

Clearly, then, there is more to being Jewish than just a religion.

Are Jews a Race?

In the 1980s, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Jews are a race, at least for purposes of certain anti-discrimination laws. Their reasoning: at the time these laws were passed, people routinely spoke of the "Jewish race" or the "Italian race" as well as the "Negro race," so that is what the legislators intended to protect.

Common ancestry is not required to be a Jew. Many Jews worldwide share common ancestry, as shown by genetic research; however, you can be a Jew without sharing this common ancestry, for example, by converting. Thus, although I could never become black or Asian, blacks and Asians have become Jews (Sammy Davis Jr. and Connie Chung are good examples).

Is It a Culture or Ethnic Group?

Most secular American Jews think of their Jewishness as a matter of culture or ethnicity. When they think of Jewish culture, they think of the food, of the Yiddish language, of some limited holiday observances, and of cultural values like the emphasis on education.
Those secular American Jews would probably be surprised to learn that much of what they think of as Jewish culture is really just Ashkenazic Jewish culture, those were descendants of immigrants originating in the Israelite tribes of the Middle East who coalesced in the Holy Roman Empire (pre-Germany and central Europe) around the turn of the first millennium. Jews have lived in many parts of the world and have developed many different traditions.

As Sephardic Jews (a Sephardi Jew is a Jew descended from the Jews who lived in the Iberian Peninsula in the late 15th century) remind us, Yiddish is not part of his culture, nor are bagels and lox, chopped liver, latkes, gefilte fish or matzah ball soup. His idea of Jewish cooking includes bourekas, phyllo dough pastries filled with cheese or spinach. Their ancestors probably wouldn't know what to do with a dreidel.

There are certainly cultural traits and behaviors that are shared by many Jews that might make us feel more comfortable with each other as Jews.  Jews in many parts of the world share many of those cultural aspects. However, that culture is not shared by all Jews all over the world, and people who do not share that culture are no less Jews because of it. Thus, Judaism must be something more than a culture or an ethnic group.

Are the Jews a Nation like Nigerians from Nigeria? Jews from Judea?

The traditional explanation, and the one given in the Torah, is that the Jews are a nation. The Hebrew word, believe it or not, is "goy." The Torah and the rabbis used this term not in the modern sense meaning a territorial and political entity, but in the ancient sense meaning a group of people with a common history, a common destiny, and a sense that we are all connected to one another.

Unfortunately, in modern times, the term "nation" has become too contaminated by other interpretations and definitions.  Jingoistic and political.  Because of this notion of "nationhood," Jews have often falsely accused of being disloyal to their own country in favor of their loyalty to the Jewish "nation," of being more loyal to Israel than to their home country. Some have gone so far as to use this distorted interpretation of "nationhood" to prove that Jews do, or seek to, control the world.

Because of the inaccurate connotations that have attached themselves to the term "nation," the term can no longer be used to accurately describe the Jewish people.

It is clear from this discussion that there is a certain amount of truth in the claims that it is a religion, a race, or an ethnic group, none of these descriptions is entirely adequate to describe what connects Jews to other Jews. And yet, almost all Jews feel a sense of connectedness to each other that many find hard to explain, define, or even understand. Traditionally, this interconnectedness was understood as "nationhood" or "peoplehood," but those terms have become so distorted over time that they are no longer accurate.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has suggested a better analogy for the Jewish people: We are a family. This is certainly not a new concept: throughout the Bible and Jewish literature, the Jewish people are referred to as "the Children of Israel," a reference to the fact that we are all the physical or spiritual descendants of the Patriarch Jacob, who was later called Israel. In other words, we are part of his extended family.

When a member of the "family" does something illegal, immoral or shameful, we all feel the shame, and we all feel that it reflects on us. Many Jews were embarrassed by the scandals of Monica Lewinsky, Jack Abramoff and Bernie Madoff, because they are Jews and their actions reflect on us all, even though we disapprove. The Madoff scandal was all the more embarrassing, because so many of his victims were Jews and Jewish charities: a Jew robbing from our own "family"! We were shocked when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was killed by a Jew, unable to believe that one Jew would ever kill another member of the "family."

And when a member of the "family" accomplishes something significant, we all feel proud. A perfect example of Jews (even completely secular ones) delighting in the accomplishments of our fellow Jews is the perennial popularity of Adam Sandler's Chanukkah songs, listing famous people who are Jewish. We all take pride in scientists like Albert Einstein or political leaders like Joe Lieberman (we don't all agree with his politics or his religious views, but we were all proud to see him on a national ticket).

Jews are many things. But, as an atheist I am deeply offended when someone says that being Jewish means practicing the religion of Judaism.

Monday, October 13, 2014

I Have Privilege and so do You!!

My mother introduced me to the concept of privilege when I was ten or so. I'm not sure they had named it privilege yet but it is the same concept.
When I was tiny infant my father skipped out leaving my mother to raise me and my three year old sister (suffering from myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease which killed her when she was 12).
Needing to take my sister to the doctor and having lost her job because there was no mandatory maternity leave, my mother needed social services. She had never gone to a welfare office before. She assumed it would be like any other office she had been in.
She sat down with a case manager and he asked her some questions. Fairly invasive, but she answered.
Then he asks "So, where is the father?" To which my mother replied "I don't think that is any of your business"
He closed her file, looked her in the eye and said "I can just close your case right now"
At which point my mother realized what privilege was. My mother was "white and bright" and had never experienced this sort of behavior. People who are white and bright don't get challenged. We rule the world. She got to see that day how poor white trash was treated.
It took a moment to sink in. It didn't make sense. He was acting crazy.
No. He was acting like she was "poor white trash". He did not bother to hear how she spoke. That she was college educated. That she was 10x brighter than him. No. She had her privilege stripped away. Ten years later she recounted this to me. It made such an impact on her. I realized then that people let me talk whenever I want. Minorities look for my approval. I can walk into almost any building in the world without hassle.
Once I wore a suit to court and was told to sit past the bar (where the lawyers sit) before I corrected the Judge. He had me sit with the other lawyers anyway. No law degree, but I was white and in a suit.
Sure I am bright. I speak well. But I am also white, like my mother and additionally a man. People never look at me suspiciously (except in sketchy areas where I am the freak and privilege becomes temporarily reversed in a weird way). I am the accepted norm.
I try to remember that. I am a bright, white, straight, cis, male.
Imagine a black man in my mother's position. College educated, bright, well spoken, being treated like a gangbanger or drug addict. Imagine that and you imagine the way most of my black friends are treated. I can put on a suit. Go from trailer park to Park Avenue with a change of clothes. The black man can't change his skin and it makes him a lesser class of human. We should not forget that.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Comfort Zones

When I was a teenager I dated this girl, lets call her Rachel. Every guy she had dated had slapped her around. She liked me because I was a nice guy. I was even tempered and kind. She loved it.

But, after a couple weeks, she started messing with me. Pressing buttons. Tickling my emotional weak spots. Trying to get a rise out of me. And it worked. I got madder and madder and madder until I could feel my muscles tightening up and my hand rising. Almost out of body, I watched myself lift my hand to smack her.

And I stopped. My intellectual brain had figured it out before my reptile brain had taken over. She wanted me to hit her. Not wanted exactly. She desired it. She desired it because she knew it was going to happen and deeply desired some modicum of control.

She had an intuitive knowledge of what would happen and I refused to comply with her prediction. What I learned that day is that humans do not want happiness. They don't desire peace or stability but predictability.

Humans are predicting machines. We gather, collate, and organize data in order to make predictions about the future. We are most comfortable when reality conforms with our expectations. When reality correlates with our worldview. Part of the reasons we falter and fail with cognitive biases. Availability heuristic, Just-world hypothesis, Negativity bias, Ostrich effect, Hindsight bias, Clustering illusion, among many other come from our desire to either predict the future (which maintains comfort) or rewrite our past prediction to say that what happened was what we expected.

Humans make decisions which hurt themselves. Self sabotage. Usually the same people in the same ways. Because they are trying to fulfill a future which they expect.

I was always a bright student but never studied. I could get a B without studying for a minute. Look how smart I am. I get Bs without working. I have fulfilled my expectation of being excellent. Why not study and get an A? Well, I could fail. What would my failure do to my self image? What if I studied and still got a B? How would I define my self image? No need to ask that question because I can just not study and get the B.

I protected my expectation of reality by not trying. Just like Rachel protected hers by instigating aggression. She had learned that men beat women. It is how they show passion or it is the nature of men or whatever. She, like I, had a view of reality and we were threatened at a deep psychological level. We preferred to take a sub-preferential outcome because we felt comfort in it. In my case it was a lower GPA and in her case it was violence.

We do this all the time. We think we will fail at this or that and the failure makes us a failure. Since we are not failures we do not try. If we tried and failed we would have to admit that we are failures and that would threaten our self image. It would be uncomfortable. People use the phrase "comfort zone" and it drives me crazy. But it is not always a cliche. Sometimes we need to move out of our comfort zone to move forward.