31 July 2006

Hollinghurst Review

New at SASCHA DOT COM -- a review of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty. (Available in various editions at Powells.com.)

23 July 2006


A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

In a famous ancient Greek myth, the hero Heracles must kill a multi-headed, venomous water serpent called the Hydra. After engaging the beast in battle, Heracles discovers that for each of the Hydra’s heads he chops off, two more grow in its place, thus revealing that his initial, conventional approach is having the reverse effect; an entirely new strategy is needed. Heracles is ultimately victorious with the help of his nephew, as the two collaborate on removing the Hydra’s heads and then cauterizing the stumps to prevent regrowth; the final blow is delivered with an arrow dipped in the serpent’s own venom. (For more on the story of the hydra, see the Wikipedia entry.)

As I read the news these days – about the growing, unconventional war the Israelis are engaged in with Hizbollah and with Palestinian terrorists, and about the continued “insurgency” (which has long looked more like several, separate insurgencies) that the United States and the nascent Iraqi government face across that nation – the myth of the Hydra is increasingly on my mind. The conventional approach taken by the U.S. in Iraq has not worked, aside from the initial slice that decapitated Saddam Hussein’s government. Look what grew back instead. For all that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has talked about a new, unconventional, and more strategically-empowered American military, the result is essentially the same: traditional military engagement, in which soldiers and their arms are used to fight, control, and kill our enemies. There has been no paradigm shift in the process of war-fighting, or even of evaluating the conflict, and the ongoing problems in Iraq – and Afghanistan, and with Iran and North Korea – reflect the simplicity of American thinking under the Bush administration.

One might argue that the U.S. could have learned a few things from Israel, which has been battling an evolving enemy almost since the state was established in 1948 and with greater resolve as the challenges of terrorism have grown in recent decades. In a certain light, the Israeli approach might be cast as unconventional: targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders or other radical dissidents, a persistent willingness to uproot civilians in order to unearth enemies, and in recent years, a unilateral approach to solving problems, including withdrawals from southern Lebanon and the Gaza strip, and the ongoing creation of a border wall. However, none of this is particularly daring or different, even recognizing the occasional successes; the current situation, including the strengthening of Hizbollah, makes quite plain that the long-term gains of Israeli policy have been limited.

The more radical and unconventional approach Israel once took is also the one so many now seem to have abandoned: the slow, careful, quiet, and behind-the-scenes peace talks that eventually culminated in the Oslo Accords. Those talks are now considered to have failed, but they represented the biggest shift in the Middle East peace-making strategy since the 1967 war. Recreating them may be impossible – times have changed – yet that does not mean that a different, similarly-groundbreaking effort could not be made. The aging Shimon Peres, for example, has been a consistent voice for a more realistic economic engagement, arguing that if the opportunities for life for ordinary Palesinians improve, the rationale behind a policy of death-through-terrorism becomes less attractive.

Such cooperation will not, on its own, solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or resolve border disputes or governance issues, but it would be a step, a move away from the gut reaction to hit back and towards a new and different kind of policy. Similarly, Israel’s (and America’s) instinctive rejection of Hamas’ election victory in the occupied Palestinian territories was a gut response with negative consequences, reaffirming Hamas’ own self-righteousness (in all the wrong ways). Instead of seeking a partnership, of whatever kind and in small steps, the message from Israel to the Palestinian people was an implicit rejection of their democratic choice. How ironic then that Israel’s long-term attempts to chop off the Hydra-head of Palestinian terrorism have, in fact, only supported Hamas’ growth, culminating in its eventual electoral victory.

For the U.S., it is hard even to grasp what an unconventional approach to Iraq, Iran, or North Korea might mean. In Iraq, America may – unfortunately – be stuck, paralyzed, committed to sustaining the new government until some other opportunity presents itself. Perhaps the U.S. should consider separating Iraq into three nations, formalizing the current, informal division known as Iraqi Kurdistan, and creating Sunni and Shia Iraqi states; separation is what the people seem to want, and American nostalgia for our own melting pot may be getting in the way of clearer vision and better policies. The nuclear challenges presented by the other two countries are more complicated. But the U.S. has struggled with North Korea since the 1950s, and with Iran since 1979, which means there has been plenty of time to explore the unconventional. Overthrowing the governments of both countries is neither practical nor original, and our success rate in this arena – given Iraq, or the ongoing challenge posed by little Cuba, a mere 90 miles away, since 1959 – leaves much to be desired. Surely there is a better way, one that does more than create new heads for this ugly Hydra with each successive American action.

21 July 2006

The Petting ZoO

Anyone interested in a different perspective on the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians might find The Petting ZoO blog of interest. From the author's bio:

"... Meanwhile, S.pet is discovering what it means to be an anti-Zionist Jew. The Internet is brimming with racist dialogue, disguised as nationalism or Zionism. The Petting ZoO is S.pet's small contribution to balancing the scales, providing a cyber-glimpse into the Palestinian struggle for freedom, the Israeli left's struggle for justice, and S.pet's personal struggle to come to terms with her own identity as a woman, an American, and a Jew."

19 July 2006

Excuses, Excuses

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

A common problem with children and adolescents is the tendency to confuse an excuse with a valid justification or rationale: “the dog ate my homework” is an excuse; “I didn’t understand the assignment” is a lot closer to an honest explanation.

This is the position Israel now finds itself in. Its excuse is that it was attacked, several times in several places, by Palestinian terrorists in Gaza, who kidnapped a soldier and who have fired mortars at Israeli towns and people, and by Hizbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon, who have also fired rockets at Israel and have kidnapped two Israeli soldiers.

A proportional response to these attacks from Israel would have been justified self-defense; no explanation required. Instead, Israel is using these attacks by terrorist-guerrillas as an excuse for a broader set of punishing actions that is completely out of proportion to the harm it faced and, more importantly, to the moral code to which the nation professes to adhere as part of its broad, international public relations campaign.

Declaring (as it did yesterday) that the attacks on Lebanon will last several weeks – Israel has indicated, clearly and unambiguously, that it is taking a political opportunity to destroy infrastructure in Lebanon at a moment when (as Israel trumpets loudly) even other Arab regimes think Hizbollah acted wrongly. This represents a form of collective punishment against a broad population of Lebanese civilians who have already been faced with their own political and military struggles – to free their nation of Syrian influence, to remove Syrian soldiers, to sustain a democratic government, and to maintain a state of peace after more than a decade of civil war. (The invasion and subsequent actions in Gaza are more complicated – because of the size of the terrain and the proximity that permits further shelling of Israeli civilians. But Hizbollah is not attacking Israel from Beirut, yet it is Beirut that Israel has attacked.)

And, more to the point, this kind of collective punishment – against Lebanese and Palestinian civilians – is immoral. Whatever one wants to say about Israel’s origins, the state itself traces its history back to the Biblical connections of the Jewish people to the land, and to the religious framework that has defined Jewish life for several millennia. But to stake one’s claim to the Bible means tying one’s self to Biblical precepts, to the tremendous moral code handed to the Jewish people and carried from generation to generation.

The book Christians call the “Old Testament” contains a lot of gruesome death, much war, and often depicts a vengeful, wrathful god. However, it is also quite clear on the need to create and sustain a higher moral order, on the importance of connecting human behavior and instinct – such as a reactive desire for revenge – to an established code of laws, even if this means halting what might be an instinctive reaction in favor of a more thoughtful, measured, ultimately moral response. It is a call from god to reflect on the spirit within us, and to act not as we might desire emotionally for ourselves, but as we should for the benefit of humanity.

In that context, Israeli attacks on civilians simply are not justified or justifiable. Let’s be clear: neither are the attacks on Israel by these terrorists; but the Islamic terrorists of the region make no real claim to the same moral code that Israel seeks to embrace. Israel cannot claim to be an open democracy while it oppresses its non-Jewish minorities, and it cannot claim to be a beacon of moral action in a sea of Islamic terror when it acts as badly, as indiscriminately, as oppressively as the terrorists themselves. With several hundred Lebanese civilians killed, and nearly a half-million displaced from their homes, the Israeli response in unquestionably out of proportion to the harm Israelis themselves have suffered.

I firmly believe that Jewish morality and Jewish law does not subscribe to placing a higher value on Jewish life than on a non-Jewish life. That, however, is exactly what Israel is doing: cloaking itself in the mantle of respectable self-defense while expanding its attacks well beyond what can be justified as such.

As for the response of the United States, and the Jewish community here, I find it sad and mystifying in equal measure. Jews around the world have faced discrimination, oppression, and worse for as many millennia as one can count, and yet the Jewish moral code is one that strives to overcome such oppression, to place a belief in the goodness of humanity at the very core of life. Jews have also played an important role in fighting battles against oppressive elements of society, in rejecting calls from others to prize kin-folk and co-religionists above others. From Christian Crusaders to the Ku Klux Klan to Islamo-fascists, many people have sought to devalue the lives of those whose beliefs, traditions, or skin color they do not share. The American Jewish community has an opportunity to lead: to lead towards peace, to use the political and religious connections to Israel it so ardently articulates in order to encourage a more moral response to this conflict. How sad, then, to find that American Jews have turned their backs on this history, to proclaim – as one rabbi from New Jersey did – that “we stand firmly behind Israel,” even when Israel’s actions are disproportionate to the conflict, and are predicated on the excuse that an Israeli Jewish life is worth more than anything else in the world.

14 July 2006

July News & Notes

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

It's a slow summer Friday here in NYC, so a few simple things to think about...

In a column the New York Times ran on 20 June, “Next Blackout, Think of All Those Stores That Had Their Doors Open,” Clyde Haberman made some excellent points about energy waste in New York, and the joys of summer as the thermometer keeps rising. But in addition to the heat on the subway platforms, and the stores that blast their environmentally-costly air conditioning out onto the welcoming streets, I wondered: aren’t there other things we could or should be doing – easy-to-change things that could improve the City particularly during these hot, humid months? There are plenty of ideas, but I’ll offer three:

A) Many people – from ordinary people in SUVS to trucks and vans on business outings – sit around New York with their vehicles idling, spewing unnecessary waste into our air and adding (though both exhaust and engine) to the heat that has to be displaced to somewhere. So: Let’s start ticketing people who sit idly in their cars waiting for something, anything, with their engines running. It’s hot? Roll down the windows, or stand outside the cabin. (And yes, we’ll make an obvious exception for the refrigerated trucks that carry our food and other perishables. Those are easy to identify.)

B) Similarly, summers might also be a good time to reintroduce the HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) restrictions that exist periodically in New York, usually after something goes awry, when there’s a need to control traffic. Let’s be honest with ourselves: if too many cars are too inefficient and contribute to global warming, then too many cars driving single drivers into and out of New York is also a bad situation, and one that exacerbates the City’s existing problems. So, let's stop it. Want to drive into NYC solo? Unless you live here, and your car is registered here in the five boroughs, that’ll cost you – how about $100 per crossing. Otherwise, minimum two people to a car or get thee to some form of public transportation, of which we have a lot. (Is this a form of “commuter tax” You betcha. But why should the folks in Westchester have better air than we do, while being allowed to contribute to our environmental problems?)

C) And speaking of heat and humidity in NYC, one of the best parts of summer is how the City smells. No, really; it can smell awful, in case you hadn't noticed, and it's one of the best incentives to go on vacation. The stench is particularly acute when restaurants, stores, and apartment buildings insist on spraying down their sidewalks each day, allowing the water to accumulate in small, stagnant pools right at curbside ... where they can accumulate even more dirt and filth, and start to smell putrid. I don’t know what the real solution is here, but I know that the smell is bad – and the unnecessarily-wasted water is worse. How about limiting this spray-down practice to once a week?


Speaking of dirt and filth, a brief word of thanks to all members of the U.S. House of Representatives, a fun, upstanding bunch of legislators and wanna-be moralists. Thanks for wasting tax-payer time on the important issues facing our nation, like a Constitutional amendment to ban the (rampant, absolutely unstoppable) problem of flag burning, or for the heady, earth-shaking need for legislation to ban gambling over the internet. As a citizen, I really appreciate how important issues (like immigration, or monitoring the excesses of the Executive branch, or trying to hold the line on your porky “earmarks”) get deferred for “study” until after the election, while the pressing issues like flag burning get immediate attention. The Senate deserves some thanks, too, while I’m at it, for being about one degree better than their colleagues in the House. And in case anyone is wondering: this is a bi-partisan problem. It’s easy to pick on the GOP, but the Democrats voted for the flag burning amendment and the gambling restrictions in heavy numbers, too.


Finally, I would like to offer an early business euology for Carlos Ghosn, the head of the automotive alliance of Renault and Nissan. After successfully bringing costs in line for both companies, and overseeing Nissan’s successful re-energization, Ghosn is apparently contemplating a further alliance with the moribund and desperate American car maker General Motors (being pushed by GM’s biggest shareholder Kirk Kerkorian).

All I can say is: come on! One look at GM should reveal that: its product line is uninspired; it has an unsustainable volume of brands selling too many look-alike, feel-alike cars; its union problems are wide and deep, even with all the employee buy-outs being taken; and clearly, its management is clueless about the car-driving public or their needs.

So, for even contemplating publicly a hook-up of this sort, Ghosn might just deserve to be sacked. Ok, that’s a little strong; but he should probably be reeled in. Isn’t Renault / Nissan better-off if GM, as a failing competitor, actually fails? Doesn’t that improve the odds for other car makers, the Franco-Japanese alliance included? Why would Renault and Nissan want to save the unsaveable, and how does it really benefit them? “Synergy,” let me remind you, is a bit of a a passé concept for a reason.


Happy Bastille Day, everyone. Long live the revolution!

09 July 2006

Missing Specialization

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Once upon a time, business executives and managers who could afford it had what were called secretaries. Secretaries typically performed a variety of tasks for their bosses, such as typing letters or other items, answering the phone and directing callers or taking messages, managing the executive’s schedule, coordinating meetings, copying (or, in the old days, mimeographing) or filing documents, etc. There was a long list of clerical and administrative duties that were intended to free the boss to focus on the decision-making and management activities for which they were presumably hired. Good secretaries were (hopefully) valued, and secretarial skills (e.g., being a fast and capable typist) were considered a set of talents unto themselves. Moreover, while the stereotype of a secretarial relationship was 1:1 – one executive to one secretary – there were such things as “secretarial pools,” wherein a number of secretaries served a broader range of (often more junior) executives, thus still eliminating clerical work while reducing administrative costs. (And yes, the other stereotype of the secretarial relationship was male executive to female secretary, but for the purposes of this discussion the gender issues are irrelevant.)

Fast forward to 2006, to a United States transformed by the personal computer and other tools – technologies designed to make things “easier” for us, regardless of our role in life. By and large, they might do just that: Americans can now shop, bank, watch movies, listen to music, make appointments, plan a vacation, and more, using the internet from the comfort of their home; they can reach a spouse, child, parent, or emergency assistance by cell phone, from (and to) virtually anywhere; exchange information or keep in touch with friends via e-mail; and take, print, and share photographs of their events or experiences, using digital cameras, home photo-printers, computers, and the internet. We believe these little things generally contribute to our well-being, to our recreation, relaxation, and daily life management.

At the same time, however, they have also transformed the way we work – and not necessarily for the better. The arrival and mass-adoption of these technologies has virtually eliminated secretaries. Instead, executives now have “executive assistants” or office managers, a class of employees who do not, as a general rule, perform all the same tasks that secretaries once did. Much typing is now done by executives themselves, whether communicating by e-mail, writing a memo, or drafting a strategy document, while every working Tom, Dick, and Harry with a BlackBerry and a cell phone can be reached as directly as anyone else, with little interference. Some of this is seen as necessitated by the speed of business and communication today – when a client e-mails, who has time to dictate a reply, to be typed up and sent by a secretary executive assistant? It seems impractical, implausible; the executive can type her own damn e-mails. There is also an economic motive: when management can type, edit, spell-check, print, and distribute a memo or document themselves, there isn’t much of a rationale behind paying for an intermediary to assist. Sure, the executive might not type 120 words a minute or use the classic finger arrangement on their keyboard, but it doesn’t matter; if they can combine composing, editing, and typing into one process, they can eliminate another salary, saving the company money. The changes go on from there: shared electronic calendars allow meetings to be planned and tracked across a whole company without an administrative intermediary; voice mail systems make the need for a human message-taker irrelevant; and laptop computers, BlackBerrys, and cell phones mean that even when traveling – the last bastion of escape from the rigors of the office – executives can be just as “efficient” and “in touch” as if they were sitting in their own Aeron chair in their very own office.

If all of this sounds benign, or suggests a simplistic nostalgia for the lost art of taking dictation, consider how much deeper this strain of business self-sufficiency runs, how much more each of us is asked to do, usually with the aid of technology, as if we should all know how to do it. The list is long: formatting documents, creating presentations in PowerPoint-type software, managing information in a database, creating, modifying, printing, or saving digital images... All of these things require skill sets that may be more complex than those we earlier desired from well-trained secretaries, and yet they are skills we now consider basic on the part of even the most entry-level, non-administrative staffer. It isn’t just that we have to know more, we have to know more skills that are, in many ways, irrelevant to the jobs we are supposed to do.

Nor have we accounted well for the costs of these “user-friendly” technologies. What might take a specialist 10 minutes (at a cost of, say, $100) can consume 45 minutes for the assistant account executive (whose time might bill at $100/hour). On the surface, it looks cheaper: those 45 minutes cost less than the specialist’s 10. But that account executive should have his or her own specialty; if you consider the other work that the assistant account executive could have done while the digital image is being handled by someone else, it may be a Pyrrhic savings. Or consider how many minutes per day are lost just to the process of dialing in to retrieve and listen to voice mail messages; the concise, secretarial message has been replace by a person-to-person communique that might just be less efficient in the long run.

There are areas where specialization is, of course, still critical, from lawyers to doctors to engineers; even the business executives who function without secretaries usually have specialized skills in the areas in which they work. Nonetheless, the bounty that technology has brought us has also burdened us, creating a sense of false independence, a “freedom” to do tasks that (as a result) we now devalue, such as typing – business activities that were once considered skills, and the province of those with proper training. The irony is that in our digital age, these tasks may require more training, more specialization, than used to be demanded of secretaries. Anyone who has ever “lost” a document because they did something wrong, or fought for an hour with their word processor to change some formatting detail, knows that these simple, easy-to-use programs can be anything but. More to the point, when we expect everyone to do everything, someone has to lose, and often, it’s us.

04 July 2006

Let’s Have A Parade

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

At the moment, I don’t think the blame game over the escalating crisis between the Israelis and the Palestinians is particularly helpful (if it ever was). Did the Palestinians attack an Israeli command post and kidnap a soldier because of the death of a Palestinian family on a Gaza beach, allegedly the result of an Israeli bomb that may or may not have been misdirected? Did the Israelis stage that beach attack because of mortar shelling from Palestinian militants in Gaza onto nearby Israeli towns? The answer to this he said / he said dynamic is irrelevant to a broader question of responsible, moral actions and a functional set of mechanisms for bringing this long, senseless, murderous era to a close.

Now let’s look at something closer to home (for us New Yorkers, anyway) that nonetheless may have an impact on this situation a few thousand miles away: the annual “Salute to Israel” parade in New York. Of all the cities in the United States, New York may have the greatest scope of ethnic heritage and history, since it was the traditional port of entry for (European) immigrants for much of our nation’s history. Moreover, New York City and its citizens take great pride in this diversity, from particular neighborhoods and their high concentrations of immigrant communities, to the shops, restaurants, and other activities in which these citizens engage, and which give vibrancy to their and our environment.

New York also loves to celebrate these different communities with annual parades honoring these immigrant cultures and communities, most notably with the Irish, Greek, and Puerto Rican day parades, along with festivals like San Gennaro in Little Italy and Brazilian Day in Little Brazil in Midtown. Each year, these events are organized by leaders from these different communities, floats and marching groups assembled from schools and churches, t-shirts printed, flags waved, signs carried, and politicians assembled to meet and greet. And for each group, the underlying message to their event is pride in the intermingling of their ethnic culture and heritage with their pride in being in New York, in being Americans in America.

The “Salute to Israel” parade, on the other hand, is different: it is an inherently political event, an attempt to reinforce a connection between the American Jewish community and a nation several thousand miles away – and to remind us of the alleged importance of supporting this other nation. In fact, the parade’s own web site states this clearly: “The single largest gathering in the world in support of Israel...” Where every other of New York’s ethnic groups celebrates their presence in and additions to American culture, the Israel day parade does something else. It does not celebrate Israelis in New York and the lengths to which they will go to add to vibrancy of the city’s melting pot; nor does it pretend to toast the many contributions made by American Jews to the United States over our long, 350-year history here.

No, the focus of the Israel day parade is Israel: a foreign nation, well beyond our borders, and with a culture that is (for all of its similarities, for all that English is an acknowledged second language) wholly different from ours here in America. Synagogues, schools, and youth groups wear t-shirts expressing their support for Israel, while rabbis and community leaders glad-hand under the blue-and-white banners of Israel’s colors. Never mind that most Jews in America did not come to this country from Israel – we came principally from Europe, from as far west as Spain and as far east as Russia. We may trace notional, Biblical roots to the land of the nation-state we now call Israel, but most of our underlying ethnic and religious identity – from the Jewish food we eat to the manner and melodies of our prayers – are firmly rooted in Europe’s history, not Israel’s.

The continuation of the Israel day parade should make American Jews examine our assumed priorities about our own culture here in the United States. Much as the contemporary American Jewish experience has been too heavily shaped (if not simply overshadowed) by the history of the Holocaust, we should wonder why our community’s New York parade celebrates not ourselves and the many pleasures of being a Jew alive in America, but instead is focused on the other – an external community and a foreign nation. Our community spends a lot of time worrying about questions of “continuity,” of whether or how both Judaism and Jewish culture will survive another generation, producing critical articles, studies, and working papers intended to inform and improve the mechanisms used to connect younger Jews with their heritage and religious traditions – but few have the guts to address this “question” of Israel and the degree to which the aging, Baby Boomer generation (and their parents) have confused and conflated these issues of American Jewish identity, by forcing Israel upon us and seeking at the same time (thank you AIPAC) to place any true discussion about Israel’s actions off-limits.

I do not, have not, and will not participate in such a parade. I have no fear of identifying as an American Jew or as a Jewish American, but “American” – the word, and all that it implies – is critical to my understanding of myself. I do support Israel and its fundamental right to exist, even when I disagree with the nation’s politics and policies, and even as I believe that we Americans, who contribute so much to sustain Israel, out to be more vocal in our rejection of its racist and revanchist policies. But what am I not? I am not an Israeli, and I do not believe there is value in confusing or conflating my identity, or in sustaining a mythology that says that we American Jews are and must be one and the same with our Israeli Jewish co-religionists. (Moreover, we must make this distinction – about Jewish Israelis – since there are non-Jewish Israeli citizens, a group largely ignored by the American Jewish community’s devotion to the state of Israel.)

So, let’s have a parade, shall we? Let’s celebrate our life, history, heritage, and accomplishments as Jews in these United States, joining hands with the other immigrant communities with whom we share so much, not least an appreciation of the freedom and opportunity that America has given us. Let’s even invite Israelis living in New York to participate, as our co-religionists who are also enjoying the bountiful pleasures of life in this city. But let’s please stop kidding ourselves that the “Salute to Israel” parade is anything other than a purely political gesture that does not do justice to our history or identity as American Jews.


Speaking of studies of American Jews, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and the UJA Federation of New York have recently published a new study, Cultural Events & Jewish Identities: Young Adult Jews in New York, authored by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman. A review will be forthcoming here shortly.

The Book’s The Thing

More on books, book-lovin', and technologies about books, over at sascha.com.