24 September 2006

Holidays 5767

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

It seems a cruel bit of irony that the moments when families might naturally gather together to celebrate the passage of time, also happen to be the moments when such gatherings (or their planning) are the most stressful, tense, and anxiety-producing. This is certainly no more or less true for the Jewish High Holidays than for any other important moment, from Thanksgiving to Christmas to birthdays.

We all have our needs and wants: to see certain people, to observe or mark an event in a specific way, to be reminded of particular things about our life. We all want what we want, or we don’t want what we don’t want, and either way we tend to resist change. As I wrote a few years ago, assumptions about the “shared goals and values” within families can create many unfortunate problems, especially around holidays, and these issues can be hard to discuss openly and difficult to address. When you want something, really want it, it is hard to break away from those emotions and see another person’s perspective.

The flip-side to such holiday strife is the opportunity these events (should) bring: to work through the problems, the stress and anxiety, the competing and conflicting desires – and then to overcome them, to reconcile, to forgive and accept, and to find that necessary peace within ourselves. This is always important; for Jews it is especially important now, during this time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we are called upon to examine our lives and deeds for ourselves, and to think about how our words and actions may have hurt those around us.

It is not easy; saying “I’m sorry” rarely is. But the feeling at the end, when we can look back at a bad situation and feel better about it, should make it worthwhile. And maybe, for the next time, we can learn: to take a deep breath in advance, to count to 10, to wait and to think, and to seek out that opportunity for conversation and compromise, and find the shared solutions that respect everyone’s feelings, from the very beginning.


Some previous holiday-related columns:
2004, “Life, At First”; 2001, “The Jewish High Holidays 2001/5762” and “Communities in Question”; 2000, “A Note of Thanksgiving”

17 September 2006

Fly Away With Me

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Since the threat of airline terrorism raised its head again in mid-August, I have had the not-quite-pleasure of taking a few flights, both internationally and within the U.S. In doing so, I have discovered an odd byproduct of the tightened security rules at airports: air travel is actually easier. Not pleasant, but slightly easier.

For the first time since September 2001, it seems that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the airlines are now all on the same page in terms of security and baggage issues, particularly where carry-on bags are concerned. Under normal circumstances, most people do not pack lightly (that, if anything, is an understatement). But when both the airlines and the government are cooperating to scan passengers for nefarious liquids or gels, and when most cosmetics are prohibited in the cabin – period – the completely bizarre, arbitrary, and mostly-unenforced rules about the size of bags people can carry turn out to be largely irrelevant. Gone are the days of over-stuffed “roll-aboard” bags that don’t really fit in overhead compartments. Gone are the last-minute battles for luggage space because some obstinate folks refuse to put smaller items under the seat in front of them. Over the last month, airplanes have felt less crowded, by which I mean that the volume of crap people carry on board has dropped, making the environment more comfortable and less stressful. Even passenger security screenings seem to be moving faster and more efficiently, no doubt a result of more luggage being checked.

All that said, American airline security mania has nonetheless revealed a rip in the fabric of globalization – one that suggests there are still discrepancies within the TSA’s management of our air travel safety. From airport to airport across the country, one can find many of the same chains of shops and restaurants (for better and, mostly, for worse). However, the announcements that are made over the public address system are still different, airport to airport: not only are the voices different, but the wording of the security messages is different. Consider that for a moment: the process and procedures involved in flying are essentially the same from city to city, and the need for security screenings is the same, too. Yet the federal – national – organization that manages the security of airlines does not yet have a standardized message for use in airports across the country.

In Houston, the voice is female, and the language cryptic, telling us that “certain measures have been implemented...” Chicago’s voice and message are different from San Francisco’s, which has two, one male and one female, saying slightly different things. In both cases, passengers are “advised,” as if the conveyance of advice over a public address system is more meaningful, or more polite, than saying simply: “Do not leave your bags unattended.” If these announcements reflected regional styles and accents, the differences might make sense – but the Chicago voice sounded no more accented than the one in Houston, and I’ve never known Texans to speak in such cryptic terms. (New York being New York, there seem to be fewer overall announcements at the airports, perhaps under the assumption that we New Yorkers won’t listen anyway – although if they had the character of the old taxi cab buckle-your-seat-belt advisories, they might get our attention.)

It is not all rosy out there. The no liquids / no gels rules are annoying, particularly where drinks are concerned; beverages purchased on the “secure” side of check-in should be exempt from these restrictions. Likewise, being forced to check even small items one might normally carry on board – say, for an overnight trip, where much isn’t needed – is a nuisance; but if toiletries are involved, those are the rules. And all of this is taking place in an environment where the luggage-handling capabilities of the airlines does not seem to have improved to meet the environmental challenge: it still takes an improbably long time to move bags from plane to passenger, by my count almost 30 minutes spent waiting at the “carousel” at different destinations.

Overall, I do not object to having a more thorough and intelligent security process, if that’s what it really is; but maybe it isn’t. James Fallows has a terrific article in the September 2006 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, titled “Declaring Victory” (well worth reading for other reasons entirely). In it, he touches briefly on the question of airline security and our federal expenditures and efforts to ensure passenger safety, writing:

The widely held view among security experts is that this airport spending is largely for show. Strengthened cockpit doors and a flying public that knows what happened on 9/11 mean that commercial airliners are highly unlikely to be used again as targeted flying bombs. “The inspection process is mostly security theater, to make people feel safe about flying,” says John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State and the author of a forthcoming book about the security-industrial complex. He adds that because fears “are not purely rational, if it makes people feel better, the effort may be worth it.”

If the incident earlier this week is any indicator – a United Airlines flight in which passengers jumped a guy who apparently tried to open the emergency exit, mid-flight – awareness may be our best defense.


UPDATE, 26 September: As you probably heard, the TSA yesterday "relaxed" the rules on carry-on items. Relaxed them to some new, odd kind of obscurity that seems designed to benefit the makers of Ziploc bags more than anyone else. But if most airports don't have screening machines that can test for dangerous chemicals, how does having a bunch of unlabelled, 3-ounce bottles of assorted liquids and gels, presented together in a clear plastic bag, really help protect us?

15 September 2006

Saving Darfur Ourselves?

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The October 2006 issue of the magazine Reason has an interview with military analyst Chet Richards, under the title “The New Generation of War” (also available online here). In it, among his many suggestions for how the U.S. needs to revamp its military and rethink its approach to conflict, Richards says that private contractors – private militias, for rent to our government – may play an increasingly important role in future conflicts. Reason’s Managing Editor Jesse Walker, then poses a question to Richards, as follows:

Reason: What’s the possibility of private military companies being retained by Americans who aren’t in the government? Say some people decide they want to assist the people in Darfur and raise the funds and hire a company to do the job.

CR: I think there’s a 100 percent chance of that happening. I couldn’t tell you when.

Reason: Do you think it’s desirable?

CR: Oh, yeah. Again, let’s have some competition there.

Like Alexander the Great slicing through the Gordian Knot, I suddenly wondered whether Walker’s question (even more than Richards’ answer) provides some hope for the people of Darfur: what if, instead of marching in Central Park or London’s Kensington Gardens... what if, instead of giving money to the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders... what if, instead of complaining about the inaction of the United States government, the United Nations, or the weak, hamstrung, and soon-to-depart African Union forces... the money that would otherwise be spent on these activities was instead used to support a private military force that went to Sudan to protect and defend the people of Darfur? To help stop them from becoming refugees in the first place, and to defend those already in refugee camps from being slaughtered?

Many of the people (myself included) concerned about the genocide in Darfur probably deplore any military action at all – but that isn’t exclusively true. Some of those who have been most vocal about the need to stop the Darfur genocide come from America’s devout Christian community, including Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, a population that is often less afraid to use force if they believe it is the right thing to do (witness their support for the Iraq war). In fact, Brownback, along with Illinois Senator Barack Obama, wrote an article in The Washington Post last year (“Policy Adrift on Darfur,” 27 December 2005) suggesting that the U.S. needed to shift and reconsider its approach to dealing with the conflict, concluding “And when the history of this tragedy is written, nobody will remember how many times officials visited the region or how much humanitarian aid was delivered. They will only remember the death toll.”

Brownback and Obama do not mention the use of private military contractors, but maybe they would consider the idea, and perhaps the rest of us should as well. If we re-frame the question about Darfur into one that explicitly asks “What can be done to stop the genocide now?” perhaps this is an answer. It is inherently unappealing, since it implicitly acknowledges more conflict, not less. But as the Senators wrote, we will only remember the numbers of dead – and if we can prevent more people from dying by using private funds to protect them aggressively, then perhaps that should be our obligation, and by whatever means necessary.

10 September 2006

3 Looks Backwards

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

For anyone interested in education issues, the New York Times has published two interesting articles in the last week about getting a college education in America (“At 2-Year Colleges, Students Eager but Unready,” by Diana Jean Schemo, 2 September 2006, and “Report Finds U.S. Students Lagging in Finishing College,” by Tama Lewin, 7 September 2006). While both articles address important issues, they left unanswered two fundamental questions about higher education, questions I raised in an article back in 2004: first, is college the right answer for most of these people, given the high cost of educating them with information that, for the most part, isn’t necessary or relevant for their working lives? And, doesn’t any discussion of college educations need to distinguish between the quality of education at different kinds of schools?

Let me reiterate that I believe in education for the sake of education – learning for the sake of improving the mind and the spirit, outside of any economic or other impact. Let me further state that I think it is in society’s interest to support or subsidize this kind of education, because adults who are encouraged to think about a range of ideas, who have some knowledge of the world and its history and cultures, are (hopefully) going to be more thoughtful citizens. It is the perpetual, very American, very specific coupling of jobs-and-education that is troublesome, because it raises expectations for the value of getting a “higher education” that may be out of step (and out of scope) with the real economic opportunities available, and which may correlate to the quality of that education.


The fifth anniversary of “9/11” is upon us, and for several weeks already I have been tired of the mournfully-celebratory news pieces. But it has made me go back and look at what I was thinking in 2002, one year after, and (then, as now) as the Jewish High Holidays approached. The answer seems to be not dissimilar: we Americans (not just the Jewish ones) need more humility in our lives. And I was concerned then – as I am now – with American Jews who confuse how Jewish values should apply in “global” conflicts. Did I expect more change in just four years? Sadly, I suppose not. (In a similar vein, Arlene Goldbard has an interesting piece posted about a totally different, non-violent “9/11” anniversary.)


The Wall Street Journal has recently published two articles about workplace issues that should be of interest – and some amusement, too. One article (“How to buy underwear as officewear,” by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, 2 September 2006) was about the creation of new lines of “lingerie” (read: camisoles) that can be worn to the office; the focus of other is clearly summed-up by it’s title: “How Not to Flunk the New Job” (by Angela Morris, 5 September 2006). These are, as readers know, issues near and dear (again and again) to my heart.

04 September 2006

Graphic Political Commentary

Speaking of graphic novels and politics, I highly recommend the following two works, both available for free online:

- Shooting War, by Anthony Lappé and Dan Goldman, about a video-blogger capturing the still-ongoing Iraq war several years into our future, published on SMITH Magazine.

- The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón, presented by Slate. (The link directly to this will take you to the current chapter; use the navigation on the right side to go back to the beginning of the story.)

V for Dissociate

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I finally saw the movie version of V for Vendetta last night, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore, David Lloyd, and Steve Moore. At a moment when President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld are all preaching about the evils of appeasement and the need to resist fascism, and when images of the war in Iraq and news about terrorism are used to instill fear in Americans as a means of controlling them, the subject matter could not be more timely.

The movie version of V for Vendetta is entertaining, indeed better than I expected. It is not as good – as discomforting or stark – as the original graphic novel, and I suppose there are good reasons for author Alan Moore to have tried to dissociate himself from the film, as The New York Times (among others) reported when it was released back in March. The filmmakers have updated the story (the novel dates to 1989), to make it fit with current events, and at times it reminded me a little too much of the excellent remake of Shakespeare’s Richard III from 1995.

But the problem with the movie is just that: it is entertainment, and the power of its message is lost amidst the pyrotechnics and Tchaikovsky’s rousing 1812 Overture. As Times’ critic Manohla Dargis wrote in her review, “The more valid question is how anyone who isn’t 14 or under could possibly mistake a corporate bread-and-circus entertainment like this for something subversive.” The story, about a vigilante-cum-terrorist who fights and decapitates a fascist English government, should make audiences think – by which I mean, not just think about how much it cost to make the movie, but think about why Hollywood and the corporate movie-making powers-that-be would even consider giving audiences a film in which the charismatic anti-hero evokes one’s sympathy and support for his murderous designs and his (posthumous) destruction of Britain’s Parliament.

Well, duh: Hollywood thought it would make money.

The problem with the movie is the problem with our society: we Americans have ceded our revolutionary spirit to the idea of being rebellious, minus any action. Instead, we dissociate: we go see a movie, and we miss the irony of watching a movie about an increasingly-repressive society that justifies its repression as necessary in order to fight being repressed by someone else. We miss the irony of the fact that this is the society in which we live, a society where things like the repressive, civil-liberties busting USA Patriot Act, or secret (completely unconstitutional) warrants, are “necessary” for our security, a nation where closed-circuit cameras watching us are more common than public restrooms, a country whose leaders speak in stark, fear-instilling, black-and-white, us-and-them terms.

We have handed over any sense of rebellion to the ideologues and demagogues of the left and the right, from the Ann Coulters and the Rush Limbaughs to the Al Frankens and the Michael Moores. Right or left, we buy their mock-radical books, watch their movies, listen to their radio speeches and do nothing – except perhaps vote for political parties that speak in the same polemical, quasi-radical generalizations. (Political parties that would not, in fact, do anything dramatic to change the status quo even if they had the opportunity. And, in any case, most of us do not bother to vote – though with options like these, who can blame us?) It is difficult to imagine a contemporary version of the Boston Tea Party of 1773, except perhaps an event staged by fundamentalists Christians dumping boxes of books like Heather Has Two Mommies into the Mississippi. In fact, most of the time we Americans even miss the irony that an action like this would not exactly speak to the Christian values that would supposedly motivate it.

Americans are right to reject and to fight terrorism, we are right to frown on the unnecessary loss of human life, and we are long overdue to demand accountability from our government and politicians from amongst the Republicans and the Democrats, over the very-awry war that has been perpetrated in our name. Here in New York, we are approaching the fifth anniversary of that otherdate which will live in infamy,” used in part as a justification for this war. Several years later, we seem not much closer to rejecting the jingoism used to distract us, and not much more prone to the independent thought necessary to reject the mass hysteria that is used, in turn, to control us. With a mid-term election coming up in November, it is more than wishful thinking to imagine that political and social change is possible. It is precisely because real change is so impossible that the Hollywood-Industrial-Complex collaborates to feed us big-screen escapist fantasies like V for Vendetta, to help us get out our frustrations in the calm, climate-controlled, popcorn-and-butter scented environment of a movie theater.