24 December 2006

Merry, Happy, & All That

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The last few weeks have seen the usual round of community brouhahas – and resultant news articles – about the various wars we poor Americans face. Not the war in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or the wars on terrorism, drugs, poverty (that dates to the Johnson administration – are we technically still fighting that one?) or the disease-du-jour. No, I’m thinking of the war on Christmas. Oh, and the war on Hanukkah, too. ’Tis the season, after all.

The first Monday of this December, I walked into my office building and there in the lobby was a Christmas tree, along with a variety of other green and red decorations. It’s a fairly generic (if decent enough) office building, one of hundreds in Manhattan, one of thousands around the world, and it is neither very large nor very small. The tree was mid-way in, on the far side of the security gate. On the security desk (so, closer to the front of the building) was an electric menorah, all set to go for the first night of Hanukkah (at that point 11 days off). I did what I usually do when this happens: nothing. Actually, that’s not quite true: as I swiped my security card and went through the turnstile, I thought to myself: “Is this supposed to help me get into the spirit?” Presumably every one of the people who works there will make their own holiday plans, of whatever kind are appropriate for their own needs and beliefs. Where – or why – should the office building factor into this?

This is no mere bah-humbug-ism on my part; I genuinely don’t care. Left to my druthers, I would absolutely prefer to see most of these trees – and menorahs, too! – retreat back inside, into the private homes of their respective owners, or the churches and synagogues that serve these peoples’ varying religious needs. Protestations from faux-secular Christians aside, the religious symbolism (of trees as much as menorahs) is undeniable, and I believe firmly that most of these kinds of displays are better off in private spaces and places. Now, in the dark heart of winter, there is value, not to mention a kind of beauty, in public displays of light. Christmas should certainly be put in that context, since its origins are as much in the (ancient) Roman winter holiday tradition as anything having to do with Jesus. And Hanukkah is a relatively minor Jewish holiday in the scheme of things, but the point of placing one’s menorah in the window is about much the same kind of psychological value of sharing-light-in-winter as any specific notion of a (Jewish) public remembrance of the holiday being celebrated.

Still, there’s a big difference between candles in a window, or Christmas lights on a house, or people celebrating with families and friends ... and the proliferation of all these symbols to every little corner of our lives. How much value does that tree (or menorah) in my office lobby really have? Is anyone going to be spending this evening – it’s Christmas eve, as I write this – sitting in the lobby of the building, enjoying the tree? Probably not. To my knowledge, no one said any blessings over the menorah when they turned on the symbolic electric lights each day. Nor did any of these things remind me to light candles at home, or call my Christian friends and wish them a merry holiday. It’s easy to feel like these symbols are losing (or already devoid) of their meaning – or that they continue to be meaningful, and are thus part of a larger and more complicated battle between the supremacy of these symbols in our public and private lives, and whether or where the lines should be drawn.

BUT, I would like to propose an alternative perspective to all of this, both to the bah-humbugists out there and to the Christmas or Hanukkah warriors of one kind of another: above all else, we should celebrate the freedom we have to argue these issues, openly and publicly. I think it’s easy for people to forget the hardships that many people of just about every belief have suffered, either in the present or in the past; these hardships often make up much of the social history passed along from generation to generation within these different communities. That is certainly the case for Jews, where for many years in many places, public displays of Jewishness were frowned-upon or simply forbidden. To be Jewish in America now is almost miraculous, in the sense of recognizing the freedom, flexibility, and opportunity for unfettered religious observance. It is also easy to forget that Christians themselves have been persecuted, and often continue to be, in places like China and Sudan. Of course, there was a reason that the Christian “Pilgrims” left England for these shores way back when.

There was also a reason that the authors of America’s Constitution approached religion as openly and flexibly as they did. It seems quite clear that they understood the complexities of belief, the struggles between faith in science and religious faith, and even the (seemingly) contradictory views that any individual might hold. As a result, at the very core of our Constitution they placed freedom, including freedom of religion – and gave us something most people around the world still do not have: the freedom to argue, publicly, over religion and its role in our lives. It is that spirit of openness, that freedom, and the opportunities that this freedom offers, that we should try to remember at this time of year.

Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.

20 December 2006

Who's Glib?

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Winner #1: Conservative author / pundit / former government official Bill Bennett.

Bennett commented negatively on the Iraq Study Group report – and The Economist called him out for his glibness. The quote from their article:

“Bill Bennett said: ‘In all my time in Washington I've never seen such smugness, arrogance or such insufferable moral superiority.’ (Does Mr Bennett not possess a mirror?)”

Indeed. To The Economist: Thank you.

Winner #2: White House spokesman Tony Snow.

As quoted on NPR, and other news reports, including in this article from yesterday’s New York Daily News, Tony Snow said that he will no longer comment on questions about whether the U.S. is winning the war in Iraq, noting “I'm not playing the game anymore.”

Hmmm. Gosh, that’s not glib, is it?

Mr. Snow, there is no “game” here. The war is no game – and neither is the very important process of our government answering questions about its actions. That someone from the White House would use the word “game” in this context reveals what many of us already know (and what the voters affirmed in November): the administration of President George W. Bush just doesn’t get it.

18 December 2006

Contradict Me

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

We live in a media-besotted age. Indeed, the fact that you are even reading this suggests the degree to which our culture is dominated by the idea, the importance, of media as tools and mechanisms for everything from conveying basic information to influencing opinion to “gathering,” virtually, in media-filled “spaces.” However, for all the media saturation of our culture, we are no less conflicted about its influence than we were a decade ago, a generation ago, or even longer; the lines between areas of influence are not as clean as they once were, but the essential camps remain, and they are no less confused than ever.

Drilling down even further, in an era of media-hyped celebrity, we manage both to yearn for popular people who stand for something – and to criticize those who do. Thus some people admire the “Brangelina”- or Bono-style decisions to engage with the challenges presented by Third World issues of poverty and economic development; others despise it, considering it heaps more grandiosity on the celebrity than it may benefit any single person in need. And thus some people admire actor / director / producer Mel Gibson for using his fame and wealth to create movies that address (and promote) his passionate form of Roman Catholicism, while others find him, his views, and his use of popular media problematic, if not simply repugnant. Famous performers like Barbra Streisand or Charlton Heston inspire devotion or hatred, and the criticism is often one that suggests actors should stay out of politics – but of course, how we feel about this often depends more on whether we support the particular movements (e.g., the Democrats, or the National Rifle Association) with which these people are aligned. The people who decry Hollywood’s leftist tendencies (as embodied in Barbra) may be the same ones who cheer Heston’s ardent defense of the right to bear arms. And so it goes.

But this a surface-level approach to the issue, a very easy and apparent human contradiction. We need to see past this, to the deeper and more pervasive irony within – like the fact that a movie about the terror and war caused by “conflict diamonds” is portrayed by recreating the violence, Hollywood-style. I have not yet seen “Blood Diamond,” but the advertisements for the movie make clear (in an explicit, if failed, effort to lure me into the theater) that this will be a film of spectacle, what Hollywood calls “action,” otherwise known as violence. Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was about the death of a character who was all about the enduring righteousness of love, yet Gibson chose to focus his film on the (gruesome) violence surrounding that character’s death, rather than on the value and meaning of Jesus’ message of love on its own. That definitely says a lot about Gibson and his view of Christianity, but it also speaks volumes about both Hollywood and human interests.

We, as a society, don’t seem to notice the contradictions. There are people – characters, really – within both the American liberal and conservative movements who complain about on-screen violence or sex, and the impact that this may have on the viewer, especially the long-term psychological development of young audiences. Except that the complaints themselves are politically and socially divided. One traditional defense says people are capable of distinguishing between entertainment – from movies to music to video games, media that is made to engage the senses – and the violence of the “real” world; the argument goes that people are not encouraged to be violent merely because they see violence on TV. A different perspective, believes that seeing such things can be dangerous to audiences and are, at any rate, somehow immoral.

But in the case of a movie like “Blood Diamond” (or even movies like “Hotel Rwanda” or “Schindler’s List”), there is an underlying message that seems in conflict with the approach taken to reveal it:the filmmakers expect audiences to learn the underlying message – about “conflict diamonds,” or genocide, let’s say – while overlooking the brutality depicted in order to get us there. Similarly, while there was condemnation of “The Passion of the Christ” from some audiences, the movie was extremely popular among Evangelical Christians – presumably comprised of the same (generally conservative) folk who typically complain about the pervasive nature of violence (and sex) within Hollywood movies.

And all of this is to say nothing about sex, or the role and depiction of women on screen, from the sexy-heroines of a “Lara Croft” to the sexy-villains from every James Bond movie, to the sexy hip-shaking of the Madonna, Britney, or Shakira types. The skin, and sense of sexiness it is supposed to convey, has also seeped through our culture, but we are still no closer to understanding its impact on women or society as a whole. Many want to believe there is liberation to be found in such “freedom,” while others argue that real freedom can only be found by going, of all places, backwards.

Back to where I started: in a media besotted age, consumers have many, many different choices. In theory, technology is useful for helping us to figure things out – to determine what to watch, or read, and why. We should not always give technology the benefit of the doubt, however; sorting through the underlying contradictions requires the kind of analysis at which machines are not yet proficient. Nor could they be, when the humans who make them can barely sort things out for themselves.

10 December 2006

Institutional Movements

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I all but promised a friend that I would write something that puts the phrases “Conservative Judaism” and “anal sex” in close proximity; what I proposed, only half-jokingly, was a post that consisted of nothing but those two phrases, “Conservative Judaism” and “anal sex,” repeated over and over again. For the moment, a cooler head has prevailed, and in any case, it seems to me that to be effective at making the point, any references to “Conservative Judaism” and “anal sex” have to be in some kind of context.

So, then, let’s look at that context, because it is an issue that affects more than just the Jewish community. The specific news this week is that Conservative Judaism’s “Committee on Jewish Law and Standards” voted to approve a series of contradictory standards for how the movement should approach issues of homosexuality, in terms of ordaining (openly) homosexual rabbis and sanctifying same-sex unions. In the near-term, the results of all this are mixed: it was neither a full blessing of, or a full-fledged rejection of, homosexuality within Conservative Judaism, ultimately allowing for (likely) different decisions by the Conservative Jewish seminaries, and also by some individual rabbis. Taking the long view, it is probably a victory for the forces of openness and inclusion because, by failing to reject homosexual rabbis and couples outright, the door remains open for deeper and more substantial – if admittedly slower – change.

Still, Conservative Judaism is not the only religious branch struggling to come to terms with homosexuality. The Episcopal Church of the U.S. is dealing with its own demons on the issue of gay ordination (to cite just one example), while the Catholic Church recently affirmed its belief that homosexuals are “disordered,” a position sure to help in their recruiting drive. Well, at least it isn’t just the Jews.

I don’t mean to be glib about this, but it is sometimes difficult to take seriously the dire need for religious movements to hold on to certain kinds of traditions in the face of changing social mores and norms. For one thing, traditions that were considered normal several millennia ago – like human sacrifice, or even animal sacrifice– are now generally deemed outside the scope of acceptability. These changes did not happen over night, but they reflected a valuable evolution in the ordering of society. In the case of human sacrifice specifically, this can be seen as a part of a religious evolution that places a greater emphasis on the value of human life than on the idea of “satisfying” god through death. (Ok, mostly valuing life over death, except when not.)

Listening to or reading the remarks of religious leaders of all stripes can reveal a kind of tunnel vision, a fixation on a very limited perspective of history that glosses over other kinds of changes both within a given religion and the society around it. We wallow in hypocrisy, let’s admit it. And religious organizations are comprised of humans, and humans are imperfect – so such hypocrisy is not surprising. Indeed, we might expect it, as a means of understanding the flawed beings we are, which is how some strains of Christianity approach life: we are damned from the start. But if that is true, if all of us are sinners, then why are homosexuals singled out as “disordered,” sinners who are steps apart from the flaws embedded in the rest of us? It is a hypocrisy on top of a hypocrisy.

I stake no claim to knowing whether there is truth behind any of these religions or the positions they advocate – I only know the truth that exists between me and my religion, in a very narrow way. I know what Judaism teaches me, the kinds of values I believe it promulgates, and the importance of acceptance and inclusion, unambiguously. Nonetheless, religious affiliation should be made by choice, and religious organizations should be free to determine that an individual member might not be the best fit.

Sadly, for all the talk of values, traditions, and holy texts, religious organizations and movements – like most institutions – can get trapped in a cycle of seeing their own organizational survival as being of paramount importance. This is what happened with Conservative Judaism’s recent set of mixed, mixed-up decisions. The Jewish Theological Seminary’s website says “Our multifaceted community is committed to making Judaism come alive for new generations, to bring the richness and vitality of traditional Jewish values into the twenty-first century.” But, as The Forward noted, “...the former chancellor of JTS, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, has long argued that sanctioning gay ordination and unions would fracture the movement, with those who opposed it joining the ranks of the Modern Orthodox and those who supported it ultimately converging with Reform Judaism, America’s largest stream.” The Washington Post had a similar quote, from (pro-change) Rabbi Elliot Dorff, that “he hoped that the adoption of two optional, conflicting positions would serve as a model for other religious groups of how to handle deep disagreements, ‘so movements don’t have to split up over these kinds of things.’”

In other words: saving the Conservative Jewish movement might just be more important than the lives of the Jews within it. Well, at least we know where everyone stands.

Update: The 12 December 2006 edition of The New York Times has an article about the resignation of a pastor in Denver after an anonymous caller informed his church he had sexual relations with men. To my point above, about the bizarre perspective on regular vs. gay "sinners," the article includes the following quote from a self-described gay evangelical named Justin Lee: “The church has created a double standard that all of us are sinful and have temptations and need to be open about that — unless you’re gay.”

06 December 2006

Happiness Calculus

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The Wall Street Journal has an article today by Jonathan Clements, titled "The Pursuit of Happiness: Six Experts Tell What They've Done to Achieve It," which makes some good points about how we manage our daily life and the kind of choices we face -- and their ramifications. Perhaps the best quote comes from Professor David Schkade: "You want to celebrate the small things, not just the big ones." I wholeheartedly agree! (Article link here; subscription required.)

Still, I cannot help but find something unsettling about this. "From self-help to psychology, psychiatry, and (psycho)pharmacology, the dispensing of happiness has become a big business." I wrote that almost six years ago, and it seems as true as ever. Clements' article is interesting, but very focused on the choices we make in economic terms -- how much money we earn and the other costs that may impose, or how to spend that money for maximum, sustained pleasure -- rather than the underlying concept of happiness itself. Even the statement "Some folks are inherently less happy and some more so, and this basic temperament seems to be remarkably enduring." is attached to the bullet point "Buying memories." Hmm. (Not to mention that the experts quoted here are probably ... happy. They're successful, after all, some with big-selling books on the subject. Did their happiness come as a result of what they learned by studying the subject, or as a result of their success in studying it?)

Which leads to the question: if we're all going to focus on buying our way to happiness, why not just skip all the hoo-hah and simply recommend buying the medication that will make us happy, regardless of external circumstances? Medicate first, and happiness (and your wallet) will follow?

03 December 2006

Rounds O’Bullshit

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Item 1: Rumsfeld: The History Rewrite Begins

Sometimes, there’s a fine line between being a conspiracy theorist and a good analyst; sometimes an issue is so obvious it just slaps you in the face, even if it seems like a conspiracy. Well, yesterday along comes just one of those stories, where we-the-people have to look behind the news to grasp what’s going on.

As reported by The New York Times (which broke the story) and subsequently The Washington Post (among others), outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (that “media darling”) wrote a classified memo indicating that the US may need to consider new military and other approaches if we really wants to win the war in Iraq. No – really?! Forgive my surprise, in the face of almost four years of failed war policy, and almost four years of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Mr. Rumsfeld insisting that everything is going well. Even better is the official White House response to The Washington Post, which reported that spokeswoman Eryn Witcher said “The president has said he's been dissatisfied with the progress in Iraq, so the right thing to do is reevaluate our tactics. There are a number of reviews underway, and the president is open to listening to a wide array of options.” That is, a wide array of options that consist primarily of doing exactly what we’re already doing, but not those options that might involve changing tactics. (But let’s not sweat the details, ok?)

More importantly is the transparency of Rumsfeld’s memo – that is, the transparency of his attempt to write into the official record that after almost four years of failed war policy, he’s ready to consider a change. Well, good for you Rummy, but it’s a little late, doncha think? This smells of Robert McNamara-style rehabilitation, learning the lessons of a previous administration’s failed war policy and seeking a chance to start changing our perspective on history before it’s even history. Which, in turn, smells eerily of bullshit.

Item 2: F*** the Faux-Politesse

Another good story this week involves the tempest-in-an-etiquette book of the strained words between President Bush and incoming Virginia Senator James Webb. If you missed the story, you can see a round-up of reports here. The core of the tale is that Bush asked the Senator-elect how his son, who is currently serving in Iraq, is doing; when Webb replied “I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President,” Bush apparently replied that this was the question the President had asked, namely: “How's your boy?”

Lots of spin in drifting circles on this one, including discussions about whether Webb did the right thing by answering critically, whether he was showing disrespect by not answering more specifically and politely, whether it bodes poorly for Webb’s future on Capitol Hill, or marks some declining sense of politeness in DC politics.

Etiquette books only tell part of the tale here, and it seems to me that the golden rule in a situation like this starts with the idea of asking a question in the first place: politicians, like consultants and trial lawyers, should never publicly ask a question a) to which they do not already know the answer, and b) to which they do not want any answer that may be provided. Webb may have been more honest than a polite, political situation typically calls for – but President Bush should have known better than to ask a question like that to begin with, especially of a politician who has been openly critical of the President’s failed war policy.

Item 3: Effective Portfolio Management (Not)

The Atlantic’s December 2006 issue carries a brief mention in its “Primary Sources” column of a new study titled “Spam Works: Evidence from Stock Touts and Corresponding Market Activity” (abstract available here) by Laura Frieder and Jonathan Zittrain. The Frieder & Zittrain study looks at the impact of spam e-mails “touting” certain stocks on the trading activity of those same stocks, the stocks’ share price, and the regulatory questions raised by all this spamming activity.

All of which reminds me of an article I wrote back in February 2004 on just this subject: “Over-the-Counter, Down for the Count” looked at 12 companies over the course of several weeks prior to, and following, spam messages promoting those companies’ stocks. Not surprisingly, it sounds like this new study came to much the same conclusion I did: you can lose your shirt on these “investments.”

Item 4: Bad Movie Roundup

If you have serious insomnia, here is information on two movies you could consider renting. Which is worse? Vote!