Monday, December 1, 2014

December 1st: Starting the Right Fires

I think we are going to remember November 24th, 2014 for a long time. I think it is going to be a day that makes the American history textbooks, and serves as a turning point in how we look at race relations for years to come. The thing is, what are we going to remember? Are we going to remember a city in unrest, rioting and consuming itself? Are we going to remember an 18 year old man who was killed by a police officer? Are we going to remember the underlying meaning of why it so profoundly troubled the American people?

The public has been struggling for a week to figure out exactly how to feel about what happened last Monday in the Grand Jury decision in the Ferguson, MO case against police officer Darren Wilson. I intentionally took a full week to try to process my own thoughts and put them together, rather than responding emotionally, which I think is at the root of the issue to begin with.

First of all, we have to address the issue of justice. A large percentage of those enraged by the decision not to bring charges against the police officer who shot and killed 18-year old Michael Brown have claimed that justice was not done, and that the people of Ferguson have had their right to justice stolen from them.

The reality is that justice was done. Justice is lawyers and judges sitting and discussing the facts of the case. That happened in the courtroom. Justice was done when those facts presented a situation that a judge deemed ill-fit for a trial. That was justice. As much as we may or may not like the result, the pathway to it was justice.

We are, in a lot of ways, confusing justice with fairness. But we don’t have fairness either. Do we really believe that pressing charges on the police officer will bring Michael Brown back? Do we hope that, in making an example of the cop, that this won’t ever happen again, out of fear for retribution? Do we feel that, despite the physical evidence’s inability to create reasonable grounds to press charges, that we should allow our own emotional reactions to infiltrate the legal system?

Michael Brown has, in many communities, turned into a symbol for the need for reform. He now represents those who face racism every day. He has turned into a headline, a polarizing character in the story. Some want to believe he is a terrible thug who threatened Darren Wilson to the point of fearing his own life. Others insist he was a saint, a good boy going about his business who was so wrongly gunned down, just for the color of his skin. I don’t believe either to be true. I believe he was a kid, an 18 year old, who was stuck in a bad situation. He probably loved his mother and struggled sometimes in school. He probably had good friends and he probably screwed up every now and then. He was, I’m sure, not 100% good or 100% bad. He was human. As far as I can gather from the facts, he reacted badly in a very bad situation, and a police officer did the same. At the end of the day, two lives were changed forever, and a great many more too. Now we, as the American public, have to decide what to do with what’s left.

We can’t, though, treat Michael Brown like he is the patron saint of race relations. We can’t name legislation after him, we can’t use him in political cartoons, we can’t make him the hero of this story. Because, at the end of the day, he is human. Opponents of this situation will always be able to find something wrong with this one man. “He was robbing a convenience store,” “he was getting into a physical altercation with a cop,” “he was a ‘bad’ kid.” All of these are character hits that we just can’t afford to taint the message of equality and progress we’re really looking for. Rather than holding up any single example, it is important that we look at the issue as a whole, and understand that we can’t keep going on the path we’re on. We need to insist on a positive change, but not for any one individual. This needs to be greater than any single person.

We also have to look at our own reactions to the situation. I know that, as a white person, I will never understand the rage that comes from the feelings of discrimination and hate. I know that I’ll never understand what it’s like to live every day facing the possibility of racism and oppression. That being said, burning down someone’s beauty shop isn’t going to get the point across. Violently tearing apart your city isn’t going to lead bigoted white people to want to stand in solidarity with your struggle.

I have a Facebook friend (although not a particularly close one) who was aggressively enraged by the decision in Ferguson. She posted “If you are not angry enough to burn down a building right now, than unfriend me and never speak to me again.” I thought long and hard about unfriending her and never speaking to her again. The fury that comes with something you find  morally wrong is understandable. Yet, when we let that fury turn into reckless and violent behavior, we are losing our ability for others to hear the value in our argument. Those who riot in the streets are giving away their voice, instead giving an excuse to those who look to oppress them.

I love to use the phrase “there is a difference between being right and winning.” Being right is easy. It’s easy to know what is best, to be morally superior, to know in your gut that your feelings and thoughts are righteous and valid. The much harder thing is to win, to make others acknowledge that your point is as valid as you believe it to be, and to, in the end, get what you want out of a situation.

There are plenty of ways to be be right and NOT win. You may be right when you tell your boss you think he is an idiot. You’re going to lose, however, when you get fired. This is exactly the same case. The people of Ferguson are right. A terrible situation happened that resulted in the death of a young man. A police officer, meant to protect the community, killed him. There is a racial divide in America, leaving many African Americans fearing those who are meant to protect them. Yet, all of those incredibly meaningful points get lost when, at the end of the day, the rioters lose their point in the screaming and the violence and the outcry.

It’s easy for me to stay calm, because this doesn’t have a direct relationship with my day-to-day life. I’m not scared of the police. I don’t feel discriminated against on a daily basis. I don’t live in near-constant fear. But, when we look back on the greatest human revolutions in history, they were not done by those who yelled the loudest or threw their weight around most, but by the people whose passion manifested itself in heartfelt and insistent calls for change. We are allowed to be upset. We are allowed to be angry. We just can’t afford to lash out, for fear of losing the war for the sake of the battle.

This was a tough piece for me to write. The bottom line is that this is a complicated case, and that there are deeply emotional responses on both sides, arguing over deeply troubling and often cloudy facts. While it may be easy to read these or any words and immediately jump to conclusions about the values of the writer, I think this whole conversation needs a dose of patience.

All too often this week, I’ve seen writers say “if you argue with THIS, then you don’t know what you’re talking about,” or “The last thing anyone needs to read about Ferguson.” There will never be something to say that nobody can argue with. There will never come a be-all, end-all comment that will bring about a world-wide silence of agreement. We should argue about everything. We should be asking questions, we should be pushing each other to think harder, think deeper about every issue. While this post is what I think and feel, it is a constantly evolving thought. So push me. Ask questions. Start a conversation. That is, after all, how we’re going to change the world.

Monday, November 24, 2014

November 24th: A Nation of Strangers

When I first heard about President Barack Obama’s executive order for immigration reform, I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow. The notion of allowing men and women who had arrived in America illegally to continue to live here smacked of some degree of giving up, law enforcement’s way of saying “well, can’t do anything about it now!” I was sceptical that the country would be even a little understanding of a president-driven initiative to avoid going after individuals who have broken American law by arriving in this country without going through the proper processes.

(For a transcript of the speech, click here)

The more I read, though, the more I understood, on an ideological level, where the president was coming from. America is a nation founded upon immigration. Every major city in America was, at one point, a form of safe-haven for foreigners to come and set up new roots. Boston is deeply Irish, Cincinnati has strong German ties, and even New York is a settlement for people from, well, OLD York!

The general public has reacted in vicious and generally selfish ways. There has been such an arrogant outcry from a large segment of the American people, firmly believing that their right to be American was hard-won, God-given, and would be compromised if foreigners were to steal their birthright of Star Spangled Awesome right from underneath them. This is, for all intents and purposes, the most self-righteous attitude I could possibly imagine.

Most Americans didn’t do anything to deserve their “birthright”; in most cases, you’re an American because your mother birthed you in the “right” place. Because of your geographic location, you have a form of privilege that is nearly impossible to fully grasp.

Now, someone born on the other side of the border may not be as lucky. They do not have the privilege of growing up in a country that offers them the kind of opportunities that we, as Americans, take for granted.

Yet, in almost every case, those who cross the border into America illegally demonstrate a skill that we would love to believe is uniquely American: dedication. These are people willing to risk their lives and their livelihoods in an attempt to improve their lives, to make a living and find a job and go to a place where, in their minds, dreams can come true. How do we, as the Americans, rationalize beating these people back to where they came from when it is so American of them to do what it takes to succeed?

This is, of course, challenged by the fact that these people broke the law. They bypassed a system set in place to try to bring order and justice. They put their own needs ahead of those of the greater society. We cannot be held hostage by those who have a disregard for the law, and cannot allow national security to be compromised by those who have not proven they can be productive members of American society. As President Obama put it, “All of us take offense to anyone who reaps the rewards of living in America without taking on the responsibilities of living in America.”

On that point, though, Obama was abundantly clear: If you are a contributing member of society, a skilled worker or thinker, you should be able to pursue the American dream.

My favorite moment from Obama’s announcement was his reference to being strangers. He said “My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forbearers were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal, that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.”

This executive order is idealism at it’s finest. It isn’t perfect. Frankly, it isn’t even a realistic long-term option, as idealism rarely is. Real reform has to take place, and soon. But, in it’s most basic form, this is Obama’s way of saying that we need to do something to improve America, and we need to do it now. We need to be kind. We need to be welcoming. And we need to be strong. And I couldn’t agree more.

Monday, November 17, 2014

November 17th: The Butt of the Joke

Well, apparently Kim Kardashian “broke the internet” last week. That’s surprising to me, considering I’m using the internet to post this right now, but I’ll take everyone’s word for it.

This is the tame version of her photo shoot, if you can believe it.
In a spread for Paper Magazine this winter, Kim posed in a very revealing set of photos, showing off that world-famous booty. The photo went viral instantly. Everyone wanted to talk about Kim Kardashian's butt.

She was actually showered with criticism, which came as something of a surprise to this Kim critic, as I often feel like I’m alone in my disdain for the talent-less tease. The overwhelming majority of commentators chastised her for posing in such a revealing way when she is trying to parent a young child. They questioned how she could properly raise a child while also being so morally questionable by agreeing to objectify herself publicly.

I can’t believe I’m about to use my valuable column inches defending Kardashian, but here goes: these criticisms seem to dramatically oppose everything that feminism has been fighting for. What happened to women finding strength and power in their sexuality? What happened to women teaching their children how to be strong and independent and not fear their bodies, but rather feel comfortable enough to be willing to bear all? What happened to the whole “you do you, girl” that feminism is trying so hard to promote?

Now, here is the Austin everyone knows: Kim Kardashian hasn’t done anything of value for society in...well, ever. She isn’t a talented actress. She isn’t a brilliant investor. She isn’t a financially insightful entrepreneur. The greatest claim to fame she has going for her is that she has money and that she got on the world’s radar with a sex tape. An entire TV show was dedicated to showing exactly how much nothing Kim does on a daily basis. The general public gets some kind of sick satisfaction out of watching Kim spend money, watching Kim live the life of luxury, watching Kim interact with her equally spoiled family.

Society created this monster of a situation. Kim Kardashian only exists as a character in the landscape of American culture so long as we continue to pay attention to her. In this particular case, we are calling her out for doing an extreme version of exactly the same kind of thing she’s been doing for years. Yes, there was a little more skin than in some other cases (although maybe not as much as in others), but she is a product of what we, as a society have asked her to be.

We have recently seen an influx in female role models. Jennifer Lawrence has been a strong woman, especially in light of a tough situation with photo hacking. Emma Watson has made herself into something a spokeswoman in the fight for equality for women, speaking passionately and magnificently to the United Nations. Even Taylor Swift has been cited as a character in the new-wave of women worth looking up to. Kim Kardashian is most certainly not on that list.

The big question is, does the society we’re hoping to create have any space for a celebrity like her. Based on the reaction by the social media community, it would appear as though the answer is no. We do, however, need to be mindful of what we are asking of her, because we cannot really be upset with her for being Kim when it was viewers of “Keeping Up WIth the Kardashians” that got us into this mess in the first place.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

November 12th: The Seal of America

I’ve never been to Pakistan. I’ve never fired a gun. I’ve never walked into a room knowing people would die and praying that it wouldn’t be me. Yet, there are many men and women in this country who have done all of those things to defend America’s freedom.

It is both curious and fitting that, the week of Veteran’s Day, there has been a clamour to uncover the identity of the Navy Seal who was responsible for killing Osama Bin Laden. Even now, over 3 years later, the American public is fascinated by the idea that one individual is responsible for neutralizing the greatest terror threat in the 21st century.

There are some who believe knowing the identity of Bin Laden’s killer would be significant, meaningful in some way. They believe that this person should be commended, receive some extra attention for taking out one of the world’s most dangerous characters. This man would never have to buy himself another beer for the rest of his life. The American people would make sure of that.

There are still others who believe that announcing the identity of the trigger puller would put that person’s life in danger. Drawing a giant circle around a single member of the military would make him a prime target for Al-Qaeda to attempt retribution.

While I don’t necessarily believe the Seal’s life would be put at risk by uncovering his identity, I think there is a bigger moral issue associated with acknowledging the role of any individual who participated in the raid.

First of all, the Americans that went into Bin Laden’s camp in May of 2011 consisted of an entire team of men and women, putting their lives in danger for their country. The person who fired the first bullet wouldn’t have been able to do it without the help of the guy who held the door open. There is no need to call out individuals for their actions when the whole group had their own roles, and no piece would have worked if it wasn’t for another cog in the machine.

On a different level, maybe an even more important level, we see the gravity of this moment in the historical context of America. The man responsible for the largest terror attack on US soil was killed, not by an individual, but by the American public. I would love to believe that a bald eagle, wings painted in star-spangled Red, White, and Blue, swooped into the room and stole the life right out of the man. This may sound a little theatrical, but that kind of image is exactly what the American public needs. This was not a man being killed by another. It was a man being killed by an entire nation, revenge for the countless lives that he stole.

The best byproduct we could hope for is that we, as the American public, give more attention to any and all members of the US Armed Forces. We should be buying a beer for anyone willing to sacrifice their lives for our freedom. We should be looking out for the financial and emotional security of all who make sacrifices to ensure we can continue to live out the American dream. We should be saying that, no matter what you did, you did it for us, and we’re so grateful that you did.

Rob O’Neill, the Navy Seal coming forward as the man who shot and killed Osama Bin Laden, said recently that he sometimes can’t decide whether this act of heroism was the best or worst thing he has ever done. The ability to end a man’s life, serving as judge and jury for the most hated man in America, is a burden no individual should have to bear. He will live with that for the rest of his life. Now, though, we as a country, can help to support that load, because he was acting on behalf of the entire nation.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

October 28th: Tricked for Treats

My mother spent most of my childhood complaining about the fact that there was no school on Martin Luther King Jr. Day or Columbus Day or, my personal favorite, Casimir Pulaski Day. She used to say that it was ridiculous for us to spend those days “celebrating” these great men outside of school when we could be learning about them in school.


You see, holidays meant to commemorate special times and people should come with education. All too often, though, we skip right over explaining why we have the celebration, and move right on to the pomp and circumstance (I still have no idea who Casimir Pulaski really was, although I do love getting the extra sleep in March).


Well, it’s that time of year again! That time where there is equal clamor by those desperately searching for the Halloween costume that will get the most attention, and those telling cautionary tales of the potential dangers of picking an offensive character to represent.


The level of competition for Halloween costumes has grown ever more fierce, with people desperate to come up with something that will catch everyone’s eye. This year, the Jameis Winston couples costume (one dressed as the Florida State football player, another dressed as crab legs) is a clever one. Ebola is an easy stab at news-based costumes. Of course, you can always go with the tried and true, adding “sexy” before either a profession or animal to get an easy (if not trashy) way of getting attention without putting in any extra effort.


While some are looking for the perfect get-up, others are adding their voice of reason to the conversation. Costumes have grown ever more offensive as feeble attempts at comedy drive the public toward caricatures of racial groups or other potentially insulting options. E! Online offered us their 18 costumes to stay away from, including Ray Rice, a Malaysian Airlines Passenger, and Michael Brown. (Thank you, E!, for putting this in your “News” section…)


My personal favorite is the fear associated with cultural appropriation on Halloween. Dressing up as a rapper or Indian princess are devastating examples of racial intolerance in the form of frivolous costumes.  We can do irreparable harm to these cultures if we are unaware of the potential negative ramifications of belittling their identities with goofy dressing up and abuse of meaningful symbolism.


The problem is, that is exactly what Halloween is all about.


Halloween is the most famous example of cultural appropriation in American history (with maybe the exception being Christmas being on December 25th, although that’s a different blog post). You see, Halloween originates in a Celtic tradition, meant to commemorate the new year, which they believed to take place on November 1st. On October 31st, according to the Celts, the membrane between the world of the living and the world of the dead was particularly thin, allowing for prophecy and sacrifice to please their deities. For a full history of the holiday, see History.com’s detailed description.


Even the tradition of trick-or-treating has roots in the relationship between the living world and spirit world. Poor children went from door to door, asking for treats in exchange for prayers for the souls of a homeowner's dead relatives. Not exactly the same thing as a snack-sized Snickers bar.


Every year, we go out of our way to look for costumes, buy candy, and celebrate the holiday. Yet we have no real idea what we’re recognizing. This was the religious practice for an entire culture, their version of New Years Eve. It is the equivalent to turning Easter into a cave exploration holiday.

So while we are up-in-arms over what costumes some decide to wear, we all need to remember that, no matter how you decide to dress up, there is cultural appropriation going on.

Monday, October 20, 2014

October 20th: The Eye Test

Turn on the TV right now. Pick a channel, any channel. It will only take a few minutes to get to a commercial break. What you see might surprise you.

American society has been working to better the way women are treated. Campaigns for higher awareness for the income gap have been doing a very good job of trying to bring awareness to the issues of gender-based discrimination in the workplace. Feminism has taken to blogging and columning, with an almost constant critique and analysis of every possible situation, from media to politics.

She's about to sell a cheeseburger, I promise.
But now we’re watching TV, and the commercial break has just begun. Maybe you’ll see the newest Miller Lite ad. You know which one I’m talking about; the one where Miller Lite takes credit for inventing subliminal advertising, while flashing images naked women rolling around in hops. Not that one? Maybe you’ll see the Hardee’s commercial where a woman sitting on an airplane in a cleavage dominated dress asks the man sitting next to her if he wants to joining the Mile High club (who would guess that means a sandwich?)

These are just two of a long list of commercials that use sexuality to sell a product. We are seeing a lot of progress in what is being said by the American public. The problem is waiting for the shift in the way Americans think.

My favorite barometer for the way Americans think is in our consumer culture. Advertising agents, you see, don’t really care about racism or sexism. They don’t care about fairness or morals. They don’t care who has the power, really. All they care about is whether it will make people spend their money.

You see, American advertising will adopt feminism as soon as it becomes financially responsible to do so. They will chase the financial bottom line, and do what the market dictates is necessary to get people’s money. Right now, as much as we think we’re making good progress, we still allow products to use sexy women to sell products, because we continue to buy them.

Products that target men are continuing to use sexualized imagery to get their audience's attention, and they won’t stop until we stop giving them the attention.

Women can also be part of the problem. In fact, one of the best examples is Cosmopolitan Magazine. Have you ever read the cover of a Cosmo? Sex tips dominate, as well as ways to get attention through the use of sexuality and beauty products. Is that a problem? Maybe not. But it doesn’t match the language being shared by most of the feminist blogging community about looking for value in a woman’s identity beyond her physical attributes.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Cosmo also does a lot of empowering of women. Women can read Cosmo and feel better about themselves, feel like they’re not alone, and read about strong, confident women who are highly successful. That is incredibly important and positive. The scary part, though, is that it is foraging a deep relationship between sexuality and a woman’s identity. A strong woman must be sexy, must have good sex, must have a man who she knows how to please. Those are very dangerous things to be linking in the minds of women who are trying to come up with an understanding of their identity.

There is a constant struggle to find ways to make the world a better place for women. We know we’re not there yet, and that there is plenty of work left to do. We do, though, need to be far more conscious of what we do with our eyes and our money, because it can have a huge impact on how the cultural landscape shifts.

I hate when people blame the media for things. I think the public and the media feed one another. There is a balancing act. The media tells the public what to believe, while the public tells media producers, through their spending habits, what they want to see. We now have the chance to choose what we want the media to say, as long as we’re being thoughtful of what we’re being told to think.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

September 29th: Awesome and Full of Dread

“Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day; it is awesome and full of dread.”

These are the words that we read on Rosh Hashanah, marking the ten day period between the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

We read a passage that describes God as the Judge and Arbiter, Counsel and Witness. The imagery describes a King, sitting upon a throne, determining “who shall live and who shall die.”

I find this writing both hauntingly beautiful and deeply troubling. There are equal parts safety and helplessness in the notion that God gets to decide our fates in the coming year.

On the one hand, we are taught that, through repentance and good deeds, we have the opportunity to be inscribed in the Book of Life. On another level, though, we are at the mercy of a God who gets to choose our fate, rather than having the chance to create our own way.

Throughout the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, we look at the power God has over our fate. We are confronted by the reality that we are but small pieces in a larger world, with little understanding of how we come to live the experiences we encounter every day. Sometimes this can be comforting, while other times it can lead to a sense of false security.

What I find most difficult, though, is the notion that our actions are pre-determined. Are we to believe that the loved ones we lose from one year to the next are the result of a failure to “make it into the Book”? How do we come to terms with a piece of our faith that is so unsettling?

The reality is that, at the time that this piece was written, we needed a God who would protect, provide, and judge. We believed in these lofty personifications for God, and they brought us comfort, knowing that our actions would lead to good judgement and, hopefully, a promise of another year of life. It also allowed us to rationalize those who we lost, knowing that, for whatever reason, they had been put on the “Who Shall Die” list, rather than the “Who Shall Live” one.

Now, though, we live in a time where faith needs to lead to accountability. We cannot hide behind the false comfort of a God who makes the decisions for us. We must hold ourselves accountable for our choices, and the results of them.

This is not a burden we must bear, but an opportunity to take control of who we are and what we do. We get to use the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to evaluate our behavior, to think of how we can do better in the coming year. But that betterment needs to be for our own benefit, not as an opportunity to get into the good graces of God.

What, then, is the value in a religious practice such as this that focuses so wholly on an area that we don’t find immediately meaningful?

There is hope to be found in the words from our liturgy. We read, in the Gates of Repentance, “Freely we choose, and what we have chose to become stands in judgement over what we may yet hope to be. In our choices we are not always free. But if only we make the effort to turn, every force of goodness, within and without, will help us, while we live, to escape that death of the heart which leads to sin.”

We have the unique opportunity, as Jews, to evaluate our choices, to make an attempt to be better. Judaism never calls for perfection. Rather, Judaism calls for the pursuit of being better. We want to be better people, find more meaning, seek more happiness. Through our observance of these ten sacred days, we are able to better come closer to the divine presence within each of us. We become just a little more Godly.

Shanah Tovah.