Are Things really getting better?

As the year 2018 is drawing to a close I want to look back to determine whether it was a good year. The question that immediately comes to mind is whether the term good applies to a global quality of human life or whether, in considering this matter, we must be more modest and limit the adjective’s meaning to a quality of goodness in a more limited sense, i.e., to select smaller groups of humanity on our planet.

Best selling author, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard, Steven Pinker’s 556 page book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, (Viking, 2018), addresses itself to the above question.

Before I share with you my opinion on both the question and Pinker’s book, I want to refer you to an excellent critique of the book by Joshua Rothman in his extensive article entitled “The Big Question: Is the world getting better or worse?” in the

July 23, 2018 issue of The New Yorker, (pp.26-32).

Steve Pinker is an erudite writer. Those 556 pages are chock full of valuable information, The text is well documented by means of statistics and graphs and shows that our world, contrary to many modern pundits’ lurid headlines and even prophecies, is not falling apart. In what the write up in the dust jacket describes as an “elegant assessment of the human condition in the third millennium,” Pinker shows that “life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge and happiness are on the rise, not just in the West but worldwide.”

The question I would like to raise in response to Pinker’s finding is: for whom?

Clearly, this blog is not the place to do so in detail. Let me simply respond to Pinker’s findings not in terms of a critique of his methodology which to me seems impeccable but in a more basic manner, namely that of his research’s meaning for us ordinary human beings, relatively few of whom will read the book and if so, find solid reassurance for our planet’s and our own future.

Indisputably, the question “is our world getting better or worse” is interesting from a purely academic viewpoint. Fully aware that I will be criticized for my viewpoint, I cannot help but wonder whether the 700,000 Rohingeas, totally impoverished and displaced from their destroyed homes in Myanmar, care about the world’s statistically proven betterment when their existential situation has spiraled into misery.

Does the hungering population of North Korea rejoice because of the alleged global betterment of life on the planet? Would the North Korean prisoners in that country’s Gulags feel elated knowing that on the basis of Pinker’s graphs, life, health. prosperity, safety, etc. are globally on the rise?

And then there is the Yemen catastrophe, visually presented on TV almost every evening. Little bodies with protruding ribs, arms and legs of bone covered with skin. Large eyes devoid of expression. Living tiny little dying bodies held in the arms of their helpless and hopeless moms. Tens of thousands of these little children no longer alive, killed by starvation or bombs, produced in our country, and unleashed on them by Saudi Arabia killers, our “allies.” Can the world’s reported increasing wellness mean anything at all to these poor and suffering human beings?

Thinking back to the years of my imprisonment under the Nazi regime, I wonder whether this kind of optimistic information about the improvement of life conditions on our planet as shown by Pinker’s graphs, would have encouraged me or made me downright happy.

The presence of abject poverty, hunger and suffering continues to be present not just in so-called Third World countries but even in this our own country. The gap between a tiny minority of wealthy people and even the middle class, let alone those on the bottom of the wealth pyramid, is growing from year to year. It seems that exploitation of those with a weak or no voice in society is steadily growing. Is this good reason for optimism?

While wars have been decimating whole populations even during my own life time, not so long ago there existed no threats of mass extinctions by the now ever present nuclear threat. That this threat is for real has been adequately demonstrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WW II. Need I suggest that it is worrisome that today’s arsenals of nuclear devices, much more powerful in their destructive force, are held by an ever growing number of nations.

I fairly recently had a brief conversation with an intelligent and well educated person in our congregation. When our talk turned to our planet’s ecology and vulnerability from our irresponsible use of natural resources, her response was a flippant, “thanks to our human genius, we have always innovated or found new scientific approaches to avert catastrophe. Regardless of what the future will bring, we will be able to cope with it.” My response to her words was, mazal tov, in Yiddish, “Good Luck!”

Then there is the phenomenon of global warming which hits indiscriminately. Its ever growing devastating powers have been experienced the last few years in this and other countries. Because of its geographic ubiquity and variety in terms of climate change,earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, fire, floods and depletion of the planet’s vital natural resources, it is multinational willingness to cooperate that is crucially needed to deal with its destructive effects on human life now and in the future. Sadly, this kind of international willingness to cooperate is absent.

Is civilization in terminal decline? Needless to say, I hope not!

But unless we make an end to the reckless destruction of our liberal democratic institutions in this country and join in global cooperation, we will arrive at a point of no return.

So what do I think of Pinker’s book? In my opinion, it is academically sound but otherwise meaningless. The quality of goodness of life, if to be meaningful, can only be seen subjectively by one person or a relatively small group at a time. Rejoicing over the increasing betterment of the world cannot and will not make a difference in an individual’s life. Besides, how many people are ready to buy such a book, let alone read 556 pages of statistics, graphs and their explanations and profit from it? Sorry, professor Pinker!

While as a Jew I highly support education and critical thinking and so also enlightenment, I prefer the generic term to be written with a lower case “e.” Written with a capital “E” it refers to the historical period of the Enlightenment which, generally seen, brought liberation to the Jewish people but paradoxically also spelled out the beginning of a racially-based antisemitism that eventually led to the Holocaust.

To me it is unsettling to see that today there are strong forces in these United States as also in a large number of other countries that have jettisoned reason, science, humanism and so also progress. Will these movements to the political “right” prevail and lead humanity to destruction or will a mass awakening and true enlightenment overcome ignorance, darkness and ill-will and usher in a better world for all?

The answer to this crucial question depends to some extent on you and me.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Passover thoughts.

The Jewish festival of Pesach has come and gone. It is my preferred holiday season for two reasons: it is family observed in Jewish homes and its roots are historical. Pesach or Passover commemorates and celebrates the birth of Judaism.

The Hebrew word pesach means to “skip over” and relates to God’s skipping over the homes of the Jewish slaves in Egypt and thus saving the lives of their first born sons during God’s slaying of the first born sons of the Egyptians. This alleged divine punishment is the Tenth Plague visited upon the evil pharaoh (or king, literally meaning “big house”) of Egypt for his refusal to free the Israelite slaves and to permit them to leave the country.

In a wider perspective the festival is a celebration of an enslaved people’s pursuit of freedom. That aspect of the story is expressed by the Hebrew designation of Pesach as yetziat mitzrayim or the “going out of Egypt.” The Hebrew name for Egypt, mitzrayim, derives, according to the Zohar, a major book of Jewish mysticism, from the word tzar or narrow, tight, and refers to narrow mindedness, constricted opportunities, limited movement and similar. I like best the festival’s Hebrew designation as zeman cherutenu because it means “the season of our freedom.” Having been a prisoner for three years under the German Nazis, I deeply appreciate freedom.

Egypt, previously a generous country for the Jewish refugees from conditions of famine in Canaan, became a very bad country for them with the arrival of a vicious new king. This is signaled in Exodus 1:8,

“The new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.”

The name Joseph in this context represents both our patriarch Jacob’s son Joseph who had become an important government official, as well as the Israelites who had come to Egypt to purchase food for their starving families in Canaan and who eventually moved down to Egypt, where they were welcomed and invited to settle in Goshen, the eastern part of the Nile delta.

The new king, unnamed in the biblical text, had departed from the generous attitude of his predecessor. In his fear and hate of the Israelite strangers in his land, he enslaved them. It is the biblical book of Exodus that tells the story of the slaves’ suffering and eventual liberation. This is what we recall and celebrate during the liturgical part of the Passover evening seder, a wonder-full experience in terms of family togetherness and education for life.

One of the purposes of this website is to help us remember our people’s past. According to the teaching of our grand sage of the 18th century, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism,

“Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret of redemption.”

This wise saying leads me to remember the Exodus, Judaism’s and therefore also my spiritual birth story, as well as my people’s and my personal experiences under Nazi Germany not so very long ago.

While I fully acknowledge the radical change that entered our communal life with the tragedy of 9/11, I cannot help but notice the increased violence ever since the election of our new king, or rather, president. I am one among many others who attribute this phenomenon at least partially to the man’s behavior which is totally unbecoming to a person of such high position and power. Our country’s leader turns out to be a fear monger, a pathological liar, a misogynist, a megalomaniac, an incompetent who, with few exceptions, surrounds himself with people of the same ilk, men and women who lie with aplomb.

What should we make of a man who boasts about not needing to read because he is a stable genius? Flattered by the last person with whom he speaks, he changes his opinions accordingly, opinions which, when acted upon, impact huge numbers of people in this country and abroad. What kind of role model is he for young people in our land – a man who on TV prides himself of being able to do most anything with women once he reaches for their private parts and who, as I write this, is being sued by multiple women for having violated them?

What should we make of a man who insists that his private insights are superior to the findings of science and who considers global warming to be nothing but a Chinese hoax? This is a man who is about to lower standards for automobile exhaust emissions and who recommends the removal of warning labels on food packaging of junk food because doing so would increase sales and thus benefit our economy. Hail to the blessing of lung cancer and obesity!

Research into Russian interference in our and other nations’ electoral systems is yet another hoax, this one perpetrated by the Democrats; it is nothing but a useless witch hunt, we are told. These and many other presidential pronouncements, too many to be enumerated here, are irresponsible, dangerous and deeply worrisome. Furthermore, they also discredit the Republican Party which, with few notable publicly stated exceptions, endorses and supports the presidential insanity.

These must be giddy days for the NRA, the National Rifle Association. Our man in the White House is their best salesman. “Let’s arm the teachers of the land!” says he. This is yet another way to mass insanity under the mask of good intentions of which our president seems to be a very good sales representative.

It is a slippery and steep slope and we are sliding.

My hope lies in our basic institutions. As long as these resist bastardization and do not succumb to the poisonous lies issuing these days from Washington there is hope.

My even greater hope lies in the recent rising up of our young people, nation wide, marching for their lives and demanding change from a president and a congress that is held hostage by a money hungry and powerful business-related lobby called the NRA. Enough is enough!

I salute the youngsters and their teachers who are marching to prevent our country from becoming a narrow minded homophobic place like ancient Egypt under the rule of its narcissistic pharaoh of the 13 cent. BCE. The only peaceful antidote to becoming a similar oppressive country lies in the power of our democratic electoral system – our votes.

You may have noticed that in this blog I do not mention the name of the person who threatens our and the world’s welfare. I follow the example of the Book of Exodus which does not do so either with regard to the Exodus-related vicious pharaoh’s name. Biblical scholars and archaeologists have identified that person as Ramesses II whose statues and temples are ubiquitous all over Egypt.

So why not mention here the name of our contemporary pharaoh-like leader in Washington? By not doing so, I follow the wise biblical admonition given to Israel pertaining to Amalek, Israel’s perennial symbolic enemy, found in Deuteronomy 25:17-19,

“You shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget.”

Some people do not deserve a name to be remembered by. At best, their fate will be nothing more than a tiny footnote to world history.

Morality falling through the cracks.

“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt…!”

This is a biblical exhortation in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) addressed to liberated Israel which especially Holocaust survivors must never forget. Remember!

Slaves have few if any rights. I and my fellow Jews under the German Nazi regime during WWII were slaves who had no rights and no recourse against coercion and violence, no appeal courts to which we could have taken our complaints about being mistreated.

Still in our hometown, after having been occupied by Nazi evil, but before deportation, we were never safe, whether in our homes or in the street. On many occasions we were simply taken off the street, corralled by the German police and then forced into forced labor such as street cleaning which involved sweeping and shoveling horse droppings, to the entertainment of fellow towns folk, or cleaning government buildings, etc.

Now imagine that innocent children, all under 16 years of age brought to our country by their parents who came here illegally, whichever their mode of entry may have been, now live in fear of being taken off the street or from their homes and deported by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Deported to where? To their native countries they do not know, having been brought up in the United States. These young people, totally Americanized, 72% of whom profited from higher education, do not even speak their native country’s language.

Having become political footballs, they now live in fear. The DREAMERS’ (as they are called) dreams of legally becoming US citizens demolished. What a sad end for them and for us, a nation of fellow immigrants and dreamers of a safe and good land.

So I ask, what is it with our law makers in Washington: don’t they have children they love? Have they lost their morality, their sense of what is right? Has their access to power transformed them into non-thinking and non-feeling monsters? Has human-made law, which often in history turns out to be deeply flawed, trumped humaneness and empathy whose origins come from more authoritative sources as we tend to affirm in our religious and humanistic traditions?

In polls, the majority of Americans expressed the view that the DREAMERS “should be allowed to stay and become American citizens if they meet certain requirements.” The average age of these DREAMERS is 24. Those 25 and younger make up two-thirds of DACA recipients. A truly disgraceful situation when one considers that these 800,000 young people, who are Americans in every sense of the term with the one exception of long overdue citizenship, make up less than one third of one percent of our population. It has been estimated that the US would lose about $ 460 billion in GDP over the next 10 years with the elimination of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) legislation and the deportation of the DREAMERS.

In the so-called omnibus federal budget of 1.3 trillion which is to allow our government to operate until September 2018, which most of our legislators have not seen, let alone studied, because it was cobbled together behind closed doors by a chosen few, and needs to be signed into law no later than in three days, the DACA issue is not included.

Any compassion for those poor youngsters? Obviously not. Their daily insecurity must continue. This is truly shameful behavior by the president and our lawmakers.

Musings about the notion of justice.

I arrived in the USA legally on a student visa in 1948, later to be changed into an immigration visa thanks to the intervention of Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, because I was a refugee from communism. This explains why I am very interested in the fate of the so-called dreamers, their fate to be decided by the government sometimes this month. Only a couple of weeks ago the daily news dealt with DACA or “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” established by the Obama administration in June 2012 but to be phased out by the Trump administration beginning in 2017 and so jeopardizing these young people to be deported to their native countries they do not know, having been brought up in the US. Hot button issues succeed each other so quickly these days that one has hardly time to reflect about and digest them. The DACA issue in which the fate of 800,000 young peoples’ future is to be decided – no small matter for innocent women and men who were brought into this country as infants by their illegally immigrated parents and now risk deportation – was suddenly displaced from due public consideration by Trump’s acceptance to visit North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and shortly afterwards, by the ousting of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as well as the resignation of a number of government officials. So what is it with the DACA young people?

While I am in no position to discuss the legalise involved, I want here to briefly discuss in a general way the concept of justice and what it means to be a law abiding citizen.

As in my previous piece, I am returning to my experience in Nazi Germany. The post-World War One German Weimar Republic was a democratic state in every sense of the term. Following the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler to the chancellorship of the Third Reich, democracy quickly disappeared and gave way to nazism, a type of fascism. How was this rapid transformation accomplished? By a new system of justice and thus new legislation that annulled the previous laws.

The question that must be asked is what does the word “justice” mean? Can the concept be so flexible so as to change practically over night, as it did in Germany? While various dictionaries define the term “justice” differently, they agree on one fundamental meaning, namely, “determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity,” or “the quality of conforming to law.”

These definitions immediately raise the question as to who it is that establishes the law according to which the citizenship is to behave. In the case of Nazism it so happened that both the legislators and judges of the Weimar Republic were eliminated and those who followed Hitler’s racist ideology installed instead.

It was this radical change that facilitated the transformation of the Democratic Weimar Republic into the racist police state under Adolf Hitler.

The filling of vacant US judgeships is taking place right now at an unprecedented pace under Donald Trump’s presidency, orchestrated by the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

What might be the reason for such haste?

Haggling over other people’s lives.

We, Holocaust survivors, must remember for the sake of future generations. And we do, because we cannot do otherwise.

On April 25, 1944, Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi German SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer (lieutenant colonel), the person assigned by his superior Reinhard Heydrich (SS general) to manage the deportation and extermination of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe in World War II, met in Budapest with one Joel Brand, a member of the Jewish Relief and Rescue Committee. It seems that Mr. Brand knew Eichmann from previous meetings in which he had attempted to bribe him to permit Jews to leave Hungary. In this particular encounter, Eichmann offered “to sell” one million Jews to Brand and thus to freedom and continued life.

The proposal was to exchange one new military truck for the freedom of one hundred Jews, these trucks to be delivered to the Nazis by the Americans and British. Eichmann promised that these trucks would be used only on the Eastern front where the Germans were fighting the army of the communist Soviet Union. By Brand accepting the offer, one million Jews would go free in exchange for 10,000 trucks.

The Allies very quickly rejected the deal. If accepted, it would have turned out to be a ruse because before the “business deal” was further discussed, Eichmann had already ordered the deportation of the Hungarian Jews and the first deportees arrived at the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau on May 26, 1944 and were murdered there.

Why do I relate this story? The answer is: the striking similarity between the attempted shameful immorality of the German Nazi proposal of exchanging human lives for trucks and its American counterpart of President Trump’s insistence on Congress’ funding his proposed separation wall between the US and Mexico in exchange for signing a bill of amnesty, thus allowing a way toward American citizenship for the Dreamers – the DACA issue.

To be sure, the so-called dreamers’ lives are not endangered by a “life or death” bargain as were the Jews in Hungary. But what about the 800,000 Dreamers who, after having been brought into our country as little children, dreamed and continue to dream to live in the US legally and safely? These young people are psychologically and emotionally Americans. They have been socialized as Americans and know no country other than the country in which they have been brought up which is the US. They have spent their childhood in the very same way American-born children have spent theirs. The land they came from unknowingly is a land strange to them even to the extent that for many of the DACA Dreamers its language is unknown.

It is shameful that the 535 members of congress, all supposedly intelligent and compassionate men and women, and President Trump who, on Twitter, once called himself a “stable genius,” have not been able to resolve the DACA problem which, if not resolved, will expose the Dreamers to deportation.

If the Statue of Liberty were able to shed tears, the time we live in and this issue would surely cause her to do so. Has our morality so deteriorated that we have forgotten who we are? Are we not all children of documented and undocumented immigrants? Have Emma Lazarus’s words underneath the grand old lady who represents the American spirit of generosity and wisdom, receded into oblivion?

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Will it be the “golden door” or a huge unbreachable wall?

Mr. President, it is well known you do not read. Do make an exception in this case, and do read this poem. Reflect on it and ask yourself whether your presidency reflects the iconic words above.

Then take your pen and sign.

I, a refugee from Communism and first generation American and many others like me, will be grateful to you. It could be a beginning!