Blog: Society

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

B'reishit: generations

D'var torah given in the minyan yesterday morning.

Ten generations.

At the beginning of this parsha, God created humanity as the pinnacle of creation, and declared it tov meod -- very good. Before even the first Shabbat, Adam had transgressed the divine will and been expelled from the garden, but that didn't merit further destruction. Adam and Chava produced children and their descendants began to fill the earth, as commanded. It might not have been tov meodany more, but it was apparently still ok with God.

Ten generations later, at the end of this same parsha, things have descended to the point where God is ready to blot it all out. The world had become corrupt and lawless, filled with wickedness and violence.

Ten generations isn't a lot. Many of us are blessed to have known three or four generations of our families, maybe more. As a child I met a great-grandparent and my niece now has a child -- that's six. It's hard to imagine that the distance from my grandparents to my grand-niece spans half the distance from tov meod to unredeemable evil.

And yet... it's been roughly ten generations since the founding of the United States. The US didn't start out as tov meod -- slavery was normal, native peoples were badly mistreated, and sexism and racism were the way of the world. But the people of that generation also pursued values we would call at least tov: basic freedoms of speech and assembly and religion and personal autonomy, protections from government abuses, and fostering a society where people could live securely and pursue happiness.

Ten generations later, how are we doing? We've made progress in some areas, but we've also done a lot of harm. We've pursued the destruction of the planet we were given to care for, there is widespread corruption and injustice from local jurisdictions all the way up to the international level, crusaders on both the left and the right seek to blot out perspectives they disagree with, and we've become a polarized, combative, and intolerant society. I'm going to focus on this last one, both because it's the one we can do the most about at an individual level and because I want to avoid the appearance of political advocacy in a tax-exempt synagogue right before an election.

Within just a single generation, we've become more polarized, more isolated in our bubbles, and more certain that we are right and anybody who doesn't agree with us completely is evil. We could blame social media for filtering what we see, but aren't we complicit? There was Internet before Twitter and there was mass media before the Internet, and we've always tended to gravitate toward people like us, haven't we? And yet, we used to more easily have civil conversations with people we disagreed with; we used to be better at respectful discourse and its give-and-take. Going farther back, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagreed with each other on almost everything, yet they found common ground in the study hall, maintained friendships, and intermarried. They taught each other's positions, not just their own, to their students. They disagreed, vehemently, without being disagreeable.

Very few issues in our society are cut-and-dried. We can't stay in echo chambers, only hearing perspectives we already agree with, and expect to get anywhere. We need to be open to diversity. Diversity means people and ideas that aren't exactly like us. Diversity means complexity. It means setting aside the goal of "winning" in favor of the goal of understanding the human beings we're interacting with. It means having civil conversations that are nuanced and complex. It means being open to new ideas. It means asking questions rather than jumping to the conclusions that would be most convenient for us, like "he's a bigot" or "she hates America" or "you're not capable of understanding". The results won't align completely with any side's talking points, but they just might help us move forward together constructively.

Try it. Try having a conversation with someone who disagrees with you on something. It doesn't have to be something extreme and emotional.
Try asking the person to explain the reasoning.
Try asking questions.
Try to understand, and resist the urge to prepare your counter-arguments while half-listening for keywords to pounce on.
Assume your conversational partner is as principled, ethical, and thoughtful as you are.
Assume good intentions.
See how long you can keep it up. Then ask yourself: based on what I've learned, do I need to re-evaluate anything in my own thinking?

It's hard, isn't it? But what's the alternative? Can we afford to continue our descent? What comes after "uncivil"? How many generations do we have before our society is unredeemable?

Ten generations of social decay, hatred, and violence led from Adam to Noach. But that wasn't the end. After the flood, another ten generations led from Noach to Avraham. After sinking to the depths of evil, society climbed back toward tov.

Our society hasn't sunk as far as Noach's generation -- yet. We do not need to reach bottom, when only the divine promise prevents the heavens and the depths opening up again, in order to start climbing back up. At Yom Kippur we confessed to many sins including sinat chinam, baseless hatred, and we also said that we can return from our errors. We can turn from ways that are uncivil or worse – individually, one interaction at a time. We are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free from trying. Let's see how far we can get together.

A review of the first American civil war

It should not be a surprise that people who thought that the buying and selling of human beings and that profiting from a racialized caste system are legitimate enterprises also believed that attempting to subjugate the entire nation is a natural entitlement.

The Southern states weren't fighting for their right to have slavery. They already had slavery. The North was respecting their right to make that determination for themselves. The North was respecting the Southern states' rights.

It should not be a surprise should it turn out that people who think that subjugating half their populations and criminalizing bodily autonomy also feel they have the right to put the rest of the country to the sword.

The people who do not think it's wrong to reach into other people's bodies do not think it's wrong to reach into other people's states.

Go read this thought-provoking essay: https://siderea.dreamwidth.org/1766175.html

Putin Khuylo

Confirming what many suspected, the media reports that Putin likens himself to Peter the Great, conqueror role and all. I learned an interesting thing about Russian grammar recently in a fascinating post that's worth reading in full. "Peter the Great", Пётр Вели́кий, also means "Peter is great" -- the grammar is ambiguous.

There is a phrase that has been popular in Ukraine for some time, Пу́тин хуйло́ - "Putin khuylo". Or, perhaps, "Putin Khuylo". Which means "Putin [the] D*ckhead".

I think many people would be pleased to see that catch on, and the recipient of this title has no one to blame but himself. History should record not "Putin the Great" but "Putin Khuylo". Even if schoolbooks have to bleep out a letter to get past vulgarity checks.

Attention and its lack

From Your attention didn’t collapse. It was stolen:

When you arrive at the gates of Graceland, there is no longer a human being whose job is to show you around. You are handed an iPad, you put in little earbuds, and the iPad tells you what to do – turn left; turn right; walk forward. In each room, a photograph of where you are appears on the screen, while a narrator describes it. So as we walked around we were surrounded by blank-faced people, looking almost all the time at their screens. As we walked, I felt more and more tense. When we got to the jungle room – Elvis’s favourite place in the mansion – the iPad was chattering away when a middle-aged man standing next to me turned to say something to his wife. In front of us, I could see the large fake plants that Elvis had bought to turn this room into his own artificial jungle. “Honey,” he said, “this is amazing. Look.” He waved the iPad in her direction, and began to move his finger across it. “If you swipe left, you can see the jungle room to the left. And if you swipe right, you can see the jungle room to the right.”

His wife stared, smiled, and began to swipe at her own iPad. I leaned forward. “But, sir,” I said, “there’s an old-fashioned form of swiping you can do. It’s called turning your head. Because we’re here. We’re in the jungle room. You can see it unmediated. Here. Look.” I waved my hand, and the fake green leaves rustled a little. Their eyes returned to their screens. “Look!” I said. “Don’t you see? We’re actually there. There’s no need for your screen. We are in the jungle room.” They hurried away. I turned to [teenager], ready to laugh about it all – but he was in a corner, holding his phone under his jacket, flicking through Snapchat. [...] I realised as I sat with [teenager] that, as with so much anger, my rage towards him was really anger towards myself. His inability to focus was something I felt happening to me too. I was losing my ability to be present, and I hated it. "I know something’s wrong," Adam said, holding his phone tightly in his hand. "But I have no idea how to fix it." Then he went back to texting.

I realised then that I needed to understand what was really happening to him and to so many of us. That moment turned out to be the start of a journey that transformed how I think about attention. I travelled all over the world in the next three years, from Miami to Moscow to Melbourne, interviewing the leading experts in the world about focus. What I learned persuaded me that we are not now facing simply a normal anxiety about attention, of the kind every generation goes through as it ages. We are living in a serious attention crisis – one with huge implications for how we live. I learned there are twelve factors that have been proven to reduce people’s ability to pay attention and that many of these factors have been rising in the past few decades – sometimes dramatically.

The article is an interesting read (though it does not list those twelve factors). It's an excerpt from a forthcoming book, which I presume does.

Another downstream cost of the pandemic

Well, not the pandemic itself, but the way people are responding to it.

Forwarded through some intermediaries from Reddit, one long-time doctor's explanation for leaving the field:

(Heavy content warning) Read more…

Ballot problems

Here in Pittsburgh, voting by mail in 2020 and in this year's primary was smooth for me. Ballots were mailed in time, the process was smooth, tracking worked. Naturally I assumed that for the minor off-year election today, the same would be true. Boy was I wrong.

My ballot was spoiled on arrival. It had my name printed on it (uh, secret ballot anyone?) along with a bar code. (Photo at end of post.) It was printed across part of the ballot, obscuring some candidate names. There were no return envelopes, neither the secrecy envelope nor the outer one with identifying info (the one you mail). Just this misprinted ballot in an envelope sent to me.

I visited the URL printed on that envelope and submitted a support ticket. Crickets. Later I called the phone number listed there. When I finally reached a human, the person said "oh you've reached the state; you need your county". So I tried to track them down. No luck.

It was now a week before the election. No time for a replacement ballot to arrive and be received back. I looked up how to vote in person (and confirmed their Covid protocols).

I want to interject that the people at my polling place today were great. This isn't their fault. They did everything they could to deal with this problem not of their making.

I learned this morning that this ballot misprinting happened to other people too. Mine was the first case in my precinct at my polling place, so they had to look up the instructions for handling a surrendered mail-in ballot. I had brought everything I received, as instructed. I filled out the form. Then they saw in their documentation that I had to hand over the ballot and the two return envelopes. The return envelopes I never got. We all agreed that my name being printed right on the ballot ought to confirm my ID for validation purposes (that's why they want the outer envelope, where my name should have been printed), but we didn't feel safe relying on logic. This is government, after all.

They offered to escalate so I could vote now but said that could take a while -- how long could I wait? I was on my way to work (I now go to the office one day a week). Fortunately my workplace is flexible that way, but I still didn't have another hour to spend on this at the time. I considered leaving and coming back after work, but figured anybody who could help worked 9-4 or something like that and wouldn't be available anyway.

So I cast a provisional ballot. I'm assured it will be counted some days hence. I have a tracking number. This still feels very wrong.

Even though my vote will probably be counted, even though it probably doesn't make a difference this time, I feel disenfranchised. What happens in the mid-terms next year when people are more motivated to place hurdles in front of voters? What happens to voters who are likely targets (like immigrants) or have mobility challenges or who lack confidence in standing up for their rights? I'm a white professional in the heart of a very blue city (albeit in a purple state) who had the time and perseverance to try to chase this down after the bad ballot arrived. I have way more advantages than many, and I failed. What hope did others have?

The problem wasn't at the state level where most of the attention is, and it wasn't actual election tampering as far as I can tell. It was an error made by the county that affected an unknown number of people. Nobody's watching counties in all the election shenanigans. I'm in Allegheny County, not voter-suppression-ville. This was an accident, but I couldn't get it corrected.

Brr.

Photo: Read more…

Trolling Wall Street

This is oddly fascinating, even though I don't understand all of it. If I understand correctly:

A "short" is a bet that a stock price will fall: you promise to sell it on a certain date at a certain price, but you don't actually own the shares. On that day, the idea goes, you'll buy the shares at the lower price you expect and then turn around and fulfill your contract, pocketing the difference. I don't know if regular folks like you and me can do that, or if only investment funds and professional stock-market people can. There are some rules that are different for the big players and the little folks; I don't know if this is one of them.

So... some big Wall Street hedge funds (one often mentioned is Melvin Capital) placed vast quantities of shorts on a gaming-gear company that isn't doing well (GameStop). A bunch of people on Reddit observed this and said to Wall Street: hold my beer.

They bought the stock. Hundreds of thousands of people on Reddit bought the stock. At that scale, any individual participant doesn't have to buy a lot; you could play this game for $20 back when it started. And it's not like you can spend that $20 going out to a movie right now, so there was probably an untapped market of bored people looking for fun. Read more…

It's 2021 and this still happens

Me: Here's a bug.

Male peer: I don't know why that happens. Not my fault.

Me: One way that can happen is if you do X.

Him: (condescendingly) Of course you could do that, but I didn't.

(Ok then! Done teaching.)

Separately, other male peer: One way that can happen is if you do X.

First male peer: Oh, you're right.

Again. In 2021.

I didn't say he did X; I'm not in his head and wasn't looking over his shoulder, so how would I know? I just offered one (common) way that this particular problem manifests, because we've seen it before. But from me it wasn't worthy of consideration.

This sort of thing happens far too often, even now, even among people who in other regards present as open-minded and inclusive.

The cost of plagues

I want to amplify something I saw on Twitter today by AvBronstein:

A congregant shared an insight: immediately following the final plague, the killing of the first-born, the text tells us that "Pharaoh arose that night."

In other words, he had gone to sleep.

Pharaoh couldn't have gone to sleep on the assumption that the plague wasn't going to happen. This was the tenth time around. He knew. His advisers knew, the people knew. The Midrash says that the Egyptian first-born actually rebelled, taking up arms, because they knew.

Rather, Pharaoh was prepared to bear the cost of the final plague. For him, it was worth it. So much so, that he was even able to sleep that night, knowing what was coming.

I'm going to interrupt for a moment here. Paro knew by now what the consequences of his stubborn refusal to give up personal power would be. He'd seen his people be afflicted by nine previous plagues. Some of them even affected the elite in the palace, though they had more power than "regular folks" to evade some of the effects. They could bring all their animals safely inside before the hail, could source drinking water elsewhere, could afford to replace animals lost to the pestilence, could get top-notch medical care not available to others. But some plagues affected even them, safely in their palaces. They knew. Paro knew.

And Moshe had just told him that God was going to kill all the first-born, from the palace on down to the slaves, even down to the animals. Paro knew this was a credible threat.

And he was ok with that. Maybe he had some magical thinking that his own family would be protected; more likely his son was an acceptable loss. Certainly the first-born of all the people he ruled, the people he was nominally responsible for, were acceptable losses. He was their ruler and "god", after all; he couldn't be weak by giving in to Moshe and the true God. These afflictions would pass and the deserving would survive.

And it wasn't just Paro thousands of years ago, now was it? This happens with power-hungry leaders, ones who've lost touch with whom they serve, all the time. It happened in our day, with a deadly plague that our leaders concealed the severity of, because they were safe. A few hundred thousand old folks are an acceptable loss to preserve the illusion of strength, right?

Avraham continues on Twitter:

I can't help but think of all those people ready to launch a civil war in America, so grimly sure that they are prepared to pay whatever price needs to be paid. And how many of them, like Pharaoh, woke up later that night and realized just what they had done to themselves.

I'm also thinking of a President calmly watching the insurrection he stoked on television, only to realize the costs he will be paying for the rest of his life out of what remains of his fortune, reputation, and legacy.

Me again. And I'm also thinking of all the people who were, and even still are, fine with plague deaths, and murders and reckless killings, and treating human beings like animals even down to the cages, and justice systems that depend on who the accused is, and ruining people's lives on mere accusations and presumptions, because they, personally, are safe. But nobody's safe, and we can't sleep through the unrest our society has fallen into.

Paro's people had no power to effect change; Paro held all the cards. We might not have much power to effect change, but I think we have a little more (voting, for example), and I pray it's enough to avert Egypt's fate, despite bad decisions made by those who rule us.

#RenewDemocracy

Seen on Twitter:

We're excited to launch the #RenewDemocracy Challenge with @AVindman

During a dark time, we need to showcase the best of our democracy. Share a short video about what democracy means to you & nominate 3 friends to do the same! Be sure to use hashtag: #RenewDemocracy (source)

A friend tagged me. I responded there, but it didn't fit in one tweet and I want to record it here too. I'll preserve the original structure, meaning some compact language to fit in individual tweets.


Democracy is a decision by a society to band together to support all, not just the majority & powerful. It means working together for common good, not bowing to thugs. It means freedom, not free rein to cause damage. It means using your voice not your fist. 1/4

Democracy means being able to chart your own course so long as you don't trample others. It means owning your body, your beliefs, your goals - and consequences of your acts - but no one else's.

It means offering a hand to a stranger in need who is also part of this society. 2/4

Democracy means working together w/people not like us to understand other perspectives - a necessary precondition to make decisions about how the public commons operates & what policies need to change. It means each voice counting, once. It means losing, or winning, w/grace. 3/4

Democracy means hearing diverse perspectives but not granting any one of them authority. Democracy is communal and consensual or it fails. Fearing the mob isn't democracy; neither is minority rule.

Democracy is complicated and essential for civil society. 4/4


And here I'll add: any constructive societal structure, including democracy, requires dealing with complex ideas, nuance, and context, far more than fits in a sound bite or a handful of tweets. It means learning and adjusting one's perceptions, not holding stubbornly to One True Way firm in the belief that all others are wrong and out to get you. It means holding contradictory ideas in your head and reasoning about them and their implications. It means thinking critically, and also not dismissing new ideas because they're new. It means having the humility to know that we don't know everything, even about ourselves let alone the others in our shared society, while having the courage and confidence to speak up when we perceive wrongs. It means having the compassion to care about others and not just ourselves.

It means recognizing that sometimes you'll disagree with those on your "side" or agree with those on the "other side". We talk in the US about left and right, but it's not a line, it's a canvas. We can't reduce our discourse, or our caricatures of each other, to binary positions -- either/or, in or out. People are complicated, and societies made out of people are complicated.

The polarization we see in our country today isn't just bad because it's divisive and too often violent. It's also bad because it erases all of that complexity in the middle, the stuff we need to be able to understand and engage with if we are to get along.