Blog: Society

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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.


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.


I am relieved that my state came through in the end, and hopeful about the few other ones that are still outstanding.

I am very disappointed by how close that was. We've known what was inside the package for four years, and 70 million people, give or take, voted for a bigoted, bullying, self-absorbed fascist. I'm very glad Biden/Harris won, but with the margins this close, repairing the damage of the last four years is going to be hard. I'm glad to see they're losing no time on planning reversals of the things that can be reversed. Live by the executive order, die by the executive order -- Trumpists have no grounds for complaining there.

And, of course, he's not going to concede, let alone work constructively with a transition team. He's going to do whatever he can to trash the country on the way out. It's going to take a lot of work from a lot of people to build better relationships, better national cooperation if not actual unity. It's going to take more than one term of office, which we all need to remember in four years.

Healing is going to be hard, but the alternative is worse. I hope we can do something about the extreme polarization we're currently living with.

Recommended reading: what hurts about this election by "hudebnik".

Goodbye 5780

The year 5780 began for me, personally, on a terrible note caused by evildoers at Stack Exchange Inc. I won't say more about that here (I wrote plenty at the time). As above so below -- the door to their teshuvah remains open should they choose to correct their transgressions, but I, unlike the Holy One, do not hold out infinite hope for sinners to mend their ways. There are more important things in life to focus on.

5780 was the (sob) first year of the global pandemic crisis. On top of the sickness, the deaths, the changes in daily life that come with any pandemic, we in the US saw reckless endangerment, needless deaths, and political profiteering to levels even those of us already worried about the authoritarian trends of the toddler-in-chief did not imagine. He knew. And he let it run rampant anyway. Because he thought, somehow, that it would hurt his political opponents and not his own supporters. Because that oath he swore on taking the office, those words about serving the people (all of them, not just red states) and upholding the constitution and suchlike, was just fluff to him, not a commitment. Having thrown the people under the bus, he's now in full sabotage-the-election mode, betting that he can get away with it as he's gotten away with so much more. At worst, he figures, someone will manage to sue him years from now and he'll pay someone off. I fear for our country.

I fear for our country in other ways too. The white-supremacist-in-chief emboldened bigots ranging from crowds chanting against Jews to attacks on houses of worship to vigilantes fatally "protecting" the public from unarmed demonstrators to police who kill and recklessly endanger black and brown people who are already restrained and thus not threats. (Whites, on the other hand, generally get the benefit of the doubt.) And it would be easy to say that the bigot-in-chief is responsible for all this and we have only to remove him from office, but that's obviously not true -- the roots run much deeper. Our society has work to do.

And that work involves nuance, discussion, hearing and trying to understand others' perspectives, working together with people who are different, acknowledging the humanity of every person. Too many on the far right and the far left believe that they are keepers of the One Truth and that anybody who doesn't commit 100% to their view of truth is an enemy to be disparaged, cancelled, or killed. People are complicated, and attempts to paint monochrome pictures, while enticing to crusaders seeking us-vs-them litmus tests, are failures if the goal is to solve problems rather than to triumph. Too few people are willing to consider positions that exceed the length of a catchy slogan, but that's where the work has to get done.

But for all the trouble that 5780 brought, both personally and on a larger scale, it also brought some moments of personal light. Read more…

Out of control

According to Trump, liberal cities are "out of control" and their leaders are "afraid" of the "anarchists" ("these are not protesters", "these are people who hate our country") and that's why they don't want the federal government to "help".

No, I don't think that's it.

What is happening in Portland is appalling, and Trump just threatened to send his goons into other cities over the objections of local governments. The people he's sending in are wearing generic fatigues (making them indistinguishable from mobs of neo-Nazis and other civilian thugs), driving unmarked rental cars, and snatching people off the streets. There is no due process, no accountability, and plenty of reason for those being targeted to fear the snatchers. You just can't tell. Even if you could tell, what they're doing is so far outside the bounds of the law that it's hard to believe it's happening and hard to believe there won't be further abuses even if you comply with these "arrests".

And yet, it is happening. Just when you thought the shenanigans coming from Washington couldn't get any worse.

Modern threats

Wow, just wow.

I read this thread on Twitter, and I'm going to quote parts of it but you should go read the whole thing. This should not be such recent history, dammit.

I started Girl Scouts in first grade and was an active scout until I was 17 (12th grade)—did ALL the GS stuff and loved my scouting experience. I was a GS national delegate.

My troop, 1001, was in Detroit and almost all black.

Our leaders were Black women and they genuinely loved us. Because they loved us, we did ALL the GS things: we sold cookies, and earned badges, and did community service, and went camping.

We would drive a VERY LONG TIME (at least to a 9 year old) and end up at the campgrounds. And then we’d learn the camp rules and review the Girl Scout requirements: leave a space better than you found it, clean your trash, be kind, have fun. And we did all those things.

Last night I talked to my best friend, whose mom was one of our leaders and camp chaperones. We were talking about camp, and her mom mentioned staying up with two other moms all night, taking stations at each door and window of our cabin and having night watch.

Night watch? I asked, genuinely confused. What kind of bears did y’all think were going to open the door of our cabin and eat us? I asked, jokingly.

She got quiet. “Not bears,” she said, “the Klan.”

But, they wanted us to experience ALL the experiences Girl Scouts have. They just had night watch so we could. So they stood watch—all night. In the 90s. -- dst6n01

Abuses of the weak, and dominos

Our government is out of control; that's been true for some time but it's gotten worse. The murder of George Floyd is appalling. That he's one of many is appalling. That many police are trained to do such violence, and are supported in it, is appalling. That our government responds with more unprovoked violence and escalation is appalling. I keep using that word, and I feel like I should have better words and more coherent thoughts, and I don't.

But I have this talk that you should listen to -- under 20 minutes, and Trevor Noah has some insightful things to say about the many dominoes that have fallen to get us here and societal contracts and more.

What is society? Society is a contract that we sign as human beings. We agree on common rules, common ideals, and common practices that are going to define us as a group. And the contract is only as strong as the people who are abiding by it.

Watch on YouTube: George Floyd and the dominos of racial injustice, by Trevor Noah

I was asked in a comment if I think it's getting worse. I replied:

It's hard to determine with certainty the difference between "worse" and "more visible", but I think things have gotten a lot worse. We've always had bigots and abuses of power that went unchecked, but these people are more emboldened now by the vitriol coming from the White House that goes unchecked by others in power.

The Internet and ubiquitous cell phones also make records of abuses more available, but I don't think that alone explains it.

"Click here" is usually weak, but not always

It's generally held among professional writers (and presumably some others) that constructs of the form "for more information click here", with "here" being a hyperlink, is not good style. It's far better, in general, to incorporate some clue about the content into the link -- "See the formatting help for more information", with "formatting help" being a link to documentation, provides more information at a glance and just reads less clunkily.

When answering questions on sites like Stack Exchange and Codidact, one sometimes wants to refer to another answer (for example to elaborate on it or disagree with a point made in it). I posted such an answer recently and used link text of "another answer" instead of "Joe's answer". If I had said "Joe's answer", somebody who's just read that answer would have context without having to go look. Someone who knows my general writing style asked me why I used the vaguer formation.

This is my general style on sites like these now, and I do actually have a reason. Two, actually, the more significant of which is caring about people's feelings.

On Stack Exchange, Codidact, TopAnswers, and presumably others with which I'm less familiar, users can change their display names. Using a name as text rather than an '@'-reference in a link can thus decay. I've seen too many posts that mention "Joe's answer" but there's no Joe evident on the page now, years after that text was written. So that's confusing and I try to be careful; some people change names frequently, leaving trails of dead references in their wakes.

But it's not just about avoiding confusion. For me this name-avoidant practice crystalized some years ago when a prominent SE user transitioned gender. I realized that old posts of mine (from before I was careful about this) now dead-named this person. Ouch! Also maybe dead-pronouned, though if you write posts in a gender-neutral way like I try to in such contexts, you can minimize that damage.

We don't know who's going to be someone different later. My desire to attribute properly is at odds with my desire to account for future changes that affect writing I might not actively maintain. For in-page references the post is right there; omitting the name in favor of a generic reference is not harmful and is more future-proof. For regular citations, I attribute by name because giving credit is important, and just do my best.

I know that people who transition -- even just names, let alone gender -- just have to deal with the fact that they had lives before and those references don't vanish. My friend Owen understands that sometimes we need to talk about Zoe. But sometimes we can do a small thing to alleviate a little bit of unnecessary frustration and not make people's lives more difficult. It seems worth doing in these cases where the cost of being mindful of these possibilities is small.

I don't do this everywhere. My blog, being more personal in nature, is more likely to refer to people by name, use gendered pronouns, and otherwise bake in current context. My blog isn't a public knowledge repository like Codidact is. We write differently for Wikipedia, Codidact, blogs, and email, and that's ok.

Pesach 2020

Yisrael came to Egypt and the land flourished because of them. But a new Paro (pharaoh, king) arose who did not know them, and he enslaved them and made their lives hard. And not being content with that, he piled on misery, deliberately acting against them first by making their labors even harder and then by killing their children. When they protested, he prioritizing his own ego and divinity complex not only over justice but also over the well-being of his own people. At every opportunity to change toward the good, Paro hardened his heart and dug in more firmly on the path of evil.

This sounds familiar, on two different fronts.

On one front, the plague of Covid-19 has struck us (I am not asserting a source here) and, even as more people die in the US than anywhere else, even though we were repeatedly warned, our own Paro prioritizes his ego over the well-being of his people, ignoring pleas from governors who don't bow and scrape enough to him, stealing medical supplies from some of them to supply his friends. He prioritizes commerce over health, profit over protecting the vulnerable. The people cry out for rescue.

Now this is not the harsh reign of terror of the torah's Paro; while, sadly, many are stricken who could have been saved, we, unlike Yisrael, can take some measures to protect ourselves. Nothing is certain -- who knows whether that grocery delivery was safe? -- but we can hide at home and try to wait it out.

If we are able to work from home. If we have financial cushions. If we have homes. Never forget that not everyone does. I am fortunate in this regard; many are not. At my (tiny) seder this Pesach, I expressed gratitude for my household being saved (as far as we know), while noting that this year we do not have the national salvation of the Exodus. Many are still in danger.

And then there's the personal front. A Paro driven by ego, contempt for "lesser" people, and sometimes malice arose over me and mine, and did persecute some of us and seek to destroy -- not literally throwing people into the Nile, but metaphorically. There were many chances to correct that path, even saving face, but at each opportunity, the modern Paro hardened his heart, surrounded himself with complicit counselors, and dug in. At every turn, image was more important than teshuva, correcting misdeeds, and tzedakah, righteousness. Counselors who disagreed were driven out without even time for their bread (or health coverage) to finish.

I and many others escaped, and I am grateful for that even though we left both property and people behind. It is an incomplete exodus, as with Israel in Egypt -- rabbinic tradition says that many people feared the unknown and did not join the Exodus. Modern Paro's taskmasters continued to afflict some of those who remained, but also offered trinkets and promises to encourage everyone to stay. Paro's hope, it seems, is that if he gives the slaves straw again to make brick-making less onerous, the slaves will stay and be thankful. And Paro might be right in that.

A new Paro has arisen over the modern Egypt I fled, and has appointed a new vizier to speak publicly on behalf of Egypt. It is too soon to know whether the new Paro and vizier will correct past injustices or continue to sweep them under the royal carpet. Neither Paro nor vizier has sent messengers to all those who were driven out, and so for now Egypt remains Mitzrayim, the narrow place. I feel sorry for the many who remain and hope the new leaders will do teshuva, but Pesach encourages me to look forward and not backward, to a future of promise and not a past of narrow-minded oppression.

I am sad for the unnecessary victims of both Paros. Protecting myself is important and perhaps all I can do, but the Exodus is not complete so long as the oppression of those left behind continues. It was only at the sea of reeds that Yisrael was free from Paro. Sadly, the destruction at the sea of reeds was necessary because of Paro's hardened heart; it was not the desired outcome, and God rebuked the angels who sang triumphantly there. If Paro had ever done teshuva, widespread destruction could have been averted. I hope that our modern Paros will do teshuva and repair rather than enable ongoing damage.

Interesting judicial reasoning

Tonight I became aware, via a question on Mi Yodeya, of Yovino v. Rizo, a recent Supreme Court case. A federal court of 11 judges heard a case and ruled 6-5. One of the majority judges wrote the opinion and then died before it could be made official. The rest of the court said the verdict stood, arguing that the judge fully participated in the case like everybody else. The Supreme Court disagreed. From their conclusion:

Because Judge Reinhardt was no longer a judge at the time when the en banc decision in this case was filed, the Ninth Circuit erred in counting him as a member of the majority. That practice effectively allowed a deceased judge to exercise the judicial power of the United States after his death. But federal judges are appointed for life, not for eternity.

"Federal judges are appointed for life, not for eternity." That, my friends, is reasoning worthy of the talmud. :-)

I skimmed through the ruling to see if they were, in fact, arguing purely on this principle. Not quite; they note that a judge can change his mind up to the moment the ruling is formalized. So it's possible that, had he lived, he might have done so, though I don't know how often that happens at all, let alone by someone who wrote the majority opinion. But it's still an edge case that ought be considered.

Tangentially, I wonder why they waited at least 11 days from when the opinion was written to when they made it formal in court. Were they on recess at the time? Does it usually take that long -- maybe this is "just paperwork that can be done any time"? If so, courts with elderly or ill justices might want to adjust their procedures, just in case. (You can't fully prevent the problem, but maybe you can reduce the likelihood.)