Category: Conversations



On Jan. 20, 2017, as my wife, our pup and I piled into the van to head up to celebrate my Dad’s birthday with him — at a place without a television, because he didn’t want to have to watch Donald Trump’s inauguration — my wife made a joke. I didn’t respond. I was very uneasy about a Trump presidency, what it meant for Americans, and, importantly for me, what it meant for Jewish Americans, and for American journalists.

I told her I might be uneasy for the next four years.

Donald Trump’s America has not been great for me. Before our collective quarantine, for the first time in my life, weekly services at my house of worship were strictly guarded. Armed police officer at the front door, which would open no more than 30 minutes before services, and 15 minutes after the scheduled start time, the front doors would be locked and the armed officer would move to the side door, where you need to go in.

I’d only ever seen that for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the Jewish equivalent, from an importance standpoint, of Christmas and Easter for people of Christian, Catholic and adjacent faiths — when a large portion of the community might be at worship at the same time.

Meanwhile, while the world is getting safer for journalists, the U.S. isn’t even among the top 40 nations for press freedoms, despite that freedom being expressly designated in the Constitution. Hundreds of journalists have been attacked, arrested and had equipment damaged this year. Reporters Without Borders blames the Trump administration for this:

Much of that ire has come from President Trump and his associates in the federal government, who have demonstrated the United States is no longer a champion of press freedom at home or abroad. This dangerous anti-press sentiment has trickled down to local governments, institutions and the American public.

People ask, what about the tax break? Our accountant predicted the tax legislation would save us $200. We don’t have a good assessment, though, since we had a child and bought a house the same years the legislation kicked in.

We do know the gutting of the Affordable Care Act cost us a bunch of money; our family went from two people to three, and our health insurance costs tripled while our deductible doubled (which means not only were we spending three times as much for our insurance, we had to pay twice as much out of pocket before insurance started to pick up a significant portion of the bill).

I can unequivocally say that, in the few ways government can affect my everyday life, I’m worse off during Trump’s presidency than I was before it.

Before I sat down to write this post, I went back and read some of the stuff I wrote before and after the 2016 election.

I wrote about the two major party candidates being in the same America of the “Two Americas.” While Joe Biden is certainly not in the same category of wealthy as Donald Trump — and not even in the ballpark with Hillary Clinton, it’s still true that both major party candidates are not in the America that is worried about paying its bills.

I wrote that I was concerned about civility. In our speech, on social media, and, importantly, in our streets, it’s become much worse. It’s clear we still understand nothing about context. I wrote a long post about nuance and facts and culture and a bunch of other stuff we can just toss out the window, since we’re ignoring them, outside of a few communities that actually value conversation.

I made some predictions in the days after the election. Some of them were correct — there’s no border wall of the sort promised and Mexico did not pay for whats there; he still doesn’t seem to enjoy the work; Apple’s not making iPhones in the U.S.

I didn’t see many traditions being broken. Trump didn’t place his assets in a blind trust, and luckily for him, the courts didn’t have the balls to cause a constitutional crisis by letting emoluments lawsuits get very far. He sent federal law enforcement in to bolster local law enforcement agencies, and the “small government” Republicans looked the other way, just as they did as the national debt skyrocketed (also surprising to me, though I didn’t make a prediction on it).

Normally when I post about voting, whether it’s on the blog, Twitter, Instagram, wherever, I tell you I don’t care which candidate you vote for, so long as you vote.

But this time I care.

I asked early for my absentee ballot, and sent it in early.

I’ve been tired of our two-party system for a long time. George Washington warned us of the problems of such a system.

I’m mostly behind what Unity has been up to, and while things got started too late to make much of a difference this election cycle (they asked supporters to vote their consciences instead of the Unity ticket this time around), I hope they keep up their efforts, which include:

• Drafting a center-right and a center-left candidate to run for executive office, flipping the ticket every four years. For example, let’s say in 2024 their members want to see Andrew Yang and Jocko Willink run. They randomize the ticket (let’s say, flip a coin) and, let’s say Yang would be the presidential candidate and Willink the vice presidential candidate. In 2028, the ticket flips, even if they win in 2024.

• Rank-choice voting. Instead of tossing all your vote power in, say, the Trump basket and getting stuck with Biden if Trump loses, you rank order your vote, expressing your second, third, fourth, etc., preference. Maybe you’d really like Trump but would prefer to have the Libertarian Party candidate or the Conservative Party candidate in office ahead of Biden. If you’re in a swing state, you have the opportunity to really make a difference with rank-choice.

• Electronic voting. This isn’t in Unity’s stated goals, but they had only a small tech hiccup on their primary day, which caused them to extend voting by a few hours, with over 8,000 votes coming in across time zones and the rank-choice winners announced the next day. Obviously there are some shortcomings, but if we were to start building systems now for 2022 or 2024, we could go beyond only being able to vote via iPhone or Android. And obviously for those without internet access we’d have to come up with an in-person voting space, like a library.

The last two Democrats to win Georgia were Bill Clinton in 1992, with a big boost from Ross Perot, and Jimmy Carter in 1976, a Georgia native. We’re not exactly a swing state. But I really feel the safety of my family could be on the line with another Trump presidency. If we can’t worship safely and my profession becomes more perilous, it’s increasingly clear that this isn’t the America the founders intended, and it’s time to find a way to fix the system.

Fake it ’til you make it? Don’t

Fake it ’til you make it? Don’t

One of the things we talk about when dealing with impostor syndrome and in building confidence is faking it until you make it — that is, if you appear to be something you’re not long enough, you might become that thing.

The trick here is to fool yourself, but be careful when trying to fool others.

In the early days of the web, when creating a website was magic, some site builders used to go to client meetings and either inflate their skillset or inflate their team size. They could overcharge, and if they ran into something they couldn’t do, they could always contract out to someone else. This is faking it.

If you build up your skill set while you’re faking it, eventually you’re actually making it.

But if you spend too long trying to trick others into thinking you’re big enough, you risk running into something disastrous, like those “War Dogs” kids.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about excellence. One of the elements of faking it is a sense of entitlement. But people actually are good at things, and the good stuff rises to the top.

We spoke to Nick Velasquez about mastery a few months ago, and one of the things he pointed out was that we actually enjoy things more when we’re good at them.

Cal Ripken, Jr. tells Michael Gervais that most of the success in his storied Major League Baseball career came about because he was always as prepared as possible.

Gervais’ podcast, by the way, is called Finding Mastery, and, among other things, he’s the mindset coach for the Seattle Seahawks. He tells Steven Kotler that faking it ’til you make it means you’re faking it, and you can’t be truly you or authentic if you’re faking it.

Ripken said in that same interview that he holds himself to a standard. He didn’t miss a game in 16 seasons — no aches, no sickness, no funerals, no nothing. 162 games in a six-month season, every year, for 16 seasons (some of those seasons were strike-shortened, some were 161 games because of a rainout not made up, but he played all the games available). He never pressured his managers (and he played for nine of them in his 21 seasons with the Baltimore Orioles) to play him — if he was the best player at his position that day, put him in; if he wasn’t, slot someone else.

He voluntarily sat out that first game, by the way, and it was the only game he missed that season.

Do you have an honest assessment of your skills? Are you actually doing people a service by continuing on your path, or are you trying to trick them? If it turns out you’re trying to trick them, does that align with your moral code?

Game B

Game B

In a lot of ways, 2020 has felt like a giant shift in the world. It’s not just our COVID-19 quarantine and masking, during which a a lot of (mostly small) businesses closed, more (often large) businesses declared bankruptcy and suicide rates rose.

Sports schedules changed, with the NBA and NHL taking off months between not-quite-finishing their regular seasons and coming up with a modified ployoff. MLB shortened its season and modified its travel schedule.

Riots and demonstrations took place all over the U.S. for months in many cities in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and later the shooting of Jacob Blake.

California burned. Oregon burned. So did New Mexico. Louisiana flooded (again).

The world learned about a bat with an almost human-sized wingspan.

And about the murder hornet, which invades beehives and cuts the heads off a bunch of bees.

And about mutant ticks that took over Siberia.

A dust storm from the Sahara crossed the Atlantic and affected U.S. skies.

For those who didn’t want to leave their houses, they could just sit on Twitter and battle like unreasonable people fighting wars not worth fighting.

I’ve always known there’s hope, but I’ve never quite been sure where to look. So many “solutions” seem like they’re meant to move individuals or very small groups of people off the grid entirely, rather than create a blueprint for society.

Even what I consider realistic blueprints cover only pieces of what needs to change. I wrote a little while ago about Bret Weinstein’s Articles of Unity, which is a sound enough plan to appeal to the mainstream, though they hit some hiccups when Twitter decided disrupting the status quo was bad.

But then I heard Jim Rutt talk about Game B on Douglas Rushkoff’s Team Human podcast. Rutt describes himself as something like a prepper, not for himself and family, but for a community.

He figures if it comes down to something like a zombie apocalypse, you don’t need a bunch of people hunkering down in their own bunkers with enough food and toilet paper for themselves, you need a community that can farm and build and trade.

But more than that, he figures there’s no reason to wait for an apocalypse. The system we’re living — which he calls “Game A” — isn’t sustainable. Even if you believe consumption rates, fossil fuels, climate change, etc. aren’t existential problems, isolation, tribal behavior, zero-sum lives and the effects of busyness certainly are, whether it comes to chronic individual illness or growth into full-fledged war.

Rutt has a long piece on Medium outlining the path to Game B. It’s a very detailed read, so I won’t try to either summarize it or pull out the dozen or so big points, but note that Rutt considers Game B a “civilization-level operating system,” which will require people to have skills and a bias toward action, and it will require many small groups transitioning from Game A to Game B in parallel, independently of each other, with or without each other’s knowledge.

More: Facebook group | Library (including a glossary of terms) | Wiki

There are, of course, other groups doing Game B work, whether they call it that or not. The Liminal Learning Portal is attempting to bring together many of the writings and much of the content and personalities in one place for easy discovery.

Articles of Unity is working on helping the U.S. exit the two-party system.

Steward Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog was an early aid for the urban permaculture movement and really targeted people who wanted to take responsibility for much of their lives, including growing their own food and building their own homes. He more recently started the Long Now Foundation, a group aiming to make sure we’re still here for thousands of years. If the name doesn’t mean anything to you, consider that their publications mark the date with a five-digit year — currently 02020 — so that the digit jumps in almost 98,000 years instead of only 8,000.

There are lots of local groups — and this seems right on with Rutt’s vision — like Central New York’s Alchemical Nursery, which has a focus on urban farming, but also gives workshops in things like rehabbing homes and that sort of thing.

Personal responsibility is an important takeaway here. While I believe I have the work ethic and community ethos it takes to make it in a Game B world, my skill set is sadly lacking. I take instruction well, which, combined with work ethic, may make me a desirable member of a Game B society, but the bias toward action Rutt values takes a back seat when you’re waiting for people to show you what to do.

I suppose I should develop a better understanding of how things work, and how to actually do things.

Replication and interpretation

Replication and interpretation

In his manifesto Team Human (serialized on Medium), Douglas Rushkoff discusses, among many other things, musical notation.

Musical notation, he writes, is meant to let other people play an approximation of the written work, not to replicate it.

To hear what he means, listen to these four pros play the same Bach piece.

All four learned from replicated — mass printed — versions of the same written work, but each put his or her own touch on the piece.

Interpretations. Approximations.

Digital platforms, he writes, don’t interpret the written work. They replicate it. There’s actually software that puts human error into the perfect replications. When something’s too perfect, it seems fake to us.

Humans are good at pattern recognition. It’s why we know that a person we’ve never met before is a person, and a dog whose breed we’ve never seen before is a dog.

We’re also very good at figuring out when something’s not quite natural. The too-perfect beat of early drum machines, before they had error built in. Some facial augmentations. Wax fruit.

We’re not here to replicate other peoples’ work. We’re here to interpret, to put our own spin on things, to own what we do. To be perfectly imperfect. To be original.



James Altucher thinks COVID-19 might be the end of New York City as we know it.

Manhattan, in particular, is a small island with a lot of people on it. And a lot of restaurants and small businesses. And a lot of tall towers full of rented offices.

The rented offices were abandoned when people went to work from home, and the businesses renting them realized that was a lot of overhead.

And the restaurants weren’t serving anyone because the offices were empty.

And then those high-rent restaurant spots became even more untenable when they were only allowed takeout and outdoor dining, the latter of which is a tough sell in New York City in the winter.

COVID has certainly showed us some of the dangers of living stacked on top of each other, walking shoulder to shoulder the way we do in New York and other large cities.

When did we start living in cities, anyway, and, perhaps more importantly, why?

We’ve been living in cities for going on about 10,000 years, with the first very large cities — with populations of 50,000 or more — coming more like 5,000 years ago.

That follows the timeline of large-scale agriculture (even if we were doing smaller-scale farming much earlier than that). But once we had a solid large-scale agriculture base, we developed cities. It was easier to find people to trade your excess crops with, and in general we were able to set up local economies, without having to travel days, weeks or months to trade.

After the first millennium or so of having large-scale cities, those long trade routes became more of a reality, with globalization growing and cities (and nations) expanding their wealth by trading for goods they couldn’t grow or make locally.

In modern times, cities do, of course, have both benefits and drawbacks. If your area were to be invaded, you’d probably be safer in a more populous city than in a disparate rural area. There’s economic opportunity and romantic opportunity and access to services.

But cities can also be very isolating. A plurality of people live in cities large and small, but many would much prefer to be living in a rural community.

I’ve seen a bunch on Twitter and in some Facebook groups about people fleeing cities for farm communities. Some high-profile celebrities have announced their exits from the Los Angeles area. And, as we mentioned at the opening, Altucher, who has made much of his career in New York City (including the current incarnation wherein he owns a comedy club), thinks this might be the end of America’s largest city.

This is the doing of COVID.

I don’t know if this is panic, or if this is the next wave of the world population.

We’re in a perfect spot, I think. Technically, we’re in a small city, though it’s more like a small city suburb (we’re actually in unincorporated county, but it’s within the city limits, sort of — boundaries are weird here).

We know most of our neighbors by name, and the few we don’t, we know by sight. The street isn’t busy. We’re able to patronize our favorite places for takeout. We can actually get to things if we need and/or want to. But we can also maintain some privacy and aren’t worried about the places we want to go getting too crowded.

Call us lucky; this is just the sort of place we enjoy. It’s not pandemic foresight.

I think a lot of the people fleeing to rural communities might be in for a real awakening — many of them are going to insular communities where outsiders need to prove themselves. The services they’re used to won’t be available — it will be a long trip to a grocery store or a hospital and many will need to grow some food and supplement with shipments. Internet and cell phone reception won’t be awesome. Roads will not be quickly cleared in winter.

Or maybe we’ll really see a fundamental shift in the makeup of America. Only one way to find out.

Chaos, chaos figures and disrupting you

Chaos, chaos figures and disrupting you

Some translations of the Old Testament of the Bible begin something like this:

In the beginning, when the Earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light.

Science calls this moment of light the Big Bang.

Unlike the serene scene of a dark, formless void with the spirit of God moving upon it, the ancient Greeks believed in Chaos. Chaos was both a place, where the gods resided, and the god from whom creation sprang.

Among Chaos’s first creations were the earth, the underworld, love, darkness and night.

The ancient Greek religion isn’t the only one with chaos gods. They appear all over the world, including, in ancient Egyptian culture, the battle between Isfet (chaos) and Ma’at (order), which reminded me of Crowley and Aziraphale.

During our collective quarantine, comedian Duncan Trussell has been talking philosophy with actors Marcus Henderson and Brandon Sanders, and they released one gathering as a podcast and one of the guests mentioned chaos figures, and pointed out that President Trump is one.

To explain chaos figures, he pointed to Ego, Peter Quill’s father from the movie Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

, played by Kurt Russell. In the film, Ego is a god who puts down roots on as many planets as possible in an attempt to spread his seed and alter the universe.

Trump obviously is not that sort of chaos figure, but he’s the sort of person who shakes things up enough to change the way some people operate and the way some systems work. We don’t know what the results — aftermath, if you will — of his time as president will be, at this writing.

But this isn’t about Trump.

Chaos is defined as:

a state of utter confusion or disorder; a total lack of organization or order

A chaos figure, then, is someone who disrupts existing systems in such a way there’s a sense of confusion along the way — most likely at the beginning.

COVID-19, although not a person, is a chaos figure. The Boston Tea Party was carried out by chaos actors. Gandhi, Hitler, Mandela and Stalin were chaos figures. Not all of them are for good, obviously. They merely disrupt, often drastically.

Let’s look in the mirror for a moment, shall we? How are you doing right now? Could you use a little chaos in your life to disrupt your patterns? Maybe it’s time to jump in a ball pit or go bury yourself in the sand at the beach or go dance in public. Disrupt yourself. You’ll thank me later.

‘The soup is getting cold’: Lessons in curiosity and perfectionism from Leonardo da Vinci

‘The soup is getting cold’: Lessons in curiosity and perfectionism from Leonardo da Vinci

I’ve recently finished listening to the audio version of Walter Isaacson’s excellent Leonardo da Vinci biography. I’m sure I’ve lost something from actually holding this one, but at least it came with a PDF that’s 70-something pages long with all kinds of images and timeline information.

We look up to Leonardo for a lot of accomplishments. The Mona Lisa. The Last Supper. Vitruvian Man. Flying machines. Methods for diverting rivers. Early ideas for a tank for military use. Molds of human organs. Notebook after notebook full of innovations and drawings and notes and curiosities.

More: What creative minds have in common (or don’t) »

But Leonardo was eminently human. You see, he was a terrible perfectionist, and, for lack of a better term, a bit of a flibbertigibbet. He was also supremely curious and inventive, and there are things you don’t have to be born with to emulate the good stuff.

First, a little thing about his life, and how it played in his favor to be who he was: Leonardo was born out of wedlock.

As the first-born son in his family, he would have been entitled to an inheritance, but he also would have been expected to take on his father’s profession. In this case, that profession was as a notary.

When he was 10, his father had the opportunity to legitimate him, which, again, would have made Leonardo the rightful heir over his half-brothers, but it would have been expected for him to become a notary. At that point, it seemed almost certain the notary guild wouldn’t have accepted him, and also that he wouldn’t have been very good at the job anyway.

He would later have a legal battle with his half brothers over some inheritance (he wasn’t entitled to any, but he settled with them for some other rights for them upon his death).

Maintaining his illegitimacy, then, allowed him to go off and create.

Leonardo wrote backwards, in a mirror script. It may have been a code, though an easily breakable one. Or, maybe that’s just the way he wrote. He was left-handed (we know that because of the direction of the hatching in his drawings). I’m right-handed, and when I try to write left-handed, my natural inclination is to reverse the script.

Leonardo wasn’t a fan of what Isaacson frequently dubs (not his term, I’m sure) received knowledge — that stuff we learn in books. He wanted to discover for himself. “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker” is a phrase that shows up in his notebooks.

He worked tirelessly on things he wasn’t paid for, just to sate his curiosity. He made great advances in Euclidean geometry, in human biology, in military technology. He designed a system to divert the flow of the Arno River, though it was never used. He is credited with designing the first helicopter, though it was probably meant for the stage, since he never included it among his military designs. He designed the first tank.

He was mercilessly detailed. Vitruvian Man is actually an improvement on Vitruvius’s studies on the proper proportions for drawing men. Leonardo spent hours with various men measuring lengths and widths, to determine what proportion of the body the head should be, and then from the hairline to the top of the nose, the nose to the chin, the mouth to the chin, ear to ear, the length of the arm, the distance from the naval to the top of the genitals, and on and on.

Leonardo had a very human flaw: he was a perfectionist. And perfection is a stumbling block to good.

The Mona Lisa, his most famous masterpiece, was commissioned in 1503, and was never delivered. He was still adding brush strokes when he died in 1519. His patrons frequently had to renegotiate contracts to require delivery of unfinished work plus return of advance payment if deadlines weren’t met. Some contracts, particularly early in his career, had frequent deadlines — and related penalties — attached.

He sweated over details the way only a true master could, sometimes staring at The Last Supper for an hour or two, making a single brush stroke, then retiring for the day.

He seems to have gained more admirers than detractors during his life, but there were plenty of letters of complaint along the way.

Endlessly curious, endlessly practicing, endlessly perfectionist. Two lessons and, perhaps, a warning from a great master.

But don’t forget to enjoy yourself. “I must go,” Leonardo intimated as the final notes were made in his notebooks. “The soup is getting cold.”

Get a damn flu shot

Get a damn flu shot

It’s coming on flu season, and that probably means something much different this year, thanks to COVID-19, than it does most years.

The four identified influenza (flu) viruses — A, B, C and D, the first three of which typically infect humans — have been around in some form for a long time. Data on annual epidemics and pandemics really starts in the 16th century, but may have been the cause of an epidemic in China some eight thousand years ago. Hippocrates, the “father of modern medicine,” described flu symptoms about 2,400 years ago.

In an average year, flu kills about 290,000 people worldwide and 36,000 people in the U.S.; the 1918 Spanish Flu (about 500 million worldwide infections and 50 million deaths) was among the worst.

It wasn’t until 1933 that the virus itself was isolated, and a live vaccine quickly followed. We now have a dead vaccine (meaning the flu shot doesn’t actually give you a live infection to fight off anymore) that covers up to four strains — the originally identified A and B strains and a mutation of each.

My child was born during flu season, and the CDC doesn’t recommend anyone under six months old get a vaccine. The people most susceptible to flu, as you might imagine, are the very young and the very old. About a third of people who catch the flu virus are asymptomatic, and asymptomatic carriers can pass it along. So when she was born, we told anybody who wanted to have contact with her to get a flu shot or wait until she could.

The list of people who shouldn’t get a flu shot is pretty short.

If you think you might come into contact with people who could reasonably die from the flu — and again, that’s an average of 36,000 people in the U.S. every year, most of them grandparents and babies — get a flu shot. You can get one at your doctor’s office, at most grocery store pharmacies, and at most national chain pharmacies like CVS and Walgreen’s.

Just like masks with COVID-19, it’s as much, or more, for other people as it is for yourself.

Is your war worth fighting? Nature vs. nurture, free will and Good Omens

Is your war worth fighting? Nature vs. nurture, free will and Good Omens

This post may contain spoilers about the novel Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. It came out in 1990, so don’t be mad at me for that. I haven’t seen the more contemporary Amazon Prime series, though, so I don’t know if it follows the story line closely. I won’t be offended if you decide not to read this because of the potential spoilers. I will be offended if I get angry emails/tweets/etc. because you couldn’t be bothered to read a paragraph of italic text.

The book is wonderful, by the way. It was recommended by the chess champion Garry Kasparov to the Persuasion Community.


In the novel Good Omens, Crowley and Aziraphale have been adversaries for a long time. Around 6,000 years, to be more precise. When you’re adversarial for that long, your battle becomes a bit of a partnership.

Crowley is a demon; Aziraphale is an angel. They are bound, by their natures, to act accordingly: Crowley clears out traffic so he can drive too fast; Aziraphale gives a wrecked bicycle some massive upgrades when he “repairs” it.

Crowley is given the job of bringing about Armageddon. He doesn’t particularly want to, but, well, demon. Nature.

Here’s the thing: You can only get the antichrist to do so much, particularly if his unsuspecting parents call him something mundane, like Adam. There’s nature vs. nurture at play. When the child is taught to love, his evil nature can only take him so far.

And there’s the matter of the hellhound, who shows up on the antichrist’s 11th birthday. His nature will be determined by the name the antichrist give him. Some are hoping for something along the lines of Killer. But he is endowed with the name Dog. And so he’s happy to see people, and he enjoys chasing rats and getting petted and will do pretty much anything for a treat.


Fast forward a bit and Aziraphale is speaking with the Metatron (the voice of God). The angel is asking the Voice what needs to be done to avoid the coming battle between Heaven and Hell.

The point is not to avoid the war, Metatron says, it’s to win it.

Some battles — even if you’re not sure you can win them — are worth fighting.

You just have to know which ones.

Crowley and Aziraphale are not human. They are driven by nature. So is the hellhound, even if his nature is altered by Adam.

But Adam has as his nature the direction to bring about the end of the world. He is taught, however, to be better than that.

Nurture wins.

But so does free will: Adam still has the option to kick off Armageddon, but humans make it through.

And so, you.

Are you only what you were born for, or can you nurture something more? Alternately, if you’ve been taught the wrong things, is it in your nature to settle for them?

Do you have free will? You can always make a choice. Sometimes the consequences of your choices aren’t comfortable, but sometimes those choices have to be made anyway.


On lives, and mattering

On lives, and mattering

At a fairly young age, Jewish children are shown a picture similar to this one: A pile of dirty shoes, all gray with soot and ash. They range in sizes from toddler to adult. It’s an uncountably large pile, with no ground visible between the shoes as you look down from above. The shoes were taken from liberated concentration camps, their former owners gassed or shot or butchered for no reason other than an accident of being born into a faith (usually Jewish, occasionally Catholic) or race (usually black or Romany) or sexual orientation (this might surprise you, but Nazis were against homosexuality).

Often, the photo is accompanied by a short poem by Moshe Szulsztein. It reads like this:

We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses.
We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers
From Prague, Paris and Amsterdam,
And because we are only made of fabric and leather
And not of blood and flesh,
Each one of us avoided the hellfire

When the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in 1993, they recreated the photo in a large display, with the poem stenciled on the wall above the shoes.

Jewish children are also exposed throughout their religious education to this poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller. It’s also stenciled on a wall at the museum.

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

Nobody asks them, but I’m guessing reading this poem throughout their formative years is one of the reasons so many Jews get involved in social justice causes. And let’s be clear: there’s a difference between social justice and what we call woke culture. Lawyers taking up civil rights cases and journalists writing books about the history of radical movements are much different than sitting on Twitter and nitpicking.

And having this poem knocked into my cranium is probably why I take it for granted that black lives matter, and trans lives matters, and my life matters, and your life matters, and everyone’s life matters and not one of those things is mutually exclusive to any of the others, and none of those things is a political statement.

You’ll notice I left out “blue lives matter,” which seems to be in political opposition right now to “black lives matter.” “All lives matter” seems to have a similar political opposition to “black lives matter,” but let me put forth a couple of things here.

First, I don’t say blue lives matter because no one is literally born a police officer. Yes, I think the vast majority of the 800,000 police officers in the U.S. are good at their jobs and unfortunately, a few bad apples show up as representative of the profession in some people’s eyes.

I invite you to read what I wrote in the wake of George Floyd’s death for more on that.

Georgia recently made police officers a protected class under hate crimes laws. While I appreciate the hard — and often dangerous — work our men and women in blue do, other hate crimes laws cover things that are part of people either by birth or by raising. Race. Sexuality. Gender. Religion (yes, we can choose our faith as adults, but there’s a reason it’s constitutionally protected).

There are one, perhaps two professions mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. Journalists are protected by freedom of the press, and faith leaders are, by and large, protected by freedom of religion. The founders of our country decided those were important enough to the continuation of a free and open society to mention them. There aren’t hate crime laws protecting journalists, by the way, but they would apply to religious leaders in most cases, one would think.

No other profession is protected under hate crime laws. I think it’s a little too virtue-signally.

In the early days of the Back Lives Matter movement, I heard it described, as opposed to All Lives Matter, like this. I wish I had an attribution for it.

You’re a child at dinner with your parents and your three siblings. Everyone gets served except for you. “Dad, I deserve my fair share,” you say. “That’s selfish,” he replies. “Everyone deserves their fair share.”

The implication is that yes, everybody deservers their fair share, but you didn’t get yours; how can everybody be treated fairly if you’re not treated fairly?

Similarly, yeah, sure, everyone’s life matters, but if a large swath of the population believes their lives don’t appear to matter, it can’t be true that all lives matter. In short, All Lives Matter because Black Lives Matter. And if black lives don’t matter, it can’t be true that all lives matter.

Get it? It’s pretty simple.

I’ve been trying for months to figure out how to say “Black Lives Matter” without it sounding political, because while I don’t believe it’s a political statement, too often it sounds like one. I’m not looking for a pat on the back. I’m looking for a way to recognize that All Lives Matter because Black Lives Matter and because Jewish Lives Matter and because Catholic Lives Matter and because Trans Lives Matter and because Baptist and Muslim and Brown and White and Asian and Zoroastrian and Queer lives matter.

Just be nice to each other, people. There’s plenty for everyone. Promise.