Monthly Archives: June 2010

The Upside of Irrationality

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This evening on my way back from work on the metro, I listened to one of the most entertaining and informative podcasts I have heard in a long time. The Leonard Lopate Show had guest Dan Ariely discussing his new book, The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home. Ariely explained a number of fascinating matters like how bonuses actually inhibit performance, how the threat of revenge creates trust, and why we believe our own ideas and creations are better than others.

I definitely recommend you check it out.

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Filed under Digressions

Alabama

John Coltrane composed “Alabama” based on the events of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. It is telling how throughout much of  Twentieth Century American history, groups like the K.K.K were given all of the protections of the Constitution while they freely committed what today would clearly be considered acts of terrorism. Meanwhile, throughout most of the 1950s and 60s, civil rights activists were considered by local governments and law enforcement as terrorists and treated with violence. Similarly, up until the final years of Apartheid in South Africa, the U.S. government (as did our closest ally, Israel) supported the Apartheid regime and considered Nelson Mandela a terrorist.

Unless you are in the NRA or the Tea Party and look good in a sixshooter, no matter how much we profess that the people have a right to rise against an oppressive government, neither armed nor peaceful resistance have ever had much support in American politics or society.

Just food for thought and some beautiful music.

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Filed under Digressions, Jazz

On Faith and Patriotism

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The main character in Miguel de Unamuno’s San Manuel Bueno, Mártir explains that for him faith is not blindly believing in God, but rather desiring that He exist. In other words, faith is not about accepting God’s existence as a given, but wanting more than anything else that it were true.

I take a similar position on patriotism. I am not one of the tribalists who will blindly and unconditionally support my country/government simply because it is my country. Rather, I believe that we must demand, at all times, that our country meet the expectations we have of it. For at the end of the day, the government is nothing more than the reflection of the people it represents. As such, I believe we should be even stricter in scrutinizing the politicians we vote for than those we do not. For that very reason, for example, I am so critical of the Obama Administration. Precisely because I supported Obama, I am responsible for holding him accountable as my President.

Finally, in Grave Error, I am almost exclusively critical the U.S. and Spain (the two countries where I consider a part of society). For example, I often criticize the U.S. foreign policy toward certain nations, but rarely criticize those nations’ policies toward the U.S. The reason is simple: I am American. I understand my country and feel that as such, I have a right to judge its actions. On the other hand, I know very little about those nations (other than what the tribalistic American press tells me), nor do I vote for their politicians. I am unqualified to speak.

Moreover, just as I cannot stand those non-Americans who freely bash the U.S. government and culture — almost always from the standpoint of ignorance or half-truths – I particularly cautious not to fall into the same easy trap with regards to others. Just as it is dangerous to take the sola fide position — typical of Christian and Muslim fundamentalists — that faith justifies almost anything, patriotism based on pure tribalism leads us no where. True patriotism is about expecting more and accepting less.

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Filed under Digressions, Essays

Do the Palestinians Have the Right to Exist?

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Over the last few days’ media coverage of Israel’s botched interception of the aid flotilla in international waters off the coast of Gaza, I kept hearing cries in the U.S. press – mainly by politicians and right wing pundits — justifying Israel’s actions on the basis that Hamas doesn’t believe Israel has the right to exist. Without any intention of passing judgment whatsoever on Israel, I kept wondering why Hamas’ opinion mattered. First of all, why would anyone even bother to lend credibility to such nonsense unless they purposefully wanted to empower Hamas? Does a farm league baseball team get air-time to question the Yankee’s existence? But more importantly, Israel does exist. It is the region’s only true military super power, backed by the unconditional support of the most expensive, powerful and technologically advanced military the world has ever known. Furthermore, Israel is fully autonomous and frankly couldn’t care less what anyone else thinks (not even the U.S.) about its actions and proceeds accordingly.

But with so much focus on the well-resolved question of Israel’s existence, it surprises me that no one ever asks whether the existence of the Palestinians is at stake. For example, when 89 year-old Helen Thomas is rightfully criticized for her clearly anti-Semitic (and politically ridiculous) comments, shouldn’t logic dictate that comparable anti-Arab statements be followed by similar condemnation?  Why is it that Ms. Thomas resigns while prominent right wing journalists (and politicians) who make anti-Arab statements never meet the same fate? As Glenn Greenwald writes,

As for the Helen Thomas condemnation fest and subsequent resignation today, the central issue — as both my Salon colleague Gabriel Winant and The American Prospect’s Adam Serwer adeptly document — is not the perception that she’s guilty of bigotry, but the wrong kind of bigotry.  Anyone who doubts that should compare the cheap, easy and self-righteous outrage orgy against the powerless, 89-year-old columnist to the total non-reaction in the face of the incessant and ongoing anti-Arab bigotry of The New Republic’s Marty Peretz, or to the demands of then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey that the Palestinians leave the West Bank and go back to where they came from, and similar statements from Mike Huckabee (still gainfully employed at Fox News).

That’s because, as I wrote the last time Peretz had one of his vicious anti-Arab rants, severe punishment is meted out to those who engage in the wrong kind of prejudice while those who spout the right kind do so with total impunity.  That, and the fact that there are consequences for the actions only of the powerless in Washington, but never the powerful.

Not that it should make any real difference, but the standard-issue “they’re Muslims and we are the enlightened West” chauvinistic rationalism doesn’t quite apply. When referring to Arabs, we should understand that the term also includes Christians. As a matter of fact, the Catholic Church just produced a study that found that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a key factor in the diminishing presence of Christians in the Middle East. A large chunk of Palestinian Christians have left and those who have remained suffer the same fate as their Muslim compatriots. (Arab Christians are also important minorities in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and in Iraq until the fall of the Sadam Hussein – ironically, a collateral effect of the U.S. invasion of Iraq was to topple one of the only secular governments in the Middle East with an important Christian political class in government.) The study also made reference to the fundamentalist (and principally American Protestant) Christian belief in the Rapture — that frighteningly quirky belief that Israel must be first cleansed of all non Jews in order to prepare for Jesus’ second coming.

So recognizing the obvious – that Israel’s existence is a given while that of the Palestinians is precarious — and taking into account the ongoing, unrepentant settlements and that Gaza is a virtual prison of 1.5 million people comparable in modern times perhaps only to Soweto, there is one question the righteous should be asking: do the Palestinians have a right to exist?

I think that answering that question in the affirmative and with conviction would resolve much of the problem, including defusing the raison d’être, demagoguery, and feigned outrage of many of the Region’s biggest instigators.

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Filed under Essays

Fact and Fiction

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During the first half of 2009, I was very lucky with my choice of books. Then during the second, for a number of reasons, I had less time to dedicate to reading. After finishing Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections over New Years (which makes you wonder why Elizabeth Strout even bothered with Olive Kitteridge), I compiled for 2010 a roster of books that included both fiction and non-fiction:

Of what I have gotten to so far – from Random Family to Desert – the non-fiction (Random Family, Hope in the Unseen and Thelonious Monk) have stolen the show. The first half of Poisonwood Bible was excellent, while the second half seemed to lose credibility. Nevertheless, it did spark my interest in reading King Leopold’s Ghost. And regardless of having thoroughly disliked all of the characters in Geoff Dyer’s Paris Trance (which I read in 2009), the Monk biography has only made me want to read more non-fiction about Jazz, including Dyer’s But Beautiful: A Book about Jazz.

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Filed under Literature

On Entitlements and Health Care

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If Israel is infallible, can’t do no wrongno questions asked — and has universal public health care, shouldn’t we, the American tax payers who so graciously shell out billions a year in our hard earned money to subsidize Israel, also get a public option?

On another note, if it is unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment for public money to flow to domestic religious groups, how does sending billions a year in tax payer money to self-defined religious states pass constitutional muster?

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Filed under Essays