Respect for What Is Other and Different

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Since the killing of George Floyd by police officers–just one of a long line of incidents of police violence against black people–the public has come to recognize the need for profound changes. Not only the Black Lives Matter protests, but countless formal and informal discussions have taken up the topic around the clock. Yet within the drive for racial justice, an injustice is taking hold. People are being shamed, canceled, driven out of their jobs–for saying the wrong thing, saying the right thing but not strongly enough, or saying the right thing, strongly enough, but not coupling it with immediate and acceptable action. Such shaming hurts not only the individuals involved (including the shamers, who bring out the worst in themselves), not only democracy, language, and human dignity (a handful already), but even the protests. There will be no real progress against racism in America if people cannot participate with integrity, if they cannot speak their minds, doubts, and feelings, if they cannot hear others out. Instead there will be heartbreak as the movement fails not only the larger public, but its own participants and supporters.

On June 6, Mayor Jacob Frey was booed out of a protest rally in Minneapolis because he stated–upon being questioned repeatedly–that he did not support the full abolition of the police. You can watch the exchange here.

Another video suggests that many members of the crowd were not booing him but rather letting him pass through. If this is accurate, the booing does not represent the whole, but still drowns out everything else.

For the sake of what? Mayor Frey had already said that systemic change was needed. The woman with the microphone pressed him further by asking him repeatedly whether he supported defunding the police. What does that even mean? The Minneapolis City Council has since vowed to dismantle the police force, but no one knows what the end result will look like. In other words, a mayor was driven out of a rally–which he had come out to support–for the sake of something unknown.

The ganging up on perceived enemies has affected not only politics, but medicine, poetry, theater, art, science, sports, and other spheres. It is not exclusive to the left. Health workers and officials have been pushed out of their jobs and subjected to harassment and death threats by groups protesting coronavirus protection measures–groups that regard the coronavirus as a hoax perpetrated by Jews, for instance. According to The New York Times, Dr. Amy Acton, the state health director of Ohio, dealt with “anti-Semitic attacks and demonstrations by armed protesters on her front lawn,”. While widely different in political orientation and aim, groups from the right and left punish those who do not meet their demands exactly. Whether Trump sets an example here or follows an existing trend, he displays a similar tendency in his tweets to all the world.

Back to the left, or a segment of it. A letter to the Poetry Foundation–presented by thirty individuals, most of them Poetry Foundation Fellows, and signed by over 1,800 individuals–demanded that the Foundation replace its president, take specific action to eradicate racism and other discrimination, acknowledge the harm it has committed already, move toward redistributing its funds, and more. All signatories pledged not to work with the Poetry Foundation until the demands had been met “to a substantial degree.” The president, Henry Bienen, has already stepped down. The letter came in response to the organization’s antiracism statement, issued on June 3, which was not deemed strong enough:

The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine stand in solidarity with the Black community, and denounce injustice and systemic racism.

As an organization we recognize that there is much work to be done, and we are committed to engaging in this work to eradicate institutional racism. We acknowledge that real change takes time and dedication, and we are committed to making this a priority.

We believe in the strength and power of poetry to uplift in times of despair, and to empower and amplify the voices of this time, this moment.

The Guggenheim Museum and other museums, theaters all over the country, and other institutions are being told to espouse certain values, statements, and actions or face consequences. Those who delay in doing so are named on lists; those who comply are often suspected of not meaning it. A public Google spreadsheet, titled “Theaters Not Speaking Out” and open for anyone to edit, lists 486 theaters as of this writing. According to the Los Angeles Times:

More disturbing than the slowness to speak out, [Marie] Cisco said, was the language of the statements themselves, many of which fell back on pledges of support without acknowledgement of the historical diversity problem in theater or commitments to take concrete steps to support black artists.

As theaters posted statements to social media and emailed them to their supporters and the press, Cisco and her crowd-sourced contributors recorded when each company’s message went public, whether it cited Black Lives Matter specifically and whether the institution had donated to the cause or pledged “actionable commitments,” among other criteria.

Beyond the arts, countless corporations are churning out antiracism statements–and it is no surprise that some of them ring hollow. In a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” environment, many probably figure that they can mitigate their damnation somewhat with a consultant-crafted mission statement.

I think back on the words of O’Brien in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain.” As the tactics of shaming and demanding become a way of life, so does the damage. The tactics hurt much more than the targeted individuals and institutions.

First of all, they hurt democracy. If, to be treated as an acceptable human being or institution, one must adopt a prescribed line and course of action, then there can be no exchange of views. Without an exchange of views, there is no democracy. We have already seen this, in different form, with Trump’s long series of purges. Democracy depends on a plurality of opinions–an opportunity to discuss, deliberate, and decide. It also depends on a mixture of priorities. Social justice–as usually conceived–is not the only kind of justice worth fighting for, nor can it stand alone.  To be viable, it must consider and combine with other justices, including justice within an individual, justice between two, and public justice.

Second, these tactics hurt language. If those making the demands reject all criticism and challenges, they lose a chance to exercise imagination and logic. In a bizarre Rolling Stone article, EJ Dickson argues that Olivia Benson, a police officer in the TV show Law and Order, (that’s right, a fictional character) should be canceled because she appears as a good cop and could therefore confuse viewers about the true nature of the police force. What, should Marge Gunderson be canceled too for her smarts and tough charm? Should fictional characters from other professions–teachers, mayors, doctors, priests–be nixed as well, while we’re at it? And what price will the mind pay for this? How can anyone “reimagine” the police, for instance, if we are not supposed to imagine in the first place? (Not to mention that literature would disappear.)

Third, these tactics hurt human dignity–the presence, in each person, of something that goes beyond measure, beyond others’ knowledge. If people are so sure of their assessments of others, so quick to name enemies of the cause, then anyone, at any moment, can be flattened to enemy status; not only that, but the flattening will become a way of life and thought. The “I-Thou” relation as described by Martin Buber and referenced in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” becomes a thing of the past, a relic in an antique shop.

Fourth, these tactics hurt the Black Lives Matter protests themselves–not only over the longer term, but now. To accomplish something durable, protesters must be willing to work and speak with a range of people, including those who disagree with them on some points, express ideas differently, or have different priorities. Through such work, the protest efforts can grow and strengthen over time. But just within the coming months, the protesters’ conduct will influence the outcome of the election in swing states. Setting a principled example, showing regard for others, the protesters can help the country overcome Trump (along with his effects and affects) and move toward a saner and kinder world.

The alternative–the extreme self-righteousness, the thronged castigation of dissenters–will dishonor the protests, harm decent people, and destroy the very things worth fighting for.

Painting: Marc Chagall, The Revolution (1937). “I think the Revolution could be a great thing if it retained its respect for what is other and different,” Chagall had written in My Life (1923).

Correction: The Minneapolis rally mentioned here took place on June 6, not June 7.

Update: See “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” published online in Harper’s on July 7. It will also appear in the Letters section of the magazine’s October issue.

Havel havalim (Koheleth)

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Reading Koheleth (Ecclesiastes), I sit up in awe, drop stray thoughts, and listen again and again to the second verse (translated as “vanity of vanities,” etc.). Then I start hearing its cadences everywhere: in Shakespeare (as do others), in Mahler, in poem after poem, song after song, film after film. This poem holds millions of breaths.

I was first introduced to Koheleth as a teenager, through Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” via Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Here’s Orwell:

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

For a long time, that was all I knew of it. I understood that its language was vivid and lilting and that it looked askance at the world. I read parts of it here and there–but did not begin to understand the whole until I first heard it chanted in Hebrew (just a few years ago). Then I sensed its coherence–not quick meaning, but unity and movement–and a joy mixed in with the sadness, a joy of walking through life.

Just a week ago I started learning the first few verses, with trope and all. It was then that I fell in love with the second verse.

Havel havalim, amar Koheleth; havel havalim, hakol havel.

The whole verse sounds like a sigh; this is no coincidence, as “hevel” originally meant “vapor” or something similar.

The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament states (in volume 3, p. 315): “In virtue of its supposed onomatopoeic origin, hebhel consistently retains the meaning of “breath” and, especially with reference to the visible aspect, although possibly delimited by the stronger ruach, “vapor, mist, smoke.” … Ideas of transitoriness and fleetingness are associated with the word when it means “breath,” and these tend to point toward an abstract connotation (cf. the LXX). This tendency is aided by the capability and openness of onomatopoeic words for new meanings.” This paragraph continues–and it’s part of a much longer entry–but I want to get back to the second verse and the joy.

The noun hevel (or hebel), with root heh-bet-lamed, appears in this verse in three forms:

  1. havel (with a long “e” and a stress on the second syllable): the construct form of hevel. This indicates that it accompanies the noun that follows.
  2. havalim: the plural of hevel.
  3. havel (with a short “e” and a stress on the first syllable): the pausal form of hevel.

This verse not only shivers with alliteration (not only of havel, havalim, and havel, but also of hakol and Koheleth), but takes a single word and turns it around and around.

Vapor of vapors, says Koheleth; vapor of vapors, all is vapor.

But even this does not recreate the morphology and cadences. Here is my recording of the first three verses. Here, also, is a wonderful recording (and video of the text) by Rabbi Moshe Weisblum.

What is it about this verse (and the poem as a whole) that brings joy?

Koheleth is not conducive to takeaways. Its message is not “enjoy life” or “fear God”; it holds up both. In terms of theology and philosophy, it stands out as one of the most puzzling Biblical texts. (I would love to take Stephen Geller’s course on it; I have taken his course on the Psalms.)

Still, for all its complexity, the poem has a gesture of learning, of seeing beyond illusions.

If success, fame, power, labor, even wisdom are all vapors, then life is anything but futile. It is possible to understand a little more each day and to walk with understanding. Koheleth is a long and wistful walk.

Image credit: I took this photo today in Fort Tryon Park. It reminded me of the second verse.

The Danger of False Confession

In the seventh chapter of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Napoleon orders all the animals to assemble in the yard. He is wearing his two medals and surrounded by nine huge dogs. He lets out a whimper, and the dogs immediately seize four pigs and drag them forward. The pigs then confess to collaborating with Snowball. The dogs kill them on the spot. Then come more confessions: from the hens, a goose, several sheep, and more–until there is a pile of bloody corpses on the ground. The allegory is obvious and disturbing, but even more disturbing is the draft horse Boxer’s comment on the events.

I do not understand it. I would not have believed that such things could happen on our farm. It must be due to some fault in ourselves. The solution, as I see it, is to work harder. From now onwards I shall get up a full hour earlier in the mornings.

Up to that point, there were two implicit possibilities: either those who confessed had actually done what they said they had done, or they confessed for some other reason (for instance, to get the whole thing over with). But Boxer suggests that there is only one possible truth: that everyone is guilty (except for Napoleon and the dogs, one must suppose). The only solution, then, is to work harder. What Boxer doesn’t know, and what the reader knows, is that in assuming guilt, he has renounced all hope of a clear view of the situation.

Consider, now, by contrast, the Book of Job. (This seems a far-flung comparison, but it will make sense.) One of the most remarkable things about Job is that he does not confess to things he hasn’t done. He stays not only faithful to God, but clear in his mind.From Job 27.1-8:

[1] Moreover Job continued his parable, and said,
[2] As God liveth, who hath taken away my judgment; and the Almighty, who hath vexed my soul;
[3] All the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils;
[4] My lips shall not speak wickedness, nor my tongue utter deceit.
[5] God forbid that I should justify you: till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me.
[6] My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go: my heart shall not reproach me so long as I live.
[7] Let mine enemy be as the wicked, and he that riseth up against me as the unrighteous.
[8] For what is the hope of the hypocrite, though he hath gained, when God taketh away his soul?

At the end, in chapter 42, he repents, but that is at a different level. It remains true that he committed no sin, and his holding fast to this truth was essential to his ultimate restoration.

Treacherous confession comes in at least two forms: refusing to admit to a wrong you have committed, and confessing to a wrong you have not committed. (There are still more, but these are the two I will discuss.) Sometimes the latter treachery is worse because of its very seduction. False confession can feel good. It brings forgiveness, perhaps, or swift punishment, or at least some kind of resolution. The price is your mind and soul. If, like Boxer, you convince yourself that you are guilty of just about anything, then it’s no longer possible to choose the good or even to understand what it is. You labor away, but that gets you nowhere. You have only the comfort of thinking that you need to work harder.

To return to David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means, which inspired this post: the careless use of “we”  confuses one’s relationship to the world–and, with that, one’s intellectual and artistic life. Among other things, it prevents one from criticizing anything except oneself, and strips even that of its integrity. (This last observation is mine, not Bromwich’s, but I build it from various arguments in the book.)

In the first chapter, Bromwich discusses a series of events at Yale Law School (drawing primarily on a report published in the New Republic by a law student, Jeff Rosen). In 1990, a white female law school student was raped by two black men in New Haven; soon afterward, ten black law students found hate mail in their mailboxes.

The dean of the law school issued a public memorandum stating that the letters pointed to the racism of the associated institutions. A newly formed Committee on Diversity called for a one-day boycott of classes and decided that the day should be devoted to sensitivity workshops run by the New York organization Project Reach. (Attendance, I take it, was voluntary but strongly encouraged.) The dean urged faculty members to take part.

There is more to these events and to Bromwich’s analysis than I am conveying here. But he points out that “the professional insulation of the academy, and the consequent weakening of good sense, alone lent plausibility to certain developments in the law school case.” The Diversity Committee, the dean, and the students (and participating faculty) chose to focus on the hateful action of an unidentified person, presumably white, who could be anyone and thus, in some twisted sense, was everyone. (Hence the sensitivity workshops.) In the meantime, Bromwich notes, there were real political battles being fought in the outside world: “David Duke and other racists of an admitted virulence were inching closer to power in contests for state or national office.” Instead of putting their efforts into fighting blatant racists, the students chose to go on a hunt for the invisible racist within the law school, the racist who resides in each of us. Among them, there was likely a Boxer who resolved to work harder.

Now, let’s look at this from another angle for a moment. There is (or can be) virtue in recognizing subtle wrongs in yourself, or the potential for wrongs. Most of us have felt hatred, anger, jealousy, prejudice, excessive admiration, misplaced desire, and more. Most of us have judged others unfairly at some time, or restrained ugly impulses. It is important to recognize these things. But it matters how we respond. Each of us is tasked with choosing what to do–that is, locating and acting on the good or the beautiful, or not, as the case may be. There is such a thing as transcending something petty or ugly. Faults and foibles are universal, but there is a vast difference between leaving hate mail in someone’s mailbox and not doing so (and not even considering it).

This brings me back to the word “we” (see an earlier piece). I am not confessing falsely when I say that I have used it in a slippery way. When criticizing a social, educational, or other tendency, I have sometimes softened the accusation by saying “we”–thereby implying that I, too, take part in the problem. And indeed sometimes I do. For instance, I find many online discussions distracting and dissipating but get involved in them anyway (not very often, of late). On the other hand, I am not on Facebook or Twitter, don’t do much Web surfing, rarely use a cell phone, and spend a lot of time reading books. This is a relatively trivial example, but it illustrates the point. If I see a problem with online and digital distractions, I do no one a favor by suggesting, beyond the point of truth, that the problem is mine.

It is difficult to find the right use of “we.” It is a worthy challenge. There’s more at stake than may appear at first.

For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.