Sunday, March 29, 2015

Four Problems in Theology, Unsolved as of Finishing Divinity School (Poems)


Humor knows all things
No thought nor truth can escape its watchful eyes
Nor evade a judgment at its hands
It recollects the real reason why
You helped that woman over the ice or returned
To give the man five dollars-- it wasn't so lacking
In self-regard after all; and you know how humor
Sometimes shakes you in shower and snowbank
With gasps of self-delight and shame
By reminding you of the time
You got up in front of the sixth grade class and -- No, no
(Choke, chuckle) not that one again.
And humor forgives all that it knows and turns
Self-punishment into  pa-ha!s of joy – without in the least
Lightening the sentence thereby. Humor
Sees all, judges all, forgives all at the same time,
Ergo I must conclude
That humor is God.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Israel/Palestine: The Realistic Solution

Somewhere right now in the forgotten but still teeming bowels of the U.S. Postal Service is a check with my name on it, fighting to make its way to the New York offices of B’Tselem – the embattled Israeli organization that works for human rights in the Palestinian occupied territories. I doubt I’m the only person who makes this kind of nominal and conscience-salving donation only when there’s especially bad news out of Israel, but still it embarrasses me that it takes something like Netanyahu's reelection to jog me out of my complacency. The good people at B’Tselem, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and others must feel somewhat torn at the fact that their financial windfalls come precisely at moments like these, when their objectives are most deeply threatened.

Yet I see that there’s a relevant point within that same paradox – now that I think about it. The pecuniary aspect just alluded to, that is, is only one of the ways in which Netanyahu’s reelection may actually not be such a bad thing for the people who would apparently stand to lose most by it – namely, the Palestinians in the occupied territories, Arabs living in Israel, and their allies. After all, most of these people had little reason to hope for a hasty end to the occupation, regardless of the outcome of the election. What recent events may have done, though -- as has been pointed out by all sides to the issue -- is cleared the way eventually for a one-state, democratic solution.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Five Poems


A man
In the preconscious process of not
Quite living up to his promise –
He made a small start at things
And failed
And did not try again.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


In a course I'm taking on Italian fascism, we watched the other day a famous Holocaust film, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970) that affected me unusually strongly-- as in, it left that feeling that my stomach had been partly squashed and my hands were lightly trembling. After it aired, our professor said something particularly apt about the source of its power: "It's so understated," he remarked. It is. The film, which comes from the same director who made that classic of postwar Italian social protest, The Bicycle Thief, is only in a loose sense a Holocaust movie. The Jewish protagonists live out for most of its run a life of dramas and losses that are basically separate from the unfolding backdrop of Hitler's rise and the start of the war. It is only at the very end that they are torn from one another and deported to their likely murder in the death camps.

And because of this, it is more unsettling. Other Holocaust films might be more gruesome than this one, but for this very reason the events they depict are likely to seem alien. The emphasis in such films is on the incomprehensibility of the Holocaust, on its unimaginable brutality, and these are, of course, important things to emphasize. In watching them, however, though we may feel differently about humanity, we are not likely to think differently about ourselves. We may ask ourselves, "If it happened here, what would I do?"; but we are not likely to ask the more disturbing questions: "Is it happening here? Am I doing anything about it?" Because of course, genocide is not happening here; that is plain.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Chomsky Method

If like me you were obsessed with Noam Chomsky at some point in your adolescence, then you probably outgrew him at some point since then -- but I'd wager you never fully transcended him either. You may have grown disenchanted with the Chomsky method as a whole, but there remain some shadows of its core questions in your mind, which periodically catch you up short. Such is the case with me. The most nagging -- and significant-- of all the questions successfully implanted by the Chomsky method (and it is something like the Ludovico technique, come to think of it) is that of the double standard in judging motives. When the adversaries of one's government abroad commit wrongs or invade countries, this question asks, perhaps you see in it only power politics. But when one's own state does the same thing, do you treat it in the same terms? Or do you immediately chalk it up to misguided benevolence on our part, excessive zeal for the good, well-meaning blundering? And if so, why? The obvious explanation, and this is the root of the self-doubt Chomsky rightfully wishes to implant, is that it is due to exactly the sort of ethno-nationalism to which all human societies have been depressingly prone throughout history. It's a question I find myself needing to answer once again; but first, I should define some terms. We'll begin with the Chomsky method.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Putin, ISIS, and the Fascist Comparison

History seems to be repeating itself, as Marx predicted, but lately I'm not seeing the farce. Whether it is the assassinations in Russia, the murders gleefully perpetrated for the camera by ISIS, the recent spread of anti-Semitic violence in Europe which has desecrated hundreds of Jewish graves in France, killed four people in a kosher supermarket, and shot a man dead while he was guarding children at a Bat Mitzvah -- in these and other cases from the news, it can feel to a terrifying degree that we have been here before.

Consider for one the most recent news out of Russia -- the murder of Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader. I have not seen anyone else make the comparison between this incident and the assassination of Giacomo Matteoti by Mussolini (probably) in the early years of his regime, but I'm sure someone out there has already drawn it -- the parallels are too striking and ominous. Both Nemtsov and Matteoti were outspoken opponents of the ruling regime, both were high-profile politicians. And in both cases, the person in power who had reason to desire their deaths (Putin in this case, Mussolini in the other) was able to distance himself just enough from the assassination to try to claim innocence in the public view. Since the murder took place, Putin has, as Mussolini did, already been pulling lugubrious faces and shedding crocodile tears in comments to the victim's family. He has been vowing to seek out the assassin, and he probably will find some patsy sooner or later to place on the chopping block -- again, as Mussolini did.