Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Cowboys and Indians and Cops and Robbers

Our rabbi said something that struck a chord with me a little while ago, and I've been mulling it over.

He said that the problem with liberals is that they don't believe in evil.

He was speaking, if I remember correctly, in reference to the recent opening of communication between the United States and Iran, but I will focus on the general question of evil for right now.

Certainly, there are evil individuals; psychopaths and pedophiles who prey on innocent children. And I think there is certainly a difference between a legitimately insane individual and one who knows right from wrong and doesn't care.

Also, I would say that there are evil philosophies and regimes; the Nazi's being the best recent example, and I would argue that a lot of very evil individuals rose through the ranks very quickly until the whole system was top-heavy with psychopathy.

But to write off the Nazi chapter in human history as "those evil people" is a cop-out for the rest of humanity.

What about all the Nazis who were not psychopaths? The sheep, the onlookers, the bystanders, the ones who were "just following orders." These people made the psychopaths' world a reality; without the willing masses, the Third Reich could never have happened. And those people, all those people, were no different from you or me.

And the most important thing we have to remember is that, psychopaths aside, the Nazi's thought they were the good guys. In their reality, the people who opposed them were "evil" and needed to be destroyed so that they, the good guys, could survive.

Proof that the Holocaust could have happened anywhere under the right circumstances is the Milgram experiments. (Frankly, it's a shame that Milgram's experiments aren't part of standard middle school curriculum, because this bit of psychology needs to be common knowledge.)

In 1963, Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychiatrist, designed an experiment to test how far individuals could be pushed to act against their own moral conscience under the direction of perceived authority figures. The test consisted of three participants: a scientist who was conducting the experiment (the authority figure), a volunteer who was designated the "teacher," and a "student," whom the "teacher" thought was another volunteer but was actually faking the role of "student." The volunteers thought they were participating in an experiment about memory and learning. When the student answered a question incorrectly, the teacher was instructed to push a button that would shock the student, with subsequent wrong answers requiring higher voltage shocks, the highest being 450 volts. With each successive shock, the students reacted as if they were in more and more pain, at some points pleading not to be shocked, screaming, or becoming unresponsive.

When the teacher hesitated or objected, the scientist would urge him or her to continue with four pre-scripted phrases in order:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.
The experiment ended after the teacher still refused to shock the student after the fourth prompt, or pushed the maximum 450 volt button three times.

It's important to note the teachers in this experiment were so stressed by the circumstances, that many have argued that the experiment was emotionally abusive and should never have been performed. The teachers sweated, stuttered, trembled, and dug their fingernails into their own skin.

The shocking results, which have remained consistent throughout several variations of the test administered around the globe: 65% of participants continued to the bitter end, pressing the maximum voltage button three times.


Because a perceived authority figure told them to.

Because they perceived the men in white lab coats to be "the good guys."

Because they reasoned that the authority figure was the person responsible for the pushing of the button; therefore they themselves were not responsible.

What's so important about this experiment is that the volunteers acted in a way that they knew in their gut was wrong, not because they were evil, but because they were human beings.

You see, while it's true that the Nazi regime could never have existed without the compliance of the masses; neither could Judaism, or Israel, or the Renaissance, or the United States of America. 

If every individual was a visionary leader, their visions would be for naught without large groups of people doing the work to turn vision into reality.

My argument is that it is factually inaccurate to write off an entire people (country or religion) as evil; and because the people themselves are not evil, it is morally wrong to maim or kill them if a viable alternative is possible. Moreover, if we allow ourselves to be persuaded that an entire group of people is evil and must be destroyed, then we are just as guilty of being mindless sheep as they are, and can no longer refer to ourselves as "the good guys." After all, while it is in our nature to follow authority, we do have a moral compass and we are responsible for our own actions.

I don't claim to know where the lines should be drawn when dealing with countries like Iran or Syria, or the Palestinians. I'm only saying that we must recognize that the people with whom we are fighting are exactly like us, even when they do not.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The buck goes on and on and on...

I'm going to start with a simplistic example of outsourcing. I've talked about outsourcing before in the broader context of the economy.

I work in the healthcare industry. There was a time when healthcare facilities did their own laundry. About ten to fifteen years ago, it became the norm to hire an outside company to do the laundry. It's convenient because the truck delivers clean, crisp, folded laundry at the same time that it's hauling away the dirty laundry. This is supposed to save money because the contracted company specializes in laundry and is therefore more efficient at the task. So with this service, the healthcare facility doesn't have to hire and be responsible for employees to do the laundry, and also doesn't have to buy and maintain washers and dryers.

There are several problems with this arrangement, and I'm not entirely convinced there is any money being saved in the long run.

First, there is a noticeable increase in the amount of stained and damaged laundry. So picture this: you just had cardiac surgery, infection is a primary concern for the hospital staff and yourself. While you are up in your chair, the CNA comes in with fresh linen to change your bed. She unfolds the sheet and there is a large noticeable stain. Now, this is a hospital, so that stain was almost certainly caused by some kind of bodily fluid, which is really gross. Of course this kind of thing is bound to happen once in a while, but since the hospital started outsourcing the laundry, this has been happening quite a bit.

The staff complains about the laundry, but doesn't even know who to complain to. The staff used to be able to go to the basement and show the stains or tears to the people who are doing the laundry; and no one likes to be hassled, so the people doing the laundry pay closer attention to what they're doing. But with outsourcing, you never see the people who do the laundry. The people who pick up and drop off the laundry are just truck drivers; they don't know the people doing the laundry either. So, after a while, the complaints may finally reach the person who is in charge of hiring the laundry company, and he will contact the salesperson who sold him on the company's services, and the salesperson will apologize and offer some kind of discount or refund. And all the while, the hospital staff are still unfolding stained and torn sheets over the beds of patients.

I have never seen an example of outsourcing that doesn't work something like this. There is such a complicated web where even the outsource companies outsource to other companies. The buck literally never stops.

Now, lets talk about government outsourcing.

Edward Snowden had top secret US government security clearance, but was not an employee of the US government.

And we can't talk about outsourcing government security without talking about Aaron Alexis, the shooter at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC.

How is it possible that the Rhode Island police notified the Navy that Alexis, who was on his way to Washington for a job, was paranoid, delusional, hearing voices and hallucinating, without anyone at the Navy acting on that information in the two weeks before the shooting rampage?

Perhaps the problem is that Alexis didn't work for the Navy. He worked for Hewlett-Packard. And Hewlett-Packard didn't even hire him; they hired another company called The Experts to do the hiring.

But certainly the government performs it's own background checks on people who are employed by the companies the government hires? Certainly the US government decides who gets top secret security clearance?

Ummm... no.

The Office of Personnel Management (HR for the federal government) was privatized in 1996, and the now private hiring company for the federal government doesn't do the background checks either.

They contract background investigations out to a another company called USIS.

USIS was also the company that investigated Edward Snowden's background before awarding him a level of security clearance that allowed him access to... well I don't really know, it seems like the more appropriate question to ask is, "what didn't Snowden have access to?"

More importantly, who is responsible for the actions of Snowden and Alexis? The companies that hired them? The company that did the background checks? The government?

Is NO ONE responsible for hiring the 29-year-old high school dropout/espionage mastermind, or the paranoid delusional young man who had been discharged from the Navy for behavior problems AND had a history of gun violence?

I am tempted to side with the conspiracy theorists who believe that Mr. Alexis really was being controlled by the government with Extremely Low Frequency electromagnetic waves, just so I can believe that somebody somewhere has some kind of handle on things in this country.

But my personal experience with outsourcing leads me to believe that the only convoluted scheme being played out here is the scheme to increase corporate profits while decreasing corporate responsibility.

I guess the only real question I have is, why are we tolerating this? Why are we as a country so disinterested in the fact that no one is ever held accountable for these criminal lapses in our nation's security?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Uncommon sense

Ah, another day, another mass shooting in America.

Land of the free, home of the brave.

Except, of course, for the Liberals and victims of gun violence who are constantly plotting together to try to take guns out of the hands of honest Americans.

You don't want to be a victim of gun violence?

G E T  A  G U N ! 


And don't give me that crap about people in gun owning households being statistically more likely to be victims of gun violence. Studies like these have been deliberately skewed by liberal brainiacs who want to "prove things" using "facts" (which is why the good folks at the NRA have successfully lobbied to de-fund and even outlaw such government research).

But even with the stranglehold that the NRA maintains on Congress in order to ensure every American's right to buy deadly weapons from gun manufacturers, the liberals are not deterred from their natural desire to take away our freedom. First, they love to latch on to victims of gun violence because bleeding-heart liberals can't resist a good sob story. (Did you know Jim Brady used to be a God-fearing Republican before one stray bullet tuned him into a left-wing pansy?) Next, they try to find chinks in the armor that they can exploit to gain public support for a few minor "common sense reform" arguments, but don't be fooled!

One reform which they like to say everyone agrees with, is keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

Um, I'm sorry, I didn't know being mentally ill was a crime in this country!

And while, granted, well over half of the mass shootings in the last 25 years have been perpetrated by individuals who had symptoms of mental illnessthat does not justify impinging the civil liberties of an entire group of people. I mean, I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that nearly 100% of all these mass shootings were perpetrated by males, so are we going to stop all male civilians from privately owning military-grade weapons of mass destruction? I mean, talk about a slippery slope, where does one even draw the line with this insanity?

The fact of the matter is that there's no way to tell who is going to be the next mass murderer. Many forms of mental illness like schizophrenia often do not present symptoms until a person is in their late teens and early twenties. Other individuals possess latent mental illnesses which may not present until a traumatic life event, if ever.

And since you often can't predict who is going to use a semiautomatic machine gun for reasons other than the harmless recreational activities for which these weapons are produced, the only way to ensure the public's safety is to make sure every citizen is properly armed.

Now, I know what you're thinking: children aren't physically capable of operating machine guns, so how can they defend themselves when the next madman opens fire at their school? Well, as usual, the free market economy has an answer for that: Crickett Firearms: Quality Firearms for American Youth.

And before you go bringing up isolated incidents of children getting injured or accidentally killing their siblings, consider this: the terrorists are already teaching THEIR kids how to use machine guns.

So, by not letting our children have machine guns, we are literally letting the terrorists win!

The next time one of these mass shootings happens, possibly next week, remember: guns are not the problem, gun victims are the problem... because they didn't have guns.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

New Beginnings

This Jewish New Year is a special one for our family, as we have recently decided to be more Kosher.

But the path is even more difficult than I had originally thought.

I stood in the grocery store holding a package of 20 eggs for $2.39. I looked up and saw a carton of 12 free range eggs for $4.99.

I can't afford that! My boys will finish 12 eggs in a few days...
I can't afford not to buy those eggs, if my family is going to respect the animals that nourish our bodies...
That's a minimum of $20 a week, for eggs alone...
But the chickens; they get to run around outside and be happy...
Well, these eggs have already been laid, I'm not responsible for how they got here...
And so, after wrestling with myself in the dairy isle, I finally did the right thing and bought the free range eggs.

A half gallon of kosher milk from cows who are allowed unrestricted access to outdoor grazing costs twice as much as a whole gallon of milk from the giant agriculture corporations whose cows are warehoused, stuffed with fatty feeds and shot up with antibiotics and growth hormones.

A kosher, free range chicken costs three times as much as a corporate warehouse chicken.

But something else happened when I sacrificed my hard-earned money for ridiculously expensive basic necessities: that food became precious. Every single egg. Every drop of milk. Precious the way food ought to be precious; it is after all, a life that is taken so that we may live.

I have always felt close to my food. I avoid processed food as much as possible, and the extra effort I put into to preparing meals for my family is important to me. But now, after taking that next step to being kosher and organic, I feel a profound connection with the animals themselves. I sacrifice money (which I don't have a lot of) in order to honor the sacrifice of these animals to nourish my family.

I take comfort in knowing that these animals were happy, healthy, and treated with the dignity they deserve.

I still don't know whether we can change the trajectory of modernity toward the insatiable corporate machinery that consumes our economy, our natural resources, our health, and our very souls.

After all, in today's fast-paced lifestyle, even the act of eating has been automated and mechanized. No time to be mindful, no time to sit down: unwrap it, eat it, on to the next task, go, go, go.

So I am looking forward to Yom Kippur a few days from now, when my family will enhance our mindfulness  of our food by fasting for 24 hours.

And to anyone else celebrating Yom Kippur this year, may you have a meaningful fast.

Monday, August 26, 2013

I haven't the wisdom to know whether we need courage or serenity.

When I was a child, the "Middle-East" was an almost fictional place that seemed to exist only in the context of evening news reports. The only thing I knew for certain was that the people there were in a constant state of conflict.

I was in middle school when Desert Storm happened, which I experienced through the lens of Channel One News. For anyone not familiar with Channel One, it broadcasts news and commercials directly into classrooms around the country, where it literally has a captive audience for marketing and political propaganda. I went to school in Ohio and also in North Carolina during the first Gulf War, and everywhere I went, Channel One was there. Of course, being a child, I saw nothing wrong with the program at the time; it broadcast the same images I saw on my television at home: night vision scenes of our highly sophisticated missiles dispensing justice on vague green outlines of buildings. It wasn't until high school, while listening to Roger Water's album, "Amused to Death" that I started to question the possible insidious intent of the ever blurring lines between news, entertainment and video games. It wasn't until college that I began to look at America's involvement in the struggles of the Middle-East as self-serving, and often destructive.

And so, with the current turmoil in Syria and Egypt, it's difficult to ascertain what the proper role of the United States should be. On one hand, these countries should be free to handle their own affairs, on the other hand, those same countries seem completely incapable of doing that.

On Egypt, I fully supported the popular movement that ousted Mubarak, and I was disappointed when Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected. I was even more disappointed when Morsi used the drafting of a new constitution as an opportunity to consolidate religious control of the government rather than foster inclusiveness and cooperation with other equally important groups in the country. At the same time, I am distrustful of General Sisi who has ousted and arrested Morsi, taken control of the government, and is violently putting down Morsi supporters. After all, Morsi was elected by the citizens of Egypt, and he wasn't shaking his fist in the air and crying, "death to Israel," so Egypt could certainly have done worse. And who knows? Now they might do just that.

On Syria, I honestly feel like the media has been going to great lengths to overlook what has been taking place there. But the most recent violence there has been impossible to ignore, especially with the internet making amateur footage so easy to share with the world. It is truly heart-wrenching to watch YouTube videos of apparent sarin gas attacks on civilian populations. Tears stream down my face as I watch a naked prepubescent girl who is in shock, still soaked with the water that was poured over her by frantic adults trying to wash away the chemicals that were killing her. She is crying out for her family, that is obvious. The man covering her with a blanket is telling her that her family is dead, according to the caption. I am overcome with sorrow and outrage, "we have to do something!"

But what?

Even if we were not a war weary country, it's difficult to say what exactly the US should do in this situation, except that we should not be doing anything unilaterally. At the same time, all of this "mulling it over" by the Obama administration certainly feels a lot like inaction.

I know I usually have more well-developed opinions before I go through the trouble of writing a blog post, but I am honestly stumped on this one.

I feel like I'm back at square one in regards to understanding what is going on in the Middle-East, except of course that they are still fighting.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Do animals have souls?

*If you are taking the time to read this post, I would like your input. Even if you disagree with me, I welcome dialogue. I don't have a blog as a platform to project my views out into the world; I want to know what YOU think.

I'm not sure that a soul exists in the form of some ethereal version of our self that is transported around this physical world inside our physical body.

So I will argue for the "more than the sum of our parts" version of a soul, the soul being that part of our essence which cannot be accounted for, even if our bodies were dismantled atom by atom.

First of all, what does it mean to say that animals do or do not have a soul?

Defining the nature of animals is really about defining ourselves. We want to believe that humanity is unique and set apart from the natural world. For the earliest humans, the natural world was chaotic and hostile. As nomadic tribes, our grasp on survival was tentative at best. We could be wiped out by a flood or a drought, eaten by animals, plagued by disease. Religious beliefs tied us to a world beyond this world, a supernatural world that was ordered and rational, to which humans alone belong. Our rituals, prayers and sacred items tie us to the supernatural world, and allow us to appeal to supernatural forces to intervene on our behalf in this chaotic and hostile physical world. So, from the beginning we were set apart from animals, and this idea has been central to who we are as human beings. (It should be noted that I am speaking in terms of Western thought and religion, which is almost unique in its view that humans are in a separate category than the natural world.)

Philosophical and scientific thought has continued to hold the idea that we are unique and set apart from animals, establishing rational reasons for this belief. The idea that animals do not have the emotions we have has been mostly abandoned in modern thought, which is why we now have laws protecting animals from abuse and neglect. It is important to note here that the humane treatment of animals has been a central tenet of Jewish law for all of recorded history.

So, we are generally in agreement that animals have emotions, yes?

I was told when I was young that the difference between man and animals is the ability to reason, but that really doesn't hold true either. I was watching a documentary in high school about training dogs to sniff out drugs. The dogs think they are playing a game. They are looking for a rolled up towel, which smells like drugs. When they find "the towel," they are rewarded with a game of tug-of-war with it. Here's where it gets interesting: a crucial part of the training involves teaching the dogs to ignore their own logic when it comes to smelling drugs in a package that is too small to hold their towel. The dog smells the drugs in the tiny package, looks at it, and then continues to sniff the surrounding packages which are large enough to hold the towel. The trainer picks up the tiny package and does a sleight of hand trick for the dog to make it look like the towel was pulled from the package. And it takes a lot of reinforcement to convince the dog that the beloved towel is a "magic towel" that can actually be found in containers that are logically too small.

So, animals are capable of reason (and just as capable as human beings of being trained to ignore reason).

OK, so what about self-awareness? Well, it turns out that self-awareness can be tested, primarily with a mirror. You put a dot on the forehead of a toddler and show him a mirror. Before a certain age, I think about 18 months, the toddler tries to rub the dot off on the mirror. After developing self awareness, when the toddler looks in the mirror, he understands that the dot is on his own head and rubs the dot there. Other animals that have proven they are self aware with similar mirror tests include: Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Gorillas, Magpies, Dolphins, Orcas, Elephants, and Orangutans. (Which is why I firmly believe that none of these animals should be held in captivity and used for the entertainment of humans.)

At the synagogue a few weeks ago, the rabbi was talking about names, and he said that he thought perhaps humans were the only animals that called each other by name. I was delighted after services to inform him that recent studies have found that dolphins do in fact have distinct names for one another (he seemed to be just as delighted to hear this as I was to tell him).

Well, what else is there? What do we have that animals do not?

When I was very young, I was also told that animals do not go to heaven. I remember thinking that heaven didn't really sound like a place I wanted to be.

And I feel the same way about the "soul." If animals do not have one, then what good is it? I cannot count the number of times in my life I have been actively comforted in a time of need by an animal who, unlike the people around me at the time, was undeterred by my well-practiced guise of "I'm OK."

When I look into the eyes of an animal, I see a being who is more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps what I am seeing is the reflection and perfection of my own soul. And if that is the case, then animals absolutely have souls; they have ours.

In addition: rats can laugh. How wonderful is that?