A Brief Tale of Uncertain Moral for Yom Ha’Shoa

I wrote about this via Twitter back in January.  I’ll more-or-less re-iterate what I shared then here.  I don’t know why I feel compelled to do this (again), apart from the fact that, as the years go on, I realize that this anecdote is, more so than the Torah or Midrash or anything else, the primary text by which I attempt to understand the nature of God.  And Judaism is a religion that has, despite poor odds, survived, and it has done so on the basis of repetition: I say the words that my dad said that my grandfather said that his parents said; I teach them to my children to repeat, maybe out in front of a crowd, maybe in candlelight away from windows.  But the words are repeated, and we persist, a thin red thread stretching through human history.  And when I cannot believe in anything else—as is frequently the case—I can believe in the worthiness of that task, and my fitness toward taking it up:  I can persist in the repetition of the words, I can take them a little farther down the road.

I’ve got a lot to say about this but I bet you can guess most of it. And the parts you can’t guess… there’s no room for them here.

Like, for example, here’s a thing: When I was in college I used to participate in this thing in the Diag, where for 24hr we’d read names of…

…Holocaust victims. The names were on these ledger sheets in a big, thick binder. I’d always take an overnight shift, 3 or 4am, reading out…

…into the dark, telling cold air and trees and sleeping crows the names of the dead. The ledger sheets, there were columns for name, number…

…birth place and date, death place and date. Maybe some other stuff. The first time I did this, I hit a patch where there were no names…

…just numbers. The birth and death dates were close together—not much more than a year, as I recall, some much less—and the birth and death…

…places were both camps. These were infants born in camp, numbered, and then taken elsewhere to die or be executed. No names, so I read …

… their numbers, told them to the cold air and the trees and the sleeping crows and the dark and the handful of Jews standing around w/ me…

…I know a lot about the Holocaust. I know numbers, I know places, I know people. I’ve seen pictures and films, I know stories that are…

…published and well known, and others that are between me and the person who no longer remembers them (z”l). I think about all of them…

… often. But I think of those pages of numbers, the empty column for names, those infants, that dark, the crows most often. B/c I feel…

… more than any other, that fact, that moment, has something important to tell me about the Nature of God and the Nature of Humans. And…

… 20 years on, I still have no idea what precisely that is.

Except for maybe that, nowadays, I think of it and, for no particular reason, I think of Malachi 3:18—which you can look up on your own.

I lumped this into my “Take Action” category, not because there is any particular action you should take today, but so that you maybe might seraphchamsa-IMG_7181meditate on this story further, as you go about your days.  Because someday you will need to take action, and all I can do for you is prime you for that not-at-all-good moment.

Actually, on reflection, there is an action to take today:  Tell this to your sons and daughters.  This is thing, it was a grand—almost inconceivably grand—project humans undertook.  Not monsters.  Not one Very Bad Man—worse even than Pharaoh or Bashar al-Assad—but just normal human beings—tons of them, whole nations of them, doing their jobs.  No more, no less.

Human beings like you and me.  No more, no less.

“President Trump’s biggest weakness is that he doesn’t know how to make deals.”

I don’t put too much trust in political prognostication by narrative extrapolation, but this lil article in the WaPo— “Trump is throwing himself into the Democrats’ trap” —is reminding me of something I wrote way back in June 2016:

Is he a great negotiator?  No.

Is a great businessman?  No.

Is a statesman of any stripe? No.

Is he even a politician, in any conventional sense of the word?  No.

But he is possibly the greatest salesman this country has ever known, in part because he has perfected the sales process beyond the need for any product at all.

And none of us should feel good about this fact.  That he’s a shit negotiator and abysmal dealmaker in no way impedes his capacity to hurt countless people, profoundly and callously—because profound callousness is the product he’s selling.  Even just glance at the charts here and you’ll see what I mean.  Hell, just remember that his healthcare plan—which was so fucked up even his own party wouldn’t support—cost more and covered fewer people than a simple repeal of Obamacare.  It didn’t obey any coherent American political ideology—it wasn’t more care, or better care, or cheaper care.  It was just profoundly callous and cruel, because that’s what he sells: The opportunity to exercise a callous “fuck you!“ishness toward a world that fails to recognize how inherently wonderful and superior you are.

We’re not even “through the looking glass” here, because it’s a universe without mirrors or even light, just groping through the darkness insisting what you need to be true must be true, because otherwise you are a fucking freier of the first degree, and you’ve been duped by a soft-handed dimbulb who couldn’t even convince his buddies to do the thing they’ve spent seven years screaming they were gonna do at the very first opportunity.

FREE READ: “The Lure of Lake 19” by David Erik Nelson

My horror short, “The Lure of Lake 19,” is up and free to read over at Evil Girlfriend Media’s Speculate! webzine.  This year’s theme is Curiosity Killed the Cat—’cause ain’t that the truth.

The story starts like this

Tate didn’t like how the kid was acting. The teenaged male in the second-hand cruiser’s back seat—who could produce no ID,10LureOfLake19a-300x200 but had given the moderately improbable name of “Jamal Kartazian”—was far too compliant. As a rule, kids like this—scrawny white boys with lumpy dreadlocks and grimy hoodies—were a spewing font of the Three Bs: bravado, back-peddling, and begging.

But not this kid. Jamal Kartazian was cool and collected; he almost seemed satisfied to find himself locked in the back of a cop car. And, in contrast to every other kid Tate had ever busted in his short two-act career as first a cop and then a rent-a-cop, this kid was actually asking to be “hauled back to the station.”

. . . and goes downhill from there:  “The Lure of Lake 19” by David Erik Nelson

Enjoy!

My novelette “The Traveling Salesman Solution” is now available on Kindle! #FridayReads

Read the tale that David Gerrold (the guy who invented Tribbles!) called “a very disturbing story”!

In “The Traveling Salesman Solution” a wheelchair-bound veteran of the “War on Terror”—now working in the IT department of a Big Ten university—starts investigating suspicious marathon results, and ends up face-to-face with an absolutely chilling mathematical conundrum.

White Supremacy, THE PURGE, and “the least racist person you’ll ever meet”

A couple summers back my wife and I watched THE PURGE on Netflix.  We weren’t expecting great chops as either sci-fi or horror (it’s sort of the lazier ends of both), but we were both sorta taken aback by how bafflingly racist the whole thing was.

Just to be super-duper clear: I’m not saying that the filmmaker is racist (I don’t really have any clue who the guy is; he looks white-ish in pictures, but who knows—or really cares—what his identity is).  I’m not saying the actors are racist.  I’m not saying that any aspect of the conscious intent of the film is racist. In fact, it sorta goes out of its way to be tokenishly multicultural and non-racist (the only totally morally uncompromised primary character is the nameless black male, one of the more prominent secondary characters is a black woman, there’s an Asian man in the mix, and all of the villains are white and explicitly upper-class)—which what was precisely what made it so baffling: even though the film worked to be formally racially progressive, both my wife and I (nominally white people) found ourselves queasy with some of the lines these actors were obliged to say (specifically constantly and exclusively referring to the black man as a “pig”) and found ourselves almost simultaneously asking aloud mid-film:

“Jeez!  How the hell would a black person feel watching this?”

Or, more to the point, how would a black person feel watching this film knowing what I know?

Because, through a crazy coincidence, I happened to know something about this film not immediately apperent to average viewers, but certainly known to the filmmakers:

The film opens with a montage of faux surveillance cam footage of various violent crimes, establishing the cultural mood of this near-future dystopia (you see some of this montage at around the 26sec mark in the trailer embedded above).  The sort of things you’d expect: Liquor store robberies, riots, a woman getting held up at an ATM, a black man with a sawed off shotgun jumping a police station lobby counter and firing at police officers, etc.

But here’s the catch: I recognized that last piece of footage, which I’d stumbled across in 2013 doing research for a client.  It was not faux anything; it was actual CCTV footage from a Detroit police station.  The black man with the shotgun was 38 year-old Lamar Moore, his motive is still unknown, and he died during that attack. In fact, he was fatally shot just after the piece of footage used in THE PURGE‘s mood-setting montage.

The final, violent minutes of a black man’s life were used to set the mood for a mediocre Ethan Hawke vehicle.  Someone found that footage and edited it in.  Someone made sure the rights were cleared, so they wouldn’t get stung on copyright infringement later.  And that someone didn’t seem to think, in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, that this might plausibly be a sore spot for anyone (for example, 37 million Americans).

This, for me, finally highlighted the bright line difference between “racism” and “white supremacy.”  Racism is really about a conscious framework, a deeply seated belief that people of color or Jews or immigrants or whoever have certain essential characteristics that make them unfit.  White supremacy is assigning the interests of white people primacy–generally in complete ignorance of the experience of non-Whites, in much the same way that you probably never think about the impact patching a hole in your eaves has on the squirrels who’d set up house in your attic.  A racist thinks black people are lazy and Jews are greedy cheats (or whatever), while the vast majority of rank-and-file white supremacists probably don’t think about them at all.  While all white racists are implicitly white supremacists, not all white supremacists are necessarily racist.

Do the makers of THE PURGE think ill of black people?  I don’t think so–but I also don’t think they honestly considered the existence of black viewers as sentient entities who might view this film and think “What the fuck are you people doing?!”

And this, right here, brings me to the President, and why it makes me insane to hear him get all huffy about being “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life” and “the least racist person.”

’cause Donald Trump is the guy who’s says stuff like this:

Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day. … I think that the guy is lazy. And it’s probably not his fault, because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is, I believe that. It’s not anything they can control.”

Meanwhile, I’m a Jew, and even if I’d never met another Jew in my life, I’ve still met me.  And earlier today I was hanging out with Brian, and he’s black, and he–likewise–has met himself (as well as his sister, his children, his parents, etc., etc., etc.)  Obviously, we’ve met each other.

And I really and sincerely do not believe that Donald Trump is so tremendously stupid or naive that he honestly believes that he is less anti-Semitic than every living Jew and less racist than every living African American.

As such, the only possible way that he could believe the sentence “I’m the least anti-Semitic/racist person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life” is if he either doesn’t conceive of Brian and me as being part of the “you” he is speaking to (which is weird, since I heard him say that in a live presser, and therefore literarily was part of that “you” at the very moment he spoke) or he does not conceive of us as being “people.”

Does this make him a racist or an anti-Semite?  No, not at all; he’s a white supremacist, and he really and honestly doesn’t even think about me and Brian existing at all, nor how his words and silences impact our lives.

Meanwhile, as I write this, the wave of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers continues: There was one two hours ago in New Orleans, on top of the 11 on Monday, bringing us to a total of more than 70 this year.  For comparison, a “normal” year might see two dozen bomb threats targeting JCCs and synagogues total for the entire year.

I imagine some of you are getting damn tired of hearing this, all this whining and “identity politics” that “divide America” by “drawing attention to our differences” because, after all, we’re all the same underneath.  I hear you, and I understand.  But I’m absolutely terrified that, in the absence of me saying this stuff, then you aren’t thinking about the fact that I exist at all, and might just do things—or fail to do things—that get me and my children killed.

UPDATE: Exactly twenty minutes after posting this I got an email telling me that a bomb threat had been called into my daughter’s daycare at 9:10 AM.  They’ve evacuated the building, and my daughter is currently being hidden someplace secure, someplace I do not know where she is, while they sweep the building.

So here we are.  This is my day.  This is America in 2017.

Briefly On Neil Gorsuch and Compromise

I’m not super-duper enthusiastic about Neil Gorsuch joining the SCotUS—which is probably not much of a shocker—but some of his writing resonated with me, and I wanted to meditate on that.  Here’s a snippet from his book on assisted suicide and euthanasia:

All human beings are intrinsically valuable and the intentional taking of human life by private persons is always wrong. We seek to protect and preserve life for life’s own sake in everything from our most fundamental laws of homicide to our road traffic regulations to our largest governmental programs for health and social security. We have all witnessed, as well, family, friends, or medical workers who have chosen to provide years of loving care to persons who may suffer from Alzheimer’s or other debilitating illnesses precisely because they are human persons, not because doing so instrumentally advances some other hidden objective. This is not to say that all persons would always make a similar choice, but the fact that some people have made such a choice is some evidence that life itself is a basic good.

That orange emphasis is mine, because I agree 100%.  I’ve double emphasized “private persons” because Gorsuch uses that to cop out of some things that I find absolutely essential to humanity leveling up from here, but I’ll let it slide because I believe something else: 

I’ve never seen a human action that was not undertaken by a “private person.”  That private person may have been acting on the orders of the State or a corporation or along the dogma of thier faith, but the actor in the moment—the human holding out the bowl of food, holding out the knife, holding out the gun, holding out the helping hand—has always been a private person choosing (perhaps under duress, perahaps in a situation where there are no good choices) to comply or to refuse.

But that’s my bit, not Gorsuch’s, and it’s beside the point, becasue what I diuscovered in reading this is the following:

Given these words, Gorsuch and I aren’t such different people (apart from a religious/superstitious disagreement about what constitutes a “human life.”)  And the thing is, I would accept living under the Christian supersition that a lump of potentially viable human cells entirely dependent upon staying embedded within the person of another human being is somehow a “unique human life” if that also meant no more death penety, no more war, no more state application of potentially deadly force, and actually fully funding and implementing “our largest governmental programs for health and social security” so that folks on these shores don’t just have an abstract “right to life,” but a true and concrete right to a decent life.

That’s both a logically consistent trade off, and one whose ramifications I would accept, even thought it would mean putting me in violation of the true and deeply held tenants of my faith.

But, of course, this isn’t the trade off I’m being offered.

According to the WaPo (all the blockquotes in this post are from this same article):

[Gorsuch] specifically avoids discussing war and capital punishment, saying they “raise unique questions all their own.”

In other words, we’re back to the cryptic American assertion that one murder by one man is horrible and to be avoided at all costs, but thousands upon thousands murdering thousands upon thousands is somehow A-OK.  It seems to me this is sort of our thing as a nation, right?  Your kid steals a candy bar, you ground him.  Your kid grows up to make millions stealing people’s homes, and he’s a captain of industry.  #America

So there we are:

All human beings are intrinsically valuable (even ones who don’t exist) and the intentional taking of human life is always wrong (except for when the government decides to do it).

The Washington Post goes on to note:

Gorsuch rejected that view [i.e., U.S. Court of Appeals Justice Posner’s assertion that there were situations where physician-asssisted suicide should be permitted], writing it would “tend toward, if not require, the legalization not only of assisted suicide and euthanasia, but of any act of consensual homicide.” Posner’s position, he writes, would allow “sadomasochist killings” and “mass suicide pacts,” as well as duels, illicit drug use, organ sales and the “sale of one’s own life.”

Again, sorta interesting that all of these consensual things are no-go—because all human beings are intrinsically valuable, even the ones who don’t want to keep being human—but if the state very much against your will decides to torture you to death with a crazy nonsense drug cocktail . . . well, I don’t need to belabor the point.

For what it’s worth, I was talking to some law school lawyers last week, and the second-hand inside-baseball from them (one of whom has a pal who clerks for Gorsuch) is that the dude is solid, fair-minded, and non-ideoligical when he’s on the bench—the sorta thing you want in a Supreme Court Justice, I’m told.

The Math I Should Not Have Done

There have been more than 60 bomb threats targeting U.S. Jewish Community Centers in the past month, more than 30 of them since the inauguration alone (i.e., in the last twelve days).  Most of these have been domestic in origin (I have that from several sources, include a JCC security head who was told this at an info session with the Detroit FBI office this week).

just another funny little joke, i guess
just another funny little joke, i guess

That number sounds bad—but you don’t really have a benchmark for this, right?  I mean, you ask yourself “Well, how often do folks call bomb threats into YMCAs or non-Jewish daycares?”, and the answer is “Basically zero”—so that sounds bad.  But then you poke around online, and find that U.S. schools get over a thousand bomb threats every year (in fact, I used to teach at an alternative school, and one of my students—a very sweet and peaceful kid when I knew him—had been kicked out of his last school for making a bomb threat).  And how often do schools get bombed?  (Actually, bombs are placed at schools more than you think: According to some old ATF numbers, nearly 100 devces are placed each year in schools).

So I started poking around the FBI UCR (Universal Crime Reporting) Hate Crime stats.  Here’s a representative sample of annual anti-Jewish “intimidation” crime tallies (“intimidation” is the UCR category that includes, but is not limited to, bomb threats).  You’ll note a predominantly downward trend:

  • 1996 had 363 such offenses 
  • 1997: 387
  • 1998: 380
  • 1999: 420
  • 2007: 201
  • 2008: 201
  • 2010: 201
  • 2011: 187
  • 2012: 87
  • 2013: 152
  • 2014: 93
  • 2015: 114

(My numbers above are spotty, owing both to gaps in the FBI stats and because I just can’t dedicate too much time to picking around UCR reports tonight.)

I’ve emphasized 1999 for three reasons:

  1. It is the peak of the available numbers by a significant margin.
  2. It’s the year of the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center shooting committed by Buford O. Furrow
  3. If January 2017 is indicative, then we can expect 600 bomb threats this year.  And if bomb threats generally correlate to the volume and volatility of anti-Semitic hate floating around out there . . . well, you can do the math.

A Grab Bag of Human Music Technologies

Girl totally rocks the original “Super Mario” medley (complete with coins and power-ups!) on a sheng, sounds like she totally belongs in the Mos Eisley Catina Band:

A robot plays a pop hit (I love the rhythmic element that the robot’s motors and gears bring to the song):

Props to Arthur Lacomme for pointing me to this one featuring “Mr. Curly” (which is the instrument, not the dude playing it).  I love that watering-can clarinet Pollack demos around 1:45! 

(Arthur also recommends the open-source Rakarrack software package, which he uses when he rocks his Mr. Curley.)

This one is pretty interesting if you stick with it; what you no doubt initially take to be a precursor to the 8-track is playing cartridges loaded with ribbon-based analog records(!!!).  The macro-lens bit at around 5:20 gives you an example of both the sound (pretty damn solid) and the mechanism (OMFG! Wünderbar!)  Hilarious remote control, too.

And then there’s this guy:

chordophone-lyre-plucked
My beautiful picture

(FYI, that caption was Wordpress’s suggested—and I love it!!!)

o_O  The thing that makes this one, for me, is how the strings are anchored in the eye sockets(!!!)  The Met has several of thesefrom different generous donors and almost certainly different artisans—and they all use the eye sockets and brow ridge as a saddle and bridge.  Humans, amiright?

N.B. that, according to current expert opinion, this thing—which is indeed from Central Africa, where it was crafted in the 19th C by a native artisan—was produced for no other purpose than to sell something fantastically “primitive” and “savage” to European tourists/anthropologists (and thus inform European opinions of these nations and, in all likelihood, form the foundation of the moral justifications for brutal colonialism).  I invite the reader to meditate on their own how this might mirror our current situation with imported polarizing/fake news, and who the greater savage might be: The supplier who makes the ersatz evidence, or the customer who furnishes the demand and shells out the cash?

HAPPY THANKSGIVING: “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!” #gobblegobblegobble

This is, in my humble, a damn-near perfect gag—which is saying something, because I find single-camera laugh-track situation comedies almost entirely unbearable to watch.

I hope your day is good and sweet.  Gobblegobble!

(If you wanna read more of my thoughts on this specific gag and what it can teach writers, you can do so here.)