Sunday, June 12, 2016

Mainstream Racism in 3 Easy Steps!

You know it's hard out here for a racism pimp. If racial bigotry and hatred is your stock-in-trade, it's a tough sell nowadays. A generation or two ago, you could count on the conservative or right-wing parties to welcome you or at least wink at you. Now, they shun you. The old standbys--"Some of my best friends are you-know-whats!" "You-know-whats are my best customers/ employees!"--just make you sound more racist.
But there is hope. For a decade now, discredited companies have been using the magic of re-branding. Blackwater renamed itself twice in three years! Now, that might not work for you as an individual, since you would lose all your Instagram followers. Instead, you need to re-brand your racism. All it takes is 3 easy steps:
1. Defining discrimination down: engage in definitional sophistry. 
This first step has three approaches:
A) X's comments can't be racist, because racism is an ideology, and X is no ideologue.
It is indeed surprising that this one fools people, as it is the exact opposite of the truth. Racism is prejudice--as in judging BEFORE you have evidence or data. The ideology only comes later. Think of the folks siccing dogs and firing hoses on black people trying to vote or go to school. Did they all have 100,000-word manifestos at home? Most racists aren't ideologues; most humans aren't ideologues. However, because the most prominent racists try to justify themselves in (bad) writing, speaking & broadcasting, this one fools a lot of allegedly intelligent people.
B) Race is just a social construct, so it's meaningless.
You've got to be audacious to pull this one off, but the payoff is huge. See, if race isn't real, how can racism be real? This one is a half-truth, because race is indeed a social construct, but of course racism is a social ill. The black family in Queens denied housing by a slumlord may be the victims of a fabricated social construct, but it's meaningful as hell for them.
C) It's not racism, because we're talking about a group based on ethnicity/ religion/ national origin.
This is the flip-side of B): arguing that racism does indeed exist, but limiting it so drastically that you're let off the hook. What, did you say Mexicans or Muslims should be judged by their background, not their actions? Neither one is a race, so we're all good! Some think that it's discrimination which is the problem, not which biographical factor you're basing it on, but hey, that's why we need to keep them down, right?
OK, that's Step 1. Your statement/ idea/ action is not racist. But what is it then?
2. Alchemical dependency: transmute your racism with pseudo-synonyms
There are many synonyms for racism: discrimination, bigotry, prejudice, etc. None of those will help your case. However, pseudo-synonyms are extremely useful: terms that seem to be equivalent but are not, e.g. offensive, insensitive, off-color, inappropriate, polarizing, divisive, controversial. Those terms may appear to be negative, but they subtly shift the onus from the speaker to the subject. Did he find that offensive? Maybe he's easily offended. Did she find that insensitive? Maybe she's hypersensitive. Did they find that polarizing or divisive? Maybe they shouldn't take such an extreme stand in opposition.
OK, you're almost there. You're no longer a racist, but you still seem like a jerk. How can you go from zero to hero?
3. Despicable gallantry medal: make yourself a social-justice war hero.
Try this sample script. Make sure to punctuate it with head-shakes and looks of consternation.
It's really a shame that in today's politically correct society, we can no longer honestly discuss issues of major consequence. We're so afraid of overrunning people's safe spaces with micro-aggressions that we stifle the free exchange of ideas. Well, I say no! This country was built on freedom of speech, and I will not be cowed. Maybe this isn't politically correct, but I believe that the truth is still something worth fighting for!
Stirring, no? In three easy steps, you've gone from Andrew Jackson c. 2015 to Andrew Dice Clay to Andrew Jackson c. 1815! Huzzah!
Sure, you're still a racist, but now you and your supporters don't have to feel guilty about it. And isn't that the point?

Friday, June 10, 2016

20 Years of Peace

Tel Aviv sits in Gush Dan, the Dan bloc. Israel has no states, provinces or counties per se, but it does have millennia of history. The name of the region goes all the way back to the Bible, in which the tribe of Dan receives territory from Zorah in the lowlands to Joppa on the coast (Josh. 19:40-46). In fact, tomorrow we will read from the thirteenth chapter of Judges, the origin story of Samson, which begins: "And there was a certain man of Zorah, of the family of the Danites," and concludes: "And the spirit of the LORD began to move him in Dan's camp, between Zorah and Eshtaol."
So why do we read this prophetic passage this weekend? It has two links to the Torah portion, Naso. Num. 6 explains what it means to be a Nazirite, which Samson is ordered to be from birth, while Num. 7 tells us about the dedication offerings of the tribal princes, including Ahiezer, Prince of Dan, on the tenth day. The Midrash (Num. Rabbah) explains that "He brought his offering to correspond to Samson, as Jacob's blessing to Dan focuses solely on Samson."
(If you're wondering how Ahiezer knew the details of his latter-day tribesman's life -- forget it, Jake, it's Midrash Rabbah.)
Consider, for example, how it tackles the final element of the dedication offering: "And for the sacrifice of peace-offerings, two oxen..."
This corresponds to the two times it is written of him that he judged Israel for 20 years, and these are they: "And he judged Israel in the days of the Philistines 20 years" (Jud. 15:20); "And he judged Israel 20 years" (Jud. 16:31). This teaches you that the judged Israel for 20 years of his life; then, for 20 years after his death, the reverence of Samson was upon the Philistines, and they dwelled in tranquility.
This is intriguing, as it means that Samson, like so many other early Jewish leaders -- from Moses; to fellow Judges Othniel, Deborah and Gideon; to Kings David and Solomon -- had a tenure of forty years. However, unlike his colleagues, half of his was after his death!
The Midrash here distinguishes between two types of peace: one based on mishpat, and one based on mora. Mishpat is usually translated as justice, but as amusing as it is to imagine Samson's confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court, that's not the sort of Judge we find ruling over Israel and leading it in war during the pre-monarchial period. Perhaps Judge Doom. Or Judge Dredd.
Dread is one of the translations of mora, but I translated it above as "reverence," describing what the Philistines felt once Samson was dead. It certainly was not the worry of what Samson might do--the Philistines did not fear a zombie strongman. Mora is a term which parallels kavod, honor or respect. The Talmud (Kiddushin 31b) explains: "Mora -- neither stand in his place nor sit in his place, nor contradict his words, nor tip the scales against him." Mora, on the national level, means not seeking to dispossess or disinherit another people.
Thus, Pax Samsonia had two distinct periods: that of reactive mishpat in his life and that of preemptive mora in his death. The former involved a lot of smiting, as the Midrash notes; but what's truly wondrous is the latter, two decades of peace based on the final sacrifice of Samson.
As we consider the horrific terror attack this week in Tel Aviv's Sarona market, in the heart of ancient Dan, we have to ask ourselves: how do we get to the era of mora? How do we reach a place of mutual respect in which we say that the slaughter must end, in which killing is decried by all people of good conscience? How do we find the period of peace that lies beyond awful tragedy? When, at last, will we all dwell in tranquility?
It is high time for our 20 years of peace to begin.