Noise, Noise, Noise!

United_States_Declaration_of_Independence
Words can be explosive too

W.J. Astore

People who don’t like noise get a bad rap in America. We once had neighbors in Colorado who used to ride off-road dirt bikes up and down the street. Someone complained about the noise and their response was, “Don’t like it? Move. This is America. We have freedom to make all the noise we want.”

Yesterday, my barber was talking about television. He was watching an “entertainment” show in which people were screaming, amplified by explosions, and he just couldn’t abide the noise. But he’s an old fuddy-duddy, like me, right?

When I watch baseball on TV, I keep the “mute” button very close by for the commercials. But even the commentators are getting noisy. Baseball used to be a fairly quiet game with two commentators in the booth, a play-by-play guy and a “color” guy (usually an ex-ballplayer).  Now there are often three people in the booth, with another one (or even two) on the sidelines. They all need to speak, of course, so baseball on TV has become a constant contest of endless chatter featuring mindless statistics.  There’s so much chatter that it’s difficult to hear the crack of a bat or the sound of a fastball smacking a catcher’s mitt.  Then there are the stadiums that feature lots of rock music, sound effects (like smashing glass for a foul ball), horns and pyrotechnics that go off when a player hits a home run, and all those video boards that order the fans to “Make Some Noise!”.

I know — I sound like an old fuddy-duddy again — sort of like the Grinch who stole Christmas because he was tired of all the noise, noise, noise of the Whos in Whoville.  And if the Grinch was bothered by Christmas festivities, just think of how he’d react to July 4th, America’s most pyrotechnic holiday. Prepare for bombs bursting in air, jets screaming overhead, and loud music everywhere.

Just so you know, I’ve been known to pump up the volume on my favorite songs; I’ve thrilled to fireworks exploding in the sky; I’ve watched my share of air shows; I’ve even been at the very front of rock concerts as “security” (I fondly recall a Warren Zevon concert at which I had to arrange the return of a leather coat loaned by a fan to Zevon, who donned it on stage to the delight of the fan).

But you might say those noise events were matters of personal choice.  Lately, noise in America seems pervasive, ubiquitous, almost unavoidable.  And noise isn’t simply about volume: it’s about persistence.  It’s about invasiveness.  Think of people who chatter away on Smart phones even as they’re out for a quiet walk along the beach or in the woods. How can you hear the waves or the birds if you’re screaming into a phone? Bits and pieces of conversations I’ve overheard are not about emergencies or even pressing matters; it’s more like, “Guess where I am?  I’m at the beach/concert/top of the mountain!”  Followed by selfies and postings and more calls or texts.

With all these forms of noise, it’s difficult to be in the moment.  It’s even difficult to find a moment.  Also, even in quiet times, people feel pressured to fill the silence with, well, something.  So unaccustomed to quiet are they that they reach for their Smart phones (perhaps to play a noisy video game), or they turn on the TV, or they chatter away even when they have nothing to say. Must avoid “uncomfortable” silences, so we’ve been told.

Part of this is cultural.  Today’s Americans are not about reflection; we’re about action. We’re not thinkers; we’re doers.  If I rest I rust is our motto.  Together with, Don’t just stand there — do something!  Preferably, something loud, splashy, noisy.

July 4th is a great holiday, but along with the fireworks and noise, perhaps we should celebrate the reflective thinkers of America, people like Thomas Jefferson who put the words to the noise of the American revolution in the Declaration of Independence. The quiet sound of a quill pen dipping in ink and scratching across parchment made a very big noise indeed in U.S. and World history.

Trump Fourth of July

This weekend, it wouldn’t hurt to put down or turn off the mowers, blowers, fireworks, Smart phones, TVs, and all the rest of our noisemakers and listen to the birds and waves while reading a few passages from that Declaration of Independence.  For the right words can be explosive too.

Guns and Grievances

The Matrix _DivX_ 311_0003
Guns look way too cool in our movies

W.J. Astore

The news out of Orlando is shocking.  Another mass shooting in America.  Another 50+ people dead with an additional 50+ wounded.  And then I saw this headline:

“America has 4.4% of the world’s population, but almost 50% of the civilian-owned guns around the world”

The ready availability of guns in America, to include military-style assault weapons with 30-round clips, makes it far easier for shooters bent on murder to kill large numbers of people.  It doesn’t matter what you call these shooters, whether you label them terrorists or lone wolves or crazed lunatics or whatever.  Apparently the latest shooter bought his guns legally, had a grievance against gay people, expressed some last-minute allegiance to ISIS, and then started blasting away at innocent people in a club that was friendly to gays.

Sure, guns alone are not to blame.  The primary person to blame is the shooter/murderer himself.  But (to repeat myself) the guns sure make it a lot easier to kill, and in large numbers.

We live in a sick society, often a very violent one, certainly a disturbed one, one that places enormous stress on people.  Another exceptional headline that I first heard on Bill Maher is that America, again with 4.4% of the world’s population, takes 75% of the world’s prescription drugs.

Guns and drugs – the two don’t mix, even when they’re legal.   Americans are over-armed and over-medicated.  Add to that mix the fact that Americans are under-educated, at least compared to our peers in the developed world, and you truly have a toxic brew.

Over-armed, over-medicated, and under-educated: surely this is not what our leaders have in mind when they call us the exceptional nation, the indispensable one, the greatest on earth.  Is it?

 

 

America’s Original Sin

Hans Baldung Grien, "Eve, Serpent and Death"
Hans Baldung Grien, “Eve, Serpent and Death”

W.J. Astore

I’m a Catholic, so of course I know all about Original Sin.  For disobeying God and tasting the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden.  Eve would suffer the pains of childbirth, and both she and Adam would age and die, their earthly bodies returning to the dust from which they came.

I always thought Eve got a bad rap in that story.  She was, after all, tempted by Lucifer, a fallen angel in the shape of a serpent.  Whereas Adam simply gave in to a mild suggestion by Eve to join her.  Eve was tricked by the Master of Deceit, but Adam just joined in for the heck of it, and she shoulders the blame?

Of course, one might see Original Sin as part of God’s master plan.  For without that sin, there would be no need for God to send his only begotten son to redeem mankind.  No Original Sin, no New Testament.  No Beatitudes.  No Roman Catholic Church.  No Christianity.

And without Christianity and its evangelizing zeal, America would doubtless be a far different land.   Assuming Europeans still came to the New World in roughly 1500, would subsequent history be less bloody in the absence of Christianity?  Or would naked conquest have been unrestrained by any moral code of restraint and compassion?

The United States has an original sin as well.  It is the impiety of considering our country as being uniquely favored by God.  American history shows how we’ve killed, enslaved, and otherwise violated God’s great commandment of loving thy neighbor, even as we continue loudly to shout how God uniquely showers His praises on us.  God Bless America!

Is America’s original sin part of some master plan?  How will we redeem ourselves from its awful legacies?  My dad once joked that in school he almost solved an unsolvable equation; I confess I have no solution to such questions.

Readers, have at it in the comments section below.  Is the very idea of Original Sin mysterious and magisterial, or mischievous and misleading?  Have humans evolved beyond the need for God and gods?  Is “sin” a misleading term to apply to America’s past, too metaphysical, too imprecise?  Are there simply too many “chosen people” in this world, too many people who elevate themselves above others just because they believe they share a favored relationship to God?

It’s a grey and rainy day here — a good day for thinking.  Join in.

Hillary Clinton’s Email Fiasco

Trust me!
Trust me!

W.J. Astore

Once again, Hillary Clinton is in the news for the wrong reason.  She used a private email account while she was Secretary of State, rather than an official government email account.  As a result, not all of her (unclassified) emails are part of the public record. Many may be “lost,” consigned to the dustbin of history, whether by accident or design is hard to say.  In the press conference she then gave to explain herself, she was less than forthcoming.  And it now appears that her email server wasn’t even encrypted for the first three months she served as Secretary of State, meaning her official emails were eminently hackable and readable by foreign governments.

Just another meaningless scandal, right?  No — what this reveals is the arrogance of power. Official rules may apply to “little people” like you and me, but to the Clintons, those rules can be ignored.  They think they can do whatever they want.  It’s a clear double standard, and it’s just one more reason why the prospect of Hillary Clinton as president disturbs me.

I remember when Hillary Clinton served as First Lady and worked on health care reform in the early 1990s.  Her right-hand man was Ira Magaziner.  I’d heard of Magaziner since he had served as an outside consultant to my hometown. According to Wikipedia:

“After Oxford, Magaziner and a group of former Brown students attempted to implement social democratic reforms in the city of Brockton, Massachusetts. These reforms included starting an agricultural cooperative, supporting liberal candidates for city council, strengthening the union movement, and printing a progressive town newspaper. Magaziner soon abandoned the project, after the group recognized that the effects of foreign business competition on the local manufacturing base would undercut their efforts.”

Not as I heard it.  Magaziner thought he could come to Brockton and serve as its “instant expert,” remaking the city in his image without paying much attention to the desires of the locals.  Brockton is working-class, fairly conservative, and tough-minded, proud of its championship boxers (Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler).  The people of Brockton were less than enamored with Magaziner and his fellow “experts” telling them what to do and how to do it.  So Magaziner withdrew, mission unaccomplished.

Magaziner then took his know-it-all approach and applied it to health care reform, working hand-in-hand with Hillary Clinton and her team.  They concocted a massive reform of the health care system with no buy-in from major stakeholders.  Arrogant policy wonks, they believed their ideas and reforms were so brilliant and compelling they’d easily win assent from Congress.  Instead, they fell flat on their faces.

Nobody likes being dictated to.  And nobody likes people who make their own rules while dancing on the heads of the little people. Hillary’s latest fiasco once again reminds us of her imperious nature, her arrogance, her lack of political deftness.

She’d make a formidable empress.  But a president?  No thanks.

Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust

"Defiance" is one of the few mainstream movies that depict Jewish resistance to the Holocaust.  Another good movie is "Escape from Sobibor" resistance
“Defiance” is one of the few mainstream movies that depict Jewish resistance to the Holocaust. Another good movie is “Escape from Sobibor”

W.J. Astore

In 2006, I presented the following talk on Jewish resistance to the Holocaust.  It’s a dangerous myth, and sadly a common one, that Jewish people did not resist the Nazis in meaningful or effective ways.  From this myth stems a far more insidious one: that Jewish people were somehow complicit in the murderous campaigns against them.  I gave this paper to counter these dangerous myths.

The Nazis exterminated nearly six million Jews during World War II.  Those who claim that Jews went meekly like sheep to the slaughter ignore the many instances of remarkable courage in the face of this staggering crime against humanity.  In reality, Jewish resistance took many forms.  That it often proved futile reflects the poignant vulnerability of Jews rather than any lack of bravery or courage.

Resistance can be divided into two general categories: passive and active.  Passive resistance took the form of cultural and spiritual endurance and assertiveness.  Jews confined to ghettos like Warsaw continued to practice their culture and religion despite prohibitions; they organized symphonies, drama clubs, schools, and other voluntary and educational associations; they also risked their lives by trading across ghetto walls despite threats of torture and execution.

Passive resistance drew on a long and esteemed Jewish tradition of outlasting the persecutor.  Initially believing that the Nazis and their various European sympathizers and lackeys wanted to put Jews in their place, not in their graves, Jewish leaders sought to endure discriminatory laws, pogroms, and deportations, hoping for an eventual relaxation of anti-Semitic policies or perhaps even the defeat of their oppressors on the battlefield.

Thus Jewish resistance remained largely non-violent until 1943, in part because the Germans succeeded in deceiving the Jews.  They were helped in this by the fact that their predecessors—the German soldiers of World War I—had generally behaved decently, treating Jewish non-combatants humanely.  Jews in Poland and the East initially expected similar behavior from Nazi invaders.  Even after it became apparent to Jews that Nazi soldiers and especially police were intent on human butchery on a scale previously unimaginable, Jewish cultures that embraced sanctity and sheer joy of life found it difficult to comprehend a Nazi culture built on hate and murderous brutality, especially one that continued to worship civilized icons like Goethe and Beethoven.  Many Jews put their faith in God, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, yet daring not at first to think the unthinkable.

When Jewish communities and individuals recognized the unthinkable—that the Nazis and their various European fellow travelers wanted to exterminate systematically all Jews in Europe—active and armed resistance increased.  Active resistance included acts of industrial sabotage in munitions factories or isolated bombings of known gathering spots of Nazis.  One must recognize, however, the near utter futility of Jews “winning” pitched battles against their killers.  The Nazis had machine guns, dogs, usually superior numbers, and could call on tanks, artillery, and similar weapons of industrialized modern warfare.  Facing them were Jewish resisters, often unarmed, some at best having pistols or rifles with limited ammunition, perhaps supplemented by a few precious hand grenades.  Such unequal odds often made the final result tragically predictable, yet many Jews decided it was better to die fighting than to face extermination in a death camp.

When it became apparent that they were being deported to Treblinka to be gassed, Warsaw Jews at first refused to assemble, then led a ghetto uprising in April 1943 whose ferocity surprised the Germans. More than 2000 German soldiers supported by armored cars, machine guns, flamethrowers, and unlimited ammunition faced approximately 750 Jews with little to no military training.  The SS General in command, Jürgen Stroop, had estimated he would need two days to suppress the uprising.  In fact, he needed a full month as Jews armed mainly with pistols, homemade grenades, and Molotov cocktails fought franticly and ferociously from street to street, bunker to bunker.  The Warsaw ghetto uprising was only the most famous example of nearly 60 other armed uprisings in Jewish ghettos.

Resistance was less common in death camps like Chelmno, Sobibor, and Treblinka, mainly because there was not enough time for networks of resistance to form.  Resistance requires leaders, organization, and weapons.  These elements cannot be improvised and acted upon in a few hours or even days: they require months of planning and training.  Despite nearly insurmountable difficulties, however, Jews did lead revolts at all three of these death camps as well as at Auschwitz-Birkenau and 18 forced-labor camps.

Jews also participated actively in resistance networks in Poland, the Soviet Union, France, and other countries.  Their plight was difficult in the extreme, since anti-Semitism within these networks often required Jews to hide their ethnicity.  In some cells of the Polish resistance, Jews were killed outright.  Many Soviet partisans distrusted and exploited Jews; nevertheless, between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews fought as partisans in the USSR against Nazi invaders.  In France, Jews made up less than one percent of the population yet 15 to 20 percent of the French underground.  In 1944, nearly 2000 Jewish resisters in France united to form the Organisation Juive de Combat (Jewish Fighting Organization), which supported Allied military operations by attacking railway lines and German military installations and factories.

Impressive as it was, Jewish resistance was always hamstrung for several reasons.  In general, Jews lacked combat experience since many countries forbade Jewish citizens from serving in the military.  Like Soviet prisoners-of-war (POWs) captured by the Nazis, many Jews, especially those confined in ghettos, were weakened by disease and deliberate starvation.  Under these conditions, trained Soviet soldiers died with hardly a murmur of protest, so it is hardly surprising that Jewish families who had never been exposed to the hardships of war would similarly succumb.

The Nazis succeeded in creating a Hobbesian state of nature in which people were so focused on surviving from hour to hour that their struggles consumed virtually all their energy and attention.  Dissension within Jewish communities also inhibited resistance, with older Jews and members of Judenräte (Jewish councils) tending to support a policy of limited cooperation with the Nazis, hoping that by contributing to the German war effort, they might thereby preserve the so-called productive elements of Jewish communities.

More controversially, Jewish resistance was hampered by weak and irresolute international support.  Fearing that Nazi propaganda would exploit pro-Jewish statements as proof that a Jewish-Bolshevist conspiracy was behind the war, Western leaders refrained from condemning Nazi actions.  Official Catholic and Protestant statements were equally tentative and tepid.  Irresolute and sporadic support unintentionally played into the hands of Nazi plans for Jewish extermination.

Observant Jews were people of God’s law, the Torah, who put their faith in God, with Jewish culture in general tending to disavow militant actions.  Confronted by murderous killing squads possessing all the tools of industrialized mass warfare, Jews nevertheless resisted courageously, both passively and actively.  That their resistance often ended tragically does not mean that it failed.

War is Peace

W.J. Astore

Out shopping today at my local used bookstore and came across an early paperback copy (from 1952) of George Orwell’s 1984.  A little overpriced at $15.00, but the cover called to me.  What a classic!

My "new" old copy of Orwell's 1984
My “new” old copy of Orwell’s 1984

If you click on the picture, you can just make out, if you look closely, the slogans on the Ministry of Truth in the upper left: War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, Ignorance Is Strength.

The reverse of the cover is also quite well done:

Which one will you be in 2014?
Which one will you be in 2014?

That tag line haunts me: “in a world many of us may live to see!”  Hype, reader?  Or prophecy?

I haven’t read Orwell since college, circa 1984 in fact.  Time to get crackin’ before my old copy is confiscated and sent down the memory hole.

 

Happy Fourth of July

Old Glory as the sun sets
Old Glory as the sun sets

W.J. Astore

It’s good to have a day like the Fourth of July, a day to celebrate the promise of our country, and a day to reflect on our blessings.  It should be an apolitical day, a day to be with loved ones, and a day to remember how lucky we are, even if it’s not always good times for everyone.

I took a few photos at dusk the other day on Cape Cod.  They’re a reminder to me of the blessings of nature, and also that we share our land in common: that this land is your land, my land, for you and me.  Let’s share it together.

Sunset near Keveney Bridge
Sunset near Keveney Bridge

I hope you enjoy these photos.  Happy Fourth!

Calm and Serene
Calm and Serene
A path to the salt marsh
A path to the salt marsh
Another shot of Old Glory -- from sea to shining sea
Another shot of Old Glory — from sea to shining sea