Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Happiest Countries

Synchronicity—the fantasy that the simultaneous occurrence of apparently unrelated events has meaning beyond mere coincidence—has always seemed a slippery concept for me. And yet it happens from time to time that I have two contiguous conversations that seems uncannily related to each other even though the people I’m actually speaking with don’t even know each other, let alone regularly (or ever) coordinate what they have to say to me. Other times it’s more of a literary phenomenon for me—I read two books or even two essays contiguously and find the meaning of both enhanced dramatically by their juxtaposition…even though they are only juxtaposed in terms of my personal reading habits, something the author of neither could possibly have anticipated.

I had an experience like that this week. First, I was very taken with Evelyn Gordon’s essay posted on the Mosaic website about her feelings regarding this year’s Better Life Index, an annual global survey published earlier this month by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and was prompted to read about it elsewhere in even more detail. (To see Gordon’s essay, click here.) What interested me particularly were the twenty-two specific factors identified as those the most tied to a sense of contentedness on the part of the individual and thus statistically brought to bear to figure out which of the surveyed countries have the citizens the most rationally described, to use the simplest term, as “happy.” (The OECD has thirty-four members states, including the U.S., Canada, Israel, and most of the European Union, but two non-members countries, Russia and Brazil, were included in the survey as well.) The factors were interesting in their own right and included, among other things, the respondents’ level of reported satisfaction with life itself, their sense of being in basically good health, their average amount of disposable income (that is, what’s left over when the bills are paid), their life expectancy, their overall level of satisfaction with the places in which they live, and their sense that they have “quality support networks” to rely on in times of trouble. It strikes me that it would be an interesting exercise to challenge myself to say what my personal twenty-two factors would be, the ones that I myself feel together constitute the definition of happiness. But now that I’ve had a chance to contemplate the ones in use in the OECD survey, they really do seem well chosen and reasonable. And so I continued to read.

The first four nations on the list—those countries whose citizens’ responses indicated a level of personal contentment with the givens of their lives that superseded the analogous level in all other countries included in the survey—were no surprise: Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, and Finland are stable, prosperous places with good school systems, first-rate health care, no rational reason to fear an attack from some rogue state beyond their borders eager to annihilate them, and a highly developed sense of pride in their national culture. Neither did numbers six through ten particularly surprise me, and for roughly the same reasons: Norway, Australia, Canada, Holland, and New Zealand are all wealthy places self-endowed with fine cultural institutions, excellent hospitals, first-rate universities, etc. But it was the country in fifth place (that is to say, the country of the thirty-six nations surveyed that ranked fifth in terms of the happiness of its citizenry) that surprised me mightily: little Israel. Also interesting is that it’s been more than five years since the United State was in the top ten, but I somehow find that easier to explain to myself than Israel’s presence on the list.

So there I was contemplating this very interesting list when my reading time was suddenly invaded by a different report, the much-awaited, wholly surprise-less, report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the 2014 Israel-Gaza Conflict. It’s impressive, actually, that after having squandered its moral capital with respect to Israel more or less utterly that the U.N. even bothers going through the motions of writing and publishing these reports. And yet they do. The successor to the infamous Goldstone Report of 2009 that was so biased against Israel that its own author, Richard Goldstone himself, eventually retracted his support for the most egregious of his own findings, this report appears to be just one more U.N.-based, knee-jerk effort to condemn Israel and thus informally to buttress its enemies. Its first chairman, William Schabas, turned out to be a paid consultant for the PLO and was duly gotten rid of. (Apparently there are levels of public hypocrisy too much even for the United Nations.) Another member was chosen because of his expertise in racism and racial discrimination, neither of which areas of expertise had any relevance to the Gaza controversy. Most damning of all was the fact that the study was commissioned by, of all groups, the U.N. Human Rights Council, a body so overtly and unabashedly hostile to Israel that it has taken the time to pass more resolutions against the Jewish State than against all other countries combined. (The Human Rights Council also commissioned the Goldstone Report in 2009.) Surprisingly, the report did criticize Hamas for its rocket attacks against Israeli towns—each one of which unambiguously targeted civilians—and, even more surprisingly, for Hamas’s extrajudicial execution of alleged collaborators, none of whom was tried, let alone vigorously defended, or convicted in court. But that, at least to me personally, sounded like so-much window dressing provided to provide the whole undertaking with an aura of evenhandedness. Back in March, when Secretary of State Kerry warned the Human Rights Council that its obsession with Israel risked “undermining the credibility of the entire organization,” he was really saying the very least. And this week’s report could reasonably be taken the Council’s insolent response to that sober warning.

But it isn’t specifically to take on the United Nations that I am writing today (or to wonder aloud, although I surely do, why the United States pays a whopping 22% of the budget of such a useless, morally bankrupt organization), but to describe my response to reading both reports, the United Nations Report on Gaza and the OECD’s 2015 Better Life Index report, one after the other. Some of the reasons Israelis are so happy are obvious. Of the thirty-six countries surveyed, Israelis have the eighth highest life expectancy and the eighth highest sense of their own good health. Surely, that counts for a lot! But what about the whole sense of dread and impending doom that any normal person who reads the New York Times or listens to NPR would expect to weigh Israelis down and make them, not the fifth happiest nation in the OECD (plus Brazil and Russia), but morose and fully consumed with anxiety and existential dread? And yet…Israel is number five in this year’s survey, ahead of every nation considered other than Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, and Finland. It isn’t money. (The average Israeli’s disposable income in 2014 was about $22,000, in the top of the bottom half of the nations surveyed.) And it certainly isn’t a sense that peace is close at hand. (0% of Israelis think that, which statistic I just made up but feel fully confident is correct.) 87% of Israelis, on the other hand, said they felt they personally had a strong support network backing them up in times of stress or trouble. But more telling still is that Israel was tied for fourth place when it came to the percentage of its citizens who said, simply, that they were satisfied with their lives.

So perhaps the real question has to do with that last statistic. What is it that makes people feel content despite everything in the world that could legitimately be brought to bear to make them unhappy? Israelis couldn’t possibly have more reasons to be worried. The prospect of a nuclear Iran is probably at the top of the list, as it certainly should be. But there are a million other reasons for Israelis to be unnerved by the universe and specifically by their contemplation of their place in it. And still they win fifth place in the personal-happiness sweepstakes, ahead of nations far more commonly thought of as wealthy, secure, places like Austria and Ireland.

In my opinion, what makes people happy is specifically not money or the level of luxury that characterizes their daily lives, but a sense of meaningful purpose, a sense of attainable destiny. To speak on the level of the individual, nothing is a surer guarantee of personal contentment than the belief that one’s life is purposeful, that one’s efforts have meaning far beyond the confines of one’s daily list of chores or one’s job, that one’s daily routine is part of a much larger program of meaningful endeavor that grants life the kind of meaning that transcends its day-to-day details. This, I’ve seen a million times over in the course of a career serving three different congregations: feeling purposeful, useful, and productive—and not merely busy, let alone overwhelmed with busy-ness—are the constant predictors of happiness in life. And what is true of people is, I’m guessing, also true of nations. America is a good example—for the 239 years that our nation has existed, its periods of greatest success and cohesiveness have been in the course of those years the most characterized by a shared sense of national purpose, and our most devastating retreat from national happiness—the War Between the States in which more than half a million citizens died at the hands of other citizens—was characterized specifically by unresolved differences over what precisely our national destiny was to be.
Israel’s great strength is its sense of national purpose. Indeed, the very notion of responding to history instead of merely attempting to endure its relentless vicissitudes—and responding to violence, prejudice, and hatred not with rage or rancor but productively and creatively by creating a safe haven for Jewish people in the homeland of the Jewish people—that is the story against which to interpret the contentment of Israel’s citizens. The majority of Israel’s Arab minority is made up of people who see a role for themselves in the only country of which they are citizens. The world seems to find that odd, but to me it isn’t any more weird or inexplicable than imagining Jewish citizens like myself buying into the national cultures of countries in which Jewish people constitute a tiny minorities, yet in which they have come to feel they have a place nevertheless.


When I am in Israel, it’s that sense of national purpose that always makes the strongest impression on me. It is wherein lies the nation’s true strength—in its sense of itself as existing at the confluence of history and destiny, and imbued with a deep, ineradicable sense of national purpose. That, I believe, is why Israel is the fifth happiest nation in the OCED.  And, of course, it’s also why I’m so proud to be off next week to spend the summer in Jerusalem. Joan and I aren’t citizens of Israel…but its sense of purposeful destiny is fully ours as well.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Blackishness

Our American culture values the concept of self-determination almost above all else: whatever else it might mean in the rarified strata of political theorizing and governmental policy, the concept of charting your own course forward, of being master of your own destiny, of living exactly as you wish to without regard for the expectations of others or attention to their wishes—these manifestations of the basic right to self-define according to your own lights are at the heart of what Americans understand to be the very definition of personal freedom. When the license plates in New Hampshire declare that its citizens would prefer death to being unable to live free, for example, it is to that specific aspect of freedom that I’ve always imagined them to be referring. It is certainly what Patrick Henry meant in his speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1775 when he scoffed at those who would live as slaves if that were the price of living at all and famously declared, “I know not what course others may take, but as for me give me liberty or give me death.”

Traditionally, this much-cherished right to self-definition was understood to encompass all possible courses forward in life that one might popularly or unpopularly choose to follow. And so have we systematically worked in our country at demolishing artificial barriers in the academy and the workplace that served solely to thwart the best efforts of individuals to attend some specific school or to find employment in some particular field because of factors wholly unrelated to their actual qualifications for that school or that job. We have been relatively successful in this effort, but other barriers were granted a pass because they seemed to be rooted more in physical reality than in the inherent right to self-define. Our country, for example, is grappling with the apparently insurmountable problem of deciding what to do about twenty million or so aliens who reside here illegally…and no one has suggested that the problem could simply be solved by allowing them the right simply to self-define as Americans, much less qualifying the possibility of doing so as an inalienable right. That, clearly is not how it works!  On the other hand, the recognition of the rights of gay people to self-define as such and then to be accorded the same rights as others regardless of that specific aspect of self-definition has been one of the more astonishing developments in our nation over the last decades. But the distinction between the two groups merely underscores the basic principle: gay people may self-define that way because they actually are gay; illegal immigrants may not self-define as Americans because they aren’t Americans…and because nationality is simply deemed too deeply rooted in legal status and personal history to be altered at will.

One of the more interesting features of the social history of the last several decades has been the slow evolution of attitude regarding aspects of personal status once deemed fixed in nature but now understood to be far more fluid than previously assumed.  The whole Caitlin Jenner story has to be the most striking example of how public opinion develops in the light of an ever-maturing understanding of the human condition.  Once upon a time—and surely within the lifetimes of all readers of these lines—she (or rather she in her former iteration as Bruce Jenner) would have been condemned as a freak or, more kindly, as a deranged person who, although obviously a man in every way, was nonetheless suffering from the delusion—pitiable but certainly not for that reason justifiable—that he was actually a woman. The whole concept of gender dysphoria—and the deeper issue of whether it is a mental disorder in the “real” sense of the term or merely in the sense that homosexuality was so listed by the American Psychiatric Association until 1973—is confusing to most, myself included. I feel sympathetic to anyone who feels ill at ease in his or her own skin, who feels that the only way to survive (let alone to thrive) in society is to suppress an aspect of oneself that feels basic and indelible. Whether the course society has adopted—to insist on relative certainty and then to endorse the concept of doing what it takes, including surgically, to “become” the gender one feels oneself truly to be—turns out to be the wisest way to address gender dysphoria remains, I suppose, to be seen. But the fact that we have evolved to the point at which the discussion is out in the open and is about whether gender and sex are distinct enough to be addressed separately in a physician’s effort to treat the whole person who is his or her patient—that itself constitutes a huge advance over the name-calling that would have attended any effort to discuss the matter at all seriously even just decades ago. And that, regardless of any other aspect of the debate, surely constitutes a big step forward for a society that wants to think of itself in terms of its moral bearing as continually evolving.

And now we come to race, the issue I would like to discuss in today’s letter. Race is, at best, a slippery concept in our culture. People self-define as white or black, but the issue itself is rarely actually thought of as one of self-definition and it would be the odd person out who would argue that black people are black because they self-define as such. On the other hand, being “of” one specific race in our society, for all it obviously to do with parentage, also has to do with appearance: the President of the United States is biologically as white as he is black, yet he is universally described, including by himself in his own books, as a black person. Similarly, the notion of being a black person who looks like a white person doesn’t compute in our culture: blackness is how you look, as is whiteness…so to argue that someone with none of the racial features of black people could somehow nonetheless be a black person makes no sense. And that brings us to the case of Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP official from Spokane, Washington, who appears to have assumed the racial identity of a black person without having the parentage that generally goes along with that setting on the dial.

The details of her story are fascinating to consider. Born to two unambiguously white parents, her childhood pictures look like any white child with pale skin and blond hair. (She later claimed to have had a black birth father to go along with her white stepfather, but that appears not truly to have been the case.) Later she became a successful artist and also an outspoken leader in the struggle for civil rights both in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho (where she was the education director of the Human Rights Education Institute, a grass roots anti-discrimination organization founded when Idaho was home to the Aryan Nations white supremacist group, and a teacher at North Idaho College, a community college) and later in Spokane (where she was president of the local NAACP chapter and a teacher of courses in black history and culture at East Washington University). Somewhere along the way, she also began to self-identify as a black person, thereby presenting even her supporters with an interesting question to consider. Is there such a thing as racial identity by self-definition? American culture does not generally recognize that right with respect to ethnicity; no matter how totally familiar with Irish culture someone might be, that person cannot actually become an Irish-American merely by wishing it so. That sounds, at least to my native ears, rational: in our cultural milieu, an Irish-American person is someone who came here from Ireland or whose parents or at least ancestors did…and since it is a label rooted in immutable personal history that cannot be altered by wishful, after-the-fact thinking, it follows that it cannot magically be self-assigned. On the other hand, American society more than endorses the concept of conversion when applied to religion. I myself have assisted many non-Jewish people in their efforts to convert formally to Judaism and thus to become fully and really Jewish: we accept Jews by Choice in our community so completely that even that expression itself is only used to discuss the concept of conversion itself but never publicly to label individuals who come to Jewish life as adults or to single them out from Jews born to the covenant.

And so Rachel Dolezal has presented America with an interesting dilemma, and precisely as racial tension mounts in the wake of the recent incidents involving the deaths of unarmed black men and teenagers at the hands of police officers. There are many books that I could recommend that would be pertinent to serve as the literary background for the debate. Just two years ago, for example, I read the remarkable book by James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, first published in 1912. Johnson, who eventually became the first African-American professor to be hired at New York University and from 1920 to 1930 led the NAACP, had light enough skin to pass for white and began his twin careers in law and music as a white person, only eventually realizing that his blackness could only be ignored at the price of his own self-esteem and sense of internal integrity. The book, even after more than a century, is compelling and very interesting, and I recommend it highly as a strong case for the ineradicableness of racial identity. A similar case was made in Philip Roth’s 2000 book, The Human Stain, which presents the issue from the reverse direction: the book is about one Professor Coleman Silk, a black person who has been passing as white (and Jewish) since his Navy years. In between those two (at least chronologically) was James McBride’s 1996 book, The Color of Water, in which the author’s white mother is depicted as spending her life attempting, never fully successfully, to self-identify as a black person. All of these books are about the question raised by the recent controversy surrounding Rachel Dolezal’s right to choose her own racial identity, and all are very worth reading.


When the Civil Rights movement was in its heyday during my high school and university years, I would never have imagined that all these decades later America would still be suffering over issues directly related to race and racial discrimination. And yet…here we are! Perhaps this whole incident will be justified—other, of course, than with respect to the intolerable infringement of a citizen’s natural right to privacy regarding her own life decisions—if it leads us as a society to reject both the notion that race is a function purely of biology and the fantasy that race is an assumable label to be adopted at will.  Like all deep identities in our culture—and surely like Jewishness, which is the “ness” I personally know best—race is a heady mixture of things, at least some of which resist easy definition.  We think of those laws that once attempted to legislate blackness or whiteness in terms of percentages as somewhere between creepy and funny. (The Louisiana legislature, for example, passed a law in 1970 defining as black anyone who had in his or her veins one thirty-second “Negro blood.”) But to sneer derisively as such oafish efforts to say who is and who isn’t black is one thing…but to say clearly what we actually do think race is—that is significantly more complicated. Perhaps the time has come to attempt to address that issue on a national level. To say what race means or should mean, it only feel rational to begin by attempting to say clearly what it is exactly that we think race is.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Jerusalem

Like many of you, I’m sure, I read about the Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding the status of Jerusalem—or rather, about the status of the Holy City as far as United States passports are concerned—with a sense of uncertainty about how exactly to react, and not least of all because this is a personal issue for me: my oldest son was born in Jerusalem and, indeed, although my passport says that I was born in the United States (a country) and Joan’s says she was born in Canada (also a country), Max’s says he was born in Jerusalem (not a country).

The hospital in which Max was born was indeed in Jerusalem: the Misgav Ladach Maternity Hospital was located on Chovshei Katamon Street in West Jerusalem in 1984, just half a block from the apartment we were living in at the time on Haportzim Street. (The hospital was originally located in the Old City, but moved to where it was in 1984 after the War of Independence ended with the Old City of Jerusalem remaining in Jordanian hands. It’s since moved to King Hezekiah Street, also in West Jerusalem.) And that specific building in which Max was born, later a synagogue and now a community center, is on property that has only been part of three jurisdictions since the sixteenth century. From 1516 until 1920, it was under the control of the Ottoman Turks. From 1920 to 1948, it was under the control of the British. And from 1948 until the present, it has been part of the State of Israel. All that being the case, you could reasonably ask why this is an issue at all.  It’s a good question!

The Supreme Court did not frame its judgment in terms of Israel’s sovereignty or lack of sovereignty over its own capital city, but rather in terms of the President’s right to set foreign policy and not be hampered in that effort by congressional legislation. The case itself was simple enough. In 2002, Congress passed a bill requiring the Secretary of State to list “Israel” as the country of birth of citizens born in Jerusalem if that request is formally made by them or, if they are children, by their parents. (Even that rankled a bit at the time—do Americans born in Paris have to ask formally for France to be given as their country of birth on their passports?) Still, that sounded as though it would settle the matter once and for all, but although President George W. Bush did sign the bill, he also issued what is called a “signing statement” in which he protested that that law interfered “with the President’s constitutional authority to conduct the Nation’s foreign affairs.” And then, as a result of the President’s statement, the Department of State proceeded to ignore the law and specifically not to accede to the requests of American citizens born in Jerusalem or their parents to have their passports list “Israel” as the country of their birth.

This did not sit well with the parents of Menachem Zivotofsky, American citizens whose son was born in 2002 after Congress passed its bill and who, perhaps naively, expected the government to obey its own law. Noting that Menachem is unambiguously possessed of American citizenship, his parents took issue with the government’s refusal to honor their request that their son’s passport reflect that actual circumstances of his birth—that it took place in the State of Israel—and not some fantasy-perception of how things are in the world that imagines that Jerusalem is not actually part of any country at all—surely not part of the Ottoman Empire or the British Mandate of Palestine, neither of which exists, but also not part of the State of Israel, which surely does.

The arguments on both sides were persuasive. On the one hand, the lawyers defending the Zivotofskys’ right to have the actual country of their son’s birth listed on his passport convincingly argued that no normal person would imagine that a thirteen-year-old’s passport possesses the magic power by its very existence to set American foreign policy or that the status of Jerusalem could possibly depend on minor administrative details like the specific way the country of a child’s birth is indicated on his or her passport. Furthermore, they argued, it is incontestable that Congress has the power to regulate passports, which right it seems odd to imagine does not include determining what data may or may not be recorded on them. On the other, the government’s attorneys argued forcefully that it would undermine the President’s power to set foreign policy were the government he heads to issue documents at odds with American foreign policy, thus further muddying waters that are already more than muddy enough, and that the fact that the United States does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem should be the determining factor and not a boy’s personal wishes or his parents’. Nor, apparently, the will of Congress.

Behind all the polite argumentation rest serious issues. Justice Sotomayor came as close as anyone to speaking honestly when she finally said that the real problem with the law Congress passed is that it requires the Secretary of State to say something untrue, and I quote, “that someone born in Jerusalem [was] actually born in the State of Israel.” And suddenly, after all that endless speechifying, there it was right out in the open, the issue behind the issue and the real reason this detail of how someone’s place of birth is or is not indicated on his or her passport matters in this specific context: that for Justice Sotomayor Jerusalem is not part of Israel and it does not behoove our government therefore to say that it is. What country she thinks it is part of, Justice Sotomayor didn’t say. It can’t be Palestine, because Palestine does not exist as a sovereign country. It could be Jordan, I suppose…but could that really be what the justice thinks, that the Six Day War unlawfully wrested control of Jerusalem from the Jordanians? But in that case, how could it not be relevant that Jordan never actually controlled West Jerusalem?

Other justices were just as blunt. Justice Scalia suggested that the government’s position was rooted in its wish not to irritate certain foreign nations, only rhetorically to pursue his own line of reasoning by asking why, if it undeniably falls within Congress’s power to regulate passports, it should matter whom Congress does or doesn’t antagonize by exercising that power as it sees fit. Most reasonably of all, Justice Kennedy asked why the State Department couldn’t simply comply with the law, list “Israel” as the country of birth of Menachem Zivotofsky and the other 50,000 Americans like him (including Max Pascal Cohen), and print some sort of disclaimer in his and their passports indicating that that listing was not meant to reflect the position of the United States government with respect to Jerusalem’s ultimate status.

Not everybody is born somewhere. There is a certain legal ambiguity that attends people born on ships at sea and on airplanes in the air. Eventually, I suppose, the law will have to deal with the citizenship of people born on space ships or on other planets. But it is already possible here on Earth to be born on dry land, but in no country at all.  People born in the various zones of occupation established by the Allies after the collapse of Nazi Germany, but before the establishment of its successor states in West and East Germany, were not born in any country, for example. But that is not the case here. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel in precisely the same way that Ouagadougou is the capital of Burkina Faso or that Bishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan: because its citizens chose it as their capital and regard it as such. That Israelis should be denied that basic right to establish their capital wherever they wish—a right denied as far as I can see to no other nation at all—needs to be defined not as a mere administrative detail or, more bizarrely, as the regrettable but unavoidable collateral damage brought on by some fancy legalistic wrangling between Congress and the White House, but rather as part of the larger effort afoot in the world to deny the Jewish people the basic right to self-definition accorded all other peoples. If the nation of Palestine ever actually comes into existence, then its citizens will have the same right to choose their capital and determine their own destiny. Why shouldn’t they? But denying Israel the basic right to construct its own society in a way that suits its national character, its sense of history and destiny, and the wishes of its people to live as they please is hardly a constructive step forward towards peace. Indeed, decisions like this week’s only add fuel to the fire fanned by the forces of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism and make Jewish people like myself feel even less sure that the world truly endorses our right to chart our own course forward through history at all.

I wish I could take all of my readers along to Jerusalem when Joan and I go next month. At least some would be very surprised by what they’d find, I think, and particularly by the way that Jerusalem—or at least West Jerusalem and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City—are no less fully Israeli in their nature, tenor, and ethos than any other town or city in Israel.  To walk around the city, for example, and to see the full panoply of Jerusalem residents—sabras and olim, tourists and citizens,  religious fundamentalists and spiritual liberals, men and women, young and old, soldiers and students—to see all that and to experience it personally, and then to hear a Supreme Court justice announce blithely that Jerusalem isn’t really part of Israel…that opinion will strike any rational observer not only as being at odds with the facts in evidence but also silly and utterly wrong. For better or worse, Jerusalem is Israel no less meaningfully than Tel Aviv is or than Eilat is. Like any city, it has its issues to contend with.  And the Palestinians of East Jerusalem are certainly entitled to live as they see fit and to construct a cultural milieu as suffused with Arab values as West Jerusalem is with Jewish ones. But to contend that Max—or Menachem or any of the other 50,000 U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem—was somehow not born in Israel is not really a defensible argument except perhaps in the rarified realm of legal theory and certainly will have no cogency at all to anyone on the ground walking the city’s streets and seeing what I see every day I am present in that place.


Joan and I only own one home…and it is in Jerusalem, Israel. The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the law that would have required the government to allow those two words—Jerusalem and Israel—to appear contiguously on 50,000 American passports seems to me somewhere between pernicious and foolish, and as indefensible as it is fully divorced from the reality I personally know.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Sure They Can!

I’ve loved Herodotus—the witty, clever, occasionally ribald author whom Cicero famously called the very “father of history”—ever since I was obliged by benevolent circumstance to spend a year with him in graduate school, wading through long sections of each of the nine books (one, they say, for each of the nine muses who inspired him) and being—I was a bit naïve as a young man—being amazed at how contemporary and relevant an author who lived about 2500 years ago could be. This was the 1970s. I wasn’t entirely sure about people who were over thirty, let alone over two thousand. And yet…this guy really did get it, I recall thinking as I wandered deeper and deeper into his work and found in Herodotus a kind of kindred spirit, someone whose ancient worldview seemed oddly similar to mine. I thought of Herodotus the other day, actually, because of something someone else said—in this case, Yossi Kuperwasser, a former Israeli general and intelligence expert who served until recently as director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs—regarding the perceived tension between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, and also about his and my shared obsession with the dangers posed by a belligerent, well-armed, and supremely well-financed Iran to Western culture as we have come to know it.  (If you want to know what Herodotus thought about the latter, the passages from his Histories relating to the war in his own day between Iran and Greece were published in William Shepherd’s excellent translation by Cambridge University Press in 1983 in a volume called Herodotus: The Persian War, a used copy of which book you can buy—what a world this is!—for as little as one penny on Amazon.com. If you want to know what I think, come to Shelter Rock almost any Shabbat morning this month and you’ll go home with an earful.)

The passage from Herodotus that came to mind will be familiar to at least some readers not from the ancient’s Histories at all, but because John Steinbeck quotes it in East of Eden. It’s a short passage and, because attempting to do better than Steinbeck would require hubris that even I couldn’t muster, I’ll just cite it in the master’s own prose:

Herodotus, in The Persian War, tells a story of how Croesus, the richest and most-favored king of his time, asked Solon the Athenian a leading question. He would not have asked if he had not been worried about the answer. ”Who,” he asked, “is the luckiest person in the world?” He must have been eaten with doubt and hungry for reassurance. Solon told him of three lucky people in old times. And Croesus more than likely did not listen, so anxious was he about himself. And when Solon did not mention him, Croesus was forced to say, “Do you not consider me lucky?” Solon did not hesitate in his answer. “How can I tell?” he said. “You aren’t dead yet.”

It’s a great story. Formally, it’s about a conversation that, if historical, must have taken place even longer-ago than Herodotus’ lifetime. (Croesus, king of Lydia, reigned over his kingdom in what today is western Turkey from 560 to 547 BCE. Solon, the famous Athenian jurist, was his much older contemporary.)  But, more than that, it’s about the relationship of optimism to pessimism, about the reasonableness of allowing one’s confidence in the sturdiness of the status quo to outweigh one’s knowledge about the way things in our world have the capacity, even the tendency, to change on a dime…and rarely for the better.

Solon’s line “You aren’t dead yet” is the part that’s stayed with me all these years, corresponding in its own arch way to my father’s joke about the difference between a Jewish optimist and a Jewish pessimist.  The Jewish pessimist, you see, is the one who says, “Oy, things couldn’t get any worse,” while the Jewish optimist is the one who replies brightly, “Sure they can!”  The joke is funny because, these being Jewish people, even the optimist is a pessimist! But the notion that only someone with no real knowledge of the world will feel secure that things will remain as they are is at the base both of Herodotus’s funny story and my dad’s joke. But even if the parallel isn’t quite exact, Solon was still surely right that it’s only possible to diagnose someone as truly lucky once that person is done with life and thus immune to its ever-shifting vicissitudes, just as my dad’s pessimist knows all too well that there is no actual bottom line to how bad things can get, that nothing is fixed, that all is in flux, that the world is a quivering leaf ready to fall from its bough far more than a marble pillar set unshakably and permanently on its base. 

And so we come to General Kuperwasser. Responding to Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent interview with President Obama in the Atlantic that I attempted to analyze from the bimah last week at Shelter Rock, the general chose to frame his take on the interview in terms of the ancient and ongoing tension between optimism and pessimism. (Giving his hand away, he references “pessimism” as “realism.” But it appears to come to the same thing! If you are reading this electronically and you haven’t read Jeffrey Goldberg’s article, click here and it should come right up on your screen.)

Starting with a simple question, General Kuperwasser begins rhetorically by asking why it is that the president seems so much more irritated with Prime Minister Netanyahu than with President Abbas, particularly given the fact that it was the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who scuttled the latest American attempt to broker a peace deal between them.  Surely, his pique should be directed at the side that refused to accept his formula for negotiation! Yet that appears not to be the case. Time and time again, in fact, the administration seems ready to ignore even the Palestinian leadership’s most egregious sins, preferring instead to take Israel to task for not behaving precisely as the White House would wish it to. That, so the general, is the question worth asking. And he knows the answer too, he writes, finding it rooted not in global politics at all but in the ancient struggle between two competing worldviews, optimism and (what he calls) realism.

As the general sees things, President Obama is “a remarkable proponent for the optimist approach, [because] he fundamentally believes in human decency and therefore [also] in dialogue and engagement as the best way to overcome conflict.” And it is because of his fundamental belief in the power of reasonableness, particularly when coupled with the siren call of self-interest, that his working supposition is that Islamists, even the radical ones who hold the real power in Teheran, can be gotten to buy into the concept of a globally civil society in which conflicts are resolved in the context of peaceful discussion and negotiation, by heads coming together rather than by heads being chopped off.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, on the other hand, is a realist motived by an essentially pessimistic worldview. He looks across the border at the war in Syria, at the chaos in Iraq, at the violent misanthropy of ISIS, at the misery that Hamas has brought to Gaza, at the demise of democracy in Egypt, at the imperious presidency of President Abbas (now in the tenth year of a four-year term), at the near-anarchy in Yemen…and he, Netanyahu, is not prompted to embrace the sense of fundamental human decency that lies at the core, so the general, of President Obama’s worldview. And so, General Kuperwasser concludes, what is creating the tension between Israel and its most powerful ally is not a difference of opinion rooted in some specific detail about this or that dunam of land, but a divergence of fundamental philosophical orientation, the president being an optimist in the true and literal sense of the word and the prime minister playing the role of the self-proclaimed optimist in my father’s joke who is—and this is why the joke is funny—even more pessimistic than his friend who only thinks he’s a pessimist but who hasn’t fully accepted the truth about how things truly are in this world of misery and woe.

When framed that way, I find myself somewhat stymied. As an American, I bring the president’s fundamental optimism to my worldview as well. In 1903, Helen Keller published a remarkable essay called, simply, “Optimism,” which I still recall reading when I was in high school, and which I still think of as one of the simplest and most affecting expressions of native American optimism ever written.  (At Forest Hills High, we were always interested in the literary works of famous neighborhood residents. If you are reading this electronically, click here for a free copy of the Keller essay. Helen Keller lived in Forest Hills from 1917 to 1936.)  Indeed, when she looks into the future—and this was a woman who only looked at anything through the matrices of her own intelligence—and writes of her ability to see in the distance a “brighter spiritual era” slowly emerging, “an era in which there shall be no England, no France, no Germany, no America, no this people or that, but one family, the human race; one law, peace; one need, harmony; one means, labor; one taskmaster, God,” I find myself moved…but ultimately unconvinced. Or maybe that’s not even precisely correct because I do see that world in the future…but between here and the great redemption of the world that the prophets promised, I see the great obligation of nations endowed with vision, virtue, spirit, and a will to justice to struggle against the dark forces allied against all of the above values.

To paint the tension between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu as rooted in the former’s subcutaneous anti-Semitism and the latter’s uncompromising Jewishness is to exaggerate the situation to the point, I believe, of falsehood. No one who reads a transcript of the President’s remarks at Adas Israel in Washington last week could seriously think otherwise. But I do believe that General Kuperwasser has seized on a basic truth: that the tension between them derives neither from prejudice nor irrational dislike, but from a fundamentally different worldview. The President is suffused with typical American optimism. He believes, as I wish I did too, that all people are basically good, that behind the bluster of political rhetoric invariably rests the equally well-rooted will to do good and to govern justly. Anne Frank thought that too. (Or she did while she was still safely hidden away in the Achterhuis and free to pen entries in her diary. Whether she revisited those thoughts later on obviously cannot be known.) Furthermore, I believe that most Americans share a basic sense regarding the fundamental goodness of the world and its peoples.

The Prime Minister shares the basically dour worldview that history has beaten into the Jewish people. He looks out at the world at Israel’s neighbors and sees predatory enemies waiting for the first sign of weakness, for the first intimation that Israel’s will to defend itself might be flagging, for the first reasonable opportunity to strike successfully and to defeat the Jewish state. He sees no reason to suppose that the violent anti-Semitism of the Iranian leadership is feigned or that their oft-repeated desire to annihilate Israel is mere rhetoric. If there’s one thing we learned from our contemplation of our own history, it’s to take our enemies at their word…and always to take their rhetoric, including at its most brutally vituperative, fully seriously. The Prime Minister, therefore, is a pessimist. Or, if you approve of his approach, a realist.  General Kuperwasser clearly thinks he has it right and that our President is hampered, not strengthened, by his optimism. I hope he’s wrong. Time will tell. 


In the end, though, maintaining the traditional American belief in the ultimate worth of an essentially optimistic worldview is no substitute for remaining vigilant and strong, for declining to trust people whose behavior in the past has not even remotely earned that trust, for taking anti-Semites at their world when they speak openly about murdering Jews or destroying Israel, and for insisting on that the basic right to defend one’s people and one’s nation can never be subjugated to policies rooted, not in sober analysis of the facts in evidence, but in native optimism about human nature.  And that, more than my natural propensity to see the good in all people and to share my nation’s natural optimism about the world, is what guides me to my state of extreme wariness regarding the proposed deal with Iran soon to be upon us. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Freedom of/from Religion

The House Civil Law and Procedure Committee of the Louisiana State legislature wisely voted last week—and by a 10 to 2 majority—to “return to the calendar” House Bill 707, popularly called the Marriage and Conscience Act, effectively ending any chance for the bill to be voted into law by Louisiana’s legislators this year. Less wisely (at least in my opinion), Governor Jindal responded to this development by announcing his intention simply to issue an executive order that will, in his own words, “accomplish the intent of House Bill 707” anyway, in effect executing an end-run around his own state’s legislature. Unwise doesn’t mean illegal or immoral, of course: if the laws of Louisiana permit the governor to circumvent the people’s elected representatives by issuing orders with the force of law, then he is by definition not behaving illegally by exercising that right. (You can’t, after all, behave illegally if you are behaving legally.) But the whole concept of this kind of so-called “religious freedom” legislation is an issue that needs to be resolved through the medium of sustained, thoughtful national debate, not through gubernatorial grandstanding.
I’ve written to you at length about the various initiatives to enact so-called “religious freedom” laws that purport to guarantee that no citizen ever be required by law to act contrary to his or her religious principles, most recently about eighteen months ago when I expressed myself regarding similar legislation that was then pending in Arizona and which was ultimately vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer. (If you are reading this electronically, you can see that letter by clicking here.)  When put that way, these laws sound like the kind of “apple pie” legislation that no one could seriously oppose. What, indeed, would be the opposing argument? That a nation that has enshrined freedom of religion among its most sacred principles should not grant its citizens the legal right not to betray the principles of their faiths to suit the wishes of others? And yet it turns out to be far more complicated than that.

When the issue on the table has to do with a florist refusing to sell flowers to a couple for use as centerpieces at their same-sex wedding—the specific issue that prompted my letter to you a year and a half ago—it feels easy to know how to feel: surely it does not actually contravene anyone’s principles to sell flowers to gay people to use as they wish! You can only argue to the contrary if you can say clearly what specific principles those would be, yet the need not only to identify such principles, but to identify them with those held by large numbers of other citizens, actually is the sticking point here. No one is going to argue seriously that people in our nation should not be free to worship according to the dictates of their conscience and thus to choose what faith publicly or privately to embrace. But the question on the table is more nuanced than that and has to do more with the issue of whether citizens should not also be free to determine for themselves what spiritual principles they wish to guide them forward in life in an absolute way unfettered by any obligation to conform to the standards of others. Should that freedom be extended to principles personally held by some individual who perceives them to constitute part the spiritual platform upon which he or she stands? Or should it only extend to the principles of “real” religions that everybody’s heard of? If the law requires the government to develop a list of “officially recognized faiths” in that regard, would it be a positive or negative development? Is religion essentially private and personal? Or is it, almost by definition, a group enterprise? If the latter, how large must the group be to matter? Can tiny groups count? People like myself who belong to minuscule religious minorities would be well advised to think so! And yet our nation’s religious leaders are not at all unified regarding the issue. Many oppose this kind of “Religious Freedom” legislation. Many, but not all! Just the other day, for example, I noted that fifty Orthodox rabbis took it upon themselves to write to Governor Jindal in support of the then-pending legislation.

The rabbis make a compelling case. They conjure up the specter of synagogues being sued for refusing to permit non-kosher caterers to serve meals on their premises or for declining to host interfaith marriages. Surely, most Americans who think of these as reasonable activities would find it correspondingly unreasonable for a couple to be refused service merely because they wish to serve ice cream after their roast beef at their own wedding reception, or because a bride and groom have decided to have a Jewish wedding even though only one of them is technically Jewish. The rabbis argue that laws like the one proposed for Louisiana, not unlike the similar bill signed by Governor Mike Pense into law in Indiana last March, would prevent there being legal consequences for declining such business on the grounds that accepting it would require a businessperson to contravene his or her religious principles. If a few gay couples are inconvenienced when some specific florist or caterer declines their business, then that, the rabbis suggest, would indeed be a small price to pay to preserve freedom of religion in our country. (If you wish to read more, click here for the text of the rabbis’ letter and the names of its signatories.)

I suppose I can see both side of the issue—nor do I feel that it isn’t ever appropriate or wise to compromise on some sincerely held beliefs for the sake of preserving or strengthening others deemed even more crucial to the public weal. (President Lincoln may have been right or wrong to suspend writ of habeas corpus on a nation-wide basis in 1862, but the concept itself that it can be reasonable to suspend some specific civil rights in times of great upheaval seems to me beyond debate.) Indeed, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 specifically decreed that  government can “substantially burden” a person's exercise of religion if doing so advances an important national interest and does so in the least restrictive way possible. In 1997, however, the Supreme Court determined that the federal act does not apply to the governments of individual states, as a result of which decision almost half the fifty states have now enacted state laws designed to protect citizens for behaving in accordance with their religious values. But hiding behind the question of the reasonability of these laws is another one that strikes me as fundamental to the discussion, yet which seems for some reason rarely if ever to be aired in public.

Who gets to speak for a religion? Or, to ask an even more basic question, who has the right to determine what a religion is, or what the adherents of a religion must believe or how they must behave? If we are going to countenance laws that permit citizens to ignore the law when they are acting out of religious conviction, then must we not first determine who gets to decide what the principles of a given faith actually are? Can citizens themselves come up with the spiritual principles they then wish to exercise their First Amendment right to pursue as their personal spiritual path forward through life? It seems odd to extend spiritual sovereignty only to groups and not to individuals. But even if we were to go that route, then would we not need first to say clearly how big such a group must be, and what specific hoops its adherents must jump through for their religion to be recognized as such by the justice system?
Governor Jindal clearly thinks that “religious” opposition to same-sex marriage is wide-spread enough, and inherently defensible enough, to justify making it illegal for the state to take action against people who bring that specific conviction to life by refusing to have anything to do commercially with same-sex weddings. But what if someone held a similarly profound and guileless conviction that interracial marriage was sinful? That’s a far less widely held view today, obviously. But why should one citizen be granted the protection of law and another not merely because the latter’s principle is less popular than the former’s and thus has fewer adherents among the voting public? What if someone were honestly and genuinely to feel him or herself visited by the spirit of prophecy and vouchsafed truths that run counter to cultural norms that prevail in our society? Surely the adherents of faiths that feature belief in an omnipotent God do not want to argue that the same God who made heaven and earth would not be able actually to tell somebody something! But what if that something involves a deeply unpopular idea, one that endorses behavior that is currently illegal?

It’s a slippery slope indeed for people whose holy Scriptures endorse bigamy and slavery—do we want to argue that people who sincerely believe those institutions are religiously mandated should be protected from prosecution because they act out of profound spiritual conviction? Is the use of peyote in religious ritual, the original issue that prompted the 1993 federal act mentioned above, widespread enough to make sanctioning its use like the granting of special dispensation to certain specific religious groups, including my own, to use wine during worship during the dark days of Prohibition? The story behind that law is instructive. In 1990, the Supreme Court ruled against two Native American substance-abuse counselors from Oregon who had been fired from their jobs because they tested positive for peyote, a hallucinogen used as part of worship at their church. It was a close 5-4 decision, but the final verdict was that the use of peyote was not protected by the First Amendment. And instructive too is Justice Scalia’s justification of his own nay vote. Allowing someone to break a law because of religious conviction, the justice wrote, “would open the prospect of constitutionally required exemptions from civil obligations of almost every conceivable kind.”  That may have seems like a real possibility but, in the end, the people spoke and the federal bill was passed. The right to worship as one chooses was deemed to trump legislation that prevents such worship by outlawing some necessary part of it. But religion is not just rite and ritual…and so we are left on the horns of a mighty dilemma with respect not so much to the use of wine or peyote, but with respect to public behavior prompted by what a citizen perceives as his or her religious principles. Should the right to act in concert with one’s deeply held spiritual convictions be deemed so sacrosanct as to warrant the interruption of other citizens’ civil rights?  Or should the blanket right of all citizens to be treated justly and fairly under the law trump the right to act in accordance with one’s faith?


We have entered into a debate that feels as though it is about the rule of law, but is actually about the nature itself of religion itself. Since government should, in my opinion, never try to breach the wall between church and state, laws that require the government to determine on its own the worth of devoutly held spiritual principles constitute a dangerous turn away from the rule of reason. Citizens should be permitted to follow the spiritual path of their choosing in accordance with their own consciences. Citizens should never be permitted, however, to trample on the civil rights of others as part of their own spiritual discipline…and that should be a foundational principle that applies regardless of how sincerely the individual in question believes in the worth of some specific part of that discipline. To worship the God in whose image all humankind is made by denying the innate right all human beings possess to chart their own path forward in life without being hampered by others’ principles—that seems like an iffy enterprise to me at best, and—particularly when used to justify discriminatory behavior that impacts negatively on the civil rights of others—as something far more pernicious than that.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Clattering Train

Unless this is somehow the first of my letters that you’re reading, you already know about my predilection for old books…and particularly for the kind that allow us to see history unfolding before our eyes as a narrator who was present on the ground attempts to describe events he or she personally experienced. The autobiographies of the famous are part of that genre, obviously, although it is surely also the case that the very last thing most people should be permitted to do is to tell their own story. But also included in that category are books written by the closest relatives of the great, people well positioned to know their subjects intimately and personally, and thus to be able to provide a window into that person’s interior self that would otherwise be closed off to the public. In that category are some of my favorite books about, not by, some of my favorite authors: Anna Dostoevsky’s book about life with her husband (published simply as Dostoevsky: Reminiscences), Sophia Tolstoy’s Diaries (featuring fifty-seven years’ worth of diary entries about her often tumultuous life with Leo), and, most recently (because one of her students’ parents gave it to Joan as a gift after her terrific Schechter production of Les Mis last spring), Adèle Hugo’s coyly-titled, but extremely interesting and surprisingly intimate, Victor Hugo by a Witness of His Life.  Less stirring, but also fascinating, is Martin Freud’s portrait of his father, a bit pathetically entitled Glory Reflected: Sigmund Freud, Man and Father. And there are many others as well.

And then there are books written by talented authors about events they personally witnessed. Sometimes these books are ghoulish (I am thinking in that regard specifically of the autobiography that Rudolph Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, was ordered by his captors to compose in the spring of 1947 during the weeks between his conviction as a war criminal and his execution), but more often they serve not as freak shows or the literary equivalent of horror movies, but simply as windows into history.  I wrote a while back to you about my experience rereading Ulysses Grant’s account of the Civil War, written as the author lay dying specifically to raise funds for his wife to use after his death. (The plan worked too—in the end Julia Grant received almost half a million dollars in royalties from her late husband’s Personal Memoirs, a goodly sum even today but a true fortune in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Interesting too, but far less well known, is Mrs. Grant’s own book of memoirs, a book first published in 1975, almost three-quarters of a century after its author’s death.) I’ve written about my experiences reading President Eisenhower’s Crusade in Europe and finding it strangely—and disappointingly—dull. I wrote a few weeks ago about my plan to read Jefferson Davis’ The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government this summer as a way of looking at the Civil War from a vantage point wholly other than the one I’m used to. But the greatest of all these “I was there” books has to be Winston Churchill’s six-volume work, simply entitled The Second World War. And he was there too, and for more or less all of it.

Published over a period of six years that ended with the year of my birth, I read the first book when I was a senior in high school and the rest in the course of my college years. They stay with me still, or parts of them do. And it was something that Churchill wrote in that first volume that somehow came to me, entirely unexpectedly, when I first heard about the terrible Amtrak accident of earlier this week, the one on the Washington to New York train on which I myself have been a passenger many times. The specific stretch of track on which the derailment occurred has its own tragic history: it was less than a mile from this week’s crash site that a 1943 train derailment resulted in the death of seventy-nine people and more than one hundred wounded, some grievously, on a similar Washington-to-New York run. But this week’s disaster was horrible enough: the number of dead is fixed at seven as I write and the wounded at more than two hundred. But there are still passengers unaccounted for and it seems very likely that the number of dead, but only possibly the number of wounded, will rise as the wreckage is cleared.
One of the most foundational points in Churchill’s work is his conviction that the story of the Second World War can only cogently be told in light of the First War. And, indeed, it is both because that idea seemed (and still seems) so interesting to ponder, and also because I was so young when I read the first book, that that first volume, entitled The Gathering Storm, had such an effect on me. In the part that I wish to share with you, Churchill is writing about the mid-1930s, which he recalls as a depressing time for him personally and, on a larger scale, for his nation. In the specific section of the book devoted to the events of 1935, the House of Commons is busy debating a proposed increase in funding for the Royal Air Force, which debate Churchill finds dispiriting and rooted in what he himself considers a faulty and fully-fantasy-based understanding of what the future might bring and at best a half-hearted sense that any future war with Germany was going to have to be won in the air. And then he writes this, which passage somehow surged out of my unconscious to assert itself as I read the newspaper accounts of the Amtrak disaster:

There lay in my memory at this time some lines from an unknown writer about a railway accident. I had learnt them from a volume of Punch cartoons which I used to pore over when I was eight or nine years old at school in Brighton. “Who is in charge of the clattering train? / The axles creak and the couplings strain, / and the pace is hot and the points are near, / and sleep hath deadened the driver's ear, / and the signals flash through the night in vain, / for death is in charge of the clattering train.” However I did not repeat them.

Why that stuck in my mind, I have no idea. But, intrigued by the vagaries of my own subconscious, I set myself to discovering the real story behind Churchill’s comment. It turns out that it’s significantly less interesting than I would have expected. The long-since forgotten poet Edwin James Milliken (1839-1897) had apparently heard of a train wreck that had cost the life of a guard working for the London & South Western Railway, and which had apparently ensued when the engine-driver and his engine-stoker both fell asleep on the job. It was, among the world’s rail catastrophes, a modest disaster. Yet the poet’s conclusion, just as chilling now as then, is what struck Churchill as he listened to Parliament dither about the worth of upgrading their own nation’s air defenses and realized that his country too, just like the runaway train in Milliken’s poem, was too headed for a disaster that could possibly still be headed off, but which would become inevitable soon enough…once the decision to stint on RAF funding was made, once the train was simply going too fast for its own braking system to stop it.

I would like to reproduce here the end of the poem, which reads as follows:

Sleep—Death's brother, as poets deem,
Stealeth soft to his side; a dream.
Of home and rest on his spirit creeps,
That wearied man, as the engine leaps,
Throbbing, swaying along the line;
Those poppy-fingers his head incline
Lower, lower, in slumber's trance;
The shadows fleet, and the gas-gleams dance.
Faster, faster in mazy flight,
As the engine flashes across the night.
Mortal muscle and human nerve
Cheap to purchase, and stout to serve.
Strained too fiercely will faint and swerve.
Over-weighted, and underpaid,
This human tool of exploiting Trade,
Though tougher than leather, tenser than steel.
Fails at last, for his senses reel,
His nerves collapse, and, with sleep-sealed eyes,
Prone and helpless a log he lies!
A hundred hearts beat placidly on,
Unwitting they that their warder's gone;
A hundred lips are babbling blithe,
Some seconds hence they in pain may writhe.
For the pace is hot, and the points are near,
And Sleep hath deadened the driver's ear;
And signals flash through the night in vain.
Death is in charge of the clattering train!

In theory, death is just the name of the absence of life, just as silence is the name for the absence of sound. But silence feels real when we are surrounded unexpectedly by it, just as does death feel entirely real when we confront it in the context of family life or when it touches our friends or our neighbors. So the poet’s notion that the accident occurred because personified Death seized the train, because as a “hundred hearts beat placidly on” a line was crossed that could not be crossed back over, that at a certain moment what a few minutes earlier had been a horrific possibility became an inevitable catastrophe…that notion that life is far more fragile, and intensely more arbitrary, than any of us would ever wish to admit—that is what Churchill meant when he recalled the last lines of Milliken’s poem and likened England to a train whose engineer succumbed first to drowsiness and then to sleep, and whose personal failure led to disaster.


Coming on the heels of the Germanwings disaster in March that cost 144 passengers and six crew members their lives, it suddenly seems less safe out there…and I’m the kind of person who prefers to take the train precisely because it feels so much safer than flying. (That’s an excellent example, by the way, of a personal conviction that is true and false at the same time.) But the question of whether one form of travel is safer than another is hardly the point, which is far more potently just how delicate our places in the world truly are…and just how thin the foundation stones upon which we stand and on the apparent sturdiness of which we convince ourselves it would be irrational not to depend. But, at least in the final analysis, it’s all a chimera. Things are safe until they aren’t, until the engineer falls asleep, until the pilot’s suicidal tendencies cross the line from troublesome to irresistible, “until the silver cord snaps and the golden bowl breaks, until the pitcher shatters down by the spring and the wheel at the well is ruined, until the dust returns to the earth as it once was and the spirit returns to the God Who once gave it…then Kohelet’s truth will be wholly obvious to all. The merest of breaths, proclaims King Kohelet—everything is as insubstantial as a single breath.”