Thursday, October 28, 2010

Religion in America

My dad used to say that the key to being a smart person is finding it irritating as hell not to know stuff. I may have slightly over-internalized that thought as a teenager, but even all these years later I still found it irritating—and I say this more or less proudly—only to have gotten fourteen out of fifteen questions right on the Pew Center’s 2010 U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey. You may have seen the results of the survey written up in the newspaper a few weeks ago. I did…and was curious what it was all about. I went on line. Even though the results had already been tabulated, a shortened quiz version of the longer survey that was used to generate those results was available on-line for the curious to try their hand at. I took the quiz. I pride myself on knowing a lot about religion. (It is my métier, after all.) And I’ve never limited my reading to books concerned solely with my own faith or my own faith community. But I still didn’t get 100% on the quiz—which, even more irritatingly, my friend Chaim, the rabbi at Beth-El in Massapequa, did get when he took the same quiz—because I didn’t know that the American preacher who was the most directly responsible for the Christian revival movement of the 1730’s and 1740’s called The Great Awakening (or, more precisely, the First Great Awakening) was Jonathan Edwards, the leading Christian theologian of the colonial era. I had certainly heard of Edwards. I even read his most famous sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” somewhere along the way. (If I remember correctly, I found it way over the top and just a bit scary.) But I didn’t remember to connect his name with the Great Awakening, much less recall that he is generally credited with having been personally responsible for it. So that was it for me. No perfect score. No gold star. (Since I’m sure you’re all curious, my incorrect choice was Charles Finney, the 19th century New York City preacher who I now know was properly part of the Second Great Awakening of American evangelical Christianity. Oh well—you can’t know everything. At least I knew it wasn’t Billy Graham!)

But I write about the Pew Center’s survey not only to tell you about my personal experience taking the quiz, but to reflect with you on some of its implications. I didn’t really do that poorly. Only 1% of the public got a perfect score. According to the Pew Center’s own calculations, I did better than 97% of the people who took the quiz. But there is, to say the truth, only scant comfort in that thought, because I wish to reflect with you today neither on Jonathan Edwards’ place in our national culture nor on Charles Finney’s, but on the general state of almost shocking ignorance about religion that seems to be the rule rather than the exception to the rule in modern American culture.

The real survey, as opposed to the quiz I took, consisted of thirty-two questions on various aspects of religious life and was taken by 3,200 Americans. The results can be analyzed in dozens of ways (and readers can see most of those ways conveniently tabulated at, but no matter how you organize the data, the results are shocking in terms of what they have to say about the level of ignorance Americans display both about the religious beliefs and practices of their co-citizens and also, even more amazingly, about their own religions. It is, after all, one thing to note that fewer than half of all American know that the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist or that only slightly more than a quarter of Americans know that the religion of the vast majority of the citizens of Indonesia—the world’s largest Muslim country—is Islam, and quite another to note, as the Pew survey revealed, that more than half of America’s Protestants failed to recognize Martin Luther as the individual whose writings and teachings inspired the Protestant Reformation or that more than four out of ten Catholics do not appear to know that their own church teaches that the wine and bread used in the Communion ceremony actually become the flesh and blood of Jesus, a mystical idea called transubstantiation which is at the very heart of Catholic theology.

Naturally, I was most interested in what the Pew survey had to say about what Americans, and specifically Jewish Americans, know about Judaism and Jewish culture. Here too it is not that simple to know how to spin the data. That fewer than half of the respondents knew that the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday evening does not surprise me especially. Nor do I find it particularly surprising to learn that fewer than one in ten Americans knows that Maimonides was Jewish. (Also not that surprising, but far more depressing, is the discovery that two out of five Jewish Americans were unable to recognize as one of our own the man who could entirely reasonably be acclaimed as the greatest rabbinic mind of the last millennium. But, for the record, it is also worth noting that the question about Maimonides was the question on the survey that the least number of respondents answered correctly.) Still, Jews are better educated about religion than most: 73% of Jewish respondents got more than half the answers right, a percentage exceeded only by Mormons (74%) and self-proclaimed atheists/agnostics (82%). And then there is the fact that a full 94% of Jewish Americans knew on which day of the week Shabbat begins, which detail, as noted above, would come as news to more than half our nations’ citizens. At least that!

Also of interest is what the Pew survey discovered about what Americans know of the role of religion in public education. That religion-specific prayer is forbidden in public schools appears to be very well known almost to all. (Almost 90% of those polled knew this to be so.) But that it is specifically not forbidden to teach classes in comparative religion or to read passages from the Bible in a class on world literature or in the context of some other class not intended as religious instruction was far less well known: fewer than a quarter of American knew that it is not forbidden to teach biblical texts in public schools and only a third were aware that public schools are allowed to offer courses in comparative religion. Jews did far better than the average in both areas of knowledge, as we generally did in questions involving knowledge of other people’s religions. Indeed, Jews appeared to be far more knowledgeable than any other faith group when it came to identifying central symbols or rituals of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. And Jews did even better than the national average of Christian respondents when it came to answering questions about Christianity! (More Jews than Christians, for example, knew that Mother Teresa was a Catholic.) So we seem to know a lot about other people’s religions, even if we occasionally forget some fairly important details about our own.

What I saw coming through over and over in the Pew data is the strange image of a nation of people who are deeply devoted to religion without being all that interested in the details, not the details of other people’s faiths but also not the details of their own belief systems. And the only way I can think of reasonably to process that thought is to suppose that it is the idea of religious faith itself, and the pleasure of belonging to a faith group, that Americans find appealing…and that they find that appeal not really to extend beyond the satisfaction of communal affiliation to the extent actually of feeling obliged to master the details of their chosen faith’s theological details or ritual rules, let alone of feeling some concomitant obligation to master the ins and outs of religions they themselves have not embraced. We see that in our house as well, of course, in the phenomenon of people who feel supremely comfortable with their Jewishness but far less drawn to Judaism itself. (The old joke you all know, the one that ends “No, Rabbi, what we want is just for you to speak about Judaism,” isn’t actually all that funny, predicated as it is on the supposition that the concept of there being such a thing as Judaism is far more appealing to shul-goers, or at least to the shul-goers in the joke, than any of its actual constituent beliefs or rituals.) And, indeed, there are versions of Judaism out there that formally reject intellectual probity in favor of the kind of feel-good Jewishness that, their proponents hope, will draw Jewish people without simultaneously chasing them off with a barrage of unwanted details.

With respect to that aspect of modern Jewish life, the solution is simply to realize that the choice itself is bogus, that there is no inherent reason to have to choose between a version of Judaism that is honest and intellectually sound and one that is spiritually attractive. I believe—and I have devoted my entire career to the propagation of this thought in one way or another—that it is entirely possible to embrace a kind of Judaism that is challenging intellectually, scrupulously honest, devoid of self-serving chicanery…and also deeply emotionally satisfying. In a real sense, all my writing and preaching, and all my teaching over the last three decades, has built around the desire to demonstrate the reasonableness of that single thought.

In reading the Pew Center report, I was buoyed slightly by realizing that the choice so many in the Jewish world seem to feel obliged to make between embracing the warmth of communal fellowship and actually feeling called upon to master the details of a complicated ancient faith has its parallel in other religious spheres and among other American faith groups. Clearly, there are others in parallel boats on the same stormy sea we ourselves are attempting to navigate. Is that good news? Maybe not in the long run…but surely there’s some comfort to be had in knowing that we are not alone, and that the huge challenges we face are also faced by other groups! At least that!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Oath

Those of you were at Shelter Rock for Rosh Hashanah heard me speak about the Chilean miners who were then still imprisoned beneath the earth and who were at that time only expected to be rescued, if indeed they were going to be rescued at all, towards the end of the year. Partially because I myself suffer from a mild form of claustrophobia but also because it was a story of such compelling human interest, I found myself both horrified and wholly engaged by the story. And, like so many millions of people all over the world, I found myself praying that they would eventually be rescued and that these poor men would somehow find a way to remain healthy of body and spirit until that rescue could take place.

As everybody knows, los treinta y tres are now free and, at that, long before the end of the year. And, just as I knew was going to be the case, I could not take my eyes off the television as they were released one by one from that strange rocket capsule thing that descended so slowly, even (I thought) majestically, into the bowels of the Chilean earth and then returned time and time again bringing one of the miners to the surface, then disgorging him into the daylight. There is a lot to admire in these men—the fact that they seemed so hale and in such good spirits as they emerged from the mine can only mean that they watched over each other well during the months of their unwanted and unwarranted captivity, that they did what it took to safeguard their physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. But the single most surprising detail about the whole episode, at least for me, came when it was revealed that the miners had taken a solemn oath not to reveal anything of what actually happened during the sixty-nine days they were underground and particularly during the first weeks when they were truly desperate and could not really know that they would ever be located, let alone rescued.

This is going to be a challenging oath to keep. For one thing, the miners—none of whom could remotely be described as wealthy and some of whom live very basic lives at what North Americans would easily recognize as the poverty line—these miners who have so little are now being bombarded with offers from a truly endless array of international newspapers, magazines, and television networks eager to buy their stories for however much money it is going to take to get them to speak. And some of those stories could indeed be worth a lot, especially if the interviewee comes up with the kind of sordid details people buy magazines and tune into television shows specifically because they are always hoping to hear! But, at least so far, the oath seems to have been maintained and the men are sticking to their promise not to reveal whatever there is that they took the oath in the first place because they wished to keep private. The world, of course, is somewhere between confused and irritated.

Indeed, to read some of what I’ve seen on the internet in the last few days, you’d think the miners were somehow behaving immorally (or, to say the very least, perversely and in a manner wholly contrary to their own best interests) by refusing to divulge details that, in the end, are their private business in some rarified sense but which the world nonetheless needs and wants to know. Indeed, so unused are we to that kind of reticence in the face of potential profit that some of the sites I’ve seen just lately are referring to the miners as “holding out” for higher offers. That they would negotiate their betrayal of their own promise to each other for even larger sums of money than were first offered—that everybody can understand! But that working men with no great fortunes would decline offers of easy cash merely because they gave their word to each other not to reveal whatever it is they felt was better left undisclosed regarding the behavior of all or some in the very grim early weeks of their subterranean captivity—that seems beyond the ability of people in the media even to fathom, let alone to respect. Who, I can almost hear them asking to themselves, ever heard of people who didn’t want to be paid to tell their story?

A few weeks ago I wrote to you about that poor boy from Rutgers who killed himself after what ought to have been a supremely private moment was not only spied upon by his roommate, but actually broadcast by that roommate over the internet for all to see. As far as I could tell, the world seemed eager to focus that story through the prism of the suicide’s gayness and surely there is that aspect of the story to consider as well. But as much as that story was about a young man unable to come to terms with having his sexual orientation made public, it was also about the violation of his basic right to privacy. I wrote to you about his story in those terms, but now the story of the Chilean miners seems to me in its own way to be about the same issue and so I find myself focusing on it again and wondering what it would take for society to right itself in this specific way and to create a world in which the sense that every individual is entitled to his or her privacy would be the default setting that all would final natural and normal.

I suppose the journalists attempting to bribe the miners to betray their promise to each other are hoping for something more lurid and far more likely to sell newspapers and attract viewers than three dozen men doing daily calisthenics and reading to each other. The fact that religious faith was a key factor in sustaining the miners and that they apparently held daily worship services in the mine is not what the tabloid journalists assigned to the story are hoping to write about! Nor does it seem to compute that the kind of men who asked for Bibles and rosaries to comfort them during their weeks below surface would also be the kind of men who would need to protect each other with the kind of oath of silence they actually took. Indeed, for many the oath itself is a kind of tacit admission of salacious goings-on of the kind of which the men would naturally wish for no one to learn. Why else would they promise so solemnly not to reveal the truth about their time underground?

I myself have no idea what went on, no specific inkling if the men behaved well or poorly (or if some of them did or didn’t). But I find great nobility in their decision to keep the story to themselves and not to sell it to the highest bidder. Despite the fact that that kind of reticence seems to fly against everything modern culture tends to valorize—the quick buck, the fifteen minutes of fame, the possibility of getting a walk-on role in a movie about oneself and one’s entourage, the Oprah interview—it also rests upon a series of suppositions that, as I’ve written to you on many different occasions, I believe moderns have jettisoned far too easily and thoughtlessly.

Sometimes we accidentally, or at least unintentionally, become privy to information about other people that has the potential to shame, to humiliate, or to hold up those other people to ridicule. In our secular Western culture, we have evolved the peculiar notion that there is something almost hypocritical—or, at the very least, peculiar—about keeping such knowledge to ourselves. The miners’ story could serve as a welcome antidote to that strange idea. And, indeed, the example they set for the world with their oath of silence should, I think, be the most meaningful part of their legacy. People do not need to know everything about everything. You are entitled to your privacy even if the things you are attempting to keep private are not the kind of salacious or grossly indecent things that supermarket tabloids would likely feature on their front pages. I dare say that the miners’ oath reflects the fact that not everybody behaved as nobly as they possibly could have in the early days when it was entirely reasonable to think they were not going to survive, that the mine would end up being their tomb. I admire them for choosing to keep secret information that might possibly humiliate or shame any of them. Am I curious what specific kind of poor behavior prompted their promise not to speak? My roots in secular Western culture make me feel almost obligated to be curious. But I really do know better. And I am actually far happier being impressed by the miners’ decision as a group to behave well than being titillated by the details of how one or several of them responded to the hopelessness of those first days of being buried alive by behaving in ways that now, in retrospect, might seem undignified or unworthy. I often joke that the secret to success in the rabbinate is mastering the art of the unexpressed thought. That surely is true (as it is, I suspect, in many other professions as well), but there is a larger truth underlying that jokey thought: that society as a whole is far better served by its members feeling far more nobly called upon to keep still their tongues and to mind their own business than to labor to bring to light every squalid detail about life on earth one can possibly uncover or, even more challengingly, already knows.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Appelfeld, Follett, Zimmermann

One of the most mysterious rabbinic techniques for deriving meaning from Scriptural texts is called hekeish, literally “juxtaposition,” and is based on the supposition that discrete texts concerned with unrelated topics but which nonetheless appear as contiguous sections of the Torah can nonetheless shed light on each other because of that contiguity. It’s a bit of an obscure concept within the art of rabbinic commentary, but I find myself applying it more and more to books that I’ve just happened to read one after the other…and noticing how what I read in one volume appears to shed light on what I’ve read in the other book despite the fact that the latter volume appears at face value to have nothing at all to do with the first book. This too, I realize, is an obscure idea. At the very least, it’s an unlikely interpretive avenue to travel down. And yet…it keeps happening to me!

Just a few weeks ago, I finished reading Aharon Appelfeld’s great book, Blooms of Darkness. Appelfeld, who writes in Hebrew, has published five books since Blooms of Darkness first came out in 2005, but this is the most recent of his books to appear in English translation. I have read, I believe, all (or at least almost all) of the sixteen of Appelfeld’s novels to be published in English over these many years, but this last one I attempted, and succeeded, to read in the Hebrew original. For those of my readers who can manage Hebrew, it’s absolutely worth the effort of reading his books in language in which they are written. Appelfeld’s Hebrew is literary, but not at all stuffy or overly ornate. He writes in simple, declarative sentences. He never uses two adjective where one will do. What he writes about is stark, even in places shocking, but also oddly familiar. He writes mostly about the Shoah. And more often than not his protagonists are children.

Blooms of Darkness, in Hebrew Pirchei Haafeila, tells the story of an eleven-year-old boy named Hugo. His father has been deported, presumably to his death. His mother, terrified, decides to go into hiding but knows it will be safest for them both if Hugo and she are separated. And so, after several failed attempts to find someone willing to risk harboring her child, she manages to contact a girlhood friend of hers, a Ukrainian woman name Mariana, and to extract from her a commitment to hide young Hugo. It is never made entirely clear, however, if Hugo’s mother understands that Mariana is a prostitute and that the house in which she lives, and in which she intends to hide Hugo, is a brothel. She surely does not understand that the clients of brothels in Nazi-occupied Ukraine were almost exclusively German soldiers. But even if she does know all that—we never quite find out how much she knows about Mariana’s life—she still has had no choice but to follow through on her original plan…and so she deposits Hugo there and then she disappears. We don’t find out her fate. I hope many of my readers will be prompted to want to read Appelfeld’s book so I don’t want to give too much away. I will say, though, that the final few chapters were beyond riveting. Here, in a few masterful strokes, the artist has managed to depict the state of the Jewish people itself at the end of the war: the losses unfathomable, the sense of near-total alienation from what were once familiar, or even friendly, surroundings so total as to be irreversible, the inability to see more than a few minutes into the future widely understood to constitute far more of a blessing than a curse. You’ll feel drained when the book finally ends. Yet I recommend it very highly. And I plan to read more of Appelfeld in Hebrew. (He has published almost three dozen works of fiction since his first book came out in 1962 and I haven’t read any of them in the original except for this one, so I won’t run out of books to choose from any time soon.)

The day I finished Blooms of Darkness—and I read in Hebrew about a third as quickly as in English—there arrived on my doorstep a behemoth of a book that I had pre-ordered on months ago and then forgotten all about: Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants. I’m a big Follett fan. His books I’ve also read all of. Pillars of the Earth and World Without End were, I think, my favorites. In the decade after Pillars, he brought out a number of books that weren’t, in my opinion, up to his usual standard. But then he returned to form with World Without End and now he has embarked on the Century Trilogy, a projected series of which Fall of Giants is the gargantuan first installment. (And even when he was down, he wasn’t out. A Dangerous Fortune, which came out a few years after Pillars of the Earth, was terrific.)

Fall of Giants is a big book—it’s almost a thousand pages long—and concerns the interwoven paths of four families, one Welsh, one English, one Russian, and one German, in the years between 1911 and 1925. There are plenty of Americans involved too, including a cameo by a surprisingly unappealing Woodrow Wilson. Like most Americans, I don’t know as much as I should about the First World War. Even back in high school I remember not quite getting it, not understanding how a war that appeared to be fought over nothing at all could possibly have cost the lives of almost ten million soldiers, including 126,000 Americans. (The numbers are almost unimaginable: if included are the definitely dead, the presumed dead, and those grievously wounded in battle, the grand total of the killed and the maimed was well over thirty-seven million.) In a sense, Follett’s book is an attempt to use the medium of fiction to explain, plausibly if perhaps not definitively, how this could possibly have happened, what could possibly have brought humanity to the kind of brutal insanity that led to death on a scale that even a few decades earlier would have been thought unfathomable.

Clearly, the entry of the United States into the war in 1917 was the decisive factor in the eventual victory of the Allied Powers. And to a great extent Follett’s book is about what brought that about. Americans were dithering. President Wilson was openly committed to America remaining neutral. Even the loss of 128 American lives when the Germans torpedoed and sank the Lusitania in 1915 did not draw America into the war!

And then came the Zimmermann telegram. It’s a long, complicated story that Follett makes the centerpiece of his argument. Readers interested in the long version should read Barbara Tuchman’s first-rate book, The Zimmermann Telegram, but the short version has to do with the fact that the Germans had not used their submarines against civilian targets since the Lusitania, but were planning to begin unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1. Fearing that America might respond by entering the war, the Germans evolved a plan that was set forth in a telegram the German foreign secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, sent to the German ambassador in Washington in January of 1917 with the request that he forward it to the German ambassador in Mexico City. The offer was simple: if it appeared likely that the United States was going to enter the war on the side of the Allies, the ambassador was to approach the Mexican government and invite them to ally themselves with Germany. The Germans, the offer made clear, would respond by joining Mexico in militarily pursuing its efforts to return to Mexican sovereignty Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, as well as some other lands lost in the Mexican-American War of 1848. The rest, so Follett, is history. The Americans were clearly supposed to be so terrified of suddenly finding a Germany army massing on its southern border that intervention in Europe would become impossible. But the Brits managed to intercept the telegram and somehow to decode it. The contents was passed along to the Americans and revealed to the American public on March 1, 1917. America declared war on Germany on April 6. The Mexicans appear never even to have considered going to war with the United States.

It’s a long and crooked road from Room 40, the famous code-breaking section of the British Admiralty, to that lonely street depicted in Appelfeld’s novel as a boy from whom everything except life itself has been taken heartbreakingly walks slowly towards his former home to see if his parents have returned. (We know what he will find, or we think we do. Only Hugo has no idea.) And yet, there is also the breathtaking implication of Follett’s book as he leads us forward into the post-war era to consider. Because the Zimmermann telegram was decoded, he asserts, America entered the war. And it was because America entered the war that the Allied Powers won. And it was then because the Allies won and imposed on the losers a wholly ungenerous peace treaty that impoverished Germany, led to hyperinflation, and savagely humiliated the average German-in-the-street (none of whom had elected to go to war and almost two and a half million of whom had died in a conflict the point of which most would have been unable to explain, let alone cogently justify), National Socialism with its promise of future grandeur and restored military power—and also with its savvy understanding that blaming the Jews (who were present and could not defend themselves against the onslaught of a wholly hostile government) was going to play better than blaming Germany’s woes on foreigners with whom no German had any actual contact—was able to gain first a toehold, then a foothold, then eventually to come to power and thus to be in a position to self-grant its demented policies the authority of law.

And yet…Follett’s other suggestion, that absent American intervention the war would neither have been won nor lost by anybody at all but simply ground to a halt and been declared over, leads to that kind of historical “what-if” thinking that is so alluring and upsetting at the same time. If the telegram hadn’t been intercepted, would the United States have joined the war? If we hadn’t joined the war, how would the war have ended? If it had ended in a kind of draw without Germany being plunged into a pit of demoralization, poverty, and indebtedness from which no relief was imaginable, would the Nazis have come to power? You see where I’m going…and although one never finds out the answers to questions like these, they are still instructive to ponder.

We spend a lot of time telling ourselves that nothing matters, that no one can change the world, that we are all small fry in a world that barely pauses to notice regular people such as ourselves. But then we read a book like Ken Follett’s latest novel and suddenly it seems possible to imagine that the fate of the world rested, just for a day or two, in the hands of a single cryptographer in London who personally altered the course of history simply by doing his job. Is that so? No one can say or ever will be able to say. But it should give us pause for thought, we who too go to work every day and do things we like to imagine are not of any “real” consequence. That thought both appalls and appeals, the former because it confirms our sense of being personally unimportant in the greater scheme of things and the latter because it also allows us not to feel especially responsible for much more than ourselves and our families. But sometimes…our actions really do count and in ways that no one, least of all the actor him or herself, could possibly be expected to imagine in advance. Perhaps, in fact, that is the real lesson I learned from reading Follett on the heels of Appelfeld: that the noble path in life is to suppose that everything we do can and possibly even will have consequences far beyond anything we could even begin to fathom. The key, as always, is to be energized by that thought rather than paralyzed by it….and always to behave in a way that reflects the humility that kind of potential (unpredictable and indiscernible though it may be) can and should engender in us all.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

On the Death of Tyler Clementi

Like many of you, I’m sure, I find myself horrified yet also drawn to pondering the sad story of Tyler Clementi, the young Rutgers student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge to his death last week after his roommate used a surreptitiously placed camera to stream an intimate encounter he, Tyler, was having with another man in his dorm room on the internet for anyone at all to see. The whole story would be horrible enough, but making it even more peculiar is the oddly 21st century touch of the whole incident playing itself out on Twitter and Facebook. The sordid story begins with the roommate, now charged with invasion of privacy (along with another student who was apparently party to the scheme), posting a message on Twitter that says “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into M’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” And it ends just three days later with Tyler himself laconically announcing his imminent death on Facebook: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” In between, the world—or at least Tyler’s roommate’s world—had been invited to gawk at what ought to have been some of a young man’s most private moments.

It’s hard to know what to say. It’s a serious crime, one which under most circumstances carries a maximum prison term of five years but which will carry a maximum penalty of ten years in prison if the court agrees that the crime was prompted not merely by prurient tastelessness or by intense personal dislike but by bias against a recognizable group. The lawyer defending the young man accused of the crime will undoubtedly argue in court that no one, and least of all college students of his client’s generation, thinks of being gay as something so inherently shameful that someone whose homosexuality was suddenly revealed could reasonably be expected to respond by killing himself. Therefore, he will insist, the defendant could not possibly have foreseen the consequences of his act or understood that he was sentencing his roommate to death by revealing him to the world as a gay person. If he should be punished at all, his lawyer will continue, he should receive the same minimal punishment usually meted out to college students who take their undergraduate high jinks just a bit too far, who allow a prank to cross the barely visible line that adults with far more savvy than college freshmen step over all the time with impunity. He will point to celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Nathan Lane and Neil Patrick Harris and to a million other famous people who are openly gay and argue that no rational person could have expected that anyone would respond so violently or so permanently to being put publicly in their company. The whole thing, he will surely argue, was just a tasteless practical joke of the excessive kind that college students undertake all the time. How, the lawyer will ask rhetorically as he turns to face the jury, could anyone who has ever watched Jackass on television think otherwise?

By all accounts, Tyler was a shy young man. When the fifty people who lived in his dorm with him were asked after his death to raise their hands to indicate that they knew him personally only three hands went up. But shy or not, he was apparently a very talented musician, a violinist with real promise. A few hours before his death, in fact, he was practicing the violin parts to the Beethoven and Berlioz pieces he was scheduled to perform later this month with the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra. There’s no point now in guessing what the outcome will eventually be. Either the roommate and his friend will be convicted or not. The crime itself either will or will not be qualified as a hate crime. If convicted, Tyler’s roommate and his friend will either go to jail or they won’t. But no matter how the matter plays itself out in court, Tyler Clementi will still be dead and that has to be the detail that matters. Eventually, the story will vanish from the newspapers. Someone will move up to his chair in the violin section. Someone else will live in Tyler’s dorm room (although surely not with Tyler’s roommate). And other than for Tyler’s parents and family, people for whom the world will never again be the same, the world will keep on spinning.

Partially, the incident is just another example of the kind of cyber-bullying that has lately begun to plague our nation. (I was only vaguely aware of the phenomenon until just recently, but now I’ve learned—as I suppose we all have—just how serious a threat, and especially to young people, this kind of computer-based intimidation can be.) And partially the story is about a world in which it is still possible for a gay young man to be so uncertain about his right to live in peace in his own skin that suicide seems like a rational response to being outed. (A survey of over seven thousand middle school and high school students published last year yielded the remarkable information that two-thirds of gay teenagers feel unsafe in their own schools and that nine out of ten had personally been harassed because of their sexual orientation.) But the story is also about the right to privacy and the degree to which modern society has slowly downgraded the concept from a basic human right to a kind of character flaw.

We live in a world in which people consider it totally normal to broadcast even the most intimate details of their daily routines to any who agree to sign on to their Twitter accounts. (A friend in California mentioned to me the other day that one of the people whose tweets he receives daily reported on an especially satisfying bowel movement he had had earlier that morning.) People who want their “friends” to continue to visit their Facebook pages feel obliged to keep those pages alive with details about daily life that once would have been considered , to say the very least, tasteless to discuss in public. Supermarket tabloids seem to be in decline (the National Enquirer, which once had a subscription base of over six million readers now hovers at around one million), but that is not really because Americans have lost their interest in other people’s business. Indeed, it seems to me that the more interesting shift is from that interest being focused primarily on celebrities to it being satisfied by the ability to peer easily into the live of almost anyone one has ever met once admitted to the ranks of their “friends” or being signed onto their Twitter accounts.

In a way, we are dealing with the second-generation consequences of the double standard that allowed people to feel fiercely protective of their own right to privacy but also willing to read even the most lurid details about movie stars, politicians, and sports heroes without feeling that they have invaded that individual’s parallel right to confidentiality. Indeed, for all the Privacy Act of 1974 governs the use of information about individuals by government agencies, the right to privacy is not guaranteed per se to individuals by the Constitution. And that, combined with the constitutional guarantee of free speech, including free speech unfettered by considerations of good taste or gentility, created a world in which people really did find it reasonable salaciously to pry into the lives of famous people but unreasonable for the details of their own personal lives not to be considered sacrosanct. The whole world of gossip and gossip-based journalism has never drawn me particularly. But our culture always maintained, at least on the level of the individual, a certain basic sense that there are areas of personal life that should be off-limits to all by the most intimately interested parties. And it is that specific feeling, once shared by almost everybody, that has been replaced by the bogus notion that there is something morally wrong, even hypocritical, about wishing to keep some parts of one’s life private merely because that is how one wishes for things to be.

Tyler Clementi’s roommate, assuming he is guilty of the charges levied against him, behaved reprehensibly. But he is also a child of an age that considers the rare individuals who wish to keep their private lives private—and not because they feel ashamed of their behavior or because of some dire consequence that might possibly ensue if some detail of their private lives were to become known, but merely because they wish it to be so—to be, to say the very least, dinosaurs left over from the pre-digital age who somehow failed to become extinct with the rest of their species. For people such as himself, the notion that one might wish to keep one’s private life private seemed like a joke, like just the kind of peculiarity that practical jokes were practically invented to unmask. But it is just that assumption—that it is reasonable to humiliate individuals who wish their private lives to remain private because they themselves have opened the door to that kind of abuse by not being fully open to everybody they have ever met about every conceivable aspect of their inner and outer lives—that is the attitude that somehow underlies the horrific story of Tyler Clementi’s suicide.

When Balaam stood on a mountain peak with King Balak of Moab and together they looked down on the tents of the Israelites camped below, the former was moved to comment on the goodliness of the Israelites’ camp not by the design of their tents, but by the simple fact that they were set up in such a way that precluded any Israelite from glancing even unintentionally into the living quarters of any other. This attitude, that there is great good that inheres in the voluntarily willingness of the members of a society to grant privacy to others even in the absence of any formal legal obligation to do so, is what is lacking in Western society today in general and in American society in particular. The justice system will deal with Tyler Clementi’s roommate. Nonetheless it would be behoove us all to respond to the story of his untimely and unwarranted death by asking ourselves if we have succumbed to the sense that the wish for privacy is a quirk of some (stodgy) people’s (demoded) personalities rather than a basic human right to which every individual is naturally entitled….and which society should fiercely labor to protect.