Thursday, November 30, 2017


People seem to expect rabbis—and I’m sure other clergypeople too, but I speak of what I know—people somehow expect rabbis to find the study of science unsettling, off-putting, and slightly threatening. Paleontologists have proven that dinosaurs existed, but they’re not mentioned in the Bible. Geologists have proven categorically that the world is something like 4.404 billion years old, but if you add up all those “begats” featured in Scripture you can barely get our planet’s age over 6000. Anthropologists have proven the existence of all sorts of classes of humanoid life that preceded our own, but the Bible describes Adam, the first man, as a fully recognizable example of Homo sapiens sapiens—our own subspecies—who is able from the get-go to speak, to till the soil, and to sew leaves into skirts. All of these are served up regularly as examples of reasons for people of faith to be wary about data that appears to contradict the simple meaning of the biblical narrative, but I’ve never been able to buy into that kind of skittishness. Indeed, the simple thought that, logically speaking, no two true statements can ever contradict each other—all truths by definition being congruent with all other truths—that seems to me a far more solid foundation on which to stand when viewing the world in its fullness and attempting to commune meaningfully with its Creator. The challenge, of course, is to find a way to fit all the pieces of the puzzle into a coherent whole without turning away from inconvenient, irritating, or disturbing data, which effort requires above all else not super-human intelligence but rather a deep sense of humility. Arrogance, not science, is the enemy of faith.

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between science and religion a lot since I began reading about ‘Oumuamua, a cigar-shaped reddish rock about 800 meters (that is, about 2624 feet) long that just recently passed by the earth on its journey from somewhere to somewhere else. (Its very apt name is derived from the Hawaiian for “messenger arriving from afar.”) When it was first noticed by scientists from the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy peering through the Pan-STARRS1 telescope located at the Haleakala Observatory last month, it looked like “just” another asteroid. Then, for a while, they though it was “just” a comet. Then, noting that ‘Oumuamua lacked most of the basic characteristics of comets, they went back to labelling it an asteroid…but the story has turned out to be much more complex than that.

In fact, ‘Oumuamua is now believed to be the first interstellar object within our own solar system that scientists have managed unambiguously to identify as such. Where it came from, no one can say. How long it travelled through interstellar space to get here is also unknown, as is its chemical composition. The most logical explanation for its existence has to do with the theory that, when solar systems are formed—and there are countless solar systems out there, the 2,701 planetary systems already identified by scientists almost definitely being the tiniest sampling of what scientists think are probably tens of billions of them out there in the cosmos—when these planets-around-a-central-star systems are formed, some material is cast off towards the edge of the system and then travels off into interstellar space where it might possibly one day chance upon some other solar system. The scientists’ assumption is that ‘Oumuamua is such a piece of rejected rock that has flown along for countless eons before coming unawares to visit for a while in our house.

It is definitely not from here. For one thing, it’s moving much too fast to have originated in our solar system. (The so-called “asteroid belt” between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter contains about 750,000 asteroids or comets, some of them hundreds of miles wide, so their common properties are well known.) For another, ‘Oumuamua’s orbit pattern is unlike any “normal” meteor or asteroid as well, which makes it impossible for it to have started out anywhere around here. And it’s already sort of gone—at least from the purview of land-based telescopes like the one in Hawaii. The Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescopes, in orbit since 1990 and 2003 respectively, can see it still and will be able to watch it pass by Mars next month. But after that it will disappear from even the Hubble and the Spitzer as, traveling at a speed of 28 miles per second, ‘Oumuamua finally passes by Jupiter next May. These are very big distances we’re imagining here: it will need until 2022 to pass by Neptune and will only arrive near Pluto in 2024. And then ‘Oumuamua will be gone for good. Or at least gone from our view, from our gaze…if not entirely from our imaginations.

Other than with reference to their common cigar-like shape, ‘Oumuamua is not anything like the spaceship that brought baby Kal-El to Kansas after Krypton blew up. It has no passengers, is not packed with data intended to document a distant but now-long-lost civilization, was not “sent” to us by anyone at all. And yet it speaks to me…and profoundly and suggestively.

Like the prophets of old, ‘Oumuamua has slipped past the gates of our solar system to stand up briefly in our planetary town square and tell us something deeply unsettling…about ourselves, about our place in the world, about the unreasonableness of our wholly unearned arrogance with respect to the rest of the universe. I can imagine ‘Oumuamua taking a quick look at the earth as it whizzes by us, noting our greatest accomplishments—our most impressive buildings and bridges, our most exquisite artwork, our vast libraries containing at least most of the 130 million books published since the dawn of printing, our space-based telescopes that allow us to see farther into the cosmos than any human beings before us ever could have dreamt of seeing.  And I imagine it chuckling to itself as it prepares to deliver its brief message before disappearing forever:

You have invented an incredibly complex system of culture and society, whereas I am a piece of reddish rock flying aimlessly through space. I am bound to no planet, to no solar system, to no master at all. I don’t even have the burden of a specific name: my name (in this, rather like your prophet Moses) is just something one of your people made up the better to speak of me to others. But I have been places you not only haven’t seen but can’t even begin reasonably to imagine. And, unlike yourselves, my journey will end so far in the future that even I cannot imagine what it would mean for that many years to pass, just as you surely also can’t. So we are nothing alike!

Or are we?  After all, you too cannot say from whence you come, from what source your soul arrived in you and granted you personality, identity, and a sense of self real enough to distinguish you from every other living creature.  Nor can you say where you are going when your time comes to abandon life to the living and move on to the next stage of existence.  So you don’t know where I have come from and you don’t really know where you came from either. You don’t know where I’m going and you don’t know where you’re going either. Maybe we’re more alike than we both thought at first!

We’re both here for the twinkling of an eye, for a moment, for the amount of interstellar time that matches the time it takes one an earthling to take a single breath. Yes, I am traveling at 28 miles per second, which speed none of you could ever attain. But you are traveling at breakneck speed through the days and years of your lives nonetheless…and, just as I cannot, so also are you unable to slow down or, even if it were possible theoretically, to speed up. You can only move forward, just like me, day by day, month by month, year by year…as destiny brings us both to the edge of what we know of the world and then propels us into the part of which we know nothing at all. So look upon me therefore and see, not a piece of space garbage, but a sermon in stone, a lesson, a thought worth pondering. We’re both here for a moment and then gone to whatever awaits us past the boundaries of knowledge and experience. I’ve gotten used to my journey and I’m making the best of what time I have here. (I have been on the move for hundreds of millions of your earth years, after all.) I suggest you do the same!

And that is why I neither fear nor feel threatened by science. If God is the truth of the world, then how can any true statement be other than divine praise? If God exists in reality, then how can anything else that exists threaten faith? If ‘Oumuamua is part of God’s universe, then who is to say that it didn’t come our way to teach us a lesson or to deliver a sermon…possibly even the one I wrote for it and presented above.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Talking About Bad Behavior

I didn’t give the whole Harvey Weinstein scandal too much thought at first. I noticed the story in the newspaper, of course, but dismissed it as yet another example of some Hollywood guy I had slightly heard of being accused of behaving poorly by a variety of women he must have imagined would never jeopardize their chances to be cast in one of his movies by reporting his misconduct to anyone at all, let alone to the police or to the public. To the extent the story engaged me at all, I suppose I was pleased that these women had found the courage to come forward and imagined that the police would now go on to determine if there were grounds for an arrest. And, if he were indicted of an actual crime and if he ended up tried in a court of law and if he were to be found guilty, that he would end up being sentenced by the court to some appropriate punishment. Doesn’t that exact thing happen in the courts of our country every single day? So why, I think I thought, why was this even news at all?

But what I didn’t foresee—nor, I think, did many of us—was the tsunami of accusations of predatory sexual misconduct levied against various people that followed—including at least one former president of the United States, several prominent actors, producers, directors, authors, photographers, political pundits, and comedians, a candidate for the United States Senate, and a host of lesser-known personalities.

Some of the accusations involve behavior that took place in the distant past, but other charges relate to far more recent times. Some of the charges are vague, but others are very specific and detailed. Some sound just a bit far-fetched, but others sound—at least to my ear—entirely plausible. Given that the presumption of innocence is one of the bedrock values of our justice system, the question I wish to explore today is not related to any of the specific charges anyone has made about anyone else. Nor do I have anything particular to say about the response of any particular police department or any specific public prosecutor to any of these accusations. (Their job, of course, is specifically not to presume guilt in the wake of accusation, but simply to investigate carefully and thoughtfully when one individual accuses another of wrongdoing and then either to charge or not to charge someone with a crime based on the outcome of their investigations.) But I’m more interested in people who have spoken out in public to accuse others of poor behavior without there being any chance at all of an arrest…either because the person accused has died in the interim, because the incident happened so long ago that the statute of limitations for that crime makes indictment a legal impossibility, because there were no witnesses to the alleged crime and no evidence to adduce in a court of law, or—in some cases—because the alleged incident involved behavior that, for all it may be have been loutish or boorish, did not involve the breaking of any actual laws. In cases like that, should people come forward to speak out? Or is that just so much loshon horo, that to say: gossip of the sort that decent people should avoid not only speaking themselves but even listening to. That is the question I’d like to explore this week.

It’s not that easy a question to answer. Our Jewish tradition has an extremely strong animus against talebearing. Scripture itself makes this explicit and rabbinic sources seem never to tire of finding ever more extreme language with which to condemn the intentional spreading of gossip, libel, or calumny outside the legal context. Indeed, there are a whole series of ancient texts that equate gossip with murder! And another set of texts that make explicit the point that the prohibition against gossip applies equally when the report is true and when it is false! So extreme, in fact, is the rabbinic aversion to telling tales in public about other people’s poor behavior that the rabbis imagined that the Torah actually needs formally to permit people to testify in court about other people’s bad behavior…and precisely because testimony in which one citizen speaks out in public about another’s bad behavior would otherwise be forbidden as talebearing and gossip. Nor are these strictures solely concerned with the one doing the talking: the classical sources also make it clear that the prohibition against talebearing involves not only telling damning tales about others, but also listening to them. So making a case against speaking up other than to report misconduct to the police or to give testimony in court would be relatively easy to make.

But, even despite the sources referenced above, the evidence of tradition is nonetheless equivocal and, in fact, there are many instances in which the general prohibition about speaking poorly about others is waived. It is not considered slanderous, for example, for an employer to answer honestly if a former employee has given his or her name to a potential future employer so that the latter can ask the former about the employee’s skills and work ethic, and this is so even if the honest answer to the question asked reflects poorly on the employee.  Nor is it prohibited to alert someone to some potential danger even if doing so involves saying something about a third party that under other circumstances would be prohibited as gossip or slander.  And, as mentioned above, it is not only not prohibited but legally required that eye-witnesses to wrongdoing step forward to give testimony in court even though this will obviously almost often involve speaking ill of the accused individual.
Most crucial for the issue under discussion, the fact that the very verse in the Torah that prohibits talebearing goes on to warn against “standing idly by the blood of another” was taken by the rabbis unequivocally to mean that it is actually forbidden to remain silent when speaking out might prevent harm to some innocent third party. The rabbis understood that wrongdoing, and particularly sexual misconduct, is more reasonably to be taken as a function of character than of opportunity. And, that being the case, it seems reasonable to think of wrongdoing as something in which wrongdoers habitually engage rather than as solitary occurrences that unpredictably occur when weak-willed individuals find themselves just one single time at the malign confluence of opportunity, desire, and recklessness. In my opinion, this is the context in which we should evaluate the rightness or wrongness of coming forward to report on predatory behavior directed against oneself outside the context of making a report to the police or giving testimony in a court of law.

We live in a world of almost unimaginable vulgarity. Indeed, we have all become so inured to profanity, tastelessness, and crudity that we barely notice it any longer. Even principled opposition to such things sound ridiculous to most of us or, at best, schoolmarmish and priggish. Imagine, for example, someone who were simply to refuse to watch movies featuring obscene language, or someone who made the conscious decision not to attend theatrical performances that featured indecently dressed actors or actresses, let alone naked ones. There are such people in the world…but which of us would want to be thought of as the kind of naïve, culturally backwards person so unattuned to the reality of modern culture as actually to be offended by its excesses? Nor do I speak as a beacon of virtue in this regard—I myself go to such shows and see such movies without giving the decision to purchase my ticket even a moment’s thought. Perhaps that’s simply how things are in this world we have constructed for ourselves…but that is also the context in which people feel free to behave in ways that would once have been considered not merely degenerate, but truly debauched. This is not to excuse the behavior of the sexual predators among us—just to observe that all of us together have chosen to create, and then to tolerate, a world in which sexual predators feel free to act, some on the supposition that they will never be caught and others simply because they don’t really see what’s wrong with their behavior. They are the wrongdoers, to be sure. But we, speaking for society itself, have created the stage upon which they have been able to perpetrate their wrongdoing. And when we are done being titillated by the avalanche of detailed accusations we have heard and read over these last few weeks, it would be more than appropriate to consider what we as a society have wrought. And also what we could conceivably do to create a world in which immoral, predatory behavior is not merely against the law, but something ordinary people—men and women alike—consider truly unimaginable.
And that brings me back to my initial question. Should people speak up if there is no chance of bringing the people they are accusing of wrongdoing to justice? I think that the question has to turn on the likelihood that a public accusation will rescue future victims. If the accused party, say, is dead—and there is therefore nothing to be gained by the accusation other than besmirching the reputation of someone who cannot defend him or herself—I think it would probably be best simply to remain silent.  If there is a reasonable expectation of legal action against an aggressor, then speaking up is not only allowed but requisite. If there is no chance of legal action, however—for example, if the statute of limitations makes an indictment impossible—then the issue has to turn on the possibility of saving future victims from a predator’s grasp by speaking up. If that possibility exists, then victims should come forward even if there is no reasonable expectation of an arrest or a trial, let alone a conviction.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Guns in America

We give hurricanes and tropical storms names—or the World Meteorological Organization does—primarily to make it possible to reference them without having to remember their precise dates and where exactly they made landfall: talking about Harvey, Irma, and Maria is a lot simpler than trying to reference them as “that storm in Texas back in August…or was it September?” or “that hurricane that ended up on the other side of Florida from the one they expected it to savage.”  But although naming them surely does make it easier to talk about them, it also personifies them in a strange way that makes them sound less like unavoidable natural disasters and more like unwanted visitors whose arrival could presumably have been prevented had we only thought in advance to turn off the porch lights and pull in the welcome mat. (By the way, did you know there are only six lists of names used for storms in each separate ocean region, each series repeated every six years other than when super-storm names like Katrina are permanently retired and a new name starting with that letter is chosen? Click here for a list of the names of future storms through 2022.) Still, the practice is probably more useful than wrong-minded, and it is at any rate here to stay.

We don’t have a similarly adorable way to refer to the perpetrators of mass shootings, however. Partially that is because the shooters actually have names and so hardly need new ones assigned to them. And using their real names feels right for another reason as well—because it is makes it feel more natural just to blame the shooter for the shooting and be done with it than to ask if society itself bears any responsibility for these horrific acts of bloodshed. And that impetus to look no further than the shooter to explain the shooting is incredibly strong. Indeed, when the President said the other day that the massacre in that Texas church was “about” mental illness and not guns, he was merely giving voice to the siren sentiment that Sutherland Springs had nothing to do with society itself, just with some crazy person who ran amok with a Ruger AR-556 semi-automatic rifle in his hands. And what could that possibly have to do with anyone other than the shooter himself?  Yes, it is true that there is the horrific mistake made by the Air Force in this specific case to take into account—an error that allowed a man with a criminal record for uncontrollable violence to purchase a gun he should have been forbidden by federal law to acquire—but that detail, for all it is truly upsetting, is also strangely re-assuring. It was just an error, you see: if the Air Force had correctly entered the shooter’s domestic violence court-martial into the proper federal government data base, then he would indeed have been barred from purchasing the weapon he used to murder all those innocents at the First Baptist Church last Sunday and his victims, including a dozen children, would still be alive. So it’s all about Devin P. Kelly, the shooter. And it’s a little bit about the Air Force. But it’s easy to insist that it’s not about anyone but the shooter…and particularly not about people who hadn’t heard of him or Sutherland Springs, Texas, until last Sunday.

That, however, is only one way to interpret things. If the President is right that this and similar crimes are all manifestations of mental instability on the part of the shooters and thus unrelated to questions of gun safety or gun control, then our nation—that had thirty times as many gun murders in 2015 than Canada, Australia, or Spain—should also have thirty times as many mentally-ill citizens. But I cannot find any survey that suggests that that is even remotely how things are. France, for example, is just behind us in terms of percentage of citizens treated for mental illness, but had one-thirtieth the number of gun murders that we did in 2007 (the last year for which I could find accurate figures)…just the same as the countries mentioned above.  So, whatever these figures ultimately mean, they clearly do not mean that we have thirty times the gun murders that other countries have because we have thirty times as many deranged citizens in our midst. (For two interesting surveys comparing the prevalence of mental health issues in various countries, click here and here.) But if that is the case, then why do we have these endless mass shootings to contend with in our country?

Part of the answer does indeed have to do with craziness, but not with the craziness of the shooters. In a Pew Research Center poll conducted last March and April, a full 11% of Americans responded that they did not feel that it should be illegal for mentally ill people to purchase guns. In a Quinnipiac University National Poll conducted last month, 12% of the respondents who live in households with guns responded that they saw no reason for a nation-wide ban on the sale of guns to people convicted of violent crimes. The response from respondents who live without guns was, in a sense, even more astounding: 15% of those responders—all of them people who themselves do not own guns—agreed that there was no need for such a national ban of gun sales to violent criminals. But even harder for me personally to fathom is that 7% of people who live with guns and 4% of people who don’t feel that there is no need to subject would-be gun purchasers to any sort of background checks at all—in other words, that guns should be sold in America in roughly the same way Starbuck’s sells coffee: to whomever walks in and has the purchase price in hand. And one final statistic to ponder: when asked if they agreed with the thought that a ban on the sale of guns to people convicted of violent crimes would reduce gun violence, 39% of people who live in “gun households” disagreed, as did 25% of people who live in households without guns. (Click here to see these statistic in more detail.)

I find all of the above unfathomable. Who are these people that don’t think that keeping guns out of the hands of violent criminals would reduce gun violence? It’s a good question, too: if 25% and 39% average out at 32% of our American population, that would be about 104 million people who don’t see a clear correlation between criminals owning guns and crimes that involve the use of guns being committed. Clearly, I’m missing something here. But what could it be?

The right to bear arms is part of our national culture, part of our distinctive American ethos. The Second Amendment guarantees the right of citizens to belong to armed militias—presumably envisaged by the founders as state-wide fighting forces called into existence to defend the citizenry against outside aggression—but already in our nation’s infancy this was interpreted to guarantee the right of individual citizens to bear arms even outside the framework of organized fighting forces. And the notion that reliance on a central government to make and keep the citizenry safe is invariably going to be a good idea is not a point anyone even slightly conversant with Jewish history can or should argue as though it were a self-evident truth. And so I find myself torn in different directions here, wishing the Jews of Kovno, say, had been armed when the Germans came to take their children, but—without feeling naïve or foolish—simply not believing that kind of danger to be plausibly something we could ever encounter in America.

In my heart, I really do think that America is different…and that the foundational ideas upon which our republic rests and for which it stands really do guarantee our safety more than a Ruger AR-556 in each of our broom closets ever could. And, that being the case, I simply don’t see how anyone can read the Second Amendment to imply that every citizen, even mentally ill individuals or people convicted of violent crimes, has the right to own weapons capable of murdering fifty-eight people in a matter of minutes, as Stephen Paddock did last month in Las Vegas when he started shooting from his hotel room window at concert goers gathered below. When the President said with respect to the massacre in Texas last week that this was a “mental health issue at the highest level,” he was entirely right—but not in the way he meant. Yes, I’m sure that Devin Patrick Kelly will be posthumously diagnosed as deranged. But truly crazy is a nation in which scores of millions of citizens do not believe that making an effort, even an only partially successful one, to keep guns out of the hands of violent criminals and mentally ill individuals would reduce gun violence in our land.

Clearly, this problem is not going to be solved with one grand gesture by Congress. But small steps forward are also worth taking. Writing in the Times last week, Nicholas Kristof offered a heartening parallel by pointing out that our nation had one-ninth the deaths in automobile accidents in 2016 than in 1946, and that those seventy years of progress can be explained by the slow, incremental introduction of more and more innovative practices that simply made fatalities in cars less likely: seatbelts, air bags, child safety seats, etc.  That is a dramatic change from my father’s generation (my Dad was 30 years old in 1946) to my kids’ generation (my younger son had his 30th birthday earlier this year). And it happened simply because there was a concerted, unambivalent national will to make it happen. And because scientists of various sorts were able to find ways to make cars safer without making them undrivable or unbearably slow or unwieldy. If that happened, and it did, then guns too can become safer. And the laws that govern their use can be made tighter in rational and reasonable ways…and without strangling or stunting the gun-owner’s legitimate right to bear arms. Take a look at Kristof’s article (click here), and you’ll see what I mean. Small steps are worth taking…even if they only yield truly dramatic results over decades.

If Sandy Hook wasn’t enough to bring us to our senses, it’s hard to imagine what would be. And yet…it simply doesn’t seem possible that there is no way at all to reduce gun violence in America. All that is required is some unequivocal national resolve to act…and creative, inspired leaders prepared to lead us up out of this morass into which we have sunk.

Thursday, November 2, 2017


John Kelly, the White House Chief of Staff, seriously got my attention the other day when he suggested that the Civil War could have been averted had people on both sides been more willing to compromise, which thought he then followed up with a wistful observation about the consequences of parties in opposition being unwilling to meet each other halfway: “…men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand [as a result] where their conscience had to make their stand.” In other words, Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, was putting forth the notion that the deaths of almost a million people (including soldiers on both sides, free civilians, and slaves) could have been averted, possibly even totally, had people with opposing views only been willing to reach a compromise that would have been at least marginally satisfactory to all sides without requiring that anyone on either side compromise his or her own principles unduly…or at least impossibly. But is that really true?

There are two ways to approach that question. One is to note that the decades leading up to the Civil War were filled with so many compromises set in place to hold the union together that it’s hard even to remember their precise chronological order. (The correct order is as follows: the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise Tariff of 1833, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. There were also any number of lesser-known, unnamed efforts and initiatives intended to defuse the tension between slave states and free states, each of which too was some sort of compromise.) So to say that these people simply couldn’t compromise isn’t quite right: in a sense, all they did was compromise. But, in the end, because each of these compromises ended up permitting slavery to continue, even if managing in one way or another to delimit its extent (and particularly outside of the traditional South) or its terribleness, they all came to naught. And that was because people who loathed the “peculiar institution” could never truly be content with any compromise that allowed men and women in bondage to be treated as chattel that could be bought and sold rather than as actual human beings possessed of inalienable human rights. To suggest, therefore, that the responsibility for the bloodiest of all American wars rests equally on the shoulders of all concerned because their shared disinclination to compromise led inexorably to war—that is the viewpoint I’d like to write about this week.

Time has not been kind to our founders with respect to their inability to see slavery as a pure evil to be eradicated, not tolerated…and regarding which compromise aimed at making slavery less bad was therefore impossible.

Some readers may have come across an extremely interesting essay by Noah Feldman, a professor of Law at Harvard, that was published in the New York Times last week. (For readers who didn’t see it, click here.) In it, Feldman writes about James Madison, our fourth president, and suggests that people trying to unravel the racial politics of modern-day American start by contemplating his willingness to compromise. Madison was a principled man. He regularly referenced the inherent right to liberty of enslaved individuals, including his own slaves. At one point he suggested—apparently entirely seriously—that Congress sell the western lands acquired through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 to raise the $600,000,000 he estimated it was going to take to purchase every slave in the United States, all 1,500,000 of them, and grant them their freedom. (His plan was for Congress to find the money to send the newly-freed slaves back to Africa, where he felt they could flourish best absent the inherent “prejudices of the whites” that would have made it unlikely that they could simply live as free Americans in this country.) He left clear instructions to his wife, Dolley, to free all his slaves after his death, which instructions she for unknown reasons did not obey. In other words, here was the man among our founders who truly understood the perniciousness of slavery…and who wished, not only for the slaves he personally owned, but for all slaves held in bondage in the United States to be freed.

In other words, here was a man whose middle name was Compromise. He understood the badness of the institution and he came up with suggestion after suggestion to seek the kind of compromise that would end it permanently without wrecking the economies of states that were built on slave labor. Yet he went along with the idea of prolonging the slave trade for decades after independence (the importation of slaves from overseas only ended here in 1808) as the price for bringing Georgia and South Carolina into the union.  It was Madison who first proposed that each individual slave be considered the equivalent of three-fifths of a free person for the sake of determining how much each state owed the federal government. That specific proposal was not accepted, but the Constitutional Convention of 1787 did indeed adopt Madison’s proposal in order to determine representation in Congress based on the population of each state. Was that the specific kind of thoughtful compromise that General Kelly wishes men like Madison had been around to implement in the 1850s?

Is compromise always a virtue? In the years leading up to the Second World War, compromise after compromise was reached with Nazi Germany in an attempt to head off war. But if, instead of offering up other people’s land to the Germans in 1938, France and England had gone to war, it seems at least possible that a swift victory, followed by regime change, could have been attained. If the United States had been involved from the beginning, victory would have been not merely possible, but more than likely. Compromising with evil—with the fascism behind Nazism or the racism behind pro-slavery sentiment—nothing too good can ever come of that kind of compromise.

I have a special relationship with James Madison, but I’m guessing no readers will be able to guess what it is. Do you give up? You might as well: my relationship with our fourth president is rooted I the fact that the apartment house in Queens that I grew up in was called, of all things, “The James Madison.” (Most of the six-story red-brick apartment houses along Yellowstone Blvd. and 108th Street in Forest Hills were named after some historical figure from our nation’s past. Before we lived in the James Madison, we lived up the hill from there in the Benjamin Franklin, also known as 103-26 68th Road.) So I grew up feeling some sort of strange kinship with the man. And he was, in many ways, one of our nation’s most worthy founders.  As Jefferson’s Secretary of State, he managed to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase that expanded our nation’s borders far beyond the Mississippi. He successfully guided our nation through the War of 1812, which resulted in the firm establishment of the U.S among the family of nations and made of us a naval power to be reckoned with. He personally wrote the Bill of Rights.  But he was willing to tolerate slavery even though he clearly believed the institution to be morally indefensible. In other words, he was prepared to compromise…even if doing so meant abandoning one of the most basic of all principles upon which our national ethos was and is based, the inalienable right of every individual to live free.

Is it fair to look down on people for accepting as givens the basic beliefs about the world that “everyone” simply believes to be true? A few years ago, I remember reading and slightly liking Markus Zusak’s 2005 novel, The Book Thief.  The plot was a bit contrived and the writing, I thought, easily betrayed the book’s origin as a so-called “young person’s novel.” But what interested me was the framework itself in which the story unfolded: set among eleven-year-olds in 1943, the plot concerns children who have in their lives only known Nazism as their nation’s guiding philosophy. All the figures of authority in their lives are openly anti-Semitic and fully subscribed to the principles of Nazi fascism—and that list includes their teachers in school, their minister in church, the policemen in their town, the mayor and his town council, all the shopkeepers, the librarians in the public library, and their doctors and dentists.  In other words, the characters in the book are children who have never known life other than under the Nazis. Mostly, they accept as obvious truths the lies they hear from all the authority figures in their town. But not all do, and in particular one specific girl, the so-called “book thief” herself, does not—and so comes to understands the perniciousness of Nazism without anyone explaining it clearly to her, rebelling against a philosophy so pervasive in her time and place that her friends barely even notice its existence as a thing that even could be evaluated, let alone rejected.

We tend to lionize people who somehow find it in them to look past what everybody just “knows” to see a truer, clearer version of reality—like those in antebellum America who somehow knew to reject all those quasi-scientists and ardent theologians (including rabbis) who felt certain that slavery was a reasonable institution because black people were intellectually and emotionally inferior to white people. Today we laugh at that kind of “scientific” justification of racism…but what of people who lived in a world in which everybody just “knew” that to be true, the same way we today just “know” that it is reasonable to own and trade animals—and to eat their flesh and wear their skins—because they presumably exist in the first place solely to serve humankind?

General Kelly was wrong when he argued that the Civil War could have been averted by compromise not because yet another compromise could not conceivably have been worked out between free and slave states, but because any compromise that ultimately left chattel slavery intact was almost by definition doomed to collapse eventually. Those possessed of a clear moral vision understood that easily, and also that enduring compromise is only truly possible when both parties to it can respect the other side’s opinion and its proponents’ right to hold it. But when the other side favors something openly evil and wrong, compromise is impossible…and reprehensible. The Civil War could have been averted by abolishing slavery in all states and working out a way to keep the economies of the slave states from collapsing. That would not have been labeled a compromise—it would have been labelled a bold stroke to preserve the union not by compromising its most basic values but by affirming them.