Words Matter: Don’t Let Trump Limit Violent Extremism to Muslims

Words matter. How we refer to laws, government agencies, and people impact how we (and others) think of them. Which is why I’m terrified about reports that Trump is planning to rename a program from “Countering Violent Extremism” to “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism. ”

This change is not only about name.  It is also a change of focus, no longer looking at violent acts of white supremacy, for instance. I presume those acts would be left to some other law enforcement agency or program. But it is the change of name, and therefore message, that I find scary.

By explicitly limiting the taskforce to Islamic violence, Trump is implicitly sending the message that violence born of other beliefs is acceptable, or at the very least, not in the same category of “badness” as violence originating from Islamic extremism. I would even argue that he is speaking to a part of his base which holds racist, anti-Islamic or anti-semitic views, and telling them that acting on those views is acceptable, or even laudable.

The Dome of the Rock

I would remind people that Kristalnacht was not an official government action, but was a vigilante action which was tacitly condoned by the Nazi government. Changing the name of this program begins to move us a little closer to government policies that tacitly condone violence–as long as it is not perpetrated by Muslims.

You may think I’m overreacting. After all, it’s just a name, right? But what legitimate purpose is served by changing the name? It doesn’t even pass the test of “it’s a simpler name,” since it’s actually a longer name.

A signal is being sent. I assure you there are those among Trump’s base who are hearing it loud and clear. It may seem like it matters far less than appointments to various offices or executive orders that have immediate impact. But a name change such as this scare me far more than many of the practical decisions being made, because it is an explicit religious test.

I have always been a little wary of hate crime legislation–it relies too heavily on the intent behind an act rather than the act itself. Criminalize the act, not the motivation for it. This is a variant on hate crime legislation: Violent Extremism by Muslims is being given a different status from Violent Extremism by Christians. How long will it be before Trump is not only not condemning, but actually praising those who shoot up mosques?

Resisting Authority: First We Must Resist Ourselves

Many people have been talking and posting about Orwell’s 1984. They’ve found in it meaningful parallels to our present political situation. I want to suggest another book: Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority.

Milgram’s book describes his classic experiments in which he measured the degree to which normal people would obey instructions simply because they were given by an authority figure (in this case a scientist running an experiment). It may be the single scariest book I’ve ever read. It may be the most important book for us to read and remember in these times.

The concise summary of his research is this: two out of three people will apply what they believe to be a fatal shock to a subject (person) because they are told they must do so. There are ways to increase that percentage–such as by increasing the separation between the person receiving the shock and the one administering it–but in all variations of the experiment, at least two in every three individuals administered what they expected to be a fatal level of electricity.

These experiments were conducted

Cover of Book "Obedience to Authority"
Obedience to Authority

in the early ’60s, a direct reaction to the Holocaust. It was, in part, an attempt to understand how average Germans carried out Hitler’s plans.

These experiments have not been repeated or further explored because they have been seen as damaging to the subjects (the individuals who thought they were applying shocks). In fact, the Milgram experiments resulted in human subject committee approval being required for any studies involving human subjects.

We do not know whether knowing that there is a two in three chance that any of us would kill someone if ordered to do so changes our probability of doing so. It is my hope that it does. And that is why I think it is critical that we pay attention to Obedience to Authority now.  If we are to resist the encroachment of an authoritarian government, we must first accept that we are inclined to accept and aid that government.

We can resist.  We must resist. But to do that, we must first understand ourselves, and be willing to resist our natural inclinations.

Here I Stand

For years, I have been relatively careful about my postings. As both a freelancer and, at times, an applicant for more permanent positions, it has seemed sensible to keep politics (for the most part) out of my blog. I also believe that there are others who can speak more knowledgeably about politics than I, my field being spirituality and the sacred.

Times change, the rules change. I can no longer keep silent for fear of giving offense or limiting professional opportunities. The threat is too great. Too many of those who are more “expert” than I in politics turned out to be no more correct than I, and in many cases, were far less correct about events to come.

We, as Americans, face an existential threat. I put the odds of a “free and fair” election in four years at less than 50% (and by free and fair, I mean with no more interference than the electoral college, gerrymandering and voter ID laws have already imposed). Our current president truly does not understand the Constitution he swore to defend. More to the point, he doesn’t care. He cares about himself. And how he is seen.

Donald Trump has a need for everything to be all about him all of the time. At the moment, it’s pretty easy for him to garner headlines–it’s the first week and anything he does gets headlines. What happens in two weeks when a simple executive order is no longer as shocking  to us and the media? What will he do in order to draw our attention back to him? If he needs to launch a nuclear strike in order to get headlines, I suspect he will. He needs attention. Not wants it. Not enjoys it. Needs it as an addict needs drugs.

How do we resist? I have no idea. The Republican party has abdicated their responsibility towards America. They have placed winning ahead of achieving their goals. Trump does not represent Republican values–not those of Eisenhower, not those of Reagan or either Bush. Not even those of the Tea Party (which, in truth, weren’t all that Republican so much as socially conservative). Republicans in congress are unwilling to stand up to this president, to protect our democracy. And each day, as he becomes more entrenched, as he demonstrates his willingness to carry out personal vendettas against those who stand against him, fewer will be willing to stand against him.

And that is why I’m writing on politics. If I want federal civil servants to continue to put out truth despite the threat of retaliation, if I demand that Republican congressmen and women vote with their conscience rather than with a megalomaniac who has taken over their party, I must be willing to step forward. To identify this as a moral issue, and one for which I am willing to speak.

We are the resistance. We cannot negotiate. We must not bend. We must be the rocks upon which Trump breaks. Because we must outlast him, and we must be able to take back our Republic when the time comes. 

Ceasing to be Who We Were

As Eva and I proceed along the path to adoption, I’ve begun to notice children at various ages more often. And I’ve noticed how they entertain themselves.

Little children play imagination-based games with legos, cars, airplanes, dolls, dinosaurs or whatever happens to be handy (twig-spaceships are a favorite of mine). We all know that little children do this. We expect them to play this way. But adults? How would we look at an adult who sat at a table playing with toy airplanes, swooshing them around battling each other? We know that adults don’t do imaginary play this way. But why not?

What happens such that adults no longer engage in the story creation process using toys as props the way children do? What has changed such that we do not derive satisfaction from the process?

Similarly, take the case of the teenager. As teenagers, we were capable of spending hours on the phone with friends, delving endlessly into the details of our lives, or talking about nothing. Yet as adults, we tend not to have those long, rambling conversations. Again, I have to ask, what changed? Why did these conversations, that used to fill a central role in our lives cease to be a part of our lives?

I’ve got no answers here, just questions. But I think they’re interesting questions. And I think they may say something about what it means to grow up. And to some degree, I mourn the loss of those abilities.

Walking the Walk

At my current job, whether at the assisted living facility or the nursing home, my walk distinguishes me. Specifically, the speed at which I walk. If I were to walk at my normal pace, I would have to weave my way between residents like a driver on the New Jersey Turnpike. And admittedly, there are staff that do–especially the nursing staff, for whom the goal

Sea Lion Striding across the Sand (Copyright David Kominsky, 2015)
Sea Lion Striding across the Sand (Copyright David Kominsky, 2015)

is to get to the next patient quickly.

I, however, have learned to consciously slow my walk. To walk at a similar pace to that of the residents. It communicates that I’m available to talk, willing to literally as well as figuratively accompany them on their journeys. And often it does lead to the start of a real conversation as people strike up conversations as I walk besides them.

I contrast this to the instructions I was given when I started my first job as a market researcher. The corporate environment there was one of business-like efficiency. We, as new hires, were instructed to always walk through the offices with purpose and direction–which meant, quickly.

I am struck by the difference: in the beginning I was to walk quickly in order to show clients that there was no time wasted. Now, I walk slowly to communicate to my clients that they aren’t wasting my time if they want to talk with me.

Occasionally, I still catch myself striding along, in a hurry to get to a meeting, or to the next item on my agenda. And I catch myself, and slow down. I remember that my walk communicates something, and that walking quickly means, “I don’t have time for you.”

Spirituality and Photography: Mindfulness

Recently, I’ve given a couple of lectures on Spirituality and Photography (combining two of my interests and giving me to a chance to show off some of my photography while talking about something I’m actually qualified to talk about, spirituality). A number of people have asked to look at my notes for the lectures. And I’m really flattered, but . . . that rather assumes I’m working from a rather more fully outlined schema than I in fact do. When I make notes for a lecture, class or sermon, I put down just enough words to remind myself what I’m trying to say, and the basic structure of what I’m trying to say. Often, I won’t even look at those notes during the lecture, but they exist in case I need them.

Nonetheless, people have asked for me to share, so I figure I’ll go ahead and write a series of blog posts on the subject of Spirituality and Photography, beginning today with Mindfulness.

Mindfulness meditation is the practice of attempting to be aware of everything about something. So, if it is a sitting meditation, it might be a complete awareness of your body, breathing in and out, how your weight is being transferred to the chair or ground, and all thoughts that wander through your brain as you are trying to have no thoughts except those about your breathing, etc. If one is eating a piece of chocolate, we attempt to focus on the taste, the mouthfeel, the scent. To really notice the chocolate.

Looking at a photograph is very similar.

Blooming Dogwood
Blooming Dogwood

When we look at a photograph, we are completely aware of everything within the frame. Conversely, nothing outside the frame comes to our attention. In the photograph of the Blooming Dogwood, there could be a gorilla jumping up and down just to the right of the frame, but because it’s outside of the frame, we don’t pay it any attention. Our attention is limited to what is actually in the frame. (For the sake of relieving those of you who were concerned, there was, in fact, no gorilla in evidence when I took this photo).

This artificial limiting of what we pay attention to focuses our attention on what is present. The longer we look at the photo, the more we see. Color, composition, the things we can almost but not quite see, and our emotional response to the photo are laid more bare because our field of view is limited by the photographer’s choice in framing the photograph. To look at a photograph closely is to engage in a type of meditation.

When you take a photograph, the process is even more exacting. A photographer needs to develop the ability to truly see what we look at. It can’t be just about “gee, that’s pretty,” because what our brains see as pretty in real life will most often not translate to a pretty photograph. Our brains are able to filter out extraneous parts of an image. But when we create that frame of the photograph, we notice everything.

Forsythia
Forsythia

For instance, take the photo of Forsythia. I looked out my window one day a few years back, saw pretty flowers and took a photograph. When I took the photo, I wasn’t paying attention to the house in the background, the dead raspberry canes in the foreground, or the intersecting fences. Yet now, looking at the photograph, each of these intruding elements interferes with my attempt to show the profusion of yellow that spring forsythia blossoms bring. We are aware of the other visual elements because our brains do not filter them out in a photograph as our brains do in real life.

The photographer must learn to see real life as it will appear once photographed–to see all that is there, not just the part the brain wants to focus on. This is a form of mindfulness, of awareness of the world. Seeing what is instead of what we perceive. Paying close attention to the world is a common spiritual practice, across religious traditions. Doing it with a camera is just one more way of engaging our spiritual selves.

I’ve Been Gone a While

It’s been a while since I’ve written. Like a couple years. And I’ve been meaning to write for a bit now, but some technical difficulties intruded: I couldn’t log-in to the site. Now, after some technical support (thank you, Eva), I’m back.

So, what have I been doing since I wrote here? Well, I’m now working as the rabbi at Cedar-Sinai Park, a Jewish assisted living community and nursing home. I find the work deeply fulfilling and varied, everything from leading services to counseling those who are dying to teaching classes. And nothing makes you feel younger than working with a population whose children tend to be in their sixties.

In other updates, I’ve done some traveling, some photography (often together). Hey, want to see a blue footed booby? Look here:

Blue-footed Booby
Blue-footed Booby

 

I’ve been doing various kinds of work-like things: weddings, funerals, bar/bat mitzvah, some writing, some teaching.

And, time after time, I’ve thought that’s a great idea for a blog post, and then done nothing about it. So I’m hoping to be blogging more regularly again, putting forward a little bit of this and that. Putting out the ideas that make up my days and my life. A little Judaism, a little spirituality, a little photography, a little humor (as Eva might say, a very little bit of humor).

For now, though, the important thing is that the words are once again going on the (web)page, and being put out for your perusal.

Elections Past and Present

Every four years, at a minimum, I watch election night returns. Some years are permanently inscribed in my memory, others are only vague recollections.

I remember election night 1992: the first presidential election in which I’d voted (via an absentee ballot to Massachusetts because I was in college in Oregon). However, on that Tuesday evening, I was not in Oregon. I, my girlfriend, and two others had driven up from Portland to Vancouver, B.C., for a U2 concert (Achtung Baby). It was during this concert that Bono announced, for any of us in the crowd who happened to be from down south, that Bill Clinton had won the election.

While I don’t recall 1996, 2000 is seared into my personal history as well as the history of the United States. For those who may have forgotten, that was the year when Bush-2 may or may not have defeated Gore. It was also my first wedding anniversary. I recall jubilation as they first called it for Gore. Then despair as they began to call it for Bush, and then confusion for weeks as they didn’t know who to call it for.

2004, is a bit hazier in my recollection, though I recall being not particularly surprised at Kerry’s loss.

Then came 2008: Obama’s landslide victory. I was at CubeSpace. The country had just entered what many of us suspected would be the worst economic slide since the Great Depression. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq raged. And on that night, the world seemed like a brighter place. Four years later, I read back over my thoughts following that election, and sigh.

Last night, while Obama won again, my feeling was more relief than anything else: it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. But all of my hopes that Obama would bring a brighter future, and a different sensibility to Washington DC, those have been crushed by four years of rancorous partisan debate, and an increasing sense that the current two-party system functions only to fuel an increasingly myopic beltway culture.

Feeling disillusioned with an Obama presidency, I wonder if I will ever again be able to bring that sense of hope and expectation to political change, or whether it will take a new generation of voters. Voters who have not had their hopes for progress crushed time after time, as candidates found the political realities far more complex than their campaign slogans made them seem.

And yet, I know, that in another four years, I will again be watching election night returns, awaiting a glimpse of the future direction of our country.

Writing A Novel, Starting Tomorrow

November begins in roughly 10 hours. Which means, roughly 10 more hours of sanity (sanity being a relative term, in my case).

I have decided once again to embark on NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), in which I, along with many others attempt to produce a rough draft of a novel during the month of November. I last undertook this challenge in 2009, and blogged about it some. Unfortunately, while I did finish (or win, in the vocabulary of NaNoWriMo), I found myself dissatisfied with the ending. In fact, I remain dissatisfied with the ending, though I do spend some time, now and again, trying to improve upon it.

This time, however, I am embarking on a completely different type of novel: a young-adult spy novel. As opposed to my first attempt, this genre is much easier to satisfactorily end. That is one advantage of working in a more clearly defined genre. The danger, of course, is that the novel winds up feeling cliche.

But starting out with a rough outline (very, very rough), some character names and backstories, and at least 50,000 words ahead of me, I am filled with optimism. Check back as the month progresses as I discover just how crazy this is.

Making a Photo versus Taking a Photo

As I’ve ventured ever further into the world of photography, I begun to conceptualize a distinction in my mind between “making a photo” and “taking a photo.” Taking a photo is what we all do when we snap a picture of friends, or take a quick shot of pretty sight. Then we print it, email it, post it to the web, whatever it is we do with our photos now.

Making a photo is a more intentional process. It begins with seeing something, and saying, “wow, that could be  a cool picture.” Then we “compose” the photo (try to figure out what we want in the frame, and where). Then we take the picture. A case in point:

 

When I took this photo, I was intrigued by the flow of the rain over the car window. I thought it might make a pretty cool photo, especially Photo before editingwith the green background. I focused on the window itself, rather than what was visible through the window.

Unfortunately, you’ll note it looks kind of boring, washed out even. Frankly, just kind of gray.

So I began working on it with my editing software: I punched up the contrast so you could really see the impact of the water flowing over the grass. I added a bit more saturation and vibrancy to the colors.

Is this cheating? Shouldn’t photography be about faithfully representing what the eye sees?

Edited photo

I don’t think so. The camera cannot faithfully reproduce what we see with the naked eye. Our eye sees a wider range of light than a camera, a greater contrast than camera can capture. For me, one goal of photography is precisely not to replicate nature exactly, but to show something that we might not normally see, whether that be an image of flowing water stopped in time, or an examination of a smaller part of the light spectrum than our eyes would normally focus on.

As I said, there are those who think of this as cheating. But for me, this is the distinction between making a photo and taking a photo.