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The Inconvenience of Truth

And Justice for All?

double-standards--crs-presents-new-challenges-for-global-tax-reportingTwo Israelis have been sentenced by an Israeli court for the murder of a Palestinian teenager.

How many Palestinians have been sentenced by Palestinian courts for the murder of Jews?

Guest Post: No Good Deed…

6395aa71f4004cdc35e0bfe54fb6a3b3A poor Jew finds a wallet with $700 in it. At his synagogue, he reads a notice saying that a wealthy congregant lost his wallet and is offering a $100 reward for it. He spots the owner and gives him the wallet.

The rich man counts the money and says, “I see you already took your reward.”

The poor man answers, “What?”

“This wallet had $800 in it when I lost it.”

They begin arguing, and eventually come before the rabbi.

Both state their case. The rich man concludes by saying, “Rabbi, I trust you believe ME.”

The rabbi says, “Of course,” and the rich man smiles. The poor man is crushed.

Then the rabbi hands the wallet to the poor man.

“What are you doing?!” yells the rich man.

The rabbi answers, “You are, of course, an honest man, and you say the wallet you lost had $800 in it. Therefore I’m sure it did. But if the man who found this wallet is a liar and a thief, he wouldn’t have returned it at all. Which means that this wallet must belong to somebody else. If that man steps forward, he’ll get the money. Until then, it belongs to the man who found it.”

“What about my money?” the rich man asks.

“Well, we’ll just have to wait until somebody finds a wallet with $800 in it…”

I’m taking a couple of weeks off from writing, unless something really compelling comes along.  See you in January.

Pollard and Nuremberg

20pollard-web4-master675-v3The case of Jonathan Pollard was more complicated than most people understood.  His actions may have placed others in danger, and may have contributed to the death of agents he compromised.  But almost everyone agrees that his punishment was disproportionate to his crime, and the sense of joy upon his release is more than justified.

The real take-away is this:  whether one agrees with or disagrees with what Mr. Pollard did, he followed his conscience, and he was prepared to accept the consequences of his actions.  If only more of our fellow citizens and more of our political leaders demonstrated the same courage and conviction.

Of course, not everyone’s moral compass is adequately calibrated.  Edward Snowden also believed that he was following his conscience, and the morality of his actions is far more questionable for his having caused more damage by far than did Jonathan Pollard.

The Nuremberg trials after WW II changed forever the interrelationship between civil and moral law.  No longer would it be legitimate to claim “I was only following orders” as a defense for crimes against man.  A soldier has an obligation to refuse to carry out an immoral order, even if by doing so he puts himself in danger of court martial.

We should all consider ourselves foot-soldiers in the culture wars that threaten our society.  But moral obligation implies more than just following our conscience.  It means investing the effort, energy, and thought necessary to understand the decisions we will have to make and their consequences.  Otherwise, our claim to the moral high ground can become a smokescreen to hide our moral irresponsibility.

That’s what makes Jonathan Pollard a hero in the eyes of so many, and Edward Snowden, perhaps, something very different indeed.

Can we Stay Honest in a Dishonest World?

DENVER, CO. - MARCH 07: Colorado's high court hears school funding lawsuit arguments, March, 07, 2013. The case, Lobato vs. State of Colorado, was filed in 2005 by a group of parents from around the state and school districts from the San Luis Valley.   LEFT TO RIGHT:  Nathan Coates, Gregory Hobbs, Michael Bender, Nancy Rice, Allison Eyd and Brian Boatright.  , (Photo By RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The biggest tragedy of the Supreme Court decisions on Obamacare and gay marriage was not the decisions themselves. It was the perception, by both winners and losers, that these decisions were not reached based on legal principle but upon political ideology and personal bias.

Which means that, regardless of which side won, the country as a whole lost.

Honesty has seen its market value tumble over the years with countless reports of plagiarism, factual carelessness, and blatant fabrication. It’s bad enough when such prevarication comes from the media. But what’s really cause for alarm when it becomes the norm among our political leaders.

The sad truth is that truth from our politicians has become far more the exception than the rule. But the brazenness with which they conjure up easily verifiable falsehoods grows ever more astonishing.

Once integrity disappears, the only motive not to lie is fear of not getting away with it — and get away with they have, in a society that has grown indifferent to lying.

We may not be able to stop the lying in politics. But here are ten ways we can prevent the erosion of our own integrity.

Expanded and updated from an article published earlier this year.  Click here to read the whole article.

Honor (is learned from) Thy Father

Pearland defensive back Matt La Chiusa and his teammates stand during the playing of the National Anthem before the Oilers' opening game of the 2014 Texas high school football season against the Conroe Woodlands College Park Cavaliers played on August 29, 2014 at Woodforest Bank Stadium in Shenandoah, Texas. Pearland would go on to win the contest 25-14.

I was ten or twelve years old. My father and I had arrived at the stadium early, and I felt a thrill of excitement as we stood up for the Star Spangled Banner. Down on the field, our home team, the Los Angeles Rams, stood in a line holding their helmets under their arms. And in the row in front of us, a middle aged man stood with his hat perched casually upon his head.

The man didn’t respond.  “Hey you,” my father said, louder, “take off your hat.”

The man grunted an unintelligible, though clearly dismissive remark.

“You unpatriotic SOB,” growled my father; he didn’t abbreviate, either.

Dad!” I whispered, mortified and afraid, but also faintly confused.  My father had never before demonstrated any dramatic displays of patriotism.

The national anthem ended, the game began, and I guess I forgot about the incident because I never discussed it with my father, never asked him to explain an indignation that seemed entirely out of character.

But now I’m a father myself, and I don’t find my father’s action thirty years ago perplexing at all.

Why should we take off our hats for the national anthem?  Why should we stand up for the flag?  Why should we address strangers as “Sir” or “Madam,” wear coats and ties to church or synagogue, and give up our seats to the elderly?

It’s a matter of respect.  Respect for people.  Respect for institutions.  Respect for wisdom and values and human dignity.

Unfortunately, respect has been going out of fashion for a long time.  Sex scandals and no-fault divorce have eroded respect for marriage and commitment.  Partisan politics has eroded respect for leadership.  Inflated grades and deflated standards have eroded respect for teaching.  Abortion-on-demand and doctor-assisted suicide have eroded respect for life.  “Reality television” has eroded respect for ourselves.

Which was our first step onto this slippery slope?  Maybe it was the noble ideal of social equality, set spinning so wildly out of control that we began to equate respect with elitism.  Maybe the information glut convinced us that we know as much about medicine as our doctors, as much about cars as our mechanics, and as much about education as our children’s teachers.  Maybe our relentless pursuit of leisure time has made us too selfish to value age and experience, too lazy to act civilly toward our neighbors.

When respect is not earned, it disintegrates; when respect is exploited, it implodes.  Indeed, after his desperate quest for legacy, Bill Clinton was best remembered at the time of his departure as the American president who made his underwear preferences a matter of public policy, who pilfered the White House china,  and for whom a large percentage of once-self-respecting Americans so casually excused perjury in federal court.  Barack Obama will leave behind the first video of an American president making faces in the mirror in preparation for an historic selfie.

conversation-startersBut we should never rely on respect to percolate down from the top; it is our responsibility to grow it up from the grass roots.  It is the job of parents to teach their children to say “please” and “thank you,” to not interrupt and not talk with their mouths full, to speak civilly and give up their seats to the elderly, to pick up their own litter and maybe even someone else’s.  By doing so, parents instill in their children an intuitive sense of respect for others, even if their children may not understand why all these social minutiae are indispensable.

But too many parents have abdicated that job, either because they’re not around enough or because they never learned to be respectful themselves.

The Talmud says that where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader yourself.  In today’s increasingly fatherless society, teachers, scout leaders, and little league coaches have a greater obligation than ever to teach respect by showing respect for others — and so do we all every time we walk down the street or through the supermarket aisle.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  And a journey through life begins with a step in the right direction.  Help a child take that step and, many steps later, his success will speak his thanks louder than words.

Every Father’s Day offers a reminder to say every day:  Thanks, Dad.

Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Proverbial Beauty: Browse paperback and Kindle versions at Amazon

Fighting for whose rights?

Here we go again.

Socrates gave up his life for the ideal of pure wisdom.  Galileo was threatened with torture for his commitment to scientific truth.  Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison for his campaign to end apartheid.

img_6463-full-moon_smqtAnd now, attorney Steven Wise is seeking to be the next torchbearer for virtue and justice by seeking legal personhood for two chimpanzees currently deprived of their primatial integrity by incarceration in the anatomy department of New York’s Stony Brook University.  Mr. Wise has even found a judge willing to hear his case.

This is a natural outgrowth of our collective obsession with rights and entitlement which has, proportionally, shrouded our notion of personal responsibility.  A healthy culture recognizes that it has a moral obligation to show compassion to all living creatures.  But as the very concept of morality flickers and fades from social consciousness, only the assertion of rights prevents the rapid disintegration of society.

And as we lose our sense of responsibility, the distinction between man and animals grows harder to define until, ultimately, it all but disappears.  In California, the “rights” of a little fish trump the welfare of humans:  crops wither in arid fields during the worst drought on record as the state dumps trillions of gallons of fresh water into the ocean.

It’s worth noting that in 1933, two years before the Nuremberg Laws stripped German Jews of both civil and human rights, the Nazi government passed some of history’s most progressive laws for the protection of animals, legislation considered emblematic of the highest moral values of a people.

Elevating animals to the level of human beings inevitably results in human beings acting worse than animals.

Holocaust Day — Visionaries and Ideology

imagesWho knew a trip to New York could be so emotional?

I didn’t want to go in the first place. As my 92-year-old student likes to quote: Travelling is for peasants.

But my wife convinced me with simple arithmetic. Four tickets to bring three kids and son-in-law home or two tickets to visit them. No-brainer.

So I went grudgingly, confirming in the end the truism that some of life’s most profound moments come not only unexpected but against our will.

Our first stop was the 9/11 museum. I marveled at the artistic vision that had conceived the memorial pools, the water channeling down in rivulets that mirrored the face of the fallen towers, the continuous downward rush balanced by the redemptive feeling of water — the source of life — returning to the heart of the world. Here there was solace, closure, and consolation.

But a very different feeling accosted me inside. Almost upon entering the doors a single word brandished itself across my mind’s eye: Holocaust.

Let me explain.
Read the whole article here.

Dangerous Freedom

imgresWith the holiday of Passover behind us, the dangers of freedom become more threatening than ever.

Freedom is a privilege, not an inheritance.  Freedom is an obligation, not a right.  Freedom calls us to duty, not to indulgence.

And the illusion of freedom may be the cruelest tyrant of all, seducing us into accepting the slavery of ego, impulse, and comfort.

Every day we should ask ourselves:  are we fighting to deserve and to preserve the freedom that our fathers fought so hard for us to have?

Keeping Trust

TrustDistance yourself from falsehood. – Exodus 23:7

We all like to think of ourselves as honest.  But are we?

Do we rationalize white lies?  Do we fudge our taxes?  Do we return to the counter when we’re undercharged or when we get too much change?  Do we make hasty promises that we forget to keep?  Do we exaggerate?  Do we embellish?  Do we state as fact when in fact we aren’t so sure?

Do we lie outright when we’re caught in a compromising position?

It’s easy to justify “little” lies, or even big ones under pressure.  How often are we lied to by our politicians — increasingly without shame or consequence?  If they can do it, why shouldn’t we?

It comes down to trust.  We want to be trusted.   And we want to be able to trust others.  So it’s not enough not to lie.  Distance yourself from falsehood — whether a false word or a false thing or a false friend.

Not only do we become known by the company we keep; we become the company we keep.  And once we lose our sensitivity to falsehood, it’s a near-impossible struggle to get it back.