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Tag Archives: Virtue

Why Ethics Matter, Part 3: How I Survived Paris

You learn a lot when you travel. And the lessons you learn may include valuable tips on self-preservation.

My experience on the famous Champs-Elysee offers an entertaining look at our we can discover life-lessons in the most unlikely places.

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He Gave Peace a Chance

After a 34-year run, Gerry Adams is stepping down as leader of the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein.  In a world ablaze with seemingly intractable political conflagrations, his story offers a whisper of hope that even the fiercest fires of discord can eventually be subdued by the waters of peace.

I witnessed a small part of the Irish conflict myself when I visited the emerald island in the summer of 1984.  It was the midst of “the Troubles,” and central Belfast exuded all the charm of a city under martial law.  Policemen on patrol wore flak jackets.  An armored personnel carrier idled at a major intersection waiting for the signal to change.  Blown out shells of buildings sprouted weeds, and street signs shouted, DO NOT LEAVE CAR UNATTENDED.

“Which are the bad parts of town, the ones I should avoid?” I asked the owner of the bed-and-breakfast where I passed my first night in the capital city.

She dutifully pointed out the Shankill neighborhood on my map and cautioned me to steer clear of it.  I thanked her and, with sophomoric self-confidence, proceeded there directly.  As I worked my way into the district, I discovered disturbing signs of contention:  school yards surrounded by 20-foot fences topped by razor-wire, churches pocked with scars from automatic-rifle fire, and the uneasy quiet of a battlefield waiting for the next barrage.

From what I learned about the conflict, it seemed that each side had sufficient justification to ensure that the violence would continue on and on without end.

900 YEARS OF DARKNESS

As early as 1171, English barons began seizing Irish lands for themselves.  In 1541, Henry VIII of England declared himself King of Ireland, adding a poisonous strain of religious acrimony between Irish Catholics and British Anglicans.

By 1703, 90% of Irish land was owned by English lords, who enriched themselves while Irish peasants endured bitter poverty and, during the potato famine of 1845, starvation.  Only in 1948, after generations of unrest, did the birth of the Irish Republic restore most of Ireland to the Irish.

However, the six northernmost counties voted to remain part of Great Britain.  The majority of residents were the descendants of English lords, but they saw no reason to be stripped of their national identity because of the sins of their fathers.  Meanwhile, the long-suffering Catholic minority seethed at having been denied the liberation of their countrymen to the south.

In 1968, a series of protest marches led to riots and the first use of guerrilla tactics by the Irish Republican Army.  If they could not win freedom for Ireland through elections and negotiation, they would win it through terror.

Over the next three decades, 3,600 people lost their lives in violent clashes and bloody attacks, many of them orchestrated by Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA.  And from 1983 forward, the face of Sinn Fein was Gerry Adams.

A TIME TO HEAL

Reviled by British leaders as either a terrorist front man or enabler, Mr. Adams struggled to navigate the treacherous straits between hardliners and advocates of negotiation.  Some accused him of collaboration in murder, others of selling out his own people.

Whatever his faults or crimes, in 1998 Gerry Adams helped push through the Good Friday agreement, brokering the compromise that ended centuries of strife.

The greatest impediment to peace is often the will to make peace.  Like it or not, we have to share our world with others who see the world differently, who have their own desires and dreams, who believe themselves justified in demands that contradict that strike us as anathema.  As mutual hostility escalates, resolution seems increasingly impossible.

King Solomon warns:  Do not say, “I will do to him as he has done to me and return upon others according to their own actions.”

When we demand what we believe we deserve, the frequent outcome is that we secure none of our demands.  By giving up more than we want, we may end up with more than we ever believed we could get.

Once we recognize the advantage of peace over personal agenda, then the impossible becomes possible, and the ideal of peace has a chance to become reality.

Published in Jewish World Review

Stop Squabbling, Start Succeeding

In 1932, President Herbert Hoover appointed Benjamin Cardozo to the Supreme Court. The president was a conservative Republican. Justice Cardozo was seen as a liberal Democrat — but he was also recognized as the greatest legal mind in the country.

President Hoover certainly would have preferred a conservative, but he knew the country wouldn’t stand for him to choose a supreme court nominee based on politics.  He nominated Benjamin Cardozo, who was approved by the Senate — unanimously .

As recently as 1986, the Senate confirmed Antonin Scalia without a single opposing vote, and in 1993 Ruth Bader Ginsburg sailed through confirmation with only 3 dissensions.  It wasn’t so long ago that our politicians’ top priority was to keep the system working.

But times have changed.

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Why Ethics Matter: Part 2 — Peruvian Beauties

Beauty contests aren’t PC anymore, but this year’s Miss Peru pageant was truly a thing of beauty.

Instead of headlines filled with accusations of sex scandals and kneejerk denials, as well as unfocused protests turning violent, contest contestants in Peru found a way to elevate an exercise in objectification into a show of civic responsibility, ethical accountability, and social conscience.

What does it say when beauty queens have more moral authority than politicians? Their initiative and resolution should be an inspiration to all of us.

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Flying in the Dark

In 1954, Jim Lovell, who would later lead the Apollo 13 space mission, was flying his Banshee night fighter when his plane experienced a total electrical failure.

There he was, the middle of the ocean in the middle of the night, with no instrumentation and no way to find his ship.  But as he looked out into the darkness, he noticed a glimmer of photo luminescent algae that had been stirred up in the wake of his aircraft carrier. He followed the trail back to his ship and landed safely.

If the lights hadn’t gone out, he never would have found his way home.

It’s fascinating to consider how our eyes are designed.

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Too Busy Doing Good

Honor, Service, and Gratitude

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

—John F. Kennedy

veterans-day-images1

“In the beginning of a change, the patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a patriot.”

—Mark Twain

Why Ethics Matter — Part 1: Evil Algorithms

Technology is supposed to serve us. But what happens when we create technology that takes control of us and leads us places we don’t want to go?

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Confronting the Credibility Crisis

Hillary Clinton has been called a lot of things.  But branding her the “cancer” of the Democratic Party ratchets the vitriol up to a new level.

More significant is who’s doing the name-calling.  When Donna Brazile, Former Democratic National Committee Chair and longtime party stalwart, launches an internecine assault worthy of Donald Trump, it’s hard not to take notice.

Robby Mook certainly noticed. “Her claims are laughable,” the former Clinton campaign manager told Anderson Cooper.  But Elizabeth Warren wasn’t laughing.  Instead, the Massachusetts Senator invoked Ms. Brazile’s account of Clintonian malfeasance as evidence that the Democratic primary had been “rigged.”

So what are we to believe?  Mrs. Clinton has been getting away with moral murder for years.  Are the party faithful finally drawing a line?  Or is Ms. Brazile merely trying to sell books while Senator Warren postures for the 2020 election?

Time may tell.  But in the meantime, the undeniable victim is credibility.

TOO MANY CROOKS

There was a time when hustlers and lawbreakers would abandon their denials once evidence of wrongdoing grew overwhelming and indisputable.  But today’s culture of fake news and fake outrage has spawned a limitless capacity for brazenness.

I am not a crook.  I did not have sex with that woman.  If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.  I remember landing under sniper fire.  The Art of the Deal is the number one selling business book of all time.

Even the investigators of corruption fall under suspicion.  Robert Mueller, the special counsel looking into Russian election tampering, has himself been implicated in the scandal he is charged with investigating.  Mr. Mueller arrived on the scene with bipartisan plaudits for his character and integrity.  Now we aren’t sure if we can believe that, either.

You would think in an age like ours, when every word and deed appears instantaneously as part of the public record, that public figures would be exercise more caution in what they do and say.  Instead, they seem to care less than ever.

It’s not hard to understand why.  Mainstream news outlets largely ignore stories inconsistent with their political ideologies.  News consumers visit only those outlets that provide stories confirming their political biases.  And the epidemic of inaccuracy leaves us so jaded that we feel justified believing whatever we want about anyone we choose.

The crisis of confidence in our political system is reason enough for dismay.  But there’s an even more profound cause for alarm – the corrosive effect of cynicism on our collective conscience and moral clarity.

LEMMING MENTALITY SYNDROME

There may be no more malignant phrase in the English language than everyone does it.  Our parents didn’t tolerate hearing it from us, and as responsible parents we refuse to tolerate it from our children.  But anything that is repeated enough plants itself in our consciousness, where it insidiously takes root and refuses to let go.

All the more so when the media bombard us with evidence that we can’t trust our leaders, can’t trust our icons, can’t trust the spokesmen for moral values to uphold the values they espouse.  And if the people I’m supposed to look up to act without scruples, why should I worry about how I look in the eyes of others?

The solution, therefore, is relatively straightforward:  start looking in a different direction.

In the first verse of his first psalm, King David writes:  Fortunate is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, does not stand in the path of misguided people, and does not sit in the company of cynics.

The more we associate with those who reject ethical values, the more automatically we adopt their ways.  The more we expose ourselves to the influence of those who embrace moral relativism, the more we disable our own moral compass.  The more we keep company with those who view everything and everyone in a negative light, the more we grow convinced that there is no reason to hold ourselves to a higher standard.

But if we remove ourselves from corrupting influences by seeking out company and counsel from people of integrity, and by searching out the good instead of fixating on the bad – then we will find ourselves drawn steadily upward, and we will begin to draw those around us upward as well.

Published by Jewish World Review

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Are you telling the truth?

As fake news becomes the new normal, I’m revisiting these thoughts from 2010.

12d8aa967e8ef907e5f1f4932db629feAfter circling the globe one and a half times, living for nine years in Israel and one year in Hungary, and teaching adolescents for over two decades, it’s only natural that I have more than a few stories to tell. So it never fails to discomfit me when friends or neighbors respond to my essays by asking:

“Did that really happen?”

Are my anecdotes so truly unbelievable? After all, I never claimed to have flown to the moon on gossamer wings, to have crossed the Alps with Hannibal by elephant, or to have led the attack against Custer’s army at Little Big Horn. No, I’ve merely plucked useful insights from slightly quirky encounters in an attempt to uncover the wisdom that resides within myriad aspects of the human condition.

And so I’ve penned essays about my white fedora, which fellow travelers reported noticing as our paths crisscrossed throughout Europe; about the Israeli gentlemen who rebuked me in an elevator for wearing an earring while sporting tzitzis, the fringed tassels worn over the belt line according to Jewish custom; and about the ragged man who stopped in his tracks on the streets of Budapest, apparently overwhelmed and overjoyed to discover a religious Jew having survived the travails of the Holocaust and assimilation; these, together with assorted episodes from my high school class room.

“I loved your article,” an acquaintance will say. And then, with alarming frequency: “Did that really happen?”

I even get it from my mother.

To be honest, I can’t say that I’m surprised. After all, narrative accuracy has seen its market value tumble over the years. As candidate for president, John Kerry described how Christmas in Cambodia was “seared in his memory.” A stirring narrative, aside from the fact that he wasn’t actually there. In the Democratic primary four years later, Hillary Clinton reported that her parents had named her in honor of Sir Edmund Hillary — an impressive feat of prescience, since Sir Edmund had not conquered Mount Everest until five years after Ms. Clinton was born and named. Even Ronald Reagan, although never caught embellishing his own history, nevertheless brought tears to the eyes of his audiences with poignant war stories that turned out to be scenes from old movies.

Popular motion pictures that are “based on” or “inspired by” true stories often undergo such embellishment that they emerge bearing little resemblance to the events they claim to portray. Tonight Show host Jay Leno, in his autobiography, reportedly included anecdotes that actually happened to other people.  Mr. Leno explained that he had permission to use one story, and that he had paid for the right to use the other.

As in so many cases, the biblical injunction against speaking untruths extends far beyond the simple meaning of the words. The verse MiDavar sheker tirchak translates, simultaneously, as “Distance yourself from a false word” and as “Distance yourself from a false thing.”  Jewish philosophy teaches that words are not mere symbols or labels; they possess a substance and a reality all their own. Consider how a cruel word can inflict more pain than a sharp blow between the eyes, or how a well-placed compliment can produce more pleasure than the sweetest dessert.

When does a word or a thing become false? In principle, the slightest embellishment or exaggeration constitutes a violation of Jewish values, if not Jewish law. If one is uncertain about the details of a story, it is easy enough to add “I think” or “something like” to the narrative. That small concession to veracity helps us preserve our respect for the lines between truth and falsehood — lines that grow increasingly blurred in a society descending ever deeper into moral confusion.

the-truth-shall-set-you-freeThe Hebrew word emes, commonly translated as truth, is formed by the three letters that come, in sequence, at the very beginning, the precise middle, and the very end of the Hebrew alphabet. Before we can be certain that anything is true, we must have a sufficiently broad perspective; we must have all the information, accurately and in context; and we must have a clear understanding of the propriety of revealing that information and the consequences of doing so. Only then is it emes.

Consequently, sometimes even absolute truth may be considered false. In the case of malicious gossip, the accuracy of the information may result in harm even worse than slander by damaging relationships that would have been secure against rumor or innuendo. Similarly, details taken out of context, although factual, often imply conclusions that have no bearing on reality. They may be true, but they are not emes.

The distinction between words that are true and words that are emes easily leads us onto thin moral ice. What about “white lies” intended to spare the feelings of others, or “harmless” untruths meant to warm another person’s heart?

At first glance, Jewish tradition seems to endorse such ideas. The sages teach that Aaron, the High Priest, upon discovering that two friends had come to quarrel, ran back and forth reporting to each how sorry the other was and how desperately he longed for reconciliation, until the two parties resolved their dispute and became friends once again. The same sages tell us to always call a bride beautiful, no matter what she actually looks like.

But is it not true that true friends, divided by conflict, miss the relationship they once had and mourn their lost friendship? Is it not similarly true that every bride glows with an inner beauty projected at the moment of her greatest joy, and that she is truly beautiful in the eyes of her bridegroom? If so, is it not also true that the sages were offering us a profound lesson in how to interpret human nature?

Indeed, even if there may be cases that require us to speak some literal untruth to protect another person’s physical, mental, or spiritual welfare, such cases are few and far between. If we are honest with ourselves, we will concede that most of us will have rare occasion to bend or break the truth.

Perhaps, if we all exert more effort to ensure that all our words are words of emes, we will not find ourselves suspicious of those stories of little miracles and inspirational irony that can make our eyes sparkle and our hearts swell. And if a more profound commitment to honesty helps us become less cynical and more easily inspired, then what do we really have to lose?