Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rick Warren to Speak at Obama's Inauguration

Matt Duss:
Pastor Rick Warren will deliver the invocation at President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20. While he is a recognizable celebrity and best-selling author, Warren also advocates a number of deeply anti-progressive views. He supported California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 and has likened gay marriage to polygamy and incest. He is strongly anti-choice, and has equated abortion to the Holocaust. Warren also supports the assassination of foreign leaders. Appearing on Fox’s Hannity and Colmes on December 3, Warren agreed with Sean Hannity’s assertion that “we need to take him [Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] out,” saying that stopping evil “is the legitimate role of government.” He added, “The Bible says that God puts government on earth to punish evildoers.”

Just revolting. Warren is well-known for emphasizing issues like environmentalism and social justice unlike Christian nuts who are 100% Republican partisans, which I suppose is a step in the right direction, but he's still a largely right-wing regligious nut. Aren't there enough left-wing religious nuts out there?

Republicans tried to convince us that Obama's attendance at Wright's church proved that Obama is anti-White and anti-American. That is and has always been a ridiculous argument. There is not a hint of evidence that Obama shared Wright's views and his tone could not be more different.

What Obama's attendance at Wright's church proved is that Obama's perfectly happy to associate with religious nuts when it proves useful politically. Maybe this sort of thing will help move Christians leftward. But it's not something I have an easy time stomaching.

Obama has responded to the controversy:
Mr. Obama himself responded to the growing controversy when prompted by a question during a news conference today designed to announce a trio of financial regulators. The president-elect stressed that he is a "fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans," but said it was also important for Americans to come together despite disagreements on social issues.

Mr. Obama said the inauguration would include people with a wide variety of viewpoints represented and "that's how it should be."

He also pointed out that he was invited by Warren a few years ago to speak at his church, despite his disagreement with Warren on those issues. "That dialogue is part of what my campaign has been about," he added.

If Warren opposed interracial marriages instead of gay marriages, I'm pretty sure Obama wouldn't be having him at the inauguration.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Single Greatest Problem in Orthodox Communities

Do you want to know why so many people leave their Orthodox communities?

It's because the communities engage in social shunning of anybody who doesn't fit in. It used to be that communities contained both ultra-Orthodox rabbis and people who drove to shul on shabbos. Talmud scholars and those who thought the whole Talmud was a bunch of nonsense. Those with OCD-levels of halakhic compliance and those who sometimes ate shellfish.

Now if you're different in any way, you're shunned. Orthodox Jews have gotten so terrified of exposing their children to anyone who they deem a bad role model that they just kick out everybody who's not perfect (by their standards.) And they do it to kids, too. In many right-wing communities, if you talk to girls on a Saturday night, you might as well be a crack dealer. They'll treat you the same way.

I have a friend who was suspended from a right-wing yeshiva for reading secular novels. Many friends in Israel were not allowed any secular magazines. A well-respected yeshiva allowed either a computer or a phone line, but not both. God-forbid a bochur accesses the internet.

Do you think it was like this in the shtetls of Europe? You think there weren't open apikorsim and people who worked on shabbos in the same communities as the greatest Torah scholars? There were. Talk to people who are old enough to remember.

My grandfather was from Lithuania. He was a rabbi from a long line of rabbis. He shook his head at this nonsense going on now with the know-nothing black-hatters who think everybody's got to be a certain way. He told one of them, a young up-and-comer more right-wing than most, "You know, it was never like this in Lithuania." The rabbi's answer? "This isn't Lithuania."

You want to keep kids from leaving? Let them have beliefs that aren't 100% Orthodox. Don't make them hide it, or be ashamed. Let adults voice their honest beliefs and questions and doubts. Even if Orthodoxy is correct, there's no way everybody in these communities believes the party line. Quit being the thought police. Show the kids that there are alternatives in life. You shouldn't have to be only one kind of person to live in your neighborhoods.

Want to keep kids off drugs? Don't dismiss the ones who don't fit in as "rejects" or "bad apples" and maybe they won't start hanging out with all the other "rejects" and "bad apples." Don't pretend marijuana's the same as heroin. Don't act like talking to girls leads to stealing cars. Don't denigrate women or girls who wear pants as if they are prostitutes.

You think halakha is the One True Way? Fine. Tell your kids that. Tell your neighbors. But you don't have to frantically hide your kids from everybody who thinks maybe God didn't write the Torah. You can disagree with homosexuality without kicking gay adults (even those with partners!) out of your neighborhoods and letting kids know that they'd better stay in the closet until they're old enough to get the hell out.

You guys are trying to create this ideal society where everybody does the right things and thinks the right things all the time, where "right" is defined so narrowly as to be impossible for at least 20-30% of your children. Grow the hell up and join the real world, where not everybody agrees with you and not everybody has to act exactly the same. I mean, the whole everybody wear black-and-white with the same kind of black hat is a parody of itself. This isn't a religion, it's a fantasy world.

This post inspired by G's post at Serandez.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Bush and Rumsfeld Are War Criminals and Cowards

Authorization for torture at Guantanamo and in Iraq and Afghanistan came from the highest levels of government:
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Ranking Member John McCain (R-Ariz.) today released the executive summary and conclusions of the Committee’s report of its inquiry into the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody.

From the executive summary and conclusions (.pdf):
Senate Armed Services Committee Conclusions

Conclusion 1: On February 7, 2002, President George W. Bush made a written determination that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which would have afforded minimum standards for humane treatment, did not apply to al Qaeda or Taliban detainees. Following the President’s determination, techniques such as waterboarding, nudity, and stress positions, used in SERE training to simulate tactics used by enemies that refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions, were authorized for use in interrogations of detainees in U.S. custody.

Conclusion 2: Members of the President’s Cabinet and other senior officials participated in meetings inside the White House in 2002 and 2003 where specific interrogation techniques were discussed. National Security Council Principals reviewed the CIA’s interrogation program during that period.

Conclusions on SERE Training Techniques and Interrogations

Conclusion 3: The use of techniques similar to those used in SERE resistance training – such as stripping students of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, and treating them like animals – was at odds with the commitment to humane treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. Using those techniques for interrogating detainees was also inconsistent with the goal of collecting accurate intelligence information, as the purpose of SERE resistance training is to increase the ability of U.S. personnel to resist abusive interrogations and the techniques used were based, in part, on Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to elicit false confessions.

Conclusion 4: The use of techniques in interrogations derived from SERE resistance training created a serious risk of physical and psychological harm to detainees. The SERE schools employ strict controls to reduce the risk of physical and psychological harm to students during training. Those controls include medical and psychological screening for students, interventions by trained psychologists during training, and code words to ensure that students can stop the application of a technique at any time should the need arise. Those same controls are not present in real world interrogations.


Conclusion 13: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at Guantanamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there. Secretary Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 approval of Mr. Haynes’s recommendation that most of the techniques contained in GTMO’s October 11, 2002 request be authorized, influenced and contributed to the use of abusive techniques, including military working dogs, forced nudity, and stress positions, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Conclusion 19: The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at GTMO. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.

President Bush and his administration blamed the torture that went on at Guantanamo Bay on a "few bad apples" and let Lynndie England hang out to dry while he and Rumsfeld continued on their merry way.

England went to prison, as she should have. Why is Bush still sitting in the White House? Why is Don Rumsfeld a free man?

(HT: Andrew Sullivan, who has been relentless on the torture issue.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wearing the Frum "Costume"

Abandoning Eden used the word "costume" to describe how she was expected to dress at her parents' house (in this post) and I thought that was brilliant. For me, it's a simple matter of putting on a kippah but it still grates.

Have you noticed that Orthodox Jews think it's just basic respect to wear a kippah in their homes, but would never consider returning the favor by not wearing one in yours? Not that I'd ever ask someone to remove a kippah in my home, of course! We non-Orthodox don't need to engage in that sort of manipulation.

I've (implicitly) compromised with my parents as follows: if I'm going for a shabbat or yom tov meal, I will wear a kippah. If I'm going to frum relatives' home with them, I wear it. But if I go to my parents' house on a weeknight or something, no kippah. Everybody seems pretty okay with this situation (my parents are more tolerant than most Orthodox, luckily.) The only friction lately has been what happens if we go to a kosher restaurant together. Mostly, I've been sucking it up and wearing one so they don't have to stress about what the neighbors will think, but I hate doing it. Last time, I didn't bring one but my father brought one for me and I ended up putting it on.

But now there are two events coming up that I'm not sure about. One is an engagement party for me (and my fiancee, of course!) at their house, and the other is the wedding itself. (See How Orthodox Will My Wedding Be?)

I think I'm going to suck it up and wear it for the engagement party, which will have a lot of my parents' Orthodox friends, but it sucks to have to pretend to be frum, even just a little. I'll keep telling myself it's out of "respect," whatever that means. At the wedding, I'll wear it for the ceremony, which is Orthodox (again, out of "respect" for my parents) but I don't think I'm up to wearing it for the reception. And yet my parents' frum friends and family will be at the reception, too! My parents are going to warn everybody who needs warning that there will be mixed dancing (gasp!) and a band with a female singer (GASP!) so that should weed out the more sensitive folks already, but I'm still pretty sure my parents would want me to wear the kippah. But hey, it's my party, and I'm not wearing a damn costume.

Guess I need to have a talk with the folks.

Short Story About a Hasidic Girl

Author Rachel Ament emailed me a link to a very good short story she wrote called I Am a Criminal. She says it's "very loosely" based on stories told to her by neighbors in Boro Park. Excerpt:
Tamar opened the door to her apartment, pulled me inside with a hug.

“Baruch Hashem! Baruch Hashem!” she cheered. She led me to the dining room table where we played Gin-Rummy with Chinese playing cards. She held her fan of seven cards real close to her face. “Masha, stop looking,” she kept saying. Her mother soon entered with a casserole dish in hand, steam waving from its crust and her six or seven kids took their seats at the table. I took a seat diagonally across from Menachem, looked at him every now and then using only the corner of my eyes. He had grown into an attractive man, that Menachem. His face was quite youthful, all rounded edges, nice copper eyes that turned green in bad lighting. The only problem was his mouth which was rowed with these huge splint-sharp teeth. Teeth for a rodent, my mama once whispered to me with a laugh.

I didn’t want to stare at him so I tried to find something else to do with my eyes. I looked at my arm hair. I looked at the dog. I looked at Tamar, who was cutting her potato kugel into the shape of a star, swinging at the crust with these grand, seesawing motions, like she was sawing wood or something. She was no doubt about it soliciting for attention.

Tamar,” I finally gave in, “What are you doing?”

“Its just, well you know… kugel,” Tamar’s face grew serious. “It's just so ugly, it's like...orphan mush. I’m just trying to make it more attractive.”

“You are so mental,” I said.

“She really is,” Menachem said, staring at his plate, already regretful. As he should have been. Menachem was a frum boy, mind you, and was weeding his way into conversation between two girls, one of whom was not related to him!—surely this meant our great solar system had kicked out of orbit. Surely this meant the planets were suddenly rotating the sun in the broken-wheeled motions of the hora instead of in its usual clean circuit. I mean surely.

My father once said that sins happen in clumps. You bee-bee-gun a bird for pleasure, enjoy the thuggish feeling of watching feathers blasting with blood and you begin killing animals higher up the kingdom. Shoot to the top, so to speak. I guess the same phenomenon was happening with Menachem. He began talking to me with longer and longer sentence and it was not long before he had curled his upper lip behind his gumline and smiled at me. It wasn’t some shy smile either but a giant comedian performance smile toppling over with all sorts of chemicals and romantic implications. I even spotted a matching wink in his left eye.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

New Blog for OTDers

Margo, Off The Derech, and I are starting a new invite-only blog for people who were once Orthodox and now are not and those currently making that transition. It's invite-only so we have a place to discuss things without worrying about how Orthodox people will respond.

If you're interested in joining as a reader or as a contributor please email one of us so that we can add you.

Monday, December 08, 2008

How The Orthodox See The Rest Of Us

I just love the window Beyond Teshuva provides into the Orthodox mind. The bloggers are so excited about Orthodox Judaism and so unable to examine themselves that they are utterly honest about the mental gymnastics necessary to sustain Orthodox beliefs.

Here's Ron Coleman on how seeing non-Orthodox people on Facebook strengthens his belief in Orthodoxy:
The other side: And that brings me back to a point related to my first one. The more I am exposed to what’s out there, whether it is among my former friends, associates and classmates who “look me up” or vice versa or among new people that I meet, the better I feel — by far — about the decision I have made about how to live my life. I cannot stress how much more valuable this is to me than the finger-pointing homilies in frum literature, periodicals and classrooms about the emptiness of gentile or non-frum Jewish lives. I see people whose lives are pathetic or sad, yes. I encounter a very distressing number of photographs of people of both sexes in their twenties, not life’s losers but professionals and prospective professionals, who are comfortable posing with alcoholic beverages hoisted in the air, as if life were just one drunken binge. This could go into the “dignity” point above, and it is a sad thing to see. But I also see people with rich, full, interesting and accomplished lives, professionally and, by all indications, personally, and nothing — not a thing — makes me want to switch places with them. The overall effect for me is one of chizuk, reinforcement.

Two points:

First, the Orthodox Jew will find "chizuk" (a decidedly religous idea -- the non-religious don't need "chizuk") wherever he looks, because he can interepret what he sees however he wants. If non-Orthodox people are pathetic or undignified, it makes him glad to be Orthodox. But then again, if non-Orthodox people lead "rich, full, interesting and accomplished lives," it makes him... glad to be Orthodox.

Second is the smug judgment of others. Coleman writes about people posing with drinks in their hand as if that were self-evidently undignified and a sad sight to see. Note that this has no foundation whatsoever even in Orthodox Judaism, which encourages the use of alcoholic beverages specifically to enhance the joys of the Sabbath meal (and of holidays and weddings, etc.) and nowhere opposes responsible drinking outside of those occasions. He attributes his priggish attitudes to Orthodoxy, and it gives him more chizuk by declaring Orthodox people superior.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Um, Yeah. It Is a Recession.

It was obvious to anybody paying attention that we were entering a recession back at the beginning of the year. Anybody except the conservatives, of course, who maintained that it was all a big media conspiracy to make Bush look bad.

Here's Ezzie, who likes to claim I don't understand economics, in January of this year:
A great piece in today's Wall Street Journal discussing why the chances of a recession are extremely low, and showing just how well the economy is actually doing.

Excerpt from the piece, which is called -- I'm not kidding -- "The Economy Is Fine (Really)" :

It is hard to imagine any time in history when such rampant pessimism about the economy has existed with so little evidence of serious trouble...

Models based on recent monetary and tax policy suggest real GDP will grow at a 3% to 3.5% rate in 2008, while the probability of recession this year is 10%. This was true before recent rate cuts and stimulus packages. Now that the Fed has cut interest rates by 175 basis points, the odds of a huge surge in growth later in 2008 have grown. The biggest threat to the economy is still inflation, not recession.

Yet many believe that a recession has already begun because credit markets have seized up. This pessimistic view argues that losses from the subprime arena are the tip of the iceberg. An economic downturn, combined with a weakened financial system, will result in a perfect storm for the multi-trillion dollar derivatives market. It is feared that cascading problems with inter-connected counterparty risk, swaps and excessive leverage will cause the entire "house of cards," otherwise known as the U.S. financial system, to collapse. At a minimum, they fear credit will contract, causing a major economic slowdown.

For many, this catastrophic outlook brings back memories of the Great Depression, when bank failures begot more bank failures, money was scarce, credit was impossible to obtain, and economic problems spread like wildfire.

This outlook is both perplexing and worrisome. Perplexing, because it is hard to see how a campfire of a problem can spread to burn down the entire forest. What Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently estimated as a $100 billion loss on subprime loans would represent only 0.1% of the $100 trillion in combined assets of all U.S. households and U.S. non-farm, non-financial corporations. Even if losses ballooned to $300 billion, it would represent less than 0.3% of total U.S. assets.

Beneath every dollar of counterparty risk, and every swap, derivative, or leveraged loan, is a real economic asset. The only way credit troubles could spread to take down the entire system is if the economy completely fell apart. And that only happens when government policy goes wildly off track.

And please don't miss the conclusion:
Dow 15,000 looks much more likely than Dow 10,000. Keep the faith and stay invested. It's a wonderful buying opportunity.

Here's the same author explicitly blaming the media for the "false pessimism about the economy."

At the time, I responded to Ezzie like this:
So Ezzie, if in a year or two it becomes obvious that we are in a recession, do you promise to give up the WSJ? :-)

He didn't answer then. I wonder if he'll answer now:
The National Bureau of Economic Research said Monday that the U.S. has been in a recession since December 2007, making official what most Americans have already believed about the state of the economy .

The NBER is a private group of leading economists charged with dating the start and end of economic downturns. It typically takes a long time after the start of a recession to declare its start because of the need to look at final readings of various economic measures.

The NBER said that the deterioration in the labor market throughout 2008 was one key reason why it decided to state that the recession began last year.

Employers have trimmed payrolls by 1.2 million jobs in the first 10 months of this year. On Friday, economists are predicting the government will report a loss of another 325,000 jobs for November.

The NBER also looks at real personal income, industrial production as well as wholesale and retail sales. All those measures reached a peak between November 2007 and June 2008, the NBER said.

I'm just positive that the WSJ and its readers will critically examine the reasons for their grievous errors and will radically adjust their understanding of economics. Maybe they'll let even pick some economists based on merit instead of ideology.

Yeah, right.

: Here's Paul Krugman, also from January of this year, in that liberal rag The New York Times, two weeks before the WSJ spin-job:
Suddenly, the economic consensus seems to be that the implosion of the housing market will indeed push the U.S. economy into a recession, and that it’s quite possible that we’re already in one.