A Country Of Extremes

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The Presidential Debate according to South Park: A Douche vs. A Turd Sandwich

In American culture, moderation is frowned upon. You’re “either with us, or against us”; you are either good or evil, you are either in the 1% or in the 99%.  Ambiguity is a myth here in the US; there is only one right answer, one perspective. 

At Thanksgiving dinner, the premiere American celebration of family reunion, it is a social taboo to even discuss politics. That’s because your grandparents are Republicans, your uncle campaigned for Bernie, and you find yourself embroiled in a shouting match over taxes. How could it be possible for members of the same family to not be able to at least see each other eye to eye on our nation’s issues?

It is without question that our nation is now dominated by a duopolistic culture that is now more divided than it ever was before. Members of the Democratic and Republican parties no longer even have the ability to respect each other’s opinions, nor can they even understand the reasoning behind the opposing side’s argument. 

In 2016, citizens found themselves stuck between voting for a giant douche and turd sandwich. They voted for the giant douche because turd sandwiches are disgusting, and they thought the giant douche would be a better president. Or more accurately, a less awful president. The American people should never have to choose between a lesser of two evils. They should have the freedom to choose, without constraint, the person they believe would be most qualified to be president, regardless of whether they were pre-selected by one of the two centuries-old political organizations. George Washington famously warned Americans of the chaos and misery that forming parties would create. America ignored him then, parties now abuse their duopoly to further extremize their beliefs and hold the American people and government hostage. I demand Freedom, and not the  Freedom to choose parties, but the American Freedom to take action as a people, and to fight for common beliefs. 

External vs. Internal Existence

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In life, it is difficult to impossible to sort people into “categories”. While it may be possible categorize actions that humans perform or the things they believe, people themselves are immune to accurate categorization. 

For example, I often like to categorize the way a person is existing at any given moment. In my experience, I have noticed that people often either operate externally or internally. Internal existence occurs when there is a buffer between thoughts and actions or spoken words. External existence occurs when there is no buffer or a very thin buffer; thoughts about actions and things to say go smoothly and directly from the brain to the action performed. 

When we are alone, we often exist internally. Rather than talking to others, our primary conscience thinks to itself. When with close friends, our thoughts almost become entirely external, rather than thinking to ourselves, we think aloud to them. When we are in the presence of someone with whom we must choose our words carefully, we operate both externally and internally: we are preoccupied with both carefully choosing the correct words, and saying the words themselves. 

Though my categorization is probably somewhat inaccurate – people most likely operate on a spectrum of internal and external thinking – the idea is interesting. Perhaps a person’s public speaking skills falter when they exist more internally than externally during the speech. Or perhaps if they think more externally than internally, they fail as public speakers because they say things that were not thought out well enough. Perhaps this was Kanye West’s failure when he called slavery “a choice”; he simply had failed to process the thought internally before he verbalized it. 

Alan Dershowitz’s Chuztpah, 27 Years Later

In 1991, star lawyer and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz published Chuztpah, a book on “what it means to be a Jew in America today”, as ascertained by its Amazon page; “today” now meaning “27 years ago”. After reading the book, I thought it would be interesting to reexamine the book in the context of what Jewish Americanism means in today’s context. 

Perhaps most interesting to reexamine were Dershowitz’s predictions for the future standing from 1991. He warned against believing one political party is “for the Jews” while the other is not, all the while predicting a trend towards rising conservatism. However, Jewish politics have overwhelmingly shifted towards the democratic party. In 1988, at the time Dershowitz was writing Chutzpah, Jews were more supportive of a Republican presedential candidate as ever: 64% voted for Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis while 35% voted for George Bush, Sr. In 2008, however, it became much more clear that Jews were undivisably supportive of democratic candidates than almost any other religious group in the country, with 78% voting for Barack Obama. This trend continued in the most recent election, where 71% of Jews voted for Hillary Clinton. Shockingly, Jews continue to vote in line with the Democratic party as Democratic sympathy for Israel steadily declines; in 2018, only 27% of surveyed Democrats reported sympathy for Israel, an all-time low since at least 1978. Meanwhile, Republican sympathy for Israel has climbed to an all-time high  at a whopping 79%. 

In 1991, Dershowitz rallied against Anti-Zionism led by Jews, and urged to support Israel as a state, yet not be afraid to criticize its policies. Now, it seems as though Jews have ignored his call and have gone against his predictions, since the vast majority now associate themselves the Democratic establishment, a party in which even sympathy with Israel is felt by the minority. 

Dershowitz also predicted and hoped that the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) would lose international credibility after openly supporting Saddam Hussein’s slaughter of innocent people during the Gulf War. But the World defied his predictions yet again, not only by continuing to lend credibility to the PLO but by recognizing it as a state in the United Nations in 2012. 

Chutzpah predicted a hopeful period of growth for Jews as they speak out for themselves and for Israel, yet it seems as though the Jews have suddenly quieted themselves one again in the face of Anti-Zionism. 

Meaning vs. Perception and Christopher Nolan’s “Memento”

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Leonard Shelby of Christopher Nolan’s “Memento”

“My wife deserves vengeance. Doesn’t make any difference whether I know about it. Just because there are Things I don’t remember doesn’t make my actions meaningless,” says Leonard Shelby — a character in Christopher Nolan’s 2000 film Memento– with anterograde amnesia, or the inability to form short-term memories. Every 10 minutes or so, Leonard’s memory resets, remembering nothing but seeing his wife on the floor, evidently dying. 

Though the 21st century had just begun, Memento quickly has become one of its best productions, becoming one of the first movies to effectively tell a story in reverse and using a fascinating combination of black and white and colored film to create a cohesive movie told most uncohesively. 

At the heart of the movie is a question about meaningfulness in life and its definition in humanity. Many strive to achieve something meaningful in life, to leave a lasting mark on the world long after death. But in truth, as Memento reveals, humans shouldn’t strive to actually change the world to their liking. More accurately, they should strive to convince themselves that they have changed the world. 

In Memento, Leonard’s goal throughout the movie is to find and murder his wife’s killer, “John G.”, to find justice to his wife. At the same time, Leonard’s goal plays a much more important role in his life: to allow him to continue to live and be functional with his condition. Towards the end (or the start) of the movie, it is revealed that it was Leonard himself who killed his wife, that the one who gave Leonard his condition was killed long ago, and that Leonard continued the hunt for “John G” so that he could continue to have a purpose in his life. While most humans dream of achieving a goal or fulfilling their purpose, Leonard’s goal was to have a purpose. Leonard believes that his perspective is irrelevant, but in reality, his perspective is the only thing that matters. 

In this way Memento reminds the audience that perspective is also the only thing that matters is the perspective one, not the actual effect they had on the world. Vincent van Gogh died of suicide at age 37, a failed artist who had only sold one painting in his life. Oliver Cromwell died a hero, the destroyer of the British monarchy, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Yet two years later, the monarchy was fully restored, and three years later, Cromwell’s body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey and was posthumously executed for his “crimes”. These posthumous actions are irrelevant to van Gogh and Cromwell in every way but memory. It is a sobering and somewhat depressing thought that perception is more important than actuality, even if a person desires actuality above all else.

Genesis Metaphorically: How It Is and Isn’t

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God’s creation of Adam, by Michelangelo

This post was inspired by the great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Britain, and is now a member of the British Parliament. Four or five years ago, I had the honor of watching Sacks discuss religion, politics, and a handful of other topics at a panel in Palo Alto. After the discussions had ended, the panel turned to the audience for a question and answer session. Small slips of paper were distributed around the crowd, and I quickly raised my hand for one. Thinking of him as the chief authority on Judaism in the world, I nervously jotted down the question that had irked me since I had first read the Old Testament. The panel began to wind down, and the moderator of the panel said proudly, This question was written by a child! As I fought to cool my flushing cheeks, she continued: “How could it be that God created the entire world, with its millions of animals and plants, in seven days?” 

The honorable Rabbi scoffed and did not hesitate in his answer. He said: (and I’m paraphrasing) “He didn’t! The creationist story is metaphorical; God could not have possibly created the world in seven days, especially since he hadn’t created the sun until the fourth day. 

It was at that moment that I became a completely secular Jew. I could not believe that a text could be legitimately believed when one part was to be metaphorical and the other not. I was taught what metaphors were in fourth grade, and there seemed to be nothing at all metaphorical about the Book of Genesis! 

But I read the story again and there is something magical about it, reading it simply as a story of the divine. God making something from nothing, making everything the way that it should be, and gently creating the balanced and beautiful world we live in. It is a wonderful story, deserving of the many paintings great artists have devoted to it. Perhaps there is something metaphorical about it after all, a narrative on balance and order.

Crying

Crying is, without doubt, one of the more interesting expressions of emotion that a human being can perform. The biological intention of crying is as a means of clearing tear ducts, but the reason behind crying as an expression of intense emotion remains unknown to scientists. 

People cry for fake people and real people. People cry for animals and for lost objects. People cry for the sake of happiness and for the sake of sadness. People cry for the dead and for the living. It seems almost as though we can cry for anything, but that is not the case. We cry only for the things for which we care for the most. 

On the plane ride from Washington D.C. to Hartford, Connecticut, I cried for Matthew McConaughey’s character in Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar. The character travels through space and time, displays inhuman amounts of courage and ingenuity, and sacrifices seeing his entire family for the sake of what he thinks is saving humanity. But instead of being rewarded for his valor, the character is forced to stare at his daughter through a bookcase in a dark hole, for eternity. He is reduced to communicating with the one he loves the most through weak gravity alterations. Though eventually the movie ends happily, I could not help but weep for a fully fictional character’s plight. 

Tonight, my grandfather read to me, my grandmother, and my sister a few short stories he had written and collected about himself and our family. One story he read aloud was about my grandmother’s slow introduction and acceptance of our now deceased cat, Midnight. Halfway through the story, my grandmother wept for the cat, and told us through her tears, how she loved the cat almost as much as she loved any of us. I was moved by her tears, and almost wanted to cry for Midnight myself, but couldn’t bring myself to, even though I had known and loved the cat for so much longer than my grandmother did. I wonder why?

Work vs. Talent

 A very famous inventor named Thomas Edison once defined genius as “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”, putting forth the notion that hard work is much more important than any amount of talent. Earlier today, me and my family had a discussion on whether or not hard work is more important than talent. My entire family, including myself, agreed that hard work is far more important than any amount of talent in achieving “genius”, or more importantly success. 

As Jewish emigrants from the Soviet Union, success is one of the common goals that our family pushed for and still push for today through their lives. They emigrated so they could have above average amounts of wealth, freedom, health, and happiness in our lives. In each of our experiences, we quickly came to understand that any amount of superior or above average intelligence did not matter at all in achieving success when no work is put in to refine and apply such intelligence and/or natural skill. 

My family says that I am intelligent, but fully unwilling to work hard. I think that at this time of my life, I possess neither an unnerving amount of intelligence nor a work ethic in any form. But I think it is important that at the very least, once I claim that passion to succeed and be happy as an adult that is encoded in my Jewish DNA, I will focus on what to me is the most important piece in the puzzle that is success: perspiration. 

A Case for Public Transportation

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As I spent the last week zooming from one side of London to the other with through “The Tube”, London’s subway system, a recurring thought stuck with me: “Thank God for public transportation.” 

Recently, Nashville voters shocked America when they voted in a landslide against a bill that would vastly improve the city’s public transportation system, adding 26 miles of light rail, multiple new bus lines, and 19 new transit stations. In a large way, this was due to the efforts of a political advocacy group called Americans for Prosperity, committed towards preventing the spread of public transportation in the United States. It is spearheaded by the oil tycoons David and Charles Koch, who argue that public transportation is becoming needless in the age of driverless fully electric cars. However, since plug-in electric vehicles only took up .9% of the American automobile market in 2017,  it seems as though the Koch Brothers may be acting more in the interests of their gargantuan oil company. 

To me, public transportation is perhaps one of the defining characteristics of a major city. Tokyo’s, New York’s, and London’s smoothly operating transportation systems are in part what contributes to their status as some of the most visited cities in the world. Without the systems that make different sides of the city easily accessible, cities (especially larger cities) begin to fail to realize the full scale of their resources and citizens. 

 

The Iceland Miracle: How a Country of 330,000 Drawed One of the Top Contenders for the World Cup

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About a year ago, Iceland captured global headlines when it became the smallest country to qualify for the World Cup in the history of the tournament. Now, it has managed to tie Argentina, a country with a population of 48 million that played in the finals of the 2014 World Cup. The team also boasts arguably the world’s greatest soccer player, Lionel Messi. 

Against all odds, Iceland managed to draw the championship team, and held them to only one goal, scoring one goal for themselves as well. Perhaps the star of Iceland’s show was goalie Hannes Halldorson, who dived and swooped to save well-placed kicks from Lionel Messi himself. However, the whole team came together to work excellently on both sides of the field, the chemistry was impossible to notice. 

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Hannes Halldorsson 

Both goals were scored earlier on in the match, and towards the end, it seemed like the Icelanders were holding on for dear life, desperately scrambling on defense to secure the tie. Messi missed a penalty kick at the end of the game, and in the end, Iceland had accomplished what appeared to be the impossible: beating a country 100 times bigger. 

 

 

Play Chess!

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Chess.com, a site where users can register and immediately play with chess players of a similar skill level for free.

Instead of the RAM-crunching multi-dimensional, high tech video games that used to consume my weekends, I often have spent them honing my skill as a chess player. Chess looks boring and annoying, and to most, it is. It is outdated, oversimplified, and completely devoid of color. But within the 64 black and white tiles, there is an element of freedom that has never been present in any other game devised by man.  From the first move, there are literally hundreds of options, thousands of openings and an infinite amount of games. When stripped of colors, details, and technology, the game becomes the closest thing to a battle of minds on earth.

Each player, through the way that they navigate the board in the effort of achieving the mate, forms their own personality. Though the greats are best known for their personalities, each developed chess player has their own flairs and tendencies. Blackburne was like Picasso with mating sequences, Carlsen is notorious for his calm positioning and patience of a man at least three times his age.

Past a certain threshold of understanding the rules and working to understand the rules and subtleties of the game, the game begins to show off your style. Are you passive or are you aggressive? Are you strong positionally, or tactically? The game will not only teach you the methodology and thinking patterns that world champions follow, but also will teach you quite a bit about yourself.