Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Extreme Makeover

Several months back, I blogged about some of the misleading terms used in our media to describe current events.

Here's another one: extremism. In fact, this one is my pet peeve.

The media's use of this term bothers me. Not because it insults me personally, whom many might consider to be an extremist of sorts.

The reason it's incorrect is because it implies that the extremist's core beliefs are okay. His only vice is that he (or she -- sorry for the gender profiling) is extreme in his convictions. If he'd only become less zealous, a bit more mellow and moderate, he'd be a great guy. "Your views are fine," we are telling the jihadist. "Just don't take them to such extremes."

I remember a decade back, shortly after September 11th, 2001, I was driving in my car listening to a radio talk show host bemoan the "religious extremism" of the Taliban. "As a matter of fact," he ranted, "they are so extreme, so barbaric... why, they even wear beards!" I listened thoughtfully while stroking my unkempt beard -- no, make that: my extremely unkempt beard.

My initial thought was to call the station and complain, but never got around to doing so. Instead, I devoted my Shabbat sermon to it. I explained to my congregants:

Extremism is not bad if you are being extreme about something good. Example: someone who is extemely charitable, excessively peace-loving, exceedingly modest, intensely studious, extraordinarily selfless, ultra kind, giving, humane, just, etc. Even if you're extreme about something that others might consider archaic, aberrant, or defiant of social norms, such as sporting an untrimmed beard, so long as your eccentricity causes no harm to yourself or to others, surely everyone should concede that such hairy "extremism" (if one could rightly call it that) is rather benign. To the smooth-faced moderates who deride bearded males as extremists, I say: "Live and let live."

However, if one is extreme about something bad, i.e. he believes in an extremely evil ideology, is extremely violent, extremely deceptive, extremely malicious, etc... then THAT is bad.

What's bad about this individual is not that he's extreme. It's that he's BAD. What makes him worse than a moderately bad person is that he is EXTREMELY bad.

So when our media refers to a jihadist as a "religious extremist," they are doing humanity a huge disservice.

Their description of the "extremist" masks the real underlying problem. The jihadist's problem is that his views are violent, malevolent and vindictive. By censuring "extremism," we are not confronting the real enemy, but instead are getting sidetracked by focusing on something irrelevant. In fact, we are emboldening him by acknowledging his right to his noxious ideology but merely pleading with him not to be so devout. This only reiterates his opinion of us, that we (i.e. the Western world) are spineless enemies of faith.

Instead of protesting his extremeness, we ought to refer to him by what he is: an Islamofascist hatemonger. Or, if he actualized his ambition and committed an act of terrorism, then he is an Islamofascist genocidal murderer.

He is not merely an "extremist." He is an enemy of G-d, an enemy of mankind.

To describe Ahmadinejad as an extremist is obscuring the facts. Fact: his main vice is that he is blood thirsty and an outspoken proponent of genocide. Why does it matter that he is extremely blood thirsty? And what if he were only moderately blood thirsty? Would we then sigh a breath of relief? Is mild genocide then okay?

So let's be honest and address the real issues. If someone believes that it's okay to murder a non-believer, his vice is not extremism. His problem is his abhorrent beliefs. If his religion sanctions murder, then he has a perverse religion. Calling him an extremist vindicates his blood thirsty religion. Instead, his only shortcoming has now been reduced to a mere lack of moderation.

Furthermore, the media often calls "settlers" like the Fogels' (may G-d avenge their blood) "religious fundamentalists" or "extremists" as well. Why not? The settlers have beards too.

So thanks to our wonderfully unbiased media, we now have moral equivalence between peace-loving Jews who are "extreme" in their views by insisting on their right to live anywhere in the world, including Samaria, and their blood-thirsty Arab counterparts who feel that Samaria ought to be Judenrein, whose stated objective is ethnic cleansing of the entire Levant, and who celebrate the most incomprehensibly brutal form of infanticide, all out of their extremely Islamofascist convictions.

Indeed, the media has created a moral equivalence between all settler Jews (99.9% of whom do not advocate violence or murder of any kind, and would love nothing more than to live in peace with their Arab neighbors) with jihadists (99.9% of whom advocate mass murder of Jews and ethnic cleansing).

In fact, all ultra-Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Protestants, or any other extremely devout individual of another faith or creed, are now lumped together in the same boat as radical Islamists and Jihadists. (ultra = extreme). And since many people might consider me ultra-orthodox thanks to my ultra-non-conformist beard (in addition to the fact that I am extremely opinionated), I guess that makes me a fundamentalist extremist who is capable of hijacking a plane. Thank you media for another job well done at skewing everyone's perspective and corrupting our minds.

As you can see, I'm getting extremely irate. I think I'd better call it a day.

Have an extremely good night! :-)

PS Maimonides does write that extremism in any form, even in the benign sense of being extremely and excessively generous, extremely miserly, etc., are both incorrect, and that one ought to "take the middle path" and do everything in moderation. While this is an objective truth that everyone ought to strive toward, it has no bearing on what I wrote above. Even if someone is extremely serious or extremely light headed, both attributes negated by Maimonides as "extreme," he still is not an evil or dangerous villain. No one is his right mind would equate an extremely self-effacing but harmless hermit with an extremely blood thirsty Jihadist.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Just Say No

Westboro Video Controversy, part II

Well, it looks as though the local controversy surrounding a teacher who showed an objectionable Eminem video to her seventh-grade class is now over.


However, in reality, this issue is far from over. It continues to jeopardize our youth and our adults of all ages. (See previous post)

What particularly concerns me is the reaction of numerous local parents with whom I have discussed the matter.

One highly intelligent father remarked that he believes some (read: his) kids are mature enough to view anything and not be negatively influenced. Yet in the same sentence, he was infuriated that a teacher dare show such material to his or anyone's children. In his mind, an adult who shows such obscene images to children might well be a predator seeking to cause them harm.

I countered: "And what about the possibility that by simply viewing the video at home they might be causing themselves harm?"

While the dad agreed that not all material out there might be beneficial for children to watch, he emphatically maintained that "mature" kids must be granted the freedom to explore the world on their own. "Preventing their exposure to such videos," he asserted, "might be more damaging to their souls than their viewing of the video itself."

(Parenthetically, it is important to note that the teacher showed the video to students, some of whom had presumably viewed before, without audio. She merely played it in order to point out the unhealthy image of women in today's society. While I agree with the outraged parents that it was inappropriate to show in school, the irony can not be overstated. On one hand, many of these parents are allowing their teens to watch anything they wish, without any supervision or parental guidance. But when an experienced teacher attempts to point out the dangerous attitudes advocated by these videos, the parents are up in arms! If parent mustn't restrict freedom, lest he or she be viewed as too judgmental or controlling, and teachers are forbidden to discuss such issues, who will then teach the children how to discriminate between right and wrong?)

Here is a humorous episode I heard recently that sheds brilliant light on this issue:

A Chabadnik woman was shopping in the supermarket one day when she heard something most peculiar. A young African American child asked his mother, "Hey Mom, are these cookies kosher?" The mom replied no, and her son put the cookies back on the shelf.

The curious onlooker approached the mother, who did not seem to fit the stereotype of your average kosher consumer.

"Excuse me, m'am," she said, "are you Jewish?"

"No," replied the mom.

"Just curious, then, why do you keep kosher?"

"Oh, I don't really keep kosher," answered the woman. "I just borrowed the term."

She proceeded to relate the following:

"For years, my kids have been harassing me at the supermarket that they want this snack, that candy bar, etc. I had a hard time saying no, as the kids would just carry on and whine. One day while shopping, I overheard a most unusual exchange between an Orthodox Jewish mother and her own kids. It was at the check-out line where all the sweets are enticingly on display.

"'Could we get that, Mommie?' her kids asked.

"'Nope, we can't get it. It's not kosher.'

"The kids quietly accepted her response, and the conversation ended there. I was so impressed, I asked the Jewish mother how she was able to raise such obedient kids. My kids would have begun pleading and pouting. The woman explained that it wasn't about obedience, but simply the knowledge that the food wasn't kosher. Her kids knew that if it wasn't kosher, they don't eat it. Period.

"I was so jealous. What a brilliant idea, I thought to myself. From then on, I introduced the idea of 'kosher' and 'not kosher' to my own kids, even though we're not Jewish and don't keep kosher. When they want something and I say 'It's not kosher,' they know that they're not getting it and that's it."

If only modern-day parents could understand this simple idea. You owe it to your kids to teach them right from wrong, to inspire them to make the right moral choices in their own lives.

It's not about being too controlling or judgmental. By teaching your kids that some images and lyrics are simply not kosher, not fit for consumption, you are empowering them to make the right choices later in life.

More importantly than teaching them, we as parents ought to teach by example. If it's not kosher for kids or young adults, it's not kosher for adults either.

It doesn't matter if the viewer is mature or immature, whether or not he is firmly rooted in his values or not. If it is not kosher, we don't consume it. It's not up for negotiation.

And we'll be happier and healthier as a result.

Teacher your kids to "just say no."

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Just a Measly Video

Dear Friends and Readers,

By now I'm sure you've read last week's two disturbing news items involving our town, Westborough, MA.
I never imagined my sleepy New England town would make national or even statewide news. Not once, but twice in one day!

Most fascinating is the common theme of these two stories.

Here's news item number one:
A teacher in our local middle school was suspended after allegedly showing an objectionable video called "Superman" to a class of seventh graders.
Click here for Boston Globe story, or here to view all 35 news stories.

News item number two:
A case of measles in Westborough -- an employee at the local Bose Corporation has allegedly fallen ill with the contagious and potentially fatal disease. Here's a link about it.

Now, I must first state that I do not know the teacher or students personally, nor have I ever watched the Eminem video in question. In fact, until today, I didn't even know who "Eminem" was, nor do I care to know. All I know is what I've read, that the video contained lots of immodest, explicit and violent scenes. The superintendent acknowledged that the video was (sic) inappropriate.

As a rabbi in the community where this occured, I would like to make two comments and ask several questions:

Comment #1:
Isn't it uncanny that both news items reflect a contagion that threatens the health and well-being of not just Westborough locals, but our entire modern society?

Comment #2:
We immunize to protect people from diseases like measles. Should we be "immunizing" children to protect them from negative societal influences by exposing them to it in the form of Eminem videos? By doing so, are we immunizing them or predisposing them, or worse, poisoning them? A vaccine contains weakened or dead virus particles. Imagine injecting a healthy patient, child or adult, with live, virulent pathogens. Are you protecting your unsuspecting patient, or infecting him? Perhaps the best way to provide immunity to the diseased behaviors glorified in Eminem's videos is by teaching kids to avoid exposure entirely. Teach them to "Just say No."

Some questions about the video:
1. Is it only inappropriate for children, or is it inappropriate for adults too?
2. Is it only inappropriate for a teacher to show in school, but ok for kids to view at home?
3. Eminem is referred to repeatedly in the news articles as an "artist." Is "Superman" artwork?

A NY congressman recently lost his job and reputation because he sent inappropriate images of himself to a few individuals via electronic media. Why? Isn't he just an "artist" like Eminem? Of course, the latter is a much more seasoned "artist" because he sends similar images to not just several, but millions of individuals. And while the congressman reserved his "artwork" for several adult acquaintances, Eminem's "artistic" imagery and lyrics target minors, and lots of 'em. So why does a teacher and politician get canned, but the "artist" makes millions? What am I missing?

I know some of you are rolling your eyes. Come on, rabbi. It was just a measly video (pun intended) It's not for real. It's just harmless "art."

So let's consider the second news item about measles. What's the commotion? So what if one person caught the disease from a migrant worker in an isolated plant on Route 9. Why is that newsworthy?

The answer is obvious. This is a highly contagious disease. We are all at risk. If it's at Wall Street, it will trickle down to Main Street.

For the youth who is growing up watching videos by Eminem (and others of his ilk), the behaviors showcased in such pieces of "art" are now part of the young viewers' reality. His or her pure mind has now been infected with images of licentiousness, vulgarity, violence and misogyny. And thanks to the wonders of modern media, the contagion now spreads rapidly from friend to friend, tainting the minds of countless other young people.

Will all the young people who watch "Superman" try to emulate that behavior? Hopefully not. But then again, most people will survive measles too. Can we afford to take the risk?

The Torah exhorts us "Do not stray after your heart and after your eyes..."

Watching a video or listening to music is like consumption of food or drink. Just like the food has to be clean, healthy, nourishing and kosher, so too the videos we view need to be fit for consuption. Indeed, every image or lyric we consume becomes indelibly etched into the whiteboard of our mind, conscious and subconscious, in permanent ink.

Ever hear the cliche "You are what you eat?" Well, it really ought to be: "You are what you watch."

PS With regards to the Gibbons Middle School class, the facts have still not emerged, and it is entirely possible that the teacher is blameless. What I have written above is not an indictment against the teacher or school, nor is it an opinion about what has actually occured. Rather, it is a commentary on the reality that children all over (perhaps many children in that very class) are in fact viewing this video (and others like it) at home or elsewhere.