Sunday, February 27, 2011

Yasher koach to Anheuser-Busch!

I love this story.
To prepare for potential emergency situations, Anheuser-Busch is building an inventory of water for donation to communities that could be affected by flooding later this winter and into the spring, and any other natural disasters that would require fresh water for affected residents.
 Credit where credit is due; A-B is doing a great thing.  This is a type of corporate responsibility we need more of. In thanks, I'm going to buy a case (or equivalent) of some A-B product this coming month.

(Yasher koach means literally, "may you have strength!" It's a common way of congratulating someone, especially since it's not "dignified" to hoot and cheer after a Torah reading.)

In case you needed an economic insentive to help others

Reading about the recent earthquake in New Zealand, I was struck by how much better the community was recovering than Haiti did. Haiti's quake was larger (7.0 to 6.3, I believe) but Christchurch was still recovering from another major quake back in September.

Estimated clean-up in New Zealand, cumulative, is $15 billion (converted to US dollars). No one's sure what clean-up in Haiti will cost. It sounds like numbers of comparable scale are being thrown around, but given how much more infrastructure New Zealand has to repair, versus Haiti where most of that money is being spent on food, medicine, and shelter, those numbers should not be in the same ballpark.

Then you compare the deaths. Current count in New Zealand is approaching 200. The death toll in Haiti is more than 1,000 times that.

Visitors to Haiti say it still looks as if the quake happened yesterday. Christchurch was featured on the news, focusing on the happy, upbeat spirit people are maintaining.

I can't help but wonder, what would $15 billion in Haiti have done before the quake? Could it have improved infrastructure enough to reduce the body count? What if there were a few more hospitals, better roads, or emergency response teams? Heck, we're not even looking at the benefit of something as "frivolous" as education.

Or maybe you're not motivated by the damage to the country. What about the economic cost of those deaths? Those are people that, with better support from the US, could have been buying Nikes and iPods and Big Macs; how much have we lost because we allowed such a large consumer demographic to get killed?

Cynical, maybe. But I'm sure there are people doing those types of calculations somewhere in our government. At least, I hope there are. There should be. We look at the cost of things now, like schools and hospitals and scientific research, and decide not to pay for them without considering the future losses incurred by not having them. Maybe that would make a more convincing sound byte: "It's not $100,000 spent on schools; it's an investment in GM's future stock!"

As another reference point, Katrina cost the US an estimated $110 billion, and had death toll of nearly 2,000. That's a lot more than it would have cost to repair a couple levees.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Response to Glen Beck on Reform Judaism


Short version: Beck took some time on Tuesday's show to, as Haaretz puts it, "slam" Reform Judaism by comparing it to "Radical Islam", on the basis that both are political, not spiritual, movements. "Allegedly", this was a response to a group of 400 rabbis that called him out for insensitively and inappropriately overusing references to the Holocaust.

Highlight of Beck's comments:
When you talk about rabbis, understand that most people who are not Jewish don't understand that there are the Orthodox rabbis and then there are the Reformed (sic) rabbis. Reformed rabbis are generally political in nature. It's almost like Islam - radicalized Islam - in a way to where radicalized Islam is less about religion than it is about politics.

I'm not saying that they're the same on - and they're going to take it at that, but -- stand in line. It's not about terror or anything else, it's about politics, and so it becomes more about politics than it does about faith. Orthodox rabbis -- that is about faith. There's not a single orthodox rabbi on this list. This is all reformed rabbis that were -- that made this list.

Summary of the response:
“These comments are deeply offensive, completely absurd”, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism told Haaretz. “Reform Judaism it’s the largest segment of the U.S. Jewish community, and it’s the fastest growing denomination in the U.S. in any faith group – it has much to do with the spiritual needs of a large number of American Jews and to reduce it to [its] social justice agenda is just incorrect."

  1. I'm amused Beck considers Reform Judaism to be closer to radical Islam than Orthodox.  Neither is very close - the better comparison would be the Jewish fundamentalist wack-jobs that hang out by the Kotel throwing rocks at people - but the fact he would try to draw the spectrum that way shows his complete lack of understanding on the issue.
  2. I'm also amused that Rabbi Saperstein associates "Political" with "Social Justice Agenda". That's either a nice piece of spin, or an interesting insight into the man's mind. Either way, I recommend employing "social justice" as a new euphemism. As in, "I didn't like that Temple; the congregation's too focused on social justice."
  3. In all the "outrage" over Beck's comments (I use ironic quotation marks because, honestly, what did you expect from the man? It's like being surprised when your puppy pees on the carpet.), no one seems bothered by the implications he's making about Islam. 
Allow me to be so bothered.

This reminds me of the 2008 presidential campaign, when one of the big attacks on Obama were "allegations" he was a "secret Muslim". It took Colin Powell to put these rumors in their place, by reminding the public that there's a long distance between "Islamic" and "terrorist", and using the two synonymously, or attempting to use "Islamic" as a slur, is grossly inappropriate.

Beck's using "radical Islam" as an, I assume, ironic stand-in for his usual bogeyman comparisons to Nazis. The "punchline" being that he's comparing Reform Jews to the people trying to destroy Israel and Judaism! Hah! What funny! (My co-worker points out that, in this, some Israeli Orthodox rabbis might agree with him) But again, there is a massive inappropriateness in describing, as a movement, any branch of Islam as terrorists.

If you do have some need to point out the terrorist's connection to Islam (and I have no idea why you would; it seems more useful to say "Saudi Arabian terrorists" or "repressive social conservatives" rather than reference their religion), then "Islamic" should only be used as an adjective. In the same way you'd describe them as "tall terrorists" or "well-dressed terrorists".

Pointing fingers at "Radical" religion is misleading, and damaging. Because "Radical" means they support change or extreme ideas without offering any judgment about those ideas. MLK, for example, would count as a "Radical Christian" leader because he wanted significant and rapid change. A "Radical Islamic" movement might be one that believes women can serve as Imams (which is a nice bilingual Hebrew pun, if you think about it).

Implying that anyone wanting change is some sort of terrorist or promoter of violence is just plain wrong. It brings down the level of public discourse, and, ironically, reinforces the very same repressive understanding of religion that it purports to oppose.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Saw this:


Like Love the Epicurus quotation; not so fond of the Demotivational addition.

Don't know much about Epicurus, but from what I've gathered he doesn't actually qualify as an atheist. He didn't deny the existence of the gods, he merely claimed that the gods don't actually have much to do with human affairs; they don't punish the wicked or reward the just, and the soul does not persist after death. It was only in comparison to medieval Christian theology that he appeared atheist. Besides, this doesn't disprove God. At best it shows that our understanding and definition of God is flawed, and anyone claiming they have a perfect understanding of God has something they're trying to sell you.

This dilemma has fascinated me for years, ever since I heard about it. I first encountered it as the "bad things happen to good people" argument. I think it's interesting, but I don't really have any problem with it. Yes, it's true that those three things - mercy, omnipotence, and allowing evil - cannot be true of God simultaneously. I would put forth, though, that they could be true alternately.

We always discuss God, and most of religion for that matter, in terms of absolutes. Murder is always bad. Except, it's not. There are times when God commanded killing (very recently, if you believe some people), and there are times when killing is the proper action because it prevents a greater harm. God is always just, but then there are times God shows favoritism to one group or individual over another.

When we speak of humans (and yes, I'm aware of the theological problems with comparing mortals to the divine; get over it), we call someone "good" if they are merely bad only 49% of the time. A "charitable" man does not give all his money away, or even give to everyone that asks. On the other side of the coin, someone is regarded a "criminal" after only a single act, regardless of how they lived the rest of their life.

Following this logic, then, why do we assume God must have 100% compassion up-time in order to qualify as "loving and merciful"? Every holy book there is tells us God is a wrathful and vengeful being; if you are to be such, you must set aside compassion at least temporarily.

Why do we require God to be OMNI-potent, as if it were not enough to merely be "incredibly powerful; moreso, in fact, than you can possibly comprehend"? Someone capable of creating the Earth ex nihilo is powerful enough to get my respect without worrying about how heavy a rock he could lift.

I do not believe God to be omnipotent. For that matter, I'm not sure God actually ever tells us that he is; I think that was a later addition by humans attempting to ingratiate themselves to the divine. I do believe God is omni-clement (all-forgiving) and omni-diligere (all-loving). I also believe God is capable of error, or at least of irreversible behavior that causes regret after the fact.

So I would respond to Epicurus that I believe in a loving, merciful God that allows bad things to happen to good people; sometimes because of his choices, sometimes because of his limitations.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Middle East and Media Fatigue

There's only so long we can remain focused on and excited about any single news story. That's not a condemnation or critique of the system; that's just how people are. It's why so many news stations are always digging for some new angle or update, or try to find the "human interest" story by interviewing the one fisherman with the most local accent. Point is, we can only care about most things for so long, especially with 24-7 coverage that inevitably enters a suicide loop of presenting the same information over and over because real life doesn't always advance the plot quickly and consistently like a movie would.

Cue Egypt. Most of us, myself included, got very excited in the first few days. By the next week, it was more of "that's still going on, remember?" By the time it actually resolved, many of us (again, myself included) had changed our tunes nearly 180 degrees.

I'd like to think this was less about media fatigue and more a dawning realization that the situation was not, in fact, resolved. What started as a shared revolutionary fervor calmed into realization that we had no idea what Egypt would become next. It could be better, it could be worse. It could stay exactly the same, with a few new faces and names. I agree with Dan Carlin (his most recent Common Sense episode was brilliant on the topic) that what's important is that the people get to decide. But did they just trade a corrupt dictatorship for a fascist military state? If so, their ability to decide might not last long. And the impact on the region could be...bad.

Hopefully, that will not be the case. And either way, the people had some say. They had some impact on their government. Which we, as Americans, find nearly holy.

Good for them!

But there's that media fatigue again. And today we see news stories that similar protests in Bahrain and Lybia are turning nasty. As bad, and worse, as everyone feared Egypt could get, these already are.

With the Egypt protests, I was sure the situation could not devolve too far into state-run violence and chaos because the whole world was watching. You can't get away with slaughtering and beating thousands when CNN is running the footage in a continual loop; the public outcry would be loud enough to reach the ears of people that can send the type of "help" you really don't want.

But with Bahrain and Libya, people have already changed the channel. We saw the "end" to that Egypt story, and switched to see what's New On Fox this season.

I'm afraid that the responsible members of the press and government will stand high on the hills, shouting through megaphones that we need to pay attention to these new protests, and we won't be able - or, more cynically, willing - to hear them.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


(This is a response to the Girls Read Comics Too list of Most Memorable Moments of Marvel Women)

My introduction to the X-Men was a trade of the Dark Phoenix Saga. Not a bad place to get started, all things considered. It permanently colored my perception of what the X-Men specifically, super heroes more broadly, and comic books in general were all about: what type of stories could be told, the scope, power, and visceral impact they could have; story told both in the illustrations and the text; how to take a story from grand scale to small to big again; and how to find personal moments in scenes of mass chaos.

In the middle of all this was tucked a new character; a young, Jewish girl from the Chicago suburbs, one Kitty Pryde. As a young, Jewish boy from the Chicago suburbs, she had a great impact on me. I was probably a bit younger than her character was supposed to be at the time, but it was still close enough that I saw a lot of that and many future stories through her eyes. She was permanently set as one of my favorite characters, and I would often judge the writing of a new series or storyline by how they handled her character. If they got her right, the creative team probably knew what they were doing; if not, it probably wasn't worth my $1.25 to read the next issue.

She and Colossus were my Lois and Clark; the couple that was meant to be together, that just fit, that represented romance and hope. Granted, mostly because she wanted him, and what my girl wanted my girl got! Still, they are quite the matched pair. She the short Jewish girl who becomes insubstantial and walks through walls, and he the tall Russian boy who becomes solid and knocks walls down. (The Russian/Jewish dichotomy was also a big point both because I am descended from Russian Jews and because in the 80's when I discovered the book Russian antisemitism was a major topic in the Jewish community.)

Then, time passed; characters grew apart. Kitty and Pitor parted ways. She went to England to join Excalibur, which became my new favorite book. He stayed with the X-Men and...died. Unexpected and sad, but I could cope. Especially since by that point bad writers and storylines had ruined the character, keeping the steel shell while hollowing out the man within.

Kitty moved on, and so did I.

Then Joss Whedon took his turn with the X-Men.

If you haven't already read his run on Astonishing X-Men, it's highly worth it. The worst criticism I ever heard of the series was, "The second story arc wasn't as good as the first." Which is roughly equivalent to, "The silver medalist ran slightly slower than the gold medalist."

But back to Kitty.

The big surprise in the first story arc, after months of teasing about the re-resurrection of Jean Grey, was the reveal that Colossus was back. It had seemed he was to be that rarest of rare things - a comic book character that actually stayed dead! - so this was a truly shocking reveal. Kitty phased through a mile of alien metal to find him in a small cell. The reunion scene was...touching. I'm a big, tough man who spends his free time punching inanimate objects and hitting my friends with sticks, so obviously I didn't cry when I read it. But I could see whereas someone slightly less tough than me might have.

What followed was a beautiful depiction of a renewed and growing relationship. They fought. They reconciled. They had sex. They fought more, and had sex while still fighting. In other words, they acted like two people who love each other but are working on some complex relationship issues.

Flash forward to the last storyline, "Unstoppable".

I love authors that can set up plot lines early and subtly, throwing a ball in the air and letting it hang, only to have it drop down years later into the bucket it seemed they put on the floor at random. And sure enough, here was Kitty, phasing through a mile of alien metal to become trapped in a small cell. Only this cell was a 10-mile long bullet headed straight towards Earth!

It was ok; the team would save her. Plus on Earth all the mightiest heroes had gathered to form a plan.

And Her friends couldn't reach her in time. No one in Marvel's stable of power players could stop the bullet or get her out. Emma Frost, reaching out to Kitty telepathically, offers to make her last moments "comfortable".

"Nah," Kitty tells her, "I'm gonna see this through."

And then, where heroes, demigods, and Wolverine had failed, Kitty whispers a prayer for strength and phases the bullet through the entire earth.

Imagine that scenario for a second. The defining test of a hero is often held to be the moment when they face death - not in the abstract, but in the heart-stopping, last-breath, gun-to-the-head kind of way - and offer themselves as sacrifice to save the day. I don't know how the "my life vs. the entire planet" dynamic changes things, but to face your final moment and see your duty through without flinching is heroic no matter the case.

But Kitty didn't face death. Not directly, not immediately. She rode in an inert chunk of metal - no radiation, chemicals, or electrical malfunctions to end her suffering - with no food or water and limited air, that was moving at high speed through the vacuum of space.

Kitty's smart; definately a brains-over-brawn character, if not at Iron Man/Mr. Fantastic levels, and she'd studied. There was nothing to slow the bullet down, not until it hit something big. And given the size of space, it was likely she would starve or suffocate well before that happened.

Death. Alone. In the cold. Slow and unpleasant. Likely her body would never be found.

But that wasn't her most heroic moment.

That came a few pages earlier when her team couldn't find a way to reach and stop the bullet, and she chose to phase into it to find a way.

She chose to ride that bullet, determined to find a way to beat it, and she didn't stop until she did.

If you'll excuse me now, I have to go re-read the Dark Phoenix Saga, and meet again this young woman who would one day ride a bullet to the stars.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

This is a good cause, I think: Stuff for the Poor

Our Temple is doing a used shoe drive for Stuff for the Poor. I approve of their noble (if poorly written) mission, but their model seems, well, strange.

As I understand it, they collect used shoes and other items, and sell these items to resellers for a profit. They use the money to provide education and other services for the poor in Tanzania, and the reseller has a supply of inexpensive shoes to sell at low-cost to those same poor people, many of whom have no shoes.

Sound plan, right? Helps 'em coming and going. So why does it seem so strange? It feels like I'm missing some subtle insidious plot hidden in what sounds like a helpful charitable organization.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Obligatory Post about Egypt

The news is in; history has happened.

On the one hand, I am happy for the people of Egypt, that they were able to effect change on their country.

On the other, while this achievement was "great", it remains to be seen if it will be "good".

Handing control of a country to the military is always a bit frightening. Of course, it sounds like Egypt was basically run by the military already. At least, the parts of it that worked.

My most fervent prayer is that the people of Egypt are guided by wisdom during this transition. Their country seems very malleable right now, and it is up to them whether they are reforged into a tool for building, or a weapon for destruction.

The Reasonable Response

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
- George Bernard Shaw

The E-Kvetcher at Search for Emes has this in his profile. (I found his blog through a link to this post about Karaite architecture; I'm doing some research on the Karaites, so it caught my attention.)

I enjoy Shaw's quotation, and agreed with it for the first 2/3. Then I read the kicker.

Strangely, I think I would agree with both sentences individually. Progress depends on the unreasonable man? Check; many times the path forwards seems entirely unreasonable, and only dogged persistence in the face of massive resistance can enact change (Egypt parallels not intended, but timely). It is reasonable to adapt the self to the world, rather than expect the world to change for you? Check; it's the difference between pushing on the mountain until it gets out of your way, and finding a path to walk around it.

Combine the two, though, and I must part ways with Shaw and the Kvetcher. The problem is defining the person that seeks progress as one who expects the world to change, rather than to adapt.

This is a personal point of differentiation, and I could easily argue either way. Science, after all, is creating change, and every major civil rights leader seeks to "change the world". Except that is not quite how it works. Science does not change the world, it uncovers information about how the world already works, and adapts existing technology to take advantage of this new knowledge. Social justice does not seek to change the world, but to remove artificial barriers created by society such as racial inequality, heterosexual-only marriage, and class boundaries.

I also approached this quotation from the position of the individual, not the society. Expecting the world to change to meet an individual's needs gives rise to the delusional and the dangerous. We cannot control the world; we can only control our reaction to it. Focus strongly enough on changing yourself and that change will spread into the world around you. (I'll see your Shaw, and raise you a Gandhi!)

I also view adaptation as a larger issue. It involves changing plans and tactics to meet changing conditions, and experimentation to find a way that works. It's not conforming, resigning, and accepting the world the way it is. But it also means not continually charging ahead with the same tactic, either because it used to work or because it might if you just keep trying.

Furthermore, putting this quotation in the context of religion worries me because, in my experience and perception, the only way for religion to survive and be an enduring benefit to its adherents is to adapt to meet changing times. Shaw's "unreasonable man" evokes for me images of the Ultra-Orthodox that say everything from after 1800 is unnecessary and evil, and who seek to create isolated enclaves where the modern world no longer exists.


This post is now much longer than I originally expected, and rambles horribly from point to point. But that's the nice thing about not doing a blog professionally; I don't need to worry about "quality". I can just share things I find interesting, and pontificate as I see fit. In fact, I don't even need proper

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Things we need a word for

What do you say when, while trying to be lighthearted and friendly, someone asks a question that hits on a very tender personal tragedy? How do you politely let them know that, while I know you meant it kindly, that's an incredibly sore subject for me, and I'm not looking for sympathy and I don't need to talk about it, but please don't ask me that again?

Our culture doesn't do that well. I'm not sure any does. Especially when it's an issue you don't feel comfortable discussing, or an environment where you don't want to have the conversation.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Moses bringing the Tablets down from Sinai

The Old Testament fire & brimstone is nothing compared to Steve Job's EULA.

[h/t Cracked]

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Standing In the Middle

Leon posted this gem last month; I highly recommend reading it. Short, sweet, and insightful, about what happens when Information Technology theory meets rabbinic thought.

The Shoah; Just Google It!

@cayswann asks: Will you be blogging your thoughts re: Google project with Yad Vashem?

I was going to, then I didn't want to, mainly because I wasn't sure I had anything new to say about it.

My feelings on the Holocaust are, as for many Jews, complex. But the eventual path that complexity led me to is somewhat different than the standard narrative of Modern American Judaism And The Holocaust.

In short: I'm quite sick of it.

As a rabbi I used to work with said, "I can tell you in 30 seconds how Jews die; let's talk about how they live." Holocaust education and message is squeezing out everything else, it sometimes seems. I remember last year's Yom HaShoah celebration where the head of the local Holocaust Museum Eternal Remembrance Center led the crowd in booing the JCC for reducing their funding. Because they wanted to spend their limited budget on other, silly, less important things. Like educating children or feeding and caring for those still alive, instead of memorializing the dead.

And that seems to be the reoccurring answer. But you can't protest it, because it was such a big and horrible thing, and speaking against it is disrespectful to the pain of my parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents, as the case may be. Never Forget has become Never Move On.

So I tend to start with a somewhat negative response to any story about Holocaust research.

Now, with that out of the way, this is not a unique move by Google. In their continuing efforts to index the entire world, they've already digitized the Dead Sea Scrolls. From that perspective, this is just another addition of human history to the internet, and in that I support it.

The question remains, though, of how this will be used. I can see potential, in the next year or so, for rabbinic sermons and writings to have a renewed Holocaust focus, as the improved access makes their research easier. I pity the high school teachers who will have to deal with a sudden influx of disturbingly detailed papers on concentration camps and oppressive laws. And I'm sure the number of new "Remember the Holocaust" websites will be dwarfed by the number of new "Holocaust Was A Hoax" sites.

Of course it's also possible that this will be just another bucket of information tossed into the digital sea. It will be absorbed with barely a splash, and cause no change in temperature. If that is the case, I am glad there is a new, globally accessible, and backed-up source of education on the Holocaust. And now that it's been thouroughly indexed, crawled, cross-linked, and wiki'ed, maybe we can put the Holocaust with the other tragedies of our past, use it as a source of future inspiration and strength, and focus on life.

A Jewish Qwiki

From the new Qwiki search engine/storytelling encyclopeida/ high-tech toy:

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Sinners, all

The principle that all Commandments are weighted equally has, as do many core religious principles, a light and dark side.On the one hand, it (theoretically) prevents someone from ignoring one of the important commandments just because they personally disagree with it or find it trivial ("Thou shalt not kill? Clearly that's more of a guideline than an actual rule!"). On the other, it leads to a certain degree of insanity, when "Put fringes on the corners of your garments" carries equal weight as "Do not rape". Imagine how ludicrous it would be if comparing the record of two people: "Well, the guy on the right is a murderer, but the guy on the left has unfringed garments and left the table without saying the proper blessing! No question which one we want as our Sunday School teacher!"

In practice, all Commandments are not weighed equally. We know this because the punishments do not all match. The punishment for masturbation is, essentially, having to take a shower. Killing someone's ox requires you to pay its full value. Practicing witchcraft gets you put to death. These all may be equal in terms of which ones we have to take seriously, but economic theory alone would quickly develop some rankings. I definitely won't practice witchcraft, and I can't afford to kill my neighbor's ox until after payday, but I was planning to take a shower tonight anyway, so...

Just saying.

And this is a good thing, because most of us walk around every day carrying at least some load of minor sins on our backs. In fact, there's a rather popular story featuring Jesus on this particular theme. Religion sets a basically inhuman, unachievable level as the ideal, which is ok because it's a goal to aspire to, not an achievement to be reached.

But if religion knows that we can't be perfect, and that we will, most of us, commit at least a few small sins per day (and if you think you're better than that, you just committed the sin of Pride; so there!), then maybe the goal of religion is not, in fact, for us to avoid all sin but rather to show us ways to reduce our wicked ways, and make amends when we do stray. In fact, at least three of the major Judeo-Christian religions have this worked into the core of their fabric, and offer fairly regular opportunities for repentance and forgiveness.

It occurred to me today while I was reading a post about religious tolerance for homosexuality (gasp!) that most people assume religion has this all-or-nothing approach to sin. Why else would people get so worried for their gay friends? Are we assuming that if the gayness did go away they would suddenly be free of all other vices as well? Or that homosexuality is the only thing they're doing that God would disapprove of?

Of course not; both those ideas are ridiculous. But this idea still persists that religion exists in some Judge Dredd-style universe, where littering, jaywalking, playing music too loudly, and speeding all carry the same potentially lethal punishment.

(This also reminds me of Father Guido Sarducci's bit "Life is a job". According to him, after death you get paid your wages based on how long you live; after that you have to pay God back for your sins. Murder, he figures, is a major crime worth at least $1,000; masturbation is only a quarter since it's a cheep thrill. Still, he keeps having dreams where he's a recently-deceased old man trying to get into heaven, and is just 25 cents short. As if a loving God would deny someone paradise for such a trivial reason.)

We are sinners all. We are meant to sin, to fail, and to be forgiven, purified, and renewed. It's built into the system, probably into our very DNA. You wouldn't have to tell people not to do these things if there wasn't some naturally occurring urge to do them.

So let people sin. Tell your friends you're concerned for them if you think they go too far, and remember that, as with any freedom, your right to sin ends at the beginning of my personal space.

Does that make it right? No. But it puts our focus where it needs to be; not on avoiding all sin to remain innocent and pure, but to learn, to understand, why these acts are considered sins. To internalize that message so that, gradually, we want to and are able to live a better life. And to recognize when we have done wrong and make amends.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

This word upsets me

It's not often I get upset about a word. I mean, just about the fact of a word. Use of a word? Sure. But getting mad at a word just for existing? Not often.

Then I found this word:

ambisinister (\ am-bi-SIN-uh-ster \ , adjective)
1. Clumsy or unskillful with both hands.

Yes, the opposite of  "ambidextrous", meaning "skilled with both hands". But literally, "both right-handed".

By contrast, "ambisinister" is "both left-handed".

As someone who is skilled with his left hand, I take offense. Especially since, ironically, I am an ambidextrous fencer that is better with the left hand and strives to bring the right hand up to that standard.

Am I seriously mad about this? Not really. It's always bothered me that "left handed" became a synonym for evil. The French gauche comes from "left" and means "awkward or lacking social grace". And given how many people have been tortured throughout the ages into being right handed, and the developmental issues that followed, this is obviously more than a semantic issue.

It's also an interesting reminder of how fundamentally some of our prejudices are worked into our language. Many of these words have lost their original sting now, many generations later, when the original slur is forgotten and the word has taken on new and independent life, but it is still an interesting inheritance. Grade school teachers no longer force students to use their right hands in penmanship classes, but students that do well with either hand are still said to write with their left as if it were their right.

So what do we do now when we find these words? Remove them? Change them? Shrug and move on? It's a linguistic version of the issue many countries face: our land was taken from these indigenous people by force, decades or centuries ago, but now there is a new nation built upon that spot with history and culture of its own. Do we uproot and destroy it to right the wrong done by our ancestors to yours? Or just accept that our country was built on blood, and strive to do better in the future?