Saturday, December 27, 2008

Let It Burn

Abe Novick
Special to the Jewish Times

For many of us having grown up during the decade when the Rolling Stones’ “Let It Bleed” was all the rage, the phrase “Let it burn” may not be as familiar.

But some 60 years before that December in 1969 when the English rock band released its immortal album, George Bernard Shaw shook and rattled the rafters on another London stage.

At the height of Act II, in Shaw’s “Caesar & Cleopatra,” Caesar is informed the great library of Alexandria is burning. Caesar — Shaw’s doppelganger — replies, “Let it burn.”

Why would Shaw, a writer and bibliophile, have his emperor utter such a literary blaspheme? It was a new age and a fresh millennia, and Shaw wanted to dispense with the past and usher in a new era of, you got it, change.

Just as the 1960s were an era when the times were a changin’, putting an end to the past was the leitmotif during Shaw’s Fin de si’ecle.

And while our own millennium has already come and gone, we now have to confront much of the pain we were anesthetized to since Y2K.

The Bush years have been like living in a false reality. The Iraq war was fought on false premises. The environment was ignored because the truth was inconvenient. The real estate bubble, which led to this economic meltdown, was driven by overly inflated home prices that were helped in large measure by credit that wasn’t backed up with any real collateral.

Whole industries once pillars of strength and stability have or are buckling and could cave in further — from Wall Street to Detroit to newsprint.

Consequently, we’ve been met with the question: Do we let them go down or save them? Do we let them burn?

Like an angry mob with torches, most Americans are against bailing out these industries and saying they got what they deserved, polls show. CNN/Opinion Research revealed that 77 percent thought a government bailout of financial institutions rewarded bad behavior. Likewise, 61 percent oppose government assistance to U.S. automakers.

Contemporaneous to this current state of social combustion comes Chanukah — the Festival of Lights. The story couldn’t be more apt.

We don’t snuff their flame, but sing songs as we stare at the melting candles, which represent a cleansing and rededication of the temple. We think back to when Judah ordered the Temple cleansed and a new altar built in place of the polluted one.

Shaw wasn’t nihilistic enough to let his Caesar advocate nothingness in the library’s wake. Rather, when the emperor is asked, “Will you destroy the past?” Caesar replies, “Ay, and build the future with its ruins.”

Chanukah, which comes at the end of a year that many will be only too glad to dispense with, is a time for celebration. And even though we may look around and wonder what there is to celebrate, perhaps the answer is… what lies ahead.

We have a new and vibrant president-elect in this country and the first African-American to ever hold that mantle. In January he’ll be inaugurated and already it looks as if the crowd that will gather for that occasion will rival Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech that spoke not about the past but the future.

So like King, Caesar, Judah and yes, even like the bad boys of rock ‘n’ roll (who endured more change than any other band of brothers and live on today), let’s continue onward in our quest to build and enlighten.

Let’s gather strength from the past, and while it burns and fades away, look to a brighter future.

Remember, we’re not supposed to blow out the candles, but we’re to behold them and, yes, let them burn.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Arise Dark Knight

Americans have always been pragmatists when it comes to the truth. From John Dewey to John Wayne, we’re a practical people. Our quest for the purity of truth and justice comes into constant conflict with the jagged everyday landscape of compromise.

Now with a newly elected leader, the country seems to be clamoring for the truth. From the economic hardships that lie ahead and the sacrifices we’ll have to make, to what dangers are being cooked up in caves on the Afghani-Pakistani border — we seek straight answers.

But while it’s a cliché to say the truth hurts, the pure truth, while refreshing, not only stings but is dangerous, as so many heroes (super and otherwise) have found out.

So how does one navigate through such terrain — by sticking to principles or adjusting to the temporary topography?

After the financial meltdown, Secretary Henry “Hank” Paulson and the Congress told us their rescue plan was needed to save the economy. However, while implementing it, Hank admitted intervention was against his principles. Nevertheless, he and Congress held their nose and we the people went along.

Closer to home, the electorate voted for slots in Maryland. Just a few years ago many, including Democrats, were against slots. They claimed slots were a tax on the poor, would lead to problems with compulsive gambling and create a slew of slots addicts.

But because we are in the midst of a budget shortfall, slots were served up as a remedy. And even though many voters see slots’ deleterious aspects, the ends justified the means. Again, we close our eyes and pull the lever.

Likewise, as we look at the problems facing the Middle East, we will confront this same dilemma.

This past month I had the fortunate opportunity to hear Matthew Levitt, Senior Fellow and director of The Washington’s Institute Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. He was truly knowledgeable and an expert in his field.

Interestingly, during the Q&A session, one audience member asked why the issue of anti-Israel sentiment in the Arab world typically gets framed in the context of politics and not a religious foundation? The question had the ring of truth. The room paused.

Mr. Levitt’s answer was brilliant in its pragmatic nuance. He replied, and I paraphrase, to inject religion into the equation is dangerous, for it will infuse the Arab world with a higher calling aimed at Israel’s destruction and rally the Arab streets.

Sounds pretty scary. On the other hand, isn’t it true that the Arab world’s sentiments toward Israel have a long history of Jew hatred, going back to the mufti’s support of Nazism? So while potentially volatile it is, and has always been, a very real factor.

For example, when the covenants of terrorist groups such as Hamas commit themselves to the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people, that’s anti-Semitism. When the Muslim world draws on the classical Christian notions of Jewish stereotypes and fills their children’s heads with perverse images of Jews, that’s religious-inspired hatred.

Is not confronting the issue just as dangerous?

President Bush’s desire to remake the Middle East by bringing democracy to it will be replaced with the realist approach of making that region work as best it can, given the circumstances.

With Iran getting closer to nuclear capabilities and the stakes increasing, it will put greater pressure on an Obama administration to be pragmatic. If we’re not at a global tipping point, we can certainly envision one on the horizon.

Put another way, the boundless flamboyant era of Captain America is over and the earthly tactics of Batman, the Dark Knight, begins.

Abe Novick writes monthly for the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES on the intersection of American culture and Judaism.