Friday, September 18, 2015

Defending Uncertainty

So, I had another op-ed in the Jewish Standard on September 4th, subsequently posted on my Jewish Standard Times of Israel blog, entitled In Defense of Uncertainty (and of course you can click on the link and read it over there, but I'll paste it in here, or else I wouldn't have much of a post, now would I?).

I'd also like to acknowledge the fact that the inspiration for this piece came from a discussion we had at Congregation Adas Emuno one Friday night this summer, led by Rabbi Barry Schwartz, on the subject of the Iran deal. Strong opinions were expressed on both sides, but a few of us also admitted that we were unsure of which side of the issue is right (and that's assuming there only are two sides, which is not necessarily the case, and that any side is right or wrong).

So anyway, here is the op-ed, with a coda to follow:

If you are expecting yet another op-ed piece arguing for or against President Obama’s Iran deal, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

It’s no secret that the Jewish community has been divided regarding the Iran deal, and the opinions on both sides of the issue by all accounts are strongly held. But there is another great divide regarding this issue, and I believe it is a more significant one: The split between those who have a strong opinion on the issue one way or another, and those who don’t. We often jokingly invoke the equation that two Jews equals three opinions, and in this instance, having no opinion is in fact a third opinion.

At this point you might be expecting me to condemn or criticize those of us who are neither for nor against the Iran deal, or at least urge them to take a stand. If so, I am sorry to disappoint you, but that is not my intention.

I know this is an issue that many feel passionately about, and I respect those people who have taken a stand as a matter of conscience. But in all honesty, I’m not one of them. Let me be clear that it’s not that I don’t care. Far from it. I care deeply. I worry about the future, and I wish I had the certainty about this issue that others seem to possess. But I don’t. And I find myself recalling the words of Pliny the Elder: “The only certainty is that nothing is certain.”

Artist’s Imaginative Rendition of Pliny the Elder

My aim, then, is to defend those of us who are unsure of what the right course of action might be. We may constitute only a small minority of the Jewish community, or maybe we’re a silent majority. Either way, it isn’t easy to break that silence and simply say, “I just don’t know.”

In any heated controversy, the undecideds are subject to a great deal of pressure to get off the fence. After all, neither side is going to persuade the other to give up on the views they so hold fervently, so when they put forth their arguments, who else are they trying to influence? The undecideds are their target. The goals of their persuasive campaigns are twofold: first, to convince us that it’s vital to make up our minds and form an opinion, and second, that we adopt their position rather than the opposing side’s, and take action by communicating that view to our elected officials.

Guilt is a powerful weapon in the war against the undecideds, and it’s not just Jewish guilt at work here. As citizens in a democracy, we are taught that we have a duty to take part in political deliberations, which in turn requires us to be informed about the issues of the day, and to take a position on them.

And if we don’t? Then we have failed to carry out our obligation to participate in the democratic process and are guilty of being bad citizens. The problem is that so many of the issues that we are asked to take a stand on are so complex and so distant from our everyday lives that we have no real basis to form an opinion one way or another. We have access to more information than ever before, but we lack the means to evaluate, filter, and synthesize all that information, so we just wind up with information overload. And however much information we are privy too, there always is more that has been withheld from us, or that has been overlooked.

Feeling compelled to form an opinion as an obligation of citizenship, and unable to do so on our own, we turn to others for guidance. And those others may be sources that reach us through the media. Or they may be people that we know and respect, who themselves have formed their opinions via those same media outlets.

The paradox of needing to have an opinion and having no solid basis for forming one is what makes citizens open and vulnerable to propaganda. And I’m not saying that all propaganda is evil or ill intentioned. After all, the American Revolution was fueled by propaganda, we just substitute the term pamphlets because the term propaganda has a negative connotation for us. It’s just that today, when it is all but impossible to make informed decisions about so many of the issues that we face, propaganda rushes in to fill the void and relieve us of the discomfort of uncertainty.

Some find a sense of certainty by looking to the past. That’s understandable — the past is fixed while the future is always unknown. But I find myself unconvinced by historical comparisons between the Iran deal with the policy of appeasement toward Nazi Germany before the Second World War, to America’s Cold War interactions with the Soviet Union, to the embargo of Cuba, to negotiations with North Korea, and so on. While I certainly would agree with the importance of studying and learning from history, simplistic analogies can be terribly misleading. First, whether a particular kind of policy failed or succeeded in the past, there is no way to run a what-if scenario and determine whether another policy would have resulted in a better or worse outcome. But more importantly, the situation today cannot be equated with events from the past. It is unique and has to be evaluated on its own terms.

Some find certainty in fundamental values—peace on the one hand, safety on the other. Values are not the issue, however. The specifics of the settlement are. Does the deal promote peace or increase the possibilities for violence? Does the deal enhance everyone’s safety and security or decrease it? Arguments from both sides appeal to the same values, so the values themselves provide no real basis for taking a stand.

Some find certainty by putting their trust in leaders, whether it’s Barack Obama or Benjamin Netanyahu. Or perhaps it’s more a matter of who they distrust more? But whether one or the other has earned or squandered our trust, ethos alone is not a sufficient basis for evaluating a proposal. Nor is the question of whether we can trust the Iranian leadership, since much of the controversy revolves around our ability to verify their compliance with the conditions of the deal, to enforce restrictions and punish violations.

And so I return to the point that under these circumstances, it’s okay to acknowledge our uncertainty. I want to stress that I am not defending apathy, although I would acknowledge that a sense of numbness is an entirely understandable response to situations that are perceived to be overwhelming. But apathy is simply another form of certainty, the certainty that comes with ignoring or forgetting our concerns.

Living with uncertainty isn’t easy, but it’s something that the Jewish people are accustomed to. Hence the Yiddish saying, “man plans and God laughs.” Sometimes the only certainty is that nothing is certain, and sometimes all that we can do is wait. And hope. And pray.

Now, I am gratified to be able to say that I did get some positive responses to my piece, and that includes a letter to the editor published in the following week's edition, on September 11th. Here's a link to it online, the editor gave it a title of Strate is Certainly Sane, and here's an image of it as it appeared in the paper:

So, my thanks go out to Professor Weidhorn for certifying that I am not insane, to borrow a catchphrase from Firesign Theatre. 

And speaking of humor, on the evening of Rosh Hashanah, the humorist, author, and TV critic Marvin Kitman attended services at Adas Emuno (I go way back with Kitman, as he is someone who wrote about Marshall McLuhan, reviewed The Medium is the Massage for the New York Times Book Review, participated in the 1998 McLuhan Symposium I organized at Fordham University, contributed to my co-edited anthology, The Legacy of McLuhan, and also knew Neil Postman), and he told me that he read my op-ed, and wanted to comment on it. But he was uncertain as to how he felt about it...

Thursday, September 3, 2015

My Villanova Adventure

As I write this post, I am sitting in my new office at Villanova University, which is located in the town of Villanova, a suburb of Philadelphia.

And no, this isn't a permanent move, I'm still a full professor with tenure at Fordham University. But this semester I am on fellowship there, which is the equivalent of sabbatical, except unlike a sabbatical, a fellowship is not automatic every seven years or so. Instead, you have to apply for it, it's competitive based on your proposal for how you're going to spend your release time, and it's subject to peer evaluation and approval by the administration. My proposal was to follow up on my research regarding time and technology, but that's besides the point of this particular post.

The point of this particular post is that, being free this semester, I was available to accept a visiting appointment at Villanova. Specifically, I have been appointed Villanova University's 2015-2016 Margaret E. and Paul F. Harron  Endowed Chair in Communication, aka the Harron Family Chair.

Here's a link to the webpage listing, but since it will change next year, I'll provide some screen captures for your convenience:


As I mentioned, I'm only in residence at Villanova for the fall semester, the Harron Chair is a one semester appointment, but since there's only one Harron Chair appointed each school year, I guess the title sticks with me until the summer.

I know that bottom bit about Villanova was cut off in the screen grab, so if you're curious about the school apart from its famous sports programs, here's what it says:

Villanova University was founded in 1842 by the Order of St. Augustine. To this day, Villanova’s Augustinian Catholic intellectual tradition is the cornerstone of an academic community in which students learn to think critically, act compassionately and succeed while serving others. There are more than 10,000 undergraduate, graduate and law students in the University’s six colleges.
In this sense, it is not all that different from Fordham, as a Catholic institution, although Fordham's Jesuit tradition is certainly distinctive. And I would say that my time spent at Fordham, over a quarter of a century, has been good preparation for this new adventure in an Augustinian environment.

The campus is quite lovely, with an impressive church dominating the main entrance. Here are some images:

That's just a sampling. And most importantly, the department here is altogether convivial, the students are bright and eager, and everything is going quite well so far, now that I am in the second week of the semester.

So my Villanova adventure is off to a good start! More on this, as it develops...