Your RDA of Irony

Torah and Tory

Posted in General on July 5th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 8 Comments

(I was asked to conduct the Sabbath service on July 4th.  I aware that the attendance would be theoretical, but how could I refuse?  Me and a pulpit…never underestimate my megalomania.  As for the topic of my sermon, the choice was obvious.)

Torah and Tory

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Independence Day!
Since this is not an Episcopalian Church, I would guess that most of our ancestors missed the actual event and didn’t even hear about it about we got past Ellis Island.
Yet, in 1776 there were Jews in the Thirteen Colonies: approximately twenty-five hundred. At the time, there were 2.5 million people in the colonies. So we were a meager one-in-a-thousand. I doubt that you could find a minyan in New Hampshire or old Virginia, but there were congregations in New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
What was it like to be a Jew in the Thirteen Colonies? In the words of either Maimonides or Larry David, it could have been worse. Our lives and property were protected by English law. An act of Parliament had guaranteed Jews the same legal status as Methodists. That was not quite an English compliment but–trust me–that was better than being a Roman Catholic. So, our situation was slightly snubbed but definitely not persecuted. The Cordozos of New York and the Gratzs of Philadelphia could lead prosperous, enjoyable lives, even if their kids weren’t welcome in the Ivy League.
Compare that to Jewish life elsewhere in North America. That is easy–there was no Jewish life there. Spain forbid Jews in its colonies; it forbid anyone of Jewish descent! If you had one Jewish great-grandparent, your presence was a capital offense. Ferdinand and Isabella could not have met that standard.
What about France’s colonies? In Canada, definitely NON. No matter how much you would have liked being the ancestor of William Shatner, the French government would not have permitted it. There were Jews in France–40,000 in the mid-18th century; but immigration to Canada was limited to Roman Catholics–and even they had to meet an exacting system of quotas. The aspiring emigrant had to fill a specific job awaiting him in Canada. If you were a baker, and Montreal did not need one…well, you could always lie and claim to be a trapper. It was easier getting into the Sorbonne than into Quebec. Louisiana was slightly more tolerant…or lazy. There were five Jewish families in New Orleans. Of course, their existence was against the law–but who ever enforces the law in New Orleans?
So, you can see the Jews of the British Empire enjoyed an unequalled degree of security and liberty. What more could a Jew expect or dare want? Why would they risk the Crown’s guarantees for the lofty promises of the Declaration of Independence? Because those promises addressed an unexpressed longing and age-old fears. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” Here was a commitment to freedom, and not just the gift of tolerance.
The New World was no longer just a geographic term; it would be the fulfillment of our hopes. Our liberties were not the favor of a monarch or the concessions of a Parliament. Freedom was not even an English privilege. We all were entitled to those rights by birth, by our humanity. That idea was the American Revolution, and what we honor today.
Shabbat Shalom.

Which Empire Would You Be in 1914?

Posted in General on June 28th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

It is the centennial of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  I am surprised that there is no Buzzfeed Quiz for you to pick  “What Empire Were You in 1914?”

Which best describes your bloated, chauvinistic incompetence?

A. Should I try dragging the Empire into the 18th century or just stay in the harem?
B. Check out the Faberge catalog, go to the ballet and blame for the Jews for losing a war with Japan.
C. Remember to treat the Indians better than the Irish.
D. Build a major naval base in Munich and train my dachhunds to goosestep.
E. Do my epaulets make me look fat, Monsieur Renoir? Battles are won by the best-dressed.
F. Yes, the Balkans and Slavic nationalism should be addressed–but first try the Sacher Tortes.

The Price of Stability: Tiananmen Square

Posted in General, On This Day on June 4th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

June 4, 1989: Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square is the cultural center of Beijing. It is on the itinerary of every tour of China’s capital. The government-approved guide would point out the monuments, museums and edifices that make Tiananmen the showcase of Communist China. Along this great public square is the National Museum, and the Great Hall of the People–where foreign dignities are honored at state dinners that seat 5000 people. Of course, there is the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, the founder of Communist China; the “Great Helmsman” himself envisioned Tiananmen as the glory of the People’s Republic. If entire neighborhoods were demolished in 1958 to create the world’s largest public square, Mao was not one to suffer details. History would justify the cost. That is the rationale of tyranny and, sadly, it often proves correct. When faced with the prospect of losing political power, the successors of Mao would show the same ruthless resolve in crushing the pro-democracy movement: the massacre in Tiananmen Square.

“Power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” That may be the only principle of Mao’s that his successors still observe. The “Chairman” may have been a capable general and an intimidating tyrant but he was an absurd administrator. The mundane mechanics of government actually offended him. Instead he offered maxims, but inspiration does not grow crops or run industries. And too often his visions proved illusions. For example, he imagine that China could industrialize if every family had its own blast furnace: make your own steel in the backyard. The idea was ridiculous but no one dared ignore his command. Of course, this “Great Leap Forward” was a disaster, squandering manpower and resources. Worse, agriculture was neglected and resulted in a famine; thirty million people starved.

When Mao died in 1976, the governance of this schizophrenic China–a world power with a hand-to-mouth economy–was left to a committee of old veterans, men who had survived both war and the Chairman’s temper. Some remained true Communists, but a prevailing majority saw that China’s prosperity required pragmatism rather than dogma. In the words of China’s new leader, Deng Xiopeng, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”

China was still primarily an agrarian society, so the first reforms were in agriculture. Allow private property, permit initiative and profit, and you could turn peasants into farmers. In a decade, the average rural income had tripled. To industrialize China required a more drastic deviation from Mao and Communism: foreign capital. The coastal provinces became “special economic zones” luring foreign business with the promise of western products at Chinese wages. In 1980, the minimum wage in the United States was $3.10 a hour; that would have been a week’s wage in China. But the undershirts made in China were indistinguishable from those woven in South Carolina. Its profits encouraged the Chinese government to permit further commercial initiative. The Chinese themselves now were permitted to go into business. The aspiring entrepreneur, craftsman or merchant had the opportunity to prove his worth in the marketplace. In effect, the Chinese people had economic freedom. So began the boom that continues to propel China.

Yet these new policies would raise issues and create divisions in the Chinese society. Within a decade of these economic reforms, the college students were wondering why there were no political reforms. Was freedom permitted only in economics? That seemed illogical and unjust. The Party leadership was aware of this growing dissension but was unsympathetic. Deng Xioping equated democracy with chaos. Within the leadership, there had been one supporter of democracy: the Party’s General Secretary Hu Yaobang. Deng fired him in 1977 and chose Zhao Ziyang as the new General Secretary. Zhao represented the second generation of Chinese leaders, not an old guard revolutionary but a pragmatic bureaucrat. Deng trusted him to pursue prosperity while preserving the political order.

So the economy boomed and the dissent grew. Ironically, this status quo ended with death of Hu Yaobang in April, 1989. The advocate of democratic reform remained a hero to college students. They held memorial services that also were political protests. On April 26th, the Communist Party’s official newspaper printed a front page denunciation of the students: “Their purpose was to sow dissension among the people, plunge the whole country into chaos, and sabotage…stability and unity.”

The vitriolic accusations only incited a rebellious reaction. On April 27th, thousands of students from Beijing University marched on Tiananmen Square and occupied it in the name of democracy. There, amidst the monuments to Chinese Communism, the student protestors set up their camp. They made no provisions for sanitation, so their shanty town soon became squalid. To the dismay of the Communist leadership, the heart of Beijing was both a democratic forum and an open sewer.

Deng was not in a conciliatory mood. “We do not fear spilling blood, and we do not fear international reaction.” Zhao, however, remained a pragmatist. He noted that the popular sentiment of Beijing sided with the students; perhaps the party should accept a more democratic system. If he could end the impasse, the party leadership would agree to some concessions. On May 12th, the front page of The People’s Daily printed Zhao’s proclamation of human rights and a promise of a democratic China. However, Zhao also urged the students to their Tiananmen demonstrations and return to classes.

But the students only increased their demands for democratic reforms. On May 13th, 3000 went on a hunger strike. Their militancy undermined Zhao; by May 17th, he has been stripped of power. But he made one last appeal to the protestors, visiting them on May 19th and pleading with them to leave. They ignored him and the following day’s declaration of martial law. The students had a blithe confidence in the righteousness of their cause and in the support of Beijing’s populace. How could the People’s Army fight against the People?

As a symbol of democracy and a tribute to its defenders, local artists had constructed a statue of foam and paper mache. It was transported in pieces to Tiananmen and assembled there on May 29th. The statue, 33 feet tall, of a woman defiantly bearing a torch was named “The Goddess of Democracy.” Five days later, the statue was crushed by a tank.

On June 3rd, there were 10,000 protestors encamped in Tiananmen Square. Late that night, in armored vehicles and on foot, some 15,000 soldiers converged on the square. They had hoped that the late hours would give them the element of surprise, but it was too large a force for stealth. An alarmed populace swarmed into the streets, trying to block the troops. But the soldiers had orders to take control by any means necessary. There was insufficient tear gas to disperse the crowds; there were enough bullets. The suppression continued throughout the following morning. Hundreds were killed, thousands wounded. The exact numbers may never be known; bonfires reportedly burned bodies. Although the events are known as the Tiananmen Square massacre, most of the bloodshed occurred in the streets leading there. In the Square itself, the encamped protestors were driven out at gunpoint but without casualties.

Tyranny had prevailed. Yet on June 5th, one gesture of defiance stirred the world. In Tiananmen, the crowds looked on as tanks patrolled the square. A single man, wearing a white shirt and carrying shopping bags, darted in front of a tank and stopped it. The tank attempted to move around him; he blocked it. One man against a tank; the impasse lasted several minutes. He could have been run over or gunned down, but the tank’s crew refrained. Perhaps they too respected courage. Two men eventually hustled him away. Were they his friends or the police? We don’t know his identity or his fate, just his heroism.

The world denounced the massacre and, in a month, it was business as usual. After all, in the words of the U.S. State Department, the executions and arrests were China’s “internal affairs.” The leaders of the student movement were put on a “Wanted” list of criminals. At least 1500 were arrested for their “counter-revolutionary” activities. Zhao Ziyang lived under house arrest for the rest of his life; he died in 2005.

Today, China has the second largest economy in the world; so history apparently has justified the cost of Tiananmen. But even now, the Chinese government forbids public discussion of the “turmoil.” Yet, the truth still has its advocates. In his “June Fourth Elegies” author Liu Xiaobo wrote:
“Beneath the forgetting and the terror/this day’s been buried…In memory and bravery/this day lives forever.”
(Translation by Jeffrey Yang)

Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010. He is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.”

Heroes of British Dentistry

Posted in General, On This Day on May 25th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

May 25, 1895: Oscar Wilde was convicted of “committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons”.

Yes, when accused of being a Sodomite, Wilde sued for libel on the rationale that he really was more of a Gomorrahite. It is an interesting defense: two different cities and apparently two different positions. Given the British standards of dental hygiene, gomorrahy could even be justified as desperately needed flossing. Unfortunately, at his trial Wilde invoked every ancient Greek but Hippocrates. So he was imprisoned for Homer-sexuality.

And here is a tribute to a vilified Victorian who might have won a libel case…

http://finermanworks.com/your_rda_of_irony/2010/05/25/the-edward-bulwer-lytton-anti-defamation-league-2/

Where To Plant-a-genet–act II

Posted in General on May 24th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

In a case suitable for wigs, a British court ruled that the body of Richard III belongs to Leicester.

So Richard is stuck in Leicester. At least he no longer in a parking lot. But why should he be housed in an Anglican Church? The man was a Roman Catholic; and given his reputations with nephews, it is improbable that he would have liked a church founded by a great-nephew.

At least let Leicester’s various denominations compete for Richard’s membership. That is the Free Market way! For instance, speaking for the Leicester Hebrew Congregation, I can assure you that Yiddish sounds almost like Middle English. If you don’t believe me, sing “Canterbury Tales” to the soundtrack of “Fiddler on the Roof.” (Maybe not the Prioress’ Tale.) As for Richard himself, a slouching curmudgeon with annoying relatives, he will fit right into any Jewish congregation.

But Richard should also consider other options. Leicester does have a mosque; he could be “this Sunni of York.” The Shree Hindu Mandir would offer Richard the chance of reincarnation–but”House of Cards” and every MBA program already does. Perhaps Richard would just like to enjoy his celebrity. Unfortunately, Leicester does not have a Church of Scientology.

As for act I:

http://finermanworks.com/your_rda_of_irony/2013/02/16/where-to-plant-a-genet/

Reading Between the Lines

Posted in General on April 3rd, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

This month the postman has the added onus of delivering rejection letters from colleges. It is the one time of year when it is more dangerous to be a mailman in Newton, Massachusetts than Kandahar, Afghanistan. All the rejection letters will have a funereal politeness…”We truly regret the opportunity to include a superb student like you in the very, very, small class of 2018….”

But what they really are saying…

HARVARD:

There are only so many stars in the heavens and Gods in the pantheon, but you will not be one of them. Someone has to be inferior, and you do have the consolation of being in the vast majority. Of course, now you can apply to Yale or Stanford. However, we will be sending those schools our rejection list, letting them know that they are your second choice.

WISCONSIN:

Even if the economy were better and our governor less of a sociopath, we still would have rejected you. But we are really sorry that this letter came postage due.

GEORGETOWN:

Prima facie, you are rejected. And if you don’t know what prima facie means, quod erat demonstrandum.

ARIZONA STATE:

Whoa dude, do you know what it takes to get rejected by us? Probably from doing what you were planning to do here. So, it’s like you already graduated.

NORTHWESTERN:

Congratulations! You are a runner-up on our admissions list! Your prize includes avoiding all those annoying references to Ann-Margret and Charlton Heston! And good luck as you advance to the state university competitions!

WEST POINT:

Your scholastization vectors undercede our operational parameters. Artillerily, you missed.

VANDERBILT:

You didn’t have to open this envelope, you didn’t have to read this letter, you knew the cruel, overwhelming odds against you, and yet something in your blood damned and defied the odds and the grade point averages and the massed muskets on Seminary Ridge, and with quickening pulse you open the envelope and are reading this letter, and knowing you’ve lost, be proud that you dared.

UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO:

Please ignore the plum sauce stains on this letter. Between translating Frederich von Hayek into Klingon, and writing rejection letters, I have to eat at my desk. If it is any solace, these moo shu pancakes are really good.

The Real Game

Posted in General on March 1st, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

Today, Vladmir Putin named Arthur Chu as a reason for invading Ukraine…

Quite a few people have asked my opinion of an aggressive young man who is the current champion of Jeopardy. Are his tactics destroying the show’s genteel academic atmosphere? Certainly not, because that Ivory Tower was destroyed ten years ago when Jeopardy eliminated the five game limit for contestants. Until then, Jeopardy was only a dilettante’s adventure; now it can become a cyborg’s career.

Somehow I think that Jeopardy may yet survive Arthur Chu. In fact, his run is likely over, although his inevitable loss has yet to be broadcast.

I am more intrigued by how this overblown outrage began–when Mr. Chu had only appeared on four televised games. My impression is that it started in the British Press. American quiz shows don’t seem the usual fare for London tabloids. Believe it or not, I was never asked to pose topless on “Page Three.”

But perhaps an underemployed but aggressive actor had a tenuous connection in the British media who planted the story. Perhaps with all the stoked publicity, the underemployed actor hopes to turn a winning streak into a career.

February 13th: Promiscuity for Dummies

Posted in General, On This Day on February 13th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

If Miley Cyrus considers marrying Warren Buffett, she should ponder the fate of Catherine Howard. On this day in 1542, Miss Howard–the all-too-nominal Mrs. Tudor–made history and the coroner’s report. The young lady had ignored the risks of adultery when married to Henry VIII. It was an act of treason and the punishment was a fatal form of divorce. Henry had gotten rid of Anne Boleyn that way. She actually had been innocent, but English Law did not permit divorce on the grounds that Boleyn was an annoying bitch. (She definitely was guilty of that). However, six men–including Anne’s own brother–were tortured into confessions of all sorts of orgies with Anne as the center attraction. That “evidence” convicted Anne Boleyn; of course, her lovers had to be killed as well. The Tower of London and executioners had a great year in 1536.

In the case of Catherine Howard, she really was guilty. Gee, how could a teenage girl want anyone other than a gross, gout-ridden syphilitic 50 year-old? Nevertheless, she should have been especially wary of the risks of being Mrs. Tudor; the late Anne Boleyn was her first cousin. Howard and her handsome young lover were caught, tried and executed. In an act of vicious pettiness, the Crown also executed two men who had “dated” Catherine before her marriage.

If Catherine Howard wanted a role model, a good choice would have been Mary Boleyn. The older sister of Anne had been the mistress of both Francis I and Henry VIII and, aside from the syphilis, was no worse for the experiences. Mary understood the requirements of being a royal mistress: say yes, look grateful, and know your place. A king’s mistress is entitled to certain perks: jewelry, cushy jobs for her parasitic family and, if she should add to the family tree, a title of nobility for the royal bastard. But the prudent mistress does not make demands on the King and certainly would not cheat on him.

A prudent mistress is also a good loser. When Henry tired of Mary Boleyn, he followed etiquette and arranged a good marriage for her. She outlived her ambitious sister and reckless cousin. Furthermore, Mary, as Lady Carey, produced her own dynasty, and some of her descendants distinguished themselves among the fox-hunting classes. A great-great-great-etc. grandson named Winston had talent as a writer–among other things. And one of Mary’s living descendants is named for Anne Boleyn’s daughter and has the very same job.

Live (at least the ransom note says so) From Sochi

Posted in General on February 7th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

Bob: Hello, I know that you can’t see us but this is Bob Costas, with Matt Lauer, here for the opening ceremonies of the 22nd Winter Olympics. We hope to have electricity some time tonight. Apparently, we didn’t bribe the right people. In the meantime, Matt and I will be sharing this flashlight.

Matt: Thank you, Bob. Did you know that Russia is the largest country in the world?

Bob
: Yes, I finished fourth grade. Would you also like to make an inane remark that Sochi sounds like the name of a Japanese restaurant?

Matt: You noticed that, too. And also, don’t you think that the Black Sea should be in Africa instead of here, and the Red Sea should be here?

Bob: Actually, I am not sure that anyone should be here. In theory, forty-four nations will be participating in the Opening Ceremonies. Most of the delegations, however, are afraid to leave their hotels. Yes, they risk cholera but it is nothing compared to what waits them on the streets here. The teams will still be represented, however, as they currently are being arrested.

Matt
: Among the arrested notables is our own Billie Jean King. She is charged with being a gay terrorist.

Bob: Was she whistling “The 1812 Overture” with sarcastic intent?

Matt: Did you know that Tschaikovsky wrote that music as a wedding gift for James and Dolley Madison?

Bob: Yes, the image of a few hundred Canadians and Americans shooting at each other across Niagara Falls certainly impressed the Russians. Tolstoy wrote about it, too. Matt, hand me your notes. Okay, “The Brothers Karamazov” and “The Three Sisters” are not the Russian equivalent of “The Brady Bunch.” Sputnik is not the Russian word for potato–and I have warned you about stiffing your staff on Christmas bonuses. Underpaid Ivy Leaguers are dangerous.

Matt: They get free tee-shirts from the network’s cancelled shows. I save those snotty brats a fortune in underwear.

Bob: Now it is time for the Olympic torch. This will be memorable as the Russians are setting afire the uncompleted part of the stadium. At least, we finally will have some light.

Matt: Our audience now can share the spectacle with us.

Bob: No, Matt, I was looking for the exit.

Eugene’s Inferno

Posted in General on January 28th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

Dangerous Cold in Chicago

According to Dante, Hell frequently freezes over.  He imagined much of Hell to be cold.  Of course, a Florentine’s vision of a glacial perdition would be any Midwesterner’s idea of a brisk November.

When reading L’Inferno I remember thinking “I could come up with better eternal torments than that. ”  Dante’s notions would not qualify him an intern in Human Resources.  Let’s tour the Adultery Section:  Circle Two.  Tempestous lovers are trapped forever in a whirlwind.  It is a good metaphor but not much of a punishment.  No, their extra-curricular activities should be videotaped and eternally shown on late night cable television, to the standard accompaniment of appallingly bad jazz.  The embarrassment would be much worse than windburn.

(Don’t quibble that a 14th century Italian couldn’t have envisioned television and video recorders.  Dante concocted an entire cosmological system.  And if Dante needed a little tech advice, he could have asked Marco Polo what the Chinese and Japanese were working on.).

Let’s drop by another sin: gluttony.  According to Dante’s itinerary, in the Third Circle those who have succumbed to their debauched appetites lie in the garbage and waste they created.  However, I think that describes the typical college dorm room.  That may be Dante’s idea of Hell, but for most of us it was one of the happiest times of our lives.  No, the appropriate eternal punishment for gluttons would be to look at themselves in bathing suits and realize why they’re not in the Second Circle of Hell.

I really don’t have the time to worsen all of Hell, but I’d like to do one more neighborhood.  In the First Circle are those souls who had every virtue but the right religion.  The virtuous pagans (and according to Dante, that includes chivalrous Moslems) are only tortured by the thought of their inferiority.  Now, in my Hell I would really rub in Christian perfection.  Everyone in the First Circle would be reincarnated as Jerry and Millie Helper, living next door to Rob and Laura Petrie.