A Word to the Stiff-Necked

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Tower of Babel, by Lucas van Valckenborch, 1594, Louvre Museum / Public domain

By Adam Garfinkle

During a year in Singapore away from my birthplace—specifically, the now defunct Columbia Hospital for Women–best described as part sabbatical and part exile, I had been enjoying more time to read, think, and write that I had been used to during more than a dozen years as a magazine editor. And then along came COVID-19….and I lately have had even more time to read, think, and write. Something, however, has changed: the press of subjects.


Nonetheless, two pre-COVID drafted essays of mine have recently appeared, both outflows from a book in progress. “The Erosion of Deep Literacy” in National Affairs, which enjoyed a George Will Washington Post call out on April 19, frets about the doleful effects of screen addictions on our capacity to actually think seriously about anything, as individuals or as a society. “The Net Effect” in The American Interest, the aforementioned magazine of which I am founding editor, is about the underlying technology-heavy causes of what has become the headlong collapse of the globalized “order” in the face of the COVID-19 onslaught.

The two arguments connect: The problem discussed in “The Erosion of Deep Literacy” may help explain the general inability of our elites to understand the vulnerabilities of the capriciously erected globalized Rube Goldberg contraption, one now in obvious need of maintenance.

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Anyone can read these essays and decide if that connection bears the weight of scrutiny. But the burden of my message here concerns how the increasingly lost joys and utility of literature links to rabbinics. The rabbis have plenty to teach about how to remain tolerably human in quarantine and lockdown. Stiff-necked as we regularly demonstrate most of us are, we would be stupid—we would be yidiots—to ignore it.

 

 

One of many under-the-radar developments of recent weeks is the near total disappearance of the multiple, diversely motivated public protests that erupted around the world last year and in the early part of 2020. The pandemic has pushed them and their varied agendas indoors. Ironically, the same technology that helped create the problems with the global political economy underlying many of those protests got deployed as an organizing device for street demonstrations to talk back to the elites, so to speak, who have commanded its heights.


The elites, of course, have had their own cheerleaders, among them Klaus Schwab and his assemblages of what Samuel Huntington once dubbed “Davos Man.” And here, with Sam’s piquant use of marquee-quality metaphor, we get a clue as to how valuable literature can be an entry point—one that marries emotion to reason in a way that didactic academic analysis cannot—to a deeper understanding of a complex issue.

The literary metaphors pertinent to our uncomfortable moment veritably throw themselves at us, if only we let them. The Tower of Babel comes readily to mind, but it is not quite right. Not that the hubris of challenging God for the commanding heights is not part of the problem, but the origins of the story itself are widely misunderstood. It’s actually about the forced-conformity, totalitarian pretensions of the neo-Assyrian Empire and its collapse circa 620 BCE, not really an origins tale about linguistic diversity…for the Torah’s account of linguistic diversity precedes the Babel story. Anyway, there are even better fits to the phenomenon.

The Wizard of Oz, along with It’s a Wonderful Life (and a single iconic scene from African Queen), are the only films anyone need study to really understand the pre-deranged American mind. Toward the very end of the movie is the famous scene (….well, all the scenes are famous) in which the wizard is standing in the basket of the hot-air balloon, about to return to the land of E Pluribus Unum, when it starts to lift off without Dorothy and Toto. Dorothy calls out for the Wizard to “come back” so he can take them along as promised, but he replies: “I can’t come back; I don’t know how it works.” A frisson of recognition, perhaps?

Possibly even better, but it admittedly depends on one’s tastes, is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. No, I’m not referring to a recent kids’ movie (made, of all places, in Singapore) or to the classic Mickey Mouse cartoon from Fantasia, but to Goethe’s epic 14-stanza ballad published in 1797 under the title Der Zauberlehrling. Goethe wrote, inter alia: “Die ich rief, die Geister/Werd’ ich nun nicht los” [The spirits I have summoned I cannot now get rid of].

That about nails it, doesn’t it? Even Klaus Schwab should know the gist from the German cliché, “Die Geister, die ich rief.

The three taken together, best of all: The Tower has toppled down and humanity is confused; the elites haven’t known how things really worked or much cared since they have been benefitting most; and now that we are forced to confront the mess we’ve made, we don’t know either how to get rid of the spirits we’ve summoned or, failing that, to make them behave as we command.

And you thought literature was mere entertainment…..

 

Now the drash. Most of us are stuck at home these days, and many profess to be having a hard time dealing with enforced seclusion. A good deal of ingenious humor has erupted from the stress, which is a good sign. But the limitations on normal life are pushing a lot of people, even a lot of Jews, to venture even further down the self-referential wormholes of their screen-bound lives. It doesn’t have to be that way.

The Torah recounts how the Jewish people are given a choice between a blessing and a curse, and are adjured to “choose life.” That story really resonates right now, or it should. We can choose life, real, intimate, and unmediated life. We can walk in nature alone or with those with whom we have made a home. We can read and study and think and write, and share it all as we please to learn from one another. We can cherish each other. We can make love, in every possible interpretation of the phrase.

Or we can choose to be cursed. We can forsake the unmediated, the real, the direct, and the true for the mediated, the virtual, the filtered, the shrunken, and the false. We can rot our spirits with the coarseness and salacity of mass commercial “entertainment,” or we can elevate ourselves with mitzvoth, socially-distanced as some may need to be for the time being.

A practical suggestion. It is erev Shabbat as I write this and, as happens every week, I anticipate a 25-hour “screen Sabbath.” All halachically observant Jews do this, of course. But you need not be particularly observant to do it, too. I even suggested the idea to a brilliant but screen-addicted and troubled 17-year old Gujarati woman I met a few months ago. She tried it out. It wasn’t easy for her at first. But she persevered, and now she tastes the serenity and re-centering of soul that avoiding all screens for a day can bring. She’s begun trying to persuade some of her friends to join her. She might be the first selectively Sabbath-observant Hindu in history.

Most self-ascribed “secular” or “liberal” Jews have ready-made excuses as to why traditional strictures and disciplines are outmoded, old-fashioned, and so don’t apply to them as modern, sophisticated people. Many are actually embarrassed by the thought of them: So, “Turn off all my screens for 25 hours? No way. How silly.” I can hear the accompanying tone of voice even from Singapore.

Is it really so silly? Look in a mirror and ask yourself: What have I been doing with my time in quarantine these past several days, now clumped into weeks? Have I chosen for myself a blessing, or a curse? Once you’ve come to an honest answer, ask yourself this: Is a “screen Sabbath” that far-fetched an idea? It wouldn’t obligate you next to swing a chicken over your head. How stiff, really, is your neck?

 

Adam Garfinkle, Founding Editor of The American Interest and a former State Department official, is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He last appeared in Washington Jewish Week in 1999.

 

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