What “Never Forget” Means to Me

Below are the prepared comments I shared at the Town of Milton’s commemoration of the 20th anniversary of September 11th, 2001.

My older sister, Saman, worked in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on the day of September 11th, 2001. She was one of the many thousands of people who worked in the Towers but who avoided becoming victims of that horrible attack.

Preparing for this occasion prompted me to ask my sister, after so many years, to once again recount her experience on that day. She was on the subway when the first plane hit the towers, taking her usual commute from the Upper East side to the Fulton stop in Lower Manhattan. One stop prior to her destination, police officers evacuated the subway. Of course, when she and the other commuters emerged above ground, and saw the smoke billowing from the North Tower, the reason became clear. After that they witnessed with their own eyes close up what most of us watched on TV: namely the collision of the second plane, and the subsequent collapse of both skyscrapers.

Somewhat paradoxically, I find my sister’s stories about what happened afterwards to be even more remarkable. After the attack, amid all the confusion, terror, and shock, there was nothing to do but leave Lower Manhattan. Many of the people in that area decided to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, fearing the possibility of further attacks. My sister decided to make her way back uptown in the direction of her apartment on 95th street.

The only way to do so was on foot. She made it about 80 blocks, in high heels, before her feet just couldn’t carry her any further. At that point, a man with a Spanish accent pulled up alongside her in his own car, rolled down the window, asked where she was headed, and offered her a ride. She accepted.

If you’re familiar with the culture of New York City you’ll understand how remarkable that was: a) that a man driving through Manhattan offered a random lady a ride in his car; and b), perhaps even more extraordinarily, that the lady actually got in.

As it turned out, there were two other passengers already in the car, having been picked up by this good samaritan. One was a white man, the other a black woman. Even amid the chaos, confusion and fear, as my sister tells it, she recognized the uniqueness of that moment, when four strangers who – at least on the surface – seemed to have little in common found themselves huddled together in a car, trying to make their way home.

Many of us are familiar with countless stories like this, of New Yorkers coming together in unity and solidarity after 9/11. Strangers hugged each other. They wept together. They helped each other, in a way that was extraordinary for any group of people, not just the people of New York City. That feeling to a certain extent extended to the whole country. We were all mired in a heavy sorrow in the weeks following, but many of us simultaneously felt invigorated by a new sense of being bonded to our fellow Americans.

A few years ago I learned of a phrase repeated in multiple places in the Torah, that foundational text not only for Jews but also for Christians, Muslims, Baha’is like myself, and many others, in which God instructs his followers to treat the stranger with love and compassion, and never to forget the days when they themselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Perhaps that came to mind because the phrase “never forget” is so commonly used when we discuss the events of September 11th. Let us never forget those whose lives were taken, let us never forget the sacrifices of so many police and firefighters and other brave individuals, let us never forget the danger of religious fanaticism and hate that became so clear on that day.

But let us also never forget an equally important lesson about who we are as human beings. We should be reminded that to obsess over the differences among us – whether it be our race, our religion, our country, our gender, our culture, our political party, or whatever else – is nothing short of childish and ridiculous. It was easy on that day to learn that lesson; but slowly as the dust cleared and the pain subsided, we seemed far too content to forget it.

In my own religious tradition, that of the Baha’i Faith, we are told: “See ye no strangers; rather see all men as friends, for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness.”

If we can all feel bonded together in a context of tragedy and danger, let us also be bonded together in an atmosphere of love, respect, and above all, hope. Let that be the lesson of 9/11, one that we reflect on on days like this, and for that matter, all the remaining days of our lives.

Thank you.


What the world needs now is love

Lately I’ve been reflecting on how much of the music of the 60s and 70s echoed a simple message: we can change the world with love.

I’m a child of the 80s, but one of my favorite songs is Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now is Love” from 1965. There are countless songs from around the same time that preach some variation of that theme. Chances are that you know lyrics to the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” from 1967. Another is the Youngbloods’ “Get Together” from the same year. Imagine a song with the following lyrics ever making it to the top 40 today:

If you hear the song I sing/You will understand (listen!)/You hold the key to love and fear/All in your trembling hand/Just one key unlocks them both/It’s there at your command

Come on people now/Smile on your brother/Everybody get together/Try to love one another/Right now

This all sounds so quaint today. How adorable of those hippies to believe the world’s problems could be solved with such a neat, simple solution! But the truth is that the people of that era were neither simple nor naive, nor were the problems they faced any less daunting than the ones we face today. That generation was staring down the barrel of near-certain nuclear annihilation, cities literally on fire with racial strife, and a seemingly pointless, bloody war being waged on other side of the globe. It is remarkable that so many musicians of that era looked at the landscape in front of them and declared some version of the message, “What the world needs now is love.”

The truth is, they were right. And they are right today, and they will still be right one thousand years from now.

There is enough cynicism, enough debate, enough arguing. Don’t ever doubt the real solution. It’s love.

Where did we go wrong? A mid-mortem on America

There’s plenty of hand-wringing about the future of the United States these days. About two-thirds of us believe the country is on the “wrong track”. Meanwhile, academics observe evidence of a free-fall in our democratic institutions. Others are more somber, likening the current environment to the beginnings of a sort of diffuse, decades-long civil war. I, personally, do not find any of those assessments to be overly alarmist. In other words, I think we are in deep trouble.

When I say “deep trouble”, I’m not talking about our public policies. Indeed, there is cause for deep frustration there: we are doing too little to curb global warming and other forms of environmental catastrophe, our tax code and other economic policies are still heavily slanted towards the very wealthy, healthcare and higher education costs are ballooning, and on and on.

In fact, what’s even more worrying is that the capacity of the American society to assess, discuss, and ultimately solve difficult problems seems to have been destroyed. The degree of political polarization has become so intense that it is already starting to manifesting itself occasionally in the form of violence. As I and countless others have written, a culture of perpetual anger, outrage, and finger-pointing has become endemic. It is no wonder that our elected officials refuse to negotiate and compromise with one another. If they are truly representative of us, then why would they?

Everyone, of course, has their own ideas of what has, and is still going, wrong. Here are mine, in deliberately simplistic terms:

  1. We all have a deep-seated spiritual and emotional problem. This is not unique to the American people, and it is not unique to the year 2020. Call it whatever you will. “Selfishness” is all-encompassing enough. “Narcissism” is not overly harsh. As I’ve argued on this website countless times, we tend to think we (or those in our group) are always right, and we make little effort to question our own thinking, consider the opinions of those we disagree with, or ponder how we might improve ourselves.
  2. Technology has probably made it worse. It used to be the case that we all listened to and read the same news. Those days are over. Social media now makes it such that information that is pleasing to our egos gets pushed in front of our eyeballs, while uncomfortable things are sent to the back, thereby hardening are existing beliefs and prejudices. Meanwhile, the IT revolution has made sensationalism the only way for news outlets to make money. Cable news has become a form of reality TV, and newspapers struggling to stay afloat are reduced to clickbait factories. This is how so many of us eventually come to embrace irrational, myopic, and — in some cases — extreme beliefs.
  3. Elections in America have become extraordinarily expensive. It costs a tremendous amount of money to win higher office in this country now. The election that just passed cost $14bn, more than doubling the election of four years ago, and exceeding the entire annual economic output of 81 countries. A significant contributor to this has been the weakening of constraints on campaign finance, and of requirements to disclose the origins of campaign money. The effect is that political candidates’ tone and messaging are pushed to the extreme in a bid to excite those who are actually inclined to donate, a subset of voters who are less likely to be moderate and more likely to be highly partisan.

There are plenty of people out there who are eager to tell you about points #2 and #3, but few that are ready to acknowledge point #1: We have a deep-seated spiritual and emotional problem. Not surprisingly for anyone already familiar with the Baha’i Faith, I see this as the main issue. It is the actual fire; the other two things are simply its accelerants.

Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the faith whom Baha’is revere as a Messenger of God, essentially asked all human beings to efface their own egos, put aside their prejudices, and embrace a culture of love, unity, and fairmindedness. He asked these things of us not simply for the sake of goodness and virtue, but because without making these changes, human civilization is prone to destroy itself. Likening God’s teachings to the prescriptions of a divine Physician, he wrote: “Witness how the world is being afflicted with a fresh calamity every day… Its sickness is approaching the stage of utter hopelessness, inasmuch as the true Physician is debarred from administering the remedy.”

Making these changes is not easy. Rather, it requires the individual to truly humble him or herself and seek the assistance of the Divine, in a similar way that a participant in Alcoholics Anonymous defeats addiction by humbly calling on the assistance of a Higher Power.

Among the things that the Baha’i teachings asks us to change about ourselves which, in my opinion, are directly related to this country’s current predicament are:

Not pointing fingers at others. “Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner.” We can stop indulging our own personal fantasy that we are somehow woke, and it is others who are in need of education.

Being fair-minded about what is true and what is not. “[B]e adorers of the sun of reality from whatsoever horizon it may appear.” And: “[S]ee with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others… know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor.” No matter how good it feels to see messages on social media that confirm what we already believe, we must actively question ourselves, and seek out and consider the views of others.

Never seeing another human being as an opponent. “See ye no strangers; rather see all men as friends, for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness.” We have got to stop talking about people who disagree with us as somehow on another team, or even worse, as members of some enemy army.

To start to turn around American society does not require all of us to instantaneously become Baha’is, or even for us all to start believing in God. But we must somehow start living and breathing these principles, and thus begin to regenerate our culture. If we do, then the flames that have been fanned by technological and political changes might start to die out. In practical terms, the social media algorithms pulling us towards narrow-mindedness will begin to dull, our neat intellectual echo chambers will start to become more porous, and the inflammatory rhetoric of our politicians will eventually to fall upon deaf ears.

Incidentally, Baha’i scripture itself tells us that this type of awakening is not only possible in American society, but it is in fact inevitable. “May America become the distributing center of spiritual enlightenment,” prayed ‘Abdu’l-Baha in 1912, asserting that the nation would one day come to “lead all nations spiritually”. Shoghi Effendi later clarified that America’s lofty spiritual destiny would be attained only after considerable hardship. “Then, and only then,” he wrote, “will the American nation… be able to fulfill the unspeakably glorious destiny ordained for it by the Almighty.”

That last passage was written during the unparalleled darkness of the Second World War. The world’s challenges are different now, of course, but in many ways they are equally daunting. The forces of technology and political division in this era of history are immense, and many people are now coming to recognize the terrifying abyss that those forces threaten to pull us down into. The task before us as Americans is to pull ourselves in the opposite direction, with even greater force, towards things like humility, fair-mindedness, understanding, and togetherness. Let those principles guide us, and perhaps we’ll be worthy of our noble destiny.

Solving America’s problems will take a new kind of bravery

Lately as I’ve watched protests against racism and police brutality spread across the U.S., a bit from one of my favorite songs has been ringing through my head:

I contemplate

Believin’ in karma

If those on top could just break

We’d be eatin’ tomorra’

That’s from rapper Nas’s 2001 track, What goes around, which takes the listener across a landscape of injustice, hearbreak and despair: the drug dealer who meets his violent end, the poor who are preyed upon by fast food and beverage companies, the white suburban teenager trying in vain to meet the impossible standards of female beauty, the deadbeat dad who’s ultimately rejected by his adult children, and on and on. The message that ominously rings throughout this collection of vignettes is stated bluntly in the song’s final stanza: “What goes around comes around.”

This song probably doesn’t make anyone’s top ten list for an artist who is, arguably, his genre’s greatest-ever lyricist. Yet I have always found it irresistibly electric.

The problem with it is that its ultimate conclusion is wrong.

Embedded in the song, and in many other forms of art, is the notion that justice comes simply from the vanquishing of those who perpetrate injustice. If only those who are good could triumph over those who are evil, then justice would be restored. This message is as ancient as the Bible and as ubiquitious today as Star Wars. I think its ubiquitousness in art is due to the fact that it is easy to understand and even easier on our egos. With each of us believing that we are in the “good” category, it demands no difficult internal struggle, no uncomfortable self-reflection. On the contrary, it gives us a sense of comfort in knowing that no change in our own character and behavior is necessary. The responsibility for all change and effort is external.

The tendency to put everything in such simplistic, Manichaen terms removes the need for critical thought, and boils complex human problems down into more comfortable, self-aggrandizing one-line assertions.

Racism exists; we must stand up to the racists.

Environmental degradation is rampant; we must confront the fossil fuel companies.

Police abuse keeps happening; we must protest the police.

Women are debased and disrespected; we must shame those who are guilty of doing so.

And on and on.

The reality is that most forms of injustice are not simply solved by defeating the right people, no matter how convenient that is to believe. These problems arise from enormous systems of interactions that involve millions or billions of people; those we see as the perpetrators are often the figureheads of those problems, but not their architects.

It will take a special kind of bravery to admit that we — all of us — are in fact the architects.

The issue of police brutality in America against blacks and other ethnic minorities, which is the subject of recent protests across the U.S., is itself far more complex than we would like to admit. Among the societal problems upon which this horrifying reality rests are, in no particular order:

1) An adversarial system of negotiation between unions and employers, with the former seeing oversight and exposure to discipline as a chip at the bargaining table.

2) The seemingly perpetual under-funding of state and local governments, which among other things means police departments must hire from pools of less educated applicants.

3) The ghettoization of whole portions of American society into poorer, higher-crime areas, meaning the residents of those areas have far more interactions with police, with each interaction carrying with it the chance for a deadly mistake.

4) A private prison system which incentivizes over-policing, over-prosecuting, and over-incarcerating, with ripple effects throughout communities and across generations.

5) A level of income inequality that is at its worst in a century, including a stagnancy in wages for the poor and middle class which exacerbates social problems such as addiction, depression, and stress among people of all backgrounds.

Regardless of what we tell ourselves, none of these problems can be eradicated by shouting louder and protesting harder. They require nuanced thinking, reasoned debate, and good faith collaboration.

The very effort to confront such problems with force and competition against some “other”, in fact, risks making them worse. We raise our voices louder, while those on the other side retreat to their ideological bunkers, with each of us entrenching ourselves deeper in our comfort zones. Occasionally we succeed in defeating our enemies, giving us a fleeting sense of accomplishment and a paper-thin veneer of justice. We feel like we’ve accomplished something, and we relax until the next crisis. Yet the systems remain intact, like gnarled roots under the soil.

As I’ve written before, there must be an alternative to this competition-based, power-obsessed, us-versus-them approach to problem solving. We Americans are thankfully waking up to longstanding injustices, but our own sense of self-righteousness limits us only to the easiest of responses. Few are ready to sit down and talk; even fewer are ready to listen. Narcissism is rife, and someone else is always to blame. Principles like love, unity, understanding, peace, forgiveness, brotherhood, spirituality — which had their rightful place in the social movements of the 1960s and ’70s — are now seen as quaint and naive. My greatest fear as an American is that after yet another generation’s worth of protesting, shouting, and demanding, our ultimate despair will be the realization that we’re right back where we started.

Now would be a good time to remind ourselves that the concept of “race” is mostly nonsense

faces-2679755_960_720Gillian Tett in the FT wrote a short-and-sweet piece on Franz Boas and his groundbreaking work on race one century ago. It serves as a refreshing reminder of a now ancient finding of science: “race”, for all intents and purposes, is little more than a social creation.

In the early 20th century, Boas was commissioned by the US government to study the physical traits of recent immigrants to New York. At the time, the country was in the midst of a wave of immigration, and with it, a rising feeling of xenophobia. The prevailing view of scientists at the time was that there were not only distinct “races” within the human species, but a natural hierarchy in their state of evolution and refinement, one that could actually be measured physically by things like head size.

As it turned out, Boas found no such natural differences between the races; immigrants’ physical characteristics were more closely linked to their place of upbringing than their place of ancestry. Among his conclusions was that “every classification of mankind must be more or less artificial”, a radical thought at the time. The obsession with finding difference in the “other”, according to Boas, was based in prejudice, not in science.

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