Friday, May 23, 2014

People's Republic of Donetsk

There’s an old joke about a Jewish community somewhere in the Midwest that received a telegram from the UJA office in New York City:


That was what it felt like during April, when we received numerous alarming reports from Ukraine. Not all the reports were credible, and they contradicted one another. But there was no “Send money” message from the Jewish Federations of North America, at least in part because it wasn’t clear that money would make any difference.

The most disturbing report was that the “People’s Republic of Donetsk” had distributed a flyer ordering Jews to register, at penalty of deportation. The “People’s Republic of Donetsk” was apparently a pro-Russian group that had taken over the municipal government in Donetsk (the name suggests that it might be not just pro-Russian but also pro-Soviet). 

The leaders of that group repudiated the order. They said that, while it might have been distributed by their followers, it was unauthorized and had no force. Later reports suggested that it might have originated with a pro-Ukrainian group hoping to embarrass the pro-Russian faction, or (now it gets complicated) with the pro-Russian faction, hoping to pin blame on the pro-Ukrainians.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine has been a great friend of Jews, although both had large Jewish populations and still have significant numbers of Jews. 

Regardless of who issued the flyer, the tactic is ominous. 

On one hand, it reeks of Stalinist portrayals of Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” with no loyalty to the country in which they had lived for many generations. 

On the other hand, it also evokes memories of the Nazi occupation of Ukraine. This is not to say that the Nazi persecution of Jews carries weight in Ukraine today—only that one side may have wanted to paint the other as pro-Nazi and therefore anti-Ukraine. It’s just not clear which side was behind it.

Another disturbing aspect of the situation in Ukraine is Russia’s claim that it has a right to protect ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. It sounds too much like Germany’s claim on the Sudetenland (the western part of Czechoslovakia) in 1938.

Ethnic conflicts in that part of the world are inherently difficult for Americans to understand. Although we now realize that the United States is not quite the “melting pot” we once thought, we all believe that ethnic background and national identity are separate.

Throughout central and eastern Europe, national identity is somewhat confused because of arbitrary borders drawn after World Wars I and II. It is more confused in the former Soviet Union because of Stalin’s policy of shifting large populations from one part of the Soviet Union to another. Large numbers of people from Russia were resettled in both Ukraine and the Baltic states, possibly as bulwarks against any drives for independence.

None of this makes us feel any more comfortable with the Donetsk flyer. It seems that Jews in Donetsk did not take it at all seriously, and none registered. Nevertheless, the idea that it could seem like a good political tactic and that it might have been taken seriously remains unsettling.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

I do not love thee, Dr. Rice

When Dr. Condoleeza Rice withdrew from a speaking engagement at Rutgers University, after protests on campus, one of my friends posted on Facebook that he would never set foot on the campus or donate to Rutgers again.

My friend is more conservative politically than I am - much more - and his reaction was typical of political conservatives. 

Whether Dr. Rice should have carried through with the speech or not, the arguments my friend and others make are wrong.

The most-heard argument is that the protesters are "silencing" Dr. Rice or infringing her right of free speech under the First Amendment.

These are empty rhetoric (to be polite) and utter hooey (which is what I really think). First: Dr. Rice has not been in any way "silenced." She's not being held incommunicado. She can easily obtain all the media and public attention that she wants.

Second, her right to speak is not being abridged. Although Rutgers is a state university and subject to the First Amendment (unless you agree with Justice Clarence Thomas that the First Amendment does not apply to the states, only to the Federal government), it was Rutgers that invited her to speak and it was she who chose to withdraw after accepting the invitation.

The protesters did not abridge her right of free speech, because they are not the government. When they act as individuals, even organized individuals, they're not subject to the First Amendment.

In fact, if there is a First Amendment argument to be made, it's on behalf of the protesters. The law is clear that they had the right to express their opinion.

A better argument would be that the role of a university is to promote open and honest inquiry into important subjects. It would be more in keeping with the spirit of free inquiry to allow Dr. Rice to speak and also allow others to express differing opinions.

A counter-argument can be made that Dr. Rice, when she served in the Bush administration, was no model of honesty. I'm not sure that her speech would have furthered honest inquiry - but I don't know what she would have said.

The other consideration is that Dr. Rice wasn't just giving a lecture. She was to speak at Commencement and receive an honorary degree (and a large fee). To many of the protesters, her speaking on campus wasn't as objectionable as her being honored by the university.

To be clear, even an entity required by the First Amendment to respect free speech is not required to promote the speech of any specific individual.

Free speech is a recurring issue at colleges and universities, which are full of people eager to express themselves, some too immature to take a balanced view of issues. They sometimes also have - and I know this as an insider in college administration - leaders who are more intent on public recognition than on intellectual inquiry.

Some years ago, the College Republicans at Oberlin College (I'm an alumnus and was working in the administration there at the time) wanted to fire a 21-gun salute in honor of President Ronald Reagan. This was long enough ago that there may not have been any rules about firearms on campus. In any case, the college administration did not try to block it.

Other students did block it, by simply milling around in the plaza where the guns were to be fired. The local ACLU chapter responded by censuring the college, saying that the college had infringed the College Republicans' rights under the First Amendment.

It didn't appear to me that the college, as an institution, had done any such thing. Again, the First Amendment argument seemed to fall at least equally in the other direction: the students who were milling around in the plaza were exercising their right of free assembly.

Many state universities have developed policies that work well to maintain free speech. At one where I worked, anyone could speak on campus at any time, as long as it did not interfere with classes or any other functions of the university. So protests couldn't take place inside academic buildings during classes, and amplification was allowed at only one location, the portico of the university auditorium. 

The same issue comes up regularly in New York City, with protests outside the United Nations complex. Frequently there are both protesters and counter-protesters, on opposite side of the same issue. The city police assign a separate zone to each group and keep them apart, not to prevent either from speaking, but to keep them from hurting one another.

Perhaps the best example is a well-known incident in history. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution denied the use of Constitution Hall, then the only major concert venue in Washington, D.C., for a recital that Marian Anderson, an African-American singer, was to give before an integrated audience. Partly through the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson sang instead in an open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to a live audience of 75,000 (far more than the capacity of Constitution Hall) and a radio audience in the millions.

I said that I don't know what Dr. Rice would have said at Rutgers. Although I don't respect or even trust her very much, I think it would be best if she were to give the speech somewhere else or, if that is not practical, publish it.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Teaching altruism

Teachers know that learning proceeds best when we comment on what a student does, not who the student is. For example, it is better to say, “I see that you studied hard for the math test” instead of “You’re really good at math.”

That’s partly in order not to create persistent negative expectations when the outcome isn’t ideal. It’s easy for a student to conclude, “I’m really lousy at math” (or “I’m really lousy at Hebrew”) instead of thinking, “This subject requires some extra effort.”

Another reason, however, is to avoid creating anxiety about repeating a success. In that situation, it is even more helpful to interpret the student’s work to him or her and not state a simple judgment.

This seems to be the case consistently for academic learning, but some new research suggests that it doesn’t apply for moral development. 

Research had already demonstrated that it can be difficult to transmit ethical values to children. For example, an Israeli study of 591 families found that parents who valued compassion and kindness did not necessarily inculcate those values in their children.

The new research suggests that, for moral values, it may sometimes be better to praise a child for being a certain type of person than for doing a certain type of thing. Although many parents and teachers believe it is better to say, “That was a thoughtful thing to do” than “You are a thoughtful person,” the research leads to the opposite conclusion.

In one study, children who donated some of their winnings in a game to others were randomly assigned to three  groups. Children in one group received praise for doing something helpful, while those in the second were told that they donated because they were helpful people. The third group was told neither.

Weeks later, eight-year-olds in the second group were found to be more altruistic than those in either the first group or the third. One lesson that has been drawn is that praising a child’s identity is more effective than praising the child’s behavior.

That conclusion might not apply to younger or older children. Neither praise for behavior nor praise for identity increased feelings of altruism in five-year-olds, and both increased feelings of altruism in ten-year-olds.

On the other hand, both kinds of praise increased the likelihood that children would donate again, in all three age groups.

Popular reports on this research, such as a widely-quoted New York Times op-ed by Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania, have somewhat misrepresented the research results. Based on that study, we could conclude only that praising identity over behavior is effective with eight-year-olds, not necessarily at other ages.

A different study found that young children (ages three through six) were more likely to help with a task when asked to “be a helper” rather than “to help.” Research also found that exhortation “not to be a cheater” was more effective than “not to cheat.”

Those two studies suggest that helping children to develop a favorable self-image has stronger effects on behavior than only teaching desirable behavior. It’s what I’d expect: once you see yourself as helpful or kind, making the helpful or kind choice is almost automatic.

Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman compared these research studies to the Four Children in the Passover haggadah. Nowadays we object, rightly, to labeling children unnecessarily, but the research suggests that very judicious labeling (not calling a child a rasha, wicked one) might be beneficial. Rabbi Mitelman writes:

While we may still grapple with the Haggadah “labeling” children, the truth is, our behaviors create our identity, and our identity informs our behavior. After all, some of us relish being "the curious one" or "the provocative one," some of us are always just happy to be together with friends and family, and some of us need to be shown what we are missing. 

In the end, Passover reminds us that we are free, which means that we have the freedom to choose how we act. Yet those actions will ultimately define who we are.
So with all the questions this holiday encourages, perhaps the most important one is, “What kind of person do you want to be?”

Ye and We

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