Bob Massie

Archive for February, 2009|Monthly archive page

Jonah and the “Wail”: The Prophet as Coward, Doomsayer, or Fool

In Theology and Spirituality on February 19, 2009 at 1:41 pm

As someone who has spent a good part of my life trying to rouse others to tackle unwelcome new challenges, I have a special love for the Book of Jonah. It is one of the shortest in Scripture – only four chapters long. It is simple enough to be told as a bedtime story, sly enough to be recounted as humor.

It also has a profound spiritual side, not only for people wounded by the divine compulsion to speak out about the destructive consequences of human behavior – the deepest meaning of the word “prophet” – but also for anyone who needs greater instruction (as we all do) in the meaning and practice of humility. What we do know about the story of Jonah? Generally not too much. We might remember that early in his travels he was swallowed by a “big fish”, or, as it is usually translated, a whale.

Once released into human culture this story, as they would say in Hollywood, had legs. Jesus made passing reference to it in the gospel of Matthew. The concept made into the story of Pinnochio. The Maine children’s author Robert McCloskey, who wrote Make Way for Ducklings, penned a book about the early 20th century Maine sea-faring man Burt Dow (someone I actually knew as a very little boy). The real Dow told the story of being out in his fishing dory and hooking a whale who towed him all the way out to sea. McCloskey expanded on the story and threw him down the whale’s throat for dramatic effect. Then, for good measure, the good people at Pixar poured Marlin, the fish-father in Finding Nemo, down yet another whale gullet. There’s some deep and memorable archetype at work here.

But few stop to ask: why was Jonah swallowed by the whale?

Because, the story suggests, he was being disobedient – or cowardly. He was running away from what he was supposed to be doing.

So let me review the story in brief: God notices that the people of the great city of Nineveh (modern day Mosul in Iraq) are behaving badly. He summons Jonah, an Israelite prophet, to go there and preach that unless they change their ways, bad things will happen to them. Jonah listens to this request, ponders the idea of heading eastward toward Nineveh, and then chooses instead to do exactly the opposite – to head west on a ship towards Spain. Enter the prophet as coward.

During the voyage a storm arises and the sailors suspect that the tempest might be evidence of God’s displeasure with their passenger, so they throw him overboard. The whale swallows Jonah both to save him from drowning and to give him some time to reconsider his destination. After Jonah has spent three uncomfortable days in the dark, grumbling and praying, the whale vomits him up on to dry land.

At this point, the soaked, wrinkled, and grumpy prophet having apparently having learned his lesson heads back in the direction he was supposed to go, that is to the city of Nineveh. As soon as he arrives he marches up and down the streets of the city, predicting that unless the king and everyone else stops cold in their tracks, expresses regret for their behavior, and mends their ways, they are going to be wiped out. Nineveh was large for its time – the Bible makes clear that it took “three days” to walk from one side to other. One can imagine the popularity of this angry foreigner, who smelled like old fish, as he stomped up and down, denouncing everyone and everything, and predicting that soon the whole town was going to be obliterated. As he did so, he fulfilled the second unattractive choice open to the prophet: the doomsayer.

Whether in Biblical times or today, people don’t usually embrace prophets. Most people are busy, tired, and defensive, and they don’t like to be told that they are doing anything wrong. As a result, prophets are usually ignored, laughed at, run out of town, or stoned to death. This accounts for that initial impulse towards cowardice.

In the book of Jonah, however, there is an unexpected plot twist: the people of the city actually listen to him. They come to believe that they are in immediate danger of destruction, and they take instant corrective action. The king himself announces that he will immediately begin a fast and changes into scratchy and unfashionable sackcloth. He insists that all his nobles and people do the same. They all promise to discontinue their thoughtless ways and they humbly ask God not to obliterate the city from the face of the earth. Watching this display of contrition, God is impressed and informs Jonah that this display of repentance is sufficient. Nineveh will be spared. Everyone is happy — God, the king, and all the residents. Everyone, that is, except Jonah.

The next twist in the story reveals the deeply human insight of some parts of the Bible. In a Disney film the townspeople would have carried Jonah off on their shoulders. There would have been a feast and fireworks and praise. Jonah would have smiled and said modestly that he had really done nothing – the appreciation should go to the people for their wise and mature actions and to God for God’s divine mercy. And after all the back-slapping and expressions of relief, everyone would have gone home and lived happily ever after.

But the Bible has a much more realistic view of human behavior. Jonah is not pleased that God has changed course, because, from Jonah’s standpoint, God has made Jonah look like an idiot. Day after day, the prophet had loudly foretold the downfall of Nineveh. He had endured – we can imagine — dismay, defiance, derision, and outright danger. Nonetheless, he had persisted. After all that hard work, his predictions turned out to be flat wrong. First, Jonah had fled as a coward. Then he reluctantly became a doomsayer. Now he had been proven a fool.

Jonah’s reaction to God’s mercy is both sharply comical and psychologically revealing. He stomps up to the top of an overlooking mountain, hoping against hope that God will go ahead with the original plan and reduce the city to rubble. To us – and apparently to God – Jonah’s massively self-centered ego is ridiculous, even offensive. But to Jonah this is no laughing matter: I didn’t want to come, I didn’t want to do this, and now, at the very least, I should be proven right.

Instead of arguing with Jonah, God discovers a means of revealing the absurdity of his fury. As Jonah waits beneath the throbbing Iraqi sun, sweating and swearing as he awaits the fulfillment of his prediction, a tall plant grows up to give Jonah a little shade. Jonah is delighted with the plant – finally, something is going right! Then, equally quickly, the plant dies, and Jonah again vents his anger at God. Why did you kill of this plant, which was helping me? God’s ironic answer comes shooting straight back. Let me get this straight: you pity a plant that has been in existence for less than twenty-four hours, and you think it is wrong for me to have destroyed it, yet you have no sympathy for a huge city of more than 120,000 confused and ignorant human beings, some of whom, as the Hebrew scripture memorably puts it, don’t even “know their right hand from their left?”

The story stops right there, with the question hanging in the air, a brilliant punchline. Every listener had a lesson to take away and ponder.

But there is an implied, though unspoken additional question, one which in our day and age we made need to make explicit. The question to Jonah – and to us – might be expressed in this manner: is your self-importance, is your self-identity, is your lack of compassion so great that you would rather be right than that others would be forgiven?

Buried in the children’s story, in the ancient and slightly mocking tale lies one of the most important moral and political questions for any individual and for any society in any age. It strikes in every direction, at every form of hard-heartedness.

We can see how the story points most particularly at the problem of prophet: are you willing to risk being seen as a coward (if you choose to do nothing); or being shunned (for speaking out against something unpopular); or being proven wrong? This is a real risk for anyone foolish or pig-headed enough – as I have sometimes been – to point out distressing facts about the world. Human moral somnolence and inertia are powerful forces. It is for this reason that Jesus, in his prophetic role, spoke in frustration and wonderment at people who have “eyes but they do not see, ears but they do not hear.”

Over the last three or four decades I have seen people resist the prophetic word. I have done so myself.

I observed the blind eye which conservatives turned toward human rights violations in Central America because such authoritarian regimes suited America’s need for allies against Communism. I have also witnessed the left’s refusal to listen to or speak of the brutalities of Castro’s Cuba or Soviet tyranny.

I remember how hard it was to get anyone to care about a distant country in which whites who made up only 10% of the population exercised absolute political and economic control over the 90% black majority.

I recall how bored and impatient or angry people became when early advocates raised the possibility of planetary damage because carbon dioxide emissions might lead to something called “climate change.” And how resistant Wall Street was to thinking about sustainability, because they were certain that if something were truly important they would already have taken it into account.

Today I am battling the skepticism and fatigue – all understandable — of people who are so busy with the problems of today that they have little room for concern about tomorrow. So I am constantly pondering my own sometimes unattractive prophetic choices: should I become a coward, doomsayer, or fool? Often I plunge ahead anyway, hoping that if I am headed in the wrong direction, a whale will redirect me.

Right this minute I am sounding the alarm about how intensive neurological research is being used to entrap and fleece the poor through gambling addiction. Companies that design and build slot machines are like 21st century cigarette companies, exploring the profit potential of technological heroin and selling it to state legislatures – and poor people — as a solution to their financial problems. But the awareness of such abuses – and the necessary public outrage to stop them – is not yet common.

Even as I pursue something like this, I know that there are many topics – too many – that I shamefully ignore, unconsciously mimicking the priest on the road to Jericho who is too busy and self-important to notice all those who are lying beaten by the side of road.

I can tell sometimes, as I launch into another litany of concerns – blurting out a statistic in the middle of a dinner party or depositing some stark fact among the chirpy exclamations on Facebook – that I am at risk of running down my own Jonah-like pathway of coward, doomsayer, or fool. I would just as soon not bring this up. And I would, on balance, prefer people to like me. And I have no desire to be shown as having sounded a false alarm. The intensity of the prophetic life is such that I recognize – even as I describe it here that — I might also be tempted to want to be proven right rather than be laughed at as a person who worries and cares just a bit too much.

The story of Jonah, as powerful as it is for the person tempted to the arduous path of prophecy, also contains a caution for others who, in stating their views with self-confidence, might be looking for recognition of their superiority.

It asks of the harsh fundamentalist: are you so sure that you understand the inner nature of God that you can state with complete certainty that two people of the same gender cannot be married?

It asks of the smug economist: are you so convinced of the universality of self-interest that you feel it necessary to make light of the transformative power of self-sacrificial love and forgiveness?

It asks of the confident rationalist: are you so well informed about the nature of a universe stocked with billions upon billions of yet-to-be revealed secrets that you can affirm with absolute conviction that we are the highest form of consciousness ever to have existed or currently existing in the entire cosmos?

It asks of the romantic idealist: are you so persuaded that the studious avoidance of unhappy thoughts, the awkward denial of discomfort, the breezy superficiality of modern culture are a credible match for the ancient and ever-present realities of grief, evil, and death?

The story of Jonah is one of the great literary accomplishments of the human race, for in four short chapters in teaches us both the necessity and the dangers of prophetic courage, it laughs at our foibles, even as it unlocks our hearts.

In short, it gives us more than enough to ponder if we ever find ourselves with a little extra time in the belly of a dark whale.


The Untimely Death of An Ancient “Monster:” How Deregulation Led To Crisis More Than 170 Years Ago

In Business and Sustainability, Politics on February 11, 2009 at 11:21 pm

I found a fascinating lesson from the past about the present in an article written 53 years ago about a massive struggle that most of us have completely forgotten: the battle between Andrew Jackson and the Bank of the United States. Pulitzer Prize winning author Bray Hammond, in a piece published in American Heritage, argued that early nineteenth century Americans, thrilled with the power of “steam and credit” had a huge, relentless tendency to speculate. Hammond wrote that the young country needed a central bank to help curb the mounting swells of leverage that were fueling irrational investments. Andrew Jackson, however, felt a central bank was an attack on democracy, and he fought – successfully – to destroy it. His action unleashed even more speculation, which no force could deter, that eventually led to the Panic of 1837, a terrible recession that threw hundreds of thousands of American out of work.  Hammond does not blame Jackson directly – he says that Old Hickory was misled by his advisors, who deliberately duped the president.

In other words, a bubble might have been avoided through modest restraint – but a government ideologically committed to market fundamentalism stepped in to deregulate at exactly the wrong time. Sound familiar?

When I read this piece, I realized that the United States, like most countries, rotates around the same economic track over and over again.. Many historians have pointed this out – but somehow we have trouble learning it as a society. The older generation that remembers fades away and a new generation, full of optimism and exhilaration, unwilling to look backwards for any inspiration or guidance, rushes off the precipice again. So read this quotation and imagine what our world would have been like if we had read this article four or five years ago, and realized that we were speeding towards a similar conflict between the relentless drive of wild economic enthusiasm and the sobering restrictions necessary to stable growth and balanced prosperity.

Hammond’s piece had this initial summary: “Andrew Jackson battled the Bank of the United States with all his furious confidence. Was his victory the nation’s loss?”

“Andrew Jackson smote the bank fatally at the moment of its best performance and in the course of trends against which it was needed most. Thereby he gave unhindered play to the speculation and inflation that he was always denouncing. To a susceptible people the prospect was intoxicating. A continent abounding in varied resources and favorable to the maintenance of an immense population in the utmost comfort spread before the gaze of an energetic, ambitious, and clever race of men, who to exploit its wealth had two new instruments of miraculous potency: steam and credit. They forward into the bright prospect, trampling, suffering, succeeding, failing. There was nothing to restrain them. For about a century the big rush lasted. Now it is over.

And in a more critical mood we note that a number of things are missing or gone wrong. To be sure, we are on top of the world still, but it is not very good bookkeeping to omit one’s losses and count only one’s gains. That critical move was known to others than Jackson. Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau felt it. So did an older and more experienced contemporary, Albert Gallatin, friend and aide in the past to Thomas Jefferson, and now p-resident of a New York bank but loyal to Jeffersonian ideals, “the energy of this nation,” he wrote to an old friend toward the end of Andrew Jackson’s administration, “is not be controlled; it is at present exclusively applied to the acquisition of wealth and to improvements of stupendous magnitude. Whatever has that tendency, and of course an immoderate expansion of credit, receives favor. The apparent prosperity and the progress of cultivation, population, commerce, and improvement are beyond expectation. But it seems to me as if general demoralization was the consequence; I doubt whether general happiness is increased; and I would have preferred a gradual, slower, and more secure progress. I am, however, an old man, and a young generation has a right to govern itself…” In these words, Mr. Gallatin was echoing the remark of Thomas Jefferson that “the world belongs to the living.” Neither Gallatin nor Jefferson, however thought it should be stripped by the living. Yet nothing but the inadequacy of their powers seems to have kept those nineteenth century generations from stripping it. And perhaps nothing else could.

But to the extent that credit multiplies man’s economic powers, curbs upon credit extension are a means of conservation, and an important means. The Bank of the United States was such a means. Its career was short and it had imperfections. Nevertheless, it worked. The evidence is in the protest of the bankers and entrepreneurs, the lenders and the borrowers, against its restraints. Their outcry against the oppressor was heard and Andrew Jackson hurried to their rescue. Had he not, some other way of stopping its conservative and steadying influence could doubtless have been found. The appetite for credit is avid, and Andrew Jackson knew in his day, and might have foretold for ours. But because he never meant to serve it, the credit for what happened goes rather to the clever advisors who led the old hero to the monster’s lair and dutifully held his hat while he stamped on its hea d and crushed it in the dust.

Meanwhile, the new money power had curled up securely in Wall Street, where it has been at home ever since.”

From “Jackson’s Fight With the “Monster””by Bray Hammond, A Sense of History: The Best Writing From the Pages of American Heritage, [New York: American Heritage Press, 1985] page 184-185

“BREAKING NEWS”: Why the New York Times and Harvard Should Merge

In Business and Sustainability, Education, Politics on February 7, 2009 at 4:33 pm

The business model – which is another way of saying the underlying purpose – of just about everything is changing right now, and that includes the university and the newspaper.

Consider these parallels:

What is the purpose of a newspaper?

To establish a network of fact-seekers (correspondents) who pass information to a group of quality control processors (editors) who repackage the information for consumption as articles (and books) for a group of people (readers and other learners) eager to find out what is going on in the world.

What is the purpose of a university?

To establish a network of fact-seekers (researchers and students) who pass on information to a group of quality control processors (faculty members) who repackage the information as articles (and books) for a group of people (students and other learners) eager to find out what is going on in the world.

So what is the difference between these two institutions?

Most of them are rooted in history and the physical (and thus economic) limits to the collection and transfer of information.

Universities were invented in the ancient world and again in the Middle Ages.  They were designed to collect elite learners around a library, which is a big building full of information packaged into scrolls or books — the earliest form of a server. As libraries got bigger, information became harder to locate, which launched the new profession of librarians. And because the increasing quantities of information became difficult to navigate on one’s own, universities created separate, epistemologically bounded “disciplines” with professional guides and explorers, known as “professors.”

Newspapers were invented in the age of greater literacy and decentralized printing to communicate information rapidly. But to gather that information they needed to disperse correspondents, send information back to a centralized group of editors, who sorted it into “news” articles that were redistributed back to a dispersed group of learners. Getting the newspaper delivered to your front door is perhaps the earliest form of the Internet.

Of course, there were and are some important differences.

Journalism, in its rush for the new, is often seen as the “first draft of history.” Academic research, through its slower, more deliberative pace, weighs information comparatively, over a longer arc of time, disconnected from some of the passions of the moment.

But both of these are really points on a continuum. Journalists have found that in addition to breaking stories, they need to do analysis. Academicians have discovered that in addition to reviewing the past, they need to pay attention to the the future.

And everybody writes articles, whether for academic journals or magazines or blogs.

What are some of the other similarities that might move the notion of such a merger from a bizarre idea to a practical possibility and then to a necessity?

• Students in universities are eager to keep to track of what is happening so that they can find their way in the world outside their institutions.

• Adults outside instiutions often want to share discoveries and wisdom and continue learning in greater depth throughout their lives.

• Currently both universities and newspapers rely on the same old-fashioned and restrictive business model: they try to channel the flow of information into a bottleneck which they control, and then they charge people for access to the information. We know that some forms of learning can only take place among actual human beings learning from each other in “meatspace” (though I prefer the term “meetspace.”) But as both the news and the human intellectual genome bottled up in colleges are increasingly released on to the Internet for free, the justification for these forms of restriction will begin to fall. And more and more are recognizing that global free education is a right, not a privilege. Equally important, it is possible.

• Newspapers are trying to shore themselves up by competing with universities for endowments. Universities are trying to earn more money by competing for readers with newspapers. Newspapers take money for corporations for advertising. Universities take money from corporations for research. Why not set good, strong, ethical guidelines — bring the two together, so that both are enabled to become less reliant on commercial interest?

Here’s the thought experiment: if Harvard University formally merged with the New York Times, then every Harvard student could potentially become a reporter for the paper as they roamed the world.

And every reporter could take time off and be refreshed as a teacher, a learner, a researcher not driven by deadline. And every professor could become a potential Paul Krugman (though admittedly, Krugman is formally at Princeton).

Both institutions are committed, in theory, to objectivity and fairness, in other words, to veritas. And now “all the news that is fit to print” can no longer be contained on a few sheets of reprocessed dead tree.

Yes, yes, I know that there will be debates about quality and access, about the role of advertising, about competition (what about other newspapers and other universities?), and especially about the other purposes of education – such as passing on the values of moderation and citizenship. Those debates should happen.

But there are 6.5 billion people on the planet – including more than 420 million people in India under the age of 18. 96% of the world’s human eyeballs are not American. The current model is only slightly better at passing on information to the majority of humans as the European monastery was for teaching the great masses of serfs and peasants.

If everything were working fine, the idea of merging information-gathering and information-processing entities might be absurd.

Instead, as universities struggle and newspapers collapse, it may end up being our future.

In an era when it would be cheaper for the New York Times to buy a Kindle reader for every subscriber rather than to keep cutting down trees, when more and more people get their news on Google than through a subscription to any one paper, and when universities are trying to blow up the walls and silos that keep their brilliant employees from solving multidisciplinary problems and to share the courses openly on the Internet, we need to rethink how information and education are linked — from scratch.

If Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust doesn’t call publisher New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. soon, he should call her. And then some very, very interesting things will happen.

And remember – you read it here first!

Figuring This Thing Out – Plus A Great Video — and Some Action Steps

In Politics on February 4, 2009 at 4:21 pm

One of the pieces of advice I have read about writing a blog is that one should keep it fresh – write something regularly, everyone says, or people will give up on you.

“No problem,” I thought, “I have tons to say.” And that is true. Except that over the last two weeks I have written some really great blogs in my head, and none that have made it on to the cyberpage. I am still prone to “writing-the-perfect-piece-for-a-finicky-magazine-editor” syndrome rather than “blurt-it-out-the-way-you-do-emails-and-at-dinner-parties.”

(Not that I am invited to that many dinner parties. Hummh…..)

The other piece of advice that people seem to give is 1) have a clear focus for your blog and 2) keep your postings short. I must admit that I am pretty far away from the first one because I am interested in a lot of things. I think it is going to take another 50 or 60 posts before I find my clearest voice.

I am also fighting a lot of battles, and I am not quite sure which ones would be of interest to a wider group. I guess the answer is – we’ll find out. And I am struggling with the inevitable ups and downs of disease, which means that the ideas I have in the morning tend to disappear when I get groggy in the afternoon.

But here’s my current promise: I am going to write at least once a week, and hopefully twice. I think I might be able to pull off a posting on Monday and again on Thursday. I haven’t been able to figure out how to attach a Feedburner box to this site to that people can sign up to be notified about new things. I think you can do an RSS feed on your browser (you can check on me) but until I figure out this Feedburner thing, I can’t notify you. I will get it eventually…

Finally, I think I need to stop thinking about the “carefully reasoned 1,000 word essay” as the right model. Instead I am going to shoot for: an interesting alert of things that are part of my “View of the World from Sycamore Street” And maybe make it 300-500 words long.

plus “super brief commentary on public events”

plus “great quotes from books I am reading that seem relevant to today”

plus “requests for action or advice”

plus the aforementioned essays, thoughtfully reasoned or not.

I will get the hang of this! My mother, quoting someone whose name is lost to me, has often said that “success in writing is directly proportional to the amount of time the bottom is applied to the chair.” And since I am mostly writing from bed, I should have some eventual success (whatever “success” might be). In the meantime, we are in the midst of an increasingly painful battle in Massachusetts as our otherwise excellent governor, Deval Patrick, goes down the awful and irrevocable road of bringing slot machines into this state as a quick fix for the state’s stark financial problems. Of course, he could raise the gas tax a few cents, because gasoline is down more than $2.00 from last summer.

Unfortunately his important aspirations in other areas (education, health care) have blinded him to the human problems of addiction. So we are taking some steps to help him and the others in the legislature see. I know that most people haven’t been thinking about this – that’s okay. This is one of those problems that creeps up on you. Or, to be blunt, is snuck by you as huge, secretive money interests knock off one state after another. It is the sleeper social justice issue of the next few years. I strongly recommend that you watch this amazing video.

There are also some wonderful things on Facebook, such as “Stop the Swindle” – check that out and sign up. Also, check out – parts of the site are somewhat dated from the battle last March, but now that Speaker of Massachusetts Sal DiMasi has been pushed out of office and has been replaced by a pro-slots state rep, the battle is much tougher.

If you want to call Governor Deval Patrick’s office, please do 617-725-4005. It takes literally one minute. But in politics every phone call is assumed to equal 100 people. Please don’t put this off. They may try to ram this through quickly. In Pennsylvania, the vote was taken at midnight on the 4th of July on a voice vote — under a Democratic governor and legislature.

If you live in Massachusetts, please also call your state rep and state senator. Remember Alice’s restaurant – if they hear from three people, it’s a movement!

Here’s a list of State Reps and Senators.

And here’s how to find out who your rep is, if you don’t know.

I will be writing a more thoughtful and reasoned essay on this in a while (surprise) – indeed I will probably writing more than one — but right now, I wanted you to know: I am still out here, I would love to hear from you.

I thank you for everything you are already doing in your busy life!