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Who is America and the Ethics of Going Undercover

Sep14

by: Larry Atkins on September 14th, 2018 | 3 Comments »

Actor Sacha Baron Cohen (image courtesy of Joella Marano)

As a liberal, I’m glad to see Sacha Baron Cohen expose the corruption, hatred, craziness, and racism of many conservative NRA loving politicians and people. For example, Cohen enticed a Republican Georgia state representative, Jason Spencer, to yell the full N-word and pull down his pants to expose his naked butt to try to repel a hypothetical Muslim terrorist. Spencer eventually resigned due to the incident.

At first, I was really excited about the show and urged my fellow liberal friends to watch Cohen’s Showtime program “Who is America?” I thought it was really funny and it showed how dumb, gullible, and scary these conservatives were.

While Cohen’s exposing these true feelings are valuable, his undercover and deceptive techniques are disturbing. Basically, he is engaging in entrapping people to participate in idiotic made up situations and conversations that make them look bad. This is nothing new for Cohen, who has used his various characters, including Borat, Bruno, and Ali G to embarrass and expose people. In his current show, he has duped, among others, Dick Cheney, who gleefully signed a waterboarding kit, several Republican politicians who were duped into talking positively about a made up proposal to arm kindergartners with guns to defend against school shootings, Roy Moore, who tested positive to Cohen’s fake pedophile detector, and several dozen citizens at a town meeting in Kingman, Arizona, who responded to a fake proposed giant mosque in town with angry bigoted responses. While Cohen does target all types of people, his main focus has been on Republicans and conservatives.

There is a long history of using undercover techniques in entertainment, journalism, and advocacy. Past television shows using these techniques include Candid Camera, Undercover Boss, To Catch a Predator, Mystery Diners, Celebrity Undercover, Cheaters, Impractical Jokers, Punk’d, The Real Wedding Crashers, and What Would You Do?

Undercover journalism has a long history. Nellie Bly exposed the horrors of mental hospital institutions in the late 19th century by posing as an insane inmate in an asylum. Many local televisions stations use undercover reporters to expose corruption by government officials and others. This technique can be used as a tool to expose societal ills, but it should be used rarely and carefully. For instance, there was a chilling effect on this type of journalism after the Food Lion v. ABC case, which found ABC liable for trespass and breach of loyalty for having its producers lie on job applications to expose unhealthy practices.

Conservatives have used this technique as well. The most famous incident was when two conservative activists, James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles posed as a pimp and a prostitute to entice ACORN employees to give them illegal tax advice for their made up business of smuggling young women into the United States to work as prostitutes. Their work was published by Breitbart and they became conservative icons to their supporters for exposing a liberal organization, but to their detractors, they brought down an important and valuable organization that engaged in community organizing and voter registration. In subsequent years, O’Keefe tried to engage in sting operations against the Washington Post, a George Soros backed group, CNN reporter Abbie Boudreau, and U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu.

A few years ago, two pro-life activists, David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, released undercover videos accusing Planned Parenthood doctors of selling aborted fetal tissue. The heavily edited videos caused national outrage and led to threats against abortion providers. They filmed 14 people without their consent at meetings with women’s healthcare providers in four cities and published the videos on the website for the Center for Medical Progress. In 2017, they were charged with 15 felonies by California prosecutors.

These undercover sting videos are often cleverly edited in a deceptive manner and don’t show the entire context of what took place.

My own hunch is that people like to see undercover journalism, entertainment, and activism if it confirms their own beliefs and values and exposes others that they dislike or disagree with. They don’t like it and label it as “Gotcha” techniques if it exposes and embarrasses people and organizations that they like. One group’s muckraker or hero can be seen by others as a hack and a charlatan.

Liberals like me were critical of the ACORN sting and other similar deceptive incidents that attacked liberal institutions. While it’s tempting to revel in Sacha Baron Cohen’s exposure of the dark side of conservatives, we shouldn’t encourage the deceptive techniques that he used to get his information, results, and behavior. What goes around comes around. In the future, we’re likely to see more conservative citizen journalists/advocates/provocateurs like James O’Keefe who will set out to entrap and embarrass liberal democrats and organizations through deceptive measures. Will we embrace these undercover efforts as much as we do Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who is America? Probably not.

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Larry Atkins is the author of Skewed: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Media Bias (Prometheus Books). He teaches Journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University. Twitter: @larryatkins4

The Politicization of Murder in the U.S. and U.K.

Sep12

by: Frankie Wallace on September 12th, 2018 | No Comments »

Image courtesy of Will H. Mcmahan.

For decades, politicians around the world have used the brutal murders of others as political bait, reeling in audiences over their heartbreaking stories of senseless killings. But political figures have primarily used this tactic to push their anti-immigrant views. No matter which side you take on this issue, is it really right in the first place to politicize someone’s murder for political gain? Politicians have been accused of doing so on both sides of the aisle, from any political party. Often they don’t take into account how this affects the families of the victims and how immigrants feel to be generalized in such a negative way.

Donald Trump and the Right
President Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda is nothing new. From the day he announced his intention to run for president, he painted a violent image of undocumented immigrants and made immigration reform a key topic of discussion during the campaign. Yet in recent weeks, his anti-immigrant sentiment came back into the fold, again presenting illegal immigrants as sick and evil individuals. This came with the murder of Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old college student from the University of Iowa. Christian Rivera, an undocumented immigrant, confessed to killing Tibbetts and led police to her dead body.


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A Permaculture for Plants and People

Aug31

by: Hannah Arin on August 31st, 2018 | No Comments »

Elizabeth at Shanti Permaculture Farm by Vinnie the Guy

I took a drive with Elizabeth one of my first days at Shanti Permaculture Farm. We hopped in her grey GMC truck, with raccoon prints on the front window and her two field spaniels curled up in the back and headed for the farm supply store. We wove through the idyllic vineyards and redwoods of Northern California, windows down, tires barely matching the road’s edge. It was one of those rare occurrences in which someone says, “great weather we’re having,” and you can feel, deep in your bones, like wind brushing through pores, that they really mean it. My heart opened. Here was Elizabeth, saying to me the same phrase I’d heard all my life, a phrase which had become nothing more than the white noise of a suburban leaf blower, and returning it to the wind– returning the words to their purpose: to mean what they say.

I’d noticed this about Elizabeth from the moment I met her: they way in which she allows things to breathe their own essence into life. As the owner of a juvenile (3 or 4 years in the making) permaculture/sheep/duck/chicken/singular llama, farm, you’d think she’d have a more set structure to things: a plan for getting from point a to point b, a road set in concrete. And undoubtedly, Elizabeth does have a plan. She’s a woman with a will as stiff as the soil she’s rehabilitating: a woman with a purpose.

Yet the way in which she manifests this purpose is far from the black and white, step one to step two, brick by brick, path to success defined by a system overrun with way points: graduate high school, graduate college, maybe professional school, get a job, find a partner, have children, and so on. It’s a way as different as a weather man, speaking of the weather forecast with the same intonation he would use for a school shooting, is from Elizabeth, sticking her arm outside her truck’s window, looking over fields of sunshine made form, uttering “great weather we’re having,” with a way as simple and strong as the breeze.


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PINK Armenia: Some Personal Reflections

Aug27

by: Paul von Blum on August 27th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

Sara Rampazzo

In two recent trips to Armenia, I had the privilege of visiting the headquarters of PINK Armenia in Yerevan and talking to many of the people involved with this courageous human rights organization. PINK (Public Information and Need of Knowledge) Armenia is a NGO dedicated to serving the LGBT community in Armenia. It has taken the lead in publicizing the plight and protecting the rights of women and men who, tragically, have been subject to ostracism, persecution, and even physical violence.

Armenia is a young and vibrant democracy. Recently, the Armenian people rose up and peacefully overthrew the corrupt government of Serzh Sargsyan and replaced him with Nikol Pahsinyan in a Velvet Revolution. The new Prime Minister promised to address the rampant disparity of wealth and power and many other serious problems. The prognosis is good but guarded; it is far from easy to change such deep-seated problems as corruption and economic domination by predatory oligarchs.

Deeper social change is even more difficult. The issue of homophobia remains extremely troubling. Armenia, like its neighbors Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Georgia, has extremely conservative values about sexuality. Fueled by religious orthodoxy and entrenched social convention, LGBT people have an extremely difficult time if they are open about their sexual orientation in these areas.

PINK Armenia has systematically documented the discrimination against Armenian citizens whose sexual orientation differs from that of the majority of the population. In 2016, it published a report entitled “Hate Crimes and Other Motivated Incidents Against LGBT People in Armenia.” Its findings are both unsurprising and depressing. The report revealed substantial examples of hate crimes against LGBT people; moreover, many gays and lesbians often hide their sexual orientations in order to avoid discrimination and violence and others decide not to report hate crimes. The reported figures are therefore lower than what actually occurs.


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Two Takes on “To Dust”

Aug24

by: on August 24th, 2018 | No Comments »

To Dust

Gesa Rohrig and Matthew Broderick in Shawn Snyder

Two Tikkun summer interns, Hannah Arin and Madison Wilson, recently saw To Dust at the SF Jewish Film Festival and had two different responses.

Hannah Arin:

The Reb Simcha Benuem of Pershyscha carried two slips of paper with him everywhere he went– a slip for each pocket. One which read: “Bishbili nivra ha-olam” — “For my sake the world was created.” And the other: “V’anokhi afar v’efer” — “I am but dust and ashes.” Just as the Reb would walk the roads of Poland, one foot after the other, each leg taking its fair stride, each slip taking its turn to step before the other, only to be outpaced by the other soon thereafter, we all, more or less, follow these same footsteps. Not that we all carry these slips in our pockets; not that we all walk through 19th century, Eastern European streets muttering prayers beneath our breath; not that we all are even aware of this paradoxical path upon which we find ourselves walking… But still, despite knowing or not knowing, we cannot escape the dynamics of the world within which come to live and die. Indeed, this world was made for us to live and to love in, and all the same, it will one day be taken from us; whether we go down fighting or in submission to what is beyond our earthly selves. Somehow, this world is entirely for us to experience, yet in some respects, “we” have never been.

To Dust, a black comedy about a Hasidic cantor navigating the grief after the loss of his young wife, gives us a glimpse into better understanding this line– balancing between polarity, making sense of disparity, finding peace in the casualties. And it does so, not by any of its characters marking themselves as exemplary figures upholding the framework of the human experience in their slip filled pockets or their humble steps, or even in its storyline alone. Rather it is the experience of To Dust as a comprehensive whole that gives rise to the precious experience of gaining even the slightest glimmer of insight into something that mostly seems ineffable. It is in the relation between the characters, the cinematography, the dialogue, the humor, the Hasidic prayer, that we find ourselves one step closer to understanding just what it means to be entirely in this world, fully belonging to it, and at the same time, to be visitors, who, in their heart of hearts, truly know that this never has been, nor ever will be our ultimate home.

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The Handmaid’s Tale Season Two: Can Fear Motivate Love?

Aug14

by: Robin Kopf on August 14th, 2018 | No Comments »

The first season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale seemed like it couldn’t come at a more topical time. It fell within the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, when there were so many startling headlines that season one felt like a not-so-distant future. Season two, which started streaming on Hulu in late April of this year, came at a time with just as many startling headlines, but a growing numbness to the political turmoil that seems to keep worsening. By comparison to the first season, the following season is darker, scarier and more unbelievably twisted, as it moves past the universe building and plot points that make up Margaret Atwood’s book (from which the show came), continuing the character and plot development past its conclusion.

The first season’s addictive qualities come from the horror of seeing this universe play out on screen, but also from flashbacks to the period before Gilead (the extremist and patriarchal republic that replaces the United States) that look all too familiar. Season two’s fear factor is in the expansion of this universe, but also in the use of images in the linear time of the show that continue to exist in our history books, in the news, and in real life. We see June being guided in her passage to Canada. We see handmaids and others (spoiler ahead) with missing hands, fingers, and eyes. These familiar and fearful images that are used to speculate a world that oppresses most of the population, especially women, make it clear that the goal of The Handmaid’s Tale as a whole, but particularly the second season, is to beg its viewers to not let this world become a reality. Still, there are glimmers of hope within acts of true selflessness and kindness from citizens of the dystopia that tell viewers that the show’s characters are based on reality; not everyone is inherently evil and if there is a way into this hellish reality, there is a way out.

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Budapest Noir is fun, but uninspired at SF Jewish Film Festival

Aug13

by: Madison Wilson on August 13th, 2018 | No Comments »

Still from Éva Gárdos's BUDAPEST NOIR - Image courtesy of Pioneer Pictures

I walk up to the Castro Theatre around 5:40, friends in tow, silently congratulating myself for arriving a full twenty minutes early. As my friends and I confidently jaywalk across Castro Street to enter the theatre, I hear one let out a small moan – what’s wrong now, I wonder – then I see the line. It not only snakes around one corner, but continues past the next far into a residential neighborhood behind the historic movie palace. Clearly there was some buzz about one of the first American screenings of this Hungarian film. We trudged along as the line steadily moved forward, finally culminating in a mad frenzy at the entry to the theatre to give someone, anyone our ticket before walking inside. The theatre is packed, and those early twenty minutes I thought would at least result in a seat on the first floor only bought me one in the nosebleeds. I sit down listening to live organ music and sensing the anticipation floating above the crowd. After the organist finishes, there’s a brief introduction by someone from the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the film’s sponsor, then director Eva Gardos steps onstage. She, like her main character, is a person of few words, and without much fanfare the show begins.

Budapest Noir is a movie rendition of the bestselling Hungarian novel of the same name by Vilmos Kondor. The film takes place in Budapest’s seedy underbelly, winter, 1936, just before Hungary aligns itself with Hitler. The mist and drudge are the perfect backdrop to this nostalgic murder mystery. Zsigmond Gordon, the hunky, ubermensch reporter, meets a mysterious dark-haired beauty in a cafe just before police find her dead body on the streets of the red-light district. Gordon becomes obsessed with uncovering the story of this seemingly forgotten young woman. On the side, ex-lover and photographer Krisztina reappears at Gordon’s apartment and serves as his investigative sidekick and girlfriend. They follow the woman’s tracks from the chief of police, to a brothel owner, a nude photographer, corrupt politicians, and underground fights, eventually discovering that Budapest’s best-known coffee importer is actually the girl’s father. He is secretly Jewish and would not allow the mystery woman, who we now know as his daughter Fanny, to marry her lover, the son of a rabbi, so she fled. The final scene is perhaps the most touching, where Krisztina leaves Gordon without warning for London and the two tearfully separate at the train station.

Maybe it was the fact that the entire film was in English subtitles, but I found the plot a bit difficult to follow, and when I did follow, quite predictable. Budapest Noir has the prostitutes, the seedy old politicians, the Communists, a hefty sprinkling of fascist and communist allusions, and maybe even a reference to Hungary’s current political situation, but Gardos did not incorporate these elements in a unique way. Even the climax felt, well, anticlimactic, as Fanny’s mother kills Fanny’s father out of revenge in a rather bizarre scene involving a gun and birthday cake. The series of events make sense at the end and tie up neatly but didn’t leave me at the edge of my seat.


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The Coarsening Yet Hope of the American Mind

Aug3

by: Kirk J. Schneider on August 3rd, 2018 | 2 Comments »

Babies being wrenched from parents, disquieting authoritarian alliances, alarming levels of civil and political discord–this is our country in the summer of 2018.

To be sure there are also positive developments but are they reliable, enduring?

While many of us are wringing our hands asking “how in the world we got here?” Perhaps the more accurate question is “Why, given our mercantile-materialist past, shouldn’t we have gotten here?”  In his 1978 book The Illusion of Technique, public philosopher William Barrett forewarned of the damage being done through our reliance on devices–rather than people–to staunch our moral predicaments; and we should have paid more attention.

Today we are stained with the legacy of all those who fell –wittingly and unwittingly –under the spell of a “machine model for living.”  This model emphasized efficiency (or what many called efficiency): speed, instant results, appearance and packaging; and it lured millions to the marketplace–or killing fields. The result however was anything but “efficient” in the larger sense. We created ease and convenience, to be sure.  But the advances were largely external–relegated to how fast we drove, how quickly we ate, how many gadgets we owned or people we manipulated; but our interior life, our capacity to feel and reflect and communicate was left bereft.

The result is that, today, too many of us have become calculative and consumerist giants but emotional and imaginative dwarfs, steely and impenetrable, but bereft of nuance, attunement, and depth;  and this is precisely our dilemma.

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We, too, wandered lost in the desert; A Rabbi in solidarity work with migrants

Aug3

by: Rabbi Brant Rosen on August 3rd, 2018 | 1 Comment »

Some of Jewish tradition’s most cherished spiritual lessons derive from the narrative of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, guided by God’s presence as they make their way toward the Promised Land. Today, as we hear increasing reports of migrants risking incarceration, starvation, and death in the deserts along our southwest border, these sacred stories call out to us with a desperate immediacy.

It is all too clear that U.S. border policy is creating a crisis of death and disappearance in the southwest borderlands. It is unconscionable that our government is leaving migrants to die in the desert – and that humanitarian workers are now being criminalized for helping them. As a Rabbi and a Jew, my faith compels me to witness and to respond.

Image of car door among some trees, painted with sign: "No Mas Muertes, Bienvenidos"

Entrance to No Mas Muertes desert aid camp near Arivaca, AZ. Image courtesy of Patrice Clark.

No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes – a humanitarian organization based in southern Arizona – has documented how border enforcement pushes migration routes into some of the most remote, dangerous areas in Arizona’s deserts. As violence and hardship grow in parts of Latin America – in direct response to US foreign policy – and as pathways to asylum and other relief are cut off, growing numbers of people are crossing the border to reunite with their families and seek safety.

In 2017, 57 sets of human remains were found in Arizona’s West Desert, including 32 on the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge – a vast and remote stretch of land that shares 56 miles with the U.S.-Mexico border. Yet this number represents only a fraction of the people who have disappeared and died in the region; some estimate that 10 times as many people die trying to cross these deserts.

For the past three years, No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes has left water, food, socks and blankets for migrants crossing the Cabeza Wildlife Refuge, but outrageously enough, these humanitarian relief efforts have now been criminalized by the Trump administration. Earlier this year, Scott Warren, a humanitarian aid provider with No More Deaths, and two people receiving humanitarian aid were arrested by U.S. Border Patrol. Now Warren is facing federal felony charges, and he and eight other No More Deaths volunteers are also facing federal misdemeanor charges relating to their humanitarian aid work on the Cabeza.

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Review of Steve Herrmann’s Emily Dickinson: A Medicine Woman for Our Times

Aug1

by: Reverend Dr. Matthew Fox on August 1st, 2018 | 1 Comment »

This exciting and important book is filled with verve and insight that only Dickinson can awaken. With the help of Carl Jung and the inspiration of his own deep work, including his penetrating insights on Walt Whitman’s launching of an American movement of Spiritual Democracy, Herrmann sheds brilliant light on the spiritual genius of Emily Dickinson. Rightly does the author call Dickinson a “medicine woman for our challenging times,” for even today – 130 years after her death – she still brings forth wisdom and insight to challenge patriarchy. The book is filled with insights triggered by James, Jung, Whitman, Emerson, Everson, Jeffers, Melville, Humboldt, and the author’s own well-traveled soul. Herrmann’s acute exegesis of many poems that sometimes seem opaque is sensible and eye-opening.

Herrmann argues that the crux of Dickinson’s struggle was her wrestling with the archetype of vocation. It was her vocation as a poet that charged her with awe and ecstasy as when she wrote: “Take all away from me, but leave me Ecstasy,/ And I am richer than all my fellow Men–/ Ill it becometh me to dwell so wealthily/ When at my very Door are those possessing more,/ In abject poverty – ” (#1640) Yet she had to sacrifice her career as a public poet in her lifetime because she was excluded for the most part from the male-dominated world of publishing. Herrmann believes that Dickinson underwent a “crucifixion of her ego on the cross of her poetic vocation.” After suffering a breakdown she revealed how she rose not as a wounded bird but riding “the Ether into the air or sky as shamans do.”


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