Wednesday, July 27, 2016

How Over-Customization Kills Government IT

"I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV."- 1984 ad for Vicks cough syrup

Yesterday Scott Burns, the CEO and founder of GovDelivery (disclaimer: not an endorsement) published "The Elephant in the Room...Is Government the Worst Possible Customer?" on LinkedIn.

As someone who has worked for the government for more than a dozen years, and who frequently helps define requirements for government IT projects, I was interested to hear a vendor's idea of the things that are taboo to say.

His list of reasons why venture capitalists shy away from government as a customer, in brief: 1) excessive customization requirements 2) excessively cost-based decision-making and 3) excessive paperwork.

Overall I agree with Burns' assessment, and hope that the next Administration will take on the challenges he outlines. It will not be an easy undertaking, for the following reasons:

  • Excessive customization requirements are a mask for self-interest. Frankly, many departments, functions, and jobs are outdated and even superfluous. Commitment to a true commercial-off-the-shelf IT solution, together with the adoption of private-sector best practices, makes that obvious.
  • Excessive cost-based decision making is a mask for self-interest. The government has a notoriously high IT project failure rate for many reasons, chief among which is the ignorance and risk-aversion of those writing contract requirements. If you know your stuff, you aren't afraid to specify what a quality solution is. If you don't, you can always defend your decision by saying it was the cheapest. In the end, such thinking is always just the opposite - a costly mistake.
  • Excessive paperwork is a mask for self-interest. Government contracting is currently a nightmarish field of endeavor. I have known some outstanding professionals who work in this area and all of them were unusually well-schooled in the law and also unusually thick-skinned when it came to dealing with the sharks inside and outside the agency who relentlessly pursued their own agenda and financial self-interest regardless of whether it benefited the agency's mission.
In my view it is unnecessary to implore individual government professionals to solve these problems. Rather, we have to take a sledgehammer to the structural incentives that enable them to persist.

Regardless of who we work for, I think most people can agree on the very basic idea that government exists to serve the taxpayer. The taxpayers do not exist to prop up a bloated, inefficient and self-serving bureaucracy.


All opinions my own. Photo by Mathias Buehler via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Monday, July 25, 2016

To Restore Trust In Government, Empower Federal Communicators

On October 8, 2013 the Pew Research Center for U.S. Politics & Policy released survey results showing that:
  • Most Americans (62%) had a positive view of federal workers (and a majority had a positive view of the federal agencies they were asked about)
  • Almost none (19%) trusted the government itself "to do what is right just about always or most of the time."

Over the years I have received many email chains ("Fwd: Fwd: Fwd:") portraying the government as corrupt or inefficient while hearing verbal anecdotes of federal employees who went the extra mile to help out.

Clearly, federal employees are dedicated. The 2015 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, administered by the government's Office of Personnel Management shows that more than 90% of respondents "view their work as important, are willing to commit extra effort when necessary to get their jobs done, (and) consistently seek out ways to do better."

Feds are also committed to integrity and precision; they don't give you spin. Only 43% of respondents to the survey agreed that "senior leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce," and 55% agreed that "my organization's senior leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity."

The father of classical public relations, Edward Bernays - who propagandized for the U.S. government in favor of entering World War I - once famously wrote that "propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government." But today, ambiguity around the nature and purpose of government messaging has in my view created the current environment of distrust.

A better course of action would be to charge Federal employees with disseminating government information in such a way that fact is clearly distinguished from message.This is the model followed by the UK, and we should adopt it here.


All opinions my own. Child grasping hand photo by Christian Scheja via Flickr(Creative Commons) Worker photo by "ginkgo" via Building photo by "derkommander0916" via U.S. Capitol image by "Gerald_G"

How They Squash You

In recent months I've had to de-friend a number of people on Facebook. I enjoy hearing diverse views but it has degenerated to this:
  • "Well I know where you get your news."
  • "The fact that you could even say that means you aren't worth debating."
  • "You need help."
  • "That comment is beneath you."
  • "You're an ignorant idiot schmuck."
How has civil discourse sunk to such low levels? A great article by Sean Blanda, "The 'Other Side' Is Not Dumb," explains it in terms of psychology, the "false-consensus bias." Essentially we are confounded when other people show signs that they don't think the same way we do.

On social media, being confronted by different viewpoints leads us to assume the worst. If you don't agree with me - well then you must be crazy!
"We and our friends are the sane ones and ...there’s a crazy “Other Side” that must be laughed at — an Other Side that just doesn’t 'get it,' and is clearly not as intelligent as 'us.'"
The problem with allowing the "false consensus bias" to proliferate, says Blanda, is that we lose out on the opportunity to actually learn something from those who vehemently disagree with our views.
"If we want to consider online discourse productive, we need to move past this."

As Blanda rightly points out, it is important that we preserve the civic town hall that is Facebook and other forms of online conversation. That is a social need. And it is important for each of us to practice listening, not just preaching, in these forums.

But there is another problem here that must be pointed out as well. When the virtual world becomes a place of forced consensus, those with dissenting views are essentially shut down from airing their unique and valuable points of view.

This can happen in a lot of ways. It can take the form of direct, rude comments as above. But it can also happen in other ways.
  • Shock: "You're supporting who? Really?"
  • Expressions of concern for you, when you begin sharing a lot of news about social ills that really make people uncomfortable: "Don't you think it's a little too much?" 
Sometimes people are actually supportive: "Thank you for sharing that," they might say. Or you see that they've shared your post with others. That is the good side of an online interchange.

I've been part of conversation that changed my own views about the world. Politically, religiously, culturally, psychologically. Whether it's others who have completely different views, or respectful disagreement where the flaws in one's argument are pointed to and countered. Those are the most fruitful conversations of all.

One thing I know. You will never get squashed sharing a personal anecdote or funny statistic; a photo of your family at a family barbecue; cat videos; peace mantras; or anything with Kim Kardashian and/or Taylor Swift. Those topics are safe.

But is that really all there is, safety?

For your sake, and our sake, the world that depends on your uniqueness, please do not be a sheep.

Whether other people like it or not, we all need to hear what you're thinking.


All opinions my own. Photo credit: Craig Sunter via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Removing the Mask of Power

"The soldiers came for her at night. They took the girl to a barrack and forced her to watch a woman get raped.....The young witness was next. Five soldiers held her down and took turns....Later, her sister cleaned her up, but they didn't speak about what had happened. No one talked about such things. They didn't have to. Or maybe they couldn't." - "Silence Lifted: The Untold Stories of Rape During the Holocaust,", June 24, 2011

Shame loomed large over my family as a child. I don't know if this had to do withhushed-up child sex abuse in the Holocaust, the extent of which we will never knowbecause the boys and girls who were sexually abused, raped, gang-raped, and prostituted--either by the Nazis or their fellow Jews--kept their mouths sealed firmly shut.

After the Holocaust, the victims went on to get married and have kids. If at that point they didn't keep their mouths shut, the researchers did it for them because "why harm survivors who've suffered enough."

When I was growing up we did not talk about the Holocaust. We didn't bring it up at the dinner table, we didn't argue about it on Sabbath, we didn't scream in synagogue to the Lord above.

The adults would hold up a finger to their mouths. "Shhhhhhhh."

The taboo against speaking out, against naming oneself as a victim of trauma, against removing the protective barriers that shield one from the judgments and re-victimizations of this world, remains firmly intact.

But every day it crumbles more.

People simply cannot hold their secrets in forever, they cannot keep up a front so as to impress the rest of the world, and they are seeing others step bravely forward despite the retaliation they face for doing so.

Yesterday a well-known Jewish activist and survivor, Manny Waks, shared the following update to his Facebook page with permission to post it publicly.
"I am a successful person, I have built over 12 start-ups and I have sold 4 of them to large international companies. I have over 100 people that depend on me for their monthly income and I have lunch and dinner with government leaders around the world on a weekly basis. I am living the dream and most of my problems are most people’s dreams but.......I am a 15-16 year-old boy alone in a country far away lying in my bed in the dormitory tied to my bed being raped over and over by a man who took my innocence away. I am a grown man that closes a million-dollar contract with a government and then goes back to his hotel room and cries like a baby. I have been to 164 countries in the world and I have cried in each one of them. I am that person you look up to but at the same time I am......well what am I? How is it that almost 25 years later I still do not know what to say I am......................."
When someone is a victim of abuse, of any kind of abuse, that person needs to talk about what happened in order to heal.

Yet they face constant and tremendous social pressure, don't they?

Because their pain makes the rest of us feel bad. Let's just go on, we say. Let's do our jobs and focus on tomorrow.

But we know that attitude is just a cop-out. And when someone gains the strength to finally take off their mask, it is an unbelievable kindness to serve as a witness.

Victims deserve to be fully compensated. But the reality is they risk re-victimization by opening their mouths. They suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. And on top of all that they must keep it together so they can keep their jobs and raise kids.

I recall vividly having a discussion about this subject with an older person. Who said that people should "put it in the box," and "pretend it never happened."

But what that person did not understand, perhaps could not afford to understand, is that the box is not all that sturdy. At some point those memories come bursting out, and when they do the victim finds themselves in a crisis yet again.

Please be open and accepting and strong. This is a way to help victims heal.


All opinions my own. Photo by Andreas Leversvia Flickr (Creative Commons).

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Two Faces of Donald Trump

It is very common for abusive people to compartmentalize themselves.

Last night there was a story on Quora about "the weirdest classmate you ever had." Someone wrote about going to school with a classmate who was brutal and sadistic because his father sexually abused him. The father was discovered online to be a pedophile. Yet this same man successfully prosecuted the brutal kidnap-rape-and-murder of two little girls, and was considered a hero.

Israel has a lot of movies about the Holocaust and dealing with the difficulties of reconciliation with Germany. There is this movie "Walk on Water" where the Israeli Mossad agent falls in love with a German woman. He is supposed to kill the Nazi war criminal and I won't spoil it for you but the whole thing is his moral dilemma over what to do in the present versus how to handle justice for the past.

In America 2016 we have the difficult problem of a Donald Trump candidacy. On the one hand there are those who say he's the nicest guy ever, the best thing to happen to this country since Swiss cheese. Well maybe not Swiss cheese...okay, maybe steak and french fries with a side of salad. Whatever.

On the other hand are those who've been cheated, sexually assaulted and possibly raped (it's horrible even to have to write this), ad nauseam until you see that the "other side" of Trump is some combination of psychopath, sociopath and dictator.

For my part I can easily picture him totally losing his shit, threatening them with silence and pretending that nothing ever happened.

At the ripe old age of 45 I have learned that no human behavior should shock me - should shock us. I am learning to stop painting people in black and white terms. I am learning that there are many ways to look at a situation, not just one way, and that the "right answer" can depend very much on circumstance.

Last night as I watched the Republican National Convention I decided that the Two Sides of Trump will likely dog him, and us, throughout his entire Presidency if he is elected. I realized that the public would have to hold him accountable at every turn, to criticize the foolish things he does, his narcissism and egotism, his failure to realize how some of the offhand comments appear to the public. We will have to watch at every turn that he protects freedom of the press and does not persecute those who disagree with him.

The point is, at the end of the day any attempt to base your vote on "who the candidate is" is foolish. As somebody wrote very eloquently on Facebook, "95% of people are assholes," or something like that.

You have to look at the people behind the person. You have to look at the brand. What goes into political Brand Trump is clearly a work in progress.


All opinions my own. Photo by Alan Levine via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Monday, July 18, 2016

10 Things To Do When Crisis Occurs [FCN]

This information was good fifteen years ago, and it's still good now. Adapted from: Communicators Guide for Federal, State, Regional, and Local Communicators, Federal Communicators Network, 2000, pp. 23-27. Information is quoted, condensed and slightly rearranged for readability and flow. 


  1. Communicate. Don’t hide behind “no comment.” Even if all you can say is that you don’t know, say so, say why and when you think you will know. Reporters look favorably on people who are trying to be helpful.
  2. Put people first. Communicate your concern about the victims. Help the people most affected by the crisis. In the case of accidents, remember to deal with victims’ families before any other group. If they want you to, intercede on their behalf with the news media.
  3. Be available at all times to respond to your various publics. Take your time in explaining difficult issues to reporters. Know media deadlines and don’t rely only on news conferences. Monitor media accounts and quickly correct errors by contacting the reporter or correspondents. Follow up with the news media to keep them updated about what preventive actions were taken after the crisis ended.
  4. Prepare key points you want to make ahead of time. Make them short and to the point. Try to repeat them several times during the news conference or interview.
  5. Provide brief, precise answers to questions. Don’t ramble. Use plain language. Short answers also help alleviate nervousness.
  6. Be sensitive to legal restrictions regarding information, such as the Privacy Act and Freedom of Information Act. Know what kind of information is public and what must be withheld.
  7. Stay with the crisis throughout its duration.


  1. Never lie or speculate. Provide only factual, confirmed information.
  2. Don’t be defensive. Be prepared for aggressive questioning. You might have to answer the same question several times.
  3. Don’t attempt legal battles in the media. Express assurances that matters of litigation or potential litigation will be investigated thoroughly.
This information is adapted from the FCN Communicators' Guide as a public service. This best practice guide was produced by independent volunteers. No representation of any individual, agency or other organization is expressed or implied. Photo via Wikipedia.

Everything's Fine Until You're A Victim

You tell me it gets better, it gets better in time
You say I’ll pull myself together, pull it together, you’ll be fine
Tell me, what the hell do you know? What do you know?
Tell me how the hell could you know? How could you know?
Till it happens to you, you don’t know how it feels, how it feels
Till it happens to you, you won’t know, it won’t be real
No, it won’t be real, won’t know how it feels
You tell me hold your head up, hold your head up and be strong
’Cause when you fall you gotta get up, you gotta get up and move on
Tell me how the hell could you talk, how could you talk?
’Cause until you walk where I walk, this is no joke
Till it happens to you, you don’t know how it feels, how it feels
— Lady Gaga, “Till It Happens To You” (see music video)
Yesterday on Facebook someone asked rhetorically why anyone would cover for a child sex abuser instead of outing them.
I thought about this subject. And realized that while most people will not out-and-out support such a despicable type of person, they’re not exactly marching in the streets either.
I believe that such aversion goes back to fear. Sex abuse is a threat on the most primal level. Any type of association with it, even to combat it, feels like getting a disease.
Its victims seem contaminated, too.
That people are terrified of becoming victims themselves would explain these types of blame-statements, which of course re-victimize the abused.
  • “Everybody knows that he’s crazy.”
  • “What was she doing out so late at night, all by herself?”
  • “Why was she drinking?
  • “It was his choice to get into the car.”
  • “She was the one who wore a short skirt.”
“When are you going to bring that up?” they ask, before a girl goes out on a shidduch date. “Maybe not in the beginning.”
Maybe never?
“Pretend that you had diarrhea,” said one well-known rabbinic authority on marriage. (He has since apologized.) Meaning, not necessary to discuss it.
Of course, sexual abusers don’t want anyone to talk about what they do.
They have a need to victimize. So they insinuate themselves in careers, and relationships, that give them easy access to prey. Meaning, kids.
Abusers are the “nice guys” that young people turn to when “my parents won’t even talk to me,” when “nobody else can understand.”
They are also “the smartest people” or “the most talented” in the room — making others feel ignorant, lesser by comparison.
They take it slowly. It starts with coaching, and counseling…there is the invitation for Shabbos lunch…the discussion of sexual behaviors…the “wrestling match”…the exploitative words, seductive words, words and words and more words, until the actual moment of an attack.
And then they blame the victim for being seductive.
Within even the most fundamentalist Orthodox community, there is a warm, welcoming, loving and outstretched arm extended to any Jew who embraces true practice.
But if that Jew comes forward and accuses someone who is trusted — even revered — it is that Jew whose credibility comes under suspicion.
If someone from within the community takes up for the cause of the victims, that person had better be ready for some serious scrutiny as well.
The reader who is well-informed reads this and shakes their head.
“No, no, no. Everything you’re saying is old. It just is not that way anymore, not at all.”
They say, “Look at the success of Jewish Community Watch.” Which is a great organization, which has succeeded against incredible odds, and so on.
But to say that “the problem is solved” is to operate in denial.
Consider these ten questions:
  1. Is there a safe house in every observant community, no questions asked, where a victim of abuse can get refuge for a night or a week?
  2. Does the observant community routinely express encouragement to victims of sexual abuse to talk about what happened to them? Routinely insist that all reports of child sex abuse be reported to the police and not a rabbi first?
  3. Does the observant community routinely encourage people to talk about their experiences of abuse? Welcome, embrace, support and invite abuse victims and their families to shul honors and Shabbos meals?
  4. Does the observant community routinely chastise anyone who jokes about abuse or who insinuates that a survivor is not suitable for marriage?
  5. Does the observant community provide learning sessions that offer context around Talmudic quotes that seem to imply women are second-class citizens or a source of sin? How about religious parenting and education models that explicitly teach children respect for good authority only? (And how to recognize and get help when someone is trying to hurt them.)
  6. Does the observant community routinely permit its members to use secularly trained, licensed psychologists and social workers who aren’t beholden to the community?
  7. Does every yeshiva have a training program for teachers and students to warn them about the signs of abuse, and abusers? Does every observant synagogue hold sensitivity sessions for the community, considering the high rates of abuse within the population and the fact that Jews don’t get abused in smaller proportions? Does the synagogue offer group therapy sessions for abuse victims, to give them a support network within the larger embrace of the religious community?
  8. Does the observant community get involved in the legal system by helping victims file court papers, lobbying to extend the statute of limitations on child sex crimes, and supporting law enforcement in providing the same sentence to religious offenders as everybody else?
  9. Does every observant synagogue ban convicted child sex abusers from synagogue? Do they have committees that check on known victims to make sure they are all right during regular intervals?
  10. Does the observant community maintain a database of convicted sex offenders — people who served as rabbis, teachers, social workers, psychologists, spiritual counselors, or doctors within the religious community — and encourage all their members to bookmark and use it?
Until all these things happen, and happen regularly, I do not believe that the Orthodox Jewish community is doing all that it can to fight child sex abuse.
Maybe people are hoping that by staying out of the fray, they never will have to deal with it. I feel their fear — G-d forbid a person should be harmed by a single one of these momzers.
Unfortunately, statistics are not on their side. Sex crimes are notoriouslyunderreported. So if you look around the room, you will likely find that someone you know and love has been a victim, even if they aren’t telling you.
For the sake of the entire community, I ask the sleeping giant to wake up.
If you’ve been quiet about child sexual abuse in the observant community until now, please start vocally supporting its victims.
All opinions my own. Photo by Paula Silva via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Why Halacha Still Matters

Photo by Sharyn Morrow via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I still remember my Zayde’s (z”l) voice, how he never raised it even to the level that most of us would consider normal talking. Yet he was not a soft-spoken man either, because his words were words of steel.
Zayde understood that I was not like other children. For one thing nobody could tell me what to do. This did not stop my father from trying, and as he had a natural tendency toward control it was inevitable that my neck would stiffen in response even if he said so much as “please come to the Shabbos table.”
Family relationships are complicated. It bothered me to see how my father kept trying to win Zayde’s approval. I think if it were me I would have been very angry. But Bubbie (z”l) had been in Auschwitz and Zayde escaped from a Romanian labor camp. So my father kept his head down and diligently observed Kibud Av VaEm anyway. To a level that way surpasses anything I would consider obligatory.
Regardless of the subtle discord I loved my Zayde anyway. His love made up for the fact that my father never seemed to think much of me. Looking back it seems inevitable — dad never able to express his true feelings to his dad, holding himself to a very high level of respect, and in turn expecting the same servitude from me. Which I experienced as unacceptably controlling.
Yes, I was just a kid. But I was always overly mature for my age. Probably a combination of nature and nurture; my mother treated me as an equal, as an adult. Frankly it felt confusing to live that way. Unhesitatingly, Zayde helped balance me. Never preached, but he did not shy away from teaching me — sometimes by quoting the halacha and always by being encouraging. 
“You are a good girl,” he would say. “You are very nice.”
I remember he used to drive me crazy asking which set of grandparents I preferred more. “Here or Monticello?” and by that he meant my Grandma and Grandpa (z”l), who lived in the Catskills.
Was that him being petty? I don’t know. It sure felt painful.
Because the truth of the matter was, despite how well he treated me, I enjoyed going to Monticello more. I am ashamed to admit it: For many years, my patrilineal relatives’ Chasidish clothes and mannerisms repulsed me. As I looked at them the Holocaust came alive.
They were so kind to me. Their own families had been gunned down. I was one of the few that were left.
I could not bear to think of it, I cannot think of it now, the tears start flowing again and I feel fresh blood coming out of a wound that never seems to close over.
Monticello was a relief because I could pretend that such things could never happen again. Although my mother’s parents did not get me in the same way as my Zayde did; they were very Litvish, straightforward, not emotional and not mystically inclined whatsoever. (Grandpa, famously, once threw me out of the house for talking about G-d nonstop.)
For her part, my grandmother loved me in a way that is hard to describe. The truth is she really loved all of the children and grandchildren equally, there was no playing favorites on her side. But that did not stop me from feeling a special connection.
When we made Shabbos over there, the basics were not something we ever had to talk about. I don’t recall a single argument over tznius, a single debate over whether we could use the TV, a single piece of food that was not unquestionably kosher.
Did we debate the halacha? Sure. Oh my G-d, the adults argued endlessly, all the time. Why are Chassidim always late? What is with this feminist movement and its crazy ideas?
I remember that they always ganged up on my dad, the token Chassid. And my grandmother used to say, “Oh Alex!”
My grandmother always felt like he was hassling me. She used to say — when I would leave the dining room table and sit on the couch adjacent to it before we did the benching, and my father would tell me that I have to stay and bench first — “Please stop making such an issue!”
My father and I are at peace now. If we could have my Zayde and my Bubbie back, my Grandma and my Grandpa, I believe we would rewind the clock and erase all the stupid fighting.
I remember one time I was talking with Aunt Sari about why I had become nonreligious. This was about three years ago.
“Blame Hitler,” she said.
In the conversation I understood her words only vaguely. I sort of got what she meant, that the Holocaust had messed us all up.
“You grew up in a fucked up family,” she said.
And continued, “You didn’t see a single consistent model of halacha.”
I, the great orator, tried to get around her but failed utterly. I explained that halacha just didn’t “work” in my life.
“You just do it,” she said. “What’s the big deal?”
The world we live in is secular; “my values” and “your values” are considered relative in nature.
“We’ll leave the light on for you,” said my aunt. Because she knows that I am religious at heart.
Of course, I am not religious enough. Worse, because I espouse one thing and do another, I am a hypocrite.
But we are where we are. Getting on the scale gives us a reference point from which to begin.
In the end, some will always argue for “kilograms.” Others will only trust “pounds.”
But all of us know that body weight exists. An if we stuff our faces to the max, we will probably die from overeating.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Communicating To The Truth Instinct

On November 17, 2015 the Department of Defense issued an update to its Joint Publication 3-61, Public Affairs, the second update since its original issuance in 2005.

(Unlike the civil service, which operates without a shared set of standards for public affairs, the military has developed clear and concise guidance about how this vital function is supposed to work.)

In reading the publication, my first reaction was appreciation. This is a very sophisticated document. For example, early on we are reminded to tell only the truth:
"PA [public affairs] personnel will release only accurate, fact-based information....Denying unfavorable information or failing to acknowledge it can lead to media speculation, the perception of cover-up, and degradation of public trust....Once an individual or unit loses the public perception of integrity, it is nearly impossible to recover."
Of course, my second reaction was dismay. If the thinking is so good, how can the reality be so disappointing so often?

I believe the answer lies, as usual, in the disconnect between ideals as they are expressed on paper, and reality as it is lived in the organization.

The former can be reduced to logic, at least in theory.

The latter is far more messy.

We still don't understand exactly how organizations work, but we do know that they represent a dynamic interplay between such things as self-expression, cultural norms, and (yes) the raw display of power.

The fact of the matter is, even the doctrine that appears in a guidebook is little more than a social construction. In our country, official communication is supposed to represent accountability. Elsewhere, the situation may be just the opposite, as censorship and manipulation are explicitly endorsed.

What we write and what we do. All of it is socially determined, and the actions we undertake ultimately create a feedback loop that influence the next iteration of the guidance.

I am reminded of a law professor's rejoinder to a student who critiqued his wearing of a "Black Lives Matter" T-shirt to class as inappropriate.
"Like the humans who make it, Law (sic) is biased, noble, aspirational, short-sighted, flawed, messy, unclear, brilliant, and constantly changing. If you think that Law is merely a set of rules to be taught and learned, you are missing the beauty of Law and the point of law school."
Here is one thing I do know for sure. It is this that keeps me grounded, both as a person and as a communicator: The truth-seeking instinct is basic to human existence.

For ideas about communication come and go. Culturally they differ, geographically they differ, historically they differ and they even differ based on the current mad dash for technique. For more than fifty years, branding has had its "moment"; the past decade or so has witnessed the exponential rise of social media. Who knows what the trend of tomorrow will be, who will use it, and how that "idea virus" will spread?

But we still read the classics. We cannot put them down. For there is something in human nature that seeks incontrovertible truth. It is a basic to our biology - truth means knowing threat from opportunity. On a spiritual level, it is that moment when we connect our frail selves to the Divine.

And the opposite holds as well. When we try to deceive our audiences, even if it's just a little bit, they know it. And in today's lightning-quick Information Age, they jump away online to a better source of information.

So you really don't need a guidebook to tell you what to do.

Just picture in your mind a homing pigeon.

Picture it relentlessly searching for its home.

Picture your audience doing the same thing with the information you give them.

Know that they have a reliable radar, to filter out truth from falsehood.


All opinions my own. Photo of homing pigeon by Andreas Tepte via Wikipedia (Creative Commons).

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Please Do Not Tell Me That You Are Colorblind

"Here in North Carolina’s third-largest city, officers pulled over African-American drivers for traffic violations at a rate far out of proportion with their share of the local driving population. They used their discretion to search black drivers or their cars more than twice as often as white motorists — even though they found drugs and weapons significantly more often when the driver was white.   Officers were more likely to stop black drivers for no discernible reason. And they were more likely to use force if the driver was black, even when they did not encounter physical resistance."

 - " The Disproportionate Risks of Driving While Black," The New York Times, 10/25/2015

Racial discrimination is everywhere. So please don't tell me that you, personally are "colorblind" or that a movement such as "Black Lives Matter" is "racist."

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics' most recent survey on "Public-Police contact" (2011), there is a disparity in perceptions by drivers about whether police are pulling them over for legitimate reasons or not. Only 68% of Black drivers felt this way, versus 74% of Hispanic drivers and 84% of White drivers. And Black drivers were three times as likely as White people to be searched: 6% versus 2%. (The search rate for Hispanic drivers was highest, at 7%.)

Numbers don't tell stories.

I once had the painful experience of listening to a colleague tell me about the "traffic-stop problem," which can reduce even the most dignified, accomplished human being to the equivalent of a cornered animal.

My colleague said that she routinely coached her son about how to dress. She was afraid that if he looked too casual (or wore any type of hoodie, obviously) he would get pulled over by the police and maybe shot.

She was afraid when he left home because she did not know if he would return.

We pride ourselves on overcoming racial discrimination in the workplace but the evidence shows we haven't come all that far. Except when it comes to hiring, we tend to "pull over" White people as opposed to those who seem demonstrably Black.

Remember "Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal?" (2003) This National Bureau of Economic Research tested whether "White-sounding" candidates would get more responses than "Black-sounding" ones when applying for jobs.

Indeed, the "White-sounding" candidates were 50% more likely to get called.

While it's true that this survey is dated, one of the study's primary researchers, Sendhil Mullainathan, told Politifact in 2015 that "large gaps" remain. Northwestern University professor David Figlio, also quoted in the article, said much the same thing.

So...racial discrimination: What can YOU do about it?

Two things.

First, please do not pretend that race, ethnicity, gender, and other categories of identity simply do not exist. That is not a plan. That is denial.

Second, please do not think you will ever understand the experience of another human being as they walk this planet.

Self-consciousness, real consciousness is what's needed.

We can start by having a conversation with ourselves.


Cover photo by Leah Lockheart via Flickr (Creative Commons). Photo of via Wikipedia.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Surviving Your Midlife Crisis

In the first stage, you do what you have to do. Hands over your ears, you march. Elementary school, high school, college, job and maybe grad school. Maybe the military, maybe marriage, maybe kids.
There go your boots on the pavement. Do you hear the rain? That's about all you hear, in the protection of your uniform, as you methodically put one foot in front of the other, over and over again.
In the first phase of your life, success means that you've made a commitment to avoid "distractions." You have to work, work work at whatever you are doing, and do the best you can not to look up.
Inside the bubble you train your thinking mind to stop itself from thinking so very much. Like a pair of noise-canceling headphones, busy-ness drowns out the sound.
Is it limiting? Sure. But it's also soothing: You don't have to deal with anything -or anyone.
But what you may not realize, at that stage, is that your first phase of life is where you most resemble a caterpillar. Yes, you hatched out of your egg - but it's only the first birth out of two.
In the second hatching of life the caterpillar actually consumes itself. It eats itself up into a little ball - yes, it literally digests its own body.
And then it emerges a beautiful butterfly. A delicate, beautiful, ethereal being totally different from the fuzzy worm it used to be.
A creation that flies high above the Earth. 
The life of a butterfly has a profound lesson in human terms.
You start out by living in a routine. It's the office, it's Starbucks, it's yoga class and Saturday Night Live and hanging out with friends or family on Sundays. It's kids, and playgroups, and putting them on the bus for the first time.
It is familiar, that's for sure. You get a coffee with one shot of espresso in it. You know exactly which seat is near the "good plugs," so that you don't go a minute un-charged. You know your food, your clothes, your neighborhood and it seems like that's the way it will always be.
But one day something starts gnawing at your stomach. You don't know quite what the feeling is, because it isn't something you have experienced before.
It's like you want to scratch an itch, but on the inside. 
Soon, like the caterpillar, you find that you are very much eating yourself alive. You're asking the difficult questions, because they've found you. And boy do they give you heartburn.
Are you happy with the way you've lived your life?
What happened to your relationships while you were getting things done?
Homeless people, you saw them - did you feel anything at all?
Where did your faith go? Or what do you believe in? Who are you?
So many questions. You are eating yourself alive. 
Not because something is wrong. But because it's almost time for you to fly.
None of us really understand what another person goes through. But I do feel fairly confident, at midlife, observing this: The second phase of life, what we know as a "mid-life crisis," is fairly inescapable. 
I know because I've been there. I'm still there. (I'll let you know how it goes.)
Seriously, let's be honest, we all know this - personal growth isn't pretty. And we can't really do it in private. More likely we're in the glare of a lot of fluorescent lights.
So if you're going through your second hatching right now, or you know anybody who is, don't think of it as an unpleasant bad thing.
Instead, please give yourself a hearty round of applause.
For if you've made it this far, the next part of your journey will surely be amazing.
All opinions my own. Cover photo by CasparGirl via FlickrMarchingcaterpillar and butterfly photos via Wikipedia. Photo of family by Randen Peterson via Flickr. Photo of homeless man by Pedro Ribeiro Simões via Flickr. Tangled cord photo by Prawnchop via Flickr. Jumping out of plane photo by Royal Navy Media Archive via Flickr. (All Flickr photos are Creative Commons.)

Rabbinic Sexism Is Not Religious

Here is a screenshot photo from a video posted to Facebook July 7, 2016 by Israeli nonprofit group Women of the Wall. It shows religious men ripping up the prayerbook, to applause and cheering, of a group of women who have gathered to pray at the Western Wall, the only remnant of the holy Jewish Temple and the holiest Jewish site on earth.

The group doing the praying is controversial among Orthodox Jews. It fights for nontraditional (read: non-Orthodox, pluralistic) freedom of worship for women at the wall who are engaged in doing things that men traditionally do. This includes reading from the Torah, and wearing tallis and tefillin.

The sight of this video literally nauseated me. This among numerous other visible manifestations of condescension, sexism and outright woman-hatred that are unthinkingly considered part and parcel of Orthodox Judaism.

“Deborah, a prophetess…judged Israel.” — Judges 4:4
With regard to this verse, R. Berekhiah had four sayings: Woe unto the living who need help from the dead; woe unto the strong who need help from the weak; woe unto the seeing who need help from the blind; woe unto the generation that has to be led by a woman.” — Midrash Tehillim 22:20, cited in Bialik & Ravnitsky, The Book of Legends/Sefer Ha-Aggadah

I didn’t set out to be the big feminist criticizer of Judaism but that’s looking like the path I’m on right now. And it makes some people uncomfortable.

More than once I’ve been asked, nicely and not, to please “keep it down.” I am told that I speak “against the Rabbis.”

There are worries — well by now they’re probably more like solid perceptions — that my type of talk will get our family “in trouble” with the “invisible hand.”

They don’t use those words. But we all know that they exist: “the system,” the hidden decision-makers, the ones who quietly decide, by whispers and word of mouth, who is kosher (for inclusion in the community of believers) and who has crossed the line into apikorsus, heresy.

The requests carry with them the quiet weight of a threat. 

I know of more than one woman who began covering her hair and pretending to be ultra-Orthodox, solely “to help the girls get married.”

I know of men who feel they have witnessed rabbinic sexual abuse but will never speak out for the same reason. “The family (meaning its marriage prospects) would be finished.”

You may think such pressure would not affect me; many think that because my public name and my pen name is Dannielle that I am only part of the secular world. But like other Orthodox Jews, I am subject to what other people think, of course. It's a small community.

And I live a dual life, and I know how to “pass.”

Every day I wake up and say Modeh Ani and wash Negel Vaser. I put on a crocheted French beret, a way of covering my hair in the Orthodox tradition. That person is “Dossy, wife and mother.”

I pick out my clothes and depending on what I wear for the day. Normally that is a work-appropriate pair of pants, a blazer and a shirt with professional jewelry. That person is known in the secular world as “Dannielle, the professional communicator.” And at work, we keep our religious preferences to ourselves.

A few weeks ago I would not have put myself into any conversation about Orthodox Judaism. For I would have called myself “Conservadox,” meaning I believe in the principles of Conservative Judaism and the principles of Orthodox Judaism and try to knit them together.

But the more closely I examine myself, the more I realize that the term “Conservative” doesn’t describe me. Not because I’m perfectly observant, but because I believe in Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of Faith which are considered the fundamental basis of Orthodox Judaism. These are quoted below as described by
1. Belief in the existence of the Creator, who is perfect in every manner of existence and is the Primary Cause of all that exists.
2. The belief in G‑d’s absolute and unparalleled unity.
3. The belief in G‑d’s non-corporeality, nor that He will be affected by any physical occurrences, such as movement, or rest, or dwelling.
4. The belief in G‑d’s eternity.
5. The imperative to worship G‑d exclusively and no foreign false gods.
6. The belief that G‑d communicates with man through prophecy.
7. The belief in the primacy of the prophecy of Moses our teacher.
8. The belief in the divine origin of the Torah.
9. The belief in the immutability of the Torah.
10. The belief in G‑d’s omniscience and providence.
11. The belief in divine reward and retribution.
12. The belief in the arrival of the Messiah and the messianic era.
13. The belief in the resurrection of the dead.
If you notice, nowhere in the Thirteen Principles does it say that you have to believe blindly in every utterance that emanates from the mouth of a rabbi. And it is some of those utterances that I think have taken us off-track.

There is an old joke once that goes something like this.
Wife to husband: “Why do we have to do this again?”
Husband to wife: “The rabbis tell us.”
Wife to husband: “Who is Rabbi Tellus?”
There is a lot more to be said on this subject. But the opening salvo here is as follows:
  • I have the same right as any other person of faith to speak my mind, regardless of how I look or whether I fit into a “mold.” In fact, I am not required to fit into any “mold” whatsoever.
  • Idol worship can include worship of human beings. Sadly there are those who believe we must worship the rabbis, no matter what they say or do. But just the opposite is true: They are instruments of Torah and must be held strictly to its standards.
  • No matter what the rabbis in the Talmud thought of women, their comments are just that — comments. And so my status as a female does not render me less qualified to speak.
  • Our conscience is a holy thing. It is morally wrong to quiet ourselves when we see injustice happening.
I do not believe that “all rabbis are bad.” Just the opposite; these are by and large selfless public servants who take a lot of flak just to do the right thing.

I do think that contemporary rightwing rabbinic culture (which represents itself as the only authentic version of our religion) is unhealthy for Judaism, and it is unhealthy for women. It has nothing whatsoever to do with religious observance and everything to do with a host of other factors that will only drive people away.

Finally I believe that feminism is not an ideological challenger to Torah-true Orthodoxy. Rather, it serves a corrective purpose to the misogyny that runs through much too much of its traditional literature and current practice.

A very big topic. More on this to follow.


All opinions my own.