Monday, July 25, 2022
Tuesday, July 19, 2022
1. Antipater begins by taxing the newly repatriated (by force) rich Jerusalemites to this side of penury to continue to keep Pompey in lavish gifts and drafted the poorer Judeans into the service of the Judean army to fight for Rome to conquer Nabateah, facing the Aretas, the Nabatean king with whom Antipater once conspired. Meanwhile, Aristobulus Herbie's son, Alexander Bernie, escapes from Roman slavery and arrives back in Judea, where he amasses a force of ten thousand soldiers and a cavalry of fifteen-hundred.
2. Pompey, through his newly appointed Syrian governor, Aulus Gabinius, welches on his promised support to Antipater, and lets it be known that whomever gives him the most lavish gifts will be the governor of Judea. As Governor of Judea, Antipater has so taxed the wealth of the country that he has few gifts left to give, whereas Alexander Bernie has support of an unknown source (which is of course Egypt) that arrives with enormous numbers of gifts. Antipater, however, has one trick left. He has made a one-of-a-kind coin of Alexander Bernie and shows it to Gabinius, which shows that he means to promote himself not only as a governor but as a King of an independent Rome. Gabinius, expected at the ruling to rule in favor of Alexander Bernie, takes him prisoner with the expectation that he will be crucified shortly.
3. Alexander Bernie's mother falls on the governor's knees, begging him to spare her son's life. He does so, but then springs a trick on Antipater, and breaks up Judea into five provinces: Jerusalem, Gazara, Emmaus, Jericho, and Sephoris, meanwhile the Sanhedrin would be supervised by a Roman viceroy, who can veto any ruling of the Sanhedrin. Alexander Bernie is taken up from prison and told he is to be the new Governor of Jerusalem, while Antipater is to go back and run his ancestral and much less powerful home province of Gazara.
4. Interruption of the main tale for an academic document which tells of two Sanhedrin elders: Shemaya of the Pharisees, and Abtayon of Sadducees, form an alliance to shift the purpose of the Sanhedrin to education. Together, they write an educative book, Sepher Perush oo'Tzeduk, now lost, which is purported to tell the history of the Sanhedrin, its purpose through its historical periods, how future Jewish deliberative bodies should work, where it's cited through history, and its probable effect on later Rabbis and scholarship.
5. Rome has taxed everyone into poverty, their soldiers requisitioning the entire country for their own uses: property confiscated, wives and daughters raped, those who resist killed in heinous ways. But Aristobulus Herbie has escaped from the Roman galleys along with his son, Antigonus Lester, has absconded to Alexandria, where Cleopatra provides him with a garrison of 8000 soldiers. He re-reveals himself in Jerusalem at the court of Alexander Bernie to publicly denounce the mess his son has made of Judea. He disappears immediately with a promise of guerrilla warfare that will pick apart the Roman soldiers one by one.
6. Aristobulus Herbie is impatient with the progress of his Egyptian soldiers, and marches on Jerusalem with a declaration of open warfare on Rome. His soldiers are immediately massacred. Herbie regroups in Machereus (now on the Jordan side of the West Bank), where he is similarly defeated, recaptured, and sent back into slavery.
7. Antigonus Lester has gone to Syria to raise an army of natives against the Roman imperium. Lester raises an army of 30,000, and the sole remaining Roman legion in Syria (all others concentrated in Judea) is overwhelmed by the superior numbers. Aulus Gabinius, however, bribes a few thousand of Lester's forces to switch sides, and along with the two Roman legions now returned from Judea, easily trounces Lester's native Syrian forces, and sends Lester back into slavery.
8. The new Roman consul, Crassus, and third member of the Triumverate with Caesar and Pompey, comes to Jerusalem. He is the richest man in Rome, and rumors circulate that he means entirely to plunder the entire treasury of the Judean temple. A high priest gives him a bar of gold blessed by the Holy One, Blessed Be He, and tells him that if Crassus accepts this bar of gold rather than the entire treasury, he will inherit the entire Roman world as dictator. Crassus politely accepts the bar of gold, tells him he has no knowledge of any intentions to plunder Judeans of their treasures. Shortly thereafter his men plunder the entire temple treasury except for the Menorah in the Holy of Holies, which has been hidden underground.
9. Crassus dies in war against the Parthians, and 90,000 Roman soldiers are dead along with him. Alexander Bernie, eager to avenge his father and brother, raises an army of 30,000 to rid the Judean province of Rome. Antipater, however, instructs the Idumean soldiers to turn on Bernie at a key moment. The Judeans are beaten, Alexander Bernie executed, and all 30,000 soldiers are sold into slavery.
10. Julius Caesar, eager to show his beneficence, pardons Aristobulus Herbie, and while he does not yet have the power to make him Judean king again, he sends him back to Judea with two Roman legions, with which he conquers Jerusalem. Antipater however, flattering Herbie, contrives to take his old position as royal advisor, and poisons Herbie. Antipater is reinstated as King of Judea, and writing of his deed to Pompey, suggests a rekindled alliance to fight against the cunning of Caesar. He further suggests that Antigonus Lester be immediately found and beheaded. Pompey writes back, agreeing to everything and as a gift and guarantee of loyalty, sends Lester's head along with the letter. Antipater organizes a triumph for himself through the streets of Jerusalem where Lester's head is paraded on a spike, along with the preserved body of Aristobulus Herbie on a donkey.
Monday, July 18, 2022
Old New Land: Outline of Tale about the Hasmonean Dynasty that Begins the Volume about the Classical Era
Sunday, July 17, 2022
Saturday, July 16, 2022
This will be one of the longest portions of our letter. This part of the letter is about faith, and more importantly, good faith. With the difference of faith to good faith comes the inevitable byproduct, bad faith. You can cut bad faith in this world with a knife and the intersecting link between all the bad faith claims of the world would grow back in an instant. But whether good faith or bad faith, faith is all that sustains people from one day to the next. It's what gets us out of bed in the morning, what puts us to sleep at night, what puts meals on the table, and what gets us through all those moments with the people we love that we wish we didn't love them - and over the course of a lifetime those moments will be many.
This part of the letter is also, therefore, about reality, and your hopefully dear old uncle's highly tenuous connection with it. By the time you're three or four, you will figure out what everyone who meets me does in no large amount of time, which is that your uncle is what doctors refer to in its Latinate medical term as 'fucking crazy.'
Reality is inevitably colored by perception, and all perceptions are simultaneously right and wrong. Your perceptions will always be right to you, and another person's perceptions inevitably right to them - and those perceptions inevitably differ. One of the most important components of a good life, perhaps the single most, is to realize that other people are struggling just as you are to come to their perceptions in good faith. The people least deserving of respect are the people who have relinquished that struggle, and simply operate on the assumption that those who disagree can only disagree in bad faith - and can only come to their own conclusions as a means to exploit others. In some ways, they're even more dangerous than selfish manipulators. Evil charlatans don't care if they're good or evil, and they can convince other people to commit murder and sleep every night like babies; but the still easier way to kill with a clear conscience is to believe that the people you kill are more evil than you. Criminals kill hundreds of thousands every year, but countries at war can kill hundreds of thousands in a single day.
For most people, resisting bad faith is the struggle of a lifetime. There are so many periods of life when good faith is tested every day. People will fail you, causes will fail you, goals will fail you - even those you hold most dear.
The world is a merciless place, only ever made merciful by our own acts of mercy. All the acts of good faith: forgiveness, mercy, charity, patience, humility, stoicism, courage, kindness and friendliness, are choices we make every day, and sometimes those choices are punished with no mercy at all. There are sadly moments in life when it is extremely prudent to act in bad faith, but if you act in bad faith as a habit, you're going down an evil path.
The good faith of others can be used for terribly selfish purposes, and make no mistake, to manipulate other people's perceptions in bad faith is an evil act - occasionally a necessary evil, but evil nevertheless. It is the original sin of the world, the origin of everything from domestic abuse to premeditated murder to mass theft to every planned atrocity on earth. Every one of those acts started with a rationalization that justifies manipulating someone else; sometimes in the name of good, sometimes because people convince themselves that good does not exist. Not every manipulation is evil, but every manipulation has the potential for evil within it.
Manipulation is only to be committed in real crisis; but even if there are moments when the dark act of manipulation is necessary, manipulation is so easy, and can make you feel so powerful, that you will be tempted to use it again as much as addicts are tempted back to their drugs - but an addict has the excuse of being a slave to his addiction, an exploiter makes slaves of others. Using other people's belief in you for selfish reasons is an evil path, and sometimes you will fall down it, but the moments when you do are the most important moments of your life. The life story of every single person on earth is written not in the days that follow when they've acted best, but in the days that follow when they act worst.
The most complicated part of good faith is that there is no act done in complete good nor complete bad, there is only a moral grey area of a hundred shades. Even the saintliest person has to realize that they may be celebrated in public for their selflessness, and even the worst sinner can rightly point to the ancillary ways others benefit from their selfishness. There is no such thing as a person who is all good or all bad, though many are more one than the other. The key to being the best possible person you can be is neither to act right nor to avoid acting wrong, the key to is to minimize the wrong and maximize the right; to stay on the lookout for all those moral openings in the world where people can be convinced to do better, including ourselves. The point of the world is not us, the point of the world is the world and we are here on earth to make it a better place to live. In the same way a good quarterback sees openings through the defensive line and throws the ball to open receivers, we have to find those openings in the world through which we can improve circumstances for people we love, and once we see them, we have to act right away.
No one has to do the right thing, no one has to make their wrongs right. Whatever in life becomes the worst thing you've done, you just might get away with it. There may or may not be an immortal soul, rewarded and punished in the next world, but even if there isn't, your selfish decisions can visit terrible future suffering; upon you, certainly, but just as likely, on people whom you love much more than you love yourself. Some sins, like those committed in war, are so grave that there is no way to make right what will forever be wrong, and it might be self-aggrandizing even to try: if, as an older man, a young Nazi camp guard revealed himself and tried to atone for the thousands he killed, how many dead people would his apology bring back to life? How many survivors trying to live their lives better might become re-scarred merely by hearing of him again? How many of his own loved ones, innocent of his crimes, might he expose to accountability for what they had no part in? How many people would simply believe that such a man, so evil in the past, was not exploiting his newfound virtue for some kind of selfish gain? The number of Nazi war criminals living among regular Germans was unspeakably high - and unless they provably killed tens of thousands, the entire world just decided it was better to let them go about their lives as though each of them was yet another reluctant citizen of Hitler's Germany.
Obviously, if the wrongs are simple enough, we all should do our best to right them. When there's a spat or when you're late to a meeting, always apologize without condition, especially when it's not your fault. Most people will realize that you've absolved them of their part in embarrassing you, and if they don't accept the apology, you'll know you're dealing with a less than stellar person.
But when you hurt people on a deeper level than the daily wear and tear of living a life, and you certainly will, the hurts will be too deep for any 'I'm sorry.' The 'apology' is the mantra of my generation - we apologize for literally everything, apologizing is what civilized people do and it spares us all from any number of violent confrontations. We learned this behavior from the English, from whom we learned everything about 'civilisation', and in the 1800s the English apologized themselves into conquering the whole world.
But by 2021, we see an apology as such a 'get out of jail free card' (is the game Monopoly still played in your time?), that the internet has even instituted a pro-forma ritual in which a celebrity apologizes for misbehavior made public. And since apologies are now so insincere, thousands of normal people take to the internet and make a big show of not forgiving the apology; then in another few years the celebrity is simply reintroduced into cultural discourse because... well, the misbehavior of other celebrities has been revealed, the internet's atrophied everyone's attention span, and ultimately, the misbehaviors of most public figures are fairly normal private tragedies. They're deeply hurtful to the people involved, but they should not matter in the personal lives of anyone but the people directly involved and their families; and they wouldn't if the American world were not conditioned to view celebrities as replacements for god.
The fact that celebrities even exist is the ultimate form of bad faith in the world. The existence of a celebrity, an aristocrat, even 'a genius', comes out of the idea that certain people are better than the rest of us: they're smarter, more talented, better looking. Even if that's true, and sometimes it is, they are not actually 'better', and there is not sense in which they truly matter more than you. The most gifted among them can certainly alter the course of the earth, but their gifts can just as easily be used for evil as well as good. The only reason we'd ever believe these people matter more than us is because we so often believe we are inadequate in ourselves. So much of bad faith comes from a place of self-hatred.
So the problem is not that celebrities should behave better, they never will. The problem is that there should be no such thing on earth as a celebrity. Whether you're an artist, an athlete, a politician, or a businessman, it's just a job like any other job. If you do a job extremely well, you should get an award with a dinner in your honor to which all your family and friends show up. Perhaps we can make a whole weekend out of the honorary dinner like a wedding, but a weekend where all your friends show to pay tribute to you is the most adulation the average human ego can ever handle. Any more than that would affect your judgement and make you act more selfishly.
However much of a jerk a person is in their temperament, make them famous, and the jerky part of their temperament becomes ten times larger. If every person in world were suddenly deposited in positions of exceptional power for a decade, the majority would abuse their power within the first year. Most celebrity 'scandals' are perpetrated by normal people whose ethical compass was spoiled by being admired so conspicuously.
I could be wrong, but since the internet seems to create more celebrities rather than less, I would imagine one of only three futures:
1. The future will contain exponentially more scandals.
2. Authority will be so centralized that the scandalous behavior of powerful people will soon be more effectively covered up than ever before, while the powerless will be framed as the truly abusive ones.
3. We'll become numb to it and stop caring about others' behavior except for the people in our daily lives, and the best among us will simply try to live modestly.
Always be on a vigilant lookout for those who mean to abuse your good faith, but the idea that the world can eliminate terrible interpersonal behavior, or even make a significant dent in it, is an impossible future to realize. There are so many pressures involved in any form of relationship or achievement. Making something worthwhile out of our lives is not possible without making colossal mistakes along the way. Humans aren't built to experience unmitigated success, and failure always finds a way. No amount of education on interpersonal relations will alleviate people from finding a way to mistreat each other if they have a tendency toward loss of control in their temperament. And if the demands for more ethical behavior become impossibly high, the people in charge of determining what is abusive behavior will inevitably become the abusers themselves. This is, in fact, what happened in the Soviet sphere, where every middle class employer was deemed a 'kulak' who was assumed to abuse his simply by being an employer, and their families were marked for harrowing death.
That being said, part of good faith is to realize that the people in your life are trying the best they know how. They, or we, may have a conveniently self-justifying conception of their own motives and behaviors, but most of us do the best we can according to our convictions, and if we don't do the right thing, it's often because we were mistaken. And this is why a mistaken person is sometimes more dangerous than a selfish one, so even if you'll probably get it wrong just as we all do, try at least to get it right. You just might do better than we did...
But then there are people who have a real capacity for evil, and you will sadly meet hundreds of them whom you will never realize have that ability - it may be as many as one in every group of fifty human beings. Many of them will fortunately live a whole life without that capacity truly activated, and some of them even put their limitless will to power in the service of good. But that genetic capacity for evil is lodged in so many millions of people, and all it takes is the power of suggestion to unleash them.
By the time you're my age, I doubt radio will exist as we've currently had it for a hundred years, but the human brain is like a radio antenna. It picks up signals and frequencies which are only heard by those tuning into that frequency. Whether through your own personal temperament or through the conditioning of your loved ones and education, you will have a set of beliefs which you are predisposed to believe. Over the course of your life, there will be all sorts of people, lots of friends and family among them, who will try to convince you of more extreme, simpler versions of what you already believe. And because they're your friends and family, they will often succeed. That's how peer pressure works. They know most of the frequencies over which your thoughts broadcast, and they will be able to appeal to your reason to believe something easier than the truth - often by using your very faculties of reason against you.
I have to imagine you won't be among the 2% who have psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies; however extreme your temperament, you're already much too sweet for that. But all such people with evil capacities need to activate them is a broadcaster who blasts destructive thoughts at their frequency: appealing to their flawed and selfish capacity for reason. This broadcaster may be a would-be authoritarian leader, or it may be a drug dealer, or it may be a friend on the psycho-sociopathic spectrum who has already embarked upon the path of evil. But whomever this broadcaster is, these 2% of people, mostly men, who've lived decades as peaceable human beings, turn into every manner of criminal. It happens in every region of the world, and in most centuries. It has not truly happened here in more than a hundred-fifty years. If history is any guide, we are overdue for a period of violence and terror well past our imaginations.
As I began this letter, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and for the moment appears poised to carry out the worst genocide of the 21st century so far. I fear will be a mere prelude to far, far bloodier things coming for the world. Let me be clear - it is Putin, not Russia, who has invaded Ukraine; and however many willing executioners do his bidding, it is this reptile of a man, whose very gaze inspired terror in me for two decades, who is the truest murderer among them.
We in the early 21st century have lived with Putin for more than twenty years, and there is no greater model of bad faith on earth. Not a one. We do not know if Putin will enact the evil upon earth which Stalin did before him, but every person who watches him knows that he is capable of so much worse. This is a man who could effect the death of billions for his own gain and sleep peaceably in his bed, and doubtless has entertained the possibility many times. What is truly terrifying about Vladimir Putin is that there are many millions who look upon his capacity with approval, and not just in Russia. This is man who bends entire continents to his will, not necessarily because of especial intelligence or extraordinary leadership, though he clearly has both, but also because of luck and a base understanding of what humans want most: pride.
Pride is the ultimate progenitor of bad faith, and as the Book of Proverbs say, goeth before a fall. Human motivations take many, many permutations. But ultimately, they fall into two categories: pride, and survival. Issues of survival are what make us better because, as I've already tried to say, he who saves a life saves the world (and saving a life includes saving yourself). The point of life is life, and life is objective, it's measurable, it's quantifiable. A person is alive or dead, and there are only a very few grey areas between life and death. Pride, however, is only perception; it is a shadow in our imaginations, it's a worthless, dangerous feeling that disappears from our psyche as quickly as it's conjured.
This is a controversial claim, and most people would disagree. Pride certainly has its place in the world, but . the place for pride is in helping your community in ways you can quantify. The place for pride is in helping each other survive: raising your children, saving lives in your job, teaching other people of all ages what they need to know to survive in the world and how to increase their quality of life (but make sure you have a metric to measure the quality of life in quantity...) The place for pride is neither in doing things for your own gain, nor is it in asserting yourself against your humiliations.
Humiliation is a sad fact of the human lifespan. It is something you will probably experience so many times that there are moments when will you want to howl and plead and rage against people who routinely make you panic (you will have marginally more luck with pleading...). But because there is much in life that is quantifiable, you might be able to change your life circumstances in such a way that after the change, you can easily point to the ways that your life has improved. What will not, however, improve your life is by expecting that the humiliations will cease simply by arguing your way through the same circumstances, and expecting that by argument, you will ever affect a different result. And you will sadly come to see that upon precisely this issue, your uncle is a quantifiable world-expert....
When it comes to politics, issues of survival are surely issues where pride matters, but then there are the issues on which pride is just pride; in which we simply feel that our freedoms are restricted, like owning a gun so powerful that its only use can be for murder; or that we are being condescended to by snobs, like liberals with more expensive educations; or that white males are being aggressive to us on a micro level because they do not tailor every phrase to acknowledge their privilege in every interaction. You'd think that getting past these resentments would be basic socio-political skills, but they never are. People who believe in these issues of pride say that such micro-infringements on their freedoms are gateways, indicating that such people have more mendacious aims that may lead to issues of survival. Well... in a sense of course that's true, but it also isn't. An indicator is just an indicator, nothing more, and if we assumed bad faith from every indicator of bad faith, there would be no one on earth worth trusting.
Your era will have its own political versions of exactly these humiliations, your life will have its own versions of these humiliations. Hopefully you will have far less of them than I ever did, but any life is guaranteed to have its periods when they are subject to humiliations which are both entirely common and entirely unique to them. The ability to survive is incumbent on a critical mass of people understanding that and helping one another understand that humiliation is ultimately just perception, it is not the objective reality. Subjective reality is still reality, and for many people, their subjective reality can be hell on earth, but emotional pain can be mitigated by nurturing one another and helping one another realize that they are valued and loved and accepted. Physical pain however, is very real, and nothing is realer than death, and no amount of love saves us from those.
What is guaranteed to make people experience those very real pains more frequently acting upon those humiliations and trying to avenge them. Defense against humiliations is possible and sometimes very necessary, but humiliations can never be avenged, they can only be ameliorated, avoided, assuaged, and put into proper context. Humiliation is the most intense form of perception you will ever experience, and they cannot be avoided. They can only be made easier by constant training of your mind to better understand how the circumstances of your life affected the person you are, and whoever you ever become, try to remember, there are people out there who value you and love you, your life will always have purpose and meaning - not just to yourself but to lots of other people.
It's been three months since I set this letter down. Russia invaded Ukraine, and suddenly these letters seemed redundant because the end of the world briefly seemed right around the corner. But after three months, at the end of which Russia's crushing Ukraine more devastatingly than at any point in this war, we in America have completely forgotten about this invasion. All it took was one slap on the cheek of a famous comedian from a famous movie star upset that the comedian made fun of his wife; and yet again, Americans seized on the flimsiest excuse to forget the world is in crisis just so we could immerse ourselves in more stupid celebrity scandals. Every person in America chose sides about which is more important: protecting your spouse against humiliation, or the right to make fun of whoever you want, myself along with everybody else, and American discussion went abuzz with this question everywhere: at dinner tables, in office lounges, on bar stools, and, of course, especially in that space where we could spend our time discussing all the elevating topics of the universe: the internet... And then the country spent a whole month on the issue of two celebrities in an abusive relationship, and whether Johnny Depp or Amber Heard was the true abuser. Millions of people who will never experience any aristocratic perks from the world of 'Johnny and Amber' talked as though the fate of intergender power dynamics rides on the outcome of a case about people who live in a world so unlike ours that they might as well be 17th century dukes and dutchesses. Meanwhile, Ukraine still burns, an extremely crucial country to our future, and as many as 55,000 people may be dead.
A lot of people to my left are saying that it's in terrible faith that we focus on Ukraine rather than the deaths of African countries, East Asia, Latin America, caused often by residual collateral from the imperial policies of our Western European allies who once ruled them, and perpetuated by America. They are surprisingly close to 100% correct about that, but an ultimate sign that the world operates in bad faith is that Ukraine DOES matter more than those countries. Such is the unfortunate state of the world that a civil war or famine in Africa will be mostly contained to its own African region, because the plight of people of color simply matters less to the rest of the world's security. But if war in Ukraine is not properly resolved, billions of us may die in attempts to resolve it. Perhaps we all deserve to die because of the bad faith with which we've shunted off the plight of inconvenient fellow humans in overwhelmingly large regions we continue to exploit, but the fact remains, if Ukraine doesn't get resolved, we all may die, and in the meantime, this country decided, yet again, that we ought to focus on anything else... Why? Because we've always gotten away with it. Once my Bubbie's generation passed, no American remembers a time when we haven't fundamentally gotten away with 'not taking care of business,' and since we've always gotten away with it before, we figure we always will. .
It is ironic that it's me saying this, as my 'attention deficit', whatever that means, seems to have defined my entire life; but the collective attention deficit of this country is one of the world's ultimate bad faiths, and a definitive indictment the world can file against the United States and all who dwell within it, white and people of color alike.
And yet, it can't be any other way. It's not our fault that the world continually depends on the USA to save it, it's the world's fault for being so fucked up. The world always was fucked up, and for three generations its depended on a country ever so slightly less fucked up than elsewhere to prevent them from killing the rest of us.
And to many people's surprise, the US didn't do the worst job at it. In fact, it did such a good job at it that it's no longer the least fucked up country in the world, and millions of refugees would prefer to go to the European Union or Japan or South Korea than come here - countries and regions whose quality of life exceeds our own (often vastly) because we Americans gave them money for social programs we never gave ourselves.
No country should ever have our amount of power, and when the world depends on a single country to order it in any beneficial manner, it's an immutable given that the country in question will use its power unwisely and for its own benefit, and eventually make mistakes so egregious that no amount of power can save it from collapse. Just in the last century, collapses of that sort happened to Mandarin China, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Imperial Japan, the British Empire, Russia (twice), France and Germany (both four times). The ramifications of these collapses went from somewhat turbulent to apocalyptic, but none felt as though the survival of the world was not in doubt, and in some of them, the survival of the world was very much in doubt. We, the United States of America, are far more powerful than any of them ever were, and our power is all the more exploitable because it's done so much good for so many billions. We've achieved peace and prosperity at an exponential level from anything those previous civilizations ever achieved, and therefore our capacity for mistakes is correspondingly far larger and lethal, even than theirs, and so is the likelihood we will make them. The more power centers around one node, the more easily exploited the power.
Just as no one person should have an exponential amount of power over others, no one country should either, because it is a given that such power will eventually be abused. This is something today's American conservatives seem incapable of understanding, and for all their talk about the sanctity of liberty, upon the issue of solving problems by multilateral cooperation between countries, they are the very definition of authoritarians.
In the long run, the world will no more be made better by one authority figure determining its state than it will by anarchy itself. The only true solution, understood very well by the 'founding fathers' of this country, is to use each person's desire to increase their influence as a check upon one another. Checks and balances are how families work how communities work, how corporations work, even how economics works; because this is how nature itself works, and the more we find ways of making reason imitate the patterns of nature more closely, the more harmoniously we seem to exist with the world, and the less we seem subject to nature's seemingly inevitable violences. So however messier and slower cooperation may be, however hostile cooperation becomes, however much we doubt the good intentions of our collaborators, the result is so much preferable to the alternative, because when the alternative happens, war and violence is an incontrovertible guarantee.
And yet, the paradox of international relations remains. The closer our cooperation with one another, the more tempted we become to end our collaboration because so many obstacles are too difficult to overcome in one lifetime, and nobody wants to believe that. This is the same paradox that happens in all relationships: marriages, families, communities, businesses, and governments. The resentments and humiliations accumulate of other people not giving us what we think we need, and the more they pile up, so too do the inaccuracies of our judgments - more frequently made then from anger rather than prudence. The relations between countries are the ultimate proof that no marriage should be arranged by one generation for the next, because the circumstances of every generation are different, and must forever be renegotiated to accommodate current realities.
And in the same way that the circumstances of every generation and region are different, the circumstances of every person is different too. You can't expect that your formula for success will be a formula other people can utilize for their own (much more on that in part 5...). No two personal situations are the same, they are merely at times similar, and the best you can do for people is to explain what worked for you - a piece of advise I'm clearly not taking by writing this letter - more on that in part 5 too....
So never mind me, I'm no great role model, but your father and bubbie are magnificent role models. But even if you find emulating their example easier than I have, don't operate under the expectation that you can. Even if your temperament is as even-keeled as theirs, you're going to have all sorts of moments in your life when your good faith is tested, just as theirs have been, and even if your temperament is the same as theirs, there will even occasionally be moments when you fail that test, just as they did.
Both your bubbie and dad grew up in circumstances that enabled people of even-keel to maintain their imperturbable balance through every humiliation - and between the two of them, they've experienced more than you may ever know. And yet, the humiliations they've experienced are the humiliations of peacetime, when the security of their basic expectations was occasionally violated. And yet life went on, back to the same routines, and while there must have always been a distant fear of chaos, the fear remained just that, rarely if ever a reality. I sadly believe the reality likely in your generation, and you may be tested as they nor I ever were.
All that remains to prevent terrible things is good faith, and it is in precisely these moments when good faith is most important. Good faith is meaningless in moments when the world operates as it should. When good faith becomes necessary is those moments like these, when norms are breaking down all over the world: governments, economies, businesses and jobs, bank accounts, educations and the pool of teachers, friendships, long term romantic relationships, and most importantly: families.
There is not a single person in America who does not know a married couple who broke up during this pandemic who might have been able to stay together in normal times. Keeping family bonds together is relatively easy when things are operating smoothly. But when economic stress causes people to lose jobs, the stress of unemployment often causes them to lose their marriages too, and the stress of losing their marriages causes their children to lose their sense of security, and stress experienced in childhood is the best indicator of a lifelong propensity to feel stress.
Is stress in children because children are made to feel stressful or do children have a natural capacity for stress in their genetics? There's no easy answer to that question, but children are people like anybody else, and whether stressed or relaxed, the reaction to their surroundings is partly rational and partly stimulated; and the proper time to feel stress is in adulthood, when one has already learned how to cope with it. Stress in children is inevitable, but late childhood should always be remembered as the best time of your life. So when you see children at 8 or 9 regularly unable to deal with stress, it is the most heartbreaking thing in the world to watch, because their stress is likely to be as lifelong as diabetes. If you contract diabetes, you have to monitor it for the rest of your life, and likewise, if you develop clinical depression and anxiety as a child (and sadly your family has precedents for that), you too will have to monitor it for the rest of your life just as I and others have. If that is your future, we will do everything to put you on a path to doing better with it than we did. Nevertheless, even if it isn't you, it will likely be people you know and love very well. Not just me, but your closest friends, your spouse, and your closest family members, be they from my generation, yours, or generations yet to come.
There is nothing harder than believing in good faith when faced with mental illness. Statistics would have us believe that 1 in every 4 people in the world suffer from it. In whatever form mental illness takes, it is literally the inability to cope with reality. How can a world remain peaceful when one of every four is constitutionally unable to deal with it?
Whether mental illness is an accurate term for any number of alternate neurological conditions, the fact remains that the misunderstandings rife in dealing with the mentally ill is the cause of so much of the world's grief. Insanity holds this world hostage, and crazy people explode with bad faith like geysers. The outcome of every human turbulence in the world hinges on making sure a crazy person doesn't do something crazy, and yet such people are absolutely unavoidable. The greater extent you go to avoid people like me, the more they seem to find you. The more you try to iron out your life with normality, the more people in your life stand out for their lack of normality. You may drive those you love crazy by trying to make them more normal; you may even become the crazy person yourself.
The sanest thing you can do is to let everybody be themselves - and we'll talk about that more in Letter 5. If people you love are constitutionally unable to fulfill the expectations you have for them, you're going to have to do your best to pick up their slack - and sadly, I'm probably one of those people. The world is made complete by opposites coming together, and it is only by having people to provide for that nature's providers derive meaning in their lives. You can't separate the sane from the crazy in this world, because when you do, the crazy get crazier, and do crazier things. They are prisoners of minds that operate independently of them and are therefore incapable of truly rational decisions. So if you let the crazy people in your life rot on their own, you're making a crazy decision.
Whether you're the crazy person or the person responsible for the crazy person, you need to understand that almost all crazy people are doing everything they can to operate in good faith, because no sane person is ever invaded with thousands of daily bad faith thoughts from within their own brains. To the mentally ill, catastrophe is not just a rational conclusion to be drawn from statistics and magazines, catastrophe is the state of their lives. It is the omnipresent threat - not usually a world catastrophe, but interpersonal catastrophe; the idea that their already undone lives will come undone an exponent more, the irony being that believing catastrophe is always at hand makes catastrophes much more likely - different kinds than what we anticipate, but no less painful than the ones we imagine. So, in fact, what we often see as bad faith is sometimes good faith against a perception that is unreal, untrue, unsound, against the one force in the world that will always act in bad faith: entropy - the breakdown of all material in the universe.
All things of this earth come undone: minds, bodies, families, communities, laws, governments, and species. But at every moment, the survival of all depends on the fight we have within us to rage against entropy. There are moments most certainly when it's necessary to allow things to die, but death is only necessary to make room for more life. Survival depends on keeping everything of this life as healthy as we can, and yet by doing so, when it all breaks down, it breaks down all the worse for all the progress we made through our efforts.
All things in the world have unintended consequences. The modern era gave the world science and technology that allowed human life on a level past anything the pre-modern world could ever imagine - both in length and population. And yet the thriving of humans comes at the price of at least a million species, of the planet itself, of the many developing nations whose population grows exponentially. All of these scientists sought to improve lives with their efforts, and in many ways they did, but they so improved it that the improvement created its own greater problems.
What choice is there but to continue to solve these problems in good faith? If we've depleted a million species, we have to create artificial environments to attempt their survival. If we've made large parts of the earth uninhabitable, we have to get billions of people to safety. What's at stake is the worst crime in history, and a crime that can lead to still worse crimes. Jews did not survive the world's worst crimes only to stand by while crimes are committed a logarithm worse. And if it truly helps many of them to survive, I would like to think that I will gladly give my own.
Good faith is a terribly difficult thing to maintain, because bad faith is always an option, and an option everybody sometimes takes. The place for bad faith is in small interpersonal interactions: making fun of people when they're not there, playing aggressive sports, yelling obscenities while watching sports, flirting with non-spouses you're attracted to, listening to noisy music, telling dirty jokes, pouring a hefty drink every night (and try to limit that to just one); and if you and a partner so inclined when you're old enough, rough sex. The place for good faith is where it really counts: and it takes no explanation to know in your kishkes when your good faith counts and where it doesn't.
How do you know whether or when another person operates in good faith? Well, remember those 2% of people with the capacity for evil? Everybody else, the 98%, is going to tell you exactly how good their faith is with their every action. You will hear a huge vocabulary of opinions from them, you will see an even larger vocabulary of body language in them. If you're actually searching for it, 49 out of every 50 people will tell you exactly what they think at every moment. When their faith is good, they will convey it not only in their words, but in the kindness of their eyes, and the position of their feet and torso. In moments of bad faith, their rage and cruelty will thunder so loudly. Most people are not particularly complicated, and whether you're good at reading them accurately (some people think me below average...), a person who is good at reading people can read most people accurately. Those who are particularly good at it, like your father, often use those abilities for good, and they are the people you should always look to for guidance, comfort, and strength. But it's that 2% about which you truly have to worry, the sociopaths and psychopaths, or at least those who have the inclination to be so, because they ARE good at reading people, and use their skill for their own benefit at others' expense.
You will know who they are because they are the leaders of those otherwise good people who fulminate when their faith falters. When a good person operates in bad faith, they do not have control over themselves, and they cannot possibly direct a whole movement of rageful people. But an evil person always has their wits about them, especially in their moments of greatest rage, because the moments when they accumulate the most power for themselves are in moments of chaos. They so understand people that they know precisely how to manipulate people into rage, they know precisely how to direct the rage, and they know precisely how to inflict wounds on all our emotional pressure points so that everything we know about our world turns upside down, and a new world is born, at least briefly, with them holding power over us, hundreds of others, thousands, millions, the whole world... They crave stimulation amorally, and if they cause billions of deaths for their own entertainment, all the better.
On the other hand, statistics tell us that a full 7% of the human population has narcissistic inclinations, and narcissists will tell you what they think all the time. Even among that 7%, not everybody with narcissistic inclinations is a narcissist. Narcissists are not evil, they're just assholes, and extended presence in their company can be the literal definition of unbearable; but the vast majority of them are not truly evil, and they are often the world's most likeable people whose brief presence inevitably brightens your day. Always keep a narcissist as a friend to occasionally hang out with, but always have an escape plan before they're enmeshed in your private life, and believe me, they will try.
Psychopaths are nature's innate evildoers, but narcissism is learned behavior, an emotional virus passed from selfish person to selfish person, each of whom deliberately withholds the emotional support others need, and in doing so, turns many people reliant upon them into narcissists who further the reach of this lifelong virus: to random strangers they accost, to their friends, to their students, to their employees, to their children. Narcissists are, quite literally, those who convince themselves they are good by actively making others worse. To convince themselves that they deserve as much pride as other people, narcissists take pride from others rather than give pride to them. The reason they do it is precisely because important others in their lives did not let them feel the pride they needed to feel - and those others were often narcissists themselves. In the most crucial moments of their lives when they were most vulnerable, another narcissist infected them, and it could be with something as innocuous as a devastating four word insult; and in such moments when we feel most defeated, even a subtle disparagement feels like the end of the world.
This family is full of them. I don't know whether any of your family counts as having pathologically narcissistic inclinations, but some form of narcissism has been an endemic problem of this family for the entirety of its living memory, and a trait to which your hopefully dear old uncle is not immune. I may be the very closest to pathologically narcissistic in the history of your family; a perfect storm containing the emotional volatility of one side, and the chronic irresponsibility of the other, both sides multiplying upon the other within me to form a toxic cocktail that's eventually ruined every path of my life, and I chronically worry will ruin the paths of others. But I did not become the person I am in a vacuum. I became that person as a shell of self-defense against a community who maintains belief in all sorts of concepts that nearly were a death sentence to me.
There are many kinds of narcissistic behavior. There are some who seek to have complete control over others' lives, and convince themselves that every measure of control they have over other people is a good deed, because nobody can do the job better than they can, and not a single facet of life should pass without the benefit of their instruction. Others bark orders, expecting them to be obeyed without a second's preparation, and see any delay in fulfilling their commands as a personal slight. Others nurse personal slights like a second career yet think nothing of how they might have hurt others in turn. Others spend massive amounts of money on themselves without thought to how much those closest to them might need that money for future security. Others deliberately start long arguments simply because they're addicted to feeling self-righteous, and think so highly of their own perspective that anyone who would disagree with them is responsible for the argument. Others dodge their responsibilities for others yet clothe their selfishness in the mantle of making others take responsibility for themselves. Still others cannot control their temper and can't stop blaming others for their own emotional problems and chronic irresponsibility. Still others broadcast their tortured thoughts in public to baby nephews who may view all this verbiage as a lifelong millstone of impossible expectations after a half-lifetime of his uncle putting other members of his family through hell.
Today's therapeutic advice proliferates with admonitions to avoid the narcissists in our lives; but there is usually no such avenue. No matter how hard you attempt to avoid them, there will be entire years of your life when you must answer to a narcissist's beck and call. When you avoid them, they will either use more daunting techniques to hurt you, or they will hurt others whom you might love too. What they do may sound evil, but so much of life is hurt. Dealing with narcissists is, unfortunately, the simple wear and tear of living a life. The vast majority of narcissists are not violent, they are simply difficult people, and difficult people would not be difficult if they did not hurt others. While most difficult people have a mental illness, 'only' one in three or four mentally ill people has pathological narcissism in their character. The majority of the world's people act narcissistic at times, but the mentally ill who lack pathological narcissism are consumed with guilt for the ways they've hurt others, and only continue to hurt because they've found no path away from the hurt that accompanies them every day of their lives. The vast majority of people who make others suffer, narcissists included, are suffering themselves, and all suffering people depend upon the more altruistic and whole among us to help them heal (more on them in a later letter...). There is neither a perfect victim nor a perfect predator. All people wear the damage of the world upon their DNA, and it is only through acceptance by the nurturing among us that the difficult find a path out of our labyrinth of hurt.
No narcissist can take your pride away from you if you realize that pride is stupid. Pride is selfish, it's an impediment to love, it's an impediment to healing, and it's an impediment to fun. It's just a mental trick that makes you think the most trivial things about you have value while devaluing all the things about you that matter. Pride detracts from your ability to love the people in your lives, the job you do, the hobbies you enjoy, and the more pride you feel in something, the more easily you can feel humiliation from it.
And therefore the reason so many fall sway to the leadership of psycho/sociopaths is because until they do, billions of normal people remain under the control of narcissists who strip them of their pride, and when you spend enough time in a narcissist's control, a false prophet who promises freedom from them seems like manna from heaven itself. Every narcissist has a battery of techniques meant to keep you for all time as an extension to their own pride, and a psychopath will correctly identify all those techniques by which a narcissist controls you. A psychopath is, quite literally, a passive observer to the human condition. They notice all those ticks of the human character without feeling them themselves, they see the comparatively blunt techniques by which narcissists control people, and are able to camouflage the techniques of a narcissist in the appearance of an altruist's concern. They will conjure for you a life where your pride is restored to you, where all people in your life act generously and with love for their fellow humans, and then they tell you that all you have to do to make it happen is something you previously found unthinkable. They are the world's greatest actors, because they seem completely the same as you. But they are acting, and unless you stay vigilant against them, they are most dangerous people on earth, and there may be 78 million of them.
And there is yet another 78 million: the sociopaths. If the sociopaths aren't just as dangerous as the psychopaths, it's because you can spot them a mile away. Donald Trump is a sociopath, everybody in the world knows that in their bones, but some people like that about him. On the other hand, it took many people decades to figure out that Vladimir Putin was a psychopath. Once upon a time, this particular contrast was equally true of a sociopath named Adolf Hitler and a psychopath named Josef Stalin. A century before even that, a similar polarity existed in France between a sociopath who ruled them named Napoleon Bonaparte and a psychopath who briefly ruled them named Maximillian Robespierre.
The difference between a psychopath and a sociopath is that a sociopath presents the insanity of his evil to you in all of its plumage. A sociopath is a wolf who literally tells the sheep 'I am going to eat you' and makes the sheep thank him for his honesty (that was a New Yorker cartoon in my day... even if journalism goes completely bankrupt I'm sure the New Yorker will still exist in your day as a dull and respectable magazine that people like me pretend to read). When a psychopath lies, it is precisely aimed and plotted out to present a completely plausible vision of what's true. When a sociopath lies, there is no thought given as to whether or not the lie seems true, but simply to make a demonstration that they can get away with lying.
The sociopath is inevitably the most charismatic person you know. He or she plainly wants power over you and will stop at nothing to obtain it, and in the process, he will magnetize you. You will think you have power to resist them, but there are moments when your resistance will be sorely worn down by their ability to do all sorts of things you wish you were able to do. They will say out loud all the thoughts you've been too polite to say, and hearing them spoken will feel like liberation. They will cheat and steal, and when they're caught, they will explain why they should be celebrated for doing it, and their moral reasoning will seem plausible. They will be bullies who will berate people you have contempt for, and you will cheer them on; and in your moment of weakness they'll turn their bullying on you, and nobody will stand up for you just as you didn't stand up for them. You'll think you're close to them, but they're not close to anybody. They will use you for their own ends just like they used everybody else, and before you know it, you will have cheered them most of the way through their destructive path.
Do not think you are immune to the psychopath's deceptions or the sociopath's charm. None of us are. But you will know when your life is headed down its darkest paths. And whenever it is, look to the person who convinced you to go down that path. You either never knew what kind of person this was or you knew the whole time - if you always knew, it's a sociopath, if you never knew, it's a psychopath.
I don't doubt there will be different diagnoses for these sorts of people in your era, with more nuanced nomenclature, but for the moment, psychopaths and sociopaths fall on the 'antisocial personality spectrum.' Their character defects are medical, not spiritual. Even psychopaths and sociopaths are not necessarily evil. Some of them use their powers for good: but they both are dangerous, and in whatever form they take in your life, the most vigilant thing you'll have to guard against in a lifetime is the consequences of one or the other's actions.
But at the same time as there are psychopaths and sociopaths and narcissists, there is another 10% of the population who are altruists. These are people so selfless that they inevitably think first of how to help others before themselves. They are the best of us. They do not give up on people, they do not give up on communities, they do not give up on love, and they are too concerned with outcomes to be much focused on ideals.
There are far more people in the world than 10% who profess selflessness, but as one of my favorite writers says, "...in exchanging a self-centered life for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.' So often, the selfless are motivated by ideals of what people are that have little to do with life's reality. Life's reality is that while people's motivations are simple, life's difficulties make them act in completely incomprehensible ways.
A person who practices selflessness out of religious or political beliefs is not a selfless person. A person who practices selflessness out of love is not a selfless person. Their motivations are to be respected, but also to be doubted. There is inevitably a price for their selflessness, and it's not always a price worth paying. The more a person who loves God or justice does for you, the more they will view every belief you refuse to embrace of theirs as ingratitude. The more a person who loves you does for you, the more they will expect you to do things for them in return. There are many times in the course of a life when you'll owe them more than you can ever repay, but always expect a price for their help. Those who help you will tell you that they simply want you to be a better person worth being more proud of - but the truth is that whomever you turn out to be, those who love you owe you their full measure of gratitude simply for being yourself.
The truly selfless are simply selfless. They are creatures of instinct, and they are what they do. They couldn't possibly live a life for which they commit themselves to anything else but others. Your father is like that, your Bubbie is like that, your uncle assuredly isn't. Some people rise in the world and gain a reputation for selflessness, but those with a reputation for selflessness are self-selecting to not be selfless. The selfless are too busy working for others to gain credit for their selflessness.
They are surely permitted a bit of resentment that people don't notice them for what they do, but the truth is that no gigantic personality makes the impression they do. They are the most beloved people in the world. If people like me faded into the background, the world would note the difference, and many would breathe a sigh of relief. But if the selfless passed from the world without replacement, the world would fall apart tomorrow, and billions would howl in the streets. They inspire nothing but love from the people who's worlds they pass through, and eventually, even the truly selfish note what they've lost.
I will fail you Eli, hopefully not many times, but realistically, quite more than a few. In whatever ways I fail you in the future Eli, in whatever ways I fail any of your siblings or cousins, in whatever ways I may one day even fail my own children, I declare preemptively, I am so sorry, and while I will do everything within my power to minimize that failure, I hope above all hopes that the worst I ever do will be something small enough that a mere apology can heal the wound.