I’m the Victim of an Anti-Semitic Hate Crime – Here’s What I Say About Kansas

Published: mic (April 14, 2014)

The shooting yesterday at a Jewish community center in Kansas City was more than tragic. It was un-American.

This crime strikes a deep personal chord with me, not only because I have also been the victim of an anti-Semitic hate crime, but because its motivations fly in the face of our nation’s most important and fundamental ideals. Its perpetrator, Frazier Glenn Miller, was the founder and former leader of branches of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Patriot Party. His white supremacist ideology held that groups like Jews were inferior to him, that they did not belong in the America he envisioned.

Sadly, those are merely two of nearly a thousand hate groups operating in the United States right now … and they are all dead wrong in their conception of American ideals.

It isn’t simply that our Founding Fathers intended for this nation to be a place where all faiths could freely worship, although occasions like this do call for quoting Thomas Jefferson’s famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association:

“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

What is also important is that our Founding Fathers specifically hoped that Jews would feel welcome in their new country. John Adams, writing to a friend in his later years, insisted that “the Hebrews have [contributed] more to civilize men than any other nation. If I was an atheist and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations…”

Jefferson himself, while critical of Judaism as a religion (as he was of Christianity, hence his attempt to rewrite the New Testament), was very sympathetic to the victims of anti-Semitic persecution. “Your sect by its sufferings has furnished a remarkable proof of the universal spirit of religious intolerance inherent in every sect, disclaimed by all while feeble, and practiced by all when in power…” he wrote to a Jewish political ally. “Public opinion erects itself into an inquisition, and exercises its office with as much fanaticism as fans the flames of an Auto-da-fé [a reference to public executions during the Inquisition]. The prejudice still scowling on your section of our religion altho’ the elder one, cannot be unfelt by ourselves. It is to be hoped that individual dispositions will at length mould themselves to the model of the law, and consider the moral basis, on which all our religions rest, as the rallying point which unites them in a common interest.”

Most poignant of all, however, were the words of George Washington. After visiting the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., — the oldest synagogue in the United States — Washington was so moved by the warm reception he received from the congregants that his letter of reply included the following wish for the Jewish people:

“Happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support … May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

It is hard to argue that Jews have failed to “demean themselves as good citizens” in this country. Today there are 34 Jews in Congress, three Jews on the Supreme Court, and countless more in academia, entertainment, the sciences, and virtually every other profession. Of course, many view these achievements as signs of a sinister conspiracy; as I’ve written before (in articles summarizing the observations of philosophers Eric Hoffer and Jean-Paul Sartre), anti-Semites blame anything they loathe and/or fear about modern society on “the Jews” both to compensate for their own psychological inadequacies and to create a conveniently simple explanation for a world that they find frighteningly complex. By claiming that they are part of a superior and oppressed race, they can simultaneously explain away their personal failures and add a sense of purpose to their lives; by blaming “the Jews” and other conspiracies, they can slice through the Gordian knot of social, economic, political, and cultural variables that explain the real world with a single ideological stroke, no matter how incorrect and immoral that ideology might be.

It is a shame that, as my fellow Jews prepare to observe the first night of Passover, what might otherwise be a joyous occasion could be marred by this hateful event. Hopefully they will take comfort in knowing that every American worthy of the title will condemn not only the events in Kansas City, but the ideas that fueled them in the first place.

If Politicians Were Paid Based on Real Accomplishments, Here’s What They’d Earn

Published: mic (April 10, 2014)

Over the past couple weeks, while President Barack Obama has taken to podiums everywhere to rally support for raising the minimum wage, members of Congress have been rushing to support him.

“I think the American people should know that the members of Congress are underpaid,” said retiring Congressman Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat who has served in the House of Representatives for nearly a quarter-century. Wait … whaaat? “I understand that it’s widely felt that [we] underperform [sic], but the fact is that this is the board of directors for the largest economic entity in the world,” he continued. This isn’t the Onion.

The reality is if our congressmen were paid based on real accomplishments, they would make less than minimum wage. After all, what kind of person would claim that working 36 hours a week for only a few months out of the year and being among the least productive legislatures in history should be rewarded with a salary that puts them in the 98th percentile?

Image Credit: Washington Post

What makes Moran’s assertion such a gem (aside from the fact that House members make $174,000 a year) is that it actually rebuts itself. It is indeed true that Congress is “the board of directors for the largest economic entity in the world.” In the private market, any group entrusted with such a serious responsibility would be expected to produce meaningful results before receiving a pay raise (or, for that matter, avoid getting fired). Yet even as Moran insists that “members of Congress are underpaid,” he concedes that “it’s widely felt that they underperform.”

It’s a marvel: The argument in his second sentence quite literally destroys the credibility of the first sentence.

Of course, whether it’s Moran grousing in 2014 about his six-figure salary or Rep. John Fleming (R-Fla.) infamously remarking in 2011 that progressive tax rates allowed him to net “only” $400,000, legislators complaining about their low pay is as hoary an American political tradition as they come, right up there with pork-stuffed bills. It can also be easily debunked with a little perspective.

Moran has a half-valid point when he says that Congress shouldn’t be underpaid simply because “it’s widely felt” that they underperform. After all, many of America’s most unpopular Congresses are widely regarded as heroic for weathering hostile public opinion to pass landmark legislation:

– The 75th Congress under President Franklin Roosevelt created the National Cancer Institute, prohibited child labor, introduced a maximum 44-hour seven-day workweek, established a national minimum wage, and authorized the FDA to oversee the safety of food, drugs, and cosmetics.

– The 89th Congress under President Lyndon Johnson created Medicare and Medicaid, pushed through the Voting Rights Act to guarantee the franchise to racial minorities, laid the policy foundations for all subsequent federally funded student loan and scholarship programs for low-income students, repealed the racial quotas used by our immigration system and passed the first major laws regulating pollution and protecting people with disabilities.

– Even the 111th Congress under Obama passed the Affordable Care Act (which has helped millions), the stimulus bill (which prevented a second Great Depression after the 2008 economic collapse), Wall Street and credit card company regulations (the Credit CARD Act and the Dodd-Frank Act), protections for women facing sexual workplace discrimination (the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act) and repealed the military’s homophobic “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

By contrast, the unpopular 112th Congress and 113th Congress (the current one) have been notoriously unproductive. The 112th Congress was the most unproductive since the 1940s, with partisan bickering hamstringing the legislative process as only 219 (mostly minor) bills managed to get passed. The 113th Congress was even worse, passing only 55 laws and making it the least productive Congress of all time. More embarrassingly, its members clocked an average of only 36 hours per week in session, with legislators from both parties spending proportionately more time rallying their respective bases than engaging in serious attempts to fix America’s problems.

If Moran was arguing that, its unpopularity notwithstanding, Congress has been successfully meeting the needs of the American people and therefore deserved due recognition, his position would have some merit. Of course, at a time when growing income inequality is imposing economic hardships unseen in generations, he would still be hard-pressed to prove that money should be taken from the pockets of ordinary Americans to feed six-figure salaries. Even so, he would at least have something resembling a case.

We do want the best people in Congress and paying higher salaries might help make that happen. But before we show them the money, we want something in return.

These Are The TV Characters Getting Asperger’s Wrong, From Someone Who Has It

Published: mic (April 10, 2014)

When I was first diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at the age of 14, Asperger’s was barely on the public radar. One of my earliest experiences discussing the condition with others was having them make vulgar puns about the name.

To say the least, the last 15 years have seen a remarkable change in public awareness. Not only is Asperger’s syndrome as commonly known as ADHD or OCD, it is the subject of ongoing medical debate (over whether it should be classified as a separate diagnosis or folded into the larger autism spectrum), the source of dangerous conspiracy theories (see Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccination campaign), and a prominent feature of our popular culture.

As a person with Asperger’s, I’ve noticed more and more television characters that I relate to. Some of these characters have never been publicly confirmed to have Asperger’s, but as someone with it, I’m watching with an especially trained eye. Although there are plenty of mainstream characters to choose from, these are a few in particular who are worthy of mention and analysis. They run the gamut from characters who are true to the autism experience to those who make a cruel mockery of it. Let’s take a look at how television is defining these characters.

Abed from Community is surprisingly accurate.

Image Credit: Wikimedia 

Let’s begin with Community. So much about Abed Nadir’s alleged (heavily implied but never confirmed) Asperger’s rings true that one is left to simply marvel at Danny Pudi’s performance. The obsessively detailed expertise in specialized subjects (in his case, popular culture), the flat emotional affect, the awkward physical gestures and tendency to either make too little eye contact or too much. All of those quirks are fantastic, but the moment that best captures the Asperger experience occurred in the very first episode. After series protagonist Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) admits to the rest of his study group that he is too lazy to pass an upcoming Spanish exam, the rest of the members use facial expressions and body language to subtly communicate to each other (and not Jeff, who is feeling sensitive) that they intend to help him out. Then Abed, uncomprehending, blows the moment by bluntly asking, “What’s going on?” That’s Asperger’s in a nutshell.

Sherlock Holmes from Sherlock is fanciful but well-intentioned.

Image Credit: Blogspot

Like Abed, Sherlock’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) autistic qualities are implied, often talked about, but never confirmed or denied. Indeed, also like Abed, Sherlock’s first big potential Asperger-y moment occurs in the first scene of the series, when a pretty morgue worker asks him if he’d like to get some coffee. Instead of picking up on the obvious invitation for a date, he coldly dictates how he would like his beverage (“Black, two sugars, I’ll be upstairs”) before leaving the room. Later, after she wipes off her lipstick, which she’d believed would impress him, he bluntly tells her that her mouth looks smaller now. Sherlock is full of little moments like this — and, of course, it is chock-full of the intense, savant-like analytical mindset that is characteristic of AS. Sherlock also self-identifies as a “high-functioning sociopath.” I guess that leaves the jury out on the televised character, though I could write a whole other article on his literary counterpart.

Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory is cartoonish but harmless.

Image Credit: American Humanist 

Although Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) is often cited as the quintessential TV character with Asperger’s, his quirks are too inconsistent to be definitely categorized as belonging on the autism spectrum. In fact, Sheldon is, if anything, nothing more or less than a run-of-the-mill nerd caricature, cut from the same cloth as Screech Powers or Steve Urkel. All of his esoteric interests and social faux pas can be traced back to those archetypes. If there is any doubt, one can simply turn to series co-creator Bill Prady, who explains that “calling it Asperger’s creates too much of a burden to get the details right.”

Sugar Motta from Glee is an offensive stereotype.

Image Credit: Fanpop

“I have self-diagnosed Asperger’s, so I can say whatever I want.”

That, in one quote from McKinley High’s Sugar Motta, epitomizes everything to despise in how people with Asperger’s can be depicted, and it caused a huge uproar in the Asperger’s community. Sure, the creators of Glee have the “out” of arguing that Sugar is not even a clinically diagnosed character, but the dismissive humor with which Glee treats Asperger’s and its symptoms is worthy of rage. The character’s deliberately obnoxious behavior and lack of personal accountability feed into the prejudices people with Asperger’s face every day.

The Secret Society of Cynics from South Park is hilariously stupid.

Image Credit: Tumblr 

I could point out that South Park’s understanding of Asperger’s syndrome is wildly inaccurate, but it is entirely possible that they intended it that way — and even if they didn’t, the whole conceit of their Asperger’s-focused episode is that people with Asperger’s are part of a secret society which believes the world has literally been turned into feces (no comment on that).

Why is it worth mentioning? Simple: The name of the episode is Ass Burgers. And no matter how hard things may be, if you can’t laugh at the little things in life, you can’t really live at all.

Jenny McCarthy Wants to Save Me From My Autism, But She Just Doesn’t Get It

Published: mic (April 2, 2014)

I have something uniquely in common with several million other Americans: I’m autistic.

At a time when Jenny McCarthy is spearheading a dangerous movement that blames my condition on vaccines — a myth dispelled by WebMD here — I am naturally sensitive to any mention of autism in the news, of which there have been a lot lately, especially when it’s discussed as if something’s “wrong” with me. There’s not.

The lack of awareness and understanding about autism is stunning. It wasn’t too long ago that the Republican primary for Illinois’ 9th Congressional District was won by Susanne Atanus, a radical right-winger best known for statements like this:

“Sixteen years ago we never would have heard about autism … God is angry. We are provoking him.”

It would be easy to join the chorus of gnashing criticism of Atanus, but picking apart her candidacy is akin to snatching at low-hanging fruit.

Instead, there’s a far more sinister threat to autism awareness that’s much more widespread: the scaremongering of Jenny McCarthy and her disciples, who believe that vaccines are responsible for our condition. Though it seemsabsurd, one in five Americans believe vaccines cause autism and the government knows about it.

While it’s true that rates of autism are on the rise, the science on the link between vaccines and autism is pretty straightforward. A scientific review by the Institute of Medicine has already ruled out any causal relationship between vaccination and autism rates, concluding, “The evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between thimerosal–containing vaccines and autism.” Another survey of the existing scholarly literature establishes that vaccine-related health problems are rare.

This anti-vaccine movement is such a big deal because of a principle called “herd immunity.” Basically, if enough people in a community are vaccinated, they form a bulwark against disease spreading to others who are unvaccinated. However, if not enough people are vaccinated, then no such protection exists: A disease can spread much wider and further through a community.

On a personal level, the worst thing about McCarthy’s argument is that she seemingly views autism as if it’s a plague. McCarthy’s thinking here is simplistic, as can be seen from an article she wrote in 2008. I refer to this passage in particular:

“There are some who wonder what we mean when we say ‘recovering’ from autism. They confuse the word recover with cure. While you may not be able to cure an injury caused in a terrible car accident, you can recover; you can regain many skills that you once lost. In the case of autism, we think there are treatments that often bring about such healing, so that the observable symptoms of the condition no longer exist. Even though we may no longer see any symptoms of autism, we can’t say a child is ‘cured’ because we do not know what they would have been like had they never been injured.”

McCarthy makes the assumption that autism is an “injury” of which one can be, if not “cured,” then at least “healed.” While more severely autistic individuals indeed suffer greatly, millions of high-functioning autistics — formerly known as people with Asperger’s Syndrome — live full, satisfying lives.

I’m one of the latter.

We don’t view the workings of our minds as somehow being “wrong,” we simply believe there are different ways a human brain can function, with neurotypicals falling into a majority pattern and autistics in a minority. When people refer to us as a “sick” community instead of one that struggles a bit more with socialization and prefers logic and intensely specialized interests over emotionalism and banality, we feel the same way all intelligent people do when they read McCarthy’s or Atanus’ remarks: like we’re being exposed to the inexcusably asinine.

“If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.” That was John F. Kennedy — and it’s the same appeal I make today in regards to autism.