When America Was Almost Vespucia

Published: The Good Men Project (May 7, 2016)

Did you know that America was almost called Vespucia?

I’m not referring to the United States, by the way. More than five hundred years, the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci determined that the continent “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1492 was not, in fact, Asia. This simple realization was apparently enough to warrant naming two continents after the man. Vespucci’s first name, “Amerigo,” was translated into the Latin “Americus,” and voila – North and South America were born.

But it wasn’t inevitable that this would be the case. In fact, it is rather unusual for a first name rather than a last one to be emblazoned on an individual’s legacy. As it turns out, this thought also occurred to the European Council which named these new worlds. Before issuing their decree, they very nearly dubbed the new continent after the man’s last name – Vespucia. Had this happened, it is fair to assume that the United States of America would be known as the United States of Vespucia. Instead of chanting “USA,” we’d chant “USV,” and instead of declaring ourselves “Proud to be an American,” we’d discuss how we’re “Proud to be Vespucians.”

Fortunately, this atrocity was averted by the assembled European powers of the early 16th century. Their reasoning was as simple as it was beautiful – Vespucia was, without question, a terrible name for a continent. ‘America’ has a magnificent ring to it, stirred the imagination – and, more to the point, the pocket books of those who might finance voyages of exploration; ‘Vespucia’ sounded like the kind of word you spit out in anger, and would hardly send the heart aflutter with anticipation. From there, poor Amerigo Vespucci had little hope of keeping his surname preserved for eternity. It was his first name, Amerigo, that would be so honored.

Vespucci himself did not take this well. Hailing from a long and honored line of maritime explorers, Vespucci had come close to realizing a dream that few of us can attain – to be immortalized. That said, while Vespucci was a last name distinct to his own line, the first name Amerigo was as common in medieval Italy as John or Michael is in America today. Letters of shrill protest were written to the Pope and to the ruling class of Florence, his native city-state. When those failed, he assembled peasants who had grown to worship him in organized protest, demanding that he not be disrespected by having the great super-continent of Vespucia taken away from him. Silly as it may seem today, it was an electric issue in the first decade of the 16th century, and the consequences remain with us now.

It is in this final paragraph that I shall identify the real purpose of my article. Everything you’ve just read is completely false. For the last four years that I’ve made my living as a writer, I’ve been frustrated at readers’ habit of only reading the first couple paragraphs of an article, then drawing their conclusions accordingly. As such, I decided to conduct a little test. Anyone who reads this from start to finish will know that none of the history contained herein is accurate. Otherwise, the hoax perpetrated upon them will be their reckoning for laziness.

Rapers and Murderists Everywhere!

Published: The Good Men Project (February 23, 2016)

My friend George recently told me that his friend’s mother, who watches the BBC on a regular basis, uses the word “raper” instead of “rapist.” At first I scoffed at this revelation, but upon further reflection I started to wonder: Why do we say “rapist” instead of “raper?” Do we say “murderist” instead of “murderer” or “killist” instead of “killer?”

A quick glance at the etymology yields some insights. The word “rape” is derived from the Latin word rapere, which means “to seize”; by contrast, “murder” comes from the Old English word myrðrian and “kill” from the Old English word cwellan. I’d imagine that if I scratched around further, I’d probably find similar examples to support this thesis, although it would likely face maddening inconsistencies as well. Then again, we tinker with and alter the English language in countless ways every day. Obviously some cultures saw fit to simply refer to it as “raper” while others believed “rapist” sounded more appropriate. Why?

I don’t have an answer, but I do have a word count to fill, so I’ll press on with this observation. Regardless of which term makes the most etymological sense, there is something off-putting about adding an ‘-ist’ suffix to a terrible crime. Sure we do it with lesser offenses (“plagiarist” rolls off the tongue more easily than “plagiarer”), but when you tack it on to something as heinous as rape, it makes the crime sound almost distinguished by comparison. An ‘-er’ suffix merely implies that you have committed the action in question – a murderer has murdered, a robber has robbed, that sort of thing – but ‘-ist’ almost comes across as an accomplishment. Think about it: Would you have more respect for a “murderer” or a “murderist?” I might watch a one-hour episode of a True Crime show about a murderer, but I’d watch a whole damn TV series about someone worthy of the title “murderist.” Am I right?

Probably not. I’m probably putting too much thought into this. Then again, language does matter. The words we choose, or even the letters we include or exclude in those words, impact our consciousness. Maybe it’s not the biggest deal in the world that we say “rapist” instead of “raper,” but I suspect it probably does subtly effect how we view the nature of that particular crime… and, more specifically, the perpetrators of said crime. If it wasn’t for the fear of being viewed as an uncultured boor, I would revise my own use of the language and say “raper.” But, of course, I am a slave to appearances, so I dare not cross that linguistic threshold.

Instead I will close by noting that, at some future date, I would like to see a verbally dexterous comedy play fast and loose with switching out the ‘-ists’ and ‘-ers’ in these terms. Maybe a farce about a serial killist who spends his days as a truck drivist and, to conceal evidence of his crimes, burns down the buildings where they take place. As a result, he is eventually caught and charged with being an arsoner… Come to think of it, why do we say “arsonist” instead of “arsoner?”

You know what, I’m not going to pull on that thread.

The Comedy in White Supremacy

Published: The Good Men Project (January 2, 2016)

It’s one thing to explain why modern white supremacists are funny (something I’ve already done several times), but it’s quite another to actually illustrate how this can be the case. Fortunately, a good friend of mine recently received an anonymous message from an Internet stalker which allows me to do precisely that.

This troll, you see, was horrified when he visited my friend’s profile (I’ll simply refer to her as Desiree) and discovered my name on her list of Facebook connections. “You do realize that Matthew Rozsa thinks you are a stupid white goyim right?” he exclaimed in his message. “According to his belief system and the Talmud you are as a ‘wild beast’ or a ‘slave.'” When Desiree responded to this unexpected query by asking how he could be sure that she was just white, her anonymous admirer replied by petulantly declaring, “It’s okay, enjoy being called a ‘slave’ and ‘cattle’ behind your back.” Soon thereafter he blocked her, bringing a premature end to the brief conversation that both of us (Desiree and I) had found remarkably entertaining.

♦◊♦

While our reasons for enjoying this are probably self-evident, it’s still worthwhile to analyze them here, since the two-part explanation for our mutual mirth actually reveals quite a bit about how o disempower racist trolls of all kinds:

1. When trolls send bigoted messages, they make themselves look like losers.

Think about it for a second. When you read the message that this troll sent Desiree, did you imagine that it was sent from a high-powered business executive or Wall Street broker? Could you imagine this being typed out by a successful lawyer or doctor during the downtime in his private practice, or from a varsity athlete cooling off after a workout session or big game? This isn’t to say that the high and mighty don’t harbor toxic prejudices, but unless they’re using them to con gullible voters (see Donald Trump) or are straight-up stupid (again, see Donald Trump), they rarely express themselves in such crude ways.

This has less to do with ethics and more to do with self-respect, since if you’re like me – and, I suspect, most other people – the image conjured up by the racist troll’s message was probably less “alpha male Nordic god” and more “achingly insecure basement dweller.” One can imagine this kind of letter coming from a manchild who works dead-end jobs and flits in and out of legal trouble, who compensates for his inadequacies by harassing women and minorities while playing video games or polluting his mind with drugs and YouTube polemics. Because Desiree is a strikingly beautiful woman, it’s easy to understand how he developed a sexual fixation with her, and even easier to envision him spraying out a cloud of Cheetos dust and emitting a Darth Vader howl of “Nooooooooooo!” when he recognized my name in connection with her own. This brings me to my second point…

2. It is impossible to be a racist troll without also sounding like an idiot.

The idiocy displayed here is actually multifaceted. On a superficial level, one is immediately struck by the troll’s inability to distinguish between the singular and plural tenses (‘goy’ is singular while ‘goyim’ is plural, ‘cow’ is singular while ‘cattle’ is plural). What’s more, he woefully misunderstands the role of the Talmud in contemporary Jewish life. Like most religious texts that date back to antiquity or the Middle Ages, it is chock full of pseudoscience, racism, misogyny, and countless other opinions that don’t hold up to ethical or empirical scrutiny today. More importantly, though, it is also dreadfully incoherent. Written over a period of centuries by innumerable Rabbinical scholars from all over the world, the Talmud isn’t a coherent book so much as a rambling, 6,200 page discussion on just about anything that crossed the minds of its authors. Outside of the most orthodox religious communities, the average Jew hasn’t read more than a handful of fragments from the Talmud, and the notion that any ordinary Jew actually follows all of its teachings is laughable – unless, of course, one has had little to no meaningful contact with real-life Jewish people.

If you dig a little deeper, though, you’ll find that the real hilarity in this message comes from its poorly thought-out agenda. Exactly how did the troll anticipate that his words would somehow lead to a favorable response? It’s a logical fallacy akin to the men who try to woo women by texting pictures of their genitals. Has there ever been a woman who was turned off by a man but, upon seeing his dangly bits, suddenly thought to herself, “Wait, I could have THAT in me? Maybe I had this guy all wrong!” Similarly, has there ever been a successful, attractive woman who was repelled by the mere thought of cyberstalkers, only to change her tune when he decided to employ some good old fashioned racism against another man in her life?

♦◊♦

Of course, this brings us to the general reason why racist trolls are so ubiquitous in the first place. While the offensive rhetoric that they use online would get them marginalized in real life, the Internet is the one place where ignoring them simply doesn’t work. Even if you never confirm having read their remarks, they can always delude themselves into thinking that you have. More importantly, even if both of you already know that their ideology has no vestige of respectability, they can still believe that by virtue of having shocked you, they have ultimately managed to accomplish… something.

Yet although these individuals thrive off of their ability to shock and horrify, that doesn’t mean they want to be ridiculed. The problem, for them, is that they are in fact ridiculous – blazingly, obviously so – and when the rest of us neglect to point this out, we deprive ourselves of our most potent weapon for neutralizing them. These are individuals who rally under a ludicrous “white pride” banner that history has reduced to meaninglessness, whose current political champion is a bloviating trust fund billionaire with Chia Pet hair, and whose pretense of courage is belied by their overwhelming unwillingness to attach their real names to their views. If I wanted to write a farce to demean white supremacists, I couldn’t fabricate a better backdrop than this one.

Nor, for that matter, could I close this op-ed with a better observation than this one from President Dwight D. Eisenhower. I’ve already used it, but I’ve noticed that white supremacists who critique my work seem determined to ignore it, which is all the more reason for me to bow out with it here:

“I doubt that citizens like yourself could ever, under our democratic system, be provided with the universal degree of certainty, the confidence in their understanding of our problems, and the clear guidance from higher authority that you believe needed.. Dictatorial systems make one contribution to their people which leads them to tend to support such systems — freedom from the necessity of informing themselves and making up their own minds concerning these tremendous complex and difficult questions.”

Why do Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas?

Published: The Good Men Project (December 24, 2015)

Much to my horror, I discovered earlier today that my favorite local Chinese restaurant isn’t open on Christmas Eve.

This may not seem like a big deal – heck, you could even say that I’m a bit of a scrooge for faulting the establishment – but it’s important to remember that, as an American Jew, being denied Chinese food on this holiday is a bit like a Christian hearing their family church has decided to close. Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Tribe of Abraham has been enjoying Chinese food on this day for as long as human memory can record.

If you want to learn the real story, though, this piece from The Atlantic manages to explain things pretty nicely:

“The story begins during the halcyon days of the Lower East Side where, as Jennifer 8. Lee, the producer of The Search for General Tso, said, ‘Jews and Chinese were the two largest non-Christian immigrant groups’ at the turn of the century.

So while it’s true that Chinese restaurants were notably open on Sundays and during holidays when other restaurants would be closed, the two groups were linked not only by proximity, but by otherness. Jewish affinity for Chinese food ‘reveals a lot about immigration history and what it’s like to be outsiders,’ she explained.”

Of course, this wouldn’t be a proper story about Jewish culture if there wasn’t at least one Jew out there who disagreed with it. This brings me to another theory, courtesy of Josh Ozersky from Time Magazine:

“The thing to remember about Chinese food is that, besides being cheap, it is eminently suited to take out; at least three-quarters of the Chinese food I ate growing up was at home. And Jews love eating at home. We are intensely familial, home-loving and nuclear; and given that our own food is both bad and laborious (endlessly braised brisket, spattering latkes), Chinese food — varied, fatty and festive — is a better alternative in part because it’s always at hand. It’s a cheap lift; you can think of it as Jewish Prozac. And, beyond this, there is an even greater power of Chinese food in our lives, a sentimental tradition in a secular world.

Personally, I think both versions here are correct. Although Jewish and Chinese immigrants to America hail from very different geographic and cultural backgrounds, they both find themselves regarded as “outsiders” during one of the most important holidays celebrated in this country. While this isn’t solely responsible for the Jewish tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas, it most likely accounts for its genesis; from there, the convenience, deliciousness, and family-friendly qualities of this particular fast food cuisine makes up for the rest.

Having mentioned all of this, I would like to add a third theory – namely, that Jews began eating Chinese food on Christmas because they realized just how funny this would appear to be. After all, comedy is just as much a Jewish tradition as gefilte fish, and Jews love nothing more than setting up a good-natured joke about cultural pluralism. This is why, in my mind, the most important event in the history of Jewish Christmas occurred less than five years ago. It occurred when President Barack Obama appointed Elena Kagan, a Jewish judge, to the Supreme Court:

“When [Senator Lindsey] Graham questioned her about the Christmas Day bomber, Kagan started to answer seriously until he cut her off, asking her instead what she was doing on Christmas Day.

‘Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant,’ Kagan said, prompting the hearing room to erupt in laughter.”

If I could turn the Graham-Kagan exchange into a ringtone, I would do so in a heartbeat. That uproarious laughter at the end was, in its way, the perfect coda to a moment that captures so much about the American Jewish experience. Even though we don’t share the same religious traditions as most of our countrymen, we are overjoyed at the privilege of living in a nation as wonderfully diverse and accepting as this one. The mere thought of it warms my heart and fills my soul with joy… and if that isn’t the Christmas Spirit, I don’t know what is.

Why We Need To Bring Back Crushes

Published: The Good Men Project (August 20, 2015)

Let’s talk about crushes.

I recently noticed that when adults discuss their romantic feelings, the term “crush” is almost never used. When it does appear, there is almost always an apologetic undertone to it – people will qualify their crushes with adjectives like “schoolboy” or “schoolgirl” (as in, “I have a bit of a schoolboy crush on you”), or will in some other way indicate that they feel the emotion they’re displaying is childish.

To understand why this might be the case, I decided to break down the two opposite extremes of romantic sentiment:

  • Love: There is no emotion more meaningful than this one. Love can come in many forms and be directed toward all types of people – family members, friends, teachers, colleagues, and so on – but romantic love is particularly special because it’s the most intimate and vulnerable connection two human beings can form with each other. My personal theory has always been that love, at its core, is a human being’s attempt to cope with the inevitability of death. No one can know for certain what happens when we shuffle off this mortal coil, but the knowledge that there is one person who chose you to be their ultimate partner in life alleviates the terrible loneliness that accompanies a true appreciation of our finite conscious existence.
  • Lust: When you get right down to it, this is basically just a craving. Like hunger or exhaustion, it is the human body’s wave of indicating that one of its primordial physical needs isn’t being met. The main difference between lust and hunger or exhaustion, of course, is that the former isn’t technically required for survival (you can theoretically spend an entire lengthy lifetime as a virgin), whereas you literally need food and sleep to remain alive. Nevertheless, we are programmed to want sex, and the felt need is a very real one.

Having a crush, to me, is the exact middle ground between these two poles. Unlike lust, a genuine crush entails deep affection for the other individual’s personality traits – their interests, sense of humor, ability to carry on a conversation, various life philosophies, etc. There is an intangible but unmistakable chemistry that two people develop when one or both have a crush on the other, a mixture of bantering and more direct expressions of endearment.

By contrast, love only exists when two people have known each other deeply for a very long time. It is possible to be in love with someone who doesn’t reciprocate that emotion, but I’d argue it isn’t possible to love someone “from afar.” If you don’t know that individual as well as you know your best friends – and through qualitatively and quantitatively substantial interaction, rather than mere speculation as to what they’re really like – than any legitimate affection is at best a crush and at worst mere lust gussied up through rationalizations to seem like more.

The best part of a crush, though, is that you can do anything you want with it. If you’re in love with someone, the sheer intensity of the emotion usually compels you to some sort of proactive gesture – or, barring that, an existence of terrible internal torment. By contrast, if what you feel is merely lust, then you probably shouldn’t pursue a romantic relationship; consensual sexual encounters are fine, but anything more involves deluding yourself into believing that horniness is interchangeable with love (an assumption that rarely ends well for either party in a relationship). When you have a crush, though, you are on the fence about your feelings – and that means you can either ignore them without fear of subsequent regret or act on them without worrying that you’re being insincere. When you think about it, having a crush is the best place to be if you’re single and looking.

In short, it seems like the term “crush” has an obvious application to adult dating life. It isn’t used particularly often because of the juvenile association, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still need it. That’s why I’m going to continue using it whenever I feel it fits (and like most adults who date, I’ve developed many crushes over the years), and hope others will catch on.

5 Simple Tips To Being Both Lazy and Successful

Published: The Good Men Project (August 13, 2015)

If you’re reading this article and consider yourself to be lazy, ask yourself one question:

Why would someone choose to be lazy?

There is a considerable stigma attached to the lifestyle associated with laziness: Out-of-shape both physically and mentally, someone who doesn’t contribute to society, mooches off others instead of supporting themselves, and is generally regarded as a sort of stunted adolescent rather than a respectable adult.

Make no mistake about it, no one chooses to be lazy. There are many possible reasons why someone would become lazy against their will – mental illness, lack of experience in developing time management skills, various addictions and bad habits – and this article isn’t going to address them all. What it will do, however, is offer five simple tips that can help people who are inclined toward laziness (for whatever reason) lead successful professional and personal lives.

1. Recognize that you choose to be lazy because you associate work with servitude.

There is a line from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that captures this point perfectly:

“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

When someone who is lazy avoids work, it is because they would prefer to have free time instead of feeling shackled by stress, anxiety, and the other unpleasant emotions associated with “working.” The way to get around this is to try to restructure your life so that the feelings that cause an aversion to work are minimized. They can’t be eliminated entirely, of course, but if you reduce them to a manageable level, those occasions when you do need to deal with drudgery don’t feel as onerous.

One great way to start doing this…

2. Forget about having a work ethic… Develop a good play ethic.

Returning to Mark Twain (if you didn’t know that he was the author of Tom Sawyer, then shame on you):

“The work that is really a man’s own work is play and not work at all. Cursed is the man who has found some other man’s work and cannot lose it. When we talk about the great workers of the world we really mean the great players of the world.”

When considering a career that will make you successful, do not focus on variables like money and recognition – at least, not at first. Your foremost priority should be finding a job that you can enjoy performing, one that excites you when you wake up in the morning, engages you throughout the day, and leaves you feeling satisfied when you go to bed at night. Money and recognition are important components of this, but they can be grossly overplayed in our culture. Forget about the people who wind up spending so much time earning money and accruing status that they wind up being miserable (I know plenty of lawyers who fit this description); if you fantasize about getting a job that will make you rich or famous, instead of one that will make you happy, you’re more likely to aim for a career that seems “cool” rather than one that you’re good at. Ironically, this actually makes it less likely that you’ll be rich or famous – the people most likely to become rich or famous at a particular vocation are those that happen to be really good at what they do. Being good at what you do, in turn, comes about when you enjoy what you do… which is why that must come first.

3. Be smart: Err on the side of honesty.

Now we’re going to switch from Mark Twain to another American icon, Abraham Lincoln:

“No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar.”

You may notice that ol’ Honest Abe doesn’t talk here about the moral virtues of honesty; he knew them, I know them, and it’s safe to assume that you probably know them as well. That said, the most common arguments against honesty are practical ones – what if being honest somehow harms me, hurts someone else’s feelings, comes across as rude, etc. The problem with this type of thinking is that it encourages people to search for reasons to lie, embellish the truth, and employ hyperbole, when the most logical way to handle any given situation is to try to make your words as accurate a reflection of the objective truth as you can. Not only does this make you a more reliable and trustworthy individual, but it also significantly reduces your stress. So much of the negative energy we build up over the years comes from needing to maintain illusions and deceptions, or figuring out how to effectively “play the game.” Being honest cuts that down to an incredible degree.

This doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. Because you’re human, and thus fallible, you will inevitably make mistakes; being wrong isn’t the same thing as being a liar. Having said that, before deciding to exaggerate or fabricate, make sure you have first exhausted every conceivable way that being straightforward and honest could have helped you.

4. Surround yourself with people who make you comfortable.

Just because something isn’t technically considered “work” doesn’t mean that you don’t experience it as work. This is particularly true for our relationships with the people closest to us. In romantic relationships, for example, it is very common to hear people discuss checklists of the qualities that they want in a significant other – physical attractiveness, career success, money, etc. While there is nothing wrong with creating a “dream man/woman,” the danger here is that you will focus so much on fulfilling an ambition for your personal life that you’ll overlook actual day-to-day compatibility. If your goal is to live a relaxed, stress-free life, the best bet is to come up with a checklist of what you would want in a significant other when it comes to your immediate needs. Do you feel more comfortable around people who are funny and outgoing or quiet and introspective? Is sex incredibly important to you or are you satisfied with only a couple of encounters a week? When you go out, would you prefer a quiet night at a nice restaurant or an evening of bar hopping? When you have free time alone, what would you like to do?

A very similar set of standards can be applied to non-romantic relationships as well. There are plenty of friends and family members who we grow accustomed to, but don’t necessarily enjoy being around. Instead of keeping people in your life because you’re used to them, ask yourself: Does this person make me happy? When I am around him or her, do I enjoy myself or do I feel like I’m working? In the end, our notions of how things “should” be can be the biggest impediment to achieving actual happiness. Figure out what makes you happy; as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else, the chances are that is how things should be for you.

5. Keep a schedule.

The rest of the advice on this list is pretty general, but I need to be specific here: Once the stresses of having a bad job, being dishonest, and maintaining the wrong kinds of relationships are gone, the last major emotion that makes life feel like work is the sense of being overwhelmed. Even before we become adults, we are bombarded with obligations from school, extracurricular activities, our families, and countless other areas. This only gets worse as an adult, and the feeling of being overwhelmed can wear many people down to a nub.

There is no way to get rid of this quantity of work, at least not without extreme lifestyle adjustments or shirking important responsibilities. By keeping a thorough schedule, however, you will never feel like the workload is quite literally more than you can handle. There will still be periods in which you are particularly hard-pressed, of course, but even then matters are less likely to seem out of control if you always have a single place where everything important is not only written down, but organized.

Perhaps one of the reasons I appreciate this last point so much is that, to quote my final subject (author Lois Lowry), “Writing is self employment, so you can make your own schedule.” While not every job gives you that much liberty, I suspect that most jobs can be properly reined in with a sufficiently disciplined scheduling system.

This may be a mundane way to end an article, but then again, it’s the keystone to any effective way of both feeling relaxed and lazy while being simultaneously productive. Besides, what better way to end an op-ed on laziness than on a “meh” note?

Whatever Happened To Honor?

Published: Good Men Project (August 6, 2015)

What is honor… and why has American culture lost touch with it?

It’s the simple pleasures that bring the most joy in life, and one of my favorite pastimes has been listening to my friends play music. Not going to concerts, mind you, but having great tunes performed in my immediate vicinity while drinking, smoking, and kicking back with the musicians while they’re taking a break.

And then some dingus calls the cops because the music is too loud.

This was my experience last night, and although I’ve pondered the question of honor before (see my recent piece on Donald Trump), this incident brought the matter back to my mind. More specifically, it prompted me to raise two questions:

1. What exactly is honor?

2. Why have Americans lost touch with it?

The first question can be answered simply enough. Honor – at least as I’m defining it for the purposes of this article – has three main characteristics:

1. It involves holding a set of core principles and standing by them consistently.

2. It requires the honor-bound individual to accept whatever negative consequences may result from their actions.

3. It necessitates not becoming a burden to others when you can just as easily carry the weight of a given responsibility yourself.

This incident prompted me to raise two questions:
1. What exactly is honor?
2. Why have Americans lost touch with it?

Having established the parameters of what can be defined as honor, the next challenge is to determine whether our culture has lost touch with it. To explore that, I’m going to return to a debate that ensued last night.

Although I wasn’t among the so-called noisemakers, I was pretty appalled that my friend’s neighbor (whoever it was) had called the police instead of simply knocking on his door and asking to keep the music down. In the grand scheme of things this is obviously a pretty minor dishonorable act, but it nevertheless struck me as cowardly. Much to my surprise, two of the three band members who had been playing disagreed with me and sympathized with the anonymous caller. After one explained that many people are simply non-confrontational and/or don’t want to be inconvenienced by having to leave their house late at night, the other told a story about a friend of his who did confront noisy neighbors, only to be subjected to stalking, vandalism, and physical harassment for his troubles (after they refused to turn the music down, he did call the cops… but naturally they now knew who had done it).

In a sense, these experiences cover the gamut of reasons why people may choose to be dishonorable (for instance, by calling the police before even attempting to resolve a dispute amicably). Deconstructed they break down into two basic points:

1. Standing your ground can be uncomfortable (which is a diplomatic way of saying it’s often a pain in the ass).

2. People are afraid that if they stand up for themselves, their loved ones, and/or their principles, a bad situation might escalate into a worse one.

Of these two positions, I find the first to be the least sympathetic, which is why I will dispense with it right away. While it may seem unfair for an individual to be inconvenienced in the name of standing up for their beliefs, it is far worse for them to refuse accountability for their actions while insisting on acting anyway. Yes, it might annoying to put on your slippers and walk over to a neighbor’s house at 11 PM simply to ask that they turn off their music. At the same time, if you’re going to risk getting them in trouble with law enforcement, the least you can do is give them the opportunity to do the right thing first. In the grand scheme of things, it’s rather petty and selfish to subordinate their freedoms to your desire for immediate comfort.

As to the second point: Unfortunately, I have to concede that to my friends. Every situation involving a potential confrontation is ultimately a risk/reward analysis. How important is it that I resolve this problem, you ask yourself, and what kinds of risks will be involved if I allow myself to be personally sucked into it? If the potential risk is harm to your person or property – to say nothing of harm befalling your loved ones – than the peril may not be worth the potential gains… and if that music remains too damn loud, it’s just easier to call the police.

Of course, while this concern is unquestionably valid, it nevertheless reinforces my larger point about society’s loss of honor. After all, in a culture where individuals were held to the standards articulated in my three-point list, the average man or woman standing up for their values wouldn’t need to worry about such disproportionate backlash. Indeed, a brief skimming of American history reveals that for a very long time, this was the case; before Joe and Jane Q. Public could pick up a phone and beckon the police, law enforcement was reserved only for particularly heinous crimes, with the average citizen expected to confront one another over minor offenses. Just as a business historian will tell you that capitalism became particularly exploitative once corporations began to replace small businesses (since a small business owner generally finds it harder to screw over employees that he personally knows, whereas a CEO can lay off thousands unfairly and never see their faces), so too has our disconnectedness made it easier to be dishonorable.

That doesn’t make it right, however – if anything, it makes the loss all the more lamentable.

A Quote Collector’s Thoughts on Economic Conservatism

Published: Good Men Project (July 2, 2015)

Matthew Rozsa loves quotes. And he disagrees with economic conservatives. Here’s where he’s going with that.

“I have gathered a posie of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is my own.”
– John Bartlett, publisher and editor of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations”

Some men collect baseball cards. Others collect comic books. I collect quotes.

It’s hard for me to pinpoint the exact reason behind this affinity for aphorisms. Perhaps it can be traced back to my longstanding love of the English language, and particularly for the countless ways words can be used to capture human thought. Maybe its roots are found in my desire to find a relatively easy way to intellectually engage myself when bored. There is even the possibility that it stems from a subconscious recognition of my own innate verbosity, one that causes me to better appreciate thinkers who are capable of succinctness.

Most likely, however, my love of quotes comes from the simple fact that they are so damn useful.

Some men collect baseball cards. Others collect comic books. I collect quotes.

Take my frustration with conservatives. On economic issues, right-wing pundits love to concoct all sorts of convoluted moral justifications for policies that benefit the wealthy and big business at the expense of the working class and poor. As one attempts to slog through the quagmire of platitudes, prevarications, and downright distortions that are the natural bi-products of these efforts, it is easy to lose sight of a simple truth that cuts all of their rationales to ribbons. Fortunately, economist John Kenneth Galbraith can help with that:

“The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

When the falseness of their moral arguments becomes too blatant to be ignored, economic conservatives will often assert that they support policies which are morally wrong not because they feel doing so is in their best interest (that, they claim, is merely incidental), but rather because they are following fundamental economic laws which can never be violated. As this line of reasoning goes, conservatives are actually pained to see that economic policy cannot be carried out in a fashion that emphasizes human rights; at the same time, they have no choice, for the sheer notion that one can break the laws of the marketplace makes about as much sense as arguing that one can defy Newton’s Laws of Motion.

For a response to this, I turn to President Franklin Roosevelt:

“While they prate of economic laws, men and women are starving. We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.”

Another common defense used by economist rightists, ranging from Rush Limbaugh to Ron Paul, is that the rich deserve policies which favor their interests, since their ability to spread capital around makes them America’s “most productive citizens.” Here I simply cite the first Republican president himself, Abraham Lincoln:

“Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

‘Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.’ – Abraham Lincoln

At this, economic conservatives will sneer that liberals and other critics of pro-plutocratic policies simply lack the expertise to really know what they’re talking about. That always brings me to philosopher Nicholas Butler:

“An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.”

After all of this baloney has failed to hold up, conservatives fall back on their classic stand-by, one culled directly from the McCarthy Era—i.e., the idea that economic liberalism is “socialist” and/or “un-American.” Fortunately, there are two quotes from prominent American statesmen, both of whom served before socialist ideology was even created, that easily disprove this claim. The first is from the Founding Father John Taylor of Caroline…

“Wealth, like suffrage, must be considerably distributed to sustain a democratick [sic] republic; and hence, whatever draws a considerable proportion of either into a few hands, will destroy it. As power follows wealth, the majority must either have wealth or lose power.”

… and the second is none other than the president whose face appears on the twenty dollar bill, Andrew Jackson:

“There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing.”

To conclude, I usually bear in mind the axiomatic truth about government articulated by the author Anatole France:

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”

Aren’t quotes fantastic?