Peretz, Apologies, and the Days of Awe

What Marty Peretz should have done to apologize — and what the rest of us should do.

So Marty Peretz has sort of apologized, and Andy has (rightfully to my mind) taken him to task for it. This isn’t the first time, though, that Peretz has either apologized for saying harmful things about Muslims, or it has been justly demanded that he do so.  And that can be instructive for all of us.

Someone who finds himself in such a situation should do more than apologize; it is, rather, an opportunity for self-examination, i.e. “why do I always seem to be in this spot?”  Peretz, I think, honestly does not think he’s an anti-Islamic bigot.  Maybe he is surrounded by idiots and anti-semites.  Surely he himself thinks so.  But a more adult approach is to re-examine your thinking, your behavior, your tendencies: I don’t think I’m a bigot, but I always wind up saying things that people construe as bigoted, so maybe there is something in my thought or emotional processes that is leading me to say things that I really don’t believe.

Note that this can work with just about any character trait, not necessarily connected with politics.  Maybe you get jealous and petty.  I have a tendency toward irritability and a short fuse, but I don’t really mean to get testy.  So what’s happening?  What are the processes that bring me to that place?  Can I develop my awareness of when these feelings are bubbling up in me, and take corrective action?

Lean against the wind.  Maybe one way to achieve a more balanced character is to proactively take actions against a tendency.  Perhaps Peretz genuinely feels that Park51 is horrid, but surely, as he well knows, this country has no lack of anti-Muslim actions and bigots.  So he could spend more space on The Spine writing about them.  He doesn’t need to change his views on anything, but since he says that he abhors anti-Muslim bigotry, he could search it out and condemn it more.

Same thing applies here with any character trait.  Worried about arrogance?  Spend time in activities that you are not good at, or places where you might even be embarrassed.  Impatient?  Drive around Los Angeles at rush hour.

I have found that these two ways of acting and being have been very helpful to me.  The point, as old as Aristotle, and most recently deepened and illuminated by Jonathan Haidt’s masterful The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, is that human character derives not from our rational faculties but rather from ingrained habit.  Changing those habits is the key to successful character formation.  It lies at the heart of the Jewish tradition of mussar, which has been beautifully and powerfully updated for moderns by Alan Morinis and his colleagues at the Mussar Institute.

Under normal circumstances, the post would finish with some tag line about this is particularly appropriate during “these Days of Awe.”  But actually, it’s just the opposite: they show an important weakness of the entire tradition of the High Holydays.  Real character change cannot be done in ten days, and in fact, it is an ongoing process.  It comes not in peak moments, but in boring and everyday ones.  The High Holy Days of course do not explicitly say, “Focus now and forget it the rest of the year.”  Theoretically, they are supposed to inspire you to do it the rest of the year.  But practically, they do not.  At best, we focus on things for ten days, rejoice that we can finally eat, and then move on.  That’s a big problem: give me a year of Mussar over the Rosh and the Yom.  And maybe even give a Mussar Institute scholarship to Marty Peretz.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

8 thoughts on “Peretz, Apologies, and the Days of Awe”

  1. Unlike you, Peretz is wealthy and powerful (in a small way) and has spent the last few decades surrounded by sycophants. When you start out intellectually second-rate these are disadvantages that cannot be overcome through introspection.

  2. It's almost impossible to carry on a conversation about these matters when Peretz is dismissed as simply an anti-Islamic bigot. I worry, am I simply an anti-Islamic bigot?

    And yet. I heard Imam Rauf on NPR today. He spoke of his belief that religious moderates of all religions were locked in a struggle with violent extremists of all religions. This doesn't ring true to me. It seems an evasion of responsibility. I believe I am responsible for the creation, and the control, of the Baruch Goldsteins of the world. Not the Muslims. Not the Christians. Me. Us. I don't think anyone in America believes the Muslims are responsible for Terry Jones. I am. We are.

  3. Remind Peretz:

    If one person tells you you're a donkey, ignore him. If ten people tell you you're a donkey, get a saddle.

  4. I think another good way to overcome this sort of thing is to try to meet individuals of the group about which one has an attitude problem. If it's done correctly, under conducive circumstances, it can really change one's ideas. One gets positive impressions that counteract the negative ones buried in the subconscious. (I suspect most of us have a real mess going on in there. Scary!)

  5. larry birnbaum says:

    "It’s almost impossible to carry on a conversation about these matters when Peretz is dismissed as simply an anti-Islamic bigot. I worry, am I simply an anti-Islamic bigot?"

    Yes. This has been another issue of SATSQ.

  6. Larry, I heard the Rauf piece on NPR too. I don't see his statement as an evasion of responsibility. Muslims did not create Terry Jones, and Muslims can do precious little to combat his particular evil. That battle lies with Christian moderates generally, with Americans generally, and American moderate Christians particularly. Similarly, American moderate Jews have a particular responsibility for tolerating Meir Kahane's craziness.

    The larger question is to what extent moderates have (and can use) influence over the likes of Terry Jones, Kahane's remaining followers, and the Wahhabist (and more extreme) elements in Islam.

  7. JZ: "Impatient? Drive around Los Angeles at rush hour."

    I read once that back in the days when Japan had violent radical student movements, the training of Japanese riot policemen included ikebana, to inculcate patience.

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