20 January 2017

A fond farewell to the Obama years

I'm celebrating the last few hours of the presidency of a man I helped to elect. There will be those who say he ran on a platform of change but did not make any. Do not believe them.
Against an incredible and quite racist backlash, President Obama pushed through ambitious legislation which left us, on balance, a more perfect Union than we were when we started. More Americans have access to more opportunities than ever before and more access to redress of grievances should they be mistreated. He worked to minimize the effects of the Great Recession. He diversified both the executive and judicial branches, including at the highest levels of government, and he diversified the types of art that are officially nationally appreciated. He recommitted America to nuclear non-proliferation and arms reduction. And he did it all while being an involved father to his children, a loving spouse to his wife Michelle, and a dutiful brother to his siblings.
There are, of course, both areas in which I wholeheartedly disagree with his approach and think we regressed and areas in which I am disappointed with his lack of action or the meager progress he made. Still, I am proud to have worked for him, proud to call him my president, and proud to begin listing him as one of my former presidents beginning later today.
The first First Lady I remember well is Hillary Clinton. Although my parents had to explain to me how new and unusual it was to have a working woman be the First Lady, her brilliance and commitment to the public good inspired my young feminist self. Watching Michelle Obama for (more than) these past eight years has been an absolute joy. Hillary, part of my mother's generation, fought and fights the kind of feminist battle Michelle benefited from - that we all benefited from. And Michelle daily moves us closer to global safety, independence, equality for women and girls. She is a true leader and I look forward to seeing what she will be up to next.
Working for OFA changed my life. For me, it was not an expression of youthful idealism. There were other candidates in '08 whose political views more closely conformed to mine than did Obama's. I viewed him then, as I do now, as a pragmatist. I did hope that he could create a more transparent (and therefore trustworthy) government, and his failure to do so (and in fact his moves toward more secrecy) remains my biggest disappointment of the last eight years. But even eight years ago I wasn't holding my breath on that one.
But working for OFA changed my life. It allowed me to re-encounter my hometown as an adult, exploring amazing places I never previously thought worth my attention. It introduced me to friends I would never have otherwise met and bonded us with a core of experiences that I treasure. I gained my Obama family. I learned so much, not only about public policy and how to campaign, not only many of the technical skills I have since put to use professionally, but even about people. And how what makes each of us tick individually somehow combines into the representative democratic experiment we call America.
The current political climate - that seems the euphemism of choice - creates a temptation to fall into the trap of declaring our 45th president not to be mine. This was also a popular expression of discontent in the George W. Bush years, and I did not then fall into that trap, even though the case for delegitimization was compelling. Because I can claim a president to be the leader of my country without agreeing with that person's views or decisions. Because for now, I live in a place where that remains not only possible, but enshrined as my right. And if I claim to have no ties to the leader of my country, I cannot see myself to be in any way responsible for the actions America takes under that leader. But though I may not personally approve of or consent to actions our next president will take, I assent to our system of government and affirm my role within it not only on election day. I cannot pretend I can absolve myself of the consequences of Trump's leadership. My responsibility to stop his agenda didn't end when the electors cast their ballots for him. Today it will truly start in earnest.
There are those who see the diversity of opinions and approaches on the left as a detriment to the goal of stopping America from adopting Trump's agenda. They claim we must be unified but they mean we must be uniform. When we disallow dissent we become no longer radical but reactionary. Still, we must organize across our differences of opinion, approach, and priorities if we are restrain our next leader. This does not mean we need to relinquish our own convictions.
I am very grateful to have benefited from the Obama years and to have been able to do my part to make them happen. I pray that we experience a seamless, peaceful transition of power. And that we can again.

30 November 2015

In defense of the "stay safe" message...

My alma mater received a credible threat of gun violence for today.  The FBI notified the school that an anonymous shooter threatened a specific campus location at a specific campus time.  In response, the University of Chicago cancelled all services deemed non-essential.  Why they closed student health services as non-essential is a subject for a different post.  The U of C has increased security, including the oh-so-helpful police with visible weapons, and has advised students to stay off and away from campus or stay indoors if they must be on campus because they live there.

Given the situation, many good wishes are being sent to U of Cers and Hyde Parkers, including messages like "thinking of you," "praying for you," "sending love your way," and, of course, the requisite "stay safe."  Amidst the inundation of these posts, some U of Cers are decrying the futility (and therefore perceived insensitivity) of such offerings and directives.

There are legitimate critiques to these mostly formulaic offerings, of course.  Saying "thinking of you" isn't doing anything but communicating worry.  Praying or sending love or good vibes is possibly effective, at least at transforming worry into compassion, but can come off as trite or even offensive.  And the stay safe directive can make it seem like you are responsible for avoiding violence in an uncontrollable situation.  But while possibly not ideal, all these responses communicate that there are people who aren't colocated with you who care.  They say, ultimately, I care whether you live today.  I want you to live today. And I do.  And whether you are a friend I hold dearly, another student trapped in your own home by a terror threat, or the person who thinks bringing a gun to campus will solve your problems, I care whether you live today.  But saying it that way is likely to provoke of intensify your fear of death, which is the last thing I want to do right now.

This is not to argue that if you are afraid then the terrorists win.  Someone threatened to kill you, and fear is a valid and reasonable emotion to experience in a situation like this.  But fear causes the brain to increase irrational responses as well.  It can produce panic and/or a fight-or-flight response.  So while it is ok to be afraid, listening to and acting on your fear could put you in an unnecessarily difficult situation, which I don't want to make for you.

So be annoyed, if you must.  Or exit your social media universe and take today to catch up on your reading, checking updates once in a while, to avoid the trite concern of your powerless friends, acquaintances, and lovers.  But direct your annoyance properly, at the person whose threat caused the situation you're in, and at the systems which led to gun violence seeming like the best solution to end or express their pain.

Here's why I like "stay safe" for these situations.  In all likelihood, you are currently safe.  The word "stay" implies that; it serves as a reminder that in all this chaos, you can start by taking a deep breath and reminding yourself that as of now you are safe.  If you aren't, get help and call 911 if warranted.  There are actions you can take that would decrease your safety such as being on campus where there are armed Chicago police (never mind the internet-based threat), and you don't need to take them.  This is not a day to organize a protest of U of C closing.  People with guns might use them and the number of them on campus has increased because of the threat.  Take affirmative steps for self-care to avoid crossing border from fear to debilitating anxiety.  And distract yourself from your powerlessness over things you cannot control.  Because today, I want you to live.  The world needs you, my favorite thinkers, jokers, rabble-rousers, and curmudgeons.  Learn something new today (crescat scientia, vita excolatur).  And stay safe.

13 August 2014

Beyond Mathematical Discovery: What Having a Woman Fields Medalist Really Means

There is no Nobel Prize in Mathematics.  And while the Norwegian government has managed to fund a separate prize called the Abel Prize with a similar monetary award and the Israeli government issues a coveted Wolf Prize in the discipline, no mathematical prize means more in mathematics or outside it than the Fields Medal.  The monetary value is only $15,000 Canadian, but the prestige is priceless. This year, for the first time, the Fields Medal, which can be awarded to as many as four people every four years, was awarded to a woman, Maryam Mirzakhani, and awarded to a mathematician from the global south, Artur Avila.  The press is making a big deal of the woman thing and not a big deal about the global south thing, which should not surprise anyone.  The press is also trying to diminish the significance of a woman winning the Fields Medal by stating that no woman has yet won either the Abel or Wolf Prize in mathematics and talking statistics on the sex ratio of Ph.D.s in mathematics.

These prizes are all awarded for mathematical discovery in particular, not pedagogy, compilation of resources, or many of the other things that academic mathematicians do in their work. All but one recipient of the Fields Medal has been an academic.  When you think about mathematical discovery, you think about a bunch of dead white guys having eureka moments in their bath tubs with a crown.  And maybe, if you are the child of mathematicians like me who was the right age in 1994, you think about Andrew Wiles holing himself up in secrecy for seven years to prove Fermat's Last Theorem.  And, if you read the news, you might also think of the one non-academic Fields Medalist Grigori Perelman, who proved the PoincarĂ© conjecture.  Even if you are the child of two mathematicians, you probably don't think about your mother running Maple calculations about complex manifolds while cooking dinner, or a young mathematician taking a break from writing a paper to nurse her child.  And you don't think about how the ability of even a brilliant mathematician to devote the time and energy to amazing discovery and to get the resources she needs is dependent on her gender.  Only 30% of mathematicians are women, and far fewer are tenured faculty at the world's top research institutions.

Before getting to the Fields Medal itself, let me push the other prizes to the side.  The Wolf Prize has only existed since 1978, and it is a lifetime achievement prize.  Its recipients are the authors of your college mathematical textbooks, the provers and conjecturers of Big Theorems, and the founders of new mathematical disciplines.  Among its recipients are many Fields Medalists, and it has no age cap.  This means that the gender bias in its recipients spans not just the last 20 years (assuming start of real mathematical work around age 20) but of the last 50 to 60 - Shiing-Shen Chern received the prize at age 73.  So, when looking at a Wolf Prize awarded in 2014, we need to look at the gender biases in mathematics at least back to 1964.  The Abel Prize has only been in existence since 2001, and despite its 6 million kroner ($1 million US) prize, is not discussed as a goal in mathematics.  Its recipients are mainly winners of the other two prizes, and I think it is still working to establish itself as a legitimate prize, and picking winners helps in that.  It is worth noting that my mother's thesis advisor, Isadore Singer, shared the prize with Sir Michael Atiyah in 2004 for the Atiyah-Singer Theorem, which won a Fields Medal for Atiyah but not for Singer, as singer was too old to win the prize at the time.  Similarly there is no age cut off for the Abel Prize, which is also in the process of making up for its years of not existing.  It is therefore not surprising that it has not yet been awarded to any women.

Now for the Fields Medal, which is awarded for outstanding discoveries by young mathematicians.  For young mathematicians to succeed in quests for discovery, they need to be in the right environment and have support and the time to make their discoveries.  This includes being in a research environment full of other talented mathematicians, usually ones in your own field, and having the support to do independent and collaborative research as well as teach.  Additionally, being able to make mathematical discoveries is not usually a matter of Eureka moments but of extensive contemplation and research, something which taking the time to bear and raise children, even if not taking time off from academic teaching responsibilities, can severely hamper women's progress in mathematicians.  While plenty of men mathematicians spend time raising children and caring for their families, they also have the option of having children later in life (which they do) and passing off care responsibilities to their partners in ways that are not acceptable for women.  The consistent gender imbalance of faculty at elite institutions makes it even harder for women to get the resources they need to overcome these challenges.  Top young women mathematicians are often given excellent positions at 2nd tier schools who are interested in attracting young mathematicians to keep and expanding which fields they have faculty in.  They take these jobs because tenure is hard to come by and they are then set for life.  But it makes incredible discovery harder.

I am hopeful with these latest Fields Medalists.  The inclusion of a mathematician from the global south means that meaningful mathematical educational structures are developing there.  The award going to a woman under 40 at a top American institution means that we are on the way to fixing the gender disparity in mathematics.  If she can now get the support she needs at Stanford, others will be able to as well, and more women will want to become mathematicians.  Programs will have to be more attentive to specific needs and concerns of women.  And maybe fifty years from now, the Fields Medal, the Abel Prize, and the Wolf Prize in mathematics will all be able to be given to amazing mathematicians of many genders on a regular basis.

05 August 2014

9 Av

This year I find that my fast has been easy so far, with three hours left to go.  Not that that's the point of Tisha b'Av, but it's noteworthy.  I feel appropriately in touch with brokenness and conscious that our world remains unredeemed. But Tisha b'Av as mourning doesn't feel meaningful, maybe because I'm already mourning.  In addition to the loss of Mr. Boy, this year Tisha b'Av is my grandpa's yahrzeit.  The metaphor of a bottom speaks much more to me this year.  It feels like the world, the people Israel (not to mention the land), and my life have all hit bottom.  I wish I could write more on this, but now is not the time.

Anyway, some 9 Av meditations if you are in need.  Not standard ones.



01 August 2014

Peace is a Radical Pursuit: A Poem for Shabbat Jazon

Peace is a radical pursuit
Not the desire of polite society
To avoid the drama and chaos
Of conflicting human instinct
The pundits cry out for the moderates
"Where are the reasonable voices?"
They ask for the confrontation-averse
They call for the champions
Of maintaining the status quo
The wise who would rather
Continue to live in a world
Of unchallenged hypocrisy
Where occupation is sustainable
And terrorism acceptable - for now -
As long as it doesn't flood
The news feed or clog
The air waves or clutter
The rabbi's disagreeable sermon

The pundits cry out for the peacemakers
"Where are the reasonable voices?"
They ask for the confrontation-averse
They call for the champions
Of maintaining the status quo
The wise who would rather
Continue to live in a world
Of unchallenged hypocrisy
Where occupation is sustainable
And terrorism acceptable - for now -
As long as it doesn't flood
The news feed or clog
The air waves or inflame
The imam who is a foreigner
Anyway - from the Bronx
How exotic - And always
Jews first and Muslims after

Peace is a radical pursuit
Not meant for civility
Peace is not easy or quiet
It does not make way
For celebrity gossip
Or whatever it is that
Normal people care about
Peace is abnormal, anomalous
A miracle, I say, all say
Peace means I must care 
About your happiness
As much as I care about mine
It means I must hurt about your pain
As much as I hurt about mine
Peace means that I know
That the word naqba
Emotionally translates to galut
That it is real and
That it will be felt
Statehood or not
For the rest of forever
Until mashiaj comes

To be a Jew means that I believe
With perfect faith that she is on her way
Already, though she delays
To be a Jew means to believe
In the radical notion
That peace is possible
Even now, especially now
Achieving peace as a Jew
Means I must be like the disciples
Of Aaron - loving peace and pursuing it
To be a Jew is to be a storyteller
Of exile - of survival
That inspires the Dalai Lama
To be a Jew is to respond
To the most heated argument
With the affirmation
That these and these are
The words of a living God

The merciful, the compassionate
In which I may not believe
To be a Jew means
To not oppress others
Because I know oppression
To be a Jew means I must beat
My swords into plowshares
And my spears into pruning hooks
And then I must beat my plowshares
Into trumpets and my pruning hooks
Into guitars - to be the folk song army
To be a Jew is to turn
To turn my song into prayer
To be a Jew is to end
All my prayers with prayers for peace
And to pray not only with my words
But also with my feet

Peace is a radical pursuit
Not for those who justify any
Violence against tunnelers
Who are obviously up
To no good at all
Not for those who try
To figure out who
Has the moral high ground
Peace does not blame or shame
Peace is not the absence of violence
It is the hurling of understanding
Against hatred, of love
Against fear, of kindness
Against all types of aggression

Peace is a radical pursuit
It is the humble admission
That I don't know
What it's like to be you
That I will never know
What it's like to be you
But that I wish for you
To have everything that I want
And everything that you want
Peace is a radical pursuit
It is the acknowledgement
of guilt and pain and sorrow
Peace is a radical pursuit
It is an offering
Of the broken self
To experience 
Further vulnerability

Peace is a radical pursuit
Peace is not the prophet's vision
Peace is not the musician's hope
Peace is not the artist's aspiration
Peace is not the poet's dream
It is her job
Peace is as close to us
As the air we breathe
And as perplexing
As that breath we spend
So many hours trying to find
Welcome to the world's
Most hazardous occupation

Peace is a radical pursuit
It is not standing with anyone
It is sitting with everyone
It is for the brave-hearted
It is for the strong-willed
It is for the faithful
Peace is the proclamation
That in the face of every
Unimaginable provocation
As well as the expected ones
We will not feed the trolls
Except at the dinner table
Where they should eat more

Moderation perpetuates
Hatred and violence
It exacerbates
The pain of the status quo
Moderation is unreasonable
Peace is the reasonable alternative
Peace is a radical pursuit
Impatient, chutzpadik, a loud
Call to prayer at sunrise
Peace is a pundit
Demanding that we abandon
Being perpetrators and being victims
Peace is an activist
Fighting for its presence
Peace is an organizer
Asking you: Are you radical enough?