From Seattle PI:

Strangers hated him, blamed him for wrecking their lives, deemed him a time-sucking pariah who grated on millions of people worldwide.

None of that mattered to Robert Soloway; it was part of his fortune, his way. As he vexed others, he drove Porsches, dressed in Prada, had a penthouse and lived a playboy’s life.

But his insecurity was never far behind. By the time federal agents arrested him for spewing illegal e-mails, he didn’t much protest the moniker they gave him – the Spam King.

“Here’s my dysfunction,” Soloway said recently. “It was that notoriety. People knew me. No one clapped for me at my high school graduation. Maybe it’s not how I want to be famous, but (my thinking was) ‘At least people know who I am.’ “

Once considered one of the most prolific spammers in the world – sending millions of e-mails a day for years – Soloway was sentenced last month to nearly four years in prison after pleading guilty to tax evasion and e-mail and wire fraud.

The punishment capped years of festering rage, in which people said he clogged inboxes, ruined Web domains, killed livelihoods, wasted productivity and put innocent people on spamming blacklists.

These days, the 29-year-old felon appears less a villain and more a jumbled study in contrasts.

In his first lengthy, local interview, Soloway was mostly contrite, with a touch of defiance. He was elegantly composed in Italian loafers and a chic velvet jacket. His body, afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome, twitched with tics.

He spoke candidly but declined to provide friends and family to corroborate his story.

His fall was swift and stunning.

He once thought nothing of jetting to Vegas and tipping a cabbie $1,000.

But in the year since his May 2007 arrest, he had to find a job and worked for a while in a leather-cleaning factory for $9 an hour. The feds seized his Prada, Versace, Gucci and Armani jackets, forcing him to shop the clearance rack in Macy’s when he needed a winter coat.

He once owned a fleet of luxury cars, but his last one, a Mercedes SL 500, was repossessed, so he now walks or takes the bus. He eats at McDonald’s. He spends much of his time in the company of his lawyer, Richard Troberman, who declined to comment.

His posh Harbor Steps penthouse is long gone, exchanged for a small studio in the same downtown building. His next move will be more drastic – he has been ordered to report to a federal prison camp on Sept. 22. The judge gave him 60 days to work out his many medications.

“I’m happier than I’ve ever been,” he said. “I can honestly say, even though I’m going to federal prison, for once in my life, I have a focus. I’m very sorry for what I did. I’m hoping people can forgive me.”

His remorse was sandwiched between rambling speeches about how the U.S. Attorney’s Office made an example of him, or vilified him beyond necessary, or how some of his victims had “overstated” their cases.

Prosecutors charged him with 40 criminal counts, including aggravated identity theft, in which they said he stole people’s e-mail addresses to spam others.

Soloway denied that charge. He said he had hidden his identity on e-mails only to evade spam filters, which helped him make more money for his Internet marketing business. “It was pure greed,” he said.

Soloway grew up in the upscale California suburb of Palos Verdes Estates, where he said he had been expected to attend college. But with his Tourette’s syndrome and assorted disorders – attention-deficit, oppositional-defiant, obsessive-compulsive – he had struggled in school.

He was also an outcast. The only place he felt good was online, where he ran a popular site to buy and sell Transformer and Star Wars toys in high school. It was first time he realized the power of the Internet.

“I was miserably going to school. I never went to football games or high school dances. I was overweight. And I would rush home and sit down on my computer and talk to people,” he said. “That was the only place I received validation. Not that that excuses my activities.”

He started his marketing business at 17 while living with his parents and found the largely unregulated world of spam extremely profitable, earning him $700,000 to $800,000 a year in the next few years, he said.

He moved to Northern California and then Oregon, spending his money recklessly and as quickly as he made it.

“I just knew for the first time in my life that people were happy to see me, or call me on a Friday or Saturday night,” he said.

But he often felt sad. In 2003, he wanted to start over and moved to Seattle with his cat, Simba.

“I look back now; I never said ‘bye’ to a single person,” he said of his Oregon days.

Vowing to scale down his business and spending, he wanted to go to museums, “get cultured” and meet “quality people.”

But he descended into his old ways, shopping when he felt bad, numbing himself with a new designer jacket or pair of shoes. “Money was all I cared about,” he said. “My entire closets were filled with hundreds of jackets. I had the best Italian furniture. It was, ‘What else can I buy?’ I was very unhappy.”

He continued to spam, despite pleas from his victims to stop. He defied a 2004 federal anti-spam law, and two spam-related judgments against him in 2005, in which he had been ordered to pay Microsoft $7 million and an Oklahoma man $10 million.

“I thought I was invincible,” he said.

Soloway said he feels bad about the computer neophytes he victimized. They didn’t know how to deal with his onslaught of spam. He was more blase about victims who specialized in computers, including one who said in court papers that she couldn’t sleep after spending many frustrating hours trying to delete Soloway’s spam.

Perhaps, he said, she wasn’t very good at her job.

“I’m not minimizing what I did, but the fact is, it is just an e-mail,” he said. “If it does become a nuisance, get a spam filter. You can get them for free.”

Der Spiegel, selected excerpts:

One year after assuming total power over the Gaza Strip, Hamas is stronger then ever. Its weapons caches are overflowing and its control over daily life is secure. The Islamists can go about their business largely thanks to the supplies that get in via the tunnels connecting Gaza to Egypt.

The king of the tunnel builders had given a dazzling party, with roses from Egypt and dancing into the early morning hours. Thousands of people came to the event to celebrate his wedding to his 15-year-old bride. He had chosen the girl, and her family gave her up gladly, because no one contradicts the man they call Abu Ibrahim.

He is the richest man in Rafah and is believed to be worth millions. He drives a gold-colored Jeep and has built a multistory commercial building, the only structure of its kind far and wide. He already has one wife and 10 children, and now he has this second wife, for whom he had a wedding bed, a refrigerator and two television sets brought in from Egypt through the tunnels.

Abu Ibrahim, 38, has Hamas to thank for his wealth, and Hamas owes its power in the Gaza Strip to Abu Ibrahim. A quarter century ago he dug his first tunnel under the border to Egypt. He was 13 years old at the time and one of the first to venture into the underworld of Rafah. At first he smuggled gold, cheese and cigarettes, but after the beginning of the second Intifada in 2000 his business shifted mainly to weapons. It was Ibrahim who helped arm the Islamists and provided them with the Kalashnikovs, ammunition and explosives they have used since assuming power in June of last year.

Although Hamas won a military victory over its rival, Fatah, on June 14, 2007, a second, silent civil war for lasting control over the Gaza Strip continues today, a year later. It is a conflict over who will determine law and order in the future, over bureaucracy and militias, and over who will collect taxes and who will be permitted to fire rockets at Israel.

When five Hamas members were killed in a bomb attack in front of a beach café two Fridays ago, the Hamas leadership immediately blamed the attack on its rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement. But it is also possible that the bombing was committed by elements from within Hamas’s own ranks or one of its militias. The radical Islamist organization has been splintered into various factions for some time…

According to the Israeli domestic intelligence agency, 175 tons of explosives have been smuggled into the region since June 2007, along with 10 million rounds of ammunition, tens of thousands of machine guns, grenades, land mines and precision-guided missiles. The Islamists are now believed to have turned to smuggling weapons through their own cement-reinforced tunnels, which now include ventilation systems and a water supply. But more than weapons are passing through these tunnels…

Five thousand people work in the tunnels, of which there are now believed to be about 150 — up from 15 a year ago. By now, anyone who can afford a few shovels, a generator and an electric winch is digging new tunnels, and there are deaths almost weekly, because the tunnels are poorly reinforced or because the Egyptians have blown them up…

Abu Yakub is the assistant of weapons smuggler Abu Ibrahim, who now fears for his life and prefers to remain hidden. The two men went into the underworld together as children, and although Abu Yakub never became as wealthy as his friend, he has managed to earn enough to afford an attractive villa. And what if the tunnels were closed tomorrow? Abu Yakub claps his hands, and says: “Well, then I’ll just stop working.”

But now he squats next to a new shaft, where his men are in the process of digging a new tunnel. They are only 200 meters (656 feet) from their goal. Using satellite images from Google Earth, they install power cables, oxygen tubes and intercom systems underground. It takes six months and costs $40,000 (€26,000) to build such a tunnel, and those who are discovered will lose everything. Those who succeed, on the other hand, can make a fortune.

Ceasefire Proves Bad for Business

At the height of the embargo, prices quadrupled and, for a time, cement in Gaza cost 10 times as much as it did in Egypt. But now the cease-fire of June 19 has thwarted the smugglers’ plans. For the past few weeks, about 90 trucks have been allowed to pass through the Israeli border crossings every day. Though only a fraction of the 400 trucks that made it through daily before the embargo, it was enough to cause prices to go down immediately in Rafah. Two weeks ago, a few dealers fired a homemade rocket in the direction of the Israeli city of Sderot, hoping that it would prompt the government in Jerusalem to seal off the borders again. “The ceasefire may be good for the people of Gaza, but not for us,” says Abu Yakub…

The ceasefire has also been detrimental to Hamas, because the underground border traffic is one of its key revenue sources. The Islamists are believed to collect about $10,000 (€6,450) a day from the tunnel owners in the form of “usage fees,” as well as “value-added taxes” — all payable in cash to armed money collectors who wait at the tunnel exits. If a pack of cigarettes costs 74 cents in Egypt, it goes for €1.85 ($2.87) in Gaza, with half of the profits going to Hamas. And a lot of people smoke in the Gaza Strip.

The Islamists also control the distribution of gasoline. Anyone who wishes to buy gas must first buy an “insurance policy” from Hamas, for about €170 ($264), in return for a coupon that entitles its holder to buy 20 liters (5.3 gallons) once every two weeks — even now, with Israel allowing 1 million liters (264,000 gallons) of fuel for cars into the Gaza Strip. Nevertheless, many residents still drive with a mixture of vegetable and used deep-frying grease. As a result, the Gaza Strip smells like a French-fry stand…

Order also means torture, even if this isn’t exactly something Abu Ras is willing to admit. Palestinians who have fled to the West Bank report being nailed to the wall, confined in coffins or subjected to mock executions by Hamas. “We will take the best aspects of the Iranian and the Saudi Arabian system,” says Abu Ras, stressing that women, of course, can continue to attend the university, go to the market and drive. “We aren’t the Taliban, after all,” he says.

The Islamists’ influence is becoming more and more visible. Most men now wear full beards and many women are fully veiled. New minarets are being built throughout Gaza, alcohol is no longer available, and Hamas has restricted mixed dancing at weddings and extended religious study in schools. There have been arson attacks against Christian organizations and Internet cafés, and a few months ago radical Islamists even launched a grenade in front of the Hotel Deira, because it had been said that a waiter there had served whisky in espresso cups. The terrace at the Deira is a refuge for the bourgeoisie, and extended families spend their evenings playing rummy there…

“Hamas is in power, but it still thinks like an opposition party,” he says. It ignores the garbage piling up in the streets, does nothing about repairing traffic lights, roads and water pipes and pays no attention to the children begging at intersections.

Hamas has even reneged on its most important promise: to fight corruption. “You can buy your way out of prison, and it’s even cheaper than under Fatah,” says a man who prefers to remain anonymous. A traffic policeman recently asked the man for a “donation to buy breakfast.” But the corruption is emanating from the top rather than the bottom of Gaza’s power structure…

Before the ceasefire, he transported rockets to the northern Gaza Strip and fired them from there. But now there is a ceasefire, and yet he still isn’t any less busy. “On the contrary,” he says, “we are training for the next major attack.” This means spying on Israeli positions and depositing explosives near the border. Explosions are often heard these days, as Qassam fighters train for guerilla warfare. At the same time, Hamas is trying to reshape the brigades into an effective army with a clear chain of command, an army that, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, would be capable of resisting an Israeli invasion…

Read it all.

From Discover:

A Russian judge has thrown out a 22-year-old advertising executive’s sexual harassment claim against her boss because “If we had no sexual harassment we would have no children,” according to the Telegraph U.K.

The plaintiff’s claim included allegations that her 47-year-old boss had demanded sex from every female employee and had locked her out of her office after she refused to have “intimate relations” with him. The judge didn’t toss out the case on the theory that these facts weren’t true, or even that they didn’t constitute sexual harassment. Rather, he ruled that such harassment was harmless—a view that has precedent in Russian courts, given that only two women have won sexual harassment cases since the fall of the Soviet Union.

But the presumptive logic underlying the ruling—that sex harassment in the workplace could help grow the country’s population, which has been in decline to the point where the government has stepped in to pass child-bearing initiatives—is hardly good science, not to mention a poor legal precedent.

While workplace sex harassment in Russia is common to the point of being expected—a recent survey of professional Russian women found that a whopping 100 percent had been sexually harassed by their bosses, and 32 percent had had sex with their manager at least once—the judge is making several major assumptions about the link between more sex on the job and more Russian babies. Assuming a boss impregnates his secretary, either through semi-consensual sex as a result of harassment or from full-on rape, the odds are pretty high that the pregnancy will be unwanted, making the woman more likely to abort. Russia’s abortion rate is already sky-high—while the total population in 2006 was around 143 million,total number of abortions that year was around 1.6 million the (compare that to the mere 1.2 million abortions in the U.S. in 2005, despite a more-than-double population size).

Plus there’s the fact that, in the wake of the country’s economic collapse, it’s still pretty tough to support yourself, let alone a child, in Russia, which could help explain why women are putting up with such massive levels of on-the-job harassment in the first place. While getting assaulted by your boss may be the only way to pay the bills, it sure isn’t incentive to give birth to more Russian babies.


Istithmar World and Nakheel PJSC, both units of government-owned Dubai World, said they acquired 20 percent of circus operator Cirque du Soleil Inc. as the sheikhdom seeks to grow as a tourism destination.

The remainder of Canada-based Cirque du Soleil will continue to be owned by Founder Guy Laliberte, Istithmar and Nakheel, also a unit of Dubai World, said in an e-mailed statement today. Financial details were not disclosed.

Dubai is investing in tourism with the aim of increasing visitor numbers to 10 million per year by 2010 from 7 million last year. Cirque du Soleil in May agreed to perform on the Nakheel’s Palm Jumeirah, a man-made island in the shape of a date palm, for 15 years from 2011.

“Cirque du Soleil marks Istithmar World’s first foray into the live entertainment space, which is a key to our media focus,” said David Jackson, chief executive officer of Istithmar World capital, in the statement.

As well as the permanent show in Dubai, Cirque du Soleil will open a production office, a ticketing company and a technical equipment and set design rental company.

“We have found the right partners in our long-term growth in the form of Dubai World,” said Laliberte. “With this partnership, I can retain control of my business with the support and input of a partner.”

Istithmar in August bought Barneys New York, and since its founding in 2003 has acquired assets including the W Hotel Union Square in New York and a $1 billion stake in Standard Chartered Plc for Dubai’s government.

Cirque du Soleil has annual sales in excess of $700 million per year and attracts nearly 10 million visitors annually to its shows around the world, Nakheel and Istithmar said in the statement.

The experiences of these bloggers point to a simple conclusion: Although the military services and the VA are assigned to assist returning veterans, there is a vital role to be filled by private citizens. Fortunately, there are dozens of organizations working to support American service members, with or without injuries. The Web site of the Association of the United States Army offers information about many of these groups. These organizations merit ever greater support.

From The Armed Forces Journal:

On Dec. 19, 2006, Minnesota Army National Guardsman J.R. Salzman was leading a convoy to Tallil Air Base in southern Baghdad when an explosively formed penetrator tore through his truck. The blast destroyed his right arm below the elbow and crushed his left hand. Two days later, before he had even left the theater for Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Salzman managed to post a message on his blog, Lumberjack in a Desert: “it is hard for me to tell you all this but i was hurt by an ied here. … i am in high spirits. i am going to be ok, but i will have a long road to recovery.”

Upon his arrival in Washington, D.C., Salzman began nine months of surgery, recuperation and physical therapy. Joined by his wife, Josie, whose own Life in a Crackerbox was described in the February “Blogs of War,” Salzman faced a grueling path as he dealt with his various injuries. Writing in January, a month after the attack, he lamented: “Now I’m struggling with the mentality that I’m just a one-armed, four-fingered gimp. … I have constant phantom pain in my arm where it feels like my hand is still there, and someone is sawing on it with a knife. … I spend a lot of time crying and I don’t know why. … This isn’t a dream, this isn’t some fictional story about patriotism, this isn’t some story I’m writing to be a hero. This is my life here at Walter Reed.”

From this painful start, Salzman has achieved and documented a seemingly miraculous recovery. In September, he and Josie moved to Wisconsin, where he is taking college courses on the GI Bill. In a tremendous display of both skill and determination, Salzman has returned to the sport of log-rolling, in which he was a champion before enlisting in the National Guard. But his ordeals are not yet over. Salzman discovered only after beginning college that he suffered a brain injury in the attack, which resulted in short-term memory loss, among other symptoms. Faced with this and other challenges, the Salzmans have received a stream of support from fellow citizens that has continually shaped their recovery. Between February and September 2007, they lived at Walter Reed in a Fisher House unit provided by a foundation that works with the Defense Department to arrange free, private housing for injured soldiers and their families at military and Veterans Affairs hospitals throughout the nation. Upon their return home, they received a grant from the Minnesotans’ Military Appreciation Fund, a statewide effort that has raised more than $6 million to support returning war veterans. The Soldiers’ Angels have provided the Salzmans with support for treating J.R.’s traumatic brain injury.

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In contrast to the Salzmans, Matt Bernard discovered how much more difficult recovery from physical and emotional injury can be when left to deal with it alone. A New Hampshire Army National Guardsman, Bernard earned two Purple Hearts during his tour in Iraq, the second on March 4, 2006, when a roadside bomb left him with brain damage, hearing impairment and post-traumatic stress disorder. Upon returning home, Bernard notified his former Guard unit that he had returned and waited for a call from the VA. Amazingly, the VA had lost his records, and it took Bernard more than a year to be completely evaluated or receive disability payments or treatment.

Bernard eventually met with the New Hampshire National Guard’s adjutant general, to whom he proposed a new system for greeting injured soldiers in which volunteers and soldiers would be organized to take the initiative. The state Guard adopted Bernard’s proposed “Bridging the Gap” plan, and returning guardsmen now are contacted within a week of coming home with information about doctors, counseling and other resources to help them recover from wounds while reintegrating into civilian life.

Today, Bernard is working on a documentary titled “Veterans Affairs” that will describe the toll paid by returning soldiers when they are not provided with resources to re-enter civilian life. Focusing also on the incidence of homelessness among veterans, Bernard argues for additional reintegration programs, such as the New Hampshire Reintegration Program he inspired, and housing for homeless veterans.

The experiences of these bloggers point to a simple conclusion: Although the military services and the VA are assigned to assist returning veterans, there is a vital role to be filled by private citizens. Fortunately, there are dozens of organizations working to support American service members, with or without injuries. The Web site of the Association of the United States Army offers information about many of these groups. These organizations merit ever greater support.

From The American Spectator:

As is by now apparent, Barack Obama and his crack team of foreign policy experts have proven themselves totally tone-deaf when it comes to understanding the American people and their views toward the rest of the world. His campaign’s strategy to convince voters that the way to win their hearts is to cozy up to those who hold them in disdain has resulted in a dip in his poll numbers.

So, having failed to impress any of those who have not already succumbed to the constant Obama-beat of the mainstream media, Barry and the boys have decided to tackle the energy crisis. Their grand plan predictably calls for a reduction in consumption, government investment into the development of alternative fuels, and windfall profit taxes on the evil oil companies. He has also lectured us on the need to turn down our thermostats and pay close attention to the air pressure in our tires.

Now, if all of this seems vaguely familiar, it should. Nearly 30 years ago, another Democrat tackled another energy crisis in eerily similar language. Up to now, only their foreign policy skills have been compared, but these two doves have much more in common than their woeful understanding of the Islamist threat.

So go and get your cardigan out of mothballs and take this little quiz, keeping in mind that the following quotes are taken from a single speech Obama made in Lansing, Michigan this week and one that Jimmy Carter delivered in July of 1979 to cheer the country during our “crisis of confidence.” Was it Barack Obama or Jimmy Carter who said:

1) “Our economy is in turmoil and our families are struggling with rising costs and falling incomes; with lost jobs and lost homes and lost faith in the American Dream.”

2) “We’ve always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own. Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy.”

3) “In little more than two decades we’ve gone from a position of energy independence to one in which almost half the oil we use comes from foreign countries, at prices that are going through the roof.”

4) “Back then, we imported about a third of our oil. Now, we import more than half.”

5) “Will we allow ourselves to be held hostage to the whims of tyrants and dictators who control the world’s oil wells?”

6) “Our excessive dependence on OPEC has already taken a tremendous toll on our economy and our people.”

7) “These efforts will cost money, a lot of money, and that is why Congress must enact the windfall profits tax without delay. It will be money well spent. Unlike the billions of dollars that we ship to foreign countries to pay for foreign oil, these funds will be paid by Americans to Americans.”

8) “I believe we should immediately give every working family in America a $1,000 energy rebate, and we should pay for it with part of the record profits that the oil companies are making right now.”

9) “In just ten years, these steps will produce enough renewable energy to replace all the oil we import from the Middle East.”

10) “I am tonight setting the further goal of cutting our dependence on foreign oil by one-half by the end of the next decade.”

11) “Think about how World War II forced us to transform a peacetime economy still climbing out of Depression into an Arsenal of Democracy that could wage war across three continents.”

12) “Just as a similar synthetic rubber corporation helped us win World War II, so will we mobilize American determination and ability to win the energy war.”

13) “I’ll also extend the Production Tax Credit for five years to encourage the production of renewable energy like wind power, solar power, and geothermal energy.”

14) “I am asking for the most massive peacetime commitment of funds and resources in our nation’s history to develop America’s own alternative sources of fuel — from coal, from oil shale, from plant products for gasohol, from unconventional gas, from the sun.”

15) “Think about when the scientists and engineers told John F. Kennedy that they had no idea how to put a man on the moon, he told them they would find a way.”

16) “We ourselves are the same Americans who just ten years ago put a man on the Moon.”

17) “We will set a goal of making our new buildings 50 percent more efficient over the next four years.”

18) “I’m asking Congress to mandate, to require as a matter of law, that our nation’s utility companies cut their massive use of oil by 50 percent within the next decade and switch to other fuels, especially coal, our most abundant energy source.”

19) “And we’ll invest in the technology that will allow us to use more coal, America’s most abundant energy source…

Answers: 1) Obama, 2) Carter, 3) Carter, 4) Obama, 5) Obama, 6) Carter, 7) Carter, 8) Obama, 9) Obama, 10) Carter, 11) Obama, 12) Carter, 13) Obama, 14) Carter, 15) Obama, 16) Carter, 17) Obama, 18) Carter, 19) Obama

So, how did you do? I’ll leave you with a no-brainer. Who did not say: “I will do my best, but I will not do it alone. Let your voice be heard. Whenever you have a chance, say something good about our country.”

Why We Hate Us

August 6, 2008

The social scientists who study human happiness have found quite clearly that as Americans have grown more prosperous, well fed and sheltered, healthier and long-lived, they have not grown happier. That, to me, is the great puzzle of our times. But one part of the puzzle is also clear: the greatest variable in happiness is the quantity of human relationships. Here, more is better.

From Newsweek:

Dick Meyer

Athletes have an inelegant term for the fans, reporters, owners and managers who like to hang around them. They call them jock sniffers.

I have been a faith sniffer. Having no ability or capacity for faith, religious practice or mystical experience, I am fascinated and attracted to people who do. In high school, I spent a long, hot Ozark summer working on a ranch with a man who came back from the war in Vietnam born-again. He was studying to be Pentecostal preacher and his final exam was to convert me, the lonely little Jewish boy with whom he worked. I enjoyed the hours we spent picking rocks out of a hay field when he preached at me and I argued back citing Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche. I majored in Comparative Religion in college.

Since then, I have thought consistently about why it is so hard for many Americans of my generation and younger to embrace traditional inherited religion. “Traditional” is the key word here. It is obvious that since the 1960s there has been no shortage of spiritual seeking. There has been an equally obvious rise in alternative religion, including Christian fundamentalism, which isn’t especially traditional in many parts of the country. This is rather different than Europe, which has tended to just reject religion in all forms.

I am not a sociologist of religion. But my most influential professor in college, and now my close friend, was. Arnold Eisen is the now the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (and a member of the On Faith panel). His book “Taking Hold of Torah” discusses the challenges of modernity to traditional religion, specifically Judaism:

“…the loss of integral Jewish community has meant that Jewish commitment is a matter of choice. That is nowhere more true than in contemporary America, where the freedom to participate fully in the life of the larger society is in every respect greater than has ever been before, indeed is nearly absolute. We are living, moreover, in what is very likely the most mobile society that has ever existed on the face of the earth… It is no wonder that the Jewish community in this situation has to argue for every single Jewish soul, compete for every pledge of allegiance against and ever-increasing wealth of beckoning possibilities, and must do so not once in a person’s life but repeatedly, year in and year out, because each of us not only decides where to live, but with who and how.”The two critical factors are community and choice. In my book, “Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium,” I discuss how diminished community and increased choice have challenged not just religion, but our broader capacity as individuals to get happy and content, and our capacity as a society to solve problems and produce culture we are proud of. Religion and faith are important elements of that.

My great-grandparents, grandparents and parents all lived in insulated communities of German Jews, in America. They were reform Jews whose families had fled Germany around 1848, extremely assimilated (a term of denigration to many other Jews), secular and non-observant. They had unadulterated and strong Jewish identities, part cultural, part historical and part ethnic; they had realistic and unbending views about anti-Semitism and the social marginalization of Jews.

That is the religious tradition I inherited and that I feel is an invariable core of my identity – no matter what choices I may make in life. Nobody but me thinks of this as something religious. I am not observant and I am not a believer. Within my own skin and experience, however, I feel traditional.

What I certainly lack is a German-Jewish community of reform Jews. They really don’t exist in America anymore. Community is what nurtures religion organically; without community, religion is not inherited and taught by example – it is chosen and in some ways improvised. In America, that can be like any other consumer choice.

Many essential ingredients of human happiness deteriorate when people live among strangers, far from relatives and grandparents, lifelong friends that span the generations, familiar merchants and neighbors. Americans are mobile; often we move by choice – to get away from a stifling small town or a dysfunctional family, or to pursue an education or better job. These are choices we make, choices with consequences. For many Americans, the consequence has been fewer social ties and close confidantes, less help raising children and shallower roots.

My wife and I have worked mindfully and with effort to build a community in Washington. Neither of us grew up here. Neither of us well understood what we were giving up when we chose to live away from our hometowns. While we do have a local community, it doesn’t include relatives, older generations or friends from childhood.

Americans, as Eisen pointed out, have an overabundance of choices as they seek to replace social goods like community and religion.

We can choose a “lifestyle”: urban or suburban, single or married, golf or tennis. We can choose body parts: large or small breasts, smooth or wrinkly face, long or short nose. We can join a virtual community or get all our news in one flavor – conservative or liberal – if we choose to tune out voices we find irritating or contrarian. And we can choose a religion: Buddhist, New Age, Scientology, Presbyterian or Catholic. Or we can select from long bookshelves of money-back guaranteed self-help regimes.

Too often we make these choices as solo seekers, unconcerned about obligations to community, heritage and even family. This can be a modern, narcissistic variant on the old American ideal of being self-made. There is a difference between committed, other-focused religious commitment and milky, self-involved spirituality. It may not be easy to define the distinction, but, as Justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography, you know it when you see it.

The social scientists who study human happiness have found quite clearly that as Americans have grown more prosperous, well fed and sheltered, healthier and long-lived, they have not grown happier. That, to me, is the great puzzle of our times. But one part of the puzzle is also clear: the greatest variable in happiness is the quantity of human relationships. Here, more is better.

Religious practice and faith also seem to flourish in communities, in settings of natural and diverse warm relationships. It is often said that the decline of religion is a cause of the decline of our civil society and culture. To the contrary, I suspect that the decline of community is a challenge to traditional, vibrant religion religious practice.

Being religious today often entails actively and purposefully building or rebuilding a community, not simply joining the one you were born into. We are all pioneers and exiles today in a sense, but uprooted mostly by choice. And for the religious and the secular, it takes not just conscious choice but sustained effort to have some community in our lives which, for most, is a necessary ingredient to have some happiness in our souls.

Dick Meyer is the author of the new book “Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium” and the editorial director of Digital Media at NPR. Listen to an interview with Meyer and read an excerpt from his new book.


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