Shortly after his 40th birthday, the life of a man we’ll call Ronald Hodge took a strange turn. He still looked pretty good for his age. He had a well-paying job and a devoted wife. Or so he thought. Then, one morning, Hodge’s wife told him she no longer loved him. She moved out the next day. A few weeks later, he was informed that his company was downsizing and that he would be let go. Not knowing where to turn, Hodge started going to church again.
Even though he’d been raised in an evangelical household, it had been years since Hodge had thought much about God. But now that everything seemed to be falling apart around him, he began attending services every week. Then every day. One night, while lying in bed, he opened the Bible and began reading. He’d been doing this every night since his wife left. And every time he did, he would see the same word staring back at him—the same four syllables that seemed to jump off the page as if they were printed in buzzing neon: Jerusalem. Hodge wasn’t a superstitious man, he didn’t believe in signs, but the frequency of it certainly felt like … something. A week later, he was 30,000 feet over the Atlantic on an El Al jet to Israel.
When Hodge arrived in Jerusalem, he told the taxi driver to drop him off at the entrance to the Old City. He walked through the ancient, labyrinthine streets until he found a cheap hostel near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He had a feeling that this was important. Supposedly built on top of the spot where Jesus Christ was crucified and three days later rose from the dead, the domed cathedral is the holiest site in Christendom. And Hodge knew that whatever called him to the Holy Land was emanating from there.
During his first few days in Jerusalem, Hodge rose early and headed straight to the church to pray. He got so lost in meditation that morning would slip into afternoon, afternoon into evening, until one of the bearded priests tapped him on the shoulder and told him it was time to go home. When he returned to his hostel, he would lie in bed unable to sleep. Thoughts raced through his head. Holy thoughts. That’s when Hodge first heard the Voice.
Actually, heard is the wrong word. He felt it, resonating in his chest. It was like his body had become a giant tuning fork or a dowsing rod. Taking a cue from the sign of the cross that Catholics make when they pray, Hodge decided that if the vibrations came from the right side of his chest, it was the Holy Ghost communicating with him. If he felt them farther down, near the base of his sternum, it was the voice of Jesus. And if he felt the voice humming inside his head, it was the Holy Father, God himself, calling.
Soon, the vibrations turned into words, commanding him to fast for 40 days and 40 nights. None of this scared him. If anything, he felt a warm, soothing peace wash over him because he was finally being guided.
Not eating or drinking came easily at first. But after a week or so, the other backpackers at his hostel began to grow concerned. With good reason: Hodge’s clothes were dirty and falling off of him. He had begun to emit a pungent, off-putting funk. He was acting erratically, hallucinating and singing the wordJesus over and over in a high-pitched chirp.
“Jesus … Jesus … Jesus …”
Hodge camped out in the hostel’s lobby and began introducing himself to one and all as the Messiah. Eventually, the manager of the hostel couldn’t take it anymore. He didn’t think the American calling himself Jesus was dangerous, but the guy was scaring away customers. Plus, he’d seen this kind of thing before. And he knew there was a man who could help.
Herzog Hospital sits on a steep, sun-bakedhill on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Its sprawling grounds are dotted with tall cedars and aromatic olive trees. Five floors below the main level is the office of Pesach Lichtenberg, head of the men’s division of psychiatry at Herzog.
Lichtenberg is 52 years old and thin, with glasses and a neatly trimmed beard. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, he moved to Israel in 1986 after graduating from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx and has worked at Herzog more or less ever since. It’s here that he has become one of the world’s leading experts on the peculiar form of madness that struck Ronald Hodge—a psychiatric phenomenon known as Jerusalem syndrome.
On a bright, late summer morning, Lichtenberg greets me in the chaotic lobby of the hospital, smiling and extending his hand. “You missed it!” he says. “We had a new Chosen One brought into the ward this morning.” We go down to Lichtenberg’s office; on top of a bookcase is a giant shofar, a curved ram’s horn that religious Jews sound on the high holidays. A middle-aged British man under the doctor’s care had used it to trumpet the Messiah’s—that is to say, his own—coming. Lichtenberg explains that allowing me to meet his latest patient would violate hospital policy, and he can’t discuss ongoing cases. He’ll talk about past patients as long as I agree to de-identify them, as I did with Hodge. “But,” he adds, “that doesn’t mean we can’t try to find a messiah of our own. In a few days, we’ll take a walk around the Old City and maybe we’ll find one for you there.”
There’s a joke in psychiatry: If you talk to God, it’s called praying; if God talks to you, you’re nuts. In Jerusalem, God seems to be particularly chatty around Easter, Passover, and Christmas—the peak seasons for the syndrome. It affects an estimated 50 to 100 tourists each year, the overwhelming majority of whom are evangelical Christians. Some of these cases simply involve tourists becoming momentarily overwhelmed by the religious history of the Holy City, finding themselves discombobulated after an afternoon at the Wailing Wall or experiencing a tsunami of obsessive thoughts after walking the Stations of the Cross. But more severe cases can lead otherwise normal housewives from Dallas or healthy tool-and-die manufacturers from Toledo to hear the voices of angels or fashion the bedsheets of their hotel rooms into makeshift togas and disappear into the Old City babbling prophecy.
Lichtenberg estimates that, in two decades at Herzog, the number of false prophets and self-appointed redeemers he has treated is in the low three figures. In other words, if and when the true Messiah does return (or show up for the first time, depending on what you believe), Lichtenberg is in an ideal spot to be the guy who greets Him…
San Jose and the Elephant in the Room: Unlike California’s state government, the city understands the need for pension reform.
February 25, 2012
Jerry Brown paints a bleak picture of the future of “civilization” if Californians refuse to back his proposed tax increase, now vying for a place on the November ballot. If voters reject the initiative, warned the governor in December, it would reveal a deep “skepticism of public service” and send a message that “the common institution called government is not something we want to invest in.” The stark choice before voters, the governor says, is higher taxes or diminished public services. But in San Jose, the state’s third-largest city, a liberal Democratic mayor wants to give voters a third option: stretching taxpayers’ dollars by slashing the excessive costs of government services, especially pensions and other benefits for the people who administer those services.
In December, San Jose’s City Council voted six-to-five to place an initiative on this June’s municipal election ballot that would overhaul dramatically the city’s public-pension system. The brainchild of Mayor Chuck Reed, the measure would create a hybrid system for new hires—combining traditional defined-benefit pensions and 401(k)-style defined-contribution plans—while also significantly increasing contributions that current employees must make to their pensions. As the Reed administration’s fact sheet explains:: “New employees would pay for at least 50 percent of the total cost of the new plan and the city’s contribution would be capped at 9 percent of an employee’s salary (the city currently contributes more than 50 percent of an employee’s salary for retirement benefits).”
The council’s vote came during a raucous session filled with angry public employees unlikely to be pacified by the council’s willingness to pursue a negotiated settlement or modify ballot language in lieu of a June election fight. City Manager Debra Figone on Tuesday recommended that the council soften the measure’s language before sending it to the registrar of voters, despite the failure to reach an accord with the unions this month. The council is expected to vote on the new language on March 6, just three days before the registrar’s deadline. According to Ed Mendel of Calpensions, a website that covers the state pension crisis, Mayor Reed is relying on a city charter provision that sets down only minimum benefit levels as his authorization for cutting current-worker benefits. And the city is within its rights, Reed argues, because the charter allows changes to existing pension benefits. In fact, faced with the budget crisis, Reed initially wanted to declare a fiscal emergency, giving officials even greater cost-cutting powers, but the council rebuffed him.
The San Jose effort—and a similar one in San Diego, where officials are trying to put a far-reaching pension-reform measure on the ballot—may be a sign of things to come in California. The real story in San Jose isn’t the lower benefit level for new hires, which would only have a minimal effect on the city’s unfunded pension liability; it’s the plan’s changes for current employees, who are driving the unfunded pension crisis. Under the plan, current employees would have two options: pay far more to keep their current retirement plan or choose a lower-cost plan (though workers would keep all the benefits of the old plan that they had accrued to date). Simply put, workers would have to contribute more out of their paychecks or accept fewer benefits.
Under the first option, the city explains, employees “would contribute an additional 5 percent of their salary starting in [fiscal year] 2012-13 to help pay off the pension plan’s unfunded liabilities. These additional contributions would increase by another 5 percent each year until they cover half of the cost of paying off the unfunded liability (or reach 25 percent of pay).” The second option would increase the retirement age to 57 for public-safety employees and to 62 for all other public workers, reduce the city’s retirement obligation, and cap cost-of-living adjustments. It would also base pension payouts not on the final year of pay but the final three years. Finally, voters would have to sign off on all new pension increases. The softer language, if approved, would reduce the amount employees pay toward their pensions to cover accumulated debt, and it would boost benefits for new hires.
Mendel notes that Reed’s plan “takes on what the [official government watchdog group] Little Hoover Commission called ‘the elephant in the room,’ a way to reduce the cost of pensions promised current workers.” San Jose is now spending 20 percent of its general-fund budget on retirement benefits, the costs of which have tripled in the last decade, Mendel reports. What’s more, “the city’s pension contribution for police next year is expected to be about 60 percent of pay,” an imbalance that has forced the city to lay off 66 younger police officers over the last few years…
February 25, 2012
The first major shock for the British in our new century is that we have become seriously corrupt. The scandal of parliamentary expenses had hardly died down before we were plunged into the whimsies of an educational system in which examinations rather lost their challenge for students who had been coached in the right answers beforehand. And these shocks were dramatised in the Big Loot of August when rioters and arsonists had the run of large areas of British cities. As if all this were not enough, the very model of moral conduct in sport, namely cricket, has been tarnished, not merely internationally, but even down to county level.
It is these events that have partly given rise to the mistake of believing that capitalism is failing. There might possibly be a case for increased, or perhaps just smarter, regulation of commerce, but there is certainly no alternative to the basic freedoms of our economic life. The rise of corruption among us is essentially a moral collapse and, if anything can be done about it, the solution can only be found in the moral and social sphere. But first we must be clear about what corruption actually is.
In the first instance, of course, the word is a metaphor referring to disease or putrefaction, which should bring a vivid perceptual revulsion against human conduct that might otherwise seem to be no different from lots else going on. Corruption involves both the doing of bad things and the not doing of good ones. The commonest form is when some official will only perform his duty — issuing a passport or a licence, for example — on payment of a bribe. This reportedly often happens in Africa. It has been estimated that the average Kenyan family spends about a third of its income on bribes. In such countries, corruption is systemic rather than — as we hope in Britain — episodic. Every barrel has a few bad apples, but a whole barrel of them is a different thing altogether.
Diagnosing corruption requires the idea of duty, because our common codification of the moral life in terms of rights sometimes facilitates claims to corrupt payments. It can make things worse.
In international league tables ranking corruption, Britain usually scores quite well, along with other Anglophone states, northern Europe and one or two Asian paradigms such as Singapore and Hong Kong. The rest of the world, we may conclude, is fairly systematically corrupt. The causes of this are complex, but two are evident. Most states in the world, for all their modish allegiance to institutional democracy in the form of elections and parliaments, have a tradition of despotic rule. In this tradition, success depends on accommodation with power, and bribes or favours are a great help. Secondly, modern individualism is only slowly replacing a society of status structures — in terms of caste, seniority or sex — which can seldom avoid allowing the higher status considerable scope to tyrannise over the lower.
The interesting question thus becomes: why have the British so far been among the less corrupt peoples of the world, and what has changed to make us worse? One important factor has been that we so commonly endow individuals with an expanding set of rights. A right is a rule that sustains some kind of demand, and although international declarations and local judges define what rights are, demands for new rights are increasing. When members of the House of Commons were criticised for claiming absurd expenses, they all came up with the same chorus: “We didn’t break any rules.” In some cases they did not, indeed, but many clearly lacked moral integrity, and it is integrity we need to consider.
What is it that makes people behave with integrity? At the most accessible level, it is the attitude taken when people say “I’m too proud to beg” or “I’m too proud to take a bribe”. Underlying these utterances about one’s own identity will be found a morality of honour. The great achievements of our civilisation often result from failure, and the interesting failure in this case was that Europeans never managed to agree on a single system of rightness. Even agreeing that we ought to do the right thing, of course, opens up endless disputes about what this might be. But in the European monarchies classically described by Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws (1748), the individualist criterion of honour was also recognised as a distinct element of the moral life. The famous case cited by Montesquieu was the St Bartholemew’s Day massacre: a clash between doing the right thing (in this case obeying the king of France) on the one hand, and the dishonour that would be involved in obeying Charles IX’s order to kill Huguenots on the other.
Honour began, no doubt, as a claim to superiority by those who fancied themselves superior, but in modern times, versions of it (such as conscience, pride and integrity) have become part of the ordinary equipment of many Europeans. And it depends not on status, as in the so-called “honour killings” in some Asian cultures, but on identity. Doing the right thing may thus come into conflict with doing the honourable thing: it is a matter of identity or, to express this point most precisely, honour is the recognition of one’s duty to oneself. And it is in the morality of acting in terms of duties to oneself that Western life has, at least until recent times, been distinguished from other cultures.
The British paradigm for respecting duties to oneself has long been sport, which was indeed self-consciously used by Victorian headmasters to encourage something called “character” in the conduct of their charges. By contrast with the serious business of life, sport might well seem to be the kind of frivolous pastime that would not tempt the players to cheat or lie. Nothing important hangs on who wins, it might seem, however passionate some players might become. The ideal lay in the playing, not in the winning, and this respect for the rules of the game was to be carried over into all areas of life. And so indeed it often was, in those innocent days before people knew that they had rights. The appearance of large financial stakes has, of course, significantly changed that….
February 25, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.