Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Leonard Nimoy and Mr. Spock

In the spirit of catching up with the last few months' activities, the March 6th issue of the Jewish Standard included another one of my op-eds, one I wrote regarding the  recent passing of actor Leonard Nimoy, best known for his portrayal of Mr. Spock on the Star Trek television series and motion pictures. Appearing under the title of Live Long and Prosper, with "Leonard Nimoy and Mr. Spock" as the subtitle, the piece goes like this:

The death of Leonard Nimoy on Friday, February 27, at 83, marked the passing of an American icon—indeed, a star of global renown, and a Jewish hero as well.

Nimoy’s accomplishments were many. He was an author, poet, musician, photographer, philanthropist, educator, and director, and of course an actor who played many roles on stage and screen. But he is best known for his role as Mr. Spock on Star Trek, the television series that first aired in 1966. It is a role he reprised in the various sequels, spinoffs, and remakes that appeared after the original series went off the air in 1969.

Nimoy was a Boston native, fluent in Yiddish, whose parents were Orthodox Jews who escaped from the Soviet Union. As he related in various interviews, his background informed his portrayal of the sole alien being on the Starship Enterprise. Spock hailed from the planet Vulcan but was also half-human, making him an alien on Vulcan as well. His status reflects that of immigrants and their children, first-generation Americans who, like Nimoy, grow up in a household, community, and culture that still has one foot in the old world.

As a child attending Orthodox services, Nimoy observed the Cohenim delivering the priestly benediction, and as an adult he appropriated their hand gesture when he introduced the Vulcan salute. The greeting that he added to the salute, “live long and prosper,” echoes the sentiment of the benediction, as well as the simple greeting “shalom” (further echoed in the ritual response, “peace and long life”). There is certainly cause for pride in this small Jewish contribution to global popular culture, but does this mean that Star Trek incorporates Jewish undertones, as Haaretz writer Nathan Abrams insisted in an article published the day after Nimoy’s death? Certainly, Jewish fans can take pleasure in the fact that Nimoy and co-star William Shatner are Jewish. So were several of the series’ writers, and we can assume that they all brought some elements of a Jewish sensibility to the program.

But let’s be clear that Star Trek was created by Gene Roddenberry, who was not Jewish, and who included characters from a variety of different backgrounds—Scottish, Irish, French, Italian, Russian, Japanese, and African—but never one who was identifiably Jewish. Indeed, the only characters with any real Jewish identity in the Star Trek universe appeared in a few of the many original novels published under license from Paramount Pictures. No doubt this is not because of any bias or prejudice on Roddenberry’s part, but rather because he associated Jewishness with religion, rather than nationality. His vision of the future was one in which science and progress reigned supreme, and any seemingly supernatural phenomena would inevitably be revealed to be a product of a highly advanced science, or biological evolution.

The conspicuous absence of any Jewish characters from Roddenberry’s melting-pot future can lead viewers to search for them in disguised, symbolic form, to look for what Sigmund Freud referred to as the return of the repressed. And the obvious form for a crypto-Judaic character to take would be that of an alien being. Indeed, while Shatner had the kind of looks that allowed him to pass as a WASP from Iowa, Nimoy’s features gave him what was considered at the time to be a relatively interchangeable “ethnic” appearance, so that earlier in his career he played Spanish, Mexican, and Native American characters. And certainly there are Jewish elements incorporated into Nimoy’s man from Vulcan, and into other aspects of Star Trek. Consider the episode called “Patterns of Force,” in which an alien planet patterns itself after Earth’s Nazi Germany, and is trying to wipe out their neighboring planet, called Zeon (an obvious reference to Zion).

But I want to suggest that Abrams and others are wrong about Spock being implicitly Jewish. It perhaps is revealing that Abrams mistakenly refers to the character as “Dr.” Spock, a mistake not uncommon among those not very familiar with the series. Nimoy’s character usually is referred to as “Mr.” Spock, in keeping with naval tradition about first officers, and occasionally by his rank, which was at various times commander, captain, and ambassador. Dr. Spock was, of course, Benjamin Spock, the famous pediatrician whose bestselling book, Baby and Child Care, served as a bible to the parents in the postwar era. Like Roddenbery, Dr. Spock was not Jewish. The name Spock is Dutch, originally spelled Spaak.

Spock’s home planet, Vulcan is named for the Roman god of fires and forges, and Vulcans are revealed to be related to another alien race, the warlike Romulans, named for the founder of Rome. Vulcan philosophy, which venerates logic above all else, represents a view that is very much in keeping with Athens rather than Jerusalem. Vulcans revere Surak as the founder of their philosophy. Surak has little in common with Moses but quite a bit with Socrates, with some Gandhi thrown in for good measure. So while Spock’s home planet is depicted as having the kind of hot, dessert-like climate that we associate with the Middle East, the stronger connection is to the European side of the Mediterranean.

Abrams associates Vulcan intellectualism with the people of the book, but the aliens do not seek a balance between faith and reason, in the fashion of Maimonides, but rather enforce a strict discipline, suppressing all emotion, in a way that is very much in keeping with another branch of ancient Greek philosophy, Zeno’s Stoicism. Moreover, suppression of emotions often is linked to dehumanization, as a means of forcing individuals to adapt to mechanization and industrialism, yielding a technological being well suited to being a cog in a machine, rather than a mensch, a real, well rounded human being. We may therefore identify with Spock’s struggles, and admire his superior physical and mental abilities, but it is his human side that is the most Jewish part of him.

Following a long tradition in western culture, Roddenberry used orientalism to convey a sense of the alien, and this includes Jewish as well as Arabic, Persian, and Chinese elements. With his raised eyebrows, Spock bears a certain similarity to Ming the Merciless, the alien villain from the old Flash Gordon serials. But it was not until long after Roddenberry’s death in 1991 that a Jewish film director, J. J. Abrams, who was recruited to reboot the series, invokes the destruction of the Temple and subsequent diaspora by having the planet Vulcan destroyed by Romulans. In that 2009 film, called simply Star Trek, time travel is used to generate an alternate timeline, and Leonard Nimoy makes a cameo appearance as the original, now-elderly Spock, while Zachary Quinto takes on the main role as the new Spock. (Quinto is of Italian ancestry, and Italians and Jews often have been cast interchangeably in film and television.) Nimoy’s final film appearance was in the 2013 sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, also directed by Abrams.


As a science fiction fan, I can appreciate Star Trek in all of its iterations, and I can enjoy it as a form of American entertainment and popular culture without exaggerating its Jewish undertones. And as a Jewish-American, I can feel pride and affection toward Leonard Nimoy, as a landsman, as the producer and star of the TV movie about a Holocaust survivor, Never Forget, as the author of the photography book Shekhinawith its erotic Kabbalistic theme, and as the originator of the Vulcan salute and the saying “Live long and prosper.”

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Abuse on Twitter

Back on February 7th, I was quoted in a Tech Times article entitled, Three Immediate Things Twitter Must Do To Curb Online Abuse And Win Back Users, written by Christian de Looper. I had been asked to comment on the problem of abusive tweets and the general issue of online abuse, and on what Twitter needs to do to address the problem, so let me begin by providing you with my full response to the query:

Twitter is not the only social media platform that has a problem with online abuse on the part of its users—YouTube, for example, is notorious for the problem. The fact that it has become a public relations concern for Twitter reflects the fact that it is second only to Facebook when in comes to communication and social interaction on the internet. 

Twitter ought to be concerned, and can learn a lesson from the fall of MySpace, where a sense of "lawlessness" and "anything goes" contributed to the mass migration to Facebook, where controls over user behavior are more stringent, creating a very safe, you might say suburban, white bread kind of environment. First and foremost, to follow Facebook's lead, Twitter would have to become much more responsive to user complaints, essentially issuing warnings and shutting accounts down whenever any user is accused of abusive behavior. 

The problem they face is that Twitter has gained much from its wide open atmosphere, not so much an open frontier like the old MySpace, but more like an urban and urbane melting pot of myriad voices. Crack down too much on offensive tweets, and you lose the open atmosphere that makes Twitter so attractive, and you alienate users who view that sort of activity as censorship. Twitter will need to engage in a very tricky balancing act between the need to provide a safe and attractive environment and otherwise show users they are in control and care about abusive behavior, while maintaining their status as an open and democratic platform. The problem they face in the virtual world is exactly the same problem we face in open societies in real life, between security and freedom, between the needs of the community and the rights of the individual.

Long time readers of Blog Time Passing may find my comparison of Twitter, Facebook, and the old MySpace familiar, expressed for example in my post of March 1, 2009, About Face(book).

Be that as it may, let's turn now to de Looper's recent article about Twitter, which begins with the following introduction:

A memo written by Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has been leaked, with Costolo admitting that Twitter "sucks at dealing with trolls."

The memo also resolved that Twitter needs to fight online abuse head-on. But what exactly can Twitter do to put an end to harassment on Twitter?

Now comes those three things Twitter can do to curb online abuse, and the first one is where my quotes, taken out of the larger commentary I provided, comes in:

1. Twitter Needs To Get Ruthless

Twitter has been very passive about its online abuse problem. The company has not made real efforts to combat the issue.

"To follow Facebook's lead, Twitter would have to become much more responsive to user complaints, essentially issuing warnings and shutting accounts down whenever any user is accused of abusive behavior," said Lance Strate, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University, in an email with Tech Times.

Twitter, however, is in the middle of a balancing act. The service currently has a very "open" vibe about it, and cracking down too hard on users could take away from this.

"The problem they face in the virtual world is exactly the same problem we face in open societies in real life, between security and freedom, the needs of the community and the rights of the individual," continued Strate.

So, now, that's it for me, but let's get the other two bits of advice, shall we?

2. Twitter Needs to Be Public About Its Abuse Battle

Online abuse is not a problem unique to Twitter. YouTube is notorious for Internet trolls that comment on videos with the idea of wanting to take people down a peg. Often comments aren't even related to the videos being posted.

The problem for Twitter, however, is a little different because of the public relations issues involved. If Twitter is going to successfully put an end to abuse on its platform, it needs to be public about it. The issues surrounding public abuse on Twitter could end tomorrow, but that doesn't mean that users will think that it has. Twitter's reputation is important when it comes to gaining users. In fact, many users have left Twitter because of its online abuse problem, and it's likely that they won't come back until Twitter is able to successfully deal with the problem.

3. Twitter Needs To Do It In-House

In the past, Twitter has rather famously left dealing with online abuse to third parties, most notably Women, Action and the Media (WAM!).

The fact that Twitter has not dealt with the problem internally shows a lack of caring from the company. It seems, however, as though the company will finally be stepping up.

Twitter must deal with the problem in-house, and must hire people to deal with it. The tools for the company to be able to combat online abuse have been put in place -- there is a "blocked accounts" page where users can see who has been blocked from their feed, for example, and users can more easily report issues. Now Twitter needs to have employees that deal with those problems.

The conflict between safety and growth lies at the heart of Abraham Maslow's humanistic psychology of motivation,  as famously represented by his Hierarchy of Needs diagram

So, once again, it comes down to a fundamental conflict. Openness is democratic, and facilitates originality, creativity, and growth, but brings with it risk and danger, in this instance the possibility of abuse, as well as scams and spam, and various forms of cybercrime. Closing things off provides more of a margin of safety and security, but at the cost of the ferment that made the platform, group, or society interesting and vibrant in the first place. How to find the balance, to avoid being boring as well as to curb abuse, that is the question.