Petty Prejudice

Ignorance and bigotry are never good things.  But at what point should we stop concerning ourselves with every last occurrence of them and, instead, just carry on with our lives?

In our attempts to rid society of all manner of cultural and ethnic prejudice, is it possible to go too far?  Does every instance of insensitivity merit a national conversation and a formal condemnation by the Anti-Defamation League or the ACLU?

In a world with far more racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia than any of us would like—but also with more multiculturalism and legal equality than at any point in history—should we not simply ignore those who insist on living in a backward dystopia, instead of dignifying their stupidity by including it in the daily news cycle?

Of course, I could be referring to anything here—what with the religiously and racially-charged events of the past few months, to say nothing of the 400 years before that—but in this particular week I am struck by the coverage of a bizarre little episode in Lynn, Massachusetts.  There, residents are in a tizzy following an act of anti-Semitic vandalism in an old town cemetery.

What sort of vandalism, you ask?  Were headstones knocked over and broken?  Were swastikas or other graffiti sprayed onto sacred family plots?  Did members of the Westboro Baptist Church turn up with their hateful placards and promises of God’s eternal wrath?

None of the above, thankfully.

What happened at the Pride of Lynn Cemetery, rather, is that a woman walked past the grounds’ Holocaust memorial—a modestly-sized obelisk—and noticed that a pile of raw pork had been laid at its base.

Pork, of course, is regarded in Jewish tradition as treif and unclean.  Jewish dietary laws forbid the consumption of all pig-based products, and anti-Semites enjoy nothing so much as referring to Jews themselves as “swine.”

As such, to purposefully dump several chunks of the unholy protein at the foot of a memorial to six million murdered Jews is a sign of profound and unmistakable disrespect—crude, obvious, offensive.  Contemptuous and contemptible.

But that’s all it is:  A callous prank by some anonymous anti-Jewish jerk.  A person so clueless and fanatical that he sacrificed a perfectly good dinner just so he could let everyone know what a terrible person he is.

In point of fact, this drive-by porking does not signal the end of civilization as we know it.  It is not an act of cultural warfare that should disrupt our sleep or cause us to worry about an imminent surge in anti-Semitism on Boston’s North Shore.

Make no mistake:  Violent provocations against Jews in the West are a real threat, with slaughters and beatings and protests arising from one end of so-called civilized society to the other.  In some areas—particularly in Europe—the situation is only getting worse.

As far as crimes against world Jewry go, planting raw pork in a cemetery is not a first-order concern.  Not even close.  Indeed, strictly speaking, it’s not even a crime, insomuch as no property was damaged and no persons were harmed.  (Not physically, at least.)

But you’d never know that from the reaction, which was not only swift but completely over-the-top.

The woman who first spotted the offending meat reported becoming “physically ill” at the sight of it, adding that the perpetrator(s) “wanted to cause pain and they did.”  Rabbi Yossi Lipsker, director of a local Chabad, said, “It’s beyond belief that in today’s day and age, right here, right now we could see something that I can only characterize as vile.”

No, it’s not.  It’s completely believable that some idiot would do this in any day and age.  That’s what idiots do:  They think of the most noxious transgressions against good taste and social harmony and see how much trouble they can cause.

The only question is how the rest of us—fine, upstanding citizens that we are—respond to such delinquency.

My humble advice:  Don’t respond at all.  Don’t be provoked.  Don’t engage.  Don’t give civilization’s lowest-hanging fruit the idea that their dumb opinions are worth airing, because they’re not.

It’s like most parents say about dealing with schoolyard bullies:  Just ignore them, and eventually they’ll go away.  Or, if you prefer, the way we constantly console ourselves about terrorism:  The only way the bad guys win is if they force us to change how we live our lives.

If you’re an observant Jew with a well-calibrated moral compass, you have every reason to be repulsed by such a frontal assault on your belief system.  At the same time, however, your faith ought to be strong enough—and your skin thick enough—to be able to dismiss such cretinism as a regrettable byproduct of living in a free society in which certain people get a rush from emotionally wounding others.

By totally flipping out every time it happens, you only encourage copycats to try something even worse.

Don’t give them that chance.  Don’t elevate their rotten ideas into a full-blown threat to society—not when there are so many actual menaces to be dealt with.

Regarding public prejudice, we have to learn to distinguish between the serious and the petty, to know which indecencies are worth worrying about and which are merely indecent.  There aren’t enough hours in the day to stomp out every last manifestation of individual bias, nor can we afford to be so naïve as to believe such a thing were possible, even with all the time in the world.

In response to Porkgate, the good people of Lynn held a rally in support of their Jewish brethren, and local police are investigating the incident as a possible “hate crime.”

Really?  We’re raising hell and expending precious law enforcement resources for what was, ultimately, a tasteless joke?

I don’t pretend to understand the mind of a person who sneaks into a cemetery with a sack of raw meat, but my guess is that he’s pretty darned pleased with himself for all he has accomplished.  As the lady said, his object was to wreak psychological havoc, and damned if we didn’t oblige him.  He cast out his bait and we took it.

We didn’t need to make all that fuss.  Those who discovered the profane slabs could have picked them up, tossed them in the garbage and continued on their merry way.  No one would be the wiser, and the perpetrator would have nothing to show for his pointless stunt.

It’s easy to comprehend the desire not to let anything slide, and to affirm our country’s traditions of pluralism and religious tolerance at every opportunity.  It’s encouraging that the city of Lynn takes the scourge of anti-Semitism seriously and is prepared to use the full force of the law to put an end to it once and for all.

I just worry that such efforts will have precisely the opposite effect, and that by treating all anti-Semitism as equally harmful, we will become progressively less adept at recognizing the real thing.

Thirteen Needles

Twenty-five years ago this March, two burglars made off with 13 works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.  To date, no one has ever been arrested in connection with the theft, and none of the stolen items has been found.

Until recently, I had assumed the nightmare scenario for the museum was that all 13 pieces would remain missing forever, despite exhaustive efforts over the last quarter-century to get them back.

However, from a new book that tries to make sense of the Gardner heist and its aftermath, I realize there is an eventuality that is even worse:  What if the stolen paintings no longer exist?  What if they have long been buried or destroyed and all the inquiries into their whereabouts have been in vain?

It’s a terrible thing to consider—something, no doubt, that the FBI and museum officials have tried very hard not to consider—but we must entertain the possibility in light of the facts.

Admittedly, when it comes to this story, facts of any kind have been awfully hard to come by.  The FBI took charge of the investigation from the start and has been very careful not to disclose anything even slightly interesting about its findings.  That the case remains elusive after all these years only serves to heighten the intrigue into what is already one of the most compelling grand thefts in modern times—and certainly one of the strangest.

It was in the early hours of March 18, 1990—just as St. Patrick’s Day was winding down—when two men in police uniforms and fake mustaches talked their way into Ms. Gardner’s stately treasure house, tied up the night watchmen and proceeded to plunder their way through the museum’s storied galleries, crudely cutting paintings from their frames and leaving piles of broken glass everywhere.

Among the items they stole were The Concertone of only 34 surviving paintings by Johannes Vermeer—and Rembrandt van Rijn’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, which, apart from being utterly stunning, is notable as the only instance in which the great Dutch master painted the sea.

The thieves also made off with (among other things) two additional Rembrandts, five drawings by Edgar Degas, paintings by Édouard Manet and Govert Flinck and (for whatever reason) an eagle-shaped bronze finial from atop an old flag.

All told, the 13 works are estimated to be worth around $500 million.  On that basis, it is considered the greatest art heist of all time.

Which makes it all the more depressing to read, in the newly-published Master Thieves by retired Boston Globe reporter Stephen Kurkjian, that the whole caper was likely planned, executed and covered up by a bunch of ignorant, reckless idiots.

Say what you will about the art world’s evil, twisted black marketeers, but at least they treat their stolen property with respect.

If Kurkjian’s reporting is to be believed—a reasonable bet for a newsman with more than 40 years’ experience and three Pulitzer Prizes to his name—the Gardner heist contained no such James Bond-like elegance.  Rather, it was simply and tragically a consequence of an epic Boston gang war in the late 1980s.  Really, it had nothing to do with art at all.

Kurkjian’s hunch—derived from an apparently credible source—is that a mid-level mobster named Robert Donati carried out the robbery with an associate to facilitate the prison release of a key member of his tribe.  That is, he intended to use the near-priceless artwork as a bargaining chip with the authorities:  If they would agree to set his jailed friend free, he would arrange for the safe return of the art.

Fair enough, except for two unexpected developments.  First, the heist immediately became a major world news event, with not one, not two, but 40 FBI agents assigned to the case, following every conceivable lead.  And second, roughly a year after the theft, Donati, the alleged mastermind, stepped out his front door and was stabbed 21 times by assailants who have never been identified.

So what happened to the paintings in the period in between?

The trouble, as Kurkjian explains, is that mobsters like these have a way of not telling each other what they’re up to.  For all sorts of reasons—most of them involving simple greed or self-preservation—key details about major scores tend not to leak out into the greater mob community.  Indeed, even within more intimate criminal “families,” no one goes out of their way to volunteer information that could lead to double-crossing or glory-taking somewhere down the line.

What may well have happened, in other words, is that Donati panicked in light of the robbery’s wide publicity, hid the artwork where it could never be found and then got himself murdered without bothering to mention the buried treasure’s whereabouts to anyone who might still be alive.

That would certainly explain the amazing fact that there hasn’t been a single confirmed sighting of any of the 13 pieces in the last 25 years—a highly improbable feat had the paintings been freely bouncing around the criminal underworld, as many assume they have.

And so the ultimate hindrance to recovering the Gardner stash may not be a lack of cooperation from the alleged burglars’ surviving comrades, who famously pride themselves on not being “rats.”  It may be that these unsavory characters have been telling the truth the whole time:  That nobody knows nothin’.

It may be, then, that the world’s most devastating art heist was orchestrated for no good reason, with no beneficial results—not even for those who did it—and with no happy ending.  A disparate set of masterworks may have been buried, burned or otherwise disposed of without anyone even realizing it, and we may never know for sure whether the search is worth continuing.

That said, it is a great credit to our civilization that we haven’t given up after all this time; that the case is still very much in the news; that the museum is offering a $5 million reward and legal immunity to anyone who assists in the art’s recovery; that we recognize the intrinsic value of great art and have a wing of the FBI (albeit a small one) devoted solely to such recoveries.  That the Dutch Room at the Gardner Museum still displays the empty frames on its walls, figuring that sooner or later they will once again be filled.

Master Thieves—required reading for anyone with an interest in this case—filled me with much more despair than hope, even as its author maintains some optimism that at least a portion of the Gardner plunder will someday rise from the dead.  He trusts, as do the authorities, that there is at least one living person with an idea of where the paintings might be, and might be persuaded to divulge such intelligence under the right circumstances.

I hope so, too, but from Kurkjian’s own reporting, I worry that we’re facing a haystack without any needles.  That the reason no one has seen the missing art is that it no longer exists.  That not all mysteries can be solved—including ones worth half a billion dollars.

The most revered of the missing Gardner pieces—the Rembrandt seascape—depicts a famous event from the gospels in which Jesus calms a great storm by performing a miracle.  If we are ever to set eyes on that mesmerizing scene again—along with the 12 others—a miracle might be the only thing for which we can hope.

An Unhappy Ending

In a way, you could argue that sentencing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death was a win-win-win.

Proponents of capital punishment can say that, by so condemning a seemingly irredeemable criminal, justice has finally been served.

Al Qaeda can claim victory by adding one more face to its Wall of Jihad.

And, of course, those against the death penalty can rest assured that—thanks to the wonders of the American appeals process—Tsarnaev will probably never be executed at all.

Done, done and done.

OK, I’m being slightly facetious.  But only slightly, insofar as all three of those observations are (arguably) true, and we’re now going to have to deal with the consequences of the Boston jury’s decision to send the Marathon bomber to death row.

Indeed, how the following weeks, months and years of Tsarnaev’s life unfold will undoubtedly cause scores of bystanders to reevaluate their views on capital punishment in the context of how our system actually works.

Or doesn’t work.

The fact is that while nearly everyone has an opinion about whether the death penalty is a good idea, comparatively few of us—particularly in the northeast—have actually experienced, in any fashion, the legal decathlon that a formal death sentence unleashes.

The reason, of course, is that while states like Texas hand out lethal injection the way a clown hands out balloons, the U.S. Justice Department is a little more selective.

Since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, 74 people have been relegated to death row.  (Tsarnaev makes it 75.)  Thus far, only three have been executed.  Of the rest, 10 have won reprieves, a few have died of natural causes and everyone else is patiently waiting their turn.  Some three dozen have been in legal limbo for a decade or more.

It’s easy enough to defend “an eye for an eye” as a moral and legal standard, and to advocate exacting the “ultimate punishment” for the special few who deserve it.

But what happens when actually following through on this approach yields disappointing and unintended results—such as the punishment never being carried out?

We were informed—well in advance of the trial’s end—that had Tsarnaev’s life been spared, his legal case would have vaporized on contact and he would have spent 23 hours of each of his remaining days in the most forbidding, psychologically depraved prison environment ever built on American soil.

By opting to execute him instead—supposedly the “worst” punishment of all—we will skip all of that in favor of a more prolific, less restrictive day-to-day existence for the little puke—accompanied by hearings and appeals for God knows how many years—before he is finally strapped to a gurney, injected with various body-numbing chemicals and sent on his merry way.  Or not.

Is this really anybody’s idea of the least-bad option for dealing with one of the most reprehensible people on Earth?

No, not really.  What we truly desire—but are far too polite to say out loud—is a Jack Ruby.  That is, for some crazed public avenger to pop out of nowhere and off the condemned man point blank, thereby saving society the hassle of the justice system’s more laborious machinations and getting right to the point.

The heck with due process.  We want Tsarnaev dead and we want it now.  Or at least, you know, less than 10 years from now.

To be sure, Tsarnaev will be no ordinary death row inmate.  His case will not mysteriously disappear into the labyrinth of the Justice Department, never to be seen again.  Lawyers and judges will pay him close attention, he being the first American terrorist sentenced to death since September 11, 2001.

Like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who was killed a mere four years after his conviction, perhaps Tsarnaev will jump the line and be relieved of his respiratory capacities ahead of schedule.  But not, in any case, before every last component of his crime and trial have been rehashed many times over, and in increasingly finer detail.

That, according to the experts, is about the best we can hope for:  An exhaustive, drawn-out replay of everything that occurred between April 15, 2013 and last Friday, culminating—maybe—in a result that some 80 percent of Bostonians didn’t desire in the first place.

And for what?  To prove the point that, in America, evil will not be treated lightly?  I don’t know about you, but allowing what’s-his-name to continue arguing his case until halfway through the next administration doesn’t seem very heavy to me.  Certainly not when compared to being locked in solitary confinement until he is driven so crazy that he begins gnawing off his own limbs, or becomes so bored that he bangs his head against the concrete wall and drowns in a pool of his own blood.

In practice, capital punishment has become little more than a symbol of how America feels about punishing bad guys.  It’s our visceral reaction to acts of extreme barbarism, such as the Marathon attack, yet it is neither efficient nor particularly satisfying as it is actually carried out.

That a jury, knowing all of this, would nonetheless choose death over life suggests just how strong our aversion to religious extremism is—how we refuse to breathe the same air as those who would murder children in the name of holy war.  How we will exhaust millions of dollars and hundreds of hours of court time—both of which we could easily avoid—simply to demonstrate to the world and ourselves that the right to life is revocable.  That crimes against humanity warrant one’s removal from all other human beings.

For those who believe this, it must be profoundly frustrating to see the process move so glacially, and often not at all.  Then again, if it’s really just about symbolism, does it really matter what happens to the poor devils once their sentences are handed down?

In Tsarnaev’s case, we have the consolation that every day his execution is delayed is another day in which he will not be seen as a martyr.  Indeed, anyone who buys the theory that his death will inspire future jihad had better hope his appeals go on forever, as unpleasant as that would be.

What we have, in short, is a supposed act of justice that is destined to satisfy no one.  Not those who want Tsarnaev six feet underground; not those who want him in solitary; and not those who want to raise him up as a hero for anti-Americanism everywhere.

Admittedly, the purpose of justice is not to make anybody happy.  The purpose of justice is justice.  We can, will and do argue about what constitutes justice in the first place.  To yours truly—considering the world as it actually is, not as we would like it to be—capital punishment is neither satisfying nor just.  It’s just plain dumb.

Tipping Point

As we increasingly debate the value of the lowest-paid workers in America’s service industries—and, specifically, whether to raise the minimum wage—can we all get together and agree, once and for all, that the concept of tipping is a profoundly stupid idea?

It has been nearly 23 years since Steve Buscemi so memorably railed against this odd social custom in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and no one has yet made a convincing case to the contrary.

“I don’t tip because society says I have to,” says Buscemi’s Mr. Pink around a coffee house table as everybody else throws in a dollar or two.  “I’ll tip if somebody really deserves it.  If they really put forth the effort, I’ll give them something extra.  But this tipping automatically, it’s for the birds.  As far as I’m concerned, they’re just doing their jobs.”

There’s more truth to that than even Mr. Pink realizes, and it demonstrates how we’d be much better off as a society if we nixed the whole practice.  It’s long past time that we did.

Watching the whole scene, it becomes clear that Mr. Pink, in his principled refusal to follow societal norms, is operating from a mistaken premise:  Namely, that the wait staff at this (or any) eating establishment could still get by in the absence of any tips.

In point of fact, they can’t.  For food service employees, minimum wage is not minimum wage.  At the federal level, non-tipped workers earn $7.25 an hour.  Tipped workers, however, earn a measly $2.13, with gratuities accounting for the rest.

Yes, it’s true that should a tipped employee’s combined earnings fall below $7.25 per hour, the employer must make up the difference.  However, history has shown this stipulation to be vulnerable to abuse by greedy restaurant owners who manipulate their underlings’ totals at will, which workers are understandably hesitant to challenge.

But even without such brazen corruption, this system means that lower-tipped waiters and waitresses will, by definition, earn the lowest amount of money possible, even as their fellow employees—working the same jobs, and not necessarily with any greater effort or skill—are raking in the dough (comparatively speaking).

The real problem, you see, is neither the wait staff nor their superiors.  The problem is us, the customers.

Mr. Pink, for all his ideological bluster, is really just being a cheap, selfish jerk.  That’s what gives the movie its edge, and it’s why our system needs to change:  Because there are a whole bunch of other cheap, selfish jerks out there, and it is unfair for their bad attitudes to so directly and adversely affect the well-being of the folks who serve them food.

The trouble with tipping is that it is arbitrary.

The theory is that superior servers will reap superior gratuities and that mediocre servers will be incentivized to perform better, or be sacked.  Old-fashioned meritocracy in action.

It’s a nice thought, and I’m sure it works that way from time to time.  Mostly, though, the art of tipping is a function of whatever mood the tipper happens to be in at the moment of payment.  Nothing more.

Some tip meagerly because they’ve had a long day.  Others tip generously because they’ve had a great day.  Certain rich folks invariably tip well (or not), while less-rich people don’t have that luxury.  There are plenty of us who simply tip the same every time, regardless of the service.  Meanwhile, many do tip to reflect their dining experience, but base it on metrics the server cannot possibly control, such as the quality of the food or the speed at which it was cooked.

During college, my group of friends would often depart a meal having no earthy idea how much gratuity we left—either because we paid with seven different credit cards, or because none of us was in a state of mind to perform basic arithmetic.

My question:  Even in the best of times, why should any of us shoulder this responsibility?  Why should you and I have veto power over whether a waiter or waitress can afford a decent living?  Why can’t they just be able to do their jobs with the dignity of knowing how much their paycheck will be at the end of each week, not being at the mercy of their rudest, meanest customers?

Just because they’re “servers” who take our “orders,” it doesn’t mean we should treat them like slaves.

Yet that’s exactly what we do, and it’s nearly as bad for us as it is for them.

Case in point:  The Boston Globe recently outlined the newish cultural innovation whereby even casual coffee shops and the like now allow you to tack a gratuity onto your bill.  To be precise, the cashier will hand you a tablet to confirm your order (cash registers are so last century) and you will be prompted to add a tip of any amount, or none at all.  While you have every right to decline, you must now make the active decision to do so.

In other words, we are now being guilted into paying a surcharge for coffee and a donut that never existed before.  And all because a few cheapskate owners can’t be bothered to give their employees a living wage.

We might agree that baristas are criminally underpaid, but why should the remedy for this depend upon making customers feel awkward at the end of every order?

Few of us are as callous and cheap as Mr. Pink, and we are willing to dig an extra few quarters from our wallet if it buys us peace of mind on the way to our next appointment.  The question is why the supervisors of these wage slaves are, themselves, so callous and cheap that they have outsourced those wages as thoroughly as they possibly can, enabling the Mr. Pinks of the world to feel ripped off and bitter.  That is, when they’re not feeling all haughty and superior.  Neither of these is desirable or attractive, and yet our system makes them inevitable.

It is not good for society to subject the welfare of an entire class of workers to the idle whims of another.