How Far Would You Go to Repair the World?

I rarely blog on Shabbat, but two events this weekend have left me ethically reeling. Judaism holds that Jews are commanded to help ‘repair the world’–the concept of tikkun olam. We’re not expected to ever be able to finish the job and achieve a perfectly just planet, but we’re still required to begin the task. Other religions may not lay out social responsibility that specifically, but the concept is a common one–be just, help each other, don’t be mean, don’t hurt the planet, etc.

Yesterday, I came across this WBEZ blog post from Justin Kaufman describing a recent protest movement to block an allegedly clean-energy coal plant from being constructed on a large, empty plot of land in the South Loop. As Kaufman discovered, the “protest movement” was a huge and elaborate set-up perpetuated on their own neighborhood by the South Loop’s own Columbia College. Apparently, Columbia wanted to teach its media students how to “engage” in real world problems while at the same time demonstrating how to (my word here, but it fits) manipulate the media into telling a story.

So what’s wrong here? Plenty. First of all, Columbia hired street-theater hoaxsters the Yes Men to plant fake construction announcements in the neighborhood for the phony coal-plant project. Then the college organized students into protest teams, stationed them on a South Loop street corner with fake protest signs, swore them to secrecy, and told them to engage with real South Loop pedestrians and motorists–and the news media–to enlist their support for the phony protest.

In other words, Columbia College set out to trick people into believing something really bad was about to happen in a residential Chicago neighborhood. Crying wolf to your neighbors–actually trying to make them angry, worried, upset–is entirely not cool. It is, however, a really good way to lose their support. (Not to mention the media’s support, or your local alderman’s support, too.)

Second, the above problems could have been avoided if Columbia College had chosen to organize its students around a real problem. How about housing discrimination on the north side, or an actual environmental justice problem on the south side? It isn’t as if Chicago suffers from a lack of socially unjust issues that negatively impact the lives of real people. Trying to scare people for no good reason is bad enough. Going to such elaborate lengths to invent a problem that doesn’t exist instead of actually trying to help people–allegedly in order to try and teach students to help people–is laughable, sad, and most of all, ethically bankrupt.

Columbia College, what in the world were you thinking? Whatever it was, think better next time.

__________

Today, as the second-half of Shabbat got underway, I learned that an acquaintance’s employer and one of said employer’s biggest clients is committing systemic racial discrimination. Exactly the highly federally, state-wise, and locally (i.e. universally) illegal discrimination that term entails. In fact, a very 1950s type of “no baboon Blacks” and “no ghetto Hispanics” racial discrimination that makes your blood boil to learn about.

Said acquaintance is being victimized, themselves, because if they speak up they may lose their job. Which, itself, would be illegal–and, of course, they could turn around and report their employer to the appropriate authorities if it came to that. Out of fear (as near as I can figure out), my acquaintance has decided to just keep their head down until a better job comes along.

What would you do in a situation like that? I’m not sure what I would do. But I know that in 12 days I’m being welcomed into a people many of whom have given their lives to fight discrimination like that. Would I risk giving up my job? Would you?

I already know I’d give up my job if I were required to work on the Sabbath. I have that kind of observance in me. Other Jews have given their lives to observe Shabbat. Giving up my job is the least I could do to defend the boundaries of my faith. But the ethical commandments can be so much easier to hide from. It’s a lot easier to criticize others for not acting ethically then to point the finger at yourself.

I took that easier tack when I learned about all this earlier today. So I sit here in a coffee shop most of the way through Shabbat feeling as disappointed in Columbia College as my acquaintance feels disappointed in me.

Friends have heard me talk about how a central tenet of Judaism is that you’re supposed to struggle with it. With faith, with God, with mitzvot, with ethics. You’re meant to make an informed decision about your relationship with God and justice. It’s not supposed to be easy.

This Shabbat, I’m struggling.

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What do you think?