Stop pretending nothing happens in August


The headlines these days all seem to demand exclamation marks. Iraq is teetering on the brink! Russian troops are massing on the Ukranian border! Gaza lies in ruins! World’s worst Ebola epidemic afflicts Africa!  

Oh, and it is also National Goat Cheese Month.  Welcome to another quiet and peaceful August.

Yeah, right. One of the puzzles of summer is why so many of us persist in pretending that August is a month when nothing happens, when we can step back, tune out, take a break, and recharge. Europeans even think they are entitled to take the entire month off.

Perhaps there’s something about late summer, a couple months gone since school let out in June, that makes us forget our history. This year, August is full of reminders. We’re commemorating the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation and the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I.

Bellicose August also brought the Gulf of Tonkin incident that triggered our involvement in Vietnam, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the failed coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact in 1939 that enabled Hitler to invade Poland on September 1, and the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945 and ensuing Japanese surrender. Hurricane Katrina also occurred in August, but let’s leave Mother Nature out of it.

There’s a melancholic quality to August, a month nearly synonymous with “waning days of summer.”  Less acknowledged in our cultural vernacular is the extent to which the “waning” feeling is as much about the end of another year as it is about the end of summer.  

Sure, we sing “Auld Lang Syne,” kiss under the mistletoe, and wish each other a “Happy New Year” when December turns to January. But who among us doesn’t feel that the real reset moment each year, the new beginning, comes in September, the day after Labor Day? The fall is when we start school and football season and the U.S. government fiscal year, and when we get serious, if we ever do, about our work.

August, then, is about the waning not only of summer, but also of each passing year, and lost possibilities. It is about the waning of life, even.  There is a grasping, desperate quality to many of the historical events that took place in August—hence the resonance of the title of Barbara Tuchman’s historical bestseller about the outset of World War I, The Guns of August.  It’s quite fashionable to study the sequence of events that led to the so-called “Great War,” which in retrospect appear like dominoes falling as if on a predetermined course.  The rest of the war is far less fashionable to read about, as it proves too muddled a narrative.  Best to focus on the August beginning, and how it ended all that came before.

Mischief conspires with melancholia in August, the notion that mice can play while the cat’s vacationing.  It’s not clear whether Saddam Hussein thought he would get away with taking over Kuwait if he did so while the American president was summering in Maine, or whether that president’s son, when he was in office a decade later, would have taken warnings of an airborne Al Qaeda plot more seriously had he been briefed about them at some time and place other than August at his Texas ranch. 

August and the waning days of summer (and of the year, I insist) is when we let our guards down, creating an opening for those with an agenda, be it the invasion of Poland or Kuwait, or the shorting of the pound (George Soros famously bet against the British currency in August 1992, and won big).  So keep your eye on colleagues who seem especially busy and eager to stick around the office this month. Who knows what they’re up to?

Financial markets are notoriously slow in August, the month of lowest trading volumes, when bankers follow their clients to the beach. But “slow” can be a deceptive term in business as in life, given that lower volume and less liquidity in a market can make it more volatile, and more susceptible to speculation.  If you buy or sell 1,000 shares of a company, you are far more likely to influence that stock price on a day when only 5,000 shares trade hands than on a day when 100,000 shares trade hands. 

That same dynamic applies to anyone seeking to influence the outcome of any event: your influence increases the fewer people are engaged.  Which is what makes this such a dodgy month, and the current news headlines so ominous.

And now, I’m off to the beach for a week.  It’s August, after all.

Andres Martinez is editorial director of Zocalo Public Square, for which he writes the Trade Winds column.

For Rosh Hashanah: Make your own joy


The best part about Y2K, in my judgment, was that it signaled the end of the 20th century.

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Who among us would want to relive the last 100 years? Tens of millions of
people died during the previous century in the most violent and brutal ways.

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World War I, at the start of the century, was supposed to be the war to end all wars; it turned out to be merely the beginning. Fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism and many other iterations of -isms, resulted in the bloodiest century in human history. Auschwitz and Hiroshima were two cataclysmic events that demonstrated the unbridled power and willingness of human beings to destroy life.

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I, for one, was delighted to see the century end. Because how could the next one be worse?

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Now that we are halfway through the first decade of the 21st century we are beginning to see how it could be worse. The penchant for genocide and murder on a massive scale as a result of secular orthodoxies apparently has not abated. But now, as we begin this new century, it has been supplemented by a penchant for genocide and murder on a massive scale by religious orthodoxies.

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The definition of a fanatic used to be someone who believed in something so strongly he was willing to give up your life for it. Today’s religious fanatic is not only willing to give up your life to reach their goals, but also their own lives and the lives of their children, as well. Martyrdom, what you and I call suicide with maximum collateral damage, is a religious ideal. This brand of religious fanaticism seeks to re-establish the glory of the Islamic caliphate.

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In effect, these fanatics want to return us to the seventh century, when Islam first conquered the world and spread its message by word and by sword. It is not paranoid to express fear over what could possibly happen if these groups trade the sword for something nuclear. They will then have the power to return much of the world to the seventh century — if, indeed, there would still be a world.

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Kind of hard to wish each other Happy New Year after that.

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Fear turns to anxiety and then to despair if we allow ourselves to feel helpless in the face of the threat of cataclysmic destruction. But despair is just not the Jewish way. We are simply not allowed, the sages of the Talmud tell us (Shabbat 30b), to allow sadness to dominate our mood: “The Shechina, the Divine Presence, cannot dwell in the midst of sadness.”

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To live in sadness is to block the presence of God from entering the world. To despair of a peaceful future is to give a victory to the forces of darkness. That is why Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, who himself struggled with depression, is famous among Chasidim for his great teaching: “Mitzvah gedolah lihiyot b’simcha tamid” — it is a great mitzvah to be in joy perpetually.

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How do we turn despair to joy? By exercising control over our environment. By utilizing the personal and collective power we have yet to tap. By responding to this homicidal religious fanaticism with a religious determination of our own. By endowing certain economic, political and technological policies with the holiness of a religious imperative.

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The transition from an economy based on oil to something that doesn’t enrich Muslim theocracies is a mitzvah. We condemn Iran for having funded Hezbollah, but the reality is they did so with our petrodollars. Reducing their income from the exportation of oil removes a powerful tool for Iranian mischief.

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Conservation — buying a hybrid, flipping off unused lights and unwatched TVs, recycling and more — is a mitzvah of the highest order. Establishing the greening of Jewish institutions — including synagogues, schools and communal buildings — is not just good for the environment, which should be motivation enough, but it will help save lives. And it goes without saying that actively opposing nuclear proliferation is also a mitzvah.

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These are mitzvot that have taken on great urgency and will change the world. If each of us finds the determination and the strength to begin this now, this will indeed be a happy New Year. And a much safer one as well.

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Perry Netter is rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles and author of “Divorce Is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies” (Jewish Lights, 2002). He can be reached at pnetter@tbala.org.