Humanist Hub Blog

COVID-19 in Florida – Report by Board Member Joe Gerstein

    I spent 81 of my 84 years in the Greater Boston area. One year was spent at Bronx Municipal Hospital, where I met my Australian wife on a psychiatric ward. Two years ago, we sold our home in Wayland and moved to Miami to be near one of our sons and his family. We thought that hurricanes were all that we would have to worry about.

    Since then, Zika and West Nile virus scares, with Dengue loose just south, in Monroe County, have awakened us to the dangers of the sub-tropics. I had to rip out all my carefully-nurtured bromeliads because they retain water in a cup-like recess, where mosquitos can breed. We were relieved to have missed the dramatic impact of COVID19 in the Boston area, but obviously, in the event, we did not elude it. We are now in the midst of the plague.

    The recent statistics are daunting in Miami-Dade county: 10,000 cases reported yesterday (July 19); 2200 cases in ICUs (which are running at 127% [!] of capacity); 500+ on ventilators. 100 deaths. Total cases in FL during the epidemic: 327,000.

    Every so often I get a twinge of guilt about not aiding my medical colleagues on the front lines. Then the reality that I am 84 and carrying an inactive medical license intrudes and interrupts my musings. My own doctor’s husband is 65 and heads a local Emergency Unit. He has been living in a hotel for 4 months!  At present, we are living with an 8 PM curfew and required “face-coverings. Although restaurants are open, with stringent rules, alcoholic drinks are not available unless food is ordered. So, bars, per se, are out. As is the situations in many other states, the Mayor of Miami (Democrat) and the Governor (Republican) are dueling daily.

    I am currently reading Barbara Tuchman’s tome A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. It was written over 20 years ago. I finally dug it out of a friend’s library. It is truly fascinating and engaging. Of course, it encompasses the onslaught of the Black Plague in Europe, which, in several waves, killed about 1/3 of the entire population. It completely devastated all social and economic activity. In ignorance of its nature or origin, it was blamed variously on a God’s vengeance for the sinfulness of humans or a conspiracy of the Jews, although Jews were obviously impacted with about the same death rate as Christians.

    The usual curative treatment advocated was burning the ghettos and killing the Jews therein or self-flagellation. Parades of flagellants coursed through Europe and eventually became a coercive government of their own. Finally, the Pope excoriated the flagellants and threatened excommunication, after which this hysteria remitted.

    The most memorable vignette regards the selectivity of the second wave, which came 2 years after the first. Unlike COVID19, which spreads easily to children, but has modest health impact on them, this second wave decimated young males at 3 times the rate of young females. Perhaps this was because the first wave of the plague had eliminated most of the adult susceptibles. Remember the biblical plague in Egypt that was reported to have carried off the firstborn sons of those who did not identify their doors with a splash of blood as a Jewish home?  Might have some relevance. The impact of this selectivity on society was that for a generation, females greatly outnumbered males in the population leading to many laments from unmarried women and a situation in which high-born, even aristocratic women, were often impelled or compelled to marry well-below their social rank. Likewise, the dearth of agricultural workers resulted in laws compelling workers to virtual peonage or serfdom and the “Bloody Assizes” as courts enforced these drastic new rules, forbidding departure without the farm-owner’s’ permission. 

    One of my sons is a journalist and currently resides in Shanghai, where his wife is employed by NYU/Shanghai. He informed me just today that this NYU Unit will be accepting 3,000 additional Chinese students who cannot or will not attend foreign universities.  In addition to constraints, travel and political, imposed on American universities, Chairman Xi has discouraged Chinese students from attending Australian universities, as retribution of Australia’s decision not to utilize Huawei 5G products.

    My son and his family returned urgently from the US to China in anticipation of a possible exclusion of foreigners in March, where they had fled from Japan, which they were visiting during the Chinese New Year.  Even at that time, there were no direct flights, so they had to fly to Narita in Japan, thence to Seoul and finally to Shanghai. Indeed, China closed to the arrival of any non-Chinese citizens 3 days later. Although their experience is quite topical, he cannot write about anything going on in China because, due to the spat between China and the US and mutual expulsion of reporters, his employer chose not to seek a license for him. So, he is writing his DC political commentary from Shanghai.

    On their arrival at Pudong Airport, the family was interviewed, their temperatures checked, a COVID19 test taken. Then they were escorted to a row of vans, each heading to a different area of Shanghai. They were directly escorted to their apartment and a device attached to their door to monitor their 14-day quarantine. If the door was opened more than 3 times a day, a signal would be sent to the authorities, who would then transfer them to a quarantine hotel for closer observation. All restaurants were closed and food and groceries had to be delivered, which is fairly routine in Chinese cities. Their dog, already in a kennel, had to remain there for 14 days, since walking her for elimination, would be awkward. Schools were closed, so the children remained home. A dentist in full PPE regalia showed up at their door twice a day to test each person’s temperature. 

    Gradually, the crisis has receded and the few flare-ups have been rapidly controlled. Traffic is about 80% of normal. Restaurants and businesses are generally open. Factories and mines are close to full operation,. No one would dare be on the street without a mask.

    Although it is obviously easier for an autocratic regime to induce such intense constraints on citizens’ behavior, South Korea and New Zealand seem to have achieved similar beneficial results. You can draw your own conclusions as to why the US was unable to achieve this type of control and is now suffering through a horrendous epidemic in the face of its vaunted medical system. 

    On the final day of self-quarantine, my daughter-in-law noticed on her cell phone that a package had been left at that door. Because it was 2 AM, she considered that the quarantine was over, so opened the door to retrieve the package. At 8 AM an official arrived to transport them to the quarantine hotel! It turned out the officials were operating on an 8 AM to 8 AM “day” rather than a “Midnight to Midnight” day. Obviously it made no sense to transport them under that circumstance, so the official relented. Welcome to 1984 Redux!

VENUE CHANGE!! Naomi Klein to Receive Rushdie Award

The award ceremony, including a talk on Klein’s book On Fire and an extended Q&A, will be free and open to the public. It will take place at Sever Hall 113 in Harvard Yard (map) at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, February 26th. For questions contact info@harvardhumanist.org.

Sever Hall

The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard and the Harvard College Community of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics (HCHAA), along with the American Humanist Association, are delighted to announce that Naomi Klein is the 14th annual winner of our Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award for Humanism in Culture: the ‘Rushdie Award,’ after first winner Sir Salman Rushdie.

Credit: Kourosh Keshiri

Klein currently serves as the inaugural Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University. An award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and international New York Times bestselling author, Klein’s most recent work, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, tackles the climate crisis in a novel way. Hailed by critics as a clarion call to courage and ambition, the book is an impassioned and evidence-based plea for a Green New Deal that would avert climate catastrophe while creating a more just and equitable society. Published worldwide in September 2019, the book became an instant New York Times bestseller, and #1 Canadian bestseller.

Among Klein’s many other award-winning books are The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes On the Disaster Capitalists (2018), No Is Not Enough: Resisting the New Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need (2017), This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014), The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), and No Logo (2000). Films based on Klein’s work have been chosen as official and prizewinning selections at leading film festivals around the world.

The student-led committee of members of the Humanist Community at Harvard who selected Klein for this year’s ‘Rushdie Award’ noted the extraordinary depth and breadth of her lifelong work. “Her voice has amplified the crucial political, economic and social actions required for the preservation of our planet,” said Harvard College student and committee member Adelle Goldenberg. “Her writing and advocacy have made an outstanding contribution to the development of secular altruistic communities around the world, including on Harvard’s campus.” Klein will join a list of past awardees including author Anand Giridharadas, Steven Pinker, the late Carrie Fisher, Stephen Fry, and more.

Greg’s Sabbatical and Major Announcements

Dear friends and supporters,

I’m delighted to be in touch with some major announcements!  

First: I recently began a 12-month, paid sabbatical, through July 15, 2020, during which I will be researching and writing about humanism and the ethics of technology. My passion for this subject emerged last year, when I was invited to join MIT’s Office of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life as Humanist Chaplain at MIT (in addition to my ongoing work as Humanist Chaplain at Harvard) and as MIT’s Convener for Ethical Life. After what has now been 15 years as a Harvard chaplain, I am grateful for this opportunity to spend a year exploring technology’s role in shaping our shared human future, and investigating what it might mean to use technology ethically and humanistically today.

For an initial look at what I’ll be doing while on sabbatical, check out the column/interview series on tech and ethics I’m creating for TechCrunch, a leading publication chronicling the world of Silicon Valley and its startups. Here is a link to all of my TechCrunch pieces thus far (with many more to come) on themes such as economic justice and inequality; race, inclusion, and intersectionality; gender and “The Internet of Women;” climate change and the role of giant tech companies in addressing or exacerbating it; immigration ethics and tech (a personal one for me); and much more. Have a story tip? Message me on Twitter! Note: my articles are largely behind TechCrunch’s “paywall” though in most cases there’s enough publicly available to give you a sense of the key themes and ideas; over the course of the year I also plan to publish writing for a broader audience.

Meanwhile, it is also an honor to announce that Dr. Erik Gregory has been elected the new President of the board of directors for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, Inc., the nonprofit organization overseeing my work and the programs we’ve created over recent years. Dr. Gregory first became involved with us in 2015 when he moved his private psychotherapy practice into The Humanist Hub as our Humanist Therapist in Residence. A leading proponent of positive psychology, Erik has advised prominent clients in government, the non-profit sector, and the world of children’s educational television. His multiple Harvard degrees and other distinctions give him a bio as much worth reading as any bio I know. But what really distinguishes Erik in our community and makes this news so joyful is the wisdom, warmth, and dedication to humanism he has consistently demonstrated over the past several years. During my year away, Dr. Gregory will bring those qualities to the process of positioning our organization for many more years of success and good work. If you have questions about the role of our board and its work, you can send them to be passed along to Erik at: info@harvardhumanist.org

Finally, for Harvard College students looking to get involved in the coming academic year, I’m very pleased to be working with a wonderful group of student leaders of the Harvard College Community of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics (HCHAA) who will be leading that work.  Their bios:

Adelle Goldenberg (Co-President) is a rising junior in Dunster House from Brooklyn, New York. She concentrates in Philosophy, and has particular interests in the fields of existentialism, feminist philosophy, and philosophy of religion. On campus, she is a Student Mental Health Liaison, a board member of Harvard College Students for Scholars at Risk, and the merchandise chair on Dunster’s House Committee. She is thrilled to be contributing to HCHAA as Co-President for the 2019-2020 school year.

Nkazi Nchinda (Co-President) is a junior in Leverett House studying biomedical engineering and sociology. When he’s not working with Harvard Engineers Without Borders, Nkazi volunteers with Harvard Square Homeless Shelter’s street team and conducts microbial research with the Cira Lab. He also loves music, baking, and photography!

Stephen Casper (Discussion Chair) is a third-year Harvard undergrad studying Statistics and Computer Science. Also a member of Harvard College iGEM and Effective Altruism, he likes taking a humanistic approach to big questions in science and morality. He also likes to read, write, and binge watch videos on Youtube.

If you’re at the College, please reach out to them directly! 

At MIT, there is the award-winning Secular Society of MIT, led by the indefatigable graduate student Sohan Dsouza and colleagues. MIT students and affiliates can be in touch with them and can also reach out to MIT’s Office of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life directly with any questions; as an ORSEL Convener I will remain in contact with the office over the year, updating them about any opportunities of interest to humanists on campus.

Thanks again so much for your interest in our work and all you may have done to support us in the past. This is going to be a special year. I’ll be in touch with anything you need to know, and then we’ll see you again for fall 2020! 

Warmly,

Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and MIT
HarvardHumanist.org
Twitter.com/gregmepstein

Our March event and Greg’s New TechCrunch Series

From Greg M. Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and MIT:

On March 2nd, we presented our 13th annual ‘Rushdie Award’ for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement in Cultural Humanism, to writer Anand Giridharadas. The event was one of the Humanist Hub’s biggest and best ever — cosponsored by the American Humanist Association and the Harvard College Community of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics (HCHAA), our event was the opening keynote of the 20th annual Social Enterprise Conference, a joint production of students at the Harvard Business School and Kennedy School. A diverse group of 1000 current and future leaders in business and politics, from world-renowned philanthropists and scholars to undergraduates, gathered to hear Giridharadas give a passionate affirmation of humanism and an extraordinarily eloquent call for economic justice.

Here is his acceptance speech, which was followed by an extended conversation with Harvard’s Jason Furman, the former Obama Administration Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors. Here we are presenting the award in front of a packed Klarman Hall. Like so many of the wonderful student organizers, I was inspired by the event and believe the coming years can be a time of real progress toward equity. Meanwhile, I am excited to share that I’ve launched a new series on the ethics of technology, for TechCrunch. My first piece in the series was a dialogue with Giridharadas.

Last week, I was delighted to speak with James Williams, a former Google executive who won the Founders Prize, Google’s highest honor; then he went to do a PhD in tech ethics at Oxford and has now become one of the world’s leading critics of his former industry.”What led me to go to Oxford to study the ethics of persuasion and attention,” Williams told me, “was that I didn’t see [a focus on] people’s true goals and intentions ultimately winning out across the industry. In fact, I saw something really concerning happening in the opposite direction…” It was an incredibly enlightening conversation and I’d be honored if you’d read and share it:

https://techcrunch.com/2019/03/13/the-adversarial-persuasion-machine-a-conversation-with-james-williams/ 

I won’t email for each installment, so do look out soon for my talk on the ethics of internet culture with the Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz; and then a panel the following week on what “tech ethics,” certainly a hot topic these days, even is, with Kathy Pham, an ethical tech expert at Harvard; Hilary Cohen at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford; and Jessica Baron, a writer on tech ethics at Forbes and TechEngage. Many more exciting guests to come.



Anand Giridharadas To Receive Rushdie Award

The Humanist Hub and the Humanist Community at Harvard, along with the Harvard College Community of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics (HCHAA) and the American Humanist Association, are thrilled to announce that Anand Giridharadas is the 13th annual winner of our Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award for Humanism in Culture: the ‘Rushdie Award,’ after first winner Sir Salman Rushdie.

Giridharadas was selected for his extraordinary accomplishments as a writer, at a very young age; and most recently for his groundbreaking public advocacy for humanist ideals such as justice, equity, compassion, and intersectionality. Among many accomplishments, he is the author of three books; a prolific columnist, correspondent, and contributor to publications such as the New York Times, where he first interned and wrote articles at the age of 17, and at the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and others; an on-air political analyst for NBC News and MSNBC; and a visiting scholar at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.

Giridharadas’s most recent book, “Winners Take All,” is a bold and brilliant examination of the increasing concentration of wealth and influence among a new global aristocracy. In the book, and in a vigorous campaign across traditional and social media, he argues that America in particular has become a “functional oligarchy.” But for Giridharadas, wealthy and influential people have come to dominate not only the world’s financial resources, but also to hoard an outsized and unhealthy share of human dignity. With passion and precision, he shows how billionaires, corporations, consulting firms, and other elites have used philanthropy and other charitable endeavors to exert influence while diverting attention from the need for more comprehensive social and economic justice reform.

We are particularly proud to announce, therefore, that Giridharadas will accept our 2019 award as part of delivering the opening keynote for this year’s 20th annual Social Enterprise Conference, a joint production of students at the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, set to bring together approximately 1000 top leaders, practitioners and students on March 2-3, 2019 to engage in dialogue, debate, and expression around Social Enterprise. Much of this year’s conference will effectively be an opportunity to respond to Giridharadas’s call for self-examination and change by precisely the sort of leaders that can often be found at HBS and HKS (and, perhaps, at some humanist gatherings!). We look forward to this year’s celebration as a special opportunity for open and critical dialogue.

For more information and an opportunity to purchase tickets for this event as part of the Social Enterprise Conference, see: http://socialenterpriseconference.org. A limited number of tickets have been set aside for humanist students at Harvard or MIT: please contact info@harvardhumanist.org.  

Come In From the Cold


Curious about a humanist winter holiday celebration?  We were streaming live from the MIT Chapel on December 13, 2018.  Click here to watch.  Happy holidays to you and yours!

The Humanist Hub’s electronic bonfire glowing in the MIT Chapel

Come In From the Cold: MIT Humanist Community Winter Celebration

Music by Nedelka Prescod, Musician-In-Residence, MIT Chapel

Invocation, Nina Lytton, Chaplaincy Intern, The Humanist Hub

Firestarting, David Whitlock, Science Advisor, The Humanist Hub

Hymn to the Light by David Breeden: Nina Lytton

Rise Up O Flame: Nedelka Prescod

Fight with the Fire, by Gajanan Mishra: Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain of MIT

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, by Nina Simone: Nedelka Prescod

The Body is Humankind, by Norman Cousins: Tomás Egeña

When Darkness Falls, by Josh Fox: Nedelka Prescod

Grateful, by Diane Warren: Nedelka Prescod

Sensory Awareness Meditation with Eucalyptus: Greg Epstein

Secular Sermon, Keystone Species: Nina Lytton

Seasonal Suggestions: TIM the Beaver

Some Type of Love, by Charlie Pluth: The MIT Chorallaries

Probably Up, by Lawrence: The MIT Chorallaries

Fire Extinguished: David Whitlock

Where is My Light? by Sherwin Wine: Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain, MIT

Arise O Ye of MIT +Take Me Back to Tech: The MIT Chorallaries

 Watch the video here

A Holiday Celebration for the Rest of Us

It’s cold. It’s dark. Are we seasonally depressed? Yeah. Tense over exams and work? Yeah. Difficult times for our country and our world? Double yeah.

If you’re passionately celebrating a religious holiday right now, great.

But if you’re not particularly religious, come and join atheists, agnostics and allies in the greater MIT community as we meet in the MIT Chapel (ironically enough!) on Thursday December 13th at 5:30 pm.

We’re going to create some cheer of our own, together. Emphasis on the together.

In the United States, some people cherish the idea that heroism is the ability to go it alone. But the American College Health Association’s 2017 annual survey of college students reports that 63% have felt lonely, with higher than average rates of loneliness in elite educational institutions. Self-care “solutions” are marketed as if loneliness is an individual problem divorced from the context of our lives, and anxiety is something that can be cured by spending money.

The notion of individual success or failure doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Life is first and foremost a collaborative endeavor. You’re not born alone, you don’t get educated alone, and what you accomplish you do by leveraging the contributions of others. You may not come to know all these people personally, but that doesn’t erase their contribution to your wellbeing. You don’t experience your full humanity alone.

The experience of loneliness depends significantly on how you’re embodied, and where. Many have difficulty because, at a macro level, our culture shames some, glorifies others, and that encourages tribalism.

We thrive places like MIT when we find ourselves among people who nurture us. The MIT community, with our inventive, compassionate people, is rich with opportunities for generative interdependence. The dark days of winter are a time to strengthen our friendships, build new links of connection, and relish the possibilities of our life together here on campus. This kind of togetherness is worth celebrating.

—Nina Lytton

Suggested Reading: Self-Care Won’t Save Us

 

Paradoxes of Ethical Leadership

MIT students, researchers, and faculty are shaping the future. Literally. Last week in discussion group, the ethical considerations of editing the human genome came up. There’s so much at stake, it feels overwhelming.

Are technologies like CRISPR a gift to humanity, or a curse, or both? The answer depends on us, we humans. On how well our moral compass guides us through market economics. On how inclusively we break trail into new possibilities for the human race.

I was struck by the relevance of a recent conversation with humanist ethicist Sharon Welch, a professor in my M.Div. program, to what’s happening here at MIT. In a forthcoming book, After the Protests are Heard: Enacting Civic Engagement and Social Transformation, Dr. Welch outlines the paradoxes of moral leadership in today’s world:

– There is no moral safe harbor, no course of action guaranteed to be free of risk, loss and negative side effects.

– The measure of our success is not the perfection of our efforts but our honesty, accountability, resilience and audacity in the face of unintended consequences and ongoing challenges.

– Finding what enables people to thrive in ways that are equitable and ecologically sustainable is more a matter of critical experimentation and risk-taking than it is a matter of moral and theological certainty.

– We may want the same thing, but for different reasons and may have the same reasons, but want different things.

– There is a fundamental lack of parity between the moral certainty of our denunciation of existing forms of injustice and our ethically reasonable uncertainty about the justice and feasibly of our cherished alternatives.

Let’s talk. How are you wrestling with the paradoxes of leadership? What helps you live creatively out of these tensions and opportunities? Where can we move beyond “us vs. them” to find generative interdependence?

Join MIT Humanist Chaplain, Greg Epstein, and I in the Chapel (W15) at 4pm on November 15 and again on November 29 to discuss.

–Nina Lytton

Chaplaincy Intern

She, He, and They: Forging a New Relationship

Steve Bannon is concerned that women are going to take over society.  Really?  The way he talks about it, it’s like it has to be either men in charge or women in charge.  Why this binary thinking?   Why always a ladder of rank where some are less valuable?  It’s time to question the idea of a moral hierarchy.  Let’s stop acting like crabs in a bucket, always squabbling about who’s on top.

If women did take over society and reorganize it, would the structure look like a pyramid?  Couldn’t it look like a circle of inclusion?  Or a web of life?

Can she, he, and they explore a kind of interdependence?  What would have to change about how your gender identity was socialized?

Join us in the MIT W20 First Floor Meeting Room on November 1 at 4pm to discuss.

-–Nina Lytton, Humanist Chaplaincy Intern

Inviting Your Input

Beavers are nature’s collaborators.  We don’t do anything alone.  I’m working with MIT’s new Humanist Chaplain, Greg Epstein, and the Humanist Hub to plan an MIT Community Holiday Celebration scheduled for Thursday evening December 13.  This date is right between the end of classes and exam week.

MIT students and community: we need your input and participation.  There are brainstorming meetings planned for the at 4pm in the Chapel on Thursday October 18 and in the Student Center first floor meeting room on Thursday October 25.

We are planning a secular celebration with uplifting songs, heart-opening readings, and intriguing stories about the mighty beaver.  We want to decorate the Chapel to bring out its coziness and uncanny resemblance to the inside of the beaver lodge, and to make the lamp posts and trees outside look a bit magical.  Of course we’re thinking about food afterwards in W11.  Something festive.  Certainly including cake.

There’s plenty of room for everyone’s creativity in bringing this idea to life.  Please let me hear from you about any interest in participating in the planning and/or hosting the event.

Back in the Jurassic Period, I was the Princeton Tigress.  That’s me, leading the parade down to the football stadium.  Remembering those days reminds me of what I love most about MIT: the collaboration.

-–Nina Lytton, Humanist Chaplaincy Intern