Rabbi Michael White
What Does Pharoah Have to Do
With Facebook Hacks?
I’ve been thinking about Passover’s messages of freedom and liberty and what they have to say about our current state-of-affairs, and I want to begin with a story from the March 19th issue of the New York Times, about an organization founded by the infamous Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn called Cambridge Analytica, funded by conservative activists the Kochs and the Mercers.
Cambridge Analytica is a research firm whose purpose is to mine the personal data of social media users on Facebook and Google, among other platforms, and identify their personalities. The idea was to map personality traits and use that information to target ads and misinformation to them, to influence their votes. The data of 50 million of us was captured by Cambridge Analytica, mostly through false pretenses. Cambridge was interested in motivating conservative users to vote, and to get independents to vote GOP. We have no idea how influential this firm was in influencing elections, but we do know that before this story broke, several campaigns around the world had hired Cambridge Analytica, assuming that we are gullible and susceptible to such manipulation, which, of course, is human nature, going all the way back to Pharoah.
So now to Pharoah, to Passover, and to the first iteration of Cambridge Analytica in known written history, known at the Book of Exodus in the Torah. The population of Jews in ancient Egypt was growing, and Pharoah was becoming alarmed. What if the Jews turn on me, he wondered. What if they join my enemies and try to overthrow me, he worried. There is no evidence that we were a threat at all. No evidence that we were anything but model citizens. But that’s how dictators are; they are fanatical about maintaining power and deathly afraid of losing it. So Pharoah hatched a plan. He’d enslave the Jews and work them to death, and he’d murder all the newborn Jewish baby boys. But how to sell his plan to his people? How to get Egyptians, probably decent people, to agree to genocide? To agree to enslave their neighbors and murder babies? Here comes the connection to the modern politics of persuasion and Cambridge Analytica.
The book of Exodus records that Pharoah appeared before Egypt and said this: “Look, the Israelite people are too numerous for us. Let us deal wisely with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise up from the ground”. So they set task masters over them and oppressed them with forced labor…..And thus begins the story of our servitude in Egypt.
I want to focus on the words Pharoah used to justify his evil plan: Let us deal WISELY with them. “Wisely”- it’s such a positive term. Who doesn’t want to be wise? We all want to think of ourselves as wise. So, Pharoah played to his people’s egos and to their civic responsibility. Yes, let’s be wise about this problem with the Jews, our potential enemies. It’s all about the language. Pharoah did not go to his people and say, “Let’s kill all the babies!” That probably wouldn’t have worked. But let’s be wise? Of course.
In some instances, it’s that we know the evil we are supporting, but leaders and outfits like Cambridge Analytica give us the “cover,” the justifications and rationalizations and
language to make it kosher. What did Hitler call his campaign of genocide? The Final SOLUTION. How about the genocide in Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, or the Turkish genocide, or the slaughter in Rwanda? The leaders called them “cleansing. ”Let’s deal WISELY; let us find a SOLUTION to this problem, let’s “CLEANSE” our land. Such nice, positive, forward-thinking words. And human nature is to fall for this propaganda. That’s why Cambridge Analytica can be so successful in bending elections to their clients’ agendas.
Please note that I am not suggesting that the folks at Cambridge Analytica are Nazis or Pharoahs. Of course not. Not by a mile. But the technology they have harnessed and the rhetorical devices they are perfecting can be used for all kinds of havoc. And these language tools are used for harming people today, right now, in the most insidious ways. When politicians want to discriminate against our LGBTQ friends and family they don’t say they want to throw a gay couple out of their bakery or toss a transgender person out of the bathroom. That would sound cruel. So they say they support traditional marriage and they adhere to God’s scripture. Makes them sound pious and humble before God and even martyrs in the face of rampant sin. When the NRA wants to thwart any sensible attempt to limit firearms, they don’t say that they want their supporters to be able to hoard killing machines, to buy them at will, to sell them at will, and to carry them at will. That would sound barbaric. They simply say they support the second amendment and liberty. Sounds nice and constitutional, doesn’t it? And when religious conservatives want to limit access to reproductive health and medical care, including abortions, they don’t say they want to curtail woman’s rights over their own bodies. That would sound sexist. Instead they say they are Pro-Life. Who isn’t? How could you argue about that? And when captains of industry are bothered by environmental regulations that limit them, they hire firms and politicians to say that there is no such thing as climate change, and that pollution is overrated and the science is unclear. It’s all about the vocabulary. It’s about the way smart, agenda-driven purveyors of cruelty manipulate us so monied people can amass more power.
Our state-of-affairs is bleak. Not as bleak as for the ancient Israelite slaves, of course. Nonetheless, we live in anxious times. School shootings. Bombs in Austin. And a general debasement of norms of decency, of respect for national institutions, and of the quest for true engagement and pluralism. Bigotry directed at our friends and neighbors, suspicions based on color, ethnicity, sexuality and religion. And now we know that the wondrous technology that we all rely on can be used against us, to lull us into allowing great harm in our names.
So, maybe the lesson of Passover, especially Pharoah’s speech to his people, is to keep our eyes open. To be suspicious and probing. When some among us fan flames of intolerance, when they use reasonable words to mask bigotry and discrimination, to point it out, and to challenge them. In other words, when leaders and candidates want to harm people in our name, let US deal WISELY with them.
Rabbi Michael A. White