Feb 07

Words and Tilting at Windmills

In Brief—Lionel Burt reached the end station on life’s trip this week. As he would have put it, words have meaning. These are the words I wrote eighteen months ago. Somehow, this piece was never published. Not a word has been changed. They are as applicable today as the day they were written. Lionel was right: words have meaning.


An Iconoclast Shall Lead Them—

Sitting on a big rock on the side of a mountain in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, Lionel pondered the subject at considerable length. An autodidact without academic credentials on the wall or a tassel hanging from the closet door, he’s as close to being a true polymath as anyone I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. He’s an expert skier, ski coach, golf pro, tennis whiz, inventor, professional comedy writer, speaker and friend of many years.

One of the subjects to which he has given considerable thought is the use and misuse of words, how the misuse of words has led to misunderstanding, persecution, death and war. Out of his ponderings has grown Quality Talk, a method that seeks to get humans to communicate on important issues using words that are agreed to by all the participants.

Probably the best example he gives of his belief is the concept of “Jewishness.” Is it a religion or is it something more? Is it a cultural artifact? Is it a physical thing that identifies the person exclusive of the religious belief? At least as important because it challenges deeply-held beliefs, is Lionel anti-Semitic for raising the question?

Don Quixote aloneOld friends have been lost because they misunderstood the message, but non-religious people who have previously identified themselves as “Jewish” leave the lecture room in wonderment at their false assumptions. Have they deluded themselves or have they been taken in by a smooth talker?

Human History—

By now it’s an accepted fact that all humans originated in Africa and that our wanderings to the far corners of the earth have led to our evolving different characteristics with differing belief systems. Some belief systems are wholly different from the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—that developed in the Middle East. One of those groups adapted the older religions and adopted the religion called Judaism.

Despite the myth that the adherents of Judaism (Jews) were expelled from the region where their religion was born, some adherents of that religion voluntarily moved on to other areas of the planet and mixed with the local inhabitants, but the religious belief system lived on because, among other reasons, the religion provided a sense of solidarity in a culture with different religions. Gradually, human nature led to ostracism and persecution of the adherents to Judaism. The important element here, though, is that the Jews mixed their genes with those of the local inhabitants. Put more plainly, the Jews eventually took on the physical appearance of their neighbors. Only the religion remained essentially the same.

So are the Jews adherents of Judaism or are they somehow transmuted into physical beings that can be identified as “Jewish” separate and apart from their religious belief? What are those once Jewish humans who adopted different religious beliefs or who have abandoned religion altogether? Lionel maintains that they are simply humans that are either religious Jews or they are not. For this, some mistakenly call him anti-Semitic.

It’s one thing to admire a religion and even identify with its values, but it’s something entirely different to be a human who has stepped away from a particular belief system. This is what Quality Talk is about: using the right words to reach an agreement that all the participants can accept, whether political or religious. Lionel is advocating using the right word and the subject of “Jewishness” is the vehicle.

Then realty intrudes. I see Lionel’s mission as admirable, but for two reasons I see it as nearly impossible to achieve: 1) the widespread belief that “Jew” is a physical identification separate and apart from a religious identification and, 2) the natural inclination of all humans to use imprecise words to get an advantage on an opponent. I have told him that he is tilting at the windmills much as Don Quixote saw windmills as dragons. Humans are wedded to the ways that things have been done for millennia, and just because there is a better way doesn’t mean that they will embrace it. That is human nature.

At the same time, I believe the world needs someone like Lionel to tilt at their windmills, to raise their consciousness. Maybe Lionel’s mission is to open up closed minds. Changing even one mind can be worth the effort. Lionel is right, words do matter. The world clearly needs to have destructive dragons slain. Quality Talk may be a constructive way to go.


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  1. First, let me say that I am saddened to hear of Lionel’s passing. I have often thought back to his two-handed tennis racket invention….truly out-of-the-box.
    Secondly, I have struggled all my life with this notion of “Jewishness”. Ever since the day, way back in the sixth grade, when a classmate called me a ‘Jew’. I was baffled by this intended insult. I’m not Jewish….I’m not ANYTHING. I, we, my family, don’t go to any church, never did, no reason to think that we ever will. But upon further investigation, I discovered that my father was, in fact, brought up JEWISH. He had a very Jewish mother and Jewish father, both immigrants from Prussia.
    So, what was the give-away? I came to the realization many years later, that I have some of the physical traits associated with the…..and here’s where it get’s tricky….Jewish ‘race’. I have, however, argued that Jewish is a religion, not a race……but is it?
    All I know is that I really know nothing about the faith, I’ve never set foot in a synagogue and likely never will. But once my Jewishness was pointed out to me and I understood my heritage, I have always maintained the slightest, but very real, connection to Judaism. Weather it’s the awareness of my ancestry, or something deeper I don’t know, But I feel it.

      • Don Bay on February 8, 2016 at 09:54

      “Feelings” about Jewishness are not the same as being an adherent of Judaism. The name Meyers is German. The mere fact that a person has the family name of Meyers shows only German roots, not Jewish ones. The so-called Semitic look applies to any human with middle Eastern genes. The Palestinians are Semitic. Are they adherents to Judaism?

      It’s one thing to admire Judaism’s commitment to education and the acquisition of knowledge, but it’s not the same as being “Jewish.” It’s okay to be attracted to Judaic rituals, but that attraction does not make a person Jewish. It is one’s choice to become an adherent of Judaism, but admiration or attraction do not make one a Jew. Feelings alone are not indicative of anything more than an emotional response. I am of Scottish heritage, but that does not make me a Scot.

      You are a human, a male, have white hair, are non-religious, etc., but you are not Jewish. You can make the conscious choice to become an adherent of Judaism, but only then will you be correct in calling yourself Jewish. Until then you are not Jewish regardless of your feelings. No matter what course you choose, you are my friend, Dave.

    • kathyswizards on February 8, 2016 at 03:41

    I’m so sorry about Lionel. You were lucky to have such a friend all these years.

      • Don Bay on February 8, 2016 at 09:59

      Thanks for the warm thoughts. They say “Birds of a feather flock together.” Regardless, I am indeed lucky that Lionel was such a meaningful part of my life.

    • Susan Harris on February 8, 2016 at 04:55

    I need to pick the correct words here in case Lionel aka Amory is tuning in.
    In someways I think Lionel was the one with the closed mind. This doesn’t change
    my love for him now ,but I really had some very difficult and heated arguments with him, especially concerning his thoughts around gay men.
    He was also a Holocaust denier, which I found incredible!
    There were many things about him that I did enjoy and will remember him by, his laugh for one and helpfulness for another.
    The ideas behind Quality Talk made some sense to me ,but overall I was sick to death about hearing about it so much.
    Yes of course words do matter. Right speech matters very much to me, and I have not nearly perfected it. I don’t try to jam my opinions down everyone’s throats about it however . Amory alienated so many people by his aggressive attempts at persuasion.
    I cannot speak for all the Jews I know ,and I highly doubt there are many who read this blog.
    Maybe it’s a good thing that Amory never got a huge audience for his Quality Talk meetings. I don’t honestly know.
    I am pretty certain he won’t even give up on that idea even though he has moved on. Maybe one day he will persuade someone else to write about it? Maybe that has already been the case. Maybe the right time is now for some reader to carry his ideas forward. How many readers do you have?
    I send my love to all who are grieving a loss of a loved one. I do know in my heart that Amory lived and died how he wanted and I applaud him for that.👏👏👏👏👏

      • Don Bay on February 8, 2016 at 10:43

      I see black and white in your comment, not shades of grey. Like the rest of humanity, Lionel had his faults. None of us is perfect. That said, not even for a second do I believe Lionel was a Holocaust Denier. He is not here to answer that view, so I will say only that Holocaust Denier is a misinterpretation of his views. I suspect he would say that many of the people murdered by the Nazis were not “Jewish” in the sense that they were not adherents to Judaism. We’ll never know now, but I firmly believe that he would have deplored the murders of so many people, their belief systems notwithstanding.

      Lionel and I disagreed on gayness and H.I.V., but he gave considerable thought to my points and the evidence I put forth. In my view, he may even have bent toward the reality of human sexuality and disease. We had many exchanges on those subjects, so I have had advantages many did not. As I said earlier, we all have our faults as humans, but we’ll never know what was in his mind. All I know for sure is that he and his integrity had a positive effect on my life.

      My belief system is such that there is zero chance that an incorporeal Lionel will somehow survive to influence those among the living of anything. However, his influence may have an effect on those of us open to rational thought and consideration of the views he expressed while alive. To the extent that Lionel’s influence lives today, it’s in the minds of anyone willing to think.

      I genuinely appreciate your honest views and your giving me the opportunity to respond.

        • Susan Harris on February 8, 2016 at 19:01

        Hmmm , rational thought, that’s something that can be deBAyted.
        I remember clearly sitting w Lionel in the Palisades having a coffee when he told me that he thought the ovens at Nazi camps were imagined and more than likely not real. Knowing Lionel he more than likely was trying to steer me into a conversation about Jews.
        I will remember Lionel w great fondness as well. The last time I spoke to him was just a few weeks ago. I kiddingly asked him if he would marry me. I got a good laugh out of him. He coughed one time during our conversation and alluded to having a bug.

          • Don Bay on February 9, 2016 at 10:27

          A debate on the issue of rational thought is outside the bounds of this piece. If you want to debate me on the issue of rational thought, I invite you to debate the issue privately in exchanges of emails.

          As is most often the case when a person involved in a conversation can no longer be present to offer his view, we are relying on your memory of what took place. According to your memory of the occasion, you suspect that Lionel was attempting to steer you into an exchange on “Jewishness” with his provocative comment. Knowing both Lionel and you, I have the sense that any statement he made was for the purpose of getting you to engage in the subject of Jewishness.

          I know that Lionel was single-minded and focused on the misused identification of “Jewish” when an individual was no longer an adherent to Judaism. I often chided him to lighten up. Because of your defense of “Jewish,” he was determined to press you on the issue. Like you, I suspect that the occasion you describe may have been his provocative way of getting you to respond. Despite your suspicion (which I share), you nevertheless label him a “Holocaust Denier.” I think that is excessive and not at all the Lionel I knew. That simply does not represent his views. Provocative, yes, but an inaccurate way to characterize him.

          Your last conversation with Lionel demonstrates the caring connection you both had despite disagreement. My hat’s off to both of you.

  2. Somehow this conversation veered into Jewishness rather than Quality Talk. Having lived with Jews and participated in Shabat and had many Jewish friends, that conversation is somewhat old hat for me.

    But since this is the first I have heard of QT I’m intrigues and I wonder how I could find his writings or otherwise look into QT. Assuming I can guess what it is it seems to me that it is very important. On the micro level my wife and I style ourselves as professional communicators and we constantly misunderstand each other. One of us says something, we seem to agree on it, and later learn that we totally misunderstood the conversation. No big deal, we laugh at our failings and go on.

    But on the macro level isn’t much of the conflict in the world at least partially about misunderstandings? Wouldn’t we all be better off if we somehow could find ways to improve out communications with each other, both on the personal and the national levels? Are the candidates on the political trail today using quality talk? I think not.

    How can I look into this?

      • Don Bay on February 9, 2016 at 10:59

      The piece didn’t veer into “Jewish,” it was an integral part of it and of Quality Talk (QT). As I wrote in the piece, “Jewish” was the vehicle Lionel used to explain the misuse of language. He gave numerous lectures on the subject and even wrote a book on QT. Unfortunately, I think the book was limited to those who listened to his lectures and for his friends. I have a copy and, though he talked of writing a second, I believe the one I have is the only one he wrote. It’s unlikely you will be able to obtain a copy although you are free to have mine.

      I agree with your view of the importance of the issue. The world would be in much better shape if the words of an agreement or treaty were agreed to by all the parties. Even better, if everybody observed the rules of QT. Unfortunately, reality intrudes. As stated in the piece and as you and your wife have experienced, misunderstanding is ingrained in human communication. It will always be a tragic burden of human interaction. In my view, it will lead to the downfall of humanity.

        • Susan Harris on February 9, 2016 at 15:23

        Can you please tell me what the ‘bounds’
        to this particular piece are?
        Why would I want to debate you ? Could there ever be a chance in Hell of me winning? I love you, but once a lawyer….😁

          • Don Bay on February 10, 2016 at 21:41

          I suggest you read the rules of the blog on the right side of the Home page. This piece is about the proper use of words, not about rationality.

          Only you can decide whether you want to debate me, but it won’t be in this venue. Of course, I’m a lawyer in good standing…inactive, but in good standing.

            • Susan Harris on February 14, 2016 at 03:08

            I don’t understand a couple of things 1. Why did you title your blog Debaytable if you won’t debate in this venue?
            2. I forgot what 2 was😁3. I think rational thought has much to do with this topic.
            4. What is this topic ? I looked to the right side and didn’t see anything that mentioned Out of Bounds.

            • Don Bay on February 14, 2016 at 10:50

            I suggest you read the Comment Guidelines. At the bottom of those guidelines I state that readers stick to the subject of the piece. Logicality is not the subject of the piece. The use or misuse of words such as “Jewish” is the subject of the piece. I have often said that if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Put clearly, wishes or a person’s thoughts don’t make it so.

            I have offered to debate logicality with you in a private debate that is not part of the subject matter of the “Tilting at Windmills” piece. Alternatively, if I should happen to write a piece on logicality, then you can register any disagreement via a Comment.

            The blog was titled DeBaytable for two reasons: 1) It incorporates my name and 2), It suggests that the subject of a piece can be disputed by any reader who is in disagreement with some or all of the author’s view on the piece.

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