Saturday, May 04, 2019
With some regret, I am announcing today that the Empathic Rationalist will be taking a sabbatical. I've been keeping this blog going for 13 years without one, and that's frankly too long.
I will miss taking the opportunity to communicate with my loyal readers on a weekly basis. Thank you so much for letting me know over the years that you enjoy reading this blog; that means more to me than you know. However, due to certain events in my life, I feel the need to cut down on my so-called "extra-curricular activities," and at the moment, blogging didn't make the cut. I fully expect that this self-imposed sabbatical will be merely temporary but what I can't say is how long it will last.
All the best to each of you. Enjoy the upcoming political campaign season. And may you and your family experience the very best of health.
Sunday, April 28, 2019
We’re nearly two months away from the first Presidential Primary debate and yet already, liberal pundits are savaging those Democrats who’ve had the courage to enter the race. I see the criticism frequently in such on-line forums as the Huffington Post. And just yesterday, I heard an MSNBC talking head criticize Biden for daring to criticize President Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” remarks. According to this pundit, Biden would be well advised not to talk about such issues given his own track record when it comes to the topic of race.
Really? From what I can tell, Vice President Biden has been a devoted public servant for more decades than that progressive pundit has been alive, and yet the latter doesn’t think he has standing to highlight the single worst moment in the Presidency of the man Democrats are trying to defeat. Folks, can we stop eating our own? Please?
My hope is for all Democrats to spend the remainder of what I call the “pre-season” keeping our hearts and minds open about all these candidates. Let them make mistakes. Let them speak vapidly or duck difficult questions. Let them take back an ill-advised comment or policy position. And to the extent they feel compelled to speak sharply about a fellow Presidential candidate, encourage them to take on the candidate running as a Republican, not each other.
Why do I say that? Because at the end of the June, and for the next 8-12 months thereafter, some amount of intra-party conflict is inevitable and even healthy. Presumably, our candidates won’t be offering us childlike monikers such as “Lyin' Ted,” “Little Marco,” or “Low Energy Jeb,” but the ones who are hurting in the polls will owe it to their supporters to throw at least some barbs in the direction of the favorites. But for the good of the Party, can we at least enjoy an extended honeymoon period? Can we spend the next two full months building up as much affection as possible for all these candidates? Or do we have to wallow in the kind of mockery-narratives that are increasingly popping up with respect to each of Trump’s would-be challengers?
If you’re not immediately familiar with these narratives, just ask yourself which of the 20 Democratic candidates are best positioned to defeat Trump and lead the Democratic party.
The elderly, grumpy, unelectable white male socialist who scares the crap out of moderate Democrats, let alone Republicans, Bernie Sanders?
The out-of-touch, kind-of-creepy, gaffe-prone politician whose record is the antithesis of progressive, Joe Biden?
The charisma-challenged, condescending professor who reminds everyone of Hillary except that she’s even less electable, Elizabeth Warren?
The “Senator Pothole” tinkerer who claims to be Minnesota-nice but has proven to her Congressional staffers to be anything but nice, Amy Klobuchar?
The frivolous dilettante, whose Presidential campaign is fueled primarily by narcissism and a desire to have a really cool personal adventure, Beto O’Rourke?
The finger-in-the-wind pol who refuses to answer substantive questions and yet has much to answer for herself in the way she has dealt with the criminal justice system, Kamala Harris?
The inexperienced millennial who also doesn’t think voters deserve to know what he stands for but thinks he can get elected by spewing pseudo-intellectual gibberish, Pete Buttigieg?
The guy from Jersey who is pretending to run on a Kumbaya platform at a time when nobody wants to hear anyone sing Kumbaya, especially if he’s from Jersey, Corey Booker?
Or one of those other pathetic, nameless candidates whose standing in the polls is so damned low that nobody is even bothering to insult them?
Folks, mocking a politician is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. These people self-promote at the same time that they self-reveal. You show me a politician, any politician, and I’ll show you a hypocrite. It comes with the territory. But unless you want to see President Trump re-elected, I suggest you look at the above list and recognize that (a) you’ll be voting for one of those folks in the fall of ‘20, and (b) the person you’ll vote for in the general election probably won’t be the one you’d like to vote for today. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that because elections among twenty contenders is kind of a crap shoot, you’re most likely going to have to go crazy in support of a general election candidate who you voted AGAINST in your state’s primary. If that’s going to happen, you’d better figure out a way to stay as positive as possible about as many of these people as possible for as long as possible.
So what do you say we allow all these candidates the next two months to impress us with their positive characteristics – their visions, their policy proposals, and their formulas for taking on President Trump. What do you say we embrace what it means as voters to be able to wholeheartedly support ANY of the above? Maybe if that happens, the intra-party criticism that will inevitably begin to flow in July and thereafter would be a bit more measured. Then, when it does come time to nominate someone in the summer of 2020, we will have identified a person who’ll be beloved by the entire Democratic party and many of the Independents. And that candidate will not only beat Donald Trump in the next election but also grab a mandate to change the direction of government in January of 2021.
Let’s face it – the Russians weren’t the primary reason why we lost the election of 2016. Mostly, we caused ourselves to lose – by taking for granted states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and by teaching a veritable master class in how NOT to run a primary campaign. Now, we have a chance for a do-over. We have a chance to replace a crooked coronation (where a single, favored candidate was given debate questions in advance) with an honest, give-everyone-a-fair-chance celebration of democracy. We have two months to set the table for that celebration. I say, let’s call this the “Spring Fever” period. Let’s fall in love with our candidates. Let’s build them all up, so that ultimately, for the good of the country and the world, at least one of them will not fall down.
Saturday, April 20, 2019
I know what you’re thinking about, but I’m not going to write about that report. I’ll let everyone else have their say and encourage you to read as much about it as possible on your own.
Other things happened this past week. Tiger Woods won the Masters despite having had spinal fusion surgery -- a medical miracle. Then, tragically, much of the majestic Notre-Dame Cathedral burned down – a reminder that what is oldest and most beautiful is often the most fragile. While that fire was burning, millions of people and corporations were also filing their 2018 income taxes. Thanks to last year’s Congress, we were given one more jolt of economic disparity, with most of the benefits going to the uber-rich and most of the costs being paid by the poor, the middle class, and future generations. In an added bit of absurdity, this latest round of tax changes reflected a massive amount of redistribution from blue states to red states. In my case, my federal deductions were cut dramatically, and my state deductions were cut practically to nothing. For some reason, the powers-that-be have decided to punish me for living in that royal-blue state of Maryland.
When Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980, this country had reached its peak in economic equality. Now, nearly 40 years later, it’s a totally different ballgame. Wages have stagnated for most of us, income has gone through the roof for a select few of us, and the national debt has entered the stratosphere. Increasing the debt has been a bi-partisan effort, whereas decreasing the taxes on the wealthy is a Republican obsession, not a Democratic one. Every time a new Republican Administration comes to town, the wealthy are guaranteed to enjoy a big fat present from the government. Call it a reverse Robin Hood – from people like me, who can no longer afford to itemize deductions, to the fat cats who have figured out how to avoid paying taxes altogether by coming up with deductions that most of us have never heard of.
Tax Day wasn’t the only underreported story this week. I also saw a statistic indicating that 88% of Republicans approve of the President but only 8% of Democrats. Just think about those numbers for a moment. They are a sign that the “United” States of America has become a misnomer. Indeed, for the first time, I’ve been reading about Republican strategists deliberately planning an election strategy designed to win the Electoral College despite reconciling themselves to losing the popular vote. When you consider developments such as a kind tax policy for Red States and a penal policy for Blue ones, you can understand how such a strategy just might work.
What is truly depressing is that for a large number of Americans, none of this is especially troublesome. When I look at my Republican friends, I see an increasingly cynical bunch. They ignore signs of political favoritism in the tax code and take their breaks where they find them. In the face of lies and deceptive statements made by government officials, they ignore those too, projecting a “boys will be boys” attitude – much like the way they shrugged off the Access Hollywood Tapes. When their party enacts measures to depress the vote or keep the nation’s Capital effectively unrepresented in Congress, they see nothing, hear nothing, and say nothing. When their party leaders laugh off climate change or the dangers of lax gun laws, they give us crickets.
Honestly, when nearly everyone who belongs to one political party approves of the President’s job performance, and nearly nobody who belongs to the other party approves of that same performance, what you have is a broken system. In a functioning political environment, partisanship would never reach that level because it makes unified national efforts (like fighting wars on poverty or on Nazis) almost impossible. The fact that virtually nobody from either political party approves of the Congress’ performance makes matters even worse, not better. None of this is likely to create trust in government on the part of a citizenry.
For many of us, the best way to react to this situation is simply to ignore current events and tend to one’s own garden. But that’s precisely what we can’t do. Now, more than ever, we all need to stay engaged. In a year, you see, We the People will have an opportunity to steer this boat in a different direction or, if we choose, stay the course.
Every four years, we hear the same B.S. mantra: “this could be the most pivotal election in your lifetime.” Every four years I laugh at how that same cliché gets tossed out and nobody scoffs at it. Every election can’t be THE most important, can it?
Well no, every election isn’t the most important. But this coming election? Yeah, I think this is one that above all others will define America in the 21st century. Trust me, you’ll want to play a part in it. You won’t want to leave this one to chance.
Saturday, April 13, 2019
Everyone who associates themselves with a religious faith surely takes pride in its “values.” In fact, we tend to identify our faith above all else with the values preached and exemplified by our greatest role models. At least that’s the case with Judaism.
My people have plenty of catch phrases to remind ourselves of what “Jewish values” mean. We speak of Rabbi Akiva and how he taught that the Torah’s fundamental principle was “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And we often cite Rabbi Hillel, who when asked to summarize the entire Torah while standing on one foot, replied “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. All the rest is commentary. Now go study.” In both cases, these rabbis place central importance on how human beings should treat one another. More than our observance of religious ritual or even our devotion to God, that’s what defines our commitment to the Jewish faith.
Whenever values are discussed, of course, there is room for ambiguity. In the above examples, a debate could center on the word “neighbor.” In theory, if a person lives in a Jewish community, their “neighbors” will tend to be fellow Jews. So, taken literally, as long as we care for our fellow Jews, we can disregard or even disdain gentiles and not run afoul of the directives to be good to our neighbors. But that’s not the way I’ve been taught. From parents and Jewish-school teachers alike, I’ve heard that the Jew is obligated to take care of ALL people, and especially the most vulnerable, regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds. Such universalism is indeed mainstream American-Jewish doctrine and has been for generations. That’s why so many of our parents and grandparents were attracted to socialism and other left-leaning ideologies.
When I grew up in the 60s, America had the largest Jewish community in the world. Our community was also known for its overarching political liberalism. In 1928, only 28 percent of Jews voted for Hoover – and that was the election he won. In 1932, Hoover’s total among Jews was 18%, and for the next four elections, the Republican candidate did even worse. Even in 1972, when Nixon won 49 states, McGovern had a +30% margin among Jews. Next year, in fact, will be the 100th anniversary of the last time that a Republican Presidential candidate won 40% of the Jewish vote. Over the past 100 years, our community has become far more affluent, but no less politically liberal. Some might say that we’ve been willing to vote against our own pecuniary interest in order to be true to the “values” that defined our sense of identity.
As children who cleaved to our sense of Jewish values, my friends and I spoke about the nation of Israel in glowing and even heroic terms. Back then, Israel symbolized both Jewish progressivism and an antidote to Jewish victimization. This little country was started primarily by secular socialists and other leftists. They gathered together in economic collectives known as Kibbutzim and for decades, their progressive party (Labor) dominated every election. While most American Jews weren’t exactly historians, one fact we did know was that when Israel became a state, its citizens supported partitioning the land into two-states-for-two-peoples, but it was the Palestinians who fought against such an outcome. Decades after the creation of Israel, there was still no “Occupation.” And even after the Settlements began being built, we all assumed that Israel’s leaders would support the existence of a Palestinian state as soon as they had a legitimate partner for peace on the Palestinian side. The problem, we assumed, was that enough Palestinians seemed hell bent on crushing Israel and taking back the land for themselves that Israeli had no choice but to watch their backs and build walls. In one war after another, Arab States ganged up on precious little Israel, and it practically took miracles for Israel to survive, let alone to win these wars. When the Israeli army seized such strategic land as the Golan Heights, no American Jew in their right mind would have begrudged Israel’s right to keep it. But we remained passionately committed to Israel giving up the land necessary to create a viable two-state solution – one state for our own people and another for our Palestinian “neighbors” who were also victims in the arena of geopolitics and who for the most part are as innocent as the Israelis. That two-state commitment became an integral manifestation of “Jewish values,” one that I and millions of other American Jewish Zionists continue to hold dear and always will.
American-Jewish values, you see, aren’t changing so dramatically. But Israel is. Now its leaders have enacted the “Jewish Nation State Law,” which stands for the principle that Israel is a nation state ONLY for the Jewish people, rather than being a nation state for both the Jewish people and for any gentiles (i.e., Palestinians) who happen to be citizens of the nation. More significantly, its Prime Minister now stands for the principle that all the Jewish Settlements in the West Bank can legitimately be annexed by Israel – meaning that what would remain of “Palestine” would be a small chunk of swiss cheese, one that couldn’t possibly give rise to a “state” worthy of the term. Honestly, though, what’s notable about Israel these days isn’t just that it is led by people who appear to have given up on the notion of Palestinian autonomy. It’s that the citizens of Israel continue to vote for such leaders. Frankly, just as the center-right movement in America seems incapable of getting a majority of Jewish support, the center-left movement in Israel seems equally incapable of winning elections. Yes, they do just fine in and around Tel Aviv. But in the hinterland and in Jerusalem? The majorities there would rather vote in for a fifth term a Prime Minister who has completely abandoned a two-state solution and who is close to being indicted for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Better that guy than anyone who stands for the same principles that the vast majority of American Jews would select. Houston, we have a problem.
Speaking personally, I feel no modicum of alienation from the Israeli people right now. I have never had problems knowing, respecting and loving right-wing Jews. But what I’ve not had to wrap my arms around, until recently, is that the world’s largest Jewish population (Israel overtook the U.S. in that regard during my adult life) is becoming one of the most right-wing democracies in the world. I cannot possibly relate to what plan the Netanyahu voters have in mind for the Palestinians. Are they expecting the Palestinians simply to pack up and head for Jordan – sort of a Middle Eastern Trail of Tears? Or are these “majority” voters reconciled to the Palestinians remaining in Israeli-controlled areas as a stateless, impoverished underclass? Honestly, what is the vision and how do we get there? And how is this possibly consistent with Jewish values?
Actually, I can guess the answer to that last question. I’ve read the Book of Joshua. I’ve seen the single-mindedness of God’s alleged directive to the Hebrew people to seize the Promised Land by, among other things, killing its inhabitants. Compared to Joshua and his troops, Bibi Netanyahu is positively Gandhi-like in his treatment of the Palestinians. What’s more, I have heard many Jews over the years argue that the disputed land is ours because we have the prior claim to it and thus the superior legal right to it. After all, we gave the Palestinians the chance to divide it up and they chose instead to terrorize us and to fight wars over the land; they lost, we won, and to the victor goes the spoils. Some of the Jews I know who adopt that attitude are otherwise progressive people who care deeply about the poor or infirm. So I guess an argument can be made that this view is consistent with “universalist” values. But that argument would not be made by more than a small minority of non-Jews throughout the world. And it would not be made by the vast majority of American Jews either. So why, then, are most Israelis going to polls and supporting political parties who trade in that sort of reasoning? What has happened to Jewish values?
These are questions that young American Jews are surely going to ask in schools and summer camps throughout this nation. They were asking them before this recent election cycle, and now that the Jewish Nation State Law has been passed, the Prime Minister has stated his willingness to annex all the Settlements, and his alleged corruption has been exposed, young Jewish Americans will be raising these questions at a fever pitch. You’ll forgive these young people if they wonder if their progressive teachers have been feeding them a load of crap in suggesting that Jews are any more altruistic or compassionate than anyone else. You’ll forgive them if they wonder if the term “Jewish values” has any meaning at all. And you’ll forgive them if they wonder whether they have far more in common with American Episcopalians or Unitarian-Universalists – or, for that matter, the so-called “Nones” – than they have with Israeli Jews.
Such wondering is surely going to present an incredible challenge to those of us who wish to see Judaism continue to flourish in America. It’s a challenge that my Jewish friends and I didn’t have to face back in the 60s, and yet many of our cohort still gave up our Jewish identities and assimilated. I can only imagine what’s going to happen to my grandson’s generation.
Fortunately, though, I don’t have to worry about my grandson himself – his mother is a rabbi and his parents will raise him right. They will explain that in truth, the values of a religion are the values that the religion inspires in the minds of all of its inhabitants. So Jewish values are my values, they’re Netanyahu’s values, and they’re the values of everyone who identifies with the faith and is inspired by it.
It is incumbent on each of us to continue to study the great works associated with our faith, to develop our values based on that study, and to exemplify those values in our conduct. If in doing so we seem out of step with the majority of our people, so be it. There is enough wisdom in Judaism – and, for that matter, in all the world’s great religions – to inspire free-thinking individuals to find a set of values by which they can live their lives. If you’re truly religious, you should have the courage to stick to those values even when it appears you’re merely a voice in the wilderness.
So to those people in and around Tel Aviv who continue to lose one national election after another, please hold your heads high and keep on fighting. Someday, you might find yourselves in the majority again. And who knows? Maybe that’s when your country will dismantle some of these imperialist settlements and make the kind of peace that honors the Palestinians, your values, and mine.
Sunday, April 07, 2019
Last week’s blogpost contained a tribute to the stately live oak of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Today, I’m thinking instead about my own city and its adopted favorite tree, the cherry. Visitors to the Nation’s Capital understand early April to be the most glorious time for a visit, both because of the weather and because of the cherry blossoms. Guidebooks funnel these tourists to the Tidal Basin of the National Mall, where cherry trees majestically line the perimeter. But locals know there are better places to appreciate the blossoms without even needing to go to Japan. I am speaking of the narrow, winding streets in the suburbs where cherry trees form a canopy of blossoms that engulf anyone who is blessed to walk or drive by. I had the pleasure of taking such a stroll this morning. I was with my bichon, Benny, who was just groomed yesterday. His fur and those flowers were a perfect match – Blonde on Blonde, as Bob Dylan might say. So fresh, so restful, so bright … so un-Washington.
Forbes recently ranked Washington DC as the fourth most stressful city in the United States. But the three above us (L.A., N.Y., and Chicago) are all many times larger. So perhaps I can state the obvious – pound-for-pound, we’re number one. People come here to enhance their career. They find a job. They go to work. They stay at work – hour after hour after hour. They spend another hour or more commuting home, either on a metro train where nobody smiles or among the nation’s most congested roads. When they get home in the evening, they consume themselves with their addiction to that form of mud-wrestling otherwise known as American politics. Eventually, they start fantasizing about moving away to someplace more bucolic – like just about anywhere.
This past week was the beginning of baseball season, which is definitely a major event in Washington D.C. Gradually, we’ve been becoming a baseball city – oh, not of the caliber of St. Louis, for example, but we’re not exactly Miami either. This past Tuesday evening, we showed baseball fans all over the country that D.C. is a place to be reckoned with. Philadelphia was in town, and that means that the Phillies’ Bryce Harper – who the Washington Nationals signed to a rookie contract and who for years was the Nationals’ biggest star – was making his first return to his former home town. The Baseball Gods have ordained the etiquette that cities are supposed to follow in situations like these. First, Harper should get a video tribute from his old team, during which his former fans should cheer him in appreciation for his years of loyal and glorious service to the city. Next, in his first at bat for the visiting team, the home fans should give him one final standing ovation in recognition of his past service. And then, in his second at-bat --and for as long thereafter as the mood feels right -- his former fans should boo the roof off the stadium as soon as he enters the batter’s box. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.
Well, here in (arguably) America’s most stressful city, we made a little modification. From the moment the Harper video tribute began, he was booed. Relentlessly. Tens of thousands of fans stood up and called him a traitor. Then, whenever it was time for him to hit or catch a baseball, the boo-birds kept on chirping. That stadium was loud, and the people were nasty. It was one big F-U to a guy in his mid-20s whose sole offense was to manifest a desire to earn market wages, which the owner of his former team wasn’t willing to pay. And here’s the funny thing about the whole episode: everyone in D.C. loved it! It wasn’t that we begrudge Bryce Harper the right to earn $330 million in the next 13 years. It was that we enjoyed witnessing so many Washingtonians care so much about our city that they would scream bloody murder against a man whose cardinal sin was to leave it.
Does that sound strange to you? Perhaps it should. But I totally get while the local commentators are universally glowing about Tuesday’s Boo-Fest. It showed civic pride – in an odd way I admit, but it was there nonetheless. Washingtonians are sick of hearing what a gross place this is, sick of being on all the wrong lists (most stress, worst weather, most violence, etc.), and tired of watching their sports teams lose all the time. They’re also done with seeing fans in other cities go crazy about their teams while their own stadiums are filled largely with visiting fans or local transplants who continue to root for the teams they grew up with. Last year’s D.C. hockey team won the Stanley Cup, and we all watched as loyal fans finally were rewarded after decades of futility. It reminded people that Washington is as real and legit a place to be from as anywhere else. Strangely enough, that was apparent from the energy behind those boos.
Of course, it’s stressful here. Everyone knows that. Everyone knows also that our weather stinks in the summer and isn’t so great in the winter. Everyone knows that this is a one-industry town that caters to hypocrites, sycophants, and phonies who take themselves incredibly seriously. Everyone knows that what stinks about D.C. tends to be lasting and what’s great about D.C. tends to be ephemeral. (No sooner do you make a good friend then you start having to listen to them talk about moving away. Hell, even the cherry blossoms last only for two weeks a year or less.)
But for one glorious night, none of that mattered. That’s because tens of thousands of Washingtonians – and hundreds of thousands more (like me) who were watching on TV – got to express our pride in our home town. And yes, we did it in a characteristically crazy way: by booing relentlessly at the sight of a hardworking man who did nothing wrong except move away from our city. It was one hell of a primal scream. And it was truly a tribute, only it wasn’t Bryce Harper who was being celebrated, but rather having the loyalty to remain in your town, even if it’s as obviously flawed and as often disgusting as Washington D.C.
What? Do you think I’m being hyperbolic? Do you think D.C. is no more disgusting than any place else? Notwithstanding my loyalty to the old home town, I’ve got to admit that this place can get downright ugly. Only a couple of days after the Harper-booing incident, we Washingtonians were graced with a far more familiar kind of event. It took place in the “People’s House” – the chamber of the House of Representatives. There, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell addressed her colleagues on behalf of a bill that would enhance limits on guns for people who have been convicted of crimes involving domestic abuse. Who wouldn’t support such a bill, right? Who wants a man convicted of beating his wife or stalking his ex-wife to carry a gun? Well, click on this link, watch this video, and you’ll hear a bunch of faceless Congresspeople boo Dingell as if she were Bryce Harper leaving the on-deck circle. https://ijr.com/debbie-dingell-nra-speech/
I don’t know the names of the folks who did the booing. But we can all guess. They’re virtually all rich, white men whose titles begin with the term “The Honorable.” And there is nothing whatsoever appealing about their performance in booing Debbie Dingell.
Yeah, we Washingtonians know what kind of city we live in. We are even more aware of its problems than any anti-Government curmudgeon from Kansas, Kentucky or Kalamazoo. But we love our Cherry Blossoms, we love our baseball team, and we love the fact that in this city, people care about politics and public policy. That ultimately is what unites all of us boo-birds – Nationals fans, Democratic Congresspeople, Republican Congresspeople, you name it. No matter who you are, if you live in this city, the stress will get to you and some of your neighbors will at times make you sick. Yet there is also a bond here that stems from the fact that friend or foe, we’re all in this thing together. No matter what side of the aisle we occupy, we all care about the local industry – enough, in fact, that we’re generally able to cope with the stresses and keep on fighting. Every now and again, we even get to assemble and let out a primal scream – together – knowing that tomorrow we’ll be back in our respective corners fighting for our respective causes.
So let’s celebrate the baseball season of 2019. But let’s not kid ourselves – the real sporting season of Washington D.C. begins in June. For a local junkie like me, those debates can’t come soon enough.