Saturday, May 21, 2016

Empathic Rationalism Begins At Home

I will show you the courtesy of not boring you with too many medical details.  But the bottom line is that an upper-respiratory infection has left your humble scribe in quite a state this weekend.   Consequently, I'm going to essentially "call in sick" from my blogging duties, much as I did from my office duties on Friday. The hope is that on Monday, I will be back in the office to begin my 32nd year as an employee of the United States Government. 

That's right -- Monday the 23rd will be my 31st anniversary as a federal civil servant.  Over the decades, I've seen the public's respect for that career path drop, fueled in part by politicians who enjoy scapegoating federal workers as lazy and overpaid.  The truth is that some are lazy, and some are overpaid, but that can be said about private sector employees as well.  There are also plenty of  federal civil servants who are hard working and grossly underpaid and yet are willing to continue to do their jobs out of a sense of duty to their country.  I am proud to work with these people on a daily basis and would encourage young people who are looking to enter the workforce to do the same.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Infrastructural Rot in the Nation's Capital

From my admittedly limited observations, this week has been a relatively good week for the Metro, which is what everyone in Washington, D.C. calls our subway system.   Only once was I told that my train had to be off-loaded because of maintenance problems.  Only one of my business meetings was delayed because an attendee assumed that he could trust the Metro to run on schedule.  Only twice did I walk into a Metro car that literally smelled like a skunk.   And it was only about three or four times that I heard people complain about their subway-related commute, or about the prospects of going weeks at a time later in the year when their Metro line will be completely shut down.  I’d say that’s a pretty good week, all things considered.   Hey, at least I didn’t notice any fatalities or subway-related fires.  I didn’t even inhale any smoke.  So why should I whine?  Life is good here in the nation’s capital.

                The thing is, though, that I’ve been to European capital cities before and ridden their subways.  Somehow, their systems seem to function.   Why doesn’t ours?   How could the nation with by far the largest GNP in the world allow its infrastructure – as exemplified by the public transportation system of its capital city – to completely fall apart?   Did we not think this would be an embarrassment to tourists, both domestically and abroad?  Or that this would create tremendous inefficiencies with our workforce?  Or that this would discourage people from taking public transportation at a time when our environment desperately needs us to stop driving all the time?  Or did we flat out just not think?

                While the decrepit nature of the D.C. Metro system is merely a microcosm of the rotting infrastructure that is plaguing America generally, there is something especially illustrative about this example.  Our liberal politicians talk about the importance of public service or about the scourge of climate change.  Presumably, they should love the idea of a functioning DC Metro – how else can we get our public servants to the office efficiently and in a way that is gentle on the environment?   Indeed, the federal government provides subsidies to its employees to encourage them to take the subway or other forms of public transportation.  It all makes sense – except the part about the system being slow, unreliable, and sometimes even deadly.

                One thing you have to love about the deterioration of the Metro is that it has been a team effort.   The federal government has a general oversight role over the system, which includes the power to order that work be done to ensure that the trains run safely.  Then we have the local governments of Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., which are supposed to be working together on a regular basis to ensure that the system has all the support it needs.  No doubt, Congress could also lend a hand by appropriating money to protect the system from falling apart.  It would seem like a no-brainer that one way or another, the Metro wouldn’t be allowed to deteriorate.  

Then again, that would ignore the reality of America today.   Our citizens are sick of paying taxes – so they don’t clamor to pay more even if it means sacrificing necessities like a modernized infrastructure or quality schools.  Our politicians love to demagogue against public-sector hiring and out-of-control deficits – so they wash their hands with programs that involve government spending.   And to the extent money is given to the government to spend, it is handled by bureaucrats who are often more concerned with their own turf than their constituents’ needs – making it the exception, rather than the norm, when different government bodies work well together.  

It wasn’t that long ago when the DC subway system was the envy of the world.  And it could still be a great asset to the nation today, if only we had bothered to apply the basic principles that any of us who own property understand.  If you’re a homeowner, you either build in some periodic maintenance expenses or expect your home to fall apart.  If you’re a car owner, you either get regular tune ups and inspections or expect to replace your car every few years.   This isn’t rocket science – you can’t be in charge of bridges, roads, railroad tracks or whatever else and wait for fatalities before you address your system’s needs.  But that’s precisely what we Americans have decided to do with our infrastructure.   We wake up to problems only after the casualties start to mount.  

Here in D.C., the casualties on the Metro have already started to mount, and not coincidentally, we finally have a General Manager in charge of the system who finally seems to want to take his job seriously.  I support him in those efforts.  What I lament is that we have become a country of skilled damage-control experts, when what we need even more are those who can prevent the damage from happening in the first place.  You can have your top surgeons.  I’ll take the top nutritionists.  I think we both know who would live longer.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Time to Focus on Both Candidates -- Not Just Trump

Whether you read newspapers or watch cable TV news, you’re probably inundated by coverage about Trump.  This coverage is virtually 100 percent critical. Journalists hate Trump.  He calls them liars, and they return the favor, presenting him as an uninformed, uninquisitive, dangerous demagogue.   Some days, the Washington Post’s lead editorial is devoted to bashing the guy, and then when you flip to the Opinion page, you see two or three additional stories with the same theme.   When it comes to the journalist community, lung cancer and heart disease may be more popular than the mogul from Queens.   

And that, my friends, is helping to prop him up with the Republican electorate.  The majority of that electorate hates the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and MSNBC, and they may have crossed the line to hating Fox News as well.  Yet, as the saying goes, the enemy (Trump) of their enemy (the mainstream media) becomes their friend.  I think Trump realized that early on in this campaign.   That may have been his masterstroke as a candidate: egg on the media, and everything will fall into place, at least with the Republican electorate. 

            Personally, though, with the passage of time, I have grown less and less interested in this circus act.  As a fan of Rickles – the other master entertainer named “Don” -- I can enjoy some of Trump’s jokes at his rivals’ expense.  What’s more, I can even appreciate some of his substantive points.  Campaign finance absolutely needs to be reformed so that politicians can be independent of their financial benefactors.   And politicians also need the guts and the motivation to become more natural and authentic on the stump.   The ability to read watered-down, poll-tested drivel off a teleprompter is not my idea of a political credential.  

            So good for Trump to shake things up a bit.  But he has given us too many reasons to want him to stay the hell out of Washington.   First, there was his “Birtherism,” which was worthy of Joseph McCarthy.   And then came his crass insults of POWs, his threats forcibly to remove 12 million illegal immigrants from their homes, and last but not least, his un-American proposal to ban all Muslims who are not American citizens from this country.   That’s just a few of his gems, but each one is a doozy.   Those positions left me uninterested in him as a serious candidate.  And as a comedian, his shtick is getting to be old hat.  Rickles did a better job of keeping it fresh.   

            The media’s current obsession with the Donald is whether he can unify his party.  Honestly, I don’t much care.  That party was plenty unified under Mitt and it still got smoked; why should this election be any different?  At a time when young Americans no longer figure to be as affluent or as secure as their parents and grandparents, what does the Republican Party have to offer us?  Tax cuts for the rich?  More economic polarization?   A social agenda that caters entirely to the most Orthodox and right-wing portions of religious communities?    The one time during the last 24 years when they were in power, they also gave us a war backed by false evidence that turned into an international embarrassment and further destabilized the most dangerous part of the world.   How do these guys expect to get a majority of Americans to vote for their standard bearer?

            The truth, I believe, is that Trump can win ... but only if Hillary is unable to unify her own party and attract some independents.   She is the one who everyone should be thinking about now, not Trump.  She is ahead in the polls, ahead in the betting markets, ahead in her campaign infrastructure and war chest, and ahead in her command of the issues.   And yet, at the rate she is going, Hillary will have the highest unfavorability rating of any Democratic Party Presidential nominee in a generation.    
It has become conventional Washington, DC wisdom that whoever succeeds in getting the nation to focus primarily on the OTHER candidate will win in November.   That may be true about November.  But we’re six full months away from Election Day.  Right now is the time for the politicians to be introducing themselves so that they can develop a broad base of support and appear as a viable alternative to those who are yet undecided.  What we saw on Tuesday in Indiana is just how far Hillary is from accomplishing that goal.  Despite the fact that she had already effectively locked up the nomination and Americans like to vote for winners, the Hoosiers still gave Bernie the victory.   She seems to be more intellectually agile than Bernie, more informed, and more experienced, and he still beat her.  That is a troublesome sign for those who think that she should wipe the floor with the man she aptly calls the “Loose Cannon.”  

Truly, the nation needs to rally around Hillary.  We need her to beat Trump.  But it sure would be nice if the majority of the electorate voted FOR her, rather than simply pulled the lever for her while holding their nose.   I’m not kidding with that metaphor.   At the rate we’re going, you won’t know a voter from a guy who is drinking colonoscopy fluid – it will become an exercise in nostril tightening to dull the pain.  We can do better.  And Hillary has it in her to do better.  I just don’t know if she has the political courage to make it happen.

Here’s a simple way to understand the problem with the Clinton candidacy: she has learned too much from Al Gore’s mistake.  In 2000, Gore distanced himself from Hillary’s husband (the sitting President), and it cost him the election.  Understandably, Hillary has decided to take the opposite strategy and fully align herself with Barack Obama.   But at a time when voters are understandably frustrated and even scared, you don’t essentially campaign under the slogan “Four More Years.”  You demonstrate the passion and the vision to stand behind specific ways in which this country will change if you are elected.  And if that requires that you distinguish yourself from the current President, so be it.  

Personally, I’m not sure I can name a single area in which Hillary expects to change this country.  In other words, I can’t think of one way where she will depart from President Obama’s approach – and believe me, departures are very much in order.  For example, I see the infrastructure of my city crumbling (our once-revered subway system is an absolute disgrace), and yet Hillary doesn’t have much of anything to say about it.   Surely, she has issued policy statements about that and every other topic, but she has never brought passion and poetry to this cause.  

I want Hillary to become a cause candidate – and it’s not enough that the only cause is that we need to become something like the 81st country to elect a woman to our top governmental job.  We’ve never had a Native-American President either, but I don’t think people would be excited to elect one if all s/he spoke about passionately is the importance of Native-American rights.  

In short, Hillary needs to guarantee that to elect her is to create a mandate for certain specific causes – and not merely to guard against the cancer of Trump.  Otherwise, we will have plenty of voters in November who are excited about voting for Trump, and precious few voters excited about voting for Hillary.  That’s a dangerous scenario, one that permits the Democrats to lose the election even if the Republicans remain divided.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Getting Back to First Principles

I don’t care for the comparisons between some of our current Presidential candidates and Hitler and Mussolini, but at least I understand such comparisons.  I also appreciate why these candidates are especially scary to certain components of our population, and can’t say that these fears are poorly founded.  To a degree, I share those fears.  Finally, I wholeheartedly agree with those who say that the candidates at issue are willing to take a nation that once fought a vicious Civil War over the principle of national unity and divide us into a land of insiders versus outsiders, “patriots” versus “aliens,” and “us” versus “them.”  These divisions remind me of the America that existed before the Civil War.  That’s why we had to fight such a devastating war – to become the UNITED States of America, rather than a place that paid lip service to liberty while denying many of us our dignity, let alone our freedom.   

So when it comes to hoping that none of the candidates at issue are elected President in November, count me in. But I’ll tell you this – just because I oppose the Demagogic Dividers, doesn't make me willing to support efforts to thwart the public’s will when it comes to elections.  I decry the acts of protesters who, in the name of progressive values, wish to muzzle or intimidate politicians who they disagree with.  I similarly decry the acts of politicians who, in the name of pragmatic or moderate values, support collusion or other forms of gamesmanship to prevent the majority candidate or even the plurality candidate from winning elections.   I also decry the existence of superdelegates, unpledged delegates, and other devices used to provide more power to political insiders than to other Americans.   I still believe, in other words, in the principle that when it comes to elections, the candidate with the most votes should win.  Period.

Why do I feel so strongly about the latter principle even at a time when Demagogic Dividers abound?   In part, it’s because I haven’t completely lost my confidence in the sanity of the American public.  But it’s also because the idea of democracy is such an enormous part of what I believe makes America great.  Remember, when this country began, there were no other democracies in the world, at least not if you’re talking about places that were more than just city-states.  America in practice was hardly a perfect democracy, and that continued even after the Civil War. But at least in theory, America stood for the idea that millions upon millions of people could live democratically and freely, and that the collective wisdom of the masses exceeded that of any set of oligarchs.  Yes, our Constitution makes room for legislators who represent us by voting their conscience, rather than simply seeking a plebiscite on all issues, yet when it comes to selecting these legislators or the Chief Executive who bargains with them, that privilege has been left to the people to decide.  Our Founding Fathers made that idea paramount when they gave birth to a nation that became a role model for the modern world.  

I could go on to make my point, but I’d rather see it made by a better writer.  I’d rather see it made in the form of a short statement that is probably my favorite piece of writing in American history.   It needs no introduction.  It needs only our periodic attention and respect.  

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Passover Homily

“Peace is not just the absence of war, but a virtue which comes from strength of mind.”
Spinoza, Political Treatise, Chapter V

Spinoza’s quotation about peace is exactly what you’d expect from a man who wrote a book entitled The Ethics and turned it into a discourse on the philosophy of God, epistemology, psychology, human bondage, and human freedom.  Spinoza was never one to give profound words their narrowest possible meaning.  So when it came to discussing peace, he was as concerned about inner peace as the outer variety.   Spinoza appreciated that it is far more difficult to enjoy the former without the latter.  But he also grasped that the deepest tragedy of the human condition is that even people who enjoy outer peace – i.e., the absence of “war” – tend to be enslaved by their own emotions.   As a result, the condition commonly known as “peace” consists largely of tormented hearts that live at war with themselves and their societies.  Dr. Spinoza preached that we as individuals can liberate ourselves from those hurtful emotions, but such liberation is indeed rare – as all things excellent sadly are.  

One of the great ironies of Spinoza’s teachings is that he supposedly opposed the idea of free will and affirmed instead strict determinism.  But when you read his greatest philosophical work, The Ethics, you note that above all else, it is a manifesto on how to free ourselves from bondage.  This concept is central to the thinking of any Jewish philosopher, for there are few goods more cherished in the Jewish faith and the Jewish culture than that of human autonomy.

When Einstein, one of Spinoza’s most influential disciples, identified the three features of the Jewish tradition which make him thankful to belong to it, he mentioned “the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice, and the desire for personal independence.”   Though Einstein never ranked those three items, I’m sure he recognized that the pursuit of either justice or knowledge is made infinitely more difficult if you don’t enjoy the blessings of personal independence.  Not surprisingly, when Goethe, another of Spinoza’s greatest disciples, spoke of the vision that led Faust to tell the Devil that he was ready to give his soul up because  he had finally experienced the ultimate earthly bliss, what was this vision but that of widespread human autonomy.  Here are Faust’s immortal words:

“There is a swamp, skirting the base of the hills, a foul and filthy blot on all our work.  If we could drain and cleans this pestilence, it would crown everything we have achieved, opening up living space for many millions.  Not safe from every hazard, but safe enough.  Green fields and fruitful too for man and beast, both quickly domiciled on new-made land, all snug and settled under the mighty dune that many hands have built with fearless toil.  Inside it life will be a paradise.  Let the floods rage and mount to the dune’s brink.  No sooner will they nibble at it, threaten it, than all as one man run to stop the gap.   Now I am wholly of this philosophy.  This is the farthest human wisdom goes:  The man who earns his freedom every day, alone deserves it, and no other does.   And, in this sense, with dangers at our door, we all, young folk and old, shall live our lives.  Oh how I’d love to see that lusty throng and stand on a free soil with a free people.  Now I could almost say to the passing moment: Stay, oh stay a while, you are so beautiful.   The mark of my endeavors will not fade.  No, not in ages, not in any time.  Dreaming of this incomparable happiness, I now taste and enjoy the supreme moment.”

Nothing was more beautiful to Faust than the notion of ubiquitous human freedom.   And when I take that vision and flesh it out, the result is a world in which self-expression is unleashed to the point where it becomes the norm, not an outlier that requires exceptional courage, and perhaps also exceptional talent, in order to thrive.  What I’m describing seems utopian.   But it is precisely the kind of utopian dream we need if we as a species are to attain our potential.

It is not enough to see self-expression as the domain of so-called “artists” who indulge themselves while the rest of us live in thrall to the narrowly defined roles to which our societies assign us.  Self-respect, self-confidence, and self-expression should be seen as our birthrights – not things we must earn by winning competitions.  Without them, we will not know peace, we will enjoy little freedom, and most importantly, neither we, nor anyone else, will know ourselves.

This weekend, as we celebrate the beginning of the Passover season, we are directed to contemplate freedom and bondage.  And to do so, we are asked to look forward in time as well as behind.  Yes, we speak about how our ancestors were slaves in ancient Egypt, which means that metaphorically if not literally, we too were slaves in Egypt, and we must have compassion for all who are slaves today -- because there, but for the grace of God, go we.  Indeed, it is not enough to have compassion for those who live in bondage; we must act to unchain them.  Otherwise, we will have to atone on Yom Kippur for sins of omission, which are no less profound than sins of commission. 

But it is also not enough to think about the past, or even to lament and strive to change the present.  We must look ahead.   And that is why on every Seder we sing Eliyahu Hanavie.   In English, it can be translated as follows:  Elijah the Prophet, Elijah the Stranger, Elijah the Giladite, may he come speedily to us in our days along with the Messiah the son of David. 

We sing that song about Elijah.  And we leave a glass for Elijah.  But do we so primarily as a cry out for the one who it is prophesied that Elijah will bring: the Messiah.  Whether you believe the Messiah is a real human being or just a metaphorical construct, this figure is one of the most blessed in all of Judaism.  We are told that after the Messiah comes, our descendants “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” 

I would never try to improve upon Isaiah.  But I dare say that after the Messiah comes, we will see a world founded on the principle envisioned by Goethe, through his Faust.  Perhaps we all don’t need to be truly free in order to live in a world beyond war, but believe me, there is no better antidote to war – or the suffering and injustice that leads to war -- than freedom.  

Many Passover songs are sung only during the Seders.   But for many traditional Jews, Eliyahu Hanavie is sung literally every week at the conclusion of the Jewish Sabbath.  That fact underscores the song’s importance.  When we leave the pleasant confines of the Shabbat to return to the stresses of the work week, we need to dress ourselves in what is truly holy: namely, our love for God and our hope for a Messianic future.  In that future, it will not be enough for soldiers to stop killing people’s bodies or slavers to stop killing people’s dignity, but we ourselves must stop killing our own aspirations to create, to adore, and to dream.    

You don’t have to live 3200 years ago to experience slavery in Egypt.  And you don’t have to live literally in bondage to experience a lack of freedom.   Until the Messianic age, freedom will always be the exception, not the norm.  In fact, one of the key differences between us and the Hebrew slaves in Egypt is that they realized that they did not know freedom, whereas we fool ourselves into thinking the contrary.   Spinoza was no fool.  I suspect he wasn’t fully free either, and he knew it. 

Allow me to conclude with a famous story about an 18th century Hasidic Rabbi named Zusha of Anipoli.   As the story goes, he was crying on his deathbed while his disciples surrounded him, and nothing anyone said could comfort him.  “Why do you cry,” they asked him, “You were almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.”   Zusha’s response is priceless:  “When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham?’ Rather, they will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha?’ Why didn’t I fulfill my potential? Why didn’t I follow the path that could have been mine?”

Why wasn’t he Zusha?  Because the Messiah hadn’t come yet.   And from what I can tell, he’s not hanging around us either.  It remains our job to do whatever is possible to usher in his arrival, or her arrival, or their arrival, rather than expecting miracles from above.  There is no better time to start then at the beginning of Passover.