Saturday, March 17, 2018

The First and Second Laws of Litigation and Politics

I call it the “First Rule of Litigation.”  Thou shalt not underestimate your opponent.

It’s amazing how frequently members of my profession neglect this rule.  When colleagues forget it, I worry about the possibility of bad karma.  Pride goeth before a fall, right?   When opposing lawyers forget it – or at least act like they’ve forgotten it -- I get pumped up.  Few things cause me to put out total effort quite like an opponent’s arrogance or dismissiveness.  

We saw the political analogue of the First Rule of Litigation in the fall of 2016.  The Clinton Campaign was ahead in the polls – so solidly ahead, in fact, that they forgot to campaign in the Rust Belt.  They didn’t take Trump seriously there even though he spoke far more like a Rust Belt “everyman” than Hillary did.  In that part of the country, folks don’t take to politicians who put their finger in the wind before choosing their positions on key issues.  They’d rather vote for a politician who has guts than smarts.  Hillary should have known she was vulnerable in those areas, but she couldn’t help thinking she was running against a troglodyte who appealed only to “deplorables” and desperate fools and who thus didn’t stand a chance of defeating her machine.  As a result, she didn’t even bother to crank up the machine where she needed it the most.  The First Rule will get you every time. 

When you think about it, the First Rule of Litigation (or Politics) ought to be obvious to anyone who doesn’t view hubris as a virtue.  What’s less obvious, but also vital, is what I call the Second Rule of Litigation – thou shalt not OVERESTIMATE your opponent.  It applies just as much to politics.

It’s important to remember the Second Rule (of litigation or politics) because at times, combatants really do screw up in a major way, and that opens up doors you might never have thought could be opened.   I’ll spare you the reasons why a litigator should keep the Second Rule in mind, but it should be apparent now why it might behoove a political party never to forget it.     Just think about the special elections we’ve seen over these past few months.   Absent the Second Rule, there would be no point for the Dems to contest those elections.  And yet, with the Second Rule firmly in place, so many more Red seats are in play. 

In a sense, the Democrats have an unfair advantage.  Because the GOP controls the majority of the state houses, the Governor’s mansions, and both branches of the U.S. Congress, not to mention the White House, people expect more out of them.  The Dems, because they’re the party out of power – the “dissenting” party -- can whine all they want and get away with it. The GOP, by contrast, is supposed to display leadership, befitting their stranglehold on power.  That means they are expected to (a) lead with competence, (b) lead with class, and (c) lead with vision.

They’re doing none of the above.

First, we saw Roy Moore.  In a display of political incompetence at the highest level, he referred to Islam as a “false religion,” compared homosexuality to bestiality, wondered if 9/11 was God’s way of punishing us for abortion and homosexuality, and during the recent Presidential Transition reasserted his belief that Barack Obama was born outside of the United States.    He acted like he was trying to offend people.  In the end, even the reddest of states rejected him.  He gave them no choice but to do the impossible: elect a Democratic Senator from Alabama.

And then there was the ever-classy Rick Saccone.   His district went for Donald Trump by 20 percent over Hillary Clinton.  Winning this election should have been child’s play for Saccone.   Surely, like most of his constituents, Saccone resented Hillary for her “basket of deplorables” line, and rightfully so.  But when given his own chance to show Hillary how a class campaign is run, he responded by saying, in essence, “Hillary, I resemble that comment.”  Here are Saccone’s exact words:  “I’ve talked to so many of these on the left....  And I tell you, many of them have a hatred for our country.  I’ll tell you some more.  My wife and I saw it again today -- they have a hatred for God.”  I can’t wait to tell the rabbis I know – nearly all of whom are Democrats – that they are God-haters. 

But the biggest problem of all for the so-called “Party of Lincoln” isn’t the lack of competence or class. It’s the lack of vision.  We saw this problem doom the Clinton campaign, and we now seem to be watching it doom Republican candidates all over the country. Yes, they had a vision of tax cuts, and now they have a bill to show for it.  It wasn’t a perfect bill – and in fact, I think it was a horrid bill – but at least it reflected some sort of vision.   Now what, though?  What’s their second act?  What exactly is it that unifies the Grand Old Party?   What kind of change can we, the American voter, expect if we continue to color this land red?  Armed teachers? 

Anything else?    


Soon enough, as a good Democrat, I’ll be reminding people about the First Law of Politics.  I won’t let favorable polls allow me to underestimate the party of Donald Trump.  Been there, done that.
But today, just for today, I want to remind you of the Second Law of Politics.  It has been known to cause wild swings at the ballot box from one election to the next.  Given the GOP clown car, there is every reason to wonder if we will see one of the wildest swings of all this November.  And believe me, that would be despite the Democrats, not because of them. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Interfaith Movement -- A Beautiful Antidote to What Ails Us

As Co-Founder and President of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington (JIDS), I sometimes hear the question: “Is your organization part of the interfaith movement?”   The opposite way of asking the same question, albeit more provocatively, is: “Aren’t you guys just substituting one form of tribalism (Jewish solidarity or Muslim solidarity) for another (Jewish-and-Muslim solidarity)?” 

My glib response is “Oh yes, we consider ourselves part of the interfaith movement.  We always say that our organization serves three groups – Jews, Muslims and Allies.”  The addition of the word “Allies” is meant to suggest inclusivity, while also reminding people that there are plenty of folks that do not fall into those three categories.  But perhaps instead of being glib, I should offer a more complete answer to the question.   Let me take a stab at one –

I see the interfaith movement as a major antidote to what ails our society and our world.  But I don’t see interfaith as a way of erasing the existence of separate faiths.  In other words, I don’t see interfaith AS A MOVEMENT as a way of establishing a melting-pot culture; I still prefer the salad bowl metaphor, where there are cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, green peppers, etc., and we can appreciate the unique beauty of each of these elements, while also loving the result when they are combined together. 

For the interfaith movement to be successful, it must respect the “particular” as well as the “universal.”  It must acknowledge that same-faith activity, whether it involves ritual or study, can be extremely enriching.  After all, same-faith activities can be among the deepest explorations of spirituality, building on the fact that those who partake in these activities often share a common language, a common culture, and a common set of intellectual concerns.  We can ill afford to ignore these opportunities for depth of thought and emotion, for that is precisely what allows the religious project to compete for our attention in the 21st century world.

So yes, we must celebrate the “particular.” But when this leads to an extreme form of “tribalism,” we have gone way too far.  Without the “universal,” religion can lead not only to tunnel vision, but even to violence.  We see this truism play out on the global stage on a daily basis – or should I say, we see the violent elements, and yet behind all that violence is an incredible amount of ignorance.  It’s the ignorance of not being intimately familiar with other cultures or other faiths, and without such intimate familiarity, we create a dangerous dichotomy.  Those who are not steeped in interfaith see their own culture/faith with rose-colored glasses and strawman the other cultures/faiths into something far less desirable.  (More specifically, they think of their own culture/faith in ideal terms, whereas the competing world views are conceived “realistically” in terms of how far they fall from any ideal.)  As a result, tribalists feel less of a need to venture out intellectually beyond their friendly confines and are often willing to write off the “other” – with potentially fatal or, at least unjust, consequences.

We need the universalism of the interfaith movement every bit as much as we need the depth of same-faith activities. 

So where does JIDS fit into the equation?  We attempt to provide the best of both worlds.  Judaism and Islam are in some respects eerily similar.  These are not merely examples of faiths that extol “ethical monotheism.”  These faiths share similar languages and rituals, interlocking cultures and histories, common stories/myths, and a profound iconoclasm when it comes to worship.  By making these two faiths the focus of our meetings, JIDS can summon many of the same depth advantages that I’ve discussed above in connection with same-faith activities. 

Yet JIDS is hardly conducive to tunnel vision; quite the contrary.  We’re all about lovingly and respectfully confronting the “other.”  In fact, JIDS has two overarching themes, both of which are universalistic.  First, we stress all human beings are cousins (members of the family of Adam and Eve), and Jews and Muslims, together with Christians, are the closest of cousins (members of the family of Abraham).  Second, we stress that enlightenment resides in embracing both the similarities and the differences among faiths/cultures.  To ignore or otherwise whitewash those differences is to create what I call “Kumbaya-Interfaith,” for which we at JIDS have no patience.  We prefer instead to recognize that our faiths have real differences, even conflicts, and they provide some of our best learning opportunities.  By understanding how Judaism differs from Islam and other faiths, I come to understand why I’m a Jew, but I also gather new, complementary tools that can be used to supplement my Judaism.

Ultimately, JIDS inspires me to learn more about Judaism, Islam, Christianity and, yes, other faiths as well.  Currently, I’m reading a book about the ancient roots of Hinduism and absolutely loving it.  Notably, before I came to JIDS, I saw Hinduism primarily as “polytheistic.”  Now, I see it primarily as “monotheistic” – just not as iconoclastically monotheistic as Judaism or Islam.  That’s a concrete example of how we can come to recognize both similarities and differences among faiths.

For those of you who have no interest in religion or spirituality, I’m not sure the interfaith movement would have much to offer.  You probably have to steep yourself in a faith to a significant degree in order to partake in this movement.  But for those of you who already have an interest in a particular faith, I can’t recommend the interfaith movement strongly enough.  Go find a group in your local area and see what it’s like.  If what they’re up to is “Kumbaya-Interfaith,” politely take your leave and start another group of your own – one that isn’t afraid to confront reality.  I did that nine years ago, and I’ve never for a second regretted it.

(For more info about JIDS, go to our website -- 

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Will the Democrats Grow a Pair?

Diane Feinstein will be 85 years old when Californians go to the ballot box in November to elect their new senator.  She has already held her seat for more than a quarter of century, during which time she has amassed a record that is distinctly to the right of center relative to other Democratic Senators.   Given that she hails from one of the nation’s most progressive states, it should not have been shocking that Feinstein’s re-election campaign failed to gain the official endorsement of her state’s Democratic party.  It should also not have been shocking that mainstream Democrats are concerned about “crazy progressives” kicking to the curb one of the party’s most credentialed women leaders.   So, for example, this morning in the Washington Post, readers are treated to a cartoon in which Feinstein, briefcase in hand, is standing on a dock labeled “Left Coast” while a bus labeled “California Democratic Party” drives insanely into the Pacific. 

Personally, I welcome the challenge to Ms. Feinstein.   I don’t relish the idea of our nation’s most populous and most trend setting state being represented in the Senate by a center-left nonagenarian.   By the end of this weekend, there is a reasonably decent chance that I’ll be a grandfather, and I can’t understand why my party is being run by people old enough to be my parents.  But the age issue isn’t the biggest problem.  Bernie is old, and I had no problem voting for him in the last Presidential primary.  The real problem is that I don’t know what these mainstream Democrats stand for other than whatever the Gallop Poll tells them to stand for.  They even boast about how their policies are invariably more popular than the Republicans’.    Believe me, that’s not something to brag about.  What they should brag about is when they have the guts to stand against the majority and fight for something unpopular and righteous.  That’s the quality I’d be looking for in whoever is challenging Feinstein for the nomination in Cali.

I’m going down this road because of an article I saw in the newspaper a couple of weeks ago.  It pointed out that now, for the first time, the polls are saying that the recent tax reform bill is supported by over 50 percent of respondents.  As a result, the article said, Democratic insiders are re-thinking whether their candidates should be including opposition to that bill as part of their platform in the 2018 election.  Such opposition may be too risky, the argument goes.   It was the same argument that caused Democratic politicians like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to oppose gay marriage even when vast majorities of their political base supported it.  In fact, it has been an unwritten rule of Democratic leaders since William Jefferson Clinton took over the party in 1992 that you virtually never should support any position unless it polls over 50 percent.  If memory serves, Clinton might have violated the principle on occasion when necessary to maintain his African-American base (I’m thinking of certain affirmative action policies), but other than that, he went wherever the majority went.  The fact that Bernie bucked that trend and frequently took on conventional wisdom is the main reason why his candidacy skyrocketed in 2016.  Is it a surprise that the states that voted Trump into office also supported Bernie in the primaries?   These voters didn’t get the memo that somehow being afraid to take on the Gallup Poll is a political virtue. 

I say, the hell with obsessive poll-watching when it comes time for leadership.  I’d find it galling if a Democratic candidate for office lacked the balls to take on the tax reform bill.  Isn’t it obvious that this bill is a major giveaway to the nation’s wealthiest citizens and comes largely at the expense of people like my grandchild-to-be?   The fact that most American taxpayers can expect to gain a few pennies tomorrow doesn’t take away from the fact that they will be paying a whole lot more than that in later years.  And to what purpose?  To make sure that yacht owners can buy an extra boat?  Or so those with a second home can soon afford a third?    Notably, the Democratic legislators in Congress were unanimous in their opposition to this tax bill when it came time to vote.  So why shouldn’t they have the guts proudly to denounce that bill on the campaign trail?   Why are Democrats so afraid to campaign as Democrats, instead of tucking back into their technocratic shells and campaigning as robots?

We saw Michael Dukakis campaign as a robot, Al Gore campaign as a robot, and John Kerry campaign as a robot.  Where did it get them?  Then we saw Hillary Clinton campaign on an “I’m not like that idiot but I don’t exactly have a vision for change” platform, and where did it get her?  If Democrats hope to start winning elections, they need to start speaking their minds and speaking their hearts.  There’s no shame whatsoever in losing such a race.  But more to the point, there’s plenty of nobility in winning this way.  You might even get to change the world after you get elected.   

Sunday, February 25, 2018

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

I am just now returning from a meeting of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington.  This meeting kicked off the organization’s tenth year, and yet it was the very first meeting devoted to the figure of Abraham, the common father of Jews and Muslims (as well as Christians).  The stories that have been told about Abraham are some of the most inspiring stories ever told.  In this case, they inspire me to write a blogpost that is completely motivated by love, a blogpost without a single negative sentiment.   This will be short, to the point, and invariably positive. 

Abraham is not the only human figure who inspires me.  I also feel enlivened by the teenagers from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School who are determined to make a difference on the issue of gun control.  Already, these teenagers have caused a number of politicians to change their positions and support certain gun control measures.  I give credit to those politicians for evolving on issues like background checks, bump stocks and raising the legal age to buy guns.   But I give even more credit to the teenagers who are fighting for additional common sense gun laws, including laws banning AR-15s and other semi-automatic weapons. 

I plan on joining that fight.   On March 24, 2018, the teenagers from Stoneman Douglas will be coming to Washington, D.C. and leading a rally in support of stricter gun control measures.  They have applied with the National Park Service to hold a “March for Our Lives” somewhere in our nation’s capital.   I wouldn’t miss that for the world.

I call for all empathic rationalists who are able bodied, aren’t taking care of a baby under the age of one month (e.g., one of my daughters), live in the United States, and are affluent enough to travel to other parts of their country to make the trip to DC and listen to the teenagers tell their stories and share their wisdom.   For these kids to be successful, they need the rest of us to show up in the flesh and witness what democracy looks like.   

You don’t have to be Father Abraham to be a role model and a leader.  These Stoneman Douglas teenagers have also attained that status.  Sometimes, it’s not our job to lead, but it is our job to follow.  On March 24th, we should at least follow those kids to Washington and lend them our ears.   Innocent lives are in the balance.

Monday, February 19, 2018

How Long Must We Sing This Bloody Song

Yesterday, I took a neighborhood walk with two dogs and two teachers.  We must have gone ten full minutes before the teachers stopped talking about the safety measures in place at their schools.  One teaches high school, the other elementary school.  No matter – they both realize that they teach in dangerous environments.  That’s what the suburban American public school has become: a place where teachers and students alike increasingly go to die.

For some, the Broward massacre was the last straw.   For me, it was just the latest manifestation of the cancer that has been spreading for some time.  Other countries face the scourge of gun deaths and do something about it.  Here in America, our politicians dare not even try.  Consequently, we shoot and kill at a far greater rate than our “peer” countries.   Our politicians have blood on their hands, but they seem to sleep just fine.   They’ve bought into the principle that the annual death of tens of thousands of Americans is a small price to pay for the “right to bear arms” – just as it’s a small price to pay for the right to smoke cigarettes.   People realize, though, that deaths from smoking are due to a cancer stick.   Gun deaths stem from a different kind of cancer agent – yet, for some reason, it’s one we romanticize.

We romanticize guns in video games.  We romanticize guns on TV or in the movies.  We romanticize guns in the context of hunting defenseless animals, which we call “sport.”   We romanticize guns on political talk shows, when politicians wax eloquent about the childhood joy of learning how to shoot with their grandparents.   Yet nobody talks so romantically about cigarettes, at least not in public.  Why the double standard?  Both guns and cigarettes can be fun, and both can be deadly.   Is the difference that guns are needed by policemen and soldiers, whereas cigarettes aren’t needed by anyone?  As I’m neither a cop nor a soldier, I can’t imagine why I would need a gun – except, perhaps, to hand to my wife so she’ll have one when she goes out in the morning to teach kids in her elementary school.

By a ratio of about 24 to one, Americans support laws requiring background checks.  By a ratio of about four to one, Americans support laws banning assault weapons.    But even though we live in a “democracy,” neither of those laws have a prayer.   The officialdom of the Republican Party has made a decision that nothing is to be done to stop the scourge of gun violence.   These officials would rather watch young people die in droves than risk primary opposition fueled by the NRA.  They are gladly willing to gamble that those of their constituents who oppose assault weapons and support background checks won’t ultimately base their voting decisions on these issues.    Cynical, perhaps, but they’ve won plenty of elections using this reasoning.  You could call it shrewd; I find it disgusting.

If you’re a rank-in-file Republican, I would ask you in 2018 to take the plunge and vote Democrat – support a politician who isn’t bought and sold by the NRA.  If you’re a Democrat, I would ask that you stop going to movies or watching TV shows that glorify violence.   If you’re a parent, I would ask that you keep violent video games away from your children.  If you’re a cigarette smoker, I would ask that you explain to gun lovers why they are surely no saner than you are.

It also helps to start thinking about the individuals who died in this latest manifestation of the great American Gun Cancer.  Pick one who reminds you a bit of yourself – except that our gun culture never gave them a chance to live long enough to vote Democratic or to keep a child away from a violent video game.  Personally, I want to call your attention to one Alex Schachter, a 14-year-old Jewish boy.  Like yours truly, Alex played brass instruments.  I played trumpet in the band and orchestra, he played baritone in the band and trombone in the orchestra.  To be sure, it is far more impressive to play two brass instruments than one, and from his picture, it is clear that Alex was a lot better looking than I ever was.  But at least I can try to relate to his life.   Then again, I can’t really relate to being 14 years old, going to school one day, hearing gun shots, realizing that my society has chosen to do nothing in the face of one deadly school shooting after another,  and feeling a bullet pierce through my skin.

I can never imagine what it’s like to be Alex Schachter.  Sadly, Alex can never again imagine what it’s like to be me, either.   Empathic Rationalism requires me to try to empathize with his situation – to feel the pain he felt during the last few minutes of his life.  But more importantly, it requires me to work to confront this scourge once and for all so that the United States is no longer an outlier when it comes to the number of our Alex Schachters. 

The next time you contemplate voting for a Republican, please consider that Alex Schachter is gone, his parents are living in torment, and the guy you’re thinking about voting for is willing to do nothing about any of this.    Is that acceptable to you?