Sunday, December 24, 2006


Since I’ll be out of town next week and unable to blog, I’m taking an opportunity now to sum up the year that was. Hopefully, by the time I return, I’ll have figured out a way to allow people to comment on blog-posts again, though due to past misuse of the privilege, I will not be allowing anonymous postings.

In terms of sports – or at least professional sports -- there was clearly a central theme: in the immortal words of #7, Yogi Berra, it was déjà vu all over again.

The year began with football and the return to greatness of the Steel City. I have never in my lifetime witnessed a better football team than the Steeler teams of the 70s, winners of four Super Bowls. Those squads would have destroyed the Steeler team that beat Seattle for the most recent world championship, but Jerome Bettis and the boys at least reminded us of what a great football town Pittsburgh is.

Did you see the recent Super Bowl? It was held in Detroit, a good 300 miles away from Pittsburgh, and yet roughly 90% of the fans at the game were pulling for the Steelers. That tells you something about both (a) Steeler fanaticism, and (b) the fact that the people in the Pacific Northwest have better things to do with their time than obsess about professional sports. Perhaps there’s a reason why the last time a Seattle team won a Championship in a professional sport – and perhaps the only time – I was still in college. (Do you remember that Super Sonics team? It was led by a man named Jack Sikma who looked like Frankenstein except that Frankenstein was shorter.)

So thanks to 2006, the Pittsburghers have “one for the thumb,” the elusive goal they have whining about for a quarter of a century. Good for them. Pro football being the hotbed of parity, however, the Champs have returned in the fall of 2006 to define mediocre. That’s right, with two meaningless weeks left to go in the season, the Steelers are 7-7 and heading for a January of golfing, girlfriend beating and DWIs (or whatever else pro football players do in the off-season). As for the fans of Pittsburgh, since they don’t have an NBA franchise, they’re left rooting for a hockey team that’s as mediocre as the Steelers, and waiting for the next football season to start.

What? Do you think I forgot the Pirates? I didn’t; the fans of Pittsburgh did. From what I can tell, the same folks who bleed black and gold in the fall can barely name a single Pirate in the spring. “Let’s see, there’s Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla … and … well … since the team has sucked ever since, I’m really not interested.” It’s a strange attitude, considering that you can say many things about the weather in Pittsburgh, but “fair” isn’t one them.

After football, let’s turn next to professional basketball. In the NBA, a new cityMiami – got to celebrate a title, but the victory was truly a throwback. It was as if some Laker fan envisioned his favorite player and favorite coach coming together in another city and almost immediately making magic. Truly, with Pat Riley joining Shaq to win it for the Heat, the only thing missing was one of those great Laker guards – like Jerry West, Magic Johnson or Kobe Bryant. Dwyane Wade has no connection to the Lakers, but with him playing Batman to Shaq’s Robin, you couldn’t help remember the mid 80s, when Magic was carrying Kareem on his shoulders, but the Big Fella was always capable of throwing in a key bucket when you needed one.

It’s great to see that lethal inside-outside combo, much like it’s fun to watch a brilliant QB/WR tandem, or a wonderful line in ice hockey. What, did I say ice hockey? The hockey season was also reminiscent of the past – specifically, the time back in the 19th century when nobody cared about professional hockey (mainly because professional hockey didn’t exist until 1904). That’s right, thanks to the recent hockey strike, nobody cares about it once again! Good job, players and owners. Way to stand up for principle over profit – at least I’m assuming there was a principle there, because that strike may come to nail you in the wallet for a long, long time.

Next, let’s turn to baseball. An argument can be made that this was a good year in baseball if for no other reason than that the Yankees didn’t win. But the fact is that the Yanks haven’t won a Title in years. In fact, the Yanks this decade are starting to resemble the Braves of the last decade; every year they make the playoffs and then, almost invariably, they figure out a way to crash and burn. Screw them and their payroll; they can’t lose enough for my taste.

As for the “déjà vu” aspect of the year, it was definitely the triumph of baseball’s second most successful organization: the St. Louis Cardinals. It has been a while since the redbirds have won it all, but the fans in this “small market” town have nevertheless supported them in droves. You can’t help but be happy for the “greatest baseball town in America” that their team is once again the World Champs. It’s too bad that they won after having had such a mediocre regular season; I’ve always thought that takes a bit away from the lasting joy of a Title.

Well there you have a look at what’s happened to the Big Four, but what about the more “minor” sports? It was a bad year for NASCAR because the GOP lost the midterm elections. There you have it – a summary of all that I know about auto racing. As for golf, this year was indeed a return to the past: (a) Mickelson choked in the U.S. Open, and then (b) Tiger decided that for the next several months, he’d win everything in sight, (c) except the Rider Cup.

Predictable. But no less predictable than the fact that Roger Federer would dominate the men’s tennis tour. OK, so he lost to Nadal in the one major championship that’s played on clay. That’s also the only major tournament in which Nadal – or anyone else in tennis – has a chance to beat Federer. Just as it seems inevitable that Tiger will break Nicklaus’ grand slam victory record, it seems equally inevitable that Federer will break Sampras’ analogous record in tennis. But here’s the rub: whereas the entire sports world seems to care about Tiger’s quest, hardly anyone cares about Federer’s.

The problem isn’t simply that Federer takes on the personality of his native Switzerland – efficient and boring. The problem is rather that men’s tennis as a sport hasn’t been on the map for years. Candidly, tennis was the only sport in which I lettered in high school, and yet I watch more professional poker than I watch professional tennis. Yes, I know – that says something about me (anyone willing to watch poker on TV is only one small step up the evolutionary chain from the folks who watch America’s Top Model or Project Runway) … but it also reflects the lack of interest generated by a sport that once had some of the most captivating heavyweight bouts this side of Manila. Borg-Connors, Connors-McEnroe, McEnroe-Borg, McEnroe-Lendl – heck, even Harold Solomon-Eddie Dibbs was more intriguing that the tennis played today. Do you want a solution? It’s really simple. Wooden rackets. That and brash personalities.

Speaking of brash personalities, they certainly are dominating the sports world at year’s end. On December 16th, the NFL’s favorite narcissist, Terrell Owens, spit in the face of an Atlanta cornerback who had the temerity of trying to guard him. And that same night, the NBA’s leading scorer, Carmelo Anthony a/k/a “Melo,” didn’t exactly live up to his nickname. He watched as a fight between his Denver Nuggets and every basketball fan’s favorite whipping boys, the New York Knicks, was just dying down. And then, just to ensure that order wouldn’t be restored, “Melo” threw a punch to the face of some schmoe named Mardy Collins, knocking Collins to the ground – probably out of shock and indignation as much as pain.

Ah yes, a return to the hooliganism that so many of us missed, now that the best fights are relegated to Pay Per View. I guess now we have Ultimate Fighting and the opportunity to watch athletes try to elbow each other in the face. But since watching the UFC appears to be beneath the dignity of most upstanding sports fans, including your humble scribe, we’re left with lame one-punch knockdowns in New York and flying sputum in Atlanta.

Finally, let me close with what I thought was the most pathetic aspect of the sports year. That was the way the baseball gurus on TV discussed the candidacy of Mark McGuire for Pro Baseball’s Hall of Fame. It’s no secret that McGuire won’t make it in his first year of eligibility due to his steroid abuse. McGuire never admitted to using steroids, though he has not only been fingered by others but when he had a chance to clear his name in front of Congress, he repeatedly refused to answer the Representatives’ questions. Essentially, he pled the 5th.

Given that information, I would have expected Tim Kurkjian and the other baseball “journalists” to blast McGuire’s candidacy for the Hall, but that’s the opposite of what happened. Kurkjian and his fellow talking heads showed up on TV saying that Cooperstown should welcome Big Mac with open arms. “They haven’t proved he did steroids,” I heard one say. He apparently was unaware that the plaintiff in non-criminal cases is entitled to adverse inferences whenever a defendant takes the 5th.

If you want to know what’s going on here, I don’t think it’s stupidity, unfortunately. Sports “journalists” make their living by getting access to the players and coaches who star in each sport. That means that the journalists can’t afford to take positions that are particularly unpopular with the players – lest they end up getting scooped by everyone under the sun. Tragically, the fraternity of players seem to want to brush the scourge of steroids under the rug. I guess they’re too fearful of the consequences of speaking out against it – it’s easier to keep your mouth shut and “get along.” The result is that the journalists who feel the need to curry favor among the players are likely to vote the steroid abusers into Cooperstown, thereby debasing the currency in what had been one of sports’ most precious shrines.

As for me, I’ll still be hoping that someday, one of my childhood heroes, Tony Oliva, makes the Hall. Tony O had one of the sweetest swings in the history of baseball – at least as sweet as his more hyped teammates, Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew. But Tony O’s career didn’t last long enough to generate the gaudy lifetime stats needed to punch a ticket to Cooperstown. It seems that he had problems with his knees … and didn’t have “The Cream” or “The Clear” available to help his body recuperate. So now he goes down in history neither as a Hall of Famer nor as a cheater. In other words, he may not be venerated by today’s baseball fans, but at least he can live with himself. I’d take that choice any time over McGwire’s and Bonds’ sleazy alternative.

Thursday, December 21, 2006


It’s time to dole out the first annual Empathic Rationalist Awards. These awards go to the people who have made 2006 what it is – for better and for worse.

Man of the Year: Barack Obama.

Or perhaps I should say: Barack Hussein Obama. This man promises to do to American politics what Eldrick Tiger Woods did for golf and Ervin Magic Johnson did for basketball. The man is a natural. He performs at the highest level of his game and he does it almost effortlessly. Bill Clinton had some of the same characteristics, but he also had the oversized flaws that made him almost suitable for Greek tragedy. B. Hussein Obama appears to be as solid as the Rock of Gibralter.

The satirists are trying to make fun of the guy, but they can’t. The best Jon Stewart can do is lampoon him as an icon and alleged miracle worker – a man who not only makes women swoon, but is also able to turn paper into metal. But that’s not really making fun of B. Hussein. It’s making fun of our hero-worshipping the guy before he’s really accomplished anything. Substantively, what can you say to criticize a man who (a) transcends race, (b) was called by Lawrence Tribe one of the best students he’s ever had at Harvard Law School, (c) always seems to tackle issues in the most positive, constructive way possible, (d) is progressive without taking on the baggage of the “knee-jerk” liberal, (e) not only talks about religion, but actually seems to be truly religious, and (f) is a born unifier, not a divider?

Lampoon him at your peril. Like Tiger and Magic, Hussein seems to be the real deal. And yes, all his middle name does is point out how racist this society is against Muslims, a characteristic that we had better lose if we hope ever again to win over the so-called “Arab street”.

Schmuck of the Year: Scott Howell

If any creature could successfully turn B. Hussein into an object of hatred, it’s Scott Howell. What, you’ve never heard of this creature? Why would you? It’s the type of animal who only comes out at night – when the people are asleep and the dogs are in their crates. But anyone who’s had a rodent problem know that such animals can make a big impact on your house. And Scott Howell very nearly made a HUGE impact on your country. In fact, if Senator Johnson doesn’t survive the bleeding in his brain, Howell might be singularly responsible for having tipped control of the Senate to the Republicans.

OK, I’ll stop dehumanizing the man. And yes, Scott Howell is the name of a human being. A very “successful” human being, if by success you are referring to the ability to acquire money and wield power. He’s a political consultant who is largely responsible for electing Senators Chambliss, Coleman and Thune. Moreover, he was the evil genius who masterminded the election of Bob Corker over Harold Ford. You remember that race: it turned on an advertisement in which a bare-shouldered blonde winked at Ford, a black man, and said “Harold, call me.” That message went over well to the target audience – racists from Tennessee – and, as a result, Ford lost his slight lead and Corker never looked back. In an election in which virtually every hotly contested Senate seat went Democratic, Corker was the one Republican candidate who survived.

Howell is a disciple of the late, and anything-but-great Lee Atwater. Howell’s firm is based in Dallas, a city known for its shopping malls, churches and titty-bars. He plies his trade on behalf of politicians who appeal to “family values,” and yet the central value that he brings to a campaign is the ability to assassinate the character of any opponent.

Congratulations, Mr. Howell. You earn the only award named after a body part – a very powerful body part.

Amnesiac of the Year: Harry Reid

You didn’t really think I was simply going to praise Democrats and criticize Republicans, did you? Empathic Rationalists are equal opportunity critics.

Harry Reid, the upcoming Senate Majority Leader, wins this award for his recent announcement that he’s willing to support an increase in U.S. troops in Iraq – as long as the “surge” is only for a limited amount of time. Art thou kidding? This is eerily reminiscent of when the President asked the Congress for a blank check to invade Iraq in the first place and the Democrats were more than willing to oblige. But then, the donkeys had a bit of an excuse. That was before (a) we all had graphic proof that the Iraqi people really don’t want us there and are prepared to kill, kill, kill until we leave, (b) even our own Generals were saying that ratcheting up our presence was a bad idea, and (c) the Democrats took over control over the Congress. So why, then, would Reid possibly want to add more targets to the shooting gallery?

Amnesia. That’s my only explanation.

The Jack Torrance Award: John McCain

This award goes to someone who is a nice likeable guy, but not someone you’d want to be trapped with for the winter at the Overlook Hotel. McCain gets the nod because it’s finally beginning to dawn on me (and others) that the dude is just a little trigger happy. Just a tad.

This is a guy who called Vietnam “a noble cause” – but you can forgive him for that line given his experiences there. In 1994, he suggested with respect to the North Koreans that we “bomb ‘em back to the Stone Age.” “I know what they understand,” he added, “and that is the threat of extinction.” In 1999, he wanted Clinton to flood Kosovo with ground troops – contrary to the views of the military. And now, once again, he wants a major increase of troops in Iraq; in fact, he’s the most prominent cheerleader for the policy of “when you’re in a hole, grab some friends and dig more furiously.”

Somehow, I’m beginning to sense a pattern.

I respect John McCain. Who doesn’t? But is this the guy this world needs with his finger on the red button? I would sincerely like to see him in the next Administration, Republican or Democrat, but I’d like him to stay the heck away from foreign policy. Let him be the Secretary of Transportation or Education or Labor. And if he keeps wanting to talk about war, we can send him to Gettysburg and have him join in one of those battle re-enactments. He can be doing the Rebel Yell during Pickett’s Charge.

The Mirror, Mirror Award: Dick Vitale

For those of you who aren’t Star Trek addicts, Mirror, Mirror was an episode in which Captain Kirk and a few fellow crewmen were transported into a parallel universe that looks an awful lot like ours except that the people are crazy. And not in a good way.

Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to place Vitale in with that crew. He seems benign enough. I’ve never heard him advocate gratuitous violence, for example, and he doesn’t seem to be crazed with power-lust. Still, when I’m watching him, I feel that if he belongs in this universe, then maybe I don’t.

Dickie V, as he’s affectionately known, is a former basketball coach turned talking-head. As football season fades away and roundball comes to dominate the American sports scene, Dickie becomes a fixture on ESPN. By March, he’s positively ubiquitous. The man is the Platonic form of the exuberant, narcissistic motor mouth. He never met hyperbole that he didn’t like. And while it’s one thing to hear him announce a game – he’ll exclaim “Awesome Baby” 15 times, and throw out almost as many references to “PTPs” (Prime Time Players) and “Diaper Dandies” (freshmen who don’t suck) -- what’s particularly surreal is listening to him do commentary about an event that transcends sports, such as when athletes become violent. Invariably, when I’m watching this guy run his lips I’m asking myself this question: Other than the fact that we both love moms, green grass, and blue skies, do we agree on anything?

In Vitale’s universe, Bob Knight – the very same right-wing icon who once brandished soiled toilet paper to show his players what they played like – would be the drug czar. Heck, he might even be named President. In Vitale’s universe, we’d probably walk into shopping malls and listen to motivational speeches pumped over the loudspeaker. Whatever this dude is selling, clearly a lot of people are buying – I just don’t happen to be one of them. If I had to choose the bearded Mr. Spock from the parallel universe or the bald and beautiful (if you don’t believe it, just ask him) Dick Vitale from this universe … I’d take the bearded Vulcan any time.

Entertainer of the Year: Dave Matthews

This award is clear cut. Here’s a guy who’s under the age of 40 and I actually like his music. That’s right. I say those words and yet can’t believe I just said them. But it’s true. And for that, he deserves some recognition.

It’s always nice when someone reminds you that you still have a pulse.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


The old saw advises us to “Think globally, and act locally,” yet that principle was never honored in my parents’ house. My dad was an introverted intellectual. To him, everything was global – in fact, once he built his telescope, even “global” seemed way too narrow for his focus.

I didn’t know there was such a thing as local politics until I was in high school and found a job interning for the Montgomery County Council. I lived then where I live now – in Bethesda, Maryland, roughly five miles from the Washington, D.C. line. Even as I worked for my county’s council, however, my father’s attitude brainwashed me into thinking that what went on in my own home town and home state was essentially trivial. The Middle East mattered. The Cold War mattered. National tax policies mattered. Local politics? Please – that’s only of interest to the small-minded parochial types, and I was a man of the world. Not a Marylander, but a Washingtonian.

It took me decades to change my outlook. But this fall, that finally happened. I actually gave a damn about local politics. I cared enough to walk into the ballot box during my state’s primary and cast a certain vote for Montgomery County Executive (our name for the CEO of the county government). I had never cared that much about the state government, and here I was, chomping at the bit to send a message about my county. Obviously, some issue had gotten under my skin.

The contest for County Executive pitted an African-American who rose from poverty to a County Council position, named Ike Leggett, against a man who sounds just like me – an Ashkenazi, Reform Jewish lawyer, Steven Silverman. The primary would clearly decide the election because in Montgomery County, men are Democrats, women are Democrats, and Republicans run scared. (Seriously, the smart Republicans know to move across the river to Virginia where they’re actually wanted.) When I picked up my ballot, I had a sneer on my face. I wanted Leggett to win, but I really, really wanted Silverman to lose. His campaign was more negative than Leggett’s, and that bothered me, yet what really ticked me off was that he took lots and lots of money from real estate developers. He was the enemy of all things green. Well, almost all things. Silverman raised $2.2 million to Leggett’s $830,000. How strange, then, that Leggett trounced my landsman by double digits.

I didn’t follow all of the local elections as closely as the Executive race, but I cared about others too. Walking into the polls that morning, I had one sheet of paper in my hands. It was a flyer my family received in the mail a couple of weeks earlier that identified which candidates took money from developers, and which ones did not. I voted straight up. Single issue, baby! To me, this was war – nature versus greed. Good versus evil. Up versus down. I hadn’t seen such a simple problem since first grade arithmetic.

I’ve never considered myself a stereotypical environmentalist. Nobody I know spends less time outdoors than I do. It’s sad but true. My vacation time is largely spent writing in front of a computer. And when I do go into nature, my ideal day would be spent studying a philosophy book and occasionally looking up to see what a beautiful place I have chosen to read in. But the fact that I haven’t incorporated nature into my lifestyle doesn’t mean I fail to acknowledge our debt to her. It also doesn’t mean I feel free to despoil her in the name of “economics” or “progress.” In fact, just as many of my fellow single-issue voters seem to care only about the defenseless, beautiful human fetus. I possess a visceral passion to protect the defenseless, beautiful natural world over which we have been given custodial responsibility. We’re sure making a mess of that responsibility, aren’t we? Seriously, it’s mid-December in Maryland and nearly every afternoon, the temperature has gotten into the 50s. Something here is awry.

A few years ago, my family had a membership in a local community swimming pool. In fact, we had been members for years. The pool owned a few acres of wooded land – one of the few such areas in Bethesda. One night, the pool “elders” convened an all-hands meeting and announced a proposal to sell some of the land to developers so that we could raise money for some of the pool’s basic needs. One of those ‘needs” was to build a gazebo. I stopped going to the pool right around then – in fact, we’re not even members now. The idea of a group that supported tree chopping simply left way too bitter a taste in my mouth.

Clearly, these feelings are running deep. They always do when you find yourself “single issue voting” and leaving organizations that you’ve supported for years. But I make no apologies for my views. Just as the virulent foe of abortion rights sees their issue in terms of “murder,” I see the above issue in stark terms as well. Who the hell are we as a species to “acquire” what nature has taken millions of years to perfect, only to pave and mine and drill right over it? If each of us needs to use up so many resources to satisfy our rapacious appetites, might we not either changing our lifestyles or at least reproducing a tad less often? Maybe you should look at my family as some sort of anti-procreative ideal. I have no brothers, no sisters, two children, and only one first cousin, who has no children of her own. I call that taking one for the team!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Lately, I’ve been writing a lot on this page about my efforts to wrestle with conservatism. I’d like to think that my mind is open to conservative principles, and yet whenever I applaud myself for being open, one simple fact re-emerges to nag at my pride: I have never, ever voted in a contested two-party election for anyone other than the Democratic candidate.

Yes, it does bother me. It’s one thing to have a center of gravity. It’s another thing to be a blind partisan.

Well ... my track record is not likely to change for me in congressional elections, at least not for a while. I like my Representative, and I like my Senators. But we have a Presidential election coming up in 2008, and if the Democratic Party isn’t careful, I might not be able to make the above statement much longer.

In case you can’t tell, I’ve been alluding to the possibility that my party will nominate the putative front runner: Hillary Rodham Clinton. It pains me to write those words because Hillary is a woman, and for that reason alone I’d like to support her. I’d like to support her because we’ve never had a woman POTUS and it’s about time we did, particularly since “her kind” represents the majority of the population. I’d doubly like to support her because I’m sick and tired of strong women being painted as evil bitches. Nancy Pelosi, for example, did nothing prior to this past election to warrant all the vitriol that was heaped upon her by the GOP. Nevertheless, she committed the sin of sins – she’s a woman who didn’t act like a den mother or an ambassador’s wife – and that, combined with her being from “Sodom,” I mean San Francisco, caused the GOP-attack machine to speak about her like a character in the Crucible. You’re darned right that pissed me off, and the fact that Hillary is the target of the same kind of sexist nonsense makes me want to support her too.

And yet … and yet.

My basic problem with Hillary is that I’m a Steve Novick Democrat. Novick is a political activist who lives in Portland, Oregon. He moved out to his native Oregon after working for years as a trial attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice, where be handled superfund and clean air cases. In Oregon, he has worked on multiple political campaigns, practiced law on behalf of labor unions, and would surely have been one of the leading contenders for Portland’s Congressional district in 2004 had the incumbent decided against running for re-election. Novick appears frequently on local radio stations, and he is no stranger to column-writing. He was also profiled as the “Oregonian of the Week” in the state’s leading newspaper.

In the name of full-disclosure, I would add that Novick is also one of my best friends. I met him when he was a first year law student at Harvard. He called himself “pound for pound, the youngest ever at Harvard Law School,” and I didn’t doubt the claim for a second. He was 18 years of age, 4’ 8” tall, and relatively slender. If there was someone smaller and younger who attended that law school, I’d like to see him!

Just as Hillary has her fans, so does Novick. At a 40th birthday bash that was thrown for him a few years back in Washington, D.C., some Oregonians treated me and other of Novick’s law school friends like royalty just because we had known the guy for over 20 years. I learned what it must have been like to have known the Beatles in Liverpool, when they were just John, Paul, George and Ringo, and not the Fab Four. But the truth is that everyone who knew Novick in law school realized then that he was special. That’s why we called him The Lord, which was short for Lord Novick The Young. He was a character then, and someday, he’ll be a character who’s also a candidate.

Novick is nobody’s idea of a conservative. He’s unabashedly liberal. But he’s a guy that even conservatives respect, and they respect him for the same reason they respected another famous diminutive liberal, Paul Wellstone. In both cases, these men have staked out a vision, have spoken plainly in support of that vision, and haven’t cared a whit whether their view was popular or shocking. Conservatives respect that. They also respect political animals who don’t take themselves too seriously. Back in law school, Novick said that he would run for office someday as “the only candidate with a legitimate left hook” – a reference to the fact that he has no left hand but wears a metal hook instead. More recently, Novick has jokingly referred to himself as “America’s leading amateur pundit on soaking the rich.” But he is no amateur when it comes to thinking clearly about how to support the economy. He’s not looking to screw the rich, but merely to reduce inequality. And he cares deeply about the working class. Believe me, many conservatives do too.

Novick doesn’t have an ounce of hypocrisy. If he preaches it, he practices it. He’s also a man of his word. About 15 years ago, when he was still in D.C., he began a tradition of organizing a tribute every year for Robert F. Kennedy on the anniversary of his birth. The event was held at the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice building (otherwise known as the headquarters of the U.S.D.O.J.). When Novick announced that he was moving back to Oregon, one of his friends said “So Novick, are you going to come back every year and hold this event on RFK’s birthday?” Novick said yes, and being a man of his word, every year, like clockwork, he comes back and hosts that function. I don’t even know if Novick can “afford” to do it – he didn’t come from money and doesn’t have much now. But that doesn’t matter much to Novick. He’s concerned with how much money other people have – particularly, regular working people.

Surely you can tell by now why I’m a Steve Novick Democrat. But you may also be able to tell why I’m so troubled by a Hillary candidacy. To begin, I have no idea what this woman stands for. Seriously, why did she introduce a bill in support of flag burning? Who was she sucking up to then? And while we’re talking about political expediency, why did this “liberal” support the Iraq War? Obama sure didn’t, and neither did Gore. Frankly, she comes across as someone who thinks first about which way the wind is blowing and only secondarily about the path of truth and justice. Novick, she’s not.

I’m also troubled by all that’s been said about Hillary the “executive.” I’ve heard so many rumors about her alleged acts of arrogance to her subordinates that I’m beginning to wonder if she’d be more comfortable running a monarchy than a democracy. Moreover, far from having a Novickean sense of humor, Hillary exudes humorlessness and the lack of humility. Perhaps I’m reading her wrong; then again, I don’t think I’m alone in having this reaction.

The GOP has seen over the past few months how unpopular a party can get if they win the Presidency and then things go south. The Dems saw this for themselves when Jimmy Carter was President. Those who talk about how brilliant Hillary is might be wise to remember that Carter’s IQ is none too shabby. But there’s more to politics than IQ. You also have to have a winning personality. Carter came across as sanctimonious. Hillary might come across as imperious. I don’t think this country is ready for an imperious President right now, and I know we’re not ready for an imperious female President who doesn’t appear to have the courage of her own convictions.

For all these reasons, I’m concerned that if Hillary gets the nod in the summer of 2008, I might just write in Steve Novick for the job. Not a Republican, mind you, but not Hillary either.

Would I be alone in taking that stand? Again, I doubt it. I know, for example – because I heard it from Novick himself – that former House Democratic Whip David Bonior once said that he didn’t mind other people knowing that if Hillary ever got the nomination, Bonior wouldn’t vote for her. Novick himself is unsure if whether he’d vote for Hillary, particularly if she runs against Giuliani. The only thing I can say for sure is that, unlike me, Novick definitely won’t vote for Novick … at least not for President.

I think back to the movie 1776 and the adopted home state of Madame Senator herself. New York abstains, courteously,” the representative of that state repeatedly said, when it was time to vote for independence from Great Britain. Well, if his descendent gets the nomination, a whole bunch of us Democrats might just say “Madame New Yorker, we abstain, courteously.” Folks might not go all the way and vote for the GOP, and I’m not suggesting they’ll vote en masse for Novick. But there are a lot of Steve Novick Democrats in this country whether they know it themselves or not. And if their party wants to win the White House, they had better get all the Steve Novick Democrats on board. It’s really that simple.

Sunday, December 10, 2006


This past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a conservative. First, I posted a blog entry on Governor Schwarzenegger and ex-Governor Bush, essentially standing up for the job they did as Republican-moderates (which is, after all, another term for a “conservative,” as opposed to a “reactionary” – a/k/a a whack-job).

Next, the attorney in my office furthest to the right – and we have 70 attorneys – repeatedly walked into my office and said “you’re no liberal.” This was prompted by the fact that he recently read The Creed Room and discovered that on a number of issues the philosophy expressed in that book didn’t fit with his stereotype of liberalism. I responded that I wasn’t a knee-jerk liberal, but that I was a liberal – at least my center of gravity was four-square in support of civil libertarianism and the principle that government is often needed to address market failures, and particularly inequities. But that didn’t convince him. “You’re no liberal,” he repeated, meaning that liberals don’t respect the free-enterprise system and they have no use for religion.

Well, maybe I don’t fit everyone’s liberal stereotype, but I sure don’t want to fit the conservative stereotype either – at least not if “conservative” is illustrated by Conservative Judaism’s latest gem.

Did you all catch what the Conservatives accomplished this week? They concluded years of debate within the movement and decided (a) to allow gay rabbis, (b) to celebrate gay commitment ceremonies (i.e., unions), and (c) that gay male sex should continue to be viewed as prohibited sodomy. Talk about loving the sinner but not the sin.

Was this a step in the right direction? Absolutely. The movement is extending new rights to gay people, and I’m all for that. But how can the movement possibly justify such an incongruous set of positions? The answer, of course, is that they want to treat gay people with dignity, but their commitment to “the law” requires them not to dignify gay sex. To me, it’s one more reason why the term “religious law” is an oxymoron.

Before coming down too hard on the Conservatives for continuing to condemn “sodomy,” think about the fact that this movement prides itself on following “Jewish law.” Given that fact, how can they not look askance at homosexual conduct, at least between males? Leviticus is as plain as day: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.” Blunt. To the point. Unambiguous.

So then why allow those who regularly engage in such “abominations” lead Conservative communities? That is certainly how many Conservative rabbis felt. The willingness of their comrades to ordain gay rabbis has, in fact, led some Conservative leaders to leave the movement, no doubt pushing them off the cliff and into the arms of the Orthodox. There, they will find a receptive audience for the idea that religion is all about discerning the original intent of the Torah, which was inspired (if not written) by God. And who can deny that the original intent of “the law” wasn’t to prohibit homosexuality, or that the term abomination wasn’t the strongest possible rebuke for an action?

You’ll forgive rabbis who take the words of the Torah as God’s own for making the following point: if homosexuality has been condemned as an “abomination” worthy of Sodom, how can we permit homosexuals to preach to our children about morality?

I would agree with them – if I ascribed the Torah to God, as the Conservative movement purports to do. To me, the Torah, like all other “scriptures,” should be ascribed instead to human beings. We wrote the book, and we wrote it 2 ½ millennia ago, when our understanding of matters like sexuality was rudimentary in the extreme. Did God not inspire the book, you ask? I’m willing to say yes. Then again, I could say the same thing about all books, from Mein Kampf on up. You see, I attribute all human conduct – and all animal conduct, for that matter – to God, for my God is that of Spinoza, not Michelangelo.

This week, in Conservative Jewish dinner tables across the country, thoughtful teenagers have been asking their parents to square the above positions. One answer is that the movement wanted to be as liberal as they possibly could without violating the letter of the law, which is aimed at prohibiting homosexual actions, not dishonoring homosexuals as individuals. Another answer is that the movement was torn and wanted to strike a compromise; the compromise it reached was skewed to the liberal side, since from a practical standpoint the prohibition against sodomy can’t be enforced, but the decisions to ordain gay rabbis and allow civil unions have obvious public ramifications.

Both of those answers are helpful. Helpful, but not satisfying. If I could answer that thoughtful teenager, I would say a bit more: “Conservative Judaism prides itself on straddling a fence between two fields. In one field we have tradition! By that, I mean a rigorous commitment to the letter of the law such that the specific prohibitions are given more weight than ‘fuzzy’ concepts like ‘love thy neighbor as yourself.’ In the other field we have modernity. That is illustrated by a morality based on a relatively liberal inner voice that can always override scripture whenever the voice of reason so dictates. Conservative Jews find value in wrestling with both of those approaches, much like Jacob wrestled with God. To a Conservative Jew, that straddling, that wrestling, is precisely the essence of Judaism, both as a religion and a culture.”

I can appreciate that response, to a point – but only to a point. At the risk of sounding overly modern, or – gasp – secular, I’m simply not willing to walk up to a homosexual friend and say that he is “sinning” or committing “sodomy.” Similarly, I’m not willing to walk up to a kosher-keeping, Sabbath-observing son of a Jewish father and gentile mother and declare that he is not really a Jew.

Tradition? Shmadition. Yes, it pulls weight, but should we allow it to undermine the fundamentally inclusive and loving spirit of ethical monotheism? I sure hope not.

Frankly, I won’t let the severity of certain Jewish laws disturb one iota my commitment to Empathic Rationalism. If that means that I’m not “wrestling” enough with God or my faith … so be it.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Chutes and Ladders was always one of my favorite board games as a kid. Since it required absolutely no skill, it was right in my wheelhouse. Truly, my affection for that game foreshadowed that, as an adult, whenever I went to Vegas, I would also head for the slot machines and never play anything else. Three cheers for blind luck!

In the game of life, however, Chutes and Ladders involves a lot more than luck. Just look at the trajectories of the political careers of our nation’s two leading Chief Executives. I’m talking about “The Decider,” President George W. Bush, and the “Governator,” Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Many liberals like to claim that George W. Bush has failed at everything he’s done, whether it involves attending school or running a business. But it’s difficult to deny that as Governor of Texas, the man was anything but a failure. W hitched his wagon to a man named Bob Bullock, the state’s Lieutenant Governor. With the Republican Bush and the Democrat Bullock working together, they were able to build successful coalitions on many issues. At times, they failed, but not for the reasons you might think. Consider the following comments by liberal writer Molly Ivins, one of Bush’s most persistent critics:

“In 1997 [Bush] fought like a Trojan for what was actually a Democratic plan to make taxes fairer, specifically in an effort to pay for public schools. He lost. Bush couldn't deliver his own party on that one. But anyone who wants to write him off as a disengaged part-timer should know he was so fully involved in that fight, he could have been a floor manager the way he was twisting arms, calling in favors, busting balls, the entire panoply of power plays.”

Recognize that person-stage? I wouldn’t think so. He was around when Bush was going up the ladder, when he truly could style himself a “uniter, not a divider.” Bush prided himself in being the Governor of the entire state of Texas – Democrats as well as Republicans – rather than a power politician whose partisanship arrives with him everywhere he travels.

I’m less comfortable here commenting on Bush as a President, but suffice it to say that his poll numbers aren’t quite the same as his numbers in Texas, when he won re-election in a landslide. Suffice it also to say that the “chute” in which he finds himself has nothing to do with Democrats, because they are invisible in his Administration. The idea of him trying today to ram through “a Democratic plan to make taxes fairer,” doesn’t pass the laugh test. This is an era of one party ruling, the other party whining, and the country … well … suffering. Even the President admits publicly that these aren’t halcyon days for America.

On the other coast, you can hardly blame Ahnald from trying the bicep flaring, power-politician approach when he came into office. He had promised to stand up to the establishment politicians – liberals, mostly – who had been running Sacramento. And why not stand up to them with the force of Hercules? This, after all, was the same man who arrived in liberal Hollywood and sacked it like a Roman General. Talk about the victor netting the spoils -- at the top of his Hollywood ladder, he even nabbed himself a Kennedy for a bride. Why not come into the Governor’s mansion and show some of the same macho self-confidence that worked so magically in So-Cal?

The flexing act worked for a little while in the Central Valley, but in 2005, it came crashing down on our hero, and his chute became as steep as his former ladder. Pectoral Man called for a Special Election in which the electorate would vote on several initiatives. One would have limited state spending and given our hero greater power to slash the budget, one would have allowed for the redrawing of congressional and state legislative districts, another would have made teachers have to work longer to attain tenure, still another would have limited political spending by unions of government employees. Strangely enough, the people finally body-slammed Arnold. So here he was, alone and red-faced in his mansion, surrounded by a sea of California blue.

It must have dawned on The Governator that if California keeps voting Democrat every time there’s a contest for the Presidency, maybe, just maybe, there’s more to the state than fat cats from Orange County. You’d think he could have figured that out prior to November of 2005, but at least he eventually figured it out. It’s now 2006, and we’re witnessing a new Arnold. He’s no longer opposed to raises in the minimum wage. He’s proposed lots of spending on education specifically, and public works generally. And he’s the toast of the New York Times for his plan to “terminate” greenhouse gases.

The new Arnold is working with state legislators across the aisle much like Governor Bush once did. He is creating the impression of being a political moderate. And guess what? He ascended the ladder once again in public opinion polls.

Who could have predicted it? Well, actually, just about anyone. Americans tend to like politicians who show their ability and willingness to build bi-partisan support and aren’t so easily pigeon-holed as either “right wingers” or “left wingers.” There are exceptions – another California Governor comes to mind -- but Mr. Reagan was beloved because he held a strong, positive vision for America and communicated that vision clearly and openly. Whether or not you liked that vision, you had to respect the gravitas of the man who held it.

Men like Reagan – or his liberal counterpart, FDR – don’t come around that often. Others try to replicate their successes by being equally extreme, but generally end up looking like children, rather than adults. We have two years left in the Bush Administration. My recommendation is that if the powers that be want to get anything done – and I mean anything – they might want to find the ghost of the late Bob Bullock and listen to what he has to say. He’d start by arguing that without widespread Democratic support, the only place for the Administration to go is further downward. Given all the problems we face internationally, environmentally, and otherwise, we simply can’t afford that outcome, no matter how much the pundits on Comedy Central might enjoy the ride.

Monday, December 04, 2006


Some people are Ginger people, others like Mary Anne. Some are Elvis people, others like the Beatles. Some of us love ping pong, others shoot pool. Some do crossword puzzles, others …

Well that’s the problem, isn’t it? Until recently, there was no real alternative to crossword puzzles, or at least the major newspapers never tried to present one. For those of us who never got on the crossword-puzzle train when it came around during our childhood, that left a gnawing void.

Like anything else, crossword puzzles can be had, but you’ve got to put in the time in order to pick up the knack. I never did. Consequently, here I am with my Harvard Law degree, and I wouldn’t stand a chance if I went mano-a-mano against some pimple faced 15 year old geek who happened to start doing these puzzles regularly from the age of 12. That same kid someday could get Alzheimer’s, and he’d still out perform me when I was in my prime. Did that fact ever rankle me? You bet.

I forget when I saw my first Sudoku puzzle, but almost immediately I was intrigued. Finally, we crossword-puzzle rejects found ourselves an alternative, and we didn’t have to buy “Loser Weekly” magazine in order to pick it up. We could find a Sudoku puzzle every day in our morning paper. Strike that. Here in D.C., many of us routinely are provided two each day: one in the Washington Post, and one in the Post Express that is distributed for free at each Metro (subway) stop. Talk about ubiquitous.

Immediately, I liked the Sudoku concept because it involves numbers. As the former captain of my high school math team, I’ve always loved numbers. Even when I went through adolescence and was way too hyper to read, I enjoyed solving math problems. When I started playing Sudoku, however, I realized that it didn’t permit us to really play with numbers. The digits on the Sudoku board are mere symbols, and the letters A-I could have easily taken the place of the numbers 1-9 without changing these puzzles in any way. Nevertheless, that didn’t deter me from taking up this new hobby. The fact is that I’ve always loved logic puzzles almost as much as math, and that’s precisely what Sudoku is – a puzzle that tests your logic skills and your ability to visualize and remember symbols. I decided to give it a try.

My first reaction was surprise at my incompetence. I’d heard a few people indicate that when they started playing Sudoku, they found all the “easy” problems and many of the “medium” puzzles to be a breeze. But I had trouble even with the easy puzzles, and boy did that tick me off. In my frustration, I went to the Internet and learned a couple of tricks. That was the jump start I needed. Day after day I’d complete these puzzles. Sometimes one, other days two. Then, my wife bought me a Sudoku calendar for Hanukah, and rather than doing one puzzle each day, I would do them at a clip of four or five at a time. Eventually, I got to the point where I felt invisible. Sudoku had become like Tic-Tac-Tough: a game I couldn’t lose.

This went on for a couple of months, and I enjoyed the ride. It was kind of a Zen experience – pick up a newspaper, turn to the puzzle, and complete it without fail. It became a routine, much like a morning stroll. After a while, though, the challenge began to disappear, so I spent a few days here and there putting aside the puzzles altogether. Then one day, the unspeakable happened: a puzzle stumped me. And a couple of weeks later, it happened again. The Zen experience was over. I realized that some of these puzzles required time and effort., and that I was putting in more than enough effort in other walks of life – I hardly needed to struggle with a stupid puzzle in the newspaper.

At around that time I spoke about Sudoku to a friend who owns his own business. His response was succinct: “I don’t have the time to waste on puzzles. I always thought puzzles were for losers.” It wounded me, but I couldn’t really argue with the sentiment. If I had been in my Zen stage as a Sudoku player, he might have gotten a counter. But that stage was gone, and I found myself picking up Sudoku not because it was fun but because I needed to confirm that I was indeed invincible, despite the blip or two in the previous few weeks.

So there I was, morning after morning, walking to the Metro so that I can go to work. I could have benefited from spending my 20 minute ride writing, reading a book, or for that matter meditating. But instead, I picked up the Express and did another puzzle. If it were marked “easy,” I could do it in just a few minutes, but if it were marked “medium” or “hard” it would take most or all of the subway ride, and I might even not be able to finish it until later. I thought that I was acting like an idiot but simply couldn’t stop. My ego wouldn’t let me. I was addicted.

When I reflect on this ridiculous pastime, a couple of statements from college spring to mind. The first was a statement made by my psychology professor: gambling halls never forget that the best way to hook in a player is with intermittent reinforcement. And indeed that was true in my case: my addiction was at its peak when I had no idea if I could solve the puzzle or not.

The second was a statement that my roommate made – a quotation he attributed to Oscar Wilde: “I don’t like a man without one good redeemable vice.” Being in college at the time, my reaction was “just one?” But seriously, I always saw a lot of wisdom in that quotation. People without any vices seem incapable of relating to the rest of us. They’re too perfect. They don’t know what it’s like to battle with demons. For example, my mother would bemoan the fact that her father gambled away much of her family’s money during the Depression, but the thought of the old man losing at the pinochle table always humanized him in my eyes. And what about the vice of drinking? Look what’s it done for Mel Gibson – it’s outed him as a schmuck, maybe even in his own eyes. Now, long after he made “The Passion of the Anti-Semite,” he might sincerely be seeking help.

“In vino veritas,” they say. Sometimes, a little veritas is in order.

But what about Sudoku? Is there any redemptive value in it? Or is my friend right in suggesting that puzzles are for people who waste time that could be better spent getting something accomplished (or at least clearing the mind for more productive uses)?

I’ve heard all about the justification for Sudoku that it fights Alzheimer’s. But I figured I have a few decades before that becomes an issue, so I can’t use that excuse. What about the idea of being humanized – is there anything about sticking your head in a newspaper and placing little dots and numbers on a sheet of paper that humanizes us?

Perhaps the answer to that is yes. Consider it a protest against living life in a pressure cooker. Consider it a protest against the idea that there’s nothing more precious to a human life than time. Isn’t all this supposed to be a journey, not a destination? And if that old saw is true, why shouldn’t we make a little time for a wide variety of things – including silly things, like puzzles? If we’re so busy that we can’t spare a few minutes a day for a puzzle, perhaps there’s a problem with our lifestyle .. and it’s not the puzzle.

But all that said, I have had enough sense to stay away from the Sudoku Samurai games (the games with five Sudoku puzzles in one). I completed the first one that I saw and immediately realized that this was too crazy even for me. It’s kind of like realizing that you may be a coke addict, but at least you've had the marbles to stay off the heroin.

Friday, December 01, 2006


The title of this blog-post states a principle that I had thought was universally understood. Obviously, the Iraq War has proven me wrong.

One case in point is the fact that we’re still fighting that horrid war, more than three years after all our arguments for fighting turned out to be wrong. Another example is the latest bit of Orwellian-speak by the war’s proponents. Sure, Sunnis and Shiites are killing each other by the thousands … but it’s not a “Civil War.” Obviously, we can’t call it that, because these same people told us originally that the one thing that would constitute a “loss” in Iraq is to cause the nation to go into a “Civil War.” So now we’re just changing the meaning of the terms – a Civil War involves fighting in which the parties slaughter each other in the thousands, but do so in a manner that is polite and respectful. You know, civil.

While our nation’s government keeps digging our Iraqi hole deeper and deeper, we can all thank God for our luminaries in the press who report the truth and provide wisdom. In that regard, there’s no luminary who burns brighter – at least in his own mind – than Thomas Friedman.

Friedman, for those of you who’ve been living in a bubble for the last twenty years, is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and a columnist with the New York Times. I remember as a young adult reading his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, and being extremely impressed with both the quality of his writing and the even-handedness of his analysis. Later, I began regularly reading his columns in the Times and I found them sensible and insightful. He always conveyed the impression of knowing thousands of people on the streets of every Middle Eastern city and wanting everyone to get along and live in peace.

What a swell guy, I thought.

Then, one day, my love affair for Mr. Friedman ended. He started writing about the need to fight a war in Iraq. And I started finding it increasingly difficult to digest my breakfast when reading my morning paper.

The world’s most omniscient columnist told us that we needed an outpost in that savage part of the world known as the non-Jewish Middle East. Without such an outpost, he claimed, that region would be taken over by the jihadist crazies like the types who blew up the Twin Towers. But with such an outpost, the rest of the “Arab street” (as he likes to call the Muslim hoi polloi) would see for themselves that liberal, democracies are the best kinds of countries. So soon enough, they’ll want their own countries to become liberal democracies. And we’ll all live happier ever after.

Friedman wanted to invade regardless of the existence of weapons of mass destruction. If I recall his argument, he said that since Saddam Hussein was a terrible guy who had done some terrible things, we were more than justified in invading his country. As for the issue of whether we can go in without international support, Friedman argued that we really, really want to get international support … but if we can’t get it, we’d better go in anyway. After all, the opportunity to create a shining city on the hill in the middle of the Arab world would be simply too great to pass up.

That was the argument I picked up from reading Friedman during the months leading to the war. I can’t tell you how sickened it made me. Call me crazy, but it didn’t seem right that innocent Iraqis were going to get killed by the thousands simply because we wanted to create a pro-American outpost in the Arab world. Saddam posed no current threat – or so it seemed. So what right did we have to take all those innocent lives and destabilize a region? Reading between the lines, Friedman seemed to say that we have a right to invade because it would be useful to invade … and “the good” is always “the right.” He would never say that in as many words, but he hardly had to.

Now fast forward 3 ½ years, and Mr. Friedman is still writing about Iraq and still, apparently, proud of his prescience on the topic. In his column this week, he is telling his readers that we will have to choose between the ten months option (phase out our presence over the next ten months and then take off) and the ten years option (spend the next ten years building up the country from scratch). Sounds reasonable, right? Sure. But to demonstrate his point, he couldn’t simply state his opinion. He had to explain his bona fides. “On February 12, 2003, before the war, I wrote a column offering what I called my ‘pottery store’ rule for Iraq: ‘You break it, you own it.’ It was not an argument against the war, but rather a cautionary note about the need to do it with allies, because transforming Iraq would be such a huge undertaking. (Colin Powell later picked up on this and used the phrase to try to get President Bush to act with more caution, but Mr. Bush did not heed Mr. Powell’s advice.)”

Are you kidding me? Mr. Omniscient – the man who purports to know the Middle East better than a Presidential candidate knows Iowa – cheered on this insane invasion for months on end. And now that everything has fallen apart, he’s bragging about his pre-war columns? Man, that’s some really impressive chutzpah!

Let me say to Mr. Friedman that I’m hardly impressed that he came up with that pottery barn analogy. I suspect hundreds if not thousands of people were thinking the same thing. And I’m also not impressed that he realized that international support would have been a swell thing for the U.S. to have. Again – that was obvious. This is what’s impressive: how do you advocate an unnecessary war that predictably turns into a disaster, and then credit yourself for warning about the dangers of the war? And what’s really impressive is that here’s a guy who apparently didn’t realize that the Iraqi people would revolt in response to an American invasion (imagine that – Middle Easterners not wanting to be colonized, who knew?), and yet he still tries to come across as all-knowing about the Muslim “street.”

Stop, Mr. Friedman. Just stop. How can we possibly take you seriously on this topic any more? If you want to write any more columns about war, let me suggest writing one entitled “The End Doesn’t Justify the Means.” It can be about a decorated columnist who knows a heck of a lot less than he claims to know – about moral philosophy, that is. And if you still feel the need to write about the word on “the street,” please go back to your native Minneapolis and start interviewing people at taverns and coffee shops about whether the Vikings are going to beat the Bears this Sunday. Stick with topics like that. Leave the topics of war to people who are serious about not taking innocent life without a damned good reason.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


When I was a teenager, one of the more pathetic things about me was that I let my sense of being “cool” affect the music I listened to. Even if I liked a song, I would talk myself out of it because it wasn’t “cool.” And yes, I realized that I wasn’t alone in that regard. Fortunately, as we get older, most of us grow out of that stage. That means we can admit enjoying things a lot even if they’re ridiculed by others.

My last blog-post involved two movie directors (Kubrick and Tarentino) whose movies are, most assuredly, cool. People who don’t like their movies almost have to apologize for “not getting it.” By contrast, many Hollywood flicks are so commonly insulted that it’s embarrassing to admit to liking them. You Got Mail or Sleepless in Seattle are examples. Fortunately, I hate those movies. J What I don’t hate, what I in fact like a fair amount, is James Cameron’s Titanic. It’s not a cool movie – in fact, it’s quite uncool – but I find it compelling just the same.

From a critic’s standpoint, Titanic is easy pickings. Let’s begin by the fact that there has to be something seriously wrong with any movie about a horrible human tragedy that a TV network (TNT) could show three times on Thanksgiving weekend. (What are we giving thanks for – not being on that boat?) Titanic is a little too artificially upbeat for my taste, given the situation. I’ve always been put off by Hollywood’s “Happy Holocaust” movies that want to talk about all the “inspiring” stories that emerged from the Holocaust; I’m definitely more of The Sorrow and the Pity kind of guy when it comes to my people’s greatest tragedy. And I would have preferred more despair and less pseudo-uplift in the making of Titanic.

I also can’t help but mention the singer of the anthem that is played at the end of the movie. If I had to be honest about my taste, I find Celine Dion’s music generally nauseating. Her singing alone makes the movie uncool. And yet … I have to admit that I really like that one song. In fact, playing that tune on the trumpet while standing on the back porch of my house during the remnant of a hurricane a few years ago was one of the best little pleasures I’ve had in a decade.

Yes, “my heart could go on” insulting the movie. Too much romance. Too much schmaltz. Too much Hollywood. Too much pop pablum. But for me, all of that is outweighed by various images that I found compelling.

The portion of the movie that I loved the most was the time after the boat hit the iceberg. That’s when the human drama truly unfolded. There were so many images that show people at their most disgusting as well as at their best – and for the most part, I found those moments delightfully realistic.

My favorite moments in the movie involve the shots of the elderly couple lying in bed, holding hands, surely knowing that in a few minutes, they were about to drown. Maybe I’m crazy, but I actually can imagine people in that position behaving just the way they were behaving – as if the only thing they experienced in life is a romantic love devoid of all ephemeral infatuation and nourished almost entirely by the understanding of, respect for, and contentment in, each other’s spirit. Of course, if it were me on the boat, I’d be way too neurotic to be able to peacefully lie with my wife. But not everybody is a type A personality, thank God.

A similar, but wonderful moment involved the mother reading to her children – all of whom were about to drown. Yes, that’s a shame that she didn’t run for the lifeboats, as the three of them presumably would have survived. But I mention the example because it was another situation where we saw a person being willing to live the rest of her life expressing nothing but love for other human beings. Pure love. And it’s totally realistic that a mother in that situation would feel not a selfish bone in her body until she breathes her last. Sorry, but I find those last two sets of images pretty damned moving.

And what about the conduct of Jack and Rose when they were floating on the surface of the water after the boat sank? Realistic? In a sense, yes. Jack hadn’t met Rose until a day or so before, but I could imagine teenage infatuation being so strong that all a young man would think about is saving the life of his beloved girlfriend. She personifies beauty to him, and to save her would not only affirm his self respect but reflect a love of beauty that all healthy people have in spades … if only they allow it to flourish.

Still another magical moment of love involves the string quartet. Do you remember when the leader of the quartet mentions that “It has been a privilege to play with you tonight.” What a great word choice: a privilege. Dude is about to drown, and the combination of his affection for music and his appreciation for finding other likeminded people makes him feel privileged. What a cool thought – Spinoza and Nietzsche would love it! If we’re truly enlightened, we could find a positive emotion for any occasion. And then there is the designer of the boat – never resentful, always classy, and unlike the bumbling but ultimately decent captain, never without a modicum of poise. His character was also well done.

OK. There were dark characters in the movie too, and you better believe they lent the flick some realism. Rose’s fiancé was a total schmuck and, for the most part, believable. True, it was an inappropriate Hollywood-like touch to make him try to shoot his fiancé and her new boyfriend with a gun … and similarly unnecessary to tell us later that he put a gun in his mouth and shot himself during the Depression. But it was hardly unrealistic to show him ignoring a crying baby until he realized that the baby would be his ticket to survival.

Similarly, I loved (to hate) the character who demanded that the boat speed up in order to break some record. Yes, in this tale, he was primarily responsible for the sinking of the Titanic, and he knew it too. Yet that SOB couldn’t bring himself to go down with the ship. Even realizing that there were only enough lifeboats for a fraction of the passengers to use, he weaseled his way onto a lifeboat. And the look on his face was perfect: “Yeah, I know I’m a weasel. But I don’t have the courage to die. And if that means I’m a classless bastard, so be it. I’d rather be ugly, truly ugly, then dead.” Again – very realistic.

Is Titanic one of my all-time favorite movies? No. It was too flawed, too Hollywoodish, for that. But few over-the-top Hollywood vehicles have enough going for them to allow me to look past their inadequacies. And Titanic is definitely in that category.

I forgot how old I was when I started to resent the concept of cool. But I remember that it was one of the most liberating feelings I ever had. And then it hit me: what cool really means is to not give a damn about what others think is beautiful. The sooner you do that, the easier it is to open your eyes to beauty … and enlightenment.

Friday, November 24, 2006


Recently, I slipped while running on the wet grass and strained a calf muscle. As that happened on a Saturday afternoon, I had nothing to do that evening but ice my leg and watch the idiot box. Flipping the channels, I came across a movie that I refused to see in the theatre. Its reviews were pretty good, but it was nevertheless portrayed as a mindless – if stylized – portrait of ceaseless violence. And it wasn’t just violent; it was a tribute to those God-forsaken kung fu movies that I have come simply to loathe.

But the movie was the product of Quentin Tarantino. So I watched and recorded it. And now it finds itself in my relatively short list of movie obsessions.

I’m not saying the Kill Bill movies – which are really one movie that was released in two parts -- should go down in history as among Hollywood’s finest. But I did realize when I watched them how much I appreciate the genre, and how few movie makers have been able to master it. No, I’m not talking about the kung fu genre, which continues to bore me. (I love athletic competitions – violent or otherwise – but only if they’re unscripted. The idea of choreographed sports is, to me, an oxymoron.) The genre that I have in mind was mastered by the great Stanley Kubrick. And Tarantino, I’m now convinced, is one of Kubrick’s only true disciples.

Kubrick’s three masterpieces – A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Dr. Strangelove – set the standard that I have in mind. All the films are hysterical, even though only the third is generally touted as a comedy. All the films are brilliantly acted, which they’d have to be, given that Kubrick would keep the actors around for take after take after bloody take until they finally created the precise scene that he had in mind. But above all, what makes these films are their characters. Whether we’re talking about a young punk (Little Alex), a narcissistic computer (Hal), or a deranged scientist (Dr. Strangelove), Kubrick gave us a singular portrait of both excellence and depravity at their highest extremes. Somehow, god and demon found themselves combined in the same organism – or, in Hal’s case, in the same computer.

Excellence, you ask? Consider each of the above characters. Little Alex, the central character of A Clockwork Orange, was more than just a sadist who would beat up old hobos and rape women while forcing their husbands to watch. He was an extremely disciplined fighter, a lover of music at its highest levels, a master of the Queen’s English, and a dashing charmer – at least when he wanted to be. Hal? Sure, he, or should I say, “it,” was a cold-blooded murderer that took itself way too seriously. But the downfall of this “ultimate computer” was the fact that it had become such an amazing machine that it ultimately figured out how to develop emotions of its own – including the deadliest of all, pride.

Then there’s the good Dr. Strangelove. OK – he’s probably responsible for the destruction of all sentient life on planet Earth. (I’m speculating there, but once the bomb blew up the USSR, and they retaliated, and we retaliated, and then some Russian satellite retaliated … you get the picture.) But remember: he was a brilliant scientist who had the ears of the President of the United States. He also had the supreme chutzpah to posit that despite being deformed in his eyes, legs and arms, he possessed sufficient mental power to merit the job of breeding with five or ten of America’s most beautiful women, all in the name of eugenics. If only we all had such an exalted opinion of ourselves.

The moviegoer leaves a Kubrick flick overwhelmed by the power of the characters, the acting, the visuals, the music, the jokes, you name it. Everywhere you looked, you saw and heard evil and insanity. And yet the genius and humanity of the very sources of evil and insanity were equally apparent. Kubrick’s characters are always morally ambiguous – victims as well as perpetrators, lovers as well as haters. But they’re not ambiguous because they’re full of grey. They’re in fact vivid contrasts of black and white in their starkest possible contrast.

Thought provoking? Perhaps not. But Kubrick movies aren’t about thoughts or concepts. They’re about visions and sounds. They’re about portraits – persons painted in multiple conflicting ways. And above all, they’re about the potential of every living person to reach the highest pinnacles of excellence, or descend to the deepest circles of Hell. Each of us has that power. Just consult your id, and you might see it for yourself.

I enjoy the fact that my favorite movie director, Kubrick, and my favorite rock singer, Mick Jagger, shared the same birthday – July 26th. They also share the fact that neither appears to be capable of generating any more great art; Kubrick happens to be dead, and Jagger … well, if any of you heard him sing at the Super Bowl a couple of years ago, you know what I’m talking about. But just as rock n’ roll had to continue even after the Stones and Beatles stopped generating classics, so too must the genre Kubrick mastered. For a while, I couldn’t tell if anyone would pick up the mantle. Now, I have to give the nod to Tarantino.

I wouldn’t deny for a second that Tarantino’s movies lack the depth of Kubrick’s. It’s also surely true that he refuses to take on the same grandiose themes as Kubrick. Kubrick made movies about the savagery of war, the centrality of free will to human morality, the dangers of technology; Tarantino makes movies about violence, violence, and more violence. No doubt, Kubrick was far and away more intellectual than his disciple. But in this genre, great themes aren’t necessary. What is necessary is a gift for dialogue, a sensibility for music, a heck of a sense of humor, and above all else, a commitment to characters who blow us away with their sharp internal contrasts.

I could go on and talk about the characters of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill in the same degree of detail as the great Kubrick characters, but I won’t. Tarantino’s characters aren’t nearly as compelling. And yet nor are they forgettable. In each case, you find yourself sympathizing with them. Their humanity is readily apparent. So are their talents. Then again, so is their depravity. Tarantino paints these characters, as Kubrick did before him, in a manner that makes them almost seem realistic. That, of course, is the key. They are both icons and lunatics, but ultimately, they are human. I cannot help but find them captivating.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


It must be so easy to write op-eds for a living. Because when you finish your piece, you send it to your editor, and … voila … your work is published. By contrast, when you’re writing blogs on the side – meaning when you’re not doing your day job or your main avocation (novel writing) – you can’t afford to post on the same day you write. So you write a bunch at a time, then store them … like Joseph from the Bible stored grain.

Well, this practice finally came back to bite me yesterday. Attached, I will show the blog post that I wrote yesterday, November 20th. Then, I will supplement my post with some fresh material.

November 20th Blog Post --

Like everyone else, I was amazed at the chutzpah at one Orenthal James Simpson for the idea that he can (a) murder his ex-wife, (b) create a new meaning for the phrase “your waiter will be with you shortly,” and then (c) write a book explaining how he committed the two murders … if it is assumed that he really did commit the murders … and then got away with it. What didn’t amaze me is that given OJ’s willingness to write the book – an act of depravity that would make Charley Manson jealous –a mainstream TV network would be willing to hype its publication.

But isn’t it particularly delicious that the network happens to be Fox News?

That’s right. The “conservative” network, the one that caters to the family values set, has decided to run a two part interview with everyone’s favorite killer-confessor-halfback-escape artist. This is the same network whose talking heads couldn’t handle Murphy Brown having a baby out of wedlock. But apparently they can handle giving tons of free publicity to a man who wants to be rewarded, and rewarded handsomely, for brutally ending the lives of two innocent young adults. No doubt, the network has a rationalization; I’m just not sure I have the time to hear it.

That the OJ “confession” – to quote his publi$her – is coming out now may seem like innocuous timing to most, but to me, it is a grim reminder of the hurdles that I personally face as an author. I expect that his magical publicity tour will take wing right at around the time that I begin the process of doing book talks/signings in the D.C. area for my own book. In my case, though, there’s no publicist willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on publicity, let alone a TV network preparing a two-part interview to discuss the book. In other words, there are books, and there are Books. And for reasons that can’t possibly have anything to do with literary quality, OJ’s is about to go to the head of the class.

Each of you must decide for yourselves whether it’s appropriate to tune in to OJ’s interview or read his prose. But consider this: to stay away, even if you’re curious, sends a message to the publishing industry and to the “fair and balanced” TV network: those who control the publishing, distributing and marketing of literature have a sacred trust to consider values other than the almighty dollar. This can be taken both in the sense of fostering virtue (which was what I had in mind when I wrote a novel about education, politics and religion) and in refraining from encouraging vice (e.g., pay a man handsomely to describe how he got away with multiple murders).

Personally, even if I weren’t an author, I’d feel duty bound to avoid paying attention to OJ’s latest venture. Given that I do write, I am doubly passionate about the issue.

For those of you who are looking for an alternative to the twisted crap that Fox News apparently views as “literature,” my first D.C. area book talk will be at Olsson’s Books and Records, 418 7th St., N.W., at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, November 28th. That’s a couple of blocks south of the Gallery Place Metro stop, between D & E Streets, right smack in the heart of downtown Washington. Even if you don’t live in the D.C. area, if you know people who like to read, please let them know. I can’t promise that The Creed Room will satisfy their passion for depravity. But it might provide an example of how school teachers can inspire their students, how a divided society can unify on behalf of important political objectives, how the modern soul can fall in love with “God” without deluding ourselves, and how a romantic person can identify his or her soul mate.

I know, I know. That kind of junk won’t sell. People told me when I started to write it that I would never even get it published. They were wrong, but perhaps they knew more than I did. It’s one thing to get a book published, it’s something else to create a work of literature that is well known throughout the land. To do that, at least in this society,

you need lots of luck … that and a knife and some gloves.

November 21st Blog Post –

Wouldn’t you know it? Fox came to its senses. OJ might still get to share his story with the world, but it won’t be care of Fox. And do you know the “hero” in all this? Mr. William O’Reilly. That’s right, every liberal’s favorite neutral talk-show host put his foot down. No, he didn’t threaten to leave the network – where would else he go? Goebbels’ propaganda ministry is no longer hiring – but he did threaten to boycott Fox’s interview with OJ as well as all companies that advertised on it.

Honestly folks, you’ve got to give O’Reilly some credit for that one. He took a stand against the hypocrisy of Fox News. Good for him. It might be a stand on a narrow issue, but at least it’s a start.

People like me love to note the hypocrisy of the religious right. We love to laugh at the idea that people who don’t care about universal health care can be “pro life,” people who don’t care about economic equity can be disciples of Jesus, or people who leave their spouses on their death beads can be supporters of “family values,” etc. But in this one situation, we have to applaud the rank-and-file right for taking a principled stand in favor of the values they claim to uphold.

I still won’t defend Murdoch and his company. Clearly, those executives willing to go ahead with this disgusting idea until they experienced a sharp backlash. They were dealing with this issue from the type of bottom-line standpoint that I discussed in my post from yesterday. But the reaction they received gives me hope that someday, in the not so distant future, cultural conservatives and liberals can find some common ground on an issue with a whole lot more importance than the publishing aspirations of OJ Simpson.

I’ve always thought that “values voters” on the left and right have a lot more in common than they currently admit. Perhaps, with the encouragement of political leaders who are genuine students of moral and religious philosophy, spiritual leaders of all stripes can come together in some sort of ecumenical summit. At that summit, they can address the issues that divide the religious left (I'm including secular humanism as a religion) from the religious right, as well as ways to bridge that gap. Perhaps such an endeavor would prove a waste of time; then again, perhaps it would spark a few deep areas of agreement.

We once had a civil war that was quite hot and bloody, and lately we’ve been living through a civil war that's bloodless and cold. Thankfully, Lincoln steered us past our first civil war. I pray that, soon enough, other politicians will steer us past our second.