Thursday, August 31, 2006

SNELLVILLE AND THE STONES

Thank God for the summertime. On top of its other assets – swimming at the beach, pennant races, breaks from multiple-choice exams – it’s a time when Americans rediscover life away from the idiot box. When the weather gets colder, certain habits come back to arrest our development. I’m thinking for the moment about one growing tradition in which record numbers of Americans huddle in front of a television and prop up a group of monosyllabic entertainers who routinely do violence to our aesthetic sensibilities. No, I’m not talking about the National Football League. (I’m in on that addiction, remember?) I’m referring to American Idol.

I live in a household that actually watches that show. Both my daughters have considered voting; one may even have done it. And while I wouldn’t exactly call my wife a Claymate, the fact remains that she has actually purchased a Clay Aiken CD. I kid you not. Finding it in the house was a shock – I might have preferred coming upon a gram of cocaine. Listening to Aiken won’t give you nosebleeds, but cocaine (at least in small doses) probably isn’t as toxic to your brain.

I like to confuse Clay’s name with another great American Icon, “Clay Henry” – otherwise known as “Jared Lite.” You remember: “Clay Henry, Clay Henry. He got real big on burgers and fries, but now he’s down to a smaller size.” As far as I’m concerned, Henry’s one-minute commercials for a fast food chain have offered the American music lover every bit as much quality as Aiken. And I also enjoy stumbling around with the name of Fantasia Burrito, or however that’s spelled, the 19 or 20 year old bellower who actually won the Cup, or the Trophy, or whatever item goes to the winner of that competition – other than the right to cause really insipid music to be played on radio stations all over America.

But my favorite Idol – or, to be more accurate, Idol Runner-Up – is none other than Diana DeGarmo. She came onto the scene as a wide eyed 16-year-old ingĂ©nue from the metropolis of Snellville, Georgia. And she gosh darn almost won the whole shebang. I can just see Yakov Smirnov raising a glass to our land of opportunity, or perhaps that other quintessential American success story, Don King. Here we found a young girl with no noticeable soul, no apparent intelligence, no special beauty, no talent of any kind – other than spunk and a strong set of pipes – and yet millions of us watched her come one Burrito away from being crowned Queen for a Year in God’s own country, these United States of America. I’m telling you, God himself had a hand in making that child a star – for clearly, someone was tampering with the laws of nature. In no way, shape or form, were we witnessing the survival of the fittest.

My favorite indictment of American Idol is to ask people to consider who would win the thing if we could enter a time capsule, bring back in their prime every pop singer who’s ever lived, and then watched them compete in front of Randy, Simon and Paula. Personally, I’d like to vote for people like Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, or Bruce Springsteen. And as for women, I’d vote for someone like Janis Joplin or Carol King. You know, people with real talent – singers who put soul into their music and were associated with great songs, most of which they wrote themselves and performed with a sensibility that only the songwriter can fully appreciate. But you know that those guys and gals would be smoked. The winner, I predict, would be that great songwriter, Whitney Houston. Or maybe that other great songwriter, Linda Ronstadt.

What? You mean Houston and Ronstadt didn’t write their own songs? You mean those unbelievably classic performances were covers?

Wait a minute. I forgot for a moment that I’ve never cared for Whitney Houston. Or Linda Ronstadt. In fact, I never cared much for any pop singer who had little hand in the writing process. I don’t just want to hear pipes – if I wanted that, I’d convert to Catholicism and get my music from cathedral organs. I want to hear soul. I want to hear intelligence. I want to hear that the song is being sung by someone who can evoke what it really means to fall in love or to be rejected in love, because they’ve experienced it themselves. Just as importantly, I want to hear that the song is being sung by someone who’s spent time introspecting, who has gathered a little learning, and who has become adept at creating images that tug at both our minds and our emotions. Perhaps that can be said for Houston or Ronstadt. Then again, perhaps not. I sincerely doubt it could be said for DeGarmo.

The point of this rant is not to take shots at a 16-year-old girl from a small town. DeGarmo did just what she was asked to do: sing her little heart out. She should be applauded for having the guts to do that week after week in front of millions of people. And whether or not you like her music, she’s done nothing to disgrace herself, her family, or the town of Snellville (whose entire population would periodically disrupt phone services by voting for her as often as a Chicago Alderman under Mayor Daley).

My problem isn’t with DeGarmo, but the concept of American Idol. From a marketing standpoint, it’s genius. Give America a crop of teenagers and 20-somethings they can relate to. Not all of us write music, but we all sure sing, at least in the shower. So let’s create a competition where the whole point is to show spunk, confidence and a good voice. Depth? Irrelevant. Writing skills? Purely trivial. Soul? Well let’s put it this way: that will be judged by people like Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul. Two morons and a prick. Those are your judges of soul.

My suggestion for the people at Fox is that if they ever stopped caring about the bottom line and started considering aesthetic quality, they would make American Idol a competition for singer-songwriters. Then, you might actually find a group of people you’d consider seeing in concert. That’s right – that’s the kind of competition in which a young Bob Dylan wouldn’t have been laughed off the stage. Or a young Bruuuuuuce Springsteen. Or even a young Mick Jagger. Mick is no dummy, you know. He was schooled in the prestigious London School of Economics. It just so happens that he recognized that he had a greater gift than drawing supply and demand curves. He had a gift of conveying moods through song – the moods were as often savage as they were romantic, but they were always moods we could understand and, for better or worse, relate to. And thanks to his buddy Keith, who truly had soul, he was able to give us music more powerful than anything you could ever hear from a Whitney Houston album, no matter how strong her pipes might be.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

AN ADOPTION ABORTED

Like many people, I have a warm spot in my heart for adoptions. I have a niece who’s adopted and a godchild who’s adopted. A large fraction of my friends have adopted children. And despite the fact that I know better than to have any more kids, I even wonder from time to time about what it would be like to adopt a kid of my own.

I especially appreciate seeing gay people adopt. It’s not that they’re better parents than anyone else. Most of us stink at parenting – gay or straight. It’s just that I enjoy almost any conduct that gives the finger to those who have misread the Declaration of Independence. I feel quite comfortable in assuming that if Jefferson were alive today – not Jefferson the plantation squire, but Jefferson the statesman – he’d favor same-sex adoptions. And speaking of sex, that’s the only downside of adoptions: there’s no period of time when your spouse feels compelled to have sex with you just because of the need for a child. Too bad for adopting fathers.

It was this time last year when adoptions were on everyone’s mind. We weren’t talking, though, about adopting a baby. We were talking about adopting a city.

That’s right, this time last year, America sat in horror as we watched a city known for French chefs, jazz musicians and visiting hedonists turn into a spectacle of floating bodies and fecal liquid. Now I’m not going to go through the whole Megillah of Brownie bashing again. That’s too easy – as easy as shooting crawfish in a barrel. I want to talk about something else: our initial impulse to adopt the city, and our ultimate decision to forget all about it and go back to the apathy from whence we came.

After the horrors of the first week or two, I actually became intrigued by the prospect that we were assuming responsibility for a whole city of poor Americans. Remember all the empathy that disaster created? Remember the President’s speech when he pledged so much assistance? Remember the talking heads on TV predicting that we’d be throwing gobs of money at the problem? There would obviously be a lot of waste, I thought, but there would also be a great opportunity for us to learn which anti-poverty measures worked and which ones didn’t, and to replicate elsewhere all the lessons we learned. In other words, the New Orleans poor would be guinea pigs, but I saw that as a large step up from being orphans.

For the first time in decades, Americans were coming to grips with the fact that poor people live right here on these shores -- that poverty isn’t the sole province of Africans like South Park’s Starvin’ Marvin. It’s sad that people were so clueless, but wisdom comes better late than never. And what was particularly fascinating was that even though we quickly became aware of the enormity of our poverty problem, we seemed determined to solve it – at least in New Orleans. We also had to face one of the great truths about widespread poverty: that the private sector can’t solve it alone. The poor souls trapped in or around the Big Easy might not share the skin color of the guys who, for example, give out the trophies at the PGA Championship, but everyone agreed that they were victims of a great American tragedy and merited our help. More to the point, we understood that we could take the combined charitable contributions of every scratch golfer in America, and it still wouldn’t be enough to give these people the money they needed to enjoy the American dream. Only public support could do that. A New New Deal of sorts. A return to FDR.

Well, it never materialized. And the opportunity has now slipped away.

Recently, amidst all the stories about a city that remains neglected, I noticed that a bunch of the Katrina victims have descended upon Houston, thereby causing the crime rate in that city to increase materially. I can just see some of the law-abiding people of Houston shaking their heads, wondering if these people have any shame.

I suspect they do. The criminal life is indeed a shameful one. And justice requires that we catch the criminals and punish them for their acts. But then again, criminals don’t have a monopoly on shame. It’s shameful for the rest of us to live in a country and a world that combines massive affluence with massive poverty.

I was raised in a culture in which the holy books tell us not only that justice is a fundamental good, but also that it means the same thing as charity – as in, without the latter there can be none of the former. That teaching has always rung true to me. It also seems like an ideal that we love to enunciate but find oh so difficult to honor in practice.

The truth is that there never was any better reason to adopt New Orleans than Detroit, Camden or Watts. These places are all more or less the same: filled with people who ultimately aren’t very different from you and me, and who need our compassion, our attention and a fair bit of our resources. People love to talk about the need to clean up the crime in these city, and well they should, but where is our charity? Where is our concern? Where are our programmatic measures to help them help themselves break away from the flood plains and tenements?

Victims of Katrina might have thought they’d be treated differently than other poor Americans. Maybe they believed the promises, much like the orphan who always trusts that the next bright-eyed couple they meet will be their new mom and dad. The reality is, though, that it’s going to take a lot more than a storm to cause our Congress to throw big dollars at any group of Americans – other than the very rich. But at least Katrina accomplished something important. No longer can anyone think of poverty as the exclusive province of the “third world.” Clearly, it’s part of our own national heritage, just like the Mardi Gras and jazz.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

TWO PEAS IN A POD

I rarely see them linked any more, even though they have similar nicknames. In fact, to many people they’re essence is defined by those nicknames. Like “Madonna,” and “Tiger” and “Elvis,” you needn’t mention their last names. Everyone knows who you’re talking about.

The two luminaries I have in mind are associated with the monikers of Slick Willie and Tricky Dick. They are so named because their numerous enemies knew them best for their ability to deceive. Yet they were also two-term Presidents, or at least they were elected to two terms. One was impeached but never had to leave. The other was never impeached but was forced to resign. One was done in by sex, the other by audio-tape, but both were widely associated with lies.

The problem is, few people understand their greatest lies of all: that Clinton was a Democrat, and Nixon a Republican.

Perhaps I am making a faulty assumption here that Democrats are liberals (or at least liberal moderates) and Republicans are conservatives. Clinton certainly would have avoided using the word “liberal” for himself, and yet he encouraged liberals to get the impression that he was one of them. This was the man who loved to hype his commitment to diversity, and who’s ostensibly libertine spirit was evidenced by getting on national TV and telling us whether he uses boxers or briefs. No self respecting conservative would ever make his crotch a campaign issue.

The rank-in-file liberals came to love Slick Willie and hate Tricky Dick, but liberals in the know understood the irony of these attitudes. Consider the recently published words of Paul Krugman, arguably the pre-eminent liberal columnist today. “[I]n practice, Mr. Clinton governed well to the right of both Eisenhower and Nixon.”

If that truth were known, it would have embarrassed both Clinton and Nixon. For they knew where their bread was buttered. Nixon was a darling of the conservatives. And Clinton was so clearly accepted by the liberals that he stopped having to court their support, for he knew that support could be counted on. The question is, why?

Let’s start with Tricky Dick. Yes, the man began his career as a Red Baiter, and continued in the White House to govern as a bigot, with one of his final targets being the Jews. For those reasons alone, I can’t stand the guy. And yet … here was a man whose foreign policy was every bit as progressive as the Democrats who preceded him and followed him. (He did go to China, remember?) And here was a man whose economic policies indicated that he actually gave a damn about economic equity, the sine qua non of American liberalism.

President Nixon increased spending on social security and poverty programs. He also supported affirmative action and even invented the EPA. Now how again was this guy a conservative?

By contrast, Clinton – beloved friend of Streisand and other Hollywood lefties – presided over an economy that Klugman has termed the “New Gilded Age.” Manufacturing wages adjusted for inflation remains basically stagnant, whereas incomes of the richest Americans have gone through the roof. As for the poor, perhaps Clinton’s signature achievement is welfare reform. Unfortunately, his reforms have hardly been a Godsend for the poor. Yes, under Clinton, many poor people have left the welfare rolls, but they have hardly found the government support necessary to enjoy a livable wage. Liberal welfare reform doesn’t just make it harder for able-bodied schnorrers to stay on the dole. Liberal welfare reform combines that goal with a massive commitment to job training, increased educational opportunities, minimum wage increases, and massive expenditures to combat the scourge of mental illness. In short, liberal welfare reform reflects the waging of a war against poverty, which includes reducing dependency on government handouts but is hardly limited to it.

President Clinton vigorously supported capital punishment. By contrast, he never announced support for gay marriage. Yes, he was a supporter of affirmative action and the value of diversity, but that appears to be among the very few issues on which he could legitimately be called a liberal. In most respects, Clinton was a true conservative – not a reactionary, but a conservative. (The Clinton health care reform proposal was a “liberal” measure, but it was so clumsily handled as to hardly merit a mention in his list of accomplishments.) Liberals who see him as one of their own might take a closer look at Nixon if they’re looking for a progressive role model in their recent past.

Why am I so irked by Slick Willie’s ability to make liberals think of him as a fellow traveler? In part, it’s because I was drawn in myself, back before he came to the White House in 1992. But there’s a deeper reason. I find it shocking that liberal politicians are afraid to announce their true beliefs about hot button issues. “We don’t dare support gay marriage,” their handlers say, “’cause the right wingers would use that to wake up apathetic voters.” As a result, politicians after Clinton – as illustrated in the subsequent Presidential elections – necessarily come across as phonies who don’t really have a coherent vision of public policy. As a result, when the American electorate looks into their souls, they determine that the GOP candidates are more real and honest. So even though the Democrats “agree with the people on the issues,” the Republicans get elected to run the country.

Clinton was such a conservative that, according to public opinion polls, virtually every one of his views was embraced by the majority of Americans. Does that sound like a leader to you, or does that sound like an opportunistic follower? The fact is that Slick Willie may indeed be a liberal, or then again, he might be a conservative. We really have no basis for knowing. All we can say for sure is that he was a politician. And in the era after Tricky Dick and his minions changed the political culture of Washington, a “politician” is allowed to mislead every bit as much as a poker player. The only difference is that the poker player only wants your money, whereas the politician also wants your support. What do you say that going forward, we extend that to someone who tells us what they really mean, and why?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Loyal to a Fault

The older I get, the more fascinated I am by the concept of loyalty. I used to think of it in unambiguously glowing terms. Now, though, I see it as a double edged sword. To be more specific, loyalty is like any classical virtue: it only has value in moderation.

All children first learn about loyalty through their role as a family member. I, for example, come from a stable, successful Jewish family – meaning that my parents fought all the time but stayed together anyway. To be loyal entailed being committed to the family unit above all else. My parents could have taken up chair throwing, sword fighting, pistol dueling, ticket splitting, anything. It wouldn’t matter. Despite their differences, they always had to be loyal to the Spiro household. They had to vow that nothing could ever end our voyage together, for in a very deep sense we were all extensions of each other’s selves. A divorce wouldn’t simply be disloyal; it would be a mild form of suicide.

I still value loyalty inside a family. A decent human being must be loyal to his parents, spouse, and children. We must also be loyal to our dogs, for God knows we demand infinite loyalty in return. But what about outside the family? How much loyalty should we extend to our friends? Or our bosses/subordinates in the office? Or our nation? Or our community of faith? At what point does loyalty turn into an Achilles Heel, one that prevents us from following the voice of reason? Surely, we can imagine that inner voice whispering to us that our friends are misguided, our nation is embarrassing itself, and our religion is hooked on antiquated ideas that no longer speak to the modern intellect.

Consider our present leaders. We’ve spent the last 3 ½ years engaged in a war that by all measures has gone poorly. People debate whether it made sense to get into the war in the first place, but nobody debates that it was executed horribly. And yet how many heads have rolled? Has anyone been held accountable for this huge boil on the butt of our nation’s reputation? The answer, of course, is no. And the explanation is that the President, by every account, is completely loyal. Loyal to his family. Loyal to his friends. He’s so loyal, in fact, that he would no more consider dismissing his Secretary of Defense than my leftist mother would have considered leaving my dad for Joseph McCarthy.

In the case of my parents, their loyalty had the consequence of 58 years of relentless disputes. In the case of the President, his loyalty has the consequence of several years of relentless questioning by his own electorate. They want to know that he recognizes his mistakes, learns from them, and won’t let them happen again. But he has responded, in essence, that loyal people don’t “cut and run” -- they “stay the course” and they sure don’t get rid of true friends who serve at their sides. If that means that their approval ratings drop faster than a hooker’s panties, so be it. Loyalty uber ralles!

For him, maybe. But not for me. With each passing decade, the pathos of excessive loyalty becomes clearer and clearer. Loyalty might be the characteristic virtue of a dog or a besieged politician, but for a student of philosophy, it is a noose. And I’m sick of it.

Or at least I’d like to be man enough to be a little less loyal, and a little more open. That’s where enlightenment lies.

Plato said it best. The businessmen and politicians whose lives are obsessed with minutia are like troglodytes analyzing shadows on a cave wall. With every waking minute, they show loyalty to their own cave, and to all their contemporaries and ancestors who have mastered the analysis of their own cave wall. Plato’s philosophers, by contrast, left the cave and looked at the trees and the sky on a bright sunny day. They knew not where they were headed or what they would see; for all they knew, they’d be blinded. Their loyalties would be of little use to them, as they were in uncharted territory. Then again, that was the only territory fit for a free, intelligent human being.

The words I heard in an Israeli yeshiva still ring in my ears: “If you open your mind too much, your brains will fall out.” Such is the refrain of any traditional, organized religion. You can walk outside the cave and look at the sun, they might say, but every night – or at least every Shabbat – you must return to the cave, and that is where you will find your ultimate nourishment. You must be loyal to your ancestors (it’s their miracles that you must accept, not the gentiles’ miracles), to the teachings you have learned about since childhood, and most importantly, to the Great Fabricator – the Heavenly God who created us lovingly and wisely in the same way that Rembrandt painted the Night Watch.

Funny, but the older I get, the more I have come to find Patriarchs who weren’t mentioned in the Bible. People like Spinoza, Jefferson, Goethe, Nietzsche, and Einstein all came from the same heretical tradition. None accepted the Biblical conception of God. And yet none were willing to dispense with the need to exalt in spiritual bliss. All of these thinkers venerated life and its unity. All of them maintained an appreciation for the holiness of planet earth. And it was precisely this earth, rather than some theoretical “heaven” that they lived to see perfected and beautified by the fruits of their own powerful minds.

Call them followers of a religion. A religion of immanence. Not one focused primarily on transcendence. Not one that talks about God in heaven who arbitrarily decides when to honor the laws of nature and when to cast them aside for “His” own inscrutable purposes.

Can a Jew join such thinkers and still remain loyal to his own faith? Can a Christian? How people answer these questions will say much about the durability of these religions in upcoming centuries. For surely, our philosophies will evolve, just as our scientific ideas evolve, but what about our religions? I’m optimistic that the great religions are flexible enough to indeed change with the times. But that assumes that when our children enter houses of worship, they’re encouraged to check their loyalties at the door.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

LARGER THAN LIFE

My family recently got back from the most low-brow vacation imaginable. No exaggeration. This was even less ambitious than a trip to the beach – at least there you might read a few books. This was more like a trip to a sand box. And I was playing the role of the grade-school-aged big brother.

Our destination was the Twin Cities, or at least that’s where we told everyone we were going. But that part of the trip was hardly the highlight. I confess that we did have a very nice time seeing friends who own a frozen custard shop in Minneapolis – Liberty Frozen Custard is its name, and next time you head up to the north pole and want to take a pit stop, check it out. (Actually they do a great job, jokes aside.)

We spent a fair amount of time at Liberty -- my daughter Hannah had a couple of gigs there. But this vacation wasn’t about the arts, it was about sports. Lots and lots of sports. I realized when the trip was over that without sports, I become way too much of an adult. And I don’t want to be an adult; it’s highly overrated.

First of all, we went to a state-of-the-art putting course. The first time was my idea, but the second and third times were definitely the choice of my daughters. We also went to the Metrodome to see my Twins get shut out. I certainly preferred the putting to that.

The vacation’s piece de resistance had nothing to do with baseball or golf. Nor did it involve the roughly $400 we spent on sports memorabilia – including five jerseys, three sweaters, and a bunch of other knickknacks that you’d have to see to believe. (That amount may not sound like that much to you, but to a guy like me who drives around in a 1991 Honda without a working radio or CD player, believe me, it’s a lot of money.) Anyway, most of that happened in the Twin Cities, and like I said, the real eye-opener of this vacation took place well away from any urban area. I’m referring instead to beautiful Mankato, Minnesota -- home of the Minnesota Vikings Training Camp.

The first day at Mankato, my whole family went. We left the Twin Cities around 9:30 and reached Training Camp by 11. Most of the next hour was spent waiting in lines for autographs. Some of the guys looked like normal human beings, but others looked like giants. We were fortunate to have arrived on Offensive Lineman day – meaning that the players signing autographs were all 300 pounds or more. Even the Jewish Viking, Mike Rosenthal, measured about 6’7”, 310 pounds. Wouldn’t you know, my daughter Rebecca, who wants to be a rabbi, wanted Rosey’s autograph more than anyone else’s? Sure he rides the pine, sure he might not even make the team, but she didn’t care. His name was Mike Rosenthal and he’s 6’7” 310. You don’t see many people like that at synagogue.

After we got some autographs, grabbed a bite, and shopped for more Vikings memorabilia, we finally made it over to the afternoon practice. My wife and older daughter took off to find some shade. That allowed Rebecca and me to sit alone in the bleachers and watch a bunch of men we didn’t know play pitch and catch for a couple of hours. I thought it was kind of a strange way to spend a day, but I was glad I came. I only hoped that the others had fun.

Apparently, one of them did. The next morning, Rebecca had a request. She really, really wanted to go back later that week and get more autographs. “Yes!” I thought to myself. Another ridiculous, moronic day in Mankato. Exactly what I wanted. I especially wanted to get there early enough to see the players put on pads and hit each other.

Three days later, Rebecca and I were on the road again, and this time we were alone. We left early enough in the morning to see a real practice – one where the players weren’t just running around, but were allowed to make tackles. After the practice was over, we tried to get autographs again. I went in one line and got a football signed by the quarterback of the future (the rookie, Tavaris Jackson). Rebecca got in another line and tried to get her jersey signed by the QB of the present (Brad Johnson), only she was too late – apparently, you had to wait for an hour to get his signature.

Rebecca was crushed, but I knew how to lift her spirits. We went and stood with other fans behind a fence near the bicycles that the Vikes use to go from their locker room to their dorms. There, one player after another came out and signed for us – jerseys, footballs, you name it. By the time we left, our football was covered with signatures, and Rebecca’s jersey was signed by some players as well. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her so happy. And the strangest thing was that I was nearly as happy as she was -- not just because they signed their autographs for my daughter, but because they signed their autographs for me.

What the heck is up with all this adulation? Who are these people? Some of them are drunk drivers, some are wife beaters. Others have trouble speaking intelligibly. Then again, a pro football team also has players who are extremely intelligent, and who are just as tough as they are smart. I’m tempted to say that I was especially impressed by the latter group, but that would be a lie. When you’re standing by a fence waiting for an autograph, the last thing you’re thinking about is the character or the intelligence of the players. Candidly, you’re not thinking all that much about the differences in their skills either. Mostly, your thinking about what they have in common: they’re all amazing physical specimens, and they all wear the Vikings uniform. Ultimately, it’s the uniform that matters. Put that on, and you become almost like a super hero. You become larger than life in the minds of the children – and the adult children – who follow your sport like a religion.

Periodically, I run into people who laugh at the whole notion of spectator sports. It seems so silly, so pathetic to them that grown men and women spend hours of their week watching other people play with little round objects. Now playing sports, that’s one thing. That requires fitness, athletic skills, even courage. But watching? Any loser can do that.

True. But perhaps that’s the beauty of it all.

While I’ve always viscerally appreciated that sports fanaticism is a wholesome activity, it wasn’t until I spent my second day in Mankato that I understood why. The sports fanatic may not be a Buddhist, but whether he’s watching his team play, practice, or simply take the field, he’s enjoying a near ego-less experience. The true sports fan joins in a loving venture with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other “losers.” And we become almost like the Borg, only with emotions – empathizing with one another, experiencing the same agonies and ecstasies, and hoping for the same results. The world can be a lonely place, but sports fanatics are never lonely, at least not when they’re interacting with fellow fanatics, or getting autographs signed by those honored few who wear the beloved uniforms.

Rebecca was happy enough just getting autographs. But your humble narrator likes to talk a lot – so to feel completely at peace, I felt compelled to say a few words to the players and ask them questions. Guess what? They were regular guys. They smiled. They laughed. They even appreciated the honor bestowed on them by their fans. They felt honored, and I felt connected. How uplifting it was to the spirit.

For a few hours, I realized what I had been missing for the bulk of my 46 years. I had grown up way too fast. Kids, you see, appreciate the value of being connected, and of idolizing people who – deep down – even the kids know are really just like everyone else. Kids understand that such “idolatry” is nothing more than wanting to honor and empathize, and appreciate a job well done. Kids don’t worry about how stupid it makes them look when they extend those courtesies. Usually, no adult is around to remind them that they’re acting like idiots.

In some ways, I still prefer dogs to children. But at least my respect for kids – and for the kid in me – has increased. I have Mankato to thank for the lesson.

Monday, August 21, 2006

IN SEARCH OF A FRENCHMAN

So let’s say a super being from the Organian star system materialized on earth, came to your house, and told you that he can bring one dead person back to life, but it can’t be someone who died in the recent past and it can’t be a member of your family. “Oh yes,” the Organian added, “it also can’t be a religious figure – that would make the question so easy that even Dan Quayle could answer it. I want you to think before you answer.”

So who would it be for you?

Obviously, I’m supposed to say Spinoza. But don’t kid yourself: that dude is a religious figure. Any man who serves as a moral exemplar and is considered the founder of a beloved philosophy of life is a religious figure. The fact that nobody deifies him only means that the religion he’s associated with – perish the thought – isn’t likely to give rise to fundamentalism … or cost people zillions of dollars in dues. Truly, if I ever meet a fundamentalist Spinozist, I’ll suggest not only that he’s missing the point but that he’d be better off taking a Civil Service Exam and accepting a job as a Deputy Assistant Chief in some kind of bureaucracy.

So I’d better remove from consideration any kind of spiritual leader, my dear departed father, and anyone born recently enough to watch Arlen Specter and Anita Hill talk about perjury and pubic hair. Who, then, do I hope to see resuscitated?

There are a few possibilities – Goethe, for example, is no religious figure. Neither is Jefferson. But I won’t go for them. Perhaps in spite of the right wingers who believe that Paris is somehow less civilized then Lubbock, I’ve got to go French. I’ve got to go with Alexis de Tocqueville.

De Tocqueville came to America in 1831 with the job of investigating our prison system. Like any great mind, however, he failed to stay “on task,” and instead scripted an analysis of our culture that has never again been equaled for its combination of comprehensiveness, objectivity and insight. His book had everything, even an analysis of why democratic nations “incline toward pantheism.” (That realization made the poor Frenchman sad, but it pleases me no end.) But mostly, what it did is describe a young nation that, for de Tocqueville, represented the Platonic form of democracy. The land de Tocqueville described wasn’t the Gilded Age, the age of dire poverty and incredible opulence. Instead, de Tocqueville America was a place of growing equality, where people actively participated in all sorts of organizations – political, charitable, social, you name it – and turned a vast expanse of land into a macrocosm of old Athens (minus the love for philosophy – some things about America never change). According to De Tocqueville, “democratic nations show a more ardent and enduring love of equality than of liberty.” Such was his impression from visiting our American ancestors only a half century after the birth of our nation.

I could go on for pages describing de Tocqueville’s impressions of Jacksonian America. But for the moment, thanks to the Organians, I don’t have to understand my world solely from examining history. I can find a genius from the nation’s past and commission him to explain the present. Here’s my request for de Tocqueville: “Come back to America today, and investigate our prison system. Please!” OK. So I’m not especially interested in our prison system. I want him to do the same number on George Bush’s America that he did for the America of Andrew Jackson. I have my own impressions, but I want to know if I’m right. And I want to hear the talking heads on TV dutifully report on his findings so that the present state of our democracy can become unmasked. And our work can be cut out for us.

I’m betting that de Tocqueville could use a lot of words for our land, but “vibrant democracy” wouldn’t be among them. Nor, obviously, would he be likely to remark that our love for equality continues to exceed our appreciation for liberty. The old Tocqueville described an America that was “restless,” despite its prosperity, and I suspect the resuscitated de Tocqueville would find the same applies today. But are we restless for equality, for charity, for justice? Are we restless in our passion to ensure that our democracy remains healthy, that our would-be plutocrats don’t get too fat and powerful, that our liberties remain available to all, and that we never embarrass ourselves in dealings overseas?

I wonder. But I recognize my biases. I recognize my utopianism. That’s why I want to hear from de Tocqueville. I don’t trust the talking heads on TV to put the basic facts about our society in perspective. We need a profound, objective thinker who’s willing to take on the big questions about our political and economic system and our culture. And then we need to listen to what s/he says. I’m guessing he or she will tell us that we’re plenty restless when it comes to our own material prosperity and the prosperity and status of our own children. But when it comes to the higher ideals of a democracy, perhaps we’ve grown a bit too lazy. And perhaps, the world is starting to take notice of the results.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Confessions of a Recovering Lieberman Lover

I was visiting my in-laws' house in Northeast Indiana when I heard the news that Joseph Lieberman was nominated by my party for Vice President of the United States. The news had me crying tears of joy -- an emotion that I usually reserve for the Twins winning the World Series or the births of my children. But this was a special moment in my life. Here was the incumbent party, the party I expected to emerge victorious, nominating a Jew to be one heartbeat away from the Presidency for the first time in our nation's history. And he wasn't just any Jew. Joe was a religious man who had the chutzpah to stand up and decry the reckless behavior of Bill Clinton when all the other Democrats couldn't forgive Clinton fast enough.
I was with Joe. As a charter member of Clinton's "saxophone club," I felt personally betrayed by his conduct. Triangulation and welfare-reform-without-a-war-on-poverty were bad enough. But the bit with Monica left me no doubt about the betrayal. Clinton took office amidst a sexual scandal, and he all but promised us that he understood the gravity of the situation and would make us proud once he took the helm and lived out his manifest destiny. I trusted that he did indeed "get it" -- the GOP would be watching his every move, and what happened to Gary Hart would never happen to him. Well it did happen; Bill forgot that he needed to live "virtuously," as middle-America defines that term, for eight full years. And then Monica kept the blue dress. So Bill's ability to govern would be stained throughout the remainder of his Presidency.

I was livid. And my frustration was compounded by the fact that on the nightly talk shows, the only people who agreed with me that the stains mattered were members of the GOP. They, and Joe Lieberman.

During Monicagate, Joe Lieberman came across as the platonic form of the earnest, independent politician. He may have agreed with the President on most issues, but he felt morally compelled to speak out against reckless conduct in the White House that can only be defended by an appeal to moral relativism, a notion that any religious Jew can't possibly tolerate. Night after night, Joe's colleagues tried to "triangulate" in their own feeble way, but who was kidding whom. They'd briefly pay lip service to how "what the President did was wrong," and then go on for minute after minute about the vast right wing conspiracy. In short, they did all they can to deflect attention away from the President and toward his detractors. But not Joe. He stood up on the floor of the Senate and told the American public not simply that Clinton let us down, but why what he did mattered. Joe seemed as offended by the situation as I was. He made me proud to call myself a Jew. And I was prouder yet when Joe got the nod to be Al Gore's running mate.

At some point during the election race of 2000, I remember hearing that Lieberman was going to run for re-election for Senate at the same time that he ran for Vice President. I thought that was a little wierd, but it didn't really bother me. Surely, I felt, it wouldn't harm the prospects of the Democratic party in Connecticut to retain that seat, should Gore-Lieberman prove victorious. The only down side was that it might deflect Lieberman's attention marginally from the Presidential race, and at the time, I couldn't possibly have thought that the election would have come down to the margin of one or two hanging chads.

Even after the 2000 election, I was still with Senator Lieberman as he retook his seat on Capitol Hill. Here was a man I wanted to serve our country. Yes, he was more conservative than I was -- or as he might say, more "moderate" -- but that's OK. I liked him because I thought he was principled and we agreed more often than not on the issues. We'd just have to wait for another day -- or another century -- before a relatively liberal Jew was elected to serve in the White House.

Fast forward now to March 2003. The United States was about to go to war with Iraq. And by the eve of war, I had come to despise the planned invasion. That hadn't always been my perspective. I couldn't help but take seriously the threat of militant, fundamentalist Islam, and if the Administration was talking about Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction," who was I to question that? But question it I did, and only a few weeks before the war started, I encountered a Congressman at a friend's funeral and asked the Congressman about the threat from Iraq. He responded that he had looked closely at the matter and was underwhelmed, to say the least. And so, after a bit of reflection, I decided to oppose what appeared to be a war based on questionable grounds. This was far worse than a misdeed involving a blue dress, for now lives were at stake, and I'm not just talking about American lives.

When the war began, Joe Lieberman was hardly alone in the cheering section. Every Tom, Dick and Hillary was on board.

But it wouldn't take long before the cheering ended. Fox News had stopped playing its martial music. "Shock and awe" became a term of humor, rather than pride. And "Mission Accomplished" became the precursor to "Brownie's doing a heck of a job." One after another, Democrats cut and ran from the Bush camp. But not Joe. He's nothing if not steadfast. Despite one horrible report after another from the front, Joe never wavered. "This world is better off without Saddam in power." That's what the President said. That's what Cheney said. That's what Rummy said. And that's what every Republican's favorite Democrat, Joe Lieberman, said.
It made me sick. But that's only because the war made me sick. I didn't lose respect for Lieberman, the man. I simply couldn't stand to listen to Lieberman the messenger.
As the years passed, and even my right-wing friends began criticizing the Administration's strategy in prosecuting the war in Iraq, Lieberman began to throw out some critical words of his own. But they came across as mere lip service -- much like the criticism of Clinton on the part of Lieberman's Democratic colleagues during Monicagate. For the most part, Joe continued to come across as one of the war's most pollyanish cheerleaders. Then, one day, he uttered the famous words that struck me and my fellow war-protesters right between the eyes: "In matters of war, we undermine Presidential credibility at our nation's peril."

No sir. In matters of war, we Democrats protest -- unless the war is one of the exceptional situations where our pacifism must be cast aside, as with World World II, or even with the war in Afghanistan. But Iraq is no exception to the principle that wars are generally not worth fighting. This was indeed a war of choice, a war based on WMDs that never existed and intelligence that was marshalled in the most one-sided matter possible. No sir. When we Democrats protest, we don't undermine Presidential credibility. We affirm the American way of life. We affirm the idea you don't have to worship John Wayne to belong on these shores. We affirm that liberals have a right to breathe American air every bit as much as conservatives.
Truly, Canada is too cold for me. And I'm still pissed off at the Blue Jays for beating my Twins when I went to the Metrodome last week.

Even after he implicitly questioned the patriotism of protest, I never lost respect for Joe Lieberman until he announced that he would seek re-election regardless of whether he triumphed in the Democratic primary. Now, finally, he showed me his true colors. The Democratic party has a historic chance to regain a majority both in the House and the Senate, and the last thing it needs is for a large percentage of party donations to be thrown into a battle royale between two Democrats in a liberal state. But that's exactly what Joe has in mind.

Now, if you ask Democrats what's the most intriguing election in 2006, they'll answer the Lieberman-Lamont tilt. Maybe they'll donate to Joe. Maybe to Ned. But in the big scheme of things, it hardly matters who gets their change. What matters is that their money will not be going to finance battles in other states. That's where the Republicans will be tossing their coins.
Once again, the Democrats's stupidity will decide an election.

As I look at Joe Lieberman today, I don't see earnestness, I see stubborness. I don't see religiosity, I see narcissism. I don't see the hope for a Jewish pioneer. I see the realization that if you're a Jew or a black and you want to gain mainstream popularity, you'd better do it as a conservative or a moderate (for liberals need to look like they've dined all their lives on Wonderbread and mayonnaise -- plus the carcasses that they've killed with their own rifles).
But I digress. What bothers me most about Joe "the Independent" is that he's now asserting that those Democrats who would ask him to accept Lamont as our standard-bearer are trying to turn the Democratic party into a small tent. A tent in which only pinkos and their descendents can enter.

Sorry Joe. Democrats are simply saying that those who supported the horrible war in Iraq over and over again should be accountable for the mistake we believe you made. That's the way democracy should work: you screw up, you find another job.

Joe, if you want a life appointment, and you're willing to fight for one even at the expense of your party, I suggest you get a job with the judiciary system. Then you can become one of a number of judges or justices, rather than the one and only favorite Democrat of Rush Limbaugh.
Sorry. I meant favorite "Independent" of Rush Limbaugh. I'll see you on election day. My fear is that you'll win, and the nation will lose.