Sunday, October 29, 2006

A PHILOSOPHER FOR OUR ERA

As our species’ weapons technology dangerously outstrips our humanity, more and more Americans look for divine intervention. Yet despite this trend, we’re now experiencing a rebirth of interest in a philosopher who denied the existence of a supernatural God. Somehow, this secular sage is emerging as the philosopher of the 21st century.

Baruch Spinoza wasn’t always popular. During his lifetime and for a century after his death in 1677, he was reviled as an “atheist” and heretic. By the late 18th century, however, Novalis praised Spinoza as “a God intoxicated man,” and Goethe called him the ultimate Christian. Bertrand Russell later termed Spinoza “the noblest and most loveable of the great philosophers.”

Spinoza’s notoriety waned during the latter half of the 20th century, but the pendulum has swung back. Since 2003, Spinoza has been the subject of several popular books. Recently, Cornell West and Rebecca Goldstein paid tribute to Spinoza to mark the 350th anniversary of his excommunication by the Amsterdam Jewish community on July 27, 1656. Spinoza is emerging as a lone voice of reason and universalism in a hostile and divided world.

Spinoza’s philosophy begins with God and the notion that God must be understood through logic and intuition, not revelation. Spinoza’s God refers to nature generally, and particularly its eternal and infinite dimensions. He applied no limits to God and saw all of nature as being in God, not as sculpted from the outside. Scoffing at the idea that people are made in the image of the Biblical God, when the truth is just the opposite, Spinoza wrote that if we were triangles, our God would be triangular.

Combine Spinoza’s religious views with his essentially Jeffersonian politics and you’ll find an antidote to the fundamentalism threatening our planet. All fundamentalists view truth through the lens of revelation. Armed with their own “word of God,” the most extreme fundamentalists approach geopolitical issues with arrogance. Christians exhibited that arrogance when converting “infidels” at gunpoint. Jews do the same by invoking their Bible to ignore Muslim claims to land that Arabs have populated for over a millennium. Muslims display arrogance when they cite God’s will as commanding them to murder innocent people.

Just as Goethe saw Spinoza as the most Christian of people, I, being Jewish, see him as among the most Jewish. Spinoza’s values – individual autonomy, democracy, rationality, open-mindedness and reverence -- lie at the heart of Jewish ethics. But Spinoza was no Jewish tribesman in the parochial sense. He was a universalist. As such, he’d surely respond to Middle Eastern bloodshed not as a partisan but as a citizen of the world.

When Spinoza encountered hatred, he strove to understand its causes and replace it with love. In the Middle East, that emotion cannot seize the day unless Arabs and Jews come together and talk, rather than continuing to preach to their own choirs. America does Israel no favors by encouraging Israel to demonize its neighbors with the label of “terrorist” without even attempting to open a dialogue. The leaders of Hamas, for example, need to break bread and exchange ideas with the Israeli leadership. Eventually, I suspect, they’d come to recognize that their welfare lies in working with the Israelis and sharing the disputed land, even if that means a two-state solution without a Palestinian right of return to whatever land is assigned to Israel.

In the meantime, Jews who emulate Spinoza must respect the power of Palestinian arguments: Was it fair for Europeans to commit genocide and then pay the Jews back with Palestinian land? Isn’t it hypocritical to demonize Holocaust deniers while denying the existence of “Palestinians” simply because that word is of relatively recent vintage? Similarly, Palestinian Spinozists must spread the word that the U.N. didn’t create a Jewish state for nothing: after a history marked by centuries of persecution, the Jewish claim to a “peace of oith” the size of Jersey is hardly the supreme act of chutzpah.

Have no fear. We can solve these problems – but first, we need willing leaders on all sides. If perchance any future leader is reading this, here’s my advice: steep yourself in Spinoza before it’s too late.

Friday, October 27, 2006

A RANDOM SET OF STATEMENTS

One recent morning, I woke up and turned on the TV. Bouncing from one news or talk show to another I heard the following statements:

(a) From an African-American minister: the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina was God’s will, but we can’t understand His purposes,

(b) From a reporter: A plane crashed in Lexington, Kentucky, killing 49;

(c) From another reporter: Two journalists from Fox news who were being held hostage in the Middle East were freed by their captors; and

(d) From a Christian author: roughly 50% of Christian students lose their faith while in college.

There you have it – four seemingly unconnected statements, all asserted confidently as fact. Immediately, I found myself joining them together.

One common thread involves tragedies. One was a near tragedy – kidnappings that ended in a release of two men – but the other two were the real McCoys. The plane crash turned out to involve human incompetence, as we learned that the the pilot used the wrong runway and the air traffic controller was too busy to notice what was happening. Katrina, of course, is considered an “act of God,” like other deadly hurricanes or earthquakes, only the extent of the disaster was exacerbated by human incompetence in building such a shaky levee system. The hurricane, you see, can’t be blamed on human beings, but perhaps the flooding can.

What else can we say about these tragedies and near tragedies? We can’t help but recognize that the only story with a “happy ending” has, as its heroes, a group of unknown terrorists who apparently had enough of a heart to set their captors free. Otherwise, the stories end in despair and frustration – frustration with human intelligence and human priorities letting us down in New Orleans and Lexington, and despair that massive numbers of people so commonly die before their time as a result of the ruthless laws of nature. These are the same laws that have resulted in burying many a good man alive under rubble or whisking away entire seaside towns in a single torrent of wind and water.

I have expressed my impressions of these tragic and near tragic events essentially in secular terms – and I suspect that these are the terms that would be used in a typical American college. But what about those of us who view the world through the lens of fundamentalist theology? Of scripture? It’s a bit different, isn’t it? The person who sees in every earthly event a divine purpose must truly marvel at the sight of tragedy. What exactly was the Great Man thinking when he sent the tsunami? Why did He cause the Arab terrorists to free two reporters one minute, and allow the pilot to use the wrong runway the next? Why did He inscribe those reporters in the book of life, and provide the Grim Reaper with more than 1000 dead residents of the Big Easy and 49 dead plane travelers? Can we find the answers from reading Scripture?

Apparently, the African-American minister whom I heard interviewed on TV couldn’t muster an explanation. He remained confident that the explanation for the above events was God’s will. He simply could say nothing more about the why behind that will. And that, perhaps, is the problem for those fundamentalist Christians who wish their children to have a college education without losing their faith.

There is something about going to college that makes intelligent people seek explanations. Despite what people think, there’s more to the college experience than keg parties, worries about pregnancy, and experiments with drugs. In college, students solidify their senses of self, and do this in large part by understanding their own unique places in the world. College kids ask questions. They need to know the how’s and why’s – or at least the most reasonable explanation for them. In college, reason is king, perhaps even more than hedonism. College students realize that they can enjoy hedonistic pursuits more freely than they could as a child, but they also realize that these pursuits aren’t what gives life meaning. Meaning comes from understanding your self and your world, and reason is the key to such wisdom.

This leads me to the fourth statement identified above. As I sat on my living room chair, listening to a Christian author lament the loss of faith among formerly Christian college students, my head began to shake. Instead of looking at this phenomenon as a failure of Christianity to conform to modernity, the author was criticizing the collegiate ethos. Apparently, he was concerned that – perish the thought – teenagers exposed only to their parents’ world views were becoming inquisitive, open-minded, soul-searching adults. And strangely enough, a lot of them were opting for new perspectives. Imagine that.

I share with that author the concern that our society generally and colleges in particular de-emphasize the value of spirituality in our lives. I share also the attitude that our professors often go beyond being scientific to the point of being scientistic – which I mean in the disparaging sense of being so enamored with the scientific method that it is relied upon even in situations where it clearly has limited value. But bashing excessive secularism can only go so far. Spiritual people must recognize that the urge to find reasonable explanations for worldly phenomena is natural and, indeed, wholesome. Yes, there is much about life that the human mind cannot explain, yet that shouldn’t stop us from trying. And that shouldn’t stop us from holding on to philosophies that offer a more sensible partial-explanation than other alternatives.

Is it really sensible to think that a divine "will" intended to take certain innocent lives, while sparing others? Is it really sensible to view natural disasters as the product of conscious choices by a divine intellect? Not to me it isn't. And apparently, at least half of the Christian students who matriculate in colleges agree with me by the time they leave. I'll respect the other half's right to disagree. But if they hope to persuade me to join their side, they had better do more than cite Scripture. They'd better ground their arguments in reason. Do so, and I promise to listen.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

TAKING ISLAM SERIOUSLY

Some guys have all the luck. I heard that from Rod Stewart. And I’m beginning to believe it.

Take, for example, the current Pope. Here’s a man who earlier in his life was a member of the Hitler Youth, and now he finds himself with perhaps the most venerated title in the world. Am I suggesting that promotion was undeserved? No. I’ve made no suggestion one way or the other. My point is simply that he got one heck of a break that somehow his past wasn’t used to disqualify him from his current job. You can easily imagine that for appearance reasons alone, the College of Cardinals would have stayed away from creating the connection between Pontiff and Hitler Youth. But somehow, they weren’t worried.

Fast forward a bit to recent weeks, and you’ll see Pope Benedict in a bit of hot water. Undeniably, he made statements that were undiplomatic, to say the least. Quoting a 14th century Byzantine emperor, he uttered the following words: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

The comments sparked protests in the Islamic world and – get this – the Muslim street was depicted in the western media reacting violently to the above comments. What a laugh, right? The Pope questions their faith as being overly violent, and how do they respond but … with more violence.

So, according to conventional wisdom, the Pope turned out to be right all along. His fundamental point – that the Islamic faith is overly prone to violence – was corroborated by the failure of the Islamic world to respond to his comments peacefully. They made his point for him in graphic detail, by burning churches and, according to one disputed report, savagely killing a nun.

That, at least, is conventional wisdom. But to me, it merely once again illustrates this Pope’s luck. In this case, it wasn’t the College of Cardinals who gave him a break. It was the Western media.

When I heard the comment at issue, I had a very different reaction to the one discussed in the American press. Yes, I caught the fact that the Pope was making a statement against Islamic violence. But why should that bother me as a student of philosophy? Was the comment diplomatic, when uttered directly by a Pope? No. Then again, can any rational person alive today – Muslim or not – deny that the Islamic world is overly prone to violence? And can anyone deny that Mohammed’s status as a warrior-Prophet may have lent fuel for the violent passions in some of his present-day followers?

What caught my attention wasn’t so much what the Pope said about violence but the first part of the above sentence. “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new …” That’s what pissed me off. Here he is, one of the modern leaders of the second-in-time of the great Abrahamic faiths, and he is rekindling the idea that the third-in-time of the great Abrahamic faiths gave the world nothing that is truly new. At least nothing good.

Now that’s offensive.

I suppose I lack the standing to speak on this issue. The Creed Room, my philosophical novel set in 1999-2000 made virtually no references to Islam. I rationalized the omission in my mind by the fact that the action took place prior to 9/11, but that didn’t stop me from feeling guilty about the slight. I promise to redeem myself in my next novel, but as of now, my public comments on Islam are shamefully few and far between.

Then again, I’m just a friggin’ lawyer, I’m not the Pope. He should know better. He should be wise enough to understand that each of the great Abrahamic faiths has a unique spirit that needs to be appreciated by any person serious about exploring spirituality. The problem, of course, is that in the Western World, Islam is discussed as a poor stepchild of Judaism and Christianity. Let’s not deny the fact. Even my use of the term “Abrahamic” is a relatively jarring sight. People in the West are more comfy with the term “Judeo-Christian,” for those are the only two Western faiths that most Americans and Europeans respect. Few Americans who don’t associate themselves with Islam could possibly identify anything worthwhile about that faith that adds to the religions that were long established at the time of Mohammad’s birth. Don’t believe me? Just ask your friends. You’ll be met with lots of silence.

Consider that even the most Fundamentalist Christian can’t help but recognize their faith’s debt to Judaism. Jesus was, after all, a Jew. Now consider the mindset of the traditional Christian. Once the “Christ” came along, and his message was interpreted and reinterpreted by the early fathers, and the Nicene Creed was formulated that announced Jesus as Lord and belief in the Trinity as essential for salvation, what “new” message were Fundamentalist Christians ready to hear? Mohammed didn’t show up on the scene for several hundred more years. When he preached a monotheism that was more rigorous, more complete, than anything said by his Jewish or Christian forbears, who in the West was listening? I don’t think we wanted a more rigorous monotheism. I think we wanted a more watered-down variety, replete with deities who can be described with human-like language, who can be depicted on the ceilings of our chapels, or who actually took human form.

The Pope’s choice of words could have been a wake-up call to the West that not only do we owe Muslims respect but we owe Islam respect. But the media doesn’t want to get into that issue. That would involve asking people to delve into issues of theology. That would involve asking people to question whether their only beloved religion offers all the answers. That might be too much to ask. Better, apparently, to play it safe and continue to call attention to the savagery of the Muslim people. In the end, it will save this Pope’s reputation and our own precious self esteem.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

PET PEEVES (PART TWO)

You may recall that in the last post, we discussed the value of identifying one’s pet peeves. These are things that really get on our nerves – maybe irrationally, maybe not. Allow me now to share some of mine.

Let’s start with the wardrobe, shall we? I hate having to wear suits and ties. I don’t mind that other people like to do it, I just don’t like being required to do it any more than necessary.

Wearing a suit and tie is obviously a must in many business settings. When I’m going to court, for example, I understand why my supervisors would expect me to “dress up” – otherwise, the judge would think I’ve lost my mind, have no sense of professionalism, and hold utter disrespect for the court.

So my pet peeve isn’t that I’m sometimes required to wear suits and ties. It’s that it has become de rigueur to wear those clothes – or something approaching them in formality -- in one particular setting: at a religious service. In other words, I’m terribly annoyed at the idea that when I attend synagogue during the Sabbath, I’m supposed to dress up.

I realize that sounds silly. But we’re talking about visceral attitudes, so silly complaints are as tell-tale about who we are as any other. I can’t tell you how many times on a Friday evening or a Saturday morning, I’ve had a sincere desire to go to synagogue in order to pray and commune with others, but I’ve also felt way too tired to put on a “nice” shirt or pair of slacks, let alone a tie. I just wanted to leave on my jeans, drive to shul, and relax, and it pissed me off that this wasn’t an option. It also pissed me off that in an era when most people have no interest in organized religion, we wouldn’t do everything in our power to ease the burdens of attendance.

To be sure, you don’t have to be Einstein to comprehend why so many organized religious groups have created de facto dress codes. Formal attire supposedly signals respect (in this case, for God) and the willingness to take what one’s doing seriously. But is that sign of respect really necessary? Is fancy dress really needed to take seriously an opportunity to commune with the source of all Being?

If the task of how best to honor God were left up to me, I’d urge people to wear whatever is most likely to foster their own sense of spirituality. For you, that might mean dressing to the nines. For me, that would probably mean wearing a flannel shirt and jeans – that way, I can get comfortable and meditative. Am I alone in having that preference? I doubt it. I also doubt there’s a God in heaven shaking his head at the impudence of someone thinking that by getting comfortable in their attire, they can best open themselves up to the spirit of divinity. And if there’s no God who cares, why should we?

My second pet peeve involves something closer to the heart than what we wear: eating options. I’m talking about walking into restaurants – particularly expensive restaurants – and finding out that there’s no option that would enable people like me to eat a healthy amount of protein.

As a vegan vegetarian, my diet is quite simple to explain: I eat nothing that comes from animals, and will eat (or drink) pretty much everything else. Vegans need protein like anyone else, and we live off of such foods as beans, tofu, tempeh, gluten and nuts. Virtually all Asian-style restaurants accommodate us, usually with multiple options. But many European or American-style restaurants do not. It’s particularly sickening to go to an expensive restaurant and watch them bring out their token off-the-menu vegetable plate, which not only contains precious little protein but is typically so sparse in calories that it couldn’t even fill up a five-year-old.

Is it such a huge sacrifice for a restaurant to add a couple of options with vegetable protein? I guarantee you that not only vegans desire this stuff. Lacto-ovo vegetarians love it too – you can only eat so much cheese, unless your role model is Oliver Hardy.

But most people aren’t vegetarian, let alone vegan, and it presumably makes little economic sense for many restaurants to have tofu around for the few “tree-huggers” who might stumble in. I still demand the accommodation. These restaurants should consider it their civic duty to give everyone a healthy, satisfying option. It’s a matter of common courtesy.

My third pet peeve once again involves religion – but this is a much more central issue than what we place outside our bodies. I’m talking about what we place inside our minds – our deepest thoughts about the deepest topic I can envision: speculation concerning God.

I hate it when people try to define God to me as if there can only be one real meaning to the term. The people I’m talking about say that either you believe in an omni-benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient entity who created the world in accordance with His will, or you don’t really believe in “God.” And there are plenty of other variations on this theme: (1) either you believe that Jesus was physically resurrected or you’re not really Christian; (2) either you’re born to a Jewish mother or you’re not really Jewish (unless you formally convert); or (3) either you’re a Sunni (or, in other countries, a Shi’ite) Muslim, or you’re not really Muslim.

Wherever you look, there’s always some authority figure ready and willing to define the boundaries of a particular religion, or divinity itself. Blessed be those authority figures – they, who have such superior learning that they’re qualified to control spirituality for the rest of us. I guess that’s why some of them ask us to call them “father.” We simply failed to remember that when it comes to religion, the rest of us are mere children.

When you put these pet peeves together, the common themes become obvious. I clearly take a dim view of unnecessary rules and limitations on our freedom. I want our organizations to go out of their way to accommodate diverse attitudes and tastes. I especially take a dim view of authority figures who chill diversity by exerting arbitrary control.

Perhaps I never grew up. Perhaps the above list, written by someone in his mid 40s, illustrates a state of perpetual adolescence. More likely, though, it reflects that my parents raised me with a cynical attitude toward authority figures and their petty little rules and mor├ęs. It also reflects my view that the buttoned-down culture doesn’t have any more of a monopoly on truth than do counter-cultural alternatives. Are the well-dressed professionals at a bourgeois church praying any more fervently than an informally dressed group of ex-hippies on a retreat? I doubt it. In any event, I want our culture to accommodate every individual to the extent possible, at least outside of the business setting. It’s particularly crucial in fostering spirituality that the individual’s desires be treated with respect.

Note, though, that the second pet peeve – the one about accommodating vegetarians – shows that I’m not merely a live and let live kind of guy. In other words, I’m OK with making demands on people – in that case, restaurants – if these demands support a grander principle. Viscerally, then, my desire isn’t simply to accommodate diversity. It’s to celebrate it, to nurture it, to value it for its own sake. Whether we’re talking about the realm of economics or spirituality, we should encourage new ideas, diverse tastes, and above all, the feeling that everyone in society can feel comfortable just being themselves.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

PET PEEVES (PART ONE)

Choosing between empathy and rationalism is not something I relish. But let’s try it, just this once.

Assume you’re summoned to the heavens and asked by the non-existent Tribal Elder in the Sky (a/k/a the Fundamentalist Jewish God) to select a quality for your neighbor’s newborn child. You’re given two choices – rationalism or empathy. Is there any doubt that you’d select empathy? Don’t we all understand, in our guts, that empathy as a general matter is the more socially beneficial characteristic of the two?

Now change the hypothetical. This time, you’re summoned to the heavens and the Cosmic Santa Clause (a/k/a the Fundamentalist Christian God) tasks you with selecting a quality for your own newborn child. You’re given the same choices – rationalism or empathy. Now, the result is different, isn’t it? Now that you care with every fiber of your soul about the outcome, you’re a lot more risk averse. When you’re making the selection for your beloved possession, I mean child, you’re choosing between a child who grows up to have her head on straight, and one who is filled with warmth and love. We all know what happens to so many people in the latter category – they get pushed around at the trough (such is the life of people, not just pigs). I think most of us would whisper, stealthily, out of the sides of our mouth: “Hey God? Can you hear me? I’d better take the rationalism, if that’s OK.”

Well, my mama didn’t raise no fool any more than she raised a saint. I’ve frequently become disappointed with my ability to empathize, but I’ve rarely lost the devotion to reason, bless my pragmatic heart. And as I’ve grown older and become a student of philosophy, I’ve realized that reason speaks most profoundly to those who keep their emotions in check -- not eliminated, mind you, but under control.

The reasonable man is a man who thinks globally. He can look beyond his own limited circumstances and search for what’s objectively true. When he strives for the good, he means what is good for the collective, rather than what superficially serves his own parochial interests. To use Spinoza’s words, the man of reason aims to think sub species aeternitatis – under the form of eternity. His ultimate reality is not the human ego, but rather the universe, of which he is a small, but unique and precious part. He is magnanimous, generous, selfless, loving, and, ultimately, empathetic. Reason compels empathy, you see – but an empathy born of strength and discernment, not effeminate weakness.

Harsh words perhaps, but they serve us students of philosophy well, or at least they do up to a point. Philosophy also has its limits, and philosophers must recognize their humanity. To be human is to be a person of desires, feelings, passions. We can repress them, but we can’t eliminate them – even if we wanted to, we couldn’t.

In fact, students of philosophy can’t limit themselves to understanding the world. They must also understand themselves – what lies beneath their exterior of reason. This is a clue to our biases. It is also a clue to the issues about which we can harness incredible power, for power comes from passion as well as from the ability to keep it in check.

With these abstractions in mind, let us embark on an exercise designed to better understand ourselves beneath our calculated, adult-like exteriors. I’ve tried this myself and found the results interesting.

Identify your pet peeves. Make a short list. Don’t try to organize them at first. Don’t try to analyze them, or ask whether they are rational or not. Just think of several examples – whatever comes to your mind. Then, when you’ve made your list, try to determine if they fit into a pattern. In my next post, I’ll reveal the results of my own self-examination.

To be continued.

Monday, October 16, 2006

BACK HOME AGAIN

I just finished one of my most enjoyable and exhausting weeks in recent memory. It had essentially three components – meeting my publisher in San Diego and doing a book signing there for The Creed Room; seeing friends in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco; and attending my 25th year college reunion at Stanford. There was one basic problem with the week: I was going to bed on Pacific Time and waking up on Eastern Time. But other than being sleep deprived, I had an absolute blast.

In each of the three cities I visited, I couldn’t help but notice the following difference between California culture and Washington, D.C. culture: the former was so much more materialistic and entrepreneurial than the latter. I found the materialism rather alienating and perhaps even a tad ridiculous, but I have a tremendous amount of admiration for the entrepreneurial spirit. Clearly, if there is an entrepreneurial gene, I never got it. Neither did most of my friends in D.C. But in California, it seems like every other person I spoke to had started his or her own business. I’m not exaggerating -- the small business owners were at least as prevalent among my Californian friends as the wage/salary workers. Good for them!

As the week went on, I found myself getting progressively drained of physical energy, but there was a psychological exhilaration in seeing old friends and old stomping grounds that kept me going strong. For me, it’s all about connectedness. The more I age, the more I value feeling connected. In this case, I’m talking about feeling connected to a previous person-stage.

Truly, isn’t a person nothing more than a series of person-stages? We can talk all we want about the value of living in the present or of dreaming about the future, and I try to do both. But if we want to be whole beings, if we want to understand how and why we developed as we have, or how and why we chose the friends or occupations we chose, we had better connect our present selves with the person-stages that preceded us. And that can only be done when we connect with the people who once mattered the most to us but with whom we’ve somehow fallen out of touch.

I don’t go to all my school reunions. I’ve never been to a law school reunion and have no plans to go to one. My feelings about my law school itself were sufficiently ambivalent that I’m not sure I could enjoy the occasion. But I never miss my college or high school reunions, and almost invariably, I enjoy the heck out of them. It’s not that I think of all my high school or college buddies as “kindred spirits;” in some respects, my friends and I have grown far, far apart. I do, however, appreciate that these people helped to shape who I am, know things about me that perhaps I would no longer admit to myself, and have shared some of my favorite moments or influences. Why would we not value time spent every few years with such people?

For me, being connected with other people lies at the heart of spirituality. Life isn’t just about meditating in silence, or communing with natural beauty. It’s also about being able to love other people, some of whom might not even care as much about you in return. It’s about building loving relationships. And I mean relationships with other people – particularly old friends. As Spinoza said, “nothing is more advantageous to man than man.” That’s hard to believe when you deal with bureaucrats, or arrogant lawyers, or rapacious corporate executives, or hypocritical clergymen, or bullying politicians …

But, as a general matter, it remains true. We need each other. And we really need our old friends. Those who feel able to ignore them for long periods of time do so at their own psychological and spiritual peril.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

CALIFORNIA BOUND

This will be my final post for a week or so, as I am headed to the left coast and won't be back until the 15th. If any of you have friends in San Diego, please tell them that I am doing a book talk on The Creed Room at 7:00 p.m. on Monday, October 9th at The Book Works, which is at 2670 Via de la Valle at Highway I-5, in Del Mar.

Later in the week, I'm heading up to the Bay Area for my 25th year college reunion at Stanford. I expect to have a lot of fun ... at least until the opening kickoff on Saturday, when we alumns will see for ourselves the only thing that is taking a faster nosedive than the Republican Party: the Stanford football program. There is, however, a difference between the GOP and Cardinal football: whereas die hard Republicans are desperately trying to cover up the mess that their leaders are making, we die hard Cardinal fans don't bother to cover things up. We'll admit that we're bad. REALLY bad -- as in threatening-to-run-the-table-and-go-0-12 bad. Don't believe me? We play Notre Dame today on national TV at 2:30 eastern time. Watch it for yourself. Then turn on Fox News and watch the spinners talk about the Foley, I mean the Hastert scandal. I predict you'll quickly recognize the same degree of ineptitude.

But let me not leave you on a negative note. After all, ESPN Classic just replayed the 1990 Stanford-Notre Dame game in which Stanford, coached by Dennis Green and Ty Willingham, defeated the then #1 ranked Fighting Irish in South Bend. Whether you're talking about football programs or political parties, things have a habit of going in cycles. It's actually one of the refreshing aspects of life: downturns don't last forever. And being able to head out to some of my favorite places and see many of my favorite people is certainly something I'm looking forward to doing -- despite the quality of the football.

Besides, nobody goes to Stanford primarily to watch football anyway. If you're smart, you go for the pleasure of being able to take classes from some of the best minds in the world, buy the books they recommend, and then read those books outside in great weather in early March (instead of in some dismal library). It's conducive to something called the "love of learning for its own sake." Truly a quaint concept, one which some consider antiquated. But don't worry, things run in cycles. Someday, the love of the search of wisdom will make a comeback as an educational goal. After our educational system has had its fill of standardized tests and cramming all sorts of crap into our children's heads, we'll realize that knowledge acquired can be promptly forgotten, but intellectuality -- joyous passionate intellecuality -- stays with us forever.

Like I said: if you want your children to become lifetime learners, there's nothing quite like reading a masterpiece in beautiful weather.

Friday, October 06, 2006

A MUST READ

I trust you’re familiar with Keith Olbermann, the former ESPN Sports Center host who now has a news show on CNBC at 8:00 p.m. Olbermann is one of the tiny, tiny group of progressives with the courage to speak with passion about their views on television. If he were on Fox News and flipped what he has to say by 180 degrees, he’d fit in great. But since he’s a progressive, he stands out on TV like a sore thumb.

Recently, I was watching him launch a broadside against the present Administration when I noticed that he repeatedly used a synonym for the word “conservatives.” He kept referring to them as “authoritarians.” My God! I said to myself. He must have read “don’t think of an elephant!” by George Lakoff. More than that, he must actually have paid attention to what he was reading.

In case you haven’t heard of Lakoff’s 119-page book, you’re not alone. Two months ago, I hadn’t either. But it has made the New York Times Bestseller list and has been endorsed by such prominent progressives as Howard Dean, George Soros, Arianna Huffington, Daniel Ellsberg and Robert Reich. The book’s thesis is simple to state: up until now, the conservatives have devoted a ton of money and effort to choosing language that will frame political issues in the “right” way. If the progressives wish to compete in the marketplace of political ideas, they had better devote money and effort to the science of creating language frames of their own.

What’s a frame? Let’s take the above example. Think of a friend whom you’ve referred to as a “conservative”? Now reflect on what that word connotes. It’s actually quite likeable. A conservative is a person who wants to preserve the values that we hold dear, a person who recognizes that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, a patriot who deeply admires the founders of our political traditions and our religious traditions. Try instead to think of your friend as an “authoritarian.” That doesn’t mean to demonize him, but merely to take his values and understand the flip side of what they stand for. With one simple word change, your friend has been transformed into a person who wants to tell you who you should be able to marry and who you shouldn’t, a person who wants to control what you have growing inside your body, a person who posits that if you support your country, you’ll support its wars, even when they were sold for reasons that turned out not to be true.

Frames are succinct. They speak to archetypes in your mind. Conservatives, I mean authoritarians, have mastered the art of framing. Consider the following: “strong defense,” “free markets,” “lower taxes,” “tax relief,” “smaller government,” “family values,” “compassionate conservative,” “pro life.” These are only some of the authoritarian frames that Lakoff discusses. We all know them. And while many of us have ridiculed them, we can at least appreciate viscerally why they’re so appealing.

Authoritarian frames are manly, and they’re manly in a benign way – in the same way that John Wayne or Ward Cleaver is manly. They’re rock solid, but they’re also caring. While they may not go out of their way to help the poor, to pick a progressive’s favorite example, it’s not because they’re indifferent to the welfare of the poor. It’s just that they want the poor to learn how to help themselves. Icons like Wayne and Cleaver are loving—it’s just that they believe in tough love. That way, we’ll all develop the same kind of manly virtue they exhibit, and in the long run, we’ll all be better off. That good ol’ Invisible Hand authoritarians love to talk about will make sure of that.

Are you wondering what “authoritarianism” has to do with the commitment to laissez-faire economics, that unifying philosophy of the political right? The Wayne’s and Cleaver’s would like to say that Government involvement in the economic world is the epitome of anti-authoritarianism or, to use one of their favorite frames, the epitome of “paternalism.” Please, don’t fall prey to that logic. Laissez faire economists know their Scriptures – justice and charity are synonyms, or at least were synonyms to the founders of the Abrahamic faiths. Those who wish to stop the excesses of rapacious corporations or transfer money from the luxuries of the top 1% to the necessities of those who do most of the nation’s hard work are merely applying traditional religious, community values. But authoritarians have a different set of values, and they’re ultimately based on Social Darwinian principles. At bottom, authoritarians believe in opportunity, to be sure, but they would extend attractive opportunities only to the smartest, the fastest, the wealthiest, the healthiest. Safety nets? “Rubbish,” say the authoritarians. “If you need such a net, you’re obviously not trying hard enough. Let everyone compete, and if they win, they can join us. If not, we – the manly men – will decide how much of their measly welfare to foster. They can come work for us, we who have demonstrated our superior virtue by thriving in the free marketplace. Just don’t expect us to pay them what those liberals call a ‘livable wage.’ We have our own frames, our own justifications, for why the minimum wage must be kept low.”

Get it now? “Conservativism” in all its forms ultimately rests on an authoritarian ethic.

Anyway, the verbiage I’ve used to characterize authoritarian values is a far cry from the way they discuss their own philosophies. We mustn’t fool ourselves: authoritarian frames are appealing. Who doesn’t believe in “family values”? Who doesn’t appreciate some “relief” from the oppressive nature of taxes (at least the process of filling out those God-forsaken forms)? Who doesn’t appreciate some value in economic markets? Or want those beloved markets to be “free”? Who doesn’t support the sanctity of “life”? Who doesn’t believe in military strength? Or in personal responsibility? Or in law and order?

So here’s the $64,000 question: what have the Progressives done to create their own frames? Precious little, if you believe Lakoff. To read his book is to agree with him, and for more reasons than even he would want to admit.

Consider how authoritarian frames gained hegemony over society. Lakoff points out that the American right has devoted unlimited amounts of money supporting think tanks like the Heritage Foundation where ideas can be brainstormed, analyzed, and developed. If you’re an intellectual with an interest in politics and a desire to think for a living, there’s only one “right” place for you.

Once these ideas are developed by the intellectuals, Lakoff says, they are vetted by the authoritarian power brokers who determine if they will become part of the conservative canon. Check this out: “Grover Norquist has a meeting every week of major conservative leaders and spokesmen, at which they air their differences on issues of the day. When there is a consensus or a majority view, then the group tends to agree as a whole to support that consensus or majority view. If they happen to disagree with it this week, they know that next week or the week after, their views will be the consensus or majority views. Under this system everybody knows that they will win most of the time, but not all of [the] time.” Get it? The authoritarians have developed a process to guarantee as much unanimity as humanly possible before their spokespeople start airing their views in public. And, Lakoff states, when the frames are ready to be trotted out in the real world, they are always, ALWAYS steeped in values. Not “competence,” my dear Mr. Dukakis, but values!

What emerges from this process is a set of value-laden frames with broad appeal to anyone who has been raised in an environment of strong, manly role models. You don’t have to watch westerns to appreciate GOP frames. You need only watch family-oriented sit-coms. And if you don’t like those, you could get by with an appreciation for action movies. Indeed, it’s hard to find a GOP frame that doesn’t resonate with one component of American pop culture or another.

As Lakoff points out, GOP frames are often little more than spin. Authoritarians claim that they’re against big government, for example, but do the facts bear that out? Has our government truly shrunk during the last several years? The last I checked, we were spending ungodly sums of taxpayer dollars in Iraq and driving up the national debt in the process. How is that small government? The GOP appears to believe in a very large government, albeit one that dislikes spending money on certain types of programs – like “entitlement” programs for the poor. Notice the frame: the GOP mocks those programs as “entitlements” to drum home the point that the poor aren’t truly “entitled” to suck on the federal tit (to quote one of my authoritarian friends), and are actually being harmed by the liberal-aided “culture of dependency.”

So what are the progressives to do, Dr. Lakoff? The prescription is simple -- and familiar. Spend tons of money on left-leaning think tanks. Get left-leaning leaders and spokespeople together to vet the think tankers’ ideas and decide which ones to rally around. Never forget that the ideas have to focus on values, for the war we’re discussing is all about competing values. And then flood the airwaves with new value-laden frames that captivate Americans from the viscera on out.

Easy, right? Well … consider the good doctor’s specific suggestions. This is his personal nomination for “our ten-word philosophy versus theirs,” and I’m quoting him directly:

Progressives Conservatives

Stronger America Strong Defense

Broad Prosperity Free Markets

Better Future Lower Taxes

Effective Government Smaller Government

Mutual Responsibility Family Values

Huh? Methinks the good doctor is a tad better at diagnosis than at treatment, wouldn’t you agree? Then again, that’s not uncommon for a doctor, particularly one who deals with an extremely grave disease.

I would urge all progressives to read Lakoff’s little book precisely because agreeing on the diagnosis is a vital first step before any treatment plan can be adopted. But allow me to state the obvious: if “the dude who wrote the book” can’t do any better than the above, that should tell you how pitifully the guys on TV are doing. Consider the buffoon who Sean Hannity beats around on a nightly basis: Alan Colmes. Do you honestly think that man knows the first thing about how to frame political issues so that they put progressives on the offensive and authoritarians on the defensive? Clearly, that sacrificial lamb needs help: from think tanks, from weekly meetings of left-leaning leaders, and from people like you and me who must muster the guts to utilize progressive frames when we hear a few that actually resonate with our viscera. (Mutual responsibility? I think not.).

I quickly thought of a few suggestions for frames – “environmental sanity,” “freedom from Big Brother,” “credibility overseas,” “economic justice at home.” And above all “declaring war on hypocrisy.” But I really haven’t spent much time brainstorming. Do you have better ideas? I’d love to hear a few suggestions.

Before concluding, I would be remiss without mentioning the final chapter of Lakoff’s book, which is entitled “How to Respond to Conservatives.” The beauty of that chapter is its call for civility. After writing 110 pages of a completely partisan work, Lakoff concludes by reminding us that any attempt at framing will be counterproductive if the frames are delivered in a shrill, emotional, or disrespectful way. Progressives, you see, must come across as even stronger, more stable, and more compassionate than their ideological opponents. They can and should use humor, to be sure, but it must be done in a classy manner – as in the manner that Jon Stewart has mastered on his Comedy Central show.

So next time you see someone foam at the mouth in support of some progressive cause, tell him or her to take a valium. This is serious business. Really, this is a war – a war of words, not of guns, but a war nonetheless. As in any other war, the only soldiers who survive are those who can control their ammunition. And now, thanks to Lakoff, we have a new name for our ammunition. They’re called frames.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

HELP WANTED: A MINORITY PARTY WITH IDEAS

(My, how one week can change things. This post was written prior to the Foley incident. In the House, at least, Foley and his enablers appear to have given the Dems the election. But there is a still the Senate, in which the Dems might have an uphill struggle, and even in the House, nothing has been decided. So with that in mind, I’m going to post my pre-Foley ideas.

The praise here for the Republican Party is sincere. I dislike their ideas, but I am praising their ability at least to have ideas—or, should I say, to have had ideas. Today, the GOP, like the Dems, seem to be unable to rally around any principles or programs. Such is life in our America.)

Every now and then it’s good to look back at watershed events in our nation’s history. If we don’t, we fail to learn from them – we keep repeating idiocies of the past (like the Vietnam War), and prevent ourselves from duplicating our previous successes.

When speaking of successes, most of us like to hearken back to the days of Jefferson and Washington. We treat those men and their comrades almost like Biblical patriarchs, which isn’t hard to do, considering that they lived in a by-gone era of horses and buggies. The “Founding Fathers” could refer to the men of the Bible, but they refer instead to a band of brothers who declared independence from a traditional world power, successfully defended our turf against that power, and then drafted a Constitution so incredibly prescient that it now seems like the product of divine intervention. Abraham? No, Madison. But they’re both great, so you’ll pardon us if we confuse them from time to time.

Greatness is rarely a word that you see used to refer to events of the recent past. It’s rarer still when you see the word used by an unabashed liberal to refer to the product of right-wing minds. Still, 12 years is enough time for someone like me to step back and glance at a moment in time with some dispassion. When I look back 12 years, I cannot help but marvel at what I see. As a model of how to use a common set of ideas to seize legislative power, I’ve never seen anything half as effective as what we witnessed in 1994. It makes me wonder why that model can’t be replicated again – only this time, from the opposing point of view.

The summer of 1994 was an ugly year for us liberals. It was particularly ugly for the liberal baseball fan. You might recall that in 1994, the players went on strike, and the World Series was cancelled for the first time in 90 years. But in the place of sports, we were given politics – lots and lots of politics. And as political battles go, that “series” was clearly over in four games.

The then-minority party had a plan, you see, and stuck to that plan like glue. It was associated with the representatives of our Government’s most representative branch, but the truth is that it enjoyed the support of the entire party, and practically all its adherents. Their coalition building was a thing of beauty.

They called their plan the “Contract for America.” Their opponents would come to ridicule the plan as the “Contract on America,” but just like America loves a good mob movie, they didn’t seem to find this Contract terribly off-putting. The party who proposed the Contract won at the polls by an incredible landslide. On Capitol Hill, that party hasn’t looked back since. Coincidence? I doubt it.

The Contract originated at a right-wing think tank called the Heritage Foundation. This is a place where well-funded intellectuals get together with a single purpose in mind: to formulate, disseminate and ensure the hegemony of conservative ideas. Heritage Fellows don’t need to feign objectivity, balance, open-mindedness, or any of the other characteristics that liberal thinkers take as their bone fides for entry into the realm of intellectuality. Heritage Fellows are there to ensure that their side wins at the polls, and wins convincingly. In 1994, they saw their work bear incredible fruit.

The Contract didn’t deal with every issue. Certain hot-button topics like abortion were left for future battles – such as the battle for President in 2004, which was also won by the party who drew up the Contract. Instead of focusing on social issues, where there was some split inside the ranks, the Contract concentrated on tried-and-true conservative shibboleths that appealed to virtually all members of the then-minority party.

-- Shrinking the size of Government.

-- Placing the Government at the service of the private sector, not itself.

-- Reducing the burden of taxes.

-- Assisting that true American hero: the entrepreneur.

-- Eliminating the culture of dependency that results from our welfare system. -- Protecting businesses from vexatious lawsuits and excessive judgments.

The Contract, then, had many objectives, but they all had a common theme: to return the United States to its people and not to the professional politicians and lawyers who seek to strangle initiative, decrease incentives for hard work, and bolster their own power. To an entire political party, this was the most beautiful music since Mozart.

The Contract wasn’t just about themes and overarching principles. It was about practical suggestions. The designers, you see, recognized that they had to come across as serious men who were mad as hell and weren’t going to see their country hijacked any more. The people deserved better. They deserved specific, workable proposals that could immediately change the culture in Washington and usher in a new business-friendly economy.

Here was the promise. On day one, if the minority party ascended to power in the House of Representatives, they would vote on the eight different government reforms. These proposed laws, if passed, would: require all laws that apply outside of Congress to apply to Congress as well; audit Congress itself for potential fraud or abuse; sharply reduce the number of House committees and their staffers; prevent Representatives from voting by proxies at committee; cut the terms of committee chairs; require committee meetings to be held in public; require a 3/5th vote to pass tax increases; and mandate a zero baseline for the federal budget process.

Eight proposals, then, would come to a vote on Day One. But that was just the start. The Contractors also promised that during the next 100 days, bills would be sent up on a wide variety of major public policy areas aside from government reform. These included tax cuts for individuals and business entities, legislative term limits, and pro-business reforms in the areas of social security, tort law, and the welfare system.

The Contractors had it all – a wellspring of ideas from which to draw; enough discipline to emphasize only those ideas that could support a broad coalition; and the wisdom to speak in terms of feasible suggestions for change, rather than broad slogans. You’ll also note that the Contractors didn’t merely bash the party in power. They advanced an agenda that was both concrete and visionary. They came across as people who wanted to govern, not merely to win an election. And this only makes sense, given that they were espousing the ideas of intellectuals who were not themselves professional politicians but merely citizens devoted to a common political philosophy.

So here’s my question, which by now should be quite obvious: if the GOP could pull this off in 1994, why couldn’t the Democrats have pulled it off in 2006? Surely, the party of the donkey can agree on some broad themes other than that “Bush is bad” and “We want to win.” Right? Well … maybe I’m speaking too quickly. When I reflect on what the Democrats would accomplish if they controlled the House or the Senate, I find myself quite confused. What votes would the Democrats send to the floor on Day One? What bills involving important public policy issues would the Democrats propose by Day 100? Truly, I don’t have a clue.

I’m not sure my Party has one either. Recently, I received in the mail a form letter from Al Gore asking me to give money to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. Rather than talking about what the Senate would accomplish if the Democrats regained power, Gore talked about what the Senate would accomplish if the Republicans retained power. “A free pass on Iraq … More damage to the environment … More right wing judges … An all-out assault on Social Security … More tax cuts for the wealthy … No fix for Medicare … More jobs sent overseas …”

In short, his message was very clear: “Be afraid. Be very afraid. Vote for us, or suffer the consequences.”

Is that really the best we Democrats can do? Even Republicans who care about living in a vibrant democracy would have to shudder at what has become of our new minority party. Ideas? Try having one idea. Just one. But make it an affirmative idea – not just that the other guys are evil. As they say in the Red states, that dog couldn’t hunt in 2004. How can you expect it to hunt in 2006 or 2008?

(Answer: Perhaps the Dems knew that Foley/Hastert would come to their rescue. Maybe this fight was fixed. That explanation seems no less absurd than any alternative.)

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

THE 11TH COMMANDMENT

(Note that this was written prior to the onset of the Foley scandal. Suffice it to say that after learning of the way in which Foley’s conduct was ignored by the GOP – until after the scandal broke – the point I’m making here has become even more apparent.)

Twenty three years ago on Yom Kippur afternoon, I sat in a large church at Harvard listening to the famous law professor Alan Dershowitz passionately discuss the issue of whether Jews should air their dirty linen in public. He wasn’t talking about whether Jews should publicize their own personal failings. He was addressing whether one member of the Tribe should criticize another in front of the gentiles.

It seemed like such a silly topic to me. Of course, I thought, Jews should criticize each other – at least if their vocations or avocations involve providing social commentary and the Jews at issue have behaved reprehensibly. What kind of parochial, chauvinistic mind would tolerate a Jew doing the same thing for which he would criticize a gentile?

The “dirty laundry” excuse for tolerating unacceptable conduct continues to seem silly to me. I can understand not publicly criticizing a member of my nuclear family or a close friend. But how can I extend that to all Jews? Or how can I extend that to all members of my political party? I guess that’s one darned good reason why I have remained a Democrat.

Those who have been reading this blog – or for that matter, those who have read my novel – realize that bashing Democrats is one of my favorite sports. I hold members of my party to high standards. When they act like hypocrites, wimps or phonies, I enjoy the catharsis of a good kvetch. And I’m hardly alone in that regard. Progressive columnists are notorious for pointing out the inadequacies of Democratic leadership. I get the impression that these writers can’t take themselves seriously unless they behave in an evenhanded way, or at least try to. Otherwise, they will lose all credibility with themselves as purportedly rational, liberal-minded thinkers.

The key word in that last sentence is liberal. A liberal is an exponent of freedom. And no freedoms are more basic than the freedom of thought and the freedom of speech. Progressives feel the need to be free to say what they truly believe, and that means to stand up for their progressive principles. If someone violates those principles – even a fellow-traveler from previous battles – that person is eligible for attack from progressives almost as much as much as from conservatives.

Yeah, you bet I know the problem. In a war, if one group of soldiers feels “free” to criticize their own army whereas their enemy remains forever unified and disciplined, the first army is doomed from the start. Who can forget Will Rogers’ immortal line: “I’m not a member of an organized political party. I’m a Democrat!”? Nobody need remind me that I have lamented the Democrats’ inability to identify a set of principles, proposals, and/or causes around which the whole party can rally. Like everyone else, I don’t enjoy watching my party lose 70% of the Presidential elections in the past four decades.

And yet … at times like this, I’m reminded of why I prefer the futility of being a Democrat to the alternative. Wasn’t it the Lord and Savior of the Grand Old Party who said: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” That’s really the point. When you find yourself lying to yourself about facts and refusing to take a stand against people or conduct that is truly reprehensible, all in the name of political-party discipline, you’ve taken Jesus’s words and trampled on them. It’s really that simple.

Consider the sordid and evolving saga of George Allen. The more dirt about him that is unearthed, the more deafening the silence from his fellow conservatives in the media. If they want to be credible, they’re obliged to repudiate him. It won’t happen, though. It can’t happen. That would violate Ronald Reagan’s “11th Commandment”: thou shalt not criticize one’s fellow Republican.

That “Commandment” sounds innocuous enough until you see it play out in practice. It’s one thing for GOP politicians to stay mum on a topic in which silence means acquiescence, but it’s even more pathetic to see one conservative columnist after another similarly stay silent and then also witness conservatives who are not public figures consistently hold their peace. You can call it discipline. I call it the very foundation of social immorality. Recall what happened across the pond when dictators assumed power and dissent was strangely muted. Or better yet: go to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, a shrine devoted to illustrating the immorality of sitting back and doing nothing in the face of evil.

When you think about it, the Eleventh Commandment is nothing short of blasphemy. There you have a so-called Christian saying that if it can help you “gain the world,” you are commanded never to speak out against those who work at your side, no matter what they stand for or perpetrate. In other words, you are commanded to tolerate anything, even evil, if it can help you consolidate power over your earthly kingdom.

Are we witnessing evil in the case of George Allen? That’s a strong word. I don’t use it freely, particularly not for people who’s sins involve mere advocacy and not violent action. But whether or not Allen rises to the level of an “evil doer” is hardly the point. The evidence is mounting that the man is an old fashioned, garden-variety racist. I’m talking about a white-versus-dark, red-necked racist. Call him evil, call him misguided, call him whatever you want – he clearly has no business representing the South in the United States Senate.

I have spoken before about the Macaca incident, in which the Senator recently used a racial epithet to mock a man of East-Indian descent. Even more recently, Allen took umbrage at questions about whether he himself – perish the thought – has an ethnically Jewish mother. Worse yet, though, are revelations about Allen’s past. Multiple acquaintances, who are respected members of their community, have outed Allen as a man who frequently referred to African Americans as “niggers.” Moreover, it has come to be accepted by the media as fact that he once hung the Confederate Stars and Bars on the wall of his living room, and displayed a hangman’s noose in his law office.

Now there are some images for you: a lawman from Dixie displaying a hangman’s noose, talking about niggers. Wouldn’t you know it? He became a Senator, and not just any Senator – this time last year, the good folks of the GOP were talking about him as a potential President.

Nobody’s talking now about ol’ Georgie as a future President. But I’m not seeing his Republican enablers talking about voting him out of the Senate either. It seems that this man has an honored place as one of the 100 top legislators in the U.S.

When you think about it, why should the GOP disown Allen? His opponent is hardly perfect. Why not simply say “a pox on both their houses,” write off Allen’s racism with a shrug, and pretend the election doesn’t matter? That’s the GOP strategy – close your eyes to the evidence against Allen, cultivate his image as a “good Christian,” and allow his massive fundraising advantage to catapult him to victory in November.

Those conservative columnists who are too moral to actively praise Allen can at least devote their attention elsewhere. “Why not write a few more columns bashing Islamic terrorism?” I can see them tell themselves. “Yeah, that’s the ticket. Or we can talk about the fecklessness of the Democrats in not knowing how to respond to the terrorist threat against the US, or the war in Iraq. Whatever we do, we mustn’t single out George Allen as a Senator who is unfit to retain power. We can’t hand the Democrats any seat. Politics is war! And if you want to win a war, you can’t expect all your soldiers to be choir boys.”

That’s the mentality. The 11th Commandment is, like all other Commandments, a categorical imperative. If it means we must turn a blind eye to racism, so be it. If it means we must ignore a history of white people treating black people as chattel, or lynching blacks from the tallest tree, then that’s OK too. A declaration of war – be it a war on killing fields or a war at the ballot box -- can be used to justify anything.

“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” It’s too bad that statement came from Matthew, and not Reagan. If the Great Communicator had said it, we might just be living in a functioning democracy after all.

Monday, October 02, 2006

DIRT, FILTH AND THE GOP

"We track library books better than we do sexual predators." So said Mark Foley, when he served as chairman of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus. Foley held himself out as quite the protector of children’s virtue. Just this summer, he introduced a bill designed to protect children from adults who prowl the Internet. He was also the sponsor of another bill intended to guard against child abuse and neglect.

Well, Dr. Jekyl, meet Mr. Hyde. It is no secret to anyone who reads the newspapers that Congressman Foley led a double life. In front of the cameras, he was a man among men, a real mensch, whose concern for the safety of children was unmatched. Away from the cameras, though, he was a man among boys, who’s concern for their genitalia was unmatched.

"Do I make you a little horny?" he wrote to one of his teenage pages. "You in your boxers, too? ... Well, strip down and get naked," he said in another message.

Ah, the sweet smell of political hypocrisy – actually, it’s not so sweet. It smells more like … oh never mind.

Yes, Mark Foley’s man-boy affections have become front page news. And yes, they hit the news only a month before the Congressional elections. These can’t be good tidings for the GOP, which had earlier promoted Foley to a leadership role. But are these revelations truly going to change the whole complexion of the election? To read the papers, one wouldn’t think so. The smart money is on the GOP losing Foley’s seat and the Dems getting a bit of momentum from the fact that once again, a law and order Republican turned out to have a libido after all. But nobody is suggesting that this story will create some sort of national scandal that will engulf the electorate during the last month of the campaign. And that can be explained by one simple reason: Foley was a Republican. If he were a Democrat, and the Democrats had controlled the House, the November elections would be over. And I mean Tiger’s-in-the-lead-on-the-Sunday-of-a-major-tournament over. That’s the kind of opportunity that the Democrats have been presented.

Exaggeration? Not a chance. If the tables were turned, the GOP would make damned sure that the story here wasn’t about Foley. “Foley” would just become a symbol – a symbol of the sexually perverted nature of our society, which we’d be told has become corrupted by the moral relativism of “liberals” and the Democratic party. But the real story would be the cover-up of Foley’s perversion, a cover-up that would be played out on Fox News and, yes, CNN, night after night after bloody night until the end of October.

If the tables were turned, all politically-aware Americans would become familiar with the names of Congressional leaders who were “put on notice” of the Congressman’s perversions and did nothing about it. Why did they protect such a depraved predator? Because, we’d be told, the Democrats – the morally relativistic, cowardly, unprincipled party of opportunists – were so concerned about winning elections that they could care less about all the children who were abused by one of their own.

Cover up? Does that apply here? Consider the information that’s now being reported through the print media (the one that doesn’t matter half as much as the idiot box and the radio). Representative Rodney Alexander, a Republican from Louisiana learned about some of the incriminating e-mails many months ago and told Representative Tom Reynolds of New York, a member of the GOP House leadership. When Reynolds learned about Foley’s alleged perversions, he passed on the info to the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert – a fact that Hastert’s office denied at first, but now has admitted.

Or should I say, now he has “admitted” it in true weasel fashion. According to a statement released by Hastert’s office: "While the speaker does not explicitly recall this conversation, he has no reason to dispute Congressman Reynolds' recollection that he reported to him on the problem and its resolution." OK. I get it. The leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives can’t remember whether he was told by one of his lieutenants that another of his lieutenants was sexually propositioning his pages. That makes sense. Who remembers allegations of sex with boys? I mean, fossil fuel emission levels, those are the kind of thing Hastert would remember. But a Congressman asking a page if he’s making the page a little horny? Nah. That’s just a little perverted. Hastert would never remember that.

If you believe Reynolds – and apparently, Hastert isn’t willing to call him a liar -- Reynolds told Hastert that the matter had been investigated by another Republican Congressman, John Shimkus, the chair of the House Page Board and the manager of the House’s work-study program for kids under 18. What did Shimkus’s investigation find? Apparently, Representative Dale Kildee, the only Democratic member of the House Page Board, might not even know. According to Kildee, “Any statement by Mr. Reynolds or anyone else that the House Page Board ever investigated Mr. Foley is completely untrue."

Ugly stuff. Or as they’d say in Mean Girls, F-U-G-L-Y. There’s no other word for it. If the Democrats were doing it, Fox News could not tear themselves away from this story. CNN? Are you kidding? Larry King used to televise all Monica all the time, and Nancy Grace loves to talk about predatory acts against children. Talk radio would get to the point where even people who hate sports would have to listen to ball games just to get away from the same-old-same-old about Reynolds, Hastert, and Shimkus … or should I say, their Democratic counterparts.

That’s what would happen if this scandal could have been attributed to the Democrats. But it wasn’t. It falls at the door of the Republicans. The majority party. The party that supports the billionaires who own the TV and radio networks. The party that has elevated slinging mud into an art form. Willie Horton? Whitewater? Monicagate? Swift Boats? Nobody can get down and dirty quite like a GOP operative. But this time, scandal addicts won’t get the benefits of the GOP smear machine. So what’s going to happen? Are we going to hear about this crap 24/7 or aren’t we?

I can’t answer that question yet. I can see that the GOP spinners are already at work. Now that Foley has resigned from office, they can’t bash him enough. It’s a variation on the corporate “blame the dead executive” defense. The goal is to ensure that Foley, and not the House leadership, remains the issue. But should he really be the issue?

Obviously the case against Foley right now is much clearer to the American public than the case against his potential enablers. That, of course, wouldn’t matter to the GOP smear machine. Was Kerry truly to blame for anything that happened in Vietnam? That’s irrelevant. When you peddle dirt, you care only about whether you can make it stick. You could care less about the type of dirt you’re dealing with, let alone its integrity.

Democrats would like to win this election in November – at least I think they would, for I can’t seem to discern much purposive activity emanating from that party. My first question is: in order to win, should they get down and dirty and turn Foleygate into a national scandal? In other words, is that an appropriate response under the circumstances. Secondly, assuming the answer to the first question is “yes” – and I’m not making the assumption so much as raising the question – do the Democrats have the wherewithal to generate a scandal that has legs? The Dems seem to be incredibly inept at communicating with the American public through the media of TV or radio. Do they understand enough how the mudslinging game is played in order to captivate the nightly attention of the Larry Kings and the Nancy Graces? Or what about the Sean Hannitys and the Bill O’Reillys? Could the Democrats somehow get “the no spin zone” to take on Hastert, Reynolds and/or Shimkus and associate one or more of those individuals with thoughts like: "You in your boxers, too? ... Well, strip down and get naked."

Maybe I should feel lucky today that I’ve never had a son. Two daughters yes, but their kind seemed to be safe in Foley’s chambers. And please, whatever you do, don’t tell me that if this had involved young girls instead of young boys, the GOP would have been chivalrous enough to get to the “bottom” of the matter.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

WHAT'S WRONG WITH OUR DEMOCRACY

I know what you're thinking: how nice of the Empathic Rationalist to pick such a cheerful title for this post! Well, what can I say? I was feeling in a particularly happy mood when I woke up this morning and wanted to make everyone else happy too.

So why I am feeling so joyous? Next weekend, I'm preparing to take a one-week vacation all over California. And there's something about the idea of vacationing in California that always puts me in a good mood. Maybe it's their weather. Or maybe it's their culture (upbeat, hedonistic, etc.). Whatever it is, California is one of my favorite places. And I mean all of California, or at least the entire coast. Some people bash LA, but I find some truth in a friend's line about why LA is better than San Francisco: "If you're going to be shallow, don't be snobbish about it."

Truth is, I kind of prefer San Francisco -- I mean, I'm not crazy. But L.A.'s fun too. And San Diego. And the Redwood National Forest is probably my favorite place in the whole state.

Why is it again that I live in the D.C. area?

Oh yeah. I grew up there. And that turned me into a politics junky. Some things we just can't change about ourselves.

So, with the above in mind, allow me to spend my final week in the coast d'ugly sharing some ideas about the area of my addiction. And since I'm still in the east, allow me to be nice and critical. I want to speak the truth, of course -- Empathic Rationalism demands nothing less -- but it just so happens that my version of the truth can often come across as very negative. Such is life. For the next week, all my posts will be political in nature and will point out some less-than-perfect things about our political parties. Trust me, it won't be hard to think of a few. Or a few hundred.