Saturday, December 22, 2007


It’s time for the second annual Empathic Rationalist Awards. These go out to the people who made 2007 what it was – for better or worse.

Man of the Year: Steve Jobs

In a non-election year, it is probably appropriate to give this award to a non-politician and, indeed, I’m not sure there’s a politician out there who deserves it anyway. I considered giving it to some foreign statesmen, but most of the usual suspects are, well, suspect, and I would like this to reward excellence, rather than infamy. Accordingly, my attention turned to the world of business and once it did, the decision became a clear one. This year’s Man of the Year goes to the CEO of Apple, Inc., Steve Jobs. This man can legitimately be called the inventor of the Macintosh, the iPod, the iTunes Store, and the iPhone. Truly, he has the Midas touch.

So far, I haven’t broken down and purchased any of the products for which Mr. Jobs is associated. But that’s just me – my wife and daughters each have iPods and my daughters use iTunes as often as I use toilet paper. Even as a Luddite, I have to appreciate what this guy has done and look forward to seeing what he comes up with next. Besides, in a time when America seems to be going to hell in a hand basket, it’s critical to remember that much of what has kept this nation great over recent decades is the entrepreneurial, pragmatic and creative spirit of people like Steve Jobs. I may tilt well to the left, but I still have to recognize their contribution.

Hollywood Man of the Year: Al Gore

One of the things that distinguished our Man of the Year in 2007 was his passionate battle to encourage a certain ex-VP to run for our nation’s highest office. Mr. Jobs obviously recognizes that for all the good one can do as a businessman -- or for that matter as freelance advocate of social change -- there’s no platform on the planet from which you can have more impact than the one given to the President of the United States. Say what you want about Bush, but who can deny that he’s been a difference maker? If you don’t believe me, just ask 4,000 or so families of Iraq servicemen and women – they’ll tell you.

Al Gore is not only the choice of Steve Jobs for the nation’s highest office. He’s also the choice of more Democrats I know than any other politician, hands down. Gore was the last Democrat to win the popular vote for President, he served as VP under the last two Democratic administrations, he leads the charge for perhaps the world’s most important and pressing social cause and, as of a couple of months ago, he’s a Nobel Peace Prize winner. He has been called “sexy” by Uma Thurman (perhaps the foremost expert on the subject, ahem) and, indeed, is the darling of virtually everyone who’s ever set foot in Hollywood. He clearly should be the next President of the United States, right?

Apparently, every Democrat thinks so but Gore himself. I’ve heard some noises from the Gore camp that he doesn’t want the job partly because he could do more to fight global warming as a free lancer than as President. Excuse me? As President, you can essentially direct a bazillion dollars in favor of just about any cause you want to (even blowing up a country halfway across the world for seemingly no reason). As a free lancer, you can make movies, collect expressions of lust from Hollywood starlets, and eat like Chris Farley. Believe me, the latter sounds more fun, but the former is where the action is. Mr. Jobs, who’s all about having an impact and not just being a celebrity, would choose the POTUS gig in a heartbeat. It’s really a shame that Al did not.

By the way, is it just me, or does Gore’s decision to stay semi-retired make you wonder a bit about his commitment. Seriously, if Gore is right that the fate of the planet is in the balance, how can he not answer the call? James Bond always does, and he’s a Hollywood figure. Why doesn’t Al? I have no answer.

Stick-it-to-The Man of the Year: Steve Novick

If you don’t know this man’s name, where the hell have you been? He’s the darling of this quadrant of cyberspace. Do a search, and you’ll read my explanation for why he is the second coming of Paul Wellstone at a time when we desperately need 100 Paul Wellstones in the not-so-august body known as the United States Senate.

Currently, there are six Senators who come from states on our Pacific seaboard. One (Gordon Smith of Oregon) is a Republican. Novick is running as a Democrat to unseat him. Novick’s plain spoken, feisty, candid style, combined with his razor sharp mind (did you matriculate at Harvard Law School at 18?), natural comedic gifts and impeccable integrity make one whale of a political talent. You think Jim Webb sounds like he actually has balls? He’ll come across as mealy-mouthed compared to Novick. If elected, the 4’ 9” tall, one-armed Novick would get on the Sunday talk shows and explain why, believe it or not, there might actually exist a meaningful alternative to the Republican Party. He’ll tell America that there still are Americans who appreciate all the things that a Government can do when it is not corrupted by special interests but is instead devoted to average Americans. Novick, you see, is no limousine liberal. He comes from a working class background and never bothered to sell out for a life of luxury. He’s truly of the people and for the people.

I could have selected Novick as Politician of the Year. But as you’ll note, he’s getting a different award. It is inspired by the fact that, so far, the Democratic apparatchiks in D.C. have done everything in their power to keep him safely across the country. From the polls I’ve seen, he remains in a dead heat with his primary opponent, Oregon Speaker of the House Jeff Merkley. That’s truly amazing – and quite a testament to Novick’s popularity in his home state -- when you consider all that is being done back east to thwart him. I’m thinking in particular about New York Senator Charles Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who is raising more money for Merkley than for any other candidate in a contested primary. Methinks Mr. Schumer views Merkley as someone he could more easily control as a Senator than an independent spirit like Novick. Methinks Schumer is right – which is precisely why we all need to support Novick. He can win and he can give ‘em hell. And believe me, once he wins the nomination, Schumer will have no choice but to cave in and throw the DSCC’s support Novick’s way. After all, he would then be the only Democrat in the race, and while Schumer might have no trouble abandoning Democratic Party ideals, he doesn’t want to be seen as abandoning the Democratic Party.

Eunuchs of the Year: The Democrats Who Run the Congress

This is an easy one to give out. Was there really any competition?

In 2006, we had an election. The Democrats complained over and over again about this thing called the Iraq War. They framed the central difference between the parties in that the GOP supports the war, and the Dems don’t. The nation responded resoundingly by voting in the Dems. So what do they do? Cave in, by continuing to pour billions of dollars, not to mention hundreds of American lives, into this delightful venture.

Do the Dems really support continuing the war? Or have they decided to fund it simply because they are afraid of being blamed for the loss if they intervene and stop it? I suspect the answer is the latter. Today’s Democrats in Congress, by and large, are motivated strictly by fear … and politics. They are afraid of losing votes if the actions they (and their supporters) believe in should backfire politically. Hence, most of the Dems in the Senate voted for the war in 2003, and these same wimps are now unwilling to turn off the spigot. Show me a Democrat with balls … and I’ll show you a guy who is being actively thwarted by the Democratic leadership.

So, my eunuch friends, when you walk up to claim your award, tip your hat to the Stick-it-to-The Man award winner, the one you are actively trying to thwart That, my friends, is a real Democrat.

Woman of the Year: Elizabeth Edwards

I happen to be a big Obama fan. But I’m going to ignore for a moment all the male candidates for the White House and just talk about the women. Elizabeth Edwards is the kind of woman I’d want on Pennsylvania Avenue. She responds to her cancer like it’s a paper cut and immediately goes back to the campaign trail. Almost as importantly, the word on the street is that she consistently advocates progressive positions, even when it’s not always expedient to do so. In other words, from the perspective of my philosophy, she’s often one step ahead of her husband.

Now I know what you’re thinking: Elizabeth can afford to speak her conscience. She’s not running for anything. Well, this is what made Ronald Reagan great (at least if you’re a Republican). The dude spoke his conscience even though he was running for something, and what do you know? We elected him anyway. I somehow suspect that if John Edwards’ better half had been in the Senate in 2003, she wouldn’t have supported the war like her husband.

A lot of women show up on the scene as potential first ladies, but few come across with the class and vision of Elizabeth Edwards. Hillary loves to link herself to Eleanor Roosevelt, but to me, she doesn’t belong in Roosevelt’s league. Edwards, however, may indeed be worthy of comparisons to Abigail Adams. And to me, there aren’t too many higher compliments I can pay a person – man or woman.

Athlete of the Year: Randy Moss

This is a difficult award to give out because there are many deserving candidates. Tiger Woods, for example, would be a defensible choice. In fact, he’d be a defensible choice every year, as would Roger Federer. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning would be nice selections too. Both of those guys will go down in history as being in the very top echelon of QBs. But there’s something missing about their candidacy for this award, just as there is something missing from the resume of Tiger or Federer. They don’t capture what it means to be the modern professional athlete.

All those guys play hard and consistently show class. Talk about being out of step! The athlete of 2007 should be a guy who excels at his sport when all the stars are in sync, and who whines and slacks off when they’re not. Nobody fits that description better than Randy Moss of the New England Patriots.

First of all, let me clarify that to my knowledge, Moss has never been caught taken steroids. So we don’t have give this guy an award with an asterisk. In fact, Moss has been injured for so much of his career that I’d be shocked if he cheated with chemicals. This guy’s athletic skills – his combo of speed, jumping ability and hands – are freakish. He doesn’t need drugs to give him a leg up on his competition. But what he does need is a hell of a supporting cast. After all, nobody can dominate a football game all by himself, not even a quarterback, and you certainly can’t dominate as a wide receiver. So when Moss found himself traded a couple of years ago from the Vikings to the lowly Raiders, what did he do? He flat out dogged it. When he had the slightest injury, he didn’t play. And when he did play, he didn’t concentrate. If you wanted him to catch the ball, you’d have to practically glue it to his hands. That’s how badly he wanted out of Oakland.

Moss played so badly that all the Raiders could get for him was a 4th round pick in the draft. Apparently, the league thought that Randy was all washed up – too old, too banged up, too uninterested. What a laugh. As Moss once said back in his Viking days, “I play when I want to play.” And as soon as I heard that Randy was traded to Tom Brady’s Patriots, I knew for a fact that he’d play at about as high a level as his anyone has ever played his position.

Well, OK. You can argue that Jerry Rice in his prime was better. Rice once had a record 22 TD receptions in a 12 game season. Still, Moss has already caught 19 TDs with two games left to play, and even though his team has already played 14 games, they’ve done something Rice never did – WON ALL FRIGGEN 14 OF THEM! Much of the time, Moss is used simply as a decoy. He can occupy two players at will simply by sprinting down the field, which means that his team is effectively playing 10 against 9. And the strangest thing is that in those situations, whenever his QB throws him the ball, he’s as likely as not to catch the damn thing. And why not: when he jumps to make a catch, the two defenders look like mere Lilliputians by comparison.

Randy Moss is a punk. He once intentionally drove his car into the body of a traffic officer and gave her a bit of a ride. And, as discussed above, he accepted millions of dollars a year from a team and didn’t even try to help them win. Then again, he’s one of the most brilliant physical specimens I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching compete. In short, he is the Platonic Form of the modern professional athlete – gifted as hell, physically, but kind of a jackass when it comes to his character.

To many of my friends, the lack of character among athletes is what makes professional sports so hard to watch. But I still enjoy it. I love the action. And I love to see my teams’ uniforms, even if they’re just hanging in my closet. In fact, as much as I think of Moss as a punk, I would be rooting for him in a heartbeat if I had happened to be a Patriots fan … just as I once passionately rooted for him when he played for Minnesota.

Werewolf of the Year: Michael Vick

Again, is any explanation needed? One minute he looks like a happy man – sipping Coca Cola in a TV ad or accepting congratulations for being the first player selected in the NFL draft. Then the next minute, he’s leading a pack of vicious canines as they prepare to get in a little ring and rip into the throats of their own kind.

People don’t understand how Vick can behave this way. People want to throw him in jail for his so-called crime. But how can he be committing a crime? The dude’s a werewolf. Have some compassion. If you were a werewolf, how would you behave?

THAT CONCLUDES THIS YEAR’S AWARDS. Congratulations to the winners, regardless of whether they are “winners” or “losers.” This may be the last post around here until the weekend after the New Year, so I hope you enjoyed it.

Thank you to all my loyal readers. Have a great holiday season!

Saturday, December 15, 2007


Anybody who dares to philosophize about moral issues surely recognizes a distinct occupational hazard: you feel like a hypocrite whenever your values and your conduct fail to coincide, which is bound to happen with some frequency. In my case, I have always been struck by my professing to be “rationalistic” – note the name of this blog – when, in fact, I’m an extremely emotional creature. I like to see myself as “passionate;” it’s a positive-sounding word. But when your passions cause you to be resentful, angry, or disgusted by the behavior of others, it’s pretty darned hard to listen to that Voice of Reason. She gets drowned out rather easily.

For we who are both passionate and philosophical, perhaps the best we can do is to detect and unveil our own biases. So I’d like to devote this post to one of my own. Specifically, I’m referring to my intense allergy to Ms. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

If there’s someone among us who were to chronicle all my comments about the Democratic front-runner during the past several months, s/he would surely find many good “reasons” for opposing her candidacy. I’ve surely suggested that she is polarizing, calculating, cold, often insincere, unwilling to apologize, and downright mean at times; she represents dynastic rule, rather than a return to democracy; her ambition clouds her judgment; she’s never successfully run anything bigger than a Senate office; she plays the gender card at a time when we need to unite and not divide. I could go on, but why bother? I’m not exactly revealing anything that hasn’t already been aired by the media.

So yes, there are plenty of good reasons not to care for Ms. Clinton as a candidate, but there are plenty of good reasons to fault the claim of any mere mortal to serve in the world’s most powerful position. Few have even come close to measuring up to its demands. My question is why do I find this particular person so distasteful, compared to the other candidates? You could point to sexism, but I tend to like many public figures who are women. It’s not her gender. Then what is it?

The answer didn’t dawn on me until I watched a funny little black comedy called Election. Released in 1999, this movie was widely acclaimed by critics. It starred Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon, but it was Witherspoon’s performance as Tracy Flick that stole the show. Premiere Magazine, in its list of the 100 greatest acting performances in Hollywood history ranked Witherspoon’s performance #45, and #13 among actresses -- pretty high praise for a comedic role about a high school student.

Election focused on the least important political campaign imaginable – a race for student government president. Tracy Flick was a little miss perfect high school junior who felt that the presidency was nothing less than her destiny. Tracy was the girl who always gets a 100 on every test. She tries to answer every question asked in class, joins more school organizations than any other student, and invariably takes a “can do” attitude for every task that comes up. In short, she views herself as objectively more deserving of whatever accolades are available, and that certainly includes the title of Student Government President.

When the movie first introduced the election, Flick was running unopposed. She’d set up her little booth and gave out gum to anyone who signed her petition. Clearly, this was a girl who knew what she wanted, knew how to get there, and couldn’t imagine that anyone could stand in her way. Her campaign even had a cute little motto: “Pick Flick.” With the passage of time, her giveaways became increasingly elaborate, culminating in customized cupcakes for all voters. In her mind, she couldn’t imagine why any student would pick anyone else.

Then, one day, Flick got some competition. Paul Metzler, who was played by American Pie’s Chris Klein, was a prototypical boy next door. Tall, handsome, athletic, genuinely kind, and neither intelligent nor stupid, Metzler was extremely popular among his peers. As he began to gain more support, Flick became more and more angry. She must have been incredulous that anyone could vote for this boy, whom she must have seen as a moron, as compared to herself, a natural aristocrat. Here’s the way Witherspoon described what it felt like to play Flick: “She clenched her teeth and jutted her jaw forward, particularly when she was angry, which was ninety-five percent of the film. I just remember after the movie was done, my jaw hurt so bad. I had TMJ from holding my jaw so tight!”

Eventually, Flick’s anger got the better of her. She ripped up a Metzler poster when nobody else was around to see her. And then, to cover up the deed, she ripped up her own posters. Would she get away with it? Would she become SGA president? Would Broderick, the teacher who presided over the election, somehow find a way to bring her down to size? I’ll leave these questions unanswered, as I don’t want to spoil the film too much for those of you who haven’t seen it, which I’d urge you to do. Premiere Magazine may have gone a tad overboard in its raves, but that Flick character will stay with you. In fact, it stays with me whenever I see Hillary Clinton’s face on the screen.

The parallels between these women are endless, and they seem to grow more profound with each month Hillary spends campaigning. Like Tracy, Hillary is really smart, really ambitious, and really diligent. Like Tracy, Hillary thinks that her brains, ambition and diligence morally entitle her to win whatever campaign she tackles – political or otherwise. Like Tracy, Hillary likes to smile a lot – how else does one act professional? – but those smiles belie a smoldering anger underneath. Both women want to be in control; in fact, both women want to rule. Heaven help anyone who takes them on, for they will do whatever it takes – within the rules or otherwise – in order to win.

We saw that in Election when Flick ripped up Metzler’s poster in a fit of rage and then coolly covered up the deed. But until recently, we didn’t see that “win at all costs” mentality from the Clinton camp. Then again, we didn’t need to. The media was allowing her to run virtually unopposed. Oh sure, there was that momentary dalliance with Obama back in the spring, but it wasn’t serious. All Hillary had to do was point out that her rival – gasp! – was willing to talk to bad guys and to go into Pakistan if needed to capture Bin Laden and the media pounced on him like a cat. That drove Hillary’s numbers back through the roof and allowed her to play the role of the above-the-fray politician who simply wants what’s best for her party.

Yeah right.

Perhaps six weeks ago, the tide turned. Obama and Edwards realized that it was time to take Hillary on – especially by pointing out that she is waffling on the issues. When that happened, and her rivals got a little bounce in the polls, Hillary lost it. No, she didn’t rip down any Obama posters (at least none that I’m aware of), but she did everything but. She directly questioned her rival’s character. She challenged him for being overly ambitious because of a statement he made when he was five. And one of her lieutenants even questioned Obama’s drug use – raising the specter that years ago, he wasn’t merely a user but also a dealer.

I think even most house cats don’t have claws that sharp. But Tracy does. She could relate. When she fights for what is rightfully hers, there are no means that aren’t justifiable to reach the noble end of victory. That’s the way life is like for the Tracy Flicks of the world. And increasingly, it appears, that’s the way life is like for Hillary Clinton.

To get back to the point I made at the beginning of this post, I have to make a concession here. Tracy Flick is a fictional character and a stereotypical one at that. We can’t possibly exaggerate her features because those features, taken to the nth degree, make her what she is. But maybe, just maybe, I have turned Hillary Clinton into a stereotype when, in fact, she’s a complex human being who surely has a limit to her cravenness, and a quantum of compassion that Flick could only dream of having. Maybe, in other words, my biases have allowed my mind to under-appreciate what semblance of class Hillary truly possesses.

Moreover, I will also admit that the stereotype that Flick represents is laden with gender issues, and my disgust for Hillary might accordingly have something to do with her being a woman. So the fact that I don’t feel the same way about most other women politicians doesn’t mean that I’m not somehow holding Hillary’s gender against her, albeit subconsciously.

I’ll concede those points to Hillary’s defenders. And yet I don’t think they take away much from a point of my own. Many human stereotypes are gender-linked – such as the oily used-car salesman (Romney?) or the curmudgeon (Gravel?). But that doesn’t mean that these stereotypes don’t elicit emotion, or that they shouldn’t elicit emotion. The reason why the Tracy Flicks of the world are so distasteful is that they’re mean, unscrupulous, phony, arrogant, and are no more entitled to what they seek than the genuinely nice, but less ambitious, people they walk over throughout their lives.

Hillary Clinton may not be as extreme as Tracy Flick, I’ll grant you that. But she is reminiscent of Flick, pretty damned reminiscent, if you ask me. Democrats who might personally prefer people like Obama or Edwards but who back Hillary because she is more “electable” might consider Clinton’s celluloid twin. If I’m right, Clinton’s “Flick issue” will follow her more and more with the passage of time. Come November, she’s going to have to bribe voters with a whole lot of customized cupcakes if she hopes to win a popularity contest. Either that, or her campaign had better produce evidence that her opponents really were drug dealers. I don’t see it happening, but then again, I’m not one to bet against the Tracy Flicks of the world. I’ve seen too much blind ambition get rewarded to count such people out before the cat fight is officially over.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


It has been said before in this quadrant of cyberspace that I have but one ultimate goal in life. On days like today, I have trouble believing that I could reach that goal, but quite a few people do, and my parents came close. They were married for 58 years when, on October 1, 2002, my father died. My goal is to beat them by two years. Kathy and I would nearly have to reach 90 in order to get there, and we have 39 years to go, but we’re going to give it our best shot. My sole concern is life expectancy. That other killer of marriages – divorce – is something I’ve rarely thought about happening to me.

Until this week.

Piqued your interest? Well don’t worry. If Kathy and I were having marital problems, I sure wouldn’t be talking about it here. No, the divorce I have in mind has nothing to do with my wife. We’re both getting divorced, to be sure, but not from each other. We’re getting divorced from our religious community. This past Sunday, our community filed for divorce with us … and dozens if not scores of others.

I’m not sure if this horrible situation is suitable for a blog post. Normally, I try to write about topics of broad philosophical or political interest and yet, on the surface, this topic seems to be both mundane and limited in interest. In fact, I could trivialize it very easily, as follows:

“My Reform Temple has two rabbis and a cantor. The Senior Rabbi doesn’t work well with the other rabbi or the cantor, and the Board of Trustees is sick and tired of the lack of harmony. So the Board decided that it had to choose between the Senior Rabbi, on the one hand, and the Cantor and Associate Rabbi, on the other. It chose the Senior Rabbi and told the membership last Sunday that the other two will have to leave when their contracts expire in June.”

Big whoop, right?

In my house, it is. You’ve seen me compare the situation to a divorce. My wife has compared it to a “death in the family.” My younger daughter is palpably depressed about it. And all of us recognize that the closest thing we had to a community is never again going to be a part of our life.

Well, not quite.

The question that has been plaguing me all week is not which community to join going forward, but whether I have any more obligations to take action in response to the divorce filing. I’ve already ripped up my dues check. I’ve already advised my older daughter to quit her job as the temple’s Saturday services song leader. But should I do more? Should I organize a petition? Should I organize a picket? That’s right, you heard me. Should I organize a picket? Or is there a way to annul the Board's action -- something that would allow the congregation as a whole to oust the Board after a vote of no confidence. That last alternative would be my preference, if it's an available option.

It is almost axiomatic that one of the more primitive forms of religiosity involves treating clergymen as if they are gods. I look at certain Hasidic communities, and I see the way they treat their rebbes, and it seems absurd to me. These people are only human, right? So why expect that they have supernatural wisdom? Why let them decide for us the meaning of right and wrong?

I’d like to think that my attachment to that cantor and that rabbi is altogether different. I didn’t look to them for supernatural anything – wisdom or otherwise. But they were the closest thing my family and I had to spiritual leaders in our midst. And we were hardly alone. Two years ago, the same Board tried to can the same cantor (the rabbi was spared the agony, temporarily), claiming that the issue was one of “money.” Well over 100 members responded with a petition, and the Board reconsidered and decided on a solution reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz. Instead of “Bring back the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West,’ it was “Raise $40,000 in permanent annual voluntary dues increases.” Well, we did. And they agreed to re-hire the cantor – for two more years.

Personally, my family upped our dues by $1,400 a year, and I have no doubt that some others were even more generous. That cantor was the heart of prayer at that synagogue. His voice, more than anything else, opened up the soul to the sublime. After he was re-hired, we heard from Board officials that they had recognized their failure to appreciate the views of the membership, and they would do a better job of listening to what we think. Their idea was to hold Parlor Meetings where temple members would share ideas. And so those meetings were held. In each case, the Senior Rabbi was present; the cantor and Associate Rabbi were not. Nevertheless, the results of the meetings – released in October of this year, or nine months after they were held -- were the Platonic Form of an inconclusive mishmash. It’s no wonder that the report on the meetings was prepared in April, but it took them half a year more to release it. The Board could have spent 60 months working on that report and it wouldn’t have made a difference. There was no way to utilize the results as a mandate to let ago of the Temple’s clergy.

Then again, there was no need to consider the Parlor Meetings in terms of such a mandate, because at the same time those meeting results were released, the Board had another meeting. Unlike the Parlor Meetings – which collectively were attended by only about 65 people – this one was attended by well over 100. For nearly two hours, congregants walked up to the front of the sanctuary and spoke about whether or not to retain the existing clergy. Overwhelmingly, the members voiced their support. In fact, other than past presidents or spouses of current vice presidents, there was scarcely a dissenting word heard. Slam dunk, right? Of course the Board would retain our cantor and Associate Rabbi. After all, at the June annual meeting, we were told that one of the purposes of this October meeting would be to listen to the membership about whether to retain these clergymen. And boy did the membership speak their mind. We want our cantor! We want our rabbi! Instead, we just got screwed.

I could go on to list even more facts, but you get the drift. The two clergy who were canned were brilliant, spiritual people who have huge legions of fans. But the Senior Rabbi wasn’t among those fans. Nor were many of the people on the Board. The Board's Kafkaesque letter to the membership reporting on its decision quoted from a Biblical Prophet and justified the decision on the need for “harmony.” That letter presumably meant that since the temple will be controlled by one man and one man only (the Senior Rabbi), we can now have unity ... and a choice – his way or the highway.

The more that I think about the situation, the more I realize how many issues of broad import really are at play. First and foremost, this tells you a lot about the level of apathy in modern Reform temples. The previous temple president explained that one of the reasons the Board was prepared to let the cantor go back in 2005 is that they figured most members were essentially two day a year Jews who really couldn’t care much about who was leading Friday night services in prayer. In other words, these temples exist like country clubs – they give people a sense of identity and a social network, but they don’t especially ground their spirituality or their values. We’ll see over the next several weeks whether that vision of the Temple’s membership is accurate, but I for one wouldn't be surprised if the ex-president spoke the truth.

Second, the situation points out the ethical “flexibility” of religious institutions. This temple, you see, promotes itself as a very progressive place – and progressive values presumably start with a commitment to democratic principles. But in fact, the Board’s conduct was governed by a corporatist, authoritarian model. They owed us the “procedural rights” of meetings where they physically sat quietly and listened to us. Yet they clearly didn’t give a damn about what we said. This sort of dynamic may well be played out in churches and synagogues all over the country. It’s easy to tell stories about religious ideals – generosity, justice, etc. – but that doesn’t for a second mean that our religious leaders feel obliged to follow these ideals. I guess the point is to know about them and proclaim their truth. Actually living according to them is above and beyond the call of duty.

Third, the situation points out how our society has become, to use a phrase coined by Abby Hoffman, a “hotbed of rest.” The Board learned back in 2005 that while hundreds of temple members are mired in some degree of apathy about fundamental synagogue issues, dozens of others are extremely passionate and will surely be enraged about the injustice of this situation. But the Board is counting on our ultimately deciding that there is nothing we can do to change things.

Forty years ago, people demonstrated publicly with respect to a variety of causes. They felt that if you didn’t demonstrate against injustice, you would ensure that it recurs over and over again, tormenting the lives of innocent people. Today, however, we pretty much tend to our own gardens – our kids, our jobs, etc. Somehow, we have adopted an Adam Smithian approach to justice – justice will be best furthered by feathering our own families’ nests 24/7.

Have we lost our religious soul? Have we truly forgotten why we admire the Prophets so much – or their modern descendents, like Martin Luther King or Abraham Joshua Heschel? To me, the temple Board has issued a challenge to my community. Are you serious about Jewish values, or have you simply joined a country club? I can’t wait to find out. I can’t wait to see how many people – how many families – are willing to fight for justice. I can’t wait to see how many are willing to decide, for example, that while a “religious education” is extremely important, children will learn more about religious values by picking up a picket sign than by hearing about the Prophets in a classroom.

Some things are best learned outside of books. Then again, sometimes, books will capture a point perfectly. As it is written in Ecclesiastes, “There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under heaven. … A time for keeping silent. A time for speaking. … A time for war. A time for peace.”

The Board is calling this a time for peace (i.e., harmony). I, respectively, must beg to disagree.

At the October meeting, we practically begged the Board to take this opportunity to make a statement that peace isn’t something you’re just handed but something you have to work for. I personally made the appeal that if we can’t peacefully come together at this temple, how can we possibly pray for peace in the Middle East? I also said that if, under the circumstances, there is any member of the clergy who wasn’t willing to work with the others, that was the person who should leave.

Well, the Board decided that it wanted peace – but on the cheap. It wanted peace by taking an action against the will of the majority and making a clear statement to anyone who dissents: don't let the door hit your ass on the way out. But it didn’t want to return the tens of thousands of dollars that it solicited in voluntary dues increases for the purported purpose of keeping our community intact.

To that, I have but one response: NO JUSTICE, NO SHALOM.

Saturday, December 01, 2007


A few weeks ago, an old college friend suggested that I take on a topic other than philosophy or politics – namely, myself. Other bloggers had come up with an idea that as many bloggers as possible should do a post entitled “Ten Random Things about Myself,” and my friend Betty suggested that I do the same. So what follows is my lame attempt to talk about someone near and dear to my heart, despite what I often think of him.

And by the way, PLEASE check out Betty’s own blog “La France Profonde” by Googling that phrase. She actually has multiple blogs that are accessible at that site, and whoever you are, I suspect you will find something there worthy of your time.

1. Counting only blood relatives, if you add up all my living (a) parents, (b) children, (c) first cousins, (d) nephews, (e) nieces, (f) uncles, (g) aunts, and (h) grandparents, you’ll get twice the number of known attributes of Spinoza’s God … or the same number of Presidents named either Bush or Adams. I’m referring to my mother, two daughters, and a first cousin in New York City.

2. I’ve been out of law school for 23 years – and have practiced for 21 of them -- and the closest I’ve ever come to working for a law firm is a single interview that I had as a second year law student. I thought it was a public interest law firm. It turned out not to be. It was clear that neither I nor the firm was interested. And that is the sum total of my private sector legal experience.

3. I’ve been called many things in my life that were less than flattering. The name “Spiro” lends itself to that – there’s “Spiro T. Agnew,” “Spirochete” (a bacterial organism, one type of which is the cause of syphilis), “Spirograph,” and “Spirotot,” just to name a few. But the only name that ever bothered me was when I was repeatedly called “Abner” when I was about eight or nine. The kids on the block discovered that my middle name was Albert – named after that great Spinozist, Mr. Einstein, whose political views coincided with that of my parents and whose love for physics was shared by my dad. Somehow, my neighborhood buddies preferred to name me instead for Abner Kravitz, the Stevens’ next door neighbor on Bewitched. I hated that damned name. Perhaps that’s because I would hate above all else to be hen-pecked like Mr. Kravitz.

4. I’ve always liked to think of myself not as a person who lives in the here-and-now but as one of a series of person-stages, including the past as well as the future. For that reason, I try to stay in touch with old friends and rarely miss reunions (except for law-school reunions, for I feel too alienated from the experience of law school to choose to hang out with random classmates … and talk about the law). As I’ve indicated in an earlier post, I suspect that someone who met me at 10, 15 or 20 would recognize pretty much the same person at 40, 45, or should I be so lucky to get there, 80.

5. I’m hopeless at remembering languages. I’m talking about foreign languages, computer languages … it really doesn’t matter what. I know English and the language of mathematics (that was one of my greatest passions as a child), but the other ones just don’t stay in my mind. Oh, and while I’m on the topic of shortcomings, my mechanical aptitude is off-the-charts bad.

6. I have had three dogs in my life, all small and all white. The first one, my childhood dog, was never fixed. My dad thought it would be “cruel” to his manhood to do that. Consequently, this wild little mutt would try to escape from our house whenever possible and make mischief in my suburban neighborhood. Once, he jumped out our second story window, and we received a call from someone blocks away that he was messing with their bitch, which was in heat. We finally had to give him away to a farm. I think the combo of having balls and being part-terrier meant that he was unsuitable for Bethesda.

Today, I have two bichons – Kirby Puckett and Carly Simon. Carly yaps at practically everyone who comes in, begs constantly for food during dinner, and always tries to steal food from Kirby. But it serves us right, because we never trained her (and were it not for my wife, Kirby wouldn’t have been trained either). Some bad habits run in the family, I guess.

7. My favorite musical group is the Rolling Stones. And my favorite Stones album is Sticky Fingers. That one album has so many of my favorite songs – Brown Sugar, Sway, Wild Horses (my favorite slow song), Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, Bitch, Dead Flowers and Moonlight Mile. In addition to the Stones, I also really love Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Pink Floyd, and Fleetwood Mac. In terms of groups who aren’t yet on the “Senior’s Tour,” I really like the Dave Matthews Band and Radiohead.

8. My favorite word is God – but only when I get to define it, or when the person using the word is intending for it to be meant in a broad way so that each of us can define it for ourselves. I enjoy hearing religious ideas chanted in languages I can’t understand. That way, I can enjoy the spiritual sound of the chant, without having to think about what the clerics are saying, which I probably don’t agree with.

9. I don’t consider myself a cheapskate. I’m generous enough with my friends, and I spend freely on books and on travel (when I have the time to travel). But one thing I hate spending money on is cars. I drive a 1990 Honda Accord wagon – a car that my wife bought back when I was driving a Ford Taurus, which lasted me until the carburetor died. My Honda has three functioning doors (the door on the front passenger’s seat is jammed) and a radio that works perhaps 50% of the time. I think nothing of throwing empty water bottles on the ground in front of the passenger’s seat, figuring that every few weeks I’ll have the motivation to at least remove the bottles, if not the newspapers and other junk that accumulates in the car. That vehicle is a superego-free zone. I miss not having a functioning radio, but the car otherwise suits me just fine.

10. I saved for last my pet peeves and pet loves. Notwithstanding my comments about hypocrisy in The Creed Room, I really can’t stand to see it, especially when it’s manifested in the context of religion. I also have a problem with hierarchy. Yes, I know some amount of it is appropriate, but I like to see people downplay it and attempt to democratize institutions as much as is practicable … and perhaps a tiny bit more. I also really get annoyed when I go into restaurants and don’t find any vegetable protein on the menu. (Don’t we vegans have rights too?)

As for loves, I really love people who are candid, loyal, trustworthy, unpretentious, humble (but not self-effacing), and intellectual. I like people who are either silly or can appreciate raunchy humor. I also enjoy being around spiritual people, but that assumes that their spirituality hasn’t bled into sanctimony, in which case it becomes intolerable.

Anyway, if you’re still reading, thanks for indulging me these random, self-centered thoughts.

Friday, November 23, 2007


This was supposed to be a week of celebrations for me, and Monday evening lived up to its billing. On that evening, we held a meeting of my beloved Washington Spinoza Society. The guest speaker, Professor Firmin DeBrabander, spoke about his book Spinoza and the Stoics and reminded me once again how refreshing it can be when a professional philosopher talks in a down-to-earth manner about issues that actually matter to people, instead of engaging in pretentious masturbation about minutia. When I see the jargon-loving academics in action, I feel so friggen smart for having gone into the practice of law. But when I listen to knowledgeable people like Firmin talk about “the great issues” in a way that is as accessible to teenagers as to professors, I can only shake my head at my stupid career choice.

Pete Townsend, you might recall, once wrote “Getting high, you can’t beat it.” Well, a good philosophy discussion led by a soulful philosopher beats it like a drum … at least for me.

Tuesday was a celebration of a birthday -- an 82nd birthday, to be precise. The date was November 20th, Steve Novick was in town, and that can only mean yet another ceremony commemorating the birth of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Every year, around twenty of us gather in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice on or around the 20th of November to remember RFK, who was once our nation’s Attorney General. Novick flies in from Oregon and leads the ceremony. He had the idea to hold this annual celebration back when he was a Trial Attorney for the DOJ, and when he left my home town to go back to the left coast, he vowed to return every year and keep the tradition – and RFK’s memory – alive.

For most people, the gathering on November 20th is a reminder of RFK’s life. It’s usually a time to think about how wonderful it was to have such a passionate, pragmatic, intelligent, hard-working and principled progressive in the position of Attorney General. It’s a time to recall, for example, how much he loved his big brother John, and how amazing a President he might have been -- almost certainly the greatest President in my lifetime for someone with left-leaning political views.

For me, however, Tuesday was a time to think less about RFK’s life than about his death.

As I stood in the Great Hall listening to people reminisce about Kennedy, I found myself harkening back to June 6, 1968. Your humble scribe wasn’t quite eight years old then, but I was already a political junky. And that night, I had been watching coverage of the Democratic primary in California, which RFK had just won. Seconds after his acceptance speech, he was gunned down by a man with the mysterious name of Sirhan Sirhan. I experienced that assassination as if it had happened to someone I knew personally.

To be candid, I had been hoping that Eugene McCarthy would take the Presidency – he seemed the greatest bet to end the war quickly. Still, I admired the hell out of Kennedy and was absolutely aghast that some creature would take his beautiful life … and right smack in its prime. That shooting struck me as the height of horror – more horrible, in fact, than anything Hollywood could ever produce.

On June 6, 1968, I thought about death. But all that thinking merely reinforced my love for life and hatred for violence. Returning now to the present, and having just lived through a week when two boys at my daughters’ school died in a car accident, I suppose it was only appropriate that I spent RFK’s birthday party contemplating his sickening demise.

The next planned celebration was to be on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, when we all get to give thanks for all the wonderful things in our lives … and for life itself. Then, on Saturday, November 24th, I expected to celebrate the 375th birthday of another slightly important person in my life – Baruch Spinoza. My celebration would, of course, be a solitary one – Spinoza’s birthday isn’t exactly a big news item in Bethesda, Maryland. But the next day, I am scheduled to deliver two sermons at the Silver Spring Unitarian-Universalist Church, and my topic for these talks is none other than “Spinoza and Unitarian-Universalism.” It’s the least I can do to keep the memory of Spinoza alive. For to quote Firmin DeBrabander, Spinoza is none other than “The Father of Secular Liberalism” – and that makes him just the role model we need in a time when religious fundamentalisms of different stripes are threatening to destroy both this country and this planet.

What does it say about a man who can at the same time be called “God intoxicated” (according to Novalis) and the founder of secular liberalism? I say that this must be a man who appreciated the holiness of freedom. Spinoza devoted his political and theological views to advancing freedom in all its forms. But he devoted his ethical and metaphysical views to the celebration of life. To quote the great 17th century philosopher, “The free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death.”

Well … let’s just say that in the last 24 hours, I haven’t been a very free man.

You see, my friends, my Thanksgiving was interrupted a bit. Not by death, mind you, but by the fear of death. Some would say that such a fear is among the greatest original spurs to philosophy and religion, but Spinoza would identify it as one of the most enervating facets of the human condition.

My family had just finished a marvelous Thanksgiving dinner when my mother – my last surviving parent -- reported a little dizziness. We took her blood pressure only to find that her systolic pressure, which a few hours earlier had gone up to 190, had dropped all the way to 60. Within minutes, we got her to the hospital, and that is where she is now. Her pressure is stable at the moment, but it has fluctuated wildly before, and if her doctor is to be believed, there’s no cure for her condition. To be sure, everyone’s blood pressure fluctuates, and fluctuates considerably, but once it starts bouncing around by 130 points or more, you know you’ve got some issues.

I mention this sad truth because I’m only now beginning to explore the raison d’etre for this literary device known as a “blog.” Its beauty stems in part from the fact that there are no rules of the game, no “adults” telling us what we can and can’t write about, or how we must go about the craft of writing. Perhaps the Rationalists out there would like me to continue talking about my favorite philosopher, or about the Kennedy Brothers, and all the things that we could learn from their respective examples and teachings. I’d rather, however, point out that sometimes a noun is less important than an adjective. And such is the case with the title of my blog.

Rationalists can be cold-blooded bastards. But Empathic Rationalists should always be benign forces in the universe. Right now, instead of concerning myself with great philosophical or political questions, I’d prefer to reflect on the fun I had today at the hospital (we enjoyed the LSU/Arkansas game together), or simply to hope that somehow, my mother can will her body back to health and buy a few more precious years on this planet.

You see, it is only during times like this when we really appreciate what Spinoza was talking about. A free man doesn’t like to think about death. Why should he? But when he must, he realizes that his disdain for death is precisely because of how much he loves to live. And when he sees his loved ones battle valiantly for life, that is when he most realizes how intertwined our lives are, and how much of the meaning in our own lives comes from loving other people.

Allow me to quote a somewhat lengthy passage from Spinoza's Ethics:

"As every man seeks most that which is useful to him, so are men most useful one to another. For the more a man seeks what is useful to him and endeavors to preserve himself, the more is he endowed with virtue ... or, what is the same thing ... the more is he endowed with power to act according to the laws of his own nature, that is to live in obedience to reason. But men are most in natural harmony, when they live in obedience to reason ...; therefore ... men will be most useful one to another, when each seeks most that which is useful to him. ...

"What we have just shown is attested by experience so conspicuously, that it is in the mouth of nearly everyone: 'Man is to man a God.' Yet it rarely happens that men live in obedience to reason, for things are so ordered among them, that they are generally envious and troublesome one to another. Nevertheless, they are scarcely able to lead a solitary life, so that the definition of man as a social animal has met with general assent; in fact, men do derive from social life much more convenience than injury. Let satirists then laugh their fill at human affairs, let theologians rail, and let misanthropes praise to their utmost the life of untutored rusticity, tlet them heap contempt on men and praises on beasts; when all is said, they will find that men can provide for their wants much more easily by mutual help, and that only by uniting their forces can they escape the dangers that on every side beset them."

We've all surely leaned on a number of people in life to escape the dangers that beset us on every side. But who have we leaned on more than our mothers? I'd like to take this opportunity to wish mine the strength and motivation to defeat this illness for as long as possible. And while I joke sometimes about how it is both weird and stereotypical to have lived 600 feet away from "my Jewish mother" for the past 17 years, I have never felt happier about that fact in my life. For all that my mother drives me nuts -- and those who have read The Creed Room can only begin to imagine the ways -- she, more than anyone else, has given me the spirit that I have in life, and the day that I forget that fact will be the day my mind has officially stopped working.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Lately, I've been writing new posts only on weekends, but allow me briefly to break that habit and thank each of you who have been reading this blog ... and a special thanks for those who have been offering comments.

When I started the Empathic Rationalist last year at the request of my publisher, I was not an avid blog reader and had no idea if I'd take to this format. What's made the process worthwhile is the feedback that you all have given me -- both in print and orally. It makes cyberspace seem a whole lot less lonely.

So again -- thanks to each of you for making this a place where empathy and rationalism can grow together. And in that order.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


Tomorrow at one in the afternoon, I will get to enjoy an event that only comes around once every four years: my two favorite professional football teams will play against each other. The odds are that whoever you are, and wherever you live, you won’t watch it. Indeed, you won’t be able to. It was almost blacked out on TV in the city where the game will be played. I say “almost,” because a couple of days before the game, when 2,000 tickets remained unsold, the Miller Brewing Company stepped up and bought out the remaining tickets. That’s right: the company that sells the most watered down beer wanted to help out a football franchise that sells some of the most watered down football.

The truth is that the home team stinks. And yet they are a clear favorite to win the game. They don’t call this tilt “The Toilet Bowl” for nothing.

This game, my friends, promises to be professional football at its most pathetic – and I mean that in the sense of engendering true pathos, especially in the heart of yours truly. I’ve been rooting for these teams since the days of Woodstock. Since the time that Mick, Keith, John, Paul, Janis and Jimmy were at their peaks. I was rooting for these teams since before I even visited their cities. And hey, I wasn’t alone in not paying those places a visit. We’re not exactly talking about garden spots, you know. We’re talking about Oakland, California (about which Gertrude Stein once said “There’s nothing there, there”) and Minneapolis, Minnesota (as in “It’s not the North Pole, but you can see it from there”). We’re talking about two of the Rodney Dangerfields of professional sports: the Oakland Raiders and the Minnesota Vikings. Like I said, they don’t call this tilt “The Toilet Bowl” for nothing.

Some of you may know that my love for football borders on the fanatic. I bought a satellite dish so that I can watch the above teams – and my Stanford Cardinal – as often as possible. I schlepped my family to Mankato, Minnesota in the summer of 2006 so that we could attend the Vikings training camp. And after having completed 1.9 novels (the second is about to be edited by my publisher, but it’s done as far as I’m concerned), I realize that I’m incapable of writing at length about anything without talking about football.

When I watch football, I become a little boy again. Back then, I didn’t just watch, I played. In fact, I had the best hands in the neighborhood. If the ball was anywhere close to me, I’d hang on to it. Just as my least favorite nickname was Abner (based on the fact that Gore and I share the same name – his first, my middle), my favorite was “Biletnikoff.” To be compared to the greatest Raiders receiver of all-time, even if only in a small quadrant of North Bethesda, was one of my greatest honors. Needless to say, however, by the time I matriculated in high school, my playing days were over. Are you kidding? Did you actually think I would give up the chance to watch Star Trek every afternoon to beat up a blocking sled? Did you actually think I was a talented athlete?

Give me a break.

Back in the day – the day being the late 60s and early 70s – the Raiders and Vikings were both quite good. But neither could win “The Big One.” One of the cruelest ironies of my childhood was that by the time one of them won the Super Bowl, which was in January 1977, it was only by beating the tar out of the other. That’s right. The same God who gave my people the Holocaust made sure that I couldn’t enjoy a childhood Super Bowl because my Raiders would only be able to reach the pinnacle of their sport by thoroughly humiliating my Vikings. The Vikings had the opportunity to play in the Big Dance three times before they were destroyed by the Raiders. They’ve never been back since. But they have had a few close shaves.

In 1987, the Vikes were playing in the NFC Championship Game against my local team, the Redskins (who I hate), needing only to win that game to play for the World Championship. They lost when Darrin Nelson, a guy who lived three doors down in my freshman dorm, dropped a TD pass in the end zone that would have sent the game into overtime. You think that’s bad? A decade later, the Vikes were up by a TD late in the 4th quarter against the Falcons, needing only to connect on a moderately long field goal to earn a bid to the Super Bowl. The Vikes’ kicker hadn’t missed a kick all year. But you guessed it – he missed, the Falcons scored a TD on the next possession, and the Vikes would go on to lose in overtime. The only other time the Vikes made the penultimate game, they lost 41-0.

So what do you think – three parts schlemiels, four parts schlimazels?

I could sing the praises of the Raiders, who have won a total of three Super Bowls, but who would I be kidding? They’ve only played in one Super Bowl in the last two decades, and that was back in 2003 when they lost by 27 to a team led by Jon Gruden, their former coach. Since then, they’ve lost at least three times for every victory, culminating in last season, when they earned the title of “The NFL’s Worst Team.”

Tomorrow, the “once proud” Raiders will bring a 2-7 record to Minnesota where they are 5 ½ point underdogs against a 3-6 Vikings team whose wins have come courtesy of a running back who won’t even play tomorrow. In short, the Vikes are one of football’s worst teams, but the Raiders are even worse. Or at least that’s what the odds makers say. Personally, I’d bet on the Raiders. They at least seem to like their coach. I think the Vikes players would like to see their coach shipped down the Mississippi. The last straw was when Troy Williamson, one of the team’s stable of lousy receivers, said that he’d be missing a game to spend time with his family and the coach said fine, but he’d have to forfeit his game check. Sounds reasonable, I suppose, unless you realize that Williamson had just lost his grandmother, and less than two months had elapsed since his brother was severely injured in a car accident. Strangely enough, he needed a slight break from football. Go figure.

When I think about the Williamson story, or about the lunatic who owns the Raiders (moving the team twice, always being involved in litigation, etc.), or about how lousy these franchises have been on the field, or about how much time I have spent watching them over the years … the word “certifiable” comes to mind. Truly, I don’t think it’s about masochism. But what is it, then? Why do I keep watching so dutifully?

Loyalty plays a big part. As long as you’re not hurting anyone other than yourself, loyalty has always struck me as an incredibly important characteristic. Our collective loyalties allow us to count on what we love most – whether they are parents, children, friends … or in the case of professional athletes, fans like me. Loyalty gives us an emotional foundation -- a dry rock to stand on in a dangerously slippery world. But there’s more to this than loyalty, or than a man’s desire to summon the little boy that lies within. Somehow, the Vikings and Raiders have become integral parts of my self-image. When I was in an Israeli yeshiva and the Orthodox rabbis were trying to persuade me to “make aliyah” (immigrate to Israel), one of the reasons I decided to go back to the States was because I didn’t want to lose my football teams. I didn’t want to lose who I was.

I may not be the smartest person I could be, or for that matter the wisest, happiest, most time-efficient, or athletic. But I’ll say this for myself – the people I met 40 years ago, 30 years ago, 20 years ago, or 10 years ago would tell you the same thing: in my core, I haven’t really changed. And that’s the way I like it.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines from Star Trek – and specifically, the episode called “Balance of Terror.” It was spoken by Dr. McCoy to Captain Kirk, who was stressed out over a battle with a Romulan ship.

"In this galaxy, there's a mathematical probability of three million Earth-type planets. And, in all the universe, three million million galaxies like this. And in all of that – and perhaps more – only one of each of us. . . . Don't destroy the one named 'Kirk'."

I’ve always lived my life by that sentiment. “The one named Spiro” (as Dr. McCoy might put it) has all sorts of problems, but he is what he is and needs to nurture himself. If there is something that he finds compelling, something that he has “enjoyed” for decades, something that doesn’t involve deceiving or hurting anyone else … why not nurture that too? Why submit it to the crucible of utility, that shibboleth of modern man? Why not accept it as part of that which makes us enduring … and endearing?

If you’re reading this post today, Saturday November 17th, please honor me with this request. Even if you hate football -- even if you totally don’t appreciate anything as crude and pedestrian as professional sports – do me a favor.

Tomorrow, before you go to bed, check out the score to the Vikings-Raiders game. And remember that in a tiny little nook and cranny of the galaxy, where a supposedly meaningless battle is taking place between two hapless sports franchises with rapidly diminishing fan bases, there are those of us who are deriving all sorts of meaning from this encounter. And if that is possible, if a game like that can take on such incredible meaning, just consider how much meaning resides in this entire universe. We might supply the meaning – we, not some overarching deity – but that doesn’t render it any less infinite.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


The sounds from last week’s Democratic debate still ring in my ears, and I cannot forget the role played by each of the candidates. Hillary was the defensive coordinator employing the prevent defense. The one who says, “Crap, we’re leading by 11 points and there’s only 5 minutes left. As long as we don’t give up the big play, we can’t lose.” Any football fan can tell you what happens next – the other team throws one ten yard pass after another, then a guy breaks a tackle and gets 20 yards, and the next thing you know the other team has the ball and the momentum, and is driving for the game winning touchdown … with plenty of time left on the clock. All the “prevent” does is prevent a team from winning; Hillary presumably has been told that by now. In future debates, she’s going to have to stop dodging every question. Do that, Hill, and you just might win the nomination (though I don’t see you winning the Presidency).

Next, there was Barack. He played the role of the earnest, concerned political observer who noticed Hillary’s increasing unwillingness to answer questions. He was critical, but in a detached, passionless way – much like you’d expect from a professor, one of his former occupations. Still, it was probably a pretty wise tack to take because the dirty work was being done by his new ally, John Edwards. Edwards played the role of trial lawyer. He finally looked to me like he learned something from all those years in the courtroom. He went for Hillary’s jugular and, like one of Michael Vick’s dogs, didn’t let go until he drew plenty of blood. Of course, in Iowa the attacker gets as bloodied as the person attacked. But that was fine with me, since I’m an Obama guy. Seriously, though, I was impressed with Edwards. As a litigator myself, I appreciated his skills.

Next came Richardson, who I’ve decided is every sane Democrat’s second choice – or at worst third. Richardson played the Den Mother. “Can’t we all just get along?” Well, Bill, no we can’t – especially when the one ducking all the questions is cleaning up in the polls. Does Bill have a job promised to him in the Clinton Administration? I don’t think so. I think he realizes his only chance is in a brokered convention, and he’s trying to position himself as the nice guy who everyone can live with as a “compromise solution.” Pretty shrewd, really.

Then came Kucinich. He played the role of Randle Patrick McMurphy – you know, the Nicholson character in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Actually, there was difference. McMurphy was institutionalized for being crazy, whereas in fact he was sane. And Kucinich? Let’s just say the inverse applies. OK, so maybe he’s not certifiable, but I don’t think the country is ready for a guy who can talk matter of factly about witnessing UFOs, and then goes home to a wife who is less than half his age and wears a tongue stud. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see those two in the White House. Oral sex in the White House? Never.

That leaves us with two candidates – Biden and Dodd. They played the role of the owl. They’re both under 65, only a few years Hillary’s senior, but they came across as being a generation older, a generation more experienced. “Trust me,” they both said, in their best avuncular voices. “I’ve seen it all in my career. At this point, I’m the closest thing we have to omniscience. Methuselah and I.”

So what did we learn from these wise old owls? That the most dangerous country in the world isn’t Iraq. Nor Iran. It’s Pakistan. That’s what we were told during the debates. And then, as if on cue, America’s favorite General/Dictator/Fuhrer, Mr. Musharraf, declared marshal law.

Score one for the owls.

Must I describe the goings on in Pakistan today? Our beloved Mr. Musharraf, who we count on to keep the nukes out of the hands of Bin Laden, has ordered Pakistani’s lawyers, judges, and human rights activists to be beaten and incarcerated. Meanwhile, our “friend” is releasing terrorists by the score – no doubt, to make room for the real criminals, the disciples of justice

Oh, those wacky friends of ours. Sometimes they get a little carried away with their fascistic tendencies. But that’s OK. Because they have their roles to play, and we have ours. In this case, our role is Benefactor. We continue to supply our buddies in Pakistan with monetary aid. That’s right, at a time when our national debt is reaching $9 trillion and when Musharraf is beginning to resemble Mussolini on one of his bad days, we have decided to pump him up with American largesse at a rate exceeding a billion dollars a year. Man, there’s nothing quite like Christian generosity, is there?

At times like this, I guess there’s nothing else you can do than point out how strange it is to be Uncle Sam these days. Essentially, we’ve become a Thespian-Superpower. Sometimes we’re funding military dictators who violently oppress any signs of dissent. Other times, we’re saying things like “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.”

That was a quote from President Bush, back when we claimed to believe in freedom. It was thrown back at us from Harvard trained Beazir Bhutto, who now lives under house arrest under the orders of our beneficiary, Fuhrer Musharraf. When Bhutto doesn’t realize is that our roles have changed. In our current part, we’re not just playing the Benefactor. We’re playing the wise, old practitioner of real politique. The scriptwriter in the sky – or in the bunker, as the case may be – is telling us that if we push back against Fuhrer Musharraf, we’ll somehow unleash the nukes of war. For practical reasons, then, we have to actively support tyranny.

Funny, but Hitler probably had his own practical justifications, didn’t he?

When I look at this mess in Pakistan, I can’t help wondering what a country like India is thinking right now. Forget about the idea that they would ever again trust our rhetoric. How can they possibly predict what we’ll do from one year to the next? They’ll surely think back to the days when we were friends with Saddam. Or Bin Laden. Maybe they’ll even remember that James Bond movie when our hero, then played by Timothy Dalton, was cavorting about Afghanistan with a tall, dark, bearded leader of the Afghan resistance and fighting together against the Soviets. You need a scorecard to figure out who our teammates are and who our enemies are from one season to the next. Thank God there’s not this much mobility in the NFL or the NBA.

Let’s leave aside the issues of shifting alliances, rhetoric, or even morality. Let’s see if there’s a greater lesson to be learned here. I say it’s this: given how friggen fickle and hypocritical all countries are, given how difficult it is to trust what a world leader says, and given how dangerous American weapons of mass destruction have become, it is incumbent on our nation to choose our wars very, very, very carefully. We can give this reason or that reason for invading, but who is going to believe us? And when we attack another country for reasons that aren’t readily apparent, but have to be unearthed from “secret intelligence,” you can believe that the world won’t support us and our enemies will fight us tooth and nail.

Then again, maybe we don’t care. What’s another 30 or 40 thousand American casualties? And what’s another trillion or two in debt? Once you’ve made this much of a mess, it doesn’t feel like you can dig any deeper.

Of course, no sooner do I say that than I see the grizzled faces of Biden and Dodd remind me of Dante. Just when you think you’ve found the deepest circle of Hell, there’s always another one deeper still.

Saturday, November 03, 2007


First it was Bill. He just wanted a little lovin’ from some big-haired women. And what happens? His Willie becomes a national obsession.

We all know the culprits – that nameless, and oh-so-vast right wing conspiracy. I guess I was part of it, even though I’ve never voted for a Republican, oppose capital punishment and virtually all American wars, and believe in using governmental tools to redistribute wealth to the poor. Yeah, I’m pretty right wing.

Anyway, right wing or not, I must have been part of the “conspiracy,” because I was mad at Willie. I blamed him for selling out liberal causes with his ambition-inspired triangulation. I blamed him once again because despite having basically promised that if we elected him he’d behave himself, and despite having later been sued for sexual harassment, he chose to get hummers from a young intern. Silly me, but I considered that reckless, deplorable conduct.

Willie’s wild rides – or if you believe his testimony, his pattern of hitting triples, but refusing to head for home – were perhaps the single biggest factor that elected George W. Bush. Al Gore, apparently another member of the “vast right wing conspiracy,” was so disgusted with his boss that he decided to campaign without him, essentially giving up the advantages of incumbency. In the closest of elections, that was all W needed to win Florida.

And then what happened after the Supreme Court selected our new President? We conspirators expressed our outrage at Willie for pardoning a fugitive, who happened to have given him lots of money. We thought that was a blatant misuse of the pardon power. Clearly, we weren’t being rational. Perhaps it was our “obsession” with Willie that clouded our judgment.

Now, here we are, 6 1/2 years later, and you’d think we conspirators would have found a new obsession. But no. We’re still insane when it comes to the Clintons. Who can think about anything else? Of course, for the most part, we’ve been giving Willie a rest and turned our attention mostly to his wife, who affectionately goes by the name of “Hill.”

Hill is a sharp cookie, fortunately for her, and she recognizes an obsession when she sees one. I can’t count the number of times during the past several months when she’s pointed out how utterly Hill-obsessed the Republican candidates are. They can’t stop mentioning her name. Truly, it’s like a mantra. And surely, their pathology has caused her to fear for her life, as one of those crazies is liable to go Postal at her expense. (My bet is on Romney. He’s the one who put the family dog in a crate on the roof of his car, and you know how most murderers start by torturing animals.)

Before Halloween week, poor Hill had a lot on her mind, wondering exactly which “obsessed” GOP candidate might finally lose it. But on October 30th, in a debate in Philadelphia, Hill’s week got positively Kubrickian. There she was, on a big stage, surrounded by men – friendly, liberal men, or so she thought. And what did they do? They went nuts! With the exception of Bill Richardson, they all ganged up on her – or to use the words of her campaign video, they “piled on.” Edwards, Obama and Dodd. Oh my! Edwards, Obama and Dodd. Oh my!

And only one night before Halloween.

Watching that spectacle, I was thinking back to A Clockwork Orange, and that scene when Billy Boy and his drugees were having their way with that weepy young devotchka. Fortunately, our hero, Little Alex, came to her rescue and helped her escape. But in Philly, there was no escape for poor lil’ Hill. One after another, her rivals demanded that she answer questions directly and decisively, and she … well, she did her best … but how’s a girl supposed to think clearly when everyone around her is obsessed with bringing her down?

And only one night before Halloween.

Part of the problem was that Tim Russert. He kept asking her follow-up questions, as if he had a right to know what she was really thinking, or to at least figure out the logic behind the answers she gave. Clearly, he’s also part of the vast right wing conspiracy. But after the debate was over and everyone had a chance to get a good nights sleep, a little sanity was allowed to emerge. ABC News ran a big story about a video that called out Hill’s rivals for breaking the rules of political combat. According to a statement that Hill approved, "With each attack, Senators Obama and Edwards undermined the central premises of their candidacies. The sunny speeches and rosy rhetoric that once characterized their remarks has now been replaced by the kinds of jabs one typically sees from candidates desperate to gain traction in the polls."

Imagine that – Obama and Edwards are so desperate they’re actually demanding that Hill answer questions. Some gentlemen! Now it’s true that Hill started a piling-on of her own last summer by ridiculing Obama’s statement that he’d talk to our enemies. But that was different. That wasn’t a bunch of men piling on a woman. That was only a bunch of white people piling on a black man. If you can’t understand the difference, just ask all the semi-educated women who are supplying Hill her big lead in the polls. They’ll tell you why what Obama is doing now is inappropriate, whereas what Hill did this past summer is just shrewd politics. For starters, Hill never said that she was nice, but Obama did, and we should hold him to that standard, right?

To be serious, I don’t know where we’re going next with this campaign, but at least it feels like a campaign now and not like we’re watching a bunch of old horses perfunctorily heading back to the stables. The October 30th debate, for the first time in months, reminded me that there’s actually a position being contested. Edwards, in particular, deserves praise for scoring debater’s points against Clinton, and she, for the first time in months, seemed to be off her game.

Also, I can now safely conclude that no matter how reasonable the provocation, whenever her rivals blast her, Hillary Clinton will play the victim. And she will play the gender card.

Perhaps that strategy will work with her core group of fans, but it only makes me even sicker of her than I already was. The truth is that few people are truly “obsessed” with Hillary Clinton. Men are usually obsessed by attractive women – and by “attractive,” I’m talking about personalities more than looks. In fact, far from being obsessed, the Republicans like to talk about Clinton because their party is falling apart and only a campaign against her could help save them from an inevitable loss next November.

Why do they consider Clinton so beatable? Because more than any other candidate in recent memory, she feels entitled to claim the presidency without even having to give one friggen direct and honest answer to anybody’s questions.

They used to call it the divine right of kings. For Hill, it’s the divine right of ex-first ladies. Or maybe it’s just another case of dyed-blond ambition. In any event, Hill is one woman who will say and do whatever it takes to get elected – except give a direct and honest answer to a question. If you want straight-talk, I think you’ve come to the wrong political process.