Saturday, June 23, 2007


So who exactly is Michael Bloomberg? We know he’s worth nearly six billion dollars. We know he didn’t acquire his fortune from birth (like GW Bush) or marriage (like John Kerry), and we know he didn’t simply parlay a career in “public service” into a life in the lap of luxury (like the Clintons). No, this dude earned his billions in the time-honored American way: as an entrepreneur.

We also know he’s generally considered to have been a successful mayor of one of the world’s most important cities. And we know that he has received praise from moderate Republicans (like Ahnold) as well as Democrats. Indeed, while he has served until recently as a “Republican,” his views on social issues are well in line with the liberal wing of the Democratic party. According to Michael Barone, “Bloomberg favors same-sex marriage, a very aggressive form of gun control, federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, and abortion rights; [moreover] he opposed the confirmation of Chief Justice John G. Roberts.” It shouldn’t surprise anyone that he has now abandoned the Grand Old Party and become an Independent, while trumpeting the need for non-partisanship in Washington.

So we know a fair amount about Bloomberg. But there’s a whole lot more we don’t know. We don’t know squadoosh about his foreign policy ideas. From his tenure as mayor, we can probably guess a bit about his economic views – including the idea that he’s not afraid to raise taxes – but he hasn’t exactly outlined for us his formula for repairing our health care system or for decreasing the national debt. He remains, for the most part, an enigma, but a rather intriguing one. The rumor is that this guy will enter the Presidential fray in 2008, and that when he does, he’ll bring anywhere from a half-billion to a billion dollars to play with on the campaign. Bloomberg vows that he, unlike other candidates, will not be bought and sold by special interests; such is the value of having billionaire status. The Beatles may be right that money “can’t buy me love,” but it can, in theory, buy a politician some independence. The idea of an independent politician these days is, well, it’s almost as absurd as that of a squared circle.

Personally, I was happy when I heard that Bloomberg was jettisoning his affiliation with the Republican Party and was likely to throw his hat into the ring. I’ve been worried that neither party would produce a nominee who I’d want to vote for and didn’t relish the idea of holding my nose in the voting booth … or writing in someone who wasn’t really a candidate. Bloomberg is wealthy enough to make you wonder if he actually has a chance to win by blanketing the airwaves with commercials. And besides, I think it’s healthy for a democracy to present choices beyond the standard bearers of the two juggernaut parties. So often, they present candidates who exaggerate, mislead or flat out lie, figuring that even if their integrity is exposed, they can at least count on 40% of the vote just by being an R or a D. Is that what a democracy looks like? Not to me.

Well, apparently it does to Bob Herbert, the columnist for the New York Times. Now let me be clear – being the liberal that I am, I generally like Herbert’s columns. Today’s was the exception. He entitled his column: “Mr. Mayor, the Nader of ’08.” The implicit subtitle was “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid.”

The article was meant to reach liberals like myself who might possibly be attracted to Bloomberg’s candidacy. That, Herbert would argue, is verboten. We’re supposed to stay home, no matter what the Democrat machine stamps out. Otherwise, so goes the threat, we’re liable to elect another George W. Bush!

Sometimes you truly can tell a book by its cover, and sometimes you can tell an Op-Ed piece from its title. This is a perfect example. Herbert’s column is as pedestrian as the title suggests. He didn’t think he had to remind us that Ralph Nader was responsible for George Bush’s election in 2000, and by extension, for the debacle in Iraq. Since Nader was a liberal, the argument continues, when he ran for the President, the liberals split their vote and the conservatives won the election. Now, if we have another liberal third-party candidate, the same thing will happen – perish the thought.

Is Bloomberg such a liberal? Heavens yes, suggests Herbert. “Bloomberg,” Herbert writes, “is a Democrat. If he runs for president, he is far more likely to take votes from the Democratic nominee than the Republican one.” Herbert quotes one Democratic political consultant in referring to the mayor as a “pro-public education, pro-choice, pro-immigration rights, pro-gun control, pro-civil rights, pro-gay rights, and pro-women’s rights” guy. Oy vey! Later, Herbert states his perspective with crystal clarity: “There are myriad ways this thing could play out. But the weirdest would be if Michael Bloomberg, who sees himself as such a serious person, plunged headlong into this race with little or no chance to win, and ended up spending $500 million to $1 billion on a venture that undermined the core issues and values he claims to believe in.”

So there it is. Bloomberg can’t win. What he can do is spoil, and almost certainly, if he does so, he’ll spoil the chances of his true party, the Democrats. Herbert wants us to know that he’s not alone in his assessment of Bloomberg’s impending candidacy. Herbert quotes a “dismayed” supporter of the presumed Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton as follows: “He definitely hurts us. You know, sometimes politicians have such big egos they can’t see reality. But Bloomberg is known for seeing reality. So he must know that if he runs he puts a Republican in the White House, which I don’t think he wants.”

No, probably not. But here’s what the “dismayed” Clinton supporter doesn’t seem to get any more than Herbert does – Bloomberg may not want to see Hillary Clinton in the White House either.

Actually, that’s speculation on my part. Bloomberg claims to like Hillary and Rudy, and for all I know, that’s no B.S. But there are a number of us out there in Naderland who care little for either of them. I wouldn’t have been caught dead voting for Nader in 2000 because, for all my disgust with the way Gore ran his campaign, I actually looked forward to seeing the man elected. When I voted for him, I didn’t hold my nose, I held my breath. And in the last seven years, I have only come to like Al more and more.

But Hillary? Just the opposite.

I need not take this opportunity to re-chronicle all my problems with her candidacy. None of you needs to understand why I am one of many tens of millions of Americans – including liberals as well as conservatives -- who views her candidacy “unfavorably.” What I wish to point out is the irony of her supporters whining about Bloomberg’s running for office and thereby threatening to tip the balance in favor of the GOP. This is an election that by rights, the Democrats should win going the way. The Republicans have made mistake after mistake after mistake in recent years and have put together a group of candidates this year that is worthy of the Keystone Kops. And yet … amazingly, they do a good chance of prevailing. And that is because the one and only candidate they seem to be able to beat is the one who has a hammerlock on the Democratic nomination. In short, it’s the Clinton people who are giving the GOP a chance of winning, not Mr. Bloomberg. Indeed, I suspect, if Hillary lost the nomination, Bloomberg’s candidacy would never get off the ground.

Take a look at the polls. If you look at Obama versus Rudy, Barack wins. But if you look at Hillary versus Rudy (with or without Bloomberg), Rudy wins. And yet the Democrats seem to prefer Hillary hands down. Don’t get me wrong -- I think we Americans have the right to support our favorite candidate even if s/he is less electable in the fall of ’08. But please, if your candidate is loathed by half the country, have the class not to complain when someone else might join the fray and decrease her chance of winning. Have the class to allow your fellow Americans a reasonable chance to go into the booths with a smile on the face that they’ll actually get to vote for a candidate out of hope, rather than against a candidate out of fear. Bloomberg gives that hope to a lot of us who can’t vote for a Democratic candidate who comes as cold, calculating, dishonest, self-righteous, stubborn and polarizing. But does that mean we should have to vote for a Republican who supports torture? Or the re-enactment of the 30 years war? I sure hope not.

Further, Mr. Herbert, let me point out one other bit of irony here. You are a columnist for the New York Times. That is a newspaper that is read almost exclusively by highly educated people. But, if you believe the polls, the woman whom you hyped over and over again as the potentially aggrieved party in Bloomberg’s little flirtation has gained her status precisely because she is doing so well among the uneducated voters. Two or three weeks ago, your newspaper’s Sunday Magazine had a cover story that exposed one lie after another in her comments about the Iraq War. We who are educated would like an alternative to that sort of dishonesty, if that’s OK with you.

And as for your fear mongering, if you want to know the truth, if someone told me that Hillary was going to get the Democratic nomination, sure I’d be scared about what might happen if a Republican won the election (especially if his name was John “Jack D. Ripper” McCain)? But that doesn’t mean I could bring myself to embrace her candidacy. Sometimes, a voter has to stand on principle. I feel a sense of responsibility for what my party holds out as its leader. At some point, I have to say that I’m not comfortable with a candidate representing that party in the White House. Some donkeys may not have a limit as to what they can tolerate. I do.

Sunday, June 17, 2007


Let me begin by wishing a happy Father’s Day to any dad out there in cyberspace. To retailers, Father’s Day isn’t quite as important as Mother’s Day (it generates 40% less revenues on average), but our society ought to view the two occasions as equally important. I don’t go for the traditional attitude that men should rule the workplace whereas women should rule the home. A worker is a worker, and a parent is a parent. While our gender may influence the way we carry out our duties at work or at home, that is not to suggest that one gender is better suited for those duties than the other.

Personally, I take my job as father seriously enough that I’m often in awe of its challenges. In fact, I sometimes find myself ill-equipped psychologically to carry out my duties. What do I know, for example, about disciplining teenagers? I want to extend my teenagers the latitude to develop their own judgment, but if we extend too much latitude, we can enable them to make some pretty awful mistakes, and it’s sometimes hard to know where to draw the line. That’s one reason why it’s so much more fun to be the child asking for privileges than the tough-loving parent who is forced to restrict them … or to regret not having done so.

And yet, like just about every parent I know, I wouldn’t trade parenthood away for all the money in the world. When things are going well, there’s nothing more satisfying than to appreciate your children’s beauty. Just looking at their faces and hearing their voices can be enough to put you in a wonderful mood. And how much more wonderful does that mood become when you witness your children grow in wisdom, compassion, or strength of character.

This past week for me has been one of those weeks that every parent dreams of. One day I was in a school awards ceremony watching one of my daughters receive a standing ovation from her peers – all 200 classmates, to be precise. The next day, I was in the stands at Cole Field House at the U of MD, watching that same child and her friend win the Special Prize for the History of Religious Freedom at the National History Day competition. The standing O was moving – I don’t recall ever receiving such an ovation myself, and I’m more than three times as old as my daughter – but the Religious Freedom prize was totally overwhelming. In part, I was appreciative at seeing a couple of good kids rewarded for their hard work and quality accomplishments. (You can read the play they wrote and performed that earned them the prize by going to and clicking on the “Spinoza Society” page.) But in part, I was awed by the specific topic of the award. Few things, to me, are more important than religious freedom. To hear my daughter associated with that concept was more than enough to bring me to tears.

There was a time in my life when I used to think about religious freedom even more than I do now. The first writings I published – a law review article and an educational policy piece -- centered on religious freedom generally and, in particular, the way we deal with religion in the modern American schoolhouse. I conceived the ideas for those articles back when I was finishing up law school and was looking back on my career as a student – a career that spanned two full decades and virtually my entire life to that point.

I realized then that here in America, the schoolhouse is kept “free” from religion and spirituality. We learn about history, geography, chemistry, physics, biology, math, English, foreign languages, music, art, physical education, wood shop/home economics. You name it; if it’s secular, we learn about it. But religion? Spirituality? Philosophy? Apparently, that stuff doesn’t belong in the school. That, we figure, will be learned on Sunday mornings – even though we know that a lot of families don’t send their kids to Sunday schools and many of those who do de-emphasize its importance. (It doesn’t really “count” like the stuff you learn during regular school.)

When it comes to religion, I’ve always been something of a skeptic. I’ve mocked the traditional conception of God. I’ve questioned the manner in which egotistical clerics have viewed our place in the cosmos and their own place in our society. I’ve considered the term “irreverent” to be a badge of honor; it connoted someone who’s willing to speak truth to power and make light of “holy” myths that are as much superstition as they are truth.

In short, I have not exactly been the world’s foremost advocate of organized religion. And yet … even back in my early 20s, I felt in my heart that “the sacred” exists … that religion is among the grandest of disciplines … that while words like “irreverence” or “iconoclastic” are holy, so too is “religiosity” … and that too many kids in America grow up without a sufficient appreciation for the spiritual domain.

To me, freedom of religion as a legal matter must entail the freedom not to practice a religion as much as the freedom to worship in one’s own chosen manner. Nevertheless, my own personal belief is that the sense of the spiritual is like a sixth sense, and to be deprived of it is no less tragic than to be deprived of the ability to see or hear. More and more, I’ve come to know people – adults, not just kids – for whom spirituality is completely absent from their lives. Some revel in that; others, like me, consider it a shame. But what frustrates me the most is that our schools have pushed so many children in that direction, for they never have been exposed to religion as any sort of attractive option – not at home, and not on Sunday mornings. They are no more “free” in the positive sense of that term to practice religion than my dogs are “free” to study Spinoza simply because nobody has stopped them from doing so.

Readers of The Creed Room might recall my opposition to the idea that religious freedom requires us to rid ourselves of religion from the public domain. No, I wouldn’t allow public institutions to embrace one set of religious symbols or ideas over others. But I couldn’t strongly enough encourage schools to teach comparative religion and philosophy classes. That’s right – even though some teachers would clearly go too far and try to indoctrinate their students, I’d still advocate that we teach a lot about religion, and deal with moronic teachers when they identify themselves. Moreover, I would advocate opening and closing each school day with a minute of silence – not a minute of “prayer” but a minute of silence. Kids could spend the time praying, but they could also spend it reflecting, planning, and even welling up their heart with hatred, if that is their preference.

The job of our schools must never be to indoctrinate. But nor should it be to trivialize – or should I say, marginalize – the sense of the spiritual. The older I become, the more important that sense becomes to my life. I would hate to think that it is incompatible with modernity. That sounds to me like the opposite of evolution.

So, here’s to religious freedom -- however we as individuals define that term! Here’s to the right to be able to practice a minority religion as well as a mainstream form of Christianity. Here’s to the right to be able to practice no religion at all, no matter what yours truly thinks of that choice. And here’s the right to be exposed enough to religion to be able to decide what religion means to us as individuals, and how much it means to us.

Let me also propose a toast to parenthood. As frustrating as it can be, there is also nothing more rewarding. To those who take it seriously, I offer a major word of thanks. And here on Father’s Day, let me give my greatest thanks to my own father. He never received any standing ovations (at least not to my knowledge). He never received many accolades at all. But he always was and always will be my hero and greatest source of inspiration. Upon hearing on October 1, 2002 that he had passed away, he taught me a new word: to keen. Thanks to my dad, I was able for the first and only time to get in touch with my inner wolf … and thereby to understand what it means to be fully human.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


Alright you Presidential candidates, it’s time for you to look the Empathic Rationalist in the eyes, make some commitments, and suffer consequences if you fail to honor them. You may have noticed that only some of you have been chosen for this mission. You might soon curse that fact, but you shouldn’t. As any knowledgeable Son or Daughter of Jacob can tell you, being part of the “Chosen People” doesn’t entitle you to privileges, it burdens you with responsibilities. But with the ability to honor those responsibilities comes a priceless sense of satisfaction. If you take the pledge and live up to your promises, I can guarantee that you will gain self-respect and my admiration, for all that’s worth.

First of all, please notice that only eight of you have been invited to participate in this process. This isn’t CNN or Fox News. I don’t see the need to encumber obvious losers with any more duties. Let them waste air time during the debates with their blather about “ending the war” (if they’re Democrats) or “fighting for the right to life” (if they’re Republicans). I get the distinct impression that, if elected, they won’t be ending any war, and they won’t be stopping abortion either.

No, I have called out today only those politicians with a real honest-to-God chance of winning the Presidency. In order to win, though, you must be worthy of victory. And in order to be worthy of victory, you must pledge to do what I assign you and honor that pledge, no matter how embarrassing or frustrating it may be.

OK. Here we go. I’ll call your names one at a time, and give you your assignments. Good luck, lady and gentlemen:

First, could Messrs. Giuliani, McCain and Romney come forward? I swear to God I can’t tell you people apart. I’ve followed your careers and thought I had a sense of who you were, but right now, you all seem like the same person. The same authoritarian, militaristic, pandering bore.

Yes, Mr. McCain, I understand that you, at least, are staking out some different ground on immigration. And yes, Mr. Giuliani, I get that you’re somewhat pro-choice on abortion (that is, to the extent you care any more about the issue). But on the big issue of the day, Iraq, you’re all indistinguishable. And on most of the other hot button issues as well, you are obviously taking care to demonstrate that you are as a right-wing as the next guy. Congratulations, guys. You are making total fools of yourselves. I hope you enjoy it.

Here’s the pledge – and Freddy boy, you get up there with them, because I’m concerned that you might be heading down the same hole as your friends. “I, the would-be GOP nominee, will start from this point on honoring the memory of Ronald Reagan. I’m going to say what I really believe, whether it’s popular or not, and not just kowtow to the political winds.”

Reagan, you see, was a flip-flopper. He was once a liberal, and then he became much more conservative. But he made that change relatively early in his career and by the time he sought the Presidency, his conservative bona fides were well established. By contrast, the firm of Romney, McCain and Guiliani look about as authentic as Paris Hilton at a philosophy conference. Nobody believes a word that any of you say about anything, and while one of you will probably win the nomination, unless you take this pledge and honor it, you have barely a prayer of winning the election. You might want to remember that most of the voters are either Democrats or Independents. Heck, if you don’t watch out, almost all of us will be either Democrats or Independents.

OK. Who’s next? How about Madam Front Runner. Madam Inevitability. The Goddess of Self-Righteousness herself. Come on up here.

Here’s your first pledge: “I, Hillary Clinton, pledge never again to attack anyone else for their own mistakes on a particular issue until I first have owned up to all of mine.” That’s right, for perhaps the first time in your life you will actually blame yourself for the consequences of your own mistakes, and not someone else. What? You can’t imagine how that would feel? You’re scared at the prospect? Well, if you break that pledge, you’re about to find out how the rest of us have been living our lives -- with a combination of pride some days, and guilt on others. Only in your case, you’ll be feeling guilty most days. And all the Carville’s, Begala’s, and pseudo-husbands in the world won’t be able to save you.

Now for the second pledge: “I, Hillary Clinton, pledge never again to send my country into a war based on an intelligence report that I chose not to bother to read.’ If you break that pledge, I assure you that it will rip away at your conscience. We’ve now implanted a conscience in your brain – we had to do so to enforce the first pledge. This pledge is so fundamental that anyone with a conscience – even a politician – will feel all sorts of shame if they violate it. No longer will you be able to look the Code Pink ladies in the eyes and say things like you voted for war only "after carefully reviewing the information and the intelligence that I had available." I saw on You-Tube that you made that statement just before the war started, and yet it has now come out that you never read anything more than the executive summary of the intelligence report. Spin that, Hill. Spin that!

Barack Obama. You’re next! Before the last debate, I was only going to require you to take one pledge. Now you must take two.

Here’s the first: “I, Barack Obama, pledge not to accept a nomination for Vice President if I do not win my party’s nomination for President.” We announce this pledge because we’ve noticed that while you continue to trail Ms. Clinton in the polls by double digits, you seem unwilling to take her on in any of the numerous ways that she can be attacked effectively. Why is that? Do you want to be her subordinate? Or were you serious about fighting for the job of President?

You see, she has a huge advantage over you in terms of experience, name recognition, and party-insider support. You have little chance of beating her unless you take the fight right at her, by pointing out the various and sundry ways in which (a) she can’t be trusted and (b) would fare much worse in a general election than you would. So? What are you waiting for?

Listen, Mr. Nice Guy. If you lose to her and than accept a job on the ticket, that will tell us that you pulled the punches because you were hedging your bets. We don’t need a weasel like that running Washington. Consequently, your punishment for breaking your pledge will be to lose this election to the GOP, and then give up your chance to claim the Presidency in the future either. That would be a real shame, because this world needs you more than any other politician in the race. You are the most talented. But with talent comes responsibilities. Fight, Barack. Don’t play it safe, fight!

Wait. Did I forget your second pledge? It’s closely related to the first, but there is a difference. Prior to the last debate, I was enjoying your candidacy, Barack. All that I could ask is that you wouldn’t become Hillary’s running mate should she take the nomination. But that last debate drove me to distraction. On the morning of the debate, the New York Times Magazine printed a devastating expose about Hillary’s conduct with respect to Iraq. And you were given one opportunity after another during the debate to take her on, and hold her accountable for her God-awful record on that topic. And who did you take on? John Edwards! Are you kidding me?

Look, man. You’re taking millions of dollars from people. I mean zillions of millions. You have no right taking that money if you’re not willing to fight for your donors. Hillary is mopping the floor with you right now. She doesn’t have to say anything other than “we Democrats are closely unified, those Republicans are bums.” It’s up to you to explain to the world that as far as the critical issue of our time, her record is more in line with the GOP than with the Dems, and she shouldn’t be able to lie her way out of that and blame others for her own faults. (“Lying” is a strong word, but read the New York Times Magazine article and then tell me it’s too strong.).

So here’s the second pledge: “I Barack Obama will either powerfully criticize Hillary about Iraq – not just her votes, but the way that she has explained her votes – during our next debate, or I will pull out of the race and stop taking people’s money.” Please – if you won’t run against Hillary, step aside and let someone else do it.

John Edwards. You’re damned lucky you were invited here today, you do know that, don’t you? I’m so close to simply shutting the book on you and treating you like your colleagues, Biden and Dodd. But you’re different. You’re younger than they are, better looking than they are (as if I had to tell you, you little narcissist you) and you actually have a cause that goes to the heart of your party. That’s right, Mr. Economic Equity, your message resonates with your fellow Democrats, including the Empathic Rationalist. That’s why, despite being in the single digits in terms of your chances of winning the Presidency, you’re still invited to this particular party.

So here’s a pledge for you: “I, John Edwards, pledge to stop talking like Robin Hood and living like Daddy Warbucks.” Yes, I know. You want to be the leader of the Democrats, whose greatest heroes are aristocrats like the Kennedys and FDR. They lived like kings, why can’t you?

Well, you can. But you’ve got to ask yourself, why would you? You’re trying to be the most powerful person in the world and staking your claim to that position on your passion for fighting poverty and helping the working class. And yet you have demonstrated no particular sacrifices for the cause – not even the willingness to sell your 25,000 square foot home at a time when the words “carbon footprint” are on everyone’s lips.

Why should anyone believe that you’re sincere? Just because you’ve said so? You also supported the Iraq War when your fellow liberals were marching against it. You seem, so far, to be simply another ambitious politician who simply has staked out a different cause than most.

And while we’re at it, here’s another pledge: “I, John Edwards, pledge that next time I’m caught taking zillions of dollars for doing work that isn’t socially useful (like working for a hedge fund that supports sub-prime lending), I won’t defend myself by claiming that it was a good learning experience.” Do you want to learn more about finance? Take a class. Pay for the privilege of learning, like the working men and women you claim to care so much about.

John, if you violate either pledge, your “punishment” will be to work for the rest of your days as the host of “Family Feud.” You are, after all, a game show host by all appearances. And Family Feud will give you a vehicle to kiss the common folks you purportedly love. If that job doesn’t satisfy your gargantuan ambitions, we’re sorry about that. You had your chance. You may have blown it when you wimped out on Iraq, but we’re at least willing to give you more chances – hence the pledges. Violate them at your own peril.

So who’s left on the Democratic side? Al? Is that you? Get on up here, big guy. And I do mean big guy. You’re not looking very Presidential these days – Taftian, yes, but not Presidential.

Look. You know your pledge already. “I, Al Gore, pledge to either enter the race by July 4th or shut my pie hole about it once and for all.”

Get that? It’s time we know who the donkey candidates are going to be. No more flirting. I mean seriously, who wants an overweight, egotistical, recovering depressive to flirt with them? If you need to provide someone who can flirt with the American public, stay home, and send one of your daughters. Your job is to fish or cut bait.

Don’t kid yourself Al. You’re not that transcendent. We still remember how wooden you came across back in 2000. We still remember how you appeared willing to stretch the truth when telling your little stories. We still remember how you took the mantle of the incumbent party at a time when the economy was healthy and lost (sort of) an election to a guy who studied like Vinny Barbarino, drank like Foster Brooks and looked like Alfred E. Newman. Say all you want that you won, but you got crushed in your home state, and all your whining in the world won’t change that.

So take the pledge, Al. Tell us soon why you’re the man you obviously think you are. Talk to us like you respect us this time. Make us know that the election is about us, and not you. And if you don’t honor this pledge -- if you join the race, say, in September -- you’ll regret it. For the consequence will be that you will have to nominate, as your running mate, Joseph Lieberman. Again. And then, you can spend the entire general election campaign engaged in an Ultimate Fighting-type struggle with your own running mate from the first day until your final loss – which will once again happen despite a victory in the popular vote.

Sunday, June 03, 2007


This past week has been one of the most difficult in my life. It started with a fever that lasted four days. And when that fever finally left, what should emerge in its wake but a horribly gnawing gastritis that, at this point, has responded only when I went to the hospital and received intravenous medication. Since I’ve been out of the hospital for a couple of days, you might get the idea that the nightmare is still worthy of Rod Serling. And only God knows whether this episode will ultimately merit a ten minute Night Gallery clip, an entire half hour Twilight Zone show, or a full-length movie on the Chiller channel.

In short, whoever you are, I’d take your life right now over mine.

Or would I? The fact of the matter is that, on any given day, despite all the outward signs of health that abound in nature and human society, there exist innumerable instances of suffering. Suffering in hospitals. Suffering on battlefields – or in places where the results of those battles are reported. And even suffering in shopping malls, baseball games, office buildings, and all the other places where ill people spend their days trying to live normal lives despite gnawing pains and/or even more gnawing prognoses.

In my case, my illness is too recent for me to have even picked up a prognosis. But it has lasted long enough and is sufficiently out of the norm for me that I have at least grown fearful at times about my future. And at those instances, I’ve often wondered how interesting it would if I perceived my illness from the standpoint of traditional theology.

Imagine yourself as a Fundamentalist Christian or Orthodox Jew coping with a seemingly serious and yet still undiagnosed illness. Would your religion not represent the greatest possible comfort? The devout traditionalist could well begin his or her day with prayer – petitional prayer – directed to a miracle working God who listens to our pleas and heals many a sick and dying patient. Prayers for healing may give way to expressions of faith – faith in God’s love, His mercy, His wisdom. The devout traditionalist might, after all, remember that “everything happens for a reason,” and perhaps one’s entire illness has been intended by the Good Lord to teach one a lesson about life (say, that a person shouldn’t work too hard). Once that lesson is effectively taught, perhaps the Big Man will decide that the illness need not continue, and once it is cured, we can emerge stronger, as well as wiser, from the experience. In fact, even if the Lord should decide otherwise and take us from the Earth, surely we will be going to an even better place, and our loved ones left behind will be blessed by their virtue with beautiful, eternal lives of their own.

I imagine myself embracing that philosophy. How much happier would I be right now? How much more at peace?

Contrast that attitude with my own, more Spinozistic philosophy. Spinoza, ironically, thought he had crafted a perspective that was just as uplifting if not more so than the traditional approach. Maybe he was for the 17th century man, but that was a long time ago, and the psychological cure he offered seems no longer to hit the spot.

Spinoza, in his role of self-help guru as well as theologian, thankfully did away with the concept of “original sin” and the notion that our illnesses may well reflect our being intentionally punished for something we did wrong. He stopped well short of offering us the joys of petitional prayer – I say “joys” because hope is a pleasure, as even he recognized – or the kind of blessed personal immortality that anthropologists consider to be the raison d’etre of any traditional theology. But he did offer an alternative elixir: namely, that we can live with inner peace through our understanding that all happens inevitably just as it must happen, reflecting the unfolding of God’s infinite essence, of which we human beings fully partake. In other words, there is no reason to suffer once we recognize that we are merely living out our own precious parts in the dramatic existence of the one and only God, the one and only Absolute Being, whose limitless, eternal nature underlies and embodies all that has existed, does exist or will exist.

Does that perspective give me sustenance in a time like this? Remember, this is an era when most of us aren’t saddled by disgust over “original sin” or tormented with an overarching sense of existential guilt. Most of us, in fact, simply go through our lives by performing one mundane task after another with the occasional break taken to enjoy some hedonistic activity – the watching of TV, the playing of a sport, the tasting of food. For us, comfort during times of constant pain and uncertain futures requires more than a mere sense that our suffering is “inevitable” or “natural” and isn’t caused by our “sins.” At least it does for me. I can’t tell you the number of times over this last God-forsaken week when I have reflected that while Spinozism has been wonderful for me during times of happiness, its payouts during my present ordeal have been modest at best. Ultimately, you see, my Spinozism leaves me with the view that what really matters is this life (not some distant heaven) and while my future in this world is likely not as bleak as my present, I can't guarantee myself that it won’t be bleaker still. Indeed, there exists no cosmic Santa Claus – no eternal “Father” – who is consciously looking after my soul and inclined to reward me for all the good that I have done and hope to do to heal His planet. What there does exist is Nature -- restless, dynamic, often unpredictable Nature -- which acts supraconsciously in ways that have seemingly arbitrarily saved many a man’s life and destroyed many others. Cold comfort, if you ask me.

So, I’ve wondered, if Spinozism seems to offer so much less emotional sustenance during times of crisis than the ‘ol time religion, why do I still embrace it? Why do I, like so many others in the modern world, reject the belief in an omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent deity who could be such a Rock during our most troubling times? Simply put, there are more important things in the world than our creature comforts. Ultimately, what matters more is our self respect. And I would lose all of my own if I turned over my mind to a set of beliefs that seemed to be unreasonable simply because they might provide some invaluable emotional support.

“It is better to be an unhappy Socrates than a happy pig,” John Stuart Mill once said. Well, I’m no Socrates, but as I finish this post with the 50th or 60th wave of stomach pain since I started it, I’m clearly no happy pig either. I’ve often wondered if Mill speaks for most of us. Would we really opt for wisdom over happiness? Doesn’t that elevate our rational side too much, given that we are, at bottom, mere animals?

Maybe so. But once you’ve fallen in love with Lady Philosophy, once you’ve fallen in love with Lady Science, the muse of the ol’ time religion just doesn’t seem to look so damned good anymore. Some of us skeptics simply give up the idea of God altogether, whereas others, like me, embrace the concept – albeit in a redefined way. But wherever we fall on the continuum of “belief,” we are nowhere to be found in the continuum of faith, at least if that term is meant to refer to a faith that God will consciously intercede to save us from our torments. God didn’t intercede in Auschwitz or in Cambodia. Why the hell should God intercede on Corkran Lane? For me, faith doesn’t require that sort of hope. I’ll stick with a more modest hope, the hope that nature’s curative powers – or, if you prefer, the powers of God, as the eternal, vibrant, indwelling of nature – will help me just as they have helped billions of others who have had nightmarish weeks in the past.

It isn’t the happiest philosophy to have. But, for my money, it remains the sanest.