Saturday, July 14, 2007


Let me begin by pointing out that after this post, the Empathic Rationalist will be taking a two week break (I’ll post your comments if they are sent today or tomorrow, but not thereafter). It’s vacation time, and the high point will hopefully be the Spinoza workshop that I am teaching in Blacksburg, Virginia at the Southeastern Unitarian-Universalist Summer Institute. I can think of few things more enjoyable than spending hours at a time talking about my favorite philosopher. If that makes me a geek, so be it.

Now, for the business at hand. Bethesda, my hometown, may be in Maryland, technically, but it is truly just an extension of our nation’s capital. That’s why when Tiger Woods decided to host a DC-based golf tournament, he chose to hold it at Congressional Country Club in southwest Bethesda.

Loyal readers of this blog know that I’m a huge Tiger fan. When he’s playing on a business day, I typically will check the scores off and on to see how he’s doing. And when he’s playing in my city, I’m sure as heck not going to let the opportunity go by without paying my respects in person. On Friday, July 6th, I took my wife and younger daughter – the older one would have rather spent the day having oral surgery than attending a golf tourney – and we all had a really nice time.

For those of you who don’t follow golf, Tiger wanted his event to honor the military, having grown up the son of a Green Beret, so he announced that 30,000 free tickets would go out to active members of the military. But that’s not all. He also wanted his event to be affordable, so for the rest of us who aren’t part of the military, he honored us with cheap prices. Parking was free, and the event itself cost only $20 on weekdays and $25 on the weekend – with teenagers being half price and little kids getting in without charge. Buying tickets, I felt for the first time in a while that I wasn’t being gouged by the producers of a major entertainment event. The upshot was that the three of us, ages 14, 39+ and 39+, were treated to a day of marvelous golf for a total of 50 bucks – about the cost of one ticket to a basketball, hockey or baseball game (and let’s not even talk about football).

The crowd was appreciative, believe me, and throughout the tournament, the players and announcers simply raved about us. It was the first time in years that I’ve heard the people of Washington, D.C. praised in the mass media – they talked about how many of us showed up, how enthusiastic we were, how supportive we were of the players … if there was a kind thing you could hear about patrons of a golf event, we heard it on the TV or read about it in the papers. That might not sound like much to a non-Washingtonian, but you’ve got to understand, we’re normally treated like a leper colony. Politicians in particular love to talk about how much they’re looking forward to going back to the “real world” and away from the inside-the-Beltway atmosphere that is oh so poisonous. I call it Beltway bashing. Washingtonian concerns are considered to be somehow less legit than the concerns in Des Moines or Charleston, and Washingtonians are considered to be somehow less than “real” Americans. The people – mostly black – who actually live in our nation’s capital and not near its suburban country clubs don’t even get to select an honest to God congressman. Sure, they get to drive around in cars with cool license plates bearing the inscription “Taxation Without Representation,” but that’s hardly a substitute for having the right to vote, now is it?

I’m not suggesting that Tiger’s tourney will be singularly responsible for bringing congressional voting rights to D.C., or stopping politicians from segregating our nation into “real” America and Macaca-ville (to paraphrase George Allen), but it’s a heck of a start. Every year, American golf fans – a GOP bastion if ever there were one – will be treated to one comment after another about the wonderful people who actually breathe Beltway air. Golf fans throughout the nation will begin to associate this town with our men and women in uniform, of whom we have no small number, and gradually, they might also start to realize that we have tens if not hundreds of thousands of civilian residents who earn much less than they could command in the private sector but choose instead to devote their careers to public service. It’s certainly true that civil servants aren’t as palpably heroic as active members of the military, but they may be equally vital to our security. I have in mind individuals like those who conduct medical research at the National Institutes of Health, or who treat wounded soldiers at Walter Reed or Naval Memorial. They don’t wear uniforms, but man do they serve. And they, as much as any resident of Peoria, appreciate a publicly-spirited golfer with a brilliant short game, an uncanny 3 wood, and a cannon for a driver.

Tiger “lost” the inaugural AT&T tournament, finishing tied for six out of 120 participants, if you want to call that losing. But by the time the weekend ended and the capitol dome-like trophy was handed to Korea’s K.J. Choi, not a soul involved, and certainly not the tournament host, felt like a loser. Everything about the event exceeded pre-tournament expectations – the size of the galleries, the love from the galleries, the course itself, everything. You’d think that would have spurred us on to one heck of a work week here in Washington, right? Wrong. It was time for our Congress to reignite a debate that’s been waging here for five, count-em five years: whether to commit our troops to Iraq.

During the days leading up to this latest round of Iraq War deliberations, all the buzz was about the Republican Senators who were jumping ship. During recent weeks, Senators Domenici, Lugar and Voinovich have all joined the chorus regarding the need to change course in Iraq – meaning to start withdrawing American troops from the Iraqi Civil War. And yet, this past Wednesday, despite all the public expressions of war fatigue, the Republicans in the Senate effectively blocked not one but two legislative initiatives to limit troop deployments to Iraq, and thereby to decrease the number of American soldiers in that country. First, they stopped the Democrats from requiring more time between deployments for troops who have already served either in Iraq and Afghanistan. Secondly, they blocked a measure to place a ceiling on the amount of time soldiers could spend in Iraq.

Thus, as of now, “the surge” rages on without any effective limitation by Congress, despite the so-called “Democratic majorities” in both Houses. The fact is that our Senate is set up so that forty Senators can prevent action any time they want due to that wonderful device known as the filibuster, and the GOP leadership continues to produce more than forty Senators who will support this God-forsaken war year after bloody year until Kingdom Come (or until the Cubs win the World Series, whichever happens first).

I don’t get it. We’ve already been in Iraq longer than we fought World War II. We’ve already watched Al Qaeda’s leadership escape our grasp in eastern Afghanistan and set up a safe haven inside the homeland of our “ally,” Pakistan. Why then is it in our national interest to continue to fight in Iraq? Someone needs to explain the justification de jour, because there have been so many that I’ve lost track.

So there you have the good (Tiger’s generous tournament) and the bad (the GOP’s addiction to the Iraq War). But yesterday, the trilogy was complete. I was treated to the ugly.

The backdrop of the spectacle is this: my younger daughter Rebecca has planned for months on taking a trip, beginning on Monday, to Europe. Her itinerary takes her to Bosnia, Croatia, and possibly Hungary and Austria. But first, she needed a U.S. Passport. Not wanting to leave things for chance, we applied for her passport three-and-a-half months ago. And when we periodically checked on the application, we were told not to worry – it should arrive well before her trip. Needless to say, as of two days ago, it still hadn’t arrived, so we called the Passport Office and were told that we should show up for an “appointment” yesterday morning at 8:00 and we would be able to pick up her passport right away.

Sounds simple enough, right? My wife and daughter showed up for that appointment, only to find themselves on a line that lasted over two hours. Then, when they reached the front of the line, they were told that they should come back at 2:00 in the afternoon and would then be able to pick up their passport. We picked it up alright – but not until after we stood in another line, this one taking 3 ½ hours to get to the front. It was yours truly who got to work the afternoon shift with Rebecca. In line, we heard stories about people literally flying from Atlanta to D.C. or driving all night from Tennessee to D.C. just to pick up their passports (which presumably had been ordered months before). That’s right, folks – this was but another example of government bureaucracy run amuck.

My daughter, being an idealistic teenager and the child of two liberals, naturally has socialistic leanings. So I took the opportunity presented by the United States Passport Agency to educate her as to why socialism stinks. The work of the Passport Agency clearly illustrates what happens when a particular service is provided by a Government monopolist … or, for that matter, any monopolist. Just spend a day at the MVA or a municipal parking office, and you should be able to refute Karl Marx without having read Das Kapital or, for that matter, The Wealth of Nations. While I’m proud to have devoted my career to busting corrupt corporations, I’m even more pleased to have lived in a country where competitive markets generally govern the production and distribution of economic goods. Yesterday’s experience was but a momentary – or not so momentary – reminder of how appreciative we ought to be that our economy is capitalist.

To a person, everyone waiting in line at the Passport Agency was talking about how needlessly inefficient the whole process had been. “Why don’t they just hire more staff?” people asked. And, of course, nobody had an answer. As I stood in line, I realized that scenes like that one are largely responsible for what “real” Americans think of my city. They, too, deal with bureaucracies. They too are fed up. And while I was shaking my head at the thought of Government inefficiency, I looked up and saw that the seal of the U.S. Passport Agency bore the words “United States Department of State.” That’s right – Condi Rice, the Secretary of State, is the Cabinet Member who’s ultimately in charge of the Passport Agency. She has surely heard the plethora of complaints that have been lodged lately against the Agency, and presumably, has the power to direct sufficient resources in that Agency’s direction. And yet … she’s chosen to direct those resources elsewhere.

When I pointed out to my neighbor in line yesterday that the State Department is responsible for our plight, she started to laugh. “Maybe Condi should spend less time on the golf course and more time dealing with her work duties,” she said. And now I had to laugh. One of the things that created the best vibes at Tiger’s tourney was the fact that on the same day that my family came to the course, Condi had lunch with Tiger and then was in Phil Mickelson’s gallery when Phil had a pair of double bogeys to miss the cut. It was kind of cool seeing Condi on the course – she is, after all, a true sports fanatic – and I’m sure it made golfers like Tiger and Phil more appreciative of the whole D.C. experience. But then, yesterday, as my daughter waited 5 ½ hours on line -- Condi’s line – I realized that D.C. will never become America’s favorite city. We’ll always be associated too much with partisan legislators, inefficient bureaucrats and blasé administrators.

In The Creed Room, I spoke about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who at 65 years of age looked like he was 95 – the result of a life being empathically tormented by the world’s deepest problems. Maybe the problem with my city – and our world -- is that it doesn’t have enough Heschels. Our leaders are too busy watching golf to attend to the gross inefficiencies of their agencies, too busy sculpting their images to read the intelligence reports that supposedly justify trillion dollar wars, and too busy feathering their electoral war-chests to stop pigging out on one disgusting piece of pork legislation after another. This is the Washington that the media used to like to talk about 52 weeks a year. Perhaps Tiger has given us one week of glory, but we have plenty of work to do if we’re going to take back the other 51.


Mary Lois said...

You present another example of a citizen's inevitable love-hate relationship with this country of ours. So many times I feel a swelling of pride when I realize a certain idol of mine is actually an American too (as Andy Warhol said, "Elizabeth Taylor drinks the same Coca-Cola everybody else does"), and then I have to face the reasons the rest of the world hates us so much. When I lived in Switzerland in the 1980's I faced this every day.

My passport expired March 17, so I dutifully mailed it to the Dept. of State at the beginning of March. Luckily I had no trip planned, but just needed a valid passport in hopes that sometime soon I might. I was informed that for an extra $60 I would have the process expedited. Fat chance. I passed on that option.

Every day I watched the mail, convinced somehow that my passport -- either the one I was exchanging or the new one coming in -- had gotten lost by an inefficient post office clerk somewhere along the line. My cancelled checks revealed that the check I sent to the Dept. of State had been cashed, so I did realize I was somewhere in the system. I rejoiced that I wasn't in a hurry for international travel.

To make a long story short, which I already haven't, the passport arrived last week, about five months after I applied.

Anyway, Rebecca and I now have valid U.S. Passports. I can tell her this: The little blue books are the quickest to get okayed when going through those international passport checks. And I admire her for her choice of travel. And I envy her her loving and enlightened parents, and the life ahead.

I hope her passport picture looks a little better than mine does.

Daniel Spiro said...

I haven't been overseas in a few years, but I doubt there has been a point in my lifetime where the world hates us as much as it does now. It's very sad.

Much of that is due to jealousy. Much is due to our own arrogance -- it's as if we think we, as Americans, are the "Chosen people." But a lot of it is due to ignorance, by which I mean that many people overseas equate the United States as a country with whatever the foreign policy of whatever Administration is in power at the moment.

The fact is that we are a democracy -- an imperfect one, but one nonetheless -- and our foreign policies and Administrations will change significantly from decade to decade. I'd prefer if people overseas judged us on what our nation generally stands for over time, and not what our policies happen to be at any given moment. My personal opinion of the U.S. doesn't change so rapidly, and while I may not think that we are "superior" or "greater" than other countries, I'm still proud to call this nation home.