Sunday, August 26, 2007


I found it odd this week to hear President Bush comparing the Iraq War to the fiasco in Vietnam. He seemed to be taking a page out of the anti-war playbook.

To an ol’ peace marcher like me, Vietnam is the ultimate symbol of modern American folly. As the world’s most powerful nation, we could have been spreading peace and prosperity throughout the planet, but chose instead to invade a country halfway across the world populated by people we couldn’t begin to understand for reasons known only to ideologues. The sooner we could have ended that mess the better, I’ve always thought, and yet we strangely kept the conflict going for well over a decade. Then, only a single generation after we left Saigon with our heads between our legs, we felt compelled to invade Iraq, a country halfway across the world populated by people we couldn’t begin to understand for reasons known only to ideologues. And what do you know? It has resulted in a tragic, protracted mess.

For me and my fellow doves, Vietnam is a source of all sorts of lessons. But apparently, it’s a source of just as many lessons for our nation’s hawks. Consider for a moment not the Vietnam War itself but its immediate aftermath. Once we “turned tail,” as some of our more conservative brethren might say, all hell broke loose in Southeast Asia. Tens of thousands of South Vietnamese who had been loyal to their Uncle Sam lost their lives in “reeducation” camps. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese “boat people” lost their lives after fleeing the nation altogether. And during the next couple of years after the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975, roughly two million people were murdered.

Talk all you want about the 60,000 or so American soldiers who died in that war, but that number pales in comparison to those who were killed when we “abandoned” our mission. Hawks will point out that America made promises to the Southeast Asian people when we originally destabilized their region but abandoned those promises in the face of domestic political pressures. The results of that abandonment are apparent to any student of history. Why would we forget them now?

Americans who disagree with President Bush typically focus on one basic fact: our own sons and daughters are dying every month we remain in Iraq. Cindy Sheehan talks about her dead boy. Other anti-war advocates talk about the tens of thousands of “nameless, faceless” soldiers who’ve survived, but with one fewer limb or with a plate in their head. Surely, say the war’s opponents, it’s time to learn from our mistakes and get our soldiers home while most of them are still intact.

It’s a powerful argument, acknowledge the war hawks. But is it a moral one? Is it worthy of our status as a superpower? Let’s not forget, they point out, that we thoroughly destabilized a nation, toppled its head of state, and promised (as we did in Vietnam) that we would usher in an era of freedom, democracy and stability. How then, could we leave in the face of evidence that hundreds of thousands of innocent people might die, simply because of our desire to save a few thousand of our own soldiers? When the argument is put that way, the pull-out crowd seems pretty darned selfish and shallow.

And yet … I’m proud to be part of their ranks.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about why I have been such a vehement opponent of this war from the moment we killed our first Iraqi. It’s not because I performed some sort of pre-war calculus about the consequences of the invasion. And it’s not because I’ve more recently analyzed the consequences of pulling out, as opposed to “staying the course.” Oh sure, I’ve thought about consequences, we all have. But I keep coming back to the same conclusion: there’ll be hell no matter what we do. As for which circle of hell is going to be worse for the world, the one following a U.S. pull-out or the one resulting from a permanent occupation, I remain somewhat agnostic.

Maybe I am being shallow, but neo-cons aren’t the only ones with principles. Some of us “bleeding hearts” have principles of our own. And here’s one of mine: superpowers who invade countries based on justifications that have been discredited have no right to continue to occupy them. In fact, not only do we have no right to remain as a military occupier, but we have an absolute duty to get out of Dodge! Maybe we can remain during some sort of transitional phase, but only with one proviso – that we admit our mistake to the world and request that the world community step up to the plate and help us fix what we have broken.

In this case, the fault of the invasion doesn’t lie solely with the United States. Saddam Hussein, no sweetheart himself, encouraged the rest of the world to fear him in thinking that he had more weapons capability than he in fact had. But the fact remains that we entered the war precipitously, without adequate international support, based on crappy intelligence, and driven by ideological reasons having nothing to do with our publicly stated justifications for regime change. When it turned out that our intelligence didn’t pan out, we needed to admit our own fault and ask for help. Our hubris prevented us from doing so, and now we are paying a seemingly unlimited price – in lives, in limbs, in money, and in reputation.

Politicians and journalists don’t generally make arguments like the above that focus exclusively on rights, principles and duties. In the public marketplace of ideas, people are much more comfortable making arguments based squarely on utility. Whatever your position, you can always trot out a few “experts” who will predict the future and explain that your position is likely to produce the happiest consequences – or the least horrible ones. No, they don’t have a crystal ball, but they don’t need one. They just need a suit and tie, and they can get on TV or take to the newspaper, and speculate about why one scenario is wise (from a utility standpoint) and another is foolish.

Surely, I can speculate too. I can explain why ending our participation in this God-forsaken war is the best way to further our national “interests.” The truth is, though, that I’m mostly interested in two national interests. First, we have an interest, whenever we make a horrible mistake, in owning up to our folly, and in inviting the world to help us all move on. And more importantly, we have an interest in making sure that whenever we make the same horrible mistake twice, we never EVER consider making it a third time.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


So let’s see. What is the range of my tolerance when it comes to my favorite escapist pastime, spectator sports?

I’ve put up with the willingness of sports leagues to let a few teams hog most of the league’s revenues and its available talent.

I’ve taken in with open arms all sorts of guys who have been caught exposing themselves in public. In fact, I’ve tolerated guys who violated the sex laws by land, by see, and most likely, in the air.

I’ve tolerated guys who have driven drunk, driven drunk some more, and then, after getting caught a second time, driven drunk again. I’ve tolerated guys who have taken every substance known to man, and even a guy who was caught with a “Whizonater” device designed to beat drug tests.

I’ve accepted one weapons-related conviction after another. I’ve put up with athletes who’ve broken the law in connection with weapons that are fired.

I’ve accepted various types of assault – sexual and otherwise. I’ve accepted just about every kind of spousal or girlfriend abuse.

I’ve tolerated tax fraud … and guys who obstruct justice.

I’ve tolerated it all because, you know, we should show compassion to people who make mistakes, give them another chance, and help them find redemption. Right?

Well … more likely, I’ve put up with it all because I really love sports. And besides, even a thin pancake has two sides, and there are usually at least two sides to every human drama.

Perhaps that explains why the great literary character Tevya the Dairyman always analyzed problems by saying “On the one hand … but on the other hand …” Tevya was wise -- a true progressive relative to his society, even though we can look at his time and place as antiquated. Every now and then, though, even Tevya recognized that “there is no other hand.” Sometimes you just have the draw the line and say “HELL NO!”

Congratulations, Michael Vick. You’ve finally figured out a way to persuade me to boycott my beloved football.

I’m not talking about boycotting right away. After all, the good man appears to be headed to prison and then a likely suspension by the league. But let’s look at, say, 2010. Vick will still be around 30, with plenty of strength left in his legs. He might not be able to play QB, but he surely would be able to return kicks, and perhaps even catch passes. The question is whether the league will let him. Or, more to the point, will the league feel sufficiently intimidated by the power of the animal-rights advocates to stop the league from doing what it invariably seems to want to do, which is to tolerate crime after crime after crime as long as the perpetrators can flat out play football?

Truth be told, there are signs that the new NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, might actually care a bit about maintaining some semblance of moral standards in his league. His initial months on the job suggest that he is willing to suspend players, like PacMan Jones, whose recidivism seems to know no bounds.

But Michael Vick is not a recidivist. And by 2010, the likelihood is that he will have “served his time.” So why not let him play? That’s the knee-jerk jock reaction. It’s been on display constantly whenever ESPN conveys a bevy of ex-players and coaches. All they talk about is how (a) Vick is a good guy who was led astray by his loyalty to the “wrong” friends, and (b) Vick is a brilliant enough athlete that he’ll still have something left once he’s done his duty to the society.

OK. I left something out. The ESPN mavens recognize that there is another side to the equation. After talking ad nauseam about our need for compassion for Michael Vick -- as if he (the Platonic form of the “loyal friend”) is the true victim here -- they briefly give a nod to the existence of those who would protest his return to the league. If you tune into Sports Center, you’re likely to hear from time to time about the “circus” that a team might walk into by signing Vick. Of course, that doesn’t mean you’d be told just why people would protest, or how broad the coalition of protesters would be. And you sure won’t be told that there exist legions of REAL AMERICAN FANS who would actually join in those protests and feel compelled to avoid watching any game in which Vick is a participant. But this much won’t be denied: legions of faceless, nameless, fringe types are out there, hell bent to make sure that this misguided but redeemable man will never again do what he’s been put on God’s green earth to do.

I guess I’m one of those of fringers.

In the event you’re one too, here are some suggestions. Write to the Commissioner of the NFL and tell him what you think. Both PETA and the Humane Society have made it easy to do so. Go on their web sites or just google “e-mail Goodell Vick.” And, during business hours, don’t forget to call the NFL at 1-212-450-2000. Let them know you care. And, if applicable, let them know that you’re a big time football fan who is willing to stop watching as soon as Vick starts playing.

What Michael’s apologists don’t understand is that there are large numbers of us who are deeply affected by cruelty to animals and who don’t want to be reminded of such cruelty when we sit back to watch a ball game. Will Michael do his time? Apparently so. But does that mean that we animal lovers are satisfied that our society has imposed sufficient punishments for animal cruelty? Of course not. And even if we were satisfied that the prison term for Vick will be adequate, that still doesn’t relate to the fundamental point here: leaving prison after you’ve served your prison sentence is a right. But playing in the NFL is a privilege. You get fame. You get fortune. You can all sorts of exposure – more exposure than 99.9% of us get.

Tell me, why is this SOB deserving of such exposure? Why is he entitled to that privilege? Let him serve his time and enjoy the millions he has already made. I’d sincerely wish him a good life once he is released. But please, let’s also allow the rest of us to sit back, have a beer, pet our family dog (or dogs) and enjoy an afternoon of football. Don’t force us to stop watching simply because we love dogs so deeply. We’ve suffered enough from that guy already, and so have our best friends.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


With a full time job (law), a nearly full time avocation (writing/reading), two teenage daughters (heaven help me) and an addiction to football (watching it, not playing), my life doesn’t leave much time for anything else. But last weekend, I did manage to watch not one but two movies. Both came out last year, and both were relatively well regarded by critics.

The first I watched was the new Bond flick, Casino Real. I’ve always like Bond films, even some of the lesser ones (like The Man with the Golden Gun). When I saw that the critics raved about this one, I knew I would like it. The only question was: “How much?”

Truth be told, I was underwhelmed. The villains were forgettable. The women were forgettable. And the plot was forgettable. The only memorable thing about the movie – and it was memorable, don’t get me wrong – was the fact that finally, we have a Bond with pectorals.

OK, save the “man crush” allusions. I don’t generally care if men have pectorals or not. But this is 007 we’re talking about. There was something very annoying about seeing scriptwriters enable Roger Moore to beat up one gargantuan after another when, in fact, he had the body of a grandmother. Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan had more muscles than Moore, to be sure, but they weren’t nearly as buff as a young Sean Connery, and there were times when even Connery was out-muscled by his adversary (see, e.g., From Russia with Love). If nothing else, the franchise has finally progressed to the point where you can watch Bond run, jump and punch without wincing. As the new James Bond, blonde Daniel Craig looks like a throwback to the days of American Gladiator. He can do more with his body alone than Roger Moore could do with many a gadget.

So, if you haven’t seen the movie, and you like male athleticism … definitely get the DVD of Casino Real. If you’re a gay man or a non-gay woman, you’ll probably find the movie more memorable than I did. Personally, I could have survived without it.

The second movie I saw last weekend was Little Children. Prior to the time I walked into the DVD store, I had never heard of it. And when I saw the DVD case and noticed that it was about such a tired Hollywood topic as infidelity in modern suburban life, I very nearly passed it by. Still, I liked the three Academy Award nominations it received – two for acting and the third for the screenplay. Not special effects, not cinematography, but acting and writing. I figured I’d take the chance. Now, I’m asking you to do the same.

The first thing I liked about Little Children was that it had very little to do with little children. Don’t get me wrong, little children can be cute in real life, but in films, they tend to bore the daylights out of me. In this case, the plot revolved somewhat on little kids, but only insofar as they were the objects of adult interest – either as sons or daughters or, in the case of one especially perverted character, as sex objects.

Yes, this movie was sufficiently twisted to be worthy of my own attention. Stanley Kubrick would have approved. But Kubrick never really did “poignant,” and Little Children was quite poignant at times. It was that combo – alternatively very twisted and very poignant – that made this film so memorable. It even had some pectorals, albeit none as impressive as Daniel Craig’s.

It follows from the above that, at least to this humble critic, Little Children deserved its Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. I can quibble with certain aspects of the screenplay – the ending, for example – but as a whole it was quite strong. Stronger still than the movie’s writing, however, was its acting. The second most riveting performance was turned in by Kate Winslet – yes, that Kate Winslet, the face that sunk the Titanic. Did you know that Winslet was the youngest actress to be nominated for two Oscars? How about the youngest to be nominated for three? Or four? And, with Little Children, she became the youngest to be nominated for five. She’s barely over 30, folks. The Academy is starting to make her sound like the Tiger Woods of acting. Clearly, that woman can act.

Winslet really did a great job of portraying a wistful suburban house frau who only comes alive when she’s donning the Scarlet Letter. But her performance, however excellent it might have been, was not the show stealer. That moniker goes to Jackie Earle Haley, the pervert. Nominated for Best Supporting Actor by the Academy, he was edged out by Alan Arkin, who I thought was the best thing about the movie Little Miss Sunshine. But I would have given the nod to Haley. His role wasn’t nearly as one-dimensional as Arkin’s, and his performance will stay with the viewer much longer. For his performance alone, the film is worth seeing.

So, if any of you have seen Little Children, let me know what you thought. And if any of you haven’t, then rent it. You won’t be sorry you did.

Well, that’s all for me and the movies. I’ve got to get back to my other interests. We now have ten minutes left until the Democratic Presidential candidates’ debate on ABC. Did I mention that I was also interested in politics? I guess if you’re reading this blog, I didn’t have to.

Saturday, August 11, 2007


The Southeastern Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute (SUUSI) in Blacksburg, Virginia hosts roughly 900 men, women and children for one week each year. I went there this summer as a non-UU, not having a clue what to expect. But I simply couldn’t turn down the invitation to teach a workshop about my favorite philosopher, Baruch Spinoza. It turned out that I was to learn at least as much as I was to teach.

Before I explain my point, let me clarify that I really attended an Institute within an Institute. For many people, the week was spent primarily dancing and listening to music. For others, it was spent largely in nature – and there’s certainly some beautiful scenery in southwest Virginia. But for me and about 100 others, the week was an opportunity to think great thoughts -- thoughts about God, community, and the place of religion in our society.

Many a theologian will tell you that spirituality begins with the emotions of awe and wonder. Well, that may be so, but those emotions won’t sustain spirituality, at least not by themselves. When I reflect on the spiritual climate I encountered in Blacksburg, what I found above all else was a hunger. The gang was dissatisfied -- both with a life consumed by materialistic concerns and by the conventional religious alternatives to that life. You don’t normally think about people being inspired by frustration, and yet that might be an apt description in this case. When someone expressed their frustration, the other UUs rallied around them. That frustration signified above all else how much the UUs value the potential that religiosity – true religiosity – has to offer. And it reflected the tremendous faith that they have in human beings and human existence, which ideally Could have so much more to offer than the typical modern life of self-obsession.

I learned at SUUSI that two ideas above all else link members of the UU denomination. First, they consider themselves humanists. As a Jew, I’ve come to associate that word with atheism, since the so called “Jewish Humanists” have come together to affirm their Jewish heritage while rejecting the belief in God. In the UU context, however, humanism has nothing to do with atheism. It strictly concerns the extent of our confidence in people – our inherent worth; our capacity for such gifts as autonomy, wisdom and compassion; and our ultimate interdependence. That last concept brings me to the second idea that links UUs. They are connected not merely by what they affirm, but also by what they deny – the notion that what transpires on this earth is determined by divine intervention. It’s precisely because of their lack of faith in such intervention that they care so deeply about human interdependence. If we and we alone control the fate of the planet, we had better get to work. We need to embrace people from different cultures, closely follow international affairs, and stop thinking of ourselves – whether Jews, UUs, Christians, or Americans – as God’s “chosen people.”

I share the same perspective. Our fate lies in the hands of one another, not in some Cosmic Santa Claus. So yes, we should all consider ourselves humanists with a small “h.” But does that mean we have to reject God with a capital “G”?

That, my friends, was the main question of the week. In whatever form it was verbalized, the inquiry was essentially the same:

-- Should we affirm the word “God” or reject it in all its forms?

-- Should we affirm a god with a small g – not as the being of beings, but rather as a particularly beloved concept, such as the “sum of human ideals”?

-- Dare we possibly posit a God with a capital “G” – one who rivals in power that of the traditional, Providential God?

It was my privilege to be surrounded by people who, frankly, gave a damn about those questions. I spoke to ministers, most of whom wanted to affirm divinity in some form but were more comfortable with the small “g” god than any alternative. I spoke to laypeople who were determined to kill the belief in God, which they viewed as antithetical to humanism in all its forms. And I spoke to still other laypeople who believed that UUs need a passion for God – capital G God – to ground their spirituality, even if that God is largely different from the anthropomorphic Biblical deity. Perhaps the one thing we all had in common was that we cared about the issue. In some respects, it was as close to a “creed room” environment as I’ve experienced since I came up with that idea several years back.

If you think I’m describing what sounds like the basis for a healthy denomination, you might find it fascinating that in America today, only 250,000 men, women and children are affiliated with the UU movement. That’s less than 1/10 of one percent – and probably fewer than the number who believe that Eric Clapton really is God.

Why is that? In a society with so many disaffected, unaffiliated people, why wouldn’t more turn to a denomination that is as open-minded, intellectual, and affirming as the UUs? That was the second most commonly asked question at the Institute. And this time, it would appear that the answer was easier to find.

The UUs are making plenty of mistakes, it would appear. They don’t do a good job of building up a pantheon of great historical figures to serve as role models. And they’re so busy practicing tolerance that they don’t do a good job of defining what they do believe in. Just as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, “there’s nothing there, there,” the same has surely been said about the UUs – it can be all things to all people.

Still, the main reason for the failure of the denomination to grow, in my view, has less to do with its own inadequacies than with those of society. When I left Blacksburg and returned home to the D.C. area, I left the realm of intellectuality and spirituality behind. To live in a modern American city is to go from the office meeting, to the television set, to the golf course, to the hardware store without ever encountering any semblance of hunger about our failures to reclaim divinity. Here in affluent Bethesda, Maryland, people seem satisfied enough with their lot … too satisfied, if you ask me. When the day is done and it’s time to reflect, what really have we accomplished? Have we adequately confronted eternal ideas? Built interpersonal bridges? Contributed to the sum total of empathic love? That is how we should we spending our time. If you’re not doing so, and if it frustrates you, that only means you’re on the right track.

Saturday, August 04, 2007


As some of you know, I frequently refer to Minnesota as my “adopted home state,” having for decades been a fan of its politics (it’s the state with the nation’s longest consecutive streak in voting for the Democratic Presidential nominee) and its sports teams (Vikings, Twins and, before they were exiled to Dallas, the North Stars). For that reason, I have followed especially closely the tragedy in Minneapolis this week.

A lot has been said since the collapse of the Minneapolis bridge that I would find difficult to dispute. First, we live at a time when our nation’s infrastructure is getting older and less secure, and yet there has been little effort made to repair it. Katrina should have given us a warning about this, but that warning seems to have gone unheeded. As our cities and roadways get older and older, more of these tragedies will occur unless we spend a trillion or more on the problem. Are we willing to spend that kind of money? Merely to ask the question is to answer it.

Second, the tragedy at I35W was not as shocking as it might initially have appeared, for over the years, that bridge had earned one lousy report card after another. This is surely what is baffling the families who are mourning their loved ones. People knew that the bridge had problems, significant problems, and yet it never underwent comprehensive repair. How could that have happened? Again, the answer is clear. We don’t like to pay taxes to fund government projects, we don’t like giving up our creature comforts (and there’s nothing less comfortable than an excessive commute), and we have trouble believing that anything in our blessed land isn’t safe. It will probably take a few more tragedies, but as our Empire slowly continues to go the ways of Ancient Rome and Her Majesty’s England, we might start waking up a bit to the dangers that truly threaten us, and not merely those that are fabricated by demagogues from the worlds of politics or religion.

Third, there was a heck of a lot fewer casualties on I35W than anyone would have possibly imagined given the number of cars on the bridge at the time of collapse. Engineers could explain why the structural nature of the bridge and the slow speed of the cars traveling on it minimized both the possibility that cars would be crushed by steel and the opportunity for cars to leave the bridge and head into the water. But I’m no engineer, so I won’t even try to explain the basis for the “Minneapolis Miracle.”

All of that said, what has moved me the most this week is the reaction of the passers by who witnessed the tragedy. Time and time again, non-professionals jumped into the water in an attempt to rescue victims before it was too late. Keep in mind, this is the Mississippi River we’re talking about, not Lake Minnetonka. Ol’ Man River is more than a tad dangerous, especially if you’re not trained in rescue projects. But that didn’t stop the humanitarian instincts of one Minnesotan after another from risking their own lives in an attempt to save the lives of total strangers. How do we explain that?

The locals call it “Minnesota Nice.” You remember the stereotype – it was lampooned so brilliantly by the Coen Brothers in the movie Fargo. Two Minneapolis natives, Joel and Ethan Coen surely knew many a Marge Gunderson when they grew up in the Land of Lakes. But to many of us, Marge Gunderson might as well have been an alien from another galaxy – one minute she’s Columbo, the next minute she’s Pollyanna. But she’s always so damned nice.

Frankly, what happened in the water near the source of the Mississippi is not so much about being “nice,” nor even about being courageous. It’s about caring, quite viscerally, for the welfare of other people, not by virtue of their relationship with you but simply by virtue of their humanity. It takes a real schmuck not to care about his own kids or his grandchildren, but it takes a real hero to care deeply about somebody else’s kids or grandchildren. Fortunately, it seems, there are a lot of heroes who hang out near I35W.

So what do we learn from all this? I say, we realize an opportunity when it presents itself. Remember that controversial “Fairness Doctrine” – the now defunct FCC regulation that forced broadcast licensees to take a balanced approach whenever airing issues of public significance? I say, we need a Fairness Doctrine of a different kind. Imagine a year in which all cable news networks decided that for every 15 minutes they devoted to discussing some sleazebag allegedly doing immoral things (be it OJ, Monica, Brittany, Lindsay, Michael Vick, Michael Jackson … the list could surely go on for pages), they would have to devote another 15 minutes to individuals who:

(a) stop for cars who are stuck off the side of the road,

(b) join volunteer fire departments,

(c) pass up lucrative careers to become teachers or nurses,

(d) work at soup kitchens for ten hours or more a week …

You get the idea. I want to know more about them – what kind of family they’re from, why they do what they do, who serves as their role models, and what philosophy guides them through life. And I want them treated realistically, not introduced by some plastic bimbo who patronizes them with phony smiles and inane platitudes.

In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, we need a third Fairness Doctrine. For every 15 minutes where we have to watch a woman on cable news who clearly got her job because of her looks, we should be able to watch a woman on cable news who clearly got her job in spite of her looks.

And before I forget, the next time this nation goes into war, for every 15 minutes where we have to watch some in-bedded reporter talk about how we’re kicking ass and taking numbers or some retired ex-general marvel at our transcendent weapons technology, we need to watch interviews of peace marchers and others, like me, who tend to support wars only once in a really, really blue moon.

Hmmm. I’m beginning to think that we could benefit from all sorts of Fairness Doctrines. I’m not big on the Government imposing them on our “free press.” But perhaps when all our media outlets become controlled by the same multi-billionaire, I’ll take the trip to his penthouse office and lobby him personally. Hey, maybe he’ll be a benign despot, and we’ll finally have the media that our democracy deserves.