Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Man of the Year:
Well, this is a tough one, isn’t it? The “Tiger Woods of Politics” has brought far more enthusiasm to my city than any politician in my lifetime, including Reagan. He ran a masterful campaign against a seemingly unbeatable primary opponent, and then completed a workmanlike dissection of an all-too-beatable opponent in the general election. Now, he’s entrusted with the jobs of rescuing a moribund economy, bringing peace to the Middle East, unifying the nation, and implementing profound progressive changes. It sounds impossible, but with this guy … at least we can dream about it happening.
Congratulations, Barack Obama. You’ve earned this award. Here’s hoping you’ll earn it next year too.
Athlete of the Year:
Another no-brainer. Call it a case of Baltimoron makes good. Or, if you prefer, an Olympic athlete masters his sport. Winning eight golds in one Olympics is difficult to fathom. What would be the baseball analogue? Four perfect games by one pitcher in one post-season? Or in football, consider a running back gaining 1000 yards in one post-season? Or in boxing … consider winning a title and not being convicted at some later date of wife beating.
We’re talking amazing stuff. Congratulations, Michael Phelps. You’ve made us Marylanders proud.
The Horseshoes and Hand Grenades Award:
I was thinking of giving it to whoever loses the Senate race in Minnesota, but then again, we haven’t a clue as to who that will be. So the award goes instead to the guy who almost won the Senate seat in Oregon. And no, I’m not talking about the incumbent Republican Gordon Smith.
Give it up to the little man with the steel hook – Steve Novick. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t held office since he served in student government back in grade school. And yet he came within three percentage points of defeating Jeff Merkley, who ultimately unseated Smith. Novick was ahead in the polls on the eve of the election, but he simply couldn’t compete with Merkley’s money advantage, an advantage born from all the money flowing in from out of state, courtesy of Chuck “the Kingmaker” Schumer. How did Novick compete, given a lack of money and experience as a statesman? Brains. Humor. Tireless work. And a ton of enthusiasm.
You thought it was all for naught? Hardly. Merkley might have himself a Senate seat, but Novick has himself an Empathic Rationalist award. I ask you, which is more distinguished?
Webster’s defines a demagogue as “a person who tries to stir up the people by appeals to emotion, prejudice, etc. in order to win them over quickly and so gain power.” Hmmm. Does that remind you of a certain politician? Someone who, say, tried to suggest that people from small towns are more virtuous than other people? Or that community organizers in the inner cities have no real responsibilities? Or that folks from the south are somehow more “American” than those in the northeast? Or that Barack Obama has been “palling around with terrorists”?
Sarah Palin is a demagogue, alright. If you ask me, she’s a plenty dangerous one. Palin reminds me of another pop-culture phenomenon, Madonna, circa 1983. It was then when she was asked on American Bandstand, “what do you hope to accomplish in your career?” and she responded “to rule the world.” That, my friends, is Sarah Palin in a nutshell – not “blonde ambition” (that would be Madonna’s purview), but blind ambition. The Governor is completely blind concerning foreign policy … and how to address urban issues … and issues involving the courts. Hell, she couldn’t even identify any newspapers or magazines that she reads. But if you ask her whether she’s qualified to serve as President of the United States, she’ll tell you point blank: gosh darn it, why not!
Underestimate this woman at your own risk. I sure won’t join you. Just look at how rich and famous Madonna became. Other performers have better voices and write better songs, but Madonna knows what sells, and she’s not afraid to sell it. Palin knows what sells too – and it’s not just sex. It’s coming across as an authentic, charismatic, hard-line conservative. That worked for the Gipper, and if things head south for the Obama Administration, it might yet work for Palin, too. Lord knows, even if she remains woefully unprepared to tackle the critical public policy questions, she’ll have more than enough self-confidence to seek the Presidency, and more than enough chutzpah to say whatever it takes to win.
What do you say we watch this lady closely and remind our fellow citizens that we’ve got a demagogue on our hands? Ambition is all well and good, but it’s no substitute for knowledge and integrity. Hopefully, after four years of Obama, America will continue to demand those latter qualities from all its Presidential candidates. If so, I don’t think we’ll have to worry about Caribou Barbie anytime soon.
Villains of the Year – Foreign:
This goes to the perpetrators of the Mumbai killings – or, as it has also come to be known, “India’s 9/11.” They have reminded us of different things, none of which should be taken lightly.
First, before we laugh George Bush out of Washington, let’s give at least some thanks to his Administration for keeping the United States free from any post 9/11 terrorist attacks. I’m no apologist for this White House, but the facts are the facts. The Administration has made it their first priority to keep the home front safe, and they have thwarted many planned attacks over the past several years. While the Obama Administration considers rolling back some of the more questionable methods used to combat terror, I hope they take a breath and consider that we really do have enemies who can’t be ignored. No, I’m not advocating torture … but nor would I roll back the Patriot Act in its entirety. Bush and Cheney might have invented the WMDs in Iraq, but they didn’t invent Al-Qaeda.
Second, the Mumbai massacre is a reminder that we are still at war, and that war requires that all sane people join the fight. The question is, what can those of us do whose jobs don’t involve national security? The answer is, a lot. I have already spoken in earlier posts about my fledgling Muslim-Jewish interfaith initiative, which is bringing together Jews and Muslims in the Washington D.C. area for meaningful and respectful dialogues. This idea can be replicated everywhere that Jewish and Muslim communities co-exist. My hope is that through these initiatives, more and more Muslims will be inspired to speak out publicly against the cancer that is being spread in the name of their religion. But I won’t refer to that cancer as “Islamic” terrorism, or “jihadism,” or “Muslim” extremism. Call it what it is: pseudo-Islamic. From what I can tell, there is nothing in true Islam that counsels people to take innocent lives. Even the word “jihad” doesn’t refer to a war against innocent blood, but rather to the idea of a holy “struggle” – and primarily a spiritual one. As an imam once pointed out to me, the words “Israeli” and “jihadist” are practically synonyms. That’s not something the lunatics in either religion would like to admit, but look it up – it’s true.
Finally, the recent massacre in India has caused me to wonder if there are economic tools that can be used to fight pseudo-Islamic terror. We don’t see terror coming from the Far East, even though it is heavily Muslim. Presumably, then, the problem isn’t Islam itself but the economic or cultural situation in the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent, and perhaps there is something that the West can do to influence the relevant economies and motivate those who live in these regions to enter the 21st century sooner rather than later. Many possibilities have been suggested: cut down on our demand for oil; stop providing so many subsidies (or, perhaps, increase some subsidies); and/or stand up to Israel until it takes care of its settler problem. Hopefully, the Obama Administration will consider these and other potential measures. We really can’t afford to simply sit back and wait for more advanced weapons to filter down from the old Soviet Union into the caves of Tora Bora. That would be suicide – something that is prohibited in the Qu’ran (4:29), as well as the Torah.
Villains of the Year – Domestic:
This one goes out to the Barons of Major League Baseball. The players’ union. The owners. The Commissioner. All of them. They have made a complete mockery of one of the greatest sports ever invented.
Have you been paying attention to the free agent market this year? The Yankees have now spent $420 million on three players. Three! They have the four highest paid players in the sport, and their lineup practically sounds like an all-star team. But what’s most amazing about this is that it doesn’t have to be allowed. It sure isn’t in the other major sports.
Football and basketball have meaningful salary caps to ensure competitiveness. Why can’t baseball? Well I know why – greed. The players have been unusually unconcerned about the good of their sport, and the owners of the wealthiest franchises have similarly been unconcerned. By contrast, the owner of the New York (Football) Giants – Gotham’s flagship franchise – was an early proponent of revenue sharing among the teams “for the good of the game,” and the NFL Player’s Union has always seemed to tolerate salary caps.
Apparently, there are precious few people connected to Major League Baseball who are similarly concerned with the good of the game. But the most shameless of all are the “journalists” who cover the sport and essentially ignore the kind of spending disparities that we’re now seeing. They are the ones we should count on to cry Bull Shit whenever the name New York Yankees is mentioned. They are the ones we should count on to stick a mike in the face of the players and ask why they’re complicit in this madness. But these so-called journalists have proved over and over again that they won’t bite the hands that feed them. And so … here we have another year where certain teams will spend far more on their infielders alone than other teams will spend on their infielders, outfielders and pitchers combined.
It’s almost enough to make me give up baseball and start watching NASCAR. Well, almost.
Woman of the Year:
By the beginning of the Roaring Twenties, Mary Pickford was firmly established as America’s Sweetheart. She was the girl Americans loved to root for – smart, strong-willed, but as sweet as a box of chocolate. And did I say beautiful? She was all that in one petite package. What’s not to adore?
Well, today, America has a new sweetheart – at least for the moment. She’s not nearly as small as Pickford, nor as sweet. But she sure comes across as smart. Almost nerdy, in fact.
I first noticed this woman while watching the 2004 movie Mean Girls. I was impressed to learn that she not only did a nice job as an actress in the movie but also was its writer. Truth be told, though, I missed her critically-acclaimed performances on 30 Rock and on Saturday Night Live … until John McCain had a “senior moment” and nominated Sarah Palin to be his running mate. It was at that point when I, like virtually every other progressive American, fell in love with Tina Fey.
Who is to say what this woman can do for an encore? She might never have another role as perfect as the “pit bull with lipstick,” but can anyone seriously question her talent? I for one would love to see Tina Fey write more movies. Yes, I know they’re fluff, but sometimes we need a little escape. In the age of Barack Obama, the “Braniac President,” who better to write our fluffy films than a nerdy actress named Tina. Besides, just as Barack has become a heartthrob, Tina Fey is kind of cute too. If only being a nerd was “in” back in the 70s when I was in high school …
Well, that’s all for the 2008 Empathic Rationalist Awards. Congratulations to the winners who deserve congratulations, and allow me to send a Bronx Cheer to the award recipients who don’t. (You know who you are.)
I’ll be out of pocket until the end of the year, so let me wish all my readers a happy holiday season and all the best for 2009. Take care, and stay warm.
Friday, December 19, 2008
Poor Barack Obama, say the critics. He was sailing along so well. Proposing bailouts. Proposing stimulus packages. Proposing Clintons. What’s not to love? Commentators were talking about four million people coming to his inauguration. Maybe five. Dyed in the wool Republicans were singing his praises. And Democrats were treating him like manna from heaven. Who could blame him for being a tad complacent – for not recognizing his vulnerability to a powerful left hook?
But a left hook it was. Power-packed from one of the most progressive interest groups of them all – the homosexuals. Or at least that’s the conventional wisdom. Truth be told, you don’t have to be homosexual to oppose what Rick Warren stands for. You don’t even have to be a homosexual to oppose his stance on gay marriage. Really, all you have to be is (a) willing to question the literal truth of Scripture, (b) pro marriage, and (c) anti hypocrisy. I realize that excludes a massive number of heterosexuals, but still … the gays are not alone on this. The legalization of gay marriage is inevitable in this country; the only question is when?
Anyway, let’s step back for a moment and look at the fateful statements by the man Barack chose to do the invocation at his inauguration.
"This [the right of gay people to get married] is not a political issue -- it is a moral issue that God has spoken clearly about."
“The issue to me is … I’m opposed to the redefinition of a 5,000-year definition of marriage. I’m opposed to having a brother and sister be together and call that marriage. I’m opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that a marriage. I’m opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage.
[Asked: Do you think, though, that they are equivalent to having gays getting married?]
“Oh I do.”
And those are not Warren’s only colorful comparisons. Consider the following:
“But to me it is kind of a charade in that people say ‘We believe abortions should be safe and rare … Don’t tell me it should be rare. That’s like saying on the Holocaust, ‘Well, maybe we could save 20 percent of the Jewish people in Poland and Germany and get them out and we should be satisfied with that. I’m not satisfied with that. I want the Holocaust ended.”
Warren has also been filmed agreeing with Sean Hannity’s comment that we should “take out” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. To quote Warren, “the Bible says that God puts government on earth to punish evildoers.”
There you have it folks – the clergyman Barack has chosen to usher in his new Administration. Progressives all over the nation are wondering just what Barack was thinking. Is he trying to piss off his base before his term has even started?
All I can say is … relax, everybody. Barack hasn’t done anything wrong here. He’s not endorsing Warren’s troglodyte views. He’s not holding Warren up as the wisest clergyman in America. He has merely decided to make a symbolic statement at an event that is all about symbolism. And the statement is crystal clear: America cannot solve its biggest problems unless it is more unified. By elevating Warren, Barack is telling the world that he plans on bringing all ideologies into the marketplace of dialogue. And he’s planning on treating all people of good will with respect. Nobody disputes that Warren is a man of good will – he may dwell in a cave, but at least he does so with love. That’s more than I can say for many of my fellow progressives.
Speaking of love, Warren’s support of Prop 8 is, for me, a pathetic way of spitting in the face of love. I strongly suspect that if Warren’s beloved Jesus were alive today, he’d support gay marriage as fervently as anyone. So, as a supporter of gay marriage rights, should I lament the choice of Warren? Hardly. If I’m right, there’s a subtext to this drama that might ultimately resound to the benefit of legalizing these marriages.
Consider what Barack publicly stated when justifying his choice of invocation speakers:
"It is no secret that I am a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans. It is something that I have been consistent on and something that I intend to continue to be consistent on during my presidency.”
Well …actually, Barack, you’ve consistently opposed equality for gay and lesbian Americans, at least on the topic that is generating the most attention with respect to their community: marriage. No, you haven’t compared such unions to incestuous or polygamous marriages, but you’ve spoken against them. So what kind of equality are you talking about? The kind of “separate but equal” equality they had in the South prior to Brown v. Board of Education?
Not at all. Barack is a brilliant, progressive black intellectual. He knows damn well that “separate but equal” is an oxymoron. Here’s what I think is going on: Of course Barack supports gay marriage – Barack the Man, that is. If you took a look at Ivy League educated Democrats and polled them on the topic, you’d fight such support overwhelming. But Barack has also recognized that a politician cannot afford to speak out in favor of gay marriage and get elected … not yet at least. So he’s wisely paid lip service to this “civil union” B.S., all the while purporting to care about homosexuals’ rights.
I predict that Barack’s charade will continue for another four years – through his next (and final) election. Then, in his second term, when there’s no need for him to pander on this topic, he’ll finally take a shot on truly being a “fierce advocate” for the rights of gay people. The first stop on that road was his announcement of Warren to do the invocation.
If I’m correct, Barack welcomes the gay backlash against his choice of speakers. Barack welcomes a progressive interest group questioning this Presidency from the left. Barack welcomes the opportunity to position himself as a moderate at a time when only a broad coalition of liberals and conservatives can support the fundamental changes we need. But Barack also welcomes pressure to increase his public support of the so-called “gay agenda.” I’m confident that he believes in that “agenda.” Virtually all intellectual progressives do. He’s simply waiting for the point where he can announce his support without too much political fallout. In the meantime, as I’m sure he rationalizes to himself, gay people can go to New England and get married there.
Stated simply, this Warren controversy should be a win-win for American progressives. It should further boost Barack’s standing as a “moderate.” And it should shine a light on the discrimination endured by gay people. Expect progress on ending that discrimination before the end of the Obama Administration. I suspect that won’t happen until after 2012 … but thanks to shrewd decisions like the choice of Rick Warren to give the invocation, the chance that the Administration will be around post-2012 seems to increase with every week.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Those of you who haven’t read The Creed Room might not know how this blog got its name. It came from a statement of a philosophy – or a “creed” – enunciated in that book. One of the key principles of this philosophy is that Empathic Rationalists must seek out the truth wherever they can find it, and never shy away or deceive themselves about uncomfortable facts. It’s time for me to practice a little bit of what I’ve preached.
In many ways, I remained thrilled by what our President-Elect is showing us. The other day he announced clear support for a group of terminated workers, and wouldn’t you know, their employer caved in to their demands. As they left the building, the workers chanted “Yes we can, yes we can,” and all over the country, the faces of labor smiled at the thought of our next President. What’s more, Barack’s choices for cabinet members continue to reflect a respect for intelligence, experience, and diversity (ideological, as well as ethnic). Even Republicans, if they’re not too hateful, seem to be warming up to him. He exudes competence and thoughtfulness, while also coming across as warm and human. Given all that, not to mention his pioneering status as the first African-American chief of state in the western world, Barack has a legitimate chance to become the most inspiring – and inspired -- statesmen in generations.
Nevertheless, something about the Era of Barack is beginning to worry me. It has to do with all the promises about ushering in an era of change. In the past few months, perhaps his most fateful acts have been to support a bailout of the financial industry worth the better part of a trillion dollars and another bailout of the auto industry worth tens of billions more. But I don’t have much of a sense that he would attach many more strings to these handouts than we’ve been attaching when we’ve subsidized multi-millionaire farmers or Bridges to Nowhere. So … I have to ask … where exactly is the change?
The financial bailout in particular strikes me like the product of Chicken Little. We were told “the sky is falling” unless we pay hundreds of billions of dollars to the very clowns who screwed up our economy in the first place and trust the sleep-at-the-switch Secretary of Treasury to pay it in just the right way. Oh yeah: we were also told that we have to authorize this bailout tout de suite! Or else! Barack supported that measure, as did most of the “moderate” Democrats in Washington.
Maybe it’s just me, but that bailout reminds me a lot of the Chicken Little crying that preceded the vote authorizing the Iraq War. Back then, we were told that George W. Bush’s needs us to authorize military action or else the nation would be in danger of Saddam’s weapons and we all know what that means (another 9/11). It turns out, however, that the weapons didn’t exist, and by rights we should be outraged at the false panic. Still, here we are, more than $1 trillion and an ungodly number of corpses later, and we apparently haven’t even learned any lessons from our misery.
Before the election, some of my Republican friends questioned whether Barack, if he were a U.S. Senator in 2002, would have supported the Iraq War. I’d like to think the answer is no, but I can’t exactly prove it, now can I? Clearly, Barack’s willingness to join in the Wall Street bailout package in its current form and at warp speed would suggest that had he been in Washington and inhaled its sheepish aroma, maybe he too would have supported W’s overseas folly just like his Vice President-elect and future Secretary of State.
The automobile bailout proposal is obviously not nearly as noxious as the Wall Street Welfare Package. But I still think we’re seeing déjà vu all over again. For years, I purchased nothing but American cars. Need I remind everyone that the Big Three make crap. Nobody in their right mind buys American any more if they can possibly afford the alternative. So why bail them out without attaching some pretty serious strings? Does GM want to make hybrids and electric cars? And do they want to make them under new leadership? Fine. I just might free up some money to encourage those purchases. But do they want to make more gas guzzlers that break down quicker than the Japanese cars? Sorry. I don’t want anyone to lose their jobs, but sometimes that happens when you work for a company that has made lousy products for decades. That, my friends, is capitalism. If you don’t like it, then tax the rich more and use the taxes to help displaced workers get new jobs. Just don’t subsidize companies to make junk. That’s not mere socialism; it’s socialism at its worst.
OK, so that’s my take on the bailouts – naïve or not, I’m not a huge fan. But my concerns with the new Administration don’t end there. I’ve previously praised Barack for some of his appointments, but doesn’t he have to come clean on his campaign promise not to hire lobbyists? The sense I get from talking to Washingtonians is that he’s got his ears wide open to lobbyists – at least in the Transition. Is that going to stop once he’s in power? I wonder.
Finally, no blog this week would be complete without mentioning the mess in Illinois. This was yet another chance for Barack to show that he’s a change agent: by reacting with transparency. After all, it truly doesn’t appear that our next President has done anything wrong. He’s much too honorable to pay money to hire his replacement, and Lord knows that he and Governor Whack Job weren’t personal friends. Why, then, is his high advisor, Mr. Alexrod, retracting his earlier statement that Barack spoke to the Governor? It would stand to reason that Barack, through one of his lieutenants, would have made a suggestion or two about the kind of person Illinois needs in the Senate. There’s nothing wrong with that. So why not admit it? Clear the air. Send a message – the age of Presidential secrecy is a thing of the past.
In short, “change” has to mean more than a slogan. It has to mean more than “we’ll be different than George W. Bush.” George H.W. Bush was different than his son, too. Way better, if you ask me. But if Barack merely brings back the era of George H.W. Bush – or, for that matter, William Jefferson Clinton -- would he truly be a change agent? That’s taking the concept a bit too far.
When I think about all that has transpired during the past few weeks, and particularly about all the nominations by a non-corrupt Chicagoan and near-nomination by a corrupt Chicagoan, I keep reflecting on one particular face. Call this face a symbol. A symbol of liberalism – which I like – but also of the ol’ boy network, which I don’t. In this case, the ol’ boy happens to be a young-looking woman, but one incredibly connected one. Her name is Caroline Kennedy. And she is the FOB (Friend of Barack) whose name keeps getting mentioned as the replacement for Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat.
I’m not suggesting the Governor of New York was auctioning Hillary’s seat, and nobody could pay as much as a Kennedy. What I am suggesting is that part of this “change” deal was that we would be ushering in a meritocracy, and Caroline Kennedy’s selection would hardly seem meritocratic. What has she done to merit such an appointment? I’ve looked for the answer and can’t find it. Quite the contrary – what I can see is that she and her uncle threw their support behind Barack at a critical time in the campaign, and that now appears to be payback time. Is that not what’s going on?
As far as I can tell, Ms. Kennedy is a kind, intelligent woman. I don’t know her, but I instinctively like her a lot. Still, in a state as populous as New York, you can’t tell me that she’s paid her dues enough to attain the rank of Senator without having to win an election. That isn’t “change.” It smacks of the same old nepotistic ways of Washington. Her father was supposed to promote “the best and the brightest.” I hope that the Governor of New York and his future President remembers that Caroline Kennedy may indeed be the best and the brightest, but she should be forced to prove it first. If she’s so darned smart, let her figure out how to put the bankers’ and the auto makers’ feet to the fire before we give them our children’s money. Now that would impress me.
It’s easy to go to Washington and dole out hard-earned taxpayer dollars on subsidies and bailouts. Show me a politician with the courage to say “no more panicking,” the insight to say “no more trickle down,” and the compassion to say “no more ignoring future generations and the needs of the environment.
Change is a great word; it’s just not very popular in Washington, except as an empty slogan. Barack will soon enough come to a fork in a road. Either he’ll treat “change” as a slogan, or he’ll have the guts to embrace it as a true mantra. Reagan did it, and not that long ago. I’ve been waiting ever since for a progressive to take up the mantle.
How about it, Barack? Your true fans, and I’m one, will be patient. But we will hold you to your promises just the same.
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
So, imagine my joy when I sat down to read a Jewish Philosophy compendium that I recently purchased, and then found a chapter on Spinoza’s philosophy written by a man recognized as one of the nation’s foremost experts on the subject. Quickly, though, my joy turned into disappointment when I sat down to read the chapter. “Spinoza’s God,” said the author, “is not some just wise, good, and providential being.” Fair enough so far. “[I]t is not a personal being whom one would thank or bless or to whom one would pray or go to seek comfort.” Actually, I think it’s possible to thank or bless Spinoza’s God, and I think it’s possible to seek comfort in that God as well. But I certainly understand the point – it’s a whole lot easier to seek comfort and praise an anthropomorphized God (i.e., an omnipotent force who created us out of love).
The author wasn’t finished. He went on it say of Spinoza’s God, the God I’ve loved for decades, “It is not a God that fosters a sense of awe and spiritual piety.” It was at that point that I could only shake my head. The expert was dead wrong. Awe and spiritual piety are precisely what Spinozism fosters. His philosophy sure fostered that sense in Goethe and Einstein.
I asked some friends in my Spinoza Society what they thought of the above comments, and some other, similar characterizations of Spinoza’s God (e.g., “’God’ is seen to refer to nothing but an impersonal, infinite, unique, uncaused causal source of everything else that exists”). To a person, everyone took exception to some of the comments, and especially the one about awe and spiritual piety. One response, however, stood out as the most compelling. It came from a fellow lover of Spinoza who possesses a degree in mathematical philosophy from Oxford. His point was succinct, but nevertheless profound. “This is why I prefer primary sources,” said my friend.
Indeed. It is nice to have the time and inclination to read primary sources. Even if you have to read them in translation, it’s often critical to understanding a text. There’s so much B.S. floating around these days that secondary sources have become about as reliable as a Ouija Board. Take it from a “blogger” like me – not only is talk dirt cheap; so is the written word.
I’m not invariably prepared to read primary sources. When writers don’t bother to make their prose clear, I don’t bother to read their stuff. Hegel? Forget about it. I’d rather read the graffiti on a bathroom stall. Since I left college, whenever I’ve felt the urge to learn about Hegel, I’ve gone to books written about his stuff by philosophers who value lucidity. My life is way too short to read Hegel’s convoluted sentences. I can enjoy chewing on an isolated statement like “The True is thus the bacchanalian whirl in which no member is not drunken; and because each, as soon as it detaches itself, dissolves immediately – the whirl is just as much transparent and simple repose.” But do I really want to read a whole book like that?
Fortunately, most great philosophers care more than Hegel about being readable. And when it comes to writers of religious literature, readability is de rigueur.
Take, for example, the Qu’ran. I spent most of Thanksgiving weekend reading it. And no, I still didn’t finish the tome. But I’m glad I made the effort. Some would tell you not to bother to do so unless you can read Arabic, but I think that’s poppycock. You can still get a lot out of reading an English translation – the spirit of the faith, for one thing. It’s particularly important to read that book these days, as so much misinformation about Islam is floating around cyberspace and the boob tube. Do yourself a favor: if you haven’t spent hours upon hours reading the Qu’ran, stop listening to all the “experts” who believe that the religion is inherently violent. That book seems to countenance a whole lot less violence than the Torah. Remember, my Jewish ancestors weren’t simply welcomed into the Promised Land with open arms. To conquer their new home, they had to rape, pillage, and destroy life and limb. Indiscriminately. And all with the blessings of the Divine.
I would rather you read the book for yourself than take my word for what it says. But if you’re asking … I’d say that the essence of the Muslim philosophy on violence can be summed up in a few Qu’ranic passages late in the second Surah: “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits, for Allah loveth not transgressors. And slay them wherever you catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter. … Let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression.” (2: 190-191, 193).
In the version I’ve been reading, the modern commentary interprets the above to mean precisely what I would have thought it meant: “War is permissible in self-defense, and under well-defined limits.” Clearly, flying planes into buildings to kill innocent people is not a matter of self defense. Nor is slaughtering random guests at an Indian hotel. But … there’s no question that the Muslim is commanded to fight those who actively oppress and persecute, and if that fighting leads to martyrdom, so be it.
I raise this topic because, during the week since the so-called “Indian 9/11,” I’ve seen an uptick in the attempts to link Islam and the advocacy of terrorism. Even the sections I’ve culled out of the Qu’ran can be taken to advocate seemingly gratuitous violence depending upon how loosely the words are interpreted. For example, if those of us who live in America or India are somehow associated with our leaders, and those leaders are thought to be guilty of oppression or persecution, then we can be blamed as indirect perpetrators of capital crimes.
In theory, that makes sense. But again, only if you don’t read the Qu’ran. That books talks over and over again about the value of “personal responsibility” – I’m responsible for what I do, but not what my parents do, or my President does. Moreover, the book also admonishes us to “show patience, firmness and self-control.” (3: 17). Indeed, Muhammad was said to have avoided conflict as much as possible, and only fought when absolutely necessary to combat oppression.
“Let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just, that is next to piety.” It is a statement that could easily have been in the Torah or the Gospels. Instead, you’ll find it in Surah 5, verse 8. Muhammad, the man to whom it is attributed, is said to have been as gentle as Jesus. And in my own personal experience, the Muslims I know are indeed very gentle and respectful in their demeanor.
Am I advocating that we ignore the violence that is so often perpetrated in the name of Allah? Hell no. The terrorists are both crazy and formidable, and we must fight them proactively. Make no mistake about that. All that I am saying is that just as we would say that Jesus, if he were alive today, would decry “Islamic” terror, so would Muhammad. In fact, Muhammad wouldn’t simply turn the other cheek; the jihad he would fight would be against the terrorists. After all, they are fanatics, and Islam is opposed to fanaticism. “Allah loveth not those who trespass beyond bounds,” (2:55) says the Prophet of Islam. Check out the primary source and see for yourself.
Thursday, November 27, 2008
The images keep flowing into my mind, and it’s impossible not to be reminded of the Godfather. You all remember the scene; it is arguably the most powerful in celluloid history. One moment, we’re witnessing a symbol of holiness – a Catholic priest baptizing an infant. In this case, however, the infant is Michael Corleone’s nephew, and Michael is standing as the child’s godfather. At the same time that the Corleone family celebrates this rite of worship, Michael is consolidating his grip over the “Five Families” and taking out an uppity Jew for good measure. One hood after another is murdered – Stracci, Cuneo, Greene, Tattaglia, and, ultimately, Barzini (who gets it in the back after witnessing the shooting of his bodyguards). It is a perfectly-orchestrated orgy of bloodshed carried out amidst a backdrop of spiritually-enunciated Latin. Evil and good, mixed together, seamlessly, as if they are inexorably linked. Perhaps the most artistic touch is that nobody is killed until after the Latin stops and Michael is asked to “renounce Satan.” Then come the first shots, after which Michael utters the words “I do renounce him.”
Does Michael really renounce Satan? Can he renounce the devil at the same time that his men are implementing his orders to slaughter one rival after another? Sure, why not? Such is the human capacity to rationalize just about every monstrous act imaginable. No doubt, Michael saw himself as doing God’s work, soldiering against the enemies of the Father. Resolute, strong, thoughtful, powerful, heroic – Michael must have seen himself as all of those things. When the priest ended the scene by telling Michael, “Go in peace and may the Lord be with you, Amen,” the new godfather must have felt that he had earned his title of honor and was ready to bear its responsibilities with dignity.
The baptism scene was supposed to have taken place in the mid-50s. So let’s fast forward half a century – and leave the world of fiction for a place that is often even stranger. Today is Thanksgiving. It is perhaps the most religious of the secular American holidays, at least to those of us who don’t happen to be Christian. On this day every year, most Americans give thanks to the God of their choice for allowing us and billions of others to enjoy one more year of life on this planet. Since we’ve chosen not to do ourselves in, we presumably value our lives and are appreciative of the One responsible for the bounty that sustains us. Certainly, when the Pilgrims founded this holiday, they had in mind praying every bit as much as feasting.
This year, we have even more to be thankful for than usual. And yes, I’m talking about the election of Barack Obama. But for those of you who supported John McCain, please don’t take that as a slap at your candidate. Perhaps the more experienced McCain was the better option. Let’s stipulate that for a moment. It would remain the case that this election symbolizes how far this nation has come that its majority would be willing to consider electing a black man to hold our highest office. That doesn’t mean that those who voted for McCain are racist. But it does mean that millions of Americans whose ancestors would never have voted for a black candidate (due to racism) were finally able to view such a person in a color-blind manner. For that, we should all be thankful.
And, while we’re giving thanks, let’s also recognize that in the weeks after the election, Barack seems to be conducting himself beautifully. His nominations are gaining such rave reviews that even Republicans are publicly marveling at their wisdom. In fact, no sooner did the stock market appear to be headed into free fall than Barack cleared his throat and held a couple of press events, and somehow, almost magically, Americans are buying stocks again. I’ve never seen a leader inspire more bi-partisan confidence. In a time like this, a time when the words “Great Depression” have been in the back of our minds, how can we not be thankful that our President-elect exudes such competence?
So yes, it is time to give thanks for life. For living on a planet that is habitable – providing food, drink, and a climate that sustains us. And for the great minds among us, be they scientists, artists or statesmen. It is also time to give thanks for the newfound wisdom that so many people have gained – including the knowledge that our “natural aristocrats” come from all races, colors and creeds. In short, it is time to give thanks that we live in the Age of Obama.
But, as if on cue, something happened yesterday to remind us that we do not live in the Age of the Messiah. In fact, I would argue that something happened to remind us that there never will be a Messianic Age. Stated simply, religions may speak in terms of black versus white, good versus evil, or heaven versus hell, but a deeper truth was implicit in the Baptism Scene of the Godfather: you might be able to isolate those polar opposites in labs, or even in the movies, but in reality, you inevitably find them mixed together. Love mixed with hatred, pleasure mixed with pain, hope mixed with fear, life mixed with death. That’s the way it has always been, and I suspect that’s the way it always will be. U-topia literally means no-place. And indeed, just as the death of Christ didn’t usher in an age of eternal peace, neither will the election of Barack Obama. Killings, as Jesus might have said, will always be with us.
I’m referring, of course, to the city formerly known as Bombay. Bomb-bay indeed. Now, in the 21st century, it would hardly be reported if seven or eight people were killed, as in the Baptism Scene. Well, OK, I’m exaggerating – a domestic slaughter like that would make the news. But if it happened overseas, and certainly in the Indian Subcontinent, it would barely merit a ten-second mention. If you want international coverage, you’d better kill on a larger scale, with weapons more in keeping with the times. You’d better fly airplanes into buildings. Or set off explosives and fire bullets all over town – killing scores and injuring hundreds. I can only imagine how long it took the lunatics who perpetrated the Mumbai attacks to plan it out, but now that they’ve been “successful,” I still have to ask myself: why? What was possibly accomplished? What coherent message was sent?
If I were to ask that question to God, and if God could respond in English, I can imagine what would be said. “Why indeed? Why have I buried so many people alive in earthquakes? Why do I continuously require children to receive chemotherapy? Why did I turn Weimar Germany, that shining celebration of modern intellectual life, into Nazi Germany, and arm it with the ability to invent ever-expanding methods of mass murder?”
If you forced me to supply an answer to those questions – other than saying “how the hell do I know?” – I would have to quote a passage from the Appendix to Part I of Spinoza’s Ethics:
“To those who ask why God did not so create all men, that they should be governed only by reason, I give no answer but this: because matter was not lacking to him for the creation of every degree of perfection from highest to lowest; or, more strictly, because the laws of his nature are so vast, as to suffice for the production of everything conceivable by an infinite intelligence…”
That might not be the kind of God you’ll find priests talking about during baptisms. It’s not the kind of God to which people customarily give thanks. It might not even be a God that merits the moniker “omni-benevolent.” But it does seem to be the kind of God we’ve got, if indeed we have any at all.
Tonight, when you carve the turkey – or the Tofurky, as the case may be – humor me. Don’t just give thanks. First, think a bit about who or what is the object of your gratitude. Then, think a bit about the world for which you are thankful. In the past, religion has been devoted to thanking the God of our ideals with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might. Today, I ask that we thank the God of the real with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might. The “God of the real” gave us Auschwitz, Mumbai, and the Great Tsunami, every bit as much as Jesus, Moses and Gandhi. Go ahead, my theological friends, try to create theodicies to rationalize that fact. Utter such cop-outs as “God works in mysterious ways,” or “God needs to create evil in order to provide for the conditions whereby we can choose the good.” For my money, though, Samuel Johnson was right when he said “As far as human eyes can judge, the degree of evil might have been less without any impediment to good.”
Oh hell, let me not beat around the bush. If you ask me, Neitzsche killed the Cosmic Santa Claus once and for all. To believe in that God on Thanksgiving makes no more sense than believing in Kris Kringle on Christmas Eve.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
More than anything else, honeymoons are about love, whether it happens to be sexual, romantic, or simply affection for one’s neighbor. Whether that “neighbor” happens to be a hotel busboy or a beach rat who sells snorkeling gear, honeymooners are treated with warmth and can hardly help reciprocating. As infectious as fear can be in a hospital, that’s how infectious love can be during a honeymoon.
Bill Clinton never received a proper honeymoon. Neither did George W. Bush. When first elected, they didn’t receive the majority of the national vote, and their enemies never let them forget it. Clinton was viewed as “Slick Willie” by the titans of talk radio, who spoke for much of the American public. As for George W. Bush, many questioned whether his election was even legitimate and lawful. That’s no way for a man to begin his tenure in the world’s most challenging job. It’s no wonder that their Presidencies were marked, respectively, by impeachment and the lowest approval rating in the history of Presidential polls.
Well, that was then, and this is now. Never in my lifetime have I seen a President-elect enjoy a honeymoon like Barack Obama. Here in D.C., three to five million folks are expected to descend on the National Mall for the inauguration. It’s as if Barack is the Beatles in ’65, and half the nation is a 15 year old girl. Yesterday, I heard a story about how a mother stopped a six-year-old kid from whining. The kid had been complaining about having been treated unfairly by her older sister when the mother calmly said “when Barack Obama is President, everything will be fair.” As if on cue, the child shut her mouth and smiled.
Some would call that creepy. To me, it’s just a well-deserved honeymoon.
Given the amount of Kool-Aid that I myself have consumed about our President-elect, my objective in this post will be difficult to attain. Stated simply, I’d like to be as unbiased and balanced as possible about the progress Barack has made to form a new government. The mere fact that I would call the guy “Barack” even though I’ve only met him for about 20 seconds should tell you to take everything I say with a grain of salt … but what is Empathic Rationalism if not a philosophy that prides itself on at least attempting to be objective. So here goes:
Let’s start with the good news. Nothing that has transpired in the past 18 days has caused Barack to lose a scintilla of good will among his supporters. Oh, there were a few folks who despaired that he wasn’t more involved in solving our economic crisis, but it’s not like he’s been sitting around doing nothing. In two and a half weeks, he appears to have selected, in addition to a Chief of Staff and a number of distinguished senior advisors, an Attorney General and Secretaries of State, Commerce, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Defense, and Treasury. When he made the last selection, the Dow jumped 500 points. If I didn’t know better, I’d think his name wasn’t Barack but Midas.
Better yet, the group Barack is assembling is exceptionally bright and experienced. And talk about diverse – Washington hasn’t seen such diversity since James Watt boasted about his staff having “a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple.” I’m not sure who the “cripple” will be on Barack’s cabinet, but if he has one, I don’t doubt that he or she will have a thick resume and an outstanding academic pedigree. I may have gone to Harvard Law School, but every day that Barack is making appointments, I get reminded that I never made Law Review. With this crowd, “cum laude” won’t cut it.
That Barack would be devoted to principles of meritocracy and diversity is hardly surprising. Nobody expected another “Brownie” to be running FEMA, let alone the State Department. But I have to say, nobody I know expected Foggy Bottom to be turned over to Hillary either. So far, that’s been the head shaker of the fortnight.
I won’t lie to you. My first reaction upon hearing that Hillary was in consideration for the Secretary of State job was to wince. Even now, I’m too risk averse to favor the appointment. But … and it’s a big but … at least I can see a potentially enormous upside to Hillary’s selection. When I reflect on the other contenders for the job, not one excites me. Looking at the matter strictly from the standpoint of the assets they would bring to the table, no candidate is as qualified as Hillary.
Consider, for a moment, the breadth and depth of Hillary’s portfolio. When it comes to world leaders, she knows them and they know her. The Clinton “brand” is immensely popular internationally, and Hillary was never seen as a mere first lady, but as a force to be reckoned with. Moreover, by all accounts, she is a brilliant woman -- knowledgeable, intellectually curious, and a quick study. Few if any legislators command the respect she is given on Capitol Hill, and that is due not merely to the power of her mind but to the strength of her personality. Many have attested to how impressed they were upon getting to meet Hillary individually or in a small group. Finally, when you think about Hillary as a spokesperson, no characteristics stand out more than her discipline and her doggedness. It’s difficult to imagine her putting her mind to something and not fighting tooth and nail to make it happen.
Put all of the above together, and you have the makings of a remarkable diplomat. Barack couldn’t help but recognize that fact, and after battling Hillary for nearly a year and a half, he could hardly be blind to her talents. Consider also that Barack campaigned on a platform of unity, and what can be more unifying than to see Obama and Clinton – the two rivals who captivated our entire nation for much of the winter and spring – put their minds together and fight for peace, environmental sanity, and other national goals? Hillary would have to give up her Senate job permanently in order to join the Cabinet, and if she did so, it would be with the understanding that she would serve at the will of the President. She’s surely smart enough to understand that if she tries to “go rogue,” as was said about Sarah Palin, Barack would be well within his rights to fire her and send her into retirement. So all her motivation would be placed behind the task of making this great experiment work – for her, for Barack, for the country, and for the world.
Put that way, the nomination doesn’t sound so crazy, does it?
Well, it’s not crazy. But that doesn’t necessarily make it wise, either. My concerns would be lessened if the Secretary of State’s job consisted solely of shuttle diplomacy. Unfortunately, the Secretary also has to run a huge bureaucracy – the State Department – and when Hillary was given the opportunity to run something equally massive (her campaign), she ran it into the ground. I attribute that failure to an authoritarian culture that de-values flexibility and openness to the facts on the ground and is impressed more with good old-fashioned political “clout.” It’s not exactly compatible with the kind of grass-roots atmosphere that Barack brought to his campaign. (Just try to imagine Barack turning over his campaign to Marc Penn and you’ll immediately see what I’m talking about.)
Already, we’ve been hearing reports in the media about clashes between “Hillary’s people” and “Barack’s people.” Excuse me, but I thought the entire Administration was supposed to be staffed with Barack’s people. Wasn’t that the idea? Wasn’t Hillary supposed to be one of those people? Separation of powers is a great concept, but I don’t think it works well to have multiple fiefdoms within the Executive Branch.
In short, if Hillary were to treat her appointment as an opportunity to implement the vision of Barack Obama, I’ll be all for it. But my concern is that she sees herself as too important to be a mere functionary And if my fears are confirmed, and she or her staff try to do pave their own trail instead of Barack’s, it could get ugly. Barack won’t want to fire Hillary within the first year or two – talk about a formula for ugly press – and so he might be willing to tolerate things coming out of State that a President shouldn’t have to tolerate. The result could be a message to overseas leaders that is incoherent, and thus ineffective.
There you have it -- the one cloud on the horizon. Well, OK. There’s also the God-awful economy that Barack is inheriting. But even in Barbados, where my wife and I honeymooned, you sometimes see clouds. For the most part, what I see is sunshine. Unlike that six year old, I don’t foresee Barack eliminating unfairness from the world, but I do see him exuding more competence than any American leader of his generation. And what I see even clearer is a nation, if not a world, that is desperate for him to succeed. It will be a rocky road for a while – thanks to the greedy bastards who have destroyed our economy while the regulator-ideologues have been sleeping – but we have the right captain at the helm. If the worst decision he’s made so far is nominating a brilliant, charismatic, passionate, disciplined, diligent, internationally-beloved fighter to head up the State Department, I’d say he’s off to a great start.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
The great American dream has come true. We now appear to have reached the point where if your IQ is at least 150, you’re really good looking, you’re incredibly diplomatic, you have uncommon oratorical skills, and you have impeccable timing, then you, as a political candidate, can be judged not by the color of your skin, but by the content of your character. Yes indeed, it took a strange constellation of circumstances to get a black man elected President of the United States, but the fact of the matter is that it happened. And now, instantly, American Democracy has taken a qualitative leap upward on the evolutionary scale.
But what does this election do for dreaming, now that MLK Jr.’s prayers have been answered? Are we dreamers no longer needed? Is it now time for the pragmatists to sweep us aside and get busy, without our interference? Nah. We always have a role to play. For until the Messiah comes – and for my money, since he’s a fictional concept, we have an eternity to wait – there will always be room for dreaming. Allow me to offer three dreams. The first two seem to be well within reach – at least within most of our lifetimes. The second? More quixotic, and yet infinitely more worthwhile.
Dream #1: that someday, we will live in a country where neither pundits nor politicians feel free to label people “real Americans” or to mock others as somehow less authentic as Americans simply because of (a) the geographical area where they live, (b) their political views, or (c) their socio-economic class. It wasn’t long ago that I could have added two other categories – race and gender. Thankfully, our public sphere has reached the point where talking-heads who elevate some Americans over others because of their race or gender will pay dearly in credibility. Barack’s election has placed one more very powerful nail in the coffin of outspoken racism. But … polarizing pundits and politicians continue to abound. And while their appeals may be more subtle than the racist or sexist verbiage of decades past, these appeals remain nefarious. My dream is that they will cease … and in the not so distant future.
Watch Morning Joe, as I have pointed out before, and you will see on display the appeals at issue. The pundits on that show frequently ridicule Americans because they live in such “liberal” places as “Georgetown” and “the Upper West Side.” Sure, those people are rich. But so are the residents of Newport Beach, California or Windermere, Florida – communities where the multi-millionaires that abound tend to be Republican. Can we tolerate a political environment where the residents of the latter communities are respected as authentic Americans, whereas their more liberal counterparts in the northeast are viewed as unpatriotic and even alien? Similarly, can we dare elect politicians who praise the residents of small towns but mock those who toil anonymously as “community organizers” – the crown jewels of our urban areas?
In my dream, everyone has come to recognize that the strength of America lies in its diversity – and that includes ideological diversity. Just as a William Safire must be treated with respect, just as a Ronald Reagan must be treated with respect (and credit Barack big time for showing him that respect during the Democratic primary), that applies to died-in-the-wool liberals as well. Question their positions. Question their judgment. But in my dream, those who question their patriotism and their authenticity as Americans – absent evidence of real treason – will be the ones who are ostracized.
Dream #2 – that someday, all pairs of consenting adults will be able to get married, regardless of race, color, creed or sexual preference. I have said a lot on this topic in previous posts, and it hardly appears necessary to belabor the point. But today, something must be said. This afternoon, all over the country, many people who care deeply about marriage will be taking to the streets. I plan on being among them. We will be demonstrating in support of gay marriage … or more to the point, in support of the right for every human being to participate in a ceremony, sanctified by the rule of the law, in which they will pledge their hearts to another consenting adult for as long as the two will live.
In Washington, D.C, we will be meeting at the Reflecting Pool by the Capitol at 1:30 p.m. If you live in the area and read this before then, please come. We need as many supporters as possible to make this dream become a reality. But believe me – it’s just a matter of time before this dream will be realized. The trend is on the side of tolerance. The trend is on the side of viewing the right to wed as a fundamental right. As I approach my sixth decade on earth, I can’t imagine where my own life would be without it.
Dream # 3 – The peaceful co-existence of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. Yes, you heard me. Now that a black man has been elected President of the United States, we can envision pigs flying … hell freezing over … and Israelis and Palestinians co-existing as peacefully as those who live on the Canadian/American border.
Of course this one is far off. But today, it seems significantly more reachable than it did three weeks ago. Somehow, the impossible now appears possible. Someday.
The question is, how do we get there? By praying, praying and more praying? Or by praying, working, and more working? I’m opting for the latter.
On recent Sundays, I have been going to mosques in the D.C. area attempting to enlist interest in Jewish-Muslim interfaith activities. My plan is to get pockets of these two people together, first in charitable and prayerful activities … and then later in honest-to-God discussions of the fundamental issues that concern us. These include such non-controversial topics as the politics of the Middle East and how to produce peace in that region.
Wherever you are, I encourage you to undertake a comparable initiative. Even if you’re not Jewish or Muslim, there’s no reason you can’t get involved. You surely know people who are Jewish or Muslim, right? Or perhaps you are part of a community (e.g., Protestant, Catholic, Unitarian Universalist) that has grown inpatient with the idea of a never-ending war in the place commonly known as “the Holy Land.” All of us can play a role in raising consciousness and seeking an amicable solution to this mess. All we need is faith that the war can ultimately end, and confidence that every little act of “détente” – whether it takes place in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania or Bethlehem, Palestine – will be invaluable in producing this peace.
Trust me, when we have true peace in Israel/Palestine – whether it happens in our lifetime or those of our grandchildren – it will be even sweeter than Barack’s election. And that was pretty damned sweet, wasn’t it?
Friday, November 07, 2008
A GUEST BLOG FROM PURPLE
I may have spent election day hard at work, but some of my friends have been working on the campaign trail for weeks. To honor one such noble soul, I would like to post the comments of an old friend, Ben Vernia, who spent the last few weeks serving as a regional voter protection organizer for the Obama/Biden campaign in Stark and
I may have spent election day hard at work, but some of my friends have been working on the campaign trail for weeks. To honor one such noble soul, I would like to post the comments of an old friend, Ben Vernia, who spent the last few weeks serving as a regional voter protection organizer for the Obama/Biden campaign in Stark and
Take it away, Ben:
If I had to sum up this election in one word, it wouldn’t be “change,” it would be “hunger.” The people I saw in northeast
At 6:30 pm, an hour before the polls closed in
In an election characterized by a lot of lies about Barack Obama, the biggest was perhaps the one which appeared most irrefutable: that he had no management experience. It took me about a day with the campaign to realize how wrong that was. All campaigns are pressure cookers; the Obama campaign turned this pressure into discipline. Staffers blended mutual support with candid accountability and a relentless focus on staying on target and getting the job done. If President Obama runs the Executive Branch half as well as Senator Obama ran his campaign, the country will be in good hands.
Finally, because I was based in
In the final week of the campaign, Barack Obama spoke through his exhaustion at a
In the final week of the campaign, Barack Obama spoke through his exhaustion at a
Those were Ben's words. But I'd like to end this post with a wish about a VERY important topic. Barack Obama needs a puppy to fulfill a promise to his children, but one of those kids has a pet allergy. The politically correct crowd is pleading that he get a puppy from the shelter, but you're not hearing that from me. As a fellow dog lover with pet allergies, I can safely say that there is only one breed for Barack: get a bichon! I have two, and I love them. So do my two daughters.
Tuesday, November 04, 2008
I have a lot to be thankful about tonight. But I want to give special thanks to the dozen or so people I met today at the precinct in McLean, Virginia who were working as diligently for McCain as I was working for Barack. What a nice, intelligent ... really lovely group of people they were. I have no doubt that Barack will try to be THEIR President, and not simply try to ram things down the throats of Red America.
In any event, we made history tonight. Finally, an African-American, American President. And a brilliant, wonderful man at that. Physically, I am exhausted, but spiritually, I am euphoric.
Rest in peace, MLK, Jr. Rest in peace, Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rest in peace, Julius Spiro.
Saturday, November 01, 2008
“To give aid to every poor man is far beyond the power and the advantage of any private person. For the riches of any private person are wholly inadequate to meet such a call. Again, an individual man’s resources of character are too limited for him to be able to make all men his friends. Hence, providing for the poor is a duty, which falls on the State as a whole, and has regard only to the general advantage.”
If Barack Obama had made such a statement in the presence of Joe the Skinhead, Barack would have been called all sorts of names. Socialist. Communist. Marxist. Maybe even un-American. The fact is, however, that the above quotation does not come from Mao or Lenin, but from Henry Kissinger’s favorite political philosopher. Its author was also a staunch proponent of the value of private property. He claimed that the genius of the Biblical Hebrews wasn’t in their metaphysical wisdom, but in their social organization, which largely consisted in their enlightened decisions to ensure security in property and practice the separation of powers. Somehow, that doesn’t sound so un-American. And while the author of the above quotation was obviously concerned about the need to alleviate poverty, he did not identify economic equity as the fundamental goal of a society. Rather, he said, “the true aim of government is liberty. Government must free every man from fear that he may live in all possible security.”
The philosopher I’m referring to is none other than Baruch Spinoza. Like his own fellow traveler, Thomas Jefferson, Spinoza is beloved among political thinkers on both the right and the left. This can be traced to his willingness to see the world with subtlety and to recognize that seemingly “inviolate” principles often clash with one another. Jefferson was reminded of this fact every time he respected the rights of a southern landowner to the labor of his human “property.” Spinoza was reminded of the same point when he, a proponent of moral virtue if ever there was one, saw that laws designed to prohibit vice “are counted but a laughing-stock” and that human greed can actually be a boon to the economy. In the words of Kissinger’s hero, “there is no doubt that, if this passion of avarice, which is general and lasting, be encouraged by the desire of glory, most people would set their chief affection upon increasing their property without disgrace, in order to acquire honors, while avoiding extreme infamy.”
It sure sounds more like Adam Smith than Joseph Stalin. Yet I have no doubt that if Spinoza were alive today and running against the GOP attack machine, he’d be called a Pinko and an enemy of the state. I’m also quite sure that the venomous rhetoric invoked against him wouldn’t surprise him in the slightest.
Writing in the 1660s, Spinoza was an early proponent of democracy. “It is almost impossible,” he said, “that the majority of a people, especially if it be a large one, should agree in an irrational design.” But just a few years after penning those words, Spinoza would see for himself some of the dangers of granting power to the masses. In 1672, the body of Spinoza’s favorite statesman, Jan DeWitt, together with that of DeWitt’s brother, was literally ripped apart by a mob that blamed the DeWitts for the occupation by the French. It would appear that when political passions are inflamed, the sky is the limit.
Fortunately, we have progressed a ways since the days of Spinoza. We Americans have become much more civilized than the 17th century Dutch. To be sure, two young men were recently caught plotting to kill Barack Obama. And several attendees at McCain/Palin rallies have shouted all sorts of vile names against Barack and his supporters. But there have been no signs of mobs massing to tear statesmen limb from limb. In fact, we are on the verge of an election in which a record number of Americans will peacefully go to the polls and exercise their rights to freely choose our next leader. At times like this, we should thank God for disciples of freedom like Spinoza who never renounced his devotion to democracy even in the face of unspeakable evidence of how the masses of men may be prone to act when allowed to express themselves in the public sphere.
Fast forward three centuries from the time that Spinoza wrote his political theories, and you will come to another disciple of freedom, Martin Luther King, Jr. The echoes of MLK’s dream are forever etched in our brains – a dream in which people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their characters. To some, that dream sounded utopian. But even the cynics couldn’t argue with what was at stake if the dream were to become a reality. “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
MLK’s dream of liberty was multi-faceted. He sought for our nation freedom from racial bigotry. And he also sought the very tangible corollary of that goal: freedom to live in a society in which the “natural Aristocrats” (Jefferson’s term) of any race, creed, or gender are given a legitimate opportunity to reach any office in the land, even President. Now, finally, we are on the verge of seeing this dream come to fruition. I cannot help but think that Spinoza would be as thrilled with this opportunity as MLK.
Perhaps it is undeniable that the most liberating thing about this election is the opportunity to elect as President a representative of a race that, not long ago, was considered by many Americans as more ape than human. Even in my family, I got used to hearing the word “schvartza” to refer to black people – to my English-speaking ears, there were few more de-humanizing words than that one. And then, when I left the presence of bigoted octogenarian relatives and went to summer camp in West Virginia, I would enter the company of young people who would tell jokes like “Why do niggers smell? So that blind people can hate ‘em too.” That was America, folks, and not all that long ago. Barack Obama is poised to put a dagger in the heart of those attitudes. Talk about liberating.
But while that may win the gold medal, it’s no more difficult for me to identify the silver. The other especially liberating facet of this election is the opportunity to hold a political party accountable for its actions. How sweet is that? Here in America, capitalist America, we base our economic system on the principle of accountability. When companies freely compete with one another for business, they become accountable to the marketplace. The result will be the production of goods and services of the highest quality and the lowest price. Those companies that satisfy the demands of the public will survive … and indeed thrive. Those that fail will go out of business. That’s the American way. That’s what has given us the most powerful economy in the world.
Just as those principles apply to economics, so do they apply to governance. We have two political parties. One was in power for eight years (from 1992-2000), presided over an economic boom, and left office with a budget surplus. Then, the other party came in, and for the next eight years it has run our nation into a ditch. We have become embroiled in a seemingly endless set of wars in the Middle East, which have resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and tens of thousands of limbs, and has left our military capability severely weakened. Economically, we have built the national debt to record proportions, and yet what do we have to show for this profligate spending? A stock-market crash, a credit crunch, and a recession.
I could go on telling our tale of woe (international standing, climate change, etc.), but why bother? It has become clear that if there’s any sense of accountability left in American politics, the voters on Tuesday will send a message to the Republican party: it’s time to let the other side take a shot at it. If they fail, they’ll be booted out too. That’s called accountability. That’s called democracy. It’s not perfect, but it is liberating.
Under the circumstances, you can almost pity the poor Republicans whose job it is to buck the tide. How do you compete against a candidate as attractive, articulate, inspiring, historical, classy, and poised as Barack Obama? I’d be tempted to say that you’d fight with the 1980 version of John McCain – Mr. Straight-Talk Express – but that McCain would have never appealed to the base of the Republican Party. Those troglodytes aren’t looking for the subtleties of a Spinoza. They want the simplicity of Joe the Plumber. According to Joe the Tax Delinquent, any sense of progressivity in our tax system entails socialism (despite the fact that the tax policies of such GOP heroes as Eisenhower and Nixon were heavily progressive) and the election of Barack Obama means the death of Israel (despite the fact that Barack’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, is Jewish and that Barack has consistently professed to be a friend of Israel). Let’s face it: when you’re running against a dream candidate and your best weapon is Joe the Plumber, it’s time for the Fat Lady to at least start humming.
The next time I blog, Barack Obama will be the President-elect, and elation will reign throughout blue and purple America. But what will happen to John McCain? Eight years ago, he would have been my choice for President. But lately, he has been reduced to pathos – presiding over a campaign worthy of Joseph McCarthy. I suspect that McCain, always the survivor, will ask for the nation’s forgiveness, and point out that he got so caught up in the desire to “win” that he resorted to below-the-belt tactics. Barack, forever classy, will surely forgive McCain – he might even find a place for him in his Administration if McCain wants to leave Capitol Hill.
Let’s say all that happens. Should we, as Empathic Rationalists, forgive McCain? I’ll leave that question to our post-election judgment, which will surely be more temperate than we can possibly be today. But no matter how we assess the sincerity of his upcoming apology, we should forever be in John McCain’s debt. The importance of what his campaign is about to teach America cannot be overestimated.
If a nation is truly energized about a political campaign, it can defeat fear, sleaze, lies, you name it.Those lessons are indeed priceless. They, as much as any economic principles, are the cornerstones of what it means to live in freedom.
If a nation is truly energized about a political campaign, it can elect the candidate who is most suited for the job intellectually, emotionally, and ideologically … regardless of race or gender.
If a nation is truly energized about a political campaign, it can leave the winner with a mandate to lead us all through a period of shared sacrifice in which we place the profound needs of our society above our own superficial desires.
Saturday, October 25, 2008
When I originally conceived of this blogpost, the title wasn’t supposed to have parentheses. I had planned to talk about two flat-out falsehoods. One has been voiced by liberals, the other by conservatives. I still believe the statements to be false. But the first one – the statement made by liberals – is starting to ring more and more true every day.
The statement is succinct: this election is already over. I first heard that claim during the week of the Democratic Convention, which I think we can all agree went off beautifully. Then, immediately after “Sister Sarah” was nominated (that is the term used for her by Patrick Buchanan, who seems to be her political hero), I didn’t merely hear the comment at issue … I started making it. My initial reaction to the Palin pick was that McCain had lost his mind and that Palin would mire her running mate in pathos – like the doddering old man in the old-age home who can’t find his false teeth.
Obviously, that reaction was short-lived. At her own convention, Sarah turned in a performance worthy of Hollywood. She looked great. She smiled at the right times. She read her words with just the perfect intonation. And she had a message of populism and feistiness that struck a chord with men and women alike. Suddenly, Palin/McCain was the happenin’ ticket. Obama looked like Mr. Five Minutes Ago, and Biden looked like Mr. Five Decades Ago.
The polls confirmed my fears. Palin/McCain jumped into the lead. They even took the advantage on Intrade – meaning that the folks who were putting their money where their mouths are thought that Sister Sarah and her daddy had a better than average chance of winning. Needless to say, the game was on.
But not for long, says conventional wisdom. Three things happened at around the same time. First, our nation’s economy began to unravel. Economics was always Obama’s territory, at least in the minds of voters, and once the credit market tightened, McCain would no longer be able to persuade those voters that foreign affairs were more important. Second, McCain’s first reaction to the economic meltdown was to grab a mike and declare that the fundamentals of the economy were strong. Talk about being out of touch. McCain looked positively clueless. Third, America started taking the measure of Sister Sarah – this time, not as someone who reads a speech from a teleprompter but as someone who answers a journalist’s questions. Palin’s interview with Katie Couric was two parts embarrassment and three parts hysteria. Palin couldn’t have made more of a fool of herself had she dropped her trousers and peed on the floor.
"As Putin rears his head and comes into the airspace of the United States of America, where do they go? It's Alaska. It's just right over the border. It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there, they are right next to our state." There you have Sister Sarah’s claim to foreign policy expertise. But what may have been even more telling was that she couldn’t name a single magazine or newspaper that she read. Not one.
Day after day, America was being treated to more bad news about the economy and more absurdity on the Palin front. Obama had regained the clear lead in the polls – and on Intrade. So sure, the chorus of “it’s over” began to grow. Then came the debates. McCain looked cranky (did I mention that he couldn’t find his false teeth?), whereas Barack looked Presidential. Biden answered Gwen Ifill’s questions masterfully; Palin stated that she felt no compulsion to answer the question that was asked. According to the instant polls, the Democrats won four games to zero. A clean sweep. By the end of the last debate, you could almost hear the words “it’s over” drowning out the applause.
It has now been ten days since the final debate – and the same number of days that are left until the election. A lot can happen in ten days, right? Well, they have. McCain/Palin took the offense. They started throwing mud at Obama. Major mud. On the campaign trail, Sister Sarah had her crowd whipped up to a frenzy. “Kill him,” one person chanted. “Terrorist” chanted others. And lest you think that they were only talking about Bill Ayers, the McCain/Palin campaign began distributing leaflets in which the reader couldn’t help but get the impression that a vote for Obama was a vote for terrorism. To make matters worse, Palin (and one of her doppelgangers, a Congresswoman from Minnesota) turned the election into a battle between pro-American and anti-American forces. To Palin, small towns represent “pro-American” areas of the country. The rest of us, by implication, are enemies of the state. After all, most of us support a candidate – Barack Obama – whose views McCain has labeled “socialist” because he supports rolling back taxes to where they were at the time Bill Clinton was President.
If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that Joseph McCarthy had returned from the grave and is now running the GOP.
According to conventional wisdom, negative campaigning works! But not this time. With each piece of dung that McCain or Palin flings at Barack, he only surges further ahead in the polls. It didn’t help the GOP that one Republican leader after another has endorsed Barack. Or that reporters revealed that Sister Sarah, the so-called Hockey Mom (or “Joe Sixpack” candidate), has spent $150,000 on clothes since her nomination less than two months ago. Some thrifty maverick! We have witnessed the return of the pork politician who campaigned for the Bridge to Nowhere and then, later, funded the Road to Nowhere. Only in this case, the Road is adorned with the most exquisite fabrics. And the recipient of the pork isn’t all of Wassila, or Alaska, but only Sarah and her children. They look mahvellous.
Just a few days ago, I had planned to say that this was still a contest. I could have pointed out that according to the polls, the states in which Obama has a truly comfortable lead would net him somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 or 260 electoral votes – an impressive number, to be sure, but not the 269 he needs to win the election. I could have added that much can still change in the next week and a half, especially when you have Barack’s VP choice making truly dumb comments (I can’t get over his recent line suggesting that bad guys will want to “test” Barack because of his inexperience). And … I remain convinced that the Bradley Effect could well be significant. So on paper, THIS RACE IS NOT OVER. And, in fact, I am still a bit nervous.
But those nerves are in my heart. My mind tells me that it will take an upset of epic proportions for McCain to pull things out now (absent some sort of disaster befalling Barack Obama). What is the source of my confidence? It’s related to that OTHER big lie. This is the one that is told by conservatives. It goes like this: Unlike Palin, Barack lacks executive experience.
Talk about bull.
For the past 20 months, Barack Obama has been the de-facto CEO and Chairman of the Board of an enterprise that has raised and spent many hundreds of millions of dollars. His enterprise has had a large staff, and an enormous number of volunteers. It has inspired a substantial portion of this nation, and an equally impressive contingent of foreign observers. By all possible measures, this enterprise has done an incredibly good job in delivering the goods to its consumer base.
I’m referring, of course, to Barack’s role as the leader of the most impressive political campaign of recent memory. There has been a hiccup here and there, but for the most part, Barack’s troops have behaved flawlessly, and their discipline has merely reflected that of their leader. In speech after speech, and debate after debate, he has been on top of his game. Barack revealed himself to be deeply knowledgeable on virtually all areas of public policy, even holding his own against Hillary Clinton, an acknowledged master of that domain. Moreover, when he needed to deliver a big speech, he did so with an eloquence not seen on these shores since Martin Luther King. Speech giving was Barack’s domain, and in that area, Hillary couldn’t hope to compete.
All campaigns have ebbs and flows, and this one has been no different. Not surprisingly, many of Barack’s supporters have panicked on different occasions – such as when Hillary started pulling away last summer or catching up this spring, or more recently, when Palin-mania took hold. But Barack never panicked; he just went about carrying out his game plan. And that plan was to demonstrate that he was just the opposite of what this nation has come to expect of African-American Democrats who sought the Presidency. Unlike Jackson or Sharpton, Barack was a unifier, not a divider. He asked that we ignore his skin color, but not the plight of working people, black or white, who need our help. He also summoned the nation’s love for religion, ultimately revealing the bigotry and hatred of those who falsely branded him a “Muslim.” And above all else, he developed a grass roots political organization the like of which we have never seen before.
It is precisely because of Barack’s organization that I am so supremely confident about the outcome. For nearly two years, we have heard about how that organization has perfected the art of fundraising in the Internet age. Here are the figures – the campaign has raised more than $600 million since the campaign began, and more than $150 million last month alone. It seems to be the one company in this country that is actually doing well! But just as importantly, the campaign has also done a unprecedented job in assembling boots on the ground. Those volunteers have been busy registering voters, canvassing, and making sure that as many people as possible vote early. The numbers from states that permit early voting are staggering, and they strongly favor Obama.
Personally, I have already voted. I did so because on Election Day, I will be out of state, working to ensure that every vote is counted. In that regard, I am hardly alone. Thousands upon thousands of Obama supporters will be in swing states, working from the time the polls open until the time they close. This time, the nation’s Democrats will not be caught with our pants down. If McCain/Palin are going to win this, they will have to earn it. And so far, you’d have to say, the only thing they’ve earned is plenty of laughs.
I remember the first time I walked into Steve Novick’s campaign headquarters a few days before his nearly-victorious primary election. I saw the staffer who was in charge of the headquarters that day and I said, in essence, “I’ll be here through the night of the election. Just tell me what you want me to do, and I’ll do it. No exceptions.” It was easy for me to take that attitude because Steve Novick is one of my best friends. But the interesting thing is that Barack Obama has inspired that same attitude from so many of his troops. Right-wingers mock us for hero worship. But really, this isn’t about hero-worship. This is about motivation. We are motivated to finally take this country back from non-compassionate conservative rule. We are motivated to see what this country could be like with an Administration that isn’t wedded to trickle-down reasoning. We are motivated to learn how well an Obama Administration can perform, given how well an Obama campaign has been run. And we are motivated to ensure that politicians who campaign based on fear and hate will finally come to regret those tactics.
So yes, my mind tells me that because Barack Obama has been such a great executive, and because he’s about ready to harvest the fruits of his labor, he should be a massive favorite to win this election. But … there are many days left in the campaign … he is a black man in a primarily white country … and the Republicans have shown the guts to let it all hang out in attempting to win this election. So I will remain nervous, probably until election night. As far as I’m concerned, that night cannot come soon enough.
Monday, October 20, 2008
Thinks got a little hot and heavy over the weekend with the comments to my last blogpost. So let me say the following:
I can't truly say "I feel your pain." But I can relate to what it feels like to support losing teams. I am, after all, a Democrat. And a Vikings fan. And a Twins fan. And a devoted Stanford Cardinal. (And yes, I watched Stanford's defense fall apart down the stretch to F-Ucla on Saturday.) So I understand the value of venting.
This morning, do yourself a favor. Disregard my words and focus on the eloquent and moving words of Colin Powell this past weekend. I'm willing to bet that you are incapable of descending into the Rush-ian depths of blaming Powell's endorsement simply on his race. And I assume you would recognize that Powell is one of the more distinguished public servants of this past generation. So just listen to what he said about Obama. And then consider whether Obama's highest advisors are truly willing to lower their shields against the terrorists.
As it has been pointed out, I work in D.C. -- nearly at the midpoint of the Capitol and the White House. The last thing I want to see in Washington is a President who is soft on terrorism. But I don't think you'll find that in Barack Obama. Powell, obviously, doesn't either.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
With seventeen days left until the election, the GOP seems to be heading for a train wreck. John McCain, having lost all three debates according to the polls, is reduced to authorizing sleazy robo calls by the same firm that slimed him eight years ago. Apparently, his irreligious brand of uber-patriotism doesn’t require him to follow the Golden Rule. Meanwhile, Sarah Palin, who still feels no need to answer the media’s questions, was campaigning in North Carolina, where she praised the audience for living in one of the “pro America areas of this great nation.” I guess that means that they won’t be supporting Barack Obama, who was publicly referred to by Congresswoman Michelle Bachman (Rep. MN) as “very anti-American.” Pity today’s GOP – they’re stuck with Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore when they would have obviously preferred Lee Atwater and Joseph McCarthy.
Yes, “my friends,” I am beginning to feel the death rattle of a campaign. Their only hope left is the Bradley Effect. Secret racists are going to have to come out of the woodwork on election day like cockroaches, especially in purple states like Virginia and Colorado, which are giving Barack his seemingly comfortable margin. It could happen. But right now, it is really looking like America is going to give Sarah Palin and the First Dude a few more years to take out their binoculars and protect us all from the Commies across the Strait.
Frankly, the probable outcome just makes sense. We seem to be at the beginning of the worst economic crunch since the Great Depression. The Republicans had been in power for more than eight years when the market crashed in 1929. Now, we’ve had nearly eight years of light and breezy Republican rule leading up to our present economic mess. Who can blame the voters for wanting to try something different, particularly given that the last Democratic President presided over the greatest stock market boom in decades?
For me, though, I don’t want to focus on one party versus another. I’d prefer to focus on a few individuals. Namely, those 20th century American statesmen who have most achieved “greatness” – or perhaps I should say, who have had “greatness thrust upon them.” What do you say we pick one from each party? I nominate Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
Roosevelt took office when the nation’s economy had hit rock bottom. Viewing that economy as the victim of benign neglect on the part of the government, FRD aggressively summoned governmental power by means that would have previously been viewed as “socialist” by most Americans. As a result, he provided the stimulus our economy needed to get back on its feet. For this, and for his subsequent command of the American military during World War II, he was elected not once, not twice, but four times.
Yes, “my friends,” Roosevelt made mistakes – serious mistakes. As a Jew, I am duty bound to remind you of his appalling conduct in preventing boats containing German Jews from finding safe haven in the United States. Despite possessing clear information about anti-Semitic atrocities perpetrated against the Jewish people (my own grandmother was presented a book entitled “Hitler Terror” in February 1934), FDR callously sent these passengers back to Europe … and the ovens.
So no, Roosevelt was no saint. But he became a hero to the American public, and is now generally beloved by Americans, including even Jewish Americans. Such is the benefit of lifting up a nation from its depths and allowing it once again to dream of greatness.
It’s exactly what Ronald Reagan did five decades after the Great Depression. Just think back to the White House that Reagan inherited. His predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had become an almost tragic figure. When he would address the nation about our great “malaise,” I could have sworn that we were being led by Droopy Dog. Unlike Droopy, however, Carter could hardly be an object of pity. He was just too damned sanctimonious. Watching him occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was like watching a clinical depressive blaming everyone but himself for his problems.
Carter’s Presidency was going badly enough when a group of Iranians decided to seize American hostages. Talk about Murphy’s Law! Carter appeared powerless to do anything in response to the terrorists, and Americans felt like laughing stocks. We were obviously desperate for a change. Even a former B-actor who didn’t seem especially intelligent or hard working and who resided on the far right wing of American politics came across by comparison as a breath of fresh air. And so Ronald Wilson Reagan was elected.
One of the things I’ve learned from my dear friend (and nearly the next Senator from Oregon) Steve Novick is that every Democrat needs at least one modern Republican politician to admire. (I’m sure this applies in reverse to Republicans, but I’ll let them speak for themselves on that score.) For Novick, that beloved Republican is Richard Milhous Nixon. For me, it has become Ronald Reagan.
Readers of this blog have read enough of my praise for Reagan in previous posts, so I’ll try not to be too redundant. Suffice it to say, for present purposes, that Reagan shrewdly took advantage of the fact that this nation was ready for bolder, more assertive leadership and implemented a vision combining an aggressive foreign policy with a commitment to laissez-faire economics. We disagree fundamentally on domestic policy, but I cannot deny that he was effective in carrying out the policies that he promised to advocate when campaigning for the office of President. And as for his foreign policy record, is there any doubt that Reagan behaved brilliantly in putting the God-forsaken Cold War out of its misery?
Believe me, “my friends,” I haven’t always been a fan. When they named our local airport after the Gipper, I winced. With the passage of time, though, I came to appreciate Reagan for his honesty, his clarity of vision, and for achieving some very tangible and profound results. As conservative Republicans go, he’s clearly my favorite. And so, when I hear his fellow travelers refer to the man as “great,” I acknowledge the truth of their statement. Similarly, when I heard the Clintons bash Barack this past winter for giving the Gipper his due, I was indignant. No modern politician who hopes to unify this nation, and God knows that we have to do something about our presently polarized state, can ignore altogether the genius of Ronald Reagan. That would be as crazy as ignoring the genius of FDR.
Well, “my friends,” you wouldn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know where I’m going with this. We have now come to yet another fork in the road in American history. Nobody yet should be talking about The Great Depression II, but our economy has clearly reached crisis proportions. Forget the fact that we’ve lost a zillion dollars in paper assets during the past several weeks. The fact remains that we live in a society where people have become addicted to living beyond their means and where our workforce is no longer the world’s envy when it comes to education and training. We’re also fighting a seemingly endless two-front war with a military that is stretched like an old rubber band. Not surprisingly, comparisons made between the modern U.S. and the Roman Empire at the time of Nero are becoming more and more frequent.
That’s right, “my friends,” the soup we’re in is pretty thick – just like it was in 1932 and 1980. It’s obviously time for a brand spanking new approach, and a new political party to spearhead that approach. But more to the point, it’s time for the American public to get behind the leader who has the stones to step up and take the reigns. Many right wingers would lament the fact that America allowed FDR to create one alphabet soup government agency after another, but history has looked kindly on the economic policies of Mr. Roosevelt. Similarly, many of my fellow liberals wish that we had fought Reagan tooth and nail when he came to power. But even though I disagree with so much of what he did, I have to admit that it was the GOP’s turn in 1980 to grab the national wheel and taker her around for a spin. Call it democracy. Call it faith in experimentation. Call it the right of every American to see what would happen if we took government off the people’s back.
Well … Americans have the same right to see what would happen if, after a period of unbridled capitalism run amuck, we insert some powerful governmental controls. I’m convinced that Barack Obama will do just that, while never forgetting that this is NOT a socialist country. To me, anyone who labels Barack as a creature of the far left is either ignorant or engaging in demagoguery. Barack is a center-left politician who is about to assume control over a country that is center-right at a time when a leftward swing is not only inevitable but necessary. His ability to lead effectively is largely a function of whether the opposition party attempts to rally around him (the way the Democrats rallied around George W. Bush during the first year and a half after 9/11) or whether they attempt to thwart him. We’ve grown accustomed to the latter treatment during the decades after Reagan left office, and the result has been a do-nothing Congress and a government mired in gridlock. But can we really afford more gridlock? Does anyone seriously think that the world economy would benefit from a Calvin Coolidge-type approach coming from Washington? It’s a scary prospect.
Roosevelt and Reagan were men of Teflon. Given the conditions under which they took office and their clear accomplishments after they assumed command, nothing their opponents threw at them ever seemed to stick, or at least not for long. That explains FDR’s four Presidential wins and Reagan’s ability to win 49 states in 1984. John McCain and his McCarthyesque running mate are beginning to realize that Barack Obama has some of the same Teflon qualities. But can he retain that Teflon if he is elected?
I’ll freely admit that, as a politician, Barack has been damned lucky. He ran for U.S. Senate against a Republican who was forced to quit due to scandal. That Republican was replaced by a carpetbagger whose mouth seemed to run about ten times faster than his brain. Moreover, now that Barack is running for President, he finds himself opposing a party with an approval rating of less than epsilon and a candidate who has neutralized his one advantage (greater experience in government) by nominating a neophyte for Veep who apparently can’t identify a single newspaper or magazine that she reads. No question, Barack has received his share of fortunate breaks.
Still, “my friends,” this man hasn’t merely had greatness thrust upon him. From where I’m sitting, he owes his accomplishments primarily to what he has achieved. It has now been more than twenty months since Barack kicked off his campaign on a cold February day in Springfield, Illinois. During these past 600+ days, he has spent virtually the entire time under the nation’s microscope. And from what I can tell, he made only one stupid mistake ; he referred to Pennsylvania’s Reagan Democrats as “bitter.” That’s one boo-boo. One fumble. One bogey. In more than twenty months.
So Barack has been incredibly steady and disciplined. But he hasn’t merely grinded par after par. He’s made plenty of birdies, and more than a few eagles. His speech after winning in Iowa was brilliant. His speech after losing in New Hampshire was even better. He went on to deliver other brilliant speeches – one about race effectively shut down the Jeremiah Wright red herring, and another was at the Convention, where he cleverly toned down his oratory and provided a few more details about his agenda. But Barack is more than just a modern-day Demosthenes. Let’s not forget the incredible organization that he has put together. This organization could conceivably effectively neutralize the Bradley Effect: even though more rednecks will vote against the “Negra” man than they are willing to admit to pollsters, the pollsters may also be underestimating the number of new voters whom the Obama organization will be bringing to the polls. Barack’s organization has also done a masterful job at fundraising, destroying the famed Clinton machine in the winter and breezing by the Republicans this fall.
Barack’s greatest accomplishment may be the way he has effectively navigated between the Scylla and Charybdis of modern American race relations. If he came across as a tad more subdued or understated, he’d be branded as another passive “Democratic Loser,” like Dukakis or Mondale. But if he dared come out firing with too much heat, he’d be viewed as another “angry black man.” Hell, he’s already been called “uppity” by a Congressman despite having behaved like a perfect gentleman.
Just imagine how white America would view Barack if he had acted with half the petulance or arrogance that McCain brought to the debates. Fortunately, we haven’t had to worry about that; even conservative pundits have acknowledged that Barack has consistently displayed perfect pitch in his demeanor. In the end, it is that demeanor – Barack’s seemingly steady hand – that will likely trump all the other factors in these perilous times to earn Barack the Presidency.
That’s right, “my friends,” Barack has come across as cool as Eastwood. As cool as Reagan. As cool as Tiger. How’s that for EQ. Not bad for the first African-American President in the history of the Harvard Law Review.
So let’s say that the odds-makers are correct and Barack wins a comfortable victory. Or let’s say that even cynics like me are correct and that, despite a significantly underestimated Bradley Effect, Barack wins a squeaker. What then? Will he become a President made of Teflon? Or one, like “Still-President Bush,” made of Velcro?
I can’t yet answer that question. But the future of this nation for decades may hinge on that answer. Can we really afford to have another four to eight years of partisan pugilism and Potomac paralysis? We need to lead the world, and not with our cries about responding to imaginary weapons of mass destruction but with our responses to very real weapons of economic and environmental degradation. Are we going to cede that leadership role to Europe? Or Asia? Or do we plan once again to be a player on the international stage? If so, we need a heck of a lot of unity here at home – the same kind of unity that we had during Roosevelt’s war against the Nazis or Reagan’s war against the Russians.
Barack doesn’t appear to be the man of vision that Reagan was. Nor do I see from him the passion of, say, a Martin Luther King. But what I do see is an incredible IQ to match his incredible EQ. And, more specifically, I see his ability and willingness to assemble the best and brightest advisors available on a range of issues, mine their collective wisdom to identify sound positions, and then artfully sell those positions to the public.
Such qualities, “my friends,” are precisely what we will need in our next leader.