Sunday, July 27, 2008
July 27th has always been a special day for me. I was born on this day 48 years ago. Alex Rodriguez -- he who has become known for hitting home runs and possibly hitting on Madonna -- was born on this day 33 years ago. But historians can tell you that the date is notable for far more important reasons. Today in 1953, the Korean War ended. In 1890, on July 27th, Vincent Van Gogh, seemingly at the height of his artistic powers, committed suicide by firing the shot that would result in his death two days later. But most relevant for our purposes is that it was on July 27, 1656 when the leaders of the Amsterdam synagogue permanently excommunicated Spinoza from their community.
“Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night,” proclaimed the “Lords of the ma’amad,” which is the term that that the synagogue elders used to refer to themselves. “Cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book [the Torah] shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven.” The synagogue elders went on to prohibit all members of the community from communicating with Spinoza, staying under the same roof with him, coming within four cubits (roughly six feet) of him, or reading any of his writings. As a result, Spinoza has become infamous with many traditional Jews but a beloved role model for just as many other Sons and Daughters of Jacob who admire him as perhaps the quintessential Jewish free thinker who has ever lived.
I have Spinoza on my mind today after having just returned from a week largely spent teaching about him to a group of Unitarian Universalists. It is not surprising that UUs have given me such a warm reception whenever I’ve addressed them on the topic of Spinoza; after all, UUs see themselves as a community of heretics. My job has been to help them recognize Spinoza as a fellow traveler. Truly, in the thousands of years since Socrates, I am hard pressed to name a philosopher more associated with heresy than Spinoza. Nietzsche, you say? Perhaps. But don’t forget that Nietzsche once wrote that in Spinoza, he found his precursor, “and what a precursor! … Even though the divergencies are admittedly tremendous, they are due more to the differences in time, culture, and science. In summa, my solitude, which as on very high mountains, often made it hard for me to breathe and made my blood rush out, is at least a dualitude.”
Nietzsche’s comments illustrate how comforting it is for freethinkers to know that heretics in the past have made names for themselves speaking truth to power. It gives us all hope that expressing heresy need not be fruitless, and it makes the whole freethinking enterprise feel a lot less lonely. Both times that I have gone to the Summer Institute in Virginia and spent a week with a thousand UUs, I’ve been reassured to see so many people receiving support from one another in questioning authority, challenging conventional wisdom, and gaining inspiration to fight for social change. Just as importantly, I have been moved by how their challenge to conventional thought is not a shrill one but one that is bathed in warmth and empathy. If I were to be pressed to identify a large group of Americans today who can legitimately call themselves “Empathic Rationalists,” the UUs would be as good a choice as any.
But it is one thing to be empathic and rationalistic, and quite another to be worthy of the term “heretic.” Many of us aspire to that status; few of us attain it.
To me, heretics aren’t simply people who espouse points of view that are far afield from their society’s mainstream. Heretics espouse these viewpoints powerfully, publicly, and with enough lucidity to be deemed threatening to the authorities. Consequently, the life of a heretic is fraught with peril, and is anything but easy on the arteries. When I bask in the love and support of a summer camp for UUs, I’m not exactly witnessing 1000 risk-takers. Indeed, for the most part, what I hear are left-of-center non-theists who devote most of their preaching to the choir. Neither Spinoza nor Nietzsche – or for that matter Van Gogh – would recognize themselves in this multitude.
This past week, though, a funny thing happened to me that would have made true heretics proud. I was in the middle of a group of non-theists preaching the word of God – no, not the so-called divine “Scripture, but merely the idea that we must seize the word “God” from the traditional theists and change its meaning to make it harmonize with the teachings of modern science and philosophy. When I finished my schpiel, who should come up to me but a gentleman who wanted to do what I was doing but in the realm of political-economics rather than that of theology. He is, as they say, a card carrying member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation – not a mere visitor like myself – and yet he is a staunch libertarian. That makes him an extremely rare bird. You see, in the great left-right dichotomy that seems to divide our nation so potently and tragically, he would surely be classified on the right. Here he was, bemoaning to me the era of big government and proposing that we lop off one government program after another. He pined for a time when the nation would have an honest dialogue on how precisely to delineate the appropriate uses of government from those that have developed as a result of political pandering and bureaucratic greed. In talking to him, I realized that I have known many, many dozens of UUs in my life but this was the first one who wasn’t solidly on the left. And that pleased me no end. This guy actually preaches against his choir. By doing so, he helps to create an environment in which people think for themselves, rather than mindlessly uttering the word “Amen” – which is perhaps the most mind-numbing word in our lexicon … at least for an aspiring heretic.
As I drove home from the UU Summer Institute, I found myself picking up the challenge that was given me by my new libertarian friend. Exactly how, I wondered, can we best trim the governmental bloat that has come to mar America throughout my lifetime? What do we need to do in order to balance the budget … and not just during times of unusually rapid technological advancements, such as those that buoyed President Clinton? Must we continue to use the government to subsidize those who are far from “needy”? And if we were to engage in a national dialogue with the purpose of segregating those government programs that American citizens are proud to finance from those that have resulted from pandering and bureaucratic bloat, couldn’t we take a major dent out of our national debt?
When I got home, I went on-line and checked the Huffington Post, which has become – for better or worse – one of my major sources of news. One of the lead articles of the day discussed the Senate’s passage of so-called “bi-partisan” legislation. The bill enables American homeowners who are having trouble paying their mortgages to lean on the government in order to retain their homes. Included within the bill are provisions for the bail-out of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, companies that have paid ungodly sums to their executives, all the while knowing that if the organizations should falter – which they did -- Uncle Sam would have no choice but to rescue them. As Yakov Smirnov used to say, “What a country!”
Liberal Democrats are toasting this legislative victory today. As surely as clockwork, my fellow “progressives” will boast about how the new law will help the great middle class, whose dream of home ownership dates back to the very beginning of our nation and such “limited government” advocates as Thomas Jefferson. Still, as we prepare to add zillions more dollars to our national debt, is this really a time for rejoicing? In particular, is this really a time for rejoicing at the conduct of the Democrats in the Senate?
One Republican Senator, Jim DeMint, delayed the glorious vote on the grounds that he wanted to propose a ban on Freddie Mac and Fannie May from lobbying legislators or making donations to their campaigns. I have to say, DeMint has one hell of a point. Can someone tell me why it is that these companies are permitted ungodly profits in good times and are protected against failure in bad times, their chief executives are allowed to earn many millions of dollars per year regardless of how well these quasi-public companies are doing, and yet … we still enable these organizations to have the privilege of financing the campaigns of the incumbent Congressmen and Senators who make such corporate welfare possible?
So how did the Democrats respond to DeMint’s proposal? They killed it, of course. And why not? Senators of both parties tend to want as many campaign funds as they can get. This is surely why they vote each year to pay Government subsidies to support multi-millionaire farmers.
You shouldn’t have to be a libertarian to realize how offensive it is to treat taxpayer money like it was printed by Milton Bradley. But this has become the Washington game, and it is truly bipartisan. I find it quite ironic that I had to go to a camp for leftists to encounter someone who I was convinced actually gives a damn about the issue of government waste. Then again, perhaps that stands to reason. If you want to locate someone who has credibility, find the plain-spoken heretic. S/he is the one who speaks from a disinterested heart, and not based on some “agenda.” I hear traditional conservatives bemoan government waste all the time, only to support wars of choice that contribute hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars to our national debt. But the heretic I met values consistency – he doesn’t want to saddle our children and grandchildren with debt, so he’s willing to decry the pet programs of the right as well as the left. And he’s willing to sound his libertarian shofar in the heart of one of the most liberal communities in the United States.
As I begin the transition in this portion of cyberspace to where you all know I will be in the fall – relentlessly toasting a man who is poised to become one of our greatest Presidents – and no, I’m not speaking about the pandering curmudgeon – I’d like to ask you this question. Are we who support Barack Obama willing to encourage him to be fiscally responsible? Are we willing to make that a high priority for his Administration?
If we’re not, we can toast many a legislative “victory” under his watch, and yet the fruits of these so-called accomplishments will all come crashing down at the expense of our children and grandchildren. What do you say we put the heresy of budget cutting at the very top of our “progressive” agenda? Do that, and I suspect we Democrats and Independents will find a lot more fellow travelers than we ever dreamed possible, and Barack might find the path for unification that he so obviously is seeking.
Saturday, July 19, 2008
LEARNING THE WRONG LESSONS FROM THE GREEKS
Seven words Socrates spoke to the Athenian jury in the year 399 BCE still reign as the most important words in the history of philosophy. Immortalized in Plato’s Apology, they represent the rallying cry for all who decide to enroll in Philosophy 101 – or more to the point, Philosophy 202 – and for all who choose to spend their vacations reading Heidegger or Hegel, rather than snorkeling or scuba diving.
I can repeat these words, I can claim to believe them, and yet I recognize how little I can ever do to honor them. Honoring the example of Socrates requires a lifetime of effort, and even then you can’t really do it justice. I sure don’t. I practice law (ugh!), listen to rock n’ roll, and watch football, baseball, basketball, tennis … and today, I am intermittently watching golf (even though Tiger isn’t playing).
To be fully human is to have ample appetites for sex, food and frivolity. What time could possibly be left for anything else? Still, when our animalistic urges have received at least a measure of satisfaction, our minds can occasionally come to the fore. And that is when we can remember the great teachings. Teachings like “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
I take Socrates’ teaching as a fundamental truth. Even before I was exposed to the phrase in college, I intuited its meaning. As a child, I reflected a fair amount about God, moral values and political theory. But when I went to college and was exposed to philosophy as an academic discipline, Socrates’ phrase took on an additional meaning. No longer was it OK for me simply to reflect here and there about philosophy as some sort of pastime. By the time I graduated with a BA degree, I thirsted to come up with my own personal religion or philosophy – an internally consistent, reasonable, and hopefully compelling set of ideas that form a foundation for resolving the ultimate issues of ethics and metaphysics.
There. That shouldn’t be hard, right? No seriously, of course it’s hard. In fact it’s impossible. But Socrates demands nothing less. The search, you see, is what philosophy is all about – or as they say in golf, it’s the “grinding” that has value, not the scoring.
I’m thinking about this stuff these days because, blissfully, this is the beginning of my summer vacation. Like last year, I’ll be heading down to
Like everything else in life, though, thinking philosophically has its drawbacks. Lately, I’ve been realizing that among the biggest drawbacks is having to listen to religion-speak when you’re at the same time demanding logical coherence regarding the concept of God.
Clergymen. Parishioners. Muslims.
So far so good, I say. But the portrait continues. The God worshippers I’ve encountered lately attribute everything wonderful in life to God and His will. And yet while they also recognize the existence in life of such horrors as the Holocaust and the Great Lisbon Earthquake, they are unwilling to attribute these horrors to the will of their deity. Perhaps, they figure, that’s where God’s inscrutability feature most comes in handy.
So far, I have been discussing God as an object of study – as a “He” that we speak about in the third person. But just as often, I hear God discussed in the second person, as a “you” or a “Thou.” If anything, that is the dominant way people encounter God during religious services. “Dear God …” begin the pious, before thanking their Lord for whatever it is they’re thankful for, or before they ask for something they dearly desire, whether it’s world peace or an “A” on a P-Chem final.
Who is this ultimate being … this inscrutable one, who has graced us with beauty and harmony since the beginning of creation and who enriches us still further whenever we speak His praises or ask for his beneficence? The more religious services I attend, the more God-worshippers I meet, the more convinced I am that the answer is clear. The favorite God of today is certainly not an old-fashioned idol, like the Golden Calf. Nor is He the God of the Hebrews who first entered the Promised Land – historians tell us that my ancestors who left Moses in the wilderness were still sufficiently polytheistic to take note of the existence of multiple gods, even if they recognized their own Hebrew God as supreme in power.
No, the God I’ve been encountering at churches, synagogues and mosques is a more refined, modern conception. It dates as far back as the ancient Greeks. Indeed, it was made popular by the same men who gave us the cult of Socrates – Plato and his followers.
Philosophers debate what exactly Plato meant by God, but there is no debating that for many of the so-called “Platonists” who thrived from the time of Alexander the Great until roughly 400 or 500 ACE, the meaning of God was clear. They borrowed the name of God from their master and his classic work of philosophy, The Republic. Stated simply, they view God as “the Good.” Plato, you see, called the Form of the Good the highest form of knowledge, and said that the other Platonic Forms depended on the Good for their existence. You can hardly blame those of his followers who took such teachings and decided that they had found their God.
Little did they know that they’d be such trendsetters. People these days don’t like to get too specific when they talk about God, or “His” will. Instead, they offer generalities. God represents power. God represents goodness. God represents love. God represents the ideal. We speak about God in human terms, and then we justify the anthropomorphisms because they supposedly help us relate to “Him.” Sometimes we even call God a “Her” as if to suggest that God transcends gender. But our God never transcends goodness. And our God never transcends its offspring -- beauty and justice.
We don’t question God’s power, at least openly. But we don’t dare question God’s goodness – not even inwardly.
Hitler? Earthquakes? Those are not in God, nor would God intentionally countenance them -- at least not the God I’ve been hearing about as of late.
I look at this new-age deity – whatever age we’re in is quite literally the new age -- and I can’t help shaking my head. How is this conception internally consistent? It made a modicum of sense for the ancient Platonists to talk of “the Good” as supreme, because they lived in a polytheist society, and this “Good” was battling with other transcendent powers in a world fueled by supernatural forces. As we all know, however, those powers do not exist in today’s monotheist subcultures. So where do we get off talking about God’s omnibenevolence and omnipotence in the same breath?
Pick one, I say. Polytheism and “goodness” worship. Or monotheism, and the recognition that any God who is potent enough to be worthy of being the God, and not merely the greatest of the gods, can’t possibly be identified with omnibenevolence – at least not the way we understand that concept. Too many people have been gassed, too many have been buried alive. “The Good” and “the one God” just don’t go together.
When I shared some of these ideas with a friend and linked them to the principle of Socrates, I received a simple response. The idea of equating God with “the Good” works well for people. And one reason it does is that few of us are philosophers. Few of us believe that the thoroughly unexamined life is worth living, but there’s examination and there’s EXAMINATION. We don’t need to examine life so much that we’re constantly, restlessly searching for a single coherent, overarching set of philosophical views. That’s taking philosophy too far. We only need a simple set of ideas to live by – a set of ideas that fulfill us and give us meaning. If those ideas conflict with one another at some deep level, so be it. After all, it’s not like we can know the ultimate truths about life anyway, so why not go for what we can attain – happiness!
Why not indeed? Perhaps the hedonists are correct. Perhaps philosophers are making themselves neurotic for little benefit. But all that I can say is this – when you’re bitten by the bug of philosophy, you’ve got to scratch that itch. And when you’re a student of philosophy who finds yourself contemplating the monotheistic worship of “the Good” … you’re going to scratch that itch until it bleeds. Hell, you don’t even have to be a philosopher to get turned off by the idea. There are millions upon millions of rationalists throughout the world whose atheism can be traced to hearing about “God” and “the Good” in the same breath … if not in those precise terms.
As someone who has the honor this week of teaching about Spinoza, let me grant myself one wish – both for those who attend my workshop and for those who are merely reading this blog. May you all recognize that no matter whom we encounter – be it an animal, a person, or a god – it is most respectful not to approach the other with an eye toward utilizing it for our own selfish purposes, but rather to appreciate the other honestly in its profound uniqueness. In the case of the Eternal One, if you wish to join me in believing that such a One exists, let us please take time to think through who it is we are speaking of.
We might indeed find personal fulfillment in saying the Sh’ma to the Good, but I’d ask instead that we find another prayer. “Hear Oh
Saturday, July 12, 2008
As a litigator, I go by two fundamental rules. First and foremost, thou shalt not underestimate your opponent. Second, thou shalt not overestimate your opponent.
These rules apply to contestants in all sorts of competitions. They apply especially well to the combat of electoral politics.
When it comes to Presidential politics in the
You’d have to be an idiot to underestimate either Barack Obama or
For months on end, Barack Obama appeared to have near perfect pitch as a candidate. His speeches were soaring, inspiring and in some cases (like his talk on race), precisely what this country needed to hear. The positions he took on issues seemed to be relatively coherent and in line with the mainstream of his party. Once he got off to a lead against Hillary, he gave her precious little room to maneuver. And when, in the latter weeks of the campaign, she finally found her voice, Barack could sit back and play the “prevent defense” to perfection. It was a maestro performance.
Recently though, I’ve been starting to wonder if his advisors are taking the summer off. It’s one thing for a candidate to gradually “move to the center” after he’s clinched a nomination. It’s another to grab a bullhorn and announce “OK, everyone. I’m going to run to the center now.
So how should we interpret this Great Obama Migration? Is it simply a series of attempts to pander? I don’t think so. From what I can tell, the Obama we are seeing now is largely the real Obama. Much of his pandering took place before he clinched the nomination – when he voted against the eminently qualified (if all-too-conservative)
I could be wrong, but my sense about Obama is that he sees himself as a natural mediator whose job it is to identify some broad areas in which there is a consensus for change (e.g., health policy, energy policy, Middle East peace policy), and then try to figure out a way to bring the warring parties together to arrive at a solution. A man can fill that role as either a progressive or a conservative, but only by priding himself in the ability to moderate his philosophy when necessary by embracing various positions held by the other side. In these past few weeks, Obama has allowed himself over and over again to reveal positions in which he truly does sympathize with the American right. That’s not a pander. But if he does this too often, too quickly, he can easily be lampooned as thoroughly ambitious and unprincipled. Given his relative dearth of accomplishments as a legislator or executive, for Obama to be seen as void of principles would be the kiss of death.
So, Barack must beware the shape-shifting metaphors. He of all politicians needs to be identified with a coherent philosophy of governance, and unless he wants to take years off from politics to “remake” himself, that philosophy has to be identified with progressivism. Progressives can be listeners, they can compromisers, and they can even be unifiers. But what they can’t do is appear to lose the passion for peace, economic equity, environmental health, and, yes, civil liberties.
When all is said and done, I predict that what Barack will regret most about this summer isn’t allowing his charming daughters to sit for a brief fluffy interview (Why would he regret that, let alone announce his regret?), but voting the way he did on FISA. He’ll have fun explaining that one during his next fundraiser.
This being baseball season, if I had to evaluate Barack’s last few weeks, I’d say he’s hitting .240. But at least he’s above the
Now, the good news for team McCain is that nothing happened that completely destroyed his candidacy. He wasn’t caught “monkeying” around with Donna Rice or “screaming” the names of various states after a bad night at the polls. In truth, McCain’s problem isn’t the quality of his blunders but their quantity. Taken together, they suggest a man whose better days are behind him -- not exactly the impression you want to create when you’re already in your 70s and you’re looking for the most important job in this quadrant of the Galaxy.
Must I go through the list of McCain’s summer bloopers and bad tidings? First, he calls Social Security an “absolute disgrace.” in an attempt to pander to the concerns of workers who are tired of being taxed to help the elderly. Second, his campaign is saddled with the image of chief economic advisor, Phil Graham, castigating those who are critical of our economy as ignorant “whiners.” This is a particularly damaging comment, even though McCain himself didn’t make it, because it reinforces how out of touch McCain is regarding economic issues. Third, when McCain was confronted by a fellow
Fourth, McCain has had yet another round of struggles with his pet issue, wars in the
Fifth, McCain made another of his stupid jokes about killing Muslims. You all remember when he warbled “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb
The sixth problem with McCain’s summer isn’t so much what he or his people have been saying recently as what has been recently revealed about his past conduct. This is a time when McCain needs to be making inroads on some group of voters other than white males. Women immediately come to mind. But that sale is going to be lot harder after a certain LA Times article begins to gather traction.
The LA Times reports that after McCain and his first wife Carol were married in 1965,
“McCain adopted her two sons, and they had a daughter together. Then in October 1967, McCain's plane was shot down and he was captured by the North Vietnamese. She became active in the POW-MIA movement. A former model, she dedicated herself to her children and kept the family together, friends said, while awaiting his return. … On Christmas Eve 1969, while she was driving alone in
“By that time, Nancy Reagan had come to Carol McCain's aid, hiring her as a press assistant in the 1980 presidential campaign. When the Reagans moved to
Even if everyone hadn’t been crazy about Carol McCain, as that report suggests, my question is exactly who, right now, is crazy about
It would appear that McCain’s major fan base will largely be composed of white men --especially those who love wars of choice that last a long, long time. This is quite a change for a man who was once a darling of Democrats like me who loved the way he took on GOP orthodoxy and even considered him as a Democrat in GOP clothing.
OK. I understand. He’s running against a relatively inexperienced black man. Atilla the Hun would have a chance if he ran in
The question is, so what if he can? Should Obama do anything differently once he realizes that he’s not exactly running against a juggernaut? I would say yes. I think he should take McCain’s deficiencies into account in his choice for Veep.
If Obama were running against, say, the 1980 version of Ronald Reagan, my advice to Barack would be that since his opponent is an incredible political talent at the top of his game, the VP choice should be selected 100% on the basis of which person would give Barack the best chance to win the election. But that was a hypothetical; let’s look at reality. Given that Barack is running against a politician who seems to be little more formidable than the 1996 version of Bob Dole, I would urge Barack to use a very different criterion in selecting a running mate.
The fundamental issue shouldn’t be who can most help him win. It should be who can most help him govern. In fact, I’d like that to be virtually his entire concern in selecting a Veep.
Frankly, it may well be true that whoever would do the best job as VP, if elected, is likely to be the one who can best help Obama win in November. I have enough faith in the American public to believe that if they can see two people who genuinely like each other, work well together, and have talents and experiences that complement each other, they will be more likely to elect such a ticket. But this is just an assumption on my part, and assumptions may be wrong. I simply don’t care.
Some people would say that I’ve just described Hillary Clinton. And yes, to a degree I have. But I’m not looking for someone who respects herself and her husband a whole lot more than Barack. That’s not a Vice President. That’s a recipe for disaster.
So who would fit the bill? I won’t try to answer that question – not today. But I do have some people in mind. Maybe you all do too. My hope is that when the selection is made, we can all say “Wow. That’s someone who has gravitas.” Find me that person, and I wouldn’t care if s/he’s white or black, male or female, or a resident of the bluest state in the union.
Friday, July 04, 2008
Today we celebrate a birthday, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was penned by one of my greatest heroes. I have made many a pilgrimage to his house, which I often refer to as “my favorite place in
We are a country that loves to celebrate our veterans and our military victories. And that is how it should be.
A cynic might look at the above words and point out, with some truth, that any nation is founded by creative, revolutionary minds. To be a “founder” is to be unafraid of novelty; that would apply to the founders of
So happy birthday,
Shirat HaNefesh, of which I am proud to call myself a founding member, isn’t merely just another synagogue. Indeed, it isn’t really a synagogue at all. It has on its paid staff a highly experienced and decorated rabbi and cantor … but what it doesn’t have is its own bricks and mortar. This summer, meetings of Shirat HaNefesh will be people’s homes. In the fall, meetings will move to churches – Christian churches. In founding this group, our goal was not to start with an impressive looking structure that can remind us of
Ours is a group that celebrates prayer through song, and yet includes people whose views of God range from the traditional … to the atheist … to the Spinozistic (I’ll let you guess where I stand). The cantor of Shirat HaNefesh is acclaimed throughout the
My confidence in the beauty of Shirat HaNefesh stems from various places. First, I know that the organization’s rabbi and cantor are both inspirational figures. Second, I know that the founding members of this organization have been schooled in how not to run a religious organization; they were members of a large synagogue whose Board paid lip-service to democratic principles but ended up running the organization like a fiefdom. (
I happen to know that the organization’s Activities Committee chair – my wife -- is not even
As you reflect over the next few days about this great nation and its commitment to novelty and religious plurality, I hope that you check out the website of our new
If you have any questions about the group, just e-mail me. It would be my pleasure to share my love for this group with anyone –