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?

Demagogue Award:

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.

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