Wednesday, December 23, 2009

HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM THE EMPATHIC RATIONALIST

I'm off to the Midwest for the rest of the month. So there's only time for a brief holiday seasons greeting.

May your bowl teams win.
May your family get along.

May you keep whatever resolutions you make.

May you return to work after the New Year less internally conflicted than your Congress.

See you in January.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

EMPATHIC RATIONALIST AWARDS FOR 2009

Strange, but it really doesn’t seem appropriate to give awards for 2009. I think we can all agree that a year that started with such incredible promise has turned into a severe disappointment. To put it differently, and at the risk of disagreeing with the President who I worked so hard to elect, I would hardly give this year – or his performance -- a B+.

This year has been particularly disappointing for progressives. You know, the folks who are affectionately known as the President’s “base.” To relieve some of the pain, I offer my first two awards to members of their fraternity.

MAN OF THE YEAR: Anthony Weiner.

The Congressman representing much of Queens and Brooklyn isn’t yet a household name, but he’s rapidly becoming one. Political junkies sure know him, for he’s just about the only congressman these days who is getting any play on the left. Weiner has been one of the most passionate advocates of health care reform. He started out as a strong single payer advocate. Then, when that idea lost its traction, he became a champion of the “public option,” and I do mean a champion. Weiner didn’t come across as someone who just wanted a bill to be passed for political reasons – he fought for the public option like he actually cared.

Once the Administration decided to strike a compromise aimed to please Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, you’d expect Weiner to join many other progressives in the “kill the bill” chorus. But that’s not Weiner. He’s now arguing, pragmatically, that even this sell-out bill is better than none at all. And do you know what? I suspect he’s right. So does Paul Krugman.

Weiner is definitely a politician worth watching in the years to come. He’s still only in his mid-40s. He’s a known workaholic. He’s articulate. He’s diplomatic when he needs to be. And most importantly, he comes across as one of the few statesmen in Washington who might actually put principle above politics.

Of course, I have to say that for a “Man of the Year” winner, Weiner hasn’t exactly pitched a perfect game. His statements on war have been lukewarm at best. Weiner voted against the funding of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars in May, only to vote for it in June. And while he appears to oppose the surge in Afghanistan, I don’t detect the same degree of passion from him on that issue as I do on health care. After all, we’re talking about the same knucklehead that supported the Iraq War in 2002. We could have paid for a whole lot of health care with the money tossed away in that debacle.

WOMAN OF THE YEAR: Arianna Huffington.

It’s an old saw that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. And I guess that makes a one-eyed woman queen. Fitting then, that in a genuinely wretched year, I should give this award to the proprietor of a website that, in some respects, has become genuinely wretched.

The Huffington Post is part news, part National Enquirer. If you want a little T & A, you can always find it on the Huffington Post. Tiger’s babes? You got ‘em. Lindsay, Britney or Madonna strutting their stuff? No problem. For some reason, what started as a blog for political progressives has turned into a tabloid, with a little progressive punditry mixed in between the legs and the breasts. Perhaps those at the Huffington Post would argue that the readers come for the sex, and once they’re at the site, then they can read the articles. I’m not buying it, though. I just think Arianna and her minions are getting greedy.

So why give her this award? Once again, it’s a statement that says more about the alternatives than it does about the winner. Arianna is just about the only progressive voice on television – or at least the only effective one. Joy Behar is also a progressive who speaks out, but she’s less a pundit than a comedienne. Rachel Maddow has a lot of talent, but she inexplicably has decided to waste it. The Rachel Maddow show is now devoted largely, if not primarily, to petty, hatchet jobs on Republicans who act stupidly. At a time when the real problem with this Government is the DEMOCRATS, not the Republicans, Maddow has made herself largely irrelevant.

Arianna is a serious observer of the domestic and international policy arenas who, like Weiner, presents the progressive point of view palatably to a moderate audience. She has no trouble taking positions that are politically unpopular. And she comes across as sincere and not full of herself.

I enjoy listening to Arianna whenever I see her on a cable news telecast, and I take what she says seriously. I only wish our elected officials would do the same.

ATHLETE OF THE YEAR: Kobe Bryant.

At the end of last season, Kobe was cutting down the nets as he led the Lakers to their 15th Championship, and their 30th appearance in the NBA finals, in the last 60 years. Those are amazing numbers – particularly being one of the top two teams in the league for half of the last 60 seasons. And now, as I type this, Kobe is leading the 2009-2010 Lakers to the best record in the NBA so far. What’s more, he’s accomplishing this despite having a broken finger and needing to make two game winning jumpers in the last week alone. That’s what I call a banner year.

Frankly, though, Kobe Bryant gets the nod here for two other reasons. First, at a time when the country is just now giving up its obsession with Tiger Woods’ sex life, Kobe is a reminder that athletes can indeed survive their sex scandals and get back to their legitimate business, which is sports, not endorsements. (The only products Tiger and Kobe should be endorsing is condoms.)

Second, I remember watching the NBA playoffs last season and thinking about just how much punier Kobe was than such competitors as Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard. I’m not suggesting that those latter three guys are on steroids, but when I see a guy without their musculature out-performing them, it at least reassures me somewhat that Kobe ISN’T on the juice. These days, when I see a sculpted body on an athlete, it doesn’t make me admire the athlete so much as wonder (a) if he’s taking something, (b) if he’ll get caught, and (c) whether anyone else will care if he does. I hope I never grow so jaded as to become apathetic about steroids in sports. This is a scourge that must be stopped.

EVENT OF THE YEAR: Obama’s Presidential Inauguration.

Remember how amazing that was? How many adoring people came together in freezing weather to the National Mall? How beautiful and graceful the First Family looked? How many cynics had to eat their words and admit that a black man was actually elected President? How much it appeared that we were about to enter an era of profoundly progressive changes – for the first time in several decades?

I realize that things haven’t quite worked out the way we planned. But that doesn’t prevent us from looking back and remembering that, at least for one day, we were a people of hope.

Let’s not lose that. No matter how disillusioned we get with our President, or with the Congress, let’s please not lose that hope. We owe it to folks like Washington, Adams and Jefferson to continue to believe in this American experiment. But they would be the first ones to remind us that to make our republic work, “we the people” can’t just get involved once every four years. We need to make our presence felt whenever things aren’t working in the nation’s capital. And right now, I think we all can agree that things are very much NOT working.

QUESTION OF THE YEAR: Why were W and Reagan so successful in ramming through their right-wing legislative proposals even though they didn’t have 60 Republican Senators behind them, whereas Obama has been unable to ram his proposals through even though he DID have 60 Democratic Senators?

Lots of answers can be given, including that the Democrats are more fractured than the Republicans. But I really believe that the most important answer is that the Democratic leadership in the White House and the Congress lacks balls. Sometimes, the truth is just that simple.

WIFE OF THE YEAR: Kathy Spiro.

For putting up with me and all my neuroses, she deserves more than I can possibly give. But alas, all I can offer her right now is this award … and about 17 inches of snow, with more to come. When I pointed out that this sure doesn’t look like “global warming,” she responded that part of our climate change problem is that our storms get worse. To be sure, this is one of the worst snowstorms in my 4+ decades as a Washingtonian. Cabin fever, here we come!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

CONFESSIONS OF A JEWISH TIGER WOODS FANATIC

I must say that this is a difficult blogpost to write. I originally had great plans for it; in the humor department, that is. We’ve all heard the jokes. The movie they’re going to make about his life (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Hydrant”). The time-honored principle Tiger violated (“One Man, One Wife, One Mistress”). The best part about his game (“His putter, of course.”). The racism this has all revealed (“If he was going to play 18 holes, couldn’t at least one of them have been black or Asian?”).

It is tempting to compare this latest scandal to some of the others that have captivated popular culture in recent years. Before Obama, America had another political genius who rose to the Presidency with the gift of gab and the ability to feel our pain. Hollywood loved Slick Willie almost as much as it does Barack. He was supposed to transcend partisan politics, ushering in a “third way” that combined lessons learned from that “little town called Hope” Arkansas, from being married to a progressive disciple of Eleanor Roosevelt, and from policy-wonking in such bastions of brilliance as Georgetown and Oxford. Well before Obama, he was the personable President who was always the brightest one in the room. Remember? Unfortunately, he ultimately became just another sperm donor who forgot where that sperm belongs – certainly not on the blue dress of an intern. His greatest legacy was to spur a national debate on the meaning of the term “sexual relations.” And whether or not you agree that Bill Clinton committed impeachable offenses, you have to admit that he was in fact impeached, and that while later “acquitted” by the Senate, his honor … and his Presidency .. effectively ended in the mouth of Monica Lewinsky.

Speaking of acquittals, before Monica-Gate, there was a certain speedy athlete, a hero of the track and the gridiron, who took us all on the slowest of rides in his white Ford Bronco. He entertained us in the Naked Gun trilogy; he amazed us as a Buffalo Bill. And then, after he went postal on us, he introduced us to a cast of characters that not even a sit-com fan would find realistic. Find me a sillier judge than Ito. Or a funnier lawyer than Cochran. Or a more ridiculous houseguest than Kato “What Exactly Is My Purpose Here on Earth?” Kaelin. “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit,” said Cochran, ever dramatically. “Your waiter will be with you shortly,” said OJ to his wife just before she died, according to the popular joke. Frankly, by the time it was all over, you couldn’t tell dark humor from even darker reality, just as Ito made sure that when the trial was over, the jurors didn’t know their own names beyond a reasonable doubt, let alone the identity of Ron and Nicole’s killer.

Yes, America, when it comes to scandals, we’ve had some doozies. But I’m not sure any of them rises to the craziness of our present scandal de jour. This one has it all. Sex? My God, yes. Lies? Are you kidding? It’s all about lies. Videotape? Not much of that, but it does have plenty of voice mails, 911 messages, and “sexting.” Besides, if we ever get bored reading about Tiger’s exploits as a swordsman, we can always ogle the pictures of his babes – their faces, their legs … and the rest will soon be coming to a magazine stand near you. Personally, I’m offended that whenever they show that video of “Porn Star #1” talking about having sex with Tiger, you can tell she’s topless, but the powers-that-be won’t let you see her top. This is the star of “Diary of a Horny Housewife” we’re talking about. Would she really mind if we all got just a glimpse of what Tiger saw in its Full Monty? Sheesh. It’s tough living in a Puritan society.

Obviously, the Tiger scandal IS a laughing matter. Candidly, though, I’ve sometimes failed to see the humor. Despite the fact that we are talking about Tiger Woods, I’d rather not beat around the bush any longer. Truth be told, prior to Thanksgiving, I was a HUGE Tiger Woods fan. I slept with a Tiger Woods bobble head doll about 10 inches from my bed. [OK. I’ll stop – but it really was roughly 10 inches away.] It was the doll they created during the Tiger Slam year to commemorate each of the Grand Slam titles; my bobble head celebrated the victory at the PGA tournament. I always tried hard to watch him play, whether it was a major tournament, a minor tournament, or one of those B.S. exhibitions that don’t even officially count as PGA events.

I enjoyed the fact that my favorite AFC football team is the Raiders, just like Tiger. That my favorite basketball team is the Lakers, just like Tiger. That my college is Stanford, just like Tiger, and that we both closely follow Stanford sports. And yes, I’ve always liked blondes … just like Tiger.

One of my best friends comes from Cypress, California, a small town in Orange County, and I frequently stayed with my friend’s family when taking trips to LA-LA land during college. Wouldn’t you know it? Tiger grew up in Cypress, California.

In short, while it now appears that Tiger and I have nothing in common, I didn’t feel that way the day before Thanksgiving.

I know the politically correct attitude to take when reflecting on this scandal. At first, I tried to take it myself. According to the modern sensibility, we’re supposed to ignore indiscretions of a sexual nature. We’re supposed to point out that the infidelity rolls include such luminaries as Einstein, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. We’re supposed to remind ourselves that it’s not against the law to screw around on our wives, and that when people do have affairs, it’s really none of anyone’s business except for them and their families. And we’re supposed to quote philosophers such as Chris Rock who famously said “A man is only as faithful as his options.”

End of discussion, right?

Perhaps it should be, but it isn’t for me. You see, I am the product of an extremely close, Jewish, three-person family. There was my dad – a kind, intellectual man who was 48 when I was born. My mom – nine years his junior, she loved to boss him around, but she still loved him. And me. When I was 30, I moved back to their neighborhood, and have lived 600 or so feet from their house ever since. My father passed away seven years ago, but I have never forgotten the lessons he taught me. Among them was that next to murder, there is probably no more heinous offense than cheating on your spouse. Even theft doesn’t compare, because adultery is a kind of theft, only the person from whom you’re stealing (specifically, her honor, self-respect, and dreams of being in a lifelong, exclusive romance) is the one to whom you’ve pledged your greatest trust.

I realize how antiquated this attitude sounds here in modern America. But is our uber-tolerance on these issues really so enlightened? I suspect much of this tolerance comes from the fact that American culture is dominated not by Jews but rather by Christians. In Christianity, sex is not treated with reverence. It is associated with the baser, “physical” side of human existence. Consequently, it was the subject of much repression over the centuries, and there now exists a passion to react against that repression and just let her rip! In the traditional Jewish culture, by contrast, sex was sanctified. Married Jews aren’t merely permitted to have sex, they are DIRECTED to have sex every Shabbat unless the woman is at a certain point in her menstrual cycle. Sex in Judaism is much like alcohol – something that is viewed as subject to abuse or to sanctification, depending upon whether it is appropriately regulated. We celebrate the fact that we can get drunk on Purim, or have sex with our spouses on a Friday night. What we don’t do is take this as a license to become alcoholics or polygamists.

Historically, the rate of Jewish alcoholism has been very low. And while I do not know whether the same can be said for Jewish infidelity, it is unquestionably deeply contrary to the lessons of the culture. My dad, the former professor who was as straight-laced as it comes, took his reverence for sex to an extreme. He refused as a matter of principle to neuter our dog, as he thought that this was an “inhuman” way to treat an animal. Consequently, our dog became a wild, suburban beast, who was impossible to control – particularly when a neighbor’s bitch was in heat. We ultimately had to give the dog away to a family in the country, though not until a fair number of the neighbors had signed a petition to protest the dog’s running loose. All those problems stemmed from the refusal to neuter the dog, but my dad never regretted it. He honored the sex drive – to remove it would seem almost like a lobotomy.

The willingness to sanctify those aspects of life that the Christians term as “sinful” is one of the things I love most about being Jewish. But there are some nasty side-effects of this attitude, and one of them is that I really do lack tolerance for infidelity. I have friends who I know cheat on their spouses, and they remain my friends, so I don’t take this attitude to its ultimate extreme. Still, when it comes to the behavior itself, I truly loathe it – it reflects dishonesty, disloyalty and weakness of will. And to call it disrespectful is an understatement. When a man cheats on his wife, he disrespects her in particular, women generally, romantic love, his word, his society’s moral code, and the Ten Commandments. You name it; if it’s sacred, he’s disrespected it.

And spare me all the B.S. about “A man is only as faithful as his options.” I don’t buy it for a second. To be sure, if any of us grew up in an environment where from age 15 on, beautiful women were constantly throwing their bodies at us, perhaps we’d all be promiscuous. But it’s probably also true that if we grew up in an environment where from a young age we worked as hit-men in the mob, we’d end up with a callous attitude toward murder. What does that prove? That it would be pathetic to grow up in the mob, and it would be similarly pathetic to grow up without a visceral appreciation for sexual fidelity. Feel sorry, then, for the slutty athlete, but don’t assume that if you had his options tomorrow, you’d descend to his level.

Look at it this way: sex and drugs have a lot in common. Most of us can appreciate sex, and most of can appreciate drugs (tell me coffee and liquor aren’t drugs). But all of us understand that drug addiction can ruin even the best of people. And what I hope Americans are seeing for themselves is the same can be said for an addiction to sex.

With respect to Tiger, I must admit to being in a state of confusion. On the one hand, it seems irrational to allow myself to get angry at him if I haven’t gotten angry at those of my friends who I know to be adulterers. (Disappointed, yes, but not angry). On the other hand, Tiger is in a truly unique situation. He created an image of someone who in many respects is the pinnacle of virtue, and I bought off on it like an idiot. According to the Legend of Tiger, he was (a) among the wealthiest entertainers who has ever lived, earning more than $100 million per year in endorsements; (b) a superb athlete with a finely tuned, almost picture-perfect build; (c) as mentally tough on the golf course as he was physically strong; (d) the product of an Eastern spirituality, which he absorbed from his Thai mother, and which enabled him to center his mind when others might lose their nerves; (e) an extremely intelligent person, reflected by his accomplishments in the classroom, (f) a true student of his game who is respectful of and knowledgeable about its history, (g) a gentleman, as is befitting the “gentleman’s game” that he has mastered, (h) a man of passion, which is reflected in his occasional, and frankly humanizing, outbursts on the golf course when he cursed or threw his club, (i) a man of piety, who loves his parents dearly, and through his love for his father, the Green Beret, came to have deep reverence for the men and women of the military, and (i) a man of charity, who founded his own educational foundation and who was expected by his father to perform great feats for humankind.

In short, this guy didn’t seem to be the typical semi-educated, amoral, narcissistic, and hedonistic American athlete. Particularly given his reputation for mental control, and the fact that he clearly served as the role model for all the young beneficiaries of the Tiger Woods Foundation, I would never have imagined him capable of the acts that have been revealed. Infidelity? Sure. Screwing all sorts of wild women, leaving them physical evidence of his lusts, and even trying to romance a number of them? No, I would have found that inconceivable.

What put me over the edge as a Tiger defender was reading about his alleged tryst with a girl-next-door type who earned $8 an hour as a waitress at Perkins. I won’t go through all the sordid allegations of what they did together – at his house, and in a church parking lot – but my jaw dropped when I read about how she had fallen in love with Tiger and that she really thought that the “One Man, One Wife, One Mistress” principle justified that love. Is she not entitled to our sympathy just as much as Tiger, the “recovering” sex-aholic?

Will I root for Tiger Woods when he returns to the golf course, whenever that is? Will I come ultimately to at least like the guy, even if I never again can admire him? Who knows. What I do know is that once again, we have learned a lesson about our celebrities. As much as we’d like to look up to them, that is probably the last direction where we ought to be looking. Perhaps we shouldn’t criticize them until we’ve walked a mile in their moccasins. But if anyone asks you whether you’d like to take that walk, run as quickly as you can in the opposite direction. The big house, the exotic trips, the trophy wife, the garage full of trophies don’t mean a damn thing if you don’t even know the meaning of love. Personally, I doubt that after 33 years of life, Tiger will find that meaning during a couple of months of rehab.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

RATIONALIZING YET ANOTHER WAR

There are always lessons from war. The only question is whether a society can agree on what they are.

Vietnam surely had its lessons. The pity is that those lessons differed depending on whether you’re a hawk or a dove. For the hawks, the only real lesson was that when we fight, we had better bring overwhelming force. In other words, no country, even America, can wage war with halfway measures. Like General Sherman might have said, if you’re in, you’d better be ALL in.

For the doves, of course, the problem in Vietnam wasn’t how we waged that war, but why. From the dovish perspective, Vietnam wasn’t a war of necessity, and thus shouldn’t have been waged. If ever war is justifiable, it must be because American interests are gravely and indisputably threatened, not because someone can make an argument that bad people halfway across the world may possibly, conceivably, threaten us if we don’t kill them first. With a few exceptions – does anyone remember “Hanoi Jane?” – the doves didn’t so much praise the Viet Cong as question why we felt they were such a danger to us. According to the dovish argument, the third-world is littered with militaristic, undemocratic, uncivilized groups – some that are in power, and others that would like to be. Is it our place to wage war against each of them? Half of them? Or only those who are placing us in a clear and present danger? The Viet Cong clearly did not fall into that last category. And neither did the Iraqis in 2002. Nevertheless, it was in that year when a Republican President sold this nation a bill of goods about the dangers of Iraq to American security.

To the average American, the risk posed by Saddam Hussein couldn’t possibly have been obvious. We understood that al Qaeda threatened us, not Iraq. Yet we also were admonished by our President and his Defense Department that Saddam was a butcher who had demonstrated that he couldn’t be trusted and was once again preparing to make mischief. When it came time for a vote, not only did the President’s party support the war, but the majority of Democratic Senators did so as well. After all, the leaders of the Executive Branch wee intimately familiar with the intelligence reports, and those reports (we were told) suggested that war was appropriate. So shouldn’t we place our trust in our democratically elected leader and his team of dedicated professionals to tell us if we are legitimately in danger from another regime?

Apparently not. That, at least, was what I thought the lesson was from Iraq. As it turned out, the so-called “weapons of mass destruction” never existed. Saddam was much less of a threat than advertised. As a result of our little adventure, we’ve lost thousands of lives and ungodly sums of money in a war that has lasted nearly seven years and could conceivably last many more, for there’s no telling what will happen to that country once the U.S. starts pulling out its troops en masse. Presumably, only the fringe right-wingers would defend that war now, and for the rest of us, the insanity of waging a major war based on a “Just Trust Us” rationale should be readily apparent.

That all makes sense, except for one thing. This is America – or as it is also known by fans of NASCAR, Pro Wrestling and Rambo movies, “Amurica.” And here in Amurica, we love our wars, thank you very much. We love ‘em, because we win ‘em, or at least we used to. We’re men, not pussies. Nobody kicks us around – certainly no gang of third-world thugs. Amuricans don’t just send a few shots across the bow. We kick ass and take numbers. That means that when we go into Afghanistan in 2001 looking for a little regime change, we don’t leave until we’ve secured that territory from the Bad Guys. No matter that it has been eight years, and the country is still a Balkanized assemblage of tribal regions, loosely controlled by a corrupt stooge that we helped put in power. No matter that historically, one empire after another has tried to take over that mountainous land, and all have failed. We’re different. We’re Amuricans. And we’re not leaving until we finish the God damned job. And that job starts with mobilizing more men, more firepower and more will. Let’s roll!

So say our millions upon millions of war hawks. Theirs is the mentality that rules the GOP at present. They will make sure that the 40% or so of Republicans in the Congress will support President Obama in his desire to “win” the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban. But where will the other votes come from? Surely not from the Democrats, right? Surely they can’t be fooled into supporting another “war of choice.” After all, it has been said that there are only about 100 al Qaeda members in Afghanistan, a tiny fraction of the number who are in Pakistan, and the Taliban in Afghanistan don’t appear to pose any more of a threat to us than Saddam did. To be sure, the Taliban once was guilty of harboring al Qaeda, but we hardly need to escalate the war to guard against that from recurring. Besides, we’ve been fighting and killing Taliban in Afghanistan for eight years – and we even replaced them with our own puppet regime, corrupt though it might be. Isn’t that punishment enough for the war-crime known as “harboring terrorists”?

By any sane measure, the Democrats in Congress and in the nation at large should be opposed to the escalation in Afghanistan, just as they opposed the surge in Iraq. By any sane measure, the Democrats should be telling their President that while he might have all sorts of good reasons for escalating the war in Afghanistan, it is incumbent on him to enunciate those reasons so we can decide for ourselves if they are truly compelling. “Just trust us -- we’ve received the intelligence briefings and you haven’t” worked for W, but it can’t work for Barack. Just because we respect his intelligence and his thoughtfulness and he doesn’t come across as a war monger, doesn’t mean that we can give him carte blanche to escalate wars for speculative reasons. Let’s face it: “our enemies are in Pakistan so let’s fight their former harborers in Afghanistan” isn’t exactly compelling logic. Nor is “nobody else in history has tamed Afghanistan but I say we can do it in 18 months.”

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of 21st century America is that if it isn’t clear whether this country should wage a war, all a President has to do is sound the war trumpets, and the Congress will fall in line. When a Congressman doesn’t understand the rationale, he says “I’m not sure about this war,” which is code for “I don’t get why we’re doing this, but I guess I better vote for it, because otherwise I’ll come across as weak and unpatriotic.” It explains why each of the Democratic presidential candidates in ’08 who had served in the Senate when we invaded Iraq backed the war when the crucial vote was cast.

In police work, this kind of mentality is known as “shoot first, and ask questions later.” It has become our nation’s default option every time a President is bracing for a fight. I’m well into my 50th year as an American, and I can’t remember a single time when the President called for war and the Congress stopped him from waging it. It won’t happen now either.


But let us not end this blogpost on such a sobering note. Please remember that this Sunday from 2:00-6:00 p.m. at the 6th and I Street Synagogue in Northwest Washington D.C., Yes We Can – Middle East Peace is sponsoring a major event to support a two-state solution to end the dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians. See www.yesmep.org for more details. As one of the organizers of this event, I can tell you that we’ve been planning this for months, and everyone who attends is guaranteed to leave inspired. So if you live anywhere near Washington, D.C., come! And if for whatever reason, you can’t come, spread the word. This is no time to ignore such an important event. Remember: peace isn’t something that just happens. If we want it, we must pursue it as strenuously as the warmongers pursue war.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A THANKSGIVING MESSAGE

I must be honest with you – of all the public policy issues that regularly engage our nation in debate, none matter as much to me as those involving war and peace. And on that score, I’m not a happy man these days.

Consider me a bit like the pro-life crowd who sometimes come across as single-issue fanatics -- except that the lives I’m most worried about losing are actual living persons, rather than potential living persons. Debates about taxes, jobs, and minority rights are important, but somehow life and death seems even more fundamental. Even the health care debate, which ultimately affects life and death for Americans, pales in comparison to war and peace issues. After all, what is worse, what is uglier -- to stupidly fail to create a health-care infrastructure that can prevent as many American deaths as possible? Or to go overseas and intentionally slaughter people for no apparently compelling reason? To me, it is difficult to imagine anything worse for our image around the world (and even our self-image) than crazy adventures like the Iraq War. And it is difficult to imagine any greater glory for this country than if we could actually broker a just and secure peace in Israel and Palestine.

On issues concerning war and peace, this is the Thanksgiving of my discontent. We haven’t jumpstarted anything yet with Netanyahu or his Palestinian counterparts. If there is a peace process to speak of, it’s sure lost on me. A bunch of us will be gathering at the 6th and I Street Synagogue in Washington D.C. on Sunday, December 6th at 2:00 p.m. to attempt to gather some grass roots support for Middle East Peace. Maybe we can generate some momentum here in D.C. and call a little public attention to the problem. But we need the White House to be poised for action, and we need the leadership of the combatants in the Holy Land to want peace more than they want victory. Right now, I’m not seeing that happening.

I’m also not anticipating that President Obama will do what he has to do in Iraq and Afghanistan – which is to end America’s participation in those wars, and I mean now. Theoretically, there may be some legitimate role for a scaled-down U.S. military presence in that region. But the idea of hundreds of thousands of American troops remaining there in what can only be called a permanent nation-building exercise – that would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. If foreign troops are so damned necessary in the mountains of Afghanistan, let other countries supply the muscle for a while. There’s a reason why nobody is volunteering for that mission, and it’s not because we’re the only potential victim of international terrorism. It’s because there are plenty of cheaper ways to fight al Qaeda than by attempting to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. If I could read the lips from Berlin, Moscow, Paris, Beijing, and Tokyo, I’d know exactly what they’re all saying: “Good luck with that, suckers.”

All that said, there are always things to be sincerely thankful for this time of year – and I’m not just talking about the fact that if I can write this blogpost, and you can read it, it means that we’re both above ground and breathing. Thank God for that, and for the following as well, which I offer in no particular order of importance:

1. Thank God that we Americans live in a nation that has finally demonstrated its willingness to elect a black man President. I look forward to the day when our future Presidents will include a Latino, a Latina, a person of East-Asian descent, a Jew, and yes, a Muslim. Now, for the first time in history, those aspirations don’t sound so far-fetched.

2. Thank God that the man we have elected is such a thoughtful one. We may not like everything he’s been doing, but this weekend, it is appropriate to consider what we do like about him – and his thoughtfulness is what comes most immediately to mind. Contrast that to his predecessor, who viewed thoughtfulness as a mere symptom of indecisiveness.

3. Thank God that there is at least one silver lining to all the damage that the GOP is doing to our legislative process: at least they’re securing Barack Obama’s job security through 2016. My Republican friends like to point out that this nation is “center-right,” but these days, their party is more like troglodyte-right. Obama’s style is way too classy, and his substance way too moderate, to be defeated by someone reactionary enough to unify that Party. In other words, the GOP can continue to sabotage the legislative branch of our Government, but it can’t do that AND claim the Presidency – not against a campaigner as skillful as Obama.

4. Thank God China is finally beginning to make some noises about climate change. Yeah, I know – its announced target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40-45 percent by 2020 is grossly inadequate, yet it is a start. And the more that our nation busts its butt to fight global warming, the better shape we’ll be in to demand that China improve on its proposed target. It’s reasonable to expect the Obama Administration to emphasize climate-change reforms during the next several years as one of our highest priorities – for one thing, this is an area that could produce job growth, as well as promise environmental purification. Until now, we and the Chinese have been holding back the rest of the world. But if we come around, how could the Chinese dare to continue with business as usual?

5. Thank God that it now appears more likely than not that we’ll have significant health care reform. I know that this ballgame is far from over – the Blue Dogs in the Senate can still prevent a bill from seeing the light of day. But I suspect that the Senate will pass something, and then, through the reconciliation process, we’ll see a (partial) public option emerge. I don’t know too many people who doubt that at this point.

6. Thank God that all this talk of an economic “collapse” turned out to be hyperbole. This is not to say that nobody has suffered – I have friends who’ve been out of work for a long time, and frankly, I panicked and sold stock at a big loss to my family. But what’s pretty clear at this point is that the doomsday predictions of a year ago were way off base.

7. Thank God that Bruce Springsteen and his band are still going strong – and playing well – after more than three decades. I can think of better rock n’ roll bands (at least for my money), but none had the longevity of the E Street Band. And no, I don’t consider anything that Mick and Keith have done since the very early ‘80s to be the Rolling Stones. In fact, you can make a pretty good argument that there hasn’t been a legit Stones album made since Some Girls in 1978.

8. Thank God that Brett Favre didn’t listen to all the naysayers and decided to start his fifth decade on earth as a truly magical QB. I say that not only because I’m a Vikings fan, but because I’m a FOOTBALL fan. If you can’t appreciate what that guy is doing this year, you’re not one.

9. Last but not least, thank God that the greatest golfer of all time is healthy and ready to continue his assault on the record books when the season starts next year. Like everyone else, I assume that Tiger’s collision the other night and his refusal to speak to the media indicates that he’s been a naughty boy. But the beauty of living in a nation where citizens’ rights are respected is that he never has to explain his naughtiness – or his wife’s, if applicable – in excruciating detail. It’s possible that whatever sordid details exist will come out, but it’s also possible, and perhaps even likely, that someone as shrewd as Tiger might be able to keep the story effectively under wraps. Right now, the story reads like this: an athlete may or may not have had an extra-marital affair; the athlete’s wife may or may not have gotten pissed and hit him in the face; and the athlete may or may not have left his house in fear of his wife’s over-reaction to the news of the affair. We’ll see how much traction a (non) story like that will have. Even Nancy Grace might not want to take it on if nobody close to the situation is talking.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A TALE OF TWO CITIES

Today, I’d like to focus on two municipalities. One seems to be improving; the other deteriorating. While we desperately need both to thrive, if either one succeeds it will be cause for profound joy. So I suppose it could be said that this post should evoke the proverbial “glass half empty/half full” emotions. Let me know when it’s over how you’ve reacted – as a “half full” or “half empty” kind of person.

Let’s start on a positive note, and cross the ocean to the West Bank town of Ramallah. If you’ve read David Ignatius’ Thursday column in the Washington Post, you read about developments in this town that should cause you to believe that maybe, just maybe, the impossible can happen. Here’s how the column began: “Look at this city [meaning Ramallah], you can imagine what a Palestinian state could someday be like if folks got serious: The streets are clean, there’s construction in every direction and Palestinian soldiers line the roads. A visitor sees new apartment buildings, banks, brokerage firms, luxury car dealerships and even health clubs. These are “facts on the ground,” as the Israelis like to say. And they are the result of a determined Palestinian effort, with U.S. and Israeli support, to begin creating the institutions of a viable Palestinian state. Even Israeli hard-liners, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, agree that the improvement in Palestinian security forces is real.”

This success story isn’t the result of some overarching peace deal. Nor is it the result of suicide bombings and threats. It’s not even the result of a non-violent resistance movement. According to Ignatius, the recent improvements in Ramallah’s living conditions have been made under the leadership of Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, and with the assistance of the Great Satan and the Little Satan (as the U.S. and Israel are known to some of their Middle Eastern enemies). Fayyad has constructed a plan for a two-year transition to Palestinian statehood that focuses on creating the infrastructure needed to establish both prosperity and security. At this point, Ignatius claims, Fayyad has reorganized the public services in the West Bank so successfully that the economy is growing at an official rate of seven percent, and perhaps even more.

Ironically, when I talk to Palestinians and their American partisans these days, I am bombarded by stories about how awfully Israel is behaving in the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip. I hear about how the settlements demean the Palestinians and strangle its economy, and how the Israeli soldiers who guard these areas treat Palestinians as if they’re sub-human. The tales evoke stories of the way the Nazis must have treated my own people back in the 30s and early 40s.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that these tales are all true – that Israel has for years been perpetrating horrible injustices against the Palestinian people. It would remain the case that the only way to end the nightmare is to work like hell to ensure that Fayyad’s infrastructural plans succeed as quickly and as dramatically as possible. The more rapidly the West Bank starts to look like Switzerland, or at least like Scottsdale, in terms of its economy, criminal justice system, and executive branch institutions, the more unsustainable it will be for Israel to oppress its neighbors. By contrast, as long as the Palestinians define themselves primarily in opposition to the “Apartheid” state of Israel and ignore the primacy of infrastructural development, the easier it will be for the Israeli right-wingers to continue to set the agenda and place their Palestinian neighbors on a tiny, dehumanized leash.

Lest we think that all will now be smooth sailing now that the Palestinian Authority is run by a man who gets the importance of economic efficiency and honest government, Ignatius included a clear warning sign. He quoted Martin Indyk, a macha with the Brookings Institute, for the proposition that “Fayyad is the only game in town, but his plan isn’t sustainable without a political process.” The problem, of course, is that at the moment, we have a thoroughly dysfunctional political process, in part because the inmates are running the asylum in Israel. This is where we in the United States must come in. Now is the time to support the Palestinian Authority with generous contributions, and to start to put some pressure on Netanyahu -- he who refuses to freeze the settlements and yet has the chutzpah to call himself a man of peace. Instead of emphasizing the beginning of peace talks (before these talks have a possibility of success), we need to pressure Netanyahu into increasing his support of Fayyad’s nation-building efforts.

Frankly, if we didn’t have this insane fixation with winning every war, no matter if their sensible shelf-life has long since ended, we could actually consider shifting our nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan to the West Bank instead. How about it, Barack? It would be a gutsy move, but then again, you did say that you would offer “change.” Some of us actually thought you meant BOLD changes, and not mere tinkering.

So anyway, that’s the good news – don’t let my little jeremiad at the end fool you. When it comes to Ramallah, we can actually see some rays of hope. Perhaps that’s not yet true about that other part of Palestine, but I’m praying that progress in the West Bank will ultimately lead to progress in Gaza. And that is why the second city I’d like to discuss isn’t Gaza City but rather a place that’s beginning to look more and more like it. I’m referring to that God-forsaken part of America known as Detroit.

For quite some time, I’ve been hearing about how you can buy a home in Detroit for a few thousand dollars. This week, I heard that for a few hundred thousand – or $583,000, to be exact -- you could buy the Silver Dome. That’s the price that a Canadian developer paid to purchase the former home of the Detroit Lions. It’s a little more than one dollar per square foot. Or should I say, it’s the same number of dollars per square foot as the number of playoff games that the Lions won in that building in 26 years.

Truth be told, laughing at the Lions is fun. But what’s happening to Detroit is no laughing matter. In the Detroit-Livonia-Dearborn area, the unemployment rate now tops 18 percent. When you add to that number the workers who are earning minimum wage or something close to it, it’s hard not to appreciate the depths of despair that are engulfing the region. Recently, I read that social workers who are trying to assist the resident of Detroit are seeing more and more acts of aggression, and are actually scared for their own lives. Those of us who are too young to remember the Great Depression are simply not used to the kinds of conditions that the people of Detroit are experiencing. And the crazy thing is that while all this is happening, the stock markets are going great guns.

As Yakov Smirnoff would say, “What a Country!”

I realize that when you’re in a period of recovery, the unemployment rate is a so-called lagging indicator. But there’s something about the extent of this particular “recovery” that’s sticking in my craw. Maybe it has to do with the fact that it is happening at a time when the President is supposed to be a progressive Democrat, 60 Senators are Democrats, and the House is overwhelmingly Democratic. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that the folks who have led the President’s economic team seem to be in bed with the Wall Street types who crashed the economy to begin with. Of course, the stockbrokers had plenty of help, including the myopic auto execs in Detroit. And yet I still wonder, with all the money we have thrown at the bankers and brokers, why can’t we be doing more for Detroit, or Dearborn, or for that matter, the many states other than Michigan that have now hit double-digit unemployment rates?

And I keep getting back to one word – infrastructure. It’s the secret to Ramallah’s current success. And it’s what is destroying my own country, only in this case I’m not talking about infrastructure in terms of economics, but rather politics.

As I see it, we now have two political parties. One is determined to make the President fail at almost any cost. They spent like drunken sailors when they were in power, but now when a Democrat is in the White House, they’re cheaper than a miser in a poorhouse. As for the other political party, the one that’s supposedly in power, trying to get them to support any significant initiative is like herding cats. I guess little has changed since the days of Will Rogers when he said “I’m not a member of an organized party; I’m a Democrat.”

Obviously, the prognosis for Detroit and the other high-unemployment areas in this country is more favorable than the prognosis for the West Bank. But it’s nice to see that the latter is being captained by someone who knows how to steer. What’s tragic is that now that we finally have our first African-American President, our nation is allowing a city like Detroit to go into free fall. Something must be done about this, and I mean now. When a modest suburban house in Bethesda is worth more than a 143,000 square foot stadium near Detroit, it makes you wonder if this really is “one nation, under God.” And when you consider that, and add to it that the Wall Street folks are now fattening up on a brand new round of bonuses, you begin to see why the social workers in Michigan are starting to fear for their lives.

So there you have it -- good news, bad news. Uplifting? Or depressing? I'll let you decide that one for yourself. But we can at least agree on this -- there's plenty of work to be done in both of those cities. Yet if either one can be looking up, there's hope for both.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

ONE, TWO, THREE, WHAT ARE WE FIGHTING FOR?

Like every other progressive in this country, I must admit that it was a hell of a lot more fun being critical of our last President than this one. By the time Barack Obama and his supporters manage to eke out a health care bill, he will be able to boast that he has (a) brought back the economy from the brink of disaster, (b) implemented significant, positive reforms on a topic that has confounded his predecessors for decades, and (c) brought the United States back to a position of honor in the world community, as reflected by his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize. He will also have brought the kind of style that should delight every non-ditto head in the nation: open-minded, thoughtful, compassionate, down-to-earth, and the very portrait of the American melting pot. In short, in so many ways, Barack is the kind of leader that Blue Americans have been waiting for.

Cue the balloons, right? Well, not exactly. As every progressive knows, there’s a darker side to the equation, one that, to some degree, has been chronicled in the media. For example, we’ve heard plenty of reports about people who are out of work or underemployed, and are wondering why the boom on Wall Street hasn’t yet solved the problems of Main Street. We’ve heard complaints about why Barack has allowed fat cats like Geithner and Summers to control the trajectory of our economic “recovery,” whereas liberal voices like Krugman and Reich remain in the wilderness. And we’ve been told about liberal interest groups, like gay activists, who are wondering when the reality will ever meet up with the rhetoric. Clearly, if Barack the President was being rated in terms of his progressivism, he wouldn’t score nearly as high as Barack the Candidate.

But still, we all love the guy. Even Michael Moore, when he made his movie about capitalism and ripped Geithner and Summers to shreds, stopped short at blasting the President. Let’s face it, when Michael Moore pulls his punches on your behalf, you know you’re golden in the progressive community.

And therein lies a problem. You see, one of the consequences of Barack’s popularity among progressives is that the dissent on the left is more muted than usual. As I’ve said, we’ve heard about that dissent in a few areas – the economy and civil rights come immediately to mind. But there’s one domain in which dissent has been practically non-existent, at least relative to what you’d expect if someone were to say that Barack would be essentially continuing the policies of George Bush. I’m referring to the way we are continuing to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Increasingly, we’re beginning to resemble America in the early 60s – run by a Democratic Commander-in-Chief, committed to a guerilla war halfway across the world with no apparent end in sight and no clearly understandable mission in mind, and seemingly apathetic about the whole problem. It wasn’t until 1965 when the antiwar protests of the Vietnam War reached any critical mass. At this rate, it will be 2015 before the progressive community begins to challenge Barack’s Bushian turn in Central Asia. Folks, that’s simply unacceptable.

I admit to being part of the problem. When W was President, I would take to the streets on several occasions and protest the war in Iraq, but it has been years since I joined in such a march. It’s time to dust off the old walking shoes, wouldn’t you think?

With respect to Iraq, I have no clue why (a) roughly 120,000 U.S. troops are still in Iraq, at the cost of more than $7 billion per month to the U.S. economy and even though all other nations have withdrawn their troops, and (b) the timetable for withdrawing our troops from Iraq seems ineluctably to get pushed back, and even now we’re talking about leaving 35,000-50,000 troops in Iraq after the remainder are moved at the end of the summer of 2010. Could someone who has Barack’s ear please ask him to explain this to his base – the ones who are now pulling punches and marveling at how classy he is as a leader?

As for Afghanistan, what in God’s name are we still doing there? And why would Barack possibly be considering ratcheting up our involvement? The regime that we propped up is as corrupt as a coked-up telemarketer. Bin Laden is probably hiding out in the tribal regions of Pakistan, rather than within the Afghan borders. And as for the Taliban, what is it about them that poses such a danger to the United States – assuming that we ultimately leave Afghanistan? Plus, if history has taught us anything, it’s that the Afghan terrain is unconquerable. So why don’t we simply withdraw all the troops except for some special forces, and narrow the scope of our mission to espionage and police activities aimed solely at al Qaeda?

I had thought that one of the benefits of the Obama Presidency would be that if we were truly needed to fight foreign wars, other nations would be joining us in an equitable fashion so that our own troops wouldn’t disproportionately have to bear the risks and expenses of war. The funny thing is, though, that at the same time that the world community is extending to Barack a Nobel Peace Prize, Europe and Asia seem completely uninterested in sending their boys off to die in Afghanistan. If they won’t, why should we? What is so damned compelling about this struggle that would cause an American family to be proud of their son for dying in it?

Why, in short, is this any different from Vietnam?

I think it is incumbent on Barack Obama to explain this to us. And as great an orator as he is, if he can’t persuade us, isn’t it time to dust off the old walking shoes?

Friday, November 06, 2009

THE CHANGE WE’VE BEEN WAITING FOR

I still remember Candidate Obama saying these eight fateful words: “We are the change we’ve been waiting for.” To his partisans, like me, they were magical. To his detractors, they were signs that the speaker was the emptiest of suits.

What was it about those words that transfixed so many Americans? For starters, we were convinced that America desperately needed change. W had been running us into the ground for nearly eight years; even he probably had had enough of his Presidency.

But there was something more in those words than the call for change. There was also a realization that the change agents had to be completely different. The powerbrokers in Washington simply weren’t getting the job done They weren’t exactly a generation like Washington, Jefferson and Adams; nor were they the equals of Webster, Clay and Calhoun. Larry, Curly and Moe seem like a more apt analogy. And given that the folks in power couldn’t be trusted, either in terms of motivation or competence, “we the people” were needed to right the ship.

Yeah, I know it all sounds so idealistic. Yet that’s where Barack Obama came into play. If anyone could lead us to the meaningful change we needed, Barack’s the guy. His was the freshest of faces – upstanding, honest, earnest, kind, and symbolic of our nation’s glorious ethic melting pot. What’s more, Barack was hardly a Lone Ranger; his campaign staff seemed to be touched by God. Collectively, they did an unprecedented job of using the Internet to rally, not only supporters, but donors. By the time Super Tuesday came along, his backing was both broad and deep, and it was anchored by an incredibly devoted base: the young. If you were anywhere from 15 to 25 and you weren’t in love with Obama, you probably needed psycho- pharmacological help.

After the campaign was over and Barack won in a laugher, we were treated to an Inauguration like none other. As he stood before literally millions of loving Americans, Barack looked like a truly transformative figure. Never in my lifetime had I witnessed such enthusiasm for a new American President. You got the idea that if only we could add one more face on Mount Rushmore, we just found our man.

But that was then. And this is … well, this is the week that we’re welcoming new Republican Governors in states that had previously been Blue. Go ahead and call them “local elections” that have nothing to do with Barack, but I’m not buying it. Barack might still be relatively popular – personally – but what’s changed is that he has absolutely zero coattails. Right now, voters just want to throw the bums out, and if the majorities of the bums happen to be from Barack’s Party, so be it.

What went wrong? What happened to the “we” who were supposed to change the country? Where the hell were all the young people who worked tirelessly for Barack, but are now invisible when it comes to politics? Without them, the “we” is surely gone.

Perhaps the problem was that when Barack the Candidate became Barack the President-Elect, our nation was in a true economic crisis. You could make a strong argument that the only way out was to make a deal with the Walt Street Devil. As a result, Geithner and Summers rapidly became the most prominent faces of the Administration, and they symbolized anything but change. Still, I think the problem is deeper than that. Even when the crisis was averted and Barack was given a bit of breathing room, he hasn’t exactly shown political courage. Has he fought hard on health care reform? Not at all – he basically threw that issue back at his do-nothing Congress. And what about Iraq and Afghanistan? Has he taken a clear stand there? Nope. Frankly, I’m not exactly sure what he’s done over there that W wouldn’t have.

What about a cause like Middle East Peace? I’ve devoted a lot of attention to that issue on this page, and believe strongly that Barack has real talent as a diplomat. But what I haven’t yet seen is the resolve to fight at any cost for a just and secure peace in that region. I want Middle East Peace to be one of Barack’s obsessions. If it is, however, he hides it well.

If you ask me, the problem here is that Barack is too practical. Everything from him is measured. Nothing seems terribly urgent – other than the rhetoric that flows from his mouth as mellifluously as a mountain stream.

I want to see Barack take some chances. I want to see him dare to fail. I want to see him get out of the middle of the road in Afghanistan and either win the damn war or get the hell out of there (preferably the latter). I want to see him bring the health care reform issue to a head so that he can expose the phonies in the Democratic Party. He should go ahead and let them filibuster a popular bill. If they want to make asses of themselves in front of the nation, let’s roll out the red carpet and watch them implode.

Mostly, though, I want to see Barack grab hold of a controversial issue like my dogs grab hold of a bone. It almost doesn’t matter what issue he picks as long as he deals with it passionately, and it seems to be part of a wider vision that he holds for his Presidency. That’s what Reagan brought to the table, and that’s why he was so effective at making changes, whether we like them or not.

Right now, my man is just too cool for school. And the cooler he gets, the more bored we get by his Presidency.

Remember, Barack’s eight words were truly inspiring, and they rang true. It is all about “us.” We were the change we were waiting for – not the do-nothing Congress, not the Wall Street Barons, and not Barack himself. If he wants us back in the fold, if wants to be a leader of a movement that has some staying power, he has to model raw emotion on behalf of some courageous positions. Do that, and for the next seven years, we’ll have his back.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

WTF?

I’m not much for computer slang, but every now and then, I pick some up from my daughters. The title of this post is certainly an example. So often these days, in so many domains of life, I find myself asking the question, “What the ….? Today, I will share a few examples.

On The Only Jew Who Has Ever Been on a Major Party Presidential Ticket: Here’s the background:

--In 2000, Joe is a mainstream Democrat who is running a relatively progressive campaign.
-- In 2002, and for years thereafter, Joe’s face on TV is ubiquitous, as he relentlessly defends the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld axis on their decision to wage war in Iraq.
--In 2006, Joe runs as an Independent against the man who defeated him in his state’s Democratic primary, and yet, when Joe wins that election, the Democrats in the Senate open their arms to Joe like he’s one of their own, giving him a committee chairmanship (Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs).
--In 2008, Joe goes on TV once again and takes gratuitous shots at candidate Barack Obama’s patriotism, while openly supporting GOP nominee John McCain for President. Yet after the election, Joe is allowed to keep his committee chairmanship and stay in the caucus. According to such colleagues as Chris Dodd, Joe is a “mainstream Democrat,” who just happens to disagree with the party on a few issues, like the Iraq war. Lord knows, that on domestic issues, he’s still a progressive. Right?
--Last week, Joe announces not only that he will oppose any health care reform bill with a public option but he will join in a Republican-led filibuster if necessary to prevent such a bill from coming to the Senate floor. He says this despite the fact that (a) his state’s polls show overwhelming support for a public option, (b) this is an issue in which progressives on domestic issues virtually all agree, and (c) he has been an outspoken opponent of filibusters for years. WTF?

Does he not feel ANY sense of gratitude to his President and the Party that has supported him over the decades? Does he not care at all about those who lack health care insurance? Does he not realize that this looks like a brazen attempt to pay back the insurance companies in his state – major donors to his campaigns – at the expense of sacrificing various principles that he’s stood for over the years? Finally, does he actually think that the Democrats would allow him to tank health care reform and still keep his committee chairmanship? Hmmm. As to that last question, maybe he could count on the Dems standing by their man. After all, aren’t the Democrats the party of “turning the other cheek” (and I do mean “cheek”). Given what Joe’s gotten away with to date, what’s one more kick in the butt among friends?

On the Idea That in an Obama Presidency, The Whole World Would Share in the U.S.’s Burdens of War: Man was I na├»ve. Remember before the election, when a number of us were suggesting that if Obama won, he would be very popular internationally, he would not be associated with that God-awful Iraq War, and this would increase the willingness of other nations to share with the U.S. the burdens of defending the world against terrorists and other enemies of peace? Well, our President is certainly popular. He’s even won a Nobel Peace Prize. But as a peacemaker, he hasn’t yet achieved any tangible accomplishments. And as for the idea of international support, here we are in Afghanistan – the “good war” that virtually every nation supported – and who is doing all the dying? You guessed it: American troops, and American troops alone. WTF?

OK, so I exaggerate. Here are the actual figures of “coalition” deaths: 904 Americans, 11 Australians, one Belgian, 223 Britons, 132 Canadians, three Czech, 26 Danes, 21 Dutch, six Estonians, one Finn, 36 French, 31 Germans, two Hungarians, 22 Italians, three Latvian, one Lithuanian, four Norwegians, 15 Poles, two Portuguese, 11 Romanians, one South Korean, 26 Spaniards, two Swedes and two Turks, for a total of 1486 troops. By my count, that means that for a country with less than 5% of the world’s population, our troops are supplying 61% of the corpses in this war that virtually EVERYONE supposedly agrees is for the best interests of the world.

It just doesn’t seem fair. And yet where is Barack in appealing to the world that it is time to fight “just” wars equitably, and not simply on the backs of the United States military? Lest I sound jingoistic here, maybe it would help the politically correct out there in cyberspace to put it another way: why should African and Hispanic Americans have to die in disproportionate numbers to keep the people of East Asia and Europe safe?

On the Idea That Anyone Could Possibly Believe that Benyamin Netanyahu is a Man of Peace:

Last weekend, the Washington Post ran an op-ed in which Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu made some valid points. He spoke about how Israel should not have to give up all its bargaining chips until the Arabs come to the table. He spoke about how the Arabs continue to refuse to deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and the implication was clear and persuasive: as long as the Arabs stop short of recognizing that right, why should Israelis trust that the Arabs will make peace until all of pre-48 Palestine is under Arab control?

Sounds like a man who deeply wants peace and is simply pragmatic? Sounds like a sincere advocate of a two-state solution who is understandably concerned that his people get a fair piece of the pie and cannot allow them to make too many concessions unless the other side makes equally profound concessions of their own. Right?

Think again. When Barack Obama called for a freeze of West Bank settlements, Netanyahu would have none of it. This was the opportunity to jumpstart the peace process under the auspices of an American President who is uniquely equipped to appeal to the Palestinian people. And yet, on some of the very land that Netanyahu wants us to believe he’s prepared ultimately to deal to the Palestinians, Netanyahu tells Obama to pound sand and authorizes the settlers to build more homes. WTF?

Netanyahu says one thing to the American media in the form of published words, and says something very different in the form of actions. In that sense, he’s no different from Nobel Laureate Yasser Arafat. They both have come across to me as less interested in peace than they are in a win-lose solution. And they both think the American public is REALLY stupid. The sad thing is, like Arafat before him, Netanyahu just might be right.

On the Idea That All Drug Use on the Part of Athletes Is Equally Reprehensible:

You may have read this week that Andre Agassi admitted that in 1997, the year when his tennis ranking drastically plummeted, he was taking crystal meth. But did you read that the indignant Martina Navratilova with furious with Agassi, claiming that by taking that drug and then denying what he did, his conduct was no different from Roger Clemons’ steroid use? WTF?

Am I missing something, or was Clemons taking a performance enhancing drug, and Agassi taking a performance detracting drug? In other words, didn’t Clemons prove himself to be a cheater, whose victims include baseball players throughout the minor and major leagues who needed to abuse their bodies in order to keep up with the Rocket? And in Agassi’s case, isn’t the only victim an eight-time Major Championship winner who has to go to bed every night with a 22-time Major Championship winner and wonder what more he could have done with his career had he, like his wife, Steffi Graf, given 100% effort throughout his prime.

Don’t be so self righteous, Martina. And leave your old rival’s hubby alone.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

MISTRUST

Time Magazine has for years selected the “Person of the Year.” Last year’s award winner was a slam dunk: Barack Obama. Who else was even close? Sara Palin? Mohammad Ahmadinejad? Ashley Dupre?

Now humor me for a moment. What if the issue wasn’t selecting a person, but a word? What single word best symbolizes 2009? In past years, winners might have included “amazing” (1969 – the year of the moon walk … and the Mets first World Series championship), “reunification” (1990 -- West and East Germany are no more), “terrorism” (2001 – a year so crazy even Kubrick couldn’t have imagined it), “tsunami” (2004 – the year of the greatest such disaster in history). And, of course, “blowjob” (1998 – the year the world vigorously debated what it really means to have “sex”).

This year, no single event has captivated the attention of the world. But from my vantage point, there does seem to be a word that captures the mood of my country, if not the entire planet. From the title of this post, you’ve probably guessed the word I have in mind.

Just look at what happened in this past week. According to an Associated Press article, “The Treasury Department ordered seven big companies that haven't repaid their government bailout money to cut their top executives' average total compensation — salary and bonuses — in half, starting in November. Under the plan, cash salaries for the top 25 highest-paid executives will be limited in most cases to $500,000 and, in most cases, perks will be capped at $25,000.”

It sounds un-American, right? Aren’t we supposed to be committed to free enterprise? Personally, as much as I hate capitalism, I hate the alternatives even more. And yet, this week, I was cheering the Treasury Department’s move and haven’t heard a peep of criticism from anyone else, which is really what’s fascinating. Most Americans have developed such an incredible distrust for corporate executives generally, and Wall Street executives in particular, that just about any amount of executive pay cuts would be popular.

Of course, I did say MOST Americans. There’s another large group – mostly in flyover states, but you’ll also find them in coastal exurbs and a smattering of right-wing suburbs, like McLean, Virginia – who sees in such a development clear signs of a creeping socialism. These defenders of the American Way might not appreciate the job that Wall Street has done as of late, but they sure wouldn’t tamper with the ability of hard-working Americans to seize whatever paychecks the market will bear.

But that’s not to say that the tea-baggers and ditto-heads are any less trustful than the rest of us. Whereas people like me won’t be satisfied until the top marginal tax rate goes back to at least 70% -- it was 90% under Eisenhower – the tea-baggers won’t rest until Barack Obama and his minions have been put out to pasture. How you ever seen a group of people so unwilling to treat a new President like a legitimate leader? Even when W was elected in the most questionable manner imaginable (in a “democracy” of 300 million, he lost the popular vote, but won the Politburo vote of 5-4), once Gore conceded the election, Americans of all stripes recognized that W was our President, for better or worse. But don’t for a second think that the Fox News crowd would extend the same courtesy to Barack Obama. He’s viewed, plain and simply, as an enemy combatant. When he stumbles, they rejoice. Even when he’s trying to bring the Olympics to American soil, they still wish him harm. They probably even mock his dog. And Lord knows, that whenever Barack Obama takes a position on anything, they reflexively oppose it.

That, my friends, is a climate of mistrust. And unfortunately, this climate is not merely a domestic problem. I’ve spoken at length lately about the Middle East Peace process and have offered several diagnoses for that seemingly intractable mess. But truly, it all comes down to one word: mistrust. Both sides are talking to the other, and yet neither is listening. There’s no point in listening to anyone if you don’t trust him. You’ll hear words, but they won’t reach your heart.

Speaking as a Zionist, I can confirm that when Arab leaders talk about making “concessions,” we have no reason to trust that these wouldn’t simply be temporary stop-gaps en route to the ultimate goal of one Palestinian nation controlled by Arabs and with a Jewish minority. Palestinian leadership from the time before Israel’s creation until the present has been resolute in demanding the right of Arabs to return to their homes in Israel, and in asserting the superiority of the Arab to the Jewish claims over the Holy Land. Invariably, Palestinians stop short of recognizing a “Jewish State.” In their ears, a word like Zionism sounds like nothing more than a synonym for racism. As a result, when a Palestinian speaks about a two-state solution, we fear that they are really pining for a two-STAGE solution, which will leave us as stateless and as vulnerable as ever.

Then again, when it comes to Middle East Peace, we Jews don’t have a monopoly on mistrust. And trust me: the Palestinian mistrust is every bit as understandable as our own. The Palestinians have come to see the Jews as a brutal, oppressive, occupying force. They each have stories to tell about specific Israeli atrocities, and about the generally dehumanizing conditions in which they’ve been forced to live. They see Israeli politicians, like the current Prime Minister, as the faces of evil. And when they hear these politicians talk about peace, they simply laugh it off as a sham. According to the Palestinian narrative, a man like Netanyahu tries to pretend that he wants peace so that he can stay on good terms with other world leaders, but in reality, he has no intention ever to provide the Palestinians with a viable state. As far as the Israeli Government is concerned, Palestinians will tell you, the Palestinians can have the prison-camp known as Gaza and the less desirable real estate in the West Bank, but that’s it. No more. And they better be gracious when they hear an offer or they won’t even get those scraps of Swiss Cheese.

So yes, this doctor has no problem diagnosing the problem. But how do we treat it? How do we rekindle trust?

The answer is that we work on various fronts. We participate in local Jewish-Islamic dialogue societies. We support NGOs that facilitate joint enterprises and other forms of cooperation between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis. And … we attend events like the one I’m about to promote.

It’s happening on December 6, 2009 from 2:00 – 6:00 p.m. at the 6th and I Street (N.W.) Synagogue in Washington D.C. You can read all about it at www.yesmep.org. It is sponsored by a fledgling organization in which I have been an active member: Yes We Can – Middle East Peace (or YES-MEP for short). If you go to that website, you’ll not only read about the event, but also see our mission statement. Immediately, you can tell the goal of the group: it’s attempting to be a big-tent coalition where people with different points of view, but who all desperately pine for Middle East Peace, can work cooperatively toward that goal. The December 6th event will bring in musicians, actors and speakers from the United States, Israel and Palestine for what figures to be an absolutely “amazing” afternoon (perhaps not worthy of 1969, but light years beyond our current standard).

So please, folks. Make the trip. Show your support. And get inspired to make a difference on this issue. This problem won’t be solved right away, but with your prayers and your hard work, it will be solved.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

AN OPEN LETTER TO JEREMY BEN-AMI

On October 13, 2009, the Jerusalem Post published an open letter that you addressed to Michael Oren, Israeli Ambassador to the United States. You wrote as the Executive Director of J-Street, which you described in five words: “the new pro-Israel lobby.” The explicit purpose for your letter was to “reiterate an invitation” to Ambassador Oren to attend your organization’s conference in Washington, D.C., which begins on October 25th. You also voiced your concern about how “the connection to Israel for a large number of Jewish Americans has become strained over time,” particularly with younger and more progressive Jews, and added that Jewish-American progressives “have not traditionally been attracted to pro-Israel lobbying,” You quoted Ambassador Oren’s spokesman in indicating that the Ambassador has "concerns over certain policies [of J Street 's] that could impair Israel's interests." Your central point seemed to be that Israel has not been served well by AIPAC, the most prominent Jewish-American lobbying group, and that it would be wise to embrace the progressive voices that are truly pro-Israel despite the fact that they have often questioned a number of its government’s policies.

Well, Jeremy, if I may call you by your first name, I am one of the progressive voices you seem to be talking about. I am the coordinator and a co-founder of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington. I have recently authored a book, Moses the Heretic, that criticized Israel for occupying so much land over its ‘67 borders and for refusing publicly to adopt the ultimate goal of sharing Jerusalem. That latter goal continues to be important to me, as does the idea that the ‘67 borders – or something close to them – remain the eventual outcome of a two-state solution to the Palestinian/Israeli dispute. I was also exasperated with the way that Israel waged its recent war in Gaza, especially its decisions to deny the Arab population basic necessities and to preclude the media from entering Gaza, where they could report as objectively as possible about the situation. Moreover, I staunchly disagree with statements by the Israeli leadership to introduce pre-conditions before entering into peace discussions with the Arabs; like President Obama, I don’t believe that dialogue constitutes “appeasement,” and so I would urge Israel to speak to members of Hamas, among other Palestinian officials, and share some of the ways in which we sympathize with their position. Notably, I would urge that my fellow Jews stop looking at Palestinian nationalism as an artificial and illegitimate movement, and instead strive for a two-state solution in which a viable Palestinian state can peacefully exist beside Israel. Indeed, it saddens me when I see a sign in front of a synagogue that says “We support Israel in its struggle for peace and security.” To me, the appropriate sign would read “We support Israel and Palestine in their struggle for peace and security.”

Is that progressive enough for you? It sounds like a rhetorical question, but truly it is not. For in the past several months, as I have gone from “author” to “activist,” I’ve spent a lot of time working with the so-called “peace community,” which as you know is progressive to the core. J-Street is a holy name within this community. So you should be proud of that. But to be candid, I often find myself extremely troubled by what my fellow peaceniks are saying behind the scenes. Nearly everyone calls him or herself “pro Israel” and an advocate of a “two state solution.” Nearly everyone seems to be OK with thinking of Israel as a “Jewish, democratic home,” to use words from your letter to the Ambassador. But when pressed, they commonly admit that, in their vision, the ultimate nature of this “Israel” will be very different than the solution that Ambassador Oren or I would advocate. You see, these “pro-Israel,” “two-state” advocates recognize that Arab birthrates have been much higher than Jewish birthrates and that more Arabs might wish to immigrate to Israel than Jews. From those premises, they commonly conclude that if we draw the map more or less according to the ‘67 borders, even “Israel” would primarily be populated by Arabs by the end of this century. And here’s the rub: they don’t care. To them, the idea of a Jewish homeland means a place where Jews are safe, and they believe that if “Israel” is democratic and has as substantial Jewish population (albeit a minority), the melting-pot Arab/Jewish nation that would emerge can be counted on to protect the legitimate aspiration of Jews for a home. Oh, by the way, they prefer the term “Jewish homeland” to “Jewish state,” because the latter sounds to them like a place where Jews have more rights than non-Jews, and a homeland is simply a place where Jews can live and enjoy equal rights (like they do in America).

In addition to having behind-the-scenes discussions with my fellow peace-loving progressives, I’ve also attended multiple talks in the area in which panels of experts express their positions on the topic. The panels typically include representatives from the “right” and the “left.” And what I’ve found interesting here is that while some of the mavens on the left identify themselves as “Zionist,” they seem to devote little if any time to fleshing out what that means. They’re too busy criticizing Israel, it seems, to explain to my fellow peaceniks exactly how central Zionism is to their philosophy. I have to be candid with you once again: when I contemplate the J-Street Conference, I envision one jeremiad after another about Israel’s abuses and what needs to be done to ensure that Israel adopts “Jewish values.” But I envision very little being said to convince the left that unless the Arabs recognize the existence of Israel as a Jewish state, they will never convince the Israelis to make peace. In other words, I have trouble imagining that one-tenth of the attention given to the legitimate claims of Palestinian nationalism will be given to the legitimate claims of Jewish nationalism, or Zionism, as it is more commonly known.

Perhaps I have misunderstood the nature of your organization. Perhaps the peaceniks I know are not representative of your progressive community, and that the left-leaning mavens I’ve heard speak in such muted tones about their so-called Zionism were merely just warming up their vocal cords. But you will forgive Ambassador Oren and others in Israel if they are not so convinced that the American-Jewish left are as pro-Israel as they claim to be.

Here’s my request for you: convene a conference that would make my progressive non-Zionist friends every bit as uncomfortable as it would make Ambassador Oren. If that isn’t possible, at least smoke out your membership so that they can admit that their Zionism (if it exists at all) is skin deep, and that by “pro Israel” they really just mean “pro Middle Eastern melting pot.”

We will never have peace in this region unless everyone can trust each other. You and I might not like the positions of the Jewish right, but at least everyone knows where they stand. The Jewish-American left needs to be equally transparent. Good luck in holding a conference that brings people’s true attitudes to the surface.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO EARNING
WHAT YOU ARE GIVEN?

Call 2009 the Year of the Beneficiary. It has been a time of corporate welfare like we’ve never seen before. Investment bankers, come on down! We’ve got your bailout check, and it’s got more zeros on it than you’ve ever dreamed of. Car makers, come on down! We’ve got quite the goody bag for you too – not as fat as Wall Street’s, but still worthy of Sumo Wrestling.

This year, taxpayers have been dolling out more billions for failed capitalists than there are stars in Carl Sagan’s sky. And why? Because, we’re told, these companies were “too big to fail.” In today’s America, once you get as large as a whale, the sky is the limit. Apparently, America wants to reward blubber. And the funny thing is, the worse you suck at your corporate job, the more you get in taxpayer donations. Are we a generous country or what?

Now, it appears, the spirit of generosity has moved overseas. And yes, I’m referring to yesterday’s joke of a Nobel Peace Prize.

Mind you, it would hardly be fair to compare yesterday’s beneficiary with the ones from Wall Street and Detroit. Unlike the titans of AIG and GM, Obama hasn’t demonstrated himself to be inept at what he does. Then again, he hasn’t really accomplished much either, now has he? I guess he saved Wall Street with all the bailout money, if that’s what you call an accomplishment, but that shouldn’t qualify him for a Nobel Peace Prize. The last I checked, peace meant “world peace,” and not peace of mind for Goldman Sachs.

As an Empathic Rationalist, I’m duty bound to say to myself, wherever applicable, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” That’s not a statement of theology, or even of belief, but a simple thought that we should always consider what it’s like to walk in another’s moccasins. If I were a conservative American, I’d be positively furious with the Nobel committee. I know this because it’s easy to imagine the shoe being on the other foot, and someone like, say, John McCain or Sara Palin coming into the White House, giving a couple of speeches, and then being slapped with a Nobel simply for winning some sort of beauty contest with the right wing judges. That’s precisely the mirror image of what happened here: the left-leaning committee in Oslo fell in love with the cut of Barack’s jib and slapped the tag of hero on him … even though he has nothing tangible to show for his efforts other than as a political candidate (and as a baron of bailouts). I’d say that this is an insult to Nobel Prizes, but then again, once you’ve decided to honor Arafat, you’ve lowered the bar all the way to the ground.

It’s pointless for me to engage in speculation as to why the Nobel committee thought that Barack needed a bailout – couldn’t they let him fail first? – or what they could have possibly identified as one of his peacemaking accomplishments. I’m neither insightful enough to understand their true motivation, nor creative enough to imagine that accomplishment. But what is clear is that in the domestic political arena, they did Barack absolutely no favor. Quite the contrary -- this gift has invigorated Barack’s enemies. Again, imagine Sara Palin with a Nobel simply for giving a few orations like the one she delivered at the GOP Convention to rave reviews. I don’t know about you, but if I saw her accept the award simply for yakking and smiling, I’d be fuming that she’s the most dangerous demagogue since Hitler. Hopefully, Barack’s opponents won’t see him in that light – Lord knows I don’t, for I find his speeches to be as sincere as they are intelligent – but just because he isn’t a demagogue doesn’t mean he’s not dangerous to those whose ideology differs from his.

Any politician who seems to get what he wants without having to work for it can be dangerous. W was such a politician in the period right after 9/11, and as a result, he hammered through that absurd war in Iraq. Reagan was also such a politician due to his clear vision and avuncular manner, and as a result, he gave us our sharp inequalities in wealth. As for Barack, given the incredible devotion of so many of his supporters and the loving embrace he gets from the media, you could understand why his opponents fear that he will soon enough get a free ride as well. The Nobel Prize will only exacerbate those fears.

So, Oslo, from one who has high hopes for Barack but still sees him as just getting started on the job: Thanks, but no thanks!

Speaking of not having to earn what you get, I’ve been neglecting the most blatant example of all. Has anyone noticed the New York Yankees’ lineup lately? Batting first, Derek Jeter. Batting second, Johnny Daman. Batting third, Mark Teixeira. Batting fourth, Alex Rodriguez. Batting fifth, Hideki Matsui. Batting sixth, Jorge Posada. We’re talking about Hall of Famers and near Hall of Famers. We’re talking about a team that spent more on players this off-season ($423.5 million) than their playoff opponent, the Minnesota Twins, is even worth ($356 million). For most baseball fans, this is like the Harlem Globetrotters against the Washington Generals, or like the U.S. Military against the Armed Forces of Grenada. But for the people who run the Yankees, this is like … it’s like being the CEO of AIG and getting $180 billion dollars to play with. That was the contract that the Yanks recently paid to acquire Teixeria, who hit last night’s walk-off home run. The only other Yank to drive in a run last night, Rodriguez, took a mere $275 million in his contract with the Yankees.

Frankly, baseball isn’t my favorite sport, but I get the impression that if I were the General Manager of the Yankees, my team would still make the playoffs every year. Nice work if you can get it, wouldn’t you say?

When you realize that the Twins put their roster together at less than 1/3 the cost of the Yankees’ roster, I guess they should claim a “moral victory” that they forced New York into extra innings last night – before losing to the Yanks for the ninth time in nine games. But there are no moral victories in the playoffs, and that’s what makes this so absurd. The Twins are the American League’s best team in flyover country. The only teams with more wins are in the huge market cities of New York, Boston and Los Angeles. Comparing the Twins to the Yankees on the diamond is like comparing the standardized test scores of the students from Beverly Hills High School with those from a well-run, but poor school in the Appalachians -- it won’t matter how good the principals or the teachers are in Appalachia, the kids from Beverly Hills will come out on top every fricken time. [The only difference, I guess, is that they don’t televise the supporters of Beverly Hills High high fiving each other after the test scores are released, and they don’t have “journalists” talk about the test-score tally like it’s some sort of honest competition.]

For the Yankee management and their well-fed fans, victories, playoff appearances, and even World Series titles aren’t earned. They’re simply acquired via donation. The team plays in a crowded megalopolis with large pockets of extreme affluence. They can afford to raise ticket prices and investment bankers, lawyers, and old-money types will still come in droves. With the revenues that roll in every year, the team can also afford to purchase the one or two best free-agents in baseball. Last year’s #1 guy was last night’s hero, Teixeira. Next year? Who knows what player the Yankees will purchase with their excess revenues. But you can guess that he’ll be the best player in a town like Kansas City, Milwaukee, or Clevelan even if he turns out to be the eighth best hitter in the Bronx.

In a couple of days, the season figures to be over for the valiant Twins, and they will be left to enjoy the memories of being the winner of one of Major League Baseball’s “Minor League” Divisions. Their players will then be forced to stay home and sit around, while the folks in New York and LA play on. In that regard, the Twins will be joining countless millions of Americans who also will be hanging out when they’d rather work, though in this case we’re talking about people who will be actively looking for a job … and one with health care benefits. Sadly, the Year of the Beneficiary hasn’t helped them in the slightest. Indeed, the reports are that even though Wall Street is rebounding nicely, Main Street figures to suffer for years.

And therein lies the problem with all these gifts. Our new motto is “Pigs get fed, and hogs get fed more.” We honor baseball teams for refusing to share revenues with their competition. We reward most the corporations that fail us the most. And we honor Presidents as heroes before they’ve done anything heroic. As for the little guy, we’ve got bupkis for him … just mounting deficits, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and corrupt Major League baseball.

Oh well, at least the football playoffs will be coming in a few months, and then it will all get better. In football, you see, they share revenues, and that’s why last year’s winner could come from the flyover steel town of Pittsburgh. It’s not a town where people win the Nobel very often, or where corporate execs swim in bailout money. In fact, many people don’t even realize that it has a baseball team. (Could you name one member of the Pittsburgh Pirates? I sure can’t.) But it is part of America. And I suspect there are people there who have actually performed more acts of heroism to date than my beloved President, Barack Obama.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

CLEARING BRUSH

At the end of the Presidency of George W. Bush, CBS News encapsulated what is perhaps the single greatest element of that Presidency’s disgrace. Here’s the description: “According to CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller, today's trip marks Mr. Bush's 149th visit to the presidential retreat [Camp David]. The planned three-day stay, during which the president is being joined by family and former and current aides, will bring his total time spent at Camp David to all or part of 487 days. Yes, that's 487 days. And Camp David is not even where the president has spent the most time when not at the White House: Knoller reports that Mr. Bush has made 77 visits to his ranch in Crawford during his presidency, and spent all or part of 490 days there.”

That’s 977 days – or more than a third of his Presidency -- spent in those two vacation spots alone. Frankly, the number is mind-boggling. I always thought the job of President was a demanding one, yet Bush made it look like something any of us could handle, assuming we don’t mind if the world suffers the consequences.

To us Democrats, Bush’s basic apathy toward his duties as President came to be symbolized by one activity: clearing brush. This was Bush’s own description of how he enjoyed spending some of his time at the ranch in Crawford. Perhaps Bush found it to be cathartic, for surely even a lazy, party animal like him would have found his 5 1/3 years in the White House to be stressful. Personally, the idea of hanging out in West Hell-hole Texas, slashing through weeds sounds a lot less enjoyable than, say, flying to Paris (France, not Texas), Rome (Italy, not Georgia), or Copenhagen. I’ve been to Paris and Rome, and loved them both. But I’ve never been to Copenhagen. I’ve always wanted to know what ol’ Hans Christian Anderson saw in it that was so damned inspiring.

I’ve had Copenhagen on my mind this week for obvious reasons. But what’s anything but obvious is how best to characterize those Republicans in Congress and those pundits on Fox News who slammed President Obama for a one-day trip to the capital of Denmark. I can understand faulting him for encouraging Chicago to get the Olympics when the money could be spent differently, such as on social welfare programs. Needless to say, though, that wasn’t their complaint; these aren’t the types who typically pine much for such programs. The complaint, and I still can’t believe I’m saying this, is that Barack Obama decided to take one day off to fly to Europe at a time when more important things were happening at home. They couldn’t point to any great crisis -- just to the idea that the most important thing on the nation’s plate this past Friday was not whether to snatch the Olympics from Rio.

Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t recall these troglodytes whining when Obama’s predecessor took off month, after month, after month, after month, after month … ( I’d do that 32 times but my fingers were getting bored). So how can they look at themselves in the mirror after dumping on a President for a taking off on a single today? Yes, I know, he didn’t really “take off.” He did what has become de rigueur for national leaders who want their countries to host the Olympics – he made the requisite face-to-face appeal to the pompous decision-makers. I consider that official Government business. But let’s say I’m wrong, let’s look at that trip simply as a day off. Why should that subject him to abuse, if Bush’s 877 days off weren’t worthy of note? And … when it turned out that his appeal didn’t get the job done and a U.S. city wasn’t chosen to host the Olympics, why did the Fox News pundits feel free to get on TV to laugh their ample asses off at our defeat?

In fact, this all made me wonder, when we do play in Olympics during Obama’s Presidency, are the Fox types going to publicly announce that they are rooting against the American athletes, just like they rooted against the idea of America hosting the Games? I ask, because this particular brand of American patriotism known as the modern conservative movement is kind of confusing to me. If I wasn’t so diplomatic, I’d characterize these pundits and Congressmen as hypocritical, petty, unpatriotic ... Oh never mind. There are so many words that can be used for these people, and none is a compliment. Maybe we should stick with “enigmatic.” That sounds benign enough. And frankly, I’m almost beginning to feel sorry for these clowns. They’re so blinded by their resentment toward Obama and his staff that they don’t even know how to assume an aura of sanity.

Face it guys, Barack is playing for your team. He’s even leading your team. If you see him strike out, then laugh all you want. But please, don’t do it in public. It makes you look like you’re rooting for the other guys, whoever, wherever, and whatever they might be.