Saturday, June 27, 2009


We’ve come a long way in the past six months. Just a half a year ago, our nation was being led by a boy who never grew up, and who given his druthers would probably be playing war games on his Atari. Unfortunately for us, the “Atari” turned out to be the streets of Baghdad, and the prisons at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Well, alright – he also played in the mountains of Tora Bora, but he had to quit before the game was over; perhaps mommy was yelling that he was late for dinner.

Now, by contrast, we have a real adult to lead us. A smart, serious man. Given the contrast with his predecessor, it’s not hard to see why he’s so popular. But being only human, Obama isn’t equally well suited to every task. For example, when it comes to making the complex assessments that are needed to guide our economy, I’m not sure he has much more insight than the rest of us. It is in one area where I think he particularly excels. And you can tell that area from the title of this blog post. If we are lucky, when Barack leaves the White House, he won’t stay away from Washington for too long. This guy would be an ideal Secretary of State. His greatest gifts appear to lie in international diplomacy.

We’ve already seen his talents on display during his recent trip to the Middle East and, in particular, his speech in Cairo. He let the entire Muslim world know that in important ways, he’s one of them – a member of a family that includes Muslims and a man who has himself had considerable association with Islam -- and yet he also lectured Muslims about anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. He sharply criticized the continued building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, while also castigating those in the Arab world who seem to condone violence against innocent Israelis. Most importantly, he stayed non-committal on all the hot-button issues, such as how far the Israelis need to go in dismantling the existing settlements and whether the state of Israel is a “Jewish State” (one that should always be controlled by Jews) or merely a “Jewish Homeland” (a safe-haven for Jews, but one that they shouldn’t necessarily be able to control if they lose their majority due to demographic shifts). Thus, Barack’s skill as a diplomat enabled him to appear (a) passionate about peace, (b) extremely even-handed, and (c) ultimately supportive of whatever solutions to the hot-button issues each of us would like him to adopt.

That, my friends, is a diplomat.

Still, what I’m marveling about this week is less his verbal skills at Cairo, as his lack of verbiage when it comes to Iran. Here’s a guy who loves not simply to talk but to deliver dramatic speeches. Whenever an opportunity arises to wax eloquent about peace or justice, Barack is there – with two parts substance and three parts style (or is it the other way around?), gathering more and more adoring fans with every word. If someone were to collect the best political speeches in America in the last twenty years, you’d surely have to go far down the list before finding an oration delivered by someone OTHER than Barack Obama.

In light of those facts, the idea of Barack talking about the democracy movement in Iran would appear to be a match made in heaven. Even a middle school student should be able to find some words to describe the righteousness of that movement and the heroism of its members – not to mention the evil that they are trying to resist. Barack could have given his own version of the “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech, which was arguably the highlight of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency. Barack’s dramatic rebuke to the Iranian Mullahs could have played to equally rave reviews, both here and in Europe.

Only it wasn’t meant to be. Notwithstanding the knocking of opportunity and all the posturing of the Republican leadership, Barack stood down. Always the diplomat, always the savvy observer of international relations, Barack realized that any speechifying here in America would have undermined the cause in Iran. The exciting thing about what is happening in Tehran is the home-grown nature of its democracy movement. Despite the kind of oppression that defeated the Chinese youth at Tiananmen Square, Iran’s resisters actually have a chance to succeed without interference from the West. So why not see if that can happen? Why allow Ahmadinejad to characterize the battle on the streets as one between loyal Iranians (his supporters) versus American puppets (the opposition)? Why, in other words, should we re-create parallels between what is happening in Iran and what happened in Iraq, when President Bush attempted to impose democracy on the people before the conditions on the ground seemed conducive to it?

During the lead up to the Iraq War, it seems like all the “adults” in America were in lockstep with Bush and Cheney. Hillary, Biden, Dodd, you name it – virtually all the Presidential hopefuls were cheerleading for the war. And I don’t doubt that these same cast of characters, if they had been elected, would have delivered, or at least tried to deliver, their own boffo speech in support of the Iranian resistance movement. Back in 2002, Barack’s was a voice in the wilderness in urging us to stay OUT of Iraq. He predicted exactly what would happen there, and I suspect he predicted what would have happened had he flexed his oratorical muscles about Tehran. You see, the dissenters in Iran already have plenty of motivation. But with speechifying from Washington, the loyalists would have gained some motivation of their own. And what is worse, those heroes in Tehran who THINK they are in charge of something exciting, important and authentic could have come to see themselves as mere minions of the great Empire of the West.

Barack called it right in 2002, and he called it right in 2009 as well. Chalk it up to self-discipline and sound judgment.

I remember back in early-2007 attending a fundraiser for candidate Obama. Back then, he was well back in the polls to Hillary Clinton, and all the pundits – most of whom, no doubt, had supported the Iraq War from its inception -- were questioning Barack’s “foreign policy experience.” When he spoke to the crowd, however, he told us that he actually had more confidence in his foreign policy insights than in his domestic policy knowledge. I knew instantly that he meant what he said.

Barack may or may not prove to be a competent President when it comes to health care reform, stimulating the economy, or maintaining a sane budget. Yet at the end of the day, if he is to be judged a truly great leader, you can almost certainly chalk it up to his foreign policy instincts and skills as a diplomat. Suffice it to say that after our last President, we were due for an improvement.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


The biggest joke about this Iranian situation is that some people actually care who won the “election.” Don’t those people get it? There WAS no election.

Some people could read that last sentence and agree, saying that “Of course there was no election. It was stolen by fraud.” And yes, that’s right. But the main fraud had nothing to do with the way they counted – or didn’t count -- the votes. The main fraud had to do with the lead-up to the election. This was a fraud long before the first sucker walked into the voting booth.

You often hear the term “Jeffersonian Democracy” to refer to a certain set of political goals enunciated by our third President. These include, for example, the right of all of a nation’s citizens to choose its leaders by majority vote, the separation of church and state, and the right of an accused person to a fair trial. But at the very top of the list, two rights stand alone. Without them, you can’t have anything remotely resembling a Jeffersonian Democracy. In fact, without them, you can’t have any kind of democracy. What you can have is a formula by which the ruling class can remain in power, even if it decides to allow the people to vote.

What are these rights? Allow me to set them out in a fourteen word sentence, written by Mr. Jefferson himself: “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.” Jefferson spoke about the importance of reading because, if you have a free press, an educated (literate) electorate can make an educated (intelligent) decision as to which candidate to support. The key to the whole equation, then, is the free press. It is precisely what the Iranian people were denied in the lead up to the “election.” Instead, they were bombarded with week after week of propaganda touting everyone’s favorite Holocaust denier, President Ahmadinejad.

It speaks volumes for the leaders of the Iranian Government that, after they all but stole the election before it started, they felt the need to steal it once again after the voting. When you think about it, though, the decision to call the winner before the ballots were counted seemed in keeping with the regime’s pre-election conduct. The people’s vote was merely a formality, merely a link in a perfectly planned chain, the goal of which was to coronate the incumbent. The Communist Party in the USSR held these votes for years. And frankly, I’ve seen similar votes in synagogues, where the Board of Trustees puts up a slate and correctly assumes that nobody will ever run against that slate. It’s called one-party rule. And that’s exactly what you have in any country that lacks a free press.

Today is Saturday, June 20th. Some consider it D-Day in Iran -- the day when the hypocrites who sponsored this phony “election” turn into monsters, and Tehran turns into Tiananmen Square. I’m not a soothsayer, so I’ll save the predictions as to where this situation ends. What I will say is that if I lived in Tehran, I would like to think I’d be out there protesting – non-violently, but relentlessly. With every fiber of my body, I support those Iranians who, without picking up a gun or a bomb, are mad as hell and won’t take it any more. But I just wish they would keep their eyes on the ball. The issue isn’t voting. It’s democracy. And a democracy doesn’t begin and end with the ballot box, it begins and ends with the freedom of the press.

But don’t just take my word for it. Consider the words of the man who is associated more with democracy than any other modern statesman. These quotations are all from Jefferson, and I’ve saved the best for last.

“Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”

“Information is the currency of democracy.”

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them."

“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

Saturday, June 13, 2009


There is much about the Iranian election that I don’t know. I can’t say which candidate received the most votes. Nor can I even state unequivocally that President Ahmadinejad and his minions have stolen large numbers of votes. But there are three things about the election that we in America can say with confidence. First, that the Holocaust-denying incumbent is more than just an embarrassment; he is a continued threat to the prosperity of his nation and to world peace. Second, that Iran never implemented the kind of checks and balances in its electoral infrastructure that were necessary to ensure that the Iranian people could trust the official election results. And third, that while Iran might be a “democracy” in name only, at least the people care enough to take to the streets and protest with passion what they take to be a fraud. We saw little such passion in the aftermath of Gore v Bush, an election that was ultimately decided when four Supreme Court liberals supported the Democrat and five Supreme Court conservatives supported the Republican. How’s that for democracy in action? And we are seeing even less passion to protest the fraud that has marred some of the most prominent non-political institutions in American culture. I am referring to our professional sports leagues.

As loyal readers of this blog might recall, we are now three months into my latest – and surely not my final – boycott of Major League Baseball. This boycott was prompted by a combination of the failure of baseball franchises to share revenues, thereby ensuring that less-affluent franchises do not compete on a level-playing field with pigs like the Yankees and Red Sox, and the revelation that many if not most of the sport’s greatest stars have received that status through the help of performance-enhancing drugs.

During my boycott, I have refused to buy any baseball apparel. I have refused to listen to any games on the radio. I have refused to watch any games on the television. And I have refused even to watch shows devoted primarily to baseball, such as ESPN’s “Baseball Weekly” and the shows about my beloved Minnesota Twins that are aired on Fox Sports Net. Nevertheless, I have been reading box scores to get a sense of which teams and which players are having a good year. Among other things, I’ve noticed that Joe Mauer, the Twins’ catcher, hit 13 home runs in his first 100 or so at bats, which was as many as he’d ever hit in a 500 at-bat season, and also had a batting average that exceeded .400. Especially given his position, that is a phenomenal start, the kind that any Twins fan should be proud of. And yet … how can I trust that he reached that level of performance any differently than such other superstars as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemons, Alex Rodriguez, Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, and Rafael Palmeiro? In other words, how can I trust that Mauer, the clean cut, homegrown boy from the Twin Cities hasn’t simply decided to juice his way to the Hall of Fame? Obviously, I can be no more confident about that than the Iranians can be in the outcome of their elections.

I shouldn’t be surprised that the barons of baseball couldn’t care less about the integrity of the game. The franchise owners are first and foremost businessmen, not public trustees. Earlier in the so-called “Steroid Era,” these owners couldn’t help but notice that the more juice that McGuire and Sosa consumed, the more home runs they hit, the more records they broke, and the more tickets they helped sell. So steroids turned out to be good for the bottom line, at least when the public wasn’t aware of the steroids – and Lord knows, everyone thought at the time that McGuire and Sosa were clean as a whistle.

It also shouldn’t surprise me that the baseball union wouldn’t want to take on steroids. There’s only one way to do that right: permit Major League baseball to draw blood from every Major Leaguer, and then punish severely the ones who are caught cheating. But when has a sports union permitted such an encroachment on the “rights” of the workingman? According to the union’s arguments, people have a Constitutional right to do their job without being subjected to such intrusions as having needles stuck in their arms so that the powers-that-be can obtain information about their lifestyles. Those players who juice up obviously wouldn’t welcome such intrusion. And even those players who may not support it -- they’re already making zillions of dollars in the Major Leagues. Why should they voluntarily submit to blood testing? Presumably, it’s the players who are NOT making the Major Leagues because other players are juicing who would support the blood tests, and the last time I checked, they are not part of the Major League Baseball Players Union.

Further, it shouldn’t surprise me that the so-called “sports journalists” continue to cover their sports every bit as much as before, regardless of how much credibility is sapped from them. This is especially true with team sports, in which so many journalists are essentially in-bed-ed (embedded) with the teams they cover. For them to stop covering a team would be tantamount to quitting their jobs. Who is going to do that over an issue like steroids in sports?

In short, none of us should be surprised that neither Major League Baseball nor its sister sports leagues have attempted to root out performing-enhancing drugs, or that the sports-news outlets haven’t attempted to punish these leagues as a result of the scourge of steroids. What is surprising how apathetic American fans have been in addressing the issue.

Do the fans simply not care that a large number of their favorite athletes are chemically enhanced? Do they not care that the best, pure athletes are being defeated by the cheaters? Do they not care that all the lifetime achievements from our fathers’ and grandfathers’ era are quickly becoming trivialized by the fact that the modern juiced-up athletes are breaking the old records with reckless abandon?

I really cannot answer those questions. Perhaps people do care, just not enough to change their viewing habits. After all, a heroin addict may “care” that he is destroying his health and risking his life, but that doesn’t stop him from shooting up. Perhaps millions of Americans truly are “sports addicts,” a term I’ve often used playfully to refer to myself, though I didn’t use it literally. Maybe there is nothing the Major Leagues can do to screw up their sports that can prevent many of us from buying our tickets and cheering for our teams.

Still, the fact that some people are hopelessly addicted doesn’t change the fact that we fans ALL have responsibilities as consumers. If we want a quality product, we have to discipline those who produce crap. That’s the only way a decent economy can function. Typically, when we’re dealing with a marketplace involving numerous competitors, the consumer’s job is simple: just identify the product that has the lowest price and the highest quality. But with professional sports leagues, we are dealing with monopolies, so the consumer has only two choices: either ignore the problem altogether or, to a lesser or greater degree, boycott the league. The latter approach is necessary if we hope to change the behavior of the folks who are destroying their sport. It’s the only way to get them to ensure integrity.

I would never tell my fellow baseball fans that what we’re dealing with is nearly as important as the results of a Presidential election, even when the “President” being elected is not his nation’s most powerful official. Nor, however, would I argue that the steroid-scandal, which is now apparent to any non-ostrich in America, is trivial. Fraud is fraud, and it should disgust us all in whatever context it is manifested. Right now, our sports leagues find themselves knee deep in it and they refuse to do anything about it, just as the Government of Iran appears willing to look the other way at the so-called “irregularities” in the election process. No, I haven’t lost my mind enough to call for Americans to take to the streets in protest, as they are doing in Tehran. But I would ask for people to avoid the stadiums in protest, at least for a limited period of time. That’s how you let the owners and players know that you truly love their sport. That’s how you let the cheaters know that you’re not as stupid as they think you are, or as crazy as the typical heroin addict.

Saturday, June 06, 2009


In the last two weeks, the readers of this blog have been “treated” to nothing but talk about the Middle East peace process. Could there possibly be a more compelling cause? And yet, could there possibly be a more painful one? The more involved I’ve become in Israel-Palestinian issues, the more I’ve been wanting to tear my hair out. So many people are steeped in blame, mistrust and outright paranoia – and those are the non-violent ones! – that even the genius of Barack Obama isn’t likely to convert the “Holy Land” from the war zone it has been for decades. And those of us who struggle at the grass roots level are constantly wondering if we’ll EVER see results from our efforts.

But do not despair, my fellow progressives. Every now and then, we adopt causes that seem quixotic at first, and then actually come to be successful. Lost in all the Obama hoopla this week were additional positive developments in a just such a cause. I have in mind the right of two consenting adults to get married, regardless of their sexual preferences.

Earlier in the week, New Hampshire became the sixth U.S. state to legalize gay marriage. That leaves Rhode Island as the only state in New England where the legislators are willing to deprive certain people of the right to fall in love and have that love consecrated with the bond of marriage. I could lament Rhode Island’s backwardness. I could lament the fact that 44 other states, plus the District of Columbia, have failed to see the light. But instead, I am rejoicing. I am rejoicing in the decisions by New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts and Iowa to stand on the side of love. And I’m rejoicing this week’s announcement by none other than Dick Cheney that he, too, supports gay marriage. He had suggested that possibility years before, but not in the clearest of terms. This time, he said it unmistakably: states should have the right to allow gay people to marry. If you want his exact words, here they are:

“I think that freedom means freedom for everyone. As many of you know, one of my daughters is gay and it is something we have lived with for a long time in our family. I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish. Any kind of arrangement they wish. The question of whether or not there ought to be a federal statute to protect this, I don't support. I do believe that the historically the way marriage has been regulated is at the state level. It has always been a state issue and I think that is the way it ought to be handled, on a state-by-state basis. ... But I don't have any problem with that. People ought to get a shot at that."

So now, every debate on gay marriage should begin with the words, “Even Dick…” As right wing as that man is, EVEN DICK appreciates that it’s high time for Americans to treat gay people with dignity. If marriage is the holiest institution conceived by the human mind, then denying any group the right to partake in that institution simply because of the gender of their lovers is impossible to justify. You would have to suffer either from bigotry or tunnel-vision. Come to think of it, though, that probably describes most people, which is why we still have 44 states left to go before our nation will have officially entered the new millennium when it comes to gay rights.

Is this glass half full? Or 88% empty? To me, the answer is obvious. All I have to do is reflect on my friends from Chicago who are now woman and wife. No, Illinois has never legalized gay marriage, but then again, they didn’t have to get married in Illinois, did they? Instead, they tied the knot in California where (a) it was legal and (b) you could actually find something in nature worth looking at. Who is to say they are worse off for having to make the trip? Now, as you surely know, California has since changed its laws to preclude gay people from getting married, but those gay people who were married under the old law get to stay married. And as for those who want to get married now … they have six other states to choose from, some of which are quite beautiful. So it’s all good, right?

More to the point, is there any question where the trend is headed? The only reason why the California law was rescinded was that it was legalized by judges, but overturned by a majority vote. Gradually, more and more states are voting in their legislatures to permit gay marriage. Once that happens, you can better believe that the law won’t change. “EVEN DICK” supports this progressive measure. So how can anyone oppose it without sounding like a Neanderthal? It won’t be long, in my opinion, before gay marriage will be accepted throughout the mainstream, and the opposition will be confined to those elements of our society who deeply detest the separation of church and state. There are plenty of those people, to be sure, but a majority? I don’t think so.

I feel badly for gay people who have little money and who can’t afford to travel to a distant state in order to take advantage of a fundamental human right. But I am confident that, before long, every gay couple will be able to marry without having to go very far. For those of you who would point to the Midwest, I would remind you about Iowa. And perhaps Colorado will soon enough join the party. For those who would point to the Bible Belt, I have visions of my own state of Maryland providing the safe haven of choice. If the ACC basketball players can travel up I-95 from Atlanta or Chapel Hill, why can’t a couple of men drive up that same road and marry overlooking the Chesapeake Bay? Or the Appalachian Mountains? They can’t do that yet, but I’m confident that it won’t be long. If EVEN DICK understands that “people ought to get a shot at that,” a state as progressive as Maryland will soon come around.

So, cynics, can we actually celebrate that this battle is being won? Can we actually take a deep breath and smile at what has transpired? Frankly, yes. Of course there’s plenty of work to do to ratchet the magic number from 6 to 50, but it ought to be fun work. And there are three reasons why I make that statement. First, the ultimate result here is inevitable. Someday, even Utah will allow gay marriage. Second, most gay people are already able to get married, and with each passing year, that will become an easier and cheaper proposition. Finally, lest anyone become frustrated that this movement has to take place gradually on a state-by-state basis rather than instantly as a result of a Supreme Court decision, let me remind you that each of these state battles functions as a necessary round of consciousness raising. The more people address these issues in their local areas, the more they will come to accept gays as normal people who have the same rights as anyone else.

When I went to high school back in the 1970s a few miles north of Washington, D.C., gay people were ridiculed as freaks by their fellow classmates. Now, in that same area, gays teenagers are treated with acceptance. I’m confident that when my daughters’ generation grows up, they’ll look back at our current debates about homosexual rights the same way that we look at the civil rights debates of the 50s and 60s: as a historical relic. Note, though, that one difference between the two movements was that the homosexual lobby hasn’t had the great inspirational leaders that the civil rights movement had. Instead, gays have come to enjoy their rights because of very localized, grass roots efforts, and because of the greater appreciation for equality ushered in by the civil rights and feminist movements. The irony that gay marriage is an issue where Dick Cheney has positioned himself to the left of Barack Obama hasn’t been lost on anyone. But the fact is that we don’t need Barack to help us legalize gay marriage, and he knows that. Besides, once he gets re-elected and isn’t so worried about appealing to right wingers, Barack may indeed announce that he has mind-melded with Dick on this issue. Surely, in his heart of hearts, Barack supports this cause. I’d bet the ranch on that one.

So, my friends, the next time you contemplate getting involved in some grass roots issue and wondering if grass roots politics isn’t just a waste of time, just consider the matter of gay marriage. And then ask yourself, if it could work in that arena, why not in another? Why not with regards to the most intractable problem of all? If a man can kiss his groom in Montpelier, and a woman can kiss her bride in Des Moines, why can’t we help two Semites live peacefully – but separately -- in Tel Aviv and Hebron? Ultimately, the battle involves the same thing: replacing hatred and fear with love and hope. It can be done.