Wednesday, January 28, 2009

GET THE MESSAGE

The Republicans have gotten their message. The question is, when will my fellow Democrats?

What messages you ask? In the GOP’s case, the message to their politicians is loud and clear: no more public spending on mishegas! Republican talking points on the last few elections are remarkably consistent no matter whom you ask: The Iraq War wasn’t what drove the Party from power, otherwise we’d be starting the second term of President Kerry; what destroyed the GOP’s soul was W’s and his Congress’ willingness to “spend, baby, spend.” In other words, the grandest symbol of the Republican implosion wasn’t Abu Ghraib, but the Bridge to Nowhere. That and other “pork” spending drove up the National Debt, while giving back virtually nothing useful in return to taxpayers. Truly, that is spending on mishegas (i.e., for you gentiles, that’s a Yiddish term meaning “craziness” or “nonsense”).

The Republican unanimity on this point makes a lot of sense. Now that they’ve gotten their asses kicked, conservatives are going back to their roots to seek redemption. At bottom, this is a group that hates to see the Government spend big bucks on anything except a so-called “war of necessity.” We’re talking about a Party founded on principles of low taxes and fiscal conservatism. Those two principles and “big spending” just don’t add up. Finally, decades after Reagan’s “voodoo economics” swept the heartland, the Republicans are doing the math.

So tip your hat to the GOP for at least figuring out who they are … or were. Maybe this isn’t the right time to tighten the purse springs. If you believe Paul Krugman, the Government should be borrowing $50 quadrillion dollars for every man, woman and child in America … and even that might not be enough to adequately stimulate the economy. (OK, OK, I’m exaggerating. But not by much.) Still, there is something satisfying about seeing a group of people deal with their inconsistencies and hypocrisies, regardless of whether their decision-making is sound. So I’ll applaud the GOP just the same. There’s always something to be said for being true to your roots.

So how about the Democrats? Are they getting their message? Do they even know what their message is? I’d say no. That’s what being in power does for you: it makes you complacent, stubborn, oblivious. It makes you forget what you had to do to seize power, and trash any messenger who tries to hold your feet to the fire.

In truth, I could be talking about a few different messages here. It would appear that after the inauguration/coronation of Barack, Democrats don’t feel the need to listen to ANY. But I have in mind something very specific. And once we take stock in why we love our President so much, we’ll begin to hear that message as loudly as the Republicans hear theirs.

Go back to the number one nickname that is used for Barack: No Drama Obama. The guy is as cool as the back of the pillow. He’s unflappable. He’s hip. But most importantly, he comes across as MORAL. You can insult his former pastor (Wright), you can insult his former fundraiser (Rezco), you can insult his former colleague (Ayers). But you’re hard pressed to insult Barack himself. He plays by the rules. He treats people courteously. And he comes across as genuine. Nowhere is that latter characteristic more on display than in the way he appears to adore his wife and children. It’s simply not possible to imagine the guy getting a BJ from an intern in the Oval Office.

So, you ask, what’s the message for Democrats? No more acting like mamzers! Literally, that word means “bastard.” But the figurative meaning is the same in Yiddish as in English – someone who acts like an amoral jerk. Over the years, politicians from both Parties have frequently crossed the line, but it seems to me that the Democrats can least afford their shenanigans. As Republicans talk a lot about family values and religion, when they screw up they can always fall back on such religious values as “redemption” and “the Lord’s forgiveness.” By contrast, Democrats concentrate their public discourse on claims to competence. That works well enough when they’re staying scandal free. Yet once they get caught with a bimbo on a yacht called Monkey Business or get embroiled in a paternity scandal while their wife was home battling cancer, they lose all claims to virtue and credibility, and the Republicans can successfully pound their Party as a group of godless moral relativists.

Just look at Bill Clinton. From the minute that his affair with Lewinsky became public knowledge, he effectively became a lame duck. As a result, we were all blessed with two years of impeachment and lame pardons, followed by eight never-ending years of George W. Bush.

It’s a steep price for a nation to pay for a few blow jobs, but damned if we didn’t pay it.

Some might say that Barack’s election is proof positive that Democrats HAVE heard the message. Why else would we have nominated him if we didn’t appreciate his character? Isn’t that answer obvious by now: this guy is a natural, and there were about 100 good reasons to support him in the primaries. The real sign of how well Democrats have heard the message is how they react when one of their own gets caught being … well … a mamzer. We now have been given a nice little test case. And so far, so bad.

I am referring to the scandal that has engulfed the City of Roses, better known as Portland, Oregon. At the heart of this scandal is one Sam Adams. His friends call him the “Mayor,” but more recently, he’s been known by different names. Here’s my favorite: Patriot, Brewer, Pedophile.

The “Pedophile” moniker was well earned. A few years ago, when the then 42 year old Adams was still a City Commissioner, he was supposedly mentoring a 17 year old intern named – and I’m not making this up – Beau Breedlove. Adams, an openly gay politician, and a Democrat, shamed both gays and Democrats by beginning a clandestine romantic affair with Breedlove, including making out with him in a bathroom at the City Hall. According to Adams, he waited until his Beau was 18 before the two had sex – and therefore broke no law. But this is not to say he thought the public could stomach the truth. Adams admits that, during his successful run for mayor, he lied to the public about his relationship with Breedlove and counseled Breedlove to lie as well. The truth didn’t come out until recently, shortly after Adams took office, and long after the election was over. What also came out is that one of the local reporters who had been investigating the scandal, Amy Ruiz, was hired by Adams to be a planning and sustainability policy advisor, a job for which Adams had originally said that he strongly preferred someone with a background in “urban planning” or a related field; needless to say, Ruiz had no such background.

I mention the Adams situation not just because I love saying the name “Beau Breedlove” any more than “Dirk Diggler” (that’s a reference to “Boogie Nights” for those of you who are scoring at home, and I do mean scoring), but because it is a litmus test of how well the Democrats are listening to their message. As of now, the smart money is on Adams serving out his term. Oh sure, there have been calls for his resignation – including from the state’s leading newspapers, and the majority of Portlanders polled – but he’s rejected these calls, and he’s done so buoyed by substantial support among his fellow progressives. For example, the editor of the popular progressive blog, “Blue Oregon,” poo-poo’d the Adams-Breedlove relationship as the actions of “two consenting adults.” And that became the rallying cry for the extended Adams Family: sex is nobody’s business, lies about sex are perfectly acceptable under the circumstances (the questions shouldn’t be asked in the first place), and anyone who thinks Adams should resign is an effete “Puritan.”

Two consenting adults. No matter that one was 17 when the romance began. No matter that one was an intern and the other a City Commissioner. Frankly, if the Oregon legal age were 16, and Adams started smooching with Breedlove at 15 but waited until Beau was 16 before they “got busy,” many progressives would still rally around Adams. You know it and I know it. Of course, if the shoe were on the other foot and Adams was a Republican, these same progressives would be talking about him like he’s a piece of filth.

Personally, I don’t know Adams, and I’m not here to judge the man’s moral worth. What I am here to say is that Democrats can no longer afford to condone conduct like Adams’ simply because it’s sexual in nature. This has nothing to do with two consenting adults. This is about a predator and a misguided kid. As a father of two teenage daughters, I have trouble looking at this mess in any other way, and surely I’m not alone. Adams, when he attempts to run his City, will run into a number of fathers and mothers who’ll have trouble looking past the sex or the lies. They’ll wonder why Adams hasn’t stepped down and let someone else with credibility take over. And they’ll wonder what Adams was thinking when he picked a public place to engage in heavy petting with an underage boy. As a Democrat, Adams can apologize all he wants, but he’s not going to play the “born again” card. He’s not going to say that he’s a “new man.” He’s only going to be able to say, “I’m REALLY sorry.” And we all know how it will come across: “I’m really sorry I got caught.”

Enough. This is not a gossip column. It’s a blog about Empathic Rationalism. Empathic Rationalism is about principles. And there’s an important principle at stake. Will the Democratic Party fight to reclaim the mantle of the nation’s moral exemplars? Will the Democratic Party elect leaders who are honest with the public about who they are and how they will serve their constituents? And when it comes out that a politician acted like a mamzer and then lied about it in order to get elected – as well as directed others to lie on his behalf – will the Democratic Party rally to his defense?

So far, apparently, the answer is yes. No wonder political power is so cyclical.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

RETURNING TO MY OBAMA-LOVIN’ ROOTS

What a week this has been. Barack Obama is officially the bomb! His approval rating seems to have hit 90% -- and the other 10 have been irreversibly brain damaged from too much Limbaugh. Even the rationalists like me can’t help but notice the magical way in which our new President goes about his business. Talk about effortless charisma. If I weren’t convinced about what a fundamentally good guy he is, I’d be petrified about how much power he could abuse. Truly, though, I’m not worried that he’ll turn into a demagogue or a scandal magnet. This is “No Drama Obama” we’re talking about. He knows that as soon as he lets his ego rule his heart and mind, that’s when he turns into “just another Clinton.” He’s a better statesman than that. Even the Clintonistas would have to see that by now.

So yes, I’ll admit it – my expectations for this Administration are sky high. Far higher, in fact, than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. Oh sure, this particular Rome won’t get built in a day. The stock market hasn’t exactly gone through the roof this week, now has it? In the upcoming months, businesses will fail, workers will be laid off, and terrorists will make mischief. Still, I get the impression that Barack will make enough smart moves to retain his popularity … and not just in this country. I can’t wait to see him bring his mission of peace and unity to the world stage. We may even be able to make some progress in the Middle East. (No, I haven’t swallowed enough Kool Aid to think that in eight years, the Arabs and Israelis will make a permanent peace, like the Irish did under Clinton. Some problems take more than eight years to solve. But those kind of problems need to be addressed one step at a time, and Barack might well take us down the road a few steps.)

As for the Inauguration itself, I can’t tell you how proud it made me. Proud of my country, to be sure. But also proud of my city. I’d like to invite all my out-of-town readers to remember what you saw on Tuesday and PLEASE come back to D.C. next time you hear about a march or rally in support of a good cause. This is a city devoted to good causes. Like justice. Peace. And freedom. Just today, I ran into a bunch of Pro Life marchers. I can’t say I share their cause, but I respect them for taking the time to fight for it.

So come to D.C. and visit a city that CARES. And a city that belongs to the whole world. We can still offer every resident of Planet Earth some of the best museums of the world … for free! That’s something you can’t say about Paris or Rome. Sure, those great cities kick our butts when it comes to historical treasures, but we’ve got something they don’t: Barack Obama. We might be jealous that we don’t have a Notre Dame or a Coliseum, but believe me – they wish they had our President.

Speaking of that very same President, as I watched the Inauguration, my mind wandered back to July 27, 2004 when he first became known to me and millions of other Americans. That was his coming out party at the Democratic National Convention. Watching him deliver that speech, I was convinced that we were witnessing the nation’s first black President, and I was hardly alone. Who among us had seen so many attractive qualities in a politician? Much has been said about his more “objective” assets – his natural tendency to unify and mediate, his ethnic diversity, his IQ, his charisma, his good looks, and the poetry of his rhetoric. But what struck me most is that this was a progressive who figured out the importance of claiming BOTH the moral and spiritual high ground. It was the failure to do so that had so destroyed my Party.

Make no mistake, America, this is not a morally relativistic society. Nor is it one that draws inspiration from completely secular leaders. We want our leaders to be flesh-and-blood types with whom we can enjoy a football game But we also want our leaders to be humble and spiritual enough that we can also enjoy a prayer service with them. Perhaps it shouldn’t be that way – Barack himself said (beautifully) that “we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – AND NON-BELIEVERS." But it is one thing to be ready to respect the rights of non-believers, and another to be ready to be led by them. Many, many Americans aren’t yet ready for that, any more than they’re ready for leaders who claim to be believers, but then get blowjobs from interns while their wives are asleep.

In short, if you want a leader who is able to unify America, s/he had better be an authentically moral and spiritual person. I was looking for such a politician who was also a committed progressive. When Obama showed up at the Democratic Convention in 2004, it was clear that I had found my man. Now, the whole world has found him. How sweet it is!

As a tribute to Barack – specifically, the Barack I came to recognize back in 2004 – I’d like to conclude this post with a lengthy passage from one of the most eloquent philosophers who’s ever lived. He is commonly known as an “atheist,” but the truth is that he is a naturally spiritual man whose rationalism caused him to reject the supernatural God. The philosopher’s name is George Santayana, and you will find in this passage from his autobiography (as reprinted in Living in the Eternal: A Study of George Santayana, by Anthony Woodward) a powerful argument against the kind of rampant secularism and modernity-worship that plagues our society. Thank God, Barack has internalized what Santayana is talking about in hailing the realm of the transcendent. Let’s hope Barack will forever remain humbled by this perspective.

“At Paestum there was only the railway station and no hotel, but travelers might spend the night comfortably at La Cava, not far away. I had done so and in the morning was waiting at the station for the train to Naples. The only other persons on the platform were a short fat middle-aged man and a little girl, evidently his daughter. In the stillness of the country air I could hear their conversation. The child was asking questions about the railway buildings, the rails, and the switches. ‘Where does that other line go?’ she asked as if the matter interested her greatly. ‘Oh you can see,’ the father replied, slightly bored. ‘It runs into that warehouse.’ ‘It doesn’t go beyond?’ ‘No. It stops there.’ ‘And where does this line go?’ ‘To Naples.’ ‘And does it end there?’ ‘No, it never ends. It goes on forever. ‘Non finisce mai?’ the girl repeated in a changed voice. ‘Allora Iddio l’ha fatto?’ ‘No, said her father dryly, ‘God didn’t make it. It was made by the hand of man. Le braccia dell’uomo l’hanno fatto.’ And he puffed his cigar with a defiant resentful self-satisfaction as if he were addressing a meeting of conspirators.

“I could understand the irritation of this vulgarian, disturbed in his secret thoughts by so many childish questions. He was some small official or tradesman of the Left, probably a Freemason, and proud to utter the great truth that man had made the railway. God might have made the stars and the deserts and all other useless things, but everything good and progressive was the work of man. And it had been mere impatience that led him to say that the Naples line never ended. Of course it couldn’t run on forever in a straight line. The child must have known that the earth is round, and that the continents are surrounded by water. The railways must stop at the sea, or come round in a circle. But the poor little girl’s imagination had been excited and deranged by religious fables. When would such follies die out?

“Commonplaces that had been dinned all my life into my ears: yet somehow this little scene shocked me. I saw the claw of Satan strike that child’s soul and try to kill the idea of God in it. Why should I mind that? Was the idea of God alive at all in me? No: if you mean the traditional idea. But that was a symbol: vague, variable, mythical, anthropomorphic; the symbol for an overwhelming reality, a symbol that named and unified in human speech the incalculable powers on which our destiny depends. To observe, record, and measure the method by which these powers operate is not to banish the idea of God; it is what the Hebrews called meditating on his ways. The modern hatred of religion is not, like that of the Greek philosophers, a hatred of poetry, for which they wished to substitute cosmology, mathematics, or dialectic, still maintaining the reverence of man for what is superhuman. The modern hatred of religion is hatred of the truth, hatred of all sublimity, hatred of the laughter of the gods. It is puerile human vanity trying to justify itself by a lie. Here, then, most opportunely at the railway station returning from Paestum, where I had been admiring the courage and the dignity with which the Dorians recognized their place in nature, and filled it to perfection, I found the brutal expression of the opposite mood, the mood of impatience, conceit, low-minded ambition, mechanical inflation, and the worship of material comforts.”

Here’s to a President who is neither arrogant about himself or about the other creations of his species. Here’s to a President who will teach the world – including an old Jew like me – the beauty of being a true Christian.

Friday, January 16, 2009

SO EXACTLY WHAT TIME IS IT?

“For everything, there is a season, a time for every experience under heaven.
A time to be born, a time to die.
A time to plant and a time to uproot.
A tie to kill and a time to heal.
A time to tear down and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh.
A time to mourn and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them.
A time to embrace and a time to refrain.
A time to search and time to give up.
A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear and a time to mend.
A time to be silent and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate.
A time for war and a time for peace.”

That is easily among my favorite passages in the Bible. It’s one of those rare pieces of world literature that is both beautiful and profoundly true. Still, the real feat isn’t just to agree with Ecclesiastes, but to be able to consistently recognize exactly what time it is, and what time it is not.

Fortunately, some moments in history are easier to recognize than others. Take, for example, this past fortnight. Surely, it has been a time to mourn.

Is there any other way to react to the situation in Gaza? Well, I suppose – we can rejoice that Hamas is getting their butts handed to them in the field of battle. To be sure, I’m not exactly mourning when I hear that certain Hamas leaders have met their maker. Just look up “totally asked for it” in the dictionary; you might well see their faces. It wasn’t enough that they rose to prominence by loading people up with suicide bombs aimed at civilians – a sub-human act if ever there were one. Once elected, they have felt compelled to terrorize innocent Israelis with antiquated missiles. There’s no reason Israelis should have to put up with such strikes simply because they’re not exactly surgical. Would we put up with a blind man walking down the street aimlessly firing bullets from a loaded gun? Of course not. In that sense, Israel was completely “justified” in fighting back.

But it’s one thing to fight back; it’s quite another to look like villains in a horror movie. With each passing day, the Israelis look more and more like Freddie Kruger. While Hamas as a movement is alive and kicking, hundreds upon hundreds of innocent Palestinian civilians lay dead and thousands more have been injured. Meanwhile, the infrastructure of that 15 by 5 mile cesspool is surely in shambles. The Gaza Strip was a glorified prison colony BEFORE this latest war; now, it is probably best compared to Sherman’s Georgia – only with an extremely high population density … the perfect storm if you want to maximize suffering.

From the Israeli perspective, this episode should be seen as a public-relations disaster. From the Palestinian perspective, the episode has taught one horrifying lesson after another. To begin, it should now be apparent to any sensible Palestinian that they tragically panicked when they voted in Hamas and would be better served in the future by electing leadership that prefers the carrot to the stick. Just as importantly, it should dawn on the Palestinian people that they’re not the only ones in the Middle East capable of panicking. That’s precisely what the Israeli people have done -- they’ve lost patience, and they’re ready to overreact and undervalue the legitimate concerns of Palestinian civilians. Or at least, so it appears.

Mark my words – the war over Israeli and Palestinian real estate will continue forever unless we change the paradigm governing the so-called “peace process.” We must stop identifying ourselves with the interests of one or another of the combatants. Instead of looking at themselves as either “pro Israeli” or “pro Palestinian,” the critical mass in that region must identify themselves as BOTH. In that capacity, my thoughts have been dominated by the fear that we are much further from peace now than we were a month ago. That alone is cause to mourn. So, too, are the thoughts of the mounting casualties. The loss of a Palestinian civilian – child or adult – is every bit as tragic as each life my country lost in 9/11 or my people lost in the Holocaust. Once that fact is taken to heart in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Salt Lake City, and Peoria, then … and only then … will we be ready for a lasting peace.

So … it has been a time to mourn. But what do say we get ready to stop mourning and start dancing? The so-called “Miracle Off 47th Street” was certainly cause for celebration. Whoever heard of a crowded plane crash landing in near-freezing water without a soul perishing? Someone get that pilot a date with the flight attendant of his choice! Or at least get him a front row seat to the event of the new millennium. That’s right – in ranking the most momentous events of this decade … or century … or millennium, there are but two choices: 9/11/01 and 1/20/09. The one is horrific. The other terrific. Take your pick. I’m going with Door Number Two.

As we approach Martin Luther King Day, and immediately follow that up with an inauguration of a man who owes his Presidency to Dr. King, the time has come to exhale and bask in the progress that has been made. I wouldn’t criticize a Republican for preferring McCain to Obama, but even that Republican should revel in what Obama’s election says about my country. We have progressed to the point where, finally, a black American can be judged primarily by factors other than skin color. Better yet, to solidify that progress, we will be led by a man who personifies so many virtues -- class, grace, intellect, inspiration, efficiency, groundedness … you name it. Sure, he’ll make mistakes. But if my instincts are right, his successes will greatly outweigh them. With every instant where he delivers a great speech or shows impeccable judgment, it will represent one more nail on the coffin of American racism – may it soon rest in peace. And speaking of peace, this is a man whose natural tendency is to bring people (and peoples) together in a respectful dialogue, and that is precisely the direction we need to take to jettison our penchant for war.

By the weekend, I intend to be in full “dance” mode, and by Tuesday, I expect that the dancing will give rise to the occasional tear of joy. How lucky we all are to be alive to see this happen.

In any event, I’m looking a bit ahead of myself. First, we need a suitable transition between “mourning” and “dancing.” And yes, between the insanity of war … and the election of a leader committed to peace. Rather than trying to present this transition in words, I have in mind something more powerful – a scene from a movie. This is undeniably one of the greatest scenes in the history of Hollywood. It comes at the very end of Stanley Kubrick’s first masterpiece, Paths of Glory. You need not have seen the movie to appreciate the scene. Just know that it takes place during World War I, and the characters in the scene are primarily French soldiers who have come in to the town from the Front.

Here's the link:

Enjoy.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

THE FAMILY CLOUD

Well, I certainly hope as many of you as possible are having a happy new year. Lord knows they can’t say that in the Gaza Strip right now. I’ve been wanting to address that situation for some time – to let it be known that Hamas is indeed a cancer that must be eradicated, but that this doesn’t mean Israel should eradicate half of Gaza along with them. Under the circumstances, though, I think I’ll keep it light around this part of cyberspace. Lord knows, “light” would be a good change for me and my family. The Spiros aren’t exactly hitting on all cylinders lately. We’ve had one of those fortnights to forget … and the cloud seems to want to linger a while longer.

Our nightmare began when we drove out to Indiana on Christmas day. Christmas is typically the best time to travel on the freeways – the only people you encounter are Jews and a few truckers, and when you’re heading to the Midwest, there aren’t too many Jews making the trip. When the weather is decent, you can reach your destination in warp speed. Unfortunately, this year’s trip was marred by my older daughter Hannah coming down with a nasty upper respiratory infection. There’s nothing like a nine hour car ride when you’re feverish, achy, nauseated … you get the idea. She spent the next several days pretty much cooped up in my brother-in-law’s guest bedroom. Not exactly an idyllic vacation.

Still, at least Hannah had some interesting visuals on her trip. She was the one family member who got to watch me open my brother-in-law’s front door, take one or two steps, and then – in what seems to be less than a nanosecond – fall flat on my ass. Here in Maryland, we have small ice patches. In Indiana, they have ice sheets, and I stepped right onto one. What saved me is that it happened so quickly that I hardly had time to tense up. That has blissfully kept my back, neck and hip pain to a minimum.

The next victim of the Family Cloud was my wife Kathy. She picked up Hannah’s bug on or around New Year’s Day, and she’s just now going to work for the first time. (Frankly, she didn’t sound all that healthy to me, but she’s heading in.) Then, on Sunday, I came down with the same bug, and it has gotten worse, not better. My 87 year old mother? She got her bug on Monday – and yes, in her case, it does scare me. Yesterday (Tuesday, January 6th), was my younger daughter’s opportunity to enjoy the family bug. She’s home from school today … but at least she can sleep. Me? You’ve got to be kidding.

While things sound bleak around here, the Cloud has brought some silver linings. For starters, we’re getting to spend more time with the dogs we abandoned during our vacation. There’s nothing quite like unconditional love, and only a dog-owner really knows what that means. Moreover, last evening, I treated myself to a movie, which is something I don’t do very often. I watched a 1998 Wes Anderson film called Rushmore. It’s a highly creative, off-beat comedy. Have you seen it? I thought the film was very good, and the soundtrack was even better. I hadn’t heard the Stones’ “I Am Waiting” for years (my vinyl copy of Aftermath is basically unlistenable), and nearly all that song is in the movie. Anderson also put in Ooh La La by the Faces (remember when Rod Stewart didn’t suck?), A Quick One by the Who (one of their best songs), Oh Yoko by John Lennon, a couple of excellent Cat Stevens’ songs, and the Kinks’ Nothing in This World Can Stop Me from Worrin Bout That Girl. You could justify seeing the flick for the soundtrack alone, but I’m telling you, the writing and acting is damn good too. Rent it. You won’t be sorry.

Perhaps I will watch more movies this week, I’m not sure. But to be honest with you, my thoughts are focused more on beating this bug before the weekend. I have two Moses the Heretic talks scheduled, one on Sunday and one on Monday, and they will both be significantly longer than the typical half-hour bookstore talk. On Sunday, I will be speaking at 10:30 a.m. at the Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Temple (7727 Persimmon Tree Lane, Bethesda, MD). On Monday, I will be speaking at 6:30 p.m. at the Washington, D.C. Goethe Institute (812 7th St., N.W. – one block from the Chinatown arch). If you live in the D.C. area or know anyone who does, I love it if you or your friends would come and watch me gargle with salt water and talk about God and geopolitics all at the same time. If you’re Jewish and an only child, you learn at an early age to be conversant about politics, theology, and every miniscule thing that ails you. Hopefully, I will have mastered that combo by Sunday morning … or at least get myself cured. In any event, all kidding aside, I’d love to see you at one of those talks.

For now, though, I’m going to sign off and try to relax. May you all stay healthy, but don’t forget to keep a keen eye on what is happening in the Middle East. We need to watch Israel so that it doesn’t screw up in its duties as radiation oncologist. Ask any of those doctors and they’ll you how careful you have to be when you’re zapping a tumor not to take out some healthy organs along with it.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

MEET THE NEW YEAR. SAME AS THE OLD YEAR?

The title of this post expresses the question that, in one form or another, all Americans are asking this morning. And we’re asking it with no modicum of desperation. I can’t recall a year when my nation thirsted more for change. Economically, we’ve fallen apart. Many of us – including my family – lost a lot of money in the stock market. Many others lost their jobs, or their houses. Even for the lucky few that seem to have weathered the storm, there’s the real prospect of another Depression that will threaten their nest egg a year or two down the road. As for national security, we have none. Weapons technology improves by the year, and America’s enemies are surely becoming more sophisticated in using it. Just last week, with the news from Gaza, we were reminded of how many enemies we have. Israel, the “Little Satan,” is perceived as a two-bit hit man, a mere functionary. The real enemy behind the killing of Palestinian children, according to much of the Arab Street, is the “Great Satan” – the protector and defender of Israel through thick and thin. You know him as good ol’ Uncle Sam. I hesitate to think of just how many people in the world today would cheer a second 9/11 if it were announced on the news. I hesitate to think of how many more people would cheer such an event compared to the first 9/11.

Yes, Virginia, times need to change.

Fortunately, the idea of change doesn’t seem nearly as far-fetched today as it has in a long while. Viscerally as well as intellectually, Americans are pinning their hopes on Barack Obama to reclaim our lofty status as the envy of the world and the bastion of freedom, democracy and prosperity. I laughed at the right wingers who mocked Barack during the campaign as “the Messiah,” but ever since the financial markets crashed and the current Administration seemed clueless about how to stop the bleeding, Barack truly has been viewed as a bit of a Savior. The only problem is that Barack doesn’t have superhuman powers. Yes, his arsenal includes a high IQ and seemingly uncanny judgment regarding matters of politics and public policy. But that might not be enough – at least not if he hopes to solve some of our most intractable problems, such as our relations with the Islamic world.

We are at war. Make no mistake about it. Let’s just please understand with whom and what we are fighting. The “enemy” is not the religion of Islam. It is instead a particular perversion of that religion that (a) is based on the willingness to take up arms even against innocent civilians, (b) legitimizes the use of force to expand the scope of Muslim rule to any and all lands that were once controlled by Muslims, and (c) perceives Islam as the sole path to virtue in a world that has clearly forsaken God and his messengers.

All Muslims do not view their religion through that prism. Many would be willing to work with the rest of us to reach accommodations. Some would even be willing to pray with non-Muslims to the God of Abraham regardless of whether He is addressed as “Allah” or “Adonai.” Sadly, though, those more ecumenical Muslims are virtually invisible in the western world. We rarely see them giving addresses at our churches and synagogues. We never see them discussing their religion in the middle of political campaigns. Our mass media doesn’t much seek them out either. They’re not included among the “talking heads” who comment about public policy. In fact, they’re not even shown on the news. Every night, we watch “Muslim” crazies on the street shouting for blood. But how often are we exposed to calm, thoughtful, patient Muslims – the ones who are truly following the teachings of Muhammad? You don’t have to answer that question; it was rhetorical.

Many in this country find the “Muslim problem” maddening. And I agree. The difference is that what enrages me most isn’t the existence of crazy Muslims, but the failure of our cultural institutions to prop up their sane comrades. If we truly want change in this world, we can’t simply rely on Barack to wield a magic wand and eliminate the pseudo-Islamic jihad. We must be the change. We, and I mean all of us, must study Islam and reach out to the members of the Muslim community who have not perverted their religion. They must be given an honored place at our table. And together, we must figure out how to deal with the Muslim world in a way that will marginalize the fanatics rather than turn them into heroes in the minds of their countrymen.

Often, when problems of this magnitude exist, there’s not much that you and I can do about them. I have a degree in economics, but I’m not about to figure out how our nation can climb out of its economic woes, and I doubt you are either. But with respect to the “Muslim problem,” our work is cut out for us. Thankfully. We can all begin by putting away that mystery novel we were going to read, and pick up the Qur’an instead. I recommend the version published by Amana Publications, and edited by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. It is entitled “The Meaning of The Holy Qur’an” and it includes commentary to explain the meaning of many of the verses. Without the commentary, reading the book is almost pointless. After reading the Qur’an, there are several directions in which the student of Islam could go. You who love history could read Karen Armstrong’s “Muhammad.” Students of philosophy could read “Man & the Universe,” by Mostafa Al-Badawi. And those who would like confirmation that “moderate” and “Muslim” are not mutually exclusive could read “The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists,” by Khaled Abou El Fadl. Those are just a few examples. I’ve read a number of other books on Islam and still don’t view myself as some sort of expert on the subject. But believe me, reading any of those books is better than remaining clueless on the subject and allowing the mass media to teach you about Islam instead. Talk about misinformation.

Once you read a bit about Islam, the real work is just beginning. The next step, I believe, is participating in interfaith initiatives that seek a robust dialogue between Muslim and non-Muslim groups. The latter can involve members of other Abrahamic faiths, but it need not. At this point, moderate Muslims are surely starving to speak their peace to anyone and everyone who cares to listen. The question is, do you? Do you want to know what they think? Whether they have a fire in the belly to replace the extremists in the minds of the general public as spokespersons for the Islamic faith? And whether they have a plan to return Islam to a time when it coincided peacefully with other faiths?

Perhaps you will heed my plea and begin your own study of Islam. But as soon as Inauguration Day comes, there will be a temptation to sit back, put away the books, and count on Saint Barack to solve our problems. With our prayers, he will “lean on the Israelis” just enough to pave the way for a real peace with the Palestinians, win the war against Al-Qaeda by partnering with the Afghanis and Pakistanis, and get the Hell out of Iraq as soon as it is safe to do so. All good, right?

Wrong. The deeper problems involving pseudo-Islamic violence will be here to stay for much longer than Barack is in office. And so will the Arab-Israeli conflict. If we hope to solve these problems, we’ll need to be involved. And, as explained above, there’s plenty of work to be done.

Remember how Barack beat Hillary? It was all about ground-up, grass-roots politics. That, too, will be the way we’ll beat the extremists. It’s the only way. The question is, are you willing to do your part? Your bookshelf awaits an answer.