Friday, December 31, 2010


It’s that time again, boys and girls. Time to look back at the last year and give credit where credit is due, or blame where blame is due. It’s awards time.

So without further ado, let’s give out some cyberspace hardware.


It wasn’t the greatest of years, was it? So it seems fitting to give out some awards to the people who made it what it was … a bust!

Let’s start with the man who gave us Republican solidarity in the Senate and the ability to turn 40 or 41 seats into absolute parity. Give him and his minions credit for all but annulling the election results of 2008, though frankly, he had plenty of help from the Democrats.

For years, I’ve underestimated this man, thinking about him solely in terms of his penchant for pork. But now, he has pivoted away from pork and toward an embrace of the Tea Party’s pro-fiscal conservatism policy. Of course, if you were lucky enough to find yourself in a smoke-filled room with the guy, he’d probably tell you that fiscal conservatism, 21st century style, does have a caveat: we’re fiscally conservative only insofar as spending is concerned. On the revenue side, we believe that less (for the Government) is more. And thanks to Mitch and his minions, we now start the next year with a mind-boggling deficit. But hey. At least all the folks on Wall Street and in the polo clubs will be getting huge tax cuts!

So let’s hear it for the New Fiscal Conservatism. Let’s hear it for Mitch McConnell, co-President for another two years.


Remember that scene in Scarface when Al Pacino orders the killing of his boss, claims his boss’ girlfriend (Michelle Pfeiffer) for himself, and then looks up, with that sleazy smile on his face, to see a Pan-Am blimp with the words “The World is Yours”? That was fiction. But in reality, you’d have to forgive Sarah Palin if she thought that slogan applied to her and her alone.

One minute, she’s a lackluster student transferring from one college to another and to another, and the next thing she knows, she’s elected mayor of her town. One minute, she’s running a little town, and the next thing she knows, she’s the Governor of a State. One minute, she’s known only in cities like Juneau, Anchorage and Nome, and the next thing she knows, she’s nominated by the GOP for Vice President of the U.S., and she has almost singlehandedly catapulted her ticket into the lead. One minute, she’s back in Alaska, bored silly at the thought of running her State for another two years, and the next thing she knows, she’s quitting her job – only to find people everywhere willing to throw millions of dollars in her direction just to hear her speak or read her prose. One minute she’s trying to identify every possible Mini-Me who is wiling to run for elected office, and next thing she knows, she’s helping these people capture Republican nominations – and either win general elections or at least scare the crap out of the old-line Republicans who are not very enamored with Sarah’s brand of populism.

Pacino’s character, Tony Montana, used to say that the one thing about his boss that bothered him was that he was “soft.” He lacked “balls.” Well, if that’s what Montana respected, then Sarah Palin would have been his type of politician. She may be thoroughly ignorant about the issues, not terribly intelligent, and willing to say whatever her far right-wing base wants to hear, but damned if she doesn’t have balls. In fact, right now, she seems to be contemplating a run for the Presidency in 2012. Imagine her and Obama, mano-a-mano. He would try to speak polysyllabically about economic and foreign policy. She would challenge the guy to a cage fight. If he had his way, the election would turn on which candidate was better able to enunciate a path for fighting unemployment, reaching a Middle East Peace deal, or achieving energy independence. If she had her way, the election would turn on whether, in their cage match, the candidates would be confined to the Marquis de Queensberry rules, or would be permitted to bite, scratch, and kick in the nads.

That’s our Sarah. She’s scaring me less these days, because now even the mainstream Republicans seem to be tiring of her act. But hey, for sheer entertainment value, you can’t beat her. And let’s face it, she might not be as beautiful as Michelle Pfeiffer, but she’s a hell of a lot prettier than Tony Montana.


Please don’t tell me you’ve never heard of this guy. He was born in Italy 56 years ago and moved to Pennsylvania when he was seven. He has been the head coach of the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team since 1985. Since then, he was won seven national championships and nearly 750 games, including a streak of 90 in a row. That streak finally came to an end last night, but not until it became the largest winning streak in the history of men’s or women’s college basketball.

I won’t lie to you and call myself the world’s biggest fan of women’s basketball. But I happened to watch the game because Stanford was the opponent, and if the Stanford tiddly-winks team was on TV, I’d probably watch it. More interesting than the game was the post-game interviews, in which the interviewer kept wanting to talk about the team with the historic streak (U Conn) and the interviewees kept wanting to talk about the team that won the game. But before Auriemma graciously sang Stanford’s praises, he pointed out what had to be said: that a 90-game winning streak can’t be fully appreciated until you’ve seen it broken and you realize just how easy it is for a team of college kids to lose a game on any given night, when the opponent might be on their game.

Stanford was one of the best teams in the country and was playing at home. So why shouldn’t it have a good chance to win? But Auriemma’s implicit point was that during the previous 90 games, U Conn played a number of top teams, and frequently played them on the other team’s turf … or at least on a neutral surface. It’s an accomplishment to win 50 percent of those games. Or 60 percent. Or 70 percent. But this team won them all, including more than 30 games in a row against nationally ranked opponents. That’s just insane.

I have no idea how Auriemma would stack up as a basketball mind against the top men’s coaches, like Phil Jackson and Mike Krzyzewski. But I suspect he’d hold his own. In any event, now that his team has finally lost, it’s time to give the guy and his players the credit they deserve.

Oh, by the way, go Stanford! Not only did they win last night, but they were the last team to beat Connecticut before the streak started, and my hope is that they’ll be the next team to beat Connecticut – at the end of this year’s NCAA tournament.


Earlier this year, Jeff Bridges won his first academy award for his role in the film Crazy Heart. Now he’s on the screen again and is receiving critical acclaim. Bridges will surely be in the hunt for a second Oscar in a row for playing Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, the only role that won the statue for John Wayne.

How cool would that be to see the Motion Picture Academy permanently link two figures as disparate as Jeff Bridges and John Wayne? One evokes whiskey, the other weed. One evokes the power of guns, the other the power of flowers. One rides, the other abides.

To me, Jeff Bridges has become so associated with one character that it’s difficult to see him in another role. We see this phenomenon particularly clearly in our TV stars -- William Shatner will always be Captain Kirk, Leonard Nimoy will always be Spock, and Carol O’Connor will be Archie Bunker. We also see this play out with movie stars. Malcolm McDowell will always be the ultra-violent Little Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Linda Blair will always be the possessed Regan from The Exorcist, and Louise Fletcher will always be the soulless Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Even an actor as accomplished and decorated as Anthony Hopkins has trouble moving beyond a certain role, and I suspect he will be forever associated with Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter from Silence of the Lambs.

I point that out because it’s difficult to imagine too many better movie characters than Bridges’ “Dude” from The Big Lebowski. That has to be one of the top 10 or 20 movie comedies of all time, and he was clearly the star of the show. In light of that, I can’t wait to see if Bridges’ own little hot streak last year and this year can catapult him into truly rarified Hollywood air: actors who have played truly iconic parts … multiple times. I already mentioned Pacino. He wasn’t just Tony Montana, he was Michael Corleone. Jack Nicholson was Randall McMurphy and Jack Torrance. Dustin Hoffman was the Rain Man and the Graduate. I probably could go on, but it’s not that long a list.

And don’t bother to check the names who’ve won the Oscars. Those awards are given out every year, but in most cases, nobody in their right mind would call the winning characters “iconic.” Just look at the career of Sean Penn. He’s won the top Oscar for playing Jimmy Markum in Mystic River and more recently for playing Harvey Milk in Milk. He’s also been nominated for playing Sam Dawson in I am Sam, Emmett Ray in Sweet and Lowdown, and Matthew Poncelet in Dead Man Walking. He truly has had a decorated career. But for me, and I suspect the Dude would wholeheartedly agree, he’ll always be Jeff Spicoli.

So, from the Empathic Rationalist, have a happy New Year, and please – whether you tend toward weed, like the Dude and Spicoli, or prefer alcohol, like the original Rooster Cogburn -- stay safe.

Friday, December 24, 2010


First of all, I sincerely want to wish everyone out there in cyberspace a Merry Christmas tomorrow. I realize that the word “Christmas” has fallen out of favor in our society and is now treated publicly as but one of the days in this “holiday season.” But let’s face it, out of all the red letter days this time of year, Christmas is truly the “high holiday.” Chanukah is merely a minor festival that has taken on a greater significance because Jewish people felt the need for some sort of meaningful analogue to Christmas. As for Kwanzaa, let’s not forget that 45 years ago, it didn’t even exist. In fact, Kwanzaa, as a festival, is only 31 years older than Festivus. Since I celebrate Chanukah, one poor-man’s Christmas, I have no standing to disparage Kwanzaa, Festivus, the Winter Solstice festival, or any other holiday that marks the beginning of winter. That doesn’t mean, however, that I have forgotten the holiday that has become one of the two holiest days of the Christian year. If I want Christians to treat Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and Passover with particular respect, I have to extend the same courtesy to Christmas and Easter.

So, tomorrow, let’s all take the time to remember the figure of Jesus of Nazareth and all that he preached in the name of love, peace, tolerance, and reverence. And whenever you see a Christian – please don’t wish him or her “Happy Holidays.” Not tomorrow. For that matter, not today either. The words are “Merry Christmas.” And the holiday is religious, not merely secular. There are plenty of secular days in a year. Let’s not obliterate the few days that one community or another has set aside to honor what is most holy.

The obliteration of “Christmas” in the American consciousness is but the first of my pet peeves this week. In fact, while I may have begun my blog post today with a tribute to Christmas, I plan to continue this post with a series of additional kvetches that is hardly consistent with the upbeat spirit of the holiday. But that’s fine – after all, it’s not like I’m a Christian. I can kvetch as much as I want. So here goes.

Next Pet Peeve – The Combatants in the Holy Land

While we’re on the subject of holiness, let’s take a little time to reflect on the goings-on in the Holy Land. “The Holy Land” is actually a Christian term, not a Jewish one. But since it’s Christmas time, the term seems strangely appropriate. Or is it? If you’ve been paying any attention to the region, you’ve noticed that Israel has turned up the spigot on settlements in the West Bank. I’m talking settlements that go far into pre-67 Palestine, well east of any possible border in a viable two-state arrangement.

Interestingly, folks on both sides of the Great Divide are acknowledging that the settlements are being built in places that increasingly threaten the idea of Palestinian control over a contiguous West Bank. The settlers are trumpeting this fact. They make no bones about supporting what most of us view as a “one-state solution” west of the Jordan River. In that sense, their view is similar to that of roughly half of the Palestinians. The only difference is that the one state would be controlled primarily by the Jews, in the settlers’ vision, and by the Arabs, in the vision of the Palestinians.

To be sure, the shrewd settlers and Palestinians claim to be two-staters and not one-staters. To the settlers, the “Palestinian State” already exists. Its name is Jordan. Presumably, these settlers would march the West Bank Arabs across the Jordan River and they would never be heard from again. Of course, in the real world, there are two chances that will happen: slim and none.

The chance isn’t much better that we’ll see the realization of the vision of many Palestinian “two-staters,” who hope that the Palestinians will soon be given their state in the West Bank and Gaza, and in the remaining land called “Israel” an Arab minority will grow and grow until it eventually seizes control over that democracy as well. I’ve called that the two-STAGE solution, and the result is the same as the one-state solution advocated by Palestinian militants. Either way, we’re not talking about peace.

This Christmas season, my plea is for the Christians among us – including President Obama – to take an active role in the Middle East peace process. Demand of the Israelis that they renounce the aggressive building out of settlements. And demand of the Palestinians that they support a permanent majority-Jewish state in pre-67 Israel. Christians must become Zionists and Palestinian Nationalists. Either one without the other is a formula for perpetual war.

Next Pet Peeve: The State of the American Main-Stream Media

So, did you get the memo yet? Obama has been re-elected! It’s another landslide! Well, OK, I’m not supposed to be putting it quite so bluntly just yet. I guess we all have to go through the motions in a couple of years to hold primaries, conventions, debates, and even a general election. But to those of us in the know, all of that will just be a formality. Clearly, the President has demonstrated in the past two weeks that he can take the lemon of the Midterm election and use it to make lemonade in record time. Why, if he had been the captain of the Titanic, he could have turned that boat around on a dime. “Iceberg?” Captain Obama might have chuckled. “Oh you mean that little thing in our rear view mirror? Not a problem. I just channeled Jeff Spicoli, and told that block of ice, ‘Here’s the deal, dude. You avoid my ship, and I’ll admire you as a cool work of nature.’ That and a twist of the steering wheel, and voila, we’re all safe and sound.”

The media used to tell us that Reagan had Teflon. Now, we’re all but told that Obama comes equipped with a cape. Faster than a speeding bullet, he (and his minions) can pass bills to support 9/11 responders, enhance nutrition for schoolchildren, promote food safety, limit nuclear weapons in Russia, restore benefits for the unemployed, block excessively loud TV ads, maintain pay for doctors to treat Medicare patients, keep the Government open until March, allow gays to serve in the military, and, finally, provide “a sweeping tax package that will spare millions of Americans from tax hikes set to take effect in the new year.” Those words in quotes come from yesterday’s edition of the Express, a sister publication of the Washington Post. That’s their take on Obama’s tax bill. It went on to further trumpet the tax-cut deal without saying anything about the bill’s effects on the national debt or the rising inequalities of wealth in America.

I do want to be fair: Obama and the liberals and moderates in Congress deserve plenty of credit for passing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. That is truly a landmark bill. Plus, I doubt it would have been passed with a Republican in the White House. The last point might also be said about the new child nutrition and food safety legislation, but that’s as far as I’ll go. With respect to most of the other bills, it’s likely that the main reason the Republican leadership opposed them is to make Obama look impotent and irrelevant. Seriously, who wants the Russians to have tons of nukes?

So yes, I heartily praise Obama – and the election of 2008 -- for getting some favorable legislation through the Lame Duck Congress, and especially for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’s repeal. But let’s not fool ourselves that Obama is ushering in a new era of progressive changes. And please, let’s not fool ourselves that the tax bill is a compromise. It was a right-wing rout.

Notwithstanding the realities, the main-stream media can’t say enough these days to kiss the President’s feet. It’s as if all the “deals” that have been made in the past month represent the death-knell to partisanship and the beginning of unity Government. And in each case, we’re told, the Government is only doing what the people want. (For example, even though the polls indicated popular support for letting the tax cuts for the wealthy expire, we keep getting regaled by polls indicating that the people supported the tax deal. Frankly, however, polls tell you whatever you want to hear. It all depends on how you ask the question.) What can be better than serving the will of the people, right?

I’ll tell you what – providing leadership in the form of enunciating a vision and fighting to implement it. In this case, the vision I have in mind is one that would address our environmental crisis, the scourge of our ever-expanding national debt, the insanity of our distribution of wealth, and the absurdity of serving as the world’s policeman. It appears that the main-stream media has little to say about these concerns. They’re too busy fawning to do any real investigative journalism or provide any truly hard-hitting analysis.

One of the more salient signs of the media’s decline involves their track record on one of the bills mentioned above: the legislation to provide aid to the 9/11 First Responders, who are dying at alarming numbers from heart disease and cancer. From what I can tell, this no-brainer of a cause received virtually no attention whatsoever in the media, with one exception: comedian Jon Stewart seized upon it like a dog with a bone. Eventually, the politicians listened, and a deal was struck. But as to why ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and the big macha syndicated columnists were AWOL … that I just can’t explain. Something tells me that the best and the brightest aren’t going into journalism these days.

Next Pet Peeve – Abandoning Old School Football

Have you seen what has become of the National Football League lately? Have you actually tried watching a game? I’ve been watching a lot of them. Then again, I’m an addict – and if things don’t change, I may well be in the market for methadone.

OK, Mr. Commissioner, you can relax. I’m not going anywhere. The NFL Sunday Ticket will be a Spiro-family staple in 2011 and beyond. But that doesn’t make me a happy camper. I want your league to return to the football of my youth.

Remember when big bruising fullbacks used to terrorize defenses? Remember when it was difficult to complete a 15 or 20 yard pass, and it wasn’t exactly a gimme to complete a 5 to 10 yard pass? Remember “three yards and a cloud of dust”? That was football.

This being an age of instant gratification, the league apparently doesn’t believe that Americans can handle hard-nosed running, tough defense, or – perish the thought – punting the ball. We need big play after big play. We need to look into the quarterback’s eyes and see the confidence that he can score at will. We need passing, passing, passing, and more passing. And we even changed the rules to make it happen.

If you look at the top 20 quarterbacks in history in terms of “passer rating,” only one (Otto Graham) played before 1979. In fact, plenty of lousy quarterbacks today have significantly higher passer ratings than hall of fame quarterbacks from the 70s, 60s and 50s. Progress? Hardly. It has merely turned football into a track meet.

If you’d like to see more running, more defense, and more close games, here’s the place to start: revoke the rule that eliminated “bump and run” coverage. Return the game to the time when fast, but strong, cornerbacks used to push and shove receivers all over the field and were permitted to do so as long as the ball was not in the air. As it stands now, a rule implemented in 1978 prohibited such contact once the receiver was five yards from the line of scrimmage. That change, combined with a rule liberalizing the way offensive lineman can pass protect, radically altered the game of football.

Now don’t get me wrong. I recognize that we need to protect quarterbacks from some of the hits that were viewed as legal decades back. I recognize that defensive players are bigger, stronger and faster than in earlier generations, and they pack a more potent punch. But if you want to protect a quarterback, the best way is to encourage more running and less passing. Frankly, you’ll also protect some of the receivers from the vicious hits they’ve been taking lately.

So why not give it a try? Bring back the bump-and-run. Give cornerbacks some more parity with wide receivers. Make football tougher and more competitive (for 16-6 games are a whole lot more competitive than 35-14 games, wouldn’t you say?). If it doesn’t work and the kids cry out for more points and more passing, you can always go back to the present rules.

Please, just consider these stats. Sonny Jurgensen’s career passing rating of 82.6 is less than Brian Griese’s. Johnny Unitas’s rating of 78.2 is less than that of Jimmy Everett. And Joe Namath’s 65.5 rating is less than that of Steve Dils. The only reason I know the name of Steve Dils is because he played for my college team. I doubt too many football fans have heard of him, and yet he was a more efficient passer than Hall of Famer and legend, Joe Namath. Clearly, what people call football today is an altogether different sport than what my friends and I fell in love with in the 60s.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Yesterday at the White House, when President Obama signed the new tax deal, he said it was an “early Christmas present” for America. Lower taxes for everybody. Unemployment insurance for those who need it. And more stimulus for our sagging economy. It’s all good, right?

If you would answer “no” to that last question and you’re reading this blog, you probably fall into a category that is coming to be known as “the left” or “the disgruntled left” according to the mainstream media. You also go by the name of “purist” – or more specifically, the “purist Democratic left.” It is said that you and your ilk comprise roughly 20% of the American people. And if the old saw is true that, no matter what question is polled, we can always find at least 20% of the American people on each side of it, you “purists” on the left must represent the fringe on one side of the political continuum. Supposedly, you are unconcerned with practicality and wish to attack war, redistribute wealth, and fight the Republicans every chance you get. And why? Because you would rather feel good about yourselves than support the compromises needed to get the trains running on time and put real food on the table for real people. In other words, politically speaking, you’re still in your adolescence; you’re not one of the so-called “adults in the room.”

So how do you plan on responding to the new realities? How enthusiastically do you plan on supporting your President? Do you see any alternatives on the horizon whom you would rather support? Do you see yourself, going forward, as a member of the Democratic Party, or rather as a member of the Greens? Or for that matter, do you wish to start a new movement, a “Coffee Klatch” to counteract the Tea Partiers on the right? And where do you plan on getting your informational sustenance, now that you’ve been marginalized by virtually everyone in the main stream media and have few real champions in the halls of power? One minute, you thought you were part of the “Democratic base” and took pride in the President you helped elect, and now, suddenly, your President is calling you “sanctimonious” and he has a whole group of new friends who appear to see eye-to-eye with him but who view you as little more than a silly, almost pathetic anachronism –someone more suited for the 1960s than the new millennium.

Oh sure, you can say “I’m a Bernie Sanders Democrat!” except that Bernie Sanders isn’t a Democrat; he’s a socialist who is technically identified as an “Independent.” Or perhaps you can say “I’m an Alan Grayson Democrat!” except that Alan Grayson lost his re-election bid for Congress and will soon be thrown out on the street, where he will be just another adolescent, sanctimonious purist, whose diatribes against conservatives will be analogized to spitting into the wind.

Surely, you and your ilk need a plan. But even more, you need some pride. No, I’m not talking about the pride of sanctimony – we both know that the “sanctimonious” label the President assigned to you was a classless attack that was frankly beneath him. This isn’t about sanctimony, this is about being true to your principles – the same principles on which he himself ran when he was attempting to gain the Presidency in 2008. The pride I’m talking about is all about feeling a sense of confidence that you are part of a larger movement that is as principled as it is pragmatic, and that recognizes certain principles that can never be set aside without one hell of a fight. Opposing unnecessary wars is one of those principles. And, yes, economic fairness – aka justice – is another.

With all that in mind, here are a few ideas. I’m open to changing them, but I wanted to get some thoughts out on the table now so that progressives can begin to play with some options. “Options” are key, because it is vital that we not feel fated to sit at the back of the American political bus. Progressives must never view themselves as irrelevant fringe players who are forever destined to support center-right candidates -- as opposed to the hard-right candidates -- for every important position in Government. That is not an option I’m willing to entertain.

1. Study the Tea Partiers, and rather than criticizing them, emulate them.

Give credit where credit is due. Not long ago, the Tea Party was an unorganized, grass roots movement. Now look at it. Sure these “Partiers” had their failures, but their successes have been staggering. And they became successful in part because they didn’t fear failure.

It was always assumed that the Tea Partiers would vote Republican, which they did in 2010, but the brilliance of their movement was that it was neither associated with the Republican Party nor was it associated with any other political party. It maintained maximum flexibility. Mostly, it was just a group of people who shared some common principles about which they were passionate and adamant, and it identified individuals both within and without the political process who could champion their cause. Plus, it had a built-in publicity machine known as Fox News.

So, progressives might want to consider (a) starting a movement of their own that is not associated with any political party, (b) coming up with a recognizable name for their movement, (c) ensuring that certain passionately-held principles and values are closely linked to the movement, (d) identifying leaders both inside and outside of the political process, and (e) using a television network to trumpet the movement the same way that the Tea Partiers have used Fox. As for the last point, MSNBC is an obvious choice. Maddow, Schultz and Olbermann will be happy to help. And if things are handled well enough, the network’s “adults in the room,” like Matthews and O’Donnell, might even be swept up in the fervor.

2. Reread Machiavelli.

Will Rogers famously said that he was not a member of an organized political party – he was a Democrat. That statement rings as true today as when it was coined. For some inexplicable reason, the Democratic Party has generally ignored the need to establish discipline within the ranks. The Party could get away with that at a time when Republicans came in various stripes. But now, when the Republicans are absolutely unified with respect to the critical area that separates the Parties – economics – establishing Democratic discipline is no longer a luxury. It’s an absolute must.

Progressives need to understand that. Indeed, they need to understand and implement all the basic Machiavellian lessons that are critical to wresting power from the conservatives. If that means that progressives must unite with Blue Dogs, fine. But the fight will be to unite on the progressives’ terms – just like the hard-liners on the GOP have figured out a way to push around their Party’s (former) moderates.

Just look at the way that the conservatives have used fear to establish discipline. For starters, they need only point to George H.W. Bush’s decision to raise taxes; it’s now known that if a Republican takes on GOP orthodoxy on that issue, he’ll not only lose his base, he’ll lose his next election. Consider also the plethora of conservative radio and TV personalities who are poised to jump on any Republican who shows signs of real compromise with Democrats on fundamental (i.e., economic) issues. Hell hath no fury like a conservative scorned. And believe me, that creates discipline. So, too, do the daily breakfasts led by Grover Norquist, the leader of a right-wing group known as Americans for Tax Reform. At these events, conservative powerbrokers have gathered for years to formulate a consistent message that can be used to destroy any semblance of economic equity in this country. And look at the results. Not only are the rich getting richer, but President Obama has been enlisted into action as a willing supporter – in practice if not in theory.

Progressives need to find their own Grover Norquist. And they also must locate some bright, single-minded folks who don’t mind starting their day with bagels and economic theory. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel here. The conservatives have demonstrated how the game is played. It’s time to play it.

3. Don’t over think the general elections.

One way for a progressive to get depressed is to start thinking about yourself as a jilted lover. If that were true, a vote for your lover (be it President Obama or your “sell-out” Congressman) would be tantamount to serving as an enabler. Let’s face it -- no good progressive wants to be seen as an enabler. We all pride ourselves on being like the battered wife who immediately goes to the cops and presses charges, rather than simply turning the other cheek.

But folks, voting Democrat in November 2012 is not tantamount to “enabling” a wife beater. We as citizens have the right to vote for the better of two alternatives, even if neither one is ideal. If you’re a progressive, that will almost certainly be the Democrat. So fine, vote Democratic! But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel free to support any candidate we want to in a primary just because fear mongers talk about a primary challenge as tantamount to high treason. Nor does it mean we should feel obliged to fight like a banshee to get a particular politician elected if he or she doesn’t reflect our values.

So, my progressive friends, throw the bulk of your energies into those campaigns where a legitimate progressive is on the ballot. But whenever it comes time to vote, don’t feel bad about pulling the lever for the “Democrat,” even if you see him or her as simply a moderate Republican. These days, a moderate Republican is typically way, way better than the alternative.

4. Start by finding a few good men (and women).

So, where do we begin? By taking an inventory. Survey the airwaves. Survey the op-eds. Survey the halls of Capitol Hill and the State Houses. Your job is simple: put aside the opportunists and find the real progressives. No, I’m not talking about the crazies either. There are folks like Chomsky who can legitimately call themselves progressive but whose knees jerk so far to the left that they’ve pulled their brains out of joint in the process. Candidly, all that I have in mind are folks who seem to care half as much about peace and economic equity as Grover Norquist cares about jingoism and further enriching the rich. That’s a standard that most current Democratic politicians couldn’t even come close to meeting, their transparently superficial rhetoric notwithstanding.

Think back to the time that then Illinois State Senator Obama gave his speech against invading Iraq in 2002. Does anyone now think for an instant that he would have given a similar speech had he been U.S. Senator Obama? Or President Obama? Of course not. Most Democratic Party politicians are willing to check their progressivism at the door whenever their political aspirations are at stake. If war in Iraq were unpopular, do you have any doubt that Hillary Clinton would have opposed it during the fall of 2002? But it wasn’t unpopular, so she supported it – as did future Presidential candidates Dodd, Edwards and Biden. That’s the way it has worked with Democrats in Washington, D.C.; they’re always looking around to make sure that it is “safe” to be a progressive. We deserve better.

The differences between the Parties is especially stark when it comes to economics. Republicans fight for their laissez-faire economic principles regardless of the political winds, and this week’s tax cut “compromise” is the fruit of that resolve. By contrast, Democrats go only as far as the Gallup Poll numbers allow them to go at any given time, and apparently, there is no polling data saying that a fight for economic equity is worth waging. The result is that, in Washington D.C., true warriors for progressive principles are as rare as appearances in the World Series or NBA Finals. (If you know how lousy our sports teams are, you get my point.)

Our job is to identify and support legitimate progressives. I’m talking about people who viscerally loathed the Iraq War – and couldn’t have supported it even if it were immensely popular. I’m talking about people who take climate change seriously and know that the clock continues to be ticking against us. I’m talking about people who hate runaway deficits precisely because they are progressive – and recognize that no less than gays, minorities, and the environment, our nation’s children and grandchildren are victims of today’s political marketplace. I’m talking about articulate, unabashed supporters of a progressive tax policy. And yes, I’m talking about people who are willing to acknowledge that no society with a wealth distribution like ours could possibly call itself just. Above all, I’m talking about people who are not afraid to have the mainstream media question whether they are “socialist,” even though they know such a label would be inappropriate.

The fact is that there are alternatives to socialism, on the one hand, and unbridled capitalism, on the other. Let’s identify rising stars in the media, in the Statehouses and on Capitol Hill who are happy to identify themselves with a middle ground – a capitalism that respects universal dignity and justice. Then we can support these leaders as they struggle to give America an alternative to the Supply Siders who currently dominate the GOP – and are increasingly coming to dominate the Democratic Party as well.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Thirty years have elapsed since November 1980, when the post-Watergate era officially began. It was the first Presidential election between two candidates not named “Nixon” or “Ford." (Since Gerald Ford was Tricky Dick’s hand-picked successor, Watergate still loomed large over the election of 1976.) During these past 30 years, we’ve had 16 years of Administrations that governed far to the right – eight years of Reagan and eight years of Cheney (or W, if you assume that the latter was really President). Four of the other 14 years have similarly involved a Republican President, George H.W. Bush, but you’d have to say in hindsight that H.W. was a centrist leader. In fact, it was his willingness to raise taxes that many view as responsible for his defeat in seeking a second term.

So what should we make of the other ten years -- the period of the Clinton Presidency and the first two years under Obama? Since they were elected as Democrats, the temptation is to call their Administrations “progressive” or “left-leaning.” But what’s notable is how far from the truth that is. As has been noted before in this sector of cyberspace, the top marginal tax rates under Clinton and Obama are significantly lower than they had been under past Republican Administrations, and not even close to what they were under Eisenhower or Nixon. As for social policies, those Democrats might talk a big game, but what they deliver is hardly satisfying to progressive interest groups. Just consider today’s favorite domestic “civil rights movement” – the fight for gay rights. Clinton gave us “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” – the privilege to remain in the closet while you bleed to death on the battlefield -- and Obama hasn’t exactly fought like a Banshee to change that policy. As for the idea that gays should be able to get married, both President Clinton and President Obama have been solidly opposed. I’m not sure I know a progressive who shares that attitude, and believe me, I know zillions of progressives.

The fact is that in the post-Watergate era, the pendulum of American leadership has swung from far-right to the center, and then back again. We’ve seen moments that have flirted with progressive ideas, but the Presidents who proposed them soon see the error of their ways and then style themselves as “moderates” or “pragmatists.” Those are not words you’d hear from the lips of a Reagan or a Cheney. As their patron saint, Barry Goldwater, once said, “Extremism in the face of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

“Moderation” is a great word for peacemakers and mediators. But when it comes to Commanders in Chief, it’s a weasel word. Strong leaders have a vision, communicate that vision clearly to the country, and make it happen. They lead, and the rest of us either follow or get out of the way. It’s the way Republican Administrations tend to rule. However, at least in the recent past, whenever Democratic Administrations try the same tack, they end up like dogs who’ve attempted to grab some food from their master's table. These dogs get yelled at, perhaps even spanked, and then droopily walk away with their tail between their legs.

Such is the state of American politics today, at least on the Presidential level. We are now witnessing an era in which the country is led by two types of Republicans – conservative and moderate. The latter usually go by the name of “Democrat,” but they are Democrats in name only. The closest thing I can compare it to is the old Fox News show Hannity and Colmes. It pitted Sean Hannity, an articulate conservative, against Alan Colmes, a sheepish, semi-coherent “liberal.” They would alternate talking, but Hannity was the dominant one and Colmes the side-kick, kind of like the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals. Something always seemed a little off-kilter whenever Colmes spoke, because you kept waiting for him either to make a forceful point for once or just shut up and let someone else talk. Unfortunately, that has become a metaphor for the Presidents elected as Democrats.

To be fair, Clinton at least campaigned as a new kind of Democrat. He was from the South, and he appealed to the nation largely as a Blue Dog. Whether he was tacking a bit to the left, or tacking back to the center, it never seemed like a complete betrayal. But President Obama campaigned as a transformational leader who combined a unifying spirit with a solidly progressive philosophy. As many pointed out, he had one of the most progressive voting records in the Senate. And as a candidate, he was the anti-Iraq War visionary, who pledged to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, close GITMO, and end the Bush tax cuts for the rich. Progressives had plenty of reasons to believe that Candidate Obama was one of them.

Obviously, things haven’t worked out that way, and when we consider the recent history of the two American Parties, that should be no surprise. Just consider the difference between the two Parties at the legislative level. That difference can best be summarized in one concept: the Republicans are unified and the Democrats are not. That makes it not even a fair fight. When the GOP representatives act in lockstep and the Democrats are all over the place, the GOP’s mathematical advantage will be prohibitive. And once you realize that 60 Senators are needed to enact laws, the prospects for true progressive legislation become virtually impossible. Now add to all that the idea that the conservatives have been presented with a new weapon: Obama’s concession that whenever the Republicans are poised to act like terrorist “hostage takers” and enact some really tragic legislative change (like taking away unemployment benefits), the Democrats are compelled to pay the ransom. What you’re left with is one Party that can pretty much dictate to, and dominate, the other every bit as much as Hannity could run roughshod over Colmes.

From what I read, Colmes eventually left the show because he got fed up playing Gilligan to Hannity’s Skipper. Somehow, I think that is now happening to a lot of Democratic voters and donors – they’ve just had it. The last straw may have been Obama’s use of the term “sanctimonious” to refer to those progressives who dared criticize him when he proposed to extend Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, coupled with a decrease in the estate tax. It was an early Christmas present for the upper income bracket – or as they are known in Democratic circles, the “filthy rich.” At a time when the President had been talking about federal pay freezes, unacceptably high deficits and joint sacrifices, extending those tax cuts was a bitter pill for progressives. But for their leader, the man they fought to elect, to accuse them of acting holier than thou when they dared to criticize his actions, that was just too much to bear. To a progressive, it felt like a woman must feel when she walks up to her prom date who has just dumped her for another woman, only to be told: “Now listen, you sanctimonious bitch. This is for the best. People break up. That’s the process. Deal with it.”

The question is, how should progressives deal with it? David Broder and David Brooks – columnists for the Washington Post and New York Times, respectively – would have us all celebrate the situation. The Centrist Davids believe that Obama’s flip-flop on taxes was a stroke of genius that will catapult him into a second term. They view it as Obama’s Sister Souljah moment – the time when he was able to position himself right smack at the heart of the American political spectrum, and well to the right of the left-wing nuts who are obviously clueless about governance.

The problem is that when Clinton criticized Sister Souljah, he was taking on the hip-hop community, which wasn’t exactly a large fragment of his base. By contrast, when Obama took on his “sanctimonious” critics, he wasn’t just aiming at what an aide of his once called the “professional left;” he was assailing the mainstream of the progressive community. He was, indeed, telling his base “Shut up, bitch, and trust me. I’m the practical one. I’m the one who makes deals and gets things done. Your job is to raise money, volunteer your time, vote, and then let the adults handle things.”

Funny, but it’s a long way from “We are the change we have been waiting for.” Never has the first person plural evolved so drastically in meaning.

So, I return to the question: how should the progressives deal with this? To me, the answer is becoming unmistakable: by growing a pair. That means standing up to the schoolyard bully. Or if you prefer Obama’s terrorist metaphor, then fine: Don’t pay the ransom, lest you encourage more hostage taking. More tangibly, it means to watch the upcoming Congressional votes like a hawk and target the re-election aspirations of any and all politicians who either support this compromise or seem strangely quiet in their willingness to tolerate the status quo.

In other words, start to behave like the Tea Partiers, who felt compelled to take their own (Republican) Party back from those who had lost their way. It’s either do that, or start a new Party, and as the Tea Partiers showed, it’s not impossible to take over an existing institution as long as a sufficient fraction of the rank-and-file is unified, resolute and principled.

Let me say that last word again: principled. Believe it or not, it means more than the willingness to compromise on fundamental issues without a fight.

Saturday, December 04, 2010


My fellow progressives. I have but a simple message for you: just say no to Republican-bashing. Stop it right now!

Resist the temptation to lambaste McConnell or Boehner. Pay no attention to that loopy Arizona congressman who thinks that money in the hands of unemployed people doesn’t help the economy – just laugh him off. Leave Palin and Limbaugh alone too, at least for the moment. When you hear some blowhard on TV defend Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, just smile and turn the channel. Don’t pay these people any mind. The long-term health of our democracy depends on it.

If you need to stop watching Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann in order to give up your addiction, then do it. Turn them off. They’re still addicts. They’ve been spending a decade insulting the Republicans night after night, blaming them for every war, every act of corruption, every drop of economic inequality, and every environmental disaster. They wouldn’t know what to do if they couldn’t blame the Republicans for all the problems of the universe.

I can relate, believe me. I’ve spent many an hour shaking my head at the idea that many of the most powerful people in our society are so-called Christians who have magically turned Jesus into a right-winger. Talk about vivid imaginations! But I’m telling you, at this point all of that religious hypocrisy and Gordon Gecko-like greed in the Republican Party are going to roll off my back. Frankly, the Republicans are just being Republicans. They’re the party of unbridled capitalism, jingoism, environmental apathy and social intolerance, and they’ve been that way for a long time. In fact, they reflect a side of the American spirit that has probably always been with us, and accordingly, it only makes sense that their attitude would have its champions in Government. Just as I long ago stopped getting mad at the lawyers who fight me in court, I’m not going to get mad at Republicans either – in both cases, they’re just doing their jobs. What does make me mad is that right now, the Democrats are also doing the GOP’s job. That, my friends, is the real problem.

Somehow, some way, the Democratic leadership has become unwilling to put up a fight in return. Even on issues on which most Americans support them, all the Republicans have to do is show some opposition, and the Democrats will wilt, as if on cue. More specifically, when the Republicans prepare for a game of brinksmanship, the Democrats respond by leaking that they’re ultimately going to cave, and by putting up merely token resistance (or none at all). We've seen this pattern over and over again. But this past week, it reached a crescendo. As a result, the Democratic leadership has finally been exposed to even a casual observer as virtually irrelevant.

Consider how the week began. On the issue of the federal pay freeze, the Democrats didn’t even put up their customary token resistance; they proposed a freeze upfront. If, as expected, the Republicans prevail on the debate over tax cuts for the rich, that means that the only folks who will essentially get their taxes increased (for that is what the federal pay freeze amounts to -- a tax increase) will be our civil servants. None of these individuals make even close to the $250,000 per year that the Dems originally said would be the point at which tax increases kick in. Indeed, as I have pointed out in a previous blog post, many of these individuals make but a small fraction of what their private sector analogues earn, and work comparably hard.

For me, the last straw was when my own congressman, Chris Van Hollen, went on the radio to talk about the federal pay freeze. Van Hollen is not only one of the leaders of the Democrats in the House, but he represents a district just north of Washington, D.C. with a huge percentage of federal employees. If anyone is entrusted with the job of fighting for the civil servants, it would be Chris Van Hollen, right? Apparently not. The truth is that he could hardly muster any indignation at the idea that his constituents’ pay was being frozen. He spoke in a monotone, in measured words, and his message was largely incoherent. To the extent he had any message at all, it was that federal workers have no problem getting their pay frozen as long as it is part of a package in which others sacrifice as well. He must have thought that comment played well in Peoria, but he also knew that it wasn't true. Federal employees expect their tiny pay raises every year whether the economy is going great guns or is in turmoil. That's the way the system works and has worked for decades. But being a member of the Democratic leadership, Van Hollen just didn't have it in him to put up a real fight. He and the rest of the Democratic leadership resemble boxers who’ve been punched in the head so many times that they can hardly fight back any more. It’s called punch drunk. That’s the state of one of our two major Parties -- a Party that only two years ago was given the White House and overwhelming majorities in the House and the Senate (at least on paper).

As for the White House, the comments I've been hearing about President Obama lately suggest a President whose image is in free fall. Just in the past week, my friends have described him as “The Capitulater in Chief,” “A Man Who Brings Flowers to a Gun Fight,” and “Jimmy Carter without the Crazy Brother.” And that was coming from liberals. From a conservative, I’ve heard him described as “Jimmy Carter without the Integrity.” Truly, I have no idea what the President is thinking when it comes to the big issue of the moment: taxes. Supposedly, he wants to increase the taxes on the rich but is being forced by the big, bad Republicans to relent and, being a Democrat/donkey -- or should I say, a chicken -- he will be forced to do just that. Perhaps, however, Joe Scarborough is correct that there is a much deeper issue here than Obama’s courage. According to Scarborough, our President secretly wants low taxes on the rich because it would help the economy in the short run to throw money at our society and let the deficits be damned. That theory certainly would seem to be supported by the fact that his Deficit Commission – the same one that originally proposed freezing federal workers’ pay – wanted to go even further than George W. Bush in cutting taxes on the rich.

Frankly, who is to say any more what our President is thinking and why. You’d assume that if he deeply cared about the core progressive issue of tax fairness, he would have brought this topic to a vote months ago before the election when the Republicans actually had something to lose and the nation’s unemployed weren’t being held hostage. Polls indicate that most Americans want to see the taxes increased on the rich. They want it now, and they wanted it before the election. So why wasn’t this made into an election issue by the Democrats? Why are they only addressing the issue now, when everyone says that the Republican victory is a foregone conclusion? Is the answer that today’s Democrats don’t believe in fighting, at least not if it involves any risks? Or could it be that the Democratic leadership couldn’t care less about tax fairness any more than they care about federal employees? (After all, this is the Party of John Edwards, the philandering self-proclaimed anti-poverty activist who built himself a 30,000-square-foot home.)

Those are the questions that progressives need to be asking these days, rather than worrying about the Republicans. The Democratic leaders in the White House and the Congress are supposed to be OUR representatives, right? Those are the men and women we’ve been campaigning for and voting for and pinning our hopes on. Could it be that maybe, just maybe, they’ve taken us for granted? Could it be that maybe they’ve decided that, at the end of the day, we’ll be so scared of the GOP that we’ll be forced to support them, no matter how little they care to fight on the issues that matter to us?

To me, the Democratic leadership have issued a challenge to each and every person who holds core Democratic values: are we prepared to abandon our leaders in support of a new kind of politician or political party, one that is unabashedly progressive, willing to take risks, willing to unify and stand up to unified Republican opposition, willing to sacrifice some short-term pain for some longer-term progress, and willing to be candid about what we stand for? To me, the answer had better be yes. Otherwise, we can plainly see the consequences: we will have even more decades of primarily Republican rule, interrupted by the occasional ineffectual Democratic administration.

Is that the pattern that we think will take care of our middle and working classes and ensure a safe and stable environment? If not, isn’t it time to do what our leaders aren’t willing to do and take some risks? Isn’t it time to take a page from the conservatives’ books and create a lean, mean movement that actually stands for something more than “vote for us, because we’re not as bad as the other guys”?

So, my fellow Progressives, whether you want to work within the Democratic Party or help to start a new Progressive (or Green) Party, let’s agree on this much: it’s time to stop obsessing about the Republicans. The enemy isn’t them, it’s ourselves. We’ve been feckless. We’ve been unfocused. We’ve been lazy. And when it comes to our own leaders, we’ve been Pollyannaish. Before we can worry about defeating our opponents, we need to right our own ship first.

Sometimes, as painful as it can be, nothing beats looking in the mirror and taking responsibility for what you see. Everything else is a distraction.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


I hope your Thanksgiving weekend is going well. Mine certainly has. It was nice to see my 89-year old mother get well just in time to come over and spend the holiday with the rest of the family. And given that one of my daughters is in college and the other will be there next year, I don’t take it for granted when both of them are home. So yeah, it’s been a great Thanksgiving.

This time of year, it seems appropriate to turn this blog into an opportunity to express gratitude generally, for even in the darkest times (like the fall of 2001), there are always reasons to do so. Here’s my 2010 list of that for which I am especially thankful:

1. Second Acts

Americans see it all the time in the entertainment industry: some rogue actor, musician or athlete makes a comeback, and if they can produce high quality work, all is forgiven. Maybe we’re too forgiving. But that’s America for you. It’s not a nation of grudge holders, it’s a nation of dreamers. When we find people who inspire us, we tend not to look a gift horse in the mouth and inquire as to whether everything in his or her past has been exemplary.

Tiger Woods certainly has not behaved in an exemplary fashion. By contrast, Barack Obama’s ethical record has been spotless. But let’s face it – 2010 has been a year that both would like to forget. For Tiger, it has provided plenty of shame off the golf course and futility on it. For Barack, it has been a year of standing eight counts, during which the Republicans and Tea Partiers kept throwing body blows, and he seemingly had no answers at all, other than just to protect his face and hope for the end of the round (or in this case, the final tallying of the midterm election results).

Well, that round is over. It’s time for a second act if there is to be one. And in the case of a President in the third year of his presidency, that second act is often glorious because the other Party overplays its own hand after a victorious midterm. Look for that to happen again this year – the GOP seems to think it has a mandate to implement a hard-right agenda, which it clearly does not, any more than Barack had a mandate to govern hard to the left. Once the Republicans overreact, then we can see if Barack has it in him to identify a coherent vision that will appeal to most Americans, or if he truly is like a punch-drunk fighter who is ready for the showers. I personally won’t count him out yet – there’s still a lot of political talent in that mind of his, and the man does seem like a fundamentally decent person. So let’s give him a chance and hope for the best. We’ll likely find out his fate soon enough due to the budget crisis that will be coming to a head in the early spring.

As for Tiger, I wish I knew enough about golf to sensibly predict what will happen in his second act. Clearly, the imposter who has been walking the course over the past few months is not Tiger Woods. Once (the old) Tiger put together a decent round of golf, you knew for a fact that he would be solid for the rest of the tournament. It’s called getting in a rhythm – or as they say in sports, in “the zone.” But the imposter is just a run of the mill PGA golfer – one moment he hits a great shot and the next moment he looks like a bum, and that’s the way it’s been going from round to round, tournament to tournament. You can win money on the PGA tour playing like that, but not tournaments, and certainly not the five Major tournaments Tiger needs to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 Major titles. It was a record that seemed unbreakable before Tiger, but incredibly vulnerable from the minute Tiger won his first Masters. Now, nobody has a clue what’s going to happen, and that is what makes it so exciting for a sports fan. So Tiger, let’s see what you got. The Masters will be upon us at right about the same time that Barack and Boehner get to play brinksmanship on the budget. If nothing else, these second acts will be Must See TV.

2. Setting Suns

There are few things more beautiful than a sunset. My family is fortunate to live in a house with a western exposure that backs on to a 77-acre field. It makes for incredible moments at dusk.

Well, if you too like setting suns, I think you may be about ready to witness a doozy. I’m referring to the Presidential aspirations of the former Governor of Alaska turned reality TV star. I for one am thrilled about the prospect that her 15 minutes are just about up. She’s one of my least favorite politicians, and that’s probably as nice a way as I can put it.

To be sure, as a “celebrity,” Sarah is still a hot commodity. Most people find her to be quite the curiosity, and as a result, the media can’t talk about her enough. But the same could have been said about, say, Paris Hilton, two or three years ago. That hardly made Paris electable to high office. Eventually, her sun set altogether, and now she’s just a has-been, even as a celebrity. I’m not sure that Sarah will soon be quite as irrelevant as Paris, but I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that her fans are nothing more than a passionate fringe, and that most Republicans want little more to do with her as a politician than do the Democrats.

Think about it -- first, she gets dissed by Karl Rove, and then ol’ Barbara Bush takes a shot at her. Isn’t it clear that “momma grizzly” isn’t exactly the favorite of the Republican elite? What’s more, she is absolutely loathed by the Democrats, and presumably those who run the Tea Party are smart enough to realize that the one person most capable of waking up the Democrats from their slumbers is none other than Sarah Palin. She inspires both fear and disdain on the left – disdain that she thinks she belongs in the White House without paying her dues, and fear for the country and the world if she ever realized her dream. If you want a Republican elected to the White House in 2013, the last thing you’d do is let Barack Obama debate Sarah Palin and watch her talk about our North Korean allies.

So yes, I do see a constellation of interests conspiring to render Sarah Palin increasingly irrelevant in American Presidential politics, but what I can’t say is exactly how this sun is likely to set. More like Howard Dean screaming? Or more gracefully, as when Teddy Kennedy wisely satisfied himself with a career as a legislator instead of an executive? There is a shrewdness to this woman to suggest that she might well recognize her limitations before she declares her candidacy for the presidency and becomes fodder for the late night comics. For now, though, she seems determined to continue to make an ass of herself, most recently by taking on Michelle Obama’s efforts to confront childhood obesity. If she keeps this up, I’m going to have to find a new metaphor, because whether it’s sunny or rainy, cloudy or clear, I’ve never seen a sunset as ugly as Palin can be when she’s in full-demagogue mode. Imagine being unconcerned about the recent diabetes epidemic and the other side-effects of childhood obesity. Even the Tea Partiers have to be wondering if they have had a crush on the wrong girl.

3. Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck

On behalf of all of those who bleed Stanford Cardinal (the color not the bird), I wish to thank Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck for giving us the greatest year of Stanford football in nearly four decades. All of the talking heads are saying that Harbaugh will be coaching somewhere else next year, even though Stanford surely will want him back, and all of the talking heads are saying that Andrew Luck will be quarterbacking somewhere else next year, even though Stanford surely will want him back and he will not yet have graduated. If the yentahs are right, no sooner will those guys be gone from The Farm than Stanford football will take its customary place mired in Pac-10 mediocrity. Still, here’s one thing the yentahs will never be able to take away: the memories of 2010.

In the past several weeks, Stanford has defeated Washington 41-0, Oregon State 38-0, UCLA 35-0, Wake Forest 68-24, California 48-14, Arizona 42-17 and Notre Dame 37-14, among other victories. It’s pretty impressive stuff, considering that shortly before Harbaugh and Luck came to the campus, this team wasn’t 11-1 (like they are this year), but rather 1-11. Back then, we alums were reading in an alumni magazine about how Stanford couldn’t compete in football because the school was too good academically. It’s funny how easy it is to make excuses, isn’t it?

Let that be the lesson of this year’s Stanford football team: no more excuses. If you fail at something, begin by looking in the mirror. You’ll always find something there from which to learn.

So, to one and all, Go Stanford! And I hope you had great Thanksgiving -- even if you went to Berkeley.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


You’ll forgive me if I’m too full of joy today to type for very long in my blog. Yesterday was magical. It started off in the morning at one of my favorite synagogues (albeit not my own) attending my friend’s son’s Bar Mitzvah, then it got better in the afternoon when I watched my beloved Stanford Cardinal football team simply dismember their hated rival Cal-Berkeley by more than 30 points (Stanford is now 10-1, whereas five or so years ago we were 1-10) … but the strangest thing of all was that this incredible butt-kicking of a football game wasn’t even the high point of my day. Last evening, I went to the Jewish Folk Arts Festival concert and heard a number of professional Jewish cantors and other singers, including some of the most accomplished Jewish voices in the world. Somehow, my 20 year old daughter got invited to perform a couple of songs, and the crowd absolutely loved her. At the end of the evening, one of my favorite performers told me that she and a couple of the other professionals were talking about how great it was to hear Hannah, because it assured them that there is a new generation of Jewish voices who can keep this music alive. I kept a straight face. But now, when I think of those words, my eyes well up.

So what does all that have to do with a post about politics? It’s very simple. What I’m describing in the paragraph above is one word: passion. Football makes us passionate, music makes us passionate, and our daughter’s accomplishments make us REALLY passionate.

Passion is the sail that leads the way for all of our accomplishments. Indeed, when in The Creed Room I set out to describe the philosophy of “Empathic Rationalism” and then to summarize this philosophy in one sentence, this was the result: “Let passion be your sail, reason your keel, and empathy your rudder.”

Two years ago, when we were electing Barack Obama President and bazillions of Democrats to the House and Senate, practically all the nation’s passion was on the side of the progressives. To be sure, conservatives were passionate about Sarah Palin during the two or three weeks after she was nominated – and indeed, thanks to her, McCain was briefly ahead of Obama in the polls. But once Palin finished showing her vacuity in an interview with Katie Couric, and once the so-called “Stock Market Crash of 2008” revealed the Republicans’ failure to exercise responsible stewardship over the economy, that passion was gone. Plenty of conservatives continued to support the McCain-Palin ticket, but they were choosing the lesser of two evils, rather than enthusiastically endorsing either ticket. By contrast, progressives were going crazy over Obama –throwing money at him and volunteering time. When he said “We are the change we have been waiting for,” they thought they knew exactly what he meant and believed every word of it … even if he himself hadn’t quite figured it out.

I throw out these ideas now because the Democratic Party generally, and this White House in particular, is at a crossroads. Conventional wisdom tells them to tack to the center – as Clinton did after the first two years of his presidency – and enter into what a parliamentary system would call a “Unity Government.” That would begin with compromises on such fundamental, and yet partisan, issues as tax cuts for the rich.

But there is another alternative. And that is for Party leaders to stand their ground and govern as if they still control one branch of Congress and the Executive Branch of Government. Would that be political suicide? Would that constitute flipping the bird to the American public, the will of which was loudly heard during the Midterms? The answer to those questions, at least for me, is a resounding “no.”

From where I’m sitting, the last election can largely be attributed to a HUGE passion gap. Right now, conservatives and libertarians collectively monopolize that commodity. Throughout Red America, people are excited at the prospect of “taking their country back” from the so-called “socialists” in Washington who have no appreciation for the legitimate needs and importance of the private sector. This Administration of Democrats, by contrast, has compromised and compromised and compromised. “We are the change we have been waiting for” now appears to be empty rhetoric, and nobody quite knows what the Administration stands for other than the desire to work in a bi-partisan way. Under the circumstances, is there any question why Democrats could muster little enthusiasm for these past midterms? What exactly was supposed to be their rallying cry: “We are not as bad as the other guys!” Talk about a fear-based campaign.

For those who would say that the Democrats’ many accomplishments during the past two years should generate enthusiasm, think twice. The Wall Street bailouts that brought us from the brink of an economic collapse were obviously no different than what the Republicans would have enacted. Frankly, so are the measures we’ve taken in connection with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The “stimulus package” that Obama pushed through is obviously different than what the Republicans claim to be supporting, but it was hardly a bold package. Just read the progressive op-eds and blogs and you’ll find many diatribes against the stimulus package, contending that it was neither large nor focused enough to do for Main Street was Obama was willing to do for Wall Street. Such a package is not exactly the kind of thing that breeds progressive passion.

Of course, the crown jewel of the past two years – the “groundbreaking legislation” – is the President’s health care plan. Clearly, this was his greatest priority once he stabilized the economy. But even this plan, as popular as it is among progressives, isn’t exactly causing them to turn cartwheels. The supposedly socialist “Obamacare” plan that the conservatives love to ridicule is little different than the previous ideas advocated by moderate Republicans (like Mitt Romney’s plan, when he was Governor of Massachusetts, or the proposal of Robert Dole, when he was running for President). Plus, what is particularly interesting about the present dynamic is that the plan will largely not be implemented for years down the road, and by then, the Republicans may have made good on their threats to repeal it. So even this groundbreaking legislation isn’t something on which the Democrats can truly count.

What should the Democrats count on? What should they be rallying around? How about this: at a time when our economy is in trouble and a small group of Americans are amassing ungodly wealth while most of the country is having trouble treading water, Americans can ill afford to cut taxes on the ultra wealthy. We simply must fight those tax cuts. And doing so is anything but “class warfare.” For it is precisely out of respect for the ultra-rich and their patriotism that we must take this stand. Patriotic billionaires don’t leave the country simply because of a small marginal tax increase. They do their part and help out – and Lord knows that there is plenty to be done, even if it just means paying down the debt.

If the Democrats want to function as a legitimate Party, they need to remember what the Republican Party has long ago realized. While it is important to work with the other Party whenever possible, and while it is vital to listen to the American public, never should a Party take its base for granted. Never should a Party give up on issues that are the most critical to that base. And if you’re a Democrat, never should you voluntarily give up on an issue like tax cuts for the rich without first waging a battle royale.

If you do, kiss your base’s passion goodbye!

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Ideologically, I may be progressive, but dispositionally, I am quite conservative when it comes to money. I don’t like to borrow beyond my means, and it makes no sense to me that our federal government should perpetually live with trillions of dollars worth of debt – particularly given how much of this debt is owed to foreign countries. Consequently, I view myself as fiscally responsible and have been awaiting a report from the National Debt Commission as to how best to raise more revenues or cut expenses.

That Report is now out. And instead of allowing me to see red tape, it just has me seeing red.

I will leave it to others, progressives and conservatives alike, to chronicle everything that is wrong with that report and confine my brief statements today to a single provision – the suggestion that the Government freeze federal salaries for a period of three years.

Supposedly, federal salaries have become bloated because they never dropped as a result of the recession that began in 2008. But that statement is misleading for two reasons. First, federal workers’ retirement plans were largely affected by the recession insofar as they were tied to the stock market. But more importantly, the statement is a half truth – for just as it is true that federal (non-pension) salaries didn’t appreciably decrease due to the recession, it is also true that federal salaries didn’t appreciably rise during the boom years that preceded the recent recession. Federal salaries, in short, move like turtles – slowly, and steadily – whereas private salaries can skyrocket or shrink depending upon short-term trends in the economy. Simply to examine one particular slice of time in an effort to show that the federal employees are a fat and happy bunch is patently absurd.

If there are folks who have effectively beat the system, it isn’t federal workers. Rather, it’s workers like those on Wall Street who made gobs and gobs of money when the economy was going great, and then when it tanked, they were bailed out by the Government. Federal workers never had such a luxury. There was no time I can recall when their salaries increased dramatically. So if they are not benefiting when the economy is going well, why should they be punished when it isn’t? How could that possibly be fair?

Surely, the Debt Commission recognizes the conceptual error in their reasoning. But they are desperate to find ways of reducing the Debt that are politically palatable. And what could be more palatable these days than bashing Government workers? In fact, as my conservative friends often remind me, even the term “Government worker” is an oxymoron. According to the Fox News/Tea Party narrative, we are lazy people with an exaggerated sense of entitlement and an unwillingness to be held accountable. We resemble those on welfare much more than we resemble people who do real work (meaning in the private sector).

Seeing as how I have been working roughly 80 hours a week lately on my own federal job, you will hopefully understand that I find these arguments to be nothing short of revolting. What I’ve noticed with my own eyes – which mean more to me than the ideology spewed by Government-hating talking heads – is very different from the image of the federal worker portrayed on Fox News. Line attorneys for most Government agencies, even after achieving the very top grade and step of the GS pay scale, now earn roughly the same amount as first year associates at Washington, D.C. law firms, and about half of what law firms pay experienced attorneys who never made partner. As for those law firm attorneys who did make partner – and these are the ones who attorneys like myself are expected to battle in court – they frequently earn four or more times what we earn.

Those are the facts. But unfortunately, they aren’t persuasive to the dyed in the wool Government hater. The Fox News crowd would surely add that law firm salaries should dwarf those in the Government because law firm attorneys work appreciably harder than their federal counterparts. From what I’ve seen, however, that is bunk. Junior associates may be expected to kill themselves, but I suspect that federal litigators work similar hours to those in the private sector. As for the credentials of those in the public and private sectors, I would again argue that they are comparable. Certainly, any differences pale in comparison to the differences in pay – we in the federal government are working comparably hard for MUCH less money. At least I can say that’s the case for my own office and for many others I’ve observed.

From where I’m sitting, there are plenty of folks who could easily afford to “take one for the team” and pitch in on the effort to shrink the National Debt. People who earn over $300,000 … or for that matter $300 million, immediately come to mind. And what about those farmers who are receiving many millions of dollars in federal agricultural subsidies? Can’t they afford to pitch in? Why then is the National Debt Commission throwing the federal workers under the bus?

We all know the answer. There’s a tidal wave of rhetoric flowing from the hinterland these days and it is directed to those people who are seen, bucolically speaking, as “sucking on the federal tit.” I can just hear the demagogues unload their bile: “Welfare queens, your time is up! Government workers, you too! It’s time for a little pay cut. And if you don’t like it and feel like quitting, don’t let the door hit your fat ass on the way out.”

This is today’s America. It wasn’t yesterday’s and it won’t be tomorrow’s, but it is the mood of the moment. These attitudes are cyclical, and right now the Government worker is not an object of respect. Well that’s fine, I suppose. Disrespect us if you must. But don’t insult our intelligence -- and remove your own credibility – with arguments that show no basic grasp of economics.

As for the folks on the National Commission, if you’re going to freeze our salaries for the next few years, are you prepared to advocate that we get raises of 10% or 15% the next time the economy enters a boom cycle? I’m still waiting for an answer. I didn’t read anything about that in your report.

Thursday, November 04, 2010


Especially after seeing the title to this blogpost, you're surely expecting some comments about the Democratic bloodbath otherwise known as Tuesday’s Midterms. But you’re probably up to your ears in political analysis, whereas I can’t imagine you’ve seen anything lately like what you’re about to read.

What follows is taken from an e-mail I received from the wife of a former high school classmate. I will remove all the names and refer to my former classmate as “Friend” and to everyone else based on their relationship to my former classmate. For what it’s worth, the subject of this e-mail is one of the nicest people I’ve ever known. Here goes:

From: [Friend]
Sent: Monday, September 27, 2010 10:44 PM
To: _______
Subject: Good bye from [Friend]

Dear friends of [Friend],

On Friday, September 24, [Friend] made a decision to end his life. He specifically asked me to share the message below with all of you (and any other friends).
As you might imagine, I'm feeling a little fragile right now. So, email communications are fine but I'm not ready for phone conversations yet.

I appreciate your prayers and I can feel your loving support. I don't yet know how we will commemorate [Friend], but I'll let you know when plans are set.

Love to us all,

[Friend’s wife]


Good bye,

To my wife. Thank you for the gift you’ve been. You have been the absolute highlight of my life. Without you, I would not have made it this far. While I expect my departure will be rough on you in the short term, I hope it opens up space for a new partner who can meet you in the routine activities of the living that have become closed to me over the years. And should the stories of a wonderful place like heaven turn out to be true, I’ll look forward to seeing you there when your time comes.

To [my children]. This brings an end to the role I play in your lives. From here on, you will remember and forget that which you choose. I hope that you will remember my love for you.

To Mum, We’ve both wondered for years who might cross this bridge first. I’d hoped I could outlast you to spare you the pain, but events conspired so the choice about timing became no choice at all.

To my Brothers and everyone else. The answer to the question why is really quite simply that my living had become a hell of pain and nausea and hundred other tortures of my brain and body, some of which I could not describe given months to think on the right words. Each day I awoke to a nightmare that just got worse and worse. Occasionally there were leads, but ultimately whatever is eating away at my brain and wreaking havoc with my mind is something that is not yet understood. I hung in there as long as I could, but ultimately chose to have mercy.

Recent experiences and studies have shown that my body does not have an effective way to regulate cerebro spinal fluid pressure or temperature. For years doctors have tried to pigeon hole me into either high or low temperature even though the evidence indicates that I suffer from both. As yet, there are no conditions characterized by the inability to regulate pressure and temperature in the brain. Not surprising, when doctors see things that don’t fit the buckets in their text books, they tend to dismiss the case rather than question the buckets. In some number of years may be 15 or 25, they will have a handle on the condition that has brought my brain low. And then they may fix it. I have been wrestling with my diminished capacities and mounting distresses for 11 years and simply do not have the stamina to continue.

Some look upon suicide as a sure route to damnation. For that to be true, god would have to be less merciful than myself, which seems unlikely. Others might condemn me for the pain this will cause [my wife] and other’s that love me. All I can say is that their pain has tracked my deterioration all along as they have watched me turn into a wrecked shadow of my normal self, always struggling to reach the next patch of peace to rest upon.

It was simply time for me to go. I, tried to do this in a way that is swift and sure. I apologize to all of you who will be harmed by my passing. If there is some aspect of my gifts during my lifetime that means something to you, I’d invite you to work [with my wife] and bring those pieces to life again whether that be writings on personal growth, hitchhiking, government policy etc. To the extent that people desire, I can live on through the actions of others. At the very least I will rest in the peaceful knowledge that I contributed my all, right up to the end.

Love to you all



Saturday, October 30, 2010


So, here we are, nearly two years since the election of Barack Obama. I won’t soon forget going to the office on the day after that election and seeing people on the streets of D.C. beaming from ear to ear, as if a monkey had been lifted off of their backs. Finally, our nation had matured to the point where we could look past the color of a person’s skin. And the vehicle that allowed us to do this was a tremendously appealing man. Charismatic, supremely intelligent, reflective, calm, dignified, friendly … what’s not to like?

The day after Barack’s election, one of my colleagues and I walked to the Newseum, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the National Gallery of Art. There, displayed in the front of the building, were front pages from all over the world. And with the exception of the Australian paper – which, characteristically, displayed a sporting event – every newspaper highlighted the historic election in America. Like Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King, Barack Obama had become more than just another man. He came to symbolize a movement … and a moment in history, one that virtually all Americans, including most of those who opposed his candidacy, could celebrate. Above all else, Barack Obama represented equality of opportunity and freedom for all Americans. But not far under the surface, he represented unity as well. At a time when our nation had become racially and ideologically divided, he promised to bridge the gaps, and thereby enable us to once again take on great projects with buy-in from both Red and Blue states… just like when we used to fight great wars together during the first half of the previous century.

Inauguration Day was almost as magical as Election Day. Barack presided over the greatest party DC has ever had, and the symbolism was flowing once again. Ironically, perhaps the most powerful visual of the day was the image of Dick Cheney in a wheelchair, looking even more Strangelovian than George C. Scott. Ol’ Dick Cheney, snarl and all, was being wheeled into his car and out of our lives. And in his place would be the vitality of Barack, Michelle, Sasha and Malia. The calendar said it was winter, but the mood said it was spring. America was poised to reclaim her spot as an inspiration to the world, a beacon of progressive ideas.

Unfortunately, the reality hasn’t quite matched the symbolism. Or perhaps it is most accurate to say that every Superman has his kryptonite. And in the case of Barack Obama, that kryptonite wasn’t difficult to find. Barack’s first job was to turn around our moribund economy at a time when Americans are not accustomed to making sacrifices. And his solution, not surprisingly, was to rapidly increase Government spending without enacting a comparable increase in taxes. At first, the GOP went along with him on his spending spree – they had no choice if they wanted to stabilize the economy. But once the economy, and Wall Street in particular, was stabilized, the GOP leadership felt no compunctions about unleashing the kryptonite. It came with a mantra: The National Debt Must Go.

Those four words were taken to heart by every conservative in this land. And the power of those words took on almost Biblical proportions. Conservatives impressed their fiscal conservatism upon their children and recited their mantra when they stayed at home and when they were away, when they lay down and when they rose up. And while I have not yet seen symbols of fiscal conservatism bound as a sign upon anyone’s hands, or inscribed upon the doorposts of anyone’s homes or on their gates, perhaps that is just a matter of time. Clearly, the GOP has realized that as soon as our commitment to fiscal conservatism becomes the new Schema, the holiest of creeds, the ability of Barack Obama to implement transformative progressive reforms will die on the vine.

It was 100 percent pure kryptonite. Poor Barack Obama didn’t know what hit him.

So here we are now, almost two years after history was made, and we’re supposedly about to witness a devastating rebuke to Obama, his Party and his agenda. Some are predicting that the Democrats will sustain a net loss of up to 70 seats in the House, and virtually everyone is predicting that Nancy Pelosi’s speakership will come to an end. The result will be divided government and gridlock – for the GOP will be intent on depriving the President of accomplishments that he could run on in 2012. Gridlock might be just fine in times of prosperity; right now, however, it figures to be tragic, particularly for those who remain locked out of the job market. But no matter, say the elephants who are about to take power, you’ve got to crack a few million eggs to make an omelet.

Those who are looking for the causes of Barack’s downfall during these past two years should obviously start with a focus on the kryptonite. Our national debt was out of hand even before Barack took power. Once the GOP focused their laser beams on that issue, the moderate swing voters were forced to take notice. Only the most ideological Keynesian could deny that the debt needed to be reduced, not expanded. But there were other causes of Barack’s political woes, and these cannot be ignored either. The Supreme Court still belongs to George W. Bush, and it was Bush’s Court who changed the campaign contribution laws to give a HUGE advantage to the traditional Party of big business, the GOP. Plus, as indicated above, Barack did campaign as a transformational candidate, and when he couldn’t deliver transformational change, this sucked all the air out of the Democratic balloon. To be sure, dyed-in-the-wool Democrats can be counted on to vote for their Party. But have they campaigned for their Party? Have they donated to their Party? As the weeks have passed leading up to this election, all the enthusiasm, it seems, has been on the side of the Republicans.

Or so I had thought. Today, however, I realize that somehow, not all hope has died. The passion of the winter of 2008-2009 can indeed be re-kindled. That will become manifest today on the National Mall at noon, when the most popular progressive in the United States takes the stage on the grounds just to the west of the Capitol.

Barack Obama the statesman has had his day, and he may again have other days in the future. But right now, progressive Washington belongs not to a statesman but to an entertainer. Not since the inauguration have I seen any interest on the part of young people to March on Washington, but I’m seeing it today. Every kid wants to be there to pay their respects to their new hero – a man who speaks truth to power, much like Barack did two years ago, before he came to symbolize official Washington, and the gridlock and divisiveness that goes with it. Sure enough, we are hosting friends from Indiana who flew in to attend the rally because – you guessed it – their teenager wanted to be there so badly.

Jon Stewart does not have to worry about all of Barack Obama’s constraints. He can afford to say and do whatever he wants. And if one of his gags falls flat, he then can channel Johnny Carson and make fun of himself for being unfunny. (That was always when Carson was at his funniest, remember?) It’s a perfect vehicle for taking on serious issues – a foolproof vehicle, really. Stewart knows this as well as anyone. “People, relax,” he likes to say. “I’m just an entertainer, just a comedian.” And that entitles him to ridicule anyone and anything that deserves to be torn a new one – all the while having a great time in the process. It’s Jon Stewart’s world, and you’re living in it.

Young people aren’t stupid. They have more time on their hands than we adults and a hell of a lot more energy. They see very clearly whenever a Superman comes along. They saw it in Obama and made all the difference in his fight for the Democratic Nomination. But they could also tell when Barack’s enemies were able to identify and deploy the kryptonite. And now young Americans require a new hero. They still like Barack, but “like” is not enough. They need someone to love. They need Jon Stewart.

So what exactly does Stewart symbolize most? Competence? Intelligence? Impishness? Iconoclasm? Maybe all of the above. But I think he says it best when he points out that he is the kid in the back of the bus firing spitballs, only in his case, the recipients of the spitballs aren’t lovable nerds but the world’s biggest jerks. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing pompous asses brought down a few pegs? Adults like it, kids love it. And well they should. At a time when the country and the world seems to be hopelessly dysfunctional, the spitball seems like the ultimate weapon. At a time when most have given up on our ability to change the world, at least we can rejoice in our freedom to ridicule it.

I like to joke that there is always at least one man that my wife would dump me for in a heartbeat. It used to be Harrison Ford. But today it is Jon Stewart. And all this Jon Stewart affection reminds me of that old Seinfeld episode called The Gymnast, when Seinfeld was dating such an athlete. After frequently pointing out how gymnasts can contort their bodies, he finally tells his friend: “I couldn't believe it. Uh, I mean I thought I was entering a ‘magical world’ of sensual delights, but it was just so ordinary. I mean, there was nothing gymnastic about it.”

Apparently, the feeling was mutual. For at the end of the episode, the gymnast told Seinfeld directly exactly how ordinary he was: “In my country, they speak of a man so virile, so potent, that to spend a night with such a man is to enter a world of such sensual delights most women dare not dream of. This man is known as the "Comedian". You may tell jokes, Mr. Jerry Seinfeld, but you are no Comedian.”

Then she walked off the stage and was never heard from again. But I can guarantee you one thing. At noon today on the National Mall, she’ll be there to celebrate a true comedian – one who actually matters. And my wife and daughters will be right there with her.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


A few weeks ago, I gave a talk on Jewish-Islamic dialogue at a national conference sponsored by the Eastern Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Just before finishing, I asked the people in the audience to close their eyes for a few seconds. Quickly, I reached into a bag and pulled out a football jersey, which I then pulled over my shirt. When the audience’s eyes were opened, they were treated to a short but impassioned plea NOT to approach peacemaking the same way they’d approach a football game -- as a partisan who empathizes with one combatant but not the other.

To make peace, I contended, we must not become cheerleaders for any one side. We must learn and respect the narratives of all who wage war, at least to the extent those narratives are grounded in fact and not in myth or bigotry. With respect in particular to the struggle over the Holy Land, peacemakers can’t be identified as being “pro-Palestinian” or “pro-Israeli” but must be steeped in love for both peoples and devoted to a long-term two-state solution. Holy activities like peacemaking require spiritual attitudes, and there is nothing less spiritual than sitting in front of a TV on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon yelling like Banshees -- after a turnover, a touchdown, or a blown call.

But my point was not to knock football. Far from it. I stressed that though human beings are known as “rational animals,” it is important to keep in mind that the adjective is “rational” and the noun is “animal.” However much we’d like to forget our animal nature, we can hardly eliminate it altogether. And that means that even for us peacemakers, there are times in our lives for allowing our more beastly sides to take over, and one of those times is when our favorite team is playing football. That’s when we can afford to put aside some of our even-handedness – indeed, that is when we can put aside some of our “Empathic Rationalism” -- and just bleed Black and Silver, Burgundy and Gold, or whatever colors our uniform happens to be. In my case, on the morning of my talk, I was bleeding Purple and White. My uniform was a 2006 Antoine Winfield Vikings jersey.

Why Winfield? Because pound-for-pound, he might be the hardest hitter in the NFL. The guy is only 5’9” 180 pounds, but he almost never misses a tackle and packs quite a punch in the process. Like every other Vikings fan, I enjoy watching him smack down running backs who outweigh him by 40 or 50 pounds but have no answer when Winfield throws his body into their legs. At that point, gravity takes over.

Winfield is known as a pure tackler rather than as an intimidator, but I have never been averse to appreciating bigger, more vicious hitters. I always considered that appreciation to be part and parcel of being a football fan. After all, lots of sports showcase finesse and athleticism, but what makes football unique among ball games is the violence of the collisions. Two grown men, and I do mean GROWN, run at full speed, sometimes with their eyes on each other and other times with their eyes elsewhere, like towards the ball as it flies through the air. When they collide and one or both crumble instantly to the ground, announcers go wild. “Man, did you see that hit. That was awesome!” As a kid or even a young adult, I thought nothing of such a collision; the more violent, the more “cool.” That’s the word I might have used under my breath to revel in the thrill of the moment.

Then one day, I realized something rather ugly about myself. I was watching a game between two teams I cared little about, when the quarterback for one the teams left the pocket and ran swiftly up the field. Rather than sliding (in which case he would be proclaimed down on impact with the ground), he headed for the sidelines, while continuing to gain more and more yardage. Just before he reached the sidelines, he was met squarely by a massive, yet speedy linebacker, Greg Lloyd of the Pittsburgh Steelers. And even though I’m no Steelers fan, I got a rush of joy at watching Lloyd simply pulverize the quarterback. My rationale was that the quarterback had been asking for it – he hadn’t slid to evade the tackle but was trying to get every yard he could as if he were a running back. But as the quarterback remained on the ground after the tackle, it dawned on me just how sick I was that I would so viscerally thirst for a violent collision just because a quarterback was too greedy for yardage to know when to evade the hit.

That ridiculous blood lust still resides deep inside me, and every now and then it reappears. Another common time for it is when I’m watching a bench-clearing brawl during a baseball game and find myself sufficiently enraged at one of the combatants that I’m hoping for a good clean punch to the jaw. I’m not defending this attitude. Of course it’s uncivilized. But I also accept that it comes with the testosterone. It comes with the recognition that whereas we may hope to be rational, we cannot escape being animals.

Ah, but when we escape from the heat of the moment, when we take some time for reflection, we Empathic Rationalists can do some things to regulate our animal sides. And I’m afraid the time has come for those who oversee the game of football to get busy in this regard. Scientists no longer debate the destructive nature of this game. It destroys the feet, the knees, the ribs, and ultimately, the brain. Players don’t even realize what is happening to cause them permanent brain damage. Every shot they take that jars the helmet – and for that matter, every shot they administer to another player – destroys their brain cells. The results include headaches, nausea, dizziness, memory problems, severe depression, and just plain old permanent stupidity.

Did I say stupidity? When it comes to the NFL, that appears to be the word of the week. Last Sunday, players dropped like flies from one head-to-head collision after another. Two of those players dropped at the hands (or should I say the “head”) of Steelers defensive lineman, James Harrison. Here were Harrison’s comments after the game: “I don't want to see anyone injured," Harrison said, "but I'm not opposed to hurting anyone. There's a difference. When you're injured, you can't play. But when you're hurt, you can shake it off and come back. I try to hurt people."

The number of players carried or carted off with head injuries reached such an absurd proportion last weekend that the league felt obliged to talk tough about the problem. President of Football Operations, Ray Anderson, said that “There's strong testimonial for looking readily at evaluating discipline, especially in the areas of egregious and elevated dangerous hits. Going forward there are certain hits that occurred that will be more susceptible to suspension."

Suspensions, huh? Not this weekend. In response to Sunday’s hits, the league continued with its customary approach of fining players, but not suspending them. And we all know what a fine means to a zillionaire football player: little more than a slap on the wrist. Harrison, for example, was fined $75,000 for his two lethal hits, but he’ll be on the field tomorrow. And lest you feel sorry for the hit his wallet his taken, keep in mind that in 2009, Harrison signed a six-year $51 million contract. Trust me, when it comes to that $75,000, he won’t feel a thing. By contrast, for Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi, the two Browns receivers he knocked out, their brains will be feeling the effects of that game for the rest of their lives.

I thought Cribbs was asleep," said Harrison about one of his two victims last Sunday. "A hit like that geeks you up -- it geeks everybody up -- especially when you find out that the guy is not really hurt -- he's just sleeping. He's knocked out, but he's going to be OK. The other guy, I didn't hit that hard, to be honest with you. When you get a guy on the ground, it's a perfect tackle."
And Harrison wasn’t the only Steeler who enjoyed the opportunity to philosophize about the events of the day: "[Harrison] plays hard like that every week," said Steelers linebacker James Farrior. "Today was especially good because he took out their top dog, really. He took out the biggest weapon they had. He didn't do it intentionally, but with the intensity he plays with, it's liable to happen sooner or later."

Actually, it is liable to keep happening, over and over again, until the league does the only thing that is possibly capable of stopping this madness: suspending players for multiple games whenever they administer head-to-head tackles that hurt another team’s player. And I did say “hurt,” and not “injure.” That Harrison would differentiate between those two words when it comes to head trauma suggests that he’s probably not playing with a full deck himself. But surely the suits who run the league know better. Surely they realize that hits to the head are like puffs of tobacco. In the short run, you can survive them; in fact, you don’t even notice any damage. In the long run, however, they’ll destroy you as surely as night will follow day. And we fans, no matter how much catharsis we might enjoy from watching a good hit, simply cannot afford to support this kind of activity any more.

The irony of all this is that when I brought my jersey to the Peace Fellowship conference, I really did have the right idea. Antoine Winfield is a hitter, but the proper kind of hitter. Winfield, unlike Harrison, isn’t a head hunter. He hits in order to tackle, not to knock people out. Winfield, to be sure, has the capacity to sprain a guy’s ankle or even take out a knee. But Harrison thinks nothing of taking out a guy’s brains. And that simply must no longer be tolerated.

So write to the NFL. Let the Commissioner know where you stand on the issue of head-to-head collisions. Tell him you’re not going to any more NFL games or buying any more NFL memorabilia – no more Winfield jerseys, even – until he draws a line in the sand. Tell him you are willing to see your own team lose a key player for several games if that’s what it takes to preserve the sanity of the sport. Tell him that if the NFL has a chance to minimize head trauma and refuses to take that chance, it belongs in the category of drug dealers, another class of people who think nothing of inflicting brain damage on others … for profit.