Sunday, May 30, 2010


This was supposed to be a weekend of relaxation for me, culminating in a speech on the morning of Memorial Day at the Conference of the Universal Muslim Association of America regarding interfaith issues. Unfortunately, while I still look forward to the Conference, the rest of the weekend has been washed out with work. Like many people in the federal government these days, my life has become very, very busy.

Consequently, I just have time for a few random thoughts.

1. Those of you who aren’t swamped with other commitments and who live in the east or south, do yourself a favor and consider visiting a battlefield tomorrow. Personally, I find these places to be among the most spiritual on earth, and to do so on Memorial Day – notwithstanding the crowds –-- might heighten that spiritual sense. Where else do you find such vivid reminders of people literally risking their lives for the betterment of future generations?

2. That said, Memorial Day is also the perfect time for each of us to redouble our efforts to ensure that there are as few battlefields and fallen soldiers as possible going forward. In this regard, my own interests in the recent past have concentrated on Israel and Palestine, but there are plenty of other hotspots that need to be addressed. Iraq and Afghanistan come immediately to mind.

Is there an end in sight to those two wars? What will happen if our troops pull out and conditions seem to get worse? At some point, this becomes the United Nations’ problem, not that of the United States alone. It is time for this country to realize that we can no longer serve unilaterally as the world’s policeman. We can’t even seem to take care of our domestic issues, now can we?

3. This Memorial Day weekend has a rather dark feel to it for anyone who doesn’t live in a cave. But there is something that happened yesterday that allows me simply to smile. I don’t know how many of you watched the Lakers-Suns game last night, but if I didn’t know better, I’d swear that in Kobe Bryant, I saw the second coming of Michael Jordan. Bryant sank some of the toughest, best-defended baskets I’ve ever seen. And the result is that the Lakers will be in the NBA Finals for the 31st time in 62 years.

Just consider the magnitude of that achievement. Think about one country playing in 50 percent of World Cup Finals over 64 World Cups. Or one football team playing in 31 Super Bowls out of 62. It’s a crazy number, and it demonstrates sustained excellence surpassing any other franchise in sports.

I know that here in America we are supposed to be obsessed with winning championships. As some macho idiots would argue, “You’re either number one or you’re a loser. And second place just means that you’re the first loser.” I don’t buy it. If 30 or so teams begin every season, and you are one of the last two franchises standing, you’ve had a great year. And to do that 31 times in 62 seasons is an achievement that not even the Yankees, with all their extra cash, can match.

So next time you think about those ugly freeways in LA, and all the plastic values of the Hollywood elite, just remember, that at least these people have something you probably don’t have – the opportunity night after night, year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation, to watch a team that better demonstrates sustained excellence than any other program in professional sports. It’s no wonder that Jack Nicholson never misses a game.

Have a great Memorial Day from the Empathic Rationalist.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Maybe I’m being rash. Maybe I’m judging before all the evidence is in. In that score, I’ll plead guilty. But I just can’t stop thinking about the above Emerson quote when reflecting on the landslide winner of the Kentucky GOP primary for the U.S. Senate, Rand Paul.

I assume that most of you by now have watched Paul go one-on-one with the host of the Rachel Maddow show shortly after he won the nomination. If you haven’t watched it yet, go to You-Tube and check it out; it’s must-see TV. Maddow had previously obtained information indicating that Paul opposed national legislation to prevent restaurants and other private businesses from discriminating against people on the basis of race, creed, color or sexual preference, and so she asked Paul about his stance on that issue. In fact, she asked Paul to address that issue perhaps ten different times. His answers were a profile in cowardice. Over and over again, Paul ducked the question. Even when she asked it in simple “yes” or “no” terms, he refused to answer. But what he did say, or at least what he strongly implied, confirmed the fears of Maddow’s viewers – while Paul personally opposes racial discrimination, he similarly opposes laws preventing restaurants, hotels and other private establishments from discriminating, at least as long as those private establishments do not accept public funding.

In that sense, Paul is saying the same thing that people like me say with respect to abortion. It’s a bad thing, but it should be legal. Of course, most Americans take that position. By contrast, only a minority believe that motels should be allowed not to admit Jews, or that restaurants should be allowed to showcase segregated lunch counters.

Clearly, Paul was caught in a trap that was set by his thirst for intellectual consistency. Like his father Ron Paul, the former Presidential candidate and resident of the planet Neptune (at least I’m assuming that’s where he obtained his formative influences), the would-be Senator has a thirst for consistency. He’s a small Government guy. He hates the whole idea of Government. So every time the issue comes up as to whether the Government should get involved in our lives, he’ll put one big fat thumb on that part of the scale that says “Hell No!”

What was amazing in his conversation with Maddow was how much he trivialized the issue of racial segregation in restaurants. For Paul, this was clearly an academic debate about an unimportant matter, and in such matters, that big fat thumb will always carry the day. So when asked to say whether he supports laws to prevent restaurants from keeping out blacks, his position, in essence, is “On this merely “academic” issue, there is really not an important enough state interest to cause me to go against my knee-jerk opposition to Government intervention.” By contrast, when it comes to something as important to Paul’s tea-party supporters as abortion rights, in that case, the thumb gets outweighed by Paul’s political instincts. He favors laws prohibiting abortion.

(If you’re wondering whether Paul’s stance on the lunch-counter matter is motivated by out-and-out racism, the jury is still out on that one, though he would vehemently deny such a charge. His father Ron came under scrutiny in that regard after a series of newsletters came out under his name in the late 80s and early 90s. The newsletters, according to a report, “include rants against the Israeli lobby, gays, AIDS victims and Martin Luther King Jr. -- described as a ‘pro-Communist philanderer.’ One newsletter, from June 1992, right after the LA riots, says ‘order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks.’ Another says, ‘The criminals who terrorize our cities -- in riots and on every non-riot day -- are not exclusively young black males, but they largely are. As children, they are trained to hate whites, to believe that white oppression is responsible for all black ills, to 'fight the power,' to steal and loot as much money from the white enemy as possible.’”)

When I watched the Maddow-Paul video, what I found especially stupefying was the way in which he attempted to dance around the questions. For me, libertarians – true libertarians, that is – are fundamentalists who are not altogether unlike religious zealots. They see the world very simply and consistently. And part of their charm is their ability, with little need for advanced preparation, to answer just about any question with a concise statement about why, with very few exceptions, Government interference is a bad thing. Maddow obviously identified one of the zillions of situations in which Paul would let private businesses alone. And yet, curiously, he would not admit what he thought. I’m not used to hearing a fundamentalist be so reticent to speak his peace. It was like watching someone ask an Orthodox Jew if he worships a God, only to hear him dodge the question. It was kind of surreal.

The last time I saw a politician look as uncomfortable as Paul was when Palin was on the hot seat in the fall of ’08. You could tell she wanted to say what she thought, but her handlers were clearly trying to put her “on message,” and the result was like a deer in the headlights. Paul seemed virtually as clueless. Maddow had him talking in circles rather than answering a simple question. And yet he didn’t have the mental agility or the guile to skillfully change the subject. So he let her ask him the same question again … and again … and again … and each time he would respond with some ridiculous semi-coherent dodge that wouldn’t even impress a 9th grade civics teacher. If I didn’t fear this guy might actually get elected, given the state where he is running, I would have laughed my head off.

Ironically, though, Paul’s clumsy two-step has got me thinking about the consistency of my own expressed opinions. After all, as a student, and sometimes writer, of philosophy, I’m also included in the same class of consistency-seeking morons that Emerson was talking about. For years, I’ve lamented the lack of representation in the United States Congress among people who are solidly on the left. I have criticized our two-party political system for making it very difficult for unabashed liberals to get elected, while ensuring that the vast majority of our representatives fall within a relatively narrow spectrum with a moderate-conservative center of gravity. Now, here comes a guy who, in his heart, is clearly an honest-to-God libertarian, but he’s afraid to come out and strut his stuff. If he is elected, he would become the only such hard-core libertarian in the Senate. If I were being consistent, wouldn’t I say that the number of libertarians in this country is high enough that they deserve representation in the U.S. Senate – i.e., someone who can air their philosophy whenever the nation is engrossed in an important debate? And shouldn’t I say that Rand Paul, while not exactly a profile in courage, has at least demonstrated enough of a commitment to the libertarian philosophy that he deserves to be elected to the U.S. Senate?

The main problem with answering that last question in the affirmative is that Paul hardly seems smart enough to do his libertarian philosophy justice. I went to college with guys who could run rings around this guy; they actually taught me what libertarianism really means. For starters, you don’t just suck up to powerful moneyed interests in calling for sharp decreases in Government regulation. Nor is it enough to advocate calls for the complete dismantling of such right-wing nemeses as the Department of Education, which Paul would eliminate in a heartbeat. You also call for the overturning of laws that are the darlings of social conservatives, including laws that prohibit drugs and prostitution. Remember: a libertarian is pro-freedom, not simply anti-Government.

While it’s not something Paul likes to talk much about, he has come out in favor of the legalization of medical marijuana and for the federal government to generally turn over the job of regulating drug use to the states or local areas. But if he were a true libertarian, he would have to say that he opposes, say, even local laws that would prohibit healthy people from smoking marijuana or from spending the night with the working-girl of one’s choice. The problem is, Paul doesn’t seem to have the stones to come right out and say that, any more than he was willing to answer Maddow’s questions.

So upon reflecting on the candidacy of Rand Paul, and given my (lame) philosophical desire to be consistent … here’s what I think about Paul’s candidacy: I sure hope that Kentucky goes blue this year. We should have a true libertarian in the Senate. But we need one with the brains to explain his or her philosophy cogently, and with the guts to say what he thinks, whether it pisses off the left or the right. A libertarian who pussy-foots around is a laughing stock, and that is what Paul has turned into in the face of Rachel Maddow’s questioning. If he can’t handle Maddow, he sure won’t be able to handle Schumer. But someday soon, I hope a powerful orator with Paul’s views, only with more brains and guts, explains to this nation why drugs and prostitution should be legal and why the Government should stop telling restaurants who they can serve. I won’t accuse this person of racism any more than I’ll accuse him (or her) of loving drugs and hookers. I’ll simply listen to his political philosophy. We’re a big enough nation to accommodate an orator like that in our most deliberative body. Just please – don’t let such a person even think about running for the White House.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


Some things, as George Thorogood might say, will drive a man to drink. I wanted to focus on three of them today. They seem to have nothing in common with one another, except that they leave me in disbelief at how bad things can get in the face of such promise. So, without further adieu, let’s get drunk:

ONE BOURBON: What is it with the city of Cleveland and their sports teams? I’ve been a sports fanatic since 1965, and in those 45 years, Cleveland’s three pro sports franchises (or 2.9 franchises, given that the Cavaliers began in 1970), have won a total of zero championships. If I’m not mistaken that gives them by far the longest period of futility of any major American city. Atlanta comes close, but at least the Braves won one in the 1990s. I remember it well – they beat Cleveland.

I’ve been thinking about Cleveland sports this week because of what’s been happening to their basketball team. They’ve had the league’s Most Valuable Player (LaBron James) for two years, and despite his dominance and even the team’s dominance during the regular season, they still find a way to lose before they make the finals. This year, the final year before LaBron can opt out of his contract, they had easily the best record in the league, but they couldn’t even make it to the semi-finals. And in a truly mind-boggling display, their fans actually booed the team when it lost its final home game. So when James, who happens to be a local boy from Akron, considers whether he wants to play in Northeastern Ohio or sign with such teams as New York or Chicago, he’ll have his homies’ boos to remind him of how little they remember his two MVP seasons.

Are those fans crazy? Do they not realize that LaBron James was that city’s best – and only foreseeable – chance to actually win a championship in any sport? Why then wouldn’t they embrace him with the most open arms possible? Why wouldn’t they give their boys a standing ovation, rather than a serenade of boos?

I absolutely feel sorry for the people of Cleveland that they continue to suffer such a long draught. But my God, this was their chance to end that draught. And now, the smart money is on James taking off for a city in a bigger media market, one that has won many championships in recent decades. Why is it that the rich always seem to get richer, and the poor poorer?

Anyway, Cleveland, when LaBron takes off for the truly big city, get yourself some Jack Daniels and think about what might have been. Then feel free to spend the next several weeks rooting for your lousy Cleveland Indians until its time for your lousy Cleveland Browns to play some God-awful football. Before long, you’ll be ready for the Cavaliers without LaBron to start a new season. Then you can boo to your heart’s content, and nobody will blame you.


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Finally, as a chaser, I would recommend something mild. In fact, what I have to offer might even make you happy, and there’s no better drink when you’re happy than a cold glass of beer.

Here is a link to a video of an event that I was fortunate enough to participate in at the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society. It involves four Jewish teenagers (including my daughter Rebecca) and four Muslim young adults talking about their respective faiths and various issues of vital concern to the two communities. It should put a smile on your face. Indeed, I was inspired to be a part of it. But as you’re watching these eight people demonstrate how religion can be a source of unification and spirituality, don’t forget that these young people are powerless. In fact, the adults who think like them are pretty powerless. That’s what we have to change.

Once we can enlist organized religions as vehicles for progress, rather than entrenched interests and bigotry (see, e.g., the Pope’s recent statement that gay marriage is “insidious and dangerous”), then, maybe, we can tackle a range of social issues, including those regarding the environment. But it still won’t help us with Cleveland sports. If LaBron James can’t even take that city to the Promised Land, I’m not sure all the prayers in the world can get the job done.

Saturday, May 08, 2010


If you ask me, “the Fall” had nothing to do with some mythical man disobeying some mythical God after he was told not to eat the fruit of a mythical tree. No, the Fall may indeed be happening now, and it is resulting in large part from some very real sentences in a very real book that millions if not billions of people take to be the Word of the very real God.

Here are those sentences:

“God made wild beasts of every kind and cattle of every kind, and all kinds of creeping things of the earth. And God saw that this was good. And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, and the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.’ And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.’” (Gen. 1: 25:28.)

[Spoken by God to Noah:] “Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it. But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man!” (Gen. 9: 4-5.)

Obviously, this Book has been interpreted a trillion ways. The wiser the sage, the more likely it is that it will be interpreted gently and benignly. Moreover, there are obviously numerous other provisions in this Book that may be giving a very different message. But that’s cold comfort, because, as we all know, it only takes one verse in this Book to thoroughly change a person’s outlook on life, let alone his conduct. So let’s just take a look at the above words and those words alone and consider how ordinary folks are likely to construe them.

As I read those verses, God is telling humankind that we were made in God’s image, and as a result, we will be given the privilege of ruling the earth. When it comes to the animals who live here, we can do with them as we please. In fact, our job is to increase in population so that we literally fill the planet. As to the animals, we will be their “master” … their Lord. We can eat them (subject to some exceptions), ane presumably we can just kill them if we’d like – it’s one another whom we better not kill. For we, not those lowly animals, are made in God’s image.

You’ll forgive me if I have God on my mind these days, because I’ve just taken the week off from work to make some progress on my manuscript on the philosophy of God. My manuscript is very affirming about the concept of God, but that’s not to say that I can ignore whenever organized religions take over the God business and fill our thoughts with what can be very dangerous ideas. People talk a lot these days about the support in the Qur’an for much of the violence that is plaguing our world. But few writings in the history of religion are as dangerous as those passages above. They not only are a major source of arrogance among human beings, but worse, they have lent support for many people to thoroughly abuse our power as a species.

Religious people should see ourselves as trustees for the planet’s true owner (God). In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living.” That concept would entitle us to use property, but only as long as we don’t damage it, for it is not ours to despoil as we please. In fact, however, we seem to be seeing ourselves not as trustees, but as the absolute owners of this earth. In this model, God is presumably indifferent to our actions since He resides in the heavens – and besides, He gave us this land and its animal inhabitants to “master.” So, like a big fat man with a cigar in his mouth who guards his family property with a shotgun, even when there are no apparent intruders, we jealously guard our God-given rights to treat this planet in whatever way we believe serves our species’ own interests. If an animal has a problem with that, we can always just shoot it and eat it.

The remainder of this post has been redacted.