Saturday, August 27, 2011


This is a crazy week here in the American capital. First, we have a significant earthquake. That alone counts as a change in the laws of nature as we knew them. And now, we have a hurricane that is supposed to bring dangerous winds to a radius of something like 5 quintillion miles of the east coast. My daughter was booked to perform at a winery today in north-central Virginia from 2:00 to 6:00. So far the show hasn’t been cancelled. So … if I end up going, and if I happen to be blown into the Potomac River on the way back home, it’s been nice knowing you all.

Yeah, I know. If I were the Grim Reaper, I’d consider that last sentence pretty cocky. “Who is this punk Spiro to tempt fate like that? Does he not think I’m capable of blowing his mini-van off the road with gusts of 50+ miles per hour? Just because it has ‘SPINOZA’ license plates, why should that make me think twice about playing havoc with that vehicle. Anybody who would drive on a highway during a hurricane deserves whatever’s coming to him.”

All true. But what the Grim Reaper may not be recognizing is that this week in Washington is also about celebrating cockiness. It’s the one characteristic that best describes our newest flavor of the month – the man who is increasingly being spoken about as the next President of the United States. The man who, in college, got 2 As, 10 Bs, 12 Cs, 6 Ds and an F – and who laughed that off, entered the field of politics, changed political parties, ran for election after election and never tasted defeat, and now finds himself overwhelmingly ahead of the entire Republican field almost immediately after throwing his hat in the ring.

What was in that hat, anyway? Nuclear weapons?

Michelle Bachman? See ya’. Give my regards to the good people of Stepford. Mitt Romney? On the ropes, and seemingly incapable of defending himself. When you figure out what color to turn before the next campaign, let us know. Barack Obama? No sooner has the Great White Hope entered the race than our current leader finds his approval rating down to 38%. That would be cause for concern if he were running against Rick Santorum – or for that matter, Rick James. (I can just see Rick James entering the stage at the Republican National Convention to the words of “She is such a kinky girl. The kind you don’t take home to mother.”)

Unfortunately for our President, he won’t have the fortune of running against Rick Santorum or Rick James. But increasingly, it is beginning to look like he will have the misfortune of running against another Rick. Some of you might be rolling the ol’ eyes right now, or at least wondering what I’ve been smoking. Rick Perry is an extreme conservative, you’re probably thinking, who has taken on Social Security and believes that climate change is a hoax. Why wouldn’t Obama jump at the chance to go to the mat with this guy – and, in particular, to compete for the independents, conservative Democrats, and moderate Republicans who tend to hold the balance of power in any Presidential election? Clearly, their views are much, much closer to Obama’s than Perry’s.

Then again, Americans might not be electing a President whose views on public policy issues are most like theirs. If that was what they cared about, they wouldn’t bounce from Bill Clinton, to George Bush/Dick Cheney, and then to Barack Obama.

Personally, I’m beginning to see a pattern. We look at whoever is manning the store at the moment, decide if he’s taking that store in the right or wrong direction, and if we don’t like what we see, desperately search for the opposite. We saw Bush and Cheney as a couple of cowboys whose constituents were all millionaires and the fools they were able to bamboozle. And so we elected a professor – open-minded, compassionate, progressive … in short, the un-Cheney.

And now, with the unemployment rate hovering north of 8% despite record deficits, and with a President who is viewed alternatively as the “Capitulator-in-Chief” or as one who “leads from behind,” America may be looking for big, brass cohunes. Ideally, we could elect someone like the Baltimore Raven’s Ray Lewis, a hard-hitting middle linebacker who has been convicted of obstructing justice in connection with a murder. Now that’s the kind of leader who wouldn’t take any guff from the bozos on Capitol Hill, right? But Lewis isn’t running. Nor is any actor who plays action heroes in the movies. So we might have to settle for the next best thing: a big strong Texan who is willing to spit in the face of conventional wisdom, vilify our top government officials, uproot the federal bureaucracy like a bunch of weeds, and challenge America to act first and ask questions later.

To much of America – and perhaps most of coastal America -- Rick Perry sounds like a goofball. But I still remember the way the chattering class spoke about “Ronald Rea-guns” circa 1979, and yet he was elected a year later as the un-Carter. Quite obviously, Perry is now running as the un-Obama, and his strategy has been solid gold. I don’t doubt for a second that after four or eight years of a Perry presidency, we could be back at the well, falling in love with a clone of Adlai Stevenson. Instead of an Aggie with a 2.2 GPA, we’d be electing a Swarthmorean was a 3.95 in Art History (and whose only Bs were in macroeconomics).

But 2016 or 2020 is not my concern right now. I’m focused on 2012. I’m thinking about how Barack Obama, he of the 38% approval rating and the Congress that seems hell-bent to keep it that low, can get back the big Mo and win this next election. For starters, he best not underestimate Rick Perry. But most importantly, he must think about precisely WHY Rick Perry has all of a sudden become so popular.

If I had a chance to talk to our President, and I had the stones to “tell it like it is,” here’s what I’d say:

“Take a look at the mirror, Mr. President. America isn’t liking what you’re looking at. And America is telling you exactly what it wants to see. Be a bit more like Perry. Take some bold steps – some audacious steps, to use a word that you used to be able to say with a straight face – and stop fearing the price of failure. When Perry puts his foot in his mouth, he acts like he doesn’t care, and quickly the media forgets what he said in the first place. He’s got the swagger you want. And he’s got the testicles you need. What he doesn’t have are your brains. Their your edge – but they’re worth nothing without the whole package.

“You’re still in the driver’s seat, Mr. President. So after the vacation is over, let’s see what you got. As for the rest of us, we can pretty much tell what we’ll get in 2012: either Obama or the un-Obama. And his name is Rick Perry.”

Sunday, August 21, 2011


That is the time that I’ve put into my government job since close of business on Friday evening -- and the weekend isn't even over yet. Am I bragging? Hardly. I think it’s an irreligious number, literally and figuratively. But I feel compelled to disclose it for two reasons. First, for all you Empathic Rationalist readers, it explains why you haven’t seen a more substantial post than this one this weekend. And second, for all you right-wing Empathic Rationalist readers, it points out how ridiculous your theory can be that government workers are all a bunch of welfare queens who expect excellent pay for minimal work.

This past Friday night, I attended a meeting with a bunch of my fellow “welfare queens” – I mean government lawyers -- that didn’t end until after midnight. None of us collected overtime for our efforts, and you could surely find private sector attorneys who never made partner at their firms but who earn twice or more of what we earn. But on we worked.

I am the first one to say that if there are federal programs that aren’t accomplishing much, get rid of them. And if there are federal employees who don’t do their jobs at all or do them inappropriately, let’s figure out a way to streamline the process to can them too. I agree with my Republican friends in that regard. But what I hear lately from some of the GOP politicians is an out-and-out war on the civil service – a thorough disrespect for what we do, our commitment to the public, and our claim to respectable compensation. And that attitude is not only disgraceful, but dangerous. For when we lose all respect for those who draft and enforce our regulations, set our health and environmental standards, and otherwise attempt to keep this national boat on a sane keel, that’s precisely when we lose our sanity. “Anarchy in the UK” was a good album, but let’s not bring that idea to the US just yet.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


"Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." Genesis 1:26

These days, it seems like everyone has something bad to say about religion. It is said to be the ground of ignorance – the opiate of the masses. It is alleged to be the source of fanaticism and extremism. It is blamed for much of the divisiveness that has engulfed our societies. And it is charged with breeding a mentality that focuses upon the non-existent heavens and becomes apathetic about the most profound problems of our world.

Personally, I find many of those criticisms to be overblown. Sure, we can point out various shortcomings with the religious mentality, but we also could do the same for all other walks of life – the business world, the realm of government, even the domain of academia. Something tells me that if we didn’t have religion, humanity would not magically be transformed into a race of Einsteins and Edisons. Take away religion, and what is more likely to rise in its place: a passionate love for mathematics and metaphysics, or a greater willingness to drink, smoke, lie and cheat? Forgive me for being cynical, but I doubt it’s the former.

Generally speaking, then, I view myself as a fan of religion, rather than one of its critics. But this is not to say I buy into all of it hook, line and sinker. And among my greatest complaints is the way religion tends to elevate human beings into the realm of the divine (creating God in our image, despite our claims to having been made in the image of God) and devalue the worth of the so-called “lower” animals.

These last few weeks, the “lower” animals have been on my mind more than usual. On August 3rd, my daughter Rebecca returned home from a month in Malaysia, where she worked with lots of orangutans and a few chimpanzees. When she played the videos and slide show of her experience for the rest of the family, it was clear how much she adored each of these animals and how individually she viewed their personalities. I couldn’t help but notice the contrast between the way she talked about the apes and the way that people tend to describe these “beasts” – as stupid, ugly, and dangerous.

No, I’m not blaming all this species-chauvinism on religion. What is sad, though, is how much religion has compounded the problem, at least in the western world. We in the west have no “sacred cows.” In fact, people here commonly eat cows, pigs, and other mammals, not to mention chicken, duck and fish. Moreover, our religious bodies continue to support the killing of animals for food, even though vegetarianism is clearly preferable for the environment and may even be better for our own health as individuals.

In Judaism, we used to sacrifice animals to God at the Holy Temple. That practice stopped, but the tradition states that it ceased only because the Temple was destroyed. Presumably, if the Jews are ever able to rebuild the Temple, we would be privileged with the honor of once again placing animals on the altar and burning them to death – as a message of thanks to the omni-benevolent Lord.

I find it ironic that atheists these days commonly attempt to appropriate the term “humanism” for their philosophy. Because honestly, what can be more humanistic than traditional western religion? It has created a God who is human-like. It has directed the attention of this God on human beings and the planet Earth, which clearly seems to be the center of the religious universe. (“Heaven” is, of course, outside of this universe.) And it teaches that human beings have dominion over the Earth and all its other creatures.

Spinoza’s philosophy was often sharply opposed to the teachings of traditional, organized religion. But he was never more traditional than when he wrote, in the Ethics (Part IV, Appendix, XXVI): “Besides men, we know of no particular thing in nature in whose mind we may rejoice, and whom we can associate with ourselves in friendship or any sort of fellowship; therefore, whatsoever there be in nature besides man, a regard for our advantage does not call on us to preserve, but to preserve or destroy according to its various capabilities, and to adopt to our use as best we may.”

As Rebecca Spiro can attest, Spinoza was wrong. My daughter would have seen evidence of that fact not only during her trip to Malaysia, but shortly after she returned.

Last weekend, everything seemed normal around the Spiro house. We were celebrating a birthday – my mother’s 90th to be precise. We were all happy and healthy – my mom, my kids, my dogs, everyone. As the week wore on, however, Carly, the younger of our two bichon frises, began to show signs of being sick. On Wednesday, she had no appetite, and we’re talking about a dog with a voracious appetite. On Thursday morning, it was clear that something was very wrong with Carly -- her appetite had not returned, and she was clearly in pain, though we had no idea where the pain was coming from. My wife took her to the vet, the vet did some tests, and it became clear that Carly had a tumor that was affecting her spleen, among other symptoms. The prognosis was poor, though the vet said that she might have a chance if he were allowed to remove the tumor. We gave Carly that chance. By 4:00 p.m. that afternoon, Carly was gone.

Later that evening, we had a service in the backyard. My older daughter Hannah, the aspiring rabbi, read some passages from the Torah while fighting off tears. Hannah pointed out that she could not read any of the traditional Hebrew prayers that you would read if a human had died – God forbid that we would ever treat a “mere animal” with that much respect, it just wouldn’t be “kosher” (that is reserved for killing animals, not honoring them). But while Hannah followed the Jewish tradition in what she would not read, she followed the family tradition in crying when she did read. My mother said a few words, as did I, as did my wife. We talked about Carly’s personality – her gentleness, her affection, her warmth, her hyperactivity. Some would call her neurotic, but we adored her as much for her nervous energy as for her perpetual licking, cuddling and smiling.

Then, when everyone else had finished saying their words, it had come time for Rebecca to speak. She hadn’t said anything for some time. (Perhaps an hour or two later, Hannah pointed out that Rebecca seemed more depressed about Carly’s passing than the rest of the family combined, which is saying a lot, since we had all been bawling. Hannah made that statement when Rebecca was out of the house – not coincidentally, she was taking care of a neighbor’s cat across the street.)

I looked at Rebecca, waiting for her to say something, anything, to pay respect to our beloved pet. Finally, she spoke, quietly but clearly. A short sentence – and then she would be finished. But it perfectly described what we all had been feeling, if perhaps not as viscerally as Rebecca.

“She was one of my best friends.”

Carly Simon Spiro: July 12, 2000 -- August 11, 2011. RIP.

Saturday, August 06, 2011


“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”

Ecclesiastes 3

On August 17, 2008, the blog Largehearted Boy published a piece I wrote as part of a series entitled “Why Obama.” I am reproducing it here in its entirety to point out precisely why I thought that the time was ripe for an Obama Presidency. Clearly, I was correct that the time was ripe for an Obama candidacy … but the issue I was attempting to address didn’t involve his electability, but his effectiveness if elected. It was on that point that I seem to have been, to put it mildly, less than prescient.

Here’s the 2008 piece:

“On July 27, 2004, the same day I turned 44, I sat in my mother’s living room mesmerized by the television set. It was showing the Democratic National Convention, and the nominee, John Kerry, had selected a young state senator from Illinois to give the keynote address. On that night, the speaker, Barack Obama, was introduced to the American public. Obama’s address, entitled “The Audacity of Hope,” positioned him as a mainstream progressive who, with good looks, a gifted flair for rhetoric, and a biracial background, would appear to represent the future of American politics. Still in his early 40s, he seemed years, perhaps even decades, from reaching the pinnacle of his power, but there was no question that the sky was the limit. This man, stated simply, was a natural.

“Obama made many fans that night, but few could possibly have been more impressed than I was. That address, you see, came at a pivotal time in my life. I was in the editing stages of my first novel, The Creed Room, which is both a story and an exposition of my personal philosophy. Like all first time novelists, I was insecure about my prospects for publication, or for that matter, the quality of my work. That’s when I saw Obama speak. He seemed to personify just the type of statesman I had been calling for in that book. And that fact accomplished two things. First, it told me, once I saw the incredible reaction to the man, that my book was on to something. Second, it made me feel that The Creed Room wasn’t quite as original as I had thought. There was at least one man out there, I realized, who hardly needed to read the book. He instinctively understood everything I was saying and, unlike me, was in a position to make my vision a reality.

“Consider the qualities Obama exemplifies. Merely by looking at the guy you can’t help but think of such ideas as “melting pot” and “unity.” When you hear him speak, it is also apparent that this man is thoroughly grounded in spirituality. We may not like his pastors, but we have trouble denying his passion. Barack is also a former president of the Harvard Law Review, so he’s obviously intelligent. In fact, he exudes a mental capacity even more than intelligence: thoughtfulness. This guy is professorial without being didactic. He obviously loves to think things through, but he isn’t simply interested in his own thoughts; he wants to learn from others as well. And it is perhaps those qualities that give him such good judgment, including the judgment to buck the trend among ambitious politicians and reach the correct view on the critical issue of the last several years -- whether to support the Iraq War from its inception.

“I know from the practice of law that some litigators trade above all else on their reputation for integrity, whereas others trade on different things – like their willingness to fight like hell for their client and never back down. Barack is in the former camp. For him, his reputation for ethical excellence is everything. As I watched Obama’s keynote address, I said to myself that this is a man who will think long and hard before he would get himself mixed up in a Watergate or a Monicagate.

“We all know what a great orator Obama is, and how much he has been able to move people in America and abroad, including many who had grown apathetic about politicians. And yet what excites me the most about Obama isn’t merely his ability to inspire, but his ability to inspire something very specific: the hope that, just maybe, we can bridge the fundamental chasms that divide us so profoundly as human beings.

“When I get into political discussions with Obama’s detractors, I sometimes hear the criticism that he is an “empty suit” or “lacks substance.” Presumably, people are referring to the fact that he hasn’t enunciated what two or three issues are most important to him and how precisely he hopes to tackle them, or what other issues are nearly as important to him and how precisely he hopes to tackle them as well.

“Don’t you see why he hasn’t? Don’t you see why it would be unfortunate if we forced him to? Obama has been honest with us about who he is and why he’s running. He has written books about his checkered personal life. He has spoken about his cocaine use. He has even said, in reference to another drug, “Yes I inhaled. That was the point.” He has a record of votes that shows he’s a liberal and has mentioned various areas in which he’d like to implement reforms. He has also laid out a specific ‘plan’ to address our inadequate health care system.

“But the truth is that if you buy my vision for an Obama Presidency, you must know that he needs to remain flexible. Once he wins the election – assuming the nation wakes up before it’s too late, which is often a lousy assumption – he needs to take the temperature of the nation to determine which fundamental changes are ripe for the picking if only we had a modern-day Demosthenes to lead us in making them. Then, he can work to make these changes … one at a time … all the while remembering that it takes a large coalition of conservatives as well as liberals to wage wars, whether they involve killing people on the battlefield, stemming global warming, or alleviating the scourge of poverty.

“I don’t want to lie to myself. Even assuming Obama can get elected, I don’t know if he can sufficiently unify this nation to form the type of critical mass needed to implement necessary changes. But this much I do know: without him, there’s not a lot of gas in our collective tank. And for those of us who call ourselves progressives, or who dare to call ourselves liberals, isn’t it worth taking a chance on someone who can at least use the word “hope” and pass the laugh test?”

There you have it – a coherent argument that turned out to be just plain wrong. The problem with it is not that it trumped up positive Obama traits that didn’t exist. Well, OK. Possibly Barack isn’t as spiritual as he came across in 2004. But for the most part, he has demonstrated many of the positive traits I discussed: he’s intelligent, thoughtful, open-minded, honest, flexible, articulate, ethical. And I could have added others: charismatic, classy, empathetic …

There are no shortage of compliments that could aptly be bestowed on our President. But the problem is that it does not help being an Achilles once you have been shot in the heel. And now that we are more than halfway through the Obama Presidency – or at least his first term – we can see that this Presidency has a fatal weakness, which has become more like a cancer than a simple arrow to the foot. Achilles died quickly. But this Presidency lingers, through battle after battle, and in each case, the victors are the ones who voted AGAINST Obama, not the ones who voted for him. Barack’s weakness is not his heel, but his stomach: specifically, his stomach for an honest-to-God fight against his adversaries.

Perhaps the key part of the above essay is the following: “I know from the practice of law that some litigators trade above all else on their reputation for integrity, whereas others trade on different things – like their willingness to fight like hell for their client and never back down. Barack is in the former camp. For him, his reputation for ethical excellence is everything.” But isn’t the problem that over and over and over again, Barack’s Republican adversaries have demonstrated that they are Mixed Martial Arts fighters – willing to throw elbows and choke holds, if necessary, to bring down the Obama Presidency and the progressive agenda. Barack knows it, everyone knows it. Clearly, the only responsible way of responding is to “fight like hell … and never back down.” Right? But for some reason, Barack has been unwilling. When in December 2010 he had a chance to demand that if the Republicans wanted their God-forsaken tax cuts for the rich, they’d have to take away their God-forsaken threat to destroy the Government’s credit worthiness, did he make that demand? Of course not. Barack isn’t one to make demands on his adversaries; he prefers instead the style of making concessions, and trusting that they will make concessions in return. (That is, after all, the Christian thing to do.)

Perhaps the wisdom behind Barack’s leadership strategy is lost on me because I’m a Jew, not a Christian. I was taught that “turning the other cheek” is the model of absurdity, not holiness. I was taught that just as there is a time for peace, there is also a time for war. My 2008 argument for Obama was premised on the idea that he was ideally suited to lead us in undertaking massive projects that only a unified nation could accomplish: like tackling global warming or the increasingly lopsided distribution of wealth. Quickly, however, it became clear that the Republican powers-that-be were unwilling to play in that sandbox. But Barack was fortunately in charge of a political party that controlled both houses of Congress and had the 60 Senators needed to defeat a filibuster, so sure enough, during his first two years, the Dems were able to enact landmark health-care legislation. The real problems came once they lost that supermajority in the Senate and any majority in the House. At that point, Barack was forced to look the Republicans in the eyes while standing on level ground. And repeatedly, he has been the one to blink. It’s not exactly what I had in mind back in 2008.

To all of you progressives who have difficulty admitting that you were wrong, please at least refrain from blaming what has transpired solely on the Republicans. Most political oppositions, given the blessing of knowing that they can get the party-in-power to capitulate at every juncture, would indeed play hardball. Why shouldn’t they? You can’t really accuse them of playing dangerous games of chicken – for that game involves taking risks, and there never seems to be any risk in entering into negotiations with today’s Democratic party. We all know from the outset that they’re prepared to cave. The only mystery is in whether they will give the GOP 60% of what they want, 70%, 80%, or more. As long as the Republicans give in on 5% of their demands, the President is prepared to tout the deal as a “compromise” – and, in at least one case, blame his progressive critics for being “sanctimonious” and “purists.”

Seriously, how can anyone blame the Republicans for playing this game? If there is blame to be placed, it should be placed on people like me who thrust Barack into the spotlight before he had demonstrated the ability to go toe-to-toe against street fighters. Blame should be placed on the blogosphere, the vapid Hollywood celebrities, and the other softhearted, utopian elements who were so blinded by Barack’s brilliance that they didn’t bother to inspect his heel … or his guts.
We have already enabled Barack enough. Let’s please stop, shall we? Barack is big on asking us to call our elected officials and implore them to do the right thing. Well, fine -- let’s just do that, shall we? It’s time to call our elected officials in Washington – assuming they are Democrat – and ask them to stop spinning that the Administration is on the right track and blaming all the universe’s problems on the Republicans. Ask them to stop pretending that the Democratic party is not accountable for anything – even though they have controlled the White House and the Senate for most of the last three years.

Right now, the central problem with our Government is that neither Barack Obama nor his supporters in Congress have demonstrated the willingness to fight for the causes that got them elected in the first place. They have collectively failed to show that they stand strongly for anything – other than their own precious re-elections.

So if and when you call your Congressperson or Senator, why don’t you demand that they act like Democrats and not DINOs – Democrats in Name Only – who don’t deserve to be re-elected. And why not remind them that the election of 2012 doesn’t seem to matter as much as past elections, for no matter who is nominally in charge in Washington, the Republicans will rule. That point might actually get their attention.

The times they are a changin’, and progressives need to change with them. If that means supporting the candidacy of bare-knuckled schmucks like Lyndon Baines Johnson over prophetic figures like candidate Barack Obama, so be it. You don’t always fight fire with love and Christian ethics. Sometimes, as Ecclesiastes would remind you, you fight fire with fire. And as the Presidency of Barack Obama has amply demonstrated, this has become one of those times.