Sunday, November 27, 2011


Happy Thanksgiving weekend to all the loyal readers of the Empathic Rationalist. I hope it has been as relaxing – or as exciting – as you had planned it to be. For me, thank God, it has been the former.

I also hope that none of you got trampled or pepper sprayed at Wal-Mart. As for me, not only did I not go to Wal-Mart, but I visited no retail establishment. Nor did I try to buy anything on-line. Despite all the new technological wizardry that is available in the marketplace, the older I get, the less I want to acquire things. At least from a consumer standpoint, as the world moves deeper and deeper into the 21st century, I seem hell-bent on returning to the 18th or 19th.

Speaking of returning to the 18th or 19th centuries, one thing I am certainly not thankful for is this year’s crop of Republican Presidential candidates. Many of them seem to have acquired some kind of time machine – and unfortunately, it can only take us in one direction, backwards. For example, the candidates seem to have little if any appreciation for the value of government. Thank God the nation’s roadways were built already, or I don’t know how we’d ever travel anywhere. And though I appreciate the emphasis on tax reform, it’s disturbing that none of the candidates seem to have any appreciation at all for the idea of progressive taxation. These candidates are more concerned about fairness to the rich than they are about fairness to the poor.

We probably all have our own votes as to when this campaign season hit its low point. Rick Perry’s “oops” moment? The sexual harassment allegations against Herman Cain -- followed by his tone-deaf reference to Representative Pelosi as “Princess Nancy”? Personally, my vote would go to the reaction after Newt Gingrich pointed out during the last debate that we wouldn’t want to deport an illegal alien who has lived in the U.S. for 25 years, has children and grandchildren here, pays his or her taxes and goes to church. What sane person could argue with that comment? Well Michelle Bachmann did, but then again, she is everybody’s favorite Stepford wife. Perhaps a bit more surprising was the criticism by the “moderate” Mitt Romney. Then again, Mitt’s views have more flexibility than most gymnasts, and while he does come across as sane, his sanity is eclipsed only by his opportunism. But what was worst of all was listening to the talking heads on TV the day after the debate, who were piling on about how Gingrich made the same “mistake” that Rick Perry previously made in attempting to show compassion for illegal aliens. Frankly, it sounds like compassion has no more place in the Republican party. Soon, a Republican candidate won’t even be able to show compassion for a fetus.

As an antidote to the Dickensian drift of the Republican Party, I’d like to post a video of an event I helped organize and that was held precisely one week ago. The event had two purposes – to bring together Jewish and Muslim youth, and to help the homeless. It lasted three hours and was held at the Washington DC homeless shelter run by the Community for Creative Non-Violence (a/k/a Mitch Snyder’s place). A friend made a 40-minute video of the event, which includes snippets of talks by Jewish and Muslim clergy as well as homeless advocates, and portions of prayers sung by my daughter, Hannah. You can find the video at If you can get past its home-made production quality, I think you’ll find it interesting.

I sent a copy of the video to one of my Republican friends, and he asked me why we were bothering to go to a “flop house” and work with the “bums” who lived there. This is the reality in which we now live – even helping the homeless is considered as a waste of time, and the homeless themselves are thought of as trash. Sometimes, I feel that this country is like a magnificent, opulent boat that is heading straight toward an iceberg. What I don’t know is whether there is still enough time to change course and where we can find a captain with the guts to do it.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


“You can’t evict an idea whose time has come.” Cornell West

Finally, this past week, we’ve seen the remake everyone has been waiting for. What was first shown “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” has left the friendly confines of the theatre and emerged on the streets of cities and colleges throughout the nation. Call it “The Empire Strikes Back – the Sequel!” Only this time, Darth Vader is gone, as is Luke Skywalker. Instead, we have cops armed with pepper spray firing at protesters, young and old, disheveled, disorganized, disempowered … and disgusted at the fact that not a single person responsible for the recent meltdown of our economy has been prosecuted for his or her conduct.

America now has a new image – rows of people sitting down and looking toward the ground while the men in blue unload canisters of painful chemicals onto their heads. But perhaps an even more profound, if fuzzier, picture is that of the men “behind the curtain” – the wizards of City Hall, who direct their police chiefs to fire up the pepper spray and remove anyone who has been assembling on behalf of what has become an un-American idea: economic equity for its own sake. Many of these wizards, a/k/a mayors, were elected because they supposedly empathized with the values and the concerns of the common person. And yet, once they took power, these wizards realized that their own lives go most smoothly when the trains run on time, the protesters clear the streets, the bankers rake in money, and the lobbyists pull the strings. Call it law and order. It’s the mayor’s best friend. And it has been our Empire’s bromide for decades.

Two generations have come and gone since we last saw street protesters make any meaningful impact on our country. I was but a boy then. And when my parents took me down to the National Mall to join in the Civil Rights protests, that all made so much sense. Even today, what was accomplished with those protests makes most of us proud Since then, I’ve hit the streets on many occasions to rally on behalf of all sorts of causes – against wars, against poverty, against guns, for abortion rights, for gay rights … for sanity. But there has always been something missing. There’s always been a sense that the protest would have little if any staying power. We’d assemble for an afternoon, chant our slogans, march a bit, go home, go to work, make money, and go back to our self-obsessed lives. We could read about sit-ins and strikes that made a difference, but they were always events from our nation’s past. Now that our nation has become the most powerful Empire the world has ever seen, what need do we have for sustained boycotts and strikes and sit-ins and other forms of protest? Isn’t that so … one century ago? Haven’t we evolved to an understanding that a rising tide lifts all boats, and the best way to achieve such a tide is for as many of us as possible to put down our bullhorns and picket signs, get a law or business degree, and work within the system?

Yesterday, I got together with a number of friends, most of whom do indeed have law degrees, to celebrate the birthday of a man who would have turned 86 on Sunday had he not been assassinated during the last era of mass protest in American history. I’m referring to the great Robert F. Kennedy. As we reflected about his legacy, I couldn’t help think that here was a man who believed in the system but didn’t let that paralyze his passion for the value of mass protest. He watched his brother be elected President. He himself served as the Attorney General and as a United States Senator. Yet, for all the time he spent in American officialdom, his voice remained that of the activist. Consider the following words, spoken at Berkeley on October 22, 1966:

“...It is not enough to allow dissent. We must demand it. For there is much to dissent from. We dissent from the fact that millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich. We dissent from the conditions and hatred which deny a full life to our fellow citizens because of the color of their skin. We dissent from the monstrous absurdity of a world where nations stand poised to destroy one another, and men must kill their fellow men. We dissent from the sight of most of mankind living in poverty, stricken by disease, threatened by hunger and doomed to an early death after a life of unremitting labor. We dissent from cities which blunt our senses and turn the ordinary acts of daily life into a painful struggle. We dissent from the willful, heedless destruction of natural pleasure and beauty. We dissent from all those structures -- of technology and of society itself -- which strip from the individual the dignity and warmth of sharing in the common tasks of his community and his country.”

The key word in that entire passage is “must.” And those who remember Robert F. Kennedy realize that he meant that word with all his heart. It was not an option for him to forget the needs of “the people” and revert back to cultivating our own garden. To be satisfied in life, he had to join the fight. And so, despite being a member of the one percent, he devoted his life’s work to the betterment of the 99 percent.

As I stood at yesterday’s ceremony, I asked myself what RFK would think about the Occupy movement if he were alive today and at the height of his energies. Would he focus on the movement’s excesses and growing pains? To a degree, yes. A former Attorney General couldn’t help but care about any signs of lawlessness. But I suspect he would care even more about ensuring that this movement lasts and ultimately succeeds. For the biggest problem that is facing our nation’s cities right now isn’t that in one or two parks, 24/7 protests are resulting in sanitation issues. The deeper problem is that for decades, while our Kennedys lay under the ground, our college students tailgated, and our workers lost their collective bargaining rights, the denizens of Wall Street and K Street have been pepper-spraying our democracy. They are the ones who asked for billion-dollar bail-outs. They are the ones who have bought our politicians. In short, they are the ones who have gamed our financial and political systems and who have succeeded in putting the judges in place to ensure that all their games are perfectly legal.

And so … the most committed representatives of the 99 percent now come across as lawless, while the one percent are seen as law abiding. Talk about ironic.

Mayor Bloomberg might not realize this, but it will take more than pepper spray and cold air to shut down the Occupy movement. The present protesters might not know what they’re doing, yet there’s no denying the righteousness of their cause. Wall Street and K Street have had their chance to show this country that they won’t abuse their power. And the results can be seen throughout the nation on unemployment lines, in homeless shelters, and through corporate welfare checks. It’s time for a new Luke Skywalker to emerge and tell the Bloombergs, the Boehners, and yes, the Obamas of this country that enough is enough.

Soon enough gifted men and women will appear to lead the Occupy movement. It could be in New York, or Washington, or Berkeley … or maybe at UC Davis. Who knows where they will coalesce. But it will happen somewhere. And then, look out one percent! Protests made a difference in the 60s, and they’ll be heard from again a half century later.

Mark my words – the decade is young.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


In so many ways, it has been a blessing to have a wife and two daughters. But in one respect, it has been a curse. By getting close to those ladies, and learning all about the ladies who are close to them, I’ve heard stories I would never have heard from men. These stories involve abuse – sexual abuse, infidelities, violence, you name it. But what’s really creepy about the stories aren’t the abusive behavior. It’s the way good people – hell, “model” people – tend to look the other way in the face of abuse. Call it human nature at its worst.

Take the greatest example of “abuse” – the Holocaust. We all have a choice as to what aspect of that event is most disturbing. Is it the existence of a small group of madmen who were hell bent on genocide? Or is it the fact that once these madmen came to power in one of the great countries of the world and revealed their dark sides, the citizenry (with few exceptions) stepped back and let the insanity reign. That’s another way of saying that the Holocaust presents to us both Hitler and Heidegger. One will go down in history as one of our most infamous mass murderers and the other as one of our greatest philosophers. Both were Nazis, but Hitler led the Party and Heidegger merely joined up. And why not? He may have disagreed with some of Hitler’s beliefs, yet it surely seemed like a good, safe career move for Heidegger to align himself with the Party in power.

The sad truth is that for every Hitler – for every perpetrator of abuse – there are legions of Heideggers who learn of the abuse but haven’t the guts or the inclination to confront it. And because there are far more enablers than there are heroes who are willing to stick their necks out, we depend upon the victims of the abuse to put a stop to it. Needless to say, that’s easier said than done. Victims of abuse may report the event to the police, and yet the police may be powerless to act without additional evidence. And they may also notify the abusers’ family, friends and co-workers about what happened. But when they do so, the reaction is pretty much predictable. We as a species, despite being “made in the image of God,” tend to take care of our own. When we hear that our fuehrer, our family members, our friends, our priests, or our football coaches are involved in truly abusive behavior … we generally shrug off the information we don’t like, and get back to our own business.

With that as an introduction, you can imagine how I have been reacting to the scandal that has been rocking Central Pennsylvania this past week. A graduate assistant who works for the Penn State football team witnessed an ex-football coach having anal sex with a ten year old boy. He reported the incident to his superior (football legend, Joe Paterno), who reported it to his superior … and to make a long story short, nobody reported the incident to the police. As a result, the number of victims merely grew over time. Now that these events have come to light, the public (outside of the hamlet of State College Pennsylvania) have had pretty much the same response. They are shocked, SHOCKED, that the leaders of the Penn State football team would have failed to report such depraved and criminal conduct. Everywhere from Portland to Peoria to Phoenix, we’re hearing the same comments: “If I were that graduate assistant, I would have stopped that rape right then and there. And if I were Joe Paterno, I would have told the police right away. I don’t care how close I was to that rapist – I would have reported it.”

Sure you would, hero. Sure you would.

Allegations of abuse, however credible, rarely come with what most of us call “proof.” You’ve got the victim’s word against that of the perpetrator. And who has the burden of persuasion? You’ve guessed it – the victim. Also, the victim soon learns that it doesn’t pay to make a big stink. Anita Hill made a big stink about Clarence Thomas, and she was portrayed by the conservatives as some sort of lying witch. Now, we are seeing the same dynamic played out in the case of Herman Cain. When a lady named Sharon Bialek became known as the fourth woman who was claiming to be sexually harassed by Herman Cain, Rush Limbaugh spewed the following venom over the airwaves: “her name is Buy-A-Lick, as in [slurp, slurp] Buy-A-Lick.” You know and I know that Rush Limbaugh hasn’t a clue whether Sharon Bialek was telling 100% of the truth, 50% of the truth or no truth at all. But because she had the temerity to attack a conservative Republican who Limbaugh likes, that, apparently, was enough to give him the right to portray her as a whore. And he is completely getting away with those comments.

What Limbaugh is doing, sadly enough, is done every day in far more mundane situations. As soon as a victim speaks out, she or he is fair game for scrutiny. Is s/he trustworthy? Above reproach? Unless you’re a paragon of virtue, you better just take your medicine and shut up. Because if you’ve got a whistle to blow, the friends and family of the man you’re accusing are going to be digging for all the dirt they can find – and I mean dirt on you, not your abuser. Is there any wonder why it is so difficult for the ordinary victim of abuse in a non-celebrity context to get up the courage to speak out? What’s in it for them? And unless they have some sort of documentary proof of hard-core criminal conduct, what can they hope to gain from telling their story?

I have seen this scenario play out too many times before. The one and only time I’ve seen the abuser get in real trouble is when the idiot (a) messed with kids and (b) kept photographs. Neither is advisable. Better to just abuse adult women, and not to leave too much of a mark. Do that, and you can be sure that not only will your homies have your back, but the authorities won’t even give a second thought to the accusations.

In a sense, Joe Paterno is a victim here, strange as that sounds. This is a man whose trusted assistant reported witnessing a child get raped, and all Paterno did is notify his boss (the athletic director) about the event, and wash his own hands of the situation. Is that heroic conduct? Of course not. But nor is it any worse than what I would generally expect from my fellow man. Paterno heard an unpleasant allegation against someone with whom he had closely worked for decades, and he heard it from a young man who had no evidence other than his own uncorroborated testimony. In such situations, what percentage of people would do the bare minimum? 50? 75? 90%? I don’t know what the number is, but I’m sure it’s a big one.

Believe me, I have no personal sympathy for Joe Paterno, even though he is losing his job and much of his reputation for his role in that incident. Consider that Paterno has spent the last several decades being treated essentially like a god – and not only in Central Pennsylvania but in the world of sports generally. His name has become synonymous with integrity, character, honor. He’s on the Mount Rushmore of college coaches. And not only has he been deified, but I can guarantee you that as long as he lives, he’ll be spending his time largely surrounded by people who will treat him as a truly great man.

Now we all know that Joe Paterno is not such a man. He’s not a hero at all. He’s a guy who, at a critical juncture in his life, put personal interests over stopping rape in his lists of priorities. But my assumption, given what I’ve seen and heard in this world, is that Paterno behaved just as most others would have behaved in the same situation. You’ve heard the term “age appropriate” used for kids who behave in normal ways for people their age? Well, Paterno behaved in a way that was “species appropriate.”

Limbaugh? I guess you can say that his “Buy-A-Lick” crap did cross the line into unusually aggressive blame-the-victim conduct. But then again, it was hardly shocking either. Abuse situations are much like football games. When an abuser comes out and makes an accusation, all interested parties choose what team they are on. And if the abuser is a prominent member of the community and the victim isn’t, good luck with that accusation, chump.

I’m not happy about all this. In fact, I think the epidemic of abusive conduct in our society is intolerable. But we have to go through the “acceptance” stage of the process before we can work on a solution. And that begins with each of us looking in the mirror and asking what kind of enabling conduct we have been willing to accept when it comes to abuse. Let’s not be quite so willing to accept it in the future, OK?

Saturday, November 05, 2011


Let me begin my making a statement that is long overdue in this portion of cyberspace: I wholeheartedly support the Occupy movement. That is not to say I applaud everything each demonstrator has said or done in connection with this movement. What I do applaud is the central goal of calling attention to the fundamental economic inequality in our society, and announcing that such inequality is flat out unacceptable.

When he campaigned for President, Barack Obama led us all to believe that he intended to address the inequality issue. He took a significant step in the right direction insofar as he worked for universal health care. But in other critical respects, our President flat out blew it. And none of his omissions is more critical than his unwillingness to increase the marginal tax rate on the most affluent members of our society. (Of course, now he is pretending to care about that issue again, but he also knows that the votes are no longer there to enact this change; when he seemingly had the votes, he lacked the spine.)

The Occupy movement does reflect a certain type of class warfare. But it’s not a war of the “99%” against the “1%.” The war is, in fact, being initiated by the uber-rich patrons of the Republican party, and the foot-soldiers are the rank-and-file of that increasingly reactionary party, many of whom are neither affluent nor well-educated, but who have been taught by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity to despise government, taxes, economic redistribution and anything remotely resembling the New Deal. The Occupy movement is merely a reaction to the war that Limbaugh, Hannity, and such behind-the-scenes puppeteers as Grover Norquist have been waging for years. Theirs is a battle against the sane idea that government can play constructive non-military roles in a capitalist society.

Well, I’ve had enough of the extremist ideology that is strangling the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. And I’m not alone. Channeling the immortal words of Howard Beale in the movie Network, many Americans are finally saying “I am mad as hell and am not going to take this anymore!” The real question is what took us so long?

This past Tuesday, David Brooks wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that had an interesting perspective on the Occupy protests. He set up a dichotomy involving two types of inequalities: (a) the one between the 99% and the 1%, and (b) the one within the 99% -- specifically, between those who have college degrees and those who don’t. Brooks’ point was that the former may be the one garnering all the media attention, but the latter inequality is the one that is most devastating to our society.

Is he correct? Well, yes and no. What Brooks is really asking us to focus on is not so much the war that the 1% is now waging against the so-called “middle class,” but the war that both the rich AND the middle class have been waging for decades against the poor. He’s absolutely right that this is being completely ignored by the politicians and the media, and that this is a national tragedy. In fact, it has gotten to the point where whenever inequality is raised in the media, the victim is almost always identified as the “middle class” rather than the “poor,” since the audience is presumed to be so much better able to relate to the former than the latter. In other words, the middle class has now come to represent a more sympathetic group of victims than the poor. This is, indeed, a sad development.

But it begs the question of what to do to solve the problem. What I want to hear from Mr. Brooks and any other limousine-moderates who share his perspective is how they plan on calling attention to the plight of the poor if not by supporting the Occupy movement. From where I’m sitting, this has got to be a two-step process. First, the Howard Beales among us must rage against the rapacity of the Gordon Gekkos. (Hell, if we turn away from Hollywood and back toward history, we can find an even better example of the real villains here. Our nation’s 1% may best be compared to Marie Antoinette, whose immortal response to the underclass -- “let them eat cake” – is a perfect summary of the Herman Cain and Rick Perry tax plans.) Only by pointing out that even that great engine of capitalism – greed -- can be taken too far can we focus the attention of the American public on the issue of economic inequality and convince the public that too much inequality must not be tolerated. Full stop.

Then, and only then, will we be able to take on what Brooks views as the more pernicious type of inequality than the hoarding of wealth by the 1% -- namely, such problems as the “inequalities of family structure, child rearing patterns and educational attainment” that so defeat the aspirations of our nation’s underclass. Brooks went on to lament the “nation’s stagnant human capital, its stagnant social mobility and the disorganized social fabric for the bottom 50 percent.” And he announced his “ultimate goal” as the need to “expand opportunity.” I share his view that those problems and that goal should be front and center in our minds. And that is why, in my first novel, I called for a national war on poverty, which would need to be fought by all able-bodied people in both the public and private sectors and which would address both cultural and economic concerns.

Yet after I wrote that book, do you know what happened? I opened my eyes and ears to anyone who placed fighting poverty at the top of their agenda, but heard hardly a whisper. The silence was especially noteworthy when it comes to the world of politics – big time, national politics. In that domain, the only spokesman was good ol’ John Edwards. You know him well. He’s the slick attorney with the flowing hair. The one who loved to talk about the “two Americas.” The guy who hated poverty so much that he built a 30,000 square foot house for himself, and then took it upon himself to destroy his own marriage – no doubt, in order to demonstrate the tragedy of out-of-wedlock births. That, my fellow poverty haters, is our patron saint. That is our voice in the wilderness. The rest of the politicians – indeed, the rest of the chattering class generally – said nary a word about the plight of the poor.

It’s a basic law of nature that you’ve got to walk before you can run. And that principle applies just as much to the political marketplace of ideas. Prior to the commencement of the Occupy movement, the poor simply had no real voices in Washington, other than a few relatively powerless members of the House of Representatives. And yes, even now, the anti-poverty voices are muted. But at least now the issue of economic inequality has entered the national consciousness, and the need to do something about it is gaining traction. The only way this could have happened is for a group of young disaffected Americans to identify a group of villains and shine a bright light on their faces. Fortunately, with limited exceptions, events have not gotten violent, and I pray with all my heart that the protests remain peaceful. An America without the respect for law and order would cease to be America. We must keep things safe, legal, and orderly. But we must not stop the protests.

Is there any doubt that our system currently caters more to the 1% than the 99%? Is there any doubt that we are evolving into the type of capitalism excoriated by Dickens and Marx, each in their own unique ways? Those like me who actually believe in capitalism but see it as a means, not an end in itself, recognize the need to right this ship. And aside from the Occupiers, there are no other hands on deck.

What is the old Biblical expression? And the children shall lead? In this case, I think it’s not so much the children, but the unemployed young adults. Occupy away!