Saturday, February 25, 2012


Please allow me briefly to check in, even though we are still within my self-imposed exile from blogging (which I expect to last a month or so).

Am I the only one who is disgusted with the recommendation of the liberal website, Daily Kos, to urge Democrats to register as a Republican and vote for Rick Santorum? I realize that Santorum’s defining characteristic is bigotry and that he is almost certainly unelectable. In other words, a vote for Santorum is indeed a vote for Obama. But does that give us Democrats the right to try to subvert the will of the Republican electorate and deprive them of the opportunity to nominate who THEY want to nominate? Talk about the ends justifying the means.

The Daily Kos’ plan is a repeat of Rush Limbaugh’s “Vote for Hillary” campaign from four years ago. At the time Limbaugh came up with the idea, I thought it was a clear indication that he really does have no respect for democracy or the American system of government. Now, I’m forced to raise these same concerns with the Daily Kos. Let’s let the Republicans nominate who they want to nominate. Have you looked at their talent mill? Any of their candidates is highly likely to lose in the fall.

Speaking of the horse race itself, have you noticed the fascinating dynamic of the recent Republican debates? As soon as one of the Lilliputians who have been chasing Romney finally takes the lead in the polls, he lays an egg. It happened to Gingrich in the debates after he won in South Carolina. And it happened to Santorum this past week. Strangely, whatever fighting spirit brought them to the precipice of victory vanished, they seemed content to play defense rather than attack with a vengeance, and, as a result, Romney rolled over them like a tank.

How can we explain that development? Had these men gotten so drunk by the prospect of their own victory that they couldn't lower themselves to get back into the trenches? I would have expected that reaction from a narcissistic personality who is deluded by the idea of his own greatness, and while I don't know if that description applies to Gingrich or Santorum, it certainly doesn't seem implausible. Surely, neither of those men could have been so clueless as to think he could just show up and out-patrician Romney. Mitt will always be the leading aristocrat in this field. The only way to defeat him is to challenge him where he is most vulnerable – on the idea that he is a dishonest politician who says whatever the thinks people want to hear, or that he is totally out of touch with the needs of the poor or the middle class. The key word there is “challenge.” It requires the kind of risk-taking and passion that Mitt hasn’t had to worry about from his challengers once they reached the top of the polls.

Frankly, I’m tempted to say that the race is finally over (for I do think Mitt will win both Michigan and Arizona), but I’ll hold off this time and at least wait to see what happens a week from now in the south. A clear defeat there could indeed create one final chance for an upset. If so, Mitt's pursuers had better start throwing punches, rather than simply smiling and trying to “look Presidential.” Say what you want about Gingrich and Santorum, but “looking Presidential” is not in their bag of tricks.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Any loyal reader of the Empathic Rationalist must know how scrupulous I’ve been over the years in ensuring that there is at least one blog post every week. For the next several weeks, we’re about to test that resolve.

My job is going to require me to be out of town and feverishly busy for the rest of February and much of March. So … I’m warning you now that you should expect very little if anything from this quadrant of cyberspace – at least not until “March Madness” really heats up in earnest.

In that vein, I have only the time today to give you some very cursory thoughts on the events of the week. Here goes:

1. Are you watching closely how the Syrian regime has been behaving? Does that give you a better idea of just how difficult it has been for Israel to make peace with all of its neighbors? That is not to say that all of these neighbors are equally difficult – Jordan, for example, has treated Israel in a much friendlier way over the decades. But the fact remains that what Israel wants is a full peace – not just the kind it obtained with the Camp David accords back during the Carter Administration – and that is no easy task, given the neighborhood.

2. Wasn’t it nice to see the way the Obama Administration handled the great contraceptive controversy? This was clearly an issue that required a compromise, for both sides could point to a strong interest on their side: reproductive freedom versus freedom of religious expression. In situations like that, you look for compromises rather than extreme positions. This is obviously what comes naturally for Obama. He’s a born mediator. Where he falls down is when it comes time to fight for a particular position, since he’s so often pushed around by the other side. In this case, there was no “other side” – just two groups of Americans with legitimate positions.

3. That said, I was personally offended when I was watching Cardinal Wuerl from the District of Columbia appear on the Morning Joe program and try to present the contraceptive controversy as if it were a one-sided issue. The Cardinal was asked his opinion of a proposed compromise in which Catholic hospitals would be directed to give patients a document stating how they can get contraceptive information from other providers. And he had the chutzpah to compare this to asking a school to give children a document on how they can find pornography. Really? This is the top ranking official of the Catholic church in your nation’s capital, and that’s the best analogy he can come up with? Comparing contraception with pornography for children? That’s the worst analogy I’ve heard since Santorum brought up “man/dog” sex in relation to gay sex. What century is this?

4. Speaking of contraception, how insane is it for the major breast cancer charity to take on Planned Parenthood? What millennium is this?

5. You’ve got to love that the new sensation for the New York Knicks played brilliantly in Palo Alto High School but couldn’t get a basketball scholarship so he ended up playing for Harvard … after which he was not drafted by the pros. Why didn’t the schools in the Pac 10 want him? His race (Asian)? His height (a mere 6’ 3”)? The fact that he didn’t carry enough weapons in the locker room, drive drunk, assault women, or generally act like a punk (see, e.g., much of the NBA)? I’ll guess we’re just left to speculate on that one.

6. It’s heart-warming to see Mittens win a caucus again, even if it was in his own backyard (Maine) and by the slimmest of margins. It’s important that he get some love and some votes. After all, from what I can tell, his entire candidacy is about nothing more than the desire to get love and votes. I can’t for the life of me figure out any other reason why he’s running – any agenda, any principles, any vision, any passion ... (See, e.g., the end of the movie “the Candidate,” in which the empty-suit politician played by Robert Redford, after winning the election, asks the proverbial question “Now what do we do?”)

7. Sorry about the Super Bowl prediction. Really, if you want to know which football team to bet on, just ask me before the game, listen to my analysis, and then bet on the other team. You’ll be rich in no time.

8. I can’t believe it took me until now to watch Tarantino’s Death Proof. As flawed as that movie is – and its dialogue is frequently insipid – when it’s good, it’s REALLY good. I haven’t seen a Tarantino movie yet for which I couldn’t make that claim. The guy has serious skills … in addition to his serious perversions. Both are all-too-obvious.

9. Today, I am planning on visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum with a group from the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington. What would this world be like if every Muslim visited a Holocaust museum or Concentration Camp, and every Jew visited a city in the West Bank? How about if I stipulated that they visit them unarmed?

10. If I don’t have much to say over the next few weeks, please enjoy the rest of the “winter” despite the fact that it never seems to get cold. And the next time someone mentions “climate change,” just click your heels a few times, think about Kansas (or some other Red State) and repeat the magic words: “Climate change is a hoax. Climate change is a hoax. Climate change is a hoax.” There, doesn’t that feel better? No? Yeah, it doesn’t make me feel better either. So what do you say we don’t give up the fight; there’s too much at stake.

Saturday, February 04, 2012


Every now and then, so many compelling topics arise that I cannot confine my blog post to a single one. So here you go – a few different topics for the price of one.

Allow me to begin with what I call “Revenge of the Nerds,” or perhaps it is better to say “One Nerd’s Vindication.” As a huge fan of the 17th century Dutch-Jewish philosopher Spinoza, I am accustomed to hearing from people how Spinoza’s philosophy is the height of esoterica. One friend compared my interest in Spinoza to having a passion for falconry. He might have just as well said taxidermy, or the study of Klingonese. Curious little pursuits for curious little minds, right?

Well … perhaps not. You may recall that in the summer of 2010, I hyped a play about Spinoza that was showing at Washington’s excellent Jewish playhouse, Theatre J. Here’s the blog post, for those of you who have better things to do than memorize the Empathic Rationalist.

What I didn’t realize when I wrote that post was just how much of a hit the play would be. Now don’t get me wrong, I still don’t expect Hollywood to make it into a film, with Ryan Gosling playing Spinoza. But the fact remains that in the summer of 2010, Theatre J took a play that focused exclusively on Spinoza’s excommunication and sold out one showing after another. Now, as if to drive a stake through the heart of anyone who has ever mocked a nerd for any reason, Theatre J is bringing the play back. That’s right, my fellow bookworms, from February 29, 2012 to April 1, 2012, “New Jerusalem, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656” will be available to Washington DC theatre devotees … and other proud nerds, like me.

I admit there is a bit of irony in having this play begin on Leap Day and end on April Fool’s Day. It suggests that the play is a tribute to the weird and the ridiculous, which is precisely the opposite of what I’m trying to suggest. Now I would concede that Spinoza isn’t for everyone. He’ll never give rise to a popular religion. Hell, he might not even give rise to a viral video. But at least he has become the subject of an entertaining, inspiring and even somewhat popular play. I heard many a non-Spinozist tell me back in the summer of 2010 that they weren’t expecting to like it, but they really did.

So, if you live in or around DC and you missed the chance to see the play in 2010, don’t think twice about it: get your tickets now. And allow me in particular to recommend coming to the theatre on April 1, 2012, which is being hyped as a “Spinozium” -- an all-day event, highlighted by many celebrities. One non-celebrity (myself), will be giving a lecture at noon to introduce Spinoza’s philosophy.

In short, whether you’re a nerd, or one of those “cool people” who always nabbed the girls we liked, if you know the meaning of “esoterica,” “Talmud” or “excommunication,” I’ve got the play for you. Call 202-777-3214 to order tickets.

Next, let’s turn from the mind of a true saint, to the heart of a true politician. I’m referring to a man who has just sewn up the Republican nomination for President, Willard Mitt Romney.

This was supposed to be his coronation week. He won the Florida primary in a rout, and his closest competitor – the guy who was named after an amphibian – seems to have lost either interest or hope in the campaign. So, what does Mittens do to celebrate? He goes on CNN Wednesday morning and belches out the following:

"I'm in this race because I care about Americans. I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich, they're doing just fine. I'm concerned about the very heart of the America, the 90 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling."

I’m not often given the chance to quote Rush Limbaugh with approval, but here’s what old Rush had to say in response to the above comments, and frankly, it’s spot on: “He comes across as the prototypical rich Republican. And it's gonna make it harder and harder and harder and harder to go after Obama because this turns around on him.”

You think? The real problem with what Romney said is not that he expressed his thoughts poorly; it’s that he expressed his feelings well. It has been decades since a President from either Party devoted many of his energies to helping the “very poor.” Presidents take care of the rich, first and foremost, because they give the most money. Secondly, Presidents try to help the middle class, because they provide the most votes. The poor? They can’t do much for Presidents, so why should Presidents do much for them?

Perhaps Romney’s self-disclosure wouldn’t have garnered such exposure if it had not just revealed his lack of empathy, but also the fundamental phoniness of his campaign. His implication that what the poor need the most is a “safety net” thoroughly contradicts the talking points of the far right, which he had been consistently adopting in pandering his way to the nomination. According to the mantra of the GOP, what’s keeping the poor down is the availability of welfare, and once that “safety net” is removed, they’ll be forced to pick themselves up by the bootstraps and seize the opportunity to turn themselves into capitalist success stories … or else. Mitt has been voicing that thought as regularly as a metronome until his gaffe this Wednesday morning. Somehow, an evil Jinn reached into his heart and forced him to tell a national audience what he really thinks: he’s trying to win an election and poor people can’t help him do that. Why is this news? That we finally have an honest politician? Or is it that in order for a politician to be honest, he has to misspeak?

The funny thing about Romney’s gaffe is that there’s no way to spin it so that he can claim to care about the poor. He went on, you see, to double down on the above statement: “I said I’m not concerned about the very poor that have the safety net, but if it has holes in it, I will repair them. The challenge right now — we will hear from the Democrat Party the plight of the poor. And there’s no question, it’s not good being poor, and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor. But my campaign is focused on middle income Americans. My campaign — you can choose where to focus. You can focus on the rich, that’s not my focus. You can focus on the very poor. That’s not my focus. My focus is on middle income Americans, retirees living on Social Security, people who can’t find work, folks that have kids getting ready to go to college. These are the people who have been most badly hurt during the Obama years. We have a very ample safety net, and we can talk about whether it needs to be strengthened or whether there are holes in it. But we have food stamps, we have Medicaid, we have housing vouchers, we have programs to help the poor.”

How much more clearly can he make the point? If elected, he is not going to make the uplift of the poor a major focus of his Presidency. He is specifically differentiating between the needs of the poor and the needs of the middle class, and opting to emphasize the latter over the former – because the needs of the poor are already well taken care of. If that sounds like crazy talk to you, it does to me as well. But apparently, it’s how Willard Mitt Romney, who has been a zillionaire all his life, sees the world. And he now has a good chance of becoming the world’s most powerful person. If that’s not a sad commentary on our current state of affairs, I don’t know what is.

Turning to my next topic, I’m compelled to mention a certain event that will begin at around 6:30 eastern time tomorrow evening and may be witnessed by a billion souls around the world. It’s déjà vu all over again: the Patriots versus the Giants. They played a great Super Bowl game three years ago, and because I have no dog in this fight, I’m hoping above all else for a great, competitive game this year. And I’m expecting one.

The Las Vegas odds makers came out of the chute predicting the Patriots. But since then, all the “experts” have suggested that the Giants will win. Me? I’m duty bound this weekend to go for the Pats, and if you ask why, just consider the title of this blog post. In the Patriots, we have a team led by a coach who attended, not Ohio State, Oklahoma or Florida State, but that other national football power: Wesleyan University. And how has this unimposing graduate of a small liberal arts college led his team to five Super Bowl appearances and three Super Bowl championships in 11 years? Well, OK, he did get caught violating NFL rules by surreptitiously videotaping an opponent; nobody ever said nerds can’t be sleazy. But what was perhaps even more important was that his team drafts not only for speed and strength but intelligence and character. That’s why they always seem to get the most out of their talent level. That’s why their players don’t seem to make the same bonehead plays that so often seem to be decisive in football games.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the pigskin this week, not because of the Super Bowl, but because the college football recruiting season came to a head on Wednesday, and when it was all over, my beloved Stanford Cardinal is said to have had one of the top five or six recruiting classes in the nation. It’s probably their most highly touted recruiting class ever. And I guarantee you that a number of these five-star athletes chose the school not because it had the nation’s best football program but because, of the competitive football programs, Stanford is the one that offers the highest level of academics.

Twenty years ago, Stanford football was barely on the radar screen. Five-star recruits would have laughed at the idea of choosing Palo Alto over Gainesville, Tallahassee, Blacksburg, or Norman. But now, apparently, nerds are hip. You can see it in our choices of theatrical productions. (“Back by popular demand, Spinoza!”) You can see it in our choices of colleges for football players. (“Win one for the physics department!) And tomorrow evening, I suspect you’ll see it in the results of the Super Bowl.

By the way, Patriots Coach Bill Belichick majored in economics while at Wesleyan. Maybe if he wins the Big One and meets up with Mittens on the trail, he can explain that the “very poor” are … what is the word … ah yes -- needy. When it comes to the politicians in our lives, so are we.

And last but not least, I want to wish a happy 19th birthday to one of the people with the biggest hearts I have ever had the pleasure to know. My precious little girl, Rebecca.

Rebecca – whatever you do, stay out of politics.