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.

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