Sunday, March 25, 2012


A few days have elapsed since my most recent trip to Monticello, which remains one of my favorite spots to visit. My daughters and I made the 2 ½ hour drive there from DC, and whenever I go, the itinerary is always the same. First to Monticello, see the house there, lounge around on the lawn, gaze at the mountains, and then head to downtown Charlottesville, where we all can see the prime accomplishment of Thomas Jefferson’s old age, the University of Virginia. I never feel right celebrating Jefferson without visiting that school, just like I’d never order a martini without the olives. He may have fancied himself a farmer above all else, but I know that it wasn’t crops he most wanted to cultivate – it was the human mind. And few of those have been more cultivated than Thomas Jefferson’s.

During my pilgrimages to Monticello, I invariably spend much of my time simply marveling at the breadth of Jefferson’s passions and the depth of his accomplishments. But this time, when I raised that point with my daughters, I heard the inevitable response: so much of what Jefferson was able to accomplish was due to his slaves. It certainly wasn’t a point I could argue with. Jefferson had several scores of slaves at his disposal, and they included a number of highly skilled workers. Living in captivity on that plantation were teachers, farmers, chefs, blacksmiths, brewers, and animal caregivers, among others. And the more I admired the work done on that plantation, the more I came to see Jefferson in the role of the CEO and the slaves as his professional workforce.

Just as Jefferson wouldn’t have been Jefferson without his slaves, we who work in white collar jobs couldn’t live our affluent lives were it not for the blue collar workforce that serves our own community. They supply the food and wine, pave the roads, build the bridges, clean the houses, and provide our clothes. No, we don’t enslave them. In fact, we even pay them. But when we do pay them, we live according to a fiction that our marketplace determines precisely how “valuable” their work is compared to our own. That is why so many people aren’t outraged when they read articles indicating that CEOs tend to earn hundreds of times as much money as their workforce (

Personally, I am outraged by the discrepancy in pay, but that’s not to say I detest the CEO beneficiaries of it any more than I detest Jefferson. He remains a hero of mine. In fact, I will point out here what I told my daughters when I was reminded of the source of his wealth: many aristocrats in slave owning or feudal societies served as lords over a mansion, but precious few have cultivated themselves and served their planets as marvelously as did Jefferson. In his own culture, he committed neither crime nor sin; he simply took advantage of the opportunities made available to him by virtue of his station in life. And indeed, one can say the same thing about the modern day CEO. Many of these men and women oversee companies that produce incredibly useful goods or services for our society. Resenting them, simply because they accept the salary that the market will bear, is small minded and shallow. But that is not to say that we need to accept today’s discrepancies in wealth any more than we accept the slaveholding practices of our nation’s past.

Market-based economics makes sense (and dollars) for so many reasons. Remove market-based incentives, and you remove the engine of prosperity. Stated differently, to force feed absolute economic equality is merely to ensure that all will be equally poor.

But while pure socialism is one extreme, post-Reagan capitalism is its book end – and it is no less absurd. If the above-referenced study is correct, the “masters” of our economic house now receive 343 times as high an income as their average worker. Worse yet, the centripetal forces that govern our society seem to be moving that number higher and higher. It is precisely the kind of Dickensian model that fueled Marx and his followers, who were every bit as hell bent on destroying the excesses of capitalism as the laissez-faire crowd is in expunging any semblance of “social engineering.”

What I am asking for, by contrast, is to put ideology aside for a moment and focus instead on sanity. Are we not all working together to make this society prosperous and free? Do some of us really need hundreds of times what the rest of us earn in order to motivate themselves to work hard?

I’m quite sure that Jefferson didn’t need that kind of incentive. And I doubt modern American executives do either. Let’s take a serious look at our tax system and make it both simpler and fairer. That way, we can all bask in the accomplishments of the masters of our economy without looking at them as selfish, greedy, or flat out rapacious. But remember – just as Jefferson couldn’t bring himself to dismantle “the peculiar institution,” the CEOs can’t be expected to fight for progressive tax reform. That job belongs to the rest of us. We’re free, we’re educated, and we’re capable of appreciating what Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. So what are we waiting for?

Sunday, March 18, 2012


It's that time of the year again -- the time when I ask your indulgence to read an essay that is longer than the typical blogpost. This essay is a call to action for a sorely needed organization. Please go to my website -- -- and the "Annual Purim Speeches" page. This year's model is entitled "Purim 2012."

I hope you find the piece provocative.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Diogenes famously searched the world for the one honest man. Me? I’m still searching for the one progressive American President. Perhaps my problem is that I’m too young to remember the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson. But I do remember every president since then, and not one has fit the bill.

Today, we have a president in Barack Obama who spent years avoiding any serious effort to repeal the Bush tax cuts for the rich and who still refuses to endorse the rights of consenting gay adults to get married. And yet, he’ll still be the progressive choice in the next election. His opponent, you see, actually admitted that he isn’t concerned about the poor because they already have what they need – welfare. From a progressive standpoint, the choice might be clear, but it’s not exactly between 1 and 1-A. Like the old saw goes, “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” .

Ah, my fellow progressives, but help is on the way, and from unexpected quarters. I’m talking about none other than Pat Robertson. You may remember Pat. He is to televangelism what the ambulance chasers are to law. After every pandemic or natural disaster, we’ve always been able to count on Pat to turn the tragedy into an opportunity to talk about sin and God’s judgment. Sometimes, Pat doesn’t even wait until the tragedy takes place. So, for example, after Disney World decided to hold a “gay day,” Pat responded that this will “bring about terrorist bombs; it'll bring earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor.” Pat’s God, you see, isn’t a big fan of gays, Muslims, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, “judicial activists,” secular humanists, the “liberal-biased media,” or concepts like “one man one vote” in countries (like South Africa) where the whites are in the minority. If people were dogs, you would definitely call this guy a pure bred Greyhaired Rightwinger. Not one of my favorite breeds.

But as the old cliche goes, every dog has his day. And Pat definitely deserves props for his comments this week. In case you haven’t heard, Pat came out in support of the legalization of marijuana. He claimed that pot should be treated like alcohol because the war on drugs is a failure. And he backed up this position with some of the most sensible words that have been expressed on the topic: “I just think it's shocking how many of these young people wind up in prison and they get turned into hardcore criminals because they had a possession of a very small amount of a controlled substance. The whole thing is crazy. We've said, 'Well, we're conservatives, we're tough on crime.' That's baloney."

What Robertson is referring to would be obvious to anyone who pays even a whit of attention to what goes on in the inner city. If the suburbs are the “college track,” the inner city is the “prison track.” Indeed, the plight of the African-American male today is something that would make the founders of Jim Crow proud. When these men are caught doing the same things as their white counterparts do in the suburbs – having a little toke --they enter into a life of disenfranchisement and captivity, whereas the boys and girls in the suburbs get a slap on the wrist and a stern warning from their parents.

According to a 2003 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 32% of African-American men born in 2001 can expect to spend time in prison. That’s more than six times the rate of white people. It is a number that should shock our conscience, especially when we realize how much of this is due to the different ways that society treats blacks and whites when it comes to the enforcement of drug laws.

It is a sad commentary on our society that it takes a loon like Pat Robertson to speak out on the plight of the inner city. By contrast, our top political leaders pay the inner city no attention at all. They are too busy pandering to the middle class to notice that there are tens of millions of poor Americans who are casualties, directly or indirectly, of our so-called war on drugs. They live in an environment where the easiest way to “succeed” isn’t to go to med school or law school but to get a couple of cell phones and a scale and start dispensing narcotics. It’s difficult to imagine any inner-city family without at least some members who are caught up in the cycle of dealing, using, and serving time.

The way we neglect our poor continues to be a blight upon our nation’s claim to religiosity. The way we discriminate between “white crimes” and “black crimes” continues to be a blight upon our nation’s claim to justice. The way we pander to the middle class as if they were our most needy citizens continues to be a blight upon our system of democracy. And believe me, these problems have been going on long enough that we can’t solve them in a flash – it will take work and patience. But if you’re looking for a good place to start, listen to Loopy Pat. Let’s withdraw a bit from our war on drugs. And yes, let’s start with laying off the pot. This isn’t about the freedom to get stoned. It’s about freeing the inner cities from the power of the drug dealers and the criminal culture that they breed. Besides, drug users needn’t be thought of as criminals. Fools? Sure. But that doesn’t make them worthy of confinement.

Sunday, March 04, 2012


Two news stories this weekend are dominating my thoughts. Both involve people who acted despicably, then got publicly castigated for their actions, and are now apologizing. We should accept their apologies with appreciation, as it always better to admit when you’ve gone too far. Still, it is one thing to accept their apologies, and quite another to consider the matters resolved. In these cases, the actions are hurtful enough that an apology alone doesn’t resolve anything.

The first of the two stories involves one of the most dangerous people in the world. And yes, he’s a very prominent American. If you want to know why our nation’s capital has turned into such a ring of pugilism, where polarization reigns supreme and moderates either leave the city or turn themselves into extremists, look no further than the man I’m talking about. He and his fellow talking heads on the radio have created an environment where liberals are routinely vilified. It is not enough for him to explain why he disagrees with liberals; he has to speak about them like they are beneath contempt. He has to use language soaked in hatred, strip them of any claim to dignity, and whip up his listeners so that on literally every issue imaginable, they will find no common ground with the positions associated with liberalism and the Democratic Party.

The man I am referring to is Rush Limbaugh. And this weekend was an unusual one for Rush not because the nation is talking about his hate mongering, but because this time, he actually apologized. Even Rush seems to realize that he went too far.

The incident involves a previously unknown 30-year old law student named Sandra Fluke. Fluke, who attends the Georgetown Law Center, a Jesuit institution, participated in a Democratic hearing on the Administration’s policy that would require employees to provide free contraception coverage. Georgetown opposes providing that coverage for religious reasons, and Fluke testified in support of the Administration’s policy. In that regard, she placed herself squarely in the mainstream of public opinion. Speaking as a man, I know for a fact that the vast majority of our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters agree with her.

Rush doesn’t, and that’s his prerogative. What is NOT his prerogative is to de-humanize Ms. Fluke in front of millions of listeners, but then again, that is precisely what Rush has done to good people throughout his career. He called her a "slut" and "prostitute” who is asking the American taxpayer to pay her for having sex. He suggested that if we taxpayers are supposed to pay for women to engage in intercourse, they should have to post videos of their sex lives so that the rest of us can watch. And later, Rush suggested that Ms. Fluke is “having so much sex” that she cannot pay for her own contraceptives.

I give the man credit for his imagination. But let’s be candid: he sounds more than a little demented.

In a sense, Ms. Fluke should consider herself lucky. The image of her copulating, which Rush has so graciously provided to the world, is infinitely preferable to the image he once gave us of Parkinson’s Disease sufferer Michael J. Fox. I will never forget the video of Rush mocking Fox by moving his head back and forth, like a fifth grade bully might mock an autistic or effeminate child, or whatever other boy he felt like stripping of his humanity. Rush Limbaugh is, at bottom, a schoolyard bully. And so far, the rest of us have been his enablers. We’re the voyeurs who stand back and watch him trash and destroy his prey. Even if we don’t like what he says or does, we don’t dare do anything about it. In my case, I’ve gone as far as to listen to his show on multiple occasions, for I appreciate the opportunity to gather perspectives different from my own. Now, that will stop. We all must stop supporting this man.

Thankfully, American citizens have the right to spew noxious fumes over the airwaves. I don’t wish to change that. Let Rush have his radio show, and let the most stupid and bigoted Americans continue to listen to him.. But we also live in a nation where sensible people have the right to stand up for civility and sanity, and to engage in practices like boycotts. In this case, it is imperative that we find out which companies are advertising on Rush’s show, and boycott those companies. And as much as I hate even to suggest this, we might want to boycott the radio stations who broadcast his bile. The reason I hate to suggest that is because we need to know what is being said on right-wing radio – we all need to understand the arguments that are being made, whether we agree with them or not. But when it comes to Rush, there we must draw the line. He is just too hateful, too disrespectful, too bigoted … too boorish. In the name of Sandra Fluke, which is now associated with sex and prostitution by millions of Americans, let’s please marginalize Rush Limbaugh. Boycott the bastard’s enablers. Please.

Now, for apology number two.

I must begin by admitting my own association with the bad acts at issue. When I was a boy, I absolutely loved football. I wanted my teams to win at all costs, and if I saw one of them deliver a hit that required an opposing player to be carted off the field, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. Football, I thought, was a contact sport, and injuries were a part of the game. While I absolutely hated to see the players I rooted for get injured, I could care less about the players on the other teams. It was a pathetic attitude, and I won’t try to sugar coat it. You deserve the truth.

Fortunately, I did grow up. And that allowed me to take a more objective vision of the violent side of football and consider its effects on the long-term health of its players. Even though I still love the game, I now advocate whatever reforms are reasonably necessary to make this inherently violent sport as relatively injury free as possible. I realize that “football” and “safe” do not go together, but there is still a lot we can do to minimize the damage caused by this beloved sport. Supposedly, the folks who run the National Football League want to make safety a priority. This weekend, they are truly being put to the test.

The story to which I refer involves the concept of a “bounty.” Reportedly, on multiple NFL teams, players were paid rewards (bounties) for injuring their opponents. The New Orleans Saints, for example, have admitted that they instituted such a system for the past three years, one of which ended in a Super Bowl victory. Under their system, players received money for causing different types of injuries, and the amount of the bounty depended on whether hits resulted in “knockouts” or “cart offs.” A former member of the Washington Redskins acknowledged that his team instituted a similar system. And a prominent former coach of the Indianapolis Colts has alleged that the Tennessee Titans had placed a bounty on any hit that would result in the injury of Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. In fact, some NFL observers are now speculating that more teams have a bounty system than don’t. This, my friends, is a serious scandal.

So far, the poster child of Bounty-Gate is the former defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins, Greg Williams. He has publicly apologized for supporting the bounty system, and the talking heads on ESPN are already speculating on just how many games the league will suspend him next year for his conduct. Correct me if I’m wrong, though, but if the scandal is as widespread as it sounds, can we really fix this problem simply by suspending a single assistant coach for a few games (or, as is also being discussed, docking the Saints a few draft picks)? Doesn’t the league have to act in such a way that those who perpetrated this conduct won’t, at the end of the day, feel that it was worth it?

For starters, the league should strip the New Orleans Saints of their championship. It was earned illegitimately. So why does it remain on the books? (I still remember all the cheap shots that team took at the Cardinals’ and Vikings’ quarterbacks during the playoffs; these were hard hits that were made after the plays were over and that were intended purely to injure the other team’s best players. And yes, such shots are effective. But they have nothing to do with football and everything to do with cheating. I laughed at this kind of crap in the movie M*A*S*H, but they do not belong in a legitimate sport.)

Secondly, Greg Williams and other coaches and players whose names are associated with the above conduct shouldn’t be suspended for games, but for years. Otherwise, the penalties will feel like slaps on the wrist.

Finally, as for the penalty of removing draft picks from teams, the league should find out which teams engaged in this conduct and punish ALL teams for which there is compelling evidence of bounty payments, not just one. This is not a New Orleans Saints problem. This is a National Football League problem. And if indeed bounties were the norm, maybe we should add draft picks for those teams that made the decision to lose games rather than implement the offensive “bounty” strategy.

This is too important a matter to be resolved by scapegoating. Football has a violence problem and always will have a violence problem, but there is violence that is inherent in the game and violence that isn’t, and it is time to put an end to the latter, root and branch. This will be a test for the suits who run the league. Are they serious about cleaning up the sport? Or is all their talk about safety just a bunch of P.R.? Thanks to Bounty-Gate, we’re about to find out.