Saturday, September 29, 2012


I always thought it was one of the more absurd Star Trek episodes.  Apparently, I was wrong.

“A Taste of Armageddon,” which aired during the original Star Trek’s first season, has a bizarre premise.  Two planets have been engaged in a longstanding war that has been taking a tragic toll in claiming human lives.  Yet, when an Enterprise landing party visits one of the warring planets, Eminiar VII, everything appears to be perfectly orderly and intact.  One can see no visible signs whatsoever of the war.  Here’s the rub: the people of Eminiar VII and its adversary, Vendicar, have determined that battles waged with bombs and bullets are too destructive to their planets’ environments and social infrastructures.   So they agreed to fight their war exclusively through computer simulations.  When a “hit” is registered, the people who would have otherwise died if the war had been fought conventionally are expected voluntarily to walk into a disintegration chamber and give up their lives in earnest.  And this is the way the two planets have coexisted for more than 500 years.  

Watching that episode as a kid, I remember being struck by the utter senselessness of the conduct.   It seemed ridiculous that people would stroll calmly and resolutely to their deaths while the rest of their society went about their lives as if they weren’t even aware that a war was taking place.   Eminiar VII, on the surface, was prosperous, civilized, and peaceful.   Even the casualties accepted their fate with equanimity – clearly, they had bought in to the rationality of a computer-simulated war as a necessary evil when compared to the alternative.  But for the viewer who was watching this drama play out on TV, it appeared to be nothing less than insane.  And indeed, one of the reasons why “A Taste of Armageddon” is not generally viewed as one of the best Star Trek offerings is because its premise lacked the realism of some other episodes.

Well, that was one screenwriter’s dystopia.  Now, let’s look at our own.  

While it is true that America has hardly been at war for half a millennium, in two weeks, our troops will have finished their 11th year of fighting in Afghanistan – not exactly a brief sojourn.  Here in Bethesda, Maryland, one of our nation’s more affluent suburbs, there are no visible signs of this conflict.  In fact, there never has been.  We don’t send our boys and girls off to fight.  They go on to college, graduate school, and then to places like corporate law firms and medical practices.  We understand that our nation is at war, but it doesn’t affect our day-to-day lives.  Lord knows, we’re not expecting our enemies in Afghanistan to wreak destruction here at home.  As far as our society is concerned, a small number of casualties will walk into potential disintegration chambers – otherwise known as planes en route to Afghanistan – and some will live whereas others will die.  But they are the only ones who are at risk in this war.   We Bethesda homeowners are not, and nor are our children.  

Maybe one of the reasons that the Star Trek war seemed so absurd was that there was no part of Eminiar society that could escape it.  Even in the capital city, you were potentially at risk.   And yet, nobody seemed desperate to stop the conflict.  Here in Bethesda, by contrast, we truly are out of harm’s way.  We can effectively buy our way out of the disintegration chambers.  Others, who need the money, are more than willing to fight in our stead, and our society thinks nothing of asking them to spend one tour of duty after another in the fields of battle.  As in Eminiar, nobody is launching any bombs here in Bethesda.  So honestly, for my hometown, this war could go on for another 500 years, and the only consequences to us would be an increase in our taxes or in our national debt.   Yeah, it’s annoying – but it’s a whole lot better than risking our lives.  

I bring up Bethesda, not only because I live here, but so do many lawmakers.  Or they might live in some of the other affluent DC bedroom communities, which are similarly safe from the fighting abroad.  Unfortunately, things aren’t so peaceful in less affluent parts of America.  In those areas, young people do volunteer for war, primarily as a means to improve themselves economically.   Some return intact and with greatly enhanced skills that they can apply in the job market.  Others return, but with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.  We personally have heard about soldiers with PTSD returning “safely” to America, only to die here in seemingly unrelated accidents.  (You’ll never see them listed as casualties of war, but their parents will tell you an altogether different story.)  And then there are those who never return – or who return, but without one or more appendages.  With each passing year, their numbers mount.   And yet … the war continues, seemingly interminably.  

Honestly, we in Bethesda are the outliers.  Sure, there are other affluent towns across the country in which none of us needs to be a casualty of war.  But most American towns and cities have seen the angel of death come knocking.  Still, as in Eminiar, nobody seems to be complaining.  Our young men and women are being summoned to their disintegration chambers and rarely do we ever hear a whisper about why.

Why indeed?  What are we accomplishing in Afghanistan?  Why are we sending our people off to die or get maimed, year after year after year?   The only time I recall this issue being raised in one of the political conventions this summer was when Clint Eastwood was talking to an empty chair.  Honestly, that was the only time.   The professional politicians in the Republican Party never questioned the wisdom behind continuing this war.  Their standard bearer, Willard Mitt Romney, didn’t even bother to thank the troops.  As for the Democratic Party, the one that used to stand for peace, their speakers were falling all over themselves to thank the troops for their service, but never once did any of the speakers feel obliged to explain the reason why these troops have to continue to risk their lives after 11 years of fighting in Afghanistan.   I’m sure that if you asked the troops what they would prefer – life and safety, or a round of applause for walking into a potential disintegration chamber – they would opt for the former, don’t you think?  And I say that not because I think soldiers are afraid to fight wars that need to be fought, but because I truly don’t believe that even the troops understand the purpose behind this war.  This much is for sure – whoever does understand that purpose isn’t explaining it well to the American public.  

Premature loss of life is tragic, whether you’re talking about the lives of TV characters or the actual lives of American soldiers (or innocent people killed abroad).   But what is perhaps even more tragic is that Americans can live in a nation that has been at war for 11 years, find themselves unable to explain what is being accomplished by this war, and yet witness a Presidential campaign in which the wisdom of the war is an absolute non-issue.  What does that say about the vitality of our democracy?  Or about us generally?   Are we as crazy as the population of Eminiar?  

Personally, I think we may be crazier.  In Eminiar, you see, the population truly thought that they were SAVING human lives and minimizing overall societal disruption by engaging in an orderly, computer-simulated war.  For them, the alternative wasn’t peace, but out-and-out Armageddon.  As it turned out, they were probably wrong.  (Once Captain Kirk and the boys showed up -- after being pronounced “casualties” and asked to go to the disintegration chambers, which they obviously refused to do -- they were able to initiate peace talks between Eminiar and Vendicar, and as the episode ended, the talks between the planets were reportedly going well.)  But at least you can vaguely understand their reasoning.  By contrast, here in America, most of us are completely dumbfounded as to what it is we’re accomplishing by beginning year number 12 of the Afghanistan War.  Do we really think we’re going to engage in successful nation building in Tora Bora?  Do we really see Afghanistan’s future in terms of Jeffersonian Democracy?   If not, what in God’s name is motivating us to destroy innocent life?  And why doesn’t any leader in either of our political parties seem to care?

  In the Democratic Convention, Bill Clinton did a great job of explaining the successes of the Obama Administration.  But even he couldn’t explain what the hell we are still doing in Afghanistan.  I guess we need a statesman even greater than Clinton, let alone Obama or Romney, to do that job.  Maybe we need someone more like Captain Kirk.  

Nah, he wouldn’t try to justify the war.  He’d just say the same thing that he said at the very end of the Original Star Trek’s greatest episode, the Hugo Award winning “The City on the Edge of Forever.”   

“Let’s get the hell out of here.”


Sunday, September 23, 2012


"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it -- that that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. ... These are people who pay no income tax. ... [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

            There was Charlie Chaplin.  The Marx Brothers.  Moe, Larry and Curley.   Jonathan Winters.   Lucille Ball.   Richard Pryor.   George Carlin.   And now, America has its next comic genius, Mitt Romney.

            I don’t mean to discount some of the other luminaries that have graced our nightclubs and movie studios.  Rodney D and Henny Y were great.  Eddie Murphy in his prime was a riot.  Buster Keaton definitely was a classic, as were Jackie Gleason and Andy Kaufman.   But for sheer comic appeal, did they ever say anything half as funny as what was captured on tape at a Mitt Romney meet-and-greet?   

            What’s nearly as funny as Mitt’s comments are the responses to it on Fox News and right-wing talk radio.  Those comedians may point out that what Mitt says wasn’t “artful,” but then they heap all sorts of praise on the thrust of his remarks – that this is a society in which self-entitled, lazy leeches abound and form the bedrock of the Democratic Party.  If anything, these talking heads want Mitt to double down on his 47 percent gag.  I’m telling you, when it comes to comedy, this new Republican Party is killin’ it!

            Personally, I’m a big fan of Rickles.  A big fan.  I’d be honored to show up at one of his acts and have him make fun of my big Jewish nose.  I’m not even offended by Rickles when he says things like this with respect to our President: “I shouldn’t make fun of the blacks, President Obama is a personal friend of mine. He was over to the house yesterday, but the mop broke.”   If Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly said that, I’d be pissed.  But Rickles?  Nah, it’s different – he’s a comedian. 

            And so is Romney.

            Seriously, Mitt is all about good fun. Unlike some of the crazy Christian Fundamentalists, he’s not creating videos that are sure to provoke violence.  Unlike some of the crazy Muslim Fundamentalists, he’s not perpetrating violence against innocent people.  In fact, Mitt isn’t hurting anybody.   He’s just telling some innocent jokes.

            When he deadpanned to a right-wing audience about Obama being born overseas, his handlers had an explanation – Mitt was just joking.   And he was obviously just joking when he was taped making the following comments (to considerable audience laughter): “I’d like to staple a green card to every Ph.D. in the world and say, ‘Come to America, we want you here.’  Instead, we make it hard for people who get educated here or elsewhere to make this their home. Unless, of course, you have no skill or experience, in which case you’re welcome to cross the border and stay here for the rest of your life.”   

            Did you know that my grandfathers made their way over here more than a century ago and proceeded to sell life insurance and venetian blinds, respectively, “for the rest of their lives”?  They didn’t have PhDs either.  They didn’t even have college educations.   But this country welcomed them anyway.   I guess it’s all pretty hysterical that America let them come despite having “no skill or experience.”   You got that right, Mitt old boy – we are one funny country!

            Personally, I don’t feel threatened by Mitt Romney.  I’m not worried that he’s going to detonate a bomb or shoot off a machine gun.  I’m not worried that he’s going to command an army.  I see him simply as a comic actor who doesn’t believe what he’s saying, can’t possibly expect anyone else to believe it either, and has mastered the deadpan delivery style.  In that regard, he reminds me of Jerry Seinfeld.  Frankly, though, I’d be surprised if Seinfeld ever said anything as ridiculous as that 47 percent of Americans believe they are victims and won’t take personal responsibility for their lives. And I’d be surprised if even Seinfeld would joke that he planned to run for President while boasting that he wouldn’t worry about 47 percent of the population.  Those don’t sound like Seinfeld lines.  They’re outrageous enough to be worthy of George Costanza.        

The truth is that the greatest comic characters, like the most brilliant comedians, don’t mind talking like complete buffoons.  That’s what makes them great.  And Mitt belongs in that category.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with next. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012


If I had my druthers, the subject of this post would be the following question: “Does the First Amendment prevent the U.S. Government from censoring ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ video?” I will not address that question because, given my day job, this blog post is a law-free zone. But I must raise the question because it is an interesting one in light of the importance of the First Amendment and the contents of that video. I would urge each of you to research this question on your own.

Now, for what I CAN address regarding the video.

I have serious questions about the judgment of You Tube and Google. Those organizations have no first amendment obligations to air the video. And clearly, there are many videos that You Tube will censor on the grounds that they are pornographic. Given that fact, and the video’s patent lack of artistic or intellectual merit, why they would choose to continue to air it so that even children can watch it is beyond me.

Other than sex acts involving children, it is difficult for me to imagine any set of sex acts more obscene than the totality of “The Innocence of Muslims.” Whether you are talking about Muhammad, Jesus, Moses or the Buddha, civilized people need to show some basic respect for these figures and for the faiths they have created. And when any of these individuals is portrayed as a sexually-perverted, bloodthirsty simpleton, which is the way Muhammad is portrayed in this video, what you are talking about is obscenity. Whenever you show one of those figures putting his head in a woman’s crotch in order to mock him as pervert, you have WAY crossed the line.

This video isn’t art. Nor is it a serious attempt to study Islam. It is pure incendiary garbage. You might as well substitute Charles Manson for the Prophet Muhammad and ask a drug-addicted tenth-grader to make a 13-minute film about him. That’s basically what this video is.

In light of the above, and given the sensitivities in the Muslim countries today about their faith, any sane person who would make this video would immediately realize that it would have a body count. That is not to justify the taking of human life in response to the video; it is merely a statement of fact. I understand that some of the violence that is taking place in the Middle East would have been taking place anyway, and this video is just a pretext for that pre-planned violence. But still, the video is so insulting, the emotions in that part of the world are so raw, and Muhammad is such a holy figure there, that to make this film at this time is beyond reckless. The issue for the filmmaker shouldn’t have been whether it would result in human deaths, but how many?

I realize that the focus of everyone’s attention in America this week is the savagery that we are observing in places like Libya, Yemen, the Sudan and Egypt, where masses have taken to the streets to protest the video. Clearly, what happened at the consulate in Benghazi was the work of sub-human animals. Those murderers might as well have been working the gas chamber gig at Auschwitz; once you get to that level of evil, you belong in the Hall of Shame, and there’s no point in assigning rankings. While I wouldn’t equate those who are, say, storming the embassy walls in Yemen to the firebombers/murderers in Benghazi, any of these protesters who resorts to an act of trespass or assault against an American embassy is behaving in a manner unworthy of our species. They remind me of the Russian peasants who would gladly take up arms against the Jews when their real problems were with the czarist regime. It’s truly a pathetic sight to see.

But please, while we must take stock of the profound problems in the Middle East, let’s not lose sight of how this episode has raised issues here in America.

To begin, this video didn’t emerge from nowhere. It is the product of Christian fanaticism operating within an environment of widespread Islamophobia. If you read the Internet comments about the video, you will find that many are defending it, not only on free speech grounds but also based on the idea that it is revealing some basic truths about Muhammad and Islam. That is just flat-out bigotry. There is no more truth in this video than there is in the blood libel story and other canards that have been peddled in recent centuries against Jews. Christians, Muslims and Jews all have their religious fanatics – we are witnessing the Muslim fanatics on TV every night, we can find the Jewish fanatics fighting peace efforts in Israel, and here in the USA, our biggest problem is fanaticism of the Christian variety. It gave us not only this video but an altogether too tolerant reaction to the video. You shouldn’t have to be Muslim to find it completely offensive.

Secondly, part of the muted reaction here in America to the substance of the video isn’t Islamophobia per se but a very different form of blindness. Perhaps as a reaction to religious fanaticism, much of America has lost its ability to respect religion in any of its manifestations. In other words, they’ve lost the sense of the sacred. And, as a result, they feel that people should just be able to shrug it off whenever a religious figure is blasted with insults, no matter how vile the insults.

The problem with that attitude is that, just as it is possible to become too intolerant and overly sensitive, it is also possible to become too tolerant. Just as many Germans had a problem with anti-Semitism in the 1930s and that problem was widely tolerated by the majority of the country, we here in America have a problem with Islamophobia that must not be tolerated. Sure, Americans have a right to be secular and non-religious, but when that secularity blinds them to the point where they are not personally offended by this video, then it has gone too far. That’s when non-religious turns into anti-religious – which can easily turn into just another form of Fundamentalism.

Finally, isn’t it a sad commentary on the American electorate that it took ill-advised comments this week by Mitt Romney before foreign affairs had any meaningful impact on the campaign for President? I’m so sick of all this “it’s the economy, stupid” talk. We sure can sound like a bunch of parochial morons, can’t we? This is the 21st century, and the world is getting more and more connected every year. When we elect a President, it’s questionable how much he or she can really do about our economy, but at least he or she can control our foreign policy. So what do we do? Ignore vital foreign policy issues as much as possible and exaggerate the President’s role over the economy. The same thing happens every four years. Apparently, in this regard, we are uneducable.

I’m still deciding whether Mitt’s bizarre statement on Tuesday night and press conference the next morning actually did us a favor. They certainly drew everyone’s attention to the events overseas. And that’s a great thing. But of course, they also did so in a way as to cause the people of this country to divide and view this whole situation in narrow partisan terms, which is tragic. So yes, we care what’s going on in the Middle East … only we care because we are viewing it through the prism of our own Presidential election.

My friends, that’s almost as twisted as “The Innocence of Muslims.” Almost, but not quite. That video is the most twisted thing I’ve seen in a long time, and that’s saying something. The fact that it is still readily available for our children to access on their computers boggles my mind. And I’m not even a Muslim. Oy vey, indeed.

Saturday, September 08, 2012


Hopefully, you have not only been spending your evenings thinking about politics lately, but devoting much of your morning and afternoon reflecting on it as well. That would certainly be the case for me during a normal political convention season. This year, however, I am just finishing an eight-day stretch during which I’ve been working practically dawn to dusk on writing my newest book. The week is finished, but the book isn’t. I’m getting there, though. I hope to have a first draft done by the end of the year, knock on wood.

What all that means is that while I’ve been watching the DNC at night, I’ve truly been giving it very little thought. Yet I can’t bear to have a whole DNC go by without at least commenting on it. So here you have my thoughts, for what they’re worth, and I offer them in no particular order.

1. Clinton’s speech felt a bit like watching Jack Nicklaus in the 1986 Masters. Jack was 46 years old, nobody had ever before won a Major at that age, and Jack hadn’t won one in years. But he won it, and that even further cemented his title of greatest of all time.

Is Clinton the greatest President of all time? No. Is he the greatest American political orator? Again, no. But with that speech, it became clear that in his party, he has no equal as a statesman in half of a century. Some of us thought Obama could be on the same level, but Clinton just argued Obama’s case ten times better in one hour than President Obama has argued it since his inauguration. It definitely made me nostalgic, and I’m not even the world’s biggest Clinton fan.

2. And speaking of nostalgia, did you all catch John Kerry? He was awesome. Like everyone else who watched the speech, I sat on my couch dumbfounded, wondering where in God’s name that guy was eight years ago. Had the Kerry from Charlotte showed up, W would have been toast. He was coming up with one zinger after another, effectively poking fun at himself, sounding Presidential … you name it, it was working. In light of the election of 2004, it’s enough to make any Democrat cry.

3. Michelle Obama’s speech was terrific. I don’t mean it in the sense that it “did what she needed to do,” which you could say for Ann Romney’s talk. I mean that it was beautifully delivered and exquisitely well written. She should bite the bullet and run for office. Why not? Politics is clearly in her blood. And judging from the size of her daughters, she’ll be an empty nester pretty soon after her husband finally leaves office.

4. Yes, that’s right. I’m penciling Obama in for re-election. I realize that he still is given less than 60 percent chance of winning on Intrade. Clearly, a lot can still happen, and if Romney wins all the toss-up states, then he will prevail. But I refuse to be so cynical as to think that will happen. Romney still hasn’t told us anything about what he’ll do – other than pander to the troglodytes. While Obama’s speech wasn’t exactly a font of information either, it didn’t have to be. When you’re in a title fight and you’re the champ and the challenger doesn’t throw a punch, you don’t have to either.

5. This Convention had some stars that I didn’t know much about before. I had certainly seen Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick prior to this Convention, but this is the first time I had watched him give a lengthy speech. That guy can seriously bring it. He was fiery but without sounding out of control or shrill (unlike Jennifer Granholm, who just came across to me as goofy). I was also impressed with the keynote speaker, Julian Castro, Mayor of San Antonio. I have to admit that I was biased in favor of the guy, since he attended both my college and my law school, but I would think any Democrat would be impressed. My only concern is that the guy is from Texas, and I wonder if he is too liberal to win statewide office there. Probably not. The greatest political talents tend to win out no matter where they’re from.

6. I really liked Sandra Fluke. I didn’t think the contents of her speech were especially memorable but I remain impressed with her poise and delivery. Here’s a woman who is barely 30, has barely completed law school, and has come into national prominence by being treated as a prostitute by one well-known Republican figure after another. And it all seems to roll off her back. I’d like to see her run for office someday as well. We could use a statesperson who actually gives a damn about women’s rights. It’s clear she’s a real fighter in that domain.

7. If you had dry eyes after watching Gabrielle Giffords recite the Pledge of Allegiance, you are either a partisan Republican or you need therapy (or both!). I’d suggest taking off from work and watching West Side Story, Titanic, Hamlet, and maybe a couple of movies ending with the death of an animal. Then watch Giffords again. I’ll think you’ll be able to act like a human being.

8. Particularly after watching the DNC, I still have questions about what happened in Tampa. Here are a few: Why didn’t Mittens mention the Afghanistan war? Is he tone deaf, or is he just dumb? Why did the GOP talk as if there are three kinds of people in the world: entrepreneurs, family members of entrepreneurs, and people who want welfare? Why couldn’t Paul Ryan have just shoved away the deception and hypocrisy; didn’t he realize that he has a lot of talent as a speaker and didn’t need those sleazy gimmicks? Why do the Republicans think they can win without giving a clue as to their plans for governing? Do they really think they can win this election with 30-second advertisements alone?

9. Joe Scarborough had the best line of the pundits: “The President said nothing in his speech tonight. But he said it so much better than Mitt Romney when he said nothing in Tampa.” That pretty much says it all.

10. Best of luck, my fellow political junkies, in filling the void in your life before the debates start. I suggest watching the Nationals. They’re an amazing story. And that’s what we Washingtonians are thinking about these days even more than politics.