Friday, December 27, 2013

Happy New Year from the Empathic Rationalist

Unfortunately, I have no time to post anything of substance this week.  Fortunately, that is because I've just spent the last several days vacationing in the New York area and I will be spending the next several days vacationing in the Los Angeles area (and attending the Rose Bowl game for the second year in a row).    Can't complain.

I hope you all are similarly able to enjoy some time off of work for the holidays.   And whether or not you are vacationing or striving desperately to meet an end-of-the-year deadline, may I wish you a blessed 2014.

We'll talk again after the new year begins.   Take care, and thank you for reading the Empathic Rationalist.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Remembering the "Lady of the Harbor"

And so, as we begin the shortest day of the year, many pundits are reflecting back on the previous 354.   They’re mostly talking about what a disaster it has been for the President, whose second term has begun with one scandal after another and few successes.  The fact is, though, that President Obama will be just fine.  He won’t ever lose another election.  For the remainder of his Presidency, most of the people he encounters will treat him like a king.  And once he leaves the White House, he will always be referred to as “Mr. President” and will easily be able to earn tens of millions of dollars simply by speaking his mind.  All in all, it’s not such a bad life.

If you want to identify the real victims of 2013, don’t look backwards but think ahead.   And instead of focusing on President Obama, consider his second-term agenda.  After the disaster of the Obamacare rollout, it is hard these days to imagine any big reform initiative getting traction with the American public, let alone making its way through Congress.   This is tragic, since the President had envisioned a number of initiatives that we sorely need.  Take, for example, his support for immigration reform.

It wasn’t that long ago when this cause received support at the highest levels of both political parties.  W supported it.  So did McCain.  Anyone and everyone in the Democratic Party seemed on board as well.  So what happened?   The same crowd that recently gave us the Government Shutdown went ballistic, and the liberals, moderates and mainstream conservatives backed down.   As a result, millions of Hispanic men and women who have lived and worked in this country for years wake up every morning as “illegal aliens” with no apparent path to citizenship.   It doesn’t sound like America to me.  Does that sound like America to you?

In the next two weeks, I’ll be heading off on two trips – one by land and the other by air.   The first will be to New York City, where a little more than a century ago my grandparents sailed into the harbor with virtually no money or possessions in the hope of religious freedom and a fair opportunity to prosper.   They settled in the Bronx and Brooklyn, worked their buns off (much like the Hispanic “illegal aliens” work today), and within a generation, they watched as some of their children attended college and even graduate school.  In short, they are a microcosm of the great wave of Jewish immigration to the United States, which for the most part has accepted my people with open arms.

Immediately after my week in the Big Apple, I’ll be heading out to the other coast -- to the City of Angels.  Ostensibly, I’ll there to watch my Stanford Cardinal play in the Rose Bowl.  But most of my time in LA will be spent visiting friends, and most of those friends will be Hispanic immigrants or children of immigrants.  Because I know them as a result of my days at the bourgeois bastion that is Stanford, I can assure you that each and every one of my friends will be “legal.”   Yet I doubt that can be said for all of their cousins.  Why, I wonder, should their families have to struggle so hard to obtain citizenship?  Why were the Bernsteins, Solomons, Siegels, and Schpaerkins (that was my family name before it was shortened at Ellis Island to “Spiro”) allowed to become American citizens, whereas the Garcias, Santiagos, and Mendozas are told that they’re not wanted?  I have no answers – at least none I can respect.

Last weekend, I went to a folk music concert given by three professional musicians who I have met over the years while teaching Spinoza at the Southeastern Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute.  Individually, they are accomplished singers, songwriters and instrumentalists, but thanks to their incredible harmony, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  What’s more, all of these musicians are wonderful people – smart, socially-committed, warm, the whole package.  They have a new album out, and its first song beautifully addresses the issue of immigration.

The band’s name is Brother Sun.  The song is Lady of the Harbor.  And the singer and songwriter is Joe Jencks.  I will end this post by linking to the video for this song.  Enjoy Brother Sun’s lyrics and harmonies, and send the link on to your friends.   Whether or not we can make immigration reform happen, at least we can help people discover this wonderful ensemble. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Reflections on an Eventful Week in My City

I’m beginning to understand what it means to be from Cleveland.

Growing up a few hundred miles away, I never heard anything nice about that city.   Its baseball stadium was known as “The Mistake by the Lake,” and that name soon came to be used for the city itself.   I’d hear jokes like “First prize is a week’s trip in Cleveland.  What’s second prize?  Two weeks in Cleveland.”  And surely, if someone admitted to being from Cleveland while visiting other metropolitan areas, he could be sure of one thing: his listeners would have had absolutely nothing nice to associate with that town.  Rather, their thoughts might extend to a number of sad images: (a) the city’s default on its financial obligations, (b) burning waterways, (c) lousy weather, (d) the lack of natural beauty, (e) the paucity of well-known historical monuments, (f) hapless sports teams, or (g) being simply a boring, “flyover” part of the country.   Oh yeah, and then there’s (h) – all of the above.
Yup, back in the day, it was tough to be proud of your city if you were from Cleveland.  But I think that’s changed somewhat.  Cleveland won the competition to host the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Thanks to global warming, it doesn’t even seem that cold any more.  The Cuyahoga River hasn’t been set on fire in decades, and now it’s Detroit and not Cleveland that is linked with fiscal distress.   Sure the Cleveland sports teams still lose, but at least their fans can always claim Ohio State, which wins a whole lot more than most states’ flagship universities.

Today, I would argue, Cleveland has passed the baton.   And I know precisely who has acquired it.   It has made its way east to another city associated with financial debt, lousy sports teams, and horrible weather (though of a different variety).  I’m referring to my own home town and nation’s capital, Washington DC.  

Last night, I went to a folk concert given by three touring musicians.  Sure enough, the D.C. jokes were flying around like buzzards.  “Is there ever a time in this city that isn’t rush hour?” asked one musician.  “Yesterday, at 8:30 in the evening, it took me two hours and twenty minutes to drive from Alexandria to Laurel.”  Later, when asked if he ever comes to DC as a solo act instead of a member of a trio, another band member said, “I would never go into DC alone.”   Gridlock, crime, yeah, we’ve got plenty of both.  But that’s the least of it, isn’t it?  Mostly, we’re associated with dishonest, ambitious weasels who expect to be known as “The Honorable ___,” or “Mr. President,” or “Madam Secretary,” but have less moral fiber than the typical corner store clerk; at least that’s the way more and more Americans have come to view my city’s most prominent residents.

In some respects, this week was no different than any other week in Washington.  In a town where the athletes embarrass themselves almost as much as the politicians, Washington’s most prominent sports franchise – the one with the racist name – was imploding on a national stage.  Its coach, Mike Shanahan, gave a press conference that belonged on Comedy Central rather than ESPN.  At one point, he declared that, “I'm trying to be as honest as I can, and I don't normally do that."

Immediately, every listener thought the same thing – if only our politicians spoke that candidly, we might actually make some progress.   But unfortunately, Shanahan is a football coach, not a politician, and we expect more candor from our football coach, so that admission probably didn’t ingratiate him to many Redskin fans.

Shanahan needed a comeback line.  So in order to find one, he picked on the one Washingtonian who is even less popular than he is – the Redskins’ owner, Dan Snyder.  Shanahan mentioned that he did indeed speak to Snyder about the team’s controversial quarterback situation, but then added that "Dan could care less about the other positions."   That’s a thinly veiled way of saying that the guy who bought what was once an extremely successful football team and who then proceeded to run it into the ground couldn’t care less about 21 of the team’s 22 starting offensive and defensive players.   Of course we stink, Shanahan implied, because our owner stinks.  It’s quite a lovely way to talk about the guy who has paid you $7 million per year for five years.  Then again, there wasn’t a soul who listened to the press conference and who didn’t believe Shanahan was speaking the truth.  That’s how popular Snyder is inside the Beltway.

So yes, Washington was a laughing stock this week for its professional football team.  But like they say in Cleveland these days, there’s more to life than professional football.  And when you look beyond the gridiron, Washington’s week wasn’t half bad.   We have a budget deal brewing, folks.  One that has passed the House.  One that was sponsored by a House Republican and a  Senate Democrat.   One that even columnist Paul Krugman, who rarely has a nice thing to say about anything, called a “small step toward political sanity.”  Trust me, coming from Krugman, that is high praise.  

Only two months ago, the legislative leaders of this city resembled the Keystone Kops in presiding over a Government Shutdown.  Then, once that was over, we sat back and watched the executive branch fumble the Obamacare rollout so badly that even Ayn Rand would have been surprised by such government incompetence.   Political observers knew that nobody wanted to see a repeat of the Shutdown and the possibility that the Government would default on its debt.  Then again, it also seemed difficult to imagine that the Keystone Kops would figure out a way to come together and hammer out a new budget that didn’t simply maintain the status quo – which, given the sequestration, was truly bleak.   Personally, I was shocked when I heard that Paul Ryan and Patty Murray were able to reach an honest-to-God compromise early enough that even the threat of a Shutdown was taken off the table.

I’m not here to lionize Ryan or Murray like they’re Mandela and Gandhi.    Frankly, praising the character of politicians has come to ring as hollow as praising athletes.  Most of us don’t know these people personally, and though some of them may perform exceptionally well in playing fields and press conferences, the more we read about them as human beings, the less we come to trust them.   All in all, it is better to look up to the folks we truly know than the ones we only know from afar.
Nevertheless, I cannot finish this tale of two cities without at least giving a nod to Ms. Murray and Mr. Ryan.  For whatever reason, they were the ones who stepped up to the plate and hammered out a deal.  They were the ones who risked taking a political hit from the extremists in their respective parties who were sure to call them sellouts by giving up too much in the spirit of compromise.  And at the end of the day, they were the ones who have pointed this city back in the direction that it needs to go – a direction of unity, not polarization, and stability, not the threat of Shutdowns and Defaults.

All in all, it was a good week in Washington, despite the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the football team.   Within a few weeks, Shanahan will surely be gone, but Ryan and Murray will still be working … and so will our federal workers.  Perhaps that’s the way it should be on all fronts.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Bridge-Build, Follow Other Bridge Builders, or Get the Hell Out of the Way

What I love most about figures like Jefferson, Spinoza and Jesus is that they have come to be admired by people on all ends of our ideological spectrums.   Right wingers claim them.  Progressives claim them.  This reflects the fact that these men can come across as being uber-conservative one moment and provocatively radical the next.  The true Originators are like that.  Rather than being preachers who come from an established church, they don’t have to worry about what their fellow churchmen taught or thought.  After all, freedom is the genesis of truth.  And those three free thinkers told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth as best as they could.  

Sometimes, however, they got it wrong.  At least I can say that about Jefferson and Spinoza, of whom we know so much more than we know about Jesus.   It’s hard to look back at a philosopher from thousands of years ago who never published a complete book of his own writings and state with certainty exactly what he did and didn’t say.  But we know that Spinoza, who wrote in the 17th century, thought that women should be excluded from the government.  And we know that Jefferson, who wrote in the 18th-19th centuries, thought that black people were intellectually inferior to white people.  Surely, nobody in their right mind would be calling a flawed man like Spinoza or Jefferson the one son of God.  But to me, their obvious flaws simply humanize them and turn them into MORE compelling figures, not less.

I dare say that Paul’s association of Jesus with divinity, not to mention the relative lack of factual information about Jesus’ life and teachings, will make it difficult for people ever to discuss him as robustly and objectively as we can discuss a Spinoza or a Jefferson.  But if we can’t fully “humanize” Jesus, at least we can do so with respect to some of his greatest disciples.  No, I’m not talking about guys like Peter, James and John – the fog of 2000 years has passed between us and them as well.  I’m talking about men like Nelson Mandela and Pope Francis.  Clearly, these are individuals who took to heart the teachings of Jesus as best they could.  Are they originators?  Perhaps not.  But as followers go, they’re as brilliant as stars can be.

Much has been said in the past couple of weeks about Francis, just as much has been said in the past couple of days about Mandela.  But what I appreciate most about this coverage is that some of it has been quite critical.   Both of these men are being lumped in with the scourge of Marxism.  And in the case of Mandela, he also gets the pleasure of being associated with terrorism as well – kind of the Daily Double, wouldn’t you say?  As someone who admires these two individuals tremendously, I say bring on the labeling!  Go ahead and compare them to Castro or Lenin.  Please.   Let’s get all the criticisms out on the table.  Surely, some of it will even be valid.  We’ll be able to find one stupid comment after another that they have said in their lives.  Such is the human condition that we don’t always speak with the wisdom of Solomon every second of every day.  Actually, Solomon himself had hundreds of wives and concubines; my guess is that he also didn’t always speak or act “with the wisdom of Solomon.”  But he’s still a worthy hero just the same.

The great ones, see, don’t simply make mistakes.  They perform feats of magnificence that turn their foibles into “redeemable vices,” to use Oscar Wilde’s term, rather than into vehicles of legitimate character assassination.  And if you look closely at the nature of these magnificent feats, I think you will likely find common ground.   Whether they are originators or followers, they tend to be bridge builders par excellence.  They inspire people on different sides of a great religious or political divide.  They work to bring together people of different races or different social classes.  They don’t simply preach forgiveness, they practice it.   

It is trendy these days to call economic inequality the characteristic vice of our age.  Rubbish.  That’s simply a symptom.   The real vice is atomization.  The contemporary world atomizes us into discrete individuals who are expected to further our own interest as individuals, and with as little regard for the collective as possible.  Call it Adam Smithianism run amok – that’s surely what such “Marxists” as Pope Francis or Nelson Mandela would say.  As self-seeking individuals, we then are encouraged to join up with other similarly situated people into political parties or other social organizations and fight like demons to promote our own interests.  And, as for those who stand in our way, they become our enemies, and we are free to ridicule or otherwise vilify them any way we choose.

In that way, rich and poor turn against each other, as do Arab and Jew, black and white, gay and straight ….  You get the picture.  In fact, if your eyes and ears are open, you’re witnessing it every day.

That doesn’t have to be the way we live.  We can eradicate poverty.  We can beat swords into plowshares.  Or more specifically, we can have a Catholic Church that cares about the born every bit as much as the unborn.  And we can have insurgency movements in such “third world” areas as South Africa whose leaders show respect even to those who have abused them in the past.   Our great heroes are proving that so much more is possible than the cynics would have us believe.

Most importantly, we can listen to each other, even our sworn “enemies.”  And we can remember the words of Mandela:  “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”  It is my understanding that he borrowed that concept from the Buddha.  But that's OK.  The issue here isn’t our originality.  It’s whether our time spent on earth involves building bridges or ignoring the need to build them.  

If building bridges isn’t your thing, then please step aside and let the adults get to work.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Long-Term versus Short-Term Thinking in the Middle East

People in the so-called “West” tend to accept certain basic principles.  One is that the West is intellectually superior to the rest of the world.  Another is that “long-term thinking” is superior to “short-term thinking.”  These days, however, these principles can’t both be true.

The deal between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran is but the latest example of how those who are fighting the West are digging in for the long haul, whereas America and her allies are thinking about little else than the present.  Perhaps that is a by-product of the fact that Western regimes are democracies, which tend to live from one election cycle to the next.  But whatever the cause, Westerners seem not only to lack crystal balls but any interest in finding them, whereas those who struggle with America are planning patiently for the future.  

Before we consider what is frequently being hailed by the American media as the Obama Administration’s “victory” in reaching a deal with the Iranians, let’s turn back to the one nation who may suffer most from that “victory” – the state of Israel.  It is in Israel where you see the short-term/long-term dichotomy in the starkest possible terms. 

Israel, in its first few decades, was a proud nation whose very existence was hailed among much of the world as miraculous.  Surrounded by hostile neighbors, many of whom weren’t afraid to attack at a moment’s notice, that small country defeated the odds time and time again, with the help of one of the world’s most modern and fierce militaries.  Israel had her enemies, to be sure, many of whom got together in the United Nations and proclaimed that “Zionism is racism.”  But whether you loved or hated her, you couldn’t help but view Israel as a force to be reckoned with.  As a result, her enemies abandoned the prospect of large scale military attacks against Israel and turned instead to isolated terrorist strikes of the type that only strengthened Israel’s resolve and undermined international support for her adversaries.

Some may still view Israel in that way, but increasingly, another reality is setting in.   For starters, most of her adversaries have abandoned terrorism as a strategy and are turning instead to what they call “non-violent resistance.”  That really is just a euphemism for waiting it out and allowing Israel to implode from within.  Maybe this anticipated implosion will take ten years, maybe fifty, but according to her adversaries, sooner or later Israel’s implosion is inevitable.  Allegedly, the destruction of the “Jewish State” as such is being led by her incessant drive to occupy more and more Palestinian land, which is contrary to the very essence of the obsession with justice that is at the heart of the Jewish religion.   Even as her leaders proclaim their support for peace and a “two-state solution,” the Palestinian narrative continues, Israel’s government is permitting the construction of additional West Bank settlements on the very land that the Palestinians would need if they were ever to have a viable state.   Whether this settlement construction stems from imperialist urges or simply the inability of the Israeli mainstream to stand up to the political power of the right-wing settler lobby, the fact is that for decades, no Israeli government – not even the ones on the political left – has been willing to “Just Say No” to the Occupation.  Consequently, Israeli’s adversaries argue, they can simply sit back, gather international support for their struggle against imperialism, watch Israel lose any sympathy whatsoever outside of its tiny borders, and ultimately fracture from within.

Even here in America, you hear more and more older Jews talking about how the younger generation of Jewish adults is abandoning not only their support of the Israeli government but the very principle of Zionism.  Who is going to defend Israel in 20 or 40 years, they wonder?   Evangelical Christians who think that Jews are heading for Hell?  Black-hatted Ultra-Orthodox Jews who refuse to fight in the military?   The Palestinians are betting that such a coalition will not be able to stand, and that soon enough, the isolated and fractured “Jewish State” will give up its claim to the West Bank and allow Palestinians and Jews to live together in a single bi-national state.   Call it the United States of Palestine – a melting pot for the 21st century.  Palestinians see it as a much more modern concept than that of Zionism, which is increasingly associated with occupation, discrimination, and xenophobia.  Or so goes the narrative.

Therein lays the Palestinian strategy for how they will someday regain power in their homeland.  On the Israeli side, the approach is more like a shrug than a strategy.  “We have the land, they don’t, and we’re not giving it up,” aptly summarizes the attitude.  The Israelis recognize that the Orthodox, the settlers and the other hard-liners comprise a powerful political force, and they see legitimate security issues in trying to accede to the demands of the peaceniks on the left.  So the easiest thing to do is simply pay lip service to “two states for two peoples,” while not proposing any dramatic concessions, and assume that the combination of the Wall, the Israeli Defense Forces, and the robust Israeli economy will continue to keep Israeli citizens secure and prosperous.  As for what to do with the Palestinians, the answer seems to be to ignore them, and as for what to do with Israel’s isolation and unpopularity in capitals throughout the world, the answer seems to be to ignore those problems as well.  In short, Israel has no plan for regaining international support, which you would think a tiny country would desperately need, and merely shrugs off the topic, as if the problem is the world’s and not Israel’s.   

            Truth be told, those Israelis who are primarily responsible for the Occupation aren’t so much worried about the Palestinian threat.  What scares those Israelis is Iran, and in particular, the prospect that Iran will come to acquire nuclear weapons and then furnish them to terrorists.  If that happens, Israelis will soon be an extinct sub-species.  

            The Israeli fear of Iran is legitimate, if you ask me. Iranian leaders have for years expressed the vilest anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli sentiments imaginable, and have accumulated various allies in states that neighbor Israel who haven’t thought twice about using violence to take Jewish lives.  As someone who loves Israel, I am deeply depressed by the idea that the current regime in Iran could acquire nuclear weapons.    Yet as far as I am concerned, that is exactly what the present deal with the Obama Administration points to – at least if we think long-term, like they do in Nablus, Hebron and, apparently, Tehran.  

            Try to put aside all the pro-Administration propaganda that inevitably is spewed by the American media, no matter what Administration is in power.  Our recent deal with Iran is as interesting for what it doesn’t say as for what is does.  For example, as chronicled quite powerfully in yesterday’s Washington Post lead editorial, the deal (a) will “involve a mutually defined enrichment program with mutually agreed parameters” and no mention is made that Iran must close all its enrichment facilities (meaning that the oil-rich nation of Iran, which hardly seems to need nuclear power for non-military purposes, will also be able to enrich uranium for the indefinite future), and (b) the final deal will “have a specified long-term duration to be agreed upon” and that once that period is over, “the Iranian nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party” to the treaty on non-proliferation (meaning that at some time in the not-so-distant future, the sanctions would be over and the uranium-enriching Iranian government would presumably be able to continue with its nuclear ambitions free from any special restrictions.  According to the Washington Post, Obama Administration officials claim that reference to a “long-term” sunset clause could last for 15-20 years, but the Iranians are proposing that it be more like 3-5 years, and the final number will surely be the product of negotiation.  In the meantime, economic sanctions will be lessened.   

            Put all that together and the upshot is that even though vicious anti-Israel rhetoric continues to flow from the Iranian government, there seems to be nothing stopping a more economically powerful Iran from emerging. What’s more, at some point between 2018 and 2028, that strengthened Iran will be given a virtual green light to realize its obvious ambition of being a nuclear power in the military sense of that word.  I’m willing to assume that the Iranians, like the Palestinians, are patient enough not to worry about whether that happens in five years or fifteen years.  Either way, the Iranians – and their aspirations for power -- are here to stay.  But can the same thing be said about Israel?  

            Those folks in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Brooklyn who have been ignoring the Jews’ obligations to the Palestinians have kept hope alive that Israel could persuade the international community to stand up to Iran on the issue of weapons.  But the Jewish State cannot have it both ways.  It can’t continue to build out settlements and thumb its noses at the rest of the world on the topic of the Palestinians, and then expect that the international community will give a damn about what it has to say about Iran.  Quite frankly, fewer and fewer people outside of Israel give a damn about what Netanyahu has to say about ANYTHING; as a “pro-peace,” pro-Settlement leader, he has lost his credibility.   So when he cries wolf about the dangers inherent in the peace deal with the Iranians, nobody seems to notice that this time he might actually be right.

            If you are looking for a bright side about the Iranian deal, two quickly come to mind. First, feel good for the people of Iran who truly are not to blame for the noxious comments of their nation’s leaders, and who should be at least marginally more prosperous based on the deal’s lessening of economic sanctions against Iran.  Even those of us who support the continuation of sanctions as a means of fighting the Iranian leadership should not be at war with the Iranian people, who have as much of a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as the residents of any other country.  Second, it is certainly plausible that the increased prosperity resulting from the lessening of the sanctions could lead to progressive changes within the Iranian regime itself – potentially including less of a willingness to support international terrorists who threaten the existence of Israel.  

            Yes, hope springs eternal.  But I remain cynical nonetheless about the regime in Iran.  Given all they have said over the decades to denigrate the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland, they have earned the cynicism of anyone who truly cares about Israel. 

From the standpoint of the Obama Administration, maybe the deal struck in Geneva was the best of a bad set of options.  Maybe the die was already cast, given how war weary the world is and how much the Iranians seem determined to build up their nuclear capabilities.   My frustration, though, is that not enough is being said here in Washington about the long-term/short-term dichotomy.  In a world where robust democracies are clashing with non-democracies, the latter have a hidden strategic advantage.  They are equipped to be patient, whereas we democracies seem to strategize with ants in our pants.  As a result, if we look ahead to, say, 2030, I am afraid that Tehran will have even more nukes, the West will have even more fears, and the Palestinians will have even more stories to tell about how Israel is splitting apart at her seams.  Can that trajectory be changed?  Perhaps, but only if the West figures out that sometimes, even power-rich democracies need to think about the future and not simply concern themselves with the power-dynamics of the present.