Monday, May 27, 2013

A Memorial Day Message for Peace and Gratitude


            This has been an odd Memorial Day weekend for me.   The weather here in the D.C. area has been absolutely poifect.  But for nearly the entire time, I’ve been cooped up in my house working hard on the computer – it might as well have been mid-January.

            The time drain this weekend has been, to be candid, a labor of love.  I’ve put the “finishing touches” on draft number N+1 of the manuscript for my new book.   It’s a “non-fiction book about God.”  How’s that for an oxymoron, my skeptical friends?   Every time I finish a draft, I’m convinced that it’s getting better and better.  But every time I begin working on the next draft, I’m amazed at just how many additional edits I feel compelled to make.  Do you remember that scene from Amadeus when the king tells Mozart that his composition has too many notes, and Mozart retorts that in fact it had just the right number?  All I can say is that it must be nice to be so talented that you feel supremely confident in the quality of your art.   For me, few things are as humbling as the writing process – but since I can’t compose music, paint, or shoot a jump shot … let’s just say that I’m looking forward to working on draft N+2.

            While I’ve been preoccupied with metaphysics and theology, I hope you all have been thinking a bit about the reason why Americans were given this day off.  It’s a day to remember our fallen warriors -- and all the other warriors who gave up their arms, legs, or psychic health in service to their country.  I may not always agree with every war my country enters, but we always need to admire the courage and dedication of the troops who risk everything so that armchair folks like me can philosophize with security.  Thanks to all of you who have served in that capacity, or helped out anyone who has.  And a special thanks to those who have lost your loved ones – you, too, are in our thoughts.

            My own work when it comes to the topic of armed conflict is more in the Prevention Department than in the Winning Department.  There is not much we civilians can do for the war effort, but we at least can devote a lot of time to the fight for peace.  As a Middle East peace activist, I was thrilled to see that Secretary of State Kerry is apparently getting serious about his goal of putting the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks at the top of his agenda.  How serious?  He has now announced a $4 billion economic development plan for the West Bank.   It alone won’t produce peace, but I cannot think of a better start.   

            The plan, according to Kerry, could reduce unemployment in the West Bank by two-thirds.  Who is to say if that’s overly optimistic, but this much I think we can say: the more that the conditions on the ground have kept Palestinians out of the labor force, the easier it has been for extremists to fan the flames of Israel-hatred.  Given that the GDP of the Palestinian territories together add up to only $4 billion, I have to think that Kerry’s proposal would provide a huge economic boost to the West Bank.   

            It is easy to say that peace will never come to that region -- that no less than poverty, war between the Jews and the Arabs “will always be with us.”  But I’m not that pessimistic, and you shouldn’t be either.  We need to build up the economy of the Palestinian territories, support NGOs whose goal is to build trust between the Israeli and Arab streets, and periodically bring the leaders to the negotiating table.  And we need to remember that simply because no end-stage agreement has been reached, that doesn’t mean that progress isn’t being made.  Perhaps, under Kerry’s leadership, we might just see such progress during the next four years.

            On a day like today, we owe it to our troops to support them not only with gratitude but with prayers and hard work.  So let’s pray and work for peace, so they don’t have to fight so many wars.  

And please, let’s make sure that these heroes get the mental health support and the other vital services that they deserve.  It’s great to honor them when they’re dead, but it’s high time that we stepped up to the plate when they’re alive.  

From a humbled non-veteran to all you heroes and your families, thanks again on behalf of the Empathic Rationalist.

Sunday, May 19, 2013



I’m not a professional wrestling fan and frankly know virtually nothing about that “sport.”  But at least I’ve heard of the term “Wrestlemania.”   When I looked it up this morning to get a little more insight, I read that it refers to an annual wrestling extravaganza that has been going on for nearly three full decades.  It began, believe it or not, with a tag team match featuring, of all people, Mr. T.   The commentator at five of the first six Wrestlemanias was none other than the Governor – Jesse Ventura. This was back when he was Jesse the Body, and not yet Jesse the Mind.   And lest you wonder if Wrestlemania can pack as big a punch in the turnstiles as it does in the ring, consider that on more than ten occasions, attendance has topped 65,000.  Once, in Michigan, over 93,000 people showed up for the festivities.   And why not?  Because when you show up, you may end up seeing not only wrestlers, but major celebrities.  The list of those who have officiated, sung or otherwise performed at these events include Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Lawrence Taylor, Pete Rose, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Willie Nelson, Reba McEntire, Little Richard, John Legend ….   You get the point, Wrestlemania is big-time, mainstream Americana.

And now, we have it beat.  Wrestlemania – meet Scandalmania.

I can’t pick up a newspaper any more without reading about a scandal.  Nor can I turn on  Cable News and expect to go scandal-less. Hell, even on ESPN – more scandals.  Last weekend, being a big Tiger Woods fan, I watched the Players’ Championship.  And after it was over and Tiger won, did anyone on sports radio want to talk about his golf game?  Of course not.  They wanted to talk about how: (a) Sergio Garcia, his playing partner on Saturday, complained that Tiger, while standing dozens of yards away, breached golf etiquette by pulling a club out of the bag when Sergio was about to hit; (b) Tiger claimed that he asked a marshal if Sergio had already hit the ball and didn’t take the club out of the bag until after the marshal said yes; (c) two marshals said on Monday that Tiger never did ask them if Sergio had hit the ball first, and one of these marshals said that Tiger’s misstatement reflected badly on his character; and (d) two other marshals then came to Tiger’s defense, with one of the marshals admitting that he was the one who told Tiger that Sergio had already hit the ball.

Who am I supposed to believe?  Sergio?  Tiger?  The first set of marshals?  The second?  What’s a scandal-sipping, fact-checking, judgmental schmuck like me to do?

OK.  Let me get serious for a moment.  I don’t wish to downplay the importance of any of the reported events of the past fortnight.  Nor do I wish to suggest that they are important.  On substance, I’m going to stay neutral on all of the reported stories – from the governmental scandals to the war of words at the TPC Sawgrass Golf Course.  My point is simply that just as those of us who wanted to hear about the actual golf recognize that there is more to a tournament than the stuff described above, those of us who care about this country’s governance recognize that there are issues aside from the reporting of scandals.   And we cannot afford to spend the entire second term of Obama’s Presidency dealing with scandals.   In fact, we cannot afford to spend the entire second term of Obama’s Presidency dealing with what the media and other talking heads think of Obama’s Presidency.  Believe it or not, this country actually needs the government to do things.   Economically, environmentally, geopolitically … we have a TON of work to do.   And nobody seems to think that any of this work is urgent – other than dealing with scandals.  

No, my friends, just like sports fans can’t live on “Wrestlemania” alone, the American public cannot satiate itself solely with Scandalmania.  I’m not suggesting that all of the recent scandals are as phony as professional wrestling.  (Remember – I’m staying neutral on that point.) But even if there were ten scandals and each one rose to the Watergate level, they still shouldn’t occupy all of our attention.  Let’s not forget the bigger picture, folks – our soldiers are in harms’ way in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria remain engulfed in violence, Pakistan has a zillion nukes, Israel and Palestine have been at war for 65 years and counting, the world is passing horrific climate change milestones, we are seeing horrible economic inequities domestically of the kind that would make Dickens begin to take note, we have a huge National Debt,  nearly everyone agrees that there is a crying need for immigration reform, our nation is awash in assault weapons and mentally-ill firearms owners ….

Like I said, we have a lot on our plate.  Let’s not forget that the next time we begin to sink our teeth into Scandal number N+1.   

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Grim Numbers


There are many things to be depressed about today.  Number one should probably be the fact that for the first time in millions of years, the average daily level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached 400 parts per million.   And number two – a solid second – is the extent to which we now live in polarized societies characterized by widespread disrespect and fear.   Here in America, that is reflected in the trials and tribulations of Capitol Hill, where our lawmakers have trouble agreeing on just about anything (save, perhaps, for their love of the Washington Nationals).  But such polarization is hardly limited to America.  It is a worldwide epidemic.  And never did the extent of that problem become as apparent to me as when I read a report from the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project.  

If you want to see the horrific facts for yourself, go to  As the saying goes, “read it and weep.”  Yes, the survey is nearly two years old, but I suspect that if anything, the numbers are only getting worse over time, not better.  If you want a highlight – or should I say a “lowlight” – look at the table where Pew asked people from different countries whether they had a favorable view of Muslims, Christians and Jews.   The percentages of folks in Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Pakistan and Indonesia who had a favorable view of Muslims ranged from a low of 72% in Turkey to more than 90% in all those other countries.  For Christians, it dips to lows of 6% in Turkey and 16% in Pakistan, but increases to 96% in Lebanon.  And for Jews?   The percentages in the above countries who feel favorable about my tribe are 4, 2, 2, 3, 4, 2 and 9, respectively.  Thank God for those loving Indonesians – because if not for them, one might think that more than 24 out of 25 of the world’s Muslims don’t like Jews.  

Ah, but we Jews have our own prejudices, apparently.  In Israel, the percentage who felt favorably toward Jews was 88 and the percentage who felt favorably toward Muslims was a mere 19.  Yes, that’s nearly 10 times as high as the proportion of people who liked Jews in Jordan, Egypt or Pakistan – but it’s not exactly what was meant by “loving thy neighbor as thyself,” if you get my drift.

As I think about this survey, I can at least offer some good news – of the fourteen countries surveyed, the United States was one of only four where most of the respondents had a favorable view of Jews, Christians AND Muslims.  The number for Muslims was only 57% -- compared to more than 80% for Jews and Christians – but still, that suggests that Americans tend not to dislike people because of their religion.  As I have mentioned before, much of that credit goes to President George W. Bush, who for all his mistakes as a President (and there was no small number), made the fateful and beautiful decision after 9/11 to reassure the nation that the problem was NOT Islam but rather a certain extremist perversion of that religion.   Most Americans, apparently, bought that message.

In reflecting on the above numbers, I must say that I am really upset with the 2’s, 3, and 4’s that the Pew Survey reported from the Arab world.  As a Jew who coordinates the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington, I am incredibly disappointed with my Arab cousins in learning about those numbers.  Clearly, this survey suggests that Arabs don’t merely disagree with Zionism or the conduct of the Israeli Government, but are flat out anti-Jewish.  You hardly have to be a historian to be scared when such figures are reported.

But as an American, I feel that my own country has some work to do when it comes to the issue of Islamophobia.  A 43% non-favorability rating is not acceptable.  That’s three out of seven Americans, which is three too many.   How do we get the number down?   Perhaps we begin by considering the constant references in the media to words like “Jihadis” and “Islamists.”   Jihad is a beloved word in Islam and it does NOT generally refer to a violent struggle, but rather to an internal, spiritual, and peaceful struggle to be the best people we can be.  Unfortunately, most Americans don’t know that.  Similarly, “Islamists” sounds so much like “followers of Islam” that you can understand why so many Americans associate the religion generally with violent extremism.

Clearly, we need to come up with better words for the sickening philosophy adopted by Osama and his ilk.  “Extremist Islam” or “A Perverted, Extremist form of Islam” don’t exactly roll off the tongue, so I appreciate why members of the media want to use shorthand in reference to that philosophy.  But we need a different type of shorthand – we can’t continue to use words that associate a holy belief system with a perverted, violent philosophy and not expect to produce a whole lot of bigots.

Ultimately, that’s surely the problem in the Arab world when it comes to their attitudes about Jews.  They associate Jews with the state of Israel, which is spoken of much in the same way that we Americans speak of North Korea – as blight on the world.  Personally, I like to refer to myself as “Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestine.”  Yet to most Arabs and Jews, that expression is almost nonsensical.  It would be like saying “Pro Indian, Pro Custer.”   You can’t be “pro” both sets of enemies.  And the reality is, in the Middle East, Arabs and Jews see themselves as enemies, not cousins.  That is precisely what we in the peace movement need to change.

It is sad whenever you see people define themselves based on who they hate, rather than what they agree with.   All you have to do is turn on American talk radio and you can see that this problem isn’t limited to the Middle East.  In essence, our society is reaching our own milestone of toxicity – our own analogue of 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide.  Let’s just say our society is no less sick than our planet.  So, if you’re into nurturing, rest assured – there’s plenty of work to do everywhere you look.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Reflections on a True American Success Story


When I was a student teacher back in the 80s, I told my class that the next Martin Luther King, Jr. will come from the gay rights movement.   It never happened.   Then again, it never had to.
Times have been tough for the progressive movement lately, notwithstanding the fact that their chosen Presidential candidate has now won the last two elections.   We live in a world where civil wars abound, and America seems able to do nothing to stop them, despite its willingness to lose billions of dollars and thousands of lives in the process.   Domestically, we are witnessing the kind of spiraling inequality of wealth that only a Marxist could have predicted a half century ago.   The middle class may soon be put on the endangered species list, but the poor?  They indeed will always be with us, and nobody seems interested in fighting on their behalf.   By contrast, progressive politicians have taken a shot at battling for gun control legislation.  But what have they accomplished?  Despite the support of 9 out of 10 Americans, they couldn’t even get background checks approved.

If the Biblical Joseph had been around these days, he surely would have dreamt about lean and ugly cows – but I’m beginning to wonder if his dream would be confined to only seven of those animals.  Maybe, he would have told the Pharaoh that while each of the animals in his dream represents a lean year, sadly, there were more of them than he could possibly count.  

Yes, we progressives have had some tough times lately.  And take it from a fed who is witnessing life under sequestration – there doesn’t seem to be much hope on the horizon.  But amidst all the darkness, we progressives at least can point to one incredible success story – the movement for gay rights.  And progressives are only now recognizing that this movement may have lessons to teach us about the other domains in which we seem to be consistently failing. 

So, how should we think about the way gay people and their allies have waged the war for equality?   Consider the following points:

Point one: this has been a bottoms-up movement associated with the grass roots, rather than with the leadership of particular individuals.  For decades, the movement made profound progress despite the fact that there was no one face, or even a small pantheon of faces, that was widely associated with it.   We’ve all heard of MLK, Gandhi, or Susan B. Anthony.  But how many gay-rights leaders have you heard of (other than just a few celebrities who have “come out”)?  Don’t bother to answer that question – it was rhetorical.

Point two:  when it comes to gay rights, there has been no one landmark event, like a Brown v. Board of Education, that symbolizes the end of the “old way.”   Instead, we have seen a series of small, gradual steps over a period of decades that have chipped away, block by block, at anti-gay discrimination.  To the extent there have been successes at the political level, they have taken place at the state houses, not on the federal stage.  Still, the successes have been slow but sure.  

Point three: despite those statehouse success stories, the gay rights movement hasn’t been associated primarily with capital buildings, court houses, or even mass demonstrations.   Rather, the heart and soul of this movement has taken place in schoolhouses and dormitories, and within families – friends and relatives have gradually come to recognize that their gay loved ones are worthy of respect and affection, and just as importantly, gay people have come to recognize that it is less painful to announce that they are different than to continue to live inside a closet.  

One by one, gay people have walked into the water and realized that it isn’t so cold after all.  And two by two, parents have looked each other in the eyes, asked themselves if they were willing to show their gay children unconditional love, and realized that the answer is hell yes!    The next thing you knew, in large swaths of civil society, gay people have come to be as accepted as, say, short people.   Given the choice, most of us tall folks wouldn’t especially want to be a short person, but other than Randy Newman, I don’t hear anyone talking about treating them with disrespect either.

Point four: the gay-rights movement was never shrill and oppositional.  I don’t think of any gay rights activists ever being anti-straight, the way I think of feminists who’ve been anti-male, or African-American activists who have been anti-white.  The gay-rights movement was critical only of prejudice, not of heterosexuality.  This made the movement less threatening and much more difficult to oppose with vehemence.

Take all of those points, reflect on the fact that this gradualist approach has been ongoing for a period of roughly four or five decades, and now consider that the movement finally does have two faces.  Ironically, given the amount of homophobia among black males, these faces belong to Barack Obama and Jason Collins.   

These men are pioneers: the first American President who supports gay marriage; the first openly gay man who plays in a major league sport.  And indeed, both are to be commended for their actions, which will surely advance the cause considerably.  But are they truly profiles in courage?  Think about it – Obama announced his support only after support for gay marriage stopped being a minority position, and his announcement didn’t hurt him in the slightest politically.  In fact, it only helped his standing with progressives.  As for Jason Collins, with few exceptions, he has received only praise and encouragement for his announcement.  The few who have taken him on publicly, like Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace or ESPN talking head Chris Broussard, have been roundly criticized in the media as troglodytes.   

The truth is that Collins is just another openly gay man – except that he has earned over $30 million in the last decade and is widely viewed as a hero.   I think he’ll be OK.

Barack Obama and Jason Collins jumped into the water with every reason to believe it was warm.  And it was warmed up by millions of courageous and compassionate people – gay and straight -- who came before them.  In each case, they saw gay rights as no less fundamental than any other type of civil right.  They knew that history was on their side.   They knew that the only way their movement could stall is if they went out of their way to piss off their opponents or force mega-wars before the battlefields were properly prepared.  They were confident, patient, and loving.  For them, their fight was about working FOR justice, not AGAINST the source of injustice.  You can hear the difference when you compare the gay-rights advocate to, say, many of those who relentlessly push BDS (Boycott, Divestiture, Sanctions) against Israel like it was the only imperfect regime in the world, or those early feminists who spoke about “maleness” like it was a form of herpes.

I recognize that some folks have decided to take the fight for marriage equality through the federal courts.  They think the time is right.   Being a litigator myself, however, I know that court battles are inherently unpredictable.  But I also know this: the battle for gay rights has proceeded so wisely for so long, that I’m not sure anyone now can stem the tide of progress.  Not a conservative jurist, not a shrill activist, and not even a smoothed-tongued, right-wing demagogue.

            No, my friends, nothing can stop the fight for gay rights from being an honest-to-God American success story.  The only mystery is whether progressives will focus on how this battle was waged and apply the lessons that are there for the taking.   We had better do it.  Because, God knows, there are precious few success stories to learn from these days.