Sunday, June 30, 2013

Reflections on a Momentous Week

If you’re a blogger who works for the Department of Justice, unless your name is Snowden, this is the hardest weekend of the year to blog.  Clearly, the best topics to talk about this weekend are the recent Supreme Court decisions.  But that is precisely what I won’t blog about – not this weekend, not any weekend.  This is a law-free zone.

So, you might ask, outside of the law, what else is going on?  

First, did you note that the temperature in Death Valley is hitting 128 degrees this weekend?   It’s another grim reminder that the President’s climate change initiative is commencing none too soon.  His failure to do much on the issue until now has been one of the biggest disappointments of his Presidency, and it reached its crescendo during the 2012 campaign, when the only person who spoke about climate change was Romney – and he was shamelessly mocking the President for caring about it.  Well, it now looks like President Obama might actually be moving away from mere talk and into action. For the sake of this planet, he had better follow through.

One of the many reasons I’d like to live a long, long life, is because I want to be around in the middle of this century and see just what the climate situation is like.  Call it pure curiosity.   I’m not a scientist, so I’ve had to take on faith that the vast majority of scientists are correct that climate change will wreak increasing amounts of havoc as we get deeper into the century.  Obviously, I hope I am wrong for believing what these scientists are saying, but assuming they know their field, the industrialists and politicians responsible for ignoring the warnings will truly have blood on their hands.  

The major blood-letting is likely to begin in places like central Africa, but eventually, it could extend to these shores as well.   The sickest part of this equation is that the perpetrators of this climate-change mess are not going to be the same people as the victims.  For one thing, there’s a generational difference.   My generation, the one that is largely causing and exacerbating the problem will be dead and buried before we see the biggest impact from this nightmare.  What’s more, the people from some of the least industrialized countries will disproportionately be the victims, whereas the people from the most industrialized countries will disproportionately be the perpetrators.  The whole situation is as unjust as it is tragic.

Anyway, that all assumes that the scientific community is right.  Maybe, they’re not.  Maybe the Messiah will come and we’ll all be saved.  But personally, I’d rather listen to the scientists.   And President Obama, you need to listen to me.  Don’t you stray from the course – make this one of the major initiatives of your second term.   And in doing so, always remember the immortal words of the great Steve Martin who, in addressing the women of the world, said:   “I don’t need you.  I can do this act alone.  I often do.”  You have to make the same statement, Mr. Obama, only in your case, get your mind out of the gutter, think about climate change, and address those words to Congress.  You don’t need them on this issue.  You’ve got your own executive powers.  Use those powers in a big way to confront this scourge before further damage is done.   Please.

Second, have you noticed that there is a professional golf tournament going on in my home town of Bethesda, Maryland and nobody showed up?  This is supposed to be Tiger Woods’ golf tournament, and all the greatest players in the world were invited.  But if you look at the leader board and notice all the no-names at the top, you’d swear this tournament was being played in Nome, Alaska.  What’s going on?  You’d never see this lousy a field in Arnold Palmer’s tournament, or Jack Nicklaus’ tournament.  So why are all the pros blowing off Tiger’s?

I remain a loyal fan of the guy.  But I get the distinct impression that he doesn’t have many friends on tour.  What’s more, even though he was solely responsible for the resurgence in the sport 15 years ago that sent purses through the roof, all the beneficiaries (the players) no longer feel any need to express gratitude to the source of their huge paychecks.  Technically, he remains the number one golfer in the world – he’s far and away won more PGA events than anyone else this year.  But even though Tiger may be Mr. Golf, it’s pretty clear that he’s not Mr. Congeniality, and finally, golfers are beginning to go public to explain just how chilly it is to play on the tour with him.   

As for my attitude, I don’t really care if he’s chummy with his mates on tour.  I just want him to win Majors. But if he keeps blowing them – and he hasn’t won one in five years – than yes, I’d like to see a mellower Tiger.   His “machine” act only works when he performs as well as a machine.  Or, in other words, it’s one thing to say that Tiger shouldn’t become as affable as Phil Mickelson, but the sad truth is, he’s beginning to remind me of Vijay Singh – no less ornery and, at least at the big tournaments, no more effective.

Last but not least, while I won’t comment about the court’s reasoning in its gay marriage decisions, can I just say how overjoyed I am for my gay friends about the new opportunity in their life?  It sickens me to think that I would have had tax benefits that they couldn’t have just because of their sexual preference. 
My guess is that in 100 years, only religious fundamentalists will deny gay people the right to marry.  And I hope by then that even the fundamentalists will have stopped making the argument that “Once you let gay people get married, where is this going to stop, bestiality?”  I don’t have words for how offensive that argument is.  And it only makes me wonder what kind of arguments were made 100 years ago about why black people and white people shouldn’t be allowed to get married.  

When it comes to civil rights, I can take pleasure in the fact that our species does tend to progress over time.  We still see examples of primitive thinking everywhere, and some entire societies remain primitive, but the overall trend is inexorably positive.  In fact, when I think about civil rights, it’s enough to make me think that evolution won’t stop with the apes.   

And then I look at our dysfunctional Congress.  And all the wars in the Middle East.   And all the crap that spews out of Hollywood.  And the loopy NRA.  And I realize that just because we’re progressing in one domain, doesn’t mean we’ve moved much beyond what the apes handed to us.  Actually, I suspect if one of those ancient ape-men could speak English and dress well, he’d fit in just fine.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Well Earned Birthday

This week, my family marked a major milestone.  We celebrated the birthday of the most mature living male Spiro.  I say “we” celebrated it, but he clearly didn’t.  For him, Wednesday the 19th was just like any other day.   He got up, went to the backyard, urinated and defecated on the grass, came inside, ate a piece of cheese with a liver flavored supplement for his rickety joints, then walked around the kitchen for a few minutes until he finally went into his crate, where he spent much of the day.   He surely would have rubbed his face against my hand a few times, and did the same to my wife or daughter.  He also probably licked one or more of us, and looked our way with the sweetest, most innocent smile you can imagine.  But he wouldn’t have understood the meaning of a “birthday.”  He wouldn’t have understood the significance of being a 17 year-old dog.  And he wouldn’t have understood a reason to call attention to himself.  That’s not what he does.  That’s not what he has ever done.   He eats.  He sleeps.  And he gives love to others.  That’s his life.

            Kirby Puckett Spiro has always been a sweetheart.  He’s had his melancholy moments, but he has never been mean.  Oh, there was once or twice when he growled when you tried to take a bone from his mouth, but that’s once or twice in 17 years.  He isn’t even that much of a barker, unless he’s playing with other dogs, something he no longer does.   I’ll never forget how years ago, one of my daughter’s friends who was staying at my house called her mother in the middle of the night and was picked up – without our even knowing this happened.  Did Kirby bark when the mother entered the house in the middle of the night?  No.  He probably just smiled.  Kirby would have made the world’s worst guard dog.  Like I said, he doesn’t “guard.”  He gives love, he eats and he sleeps.  Full stop.

Back in the day, Kirby was quite the athlete.  He would run around back and forth with incredible quickness.  Dog trainers refer to that behavior as “blitzing.”  He would sometimes play with a soccer ball, and bounce it into the air with his nose.  He used to love to go on long walks and explore different places.  In fact, he once escaped from us and ran unchecked around some very busy streets in Philadelphia.  Amazingly, he wasn’t struck by a car, and we were able to trap him.  That was the closest he’s ever come to dying – closer even than when he got into some mouse poison and had to have his stomach pumped.  I’ll never forget waiting at the vet that night.  Another dog was being attended to after being mauled by a pit bull.  Kirby is a bichon.  Bichons don’t maul anyone or anything, at least not Kirby.  He literally wouldn’t hurt a fly.  

I like to think of Kirby as relatively happy.  But he wasn’t always so.  When he was about four, he tore the ACL in one of his knees.  We treated it by keeping him in his crate.  That wasn’t the problem – the problem was that it was at that time, quite coincidentally, that we picked up a puppy (another bichon).  We got Carly in order to keep Kirby company during the day, but he couldn’t have understood that.  He presumably would have thought that we got Carly because we wanted or needed a functional dog, and poor Kirby needed to rehab his knee all day.  For the 11 years of Carly’s life, she treated him like a subordinate, and Kirby always deferred.  Then, when cancer claimed Carly, he mourned.  Boy did he mourn.   So did we all.  Carly was a ton of fun, but she could also be a handful.  Not Kirby. 

If you turn on the local news – or nowadays, ANY kind of news – all you hear about is how awfully people behave.  You’ll hear about craven politicians, homicidal maniacs, punkish athletes, narcissistic musicians.  Blah, blah, blah.  But when I think about our sweet little dog, I’m reminded that there is a whole world of beauty out there that isn’t covered by the media.  With Kirby as my inspiration, I walked outside onto my nearly screened in porch and found a bird’s nest. We have not one but two adult birds taking care of it.   One stays in the nest, and the other comes to bring food.  When he (or is it “she”) arrives, the little birds make a ton of noise, and this pattern goes on, frequently, throughout the course of the day. 

Whether you’re talking about Kirby or the wild birds that live on our back porch, you may not be talking about “rationalists,” but these animals sure are empathic.  We can talk all we want about how ultimately selfish they are, but their behavior sure appears to manifest giving, giving and more giving.  In Kirby’s case, he gives love to “his people.”  In the case of the adult birds, they give sustenance to their babies, and give beautiful noises to any human being who comes close to my backyard.

I’m sure next week, I’ll be back to talking about all the trials and tribulations of the human world.  But today, for a moment, please join me in rejoicing that there actually is a whole lot more to this world than humans.  Perhaps, we can learn a bit from these animals.  Who knows?  They might have a tad more to teach us than even cable news. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

So Let the Debating Begin

 “I’ve got nothing to hide.   I’m not a criminal.   As far as I’m concerned, let them go through my  phone records.   Let them go through my e-mails.  Heck, they can listen to my phone calls if they think it’s necessary.   Whatever they have to do to save American lives is fine by me.   Whoever they’re looking for, I can tell you this much – it’s not me.”

I’m not quoting anyone in particular.  But if you read the above words, I bet you’ve heard something similar from a friend or a family member in the past couple of weeks.  Maybe it’s a tad exaggerated; then again, just maybe it has become conventional wisdom.   

The President has said that he encourages the American public to have a debate on the tradeoff between privacy and national security.  I say fine, let’s have one.  (Of course, I would add that we should first master that time-traveling technique that Michael J. Fox used in the Back to the Future movies and go back to, oh I don’t know, how about January 20, 2009.  Then we can have that debate as part of a general town meeting entitled “The Change That We’ve Been Waiting For.”)  A cynic could say that it is a bit late to talk about privacy versus security when that decision has already been made for us.  But I’m trying not to be cynical.  And besides, when it comes to important and timeless public policy issues, it is NEVER too late for a society to engage in a robust debate.  So please, can we tawk?

Let’s first of all establish what should be obvious.  Powerful arguments can be made on both sides of the issue.   I view the above (fictional) quotation as representing an irresponsibly one-sided position, but that doesn’t mean that I would advocate placing no restrictions on our privacy in order to improve our national security.   I hate terrorism as much as the next American.  In fact, I hate violence so much that I don’t even eat animals.  As for the scourge of murdering innocent people, that isn’t worthy of the lowest of animals.   I encourage our government to take strong measures to fight back at that societal scourge, including considering modest and measured ways of restricting privacy if that is what’s necessary.  

However, that is but one side of a VERY complex equation.  And much as I got nauseated by the constant pro-war drumbeat from “moderate” talking heads after the Bush Administration began battering Baghdad, I’m getting a tad sick of the constant insensitivity on privacy issues from “moderate” talking heads during these past couple of weeks.   In particular, I’m getting sick of  the “I trust the government to do what’s best even if I never have a clue what they’re doing” crowd.   They act as if the government can never do any wrong; they’re as crazy as the libertarians who think the government can never do any right.  

 So please allow me to talk a bit on behalf of the right of privacy, if for no other reason than that the conventional wisdom is that only those on the far right and the far left care about it these days.   By contrast, those “holy moderates” who we have been told are the nation’s salvation seem to be willing to throw privacy out of the window, stomp on it, and light it on fire, if in so doing they thought they could save a single American life. 

My friends, I’m all for saving lives.  But honestly, if that value trumped all others to the nth degree, none of us would get behind the wheel of a car, let alone a motorcycle.  We’d be using buses, trains, bikes, legs and roller skates, but never a form of transportation that causes 30,000-40,000 Americans needlessly to die every year.  Tell me, would you like the government to deprive us of the right to drive a car or motorcycle?  Then why don’t you mind if someone suggests that the government use their unilateral judgment, protected by a veil of total secrecy, to strip us of the right to privacy as much as they wish, as long as that would cut into the instances of terrorist attacks?

Perhaps the truth is that we all feel that the right to drive is part of the American way, but the nation is more split when it comes to the right of privacy.  Many might see that as a privilege, but not a right.  Average Americans – hot dog-eating, beer-drinking, football-loving Americans – drive every day. But what do they need with a right to privacy?  We don’t have to worry about the government monitoring our liquor intake, for Prohibition has been gone for decades.  We don’t have to worry about the government nailing us for smoking pot, because average Americans don’t smoke pot, they drink!  Also, average Americans aren’t gay, so they don’t need to worry about those antiquated sodomy laws that remain on the books.  And finally, average Americans don’t place phone calls to the Middle East or for that matter to American Muslims, so they don’t need to worry that their calls are being monitored.  In fact, even if their calls were being monitored, they wouldn’t say anything that could possibly get them in trouble.  

Just maybe, the truth is that as a general matter, the right to privacy matters to fringe Americans, not “normal” Americans.  But the right to drive?  That matters to all Americans.

Sorry, but the right to privacy should matter to every American, whether or not they have anything to hide.  And I say that in the same way that I believe that the right not to be discriminated against on the matter of race or creed should matter to every American regardless of one’s race or creed.  It is in the national interest that we all have a private space where we can behave as we choose beyond the eyes of Big Brother.   That private space is the soil in which freedom grows.   And what value can be more American than freedom?  

The importance of respecting privacy ultimately is not just a matter of freedom, but of justice.  Just consider how members of “deviant” groups – whether they are gay, Muslim, “right wing” or “left wing” – are more likely to be targeted by Big Brother than others.   If our nation’s history tells us anything, it’s that our government doesn’t handle “deviants” very well.  Just remember how the now-beloved Kennedy Administration had MLK Jr.’s hotel room bugged and wiretapped.  Of course, MLK wasn’t an “average” American who never stuck his neck out.   But personally, I don’t want to live in a country when a saint like King can be expected to be monitored like a criminal, but the apathetic masses rest comfortably in the thought that there is nothing they can do that could possibly concern anyone in Washington.

All of that said, can we at least rejoice about one thing:  this national debate has brought progressives and conservatives together for the first time in years.  Thank God for that.

And while I’m expressing thanks, thanks on this day to all of the fathers out there who served as my role model in that capacity, and especially that nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn named Julius Bertram Spiro (1912-2002). 

Sunday, June 09, 2013


This weekend, sad to say, I haven’t had time to do any extensive blogging.  I have found myself obsessed with the goal of finishing my manuscript – or should I say, getting my manuscript to the point where I think it is suitable for publication.   As a result, all other writing efforts, including my obligations to the Empathic Rationalist, have had to fall by the wayside.  Allow me, then, to make only a simple point, in the hope that more is less.   

We are all seeing what life is like when we live in a nation shell-shocked by government scandals.  It seems that every day, another scandal is just around the corner.  And even matters that would not otherwise be scandalous start to get the media fired up and the public concerned.

At bottom, this is about the nation’s trust in its government.  Once that trust is lost, the scandal potential grows logarithmically.  In this day and age, when enemies truly do abound, the government necessarily must do certain things in secret.  But once the public trust is lost, the discovery of these secret activities will inevitably be met with skepticism or downright disgust.  For whenever the government says “we’re only doing X, we would never encroach on Y,” the public will say, “It is just a matter of time before you’ll be snooping into Y if you haven’t started already.”  And the government will be in no position to respond.

I used to think our society’s polarization was our biggest problem, but this lack of trust issue may prove to be even bigger.  Or perhaps it is merely an outgrowth of the other.  Whatever the answer, we must deal with it quickly.  We desperately need to be able to trust in our government, and no time too soon.  Hopefully, this society won’t have to see for ourselves all the reasons why that is a fact.  Lord knows, it is well known in much of the world.