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.