Saturday, December 27, 2014

Happy Holidays from the Empathic Rationalist

Now that virtually all of my free time is being spent at my mother's rehab facility, I'm going to have to beg your forgiveness as I take the week off from blogging.  I do, however, want to thank all of my readers for your support.  Hopefully, this blog has given you some food for thought ... and even some cause for empathy.   That, at least, is my goal.

Have a great week and a happy New Year.  I'll see you in 2015.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Firing of Ari Roth and the Closing of the American Jewish Mind

Denial.  Anger.  Bargaining. Depression.  Acceptance.

There you have the five so-called “stages of grief.”  I’m still dealing with the second stage.  And my hope with this blogpost is to place each of you somewhere on this same continuum.

My anger relates to the firing this week of my friend, Ari Roth, as Artistic Director of Theater J, the Washington, D.C., Jewish theater.   The story has received a lot of attention – and not just locally.  Here are a few of the stories that have been written since the axe fell on Thursday:

·         The Washington Post
·         Washington Jewish Week
·         Washingtonian Magazine
·         New York Times
·         The Jewish Daily Forward

Roth’s firing by his employer, the Jewish Community Center of Washington, was the culmination to date of a campaign spearheaded by a group called COPMA, which stands for Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art.  COPMA didn’t take long to proclaim victory in an e-mail blast.  The DCJCC “Takes a Stand for Israel,” COPMA announced.  It went on to say that the DCJCC and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington “did the right thing in refusing to continue their financial support of the anti-Israel programming that Mr. Roth spearheaded at the DCJCC – programming that falsely accused, maligned and undermined the State of Israel, and in doing so, caused harm to the Jewish people.”

You’d think from this description that Ari Roth had turned Theater J into an orgy of Israel-bashing.   Believe me, there are plenty of Jews who support just that.  But Ari Roth isn’t one of them.  Ari is a proud Jew and a lover of Israel.  As an intelligent, thoughtful mensch who has absorbed the central principles of the Jewish faith, Ari believes that high-brow theaters have an obligation to facilitate not only entertaining dramas but also a free and open marketplace of ideas.  To his credit, he doesn’t shy away from taking on the big issues, whether they involve theology (as when he twice ran a play about Spinoza’s excommunication) or politics.  When he has addressed the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, he tends to present both the Israeli and the Palestinian perspectives so that he can stimulate his audience’s hearts and minds, not to mention their dialogue.

As someone who has devoted considerable time to enhancing Jewish-Islamic encounters in the Washington area, I was asked to participate as a panelist on “talk back” programs after two of Theater J’s most controversial plays regarding the Conflict.  On each occasion, I was allowed freely to express my views, which are definitely pro-Zionist.   I cannot imagine why people who attended either the plays or the talk-backs would have concluded that the theater was “anti-Israel” unless they are themselves “anti-intellectual.” 

During Ari Roth’s tenure, Theater J has been one of the Jewish community’s shining lights in the Washington, D.C. area.  It has maintained both high artistic standards and a respect for the principles of Judaism as a living, breathing faith.    Fortunately, Ari has no intent to leave Washington. He is planning on continuing to put on quality theatrical productions in a different DC-area playhouse.  

So all is well, right?   Not even close.  What we have witnessed this week is a symptom of a larger problem.  The Jewish community is fracturing before our very eyes, much like the American body politic.  In each case, there are many folks who are turned off and tuned out – which is itself a symptom and outgrowth of polarization – but a huge percentage of those who haven’t given way to apathy are heading in one extreme direction or another.  What we’ve seen this week at the JCC is a victory for the right-wingers: the Jews who are so paranoid that they cannot abide knowing that their tribesmen are being exposed to the Palestinian narrative, even if it is being presented together with its Israeli counterpart.   But that type of paranoia doesn’t just happen in a vacuum.  It has grown together with the rise of groups like Jewish Voices for Peace on the left.  Just as it was once said of Rudy Giuliani that his every sentence included a noun, a verb, and a reference to 9/11, JVP cannot utter a sentence without a noun, a verb, and a reference to “the Occupation.”   And the more traction that JVP and other anti-Zionist Jewish groups are getting on college campuses and liberal Christian churches, the more paranoid Israel’s right-wing zealots are getting.   Extremism in both directions tends to feed on itself.    In this context, one result is that liberal Zionists like me are wondering if this is a train station with only two platforms, neither of which leads down the path towards a two-state solution … or a just and secure peace.  

No, I don’t want to sound like Chicken Little.  When it comes to the Jewish civilization, the sky never really falls.  We encounter horrible tragedies, but we also figure out ways to bounce back.  In today’s New York Times, there is an opinion piece stating that Netanyahu may indeed face a legitimate challenge in the next parliament election.   If he loses and a more progressive voice takes over the Israeli government, maybe the Jewish organizations here in America who frequently become mouthpieces for the Israeli government’s party line will themselves head back towards a more tolerant, less paranoid form of liberal Zionism.   

Last evening as I was completing this blogpost, my 93-year-old mother fell and broke her hip while I was in an adjacent room.   I told my wife, “All I want is to have hope.”   And that, indeed, is my attitude about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the American Jewish community’s ways of coping with the Conflict.  Sometimes when things in life look bleak, it is easy to lose hope, but we must never give in to those feelings.  

Life is frequently a war between fear and hope.  If you want to know what makes successful people – not to mention successful peoples – look no further than how they wage that war. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Speech

In 2004, Barack Obama stole my heart with his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention.   That speech, combined with Hillary Clinton’s vote on the Iraq War, sealed my support.   Now, ten years later, I am wondering if there has been another speech that will have the same effect on the 2016 campaign.  This time, the speaker was Elizabeth Warren, and the topic is a question that rank-in-file Democrats have been asking themselves for years:  does their party stand for Main Street or only for Wall Street?   Warren has made her view very clear: the Demos are bought and sold by Wall Street and Wall Street alone.  Now, she has thrown down the gauntlet to all potential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, to prove her wrong.   (Here’s a way to view the speech, if you haven’t yet done so:

One possible response, of course, is that the Dems stand for BOTH Main Street and Wall Street.   To be sure, you’d have to be quite the ideologue not to recognize that middle class people hold interests in the stock market and even those who didn’t would stand to lose money if Wall Street were to collapse.  (See, e.g., the Great Depression.)  But what we’ve seen in recent decades is clearly a sharp rise in the wealth of the richest Americans without a rise in the wealth of middle class Americans.  And when you are a political party whose mascot is the donkey, you can’t keep ignoring this phenomenon and not expect to be called on the mat by one of your colleagues.  In short, “the speech” was bound to happen.  It just happened to be Elizabeth Warren who had the skill to deliver it.

Does this mean “game on” for the Democrats in 2016?   Does this mean that, once again, Hillary Clinton’s inevitability has been overblown?   Not so fast.  I can think of at least two reasons why Clinton’s backers might not yet have to break a sweat.  First, Warren hasn’t yet demonstrated that she has the stomach to campaign against the Clinton Machine.  That is, after all, one heck of a machine.  When Obama took it on, he needed to run an absolutely flawless and extremely creative campaign, and he still barely won.   Warren may decide that she’s better off leading the progressive wing of the party from her perch in the Senate and leaving the campaign trail to folks like Bernie Sanders who will make the same kinds of arguments she would make but without the charisma that she would bring.

Second, I’m not convinced that Warren has a second act in her.  Yes, she can summon her inner Cicero at will when the topic turns to banking reform, but does she have the same inspiration with respect to other topics?   Hillary won’t be defeated based only on her views of Wall Street vs. Main Street.  For someone to overtake her, they’d need to pull the kind of magic act that Obama did – to turn themselves into almost the ideal candidate, not merely a One-Hit Wonder.

In other words, to beat Hillary, you’d have to be the band that wrote “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” not the one that wrote “Video Killed the Radio Star.”  The latter was a nice song, but it won’t get you in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.  And Warren’s banking reform speeches by themselves won’t get her past Hillary.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that Warren has the stomach for a race and finds her voice on topics other than Wall Street reform.  There would remain one more question: does she and/or her people have the stones to take on Hillary – to bring Hillary down, as it were, at the same time that they are propping themselves up?   Are they actually willing to argue that Hillary is the voice of the status quo, whereas they are the voice of progressive change? 

It wasn’t that long ago when William Jefferson Clinton campaigned as a “New Democrat,” meaning a Southern Democrat who was essentially moderate, rather than an old-school liberal.  Are the Warrenites willing to argue that they are campaigning as progressives who are trying to take the Democratic Party back to its FDR-type roots, whereas the Clintonians are mere triangulators who stand for the status quo?  Without such an attack, I still say that Hillary has too many institutional advantages to lose this race.  

An argument can be made that even if Elizabeth Warren isn’t really ready to rumble, she should still jump in the race as sort of a state-of-the-art sparring partner who will get Hillary in fighting trim for the general election.   From Hillary’s standpoint, a half-motivated Warren might well be the perfect foil during primary season.  But I don’t see Warren assuming that role.  The woman who spoke in the Senate this week wasn’t a mere sparring partner.  She was a title contender with one heck of a punch.  And remember, in the “Fight of the Century” between “The Greatest of All Time” and a Philly boy named Joe Frazier, it was Frazier who came out the winner.  (Ali won their next two bouts, but Frazier took the first one.)  So I’m not counting Warren out.  All I’m saying is that she still has a major uphill struggle, and in this uphill run, she’s going to have to cross some pretty big hurdles along the way.  In her case, those hurdles won’t take leg strength – they’ll take intestinal fortitude.  If Warren has that fortitude, Madame Inevitable could indeed have a fight on her hands.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

It's Wake-up Time in America

Climate Change
Social Polarization
Spiritual Apathy
Rampant Materialism

            These are all facts of life in contemporary America.   They are either altogether denied, ignored, or ultimately disregarded.  We have given up on our ability to make progressive social changes other than technological improvements.  We have stopped believing, for example, that the institutions of government are capable of producing social or environmental uplift.  We have essentially turned inward – to hobbies like marathon running or helping our little brats get into elite colleges.   You see, we haven’t given up on our ability as individuals to amass great wealth, financial security, or social status.  It’s only when it comes to “changing the world” in a direction of peace, justice or truth that we start throwing up our hands and saying, “yeah right.”

            Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”   I agree with that quotation.  It’s literally true.  But the problem is, the statement has two parts, and interpreters tend to ignore one of them.

            The arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice.  We as a society are less racist, sexist and homophobic than we used to be.  We also have more appreciation for animal rights and for the need to educate every child, regardless of whether their test results are “promising.” 

But the first part of MLK’s statement, and perhaps the most important part, is that the arc of the moral universe is long.   In other words, societal moral change takes place VERY slowly.   The bigotry, status consciousness, greed and hatred that we see vividly on display at certain times and places are always around, under the surface, even in the most “civilized” of subcultures.

As our moral universe changes ever so slowly, our technological prowess advances rapidly.  In some respects, that is a wonderful development.  But it also means that we are increasingly able to create weapons of mass destruction.  For example, just look at the effect that fossil fuels are having in drought-suffering California and now imagine all of the people in Africa who are likely to pass away in the next century or so because we are unwilling to tackle the scourge of climate change.  That is definitely a WMD.

Our society resembles the good ship Titanic.   We hum along at great speed, reveling in our superficial affluence, sophistication, and power.  And then, when we see icebergs in our path, we convince ourselves that we are powerless to do anything about them.   We just don’t have a nimble turning radius.  The arc of our moral universe is simply too long for us to react in time to avoid these icebergs.  And so, at the time they hit us, we’ll probably be doing what Winslet’s and DeCaprio’s characters were doing in the Titanic movie – pleasuring ourselves.  Why not?   It’s not like we as individuals can save the world, right?  Haven’t we learned something since the days of Woodstock? 

That, my friends, is the kind of cynicism that has brought us to where we are today.  It’s a dreadful, defeatist attitude, born not of sophistication and wisdom, but rather of ignorance and complacency.  This is what happens when you live in a society where progressive religiosity is moribund, and liberal-minded people no longer feel commanded to fight for higher values.  

I won’t talk in this blog about Ferguson or Staten Island or anywhere else where folks are debating the topic of justice in our legal system.  I make my living fighting for justice in our legal system, and my blog is devoted to my avocations, not my vocation.   But this much I will say:  we Americans, we complacent ones, now have an opportunity to wake up, rise up, and do something meaningful other than simply feathering our own nests.  We have an opportunity as individuals to come together and tackle large social scourges.   Will we make something of this opportunity?   Or will we return to our shells, like a pack of tired turtles?

I can’t answer those questions.  But what I can say is that it’s high time that we remember the other half of MLK’s statement.  The arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice.  It’s our obligation as individuals to apply some strength and bend that sucker as forcefully as we can.  We can’t just sit on the sidelines any longer.  We’ve tried that for a generation or two, and look what it’s gotten us?  

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Time to Give Thanks

Before this weekend ends, the Empathic Rationalist would like to join in the Thanksgiving spirit.   No, that doesn’t include eating turkey.   This is strictly a tofurky zone, and the only “Turkey Day” we acknowledge is when some person makes enough of an ass of himself so as to deserve having a day recognized in his honor.   (How’s that for mixing a metaphor, animal lovers?)  Putting aside our dietary differences, I think we can all come together at this time of year to express gratitude.  What follows is my own attempt to take stock in some of our blessings.  To anyone or anything on this list, I offer my deepest thanks.

 1.      God

I wish to thank the Ultimate (God) for life itself.  Any other benefactor pales in comparison.

        2.  The Name of God

I am thankful that our species recognizes the idea of Divinity.  I realize that many have turned the Name into a divisive force – and some even kill over it -- but I remain thankful that we have reached out to the Infinite and developed a concept for the great mystery that engulfs all that exists.  Hopefully, someday, the Name will become as unifying a force as it has been a divisive one. 

3.  Street Protests

Some people in the media appear to look at street protests primarily through a lens of fear.  These journalists seem obsessed with the potential of protests to turn violent and breed lawlessness.  Clearly, they have a point.  But aren't they missing a more profound one?  I look at protests, or at least American protests, as a sign that in an increasingly complacent society, there are some people who still give a damn about fighting for higher causes.  I look at protests as a sign that in a society that in a society that increasingly seems to be controlled by a small, privileged minority, there are some people who still believe that "we the people" have some power.   
Do the “people” really have power?  Or have we hopelessly turned into an uncaring plutocracy?   Every time I see a protest, I gain a little more hope.  It really doesn’t matter why people are protesting or whether I agree with their cause, it still gives me hope.  When the protests end, that’s when we’ll know that 1984 is finally upon us.

       4.  Boycotts

Boycotts are similar to street protests in that, at least when they become widespread, they reflect a concerted effort to fight for a cause and against some symbol of the status quo.  In the last several months, the Empathic Rationalist has taken a stand against one type of boycott (those targeting the State of Israel) and in favor of another (those targeting the National Football League), so I clearly have strong feelings both for and against particular protests.  What I’m thankful for is the fact that protests exist as a way for people, peacefully, to express their commitment to a cause.

The folks who run organizations like the National Football League count on the fact that few people in our society believe in boycotts, so they can behave as badly as they want to and it won’t affect their precious revenue stream.  Thankfully, though, boycotts are a time-honored way to tell companies and organizations that “we the people” will only put up with so much B.S. and that we intend to send a message to their wallets.  May that tradition last a lot longer than my NFL boycott, which, after 12 weeks (or ¾ of a season), will partially come to an end after this weekend’s games.   You see, one of the great things about boycotts is individuals get to decide for themselves the scope and the duration of the boycott.

5.  Family
I remember studying Marxism when I was young and reading about how the institution of the “nuclear family” is decadent and should be abolished.  Well, I’m here to say that, thank God, we don’t live in a Marxist world.  I have been blessed with a wonderful wife, two beautiful and fascinating daughters, and two parents who have lived to the age of 90 (one of whom is still going strong at 93).  I can’t imagine what kind of dystopia this world would be like without the institution of family.  The phrase “lonely in a crowd” comes immediately to mind. 

     6.    The Evolving Movement Away from Bigotry and Violence

Journalists like to paint a picture of a world constantly at risk.  “Terror sells; reconciliation bores.”  That seems to be the motto of journalism today.

At the risk of boring you, let me request that you consider the results of sociological research.  Despite all the Chicken Littles who preach to us on TV and in the newspapers, the world is getting progressively more democratic, less violent, and less bigoted.  Just look at the facts and figures.   Here’s one of many fact-based articles that paints just the opposite picture from what you’d expect from the news:

And speaking of articles, last week in Washington, DC, dozens of imams and rabbis got together in an attempt to figure out a way to bring their respective communities together, and we actually got a little publicity.  Here’s one of the articles that emerged from that effort.

I am thankful to have been part of that DC imam-and-rabbi summit and hopeful that similar efforts will spring up in cities around the country and across the world. 

That’s all I have to say this Thanksgiving weekend.  Except for this – I am also thankful for all of you who read the Empathic Rationalist.  Hopefully, this part of cyberspace will continue to pique your interest during the upcoming year.