Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Scandals We Ignore

This week, I saw an op-ed in the New York Times that reminded me of what the mass media should be reporting.   It’s a huge scandal, only it doesn’t involve an act of terrorism, inappropriate sexual conduct, or a celebrity homicide.  As a result, we have no face to associate with this scandal.  We cannot even point to an evil corporation.   It’s no wonder, then, that the scandal is receiving little publicity.   And yet it is truly disgusting.

The op-ed, which was written by Nicholas Kristof and is entitled “A Nation of Takers,” should be discussed in every high school social studies classroom in America.   Here’s the column:  As you see, it is exposing a broken democracy – the scandal of living in a welfare state where the beneficiaries are millionaires and billionaires.  Yes, we have come a long way in the USA since the time when our laws identified African Americans as 3/5th of a person.   But we still have a long way to go before we can boast with integrity about having a “government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people.”   

None of us should have to wonder about why it is that we have, in the words of Kristof, “welfare subsidies for private planes … yachts … [and] hedge funds.”  The reason is simple:  wealth buys political power.  What puzzles me, however, is how the public is allowed to remain ignorant about these subsidies and how the politicians who permit them are not required to explain why.   I had always thought that the central purpose of a free press is to expose the inappropriate use of power.  Unfortunately, whenever the wrongdoer isn’t a single face but an entire infrastructure of lobbyists and politicians, the only thing that gets exposed is an out-to-lunch media.  

Kristof’s column is but a voice in the wilderness.  In this society, such columns tend to vanish shortly after they appear – like stones skipping on a lake.   By contrast, when a celebrity is caught misbehaving, the story can last for days or even weeks, and every reporter gets a few swings at bat.  Perhaps the public is partially at fault because it seems to have an insatiable appetite for stories about celebrities behaving badly, whereas structural problems with our tax system or our political process may be seen as too abstract to be interesting.  But I’m not buying that excuse.   You see, before I can absolve the media of responsibility for doing its job, I want to see them launch en masse into a scandal like welfare-for-the-rich as vigorously as they would talk about Anthony Weiner’s underwear or Eliot Spitzer’s socks.   I want to see them haul in one politician after another to the offices of a TV network and ask them to defend their decision to permit Mitt Romney to pay a lower tax rate than his secretary.  And most importantly, I want to see them conduct interviews of “regular Joes” who actually do pay high tax rates and have them explain just how these welfare programs affect their own feelings about their government and their country.  Then, after a few weeks of attention to this scandal, the media may move on – for surely there will be plenty of other examples where the rights of the many are being abused by the interests of the few.  

That's the kind of American our founding fathers expected.  That's the kind of America Thomas Jefferson was talking about when he wrote that "The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Nicholas Kristof is a  dinosaur.  For one thing, he still writes for a newspaper, and most people no longer read newspapers.  For another, he still focuses on exposing abstract scandals at a time when it seems that every scandal must have a public face.  But his column is a reminder that our Mount Rushmore is composed of men who cared deeply about the welfare of sharecroppers and shopkeepers, not to mention the environment.  If we share in their concerns, we had better open our eyes to the true scandals that plague our nation and assume personal responsibility for confronting them.  Kristof can accomplish nothing by himself.

Saturday, March 22, 2014


I confess that I have little spare time this weekend – so I’ll keep this post short and sweet.

I confess that all this Putin-worship on Fox News absolutely confounds me.   Isn’t this guy just another macho strongman who isn’t weighed down by scruples?  Isn’t he just another clownish politician who stages phony photo-ops in order to show off athletic prowess that he presumably doesn’t truly possess?  So why are so many of our talking heads celebrating him as some sort of role model for leadership?   Is that really the kind of statesman that Americans should admire?

I confess that, just because I have distaste for Putin, that doesn’t mean I think Hillary should be comparing him to Hitler.  Do we really see this Russian punk in the same league as a man who gave us the worst atrocities in human history?  Doesn’t someone need to have more blood on his hands than Putin in order to warrant the Nazi comparisons?  Let’s please stop comparing every international bully or madman to Hitler.  It just trivializes what the Nazis did.   

I confess that despite my fascination with the tragic disappearance of flight MH 370, I’ve long ago lost patience for watching TV news coverage of the event.   Every day or two we get a bit more information, and that info is appreciated, but cable news channels aren’t satisfied with reporting one or two tidbits.  They feel the need to bring in “experts” and other yentahs to speculate ad nauseum about the situation.   Is there possibly a reason to listen to such endless speculation?  Tell me, when you’re driving and notice a wreck on the highway, would you want the guy in the passenger seat of your car to launch into a fifteen minute discourse on the possible causes of the wreck and the likelihood of each possibility?  If that prospect defines monotonous, why would you want to tune into cable news coverage of MH 370 these days? 

I confess that as a Democrat, I am more than a bit nervous about the upcoming midterm elections.   Even under the best of circumstances, my party tends to struggle in midterm elections because we have difficulty getting out part of our vote.   The problem is worse when the incumbent President is a Democrat.  And this year, the problem is particularly profound because the Dems are generating precisely zero excitement. They’re essentially allowing this election to become a referendum on the Affordable Care Act, and whoever’s job it is to hype that law to the nation is doing about as well as the gang responsible for the website rollout.   For starters, it was dumb that the President encouraged the law to be referred to as “Obamacare.”  But if he’s going to own it, he can at least speak more soulfully about what makes him proud of the law.   Right now, the Republicans have placed the President and his health care law at the middle of every corner bar in this country and invited the public to throw darts at it.  Do we Democrats care to respond to that invitation?   Or are we content to just “wait for Hillary” in 2016?   At this rate, if and when she does get elected, she’ll be dealing with one ornery Congress, and the only winners will be the conservatives who enjoy governmental gridlock.

I confess that the prospects of another failed effort to bring about Middle East peace scares me.  Next month, our Secretary of State is expected to announce that the parties have reached yet another stalemate, and once again we will have nothing tangible to show for the efforts of the past several months.  Next time we bring the parties to the peace table, can’t we please set some achievable, interim goals rather than putting all of our eggs in the Final Status Agreement basket?  I’m afraid that without any accomplishments for the peacemakers to point to as beacons of hope, this latest round of negotiations will leave the Jews and Palestinians with little more than their mutual distrust and the opportunity to build settlements and blow up buildings. I pray that sanity will prevail, but we can’t exactly count on that, now can we?

I confess that, on a personal note, my life over the past several months has been missing something vital. Late in 2013, I watched sadly as my sole surviving pet lost his battle to old age.   On December 31st, he was put down, and ever since, my family has been dog-less … and I’ve been cranky.  Hopefully, I’ll remedy this lack soon enough, and maybe it will make my posts more uplifting.  It will certainly lift up my spirits.

Finally, I confess that in my NCAA basketball pool, I picked against all three of my alma maters (Stanford, Harvard, American) and the first two actually won their games.   That is just another reminder that disloyal people get what they deserve.  I bet if I still had a dog, I would have taken Harvard and Stanford to reach the round of 16.  

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Future of Liberal Judaism in America

Virtually every year since 1986, I have delivered an original essay to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim.  Last evening's essay concerned the topic of the future of liberal Judaism in America.   You can find the essay on the "Annual Purim Speeches" page of my website,, or simply click on and go to the link for the 2014 talk.

I hope you enjoy it.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

On Tragedies -- Recognized and Unrecognized

Let me begin by expressing my sorrow for the 239 passengers of flight MH370 and their family members.  Any loss of life of that magnitude is a tragedy for the entire world, but this tragedy is particularly international, with 14 different countries represented among the fallen passengers.  Air travel seems to be safer than ever these days, but as this event reminds us, it is never 100 percent safe.  This event is just one more reminder that you can’t take life for granted no matter how young or healthy you are.   Every day we wake up in the morning is a new blessing.  And in consideration of those who won’t wake up this morning, especially those who the Fates have cheated out of a long life, the rest of us are obliged to live just a bit more compassionately and nobly in their honor.

This type of tragedy has been on my mind lately, ever since I heard from my daughter last weekend that five young men in her small liberal arts college were involved in a car accident, killing three and wounding the others.  The boys were sober, seat belted; in fact, they were complying with all the laws of the road.  They simply had the misfortune of sliding the wrong way on an icy, Minnesota road right into a large truck.   The college president said the next day that it was the worst day in the college’s history.   My daughter was clearly shaken by the incident even though she wasn’t close friends with any of the victims.   Tragedies like these cannot help but tug at our hearts whenever they are brought close to home.

Plane and car crashes are awful events, but at least we can experience them for what they are: pure tragedies and nothing more.   By contrast, geopolitical strife doesn’t affect people the same way.   When we hear about distant lands torn apart by religious, ethnic or other divisions, we stop feeling compassion and start feeling hatred.  What’s more, we begin to ignore our feelings and concentrate instead on our thoughts.   Ideas come into our heads about the great chess game that is known as geo-politics.  And, at least here in America, these ideas spawn many of the same questions:   What ideology do the perpetrators believe in?  And what about the victims?  What do we think of those ideologies?  Is there an evil dictator who is behind this madness, and what can we do to stop him?  What can and should America do to fight the evil that is behind the violence?    Does America shoulder any blame for what is going on?  And if so, which American leaders are mostly at fault?  

Once all of those questions are asked and answered, we have no time left for compassion.  We’ve now simply entered the arena of chess, and chess is as cold blooded a game as war itself.

When I think about tragedies in the world today, I can’t help but think about the Vietnamese coast and Northfield, Minnesota.  But you’ll forgive me if I also think about the Ukraine.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have Ukrainian friends most of my life, and I know that these people are fighters.  As a general matter, I mean that as a compliment.  Yet in this case, I fear that the divisions in that country that have already resulted in bloodshed will only get worse over time.  Just look at the maps in the following link, and you’ll see what an ethnically divided place we’re talking about:

Here in the United States, we take pride in the notion that ours is a melting pot nation.   But in other parts of the world, people are loyal to their ethnic groups and mother tongues, and perhaps less so to the countries in which they are citizens.  Those loyalties can easily enough be exploited by unscrupulous leaders from abroad, and Putin clearly falls into that category.   This morning, however, you’ll forgive me if I stop racing through one conspiracy theory after another or assigning blame to failed American policies or leaders.   This morning, please allow me to feel for the people of the Ukraine and pray that whatever happens in their nation, it can get sorted out with as little loss of life or liberty as possible.  

Premature deaths are tragic, whether they are “preventable” or not.   Let us never forget that tragic element.  For it is precisely when we put that element aside in the name of our own ideologies that we begin dehumanizing one another and treating human beings as means to our own ends.   Stated simply, a single death from a Kiev riot is no less sad than a death on flight MH370 or on the roads near Carleton College.  Sometimes, we need to stop thinking so much and simply say a prayer for those who have left us too soon.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

The Horse Races in ’14 and ‘16

As a sports fan, I should be getting pumped for the next great sporting event on the horizon: the 2014 Midterms.   Here’s the problem, though -- the Midterms are all about Congressional races, and Congress is no longer of interest to anyone either inside-the-Beltway or outside-the-Beltway.   In fact, it’s only of interest to folks ON the Beltway -- because, like the Washington Beltway at rush hour, it is a thoroughly gridlocked institution.   

Why should we care about which Party wins control of the House of Representatives or the Senate?  Will either Party obtain enough of a majority that it can actually pass meaningful legislation?   Politically, this country is so evenly divided at this point that we can expect the status quo to continue on the Hill for some time.   Yes, the majority Party may get the perks of bigger staffs, bigger offices, and more control over what Congress does in its investigatory capacity.  But I seem to remember from elementary school that Congress’s primary role in our society was to pass laws, and when it comes to that function, I seriously can’t tell how it matters very much who “wins” this upcoming horse race.

But there is another horse race coming even further on the horizon: the Presidential campaign of 2016.  And that one does seem to matter quite a bit.   The President controls a wide range of federal agencies.   Even leaving aside all of the domestic areas under the President’s command, s/he becomes Commander in Chief of America’s military and controls its foreign policy.   Plus, the President appoints our nation’s federal judges and Supreme Court justices.  So despite all the gridlock in Washington, the Presidency is still a very, very big job.

At this point, when I focus on the candidates for 2016, three faces come immediately to mind, and   everyone else is an afterthought.  On the Democratic side, there is only one contender.  I don’t even have to mention her name; that’s how over this race appears to be.   Truth be told, however, Hillary is not a young woman and there are all sorts of things that could happen to a person of her age that might prevent her from running.  But I’m convinced that if she is healthy, which I pray she will be, she will run.  And if she does run, the odds of her losing the nomination are about as high as the odds of my Minnesota Vikings winning their first Super Bowl next year.   Well, OK, she’s not that much of a shoe-in, but close.  She has the name, the experience, and the support among the grass roots, the big-money contributors and the Party leaders.   The only person whose popularity in the Party is even close to hers is the guy who shares her last name.   

Truly, even talking about the Democratic race in 2016 is a waste of ink.   So let’s get to the Elephants, because that race is definitely up for grabs.

I expect a much tougher road to the nomination in ’16 than the one Mitt had to travel in ’12.  He was a poor candidate who won by default because he was taking on the Seven Dwarfs.   Personally, I thought that John Huntsman, Jr. could have been formidable in a general election, but he was running as a moderate at a time when the Republican faithful were looking for a right-wing extremist.   They tossed him aside immediately and tried their hardest to do the same to Mitt, but Romney turned out to be the only semi-credible candidate, so they had no choice but to give him the nod.  The result was predictable; supposedly, even Mitt was saying privately that he wasn’t a very compelling candidate for the times.  You think?

In light of the quality of the last two GOP tickets, Democrats are surely giddy about their chances in 2016.  I would agree that their grand-dame nominee should be made the heavy favorite.   But the outcome is far from ordained.  And that is because the GOP should be able to provide a much more able challenger next time around.

Who will it be?  The possibilities are legion.  The talk-radio lovers like Ted Cruz.  The televangelist lovers like Mike Huckabee.  The schoolyard bully lovers like Chris Christy.  But I want to focus on two other contenders, neither of whom should be underestimated as political forces.

Let me begin by saying that if there can be one more Clinton, why not one more Bush?  Sure, there is plenty of W fatigue, but Jeb is not anywhere close to the same person as his elder brother.   Jeb was always supposed to be the “smart one,” remember?  Like W, he was a successful governor of a very large state, and a relatively moderate voice at that.  But unlike W, Jeb is supposed to have a good mind for grappling with public policy issues.  Nobody is going to lampoon him as the reincarnation of Alfred E. Neuman.   He’s likely to remind people more of his father than his brother, and correct me if I’m wrong, but you don’t hear a lot of bad things said these days about H.W.   Pappy Bush ran a pretty non-ideological Administration, and Jeb would be likely to do the same.  It is hard to see him as likely to turn over the power behind the throne to a figure like Dick Cheney.  In fact, Jeb’s election might even be the spark capable of bringing the Republican Party back into the mainstream.  It wasn’t that long ago that the Republicans were the Party of Dwight Eisenhower, Earl Warren and David Souter.  

In short, Jeb could well be the kind of mainstream, traditionally-conservative, adult voice who the Democrats would find difficult to either demonize or ridicule.  No, he is not the most exciting candidate in the world.  Then again, neither is Hillary.  That’s why Obama was able to take her down in ’08 despite her being the prohibitive favorite at the outset of the campaign.   If she ran against Jeb, she would be faced with the unenviable task of defending the status quo, and Jeb would have the advantage of speaking as the reformer with the freedom to take pot shots at the current Administration and to formulate any alternative ideological vision that suits his fancy.   I still think Hillary would have the edge in the horse race because of the Clinton name and the prospect that she would be our first woman President. But if Jeb’s people could seize on the right campaign themes, he could put up a serious fight.  

The second Republican name that should scare Hillary’s backers is Rand Paul.  Yes, that guy, the loopy libertarian.  Before you laugh at me, consider that Paul realizes that no loopy libertarian has a chance to win the White House, so he is in the process of reinventing himself.  He is doing precisely what anyone who wants to be President must do if he finds himself near the extreme of the American political spectrum: he’s taking a play right out of Ronald Reagan’s playbook.   He is figuring out how to talk with the rhetoric of a plain-spoken visionary who puts principles over pragmatism, all-the-while pivoting toward a place where he will broaden his appeal.  In other words, he is showing some real savvy.

There was a point when I assumed that Rand Paul was unelectable.   I expected that he would adopt his father’s isolationism, which clearly would offend the powerful pro-Israeli lobby, among others.  But the Rand Paul I see now is ready to do whatever it takes to kiss the right rings.  In that regard, he has two objectives:  to ensure that he doesn’t alienate key parts of the GOP base (like the pro-Israel lobby), and to appeal to Reagan Democrats and Independents.  I’m not sure he has figured out how to do the latter yet, but I don’t doubt for a second that he’s working on it.  

Paul has one huge advantage over Jeb: he doesn’t have to worry that by taking moderate positions on issues, he’ll be accused of being a RINO (Republican-in-name-only).   Make no mistake that the Tea Party wing of the GOP knows that Rand Paul is one of them.   No less than Reagan or his own father, Rand Paul understands that his bread and butter as a politician is to show passion for reducing the size of the government.    And if there’s one thing that the Tea Partiers love, it’s politicians who hate big government.   

The beauty of Rand Paul as a politician is that even though his is one of the most anti-government platforms of any American politician, he understands that he can’t come across as a hater.  Stylistically, he is a happy warrior, and he is learning how to come across as above the fray – by, for example, speaking respectfully about his political opponents.    I can easily see him out-flanking Hillary with the superficially positive tone of his campaign, all the while delivering a searing critique of the Obama Administration’s “big government” approach to leadership.   At a time when two thirds of Americans seem to think that our country is heading in the wrong direction, both this type of messenger and this type of message could present a formidable challenge to Hillary – unless she can identify some pretty compelling campaign themes.

So there you have it – three faces to consider when you think about 2016.  The upshot is that if Hillary wants to win the next election, she must do more than just show up like Barack Obama did and allow Bill Clinton to sell his candidacy while his opponent’s candidacy fell under its own weight.  Hillary has never been as lucky a politician as Obama, and in 2016, she’ll have to make her own luck; the job won’t simply be handed over to her.

Before that contest begins, however, I suppose it is our obligation as sports fans to look forward to the Midterms.   Maybe it doesn’t really matter which Party has the faster cars (i.e. wins control of Congress) because no vehicle can move very fast on the Beltway at rush hour.   But at least it might be interesting to see which Party gets the use of more vehicles or nicer wheels.   Then, in 2016, maybe we can see if we can elect a President who will inspire us to stop the gridlock.  

I don’t know about you, but I’m hoping to live long enough to actually see Congress do its job again.  If we can put men on the Moon, why can’t we put true representatives in Congress?