Saturday, June 28, 2014

If Our Political System Is Broken, Then Fix It. But How?

I don’t know what was more upsetting – the statement or the reaction.   I was watching Morning Joe the other day, and I heard Texas Congressman, Joaquin Castro, make a rather incredible statement.  He said that in the next five months, Congress will be in session for precisely 26 days.  And the reaction from Scarborough and Company was tepid.  These days, it’s news when Congress does anything, and if a Congressman is going to go on TV and acknowledge, in essence, that he gets paid to not even show up, nobody is the least bit surprised.  

I went back to check the Congressional calendar, and I couldn’t confirm the 26 day figure.  The true figure, from what I can tell, is 35 days in the next five months.   But the upshot is still the same. That’s seven days a month if you’re scoring at home.   Seven days when Congresspeople will be asked to do the nation’s business.  What’s more, we all can assume that those days will NOT be spent working on climate change legislation, immigration reform, or deciding whether to declare war in Iraq.

Congress’ willingness to make difficult decisions with respect to Iraq was another subject that Scarborough and Company were talking about that morning.   The viewers were told that our representatives on Capitol Hill would gladly cede to the President unilateral decision-making authority when it comes to that country.  Senator Keane of Virginia is an exception – not only does he believe that Congress has the right to decide whether to wage war against ISIS, but he wants to be involved in that decision.  In that respect, Keane practically stands alone.  For the most part, I’m gathering, our representatives in Washington would prefer to be back home in their districts attending fundraisers and other social functions, where they can listen to toadies honor them with praise, say a few loving words to constituents, and make a number of new fans (and “friends”).  In other words, rather than pissing people off by making a potentially unpopular war vote, they’d rather take steps to ensure their own re-election for as long as they want the job.

The system is broken, folks.  Like a stalemate in chess, it seems structurally impossible for anyone to win.   I wonder if even the Congresspeople are happy.  My bet is that most of them originally came to Washington to make meaningful legislative changes, but they soon realized that the gridlock on the Beltway is nothing compared to the gridlock on the Hill.   What’s more, at the same time they realized how difficult it is to enact legislative reforms, they realized how simple it is to help their own chances at re-election.   Go home and press the flesh, they tell themselves.   Meet the people.   Kiss their babies.   Feel their pain.  Have a laugh with them.   And make sure that all this happens AFTER you get introduced as “the Honorable (such and so)” who is “always fighting” for them and for America.  Honestly, as difficult it is to be productive when the Congress is in session, that’s how easy it is to be productive back home.   So why not forget about legislating and concentrate instead on campaigning?  

Congressman Eric Cantor never got the memo.  He was too ambitious.  It wasn’t enough for him to represent his district in Congress.  He wanted to become a national figure, and for a while, you could see his career fly like an eagle.  He made it to the Virginia House of Delegates at 28 and to the U.S. House of Representatives at 37.  Then, two years later, he was the Chief House Deputy Whip.   How is that rapid a rise even possible?  At 45, he became the Minority Whip and at 47, the House Majority Leader.  That made Eric Cantor the highest ranking Jew in the history of the United States Congress.   Canter also sits as the only non-Christian Republican in Congress.
Surely, a star like that can’t possibly fail to gain re-election, right?   But of course, that’s precisely what happened.   And I’m not terribly puzzled about why.  Cantor was spending a lot of time in Washington working on legislative matters.  And much of his time spent out of D.C. involved fundraising for OTHER Republicans so as to build the national brand.  Cantor forgot that, in today’s America, the job of a sitting Congressman is to go back home and campaign for himself, and everything else is secondary.  
It made total sense that Cantor was the one prominent incumbent to “shockingly” lose in this primary season.  The only real surprise is that there’s actually a politician in Washington who’d rather spend time on the Hill talking to colleagues, than going home and shaking hands with adoring strangers.
Now please don’t misunderstand me.   I recognize the virtue of listening to your constituents.  But that’s not necessarily what happens when members of Congress head back to their districts.  If it were, we couldn’t buy a gun in this country without one heck of a background check.  No, let’s not be naïve.  The primary purpose of these jaunts home isn’t to glean the will of the people but rather to obtain the votes of the people.    And that’s accomplished above all else by being seen, being friendly, and exuding an aura of gravitas.  Follow that formula, and you’ll get as much job stability as a federal judge or a tenured teacher.

I don’t know Eric Cantor.  So anything I say about his reactions to losing in the 2014 Virginia Republican primary is pure speculation.  But allow me to speculate just the same.  When I saw his face after the defeat, I didn’t see the face of a crushed man.  In fact, he didn’t look the least bit depressed.  Clearly, his national political ambitions have been shattered, but his emotions don’t appear to be.  Why is that?  Perhaps it’s because he realizes what’s in store for himself – instead of earning tons of money that can be spent doing campaign ads, he’ll be earning tons of money that can be spent traveling all over the world and buying beautiful houses.  That sure sounds like a sensible trade to me.  Perhaps there was once a time when folks came to D.C. because they valued power more than money, but I suspect that our legislators increasingly have to ask themselves the same question:  where is the power?   What exactly can be accomplished when the next “Mr. Smith” comes to Washington?   He’ll come to a chamber that is rarely in session and that devotes most of its legislative activities to merely symbolic actions (like voting to repeal Obamacare for the 4,000th time).  So why bother?    

The real winner in this year’s primary election may, indeed, be the future multi-zillionaire, Eric Cantor.  As for the rest of us, we will continue to be the losers, as we live in a country where the folks we have entrusted to make laws have decided instead to make a beeline out of the city and on to the next campaign.  

This is what a broken system looks like, my friends.  Any suggestions?

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Scab is Finally Ripped Open

I understand that here in the States there are but a small number of reactions to the mess known as Iraq.  Here they are, in no particular order of popularity:

1. Shia and Sunnis are killing each other?  Fine.  It’s certainly preferable to their unifying and coming at us.

      2.  Damn that George W. Bush.  That Dick Cheney.  That Colin Powell.  That Wolfie.  That Rummy.  That Condi. …

3. Obama, what a clown.   He’s like a deer in the headlights.  He wouldn’t know how to take decisive action if his life depended on it.

4.  Now is not the time for saying “I told you so.”   We all got some of this wrong.  Some of us were hawkish when they shouldn’t have been, and they got us into this mess in the first place. Other folks were stupidly sheepish about the “surge,” and thank God they didn’t prevail or things would only be worse.  The time has come to put the past behind us and work together.

5.      Thank God Obama is deliberate.  Thank God he thinks first and bombs later.

I guess of those choices, I’ll take door number five.

The first one is offensive.  It’s just blatant bigotry.  What a sad fact it is that the words “Shi’a” and “Sunni” have come to mean two species of wild animals among a large section of American society.

The second choice?  Well yes, those guys did screw us up.  But it’s way past time for my fellow progressives to stop fixating on every single mistake made by the Bush Administration.   It has become almost a clinical obsession with some people.

Number three?  That’s just stupid.  (See number 5.)

Number four?  That resonates a bit with me, but only up to a point.  Yes, we need to work together going forward, and yes, as indicated above, we can’t obsess about the failings of our political opponents to the point where they are blamed for cloudy days and earthquakes.  But we had better take stock in what has happened in Iraq so that we can evolve as a society.  Forgetting the past altogether is invariably a formula for repeating your mistakes, which in this case would be a disaster.

Number five.  Well, yes, thank God that the President is trying to think through the situation.  How could any sane person rush to action under these circumstances, when no scenario is very palatable?  But sooner or later, inaction might be a mistake here.   And because that risk, many of us keep asking the same questions.  Can we afford to do nothing?  If not, what should the United States do?   What should the world do?  Do we dare take sides between the combatants?  Do we support partitioning the land?   Do we have a clue what makes sense here?

My answer to the last question is a resounding no!  And for that, I fundamentally blame neither Bush nor Obama.  I blame the media.
Please think back to 2003.   Look at the lead up to Shock and Awe, and then look at the way Shock and Awe was covered by the press.   How many members of the 4th Estate asked the right questions?  How many of them questioned anything at all?  I spent the first month of that war in shock, but hardly awe, at the complete lack of serious investigative reporting and the absolute flood of the most superficially jingoistic journalism imaginable.  I might as well have been watching Florida State television cover a Florida State- Florida International football game.  The score was 60-0, “our team” was still running it up, and the so-called “journalists” were doing nothing more than describing the action and pounding their chests.

You’ll pardon me for taking us all back to memory lane, but I did so to make a point.  Given the sorry state of investigative journalism generally, and especially when it comes to reporting about war and peace, is there any American outside of a few inner circles who could possibly have a clue about what is going on in Iraq?   Who are we supposed to trust to gain the information needed to make an intelligent assessment? Budget-slashing newspapers?   Fox News?  How about Thomas Friedman?   He was the columnist who twenty years ago was considered the expert on all things Middle East, and yet when the chips were down in 2003, he put on his cheerleading outfit and hyped the Iraq War just like Rummy and Dick.

Folks, I appreciate that we are literally between I-raq and a hard place when it comes to Syria, Iraq, Iran … oh I don’t know, maybe we should throw in Israel, Palestine, and domestic U.S. politics for that matter.  The fact is that without a functioning media replete with state-of-the-art reporters and trusted commentators, all of the options at a time like this sound like bad ones.  That’s probably why most Americans have thrown up their hands and said “better to just do nothing.”   It’s a sorry solution to all geopolitical issues, but the logic is compelling.   When your nation’s most trusted news source (Jon Stewart) is, by his own admission, just a guy who makes “fart jokes,” it’s hard to step into any breach with the necessary degree of confidence.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Happy Father's Day

I want to wish all of you fathers out there the very best father's day.   Watch the U.S. Open or the NBA Finals.  Or just enjoy nature.  It's your choice, dads.  For once, you don't have to put your kids' needs first.

I'd like to say that I'm going to enjoy the day to the fullest, but that would be disingenuous.  My day will be spent working hard on matters related to marketing my upcoming book and then driving an hour up north so that I can sit shiva for my rabbi, who lost his own father.   Not exactly fun and games, but what kind of man doesn't sit shiva for his own rabbi? 

Anyway, because of those commitments, I will not be able to share my impressions of the chaos that has engulfed Iraq.  Or the shock of seeing the House Majority Leader -- and the only Republican in Congress who is Jewish -- lose in a primary.  It certainly has been a very momentous week both domestically and abroad, and perhaps the advantage of not blogging about it now is that while we know there will be serious ramifications from both of those events, it's way too early to discern them.

I expect to post again next Friday or the following Monday.  I will have a new puppy by then (we're picking him up on Wednesday), so I had better be in a good mood. Maybe that will be my father's day present even if it is a few days late.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Wonder of Wonders, Miracle of Miracles

“When David slew Goliath (yes!), that was a miracle.
When God gave us manna in the wilderness, that was a miracle too.
But of all God's miracles large and small,
The most miraculous one of all
Is the one I thought could never be:
God has given you to me.”

            From the Musical, Fiddler on the Roof

As a boy, I remember being livid when my parents shut off the Oakland Raiders’ game and dragged me to watch something called “Fiddler on a Roof” in a theater.  Back then, the choice between football and theatre was a no-brainer, and I spent the entire play sulking.   It wasn’t until Sholem Aleikum’s book was turned into a movie that I fell in love with it.  Like everyone else, I adored the character of Tevye the milkman, whose way of relating to God as if He were a business partner remains one of the prototypical Jewish forms of communication with the Divine.   But I appreciated the tailor Motel Kamzoil every bit as much.  Motel’s song, Wonder of Wonder, Miracle of Miracles, is a classic.  He sings it while radiating unmitigated joy at the thought that a poor, uncharismatic nebbish could somehow become betrothed to the most beautiful and heavenly woman in the world.

Was Tevye’s oldest daughter truly the world’s most beautiful creature?  The most heavenly?   Motel wouldn’t doubt that for a second.   And therein lies the miracle of love requited.   The beloved is put on a pedestal, and when she returns affection with affection, it casts a spell.   The Motel who sang that song surely would have lost much of his objectivity in assessing his fiancé, and that is just how things should be.   That’s how nature works her magic.  Objectivity is suitable for scientists, even certain types of philosophers, but not for lovers, and certainly not for husbands and wives.

This coming Saturday, I will be attending my second wedding in a month.   I’ve also heard about a recently announced engagement – nobody important to me, just my older daughter.  Like Tevye’s oldest, my Hannah is also very beautiful and heavenly.  But she’s not the most beautiful and heavenly.  That would be my wife.  

As set forth in The Creed Room, one of the central tenets of Empathic Rationalism is the prohibition against deceiving oneself.  But maybe that principle should be clarified.  When it comes to which glasses to wear while observing our spouses, we are permitted to make them rose-colored.   In fact, the muse of romance doesn’t merely permit it, she commands it.  And to those of us fortunate enough to take our romantic feelings and consummate them on a wedding night, that commandment truly seems to be the wonder of wonder, the miracle of miracles. 

But that’s really not the case.  Not even close.  What the euphoric couple doesn’t realize on their wedding day is that there are miracles, and then there are MIRACLES.   Broadway and Hollywood often celebrate the former, but only occasionally do they let us observe the latter.  Motel Kamzoil is just the kind of guy who would know the difference.   

Seven years after the fall of Anatevka, a massive cruise ship hit an iceberg and disappeared into the North Atlantic.  And 85 years after that, a movie was made commemorating that terrible tragedy.   For many of us, it was a film best remembered for its up-and-coming leads and its mega-hit song.  But for me, the image that lasts is that of an elderly couple, lying together in bed, the man reaching out to grab the hand of his wife and then kissing her on the cheek, preparing to meet their demise while truly at peace.  Watching that brief scene, I had the type of experience that is typically reserved for witnessing a Rembrandt.  There, in front of my eyes, were two souls who didn’t merely find a mate and host a big party, but who dutifully and contentedly sailed the ship of love throughout their lives and remained content to the bitter – or should I say bittersweet? – end.

James Cameron, the Director of Titanic, never used words to describe that couple’s life, but he didn’t have to.   Tolstoy told us that “happy families are all the same; the unhappy ones are different in their own ways.”  His statement suggests that there are certain laws of nature that apply to family life.  And they govern which marriages succeed and which do not. 

Here are a few examples of these laws of nature as I see them:  Marriages only work between the best of friends.  Each spouse must look up to the other.   And that admiration must be translated into allowing the other to enjoy true autonomy.  Constant communication is required.   Neither is permitted to “cheat” on the other.  Nor can either spouse make the other feel that if they don’t live up to their potential as an individual, they’ll lose their marriage.  In other words, they both are given unconditional love and they never doubt that for a second.

That’s one side of the ledger.  But there’s another.  And that is, that even the happiest of marriages will have all sorts of problems.   If James Cameron had taken that elderly couple and made a movie about their marital problems, he could have surely found enough ammo to create a depressing story.   Invariably, it seems, even the happiest couples will bicker about many of the same things.   Money issues, child-rearing philosophies, you name it.  The happiest of couples will periodically get frustrated with one another.  That’s another law of nature.   But you know what?  They remain loyal – physically and spiritually.  And gradually, year after year, decade after decade, they come to understand each other better, and then to appreciate one another more, and then to bicker less.  When they identify a problem with their spouse, they talk it through.   And if they live long enough, they are left with the contentment of knowing that half a century ago, when the time had come for them to make the most fateful decision in their lives, they made the perfect choice.

I didn’t need to interview that elderly couple from Titanic to understand the path they’d taken.   I didn’t have to live as long as they had lived to recognize all the marital laws they had honored, or to acknowledge all the crap they were willing to endure without losing their commitment to one another.  How did they do it?  That magical spell which started with their first intimate conversation, grew with their betrothal, and intensified at the altar -- how was it able to deepen over the decades, even as they lost their looks, lost their health, lost their initiative, and perhaps even screwed up at the office or with the family finances?   How could that spell be so strong that they were at peace despite the certain knowledge that their lungs would soon be filled with seawater?  

Now THAT is the wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles.  It starts with love.  But it’s more than love.  It’s about character.  It’s about having a capacity for kindness, responsibility, humility, and self-restraint.  In short, it’s about being a mensch.  When Motel the Nebbish sings about miracles, there is surely not a soul in the audience who doesn’t recognize him as a mensch.  “God willing,” as Motel would say, he and his fiancé would live long enough to be as old as that couple on the Titanic.  And if so, you could bet your house that Motel would have been true to his wife from beginning to end.   For a man of his character, such spells might not last an eternity, but they sure last a lifetime.  

I often hear people say that monogamy is not “natural.”  But I don’t buy that for a second.   Surely, some of us are more inclined to it than others, and I would be the first to say that it isn’t for everyone, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t for anyone.   Or that it can’t produce something of the greatest beauty.   From my perspective, the human ability to appreciate another person to the point where both spouses can steadily build a magical world that revolves around their lives together is indeed the wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles.    

To those of you who are getting married these days, or getting engaged, or even thinking of getting engaged, I wish you the character of Motel and the life of the couple on the Titanic.  Yes, I know that life ended badly.  But it was still worth it.