Saturday, March 28, 2015

Hoosier Hospitality Indeed

So, have you seen the photo of the Indiana Governor signing into law a new bill that legalizes anti-gay discrimination on the grounds of “religious freedom”?   Here’s the photo in all its glory:

As a religious person myself, I can’t tell you how distressing that vision is.   On the one hand, it looks like a symbol of the interfaith movement.  On the other hand, what it symbolizes is that people of various faiths can get together in support of bigotry against an abused minority group.   As the Church Lady would like to say, “Isn’t that special?”

Must I remind you all of all the ways that members of the LGBT community have struggled just to be accepted as normal?   Traditionally, gay people have needed to closet themselves and their feelings, lest they be exposed as the “freaks” and “losers” they were widely viewed to be.   Now, just as it seemed safe to come out of the cave and into the sunlight, here comes the pen of Governor Pence to put them back in their place.  In the great state of Indiana, anyone who is thought to be gay, bisexual, or transsexual and who dares to walk into a restaurant or other business can now legally be tossed out onto the street.   And all of this is happening in the name of religious freedom.    This, my friends, is the true meaning of blasphemy.

Several thoughts come to mind.  First, the old saw:  “Friends don’t let friends vote Republican.”   Truth be told, it remains my goal to pull the lever on behalf of a GOP candidate before I die, but at the age of 54, it hasn’t happened yet.  The more I age, the further and further that Party moves away from me – and it’s not me who’s moving to the left, they’re the ones who are moving to the right.  That having been said, I can’t always bring myself to vote Democratic either.  Personally, though, I prefer “wasting my vote” by writing in a friend to voting for a Party that stands for bigotry, economic inequality, and giving religion a bad name.  

Those of you who view yourselves as “moderate” Republicans and who disavow responsibility for bills like this one – wake up and smell the roses.  You are responsible for supporting the Party of Governor Pence, Rush Limbaugh, and all the other politicians who call themselves “conservative” but are truly just reactionaries.     Remember this law when it comes time to vote in 2016 and beyond.

Second, I cannot understand why so many people of faith feel threatened by the very existence of the LGBT community.   When a gay person walks into a restaurant, he’s not asking the proprietor to have sex with him, he’s only asking to be served food.  Where’s the trauma in that?  Ultimately, this comes down to whether the teachings of religion support the idea of universal dignity, or place more importance in following all the social mores of antiquity.   For me, religion inspires me to honor the Divine and all of the expressions of God, especially other people.  The last thing this impels me to do is to “play God” by placing law-abiding, peaceful citizens into groups and then deciding which groups to treat respectfully and which ones to treat like pariahs.   Frankly, that sounds more like “irreligion” than “religion.”

Third, I must confess to be especially disappointed that this prehistoric signing ceremony happened in Indiana, the state where I got married and where so many members of my family live.  Hoosiers are some of the nicest people I have met – and that applies as much to the folks who vote for the GOP as to the ones who vote for the Democrats.   I don’t believe that this bill was motivated by hatred or ill-will toward anyone.  Rather, it was grounded in a devotion to such principles as the respect for private property, an appreciation for the right of property owners to exercise domain over that property, and sensitivity to the moral absolutism that is inherent in virtually all religions. 
I can respect all of those principles, at least in the abstract.  But the problem here is that they ignore numerous other principles that are far more central.  And that leads me back to the photo.

As an author and as an activist, I have often touted the Interfaith Movement as perhaps our greatest untapped vehicle for advancing the causes of social unity and universal compassion.  Unfortunately, we now have a photo that presents a vision of the Interfaith Movement as a symbol of repression, division, and narrow-mindedness.  This bill was supposedly being signed onto law to protect freedom –specifically, the liberty of those who religious views prohibit them from advancing the so-called “homosexual agenda.”   But in fact, when I think about freedom, I think primarily about the rights of the underprivileged.  And when I reflect back on my youth and the way that gay adolescents were treated, few groups seem to me to be more abused and more deserving of liberty and honor.    

In short, I have a plea for Governor Pence and those who voted for him.  It’s your right to screw up Indiana; you live there, I don’t.  But please, do me this favor:  don’t screw any more with the Interfaith Movement.  Leave that to those of us who think of God and faith in terms of hope, not of fear.

[Note – The Empathic Rationalist will return in mid-April after I return from my trip to Israel.  Happy Passover to one and all.]

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Let's Talk about the Weather

Winter has come and gone.  But for those of us who live in the Washington, D.C. area, winter weather hasn’t exactly left with it.  Since the beginning of February, the weather in DC has been insanely and consistently cold, and the end is not in sight.  The low temperatures for five of the next seven days are supposed to be at the freezing point or below.  Snow showers are even expected for the final weekend of March, which is only one week before the average peak bloom date for the Cherry Blossoms.   I can’t recall the last winter that has ended as frigidly as this one.

And yet, according to a website maintained by the National Climatic Data Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “the combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for February 2015 was the second highest for February in the 136-year period of record.”  That’s right – despite the great monthly freeze in places like DC, Baltimore, New York and Boston, our planet as a whole continues to heat up at record or near-record levels.

To me, one of the great tragedies of this past 20 years is that Al Gore popularized the term “Global Warming.”   Scientists can talk all they want to about that phenomenon, but when you go through what we’ve been dealing with here in the east coast of America, it rings pretty hollow.  During any given winter, one part of the globe may be experiencing a comparative heat wave, whereas another may be buried in record snowfalls.  If you’re in the middle of a great, prolonged frost, the words “Global Warming” sound like a punch line.   Clearly, “the globe” isn’t getting warmer this winter – at least not the WHOLE globe. So for those who would rather not believe that we need to reduce our carbon footprint, “global warming” may come across as more of a gimmick than a reality.

The truth, however, is that it’s very real.  The NOAA data add further confirmation of that fact.   In the aggregate, our planet is inexorably getting warmer … more polar ice is melting … and we’re coming ever closer to the point where millions of lives can be at risk in places like the more arid parts of Africa.   The fault here doesn’t lie in the Chicken Little-scientists who are sounding the alarms – it’s the term “Global Warming” itself.  At best, the term is ambiguous.  At worst, it’s an affront to what our senses may tell us whenever we open our front doors.  Blow the term up, I say, even if it is – in a very profound sense – absolutely true.

Sometimes, how an idea is marketed is more important than the idea’s validity.   In this case, as we have seen, we have a term that often doesn’t pass the marketing laugh test, but we also have another term that seems never to fail us.  That term is “Climate Change.”  It incorporates the gradual increase in average worldwide temperatures, as well as many other phenomena.  These include rising sea levels, massive ice melting, increased droughts and greater storm intensity.   The more types of climate change we think about, the more obvious it is that Mother Earth is in danger.   But the best thing about that term from the standpoint of marketing is that it always rings true.  Even when your local weather is not especially exciting, it never takes long any more to remember the last time your weather was crazy cold, crazy hot, crazy stormy … or somehow more “extreme” than what you remembered from childhood.

There really can be no controversy -- “climate change” is real and it’s multifaceted.  So the next time you find yourself wanting to mention “global warming,” resist the tendency and talk about climate change instead.  You might even work in a reference to a recent cyclone or hurricane.  If someone wants to argue with you, you might want to put them in touch with the Flat Earth Society.  I’m not sure I know of another organization where he or she could feel at home.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Time for a Change in Israel

You’ll forgive me, friends, if the state of Israel is on my mind these days.  Tomorrow night, I will be delivering a talk on the topic of Spinoza and Zionism, and Tuesday, the Jewish State will hold what could be one of the most pivotal elections in her 68 year history.  The election is essentially a referendum on Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who has become the single public face of his nation throughout the world.  Defiant, resolute, articulate, uncompromising, parochial, intelligent … these are the words you typically hear about Netanyahu, unless of course you are involved in the peace movement as I am, and then you only hear expletives and comparisons to the Nazis.   Personally, I’m not one to blame Netanyahu every time it rains too much or whenever my football team loses a game.   But nor am I going to tell you that he is what Israel needs right now.   For reasons that should be obvious, pot-luck would be better.  And increasingly, it is beginning to look like the Israelis have realized as much.

Daniel Webster was referring to Dartmouth when he exclaimed, “It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet, there are those who love it.” That is one of my favorite lines to have ever emerged from the field of law.  If you substitute the word “country” for “college,” you have captured well my attitude towards Israel.  In that regards, Bibi and I are fully in accord.  I don’t question his motives every time he acts.  I accept that he loves Israel, cares desperately for her people to be secure, and has no particular interest in turning Israel turn into some sort of empire.  Unlike Isis, he’s not looking to create a single massive Caliphate, unlike the leaders of Iran, he’s not looking to control the governments of many nations, and unlike the 19th century European colonialists, he’s not looking to “take up the white man’s burden” and civilize the developing world. 

But that isn’t to say that Bibi is willing to work for a two-state solution.  While he professes to support such a goal, his actions speak louder than his words.  He does nothing to pull back from the West Bank Settlements, and he must recognize that with every new Jewish home that is built in pre-67 Palestine, a viable Palestinian state becomes that much more difficult to create.  Bibi isn’t stupid.  He knows what he’s doing.  He is giving up on the dream of a Palestinian state, and turning Israel into a fortress that is expanding, ever so gradually, into the only land that is available to make Palestine an independent and prosperous neighbor of Israel.

In the process, Bibi is also turning Israel into an international pariah.  His is not the face of a diplomat, but rather a warrior.  Largely because of his lack of diplomatic skills, he has created the impression that as warriors go, he is more like a Goliath than a David.  It’s actually pretty amusing to think of Israel as a Goliath.  Just look at a globe; you can hardly see the Jewish State, it’s that small.  Then again, that is true of Dartmouth, and yet I’m sure that in Hanover, New Hampshire, it casts quite a shadow.  Sure enough, Israel is plenty large enough in its own neighborhood to come across as a bully if and when it abuses its power.  Netanyahu doesn’t seem to care if it is perceived as such internationally.  Increasingly, though, it appears that the voters of Israel do care – or at least that’s what the pre-election polls are telling us.

It is time for Israel to elect a new, more moderate Prime Minister.  That leader must embrace the idea of a two-state solution and immediately halt new settlement construction whether or not the current Palestinian regime wishes to come to the table.  At the same time, the Israeli leader should invite his or her Palestinian counterpart to similarly send signals that the Palestinians also wish to see the establishment of two states for two peoples -- and not simply as a temporary measure but rather as a permanent solution to the Conflict.   By "signals," I’m not talking about empty rhetoric, but actions – such as in the way that Jews and Jewish history are portrayed in Palestinian textbooks.  

There is no reason for Israel’s leaders to take steps that compromise the security of their people any more than there is a reason why Palestinians must accept the Israeli narrative about how these two peoples came to find themselves at this crossroads.  The two sides have plenty of work that they can do together, cooperatively and with integrity, that stops short of crossing the line into foolhardiness or self-abasement.   

The key is that both sides need leaders who are committed to a vision of compromise and mutual respect.  Clearly, Bibi is not such a statesman.  His time has come and gone.  I for one am ready for his replacement. 

Friday, March 06, 2015

Bibi Deserves Our Thanks

Ever since Bibi’s speech before the U.S. Congress on Tuesday, I’ve been inundated with e-mails.  Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about the speech, and those opinions are about as passionate and polarized as it gets.  I never realized before just how many people I knew who were experts” on Iran.

I, for one, do not claim such expertise.  I’m certainly familiar with the revolution that brought down the shah, the hostage crisis that brought down Carter’s presidency, the decades of support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, the Holocaust denial, and the threats to Israel from certain prominent Iranian leaders.  But I’ve never been to Iran, I know few Iranians who want to talk about the politics of their nation, and I have been exposed to few objective voices who want to present to me a nuanced view about what makes Iran tick.  So I’m the kind of guy who frankly is happy to learn more about Iran and to listen to different perspectives about what kind of Iranian peace deal is warranted.  

With that perspective in mind, you’ll forgive me if I actually looked forward to Bibi’s speech.   I knew that he comes from a country that has been threatened by Iran in just about every way that a country can be threatened.  I wanted to hear his argument for why it is valid to compare appeasing Iran to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s.   

Frankly, I enjoyed the speech.  I especially liked the rhetoric, much as I once appreciated the rhetoric in Obama’s speeches when he first ran for President.  Soaring rhetoric has its place – it speaks to the heart as much as, if not more than, the head.  And when I heard Bibi’s speech, and recognized that we’re considering lifting economic sanctions on Iran despite the fact that it has not noticeably turned a new leaf, I found myself emotionally stirred – if not to action, then at least to showing more concern about the topic.

The speech raised several important questions.  Has Iran somehow become more benign during the past several years?  If Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, would this lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East or otherwise increase the power of vassal states and terrorist groups that Iran supports?  What are the nations who are now negotiating with Iran doing to ensure that they get the very best deal possible with Iran?  Who really has the leverage here, Iran or the countries with which it is negotiating?  And is it true that a weak deal is worse than no deal at all, given the loss of nerve among certain other countries in maintaining the sanctions?   

Some of these questions may sound rhetorical, but I am wondering about them in earnest.   I applaud Netanyahu’s speech because it helped put these questions on the front burner for me, and because I know for a fact that I am not alone.  That doesn’t mean I’ve concluded that Netanyahu has all the right answers, or that Obama has all the wrong ones, but I don’t believe that the President has truly sold his vision on Iran to the American public.  Or if he has, I must have been sleeping – because I clearly missed that sales job.

With all that as background, I must admit that I have been truly appalled by the reactions to the speech of the leaders of my Democratic Party.   I would say I was “shocked,” but that would be incorrect – these leaders reacted very predictably, and much as their Republican counterparts reacted whenever someone dared question the rationale for invading Iraq during the lead up to that war.  American statesmen are often at their worst when their political party is in power and is about to embark on a foreign policy initiative.  They operate on a “just trust us” basis and treat dissenters like they are practically un-American.   

What was so appalling about the Democratic reaction to the speech?  First of all, the unanimity of the reaction rubbed me the wrong way.   What happened to the Democratic Party of Will Rogers, who famously said “I am not a member of any organized political party.  I am a Democrat.”   I want my party’s leaders to think for themselves.  But so far, I’ve heard none of them thanking Bibi for stimulating a needed public discourse.  

Second, I can’t believe the meme that Bibi somehow insulted our intelligence by making the appeal that he did.   Nobody has taken the time to inform the American public about this stuff, so how can someone insult our intelligence by making a coherent argument on a difficult topic?  Spare me the BS, folks; this speech may have insulted the omniscient ones among us, but it sure didn’t insult me.  In fact, I find the irony quite delicious that the same party that only one generation ago based a successful political campaign on the slogan, “It’s the Economy, Stupid,” is now telling us that when a world leader treats us like we don’t all have PhDs in geopolitics, he’s insulting our intelligence.  Talk about nonsense.

Third, I am ticked off by the idea that Bibi presented “nothing new.”  This is from the same party whose leader successfully campaigned on “hope and change.”  So it’s OK for Barack Obama to wax eloquent about generalities and overarching philosophies, but Israel’s leader doesn’t dare do that?  What was new in that speech was that, when the world is on the verge of making it much easier for Iran to develop its nuclear capabilities, America heard a lengthy, powerful argument for why we need to be tough as nails in negotiating with Iran.   Come to think of it, even if Bibi had said nothing more than “I just want to point out that the same guy who is negotiating with Iran is the guy who has been negotiating with the Republicans on tax policy for six years and getting virtually nowhere” – that alone would have brought something valuable to the table.  

Fourth, I am dismayed that Democrats are lambasting the speech because it is turning support-for-Israel into a partisan issue here in America.  Folks, there is nothing inherent in that speech that needs to create any wedge between Israel and her American allies.  If the Democrats don’t want to support Israel going further, it’s because they’ve been looking for an excuse to stop supporting Israel and Bibi has given them one.  Fine – let those Democrats vote their conscience.  As Bibi implied, Israel can stand tall without the support of a few phony “Israel lovers” in Congress.  And frankly, as someone who freely criticizes Israel when I think she deserves to be criticized, it doesn’t scare me in the least that people in America may feel freer to do the same going forward.  I believe in free speech – even though I’m a Democrat.

Yes, I think we can all agree that Netanyahu and his ambassador didn’t handle the invitation from Boehner with aplomb.  Score one for the Democrats and against the Republicans on that front.  But I for one am glad that this speech was delivered, and that it was delivered where it was delivered.  Had the speech been delivered at an AIPAC meeting, say, the press would have hardly covered it.  

Personally, I believe that Congressional leaders should have the right to invite whoever they choose to give speeches about foreign policy issues; it’s not like the President can’t give speeches or press conferences whenever it suits him (or her).   We here on Main Street are typically kept in the dark when it comes to these matters – everything is top secret, right?  No matter who is President, we get one-sided spin and far more rhetoric than reason, and yet somehow we are supposed to have opinions as to whether to wage a war or enter into a treaty.   The only way to rip apart this perpetual veil of ignorance is to let prominent people give major speeches, and then have the press develop the arguments on both sides.

Finally, you’ll note that I have spared you the obligatory Bibi-bashing in this blogpost.  I frequently engage in that bashing myself, but not this Shabbat.  Unlike when he speaks on the Palestinian issue, Bibi speaks for virtually all Israelis when he speaks about the Iranians.  So this controversy isn’t so much about what Bibi said, but what the Israelis think.  Unlike some of those who perfunctorily call themselves “pro-Israel,” I actually care about what the Israelis think.  

Let the debating begin.