Saturday, February 27, 2016

Ruminations on One Crazy Ride to the White House

One of the cornerstone principles of Empathic Rationalism is that thou shalt not lie to yourself. Ever. And one of the cornerstone principles of Empathic Rationalist blogging is that thou shalt not lie to your readers either.

So let me give you some honest observations about the comedy otherwise known as the 2016 Presidential Election campaigns.

1. The Democratic race is over barring some sort of shocking development. The whole “Feel the Bern” phenomenon was only relevant for those two states whose residents were able to get to know the candidates well over a period of a year. For every other state, the Clinton brand name sealed the deal.

2. The previous point makes you wonder: should we really be placing so much importance on what goes on in Iowa and New Hampshire? Obviously, the people in Nevada and South Carolina couldn’t care less about what transpired in the first two states that held elections. Bernie’s “momentum” was eviscerated almost immediately after he left New England. Could it be that in the 21st century, we need to rethink the early part of the campaign season?

3. Unlike on the Democratic side, the Fat Lady has yet to sing when it comes to Trump’s nomination. But she’s sure warming up. Trump’s landing Chris Christie was huge, no pun intended. Christie lends heft to Trump’s credentials. (OK, OK – I’ll stop.)

4. Seriously, Christie’s entry into the race was like that line from the Terminator movies “Come with me if you want to live.” In Christie’s case, this line was transformed into “Come with Trump and me if you want to win.” And he makes a powerful point. Rubio seems to be too young, too unaccomplished, and too robotic to defeat a veteran campaigner like Hillary Clinton. But with Trump, you always have a puncher’s chance. If I may mix a metaphor: Clinton will be faced with the choice of taking all sorts of abuse from Trump or, in the alternative, rolling around in the mud with him. And as the old saying goes, however, “You don’t mud wrestle with a pig, because you’ll get dirty and the pig will like it.” She might win – in fact, she’s the legitimate favorite – but both she and her husband figure to be battered badly in the process. And if she loses her cool, then Trump would have a chance to do the unspeakable: become President.

5. The best weapon Trump has in his arsenal isn’t the public’s anger. It’s their sense of humor. As an entertainer, he is as compelling to watch as a car wreck. And thanks to his sense of timing and lack of shame, he’s turned America into a nation of rubberneckers. A lot of folks are surely voting for him now because they think it would be entertaining to see what he would say about Bill and Hillary. And I suspect that a lot of folks would vote for him in November because they think it would be entertaining to see what he would say and do in the Oval Office. Who needs movies any more when you have Trump?

6. Why have the Republican voters so completely abandoned John Kasich? He’s clearly running the sanest campaign of any of the candidates. He’s beating Hillary in one-on-one matchups by double digits. He’s a popular governor of a large, swing state, and he also has an accomplished record as a former U.S. Congressman. What the hell do you want, Republican voters? You’ve got your man. Why then do you keep rejecting him for a carnival barker?

7. In less than a month, both races could be over. What then? Are we going to see the inter-party bomb throwing begin right away? Tell me you’re not a little bit curious to see what Trump comes up with when he starts his campaign of mockery and ridicule. And tell me you’re not a little bit curious to see exactly how negative Hillary is willing to go to respond to Trump.

8. On the VP side, would Hillary possibly consider Elizabeth Warren? And if so, would she possibly accept? That would clearly be Hillary’s best move, in my opinion, but I’m not sure that Senator Warren wants the job.

9. As for Trump’s running mate, he’s already said that he’s looking for a career politician who can help move things through the US Congress. But which prominent GOP legislators would want to run with him? He needs Paul Ryan to stay where he is, so it won’t be Ryan. Clearly, it won’t be Rubio or Cruz either, not that either one has the kind of popularity on the Hill that Trump needs to accomplish his goal. I honestly don’t know who does. Maybe there is no current legislator who’d fit the bill, so Trump would look at Kasich or someone like New Mexico Governor Martinez, a Hispanic woman. I still say those two are the most likely choices.

10. That’s all that I have to say for now. I’ll be in Las Vegas for Super Tuesday, which seems like the most appropriate place to be. Maybe I’ll seek out a bookie to put a bet on the 2020 election under the category of “Likelihood that a stand-up comic will win the White House.” Surely, those odds have been steadily climbing for the past several months. I think it’s going to happen. Now I couldn’t tell you the comedian or the party, but this much I can tell you: the days of electing lawyers and policy wonks to the Presidency are coming to an end. We seem to want Presidents who can mock and ridicule with the best of him. How sad for Don Rickles that he was born 50 years too early – he could have been a natural politician.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Water is Wide

Last night at synagogue, we sang a new version of a very old tune.  It’s a Scottish tune that dates back to the 17th Century, but we used its melody to sing Mi Chamocha, the song where we thank God every Shabbat for the miracle of parting the sea to permit our ancestors to safely escape from Egypt into freedom.  I was very familiar with the melody we used last night because of a Karla Bonoff album that I’ve owned since the 70s.  This tune was easily my favorite on the album.  Its name is “The Water is Wide,” and you can see a video of Bonoff’s gorgeous rendition -- with James Taylor singing backup --  right here:

This morning, I can’t get that song out of my mind.  And I’m not thinking of the version where God is performing miracles to save people from drowning.    Believe me, I’m hoping for miracles.   I am thinking about the people of Fiji who are facing a devastating cyclone.   With expected wind gusts of 180-190 mph, how can all the people on those islands possibly escape such a storm?   Surely, they had warning that it was coming, but if you are poor and live on an island, to where do you run?   The water, as they say, is wide – in fact, it’s the widest body of water on the planet. 

Bodega Bay, California is across that pond, -- roughly 5,500 miles from Fiji.   Today, despite my fears about the horrible tragedy that is striking the people of Fiji, it is Bodega Bay that is occupying most of my thoughts.   One week ago today, my old friend Steve Mitchell drove to Bodega Bay beach, parked his car, and then disappeared from human contact.   He was reported as a missing person, and the local newspapers were all over the story.  Steve, you see, was one of the barons of the local bar.  Just a few years ago, he was the President of the Sonoma County Bar Association, and even up to the present, his career has been going strong.  One judge after another was quoted in the newspaper as saying that Steve Mitchell was an ethical role model for young lawyers to follow.   He was, in short, a legal mensch.

Steve was also a loyal friend.  We met freshman year at Stanford, and every time I saw him, he put a smile on my face.  He hailed from the rural county of Humboldt and spoke like Jimmy Stewart.  So being a bit of a schmuck, I would always imitate him to his face, and he would just shrug it off with a chuckle.   He remained good natured – not Pollyannish, but a heck of a lot more positive thinking than I was.  Like so many of my college friends who grew up in California, he never seemed to take life too seriously.

Steve married a woman that we both met freshman year, and I always thought of them as among the most popular people on campus.  Normally, that would be an insult, but in Steve and Terri’s case, it is a compliment.  They were people you just felt compelled to like.    Sophisticated people who remained salt of the earth.

Steve and Terri had four children.   According to the news clippings, he remained as competitive in tennis as he was in the courtroom.  From what I can tell by reading the “Comments” section of the articles, he was universally liked and respected.   He was the last person you’d expect to take his life.
Yesterday, the police finally attempted to shed some light on the mystery of this “missing person.”  They announced that they had found a suicide note and that when they combine that with the other circumstances they’ve uncovered, they’re confident that Steve did indeed take his life.  Presumably, he drowned himself in the Pacific. 

This is not the first time for me that a friend has died suddenly and before his time.   Nor is it the first suicide I’ve had to grapple with.   But there’s something about this particular death that has me so reflective this morning.  It makes me think about the delicate balance that we all must traverse every day we walk this Earth.  Steve was, by every measure, exemplary, and still, the world wasn’t working for him.   When I think about it, we can all relate to the idea that the world isn’t working for us.  Maybe it’s one of our children whose luck is going south. (I love the line – “we’re only as happy as our least happy child.”)  Or maybe it’s our office life, where everyone seems way too busy with their own work to worry about our shaky psyches.   Or maybe it’s our love life; that should be our greatest earthly anchor, but if that’s not working out, what then?  Faith?  For so many people today, “faith” rests on a delusion – an “opiate of the masses.” 

 So what will save us during those times of our life when we need to be saved?   The answer is certainly not our society’s attitude toward mental illness, which in conventional parlance includes the kind of garden-variety clinical depression that could lead to suicide.   There’s still such a stigma around the term mental illness, isn’t there?   When I recently had to extend my security clearance, I had to answer pointed questions about my mental health in particular, and I suspect that those of you in the private sector have to answer the same questions.   After all, as much as we realize that heroes as great as Abraham Lincoln and James Madison suffered from depression, employers are petrified at the prospects of having the “mentally ill” in their midst.  I can imagine how people who suffer from depression must feel like they have some sort of horrible secret that needs to be hidden from the world, and perhaps even from themselves.   So how do we expect them to find the help that they need?  How can they walk into the sunlight and work on achieving that delicate balance?

Sometimes when I see a physically healthy infant, I reflect on the miracle of life, and wonder to myself how it is that with all the diseases in the world, a baby could actually be healthy.   But now, when I see an apparently mentally healthy adult, I will need to start wondering how, with all the crap in this world, any of us could actually be mentally healthy.   What does sustain us through the downs as well as the ups?  Isn’t the existence of an old person who has chosen never to take his or her life as miraculous as the birth of any baby?

In the end, I suspect, we are sustained by our beloveds.   They cause us to feel valued.  They point out what makes us special.   They give us motivation in life – motivation both to support them and to make them proud of us.   Most importantly, they inspire us to love others who resemble them in some way.  That is how the love we get from our parents at the earliest age forges such great empathy not only with them, but with all human beings.  

Over the decades, I came to see Steve Mitchell less and less.  Most recently, I only saw him during college reunions.  But even then, his face invariably put a smile on mine.  And now, looking back, I think of the support that he gave me when we were younger.  For example, it was Steve who told me when I visited him a couple of years after we graduated from college about this great gadget known as a “CD player,” and how given my love for music, I would come to appreciate this gadget more than anyone he knew.   That statement helped reinforce my love for music, a love that has never died and hopefully never will.

So, I want to leave you with the lyrics to “The Water is Wide.”  And indeed, it is a reminder of the importance of love – the love between two soul mates, to be sure, but not only that.  For whenever we have a true friend, whenever we form an I-Thou relationship with another person, we have the foundations of a boat to carry us across some very treacherous water.   While in Steve’s tragic case, that boat wasn’t there when he needed it the most, I will always remember him as someone who has helped build a boat for me and so many of us.  We may never see him again, but we will never forget him.

The water is wide,
I can't cross over,
And neither have I wings to fly.
Build me a boat
That can carry two
And both shall row, my love and I.

There is a ship
And she sails the sea.
She's loaded deep,
As deep can be.
But not so deep
As the love I'm in,
I know not how I sink or swim.

Oh love is handsome
And love is fine,
The sweetest flower
When first it's new.
But love grows old
And waxes cold
And fades away like Summer dew.

Build me a boat
That can carry two
And both shall row, my love and I,
And both shall row, my love and I.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

On the Need for Political Authenticity and Candor

The day after the voters of New Hampshire had their say, this was what I posted on Facebook:

“The chattering class has a message: ‘Give the insurgents their day in the sun, but once they get to S.C., politics-as-usual will take over; it always does.’ Maybe. But there does seem to be one thing that the three winners from last night -- Sanders, Trump and Kasich -- have in common, and that is that the political establishment hasn't supported any of them. Maybe, just maybe, the people in this so-called democracy known as the USA are sick of super-delegates, non-term-limited legislators, professional political operatives and others who think that politicians need to put their fingers in the wind before telling the public what they really think. I've realized over the years how important authenticity is to me as a voter. Apparently, New Hampshire voters feel the same way.

That message reflected a bit of venting.  But it was also the result of an epiphany of sorts.  Please allow me to explain how this epiphany came about.

Increasingly during this election cycle, I have become upset with my strong, negative reactions against the “establishment” candidates.   In part, this reaction stemmed from attending Washington, D.C. parties and otherwise engaging white-collar Washingtonians.  In that crowd, it is simply assumed that if you’re a Democrat who doesn’t support Clinton, or a Republican who doesn’t support Rubio or one of the Governors, it’s either because you’re young, uneducated, or “angry” (i.e., irrational).  But I am neither young nor uneducated.  So does this mean I may no longer refer to this blog as “the Empathic Rationalist?”    

To be sure, part of Empathic Rationalism is admitting that we’re all prone to episodes of irrationality.  We’re human beings, not computers.  But the more I reflected on my frustrations and irritations, the more I realized that I wasn’t the only source of the problem.  Surely, the candidates who run for office share some of the blame.  This election cycle, I began to reflect on the establishment candidates who were the presumptive favorites when the campaign began and wondered what it was about Hillary and Jeb that was leaving me cold.  Why was I so energized by the insurgent campaign of a Bernie Sanders, who is neither philosophical, poetic, nor especially agile in his debate performances?  And what was it about Trump’s campaign that actually resonated with me, even though he was saying so many things that I found offensive?

The Facebook post above suggests part of the answer – I have been pining for some semblance of political authenticity.  But why?  Conventional Washington D.C. wisdom says that “authenticity” is overrated – campaigners have a right to convey their messages in a manner that is comfortable to them, and what really matters is not the cosmetics of their message but rather the sanity of their message and the extent to which they have been proven effective in working for beneficial reforms.  That, at least, is what the self-proclaimed adults have been telling us – the ones who become super-delegates and talking heads.  Somehow, I found myself alienated by that perspective.  The question is, why?

I found the answer when reflecting on my own past – and in a place far, far away from Washington, D.C.  Back when I was an undergrad in the Golden State, several of my more politically conservative friends playfully teased me about being a child of two Washington DC economists who worked for the federal government.  My friends naturally assumed that I would follow in my parents’ footsteps – and, as things have turned out, I will soon complete my 31st year in the federal civil service, which is less time than either of my parents devoted to that career track.   According to my friends’ narratives, people like my parents would sit in some stupid little office in Washington, collecting the mediocre GS-whatever salary, and pontificate about what is best for the people and/or the corporations of America.  Recognizing that the economic marketplace can’t always be trusted to serve the public interest, my parents decided to consult their own personal preferences and then turn these arbitrary preferences into proscriptions for the society at large, rather than trusting the results of marketplace competition – at least this was the critique that I heard in college from some of my friends.

I would think about that perspective a lot while completing my degree in philosophy and economics.  I understood that there were profound benefits from economic competition, but I also understood that laissez fair economics had its limitations, especially when it comes to the effects of the marketplace on the environment and the poor (including the so-called “externalities” that give rise to legitimate regulations).  Moreover, I understood that my parents raised me with a strong set of values, which reflected their own brand of Prophetic Judaism.  In my family, it wasn’t religiously acceptable to devote one’s life to the pursuit of economic self-interest; you needed to serve as a public steward in one capacity or another.   I knew that I would end up in the civil service, and that there was plenty of good work that could be done in such a realm.  But I also knew that Washingtonians needed to respect the people that they proclaimed to serve.   This means it is not appropriate to infantilize American citizens.  Nor can we feds view ourselves as a cadre of nannies who know better than the American public what is in their interest or who understand how to outperform the marketplace when it is doing what it does best. 

The key word there is “marketplace.”  You see, just as a successful contemporary society requires a robust economic marketplace, it also requires a functioning marketplace of political ideas.  Many politicians enter the fray because they were raised the same way I was – with an impulse to serve. 

Once they are in power, they are left largely to their own devices as to what it means to serve appropriately.  Go back to the Federalist Papers and you’ll see that the founders of this country intended the leaders of government, once elected, to do what they feel is best for the citizens, even if that means implementing policies that are not popular.  We live in a “representative” democracy, not a democracy-by-plebiscite.  We elect people who will choose laws and command armies for us, and we expect them to consult their own conscience in the way they discharge their obligations.  Maybe our Commanders-in-Chief know something we don’t about national security policy, maybe our lawmakers know something we don’t about health care or energy policy, and maybe government economists like my parents know something we don’t about economic policy.  That’s fine.  Let them do what they think is best, as long as they respect the Constitution and the people they are empowered to serve, and if we don’t like the job they are doing, we can vote them out.

However, when it comes to GETTING ELECTED, the equation is different.  To reiterate, the would-be public servants who seek election enter a marketplace of public policy ideas.  We the people need this marketplace to be free, open, and honest – no less than we need the marketplace for goods and services to be free, open and honest.  When politicians are competing in this marketplace for the opportunity to lead our society, they owe us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.   Otherwise, we won’t be able to make educated decisions as voters. 

We ought to recognize that political candidates have made mistakes in the past and will surely say stupid things in the present.  We should accept those mistakes as the price of being human.  But what we shouldn’t accept in a democratic society are candidates who fundamentally hide from the public what they really think about public policy or intentionally distort the records or the statements of their competitors in order to win a competition.  When they do that, they prevent the marketplace from functioning properly. 

It has become accepted wisdom in Washington that the Cruz campaign crossed the line by deceptively suggesting that Ben Carson had quit the race in advance of the Iowa caucuses.  Fortunately, the media still frowns upon such conduct as an example of “dirty tricks.”    However, what is both more common and more pernicious, and yet sadly tolerated by the mainstream, are political campaigns that do not level with the American public about what the candidates truly think.  Sometimes, they make subtle yet intentionally deceptive jabs at their opponents.  Other times, they wait to hear what the public thinks before expressing their own views (also known as placing their proverbial finger in the wind).  They may even publicly espouse a position that they neither agree with nor have any attention of supporting while in office – but the point is that when this type of campaigning is tolerated, the public can never really know what a candidates stands for or how they would govern if elected. 

What’s more, these campaigns may create a public persona for the candidate that bears no resemblance to the way the candidate speaks in private.   It’s all an act, in other words – the manner of speaking, the views that are spoken, you name it.  And this is considered acceptable, because we as a society have grown to expect politicians to be as phony as our thespians.  The only differences are that the thespians admit that they are “actors” and “actresses,” and that the thespians, unlike many of our politicians, are generally good at it.

This election cycle, America appears to be saying that we’ve had enough.  We have seen an entire generation of politicians who campaign one way and govern another.  We now want to see these politicians stand up to the mike, take off their clothes (metaphorically that is), and nakedly tell us who they really are and what they really stand for.  We want to be able to see these people paint a positive portrait of their American vision and do so passionately, not robotically.   We want to be able to see these people show indignation about what they’re truly indignant about – and we want to know if the target of that indignation matches our own.   We want to know which of these individuals respects the political marketplace enough to speak candidly, even if it means expressing unpopular views, because they believe that we the people deserve an understanding of who we are electing.  And if someone speaks crudely sometimes, perhaps we don’t care – as long as we think they are doing so from the heart, and not simply in order to manipulate us.

The best that I can tell, Washington insiders could care less about what I’m talking about in this particular blogpost.  In this city, most policy wonks don’t have enough respect for “the people” and their wisdom.  We just want to find politicians who are sane, experienced, pragmatic, and can be counted on to keep their offensive comments to a minimum.   Well my friends, that arguably describes the Congressional leadership of both of our political parties, and look what they’ve done to our Government.  They have collectively driven it into a ditch.  But I have news for you -- the American public isn’t stupid.  It’s smart enough to want out of that ditch.  And it will begin this process by electing the person who can best be trusted to level with us about how to get out and who can best show the strength to push our way out.  I don’t know who that person will be.  But if the upshot of this process is that Americans will demand a more authentic and candid discourse from their politicians, I will give this election cycle a standing ovation regardless of who emerges victorious.  

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Ushering in the Super Bowl with Some Interfaith Dialogue

On several dozen occasions over the past seven years, I’ve helped to coordinate public dialogues between Jews and Muslims.  The dialogues have involved a wide range of subjects, including both what divides these two communities and what unifies them.   We’ve talked about theology, the Israel/Palestine Conflict, what it means to be a minority group in America, the Prophets, gender roles … you name it, we have discussed it.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed these discussions over the years, not only because they have helped me get to know a cousin faith more intimately but also because the experience has made me a more knowledgeable and committed Jew. 

Tomorrow, aka Super Bowl Sunday, my organization, the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington (JIDS), will hold its next dialogue.   As you can see from going to, which provides the precise time and venue of the event, the session is entitled “The Future of Judaism, the Future of Islam.”    While the Panthers and the Broncos will be psyching themselves up for the Big Game later in the day, we at JIDS will be awash in out-and-out speculation … and not the kind that makes anyone money.  Nobody really knows what the future will bring, and some might even question the point of asking the question, but it is precisely my Jewishness that makes me find this topic especially compelling.  To be Jewish is to be both a serious student of the past and an impassioned dreamer about the future.   We don’t dream about the “hereafter” in Heaven.  We dream about the hereafter on Earth – both when we’re old and when we’re gone.  No less than the Christians, who pine for their Messiah, we pine for ours, even if we take the Messianic concept to be purely metaphorical.  Surely, we say to ourselves, there must be a time in the future when the killing has ended, human dignity is universally affirmed, and greed has given way to generosity.  We call that the “Messianic age.”   But in my strand of Judaism, you don’t wait for supernatural support to bring it about; you commit your life to bringing it about through your own conduct and through the conduct of those who you touch.  That, perhaps more than anything else, is what it means to me to a committed, progressive, religious Jew.

At tomorrow’s JIDS meeting, we have two Muslim speakers and two Jewish speakers.  I’ve had an opportunity to talk to both Muslim speakers about the event, and before the conversations started, I had only one request: “Please don’t spend the whole time talking about ‘extremism,’ ‘radicalism,’ or whatever other term is being used for the insanity that has been spreading across large swaths of the Middle East during the past decade.” 

 As someone who has been blessed with the opportunity to learn about the rich tapestry of Islam, I get so tired of the media’s obsession with only a single dimension – the Muslim’s attitude about violence.  If I didn’t know better, I’d swear there were only two types of Muslims: violent lunatics (aka “Muslim radicals”) and normal, sane people (aka “Muslim moderates”).   To me, reducing Muslims in this way makes little more sense than dividing Jews into two categories based on whether or not we are cheap, greedy, money-grubbers.  How I wish the glib talking-heads on both sides of the political spectrum who frequently wax eloquent about the relationship between Islam and violence would shut their mouths, read the Qur’an (with commentary!), browse some Hadiths, and allow themselves to be inspired by the wealth of Islamic philosophy, liturgy, and culture.  Maybe then they will have the standing to pontificate in front of millions of people about what Islam represents today.
As for those of us in JIDS who have already gone through that exercise, it will be fun to dream about what Islam – meaning the whole tapestry, not just the stuff about war and peace -- might become in the future. 

The Jewish speakers at tomorrow’s event will be one of the area’s leading rabbis and one of my daughters (a fourth-year Rabbinical student).   These two speakers come from two different movements in what is commonly known as liberal or progressive Judaism.   I have no idea what either of them will be talking about, but I am well aware of some of the recent trends that have caused so many people to worry about the fate of non-Orthodox Judaism.  My suspicion is that both of the Jewish speakers will not ignore these trends, but that they will envision a future for liberal Judaism that gains in quality what it loses in quantity.   In other words, rather than bemoaning the likelihood that intermarriage, assimilation, and overall societal secularization is likely to thin the herd of liberal Jews, those who remain in the fold may be far more intense about their faith than their ancestors who were Baby Boomers or Millennials.  The Reform or Conservative synagogues of the future may not be as plentiful or as large, but I’m guessing that they’ll be a lot more spiritual and dynamic. 

Then again, that’s just a guess.  Just like it’s a guess that Carolina will beat Denver 27 – 20.  The great thing about NFL football is that you never know who’s going to win, and the great thing about tomorrow’s JIDS meeting is that none of us will know which of the speakers will turn out to be right.  Everyone will just have to listen with an open mind and say “Hmmm.  Maybe so.”   And that’s the attitude we need if we wish to be a true intellectual.   You may know the cliché that “mean people suck,” but I say that closed-minded people are nearly as annoying, and just as dangerous.