Sunday, March 27, 2016

Happy Purim

Most years, whenever the Jewish holiday of Purim rolls around, I prepare an essay in celebration of the holiday.  I then proceed to post that essay on this blog.  You can find these essays -- including the essay that I completed this weekend -- on my website.   Here's a link:   I hope you enjoy it!

Saturday, March 19, 2016

On Hillary

Betfair International is a gambling site that is based in the archipelago of Malta.  There, you can find odds on all sorts of things, including US politics.  Currently, those odds tell us that Hillary is roughly four times as likely to be President as her nearest competitor (Donald Trump), who is roughly five times as likely as the next closest competitor (John Kasich).   In other words, if you take stock in the wisdom of people who put their money where their mouth is, we’re approaching a return to the White House for Billary – the power couple of the 90s.

When put that way, it is easy to see why Hillary is doing so well in the betting markets.  This is, after all, an insane year in politics. The GOP front runner, Donald Trump, is increasingly being compared by liberals to Adolph Hitler, and even the (former) power-brokers of his party are staging a counter-mutiny against him and his supporters.   Under the circumstances, it only stands to reason that many, if not most, voters would be clamoring for an earlier era – an era before 9/11, Shock-and-Awe, WMDs, the Great Recession, and calls for bans against Muslims.  And who was last in the White House before the insanity started?  Bill and Hillary.  Compared to the demagogues of the moment, hers is a voice of sanity.  She speaks in nuanced terms, and as one who is clearly steeped in both domestic and foreign policy.   No one can claim that her positions are outside of the mainstream; indeed, just like her husband, Hillary never strays too far from the political center on any issue.  Nor can anyone question her experience, for she has served as an active first lady, a Senator from a large state, and as the Secretary of State.  She has the respect of Congressmen and women on both sides of the aisle as well as foreign leaders.  In short, she comes across as an adult at a time when immaturity is running rampant. 

So why then is there such trepidation in liberal America that Donald Trump may be our next President?  There is no one reason – and that, itself, is the answer.  Here are some of the explanations:

1.      Liberals have lost faith in the wisdom of the American public.
2.      Liberals assume that Americans instinctively support the candidate who is most down-to-earth and relatable, and Trump certainly excels in those respects.  (As I like to say, whoever we would prefer as a football analyst is almost certainly the one who will win the election.)
3.      Trump has demonstrated his skills as a political hit man, and if he can take down a Bush, why not a Clinton?
4.      Voting in the Republican primaries is way up, and voting in the Democratic primaries is down. (For example, in Ohio, even though Trump lost by double digits and Hillary won by double digits, he received more votes than she did).  Thus, that all the GOP has to do is unify internally, and it will likely prevail.
5.      At a time when nearly everyone is frustrated with the status quo, it is Trump, not Clinton, who is running as a change agent.  For the most part, Hillary’s message is that President Obama has done a great job and she will continue his legacy.  Yawn.

But let’s not kid ourselves.  There is one explanation for the Trump-might-win anxiety that reigns supreme, even though liberals don’t like to talk about it: precious few people are passionate about Hillary.   And that only makes sense.  Just listen to her own words:  “I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama.”  Worse yet, Hillary is an Apollonian figure, and these are Dionysian times.  She is PBS at a moment in history that seems to call for WWE.   We are so frustrated and angry that we are willing to take risks in order to shake things up.   Yet Hillary has become the quintessential risk-hater.   Whenever a controversial issue surfaces, she waits until it is safe to take a position.  Then, when she does finally opine, she dances around to the point where it’s often difficult to tell what her position is.  That is not the voice we want these days. 

It is not surprising that the demographic that is feeling especially assailed right now, the one Hillary counted on to beat Obama in 2008 – white men – have bailed on her.  Obama showed that you can win the Presidency without winning a majority of that demographic.  But then again, he was a “natural politician.”  He could inspire.  The best she can hope to do is to reassure.

Fortunately for Hillary, that ought to be enough.  And it can be enough.   All Hillary has to do is give up her un-natural politicking style, and be herself.   Something tells me that when she is charming GOP legislators in one-on-one meetings, she’s not screaming at them.  So why then does she feel compelled to scream from the stump whenever she’s trying to rally the troops?   Something tells me that when a woman tells Hillary off-camera that all five of her children are “feeling the Bern,” Hillary doesn’t give a “thumbs up” signal with both hands and smile.  But that was precisely how Hillary reacted to such a statement at a New Hampshire Town Hall meeting.  

Most Americans may not be as intelligent or as worldly as Hillary, but they can often spot a phony.  Since Hillary is not a gifted actress, her phoniness is on display whenever she takes a stage.  This above all else is what is hemorrhaging her support and ratcheting up her negatives.

  So why not just jettison the phoniness, Hillary?  Why not just show America who you truly are?  If they don’t like it, that’s their problem.  If they do like it, you’re off to the races – and we all stand to benefit.   

Are you essentially a moderate or a progressive?  I don’t know, but you do.  Please tell us.

Is there anything that President Obama has done that you really didn’t like?   Please share that too.

What political cause moves you most viscerally?   What cause comes in second?  

On which topics, are your real views furthest away from the mainstream of the Democratic Party?   Do you mind telling us what those views are and why you have them?

  Are you willing to admit that it was greed that caused you to ask the University of Missouri to pay you $275,000 to give a single speech?  Or that caused you to take $300,000 for giving a speech at the University of California at Los Angeles? 

Would you mind sharing with us the transcripts of your speeches to Wall Street – the ones that paid you a quarter of a million dollars per hour?  You’ve parlayed a career in public service in a life as a zillionaire; don’t the taxpayers have a right to know what you’ve said to earn all those millions? 

How do you expect us to relate to someone who lives like you do and speaks like you do?  Do you have any foibles?  Redeemable vices?

Is there anything you’ve done in political life that you’re ashamed of?  (If it’s illegal, you can keep that to yourself – but if it’s not illegal, do tell.)

Hillary, you’ve told a lot of whoppers in your life, but none is bigger than your statement that the American public knows you.   We don’t.   We see a face and we hear a voice, but you are like a Shakespearean actor – playing a character, hidden behind a mask.

You can very well win this election even with your mask up.  You can scream at us, pander to us, and perform for us – and your opponent is likely to be such a buffoon that the odds are with you.  But as long as you’re putting on an act, you’re ensuring one thing above all else: once elected, you wouldn’t be a transformational figure.  You’d be just another failed President in an era of polarization.

If you want to unify this country and make a difference, and I believe you do, we need to see and hear the real you.  The natural you.   Fear not – we might not agree with you as often on the issues, but we’d come to trust you far more and, hopefully, even to like you.   Remember, Americans have trouble liking people they can’t relate to.  And as long as you continue to be an actress with poor skills who is playing the role of a leader who agrees with the Democratic Party establishment on every issue, walks through life surrounded by Secret Service Agents and sycophants, and is drenched in money and power, you’ll be about as relatable as Ted Cruz.   If that doesn’t wake you up to the problem, I don’t know what would.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

"If It Bleeds, It Leads"

One of my dear friends, University of Maryland Professor Dr. Sahar Khamis, is an expert on Arab and Muslim media.  And the title of this blogpost is one of her favorite sayings.   She is acutely aware of how difficult it is for Arab and Muslim people to change their public image in this nation because, quite simply, the mass media isn’t terribly interested in acts of kindness and heroism.  Our “news” outlets would much rather cover acts of violence and narcissism instead. 

When I think of Donald Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, I think about the insanity of keeping out of this country Sahar’s mother and sister, both of whom I’ve been privileged to meet during the past couple of years.  They are incredibly warm, peace-loving people, but because they are Egyptian Muslims, our GOP front runner would deny them the opportunity to visit Sahar and attend our Jewish-Islamic dialogue events – you know, the same kind of events that the American media is not interested in covering because nobody is throwing any punches, cursing, burning down stores, or firing gunshots. 

Do you want to hear about the other side of Islam?  Or stated differently, would you like to see for yourself how humane, considerate and courageous Muslims can be?   Just watch this video.   Please.   It was filmed this past Thursday night at one of my favorite mosques, the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring. The event, which I was privileged to attend, was all about remembering the Holocaust and the fact that a group of European Muslims courageously risked their lives to save those of Jews.  The speaker in this video is a Jewish Holocaust survivor who is alive today only because the Muslim community of Albania saved her and her family from the Nazis.  After you watch her speak, I would suggest reflecting for a moment on what it means that an American mosque is proud to give her the forum to tell this story. 

There is so much to love about Islam generally and the American Muslim community in particular.    Experience it for yourself.  Join the interfaith movement as an active participant.

And remember: it is not enough to criticize Trump.  We have to actively defy him with our actions, not merely our words.   No, I’m not talking about inciting violence by heckling at rallies.  That’s just feeding his narrative – and giving the media more fuel for their fire.  I’m talking about building a movement that is centered on embracing the “other.”   Your work may not be considered “newsworthy” by MSNBC and CNN, but that shouldn’t stop us.  If the Muslims of Albania weren’t scared of the Nazis, we interfaith activists shouldn’t be scared of being irrelevant.  Instead, like those Muslim heroes of the 1940s, we should concern ourselves with right, wrong, and the imperative of action.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

A Party is Getting What It Deserves

“These seeds were planted decades ago with the Southern Strategy, and fertilized with 25 years of Hate Radio.” 

I found that quotation in a comment to an article posted on Media Matters for America.  It was pointing out what everyone in America with half a brain is now saying: the Republicans are finally reaping what they have sowed. 

If you’re like me, you don’t know whether to laugh at the Republican Party or to cry for America.  Every Democracy needs at least two functional political parties or else the people will have no voice at all.  Don’t believe me?  Just look at the way the Democratic Party elders rigged this year’s election – holding as few debates as possible and at times that will attract the fewest viewers (like on a Saturday evening, opposite an NFL Playoff game), as well as providing for hundreds of “superdelegates” virtually all of whom were committed to the establishment candidate.  If there had been no Republican Party and we left everything in the hands of Debby Wasserman-Schultz and her fellow Democratic apparatchiks, we might as well have coronated Hillary Clinton without a contest.   In twenty-five years, we could do the same for Chelsea.  That’s called one-party government.  It’s a disgrace.

But so is the contemporary Republican Party.  And please don’t blame its problems on Donald Trump. 

Trump isn’t primarily responsible for the Party’s refusal to recognize anything other than abstinence and marriage as strategies for reproductive sanity.  In fact, he’s the one Presidential candidate from that Party with the guts to point out that Planned Parenthood is actually doing some good in this country.

Trump isn’t primarily responsible for the Party’s refusal to recognize that Israel needs to be doing more to plant the seeds of peace with the Palestinians and that America needs to give Israel a nudge in that direction.   In fact, Trump should be credited for saying that, despite being “pro-Israel,” he also wishes to serve as an honest broker for peace between the Palestinians and Israelis.  In response, Marco Rubio, the darling of the Republican Establishment, attacked Trump, saying that you can’t both be an honest broker and be pro-Israel.  Tell me, who sounds like the crazy candidate there?

Trump isn’t primarily responsible for the Party’s refusal to call for meaningful campaign finance reform.  By contrast, he seems to be the only Republican Presidential candidate who is criticizing the obscene role of money in politics.

Trump isn’t primarily responsible for the Party’s let-‘em-eat-cake attitude about the poor.    Unlike his other prominent Republican rivals, he is not calling for cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.  And while his health care plan would provide less universal coverage than, say, the plan advocated by Bernie Sanders, it is hardly less compassionate than the plans favored by the Republican Establishment.

Of course, this is not to say that Trump is mainstream on every issue.   We all know about his offensive comments on torture and Muslims.   Fortunately, he is walking back the former.  As to the latter, I guess his Islamophobic positions are just too damned popular with Republican voters to withdraw – at least during the primary season.  Trump is also a flat-earther when it comes to the greatest threat to our planet today: climate change.  Then again, climate-change denial has been Republican Orthodoxy from the time that scientists first sounded the alarms about the problem.

Infamously, Trump’s candidacy began with various statements about what has turned into his signature issue, Mexican immigration.   He referred to some of these Mexicans as “rapists” and essentially declared war on illegal aliens.  He was using sharp rhetoric, to be sure.  But when it came down to his policies, Trump’s primary Republican rivals followed him like lemmings.  And that’s not surprising, considering that back in 2012, the GOP candidates were similarly battling to show their anti-immigrant bona fides.  Even on that issue, Trump’s language might be harsher than others, but his policies are well within the mainstream.

So there you have the facts.  On issue after issue, Trump is either taking the moderate American position at a time when his Republican opponents have moved to the extreme right, or he is taking “conservative” positions that are in lockstep with his rivals.   If anything, he sounds like one of the less dangerous candidates in the Republican pack.  So why all the sturm und drang?
It’s the rhetoric.  It’s all about the rhetoric. 

Trump isn’t afraid to spew Republican Party views in visceral terms.  He isn’t afraid to use obscenities.  He isn’t afraid to speak his mind and reveal the fruits of his id.  But why does that make him more dangerous than his more “establishment” critics?  Soon after Barack Obama was elected, Senator (and current Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell said that “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”   Indeed, Vice President Biden claimed that he spoke to seven Republican Senators who claimed “Joe, I’m not going to be able to help you on anything.”  If Donald Trump were to express those sentiments as a member of the opposition, he would have been accused of treason.  But when Washington insiders express them, their conduct is accepted as just a way of playing the political game.  The difference is that Trump makes his comments with gusto, and he makes them in public.   Somehow, we seem to think that as long as our statesmen confine their obstructionist and uber-partisan actions to the back rooms, they deserve to be treated as honorable men.   Once they grab a mike, utter a four-letter word, and boldly announce what they’re doing, only then do we chastise them as dangerous and unworthy of public office.

To watch the Republican establishment ganging up on Trump today is an amazing spectacle.  The same people who used to kiss Trump’s ring are now making him the scape goat for all that is wrong with the universe.  Mitt “Mr. 47%” Romney, for example, said that Trump is a “twisted example of evil trumping good” (no pun intended, I assume), and added that “If we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospect for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished.”   This was the same Mitt Romney who four years ago praised Trump for showing “an extraordinary ability to understand how our economy works."   It’s also the same Mitt who ignored Trump’s “birther” challenges against Obama (questioning whether Obama had a Constitutional right to serve as President) and instead embraced Trump’s endorsement of Mitt’s own candidacy.   “There are some things that you just can’t imagine happening in your life. This is one of them … Being in Donald Trump’s magnificent hotel and having his endorsement is a delight. I’m so honored and pleased to have his endorsement.”    

The same mainstream Republican politicians who talk as if Trump is the second coming of Adolph Hitler have been feeding at the same divisive trough that has satiated Trump.  They have put party before country, rich before poor, our generation before our children’s and grandchildren’s generations, fear before hope, and hatred before love.   No, they haven’t had a monopoly on political vice – the Democratic establishment has hardly served as role models either.  But at least the Democrats haven’t had the chutzpah to heap all their ridicule on one of their own, simply because that candidate resorts to bad language and advances party orthodoxy in visceral terms. 

I have no intention to vote for Donald Trump.  But nor will I sit back and pretend that politics-as-usual in this country would be doing just fine if Trump would just go back to Hollywood.  In 2013, after being invited by a friend to keep his liberal father company, I sat at an American Spectator gala and listened to one speaker after another spew condescending, hateful comments against progressives and liberalism.  I could have cared less if they used obscenities or turned up the rhetorical heat.  Their divisiveness was amped to the max.  Trump would have had nothing to add other than a little pizazz.

If you want to know my prediction, it’s that all the vitriol that is being heaped upon Trump by the Ben Steins, the Mitt Romneys, and the Marco Rubios will only make it EASIER for the Donald to win the nomination.  The masses of that party are speaking, and they are apparently calling for a candidate who is more comfortable in front of a microphone than in a smoke-filled back room or at a fundraising gala packed with fellow travelers.  When put that way, a vote for Trump actually makes sense.  After all, isn’t sunlight the best disinfectant?