Saturday, July 23, 2016

Are You Ready for Some Politics?

This will be the last weekend at home for me until mid-August.  That means there will be no more blogs for a few weeks.  It also means that I won’t be able to write a timely blog about the two Presidential Conventions; I won’t be able to put them side by side and provide the kind of would-be “objective” analysis worthy of the moniker Empathic Rationalist.  So my choice is clear:  I can either analyze the Republican Convention and let the Democrats do their thing without offering commentary, or I can punt on the Four Days in Cleveland and talk about something else entirely – like, oh I don’t know, the fact that the Olympic Games are about to be played in a filthy city without a suitable infrastructure.

I gave it a few seconds thought, and here’s the verdict:  given that we’re smack in the middle of an incredibly pivotal fortnight of politics, I cannot avoid that topic.  But what I won’t do is lend my voice to the chorus of liberals who are addicted to incessant GOP bashing.  I’m sorry, but for the better part of the last year, I’ve been listening to center-left pundits and reading center-left Op/Ed writers sound off against Trump and his “base” to a degree that far exceeds what any other politician and voter block have been subjected to in my lifetime.   For the first time in my life, I’ve started to appreciate what my conservative friends have been saying about the “liberal media.” What more can be said in that regard that hasn’t already been said?  Even in this blog I’ve spoken about why it makes sense to vote for Hillary Clinton in November. To be clear, I saw nothing in Cleveland that even for a second caused me to waiver in that assessment.   But why would I want to pile on Trump and his base yet again, when that’s all that anyone in New York and Washington DC has been doing since the moment Trump descended the escalator and proclaimed his war against illegal-immigrant rapists? 

Perhaps it would be more novel, more appropriate, for a Democrat like me to say something positive about the GOP Convention.   How’s this – I was impressed with all four of the Trump children who were given a speaking role.   I listened live to the speeches delivered by Tiffany, Eric, Donald Jr. and Ivanka, and each one did well.  Ivanka in particular shined as someone who came across as intelligent, charismatic, and most importantly for my taste, somewhat progressive.  I wouldn’t exactly use that term for the Trump sons, but they came across as likeable nonetheless.   I’ve learned not to evaluate a person’s likeability by the extent to which their political views comport with my own. 

So yes, give Donald Sr. credit for raising accomplished children, rather than spoiled rich kids whose sense of entitlement has overwhelmed their work ethic.  There are surely plenty of those types lounging around country clubs and resort hotels; they just don’t happen to be named Trump. 

I would also give Trump credit for giving Cruz the microphone and allowing him to create what truly was one of the most dramatic moments I’ve ever seen on television.   Cruz essentially filibustered for 15 or 20 minutes, worked his rhetoric up to a crescendo, and then, just at the point where he seemed poised to endorse Trump and raise the roof, he turned the tables and essentially told his rival where to stick it.   And then he stood there, smiling, with boos raining on him from hither and yon, satisfied that he had finally vindicated the honor of his father, his wife, and last but not least, himself.  (I bet those “Lyin Ted” comments hurt most of all.)  Trump had to know that Cruz was capable of pulling this stunt, and yet he let it happen.   Such is the mentality of a natural showman who believes that all publicity is good, positive or not.  As a consumer of political theater, I was entertained as Hell.

Then again, as an observer of political history, I do have to ask the Donald one question: couldn’t you have asked the Comic Actor from Texas to speak on Tuesday night so that he wouldn’t upstage your Vice Presidential nominee?   Pence actually gave a very good speech, one that included the best line of the Convention (that Hillary is really running for the title of “Secretary of the Status Quo”), but because Cruz was allowed to speak on Wednesday night, nobody other than political geeks like me remember a word that Pence said.   He deserved better.

Other positives?  How’s this – I thought Laura Ingraham gave an excellent speech.  Her job was to whip up the base and create energy in the room early in the evening, and she did that job very well.  And Melania?  She spoke well and endearingly.  And assuming that she wasn’t the one who contributed the plagiarized paragraphs, I wouldn’t hold the scandal against her at all.   She never said that she was a speechwriter.  She doesn’t even come across as wanting to be a public figure.   Personally, I feel bad for her that those two plagiarized paragraphs ended up in her speech.  I truly wish that hadn’t happened.

As for the speech given by Donald Trump Sr., I don’t have a lot of nice things to say about it, so I won’t say much about it.  But I will add this – I didn’t hear anything in that speech that makes me want to compare him to Hitler or Mussolini, which is an important point to make since so many others seem to want to talk about a Trump Presidency as Hitler’s Second Term.  That meme is about as exaggerated as Trump’s doom-and-gloom assessments of our nation.   Trump’s campaign surely is flawed enough that liberals shouldn’t have to resort to hyperbole in order to criticize it.

So there you have it – a few words about a Convention that so many of my fellow Democrats wouldn’t deem worthy of their time to watch.  I’m not ashamed to say that it was a fun spectacle.   When I looked at the people in that Hall, I didn’t see lunatics, I just saw Americans – people who, like me, are not happy with the way things are going in this country and are searching for an alternative (albeit one that is different than the alternative I would have chosen).   Yes, I was offended by the “Lock Her Up” chants, but do you know what?  So, apparently, was Trump – in the middle of his speech, he reacted to those chants by gesturing that the chanters should knock it off, because the goal was not to imprison Hillary but merely to defeat her.   It was a nice moment, the kind that doesn’t fit with the “Fuhrer” narrative that the Washington Post, New York Times, and MSNBC have been peddling for many months.

Next week in Philadelphia, we are bound to see a Convention that is infinitely slicker and more traditional than the last one.  Next week in Philadelphia, we are bound to see a Convention that is also treated more favorably by the pundits.  The narrative is predictable – “Now THIS is a political convention.  Last week’s was just a circus.”  Surely, we will witness a methodical effort to build up to quite a crescendo, but unlike Cruz’s speech where the crescendo built to an epic “F U,” this time it will build to an epic celebration.  We can expect a sustained, joyous tribute to a woman who has been hailed as the “most qualified person ever to run for the Presidency” and who is almost universally expected to finally “break the glass ceiling” that has lasted for 240 years of American history. 

Here’s the rub, though.   Eight years ago we saw an incredibly “successful” Democratic convention by any measure.  It led to the election of another pioneer – the first African-American President in U.S. history.   And now, we’re likely looking at the likelihood that for the sixth time in seven elections, the Democratic candidate will get more votes than the Republican.   I will vote for that candidate.  But when all the glad handing has subsided, and all the smiles are gone, and it’s time for the Democratic Party to actually govern, it will be faced with a grim realization.   Actually, it will be faced with several grim realizations.  
  • We have a massive climate change problem that is likely ultimately to kill millions upon millions of people in some of the warmer, poorer nations of the world;
  • We are facing economic inequalities in our nation that exceed anything we’ve seen in our lifetime;
  • We have a generation of adults who for the first time in US history expect their children to be poorer than they are;
  •  We in the West are finally reaching the point Israel reached decades ago where terrorist attacks are becoming commonplace; and
  • Despite having fought a Civil War that supposedly gave us a unified national consciousness, we are now splitting apart at the seams, beset by the kind of polarization that has led the members of my political party to refer to the region that supports the other political party as “Jesus Land.”  And no, that’s not a compliment.
The Hope and Change that bloggers like me called for eight years ago hasn’t exactly solved all of our problems, now has it?  So Hillary Clinton had better not be running this year for the Secretary of the Status Quo.  If she does, she may indeed win the election this year and again in 2020, but that would not be a cause for celebration, glass ceilings or not.   

Like Bernie Sanders said – it is time that we set our sights high.  Even if we don’t reach our goals, at least we might make some significant progress.  Stated differently, it is no longer acceptable to tolerate the mess we’re in, and it’s certainly not acceptable to sugarcoat it and celebrate.  Though it remains possible to exaggerate the extent of those problems, as was demonstrated on Thursday night, the choice shouldn’t be between bad and worse.  It should be between the status quo and better.  For the Democrats, merely concentrating on winning elections has been the status quo.  I’m still waiting for something better.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

It's Time to be Proactive about Our Health

The United States Government has a CEO (the President), a CFO (the Secretary of Treasury), a chief diplomat (the Secretary of State), and a chief war officer (the Secretary of Defense).  It also has a chief health officer – a person who is responsible for speaking out on issues involving public health.   And we call this person the Surgeon General.  

Isn’t that crazy?  If you don’t see why, do me a favor and head out tomorrow morning to the nearest IHOP or Bob’s Big Boy.  Look at the patrons, and watch what they eat.   You’ll see heaping helpings of bacon, sausage, French toast, pancakes, waffles, and lots of butter and syrup.    God knows we need more syrup.   Many of the people who are eating this food are already obese; many others are on the way to that state.   Sadly, that won’t stop them from coming back for lunch and ordering pie.   This is no laughing matter.  Rather, it’s a formula for high blood pressure, crazy-high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, you name it.   And yes, eventually they’ll need some surgery.   But when you think about the people who’re living on that obesity-friendly “Americana Diet,” do you really say, “Hey, what they need is a good surgeon?”

Perhaps what we should do is tell the Surgeon General to go back to the private sector and enjoy his or her massive salary in peace.  What we need instead from the Government is a Nutritionist General -- someone who appreciates the absurdity of living in a culture where tobacco is treated like the herb from Hell, while at the same time half of the country is loading up on refined and processed sugars.   Please tell me what makes Marlboros so evil, if Whoppers, Big Gulps, and Elephant Ears can be not-so-guilty pleasures?

I suppose that some people are lucky.  They come from families where you can eat as much crap as you want and your health doesn’t deteriorate.  But they’re the exception, now aren’t they?  For the most part, when people go on the Americana Diet, they pay the price and so do their loved ones, not to mention their fellow taxpayers.   Tragically, though, while they slowly began to develop the habit of eating unhealthy foods and quantities, they may not have received much push back from society.   Just ask Don Draper – “Things go better with Coke.”   And one of those things is a Big Mac (“Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun.”)  I didn’t even have to look up those words; I’ve heard the damned commercials so many times that I have them memorized.  

I’ve been thinking about this topic lately because I had a physical exam recently and my blood pressure was up a bit, but my doctor didn’t say a thing about nutrition.   Mind you, I’m not faulting him.  In our society, it’s just not a doctor’s job to emphasize nutrition – or, for that matter, to put people on better exercise regimens.  The role of the doctors is to dispense medicine or perform surgery.  If you want something else for your health, you’re expected to seek it out for yourself.  

Here’s the rub, though.   It has become accepted wisdom that responsible adults should go to their doctor every year and get a physical.   In fact, once you reach a certain age, you’re also supposed to get periodic medical checks-ups to get specific procedures like mammograms or colonoscopies.  
But nobody is telling us that we should go to a nutritionist.  Ever.    When it comes to diet, we’re totally on our own.   And that’s what keeps IHOP, McDonalds, and Arby’s in business.

There are all sorts of reasons why people need to eat responsibly.  For one thing, the beef industry is indisputably one of the largest contributors to climate change.   We can give up the consumption of cows and cow products without harming our own personal health, and just think about what an amazingly positive contribution that would make to the health of our planet.   But let’s leave the societal benefits of sane diets aside.   Focus on yourself as an individual.  Would you like more energy?   Lower blood pressure and blood sugar?   Healthier joints?   A longer life?  Then why turn over all of your health needs to a surgeon or a drug dispenser, even if it’s someone who has a degree from medical school?

Honestly, I am so incredibly thankful for modern medicine and the hard-working people who practice in that profession.  But as helpful as it is to have an inspired Surgeon General, what we need even more is someone who can wake up all the IHOP patrons and motivate them to google “nutritionist” on their computer.    Take it from someone who has been thinking a lot about nutrition and diets lately – and who started a new diet 11 days ago – it’s actually fun to watch what you eat.   I assure you that as much as the Americana Dieters enjoy their doughnuts, I enjoy stepping on the bathroom scale even more. 

Saturday, July 02, 2016

An Empathic Rationalist Prayer

During the past three years, Ambassador Jilal Abbas Jilani  has given me the honor and privilege of delivering the Jewish prayer at the annual Interfaith Iftar that is held at the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in Washington, D.C.  Each year, I’ve written a prayer especially for the event.  This year’s Iftar was held this past Thursday evening, and what follows is the text of what I delivered.   


             My beloved Adonai.  What a sweet feeling it is to gather with my cousins from throughout the family of Adam and Eve.  You have given us so much, Adonai.  Trees.  Oceans.  Ethics.  Math.  Music.  Love.

So how are we doing with what You have given us?  I am not at all satisfied.  As a Jew, I’ve been taught to dream of a time on Earth when, in the words of our Prophet Isaiah, swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruninghooks: when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall we learn war any more.  May we come to realize that dream, and to understand that it is our duty to pave the way for those blessings and not to take Your gifts for granted.

Adonai, we human beings live today during a time of great challenges.  We are challenged to work for peace among warring tribes and to serve our environment as custodians, not exploiters – givers, not just takers.  We are challenged also to speak truth to power and show compassion to those who are ill or who suffer from ignorance, which is among the worst types of illness.

Tonight, though, we face not only challenges but opportunities.   We can take stock in the majestic ritual of a fast devoted to Your Holy Name. And what an honor it is to participate in an interfaith Iftar, where the human family gathers to sing Your praises and build our bridges.  At this Iftar, we recognize our power to make peace and pursue justice.   At this Iftar, we are reminded that what is most high is not a tower or a star, but rather You, Adonai.  It is You whose Infinity and Mystery we can label but cannot even begin to comprehend.   It is You who ground us in empathy for one another, motivation to help one another, and insight about what it means to help and what it means to hinder.

Let us tonight dedicate ourselves to recognizing our power to repair this world without further delay.  And let us work together with both pride and humility: pride, in recognizing our gifts as servants of the Divine, and humility, in recognizing that we are so very tiny in relation to You, our wondrous Lord, our Ultimate Benefactor.  

Adonai, as we feel weaker in body this evening, we grow stronger in spirit and more loving in our hearts.  And above all other names, we give that love to You.

(Note – the Empathic Rationalist will be on vacation after this post, to return on July 16th or 17th.  Have a great 4th of July!)