Saturday, September 24, 2016

Hillary's Firewall

Monday night is a night I’ve long been waiting for.   It’s the time when Hillary should finally be in her element and Donald will ... let’s just say that Donald will be Donald.   

Trump is a man who is impressive in many ways.  His net worth is surely impressive.   His skills as an entertainer are equally so.  And I have no doubt that if you are sitting at a bar and Trump were to sit down next to you and start guzzling martinis, he’d be an impressive conversationalist.  But one thing he is NOT is informed about the topics on which a President needs to be informed.   He also seems to lack curiosity when it comes to gaining more than a superficial command of those topics.   And he’s about to go mano a mano against a woman whose knowledge of public policy and curiosity about public policy are off the charts.
Game over.  That’s my prediction.

I will admit to having a bias here, and it’s not just that I’m a Democrat.   By trade, I am a line attorney – which means that it’s my job to know my cases cold.  Then, at some point, I have to present my understanding of the facts and legal theories to a manager who doesn’t have the luxury of spending as much time on any particular case as I do.  So that person gets to make the ultimate decision even though I am far more knowledgeable about the details of my cases.   It’s kind of like being a school teacher – steeped in your subject, but also constrained by the fact that there is someone who sits in your district’s central office who has ultimate control over large swaths of your curriculum.  When you work as a line attorney or a school teacher, you learn to appreciate the value of knowing a subject at a high level of detail.  And you also learn to appreciate those managers who may not know the subject as well as you do, but at least they demonstrate the curiosity to learn as much as possible in the time allotted.   Hillary comes across as such a manager.  Donald Trump does not.   And he’s applying for the job of the Ultimate Manager.

Now I understand the two main counter-arguments here.  First, some will point out, Trump has been a successful CEO in the real estate business.  Surely, he must have shown some degree of curiosity about learning the tools of his trade, or else his company would have fizzled out long ago.  But the problem is that knowing about real estate is one thing, but understanding (a) the Pacific Rim, (b) the Indian Subcontinent, (c) the Middle East, (d) Europe, (e) Africa, (f) Latin America, (g) military policy, (h) the intelligence community, (i) environmental policy, (j) urban affairs ... and (z) Capitol Hill is something else.  Hillary has an incredible command of so many of these topics.  She has devoted her adult life to understanding them on various levels, whereas Trump projects a certain disdain for getting into those weeds.   Monday night, I think it will catch up to him.

The second counter-argument is that Trump will benefit from the stupidity of the American public, who surely will give him the benefit of low expectations.  As long as he doesn’t get flustered and is able to come up with a “moment” or two, he will have passed the “Presidential test,” and that’s all he needs to do to be considered the winner and go up in the polls.   But I’m not buying into this one either.  Where I differ with many members of my Party is that I don’t think the American public is stupid.  I think they tend to score a debate pretty accurately.  When they gave the first debate in 2012 to Romney over Obama, it’s because Obama really did stink up the joint that night.  Once he woke up in the second debate, the result of the campaign became a foregone conclusion.   And I predict a similar outcome here – only this time, I don’t see Hillary messing up the first debate.  She had enough sparring matches with Bernie that she ought to be able to bring her A game on Monday.  Frankly, even if she brings her B game, it ought to be enough.

But could I be wrong?   What if for some reason, Trump truly has a magic moment?  The Lord shined on Debating Donald once before, you know, and it was against a candidate every bit as brilliant as Hillary – Ted Cruz.   I’m referring to the time that Cruz insulted Trump for having “New York values.”  Here was Donald’s response:

New York is a great place. It’s got great people. It’s got loving people, wonderful people. When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York … Thousands of people killed and the cleanup started the next day … I was down there. And I’ve never seen anything like it. And the people in New York fought and fought and fought, and we saw more death and even the smell of death; nobody understood it. And it was with us for months: the smell, the air. And we rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched, and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers, and I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made.

Bullseye!   As a child of a mother from the Bronx and a father from Brooklyn – neither of whom came from money – I was livid at Cruz’s crack about New York.  Trump spoke for me and tens of millions of other Americans who love New York and love New Yorkers even more (except, of course, for the obnoxious ones).   And he made that statement – he hit that home run – at a debate. 

If Trump is to have another such moment at this debate, I think we all know where it’s going to have to come from.  It will be in response to a question about Hillary’s comment regarding the “deplorables” and “irredeemables” who support Trump’s campaign.  As I discussed last week in this blog, that was the one time that Hillary really stepped in it and gave Trump an opportunity.  And yes, he’ll likely get one shot at an Oscar-winning performance where he speaks on behalf of his supporters and all the undecideds who haven’t sipped the Clinton Kool Aid.   But as far as I can tell, when it comes to having that magic moment in response to Hillary’s slip up – that’s one answer to one question at one debate.   That’s it.  Otherwise, we will be listening to an absolute mismatch between a professional statesperson and an amateur who resembles the guy at the end of the bar. 

Think about it this way.  Let’s say that, like me, you don’t exactly see Hillary as the Tom Brady of politicians.  She’s kind of like the veteran second-string quarterback who is serviceable because of her knowledge and experience but lacks the talent to be a legitimate starting QB in the NFL.  That’s still light years ahead of where Donald Trump is.  He’s like a professional tennis player who one day decides that, without practicing, he can put on a helmet, walk onto the gridiron, and play quarterback against the Broncos or the Vikings defense.  That would be a crazy thought.   And yet that’s where we’ll be on Monday night.  By all accounts, he hasn’t done much debate prep, he has never seemed to know the issues in depth, and he will be left almost completely to his Bullshitting skills.  I don’t doubt that those skills are impressive.  But he’ll be in a different league Monday night.  Take Hillary – and give the points!  

Saturday, September 10, 2016

My Tribute to Star Trek on its 50th Anniversary

This past Thursday, September 8th, many of us celebrated quite a semi centennial.   September 8, 1966 was the date the first Star Trek episode was aired.  Its title was “Man Trap.”  And I have to confess, I wasn’t watching that night.   Nor was I watching 78 episodes later when, on June 3, 1969, Trek aired its final episode, “Turnabout Intruder.”   The boys on my block had been watching the show, even role-playing based on it, but not me.   For some reason, I wasn’t interested.  I never even turned it on.

Fortunately, though, even after NBC stopped making new Star Trek episodes in the evening, one of the local channels played the reruns every weekday afternoon.  One day after school, I was at the home of a friend when he turned on the episode called “Spock’s Brain.”  Notably, that episode is commonly known as the single worst episode of the original series, but I loved it, especially the character of Mr. Spock.   Though famous for his logic, stoicism, and devotion to science in all its forms, what captivated me most about Spock is precisely what he tried so hard to hide: his feelings.  Occasionally, he’d feel insulted and respond with pique.  Yet except for those rare instances, he was incredibly benign.   Trustworthy.  Loyal.  Helpful.  Friendly.  Courteous. Kind.   Obedient.   OK – the next part of the Boy Scout Law is “Cheerful” and Spock was certainly not that.   But did he have to be cheerful?   He demonstrated that with a generally benign spirit and an unwavering devotion to reason, you can turn yourself into an incredibly beautiful person whether or not you are cheerful.  As I’ve said before in this blog, Mr. Spock would become my favorite television character.  No one else is even close.

The Vulcan side of Spock always seemed to be thinking.  He loved the search for wisdom even more than the possession of knowledge, the true sign of any intellectual.   But the human side of Spock, the one he tried to bury but couldn’t, always seemed to saying, “Let me help.”   That was a phrase that was used in the episode, “City on the Edge of Forever” by a social worker named Edith Keeler, who wanted to assist Captain Kirk.  And he responded with a thought that I would never forget.   “Let me help.  A hundred years or so from now, I believe, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme. He'll recommend those three words even over ‘I love you.’"

Love is important, but love is just a feeling.   By contrast, helping is more important, because helping involves action.  Lovers want good things to happen, but helpers make good things happen.  That was part of the humanistic philosophy of Star Trek.  It’s a philosophy that emphasizes being a doer above all else.  But that is not enough.   There are plenty of “doers” who do plenty of harm.  In order to be reliably helpful, you need to have a solid moral foundation.   The members of the Enterprise crew displayed that foundation in spades.   They were all supremely self-confident, brought a strong sense of mission to their jobs and their lives, possessed a genuine affection for others, and kept their pettiness and hatred to a bare minimum.   Having studied philosophy for decades, I have come to realize that the Enterprise crew had created nothing short of a philosopher’s utopia.   But I didn’t know that at the time I discovered the show at the age of nine.  What I may have known was that the so-called “idiot box” had provided me with a set of role models. 

In middle school, I attended three Star Trek conventions.    I also became an aficionado of Trek Trivia, and I still know the original series at an obscenely high level of detail.   When Star Trek: The Next Generation was aired, I watched a bunch of episodes, but it wasn’t the same.   The original series was on TV when I was a child and was still in my formative years.  It would transform my perspective on life.   For me, The Next Generation was like a print in a museum store; I thirsted for the real McCoy.

One of the basic principles of the Star Trek philosophy is that beauty is in the eye of beholder (see, e.g., the Horta in the “Devil in the Dark” episode).   Accordingly, I was in no position to argue with people when they expressed a personal preference for The Next Generation over the original series.  But what would drive me crazy is when I encountered some Einstein who would claim that The Next Generation is objectively better than the original because its technology and production quality was far superior.  Clearly, those people missed the entire point of the original series.   Technology wasn’t the series’ showcase; its humanist philosophy was its showcase.  Technology was simply one of its vehicles for revealing that philosophy by focusing our attention on the potential for human beings to shape our own future.

To illustrate my point, let me remind you of the episode “Court Martial,” when Kirk was being accused of murder and hired a lawyer to defend him.   Samuel T. Cogley, Attorney at Law, had no computer in his office; he merely had books.  Obviously, that was not realistic, and the show’s creators must have known that.  But they also knew that to be true to the show’s philosophy, Kirk needed to hire a lawyer who was so devoted to humanism that he refused to give-in to a mindset where computers live and human history dies. 

Here’s the scene where we meet Cogley for the first time:

Cogley: “Books, young man, books. Thousands of them. If time wasn't so important, I'd show you something. My library. Thousands of books.
Kirk:  And what would be the point?
Cogley:  This is where the law is. Not in that homogenized, pasteurized synthesizer. Do you want to know the law?   The ancient concepts in their own language?   Learn the intent of the men who wrote them, from Moses to the tribunal of Alpha III?   Books.
Kirk:  You have to be either an obsessive crackpot who's escaped from his keeper, or Samuel T. Cogley, attorney at law.
Cogley:  You're right on both counts. Need a lawyer?
Kirk:  I’m afraid so. 

The original Star Trek could be incredibly thrilling, pretty damned funny, and deeply poignant.  But it was never disrespectful of human history or the great institutions that stood the test of time.  Take, for example, its approach to religion.  The show’s creators did not appear to be religious in the traditional sense.  Their characters were much more likely to utter the word “Gods” than “God,” and I couldn’t even begin to tell you their religious views.  But the mystery of life was always revered on that show.   Indeed, the characters were profiles in reverence – as proud as they were about human accomplishments and potential, they were equally humble about our small stature when compared to reality as a whole.  Likely, watching Star Trek was one of the reasons why, despite the fact that I grew up as an atheist, I always kept an open mind and an open heart for the claims of faith.   It was one thing for a Trekkie to believe in science, but it’s quite another thing for a Trekkie to be scientistic – to revere science above even the mysteries of life.  That is a bridge too far.

I could go on for pages to sing the praises of that series and all that it has done for me and so many other Baby Boomers.  The show was truly groundbreaking in so many ways.  But ultimately, it all comes back to humanism.  It aired during the period from 1966-1969, a time when the Civil Rights, Anti-War and Feminist Movements were all in full flight.   And there was Trek, always on the right side of history, always trying to figure out how far to push the envelope with respect to hot-button issues.

People love to point out that TV’s first interracial kiss was on Star Trek (specifically, the “Plato’s Stepchildren” episode), but what many people forget is that Kirk and Uhura didn’t choose to kiss each other.  They were forced to do so by power-drunk aliens who enjoyed manipulating the Enterprise crew to do all sorts of strange things.  And back then, a white man kissing a black woman was truly bizarre.  That was the era in which Trek came on the scene.

In the 50 years since Man Trap was aired, we have come a long way in many respects, and Star Trek has played no small part in those accomplishments.  It has impelled us toward a less bigoted culture, and indeed we’ve made great strides in that regard.  Its talk of “ultimate computers,” “transporter rooms” and “phasers on stun” has inspired us to make one scientific breakthrough after another, and indeed, it’s difficult to keep up with all the progress we’re making technologically.   But perhaps the greatest thing Trek has given us is hope – in a future that not only is brighter but became so without the need for supernatural intervention.

The Enterprise Crew said “Let me help” and showed us how.  We Baby Boomers watched with great interest.  And if we were smart, we emulated what we saw in our conduct, not merely in our feelings.   On behalf of all who recognize their debt to this show, I salute the great Star Trek.   A show like that doesn’t come around very often.  When it does, it leaves a positive mark, and even those who have never seen a single episode are better off for it.    

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Putting Colin Kaepernick's Protest in Perspective

I first went to protests during a Democratic Administration – the LBJ Administration, to be specific.  I was a young boy, my parents were only slightly to the right of Trotsky, and they felt compelled to take me to Resurrection City at the National Mall in Washington, DC.  That protest was part of the so-called “Poor People’s Campaign,” which turned out to be the last movement Martin Luther King, Jr. ever organized.  Attending that event helped me appreciate the need to fight poverty and racism in America, two causes that I’ve deeply believed in ever since. I’ve also participated in protests for various other progressive causes.  They include gun control, a woman’s right to choose to abort a pregnancy, a gay couple’s right to get married, and Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State.  (OK,  so that last one isn’t viewed as “progressive,” but damned if I don’t believe in it nevertheless.)  In addition, I’ve protested AGAINST things, especially wars.   I remember walking down the street as fellow travelers chanted such slogans as “Racist Reagan Get the Word, Grenada’s Not Johannesburg.”  And after George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and John Kerry got us involved in a bi-partisan quagmire in Iraq, I became obsessed with finding opportunities to protest.  I detested that war from the start, and it was a big reason why I was such a passionate supporter of Barack Obama in 2008.  I might have supported Mickey Mouse if I had known he was against that war from the start.  

Here’s what I keep wondering – if Mickey Mouse instead of Barack Obama had been elected in 2008 and if he had a House majority and 60 Democratic Senators, might he actually have fought for  more progressive tax rates?   Or otherwise confront the growing inequalities of wealth in America?  Or have been more focused on racial inequalities generally?  After President Obama took office, it took almost three years for any significant protest movement to begin on those issues because progressive protests tend not to flourish as much when there’s a Democrat in the White House.  (That often functions like a narcotic to calm down the left.)  Eventually, though, the Occupy movement arose, followed by Black Lives Matter.    Once again, Americans have taken to the street to object to the inequities we all see on the evening news.   I’m glad that there are people around who are still willing to call out inequities and not merely take the status quo for granted.

Even when I see protesters who are arguing AGAINST the causes I believe in, I sometimes feel pleasure at the sight of their picket signs.  Take the right-to-lifers, who often line the streets of DC to object to abortion rights.  I thoroughly disagree with their conclusion.  But I appreciate that they are protesting in favor of the sanctity of human life (a majestic principle) and that they care about something larger than their own selfish interests.   

It has become a cliché to say that we support someone’s “right to protest.” But when it comes to the right-to-lifers, I am far more supportive than that.  I appreciate their “pro-life” stance, just not the anti-choice consequence of that stance.  Mostly, I’m just happy to live in a country where it doesn’t matter if you’re on the political left or the political right -- you are supported in your desire to grab a picket sign, collect with like-minded citizens, and demonstrate that you are far from a self-absorbed, materialist bore.   If the Nazis want to march on Skokie, then fine – march on Skokie.  I’ll be right there too, counter-protesting, and loving my country for giving us both the opportunity to speak our piece.

It’s with that introduction that I turn to the case of Colin Kaepernick – the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who ignited a national controversy because of his refusal, based on concerns of racial inequalities in America, to stand for the national anthem during pro football games.  Kaepernick’s protest has become quite the litmus test.  The folks on the right look at him as anti-American, anti-military, and anti-police.  The folks on the left look at him as a profile in courage and a compassionate voice in the ethical wilderness known as the American professional sports industry.  Truly, the reactions to Kaepernick reflect the total polarization in American society.  

But I resist that polarization.  And I similarly resist the temptation either to villainize this QB or to go out of my way to praise him. I feel about Colin K not a whole lot differently than I feel about the right-to-lifers who often line the streets of DC.  I appreciate where he’s coming from, but I disagree with his conclusions and champion an altogether different cause than he does.  

Let me begin by acknowledging what I most appreciate about Kaepernick’s conduct.  He has the balls to put his own political views on display even though he has to know it will antagonize a large segment of the football audience and maybe even breed disharmony in his locker room.   He could have been like most NFL stars -- avoid rocking the political boat at all costs, earn tens of millions of dollars in salaries and endorsements, and enjoy the existence of a nouveau-riche narcissist.   The fact that he didn’t speaks volumes for his character.

What’s more, Colin K demonstrated an appreciation for a principle near and dear to my heart – racial equality.   It clearly pains him to see black people live second-class lives, a status that so many have had to endure for so long in this country, and he appropriately feels compelled to do something about that.  So why not take advantage of the forum available to him: speaking out at a football game, the one and only place where he is truly a public figure?

So far, so noble.

But unfortunately, the facts preclude me from stopping there.   Just consider the statements that Colin K has made in favor of his protest.   “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media shortly after he first sat down during a national anthem. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

My reaction to those words were as viscerally negative as the reaction of most conservatives.   So he hates racial inequities.  I do too.  But why should he take that anger out on his love for this nation or its flag?  Personally, I AM going to stand up and show pride in the flag of a country that, for so many generations, has supported such principles as democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and equality under the law.   While I recognize that this country is far from perfect, that doesn’t mean it isn’t perfectible if our leaders protest with the subtlety and insight of a Martin Luther King, Jr., rather than with crude and ugly statements.   An example of such a statement is Colin Kaepernick’s decision to publicly wear socks that depict police officers as pigs.

Here’s his justification for such a sartorial choice: "I wore these socks, in the past, because the rogue cops that are allowed to hold positions in police departments, not only put the community in danger, but also put the cops that have the right intentions in danger by creating an environment of tension and mistrust.”

I’m sorry, Colin, but for every “rogue cop,” there are surely a huge number of public servants in blue who put their own lives on the line every day to protect us all, and who do so at a salary that is one zillionth of what you make for throwing a ball on a green field.   Some police officers have screwed up on the job for reasons other than hatred or corruption – they just make mistakes.  The last time I checked, though, you’ve made a ton of mistakes as a QB; in fact, as NFL quarterbacks go, you’re just not very good.  But does that make you corrupt or evil?   No, it just makes you human.

Just as I stand with the right-to-life protesters because they believe deeply in the sanctity of human life, I sit with Colin Kaepernick because I pine for a time when black skin is no longer the object of condescension and fear.  But I continue to be pro-choice on abortion.  And I continue to support the American flag and the institution of the local American police force.   

All that said, I also support ALL Americans who search their souls and find causes about which they are passionate.  And I especially support those Americans who are willing to make tremendous personal sacrifices in support of their causes.  Colin Kaepernick has risked a lot to fight for his cause – and his statements, however crude, have at least been non-violent.   In that regard, I salute him.