Saturday, September 16, 2017

Happiness in Hoosierville

I’ve been to four Rose Bowls and not one Rose Bowl parade.  I’ve raised two children to adulthood, yet never took them to a parade either.  Honestly, prior to last weekend, I don’t remember the last time I’ve ever attended one of those events, or even watched one on TV --unless you count the final scene in Animal House, which I’ve surely seen several times.   But exactly one week ago, I stood on Main Street in Zionsville, Indiana, and watched the floats go by. 

There was the Corvette Club float, and then, minutes later, a competing Corvette Club float.  There was the Boone County Republican float, and then, seconds later, two donkeys went by, which at the time I thought represented the only Democrats in Boone County.  I saw the Girl Scout float – I even had kin in that one – the Lion’s Club float, plenty of pirate floats (it was a pirate-themed parade), the Miss Boone County float, a float for the Eagles of Zionsville High and another one for the middle schoolers who will soon be Eagles.  I saw thousands of people lining Main Street – both in the road and next to it.  All seemed incredibly happy.  In fact, even though I couldn’t help but note that only three people I spotted in or around the parade were black and only two were Asian, that didn’t stop me from having a wonderful time.

I was witnessing a Boone County whiteout to be sure, but these people weren’t carrying tiki torches or spewing venom.  They were smiling, laughing, waving, and handing out candy.  They were eating guilt-free sausages and ice cream, riding in guilt-free gas-guzzling cars, and surely looking forward to guilt-free Pop Warner football games later in the afternoon.   In fact, after I left the parade, I immediately went to a field in another part of Zionsville to watch my great-nephew play tackle football and register a sack.  Where I live, we have grumps who’d use the term “child abuse” when describing parents who let their nine-year-olds play football.   I suspect they don’t have many people like that in Zionsville.  They just have Colts fans. 

Standing beside Main Street, watching Americana go by, I was reminded of various countries across the pond.  In England, you get ethnic English culture, in France, French culture, in Germany, German culture, and so on.  Crossing the pond is like going to dog shows – there, you see bichons, beagles, and dalmatians.   Purebreds, never mutts.   There’s a certain authenticity in a show full of pedigreed dogs, or a Boone County parade.   Simple, uncomplicated, traditional, joyous.  What’s not to embrace?

Then I let my mind wander.  I thought about another nation across the pond – Israel.  And how when I’m there, especially in Jerusalem, I frequently see groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews, all in black, often with those thick furry Shtreimels covering their heads (as if they’re living in a polar climate, rather than a temperate one).  I ask myself, “Are these men MORE Jewish than the rest of us?   It sure seems to be a larger part of their self-identity, and it totally dominates how everyone else looks at them.  But are they really more Jewish?”   I asked similar questions in Zionsville.  Are the people at this parade more American than the rest of us?  Are they really?

Occasionally, politicians force us all to ask those questions.  Think back to the awful campaign run by Sarah Palin in 2008, when speaking in rural North Carolina, she spoke about “the real America” and “the pro-America areas of this great nation.”  Those were truly offensive comments – tantamount to saying that every Jew who doesn’t wear a Shtreimel in the middle of the summer isn’t a “real” Jew.  The beauty of America in particular is supposed to be its diversity, its fostering of freedom to be whatever and whoever we wish to be.  Surely, this nation belongs as much to mutts as to purebreds.  We don’t associate it with one ethnic group, religion, race, or political ideology.  That is our greatest strength.

And yet.   And yet. 

I couldn’t help but take in the beauty of that ethnic ritual known as the small Midwestern town parade last Saturday.  I couldn’t help but recognize how the people there felt at home with traditional Americana, and how traditional Americana does tend to be associated more with certain ethnic groups and cultures than others.  This scene made me question my own childhood prejudices -- the ones that flow from growing up as part of an ethnic minority.  I spent my childhood years grumbling about why Jews like me always had to have Christmas shoved down our throats by these damned Christians who thought that their religion was the friggen be-all-and-end-all of religions.  But in fact, come December, the good people of Zionsville aren’t trying to shove anything down anyone’s throats.  They are just trying to enjoy a beautiful story, listen to a beautiful carol, and express a beautiful sentiment like “peace on earth, good will toward men.” 

The Zionsville scene was the antithesis of Charlottesville.  It was about white people loving, not white people hating.  And yet it allowed me to appreciate a bit why so many white Christian Americans in the south and elsewhere are experiencing the loss of something near and dear to them – Americana as they know it.  Among our youngest cohorts, white Christians are no longer the majority in this country.   Christmas no longer dominates the airwaves when we approach winter.  The fastest growing religious world view is “none of the above.”  And, in many liberal media outlets, Americans are increasingly divided into the category of “people of color” and “people of privilege.” I’ll let you guess which term is a compliment.

Then there’s the pièce de résistance: adults in small town America, no less than urban America, are dealing with how it feels to live in a generation that figures to be more affluent than our own children.  That is a bitter pill for any decent person to swallow. 

Reflecting on Zionsville, I saw a town that day enjoy the present by celebrating the past.   But what I want to know is, how do they see the future?  Can they envision a different future that is more culturally diverse, and yet authentic, respectful of the past, and worthy of celebration?  That is a question for Boone County, Beverly Hills, Baltimore and all other parts of America.  

Monday, September 04, 2017

Musings on a Labor Day

Happy Labor Day!  It is wonderful that America has a holiday devoted to celebrating our laborers.  There is nothing quite like an honest day’s work to give a person dignity.  Anyone who regularly puts in such a work week -- and behaves themselves ethically while on the job – is worthy of respect, though many don’t expect to be treated with any.  

“That’s alright, that’s OK, you’re going to pump our gas someday.”  Go to an “elite” college and you’ll often hear such a chant at a sports event, for apparently it is important that our “best and brightest” learn to disrespect laborers at an early age.  This kind of elitism is also on display whenever we use words like “professionals” to refer to members of certain occupations (e.g., doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects), while at the same time we refer to less affluent wage earners simply as “workers.”  Personally, though, I’ve met many a gas station attendant or fast food worker who epitomizes what it means to be a “professional,” whereas I’ve met many a lawyer who epitomizes what it means to be a “scumbag.”

This Labor Day, there is a special group of laborers who are worthy of celebrating.  I’m referring to the legions of Good Samaritans in East Texas who’ve volunteered their time to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey.  I honestly didn’t have them in mind last weekend when I wrote a blogpost about David Hume’s distinction between “sympathy” (a force for peace and unity) and “comparison” (a force for strife and hatred).  But clearly, ever since Harvey has made landfall in Texas, we have seen the immense power of human sympathy on display.  And it has been as beautiful as the most spectacular sunset.

Some people “Deep in the Heart of” credit the selflessness on display in their state as an example of what makes Texas – or America – uniquely great.  Personally, though, I choose to look at the beauty of the Harvey Helpers as an example of the wide-reaching power of human sympathy.  Sympathy resides inside all of our hearts, whether we are from Texas or Togo.   But unfortunately, it is often fleeting.  If only we can harvest this power more universally – meaning in more contexts – just imagine the world we would live in.  

I’m reminded of the plaque that appeared in front of the home in which Spinoza resided in Rinjburg, Holland.

Alas!  If all mankind were wise
And were benign as well.
Then the Earth world would be a paradise.
Whereas now it is often a Hell!

But why is it often a Hell?  In last week’s blogpost, I cited Hume to give part of the explanation.  Now, let me cite him again (also from his “Treatise of Human Nature”) to explain our predicament even further.

Here are Hume’s words:  “Every thing that is contiguous to us, either in space or time, strikes upon us with such an idea, it has a proportional effect on the will and passions, and commonly operates with more force than any object that lies in a more distant and obscure light.  Tho’ we may be fully convinc’d that the latter object excels the former, we are not able to regulate our actions by this judgment, but yield to solicitations of our passions, which always plead in favor of whatever is near and contiguous.”   And here’s Hume again, making much the same point:  “Men, ‘tis true, are always much inclin’d to prefer present interest to distant and remote; nor is it easy for them to resist the temptation of any advantage that they may immediately enjoy in apprehension of an evil that lies at a distance from them.”

From Rockport to Houston to Beaumont, we have seen examples of wonderful people heeding the call of those in need.  These heroes recognize how they personally can make a difference in others’ lives, and how their efforts can pay immediate dividends.  They can see profound, concrete, and undeniable benefits to their work.  The fact that these benefits would be enjoyed by strangers or that they themselves would be undertaking risks to help these strangers is not enough to deter these heroes.  They labor on, expecting neither money nor prestige, because (a) they have developed their faculty for sympathy and (b) the results of their labor will be sufficiently tangible and certain. 

I don’t wish for a second to undermine the importance of that assistance.   Taken together, it provides an inspiring example of the “wise” and “benign” human conduct reflected in the poem referenced above.  It is necessary that all people emulate these heroes if we wish to avoid the “Hell” on Earth that the poet was also talking about.  Necessary, yes; just not sufficient.

You see, it is not enough for our society to confront disasters once they are already upon us.  Once the signs of destruction are “near and contiguous” and can no longer be conceived “in a ... distant and obscure light,” we may be way too late to get involved in an adequate solution.  Thankfully, the Heroes of Harvey weren’t too late to save many lives.  But they were too late to save many others, or to avoid billions of dollars in property damage.  More to the point, all the Good Samaritans on the planet won’t be able to eliminate the deadly and costly consequences of the storms, fires and droughts that are sure to be coming, in increasing frequency, as long as the elites of our planet continue to treat global climate change as a merely theoretical and speculative concern. 

Thank God for the parents, educators, clergy, and others who are responsible for raising people like the Heroes of Harvey -- people willing to assume significant personal risks to save the lives of total strangers.  But please, God, may you find us politicians, business executives, and charismatic local leaders who can build a movement to confront the scourge of climate change regardless of whether its impact is near or far, clear or obscure, certain or debatable.

To be sure, we can debate the extent to which climate change will devastate us in the next generation or two.  But what seems certain is that the devastation will come, and that the less we do now to confront the problem, the greater the likelihood that the horrors will be Biblical in magnitude.  Isn’t it time to confront the matter now, before the floods are upon us?   Shouldn’t we listen to the old philosopher who tells us to trust our judgment, not our passions, and open our mind to what is “distant and obscure?” 

Just ask any doctor – it’s far better to stop smoking before the lung cancer comes, than to trust in the love of Good Samaritans to help you once the cancer has metastasized.   When it comes to our climate, every time we see glaciers melt, storms overwhelm us, or global temperatures set records, it is one more indication that our planet has cancer.  It’s too bad cancer can be such an unseen killer.

[Note -- The Empathic Rationalist will be on holiday next weekend and will return the weekend of September 16-17.]

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Lessons about Charlottesville from a Dead Scotsman

At first, I thought the real story about Charlottesville involved the weekend itself – the March, the fighting and, finally, the murder.  Then I thought the story was the President’s subsequent statements – the moral relativism, the vilification of counter-protesters, and the suggestion that “very fine people” march with Nazis.   But now, I think that the story is the polls – in particular, the polls that indicated that roughly two out of three Republicans approved of how the President handled the situation.  What exactly does that say about today’s Republican Party?  And what does it say about our contemporary society? 

The President may have been motivated by the desire not to antagonize those of his supporters who sympathize with the Alt-Right movement.  But rank-and-file Republicans aren’t politicians; when they respond to a poll, they shouldn’t be worried about antagonizing anyone.   Could it be that two out of three of them are truly White Supremacists or Alt-Right sympathizers? 

No, I’m not cynical enough to believe that.  To me, the problem is both less dramatic and more pervasive.    To diagnose it, let’s go back to the 18th century and the writings of that great Scottish philosopher, David Hume. 

In discussing human nature, Hume focuses largely on what he calls “two principles which are very conspicuous in human nature.”  The first is “sympathy,” the second “comparison.”  In touting the extreme power of sympathy, Hume addressed something that many of us take for granted.   Who and what we love and how we think of beauty largely depend on that faculty.  Yes, even our sense of beauty – our appreciation for faces or for random acts of kindness – begins with our ability to sympathize.   It is precisely that ability that causes us to love other human beings, strangers included.   Indeed, it is our sympathy that leads us to try to heal our planet and nurture all its creatures.   Thank God for this faculty; on that point, I would hope we’d all agree.

But as was apparent from Charlottesville, we are not built on sympathy alone.  As Hume pointed out, sympathy impels us to act and feel in one direction, whereas the pressures to compare ourselves with one another push us in quite the opposite direction.  It is our tendency to view ourselves in contrast and in competition to other human beings that we locate the source of so much envy, hatred and hubris.   For just as sympathy has forged much of our sense of beauty, this tendency to view society through the prism of comparison has come to underlie our sense of ugliness.  Bullying, showing off, condescension, and all the other signs of insecurity – this is what results when our tendency to view ourselves in comparison to others goes hog wild and swallows up our ability to sympathize.  Sadly, however, this is a fact we tend to brush under the rug, at least if we don’t read Hume.   We’d rather celebrate this sense of comparison when it manifests itself in a great athlete, a confident attorney, or a diva on a stage – i.e., the achievers among us who best demonstrate the importance of being prideful and having a “winning” attitude.   Nobody wants to think about the “root of all evil” (comparison) when that same root has given rise to many a productive and successful tree.     

Thinking about Charlottesville and its aftermath, I’m struck by the extent to which our faculty of sympathy has narrowed and our thirst for comparison has fully bloomed.  This is a dangerous and combustible combination.   Charlottesville happened because so many of us are no longer able to sympathize with all human beings; we now sympathize only with our “own kind.”  We love them because we share the same religion, ethnicity, or political views.  But we sure as hell won’t sympathize across party lines and now, perhaps, not even across racial ones. 

As for the aftermath of Charlottesville – the polls suggesting that two out of three Republicans are fine and dandy with the President’s comments – I see this as a sign that our tendency to compare ourselves with one another is consuming us.  As soon as the President made his ill-advised statements and was justifiably called to account for them by the media, the battle lines were drawn.  The loyal Republicans weren’t so much defending the President as they were seizing yet another opportunity to attack his enemies and theirs.  These loyalists call their enemies by many names -- “fake news,” “commies,” “globalists,”  “Alt Left,” “politically correct”....    The first thing one does these days is to label and vilify the “other.”

Sadly, it has become the norm to identify oneself primarily in comparison with one’s enemies, rather than by looking ourselves in the mirror and taking stock in what we see.    In other words, we have come to feel good about ourselves primarily because  of who we’re not, rather than who we are.  More often than not, those “others” with whom we compare ourselves are seen as responsible for destroying our society and committing the ultimate sin of our generation: leaving our children poorer than we are.   Someone has to pay for that sin of sins, and inevitably, we identify groups and bogeymen to fit the bill.  In short, when the President was attacked by those groups after his comments on Charlottesville, his defenders rushed to his support – not because they agree with everything he said (some of which is impossible to agree with) but because they despise his attackers.   Our source of pride is that “we” are not like “them,” rather than that “we” have accomplished anything worth celebrating.

This is how far the balance in our society has swung away from “sympathy” and toward “comparison.”  The leaders we need in this society are the ones who can swing that pendulum back before it snaps.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Plea from a Child of Jacob ... and of Adam

“Jews will not replace us.  Jews will not replace us.   Jews will not replace us.”

Those words have been ringing in my ears ever since last weekend.  For some reason, they are the words to which I return, even more than “blood and soil,” “many sides,” or “not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch.”

Now don’t get me wrong.  All those phrases deeply wound me.   But “Jews will not replace us” – that’s the one I can’t stop saying to myself, over and over again.

Try it.  Repeat it like a mantra.   It goes very well with “Never again.  Never again.  Never again.”

I first encountered that latter phrase when I was in grade school.   I found it to be incredibly compelling.  It was as if a supernatural being had assigned me a mission to work for justice.  And that mission was triggered by a simple directive: “Never again.”   Never again will my people walk into the gas chambers like sheep to a slaughter.  Never again will my people assume that if we Jews are unable to fight evil for ourselves, The Holy One, Blessed Be He, will deliver us from evil.  Never again can my people count on being safe anywhere in the world until we can live in the majority in at least one country.

You can obviously see in my childhood thoughts why I’ve become a Zionist.  But more than that, I became committed to the cause of justice for all peoples and all individuals.  The Holocaust reminded me that justice is not the privilege of any one group.  It is a right that belongs to every human being, and with that right comes a whole set of duties.   None of us has the privilege to fight for our own kind unless we’re also willing to fight for others.   As we Jews would like to say, we are children of Adam even more fundamentally than we are children of Jacob.  If we take that seriously, it means that “Never again” applies to more than just Jews and Holocausts.  Never again can genocide be tolerated, no matter which group is murdered.  Never again can slavery be tolerated, no matter which group is enslaved.  And never again can virulent racism be ignored, even if it manifests itself in seemingly peaceful forms, because such “peaceful” racism is the seed of the most depraved violence that our species has ever known. 

Once Germany reached the point where Hitler won an election, those seeds of depravity were already planted.  They were planted in the ‘20s, as millions of Germans sowed their resentment toward the western powers that defeated them in World War I and decided to vent much of that resentment on “the Jews,” who supposedly wielded disproportionate power among the media and the financial system.  Today, I see similar winds blowing here in America.   Jews represent only two percent of our population.  Yet whether you’re talking about newspapers, TV, Wall Street, Hollywood, or the President’s inner sanctum, children of Jacob abound.  Apparently, this has come to be a source of resentment among the “Blood and Soil” set in rural America.

In the Good Old US of A, most people have been taught that true evil can never happen here.  We have a Statue of Liberty, a separation of powers, and a hatred of monarchy and even aristocracy.  What can go wrong?   In fact, however, our history is replete with large-scale injustice, from the African slave trade, to the Trail of Tears, to the Japanese Internment Camps, to Jim Crow.   Oh believe me, it can happen here.   It can happen wherever we allow the seeds to take root and we look the other way.

A few days ago, I called a dear friend who I know to be very loyal to the Administration.   I wanted to get his perspective on the events earlier in the week.   I asked him about the phrase “Jews will not replace us.”  And he replied that he was more concerned about the “Alt-Left” than these “fringe groups” on the right.

Believe me, these groups always start as fringe.  Whether they remain that way is up to us.   Do we take a stand against them before enough seeds are planted?  Or do we tend to our own gardens and let other people confront the problem?   That is up to us – not just our leaders. That’s our choice as grass roots individuals.  Choose wisely.  Please.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Numbers That Don't Add Up

0 out of 1

4 out of 9

16 out of 50

18 out of 50

46 out of 100

194 out of 435

Can you recognize these numbers?   I’ll give you a hint: I’m talking about politics.  I’m talking about numbers of people who are associated with a particular political organization.  The members of this political organization dominate Hollywood and the Fourth Estate. More specifically, they dominate late night talk shows, political comedy programs, and big-time screenwriting portfolios.   They dominate network newsrooms, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, and the Chicago Tribune.   The members of this political organization have spent most of the last two years laughing their butts off at their rivals’ ineptitude.  And when they’re not heaping ridicule on their rivals – when they’re purporting to get serious about the topic – they wax eloquent about how their rival organization may be in the process of imploding or splitting into pieces.  

If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that the political organization we’re talking about is the surviving party in a one-party system.  But I do know better.  In fact, I know that the party we’re talking about is a minority party in a two-party system.   Just don’t tell them that.  They’re as giddy and cocky as Baghdad Bob during Shock and Awe.

When I think about the Democratic Party these days, I am reminded of the so-called “Rumble in the Jungle,” the name given to the 1974 fight in Zaire between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali.  Today’s Democrats remind me of Foreman’s fans from that big fight.   In the early rounds, they would have watched their hero totally dominate.  Ali spent those rounds primarily with his back against the ropes and his arms covering his face.   Whenever he peeked out, he would have seen the massive Foreman pounding away, landing one mighty blow after another against Ali’s arms and sides.   Foreman’s fans must have felt a lot like the audience of Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, or Trevor Noah, who roar in approval as these comedians land haymaker after haymaker at the expense of “The Pussy Grabber,” “The Mooch” or “The Turtle.”   Party on, Wayne!   Here’s the part I don’t understand, though.   In the Ali-Foreman fight, the Loquacious One let Big George tire himself out by throwing all those bombs until, finally, Ali moved away from the ropes, unleashed a flurry of his own, and sent Foreman to the canvas like a rock.  That fight will forever be known as the “Rope-a-Dope” and has become one of the signature achievements of Ali’s legendary career.  

Now, those two heavyweights never fought again. (In fact, Big George’s boxing career was never the same after Zaire.)  But if they had, and if this second fight had started the same way as the first, I doubt Foreman’s fans would have been nearly as cocky.  I bet they’d have been concerned that the key to a fight isn’t starting strong but rather finishing strong.  And most importantly, I’d bet they would have been focused on the fact that their guy had better be smarter and more resourceful than he was the last time around.    You see, I apparently have more confidence in the intelligence of fight fans than in that of my fellow Democrats. 

You see, after Democrats spent 15 months laughing at their GOP rivals, the GOP won the election.  And I mean won it big.  Those numbers you saw at the top of the page are, respectively, the current tallies of Dems in the White House, US Supreme Court Justices nominated by Dems, Democratic Governors, State Legislatures controlled by the Dems, Dems in the US Senate, and Dems in the US House of Representatives.  For the most part, those pathetic numbers were fixed in stone after the November elections.  Yet for the past nine months, Democrats have continued to fall all over themselves mocking the GOP and predicting the eventual collapse of that party, all the while licking their chops at every opportunity to fight it out at the ballot box.  Somehow, they never got the memo that they were the dope who got roped ... and they have become neither smarter nor more resourceful since the last election.

Part of the problem is that the party is in denial.  It refuses to believe that it loses elections.   The House of Representatives?  “The GOP stole that because of gerrymandering.“   The US Senate?  “The GOP stole that because rural states have too many representatives.”  The Presidency?  “The Dems won the popular vote and the Russians stole the electoral vote.”  The State Houses?  “What’s a State House?”  

There was a time when the Democrats were the real deal.   They won five Presidential Elections in a row.  And during that time, their charismatic leaders had ideas, and programs and slogans that actually worked.  FDR had his “Fair Deal.”   Truman had his “Square Deal.”   So, it is not surprising that today’s Democrats, when they’re not making excuses, are figuring out how to summon the wisdom and the passion of their political ancestors from the 30s and 40s.   They rolled out a retro slogan: Better Deal.   And that is supposed to be shorthand for “better jobs, better wages, better future.”    But as others have pointed out, that sounds more like a Papa John’s commercial than it sounds like Truman or FDR.   After all, when Papa John’s  brags about “Better ingredients, better pizza,”  it wants to focus your attention on something in particular – Papa John’s attentiveness to product quality – just as when Truman or FDR bragged about their slogans, they were calling attention to Truman’s association with candor and plain-spokenness and FDR’s association with economic equity.   But the Democrats’ new slogan doesn’t summon anything in particular that we would associate with the party.  It sounds like empty rhetoric.  For who doesn’t want better jobs and wages and a better future?  And if I’m mistaken, during the 16 years when the Democrats have occupied the White House since 1980, weren’t the wage increases disproportionately enjoyed by the top five to ten percent? 

It’s no wonder, given all of these problems, that the Democratic Party has become a house divided between the Establishment Wing and the Berniecrats.   From what I can tell, they get along with each other about as well as Ali and Frazier – and far less than Ali and Foreman.  The Berniecrats think of the Establishment Wing as a bunch of opportunists who’ve demonstrated no real commitment to the working class and might as well call themselves Liberal Republicans because they’re basically your father’s Republicans when it comes to economics.  As for the Establishment Wing, they think of the Berniecrats as a bunch of self-righteous loudmouths who value their own sense of purity and could care less about actually winning, let alone figuring out how to govern.  Occasionally, party leaders – almost all of whom come from the Establishment Wing – talk about the need for party unity, while the Berniecrats grumble in private about how unity would be just fine, as long as THEY are in power and not their sell-out colleagues.  

Yup.  It’s one big happy family.  Or should I say, it’s one big happy family ... but ONLY when they stop paying attention to getting their own act together and instead turn their attention to the one activity they can enjoy together: ridiculing the Republicans.

As a Democrat, I sometimes get asked what my party must do to get its act together.   Sometimes I just respond glibly: bring in new leadership.   But more to the point, what the Dems need to do is divide their attention.  Obviously, any party out of power must resist; that’s how a functioning democracy works.  Yet a minority party cannot survive by resistance alone.  It needs to define itself, and not merely by reference to the other party.   It needs to identify goals that don’t sound like empty rhetoric.  And it needs to advocate courageous and sometimes unpopular reforms in order to advance those goals – and I’m talking about specific proposals that can both excite “the base” and actually sound doable.  Equally critically, it must promote leaders who are charismatic, passionate, likeable, authentic ... in short, leaders who would seem almost out of place in today’s Democratic Party.   Finally, whenever its leaders are communicating with the public about their agenda, they need to be forthcoming and honest.  That means, “NO MORE EXCUSES.”   It’s time for the Democratic Party to accept responsibility for its failings as willingly as it evaded responsibility in the recent past.    

Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Tribute to a Soldier

I take you back to the early days of the GOP presidential primaries of 2000.   The combatants were preparing to face Vice President Al Gore, who was yet to be known for an “Inconvenient Truth” and a righteous crusade against climate change and was struggling to find his way out of Bill Clinton’s shadow.   I was watching the GOP primaries closely and found myself thinking that, for the first time in my life, I was prepared to vote Republican.

Vote Republican?  Me?  It didn’t seem possible.  As things turned out, it never happened.  The GOP nominated W, and I passionately supported Gore – even the robotic, ’00 version.  But I will never forget that early in the primaries, I had actually become enamored by a GOP candidate.  He was a crusty veteran whose politics leaned far to the right of mine.  And yet this man brimmed with so much integrity, courage, earnestness, and patriotism that I felt compelled to pull the lever in this favor if only his party was willing to give him a chance. 

Since 2000, my opinion of Al Gore has improved somewhat while my infatuation with John McCain has largely subsided.  But I still have a tremendous amount of respect for McCain.  I respect his courage in enlisting in the military.  I respect his refusal as a POW to accept an early release unless every American POW captured before him was similarly released; in fact, I am in awe of that act of sacrifice.   I respect the fact that despite years of torture at the hands of the Vietnamese, he maintained a strong will.  I respect that upon his release, he mastered the art of politics.   I respect that as a legislator, he became a supreme deal maker, honored by Democrats and Republicans alike. 
I respect that he has come to be known for a number of causes and that he is willing to support those causes regardless of whether they are popular with the leaders of his political party.   I respect that he has earned the moniker of a “Maverick” at a time when the vast majority of his fellow Senators and Congressmen come across as herd animals.  I respect that he is an American first and a Republican second.

Candidate McCain must live for the rest of his life with his bizarre decision to nominate Sarah Palin to be one heartbeat away from the Oval Office.  Senator McCain should also be held accountable for supporting that monstrosity of monstrosities commonly known as the Iraq War.  Truly, it boggles my mind that despite all of his firsthand knowledge of the horrors of combat, Senator McCain seems so willing to get us involved in military conflict.

I could go on cite other reasons why, if given a crystal ball in 2000 before I was given a ballot, I would have enthusiastically supported Gore over McCain.  But I will resist that temptation because there is another side of the equation that every American, and especially every Democrat, needs to understand.  It has to do with what it means to earn respect.  For his personal story, his sense of service and his integrity, this man should be a hero to all of us.  If only we on the Democratic side of the aisle had leaders with the character of a John McCain, just think how different our nation would be right now.

Last Friday night I was attending services at the Hill Havurah, the one-and-only Jewish congregation on Capitol Hill.  When it was time for the Mi Shebeirach, the Jewish prayer of healing, the rabbi (my daughter) asked the congregants to identify the names of individuals who are in need of healing.  And when the rabbi looked at me, I said, “Evelyn Spiro [my mother] and John McCain, who I don’t know.”  

I wish I did know him, but we’ve never met.  If I were given that opportunity, however, I think I'd greet him with a salute.  I would honor his service as a man who has soldiered on – in Vietnam, on Capitol Hill, and now, in waging a battle against one of the toughest opponents known to humankind, aggressive brain cancer.   It’s fitting that this is same opponent recently stared down another lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy – another passionate patriot who deserves the respect of all Americans regardless of whether they would vote with him 90 percent of the time or 10 percent of the time.   

I would like to leave you with a clip from a moment in McCain’s life that will always be a defining one.  While at a rally during his 2008 Presidential campaign, a woman said to the candidate that his opponent, Barack Obama, was “an Arab.”  Most candidates would have figured out a way to sidestep the comment.  But not Soldier McCain.  He addressed it head on.  Here’s the clip.

I would like to wish Senator John McCain the best and most successful fight of his life in his effort to recover from cancer.  

The Empathic Rationalist will return in mid-August.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Technologically, as all of my fellow new car buyers know, the American society has been evolving in leaps and bounds.   Intellectually and morally, however, we seem to be sprinting in place.  At best. 

We now are down to zero news outlets that are respected by substantially all of the public – zero reporters, zero anchors, zero newspapers, zero television networks.   Our society has become ideologically factionalized, and each faction has separated prominent media outlets into one of two categories – (a) the reputable, go-to sources and (b) the sources worthy of mockery and ridicule.  If a story is reported in the first set of outlets, it is presumptively believed; if reported in the second set of outlets, it is presumptively “fake news.”  Notably, while we are divided as to which outlet should be placed in which category, we are unified in this one respect: if we learn about a report and we can’t say that it comes from a source that shares our bias, we don’t trust it.  Indeed, a toxic mix of mistrust and cynicism has now become the pre-dominant American ethos. To me, that is worthy of a Greek tragedy.

I was thinking about the above state of affairs this past Monday night while watching the made-for-TV spectacle known as the Home Run Derby.  The Derby is played the night before the Major League Baseball All-Star Game and involves eight of the top home-run hitters in the game.  In each round of the competition, the brutes are given four minutes to bash as many balls over the fence as possible, and if they hit at least two homers over 440 feet, they get 30 extra seconds to smash the horsehide.   This year’s winner was Aaron Judge, a rookie from a small town in California’s San Joaquin Valley, who seems to be an all-around great player with a phenomenal ability to hit home runs (he already has 30).   Oh yeah, I almost forgot –this freak is 6’7” and 282 pounds and his body seems perfectly proportioned.   Plus, when he’s interviewed, he comes across as perfectly nice and humble.  In short, this guy is right out of central casting: as in, “Cast me a kid who talks and looks like Mickey Mantle, except that he is bigger and stronger – sort of a humbler version of Babe Ruth, but an even better athlete.   And make sure that like the Babe and the Mick, he plays for the most iconic franchise in all of sports.”  Commentators have compared Aaron Judge to a comic strip superhero, and after watching him hit literally 3.9 miles worth of home runs on Monday night (including four balls over 500 feet), I can now fully appreciate the hype.

But here’s the thing.  Superheroes are beloved by virtually everyone other than arch villains and their minions.   And I’m not sure our society as a whole is willing to embrace anybody these days.  As discussed, we won’t embrace a newsman.  We certainly won’t embrace a politician.   And I don’t even think we’re prepared to embrace an entertainer.   Such is the price of living in a culture where mistrust and cynicism reign supreme.

Maybe Aaron Judge takes steroids.  Or beats his girlfriend.   Or votes for the “wrong” party.   Or drives drunk.  Or maybe it’s just the old Stones lyric that “He can’t be a man because he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me.”   One way or another, we’ve become so cynical about people that we refuse innocently to embrace those in our midst with the greatest potential star power.   Instead, we hold back our affection, convinced that at some point these apparent “superheroes” will be revealed for what they truly are – deeply flawed, and perhaps even more profoundly screwed up than the rest of us.  After all, doesn’t every “star” eventually show up on the cover of the National Enquirer looking like a zombie and acting like a pig?

Part of the problem is traceable to three of the domains I mentioned above – our technology, our media, and our ideological divides.  Today, it seems, pretty much everything is captured on tape, and there’s always a media outlet to report it.  Public figures can’t expect privacy.  They’re always under a microscope.  And how many human beings, let alone “superstars,” can withstand microscopic scrutiny?   Plus, we now live in an ideological hot house, in which anyone with an opportunity to affect the public political discourse is expected to do so, lest we start to perceive them as vacuous or self-absorbed.   Then again, once they do announce themselves as people with actual social and political agendas, a large swath of the country will turn on them for being a troglodyte (i.e., a conservative) or a commie (i.e., a liberal).  

I wonder if Michael Jordan would be so universally beloved if he came on the scene today.  Or Kate Hepburn.   Or Ben Franklin.   Or even George Washington.   Cynicism and mistrust are irresistible objects, and I’m not sure we have any immovable forces to take them on. 

But you never know.  Maybe Aaron Judge can prove me wrong.  That smiling Goliath effortlessly bashed baseballs and the competition into oblivion, and yet when it was time for him to cash in (i.e., get interviewed by an adoring TV commentator), he refused the interview unless he was allowed to share the spotlight with his batting practice pitcher.  Aw shucks America, this farm boy is perfect.  He’s begging us to let him – to let ANYONE – into our collective hearts while we still have a chance.   We’ve already decided we can’t all agree on the need to protect our climate from destruction.   Can we at least agree on the value of celebrating a humble man-child from Linden, California?

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Empathic Rationalism and Its Discontents

We all want our philosophies to be “cool.”  Unfortunately, I’m afraid, some of us don’t measure up in that regard.  Take Empathic Rationalism.  It may be “sensible,” but cool it’s not.   To qualify for that label, you need a counter-cultural element, something rebellious.  And what can be less counter-cultural or rebellious than rationalism and empathy?  At least to the thinking person, they both sound as innocuous as peace, love and apple pie.

Fortunately, Empathic Rationalists don’t have to be prisoners of conformity or “conventional” wisdom.   Our charge is to honor the voice of reason and the face of the “other.”  But there is nothing in that charge about closing our minds to the teachings of rebels, accepting societal values slavishly, or deciding that seemingly inexorable trends are necessarily positive ones.  Just consider, for example, the classic status-quo worshiper: the guy who places his trust in the ability of free market economics to solve all environmental threats, or the principles that the arc of history bends toward justice and the fruits of science bend toward progress, or the idea that consumerist values are more benign than not, or the notion that the human survival instinct will always make even the most advanced weapons technology controllable and ultimately docile.  Do you find such a person “rational”?  Or are we simply talking about a modern day Pollyanna?    

Empathic Rationalism merely prescribes the faculties we must consult in reaching our ultimate goals.  As for what those goals are, that is left up to the individual mind and heart.  And as for the means that we use in accessing the voice of reason or in seeking out the face of the “other,” that also is left open to the individual.   This is why it is one thing to say “Empathic Rationalism” champions love, but only some of its followers champion “tough love.” This philosophy is deeply libertarian in the sense that it recognizes the importance of individual freedom and the danger of imposing too many iron-clad rules.   That is why, periodically, it is important for the Empathic Rationalist to wade into the waters of that most provocative disciple of freedom who ever put pen to paper.  I’m talking about the crazy syphilitic from Leipzig, who stopped writing only when his insanity overwhelmed his genius, but whose total madness at the end of 1888 eerily announced the birth of an even more insane German the next year.  The latter is the man who came universally to epitomize a word that the crazy syphilitic frequently discussed in laudatory terms.  That word is evil.  This “more insane” German is Adolf Hitler.  And the disciple of freedom/literary genius/crazy syphilitic is Friedrich Nietzsche.  

Nobody has ever described his philosophy in less “Empathic Rationalist” terms than did Nietzsche, and yet I will always recommend his works to any kindred spirit.  For he is our antithesis, and if we wish to attain our potential as Empathic Rationalists, we must not ignore him.  Rather, we must contemplate what he has to offer and seek a synthesis that incorporates the wisdom he teaches while recognizing that his philosophy could be as dangerous and wrong as it could be profound and right. 
Personally, I’ve loved Nietzsche ever since college, when I was directed to read him by a philosophy professor.  More than any other author known to me, Nietzsche was “cool.”  He dared call bullshit on “civilized society,” which every adolescent viscerally knows is largely full of it.  It was in reading Nietzsche that I felt most at peace because he was telling me in the strongest possible terms that it was OK, indeed commanded, to feel alienated from modern culture.  Marx, who I also read as a collegian, made vaguely similar arguments, but Nietzsche’s hit home so much better.  He would point out the hypocrisy in religion, the stench of consumerism and pseudo-intellectuality ... in short, the cankers in culture.  Nietzsche appealed to my sense that what is “highest” is actually lowest, and what is “lowest” is pointing the way to the highest – a path that has hardly been traveled but that is up to us, the “free-thinkers,” to create. 

Nietzsche was like a muse to me.  He made me want to create – with words, with thoughts, even with deeds.  It’s not surprising that when I became a ba’al teshuva (aka a born-again religious Jew) in the year after graduating from college, I was in Israel, listening to the lectures of Orthodox rabbis while also secretly reading Nietzsche books.  I couldn’t allow myself to make a decision as fateful as becoming religious without also consulting the works of my “Antichrist,” who once wrote a book with that name.  I knew that Nietzsche had stumbled upon the truth.  Not the whole truth by any stretch of the imagination, but a significant part of it – and especially the part that you’re least likely to hear from your grade school teachers, your parents, or your rabbis.

My relationship with Nietzsche deepened in of all places, Harvard Law School.  Surely, Nietzsche would have viewed that place as rotten to the core.  But well outside the institution’s core was a mischievous, tenured law professor named Richard Parker.  Known as a constitutional law scholar, Parker taught a class called “Ideology and Legitimization in Constitutional Law” and many of the most rebellious (Nietzschean) students were enrolled.  At the very beginning of the first day of class, Parker said, “Alright.  You have three choices for this class, and we’re going to take a vote.  Choice One is that we talk about ideology and legitimization in constitutional law.  Choice Two is that we talk about ideology and legitimization, but not necessarily confined to constitutional law.  And Choice Three is that we talk about whatever the fuck we want.  OK, raise your hand if you want Choice One ....”   Needless to say (a) the vote was unanimous; and (b) Parker is almost as cool as Nietzsche.   My entire grade in the class was based on my presentation, which if you can’t tell by now entirely dealt with Nietzsche and had nothing remotely to do with the law.  In preparation for the presentation, I read every book the crazy syphilitic wrote.  And yes, I got an “A” for the class.  :)

Years later, I decided to do another presentation about Nietzsche.  This time it was written for the Washington Spinoza Society at a time when we were meeting in the auditorium of the Washington Goethe Institute.  (That wonderful place gave us free access to their auditorium for a number of years based on the idea that if Goethe were alive today and living in Washington DC, the first thing he’d do is create a society devoted to his favorite philosopher, the man who Nietzsche called his own “twin” – Spinoza.)  I wrote a play entitled “Spinoza and Nietzsche: the Meeting,” which you can find on my website or just by googling that name.  What I remember most about the play had nothing to do with its content.  Our society met every month, and I decided to surprise everyone by growing as thick a mustache as I could between the previous session and the session where we put on the play.  My friend Jay Bratt played the role of Spinoza.  I played the role of Nietzsche.  And believe me, I was far more proud of the mustache than the play.    

Moving ahead to the present, I’m back to reading Nietzsche again – “Thus Spake Zarathustra” to be precise – in preparation for a vacation study group.  I have to say that the older I get, the crazier he gets.  But I still love his writing to death.  I had forgotten just how many times in that book he uses the word “good” to mean “bad” and how even the most “empathic rationalist” of values come across as decadent when Nietzsche has an opportunity to dissect them.

I felt especially compelled to write about Nietzsche in this Blog after reading the chapter of Zarathustra entitled “Of the Compassionate” (which sounds a lot like “Of the Empathic”).   That is the chapter with such gems as:

“Beggars ... should be entirely abolished!  Truly, it is annoying to give to them and annoying not to give to them.  And likewise sinners and bad consciences!  Believe me, my friends: stings of conscience teach one to sting.  But worst of all are petty thoughts.  Truly, better even to have done wickedly than to have thought pettily!”

“But if you have a suffering friend, be a resting-place for his suffering, but a resting-place like a hard bed, a camp-bed thus you will serve him best.  And should your friend do you a wrong, then say, ‘I forgive you what you did to me; but that you did it to yourself – how could I forgive that?”

“Thus spoke the Devil to me once: ‘Even God has his Hell: it is his love for man.’  And I lately heard him say these words: ‘God is dead; God has died of his pity for man.”

“’I offer myself to my love, and my neighbor as myself’ – this is the language of all creators.”

“Of the Compassionate” is less than 1/100th of Thus Spake Zarathustra, and yet it has produced all of those memorable tidbits. That’s hardly atypical of Nietzsche’s works, which are chocked full of some of the most provocative and insightful writing our species has ever produced. 

Do yourself a favor: sometime this summer, when you’re either getting bored or feeling playful, or just want to understand whether there is something naughty that is actually nice, pick up a Nietzsche book and read.  But don’t just read – think!   God forbid you will mindlessly wind your way through his delicious filth and thereby verify his statement (also in Zarathustra), “That everyone can learn to read will ruin in the long run not only writing but thinking too.”  I wonder what Nietzsche’s “twin,” Spinoza – the supreme democrat – would have thought about that statement.  Well, surely he would have agreed that you can easily enough read without doing much original thinking.  For me, though, the beauty of reading Nietzsche is that he helps me to think originally.  And honestly, is there a greater compliment that any of us can pay to a writer than that?

Sunday, July 02, 2017

What it means to be "Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestine."

Commonly, the American-Muslim community is criticized for not speaking out against terrorism.   I think that criticism is wrong.  American-Muslims repeatedly speak out against terrorism, including some of the extremist Islam-inspired groups that perpetrate it.  What American-Muslims do not do very often is speak out against either the lackluster effort of the Palestinians to make peace with Israel or the forms of Palestinian resistance that are antithetical to peace (such as the textbooks used in Palestinian schools).  Sadly, with precious few exceptions, I hear no criticism from my American-Muslim friends when it comes to anything done by either the Palestinian government or the Palestinian people aside from gunning down innocent Jews on the streets.  Even with respect to the latter, the criticism is muted and brief at best.

Being a peacemaker is difficult work.  It requires showing tough love to your friends.  It does not permit people to pick a side and then simply lash out at the “other,” turning a blind eye whenever your favored side is in the wrong.  Unfortunately, there seems to be in the American-Muslim consciousness today the idea that the Palestinians are the Davids and the Israelis the Goliaths, so that criticizing the former would be perceived as blaming the victim.  I have had Palestinian friends confide in me that they dare not publicly criticize the ways that the Palestinians respond to Israel, lest they be ostracized by their own community.  Somehow, however, I am supposed to tolerate this state of affairs on the grounds that the injustices heaped on the Palestinians are so grave that any form of Palestinian resistance – terror included -- should be viewed as “understandable” given the circumstances.    “Understandable” isn’t quite the same word as “acceptable,” but they are the closest of cousins. 

By contrast, American-Jews frequently criticize Israel, including not merely the Israeli government but the very existence of a Jewish State.  American Jews have formed groups, like the ironically named “Jewish Voices for Peace,” that explicitly support the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel but rarely have anything to harsh to say about Palestinians or other Arabs.   Even some self-proclaimed Zionist American groups like J-Street devote far more effort to criticizing the policies of Israel than the policies of Palestinians.   Indeed, it is common for American-Jews who publicly criticize Israel to refer to themselves as “Jews of Conscience,” which implicitly levels quite a charge against those American-Jews who are uncomfortable lashing out at Israel.   What, after all, is a Jew who lacks a conscience?   The prison guards of the Holocaust (kapos) immediately come to mind.

I have no interest in joining the chorus of leftist Jews who treat the Palestinians like children who are so punch drunk from Israeli injustice that they can’t possibly be expected to see two sides of this geopolitical issue.   In other words, I have no interest in joining the chorus of leftist Jews who apply a double standard to this conflict – one in which the Israelis are expected to behave like Prophets, and the Palestinians are expected to behave like immature trauma victims.   As the President of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington, I apply the same standard to Israelis and Palestinians alike.  They are all descended from Peoples of the Book, which means that they ought to recognize from their Book that a person is a flesh-and-blood, often hateful, often loving, frequently-irrational but largely redeemable creature.  The truth is that I believe deeply in the dream of a peaceful and secure Jewish State side by side a peaceful and secure Palestinian state.  But like I said, it takes tough love to get there, and just as it is important for American-Muslims publicly to criticize their Palestinians brothers and sisters, we American Jews must be willing to do the same when it comes to Israel. 

With that as prologue, let’s take a look at an item that dominated the mainstream American-Jewish press this past week.  In what is definitely a rarity, we’ve seen a barrage of criticism leveled by Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jews against Israel.  Over and over again, American-Jewish media outlets have lambasted Prime Minister Netanyahu for cow-towing to his Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) coalition partners and reneging on a deal several years in the making.  Undeniably, this deal promised to have tremendous religious significance for the more progressive branches of Judaism, which generally dominate American-Jewish life. 

Currently, if you go to the area above the Wall and look down at what is known as the Holiest Place on Earth in Judaism, you’ll see two large areas where people pray facing an ancient limestone wall.  This is for Jews what the Kaaba is for Muslims or St. Peters Square is for Roman Catholics.   The larger of these prayer areas is available to men only.  The smaller area, roughly one-third the size of its counterpart, is set aside only for women, assuming that they comply with certain restrictions (such as the prohibition against prayer shawls).  In most forms of American Judaism, religious life is fully egalitarian, meaning that it involves men and women praying together.  In Israel, however, movements like Conservatism, Reform and Reconstructionism are viewed as fringe, and religious life is dominated by the Orthodox.   If, for example, a convert to Judaism wants to get married in the state of Israel, they had better be able to prove that the rabbis who converted them were Orthodox; otherwise, they would not be accepted as a Jew for the privilege of obtaining an Israeli wedding.

Obviously, that perspective doesn’t sit well with the American-Jewish establishment.  That is why it was such a big deal when the Israeli powers-that-be had agreed that a portion of this most treasured of sites would be set aside for egalitarian prayer.  Bu this week, Netanyahu and Company went back on their word and decided that the Wall as we know it will remain a place where the prayer spaces are invariably segregated.  Oh sure, for a few years now, a small platform not far from the primary prayer areas have been set aside for egalitarian prayer, but few people go there, which is not surprising since you can’t even see it from the primary prayer complex.  Essentially, it resembles a servant’s quarters of an estate, which is close to, but very different from, the main residence.  In this case, the best real estate belongs to the Orthodox Men, the second best belongs to the Orthodox Women, and anyone who wishes to pray like most American-Jews pray (men and women together) get what’s behind door number three.

It’s no wonder that the American-Jewish establishment has cried foul.  No Jew wants to be treated like a second class citizen in a nation that calls itself a state for all Jews.

Do you know what’s funny, though?   Many of the same American-Jews who are so shocked and appalled this week about the intransigence and anti-pluralism of Israel’s right-wing government don’t seem to be nearly as vocal about those attributes when Israel is stomping on the claims of Palestinians.  It is bad enough for right-wing Israelis to assert dominance over a religious site like the Western Wall. But isn’t it far worse for these same Israelis to build Jewish settlements east of the Green Line – in the very portion of the region that peacemakers want to set aside for a Palestinian state?   How can we American Jews be outraged when we can’t pray together as men and women in front of our holy wall, but we’re no longer outraged when the Israeli government seems to have given up on the dream of a two-state solution?  Or do we expect such a solution to include a Palestinian state that looks like a tiny piece of Swiss cheese?   Is that Jewish justice?

There has been a lot of talk this past week criticizing Republicans in Congress who are invariably afraid to criticize the President about anything involving national policy (be it health care, climate change, or whatever), but are “shocked and appalled” when he dares to tweet disrespectfully about a female media celebrity.  Well, I have the same impression when it comes to the American-Jewish community and its willingness to criticize Israel.  If we American Jews are so free to bash Netanyahu and the Israeli Haredi when it comes to subjugating our right to pray as Jews, why do we tolerate the conduct of Netanyahu and Company when it comes to subjugating the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and autonomy?   Personally, I would much rather be a progressive American-Jew who is forced to pray only with other men than a Palestinian who for decade after decade is living as a stateless person. 

So, just as I can’t stand by and watch my Muslim cousins stay silent when it comes to the unwillingness of Palestinians to open their hearts to a Jewish State in the heart of the “Arab world,” nor can I watch my Jewish brothers and sisters settle the very land that must be given back to the Palestinians in order to make such a state possible.   Being “Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestine” actually means being willing to criticize both.   For me, as much as I would love to pray together with men and women in what is truly my favorite spot on earth (the area overlooking the Western Wall), I would much rather see Israel’s hard liners soften toward the Palestinians than soften toward American Jews.  Trust me, we’ll be fine.  Will Israel?

Saturday, June 24, 2017

On Death Taxes and Life Taxes

My friendly readers, this will be a quick post.  I have far too little time for much of anything this weekend except doing my duties -- to my “day” job, to my 501(c)(3), and to my mom. 

Sadly, my beloved mother is battling a serious setback in her health and I find myself unable to spend a day without seeing her.  She’s less than six weeks away from her 96th birthday and for the first time in her life, she’s becoming mentally docile.   That’s not my mother.   She’s a fighter.  But serious health setbacks at her age are a tough thing to fight.

My mom’s condition is forcing me to think about other people I’ve known with nonagenarian parents who don’t exactly live swimmingly until the day they die.  Year after year, they weaken -- sometimes dramatically, sometimes gradually, but ever so naturally.  It can be difficult to watch, but it is also compelling, for there is nothing like seeing a great old soul laugh or smile.  And if that great old soul happens to be your mother and you’re able to spend time helping her remember things or making her beam, you know that for that one moment in the universe, you are where you belong.

This is a time when the nation is thinking about health care policy, or at least it ought to be.  If you’re not spending at least a little time these days focusing on the topic, you need to question whether you belong in a democracy like America.    I won’t bore you with my ruminations on “The Bill” – either its substance or its process.   I will instead simply share with you my perspective on a single health care issue, a perspective born from the fact that I am the only child of a woman who has lived to the age of nearly 96 ... and counting ... and who has for the past few years required health care assistance from a facility.

Frequently, I hear people object to estate taxes as being a so-called “death tax” that inappropriately taxes the same income not once (during the years the income is generated) but twice (when the patriarch or matriarch dies).   According to those who decry the “death tax,” double-taxing an estate of $10 million, $100 million, $1,000 million or even $10,000 million is morally wrong and “unfair” to all families that generated such wealth.

Well, let me say that I am not so privileged to be worried personally about death taxes affecting estates that large.  However, nor am I so cursed to be worried personally about losing my entire inheritance to health care providers who are caring for my mother.  Fortunately, she retired with a government pension, which covers the cost of much of her care.  By contrast, most Americans with mothers who live as long as mine and require long term health care are not so fortunate.  After their health bills are paid, they inherit absolutely zero.  Not a penny.    And what does that do but penalize the patriarch or matriarch for taking care of their body and living too long.   Call it a “life tax” – one that is imposed on many, many more families than would ever pay an estate tax.

I believe that every American is entitled to health care.  And that every American matriarch or patriarch who lives to a ripe old age and has retained at least a modicum of net assets is entitled to the dignity of passing on some of that wealth to the next generation.   We shouldn’t impose a tax on a long life.  That would be far less humane than telling a billionaire that his children or grandchildren won’t have quite as many tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to play with.