Sunday, December 17, 2017

Reflections on One Crazy Year

As this will be the final Empathic Rationalist post for 2017, I figured that instead of writing a mini-essay, I’ll briefly reflect on a few of the year’s more noteworthy developments.  They are identified here in no particular order.

Alternative Facts – Move aside, Baghdad Bob.   Come on down, George Orwell.   Alternative facts are here!  Now, if we don’t like the facts of a situation, we can just change them.   We even have a euphemism for what we’re doing.   I would have preferred if we used the term “Bullshit.” 

Fake News – This is related to the notion of Alternative Facts.  If we don’t like the facts, we are now also justified, apparently, in ridiculing the ones who disclose them to us.   So we’ll refer to them by an insulting name: Fake News.   And we’ll use that term to refer to the most reputable news sources known to our society.  Once upon a time we had a leader who said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.  But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”  Suffice it to say that Thomas Jefferson, the author of those words, must be rolling in his grave right now.  He’s been replaced by a President who said “I love the poorly educated,” and could well have added, “and I hate newspapers.”   Mr. President, I’ve read Thomas Jefferson. I’ve written papers about Thomas Jefferson.   I’ve been inspired by Thomas Jefferson.  Mr. President, you’re no Thomas Jefferson.

Congressional Democrats as Maytag Repairmen:  From 1967 to 1988, Jesse White starred in one of the best political ads of my lifetime.  He played a repairman for the Maytag appliance company, whose appliances were touted as so durable that poor Jesse and his colleagues had nothing at all to do with their time.  “At ease men! Now, you men have all volunteered to be Maytag Repairmen and so I'm gonna give it to you straight. Maytag washers and dryers are built to last. That makes the Maytag Repairman the loneliest guy in town!"  Brilliant, right?   Well ol’ Jesse no longer walks this earth, but I haven’t forgotten him.  In fact, I’m reminded of him whenever I see a Senator or Representative from the Democratic Party.  As far as I can tell, they also have nothing to do.  Nothing.  Their Republican counterparts, rather than holding meaningful hearings or attempting to enlist bi-partisan support for pivotal legislation, simply try to ram through as quickly as possible one-sided bills with purely partisan support.  In doing so, the GOP is appealing strictly to their donor class and to the 49% of American voters who supported the GOP in the House, the 46% who supported the GOP for President, and the 42% who supported the GOP in the Senate.  As for everyone else, the message is basically “We own every branch of Government.  And you?  You own a bunch of do-nothing, pathetic Jesse Whites.  Have a nice day, losers.   Oh and by the way – enjoy your Blue State tax increases, suckers!” 

When You Go Old, We Go Older – Donald Trump is no spring chicken. At 70, he was the oldest person in U.S. history to be elected POTUS for the first time.  Could that be a political liability?  Not even close.  You see, the leaders of the Democratic Party are every bit as seasoned as Trump – and in many cases, even older.  At 67, Chuck Schumer is the baby of the bunch.  Elizabeth Warren is 68.  Hillary 70.  Durbin 73.  Biden 75. Bernie 76. Nancy 77.  Steny  78.   Is this the cavalry who’s going to lead the charge in 2018?  In 2020?  As a Baby Boomer myself, I’m perfectly willing to give a Gen Xer a shot at my Party’s nomination or at a leadership role in Congress.  Enough with the group that couldn’t out-maneuver Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan.  Let’s have some new blood.  Please. 

Me Too – I’m thrilled that guys who engage in behaviors that demean women are being called on it.  I hope their names keep getting identified and that the real pigs suffer the consequences.  Just like “Mean people suck” (as the bumper sticker says), so do misogynists.  In fact, I remember the late 90s when so many so-called “liberals” were falling all over themselves defending Bill Clinton and I was getting pilloried by my fellow Democrats for saying that he should resign.  But before I give Kirstie Gillibrand and Company a Standing O, I’d like to know this new movement’s ground rules.  What does “zero tolerance” mean?  Are there acts that might conceivably offend certain women that we as a society should actually tolerate?  Do we believe the accused are entitled to any due process whatsoever? (For example, was there a rush to judgment against Al Franken?)  And do men have a right to state their opinions on these issues, or should they just shut up for once and stop “mansplaining”?  I’ve always prided myself on being a feminist, and yet I’ve never prided myself on joining a lynch mob.  So I support this movement ... but cautiously. 

Sorry, but I Still Haven't Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb:  You can’t say “2017” without thinking about the cold war between POTUS and the guy he calls the “Little Rocket Man.”   I strongly believe that we will not get into a nuclear war with North Korea.  Then again, we all should acknowledge that the prospects of such a war have increased significantly in the last 12 months.   You see, not only are we now dependent on the fundamental sanity of our own government, we’re also relying on the sanity of Kim Jong Un.  If, indeed, our President is right that Kim is a “sick puppy,” then why are we tempting him to show off just how much of a Madman Across the Water he is?  Maybe all of this Kim-Trump stuff was dreamt up by Elton John’s publicist trying to sell records.  I guess that makes as much sense as any other theory – or as much sense as so many other things that have happened this year.

Sweet Home Alabama – Did you see Roy Moore going down to defeat in Dixie?  Prior to the election, I had thought such an outcome was possible, but unlikely.  Boy am I glad to have been wrong.  Alabama proved that when a really good candidate goes up against a really bad candidate, the good candidate tends to win.  Everywhere.  This is why we in Maryland sometimes elect Republican Governors.  It also partially explains why Donald Trump is President (Hillary just wasn’t a really good candidate, despite what her party’s apparatchiks would tell us).  The other lesson here is that you actually CAN lose money underestimating the intelligence of the American voter.  Stated differently, things are usually not as bad as the Chicken Littles claim they are.  It’s well and good to be cynical, but Empathic Rationalism requires that we be realistic, not pessimistic.  Realistically, most everything that makes our nation great will likely survive all the craziness that we’ve been dealing with these past several months.  Have a little faith.  Just think about Alabama.

So, in conclusion, here’s hoping for a saner 2018 – the kind the voters in Alabama opted for last Tuesday.  And here’s hoping that you, my loyal readers, enjoy great personal successes and happiness in the upcoming year.  Talk to you then.

The Empathic Rationalist.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Jerusalem is Israel's Capital

There, I said it.   I just don’t know why an American President had to say it. 

Trump’s declaration about Jerusalem is as obvious as the fact that the Palestinians will never be given a “right of return” to Israel.  We all know that if there is to be a two-state solution, Israel will require that (a) its capital be in West Jerusalem and (b) many Palestinians whose families come from pre-‘67 Israel can’t return there.  But we also know that Israel will have to make meaningful concessions to the Palestinians as well.  And right now, our President isn’t making proclamations reflecting any such concessions.   At least publicly, he isn’t putting pressure on Israel of any kind.  As a result, his comments this week come across as mere politics (appealing to his pro-Israel base), and we simply can’t afford to play politics when it comes to making peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

To put our President’s proclamation in perspective, let’s place the statement in context.  Let’s consider the words published in a New York Times op-ed, barely a week ago, in which former Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister, Ehud Barak describes the government he once ran:

In its more than three years in power, this government has been irrational, bordering on messianic.  It is now increasingly clear where it is headed: creeping annexation of the West Bank aimed at precluding any permanent separation from the Palestinians.
This “one-state solution” that the government is leading Israel toward is no solution at all. It will inevitably turn Israel into a state that is either not Jewish or not democratic (and possibly not either one), mired in permanent violence. This prospect is an existential danger for the entire Zionist project.
The government realizes that carrying out its one-state plan must entail steps and practices that necessarily clash with Israeli and international law — which is why it has effectively declared war on the Supreme Court of Israel, the free press and civil society, as well as the Israel Defense Forces’ ethical code.
These are serious allegations. While I can’t personally vouch for all of them, what I can say is that Bibi Netanyahu refuses to make any unilateral concessions and won’t even encourage the resumption of peace talks or hope for a two-state solution until the Palestinians make unilateral concessions of their own.   Just think about it – the party with the power (Israel) won’t talk peace until the party without the power (the Palestinians) offers tangible olive branches.   Try that the next time you have power and want concessions from someone who doesn’t.   Push them around a while, don’t give an inch, and then start making demands.  See how well that works.

Perhaps an even bigger problem is the attitude on the street.  Increasingly, Israelis are simply giving up on a two-state solution.  Because they don’t the trust the Palestinians, they view any concessions that Israel might make as mere security risks.   Essentially, they look at the status quo, where millions of Palestinians are effectively stateless and living under Israeli control, as the best of all possible worlds, the key being the word “possible.”  In other words, increasingly, Israelis are reconciling themselves to a permanent one-state solution and voting for politicians like Netanyahu to deliver it to them.

Believe me, I fully appreciate that as partners for peace go, the Palestinians aren’t exactly ideal.  I fully appreciate that to Palestinians, the idea of a two-state solution is something that is widely detested and at best grudgingly tolerated. Worse yet, many Palestinians would support such a “solution” as a mere interim measure – as in, we will concede now, take soon, and demand more later.  I call that the two-stage solution.  And I find it monstrous. 

Nor do I support measures like the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement which singles out Israel, among all the places in the universe, to punish economically.   To me, BDS rests on imposing a double standard and on punishing Jews whenever they act the way gentiles would.  That can’t possibly be a path to peace, let alone justice.

But nor does making unilateral concessions to the Netanyahu government – rewarding that government for acting like bullies who are hell-bent on seizing whatever is left of Palestinian land.  If we as Americans are going to continue to oppose BDS, which for all its problems is at least a non-violent form of resistance, we had better come up with a different strategy.  We had better speak plainly and loudly about how much we loath settlement expansion in the West Bank.  We had better speak out against demanding preconditions from the Palestinians before Israel should have to re-engage in peace talks.  And we had better refrain from making gratuitous concessions to Israel about hotly-disputed issues ... unless of course, we are making gratuitous concessions to the Palestinians of an equal magnitude. 

In short, if the American government wants to be player for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians we had better act like we’re pro-Palestine as well as pro-Israel.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be Israel’s ally.  What it means is that we have an even greater ally in the region than Israel: namely, peace.  It’s time we put her front and center in our concerns.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Ruminations about Our Brand Spanking New “Tax Cut” Prospects

I’m picturing a 60 year-old man from Great Falls, Virginia who hardly ever worked a day in his life.  Still, he’s lived very well – in the lap of luxury, to be frank – because his daddy made bank and has always been generous and kind when it comes to Junior.   Sadly, his father is gravely ill.  The doctors don’t think he’ll survive more than a few months.    Junior is distraught because he understandably loves his daddy.  Fortunately, Junior at least can take solace in the fact that when daddy passes away, he’ll be able to provide his only child with his entire estate, worth roughly $460 million, secure in the knowledge that Uncle Sam won’t be getting his itchy fingers on a nickel.  Otherwise, Junior could lose well over $100 million in taxes, which is maddening given that Senior already has had to pay taxes to amass that fortune to begin with.

There are some members of America’s ruling party who empathize with this family for reasons beyond the fact that the patriarch is dying.   They’ve identified a fundamental injustice in the current tax code – a so-called “double taxation” problem, which arises from the fact that our most successful people are taxed on the income they earn and taxed again on that same income when they pass away.  In their mind, whether Junior “earned” the additional $460 million he’s about to acquire is no more relevant than whether Junior “needs” all that money.  Senior earned it, paid taxes on it already, and has the God-given right to do with it what he pleases.  Full stop.

There are other members of America’s ruling party who aren’t so concerned about the justice issue here; they look at this topic from a utilitarian standpoint.  For these folks, the more wealth people like Senior or Junior amass, the better our economy will perform.  When such individuals receive a tax break, they’d go out and about and spend the money, thereby greasing the wheels of our economy.  That way, everyone benefits!  By contrast, if a tax break were to go to Senior’s former secretary, or his landscapist, or the Uber driver who takes Junior to the airport whenever he felt like piloting the family plane to Manhattan or Bermuda, they’d treat this new money as “savings” and give it to some conservative banker or broker.  He’d likely invest it in some uninspiring way that isn’t nearly as productive for the economy.  According to this argument, if only Robin Hood was born today and had a little honest-to-God practical knowledge about economics, he would take from the middle class and give to the rich.  And he’d do it precisely because in the long run, that would be in the best interests of the middle class and the poor.   

Do those arguments leave you cold?  Do you find them alienating?  Are you troubled by the fact that at the same time Junior is about to get a huge economic bonus, millions of other less affluent folks are about to see their taxes go up or their benefits go down?   Do you think that maybe, just maybe, a tax law that will dramatically redistribute wealth from the have-nots to the haves is at least worthy of a substantial national debate before it is passed so that the American public can digest and weigh in on what is being proposed? 

If so, you’re probably a Democrat like me.  Been one all my life.  I remember a time when the party had leaders with fire who would never have watched a massive tax bill like this one get passed without a fight.  I’m thinking of someone like Bobby Kennedy.   What would he have thought if he saw the way his party’s leaders have dealt with the GOP tax bills during the past several weeks?   Chris Matthews, who recently wrote a book about RFK, has been peddling the theory that the Democrats secretly support this legislation because (a) their donors will also be enriched by it and (b) they could use it to run against the GOP next fall.  I am not a conspiracy theorist, and I don’t agree with Matthews.  But I can’t deny that the Democrats’ response to this bizarre tax bill has been so muted and incoherent that when Matthews spews that sort of cynicism, it absolutely does pass the laugh test. 

So what kind of choice are we left with today, my friends?  A ruling party that seems hell bent on redistributing wealth to the point where even a Dickensian world would look egalitarian by comparison.   Or an opposition party that would rather just shake their heads at their nutty neighbors across the aisle and hope that this mess can be over soon.  Either way, I’m feeling pretty “unrepresented” this morning.    

Today, there are 242 Democrats (or Democratic-leaning Independents) in Congress.  Not a single one voted for one of the tax-reform bills that have been floating around Capitol Hill.   By contrast, over 90% of the GOP legislators voted for it.  And this is why I keep voting Democrat.

But I have to say, I also can’t think of a single Democratic legislator who has captivated the media or the public with arguments as to why this tax reform legislation is so shockingly bad.   In other words, I can’t think of a single Democratic legislator who has become the face of the opposition.   Somehow, this whole topic of tax reform is being largely ignored – by the media, the politicians, even the grass roots -- while the Republicans are all sprinting toward the finish line with big fat cigars in their mouths.  

Soon, we will all be getting dramatic economic-redistribution legislation for Christmas.  But none of us will have the benefit of state-of-the-art projections about the likely consequences of this gift. 

What we will know is simply overarching generalizations:

-- at a time when the nation could be rebuilding its infrastructure, it will instead be getting even deeper into debt;
-- residents of states that voted against the ruling party will fare disproportionately worse than Red State residents;
-- the very rich will get richer and the poor/middle class will be in jeopardy; and
-- the people we Dems have entrusted to protect us from such legislation appear to be acknowledging that they have no more power than the rest of us, so what’s the use of fighting about any of this?    

Somehow, I feel like the guy who was listening to Nero fiddle.  I’m not enjoying the tune.  Are you?

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Musings on a Thanksgiving Weekend

Whenever I turn to a news site, whether in paper form or on-line, I find above all else the spewing of bile.  More than any time in my memory, we American news junkies are witnessing what a Hobbesian state of nature looks like – a war of all against all.   I thought the whole purpose of living in civil society was to avoid that kind of climate. 

Now don’t get me wrong.  I appreciate why we’re fighting all the time.  There are good reasons why our political parties and our media outlets have become so polarized.  I’ve never been a “turn the other cheek” kind of guy.   Still, it’s sad to think that W.B. Yeats may be turning into a prophet once again.  He’s the guy who wrote after World War I, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”  When it comes to politics, I’m not even sure there is much of a center these days.  Our political sphere is starting to resemble a boxing match, where the two fighters are either punching each other or returning to their respective corners to get a breather before the next round of pugilism.  In such an arena, there is little room for civility, compromise, or compassion – let alone a political center. 

But let me not add to the fisticuffs, at least not this weekend.  This is a time to express thanks for what we do have, not to whine about what we don’t. 

Let me start with the most important thing: family.  I thank my lucky stars that I did not drink the Kool Aid of Marxism when exposed to it as a child, for then I might view the institution of family as a bourgeois tool to support the status quo.   Instead, I view the institution of family as my single greatest source of happiness.. 

I am so incredibly thankful for my omni-patient wife of 29 years, my mother of 96 years (that’s how long she’s been alive, and she keeps on ticking), my two ever-inspiring daughters, and my extended family in NY, DC and Indiana.  But let me candid – I’m especially thankful for the fact that this coming March, my wife and I expect to be grandparents for the first time.  Is there any status on earth more purely wonderful than that?   At least that’s what others tell me.  I’m looking forward to finding out for myself.

Second, I am thankful for my friends – the ones on the East Coast, the Midwest, the West Coast, and the tiny number overseas.  When you think about it, most of your family was always sort of stuck with you.  By contrast, your friends chose you.   Sometimes you have to question their taste, but thankfully, that’s their problem, not yours.  I am just happy to have found people in different walks of my life who will put up with my neuroses, my habit of talking when I should be listening, my twisted/sophomoric sense of humor ... in short, all my charms.

Third, I am thankful that after all the sturm und drang of the past year, there’s reason not to side with all the Chicken Littles of the world.  Personally, I am confident that we won’t be getting into a nuclear war, won’t be persecuting minority religious or ethnic groups, and will be continuing to respect our glorious First Amendment.  America might not be living up to its aspirations of being, in the words of Jesus, “the light of the world, a city that is set on a hill.” But nor do I believe all our best days are behind us.  I am thankful for the great men and women who created this country and built what in so many ways has been a role model to other nations.  May we soon enough be that “light unto the nations” that was discussed in my own people’s Scriptures.

Fourth, I am thankful we live in a time when certain critical trends are unmistakably positive.  Internationally, longevity is increasing, whereas poverty is decreasing.   Nationally, acceptance of the LGBT community is increasing, whereas the feeling that men can sexually harass with impunity is surely decreasing.   MLK Jr. said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Perhaps he was being a tad optimistic generally, but one thing is clear: in certain respects, the arc of history clearly bends toward justice, and we in the year 2017 are witnesses to clear manifestations of that principle.

Fifth, I am thankful for my two dialogue societies that keep on thriving after nine years (in the case of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington) and sixteen years (in the case of the Washington Spinoza Society). respectively.  Of the many things that keeping me from moving out of my home town, those organizations are near the very top.

Finally, I am thankful for having hobbies that allow me as an individual to enjoy life – including both politically-correct hobbies (like reading works of philosophy and religion) and politically incorrect ones (like watching inordinate amounts of football).  We are not mini-computers with perfectly empathic hearts.  We’re flesh and blood creatures with ids as well as superegos.  Personally, I happen to enjoy watching world class athletes run, jump, throw, catch, and smash into each other.  Yes, I recognize that my favorite sport damages athletes’ brains no less than their knees.  But what I can say?  I’m still thankful that I have found hobbies that give me happiness in life, and for the past roughly 52 years, watching football has been one of them.   Occasionally, for one reason or another, I feel compelled to boycott the sport.  Right now, I’m thankful this isn’t one of those occasions.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Don't Get Distracted

If you want to talk about Roy Moore, have a conversation with yourself in your morning shower.  Then be done with Roy for the day.

If you feel the need to get a laugh at the expense of funnyman Al Franken, tell yourself a joke.  One joke.  Then move on to another topic.

If you want to gasp at the thought that anyone would seriously consider allowing elephant hunters to bring their bounty back to the good ol’ US of A, be my guest, gasp about it.  Be shocked and appalled.  For five minutes. 

I am not here to belittle the importance of respecting women, stopping sexual assault, or treating animals ethically.  I’m a vegan who has been married for 29 years and has two daughters.  Those topics are all extremely important to me.   But right now, all these topics, and every other topic except for one, are distractions.

Let’s keep our collective eyes on the ball, shall we?

This past week, the “People’s House,” as they used to call the U.S. House of Representatives, voted out a tax bill that ought to be known as the “Mega Donor Giveaway Act of 2017.”    The Republicans in the Senate are proposing a similar but not identical bill that would merit the same title.  All the talk about fiscal conservatism that the bills’ proponents had been yapping about from’09-‘16 would be thrown out the window.  Apparently, the new policy is, “Deficit be damned!  Trickle down will have its day!”

But does trickle-down economics really work?  Or more specifically, what is its track record?   Let’s analyze that question carefully.  Let’s bring before Congress the neutral, respectable economists who study that field as a science rather than use it as an opportunity to promote an agenda.  Let’s engage our best journalists to summarize the reports that these respectable economists have written about the topic to date so that we the people can intelligently consider the issues for ourselves.  And please, let’s not just sit back and shut up as the Congress tries to ram through a comprehensive tax bill without an opportunity for public consideration. 

So far, the polls I’ve seen indicate that the American public opposes the Republican tax bills by a two-one margin.   Shouldn’t we be asking the question why?  Don’t the bills’ proponents need to appear before their constituents in town hall meetings and discuss with them why it is so important that we cut some people’s taxes dramatically while other, less affluent people can expect a tax hike?
And here’s the real question:  if these tax bills seem poised to fundamentally reshape the wealth patterns in America, why isn’t this issue captivating our attention?  Must we always devote the majority of our public policy focus to the sex and violence scandals du jour?

Perhaps the only way to get the media to stay focused on these Republican tax plans is to present them as scandalous.  But that shouldn’t have to be the case.  Sometimes, we as a society need to be smart enough to recognize when Congress is flirting with enacting a law that can change our nation for a generation or more.  Reagan’s trickle-down efforts reshaped America to the point where the nation I grew up in during the ’60s and ‘70s hasn’t returned.  Back then, we thought that our affluent people were doing just fine.  But little did we know that the Gipper was about to present them with a boost that would substantially redistribute wealth ... and in their favor.  Now, we are faced with the prospect of another law that could have equally dramatic effects in the same direction.  

Is that really what we want?  And do we want to let it happen without engaging in a serious national conversation about it?  

I realize that tax policy isn’t sexy.  But if we need sex to hold our interest, we’re no better than those predators we’ve all been obsessing about.  

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Taking Democracy Seriously

What does it mean to “believe in democracy”?  Clearly, it requires you to want the rulers of government to be chosen by a vote held among the citizens at large.   But the real controversial question is, does it require you to care that the percentage of citizens who ACTUALLY vote be as high as possible, or is it enough that a vote was held and no portion of the citizenry was precluded from voting?

In other words, to be an authentic democracy, must we go out of our way actively to encourage voting by all races, colors, creeds, and socio-economic classes?  Or is it our view that voting is a privilege, not a right, and citizens who don’t prioritize taking advantage of this privilege don’t deserve our encouragement to participate in elections? 

These questions tend to be on the back burner in America today.  Instead, our chattering class would rather talk about more “substantive” issues like immigration, tax, or health care policy, rather than such “procedural” topics as whether election days should be federal holidays to encourage voting.   Perhaps pundits may be unmoved by the need to enact election reforms because we’ve already come such a long way in achieving a level playing field at the voting booth.   No more is suffrage denied to particular races or genders.   No more do we have literacy tests or poll taxes.  Now, at least in theory, anyone who really wants to vote can do so.  So, shouldn’t we devote our attention exclusively to more pressing matters?

Hardly.   I would argue that election reform should be at or near the top of our national agenda.  Indeed, I would say that America’s claim to being a democracy turns precisely on whether we take seriously the questions raised at the beginning of this post.

Consider me in the group that believes that legitimate democracies exist for the betterment of all the citizens, not just some of them, and that the higher the percentage of voters, the more secure, just, and prosperous a society becomes.  We stopped allowing literacy taxes because the health of our society requires that our leaders serve all the people, and not only the best educated.  Otherwise, why not just confine suffrage to Phi Beta Kappans and National Merit Scholars?   We stopped allowing poll taxes because the health of our society requires that our leaders serve all the people, and not only the most affluent.  Otherwise, why not just confine suffrage to country club members and families who stand to benefit if the estate tax is eliminated?

Plenty of people I know would like to see Election Day become a national holiday (or, in the case of odd-year elections, a state holiday in the relevant states).   Nevertheless, in election after election, this reform fails to get enacted, and nobody even wastes much ink on the topic.  Why is that?   Would we not agree that this one concrete change of law would effect a material change in the percentage of voters?  Would we not agree that a society as affluent as ours could easily afford to allow an extra day off from work every couple of years?  Then what explains the failure to make this change? 

Months ago, I detailed the United States’ horrid voting stats compared to other economically advanced nations.  Our problems in this area were on display again this past week.  The Democrats of the state of Virginia are falling all over themselves raving about the tremendous increase in voting in that state over previous elections.  But the fact is that the majority of registered voters in all parts of the state continued to stay away from the gubernatorial race.  And in New Jersey, only 37% of registered voters showed up to vote for governor.  That’s 37% of REGISTERED voters, not eligible voters.  Stated simply, with everything that happened this past year to spark our national attention to the political process, we’re still a nation of non-voters.  Some democracy.

Sadly, I suspect that our unwillingness to show up and be counted is exactly what many American leaders are counting on.  I’m talking the “voting is a privilege, not a right” set.  If pushed to tell the truth, they may privately acknowledge that voting is difficult for wage earners who live from paycheck to paycheck and can hardly afford to miss several hours of work.  But they also would point out that working class people could, if sufficiently motivated, show up at their local precinct and any loss of income in the process would presumably be a modest one.  More to the point, these “don’t get out the vote” types presumably also realize that if the voter rolls were expanded, the new wage earners, especially if they live in the inner cities, would not be likely to vote the same way as the truly privileged set.  They may not, for example, vote for politicians who wish to see the benefits of income tax reform go primarily to the people who pay the most taxes and earn the most income, which is obviously the direction that tax reform is taking.  So why, the argument concludes, are we obliged to make it any easier for the working class to vote?  Isn’t it their responsibility to show up and unseat the politicians that currently represent affluent Americans in Washington and in state houses throughout the land?

This past week, Dan Rather and Elliott Kirschner came out with a book entitled “What Unites Us.”  It’s kind of an intriguing title, don’t you think?  The authors set out to discuss what they call the “great experiment in democracy” and the values that over the years have helped this experiment succeed.  But I have to ask, in light of the fact that more Americans miss the opportunity to vote than seek it, and that we won’t even encourage our working class to take Election Day off from work, can we identify the belief in democracy as one of our unifying values any more?  Can we really say that we stack up in this regard to countries in Europe or Australia where voting percentages dwarf our own?

For decades, Dan Rather’s voice has been far more uplifting than mine.  That’s one reason I like him; he offers plenty of hope without sounding clueless.   But this is the Empathic Rationalist blog where there are even more important values than being hopeful, such as being brutally honest.  For me, it is not enough to say that America stands for democracy.  We must first answer the questions raised at the beginning of this post. 

Do we or don’t we believe that a democracy is a place where most eligible voters vote, and if they don’t, where the powers-that-be find ways to encourage them to do so?   For me, there is no other type of full-throated democracy.  The alternative, the half-hearted model, is dragging down our democracy, our republic, and our potential.    

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Evil Thoughts on a Sunday Morning

"For many are accustomed to arguing in this way: ‘If all things have followed from the necessity of God’s most perfect nature, why are there so many imperfections in nature?  Why are things corrupt to the point where they stink?  So ugly that they produce nausea?  Why is there confusion, evil, and sin?’  As I have just said, those who argue in this way are easily answered.  For the perfection of things is to be judged solely from their nature and power; things are not more or less perfect because they please or offend men’s senses, or because they are of use to, or are incompatible with, human nature.  But to those who ask ‘Why God did not create all men so that they would be governed by the command of reason?’ I answer only ‘Because he did not lack material to create all things, from the highest degree of perfection to the lowest:’ or, to speak more properly, ‘Because the laws of his nature have been so ample that they sufficed for producing all things which can be conceived by an infinite intellect.’”

Such was the statement by my favorite philosopher (Spinoza) regarding perhaps my favorite philosophical question.  It can be framed as, “How can we reconcile the existence of God with the existence of evil?”

Evil has been on the mind of most of us lately.  Just think back to this past Tuesday, when a man shouting “Allahu Akbar” drove a truck into a well-traveled cycleway in lower Manhattan.  Or think back a month to when a gambler in a Las Vegas hotel shot hundreds of people who were attending a country music concert.  Every time one of these mass killings occurs, we become a nation of criminal investigators.  Why, we ask, did this happen?  Have we found co-conspirators?  Plans of additional attacks?   Clues as to how the killer was radicalized?  A history of mental illness?  

In short, we become obsessed.  And we bring this same singular focus to stories about plane crashes or such natural disasters as hurricanes.  Whenever, in fact, large numbers of people lose their lives, limbs or even property in a manner that flies in the face of our sense of fairness, we are shocked to the core.  We experience similar emotions when hearing about individuals who are struck down prematurely by cancer, crib death, or some other seemingly unjust cause.   Our hearts, you see, are wired to expect happiness to accompany virtue and tragedy to accompany vice.   Otherwise, what’s the point of behaving ourselves?   What’s the point of “living right”? 

It should be obvious by now that the word “evil” when used in the context of the initial theological question I raised in this blog post is not confined to so-called “moral” evil, such as the type exhibited in Manhattan or Vegas.  Philosophers also use the term “natural” evil in reference to hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and other “acts of God” that can’t simply be blamed on human misconduct.   Arguably, these latter acts are even more of a challenge to theology than is human-induced suffering. 

It was the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 that allowed Voltaire to lampoon the Abrahamic apologists to such a devastating degree that the Lord’s reputation on earth has never fully recovered.   How could any omnipotent, omnibenevolent force seize the lives of tens of thousands of seemingly innocent people, often in the most excruciatingly painful manner imaginable?   Many have attempted to satisfactorily answer that question, but in my opinion, nobody has yet succeeded, not even Spinoza.  What’s more, to reflect on the events of two centuries after Lisbon -- where Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot butchered tens of millions – is to realize that our planet faces one disaster of Biblical proportion after another, after another, after another.  And these disasters are not interrupted by manna flowing down from the heavens, or by prophets walking through seas that have been parted. Indeed, for me, whether I’m reflecting on Lisbon or Auschwitz, I get the sense that the ultimate power broker is one and the same.  And if I can’t blame Hitler for Lisbon, how then can we blame anyone but God for Auschwitz?  By the same token, if can blame God for Auschwitz, then what room is there in my world for the Devil?

These are the kinds of questions that make me want to get up in the morning.  These are kinds of questions that make me feel lucky to have been born to human parents.  The beauty of the human condition is that we can ask them.   Other species can’t. 

Some might tell you that grappling with such questions is a waste of time.  We should concern ourselves only with “practical” matters – questions that can be answered, and answered “profitably.”  Oh, how “rich” is that word, “profitably”? 

Well, for my money, the most practical questions imaginable are precisely the ultimate questions of philosophy, none of which can be conclusively answered by any of us or contribute much to anyone’s bank book.  The questions are as easily asked as they are impossible to resolve.  There is nothing practical in merely framing the questions and then, just as quickly, moving on to something else.  But when we seriously grapple with them – when we struggle with what our common sense tells us, or with what happens when we follow the logic of each of the leading schools of thought, or with how our previously held notions stand up in light of rigorous questioning – that’s when the magic happens.  That’s when we find ourselves changing our lives on the basis of our philosophies.

Do you want a really practical suggestion?  The next time you hear about a mass murder or a natural tragedy, don’t spend the next week reading press reports on the who, what, when, where and why of this latest act of “evil.”  Instead, pick up a copy of Susan Neiman’s award-winning classic, “Evil in Modern Thought.”  It won’t shed any light on whether some lunatic acted alone.  But it will help you figure out what to make of this concept known impersonally as “divinity” or personally as “God.”      

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Why All This Complacency, Democrats?

My mother was born in 1921.  Since then, seven men have been elected President of the United States as Democrats.   Their median age at the time of their first election was 50.  In my lifetime, which began in 1960, there have been five Democratic Presidents.  Their median age at the time of their first election was 47.   Just look at the ages of the following political icons at the time of their first Presidential victory:  JFK – 43, Bill Clinton – 46, Barack Obama -- 47, FDR – 50.  Apparently, when it comes to electing Democrats, America likes ‘em young.  

Now, take a look at the Democratic leadership today.   In the House of Representatives, you have Nancy Pelosi (who will be 80 by the time of the 2020 election) and Steny Hoyer (who will be 81).  In the Senate, Chuck Schumer (who will be 70) and Dick Durbin (who will be 75).   In terms of the de facto leaders of the Party, you have Bernie Sanders (who will be 79), Joe Biden (who will be 77, Hillary Clinton (who will be 73), and Elizabeth Warren (who will be a mere 71).    Recently, Dianne Feinstein decided that she should seek re-election for her job as Senior Senator from the nation’s largest state.  She will be 87 by the time of the 2020 election.  That would make her old even in comparison to the other prominent Democratic politicians.  It would appear that if you want to lead this party, you should be in your 70s, not your 80s.

Sobering stuff if, like me, you are a Democrat.  But I gather from the pundits on TV that many of the other members of my Party aren’t nearly so sobered.  They’re getting drunk with joy from all the reported Republican in-fighting that’s been going on lately, especially the statements against the current President by Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker.   My fellow Democrats ignore the fact that Messrs. Flake and Corker consistently vote with the Administration on all major issues of the day, including those awful health care bills, and that when they do leave the Senate they will quite likely be replaced in their Republican-leaning states by other Republicans.  My fellow Democrats similarly ignore the fact that their Party controls only 15 Governor’s mansions, even fewer state houses, and are dominated in all branches of the federal government.  And yet, despite those stubborn facts, my fellow Democrats not only expect to excel in the mid-terms of 2018 but also count on regaining the White House in 2020, just as they counted on keeping it in 2016.

Why all this optimism?  Or perhaps the better question is, why all this complacency?

From where I’m sitting, this is a rudderless, leaderless Party which is currently kept together entirely by the ability to oppose the current Administration.   Yes, the “just say no” approach to serving in the minority worked for the GOP when Obama was President and its use by the Dems may indeed preclude many a Republican initiative advanced by Trump and Pence.   But it is not, by itself, an election strategy, as evidenced by the fact that the mainstream Republican candidates who ran in 2016 got trounced by a political outsider who did stand FOR something (call it the “America First” strategy) and enunciated his views in extremely plain-spoken terms.

Do the Democrats have a leader who is going to stand FOR something and who will make that case in extremely plain-spoken terms?   And if so, will he or she seem youthful, vibrant and relateable enough to appeal to those swing districts that elected a Bill Clinton or a Barack Obama?

Until those questions can be answered in the affirmative, the Democrats might want to think twice before donning their party hats every time the GOP stubs its toe.  From where I’m sitting, the Republicans aren’t the only ones who have problems these days.  They’re just the only ones who have power.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Embracing Regulations ... Up to a Point

My first job after law school was at the Federal Communications Commission in the Common Carrier Bureau.  I worked on rulemaking proceedings designed to deregulate the telecommunications industry.  At that time, many of my fellow progressives were concerned that such deregulation would hurt the poor.   For years, they had argued that monopolization in that industry was needed to ensure the universal availability of cheap phone service.  According to this argument, deregulation would unleash the uncaring forces of a competitive market.  This could benefit affluent consumers, but the poor would be out of luck, as businesses could hardly expect to profit from subsidizing their phone services.   

Being that I was a young man who lacked either a crystal ball or a sophisticated understanding of telecommunications, I simply did my job and watched to see what happened.  Soon enough, the picture became clear; I witnessed a deregulation-driven revolution in telecommunications that has clearly benefited everyone, rich and poor alike.  

That didn’t stop me from being a progressive.  But it did stop me from being an ideologue.
For example, I developed a fear of monopolization and a love for accountability, market-driven or otherwise.  Years after I left the FCC, got married and began raising two daughters, my family took a trip to California.  We were staying for a few days with a friend in San Francisco and I needed to get a parking sticker for my car.  We easily spent two hours waiting in line at a government office to get that stupid little sticker, and I used half of that time to lecture my daughters about the inherent inefficiencies of government as a provider of goods and services.    Just think about the last time you visited the Department of Motor Vehicles in your town.  Those needlessly long lines didn’t just happen overnight; they emerged from decades of complacency and perverse incentives.     

In short, I didn’t want my children to grow up as “progressives” and not appreciate the limitations of government.  I didn’t want them worshiping at the altar of regulation.  But I also didn’t want them worshiping Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” either.  There are times when the free market simply malfunctions.  Upstream companies pollute and downstream neighbors pay the price.  Executives commit larceny by trick and then hire a bevy of lawyers to cover up the problem.  Consumers fall in love with dangerous products and suppliers inevitably arise to satisfy that demand – while innocent third parties are left to pick up the pieces.   We see these patterns as well.   That is, if we’re willing to look with unbiased eyes.

In the last couple of days, I’ve seen a number of articles that serve as clear reminders of why we need strong government regulations despite the inherent potential for overreach.  Yesterday’s Washington Post contained back-to-back articles reporting the results of pro-regulation studies that shouldn’t surprise anyone.  One article was entitled “Study ties loose conceal-carry laws to higher gun death rates.”  In other words, if you allow every Tom, Dick and Harry to secretly pack heat, folks are going to get pissed off from time and time and shoot somebody.   Makes sense, don’t you think?   Another article was entitled “Study links fewer recurrent concussions in young athletes to new state laws.”   In other words, if you require high school football players to stop playing when they’ve “just had their bell rung,” maybe – just maybe – they won’t have their bell rung so often in the future (and they might not ring your bell as often after they retire from football).     

To me, regulating the use of concealed-carry weapons or the ability of football players to continue playing with concussions is so obviously needed that it seems almost silly to have to argue the point.  And yet there are plenty of folks who oppose these types of laws because the government would be responsible for making the laws and enforcing them. 

Wednesday’s New York Times had an article about Moran, Texas, a small town that survives largely because of a plant that manufactures bump stocks, the gizmos that are widely viewed as being responsible for many deaths in the recent Las Vegas massacre.  You might not be surprised that in Moran, bump stocks, which serve to convert semi-automatic into automatic weapons, remain insanely popular.  According to one resident, “Guns don’t kill people. [Bump] ... stocks don’t kill people.  It could have been just as lethal, if not more so, with a good scope.”   

Blah, blah, blah.  Spare me the rationalizations.  To me, the problem is inherent in a capitalist economy.  You show me a person with an itch to buy something crazy and a wallet big enough to pay for it, and I’ll show you a second person with a willingness to scratch that itch and a hundred explanations of why they’ve done nothing wrong.    Sometimes, regulation is all that stands in the way of matching up those two people and ruining innocent lives in the process. 

We live during a time when America is divided into multiple sub-cultures.  In one, government is so despised that even sensible regulations are viewed with suspicion.  In another, the one with which I associate myself, government isn’t seen as a “necessary evil” at all – just a limited good.  Folks like me recognize that it’s not government’s job to dominate an economy, for nine times out of ten, the marketplace truly knows best.  But we also realize that if we let the marketplace decide ten times out of ten, the results can get very ugly, very dangerous, and very tragic.  

When it’s time to go to the ballot box next year, please listen closely to the way candidates talk about the value of government.  Are they respectful?  Or do they like to treat government regulation and government workers like piƱatas?   Just as the Czars of Russia used to blame everything on the Jews, some politicians like to blame all of society’s woes on the public sector.  As a 32-year veteran of public service and a 57-year old Jew, you’ll forgive me if I’m sensitive about either type of demagoguery.           

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Beyond the Casting Couch

Last week, the Empathic Rationalist was compelled to point out Hollywood’s hypocrisy when it swims in violence while preaching about love.  But truly, you can’t even begin to talk about hypocrisy in Tinseltown without touching on the one other vice that “sells” even better than gore.  And I’m not talking about drugs or rock ‘n roll.

Our topic today reminds me of the old saw about the celebrated ethics professor who is caught cheating on his wife.  “Being an ethics expert means that I have to know a lot about ethics,” he responds.  “It doesn’t mean I have to be an ethical man.” 

To be sure, Hollywood knows a lot about romance.  It gives us star-crossed romances, fairy-tale romances, and romances where the hot guy falls in love with the single mom’s kid and only later falls in love with the single mom.   It gives us single-gender romances, inter-generational romances, and inter-racial romances.   It gives us visions of life-long romances -- like the old couple holding hands on the Titanic knowing that they’re about to die, but at least they’re about to die together.    You name it, if there’s a way to show two people falling in love, being in love, or tragically falling out of love, Hollywood has done it.  And the rest of us lap it up like Pavlov’s dogs. 

Then we read about the “stars” and their personal lives.   Love gurus they’re not.   If you’ve been in that town for decades and you’re only on marriage number two, that alone should qualify you for a star on Hollywood Boulevard.   But rushing in and out of love affairs is the least of Hollywood’s problems.   The far more profound issue is that many of these people seem incapable of loving in the first place.  And this stems from an attitude where they treat members of the opposite sex more as bodies than as minds.  When you combine that pervasive malady with a hierarchical power structure, you create a sub-culture that is as ugly as ugly gets.   There’s the real irony:  the environment known for producing the most “beautiful” of people may actually be producing the ugliest.  

This week, the award for Manifest Ugliness in Tinseltown doesn’t go to a narcissistic star but rather a studio executive.   While his face might not have been as recognizable as the leading men and women he promoted, Harvey Weinstein had a name known to anyone who has paid even a scintilla of attention to films.   Literally every movie goer would have been familiar with his work.  Weinstein produced, among other flicks, Gangs of New York, Pulp Fiction, and Shakespeare in Love (for which he won an Oscar).   Literally dozens of Academy Award winners have thanked him personally during their acceptance speeches.  He is, by most accounts, one of the most successful movie producers who ever lived. 

Two weeks ago, Harvey Weinstein seemed to be on top of the world.  Today, he has become a punching bag.  “I have a brother that’s indefensible and crazy,” said Weinstein’s brother Bob, who served with Harvey as a co-founder of Weinstein, Inc.  “I want him to get the justice that he deserves.”  Bob Weinstein went on to claim that brother Harvey was a “bully,” “arrogant” and “treated people like s—t all the time.”

In the past fortnight, one woman after another has made accusations against Weinstein, some of which involve horrible criminal acts.  The Empathic Rationalist is a law-free zone, and I will not comment about the specific allegations or their merit.  What I will point out is how striking it is that for years, Weinstein’s reputation was apparently well known in Hollywood but only in Hollywood.  Despite the fact that he associated with legions of liberal politicians and movie stars, many of whom are surely feminists, nobody saw fit to blow the whistle. 

What should we make of all this?

First, let’s not allow Hollywood to minimize the problem by pretending it’s not pervasive.  To suggest that Hollywood’s “casting couch” problem is merely a Weinstein problem is like saying that the performance enhancing drug problem in sports is merely a “(Mark) McGuire” problem.  From everything I’ve heard, PEDs in sports are exceedingly common, and it is precisely because that scourge is so common that sports leagues would rather address it on the margins than attempt to eliminate it root and branch.  Similarly, the problem of expecting women actresses to “perform” if they hope to get parts in films is hardly one that begins and ends with Weinstein. 

We’ve already seen the entertainment industry whiff when Bill Cosby’s antics were exposed.  He became the story, not the sexual abuse of young women.  We now have an opportunity to face the same challenge.  Do we want to make this story about Weinstein?  Or about Hollywood?  You know my vote.

Second, once we’ve recognized that this is not merely a Weinstein problem but a Hollywood problem, our work is hardly finished.  The next task is to identify what the problem is.  Is it confined to situations where men take advantage of hierarchical power structures to take advantage of women sexually?  Or should we be talking about drawing a broader line and addressing issues of sexual objectification?   In other words, do men cross the line (a) only if they misuse a hierarchical power relationship to advance sexual goals, (b) whenever they make clearly unwanted sexual advances to a woman regardless of whether they have some sort of societal position of power over the woman, (c) whenever they address a woman primarily as a sexual object rather than as a human being with dignity and intelligence, or (d) whenever they find themselves even thinking sexually about a woman with whom they are not involved romantically?

I’d rather not attempt to answer this question for any of my readers.  I simply wanted to raise it.  Personally, I don’t find myself at the most Victorian side of the continuum, but nor do I tolerate the opposite end either.  Clearly, this is a question that each of us must confront for ourselves as individuals, and if we as a society are smart, we’ll use the Weinstein moment as an opportunity to ask this question publicly and start a dialogue. 

Finally, can we please recognize that honest-to-God whistleblowers are among our society’s greatest heroes?  They know that as soon as they blow that whistle, they’ll become targeted by an entire apparatus of defense lawyers and publicists.  If they have ever done anything the least bit wrong – and who hasn’t? – their past foibles will be exposed, and the media will shy away from giving them the respect they deserve.  After all, our media likes to present stories in simple good-versus-evil terms in which our heroes can be depicted as perfect angels; by contrast, whistleblowers tend to be regular people, with warts and all.    

Our society has created all sorts of ways for powerful folks to get away with misconduct.  When they finally get caught, it’s typically because some principled soul steps up and, like a dog with a bone, just won’t let go.  Can we please show respect to those people?  And can we please not allow the whistleblower’s imperfections to get in the way of our respect?   Courageous, principled people are few and far between; we shouldn’t demand that they also attain saintly status before we give them a tip of the hat.

In conclusion, I realize that this is an inherently complex topic, one that is worthy of book-length, not blog-post, treatment.  But I am writing about this topic in my blog because it is imperative that we all consider the relevant issues before this opportunity passes.   As a husband and a father of two daughters, I cannot sit back and watch women treated as they have been in Hollywood and in so much of our society and simply pretend that this is the human condition.  This is the 21st century.  We can do better.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

America and Its Guns -- A Bi-Partisan Love Affair

According to a study by the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the rate of gun-related deaths in the United States is roughly twice as high as the Palestinian Territories’, four times India’s or Pakistan’s, five times Iran’s, eight times Canada’s, 27 times Denmark’s, 32 times Germany’s, 64 times China’s, 100 times Japan’s, and well over 100 times the rate in Singapore.  So what is our response to this scourge?   To regulate bump stocks.  Maybe.

It’s a bit like the German government reacting to the Holocaust by doing nothing more than regulating the use of Zyklon B gas?  Talk about confronting a symptom, not the disease.

In our case, the disease is clear: we love guns.  By “we,” I mean the people who run Blue as well as Red America.  And let’s face it, our leaders aren’t the only ones who’ve been smitten.  On these shores, you’ll find at least twice as many guns per capita as anywhere else.  In fact, if we buried 75% of our firearms, we’d still rank among the top 10% in the world in gun ownership. 

As of 2013, America had roughly 40 million more guns than people.  And the thought of banning handguns is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.  Whereas 60% of Americans supported such a ban in the year I was born, that percentage has now dropped to less than 25 

Lest you think this is a partisan issue, think again.  In 2008, candidate Hillary Clinton touted the American gun culture.  "You know,” she said, “my dad took me out behind the cottage that my grandfather built on a little lake called Lake Winola outside of Scranton and taught me how to shoot when I was a little girl. ...[S]ome people now continue to teach their children and their grandchildren. It's part of culture. It's part of a way of life. People enjoy hunting and shooting because it's an important part of who they are. Not because they are bitter."

Hillary is not alone among politicians in her party.  Bernie Sanders has also referred to himself as “pro gun and pro hunting.”   But to appreciate the Democrats’ love for guns, don’t simply focus on the statements of their politicians.  Focus on what their politicians are NOT saying.  Namely, focus on their conspiracy of silence in reaction to the work of some of their most reliable and powerful sets of supporters: the moguls and “stars” of Hollywood.

I’m reluctant to join in the chorus of criticism against Hollywood because it’s often a thinly veiled way of expressing anti-Semitism.  But on the issue of guns, Tinsel Town must be taken to task.  Its infatuation with guns has reached epidemic proportions. 

As any movie lover can tell you, the role of guns in movies is becoming increasingly central, and I’m not just referring to R rated movies.  Even PG13 movies are awash in gun-induced blood.  One study found that of the top-grossing movies over the past quarter century, nine out of ten contained a main character who is violent.  So not only does America love guns, we export this love to movie-watching audiences all over the world.

Believe me, I’m not simply looking back longingly for the “old days” of film.  Notably, while our on-screen heroes are becoming more and more weaponized, they are drinking less alcohol and smoking way fewer cigarettes.  Apparently, substance abuse isn’t as cool now as it used to be, thank God.  But weapons?  Those are way cool.

I’m often reminded of that line from the James Bond movie, “The Living Daylights,” in which James Bond was armed with a handgun, but Brad Whittaker carried a machine gun and delightfully so.  “You’ve had your eight,” he chuckled, “now I’ll have my 80.”  What followed was a fusillade of bullets, something that was once confined to war movies but has now become commonplace in all sorts of film genres, and especially the high budget films.

“I know what you're thinking. ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you've gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”  That was the climax of one of the most iconic scenes in the history of American cinema.  It comes from the 1971 classic, Dirty Harry, which at the time was associated with a big powerful man carrying a big powerful gun.  Today, however, that gun would be thought of as a joke.  After all, what kind of amateur would bring a six shooter now to a gun fight?  Certainly not Stephen Paddock, Omar Saddiqui Mateen, Seung-Hui Cho, or Adam Lanza.  Those men are all modern, sophisticated gun users.  They recognize that American consumers have the right to possess weapons that fire large numbers of bullets in an extremely short period of time.   They also recognize that we Americans possess these rights because, apparently, such weapons help to put us in a better position when we are hunting animals or protecting ourselves against human intruders. 

Well, please allow me to respond to Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and other Democratic politicians who are willing to praise guns in return for votes. And please allow me to respond to the Republican politicians who won’t buck the NRA no matter how many Americans are gunned down on the streets of this country, or to the Hollywood moguls who make movies involving assault weapons that kill lots of people, or to the “liberal” actors who appear in those movies.  For all of you, I offer the following response:

I hate guns.  I don’t think they are cool.  I think they are ugly.

I hate hunting.  I hate the idea that human beings shed innocent animal blood.  And yes, I hate the idea that people feel entitled to kill animals in order to eat them.    

I hate the idea that a human being would call killing a defenseless animal a “sport.” 

Yes, I understand that sometimes herds have to be thinned.  So thin them – but say the Mourners Kaddish when you do.

And yes, I understand that sometimes people need to be shot in self-defense.  But nobody in this country, except for soldiers and police officers, needs assault weapons in order to defend themselves.

As for what happened in Las Vegas last weekend, it is unspeakable.  But it is also characteristically American. 

There is an old saw that says “When you go to bed with dogs, you wake up with fleas.”  But when you go to bed with guns, you sometimes don’t wake up at all.