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 piñatas?   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.

 


Sunday, October 01, 2017

A Few Personal Reflections on the News Stories du Jour


As someone who loves the United States of America and its flag, I am proud to live in a country where private citizens are allowed to choose not to stand for the national anthem.  

As someone who loves the United States of America and its flag, I take an expansive view of the ways in which private citizens should be allowed to peacefully protest.  It clearly includes kneeling down in silence.

As someone who loves the United States of America and its flag, I am reminded that here, unlike in certain Western European nations, we haven’t been tempted to ban religious face-coverings precisely because we care so much about freedom of expression.   

As someone who loves the United States of America and its flag, I hate to see all the vituperation that is being heaped against private citizens who are simply trying to stand up respectfully against a true scourge (institutional racism) and who have decided that the easiest way for their voices to be heard is by quietly kneeling during the playing of the national anthem.   I also hate to see how divided this country has become about fundamental values.  But unfortunately, that’s the situation we’re in today.

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As someone who loves the game of football but also cares about the health of those who play the game on a professional level, I can think of various reasons to boycott the game.  They include, for example: allowing individuals to continue to play the game despite a proven history of concussions, taking a relatively lax attitude toward the use of performance enhancing drugs, and generally downplaying the health risks of playing this sport as a youth, an adolescent, or as a professional.  

As someone who loves the game of football but also cares about the health of those who play the game, the last (meaning worst) reason I can think of to boycott the game on a professional level is that a fraction of its players choose to take a knee during the national anthem as a protest against institutional racism.

As someone who loves the game of football but also cares about the health of those who play the game, I could care less if millions of Americans boycott the game because of peaceful protests on the part of some players.  Fans always have a right to boycott, just like players have a right to take a knee.  If your boycott results in the owners and players getting less money, I can live with that too. 

As someone who loves the game of football but also cares about the health of those who play the game, I am saddened by the statement of the President that the 15-yard penalties imposed to deter players from hitting with their helmets are “ruining the game.”  I just pray that the powers-that-be who run the sport ignore that statement and continue to call penalties designed to make the game safer. 

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As someone who loves the game of football but realizes it is just a game, I am saddened by the fact that all anyone was talking about during the first few days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico was whether football players should be taking a knee during the national anthem.

As someone who loves the game of football but realizes it is just a game, I am glad that more public attention is now being given to Puerto Rican hurricane relief than to football.   Whether the people of Puerto Rico “win” or “lose” in their efforts to return to normalcy is far more important than whatever NFL team wins or loses on Sundays this fall.

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As someone who cares about institutional racism, I wish the NFL players great success in figuring out a way effectively to protest against that societal scourge. 

As someone who cares about institutional racism, I feel sorry for any football fan, politician, or other citizen who seriously believes that institutional racism is purely a thing of the past.


Saturday, September 23, 2017

Rabbis Talking Sense


When I was at a Yeshiva in Jerusalem in 1981, I learned the principle, “You do what you can.”  The statement was made in the context of the so-called “mitzvoth,” or commandments, that Jews are supposed to follow.  The idea was that you try to live as ritualistically observant a life as possible, while recognizing that there are also forces in our lives that may prevent us from going all the way.  So, for example, on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath), I do try to obtain from office work – but I don’t prevent myself from turning on lights, driving cars, or writing this blog.  

Today is a special Shabbat.   It is known as Shabbat Shuvah, aka the Sabbath of Return or Repentance.  This is the one that comes during the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  It is the holiest time of the Jewish year, and it definitely should not be spent blogging out bile.  So, to be respectful of the season, I’ll spare you a vituperative blogpost, like the one I was tempted to write, entitled “Spicey Goes to Hollywood.” 

Instead, I’d like to focus on two of my rabbis – one past, one present.   Together, they have reminded me about the importance of allowing ourselves to confront the oft-quoted precepts of conventional religion.  Once these precepts become clichés, we tend to accept them as true – or if we don’t, we feel like heretics for doubting them.  But in fact, the problem might not be ours at all.  Religious precepts can be downright antithetical to common sense and even destructive of the kind of spirituality that can enrich the world. 

Take, for example, the saying “All things happen for a reason.”   That’s innocuous enough when said in a philosophical sense, as in “every effect has a cause.”  But what if it’s said in the religious sense, as in “all things happen according to the plan of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent Lord?”  Nobody can disprove that statement, and plenty of people believe it.  I just happen not to be one of them, which means that I agree with Rabbi Michael Feshbach.

I know Michael Feshbach from his previous gig at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase.  This past summer, he moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands to become the rabbi at one of the oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere.  Little did he know that he would be moving into Storm Central.  The Washington Post wrote a story about Rabbi Feshbach and his experiences with Hurricane Irma.  Yes, the article came out before Maria, which surely mauled his island even more.    Here’s a snippet from the article.

“’I come from a progressive religious tradition that takes spirituality and God seriously but not necessarily always in traditional ways,’ Rabbi Feshbach said. ’I do not think that things happen for a reason, as sacrilegious as that may sound.’

“God, Rabbi Feshbach said, doesn’t control the weather. God doesn’t direct some of us onto a plane doomed to crash and others into a traffic jam that keeps us from boarding that plane.
‘That’s not a God I can live with,’ he said.”

Ever since a horrible earthquake leveled Lisbon in 1755 and killed tens of thousands of people, intellectuals have debated whether or not the people who lived and the people who died were chosen based on a divine plan.   Rabbi Feshbach and I prefer to think that we live in a world in which many things – including life and death events – aren’t planned for any reason.  They just happen.  They have antecedent causes, but those causes don’t involve a conscious scheme to promote some goal, such as imparting justice.  That’s why good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people.  That’s why common sense suggests that we all must work our butts off to ensure that we take care of ourselves, rather than expecting some omnibenevolent cosmic Santa Claus to take care of us out of love. 

I wasn’t around in Lisbon in 1755, and I wasn’t around in Auschwitz in 1944.  But when I look at those times and places and confront the question of whether people died there “for a reason,” the only way I’m willing to give prayers of thanks to the One who killed some and saved others is if I assume that there was no reason -- or at least none that was thought through and designed to punish or reward based on the merit of those involved. 

That brings me to a second rabbi, Rabbi Hannah Spiro, the rabbi of the only Jewish congregation on Capitol Hill.  She happens to be one of Rabbi Feshbach’s former students – and my daughter.   Now, like her former rabbi, she too gets to preach sermons of common sense ... and heresy.

This Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Hannah slew a sacred cow that comes to us from the great late-18th/early 19th century Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.  He is often quoted for the principle that “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to fear at all.”

As Rabbi Hannah pointed out, we are not compelled to agree with that old saw.  We can widen that bridge.  And sometimes we had better be fearful.  Prudence demands nothing less.

Hannah wrote a new song to make her point.  But my primary muse is philosophy, not music, so allow me simply to cite Aristotle.  The point of labeling virtues, such as “courage,” is to identify a golden mean between a deficit-vice and an excess-vice.  Courage is the virtue for which cowardice is the deficit-vice and foolhardiness the excess-vice.  Similarly, temperance is the virtue for which (a dangerous) asceticism is the deficit-vice and gluttony the excess-vice.   The word we use for the virtue typically reflects whether we generally think people have too much or too little of the characteristic.  Thus, for example, since we think people tend generally towards cowardice, we view courage as a virtue because it is pointing away from the deficit-vice.  Whereas because we think people tend generally toward gluttony, we view temperance as a virtue because it is pointing away from the excess-vice.  But still, we can’t forget that the virtue is a golden mean, not an extreme.  And the above quote attributed to Nachman is an extreme, immoderate statement.  Common sense teaches that we can do better.

By disrespecting legitimate fear, we dishonor one of our greatest allies.  Fear is what prevents us from destroying our planet with fossil fuels – it is, by contrast, the crazy fool who guzzles gas without care, all the while counting on a supernatural God to save us.  Fear is also what thankfully prevents us from ice climbing when we’re not athletic, or from giving up our day jobs when our families need our income, or from smoking cigarettes even though we love that buzz of a good smoke.

And let’s face it – feeling frequently fearful is as natural as the love of chocolate.  So rather than experiencing pangs of guilt about these sentiments, which can destroy our ability to protect ourselves and our loved ones, why not just embrace them?  Perhaps virtue lies in plowing forward.  Perhaps not.  But that fearful feeling is something to be cherished, not detested.  At best, it can save our lives; at worst, it can remind us to think before we act.     

In short, Rabbi Nachman was indeed onto something important: courage is a virtue.   But we in the 21st century must reflect on our ancestors’ teachings with a healthy amount of skepticism and never let them get in the way of common sense.  Teachings of religion, no less than any other domain, must be subjected to the crucible of reason. And when we reflect upon them critically, we’ll find that like most other good things, they can be construed immoderately and cause us miss the mark.

In fact, the Greek word for “sin” is a term for “missing the mark” in archery.  So, if we wish to avoid sin, which is one of the key goals of the Days of Awe, we must concentrate on what it means to live in a way that hits the target as often as possible.  How do we best do that?  By consulting our common sense.  It will tell you that the hundreds of victims of the recent earthquake in Mexico may have been killed for a reason, but it sure wasn’t a good one.   Or that those who out of fear took shelter from Irma were actually thinking wisely, not out of cowardice.  They were widening that bridge that connects us all to life.

Shabbat Shalom.  Shana Tova.   And may you have a blessed year, whether you treat it as starting on September 20th or January 1st.    

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.