Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Tribute to a Soldier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Empathic Rationalist will return in mid-August.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Empathic Rationalism and Its Discontents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 02, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 24, 2017

On Death Taxes and Life Taxes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 17, 2017

On Visions of Extreme Ugliness and Extreme Beauty

Driving down I-95 in Northern Maryland this past Monday, I was reflecting on what had surely been one of the best weekends of my life.   It mostly consisted of partying and praying, but there was also a little 2 ½ hour ceremony during which my daughter Hannah and 13 of her classmates were ordained as rabbis.  It was the culmination of five years of post-graduate schooling and a whole lot of soul searching.  Believe me, I was proud of Hannah’s entire class.  It thrills me that these freshly minted Reconstructionist rabbis are being thrust into the world to reinvigorate Judaism and become a “light unto the nations. “ 

Driving my jalopy with “Spinoza” license plates, I was feeling my oats.  I had just passed the beautiful Susquehanna River and Cal Ripken’s baseball stadium in Aberdeen, Maryland and was looking forward to going to a retirement party for one of the jewels of the U.S. Department of Justice (and one of my beloved mentors), Joyce Branda.   Life was good.  So I asked my wife’s permission to indulge one of my guilty pleasures – listening to right-wing talk radio with her in the car.  To my surprise, she said yes.  

Strangely, though, we couldn’t find any suitable stations – at least not until we crossed the Baltimore Harbor.  That’s when we began to hear WMAL, the powerful DC station that has graced us with such luminaries as Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin and, in this case, Chris Plante.  

My wife’s patience lasted all of five minutes.  During that time, Plante hurled just about every insult imaginable at Democrats and liberals.  You would have thought he was talking about cockroaches, except that Democrats and liberals are people, or at least I tell myself that we are.  That afternoon, I sounded less like a person than a laughing hyena.  That’s the only way I can cope with programs like Plante’s – by laughing hysterically at the sheer idiocy of his hate speech, speech directed at folks like me and everything I hold dear.  I feel compelled to listen to Plante because I need to know what America thinks, and Plante, Limbaugh, Levin and Company are the rabbis to roughly one third of this country.  

By Wednesday morning, I was back to the rhythm of a normal workweek as the highs of last weekend had begun to fade.   Listening to the morning news, I was shocked to learn about a different form of hate speech.  This time, the speaker communicated not with words but with bullets.  He opened fire on a group of Republican Congressmen and staffers who were targeted solely because of their political views.  It was reminiscent of the January 2011 attack in Tucson, except that this week’s shooting involved a so-called “progressive” hunting down conservatives.   Immediately, my fellow liberals tended to write off the shooting simply as the product of mental illness – a lone lunatic running amuck.   But for me, that excuse is overly glib.  We’re dealing now with an ever-deepening internal conflict in America that is reaching dangerous levels.  Not only are we seeing its outgrowth in politically-motivated homicides but also in terms of policies that reflect utter contempt for large swaths of Americans.  Think about it – how else can we explain why Senators are holding secret meetings to determine how to strip millions of Americans of healthcare insurance if they didn’t think their political base holds the uninsured (i.e., working class Americans) in complete disregard? 

Yesterday, the New York Times led with an article entitled “Partisan Relations Sink from Cold to Deep Freeze: Democrats and Republicans Have Lowest Regard of Each Other in Decades.”  The article featured a graph showing that Democrats’ attitudes about Republicans has largely paralleled Republicans’ attitudes about Democrats throughout the period from 1980 to the present.  The graph also showed that while those numbers had dropped gradually from 1980 to 2000, they’ve dropped precipitously ever since.   Less than a quarter of us now view the “other” favorably – down from 40 percent at the turn of the millennium.  Whoever coined the motto “e pluribus unum” is surely turning in his grave. 

After the terrible shooting in Alexandria, there has been talk of the need for unity.   I’m not feeling it though.  I think this nation is hopelessly polarized at the moment.  I see things getting worse before they get better.   But last weekend, I did see the antidote – on that stage in suburban Philadelphia, where the 14 graduates of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Class of 5777 were assembled.   There, in that tiny class, I saw white people, black people, men, women, openly gay, openly straight, openly trans.   I saw the faces of love, not of hatred.  Of hope, not of fear.  Of anonymity, not of celebrity.  Of self-effacing service, not of grandstanding hubris.  Of singing and praying, not shouting and demeaning.

I had a vision in which humble, hard-working and committed people like the RRC Class of 5777 stopped deferring to the politicians and media personalities who have collectively driven our national car into the ditch.  In my vision, these young men and women would then take responsibility for identifying leaders from their own generation who wouldn’t suck up to the Chris Plantes or the Rush Limbaughs – or, for that matter, to the snide, liberal analogues who similarly spew hate from the other side of the aisle.   They will take to heart the Jewish precept that “lashon hara” -- speech that is disparaging, even if true – is truly evil and difficult to forgive.   They will, in short, teach my fellow Baby Boomers that it is time to back off and let a gentler, smarter and more humane generation lead us out of the wilderness.

As the Class of 5777 can tell you, our Biblical ancestors wandered in that wilderness for 40 years and never did enter the Promised Land.  Sadly, it has been nearly 40 years since 1980 – when we started turning our political rivals into true enemies.   My sense is that things are going to get worse before they get better.  But maybe, just maybe, in a few years, the spirit of the Class of 5777 will turn things around.  At least that’s my dream.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

One Sad Week


That’s how President Trump frequently ends his tweets.   And if this past week could be summarized in a tweet, we’d surely end it with that same word – thanks, in large part, to President Trump himself.   

Admittedly, my view of this week is colored by my personal life.  The family matriarch, who is now 95 years and 10 months old, suffered major blows to her health.   Every day after work, I’ve made a bee-line to either a hospital or a rehab facility and watched her fight to recover.   It’s inspiring to be the son of such a tough resilient woman.  But it’s also gut-wrenching to see a loved one labor to perform basic functions – like trying to sit up, stand up, and walk a few feet. 

One of the things I like to do with my mom is turn on the TV and watch the news.  The poor woman must be convinced that she’s totally losing it, because the reports have been truly unbelievable -- and not just impossible to believe, but incredibly sad. 

First, we had the sorry spectacle of Tiger Woods, an athlete I’ve supported passionately ever since he left Stanford and joined the PGA Tour.  Just last week, we read that his back surgery gave him “instant nerve relief” and saw him say that “I haven’t felt this good in years.”  But this past Monday, he was found asleep at the wheel, unable to walk a straight line, and slurring his speech.  He blamed it on a cocktail of pain killers and, indeed, the tests showed that he hadn’t had a drop of alcohol.  But it’s difficult to believe that he wasn’t bullshitting fans like me when he raved about how well he was feeling last week.  Once again, Tiger has proven himself to be someone you can never trust when he speaks to his fan base.  Leaving aside whatever mess he has made of his physical or psychological health, his consistent lack of honesty has been worthy of a politician.

The next spectacle to chronicle was provided to us by the boisterous, self-obsessed comedienne, Kathy Griffin.  Somehow, she decided it was funny to depict the President of the United States as a severed head covered with blood.  Funny?  No.  Juvenile, disgusting, contemptuous, and creepy?  Clearly.  Unlike Tiger Woods, who can aptly be called a golfing genius, Kathy Griffin lacks any discernable talent – other than the ability to self-promote.  Fortunately, it looks like Griffin’s 15 minutes are just about up.  Even for a comedienne, she crossed the line.  And if you don’t agree, just imagine what you would think of a conservative “comic” who turned the first black president, Barack Obama, into a severed, bloody head.  Griffen has stooped to a lower level than even the worst of Obama’s most racist critics.  And that, indeed, is sad.

True to her narcissism, Kathy Griffin isn’t leaving the scene easily.  She’s blaming other people for her self-inflicted wound.  According to Griffin, “there’s a bunch of old white guys trying to silence me and I’m just here to say that it’s wrong.”  Actually, what is “wrong” is when a person doesn’t have the class to say “I screwed up big time” and leave it at that.  That’s called taking responsibility.   It’s a lesson that Hillary Clinton could also use a little help in.  If Monday belonged to Tiger and Tuesday belonged to Griffin, Wednesday belonged to Hillary.  Speaking at Recode’s Code Conference in California, Clinton said that "I take responsibility for every decision I make -- but that's not why I lost" She then went on to say that “I'm now the nominee of the Democratic Party. I inherit nothing from the Democratic Party," Clinton said. "It was bankrupt, it was on the verge of insolvency, its data was mediocre to poor, non-existent, wrong. I had to inject money into it -- the DNC -- to keep it going."

Personally, I’m getting dizzy trying to figure out exactly who Hillary wants us to blame for her inability to defeat a reality TV star with a record-low approval rating.  I thought the fault belonged to Comey.  Or Russia.  Or the media. Now it’s the DNC.  She apparently believes that everyone is at fault other than the candidate who, in a change election, never explained what she felt compelled to change, and who was so cocky about winning the upper Midwest that she barely bothered to campaign there.

If Hillary’s latest outburst wasn’t sad enough, when CNN interviewed the chair of the DNC and invited him to respond to Hillary’s attacks, he repeatedly refused to do so.  Essentially, he gave the interviewer the old Washington Dodge -- something to the effect of, “I want to focus on the future, not look at the past.”  So, my friends, the new Democratic Party is going to look a lot like the old one – big on smiles, small on candor.  Kind of like a Tiger Woods press conference. 

And that brings me to Thursday.  That’s the day when President Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Accords.  It’s also the day when Vice President Pence said, on Fox News, that “for some reason or another, this issue of climate change has emerged as a paramount issue for the left in this country and around the world."

How can I respond to that?   Is this really just an issue for those on the “left”?   Well, perhaps it is.  After all, in 2012, in his Democratic National Convention speech, President Obama devoted only about 20 seconds to the issue. Lord knows that the media hasn’t seemed to be terribly interested in climate change.  It isn’t nearly as sexy as topics such as terrorism, police killings or plane crashes.  But let’s not kid ourselves – according to people with PhDs, climate change is easily the gravest source of danger on planet Earth, and I’m not just talking about environmental dangers.  What this country did on Thursday isn’t just sad – it’s devastating.  And now it’s time for those of us on the “left” -- and the center -- to figure out a way to make the powers-that-be care about this issue once and for all.  We owe it to Mother Nature, to our children, and to our own legacies.

So, my friends, this has been one depressing week.  But things had better get better, and I mean quickly.  Next week, the Empathic Rationalist will be on vacation as I head up to Philadelphia for my older daughter Hannah’s rabbinical ordination.  None of this, even my beloved mother’s health setback, can get in my way of enjoying Hannah’s incredible accomplishment.  So ... I pray that this week, happy stories will replace the sad stories of this last week.  Maybe we’ll see some amazing feats of athleticism in the French Open or in the NBA Finals.  Maybe we’ll see a politician or Hollywood star actually assume some responsibility, rather than blaming others or dodging questions.  Or maybe we’ll just see a slow news week during which we can relax and re-charge our batteries.  Come to think of it, that wouldn’t be so bad.  In fact, after this past week, anything would be an improvement.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Reflections on the Meaning of Progressivism

In this week’s episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, the show’s host debated with Cornell West, the public intellectual and social activist.   Maher criticized West for creating a dangerous false equivalency between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, which essentially encouraged progressive Americans either to vote for a third-party candidate or no candidate at all.  In the end, Maher claimed, lefties like West are responsible for the election of Donald J. Trump.   West, by contrast, indicated that while he always preferred candidate Clinton to candidate Trump, that doesn’t mean he should find her acceptable.  According to West, a progressive is obliged to speak out against Democratic candidates as long as they remain agents of the status quo, rather than finding solace in the fact that these individuals are less right-wing than their Republican rivals.

Score one for West.   If you are a progressive, you need to fight for the party you want, rather than settle for the so-called “lesser of two evils.”  You need to fight for authenticity.  You can’t satisfy yourself with limousine liberalism.  The Democratic party, West would contend, will continue to lose as long as its sole theme is “They’re Crazy and Evil. So Vote for Us.”  Democrats need to stand for, rather than against, something; and that “something” had better include a significant measure of change.  Hillary’s campaign did not clearly enunciate what significant transformation it was looking to make, and that – more than any other reason – is why she is not president today.

Allow me to channel West in a different context by moving forward in time by 48 hours – from Friday, when Maher’s show was taped and aired, to today.  Here we are on the verge of the first momentous foreign policy speech of Trump’s presidency.  He is in Saudi Arabia and is expected to talk about how America respects and honors Islam and hopes to work seamlessly with the Saudis and other Muslim regimes.  Yet surely, nanoseconds after he walks off the stage, mainstream liberal Americans, the ones who praised Hillary throughout her campaign, will return to their regularly-scheduled us-versus-them mockery.    Trump, they will claim, has shown himself to be a typical politician – saying one thing (bashing Islam) in front of his base, and the diametrically opposite thing (praising Islam) when traveling abroad.  Within hours, if not minutes, we’ll be watching montages of Trump’s greatest hits on the subject, showing a Muslim-bashing statement one moment followed by a Muslim-praising statement the next.   Here in Blue America, everyone will be in good spirits laughing at this Zelig of a President.   And, of course, the undercurrent of all this mockery will be a single theme: that Trump was elected by a group of stupid bigots who despise Islam as much as they love Trump, and who will rationalize today’s speech as an example of a shrewd businessman and statesperson sweet-talking his enemies into making the concessions that advance his blessed America-first agenda.

Like West, I am not here to defend what Trump has said about Muslims in the past.  Nor am I here to defend his base.  It consistently refuses to hold the President accountable for his words.  And let’s face it – that base is ridden with Islamophobia.   But the question is, for those of us who feel differently about Islamophobia – who wish to eradicate it as a scourge – is it enough simply to bash the Republican base and the politicians who cater to them?  Or do we have an affirmative obligation to embrace Islam and those who practice it?  In other words, is it appropriate to sit on our couches and mock candidate Trump for demagoguing on the issue or do we need to stick our necks out and publicize to our family and friends what is uniquely beautiful about Islam?  

I don’t always agree with Cornell West.  On the subject of Israel, for example, I would surely find myself to be far more on the Zionistic side of the spectrum.  But what I appreciate most about West is that he is an activist who fights FOR the social transformation he believes in, rather than simply fighting AGAINST the politicians he dislikes.  West has a vision of reform and he is looking to join with other change agents, rather than simply to join in mockery of those who would reform the world in the wrong direction.

On the issue of how the West must deal with Islam, I’ll be blunt: it isn’t enough to condemn Islam-inspired violence (which we must condemn) or to attack the scourge of Islamaphobia.  We must work together with our Muslim cousins on social causes and in fellowship activities.  Plus, we must dialogue with our Muslim cousins, exploring the many profound similarities among our respective faiths and cultures, and embracing the many profound differences among these faiths and cultures.  We must discern what makes Islam special – not just a tributary off the great “Judeo-Christian” river, but a faith that builds masterfully on its Jewish and Christian antecedents.  And we must study the challenges that Islamic extremism presents to the world – challenges that are in some respects far more stark and scary than the challenges we’re now experiencing from Jewish and Christian extremists.

Late in 2016, I helped to spearhead a new initiative in the Washington DC area that is known as JAM-AT:  Jews and Muslims Acting Together. Members of JAM-AT will be meeting this afternoon at a home in McLean Virginia with one goal in mind: to take Muslim-Jewish engagement in the greater Washington DC area to the next level.  

In contemplating today’s meeting, I have pictured Cornell West and Bill Maher attending such an event.   West, though a Christian, would fit in wonderfully.  He has great respect for both Judaism and Islam.    He would be what we in Muslim-Jewish circles refer to as an “Ally.”  And indeed, in the last JAM-AT meeting, everyone who was neither Jewish nor Muslim was asked to stand up so that we can applaud our “Allies” – who are invariably among the most righteous in the room.  

As for Maher, when I imagine him at a JAM-AT event, all I can envision is his discomfort and cynicism.  Most likely, he would view the rest of us as a bunch of stupid religious people, clinging to our primitive superstitions (or, in the case of Spinozist Jews like me, to our contorted rationalizations for embracing organized religion).  Maher has saved some of his meanest mockery for Islam.  He of all people can ill-afford to get on his high-horse and criticize President Trump for Islamophobia.
When I look at a Cornell West, for all our disagreements, I find a fellow traveler.   He loved Heschel as much as he loved King.  Indeed, he is a dreamer far more than he is a hater.    I’ll grant you that his rhetoric against mainstream politicians can be hyperbolic, but that is the way prophetically inspired progressives often speak.  At least I know that what he stands for is more important to him than what he stands against, and what he stands for above all else is universal human dignity.

If you find yourself inspired more by a Cornell West than a Bill Maher, then do me a favor.   Find a mosque in your area, pick a night when it is holding an Iftar that is open to the interfaith community, and break pita bread with them.  Next weekend, you see, is the start of Ramadan.  The Muslim community will be fasting from sun up until sun down throughout the month.  You don’t have to fast – just come one night and honor your hosts with your presence.  Come with an open mind, an open heart, and an empty stomach.  You will likely encounter some of the kindest, most generous people you’ll ever meet.  And if the alternative is to turn on cable TV and watch comedians pull out montages that mock Islamophobic politicians ... trust me, experiencing an Iftar is far better for your soul. 

[Note – The Empathic Rationalist will be on holiday during Memorial Day Weekend and will return on the first weekend of June.]

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Mid-Term Grades for American Democracy

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Six years ago, I quoted the above passage in this blog.  I cannot quote it enough.   Ironically, for all its wisdom, it contains one of the most patently false statements in the history of oratory, the clause that “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.”  Thankfully, the world has indeed noted what Lincoln said in Gettysburg in 1863; his entire Address has become immortalized, and for good reason.  Few can forget that it began with the words “Four score and seven years ago.”  But perhaps the Address’ most lasting portion is its ending – a plea that “government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people [] shall not perish from the earth.”

I keep finding myself reflecting on those words.  As both a small “d” democrat and a small “r” republican, I feel that Lincoln was setting the standard by which a country’s governance should be judged.  Sometimes, I even envision him as one of my professors.  Lincoln is looking at me and all other future American citizens and proclaiming that we’ll be “graded” based on the extent to which our government truly measures up to the standard he has set – a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.  It then becomes our job as students/citizens to assess our success level and actively work to ensure that failure is no longer tolerated.

I don’t know about you, but right now, I’d give us a failing grade.  And part of the problem is that while we may well remember the words Lincoln used, we seem to have forgotten what they mean and why they must be respected.

Let’s begin by analyzing the “of the people, by the people, for the people” formulation.  The first of these three phrases refers to the source of governmental power.   It was explained well by John Marshall in his famous Supreme Court opinion, McCulloch v. Maryland: “The government of the Union [...] is, emphatically and truly, a government of the people. In form, and in substance, it emanates from them. Its powers are granted by them, and are to be exercised directly on them, and for their benefit."

To further illustrate his point, Marshall could have pointed to the introduction to the Preamble to the Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence [sic], promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”   “We the people” are thus the source of our government’s power – not a work of Scripture nor a set of sovereign states, and certainly not a kingdom across the ocean, but “we the people.”   In this regard at least, I’d say that the American democracy is alive and well, for we haven’t seemed to have forgotten that the source of our government’s power resides in the citizenry.

Next, if you would allow me, I’d like to skip ahead for a moment to the third prong of Lincoln’s formulation, the idea that our government is “for the people.”  Now, we’re not talking about the source of governmental power but its beneficiary.  I hardly need to cite 17th or 18th century documents to explain this concept.  Indeed, every politician in Washington invariably claims that she acts for the betterment of “the people.”   Whether it’s the people of her district, state or nation, it’s always “the people” for whom she selflessly works.   Allegedly.

But do you really believe that’s true?  Do you really believe our politicians are consistently putting “the people” over their own party or their personal re-election chances?  Just look at the way they handle government scandals.  Whenever their party is in power, they become mum; by contrast, if the other party is in power, they become publicly outraged.  Is that what “the people” would want?   Or how about those times when Congress considers an extremely popular bill that everyone knows is going to fail because the lobbyists won’t let it succeed?  Consider, for example, gun-control legislation that is favored by 80-90 percent of “the people” but opposed by the highly-organized gun lobby.   Why do you think those measures fail?  Is it because our politicians believe that they are voting in the best interests of the (ignorant) public, or because they are taking care of their own hides?  To ask the question is to answer it.

I’ve saved for last the second item in Lincoln’s formulation: “by the people.”  Now, we’re not talking about the source or the beneficiary of government power but rather the agent of such power.   Who is doing the actual work of exercising political power?  A limited number of social or economic classes?  Or ALL the people?  My sense is that when it comes time to assigning grades, Professor Lincoln will place a special emphasis in this domain.  Why?  Because it is precisely by broadening political participation among all the people that we can best guarantee that our government will operate for the people in actuality, and not just in lip service. 

Fortunately, when it comes to grading us on our political participation, Prof. Lincoln would have actual facts and figures available to judge us.  And what he’d find is that we seem to be failing miserably.   Roughly nine of every 20 eligible Americans choose not to vote in presidential elections.  In mid-term elections, little more than one in three eligible Americans vote.  So even though we included the right to vote in the Constitution and amended that document four different times to extend that right, only a small portion of this country seems to feel strongly about exercising it.   If that’s not an F-U to Lincoln, I don’t know what is.

But don’t just blame the problem on “we the people.”  “They the Government” aren’t exactly encouraging the people to vote, now are they?  Recall that last Sunday the voters in France went to the polls.   Here in America, we vote on Tuesdays, and we don’t even get a day off from work.  It’s as if the powers-that-be are saying that “voting is a privilege, and we expect people to go out of their way to prove that they’re worthy of it.”   The result is anything but a government “by [all] the people.”  It’s a government by that portion of the people who tend to be relatively well-educated and well-heeled.  It’s not what Lincoln had in mind.

Personally, I think that there is no set of duties more sacred than those of citizenship.  Those duties include voting, but that’s just the beginning.  A citizen’s duties also include marching, canvassing, debate watching, poll watching, you name it.   Plus, they include taking stock in those societal forces that undermine civic interest and working to confront those forces.  I’d suggest that we all begin by focusing squarely and passionately on our woefully inadequate level of voting participation.  This needs to be addressed by our schools, our media, our government, and yes, by concerned private citizens like you and me.  And until this issue is addressed, we have to stop talking like we live in a functioning democracy or that “the majority” voted for this politician or that one. 

Somewhere up there, Professor Abe is waiting to grade us on how we respond to this voter-participation crisis.  And believe me, even for someone as kind as Honest Abe, 36 percent (the percentage of eligible voters who turned out for the 2014 mid-terms) merits an F.   

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Mother Earth Calls

This used to be the time in DC when spring was in full bloom.  Now, it appears, we’ve entered the season of summer - and no time too soon.  Ninety degree temperatures have arrived and just in time for the People’s Climate March.   Apparently, when the Good Lord heard that a march was planned to protest global warming, He decided to warm up this part of the globe with record-breaking temperatures.   It’s great to know that God has a sense of humor.

I was at the March for Science last week; today, I’ll be at the Climate March.  My thinking is that if I’m lucky enough to make it to the year 2050, when the death toll from Climate Change is likely to increase by a few digits, I don’t want to think of myself as having been a passive bystander to all this destruction.  I want to know that, at the very least, I took to the streets and screamed, “This is no way to treat our Mother!”

Seriously, the next time some politician or business tycoon says “We support the environment, BUT ....” just remember – when it comes to loving your mother, there is no “but.”  

Mother Earth will surely survive human recklessness.  We can wound her, but we’re not nearly powerful enough to kill her.  What we can do is kill her creatures.  Today, we’re killing the coral.  Tomorrow, we’ll be killing each other – unintentionally, but just as surely.  Climate change will create famines, bring deadly storms, and wreak havoc on the economies least able to tolerate it.   Sadly, everyone can thank the affluent among us, and that includes the so-called “upper middle class” Americans who refuse to think of ourselves as affluent.  We’re the ones who guzzle carbon like it’s flowing from Heaven. 

So, march we must. 

I honestly don’t know much about the folks who are organizing this event.  I don’t know if they will spend the entire time hurling bile that will serve only to further polarize this country.   I may indeed spend half of the time at this event shaking my head about how a march that should be a call to love (our Mother) will turn instead into a call to hate. 

But frankly, I don’t need to know who is organizing this event.  If there is a march against Climate Change, I’m coming.

Lest anyone think that fighting Climate Change is a partisan issue, just think back a few years.  How much did Barack Obama mention Climate Change in his 2012 Democratic Convention address?   If memory serves, he didn’t.  This has always been a minor issue for the Democrats – little more than an opportunity for a bit of targeted pandering.   Precious few of our mainstream politicians have behaved like this issue hits them down to their bones.   That’s because we haven’t reached 2050 yet.  People aren’t dying by the millions or tens of millions.  Yet.   That’s why it feels like a sideshow.   Boy are we short-sighted.

Next week, the Empathic Rationalist will take a week off.  I’ll be at Princeton attending a weekend long conference about Spinoza’s philosophy.  In other words, I’ll be in my element, geeking out on the esoterica of Spinoza’s Ethics and Theological-Political Treatise, both of which I’ve studied in depth.  By contrast, today (like last Saturday), I’ll surely be hearing about the work of scientists who’ve been studying disciplines that I hardly understand.  To a degree, I’ll have to take what they’re saying on faith.  And still ... with each passing year, it becomes more and more obvious that these scientists are on to something.

Our climate is changing.  We can feel it.  Winters aren’t terribly cold any more.  And even the spring is beginning to feel like summer. You don’t have to be a polar bear to notice the difference.  You just have to be willing to put propaganda aside, open your eyes, and take in the magnitude of what’s happening.

If you love your Mother and you’re in a city with a march, please join us.  And bring lots of water.   It’s easy to get dehydrated when you’re out in the hot summer sun.