Monday, December 31, 2018

Happy New Year from the Empathic Rationalist

I am on holiday but wanted to send a quick note to wish all my readers a wonderful 2019.  I realize that this past year was chaotic in so many ways and this next one will be starting under a mound of uncertainty.  But please take the time to appreciate the beauty in this world and in the unique lives that each of us has created.   

Talk to you in 2019.


Saturday, December 22, 2018

Partial Shutdowns: Total Kicks in the Teeth

There is a school of thought that America needs a draft, because without one, rich chicken-hawks can start stupid wars (see, e.g., the Iraq War of 2003-2011) and do so without any risk to their families.  There is also a school of thought Congressional staffers need to be the first people who are furloughed in the event of a Government shutdown, because otherwise, Congresspeople can start stupid shutdowns (see, e.g., the shutdowns of January 2018, February 2018 and December 2018) and do so without getting any grief from their staffs.

Oh, let’s be clear.  Don’t pay attention to what Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are saying.  This latest shutdown isn’t owned by Donald Trump.  President Trump hasn’t been asked to sign a bill to keep open the Government.  This shutdown is the responsibility of Congress – and the Republicans in the House, to be specific.  They are the ones who refuse to send him a bill to veto.  They are the ones who can’t get a two-thirds majority in support of keeping the Government open.  They are the ones who are willing to destroy the morale of the federal workforce so that we can build a “wall” that covers a tiny part of our southern border – a wall that would cost more than ten times what Congress funded for the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere” and would be just as pointless.

But don’t just take my word for it.  This is what the new White House Chief of Staff said when he was asked three years ago about building a wall:  [T]he bottom line is the fence doesn't stop anybody who really wants to get across. You go under, you go around, you go through it. And that's what the ranchers tell us, is that they don't need a fence. What they need is more manpower, and more technology, and more willingness to enforce the law as it exists today. There are parts of our border that are secure and parts of our border that are not. A lot of that comes down to whether or not we are just willing to enforce the law as it exists. So it's easy to tell people what they want to hear, 'build the darn fence, vote for me.'"

Let me translate -- it’s easy to demagogue.  It’s difficult to govern.

I will never forget what I saw five years ago, during the Shutdown of 2013.  Many of the people in my office were allowed to work, many others were sent home.  I was coming home on the subway after having worked that day when I ran into a colleague -- a respected, hard-working attorney with many years of experience in the federal workforce.  Somehow he had received the impression early in the day that he was not going to be furloughed.  When he learned that was a mistake, he became depressed.  “I’ve got to get out of here,” he told me.  “I’m through with working for the government.”  And sure enough, it wasn’t long before he would find a job in the private sector – for more pay – and he has never returned.   If not for the Shutdown, I’m convinced he would still be a Fed.

From one standpoint, that man’s perspective is an odd one.  After all, didn’t he get a 16 day paid vacation?  Neither he nor I was guaranteed to be paid, but I had to go to the office whereas he could have been hiking the Appalachian Trail.  Which one of us was better off?  In fact, less than a week ago, a retired friend of mine asked me if I was going to be furloughed or if I was going to get a paid vacation.  He, obviously, shared that same perspective that the best thing that can happen to a federal employee is that you can get furloughed – because they’ll pay you anyway but you don’t have to work.  It’s all good, right?

Wrong.  People like my former colleague work for the federal government knowing that they could get more pay in the private sector.  People like my former colleague put in extra hours on their (non-essential) federal jobs knowing that they won’t get paid overtime.  They do it because they believe in what they do.  They think their work actually matters.  They want to be allowed into their office so that they can serve their client (the United States of America).  They truly are public servants.

Of course, they harbor no allusions that they are especially well-appreciated.  We hear all sorts of tributes to the troops, or to school teachers, or even to the Congresspeople who shut down the government.  (In the last case, they are customarily referred to as “the Honorable” whenever correspondence is directed to their attention.)  But who is paying tribute to the Labor Department economist?   Or to the statistician at the Consumer Product Safety Commission?   I can answer the last question pretty well, because my dad was a Labor Department Economist and my mom was a statistician at the Consumer Protect Safety Commission.  Not only did I never hear tributes paid to them, but when I got older and left the friendly confines of Washington D.C., I even had to listen to right-wing assholes make fun of them for how they made their living. 

It is difficult to imagine a more stupid motivational tool than separating the workforce into essential and less-essential components, and into essential and non-essential employees within the less-essential components.  It’s not surprising that it is responsible for people leaving the federal service and never returning.   

Today, if you read this blog, I want you to think about the so-called “non-essential” federal employees.  I want you to think about the “Honorable” Republican Congresspeople who are putting them into a position thrice a year where they are reminded of just how inessential they are.  And I want you to think about the word “partial” the next time you see a reference to the shutdown of the government over a pointless wall.  What is being partially shut down isn’t just the government but the morale of those who work for it.

On behalf of my mom and dad and all other non-essential people, Merry Christmas, Congressmen.  Happy New Year.  I hope you can live with yourselves.  I would find it challenging.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Jumping the Gun

Martin Luther King, Jr. had his dream.  I had mine.  His dream was to live in a country where one day, people would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

Mine was to live in a country where one day, people would elect a woman President who had been relentlessly vilified by the greatest personal attack machine known to humankind (the contemporary Republican party) but who had the perfect combination of characteristics needed to weather those attacks (poise, class, inner strength, resolve, kindness, intelligence, wisdom, etc.). 

As I explained in a recent post, I am so sick of the politics of personal destruction and so sick of political sexism (which allows people with a straight face to call Elizabeth Warren “shrill” when at the same time they find Bernie Sanders’ yelling perfectly acceptable) that I desperately sought a Presidential candidate who (a) is female, and (b) has the kind of personal sexism-proof characteristics that make her electable. My hope was that maybe, just maybe, the election of such an individual wouldn’t simply put to an end the national embarrassment that we have never had a woman leader in our 242 year history but would also put a dent in the kind of political sexism that makes me so sick.  Accordingly, as soon as the Midterms were over, I endorsed for President of the United States Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. 

In offering that endorsement, I referred to Ms. Klobuchar as “Minnesota Nice.”  I have noticed over the years the way she presents herself publicly and saw the kind of person who could withstand the Republican attacks that are sure to come in spades.  Having judged her by her public appearances, I had included her in a certain category of calm, unflappable, strong and brilliant women who I’ve been privileged, on occasion, to work with over the decades.  Now, I’m starting to wonder if I had jumped the gun by offering this endorsement. 

What I have subsequently learned is that Ms. Klobuchar has a proven track record for being one heck of a tough boss.  According to Legistorm, an organization that tracks Congressional turnover rates, during the period from 2001 to 2016, Ms. Klobuchar had the highest annual staff turnover rate in the Senate (36%).  Indeed, she was the only Senator of either party whose turnover index was more than twice the Senate average. 

Is that disqualifying?  No.  But it is troublesome.  Because if you think the job of a Senator is stressful, you should try the job of Presidential candidate who is taking on the greatest personal attack machine known to humankind (Swift Boating, anyone?).  And if you think that job is stressful, you should try actually being the President who has to clean up the current situation.  The last thing we need is a stress level and turnover rate that are through the roof.

The Legistorm data suggests that there is more to Ms. Klobuchar than her “Minnesota Nice” exterior would suggest.  I’m not suggesting any deep character flaws here, or even that she is not a nice person. What I am saying is this issue bears closer scrutiny.  The Democrats can’t afford to screw up this nominating process after having screwed up the last one.  We had better nominate someone who connects with Ronald Reagan Democrats and Bill Clinton Republicans, appears relatively unflappable on the stump (remember, “No Drama Obama”), and who doesn’t come across as a technocrat or a phony. 

In short, I had a dream that we’d soon be electing Amy Klobuchar.  But if we have to elect someone like, oh I don’t know, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, that will work just fine. 

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Stripping Bare the False Hopes Behind Climate-Change Complacency

Shortly before the end of the 18th century, a British intellectual named Thomas Malthus made a prediction that turned out to be wrong.  He suggested that because human population would grow geometrically and food production only arithmetically, absent a dramatic drop in birth rates or a dramatic increase in death rates (due to wars or illness), the world would no longer be able adequately to feed itself.   What Malthus didn’t foresee was the tremendous technical advances in food production that would follow the writing of his essay.   Over the past 220 years, we have seen dramatic improvements in agriculture, refrigeration, machines, you name it.  This has enabled us to produce far more food than Malthus could possibly have envisioned, and so now, the poor chap’s name has come to be sullied with the label of doomsayer.  We take him no more seriously than we take Chicken Little. 

And therein lies a problem.  Our world has become dangerously post-Mathusian.  We live in an age where our movers and shakers feel duty bound to ignore doomsayers like Malthus.  Especially in our more entrepreneurial classes, it has become an article of faith that the Chicken Littles should be ignored.   Now, every time a man of letters preaches that the sky is falling, the barons of business simply laugh it off.   “You sound like that silly ol’ Malthus,” they think to themselves.  Or to be more precise, even if we personally have never heard of Malthus himself, we’ve all come to appreciate the existence of thinkers from yesteryear who’ve envisioned all sorts of future horribles, only to have failed to take into account the effects of human ingenuity as reflected in greater and greater technological prowess.   This is why in some circles, it has become almost a religious imperative never again to bet against the ability of the human mind to solve what may appear on the surface to be an intractable technical problem.

Personally, I saw this phenomenon play out when I started my career as an attorney at the Federal Communications Commission in 1984.  Back then, there was a real push to improve communications technology – to usher in the kind of “information age” that has come to characterize the 21st century.  However, the Malthusians among us were warning that if we shook up (deregulate) the telecom industry, we may indeed bring greater prosperity to the rich but the poor may lose their ability to enjoy basic telephone service.   That warning turned out to be bunk – we went ahead with deregulation, and our telecom technology continued to advance so dramatically that rich and poor alike were able to enjoy the fruits of this advance without the need for regulation.   Once again, we all learned a lesson: don’t let the cluckings of Chicken Littles turn us into silly pessimists.  Whenever we really need human technology to come through for us, we can assume that it will advance by leaps and bounds and stave off disaster.

But you know what happens when we “assume” – we make an ass of u and me. And so it appears that our post-Malthusian assumptions are leading us down a path of carbon-guzzling complacency.  The barons of industry and the politicians they fund are well aware of the ubiquity of scientists who make Mathusian noises about the effects of climate change.  But they just don’t care.  They don’t want to hear about Chicken Little.  They are obsessed instead with Mighty Mouse (“Here I come to save the day!”).    Surely, they figure, we’ll be able to improve our technical ability to produce renewal and non-dangerous sources of energy so as to minimize the effects of human-induced climate change.

I don’t think so.  Even if we stipulate advancements in the harnessing of solar and other renewal energy sources, that alone won’t solve the problem.  For one thing, the demand for energy – and for the creature comforts it produces – won’t go away.  You see, demand for creature comforts, once enjoyed, never seems to lessen, and the world’s population continues to rise significantly.   As for the supply of energy, we are deeply addicted to the fuels that threaten our planet.   Perhaps, with a bit more political will we could do away with coal.  But oil?  So many powerful and wealthy companies in so many powerful and wealthy countries are thoroughly dependent on producing oil (as opposed to renewable sources of energy) that it would take a true miracle to stop us from continuing to do so.  Just consider how many people would stand to lose their fortunes – or their jobs – if we attempt a rapid transition away from oil.  These individuals would fight to continue to make their livelihood in the same fashion, politicians would dare not stand up to such a powerful coalition, and demand would continue to surge for their services.  Expecting a dramatic change under these circumstances is like expecting the Titanic to move rapidly to evade the iceberg.  Quite clearly, this is a very different dynamic than the one faced by Malthus in the 1790s (where farmers of all types welcomed improvements in agriculture) or the telecom industry in the 1980s (where AT&T could easily enough transition from old-style phones to improved telephone technology).

I realize that it’s no fun to sound like Malthus or Chicken Little.  It’s far more satisfying either to deny climate change like our President does, or to sound like one of those upbeat social reformers who talk as if we can still stop this freight train as long as we put our collective minds to the task.  I’ll give you this – I think we should try to stem this horrendous tide.  I think we should listen to our scientists, restrict our personal demand for carbon, support renewable energy sources, advocate international climate treaties and domestic regulation on carbon, etc.   But Empathic Rationalism is a philosophy of honesty – both with others and with ourselves.  And I won’t lie to you: I see dire consequences ahead.  I believe we’ve passed the point of no return.  And while I hope I’m as wrong as Malthus turned out to be, I’m no longer living in a post-Mathusian age.  The central “article of faith” I’m following is simple logic.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Time for a Zero-Tolerance Policy

Before I begin addressing my topic for the morning, allow me to join in the chorus of those who are sharing their grief at the death of George H.W. Bush.  I never voted for the man, but I have always liked and admired him.  Some of the most fulfilling years of my career were spent at the Federal Trade Commission under a Chairman who he appointed (Janet Steiger), and I realized then that President Bush was someone who respected the civil service and who appointed people to positions in Government who cared about advancing the mission of their agencies, were pragmatic instead of rigidly ideological, and deferred when appropriate to their staffs. 

This country is as great as it because of men and women like George H.W. Bush.  I am proud to have served in his Administration. He was a patriot in the best senses of that term.   He will be missed.

Now, let’s turn to the topic of the day.    

Like George H.W. Bush, I am a huge sports fan.  His favorite sport was baseball, which should not be surprising since he once captained Yale’s baseball team.  My favorite sport is football, which should not be surprising since I have a real mean streak in me.  But at least I recognize it, I’m not thrilled about it, and I would never it let it cause me to hurt anyone or anything other than my own arteries.

This week, football fans all over the nation were forced to remind ourselves about the connection between football and violence.   Subconsciously, we see that connection whenever we watch a game.  Inherently, the sport is violent – perhaps not as violent as boxing or Mixed Martial Arts, but close.  If you don’t hit hard, you can’t play defense, and if you can’t play defense, we might as well be watching basketball or track.  What makes football great is the irresistible force facing the immovable object.  Without the violence, the object just gets moved down the field like butter facing a knife.  Who wants to watch that?

If you love the game as much as I do, you’re probably at peace with watching the hits, at least if they don’t involve gratuitous shots to the head.  But it is difficult to be at peace with the reports that have come out in the past decade about the consequences of these hits on the body, and especially the brain.   I’ve spoken to a lawyer who handles claims on behalf of football players and their families.  The physical devastation he has reported to me is truly appalling.  And yes, as someone who religiously watches these games and frequently attends them, I recognize that I am an enabler of these consequences – the torn ligaments, the broken bones, and all the symptoms associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (e.g., early onset dementia, depression, uber-aggression, personality changes, etc.).  Those destroyed lives remain on my conscience.  What can I say?  I love the game.  Always have.

Only in the past decade have the barons of football proposed to do something, anything, to minimize the problems discussed in the previous paragraph. Unfortunately, not enough is being done.  I can’t tell you how often vicious helmet-to-helmet hits go unpenalized, and therefore undeterred.   To be sure, we can expect the league to more vigilantly punish this conduct, yet that won’t change the fact that the sport is necessarily violent.  Maybe fewer players will get CTE, but the number will never go to zero.   We fans have to accept that fact.

All that said, here’s what we DON’T have to accept: that the gladiators who hit hard on the gridiron also frequently hit hard off of it.  We don’t have to tolerate the wife- and child-beating that so many of these gladiators seem to view as their birthright.  We also don’t have to tolerate the “boys will be boys” attitude that comes out of the mouths of the suits who run the National Football League, or the football programs that seem to dominate so many universities these days.    It is one thing to love football.  It’s another to accept football culture.  The former had better evolve, within limits.  The latter had better transform itself dramatically.  Stated simply, violence against women and children (or, in the case of Michael Vick, against dogs) must no longer be tolerated by our society.  Full stop.

You would think it was enough this year when the Washington Redskins, my local NFL team, brought in Adrian Peterson to play running back.  You may remember Mr. Peterson as the 6’1” 220 pound man-missile who a few years ago beat his four-year old son with a tree branch 10-15 times, injuring the child’s back, buttocks, legs, and scrotum.  I used to be a big Peterson fan.  Once that happened -- and once Peterson seemed to show only a modicum of remorse -- my ability to enjoy his exploits on the field ended.    This past week, the Redskins signed another off-the-field tough guy to the team.  The new addition is a 23-year old linebacker named Reuben Foster, who had just been cut by the 49ers.  His reputation was already marred by a well-publicized verbal altercation with a hospital worker, and by separate weapons and drug offenses.  This past Saturday night, Foster was arrested in Tampa as part of a domestic violence investigation.   According to his female accuser, he “slapped her phone out of her hand, pushed her in the chest area, and slapped her with an open hand on the right side of her face.” 

In justifying the Redskins decision to sign Foster, team executive Doug Williams responded, “We got people in (high) positions that have done far worse.  This is small potatoes (compared to) a lot of things.”  Probably true – for example, what Adrian Peterson did to his FOUR-year old son is worse.  But let’s just say that when I turn on a football game, I’m not signing up for either.

Later this week, Kansas City Chiefs fans were treated to a video of their star running back, Kareem Hunt, kicking and shoving a woman.   The incident had been reported months ago, and Hunt was allowed to remain on the team.  But after the video came out, the Chiefs had reached their limit – they said that Hunt had lied to them about the incident and were therefore cutting him from the team.   Perhaps the Redskins will want him too – Adrian Peterson is getting older, so maybe Hunt would make a fine replacement on and off the field.

When will the leaders of this sport get together and impose some rules?  When will they create a zero tolerance policy?  And when will my local team, the Washington Redskins, move the hell away from my city so that they can pollute some other environment? We already know that their franchise history is mired in racism – from their unwillingness to hire any black players (they were the last all-white team in NFL history) to their racist mascot (the Indian on the Warpath), no football team says “Bigots” quite like the Redskins.  But do they have to stand for woman and children abuse as well? 

I could go on and on about this topic, but I’ll spare you.  Suffice it to say that if there is any decency left in this sport, can we please change the culture now?  Can we please confine the violence to the field of play?  Can we please tell these players that if they want to beat up on defenseless people, they will have to figure out a different way to make a living than one that pays millions of dollars to play a ball game?

Enough is enough. 

Saturday, November 24, 2018

An Essay for Your Perusal

This past Monday night, I delivered a talk on a topic that still captivates me, even though I supposedly have "finished" the project.  It focuses on the following paradox in Spinoza's thought: How can a world characterized by  supreme complexity spring from a cause (God) that is supremely simple?  Stated differently, how can God be equated to Nature, which is supremely complex, and to Substance, which is supremely simple?  This paper will get you thinking about both God and politics, and was inspired by a prayer delivered by my daughter Hannah to open a pro forma session of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Why is this topic so intriguing to me?  Above all else, because it deals with a doctrine that is hardly unique to Spinoza -- divine simplicity.  Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus are two other philosophers who supported that doctrine even before Spinoza did.  I must say that it's far afield from the way most people think about God.  But is it reasonable?  Is it compelling?  Does it give us sustenance?  I'll leave those questions for you to think about when you read an essay based on Monday night's talk.   You can find the essay at the following page of my website, under the title:  "The Complexity of the World, the Simplicity of God:  A Spinozist Perspective" --

I hope you enjoy it.  

Saturday, November 17, 2018

A Jew Grapples with Thanksgiving

Last evening at Shabbat Services, my rabbi spoke about the concept of Thanksgiving in the Jewish faith and the Jewish culture.  She addressed a topic that isn’t discussed nearly enough: that despite the myriad of occasions during a Jewish service when we give thanks to God, gratitude doesn’t come as easily for Jews as you might think.  As the rabbi pointed out, Jews are the people of Israel – the so-called “God-wrestlers” – and we find ourselves constantly struggling with the world like ours that is so terribly far from anyone’s idea of utopia.  Adherents of other faiths might not be so dismayed by that prospect for they are taught that virtue in this life will be rewarded by euphoria in the next.  But we Jews don’t tend to think much about what happens after we’re gone.  We’re taught to focus on the here-and-now, with all its imperfections, none of which we sugar coat.  So you can understand why, when it comes to interacting with the Holy Name, Jews may be skeptical, cynical, even angry, rather than appropriately grateful.

My rabbi pointed out that in Jewish culture, wrestling spills into every facet of life.  Jews are inveterate complainers; my mother’s friend once asked her to start a business together called “Rent a Kvetch” in which gentiles can hire them to complain to local businesses who mistreated people.   Jews are prone to interrupting others in conversation.  And we tend to be attracted to litigation – both as a possible profession and as an activity in our private lives.  Go visit Israel and you will find a whole nation of people dedicated to the proposition that whether or not the meek will “inherit the earth,” they’ll have all sorts of trouble finding a seat on a bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.  (Just ask the rabbi who dealt with that very same predicament when she was pregnant.)

Let’s face it – we Jews dedicate holidays to remembering atrocities.  We have no tolerance whatsoever for injustices of any kind.  And we are unusually well trained as to how to confront them.  Even those of us who are 90 pound weaklings tend to be successful at wrestling with our tongues or our pens.  We teach our children to grapple with whatever tools are at their disposal.   And though we dispute that the Messiah has ever walked this earth and await (metaphorically) his arrival, we are religiously commanded to bust our butts to fix this place on our own, so that when the Messiah comes, he won’t even have been needed. 

So how, given all this sturm and drang and all the kvetching that flows from it, can we make room for gratitude?   How can we be expected to launch Jeremiads one moment, and berakhahs (prayers) of thanks the next?

These questions are especially important to ask this time of year -- a time when the entire society is asked to take a moment to give thanks.   For me, the key is to reflect on just how incredibly much there is to be thankful for.  If you look at all the death and destruction in the world, the only reason we view that as such a tragedy is because we all recognize so much beauty in life.  If we weren’t so blessed with the knowledge of what a healthy, happy life looks like, we wouldn’t be so heart-broken whenever we see it taken away. 

Personally, I became a grandfather for the first time this year.  How can I not be grateful for that?  I’ll know if I ever get to Heaven, because there I’d have plenty of grandchildren.  Such a gift. 

And whether you are a grandparent, a parent, or an orphan who has never either dated or procreated, you likely know what it means to have enjoyed a meal.  Or listened to great music.  Or watched the sun set.  Yes, we can go on for minutes listing atrocities.  But we can go on for hours or days listing sources of pleasure.  The problem is that we tend to take them for granted.  We’re all hard wired to respond more to destructive stimuli than to pleasurable ones; that’s one reason we’ve survived so long as a species.

Well, my friends, we’re about to enter the week on our calendar in which we must not take any source of joy for granted.   If you are religious, then by all means – thank God for all the Divine sustenance you receive.  But whether or not you’re religious, feel free to thank your people – relatives and friends alike – for the gift of love.   Love among people comes in so many varieties.   We receive it every day whenever someone makes us smile.   That person deserves to be thanked.  If you are too shy to do it out loud, then do it quietly.

But if you’re Jewish, and you are used to being aggressive when it comes to injustice, you have no excuse for being shy.  Give thanks where it is deserved.  Let the world know that your truest vocation in life is to love and to appreciate.  Let the world know that your kvetching is just a hobby. 

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Reflections on Pittsburgh

If you haven’t yet read my previous blog post, please scroll down and do so before reading this one.  You may notice that when I wrote it, I wasn’t fully aware of what was happening that morning at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and when I did find out about the details of the Pittsburgh attack, I wasn’t altogether surprised.   After the pipe bomb threats, I had all the information needed to write that post – a nation awash in hatred, weapons and xenophobia will turn to anti-Semitic violence sooner or later.  If we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that.

This week, though, I find myself thinking not only about anti-Semitism, but also about philo-Semitism.  Like most other Jews, I’ve been the recipient in the past eight days of a tremendous outpouring of sympathy from gentiles.  They have reminded me that for every right-wing nut who spews venom about Globalists and George Soros, and every left-wing nut who thinks that Israel is by far the worst country in the world, there are numerous others who find such language to be insane.  What’s more, they have reminded me that just as we live in a world where certain gentiles have a special hatred for Jews, there are other gentiles who – get this – actually love Jewish culture and the Jewish religion.  Those of you who fall into those latter categories and who reached out to your Jewish friends and expressed statements of solidarity and love – trust me that your words will never be forgotten. 

Growing up only a generation after the Second World War, the Holocaust was still in the rear view mirror.  I understood that anti-Semites were in the minority and on the run.  But reflecting on all the causes of anti-Semitism and the historical ubiquity of anti-Semitism, the whole notion of philo-Semitism seemed to be absurd.   In Europe, Jews were associated with killing Christ, refusing to recognize His Lordship, separating from the society-at-large by dressing differently and maintaining different “laws,” and entering immoral occupations that involved greed and competition.  America, I assumed, wasn’t nearly as anti-Semitic as Europe, but we were colonized primarily by Europeans, and old stereotypes die hard. 

In sports camp one summer, I was given the nick-name “Bangladesh” because my Jewish skin was darker than that of the other kids.  I recognized that this was no term of endearment.  A couple of years later, in ninth grade, I had a gym teacher named Andrew Smith who used to mock me with the name “Super Jew.”  I was both smart enough and non-athletic enough to realize that this was said ironically.  In another two years, when I was in 11th grade, I had a lab partner in science class who called himself a Nazi.  And so it goes – I can provide similar examples, but you get the point.  Anti-Semitism has thrived on this continent even during the period when, supposedly, all there is to say about the Jewish experience is that we enjoy white privilege. 

As my daughter said during her Shabbat sermon yesterday on Capitol Hill, most American Jews do enjoy the privileged status that comes with white skin and a relatively comfortable net worth.  But we also enjoy what it means to come from a tradition where the commitment to social justice is an obligation, not merely a choice. In my own book about Judaism, entitled “Moses the Heretic,” the title character wondered why there are so many Jewish social workers, and then said that “if you can answer that question, you’ll have learned most of what there is to learn about Judaism.”  Rabbi Akiva, a man who was martyred 19 centuries before the Pittsburgh martyrs lost their lives, taught us that of all the Torah’s 613 commandments, one stands above the rest: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).  That commandment is obviously an ideal, which few if any of us are able to fulfill entirely.  But remember that we Jews are not burdened with an emphasis on the after-life.  We are taught that what matters most to our souls is the need to act in the here-and-now and make a positive difference in the lives of other people.  That is one reason why Jews are disproportionately represented in public service.  The value of service is ingrained in our culture and our faith. 

During the past several months, I have devoted a fair amount of time to studying the Christian Bible (i.e., the books that Christians refer to as the “New Testament”).  I found much of those Scriptures to be moving, but perhaps my favorite line in all those books was the following, which is attributed to Jesus: “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?  Is it not the one who is at the table?  But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:27)

Ultimately, Jews will be judged by our ability to live in accordance with that teaching.  You see, if we are living consistently with our own faith tradition, we also will serve.  In righteous wars, in the civil service, in classrooms, at hospitals, at free clinics, in soup kitchens ... you name it, we will serve.  We have a word for people who don’t.  They are called “chazers.”  It means “pigs.”  We don’t eat pigs, and we don’t want to be gluttonous like pigs.  We are commanded to serve.

Traditionally, anti-Semites have associated Jews with the opposite of service.  According to the stereotype, we charge usurious interest and desire to rule the world in stealthy ways.  Think of Shylock or Fagin, or all the other “swarthy” white people in world literature who grub for money in the shadows.  When a hate-filled man launched himself into the Tree of Life congregation last week and shut down the hearts of 11 Jewish worshipers, he surely spoke for countless millions over the centuries who have come to think of Jews as selfish, scheming, vermin. 

As Jesus once said about the poor, the anti-Semites will always be with us.  Anything that has survived for 2000 years isn’t going away any time soon.  But in the past week, we have seen that there are many gentiles who obviously don’t think of us as supreme hypocrites, or as people who put the “letter of the law above the spirit.”   This past Shabbat, at two very different synagogues, I watched as gentiles sat for two full hours and prayed with their Jewish brothers and sisters.  It was deeply moving for me to see their support; that’s not something a Jew is taught to take for granted. 
In the end, philo-Semites will realize the truth about us Jews.  We can be hypocrites.  All of us. But we can also be servants.  We love the same God that gentiles love – even those of us who resist that term deeply revere the source of life, whatever or whoever it may be.  We are tribal.  But we are also universalists.  Those who emphasize one of those values but not the other have missed the whole point of Judaism. 

There’s one other thing – just as we mourn being hated, let alone killed, for choosing to retain our Jewishness, we also appreciate being liked, let alone loved, for keeping our faith and our tribal membership.  To all of those who have married into our community, or who enjoy occasionally attending one of our worship services, or who texted or called last week with words of support, or who just felt a moment of solidarity when you heard what happened in Pittsburgh, bless you.

We need you every bit as much as we don’t need people like that man with the AR-15. 

Saturday, October 27, 2018

What it Means to be Democratic and Free

This past Thursday night I attended a salon populated primarily by foreign affairs professionals.  The guest speaker was Dan Twining, the President of the International Republican Institute (IRI).  IRI identifies its mission as to "advance democracy and freedom. We link people with their governments, guide politicians to be responsive to citizens, and motivate people to engage in the political process."  In short, IRI spreads American values throughout the world, and apparently emphasizes two such values above all else – the commitment to democracy and to freedom. 

After that salon, I’ve been reflecting on IRI’s charge.  Just how committed to those values are we?  In other words, just how “American” is America today?

Over the course of the last year or so, this blog has frequently addressed the state of American democracy.  I think it is safe to say our commitment to democratic values can be questioned.  Just consider, to take a few examples: the rampant efforts at voter suppression that come to light prior to each election; the high percentage of eligible voters who don’t even bother to cast a ballot (in the case of midterms, we’re talking about the vast majority of eligible voters); the existence of rampant gerrymandering in the U.S. Congressional Districts; the fact that there are populated areas that have no representation whatsoever in the Senate (just ask the folks of D.C. and Puerto Rico) or any voting representation in the House; the fact that four states with the largest populations have about as many people as the 35 states with the smallest populations, but the latter get nearly nine times as many representatives in the U.S. Senate; and the memory of two recent Presidential elections where the winner lost the popular vote.

If our society is committed to democracy, let’s just say that we have embraced a rather odd definition of that term.  Fortunately, however, for organizations like IRI and its blue analogue, the National Democratic Institute, our nation remains far and away more democratic than many others around the world. So we can still enjoy at least a modicum of credibility when we take our pro-democracy lectures across the pond.

The same can surely be said for our commitment to freedom, and then some.  If there is one value that continues to unify Americans, it’s the love of freedom.  In some respects, you can say that whatever is either best or worst about this country stems from our obsession with freedom.  To be sure, there are ways in which other countries surpass us in that regard.  Several countries have legalized euthanasia, and we have not.  But even in that regard we are ahead of the curve, for euthanasia is now legal in many states and that number is sure to increase over time.

As a Jew, I am incredibly thankful for America’s commitment to church/state neutrality and the sacred right to freely exercise one’s faith.  It’s not a coincidence that we have easily the world’s most thriving Jewish community outside of Israel.  As the President of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue of Washington, I also appreciate how difficult it would be for our government to outlaw certain traditional Muslim attire; Europeans might be able to get away with that sort of Islamophobic law, but it won’t fly here.

The American love for freedom is not just etched into our laws.  It’s ingrained in our culture.  Our national symbol, the bald eagle, says it all – we want to be able to soar in whatever direction we see fit.  To dress the way we want.  To love who we want.  To smoke what we want.  To worship in the morning and visit topless bars at night.  (Well, OK, not all of us want to do that, thankfully, but most of us believe in the right to be able to do it without Big Brother swooping down and stopping us.)  
It is not surprising that the two laws in our country that generate the most passion are the first two amendments of our Constitution: the right to freedom of expression in all its manifestations, and the right to bear arms.  Is it any wonder that opponents of the Second Amendment are left to flail away in failure despite the fact that this nation is thoroughly awash in firearms?  If America permits something that is valued by a substantial portion of society, God help whoever tries to outlaw it.  Fly, eagles, fly. 

Personally, I can appreciate this sentiment.  I despise guns, but I accept that in this culture, those who own them will probably get to keep them. I don’t smoke dope, but I wouldn’t deprive others of the right to do so.  Or to visit prostitutes, or to eat meat – neither of which I partake in.  Nor would I advocate restricting the freedom of speech except in very limited ways.  No engaging in fraud.  No shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater.  But if you want to say all sorts of obnoxious things on the campaign trail ... I wouldn’t stop you.

Free speech has always been the quintessential American right.  Our system has worked because, for the most part, we haven’t abused it.  At least not until now.  Today, for the first time in my lifetime, we’re putting our commitment to free speech to the test.

Every day you can turn on the radio and hear nationally syndicated personalities spew insults in the direction of “liberals,” “Feminazis,” or anyone else who gets in the way of their preferred political party.  Alternatively, you can turn on the television and watch the liberals get their revenge with incessant mockery against their own opponents.  Our President refers to the press as the “enemy of the people.”  Our campaign rallies are punctuated by nasty chants directed at media outlets and prominent politicians.   For some, this is all just fun and games. But for others, and I dare say most, it has become a Petri dish of hatred.  Today, if you want to be politically engaged and fit in with your environment, you better choose a team, demonize the opponent, and relish the name calling. 
In this past week, the chickens started coming home to roost.   Politically motivated mail bombs were sent all over the country to some of the nation’s most recognized citizens.  Immediately, the purveyors of hatred distanced themselves from these criminal acts.  And technically, they were right.   It’s illegal to send mail bombs, but legal to regularly spew hate.  That’s the American way.

It’s also a case of having-it-both-ways.  If we are going to use our commitment to freedom to wage a civil war of words in which members of each political party are taught to despise the other, how do we expect to export American values around the world?  And what exactly do we expect to happen here at home?  Frankly, if our political and cultural leaders viciously rip into their political opponents day after day, calling them names, questioning their patriotism, and effectively talking about them like a cancer on the American soul, isn’t more violence inevitable?  How can we subject 300 million people to these daily toxins and expect them all to figure out that the “game” is to be nasty, or even hateful, but not violent? 

This past week, we got lucky.  Nobody got hurt.  But remember, our commitment to freedom doesn’t simply permit lots of hate speech; it also permits lots of guns, including assault weapons.  In recent years, cultural and political leaders have seemed to think they can bombard 300 million people with disrespect, hatred and guns ... and expect everyone to keep their fingers off the trigger.  I realize freedom is a great thing.  But even great things have a price, and in this case it’s insanity.  Something has to give, my friends.  No scorched-earth civil war can possibly remain peacefully civil forever.    
Let’s hope that in ten days, we elect leaders who refuse to demagogue or demonize and who have the courage to speak out against those who do.  As for the rest of us, just please remember that no matter who you are or what political party you belong to, take a breath before you hate. 

Saturday, October 13, 2018

An Interfaith Address

After the madness of the previous few weeks, I am taking this blogpost off from politics -- partisan or otherwise.  What's more, I am taking this blogpost off from divisiveness generally.  Yes, I understand that what follows may be viewed as divisive by someone who is antagonized by the very existence of religion.  But if you fall into that category, I mean no offense.  For I assume that even the "non-religious" have their own world view, their own "ultimate concern," and I include you and others like you in any dialogue that is truly interfaith.

What follows is the substance of an address that I gave last week at a mosque in Lanham, Maryland.  It was part of an International World Islamic Conference entitled "The Spirit of Good Morals," and I was participating in a panel that focused on harmony and interfaith cooperation.  May you find these words meaningful --

In Judaism, the “Prophets” are known above all else for their love and their courage.  They are courageous enough to rail against even the most cherished of ceremonial rituals, whenever these rituals are placed above such values as justice and compassion.  For example, on the holiest day of fasting in the Jewish calendar, we read from the Prophet Isaiah:  “Because you fast in strife and contention ... your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high.  Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? [To] bow ... the[ir] heads like a bulrush and [lie] in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast...?  No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness ....  To let the oppressed go free.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home.” 

That is Prophetic Judaism.  It is why rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that the Prophets were absolutely consumed with the horrors of social injustice.  The Prophets, Heschel wrote, throw us “into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and affairs of the market place.  Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums. ... The[y] ... are scandalized and rave as if the whole world were a slum. ...  To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people, to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode, to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.”

To be a Jewish follower of the Prophets is to fight injustice.  And to love all expressions of God – and especially our fellow human beings.  We honor God, by loving humankind.  All of humankind.  Not just our family.  Not just our tribe.  Yet we live in a time where it is tempting to become tribal.  To circle the wagons and fight for our own kind.  White versus black, red versus blue, rich versus poor.  Such is life in 2018 in America.

But that is not a righteous life.  Righteousness requires us to transcend the tribal.  Yes, I am a son of Jacob.  But first and foremost, I am a son of Adam – and a lover of God.  My God commands me to open my heart to all people, and especially those most in need.  My God commands me to open my mind to all teachings, and not be afraid of dialoguing with those who disagree with me.  My God commands me to open my lips to speak truth to power, to preach based on hope not fear, and to be candid when others are circumspect.

While recognizing that interfaith is difficult whenever people dialogue with candor, I am proud to be a member of the interfaith movement.  And why not?  As Spinoza said, “all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”   If you ask me, few if any social movements are more excellent than interfaith.  Without it, we will never form the unity needed to the bridge the divides that plague our world.  If we don’t build these bridges, the poorest among us, the weakest among us, their bodies will suffer the most.  Their bodies, our souls.

I understand there are people who won’t dialogue with me because I am a Jew who has a love for the state of Israel. Decades ago, I left this country at the age of 20 to travel there.  When I left, I was a non-believer in God.  When I returned, I was a believer for life.  I have called out to all who are interested – come, let’s dialogue about the plight of Palestinians and Jews in that part of the world.  Some have answered my call.  Others would say “No. Don’t dialogue with him.  If you do that, you normalize the oppression for which his people are responsible.”

My brothers and sisters, that is what interfaith is up against.  Every tribe has its reasons NOT to dialogue with those who see the world differently.  Every tribe has its reasons to fear, to mistrust.  But that is not the path of the Prophets.  That is not the path of an open heart or an open mind.  To the Prophets, all human beings have dignity.  All voices should be heard.  All cries for help should be answered.  And to answer them, we must join hands, pool our resources, and work together. 

A week or so before this complex had its Grand Opening, a number of us from the interfaith community met here and shared a few reflections.  My message was simple.  The interfaith movement is beautiful, but it has a big problem.  For the most part, all we do is preach to the choir.  We see the same faces over and over again, and they all nod in agreement.  But we aren’t succeeding in reaching the mainstream of our congregations.  They are still apathetic or fearful.  So they’d rather not share their ideas about the hot-button issues outside their communities.  They prefer the comfort food of praying with their own kind, rather than, say, looking into the eyes of the “other” and seeing their own reflection.

How do we get the rank and file from our congregations to leave the comforts of home?  The answer starts with a commitment by our leaders to emphasize interfaith.  First, they must find fellow clergy from other faiths who they trust.  And then, these clergy must bring their congregations together and twin.  Congregational twinning is how you form trust and lasting friendships, and open up the preaching beyond the choir.  

In this world, there is nothing more inspiring than seeing people who disagree with each other nevertheless love each other.  Learn from each other.  And teach each other.  Yes, it’s difficult.  It takes time, patience, and plenty of humility.  But we have no choice.  We must take on the interfaith challenge.  Our Prophets require it.  You see, they demand that we, inspired by our love of God, heal our planet and care for our needy.  If we don’t work together, we can’t get that job done.  And that would be a catastrophe and a scandal that the Prophets cannot abide.   Nor should we.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

“When They Go Low, We Go High” – Yet Another Case Study

In mid-February 2008, Michelle Obama made a statement that, according to Republicans at the time, revealed her as a hater of America.  Reflecting on her husband’s popularity as a candidate for President, Michelle said that “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” 

Her statement was mocked far and wide over talk radio.  No matter what time of the day, you could listen to nationally syndicated voices blasting her as an ungrateful, militant feminist – and on those shows, there is no insult worse than “feminist.”  Rush Limbaugh, one of the pre-eminent voices of talk radio regularly uses the term “feminazi” instead of feminist to further illustrate the point that feminists are nothing short of a cancer on the nation.  I suspect he would use this term for any of the top women leaders of the Democratic Party – Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand.  Whichever of these women are actually seeking power at a given time are dehumanized on a regular basis throughout the day on stations all over America.  These are the programs through which Red America gets its talking points.  It has been this way for nearly three decades.  By contrast, Blue America tried to create its own network, Air America, but it failed in less than six years. 

Ten years have passed since Michelle Obama uttered those famous words about pride in her country.  She is pretty much out of the news now; since she is not threatening Rush, Mark, Laura, Sean and the other right-wing talking heads, nobody’s bothering to lash out at her.  Lucky woman.  The last time she was really at the center of the nation’s attention was when she delivered her speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2016.  Michelle was reflecting on the people – like our current President – who have questioned her husband’s citizenship or faith, using hateful language and acting like a bully (for what else do you call getting on the radio or television in front of an amen chorus and dehumanizing the leaders of the opposing party constantly for nearly 30 years).  And she was very clear about the proper way to react to such bigmouths:

“When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level.  No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”

There you have it – the motto of the Democratic Party.  So please allow me to translate – the Republicans can engage in mixed martial arts, throwing elbows, fists, knees, feet, you name it.  And we’ll respond with dressage – calm, composed, graceful, artistic.  Somehow, the good Lord has thrown us both into the same ring.  Naturally, the Republicans keep on winning battles (i.e., elections).  But we, the Democrats, feel like we’re winning the war.  Because in our minds, we’re the ones who can look ourselves in the mirror the next morning, proud of our performance, whereas they – those cruel bullies – they should be ashamed of themselves.

I assure you that they’re not.  In fact, right now, as we speak, all over the country, Republicans are laughing at their opponents, the way the Harlem Globetrotters must have laughed at the hapless Washington Generals.  They keep winning.  They have the Presidency, the Senate, the House, the State Houses, more and more courts, and now they are about to have the Supreme Court for a long, long time.  So much for the value of dressage.

The two sports were fully on display during the Kavanaugh hearings.  The Democrats brought calm, respectful Senators who asked questions and, indeed, elicited a number of “little lies” about the Senator’s high school yearbook and teenage alcohol habits.  “Well played,” as they probably say in dressage (you’ll forgive me but I’ve never learned dressage jargon, so I’ll have to speculate about it).  None of the Democrats lost his or her cool, or even broke a sweat.  Democrats rarely break a sweat – they’re surely fearful that if they did, it would look bad. And the one thing you can’t do in dressage is look bad – not you, not your horse.  Meanwhile, Kavanaugh came out like Ronda Rousey in her prime. He was ready to throw punches, show off his judo flips, and kick ass.   And when he was finished, Lindsay Graham was just warming up.  “This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics,” he hollered, “And if you really wanted to know the truth, you sure as hell wouldn’t have done what you’ve done to this guy.” 

Graham was yelling.  It’s the political equivalent of the knee to the face, which badly gashes the opponent and turns a white or brown face a red one.  Republicans don’t mind yelling.  Our President does it on a daily basis.  Bernie Sanders tried to do it on the Democratic side as well as Elizabeth Warren.  But they don’t get very far.  Bernie wasn’t even given a fair shake to win his Party’s nomination.  And Warren?  She’s viewed as unelectable – too “shrill,” too “negative.”  That’s another way of saying that there is no crying in baseball and no yelling in dressage.

As for mixed martial arts, there are comparatively few constraints.  It’s kind of no holds barred – you basically do whatever you have to do to win.  Principles are for pussies.  Uppercuts, armbars, and guillotines are for champions.  But there is one rule that applies AFTER you’ve won.  When you choke someone unconscious, for example, you’re supposed to let go.  You’re supposed to let the medics attend to the loser right away.  In Republican politics, the analogue is that you’re supposed to behave in a bi-partisan, statesmanlike way – after the choke hold has been successfully applied.  So, for example, when it became clear that Kavanaugh had the votes, he could go to the Wall Street Journal and write his op-ed about how maybe, just maybe, his performance in the ring last Thursday was a bit much.  Of course, there is no such thing as a bit much when you’re in the UFC and you’re fighting for the Title (in this case, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court).  You can make nice when the fight’s over, but only when the fight’s over.  Because if you let your guard down earlier, you might just get kicked in the face.  Even a Republican could have trouble rebounding from that.

It’s kind of funny, I guess, that the Republicans figured out a way to turn the would-be perpetrator into the victim.  Their passion has galvanized their base.  And the Democrats?  They have their base wondering about how things could have been different.  How Mitch McConnell could have said “Of course, sir,” when President Obama asked if his own nominee, Merrick Garland, would get a fair hearing.  Garland was a political moderate and AARP-eligible for 13 years, but still McConnell didn’t feel like giving him a fair hearing.  Again, no rules.  Elbows, knees, feet, fists – all good.  And how did Obama and the Democrats respond?  Rage?  Are you kidding.  There is no rage in dressage.  Seriously, if you want to win gold at that sport, you must exude class at all time.  You and your horse.
So President Obama took McConnell’s news like the class act we knew him to be when we elected him.  “No drama Obama,” we called him. Cool as the other side of the pillow.  No problem.  We don’t need our Supreme Court Justice this year.  We’ll wait until after we win the election in 2016.  In fact, we won’t even bother to campaign in the states where the polls are close, because our candidate is classy and your candidate is a lout, and Americans would never elect a lout.  What do you think this is, mixed martial arts?

Ah, yeah.  That’s exactly what it is.  You see, MMA is a battle between people with different specialties. You have boxers, wrestlers, judoka, and Muay Thai specialists, and they somehow get together in the same ring and fight it out – sometimes standing up, and sometimes on the mat, depending on whose skills are most dominant.  Similarly, the Republicans are using the full panoply of MMA skills to ignore the environment, cut taxes for the rich, and roll back reproductive rights and the Democrats are using the full panoply of dressage skills to ... well, let’s just say to look classy and feel good about themselves when they see themselves in the mirror after their inevitable defeats.
It’s not a fair fight.  Then again, nobody thinks about politics as being fundamentally fair.  Even the Democrats know that much.  Still, for reasons known only to the people at the last Democratic Convention, they cheered when Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.”

That’s insane.  Because in MMA, when a wrestler goes low, and the opponent goes high, he’ll swing and miss, get taken down, and then either get pummeled via the ground-and-pound or get arm-barred and need to tap out.  And then his opponent can hug him and behave in what we call in Washington a “bi-partisan” manner, until the next fight.  It’s a losing proposition.  But apparently the Democrats would rather stay classy than be effective.  You would forgive me for wondering if their heart was really in the competition.