Saturday, June 30, 2018

A Breath of Fresh Air

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.   Is she the face of America’s future? 

She is beautiful.  Well spoken.  Public-spirited.   Outspoken.   Authentic.   Resolute.  Self-assured.  Ambitious.  In touch with the underclass.   Reflective of an ethnically diverse America.  Reflective of an increasingly non-sexist America.   Willing to take on sacred cows (like the devotion to capitalism).   

Her face is now at the cutting edge of what appears to be an equal and opposite reaction to what happened several years ago with the rise of the Tea Party and its takeover of the Republican Party.  And why not?   Hers is a real Cinderella story.  Disney will probably not turn her story into a movie, but is there any doubt that such a movie will be made?  It will surely feature her precious reaction to learning of her victory in the Democratic Primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District over a member of party leadership – sheer shock, sheer jubilance.  It’s the same reaction Democrats had after the 2016 Presidential Election, except for the jubilance. 

Ocasio-Cortez (representing the future) had one reaction to the election -- “We beat a machine with a movement, and that is what we have done today,” “Working-class Americans want a clear champion and there is nothing radical about moral clarity in 2018.”

Nancy Pelosi (representing the past) had another reaction:  “The fact that in a very progressive district in New York, it went more progressive — and (incumbent Rep.) Joe Crowley is a progressive — but to the left of Joe Crowley is about that district.” “It is not to be viewed as something that stands for everything else.”

Let me translate:  There’s nothing to see here, the machine wants you to think.  The party is just fine.  The folks in their 70s have it in great shape.  With their help, the Dems control the White House, the State Houses, the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives....    What?  You mean they control none of the above?  Well then why the hell are Nancy and Company still in power? 

They and their fellow travelers show up on TV wearing suits and ties (or the female equivalent), take millions of dollars from Wall Street and their law firms, say very little about the poor, make tiny changes to the tax code ... yet they masquerade as “progressives.”  And why not?  If your main concern is getting elected, and you can gut welfare, support the War in Iraq, oppose gay marriage until the national majority approves of it, neglect poverty and still get the progressive seal of approval, why change?

When Bill Clinton came to the White House, he was riding the banner of the so-called “Democratic Leadership Council,” or DLC.  It was an apt name for a group of centrists who have led the Democratic Party into a ditch by acting like the Republicans of my youth.    Basically, they are a bunch of pre-Reagan Republicans who are fighting post-Reagan Republicans.  Is there any mystery why these centrists can’t generate much excitement among the Democratic base?

Just look at the election that was held in Washington DC on June 19th.  In Ward 8, the city’s poorest ward, voter turnout percentage didn’t reach the double digits. In Ward 7, which is also on the non-DLC side of the Anacostia River, voter turnout was a whopping 12%.  By contrast, in the 1994 primary, turnout was 45 percent in Ward 8.  During the ensuing 24 years, we’ve seen two leading national Democrats focus on poverty.  The first was former VP candidate John Edwards, but he turned out to be a flim-flam man. (If you don’t believe me, just visit his 26,500-square-foot home, the one with nine bedrooms, ten baths, a home theatre, a pool, a basketball court ... oh you get the idea, he belongs at the front table of a Democratic Party fundraiser.)  The second party leader who has given attention to poverty is Bernie Sanders.  You remember him – he’s the one the Democratic National Committee squashed like a bug when he dared to campaign hard against a Clinton, much like the Republican elites once treated McCain when he dared to campaign hard against a Bush. 

Yup.  The Democratic Party doesn’t need fresh blood like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.    It’s obviously doing just fine as it is. 

OK.  Sorry about the sarcasm.  I’m tired of it, too, and all the ridicule that’s spewed these days.  And I’m tired of voting for candidates whose main raison d’etre is to point out what’s wrong with their opponent.  Like the folks in Wards 7 and 8, I want to be enthusiastic about who I vote for.  Ennui and 
alienation might make for great French literature, but they destroy a democracy.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is going to make mistakes.  She has already said things that make me bristle, like her comments about Israel (e.g., referring to the fighting in Gaza as a “massacre”).  But I’m hoping she’s open-minded and humble enough to evolve. Besides, I support the idea of a Democratic politician who is willing to speak her mind.  I don’t need to agree 100% with anyone except myself, and I may not even agree with myself from one moment to the next.

Ocasio-Cortez calls for “moral courage.”  Can you imagine if politicians truly stood for that commodity?  If she can usher in an era of Democratic leaders who are committed to that one quality, the party would finally be worthy of its name, for it would inspire voters to show up at the polls for reasons other than to vote AGAINST someone.

In the recent Turkish elections, 87% of the electorate voted.  Imagine such a percentage in the US.  What do you say, Alexandria?  Can you and Bernie lead a movement that will inspire people to vote? Show compassion for the least privileged among us?  Shower us with moral courage?

Make it happen.  Please.  We need to know what progressivism really looks like.  That movement you’ve been talking about – it has to have a vision, and we have to want to see it and fill our lungs with it.  Otherwise, we’re just talking about replacing one vote-grabbing machine with another. 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Put This Place on Your Bucket List

So, what is your favorite place in America?   Yellowstone?  Yosemite?  Bourbon Street?  The Met? 

For me, it’s Monticello.  To begin, I love the drive there from my home – 2 ½ hours of rolling hills through the Virginia Piedmont.   The perfect length for a wonderful drive.  Then, when I get to my destination, I can celebrate the lives of one of my heroes.   This was the tribute I gave to him in The Creed Room, my first novel:

“Jefferson may not have been the most ethical or courageous of our Founding Fathers ... but he remains the quintessential American genius.  Put aside that he wrote our defining political document.  That’s just the beginning of his accomplishments.  Whether you’re a lover of art, music, philosophy, science, anthropology, religion, nature, language, architecture or literature, you’re mining ore that Jefferson explored at a deep level.  I’ve always loved that line from President Kennedy when he brought in a number of Nobel laureates for a formal dinner and announced that this was the greatest assemblage of intelligence at the White House since Jefferson dined alone....   More than the other southern aristocrats, Jefferson created a day-in day-out routine that was remarkable for how it enabled him to cultivate so many scholarly and aesthetic interests and still have time to attend to the affairs of the state.  Jefferson strived to create a nation whose citizens could live in freedom, think for themselves, worship whomever they wanted, and develop their talents as much as possible.   For the vision of a statesman ... what could be greater than that?”

I went on to say (speaking through a character) that “when I was a kid, I especially loved Monticello’s inventions, like the two doors that open when you only pull one handle.  Today, I marvel mostly at the books.  He once owned 6,000.  Jefferson was like the lead character in ‘Good Will Hunting’ – pick any subject, he’d learn it quickly and never forget what he’d learned.  At Monticello, you can see how he learned it.  He surrounded himself with beauty, and he treated every hour as a divine gift.   Sometimes, when I go there, I turn to face D.C.  And I try to keep this in mind: Jefferson wasn’t content just to lift himself up.  He felt a duty to help the rest of us too.  He and his friends forged a vast wealthy republic unlike any this world had seen. Jefferson was truly a great man.”

If someone had penned that tribute during my childhood, most Americans could easily ignore what was missing.  But that was before Annette Gordon-Reed, one of my law school classmates, enlightened the world about Jefferson’s love life.  We all already knew about his deep affection for his wife, Martha.  But Martha passed away in 1782, when Jefferson was still in his 30s.  He was destined to live for another 44 years, and thanks to Gordon-Reed, the world is well aware of the woman with whom he spent many of those years, fathering children. 

This weekend, for the first time, visitors to Monticello can attend an exhibit dedicated to Sally Hemmings, Jefferson’s slave ... and the mother of several of his children.  The fact that Jefferson owned slaves has never been a secret, but his willingness to sleep with one of those slaves was brushed under the rug for centuries.  Instinctively, everyone knows what’s wrong with that relationship. Whenever any man has power over a woman, he can abuse that power by bringing sex into the equation.  But nowhere is a power relationship less equal or palatable than when the man is a slave owner and the woman is slave.  How can that woman ever be seen as meaningfully “consenting” to sex under those circumstances?  Even to ask that question is to answer it.

Jefferson understood the evils of slavery; he even wrote about them.  Yet Jefferson was too full of himself and his special mission in life to free his slaves.  Their labor power helped turn him into the icon that people like me have been admiring ever since.  If you have the chance to be truly “great,” why would you give that up to do something that is merely “good”?  That must have been the way Jefferson reasoned, or should I say rationalized, in keeping his slaves. He also rationalized his conduct by writing that African-Americans were intellectually inferior to white people, even attempting to prove his point by contending that the orangutan male is more attracted to black women than to other orangutans.   Now in the 21st century, it’s difficult to fathom how a man could be as brilliant as he was in so many ways and yet so unabashedly racist.

To this day, I display a bust of Jefferson in my dining room.  That bust is also the image that appears on my cellphone.  I recognize his hypocrisy, but it doesn’t destroy my ability to appreciate him, or even to view him in some respects as a role model.  (My African-American friends have more difficulty doing that for obvious and damned good reasons.)  The term “Jeffersonian Democracy” remains among the most hallowed in political philosophy.  That won’t change any time soon.  

Yet this weekend, I celebrate the inclusion of an exhibit on Sally Hemmings in Monticello. And I tip my hat to the work of Annette Gordon-Wood.  Her unmasking of Jefferson, while appropriate, is far less important than her revealing of the slavery experience – and the fact that the “field” slaves must never be forgotten, even as we focus on the personalities of the “house” slaves like Sally Hemmings.  Thanks to Gordon-Wood, Monticello is no longer simply a tribute to the wonders of science, political philosophy and the capacity for individual excellence.  It is now also a tribute to the study of history, and the principle that historians must never again ignore uncomfortable facts.

Jefferson was indeed a “great” man. And yet great men are flawed, because all human beings are significantly flawed.  Jesus, Muhammad, Moses, all of them.  At least that’s my opinion.  I have never claimed that Thomas Jefferson is among the greatest of men.  I will simply say that he is a personal role model of mine, despite his obvious flaws, and that his house, which he called “Monticello” (little mountain), is my favorite spot in America.  This weekend, it just got even better.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

A Toast to Spectator Sports in the Name of Empathic Rationalism

Negative stereotypes can give people sustenance.  By trivializing others who aren’t like us, we come to feel better about ourselves.  That’s why people from cities like New York or Los Angeles may enjoy looking at rural southerners as rednecks, or why the latter may view New Yorkers as uptight jerks or as Los Angelinos as crazy hedonists. 

Of all our unflattering stereotypes, easily one of the most recognizable is the dumb jock.  This creature is almost invariably a “he.”  He is also white, insipid, and prone to binge drink and drool at the thought of “hot girls,” which is his term of choice for impressive women.   He is obsessed with team sports -- preferably both as a participant and as a spectator.   Above all else, he is incapable of showing true sympathy for other people because he is supremely shallow and sympathy requires at least some degree of depth.   If you want an example of this stereotype, consider the character of Steve Stifler from American Pie.  His love of sports did absolutely nothing to build his character.

I can see why the dumb jock stereotype is so enduring.  Much like people who don’t enjoy art, dance or religion, there are plenty of us who don’t care for team sports.  Yet because ballgames are such an important part of our culture, even those of us who don’t like them will be frequently besieged by animated conversations about which team is going to win the next game or whether a referee screwed up the previous one.  I can relate all too well to the person who doesn’t appreciate team sports.  
Whenever I encounter people talking passionate about technology, not only does it bore me silly but it makes me feel like I’m missing a basic human gene.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a negative stereotype to draw from when I see people talk about smart phones or cameras.  But the sports haters? They have the luxury of remembering dumb jocks in the movies, which will reinforce the notion that spectator sports are a colossal waste of time.  Stifler might understand what it means to hit into a “6-4-3” double play or to bring in a “dime” back, but that knowledge will never help him avoid being a bore and a bully.  From this perspective, we cultivate nothing of substance from rooting for ball clubs – unlike, say, the virtue we’d gain from watching a dramatic play or attending a new art exhibit. 

Far be it from me to criticize the theater or the art museum.  I crave “high” culture as much as the next guy.  The thing is, though, sports culture can elevate us as well.  That lesson was on vivid display this past Thursday night.

Steve Stifler, at this point, would recognize my reference to last Thursday.  He was obsessed about one sport with a stick (lacrosse). I’m talking about another (ice hockey).  Thursday was the night when my hometown Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup.  This franchise has been in existence for 44 years, but Thursday night was the Capitals’ first world championship.  Watching the emotional reactions to their victory reminded me of why following team sports can be a deeply uplifting activity, the kind that helps people AVOID acting like Stifler, despite what Hollywood stereotypers might want us to think. 

After the horn sounded to end the game, a celebration erupted on the ice.  The players rushed to embrace each other with unbridled joy and affection.   This was a lifelong dream realized, the dream of reaching the pinnacle of one’s craft and entering the history books as winning the greatest award that your profession has to offer.  But the beauty of this award was that it wasn’t primarily about individual achievement. It’s a celebration of an entire team, not just the team's top players.  And what you saw on the ice that night wasn’t the look of narcissism but rather the look of love – men realizing that they would never have achieved this honor unless they had come together as a group and believed in each other.  Indeed, that feeling had been on display throughout the evening leading up to the final buzzer, because whenever one player scored a goal, his teammates celebrated that goal as much as if they had scored it themselves.  That is the nature of a championship team – one that puts aside egos and revels in the collective – as opposed to all the other squads that got caught up in selfish play and never could work particularly well as a group.

Thursday’s game was played in Las Vegas, whose hometown Golden Knights had a storybook season of their own, even though it didn’t result in the Cup.  But while the celebration on the ice was surely the most intense, there were plenty of other parties going on across the country in Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C.  It would surely have been a crazy scene to go to the Capitals’ stadium, where thousands had lined up for hours to watch the game on a big TV screen in the hope that they could experience unbridled joy with their fellow fans.  A similarly crazy scene was on display on the streets of D.C. a block away from the stadium – thousands more had collected there to watch the game on another big screen.  Tens of thousands of Caps fans in the stadium and in the streets joined hundreds of thousands of others in bars or in living rooms all over the DC area who were hugging each other and smiling from ear to ear.  You won’t see that kind of group affection when you go to a theater or an art museum.  I’m not sure you’d see that kind of joy either.  Doctors, lawyers, teachers, janitors, housekeepers, real estate agents, hotel clerks, you name it – this celebration brought together as wide a swath of people as you can imagine.  They were feeling pride in their city and intense appreciation for a small group of guys who worked hard to hone their craft, put their egos aside, and immortalize themselves in the annals of their sport.  We all witnessed a similar scene four months earlier in Philadelphia, whose Eagles won the Super Bowl for the first time.  When you consider that the fans have rarely had an opportunity to meet the players they celebrate so intensely, you realize how remarkable these events truly are.    

Watching the Washington Capitals’ players blissfully skate around the ice hoisting the 35-pound Stanley Cup above their heads, I was reminded of the words of Goethe’s Faust:  “Now I could almost say to the passing moment: Stay, oh stay a while, you are so beautiful.  The mark of my endeavors will not fade.  No, not in ages, not in any time.  Dreaming of this incomparable happiness, I now taste and enjoy the supreme moment.” 

Sports haters could point out a crucial difference between the emotional fulfillment enjoyed by Faust and what was on display when the Capitals won the Cup.  Faust’s happiness, a cynic might say, had a worthy cause – not the outcome of a meaningless ball game, but rather an accomplishment of epic proportions.  Faust, you see, had envisioned a “foul and filthy” swamp and suggested that “if we could drain and cleanse this pestilence, it would crown everything we had achieved, opening up living space for many millions.  Not safe from every hazard, but safe enough....    Oh, how I’d love to see that lusty throng and stand on a free oil with a free people.”  It was that idea – the idea of enabling millions to earn their freedom every day – that gave Faust such unbridled joy that this momentary feeling would truly be worthy of eternity.   

Neither the Washington Capitals nor the Philadelphia Eagles enabled millions of people to live in freedom.  Surely, during the weeks and months that follow the winning of a championship, the memories of a city’s sports fans will fade a bit.  Rather than thinking about the heroes who brought them Stanley Cups or Super Bowls, many will return to focusing on their own inadequacies.  Perhaps their anguish will grow to the point that they will take their own lives, or that of someone else.  God knows we hear about plenty of suicides and homicides these days, and nobody should fool themselves into thinking of team sports as an antidote to all of our society’s scourges.  The kind of universal freedom that Faust was talking about has always been confined to fiction, sad to say.

But here in the real world, there is still something to be said for moments of unbridled joy that are enjoyed by thousands or millions of people who are celebrating human achievement.  The love we saw on display Thursday evening was neither phony nor completely ephemeral.  That championship and that trophy will help all interested parties appreciate what it means to be human.  It will remind players and fans alike that sometimes we can establish a goal, work hard to satisfy that goal, and then take our time to revel in our accomplishment. What’s more, even if we personally weren’t the ones most responsible for that accomplishment, we at least can revel in the fact that we have the ability to open our hearts and honor those who were.  We can, in fact, remind ourselves of how beautiful it to love other people.    

Last Thursday night, I was reminded of what it was like for me 50 years ago, when as a child I watched athletes celebrate a championship.  Even if they didn’t play for “my team,” I felt good for them.   Sometimes I even felt great for them.  In other words, I felt sympathy in the truest sense of the word, which includes not only compassion for others’ suffering but also gratitude for their joy.  Sympathy is precisely the opposite of what the stereotypers would have us associate with sports lovers like Stifler.  And yet there are few things better than spectator sports to cultivate this quality of sympathy for others.  Indeed, just as sports fans revel in a championship team’s successes, they have spent many more evenings feeling pain when their beloved players end their seasons on a losing note.    

We now live in a dark time when the evening news is more depressing than ever and people flock to dark, and often dystopian, television programs that present human beings as violent, treacherous monsters.  Contrast that with the spectacle on display this past Thursday -- one of skill, grit, pride, and yes, sympathy.  Then tell me that following team sports is inherently worthless and stupid, and that the biggest sports fans are soulless meatheads. 

Please, let’s give up this attitude once and for all, lest we become as vapid and ignorant as the fictional Steve Stifler. 

Saturday, June 02, 2018

My Fellow Democrats: Don’t Forget that Hypocrisy is Bi-Partisan

This week, a story came out on page 13 of the Washington Post that I found to be intriguing – both for what it said and for the fact that it has received so little national coverage.  The story involves the Democratically-controlled state legislature of New Jersey.  When Chris Christie, a Republican Governor, was in power, the legislature sent him a bill on five separate occasions that would increase taxes paid by millionaires.  But now that Christie has been replaced by Democratic Governor, the legislators are no longer sending up that bill.  In fact, thanks to the recent tax cuts, the millionaires are paying even lower total taxes than before – and still the Democratically-controlled legislators are balking at the opportunity to do what they did five times when Christie was Governor and when their actions were purely symbolic... and political. 

Here’s the article:   To me, what it shows is a microcosm of the Democratic party in action.  During campaign season, the party’s candidates have no trouble embracing the mantle of “strong progressives.”  But when it’s time to govern, they are tinkerers at best.  We saw this when the Democrats controlled the United States Congress in Obama’s first two years and they gave us zero gun-control legislation.  We saw this when Obama himself threw federally employees under the bus when he had the opportunity to propose budgets of his own.  We saw this in the number of Democratic legislators who supported that crazy and catastrophic war in Iraq, or who failed to speak out in favor of gay marriage until well after the rank-and-file of their party indicated their support.  And we invariably see this whenever tax-reform legislation is proposed.  The Democrats always propose modest changes; the Republican bills are much more dramatic. 

How do we explain the Democrats failure to step up to the plate and fight for their supposed principles?   Should we doubt the sincerity of their progressivism?   Should we think of them as sincere, but cowardly?  And does it really matter what the explanation is?   Isn’t the point that America has no trustworthy progressive party, but merely a party whose leaders can generally be trusted to enunciate progressive principles only when campaigning or casting meaningless votes?
I watch a fair amount of CNN and MSNBC.  They never report on stories like this one from New Jersey.  Instead, they focus almost all their attention on the misconduct of the GOP.    Believe me, I appreciate that the GOP is not only the more dysfunctional of the two parties but also has become the opposite of progressive, or for that matter even conservative.   But that doesn’t mean that reporters and commentators can afford to allow the Democrats to become feckless and hypocritical, simply because they’re the lesser of two evils.

Bernie Sanders is one Democratic politician who, if he were a New Jersey legislator, would NOT fail to send up a millionaire’s tax bill to the Governor after doing so five times when the Governor was a Republican.  He knows all too well that this approach to governing makes a mockery of these politicians and the principles they stand for.   It makes them look like total phonies, and when the Democrats look like phonies, the Republicans tend to win.  This week on Bill Maher’s show, Bernie stated explicitly that the Republicans didn’t win the2016 elections, the Democrats lost it.  I wholeheartedly agree.  As long as liberals in the media fail to hold the Democrats accountable and as long as Democrats continue to hold their leaders to low standards, they’ll continue to lose elections. 

It should be obvious by now that this country can ill afford for that to happen.  It’s time to demand that the Democrats serve not as talkers but as fighters -- in the state houses, on Capitol Hill, and in the White House  -- and to take them to task whenever they fail.  Ultimately, that’s the best thing that could happen to their party and to our country.