Saturday, October 26, 2019

Cable Schmooze

I have a brief request to make.  Would everyone please stop referring to the programming on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC as "Cable News"?  From now on, these programs should be referred to as "Cable Schmooze" and the guests on these shows should be thought of as Paid Schmoozers.

Think about it.  Where do you get your breaking news?  Newspapers?  Websites?  Friends who inspire you to check websites or newspapers?  How often do you get it from Cable News?  Almost never, I suspect.  Indeed, for every minute of truly breaking news on those shows, my guess is that there would be 100 or more minutes of schmooze.

Whenever I turn the channel away from a drama or a ballgame to watch the above-referenced channels, I'm invariably treated to schmoozing on the part of Washington insiders and the hosts (aka "journalists") who talk to them.   Sometimes they're all sitting around a table.  Other times the people-in-the-know will be waxing eloquent from their book-laden study, the street in front of the White House, or in front of a bust inside the U.S. Capitol Building.  Truth be told, if you and your friends read the newspapers or even news-oriented websites, you can have just as informative and insightful a discussion with your friends than what you'd hear on Cable TV.  In that sense, it's very different from, say, watching a ball game.  You can do that with your friends as well, but only at a MUCH lower level.  On Cable Schmooze, by contrast, we are frequently treated to talking heads who make far less sense than the typical informed person on the street.  Apparently, the powers-that-be decide that it drives ratings to hear provocative/absurd drivel.  Maybe it makes us in the audience feel smart.  Or maybe such drivel is crucial to building admiration for those few talking heads who consistently speak logically and at least try to be objective.

Mind you, I'm not requesting that you stop watching these programs. My request is only that you stop thinking of them as Cable News and call them what they are.  As for the hosts, you can think of them as journalists if you wish, but please don't confuse their programs with journalism.  Those shows are pure entertainment, and their hosts have far more in common with the more successful members of the Screen Actors Guild than they have with Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow.   Who knew that Schmooze would ever be so lucrative?

Sunday, October 20, 2019

How Many Democrats Were on the Stage Tuesday Night?

I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the only child of two relatively old parents.  My dad was born in 1912 and my mom in 1921. I’m not even 60 yet.  You do the math.  The thing is, though, even though they were older than my friends’ parents, my folks were always further to the left politically.  Constantly, I would hear them complain about economic inequality.  And when they weren’t complaining, they were schlepping me to marches -- like the May 12, 1968 “Resurrection City” rally in which tents were placed on the National Mall to fight poverty.  I had yet to have my religious awakening then.  In fact, inspired in part by my parents’ railing against religious hypocrisy, I didn’t trust what came out of the mouths of most clerics.  But this much I did recognize: if the Abrahamic faiths stood for anything valid, it was to fight poverty in particular and injustice generally.  All this “love” crap meant nothing if it wasn’t associated with working hard for the poor.  I also realized for myself back in elementary school that those who think that the private sector alone will take care of the poor were no better than Mary Antoinette, whose “let ‘em eat cake” line has always, for me, defined the spirit of unbridled capitalism.

Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, my country had two political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans.  They still exist today, albeit with different spirits.  My parents always voted Democrat because the Dems were the party of progressive taxation and using governmental programs when needed to help the poor and the working class.  From 1965 – 1980, the top marginal tax rate varied from 70-77%, yet even those figures weren’t high enough for the loudest voices of the Democratic Party.  They didn’t see why the richest of the rich needed all the money they had when so many people were poor.  In my house, all I heard was that for the most affluent country in world history to have a high level of poverty and economic equality is a “shanda.”  Whether or not you know Yiddish, you get what that means.

Fast forward now to 2019.  The top marginal tax rate is no longer in the 70s.  Today, depending on how you calculate it, it’s roughly 40 percent.  Not coincidentally, economic equality has only gotten worse. Far worse.  This was chronicled most exquisitely in a book by Thomas Piketty called “Capital,” which was published in 2014.  Since then, the problem has only become more extreme, thanks to tepid leaders on the “left” and bold leaders on the right.  But what do you say we look at some of Piketty’s comparisons between the situation in 1980 and the situation 30 years hence.  From 1980 and 2010, the share of the top decile in national income rose from 33 to 48%, the share of the top 1% in total income rose from 10% to 20%, and the share of the top 0.1% in total income rose from 1% to nearly 8%.  As for wealth inequality, the differences aren’t so dramatic.  But the trend is the same – the top 1% and 10% had a significantly greater share of the nation’s wealth in 2010 than in 1980.  Moreover, whereas our wealth equality in the USA was less than that of Europe from 1810 to 1960, it has well exceeded that of Europe ever since.   

By today’s standards, the America of my youth thus had far more economic equality than it has today, yet it still had a far more progressive tax system.  To repeat, Democrats back then didn’t think that tax system was progressive enough.  But Republicans represented quite a range.  There were the folks my parents referred to as “conservatives,” who liked things pretty much as they were, though they would allow for a little tinkering here and there.  And then there were the folks my parents called “reactionaries,” who wanted to return things to a by-gone era – like perhaps the 1920s, when the top decile earned roughly 45 percent of national income, less than they make today, but far more than they made throughout my childhood.   When I was growing up, we had Republican Senators like New York’s Jacob Javits or Maryland’s Mac Mathias.  My parents thought of them as conservatives, others would have called them centrists or even liberals, but they demonstrated that the Republican Party created a home for folks who loved the status quo and wanted only to tinker around the edges.  And remember – the status quo back then was FAR more economically equal, and may I say “progressive,” than today.

So let’s return to 2019 and, specifically, last Tuesday night. We had 12 “Democratic” candidates – so many that a comic on the Daily Show requested that in the future, the Party leaders should ensure that their candidates are spayed and neutered.  The 12 candidates were all attempting to unseat Donald Trump, the Republican President who enjoys a 94% approval rating within his party.  Two candidates on Tuesday, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, were passionately arguing for the position that our tax system isn’t nearly progressive enough.  They both want to dramatically increase the taxes on the top 0.1% -- and perhaps even the top 1% or 10% -- in order to raise funds that are needed for the poor, the working class and even middle-class Americans.  

My father, as you imagine, has long since passed from this Earth, so I can’t ask him what he thinks of Warren or Sanders. My mom, while still alive at 98, isn’t in good enough shape cognitively to worry about the nuances of American politics.  But I suspect that if I took the time to explain what happened on Tuesday, she would have been proud of Warren and Sanders for their willingness to fight for those who our capitalist system is leaving behind.  In short, I saw two Democrats on that stage who would have been recognized as Democrats by any political observer of the ‘60s and ‘70s, let alone the Depression Era period that shaped my parents’ thinking.

But what about the other ten Democrats?  How were they responding to the phenomenon that Piketty chronicled so extensively in his book?  I was struck by the unwillingness of the other men and women on that debate stage to sound like Democrats even during a primary contest.  Sanders, who had a heart attack a couple of weeks earlier, was kindly left alone by the other candidates.  But Warren, who has risen to the lead in the betting markets, if not the polls, was relentlessly piled on by one Democratic candidate after another.  The first wave was Biden, and Buttigieg, and Klobuchar.  They were critical of the idea that Warren supported a single payor health care system and was afraid to admit that taxes might have to go up if we wanted to ensure that the poor get the same health care as the rich.  Well, OK.  I get why they would have wanted to press her to be more candid.  But later, when Warren started talking about adding a tax on wealth in excess of $50 million and Beto O’Rourke criticized her for being “punitive,” where was Biden?  Or Buttigieg?  Or Klobuchar?  Were they coming to Warren’s defense?  Were they saying that “We’re Democrats. We believed back in the ‘60s and ‘70s that the uber-rich weren’t paying enough taxes when they were taxed a hell of lot more than they are today. We’re not going to sit back and let you bash a candidate as ‘punitive’ simply because she wants the uber-rich to shoulder a lot more of the tax burden.”  They said nothing of the sort.  In fact, when called upon to show their passion for economic equity, they responded with radio silence.

The loudest of Warren’s interlocutors would like us to see them, first and foremost, as “pragmatists.”  This philosophy can best be summarized by a line from Amy Klobuchar, in direct response to Warren’s progressive plans: “The difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something that you can actually get done.”

And there you have it.  From the time Bill Clinton took back the White House for the Dems after 12 years of GOP Rule in 1992, the idea that we would make America’s economic profile resemble that of my youth has been viewed by the Democratic establishment as a “pipe dream.”  Clinton sought a “third way” – one that isn’t nearly as progressive as the approach of old Democrats, but is more compassionate than the Let ’Em Eat Cakers who served as the vanguard of the “Reagan Revolution.”  In 2016, when his wife ran for President against Bernie Sanders, only a single Democratic Senator supported Sanders.  Even Warren refused to commit; that was the extent of the stranglehold that the “Third Way” has had on Democratic politics.  

So now that Warren has regained her progressive voice, and Bernie has gotten out of his hospital bed to resume his jeremiads, I keep asking the same question: what would my parents think of Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and the rest of them?  Are they more like the Democrats of my youth?  Or are they merely the second coming of Jacob Javits and Mac Mathias – centrist 60s-70s style Republicans?  

My parents, being professional economists, would probably point out that Biden, Buttigieg and company may even be further to the RIGHT than Javits and Mathias, for at least the latter are not on record as essentially tolerating our pitifully non-progressive tax system.  Truly, if things have moved so much further to the Republican side of the spectrum in the last 30-40 years, why do Warren and Sanders seem so damned alone on that stage?  Or was that evening just another reminder that Ronald Reagan has won the soul of America, and that the two-party system is really about nothing more than nibbling around the edges of the cake that he (and Marie Antoinette) have given us?

There were times during Tuesday’s debate when both Warren and Sanders frustrated me.  Most notably, neither explained very well why they supported Medicare for All.  My parents would have been disgusted with how little they tried to demonstrate the downside of the so-called “public option” approach to health care or why a focus on taxes instead of COSTS as the primary metric on which to evaluate a health care system is simply a Republican talking point.  Bernie and Elizabeth had a chance to speak out articulately for all progressive economists that night and their performance left something to be desired.

But at least they were recognizable as Democrats.  At least I felt they represented my party.  At least I felt they have absorbed the teachings of Thomas Piketty, Julius and Evelyn Spiro, and all other economists who clearly have given a damn about the poor and the working class.

You see, Senator Klobuchar, it’s not enough to join the Democratic Party, insert yourself across the aisle from Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, and vote in favor of top marginal taxes that are 40% plus rather than 40% minus.  I’m not young anymore.  In fact, I’m only two months and two days younger than you are.  I remember when Democrats were Democrats.  And if you want to act like one, you’ve got to show me that you couldn’t even abide being satisfied with the America of our youth because of its economic inequalities, let alone that you can’t satisfy yourself with mere tinkering when America has become far LESS economically equal now than it was before.

I heard you say, Senator Klobuchar, that neither you, nor Mayor Pete, nor even the billionaire on that stage Tuesday night is “standing up for billionaires.”  But that’s not enough, is it?  I need to see that you are standing up for the guy I saw lying on the ground late Friday night two blocks from my daughter’s row house in a part of Washington DC that most of the barons of today’s Democratic Party wouldn’t set foot in.  I can see that Bernie and Elizabeth, for all their slip-ups, are standing up for that guy.  One of them will get my vote in the primary. 

Saturday, May 04, 2019


With some regret, I am announcing today that the Empathic Rationalist will be taking a sabbatical.  I've been keeping this blog going for 13 years without one, and that's frankly too long.

I will miss taking the opportunity to communicate with my loyal readers on a weekly basis.  Thank you so much for letting me know over the years that you enjoy reading this blog; that means more to me than you know.  However, due to certain events in my life, I feel the need to cut down on my so-called "extra-curricular activities," and at the moment, blogging didn't make the cut.  I fully expect that this self-imposed sabbatical will be merely temporary but what I can't say is how long it will last.

All the best to each of you.  Enjoy the upcoming political campaign season.  And may you and your family experience the very best of health.


Sunday, April 28, 2019

A Request to My Fellow Democrats: Time for Spring Fever

We’re nearly two months away from the first Presidential Primary debate and yet already, liberal pundits are savaging those Democrats who’ve had the courage to enter the race.  I see the criticism frequently in such on-line forums as the Huffington Post.  And just yesterday, I heard an MSNBC talking head criticize Biden for daring to criticize President Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” remarks.  According to this pundit, Biden would be well advised not to talk about such issues given his own track record when it comes to the topic of race.

Really?   From what I can tell, Vice President Biden has been a devoted public servant for more decades than that progressive pundit has been alive, and yet the latter doesn’t think he has standing to highlight the single worst moment in the Presidency of the man Democrats are trying to defeat.  Folks, can we stop eating our own?  Please?

My hope is for all Democrats to spend the remainder of what I call the “pre-season” keeping our hearts and minds open about all these candidates.  Let them make mistakes.  Let them speak vapidly or duck difficult questions.  Let them take back an ill-advised comment or policy position.  And to the extent they feel compelled to speak sharply about a fellow Presidential candidate, encourage them to take on the candidate running as a Republican, not each other.

Why do I say that?  Because at the end of the June, and for the next 8-12 months thereafter, some amount of intra-party conflict is inevitable and even healthy.  Presumably, our candidates won’t be offering us childlike monikers such as “Lyin' Ted,” “Little Marco,” or “Low Energy Jeb,” but the ones who are hurting in the polls will owe it to their supporters to throw at least some barbs in the direction of the favorites. But for the good of the Party, can we at least enjoy an extended honeymoon period?  Can we spend the next two full months building up as much affection as possible for all these candidates?  Or do we have to wallow in the kind of mockery-narratives that are increasingly popping up with respect to each of Trump’s would-be challengers?

If you’re not immediately familiar with these narratives, just ask yourself which of the 20 Democratic candidates are best positioned to defeat Trump and lead the Democratic party.    

The elderly, grumpy, unelectable white male socialist who scares the crap out of moderate Democrats, let alone Republicans, Bernie Sanders?

The out-of-touch, kind-of-creepy, gaffe-prone politician whose record is the antithesis of progressive, Joe Biden?

The charisma-challenged, condescending professor who reminds everyone of Hillary except that she’s even less electable, Elizabeth Warren?

The “Senator Pothole” tinkerer who claims to be Minnesota-nice but has proven to her Congressional staffers to be anything but nice, Amy Klobuchar?

The frivolous dilettante, whose Presidential campaign is fueled primarily by narcissism and a desire to have a really cool personal adventure, Beto O’Rourke?

The finger-in-the-wind pol who refuses to answer substantive questions and yet has much to answer for herself in the way she has dealt with the criminal justice system, Kamala Harris?

The inexperienced millennial who also doesn’t think voters deserve to know what he stands for but thinks he can get elected by spewing pseudo-intellectual gibberish, Pete Buttigieg?

The guy from Jersey who is pretending to run on a Kumbaya platform at a time when nobody wants to hear anyone sing Kumbaya, especially if he’s from Jersey, Corey Booker?

Or one of those other pathetic, nameless candidates whose standing in the polls is so damned low that nobody is even bothering to insult them?

Folks, mocking a politician is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.  These people self-promote at the same time that they self-reveal.  You show me a politician, any politician, and I’ll show you a hypocrite.  It comes with the territory.  But unless you want to see President Trump re-elected, I suggest you look at the above list and recognize that (a) you’ll be voting for one of those folks in the fall of ‘20, and (b) the person you’ll vote for in the general election probably won’t be the one you’d like to vote for today.  In fact, I’d go as far as to say that because elections among twenty contenders is kind of a crap shoot, you’re most likely going to have to go crazy in support of a general election candidate who you voted AGAINST in your state’s primary.   If that’s going to happen, you’d better figure out a way to stay as positive as possible about as many of these people as possible for as long as possible. 

So what do you say we allow all these candidates the next two months to impress us with their positive characteristics – their visions, their policy proposals, and their formulas for taking on President Trump.  What do you say we embrace what it means as voters to be able to wholeheartedly support ANY of the above?  Maybe if that happens, the intra-party criticism that will inevitably begin to flow in July and thereafter would be a bit more measured.  Then, when it does come time to nominate someone in the summer of 2020, we will have identified a person who’ll be beloved by the entire Democratic party and many of the Independents.  And that candidate will not only beat Donald Trump in the next election but also grab a mandate to change the direction of government in January of 2021.   

Let’s face it – the Russians weren’t the primary reason why we lost the election of 2016.  Mostly, we caused ourselves to lose – by taking for granted states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and by teaching a veritable master class in how NOT to run a primary campaign.   Now, we have a chance for a do-over.  We have a chance to replace a crooked coronation (where a single, favored candidate was given debate questions in advance) with an honest, give-everyone-a-fair-chance celebration of democracy.   We have two months to set the table for that celebration.  I say, let’s call this the “Spring Fever” period.  Let’s fall in love with our candidates.  Let’s build them all up, so that ultimately, for the good of the country and the world, at least one of them will not fall down. 

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Relections After Another Netanyahu Victory

Everyone who associates themselves with a religious faith surely takes pride in its “values.”  In fact, we tend to identify our faith above all else with the values preached and exemplified by our greatest role models.   At least that’s the case with Judaism.

My people have plenty of catch phrases to remind ourselves of what “Jewish values” mean.   We speak of Rabbi Akiva and how he taught that the Torah’s fundamental principle was “Love your neighbor as yourself.”   And we often cite Rabbi Hillel, who when asked to summarize the entire Torah while standing on one foot, replied “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. All the rest is commentary.  Now go study.”  In both cases, these rabbis place central importance on how human beings should treat one another.  More than our observance of religious ritual or even our devotion to God, that’s what defines our commitment to the Jewish faith. 

Whenever values are discussed, of course, there is room for ambiguity.  In the above examples, a debate could center on the word “neighbor.”  In theory, if a person lives in a Jewish community, their “neighbors” will tend to be fellow Jews.  So, taken literally, as long as we care for our fellow Jews, we can disregard or even disdain gentiles and not run afoul of the directives to be good to our neighbors.  But that’s not the way I’ve been taught.  From parents and Jewish-school teachers alike, I’ve heard that the Jew is obligated to take care of ALL people, and especially the most vulnerable, regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds.  Such universalism is indeed mainstream American-Jewish doctrine and has been for generations.    That’s why so many of our parents and grandparents were attracted to socialism and other left-leaning ideologies.

When I grew up in the 60s, America had the largest Jewish community in the world.  Our community was also known for its overarching political liberalism.   In 1928, only 28 percent of Jews voted for Hoover – and that was the election he won.  In 1932, Hoover’s total among Jews was 18%, and for the next four elections, the Republican candidate did even worse.  Even in 1972, when Nixon won 49 states, McGovern had a +30% margin among Jews.   Next year, in fact, will be the 100th anniversary of the last time that a Republican Presidential candidate won 40% of the Jewish vote.  Over the past 100 years, our community has become far more affluent, but no less politically liberal.  Some might say that we’ve been willing to vote against our own pecuniary interest in order to be true to the “values” that defined our sense of identity. 

As children who cleaved to our sense of Jewish values, my friends and I spoke about the nation of Israel in glowing and even heroic terms.  Back then, Israel symbolized both Jewish progressivism and an antidote to Jewish victimization.  This little country was started primarily by secular socialists and other leftists.  They gathered together in economic collectives known as Kibbutzim and for decades, their progressive party (Labor) dominated every election.  While most American Jews weren’t exactly historians, one fact we did know was that when Israel became a state, its citizens supported partitioning the land into two-states-for-two-peoples, but it was the Palestinians who fought against such an outcome.  Decades after the creation of Israel, there was still no “Occupation.”  And even after the Settlements began being built, we all assumed that Israel’s leaders would support the existence of a Palestinian state as soon as they had a legitimate partner for peace on the Palestinian side.  The problem, we assumed, was that enough Palestinians seemed hell bent on crushing Israel and taking back the land for themselves that Israeli had no choice but to watch their backs and build walls.  In one war after another, Arab States ganged up on precious little Israel, and it practically took miracles for Israel to survive, let alone to win these wars.  When the Israeli army seized such strategic land as the Golan Heights, no American Jew in their right mind would have begrudged Israel’s right to keep it.  But we remained passionately committed to Israel giving up the land necessary to create a viable two-state solution – one state for our own people and another for our Palestinian “neighbors” who were also victims in the arena of geopolitics and who for the most part are as innocent as the Israelis.  That two-state commitment became an integral manifestation of “Jewish values,” one that I and millions of other American Jewish Zionists continue to hold dear and always will.

American-Jewish values, you see, aren’t changing so dramatically.  But Israel is.  Now its leaders have enacted the “Jewish Nation State Law,” which stands for the principle that Israel is a nation state ONLY for the Jewish people, rather than being a nation state for both the Jewish people and for any gentiles (i.e., Palestinians) who happen to be citizens of the nation.  More significantly, its Prime Minister now stands for the principle that all the Jewish Settlements in the West Bank can legitimately be annexed by Israel – meaning that what would remain of “Palestine” would be a small chunk of swiss cheese, one that couldn’t possibly give rise to a “state” worthy of the term.  Honestly, though, what’s notable about Israel these days isn’t just that it is led by people who appear to have given up on the notion of Palestinian autonomy.  It’s that the citizens of Israel continue to vote for such leaders.  Frankly, just as the center-right movement in America seems incapable of getting a majority of Jewish support, the center-left movement in Israel seems equally incapable of winning elections.  Yes, they do just fine in and around Tel Aviv. But in the hinterland and in Jerusalem?  The majorities there would rather vote in for a fifth term a Prime Minister who has completely abandoned a two-state solution and who is close to being indicted for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.  Better that guy than anyone who stands for the same principles that the vast majority of American Jews would select. Houston, we have a problem.

Speaking personally, I feel no modicum of alienation from the Israeli people right now.  I have never had problems knowing, respecting and loving right-wing Jews.  But what I’ve not had to wrap my arms around, until recently, is that the world’s largest Jewish population (Israel overtook the U.S. in that regard during my adult life) is becoming one of the most right-wing democracies in the world.  I cannot possibly relate to what plan the Netanyahu voters have in mind for the Palestinians.  Are they expecting the Palestinians simply to pack up and head for Jordan – sort of a Middle Eastern Trail of Tears?  Or are these “majority” voters reconciled to the Palestinians remaining in Israeli-controlled areas as a stateless, impoverished underclass?  Honestly, what is the vision and how do we get there? And how is this possibly consistent with Jewish values?

Actually, I can guess the answer to that last question.  I’ve read the Book of Joshua.  I’ve seen the single-mindedness of God’s alleged directive to the Hebrew people to seize the Promised Land by, among other things, killing its inhabitants. Compared to Joshua and his troops, Bibi Netanyahu is positively Gandhi-like in his treatment of the Palestinians.   What’s more, I have heard many Jews over the years argue that the disputed land is ours because we have the prior claim to it and thus the superior legal right to it.  After all, we gave the Palestinians the chance to divide it up and they chose instead to terrorize us and to fight wars over the land; they lost, we won, and to the victor goes the spoils.  Some of the Jews I know who adopt that attitude are otherwise progressive people who care deeply about the poor or infirm.  So I guess an argument can be made that this view is consistent with “universalist” values.  But that argument would not be made by more than a small minority of non-Jews throughout the world.  And it would not be made by the vast majority of American Jews either.  So why, then, are most Israelis going to polls and supporting political parties who trade in that sort of reasoning?  What has happened to Jewish values?

These are questions that young American Jews are surely going to ask in schools and summer camps throughout this nation.  They were asking them before this recent election cycle, and now that the Jewish Nation State Law has been passed, the Prime Minister has stated his willingness to annex all the Settlements, and his alleged corruption has been exposed, young Jewish Americans will be raising these questions at a fever pitch.  You’ll forgive these young people if they wonder if their progressive teachers have been feeding them a load of crap in suggesting that Jews are any more altruistic or compassionate than anyone else.  You’ll forgive them if they wonder if the term “Jewish values” has any meaning at all.   And you’ll forgive them if they wonder whether they have far more in common with American Episcopalians or Unitarian-Universalists – or, for that matter, the so-called “Nones” – than they have with Israeli Jews.

Such wondering is surely going to present an incredible challenge to those of us who wish to see Judaism continue to flourish in America.  It’s a challenge that my Jewish friends and I didn’t have to face back in the 60s, and yet many of our cohort still gave up our Jewish identities and assimilated.  I can only imagine what’s going to happen to my grandson’s generation.

Fortunately, though, I don’t have to worry about my grandson himself – his mother is a rabbi and his parents will raise him right.  They will explain that in truth, the values of a religion are the values that the religion inspires in the minds of all of its inhabitants.  So Jewish values are my values, they’re Netanyahu’s values, and they’re the values of everyone who identifies with the faith and is inspired by it.   

It is incumbent on each of us to continue to study the great works associated with our faith, to develop our values based on that study, and to exemplify those values in our conduct.  If in doing so we seem out of step with the majority of our people, so be it.   There is enough wisdom in Judaism – and, for that matter, in all the world’s great religions – to inspire free-thinking individuals to find a set of values by which they can live their lives.  If you’re truly religious, you should have the courage to stick to those values even when it appears you’re merely a voice in the wilderness.

So to those people in and around Tel Aviv who continue to lose one national election after another, please hold your heads high and keep on fighting.  Someday, you might find yourselves in the majority again. And who knows?  Maybe that’s when your country will dismantle some of these imperialist settlements and make the kind of peace that honors the Palestinians, your values, and mine. 

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Spring Comes to the Nation's Capital

Last week’s blogpost contained a tribute to the stately live oak of the South Carolina Lowcountry.  Today, I’m thinking instead about my own city and its adopted favorite tree, the cherry.  Visitors to the Nation’s Capital understand early April to be the most glorious time for a visit, both because of the weather and because of the cherry blossoms.  Guidebooks funnel these tourists to the Tidal Basin of the National Mall, where cherry trees majestically line the perimeter.  But locals know there are better places to appreciate the blossoms without even needing to go to Japan.   I am speaking of the narrow, winding streets in the suburbs where cherry trees form a canopy of blossoms that engulf anyone who is blessed to walk or drive by.  I had the pleasure of taking such a stroll this morning.  I was with my bichon, Benny, who was just groomed yesterday.  His fur and those flowers were a perfect match – Blonde on Blonde, as Bob Dylan might say.  So fresh, so restful, so bright … so un-Washington. 

Forbes recently ranked Washington DC as the fourth most stressful city in the United States.  But the three above us (L.A., N.Y., and Chicago) are all many times larger.  So perhaps I can state the obvious – pound-for-pound, we’re number one.  People come here to enhance their career.  They find a job.  They go to work.  They stay at work – hour after hour after hour.  They spend another hour or more commuting home, either on a metro train where nobody smiles or among the nation’s most congested roads.  When they get home in the evening, they consume themselves with their addiction to that form of mud-wrestling otherwise known as American politics.  Eventually, they start fantasizing about moving away to someplace more bucolic – like just about anywhere. 

This past week was the beginning of baseball season, which is definitely a major event in Washington D.C.  Gradually, we’ve been becoming a baseball city – oh, not of the caliber of St. Louis, for example, but we’re not exactly Miami either.  This past Tuesday evening, we showed baseball fans all over the country that D.C. is a place to be reckoned with.  Philadelphia was in town, and that means that the Phillies’ Bryce Harper – who the Washington Nationals signed to a rookie contract and who for years was the Nationals’ biggest star – was making his first return to his former home town.  The Baseball Gods have ordained the etiquette that cities are supposed to follow in situations like these.  First, Harper should get a video tribute from his old team, during which his former fans should cheer him in appreciation for his years of loyal and glorious service to the city.  Next, in his first at bat for the visiting team, the home fans should give him one final standing ovation in recognition of his past service.  And then, in his second at-bat --and for as long thereafter as the mood feels right -- his former fans should boo the roof off the stadium as soon as he enters the batter’s box.   That’s the way it’s supposed to work.

Well, here in (arguably) America’s most stressful city, we made a little modification.  From the moment the Harper video tribute began, he was booed.  Relentlessly.  Tens of thousands of fans stood up and called him a traitor.  Then, whenever it was time for him to hit or catch a baseball, the boo-birds kept on chirping.  That stadium was loud, and the people were nasty.  It was one big F-U to a guy in his mid-20s whose sole offense was to manifest a desire to earn market wages, which the owner of his former team wasn’t willing to pay.  And here’s the funny thing about the whole episode: everyone in D.C. loved it!  It wasn’t that we begrudge Bryce Harper the right to earn $330 million in the next 13 years.  It was that we enjoyed witnessing so many Washingtonians care so much about our city that they would scream bloody murder against a man whose cardinal sin was to leave it. 

Does that sound strange to you?  Perhaps it should.  But I totally get while the local commentators are universally glowing about Tuesday’s Boo-Fest.  It showed civic pride – in an odd way I admit, but it was there nonetheless.  Washingtonians are sick of hearing what a gross place this is, sick of being on all the wrong lists (most stress, worst weather, most violence, etc.), and tired of watching their sports teams lose all the time.  They’re also done with seeing fans in other cities go crazy about their teams while their own stadiums are filled largely with visiting fans or local transplants who continue to root for the teams they grew up with.  Last year’s D.C. hockey team won the Stanley Cup, and we all watched as loyal fans finally were rewarded after decades of futility.  It reminded people that Washington is as real and legit a place to be from as anywhere else. Strangely enough, that was apparent from the energy behind those boos. 

Of course, it’s stressful here.  Everyone knows that.  Everyone knows also that our weather stinks in the summer and isn’t so great in the winter.  Everyone knows that this is a one-industry town that caters to hypocrites, sycophants, and phonies who take themselves incredibly seriously.  Everyone knows that what stinks about D.C. tends to be lasting and what’s great about D.C. tends to be ephemeral.  (No sooner do you make a good friend then you start having to listen to them talk about moving away.  Hell, even the cherry blossoms last only for two weeks a year or less.)   

But for one glorious night, none of that mattered. That’s because tens of thousands of Washingtonians – and hundreds of thousands more (like me) who were watching on TV – got to express our pride in our home town.  And yes, we did it in a characteristically crazy way: by booing relentlessly at the sight of a hardworking man who did nothing wrong except move away from our city.  It was one hell of a primal scream.  And it was truly a tribute, only it wasn’t Bryce Harper who was being celebrated, but rather having the loyalty to remain in your town, even if it’s as obviously flawed and as often disgusting as Washington D.C.

What?  Do you think I’m being hyperbolic?  Do you think D.C. is no more disgusting than any place else?  Notwithstanding my loyalty to the old home town, I’ve got to admit that this place can get downright ugly.  Only a couple of days after the Harper-booing incident, we Washingtonians were graced with a far more familiar kind of event.  It took place in the “People’s House” – the chamber of the House of Representatives.  There, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell addressed her colleagues on behalf of a bill that would enhance limits on guns for people who have been convicted of crimes involving domestic abuse.  Who wouldn’t support such a bill, right?  Who wants a man convicted of beating his wife or stalking his ex-wife to carry a gun?  Well, click on this link, watch this video, and you’ll hear a bunch of faceless Congresspeople boo Dingell as if she were Bryce Harper leaving the on-deck circle.

I don’t know the names of the folks who did the booing.  But we can all guess.  They’re virtually all rich, white men whose titles begin with the term “The Honorable.”    And there is nothing whatsoever appealing about their performance in booing Debbie Dingell.

Yeah, we Washingtonians know what kind of city we live in.   We are even more aware of its problems than any anti-Government curmudgeon from Kansas, Kentucky or Kalamazoo.  But we love our Cherry Blossoms, we love our baseball team, and we love the fact that in this city, people care about politics and public policy.  That ultimately is what unites all of us boo-birds – Nationals fans, Democratic Congresspeople, Republican Congresspeople, you name it.   No matter who you are, if you live in this city, the stress will get to you and some of your neighbors will at times make you sick.   Yet there is also a bond here that stems from the fact that friend or foe, we’re all in this thing together.  No matter what side of the aisle we occupy, we all care about the local industry – enough, in fact, that we’re generally able to cope with the stresses and keep on fighting.  Every now and again, we even get to assemble and let out a primal scream – together – knowing that tomorrow we’ll be back in our respective corners fighting for our respective causes.

So let’s celebrate the baseball season of 2019.  But let’s not kid ourselves – the real sporting season of Washington D.C. begins in June.  For a local junkie like me, those debates can’t come soon enough. 

Saturday, March 30, 2019

On Dignity

Nearly every year at this time, I write and deliver and essay inspired by the Jewish holiday of Purim.  This year’s essay focuses on the concept of dignity and why it is both central to authentic religion and incredibly misunderstood by the society at large.  I think you’ll find it interesting.

Here’s the essay:

Other Purim essays can be found on the Other Writings/Purim Essays page of my website, 

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Six Days

It took the New Zealand Prime Minister all of six days after a mass shooting incident to announce a ban on certain weapons of mass destruction.  We’re talking about semi-automatic rifles, bump stocks, even  high-capacity magazines.  The Cabinet has already agreed to rid the country of those scourges.  As soon as the Kiwi Parliament reconvenes in April, their absolute prohibition will be the law of the land.  

New Zealand has endured only a single mass shooting in the last 20 years, but that one was enough to bring lawmakers together on behalf of common sense and the sanctity of human life.  By contrast, in the past 20 years, we in America have seen 18 shooting sprees resulting in ten or more deaths and eight such sprees in the past four years.  Yet here, except for the soon-to-be-implemented ban on bump stocks, the federal government doesn’t dare touch our guns.  Semi-automatic weapons flood the landscape.   High-capacity magazines rack up corpses in droves. Meanwhile, mentally-fragile residents can buy these insane killing tools without even needing to submit to a background check.  And the leaders of our government?  They duck and cover – much like the children at our schools during one of our increasingly common active shooter situations.

In the United States, whenever there is a mass shooting, the face of the event quickly becomes the head of the National Rifle Association – tough, macho, uncompromising, callous ... and victorious on Capitol Hill.  In New Zealand, we are greeted instead by the face of a woman – equally tough, but also open-minded, empathetic, and transparent.  Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is a mere 38 years old. Had she sought to be head of state in America, we surely would have heard a million reasons why she is unqualified.  Too young.  Weak.  Wimpy.  Unpresidential.  Just imagine her grieving in public as she has done so often in the week after the recent massacre.  The opposition party would mock her relentlessly for being someone foreign adversaries would never fully respect or take seriously.   Instead, Americans would pine for the days of George W Bush, who after 9/11, expressed the desire to “find out who did this and kick their ass.”  Ardern isn’t talking about kicking anyone’s ass.  She’s simply mourning.  And changing laws for the better.

What is it about America and its obsession with machismo?  Is that why we love guns so much?  Is that  why we insist on permitting every Tom, Dick and Harry to own weapons that can take out scores of innocent people in a single spree?  Why can’t we appreciate the strength behind feminine figures like Jacinda Ardern?  Why can’t we appreciate that a lady who is publicly mourning is far more dignified than a cowboy bent on revenge?  

I know I sound jealous of people from places like New Zealand or Scandinavia, where the values of femininity seem to be given more respect.  The truth is, though, that I’m a loyal American, one who takes tremendous pride in so many aspects of American history and culture.  And yet I’m also not deluded.  Sometimes, you have to recognize your own flaws, or those of your country.  And when you contemplate what it means to live in a place that has never elected a woman as head of state, has become the murder capital of the developed world, inures itself to hateful rhetoric from the highest levels of Government, and is so fundamentally partisan that it has trouble coming together even on common sense legislation, you find yourself saying that Houston, we have a problem.

It understates the point to say that we haven’t been electing women as President.  Lately, we haven’t even been electing short men.  Jimmy Carter was the last President who was 5’11” or shorter.  He was elected 43 years ago, before Ronald Reagan touted the cowboy ethos and set the country on an economic path of haves and have nots.  Four years after Reagan was first elected, he ran again – and this time, for the first time in history, there was a woman on the ticket (albeit in the #2 slot).  That ticket came to be known, unaffectionately, as “Fritz and Tits.”  They won only a single state.     

In some respects, we’ve clearly made progress since 1984.  In 2016, a woman ran for President and won the popular vote.  Then again, when it came to the all-important Electoral College, she lost to a political novice who ran largely on a platform of tribalism and machismo, and who was caught on tape boasting that as a celebrity, he can grab women “by the pussy.”  In some respects, he was perceived as the lout at the end of the bar.  But his opponent was perceived as an intense, uppity woman – and in much of America, that’s the greater deal breaker. 

Today in America, we have more women in political office than ever before.  Many are in Congress.  Some are even given a chance to win the Presidency.  It’s true that none who seek the Democratic nomination is polling in the double digits (unlike two men who would become octogenarians by the end of their first term), yet I suspect that most of us believe that with the right personality, intelligence, experience, and policy chops, a woman might actually win the prize.  But I also suspect that most of us believe that the lane to victory is far, far wider for a man.  Stated differently, many a male American political candidate has been made of Teflon when it comes to surviving scandals, mistakes and limitations, whereas with a woman, it almost goes without saying that they’re made of Velcro. 

That’s the situation here.  Perhaps it is different in New Zealand.  Perhaps the experience of seeing Jacinda Ardern unify her country with sympathy, rather than hatred, may remind her fellow citizens of what a wonderful choice they have made in a Prime Minister.  Fortunately, the world is becoming a small place.  Ardern’s compassion and courage are nearly as visible here as they are there.   We might want to take note of what real leadership looks like.  Now is not the time to get jealous.  But it might be the time to emulate greatness when we see it.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The College-Admissions Fetish

For many people, the story about college admissions that came to light this week centered on a legal scandal.  The Empathic Rationalist, however, is a law-free zone, so I will have nothing to say about the scandal du jour.  What I would like to talk about instead is the rat race that gave rise to this particular scandal.  Specifically, I’d like to draw an analogy between the way our society approaches getting children into college and the world of sports. 

Imagine for a moment that a sports league declared performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) legal.  Not just some PEDs, but all PEDs.  Hell, imagine that the league encouraged PED use -- for professional athletes, for college athletes, for high school athletes, you name it.  You’d expect many people to refuse to partake in them, thinking that these drugs are dangerous to body and mind.  But those athletes presumably would have trouble competing, because if there is one thing we sports fans have learned over the years, it’s that PEDs work.  

In our hypothetical, that fact is hardly lost on the athletic community.  So one by one, in town after town, athletes would go to their local pharmacies and get themselves on the juice.  Quickly, they’d find themselves running faster, hitting harder, and remaining injury free (at least in the short run).  It wouldn’t take long before these PED users came to dominate their sport.  They’d fill the rolls of the All-Mets in high school, the All-Americans in college, and the All-Stars in the pros.   By contrast, those who were drug free would end up sitting on the bench, or if they were really talented, perhaps they’d attain the status of “role player” – you know, the utility infielder, long snapper, or winger on the fourth line of a hockey team.  But the Hall of Famers, they’d all be shooting up or drinking up ... at least until the point where their bodies fell apart or they started contemplating suicide.  You see, in this hypo, just like in the real world, PEDs will eventually destroy the ones who use them. 

Now let’s get back to the context of getting little boys and girls into college in the real world.  When I look at our society, I see that process as very similar to the hypothetical I just described.  In well-to-do towns like mine (Bethesda, MD), it may be the rule, rather than the exception, for parents to obsess about getting their children into the very “best” of colleges.  And so they essentially give their kids a childhood on steroids, one that is encouraged by the admissions departments of the colleges themselves.  Some of these kids start studying for their so-called “Aptitude” tests when they are 11 or 12, perhaps with the help of SAT tutors or prep classes.  Other kids are pushed, relentlessly, into the most advanced math classes possible by parents who are practically doing their homework with them, much like Willie Shoemaker used to whip his race horse down the home stretch.  These parents also become obsessed with finding “extra-curricular activities” at which their progeny can excel and which are valued by colleges.  So, for example, instead of encouraging little Junior to play the guitar, an instrument he might possibly enjoy playing in rock bands, on campouts, or pretty much anywhere, they buy him a bassoon in the hope that he can become one of the best damned bassoon players of his cohort and thereby fill an elite college’s need for that rarest of musical breeds, the virtuoso orchestral bassoonist.

For the PED families, this approach to starting out in life essentially means that their kids will not have a childhood.  Instead, they will become soulless rat-racers.  On paper, they’ll look pristine with their 4.0s, 1600s, and demonstrated excellence at some sport, musical instrument, or other avocational vehicle.  But when you talk to them, you’ll quickly realize that they’re neither interested nor interesting.  They’re just unappealing machines. 

And then there are the families who aren’t buying into the whole rat race and who, for one reason or another, are allowing their children to grow up ... as children.   You know, normal kids.  The ones who often have time on their hands to day dream, play computer games, run around the backyard with other “underachieving” friends, etc.   These days, such kids might find themselves at college too.   But it won’t be the “top” colleges.  And they won’t come to see themselves as “top” students.  They’ll be the butt of the joke when they go on the road trip to watch their college team play at one of the PED colleges, whose crowd chants “That’s alright, that’s OK, you’re gonna pump our gas someday.” 

This approach to childhood is insane.  It isn’t fair to the kids who tried to enjoy their childhood, only to find themselves being pushed aside as mediocrities.  And it isn’t fair to the PED abusers who gain admittance to Harvard, Yale or Princeton, only to later realize that they’ve lost their humanity in the process.  Is there any question that this epitomizes a negative sum game?  But what in God’s name do we do about it?  How do we stop the rats from running around in their mazes for one generation after another with no end in sight?

To me, the most obvious suggestion is to get rid of the standardized tests – those phony symbols of meritocracy that eat up so much of our children’s psyches.  Instead, I would suggest that the college emphasize the interview process and hire interviewers who can spot genuine warmth, curiosity and courage.  Secondly, colleges admissions departments need to stop rewarding over-programmed kids, who clearly are so busy building their resumes that they haven’t had the time to build their souls.  Thirdly, colleges need to stop providing information about their schools to those organizations who attempt to rank colleges, like that God-forsaken U.S. News and World Report.   If not for those rankings, the elitism that has fueled all this insanity wouldn’t be nearly as intense.  But perhaps the most important thing is for all of us – from college admissions departments, to high school administrators, to parents, to students – to encourage kids to be just that: kids.   

The truth is that you can lead a remarkably productive life with an education from a non-elite state college and a tragically unproductive life with an education from an Ivy League school.  Given that fact, it makes no sense for us to destroy what ought to be some of the best years of our lives worrying about whether we’re heading to one college as opposed to another.  And it’s clearly not fair to those who lack either the opportunity or the inclination to jump into this rat race to make them feel like mediocrities or losers in the so-called “meritocratic” society we claim to be creating.  Anyone who thinks that merit can truly be measured by an SAT score or a child’s willingness to devote at least hours a day to practicing a musical instrument is definitely on drugs.  And they’re not wisdom-enhancing drugs, I can tell you that.

Folks, this shouldn’t be difficult.  The fixes to this mess are right in front of our eyes.  All we have to do is wake up, smell the roses, and let our kids do the same.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Fighting for the Right to be a Religious Progressive

Something very disturbing happened yesterday.   It should have been a big news item.  Yet since it didn’t have anything to do with Donald Trump, it was ignored on these shores.  The print version of the New York Times didn’t mention it once.  Nor did the Washington Post.  I only know about it because it was the topic of my rabbi’s sermon last evening at synagogue.  The rabbi had announced prior to the service that we would be celebrating International Women’s Day by saluting the Women of the Wall, a group that for the past three decades has struggled for the right of women to pray aloud at the Western Wall in Jerusalem holding Torah scrolls and adorned in traditional prayer attire.   True to form, hundreds of these women showed up at the Wall yesterday expecting to do their thing, when they were met by mobs of literally thousands of Ultra-Orthodox teenagers and young adults who had come from all over the country to stop the outrage.  Violence ensued, a couple people were injured, and the police watched with disturbing passivity. Ultimately, after the Women of the Wall left the scene in order to protect themselves, the police blamed them for the confrontation.  It was the praying women’s use of loudspeakers, rather than the ultra-Orthodox’s use of violence, that was deemed especially offensive by the authorities. 

Like so many things that happen in the world these days, yesterday’s skirmish in Judaism’s holiest site was shocking but not surprising.  Any Israeli observer has long ago realized that Orthodox Judaism has been given a virtual monopoly over religious life, and the ultra-Orthodox in particular enjoy special privileges.   To be sure, most Israelis aren’t especially religious.  A 2015 Gallop Poll found that nearly two-thirds of Israelis claimed either to be “not religious” or “convinced atheists.”  But to the extent Israeli Jews do partake in religion, what they’re imbibing comes almost exclusively from Orthodox rabbis.   Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal Judaism are moribund in the Holy Land.  So it only stood to reason that when it came time for the Women of the Wall to stake their claim to gender equality, they were met by a far greater number of Ultra-Orthodox zealots.  Yeshiva rabbis could simply tell their teenage students to get on the bus, go to the Kotel (the Wall), and make sure that feminists aren’t able to violate the faith’s traditional prohibitions.  These include women wearing prayer shawls, praying loudly enough to be heard by men, reading collectively from a Torah scroll and praying together with men without a physical barrier to separate them.  Apparently, it isn’t enough for the Ultra-Orthodox community in Israel to keep their own synagogues pure.  They feel the need to ensure that nobody else practices Judaism unless they, too, follow the “rules.”

Why do fundamentalist Jews have such power in Israel?  One reason is because secular leaders need support from multiple political parties to form a leading coalition in Parliament, so they make a deal with the ultra-Orthodox parties: “you join our political coalition and we’ll give you control over religious life.”   But there is another, even more important reason: we live in a world where, increasingly, people are dividing into two attitudes when it comes to religion:  (a) fundamentalist and (b) thoroughly apathetic.  Since the apathetic people could care less what happens inside a church or a holy site, when it comes to religion these days, the energy is increasingly on the side of the fundamentalists.

Don’t believe me?  Just look at another recent, underreported story.  I’m referring to the decision on February 26th of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church to pass the so-called “Traditional Plan,” which reaffirmed the prohibition of gay marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy and asserted that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”  Methodism is America’s second largest Protestant denomination, with over seven million Americans, most of whom I suspect opposed the Traditional Plan.  But the fateful vote of February 26th involved representatives from all over the world.  And while the American delegations may have been pretty evenly split, that wouldn’t appear to be the case for the delegations from places like Africa and the Philippines.  Moreover, the victory of the Traditional Plan was made possible by the fact that the membership of the United Methodist Church in America has been shrinking substantially over time.  So even if I’m right that most American Methodists voted with the minority, the overall size of the delegation was too small to defeat the more fundamentalist elements of the church in a worldwide vote of the movement. 

It’s not hard to figure out what is going on.  Fundamentalism offers a simple, comforting answer to all our deepest questions. Trust in the Great Supernatural Law-Maker in the Sky and the handbook of right and wrong that He graciously has bestowed upon us.   Follow that handbook and you will enjoy eternal bliss.  Otherwise, you will undergo a painful second-guessing process throughout your life on earth and perhaps an even worse experience in the hereafter.  As for Non-Religious Secularism, it offers an alternative that is nearly as comforting.  Play hard.  Work hard.  Do both. Or simply relax.  But whatever you choose to do, you can do so guilt-free and armed with the knowledge that the entire domain of religion is just a bunch of ca-ca.  So enjoy your absolute freedom! 

Superficially, those paths are polar opposites.  But truly, they’re quite similar.  Both rest on an appeal to simplicity and a life without cognitive dissonance.  Both profess to be the path to maximizing one’s own happiness and minimizing one’s own pain.  And finally, both offer a path with literally billions of fellow-travelers along the way. 

By contrast, the path of liberal religion -- the one preferred by those Women of the Wall or the LGBTQ rights advocates in the Methodist Church – offers none of those blessings.   Liberal religious leaders can’t pretend that their path is the easy one here on earth.  Nor can they pretend to be offering eternal bliss in the afterlife.  For that matter, many of them refuse to preach about a God who is created in the image of the human ideal.   What they can offer is a life of struggle, of meaning, and of service -- a life modelled by such figures as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel, neither of whom spent his days in the lap of luxury or lived to see his 70th birthday.

I have no crystal ball.  I can’t tell you whether recent trends will change and liberal religion will catch a second wind in the popularity department.  What I can tell you, however, is that there will always remain a number of us who are devoted to it -- whether in the trappings of Judaism, Christianity or any other faith.  It is not for me to proselytize my devotion to liberal religion and “convert” others to that frame of mind.  But it is for me to assert the right of people to live a progressively religious life if they so choose.  So here’s to those Women of the Wall who keep on fighting for gender equality in Judaism.  And here’s to those gay Methodists who keep on fighting to get married and join the clergy, notwithstanding the existence of some pretty homophobic verses in Scripture.   May you realize that you will never be alone.  For liberal religious people may not currently number in the billions, but we still number in the millions.  And I for one have no intention to get off of this path, no matter how lonely or frustrating it can be at times.    

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Reflections on Democracy

For many people throughout the world, the idea of “Israeli Democracy” is an oxymoron.  But this past week, Israel did something suggestive of a very healthy democracy – its Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, who is ideologically compatible with its Prime Minister, publicly recommended only weeks before the upcoming elections that Prime Minister Netanyahu be indicted.  No indictment will be filed until after Netanyahu is given an opportunity to state his case before Mandelblit.  But ultimately, Mandelblit will be the one to make the decision, and we know where he stands at present.

This is not the first time a sitting Israeli Prime Minister has been the subject of a legal scandal.  It was just such a scandal that brought down the Administration of Ehud Olmert, who served as Prime Minister in 2008.  Notably, Olmert ended up serving 16 months in prison for his criminal activity.  Clearly, Israel is a country that takes very seriously the principle that every individual, even the heads of state, are accountable to the public and to the rule of law.

Mandelblit’s announcement this week made me think about the essence of democracy and how it can be evaluated in so many different ways.   In some respects, Israel looms large as a democracy; in others, it falls far short.  This past July, for example, Israel enacted its “Nation-State” law, which cemented some very profound ways in which Israel extends preferences to Jews over gentiles.  The United States, my own country, has a very proud and comparatively ancient tradition of democracy, and yet this tradition is not without gaping holes.  On the very same day that Mandelblit was recommending the indictment of his nation’s leader, I was touring the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture.  Needless to say, I got more than a whiff of the way the leaders of my own country, while waxing eloquent about their devotion to democracy, hypocritically treated one race of people as truly sub-human – an affront that makes the worst of Israel’s abuses look benign by comparison.

As an American, when I think about the moments in which I was proudest of our own democracy, my attention inevitably turns back to the summer of 1974.  I was a rising 10th grader and deeply riveted by the hearings of the House Judiciary Committee and its consideration of whether to recommend the impeachment of President Nixon.  When I look back on Elizabeth Holtzman, Peter Rodino, Father Robert Drinan, Paul Sarbanes, John Conyers and Charlie Rangel – they were truly heroes to me.  That’s because they were all Democrats, that was my party, and they were leading the prosecution of a corrupt President.  But now that I’ve aged a bit, I realize that the true heroes weren’t so much the Committee’s 21 Democrats but its 17 Republicans, who opened their hearts and minds to the facts of the case and ultimately voted – unanimously – to submit three articles of impeachment to the full house against their party’s leader and the nation’s President.  Those Republicans put country before party -- just like Mandelblit did this past Thursday in his own country. 

At some point in my life, I came to conclude that you can largely judge the health of a democracy by how willing its citizens are to buck their party’s leaders when the circumstances so warrant.   To me, that is just another way of asking whether we view ourselves as Democrats and Republicans first and foremost, or whether we see ourselves as Americans.  Sometimes it is critically important to be loyal to your party; I get that.  If one party is playing rough, then perhaps the other needs to do the same just to maintain some semblance of equity.  But that principle is hardly relevant to the situation that the House Judiciary Committee faced in 1974, or to the situation Mandelblit faced this past week.  They saw abuses being perpetrated by their party’s leaders, and they could either bury their heads in the sand or honor their oaths of office.  Thankfully, they chose the latter path.

Near the end of the Clinton Administration, I remember another scandal consuming my country, and this time it was associated with the leader of my own party, President Clinton.  Looking back at the so-called “Monica Lewinsky Scandal,” the facts about the President’s behavior were hardly in dispute.  The only question was what to make of them.  On the Democratic side, everyone acknowledged that the President’s conduct was inappropriate.  Yet with few exceptions, they seemed willing to condone it – or at least they appeared that way to me.  For the first (and last) time in my life, I found myself watching Fox News more often than the other Cable News networks because I agreed more with what the Republicans were saying about the scandal than the Democrats.  No, I didn’t support impeachment, but I had hoped the President would resign and was rather appalled by the way Democrats trivialized the significance of his misconduct.   I felt, in short, like the Democrats had failed the test passed in 1974 by the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee or last week by Attorney General Mandelblit. 

In early-March 1999, I gave a speech to a few dozen people that discussed precisely why I felt that the President’s behavior was so profoundly disturbing under the circumstances.  You can find a transcript of the relevant comments at the following link, beginning on page 9:

Was I right in being so tough on President Clinton?  Should I have taken a more laissez-faire attitude about his sex life?  In hindsight, I would agree that reasonable people can be found on both sides of this issue.  But what’s important is not so much that Mandelblit interpreted the law correctly in recommending indictment, or that the Republicans who favored the impeachment of Nixon were right in their legal analysis, or that I was right in hoping Clinton would resign in 1999 -- what’s important is that when it comes to evaluating the conduct of our own leaders, we put party aside and country first, or at least we try to do so.

A lot had changed from 1974 to 1999 in America.  This country became far more polarized during that quarter century.  In the twenty years since, its polarization has become even worse.   So, I ask you: how strong is our democracy?  Are we an exemplar of a mature republic, with a sufficiently free and healthy public sphere as to give rise to human passions and the political factions that inevitably result from them?  Or are have we instead morphed into two ideologically incompatible peoples sharing the same land and fighting our wars in the ballot box every two years, with the spoils going to whoever happens to win the most recent election?  Maybe that is the situation at present, but it doesn’t have to describe our future.  I look forward to the day where both parties will have plenty of free-thinking mavericks who follow the truth wherever it leads and aren’t afraid of taking on the leaders of their party, whether they are in the White House, the People’s House, or on the God-damned radio.