Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Man of the Year:

Well, this is a tough one, isn’t it? The “Tiger Woods of Politics” has brought far more enthusiasm to my city than any politician in my lifetime, including Reagan. He ran a masterful campaign against a seemingly unbeatable primary opponent, and then completed a workmanlike dissection of an all-too-beatable opponent in the general election. Now, he’s entrusted with the jobs of rescuing a moribund economy, bringing peace to the Middle East, unifying the nation, and implementing profound progressive changes. It sounds impossible, but with this guy … at least we can dream about it happening.

Congratulations, Barack Obama. You’ve earned this award. Here’s hoping you’ll earn it next year too.

Athlete of the Year:

Another no-brainer. Call it a case of Baltimoron makes good. Or, if you prefer, an Olympic athlete masters his sport. Winning eight golds in one Olympics is difficult to fathom. What would be the baseball analogue? Four perfect games by one pitcher in one post-season? Or in football, consider a running back gaining 1000 yards in one post-season? Or in boxing … consider winning a title and not being convicted at some later date of wife beating.

We’re talking amazing stuff. Congratulations, Michael Phelps. You’ve made us Marylanders proud.

The Horseshoes and Hand Grenades Award:

I was thinking of giving it to whoever loses the Senate race in Minnesota, but then again, we haven’t a clue as to who that will be. So the award goes instead to the guy who almost won the Senate seat in Oregon. And no, I’m not talking about the incumbent Republican Gordon Smith.

Give it up to the little man with the steel hook – Steve Novick. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t held office since he served in student government back in grade school. And yet he came within three percentage points of defeating Jeff Merkley, who ultimately unseated Smith. Novick was ahead in the polls on the eve of the election, but he simply couldn’t compete with Merkley’s money advantage, an advantage born from all the money flowing in from out of state, courtesy of Chuck “the Kingmaker” Schumer. How did Novick compete, given a lack of money and experience as a statesman? Brains. Humor. Tireless work. And a ton of enthusiasm.

You thought it was all for naught? Hardly. Merkley might have himself a Senate seat, but Novick has himself an Empathic Rationalist award. I ask you, which is more distinguished?

Demagogue Award:

Webster’s defines a demagogue as “a person who tries to stir up the people by appeals to emotion, prejudice, etc. in order to win them over quickly and so gain power.” Hmmm. Does that remind you of a certain politician? Someone who, say, tried to suggest that people from small towns are more virtuous than other people? Or that community organizers in the inner cities have no real responsibilities? Or that folks from the south are somehow more “American” than those in the northeast? Or that Barack Obama has been “palling around with terrorists”?

Sarah Palin is a demagogue, alright. If you ask me, she’s a plenty dangerous one. Palin reminds me of another pop-culture phenomenon, Madonna, circa 1983. It was then when she was asked on American Bandstand, “what do you hope to accomplish in your career?” and she responded “to rule the world.” That, my friends, is Sarah Palin in a nutshell – not “blonde ambition” (that would be Madonna’s purview), but blind ambition. The Governor is completely blind concerning foreign policy … and how to address urban issues … and issues involving the courts. Hell, she couldn’t even identify any newspapers or magazines that she reads. But if you ask her whether she’s qualified to serve as President of the United States, she’ll tell you point blank: gosh darn it, why not!

Underestimate this woman at your own risk. I sure won’t join you. Just look at how rich and famous Madonna became. Other performers have better voices and write better songs, but Madonna knows what sells, and she’s not afraid to sell it. Palin knows what sells too – and it’s not just sex. It’s coming across as an authentic, charismatic, hard-line conservative. That worked for the Gipper, and if things head south for the Obama Administration, it might yet work for Palin, too. Lord knows, even if she remains woefully unprepared to tackle the critical public policy questions, she’ll have more than enough self-confidence to seek the Presidency, and more than enough chutzpah to say whatever it takes to win.

What do you say we watch this lady closely and remind our fellow citizens that we’ve got a demagogue on our hands? Ambition is all well and good, but it’s no substitute for knowledge and integrity. Hopefully, after four years of Obama, America will continue to demand those latter qualities from all its Presidential candidates. If so, I don’t think we’ll have to worry about Caribou Barbie anytime soon.

Villains of the Year – Foreign:

This goes to the perpetrators of the Mumbai killings – or, as it has also come to be known, “India’s 9/11.” They have reminded us of different things, none of which should be taken lightly.

First, before we laugh George Bush out of Washington, let’s give at least some thanks to his Administration for keeping the United States free from any post 9/11 terrorist attacks. I’m no apologist for this White House, but the facts are the facts. The Administration has made it their first priority to keep the home front safe, and they have thwarted many planned attacks over the past several years. While the Obama Administration considers rolling back some of the more questionable methods used to combat terror, I hope they take a breath and consider that we really do have enemies who can’t be ignored. No, I’m not advocating torture … but nor would I roll back the Patriot Act in its entirety. Bush and Cheney might have invented the WMDs in Iraq, but they didn’t invent Al-Qaeda.

Second, the Mumbai massacre is a reminder that we are still at war, and that war requires that all sane people join the fight. The question is, what can those of us do whose jobs don’t involve national security? The answer is, a lot. I have already spoken in earlier posts about my fledgling Muslim-Jewish interfaith initiative, which is bringing together Jews and Muslims in the Washington D.C. area for meaningful and respectful dialogues. This idea can be replicated everywhere that Jewish and Muslim communities co-exist. My hope is that through these initiatives, more and more Muslims will be inspired to speak out publicly against the cancer that is being spread in the name of their religion. But I won’t refer to that cancer as “Islamic” terrorism, or “jihadism,” or “Muslim” extremism. Call it what it is: pseudo-Islamic. From what I can tell, there is nothing in true Islam that counsels people to take innocent lives. Even the word “jihad” doesn’t refer to a war against innocent blood, but rather to the idea of a holy “struggle” – and primarily a spiritual one. As an imam once pointed out to me, the words “Israeli” and “jihadist” are practically synonyms. That’s not something the lunatics in either religion would like to admit, but look it up – it’s true.

Finally, the recent massacre in India has caused me to wonder if there are economic tools that can be used to fight pseudo-Islamic terror. We don’t see terror coming from the Far East, even though it is heavily Muslim. Presumably, then, the problem isn’t Islam itself but the economic or cultural situation in the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent, and perhaps there is something that the West can do to influence the relevant economies and motivate those who live in these regions to enter the 21st century sooner rather than later. Many possibilities have been suggested: cut down on our demand for oil; stop providing so many subsidies (or, perhaps, increase some subsidies); and/or stand up to Israel until it takes care of its settler problem. Hopefully, the Obama Administration will consider these and other potential measures. We really can’t afford to simply sit back and wait for more advanced weapons to filter down from the old Soviet Union into the caves of Tora Bora. That would be suicide – something that is prohibited in the Qu’ran (4:29), as well as the Torah.

Villains of the Year – Domestic:

This one goes out to the Barons of Major League Baseball. The players’ union. The owners. The Commissioner. All of them. They have made a complete mockery of one of the greatest sports ever invented.

Have you been paying attention to the free agent market this year? The Yankees have now spent $420 million on three players. Three! They have the four highest paid players in the sport, and their lineup practically sounds like an all-star team. But what’s most amazing about this is that it doesn’t have to be allowed. It sure isn’t in the other major sports.

Football and basketball have meaningful salary caps to ensure competitiveness. Why can’t baseball? Well I know why – greed. The players have been unusually unconcerned about the good of their sport, and the owners of the wealthiest franchises have similarly been unconcerned. By contrast, the owner of the New York (Football) Giants – Gotham’s flagship franchise – was an early proponent of revenue sharing among the teams “for the good of the game,” and the NFL Player’s Union has always seemed to tolerate salary caps.

Apparently, there are precious few people connected to Major League Baseball who are similarly concerned with the good of the game. But the most shameless of all are the “journalists” who cover the sport and essentially ignore the kind of spending disparities that we’re now seeing. They are the ones we should count on to cry Bull Shit whenever the name New York Yankees is mentioned. They are the ones we should count on to stick a mike in the face of the players and ask why they’re complicit in this madness. But these so-called journalists have proved over and over again that they won’t bite the hands that feed them. And so … here we have another year where certain teams will spend far more on their infielders alone than other teams will spend on their infielders, outfielders and pitchers combined.

It’s almost enough to make me give up baseball and start watching NASCAR. Well, almost.

Woman of the Year:

By the beginning of the Roaring Twenties, Mary Pickford was firmly established as America’s Sweetheart. She was the girl Americans loved to root for – smart, strong-willed, but as sweet as a box of chocolate. And did I say beautiful? She was all that in one petite package. What’s not to adore?

Well, today, America has a new sweetheart – at least for the moment. She’s not nearly as small as Pickford, nor as sweet. But she sure comes across as smart. Almost nerdy, in fact.

I first noticed this woman while watching the 2004 movie Mean Girls. I was impressed to learn that she not only did a nice job as an actress in the movie but also was its writer. Truth be told, though, I missed her critically-acclaimed performances on 30 Rock and on Saturday Night Live … until John McCain had a “senior moment” and nominated Sarah Palin to be his running mate. It was at that point when I, like virtually every other progressive American, fell in love with Tina Fey.

Who is to say what this woman can do for an encore? She might never have another role as perfect as the “pit bull with lipstick,” but can anyone seriously question her talent? I for one would love to see Tina Fey write more movies. Yes, I know they’re fluff, but sometimes we need a little escape. In the age of Barack Obama, the “Braniac President,” who better to write our fluffy films than a nerdy actress named Tina. Besides, just as Barack has become a heartthrob, Tina Fey is kind of cute too. If only being a nerd was “in” back in the 70s when I was in high school …

Well, that’s all for the 2008 Empathic Rationalist Awards. Congratulations to the winners who deserve congratulations, and allow me to send a Bronx Cheer to the award recipients who don’t. (You know who you are.)

I’ll be out of pocket until the end of the year, so let me wish all my readers a happy holiday season and all the best for 2009. Take care, and stay warm.

Friday, December 19, 2008


Poor Barack Obama, say the critics. He was sailing along so well. Proposing bailouts. Proposing stimulus packages. Proposing Clintons. What’s not to love? Commentators were talking about four million people coming to his inauguration. Maybe five. Dyed in the wool Republicans were singing his praises. And Democrats were treating him like manna from heaven. Who could blame him for being a tad complacent – for not recognizing his vulnerability to a powerful left hook?

But a left hook it was. Power-packed from one of the most progressive interest groups of them all – the homosexuals. Or at least that’s the conventional wisdom. Truth be told, you don’t have to be homosexual to oppose what Rick Warren stands for. You don’t even have to be a homosexual to oppose his stance on gay marriage. Really, all you have to be is (a) willing to question the literal truth of Scripture, (b) pro marriage, and (c) anti hypocrisy. I realize that excludes a massive number of heterosexuals, but still … the gays are not alone on this. The legalization of gay marriage is inevitable in this country; the only question is when?

Anyway, let’s step back for a moment and look at the fateful statements by the man Barack chose to do the invocation at his inauguration.

"This [the right of gay people to get married] is not a political issue -- it is a moral issue that God has spoken clearly about."

“The issue to me is … I’m opposed to the redefinition of a 5,000-year definition of marriage. I’m opposed to having a brother and sister be together and call that marriage. I’m opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that a marriage. I’m opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage.
[Asked: Do you think, though, that they are equivalent to having gays getting married?]

“Oh I do.”

And those are not Warren’s only colorful comparisons. Consider the following:

“But to me it is kind of a charade in that people say ‘We believe abortions should be safe and rare … Don’t tell me it should be rare. That’s like saying on the Holocaust, ‘Well, maybe we could save 20 percent of the Jewish people in Poland and Germany and get them out and we should be satisfied with that. I’m not satisfied with that. I want the Holocaust ended.”

Warren has also been filmed agreeing with Sean Hannity’s comment that we should “take out” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. To quote Warren, “the Bible says that God puts government on earth to punish evildoers.”

There you have it folks – the clergyman Barack has chosen to usher in his new Administration. Progressives all over the nation are wondering just what Barack was thinking. Is he trying to piss off his base before his term has even started?

All I can say is … relax, everybody. Barack hasn’t done anything wrong here. He’s not endorsing Warren’s troglodyte views. He’s not holding Warren up as the wisest clergyman in America. He has merely decided to make a symbolic statement at an event that is all about symbolism. And the statement is crystal clear: America cannot solve its biggest problems unless it is more unified. By elevating Warren, Barack is telling the world that he plans on bringing all ideologies into the marketplace of dialogue. And he’s planning on treating all people of good will with respect. Nobody disputes that Warren is a man of good will – he may dwell in a cave, but at least he does so with love. That’s more than I can say for many of my fellow progressives.

Speaking of love, Warren’s support of Prop 8 is, for me, a pathetic way of spitting in the face of love. I strongly suspect that if Warren’s beloved Jesus were alive today, he’d support gay marriage as fervently as anyone. So, as a supporter of gay marriage rights, should I lament the choice of Warren? Hardly. If I’m right, there’s a subtext to this drama that might ultimately resound to the benefit of legalizing these marriages.

Consider what Barack publicly stated when justifying his choice of invocation speakers:

"It is no secret that I am a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans. It is something that I have been consistent on and something that I intend to continue to be consistent on during my presidency.”

Well …actually, Barack, you’ve consistently opposed equality for gay and lesbian Americans, at least on the topic that is generating the most attention with respect to their community: marriage. No, you haven’t compared such unions to incestuous or polygamous marriages, but you’ve spoken against them. So what kind of equality are you talking about? The kind of “separate but equal” equality they had in the South prior to Brown v. Board of Education?

Not at all. Barack is a brilliant, progressive black intellectual. He knows damn well that “separate but equal” is an oxymoron. Here’s what I think is going on: Of course Barack supports gay marriage – Barack the Man, that is. If you took a look at Ivy League educated Democrats and polled them on the topic, you’d fight such support overwhelming. But Barack has also recognized that a politician cannot afford to speak out in favor of gay marriage and get elected … not yet at least. So he’s wisely paid lip service to this “civil union” B.S., all the while purporting to care about homosexuals’ rights.

I predict that Barack’s charade will continue for another four years – through his next (and final) election. Then, in his second term, when there’s no need for him to pander on this topic, he’ll finally take a shot on truly being a “fierce advocate” for the rights of gay people. The first stop on that road was his announcement of Warren to do the invocation.

If I’m correct, Barack welcomes the gay backlash against his choice of speakers. Barack welcomes a progressive interest group questioning this Presidency from the left. Barack welcomes the opportunity to position himself as a moderate at a time when only a broad coalition of liberals and conservatives can support the fundamental changes we need. But Barack also welcomes pressure to increase his public support of the so-called “gay agenda.” I’m confident that he believes in that “agenda.” Virtually all intellectual progressives do. He’s simply waiting for the point where he can announce his support without too much political fallout. In the meantime, as I’m sure he rationalizes to himself, gay people can go to New England and get married there.

Stated simply, this Warren controversy should be a win-win for American progressives. It should further boost Barack’s standing as a “moderate.” And it should shine a light on the discrimination endured by gay people. Expect progress on ending that discrimination before the end of the Obama Administration. I suspect that won’t happen until after 2012 … but thanks to shrewd decisions like the choice of Rick Warren to give the invocation, the chance that the Administration will be around post-2012 seems to increase with every week.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Those of you who haven’t read The Creed Room might not know how this blog got its name. It came from a statement of a philosophy – or a “creed” – enunciated in that book. One of the key principles of this philosophy is that Empathic Rationalists must seek out the truth wherever they can find it, and never shy away or deceive themselves about uncomfortable facts. It’s time for me to practice a little bit of what I’ve preached.

In many ways, I remained thrilled by what our President-Elect is showing us. The other day he announced clear support for a group of terminated workers, and wouldn’t you know, their employer caved in to their demands. As they left the building, the workers chanted “Yes we can, yes we can,” and all over the country, the faces of labor smiled at the thought of our next President. What’s more, Barack’s choices for cabinet members continue to reflect a respect for intelligence, experience, and diversity (ideological, as well as ethnic). Even Republicans, if they’re not too hateful, seem to be warming up to him. He exudes competence and thoughtfulness, while also coming across as warm and human. Given all that, not to mention his pioneering status as the first African-American chief of state in the western world, Barack has a legitimate chance to become the most inspiring – and inspired -- statesmen in generations.

Nevertheless, something about the Era of Barack is beginning to worry me. It has to do with all the promises about ushering in an era of change. In the past few months, perhaps his most fateful acts have been to support a bailout of the financial industry worth the better part of a trillion dollars and another bailout of the auto industry worth tens of billions more. But I don’t have much of a sense that he would attach many more strings to these handouts than we’ve been attaching when we’ve subsidized multi-millionaire farmers or Bridges to Nowhere. So … I have to ask … where exactly is the change?

The financial bailout in particular strikes me like the product of Chicken Little. We were told “the sky is falling” unless we pay hundreds of billions of dollars to the very clowns who screwed up our economy in the first place and trust the sleep-at-the-switch Secretary of Treasury to pay it in just the right way. Oh yeah: we were also told that we have to authorize this bailout tout de suite! Or else! Barack supported that measure, as did most of the “moderate” Democrats in Washington.

Maybe it’s just me, but that bailout reminds me a lot of the Chicken Little crying that preceded the vote authorizing the Iraq War. Back then, we were told that George W. Bush’s needs us to authorize military action or else the nation would be in danger of Saddam’s weapons and we all know what that means (another 9/11). It turns out, however, that the weapons didn’t exist, and by rights we should be outraged at the false panic. Still, here we are, more than $1 trillion and an ungodly number of corpses later, and we apparently haven’t even learned any lessons from our misery.

Before the election, some of my Republican friends questioned whether Barack, if he were a U.S. Senator in 2002, would have supported the Iraq War. I’d like to think the answer is no, but I can’t exactly prove it, now can I? Clearly, Barack’s willingness to join in the Wall Street bailout package in its current form and at warp speed would suggest that had he been in Washington and inhaled its sheepish aroma, maybe he too would have supported W’s overseas folly just like his Vice President-elect and future Secretary of State.

The automobile bailout proposal is obviously not nearly as noxious as the Wall Street Welfare Package. But I still think we’re seeing déjà vu all over again. For years, I purchased nothing but American cars. Need I remind everyone that the Big Three make crap. Nobody in their right mind buys American any more if they can possibly afford the alternative. So why bail them out without attaching some pretty serious strings? Does GM want to make hybrids and electric cars? And do they want to make them under new leadership? Fine. I just might free up some money to encourage those purchases. But do they want to make more gas guzzlers that break down quicker than the Japanese cars? Sorry. I don’t want anyone to lose their jobs, but sometimes that happens when you work for a company that has made lousy products for decades. That, my friends, is capitalism. If you don’t like it, then tax the rich more and use the taxes to help displaced workers get new jobs. Just don’t subsidize companies to make junk. That’s not mere socialism; it’s socialism at its worst.

OK, so that’s my take on the bailouts – naïve or not, I’m not a huge fan. But my concerns with the new Administration don’t end there. I’ve previously praised Barack for some of his appointments, but doesn’t he have to come clean on his campaign promise not to hire lobbyists? The sense I get from talking to Washingtonians is that he’s got his ears wide open to lobbyists – at least in the Transition. Is that going to stop once he’s in power? I wonder.

Finally, no blog this week would be complete without mentioning the mess in Illinois. This was yet another chance for Barack to show that he’s a change agent: by reacting with transparency. After all, it truly doesn’t appear that our next President has done anything wrong. He’s much too honorable to pay money to hire his replacement, and Lord knows that he and Governor Whack Job weren’t personal friends. Why, then, is his high advisor, Mr. Alexrod, retracting his earlier statement that Barack spoke to the Governor? It would stand to reason that Barack, through one of his lieutenants, would have made a suggestion or two about the kind of person Illinois needs in the Senate. There’s nothing wrong with that. So why not admit it? Clear the air. Send a message – the age of Presidential secrecy is a thing of the past.

In short, “change” has to mean more than a slogan. It has to mean more than “we’ll be different than George W. Bush.” George H.W. Bush was different than his son, too. Way better, if you ask me. But if Barack merely brings back the era of George H.W. Bush – or, for that matter, William Jefferson Clinton -- would he truly be a change agent? That’s taking the concept a bit too far.

When I think about all that has transpired during the past few weeks, and particularly about all the nominations by a non-corrupt Chicagoan and near-nomination by a corrupt Chicagoan, I keep reflecting on one particular face. Call this face a symbol. A symbol of liberalism – which I like – but also of the ol’ boy network, which I don’t. In this case, the ol’ boy happens to be a young-looking woman, but one incredibly connected one. Her name is Caroline Kennedy. And she is the FOB (Friend of Barack) whose name keeps getting mentioned as the replacement for Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat.

I’m not suggesting the Governor of New York was auctioning Hillary’s seat, and nobody could pay as much as a Kennedy. What I am suggesting is that part of this “change” deal was that we would be ushering in a meritocracy, and Caroline Kennedy’s selection would hardly seem meritocratic. What has she done to merit such an appointment? I’ve looked for the answer and can’t find it. Quite the contrary – what I can see is that she and her uncle threw their support behind Barack at a critical time in the campaign, and that now appears to be payback time. Is that not what’s going on?

As far as I can tell, Ms. Kennedy is a kind, intelligent woman. I don’t know her, but I instinctively like her a lot. Still, in a state as populous as New York, you can’t tell me that she’s paid her dues enough to attain the rank of Senator without having to win an election. That isn’t “change.” It smacks of the same old nepotistic ways of Washington. Her father was supposed to promote “the best and the brightest.” I hope that the Governor of New York and his future President remembers that Caroline Kennedy may indeed be the best and the brightest, but she should be forced to prove it first. If she’s so darned smart, let her figure out how to put the bankers’ and the auto makers’ feet to the fire before we give them our children’s money. Now that would impress me.

It’s easy to go to Washington and dole out hard-earned taxpayer dollars on subsidies and bailouts. Show me a politician with the courage to say “no more panicking,” the insight to say “no more trickle down,” and the compassion to say “no more ignoring future generations and the needs of the environment.

Change is a great word; it’s just not very popular in Washington, except as an empty slogan. Barack will soon enough come to a fork in a road. Either he’ll treat “change” as a slogan, or he’ll have the guts to embrace it as a true mantra. Reagan did it, and not that long ago. I’ve been waiting ever since for a progressive to take up the mantle.

How about it, Barack? Your true fans, and I’m one, will be patient. But we will hold you to your promises just the same.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


So, imagine my joy when I sat down to read a Jewish Philosophy compendium that I recently purchased, and then found a chapter on Spinoza’s philosophy written by a man recognized as one of the nation’s foremost experts on the subject. Quickly, though, my joy turned into disappointment when I sat down to read the chapter. “Spinoza’s God,” said the author, “is not some just wise, good, and providential being.” Fair enough so far. “[I]t is not a personal being whom one would thank or bless or to whom one would pray or go to seek comfort.” Actually, I think it’s possible to thank or bless Spinoza’s God, and I think it’s possible to seek comfort in that God as well. But I certainly understand the point – it’s a whole lot easier to seek comfort and praise an anthropomorphized God (i.e., an omnipotent force who created us out of love).

The author wasn’t finished. He went on it say of Spinoza’s God, the God I’ve loved for decades, “It is not a God that fosters a sense of awe and spiritual piety.” It was at that point that I could only shake my head. The expert was dead wrong. Awe and spiritual piety are precisely what Spinozism fosters. His philosophy sure fostered that sense in Goethe and Einstein.

I asked some friends in my Spinoza Society what they thought of the above comments, and some other, similar characterizations of Spinoza’s God (e.g., “’God’ is seen to refer to nothing but an impersonal, infinite, unique, uncaused causal source of everything else that exists”). To a person, everyone took exception to some of the comments, and especially the one about awe and spiritual piety. One response, however, stood out as the most compelling. It came from a fellow lover of Spinoza who possesses a degree in mathematical philosophy from Oxford. His point was succinct, but nevertheless profound. “This is why I prefer primary sources,” said my friend.

Indeed. It is nice to have the time and inclination to read primary sources. Even if you have to read them in translation, it’s often critical to understanding a text. There’s so much B.S. floating around these days that secondary sources have become about as reliable as a Ouija Board. Take it from a “blogger” like me – not only is talk dirt cheap; so is the written word.

I’m not invariably prepared to read primary sources. When writers don’t bother to make their prose clear, I don’t bother to read their stuff. Hegel? Forget about it. I’d rather read the graffiti on a bathroom stall. Since I left college, whenever I’ve felt the urge to learn about Hegel, I’ve gone to books written about his stuff by philosophers who value lucidity. My life is way too short to read Hegel’s convoluted sentences. I can enjoy chewing on an isolated statement like “The True is thus the bacchanalian whirl in which no member is not drunken; and because each, as soon as it detaches itself, dissolves immediately – the whirl is just as much transparent and simple repose.” But do I really want to read a whole book like that?

Fortunately, most great philosophers care more than Hegel about being readable. And when it comes to writers of religious literature, readability is de rigueur.

Take, for example, the Qu’ran. I spent most of Thanksgiving weekend reading it. And no, I still didn’t finish the tome. But I’m glad I made the effort. Some would tell you not to bother to do so unless you can read Arabic, but I think that’s poppycock. You can still get a lot out of reading an English translation – the spirit of the faith, for one thing. It’s particularly important to read that book these days, as so much misinformation about Islam is floating around cyberspace and the boob tube. Do yourself a favor: if you haven’t spent hours upon hours reading the Qu’ran, stop listening to all the “experts” who believe that the religion is inherently violent. That book seems to countenance a whole lot less violence than the Torah. Remember, my Jewish ancestors weren’t simply welcomed into the Promised Land with open arms. To conquer their new home, they had to rape, pillage, and destroy life and limb. Indiscriminately. And all with the blessings of the Divine.

I would rather you read the book for yourself than take my word for what it says. But if you’re asking … I’d say that the essence of the Muslim philosophy on violence can be summed up in a few Qu’ranic passages late in the second Surah: “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits, for Allah loveth not transgressors. And slay them wherever you catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter. … Let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression.” (2: 190-191, 193).

In the version I’ve been reading, the modern commentary interprets the above to mean precisely what I would have thought it meant: “War is permissible in self-defense, and under well-defined limits.” Clearly, flying planes into buildings to kill innocent people is not a matter of self defense. Nor is slaughtering random guests at an Indian hotel. But … there’s no question that the Muslim is commanded to fight those who actively oppress and persecute, and if that fighting leads to martyrdom, so be it.

I raise this topic because, during the week since the so-called “Indian 9/11,” I’ve seen an uptick in the attempts to link Islam and the advocacy of terrorism. Even the sections I’ve culled out of the Qu’ran can be taken to advocate seemingly gratuitous violence depending upon how loosely the words are interpreted. For example, if those of us who live in America or India are somehow associated with our leaders, and those leaders are thought to be guilty of oppression or persecution, then we can be blamed as indirect perpetrators of capital crimes.

In theory, that makes sense. But again, only if you don’t read the Qu’ran. That books talks over and over again about the value of “personal responsibility” – I’m responsible for what I do, but not what my parents do, or my President does. Moreover, the book also admonishes us to “show patience, firmness and self-control.” (3: 17). Indeed, Muhammad was said to have avoided conflict as much as possible, and only fought when absolutely necessary to combat oppression.

“Let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just, that is next to piety.” It is a statement that could easily have been in the Torah or the Gospels. Instead, you’ll find it in Surah 5, verse 8. Muhammad, the man to whom it is attributed, is said to have been as gentle as Jesus. And in my own personal experience, the Muslims I know are indeed very gentle and respectful in their demeanor.

Am I advocating that we ignore the violence that is so often perpetrated in the name of Allah? Hell no. The terrorists are both crazy and formidable, and we must fight them proactively. Make no mistake about that. All that I am saying is that just as we would say that Jesus, if he were alive today, would decry “Islamic” terror, so would Muhammad. In fact, Muhammad wouldn’t simply turn the other cheek; the jihad he would fight would be against the terrorists. After all, they are fanatics, and Islam is opposed to fanaticism. “Allah loveth not those who trespass beyond bounds,” (2:55) says the Prophet of Islam. Check out the primary source and see for yourself.