Friday, July 31, 2009


As I contemplate my trip to the upper Midwest tomorrow, my mind wanders to all my past experiences of that region. Compared to the east coast, at least, the people seem nicer, more down to earth, less pretentious, and less guileful. But the cultural attractions are much more sparse. And the food? Oi, the food.

You all hopefully remember the old Borscht Circuit joke that Woody Allen tells at the beginning of Annie Hall. “The food here is terrible. And such small portions!” From what I remember about my dozens of trips to the upper Midwest, the food there is certainly terrible. But the portions? Anything but small. And anything but nutritious.

You can hardly blame me for thinking about mid-America’s infatuation with fatty foods at a time like this. Our nation may be extraordinarily affluent, with more than 370 billionaires, and yet here we are, once again, on the verge of rejecting universal healthcare. Obviously, this has a lot to do with Americans’ dislike of paying taxes and distrust of Government as an economic provider. But it also has to do with the enormous inherent costs involved in treating the health needs of the American public. And those costs are, in no small part, a result of our obesity epidemic, an epidemic fueled by a ubiquitous addiction to fatty and sugary foods.

According to an article published this past Monday in the “Health Affairs” journal, American medical costs attributed to obesity increased from $79 billion in ’98 to $147 billion in ’08. The article went on to say that obese people incur medical costs that exceed those of normal weight individuals by 42% -- or $1,400 more per person per year. When you add to this the fact that people who aren’t obese but are overweight surely incur higher medical costs than those who are fit, the enormous cost of the American diet becomes crystal clear. The question is, what are we to do about it?

Recently, the idea of taxing the so-called “fatty foods” has gained some momentum. Under this plan, Americans who enjoy going out and ordering a Double Whopper with cheese, French fries, and a Coke can go right on pigging out – but they’d have to pay a tax for their choice.

It shouldn’t be hard to imagine all the opposition such a proposal would face if it were seriously considered. To be sure, we already place taxes on alcohol and cigarettes, so it might be argued that America is ready for a tax on fatty foods. But the currently taxable consumables are known in many circles as “sinful.” By contrast, who in their right mind would view it as “sinful” to order fries and chase that down with a Coke? Surely, that attitude would be Puritanism on steroids.

Another argument against the so-called “fat tax” is that it discriminates against poor people. Sales taxes are generally viewed as regressive, and it would appear that this tax is particularly so. After all, who do you think frequents places like McDonalds, Popeye’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken? The yacht club crowd? I doubt it.

For many people, the whole idea of a fat tax smacks of paternalism at its absolute ugliest. A vision emerges of some sort of know-it-all bureaucratic nanny working out of a soulless building in Southwest D.C. and deciding which foods “make the grade” and which ones cross the line into fat-tax territory. That nanny might get off on assigning arbitrary values to each culprit – “Let’s do $1 for a Big Mac … and how about 80 cents for a Whopper. Yeah, that’s the ticket.”

For all these reasons, anyone who proposes a fat tax had better get used to some ridicule. To many, taxing these foods will seem as insane as taxing the family dog, and equally un-American.

All that said, I still support the idea. Yeah, I know – maybe I’ve eaten one tofu sandwich too many, but I’m looking at this as a matter of economics. Here in America we are trillions of dollars in debt. We realize that our health care system needs help, but we can’t seem to pay for reform because that costs money, and we don’t have the money to spend (or at least we tell ourselves that). So, shouldn’t we look for that money in different places? And aren’t the products that contribute most to our diseases the obvious places to look?

We’re already taxing cigarettes. And we’re taxing alcohol. So why not tax bacon? Or cheeseburgers? Or those delicious Bob Evans Stacked & Stuffed Caramel Banana Pecan Hotcakes? Hmmm. I feel like getting out my Johns Hopkins Family Health Book just thinking about them.

To me, this isn’t an issue of morality. But it is a matter of efficiency. Like it or not, if we tax those foods, people would eat less of them, they’d get healthier, and our health care burden would be markedly reduced. The tax is simply a way to ensure that our society is charging a fair price for these products. After all, not only does it cost McDs and Burger King money to procure their ingredients and cook their fatty foods, but it costs the rest of us even more to pay for the health care needs of the bacon- or cheeseburger-eating public.

To me, the foods at issue should be analyzed much like the way we analyze air pollutants. It might be a good deal for a plant that pollutes the air to continue to do so, and a good deal for the consumers of the plant’s products to continue to buy those products at a cheap price. But can the rest of us afford to let the polluter keep it up, tax free? Not if we value our health. And right now, our failure to tax fatty and sugary foods is one of the reasons why many Americans can obtain health insurance.

As for the issue of regressive taxation, I agree that American society has an absurdly high level of economic inequality, but we also have numerous arrows in our quiver if we want to address that problem. We don’t need to panic whenever a proposal is made that could exacerbate that inequality. And we can’t afford to shy away from every sales tax that disproportionately hurts the working class and the poor. To do so would make no more sense than abolishing the cigarette tax, and thereby encouraging the poor to smoke more. Is that really in their interests? Is that really in ours?

Just think about it, folks. I know this idea is still a few years away from taking hold, but with your support, it’s time might come soon enough.

By the way, the Bob Evans Stacked & Stuffed Caramel Banana Pecan Hotcakes are only 1,543 calories and deliver three days worth of trans fat. They’re also probably not more than a few dollars. Tax-free, those hotcakes are quite the bargain!

Sunday, July 26, 2009


I must ask your indulgence, my loyal readers, for the next couple of weeks. I will be out of town for two of three weeks, and the one week in which I am in town will be spent discharging about a zillion obligations. In short, I don’t have much time for coherent blog posts.

That said, sometimes life isn’t coherent. So here are some random thoughts on this Sunday, July 26, 2009.

1. Today is Mick Jagger’s birthday. He turns 66. Let’s hear it for the front man of the Greatest Rock ‘n Roll band of all time. Don’t believe that assessment? Just listen to Beggars’ Banquet, Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street -- all studio albums, all released within a four year period (1968-1972). The song writing quality and musicality on those albums is stunning. But what is especially stunning is the sheer quantity of the great songs. When you realize that the Stones produced high-quality albums for a few years prior to Beggars Banquet, and for several years after Exile, it becomes awfully hard for any other band to compare favorably to the Stones. Yes, I haven’t forgotten the Beatles, and the work they did in the mid-late 60s, but the Stones did it just as well in their prime, and they excelled for a much longer period (1965-1978) than the Beatles even existed (1960-1970).

Anyway, whether your “fave” is the Stones, Beatles, Led Zeppelin, or Debby Boone … please join me in wishing a Happy Birthday to Mick!

2. Tomorrow, your humble narrator turns 49. No sweat. But a year from tomorrow … I’ll need a serious drink.

3. Tomorrow, also, is the 353rd anniversary of the day that the Amsterdam rabbinate excommunicated Spinoza. That excommunication is known as “the cherem.” Due to my advanced age, I would have forgotten to mention that, but my daughter – the author of the (National History Day) award-winning play, Spinoza Remembered -- reminded me.

4. Speaking of Spinoza, I had a great time teaching my Spinoza Workshop at the Southeastern Unitarian-Universalist Summer Institute (SUUSI) in Blacksburg, VA. I’ve been going there for three years and enjoy it more each year. (UUs tend to be both intellectual AND open-minded – a pretty rare combo these days.) Next year, I’m going to offer two workshops: one will be a four-day (eight hour) Intro to Spinoza, and the other will be a three-day (six hour) Advanced Spinoza. If you live anywhere close to Virginia, enjoy hearing folk music made by a number of professional musicians, and are interested in learning about an amazing philosopher, come to SUUSI!

5. Being on the road and on vacation, I haven’t kept up very well with the news. But I did hear something yesterday about a New York Times article reporting that Hamas was renouncing violence against Israel. Today, however, I read the article and was much less impressed. Yes, Hamas says that they have suspended their use of rockets from Gaza. And yes, that is a good thing. But, to quote a Hamas leader, “armed resistance is still important and legitimate.”

From what I can tell, the Palestinian world today is all about resistance. Israel’s occupation has become so in-your-face that the Palestinians are left with no other option. The only question is, should the resistance be violent or non-violent? As long as Hamas is advocating the former, they remain part of the problem, not the solution.

6. Are you looking for still more evidence that the anthropomorphic, Biblical God doesn't exist? Here's exhibit 56,963,275: look what happened to 59 year-old Tom Watson, on the verge of making history, on the final hole of the British Open. He choked, and then looked his age in the playoff. And now, once again, old people will continue to feel old. Adonai, if you're out there, that's just cruel! (See, it's not a problem with Spinoza's God because nobody says that Spinoza's God loves us. "He lacked not material for creating all things from the highest to the lowest degree of perfection; or, to speak more accurately, the laws of his nature were so comprehensive as to suffice for the production of everything that can be conceived by an infinite intellect." I see. So THAT'S why Tom Watson blew it.)

Saturday, July 18, 2009


Last week, we spoke about the Hollywood version of the Cult of Personality. This week, however, the focus of all yentas has turned to Washington, D.C. and our newest celebrity, Sonia Sotomayor.

I may be the only person I know – or at least the only lawyer – who hasn’t been riveted by the drama unfolding on Capitol Hill. It’s the same drama we get every time a Supreme Court nominee comes before the Senate. Members of the President’s party serve as defense counsel, members of the Opposition behave like prosecutors, and the nominee does his or her best imitation of Muhammad Ali without the punching – bob and weave, bob and weave … smile, joke, and then bob and weave some more.

Somehow, this is supposed to reveal what kind of person the nominee is and what kind of a judge s/he will be. Personally, I’d rather watch paint dry.

Admittedly, though, I found the Clarence Thomas hearings to be compelling TV. And why not? Instead of hearing questions like “Did you think Roe v. Wade was properly decided?” we were treated to “Who has put pubic hair in my coke?” You know something, that’s a hell of a good question. Too bad, like most of the queries asked at these hearings, we never did get an answer.

Unfortunately for all comedy fans – but fortunately for Sonia Sotomayor – these latest hearings have been unexceptional. It’s true that they’ve generated some material for Jon Stewart, who managed to get a photo of Lindsay Graham truly looking like an “Old Lesbian.” But they haven’t taught us squadoosh about Ms. Sotomayor. You know what that means: she’s as good as on the Court. And once appointed Associate Justice, she’ll still remain an enigma, like 90+ percent of her predecessors. That’s one of the reasons why it’s such a great job. Not only do you get power, nor only do you get to play “philosopher-king,” but for the most part, you keep your privacy … once you take your seat. I bet you Ms. Sotomayor is counting the seconds before the Senators stop bloviating and start voting. Then she can live a normal life, and we can all move on to the next mega-star.

… Like perhaps … Tom Watson? Yeah, I know, I’m probably getting ahead of myself. As of right now, my fellow Stanford Cardinal – or Stanford “Indian” when he went there – has the 54 hole lead at the most prestigious golf tournament in the world. But lots of underdogs have 54 hole leads at major tournaments, only to make fools of themselves in the final round. In the case of Watson, he would hardly look foolish if he blew it tomorrow. Who would expect a man two months from his 60th birthday to play lights-out golf four days in a row? Nobody. And yet, if he did manage to hold on to his lead and win, how high would that rank among the greatest performances of any athlete in any sport? As of now, no golfer or tennis player has won a major at age 49. Watson is 59. I say that a victory at the British Open – aka THE Open – would be right up there with the Americans beating the Russians at Lake Placid.

Unfortunately, if it does happen, I won’t be there to watch. Tomorrow, I head down to Blacksburg, Virginia to teach my third annual workshop on the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza. For me, Spinoza remains the celebrity of celebrities – the one man from history (excluding my relatives) who I’d most like to meet if given the chance. I’ve got a portrait of the man on my living room wall and drive a car with license plates bearing his name. But the beauty of his work is that no matter how many times I read his philosophy, I still question whether I truly understand it. And what I never question is that even what I do understand about his philosophy, I don’t necessarily apply in my life. Some Spinozist, huh?

The other night, I went to the theatre and met an actor who will have the privilege of playing the young Baruch Spinoza in a play next summer. How, I wondered, should he portray my hero? As loquacious or quiet? Intense or relaxed? Empathic or detached?

The fact is, I’ve spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours thinking about Spinoza’s philosophy, reading biographies about the man, and trying to craft just the right words to convey his brilliance to my own contemporaries. But do I REALLY know this man, who died nearly 300 years before I was born? And if I don’t, how is this young actor supposed to play him? Armed with speculation, that’s how. As Kierkegaard might say, whether you’re playing the man at a theatre or teaching a workshop about his profound and often inscrutable ideas, you take a leap of faith that your instincts are right, and go with it. It’s not like your audience or your class is likely to have any better ideas.

Sonia Sotomayor and Tom Watson aren’t nearly as mysterious as Spinoza. For that matter, neither are the other celebrities who’ve been on our mind lately, like Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett or the great Walter Cronkite. They share our world – our time, our culture, our language, our sense of science, perhaps even our perspective on history. And yet, do we really know them either? If we were advising an actor on how to play them in a scene when they are alone in their bedroom and delivering a monologue, would we really have a clue what to say?

So maybe our favorite celebrities, dead or alive, must always remain enigmas to us. Maybe we portray these people in our minds more in terms of our own ideals than our knowledge of their essences. But that realization won’t stop us from caring about them, drawing inspiration from them, and pondering the significance of their art or their teachings.

Spinoza once wrote that “All happiness or unhappiness depends on the quality of the object to which we are bound by love.” I may not fully understand the writer of those words, but I have faith that insofar as I am bound to him – and to other philosophers who have followed in his footsteps – I can only increase my happiness.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


I don’t know about you, but for me, this celebrity death thing is getting really old. Every day, it seems like another celebrity is dying. And then there was that one day when you read about Farrah Fawcett expiring in the morning, and Michael Jackson in the afternoon. What, one celebrity a day isn’t enough? The real story, though, wasn’t the deaths themselves but the way they were covered in the media. For some of these celebrities, it’s as if they passed away with as little fanfare as my uncle Irving. And then for others … you’d think we had witnessed the passing of Christ or the Buddha. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that the mainstream media has been infiltrated by aliens … and I’m not talking about people from Central America. More like Central Andromeda.

If you’re not into sports, perhaps you think the craziest part of the past fortnight was the way the media has dealt with the man formerly known as Jacko. We now know him as the World’s Most Important Artist. Rembrandt? Michelangelo? Mozart? Caruso? Forget about ‘em. They can all move over in Heaven and take their proper place to the side of the King of Pop.

Mind you, like most music lovers, I can appreciate a number of Michael Jackson’s songs. Thriller was unquestionably a great album. Off the Wall had its moments too. And who can criticize the best of the Jackson Five? But folks, those albums were all in the can a quarter of a century ago. And since then, when this artist should have been at his creative zenith, he decided to take a journey to Jupiter and Beyond. Suddenly, the relevant music stopped, destined rarely to return. It was replaced by dangling his baby from a balcony, and by allegations that Michael molested little boys, enticed them with “Jesus Juice” (a/k/a wine), and ultimately paid one accuser and his family $25 million to hush them up. If the words “the appearance of impropriety” could ever have a face, Michael Jackson’s would be it.

At a time when unemployment in America is sky high, China seems hell bent on burning up the planet, North Korea is playing with nukes, Iran’s mullahs are attempting to film “Tiananmen Square: The Sequel,” Israel is freezing the Palestinians out of Palestine but not the Settlements, and health care reform is bogging down in an orgy of intense lobbying, you’d think that Michael Jackson could die a relatively quiet death. But you couldn’t be more wrong. Our first obsession was his alleged addiction to prescription drugs, which seems to be the proximate cause of his death. (You mean a mensch like that was a drug addict? I’m shocked. Shocked!) That was followed by the speculation that his doctors were enablers. (Another shocker.) The next momentous topic was the will … and the question of who would get the kids … and well, by then, I have to say that your humble narrator was doing his best to stop paying attention. But I couldn’t avoid it altogether, and I certainly couldn’t avoid reading the accounts from his memorial of just how incredibly fantastic a person he was. God’s gift to charity. God’s gift to love. If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn that we were speaking about the death of a superhero, rather than a human being. Perhaps there is something about imbibing Jesus Juice that makes a man great.

If so, maybe that might explain the greatness of Steve McNair. If you’re not a sports junkie, you probably wouldn’t put McNair and Jackson in the same sentence. Certainly, you would have heard less hype about McNair’s death than Jackson’s. But … if you are a fellow sports junkie who watches shows on such networks as ESPN and the NFL Network, I think it’s safe to say that you’ve heard McNair lionized as much if not more than Jacko himself.

Over and over again, we heard the same words used to describe McNair. He was a “gamer” on the field. A real “warrior.” And “as great as a player he was on the field, he was an even greater person off of it.” The “great” Steve McNair lived a double life. On the one hand, he had a wife and four children. Shortly after his death, he was even described on TV as a “family man.” But according to more recent reports, this “family man” had one girlfriend in Minnesota and another in Nashville, or was it two girlfriends in Nashville? He even bought a car for one of his mistresses and registered it in their joint names. What he didn’t buy her was a gun – she did that for herself, supposedly because she was jealous that she had to share him with other women. And that is how this “great” “family man” met his maker.

The King of Pop was only 50 when he died. The Great Steve McNair was only 36. Whatever you think of their eccentricities and tragic lapses of judgment, they surely deserved better than to die at ages so young. But as we look at their deaths and back on their lives, I have to say that neither of these gentlemen seem to merit 1/100th of the hype they’ve been getting.

What makes them so great as human beings? That the Gloved One was gifted with the ability to sing, write songs, and dance? That he was gifted with the ability to remain young at heart even in middle age? Those are all commendable qualities, but they hardly seem to transcend the decadence of child abuse or drug addiction. And as for Steve McNair, how does a man treat his wife and children so shabbily? For that matter, what does it say about a guy when he can’t even stay faithful to his mistress? Did he really think he could keep his lust life quiet from his family when he was publicly buying cars in the name of girlfriends? The word isn’t Greatness. The word is Hubris.

We can lament all we want the cult of celebrity. We can lament the fact that so much attention is being paid to a few individuals, when our society – and indeed, our planet – has been placed in jeopardy in so many ways. But let’s not forget that by focusing on individuals who are truly exemplary, we can often gain inspiration for how better to treat the collective. So with that in mind, let us take advantage of the fact that Jackson and McNair weren’t the only celebrities who died during the past few weeks. We’ve seen the passing of other well-known and beloved figures, figures like Ed (Hiyo!) McMahon and, as I’ve indicated, the gorgeous Ms. Fawcett. But for my money, one of our recently deceased celebrities stands above all the others as a role model. I remember watching this actor as the star of a TV show from my youth, and as the priest in one of my favorite movies of all time. He seemed perfectly cast in that priestly role, because he always seemed to me to be a holy man and a true man-of-the-people -- as much a rarity in Hollywood as in the NFL.

So, with that as an introduction, and with all due respect to the “great” men who die young … I give you an obituary of a very, very GOOD man who died very, very old. He passed away with virtually no fanfare from the “journalists” on television, as these other figures discussed above stole his spotlight. But what do you say we pick that spotlight up and shine it back on him one more time:

Saturday, July 04, 2009


Yesterday started out much as could be expected. Tiger Woods grabbed the lead in the second round of a PGA tour event. And his good friend Roger Federer won yet another semifinal match at Wimbledon. Ho hum.

But then came the freak show. Sarah Palin, Red-America’s Sweetheart, announced that she was quitting her post as the Governor of Alaska. Depending upon your perspective, she did so either by offering many explanations for her decision (that’s the way she would characterize her speech) or none at all. Personally, I would opt for the latter characterization.

My older daughter was inclined to believe that Palin quit her job so that she could spend more time with her family. My first reaction was quite different; I figured she did it so she could cash in on her celebrity as soon as possible. Some are speculating that the job has simply been getting too difficult for her and she wants out before her standing in Alaska plummets even further. Still others figure that she’s about to be the subject of a huge political scandal, and she’s doesn’t want to be the Governor when that happens. And then there’s the rumor that she’s pregnant again.

Let’s face it. Since Palin didn’t bother to sell any particular explanation for her decision, she’s left us to our own cynicism. Palin’s speech was incoherent (not to mention grammatically atrocious), and it contained little more than an assortment of kvetches about her current plight. If she were trying to convince us that her life isn’t perfect, she did a decent job. If she were trying to explain to us why she was leaving her job, she failed miserably.

Truth be told, despite her complaints, Palin didn’t come across as a whiner. She had that same spunky, prideful delivery that we’ve come to expect from her ever since the Republican National Convention. Perhaps the highpoint of her delivery – and her speech – was when she compared herself to a point guard, dribbling the ball through a full-court press until finally seizing the perfect opportunity to pass it, and thereby allow her team to score. Ironically, though, it isn’t Magic Johnson that she seems to be emulating, but Roberto Duran. And I’m speaking of the “No Mas” Duran, the one who waved his glove in the direction of Sugar Ray Leonard and said, in essence, “Since I can’t win, I quit!” Duran’s reputation never survived that fight. The question is, will Palin’s survive yesterday’s speech? I can’t answer that question any more than I can explain her decision to quit.

Whenever I think about Sarah Palin, I always get back to the adage that “no one’s ever gone broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” At one point, it sounded like hyperbole. But after we re-elected George W. Bush for the world’s most powerful job, you’d have to say the adage has been confirmed. If, indeed, American voters aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed, I would argue that Sarah Palin is an EXTREMELY dangerous figure. She’s highly attractive. Self-confident. Energetic. Ambitious as hell. And she’s the quintessential demagogue, whose arguments invariably lack sophistication and who is willing to say anything to get ahead. That was drummed home when she mocked community organizers in her convention speech; to me, that’s like mocking school teachers or social workers. It’s something a classy politician would never do. But you don’t need to be classy to be elected President. See, e.g., George W. Bush.

Until yesterday, Palin was one of, if not THE, most popular politician in the nation among conservative Republicans. She was seen as someone who had the guts to take on the Washington establishment and tell-it-like-it-is, kind of like Ronald Reagan. The thing is, though, Reagan finished out two terms as Governor of the State of California, whereas Palin has now quit midway through her first term as Governor of Alaska. She might be as conservative as Reagan and have the Gipper’s sense of the dramatic. She might even remind us of Reagan’s willingness to buck conventional wisdom. But that’s where the parallels end. Reagan was a fighter, not a quitter. And when he ran for President, he did so as an experienced politician who could run on his record, not from it. If and when Palin seeks the Presidency, and my bet is she will, she’ll have to explain why, when her popularity was at an all-time-low in her state, she decided to call it a day. That doesn’t sound to me like Reagan.

It is tempting to see Palin’s “No Mas” as her own version of Chappaquiddick – not such a big deal that it prevents a politician from winning a Senate seat, but enough to serve as a disqualification for the White House. Intellectually, that’s probably how I see the situation at the moment. But emotionally, I remain quite scared of what this woman can do to my country if she ever matures as a politician. I haven’t forgotten that for a week or two, she single-handedly catapulted an old fossil ahead of the most gifted politician I have seen in my lifetime. And I also haven’t forgotten how much the American political pendulum tends to swing every decade or two. Palin is still young, and my guess is that in eight years, she’ll still be attractive. If she’s shrewd, she’ll also be much better prepared to answer policy questions. Remember, Americans don’t demand perfection in that area; it’s strictly a pass-fail test, and as Bush demonstrated, a Gentleman’s C is a passing grade.

In short, for those of us who think that the combination of Sarah Palin and the American electorate is a potentially toxic mix, we received a boost yesterday. From the moment her bid for the Presidency is announced, millions of Americans will be asking the same question: if Palin quit on her state, isn’t it reasonable to assume that she’d quit on her country? But before anyone writes her political obituary, think about the millions of OTHER Americans who fell in love with Palin last summer and have been giving her the benefit of the doubt ever since. In 2016, she will have surely perfected her excuse for yesterday’s speech. She will also be older and wiser than the Palin that took this country by storm last August. And most importantly, she will surely be every bit as much of a demagogue. Personally, I plan on continuing to take this woman as a very serious threat for the Republican nomination. Given what has now been proven about the intelligence of the American public, more than a little vigilance is in order.