Saturday, August 28, 2010


My friend Jane and I have a fair amount in common. We have the same sign of the Zodiac -- Leo. Both of us are white, but fairly dark-skinned. Both are graduates of a high school class of ’77, college class of ’81 and law school class of ’84. Both are politically progressive. Both are religious, but not necessarily traditionally so. We are also part of a group of families who have spent parts of ten summers together by a lake in Wisconsin at family camp called Brosius.

Another thing Jane and I share is that we take marriage very seriously. Indeed, we revere the institution and the idea of monogamy on which it is based. Jane and I have been together with the same person since the late ‘80s. But while I have been married throughout that time period, she’s been married for only a couple of years, because, before then, marriage wasn’t available to her. You see, another thing we have in common is that, in both cases, the love of our lives is a woman.

Jane and I used the same vows in our respective weddings. They came from the Book of Ruth: “Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May God deal with us very severely, if anything but death shall separate you and me.” These are very common vows, with one exception. Most people who use them leave out the last line. But Jane and I did not. We and our respective spouses left it in to make it very clear that we were serious. We didn’t have in mind a casual, Hollywood-type wedding. This wasn’t going to be a mere “first marriage.” This was going to be a “first and last marriage.”

One thing that Jane and I do NOT have in common is that only one of us is a judge. And as a judge, she has been able to preside over two weddings I’ve been privileged to attend. During a wedding this summer, her words were so beautiful that I asked her to send them to me so that I could share them with each of you. They not only have something to teach us all about marriage, but they also are a reminder of what is at stake when judges and legislatures decide whether “people like Jane” are entitled to get married. I say, if we are going to strip anyone’s right to be married, pick celebrities and other big-shots. They seem to need two or three trial runs before they get it right – if, in fact, they ever get it right. As for humble, hard-working people who just happen to be homosexuals, they have as much of a right to be married as anyone else.

Here are Jane’s words:

Nate & Angie.

I am honored to stand here with you at the beginning of your lives together. I have known one of you since you were just a small boy. (that rules out Angie).

And I recall that small boy giving directions in the car as we drove around Indianapolis, and the scary thing was, Nate always knew where he (and we) were going. Now it’s my turn. I get to give Nate some directions as he and his new bride step off together on the wonderful, wonderous, and, OK, sometimes scary new journey of life together. Angie, I’ve got your back…

Rule number one. Don’t tell each other how to drive.


Rule Number two. Always love. Always. You’ll notice that I’ve used ‘love’ as a verb. That’s because you need to actively work to keep and deepen your love. Even when one or the other of you is not being so loveable. Find a way. Always. Focus on the good stuff that made you fall for her. His goofy, fun, side. The protective care that you give each other. The heart-melting times you have shared. You love each other for a reason – you both are good, strong, loving, fun, and caring souls, and you can rely on that – and on each other. Always. You both love each other deeply. Nurture that love as your most precious treasure.

Rule Number three. Your spouse comes first. That applies to both of you. A good relationship is selfless and that works if both of you follow the rule. This is a tough rule to live. Live it anyway.

Rule Number four. Don’t forget the fun. I know this is startling advice from the ‘fun director’, but humor me. Fun is good. Essential. And fun. Every relationship thrives on it. Play together, laugh, relax, and enjoy your time together. Go to concerts and movies; go to the beach, go to Brosius (or not), watch sports (Angie I hope that you really, really like watching sports…), spend time with friends, and delight in each other. Find things you both like and milk them for all they are worth. Find the things one of you likes that the other can abide and learn to enjoy those too. The dividends will roll in.

Rule Number five. Laugh. Laugh a lot. Even, maybe especially, at the tough stuff and the frustrating stuff and the stuff you’ll discover once you have kids. Laughter is essential. It keeps your lives light and hopeful. It saves you when things get tough. Never stop laughing together.

Rule Number six. You are both part of a community of friends and family. See all these folks sitting behind you here today? They’re here for a reason. They love you and care for you endlessly. Enjoy them. Rely upon them. Turn to them when you are struggling. Expect them to challenge you when you need a push. Depend upon them to share in your joys, sorrows, and challenges. Know that you are both an important part of us all, and that we surround you with love and support. Always. Give us your love, laughter, and support as well.

Rule Number seven. Forgive freely. Don’t hold grudges. Be generous with one another. You will both screw up at some point. We all make mistakes. Recognize those mistakes, own them, learn from them, and let them go. Don’t let them fester. With love, there is nothing that the two of you can’t live through.

Rule Number eight. Both of you are distinct, different individuals and that won’t end when you say “I Do” in a short while. Be true to your self. Your “self” has gotten you far in life, and if you abandon yourselves now, you won’t be happy. You can still pursue individual interests and friendships even if your spouse doesn’t share your passion for those interests or friendships. Give each other the gift of freedom to pursue separate parts of each of your lives. It may seem counterintuitive, but doing that won’t threaten the joined life you are embarking upon today. If you respect and nurture each other’s individual interests, even if you don’t share them, your marriage will flourish.

Rule Number nine. Marriage depends upon trust. Trust isn’t easy to build, but you’ve got it or you wouldn’t be standing here together today on the threshold of marriage. Trust is the key to allowing each other many of the individual freedoms I’ve just told you are so important to your marriage. Never, ever jeopardize that trust. Don’t squander it. Don’t lose it. Don’t throw it away. As difficult as trust is to build, it can be destroyed in a careless minute, so don’t be careless with it.

Rule Number ten. All of these rules circle back to honoring your love. Love each other, as you do today, and all will be well. The most important rule is the simplest. Love One Another. Always. Forever. Sideways, Upsidedown and Backwards. Keep your Love alive. If you do that, you will have a long, sweet, marriage. Godspeed.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


First, let us get straight on the facts underlying the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” controversy. Park51, named after its proposed location at 51 Park Place, would be a combination community center and mosque. It is a 13-story facility that, according to present plans, would include multiple theatrical venues, sporting facilities, a childcare center, a cooking school, a food court, and space where up to 2,000 Muslims can pray. The proposed facility is also known as the Cordoba House, after the city in Spain that is beloved in the interfaith community as the place where the Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures flourished together during the period from the 8th through the 11th centuries. While Park51 would not be located on Ground Zero itself, present plans call for this facility to be about one-tenth of a mile away, or two city blocks by foot. It is that proximity to what has become a hallowed site in this country that has stoked the flames of controversy, with both sides blaming the other – proponents of the facility blaming the naysayers for their “bigotry,” and opponents of the facility blaming their rivals for their “insensitivity.”

The Imam that is associated with this facility has also been in the eye of this storm. Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf is an Egyptian-born Sufi who moved to America as a child and graduated from Columbia University. He has been criticized by some of the facility’s opponents for, among other things, warning Americans that terrorism against the West will not end until the West acknowledges the harm it has done to the Islamic world. Others, however, have praised him as a “moderate,” and have pointed out that the FBI enlisted his help in counter-terrorism efforts and the family of Daniel Pearl invited him to speak at Pearl’s memorial service in New York.

At present, public opinion polls in America run slightly more than 2-1 against building the facility at 51 Park Place. Republicans tend to be much more likely to oppose this facility than Democrats, though more Democrats oppose it than support it.

With that as an introduction, allow me to begin with an impression. Last week, I watched as two Congressmen from New York State informally debated the proposed facility on CNN. Peter King, the Republican, started out by saying that the Muslims behind the facility have every right to build it as proposed. But merely because they have the legal right, King argued, does not mean that it is the morally right thing to do. He went on to talk about how hurtful this facility would be to many of the families who lost relatives in 9/11 to terrorism perpetrated in the name of Islam, and analogized the proposal to the time when Carmelite Nuns opened a convent adjacent to Auschwitz, sparking protests from Jewish groups. Ultimately, the Catholic Church asked the Nuns to remove that convent, and so should the Muslim community agree to move the Cordoba House, suggested King. There is simply no reason why the decision to build a religious facility should result in such distress if this can be avoided, and there are plenty of other locations where this facility can be built that would not re-open the mourners’ wounds.

The Democratic Congressman who debated King was Jerrold Nadler. All of his remarks were variations on a single theme: above all else, this country stands for religious freedom, and how can we pretend to have this freedom if we deny Muslims the right to build mosques wherever they are legally permitted to do so Over and over again, Nadler returned to this fundamental point. Once a Jewish group receives a permit to build a synagogue on a spot, nobody would dare tell them to move it, and the same goes for Christian churches. How then can we possibly justify making such a demand of Muslims? Are they not entitled to equal rights under the law? Is their right to worship freely not to be treated with the same respect we afford to others?

In my opinion, King clearly won the debate. To be sure, Nadler was making a point to which King could not argue. Of course it is important to give Muslims the RIGHT to build mosques wherever they are permitted to do so by local authorities. But King was making a deeper point: what is legally permitted and what is wise are two different things. It is legally permitted for adults to smoke five packs of cigarettes a day. But think of all the pain this causes – and not just to the smokers but to all their loved ones. Should we who care about such people try to persuade them to see the error of their ways? Similarly, even if it were to be stipulated that those behind Park51 have every right to build their facility one-tenth of a mile from Ground Zero, that hardly resolves the issue of whether this makes sense. Why should they cause pain and anguish for scores, if not hundreds, of families who have already suffered unimaginably due to what they view as Islamic-inspired terrorism? Maybe those families aren’t thinking entirely clearly about the true nature of Islam, and how it is a religion of peace that decries the acts of the 9/11 bombers. But while these mourners’ thoughts about Islam might be shallow, their feelings about Islam are profound. And why shouldn’t we respect those feelings? Why punish them further than they have already been punished simply because their interpretation of Islam, for whatever reason, is very different from our own?

In short, do we really want to turn this issue, given all the domains of human experience that it brings to bear, into one that deals solely with legal rights? Or, in fact, would that make no more sense than if a sobbing pregnant teenager, after approaching her father and asking whether she should keep her baby, was told nothing more than “It is your legal right to keep the baby or abort it, and I feel that it is your business and your business alone what to decide.” That might sound like an appropriate opening line. But is it really all there is to be said on the matter? With all due respect to Congressman Nadler, the answer is surely no.

It’s pretty much a given that if the best thing you can say about something is that it is “legal,” it’s a pretty awful idea. Entering a diabetic in a pie-eating contest might be legal. It also happens to be crazy. Can the same be said for Park51? Perhaps. But once we stop calling this facility Park51, and refer to it instead as the Cordoba House, then it stops being crazy and starts being inspired.

Newt Gingrich has his own opinion of the name “Cordoba House.” I have mine. Gingrich said that this was a “deliberately insulting term,” since Cordoba represented the capital of a Muslim caliphate at a time when Spain fell into Muslim rule. Implicit in such a statement is the idea that Gingrich might approach the world from the standpoint not altogether different from Bin Ladin – both see their own religion as the “Church Triumphant” and take umbrage at the idea that any rival could ever conquer wide stretches of land that are associated with their own faith. When reminded of a time when Muslims ruled over Spain, he thinks of this as an insult to Christianity, the true religion of Spain.

By contrast, when I hear the name Cordoba, I am reminded of a place and time when Judaism, Islam and Christianity co-existed and thrived. I associate Cordoba primarily with the great 12th century Jewish sage Moses Maimonides and his contemporary, the Muslim philosopher ibd Rushd, a/k/a Averroes. Cordoba represents, on the one hand, a golden age of peaceful, co-existence -- of cross-pollenization among religions and cultures. But more to the point, it represents the best, and perhaps the only, formula for our ultimate salvation as a species. For as long as we continue to hunker down with our own kind and demonize the “other,” our days are surely numbered. Sooner or later, given the increasing potency of our weapons, we will strike out against this “other,” or they will strike out against us. It happened during 9/11, when the weapons used were planes and fuel; someday it could happen again, only then the weapons could involve biological weapons or nukes. Of all people, the widows and orphans of 9/11 should recognize that something must be done to confront the xenophobia that fueled the terrorists’ resolve. I know of no better antidote than to summon the interfaith spirit of Cordoba.

What does this interfaith spirit look like? Consider these words, uttered by Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf at the memorial service of Daniel Pearl. “If to be a Jew means to say with all one’s heart and soul Shma’ Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ehad; hear O Israel, the Lord of God, the Lord is One, then not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one.”

Those are not the words of Bin Ladin or Mohammed Atta. In fact, they would be viewed as anathema to the terrorists who gave us 9/11. What they do provide is a profile in contrasts – two faces of “Islam,” one exclusivist and violent, the other pluralistic and peaceful. Do we, those of us who are not Muslim, care to involve ourselves in helping one perspective become dominant over the other? Or do we wish to distance ourselves from the battle – to allow the moderates and extremists fight amongst themselves, and the chips to fall where they may?

Prior to 9/11, that latter attitude was certainly the prevailing one, and all it gave us was 9/11. Since then, we’ve decided as a society to be more “pro-active,” but our pro-activity is primarily associated with the realm of militarism. Yes, we’ve invaded Muslim countries and taken the fight to the extremists. But the “moderates” we’re most associated with propping up aren’t mystics like Imam Faisal; they are corruption-stained statesmen like Hamid Karzai. Somehow, I don’t see the Karzai’s of the world as the kind of spiritual leaders we need to reclaim the soul of Islam from those who have sought to hi-jack it.

Admittedly, it is difficult to nation-build thousands of miles away from home. What should be less difficult is identifying representatives of Islam here in the States who can serve as leaders of a new coalition between Christians, Jews, Hindus, Unitarians, Buddhists, and yes, those who profess no religion at all but are deeply concerned about the betterment of the human condition. From all appearances, Imam Faisal is just such a leader, and the Cordoba House is poised to be a place where interfaith flowers will be allowed to bloom.

I learned a long time ago that you’ve got to crack a few eggs to make an omelet. It would be more than just a tad regrettable, though, if the eggs here include families still in mourning over 9/11. But the fact remains that they are standing in the way of an incredible opportunity for interfaith dialogue. In fact, the very publicity surrounding the Cordoba House has created a space for it truly to matter as an American institution. We cannot blow this opportunity. In the end, it will present the best chance available to minimize the number of families in America and around the world who must mourn future acts of terror.

When I co-founded the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington (JIDS) in late 2008, I never dreamt how difficult it would be to encourage active Jews and active Muslims to take the time to get together and talk about the various subjects that both unify and divide us. With few exceptions, religious people in America today are either too preoccupied, too fearful, or too apathetic to take time away from intra-faith activities and open their hearts to the “other.” What I have learned from my experience at JIDS is that if Imam Faisal took the advice of most Americans and relocated his facility to a less central location, he could spare his community this controversy but would also spare his society the prospect for progress.

Surely, Imam Faisal could give in to the pressure and still make a pretty good living. He could continue to bring hundreds or perhaps even thousands of worshipers from time to time and engage in some sort of Kumbaya event, all the while receiving the kind of inter-denominational praise that has already solidified his reputation among the small, but stalwart, interfaith community. My sense is, though, that Imam Faisal isn’t just in this for the narcissism. He’s not looking for accolades; he’s looking to make a difference. And if he and his mosque are going to matter, they’re going to have to generate some controversy. Such was the way with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Such is always the way whenever a fledging movement goes toe-to-toe with the forces of xenophobia. The easy way out is surely to listen to the public opinion polls and back off. There is always plenty of room in the back of the bus – no fuss, no muss. But just as it was a half century ago in Montgomery or Birmingham, so is it now in New York. This moment already could be called pivotal or even teachable. But it has the potential to be called magical. Right now, Imam Faisal and his community need not do anything but stand firm. Let’s pray that they do that.

As for President Obama, Jerrold Nadler and the other statesmen who have weighed in to support the “Ground Zero Mosque,” it is time to knock off the half-hearted, legalistic arguments in favor of “Park51” and start speaking with a passion about the “Cordoba House.” What we are talking about could be one of those signature opportunities for our President to stand as a statesman for what he campaigned for as a candidate – inclusiveness, open-mindedness, dialogue, courage. If public opinion polls are going to sidetrack him, someone will have to explain to me what exactly he meant by “We are the change that we have been waiting for.”

Sunday, August 15, 2010


“You have to know that this was orchestrated, this was Obama's attempt at triangulating. There's no question Obama used Gibbs to try to go out there and create a Sister Souljah moment, by going out there and criticizing the left. ‘Ah, yeah! These professional leftists, professional liberals!’ That's practically -- that's the ruling class he's attacking, and that comment was aimed at whites and independents who are fleeing Obama in droves. Can you really believe that the White House press secretary would run down Canadian health care, when that's exactly where they're aiming? Single payer health care is exactly where they're aiming! And yet Gibbs goes out there and says (paraphrase), ‘Yeah, they're upset, they want Canadian health care, it's never going to happen.’ It is going to happen! That's their sole objective! So once again, Obama has to hide behind Gibbs, lie about his intentions, in order to try to win back some mainstream support that he's lost, and the same thing with the Pentagon. Believe me, don't doubt me, if these guys could, they would make the Pentagon as irrelevant as they could. They already announced some budget cuts yesterday. They eliminate the Pentagon, never going to happen. It probably won't happen, but don't doubt for a moment that Obama and his most trusted inner circle would love to make the Pentagon irrelevant. That's who they are.”

So said Rush Limbaugh last week on his radio program. He was referring to an incident that still has many progressives shaking their heads. It involves statements that President Obama’s Press Secretary Robert Gibbs made for reasons known only to himself and, if you believe the rarely-believable Rush Limbaugh, Barack Obama. Gibbs took many shots at the so-called “professional left.” But it is clear that he wasn’t just referring to left-leaning political operatives but to any frustrated progressive. Gibbs said that “I hear these people saying [Obama is] like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug-tested. I mean, it’s crazy.” According to Gibbs, “Liberals wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.” But "they will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we've eliminated the Pentagon. That's not reality."

The fact is that Limbaugh, as they say in golf, was talking out of his customary spot in the thick rough when he claimed that our President would love to make the Pentagon irrelevant. That would be national suicide, and Barack is anything but suicidal. But Limbaugh was hardly the only person to wonder if Gibbs was somehow speaking for Barack – voicing thoughts that Barack would like to express but wouldn’t dare do so directly. And indeed, if that is true, and I for one have no inside dirt on the answer, it would indeed be tremendously disturbing. Because clearly, while we don’t know whether Barack was behind Gibbs’ comments, it’s pretty clear what Gibbs was thinking. He must have been aiming for a Sister Souljah moment. I just don’t see any way around that conclusion.

To those who have forgotten that reference, Sister Souljah was a rapper who was quoted in a May 1992 Washington Post interview as saying that “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people.” Seizing the opportunity, then candidate Bill Clinton, attempting to portray himself as a “New [meaning, more moderate] Democrat,” compared Souljah to David Duke, the Klansman. The tactic worked for Clinton, and as a result, the idea of the Sister Souljah-moment has become a well-known strategy employed by politicians who would like to position themselves as a moderate. Wikipedia defines this tactic as “a politician’s public repudiation of an allegedly extremist person or group, statement, or position perceived to have some association with the politician or their party. Such an act of repudiation is designed to signal to centrist voters that the politician is not beholden to traditional, and sometimes unpopular, interest groups associated with the party, although such a repudiation runs the risk of alienating some of the politician’s allies and the party’s base voters.”

I can think of no other reason why a press secretary would blast liberals with straw men other than to have his own Sister Souljah moment. But in this context, is there any possible reason why such a tactic could work? For the past 1 ½ years, the Republican Party has attempted to block President Obama’s agenda in nearly every way imaginable, except for in limited instances where he was clearly carrying on the policies of his predecessors. Meanwhile, Democrats have generally been loyal to the President, and criticism of his supposedly tepid commitment to progressive policies (like truly universal health care) have been relatively disorganized and muted. In short, Gibbs is taking on a group that hasn’t exactly provided Sister Souljah-like sound-bites. Yet he blasted them anyway.

It is difficult to believe that a single “swing” voter will become a fan of the Administration as a result of Gibbs’ comments. But what isn’t nearly so hard to fathom is that many of those progressives who have been largely alienated but still supportive of the Administration (as a sort of “lesser of two evils”), will decide to send a message to the White House: “Don’t you dare take us for granted. We might not be willing to work for the Republicans, but that doesn’t mean we’d be willing to work for you either – not if you’re going to treat us as political props and ignore our core issues.” I personally have stopped short of going that far, but I don’t doubt that plenty of others would not.

Gibbs’ comments were delivered at a time when the Administration seems to be involved in an endless, pointless war in Afghanistan and a time when editorialists are questioning whether Barack could have warded off the present unemployment debacle had he emulated FDR and paid attention to Main Street and not just Wall Street. Indeed, the great irony of Gibbs’ comments is that to many if not most progressives, the main reason why they were supporting President Obama notwithstanding his limitations is that they do NOT see him as just another George W. Bush or John McCain. They see him as a major step up. Still, there is plenty of frustration on the left, and well there should be. Candidate Barack Obama didn’t merely say “Vote for me because I’m better than Bush and McCain.” He said that “We are the change we have been looking for.” In other words, he presented himself as a truly transformational candidate. Progressives, however, are still waiting for that dramatic transformation – the kind we’ve seen under FDR or, for that matter, Reagan.

From where I’m sitting, most progressives are waiting patiently. That is why Gibbs’ comments are being seen as such a punch in the face – and a sleazy one at that. Does he really think that the folks who are frustrated with Barack’s Afghanistan policies – like those in charge of the New York Times Editorial page – want to eliminate the Pentagon? Or has Gibbs simply discovered his inner-Limbaugh? And does he really think that voicing support for a single-payer, Canadian model of healthcare is worthy of ridicule? Most progressives I know who supported that model originally ultimately supported Obama’s compromise plan – they read about how much better Canada’s health care system is doing than ours and they pine for something similar. Whether you agree with that position or not, what is so insane about it that makes it worthy of derision by a Democratic Administration?

If Gibbs truly had balls, he would have demonized liberals instead for supporting the unconditional right to gay marriage. That’s a position that Barack Obama claims to oppose but most of us suspect he truly supports and simply is afraid to say so publicly due to concerns of political expediency. If that conventional wisdom is correct, and if this is indeed an Administration that places the practical over the ideal, why bash those members of its base who dare to argue for what they really believe? Should we all just wait for the Administration to tell us what slightly-progressive positions constitute “reality,” and then goose step in line right behind them? Should progressives start saying things like “Gay marriage as a federal right? I oppose it. It’s just not ‘reality’ to argue otherwise.”
Is that the kind of Democratic Party Robert Gibbs wants? Or more to the point, is that the kind of Democratic Party Barack Obama wants?

I am not sure that Gibbs’ little outburst by itself is worthy of dismissing him from his job. But candidly, I haven’t seen anything else from this guy that warrants retaining him in his position. From what I can tell, he did a serviceable job during the campaign and has been ineffectual ever since. He’s one reason why, from a communications standpoint, President Obama has had to serve as a virtually one-man band for this Administration. His wing man appears to be way, way over his head.

So yes, I’d very much enjoy seeing the President send Mr. Gibbs packing and bring in someone who can both figure out a way to augment the President’s own words and show respect to the idea of dissent. President Obama has spent so much time showing respect to dissenters on the right that he appears to have forgotten the value of dissent on the left.

In a two-party system, many Americans on both the left and the right are likely to be without representatives who are closely aligned with their political views, and sometimes, they're bound to vent. We don’t need politicians to agree with their critics. But we do need our leaders to avoid hyperbole when responding to their critics. Who knows? Maybe if Gibbs listened more and whined less, he could persuade his boss to support the right of consenting adults to marry and the futility of pursuing a war policy that few Americans understand. In fact, once Gibbs gets over his apparently bloated sense of self entitlement, he might realize that we progressives aren’t nearly as “crazy” as he might think.

Friday, August 06, 2010


Congress is beginning a seven-week recess to the cheers of Americans everywhere. According to a recent national poll, dated July 27-28, 21% of Americans approved of the job done by Congress and 71% disapproved. Keep in mind that this poll comes at a time when the same political party controls both the Executive and the Legislative branches of our Government, so there really should be no cause for gridlock. But when even Congress should be moving full speed ahead, it still polls horribly, and far worse than the President.

The saddest thing about these Congressional poll numbers is that they’ve come to be expected. Simply to say the word “Congress” is to generate groans from the left and the right. The branch that our Founding Fathers intended be to closest to the people is in fact the one that seems the most remote of all. And that is because most Americans view themselves as fundamentally honest, whereas they associate Congress with the attitude that “the truth” is always something that can be bought for the right price.

Am I exaggerating? Only up to a point. It appears that while Americans dislike most federal legislators, they feel differently about the ones from their own districts. These are the individuals who suck up to them, send them cheerful cards and letters, and fall all over themselves trying to help them out economically, at the expense of the rest of the country. This dynamic explains why Representatives so commonly get voted back into office term after term, decade after decade, despite the low public opinion polls for Congress as a whole.

Do you remember that deal that Senator Nelson worked out during the health care battle, in which the State of Nebraska’s Medicaid program would fare far better than every other state, simply because he had the temerity to sell his vote on the bill? To the rest of the country, it could only be viewed as a shameless act akin to extortion, since there was no principled reason for treating Nebraska differently from the other states. But Nelson was betting that to Nebraskans, his bold move would be seen simply as an example of a Senator fighting for his own people. And why not? The legislators with the longest shelf life tend to be the ones most associated with pork-barrel politics. Just look at the late Robert Byrd, the so-called “King of Pork.” Did that reputation destroy his career? Hardly. He served longer in the U.S. Congress than anyone in history. That’s what you get for putting local interests above national interests: re-election.

Lately, we’ve been reading about Representatives who, far from worrying about the best interests of the nation, have allegedly not even been thinking about their local constituency – unless of course, by their “constituency,” we’re including their spouses or children. One renowned member of Congress after another has been in hot water. “Charley Rangel, come on down! John Kerry, come on down! Maxine Waters, come on down! You’re the next contestant on “The Price of the Scandal is Obviously Right!” Whatever time it is, it always seems to be the right time for a Congressional scandal. Whether it’s about sex with children, self dealing, tax evasion, or any other sign of hubris you want to imagine, representatives are reportedly doing it.

The question is, why does this happen so often? And the answer is simple. Whether you get caught making an ass of yourself or flat-out violating a law, if you’re a member of Congress, you can typically sleep quite well with the knowledge that the consequences will be minimal or non-existent. After all, who do you think makes the laws that punish Congressional malfeasance? Why, your fellow members of Congress, that’s who. And they appear to be no more interested in deterring bad conduct than the Catholic Church was interested in punishing pedophile priests. The Church only began to change its ways when those sex scandals resulted in extreme public embarrassment, not to mention expensive lawsuits. But Congressional scandals never seem to result in public embarrassment where it matters most – in a Representative’s own district. There, they remain beloved, sympathetic figures. It’s only outside the district that they’re viewed with revulsion, together with the remainder of their august body.

Unfortunately, diagnosing this problem is a lot easier than solving it. One potential solution could be term limits. If nothing else, it would limit the number of years in which these sleazy Representatives would be able to place their own interests over that of our country. Unfortunately, the Constitution is silent on the legality of term limits for federal legislators, and the Supreme Court has decided that before the states can impose them, the Constitution must be amended. While it is theoretically possible to see such an amendment enacted, I wouldn’t suggest holding your breath – there’s way too much apathy in this country over an issue like this one to envision such an amendment in the face of Congressional opposition.

Another solution is for each of us as individuals to invoke the old fashioned cliché and “throw the bums out.” In other words, if one of your Representatives is embroiled in a scandal, investigate the facts as well as you can, and if you become convinced that they have behaved culpably, consider voting for the other guy, even if that means switching parties.

In today’s polarized America, such an approach may not wash – for many of us, voting against our political party would feel like an act of treason. But if nothing else, this should serve as one more reminder of how political polarization is destroying our democracy. Some day, we won’t have such extreme polarization, and members of Congress may actually fear that if they get caught, they might live to regret it. As things stand now, with truly rare exceptions, getting caught means that you’ll have to stick out your wrist, receive a slap, and wait until you’re alone before you can smile and light up your big, fat cigar. If you’re an entrenched incumbent these days, nothing at all can touch you – not the heavy hand of the law, not the next chump you run against, and certainly not your own conscience. It’s a pity, but it’s reality.

Sunday, August 01, 2010


If I ever get embroiled in a big mess in my personal or professional life, I certainly hope my “real friends” will lend me a hand and not pile on the blame. We all probably have that attitude about friends – if they won’t stick up for us, who will? And indeed, for individuals who are not public figures but just “regular” men and women, it probably makes a whole lot of sense.

But what if we’re not talking about the Jane or John Does of the world? What about countries, for example? Should Iran’s true friends around the world always support its positions whenever they’re talking outside their Shi’ite communities? Or should President Obama’s true friends (meaning his affectionate backers) always support the positions he has taken on foreign and domestic policy matters? These, to me, present altogether different questions. Indeed, I would argue that as strong as our obligation is to oppose our enemies when we think they are wrong, when it comes to politicians, political parties and countries, our obligation is stronger still to oppose our friends when we think they are wrong. Why? Because if WE don’t oppose them, which (of their friends) will?

Just consider what the perceived obligations of friendship have done for George W. Bush. It shouldn’t have taken long after we invaded Iraq for the Republicans who elected him to recognize that there were no WMDs in Iraq and that we were making a total mess of the war. But did they dare stand up to their President? Did they dare add fuel to the fire started by the Democratic critics? Of course not. And the result is that we seem poised to return to that era in history when the skirmishes were known by such names as the “One Hundred Years War” or the “Thirty Years War.” Thanks to his friends’ “support”, George W. Bush’s lasting reputation is somewhere between that of LeBron James in Cleveland and Tiger Woods in Sweden.

We also see the results of the perceived obligations of friendship when it comes to Israel. For those of you who don’t know, there’s a fledgling but rapidly growing organization in America known as J-Street that, from what I can tell, is composed of Jews who ask a ton from Israel and almost nothing from the Palestinians. They bug the crap out of me with their imbalanced approach to the issues. And do you know what? We still desperately need them, because they’re better than the alternative! That’s because the alternative that matters the most is the lobbying group that has had a stranglehold for decades over the way Capitol Hill has viewed Israeli-Palestinian issues. It is an Israel-right-or-wrong organization called the American Israel Political Action Committee, or AIPAC.

Do AIPAC’s members really think they’ve been doing Israel any favors? When they ask themselves, “What are friends for?” they always come up with the same answer: defend your friend every way possible, and define the issue as one of good versus evil. So they whip up the fervor of the settlers in Israel and provide backing to the Israeli politicians who serve as the settlers’ enablers. And the result is that the Jewish State is now well into its seventh decade of war, which admittedly is not quite a One Hundred Years War, but then again, the day is young. The truth is that the Israeli-Palestinian blood sport is capable of going on much longer than the fight in France that lasted from 1337 to 1453. (As you can see, “One Hundred Years War” is a misnomer, but “One Hundred and Sixteen Years War” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.)

Israel needs friends, alright, but it needs these friends to criticize it publicly whenever it overreaches. Then again, it also needs friends who have the stones to criticize the Palestinians whenever they fail to miss an opportunity for peace. From what I can tell, J-Street’s leaders haven’t yet entered into that domain – perhaps they are too busy trying to build coalitions with anti-Zionists that they have forgotten what it means to be a Zionist, which they officially claim to be. Still, I give J-Street infinitely better odds of coming around to a sane position than I do AIPAC, which seems to be about as capable of acting in a balanced, thoughtful way as Arnold Schwarzenegger was in “The Terminator.”

Lord knows I don’t want to see Israel end up the way Arnold did in that movie. So as a “friend,” I must criticize the settlements, the idea of an undivided Jerusalem, and the refusal to treat Palestine as a “nation” while at the same time demanding that they recognize a Jewish State. As a friend of Israel – as a committed Zionist, even – I have to ask that it stop acting like an imperialist state and grow up. And you Palestinians – stop acting like victims and grow up. Your opposition to the concept of a “Jewish State” only adds fuel to the suspicion that you won’t stop fighting this war until you have control over all of the Holy Land. You claim to think Jesus is a Prophet – then do what he would have done and embrace Israel as a Jewish homeland.

The people from Guinness may have promised the Israelis and Palestinians a special prize if they break the record from 14th and 15th century France. By then, however, most of us will be dead.

That brings me to a final example of how the perceived obligations of friendship are creating perverse results. I’m referring to the debacle formerly known as George W. Bush’s war in Afghanistan. In the words of those American Idol judges, Barack Obama seems hell bent on “making it his own.”

I may not be Barack’s personal friend, but I did shake his hand, and I’ve written all sorts of tributes to the man. So you could definitely view me as a solid, if tiny, component of that wave known as Obama-mania which served as the irresistible force that miraculously subdued an immovable object (the Clinton Machine). Just as I like Israel, I like Barack – I want them both to succeed in the worst way. Well, scratch that: I want them to succeed in the best and brightest way. And when they seem not to be thinking straight, that’s when they need their friends most of all.

The other day on TV, I heard a talking head say that when we invaded Iraq, we messed with a country that was back in the 17th century, but when we invaded Afghanistan, we messed with a country that was back in the 17th century BC. Barack might not be a historian, but he surely knows that Afghanistan isn’t quite as easy to conquer and tame as Belgium. Yet here we are, trying to do what Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British and the Russians attempted in vain to do before us. Frankly, I’m not exactly sure why we’re trying to do this because surely we have the intelligence capacity to blow up any terrorist training camp that crops up if we leave the country, and as for Al Qaeda, they are in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

Truly, it would be glib to say that there are zero advantages to an indefinite U.S. presence in Afghanistan. The condition of women there, for example, would likely become even more tragic if we left. But unfortunately, it is not our place to remake that country into a Jeffersonian Democracy – only the people of Afghanistan can decide if that’s what they want, and I think we all know the likelihood of that.

Back when W was President, liberals would periodically take to the street to protest against the Iraq War, one that was considerably more winnable than the fight in Afghanistan. The Iraq War became known as the shining exemplar of W’s stupidity and stubbornness, and we liberals were shocked, SHOCKED when W was re-elected despite having continued to prosecute that war for seemingly no reason.

Yet here we are, nearly nine years after going into Afghanistan, with nothing to show for our efforts. And the American liberals are as quiet as church mice. From the conversations I’ve had with my fellow liberals, they are deferring to their “friend” Barack Obama, who they presume wouldn’t have called for a surge in Afghanistan without damned compelling reason.

Excuse me, but I have a question. If, perish the thought, W were still President, and if he had dealt with Afghanistan in precisely the same way Barack has done, wouldn’t the American liberal community be insulting him in every way imaginable? And isn’t it true that the ONLY reason Barack isn’t the target of similar liberal barbs on this issue is that, as his “friends,” we feel we owe him our faith and our support?

To me, the folks who elected Barack have abdicated their responsibilities no less than the supporters of W abdicated theirs. We can praise Barack for many things – for stabilizing the economy, for getting heath care reform passed, for taking on the racial profiling in Arizona, you name it. But we have no business standing on the sidelines in the face of his Afghanistan policy if that policy makes no sense to us. That’s what the Republicans did for the previous eight years. Do you like the results? So why then repeat them?

Sometimes friends need tough love just like children do. This is one of those times.

Barack – in the name of all the values you cited for opposing Hillary’s stance on Iraq -- please, end your stinking war.