Saturday, December 24, 2011


“All they do is give out awards in Los Angeles. Greatest Fascist Dictator, Adolf Hitler.”

Woody Allen, from Annie Hall

Hollywood loves to give out awards. The Empathic Rationalist? Not so much. That’s why I only give them out once a year, and even then, I don’t give them much thought.

With that in mind, feel free to read on and reflect a bit about the best – and worst – of 2011. This will be the last post of the year. So let me wish you a Happy Holiday – or if you are a Republican, a “Merry Christmas” – and a Happy New Year.

Person of the Year

Who shot J.R.? Nobody -- it was only a dream.

Who shot Osama? Somebody – but we won’t find out who any time soon.
That man (or is it a woman?) is my person of the year. Anonymous. Uncelebrated. Not particularly well paid. But heroic as hell.

Give Obama credit for authorizing the mission to go well into Pakistan and risk pissing off the Pakistani Government in order to get the madman who murders thousands of innocents for sport. But give our “Person of the Year” even more credit for risking his (or her) life to get that same madman, and actually getting it done. Someday, we’ll find out this person’s name and gender. For now, we’ll just have to say “Thanks, hero!” and leave it at that.

Laughing Stock of the Year

The Empathic Rationalist tends not to give out this award because it would not be very “empathic” to turn someone into a complete object of ridicule. But this year, let us make an exception.

The laughing stock is each and every one of us political junkies who religiously watch the Republican Debates. Why do we do it? For the comedy? Because we’ve discovered a form a self abuse that doesn’t make us go blind or sprain our wrists? You’d think after two or three of these debates, we’d find something else to do with our time. But no – the prospect of hearing grown men (and a Stepford Wife) pander to the most extreme and ignorant elements of our society is apparently irresistible to us. And so we turn on the next debate. And the next. And the next. … And this will probably continue until it’s May, and Mitt Romney is alone on the stage with Rick Perry who forgot that he was only getting 1% of the vote.

So, my fellow political junkies, congratulations – you are all deserving of this award. Maybe if we’re lucky, someone will come up with political methadone this summer, so we won’t have to watch all the Romney-Obama debates. There, the pandering to Neanderthals will be replaced with vapid BS that has nothing to do with how either one intends to govern. As it stands now, however, I expect to watch all of those events as well.

Entertainer of the Year

Jon Stewart. He hosts the only show I can watch without getting bored – other than the news and sports. OK, OK – perhaps his show could be called news. But I prefer to think of it as “comedy,” not news. It just so happens that it is more informative about the news than virtually anything on MSNBC or Fox News (which are essentially mirror images of each other).

I considered giving this award to “Adele” because she’s so freaking talented. Then again, to be totally candid, her sound isn’t really my cup of tea. And besides, I didn’t even know who she was a week ago. So if you really want an informed view of who the Entertainer of the Year is, you should probably consult a forum written by someone who actually enjoys what comes out of Hollywood or Nashville these days. Sadly, when it comes to the entertainment industry, the Empathic Rationalist is still stuck in the 60s and 70s (note, for example, the quote at the top of this blog post).

Athlete of the Year

This is really painful. REALLY painful. But if Empathic Rationalism stands for anything, it’s the unwillingness to lie to oneself. This is why I never became a defense attorney – I was never willing to convince myself that it just so happens that my clients almost never break the law.

So here goes: the athlete of the year is Aaron Rodgers. He once quarterbacked U.C. Berkeley, the arch rival of my beloved Stanford Cardinal. And now, he quarterbacks the Green Bay Packers, the arch rival of my beloved Minnesota Vikings. Rodgers started the year winning one playoff game after another until he finally captured the Super Bowl. Then, after a tumultuous off-season that almost resulted in a football strike, he continued to win games – 13, to be exact, until finally losing last Sunday. It’s pretty darn good in any sport to lose your first game of the year in mid-December.

Rodgers already has an unparalleled touchdown/interception ratio for his career. And he still figures to have several more years left in his prime. The best QB ever? Maybe not. But more and more people are making that claim, and nobody is laughing when they do. Certainly I’m not. I’m crying.

Tragedy of the Year

Earthquake. Tsunami. Nuclear meltdown. That is not a Trifecta anyone ever wants to hear about. And yet it happened this year in Japan, thanks to a quake that measured 8.9 on the Richter scale.

Most of us cannot even imagine how awful such a quake could be. We had one in Washington, DC this year that measured less than a 6.0, and it shook our buildings for several seconds. 8.9? That is truly a nightmare.

Let us be thankful for all the noble souls in Japan who worked long and hard to make sure that the damage to the nuclear reactors was kept to a minimum. At times like that, you can see human beings at our very best … and nature, at her very worst. These events are also a reminder that much of what is written in our Scriptures is not to be taken literally. God, I dare say, doesn’t bury people alive on purpose.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


In discussing the horse race known as the contest for the Republican nomination, I have dealt only superficially with the candidates’ positions. What do you say we delve a bit into a recent debate about an extremely important issue. The discussion was sparked by – who else? – Newt Gingrich. Say what you want about that windbag, but at least he is willing to throw out ideas before they have been poll tested. I like that about him. I just don’t happen to like his ideas.

So let’s go back to a bit more than a week ago when Newt first decided to let her rip on the topic of the Middle East. In an interview aired by the Jewish Channel, Newt once again showed off his vast command of all things historical. Referring to the situation in the Middle East in the early part of the previous century, Newt said: “I believe that the commitments that were made at the time – remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. And I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs and were historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places.”
Then, last Saturday night at the nationally televised debate, Newt decided to have a little more fun at the expense of the Palestinians. “The fact is, the Palestinian claim to a right of return is based on a historically false story,” he said. " 'Palestinian’ did not become a common term until after 1977. This is a propaganda war in which our side refuses to engage and we refuse to tell the truth when the other side lies.”

Newt received a ton of applause for his comments. And to do so he touched on some of the ultimate Republican talking points. To begin, he played the ever-popular terrorism card: “These people are terrorists. They teach terrorism in their schools.” But even more importantly, he placed himself in the mold of the Republican’s greatest political hero, the Gipper: “I think sometimes it is helpful to have a president of the United States with the courage to tell the truth. Just as it was when [Ronald] Reagan went around his entire national security apparatus to call the Soviet Union an evil empire.”

You’ve got to give the guy an A+ for rhetoric. Unfortunately, Newt is also claiming to be a historian and a public policy maven. In those regards, he failed miserably.
Before I explain precisely what is noxious about what Newt said, let’s look at the reaction by his fellow candidates. Frankly, they came across as equally tone deaf to Palestinian history.

First, we have Romney: “I happen to agree with most of what the speaker said, except by going out and saying the Palestinians are an invented people. That, I think, was a mistake on the speaker’s part. … Ultimately, the Palestinians and the Israelis are going to have to agree on how they’re going to settle their differences between them. And the United States of America should not jump ahead of Bibi Netanyahu and say something that makes it more difficult for him to do his job.”
Santorum’s comments were similar: “I think you have to speak the truth, but you have to do so with prudence. …This isn’t an academic exercise. We have an ally, and the policy of this country should be to stand shoulder to shoulder with our ally.”
And here are the comments from Perry: “Let me just say that I think this is a minor issue that the media is blowing way out of proportion. ...This president is the problem, not something that Newt Gingrich said.”

Clearly, none of these mainstream Republican politicians were willing to praise Newt for proclaiming that the Palestinians were an “invented people.” Then again, none were willing to take up the Palestinian cause as to why they have a right to call themselves a “people” and demand their own state. Perry seems to suggest that this is all just a tempest in a teapot. Romney went so far as to suggest that Newt spoke the truth about the Palestinian’s lack of history as a people, but just shouldn’t have done so publicly. And both Romney and Santorum suggested that when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian divide, American statesmen are obliged to stand behind our one ally (Israel), and Newt’s mistake was that he made statements of which Israel itself may not approve.

It all sounds like a debate you could expect to hear at an AIPAC meeting, doesn’t it?

Let me begin my response to Newt by pointing out that what Israel needs most from America is not just another “ally” but a powerful broker for a just and secure peace. Obama tried to serve in this capacity, and I applaud him for that attempt. The only problem is that he didn’t have a friggen clue what he was doing. (As I’ve pointed out on different occasions, his crucial mistake was to skew his concrete, controversial demands so heavily against Israel that it allowed the Palestinians to stand firm on virtually all of their positions and put Israel on the defensive about their own. Brilliant!)

As an honest broker, we need to envision what a just and secure peace would look like. And we need to be willing to speak out in favor of whatever is conducive to creating those conditions and against anything that prevents such conditions from flourishing. There is plenty to criticize on both sides of this debate, but there are also principles we must affirm. And none is more important than that both the Jews and the Palestinians have a legitimate claim to the same land, and both can legitimately call themselves a people. Our choice is either in dividing up the land so that they each can have their own “peace of oith,” or supporting the right of one people to dominate the other. There are plenty of extremists on each side who favor a de facto one-state solution. Let us pray, in the name of justice, that they are not successful.

Before we can take exception to the views of the extremists, we must first understand their perspectives. What’s interesting is that both the anti-Israel and the anti-Palestine positions commonly depend on a similar idea: erasing the peoplehood of those who claim the right to a state that would conflict with one’s own desire to dominate the region.

On the Palestinian side, you will find plenty who effectively deny that the Jews are a “people,” at least in any relevant sense. On the surface, this would seem preposterous, given that the Jews have been around for thousands of years. But this erasure of the Jewish people is actually quite simple – just replace the emphasis on the Jewish culture/civilization/peoplehood with that of the Jewish RELIGION. This perspective is not only voiced by one-staters in the West Bank and Gaza but is also shared by many members of the American left. They equate the idea of a “Jewish State” with that of a theocracy based on Orthodox Jewish legal principles and doctrines, which would grossly discriminate against all secular-Jews and gentiles, regardless of whether they are technically viewed as citizens. According to this perspective, any religious state – whether Jewish, Islamic or otherwise – will ultimately turn out to be an opportunity for a group of clerics to impose its will on a society based on the pre-modern teachings of religious law. And indeed, they argue, Israeli society is becoming more and more segregated and the Israeli government is increasingly willing to tolerate Orthodox practices (e.g., there are now Israeli buses in which all women are expected to sit in the back). This is why, the argument concludes, if we allowed a Jewish State to take firm root in the Middle East, the result would be nothing like the Jeffersonian democracy envisioned by Israel’s original founders, most of whom were secular and hardly Orthodox. It would instead take on some of the worst characteristics of the most antiquated and oppressive Islamic regimes.

On the Israeli side, you will find many who subscribe to the perspective of Newt Gingrich. They view the gentiles with whom they currently share the Holy Land as members of a people who historically thought of themselves simply as Arabs, rather than as Palestinians. According to this perspective, it is only right and just that these Arabs be taken in by their own people, whether it is by Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, or wherever, and allow the Jewish people to occupy their own ancestral homeland in peace. The adherents to this position will correctly point out that prior to the 20th century, the area known today as Israel/Palestine was, as Newt suggested, part of the Ottoman empire and it was not until the Jews began settling more and more of the land towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century that the Arab inhabitants of the land began seeing themselves not merely as Arabs but also as “Palestinians.” Thus, the argument concludes, the Palestinians aren’t so much a historically-rooted “people” as a social group that has coalesced relatively recently in opposition to the Jewish people, which has a prior, and therefore superior, claim to the disputed land.

The central problem with both of these perspectives is that the historical facts from which they draw are extremely selective. Let’s start with the anti-Zionistic perspective.

Those who oppose Zionism can legitimately point to certain respects in which the Orthodox Jews have gained disproportionate power and enacted discriminatory laws. But there is nothing inherent in the idea of a “Jewish State” that suggests that it will favor one group of Jews over another. Like any other democracy, Israel will see different groups battle it out for social hegemony and some will be more successful than others at different times. Here in the United States, we have seen all sorts of discriminatory legislation in the past, and we may well see more in the future. But that doesn’t mean we have lost our faith in democracy, or in the principle that even if the majority should rule, the minorities should have rights. I am confident that Israel will remain a democracy and will continue to protect minority rights. But the key is that it is up to Israel – with its Jewish majority -- to make those decisions. And the decisions will be made by all Israelis voting at the ballot box, regardless of whether they view themselves as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or secular Jews … or as Israeli-Palestinians.

As for Newt’s perspective, it completely ignores the importance of what happened in the last century. The dispute between Jews and Arabs in Palestine didn’t begin in 1948. It had been growing for decades before that, as Jews were clearly demonstrating their desire to re-settle en masse in the area. Yes, the area had been controlled by the Ottoman Turks prior to World War I, but it was the ancestors of those who today call themselves “Palestinians” who lived and worked on the land. They were, in short, rooted in such cities and town as Beersheba, Haifa, Jerusalem and Hebron. And that sense of rootedness only grew when they were told by non-Arab peoples that they would have to be displaced by the Jews.

Imagine yourselves as an Arab booted out of your own home, together with several hundred thousand other Arabs. Imagine the depth to which you would have felt ties to that home, not to mention your neighborhood, your city, and indeed, the entire area known to you then as “Palestine” -- which was being cleansed to make room for a totally different people. The Jews have strong and multifarious claims to that same land, to be sure. But the rationale that was most often voiced was surely that the United Nations was giving them this land – your land, your people’s land – because of the unspeakable way the Jews were treated by the Germans in Europe. And imagine just how unjust that would sound: that just because one group of Europeans mistreated another, the victimized people would be given YOUR land.
If that didn’t give rise to a sense of peoplehood on the part of the Palestinians, I don’t know what would.

Of all of Newt’s comments, the one that truly made my jaw drop is when he said that the word “‘Palestinian’ did not become a common term until after 1977.” Really? I was 17 in 1977, and I remember that term being commonly used for years. You can say what you want about the Palestinian claim to peoplehood prior to the 1940s, but once the better part of a million of them had to flee from their homes in the so-called “Nakba” (translated as “disaster” or “catastrophe”) of 1948, you can better believe that they referred to and saw themselves as Palestinians … and so did everyone else who had at least an ounce of compassion for their plight.

Folks, I am a staunch Zionist. I am committed to the continuation of the Jewish State. And I refuse to join the blame-Israel-first organizations that have the chutzpah to call themselves Zionist but are afraid to call out the Palestinians for their anti-Zionist practices. But that doesn’t make me anti-Palestinian. The only path to peace is for us to be both pro-Zionist AND pro-Palestinian.

As for Newt, I don’t know what kind of history lessons he gave to the folks at Freddie Mac, but I’m assuming they had nothing to do with the Middle East. The next time he wants to delve into Middle East history, my suggestion is to do so as a student, and not as a teacher.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


In the past few weeks, I’ve posted on different occasions about the Occupy movement and how my fellow liberals need to support it, in spite of its obvious and inevitable growing pains. Today, though, allow me to talk about the OTHER grass roots movement -- the one on the right. This movement is broader than the “tea party,” though the tea party did catalyze it. The movement encompasses every Republican who is nearly as sick of their Party’s establishment as of the so-called “liberal elites.” The members of this movement see the leaders of the GOP as complicit in an ever-expanding federal role over their lives. And it is because of that federal role that they are “mad as hell and not going to take it any more.” I suspect that even if the GOP wins back the White House, as long as our federal government stays huge, this movement will stick around. And as long as there is a Democrat in the White House, the representatives of this movement will remain the dominant group of Republican primary voters.

I am writing about this movement because, unless you understand it, it is impossible to fathom what has happened with the Republican Presidential campaign to date. I know that some of you are completely incredulous about this campaign. You’ve been wondering why the Republicans are so loathe to embrace the one and only candidate who is intellectually, experientially and temperamentally qualified to be President – not to mention electable. By contrast, the candidates they have romanced seem better suited for a David Lynch movie than for Pennsylvania Avenue. And in this latest romance – the one involving Newt “Sorry, Honey, but I’ve found a blonde I like better” Gingrich – you’ve convinced yourself that there’s a whole Party of people who are borderline certifiable. Am I exaggerating? Perhaps a little. But from listening to the talking heads on MSNBC, who probably speak pretty well for Blue America, I’m probably not exaggerating by much. Democrats all over the country are truly puzzled by what the Republican voters are thinking. And the questions are always the same: Why not Mitt? And why, of all people, the Newtster? Let me explain what’s going on.

Democrats generally make the mistake of thinking that the right wing voters who now dominate the GOP are focusing primarily on which Presidential candidate they love the most. Wrong. They focus on the one Presidential candidate they hate the most. His name is Barack Obama.

In 2000, the GOP electorate wasn’t focusing on their love for George W. Bush. They were concentrating on their hatred for “Algore the robot.” Nor was the GOP electorate focusing on their affection for President W in 2004. They were consumed instead with John Kerry, a man viewed not as an innocuous professional politician and former war hero but rather as a wind-surfing, flip-flopping, hypocritical limousine-liberal. In 2008, they tried to focus on their hatred on Barack Obama, but the problem is that their distaste for the erstwhile liberal, John McCain, was pretty robust as well. Now, though, John McCain has mercilessly left the public stage, and they are left with Barack Hussein Obama. To the grass roots of the GOP, Obama is truly an enemy, and any politician who can rip him a new one is their kind of guy (or gal).

I know it might sound partisan of me to categorize the modern GOP voter as so hate-based, but keep in mind that I am not saying they are hateful of all ideas and principles. They love capitalism. They love the market. They love economic freedom. They love America. And they love a strong, American military. What they hate is big government and the politicians responsible for propping it up. This is why it is difficult for them to embrace a would-be President who hasn’t proven his mettle as someone willing to take an ax to the bureaucracy.

GOP voters have seen enough Republicans act like the Bushes, who claimed to be “small government conservatives” but are afraid to do what’s necessary to tear apart Club Fed. If you are such a voter, it is difficult to get excited when some slick guy in a business suit boasts about his conservative bona fides. GOP voters know all too well that in office, this politician will be tempted to forsake his campaign promises and concentrate instead on getting along with the Harry Reeds, the Nancy Pelosis and the K-Street lobbyists. As a result, no matter how much he may theoretically hate government, once elected, he’ll keep the tax code complex, the welfare state bloated, and the tort lawyers wealthy. That’s the only way he can assure himself that he’ll continue to be the darling of the beautiful people and the “best and the brightest” who love to suck up to Presidents.

From talking to some hard-right GOP friends, I’m convinced that there is nothing more nauseating to them than images from galas in which the Obamas are having the time of their life while being surrounded by adoring celebrities. Whether these celebrities come from the world of politics or from Hollywood hardly matters. To the rank-and-file GOP voter, they represent the cheerleaders of big government, and their adoration is seen as the reward that is offered to any politician who keeps feeding the meter. GOP voters are desperate to find someone who will take on such politicians – to speak “truth” to power, as we liberals like to say. GOP voters want to go on the attack. And they seek a pit bull of a candidate who will launch himself onto the Obamas’ legs and bite to the point where the President is forced to say uncle.

Let’s take a whirlwind tour of the Republican campaign to date. Perhaps the first figure to be embraced was Donald Trump. To the malcontents who comprise so much of the Party, it made sense to look at Trump as a political outsider who is secure enough in his millions (or is it billions?) to rip into Washington and unmask it as a silly, self-important hamlet -- which is precisely how it is viewed on the right.

It soon became clear that Trump was more of a clown than a candidate, so the GOP voters next took a long look at Michelle Bachmann. She seemed to be the closest thing available to the last candidate that the GOP truly embraced, Sarah Palin. Unfortunately, the photogenic Palin was brought down when she opened her mouth on the issues, and Bachmann was brought down when she opened her eyes on a magazine cover – and looked like she belonged in a horror movie. So it was time to search for another candidate.

For a time, Rick Perry fit the bill quite nicely. And why not? If Bachmann looked like a Stepford wife, Perry looked like a star of Westerns. Nice hair, nice pecs … what’s not to like, right? The problem is that he turned out to be a barrel-chested version of the Scarecrow. And sadly for Perry, the Republican debates weren’t musicals. (He could dance and be merry, life would be a ding-a-derry, if he only had a brain. Sigh.)

Do I have to remind everyone who came next? The Herminator. That was the comedic apex of this campaign. The GOP loved him because he had the private-sector experience they seem to respect so much and because he inoculated them to charges of racial bigotry. Yet gradually he started losing his luster. First, it became clear that when it comes to foreign affairs knowledge, he made Sarah Palin look like Averell Harriman by comparison. Then, he felt compelled to answer every domestic affairs question in the same manner: first by saying “9-9-9” and then by saying “I didn’t proposition her, honest I didn’t.” It became an embarrassment.

So then there were four: (1)Ron Paul – who wants the government to be so small that even the GOP voters thinks he’s nuts. (2) Rick Santorum – whose name, if you google it, is defined as “a frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex.” (That was the result of an orchestrated, and apparently effective, campaign to destroy him after he bashed gay people one time too many.) (3) Mitt Romney. And (4) Newt Gingrich. The pundits are going CRAZY that the GOP voters are starting to turn to Newt instead of Mitt.

But I ask you, folks: if you really, really hated Obama and thought he was a narcissistic phony more motivated by adulation than principle … if you resented him for being viewed as brilliant simply because he is glib and went to some fancy schools … if you longed for the day when we had a leader who actually showed a little gumption and passion instead of pretending that he was too cool for school … then why in God’s name would you fight for Mitt Romney? Isn’t Mitt Romney just Obama-lite?

Just consider Romney’s two most hyped ads so far in this campaign. In his first, he mocks Obama by quoting him as saying “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” In fact, though, what Obama really said was “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, if we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” Is this Romney’s best shot? Really?

Now, Romney is taking out an ad talking about how he has been with the same wife for 42 years. Yet to the Republican voter, I can just imagine the reaction: “Obama’s been with the same wife all his adult life too. So what? We care less about flip-flopping on wives than we care about flip-flopping on the issues.”

Barack Obama is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Mitt Romney is a graduate of Harvard Law School. Barack Obama smiles a lot and rarely raises his voice and Mitt Romney smiles a lot and rarely raises his voice. Also, according to conventional GOP wisdom, Barack Obama is unwilling to stand and fight for any particular principle and Mitt Romney is unwilling to stand and fight for any particular principle; both are candidates who choose their views opportunistically. But even the GOP electorate would have to recognize that unlike Mitt Romney, Barack Obama at least has a winning personality. So if the two went head to head, wouldn’t it be a sleep fest in which Obama would have the advantage? That logic sure makes sense to me.

And then there was one.

Conventional wisdom says that Newt can’t win. Indeed, conventional wisdom says that Newt doesn’t have much of a chance at the nomination, let alone the Presidency. We keep hearing from the men who served with him in the Congress about what a pompous, out-of-control ass he has been. Plus, we keep hearing about what a colossal hypocrite he is for criticizing Clinton as a philanderer and for criticizing the power of K Street. If that’s not enough, we also hear about how he has no campaign infrastructure to speak of, reflecting the fact that he didn’t join this campaign to win so much as to sell books. And for every talking head who points out that he is soaring in the polls, there are five more who are willing to snicker about how that lead will last about as long as one of Newt’s marriages.

Well, folks, don’t look now but Newt’s marriages tend to last more than a year, and that’s about as long as his lead would have to last for him to win the next election. Am I predicting that? No. His “negatives” really do go through the roof, and yes, he is capable of crashing and burning at any minute. But can you truly blame the GOP voters for seeing him as the best of a woeful lot? I personally predicted his ascendency several weeks ago when I heard him suggest that he wants to engage in a series of Lincoln/Douglas-style debates with Obama. At that point, he was nowhere in the polls. And yet his idea didn’t seem like an absurd one, for Gingrich has always been the one person in this field who would seem truly to delight in going toe-to-toe with Obama on wonkish policy ideas. The GOP rank-and-file would desperately like to see someone argue with Obama about the issues and reveal the intellectual bankruptcy of Obama’s thoughts. That would be so much more satisfying than seeing Mitt Romney fight Obama by blatantly and shamelessly taking his words out of context in staged advertisements.

It is chic in Blue America to condescend to the Republican rank-and-file these days. Democrats might as well call them “retards,” because that’s about how much respect the Republican voters are being shown. But I ask you: isn’t Gingrich’s recent surge a sign that the Republicans want to engage Obama in the realm of ideas? Isn’t Gingrich’s appeal that he, unlike Romney (or Obama), is a gutsy man who doesn’t mind a good fight? Can we in the Blue States not appreciate why voters would be sick and tired of business as usual, and isn’t Romney the epitome of business as usual – a slick politician who nobody trusts to say what he really means? Can the Republicans really be looked at as crazy in not embracing such a standard holder?

Maybe Gingrich is morally reprehensible. And maybe he does make more than his share of irresponsible and even offensive statements about public policy. But when you truly are “mad as hell and not going to take it any more,” maybe you just don’t care about all that. Remember: the Republican voter is not focused on the Newtster, they are focused on Obama. And anyone who reminds them of Obama – whether he is black, Mormon, or Southern Baptist – is going to have one hell of a time winning the nomination.

Say what you want about Newt, but he at least has spine. In this year’s Republican race, that goes a long, long way.

Saturday, December 03, 2011


Even in this quadrant of cyberspace, there has been a lot of talk lately about the 1% and the 99%. Honestly, though, you don’t have to be in the top 1% to be filthy rich. In fact, if you find yourself anywhere in the top 10%, you’re probably doing pretty well. It’s everyone else who I’m concerned about. There is something fascinating about the fact that our nation’s bottom 90% owns less than the top 1%. Indeed, it says a lot about this country that when you’re talking about wealth, it’s most meaningful to talk about the top .1, 1 or 10%, and to simply lump everyone else together into some sort of small, miscellaneous category. The myth of a thriving middle class still survives, but it is inexorably working its way out of our vocabularies. Soon enough, we will reach the point where we’re either ultra-rich or part of the “bottom X%”-- and that X will be a two digit number beginning with a 9. Who knew that 519 years after Columbus found America while looking for India, we would find India while looking for America?

Today, though, I’d like to leave aside the above numbers and focus instead on two different ones. Let’s talk about the 9% and the 43%.

The 9% are a truly bizarre bunch. These are the Americans who answer in the affirmative when they are asked whether they approve of the job the U.S. Congress is doing. When that figure is reported in the media, the point is always to indicate how low it is. But to me, the question is, “Why so high?” Who in their right mind would approve of the way Congress is doing its job?

You might think that’s a rhetorical question, and perhaps it was when I first framed it. Gradually, though, I’ve begun to realize that the 9% might not be nearly as stupid or crazy as they appear. Just assume hypothetically that you were a true American conservative – a person who believes that if you live in the “greatest country in the world,” it’s more likely than not that if you try to make substantial reforms, you’ll only make things worse. Personally, that’s not my attitude, but I wouldn’t call it crazy. And if it were my attitude, I’d like this Congress just fine.

Right now, the Congress is perfectly situated to make as little mischief as possible. No, they won’t accomplish anything either, but like they say in the NFL, “more games are lost than they are won,” and this Congress won’t fumble, throw interceptions or commit 10 or 15 yard penalties. They’ll just raise money, go home to visit their constituents, and commit the occasional act of public lewdness. (That’s the equivalent of a 5 yard penalty; no big deal.)

Consider that the House is controlled by the Republicans, who are themselves divided between the far right and the hard right (they’re the ones who think that the merely “far righters” are wimpy compromisers). As for the Senate, it is controlled by Democrats, at least in theory. In practice, though, it takes 60 Senators to pass a bill, there are nowhere near 60 Democratic Senators, and even when there were 60, a few were DINOs (Democrats in Name Only) who would demand to water down any truly progressive piece of legislation. The result is even more gridlock than you’ll see on the DC Beltway during rush hour.

In short, if your favorite principle of public policy is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” then maybe the U.S. Congress, as pathetic as it appears on the surface, is better than all the alternatives.

So that’s the 9%. Now, let’s turn to a much more plentiful, and supposedly sane, group, the 43%. These are the people who answer in the affirmative when they are asked if they approve of the job done by President Barack Obama.

Who are these 43%? They include virtually no Republicans. As for Independents, less than 1/3 of that category now finds itself in the 43%. Pitiful numbers, to be sure. But indirectly, what those numbers also indicate is that the clear majority of Democrats DO find themselves in the 43%. They like the job President Obama is doing. Imagine that.

How can the 43% watch a President essentially disappear like a magician’s prop, and yet still sing his praises? Is it just because they like the man’s style? Perhaps that has a lot to do with it. Unless my eyes and ears are deceiving me, I still see him as almost the personification of class. He is extremely affable. He has both low-brow and high-brow interests. He is equally adept at talking and listening. He comes across as open minded and open hearted. And you rarely see him sweat, let alone show any pique. What a cool guy, right?

That combination of stylistic virtues certainly goes a long way to explain why we’re talking about 43% and not 4.3%. And then let’s not forget the principle that the enemy of our enemy is my friend. So the more that Fox News anchors, Talk Radio blowhards, and their bought-and-sold politicians rip into Obama, the more the Democrats embrace him. The 43% sees Obama primarily as a victim. According to their mindset, when a pollster comes up to you and asks what you think of his job performance, why blame the victim?

And that leads me to perhaps the most important reason why the Democrats still continue to back Obama. Given how dysfunctional Congress has become, Democrats no longer expect their Presidents to actually accomplish things. As long as we have this Congress, the argument goes, the President is powerless to enact reforms, and his job is simply to ensure that things don’t get worse. It’s almost like watching a chess game that has been stalemated, and then praising your favorite player for not making a move that would lose the game. Absurd, right? But this is the story of today’s Democratic Party.

So, according to the conventional Democratic narrative, our nation is lucky to have a nice, intelligent, thoughtful, and flat-out cool President, who has the misfortune of presiding over a government that is essentially being shut down by a do-nothing Republican-dominated Congress that is propped up by a group of loathsome right-wing troglodytes. And we have a choice of blaming the perpetrator or the victim. Why blame both?

That’s the narrative that emerges from MSNBC. It is the narrative that you hear from Democratic leaders. And that’s the reason why, even though this President’s approval rating is less at this juncture of his first term then any other President in decades, he is still quite popular within his Party.

Forgive me for throwing a little wet blanket on top of this lovely fire, but I was just wondering if the 43% ever stopped to think about one set of simple facts. Do the Republicans control the Department of Treasury? The Department of Agriculture? Commerce? Labor? State? Transportation? Defense? Homeland Security? HUD? Energy? Do they control the SEC? FTC? CFTC? CPSC? I could keep going on and on. But hopefully, you get my point. A Democratic President has an enormous scope of power over a wide range of cabinet-level Departments and other agencies, and a do-nothing Congress lacks the ability to stop him from enacting all sorts of progressive reforms. So if we want to evaluate the President’s performance, why do we need to resort to viewing him as a powerless victim? Why don’t we evaluate the job he is doing in the areas in which he has complete control? Why don’t we demand that he shake things up in those domains? Perhaps the answer is that MSNBC, the New York Times, and the other sources of news for the 43% don’t report much on those areas, at least not with a coherent narrative. They would rather concentrate on throwing out red meat about how awful the Republicans are, even when the Republicans are not the ones primarily in power.

Folks, here is the sad truth. The 9% and the 43% seem like natural adversaries. The former is likely composed of self-styled “conservatives” and the latter of self-styled “liberals.” But whether they recognize it or not, they’re both working for the same objectives. The 9% is happy with their Congress, even though they believe it has little ability to accomplish significant reforms. As for the 43%, they are happy with the President, even though they believe he has little ability to accomplish significant reforms. These two groups differ in that the former embraces gridlock, whereas the latter purports not to. But the effect of their preferences is the same: both groups seem willing to live with gridlock. Both groups seem willing to live with a government that is no more activist than, say, Calvin Coolidge would be if he were in charge.

Perhaps, then, instead of talking about the 9% and the 43%, we should be talking about the 52%. I would guess that there are virtually no common members of the first two groups, but when they are properly viewed as working together to maintain the status quo … look what we have here? A majority!

And you wonder why we who care deeply about economic redistribution keep talking about the 1% and the 99%. Don’t expect the government to help solve that problem. A majority sure won’t.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Happy Thanksgiving weekend to all the loyal readers of the Empathic Rationalist. I hope it has been as relaxing – or as exciting – as you had planned it to be. For me, thank God, it has been the former.

I also hope that none of you got trampled or pepper sprayed at Wal-Mart. As for me, not only did I not go to Wal-Mart, but I visited no retail establishment. Nor did I try to buy anything on-line. Despite all the new technological wizardry that is available in the marketplace, the older I get, the less I want to acquire things. At least from a consumer standpoint, as the world moves deeper and deeper into the 21st century, I seem hell-bent on returning to the 18th or 19th.

Speaking of returning to the 18th or 19th centuries, one thing I am certainly not thankful for is this year’s crop of Republican Presidential candidates. Many of them seem to have acquired some kind of time machine – and unfortunately, it can only take us in one direction, backwards. For example, the candidates seem to have little if any appreciation for the value of government. Thank God the nation’s roadways were built already, or I don’t know how we’d ever travel anywhere. And though I appreciate the emphasis on tax reform, it’s disturbing that none of the candidates seem to have any appreciation at all for the idea of progressive taxation. These candidates are more concerned about fairness to the rich than they are about fairness to the poor.

We probably all have our own votes as to when this campaign season hit its low point. Rick Perry’s “oops” moment? The sexual harassment allegations against Herman Cain -- followed by his tone-deaf reference to Representative Pelosi as “Princess Nancy”? Personally, my vote would go to the reaction after Newt Gingrich pointed out during the last debate that we wouldn’t want to deport an illegal alien who has lived in the U.S. for 25 years, has children and grandchildren here, pays his or her taxes and goes to church. What sane person could argue with that comment? Well Michelle Bachmann did, but then again, she is everybody’s favorite Stepford wife. Perhaps a bit more surprising was the criticism by the “moderate” Mitt Romney. Then again, Mitt’s views have more flexibility than most gymnasts, and while he does come across as sane, his sanity is eclipsed only by his opportunism. But what was worst of all was listening to the talking heads on TV the day after the debate, who were piling on about how Gingrich made the same “mistake” that Rick Perry previously made in attempting to show compassion for illegal aliens. Frankly, it sounds like compassion has no more place in the Republican party. Soon, a Republican candidate won’t even be able to show compassion for a fetus.

As an antidote to the Dickensian drift of the Republican Party, I’d like to post a video of an event I helped organize and that was held precisely one week ago. The event had two purposes – to bring together Jewish and Muslim youth, and to help the homeless. It lasted three hours and was held at the Washington DC homeless shelter run by the Community for Creative Non-Violence (a/k/a Mitch Snyder’s place). A friend made a 40-minute video of the event, which includes snippets of talks by Jewish and Muslim clergy as well as homeless advocates, and portions of prayers sung by my daughter, Hannah. You can find the video at If you can get past its home-made production quality, I think you’ll find it interesting.

I sent a copy of the video to one of my Republican friends, and he asked me why we were bothering to go to a “flop house” and work with the “bums” who lived there. This is the reality in which we now live – even helping the homeless is considered as a waste of time, and the homeless themselves are thought of as trash. Sometimes, I feel that this country is like a magnificent, opulent boat that is heading straight toward an iceberg. What I don’t know is whether there is still enough time to change course and where we can find a captain with the guts to do it.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


“You can’t evict an idea whose time has come.” Cornell West

Finally, this past week, we’ve seen the remake everyone has been waiting for. What was first shown “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” has left the friendly confines of the theatre and emerged on the streets of cities and colleges throughout the nation. Call it “The Empire Strikes Back – the Sequel!” Only this time, Darth Vader is gone, as is Luke Skywalker. Instead, we have cops armed with pepper spray firing at protesters, young and old, disheveled, disorganized, disempowered … and disgusted at the fact that not a single person responsible for the recent meltdown of our economy has been prosecuted for his or her conduct.

America now has a new image – rows of people sitting down and looking toward the ground while the men in blue unload canisters of painful chemicals onto their heads. But perhaps an even more profound, if fuzzier, picture is that of the men “behind the curtain” – the wizards of City Hall, who direct their police chiefs to fire up the pepper spray and remove anyone who has been assembling on behalf of what has become an un-American idea: economic equity for its own sake. Many of these wizards, a/k/a mayors, were elected because they supposedly empathized with the values and the concerns of the common person. And yet, once they took power, these wizards realized that their own lives go most smoothly when the trains run on time, the protesters clear the streets, the bankers rake in money, and the lobbyists pull the strings. Call it law and order. It’s the mayor’s best friend. And it has been our Empire’s bromide for decades.

Two generations have come and gone since we last saw street protesters make any meaningful impact on our country. I was but a boy then. And when my parents took me down to the National Mall to join in the Civil Rights protests, that all made so much sense. Even today, what was accomplished with those protests makes most of us proud Since then, I’ve hit the streets on many occasions to rally on behalf of all sorts of causes – against wars, against poverty, against guns, for abortion rights, for gay rights … for sanity. But there has always been something missing. There’s always been a sense that the protest would have little if any staying power. We’d assemble for an afternoon, chant our slogans, march a bit, go home, go to work, make money, and go back to our self-obsessed lives. We could read about sit-ins and strikes that made a difference, but they were always events from our nation’s past. Now that our nation has become the most powerful Empire the world has ever seen, what need do we have for sustained boycotts and strikes and sit-ins and other forms of protest? Isn’t that so … one century ago? Haven’t we evolved to an understanding that a rising tide lifts all boats, and the best way to achieve such a tide is for as many of us as possible to put down our bullhorns and picket signs, get a law or business degree, and work within the system?

Yesterday, I got together with a number of friends, most of whom do indeed have law degrees, to celebrate the birthday of a man who would have turned 86 on Sunday had he not been assassinated during the last era of mass protest in American history. I’m referring to the great Robert F. Kennedy. As we reflected about his legacy, I couldn’t help think that here was a man who believed in the system but didn’t let that paralyze his passion for the value of mass protest. He watched his brother be elected President. He himself served as the Attorney General and as a United States Senator. Yet, for all the time he spent in American officialdom, his voice remained that of the activist. Consider the following words, spoken at Berkeley on October 22, 1966:

“...It is not enough to allow dissent. We must demand it. For there is much to dissent from. We dissent from the fact that millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich. We dissent from the conditions and hatred which deny a full life to our fellow citizens because of the color of their skin. We dissent from the monstrous absurdity of a world where nations stand poised to destroy one another, and men must kill their fellow men. We dissent from the sight of most of mankind living in poverty, stricken by disease, threatened by hunger and doomed to an early death after a life of unremitting labor. We dissent from cities which blunt our senses and turn the ordinary acts of daily life into a painful struggle. We dissent from the willful, heedless destruction of natural pleasure and beauty. We dissent from all those structures -- of technology and of society itself -- which strip from the individual the dignity and warmth of sharing in the common tasks of his community and his country.”

The key word in that entire passage is “must.” And those who remember Robert F. Kennedy realize that he meant that word with all his heart. It was not an option for him to forget the needs of “the people” and revert back to cultivating our own garden. To be satisfied in life, he had to join the fight. And so, despite being a member of the one percent, he devoted his life’s work to the betterment of the 99 percent.

As I stood at yesterday’s ceremony, I asked myself what RFK would think about the Occupy movement if he were alive today and at the height of his energies. Would he focus on the movement’s excesses and growing pains? To a degree, yes. A former Attorney General couldn’t help but care about any signs of lawlessness. But I suspect he would care even more about ensuring that this movement lasts and ultimately succeeds. For the biggest problem that is facing our nation’s cities right now isn’t that in one or two parks, 24/7 protests are resulting in sanitation issues. The deeper problem is that for decades, while our Kennedys lay under the ground, our college students tailgated, and our workers lost their collective bargaining rights, the denizens of Wall Street and K Street have been pepper-spraying our democracy. They are the ones who asked for billion-dollar bail-outs. They are the ones who have bought our politicians. In short, they are the ones who have gamed our financial and political systems and who have succeeded in putting the judges in place to ensure that all their games are perfectly legal.

And so … the most committed representatives of the 99 percent now come across as lawless, while the one percent are seen as law abiding. Talk about ironic.

Mayor Bloomberg might not realize this, but it will take more than pepper spray and cold air to shut down the Occupy movement. The present protesters might not know what they’re doing, yet there’s no denying the righteousness of their cause. Wall Street and K Street have had their chance to show this country that they won’t abuse their power. And the results can be seen throughout the nation on unemployment lines, in homeless shelters, and through corporate welfare checks. It’s time for a new Luke Skywalker to emerge and tell the Bloombergs, the Boehners, and yes, the Obamas of this country that enough is enough.

Soon enough gifted men and women will appear to lead the Occupy movement. It could be in New York, or Washington, or Berkeley … or maybe at UC Davis. Who knows where they will coalesce. But it will happen somewhere. And then, look out one percent! Protests made a difference in the 60s, and they’ll be heard from again a half century later.

Mark my words – the decade is young.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


In so many ways, it has been a blessing to have a wife and two daughters. But in one respect, it has been a curse. By getting close to those ladies, and learning all about the ladies who are close to them, I’ve heard stories I would never have heard from men. These stories involve abuse – sexual abuse, infidelities, violence, you name it. But what’s really creepy about the stories aren’t the abusive behavior. It’s the way good people – hell, “model” people – tend to look the other way in the face of abuse. Call it human nature at its worst.

Take the greatest example of “abuse” – the Holocaust. We all have a choice as to what aspect of that event is most disturbing. Is it the existence of a small group of madmen who were hell bent on genocide? Or is it the fact that once these madmen came to power in one of the great countries of the world and revealed their dark sides, the citizenry (with few exceptions) stepped back and let the insanity reign. That’s another way of saying that the Holocaust presents to us both Hitler and Heidegger. One will go down in history as one of our most infamous mass murderers and the other as one of our greatest philosophers. Both were Nazis, but Hitler led the Party and Heidegger merely joined up. And why not? He may have disagreed with some of Hitler’s beliefs, yet it surely seemed like a good, safe career move for Heidegger to align himself with the Party in power.

The sad truth is that for every Hitler – for every perpetrator of abuse – there are legions of Heideggers who learn of the abuse but haven’t the guts or the inclination to confront it. And because there are far more enablers than there are heroes who are willing to stick their necks out, we depend upon the victims of the abuse to put a stop to it. Needless to say, that’s easier said than done. Victims of abuse may report the event to the police, and yet the police may be powerless to act without additional evidence. And they may also notify the abusers’ family, friends and co-workers about what happened. But when they do so, the reaction is pretty much predictable. We as a species, despite being “made in the image of God,” tend to take care of our own. When we hear that our fuehrer, our family members, our friends, our priests, or our football coaches are involved in truly abusive behavior … we generally shrug off the information we don’t like, and get back to our own business.

With that as an introduction, you can imagine how I have been reacting to the scandal that has been rocking Central Pennsylvania this past week. A graduate assistant who works for the Penn State football team witnessed an ex-football coach having anal sex with a ten year old boy. He reported the incident to his superior (football legend, Joe Paterno), who reported it to his superior … and to make a long story short, nobody reported the incident to the police. As a result, the number of victims merely grew over time. Now that these events have come to light, the public (outside of the hamlet of State College Pennsylvania) have had pretty much the same response. They are shocked, SHOCKED, that the leaders of the Penn State football team would have failed to report such depraved and criminal conduct. Everywhere from Portland to Peoria to Phoenix, we’re hearing the same comments: “If I were that graduate assistant, I would have stopped that rape right then and there. And if I were Joe Paterno, I would have told the police right away. I don’t care how close I was to that rapist – I would have reported it.”

Sure you would, hero. Sure you would.

Allegations of abuse, however credible, rarely come with what most of us call “proof.” You’ve got the victim’s word against that of the perpetrator. And who has the burden of persuasion? You’ve guessed it – the victim. Also, the victim soon learns that it doesn’t pay to make a big stink. Anita Hill made a big stink about Clarence Thomas, and she was portrayed by the conservatives as some sort of lying witch. Now, we are seeing the same dynamic played out in the case of Herman Cain. When a lady named Sharon Bialek became known as the fourth woman who was claiming to be sexually harassed by Herman Cain, Rush Limbaugh spewed the following venom over the airwaves: “her name is Buy-A-Lick, as in [slurp, slurp] Buy-A-Lick.” You know and I know that Rush Limbaugh hasn’t a clue whether Sharon Bialek was telling 100% of the truth, 50% of the truth or no truth at all. But because she had the temerity to attack a conservative Republican who Limbaugh likes, that, apparently, was enough to give him the right to portray her as a whore. And he is completely getting away with those comments.

What Limbaugh is doing, sadly enough, is done every day in far more mundane situations. As soon as a victim speaks out, she or he is fair game for scrutiny. Is s/he trustworthy? Above reproach? Unless you’re a paragon of virtue, you better just take your medicine and shut up. Because if you’ve got a whistle to blow, the friends and family of the man you’re accusing are going to be digging for all the dirt they can find – and I mean dirt on you, not your abuser. Is there any wonder why it is so difficult for the ordinary victim of abuse in a non-celebrity context to get up the courage to speak out? What’s in it for them? And unless they have some sort of documentary proof of hard-core criminal conduct, what can they hope to gain from telling their story?

I have seen this scenario play out too many times before. The one and only time I’ve seen the abuser get in real trouble is when the idiot (a) messed with kids and (b) kept photographs. Neither is advisable. Better to just abuse adult women, and not to leave too much of a mark. Do that, and you can be sure that not only will your homies have your back, but the authorities won’t even give a second thought to the accusations.

In a sense, Joe Paterno is a victim here, strange as that sounds. This is a man whose trusted assistant reported witnessing a child get raped, and all Paterno did is notify his boss (the athletic director) about the event, and wash his own hands of the situation. Is that heroic conduct? Of course not. But nor is it any worse than what I would generally expect from my fellow man. Paterno heard an unpleasant allegation against someone with whom he had closely worked for decades, and he heard it from a young man who had no evidence other than his own uncorroborated testimony. In such situations, what percentage of people would do the bare minimum? 50? 75? 90%? I don’t know what the number is, but I’m sure it’s a big one.

Believe me, I have no personal sympathy for Joe Paterno, even though he is losing his job and much of his reputation for his role in that incident. Consider that Paterno has spent the last several decades being treated essentially like a god – and not only in Central Pennsylvania but in the world of sports generally. His name has become synonymous with integrity, character, honor. He’s on the Mount Rushmore of college coaches. And not only has he been deified, but I can guarantee you that as long as he lives, he’ll be spending his time largely surrounded by people who will treat him as a truly great man.

Now we all know that Joe Paterno is not such a man. He’s not a hero at all. He’s a guy who, at a critical juncture in his life, put personal interests over stopping rape in his lists of priorities. But my assumption, given what I’ve seen and heard in this world, is that Paterno behaved just as most others would have behaved in the same situation. You’ve heard the term “age appropriate” used for kids who behave in normal ways for people their age? Well, Paterno behaved in a way that was “species appropriate.”

Limbaugh? I guess you can say that his “Buy-A-Lick” crap did cross the line into unusually aggressive blame-the-victim conduct. But then again, it was hardly shocking either. Abuse situations are much like football games. When an abuser comes out and makes an accusation, all interested parties choose what team they are on. And if the abuser is a prominent member of the community and the victim isn’t, good luck with that accusation, chump.

I’m not happy about all this. In fact, I think the epidemic of abusive conduct in our society is intolerable. But we have to go through the “acceptance” stage of the process before we can work on a solution. And that begins with each of us looking in the mirror and asking what kind of enabling conduct we have been willing to accept when it comes to abuse. Let’s not be quite so willing to accept it in the future, OK?

Saturday, November 05, 2011


Let me begin my making a statement that is long overdue in this portion of cyberspace: I wholeheartedly support the Occupy movement. That is not to say I applaud everything each demonstrator has said or done in connection with this movement. What I do applaud is the central goal of calling attention to the fundamental economic inequality in our society, and announcing that such inequality is flat out unacceptable.

When he campaigned for President, Barack Obama led us all to believe that he intended to address the inequality issue. He took a significant step in the right direction insofar as he worked for universal health care. But in other critical respects, our President flat out blew it. And none of his omissions is more critical than his unwillingness to increase the marginal tax rate on the most affluent members of our society. (Of course, now he is pretending to care about that issue again, but he also knows that the votes are no longer there to enact this change; when he seemingly had the votes, he lacked the spine.)

The Occupy movement does reflect a certain type of class warfare. But it’s not a war of the “99%” against the “1%.” The war is, in fact, being initiated by the uber-rich patrons of the Republican party, and the foot-soldiers are the rank-and-file of that increasingly reactionary party, many of whom are neither affluent nor well-educated, but who have been taught by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity to despise government, taxes, economic redistribution and anything remotely resembling the New Deal. The Occupy movement is merely a reaction to the war that Limbaugh, Hannity, and such behind-the-scenes puppeteers as Grover Norquist have been waging for years. Theirs is a battle against the sane idea that government can play constructive non-military roles in a capitalist society.

Well, I’ve had enough of the extremist ideology that is strangling the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. And I’m not alone. Channeling the immortal words of Howard Beale in the movie Network, many Americans are finally saying “I am mad as hell and am not going to take this anymore!” The real question is what took us so long?

This past Tuesday, David Brooks wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that had an interesting perspective on the Occupy protests. He set up a dichotomy involving two types of inequalities: (a) the one between the 99% and the 1%, and (b) the one within the 99% -- specifically, between those who have college degrees and those who don’t. Brooks’ point was that the former may be the one garnering all the media attention, but the latter inequality is the one that is most devastating to our society.

Is he correct? Well, yes and no. What Brooks is really asking us to focus on is not so much the war that the 1% is now waging against the so-called “middle class,” but the war that both the rich AND the middle class have been waging for decades against the poor. He’s absolutely right that this is being completely ignored by the politicians and the media, and that this is a national tragedy. In fact, it has gotten to the point where whenever inequality is raised in the media, the victim is almost always identified as the “middle class” rather than the “poor,” since the audience is presumed to be so much better able to relate to the former than the latter. In other words, the middle class has now come to represent a more sympathetic group of victims than the poor. This is, indeed, a sad development.

But it begs the question of what to do to solve the problem. What I want to hear from Mr. Brooks and any other limousine-moderates who share his perspective is how they plan on calling attention to the plight of the poor if not by supporting the Occupy movement. From where I’m sitting, this has got to be a two-step process. First, the Howard Beales among us must rage against the rapacity of the Gordon Gekkos. (Hell, if we turn away from Hollywood and back toward history, we can find an even better example of the real villains here. Our nation’s 1% may best be compared to Marie Antoinette, whose immortal response to the underclass -- “let them eat cake” – is a perfect summary of the Herman Cain and Rick Perry tax plans.) Only by pointing out that even that great engine of capitalism – greed -- can be taken too far can we focus the attention of the American public on the issue of economic inequality and convince the public that too much inequality must not be tolerated. Full stop.

Then, and only then, will we be able to take on what Brooks views as the more pernicious type of inequality than the hoarding of wealth by the 1% -- namely, such problems as the “inequalities of family structure, child rearing patterns and educational attainment” that so defeat the aspirations of our nation’s underclass. Brooks went on to lament the “nation’s stagnant human capital, its stagnant social mobility and the disorganized social fabric for the bottom 50 percent.” And he announced his “ultimate goal” as the need to “expand opportunity.” I share his view that those problems and that goal should be front and center in our minds. And that is why, in my first novel, I called for a national war on poverty, which would need to be fought by all able-bodied people in both the public and private sectors and which would address both cultural and economic concerns.

Yet after I wrote that book, do you know what happened? I opened my eyes and ears to anyone who placed fighting poverty at the top of their agenda, but heard hardly a whisper. The silence was especially noteworthy when it comes to the world of politics – big time, national politics. In that domain, the only spokesman was good ol’ John Edwards. You know him well. He’s the slick attorney with the flowing hair. The one who loved to talk about the “two Americas.” The guy who hated poverty so much that he built a 30,000 square foot house for himself, and then took it upon himself to destroy his own marriage – no doubt, in order to demonstrate the tragedy of out-of-wedlock births. That, my fellow poverty haters, is our patron saint. That is our voice in the wilderness. The rest of the politicians – indeed, the rest of the chattering class generally – said nary a word about the plight of the poor.

It’s a basic law of nature that you’ve got to walk before you can run. And that principle applies just as much to the political marketplace of ideas. Prior to the commencement of the Occupy movement, the poor simply had no real voices in Washington, other than a few relatively powerless members of the House of Representatives. And yes, even now, the anti-poverty voices are muted. But at least now the issue of economic inequality has entered the national consciousness, and the need to do something about it is gaining traction. The only way this could have happened is for a group of young disaffected Americans to identify a group of villains and shine a bright light on their faces. Fortunately, with limited exceptions, events have not gotten violent, and I pray with all my heart that the protests remain peaceful. An America without the respect for law and order would cease to be America. We must keep things safe, legal, and orderly. But we must not stop the protests.

Is there any doubt that our system currently caters more to the 1% than the 99%? Is there any doubt that we are evolving into the type of capitalism excoriated by Dickens and Marx, each in their own unique ways? Those like me who actually believe in capitalism but see it as a means, not an end in itself, recognize the need to right this ship. And aside from the Occupiers, there are no other hands on deck.

What is the old Biblical expression? And the children shall lead? In this case, I think it’s not so much the children, but the unemployed young adults. Occupy away!

Saturday, October 29, 2011


It has been a few weeks since I sat in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, reading a list of items for which “we” must atone (Jews atone in the first person plural, not the first person singular). When I got to the word “cynicism,” I did a double take. “That sure applies to me, “ I said to myself. I can’t believe how cynical I have become as of late when it comes to government and politics.

As I closed my eyes and atoned for that cynicism, I was jolted by the memory of an incident from the previous week. A friend had commented about my recent increase in cynicism, but oddly enough, he was paying me a compliment. According to this friend, my uptick in cynicism toward politics and government was merely a reflection that I was finally opening my eyes to reality.

Is that really true? Is cynicism just a higher stage of wisdom? Or, if you prefer the question asked this way, is it possible, given the present state of the American political marketplace, to be overly cynical – or is our political mess worse than we could possibly imagine? This much you can’t deny – cynicism has become as American as apple pie. The New York Times reported that, according to a nationwide telephone poll of 1,600 adults that was conducted from October 19th-24th, “89 percent of Americans say they distrust government to do the right thing, ... 74 percent say the country is on the wrong track and 84 percent disapprove of Congress.” My only question is why those numbers weren’t 100, 100 and 100, respectively.

Seriously, I have to laugh when I hear Democratic cheerleaders get on TV and rave about how “we progressives” just adore the tough talk that has lately emerged from Obama’s lips. I’m reminded of the old joke about the time when the Lone Ranger and Tonto were surrounded by a group of angry Indians and the Lone Ranger asks his buddy, “What do we do now?” Tonto’s response is the same as my response to the Administration’s cheerleaders: “What do you mean ‘WE’”?

When I look at the President that I and millions of other progressives worked so hard to elect, I see a consummate campaigner but hardly a committed progressive ... let alone an effective leader. His promises in 2008 were full of red meat for liberals. Yet as President, he showed little willingness to take on the ever growing inequalities of wealth when he presided for a full year over a Congress with 60 Democrats in the Senate and a large majority in the House, another year with 59 Democrats in the Senate and a large majority in the House, and 2/3 of a year with a split Congress. So now that the Republicans have essentially said that they will fight him on any meaningful legislative effort involving core economic issues, Obama has entered campaign mode, and we can expect him to remain there until early November of 2012.

Why should I give a damn whether his political calculus is to campaign as a moderate or a progressive? Didn’t these past three years show that what he says on the campaign trail and what he fights for as President may have little to do with each other?

So now that I have basically said that whatever statements the President has to make about economics are mere words that need not be taken seriously, I do have to acknowledge that at least his “mere words” seem to make a lot more sense than those of his adversaries. Call me a masochist, but I watch the Republican debates religiously – I even TiVo them when I’m not home. And I find them as ridiculous as a Three Stooges festival. It almost seems pointless to mock the debates, for the participants do such a good job of that themselves.

It’s probably fitting that the current poll leader among the Republican candidates, Herman Cain, is a guy who wants to introduce a 9 percent federal sales tax at a time when the nation needs to encourage consumer spending. Not to be outdone, Rick Perry came out with his own tax plan that would lower taxes for the rich, maintain the taxes for the middle class, and send many others scrambling through tax form after tax form to find out which of those categories they fit into. Generally speaking, the Republican tax proposals have two things in common – they would add to the deficit, and they would redistribute money in favor of those who need it the least. Keep in mind that this is a time when deficits and income inequalities have famously shot through the roof. So why would we want them to increase even more?

It’s as if some Einstein was asked to propose a plan to address an epidemic of obesity and came up with the idea of lowering the price of beer and fries. I can see why the idea might catch on, don’t get me wrong. But its creator belongs more on Comedy Central than on CNN, that’s all I’m saying.

Leave it to the loveable lunkheads like Cain, Perry, Paul and Bachman to make Mitt Romney look good. Hell, they’re even making Newt look good. But most importantly, they’re making Obama look good. Despite all the cynicism reflected in the above poll, and despite the current state of our economy, the new numbers indicate that as many people approve of the job Obama is doing as disapprove. And that says more about his opponents than it says about him.

Perhaps the relatively positive view of Obama is, paradoxically, the most profound statement of our current level of cynicism. Our view of government has become so negative that as long as you don’t leave your ex-wife when she has cancer (Newt), strap your dog to the hood of your car during a family road trip (Mitt), say you are pro-choice one day and pro-life the next (Cain), conduct yourself during debates like you’re drunk and then threaten to skip the debates altogether (Perry), or support dismantling the EPA (Bachman) or everything beyond a truly minimalist government (Paul) ... I guess the American public will be happy enough with your performance.

That probably explains why year after year, decade after decade, the vast majority of incumbents who run for Congressional seats come out victorious. That also explains why as badly as he did as President, George W. Bush came out victorious when he ran for re-election. To a cynic, hope starts to give rise to fear, and the next thing you know, you find yourself voting based on the idea that “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.”

Of course, Barack Obama campaigned on a platform of hope, not fear. But with each feckless step that he took as President, that “hopey, changey” stuff gave rise to an even greater layer of national cynicism. It might end up cementing his victory next November, but what do you bet that when he does get re-elected, he’ll be selected as the lesser of two evils. And he’ll preside over a powerless Government.

When it comes to cynicism, we in America have come a long, long way since the last inauguration. Then again, at this point, the only direction we can go is up. If there is a silver lining here, I guess it’s that. Oh yeah – that, and the fact that we political junkies have in store for us a whole year of really, really good comedy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


This is to let you know that I will be attending my 30 year college reunion this weekend at Stanford and will not be able to write my weekly blogpost. The Empathic Rationalist will return with new material on or about October 29th or 30th.

Talk to you then.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


It was barely two weeks ago when I heard my daughter, Hannah, mention the name of Gilad Shalit. As she was leading the Reform High Holiday services at the University of Maryland, Hannah took a moment away from the traditional prayers to remind us all about the horrible ordeal suffered by Shalit, an Israeli soldier, at the hands of his Hamas captors. Hannah implored us to pray for Shalit’s release, and I doubt there was a soul around who didn’t join her. For five years, Shalit has been forced to live in captivity. He was seized when he was just a teenager, and during the last several years, Hamas has refused to permit the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit Shalit to evaluate his living conditions. It is difficult to know whether or not Shalit’s situation would measure up to the Bush Administration’s view of “torture,” but there has certainly been no objective reason to believe he has been treated humanely. This is, after all, Hamas we’re talking about. The words “humane” and “Hamas” have in common the same first letter, but other than that, I don’t see any common ground whatsoever.

Suffice it to say that my view of Hamas is widely shared in Israel, and it is largely for that reason that the case of Gilad Shalit has garnered such publicity there since the time of his kidnapping. Shalit has become a national symbol – a symbol for the innocence of the Israeli people, who the Left sees as militarists and occupiers but who see themselves as a peace loving society surrounded by unfriendly, and sometimes savage, neighbors and morally entitled to behave in self-defense. Gilad Shalit is truly the picture of innocence: a baby-faced 19-year old boy when he was kidnapped, Gilad did not score high on the Israeli army physical fitness tests, but he nevertheless volunteered to serve in a combat unit. Therein lies one of the ultimate tragedies of war – that it claims some of our most noble, giving souls. The Israeli people are well aware of that fact, and they have been determined to ensure that this war would not claim the soul, or the body, of Gilad Shalit.

Shalit has had to wait nearly two thousand days before he could be freed. Fortunately for him, he will only have to wait two days more. This coming Tuesday, Hamas will return Shalit to his loving family in Israel, and in return, Israel will free not one, not one hundred, not one thousand, but 1,027 Palestinian political prisoners. The swap will be eerily reminiscent of an earlier deal – one procured by Shimon Perez in 1985 in which 1,150 Palestinian prisoners were freed in exchange for three Israeli soldiers captured during the Lebanon war. The 1985 swap resulted in the first Intifada and an incredible amount of bloodshed. One wonders what exactly will be the result of this deal – other than incredible joy for the Shalit household and a surge in Hamas’ popularity among the Palestinians.

Let’s be clear that we can all rejoice that Shalit will be free. As birds-in-the-hand go, this is a big one. But I still have many questions for the Israeli Government. The following come immediately to mind: If these 1,027 political prisoners have truly belonged in Israeli prisons, aren’t you saying that they are legitimate threats to the lives of the Israeli people (as well as visitors like my daughter Hannah, who hopes to attend rabbinical school in Israel)? Doesn’t it mean that as soon as they are freed, they collectively can be expected to slaughter dozens or even hundreds of Israelis – bringing the same kind of grief on their families as has been endured by the Shalit family these past five years? By contrast, if these released prisoners don’t pose a threat to the lives of innocent Israelis, why the hell were they imprisoned in the first place? Were they rounded up based on the shakiest of evidence? Is that why Israel is so willing to let them go – because they never should have been imprisoned to begin with? And aren’t you sending the worst possible message to Hamas -- if you’re able to capture one of our citizens, you’ll be amply rewarded?

This is a deal that puts “Empathic Rationalism” to the test. From the standpoint of empathy, it’s a big winner. But rationally, this deal just doesn’t make sense. From Israel’s standpoint, Tuesday’s swap is the kind of event we’d associate with a Jimmy Carter, not a Benjamin Netanyahu, which makes this even more puzzling. I realize that the “Free Gilad” cause is a compelling one, but so is keeping Israel secure from terrorism. If history is any guide, Tuesday’s swap will open the door to freedom for many criminals and death to many innocents. To me, it’s a major head shaker.

This prisoner swap reminds me of one of those classic philosophical dilemmas that ethics students learn about in college. You are given scenarios like the following: Ten men on a boat have swallowed a poison, and they learn that they will die unless they are given an antidote. There’s enough of the antidote around to save nine of the men. But as for the tenth, for him to survive, he would need to consume all of the antidote that is available. So here’s the dilemma – is it appropriate to provide the antidote so as to save the nine lives and allow the tenth to die, or should the ten men draw lots so that the tenth man is given the same chance that each of the others has to live?

When I first heard that dilemma, it was raised by a philosophy professor who had published an article proposing that the men on the boat should draw lots. That, he said, is the only “fair” outcome – all these people must have an equal chance to live. Period. Personally, though, I thought the professor was crazy. At the risk of seemingly overly utilitarian, I couldn’t imagine how one life could possibly be equated in importance to nine. And I would like to imagine that if I were on that boat, I would have gladly given up my life if it meant saving the other nine.

That brings me back to Gilad Shalit. Right now, the deal is being widely hailed. “The end of a national nightmare,” “the return of a national hero,” “a time to rejoice” … Yes, it is all that and more. But we seem to be forgetting that maybe, just maybe, these 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were in captivity for a reason. Just maybe, the Israeli prisons have been filled with Palestinians who have demonstrated a passion for killing Israelis who are every bit as innocent as Gilad Shalit. And maybe, when these political prisoners are freed, they will wreak vengeance on the country that they have surely learned to hate even more as a result of their own captivity. If that happens on a large enough scale, I cannot imagine the Shalit family will believe that the release of Gilad was worth it.

Despite what my philosophy professor said, I still think that “numbers count.” That’s why the Shalit deal doesn’t add up.

Sunday, October 09, 2011


The Days of Awe, as the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known among Jews, are centered around the concepts of repentance and renewal. Sometimes, when they give talks during this period, rabbis concentrate on the former of these themes, and other times they discuss the latter. Yesterday evening, at the concluding service of Yom Kippur, I heard a rabbi devote his entire talk to the idea of renewal. And he concentrated on what could be taken to be nature’s foremost means of generating renewal – death.

You don’t hear too many tributes to the Grim Reaper at synagogue. You hear even fewer in the Spiro household. My dad, the family philosopher, may not have been steeped in Spinoza, but he internalized the Spinozist line that “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death and his wisdom is a meditation on life.” Last evening, though, we were told by the rabbi that without death, we can’t enjoy life as we know it – where the new is truly different than the old, and the power of time requires us to act now or perhaps forever lose the opportunity.

Anyone who has seen the movie Groundhog Day knows what life could be like if we could live a single day forever. For all of the central character’s accomplishments – saving lives, developing talents, you name it – the moviemaker had us all convinced that we would trade such a storybook life for our own, as long as we were able to spend our limited time on this planet with a loving fellow-traveler. That is not to say that mortality is objectively preferable to immortality, but only that each of us has made our peace with it. Our ideal is simply to be the best “mere mortal” we can be given the constraints. Anything more would seem … well, disrespectful to the civilization we’ve developed, one that involves the challenges of living well, dying gracefully, and remembering those to whom we owe a debt of gratitude – mortal and immortal.

Generally, at a High Holiday service, our thoughts turn to thanking the one immortal of whom we are aware. The word “Jew” means “thankful.” It comes from the decision of our matriarch, Leah, to name her son, Judah, saying, “This time I will give thanks to Adonai” (Genesis 29:35). But yesterday evening, the rabbi wanted to take a moment to praise the essence of mortality, and he did so largely by quoting the words of a fellow mortal. This is a man we’ve all heard a lot about lately because he died, with tremendous notoriety, earlier during these same Days of Awe. I am sure you will recognize him by name when you read the following words, which come from a commencement address he gave at my alma mater (Stanford) in 2005.

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, some day you'll most certainly be right.’ It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

“Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

“About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn't even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor's code for ‘prepare to die’. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you'd have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

“I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I'm fine now.

“This was the closest I've been to facing death, and I hope it's the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful, but purely intellectual, concept:

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but some day not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And, most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

As a Luddite, you’d think I would curse the ground Steve Jobs walked on. It is largely due to his products that I often feel as alienated from this society as I do. Believe me, I couldn’t tell you the difference between an i-pod, an i-pad and an i-phone, and I’m not apologizing for it either. But, ironically, for the same reason that I am a Luddite – valuing what is known as “humanity” over what is known as “technology” – I cannot help but appreciate what drove Steve Jobs to be the person he was. Sure, he loved technology. And yet by all accounts, he was also a warm, caring, unassuming person. What’s more, when all was said and done, the epitaph of this college-dropout-turned-billionaire could aptly include that immortal Frank Sinatra lyric, “I did it my way.” I love that quality in a person. In fact, it is precisely that same quality that most endeared me to another celebrity who passed away during these Days of Awe.

I will allow those of you technophiles who are “Jew”-ish to thank Steve Jobs for all that he has given you personally. For me, I will reserve my more heartfelt thanks to a fellow Jew who died, of all days, on Yom Kippur (in other words, yesterday).
Al Davis grew up in Brooklyn and never did outgrow his Brooklyn accent. His football team was called the Raiders, but pronounced “Raiduhs” by any true fan of the team – even though they’ve never been based outside of California. It is only respectful to pronounce that name the way Al did because Al Davis WAS the Raiders.

There is no team in American sports more associated with a single human being than the Raiders were associated with Al Davis. He once coached the team, came to co-own and then own the team for decades, and micromanaged the team in virtually every respect that involved the product on the field. You could say that his obsession with this team was positively Ahabian. Indeed, many would say that he was willing to break virtually every rule and moral principle imaginable in order to help that team win. It was a great formula when he was young and ahead of the curve, and a horrible formula when he was old and the game had passed him by. But again, win or lose, at least nobody can deny Al Davis that same epitaph referenced above – he did it his way to the brutal end. And his way can be summed up in a single immortal line: “Just win, baby!”

Nobody in their right mind has been rooting for Steve Jobs to meet his maker. But I know a number of Raiders fans who have been rooting for Al Davis’ demise for years. The same team that he built to greatness in the 60s, 70s and early 80s has long since been run into the ground, thanks to his meddling. I suspect that there is a whole generation of football fans out there who associate Al Davis with incompetence, if not insanity. More recently, he has been nicknamed the Crypt Keeper, because … let’s just say his face hasn’t aged well. In short, Al Davis has become a punch line – and as for the joke, there are many to choose from.

But that was the old, living Al Davis. The new, dead Al Davis deserves better and will surely get what he deserves. For there is something else about death we should praise – her ennobling quality. Stated simply, nothing dignifies like death.

If you don’t believe me, just turn on ESPN or the NFL network over the next few days. What do you bet that these networks will assemble a group of Davis’ friends and admirers to explain precisely what made the man great? Here’s a man who moved his franchise not once but twice, but what do you bet he’ll be toasted by his friends for his “loyalty”? Here’s a man who made one crazy personnel move after another and whose team hasn’t had a winning season since 2002, but what do you bet we’ll hear that as a football mind, his was second to none? The fact is that mortals can be complex figures, and the same person who exhibits disloyalty in one respect can exhibit extreme loyalty in another, just like the same person who exhibits brilliance at one time in his life can manifest idiocy in another. When you die, unless you’re a truly evil figure, you get to have the good times and the good qualities remembered much more than the bad. It’s the least the living can do for you.

I grew up loving Al Davis because (a) he looked so much like the folks in my dad’s family, who also came from Brooklyn, (b) he never sucked up to the establishment or pretended to be anything other than a football guy, and (c) he allowed his players to beat to their own irreverent drummers as long as they fought hard to win football games. Long before Sarah Palin called herself a “maverick,” Al Davis was the real deal. He looked at the fat cats who ran his industry and gave them all the middle finger. And just like the rappers in LA thought that was pretty friggen cool, so did I – and I grew up in the mean streets of Bethesda, Maryland. To this day, I still think that if you grew up in the 60s and 70s and didn’t think the old Raiders were cooler than the other side of the pillow, there’s something seriously wrong with you. And that “cool” trickled down from the top. The tone was set by Al Davis.

So there you have it. Two men died this past week. One is universally beloved. The other is thought of as a bit of a freak. Yet perhaps their most dominant characteristic is the same. They both dared to be themselves, and they encouraged that same quality in others.

Jobs and Davis leave behind them roughly seven billion people, few of whom were nearly as successful in making their own marks. But we all can learn from their example. The High Holidays are over, but if we played our cards right, the lessons of these holidays can remain for a full year. We repent and seek renewal. We repent for such things as the willingness to waste our lives by living someone else’s. We seek renewal by recognizing what it is we truly want to achieve in life, and then steeling ourselves to ensure that these goals come to fruition. Jobs did it. Davis did it. And you can do it too. Just let the prospect of death give you that kick in the pants that you need. And then, just LIVE, baby!

Saturday, October 01, 2011


It last happened in 1960, the year of my birth. Despite winning five NBA Championships in 11 years, the Minneapolis Lakers were ready to move west. With the team’s new superstar, Elgin Baylor, in tow, owner Bob Short decided to take his team from one of our nation’s coldest cities to one of our warmest, Los Angeles. The franchise decided to keep its name – the Lakers – despite the fact that the only body of water for which LA is known is the Pacific Ocean. And more importantly, the franchise figured out how to keep its winning ways. Unbelievably, when the Lakers won the NBA title in 2010, it was the franchise’s 16th title and 31st appearance in the championship series in a little over 60 years. The latter stat is truly astounding. It means that over the course of more than six decades, this one franchise has been one of the top two basketball teams in the world 50% of the time. I don’t believe that any other major league franchise in any sport can make that claim.

So yes, the Lakers have done their share of winning and more – both in Minnesota and Los Angeles. And they have become larger than their sport. When you think cheerleaders you think of two franchises – the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders and the Laker Girls. Personally, I can’t name a single Cowboy Cheerleader, but I remember Paula Abdul back when she cheered for the Lakers. I bet Jack Nicholson does too; he’s had courtside Laker seats for literally decades. And Jack is hardly alone. A Laker game isn’t just a basketball game, it’s an opportunity to get out your binoculars and ogle celebrities. You’ll find almost as many of them there as at the Kodak Theatre on Academy Awards night.

Hollywood likes its Dodgers, but Hollywood LOVES its Lakers. And why shouldn’t it? Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neil, Kobe Bryant … these aren’t just Hall of Famers, they’re superstars. James Worthy is a Hall of Famer, but next to those other Laker greats, he’s a bum – which is the word the good people of Brooklyn used for their beloved Dodgers. Nobody in his right mind calls the Lakers bums.

My friends in La La Land, when they say their nightly bruchas, should thank God for life, liberty and the franchise from Minneapolis. A native of the Land of Lakes, Prince had the right idea but the wrong spelling: it’s not Purple Rain, its Purple Reign. It started in Minneapolis and has continued in LA. And we all know that when Kobe Bryant retires, somehow, the Lakers will beg, borrow or steal another superstar to take his place. The Lakers don’t rebuild, they reload. Ain’t no force in the universe powerful enough to stop them for long – not even the force of karma.

The people of LA know about karma. It’s a well-used concept in the movies. One minute the hero is riding high, but a couple of scenes later, his life is falling apart. And it works in reverse too, for Hollywood is full of Cinderella stories. Just ask Julia Roberts: one day she’s turning tricks on the streets of LA, and a week later, she is having sex with Richard’s “Gere” and about to marry into billions. As Yakov Smirnoff would say, “What a country!”

Unfortunately for my friends in LA, the karma I’m talking about now doesn’t have much to do with Cinderella. It’s more the “Behind the Music” kind of karma. Do you recall Behind the Music? It’s a VH-1 series that would profile different rock n’ roll groups. Inevitably, the trajectory would be the same: band meets, band plays for almost no fans and makes almost no money, band hits the big time, band members enjoy superstardom, band members enjoy drugs, band members enjoy drugs a tad too much, band members turn their lives into a living hell … or a short story, depending upon the band member. Seen it once, seen it a million times.

So how is that kind of karma going to bite the good people of LA? Enter into the equation another purple clad team from Minnesota. Ladies and Gentlemen of Los Angeles, I want to introduce you to my Minnesota Vikings.

On the surface, the Vikings are one of the flagship NFL franchises. They’ve been in the league as long as the Lakers have been in LA, and they have graced the Super Bowl not once, but four times. They have their own Hall of Famers, men like Fran Tarkenton, Alan Page, Carl Eller, Paul Krause, Randall McDaniel, Ron Yary, John Randle. Hall of Famers yes, superstars no. You see, the Vikings have never won the championship. Not once. And during the last 34 years, when the Lakers have made 16 appearances in the championship series of its sport, the Vikings have been to the Super Bowl precisely zero times. And believe me, it’s not for lack of coming close – it’s because every time they do come close, some seemingly supernatural force stops them from winning during the final play-in game before the Superbowl. In the ‘87 season, it was a running back who dropped a ball in the end zone; in ‘98, it was the kicker who didn’t miss a kick all year but missed the kick that would have sealed the deal; in ‘09, it was the boo-boo of having 12 men in the huddle, a penalty that took the team out of the range of a field goal that would have won the game. Are you mathletes sensing a pattern here? Every 11 years, the franchise flirts with its fans by snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory and keeping the team out of the Super Bowl. And every Vikings fan knows that if and when the team finally does make the Super Bowl, they’ll do what they did the four times they got there in the late ‘60s and early-mid ‘70s: lose.

That, folks, is a snake-bitten franchise. And don’t look now, but it could be moving to Hollywood at the end of this season.

The signs of the move are simply too irresistible to ignore. The Vikings are from Minnesota, the Lakers came from Minnesota. The Vikings wear purple, the Lakers wear purple. The Vikings have a stadium with a lease that’s about to expire and a tax base that isn’t willing to bail out another billionaire owner, and Los Angeles has millions upon millions of people but not a single professional football team (other than the University of Southern California, but supposedly they don’t count). In the past few years, the good people of Minnesota bought themselves a stadium for the baseball team (the Twins) and the flagship college football team (the Gophers). And how did that work out? Well … the Twins just lost 99 games this year. Can you imagine? I know the baseball season is long, but it’s not THAT long. Ninety-nine games is a horrid number. And as for the University of Minnesota Gophers, not only are they 1-3, but they have lost this year to such perennial powers as New Mexico State and North Dakota State.

North Dakota State? Are you kidding me? Imagine your state having spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars that could have gone for teacher salaries or health care but instead went to a stadium in which you can watch your college football team lose to North Dakota State. I suspect that taking a nice leisurely drive to the Mississippi River and dumping the money in the drink would have been a better use of time. At least the scenery would be nice.

And now, Minnesotans have another decision – whether to dump hundreds of millions more on yet another new stadium for yet another struggling team. This time we’re talking about the Never Won the Big One Vikings. And since 11 years have not elapsed since they last flirted with a Super Bowl appearance, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the franchise has lost its first three games of the season. Indeed, the fact that they were winning by 10-20 points at halftime of each of these games might be somewhat surprising – Lord knows that no other team in NFL history has started the season in that manner – but for the fact that this is the Vikings we’re talking about. Their history is as cursed as the Lakers’ is charmed. They don’t just lose when it counts. They lose in freaky ways.

And now, the smart money is on their moving to LA.

I don’t know about you, but I’m expecting to see a movie in around 2025 chronicling the story of the Lakers and Vikings. It will be called something like “A Tale of Two Teams,” and it will have all the ups and downs you can possibly ask for in an Oscar-nominated flick. The problem is that the “best of times” will always be referring to the Lakers and the “worst of times” will always be referring to the Vikings. But for all their differences, they will always be linked together by a common city, a common fan base, and a common color.

Besides, ask any big time director: happy endings are great, but there’s nothing like the drama of a top flight tragedy. With the Vikes coming to town, the possibility for great scripts are endless.