Saturday, May 26, 2012


You’ll have to excuse me, my loyal readers. I find myself inside of a 10-day period when, instead of going to the office and toiling away for pay, I’m attempting to make some progress on writing a third book. As a result, virtually all of my intellectual efforts at the computer will be devoted to that task.

So, please allow me to take this opportunity to utilize the following crutch: I will briefly opine on a number of topics, rather than addressing only a single issue in any great depth. This approach isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but in a society dominated by texting, cell phone-driving, multitasking, tweeting … let’s just say it’s “Age appropriate.”

1. Does anyone in America care what’s been happening in Syria? Does anyone in America even know what’s been happening in Syria? Or did that story effectively end once we decided that it wouldn’t have a quick and happy ending?

Please, do us all a favor and follow the awful nightmare that is befalling that country. I realize it’s not a feel-good story like the rest of the so-called Arab Spring, but it is no less important than the other popular uprisings against Arab dictators. If nothing else, the Syrian experience will tell you something about the kind of neighborhood Israel plays in, so next time a peace activist tells you that they support boycotting Israel and only Israel, you can laugh your butt off.

2. Please don’t tell me that while you weren’t paying attention to Syria, you were instead following Mitt Romney’s statements about what’s ailing the American education system. From what I can tell, Mitt has virtually nothing to add on that topic. So why did he call attention to that fact?

Back in 1992, Clinton’s War Roomers coined the motto “It’s the economy, stupid.” If Romney wants to win, he better repeat that mantra at least 20 times every night before he goes to bed. From what I can tell, the economy is the only issue in which Mitt can gain any traction. And fortunately for him, it’s the most important issue to the American electorate So … why even bring up civil rights, education, or foreign policy? The economy is the one area in which the President is vulnerable, and the one issue in which Romney is comfortable touting his experience. Any word he utters on another topic is a win for the President.

3. Speaking of the economy, did you hear that Romney recently said the following: "If you just cut, if all you're thinking about doing is cutting spending, as you cut spending you'll slow down the economy.” And he also said, "Well because, if you take a trillion dollars for instance, out of the first year of the federal budget, that would shrink GDP over 5 percent. That is by definition throwing us into recession or depression. So I'm not going to do that, of course.”

Wow! I guess the primary season is over, and we’re already taking that great Etch-a-Sketch journey to the middle of the road. This is so potentially reminiscent of 2008, when Obama seized his party’s nomination by arguing for a roll back of the Bush tax cuts, only to decide at the critical time of his Presidency that such a move would do too much short-term damage to the economy.

Tell me, what do these politicians really believe -- (a) The way they campaign for the nomination? (b) The way they campaign for the general election? (c) The way they govern? (d) Who the hell knows?

That’s a rhetorical question. Please don’t overthink the answer.

4. And speaking of not believing what a politician says, what do you all think of Cory Booker’s performance last Sunday on Meet the Press? Booker, the mayor of Newark, came on to that show ostensibly as a surrogate for Obama. But then he proceeded to trash the Obama campaign for running negative ads against Mitt Romney regarding Mitt’s conduct at Bain Capital. This resulted in the Republican National Committee hailing Booker and some other Wall Street Democrats for defending private equity firms like Bain against demonization by Democratic operatives.

Once again, there’s a trust issue here. Was Booker defending private equity because he hopes to raise lots of money from Wall Street, which is only a hop, skip and a jump from his perch in New Jersey? In other words, was this a politically calculated attempt at a “Sister Souljah” moment? Or was Booker making his point because he truly is offended by the idea of demonizing an entire American industry which, the last time I checked, wasn’t breaking any law?

I can’t read Cory’s mind. I have no idea if he was more truth-teller or panderer. But this much I can say: long before Obama started airing negative ads against Romney, Mitt’s boys were running ads against Obama that were completely misleading. And you can believe that this entire campaign season will be marked by both sides running one misleading ad after another. If you don’t like that, fine. Be a journalist. Be a political scientist. Be a statesman campaigning, more or less, as an independent. Just don’t show up, ostensibly as a surrogate, and then slam your guy for doing what both sides do, and what would be political suicide if your side stopped doing it while the other guy didn’t. Because if you want to show up as a surrogate and then act like you’re more-principled-than-Thou, people will think you are phonier than the ads you’re criticizing.

5. Don’t look now, but we’re about to have a playoff series in the NBA between two teams that feature basketball skills more than outlandish egos. If you want to watch a hard-fought series between two talented teams that do their talking only on the court, and speak with their arms and legs instead of fists and elbows, San Antonio versus Oklahoma City should be your cup of tea.

By the time the series is over, you might actually find yourself rooting for one team more than you were rooting against the other. How’s that for a change? Then, when that series is over and it is time to watch the Finals, you can go back to the norm and passionately root AGAINST His Royal Cockiness LeBron James and his Miami Heat.

6. This has been the first spring my wife and I have spent as empty nesters. That means, in part, that we did things together we might not have done in the past.

She watched the National Hockey League playoffs for the first time, and I even heard her shriek a few times when the Caps scored some goals. As for myself, I found myself not only watching more of American Idol, but wondering if one of the contestants might actually make some music I could enjoy hearing.

Truth be told, even though American Idol has just finished its eleventh year, the show hasn’t produced a single singer who I don’t turn off when they play his or her songs on the radio. Not one. This year’s winner, Phillip Phillips, might be different. He didn’t suck up to the Hollywood mavens that the show trotted out. He didn’t treat winning the competition as if it meant winning the Nobel Prize. He just stayed true to what he was – a Dave Matthews clone. And personally, I think you can do a whole lot worse. I’d much rather listen to a poor man’s Dave Matthews than to just about any country music star or to a big-voiced pop diva like the ones Idol seems to lionize.

As a result, when I hear a Phillip Phillips song come on the radio next year, I will actually allow myself to listen to it without changing the channel.

As for the idea that Idol is “sexist and racist” because for the sixth time in seven years a “white man with a guitar” has won the competition, I don’t think there’s much mystery here. Voters on Idol can cast their ballots an unlimited number of times, and as a result, voting tends to be dominated by young people who text in their ballots repeatedly. In addition, reality shows like this one tend to be more popular among girls than boys. Also, we still live in a country where the vast majority of the people are white … and heterosexual. As a result, the voting is dominated by heterosexual, white girls … and they are most likely to vote for the cutest white boy who can sing relatively well. There, mystery solved.

7. Speaking of demographics, for the first time in American history, the majority of babies who are being born in America are non-white. How would you like to be a Republican reading that news for the first time when you’re drinking your morning coffee? Must be pretty sobering7.

If the GOP wants to continue to hitch its wagons to the Rush Limbaughs of the world, it is going down faster than a skyscraper elevator. Just look at Mitt’s numbers among Hispanics and African-Americans. Brutal. Absolutely brutal.

8. Finally, on this Memorial Day weekend, I want to take this opportunity to thank all of the brave men and women who gave up their lives in the service of my country and its values. For their sake, let’s all think a bit about what those values are and how fortunate we all are – whether or not we’re Americans -- that those values dominated Independence Hall as far back as 1776.

Have a long and great weekend from the Empathic Rationalist.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


It was exactly one month ago today when the world marked Holocaust Remembrance Day. And speaking for myself, it was truly a day for reflection. I reflected not only on the Holocaust itself, but on a meeting of the Jewish Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington that took place the previous month. It was a great session, marked by both civility and candor – a beautiful combination whenever the most controversial topics are addressed among Jews and Muslims. Yet there was one thing about the session that profoundly disturbed me. Every time the discussion focused on the Holocaust for more than a brief period of time, like clockwork, it would be refocused on the Israeli occupation of Palestine. It was as if the Muslim members in attendance felt guilty for thinking about the one without thinking about the other. In their minds, these two injustices, these two “catastrophes,” are forever linked.

In the Jewish world, the term “Occupation” is associated with the Jewish settlements beyond the green line that marked the pre-’67 Israel/Palestine border. But among Palestinians, I suspect it has a different meaning. They covet pre-‘67 Israel as well, not merely the West Bank. For it is in such pre-’67 Israeli towns like Haifa, Jaffa and West Jerusalem that Palestinian communities owned and cherished large amounts of land prior to the formation of Israel. In 1948, when Israel declared its independence as a Jewish state, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were thrown out of their homes and forced to live in refugee camps. To this expulsion, they give the name “The Nakba,” which literally means, “the catastrophe.” Each year, on May 15th, that historical moment is remembered with the name Yawm an-Nakba, or “the Day of the Catastrophe.” And indeed, this past week, I was invited by a Palestinian friend – a PhD who knows me as a staunch Zionist – to attend a Yawm an-Nakba ceremony on Tuesday.

My first reaction was “Why did my friend invite me? Doesn’t she realize how much I dislike to hear that her people are referring to the formation of Israel as a ‘catastrophe’? Doesn’t she realize that if we’re ever going to have a two-state solution, we’ll need the Israelis to accept a Palestinian state and the Palestinians to accept the Jewish state, and how is the latter possible if they are using such insulting terms for the creation of Israel?” Then, of course, it dawned on me that this friend, like a number of Palestinians I know, is an unabashed supporter of a one-state solution. And that the invitation she sent out wasn’t personal, but one that went out to a number of folks in a distribution list. So I simply shrugged off the offer – if she had thought about it, I figured, she would have realized that I opposed Nakba Day ceremonies on principle.

But why? Why is it so important that the whole world remember – and mark – the Holocaust, but perfectly acceptable for Jewish Zionists to ignore the Palestinian displacement that followed the birth of Israel?

Do I like the term “Nakba”? Do I want it to be associated with the idea of a Jewish state? Well no, and I doubt that will change. But isn’t it clearly the case that the Palestinian displacement was a tragedy for those families who were forced out of their homes? And don’t they have a right to mark that tragedy, and to see all men and women of good will similarly mark it? Perhaps my Zionist ancestors had a perfectly good reason to do what they did (or at least most of what they did), but that doesn’t make the situation any less tragic for the Palestinian people. Is it not important to remember that tragedy, just as we Jews remember our own? In fact, isn’t our very willingness to remember the tragedy an integral component of any two-state solution? Isn’t it the flip side of the Palestinian willingness to remember the Holocaust, and the Russian pogroms, and all the other persecutions of Jews over the centuries, which collectively add so much force to the Zionist enterprise?

So today, on behalf of the Empathic Rationalist, I call for remembrance. This week, let us be compassionate to those Arab families who lived in the land currently controlled by Israel and who were ejected from that land for no fault of their own. Let us mark their suffering and accept their longing. And while we’re at it, let us consider all the Jewish families who lived in the Arab world prior to 1948, and who were also expelled from their homes and forced to emigrate to Israel. They, too, are part of the “Nakba,” if we must call it that.

Names are important. And I wish that any event associated with the birth of the modern state of Israel would stop being associated with a word like “catastrophe.” But the displacement that is being memorialized is larger than the name that is being used to remember it. And this week, even those of us who love Israel should feel morally compelled to think about the innocent victims of its birth, feel their pain, and resolve to compromise with them in finding a solution.

I realize that “you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet,” but these are human beings, not omelets. In fact, these are our cousins – Semites, from the House of Abraham. What would our father Abraham say if he saw us treating them like enemies and forgetting that their pain is ours? Perhaps he would say that instead of smashing idols of God, he would go and tear up a Jewish flag.

If abused, even the most beautiful of symbols can turn into an unholy idol.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


You’ve got to love the cynics. They are never lost for words.

No matter how magical the moment, how historical, how profound, there’s an always an opportunity for cynics to wax eloquent. As long as you’re dealing with human beings, there will always be people who will point out ulterior motives, selfish interests, and hidden hypocrisy. And the funny thing is, they’ll be right. At bottom, we’re never completely candid, generally quite self-centered, and invariably inconsistent. And that applies even more to our politicians.

This week, for the first time in our nation’s history, a sitting U.S. President came out in support of gay marriage. What’s more, this was a President who is running for re-election. So what do the cynics want to talk about? What else? The phoniness of Barack Obama’s words and the political expediency of their timing. Well, OK, my cynical friends, I realize that you have no choice but to go there. God forbid you could ever say something affirming about either the President or gay marriage. It’s as natural for you to be negative at a time like this as it is natural for many men and women to be gay. So I’ll tell you what. Out of a spirit of solidarity, let me play your cynical game, at least for a few paragraphs.

Here’s how I understand the rules. My job as a cynic is to present human beings in the most uncharitable way possible. And in doing so, in order to show that we cynics are hard-headed, objective people, unlike the suckers who buy into myths and legends, I am obliged to speak nothing but the truth. So here’s my attempt to speak honestly about Barack Obama’s announcement in a way that would allow me admission into any Cynics Society, including the one that is convened daily on Fox News. When I’m done, I’ll show that these are but small truths for small-minded people.

“Barack Obama is full of it when he spoke this week about his personal ‘evolution’ on the issue of gay marriage. He didn’t change his personal views on the issue. He has supported marriage equality for years. This is why, when he first ran for state office in Illinois in the mid 90s, he announced his support for gay marriage. Shortly thereafter, he realized that it wasn’t expedient to come out in favor of something that the vast majority of his constituents opposed, so he hid his true beliefs. That attitude continued up to the present. In his heart of hearts, throughout the time that he was pretending to oppose gay marriage rights, he thought that all consenting adults, gays included, had every right to enter into monogamous marriages. He simply was afraid of losing votes by making that view public. Like many gay people, he kept his true attitude in the closet.

“Barack Obama ran four years ago as a different kind of politician – a real progressive change agent who will encourage the American public to dream big dreams and help these dreams become a reality. He knew the importance of civil rights, and understood that in the minds of progressives, gay or straight, marriage equality for gay people is at the heart of today’s civil rights movement. But Barack Obama is, above all else, a calculating politician. And when a choice is presented between fighting for something he believes in (even if it involves civil rights) and getting re-elected, he’ll opt for the path of political expediency. In that sense, all that ‘hopey-changey’ stuff he spoke about four years ago was largely smoke and mirrors. And the fact that America bought into it was something that this political Geppetto had every reason to count on; as P.T. Barnum once said, there’s a sucker born every minute.

“Public opinion polls show, for the first time ever, that a majority of Americans support gay marriage. Now and only now does Barack Obama have the guts to announce his true opinions. Does that make him a heroic figure? Hardly. Now that’s he’s running against a baron of Bain Capital, Obama has lost his touch in raising funds from Wall Street. He desperately needed an infusion of cash from such gay-marriage-crazed constituencies as the Hollywood and LGBT communities. Besides, if he were a real hero, he would have extended his so-called ‘heroism’ to taking ground breaking views on other issues that would involve more direct confrontations with big corporations. If you think about it, corporate CEOs could care less about gay marriage. Some have even announced their support of it, no doubt to show that they are ‘good guys’ and not like the rapacious jerks that they appear to be in Hollywood movies.

“At the end of the day, I don’t doubt that the gay lobbyists are pleased with the massive progress that has been made during the Obama Administration. But their movement stands alone among progressive causes. The citizens for economic justice have little to show for their efforts. The environmentalists can say the same, as can the human rights activists and the immigration rights activists. Clearly, this President doesn’t want to rock the boat any more than he has to in order to get re-elected. He has made a calculation that supporting gay marriage at this time will work to his political benefit. Maybe he’s right, maybe he’s wrong, but nothing he’s done shows that he’s a hero. The vast body of his work points to the conclusion that he is just another calculating, opportunistic politician. For all his claim to being a black pioneer, he’s no Rosa Parks and no Jackie Robinson.”

There. I said it. And it doesn’t make this past week any less magical or profound. You see, I didn’t come today to cyberspace in order to bury our Caesar, but rather to praise him. What he did is beyond wonderful. And any progressive who would approach this announcement cynically needs some serious therapy.

Speaking personally, the issue of gay rights is near and dear to my heart. I remember back in middle school watching the gay male students getting treated like circus freaks, except that they were “laughed at” rather than “laughed with.” I remember in college, when the luck of the draw brought me a gay roommate (who has become a lifelong friend). I had to hear about how he scandalously was seen “in the bushes holding hands” with another boy. It became clear by then that gay men are largely viewed by their straight counterparts as some kind of combination of icky and disabled.

I remember going to a gay bar with my college roommate and his friends, hoping that I could gain some anthropological insights, and praying that none of the other denizens of that bar would walk up to me and either touch me (talk about an assault!) or ask me to dance. I should have realized that I was a neurotic East-Coast Jew living in California, and the men there would be no more attracted to me than were the women. The fact is that not a soul approached me that evening who I didn’t already know, and if you ask me what I learned from watching the goings on at the bar … it is that gay people like to have fun. There’s a newsflash for you.

I remember a point after college when I was a student teacher, and I told a group of high school students that the nation’s next Martin Luther King will come from the homosexual rights movement. I remember going to gay marriage marches both with friends and alone, feeling that I didn’t really belong because I wasn’t gay, but also feeling that I didn’t dare call myself a progressive if I wasn’t willing to march. I remember the first time one of my daughters told me she was gay. And I remember how proud I felt last Sunday when, at the University of Maryland, she alone received the university citizenship award that goes to the student who does the most to promote LGBT interests on campus. I also remember thinking about how ashamed so many fathers would be of their daughters for receiving such an award. And that made me feel both icky and disabled for being a part of my species.

When it comes to gay rights, we’ve come so far. But we have so far to go.

In my Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society, we have reached the point where we can speak candidly and passionately about virtually every issue – except gay rights. Almost to a person, the Muslims I know believe that homosexuality is a sin. The Evangelical Christian community clearly is in accord. And that is why it has become so common in this country for parents to send their children to counseling in order to steer them back to “health” and heterosexuality.

In most contexts, I argue vociferously with those who think that religion is a bad thing. Religion gives us meaning, community, and a vehicle for our gratitude at being alive. But when it comes to the topic of homosexuality, religion gets a big black eye. Not only does it make us a society of bigots, but it spiritually grounds us in our bigotry. Talk about horrific.

In my state of Maryland, even though the legislature recently approved a bill permitting gay marriage, we are expecting a referendum on the ballot this fall that would give the residents a chance to bypass the views of our elected officials. Prior to this week, I would have said that Maryland is one of those states where if you poll our people, most would say they support gay marriage, but if you let them cast a secret ballot in a voting booth, most would vote against it. This is the reality that Barack Obama faced when he made his historic announcement. No matter what the polls say, the referenda to date have been squarely AGAINST marriage equality. Our side even lost in liberal California. Imagine how they would vote in Ohio, Florida, or the other swing states?

Maryland, though, is not a swing state. And now, thanks to the President’s announcement, I am actually optimistic about our upcoming referendum. I think he will have changed the mind of enough African Americans who would have otherwise voted with their “faith,” but are gradually evolving to accept that gay rights are the civil rights of our day. The best news of all is that if you only polled voters under 50 about the issue, gay rights would win hands down.

I don’t view President Obama as a hero, but I do view him as a master campaigner and an essentially benign soul. He realized that he wasn’t going to win this election if he couldn’t claim the moral high ground over his opponent, at least in the minds of his base. He realized that he had to do something to rally his troops, and there is nothing better able to do that than taking on the last bastion of unabashed bigotry in our society – homophobia. Fortunately, our society has evolved to the point where days after Obama’s announcement, Republicans are still trying to figure out how big an issue to make of this. I don’t doubt that they can score some points in certain swing states, but it now appears that for the most part, American moderates have turned the page. Even though most of these moderates may vote against marriage equality, that won’t dominate their thoughts when they cast their ballots for President in November. Only on the rightward fringe are people deeply scared of gay marriage. Most sane heterosexuals have seen that it doesn’t do anything to destroy our own marriages. And when men like Rush Limbaugh, who change wives like the rest of us change underwear, talk about Obama ruining the sanctity of marriage, mainstream America can do nothing other than laugh.

Really, when you think about it, Obama’s announcement stands primarily for the principle that as a candidate, he doesn’t want to come across as a phony. This week, he told us what he really thinks. Why shouldn’t we just applaud that? Why shouldn’t we feel good in the knowledge that for all the problems we’ve had with bigotry in our nation’s history, at least the trend is a relentlessly positive one? Even when it comes to homophobia, which is among our most intractable problems, with each generation, Americans get more and more accepting. I can take solace in the fact that my daughter won’t have to feel like such a “hero” for not being in the closet. I don’t want her to be a hero; I just want her to be happy. I want her to feel normal. Because you know what? She is normal. It’s the bigots of our society, the ones who have heretofore been in the majority, they’re the ones who have issues. If you don’t believe me, ask any resident of America in 2200, or 2500, or 2800. They’ll tell you which attitudes are normal, and which ones are prehistoric.

My cynical friends, bash Barack Obama all you want for being a phony on gay marriage for more than a decade. But at least when he was opposing marriage equality, he was light years more humane on the subject than Mitt Romney. Mitt was taking the position at the time that a state should be able to deny a gay person the right to have full hospital visitation rights, even if the couple have been monogamous for 50 years. Now that’s crazy.

This reminds me of the first story I remember from attending Harvard Law School, the same law school where both Obama and Romney got their degrees. The Dean told us a story about two friends who were camping in the woods. Then they saw a big bear. When one guy started running, the other one yelled out, “Why are you running, you can’t outrun that bear.”

“I don’t have to,” his friend replied. “I just have to outrun you.”

Barack Obama is a master politician. As a candidate, he knows he doesn’t have to outrun the bear – he doesn’t have to be a hero. All he has to do is claim the high ground over Mitt Romney. This week, he claimed that high ground. And as a proud ally of the LGBT community, I am eternally grateful he did.

Saturday, May 05, 2012


“A free man thinks about death least of all things; his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.”

Spinoza, the Ethics (Part IV. Prop. 67)

My daughter had to remind me this past Monday evening that the above quotation is identified on my Facebook page as a personal favorite. I’ve clearly taken it to heart over the years. Rarely do I think about the topic of what happens to us after we die. Nor do I dwell much on the diseases that could cut our lives short. Both of my parents reached 90, and my mother is still going strong, so long life is something I’ve come to expect. In fact, I have preferred to assume as a matter of faith that myself, my family and my closest friends will enjoy such longevity. That way, I figured, we all can concentrate on making the most of every day and every decade without fear.

This week started no differently. When I came to the office on Monday morning, death was the last thing on my mind. Then, not even an hour later, a colleague walked in to my office and reported that another colleague of ours had finally lost his battle to melanoma. George Vitelli was a Senior Trial Counsel at the Civil Frauds section of the Department of Justice. So am I. He was born in 1960. As was I. He came to Civil Frauds in 1997. Me too. He loved football more than any other sport. Yup, that’s me. He was a lifelong Raiders fan. Like me. He had a wife and two children. As do I. And during the last two years, he has battled his cancer with pure class – always willing to talk about it, but only in an upbeat way, as if there was always a treatment around the corner that would save him. Well … so much for our similarities.

As I thought about my friend George and the incredible way he had comported himself over the years, I could not have been more impressed. He was the true Spinozist. Had I been in his situation, I would surely have kvetched and kvetched and kvetched. Maybe not “Why me?” but more like “this friggen sucks.” Not George. He never wanted to bring anyone down. Until perhaps a month or two ago when even he realized that the odds were not in his favor, he had all his friends believing that he truly would beat the disease.

Monday night was my wife’s birthday, and we went out together with the family. It helped me get George off of my mind a bit, but only a bit. Periodically, I would bring him up and talk about what a mensch he was, and how he epitomized for me what it means to be a family man. He was a hell of a lawyer, and yet he showed not even a trace of arrogance. If he had an ego, he reserved it for friendly competition.

George’s death wasn’t the first time that I had lost a member of my own cohort who had seemed to be more vivacious – more deserving of a long life – than the rest of us. I began to wonder, irrationally of course, if there really is something to the old saw that “only the good die young.” I also began to experience what is commonly known as “survivor’s guilt.” It’s a sobering experience to wonder if you even deserve to be around.

By Tuesday morning, I somehow stopped thinking of George as dying young. I was thinking instead of the week’s second death – the one involving a 24 year old Sergeant named Curtis Hoover. Curtis was from my wife’s home town of Albion, Indiana, and we used to see him, his two brothers and his dad before my mother-in-law moved out of Albion several years ago. The cause of Curtis’ death was a motorcycle accident, and if you ask me, motorcycle rides are accidents waiting to happen. But that didn’t make his death any less tragic. He, like George, passed away on Sunday. I just didn’t find out until Tuesday morning.

On Wednesday and Thursday, I didn’t learn about any more deaths, but simply spent much of time dealing with George’s. Wednesday was the visitation at the funeral home – in the open casket I saw a robust looking man wearing a Yale cap. He played football for Yale as an undergraduate, a source of pride throughout his adult life. Thursday was George’s funeral and his burial. Then, I went back to the office. It was hard to get anything done, but I did manage to hear something that helped me relax a bit. An attorney I know who works for a private firm told me how sorry he was about George. Then he said “He was a real princely fellow. I think that was pretty much universally understood.” I e-mailed the widow to make sure she heard that line. The great thing is, she probably didn’t even need to hear it. It would have been impossible not to love George, he was that kind of guy. His wife of all people had to know that.

Yesterday, Friday, I was finally primed for a long, productive day in the office. I knew I hadn’t shed my last tear of the week, but I had assumed that things would get easier from there on in. And indeed, I managed to concentrate pretty well on my work – just like George would have wanted me to, right? Then, mid afternoon, the third bomb of my week dropped. Michael Hertz, who headed up the Civil Frauds section for literally decades (including my first decade on the job) and who has served since 2007 as the Deputy Assistant Attorney General in charge of my Branch, had lost his own battle to cancer. As with George, this battle had been going on for years. Also like George, Mike remained an employee of the Department until the very end.

Mike Hertz has been one of the great unsung heroes of the U.S. Government since at least the mid 1980s. At age 62, he was as responsible as anyone in our nation’s history for why the Government has been able to disgorge fraudulent companies of tens of billions of dollars and return that money to such victims as the Medicare Trust Fund or the U.S. Treasury. If you’ve never heard of Mike, it’s probably because that’s the way he has wanted it. He’s never been a glad hander. In fact, he was always extremely shy. But what he lacked in gregariousness, he made up for in diligence, intelligence, judgment and, above all else, fairness. His troops – and there were hundreds of us – were fiercely loyal to him, just as he has been loyal to us whenever we were attacked. That said, Mike rarely paid us compliments, rarely smiled at us when we walked in his office, and even had trouble showing us the soft heart that we knew existed under that “Just the facts, mam” exterior. He passed away before his troops were able to give him a retirement party in which we could pay him the compliments he deserved and express our incredible affection for him. No doubt, such an event would have merely made Mike uncomfortable.

It is hardly a strained analogy to say that if the Civil Division of the Justice Department was the Star Ship Enterprise, Mike Hertz is our Mr. Spock. And if you know your Star Trek, you know how beloved and respected Spock was to everyone on that ship, even Dr. McCoy. You also know what a loss it would have been to the Federation for Spock to have died. And indeed, our Government is a lesser place today than it was yesterday, when Mike was still alive.

One week, three deaths. Obviously, I was closer to two of these three gentlemen than I was to the third, and yet how can I not appreciate that the death of Curtis Hoover was truly the most tragic of all. Maybe George couldn’t “celebrate” turning 50 or Mike 60, but at least they reached those milestones. Sergeant Hoover never even made it to 25.

Those of us who seek meaning in life, and who seek a wisdom that is a “meditation not of death, but of life,” what are we to make of weeks like this one? We hear people talk about how God “has a plan for all us,” but do we really think that the cancers that overtook George Vitelli and Mike Hertz before they were able to enjoy their retirement, or the motorcycle crash that destroyed Curtis Hoover while he was still a young man, was the result of a conscious decision on the part of an omnibenevolent deity? Quite the contrary, weeks like this are responsible for why so many people in our society refuse even to consider the possibility that there is a God – lest they come to associate divinity with senseless tragedies. If these are the fruits of God’s will, who needs a Devil?

How, you might ask, did Spinoza cope with weeks like this one? Lord knows he knew them well. Within a period of about four years, leading up to the time he was 21, Spinoza had lost his father, his stepmother (his mother died when he was five or six), a sister and a brother. Clearly, this master of rationality couldn’t possibly take on faith that we should expect to live a long life. Spinoza himself never made it to 45, and spent his later years suffering with bad lungs.

Somehow though, he kept up his spirits. He preached an ethic that equated the present with the eternal – for to Spinoza, everything happens precisely as it must, for it expresses the essential nature of God, of which we are all mere expressions or manifestations. To Spinoza, there is no “before, after, or when” in God. There is just Being itself. And if we are to be conscious of the glory that is Being, that is God, why not revel in it?

As for the idea that terrible, unjust things happen – that princes die prematurely, like the ones who died this past week – Spinoza implicitly addressed this notion as well. He did so in the Appendix to Part I of the Ethics, in response to the so called “problem of evil,” which many today believe refutes the idea that there is a God. Nobody would say that the tragic, premature death of a beautiful soul is an example of “evil,” but it smacks of the same kind of injustice and unfairness that we as children are taught to view as antithetical to the divine will. So how would Spinoza explain the existence of horribly unfair and tragic events in a world in which the “intellectual love of God” is perhaps the highest commandment?

“To those who ask why God did not create all men that they should be governed only by reason, I give no answer but this: because matter was not lacking to him for the creation of every degree of perfection from highest to lowest; or, more strictly, because the laws of his nature are so vast, as to suffice for the production of everything conceivable by an infinite intelligence.”

There you have it – words about life from perhaps our species’ supreme rationalist. Perhaps it comforted him. Lord knows, it has satisfied me intellectually over the years. But some weeks, no amount of intellectualizing can satisfy us. Questions remain, emotional questions. Why George, and not me? Why couldn’t Mike at least live long enough for that retirement party, where he could allow all of his protégées to tell him how much we love him? Why couldn’t Curtis know what it’s like to be a mature adult with a family of his own? Is this really the product of an “infinite intelligence,” or is the problem that much of what occurs does not stem from ANY intelligence?

If Spinoza had just said “Shit happens,” perhaps that would have said more with less.