Sunday, January 26, 2014

Saluting Two Bad-Asses from the Pacific Northwest

One of the most critical principles of Empathic Rationalism is that you have to recognize your biases.  Another such principle is that when appropriate, you had better announce them.
So here’s my bias: as a big supporter of Stanford football, I’ve been a Richard Sherman fan for years.  Ever since he began playing cornerback for my alma mater back in 2008, I’ve loved the guy’s skills and his style.  I used to call him “the Shermanator,” after the character in the American Pie movies who wet his pants at the senior prom.   I always thought of that character as a hoot, and that’s how I viewed Richard Sherman as well.  I didn’t know his life story.  I just knew that he had long hair, lots of flair, and a nose for being around the football.    

Three years ago, when Sherman left Stanford, he was known to virtually nobody outside of that college.  In the last year or two, however, he became known by football fans all over the United States.  And now, he is known by virtually every American who is tuned in to pop culture.  Unquestionably, the Shermanator is the best cornerback in the world, but that doesn’t get you noticed.   (The job of the cornerback is to shadow world class sprinters and make sure they don’t catch the ball, even though they know where they are running and you don’t.  But since cornerbacks play defense instead of offense, they tend not to become household names.)   What does get you noticed is when, after you make the critical play that leads your team into the Super Bowl, you get on national television and show the kind of raw emotion that you need in order to play that position at the highest levels.  That is precisely what Sherman did, and for a couple of days, he was the talk of the sports world, and beyond.

Sherman’s epic rant wasn’t his only public outburst that afternoon.  Shortly after his game-winning play, he turned to the opposing quarterback and made a choke sign.  Then, perhaps a half hour after the game was over, he addressed the media again and referred to an opposing receiver as “mediocre” several times.  It was the kind of braggadocio that we’ve all come to expect from Muhammad Ali and pro wrestlers, but not from competitors in team sports.  Sure enough, critics have come out of the woodwork, chomping at the opportunity to discuss Sherman’s lack of class, respect for the game, and respect for those who play the game.  Others have been even less kind, making racial statements and calling him a “thug.”

Then there are folks like me.  I loved the rant.   I loved the raw emotion.  I loved the reminder that these are gladiators, not rabbis.  They play a sport known for violent collisions – a sport where you are encouraged to pulverize your opponent, as long as you do so with certain parts of your body colliding with certain parts of your opponent’s.   Richard Sherman isn’t known as a particularly violent player.  What he does, he does with finesse.  He’s a big man who runs like the wind and who has epic hand-eye coordination.  Plus, he is a student – a hell of a student – and he seems always to know where his opponent is running because he studies game films.   Richard Sherman is a beautiful player who gets himself so hopped up on adrenaline that he is ready to explode at all times.   But that’s only when he is dealing with the world of sports.  In the game of life, Richard Sherman is a man from Compton, California, a part of South Los Angeles known primarily for producing gang-bangers, who graduated second in his class, went on to earn a degree from Stanford, and now devotes a lot of his time to helping people in poor communities.  That is who Richard Sherman truly is – not some character who rants after a big game.

My dad would have liked Richard Sherman.   Dad was a prototypical Jewish intellectual.  He grew up poor in Brooklyn, but studied hard and was able to get a degree from Columbia University.   He was also a sports fan.  And one of the things that this humble, quiet man taught me about sports is that it’s OK to rip on professional athletes when they play badly.  He thought that was the fan’s prerogative – one of the benefits of paying the price of admission.  Dad recognized that part of the entertainment package of professional sports is that fans are allowed to release their raw emotions by calling the players “bums.”  And if fans can do it, why can’t the players?   

Seriously, is there really a problem when athletes who make several million dollars a year engage in smack talk against each other?   Or is that just part of the fun of watching gladiators in the ring?  My dad would have opted for the latter alternative.   

So, apparently, would Steve Novick.  Those who have read this blog for many years know the name.   We are close friends who went to law school together back in the 80s.  The school was Harvard, and Novick started there at the age of 18, having gone directly from middle school to college when his local high school was closed for a month due to lack of funding.  Today, Novick is a City Commissioner in Portland, Oregon and an extremely progressive voice in local politics.   He was moved by Sherman’s outburst and the ridiculous reaction to it.  So here was Novick’s response, which was posted on his official blog, and which took an incredible amount of guts to write :

Just as Sherman is a bad-ass athlete who fights for the little guy, Novick is a bad-ass politician who fights for the little guy and isn’t afraid to tell truth to power.  The difference is that Novick truly IS a little guy – 4’8” in fact, which is only about 19 inches shorter than Sherman.  But both of these men haven’t forgotten where they come from and how they have responsibilities to help out others who don’t have the same privileges that they have.  

They also have great senses of humor.  And a faculty known to the ancient Greeks as spiritedness, or “thymos.”  The interesting thing about the faculty of thymos is that it manifests itself in two very different ways – megalothymia and isothymia.  The former refers to the drive to be superior to others; the latter refers to the drive to make sure that the “self” or the “other” gets its just deserts.  Obviously, the former is commonly associated with dictators and lunatics, and you can see why.  But we tend to forget about the latter – and it can manifest itself in a wholesome and socially-invaluable impulse to fight for victims of injustice (including oneself, if appropriate) or other blessed causes.

Sherman is now commonly associated with megalothymia.  And perhaps there are those who have done battle with Novick over the years who would say the same about him.   But I know that’s not an accurate word to use in Novick’s case, and from what I can gather, it doesn’t do justice to Sherman either.  More precisely, it pertains only to a superficial side of the guy – one that is associated with the way he psyches himself up to perform shut-down-corner island.  If my sources are correct, Sherman typically manifests his thymos as iso-thymia.  And that is a point worth thinking about, because as long as that quality is harnessed sanely (meaning with some degree of self-control), it can produce society’s true heroes.

I am not here to knock those athletes and politicians who speak guardedly when a microphone is put in their face or a pen is inserted in their hand.   We all have to choose our battles in life, and spontaneous outbursts often come back to haunt us.  If you think Sherman has faced ridicule this week, just wait to see what will happen if he plays poorly in the Super Bowl.  As for Novick, it is fair to say that some of his more outspoken criticisms against beloved figures like then-candidate Barack Obama and U2 frontman Bono might have cost him the nomination for U.S. Senate when he ran in 2008.   

Still, when all is said and done, I salute both of these rebels for their authenticity and for having their hearts in the right place.  They will surely continue to make enemies and not a few mistakes.  But at the end of the day, our world will be way better off because they’re in it.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

When Politics and Football Come Together

Forty seven years ago, the Packers and Chiefs played in the first Super Bowl.  And now, the Super Bowl has reached the point where it is watched by roughly 110 million Americans, far more than any other event.   In this country, the National Football League is king.

The Super Bowl audience is composed of folks who watch for the commercials, for the halftime extravaganza, or simply because they’re attending a party.  And of course, when this year’s game is played on February 2nd, there will be plenty of real football fans in the audience.   But tomorrow, when the conference championship games are played, that’s the biggest treat for the football fan, because we’ll get to watch four excellent teams duke it out for the right to play in the Super Bowl.   And we football fans will be the only ones watching.  As a result, the announcers will be tailoring their telecasts just for us, which means that they will be mixing in plenty of football jargon and challenging our knowledge of the sport.  For football fanatics like me, the conference championship games are must see TV.

Personally, I think the crown jewel is usually the National Football Conference championship game.  For some reason, it tends to be played between two ultra-hard-hitting teams, often in inclement weather.  The venues include Chicago, Green Bay, New York, Philadelphia -- and back when I was a kid, the “coolest” venue of them all, Bloomington, Minnesota.   This year, the NFC Championship game will be played by two teams known primarily for their defense, unlike the AFC Championship game, which is being billed as a battle of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks.  Defensive struggles tend to be hard-hitting and low-scoring affairs, which are commonly decided by a single play.  The team that moves on to play in the Super Bowl emerges essentially as the survivor of a war, rather than as the more skilled set of athletes.  

The NFC Championship has come to mean more to me than a mere football game.  It also represents an important part of my outlook on American politics.  Every four years, you see, we elect a President from a slate of two candidates, a Democrat and a Republican.  Predictions are made as to who will win based on all sorts of factors – domestic policy achievements, foreign policy achievements, domestic policy views, foreign policy views, etc.  But at the risk of sounding simplistic, when I am asked to predict a winner, I will typically begin with the same response:  Think about which of the two candidates Americans would rather listen to as the analyst for an NFC Championship game, and that will be your winner.  It is a test that works virtually every time.
Just think about the Presidents who have been elected during the last half-century, which almost perfectly coincides with the Super Bowl era.

1964 – LBJ, the foul-mouthed, regular guy from football crazy Texas defeats the uber-serious Barry Goldwater.  The only problem with having LBJ in the booth is that the damned FCC would censor so much of his colorful language.

1968 and 1972 – Richard Milhous Nixon defeats Hubert Horatio Humphrey and then George McGovern.   You can say what you want about Nixon’s paranoia, but he came alive when the subject was football.  Not only did he play JV football in high school, but as President, Nixon actually made recommendations to the coach of the Redskins as to which plays the Skins should use.  As for HHH, NFC Championship Games aren’t for “Happy Warriors.”   And they’re certainly not for bleeding hearts like McGovern, who comes across more as a minister than a football analyst.

1976 – Carter beats Ford.  Now this is the one and only exception to the rule.   Ford was an All American football player, whereas President Carter is best known for his “malaise” speech.  Then again, when you attain the White House because you were nominated by a guy who was essentially kicked out of office, I’m not sure Ford had much of a fair chance.  Besides, as LBJ once said about Ford, “He’s a nice fellow but he spent too much time playing football without a helmet.”  By the time he ran for office, nobody wanted to hear Ford in the broadcast booth any more than they’d want to hear from Carter.

1980 and 1984 – Ronald Reagan demolishes Carter and then Mondale.  Of course he did.   Reagan was a professional sports announcer for the Chicago Cubs – and apparently, that was more of a credential than being the Governor of California.

1988 – George H.W. Bush beats Michael Dukakis – So in Bush I, we have another guy from football crazy Texas who in fact seems to love all sports.  And he ran against someone who looks like he would like to write an essay denouncing football for being inappropriately violent and unworthy of the intellectual capacities of the human being.   

1992 and 1996 – Bill Clinton defeats George H.W. Bush and Robert Dole.   Once again, those weren’t fair fights.  Just as Democrats couldn’t help but be charmed by Ronald Reagan in the broadcast booth, Republicans would surely feel the same way about Clinton.  The guys knows sports cold, loves the human id, and can talk with the best of them.  

2000 and 2004 – George W. Bush defeats Gore and Kerry.    Remember that when he ran for President, Gore spoke like a robot.  No football fan wants to listen to a robot “color” commentator (which is another word for an analyst).  As for Kerry, the only sport that rich boy  was associated with was wind surfing.   That’s the opposite of football.  By contrast, W – another Texan – owned a baseball team.  And believe me, this guy is a football fan, too.  Did I say he was from Texas?

2008 and 2012 – Barack Obama defeats John McCain and Mitt Romney.   The McCain who ran in 2008 was the crotchety “get off my lawn” McCain, not the dynamo who almost beat W in 2000.  And Romney?  He ran as the CFO of Andromeda, Inc. (named after that Galaxy where the corporation is centered).   Obama, by contrast, once said that when he leaves office, he wants to be an ESPN sports anchor.

I’m telling you, my friends, as long as one of the candidates isn’t a hand-picked successor of a disgraced, virtually-impeached President, the NFC Championship test works every time.  And my guess is, it will work in 2016 as well, which is why Hillary is vulnerable.

That test also explains why I had been thinking prior to the last few weeks that Chris Christie would make such a formidable candidate.  I’ve neither read nor heard anything about his interest in sports, but I can just intuit that he is a huge (no pun intended) football fan who would be really comfortable in the broadcast booth.  But that’s not enough, is it?   Plenty of articulate guys love football.  That doesn’t mean they’d all make effective analysts.  Once the fans start to doubt whether your “straight talk” is really straight, we don’t want that guy in the booth calling a game.   Objectivity and fair-mindedness come before anything else.  If you can’t trust your football analyst, you’d rather listen to dead air.  

Seriously, football fans, who didn’t trust John Madden when he used to do the NFC Championship games?  And who doesn’t trust Troy Aikman, who will doing the game tomorrow.

I’ve the 49ers in an upset.   Enjoy the telecast.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A Good Week for Hillary Clinton

One of the things that cracks me up about the GOP is how its leaders love to wax eloquent about conservative principles, but when the time comes to nominate a candidate, the Party almost invariably nominates a centrist.  Nixon?  He was clearly a centrist.  He created the EPA, passed the Clean Act, founded the Legal Services Corporation, opened up relations with China, and instituted wage and price controls.   Ford was anything but a right-wing ideologue, which is precisely why Nixon nominated him as his Vice President.   Reagan?  Fine, he was a true conservative, but he was also a politician of remarkable talents who was so far and above the field in terms of charisma and vision that his Party couldn’t help but nominate him.  Then, after his eight years in office, Reagan’s party has given us Bush Sr., followed by Robert Dole, Bush Jr., McCain and Romney – none of whom is likely to wow the crowd at an American Spectator gala.  Let’s face it; when push comes to shove, this Party wants to win elections.  And with respect to Presidential elections, it recognizes the need to appeal to moderate voters.  Even Reagan, the one exception to my point, showed a tremendous ability to appeal to Democrats.
With that in mind, identifying the GOP front runner for the 2016 Presidential nomination hasn’t exactly been a challenge.  Chris Christie has no chance to win the Iowa straw poll.  He won’t be the darling of right-wing talk radio.   And he won’t run away with the nomination from start to finish.  Then again, neither did McCain nor Romney.  At the end of the day, despite the total lack of enthusiasm for them from the GOP base, they were the ones giving the big speech at the Convention.  And until this week, it sure looked like Christie would be their successor.  

Conventional wisdom has held that the Tea Party would kill his nomination by threatening not to support him in the General Election.  But I never bought into that.  By the time the campaign begins in earnest, the GOP scandal mongers will be in force, crusading against anything and everything that they can come up with against the Democratic nominee.  We’ve all heard ad infinitum about Willie Horton, Whitewater, phony claims of inventing the Internet, Swift Boats, Reverend Wright and Birthergate.  I  would lay heavy odds that by the time 2016 rolls around, the GOP faithful will be steeped in every bit of minutia involving Benghazi.  They’ll want to beat that damned Hillary in the worst way.  And if that means nominating the Judas who had the unmitigated gall to put his arms around Obama’s torso when the GOP needed everyone’s hands around his neck, so be it.  As Al Davis would say, GOP politics is all about “Just win, baby.”

So yes, once I saw a few weeks ago that Christie was actually running slightly ahead of Hillary Clinton in the polls and every other potential GOP candidate was running well behind her, I assumed that it was Christie’s nomination to lose.   Believe it or not, this past week confirmed my suspicions.   Am I making an assumption that the investigation of the GW Bridge scandal will exonerate Christie?  No, I am making no assumptions either way on that front.  (This page is a law-free zone, after all.)  But what I am saying is that quite clearly, Fox News, which covers to the nth degree even the tiniest scandal involving a Democratic politician, wanted little part of this one.   And while Fox News was generally avoiding the matter, GOP moderates like Rudy Giuliani and Joe Scarborough took to the airwaves in Christie’s defense.   He not only gets the benefit of their doubts about the “what did he know and when did he know it” issues, but he also gets praise for the way he handled his press-conference.   In short, the moderate wing of the Party wants to lift up the guy, the mainstream TV wing of the Party clearly doesn’t want to bury the guy, and the far right wing of the Party just doesn’t much matter when it comes to nominating a guy.  

A lot can happen between now and 2016.   Even on the Democratic side, one cannot know for sure who will get the nomination.  But this much is clear: if the nominees are indeed Clinton and Christie, neither will be scandal proof.  And perhaps because of that, the electorate might say the hell with all the scandal talk and consider instead their ideologies, their experience levels, and their talents.   In other words, each side’s ability to run the other through the muck might paradoxically inoculate the electorate to negative campaigning and actually enrich the high-mindedness of the discourse during the weeks approaching the election.

As a Democrat, I see that as a welcome development.   For when I compare candidates in terms of which one’s ideology is more in touch with that of the American public, which one is most experienced in terms of foreign policy, domestic policy, and running a large organization, which one has demonstrated the most political and intellectual talents, and which one is the most respected by Washington insiders, I don’t see anyone on the Republican side who can hold a candle to Hillary Clinton.   Do you? 

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Reflections on Israel … from La-La Land

I read once that Adolf Hitler rarely read two books in a row on the same topic.  Consequently, as part of my continuing effort to distinguish myself from Adolf in every way possible, when given time to study, I try to read at least three books in a row on the same topic.  

This past week, I was able to put that philosophy into practice during a trip to Los Angeles.  I brought with me three books concerning the state of Israel generally and the issue of Zionism in particular: My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit; What Does a Jew Want, by Udi Aloni; and Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust, by Elhanan Yakira.  Taken together, they provided a spellbinding look at the trials and tribulations of the Zionist project.

Shavit’s book is a detailed look at the history of Israel written by a prominent Israeli journalist who finds himself not too far from the center of the political spectrum when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  It is truly a must read for anyone who gives even half a damn about Judaism, Israel, the Palestinians, world peace … did I leave anything out? 

I could certainly quibble about Shavit’s book.  Like every other work that focuses on the Middle East, it was hardly free from bias.  But it was beautifully written, often insightful, and a whole lot more balanced than most of what you’ll find on the topic.  It is no wonder that some are calling this the most significant book about Israel since Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem came out a generation earlier.  Personally, I think Shavit’s work has the potential to be even more influential than Friedman’s; at least that is my hope.

Like most Israeli Jews, Shavit has supported a two-state solution.  He is also a staunch critic of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.  What is especially notable about his work, however, is that, despite his lifelong support of Zionism, he has come to believe that the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians may have been doomed even before the Occupation began.  This belief, in turn, stems from the view that because the creation of Israel inherently involved the forced displacement of Palestinians from their native land, the Palestinians and other Arabs have never accepted the legitimacy of a Jewish State in the region and never will.  Thus, Shavit concludes, even if the Occupation were to stop tomorrow, we are still dreaming if we think that would likely bring about peace.

It is a sobering message, one that shook me up quite a bit.  But what was even more sobering was to go from Shavit’s book to Aloni’s.  Udi Aloni is a Jewish Israeli-American filmmaker who unabashedly opposes the idea of a Jewish State.   In What Does a Jew Want?, he argues that those “left” leaning Zionists who claim to be pro-peace and anti-occupation are nothing more than narcissistic tools of the status quo.  The only truly pro-peace position, he claims, is to support a “one-state” solution in which Jews and Palestinians live together under democratic rule, and if that state happens to be primarily Arab, so be it.  

Some of the same points that Shavit made about the inherently destabilizing nature of Zionism were made even more strongly by Aloni.  Clearly, he would see Shavit as someone who is only recently beginning to open his eyes to the fact that the early Zionists opened up a Pandora’s Box in the region, and the contemporary Zionists are blinding themselves to the horrors contained within that box.  As a Zionist myself, I am well aware of Aloni’s extremism and biases, but I felt compelled to open-mindedly digest his words nonetheless.

Fortunately for the state of my mood, this three-book literary adventure ended with the words of Elhanan Yakira.  Like Shavit, he too is a Jewish Israeli who favors a two-state solution and the end of the Occupation.   But he did not attempt to write the same kind of balanced best-seller that Shavit had in mind.  Shavit’s task was to point out one problem after another with anti-Zionist reasoning and, in particular, to show how anti-Zionists have attempted to use the Holocaust as a tool for the delegitimization of the state of Israel.   I’ll confess that Yakira’s book was a breath of fresh air for me.  Finally, someone was writing from the standpoint of how it isn’t just the pro-Israel Jews who have undermined the prospects for peace; the Palestinians shoulder their share of the blame as well.  They, too, have the capacity, in other words, to strive to accept two states for two peoples, rather than simply to voice their position that the Jews don’t have a moral right to any state in the region.

In certain subtle ways, Yakira’s historical assertions differed materially from those of Shavit.  For example, Shavit was much more critical of the Zionists who came to Palestine during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  He wrote as if those Jews were blind to the dignity and the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians.  By contrast, the impression I received from Yakira was that the early Zionists were well aware of the Palestinian neighbors and strove to reach a legitimate, peaceful compromise with them.   Which account is more accurate?   I really don’t know.   But what I do know is that as long as our focus is on the problems of the past and how to assign blame for them, we are not likely to reach agreement, whereas if can concentrate on visions of a peaceful future and the various potential ways of getting there, maybe we can make some progress.  I say that because, regardless of whether you favor a one-state or two-state solution, you will find that the path to either destination is largely the same.  It involves mutual respect, recognition of shared religious and moral traditions, and, last but not least, the love of thy neighbor.   As friends of peace, no matter what your vision may be, we must stop calling the “other” an enemy, and speak instead as if we are all members of the same Abrahamic family.  

I suppose it is too much to ask of each of you to read all three of the books mentioned above.  But I would beseech you to read Shavit’s book at the very least.  That should be enough to get you to struggle with your own attitudes concerning the region of the world formerly known as “The Promised Land.”  I plan on visiting that incredible place at some point during the winter of 2014 or the spring of 2015.  My life has never been the same since I first set foot on that soil in 1981.  For all of its problems, it remains, for me, the most riveting place on earth.