Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Perfect Holiday for the District of Columbia

October 31st.  Halloween.   Literally, it means “Holy Eve,” though there are some who consider it to be the opposite of holy.  I just don’t happen to be one of them.

Growing up, Halloween was one of my favorite nights of the year.   It was the one and only date on the calendar when I enjoyed dressing up.  It was the one time where I could collect all sorts of delicious teeth-rotting candy.  And it was the only day when I would knock on a door, only to see it opened by a normally staid adult who was delightfully decked out as a witch or a hippy.   

Halloween was especially gorgeous where I grew up and still live, in a suburb of Washington, D.C.   Kids would line the narrow streets as if they, and not the motorists, owned the place.  The air was brisk, but anything but frigid.  As bad as our summers or even winters can be, that’s how beautiful this city can get in the fall.    

When I think about Halloween in DC, I think first and foremost about my own childhood.  But I also think about the short little scene in the Exorcist, when Ellen Burstyn, dressed impeccably for a DC autumn evening, strolled down the streets of Georgetown, blithely passing by trick or treaters, before she became fixated on the face of Father Damien, one of my all-time favorite movie characters.  Playing in the background to that scene was the haunting sounds of Tubular Bells.  It all lasted less than a minute, but it was poifect – because it left us wanting more.

Halloween is a creepy festival.  But be honest, we kind of like creepy, don’t we?  Just look at the TV shows that people find addicting.  Breaking Bad?  Creepy.  Homeland?  Creepy.  House of Cards?  Creepy.  Mad Men?  Yup, that can be kind of creepy too.  I don’t know why it is that, as voyeurs, we seem to enjoy the “tricks” perhaps even more than the “treats,” but the evidence is fairly clear.  Maybe we just get tired of playing the role of mature adults every workday from 8 in the morning until 7 at night, so when it comes time to unwind and let our minds wander, we’re ready for a little touch of the twisted.

Let it be so.  Tonight, my wife and I will be home.  That means we’ll be on front-door detail, welcoming the neighborhood children with mouth-rotting candy and smiles.  So we’ll be the ones providing the treats.  As for the “tricks,” they will indeed be supplied by the television set.  You see, we were unable to watch the Republican Presidential debate when it was aired on Wednesday night and we still haven’t had the pleasure of hearing these luminaries deny climate change, scoff at immigration, ignore poverty, or waffle on whether raped women are entitled to abortions.  That’s what we have in store for us tonight. 

Trump will be dressed up as a Vaudeville comedian.   Fiorina as the character in Network who is “mad as hell and is not going to take it anymore.”   Bush as a middle aged man who always wanted to be old and tired, but still entitled.   And that’s not even a third of the boys and girls who’ll be in costume.

I have to admit, I’m kind of looking forward to it.  Sure it’s twisted entertainment, but I kind of like twisted entertainment.  Maybe we should have a little Tubular Bells loop in the background, and we’ll be all set.  Let the pandering begin.  I’m ready for whatever these wild and crazy pols will throw at me.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

First Cousins Enjoy a Night Together as Family

Haytham Younis and I co-founded the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington (JIDS) at around the time of Barack Obama’s first inauguration.  JIDS is devoted above all else to the principle that Jews and Muslims are first cousins in the family of Abraham.   In the last seven years, we have held several social action events and several dozen dialogues.   Yet I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed any of our sessions more than last Sunday’s meeting at the ADAMS Center, the Washington D.C. area’s largest mosque.

The topic of the meeting was “Pilgrimages in Judaism and Islam.”  The Jews on the panel discussed their first trips to the land of Israel.  On the Muslim side, we heard different descriptions of what it was like to go on the Hajj, as well as one testimonial about a spiritual voyage that led a woman to convert to Islam.  The session lasted for nearly three hours, which included a break for the Muslim prayers.  What was especially notable about this three-hour session was what we did NOT focus on: namely, the political situation in Israel and the tragedy of those who have recently lost their lives during the Hajj stampede.  Personally, I gave an address that lasted about 10-12 minutes, and I think I devoted no more than 20 or 30 seconds to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.  The Shayke who spoke the longest about the Haj devoted even less time to the stampede, despite the fact that literally thousands died in that tragedy.  We fully understand the importance of the topics we were sidestepping.   But we weren’t going to let anything get in the way of our goal, which was to pay a wholehearted tribute to the idea of a pilgrimage.    

I am reminded of a statement by a local rabbi who taught me that while Judaism used to be 10% about joy and 90% about oy, we’re trying to change that.   Last Sunday evening, we were looking for a joy/oy ratio of more like 99/1.  Lord knows that it’s not a ratio we could find on television.  If you want to obsess about injustice and war, death and destruction, hatred and fear, you need only turn on your television set or open a newspaper.  Your local newscast is a particularly good source.  Surely, it will begin with a story about a shooting, political scandal, or devastating weather event.   If it isn’t about pain, it’s not considered newsworthy.

Last Sunday’s event surely wouldn’t be considered newsworthy.   After all, we weren’t talking about pain; we were talking about reverence, which, as Spinoza would say, is never painful.  We were talking about the euphoria of standing in front of a simple stone wall that happens to be the most holy spot in the world for religious Jews, while surrounded by people engaged in the most passionate prayer imaginable.   And we were talking about the euphoria of walking in a massive group of people, all of whom were wearing the simplest white clothing, while approaching a relatively small black stone building that happens to be the most holy spot in the world for religious Muslims.  We spoke of how these experiences deepened our love for the Holy Name – how they made us feel peaceful, inspired, awestruck, blessed.   We spoke of the pure joy of losing our sense of isolation as we began to feel oneness with our fellow human beings.   Prime ministers, doctors, shopkeepers, sharecroppers – no matter who they are, as they approach the Western Wall or the Kaaba, their social status fades away.   The first person singular becomes the first person plural, and the “I” gives way to the “We.”  Finally, our attention turns to the One who is not plural – the Eternal Thou.   The Infinite One.   The God of Abraham.     

One of the things I learned last Sunday was that the reason why Muslims pray towards Mecca is not because Muhammad originally came from there.  Rather, an imam explained, Muslims first prayed towards Jerusalem, but then decided to pray towards Mecca in homage to the fact it was Mecca where Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Ishmael in accord with Allah’s directive.  We Jews, by contrast, are taught that it was Isaac, not his brother, who was almost sacrificed, and that this event took place in Jerusalem, not Mecca.  But what I found most striking about this story is not the differences between the two faiths, but their similarity: in both faiths, the single most influential prophet is celebrated above all else for his humility.  By recognizing Mecca as the place of greatest holiness, Muhammad wasn’t celebrating himself so much as his father Abraham, whose devotion to God represents the greatest of role models for Muhammad himself. 

Last Sunday’s JIDS session was a celebration of what Jews and Muslims have in common.  It was a reminder of how both peoples have shared the same beloved, and that this shared love is so powerful that it is capable of blinding us with euphoria despite all the suffering and injustice that is taking place throughout the world.  As a lawyer who fights fraud for a living and devotes much of his spare time to confronting the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, I am constantly reminded of so much that is wrong with human society.  I am also frequently reminded of the extent to which Jews and Muslims battle with each other with knives, guns, words, and visions.  But no spirit, and certainly not a successful human being, can live on “oy” alone.   We need to take time to recognize what is beautiful in this world, how lucky we are to be alive, and to whom we owe this life and all others.   Last Sunday, a group of Jews and Muslims did just that.  And what we found is that when you get right down to it, the love that binds us together is a whole lot more profound than the fear and resentment that split us apart.   

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Tuesday Night's Debate

It’s very important to me that politicians are authentic and not merely addicted to expediency.  I respect and even like some politicians who don’t agree with me on the issues.  I like them because they seem to be people of vision who argue for what they believe in, even if it means taking exception with most of the voters or with the power-brokers who bankroll elections.  

It’s also important to me that politicians can look at the status quo and identify important topics in which they want to do more than just a little reformist tinkering.  In other words, the politicians I respect aspire to be true change agents, which means not merely to talk about “hope and change” as abstract concepts but to advocate concrete measures for dramatically transforming our government and our society.

Finally, it’s extremely important to me that politicians have the utmost integrity.  I can’t abide even the appearance of impropriety.   I like politicians who bend over backgrounds to honor the spirit of morality.  In other words, I like politicians who don’t expect to be given special dispensations and privileges because of their self-perceived exalted status.  

Going into this past Tuesday’s debate, Bernie Sanders appeared to have a huge advantage over Hillary Clinton among Democratic voters who share those perspectives.   Whether you’re a political moderate or a socialist, you’d have to appreciate that Bernie doesn’t hold up a finger to see which way the wind is blowing.  Like Howard Cosell used to say, Bernie “tells it like it is” – or at least the way he sees it -- without worrying about how it will play in Peoria.  What’s more, when it comes to Bernie’s beliefs, he sees striking inequities in this country and he has been devoting his campaign to taking them on.  Whether you’re talking about tax policy or campaign finance reform, Bernie advocates transformational steps to support the needs of the poor and the middle class.  Plus, he has been a stalwart throughout his career in standing up to oligarchy.   Nobody would ever say that Bernie is a “Democrat in Name Only.”  As for ethics, I may be missing something, but I don’t recall anything even remotely scandalous about the behavior or the statements of Bernie Sanders, unless you go back to a stupid column that he wrote in 1972 regarding sexual fantasies.   That’s 43 years of scandal-free behavior, which is pretty impressive.  Besides, who am I to hold it against someone for writing a stupid column?

Given what I’ve said, it shouldn’t surprise you that if asked last weekend who I was likely to vote for in the primaries, I would have said Bernie Sanders.   But now?   I’m taking a serious look at supporting Hillary.   You see, I learned something about myself watching that debate.   It’s not enough for a politician to be uber-principled and squeaky clean.  Apparently, I feel in my bones that for politicians to be worthy of the term “statesman,” they must display an even more important trait.  They must be fighters!   That means that when they’re running for office, they must be “in it to win it” and display that will-to-win with abandon.   It also means that once they’re elected, they must be willing not only to compromise when appropriate but also to wage fierce, unrelenting, and pragmatic battles with their political opponents if that is what’s necessary to get the job done.  I’m not sure that Bernie has the right stuff to be called a “fighter” in those senses of the word.

Look.  I understand that when Bernie grabs a microphone on the stump, he speaks with passion.  But frankly, any good professor can speak passionately.  What does that prove?  It’s not hard to speak fervently when you’re addressing a group of adoring fans or a bunch of students who are depending on you for a good grade.   Where’s the accountability in that?  A true fighter is someone who goes to battle in an arena of accountability and demonstrates that their platform can withstand scrutiny.  The only way for that to happen is to get in the face of a worthy adversary and mix it up – offering an argument as well as a reply to the adversary’s counter-argument.  That’s certainly the way the system works in a court of law.  In the case of a fighter who is running for office, especially if they start out as the underdog, it’s rarely enough to elucidate their own positions.  An underdog candidate has to have the guts and the skill to tear into the positions or the conduct of their adversary. 

Sadly, I saw none of that fighting spirit from Bernie Sanders on Tuesday.

By contrast, Hillary isn’t afraid to mix it up.  On gun control, the one issue where her record is more within the mainstream of the Democratic Party than Bernie’s, Hillary let him have it.  She spoke forcefully against Bernie as being insufficiently progressive as an advocate of sensible gun laws.  It was a bold move on her part because she’s the heavy favorite and didn’t need to tear into him in order to emerge the favorite; she needed only to avoid taking major hits from Bernie.  The gun control issue came up early in the debate, and Hillary’s aggressive tone could easily have inspired Bernie to take an equally aggressive tone in response on a variety of issues in which Hillary was more vulnerable.  Under the circumstances, I could thus have excused Hillary for toning down the rhetoric with the hope that Bernie would return the favor.  But Hillary went for the jugular, as you’d expect her to if you’ve watched her over the years.  Hillary, you see, is a fighter, and she is very much “in it to win it.”   That opened the door for Bernie to fight back. 

So what did Bernie do?  He stayed with his stump speech.  He answered every question like he was alone on the podium, introducing himself and his policies to his adoring fans.  He made few if any efforts to differentiate himself from Hillary, let alone to put her on the defensive.   When it came to the moment of the night, an opportunity for him to address Hillary’s latest scandal (the one involving e-mails), he proclaimed not only that he wouldn’t enter the fray but that he’s sick and tired of ANYONE who dares to enter that fray.  

If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that Bernie Sanders was auditioning for the role of Sgt. Raymond Shaw in the Manchurian Candidate – with Hillary playing the Angela Lansbury role.  She could not have scripted more pro-Hillary answers than the ones that came out of Bernie’s mouth.  Either he was explicitly saying “It is inappropriate to mess with my opponent by ever addressing this issue” or “I am willing to address this issue but not in a way that could in any way embarrass my opponent or harm her chances in the general election.”  

Tell me, was this whole debate choreographed?  Because whether or not we deserved a boxing match or a hard-hitting football game, at least I thought we deserved better than WWF.

The truth is that I’m not a conspiracy theorist.  I don’t really believe that the Party Establishment entered into some sort of arrangement with Bernie whereby he’d play the role of the Washington Generals and Hillary would get to be the Harlem Globetrotters.  Bernie seems to me to be his own man, not someone else’s puppet.  But that doesn’t mean he is a true fighter.

Anyone can grab a microphone and speak loudly into it.  But it takes a fighter to get into the face of a master debater like Hillary Clinton and explain to the nation that if she is elected President, nobody could possibly know where she will stand on any issue because she always seem to advocate whatever position is popular with her core constituency du jour.  Bernie Sanders had every right to make that claim and to make it over and over again.  The path to victory involved making that claim, hearing Hillary’s retort, and then being mentally nimble enough to respond powerfully to that retort.  But instead, Bernie just punted.  Believe me, if the shoe were on the other foot, Hillary would be dry-needling Bernie right where it hurts the most -- as we observed in 2008 when she questioned whether the relatively inexperienced Barack Obama could be trusted to answer that fateful “3:00 a.m. call” in a strong and responsible way. 

I will withhold judgment on who will get my vote in next year’s Maryland Democratic Primary.  But as for who will win more delegates between Hillary and Bernie, I think that question was definitively answered on Tuesday night.  Hillary will be fighting for those delegates between now and the Convention.  Bernie may be fighting for his principles, but none of those principles apparently includes getting the nomination.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Gone Celebratin'!

I’ll be celebrating too much this weekend to offer up any substantive blogpost, so I encourage you now simply to celebrate with me.

You may want to celebrate the beauty of autumn.  Or the return of playoff baseball.  Or the fact that the Democratic candidates for President are about to debate.    Or the World Bank’s announcement that global poverty has dropped in the past three years by fully 200 million people, and less than 10 percent of the world’s population is now in poverty.

Me?   I’ll be celebrating all of those things.  But most importantly, I’ll be celebrating the wedding of my daughter, Hannah Michelle Spiro, of Bethesda, Maryland, to David Pfeferman, of Accokeek, Maryland.

And I’ll also be celebrating the fact that while this wedding is between a “Hannah” and a “David,” even if it were between a “Donald” and a “David” or a “Hannah” and an “Anna,” I could still attend that wedding in all 50 states.  That’s what I call progress.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi!

Not since Jan Brady uttered the immortal words “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!” has so much sturm and drang been based on so little.  I’d like to think that I follow politics pretty closely.  I regularly watch MSNBC, Fox News and CNN.  I read multiple newspapers every day.  I frequently read, the Huffington Post, and the Drudge Report.  I listen to talk radio during part of my commute – left wing, right wing, it’s all good.   To borrow from Cheech and Chong’s old Basketball Jones bit, “I love politics so much, I am like a junkie.”

But I still don’t have a clue about what makes Benghazi scandalous.

I realize that the last sentence puts me in some pretty questionable company.  It makes me sound like a “Clintonista.”   But trust me, I’m not in that camp.  I can actually get pissed off at the Clintons – or at least Bill and Hillary.   (I never get too annoyed with Chelsea  -- after all, if someone had offered me $75,000 a few years after I graduated from Stanford to talk about diarrhea, I would have probably taken the money too.)  What makes a true Clintonista is that no matter what Bill and Hill do or say, you have to go on TV and defend them.    Depending on the magnitude of the infraction, you’re free to start your sentence with “I certainly think what they did was regrettable.”   But that has to be followed by a relentless ten-minute argument against (a) anyone who thinks the conduct revealed character flaws, (b) anyone who thinks the conduct was illegal, and (c) the vast right-wing conspirators.  It’s OK if the arguments you make couldn’t hold up in a tenth grade logic class as long as you speak with certitude and passion.  When it comes to the Clintonistas, the old adage applies:  if you don’t have the facts, pound the law; if you don’t have the law, pound the table! 

So I’m no Bill and Hill apologist.  But I still don’t have a clue about what makes Benghazi scandalous.

This past Tuesday, Kevin McCarthy, the heir apparent to the Speaker of the House position, thought that he might shed some light on the situation.   Appearing on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program, McCarthy confirmed the only thing about Benghazi that has ever made sense to me -- that the Republicans have been desperately looking for as many scandals as they can find, and Benghazi seemed like a reasonable place to go fishing.   Here are McCarthy’s now immortal words:  “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?   But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee.  What are her numbers today?  Her numbers are dropping.   Why?  Because she’s untrustable.  But no one would have known any of that had happened had we not fought and made that happen.”    Hannity, himself a GOP insider, responded with equal veracity:   “I agree.  That’s something good.  I give you credit for that.  I give you credit for sequestration, I give you credit – I’ll give you credit where credit is due.”

I’ll give McCarthy credit too.   He was honest.  In fact, better than that, he was actually candid.   I’ve heard the excuse that he was “tired” from having given so many interviews, but then again, that sounds like the excuse of a college boy who has a few drinks and then tells his supposedly Platonic “friend” about how sexy she looks.   Drunk?  Yes.  Honest?  Hell yes.  Some eggs, you just can’t unscramble.

Does McCarthy’s statement establish, as a matter of fact, that there never was anything scandalous about Benghazi?   That the Republicans’ outrage was phony all along?  That the old “mon dieu” about Hillary’s mishandling of the situation in Libya was just one big fishing expedition and waste of taxpayer dollars?   Arguably not.  For me, what establishes those things is the combination of McCarthy’s statement and the fact that nobody – not Bill O, not Mark Levin, not Sean Hannity, not Matt Drudge, and certainly not the so-called “RINOs” who I also listen to – has ever been able to explain to me where the substance of the Benghazi scandal really resides.   Walter Mondale once said of Gary Hart, “That’s a nice bun, but where’s the beef?”  Yet for me, when it comes to Benghazi, I’m still looking even for the bun.  As for the beef, I think we heard all we need to from would-be Speaker McCarthy.

To think, that man wants to be two heartbeats away from the Presidency.   He may yet get his wish.  But he also has helped to ensure that one of those heartbeats will be Hillary’s.