Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Tribute to a Soldier

I take you back to the early days of the GOP presidential primaries of 2000.   The combatants were preparing to face Vice President Al Gore, who was yet to be known for an “Inconvenient Truth” and a righteous crusade against climate change and was struggling to find his way out of Bill Clinton’s shadow.   I was watching the GOP primaries closely and found myself thinking that, for the first time in my life, I was prepared to vote Republican.

Vote Republican?  Me?  It didn’t seem possible.  As things turned out, it never happened.  The GOP nominated W, and I passionately supported Gore – even the robotic, ’00 version.  But I will never forget that early in the primaries, I had actually become enamored by a GOP candidate.  He was a crusty veteran whose politics leaned far to the right of mine.  And yet this man brimmed with so much integrity, courage, earnestness, and patriotism that I felt compelled to pull the lever in this favor if only his party was willing to give him a chance. 

Since 2000, my opinion of Al Gore has improved somewhat while my infatuation with John McCain has largely subsided.  But I still have a tremendous amount of respect for McCain.  I respect his courage in enlisting in the military.  I respect his refusal as a POW to accept an early release unless every American POW captured before him was similarly released; in fact, I am in awe of that act of sacrifice.   I respect the fact that despite years of torture at the hands of the Vietnamese, he maintained a strong will.  I respect that upon his release, he mastered the art of politics.   I respect that as a legislator, he became a supreme deal maker, honored by Democrats and Republicans alike. 
I respect that he has come to be known for a number of causes and that he is willing to support those causes regardless of whether they are popular with the leaders of his political party.   I respect that he has earned the moniker of a “Maverick” at a time when the vast majority of his fellow Senators and Congressmen come across as herd animals.  I respect that he is an American first and a Republican second.

Candidate McCain must live for the rest of his life with his bizarre decision to nominate Sarah Palin to be one heartbeat away from the Oval Office.  Senator McCain should also be held accountable for supporting that monstrosity of monstrosities commonly known as the Iraq War.  Truly, it boggles my mind that despite all of his firsthand knowledge of the horrors of combat, Senator McCain seems so willing to get us involved in military conflict.

I could go on cite other reasons why, if given a crystal ball in 2000 before I was given a ballot, I would have enthusiastically supported Gore over McCain.  But I will resist that temptation because there is another side of the equation that every American, and especially every Democrat, needs to understand.  It has to do with what it means to earn respect.  For his personal story, his sense of service and his integrity, this man should be a hero to all of us.  If only we on the Democratic side of the aisle had leaders with the character of a John McCain, just think how different our nation would be right now.

Last Friday night I was attending services at the Hill Havurah, the one-and-only Jewish congregation on Capitol Hill.  When it was time for the Mi Shebeirach, the Jewish prayer of healing, the rabbi (my daughter) asked the congregants to identify the names of individuals who are in need of healing.  And when the rabbi looked at me, I said, “Evelyn Spiro [my mother] and John McCain, who I don’t know.”  

I wish I did know him, but we’ve never met.  If I were given that opportunity, however, I think I'd greet him with a salute.  I would honor his service as a man who has soldiered on – in Vietnam, on Capitol Hill, and now, in waging a battle against one of the toughest opponents known to humankind, aggressive brain cancer.   It’s fitting that this is same opponent recently stared down another lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy – another passionate patriot who deserves the respect of all Americans regardless of whether they would vote with him 90 percent of the time or 10 percent of the time.   

I would like to leave you with a clip from a moment in McCain’s life that will always be a defining one.  While at a rally during his 2008 Presidential campaign, a woman said to the candidate that his opponent, Barack Obama, was “an Arab.”  Most candidates would have figured out a way to sidestep the comment.  But not Soldier McCain.  He addressed it head on.  Here’s the clip.

I would like to wish Senator John McCain the best and most successful fight of his life in his effort to recover from cancer.  

The Empathic Rationalist will return in mid-August.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Technologically, as all of my fellow new car buyers know, the American society has been evolving in leaps and bounds.   Intellectually and morally, however, we seem to be sprinting in place.  At best. 

We now are down to zero news outlets that are respected by substantially all of the public – zero reporters, zero anchors, zero newspapers, zero television networks.   Our society has become ideologically factionalized, and each faction has separated prominent media outlets into one of two categories – (a) the reputable, go-to sources and (b) the sources worthy of mockery and ridicule.  If a story is reported in the first set of outlets, it is presumptively believed; if reported in the second set of outlets, it is presumptively “fake news.”  Notably, while we are divided as to which outlet should be placed in which category, we are unified in this one respect: if we learn about a report and we can’t say that it comes from a source that shares our bias, we don’t trust it.  Indeed, a toxic mix of mistrust and cynicism has now become the pre-dominant American ethos. To me, that is worthy of a Greek tragedy.

I was thinking about the above state of affairs this past Monday night while watching the made-for-TV spectacle known as the Home Run Derby.  The Derby is played the night before the Major League Baseball All-Star Game and involves eight of the top home-run hitters in the game.  In each round of the competition, the brutes are given four minutes to bash as many balls over the fence as possible, and if they hit at least two homers over 440 feet, they get 30 extra seconds to smash the horsehide.   This year’s winner was Aaron Judge, a rookie from a small town in California’s San Joaquin Valley, who seems to be an all-around great player with a phenomenal ability to hit home runs (he already has 30).   Oh yeah, I almost forgot –this freak is 6’7” and 282 pounds and his body seems perfectly proportioned.   Plus, when he’s interviewed, he comes across as perfectly nice and humble.  In short, this guy is right out of central casting: as in, “Cast me a kid who talks and looks like Mickey Mantle, except that he is bigger and stronger – sort of a humbler version of Babe Ruth, but an even better athlete.   And make sure that like the Babe and the Mick, he plays for the most iconic franchise in all of sports.”  Commentators have compared Aaron Judge to a comic strip superhero, and after watching him hit literally 3.9 miles worth of home runs on Monday night (including four balls over 500 feet), I can now fully appreciate the hype.

But here’s the thing.  Superheroes are beloved by virtually everyone other than arch villains and their minions.   And I’m not sure our society as a whole is willing to embrace anybody these days.  As discussed, we won’t embrace a newsman.  We certainly won’t embrace a politician.   And I don’t even think we’re prepared to embrace an entertainer.   Such is the price of living in a culture where mistrust and cynicism reign supreme.

Maybe Aaron Judge takes steroids.  Or beats his girlfriend.   Or votes for the “wrong” party.   Or drives drunk.  Or maybe it’s just the old Stones lyric that “He can’t be a man because he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me.”   One way or another, we’ve become so cynical about people that we refuse innocently to embrace those in our midst with the greatest potential star power.   Instead, we hold back our affection, convinced that at some point these apparent “superheroes” will be revealed for what they truly are – deeply flawed, and perhaps even more profoundly screwed up than the rest of us.  After all, doesn’t every “star” eventually show up on the cover of the National Enquirer looking like a zombie and acting like a pig?

Part of the problem is traceable to three of the domains I mentioned above – our technology, our media, and our ideological divides.  Today, it seems, pretty much everything is captured on tape, and there’s always a media outlet to report it.  Public figures can’t expect privacy.  They’re always under a microscope.  And how many human beings, let alone “superstars,” can withstand microscopic scrutiny?   Plus, we now live in an ideological hot house, in which anyone with an opportunity to affect the public political discourse is expected to do so, lest we start to perceive them as vacuous or self-absorbed.   Then again, once they do announce themselves as people with actual social and political agendas, a large swath of the country will turn on them for being a troglodyte (i.e., a conservative) or a commie (i.e., a liberal).  

I wonder if Michael Jordan would be so universally beloved if he came on the scene today.  Or Kate Hepburn.   Or Ben Franklin.   Or even George Washington.   Cynicism and mistrust are irresistible objects, and I’m not sure we have any immovable forces to take them on. 

But you never know.  Maybe Aaron Judge can prove me wrong.  That smiling Goliath effortlessly bashed baseballs and the competition into oblivion, and yet when it was time for him to cash in (i.e., get interviewed by an adoring TV commentator), he refused the interview unless he was allowed to share the spotlight with his batting practice pitcher.  Aw shucks America, this farm boy is perfect.  He’s begging us to let him – to let ANYONE – into our collective hearts while we still have a chance.   We’ve already decided we can’t all agree on the need to protect our climate from destruction.   Can we at least agree on the value of celebrating a humble man-child from Linden, California?

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Empathic Rationalism and Its Discontents

We all want our philosophies to be “cool.”  Unfortunately, I’m afraid, some of us don’t measure up in that regard.  Take Empathic Rationalism.  It may be “sensible,” but cool it’s not.   To qualify for that label, you need a counter-cultural element, something rebellious.  And what can be less counter-cultural or rebellious than rationalism and empathy?  At least to the thinking person, they both sound as innocuous as peace, love and apple pie.

Fortunately, Empathic Rationalists don’t have to be prisoners of conformity or “conventional” wisdom.   Our charge is to honor the voice of reason and the face of the “other.”  But there is nothing in that charge about closing our minds to the teachings of rebels, accepting societal values slavishly, or deciding that seemingly inexorable trends are necessarily positive ones.  Just consider, for example, the classic status-quo worshiper: the guy who places his trust in the ability of free market economics to solve all environmental threats, or the principles that the arc of history bends toward justice and the fruits of science bend toward progress, or the idea that consumerist values are more benign than not, or the notion that the human survival instinct will always make even the most advanced weapons technology controllable and ultimately docile.  Do you find such a person “rational”?  Or are we simply talking about a modern day Pollyanna?    

Empathic Rationalism merely prescribes the faculties we must consult in reaching our ultimate goals.  As for what those goals are, that is left up to the individual mind and heart.  And as for the means that we use in accessing the voice of reason or in seeking out the face of the “other,” that also is left open to the individual.   This is why it is one thing to say “Empathic Rationalism” champions love, but only some of its followers champion “tough love.” This philosophy is deeply libertarian in the sense that it recognizes the importance of individual freedom and the danger of imposing too many iron-clad rules.   That is why, periodically, it is important for the Empathic Rationalist to wade into the waters of that most provocative disciple of freedom who ever put pen to paper.  I’m talking about the crazy syphilitic from Leipzig, who stopped writing only when his insanity overwhelmed his genius, but whose total madness at the end of 1888 eerily announced the birth of an even more insane German the next year.  The latter is the man who came universally to epitomize a word that the crazy syphilitic frequently discussed in laudatory terms.  That word is evil.  This “more insane” German is Adolf Hitler.  And the disciple of freedom/literary genius/crazy syphilitic is Friedrich Nietzsche.  

Nobody has ever described his philosophy in less “Empathic Rationalist” terms than did Nietzsche, and yet I will always recommend his works to any kindred spirit.  For he is our antithesis, and if we wish to attain our potential as Empathic Rationalists, we must not ignore him.  Rather, we must contemplate what he has to offer and seek a synthesis that incorporates the wisdom he teaches while recognizing that his philosophy could be as dangerous and wrong as it could be profound and right. 
Personally, I’ve loved Nietzsche ever since college, when I was directed to read him by a philosophy professor.  More than any other author known to me, Nietzsche was “cool.”  He dared call bullshit on “civilized society,” which every adolescent viscerally knows is largely full of it.  It was in reading Nietzsche that I felt most at peace because he was telling me in the strongest possible terms that it was OK, indeed commanded, to feel alienated from modern culture.  Marx, who I also read as a collegian, made vaguely similar arguments, but Nietzsche’s hit home so much better.  He would point out the hypocrisy in religion, the stench of consumerism and pseudo-intellectuality ... in short, the cankers in culture.  Nietzsche appealed to my sense that what is “highest” is actually lowest, and what is “lowest” is pointing the way to the highest – a path that has hardly been traveled but that is up to us, the “free-thinkers,” to create. 

Nietzsche was like a muse to me.  He made me want to create – with words, with thoughts, even with deeds.  It’s not surprising that when I became a ba’al teshuva (aka a born-again religious Jew) in the year after graduating from college, I was in Israel, listening to the lectures of Orthodox rabbis while also secretly reading Nietzsche books.  I couldn’t allow myself to make a decision as fateful as becoming religious without also consulting the works of my “Antichrist,” who once wrote a book with that name.  I knew that Nietzsche had stumbled upon the truth.  Not the whole truth by any stretch of the imagination, but a significant part of it – and especially the part that you’re least likely to hear from your grade school teachers, your parents, or your rabbis.

My relationship with Nietzsche deepened in of all places, Harvard Law School.  Surely, Nietzsche would have viewed that place as rotten to the core.  But well outside the institution’s core was a mischievous, tenured law professor named Richard Parker.  Known as a constitutional law scholar, Parker taught a class called “Ideology and Legitimization in Constitutional Law” and many of the most rebellious (Nietzschean) students were enrolled.  At the very beginning of the first day of class, Parker said, “Alright.  You have three choices for this class, and we’re going to take a vote.  Choice One is that we talk about ideology and legitimization in constitutional law.  Choice Two is that we talk about ideology and legitimization, but not necessarily confined to constitutional law.  And Choice Three is that we talk about whatever the fuck we want.  OK, raise your hand if you want Choice One ....”   Needless to say (a) the vote was unanimous; and (b) Parker is almost as cool as Nietzsche.   My entire grade in the class was based on my presentation, which if you can’t tell by now entirely dealt with Nietzsche and had nothing remotely to do with the law.  In preparation for the presentation, I read every book the crazy syphilitic wrote.  And yes, I got an “A” for the class.  :)

Years later, I decided to do another presentation about Nietzsche.  This time it was written for the Washington Spinoza Society at a time when we were meeting in the auditorium of the Washington Goethe Institute.  (That wonderful place gave us free access to their auditorium for a number of years based on the idea that if Goethe were alive today and living in Washington DC, the first thing he’d do is create a society devoted to his favorite philosopher, the man who Nietzsche called his own “twin” – Spinoza.)  I wrote a play entitled “Spinoza and Nietzsche: the Meeting,” which you can find on my website or just by googling that name.  What I remember most about the play had nothing to do with its content.  Our society met every month, and I decided to surprise everyone by growing as thick a mustache as I could between the previous session and the session where we put on the play.  My friend Jay Bratt played the role of Spinoza.  I played the role of Nietzsche.  And believe me, I was far more proud of the mustache than the play.    

Moving ahead to the present, I’m back to reading Nietzsche again – “Thus Spake Zarathustra” to be precise – in preparation for a vacation study group.  I have to say that the older I get, the crazier he gets.  But I still love his writing to death.  I had forgotten just how many times in that book he uses the word “good” to mean “bad” and how even the most “empathic rationalist” of values come across as decadent when Nietzsche has an opportunity to dissect them.

I felt especially compelled to write about Nietzsche in this Blog after reading the chapter of Zarathustra entitled “Of the Compassionate” (which sounds a lot like “Of the Empathic”).   That is the chapter with such gems as:

“Beggars ... should be entirely abolished!  Truly, it is annoying to give to them and annoying not to give to them.  And likewise sinners and bad consciences!  Believe me, my friends: stings of conscience teach one to sting.  But worst of all are petty thoughts.  Truly, better even to have done wickedly than to have thought pettily!”

“But if you have a suffering friend, be a resting-place for his suffering, but a resting-place like a hard bed, a camp-bed thus you will serve him best.  And should your friend do you a wrong, then say, ‘I forgive you what you did to me; but that you did it to yourself – how could I forgive that?”

“Thus spoke the Devil to me once: ‘Even God has his Hell: it is his love for man.’  And I lately heard him say these words: ‘God is dead; God has died of his pity for man.”

“’I offer myself to my love, and my neighbor as myself’ – this is the language of all creators.”

“Of the Compassionate” is less than 1/100th of Thus Spake Zarathustra, and yet it has produced all of those memorable tidbits. That’s hardly atypical of Nietzsche’s works, which are chocked full of some of the most provocative and insightful writing our species has ever produced. 

Do yourself a favor: sometime this summer, when you’re either getting bored or feeling playful, or just want to understand whether there is something naughty that is actually nice, pick up a Nietzsche book and read.  But don’t just read – think!   God forbid you will mindlessly wind your way through his delicious filth and thereby verify his statement (also in Zarathustra), “That everyone can learn to read will ruin in the long run not only writing but thinking too.”  I wonder what Nietzsche’s “twin,” Spinoza – the supreme democrat – would have thought about that statement.  Well, surely he would have agreed that you can easily enough read without doing much original thinking.  For me, though, the beauty of reading Nietzsche is that he helps me to think originally.  And honestly, is there a greater compliment that any of us can pay to a writer than that?

Sunday, July 02, 2017

What it means to be "Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestine."

Commonly, the American-Muslim community is criticized for not speaking out against terrorism.   I think that criticism is wrong.  American-Muslims repeatedly speak out against terrorism, including some of the extremist Islam-inspired groups that perpetrate it.  What American-Muslims do not do very often is speak out against either the lackluster effort of the Palestinians to make peace with Israel or the forms of Palestinian resistance that are antithetical to peace (such as the textbooks used in Palestinian schools).  Sadly, with precious few exceptions, I hear no criticism from my American-Muslim friends when it comes to anything done by either the Palestinian government or the Palestinian people aside from gunning down innocent Jews on the streets.  Even with respect to the latter, the criticism is muted and brief at best.

Being a peacemaker is difficult work.  It requires showing tough love to your friends.  It does not permit people to pick a side and then simply lash out at the “other,” turning a blind eye whenever your favored side is in the wrong.  Unfortunately, there seems to be in the American-Muslim consciousness today the idea that the Palestinians are the Davids and the Israelis the Goliaths, so that criticizing the former would be perceived as blaming the victim.  I have had Palestinian friends confide in me that they dare not publicly criticize the ways that the Palestinians respond to Israel, lest they be ostracized by their own community.  Somehow, however, I am supposed to tolerate this state of affairs on the grounds that the injustices heaped on the Palestinians are so grave that any form of Palestinian resistance – terror included -- should be viewed as “understandable” given the circumstances.    “Understandable” isn’t quite the same word as “acceptable,” but they are the closest of cousins. 

By contrast, American-Jews frequently criticize Israel, including not merely the Israeli government but the very existence of a Jewish State.  American Jews have formed groups, like the ironically named “Jewish Voices for Peace,” that explicitly support the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel but rarely have anything to harsh to say about Palestinians or other Arabs.   Even some self-proclaimed Zionist American groups like J-Street devote far more effort to criticizing the policies of Israel than the policies of Palestinians.   Indeed, it is common for American-Jews who publicly criticize Israel to refer to themselves as “Jews of Conscience,” which implicitly levels quite a charge against those American-Jews who are uncomfortable lashing out at Israel.   What, after all, is a Jew who lacks a conscience?   The prison guards of the Holocaust (kapos) immediately come to mind.

I have no interest in joining the chorus of leftist Jews who treat the Palestinians like children who are so punch drunk from Israeli injustice that they can’t possibly be expected to see two sides of this geopolitical issue.   In other words, I have no interest in joining the chorus of leftist Jews who apply a double standard to this conflict – one in which the Israelis are expected to behave like Prophets, and the Palestinians are expected to behave like immature trauma victims.   As the President of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington, I apply the same standard to Israelis and Palestinians alike.  They are all descended from Peoples of the Book, which means that they ought to recognize from their Book that a person is a flesh-and-blood, often hateful, often loving, frequently-irrational but largely redeemable creature.  The truth is that I believe deeply in the dream of a peaceful and secure Jewish State side by side a peaceful and secure Palestinian state.  But like I said, it takes tough love to get there, and just as it is important for American-Muslims publicly to criticize their Palestinians brothers and sisters, we American Jews must be willing to do the same when it comes to Israel. 

With that as prologue, let’s take a look at an item that dominated the mainstream American-Jewish press this past week.  In what is definitely a rarity, we’ve seen a barrage of criticism leveled by Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jews against Israel.  Over and over again, American-Jewish media outlets have lambasted Prime Minister Netanyahu for cow-towing to his Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) coalition partners and reneging on a deal several years in the making.  Undeniably, this deal promised to have tremendous religious significance for the more progressive branches of Judaism, which generally dominate American-Jewish life. 

Currently, if you go to the area above the Wall and look down at what is known as the Holiest Place on Earth in Judaism, you’ll see two large areas where people pray facing an ancient limestone wall.  This is for Jews what the Kaaba is for Muslims or St. Peters Square is for Roman Catholics.   The larger of these prayer areas is available to men only.  The smaller area, roughly one-third the size of its counterpart, is set aside only for women, assuming that they comply with certain restrictions (such as the prohibition against prayer shawls).  In most forms of American Judaism, religious life is fully egalitarian, meaning that it involves men and women praying together.  In Israel, however, movements like Conservatism, Reform and Reconstructionism are viewed as fringe, and religious life is dominated by the Orthodox.   If, for example, a convert to Judaism wants to get married in the state of Israel, they had better be able to prove that the rabbis who converted them were Orthodox; otherwise, they would not be accepted as a Jew for the privilege of obtaining an Israeli wedding.

Obviously, that perspective doesn’t sit well with the American-Jewish establishment.  That is why it was such a big deal when the Israeli powers-that-be had agreed that a portion of this most treasured of sites would be set aside for egalitarian prayer.  Bu this week, Netanyahu and Company went back on their word and decided that the Wall as we know it will remain a place where the prayer spaces are invariably segregated.  Oh sure, for a few years now, a small platform not far from the primary prayer areas have been set aside for egalitarian prayer, but few people go there, which is not surprising since you can’t even see it from the primary prayer complex.  Essentially, it resembles a servant’s quarters of an estate, which is close to, but very different from, the main residence.  In this case, the best real estate belongs to the Orthodox Men, the second best belongs to the Orthodox Women, and anyone who wishes to pray like most American-Jews pray (men and women together) get what’s behind door number three.

It’s no wonder that the American-Jewish establishment has cried foul.  No Jew wants to be treated like a second class citizen in a nation that calls itself a state for all Jews.

Do you know what’s funny, though?   Many of the same American-Jews who are so shocked and appalled this week about the intransigence and anti-pluralism of Israel’s right-wing government don’t seem to be nearly as vocal about those attributes when Israel is stomping on the claims of Palestinians.  It is bad enough for right-wing Israelis to assert dominance over a religious site like the Western Wall. But isn’t it far worse for these same Israelis to build Jewish settlements east of the Green Line – in the very portion of the region that peacemakers want to set aside for a Palestinian state?   How can we American Jews be outraged when we can’t pray together as men and women in front of our holy wall, but we’re no longer outraged when the Israeli government seems to have given up on the dream of a two-state solution?  Or do we expect such a solution to include a Palestinian state that looks like a tiny piece of Swiss cheese?   Is that Jewish justice?

There has been a lot of talk this past week criticizing Republicans in Congress who are invariably afraid to criticize the President about anything involving national policy (be it health care, climate change, or whatever), but are “shocked and appalled” when he dares to tweet disrespectfully about a female media celebrity.  Well, I have the same impression when it comes to the American-Jewish community and its willingness to criticize Israel.  If we American Jews are so free to bash Netanyahu and the Israeli Haredi when it comes to subjugating our right to pray as Jews, why do we tolerate the conduct of Netanyahu and Company when it comes to subjugating the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and autonomy?   Personally, I would much rather be a progressive American-Jew who is forced to pray only with other men than a Palestinian who for decade after decade is living as a stateless person. 

So, just as I can’t stand by and watch my Muslim cousins stay silent when it comes to the unwillingness of Palestinians to open their hearts to a Jewish State in the heart of the “Arab world,” nor can I watch my Jewish brothers and sisters settle the very land that must be given back to the Palestinians in order to make such a state possible.   Being “Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestine” actually means being willing to criticize both.   For me, as much as I would love to pray together with men and women in what is truly my favorite spot on earth (the area overlooking the Western Wall), I would much rather see Israel’s hard liners soften toward the Palestinians than soften toward American Jews.  Trust me, we’ll be fine.  Will Israel?