Sunday, May 27, 2018

Shut Up and Concuss Yourselves

So, how did you like the National Football League owners’ “compromise” on a national anthem policy?  They have decided that next year, players who don’t want to stand on the sideline for the national anthem don’t have to.  They can avoid having their teams penalized by simply choosing to stay in their locker rooms and then, when the song is over, they can join their teammates.  This way, everybody wins.  The patriots can show respect for the flag.  And the malcontents don’t have to bear the indignity of doing the same.  What a swell solution!

The President of the United States sure liked it.  “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem and the NFL owners did the right thing if that's what they've done," our President told his friends on Fox.  “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn't be playing. You shouldn't be there. Maybe you shouldn't be in the country," he continued.   “I don't think people should be staying in locker rooms. But still I think it's good."

The President’s statement reveals why this is being touted as a compromise.  The Fox News watchers would have wanted to compel everyone to stand for the anthem, but the ever-compassionate owners care about all their players, even the ones who hate the flag and what it stands for.  So they came up with a way to let the protesters evade the responsibility of saluting Old Glory.  How considerate, right?

Wrong. The owners know damned well that the new policy isn’t a compromise, it’s a gut punch.  The protesters aren’t trying to insult their country, their flag, or their national anthem.  They have chosen this particular protest vehicle because it gives them a chance to make a powerful statement in the one and only forum where America is watching them without a helmet on.  The statement they want to make is a noble one: to call to our attention the seemingly never-ending scourge of racial injustice.  They have supplied us with an indelible image, the same image they frequently take when an injured comrade is seriously injured and carted off the field.  They drop to the ground and "take a knee."  

The NFL owners, in all their kindness, have chosen to let these players remain in the locker room during the anthem.   But what good is that?  The players can hardly speak out against injustice if they’re inside that facility, with cameras nowhere to be found, staring at benches and walls.  The entire power of their protest -- the indelible image of the gladiator who compassionately drops to his knee -- would be gone.  It would be as if, during the Vietnam War, protesters were given a choice –to go to their local VFW or American Legion and celebrate the war, or to sit inside some building and protest in obscurity – but were prevented from demonstrating outside where other people might see them.  If that had been our government's policy, I might well have been drafted to go to ‘Nam in 1978. 

My suspicion is that more than anything else, these owners are simply worshiping the “bottom line.”  You see, a fair number of football fans have, to different degrees, boycotted the league because it has been tolerating these take-a-knee protests.  The owners obviously didn’t want to countenance losing any more money to support the players’ right to express themselves.  So they came up with this gesture to give their right-wing base what it wants (no more strident visuals), while couching this gift in the form of a “compromise.”  

In the book of Luke (16:8), Jesus is said to have claimed that “No servant can be slave of two masters; he will either hate the first and love the second, or treat the first with respect, and the second with scorn.  You cannot be the slave both of God and of money.”  Indeed.   I suspect the owners have made their choice.

But let’s be fair.  The owners may be fixated on money, but for those rank and file fans who have fueled the boycott, this is all about patriotism and love of country.  Many would find solace in the words of Mike Zimmer, Head Coach of my beloved Minnesota Vikings: "I was proud of my team last year. They stood for the anthem. I think it's important that we stand for the anthem. I think it's important that we represent our country the right way, the flag the right way. I probably shouldn't get on a tangent, right? But a lot of people have died for that flag, and that flag represents our country and what we stand for. I think that's important. I'll stop there."

Please, Coach, continue.  In this country, you not only have the right to your opinion, you have the right to express it publicly.  But explain this to me first.  Have people really died for that flag?  Or have they died for what it represents?  And doesn’t it represent a love of liberty?  Freedom of choice?  Freedom of expression?  Freedom to dissent?  Freedom to create images that are jarring to those of us who are defined by complacency? 

After all, when we’re glowing about Old Glory, aren’t we really focusing on the wisdom of Jeffersonian democracy?  And by that, we wouldn’t be referencing Jefferson the slave owner, but rather Jefferson the philosopher, whose better angels led him to make statements like: “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then.”

In my workplace, I occasionally go to official ceremonies in which the national anthem is always played, and not a soul sits or kneels when s/he hears it.  But that’s my workplace: a federal facility.  The NFL workplace is a privately owned field where grown men blast the living hell out of each other’s bodies and a substantial fraction of these gladiators end up permanently disabled – mentally, physically or both.  If ever there were a group of Americans who’ve earned the right to engage in a peaceful and non-disruptive protest to send a message to their fellow citizens about racial justice, this is the group.  

Football owners, if you want my opinion, you’ve just fumbled the ball at your own goal line.  You’re the ones who have shamed our flag, not the protesters.  Here’s hoping those players figure out another way to speak out against injustice and that we fans have the grace to listen when they do.  It’s the least we can offer them, given the time we spend watching these young men thoroughly damage their minds and bodies for our own escapist entertainment.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Death, Despair, Delight and Denial in the Holy Land

Last week in this blog, I launched a broadside against the leadership of Iran and their terrorist beneficiaries, including Hamas.  Now, this week, I joined the rest of the world in witnessing the latest example of Hamas in action.  That organization encouraged civilian residents of the Gaza Strip to head toward the Israeli border and threaten to enter the Jewish State.  Not surprisingly, dozens were killed.  Also not surprisingly, Israel’s swift and lethal response was met with international outrage and cries that the response was “disproportionate,” since so many Palestinians died whereas not a single Israeli was even injured.

The leader of Turkey referred to Israel’s conduct as “genocidal.”  And all over the world, calls have been made for an investigation as to whether Israel used excessive force.   Clearly, Hamas has won the international PR battle hands down.

In the United States, however, the reaction has been decidedly mixed.  You have the “left,” which is disgusted with anything remotely associated with Donald Trump, including Benjamin Netanyahu, and is falling all over itself to join in the chorus against the IDF’s brutality.  Then you have the “right,” which is accurately reminding people that if we, the US of A, were threatened at our borders, we’d have killed at least as many foreigners as Israel did.   Perhaps one of the more articulate statements of outrage on the pro-Israel side came from New York Times columnist, Bret Stephens, who offered the following jeremiad against the international community and the way it enables the Palestinians to refuse to evolve into a force for peace:

“The mystery of Middle East politics is why Palestinians have so long been exempted from ... ordinary moral judgments.  How do so many so-called progressives now find themselves in objective sympathy with the murderers, misogynists and homophobes of Hamas?  Why don’t they note that, by Hamas’s own admission, some 50 of the 62 protesters killed on Monday were members of Hamas? Why do they begrudge Israel the right to defend itself behind the very borders they’ve been clamoring for years for Israelis to get behind?  Why is nothing expected of Palestinians, and everything forgiven, while everything is expected of Israelis, and nothing forgiven?   That’s a question to which one can easily guess the answer. In the meantime, it’s worth considering the harm Western indulgence has done to Palestinian aspirations.”

So how do we explain that double standard?   I don’t find it nearly as simple as Stephens does to come up with the answer.   Anti-Semitism is surely one of the explanations.  So is the willingness to patronize people of color – treating them as if expecting universalist values and rational thought is too much to ask of their little brains. 

But those are hardly the only reasons why so many people are so tough on Israel.  And here’s a newsflash – Israel bears some of the blame herself.  In fact, she bears no small amount of blame.  You could see that point illustrated all too well on the other side of that country at the same time that her army was so efficiently dispatching with its enemies on the Gazan border.

I’m referring to the Israeli analogue of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” ceremony.  This time, it came courtesy of another American president, Donald Trump, who honored his campaign promise to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, despite the fact that American presidents for decades had decided to wait on that action until we have a final, binding peace agreement.  With the encouragement of the Netanyahu Administration, Trump not only moved the embassy without a peace agreement but did so without demanding one damned concession from Israel.  It was a gift.  A gift to Trump’s Christian conservative base and to the Israeli right.  And it was purely symbolic, for it did nothing to add to the prosperity or peace of Israel.  Quite the contrary.

Most people who watched television this past Monday were treated to split screens.  On the one side, they could see the IDF mowing down Palestinians near the Israeli border.  On the other side, they could see Ivanka, Jared, Bibi and others celebrate the movement of the Embassy as if it were a Bar Mitzvah.  Despite everybody’s knowledge that the Palestinians would be protesting and deaths were inevitable, the Israeli leadership wanted to turn the Jerusalem event into a festive occasion.  Pictures speak 1000 words, and this one could not have pointed to a sharper contrast.  Poor and desperate on the one side.  Rich and happy on the other.  It was as if we were seeing a Hieronymus Bosch painting entitled “The Have-Nots and the Haves in the Holy Land.”

Clearly, this celebration was premature.  The final status of Jerusalem has not been established through a peace treaty.  Israel has simply come together with its one large ally – the country that used to be seen as a potential honest broker for peace – and asserted its claim over Jerusalem.  And I mean ALL of Jerusalem.  Why do I say that?  Because for years, the leaders of Israel have been grabbing prized real estate throughout the eastern part of pre-48 Palestine.  They have turned the West Bank, the heart of any Palestinian state under the so-called “Two State Solution,” into a giant chunk of Swiss cheese.  They’ve acted, as my Yiddish ancestors would say, as “chazers” (pigs).  In fact, more and more often, you’ll hear Netanyahu’s supporters say that the Two-State Solution is dead, thanks to the Palestinians who never really wanted it anyway, so Israel might as well claim the Settlements.

My friends, I agree with one part of that last sentence.  The Palestinians haven’t shown much of a desire to have a stable Two-State Solution with one of those nations being a Jewish State.    I have been happy to honor Bret Stephens’ call and criticize the Palestinians and their allies for their failure to fight harder for such a solution.  But that doesn’t mean we should ignore Israel’s role in the status quo.  Those Settlements are, purely and simply, obstructions to peace.  The more they proliferate, the harder it will be to create a Palestinian state.  And without a Palestinian state, we will all witness increasingly devastating violence, suffering and despair, just like we saw on television this past week.

Perhaps the Palestinians are in denial for thinking that by storming the Israeli borders and constantly demanding a return to Haifa and the other cities of post-67 Israel, the international community will eventually boot out the Jewish colonialists and return the region to Arab control.  But the Israelis are similarly in denial for thinking that by keeping the Palestinians in the open-air prison known as the Gaza Strip and in ever-decreasing regions of the West Bank, they will be able to enjoy a peaceful, prosperous and –wait for it – JEWISH state. 

Truly Jewish states require a climate of universalism, not just particularism.  Jewish states practice love to the stranger, not xenophobia.  Jewish states thrive in perpetual peace, not perpetual war.  Jewish states never allow their leaders to come across looking like Marie Antoinette.  And Jewish states never forget that “justice, justice, you shall pursue,” and that while justice and charity may begin at home, they cannot end there. 

Saturday, May 12, 2018

A Raw Deal

One reason I love to read Nietzsche is that he rails against “herd animalism.”  Like Nietzsche, I prefer people to act like individuals, not lemmings, which is why I hate political partisanship.  Political partisans refuse to buck their party’s conventional wisdom no matter what the issue.   Always, always, always they’re on the same side of the political fence.  Some call them knee-jerks.  Others call them followers.  I just call them boring. 

Consider, for example, that the same Democratic partisans who invariably rail against Republicans whenever they get involved in sexual scandals loyally defended Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky matter.   I remember those nightly talk shows, when they came in droves to spew the party mantra.  First, they’d offer some brief perfunctory noise against the President’s dalliance with an intern, and then, despite the fact that this President had to know that he’d be under a sexual microscope because of his past misconduct, they’d launch into a ten minute attack against the Republicans for making a mountain out of a molehill.  They took what we all now know to be a serious issue and completely minimized its importance.  Despite having once joined Clinton’s “Saxophone Club,” I was exasperated by his recklessness and by my party’s refusal to call a spade a spade.  Noting that I had never once voted against the Democrats – neither for President nor for any other position -- I made it a bucket list item to someday vote for a Republican.

Soon thereafter, maverick John McCain threatened to win the GOP nomination and take on Al Gore, who as a communicator was as phony as he was wooden.  I resolved to vote for McCain in the general election.  Well, we all know what happened next.  Bush Jr. pulled out dirty tricks that were straight out of his father’s anti-Dukakis campaign book, McCain lost the nomination, and by the time “the maverick” won it eight years later, the GOP had moved so far to the right that it was anything but conservative, it was reactionary.  The dream of voting for one of these politicians was removed from my bucket list.  To this day, I’ve still never been tempted to vote for an elephant when it came time to pull the lever. 

But that still doesn’t mean I always have to agree with my party’s conventional wisdom.  Recently, in fact, I’ve found myself once again at odds with it.  The trigger was Trump’s decision to withdraw from Obama’s Iran deal.   Am I thrilled with what he did?  No, I’m not even saying I’d make the same decision.  But hearing about this deal reminded me of how much I hated the way Democrats touted it when it was originally signed and how they still praise it today. 

Obama clearly saw the Iran deal as the singular foreign policy achievement of his presidency.  Today, in his Washington Post column, Eugene Robinson claimed that the deal “actually ... was quite good.”    And earlier in the week, Susan Rice took to the op-ed pages of the New York Times to exclaim that the deal “worked as intended” and that pulling out of it was “Trump’s most foolish decision yet.” 

Really?  This was the worst thing Trump ever did?  That must have been one hell of a deal. 
As Rice acknowledged, the Iran deal was “never intended, nor was it able, to address Iran’s ... support for terrorism, malign influence in neighboring countries [or its] ballistic missile program.” But she went on to defend the agreement by saying that “Iran’s nefarious activities would be far more dangerous if they were backed by a nuclear capability.  By withdrawing from the deal, we have weakened our ability to address these other concerns.” 

Perhaps she’s right.  Then again, let’s take a little time to consider the perspective of the deal’s critics. 

For years, Iran’s leaders – much to the chagrin of millions of peace-loving Iranian citizens – have supported violence and instability throughout the Middle East.  You’ll find the fruits of their efforts in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, among other places. Wherever the demand exists for the weapons of terror, the Iranians will make damned sure there’s a supply.  The result is that our so-called allies in the region, like the Israelis and Saudi Arabians, live in fear.

That was the situation the leaders of the free world faced when it came time to make a deal.  It remains the situation today.  Only now, thanks to this swell deal my party keeps touting, tens of billions of dollars were freed up and provided to Iran’s leaders so that they could, oh I don’t know, support the Houthis, Hezbollah, Hamas, and those lovely chemical-weapons-using allies in Syria.  What’s more, this deal removed the prospect of ongoing economic sanctions against Iran and thereby will continue on an ongoing basis to free up even more money for the regime to play with.

I realize that the Iran deal has its virtues, which Rice attempted to highlight in her column.    Iran,” she boasts, “has fully complied with its obligations. As required, Iran relinquished 97 percent of its enriched uranium stockpile, dismantled two-thirds of its centrifuges and its entire plutonium facility, abided by the most intrusive international inspection and monitoring regime in history, and forswore ever producing a nuclear weapon.” 

That’s one way of putting it.  Another is that under the deal, in addition to pocketing tons of money, Iran has been able to maintain enough of its nuclear capabilities that in 20 years, when the deal’s prohibitions sunset, it will be able to freely construct a nuclear arsenal without having violated any international treaty.  Indeed, the only protection the deal provides against such a turn of events in the future is to trust the Iranian leadership at present when they “forswear” that they will never produce a nuke.  Do you trust them?  Have they earned that trust?

Ultimately, the fans of the Iran deal claim to be hopeful that returning money to that nation’s economy will usher in a period of prosperity and thereby promote regime change.  But why is that likely?   I expect instead that the same ruthless folks who’ve been terrorizing the Middle East throughout my adult lifetime will continue to remain in control of their country.   The difference is that they’ll have more resources with which to wage conventional wars during the next 20 years, and more freedom to accumulate nuclear weapons thereafter.  None of this feels reassuring.

So why then am I not thrilled with Trump’s decision?  Because whatever leverage the free world had to strike a proper deal has long gone.  The big bucks have already been released to Iran and the rest of the world no longer has any stomach for sanctions.  In other words, by the time Trump took office, the foxes had already been allowed into the hen house, and we Americans couldn’t close the front door if we wanted to.    

When I think of Rice’s justification for the deal, I’m reminded of two sentences quoted above, which bear repeating: “Iran’s nefarious activities would be far more dangerous if they were backed by a nuclear capability.  By withdrawing from the deal, we have weakened our ability to address these other concerns.”  In theory, she may have a point.  In practice, we never did show much ability to address those “other concerns.”  In Syria, for example, her administration (Obama’s) knew that Iran was in bed with Assad’s murderers, who gassed and shot the Syrian people like vermin.  Yet despite the common knowledge that neither the Iranians nor the Syrians could fight back with nukes, we still didn’t lift a finger to stop the carnage.  It turned out that they didn’t need the nukes after all – all they needed was their savagery and our apathy.   That was a sad part of the legacy of Obama’s national security team – that and patting itself on the back for an agreement that only Neville Chamberlain should love.  

In essence, the terrorists of Tehran have proven that they don’t need nukes to support the slaughter of innocent human beings and that the rest of the world frequently lacks the passion to respond.   Maybe our lack of response is preferable to reckless warmongerism.  But that doesn’t explain why we’d free up scores of billions of dollars for these terror-peddlers to play with.  Or why we’d take comfort in a provision that requires them to strip down their nuclear arsenal, but only briefly.  Or why we thought that, despite being a pariah state, Iran had so much leverage when we negotiated the deal that we couldn’t demand more from them on the military front in return for all we’re prepared to do for them economically. 

Sorry, but I still don’t get why that deal was “actually ... quite good” or why Obama seemed more passionate about it than any other achievement of his presidency. 

Of course, I freely acknowledge that I could be missing something in my reasoning.  I’m not an Iran expert.  Maybe my party’s conventional wisdom is right after all.  But as a citizen, I’ve got to call every issue as I see it.  And when it comes to my political party, I’ve got to buck its conventional wisdom from time to time whenever my voice of reason tells me to.  I owe that much to Nietzsche, not to mention empathic rationalism.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Empathic Rationalism Begins at Home

Unfortunately, I caught the flu this weekend.  So I won't make you read whatever uninspired and incoherent post my flu-ridden brain is capable of creating.  The Empathic Rationalist will return next weekend.