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Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Relativity of Time

Now I am no Einstein.  Lord knows I can’t explain the theory of relativity, let alone give the mathematical proof for the relativity of time.  Yet, today, I will prove that time is indeed relative, but with a caveat.  My proof is outside of Einstein’s world of physics, and into the world of human experience.

We experience two worlds.  One is the world of what is -- the material world where physics and mathematics reside.  The other is the world of action -- what we do and how we choose to behave in the material world.  This is the world where values reside.  Values animate and give impetus to our actions, and underlie the choices we make.  Unlike the material world, there are no mathematical formulations to predict human behavior.  Human behavior is not mechanical or logical.  There is always an emotional component (values) that sway our choices.   We do not look to science and mathematics for our values.  Values are formulated and transmitted through language, stories, and myths. 

It is in the action world, the world of values, where the perception of time gets interesting.  There is a fascinating study by a behavioral economist, Keith Chen, on the influence of language in financial planning. 
Unlike English, there are languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, which lack verb tenses to distinguish between the present and the future.  In Chinese it is not the verb but the context of the conversation, among other markers, which distinguishes time periods
Chen wondered if this linguistic difference influences people’s time perception sufficiently to influence retirement savings.  He hypothesized that people speaking languages that have no verbal distinction between the present and the future will experience the future as closer to the present, thereby creating impetus to save for the future.  On the flip side, languages which verbally distinguish between the present and the future make the future harder to relate to, and, hence, plan for.

That is exactly what Chen found when he compared the savings rate between people who spoke languages with or without a future tense.  People who speak languages with a separate future tense -- English, Arabic, Greek, the Romance languages – are far worse at saving money than people whose languages don’t distinguish between the present and the future – Chinese, German, Japanese, and Norwegian.
After factoring in people’s education levels, income levels, and religious preferences, Chen found that people speaking languages with present and future verbs were 30 percent less likely to save money in any given year.  
As crazy as this sounds, Chen replicated this finding in a clever real world experiment.  New hires at a company were required to fill out a form which included providing the percentage of their salary they would devote to a retirement plan.  One form had their current picture affixed to the top corner of the form, while another had the current picture affixed to one corner and a computer aged photo of themselves affixed to the opposite corner.  Yup, having a current and older picture to view increased the percentage of retirement savings significantly.
All of this discussion is prelude to the meat of what I want to discuss – how the underpinnings of secular and religious views influence time perception, world views, and policy prescriptions.
Until next time

Thursday, February 22, 2018

School Shootings -- No Longer Ho Hum

The seminal moment establishing the enduring connection between God and the children of Israel was hearing their suffering as slaves in Egypt.  The children of Israel “were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God.  God heard their moaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob.  God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them … and was mindful of their suffering.”

Now our children are crying out to us about their suffering, their need for help, their entrapment in unsafe schools. Having brought them into this world we must remember our sacred covenant with them to nurture, protect and make them feel safe and secure. 

For too long, as a nation, we have not acted to make our children safe and secure. With each school massacre, platitudes of blame along political fault lines trotted out.  Democrats blaming guns and advocating for increased gun control measures.  Republicans blaming the shooters and advocating for guns in the schools to stop the shooters.  Lost in the blame game, politicians’ lack of attention to what our children are saying.

Now, for the first time in the long history of school violence, our children’s cries are so loud, so forceful, and so eloquent they pierce through the platitudes and diatribes -- impossible to ignore.  A small sample of powerful remarks by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School:

Senior student Delany Tarr
“This movement, created by students, led by students, is based on emotion. It is based on passion and it is based on pain … The only reason that we’ve gotten so far is that we are not afraid of losing money, we’re not afraid of getting reelected or not getting reelected, we have nothing to lose. The only thing we have to gain at this point is our safety.”

Senior Student Emma Gonzalez
“The students at this school have been having debates on guns for what feels like our entire lives. AP Government had about three debates this year.  Some discussions on the subject even occurred during the shooting while students were hiding in the closets.”

Junior Student Alfanso Calderon
“Everybody needs to remember, we are just children. A lot of people think that disqualifies us from even having an opinion on this sort of matter…This matters to me more than anything else in my entire life. And I want everybody to know, personally, I’m prepared to drop out of school. I’m prepared to not worry about anything besides this… so that kids don’t have to fear going back to school.”

Senior David Hogg
“My message to lawmakers and Congress is, “Please, take action.  What we really need is action. We can say, ‘We’re gonna do all these things. Thoughts and prayers.’ What we need more than that is action. Please. This is the 18th [school shooting].  We're children.  You guys are the adults."

Action requires going beyond the inevitable blame that happens when looking for the causes of gun violence.  The why did this happen questions shifts the focus from ourselves onto others.  Yet when bad things happen to good people our minds ask why in order to feel in control when tragedy strikes.  The why question is so ingrained, such a reflexive response to tragedy, that the famous book about bad things happening to good people is misremembered as:  Why Bad Things Happen To Good People.  The actual title is "When Bad Things Happen To Good People".

This “when mindset” allows for a call to action.  What do I do now that this happened?  The answers to “what do I do” flows through mindfulness.  Looking into ourselves to be aware of how we see ourselves and others involved in the tragedy.    Mindful of what we and others are capable and not capable of doing, and mindful of what we might do to lessen the likelihood this tragedy recurs.

Our President made a good start to mindfulness with his listening approach.  Gathering people directly involved in school massacres to hear their stories, their needs, their pain, their anger.  To listen to what others did to lessen the likelihood of another shooting at their school.  Just as important, televising the session so the whole nation could hear the multitude of voices crying out to be seen and listened to.

Hopefully many solutions are put in place, some at the national level. Many more at the state and local level crafted to the needs and desires of the communities where the schools exist.  It is a complex and multilayered issue with no single magical solution.
I want to give a shout out to one solution that started locally and is gaining national traction – Rachel’s Challenge.  The program started by the father of Rachel Scott, the first victim of the Columbine shooting.  After her death, Darrell Scott heard from so many classmates how his daughter had touched them deeply with her kindness and compassion.
Darrell developed a program to add kindness and compassion learning as an antidote to student alienation and school bullying and violence.  His insight, schools used to, but turned away from, including character development in the school curriculum.  The heart of the program, mindfulness.  Being aware of yourself and others in your daily interactions.
Similarly, Russell Simmons, the hip-hop mogul, started a program for reducing youth violence through the transformative power of meditation.  Practicing meditation changes the mind from busy to quiet. Only a quiet mind is an aware mind, capable of apprehending self and others.  Violence stops when you truly see the other, not as an “other” but as someone with feelings and needs just like you.
God, through his actions, teaches us the importance of mindfulness.  Now let’s teach it and practice it.   

Until next time.    


Tuesday, February 6, 2018

What Did The President Know And When Did He Know It

A firestorm of controversy swirls around the Republican authored House Intelligence Committee’s memo on the corruption of the FISA process for political purpose by high ranking members of the FBI.  Accusations fly between Democrats and Republicans regarding the purpose and advisability of publishing the memo.  Key facts within the memo are disputed and charges of leaving out important details are levelled.  Democrats view the memo as a purely partisan document designed to delegitimize the FBI and the Special Counsel’s investigation of President Trump.  Republicans characterize the memo in noble terms, the sunshine needed to disinfect the partisan corruption embedded within the FBI.

There is, however, one area of complete agreement between Democratic and Republican leadership -- the description of the Steele dossier.  These facts are undisputed.  The dossier was paid for by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The dossier’s author held great animus towards Donald Trump and was not considered a reliable source by the FBI.  Knowledge of the dossier’s flaws was already known to senior management in the Justice Department and the FBI in October 2016 when the FISA proceeding occurred. 

In view of these facts, the public’s introduction to the dossier in January 2017, orchestrated by leaks from sources within the Obama Administration, was knowingly misleading and calculated to undermine the public’s trust in soon to be President Trump.  Like the FISA court, the public was told the dossier was an intelligence document rather than its true nature, an opposition research piece funded by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. 

In January 2017, CNN was the first major news agency to reveal the existence of the Christopher Steele dossier.   James Sciutto of CNN introduced the dossier in the context of a briefing where “senior-most members of the intelligence community briefed President Obama and President-Elect Trump on the Christopher Steele dossier”.  Sciutto sourced his report “as coming “from multiple officials with direct knowledge of these briefings”. 

Sciutto reported the dossier was written by “a former British intelligence operative whose past work the U.S. intelligence officials considered credible”, and the dossier contained a number of serious “allegations against the president elect which were based primarily on information from Russian sources”.  Among the allegations, “a continuous exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government”.   
Multiple news outlets followed up on and expanded upon the CNN report, imprinting the Russian collusion story onto the minds of the public.  This lead to widespread doubts about the legitimacy of the upcoming Trump presidency.  The groundwork laid for disrupting the Trump presidency, and for public acceptance of the need for investigating Russian collusion.   

Reporting on the dossier by the media included a disclaimer that the dossier was unverified by the FBI.  The disclaimer designed to provide plausible deniability for the media and for the sources of the leaks should the dossier later shown to be false.  As CNN’s Jim Sciutto put it, “the FBI is now investigating the credibility and accuracy of these allegations against the president-elect…”  The disclaimer was misleading because the FBI’s attempt to verify the dossier already proved futile 3 months prior, in October of 2016, when the dossier was submitted unverified to the FISA court. 

The FBI’s futile effort in the context of the dossier allegation of a continuous exchange of information between the Russians and the campaign.  Not even one instance of exchange of information was uncovered in the 3 months prior.  Yet, in January of 2017, the senior-most members of the intelligence community briefed president-elect Trump on an unverified, and likely unverifiable, document that contained a serious allegation of impropriety by his campaign staff.

At least one member of the briefing team, James Comey, knew, or should have known, the dossier was fraudulent.  At the very least, Comey knew the FBI considered Christopher Steele an unreliable source, but never corrected the mischaracterization.   In fact, none of the media’s misrepresentations of the dossier were corrected until the investigation by Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee exposed the dossier as a fraudulent opposition research document.

In hindsight, the firing of James Comey, which set in motion the events leading to the creation of the Special Counsel, was a very justifiable act.  As mentioned, James Comey never corrected the record about Christopher Steele or the dossier’s unverified claim of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign.   Ironically, the one verified fact in the dossier established Russian collusion by the Clinton campaign. 
Further, James Comey presided over the FBI agency when some in senior management breached their ethical responsibilities by allowing their political beliefs to influence the performance of their duties.  Whether knowingly or unwittingly, this happened on his watch.  Either way he could not be trusted to correct the corruption within the FBI’s senior management.

In hindsight, questions abound regarding the disclosure of the Steele dossier to the public.  Who set up the presidential briefing of the dossier?  Who knew the dossier was illegitimate?  Who suppressed correcting the record on the dossier?  All these questions hinge on the iconic question asked in the Watergate era, what did members of the Obama Administration know about the dossier and when did they know it?  In particular, for President Obama’s legacy, what did the President know and when did he know it?       

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Ansari Aziz Rape Allegation

A few years ago my son, raised Jewish, turned atheist, married a practicing Catholic.  For my deceased father, a devout Jew who passionately believed in maintaining the unbroken chain of Judaism, the marriage would have been an existential crisis.  In contrast, I am heartened by the marriage as I know that my grandson will benefit from exposure to the wisdom of the bible and to the Judaeo-Christian values contained within.

Sadly, religious values and wisdom as a basis for behavior in civil society is gone, with no consensus on how to fill the void.  As with all voids, chaos and confusion reigns.  Consider the accusation of rape against the famous comedian, Ansari Aziz.  A first date with a woman, known under the pseudonym of Grace, ended awkwardly and painfully for her at Mr. Aziz’s apartment.  Kissing between them progressed to nude physical intimacy, heading towards intercourse.  Already uncomfortable with the level of physical intimacy, Grace said no to intercourse.  Mr. Aziz immediately stopped and arranged an Uber ride home for her.

At various stages of the date Grace felt pressured into sexual encounters beyond her comfort zone, and believed her nonverbal stop signals were ignored by Mr. Aziz.  Grace felt she was raped and made that accusation in the online publication   Mr. Aziz dumbfounded by the accusation believed he never coerced or forced her into unwanted intimacy.  He perceived Grace as a willing partner in pleasure and perceived himself as a respectful partner, immediately stopping when she said no to anything further.

Following publication of the accusation, an online debate ensued regarding the definitions of sexual coercion and consent, and the responsible way to handle perceived sexual misconduct.  Grace’s supporters placed responsibility on men to tune into their partner’s feelings during sex.  Mr. Aziz's supporters placed responsibility on women to clearly voice there discomfort.   Many expressed concern that attaching the rape label to an ambiguous sexual encounter undermined the #MeToo movement.   

Lost in the debate is this simple truth.   When two complete strangers engage in the emotionally and psychologically intense act of physical intimacy, hovering close by are feelings of vulnerability and violation created by misunderstandings and miscommunication.  Mr. Aziz was unfamiliar with Grace’s body language or style of communicating.  Grace knew nothing of Mr. Aziz’s sensitivity level or attitudes towards women.  Neither knew the other’s views on sexual intimacy.  Neither knew the other’s expectation for the date -- a building block towards a relationship, or a one night stand.  Each was certain their perception of the evening was shared by the other.

In the religious world fences are built around interactions between men and women precisely because such interactions are fraught with misunderstandings and unwanted behavior.  Hence Vice President Mike Pence’s rule to always include his wife when attending a private social event with another woman, or the practice of Orthodox Jews to refrain from touching anyone of the opposite sex who is not close family. 

In the secular world these behaviors are dismissed as remnants of a patriarchal society not suitable for the modern understanding of gender equality.  Overlooked is the wisdom of creating fences to avoid emotionally painful interactions.  Instead of antiquated ideas, create fences with modern sensibilities.  Create them because, even in this modern world, communication between people is imperfect, and because, contrary to modern beliefs, fundamental human nature and basic emotional reactions are unchanged

Until next time 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Trump and the Politics of Branding

I recently returned from a trip to Hong Kong and Singapore.  While there, the eyes of the prawns were upon me -- cooked alive and served with eyes intact as a sign of freshness for restaurant patrons.  Those bug eyes disturbed the sensibilities of my kosher upbringing, so I ate mostly rabbit food as a palliative to my churning stomach.  The good news, I returned home without the dreaded vacation belly.

The bad news, I returned home to deja vu all over again -- the country in an uproar over Trump stepping on his tongue.  The pattern oh so familiar, Democratic leaders expressing outrage, Republican leaders voicing lipstick on a pig rationales, and the legislative agenda drowned out by the political noise.

Lost in the hub hub a disturbing trend, the increasing commercialization of politics.  Parties no longer defined by their philosophy or principals but by their branding.  Democrats brand Republicans as deplorable and Republicans brand Democrats as out of touch elites.  Opportunities to brand the other trumps legislative agendas, even bi-partisan ones.

Senator Dick Durbin’s actions a case in point.   After hearing the shithole comments in a private, contentious meeting with the President, the Senator could not resist the gift that Trump’s mouth keeps on giving.  He immediately disclosed the remarks to the press, creating the predictable shockwave across the country.   A reflexive action for political advantage, absent any reflection on what is best for the country or the Dreamers.
There is an important distinction between a President’s private and public comments.  Unlike private comments, a President’s public pronouncement are official views guiding policy.  Take LBJ as an example, with large disconnects between his private and public speech and policy.  LBJ’s potty mouth, positively Trumpian in private, regularly used the "n" word during cabinet meetings.   Publicly he advocated for sweeping civil rights legislation and at the signing ceremony spoke these stirring words, “Let us close the close the springs of racial poison.  Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts.  Let us set aside irrelevant differences and make our Nation whole.”
Senator Durbin, as a public servant, never considered the public good before talking to the press.  Lost, because of his act of political advantage, was movement towards a permanent bi-partisan solution for the sword of deportation hanging over the Dreamers, and impetus towards an overhaul of our outdated immigration policy.
Republicans are equally eager to play the political advantage game, with Nancy Pelosi as one favorite target.  Recently jumping on her comments after corporations announced bonuses to employees following passage of the tax reform bill.  Characterizing the $1,000 bonuses as mere crumbs, Pelosi was excoriated as a liberal elite, out of touch with employees living pay check to pay check for whom $1,000 is highly meaningful.  
The politics of advantage is a corrosive outgrowth of the extreme polarization of our two parties and the radical elements that form the base of each.  Each party is loath to support any legislation emanating from the other side lest it anger their base and provide their opponents with an advantage at the polling booths.  This was the Republican strategy when Democrats were in power, and now the Democrats are returning the favor. 
Nothing gets done in a bi-partisan way which severely restricts what either party does while in power.  Legislation addresses issues catering to the base’s views, while most Americans are middle of the road in their views.  This sets the stage for ping-ponging of governance, particularly at the Presidential level, as the party in favor loses favor with independents, where elections are won or lost.  A trend I fear is our future.
Such a downer to think about, I’ll end on a positive note.  Headed up north to visit with my mini me, now 17 months.  Last I saw him he was Mr. Destructo, taking repeated, and I do mean repeated, delight in lifting his large plastic fire engine on its head and then pushing it see which way it fell and how loud it crashed.   Clapping each time he performed the trick did not suffice for long.  Soon he began clapping prior to the performance and required all of us to join in.  My mini me definitely inherited my “look at me” gene.

Until next time.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

How Hanuka Saved the Soul


Hello, it’s been a while  

I withdrew from the world on a walkabout for a period of time.  I am back, and feel like Woody Allen in “Sleeper” who awakens to a topsy-turvy world.  In Woody’s case, medical science finds that junk food is actually healthy for people.  In my case, the constitutional protections of due process and separation of powers turned on their head; a blog for another time. 

Not exactly a blog to rival Woody’s “Sleeper”.  Then again if I had his comedic talent I would not be wasting it on blogging.  And yet with me, unlike with Woody, you get my musings for free.  And, as importantly in these times, my writings are from a person who is not a known or suspected pervert or predator.
Turning from the profane is the heart of the Hanuka story, a holiday vastly underrated and mischaracterized.  Hanuka is considered by most, a minor holiday inflated to ease Jewish children’s jealousies over Christian gift giving during the Christmas season.  Nothing is further from the truth.

In reality, the possibility of western civilization hung in the balance while the events surrounding Hanuka played out.  The spiritual language and images used in music and art; the illumination of the interior soul by artists, writers, and poets, all absent from the world without Hanuka.   Shakespeare, Bach, Van Gough, Maya Angelou, to name a few, never to be.   Such is the import of Hanuka.

The de-emphasis of the historical truth of Hanuka occurred around 200 years after the events of Hanuka.  A Jewish uprising against the Roman Empire ended in a disastrous defeat.  The Romans avenged the insurrection by obliterating Israel as a nation and driving the surviving Jews out into the diaspora.

Traumatized by the consequences of armed insurrection, the Rabbis of the diaspora downplayed the militaristic role in Hanuka’s history and emphasized God’s role.  The Hanuka story transformed into an apocryphal tale where God performed miracles for the faithful.

By downplaying the armed insurrection, the reason for taking up arms was lost to the story.  In actuality Hanuka was all about war -- a civil war, a cultural war, a war to preserve ethical monotheism.
During the time of Hanuka, Hellenism prevailed throughout the known world thanks to the conquests of Alexander the Great.  Greek philosophy and culture focused on understanding and perfecting the physical world.  Whatever could not be measured or observed was rejected.  Greek gods reflected and explained observable phenomenon.  The sun arced across the sky.  Why?  A god drove it in a chariot.  The world always defined by and explained by physical objects or concrete gods.
Jews were not immune to the Hellenistic influence.  Many adopted the philosophy that physical perfection and physical beauty are the true goals of human existence.  Even Israel’s high priest was a Hellenist.  As such, he brought Zeus into the Holy Temple and sacrificed a pig on the Temple’s alter.

The materialism of Hellenism was anathema to traditional Judaism with its emphasis on materialism over spirituality, and belief in many gods rather than the one true universal God.  Tension between the Hellenists and traditionalists was palpable, and combustion inevitable.  War sparked when a soldier of the ruling Assyrian empire attempted to force conversion onto a charismatic local priest named Mattathias of the house of Maccabees.  Rather than converting, he and his sons, slew the soldier and the conflagration erupted. 
The Maccabees, prevailed, beating back the Assyrian military and slaying the Hellenistic infidels.  The first act after victory was to purify the Holy Temple and rededicate it to God.  A feast lasting eight days followed.  The menorah lit on each day of the holiday.  The only religion practicing ethical monotheism was saved, along with the related concepts of eternal soul; holiness; spirituality; the pure and the profane.
Ethical monotheism became the organizing principle for western culture.  Judeo-Christian values under-girded the legal system.  The biblical concept that all humanity is created equal, all with the spark of God within, profoundly impacted the arts and led to the democratization of society; the unshackling of slavery; and the freedom to follow whatever path one’s talents and inclinations lead.  

So on Hanuka, as the lights of the Menorah burn outward to illuminate the darkness, I remember what the small band of Maccabees accomplished and turn inward.  Turning to the light within that illuminates my humanity and serves as my bulwark against a soulless, material world.     


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Is Trump Putin's Puppet?

Our man-child President is at it again.  He treated the oval office like his man cave and the Russian Foreign Minister and Russian Ambassador as his bros.   He bragged to his bros about the intelligence gathering toys and gadgets at his disposal by revealing highly classified information sourced from a partner country.  The President exited; his staff left to clean up the mess.

Before processing that news, another episode published.  The President reportedly asked the FBI director to end the investigation into General Flynn who was forced out of the Trump administration for covering up meetings with the Ambassador from Russia.  This at the same time the bureau was investigating the President’s own ties to Moscow.   Details of this conversation are sketchy, so it is unclear how to characterize his remarks -- advocating to give a guy a break or quashing a damning investigation. 

What is clear is that the President’s recent escapades created a tipping point for the Department of Justice.  A well respected special counsel now in place to independently investigate Russia’s interference in the presidential election and related matters.  The special counsel will have at his disposal all the resources needed to follow the facts wherever they may lead.  However, when all is said and done, and all the smoke is cleared, no smoking gun will be found.  Here’s why.

Consider this thought experiment.  Below is a table of presidential actions by Obama and Trump affecting Russia and its allies Syria and Iran.  Who would Russia prefer for the U.S. presidency? 

President Obama                                                                             President Trump             
Significantly reduced size of U.S. military
Increased size of U.S. Military
Cancelled bombing of Syria over chemical weapons use
Bombed Syria over chemical weapons use
Allowed Russia to re-establish a military base in Syria thereby strengthening Assad and increasing Russia’s projection of power and influence in the region
Criticizes Russia for aligning with inhumane Assad.
Refused to arm Kurds fighting against Assad
Armed Kurds fighting against Assad
Did not sanction Iran over ballistic missile development

Would not arm Ukraine with weapons to defend against Russian incursions
Imposed economic sanctions on Iran over ballistic missile development

Armed Ukraine with defensive weapons

If Russia colluded with Trump or campaign affiliates, Russia would have blackmail evidence to keep Trump in line.  Yet Putin, the alleged puppet master, has no control over Trump.  The bromance with Putin ended inauguration day.  Now, both countries acknowledge relations at their lowest ebb.    

Granted, Trump has more flaws than Frank Underwood.  However, being in cahoots with Russia is not one of them.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Trump Travel Ban Is No Laughing Matter

The Laurel and Hardy rollout of Trump’s temporary travel ban of immigrants from seven mostly Muslim countries left our country with a fine mess.  A hundred or so Muslims detained at U.S. airports, untold numbers of Muslims traveling abroad prevented from returning home, and tens of thousands of Muslims legally in our country believing they are second class citizens and residents.

All of this could have been easily avoided had the President followed some simple rules of leadership.  Prior to implementing the executive order, seek counsel and input from cabinet members and legislative leaders knowledgeable about the appropriateness and ramifications of the order.  At the time of implementation, explain to the public the rationale and purpose of the executive action.  

Had Trump taken those steps, the executive order would have included carve-outs for legal residents and visa holders.  The public announcement would have provided the rationale for the order -- a pause in immigration to allow the current administration to review the soundness of existing vetting procedures for immigrants coming from countries acknowledged by the previous administration as countries of concern.

To make matters worse, when the disastrous roll-out received justifiable criticism, the pompous Oliver Hardy-like Trump treated the critics as na├»ve, child-like, Stan Laurels.  Trump mocked the senate minority leader for his crocodile tears when discussing the impact of the ban on Muslim citizens and publically rebuked members of his own party as being weak on immigration when they criticized the executive order.  Then Trump morphed from Oliver Hardy to the autocratic Richard Nixon, and fired the acting Attorney General who questioned the legality of his order.

The President has yet to transition from Trump the campaigner to Trump the President.  His spontaneous and unfiltered over the top rhetoric and mocking humor entertained and engaged the faithful at his rallies.  Now, as President, Trump must fulfill two roles that are at odds with his campaign style.  As Head of State he represents, by manner and deed, the values and ideals of America.  As Chief Executive he sets the legislative agenda and faithfully implements the laws of the land.

Time is running out for him to right his ship of state.  Wary conservatives were heartened by his cabinet choices that by and large are seasoned, steady, thoughtful, and intelligent individuals.  His announced legislative agenda for the economy and the emphasis of choice and competition in replacing the current health care law represented mainstream conservative principles. 

Now, his slapdash, undisciplined performance during his first week in office has reignited fears that Trump as entertainer and autocrat in chief will define his presidency.  If so, the joke will be on you Mr. President, for as the Apprentice President you will hear your own words turned back on you … You're Fired.   

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Trump Inauguration: To Go Or Not To Go, That Is The Question

We hold these truths to be self-evident, all men are created equal.  This is the bedrock value upon which our country was founded, and the basis for all of our constitutional rights and protections. 

The equality of humankind is a universal truth of all the great religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.   Created in the image of God, we are all God’s children no matter our race, gender, nationality or station in life. That does not mean that we are all equally likeable or that we all act in humane and decent ways.  Thus the conundrum facing decent people, how to respectfully treat those who do not respectfully treat others.

The bible lays out the aspirational goal -- love the other as thy self.  It is not a commandment to love the lovable other.  That is what decent people naturally do.  Rather, a commandment to treat the unlovable with the love/respect accorded to all of humanity.   It is a recognition that our inclination is to be wary of the other, to attribute negative characteristics to the stranger, and to disparage those who do not meet our expectations.

The requirement to love the other falls most heavily on religious leaders, the representatives of the religion.  Commandments are more than aspirational goals for religious leaders.  As the community role models, following the commandments is a necessary way of living.

Still, love the other does create dilemmas for religious leaders.  I recently heard of a most poignant one.  A rabbinic student came to a rabbi that I study with and asked for my Rabbi’s advice on whether to say the traditional prayer of mourning for her father.  The prayer is said in a public setting to honor the dead.  Her dilemma, her father had repeatedly raped her as a child.  My Rabbi was flummoxed and had no good answer.  Ultimately the rabbinic student came to her own resolution.  She did say the mourning prayer, not for the father she had but for the father she wished she had.

Our political leaders face a comparable dilemma.   A deplorable person is about to ascend to the highest office in the land.  Attending the inauguration implicitly honors a man not deserving of such respect.

Yet, the inauguration ceremony is not about any one person.  It represents the stirring ideals of the Gettysburg Address – “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people”.  Political power is transitory, given to our leaders by we the people, but only for a finite period of time. 

Attending the inauguration bears witness that the institutions of our country are stronger than any one man.  I want our leaders to attend, not only when it is easy to attend, but also when it is not easy to attend.  Especially when it is not easy to attend, for not attending disrespects our country’s ideals.
Hopefully those considering against attending will follow the lead of the rabbinate student who found the resolve to participate by considering the ideal rather than the actual.  I want our leaders to place the country’s ideals above their own feelings and judgements.

And bearing witness is why I will be watching the inaugural address on Friday.  Something I do not always do.  Will you join me? 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Israel -- Falling Support and Rising Anti-Semitism

Support for Israel has changed substantially over time.  From its birth in 1948 until “The Six Day War” support was unquestioned.  Two pillars undergirded the unconditional support -- the moral imperative derived from the Holocaust, and the existential threat posed by powerful Arab enemies surrounding the then weak and vulnerable Jewish state

The narrative began to change following the “Six Day War”.  Israel convincingly won the war and captured both the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  The David vs Goliath view reversed.  Israel became the Goliath, with its more powerful military.  The Palestinian Arabs, subjected to the humiliations of an occupying force, became the David.

With time and distance, the impact of the Holocaust faded.  Born decades later, a whole generation knew the Holocaust only from the cold pages of history.  The emotional connection replaced by an objective view. 

The generational split was most pronounced between the WW II generation and the millennials.  The WW II generation, the parents of the baby boomers, were either holocaust survivors, or had family members or friends murdered in the death camps of Nazi Germany.  Being Jewish, belonging to a synagogue, and seeing Israel’s survival as an essential safety hatch for Jewish survival was unquestioned.  To do otherwise denigrated the memory of the dead burned in the ovens.  Every Jew who assimilated or did not fully support the Jewish homeland was considered a symbolic victory for Adolph Hitler.

Religious doubts brought on by modernity hardly effected the World War II generation.  It was their children, the baby boomers that questioned the role of religion in a modern scientific world.  Many of the boomers became culturally Jewish, and this trend towards secularism accelerated with their children, the millennials.

With secularism came a shift in moral thinking.  The old moral divide of good vs evil was replaced by the new moral code -- strong vs weak and rich vs poor.  As such, the more powerful Israel was held by many on the secular left to a different standard of behavior than that of the weaker Palestinians. 

Witness the reactions to the Gaza war between Hamas and Israel.  Israel was criticized for the number of Palestinian casualties caused.  The body count defined the moral behavior of the two sides of the conflict.  With the lopsided Palestinian death count, Israel fared poorly in the court of public opinion.
Left out of this calculus was the moral view of good vs evil.  The disproportionate loss of life was an intentional Hamas strategy.  They placed their SCUD missiles in large population centers to ensure large loss of Palestinian lives, and daily launched the SCUD missiles from these population sites towards towns in Israel.

Faced with a “Sophie’s Choice” between saving the lives of Israelis or Palestinians, Israel tried to do both.  Deploying their anti-missile system to shoot down incoming SCUD missiles, and using their guided missiles to target the SCUDS without hitting Palestinian civilians.  Prior to launch, Israel warned the population to leave the area, only to be thwarted by the inhumanity of Hamas which prevented its citizens from evacuating. The missiles were not always accurate and there was loss of civilian life.  At the same time Israel deployed its anti-missile system to destroy incoming Hamas missiles.  Many, but not all, Hamas missiles were destroyed mid-air, preventing many Israeli deaths.  

The immorality of Hamas’ actions was summed up in one pithy sentence by the Prime Minister of Israel.  Israel used missiles to protect people, Hamas used people to protect missiles.  Nevertheless, through their evil strategy, Hamas had the “moral” victory it sought -- the optics of death and destruction by a powerful enemy against a weak and vulnerable people. 

The optics played well in the U.N. where Israel was condemned for its actions.  Indeed Israel has been condemned and sanctioned more often than any other member of the U.N.  The latest being the resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a flagrant violation of International Law based on the justification that the West Bank is “Occupied Palestinian Territory”.   

The U.N. justification twists the history of the West Bank for its twisted purpose of condemning Israel.  The West Bank was never Palestinian Territory, but an occupied territory of Jordan.  The West Bank was acquired by Israel in the course of defending itself in the 1967 Six Day War. International Law provides that territory seized in a defensive war may be occupied for defensive purposes, and that security measures may be implemented within that territory to defend against any future attacks.

The U.N resolutions against Israel bear heavily on the politics within the U.N. – politics grounded neither in history nor law, but rather in anti-Semitism.  How else to explain a different legal and moral standard applied to Israel than to any other nation state. 

By the moral standard of body count, there are many nation states that are far more immoral than Israel.  The most recent being Syria, bolstered by its allies Russia and Iran.  Using chemical weapons, barrel bombs, guided missiles, regular bombs, and starvation sieges, over 400,000 civilians have been killed in Syria.  Compare that to the U.N. count of 1462 Palestinians killed by Israel in the Gaza war.

Yet Israel has been singled out for far more sanctions or criticism than Syria, Russia, and Iran combined!  Consider the U.N. resolutions adopted during 2015, the last year I could find such a count.  Israel was singled out 20 times for criticism, Syria once, Iran once, and Russia never.

2015 was not an anomaly but rather part of a larger pattern to discredit and delegitimize Israel, the only State in the region which protects human rights.  De-legitimization is a troubling trend that has greatly infected the secular youth of our country, often through the educational environment of our liberal colleges. 

Once again the Jews are the canary in the coal mine.  How Israel will continue to be viewed and treated will say a lot about the value of the world body and the values of our colleges and country. 

For those wishing to read a short impassioned historical justification of the legitimacy of Israel’s actions in the Middle-East, check out this web site:    

Hat tip to Judy Gedali for telling me of the website                  

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Putin Smarter than Obama and Trump?

Trump’s recent tweet on Vladimir Putin, again raised legitimate concerns about the president-elect’s favorable bias towards Russia and the advisability of conducting foreign policy via tweets.  Setting aside these concerns, Trump’s assessment of Putin as being smart is very accurate.

Putin is much shrewder than Obama in international affairs.  Putin thinks strategically while our President thinks tactically.  Witness Putin’s versus Obama’s approach to the civil war in Syria.  Obama’s statement, “Assad must go”, was his initial foray into the Syrian civil war.  This tactical statement gave verbal support to the opposition.  

Unfortunately it was not followed up strategically.  Obama ignored the advice of his Secretary of State and his Secretary of Defense to arm the Syrian rebels.  The chance to overthrow Assad lost.  Later it was strategically impossible to arm the opposition who became contaminated with Islamic terrorists.

The President drew a red line regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  Without regard to strategic consequences, Obama cancelled promised military action to uphold the red line.  Obama’s feckless behavior projected unreliability to our Middle-East allies and weakness to our enemies.

Putin acted strategically.  He offered to broker the removal of Syrian chemical weapons.  Acceptance by the U.S. of Russia’s role resulted in several strategic advantages for Putin.  It ended the U.S. push for international isolation of Russia for its use of military force in Crimea and Ukraine.  It inserted Russia back into the middle-east after thirty-five years of absence.  What followed was closer ties to Syria and its ally Iran, and the establishment of a Russian military base in the heart of the Middle-East. 

The roles of the U.S. and Russia in the Middle-East flipped.  Russia was now the key player in the Middle-East.  The U.S. marginalized.  In the past, Middle-East negotiations often took place in the United States.  This time, the peace negotiations between Assad and the rebels was on Russian soil.  The United States was not even invited to participate.  

Putin’s and Obama’s actions over Russian interference in the Presidential election will hopefully be instructive to our next President.  Acting tactically, Obama publically rebuked Russia rather than just relying on retaliation through secret cyberattacks.  Hoping to hamstring Russian relations with the next administration, Obama kicked out Russian ambassadors.  

Acting strategically, Putin did not respond in kind.  He did not retaliate by removing U.S. ambassadors from Russia.  In the process Putin projected statesmanship and removed a potential black cloud hanging over relations between Russia and the next U.S. administration.

Trump then made his infamous tweet about how smart Putin is.  Going forward, the question is this.  Will Trump, with his inflated ego, realize that Putin is so much smarter than him?          

Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Hanukkah and Christmas Hope for Our Country

Hanukkah is viewed as a trivial celebration, enlarged so Jewish children would not feel left out during the Christmas season.  In reality the story of Hanukkah marks a pivotal moment in mankind's history.   The belief in monotheism hung in the balance.  The story of Hanukkah unfolded at a time in history where only one nation out of the community of nations believed in one God.  

There were cracks in that belief.  The cracks created by a split between the Hellenists, assimilated into the then dominant Greek culture, and the Traditionalists, determined to maintain Jewish law.  Among the Hellenists was the top Jewish religious figure, the High Priest.  Comporting with his Hellenistic views, The High Priest introduced idols of Greek gods into the Holy Temple.  A civil war broke out.  The traditionalists prevailed.  The Temple was cleansed, the alter rebuilt, and the menorah above the alter lit.  Monotheism was saved, along with Christianity that followed two centuries later. 

Once again the clarion call of Judaism could be heard throughout the world -- "Hear, oh Israel, The lord Our God, the Lord is one.  Embedded within that clarion call is the message that the universe emanating from God is one.  We are all one.   All created in the image of God.

The message of unity is part of the biblical requirement to remember the stranger as we were once strangers in a strange land.  The message that we are all the same is part of The Declaration of Independence.  "We hold these truths to be sell evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights ..."  These truths animated those in the Civil Rights movement to risk their lives for justice.

Our country has gone through a bitter and ugly presidential election with the aftermath continuing to divide our country.  It is my hope that in these dark days the lights of Christmas and the candle lights of the Menorah inspire us to remember that no matter what political views we hold, we are united in a profound way by our common humanity. We can disagree with others without being disagreeable.  We can believe that another's political beliefs are wrong without believing that the other's views mean that they are deplorable.

And with that, have a Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukah. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

How And Why Trump Won

Half of America woke up to mourning in America following the election of Donald Trump.   Reactions varied.  Americans in denial pursued efforts to undo the election by rigging the Electoral College vote.  Others, angry and frightened took to the streets to protest #not my president.  All struggled to understand how a hate filled, insensitive, racist, bully won. 

Exit polls belie the popular explanations of “whitelash” and widespread racism.  Compared to 2012, the Republican white vote advantage did not increase.  Rather it was the minorities voting Republican that increased.  A long history of framing Republicans as racist and describing our country as filled with racists backfired.  The cry of wolf wasn’t believed.  To paraphrase Salino Zito’s insightful comment in a piece written for the Atlantic:  Clinton supporters took Trump literally but not seriously, while Trump supporters took him seriously but not literally. 

The Trump victory resulted from the lower economic tier leaving the Democratic Party.  Democratic victories depend on overwhelming support of this demographic to overcome the Republican advantage in all other income groups.  In 2012 Romney bested Obama in income levels above $50,000.    The President won because the under $50,000 income group voted overwhelmingly for him by a 22% margin.  In 2016 the margin narrowed considerably to 9%.

The lower class shift to the right is part of a world-wide phenomenon in developed countries like Britain, Germany, and France.  The issues are the same, lost wages and uncontrolled immigration.  Globalization and technological advances creates winners and losers.  Capitol is fluid, labor is not.   Emerging market laborers benefit from large capital inflows from developed countries while laborers in developed countries suffer.  Dwindling employment opportunities exacerbated by perceived increased job competition from recent immigrants.
Trump addressed the plight and suffering of the blue collar workers, campaigned in their districts, and promised to fix immigration and return lost jobs to America.  Clinton did not.

The uplifting Democratic Convention messaging of liberal democratic values – inclusiveness, diversity, multiculturalism – was out of sync with the working class circumstance.   Lacking economic stability, aspirational goals are a very low priority.  

Clinton’s lengthy government experience was a negative for the working class who culturally distrust government.  Trump’s message that the political system is corrupt and rigged against the little guy resonated with them.  Clinton was the perfect foil -- fabulous wealth achieved not by hard work in the private sector but by leveraging her political connections, use of a separate secret email server for government communications then lying about it in public, and being under FBI investigation for pay for play schemes.  

Clinton provided no personal vision for governing the country.  Rather she yoked herself to the President’s legislative agenda, believing that his popularity had coattails.  The President’s high approval rating masked a simmering discontent within the country beyond the tepid economic recovery that primarily benefited the moneyed class.  Obamacare was the Achilles heel.   Disliked from the start, more unpopular with time.  Promises of keeping your doctor, lower healthcare costs, and improved care, proved strikingly untrue.   
The shift towards Republicans began in 2010, right after the passage of Obamacare, and has continued with every election since.  The size of the shift is enormous.  Obama’s presidency began with 60 and ends with 48 Democratic Senators.  The House shift went from 257 to 197 Democrats.  A comparable large shift in power occurred at the state level.

Over the course of several decades the Democrat’s focus on the powerless working class shifted towards creating a more perfect society.  The little guy who bore the brunt of the social and economic programs emanating from that shift was not happy and ended up voting for a crude juvenile lout.  The antithesis of the liberal democratic aspirational values.  An ignoble ending to hope and change.   

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Danger of "Black Lives Matter"

The racial fault lines have emerged with a vengeance, tinged bright red with the blood of the black and blue in America.  High profile killings of unarmed black citizens by mostly white police officers are matched by high profile targeting and killings of police officers by mostly black shooters.

The American history of equal rights for blacks is tortuous and bloody, punctuated by slavery, lynchings, mutilations, rapes and beatings, and the indignities of segregation and Jim Crow laws.  It is also a history of white sacrifice for civil rights through the blood of Civil War soldiers and the grizzly deaths of white civil rights organizers at the hands of the KKK.   The journey to justice continues -- laws passed to end segregation, treasure spent to ease black poverty, “Head Start” and Affirmative Action” to provide a hand up.

There has been great progress on the road to justice for blacks, the penultimate being the election a black President.  So one would think … except the gulf between black and white perceptions on progress made and distance to go has widened not narrowed. 

The gap widened because the goal for justice changed for black youth from equality under the law to equality in the eyes of others.  Laws ending segregation and discrimination and programs to rectify historical injustices are insufficient for full acceptance.  Full acceptance requires America to live up to the truth contained in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, and by implication, to be treated with the respect and dignity accorded all human beings.
Dignity and respect are the youth’s metric for evaluating racial progress in America.  On campus, microaggressions are the measure of racial insensitivity.  For society at large, their litmus test is the interactions with the police, the front line of the government’s attitudes towards blacks.
Interactions with law enforcement are fraught with historical flashback moments.  The echoes of the slave master heard in the harsh authoritarian voice and the requirement of unquestioned obedience.  The poking and prodding of stop and frisk; the face down prone position of arrest; and the driving while black experiences, all reminiscent of the humiliating and degrading methods of Jim Crow policing.

 “Black Lives Matter” is the prominent voice on police treatment of blacks.  Not surprisingly the racial divide turns from a gap to a gulf over views of this movement.  Whites are confused and angered by the accusations of the movement, particularly the accusations that racism is widespread and systemic.  Blacks are angered that whites are tone deaf to the importance of focusing on black lives.  The problem is not that all lives matter, it is that black lives in America matter less or not at all.

Political leaders and pundits add to the racial divide by promoting false narratives and misleading statistics.  Two examples.  Michael Brown was not pleading don’t shoot while holding his hands up.  Instead, he attempted to wrest the police officer’s gun, ignored commands to stop, and was shot while moving towards the officer.  Police are not color blind in their actions.  A recent Harvard study shows police are significantly more likely to manhandle black suspects.

The philosophy of the “Black Lives Matter” movement is ominously radical and potentially dangerous.  The leaders believe all of America’s institutions are designed by the white privileged to suppress blacks.  Refusing to work within the system, they prefer to disrupt the system.  White Democrats have been flummoxed by “Black Lives Matter” protesting, interrupting, and taking over campaign appearances.   Blacks protesting Democrats instead of Republicans is new territory for Democrats who believe they have established bona fides on race relations.

“Black Lives Matter” leaders refuse to work within the system because it believes the institutions are inherently racist and therefore must be destroyed and rebuilt.  These views create the potential for the movement to turn violent.   There have been pockets of violent rhetoric against police, and property destruction, at some protest rallies.  Further, the anarchistic views encourage the likes of Gavon Long, the black supremacist, anti-government, cop killer in Baton Rouge.

This is the time for courage from our black and white political leaders.  Black leaders, while supporting the emphasis on dignity, must denounce the anarchistic rhetoric of “Black Lives Matter” and discourage the narrative that racism is in America’s DNA and is institutionally systemic.  White leaders must acknowledge that police officers, and many other segments of society, treat blacks differently, and that many whites fear blacks, particularly young black men.

In short, it is time to have an honest conversation about race in America.  Otherwise it will be a long hot summer.