Saturday, June 30, 2007

Boy Scouts and family commitments

I've been out of town since June 24 and am still not yet back home--though in front of a computer for the first time in almost a week.

I'll hope to have some commentary on the Supreme Court decisions, among other things, this coming week--though work issues and yes, synagogue issues may get in the way, too. Again, you read that right. You're reading the blog of someone who happens to be the president of the local, Poway Conservative synagogue known as Ner Tamid (I assumed office on May 27, 2007). Yes, the heretic shall lead them, I suppose...And so far, it's been a whirlwind and somewhat fun to help the synagogue, which has had a perfect storm of crises: financial, leadership and clergy. We are moving toward solving short term problems. The key will be setting the foundation to solve long-term problems.

Anyway, gotta go. I just returned from Catalina Island's Cherry Valley Boy Scout camp, and a week of dirt-living in tents with my son. As a proud Dad, allow me to say Andrew is making his way to the "Star" level in Boy Scouts. He is then going to go for "Life" level and finally, "Eagle Scout." I'm so proud of him!

And Shayna, my daughter, just "bridged" from Brownies to Juniors! Hooray!

Yup. We're the economic populist family, with less than lefty cultural values. Marx would understand, and so would Eugene Debs...and Mother Jones herself!

(Edited! Goodness, was I tired!)

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Government sponsored national health insurance a step up from private enterprise

The next time someone says, "If we have government health insurance, it will be like the DMV or the US Post Office," just say, "That would be an improvement in efficiency and coverage over private insurance companies."

Think about how often private insurance companies are sued for fraud, bad faith denial of claims. How often they give you the runaround on the phone. Or lose the paperwork, their obtuse paperwork I might add, when you've sent it in to them. Or when they say they'll cover something, and don't and you're back to multiple phone calls and more paperwork. And how the average administrative expenses for private insurance companies range from 15% to 25% (while Medicare and Medicaid, which cover high, at-risk populations, have between them less than 5% administrative costs). Oh, and remember, insurance companies get to choose, at least sometimes, who to insure.

Having had some pleasant experiences with the DMV in California in recent years, yes, really, and mostly great experiences with the US Post Office, which have lower administrative costs, we would be far better off as a nation to have national health insurance administrated by the government.

A fine rant against the rant against government spending

MaxSpeak, over at his alternative digs of the much-loathed Pajamas Media, explains to assorted right wingers why they are full of it when they rip into "pork-barrel" spending. It reminds me of the 1980 Republican Study Group report to the their hopefully-incoming President, Ronald Wilson Reagan (Mr. 666) where, trying to be helpful, decided to look for "waste and fraud" in government spending. I mean, after all, that "liberal" Democratic Party President Jimmy Carter had approved a deficit that year of almost $50 billion. Heavens!

So anyway, the RSG's conclusion was that almost half the waste and fraud identified was in the military department, quaintly known since 1947 as the "Defense" Department. A later study authorized in 1981 by the then-new Office of Management & Budget Director, David Stockman, had to tell Reagan that 60% of the waste and fraud his group found was in the military. Reagan's response was of course to substantially increase military spending.

Max is right that the screaming from the right about government spending is really, "We right wingers don't like any government spending that doesn't result in killing people."

Friday, June 22, 2007

Cheney wants us to believe he is an island unto himself

So Dick Cheney thinks he is not of the Executive Branch, but of the Legislative Branch...or somewhere outside space and time.

Interesting that the US Supreme Court, in Cheney v. District Court (2004), seemed to assume he was in the Executive Branch as Vice President.

I wish more Congress members would sign on to Kucinich's bill to impeach Cheney.


And now Bush himself is thumbing his nose at official oversight. If Clinton had done this, he'd have been impeached even without his lying about his sexual affair.

It is amazing to me that Congressional Democrats can fail to impeach a president and vice president who have shown such disrespect for law and institutions, lied about matters of war and peace, and any number of other public policy matters, and where the president is rotting at or 26% or 27% in the polls, and the vice president is barely around 20% approval.

Republicans in California recalled Governor Gray Davis, who is a Democratic Party member, because of poor poll results (and supposedly raising too much money or something like that...), and Republicans in Congress impeached a far more popular Clinton for a lie that had no discrenable relationship to anything as grave as the conduct of the current president and vice president in terms of the Constitution or public policy.

Muslim religious groups have the right to sue, too...

Eugene Volokh, professor of constitutional law at UCLA, has written a wonderfully analyzed article for the National Review (!) on the subject of why Muslim groups have as much right to seek redress from the US governmnent on religious freedom grounds as any other religious group. His point is also that the government's rejection of some of their lawsuits is also part of the process.

See also this post of mine from March 2006 where I ripped into a silly law review article that posited that rejected lawsuits filed by Catholic and Baptist groups meant US courts were discrminiating against Catholics and Baptists. The reason the law review articles was flawed is what Volokh also explains in his article: Any religious group which seeks an exemption from a law relating to health and safety or discrimination in employment, for example, is likely to be rejected, no matter which religious group sues on that ground.

Overall, the point Volokh makes is sound: Muslim groups have as much right to seek redress in our courts as any other religious group, but have no greater rights than any other religious group to be granted an exemption from the application of secular laws.*

*Still, I wonder whether the Muslim police officer who wanted to wear a Muslim-headress on the job may have had a potentially valid case under statutes passed under the Republican-era Congress in the 1990s to expand the scope of exemptions for religious groups and individuals. My sense is that, unlike a yarmulke, which is a small head cap worn by Jews, and easily hidden under a police officer's hat/cap (which the 1990s era law did protect for Jewish military officers) the headress may be larger and more obtrusive. Such distinctions of the size and obtrusiveness of religious clothing or head coverings are judicially and logically valid, in my view, and are not invidiously discriminatory.


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Ze'ev Schiff: In Memoriam

Ze'ev Schiff, Israel's leading military reporter, has died at the age of 74. He is already missed. He was one of the few reporters who dug out facts, could be relied upon to find a variety of authoritative (in the sense of knowledge, not rank or position) sources, and understood the complexities and intersection between the political and the military, and the politics of the military.

Schiff's co-authored book on Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 remains the definitive book on the subject.

Ze'ev, a military salute to you from one of your devoted civilian readers.


Thursday, June 14, 2007

I thought it was the lie, not the underlying act...

The chorus of those who want the Cheney/Rove (Bush) administration to pardon Libby continues to grow inside the Beltway, though not much outside the Beltway.

One of the right-wing mantras making the rounds is that there should be no perjury conviction unless one is also convicted of an underlying crime. Or, to put it another way, if there is no underlying crime, then Libby should not have been prosecuted for lying to the grand jury or prosecutors.*

In the late 1990s, that was decidedly not the right wing mantra regarding Clinton's lie in deposition and grand jury. Here is one example of an editorialist in the Wall St. Journal, 1999, writing not too long after Senate Republicans impeached, but did not convict, Clinton:

"The center of the dysfunction (about Clinton) is not the sex but the lies, which come so effortlessly because at any given moment he believes them."

And back then, Larry Elder, a conservative pro-Republican commentator, was telling us it was Clinton's lie, not his underlying sexual conduct that mattered.

And let's be clear. What Clinton lied about was not itself a crime. Clinton did not have sex with an underaged woman, but a woman 22 years old at the time of the events.

So, let's see, Clinton lied about an adulterous affair with a younger woman, while Libby lied about outing a CIA agent who did covert work per the CIA--in order to politically malign the CIA agent's husband, who had loyally served under the first President Bush. Ask yourself, of the two examples of underlying conduct, which is worse from a national security standpoint? Which is worse overall? Clinton's conduct? Guess again.

Simply stated, there is no principle at work in the fevered minds of some of these right wingers. Just a raw abuse of language and argument for short-term political ends. Libby should be sentenced to prison for his crime of perjury, at least as long as Alger Hiss was in prison.

Bonus point: Let's imagine the Republican reaction if a Democratic Party Vice President's Chief of Staff outed a CIA agent as part of a political smear to justify a misleading aspect in going to war--and then lied to prosecutors about it. Wouldn't the mantra be "Traitor! Traitor!" and wouldn't that Chief of Staff have to fear for his life that some right wing kook or even angry CIA agent would shoot him?

Again, there are clearly some fevered minds out there among the right wing commentators in the US--and their weak, liberal enablers in the Beltway.

*Never mind that evidence did surface during the time of the criminal prosecution of Libby that the CIA considered its agent, Valerie Plame, to be covert, and that further, because she did some of her work overseas during the five years before the outing leak by Libby and others in the Cheney-Rove (Bush) administration, there could well have been a violation of the statute prohibiting "outing" a "covert" (narrowly defined in the statute) CIA agent. Apparently, the prosecutor Fitzgerald believed it would be too difficult to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Libby knew all of that at the time--which is why Fitzgerald settled for a prosecution based only upon perjury.


Sunday, June 10, 2007

A thoughtful interview with an Israeli post-Zionist

Avrum Burg is an important person in Israeli politics. His apostasy from conventional Zionism is therefore profound. Here is an interview from Ha'aretz with Burg that I doubt many American Jewish newspapers or American Jewish organizations would want their readers or followers to read with any sympathy. And by "American Jewish newspapers," I mean newspapers such as this or this.

Personally, I find Burg's arguments regarding the nature and future of Zionism emotionally troubling, but I do find the arguments logically compelling. I also find his historical understanding to be largely accurate, though I don't think he is recognizing that, without a comprhensive peaceful solution with the Palestinian people, to seek an "American" solution inside Israel of separating "Temple" from "State" is more likely to decrease than increase the security of Israeli Jews.

Still, it is well worth reading this interview with Burg. Also, if you wish to read a surprising work of memoir and history of Israel, I heartily recommend Shimon Peres' "The Imaginary Voyage: with Theodore Herzl in Israel" (Arcade Publishing 1999). I loved reading this book and found it remarkable in its analysis, especially coming from an active politician. I also found it beautifully written, something less rare in other nations, though terribly rare in American political culture.

Addendum: Peres has just been elected president of Israel. However, the position of president is more ceremonial than substantive. The real political power resides in the prime minister office. For that, the Labor Party has just nominated former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. My sense is that although Peres is a former Labor Party person now associated with the ruling Kadima Party (current Prime Minister Olmert is from Kadima), his presence in the race may give some initial boost to Barak's prospects of recapturing the Prime Minister position.


Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The most haunting "What if?" of the American 20th Century

Thirty nine years ago today, Senator Robert F. Kennedy died of gunshot wounds.

Here is a link that provides you with his most famous speeches in his own voice. Just listen to the speech identified as "The Gross National Product." The way that speech touches our best traditional values with a prescient vision for the future has, for me, always captured the essence of Robert Kennedy. Other worthy speeches that have modern relevance or were, for their time, remarkably prophetic, include his speeches on the Vietnam war and the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.--and "The Mindless Menace of Violence."

(Side note: The link containing the speeches also contains a spot-on parody where a person impersonates RFK singing "Wild Thing." I have always loved that parody!)

The year Robert Kennedy died, 1968, was a crossroads year for the United States, in an economic, political and cultural sense. The "What if?" question--What would have happened if RFK had not been shot and killed?--may be perhaps the most haunting "What if?" for an entire generation of Americans. Yet, the question resonates through today as the inequities of wealth continue to spread, where we remain mired in an unpopular war with too many gutless politicians not willing to stand up and say, "Let's get out now...", and where our planet may yet punish us for not heeding the warnings over climate change. The unsolved problems of 1968 resonate in the way we discuss immigration and equal rights for homosexuals, where we continue too often to blame the victim, and where cynicism over our civic institutions continues to permeate our public discourse (This last terrible trend may have finally begun to subside after the Hurricane Katrina fiasco).

Yes, I wrote a book that provides an "alternative history" answer to that question. I have also written, for Amazon, an essay which presents the case for RFK winning the nomination and presidency that year.

If Robert Kennedy was able to speak to us today, he'd exhort us, most of all, not to lose faith in our nation. We should continue to strongly debate public policy, but we must, above all else, believe in the institutions in America and our ability to improve them on behalf of all of America. Yes, that is sentimental. But it's high time we recognize that a cynic sees no more accurate reflection of reality than a sentimentalist. Each is fatally flawed without the other.

As RFK was fond of saying to those who doubted the ability of America to overcome its challenges, "Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream things that never were, and say, 'Why not?'"


Sunday, June 03, 2007

David Steinberg leads me to compare Philip Roth and Mordecai Richler

I know I dissed Vanity Fair magazine in a previous post (see here), but this short interview with David Steinberg is outstanding, less for the questions posed, than for Steinberg's cogent and often succinctly funny responses.

I can't wait for Steinberg's outrageously conceived autobiography to be released next week. Steinberg's comedy routines from the Sixties about Jews, Judaism, Christianity and Christians, and his recurring psychiatrist character, remain deeply funny to me to this day.

One interesting thing: Steinberg, a Canadian Jew whose father was a rabbi, lists his favorite writers as Mark Twain, Philip Roth and Paddy Chayevsky. I was surprised that Steinberg would find Roth more compelling than the Canadian-Jewish writer, Mordecai Richler. I consider Richler to have a much wider and deeper lens than Roth. Richler was also a more descriptive novelist than Roth. Just read the first few chapters of "Solomon Gursky Was Here" and tell me there's anything Roth has written that approaches that novel. Anything. Roth's novels' lens strike me as claustrophobic, particularly Roth's obsession with the sexual thoughts of his characters. Worse, an outsider reading Roth rarely "feels" the Jewish section of Newark, New Jersey the way one feels Montreal and Canada as with Richler--or for that matter, Salinas, California with Steinbeck, for another example. Too often, Roth's idea of describing Newark to readers is to name streets and restaurants without giving the reader who did not know these streets or restaurants any feeling of what it was like to actually live there.

Personal digression: I knew the "Jewish section" of Newark only in its last throes of the 1960s as a youngster when I would go with my parents to visit my truly beloved Grandmother, before the riot that devastated Newark in 1967. See this link for a horrible, yet poignant photo from that riot (WARNING: This link of a Life Magazine cover of this tragic photo from that riot was seared in my young brain when that issue arrived at our family home shortly after the riot). Tom Hayden's now rare book, "Rebellion in Newark" (I found no links available on the web that describe the book with any specificity!) explained, in real time, the riot in sociological and political terms. Ironically, Hayden's analysis was confirmed to me by an old Italian guy who owned a movie theater in Newark, who used to watch my mother in a baby carriage while acting as the film projectionist in the mid-1930s. He never even heard of Tom Hayden, but he used the word "revolution" to describe the riot. He then told me, because he had been nice to black kids (letting them in the theater no differently than white kids when they were a dime short of the price of a movie ticket) his theater was never ransacked or touched. He had an armed guard of black men outside his theater, and at his home, even though he never requested it, throughout the riot.

My Dad was two years behind Roth in Hebrew School in the Jewish section of Newark and fondly remembers Roth being the class "cut-up" (more respectful a description than a mere "class clown"). However, he was upset at Roth's books in the early to mid-1960 for their ripping portrayal of the Jewish families who my Dad continues to greatly revere. My Dad's brother, my Uncle, adores Roth and his novels and says Roth exactly nails it in his portrayal of Jewish families of that time in Newark. I see the virtue in both of their viewpoints, though I think Roth's perspective overshot its criticism and was itself the product of a general libertine rebellion among his generation of Jews against their parents' ingestion of the so-called American "Protestant ethic." Roth's early novels contained a brutal polemic against his father's sensibilities and work as a salesman that an older Roth later came to regret (see: his non-fiction work, "Patrimony," for example). More recently, Roth's portrayal of the Dad in "The Plot Against America" is highly reverential! (END OF PERSONAL DISGRESSION)

A reader who may doubt me regarding the shallow perspective of Roth compared to Richler should at least compare the perspective Richler shows in "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" to Roth's perspective in his book, "Goodbye Columbus", both originally released in 1959. I can see the strength of "Goodbye Columbus" is its powerful understanding of the sexually repressive atmosphere of middle class life in the US which existed at that time. Yet, Roth's novella (there are other short stories published with the main story) contains an ironic element because Roth's narrator subjectively identifies with the lead character. Yet, a post-feminist reading of the lead character reveals a far less likable character than Roth imagined. Richler, however, showed far more self-awareness in his portrayal of the often boorish and supremely hustling Duddy Kravitz. Richler already had a better understanding than Roth of the concurrent economic and cultural forces in which his character acted and to which his lead character responded.

Recently, I tried (again) to read Roth's "American Pastoral," but again concluded Roth lacked a deep first-hand understanding of the political events he discusses. It is was if Roth had to study the political issues the way one would study ancient Greek politics. I seem to recall a feminist oriented writer at the Nation, who was not a by-stander during the Sixties, making a similar point when that novel was released. Richler, on the other hand, reveals remarkable depth in his understanding of the fights among Jewish and Gentile supporters of Trotsky, Stalin, and Debs, for example, and a laser like understanding of the intellectual literary and political fights of the 1930s and 1940s--and is hilarious and spot on in his portrayals of characters involved in such fights.

I admit to being rougher on Roth than is perhaps warranted. But I was reminded of Roth's primacy and Richler's growing obscurity last evening when my wife and I visited our local Border's. There was not one Richler novel in the Border's vast fiction section, yet there were a dozen Roth books, essentially as many Dickens and Steinbeck novels. And of course, the Modern Library continues to release Roth's novels through its much respected publishing house, a decision I expect the Modern Library will regret 20 years hence as a later generation scratches its collective head at the fuss over Roth.

Final comment: Here is an interview with Richler regarding his last novel, "Barney's Version" (1998), a novel I did not read until about two or three years ago. The novel is a "memoir" of a television personality in Canada with the footnotes by the man's son correcting errors in the memoir text, all while attempting to solve the mystery of whether the memoirist-father had killed his best friend for having an affair with his wife (and of course, the son's mother). The son's "Afterword" is a brilliant touch. Reading the book, I was amazed at its seamless melding of fiction and non-fiction, its portrayal of a man feverishly attempting to record the events of his life as his memory fails him, the character's random statements that slowly reveal a sense of guilt about his life, and the novel's creative use of footnotes. I was knocked out by this valedictory novel of Richler's, which confirmed why I adore Richler so.

Simply put, both men looked longingly into the mirror of their immediate surroundings, but Richler observed far more beyond, and outside that mirror.

Bonus point: A film based upon one of Richler's other funny and brilliant novels, "Joshua Then and Now," is unfortunately not available on DVD, only VHS tape. However, the film is one of the funniest portrayals of Jewish interactions with Gentiles I've ever seen. James Wood is outstanding and Alan Arkin explodes with profound and funny wisdom in every scene he's in. Once you see the film, you'll never forget it or Arkin's character. The film remains an important reference point among various relatives in my family.


Saturday, June 02, 2007

Einstein and Darwin, titans of science

A well-constructed and informative review of the latest books on the life and times of Albert Einstein in the New York Review of Books is worth a careful read.

A fascinating discussion of Einstein by none other than J. Robert Oppenheimer, from the New York Review in 1966, is here. Oppie wrote this article just under a year before his own death in February 1967. Incidentally, I recently finished the Kai Bird/Martin Sherwin bio of Oppie. It was one of the greatest biographies I ever read. Their understanding of the nuances and complex reasons that led people such as Oppie to hang out with Communist Party members in the 1930s and early 1940s is the best analysis I've seen on the subject. The prose in the biography is also clear and exciting and the weaving of science and politics is outstanding.

Finally, I am reading this nicely drawn intellectual biography of Darwin by noted paleontologist Niles Eldredge. As Darwin's 200th birthday (February 12, 1809) approaches, we should be seeing a rich discussion of Darwin and his continuing legacy. Alert history-oriented readers may note that Darwin's birthday is the exact day and year as Abraham Lincoln's birthday. I'm sure that is a coincidence, but it sure is cool to think about!