Sunday, September 30, 2007

The New York Times goes to college

Anything and everything you want to know about college is the theme of today's the New York Times Sunday magazine. Topics range from affirmative action to violence on campus to curriculum development to the most popular major on campus . . . slacking.

The issue includes the winning essay from the Times-sponsored contest, "What's the Matter with College?"

Just before the Times published Rick Perlstein's essay of the same name and opened the contest to college students, I published my own thoughts on the contemporary college experience, "College is not the 13th grade." That post turned out to be the most widely-read essay I have published on PoliScope (at least according to Google Analytics). A major theme of that essay is the disservice that "helicopter parents" do their children by extending rather than cutting the umbilical cord once they arrive on campus. Interestingly, the response I received to that essay was almost uniformly positive (including an offer (declined) to publish it in a national education journal), the sole critical comment coming from a professorial colleague.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Stopping sticks and stones in the nuclear age

Four and half years ago, or approximately a week before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, had you asked most Americans what an IED was, they would have probably told you it was a birth control device.

Not so much anymore. The Washington Post leads its Sunday front page with the first installment of a multi-part series on the use of roadside bombs against American troops in Iraq. What I found most startling about the headline was the admission by American commanders that the IED is the "most single effective weapon against our deployed forces." As obvious as that might seem to anyone who has followed the war, it hasn't always been obvious to American officials, civilian and military, who have commented on the war's progress. Just over two years ago, Dick Cheney infamously predicted that the insurgency was "in its last throes."

There's a lot you can say about Dick Cheney. He is deceitful, dishonest, hypocritical, insensitive, arrogant and delusional.

But visionary? Not a chance.

After reading the Post piece, I'm not so sure I feel better about American commanders' capacity to understand the IED phenomenon. Officials interviewed in the article talk a great deal about technology, pacing and the difficulties of a technology-driven military to combat such a crude yet enormously effective killing tool. Two-thirds of the approximately 3,100 American combat deaths have come from IEDs.

Six years removed from September 11, 2001, there are still Americans -- and it appears to be a substantial majority -- who believe that the absence of a terrorist attack in the United States bears some relationship to the "counterterrorism" measures we have taken since then. As long as there are people who are willing to die for some larger cause, there is nothing a sovereign nation can do to prevent terrorism. Barriers around buildings, TV cameras, sophisticated screening procedures, cumbersome I.D. checks and all the other cosmetic adjustments in what passes for our anti-terrorism policy are nothing more than symbolic gestures to placate a public that cannot and will not come to grips with the realization that no military solution exists to combat a social and political movement driven by nationalism and religion. Americans who continue to support the war in Iraq are not willing to sacrifice their personal fortune for the cause, much less put their life on the line. Say what you want about Islamic terrorists or Iraqi insurgents and define them as you wish -- these are people willing to die in the name of their cause. American soldiers will continue to meet their death -- or maiming -- from IEDs as long as the United States remains in Iraq. And the reason that Iraqi fighters will continue to confound American efforts to limit IED-fatalities is no different from our ineffectiveness in combating terrorism. An enemy that is willing to die will always remain one step ahead of an opponent that is fighting a war for to achieve objectives that its leaders cannot define and that its own citizens cannot comprehend.

UPDATE: Part Two of the Post series is here. Part Three is here and Part Four is here.

Put your hands up, judge!

A former Oklahoma trial judge was found guilty on Friday of indecent exposure while presiding over proceedings in his courtroom. A jury concluded that Judge Donald Thompson used a "penis pump" in at least four trials based on eyewitness testimony from a court reporter, attorneys and others familiar with his behavior.

Ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo-kay, then!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Red state update on the Jena Six

Jackie and Dunlap offer their commentary on the Jena Six.

Keep up with Jackie and Dunlap on Red State Update, which you can visit here. These guys are hilarious!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Jena Six, continued

Reed Walters, the LaSalle Parish district attorney who has come under criticism from civil rights organizations upset with his conduct in prosecuting the Jena Six, has an Op-Ed article in the New York Times this morning explaining his position in the matter.

Walters emphasizes two main points in defense of his prosecutorial choices. First, he wants everyone to know that he is only following the law, and not making an exception for the African-American defendants in the case. Second, he explains in greater detail the offense that resulted Mychal Bell initially being charged with conspiracy to commit second-degree murder. He also mentions that Bell had a prior criminal record, another factor in upping the charges. Walters's goal, then, is clear -- to exonerate himself from charges of racial prejudice by cloaking himself in the neutrality of the law.

I'm not sure Walters manages to convince readers skeptical of his motives in the Jena case. On the other hand, he will reinforce the support he has among whites in LaSalle Parish, which is sharply divided by race in their perception of what happened on December 4th, 200, by not retreating from his decision to seek jail time for the Jena Six.

A point I'm not sure I made well enough in my post from Friday comparing the Duke Lacrosse incident with the Jena Six concerns the nature of racial privilege. Most whites still do not comprehend the nature of racial privilege that skin color affords them in the social, political and economic spheres of American society, and never really have. From the Civil War forward, leaving the antebellum period behind, the American government never abolished the formal guarantees of racial privilege unless African-Americans and other minorities demanded it. The idea that whites are now or will ever be on the outside looking in of American society borders on science fiction.

Perception and privilege provide an advantage to whites unavailable to African-Americans. Who did what to whom in the Jena case will never be known. But before Reed Walters made a single decision, his perception of the severity of the white and black students' behavior led him to make the choices he did. If the roles were reversed, and white students gone to the black principal at their school and asked him if they could "sit under the black tree," if the white students had come back the next day to find stuffed pillows with bullet holes through them, if the six white students had jumped and beaten a black kid . . . if, if, if . . . if the actors and roles had been reversed, what would Reed Walters have done?

Would the national news media have come to the rescue of three African-American players on the Duke basketball team if they had been accused, falsely as it turned out, of raping two white strippers? Better yet, would an escort service had sent two white girls to a party of 35 black athletes? Maybe the answers to these questions aren't as pleasant as we'd like to think. Confessing that skin color advantages whites in everything they do is certainly not easy to admit. Personal growth, though, has its growing pains.

A partial answer to these questions can be found in the story of Genarlow Wilson, a former standout African-American football player at Douglas High School in suburban Atlanta. Read what happened to him after he admitted having consensual oral sex with a 10th grade girl. Some of the story isn't flattering to Wilson, just as the Duke Lacrosse players will admit that night in March 2006 wasn't their finest moment. Did he deserve 10 years in prison and a wrecked future?

For a more extensive discussion on race, privilege and law, read my post, "Another World in Black and White," from last July .

Oops! Looks like strike three was really foul-tipped

The UAW and GM have settled their differences after a two-day strike by the nation's largest industrial union. Both sides feel vindicated.

From what I gather, the UAW exchanged job protection for assuming liability of GM's health care costs and retirement benefits. Funds will be placed in a trust that will be administered by the union.

The United States is not the only developed nation in the West to struggle with the rights and needs of unionized employees and the prerogatives of management. Germany, France and Great Britain, to name the three most familiar countries, have their own struggles. But one matter that is not up for negotiation in health care, which is provided through the government.

Debate all you want the merits of a private, for-profit health care system with a universal, government-funded one. Whether the American way will continue to be a major stumbling block in employer-employee relations and operate as a drag on the domestic economy is a much easier question to answer.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Strike Three

Yesterday, the Union Auto Workers went on strike against General Motors, marking the first time since 1971 the UAW has struck against the nation's largest manufacturer of not just cars, but of anything. But here's a telling statistic: in 1971, the UAW had 410,000 members employed by GM. Today, that number is 73,00.

That's right. UAW members employed by GM have dwindled by 327,000. In 2003, the UAW's total membership numbered 310,000. Now that number, which includes GM, Ford and Chrysler, is 180,000. In the past 18 months, GM has eliminated 34,400 union jobs through buyouts and early retirement, Ford 27,000 and Chrysler, a much smaller car manufacturer, about 7,000. The American economy, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, hosts 146 million jobs. The 73,000 UAW members on strike comprise .05 percent of the American labor force. In 1983, 1 in 5 American salaried or hourly-paid workers belonged to a union. For private sector employees today, that number is 7 percent. The largest labor union is the United States is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents approximately 1.4 public sector employees. Next is the American Federation of Teachers with approximately 1 million members and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which counts approximately 600,000 members. These unions do not include employees of the United States Postal Service.

In other words, industrial unions are rapidly becoming the dinosaur of the American labor movement. That doesn't prevent the leaders of American corporations -- including those with a multinational presence -- from turning organized labor into a bogeyman. Labor unions have little pull in politics, the protests of their opponents not withstanding. Just three weeks after Labor Day, a holiday that gives almost all workers (excluding "emergency" workers and those in hospitals and other "essential" professions) outside the retail, restaurant and hospitality industries the day off, there is something ironic about what was once the nation's most powerful and influential union calling a strike and having almost no one pay attention.

The automobile business in the United States is in irreversible decline. More than 50% of GM cars are sold outside the United States, with China the new growth market for American car manufacturers. Union membership will continue to dwindle. Given how poorly American cars perform against their counterparts from Japan, it is remarkable that GM, Ford and Chrysler have stuck around as long as they have. I once owned a Pontiac Sunbird that my father was "nice" enough to sell me at a discount when I was in graduate school. There is no mincing words here -- the car was complete piece of shit. It was so bad that a few weeks before my wife and I moved to Washington in her Toyota Camry in 1989, I left the Sunbird running overnight with the windows rolled down and put a sign on the windshield that said, "Steal Me, No Questions Asked." Not only did I fail to get a taker, some amateur comedian, probably on his way home from an open mic night, left a sign in the front driver's seat that said, "I Did But Hated It So Much I'm Giving It Back." Since then we have owned three Toyotas and they've all run and held up well. Every time I see an otherwise intelligent friend of mine driving a Detroit car, including the ones who don't buy toilet paper without consulting Consumer Reports, I shake my head in disbelief.

Corporate America has done a fantastic job persuading Americans that they don't need unions to protect themselves in the labor market. Corporate executives have also persuaded Americans that is okay from them to earn record salaries and bonuses and that their counterparts in labor earn too much. Americans continue to remain one of the few countries in developed world that adheres to the notion that individuals are lucky to have jobs and deserve only to get paid what their employers want to pay them. Details like profit margins, stockholders, financial gamesmanship and so on do not seem to enter their decision-calculus. Competition is undoubtedly a good thing. But markets alone, which are creation of law and politics, not natural forces, do not guarantee social justice.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Little Rock Nine photo exhibit

Click here to see historic photographs of the Little Rock Nine's first day at Central High School.

The Little Rock Nine -- 50 years later

Fifty years ago today, on September 23rd, 1957, members of the Little Rock, Arkansas police force quietly escorted nine African-American students into Central High School, carrying out an order issued by U.S. District Court judge Ronald Davies that enjoined Governor Orval Faubus from using the Arkansas National Guard to block their admission. Not even an hour after the students had entered the building, demonstrators had gathered around the outnumbered policemen who had remained near a school entrance and began threatening them. The police retrieved the students from the building and drove them to a safe house. At the start of the school year on September 4th, the same nine students had attempted to walk into school on their own, yet were blocked by members of the Arkansas National Guard who, on Governor Orval Faubus's orders, were authorized to use force to repel their entrance. Eight students were fortunate enough to hear what awaited them at Central and turned around before confronting the soldiers. One student, Elizabeth Eckford, did not get the message. She had ridden the public bus to Central High, got off, and walked towards the main entrance. Followed by a jeering mob of white students, she headed toward the National Guardsmen posted by the door, thinking they were there to protect her. When a guard raised his bayonet towards Eckford, she turned around to the shouting and spitting of the white students. Terrified by calls to "lynch the nigger bitch," Eckford ran toward a bus stop, where she was met by a reporter and a sympathetic white woman whose husband taught at the local black college. They saw to it that Eckford got home safely.

President Dwight Eisenhower was furious at the chaos that Faubus had created by refusing to enforce a desegregation plan drawn up by Little Rock public schools superintendent Virgil Blossom. Faubus initially agreed to oversee the "gradual" desegregation of the Little Rock schools. During late 1955, Faubus faced a stiff reelection challenge from a segregationist candidate who hammered the governor hard on the school desegregation issue. Faubus took up the segregationist cause with the zeal of a convert, announcing in January 1956 that "Arkansas [was] not ready for complete and sudden mixing of races in public schools," a position he steadfastly maintained up until the showdown with Eisenhower in September 1958.

Eisenhower, preoccupied with the Cold War and the Soviet Union's increasingly aggressive posture towards the United States, had never issued a public statement one way or another on Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Faubus's behavior was too much for Eisenhower, who, as a decorated and beloved World War II general, believed in the chain of command, and had no doubt where he stood compared to the Arkansas governor. On September 24th, Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and ordered 1,000 paratroopers from the 101st Army Airborne Division to oversee the security of the African-American students. Eis[enhower went on television to explain his action to the nation:

[I]n speaking from the house of Lincoln, of Jackson, and of Wilson, my words would better convey both the sadness I feel in the action I was compelled today to take and the firmness with which I intend to pursue this course until the orders at Little Rock can be executed without unlawful interference. . . . Our personal opinions on the decision have no bearing on matters of enforcement. . . . Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts.

On September 25th, the nine students entered Central again. Eight of the nine students remained at Central for the remainder of the 1957-58 school year, as did the troops. Despite having the 101st Airborne Division as hall monitors and patrols, the year did not go smoothly for either the students or the school. In August 1958, Governor Faubus, supported by the state legislature, ordered the Little Rock schools closed for the academic year. White students had fled the public schools in droves, and Faubus's decision to shut them down made clear that he would have the last say. A year later, after the Supreme Court ruled in Cooper v. Aaron (1958) that states did not possess "sovereign authority" to resist a federal constitutional ruling, the Little Rock schools reopened their doors. The Court's decision in Cooper was unanimous, and took special care to point out that every justice, even those who were not on the bench for Brown, agreed with the principle that state-sponsored segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Each justice signed the opinion to emphasize the ruling's importance. Cooper was the only time the Court has ever taken this extraordinary step.

Daisy Bates (pictured in the top photo, second from left on the top row), who was the president of the Arkansas NAACP during the Little Rock crisis, played a critical role in negotiating the desegregation of Central High. On September 24th, the day federal troops arrived to escort and protect the Little Rock Nine, a reporter ran up to Bates and said, "Daisy, they're here! The soldiers are here! Aren't you excited? Aren't you happy?" To which Bates replied, "Excited, yes, but not happy. Any time it takes eleven thousand five hundred soldiers to assure nine Negro children their constitutional right to a democratic society, I can't be happy."

FOOTNOTE: Hazel Bryan Massery, the white woman who was caught in the photograph screaming at Elizabeth Eckford while following her as part of an angry mob, publicly apologized to Eckford1963, the only white person involved in the Little Rock crisis ever to do so. Eckford and Massery were brought together many years later for a public reconciliation by the photographer who took the photo. They established a friendship and have worked together to promote racial healing.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Suppose the Jena Six played lacrosse?

For a case that "galvanized" the nation and that, according to George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen, will rank with the railroading of the Scottsboro Boys in the early 1930s and the imprisonment of Clarence Earl Gideon -- who, as an indigent, was denied an attorney before successfully appealing his case to the United States Supreme Court -- for a felony theft he did not commit in the late 1950s, remarkably few people will remember Durham district attorney Mike Nifong's relentless prosecution of three members of Duke University's lacrosse team in the spring and summer of 2006 for alleging raping a stripper hired to perform at a party.

What happened on the night of March 13th, 2006, will never be entirely clear. What is fairly uncontested is that approximately 35 members of Duke's lacrosse team were gathered in a house where several players lived for an afternoon and evening of drinking and carousing. The boys decided to order two strippers to come over close to midnight. The entertainment would cost them $800 and last for two hours. At some point in the evening, one stripper would allege that she was raped by three men -- all lacrosse players -- at the party. Her partner never fully corroborated her story. She did say, however, that many of the lacrosse players were extremely drunk and obnoxious towards the both women. One partygoer asked the strippers if they brought sex toys as part of their act. When they were told no, the revelers offered the strippers a broomstick. There is much more on the staggeringly idiotic behavior of the Duke boys, but that ultimately proved irrelevant to the main point.

Over time, the physical and eyewitness evidence against the three Duke players accused of raping the stripper fell apart for the simple reason that no such evidence existed. DNA evidence demonstrated that the stripper making the accusations had sexual contact at some point that evening, but before arriving at the party. The inconsistency of her statements to police, as well as outright fabrication of some parts of her story, with the alleged rape at the top of the list, ultimately led the charges to be withdrawn and the lacrosse players' claim to their innocence born out.

Between March 2006 and the case's dissolution in the late winter and spring of 2007, the Duke case was on the front-burner of most major East Coast news organizations. The New York Times gave extensive space to the story, and focused on the race-driven narrative of a poor, uneducated African-American stripper who summoned the courage to call out privileged white boys on their bad and allegedly criminal behavior. Prosecutor Nifong spared no expense in what turned out to be a baseless prosecution of the Duke boys on the rape charge. And there is no doubt that the elite media -- and numerous sympathetic voices in academia and the professional commentariat -- sided with the stripper over the lacrosse players. How ironic that reporters, pundits and professors who labor -- if you can call talking and writing "labor" -- at the elite levels of journalism and academe would rush to judgment so quickly about the boys' guilt. But was a reaction rooted in their all-too-familiar knowledge of the sense of entitlement that rich kids and their parents have about their place in society. The reason they believed the Duke boys were guilty -- conclusive evidence be damned -- is that they have taught them, lived next to them, employed them or had their children attend school and/or socialize with them.

I will admit that when the story broke my first instinct was to believe the stripper's account. I live about a mile and a half from the Landon School, an elite private school for boys in Bethesda that places a strong emphasis on athletics, with lacrosse at the apex of the jock kingdom. In 2002, ten Landon students were caught cheating on the SAT. Two were expelled and eight were suspended. Several members of Duke's lacrosse team at the time of the stripper incident were Landon graduates, who, like most of their teammates, come from privileged backgrounds. You can psychoanalyze the motives of privileged kids who attend a school where the average SAT score in 2003 was 1355 to cheat all you want. You can wonder what would lead 35 boys, 34 of whom were white, to come up with $800 to hire two African-American strippers to entertain them for two hours, and, although not raping or sexually assaulting them, treat them like circus animals. I helped empty out more than one keg on a Saturday night in college, but I can tell you that the kind of behavior attributed to the Duke boys was not something that ever crossed the minds of the people I hung around. Then again, the kids I considered "rich" in college were the ones who could eat out on Sunday night rather than forage for macaroni, soup and tuna at home. These were not boys being boys. These were spoiled mini-men who have been cushioned from every bump in their lives by privileged parents and the institutions that support them.

Ultimately, what it comes down to is that the parents and children who represent the Landon demographic really, really believe that they are better than everyone else -- with the possible exception of their peers in other elite Washington, D.C. and Montgomery County private schools -- and that they do not have to abide by the rules they expect those below them on the socio-economic pecking order to follow. One day, they will govern and instruct the rest of us, manage our retirement accounts, get us out of tax problem, be featured in Bethesda and Washingtonian magazines as one of the area's top something-or-another's or have their new 1,000 square foot "basement" built to resemble the Uptown movie theater or Fenway Park featured for the rest of us to envy and proceed apace with their lives oblivious to their own privilege. Reporters like Stuart Taylor will write books about the Duke lacrosse team, trumpeting their innocence while attacking unscrupulous prosecutors who are more concerned about winning black votes and pleasing "left-wing" professors hell bent on imposing their "politically correct" cultural orthodoxies on the work-a-day Americans who just want to keep what they earn and provide for their children than following the evidence. Dr. Dial-a-Quote professors like Jeffrey Rosen will offer gushing reviews of books like Taylor's because that is what the professional commentariat in Washington does for each other. Their colleagues will praise them as two of our most original and insightful legal commentators when neither one would make my Top 50. I have read Taylor and Rosen throughout the years and, while finding Taylor a good reporter, have never found anything they have ever said or written original or insightful. A legal academic who can say without irony that the "plight" of the Duke lacrosse team will be remembered with the Scottsboro Boys or Gideon cases cannot have a real knowledge of either one.

Strangely enough -- or maybe not -- I have been unable to find a single word written by either Taylor or Rosen on the Jena Six case that finally broke in the national news earlier this week. On August 31st, 2006, a black high school student in Jenna, Louisiana, asked the principal if he could sit under a shade tree that white students had claimed as their own. The principal responded that the kids could sit anywhere they wanted. The next day, three black students arrived to find three nooses hanging from the tree. The principal expelled the white students who hung the nooses, but the school board reduced the expulsion to a three day in-school suspension, sending a message to the community that the offense was not terribly serious. In other words, boys will be boys. For the next several months, racial tensions continued to simmer until late November, when an arsonist, whose race is still unknown, set the school on fire. Less than a week later, a black student was arrested for beating up a white student he said had taunted him and been a instigator of several racially motivated acts.

A local prosecutor filed second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit second-degree murder against the juvenile defendant. Five other African-American students attending Jena High School also faced lesser charges of second-degree assault and battery. After protest from national civil rights organizations and some belated media attention, LaSalle Parish district attorney Reed Walters, who is white, reduced murder charges against the one defendant to assault. Meanwhile, none of the white students involved in any aspect of the Jena controversy, from those who hung the noose to those who fought with black students, has entered the criminal justice system.

The Jena Six naturally drew the attention of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, a development that almost always makes a good number of white folks roll their eyes and look the other way in a case having racial overtones. Sharpton and Jackson have not always chosen their battles wisely, and standing between either of them and a television camera might well be the most dangerous traffic intersection in America. A friend of mine active in African-American politics who has no special feeling for either man once told me why Sharpton and Jackson end up at the front of the protest line: "White liberals are more concerned about who makes their coffee and khakis than what happens to black teen-age boys and girls. Cultural liberalism doesn't translate to the streets because white folks falsely believe they have no investment in what happens to black people."

The Jena Six defendants are being represented by court-appointed lawyers. The Duke Three, on the other hand, were represented by the best lawyers their parents' money could buy. Bethesda, Potomac and Chevy Chase represent the golden triangle of Montgomery County, and lacrosse is among the most popular sports in the area. For many students who "prep" at Landon or any of the other elite private schools here, a ticket to the Duke, Virginia or Johns Hopkins lacrosse programs represents the pinnacle of the sports-obsessed, status-conscious, affluent professional class of Washington. Reporters like Taylor are drawn to the Duke case because they live here and are steeped in the norms of the elite circles they travel in both professionally and personally. They are not drawn to the Jena Six case because they cannot relate to it. These are not the kids their children hang around the malls or attend high school sports functions with. NPR might do a story on the Jena Six at some point, stirred by conscience and the culture of its listeners. But that will probably be about it. Barring some sort of major development in the case, the Washington cognoscenti will limit their interest in the Jena Six to the "week in review" radio and television programs in which journalists exchange opinions with each about what they believe are the major issues of the day. Those major issues usually involve the color of Hillary Clinton's pantsuits or poll numbers showing that Barack Obama is having trouble making headway with conservative white voters. After that, it's off to Starbucks and perhaps the carpool line at St. Albans, Georgetown Prep and, of course, Landon -- that is, if the nanny is off that day.

The teenage African-American students who beat up the white students who taunted them are by no stretch model citizens. Mychal Bell, the 17 year-old who was first charged with murder, was convicted on the second-degree assault and battery charge in June 2007 by an all-white jury. Bell is an outstanding football player who had a stack of scholarship offers sitting on his family's kitchen table. Colleges interested in Bell include LSU, Ole Miss and Southern Mississippi, all of which take their football very seriously. Football is to the South what lacrosse is to the mid-Atlantic. Being poor and black is far different, though, than being rich and white. Living in Jena, Louisiana is much different than living in Bethesda, Maryland. All that the Jena Six and the Duke Three have in common is that they were on the wrong side of an unprincipled and desperate prosecutor.

I can't help but think, though, that if the Jena Six were rich white kids who played lacrosse on exquisitely manicured grounds for an exclusive private school in the affluent Washington, D.C. suburbs rather than football on beat-up fields in a small southern Louisiana town, the demand for justice and suspicions of prosecutorial misconduct would be far greater than they are now.

Sounding the Shofar

No blogging tomorrow -- Yom Kippur.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


During our annual summer sojourn to the beach, which I find about as entertaining as waiting in the "Customer Care Center" for my car to be fixed, I made a decision to admit myself to my own detox center. Fortunately -- or unfortunately, depending on the day -- I don't really have anything running through my body that would interest Amy Winehouse or Lindsay Lohan in a blood transfusion. Like many people between the ages of 8 and 80, I have ventured beyond the analgesics aisle in the grocery store in search of cures for ailments and diseases nowhere found in the Physicians Desk Reference manual. Not so shocking, I know. But the following disclosure just might be.

Of all the drugs that I have ever taken, ranging from the legal ones prescribed to me after various dental and orthopedic surgeries, or the mini-scrips a kind physician's assistant was nice enough to write for me after a hockey related injury or bike crash earned me a trip to the E.R. to the ones legal only in small amounts in certain European countries and Canada, I have never experienced anything as difficult, painful and psychologically unnerving as I did this summer after I decided to cut my caffeine intake by two-thirds.

Summer is a period when I usually don't consume much in the way of alcohol. Hot weather, alcohol and my personal constitution just don't mix, so I just don't drink much, if at all, once the thermometer breaks 80. I don't "hanker" for a beer or miss drinking wine with dinner. I don't miss it -- at all. I understand the concerns that doctors have for patients who take prescription pain medication. There is a huge difference, however, between patients who use medication properly and patients who abuse medication for recreational purposes. No doubt, some of that stuff can give you a nice, warm and sometimes euphoric feeling. But I've never found it difficult to return to Advil and Tylenol once the good stuff has run its course. I've never broken into a pharmacy to score some Percocet or Vicodin and I don't plan to do so anytime soon.

But caffeine? Wow! My new rule is two cups of coffee in the morning and that's it. Anything after that is decaf, and that includes tea and the rare soda. After the first week of my new program, the initial headaches and afternoon shakes subsided and I started to feel better. No more "crash and burns" in the early afternoon (a nap is much better, and better for you). No more jangled nerves in the late afternoons and early evenings. No more caffeine-induced screaming at my kids, the dry cleaner or the deli counter people at Giant. Now, when I yell at them, it's because they deserve it, not because I've had that extra cup of Starbucks in the afternoon that put me over the edge.

Still, I find myself wanting that afternoon pick me-up. It's still hard to walk past the smell of coffee and not want to grab a cup. Fortunately, the coffee is so indescribably bad in the building where I work that I can resist the temptation without a problem. Passing by coffee shops in malls or the smell of Dunkin' Donuts coffee at the Jewish Community Center is another story . . . it's all I can do not to stop and order a cup of tasty, steaming hot coffee and down it like a Tequila shot. I justify it, though, because I feel so much better. Or at least that's what I keep telling myself.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Good parents, bad husbands and wives

One would think that Britney Spears would make a model wife and daughter. Okay, okay . . . so there is the small matter of her fragile mental health, drug and alcohol addiction and adherence to child-rearing practices that pre-date Dr. Spock by a couple of hundred years. And the fact that a California court said today that Britney must under undergo drug and alcohol testing twice a week, hire a parenting "coach," and visit a psychotherapist on as-needed basis. The judge also suggested that Britney ease off the public nudity and find some new friends instead of continuing to roll with her fellow Train Wreck Girls.

She is, after all, a heterosexual . . . most of the time.

Lisa Polyak and Gita Deane, two Maryland women in a longtime partnership who have two young daughters, were told yesterday by the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, that a state law limiting the right to marry to heterosexual couples did not violate their constitutional rights or discriminate against gay couples.

Hold on. A law that establishes a right for one class of persons and fails to extend that same right to another class of persons is the very definition of discrimination. The question is whether the discrimination is question -- or legal classification, as some might prefer to call it -- is justifiable discrimination. All laws discriminate in one way or another because the rules they establish will not affect all persons the same. A law limiting restaurant seating to people who do not smoke will affect people who like to smoke while they eat. A law denying entrance into a public pool anybody wearing cut-offs or swim wear considered too revealing will exclude people who don't have bathing suits or have bathing suits that are more appropriate for a nude beach. Both these laws are eminently reasonable, but they nonetheless do not treat all persons the same.

The real question before the Maryland court was not weather the state's definition of marriage was discriminatory -- that it clearly was and is -- but whether barring gay persons from marrying other gay persons denied them equal rights under the Maryland constitution. A 4-3 majority ruled that the state was justified in limiting marriage to heterosexuals because of its interest in promoting procreation and protecting children. The court tried to offer some salve for the wound, noting that its decision "should by no means be read to imply that the General Assembly may not grant and recognize for homosexual persons civil unions or the right to marry a person of the same sex."

In other words, the court wants the Maryland legislature to pass a law that extends legal marriage rights to gays. Presumably, the four justices who found no "fundamental" right to gay marriage in the state's constitution would uphold a legal challenge to a revised state law permitting same-sex marriage or, at minimum, civil unions. How can the court say, on the one hand, a law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman does not discriminate against gay people, and then, on the other, tell the Maryland General Assembly that it would have no problem upholding a law that establishes a right to gays that is remedial in nature? Isn't that the very definition of forbidden discrimination?

Maryland law permits same-sex couples to adopt children. Approximately 250,000 children in the United States are currently being raised in gay households. Twenty-four states, including Maryland, permit second-parent adoption of children by same-sex couples. Gays and lesbians in Maryland, then, are perfectly capable of raising children, so much so that the state permits a the partner of an adoptive (or biological) gay parent to adopt his or her child. In fact, gay people can do most anything with their children that straight couples can . . . including coaching their soccer teams. They just can't marry their children's parents.

Logical gymnastics are not unusual in legal reasoning. As much as it tries to present itself as a craft rooted in logic, rules and precedent, constitutional interpretation at any level is an exercise that involves a choice between substantive values. Here, the Maryland court ruled that a law discriminating against gay persons who want to get married is not discrimination even though it clearly is. Harry Jackson, Jr., a pastor at Hope Christian Church in Lanham, a D.C. suburb, reacting to the decision, said "[o]ur argument is not against gays. It is to protect marriage."

Of course the argument against gay marriage is about gays. If Jackson was concerned about protecting marriage, then he would allow gays to get married instead of living in sin. And he would focus his energies on the 50% of heterosexual couples who will eventually get divorced. A hundred years ago the Supreme Court routinely ruled that laws segregating persons on the basis of race were not racial discrimination, but rather a reflection of the prevailing social order. That wasn't true either. Legal segregation created a legal caste system that advantaged whites in every aspect of American society, from the public (who could vote and who couldn't) to the private (who would marry whom, or sit where in a restaurant or use what water fountain). To paraphrase Pastor Jackson, Jim Crow was about keeping blacks subservient and legally inferior to whites. Laws excluding gays from rights extended to the heterosexual population are equally rooted in stereotype and a false sense of superiority.

The court's other argument that limiting marriage to heterosexual couples promotes the state's interest in procreation is so silly that it deserves no comment other than to say that straight persons who are unable to conceive a child, have no interest in having a child, are post-menopausal when they decide to marry for the first time, have had a vasectomy or do not view marriage as a prerequisite for having a family will now have some explaining to do if they want to get married.

The future is here, and that future means the definition of marriage and family in the United States is going to change, for the better, to include gays and lesbians. A distinction without a difference can never last but so long before the charade is up.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

"Debunking" Religion?

This past Saturday, September 15th, the Washington Post ran two articles on the growing number of "nonbelievers" in Europe and the United States and their willingness to make their views -- still wildly unpopular -- public. Had the Post looked north, it would have found that Canada has its fair share of "nonbelievers" and differs dramatically from the United States in its support for public displays of religious affection.

Washington, D.C. is about the worst place in the world to have a serious discussion about religion. Everyone here is so busy running for office or helping someone else run for office or commenting on television on who should run for office or droning on at endless think-tank panels why someone will win or lose the office for which he or she is running. Believing in God is a job qualification to enter politics. Reject God and you will all but disqualify yourself from holding public office.

What caught my eye in this article was not that atheists, nonbelievers, nontheists or whatever you want to call those of us who do not believe in God or any supernatural intervening force in our earthly life have opinions about religion. It was this quote:

"On both sides of the Atlantic, membership in once-quiet groups of nonbelievers is rising, and books attempting to debunk religion have been surprise bestsellers, including "The God Delusion," by Oxford University professor Richard Dawkins (my emphasis)."

God's presence cannot be proved. Nor can the Immaculate Conception. Nor can Christ's rise from the dead. Nor can Moses's trek up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God. A belief in any or all of these events is simply a belief.

Why then should a humanist, skeptic, scientist or anyone who approaches knowledge from a empirical perspective have to "debunk religion?" Think we'll see a story anytime soon on the American Medical Association's "increasingly vocal" opposition to faith-healers and herb doctors? Here's a crucial difference: medical researchers have already published research concluding that echinacea offers no therapy for colds or other minor ailments. An experimental design allows scientists to test empirically the proposition that echinacea is a useful treatment. No such method exists to test the "truth" of religion. You either believe or you don't. And believing doesn't make it true.

New Tom Tomorrow here

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Not that there's anything wrong with that . . . or is there?

On August 30, two American University alumni, Ross Weil, a 2002 graduate of the Kogod School of Business, and Brett Royce, a 2001 graduate of the School of International Service, filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against AU claiming that an alumni magazine article falsely portraying them as gay defamed their character. The article claimed Weil and Royce married in June 2006, and that Weil had been named the Chief Operating Officer of an organization called the Gay Rights Brigade. Weil and Royce are not gay, and there is no such organization as the Gay Rights Brigade. On June 29th, AU rejected a settlement offer from Weil and Royce's attorney.

Under New York law, a cartoon or other characterization that depicts or implies an individual as gay is per se libelous. No such rule applies to someone who is wrongly depicted as African-American, Scandinavian, Jewish or Lutheran. Erroneously identifying someone as gay is considered defamation of character, while the same mistake on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity is not. On the other hand, a federal judge in Massachusetts threw out a similar lawsuit in May 2004 filed by Madonna's boyfriend against St. Martin's Press, which published his name in a photo caption of the entertainer walking with a man who was openly gay. Judge Nancy Gertner ruled that the Supreme Court's ruling the previous year in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which struck down a Texas law criminalizing sodomy, meant that courts should no longer treat homosexual conduct as criminal. Wrote Judge Gertner: "In fact, a finding that such a statement is defamatory requires this court to legitimize the prejudice and bigotry that for too long have plagued the homosexual community."

This is really weird. For years, I used an example like this in my classes when I teach about discrimination or libel. I remember once asking a student who claimed to love everyone and have not a prejudicial or reactionary bone in his body what he would do if the student newspaper mistakenly identified him as gay. He responded by saying he supported gay rights. I told him I didn't ask him if he supported gay rights. I asked him if he believed being identified as gay should result in, at minimum, the newspaper running a retraction. No answer. I asked him another question, this time what he would do if he found out that a gay rights organization had written in chalk on the quad sidewalks, "Wear purple if you're gay!" and he had walked to his classes wearing purple. Would he go home and change or just shrug his shoulders and say whatever? He admitted that he would go home and change his clothes because he didn't want girls to think he was gay. I suggested that at some point in his relationship with a girl that she would probably figure that out for herself. That point was that being identified as gay was viewed as stigmatic, while being mistakenly identified as a Methodist was not.

I don't know enough about the law in this area to offer a meaningful assessment of how a New York state court might treat this claim. At first glance, the legal relationship between an anti-sodomy statute and libel law seems, at best, tenuous. From a purely academic perspective, this will be an interesting case to watch, should a court decide to hear it. That said, an alumni magazine note falsely reporting that someone is gay is not exactly the same thing as calling someone an anti-Semite or a pedophile. The magazine did not portray Weil and Royce's behavior as immoral, inappropriate or criminal. Just the opposite. The notes editor probably believed that he or she was following the university's "progressive" policies on gay rights. AU provides domestic partnership benefits for same-sex couples and prohibits discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation.

A university spokesperson has admitted that the magazine depends on alumni for accurate submissions about their current activities. Perhaps this little episode will encourage the people who edit our university publications to exercise a little more professionalism in their work. Had the magazine's editors referred to Weil and Royce as a couple of perverted, child-molesting fags who troll the playgrounds of Manhattan looking for sexual encounters, they would have a lot more to explain, and a court would be an appropriate place to do it. But nothing like that happened here.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The student loan scam

I liked college so much that I vowed never to leave until I ran out of degrees or ran out of money. Today's students, si it seems, begin the college preparation process shortly after they've mastered toilet training. In high school, much less before, my friends -- even the smart ones -- and I didn't really put a lot of time into picking a school. The reasons most of us ended up where we did had more to do with whether the college had a good football team than any consideration of academic prestige.

Then, about halfway through my junior year, I realized that if I went to graduate school, got a Ph.D and found a university teaching position, I could stay in school for the rest of my life and get paid. The only stumbling block to this plan was money. The bare-bones parental scholarship that covered tuition and board for college -- and it was made very clear to me that a B.A. took only four years -- would not extend to graduate school. And that's when I discovered the federally guaranteed student loan program.

I didn't give much thought to the program other than it permitted me to borrow up to $2,500 per year for as long as I was making satisfactory progress towards a degree at an approved institution. I realized I would need to borrow that amount every year, despite receiving a generous fellowship from Emory University that included tuition and a small stipend. After four years of college and five years of graduate school, I owed $12,500 in student loans, an amount I thought bordered on the irresponsible. A year after I started teaching, I began paying back my loans -- $157.25 per month -- something I would do without fail or default for the next ten years. Not until much later did I learn that what I had viewed as a staggering debt load was nothing -- and I mean nothing -- compared to the tens of thousands of dollars that my friends (and their friends, and their friends' friends) were carrying from their undergraduate and graduate degrees.

I bumped into a friend earlier this evening who, after a successful career as an attorney, is now teaching social studies to 6th graders at a small, private Jesuit school for boys in Northeast Washington, D.C. Almost every student he is teaching is on a scholarship of some sort. If just one of his students completes high school and attends college, he will be the first in his family to do so. I asked him how the transition was going and he had all the enthusiasm of a brand new teacher straight out of college. We then turned to a slightly different subject -- what does it say about our society that we provide our children a free public education through high school, and then charge them to attend college? For most families considering college expenses for their children, getting just one through an in-state four year university -- much less a second or third child -- will be enough of a challenge before even thinking about one of those private schools that adorn the back of Volvos and Range Rovers throughout Northwest Washington and the Montgomery County suburbs. A college degree in contemporary society is viewed as a necessary credential for any meaningful employment, yet we have made a decision to charge people a hefty premium to attend a four-year college. Our fail-safe mechanism to fund a college education is the student loan program.

You might think that a federally guaranteed student loan program is a good thing. Banks making loans do so at no risk. If the student defaults, the bank still gets the money -- with interest that the government subsidizes. Leave it to Michael Kinsley, about the only reason other than Gene Robinson and Colbert King to read the Washington Post editorial page, to call out the ludicrousness and corruption endemic in the student loan program.

Just as good luck and good genes are the best preventative measures available to citizens in a nation that privatizes health care, socio-economic status will remain the best college preparatory program in a nation that divides access to a college education on the basis of wealth.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Judaism for Dummies, or L'shana Tovah, Stephen Colbert

Lucky Stephen Colbert! No sooner does he learn than he has 75% chance of being a Member of the Tribe – in good enough standing, yet, that he qualifies for automatic citizenship in Israel – does he find himself fending off the most complicated of all questions about his newfound Jewish roots: Is he religiously Jewish, culturally Jewish, or both?

For the uninitiated, I'll explain the difference. There are Jews who believe in God, Jews who fight with other Jews over how to believe in God and then Jews who do not believe in God but consider themselves culturally Jewish. "An atheist, yes," they will respond. "But a Jewish atheist." For example, a Jewish atheist will nonetheless wince when he sees someone put yellow rather than golden mustard on a hot dog, or leave a Chinese restaurant if he doesn't see any Jewish people eating. He doesn't believe in God, but he will not, under any condition, engage in an activity considered SFG (strictly for goyim) -- camping, lawn-care, wood-working, model-train collecting, hunting, belonging to the NRA, etc.

To help Stephen Colbert with his past, I’ve put together a small quiz, one that should be familiar to long-time readers who remember my effort to assist George Allen, the former Republican Senator from Virginia, after he learned of his Jewish roots. Some answers are worth more points than others. The higher the total, the more Jewish you are.

More Jewish, you ask? What's that? Don't worry so much. Sit down, have some Sanka and a nice piece of cake, and read.

Domestic Maintenance

1. A light bulb burns out after you turn on the lamp in your family room. How do you react?

a.You screw in another light bulb and continue business as normal. (0)
b.You call out, “Duck,” drop to your knees, put your hands over your head, and count to three before looking up. (2)
c.You turn off the electricity, examine the bulb to make sure it’s really burned out, and take it directly outside to the trash can. You screw in another bulb slowly, with your head turned away from the socket, knowing at anytime you could blow the house to smithereens. (3)
d.Call an electrician. (4)

2. Your hot water heater explodes, flooding your basement. How do you react?

a.Put on your fly-fishing boots, grab a flashlight, fasten your toolbelt, and go have a “look-see” at the problem. (0)
b.Call 911. (1)
c.Wet-Vac the basement, then repair the hot water heater in 30 minutes. (0)
d.Call your brother-in-law the lawyer and tell him you want to sue the previous owner of the house. (4)

The Professions

3. Your son has just landed the dream job of every Jewish sports fanatic: he is working in the front-office of the professional sports team. It’s a first job, and he’ll be the personal assistant to the personal assistant of the assistant general manager for concessions operations. When asked by friends what your son is doing, you tell them

a.He is part-owner of the franchise, with an option to increase his share after a year into his job. (1)
b.The truth. (0)
c.Your son will be fired within the first month because he’s in over his head. (4)
d.He is the assistant general manager, but really the brains behind the whole operation because the GM is a schmuck. (2)

4. At the law firm’s annual holiday party, you introduce your new star female associate – 27 years old, beautiful, brilliant, impeccably dressed in a tailored suit that shows off her three-times-a-week-at-the-Washington Sports Club body – to your wife. Your wife

a.Eyes her up-and-down, icily sticks out here hand, introduces herself, and says, “I had no idea those suits were back in style. Where did you find it?” (2)
b.Exchanges polite greetings with her, then turns to you and says, “You don’t think for a minute that a gorgeous woman like that would have sex with you, do you?" (3)
c.Greets her warmly, mentions that she’s heard all about her, boasts what a fabulous mentor her husband will be, and insists on having her over for dinner when her schedule permits it. (0)
d.Deliberately mispronounces her name at every opportunity, and whispers in her ear, “I'm not sure who you think you're fooling but it's not me. The last slut they hired lasted a year before they fired her for sleeping with half the firm. Word to the wise.” (5)

Family Relations

5. After several years of boycotting any family High Holiday event put together by your son’s shiksa wife, you and your wife reluctantly agree to accept her invitation to Rosh Hashanah dinner this year. Once dinner is served, you and/or wife make the following observation(s):

a.Sipping the matzoh ball soup, your wife arches her right eyebrow, rubs her tongue along the outer edges of her teeth, coughs, shrugs her shoulders, makes a squinty face and then says nothing. (4)
b.Thanks your daughter-in-law for the invitation and apologize profusely for not coming in previous years. Now that you’ve learned what a fabulous cook she is, you’ll be over more often. (0)
c.You take a few sips of the matzoh ball soup, and then announce, “Is this how they make soup now? I guess it’s the new generation.” (2)
d.Suggest in the future they stop at Katz’s for their soup. Three quarts will feed plenty, and for $20 it’s not worth all the cooking to have the soup come out like it did. (3)

Restaurant Etiquette

6. You are out to dinner with your wife and two other couples. The host tells you that it will be a “few minutes” before they can put together a table for six people and you are welcome to wait in the bar. You do the following:

a.Walk into the bar, where the bartender calls you by name, and asks if you’ll have the usual. (0)
b.Say to the host, “Do you have any idea who I am?” and demand to see the manager. (2)
c.Slyly to report to your friends that the only reason they want you to wait in the bar is so that you’ll order a drink you don’t want and that you’re not about to fall for that. “That’s where the mark-up is, on liquor. That’s where they make their money.” You stay put. (3)
d.Pretend you had a reservation for six, and tell the host that the last time this happened – the 5 minute wait – the manager, “who you don’t believe is working here any more,” told you to come back again, “on the house,” so that he could have a chance to make things right. (1)

7. The check for six arrives. The total is $324.45. You examine the check first, announce the total, and then

a.Suggest that you split the check between the three couples evenly. You agree to tip on the tax.(0)
b.Perform a line-item audit of the check, and announce that you and your wife did not agree to order the third bottle of wine, deduct that amount from the check and then agree to pay one-third of the food bill plus your share of the two bottles of wine. You refuse to tip on the tax. (2)
c.Remind your friends that you and your wife “never really wanted to order wine in the first place,” and decide, “because we’re all friends,” you’ll pay for your share of the first bottle but not any the second and third. You also calculate a 5% tip on the wine, because "all they did was a pour a bottle." You refuse to fall for the mark-up scam. (4)
d.Announce to everyone at the table that, although you and your wife had the least expensive items on the menu, did not eat the appetizers, and didn’t drink any of the second and third bottles of wine, you’ll nonetheless split the bill three ways because “friendship isn’t worth saving $23.43 a person." You refuse to tip on tax. (3)

8. Upon arriving at a delicatessen, you notice several empty tables. The host seats you one table away from the drink station. What do you do?

a.You don’t notice. You’re busy thinking about that corned beef on wheat with mayonnaise that you had the previous week. (0)
b.Politely ask to be moved to a table less busy because you need some space to work. (0)
c.Stop the host halfway to the table, put your hand on his shoulder and not-so-quietly point out that “half this joint is empty” and you’re not sitting there. (3)
d.Sit down and wait until the waiter brings over the complimentary pickles, then tell him that you need to move because there’s a draft right over the table. You take the pickles with you to the new table, giving you two bowls. (4)
e.Wonder why Ed and Sylvia Rosen, who, to your knowledge, simply got lucky and made his fortune by buying that building off Rockville Pike when the timing was right, have their pictures with the owner on the wall and you don't. You mention to your friend the reason that the prices have gone up is that the wife's owner just found out he was schtupping one of the waitresses, and she's preparing to clean him out. (2)

9. When the waiter in a Chinese restaurant asks you if he can pack up the leftovers to take home, do you tell the waiter to include the white rice?

a.Yes. Mix in a teaspoon of water, put it in the microwave and “you’ll never know the difference.” (2)
b.No. The rice turns rock hard, you forget about it, and it just takes up valuable space in the refrigerator. (0)
c.Yes. But you ask him for fresh white rice, and mention that “our usual waiter always does that for us.” (4)
d.Yes. And you ask for a little extra for your sick relative who couldn’t come but “loves this place.” (5)


10. During sex with your wife, you suggest, since it’s your birthday, that you try something other than the missionary position. What happens next?

a.Your wife wakes up and says, “Did you remember to run the dishwasher?” (4)
b.“Hell, yes!” screams your wife. Smiling a devilish smile, she winks at you as she confides, “and you didn’t think I knew you were visiting porn sites on the computer?” She reaches into her nightstand, breaks out the handcuffs, fastens you to the headboard, hops out of bed, pulls down four different sex costumes for you to choose from, and tells you to hold on because she’s going to “punch your lights out” by morning. (-15)
c.After putting down her book, she turns off her mini-reading lamp and says, “Oh, for God’s sake, Sheldon, you're not 20 years old anymore.” Then she goes to sleep, but not before reminding you that she is playing tennis tomorrow morning and that you’ll need to take the kids to their therapy appointment. (5)
d.Your wife announces that she is not “some whore” from college and that “if this is your way of asking for a divorce, consider it done.” (10)

Happy New Year. Time to make a nice roasted chicken.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

'Two day' Jews


1. Fourteen.
2. Twice.
3. Once.


1. How many times did I check my watch during the 75 minute children's service at Rosh Hashanah services this afternoon?
2. How many times did I visit the lobby during the same service to locate my almost nine year-old teenage daughter, who came down with a mysterious stomach ailment almost immediately after we arrived at synagogue that miraculously cleared up as soon as we left?
3. How many time did I fall asleep during the service?

By and large, I was quite pleased with my behavior and personal endurance during my annual 75 minute appearance in synagogue. It turns out there is name for disaffected Jews like myself -- and, no, an atheist, which I am, is not one of them -- "Two Day" Jews. We attend services once or twice a year, either on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, but not both, and suffer through services by counting the minutes until we leave. Of the approximately 110,000 Jewish households in the Washington, D.C. area, only about one-third have a synagogue affiliation. We are among that one-third. Our individual connection to Judaism varies within our house. My son will be a Bar Mitzvah in six weeks and is actually looking forward to it, despite asserting, at Rosh Hashanah dinner earlier tonight, that there is no God "up there." How did we even get into this discussion after a morning and afternoon of services? My father-in-law, the world's nicest and most open-minded person, and I engaged in our regular debate over the vitality and purpose of religion in modern society. I took my usual position -- that the sooner religion disappears from the Earth the better off we will all be -- and he took his -- that religion is "man-made," largely derivative of myth, and closer to a fairy tale than anything empirically "true," but nonetheless serves an important purpose for individuals searching for meaning in their lives and a "moral compass" to guide their personal choices. My father-in-law's dedication to observance and ritual over his 81 years make Cal Ripken's consecutive game streak pale in comparison, yet he continues to struggle with God's existence and what it means to live a "Jewish life."

"Religion is for dummies," he said. "It's for people not smart enough to figure things out for themselves."

Not all religious people are stupid, just like not all non-believers are smart. Our temple's rabbi is an interesting, thoughtful man, and a true intellectual. When we left our first synagogue five years ago to join our current one, our new rabbi asked us why we were moving. My wife, who is not very religious, told him that her hesitation in joining a Reform temple was based on growing up in the Conservative movement and feeling more comfortable with certain traditions and rituals, including the use of Hebrew in services, that were not available in the only Reform temple in Norfolk.

"I know exactly the synagogue you're talking about," he said. "And I don't blame you. But you'll find things are different here." Turning to me, he asked, "And you, you feel the same way?"

"No. My problem is not with Reform or Conservative Judaism. My problem is with organized religion."

"I understand that, too. I have my days," he said. "You'll like it here."

I don't attend services except when I absolutely have no choice. Still, I can say our affiliation with our current synagogue has been pleasant and rewarding. Our congregation has numerous inter-faith families, engages in social action and, for a Jewish institution, is remarkably judicious in hitting up families for contributions to the "building fund," a tax that, for friends of mine who belong to upscale synagogues, can become a perpetual nuisance. I am thrilled that my son will be a Bar Mitzvah, and I look forward to standing up on the bima with him to witness this great life passage, proud that he will accomplish something that I never did. My pride and joy, though, will have nothing to do with the existence of God or the lessons from that morning's Torah portion. I will not leave services that morning feeling better about myself and determined to make things right in my own life. If I do get inspired to repair a damaged relationship or make some sort of personal improvement, it will be because I wanted to, not because I felt inspired by religion.

From a logical perspective, nothing I've written above makes any sense. I don't believe in God and don't view religion as offering some clear moral path in my life. I attend worship services only because I feel I should, since we're making our children attend religious school and study for B'nai Mitzvah. My wife thinks it is a good idea to give them an identity and a knowledge of the Jewish tradition, and I don't disagree with that. Part of me will always wonder how smart, skeptical people, trained in science and the humanities, who subject almost every decision they make to some empirical analysis, can suspend their sense of disbelief to embrace religion. I don't believe I am missing out on anything by not believing in God, but because I will always wonder why people do find solace in religion I will probably always keep one foot cautiously inside the door to counter the other foot planted firmly outside in the secular universe.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

9/11: six years later, a day like any other

Over the weekend, the nation's major newspapers rolled out their stores commemorating the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on September 11th, 2001. The New York Times offered a special section that included personal narratives from people who witnessed the World Trade Center's collapse to the consequences that America's response to the al-Qaeda-sponsored assault have had on United States domestic and foreign policy. The Times offered a conclusion that by now has become a cliche in any discussion of America's "post-9/11" mindset -- that "the specter of 9/11 continues to resonate in the national consciousness. It was a day that marked the start of another time that, six years later, has had an aftermath but not an end."

For anyone unfortunate enough to live in New York and witness the destruction of the World Trade Center, or anyone who lost a loved one that day -- in Washington or on the flight that crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside -- the scars of that day will remain with them forever. About that there can be no doubt.

Dare I suggest that for most everyone else -- myself included -- September 11th is just another day on the calendar. That day no longer "resonates" in my personal consciousness. I don't think much about the prospect of a foreign act of terrorism directed against a civilian target in the United States. I don't worry about someone blowing themselves up on the Metro. I'm not concerned that I am without an emergency plan to evacuate my house in the event of some terrorism-related event. I don't have an extended supply of dry and canned goods, a seven-day supply of bottled water, more than one roll of duct tape, a transistor radio, gas masks, antibiotics to treat anthrax or any other bacterial infection stemming from an act of bio or chem-terror. Thinking back on all the terrible things that were supposedly imminent after the September 11th attacks, I'm not sure what were supposed to do with all this stuff. What good would bottled water, duct tape and canned corn be if we were the victim of the nuclear or chemical attack that, according to authorities, would have left us for dead?

The spiritual rejuvenation reported to inspire Americans to appreciate the world around them, live their lives in a fuller and more purposeful fashion, repair broken friendships and think more about their fellow man and less about the size of their homes and their next trip to the mall seems to have dissipated, assuming, of course, that it ever really began. Six years later, I'm still mad at pretty much the same people that I was mad at six years ago, and I'm certain the same people are still pretty much mad at me. To the extent I've repaired any broken relationships, September 11th has had nothing to do with it. If I am a better parent, professor, husband, hockey or baseball coach, writer, drummer, cook, dental patient or cyclist, it's because I made a conscious effort to improve myself, not because I felt some sort of post-September 11th obligation to do so. If I am worse at any of those things or, as is probably the case, not any better, it's because I don't have the ability or don't care enough to make an effort. Standing in my family room with my wife and watching the World Trade Center collapse is simply an unpleasant memory. That day, I can honestly say, has absolutely no bearing any aspect of my day-to-day life or even what passes for my long-range planning.

I've thought a lot about whether my indifference, six years later, to September 11th is due to the abstract nature of my relationship to the event or the Bush administration's unconscionable political exploitation of what happened that day and the misguided, deceitful and plainly dishonest policies pursued in the name of avenging al-Qaeda's brilliantly conceived assault on the American mindset. I did not know anyone who died or was injured on September 11th. To this day, I still have not met anyone who knew someone who died or was injured that day. Compare that to Katrina. I have taught students who came up from New Orleans-based universities. I know professional colleagues who had to take leave from their jobs because their universities were destroyed. At least five families in my neighborhood took in friends or relatives -- sometimes both -- who were displaced as a result of Katrina. I can think of at least a dozen more acquaintances who have personal stories to tell about Katrina's impact on them or people they know. Even the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 hit closer to home for me than September 11th. I know a handful of Sri Lankans who work at a restaurant where I have been eating almost every week since I came to Washington in 1989. At least three persons in that restaurant had friends or relatives who died in that tragic natural disaster. I remember making a small donation to a fund they started for assistance to Sri Lankan families in need. I also remember making food and clothing donations to Katrina assistance organizations. We probably made some small donation to a September 11th fund but I can't remember for sure. Our decision to donate had nothing to do with rank-ordering the human suffering in New Orleans compared to New York. We believed that the Bush administration's pre-occupation with Iraq would preclude any serious effort to address the problems of New Orleans or organize a massive humanitarian relief mission for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami. That belief turned out to be correct.

The Bush administration's decision to wait until September, and specifically the week of September 11th, to send General David Petraeus up to Capitol Hill to offer his "assessment" of progress in Iraq was no coincidence. Placing the September 11th shadow over Petraeus's testimony was designed to soften public response to the not-so-surprising conclusions the general and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker offered Congress: that progress has been made, that problems do exist (a major confession, by Bush standards) and leaving before "the job is done" will make a bad situation worse. No one with a half a brain can honestly believe Petraeus and Crocker were going to say anything else. The odd senator here and there asked a pointed question about the illogical foundations of the Bush administration's policies. By and large, though, Petraeus and Crocker got off easy. The overriding theme of our national "debate" over Iraq is still, "We can't stay and we can't leave." Isn't that just great? Four and half years after the decision to invade Iraq, a foreordained failure that should have been obvious to any honest person who took a hard and close look at what that choice would mean, U.S. officials are still debating "strategies and tactics," still wondering about "troop levels" and "surges" and all sorts of other extraneous bullshit rather than just admitting error and getting the hell out. I still cannot believe there is anyone left who believes the "problem" with the Iraq war involved Rumsfeld's "light and fast" approach to warfare, or the failure to disband the Iraqi army rather than enlist them to pacify the country or any other strategic or tactical mistake. The mistake was to invade Iraq. Plain and simple. Anything else is just a "Humpty Dumpty argument" -- all the king's horses and all the king's men will never put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Tomorrow night President Bush, in whom 5% of the American public trusts to manage a "successful outcome" to the Iraq war, will go on television to encourage Americans to stay the course. He will endorse the "Petraeus report," a report that he commissioned. He will mention the terrorist front in Iraq and our need to combat it. He will mention the departure of the evil tyrant Saddam Hussein, whom 33% of Americans still believe had a direct involvement in the September 11th attacks, and how this has been worth the nearly 4,000 dead American soldiers, with tens of thousands more maimed for life and countless dead Iraqi civilians. He will talk about some other things too, none of which will have any impact on the lives of Americans who do not have friends and relatives serving in Iraq.

President Bush's big domestic initiative after September 11th was not a national call to sacrifice or to encourage Americans to put their cushy lives aside and enlist on behalf of the need to fight terrorism abroad. It was to give us a $600 tax rebate so that we would go buy something that we didn't need. I could be wrong, but I'm guessing that F.D.R's response to the Pearl Harbor attack was not to give Americans a fistful of cash and tell them to go spend it on something useless. On more occasions that anyone can count, President Bush has told Americans that al-Qaeda and, later, Saddam Hussein, presented the greatest threat to the "civilized world" since Adolf Hitler. For the Washington gasbags who debate whether Bush will be considered an "above-average" president by presidential historians, you can find your answer in that $600 rebate.

I will not watch Bush's speech tonight for the same reason I don't listen to anything he has to say for anything other than amusement value. I will get my kids to bed, sound out an email reminder to my hockey team reminding them of our next game, attempt to clean up the wreckage that is my house, call Sprint to see why it continues to charge me $55.99 a month for cell phone that I do not have, check in on the Braves slide into playoff oblivion and watch the best show I've seen on television in years, Madmen (10 p.m. AMC). I will not worry about terrorist attacks, survival techniques, killing insurgents in Iraq before they can come here and kill us (a possibility, according to C.I.A. director Michael Hayden, that might or might not occur), or what sacrifice I have been asked to make on behalf of a nation of war because I know my president will not ask me for one. I will go on with my life oblivious to the death and destruction that visited New York, Washington and Pennsylvania six years ago.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Zeebop at American University

Electric Zeebop will perform tomorrow night in The Tavern at American University from 7-9 p.m. Admission is free and open to the public. Our appearance is part of the Kennedy Political Union's new program, "Professors Are People, Too." Come on out and here us cry the blues and bring the funk home. You can even help us ring in the Jewish New Year.

Learn more about Zeebop by visiting us on the web.

Remembering Joe Zawinul

Joe Zawinul, a giant in jazz music for the past 45 years, died earlier today in his native Austria after battling skin cancer for several months. He was 75 years old.

Zawinul came to the United States in 1959 to study music and soon hooked up with Maynard Ferguson, the big band leader and trumpeter. Success there led him to Julian "Cannonball" Adderly's band, where his funk-inspired approach to composition and piano meshed perfectly with Cannonball's gospel-tinged approach to post-bop jazz. Zawinul penned his earliest and second most famous composition -- "Birdland," released in 1976 on Weather Report's best selling album, "Heavy Weather," is first -- while playing with Cannonball, "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," which became one the first jazz compositions to "crossover" successfully to popular and soul music.

Click here to see a tribute I wrote about Zawinul earlier this year. Listening to him during my college years opened my ears to the possibilities of improvised music that respected the past while embracing modern approaches to rhythm and electronic instruments. For younger musicians and serious listeners, anytime you hear the phrase "world music," do some homework and you'll discover that Joe Zawinul almost singlehandedly charted that path when he formed Weather Report in 1969.

Fortunately, I got to see Zawinul play live twice, once with Weather Report in the early 1980s and more recently in 2003 at the Montreal Jazz Festival with his own band. Both shows were other-worldly, befitting this thoroughly original voice in modern improvised music.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Side effects

Richard Pryor once said that cocaine was God's way of telling people that were making way too much money. I've decided that poison ivy is God's way of telling Jewish people they have no business doing yard work and to always follow their first instincts -- to call someone else if the chore involves anything more than clipping basil leaves to make pesto.

Two years ago I contracted a terrible case of poison ivy that required me to take prednisone, an oral steroid, for about five days. My dermatologist told me that the medication would "knock that poison ivy right out" and give me immediate relief. He was right about that. What he didn't tell me is that I wouldn't sleep for approximately 94 hours, eat everything I could get my hands on whether it was good for me or not, become a menace to society, be threatened with divorce and patricide or burst into tears while watching "Wedding Crashers" by myself in a nearly empty theater, a movie, while very funny, has absolutely no sentimental qualities. After a few days of this, I called my dermatologist to ask him if socio-pathic behavior was a "side effect" of taking oral steroids.

"Sleeplessness, hyperactivity, mood swings, larger than normal appetitite, the jitters, depression . . . yep, perfectly normal," he told me. "Just bear with it. It beats itching to death."

Easy for him to say. He wasn't the one that had an urge to jump behind the counter and assault the 16 year-old at the Ben and Jerry's store because it was taking him far too long to make my third large peanut butter and chocolate milkshake of the day.

"Dude, are you all right?" he asked me. "Or just really stoned?"

"Just make the Goddamn milkshake like you're supposed to!" I screamed at him. "I'll ask the questions."

After that horrible week, which included an inexplicable nostalgic need to listen to Karen Carpenter sing, "Rainy Days and Mondays," I vowed never to put myself in a position to contract poison ivy again. And that meant not doing any yard work, beyond the occasional need to pick up stray items that my children leave in the yard, lest my neighbors reaffirm their worst fears that we are the trailer park trash they always suspected.

For two years, I held fast to my decision to sit on my ass and pay someone else to keep up appearances on behalf of our now-plummeting home value. Over Labor Day weekend, I decided to make good on a nearly forgotten promise to my wife to edge a part of our side yard and clear out the weeds so that we would be less embarrassed than usual when out-of-town guests arrive at our house next month to celebrate our son's Bar Mitzvah.

"I don't want people seeing this when they come here, so I know you'll get around to it this weekend, right?" she commanded.

"And so while I'm cleaning the yard I trust you will throw out the 27 years worth of clothes you store around the house, the 9 years worth of catalogs, magazines and expired Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons, the 4 year stack of Rosh Hashanah cards stacked up behind the chair in our bedroom, dry cleaning tickets from 1995 and all 573 pair of shoes that no longer fit and that you haven't worn in 18 years," I said.

"I don't know how many people will be coming in the house, since everything is really only on one day," came the answer.

"So I need to clean up the yard in case people are privileged enough to be invited to come by for an exterior view of our house, with the understanding they will not be invited inside?"

"If they do come inside they will only come in the front part of the house, so nothing else matters."

"What if they go downstairs?"

"Why would they do that?"

"What if they need to use the bathroom in our bedroom because the other bathroom in occupied?"

"I'm sure they can wait."

"What if they can't?"

And with that she turned and walked away, which was her signal to clean the yard and not worry about the mess inside that did not need cleaning because our guests would not be permitted to cross the threshold of the mountain of . Two days later, my shins look like someone had just attempted an abstract painting in black, red and orange and failed to impress even the most abstract West Village artist.

A visit to my dermatologist resulted in a prescription for a cream called Clobetasol, a topical steroid used to treat inflammation, swelling, redness, itching and irritation from conditions ranging from eczema to poison ivy.

"I remembered what happened last time with the oral steroids," he said. "Let's avoid that and go with the steroid cream."

"Will the cream have any side effects?" I asked.

"You might have some itching, redness, irritation and discoloration of the treated area -- nothing too serious."

"So the side effects of an anti-itching, anti-inflammation cream are itching, inflammation, redness and skin irritation? Isn't that what the cream is supposed to treat?"

One thing I have noticed is that when doctors have to tell you something unpleasant they stop speaking in English and start speaking in medical school-ease.

"Given the commodose papules generated by the gedukus transluscent from the raised meandertarious, a possible result is the proxtractious gemenedrlastif stemming from a monoglumoosticaus tehookum. So just watch out for it although the redasixmeatmusal globstopper is fairly rare."

What the hell was I supposed to do? "All right," I said. "We'll see how it goes."

"You'll be fine. And don't forget to give this file to reception up front and submit your co-pay."

Interesting. A question about the side effects of a prescription medication gets me answer known only to Benedictine monks and physicians, but a reminder to pay my bill comes in plain English.

"Oh, and you might want to take some Benadryl at night to relieve some of your symptoms," he suggested as he handed me the bill. "It will also help you sleep."

"Can't I just have some medicinal marijuana or a morphine pack?" I asked.

"We're not in California."

No, we're not -- Goddamnit!

We keep Benadryl by the gallon in our house in case our kids have an allergic reaction or if we just want to knock them out after we've run out of patience with them -- and sometimes the boxes it comes in "just in case" my wife decides we might "need" them for something. I thought about taking some Benadryl the other night after the cream began producing side effects worse than the original symptoms.

Before I prepared to down the Bubble Gum flavored elixir, I looked at the "possible side effects" of Benadryl. It said that taking Benadryl might result in "marked drowsiness" or "excitability." I learned that Benadryl can produced "sleepiness" or "insomnia" if taken with steroid creams and other medications used to treat poison ivy.

That was enough for me. I looked for and found some of the narcotic painkillers that I received from my bike accident last month that I have been holding onto for an emergency.

"Possible side effects" from that medication include constipation or diarrhea, sleepiness or insomnia, depression or false euphoria, dizziness or sedation.


Treat one thing and treat it well. Just because someone did a great job stuffing and mounting that big bass fish you caught doesn't mean the same people should do your tax returns.