Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How Do We Expect Congress to Function With This Level of Toxicity?

Yesterday, Congresswoman and Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida) took to the floor of the House of Representatives and criticized the Republican’s so-called “Cut, Cap and Balance” bill, including policies supported by Rep. Allen West (R-Florida) that would reduce Medicare benefits. In response, Rep. West (yes, the same Allen West who narrowly averted a court-martial for firing a pistol next to the head of an Iraqi policeman that West was interrogating*) sent a letter to Rep. Wasserman Schultz and to the Republican leadership in the House. Here is what Rep. West wrote:

Subject: Unprofessional and Inappropriate Sophomoric Behavior from Wasserman-Schultz

Look, Debbie, I understand that after I departed the House floor you directed your floor speech comments directly towards me. Let me make myself perfectly clear, you want a personal fight, I am happy to oblige. You are the most vile, unprofessional ,and despicable member of the US House of Representatives. If you have something to say to me, stop being a coward and say it to my face, otherwise, shut the heck up. Focus on your own congressional district!

I am bringing your actions today to our Majority Leader and Majority Whip and from this time forward, understand that I shall defend myself forthright against your heinous characterless behavior......which dates back to the disgusting protest you ordered at my campaign hqs, October 2010 in Deerfield Beach.

You have proven repeatedly that you are not a Lady, therefore, shall not be afforded due respect from me!

Steadfast and Loyal

Congressman Allen B West (R-FL)

So what sort of horrendous statement did Rep. Wasserman Schultz make to be labeled “vile, unprofessional, and despicable”, to be told to “shut the heck up”, and informed that she is “not a Lady”?


Seriously? That’s it? That is the speech that caused Rep. West to let lose with a missive calling Rep. Wasserman Schultz “vile, unprofessional, and despicable” and for which he deems her to be “not a Lady” (and she even called him a gentleman)? Wow. In case you missed the part that really got Rep. West angry, go back to the :37 mark (my transcript, emphasis added):

President Obama has vowed to veto this bill which ends the Medicare guaranty and — incredulously the Gentleman from Florida who represents thousands of Medicare beneficiaries as do I is supportive of this plan that would increase costs for Medicare beneficiaries. Unbelievable from a Member from South Florida.

In response to Rep. West’s attack, Rep. Wasserman Schultz’ spokesperson released the following statement:

I don't think that Congressman West is upset at the Congresswoman, but rather with the fact that she highlighted that he and other Republicans are once again trying to balance the budget on the backs of seniors, children and the middle class. As someone who lives in Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz's Congressional district, Congressman West knows that we have hundreds of thousands of seniors in South Florida who have paid into Medicare throughout their lives and now rely on this program to keep them healthy and active. The truth hurts.


By the way, did you note that interesting little point in Rep. Wasserman Schultz’s response? Many people don’t realize that a member of Congress need not actually reside in the Congressional district that they are elected to represent. Rep. West does not live in the district he represents; rather, he lives in Rep. Wasserman Schultz’s district! With that in mind, re-read this part of Rep. West’s letter: “Focus on your own congressional district!” Hmm. It would appear that Rep. Wasserman Schultz was, indeed, focusing on her district and the policies supported by one of her outspoken constituents.

Oh, and if you’re curious about Rep. West’s reference to a protest outside his campaign office in 2010, you can learn more about it from the Sun Sentinal’s Broward Politics page.


*West was fined and relieved of command.


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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Religious Discrimination — The First Amendment, Be Damned!

I don’t think that anyone would confuse me for an apologist for extremist Islam (or any other extremist religious philosophy). But some of the current verbal assaults against the rights of American Muslims are truly scaring me. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I, as a Jew, am and always have been extremely sensitive to the First Amendment. I’ve paid close attention to efforts to impose one particular religious viewpoint upon those who don’t share that viewpoint and to efforts to make it harder for certain groups to practice their honestly held religious beliefs. And I’ve paid close attention to government endorsements of religion or actions that tend to infringe upon the free exercise of religion.

Until quite recently, most of the issues that I encountered were somewhat nuanced and were often more a result of ignorance than spite. For example, issues about prayer in schools or legislative sessions or use of religious images or symbols in public spaces were common. I’d certainly encountered the government (usually via a public school) seeming to endorse Christianity but, but it was far more rare to find the government (or even individual citizens) actively trying to hinder Judaic practice. About the worst that I usually see in this regard is failing to make accommodations for Jews who attend worship services on certain holidays and therefore don’t go to work/school/sporting events.

But all of that appears to be changing. Over the last year or two we’ve heard more and more Republicans, conservatives, and/or Tea Partiers making statements directly challenging the ability of Jews to practice their religion and even going so far as to challenge whether Judaism is really a religion at all. In Tennessee, citizens have gone to court to try to stop construction of a synagogue and, just this weekend, Herman Cain, a Republican presidential candidate (who is actually polling quite well) agreed that communities should have the right to stop a synagogue from being built. One of the reasons that Republicans and others use for the basis of this new discriminatory approach is that Judaism is not just a religion, but also an encompassing legal system. The Bible lays out a system of rules by which Jews are to live, usually referred as halacha. Most people are familiar with some of the simple rules (i.e., like which foods are considered kosher and acceptable to eat), but the rules govern far more, including such things as birth (including ritual circumcision), marriage (and divorce), and death, as well as other matters like manner of dress and grooming, and other requirements of and prohibitions for an observant Jew (such as driving a car on Shabbat). Republicans have expressed worries that Jews intend to spread that religious law to the United States as a whole, rather than simply to observant Jews who choose to follow halacha. And apparently, Republicans are threatened by this. Thus, they’ve begun to ignore the simple words of the First Amendment in their zeal to marginalize and discriminate against Jews.

Oh. Wait. Sorry. It isn’t Jews that Republicans, conservatives, and Tea Partiers have been discriminating against. It’s Muslims. My bad. Go back and read the preceding paragraph again and substitute Jew and Judaism with Muslim and Islam. Substitute Bible with Koran. And substitute halacha with sharia. They’re really that similar.

That Muslims seek to live in accordance with their religious understanding is, really, no different than Jews seeking to live in accordance with their own religious understanding. Yet because some Muslims would wield their religion as a sword, some Americans would seek to prohibit all (or nearly all) Muslims from practicing their faith. When Buddhist and Shinto Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, we didn’t seek to impose restrictions on Buddhism and Shintoism. Nor, for that matter, did we seek to impose restrictions on Lutheran or Catholic belief during World War I or World War II.

And think of it this way: Why is it that so many Christians are opposed to gay marriage or abortion? Why do so many Christians want to put the Ten Commandments in government buildings or schools? Might it be that they seek to either follow or impose their own set of religious rules, premised on their own religious text (or perhaps faulty understanding of that text, but that’s a discussion for another day)? How does the Catholic prohibition against meat on Fridays differ from the Jewish or Muslim prohibition against pork and shellfish? How does a Catholic ban on divorce differ from the Jewish requirement for a rabbinical court to grant a divorce? Why should a strict Christian understanding of abortion trump a traditional Jewish understanding of the issue?

Few people seem to object to laws that prohibit certain activities on Sunday in order to honor the Christian Sabbath, but you can imagine the uproar if someone proposed shifting that prohibition to Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) or Friday (the Muslim Sabbath)?

Somehow in this whole asinine fear of sharia is the notion that Muslims will be able to impose their religious rules upon the rest of us. But that fear complete ignores two critical things: First, our laws are made by our elected representatives (and no, “activist judges” have not been imposing sharia law despite what some fearmongers on the right would have people believe; please read the American Civil Liberties Union’s report Nothing to Fear: Debunking the Mythical “Sharia Threat” to Our Judicial System). Second, the adoption of any sort of sharia-based law would still have to pass constitutional muster like any other law. Thus, Muslims will have no more success requiring all Americans to worship Allah than Christians will have in requiring all Americans to recognize Jesus.

I am frightened that any educated American would so willingly claim that a community could stop the construction of a house of worship for a religion that community dislikes. That fear becomes much more palpable when the American in question is a legitimate candidate for President. And that fear becomes almost indescribable when you consider just how many Americans seem to share the viewpoint expressed by Herman Cain.

I have no trouble with someone who fears terrorists. Nor do I have a problem with someone being critical of the Muslim community for not doing enough to delegitimize radical Islam and terrorism. And I don’t mind that Herman Cain doesn’t want to include terrorists in his cabinet (though I bristle at the implied suggestion that President Obama does want or already does include terrorists in his cabinet); but Cain himself (though he continues to try to run from the comment) didn’t limit the exclusion to terrorists, but to Muslims in general. To paint the entire Muslim community with the broad brush of terrorism such that the ability of American Muslims to peacefully practice their religion and participate in American civic and political life is hindered is not just unconstitutional, it is a violation of the very core principles that make America great.

Lately, we’ve heard a lot from the right about “American Exceptionalism” and it’s been a common theme of criticism against President Obama that he supposedly doesn’t believe in American Exceptionalism. But I’d like to ask people like Herman Cain and those who espouse ideas similar to his, just what is it about America that is so exceptional. Why are we better than the rest of the world? One of the answers to that, I believe, is the First Amendment. Another, I believe, is the concept that our country is a union where “we’re all in it together” (but again, that’s a discussion for another day). Thus, it seems to me that while the right gives lip service to the notion of American Exceptionalism, when it comes time to proverbially put their money where their mouth is, the right can’t seem to come to grips with the fact that American Exceptionalism (and the First Amendment) apply and protect to all Americans, not just those the right likes or who believe and think the same way. To paraphrase someone famous (though I can’t find the quote right now): The First Amendment isn’t needed to protect popular views and majority religions; rather the First Amendment’s strength is in protecting those who express an unpopular view or are a member of a minority religion.

Anybody who supports Herman Cain should really be called to answer for their own particular beliefs and understandings of the rights of religious minorities. Bigots must be called out and made to answer for their bigotry. And Herman Cain himself should be ostracized for the bigot that he’s shown himself to be.

For another analysis of Cain’s bigotry, please read Eugene Robinson’s terrific editorial Stand Up to Herman Cain’s Bigotry (and note that I wrote most of this blog post before Robinson’s editorial was posted…). And here’s a link to the story about what Herman Cain actually said.

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Monday, July 18, 2011

How Did We Get Here?

I'm going to post the following infographic from The New York Times without editorial comment:

OK. I lied. Two very brief editorial comment (well, actually, queries): What would our economy and the deficit look like now if we didn’t bail out Wall Street, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac? And what would our economy and the deficit look like now if either (a) we hadn’t passed the stimulus (to at least try to get the economy moving again and give funds to the states to cover gaps in their budgets) or (b) we’d passed a much larger stimulus as many wanted?

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

It Takes Chutzpah to Be This Dumb


I don’t think that Bachmann is going to be getting much of the Jewish vote. Just sayin’…

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Dance With Dragons … At Last

98304399 Sometime in 1996 or 1997, while prowling around a bookstore (you know, an actual store with these weird things with words written on actual paper) I came across a book entitled A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. It was in the Science Fiction and Fantasy section of the store. Anyone who’s perused my LibraryThing catalog will know that I mostly read thrillers, but I am a fan of science fiction and fantasy as well. However, it is fairly rare that I find books in either of these genres that really grab my attention. I’m not sure what it was about A Game of Thrones that caught my attention (it certainly wasn’t the description on the back which, reading the back cover of that paperback again last night, doesn’t really seem to describe the book very well), but I bought a copy and put it on my bookshelf with the intent to read it … later.

Jump forward several years. Even though A Game of Thrones had been sitting on my bookshelf, it had never made it to the top of my always crowded reading list. There had always been another Tom Clancy or Clive Cussler or generic thriller to fill my reading time. But I found myself picking up A Game of Thrones fairly often to see if maybe it would be the next book that I’d read. Finally, in the summer of 2003, I decided to read A Game of Thrones. It became one of the first books that I read in eBook format on my Sony Clie. I read it over the course of several months while I worked out on an elliptical machine (the software on the Sony Clie had a customizable autoscroll feature that was pretty cool). Anyway, I absolutely loved the book. I recall telling people at the time that I thought it was easily the best fantasy novel (and more on that in a minute) since Tolkien. When I finished A Game of Thrones I quickly purchased the second volume A Clash of Kings and read it while I continued to workouts.

The story told in these books (the series is called A Song of Ice and Fire) is difficult to describe. I’ve often said that it is really a masterful work of medieval historical fiction, just not our history. The book is set in a fantasy world in a land called Westeros. It draws quite a bit upon the English Wars of the Roses for inspiration. And it does have supernatural elements, but in very limited and restrained amounts. The book is not about wizards running around turning people into toads; nor is it about explorations of dungeons filled with slavering beasts. Instead, it is about humans and their quest for power, glory, honor, and other more base human motivations. It is, as the title of the first book implies, about thrones and the perceived power that a crown wields. But mostly, it is about some of the most well-written characters in fiction.

The story is told from shifting points of view. Each book has a handful of point-of-view characters (and chapter headings tell the reader which character will be “featured” in that chapter). So the reader is able to watch the story unfold from different viewpoints (and, like anything else, viewpoint is critical to the interpretation of certain events and motives). But by avoiding omniscient narration, Martin is able to ground his story very thoroughly in his characters and their respective views of their world and the events in which they are embroiled.

Another element that sets these books apart is that those characters are not the classic white hat wearing good guys or black robed villains. Good people do bad things and bad people aren’t necessarily evil. Knights aren’t always honorable (and might offer the occasionally epithet); ladies aren’t always … um … ladylike? Oh, and people have sex, too. And get this: People die. And not just any people, but main characters, even heroic main characters. Death is often ugly and painful. And any taboos that you can think of are probably thoroughly trashed somewhere along the way. In other words, the story is very surprising with twists and turns that are completely unexpected. It’s not often that an author surprises me in a story; in A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin surprises me over and over and over again.

Alas, eventually my workout routine ended and when I finished A Clash of Kings, which I also loved, I decided that I wanted to get back to faster moving thrillers. I knew that I wanted to read the third book A Storm of Swords but, like with my original delay in reading A Game of Thrones, there was always something that I wanted to read more. It’s also worth mentioning that these books are huge!

In 2005, the fourth volume, A Feast for Crows, was published. In its review of the book, Time called Martin “the American Tolkien”. I had the chance to meet the author (and get an autographed copy) at a local bookstore and hear him talk about the series. That provided the impetus to move on to A Storm of Swords, but after just a few pages, I realized I had a problem. The story is so complex and involves so many characters, that I knew that I would miss much of the detail and interest in that book because I didn’t have a firm recollection of the events of A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings. Thus, I decided that I needed to re-read those books before moving on to A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows. I bet you can guess what happened… That’s right. Once again, as much as I wanted to read these books, I kept putting them off for other books.

And so things remained for a looong time. I continued to think of A Song of Ice and Fire with very high regard and knew that I really did intend to go back and re-read the first two books and then move on the third and fourth books (and the fifth book if and when it was ever published). But I knew that the time investment was huge (did I mention that these books are huge…?) and thus I kept putting it off.

And then came HBO.

Around Spring 2010, I learned that HBO intended to air a series based on A Song of Ice and Fire. From all I read, it sounded like this was going to be a big budget series done well as opposed to the numerous cheaply made and poorly written fantasy series that have come and gone. And it sounded as if Game of Thrones (the name of the HBO series) would be faithful to the books. Once I began to think that HBO could do for A Song of Ice and Fire what Peter Jackson did for Lord of the Rings … well, it was finally time to re-read the books. I decided that I wanted the events of A Game of Thrones to be fresh in my mind as Game of Thrones (note the difference between the book and TV show is the lack of the article “A” in the title of the show) premiered. My timing was almost perfect. Even better, the show was almost perfect, too (and on Thursday we should learn if Game of Thrones will be nominated for any Emmy awards).

When I finished re-reading A Game of Thrones, I realized how much I’d missed during my initial read while exercising. The book deserved a much, much more careful read, as the detail is so rich and the characters and story are so complex and demanding. I remembered the broad outlines of the story but there was so much that I didn’t remember; I didn’t find myself bored at all. So within minutes after finishing A Game of Thrones I moved on to A Clash of Kings and when that was done it was time for A Storm of Swords and, at last, A Feast for Crows.

Now, let me back up here for just a moment. As I mentioned, A Game of Thrones was published in 1996. A Clash of Kings followed in 1998 and A Storm of Swords came out in late 2000. Unfortunately, A Feast for Crows was delayed until 2005. That book included an author’s afterward that ended:

Tyrion, Jon, Dany, Stannis and Melisandre, Davos Seaworth, and all the rest of the characters you love or love to hate will be along next year (I devoutly hope) in A Dance with Dragons, which will focus on events along the Wall and across the sea, just as the present book focused on King’s Landing.

Apparently, when writing A Feast for Crows, the novel became too big to be published. So Martin and his publisher decided to cut it in half (or so), but not in the way that one would expect. Rather than picking an arbitrary ending point somewhere in the “middle”, Martin decided to pull the chapters for some of the characters out of the book entirely, thus limiting A Feast for Crows to one group of characters and one part of the story. Tyrion, Jon, Dany (three of the most interesting characters in the series) and the others mentioned in the afterward would be the focus of the fifth book that was due in 2006.

But as often happens, that plan went awry. Apparently Martin had a great deal of difficulty (for a whole host of reasons) completing that fifth book. And so time passed and passed and passed. And A Dance With Dragons remained “in the works”. Martin used to provide regular updates on his blog, telling readers what he was working on and when he expected to finish. Eventually, however, he gave up doing even that and instead wrote simply that he wouldn’t be providing any more of those updates but would, instead, just tell readers when he was done.

I think, by the time that the premier of the HBO series was approaching, many people had begun to wonder if A Dance With Dragons would ever be finished. And then came the announcement earlier this year that Martin had, indeed, finished A Dance With Dragons and that it would be published … today … July 12, 2011.

I finished A Feast for Crows last week while on vacation. My timing was off by a few days, so I took advantage of that and read Jeffrey Deaver’s entry in the James Bond canon Carte Blanche (which I finished last night). And tonight I will start on the long-awaited A Dance With Dragons. And on Saturday, I’ll go back to that bookstore to meet the author again (and get a signed copy of the hardback of A Dance With Dragons to be placed on my bookshelf next to the signed copy of A Feast for Crows).

But just think of the excitement of fans who’ve read the books as published. As I mentioned, three of the best characters in the series were completely (or almost completely) absent from A Feast for Crows; in other words, there hasn’t been any new material about those characters in over ten years! But today, the wait is over.

Each year, I look forward to the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. But tonight, I’ll be in the basement, TV off, iPad on. A Dance With Dragons has arrived.


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Friday, July 8, 2011

Back From Summer Vacation

Sorry for the lack of updates, but I’ve just returned from our annual summer vacation to Hilton Head. I managed to do a whole bunch of nothing (besides sitting by the pool reading). Hopefully, I’ll have some time to write something a bit later in the week (after digging out from under whatever has piled up in my inbox).

For those who were looking forward to this year’s Twitter travelogue, I’m sorry to have disappointed. In previous years, we traveled with my in-laws and, believe it or not, my mother-in-law drove allowing me to sit in the back, read my book(s), and tweet to my heart’s content. However, this year, the in-laws didn’t accompany us (my father-in-law turns 90 next month and wasn’t feeling well enough to join us). I discovered that it is difficult to tweet a funny travelogue while driving. It is even harder to read a book while driving. Oh, well.

There was one thing that I have to share. On our way home, we stopped in Newport, Tennessee, because my wife saw a sign for Sonic and she really wanted one of their shakes (she tried one on the way home from Washington last year) and the kids really liked the burgers and hot dogs. Unfortunately, we quickly realized that the restaurant wasn’t right next to the Interstate but we decided that we’d already gotten off the highway, so we’d go ahead and drive the 2 miles to the Sonic. On the way, in front of a store called … get this … “God’s Warehouse Thrift Shop and Food Pantry” was … put down any drinks that you may be holding … seriously … a drive thru convenience store. And when I say drive thru I really mean drive thru. Don’t think of a fast food restaurant or even a drive thru pharmacy. Nope. This was a small warehouse-like building that you actually drove through … as in right through the middle of the building. As we passed by, we could see coolers full of drinks and shelves with stuff of some kind or another. We tried to take a photo, but couldn’t get the right angle. I tried to get an image through Google street view, but their photo was apparently taken before the drive thru convenience store was built.

I’m looking forward to a drive thru Fresh Market or maybe a drive thru Best Buy.

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