Friday, December 4, 2009

Lying is Fun-Payback is a Bitch

My Inbox is still empty as many of my angry friends try to figure out how to cope with the shocking and disturbing news of the day.

Friday morning the government announced that roughly as many jobs were created last month as were lost. That was a far better result than was anticipated. In addition the unemployment rate dropped instead of going up again as expected.

Many of these friends--who are united in their hatred of the President of the United States--are already reeling from the fact that the stock market has gone up for nine months in a row producing the sharpest rally in our lifetimes.  And now this!

Throughout it all, angry and ominous emails have been arriving almost daily warning that President Obama is ruining the economy and the country with his horrible Obamanomics and terrible policies. These screeds of course have ignored the fact that when Obama took office the economy had already been ruined by his predecessor's policies and that the world was already facing the very real threat of a complete meltdown of the financial system.

They also have repeatedly bemoaned the fact that under Obama our national deficit would grow to more than a trillion dollars a year and our biggest and most irresponsible banks and financial institutions would be bailed out to the tune of trillions more. These expressions of outrage--which continue unabated to this day--also ignore the fact that all of that had already happened during the Bush years as well.

They are like a person who's dying of cancer going to see an oncologist to seek treatment and then blaming the doctor for giving him the disease in the first place. It seems ridiculous but, as we have all learned too well, if you tell a lie often enough, it becomes the truth. Lenin said it first, Karl Rove refined it and took it to a new level, and bloggers, emails, and hate-radio and cable jocks have made it their mantra.

Despite this adoption of virtual reality as truth by so many friends, I have continued to cling to the old-fashioned notion that no matter how many people believe a verbal rant or a forwarded email full of falsehoods and distortions, a lie is still a lie. 

Like Bernie Madoff, Tiger Woods, and others, my friends are now finding that when you  build your life on a foundation of falsehoods, you need to tell more and bigger lies just to keep from having to admit you were wrong in the first place.  Eventually the liar has no choice but to admit that everything has been a fraud from the beginning. It can be dangerous. You can end up in jail for the rest of your life or lying in your driveway with a 3-iron lodged in your head.

This harsh reality is now confronting former CNN entertainer Lou Dobbs.  Dobbs decided a couple of years ago that he could develop a huge devoted following among American racists by spending all his time attacking illegal immigrants and essentially blaming all of our nation's real and perceived problems on them.

When that act got a little tired, Dobbs expanded his racist product line and became the poster boy for the Birther movement--those who didn't want to just come out and say that it drove them crazy that Americans wanted a black man as president so they continued to claim that Obama was really born in Kenya and wasn't an American at all.

Now Dobbs has been fired by CNN and wants to seek public office. Not surprisingly, he received moral and financial support from Americans for Legal Immigration (ALIPAC)--arguably our nation's most racist anti-immigrant group. But now, in his effort to become palatable to people outside America's most virulent hateful and lunatic fringe, Dobbs, who is now running for a Senate seat in New Jersey, says he might support just a smidgen of amnesty for some illegals.

Like all liars and those who count on the worst of us for their support, Dobbs has found that if you sleep with enough dogs, eventually you will come away with fleas. His most ardent racist supporters have now called Lou a traitor to the cause and have thrown him under the bus as well. So now Dobbs still has no support from the vast majority of Americans who stopped watching his racist rants years ago and got him fired from CNN and he also has lost his friends on the racist Right. What's a liar to do?

Most of us also get regular emails demonizing Nancy Pelosi from the same Obama haters.  We are repeatedly told that the Speaker is almost as evil as the president himself. They say she wants to tax us all into oblivion and take away our rights.

Of course these tomes ignore the fact that no one's taxes have been raised this year, no one's rights have been taken away, and now Pelosi is opposing the proposal of fellow Democrats who want a temporary War Tax be instituted so we can start paying for the wars we have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for the last eight years.

I'm still waiting for the emails praising Ms. Pelosi for working to keep our taxes down but my Inbox remains sadly empty.

By the way, the Speaker's decision not to make Americans pay for our wars is wrong and immoral.  As a fiscal conservative, I am a strong believer that we should pay our bills and that we shouldn't make our children and creditors pick up the tab for money that is being spent on our behalf today.  It is also clear that our economy and job picture are still dismal and in the very early stages of recovery.  Huge problems and challenges remain.

But this piece is not about political ideology. It is about the dangers of making a strong case for a position based on lies and distortions. It is sad that so many Americans have resorted to this and it is more outrageous that the news media have been so complicit.  As a result of their lax and often non-existent Balloon Boy style fact-checking, they routinely give a platform to liars in the name of balanced reporting.

If you live long enough, your choices can come back to haunt you. I feel concern for my troubled friends and wonder how they're going to cope. Their choices are limited.  They can kick the can further down the road with more lies and distortions or they can man-up, admit they were wrong all along, and change their ways.  Keep checking your Inbox and your favorite cable channel.  Their answers will show up soon enough.

Life is tough enough for those us who try to tell the truth. I can only imagine how much harder it is for those who don't. I'm trying to feel sorry for them. It's not working yet but I'll keep you posted.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Feeding the Beast--Our Insatiable Need For Villains

The truth?  Jack Nicholson was right.  We can't handle the truth.  Either that or we just prefer not to hear it..

The truth is that America is still suffering from what is likely to be a very long hangover after a decade of binge spending.  Led by George W. "Keep Shopping" Bush and his friends in Congress, we spent most of the last decade digging ourselves into a deep and wide economic hole.

No one behaved like a grown up.  We elected and supported representatives who ran our government into debt while we ran ourselves into debt with the help of our financial institutions who loaned too much money to people who couldn't pay it back.  When all the bills came due at once, no one had any money to pay them.  So the government is printing money and the ultimate bills will be paid by our creditors, our kids, and people who own dollars that will buy less and less over time.

If this wers a movie, we would come away from this humbling experience chastened, embarrassed, wiser and determined to get it right the next time.

But in real life it's apparently much easier to just get angry at everyone except ourselves and look for villains to blame.  We are told that we didn't do anything wrong.  We're the victims here of the bad guys who brought us down and continue to screw us at every turn.  Nothing is our fault--it's all about those horrible folks who did us in. 

At first the villain was simply called Wall Street Greed but that was too general to be truly satisfying.  During the last few months that problem was solved by simply blaming everything on Goldman Sachs and the people who run the company.  The depth of our addiction to bad guys became clear when even the New York Times piled on last week with an editorial saying that Goldman--only Goldman--should be ashamed of itself.

The international crisis was created by Merrill, Lehman, Bear Stearns, AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the other Goldman competitors who leveraged up themselves and the system to levels that caused a true meltdown when their bets went wrong.

To blame Goldman--which was not the major player when it came to creating the toxic assets and which did not leverage itself up on one bet like the others did--would be like blaming a manufacturer of automatic weapons for what happened at Fort Hood.

The system didn't get brought down by bad mortgages.  It was brought down by major investment firms (not Goldman) who decided to leverage up 30 and 40 to 1 in a single asset class. As result, instead of just taking a hit on a bad bet--which happens all the time--they were wiped out and the international financial system was put at serious risk.

The government (not the taxpayers because we haven't paid a dime yet) bailed out AIG to the tune of $170 billion and counting. Goldman received $12 billion or almost exactly 7 percent of that money. And yet, they are the only name ever singled out as the bad guys who ought to be ashamed of themselves for having the nerve to benefit so dramatically from the recovery in the markets because they're better than everyone else.

What about the companies and people that got the other 93 percent? Do you ever hear any of them singled out for special demonization the way that Goldman has been?  Is there any indication that anyone at Goldman committed a crime or did anything illegal? Has anyone been charged?

Goldman did what investment firms are supposed to do.  They invested legally and wisely in a way designed to make themselves and their shareholders wealthy at the expense of others who were less insightful.  Until a year ago, that's what American success was all about.  A "good" accountant is one who figures out a way to help his clients pay as little tax as is legally possible.  A "good" lawyer is one who can get you off no matter how guilty you might be.  A successful person or company is one that makes an enormous amount of money.  Someone must have changed the rules without telling the rest of us.

For many angry Americans, the Big Three--Obama, Pelosi, and Reid--have been the ultimate villains since their first day in office.  It's ironic that there are two major seemingly contradictory complaints about Obama.  One is that he is doing too much and he's ruining the country.  The other is that he hasn't done anything at all and he's ruining the country.  But when you're dealing with demonization, facts become an irrelevant nuisance. The important thing is to get really angry and encourage others to do the same.

So at the very time when we face serious problems and desperately  need intelligent and nuanced discussion of complex issues, we are getting the exact opposite.  At the time when we most need to become reacquainted with true patriotism involving shared sacrifice, we are being told that we are not the cause of any of our problems so there is no need for us to be part of the solution. 

Instead we are told to get really angry and focus on the villains who got us into this mess with their greed, avarice, and evil motives.  It certainly won't help solve any of our problems but it is not nearly as painful as looking the real nature of our challenges and the key to surmounting them squarely in the eyes.

For most of us, those eyes stare right back at us when we look into the mirror.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Outsourcing of Patriotism

Each of us interfaces with major news events in our own way. We take reported facts and run them through the personal opinions and filters that we use to shape our view of the world.

So when Major Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire and gunned down dozens of his fellow servicemen at Fort Hood, it was predictable that some would conclude that you just can't trust Muslims while others saw it as yet another sign of the ancillary tragedies of war. Some came away concerned that there would be an outsized backlash against Arab and Islamic Americans while others called for just that. Was Hasan a lone wolf acting on his own or part of an international terrorist plot?  Inquiring minds want to know.

Not really.

We claim to demand answers to these questions but, in truth, we don't care so much.  The questions are rhetorical. Politicians and ideologues take snippets of information and use them to support conclusions and positions reached long before anyone heard of Major Hasan.

That's because at no time in U.S. history have so few of us had any personal or finacial skin in the game of defending our country.  Most of the victims at Fort Hood, like most casualties of our current disastrous wars, were from small rural towns that most of us don't even know exist. Only 2 of the 13 who were killed hailed from metropolitan areas.

The rest were from West Jordan UT, Bolinbrook IL, Mountain City TN, Havre de Grace, MD, Kiel WI, Woodbridge VA, Willistron ND, Plymouth IN, Racine WI, Tillman OK, and Cameron TX.

The vast majority of Americans live in cities with populations of more than 100,000 but 85 percent of those killed at Fort Hood and most American victims of the war did not.  I've been checking the hometowns of our war victims for years and they are always disproportionately rural.  Try it yourself.  You'll be shocked.

The sad truth is that we have outsourced virtually every aspect of our military effort to paid government contractors and young rural men and women who are attracted to the economic package of six-figure enlistment bonuses, death benefits, and educational opportunities available in the military.  Adding to the irony is that Major Hasan himself apparently enlisted for financial reasons--not because he longed to serve America.  He just wanted a free trip to medical school and was willing to do his time in the service to pay for it--until he wasn't.

Being patriotic used to involve actions and not just words. Patriots were those who enlisted in the military--not those who bought an "I Support the Troops" decal at a gas station. Patriots were those who gladly paid higher taxes to support the war effort--not those who demanded tax cuts and held tea parties to complain that they had to pay any taxes at all.

The sadder truth is that most of us have substituted words, blast emails, blogs, and rants we hear and see in the media for truth and actions. The politicians and angry screamers on cable TV and the radio argue incessantly about what we should do in Afghanistan and Iraq but the fact is that most of us really don't care. Very few people could find Afghanistan or Iraq on a map or know a single soldier who has ever served there.

Each TV and radio station has dozens of hosts and guests who argue constantly over what military course President Obama should take but most of those same stations have no reporters on the ground actually gathering facts and covering the wars in which our country is engaged.

Most of us don't complain about the lack of coverage because we just don't care. Most of us lose more sleep over the ups and downs of our favorite football team than we do worrying about the fate of Americans (no one we know) serving in the Middle East.

Shortly after 9/11 most Americans wanted to know what we could personally do to help fight the new terrorist threat.  President George W. Bush told real patriots to "keep shopping" and pay less in taxes--not more--even as the U.S. was about to embark upon a dangerous ordeal that would cost tens of thousand Americans their lives and health and would run up a tab of more than a trillion dollars.

That became the model for the new patriotism. Don't enlist, don't encourage your children and grandchildren to serve their country, and don't even think about making financial sacrifices to help pay the bills. Just keep shopping, vote Republican, and question the courage and patriotism of those who raise questions.

Don't worry about sending your kids to fight. We'll just keep raising the bribes we pay to poor rural kids who want and need the money enough to risk their lives and then once we get them in we'll send them back for four and five tours. Those soldiers who survive may be physically or mentally crippled for life but your kids and finances will be fine.

Since Obama was elected, it is no longer required to even pretend to care. The "I Support the Troops" decals are hard to find now. We have become sadly complacent and comfortable in our new role as armchair patriots.  We're too busy getting angry, demanding new entitlements, and feeling screwed by our government as we pay the lowest tax rates in our lifetime.

Now, just a couple of weeks after the horrific murders at Fort Hood, not even the news media pretends to care so much.  After an initial flurry of reports and commentary, there are hardly any news stories about the massacre. Much more airtime is being given to Sarah Palin's book tour than to the wars, Major Hasan, or his victims.  The compelling and important story of the Ballon Boy got at least double the coverage.

That's the real story from Fort Hood. It's not just about a Muslim officer who maimed and murdered dozens of his fellow American soldiers. It's about the consequences of the outsourcing of patriotism in our country and the sad fact that most of us don't even care enough to be ashamed.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Market's Not That Complicated

The markets continue to frustrate most investors as trends that have been in place for much of the year remain operative long after most of the experts believed they had already gone way too far.

Most pundits have been advising caution for months as world stock markets continue to march higher. They have been declaring buy-and-hold strategies to be long dead in this new age of high-speed trading strategies and risk management.

The new way of thinking is perhaps best showcased on CNBC’s Fast Money—a daily one-hour program where the underlying assumption is that intelligent trading and investment strategies change every minute and the only way to make money in this complex world is to shorten one’s time horizon accordingly.

I couldn’t disagree more.

There are new developments on a daily basis that do affect the prospects for specific industries and companies and one does need to pay attention to the news. But the trends that have been driving the markets this year are macro and secular and should be with us for a long time to come.

Here are the four themes that have driven and continue to frame my investment approach:

1. The U.S. and other countries that were devastated by the financial meltdown last year have responded by printing mountains of paper money that is backed by no tax revenues or assets in an effort to stimulate their economies and avoid what would have been a systemic collapse.

As a result, it is taking more and more of those pieces of paper to buy real stuff—hard assets like gold, copper, energy, and other basic materials. The pundits keep talking about the falling value of the dollar but it goes beyond that. We are in the early stages of a period where the currencies of many countries should be viewed with suspicion as the weak economy and low tax rates continue to reduce tax revenues as the printing presses around the world continue to crank out more and more pieces of paper money.

This is not a trend that is likely to change in the foreseeable future.

2. The U.S. has developed a culture of entitlement and our demographics make us far less attractive to investors than many other markets.

I am part of the problem. I’m a baby boomer who will be a productive, tax-paying worker for several more years but for most of the rest of my life—which will hopefully be several decades—I will become an expensive national liability consuming social security, Medicare, and other entitlement dollars.

I am not alone. It seems that countries like Brazil, India, Taiwan, China, Korea, Australia and other nations where the average age and national and personal debt levels are much lower are better positioned for growth going forward.

Fortunately, it has never been easier for investors to buy into specific geographies and industry sectors as part of a portfolio strategy than it is today.

3. There is an apparent disconnect between the U.S. economy and the stock market. The market has advanced for eight straight months and hundreds of companies are reporting excellent earnings even as unemployment has risen into double digits and many people remain deeply in debt.

There are actually two trends at work here, neither of which is likely to change in the near term.

First, most companies have eliminated lots of jobs and have cut other costs dramatically. They are more focused than ever on getting more work and productivity out of the employees that remain. From an investment perspective, this trend has helped the business of technology companies and others who provide products and services that enhance productivity and make operations more efficient.

The second trend relates to the weakness of the dollar. Those U.S. companies that do most of their payroll and manufacturing spending in dollars but derive most of their revenues from overseas are doing very well in this environment and are likely to continue to benefit going forward.

4. Interest rates on U.S. Treasuries and government guaranteed deposits have been kept artificially low by federal authorities who are trying to keep the cost of funds to the banks at rock-bottom levels and create the illusion that there is still solid demand for our nation’s debt.

I believe this has created a ticking time bomb for conservative investors who remain heavily invested in cash equivalents and government bonds. At some point, inflation and higher interest rates will have to kick in and when that happens, investors who have sought safety will find that they had the same number of dollars as they did before but those dollars may buy far less goods and services than they used to.

We continue to monitor the economy and the markets carefully and I will keep you posted regarding the situation going forward.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fans Who Hate Obama More Than They Love America

As a college athlete, a former basketball and football referee, and a passionate sports fan I have both received and delivered withering verbal abuse over the years. Fans loudly and routinely question the judgment, sanity, integrity and wisdom of the officials. But they only get upset when the call goes against their team.

No one ever boos the refs for making a bad call that goes in their team's favor. And I've never seen a team argue against or refuse to accept an unfair decision that helped them win the game.

What brought all this to mind was the news that Barack Obama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the subsequent reaction from many Americans who criticized the selection and urged the President to turn down the award because he didn't deserve it.

First let's focus on the decision to honor Obama. Did the five Norwegian referees on the Nobel committee blow it? I don't think so. Upon review the ruling on the field stands as called. Despite the boos from the stands, Obama deserves the award right now. The officials had a better angle and got it right.

In announcing the award, the Nobel Committee cited Obama for his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy" and providing the leadership required for the "USA to play a more constructive role" by creating "a new direction in international politics."

The announcement concludes that:

"Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population."

But Obama has already done much more to make the world a safer place than just set a new tone. There are many tangible signs of progress in reversing the broad range of domestic and international disasters that were created or exacerbated by George W. Bush.

First and foremost, since Obama's election, Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations who want to destroy us have had a real problem finding new recruits. Former President Bush had become a poster boy for terrorist recruiting as America's standing as a moral force in the world came to be defined by the horrific pictures from Abu Ghraib and torture stories from Gitmo.

Obama's outreach to the Arab and Muslim world have made it almost impossible for our country's enemies to portray us as "the Great White Satan" and find healthy young people willing to blow themselves up to kill us. The rest of the world seems to know better than to believe the Right wing lies about how Obama has weakened and apologized for America. Admitting past mistakes is not weak and definitely not an apology.

In addition, President Obama has made it clear that he will be personally engaged and take a balanced approach as he works for a sustainable peace in the Middle East. Although many of my fellow Jews claim he is a secret Muslim who has abandoned Israel, the fact is that since Obama was elected, Hamas has had a very hard time maintaining the support of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas leaders have been pushing hard to have next January's elections postponed since they fear a big defeat at the polls if the voting takes place as scheduled.

Domestically, Obama has worked tirelessly to confront a broad range of crises in our country. He inherited an American-made economic crisis that was threatening to send the entire world into a massive depression. The financial markets were in a death spiral that many believed would take us all permanently down the drain.

During his 9 months in office, the U.S. and world stock markets have gone higher for eight months in a row for the first time in decades. Investors who didn't panic at the bottom have made up losses that most believed would never be overcome. Our employment picture, as predicted, is taking longer to come back but three times as many Americans say they are optimistic about the future as felt that way nine months ago.

He has attacked our health care crisis head on but has been slowed by the Republican leaders in Congress who have promised to make sure nothing gets passed and by members of both parties who are so financially tied to health care interests that they have made progress difficult. Things have moved forward very slowly but it took us decades to get into this mess. It will take more than 9 months to get out of it.

So the refs in Norway made the right call--at the very least it was a defensible call. And it helped the U.S.--the home team of every patriotic American. We are all better off if our President and the Commander in Chief of our armed forces is recognized for promoting peace and making the world a better place.

So why are so many of the home fans booing?

Some honestly believe the refs made a bad call. Fair enough. They say Obama hasn't done enough yet to deserve this honor. I disagree, but some of their arguments are reasonable. But so what? As I said before, when have you ever seen the home fans boo the refs and get up in arms when a questionable call is made that favors the home team?

But the people who seem most upset--often apoplectic--over Obama being honored are the same folks who were cheering wildly just a week earlier when it was announced that Chicago was not getting the 2016 Olympic Games.

There is only one explanation that makes any sense at all. These folks just don't want the home team to win or even play well as long as Obama is president and will get some of the credit.

They hate Obama more than they love America.

This may seem like idiocy to an intellectual but sports fans understand it perfectly. I know dozens of smart rational people here in Tucson who are big University of Arizona fans and who hate Arizona State. They hate ASU so much and so viscerally that they always root for the Sun Devils to lose--even in cases where it would be to Arizona's advantage in the rankings if ASU won. None of them can give you a credible reason for their hatred. They just can't help themselves.

It is this type of baseless hatred that confronts Obama here at home. The haters have their own booster club (Fox News) and cheerleaders (Right Wing radio hosts and bloggers). Since they have no facts to back their feelings, they simply make stuff up and broadcast and email it back and forth to each other, call it news, and claim to be telling the truth.

Paul Krugman wrote last week (before the Nobel Prize announcement):

"If Republicans think something might be good for the president, they’re against it — whether or not it’s good for America."

I may not know much about politics, but I know what it means to be a fan. No true fan of Team America would ever scream at the refs for making a call that helped our team win. In that regard, Rush Limbaugh may have said it best:

"Our president is a worldwide joke. Folks, do you realize something has happened here that we all agree with the Taliban and Iran about and that is he doesn't deserve the award. Now that's hilarious, that I'm on the same side of something with the Taliban, and that we all are on the same side as the Taliban."

As usual, Limbaugh did not say more than he meant. He might have said more than he meant to say.

There are those on the Left who hated Bush. But mostly there were people like me who simply thought he was a horrible president. The millions of opponents of the Iraq war would have never cheered an American defeat or an enemy victory. We loved America far more than we disliked Bush.

Obamahate is very different. It is better organized and is embraced by thousands of influential media and Republican leaders. And its biggest casualties have been the truth, true patriotism, and civil discourse in our country.

Thankfully, the refs who were calling the Nobel Prize game live in Norway where millions of their citizens don't watch and listen to hatespeech against the president 24-7. I remember when America was like that.

The selection of Obama was controversial--maybe even a call that deserved to be reviewed.

But the reaction of millions of American fans--most of whom would describe themselves as patriots--was both telling and shameful.

Friday, September 25, 2009

A New Year's Resolution

These are the most important 10 days of the Jewish calendar—the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when we negotiate with God—making the case that we are worthy to be inscribed in the Book of Life for yet another year.

The biggest part of that process involves t’shuvah—repentance. We try to be honest about things we have done wrong and need to do better during the coming year.

That is obviously a very personal negotiation and each of us has very different issues to consider as part our heshbon ha nefesh—the examination of our soul.

But as a people, I would suggest that this is a time when all Jews need to look not just at what we do during the coming year but at what we say and how we say it.

The Jewish tradition has always been obsessed with the destructive potential of speech. Of the 43 sins enumerated in the Al Chait confession we recite on Yom Kippur, 11 of them are related to speech. The Talmud tells that the tongue is an instrument so dangerous that God designed us in a way so it is hidden from view and behind two protective walls (the mouth and teeth) to prevent its misuse.

In the book of Leviticus, there is a specific prohibition against rechilut—being a tale-bearer. The Hebrew word rechil refers to a trader or a merchant. A tale-bearer—a biblical reference to a blogger or talk show host—is someone who deals in information instead of other goods. Long before there was talk radio, cable news, and the internet the Torah--the Hebrew Bible understood that information is not idle chatter. It is a product. It is real.

The gravest type of rechilut is lashon hara which literally means “the evil tongue.” It is the practice of discrediting or saying negative things about a person even if those things are true. A person who spreads slander or untrue negative information about a person is considered the lowest of the low—a motzi shem ra--one who delivers a bad name. Many commentators rank these people on the same scale as murderers and far worse than thieves since the money or property stolen by a thief can be replaced but a person’s good reputation never recovers from slander.

There is a well-known story about a rabbi who was asked how one could repent for spreading vicious slander. He replied that it was like trying to put the feathers back in a pillow that has been ripped open during a windstorm. It simply can't be done.

The great Chasidic rabbi the Chofetz Chayim was preoccupied with the evils of lashon hara—so much so that it is said he would stay inside his house for weeks at a time because he found it impossible to go out in public without being exposed to evil gossip. Today, he wouldn’t be safe even in his home. He’d have to turn off his TV, throw away his radio, and shut down his email and the internet as well.

Throughout history, no people has suffered more from sinat chinam—baseless hatred—than the Jews. That hatred has come both from within and outside our community. Many of our sages say that the First Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed due to our sins against God but the Second Temple was destroyed due to sinat chinam—baseless hatred shown toward each other by differing groups of Jews.

Over the years, anti-Semitism grew and thrived based on lies that were spread by those who hated Jews more than they loved the truth. These bigots justified their prejudice by claiming that Jews were financial pariahs, murdered Jesus, used the blood of gentile children to make their Passover matzahs and a variety of other hateful slurs. Without these lies and those who willingly spread them, history might look very different.

American Jews have always taken pride in knowing that in the area of politics and public affairs we have been the most sophisticated, influential, and intellectually honest minority group in our country’s history.

But on this Yom Kippur there is reason for concern. The politics of rumor, innuendo, and lies—sinat chinam—is on the rise in our community and it hurts us all.

Former President Bush was a victim of this type of treatment. After Bush visited Yad Vashem, a prominent Jewish blogger wrote that "the President cares about dead Jews. Live Jews--not so much."

During last year's presidential campaign, nine leaders of non-partisan Jewish organizations signed a letter condemning the smear campaigns aimed at Jewish voters that had been launched against President Obama. They took this action not because they supported Obama politically but because they understood the danger of these lies.

What started as fallacious emails claiming that Mr. Obama is a secret Muslim who cavorts with Jew haters has actually ramped up since his election as our president. It has now made its way to semi-respectable websites and the pages of the Jerusalem Post. In several pieces by Jewish authors our president is associated with Islam, Jew hatred, and anti-Israel sentiment ignoring his voting record, statements on Israel, and commitment to fighting anti-Semitism.

Sinat Chinam spills into our community’s internal discourse as well. Hatespeech and uncivil conversation are on the rise. A good friend of mine just quit her job in our Congressman's office in part because she couldn’t take the daily barrage of obscene and hateful phone calls she was fielding on a daily basis.

Jewish Democratic leader Ira N. Forman wrote an insightful article about the rise of hatespeech within the Jewish community. He reported that he had received calls from fellow Jews accusing him of being "a liar and a stooge for the Hitlerite appeasement of Islamofascism."

Jewish Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson cites ominious comparisons between the tactics of today's promoters of hatred and the brilliant propaganda breakthoughs that enabled Hitler to promote his evil agenda.

Speaking of blast emails and the internet in general, Gerson says "the least responsible contributors see their darkest tendencies legitimated and reinforced, while serious voices are driven away by the general ugliness."

Being Jewish has always involved rising above the trends taking place in the broader community and holding ourselves to a higher standard—the standard that has caused us to survive as a people committed to civil discourse and Tikkun Olam--repairing the world.

This year, it is important to our country and also to our biblical commandment to be or l’goyim—a light unto the nations—for us to commit ourselves to focus on what we say and how we say it during the coming year.

It’s not about being politically correct—it’s about doing God’s work and fulfilling our most important Jewish traditions.

May you and your families have a happy, healthy, and rewarding new year.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Back to the Future -- The Tension Over Tense

Have you ever noticed that most things people say they are worried might happen in the future are things that have already happened? Once the dreaded event has taken place, they start speaking in the future tense about it as though it hadn't happened yet--but they're worried that it might.

That was this year's Rosh Hashanah insight that got me through the day as we Chosen folks ushered in 5770 the other day.

As a financial advisor I have seen it repeatedly over the years. Investors and the business news media always seem to consider the market to be risky after it has already been crushed. It is only near market tops that people tend to be comfortable owning stocks and are losing sleep because they don't own enough hot issues.

We saw panic at the bottom after the stock market crash in 1987 and again last March when people were so worried about how risky the market had become that they wanted to sell every stock they owned--including companies that were trading at valuations that were less than the cash they had in the bank. That, of course, was AFTER their accounts had been crushed and the people sold their stocks without regard to price just so they could sleep at night.

We saw the mirror image of that behavior during the late 1990's during the tech bubble. "Conservative" investors fired their money managers for not owning enough high-flying stocks that had already gone up by 1000 percent or more. Then they turned around and sued their new managers in the early 2000's because they owned too many of the internet companies that the investors themselves ordered them to buy.

It's easy to poke fun but in fact human nature tends to lead us astray under a variety of circumstances. With investments, mob psychology takes over. People get greedy at the top and afraid at the bottom. At the end of the day, the almost always default in favor of sleeping at night.

What is harder to understand is why people speak in the future tense about their worries months after the worst has already happened and the risk would seem to be gone.

The same phenomenon seems to apply to the criticism and concerns expressed about President Obama. The very issues that many detractors say they are most worried about seem to be events that already happened long before Obama even took office.

For example, critics say they are worried that Obamanomics will create huge federal deficits and destroy the economy. But during the eight years of George W. Bush's presidency, what had been a budget surplus turned into $5 trillion in deficits and that doesn't include the cost of the Iraq war and other expenses that were made off budget.

To save the economy, Obama will certainly run $1 trillion-plus deficits in coming years, but Bush already did that in 2008. John McCain has admitted that had he been elected the deficit numbers would have looked pretty much the same.

As far as destroying the economy is concerned, that was pretty much a done deal at this time a year ago--months before Obama was even elected.

There is also a lot of hand-wringing and fear that Obama wants to redistribute wealth and take all the money from the rich and give it to the poor. But wasn't it Bush who pushed through a $170 billion stimulus bill more than a year ago where checks of up to $1,200 were sent to the poorest Americans in a failed effort to avert a recession? Where were the cries of "socialism" and the teabagging parties back then? And wasn't it Bush who redistributed billions of in the opposite direction with his tax cuts for the wealthy?

The same is true regarding many concerns about health care reform--not the phony ones which are just based on lies. Outrage is routinely expressed about having a government-financed health care system in which the care itself would be rationed.

But isn't that what we already have with Medicare, Medicaid, and the V.A.? And isn't health care already being rationed by our current system?

I am covered by a "gold-plated" health plan but my premiums and co-pays go up every year and the procedures that are covered by my insurance keep going down. In recent years, I have been told more and more often that "your insurance doesn't cover that procedure" and have seen an increasing number of doctors refuse to accept patients covered by certain insurers because their reimbursement levels have dropped so dramatically.

Perhaps the most ironic line of this whole debate comes from the millions of Republicans who have cautioned Obama and the Democrats to "keep the government away from my Medicare."

There are many reasons to be concerned about the future of health care in our country and how we're going to pay for it. But those who are most concerned about the government controlling coverage or about care being rationed in the future are waiting for a train that left the station years ago.

My guess is that 95 percent of the things most people worry about either have already happened or will never happen. Having said that, there is no doubt that fear about the future can be a useful tool. But only if it is used to keep us out of trouble or to spur us on to imagine and work to create better outcomes and a better world.

Today, however, fears and worries seem to mainly just whip up anger, hate, and demonization of our leaders and institutions.

Hopefully during the coming year we will funnel more of our energy to finding constructive solutions to the many problems that confront us and waste less worrying about things that have already happened or never will.

Steering the Ship of State and our personal lives is tough enough under the best of circumstances. It becomes impossible if we spend all our time looking in the rear view mirror.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The State of Denial Has Zero Electoral Votes--But It Seems to Be Winning

The Right Wing purveyors of hatred, fear, and anger have adopted a new strategy. Unfortunately, it seems to be working as well as their old one.

Until now, they have focused on spreading lies and distortions about President Obama. He is a socialist and a Nazi (an interesting combination) wants to kill granny. He wants to ruin our wonderful health care system--which is working well for virtually no one under the age of 65. He wants to run up trillions in debt--but Bush already did that. He wants to take away all our freedoms and liberties--but Bush already did that. He wants to take away our guns--but he let patriots bring assault weapons to a meeting where he spoke.

You know the drill and the litany. I thought it had gone about as far as it could go. But, as we've all learned, never underestimate the power of racism and hate.

Today we broke new ground. The haters on the Right are now basically saying that the election never happened. Obama didn't really win and he's not really our president. If he was really president, there would be nothing new or controversial about his desire to do a video address to school children regarding how important it is to study hard and stay in school.

George H.W. Bush did the same thing almost 20 years ago. He addressed school children and asked them to help him be a better president and no one complained or even batted an eye. That's because Poppy Bush was a real president and once someone is actually our commander in chief, there's nothing partisan or controversial about him asking anyone and everyone to help him do a better job.

But when Obama asked students to write him letters with advice regarding to how he could do a better job, he received a torrent of abuse from the Right calling it a blatantly partisan act. They are successfully demanding the schools not carry the speech and instructing parents to keep their kids home from school on Tuesday so their young ones will not be damaged by hearing directly from their president.

Ronald Reagan also addressed students before that and actually did try to promote his agenda. He lectured our kids regarding the merits of tax cuts. But you see Reagan was a real president, not a Black guy born in Kenya who never should have been allowed to run in the first place and therefore never really won.

Today, in perfect harmony almost as if they were singing in a choir, Right wing media superheroes Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Michelle Malkin blasted Obama for his blatantly partisan effort to "indoctrinate" the minds of our children by talking to them about the importance of education. In unison, they called on all responsible true American parents to keep their kids home from school on Tuesday.

The rest of us Liberal fools are operating under the illusion that we had open and honest election where we were free to work hard for the candidate we preferred. But when elections are over, then the winner is the president of ALL of us for the next four years. The campaigning is over, the negativity is over, the mudslinging is over. We're all on the same team--particularly in times of war and financial crisis.

But due to his impostor status, Obama's policies are vigorously opposed regardless of his positions. When he alters his stimulus package to include Republican proposals for tax cuts, it's still "Obamanomics" and therefore it's bad. When the stock market goes up 50 percent and is higher six months in a row and three times as many Americans are optimistic about the future compared to a year ago--that is in spite of Obama, not because of him.

When he adopts 82 Republican amendments to his health care reform plan and waffles on the public option, it's still "Obamacare" and therefore it's bad. Just put his name on it and oppose it. That way the facts don't matter. It's all about discrediting and bringing down the man.

Every president before Obama has had what they call a honeymoon period. It's a time when everyone gives the new guy a chance, pulls in the same direction, and prays that he will succeed. But every president before Obama was not Black.

We should have seen this coming. A year ago when the presidential campaign was nearing its end, issues like Obama's friendship with terrorists and racist ministers were being emphasized by some Republicans. Questions about his place of birth were also being stirred up by the same crowd.

After November it stopped for an instant. He was approved and sworn in as president without dissent. Even the most ardent Conservatives admitted that he was born in Hawaii. We stopped hearing about Bill Ayers and Rashid Khalidi and Reverend Wright. We had a new president and it was time to move on.

But a lot of folks just couldn't seem to shift gears. A few months ago, the Birthers (championed by "newsman" Lou Dobbs) reappeared with no new information but with more energy than ever--more than a year after they first raised the issue and dropped it due to lack of facts or proof.

This week, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer resurrected the names of Ayers, Wright, and Khalidi--calling them the friends that Obama has learned from--as he went on to explain (citing no facts of course) why his presidency is already a complete failure.

But this kerfuffle over the speech to students takes things to a new level. Some of us actually believe that Obama is the President of United States. When he asks adults or children to help him be a better president, it is not a partisan act unless you reject the notion that whether you voted for him or not, Obama is the president of all of us and will be for at least 3 1/2 more years.

But apparently in addition to being a socialist, a terrorist, a Kenyan, a Nazi, a granny killer, and like Hitler--Obama is not even really our president. The whole thing was just a big liberal lie--a huge mistake. He's just a pseudo-president or someone who wants to be president some day. Otherwise all these charges and concerns are bogus on their face.

Meanwhile, dozens of school districts around the country have succumbed to pressure from Right wing parents and decided that a speech to all American students will not be carried in their schools on Tuesday. If you really believe that Obama is the President of the United States, how do you make that call?

I guess that Rush, Sean, Glenn, and Michelle are the true leaders of our country. Or at least they are able to call the shots in an environment where anger and fear reign and truth, justice, and the American way have become empty words.

The State of Denial (population--millions and growing) has zero electoral votes but it seems to have won the election. Unless, of course, the rest of us demand a recount.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Sticks and Stones Can Break Your Bones--But Words Can Get You Killed

We all grew up being told to be very fearful of sticks, stones, and other threats to our physical safety but not so much of words which we were assured could never hurt us.

Like many childhood sayings, this one was never true. As my dear friend and teacher Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out in his wonderful book Words That Hurt, Words That Heal, the greatest pain most of us suffer in our lives comes from mean and inconsiderate words--not from physical injury.

But there's a big difference between mean and hateful. Mean words can hurt your feelings. Hatespeech can get you killed.

As I recently wrote, most criticism is not hatespeech. In all healthy, vibrant democracies it is essential that good people feel free to openly criticize decisions made by political leaders. But there are lines of civility, honesty, and decency that shouldn't and can't be crossed without turning healthy dissent into something very toxic and potentially deadly.

Reports from both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (prepared during the Bush administration) and the Southern Poverty Law Center have indicated a startling rise in both the number and activity level of Right wing militias and groups promoting domestic terrorism in the name of Conservative values.

As hatespeech, lies, and racism have become the dominant language of the Right wing in our country, it is depressingly reminiscent of what happened in Israel 15 years ago. The comparisons are becoming more frightening all the time.

In 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords. He agreed to turn parts of Gaza and the West Bank over to the Palestinians and freeze the growth of Israeli settlements in exchange for Yasir Arafat's pledge to renounce violence and recognize the right of Israel to exist.

The move was hailed as a major breakthrough in much of Israel and around the world. Rabin. a former general and war hero, was hailed as a visionary who allowed hope to supersede his military past and his first-hand knowledge of Arafat's legacy of terror and broken promises. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award in 1994.

But not all Jews were happy. The ultra-orthodox leadership in Israel and Brooklyn were outraged. Just as Obama has been branded by the Right wing as a racist, a terrorist, and a Nazi who wants to destroy the American way of life, Rabin was demonized by the religious Right in Israel and America as a traitor who was destroying the Jewish state by ceding holy land to Palestinians.

As is the case in America today, lies and hatespeech took over the conversation and squeezed out reason and truth. Rabbis in America and Israel put a death curse on Rabin invoking the long obsolete notion of din rodef--a religious death sentence placed on the head of one who hands over his people or their land to the enemy.

Anti-Rabin rallies (town hall meetings? tea parties?) were held outside his residence and in Right wing strongholds including Jerusalem. Most Israelis dismissed these frightening activities as the actions of a handful of kooks, crazies and whack jobs. Sound familiar?

Not wanting to waste a political opportunity, Likud leader Benyamin Netanyahu spoke at a major anti-Rabin rally in Jerusalem in October, 1995 where he was cheered by a mob screaming "death to Rabin" and carrying posters showing Rabin dressed as Hitler, and Rabin wearing a Nazi SS uniform.

As Bibi slammed Rabin for "giving away parts of our homeland." Housing Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer reportedly pleaded with Netanyahu to "restrain your people. Settlers have gone crazy. Someone will get murdered--if not today then soon."

Rabin was angered by the tactics but apparently not that concerned about his safety. He refused to wear a bullet-proof vest at a peace rally in Tel Aviv weeks later when a Right wing Jewish rabbinic student--a follower of the rabbis who had called for Rabin's assassination--murdered him with two gunshots fired at point blank range.

The murderer Yigal Amir was about as far away from Rabin as Scott Roeder was from Dr. George Tiller when he walked up to him in his Kansas church in May and murdered him at point blank range.

Dr. Tiller had been vilified by Fox News host Bill O'Reilly dozens of times over a period of years. O'Reilly repeatedly referred to him as "Tiller the Baby Killer" and "a man with blood on his hands" since Tiller had a long history of performing controversial (but legal) late-term abortions in his Wichita clinic.

Today, 14 years after Rabin's murder, Amir remains unrepentant and is considered a hero by a large segment of Israel's religious community, many of whom still hold rallies in his honor. He was allowed to marry and father a child in prison and polls show that his eventual pardon is supported by 30 percent of all Israelis and more than half of those who describe themselves as "religious."

Today, months after Tiller's murder, his assassin remains unrepentant and is considered a hero by a large segment of America's pro-life community. Leaders of the pro-life movement reportedly communicate with and visit him in prison on a regular basis.

In each case, hatespeech-inspired murder seems to have accomplished its goals. Tiller's clinic was permanently closed a few weeks after his killing and there is no plan to reopen in Kansas or anywhere else. Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister of Israel less than a year after Rabin's murder and the peace process was dealt a blow from which it has yet to recover.

Like O'Reilly, Netanyahu insists to this day that his demonization of the ultimate murder victim had nothing to do with the way things played out.

When I met with Leah Rabin, the prime minister's widow, in her Tel Aviv apartment one year after his death, she made it clear that she personally blamed Netanyahu for the role she felt he played in whipping up angry mobs who had vowed to kill her husband.

"He incited them against my husband," she said. "I will never forgive him."

Mrs. Rabin was also critical of the majority of Israelis who stood by and did nothing as the hatespeech grew in volume. "They were too silent when the handwriting was on the wall," she said. "We now know it is no longer possible to remain silent."

Today, as then, we are too anxious to call these people crazy and say they are kooks but they are neither. They are evil and they are very focused.

When Glenn Beck calls Barack Obama a racist who hates white people or a Nazi who wants to destroy American way of life, he is either lying or he should hail as a hero anyone who would take the initiative to go after our President. Rush Limbaugh compares Obama to Hitler. Is there any Jew or patriotic American who wouldn't have taken Hitler out before he had the chance to murder millions of innocent people?

This is hatespeech pure and simple crafted to encourage true believers--an American version of Yigal Amir to do the right thing--the patriotic thing--and remove this liberal, socialist, death panel forming, terrorist, Nazi cancer from our midst.

In recent weeks, the hatred and threats against Obama have become less subtle. When a town hall audience member in California proudly declared himself to be "a proud Right wing terrorist," Republican Congressman Wally Herger said "Amen. God Bless You. There's a great American." When an Iowa town hall audience member said Obama is "acting like a little Hitler" and stated he would "take a gun to Washington if enough of you would go with me, Republican Senator Charles Grassley said nothing to discourage him. Kansas Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins said last week that what the Republican party needs most is "a Great White Hope"--a phrase first used by racists 100 years ago referring to their desire to find a white man to unseat Black boxing champion Jack Johnson.

Could the message be any clearer? What a disturbing and growing number of people on the Right wing want is some patriot with the courage to step up and do what needs to be done to restore control of our country to it's rightful owners. A Black president from Kenya? A Puerto Rican woman as a Supreme Court justice? What the hell has happened to our country? We need to take it back!

Sticks and stones? That's child's play. We're talking about toxic words--potentially fatal hatespeech--being invoked by people who claim to be true patriots but who are in reality potential accomplices to the unwinding of our democracy.

The only question is if and when the rest of us will stop calling these evil people "crazy" and start fighting back.

We live in a free country. People are entitled to their opinions. But they do not have a constitutional right to air them on television and radio channels that claim to be reporting news. And the sponsors of those programs certainly don't have the right to be exempt from blame for making that possible.

Those of us who still care about decency and healthy debate need to exercise our right to take our country back from the lying, angry haters who seem determined to pollute and distort public dialogue.

Some of them would clearly like nothing better than to see our duly elected leader meet the same fate as the late Israeli leader--a man who symbolized hope and "change you could believe in" to so many but who made the mistake of assuming those who despised him were a crazy fringe group of harmless lunatics.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

It Was Never Fair and Balanced--Now It's Not Even News

We are all painfully familiar with the many casualties of the deep economic decline that has ravaged the value of our homes, businesses, and investment accounts.

Another less obvious victim of the economic crisis has been the truth. Hatespeech and lies have been on the rise in politics and the media while fact checking has almost disappeared. The actions of those with a political agenda are reprehensible but at least easy to understand.

But I have always assumed that the real journalists would step in at some point and refuse to cover the rantings of crazy people, fanatics and liars as though they were actually news. For decades these types have stood on street corners handing out pamphlets and screaming about the coming end of the American way of life but none of them ever showed up on the national news or was written up in real newspapers.

But that has all changed in a big time hurry. Forget about "Fair and Balanced" or "News You Can Believe In." What we now see on cable TV is nothing resembling news. The entertainers who pose as newsmen now routinely spew lies, distortions, and biased opinions or provide a platforms of legitimacy to the sociopaths who do.

It's all right to have personal opinions expressed on television or the radio. Just label them appropriately.

There is a guy who sits near me at the University of Arizona games who starts screaming at the referees at the opening jump ball and never stops for a minute throughout the game. He and the other fans don't want the game called fairly--they just want their team to win. You certainly wouldn't ask the president of the Booster Club to be the referee. He would have no interest in being fair and balanced and could never be objective.

But that's what we now have on cable news. People who are on the payrolls of or involved with partisan groups or political parties are introduced as "analysts" with no disclosure of their obvious conflicts of interest.

For years Fox News has been the unofficial network of the Right wing and Republican party while hilariously calling it's coverage "fair and balanced." If Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity were actually fair and balanced then none of the Fox viewers would watch them--and they know it.

But during the last year, Glenn Beck has taken hatred, bias, and unabashed lying and demonization to a level that Hannity and O'Reilly could only dream about.

Last month, Beck went on the air and called President Obama "a racist--who hates white people" without giving any support or documentation for his claim. He also did not explain if Obama's hatred of white people extended to his own mother and white family members of the hundreds of white people he has chosen to advise and represent our country in his administration.

Just a few days ago, Beck came up with a blatant lie claiming that Mark Lloyd, the newly appointed FCC Diversity Chief will levy exorbitant taxes against Right wing radio stations with the proceeds slated to go to public radio, The fact is that Lloyd has neither the plans nor the authority to do any such thing. Non-Beck watchers should view this link as Beck and his guest talk in very specific terms about a complete falsehood.

When this happened, I was at the Aspen Institute FOCAS conference with 40 media leaders from around the U.S.

When the News Corp (the parent company of Fox) people at the Aspen conference were asked about how Beck could keep his job given his record of blatant fabrications and racist rants they admitted that they were personally embarrassed by his behavior. But they confessed that Fox has made so much money by pandering to the hateful Right wing that nothing is going to change in the foreseeable future. Maybe the fact that many of Beck's sponsors have recently cancelled their advertising on his show will make a difference.

The unfair and unbalanced hatemeisters of Fox have been recently joined by Lou Dobbs of CNN ("The Most Trusted Name in News") who for years has railed on a daily basis about how Americans are being victimized by foreign countries and undocumented immigrants who come here in search of a better life. In recent weeks, Dobbs became of hero of the Right wing with his endorsement of the Birther movement.

Apparently Dobbs and a many Republicans believe that Americans should not have had the right to vote for the man they wanted to be their next president because he was born in Kenya. The Birther movement is a thinly veiled racist effort to undo the will of the American people that has been promoted by a depressingly large group of people who simply can't deal with the notion that we have elected a Black president by an overwhelming margin.

The management of CNN, like the leaders of Fox, have not been able to turn their backs on the revenues that have accompanied the journalistic malpractice that in the past would have caused Dobbs to be fired. Today, the truth is apparently just a matter of opinion and it's just fine for a newsman to call the President of the United States a traitor, socialist, Nazi, Kenyan, and such with no evidence or supporting facts.

Chris Matthews of MSNBC provides a more troubling case study. Matthews has repeatedly questioned the sincerity and "grass roots" credentials of protesters at the health care town meetings and the sanity of the Birthers accurately claiming that they are either paid or political stooges or well meaning real people who have fallen under the influence of the political operatives who are trying to bring Obama down.

He has referred to the Birthers and the anti-health care reform mercenaries and liars as "whack-jobs, crazies, and nut cases." But then he invites these very people to be guests on his show to state their cases.

He does not seem to understand that once you provide liars, haters and people who bring loaded guns to presidential meetings with a platform, you have already lost the battle. If a person is crazy or hateful, they should get no platform at all. Once you start presenting "both sides" of an issue where one side feels free to rant and lie you have already lost.

There was a time when we could have expected our most respected journalists and news reporters to be an effective filter and only present us with issues and stories that had real merit. But the economic crisis facing all types of journalism have put us in a different place.

During the three days I spent with a broad range of print, internet, and media managers and contributors in Aspen, most of the conversation focused on financial survival and ways to monetize the variety of information services being provided and how to keep from going broke in a very challenging environment. Many were mourning the imminent loss of print journalism. Few were grieving over the ongoing loss of journalism itself.

I came away from this experience with a better understanding of what is going on and why. It didn't make me happier. Even in a tough environment, there is no way to excuse the blatant lying, distortion, and almost complete absence of fact-checking that is now business as usual at media organizations that claim to be reporting news.

It's just plain wrong to call it "Fair and Balanced" or "News You Can Believe In" and it has been for quite a while.

Now there's no way to justify calling it "news" at all.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Difference Between Criticism and Hatespeech

A number of friends and readers have called me to task in recent weeks claiming that I have been unfair to Republicans or that I have been giving the "crazies" way too much attention and actually helping their cause by getting so upset. Others have said that my strong level of disgust with the migration of the Right to hate, lies, and slander that I have become every bit as much a hater as those I have criticized.

But I got an email from my friend Ricky today that turned on a light bulb and brought the difference between criticism into clear focus.

It was a link to an article in Harper's by Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz entitled The $10 Trillion Hangover. It explains--using real facts, charts and figures--just how badly the Bush administration's policies--or lack thereof--damaged our society, our economy, and exploded our national debt. I urge you to click on the link and read it.

It documents how during eight years of Bush, every aspect of government spending exploded, our national debt doubled from $5 trillion to $10 trillion, and how 95 percent of all income growth went to the richest 10 percent of Americans due to fiscal and tax policies designed to produce that result. Despite the huge government deficits and stimulus, at the end of Bush's eight years virtually every aspect of our economy had collapsed.

It was a critical piece but unlike most of what we read today, it dealt with established facts and used footnotes to back it's conclusions. There was nothing hateful about it. Bush wasn't called names or demonized. He was criticized for things he actually did.

It stands in sharp contrast to what is flowing more and more freely from the Right wing and the Republicans every day. I know I have written about this before, but it's getting worse and squeezing what's left of truth and logic out and replacing it with hatred, anger, and lies.

In a recent piece, "business columnist" (actually no more since he was just fired by the New York Times for being a shill for a credit reporting agency that exploits poor people) Ben Stein gave his most recent toxic assessment of our president, Barack Obama.

During one short piece, he referred to Obama as "cunning, anti-American, anti-white, ultra-left with a total zero academic record, completely lacking in scholarship, not a fan of this country, way too cozy with terrorists in the Middle East, someone who gave Iran a complete go-ahead to have nuclear weapons--complete betrayer of our country, and a man dedicated to taking away all our freedoms."

The piece was long on frightening and demonizing adjectives and completely devoid of facts, links to source materials, and examples.

The same was true of popular Right wing Fox News personality Glenn Beck who recently called Obama "a racist--a man who hates white people." while again failing to cite a single example or fact to back this slur.

The same was true of self-proclaimed super-Republican Rush Limbaugh who joined the chorus of those on the Right who have compared Obama to Adolf Hitler but, again, have provided all heat and no light.

The same is true of Congresswoman Virginia Foxx and others in Congress who have announced on the floor of the House that they are opposed to Obama's health care reform because they are "pro-life and refuse to support a plan that would put our senior citizens to death." Ms. Foxx then sat down without giving anyone a clue regarding what facts she had to support that claim. That's because there are none.

The same is true of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (recently critical the media for "makin' things up") who said she fears the "Obama death panels" that would have the power to kill her parents and son Trig (who has Down Syndrome) if the president's health care plan passes.

The same is true of the "grass roots protesters" who are really well-funded and organized Right Wing shock troops that announced weeks ago that they had a game plan to disrupt town hall meetings in Congressional districts to make sure nothing could be discussed and no questions could be asked or answered.

The same is true regarding the leaders of the "birther" movement who claim that Obama was born in Kenya and is therefore not qualified to be president. Buoyed by support from Republican members of Congress and CNN "newsman" Lou Dobbs, radio hatemonger Mark Levin, these liars now have a majority of Republicans nationwide doubting Obama's citizenship and a large majority of all Southern Whites saying they're either certain or doubtful that Obama was not born in this country.

If these racists, bigots, liars, and nut jobs were truly part of some lunatic fringe as some of my friends have suggested, I would probably comply with their requests that I just back off the whole subject of hatespeech and media irresponsibility and move on. But the problem is getting worse, not better, and it's becoming clear that these people are no longer on the fringe.

They are whack jobs or hard-wired haters, but their influence and numbers are growing among what's left of the Republican party, the news media, and the former Confederacy. More important, there is an increased reluctance among "good" Republicans to publicly distance themselves from these people--to tell them that they bring discredit to and are killing the party with their hatred, bigotry, and lies.

Meanwhile, the GOP is cultivating the future by electing a Louisiana woman chairman of the Young Republicans after she supported a man who called Obama "a commie and a coon" on her webpage. After the incident, she won 60 percent of the vote on the first ballot and is now setting the tone and running the show for future Republican leaders.

It's the people who want to have a fact-based discussion regarding what's best for our country that are now on the fringe. And those who don't realize it are the true lunatics.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Punching the Tar Baby

Last week I suggested that the Republican party was at a crossroads of sorts. They could continue down the road of hatespeech, fear, anger, and thinly-veiled racism or they could take a cue from Conservatives like David Brooks, Peggy Noonan, Colin Powell, David Frum, and many others and engage in dignified, constructive, fact-based criticism of policies and statements with which they disagreed.

Now, just a few days later, the "dignity" option seems to have been taken off the table. The Republican chosen and designated leaders just can't seem to help themselves. They just keep flailing away at the tar baby (a term I use deliberately) so vigorously that they don't realize that they are caught in a trap of their own making that is leading to both their unmasking and their undoing.

A few days ago, the national Young Republicans elected 38-year old Audra Shay as their new chair. As I wrote last week, Ms. Shay is an Arkansas native who now lives in Louisiana and was endorsed for the position by her governor, Bobby Jindal.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, she gained some unwelcome notoriety during the week prior to her election for cheering on a participant in a conversation on her Facebook page who referred to President Obama as "a commie and a coon." Participants in the conversation who criticized her response were immediately defriended and blocked from the website. Eric, the commie and coon guy, was not.

This and other arguably racist comments she has made caused a number of Young Republicans, including John McCain's daughter Meghan, to encourage her to drop out of the race. Instead she won election by a comfortable margin after scrubbing her Facebook page in an effort to destroy the evidence of her past remarks.

The next day marked the beginning of the confirmation hearings of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, a 17-year Federal court veteran who has been nominated by Obama for the Supreme Court.

From the moment Judge Sotomayor was nominated to the court, the Right wing made it clear that they were going to play the only card left in the Republican deck--the race card. The water carriers of the Right immediately launched into racist attacks against her on the radio with Limbaugh, Levin, and others branding her a "bigot" and Glenn Beck calling her "Hispanic Chick Lady" in their dignified and nuanced commentaries on her qualifications.

Despite the fact that Sotomayor's confirmation should be a formality--she has extensive experience on the bench and has been given the highest rating for her qualifications by the American and New York Bar Association--the focus on her race and ethnicity continued.

Ranking Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama--who himself was rejected for a Federal judgeship by a GOP controlled Senate committee years ago based on his numerous apparently racist comments--humiliated himself with his line of questioning expressing his surprise and disappointment that Sotamayor didn't vote along with her fellow Puerto Rican in the Ricci case. His clear implication was that it is surprising that all judges of Puerto Rican descent don't think and vote alike.

Can you imagine a Senator expressing surprise that Supreme Court Justices Scalia and Breyer don't vote alike because they are both white males? Can you imagine repeatedly citing a line about "wise Latina women" that Sotomayor used in speeches eight years ago as a reason to repeatedly express concerns that she would be biased in favor of minorities who claim they have been victims of discrimination?

Maybe. If it weren't for the FACT that in the 90 cases Sotomayor has heard from people alleging discrimination, she has ruled AGAINST the plaintiffs in 80 of them. And in all but one of the cases where she determined discrimination took place, she was part of a unanimous decision.

The next day, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma)--who you may remember as Senator John Ensign's spiritual advisor and marriage counselor--did his best Ricky Ricardo imitation in a response to a Sotomayor answer telling her that "she had a lot of 'splainin' to do."

After three days of hearings, the Republicans on the committee have revealed themselves to be so obsessed with race and bias that their efforts to transfer their own bigotry and "concerns" to Sotomayor has come across as childish, transparent, dishonest, and scary.

But the way things are playing out with the entire party and its chosen leaders and spokesmen, that puts them right in sync with the program. The only question remaining is where independents like me will find the next legitimate and credible alternative to the weak and frightening Democratic leadership in Congress in the future.

The Republicans are a decade late and a trillion dollars short. There just aren't enough racists and bigots still around to give them a base on which to build. Instead of opting for facts, reason, and dignity they continue to flail away at those pesky Black and Hispanic tar babies. The harder they punch, the more ensnared they become in the sticky, unyielding mess.

That may play well in the former Confederate states that voted against Obama and with a smattering of proud and closet racists here and there.

But we all heard those Uncle Remus stories growing up.

And we all know how they end.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Hatespeech or Dignity--Republicans at the Crossroads

I want to make something perfectly clear. I have supported many Republicans in recent years including my current senators John Kyl and John McCain. I have held fundraisers in my home for Tommy Thompson when he was the Republican governor of Wisconsin. I have supported Democrats as well. I am a true independent.

Many of my good Republican friends have come away with a much different impression based on recent articles I have written that are critical of the thinly-veiled racism and vicious attacks that seem to be emanating more and more from the very top circles of the GOP.

Several of those friends complain that I am applying a double standard here citing the numerous criticisms of President Bush and, more recently Sarah Palin that have filled the blogosphere and the mainstream media for some time.

In fact we are talking about an apples to oranges comparison on a number of levels. Many people, myself included, were outraged by the arrogance, incompetence, and deception that became the hallmark of the Bush administration over a number of years. I am truly sad that he turned out to be such a terrible president but that is not hatespeech.

Sarah Palin is much more of a victim than a villain. I was strongly critical of John McCain for selecting her to be his running mate because she was completely unqualified for the job. That lapse in judgement more than anything caused an election that would have been a narrow victory for Obama to become a landslide.

She is Eliza Doolittle saying yes to Henry Higgins. For whatever reason, he made her an offer she couldn't refuse. She is what she is. Just as Palin was unable to resist the opportunity to run for national office, the media has been unable to resist the temptation of ridiculing her. It is a sad for everyone involved.

She has been called greedy, ignorant, overly ambitious, unethical, self-centered and a lot of other nasty things. She is now in a death spiral of self-destruction where she goes out of her way to put herself and her family in the public eye and then gets whiny when the coverage doesn't go her way. She is the subject of predictable ridicule from a media that can't seem to help itself either. But none of that is hatespeech.

Hatespeech is different. It's when you accuse the President of the United States of being a socialist, a terrorist, a Muslim, an anti-Semite, or a traitor based on lies and distortions. And it becomes particularly meaningful when the venom comes not from the radical fringe--as it often does from the Left--but from the heart of the party leadership--as it often does from the Right.

This weekend, the Young Republicans will meet to elect their national chair. Audra Shay, a 38 year old military veteran and mother from Louisiana is considered one of the front-runners for the job. A few days ago, she moderated a session on her Facebook page where a participant called Obama "a commie and a mad coon." Shay's response to the young man was to urge him on. "You tell em Eric" she said.

When a number of participants criticized her for not condemning the racist statement, Shay responded by "defriending" all of those who were critical which blocked them from further participation in the conversation. That is hatespeech being endorsed from the highest levels of the party.

It is eerily reminiscent of Huckabee campaign manager Chip Saltsman sending a CD including the cute song "Barack the Magic Negro" as a Christmas gift to the members of the Republican National Committee last year. That clever song had been played repeatedly by Rush Limbaugh for much of the prior year. Limbaugh was picked in a recent Gallup Poll of Republicans as the person who best represents the party--a title he also claims for himself.

At the time, Saltsman was a front-runner in the race for Chairman of the Republican National Committee--grownup version. He was edged out by Michael Steele at the end but this is another example of stupidity, racism and hatespeech coming from the top.

Just today, I heard my Senator John Kyl tell Bill Bennett that Obama is more interested in cutting an arms reduction deal with the Russians that he is in protecting the country. That is accusing the President of the United States of being a traitor with no facts at all to back it up. That is hatespeech.

Some of my favorite people are Republicans. I got to spend some time with New York Times columnist David Brooks here in Aspen last week. He is a great writer and a solid Republican who is critical of several of the decisions that the president has made and is supportive of others. But, at the end of the day, he seems to be more worried about what is happening to the dignity of his party. Be sure to check this column written by a solid dignified Republican.

There is nothing wrong with criticizing people in power. It is essential in a democracy and our ability to do so has helped make our country great. But there are ways to do it hatefully and ways to do it with dignity. It is the hatred and anger that seem to ooze so effortlessly from the leaders of the Republican Party that are so disconcerting.

It is up to all of us who believe that our country needs a dignified and credible Conservative voice to seize control back from the slimers. If we can't, then the Libertarians should be viewed as the credible alternative to Liberal Democrats. They actually believe in small government and fiscal responsibility.

Republican keaders used to carry that banner before they got so caught up in issues surrounding gender, reproductive choice, and race that they lost their way. Hopefully they can regain the high ground and again become a productive part of the political dialogue.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

In Dependence Day 2009

For the last several years I have spent the Fourth of July here at the Aspen Ideas Festival which has always ushered me into the holiday with a new perspective on democracy and the freedoms that have always been unique to our great country.

Last year, a session on "Patriotism" prompted one of my first posts since it made me realize how Geroge W, Bush's most toxic legacy was the way he completely eliminated the notion of shared sacrifice from that noble concept.

This year, it became increasingly clear that the damage was far more severe. (As an aside, the former president--who shamelessly announced last year that he hoped to parley his status into "a little coin" from high paying speaking engagements when he left office--spoke at the newly-renovated Woodward, OK rodeo grounds as part of a Fourth of July celebration featuring Tanya Tucker, Asleep at the Wheel, and Sawyer Brown. Bush was paid for his appearance but I'm sure it wasn't the major coin he had in mind. It was apparently the only offer he got.

This year's Aspen Ideas Festival had no sessions on patriotism. In one way or another, it was mainly about the economy and how in eight short years we went from being the only super power in the world to a bankrupt nation that now is forced to go hopelessly in debt to keep our banks and the world financial system from total collapse.

We have gone from being the most independent country in the world to one that is now largely dependent on foreign lenders and government bailouts and stimulus using trillions of dollars that we don't have.

The irony, of course, is the the Republican Party that controlled everything for six of those years campaigned on its commitment to family values and fiscal responsibility.

We've all seen the true story on the family values part. Enough said there. And we've all seen the true story on the financial responsibility part. Enough said there as well.

The many economists and and financial historians I heard during the last week fell into two camps: Those who believe that we are now forced to take on unconscionable amounts of debt right now to keep the world financial system from collapsing but there are still places to make money in the world--like China--and those who agree with the first part and believe that there is no place to hide anywhere.

They all dismissed the notion that President Obama had anything to do with the underlying problem. They disagreed about the wisdom of what Obama is doing to deal with the economic crisis but they all praised him for putting together the best, smartest team we have seen in Washington in quite a while. When confronted with a situation in which there are no good options, it is easy to find fault with whatever course of action is taken. Some choose to be critical and others don't.

But at the end of the day, most experts seemed to agree that any recovery that is on the way will be slow in coming and very shallow. Americans are deleveraging out of both choice and necessity and that means we will be saving more and spending less.
That is a formula for slow growth and a long painful period during which we continue to define what the new normal will look like.

But none of the presenters seemed to address the bigger issue that I wrote about last year--the terrible toll that the last eight years have taken on our national character. As I said then, under Bush and Cheney we went through the biggest redistribution of wealth in at least a century--all of it moving from the bottom and middle to to top.

We engaged in a war of choice in which none of us was required (or even encouraged) to fight. Instead our military offered six-figure signing bonuses to new recruits and the promise of fast-track citizenship to others. Just as we are now dependent on foreign lenders to keep us afloat financially we have become overly dependent on poor, rural, foreign-born soldiers who have no other economic prospects for our national defense.

Don't get me wrong. These are brave people and we should all be grateful for their sacrifice. It is a commentary on the rest of us who have been told for eight years that we can be true patriots by simply never questioning the president and putting an "I Support the Troops" decal on our cars. No other sacrifice or payment has been required. Those Americans who have come to believe this can be heard daily on Fox News and Right wing radio--talking very tough while their kids are sitting safely at home and not paying a penny to the wars they so vocally support.

For years I have been checking the the names and hometowns of those killed in action. They seem to be disproportionately Hispanic and most of them come from cities and towns I have never heard of. Very few are from major metropolitan areas. When was the last time you heard a young man or woman say they had just been accepted to college or had a great job offer but they had decided to first serve their country by enlisting in the military?

While we increasingly complain about the quality of our representatives in Washington, we continue to elect and re-elect people who treat us like children that just can't handle the news that Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy don't exist. Tens of millions of Americans have come to feel entitled to and dependent upon an ever-growing list of programs like Social Security and Medicare--programs we can't afford at today's tax rates and which will become increasingly untenable as more and more of us live longer and longer.

Republicans in and out of Congress have no solutions. All they do is continuously criticize President Obama and say we should lower taxes which would, of course, make the problem ever worse. Democrats have not been much better and lately they have just been so happy to watch the parade of Republican "leaders" who are quitting their jobs or acknowledging sexual indiscretions that they aren't doing much either.

One thing seems certain. Until further notice, the Fourth of July should be renamed "In Dependence Day" because we have never been more reliant on the generosity of others and less able to act like grown-ups and fend for ourselves than any time since the Revolution. It won't be as much fun, but it would be a far more useful reminder of what we need to do going forward.

It's heart warming but a little hollow to celebrate the independence we won from the British more than 225 years ago at a time when we have so abused the responsibilities of democracy that we now face a seemingly endless period of dependence on foreign money and unfunded government programs to sustain us financially and the patriotism and financial desperation of a relative handful of our poorest citizens to protect us.

Maybe it's time for a little less bravado and triumphalism and a little more focus on personal responsibility. Then and only then will we able to truly celebrate Independence Day in a meaningful way again.