Archive for October, 2011

YOU CAN’T MAKE THAT UP

Two weeks ago, my friend Jane asked me how I kept from screaming when I spoke to that wealthy guy with the expensive BMW who complained about high taxes (“The High Cost of Wealth,” 10-14-11). Other readers have wondered how I stayed under control when I met a family stocking up on fattening foods at Safeway because healthy items cost too much (“Supermarket Politics,” 3-25-11). Or whether I was wrongly making fun of the unemployed man at a highway gas station along I-5 who opposed tax increases on the wealthy and wanted government out of Social Security and Medicare (“Tea Party Wisdom,” 8-19-11). One reader took me to task for my list of revenue-producing measures that targeted “un-American” activities (“Let’s Tax Un-Americans,” 9-16-11).

Okay, I’ll fess up—if you don’t already get it. And most of you do. I make up stories to make a point. And of course, I stretch my fictional characters just a bit. Or more. That’s the nature of satire—identifying human foibles and magnifying them to point out greater truths.

It’s in this vein that my new novel, SLICK!, will come out in another week. Set in the fictional Persian Gulf sultanate of Moq’tar, SLICK! skewers Middle East politics and American foreign policy with equal vigor. Yes, SLICK! draws some unflattering portraits of Arab sheiks and American diplomatic personnel—not to mention hyper-capitalism and Islamism. But most of all, it does what all satire should do. It targets hypocrisy. And if people and events in SLICK! sometimes seem over the top, I’ve simply reflected the world as it is.

Think about it. Muammar Qaddafy rules Libya with a bloody hand for over forty years, proclaiming himself “King of Kings.” On top of that he wears costumes out of old Hollywood “B” movies—or is it Frederick’s of Hollywood? Then revolutionaries flush him off his throne, kill him and display him in a meat locker at a shopping mall. You can’t make that up. Or take conservative congressman Larry Craig (R-Minnesota). He staunchly defends family values only to be arrested for seeking to initiate a homosexual encounter. Ditto Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, ejected from office after being outed for gay encounters. And Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, after Wall Street eviscerates America’s economy, exclaims that he’s just “doing God’s work.”

What’s new? When I was young, John F. Kennedy presided over Camelot. Only later did we find out he was head honcho at the White House’s version of “The Chicken Ranch.” And what, you never heard about Richard Nixon’s enemies list? And don’t get me started about Bill Clinton “never having sex with that woman.” You can’t make all that up, either.

Fortunately for the satirist, you can make up a lot of other stuff. A world of material awaits. (I’ll bring out a follow-up to SLICK! set in Central America next year.) That’s why satire is so important to maintaining healthy societies and restoring sick ones to health. The satirist, the comic and the political cartoonist all bring hypocrisy to light using humor, a weapon feared as much by the powerful as guns or bombs. Because the pompously criminal and the criminally pompous dread the light that shines when they’re exposed with their pants down.

And I’m not making that up at all.

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NOW GO AND STUDY

When you teach, you learn. I spoke a few words at San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church two weeks ago. I’d been asked to invite the congregation to a joint study program with my synagogue, Congregation Sherith Israel. I told a story about Rabbi Hillel. Early this week, the lesson came back to me.

Some background: Several years ago, Calvary welcomed Sherith Israel to hold our Yom Kippur morning services at the church as we prepared to undertake seismic-retrofit construction. Our building suffered minor damage during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (it survived the 1906 quake, too), and the City demanded that we bring it up to the new code. Calvary proved a wonderful host. Last spring we completed phase one of our retrofit construction. In September, we held Yom Kippur morning services in our sanctuary. But a relationship had begun. Both institutions wanted to expand it.

As a result, Sherith Israel and Calvary will conduct a joint adult-education course, Let Us Reason Together: Jews and Christians in Dialogue. My invitation to register included Jesus’ teaching, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Then I went to Hillel, who antecedes Jesus, for the big finish.

The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) relates a gentile telling Hillel that he will convert to Judaism if the Sage can teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel offers a three-part reply. “That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.” He then adds, “All the rest is commentary.” Many Jews, unfortunately, forget the third part: “Now go and study.”

The congregants at Calvary were appreciative. I hope to see many of them this Sunday at a brief 10:00 a.m. introduction before our eight-week course begins on Tuesday evening. But my mention of Hillel struck me. I read the Torah portion each week and with it commentary. It takes a grasp of two millennia of commentary to begin to get a grip on so many puzzling concepts. As I told the folks at Calvary, we Jews don’t just read our texts. We cross-examine them.

As it happens, I found in Etz Hayim, the Conservative movement’s Torah Commentary, an explanation I had previously overlooked. On Shabbat evenings and mornings, we often conclude the Amidah, the Silent Prayer, by singing, “Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu.” “May the one who makes peace in the heavens bring peace to us (here on earth).” I always wondered what strife there could be in the heavens. I discovered that the Midrash links this prayer to Genesis 1:8 and the Creation story. The word for heaven is shamayim. The Midrash considers shamayim to be composed of two words—aish (fire) and mayim (water). Only God can make the two coexist.

It’s a small thing, really. And yet this Rabbinic thought offers a beautiful explanation to a puzzle often overlooked. Moreover, it suggests that we emulate God and make peace where peace is difficult to achieve yet within our capabilities.

There’s a whole lot of aish and mayim butting heads from Washington to Libya, Israel and the West Bank/Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan and drought-stricken Somalia. May we use our capacity to learn to begin to do and make peace—even a little—where there is none.

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THE HIGH COST OF WEALTH

I was filling up my gas tank when a new, Milano Beige Metallic BMW 760Li sedan pulled up to the pump behind me. This 535-horsepower baby made my 328i look like a kid’s toy. A 760Li starts at $137,300 MSRP. But the driver looked like a regular guy—around fifty, trim with a head of dark hair. He wore jeans and a Golden State Warriors t-shirt. We nodded.

I was checking how many gallons my car had taken when I heard him spit out, “Can you believe the price of gas?” “I hear you,” I answered. “I don’t think we’ll ever pay under four bucks for premium again.” “It’s those damn taxes,” he said. “Sure,” I replied. “Federal tax. And State tax. And then there’s the higher costs to refine cleaner gas for California.”

He stuck the nozzle in his tank. A 760Li holds almost 22 gallons. “It’s a rip-off. I do a lot of driving up to Sacramento… I’m an attorney… and those taxes add up.” I wasn’t sure how badly taxes hurt a guy like him, but I changed the subject. “Warriors fan, huh?” He nodded. “Season ticket holder since forever. Courtside.” I nodded in return. “Not cheap.” He grinned. “Worth every penny. The way Washington squeezes you, you have to find some joy in life. Do you know how much I pay in taxes?” I shrugged. “A pretty penny, I imagine.” He stared at me. “Way, way more than that.”

I’d paid a somewhat pretty penny during my working days. But I’d had this crazy goal: get into and stay in the top tax bracket. Or come damn close. I’d pay Uncle Sam and Sacramento more, but I’d keep more. If I could earn more money for my family, why wouldn’t I?

My new pal interrupted my reverie. “Washington really sticks it to guys like me who make seven figures. They think we’re cash cows. But if they keep milking us, why should we work? And why should we hire more employees? My firm’s responsible for a lot of jobs.” I thought for a moment. “You mean if Washington raised taxes on some of your income, you might stop working?” “Hell,” he said, “why not?”

A thought struck me. “What about the NBA lockout?” I asked. “The league just cancelled the first two weeks of the season, and it could get worse.” “Greedy players,” he responded. “Maybe,” I said. “But if the players make more money, they’ll pay more taxes. Why would they want to do that?” He frowned. “That’s just how Washington kills initiative.” “So,” I said, “maybe the players would be smarter to make less money.” He smiled.

“Remember Latrell Sprewell?” I asked. He winked. “Sure do. He played for the Warriors,”  he responded. I finished pumping gas and replaced the nozzle. “At the end of his career, Sprewell turned down a three-year, fifteen-million-dollar contract from Milwaukee. It wasn’t enough, and he was honest enough to tell them: ‘I have a family to feed.’” I shook my head. “Sprewell turned down $15 million and was out of the league. Career over.”

My pal with the 760Li looked pensive. Then his face brightened. “It was a matter of principle,” he offered. “And he didn’t have to pay those ridiculous taxes.”

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MURDER MYSTERY

A woman was stabbed to death half a mile from my home last Monday. Her adult son apparently killed her and wounded his father. Police were called. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the alleged killer held up a knife in each hand and approached them. One officer fired a non-lethal beanbag. The man kept coming. Another officer fired his weapon and killed the man.

Were the police justified? Did they follow established protocols? Could they have done more to avoid taking a life? On the other hand, how much risk must police take during a potentially violent confrontation? I ask these questions because several deaths took place during the last week. A U.S. drone killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Al Qaeda member operating in Yemen along with Samir Khan, another American, who edited a jihadi Internet magazine. The question arose: Did American forces have the right to kill American citizens?

A day later, a Mendocino County SWAT team shot and killed Aaron Bassler, a double-murder suspect they had pursued for five weeks. Bassler was known to be armed and dangerous. According to CNN, he raised a loaded weapon, the safety off, and aimed it at police but did not fire. Sherrif Tom Allman said no shoot-to-kill order was in effect. Did the police have a right to fire first in such a situation?

Yesterday, Santa Clara County deputies in Cupertino, California killed Shareef Allman (no relation to Tom Allman), wanted for killing three co-workers and wounding seven, including a woman whose car he attempted to steal. Shareef Allman was armed. Should police have taken him alive? Could they have done so?

These deaths force us to consider the rights of anyone accused of waging war against the nation or engaged in violent crime. But they should also remind us of the dangers faced by military and law enforcement personnel. We depend on them to protect us. We must display concern regarding their protection while acting in the line of duty.

Early on during the war in Iraq, Humvees were under-armored and thus unable to protect our men and women from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). We sent them into harm’s way anyway. At home, police have been killed during routine traffic stops as well as during arrests. We expect them to their jobs nonetheless.

In the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, CIA or special operations forces could not simply knock on his door somewhere in Yemen—if they knew where he lived—and announce, “Mr. Awlaki, we have a warrant for your arrest.” Yemen, like Iraq and Afghanistan, can be very hostile territory. There, we are foreigner. So while drone attacks take lives, they also save lives—our own. At home, police who confront armed and dangerous suspects must exercise great discipline. We cannot, however, ask them to take suicidal risks when, “Mr. Bassler, please come with me, sir,” may be met with a hail of bullets.

The Torah commands, “Lo tirtzach” (Exod. 20:13). The proper translation is not, “Don’t kill.” It’s, “Don’t murder.” The line can be thin, a misstep fatal. As we approach Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, may we work towards a world in which the terrible questions above need no longer be asked.

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