THE REAL STATE OF THE UNION

Delivering his first State of the Union address, Donald Trump stuck to his script. Although often wandering from the truth, he saluted an improved economy and painted a rosy picture of his presidency and the future. Beware! The real state of the union is far gloomier.

Trump’s speech featured heavy doses of self-congratulation. It also engaged in shameless pandering with guests sobbing on camera as Trump told stories of violent crimes committed against their families. Still, seventy-five percent of people who heard the address approved. But Trump did no more than present a Potemkin Village.

A more accurate portrait of this presidency emerges from the ongoing lies, attacks on American intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and inability to deal straightforwardly with Congressional leaders—of both parties.

In terms of breaking news, Trump continues trying to thwart the Mueller commission’s investigation into his connections to Russia. This morning, Devin Nunes (R-Cal.), chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, released a memo written by his staff casting a negative light on the FBI. Bureau director Christopher Wray—chosen by Trump to replace the fired James Comey—had condemned releasing the memo, as did leading members of Congress, intelligence experts and journalists. They believe the memo to be out of context and distorted. They fear it will reveal Bureau sources and methods, putting American intelligence operatives at risk. Trump permitted its release.

Back to the State of the Union and something you may have missed. Trump concluded by calling for Americans to maintain “trust in our God.” Our God? Do all Americans believe in the same God? If they believe in God at all?

Given Trump’s support by ecumenical Christians, I assume he referred to Jesus. I’m a Jew. Jesus isn’t my God—or the God of American Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and others. “Our God” is not the God of Israel, Saudi Arabia, India and Japan. Vladimir Putin promotes Russia, despite its large Muslim population, as a Christian (Orthodox) nation, but referencing “our God” can only heighten tensions with China, Iran and North Korea. Will our God battle their Gods?

The comment served to send a clear message to the Trump base: that America remains a white, Christian nation. That, re Charlottesville, Virginia, “good people” can march alongside white supremacists and neo-Nazis. That immigrants from Haiti and Africa really do come from “shithole” countries.

For Trump, the State of the Union was all about money—with no acknowledgment of Barack Obama’s role in moving the economy forward. Economic growth is good. Mammon is not.

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro (Jethro), presents the Ten Commandments. The commentary Etz Chayim examines the (Jewish) First Commandment, “I am the Lord your God who brought out of the land of Egypt.” Egypt, a nation of great wealth, was the house of culture, science and mathematics. All good. But for Israel, it was the house of bondage. The scholar Benno Jacob (1862–1945) comments, “If freedom and culture cannot coexist, we should bid farewell to culture for the sake of freedom.” Money cannot be “our God”.

Trump continues to widen American divisions. No matter how strong the economy, bigotry and hatred—espoused and supported by the president of the United States—can only turn America into Pharaoh’s Egypt. And we know how that story turned out.

As I publish, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average has plummeted over 800 points since last Friday. Will Mr. Trump, as the force behind the American economy, accept responsibility for this?

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GAS PUMPS AND IMMIGRATION

Gridlock in Washington reflects Republicans and Democrats—and many Americans—refusing to listen to each other. It takes active listening to bridge gaps. Many years ago, an old friend revealed a great example.

Sam Smidt was a brilliant graphic designer in Palo Alto with whom I worked early in my freelance career. He told me a story that always stuck with me and should be the subject of a mandatory class for anyone holding political office.

Sam once was designing the gas pumps for Chevron. A major oil company’s gas pumps represent a corporation’s brand. The client, not satisfied, asked Sam to make the logo bigger. Sam complied. The client wanted the logo even bigger. Sam did that. The client remained unhappy. Then the answer occurred to Sam. “You want the logo to be more prominent,” he said. “Yes!” the client answered, realizing that size and prominence don’t necessarily equate. Sam shifted some design elements without supersizing the logo, and the client was delighted.

Often, people get bogged down in specifics without communicating what they really want. This leads to wasted time and energy, and often to antagonism. It doesn’t have to be that way.

In a New York Times interview on Wednesday, columnist Frank Bruni interviewed two Democrats—former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and strategist Joe Trippi. Both agreed that Democrats’ chances in the 2018 Congressional elections hinge on standing for something rather than Trump bashing. Patrick hit it on the nose: “What matters most is that we agree on and fight for the ends, not so much the means. For example, we want every man, woman and child to have access to quality, affordable health care. There’s more than one way to skin that cat, and we should be open to debating all those ways.”

I imagine that Gov. Patrick is willing to listen to Republicans. Would they return the favor?

As with all major issues, politicians—and many voters—too often demand specific solutions rather than define outcomes. This parallels the Chevron executive, who ultimately realized that increasing the size of his logo wasn’t the key to meeting his objective.

Immigration poses this same challenge. Donald Trump wants a wall. It’s “wall or nothing.” But does a wall represent a “bigger logo?” Ultimately, several key questions concern the nation. Should we take in immigrants? Most people would say yes. Should we control immigration? Again, most people would say yes; the numbers and sources appropriate to a separate discussion. What are our immigration needs? What do we expect immigrants to contribute to the nation? And if we make new laws, are we willing to uphold them while finding humane solutions to tricky problems?

Start there, and Americans could find a measure of common ground.

There’s lots to discuss, and no black-and-white approach—pun intended—will serve us well. But rather than demanding the means—a wall or blanket amnesty—let’s discuss the ends. How can immigration strengthen the United States in the next quarter-century and beyond?

If Americans start expressing their vision and listening to each other, we may find our views far closer than we imagined. Then we can forego pumping up the volume and discuss, rather than argue, the practical means to achieve our objectives.

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THE HOLER PERSPECTIVE

Soon after the president of the United States reminded us of his “stable genius” by asking why America wants immigrants from “shithole” countries (if he said “shithouse,” does that make a difference?), a friend asked if I was speechless.

My answer, even recovering from a bad flu (haven’t kicked it yet): “Hell, no!” The latest racist blather by Donald Trump offers lots to write about. Failure to do so would make me a traitor to the nation I’ve sworn to uphold and defe.

I am what The New York Times’ Bret Stephens terms a “Holer.” So is he. Our grandparents came to America in what were clearly called shithole countries over a century ago. Mine from Poland and Belorussia, parts of the Russian Empire. For that matter, my father was born in shithole Poland. Worse, we’re Jews! To many Trump supporters, we’re still Holers.

Fortunately, America at the turn of the 20th century continued welcoming—if often grudgingly—Holers from eastern and southern Europe: Jews, Greeks, Italians, Slavs. A growing nation needed more people to work on farms, and in mines and factories. But the picture wasn’t perfect. Although we Holers eventually became successes, we weren’t White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Grassroots anti-Semitism swept over the nation. In 1924, Congress through the Johnson-Reed Act basically banned Jews and southern Europeans from entry.

Still, we Holers retained our devotion to America and served it well. Ultimately, attitudes towards us changed. Following World War Two, some restrictions against Jews—refugees from the Holocaust—were lifted. Moreover, we could buy a house in most neighborhoods and attend almost any university.

The establishment of the State of Israel touched many American Christians, if perhaps because Christ’s second coming, according to many, depends upon the Jews being in their homeland so we can finally accept Jesus as our savior. Or perish. Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War raised the Jewish state to near-mythical status and brought American Jews a great measure of respect. Better late than never.

Holers from all over the world came to the U.S. Filipinos, Nigerians, Haitians, Dominicans, Syrians, Egyptians, Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Vietnamese—and sí amigo, Mexicans—became Americans. They worked at some of the hardest jobs available. Opened businesses. Served and died in our military. Earned college degrees. Cared for us as doctors, nurses and orderlies. Became actors, musicians and sports stars. And brought us new foods.

Now, the president seeks to return America to its white-supremacist ugliness of a century and more ago. He wonders why we don’t just take in a lot of Norwegians—16 percent of whom are Holers. Okay, white, ethnic Norwegians. I like Norwegians, and Swedes, and Danes. But the people Trump most wants coming to the U.S.—western and northern European Caucasian stock—won’t likely immigrate. Over seventy years ago, their grandparents learned the perils of racial animosity. Now, they believe that all human beings should be treated with equal rights and respect. The president of the United States doesn’t come close to sharing that value.

I’m proud to be a Holer. An added bonus: I can see and smell a pile of bullshit a long way off. For for the sake of accuracy, the distance between San Francisco and Washington, D.C. is over 2,400 miles.

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FLU-INDUCED RAMBLINGS

The flu clobbered me Saturday night. I’ve barely started to recover. As a result, this virus really got me thinking—when I was capable of thinking.

I see my mortality in sharper focus. Feeling so bad makes you feel old. Hell, I am old! Through the first few days, I wondered if I’d ever recover. Statistics from the California Department of Public Health didn’t help. This flu season, California experienced 27 flu-related deaths among people under 65—as of the week ending December 30. What about elders 65 and older? Health departments don’t count their (our) flu-related deaths. There are too many.

I hear my clock ticking. Like the clock in the belly of the crocodile chasing Captain Hook in Peter Pan, it’s damn loud. I wonder if I’ll spend my latter years feeling the way I do now—without the flu.

Brighter thoughts revealed themselves in brief bursts, offering more of an upside. Like the penny dish at my neighborhood 7-Eleven. If the clerk gives me pennies with my change, I leave them in the dish for others. If I’m short a penny or two, I’m covered. The penny dish represents a small courtesy we can offer one another. Of late, I’ve begun to see small things as increasingly important.

Big deals also entertain my thoughts. Basically, I’m not one. That’s okay. Most of us would like to be remembered for doing great things. Few of us will. Still, when we die, someone at our funeral or a local obituary will magnify our “accomplishments” until we’re unrecognizable. At many funerals, I’ve recoiled at the abundant lies spouted to gathered mourners who, almost to a person, must have wondered if they’d wandered into the wrong chapel. I wrote a short story about that.

I’ve long believed we don’t need to do great things to lead great lives. Donating to a hospital that in return plants your name across its entry and all its communications would be wonderful. Modest donations without recognition to fight prostate cancer or leukemia also mean something.  Running a program to feed the poor deserves praise, no question. Bringing a few cans of food to a local collection spot each week also makes a difference to people who will never know of you.

In the end, what counts is not a life lived well in terms of acquisition and comforts—although I’m quite comfortable, and don’t wish to mislead anyone. What counts is a life lived with decency and attention to the “small” stuff: family relationships, friends, community in its many forms, dropping in at the blood bank (yes, I enjoyed the donuts), helping visitors in the Presidio National Park find their way to the Golden Gate Bridge.

In a novel I recently concluded, Gold, by Chris Cleave, a 32-year-old British Olympic gold-medal bicyclist experiences an epiphany. Those several appearances on the podium to be celebrated as a world champion represented the only moments in her life when she was connected to the rest of the world. Her drive for gold stripped her of all feelings and doomed any chance of relationships.

Most of us never will receive great honors. But we can all work hard, love others and do the little things that, while easily unnoticed, make the world a bit better.

What you see is what you get. After posting this, I’m just going to sit and drool. And don’t think I’m not reflecting on President Trump’s remarks about shithole countries. I am. Oh, yes.

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WASHINGTON AND WINNERS

Wednesday’s San Francisco Chronicle headlined, “GOP near tax, health wins.” Mid-morning, the tax bill passed. Not a single Democrat voted yes. The New York Times reported, “Victory for G.O.P. as House Clears Way for Trump Signature.” I used to think winning only involved sports and the Oscars. My bad—and America’s.

Will the new tax law promote the general welfare? Trickle-down economics has failed in the past, but circumstances change in every generation. What concerns me more is the attitude in Congress and the White House—and it’s not new—that the most critical reason to pass legislation is to defeat the other party. “Winning” equates with moral superiority. Only secondarily do politicians consider the nation’s wellbeing.

The new tax law certainly will impact the economy short-term and long-. Republicans see the gross domestic product (GDP) soaring, bringing Washington increased tax revenues—at lower rates, of course—to counter the projected additional $1.5 trillion deficit.

Most Americans, however, don’t see themselves winning. According to cnbc.com, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released on Tuesday “shows that just 24 percent of Americans believe the president’s tax plan is a good idea – barely more than half of the 41 percent who call it a bad idea.” Moreover, “by an overwhelming 63 percent to 7 percent margin, Americans say the plan was designed to help corporations and the wealthy rather than the middle class.”

The same cnbc.com report states, “there are signs that the tax debate has taken a political toll on Republicans and the president alike.” Do the “winners” care? Stated cnbc.com, “Dozens of lawmakers stand to reap a tax windfall thanks to a loophole inserted in the sweeping GOP tax overhaul bill, according to a review of federal financial disclosures.”

Donald Trump may not have helped his and the Republican cause when on Wednesday he announced, “I shouldn’t say this, but we essentially repealed Obamacare.” Has he thrown the healthcare system into chaos? If so, how will millions of affected Americans respond?

Of course, the mega-rich—including Trump—will win big. A coterie of far-right political donors, including the Koch Brothers, will reap a major return on their investment not only in the Republican party and its candidates but also in political action committees, think tanks and trade associations, as well as shell organizations designed to hide their tax-deductible contributions. For the frightening details, read Jean Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.

The new tax law also will provide more work for CPAs and tax attorneys. They always win with the arrival of new legislation.

So, short term, the economy and stock market may spike, boosting Republican hopes to hold both houses of Congress in the 2018 midterm elections. But the nation risks experiencing what one TV commentator termed “a sugar high”—a burst of economic energy followed by a crash. If so, Trump supporters also will feel pain. The deficit—once an object of Republican concern—may grow so large that even Democrats express heartfelt concern. And in 2025, most middle-class Americans’ taxes will go up.

Let’s get real. No legislation is perfect. But laws passed without a meaningful measure of bipartisan support deliver “wins” that leave more than the minority party as losers.

To you who celebrate Christmas—Merry Christmas! May the holiday renew your spirits. To all: Happy New Year!  

The post will break for a few weeks and return January 12.

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RUBY-RED TURNS BLUE

Last Tuesday, ruby-red Alabama turned partially blue. Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore in a special senatorial election. Pending a requested recount, Jones heads to Washington. His 20,000-vote margin of victory was small, but the election’s message may—pardon the expression—be huge.

To begin, changing demographics may soon reverse populism’s recent gains. The percentage of whites and Christians is shrinking. Young white evangelicals are questioning their elders’ political stances favoring the far right despite candidates’ and elected officials’ misdeeds. These young people may also be conservative, but they won’t accept the behavior and speech exhibited by a Trump or a Moore regardless of potential Democrat gains.

Minorities continue to grow and vote despite hindrances placed at the ballot box. In Alabama, Birmingham’s mayor Randall Woodfin is African American. He succeeded a black mayor. The city has come a long way since the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church church that killed four African American girls and gave the city the nickname “Bombingham.” African Americans are willing to exercise their electoral muscle. Ninety-four percent gave Jones their vote.

Importantly, 30 percent of white voters went for Jones, according to The Washington Post. Not an overwhelming percentage but meaningful. Alabama’s senior senator Richard Shelby publicly refused to back Moore. He voted for a write-in candidate. Others followed suit. Conservative majority leader Mitch McConnell (Tennessee) stated that Moore didn’t belong in the Senate. All demonstrated a measure of concern with common decency, since several women accused Moore of sexual predation decades ago. Alabamians also were aware of Moore’s 2004 removal from the state’s supreme court and 2016 court suspension for placing his personal Christian beliefs above the U.S. and Alabama constitutions. He later resigned.

Jones’s victory may not represent the turning point in American politics, but it may signal change. President Trump, after supporting the losing Luther Strange in the primaries, eventually threw his weight, such as it is, to Moore. He even campaigned, albeit in Florida where he didn’t have to be seen with Moore. His lukewarm efforts failed, although Trump said on Wednesday it wasn’t his fault.

Is Trump’s “power” weakening? Also on Wednesday, the heartland-America USA Today editorialized, “A president who would all but call Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand [D-NY] a whore is not fit to clean the toilets in the Barack Obama Presidential Library or to shine the shoes of George W. Bush.”

Are Americans deserting the Republican party? No. Many continue supporting big tax cuts and small government. That’s a political viewpoint to which they are entitled. Still, some Republicans in Congress and their supporters appear to be revising their win-at-all-costs stance. God and morality could become more important than political power.

A blue victory doesn’t mean Democrats and independents should see the world through rose-colored glasses. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens warns that many Americans will view the rising economy as good reason to ignore Trump’s rantings, insults and possible Russia connections.

After World War Two, many Italians and Germans supposedly admitted that Mussolini and Hitler did terrible things but, “At least they made the trains run on time.” November’s mid-term elections will reveal if many Americans, who have followed something of a parallel view of the far right, have the integrity to moderate their positions.

To you who are celebrating Chanukah—Chanukah Sameach! May the festival of lights bring new light to us all.

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FOLLOW THE MONEY

The media continues to follow Robert Mueller’s investigation into the relationship between Donald Trump and Russia. A fuss was made this past week about Trump knowing that his national security advisor, Gen. Michael Flynn, lied not only to Vice President Mike Pence but also to an FBI agent before Trump fired him. Don’t get excited. This represents some of the what of the matter. But it’s just part of the story.

The investigation will bear fruit only when we understand why Trump turned his back on, and even condemned, the United States’ top security agencies for reporting that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election. Why he admires Putin and his governing style yet has chided leaders of allied governments. Why he fired FBI head James Comey. And why, early this week, he trashed the FBI.

We know Trump believes good relations with Russia can be to our advantage. But that’s like advocating mom and apple pie. It’s always preferable to establish good relations with all nations— even those with whom we have conflicts, such as Iran and North Korea. But Trump has never assumed the role of statesman and geopolitical thinker. He has never written or delivered cogent speeches or position papers detailing the ways American-Russian engagement can make the world safer and freer.

So back to the key question: Why all the contacts between Trump’s people and Russia? Why did members of the Trump team mention the easing of sanctions imposed by Barack Obama before the inauguration? Why the guilty pleas from Trump team members, which may cripple or end the careers of those who entered them? And why the constant discovery of more questionable contacts between the Trump campaign and transition teams, and Russia?

Follow the money!

On Tuesday, Thompson Reuters reported Mueller subpoenaed global banking giant Deutsche Bank for information regarding Trump and his family’s accounts and transactions. Might this relate to past New York Times and Vanity Fair articles on Russians laundering money through Trump condominium projects in New York and Florida? Will it reveal other Trump-Russian financial arrangements? Whatever, this form of inquiry represents the search for key answers.

It’s also critical to know why Trump refused to release his tax returns as all other candidates have over the last forty years. Look for Mueller’s team to review Trump’s tax returns soon—if they’re not doing so now. Their examination will go way past the tasks performed by the IRS. A tax expert told me that the IRS doesn’t look for illegal activities when individuals or entities state appropriate revenues, claim reasonable deductions and pay appropriate taxes. Additionally, sources of revenue and recipients of expenses don’t draw attention. It’s all about the numbers.

Mueller’s forensic accountants and investigators will dig deep. They’ll search for sources of revenue and recipients of financial obligations not listed on Trump’s returns. They’ll seek to uncover layers of shell companies to find the real people and organizations behind Trump’s business dealings.

When Mueller and his staff reach conclusions, they’ll know if Trump sought to enable Russians to profit from equity positions in some of his projects and to collect on large debts he owes Russian banks, oligarchs and mobsters. The truth is out there. To find it, Mueller will follow the money.

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LOUISIANA

Most Californians think about Louisiana—New Orleans aside—as God, guns and gumbo. Carolyn and I spent Thanksgiving week in Baton Rouge with our son Seth, a graduate student at Louisiana State. The visit demonstrated that there’s more.

Our hotel room overlooked the Mississippi River. We were thrilled. Here flows one of the hearts of America—a highway meandering 2,300 miles and antedating the railroads and interstates. Long strings of barges still carry goods up and down the big river. No surprise—I’m now re-reading Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

West lies Cajun country. People were unfailingly cheerful and polite*. I like southern Louisianans, who differentiate themselves from folks further north. The owner of the company with which we took a swamp tour asked Seth if he lived north or south of Interstate 10. Seth lives south. Our welcome was confirmed, although our host asked the question tongue in cheek.

I enjoy food in southern Louisiana, although I eat kosher-style. That eliminates shrimp, crawfish, catfish, pork and bacon. What’s left? I had fabulous fried chicken and a great biscuit at the Boudin Shop in the Cajun town of Breaux Bridge. Baton Rouge menus included steak, brisket, barbecue chicken and salmon. Also, very good pastries, including a wonderful carrot cake and a super-rich pre-birthday chocolate cake for Carolyn. Sadly, the beignets didn’t come close to those at New Orleans’ Café du Monde. Maybe it was a bad day.

Near our hotel, we discovered the Louisiana Art & Science Museum in a refurbished railroad depot. The planetarium offered a show about the constellations. Then—to our surprise—it played animated videos featuring classic (non-religious, fortunately) Christmas songs. The last video filled the dome with five-pointed stars. But in the middle floated one star with six points—the star of David! I don’t know if the audience got it, but we did. Someone on the animation team signaled that Jews also exist.

*Asterisk time: Yosi, who is transgender, felt uncomfortable in Breaux Bridge, where Santa Claus was about to start the Christmas Season. They don’t do “the holidays” there. Yet Yosi has lived in the South—including New Orleans—for years, previously stopped in Breaux Bridge on tour and traveled the state.

I’m a realist. Donald Trump won 58 percent of Louisiana’s presidential ballots. Behind the smiles and good wishes lie different points of view and possibly some awkwardness. A garrulous Lyft driver mentioned that all the quarters at plantations had fireplaces because owners were good to “the help.” Carolyn used the word “slavery.” He continued referring to “the help” as if we spoke different languages.

I conclude that America remains a patchwork of diverse regions and cultures. Our problem consists of too often dwelling on the differences—and equating different with bad—rather than acknowledging what we share. A timely symbol of the latter may be the cell towers that rise above flat, swampy Cajun country just as a similar tower peers over the Presidio National Park blocks from my house.

Yes, differences do matter. They can’t be sugar-coated like beignets. Still, we might spend more time listening to each other and getting past stereotypes. Real human connections could unite Americans and help the nation offer life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to all its citizens.

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WHAT PUTIN TOLD TRUMP

A week ago, at an economic conference in Da Nang, Vietnam, Donald Trump met with Vladimir Putin to discuss vital issues concerning the United States and Russia. According to President Trump—again—Russia did not attempt to sway America’s 2016 presidential election. At least, that’s what Putin said and, according to Trump, Putin’s a stand-up guy. And if you haven’t heard, Putin also cleared the air with Trump on several other important matters.

— The “little green men” who fought in Eastern Ukrainian for Russian-speakers’ separation from Kiev were Martians. Russia long has been a global leader in astronomy and space exploration, and communicated with Martian visitors well before “The X Files” became a hit on American television. Russia and the Martians kept the matter quiet to avoid panicking our planet.

Trump’s response: “Who knew that Martians spoke Russian? But it makes sense since Martian and Russian end in the same three English letters.”

— The gas purportedly used by Syria’s Assad regime on its own people—with Russia’s knowledge and guidance—was not Sarin or anything else poisonous. Instead, Assad sprinkled war zones with laughing gas to raise the spirits of people whose neighborhoods had been shattered, those suffering grievous injuries from purported barrel bombs (“no wine casks were damaged in the bombings”) and refugees. The gas was purchased from the Russian Institute of Advanced Dentistry over a decade earlier, and the Kremlin has all the receipts. Humanely, the gas did not prompt belly laughs which injure internal organs but produced only small chuckles as revealed by the grimaces grins on the faces of motionless Syrians photographed while napping.

Trump’s response: “I bet you and Assad also mixed in some pixie dust like I brought with me on Air Force One. I hear it’s a hell of an aphrodisiac.”

— Accusations by international sports doping bodies that Russian athletes take banned drugs reveals fake news at its most fake and un-newsiness. Russian athletes do test new types of vitamins, which Russian scientists continually refine for the betterment of health worldwide. This further proves Russia’s advanced research and production capabilities. History has long acknowledged that Russians invented baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet along with rhythm and blues, the button-down shirt and Buffalo chicken wings.

Trump’s response: “Can you invent something that makes Robert Mueller disappear?”

— Like George Washington, Vladimir Putin has never told a lie. Honor and integrity represented key values in his training and career with the KGB, the Soviet Union’s intelligence agency responsible for keeping foreign powers—aka the United States—from soiling the spirit and legacy of Communism. Such admirable traits—and the occasional doing away with journalists and political opponents opposed by 99.9 percent of the people—impelled Russians to keep Putin in power since 1999 with no end in sight.

Trump’s response: “If I tell only the truth, do you think my fantastically high approval ratings of 38 percent will go even higher? And can you make Robert Mueller disappear?”

This straight talk should enable you and people across the globe—including Kim Jong-un—to sleep better. Or, as Mr. Trump tweeted on his “personal” account: “Nothing wrong with a man-crush as long as you still try 2 grab women by the pussy.”

With a snafu patched, my novel THE ODD PLIGHT OF ADONIS LICHT again is available for the Kindle at Amazon as well as in softcover.

The blog will take off for Thanksgiving and return on Friday, December 1.

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MONOTHEISM AND MYTH

Jews, Christians and Muslims know that monotheism began with Abraham, the Hebrew patriarch whom Torah students have studied these past three weeks. But like Elvis sightings, that’s an urban legend.

Secular scholars point to monotheism’s birth in what Karl Jaspers termed the Axial Age—700 to 200 BCE. Karen Armstrong writes that as urban civilizations developed, “people ultimately began to find that the old paganism, which had served their ancestors well, no longer spoke fully to their condition.”

The biblical narrative offers a third view, as I detail in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible. The book of Genesis plants monotheism’s roots in the sixth day of creation, presenting Adam and Eve as the original pair of monotheists long predating Abraham. They enjoy a personal relationship with God, Who instructs Adam not to eat from a specific tree and makes clothing for Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness after they do. And yes, He also expels them from Eden.

Their sons also know God. When God accepts Abel’s offering but not Cain’s, Cain sulks. God offers parental advice: “Surely if you do right, / There is uplift. / But if you do not do right / Sin couches at the door; / Its urge is toward you, / Yet you can be its master” (Gen. 4:7).

With Abel dead and Cain banished, Adam and Eve have a third son—Seth. Genesis makes no mention of Seth’s relationship with God, but there’s every reason to believe Adam and Eve informed Seth about their Creator. Why?

When the earth becomes populous, Genesis states, “It was then that men began to invoke the Lord (YHVH) by name” (Gen. 4:26). This induces Nahum Sarna to write, “This text takes monotheism to be the original religion of the human race, and the knowledge of the name YHVH to be pre-Abrahamic.”

Humanity descends into wrongdoing and idolatry. Still, Enoch, the seventh in Adam’s line and great-grandfather of Noah “walked with God 300 years” (Gen. 5:22). Noah, in the tenth generation, receives God’s instruction to build an ark.

After the Flood, people again turn away from God. The Talmud (Berachot 33b) explains, “Everything is in the hand of heaven except the fear of heaven.” Eden now consisting of only of a myth as humanity drifts into various forms of polytheism and idol worship. Monotheism, like a buried seed, lies dormant. Still, as God’s Others relates, pockets of monotheism lived on.

Twenty generations after Adam and Eve, Abraham appears. The biblical text never explains why God chooses him, but it now seems clear that Abraham rekindles monotheism rather than discovers it. Yehezkel Kaufmann writes that primeval mankind from Adam on “appears to have been monotheistic.” Gunther Plaut notes of Abraham, “The Torah does not depict him as the founder of a new religion.”

From the biblical perspective, monotheism constitutes humanity’s natural religious state. This prompts us to consider a corollary. All people contain the Divine spark. The Parent loves all His children. In a nation—indeed a world—torn by hatred and violence, we would do well to remember that to which Abraham sought to return us, however we might define God and the unity of the universe.

You can order God’s Others from Amazon, your local book store or—such a deal!—from me.

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