Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Travels in Time (?)

Before beginning this week’s piece, permit me to urge you to click this link and listen; what you will hear is meant to set an emotive tone for what you are about to read . . .


Of President Trump’s 5 children, the two least-known, least photographed are 25-year old Tiffany (currently a law student at Georgetown University) and 12-year old Barron, who is a 6th grader at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in Potomac, Maryland.

Eerily, in 1889 - fully 130 years before Barron (note the double “r” in his name) was born - the now long-forgotten Victorian-era lawyer, diplomat and author Ingersoll Lockwood (1841-1918) published the first in a series of children’s adventure novels starring a character named Baron (with one “r'“)Trump. The first of these novels was entitled The Travels and Adventures of Little Baron Trump and His Wonderful Dog Bulger . This novel, and its sequel, Baron Trump’s Marvelous Underground Adventure (1893) were quickly forgotten as was a later satirical novella by Lockwood entitled 1900: Or the Last President. This, the last of Lockwood’s works, begins on a Tuesday in November, “a terrible night for the great city of New York.” Anarchists and socialists have laid siege to a hotel on Fifth Avenue, screaming, “death to the rich man.”

What’s really quite remarkable about Ingersoll Lockwood’s otherwise gone-and-ought-to-be-forgotten books (beyond naming his main character “Baron Trump”) is the eerie prescience one finds within their pages. Indeed, it seems almost as if the writer knew the latter-day Trumps and were made aware of the state of uncivil society in the early 21st century. Then again, currently living in an age of Jonesian (as in Alex) conspiracy theories as we do, perhaps Lockwood at one time had played host to a visitor from a time traveler named Trump.

When it comes to great Victorian-era children’s adventure-cum-fantasy literature, Lockwood’s works are as forgotten as the films of John Bunny and Flora Finch. Twain’s A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and any of the Baum Wizard of Oz fantasies are still read. By comparison, I think we can safely say that not a single Lockwood novel was ever made into a motion picture . . . a sort of latter-day imprimatur. Nevertheless, there’s still something utterly fascinating and prescient about the Baron Trump novels or 1900 subtitled Or the Last President.

The Last President.jpg

With breathtaking foreknowledge (?), Ingersoll Lockwood presents Baron Trump as continually talking about his gigantic brain. While meeting with the Russian government, he talks about his glorious gray matter. As foreign women fall for him, he mentions his superior intelligence before casting them off. He once sued his tutors, alleging that they owed him money for everything he had taught them. He won. Born Wilhelm Heinrich Sebastian Von Troomp - but better known as “Little Baron Trump” - he travels both around and under the globe with his dog Bulger, meeting residents of as-of-yet undiscovered lands before arriving back home at Castle Trump. Lockwood’s Trump is precocious, restless, and prone to get in trouble, with a brain so big that his head has grown to twice the normal size. Mind you, these novels were a): written for children, and b): were all published in the Victorian era.

What did Lockwood know? Was this Trump a time traveler? Just kidding.

Lockwood’s novella 1900: Or, the Last President, is steeped in paranoia over the gold standard and fears about what would happen to a country still torn apart by civil war. If anything, Lockwood’s works are disquieting because their mood of anxiety and reprisal for old battles feels genuinely familiar. In this novel, the main character carries the title “Don,” and owns a hotel on whose grounds Trump Towers currently stands. Lockwood’s satire - meant to be read and digested by literate children - chastises the rise of socialism and populism, inferring their fictional rise here as disastrous and leading to chaos. And yet, for a man of his time, Lockwood was rather broadminded. Despite being an ardent Catholic himself, he had little use for moralists, and had a passionate belief in the power of noblesse oblige - namely, “with wealth and power comes much responsibility for those who possess neither.”

Without question, there are those who, once becoming turned on to Lockwood’s novels, will come up with some sort of “time traveler’s conspiracy” and spread the word that Ingersoll Lockwood was actually engaged in giving ’45 both marching orders and a world view more than a century ago. This, of course, is abject twaddle. In reality, what it is is an eerie and unpredictable view of the future from the past . . . and a pleasant afternoon’s read to boot.

658 days until the next election.

Copyright©20019 Kurt F. Stone

The Losers Hall of Shame

Okay all you trivia mavens: let’s see if you can figure out what the following all have in common:

1.     Former New York Met pitcher Anthony Young (1966-2017);

Met Pitcher Anthony Young

Met Pitcher Anthony Young

2.     John “The Engineer” Turmel (1951- );

3.     Richard Burton (1925-1983) and Peter O’Toole (1932-2013);

4.     The Prairie View A&M Panthers football team;

5.     The Reverend Glynn (Scott) Wolfe (1908-1997);

6.     Lehman Brothers (1850-2008) and

7.     Donald J. Trump (1946 - )

Stymied? Well, they are all members of the “Losers’ Hall of Shame.” First, a brief visit with 6 of the first 7:

  • Pitcher Anthony Young holds the all-time Major League Baseball record for the greatest number of games lost in a row: precisely 29 between April 14, 1992 and May 1, 1994. Despite retiring with a respectable career era of 3.89, his won-loss record was a horrific 15-48 . . . which works out to a winning percentage of just .238.

  • The Prairie View A&M football team holds the all-time NCAA record for most consecutive losses: 80 games between 1989 an 1998

  • According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Canadian John “the Engineer” Turmel holds the all-time record for both the most elections contested, and for the most elections lost, having contested 96 and losing 95. The only election he did not lose was cancelled.

  • Actors Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, who were among the few major movie stars who were also great actors, hold the record for having received the greatest number of Academy Awards Best Actor nominations (7) without ever winning

  • The Reverend Glynn “Scott” Wolfe holds the world’s record for the greatest number of marriages and divorces: 29. His longest marriage lasted 11 years; his briefest a mere 19 days. At his death in 1997, none of his surviving ex-wives and but one of his estimated 40 children attended his funeral.

  • Lehman Brothers, which came into existence in 1850, holds the all time record for the largest bankruptcy in American business history: approximately $691 billion, following the 2008 financial meltdown.

  • · President Donald J. Trump: as America’s 45th president, he ordered this country’s longest governmental shutdown. As of today, January 13, 2019, that shutdown has lasted more than 3 weeks . . . with no end in sight.

You can make book on Anthony Young, Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole and the rest of the losers not crowing over their missteps. Young probably felt far better over his career ERA than his all-time record for ineptitude. So too did Burton and O’Toole likely find far greater pride and solace in their truly great film roles than for all those times they failed to win an Oscar.

‘45, on the other hand, will likely take eternal, boastful pride in holding the record for creating and orchestrating the longest governmental shutdown in all American history. Back in mid-December of last year, the president told then-Speaker elect Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer “I am proud to shut down the government for border security . . . I will take the mantle . . . . I will be the one to shut it down.” Of course, by the time the shutdown had lasted a mere 7 days, he was placing blame squarely on the shoulders of “Cryin’ Chuck and Nancy” and all the Democrats in Congress.

The fist governmental shutdown did not occur until the republic was more than 200 years old. The year was 1976, That first partial shutdown came under President Gerald Ford when he vetoed a spending bill amid a dispute over the budget for the Department of Health, Education & Welfare - a federal department which no longer exists under that name. A whole slew of shutdowns would ensue over the next two decades. There were half a dozen during Jimmy Carter's four years in office, and eight between 1981 and 1989 during Ronald Reagan's administration. During the Clinton era, there was a major shutdown caused by then-House Speaker Newt Ginrgrich’s “Contract With America.” That shutdown lasted a mere 5 days followed by a 21-day impasse which stood until just the other day as the longest government shutdown ever.

And now we have a new record . . . which our current president owns with pride but nonetheless blames on everybody but himself. He is quickly becoming the Anthony Young or John “The Engineer” Turmel of American history. His spot in the “Losers Hall of Shame” is assured.

But ‘45 seems far, far more concerned about getting funding for his wall on our Southern border than anything else. Lacking an ounce of empathy or understanding for the working stiff (which our most blue-blooded presidents – the Roosevelts - did possess), he is more than willing to upend lives, families and American safety in order to get what he wants. And his suggestions as to what people who live paycheck-to-paycheck should do? “Have a garage sale — clean out your attic, basements, and closets at the same time,” sell “unwanted, larger ticket items through the newspaper or online . . . watch children, walk pets, or house-sit.“ How’s that for empathy?

Besides the president’s all but total lack of understanding of how government works, there is this fact: unlike virtually every other shutdown over the past 4 decades, this POTUS is using said shutdown as a partisan political tool - as a way of keeping his most manic political supporters on his side. He is far more concerned with the 2020 presidential election and hearing the riotous cheers of his shrinking base than he is with the lives and families of those who are on the federal payroll. He simply cannot understand how anyone can go without a paycheck or two . . . or three or four. Hey, they can just go to their parents for a handout or get another part time job in order to tide them over until they get their back pay. Never mind that airline travel is being endangered, that the purity of the food we eat is no longer being investigated, or that medical research projects upon which our very lives depend are going without funding dollars. What’s far, far more important to ‘45 is getting his $5.7 billion for a border wall which cannot - and will not - keep illicit drugs or murderous thugs out of the country.

Will the president’s utter hard-hardheartedness come back to haunt (and ultimately destroy) both him and the party he owns in the 2020 election? Only those with a fully functional crystal ball can possibly know the answer. It would seem, however, that if this issue is brought up again and again by whomsoever the next Democratic nominee (Sherrod Brown? Kamala Harris? Elizabeth Warren? Amy Klobuchar? Joe Biden? Bernie Sanders? Adam Schiff?) may be, it will cause one whole hell of a lot of American voters to turn against ‘45 and the party of close-mouthed cowards he leads.

Let ‘45 be elected to the Losers Hall of Shame instead of a second term in the White House. Goodness knows, it will wreak far less damage upon the men, women and children of this country, as well as our traditional allies around the world.

666 days to go until the next general election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone

The Worst-Rated Movie of All Time

King Cyrus the Great

King Cyrus the Great

In addition to writing books and essays about politics, I have spent more than 20 years worth of Wednesdays teaching courses at Florida International University which go by the name All Politics All the Time: The Interior Game of Chess.” Mondays and Thursdays have long been my days for medical ethics teleconferences, which are deeply challenging and give one the sense that perhaps - just perhaps - they are making a bit of a difference in the world. Then, for sheer pleasure, there’s Monday and Thursday nights. For more than 20 years, I have taught film courses at both Florida Atlantic University’s Jupiter campus (Mondays) and at their main campus in Boca Raton (Thursdays). For me, these classes - and the movies I screen and discuss (mostly classic Hollywood “studio era” productions) - are expressions of what I refer to as my “genetic inheritance.” Let’s face it: I’m a proud “Hollywood Brat.”

At least once every trimester, I am asked what, in my opinion, are the “10 best films of all time.” (I always begin with Casablanca, Buster Keaton’s The General, and Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, and finish my list of personal favorites with Kurosawa’s Rashamon. Not too long ago, a student asked me what, according to critics and reviewers, were the worst films of all time. And so turning to the two standard sources of cinematic wisdom - the International Movie Data Base (IMDB) and Rotten Tomatoes, I did an afternoon’s research. According to IMDB the 3 lowest-rated films, coming in at morbidly anemic 2.0-2.1 (out of a possible 10) were:

  1. 1 .9: Disaster Movie (2008)

  2. 1.9: Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) and,

  3. 2.0: Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 (2004)

Strangely, despite being so terribly bad, all three films did reasonably well at the box office. I guess H.L. Mencken was correct when he wrote “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

But wait: this just in! As of last October, there is a film which has scored a new, heretofore unimaginable rating of 1.6. And it seems only fitting that the subject matter of the worst film of all time should be the worst POTUS of all time. The film? The Trump Prophecy, directed by Stephan Schultze from a book by Mary Colbert, and starring such unknowns as Chris Nelson, Paulette Todd and and Don Brooks. The movie’s plot line can be summed up in five words: G-d sent ‘45 to be king. “Where in the hell does such an absurd idea come from?” you may well ask. Well, believe it or not, it comes from a particular slice of Evangelical Christians whom we will choose to call “Christianists.” This meme (G-d sent ‘45 to be king - or in Trump’s own dreamy delusion “President for life”) has been a part of Christianist belief for nearly 8 years. According to Ms. Colbert’s book, in 2011, Mark Taylor, a former firefighter, had a blinding epiphany in which the Almighty told him that Donald Trump would be elected president in 2016. Opening his Bible, Taylor found himself looking at the 45th chapter of the book of Isaiah (chapter 45 . . . the 45th POTUS . . . get it?) This particular chapter deals with G-d’s anointing Cyrus to be the first King of Persia. Cyrus, for those who have forgotten their ancient history, was born in the sixth century B.C.E. and became the first emperor of Persia. Isaiah 45 celebrates Cyrus for freeing a population of Jews who were held captive in Babylon. For many, Cyrus - who was a secular Persian - became the model for a nonbeliever appointed by God as a vessel for the purposes of the faithful.

Before too long, Taylor’s epiphany began spreading within the evangelical community. The connection (and perceived similarities) between Cyrus and Trump began growing. Lance Wallnau, a prominent evangelical author and lecturer proclaimed “I believe the 45th president is meant to be an Isaiah 45 Cyrus,” who will “restore the crumbling walls that separate us from cultural collapse.” His website proclaims that Dr. Wallnau, through his “broadcasts and viral media influenced 3-5 million undecided evangelical voters” to cast ballots for Donald Trump in 2016. Of course, Wallnau isn’t the only one who has climbed aboard the “Trump is Cyrus” bandwagon. So too have Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council; Ralph Drollinger who leads weekly bible study groups at the White House attended by Mike Pence and members of the Cabinet; Libery University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Fox News’ “Judge” Jeanne Pirro.

At first (and second and even third) blush DJT would seem the absolute worst role model for devout evangelical Christians. After all, this is a man who has been married three times, has had affairs with porn stars (one of which while his 3rd wife was pregnant), is a world-class liar and is an irreligious, narcissistic egomaniac. How any religious Christian - let alone Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Shintoist or Jain can hold him in high regard is beyond the scope of reason. And yet, his political base is filled with a particular breed of evangelical who see him as the anointed of G-d.

What gives with these people? And what does it say about these peculiar folks who many refer to as “Christian Nationalists,” or “Dominionists,” though I prefer “Christianists.” In an op-ed which ran recently in the New York Times, writer Katherine Stewart noted that This isn’t the religious right we thought we knew. The Christian nationalist movement today is authoritarian, paranoid and patriarchal at its core. They aren’t fighting a culture war. They’re making a direct attack on democracy itself. They want it all. And in Mr. Trump, they have found a man who does not merely serve their cause, but also satisfies their craving for a certain kind of political leadership. These Christianists are potentially quite dangerous to democracy, tolerance and morality. They are to Christianity what Islamists are to Islam: corrupters of faith who have turned an ancient belief structure into a “divine” rationalization for autocracy, intolerance and bigotry.

One month prior to the recent midterm elections - in which the Democrats delivered a body blow to both ‘45 the GOP, a thousand theaters across the United States screened “The Trump Prophecy” . . . the worst-rated movie of all time. Produced by Liberty University (founded by the late Jerry Falwell) The Trump Prophecy sought to convince undecided evangelical voters that ‘45 and his minions are as pivotal to American history as was Cyrus to the Jews; just as Cyrus freed the Jews of Persia to return and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, so has "‘45 moved the American Embassy to Jerusalem.


Even Israel has gotten into the act. Recently, an Israeli organization, the Mikdash (Hebrew for “Temple”) Educational Center, minted a commemorative “Temple Coin” depicting ‘45 and King Cyrus side by side, in honor of the POTUS’ decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Israeli P.M. Netanyahu (who like the American president is being hounded by an official investigation into possible crimes including bribery and personal enrichment) has heavily implied that ‘45 is Cyrus’ spiritual heir. To the Israeli P.M. and all the Christianists who have thoroughly reveled in The Trump Prophecy, the president is just like Cyrus: a man who is not Jewish and does not worship the God of Israel, but he is nevertheless portrayed in Isaiah as an instrument of God — an unwitting conduit through which God effects co’s (“his/her)” divine plan for history. Cyrus is, therefore, the archetype of the unlikely “vessel”: someone God has chosen for an important historical purpose, despite not looking like — or having the religious character of — an obvious man of God. It is but a two-hour movie away from making the connection between Cyrus and ‘45.

How very, very fitting that the worst-rated movie of all time should be about the worst president in the history of the republic.

And how utterly frightening.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone

Robert Frost, Donald T., and the Abhorrence of Complexity


First and foremost, Anna, Fred (that’s Fred Astaire Stone, our mixed-breed pooch) and I wish all of you a New Year of health, happiness and sanity. Unbelievably, this is the first time since February 1, 2005, when the then-named “Beating the Bushes” made its debut, that a week - let alone two - has gone by without a new essay. In comparison to “Joltin Joe Dimaggio’s 1941 streak of 56 straight games with a hit, our string of 724 weeks without missing an essay is bit of Okay. The reason(s) for missing two straight weeks are certainly not because of a lack of things to write about. Needless to say, between the sudden departures of White House Chief of Staff John Kelley and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (the so-called '‘Adults in the Room”); the tanking of the Dow Jones; ‘45’s bizarre visit to Iraq where he swore up and down that he - and he alone - had initiated a 10% pay raise for members of the military; and a government shutdown which seems to be based on nothing more than utter puerility, there have been tons and tons of topics to write about. No, this respite has been caused by our packing and moving to a new home just up the road in Boca Raton, and Anna’s health, which, sorry to relate, has taken a decided turn for the worse. But she has urged me back into battle. And so, here we are once again, rhetorical brickbats at the ready.

Getting back to thinking and typing after this brief bi-weekly detour, I am struck by the absurdity of the federal government being partly shut down and held hostage over ‘45’s inane wall. Not only is it the height of useless stupidity; it has become the ultimate symbol for the man, his administration and his abhorrence of complexity. It also brings to mind the late, great poet Robert Frost and his second best-known work, Mending Wall. - the one which opens with the words Something there is that doesn’t love a wall . . . and ends with Good fences make good neighbors. On the surface, the connection between our 45th president and the first poet to grace a presidential inauguration with an original work, should be as “Clear as mirth,” in the words of another poet, the immortal Algernon Swinburne. Regrettably, the connection is far murkier, for Trump has never been a reader nor Frost a schemer.

It is highly unlikely that ‘45 has ever read - let alone had read to him - any Robert Frost. But if someone had - and that work was Mending Wall, one might presume that the “master builder” (with apologies to Ibsen) would have believed that the San Francisco-born, Lawrence, MA-raised poet was a kindred spirit. He undoubtedly would have believed that were the multi Pulitzer Prize-winning poet alive today, Robert Frost would be both a supreme and an enthusiastic backer of Trump’s border wall. After all, didn’t he write not once, but twice, that Good fences make good neighbors? (n.b. In 2010, Sarah Palin [remember her?] quoted this line in a post on Facebook, though with a bit of creative license ("Fences make for good neighbors."). This was meant to serve as a warning to a journalist who was moving in next door to Alaska's first family as part of the research for his book on the disastrous former vice presidential candidate. 

Truth to tell, Frost, like nearly 60% of the American public would be dead-set against a wall along America’s 2,000 mile long Southern border. For in his poem - which does begin with the words Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, is not about enemies, but ostensibly about two New Englanders setting out to repair the stone barrier which sits between their farms. In the poem, after one farmer states Good fences make good neighbors, the other says to himself:

I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down . . .

To ‘45’s way of thinking, Good fences make secure, sovereign nations. It’s as simple as that . . . although he likely doesn’t really believe it in the first place; he’s just genuflecting at the feet of his financial backers and the herd of right-wing media bloviators he watches or listens to on an hourly basis.

One of the things which have always attracted me to Mending Wall is its surprising complexity. For although on its surface it easily understands and supports the necessity of walls in good repair, in reality, it supports precisely the opposite - open spaces which permit neighbors to communicate with one another. The narrator is openly skeptical about the efficacy of walls, complaining about the gaps "at spring mending-time," which appear even if "No one has seen them made or heard them made." Yet he isn't unwilling to join with his neighbor to "set the wall between us once again." He will do the work, even as he confides in us that it is all "just another outdoor game."

In the end, that which has caused ‘45 to shut down the government is at root, his utter abhorrence of complexity . . . those things which cause him to read and reflect, to ponder and propose, to listen to voices other than his own . . .

November 3, 2020 is a mere 672 days away.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone

Every Scandal Needs a Name

Even the most amateur, armchair historian knows that American history is dotted and spotted with presidential scandals. Some have been more luridly entertaining than crucial; others far more politically critical than mere wheezes. The most entertaining have aged so poorly as to be no more than minuscule asterisk points in the nation’s political history. Others have been so utterly critical as to threaten the nation’s very future as a representative democracy. Among the former - the relatively entertaining - are President Andrew Jackson’s marriage to Rachel Donelson (1828) and President Grover Cleveland’s affair with a widow named Maria C. Halpin (1884).

The Whiskey Ring.jpg

The first involves Andrew Jackson (“Old Hickory”), the nation’s 7th president, who married one Rachel Donalson in 1791 - many, many years before he was elected president. Rachel had previously been married and believed that she was legally divorced. However, after marrying Jackson, Rachel found out this was not the case. Her first husband charged her with adultery. Jackson would have to wait until 1794 to legally marry Rachel. Even though this happened over 30 years previously, it was used against Jackson in the election of 1828. Jackson blamed Rachel's untimely death two months before he took office on these personal attacks against him and his wife. Years later, Jackson would also be the protagonist of one of the most notorious presidential meltdowns in history.

The second involves Grover Cleveland, the nation’s 24th POTUS. Cleveland, the Governor of New York, had to deal head on with a scandal while he was running for president in 1884. It was revealed that he had previously had an affair with a widow named Maria C. Halpin who had given birth to a son. She claimed that Cleveland was the father and named him Oscar Folsom Cleveland. Cleveland agreed to pay child support and then paid to put the child in an orphanage when Halpin was no longer fit to raise him. This issue was brought forth during his 1884 campaign and became a chant "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!" However, Cleveland was honest about the entire affair which helped rather than hurt him, and he won the election.

Then there are the critical scandals which tore at the fabric of American politics. The first was the 1872 Grant-era Credit Mobilier Scandal. When it was was found that a company called Credit Moblier was stealing from the Union Pacific Railroad, they tried to cover this up by selling stock in their company at a large discount to government officials and members of Congress, including President U.S. Grant’s Vice President Schuyler Colfax. When this was discovered, it hurt many reputations including that of the Vice President.

Also pertaining to General/President Grant was the so-called “Whiskey Ring Scandal. ” In 1875, it was revealed that many government employees were pocketing whiskey taxes. President Grant called for swift punishment but caused further scandal when he moved to protect his personal secretary, Orville E. Babcock, who had been implicated in the affair. Grant went so far as to appoint former Missouri Senator John B. Henderson as America’s first Special Prosecutor. In this position, Henderson came close to bringing down the entire Grant Administration. Grant would leave the White House in disgrace, a sick, financially bankrupt man who would become utterly dependent on Mark Twain and the firm Merrill Lynch (which provided him a sizable advance on his autobiography) to bring him out of financial peril. Grant died in 1885, about 8 years after leaving the White House. It would take decades before his reputation would begin undergoing to long, painful trek towards rehabilitation.

Nearly a half-century after the Whiskey Ring, the rapacious Harding administration became embroiled in a scandal named after a Wyoming oil reserve: Teapot Dome. This would turn out to be the worst of the many illegal activities occurring during the short-lived administration of Warren Gamliel Harding, generally accepted by historians as being one of the worst presidents in American history. (Included in the list of failure are the likes of Andrew Johnson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Pierce, William Henry Harrison and James Buchanan.) In the Teapot Dome scandal, Albert Fall, Harding's Secretary of the Interior, sold the right to the oil reserves in Teapot Dome, Wyoming, and other locations in exchange for personal profit and cattle. He was eventually caught, convicted and sentenced to jail. “Teapot Dome” also included poker-playing politicians, illegal liquor sales, a murder-suicide, a womanizing president and a bagful of bribery cash delivered on the sly. Before the scandal reached the Oval Office, Harding had died. While the official cause of death was listed as myocardial infarction (heart attack), many believe Harding was poisoned by his wife Florence (known as “The Duchess”) so as to spare her husband’s already tarnished reputation.

Fifty tears after Teapot Dome, a new suffix entered our political vocabulary: “GATE.” This, of course, was due to the daedal (cleverly intricate) Nixon-era power grab named after a Washington, D.C. hotel: the Watergate. For those who are either too young or willfully forgetful, Watergate began with the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, which led to an investigation that ultimately revealed multiple abuses of power by the Nixon administration. As the investigation into this and the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office (Ellsberg had published the secret Pentagon Papers) developed, Richard Nixon and his advisors worked to cover-up the crimes. Then came the “Saturday Night Massacre.” In an unprecedented show of executive power, the president ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Archibald Cox, a Harvard Law professor who was the special prosecutor. Both Richardson and Ruckelshaus refused Nixon’s order, and resigned their posts in protest. The role of attorney general then fell to Solicitor General Robert Bork, who reluctantly complied with Nixon’s request and dismissed Cox. Less than a half hour later, the White House dispatched FBI agents to close off the offices of the Special Prosecutor, Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General. This led to upwards of 50,000 people wiring both Congress and the White House, demanding that Nixon either be impeached or resign. Nixon, enough of a political realist to understand that he would like be impeached by Congress, resigned instead on August 9, 1974.

Over the next quarter century, there would be two additional scandals: Iran-Contra during Ronald Reagan’s second term in which Senior administration officials secretly facilitated the sale of arms to Iran, which was the subject of an arms embargo. The administration hoped to use the proceeds of the arms sale to fund the Contras in Nicaragua. Under terms of the Boland Amendment, further funding of the Contras by the government had been prohibited by Congress. After many hearings, President Reagan told the American people: A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.

The other kerfuffle involved President Bill Clinton, who was actually impeached for lying about an extra-marital sexual encounter with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. The scandal is sometimes referred to as "Monicagate," "Lewinskygate," "Tailgate," "Sexgate," and "Zippergate."  The House approved two articles of impeachment against him: perjury and obstruction of justice. After a five-week trial, the Senate acquitted him, and fulfilled the rest of his second term. Despite having been impeached, Clinton successfully completed his second term; at the time he left the White House in January 2000, his national approval ratings were strong.

And now, nearly two decades after Monicagate, the nation finds itself waist-deep in the horrifically Byzantine sins of Donald Trump, his personal businesses, his family, his political entourage and a thousand-and-one other entities. To date, several of his closest associates have been tried, convicted and sentenced of crimes ranging from tax evasion to obstruction of justice. His business connections with the Russians and Saudis have been called into question, as have those of many members of his Cabinet, as the nation - and indeed, much of the world - anxiously awaits the final report of the (Robert) Mueller investigation. As a result of his “crisis-a-day” mentality and inability to get through 24 hours without Tweeting a fistful of lies, he finds his national approval rating to be the lowest of any president prior to his first mid-term election. And despite proclaiming that the 2018 midterms were a “tremendous success” because “we won the Senate” (conveniently forgetting that it was already controlled by the Republicans before the election), he now faces the prospect of a strongly Democratic House coming down with a lethal case of subpoena envy. The three main investigative committees in the House - Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform - will now be chaired by, respectively, Adam Schiff, Jerry Nadler and Elijah Cummings - three seasoned pros who can be trusted to undertake investigations without partisan predetermination. Just the thought of these three august gentlemen wielding gavels should give the president sleepless nights . . . that is, if he ever sleeps.

Every scandal in American history has, we have seen, a one- or two-word nickname that easily summarizes what the scandal was about. It is next to impossible to imagine what name or nickname history will give to all the malfeasance, misfeasance, misdoing, misconduct and downright misbehavior which has been coming out of this current White House. Perhaps just The Trump Administration?

Anyone got a suggestion? If you do, please share . . .

688 days until the next election,

Copyright© 2018 Kurt F. Stone

Of Mycoplasma Genitalium and Blue Whales

Mycoplasma genitalium

Mycoplasma genitalium

According to scientists, who readily admit that they will know more tomorrow than they did yesterday, the smallest living thing in the world is a bacterium called Mycoplasma genitalium. Considered to be an ultra micro-bacterium smaller than other small bacteria, it has a size ranging from 200 to no more than 300 nm. (“nm” stands for “nanometer.” A single nanometer is 1/1,000,000,000 of a meter (or one millionth of a millimeter), meaning that it is close to 1/1,000,000,000 of a yard). In other words, a single strand of Mycoplasma genitalium (which can cause one of the newest and most virulent of all sexually transmitted diseases) only becomes visible when placed under a powerful electron microscope. And when it is, it appears to be absolutely gigantic.

Balaenoptera musculus

Balaenoptera musculus

Now on the other hand, zoologists - who likewise are learning new things all the time - believe that the largest living thing in the world is a Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus) which can grow to 100 feet long and weigh in excess of 400,000 pounds - that’s 200 tons. Of course, it is next to impossible to weigh anything approaching 400,000 pounds; this is but an estimate based on weighing various parts of the creature once it has been harpooned (or beached), cut into parts and weighed. For more than a century, these maritime behemoths were hunted, captured and carved up to the point of extinction. Since the turn of this century, the hunting of Blue Whales has been made illegal. As of 2002, the IUCN (The International Union for Conservation of Nature) estimates that globally, there are currently somewhere between 10,000 and 25,000 Blue Whales left on the planet. But that number may be growing.

Whereas it is virtually impossible to see a Mycoplasma genitalium without the aid of an electron microscope (which then makes it appear to be as large as a T. Rex, it is impossible to miss a Balaenoptera musculus . . . if only one knows which seas they inhabit.

In any event, just contemplating the smallest and largest living creatures on the planet brings to mind a verse from the book of Psalms (104:24) which states:

מָֽה־רַבּ֬וּ מַֽעֲשֶׂ֨יךָ ׀ יְֽהוָ֗ה כֻּ֭לָּם בְּחָכְמָ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ מָלְאָ֥ה הָ֝אָ֗רֶץ קִנְיָנֶֽךָ

Namely: “How great are Your works, O LORD! In wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”

Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar

Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar

I can hear readers asking “What in the world does all this have to do with a political blog?” Well, let me remind you that the blog’s subtitle is “Politics AND A WHOLE LOT MORE.” In this case, this initial discussion of the smallest and largest living things on earth has quite a bit to do with politics. Case in point: the recent media attack on newly-elected Representative Ilhan Omar, (D-Minn.), one of two Muslim women (the other being Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib) elected to the 116th Congress. Rep-elect Omar has made it clear that she will continue wearing her hijab (Muslim head covering) while serving in Congress. (Rep.-elect Omar was born in Somalia; Rep.-elect Tlaib in Detroit, the child of Palestinian parents. Tlaib, who supports a two-state solution [which even Israeli P.M. Netanyahu supports), does not wear a hijab.)

Immediately upon announcing that she would continue wearing a hijab, Republicans and other staunch supporters of Israel began researching the history of wearing hats (or indeed, any head covering) on the floor of Congress, and unearthed the fact that on September 14, 1837, the House adopted a rule stipulating that no Member could wear a hat on the floor during a session of the House.  With virtually no debate, the rules were modified to read: “Every member shall remain uncovered during the sessions of the House.”  Truth to tell, this rule was meant to be a slap at the Brits, who customarily wore top-hats during sessions of the House of Commons. Over the years, this edict came to include top-hats, bowlers, boaters and, of course, yarmulkes. Nowhere, however, was the subject of hijabs - or other religious head coverings - mentioned . . . until just the other day. (One wonders if the august members of Congress ever considered that a toupee is also a head-covering? The House turned down its most famous hat-wearers, Bella Abzug and Frederica Wilson [she of the sequined cowgirl hats], stating that they were mere “fashion statements,” not part of “religious garb.”)

What Mycoplasma genitalium and Blue Whales have to do with the issue of Rep. Omar and her hijab is this: The other day, Yahoo News ran a piece about this situation, and noted that Rep.-elect Omar, along with Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi and Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern are planning on submitting a partial repeal of the rule which will allow religious accommodation - e.g., the wearing of a Muslim hijabb, Jewish kippah (yarmulke) or Sikh dastar. Already, the Yahoo News article noted, several Orthodox Jewish groups - including The Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel have come out in favor of the rule change. 

The Yahoo News article began with a quote from “Conservative minister” (as well as Harvard-trained attorney and radio talk show host) E.W. Jackson, that “The floor of Congress is now going to look like an Islamic republic . . . . We are a Judeo-Christian country. “We are a nation rooted and grounded in Christianity and that’s that. And anybody that doesn’t like that, go live somewhere else. It’s very simple. Just go live somewhere else. Don’t try to change our country into some sort of Islamic republic or try to base our country on Sharia law.” As deluded, deranged and disconcerting as the reverend’s comments were, far worse were a majority of the comments coming from the e-verse which had read the piece. (As of Monday morning, there were nearly 11,500 comments). Among some of the more bigoted and hateful we find (all are copied and printed 'sic erat scriptum' - warts and all):

  • Elect one Muslim and the entire country is supposed to transform its' rules to accommodate her religion. Who is she representing, because it clearly isn't the "American" people. (4,177 “thumbs up” and 575 “thumbs down”);

  • ”There's no reason whatsoever to change the House rules to accommodate Omar. If she seeks to work in the House of Representatives then SHE can bloody well do the changing to accommodate the culture in which she finds herself.” (4,268 “thumbs up” and 375 “thumbs down”);

  • “How much freedom of religion would we have if every member of Congress were Muslim?” (3,545 “thumbs up” and 304 “thumbs down”);

  • “Just curious. What is her goal of being a congresswomen? Is it to represent her district and the citizens in it? Or it is to represent Muslims and disregard what her actual constituents want? We all know the answer.” (67 “thumbs up” and 2 “thumbs down”);”

  • “Electing these people into office which by the way is the goal of the Muslim Brotherhood to take over the nation, and female mutilation with be the law and not an elective!” (97 “thumbs up” and 4 “thumbs down.”);

  • “The path of muslims and Islam is always the same.1) Establish a Mosque 2) Create an enclave 3) Grow the population and outbreed them. 4)Claim victimhood 5) Resist host authorities and customs. 6) Exploit lawfare. 7) Institute Sharia law. 8) Secede. 9) Take control and destroy everything in their path. Thanks Bathhouse Barry.” (470 “thumbs up” and 41 “thumbs down”).

Before anyone begins getting an utter feeling of dread, remember this: even Mycoplasma genitalium, when put under a powerful electron microscope, can wind up appearing to be as vast as a Blue Whale. This is not to say that the number or percentage of people in America who agree with Reverend Jackson and express their dumbed-down, stereoscopic bigotry online are of sufficient numbers to overthrow our representative Democracy. They are not. Doesn’t the recent midterm election show that we are neither down nor out? It’s just that the media has become society’s electron microscope, making whatever is placed on its stage appear to be far, far larger (or in this case, menacing) than it truly is. Just as few fans of MSNBC, NPR or the New York Times ever take the time to check out Fox News, OAN or Breitbart to get an idea of what kind of drek the president’s base is being fed, so too do few Trumpeters ever take the time to check out more fact-based sources. If they did - and could get past the urge to regurgitate what they “know for a fact” is “fake news,” they might get the idea that there are more of us than of them.

Remember this: according to biologists and geneticists, Mycoplasma genitalium, if not attended to carefully, can be fatal. But according to cetologists (scientists who specialize in the science of whales), Blue Whales are, miraculously, making a comeback . . .

694 days until we go to the polls and elect a new POTUS . . .

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone




It Takes a Cohn (or a Cohen) to Be a Conspiratorialist

Roy Cohn and Sen. Joseph McCarthy

Roy Cohn and Sen. Joseph McCarthy

Unless you’ve been hanging out in Tristan da Cunha (the planet’s most isolated island) or engaged in a long-term toot, you are aware that ‘45 has been ratcheting up his attacks on the Mueller probe. And, in keeping with Tristan da Cunha - which is a volcanic island - these attacks are about to erupt. Among his most recent Tweets, our chlorotic Commander-in-Chief has vented:

  • Did you ever see an investigation more in search of a crime? At the same time Mueller and the Angry Democrats aren’t even looking at the atrocious, and perhaps subversive, crimes that were committed by Crooked Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. A total disgrace! and,

  • So much happening with the now discredited Witch Hunt. This total Hoax will be studied for years! and my most recent favorite,

  • When will this illegal Joseph McCarthy style Witch Hunt, one that has shattered so many innocent lives, ever end-or will it just go on forever? After wasting more than $40,000,000 (is that possible?), it has proven only one thing-there was NO Collusion with Russia. So Ridiculous!

This last one really got me to laughing; I’m a huge fan of irony . . . as in a post on Facebook complaining how useless Facebook is or a traffic cop getting her license suspended due to gobs of unpaid parking tickets. In Tweeting about “. . . this illegal Joseph McCarthy style Witch Hunt . . .” ‘45 is engaging in irony with a capital “I” How so? Well, long before DJT decided to punish the planet by going into politics with a vengeance, his mentor was attorney Roy Cohn, who, while still in his twenties, was the man who, more than anyone, was responsible for the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s. Rarely did the dipsomaniac Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) make a move, impugn a reputation or destroy a life without the diabolic advice or assistance of Cohn (1927-1986), best described in the words of Politico as “a Jewish anti-Semite and a homosexual homophobe.” Cohn, of course, did not for a second believe that leftists, progressive dentists and the Hollywood elite were all “conspiring” with the Soviets to take over America; for him, the made-up conspiracy was a means to an end: power for Cohn and perhaps a presidency for his pupil. McCarthy, for those who remember their history, was taken down a thousand pegs by attorney Joseph Welch on June 9, 1954, (“Have you, at last, no sense of decency?”) and died less than 3 years later of acute alcoholism at age 48.

The Young DJT With Roy Cohn c. 1974

The Young DJT With Roy Cohn c. 1974

Fast forward two decades and we find Cohn - a longtime legal adviser to Fred Trump - mentoring the thirty-something Donald Trump, then beginning to make his way in the world of high-stakes Manhattan real estate.  One can hear Roy Cohn in many of ‘45’s pronouncements. As Peter Fraser, who was Cohn’s lover at the end of his life and met Trump several times, told The New York Times earlier this year, “That bravado, and if you say it aggressively and loudly enough, it’s the truth — that’s the way Roy used to operate to a degree, and Donald was certainly his apprentice.” People who knew Cohn and know ‘45 — people who have watched and studied both men—say they see in Trump today unmistakable signs of the enduring influence of Cohn. The frank belligerence. The undisguised disregard for niceties and convention. The media manipulation larded with an abiding belief in the potent currency of celebrity. “Roy was brutal, but he was a very loyal guy,” Trump told an interviewer in 2005. “He brutalized for you.” ‘45 anastomosed Roy Cohn’s lessons onto his soul; so completely, that in the end, he turned some of that cold calculation on his teacher, severing his professional ties to Cohn when he learned that his lawyer was dying of AIDS.

‘45 and Michael Cohen - His Former “Fixer”

‘45 and Michael Cohen - His Former “Fixer”

Fast forward yet another couple of decades, and we find another Cohn in '‘45’s life. This time he spells it Cohen, used to be a liberal Democrat, is the child of a Holocaust survivor, and throughout his adult life has been far more interested in opulence than power. And yet, he became widely-known as as “Trump’s fixer.” His loyalty for - and fascination with - his former boss (who just the other day slammed him for being “weak”) had almost nothing in common with ‘45’s politics. Cohen has never been a political adviser; that job has been shared at various times by Stephen Miller, Jared Kushner and the departed Steve Bannon. And of the three, Miller - who was and is largely responsible for putting immigration at the top of ‘45’s political to do list - continues having great potency with his boss. Of course, this past week, Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to one count of lying to Congress, and will be sentenced shortly. When asked about this, the president dismissed his former longtime attorney by calling him “weak” - as mentioned above - and said that the only reason he had pleaded out was to reduce his jail time. Because Cohen has been privy to more about ‘45’s relations and negotiations with Vladimir Putin and the Russians than anyone else (save, perhaps 45’s sons, daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner), Cohen can potentially do more damage than anyone on the planet. And there’s the issue of all those beautiful women . . .

Don’t be surprised if at sometime in the near future, the POTUS tweets that Michael Cohen is actually part of the conspiracy to bring him down.

Regardless of whether it’s spelled C-o-h-n or C-o-h-e-n, it is likely that the president will never grasp the irony of it all. Nonetheless, he is still proving to be Roy Cohn’s best-trained student.

But alas, as Oscar Wilde correctly noted more than 125 years ago:

Irony is wasted on the stupid.

701 days to go until the next election . . .

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

Among the Many Things I Do Not Understand . . .

Someone once taught me that while a smart person knows what they understand, a wise person understands what they do not know. Among the many, many things I neither know nor understand are:

  • Why are there Braille signs at the drive-through windows at the bank?

  • What’s another word for synonym?

  • If vegetarians eat vegetables, what do humanitarians eat?

  • Why don't we ever see the headline, "Psychic Wins Lottery"?

  • Why is lemon juice made with artificial flavor and dish-washing liquid made with real lemons?

  • Why is the person who invests all your money called a broker?

  • Why is the time of day with the slowest traffic called rush hour?

  • If con is the opposite of pro, is Congress the opposite of progress?

  • If flying is so safe, why is the airport called a 'terminal'? and,

  • Why the deaths of less than a half-dozen people from eating e-coli infected romaine causes every grocery chain in the country to pull it from their shelves, yet nary a single national retailer has pulled guns and rifles from their stores despite more than 300 mass shootings in the first 11 months of 2018?


OK, I do fully grasp that in the case of ingesting romaine lettuce, the Centers For Disease Control (CDC) did issue a warning about the potential dangers - however slim they may be - from eating the leafy stuff, and warned that it was “a matter of public health.” Well, along the same lines, both the American Public Health Association and the American Psychiatric Association labeled gun violence in America a major public health epidemic . . . and nothing has yet happened. The only difference I can see is that the CDC is an arm of the federal government possessing quasi-legal power, while all the two health associations have in their quivers are science, front-line “soldiers” and first-hand experience with the effects of mass gun violence. As a physician friend of mine aptly put it, “I’m not anti-gun. I just abhor having to remove so many bullets from human bodies.” As a rabbi, my sentiment is somewhat similar: “I’m not so much anti-gun as I am totally against having to perform funeral after funeral of children who have died from being mowed down by automatic weapons.”

Then too, in the romaine vs. gun violence example, the lobby representing lettuce growers hasn’t got one one-hundredth the financial backing, mega-wattage or influence that the National Rifle Association - the gun owners’ and (more importantly) gun manufacturers’ lobby - has on the course of political events. Simply stated, while, politically speaking, the various vegetable growers associations have all the clout of an amoeba, the NRA, like Superman, can bend steel in his/her bare hands. Recent reliable polling shows that support for stricter guns laws among registered voters in America is at 68 percent, compared to just 25 percent who oppose stricter gun laws. And yet, the way Congress votes and campaigns, one would assume that few - if any - Americans are against unfettered access to guns, rifles and military-grade automatic weapons. This cognitive dissonance owes far more to Citizens United v FEC (the Supreme Court decision which made bucks far more important than ballots) than doing the will of the people.

To my way of thinking, the above presents two of the most politically important issues Democrats should push for in both the 116th Congress (which begins in 38 days) and the upcoming 2020 elections, which are now a mere 709 days away. My heartfelt recommendation to my fellow Democrats is that while they should flood the administration with subpoenas, they should, far more importantly, begin shaping the and explaining the issues which will carry the country in November of 2020. From where I sit and write, contemplate and advise, the most important issues - the ones which can best cross party lines because they are, inherently national issues- are:

  • National Healthcare;

  • An end to senseless fear as a political motivator;

  • Reversing pernicious climate change (believing that scientists know what they’re talking about is a good start);

  • Reviving public education;

  • Enacting sensible gun control legislation, which contains a muscular mental health component;

  • Restoring both civility and maturity to our public life;

  • Rereading and recommitting ourselves to both the Declaration of Independence and Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus, and

  • Ending Citizens United, and

  • Tearing down walls - whether real, imagined or politically chimerical - which separate us from both our age-old values and the rest of the world.

My dear Democrats: do not fear that by speaking truth to power on these issues, you will further inflame ‘45’s base, thus causing him to gain support. If you stop and think about it, there is next to nothing he can do to attract new “true believers” to his base; he’s already pretty much peaked. And with that base now standing at a woozy, anemic 38% of the electorate, that simply, simply will not be enough for him or his party to continue destroying the country. From where I sit and write, he’s losing members of his political base every day, as all but the hardest of the hard core are finally, finally, beginning to feel a queasiness in their gizzard about the man and the movement who have succeeded largely through sewing fear and mendacious dissension into the very soil of civil society. Professional politicians, generally speaking, have excellent instincts; they can sniff out political weaknesses from a thousand miles away. As a result, don’t be overly surprised if ‘45 - a sitting POTUS - is actually challenged by fellow Republicans - and starting soon - for the 2020 nomination. Keep an eye out for the likes of Ohio Governor John Kasich, soon-to-be former senators Jeff Flake (AZ) and Bob Corker (TN) and former U.N. Ambassador (and South Carolina Governor) Nikki Haley. That eventuality would force members of the G.O.P. to take sides - not against the Democrats, but against themselves.

At the same time, it is - and will continue to be - incumbent upon the Democrats to unite behind a platform that is long on issues the public truly cares about, and short on internecine warfare between “moderate” and “progressive” wings of the party. Please realize that to the Republican base, we are all the same: socialistic, tree-hugging, anti-Israel, immoralists; to them there isn’t a wit of difference between Joe Manchin, Adam Schiff and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Let ‘45 and his party refine and further consolidate their white, largely rural, male base while we expand ours to include ever more and more citizens who seek to conquer the future. Let them continue shouting “Lock her up!” sucker-punching journalists and quoting the president’s every twitter pronouncement as if it were part of the Sermon on the Mount. We, on the other hand, shall do our best to deal with everyday challenges that affect everyday people, while hopefully ignoring the ephemeral slings and arrows of fictive conspiracies.

I would predict that before foo long, potential Democratic candidates will begin sticking toes into the waters of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina - all of which have primaries or caucuses in a mere 14 months. Before too long, the roster of possibilities will be about as large as the NFL’s Pro Bowl team. Please, please . . . I beg you: go toward the future rather than against one another. For it is only through unity that we can ever hope to right the ship of state . . .

If we cannot - or will not - do this, it will be yet one more thing I do not understand.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

Drowning in a Dystopian Sea


Back in July of 2012, I posted an essay on OpEd News entitled Buzz Windrip is Alive and Well. Those who are fans of Sinclair Lewis, will recall that Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip was the character who bullied his way into the White House in Lewis’ 1935 dystopian satire It Can’t Happen Here - a novel about a demagogue (loosely based on Louisiana Governor Huey Long) who defeats FDR by, among other things, promising to restore American values and giving $5,000.00 to every family in America. Once president, Buzz, -guided by his diabolic Trilby, a p.r. man named Lee Sarason - turns America into a corporate state replete with concentration camps, government-run newspapers and a personal army of “Minute Men” called “Corpos.” As haunting as Lewis’ novel was in 1935, it was even more so when I wrote the essay in July 2012, in the midst of the presidential election. As one might well imagine, the rise of Donald Trump from celebrity TV show host to POTUS has put the now 83 year old novel back on many bestseller lists. It is a novel which should be read by all . . . now more than ever.

Of course, Lewis’ classic is by no means the first - or best - dystopian novel ever written. Jack London’s 1908 best-seller, The Iron Heel, is the granddaddy of ‘em all. Part science fiction, part dystopian fantasy, part radical socialist tract, The Iron Heel offers a grim depiction of warfare between the classes in America and around the globe. Originally published more than a hundred years ago, it anticipated many features of the past century, including the rise of fascism, the emergence of domestic terrorism, and the growth of centralized government surveillance and authority. A difficult though engrossing read, The Iron Heel begins as a war of words and ends in scenes of harrowing violence as the state oligarchy, known as “the Iron Heel,” moves to crush all opposition to its power. This too, is a must read.

Kafka The Trial.jpg

The one dystopian novel which to me is most haunting of all, is Kafka’s The Trial, in which an unassuming office worker named Josef K. is arrested and prosecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority, with the nature of his crime revealed neither to him nor to the reader. In the middle of chapter one, Josef K, speaking about the policemen who have come to arrest him, utters a remark which, in this age of Trump, the growing autocracy and his core fanatics - those who gladly accept his stunning egotism, his constant lies and tactless, embarrassing demeanor - shakes me to my very core: “ . . . do I really have to carry on getting tangled up with the chattering of base functionaries like this? — and they admit themselves that they are of the lowest position. They're talking about things of which they don't have the slightest understanding, anyway. It's only because of their stupidity that they're able to be so sure of themselves. I just need few words with someone of the same social standing as myself and everything will be incomparably clearer. . .”

The one thing most dystopian novels - including Animal Farm, 1984, Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale have in common is that they don’t suggest how to turn dystopia into sanity - let alone utopia. But then again, these novels - plus oh so many others - are literature attempting to portray a dismal reality . . . not prescriptions for saving society from itself. About the best dystopian literature can do is wage all-out war - literally - against the autocrats and purveyors of mass insanity. Although understandable, it is, indeed, unfortunate.

In the situation we find ourselves here in the United States - and increasingly in many developed countries - the “solution” to what ails us . . . to what is splitting our social compact apart . . . is both discoverable and ultimately doable. First and foremost, the enablers must get up off their knees, stand straight and tall, and start doing the job(s) for which they were elected. Medicine’s first principle is the Hippocratic Oath: primum non nocere, namely, “First, do no harm.” In politics and civic engagement the primary oath is to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” To my way of thinking, it should have primum non nocere appended . . . “First, do no harm.” For the past two years plus, too many elected officials have acted in contravention to this primary oath; they have, by refusing to speak truth to power, enabled the nation’s leader to put ego before ethics and use his office for his personal profit. They have stood mutely by while he has bad-mouthed and foully nicknamed anyone who challenges him, disparaged and insulted the heroic, while making friends of tyrants and enemies out of allies. Through their silence and inaction, they have seemingly made primary oath “First, get yourself reelected’; and second, “Do nothing to tick off your financial supporters or political base.”

By hitching their fate and future to the wagon of a man and a movement which cares little if anything for the common clay - Buzz Windrip’s “forgotten man” - they have suffered a whooping at the polls and the very real prospect of destroying a political party whose very history begins with Abraham Lincoln. Why didn’t a single Republican take Donald Trump to task when he said that the late john McCain was “not a hero?” Where were the admonishing voices when, just the other day, the POTUS labeled retired Navy admiral William H. McRaven - the Navy Seal who oversaw the capture and assassination of Osama bin Laden - “a Hillary Clinton fan” and “an Obama backer” and actually suggested that he should have captured bin Laden sooner. Why would the Commander-in-Chief say something as outrageous as this? Simple. Because last year, Admiral McRaven called the president’s description of the news media as the “enemy of the people” the “greatest threat” to American democracy he had ever seen. And while several of the admiral’s military and intelligence colleagues found the president’s charges outrageous, not a single enabler in his Cabinet or on Capitol Hill uttered a word.

And by the way, referring to Representative Adam Schiff – the incoming Chair of the House Select Committee on Intelligence as “Little Adam Schitt” is likely going to come back and bite ’45 in the rear.  Adam Schiff is simply not the kind of man you want to toy with: he has more brains and better political instincts than the president can even begin to comprehend. And, Mr. Schiff is greatly admired and respected by the media and virtually everyone on Capitol Hill. Why? Because he is brilliant, even-tempered and knows what he’s talking about . . .

If we as a nation are not to drown in this dystopian sea, we must demand that the president’s cowardly enablers unloosen their shackles, don their life vests and start acting like leaders. Do not fear that standing up for what is right might get you into the president’s cross hairs or that he might call you a bad name; the recent midterm elections show that, like the Wizard of Oz, the curtain has been pulled back, revealing a rudderless leader who is only capable of leading us to the bottom of the sea.

Remember: there are only 714 days until America goes back to the polls and finishes the job we began two weeks ago . . .

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

Adams & Jefferson Must Be Turning Over in Their Graves

Question: What two things do Supreme Court Justices Louis D. Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, Felix Frankfurter, Arthur Goldberg, Abe Fortas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Elena Kagan have in common?

Jefferson and Adams

Jefferson and Adams

Answer: First, they all are (or were) Jewish; and second, were the new “acting attorney general” Matthew Whitaker’s worldview be the historic law of the land, none of them would have ever been nominated - let alone seated - on the United States Supreme Court, Whitaker’s reasoning? Look no further than point number one: they are (or were) Jewish. Back in 2014, when Whitaker was running for a United States Senate seat from Iowa (he came in 4th in the Republican primary, garnering a paltry 7.53% of the vote), he stated in a question-and-answer session that he would not support "secular" judges and that judges should "have a biblical view of justice." Asked if he meant Levitical or New Testament justice, he replied "I’m a New Testament [sic].” Many understood this to mean that Whitaker would disqualify non-Christian judges. I can just hear Adams and Jefferson screaming out: “Idiot! This is utterly unconstitutional . . . read Article VI, Clause III, which reads, ‘The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

Then too, Whitaker has on more than one occasion stated that the courts are “supposed to be the inferior branch.” Whitaker has been been critical of the Supreme Court’s 1803 decision in Marbury v. Madison). This decision, arguably the most important in American history, allows judicial review of the constitutionality of the acts of the other branches of government. Whitaker, of course, is woefully, stupidly wrong. Commenting on Whitaker’s opinion of Marbury v. Madison, Laurence Tribe, the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard Law (and one of the preeminent Constitutional scholars of the past half century) said, "the overall picture he presents would have virtually no scholarly support," and that they would be "destabilizing' to society if he used the power of the attorney general to advance them."

Matthew Whitaker

Matthew Whitaker

Those who have been paying attention to the ever-widening story of Matthew Whitaker, now know about his work on the board of an invention assistance company, World Patent Marketing, that the Federal Trade Commission has labeled a “scam.”  Reporting on the scam, a team of researchers for the Washington Post explained: “Whatever the concept, no matter how banal or improbable, investigators found, the salesperson would pronounce the idea fantastic and encourage the customer to pay for a package to market and patent the idea, documents show. Many people ended up in debt or lost their life savings, according to the FTC.” Ironically, Whitaker’s brief bio on the World Patent Marketing website described the former U.S. Attorney for the District of Southern Iowa as having “ . . . obtained invaluable insight and experience regarding the enforcement of federal crimes including . . . corporate fraud, terrorism financing and other scams.”

If all this - the churlish, puerile understanding of both the U.S. Constitution and makeup of the federal government as well as the highly partisan (e.g. pro-Trump) political weltanschauung were not enough to disqualify Matthew Whitaker from serving as acting attorney general, there is the question of its legality. The first question, of course, is its timing: Doing this the day after the midterm elections pretty much erased any doubt that this was delayed for political reasons and then done as quickly as possible. Sessions reportedly wanted to stay on until Friday, but White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly told him no. Despite saying that he did not personally know Whitaker (there exists at least one video to the contrary) it’s not at all difficult to paint Whitaker as a stooge for Trump in the Justice Department — or at least someone Trump had to know sided with him on substantial, Russia-related matters. Thanks to his brief career as a pundit for CNN, Whitaker has taken Trump’s side on many aspects of the Russia investigation.

Which brings us to the next problem: whether this appointment is even legal. George Conway (husband of White House adviser Kellyanne Conway) and former solicitor general Neal Katyal argued Thursday in the New York Times that it’s not. They argue, compellingly, that the Constitution explicitly requires principal officers of the U.S. government — that is, those who have no superior except the president — to be confirmed:

In times of crisis, interim appointments do need to be made. Cabinet officials die, and wars and other tragic events occur. It is very difficult to see how the current situation comports with those situations. And even if it did, there are officials readily at hand, including the deputy attorney general and the solicitor general, who were nominated by Mr. Trump and confirmed by the Senate. Either could step in as acting a.g., both constitutionally and statutorily.

A principal officer must be confirmed by the Senate. And that has a very significant consequence today . . .

With this past week’s midterm election results mostly tabulated, it is clear that the vote against Donald Trump was overwhelming. And even though the Senate will continue to be in the hands of the president’s party, one must believe that there’s a lot of thinking, worrying and reassessing going on. From where I sit, ‘45, whether from the point of intent or just plain ego, has pushed that most dangerous of buttons . . . the one labeled BEWARE: CONSTITUTIONAL CRISIS! One wonders if he or his aides can hear the sound of Adams and Jefferson turning over in their graves.

I for one hope the sound continues growing in intensity . . .

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

"Nativism," "Nationalism," and "Americanism": We've Seen It All Before

Lewis Chas. Levin (1808-1860)

Lewis Chas. Levin (1808-1860)

Note: In the final days leading up to Tuesday’s midterm elections, the POTUS has reverted to the political witch’s brew he firmly believes got him elected two years ago: three parts hatred of immigrants, two parts abject fear and five parts outright lies seasoned with Nativism, Nationalism and appeals to Americanism. Sorry to report, but King Solomon, employing the nom de plume “Kohelet” was right: “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Using immigration and fear of the alien as a wedge issue - if not foundational building block - of a political movement, is nothing new. American demagogues have been being playing off the same script since virtually the beginning of our nation’s history. This week, let’s meet one of the most prominent - if not most self-deluded - of these anti-immigration, pro-nativist folks, Lewis Charles Levin - preacher, publisher, lawyer, Congressional Representative and ultimate “Know Nothing.” What follows comes largely from my book The Jews of Capitol Hill (©2011, Rowman & Littlefield)

In the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, Koheleth, the self‑named author, states a profound truth: “What has been will be, and what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” [Eccles. 1:9]. Koheleth’s verity, which extends to both the political and the religious realm, might well serve as the epitaph for Pennsylvania’s Charles Lewis Levin, the second Jew to serve in Congress. For the major issue that obsessed Levin and made his brief moment in the political spotlight possible has resurfaced time and again. In Levin’s day, it was called “Nativism.” Toward the end of the nineteenth century, it was termed “Populism.” In the second half of the 20th century, it went under the name “White Supremacy”, or as one historian termed it, “the cult of national patriotism.”  Today, it is largely subsumed in the often-rancorous debate over “Immigration Reform.”  Indeed, it was a major issue in the 2008 presidential campaign. And today, in 2018, the national Republican base believes it is the single-most important issue . . . at least when it comes to getting their loyalists to the polls.

The issues Levin raised in the Twenty‑ninth, Thirtieth, and Thirty‑first Congresses – prayer and Bible-reading in public schools, keeping America free of foreign influence, strengthening moral values – are still being raised and debated on the House floor in the early 21st century.

Equal parts crusading moral zealot, paranoid conspiratorialist, spellbinding orator, and agitating dogmatist, Levin fashioned a barely coherent political philosophy that sought nothing less than “the attainment and preservation of America’s `national character.’” As he declared early in his first congressional term, “I go for everything American in contradistinction to everything foreign.” In the end, he proved himself remarkably unsuccessful in achieving his goal.

From the way Lewis Levin railed against paupers, drunks, Catholics, and those who “had not been sufficiently long in the country to have lost the odor of . . . steerage,” one might have taken him for some priggish Back Bay snob. Far from it. Although little is known about his antecedents or early life, it is clear that Lewis Charles Levin was the son of Jewish parents. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, on November 10, 1808, Levin spent the first sixteen years of his life growing up in a city that was home to early-nineteenth-century America’s largest Jewish population – somewhere between 600 and 700. From his later actions, it is clear that for the majority of his life, Levin felt like an outsider and tried desperately to escape from his Jewish past. Although there is no concrete evidence that he ever formally converted to another religion, he did become an advocate of Protestantism and married two non‑Jewish women, Anna Hays and Julia Gist.  

Levin graduated from South Carolina College [University of South Carolina] in 1824. Beset with wanderlust, he spent the next fifteen years earning a precarious living as an itinerant Christian preacher and teacher, settling variously in Maryland, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi. He also found the time to “read law,” and was admitted to practice in several states. In 1839 or 1840, Levin – at the time married to Anna Hays of Kentucky – moved to Philadelphia, which, notwithstanding his disaffiliation, was then home to some 1,600 Jews.

In 1842, Lewis Levin purchased a newspaper, which he called the Temperance Advocate. For the teacher/preacher/lawyer/cum budding journalist and politician, the subject of temperance was an early passion. His speeches and articles against the evils of drink brought him to the attention of like‑minded souls; in 1843, he was elected president of the Pennsylvania Temperance Society. In this capacity, Levin continued speaking out against drink, the stage, and anything that in his estimation led to moral debasement.  Like a fire-and-brimstone preacher, he distrusted man’s natural impulses. Without discipline and self‑control, he feared, American society would collapse beneath the weight of its immorality.

Levin sold the Temperance Advocate in 1843 and purchased a larger paper, the Daily Sun. Now he added the evil of foreign influences to his arsenal. Levin was not alone in disparaging foreigners. In the 1840s, America began playing host to its first great wave of European immigrants.  Many of these new arrivals were Irish Catholics, victims of the great Potato Famine. Their arrival served to fan the flames of dislocation, uncertainty, and religious intolerance. As a result, many Americans, looking for scapegoats, became attracted to the burgeoning “nativist” movement. This movement, which would eventually coalesce into a national political party, sought to identify and promote a purely American ethos. Foreigners, particularly Irish Catholics, became easy targets in a highly confusing time. Levin took this antipathy toward foreigners, and molded a paranoiac fantasy: the monarchs of Europe were plotting to take over America by means of the spiritual influence of the Catholic Church. In an article he wrote in his Daily Sun, Levin claimed that the crowned heads of Europe were planning,

 [To] people the country with Catholic immigrants, in order to provide for the contingency so patriotically prayed for . . . of our government changing to a monarchy---whereby his holiness [the Pope] will have a King ready, sprinkled with holy water, to mount the throne in the name of Catholic liberty!

A Typical anti-Catholic Cartoon of the 1840s

A Typical anti-Catholic Cartoon of the 1840s

In 1844, Levin published a broadside entitled A Lecture on Irish Repeal, in Elucidation of the Fallacy of Its Principles and in Proof of Its Pernicious Tendency in the Moral, Religious, and Political Aspects. In it, he attacked both the Irish “Repeal” movement [the fight for the repeal of Ireland’s union with England and Scotland] and its leader, Daniel O’Connell. Levin claimed that in creating Repeal Clubs throughout America, O’Connell [1775-1847] and his followers were, in reality, establishing beachheads for an eventual Papal takeover of America. Levin claimed that he had uncovered “a nefarious plot to debauch and contaminate the institutions of the United States and to set up a monarchy.” His pen dripping with vitriol, Levin concluded, “The Irish Catholic vote is to be organized to overthrow American liberty. The extensive ramifications of Repeal Clubs have suddenly become affiliated societies, to carry out the intentions of His Holiness, the Pope!”

Fueled mainly by the diatribes of journalists, propagandists, and pamphleteers like Levin, the nativist movement continued to grow. In the mid-1840’s, a new political faction variously called the “Native American Party,” “American Republicans,” or the “Know Nothings,” came into existence. Wherever and whenever they held their conventions, violence against Catholics and Catholic churches was sure to follow. The party attracted followers by raising the fear that immigrants posed a concrete threat to the American way of life. When Levin and his allies added the issue of Bible in the public schools, their ranks swelled dramatically. One plank of the Native American Party’s platform boldly proclaimed:    

 We maintain that the Bible, without note or comment, is not sectarian – that it is the fountainhead of morality and all good government and should be used in our public schools as a reading book.

The Bible to which the Nativists referred was, of course, the King James [Protestant] version, which, they claimed, the Catholics wanted excluded from the schools. Levin’s diatribes to the contrary, this was simply not the case. As one Catholic bishop of the time stated, “I do not object to the use of the Bible provided Catholic children be allowed to use their own version.” Levin retorted that the King James Bible was actually a nonsectarian book! He and his Nativist allies pushed for what they called “Bible Education” – a program of learning that would inculcate proper moral values and promote Americanism. Underlying all this was, of course, an implied attack on the Catholic Bible, the Catholic Church, and Catholics in general. Although the Nativists attracted numerous followers, their appeal remained largely among a narrow segment of society. With regard to the Catholic-versus- Protestant-Bible issue, one contemporary observer wryly noted, “A large majority of the Protestants who fought out the question of reading the Bible in the public schools . . . would not have known the difference between the Protestant and the Catholic Bible if it had been placed in their hands.”

The Burning of St. Michael’s Church

The Burning of St. Michael’s Church

In July 1844, Levin was indicted by a grand jury for inciting to riot. He made political capital by claiming that he had actually tried to stem the violence, which had taken place in Philadelphia’s Southwark district.  Moreover, he claimed, the indictment was part of a “Popish plot.” His name prominently before the public, Lewis Charles Levin declared his candidacy on the American Party ticket for Congress from Pennsylvania’s First District. During the three‑man campaign, Levin kept hammering away at the “pernicious foreigner” issue. His standard stump‑speech message from 1844 sounds hauntingly familiar even after more than a century and three-quarters: “Unless a remedy be found to impede the influx of foreigners in the United States, the day [will] not be distant when American‑born voters find themselves a minority in their own land.” Largely on the strength of this message and his public notoriety, Levin captured the First District seat. Shortly after the election, he stood trial on the charge of “riot, treason and murder.” He was found not guilty.

Levin served three terms in Congress, during which he became one of the least popular men on Capitol Hill. In speech after speech, Levin subjected his colleagues to rancorous attacks on the Catholic Church. Whenever a member of the House would challenge him or take him to task, Levin would simply accuse his antagonists of being a “paid agent of the Jesuits who hang around this Hall.” At one point Levin attempted to win Southern support for the American Party by claiming that the abolitionist movement was inspired by the Pope and his agents. Most Southerners, offended by Levin’s bravado and naked political opportunism, turned away in disgust.

  It has long been a truism in Congress that the best way to succeed on Capitol Hill is to make oneself an expert on a single issue or area of interest – farm price supports, foreign policy, defense, etc. For Levin, given his unique political pathology, that area of expertise, not surprisingly, was immigration and naturalization. Levin proposed changing the naturalization law to require a residence period of twenty‑one years in order to qualify for American citizenship. Moreover, he pushed a concept he called “federal citizenship,” whereby the federal government would be granted the exclusive right to determine qualifications for voting. After a prolonged and rancorous debate, the House concluded that Levin’s proposal was unconstitutional; it usurped the clearly enumerated right of the individual states to set voting qualifications.

Levin’s psychopathic hatred of immigrants was so great that he opposed a bill setting minimum passenger-space requirements for transatlantic ships bearing newcomers to America. The bill’s sponsor, New York Representative George Rathbun (best-known for being one of the few Congressman who have ever gotten into a fistfight with a colleague on the House floor), argued that current overcrowded conditions on the ships were “a revolting spectacle, a disgrace not only to our laws and our country, but to humanity itself.” In speaking out against Rathbun’s proposal, Levin sarcastically suggested that the legislation be amended to read “A bill to afford additional facilities to the paupers and criminals of Europe to emigrate to the United States.” Levin’s diatribe notwithstanding, Rathbun’s bill passed overwhelmingly.

Levin and his political allies attempted to turn their Nativist faction into a national political party but met with little success. Levin easily dominated the Native American Party’s three national conventions, held in 1845, `46, and `47. The party’s demise can largely be blamed on Levin himself. By resolutely demanding that “birth upon the soil be the only requisite for citizenship,” Levin caused an irrevocable split among his nativist colleagues. By 1848, the Native American Party was finished as a political force. Predictably, Levin was easily defeated for reelection to a fourth term in 1850, and returned to Philadelphia, where he took up the practice of law.

In the last years of his life, Levin’s tenuous mental makeup got the best of him. He spent at least the last three or four years of his life as a patient in hospitals for the insane in Baltimore and Philadelphia. Lewis Charles Levin died in Philadelphia on March 14, 1860 at age fifty-one, thus ending both a tortured life and a sorry chapter in American political history. Levin was buried in the nondenominational Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. His wife, Julia, tried to raise funds for a monument to his memory, but someone connected with the campaign absconded with the funds. To this day, no tombstone graces Levin’s final resting place. Ironically, Julia Gist Levin and Louis Levin [his son] converted to Catholicism in 1880.

In the spring of 1921, Congress went back to the issue of immigration, this time considering a bill that would establish a national quota system. Under  terms of this system, the number of immigrants in one year from any given country could not exceed 3 percent of the number of persons of that nationality residing in the United States in the base year of 1910. What infuriated Congressman Adolph Sabath (a Hungarian-born Jewish representative from Illinois) was that the bill's supporters kept referring to it publicly as temporary emergency legislation, but privately agreed that once enacted, it would become permanent. Sabath introduced an amendment to exempt all political refugees. It was rejected.

Less than three years later, Congress enacted the National Origins Act, which not only excluded virtually all immigrants from East Asia, but also lowered quotas to 2 percent based on the 1890 census. The act was, without question, slanted in favor of immigrants from Northwestern Europe. In their minority report, Adolph Sabath and his colleague Samuel Dickstein (a Polish-born Jewish Representative from New York best known for being the father of the House Un-American Activities Committee) condemned the obvious bias behind this disparity:

 It is curious to note that, taking the census of 1890 as a basis, Germany would be comparatively in the most favorable position, and Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Yugoslavia, Poland and Russia, with whom we were allied during the late conflict, are the most unfavorable. The obvious purpose of this discrimination is the adoption of an unfounded anthropological theory that the nations which are favored are the progeny of hitherto unsuspected Nordic ancestors, while those discriminated against are not classified as belonging to that mythical ancestral stock. No scientific evidence worthy of consideration was introduced to substitute this pseudo‑scientific proposition.

It was not until 1965, during the Lyndon Johnson administration, that Representative Emmanuel Celler finally got Congress to “get that idea (national origins) ripped out of the immigration fabric” by passing the Celler-Hart Immigration Act.  Although the final bill did not call for any significant increase in the then-current annual immigration level of 300,000, it did eliminate altogether – and forthwith – the old national quotas framework.   Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson at a dramatic ceremony held at Ellis Island in New York harbor, it marked the end of a long – and often lonely – crusade.

But regrettably, Levin and the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings are back with a vengeance. Indeed, there is “nothing new under the sun . . .”

Copyright©2011, 2018 Kurt F. Stone

America: Our Shared Responsibility

Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh

Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh

While sending one’s “thoughts and prayers” to victims and survivors of mindless, horrific, hate-filled acts of terrorism is certainly a decent and understandable thing to do, it is simply not enough; these acts cry out for positive, purposeful responses. Sending out “heartfelt prayer and condolences is akin to merely hoping and praying that a patient survives a bout of Sepsis (that’s blood poisoning) where a proactive protocol of, say, vancomycin and Merrem would be of far greater value and immediacy. Of course, the specific act of mindless, horrific, hate-filled terrorism we have in mind is yesterday’s lethal massacre at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, which as of noon, today (Sunday October 28) left 11 dead and 6 injured.

Responses to this base act of anti-Semitic terrorism have ranged from the heartbroken and speechlessly distraught to the insanely conspiratorial. Fingers have been pointed from both sides of that civic chasm which is America in the early Twenty-First Century. Predictably, the crazies of the psychotic right have blamed the real victims for forcing the perpetrator to act as he did in order to protect their world - i.e. white Christians - from being annihilated by international Jewish conspirators who, they unflinchingly believe, control both the media, and global banking. From the other, less crazy, fringe, fingers point at the POTUS for rhetorically creating an atmosphere which gives tacit permission to psychotics of all stripes to get off the sidelines and enter their evil game of with lethal vengeance.

For many of us who are Jewish the long-held belief that America is different - that here, we can live both openly and safely as Jews - has taken a tremendous hit. Yesterday’s attack at Tree of Life is likely the single-worst, most overtly – and lethal - anti-Semitic attack in all the 364 years we’ve lived in die golden medina . . . “the Golden Land.” Oh sure, there have always been Jew-haters in the United States. Our “otherness” has been of concern to blue bloods and bigots alike for a couple of hundred years. But despite this fact, we’ve succeeded, have made overwhelming contributions to American society and have, for the most part, eliminated overt hatred for the Children of Israel from our country. Where once it was as difficult for a Jew to gain admittance to an Ivy League college as for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, today the presidents of Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Cornell (respectively, Lawrence Bacow, Peter Salovey, Christopher Eisgruber and Martha E. Pollack) are all Jewish. And yet, at the same time, all of their campuses have at one time or another been papered with anti-Semitic posters and anti-Israel protests on behalf of BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction) groups. Yes, even the Ivy Leagues.

While expressing his sorrow and revulsion regarding the murders at Tree of Life Synagogue, POTUS also stated that in lieu of fighting for tighter gun laws, “If they had protection inside, the results would have been far better. If they had some kind of protection within the temple it could have been a much better situation. They didn’t.” It was a point he repeated several times in his remarks to reporters at Joint Base Andrews a few hours after the shooting. In response, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto told a packed press conference “I’ve heard the president’s comments about how we should arm guards in our synagogues, our churches, our mosques. I’ve heard the conversation over the past year about how we should arm security guards in our schools . . . . We shouldn’t be trying to find ways to minimize the dangers that occur from irrational behavior. We should be working to eliminate irrational behavior and the empowerment of people who would seek to cause this kind of carnage from continuing,”

This past Wednesday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) posted a tweet (deleted just after news of the Pittsburgh terrorist attack was made public) warning that three wealthy Jewish Democrats are “buying” the midterm elections for their party. McCarthy’s post appeared after liberal billionaire philanthropist George Soros ―  one of his targets ― had been sent a pipe bomb. McCarthy’s tweet also named former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and California businessman Tom Steyer. Is this a “dog whistle” for anti-Semites and White Nationalists or merely the rhetoric of an unthinking politician? I rather doubt the latter . . .

President Trump, Rep. McCarthy and a host of Republican politicians may well not be anti-Semitic themselves. However, in the words of Florida Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum who, responding to charges that his opponent, former Republican Representative Ron DeSantis is a racist - a charge which DeSantis vehemently denies, pointedly said "Now, I'm not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist, I'm simply saying the racists believe he's a racist." The same can be said about POTUS: We’re not calling the POTUS (or any number of the president’s most ardent supporters) anti-Semitic; we’re simply saying that many anti-Semites believe he’s one of them.

On the other side of the aisle, there have been renewed calls for banning assault-style weapons (such as the one which spewed so much death in Pittsburgh), severely limiting the amount of rounds in any single ammunition pack, and doing everything in our power to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of bigots, racists and white nationalists. While offering up these basic solutions is both obvious and easy, enacting and putting them to work is not. That’s where we, the great unwashed public, have a powerful role to play.

Most potential mass-murderers - especially those motivated by hatred of African Americans, “Liberals,” Jews, Muslims, the so-called Hispanic Caravansary, et al - are rarely silent about their extraordinary delusions and fears or their plans to do something about them. The alleged Pittsburgh shooter (whose name I refuse to write) posted a steady stream of hate-filled tirades on his Gab site, the last of which stated “HIAS [the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] likes to bring invaders in to kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people be slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.” Groups such as ADL (Anti-Defamation League) and SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) are staffed by some of the best cyber counter-terrorism experts in the world. They are constantly monitoring and sharing what they find online. Believe me: there were undoubtedly hundreds - if not thousands or tens of thousands - who read the Pittsburgh shooters posts prior to his going on his deadly rampage. The problem is that no one reported what they were reading to responsible authorities. If they had, things may well have turned out differently. We are all responsible for keeping our eyes open . . . for being watchful and eternally vigilant.

We are living through what historians might term an interregnum - a terribly difficult period between the king (or society) that was and the king (or society) that will one day be. And he (or she) who rules during the interregnum (the interrex), is but a provisional ruler. In British history, that would be Oliver Cromwell; in American history it is undoubtedly Donald Trump. Cromwell (1599-1658), in literal fashion, killed off the old regime by signing King Charles I’s execution order; but Cromwell’s rule didn’t represent a new era. Driven by a belief that he was God’s chosen instrument of Protestant redemption, Cromwell purged Parliament of dissenters and royalists, many of whom fled to Ireland. He then invaded Ireland, massacring thousands of Catholics and deporting many more to the colonies. In England, he imprisoned thousands of his political enemies without trial. When Cromwell died of an infection, he passed his title of Lord Protector on to his son, Richard. But Parliament rebelled, and within two years Charles II became king. In 1661, three years after Cromwell’s death, his body was removed from Westminster Abbey, and he was posthumously tried and “executed” for high treason, his severed head displayed on a pike outside Parliament. Out of this chaos, the modern English constitutional system was born. By 1689, the British Bill of Rights had been signed, laying down limits on the powers of the monarch, setting out the rights of Parliament, and guaranteeing free elections and the freedom of speech.

If Trump is a transitional figure like Cromwell, then the new that is struggling to be born is a complete realignment of American party politics - as well as the relearning of civic engagement in the cyber age. This new alignment will have to take account of what America has become - a nation whose ruling elite is no longer exclusively white, Christian and largely male; an America which has, for too long, been far, far more beholden to the whims and will of big money donors than the vox populi — the “voice of the people.”

If we are to one day find ourselves living and thriving in an America which truly lives up to the values and dreams of its founders, we will have to finally, finally realize that this nation is a shared responsibility. We will have to learn to reject the pomp and cant of the wealthy, the celebrated and those with the best press agents. We will have to remember that the preamble to our Constitution begins with the words “We the People,” and not “They the Elite.” Today, and increasingly in the future to come, “We the People” are going to be more Hispanic, Asian and Middle Eastern, and less White, Christian and Male.

America is indeed, our shared responsibility.

Midterm elections are a mere eight days away. Make sure you vote for our future . . . our shared responsibility. History . . . and the good folks of Squirrel Hill . . . will thank you.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone


Those Pesky, Incomprehensible Constitutional Amendments

amendment ballot WTVT_1539812899329.jpg_6233370_ver1.0_640_360.jpg

(West HIlls, CA) During the midterm elections of 1964, California voters, like Florida voters in 2018, were asked to approve or reject a number of Constitutional Amendments. Then, as now, many of the ballot amendments, were written in incomprehensible legalize. One particular amendment - #14 - was a real doozy. It read, in part, as follows:

“Neither the State nor any subdivision or agency thereof shall deny, limit or abridge, directly or indirectly, the right of any person, who is willing or desires to sell, lease or rent any part or all of his real property, to decline to sell, lease or rent such property to such person or persons as he, in his absolute discretion, chooses.”

A cursory reading of the amendment seemed to imply that no one could be denied the right to purchase or lease a property based on their race, creed or color. In fact, the amendment did precisely the opposite; it was meant to overturn the 1963 Rumford Fair Housing Act, which the State Legislator had enacted in order to help end racial discrimination by property owners and landlords who refused to rent or sell their property to “colored” people. And so, in order to hopefully keep this discriminatory amendment from encoded in the state Constitution, liberals and progressives began a mass “No on Prop. 14” campaign. I can well remember going door-to-door with my slightly older sister Erica, two wide-eyed teenage idealists, attempting to explain to our neighbors why a “no” vote on Prop 14 actually meant a “yes” vote for racial equality in the housing market.

Despite our best efforts, it failed: Prop. 14 passed with 65.39% of the vote (4,526,460 votes in support and 2,395,747 votes against). Soon after it was passed, the federal government cut off all housing funds to California. And then, the California Supreme Court held that that Proposition 14 violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution. Their decision was eventually upheld by the United States Supreme Court The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the California Supreme Court's decision in Reitman v. Mulkey (1967), holding that indeed, Proposition 14 was invalid because it violated the equal protection clause. The proposition was repealed by Proposition 7 in the November, 1974 election

Historically, this represents one of the more egregious instances of linguistic obfuscation.  The current Florida ballot, which includes 12 constitutional amendments (although it ends with # 13, there is no there is no #8 – the state Supreme Court took it off the ballot). Sadly, many voters fail to read, review or ponder these amendments prior to arriving at their respective polling places. And then, when they see how much there is to read, they become frustrated and confused. In an attempt to cut through the verbosity and pesky mumbo jumbo, we present a brief pro-and-con of what’s on the ballot. Many, many thanks to our family friend, the Sun Sentinel’s Dan Sweeny, for his wisdom and insight.

Amendment 1: Increased Homestead Property Tax Exemption

Proposed by: Florida Legislature

What it would do: Floridians would be able to deduct the value of their homes between $100,000 and $125,000, in addition to the existing homestead exemption on the first $50,000. So, a home worth $200,000 would now be worth $125,000 in terms of taxable value. But a home worth $100,000 would still only be able to take $50,000 from the value.

Pros: Homeowners whose homes are worth more than $125,000 would get an extra $25,000 off the cost of their homes when determining property taxes. Given that median home prices in South Florida are well above $125,000 (Broward: $298,900; Palm Beach: $323,000; Miami-Dade: $365,000 and Monroe: $629,000, according to, that’s a significant tax cut for South Florida homeowners. Most homeowners will save between $200 and $300 a year.

Cons: This tax cut would not affect renters or those in homes with the lowest values, which means the poorest Floridians would not benefit. Plus, it may mean a few hundred bucks in savings for Florida homeowners, but all of that adds up to major holes in county budgets: about $650 million worth in just the 2019 fiscal year. That could mean increases in taxes and fees elsewhere to make up for the shortfall, or a reduction in services. MY VOTE: NO

Amendment 2: Limitations on Property Tax Assessments

Proposed by: Florida Legislature

What it would do: Right now, the assessed value of non-homestead properties can be increased only 10 percent in any given year, excepting school district taxes. But that limitation is set to expire on Jan. 1, 2019. If voters approve this amendment, the limitation on property tax increases would be made permanent.

Pros: Taxpayers would be protected from large, sudden increases in property taxes in the future when the value of properties rises in boom years.

Cons: There is no organized opposition to Amendment 2. MY VOTE: NO (No tax revenue should be limited or prohibited in the constitution.)

Amendment 3: Voter Control of Gambling in Florida

Proposed by: Petition drive carried out by Voters In Charge, a political committee largely financed by Disney and the Seminole Tribe.

What it would do: Any expansion of casino gambling in Florida would have to be approved by voters. That includes expansion of slot machines and other electronic betting devices as well as games like blackjack, roulette and craps.

Pros: From the perspectives of Disney and the Seminole Tribe, the pros are obvious. This amendment makes it harder to expand gambling in Florida, decreasing competition for tourist dollars. And for people who consider gambling a societal ill, making its expansion harder in Florida also has obvious positives.

Cons: With the state and the Seminole Tribe in and out of court over their revenue-sharing agreement regarding Seminole casinos, the future for that line of revenue, which brings hundreds of millions of dollars to the state, is unclear. Preventing the Legislature from pursuing gambling legislation means the state may not be able to make up that revenue should it ever go away. MY VOTE: YES

Amendment 4: Voting Restoration

Proposed by: Petition drive carried out by Floridians for a Fair Democracy, a political committee funded in large part by the American Civil Liberties Union, several philanthropic nonprofits, and the children of billionaires David Bonderman and Jim Simons.

What it would do: This amendment would restore the right to vote for all ex-felons, except murderers and sex offenders, who complete their sentences.

Pros: The high-minded upside is that voting rights are given to American citizens who have been disenfranchised and now have no say in what is supposed to be a representative democracy. The practical effect depends on how many of the estimated 1.6 million ex-felons who have been disenfranchised opt to register to vote. For those that do, though, studies have shown a correlation between being civically engaged and low recidivism.

Cons: Gov. Rick Scott and other Florida officials who support the current clemency process have argued that it’s important for offenders to prove that they are ready to re-enter society before regaining the right to vote. MY VOTE: YES

Amendment 5: Supermajority Vote Required to Impose, Authorize, or Raise State Taxes or Fees

Proposed by: Florida Legislature

What it would do: Passage of this amendment would require a two-thirds majority of the Legislature to raise any tax or fee.

Pros: The obvious positive point from a taxpayer’s perspective is that it would be incredibly difficult for the Legislature to raise taxes.

Cons: The downside is actually the same as the upside. Critics of the amendment, including a new Floridians for Tax Fairness committee backed by labor union money, argue that it would protect corporate giveaways and make the Legislature far less nimble in times of crisis. MY VOTE: NO

Amendment 6: Rights of Crime Victims, Judicial Retirements

Proposed by: Constitution Revision Commission

What it would do: The main thrust of the amendment would set up a list of rights of crime victims, including the right to due process, to be “reasonably protected from the accused,” the right to have their safety considered when judges set bail, and the right to be heard at public trial proceedings.

The amendment would also raise the required retirement age for judges from 70 to 75, and require judges to not consider a state agency’s interpretation of a law when interpreting the law themselves.

Pros: Most Florida sheriffs support the amendment for its major expansion of victims’ rights.

Cons: The Florida Public Defenders Association and the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union have joined the League of Women Voters in opposing the amendment, according to the League. They say the new victims’ rights would mean people accused of crimes would face new time limits on appeals and that a current provision that states victims’ rights cannot infringe on the rights of the accused would be eliminated. MY VOTE: NO

Amendment 7: First Responder and Military Member Survivor Benefits; Public Colleges and Universities

Proposed by: Constitution Revision Commission

What it would do: To raise any fee — tuition not included — a university board of trustees would need nine votes out of its 13 members. For a fee to be raised system-wide the State University System’s Board of Governors would need 12 out of 17 members to approve.

Additionally, the surviving spouses of military members and first responders killed in the line of duty would receive a payment of death benefits from the state and would have some educational costs at public institutions waived.

Pros: The costs of college could be kept down by requiring a higher threshold to increase fees. The amount of taxpayer dollars it would cost to pay out death benefits and educational expenses is negligible.

Cons: Like Amendment 5, which makes it harder for the Legislature to raise taxes, setting the bar higher to increase fees would allow a small group of trustees to prevent any fee raises, potentially handicapping a university’s ability to pay for services. MY VOTE: NO

Amendment 9: Prohibits Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling; Prohibits Vaping in Enclosed Indoor Workplaces

Proposed by: Constitution Revision Commission

What it would do: Offshore drilling would be banned in “Florida territorial seas,” which includes about nine miles west of Florida and three miles east of Florida or to the Gulf Stream, whichever is furthest. The amendment would also add vaping to the state’s already-existing ban on smoking in indoor workplaces.

Pros: For environmentalists, a constitutionally mandated ban on offshore drilling would be a big win. As for vaping, there’s still a great deal of disagreement about just how bad secondhand e-cigarette vapor is compared with traditional cigarette smoke, but most of the studies out so far show that, while not as harmful as smoke, it’s also not 100 percent safe, containing not just nicotine but also aluminum and carcinogenic hydrocarbons.

Cons: There’s the potential loss of state revenue that would come with selling offshore drilling rights. Vapers would have to go out in the hot sun to get their fix. MY VOTE: YES

Amendment 10: State and Local Government Structure and Operation

Proposed by: Constitution Revision Commission

What it would do: First, this amendment would permanently move legislative sessions in even-numbered years to January. It also would make constitutional requirements of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement counterterrorism office and the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs. Finally, the amendment requires all counties to have an elected a sheriff, tax collector, property appraiser, supervisor of elections, and clerk of court. If this amendment passes, Broward County would have to have an elected position of tax collector, and Miami-Dade County would have to have an elected sheriff.

Pros: For some, having elected positions rather than these constitutional officers being appointed by an elected body means more accountability.

Cons: Allowing a county commission to select these positions means the commission gets to pore over resumes to find the best person for the job. The life experiences and personality traits that allow one to win a countywide elected office may not necessarily be the same as those that make somebody a good cop, or a good accountant. MY VOTE: NO

Amendment 11: Removal of Obsolete Provisions

Proposed by: Constitution Revision Commission

What it would do: This would simply delete wording regarding a high-speed rail amendment that has since been repealed and delete wording that bans property ownership for “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” This is no longer an issue, but harks back to century-old, now-overturned laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Pros: The already overly long Florida Constitution would be just a little more precise and brief with the removal of outdated and unconstitutional provisions.

Cons: None MY VOTE: NO

Amendment 12: Lobbying and Abuse of Office by Public Officers

Proposed by: Constitution Revision Commission

What it would do: Elected officials would be banned from lobbying the bodies they were elected to for six years after leaving office. Former justices and judges would also be banned for six years from lobbying the legislative or executive branches of state government. In addition, the amendment would ban any elected official from using their office to receive a “disproportionate benefit” for themselves, their families or their businesses.

Pros: With the Florida Legislature’s eight-year term limit, lawmakers-turned-lobbyists would be unable to lobby most former colleagues.

Cons: It remains to be seen just how much teeth this would have, given that the amendment leaves it up to the Legislature to determine what penalties lawmakers would face for abusing the lobbying ban. MY VOTE: NO (It could easily keep many first-rate people from ever running for office.)

Amendment 13: Ends Dog Racing

Proposed by: Constitution Revision Commission

What it would do: Technically, this amendment doesn’t actually ban greyhound racing in Florida. It bans people from racing dogs “in connection with any wager for money or any other thing of value,” and also bans would-be gamblers from betting “money or any other thing of value on the outcome of a live dog race occurring in this state.” Greyhound racing would be banned by 2021, and track owners would be allowed to keep their gambling permits even if they halt racing by 2019. In other words, Florida’s 11 dog tracks would still be able to operate as card rooms and, in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, larger-scale casinos that offer slot machines.

Pros: For animal rights advocates, the end of dog racing in Florida would be a huge coup. Florida has more dog tracks than the rest of the country combined.

Cons: Greyhound trainers, breeders and others involved in the business say the end of live dog racing in Florida means significant job losses. MY VOTE: NO (As much as I love dogs and hate greyhound racing for humanitarian reasons, this issue simply does not belong in the state constitution; it would be better handled by local county governments.)

The above is a mixture of the reasonably objective and totally subjective; a blend of hard fact and opinion (hopefully) backed up by knowledge. You don’t’ have to agree with me; you do have to do some contemplation; you bloody well must cast your vote!

Midterm elections are a mere 16 days away!

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

Another Fine Mess . . .

Lord Beaverbrook

Lord Beaverbrook

There is a famous story about sex and money that has been making the rounds for decades. No one knows for who first told it. Some claim it was Sir Winston Churchill. Others are dead certain it was G.B. Shaw. Then, there are those who have cast votes for Groucho Marx, Mark Twain, W.C. Fields and Bertrand Russell. My money’s on the Canadian-British newspaper publisher and backstage politician Max Aitken (1879-1964), better known as the Lord Beaverbrook. Why the Baron and not, say, Twain, Shaw or Fields? Because unlike the others on the roster of possibilities, Beaverbrook was a was a well-known serial philanderer (it is said that he even cheated on his many mistresses); by comparison, Marx, Fields et al were all reasonably loyal to their various spouses.

So what’s the story, and more importantly, what connection does it have to this week’s essay? First, an extremely abbreviated version of the story, the essence of which goes:

A man asks a woman if she would be willing to sleep with him if he pays her an exorbitant sum. She replies affirmatively. He then names a paltry amount and asks if she would still be willing to sleep with him for the revised fee. The woman is greatly offended and replies as follows:

She: What kind of a woman do you think I am?
He: We’ve already established that. Now we’re just haggling over the price.

So far as what this story has to do with this week’s essay, anyone who has been following the weekly news, the answer should be obvious. Just think Saudi Arabia, Kashoggi, murder, ‘45, His Imperial and Royal Majesty, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the putative sale of $110 billion worth of arms to the Saudis. Quite a witch’s brew, no? We won’t go into too much detail about the situation with Mr. Kashoggi, a permanent resident of Virginia, writer for the Washington Post and prominent critic of the Saudi government . . . and for a couple of reasons:

  1. It has been all over the media for the past week.

  2. The story is still developing with suppositions, denials, threats, new info and verbal reversals moving at the speed of light;

  3. There are far too many tiers to this story.

Needless to say, the situation at hand is terribly difficult to limn, On the one hand, the POTUS, who has all but made journalists the collective enemy of the state - pointing fingers and suggesting that they will get what they deserve - now finds himself in the position of having to come to the defense of Jamal Khashoggi, who is (or most likely was) a journalist . . . all the while keeping a straight face. Then too, ‘45 must talk tough to Crown Prince bin Salman - promising “severe punishment” if regime involvement in the Khashoggi’s death is confirmed - all the while proclaiming that relations with Saudi Arabia are “excellent.” And, just to slake the thirst of the right-wing Islamophobes peopling his political base, he has his namesake, Donald Jr., smearing Jamal Khashoggi, linking him to “jihadists.”

‘45’s penchant for - and fascination with - steely autocrats is known the world over. Precisely what he is fascinated by and identifies with in the likes of Putin, Kim jong-un, bin Salman and Erdogan is anyone’s guess, although they’ve all seemingly learned to play him a like Steinway. Goodness knows, all of them could teach him a thing or two (or three) about how to bully one’s political opponents. In the case of bin-Salman, he carries Jared (“The Son-in-law Also Rises) Kushners’ imprimatur for being a real reformer who can be trusted. I mean hey, the guy did give Saudi women the right to drive and actually opened up a couple of movie theaters in Riyadh. Doesn’t that put him rightup there with such reformers as Eugene B. Debs, Betty Friedan and Woody Guthrie?

Somewhere along the line, Kushner forgot to mention bin-Salman’s bloody war in Yemen, his indiscriminate killing of Saudi journalists inside his own country or his imprisoning at least 11 Saudi princes at the ultra-luxurious Ritz Carlton and then extorting billions from them. So much for basic human rights and the rule of law, But what makes the Khashoggi/Saudi/supporting American values imbroglio even more complex are the two crown jewels in ‘45’s personal diadem: acceptance among the ranks of the world’s ugliest, most powerful autocrats and ungodly sums of money. And here, we are not referring to the Trump Organization’s long and profitable history with Saudi billionaires, but rather with “Trumphausen’s” gigantic bubbe meise (באבע מעשה) about his administration’s $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The president keeps repeatedly insisting that in contemplating what to do, how to respond to the “alleged” murder of Jamal Khashoggi, he must keep in mind this $100 billion sale of arms . . . of the number of jobs it would create, of all the benefits it could bring the American economy, and how, if he really tightens the screws, the Saudis would likely take their checkbooks elsewhere.

Talk about fake news!

According to the barons of the American arms industry and leaders - both Republican and Democrat - on Capitol Hill, there is no $110 billion deal. Instead, there are “a bunch of letters of interest or intent, but not contracts.” According to the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Reidel Many of the letters are offers that the defense industry thinks the Saudis will be interested in someday. So far nothing has been notified to the Senate for review. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the arms sales wing of the Pentagon, calls them “intended sales.” None of the deals identified so far are new, all began in the Obama administration.

Baron Munchausen by Gustav Doré

Baron Munchausen by Gustav Doré

It is unlikely that the Saudis could cough up $110 billion any time soon. They’ve been facing lower oil prices and have committed a ton of money to their now three-year war in Yemen. President Obama sold the kingdom $112 billion in weapons over eight years, most of which was a single, huge deal in 2012 negotiated by then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates. To get that deal through Congressional approval, Gates also negotiated a deal with Israel to compensate the Israelis and preserve their qualitative edge over their Arab neighbors. To date, not a peep has been heard about any such deal in the works vis-a-vis Israel.

Once again, the POTUS is acting far, far more like Baron Munchausen - Western literature’s most notorious liar - than the leader of the world’s greatest, most powerful democracy. (That’s Gustav Doré’s sketch of the Baron for Rudolph Raspe’s The Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen) Like the fictional Munchhausen, ‘45 seems to live on a steady diet of lies, mistruths and half-truths. Again, like Munchausen, he puts such stock in his own lies that he neither realizes nor gives a fig that others can easily see right through both him or them.

By now - approximately 1,150 words into this piece - one undoubtedly understands the purpose of having begun with Lord Beaverbrook’s quip. For in this latest “fine mess” the POTUS has once shown the entire world precisely what he is: a brazen member of what the Victorians called the “frail sisterhood” - i.e. those who are in the business of selling their bodies, values and virtues for a price. In this latest “fine mess” with the Saudis, we see that “Trumphausen” is more than ready to sell American values and virtues for a terribly steep - if not illusory - price. America is supposed to be a country whose leader exemplifies what is best about us: our values, our pursuit of justice, our willingness to stand for truth, our abhorrence of despots both powerful and petty. What we see today is an America whose leader places our historic values on the mercantile’s scale, weighing its value against the prospect of profit.

Abraham Lincoln summed up the nature and purpose of America in a his annual message to Congress (Dec. 1, 1862): “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just -- a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”

Midterm elections are three weeks from tomorrow . . . if you haven’t already voted by mail, make sure to go to the polls and VOTE!

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

The Children's Hour


Without question, the governor’s race down here in Florida is turning into a textbook example of all that’s wrong in American politics. Pitting former Republican Representative Ron DeSantis (whom the POTUS endorsed a full two months before the primary) and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (who was endorsed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders just a week before the Democrats’ hotly contested primary) the race has been characterized with far more shadow than substance; more catcalls, charges and counter-charges, than substantive issues. Mayor Gillum and his surrogates have pointed out Rep. DeSantis’ ties to racist, antisemitic, organizations such as the Proud Boys, while the DeSantis campaign has texted thousands upon thousands of Floridians with “Jewish sounding names,” warning that both Mayor Gillum and his running mate, Orlando entrepreneur Chris King, are both anti-Semites; that Gillum has strong ties to CAIR (The Council on American-Islamic Relations), and that when he was a student at Harvard 20 years ago, King made a blatantly anti-Semitic comment. And where DeSantis and his running mate, Florida state Rep. Jeanette Nuñez are busy denouncing their opponents for being “ultra far-left, socialist anti-capitalists who want to raise taxes, expand sanctuary cities and boycott Israel,” the Gillum/King ticket is damning their opponents for being in the hip pocket of the National Rifle Association, “big sugar,” and Donald Trump. The political amplifiers are set at maximum when it comes to ad hominem attacks, and barely audible when dealing with issues.

Yet again, what is supposed to be a serious political campaign has turned out to have about as much credibility as characters in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. There is no mistaking the fact that the political worldviews of Mayor Gillum and Rep. DeSantis are, to say the least, completely bipolar. One need only check out their respective websites to find out what their goals and proposed solutions are. Mayor Gillum is a progressive Democrat from the Bernie Sanders wing of his party. His top issues include gun safety, education, jobs, healthcare and Israel. With regards to the latter, Gillum, who has been accused of cozying up to the Palestinians, flatly states “I will continue to support anti-Boycott, Divest and Sanctions [BDS] legislation passed last year with overwhelming support in both houses of the legislature . . . . As Governor, I will continue to push back against anti-Israel efforts, like BDS, that question Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, and will support bipartisan measures that help deter such practices.”

Rep. DeSantis is is a highly conservative Republican from the Donald Trump wing of his party. His main issues include the environment, education, immigration, ending what he calls “judicial activism,” ”Stand[ing] up for law-abiding Floridians by defending their Second Amendment rights ”and “Defend[ing] First Amendment speech rights against those in academia, media and politics who seek to silence conservatives.”

Interestingly, while Mayor Gillum’s website goes into far greater detail presenting his pro-Israel bona fides, and his commitment to the Jewish State, Rep. DeSantis’ only mention is an attack on his opponent for what he calls “His anti-Israel Associations.” These “associations” include the above-mentioned CAIR, as well as Dream Defenders and Black Lives Matter. Fact checkers at the Tallahassee Democrat found some of Rep. DeSantis’ charges less than compelling, others down-right wrong. Interestingly, applying the same investigative standards to charges against Mr. DeSantis for associations with far-right groups and giving speeches at gatherings of alt-right and what is now being referred to as “White Chauvinist” groups, fact checkers found ample evidence that indeed, he does have these associations. And as will be recalled, less than 24 hours after Gillum won the Florida Democratic primary, DeSantis was warning voters that if elected, his opponent’s “left wing agenda” would “monkey things up.” Where many heard in these words a “racist dog whistle,” Gillum characterized them as “a bullhorn.”

Neither candidate DeSantis nor his campaign have denied that they were responsible for all the text messages to voters they presumed were Jewish. Despite calls from community leaders - both Jewish and non-Jewish - that he disavow and apologize for the text, DeSantis has been mute. And to a certain extent, the texts have done their job. Yesterday’s op-ed section of the Sun Sentinel carried 2 letters supporting Ron DeSantis for governor specifically because “Gillum and his running mate are both anti-Semites.” “I don’t know why that should be surprised people. read one (a reader named “Bluestein) “Gillum is an Obama acolyte, cut from the same socialist cloth, and, in my view, there was no bigger anti-Semite than he.”

In a time when anti-Antisemitism is on the rise, this pointing fingers at Gillum and King, accusing them of being anti-Semitic and anti-Israel is beyond unacceptable. It shows that DeSantis, his staff and supporters, are willing to do and/or say anything to score political points. And even worse, it shows a complete lack of understanding when it comes to Jews. They presume that pushing the twin buttons marked “anti-Semites” and “Haters of Israel” will cause a mass exodus of the Chosen People from the column marked (D) to that marked (R).

Sorry Ron, but the vast majority of us are hopefully too smart, too politically savvy, to buy in to the schund (Yiddish for “rubbish”) you’re pushing out. I hope and pray that both you and Andrew Gillum will stay away from all this nonsense during your debate on October 24 in Davie, Florida and try to stick to the issues. If you do, Mayor Gillum will come out on top.

Ironically Mr. DeSantis, Davie, which historically was the headquarters of the South Florida K.K.K., is today a town with a large Jewish community, an active Chabad, a Jewish high school and the county’s largest kosher pantry. I predict that if you stick to the “Gillum and King hate Jews and Israel” meme, you will come out the loser.

We wish you well . . . and pray that you will enjoy returning to the practice of law.

Midterm elections are 4 weeks from this coming Tuesday.


Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

One Generation Got Old, One Generation Got Soul

Surrealistic Pillow (1967) - Marty Holding Flute at Top Left

Surrealistic Pillow (1967) - Marty Holding Flute at Top Left

Spent several hours yesterday - and most of the night - watching and listening to old Jefferson Airplane songs and online videos. These songs, many of which were anthems for a generation, brought tears to my eyes . . . especially Marty Balin’s pulsating Volunteers. As many of you know by now, Marty (born Martyn Jerel Buchwald in Cincinnati, Ohio on January 30, 1942) died on Friday; he was 76. Balin had an amazing voice - one of the greatest in the history of Rock ‘n Roll. With that voice he could, in the words of New York Times writer John Parles, “. . .offer the intimate solace of ballads like Jefferson Airplane’s “Today,” the siren wails of a frantic acid-rocker like the group’s “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” or the soul-pop entreaties of Jefferson Starship’s “Miracles. Although Balin always scored high with the public and rock connoisseurs for his pliable, powerful voice, few ever recognized the depth and quality of his lyrics; at base, Marty Balin was a poet.

And now he is dead at age 76 . . . which is sounding younger and younger all the time.

Marty was by no means the first member of the Airplane to pass away. In 2005, their drummer, Spencer Dryden (the son of Charlie Chaplin’s half-brother Wheeler) passed away at age 66 from cancer. On January 28, 2016 both Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner and the band’s original (e.g. pre-Grace Slick) singer Signe Toly Anderson passed away at age 74. Unbelievably, Grace Slick, the one member of the band everyone assumed would be first to go due to her excessive lifestyle, is still alive, flourishing and will turn 79 four weeks from today. Think about it: Grace Slick (that’s her standing next to Marty on the album cover above) is nearly EIGHTY YEARS OLD!! But then again, it is an absolute mind blow to consider the current ages of the rock musicians who played the musical score of our formative years:

  • The Nobel Prize-winning Bob Dylan is 78;

  • Eric Clapton is 72, as are The Who’s Pete Townsend and CCR’s John Fogerty;

  • David Crosby (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) recently turned 78;

  • The Rolling Stone’s Sir Mick Jagger is 75;

  • The Kink’s Sir Ray Davies is 74;

  • The Animals Eric Burdon is 77;

  • The Hollies Graham Nash is 76;

  • Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel are both 77;

  • Former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr is 78 and still touring, as is his band mate

  • Sir Paul McCartney, who is 76.

As I was completing this terribly brief list, a faint memory began to wend its way from the old neocortex to my frontal lobe: a brief piece of fiction I wrote in 1969, shortly after Rolling Stones’ drummer Brian Jones accidentally drowned in a swimming pool; he was all of 27. (Ironically, both Jimi Hendrix and the Doors’ Jim Morrison, who dedicated, respectively a song and a poem to Jones, would die within the next two years . . . at age 27.) Anyway, while contemplating Jones’ death, I began imagining how his eulogy would have read had he died at, say 75, or 80 or even 90? From there, it was but a short hop to writing a fictional news-story about the death of the last surviving Beatle - “Lord McCartney” - at age 93. The year in the story was 2035. Regrettably, the story, which was published in the long defunct City on a Hill Press, was long ago lost to the ravages of time. What I do remember is that it carried the screaming headline “I’M ONLY SLEEPING” - LORD MCCARTNEY, LAST SURVIVING BEATLE PASSES AWAY AT AGE 93. The “I’m Only Sleeping” part of the title came from a Lennon-McCartney song included in their 1966 album “Revolver.” It included the lyric:

Please, don't wake me, no, don't shake me
Leave me where I am, I'm only sleeping

It just seemed to fit. As I recall, my purpose in writing the piece was to engage in a bit of prophecy; what the world would be like more than 65 years later . . . what kind of an effect the generation of peace, pot and beads would have had on the world. As I recall, McCartney was made a Life Peer not only for his stellar contributions to music, but also for the important role he had played in bringing peace and harmony to the world. He had spent the last decades of his life traveling the globe, playing his music and contributing virtually ever cent he earned from these concerts to organizations working to feed, clothe and offer free healthcare to people all over the world.

A bit idealistic, no?

I also recall the story containing a bit of levity: interviews with the extremely aged fans who used to shriek and shout when, as teenagers, they went to Beatle concerts in England, America and throughout Europe. Although they frequently suffered from a bit of memory loss, when came it to John, Paul, George and Ringo, everything was crystal clear . . . as if the concert they had attended were only yesterday.


With the real-life passing of Marty Balin, I know I’m feeling a bit less immortal than last week. When I recall attending smallish rock gatherings headlined by The Great Society and The Warlocks (as The Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead were known back in 1965/66) my memory informs me “Hey bro, like that was more than a half-century ago . . . ya ain’t a hippy anymore!” Funny though, I don’t feel all that much older . . . regardless of what I see in the mirror. Like a lot of aging boomers, I still - despite the current shape of politics and the world - continue to be fueled by a mixture of idealism and anger and refuse to retire from activism; refuse to sit back and do nothing but complain while others turn the world into a capacious cesspool. We are still, in the words of Marty Balin, Volunteers of America, the lyrics of which go:

Look what's happening out in the streets
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Hey, I'm dancing down the streets
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Oh, ain't it amazing all the people I meet?
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
One generation got old
One generation got soul

This generation got no destination to hold
Pick up the cry
Hey, now it's time for you and me
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Hey, come on now we're marching to the sea
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Who will take it from you, we will and who are we?
Well, we are volunteers of America (volunteers of America)
Volunteers of America (volunteers of America)
I've got a revolution
Got a revolution

Look what's happening out in the streets
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Hey, I'm dancing down the streets
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Oh, ain't it amazing all the people I meet?
Got a revolution, oh-oh
We are volunteers of America
Yeah, we are volunteers of America
We are volunteers of America (volunteers of America)
Volunteers of America (volunteers of America)

Back in the day - when Balin, McCartney, Dylan, Clapton, Townsend et al were in their twenties and an oft-repeated battle cry was “Don’t trust anyone over the age of 30!” we marched, protested and campaigned, seeking, as volunteers, to change the world. We were pegged as a generation of long-haired, stoned-out Communistic irreligious immoralists who were all desperately in need of a bath . . . if not a mass delousing. Collectively, we played a pivotal role in ending the Vietnam War, passing Amendment XXVI of the U.S. Constitution (which lowered the voting age to 18), getting people to recycle, and fighting for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community and the impoverished of the planet . . . plus the legalization of marijuana. Although we grew older, many of us, I am proud to say, never truly grew up.

And we still have all that great music.
Rest in Peace, Marty

“Life is very short, and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend.”

(We Can Work It Out, Paul McCartney, 1965)

Midterm elections are 5 weeks from today . . . VOTE!!!

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

Cave Clinton and Keller!

Helen Keller at Age 20

Helen Keller at Age 20

About a week ago (Friday, Sept. 14 to be precise) the Texas State Board of Education took a series of key votes which would eliminate teaching the state’s elementary school children anything about such wicked, worthless nonentities as Hillary Clinton, Helen Keller, Oprah Winfrey, John Hancock or W.E.B. DuBois. Their rationale? By removing dozens upon dozens of significant historic and contemporary figures from the public schools’ social studies curricula, they would be saving time for teaching about more “relevant” figures such as Adolph Hitler, Jefferson Davis and Kay Bailey Hutchison. According to a study undertaken by members of the board, excluding any reference to Hillary Clinton will save teachers 30 minutes of instructional time (in the course of a school semester), and Keller a whopping 40 minutes.

In an op-ed piece she wrote for the Washington Post, Texas State School Board Chair Donna Bahorich insisted that neither partisan politics, ethnicity nor gender had anything to do with determining which figures would be eliminated. After all, both Democrat Sam Rayburn (a Texan who served as Speaker of the House for longer than anyone in U.S. history) and Republican Barry Goldwater (America’s first - and so far only - presidential candidate to have Jewish heritage) were on the “thumbs-down” list. Despite Ms. Bahorich’s assertion that those slated for history’s trash heap were determined solely by necessity, her words just don’t ring true. A fine-tooth-comb examination of the school board’s list includes such folks as:

  • Benjamin Banneker, a free-born African American almanac author, surveyor and naturalist;

  • Phyllis Wheatly: the first published African-American female poet;

  • Stanley Marcus: one of Texas’ greatest success stories; the founder of Neiman Marcus;

  • Jane Addams: the Nobel Prize winning “Mother of Social Work”;

  • Thomas Jefferson

  • Hyam Salomon: A Polish-born Jew who became one of the two greatest financial underwriters of the Revolutionary War.

Mel and Norma Gabler: The Textbook Tzars

Mel and Norma Gabler: The Textbook Tzars

As shocking and upsetting as this current campaign is, one must remember that in Texas, dictating who and/or what shall be either mandated or eliminated from both curricula (and especially) textbooks, is as old as the Alamo. With respect to the latter - textbooks - there is an old expression which teaches “What happens in Texas doesn’t stay in Texas when it comes to textbooks” To fully grok the underlying meaning of this bon mot, one must first enter the Orwellian minds of the late Mel (1915-2004) and Norma (1923-2007) Gabler. Back in 1961, while sitting at their kitchen table in Hawkins, Texas, the Gablers claimed that they found numerous errors in their son’s history textbook. What they believed they were uncovering were numerous factual errors and examples of secular humanism, the censoring of conservative political and social views in textbooks. And so, armed with anger and the Divine Spirit, they founded a non-profit organization they named Educational Research Analysts, whose raison d'être has long been to read, review and rate textbooks. As stated on their website, “We are a conservative Christian organization that reviews public school textbooks submitted for adoption in Texas. Our reviews have national relevance because Texas state-adopts textbooks and buys so many that publishers write them to Texas standards and sell them across the country.”

To this day, ERA’s particular areas of concern are:

  • Scientific weaknesses in evolutionary theories

  • Phonics-based reading instruction

  • Principles and benefits of free enterprise

  • Original intent of the U.S. Constitution

  • Respect for Judeo-Christian morals

  • Emphasis on abstinence in sex education

  • Politically-correct degradation of academics

Hauntingly, these core issues have been making their way into textbooks for more than half a century . . . and not just in Texas. Remember their original statement: “Our reviews have national relevance . . . publishers write [textbooks] to Texas standards and sell them across the country.” What the Gablers were (and still are) to textbooks with ultra-conservative bent, the Texas State Board of Education is to public school curriculum. The main difference is that the Gablers, at least, were upfront about their intentions, while the State Board of Education is disingenuous to the max . . . hiding their agenda behind the false cloak of time management.

It is not terribly difficult to understand what Donna Bahorich and her colleagues have against Hillary Clinton and why they want any mention of her excised from public school classrooms; they hate everything about her and her husband the way a moonshiner despises a revenuer. But Helen Keller? What could they possibly have against Ms. Keller (1880-1968) who, in her day, was the most admired woman on the planet? I mean, here we have a woman who, despite being both deaf and blind since age 2, learned to read Braille, speak several languages, graduate from Radcliffe, write more than a dozen books, travel the world on behalf of peace, have her own film production company, become great friends with Mark Twain, visit every president from Theodore Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy at the White House, and become one of the founders of both the American Civil Liberties Union and International Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”)? What harm could there ever be in children spending a mere 40 minutes of their elementary school education learning about this amazing, iconic, heroic woman? Absolutely nothing, except for the fact that she was a woman, has long been suspected by conservative Christians of possibly being a lesbian, and made no bones about being a Socialist who stood up for the rights of other women, minorities and the poor. Then too, maybe Bahorich et al are latter-day eugenicists; people who don’t want school children to be exposed to people with disabilities . . . no matter how distinguished they are.

In Latin, “cave” (pronounced KA-vay) means “beware of.” So, the title of this week’s post, Cave Clinton and Keller is a tongue-in-cheek way of saying “Beware of Clinton and Keller!”

One could easily conclude that last week’s votes by the Texas State Board of Education (which will be recast again in November) are not all that surprising in the age of Trumpeters. And indeed, at first glance, it does seem to fit in with all the intolerance, civic illiteracy, nascent racism, anti-intellectualism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and Islamophobia that are the worst, most abhorrent ancillary aspects of Trumpism. One can also rightly fear that left unchallenged, the Texas State Board of Education’s lunatic Neo-Luddism may one day bring back the days when books were burned in town squares. The answer - and I believe there is one - comes not from changing presidents or members of Congress . . . although that certainly could not hurt. No, the real answers come from watchfully standing guard over the two institutions which have the most long-lasting effects on the nation: our school boards and our courts. Instead of spending their time arguing over whether or not classroom teachers - or even students - ought to be armed, our educational boards should pay heed to providing a quality education for every child; one that is free of partisan politics, religion or hidden agendas. Here in Florida, one of the biggest “successes” of the latest session of our state legislature is mandating that every public school classroom has a “In God We Trust” sign posted on the wall. Never mind that billions of dollars are being pulled out of public schools in the name of “school choice.” Never mind that the average classroom teacher must work a second - and sometimes a third - job just in order to live a middle-class existence. Never mind that mindless administrators are injecting their private agendas into what is taught or read. That a fundamentalist minority should have such chilling power over what is or is not taught to a generation of school children is but a few steps away from intellectual authoritarianism.

It is not Clinton or Keller of whom we should beware; it is the so-called guardians of education and public morals like Donna Bahorich (who, among other things, is the founder of Home Ed Plus, whose stated objective is “teaching classes from a Christian worldview perspective”) and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy De Vos, who wants to use America’s schools to “build God’s Kingdom.”

We began with the Latin word cave (“beware of”), and end with a Latin phrase from the great satirist Juvenal:

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Namely, “Who shall guard the guardians themselves?”

44 days until the midterm elections!


Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

The Fire Drum

“The Fire Drum”

“The Fire Drum”

Once upon a time not all that long ago, an honorable naïf from a small rural town was given a serious responsibility by the town elders: to go to the big city and purchase several items of importance which could only be found in a – relatively speaking – sprawling urban metropolis.  And so, armed with both a list of things to purchase and a wallet filled to overflowing, the man headed for the city, where he promptly found rooms in a four-story hotel, unpacked his scant belongings, and began exploring the shopping areas near his temporary quarters. 

 After a long and exhaustive day’s searching for - and ultimately purchasing - a majority of the things on his lists, the honest but not overly bright naïf returned to the hotel, ate a scrumptious meal and turned in for the night.  Soon, he was fast asleep. At around 4:00 the next morning, he was suddenly and violently roused from his sleep by the sound of beating drums. Jumping from his bed, he made his way to the window, which had a grand view of the downtown area.  In the near distance, he saw flames coming from the roofs of several buildings in the next block. Pulling on a pair of trousers, socks and shoes, he sleepily made his way down the sitars and hastened to the front desk. 

“What in the world’s going on?” the naïf asked the man on duty. The naïf was obviously only half awake, for as he was questioning the clerk, he was rubbing the sleep out of his eyes without a great deal of success.

“Oh, there’s a fire down on 4th street,” the clerk answered somewhat passively.

“Is there anything I can do to assist?” asked the visiting naïf, being painfully aware of how much damage a fire could do. After all, he did come from a village in which just about everything was built of wood.

“That’s truly kind,” the overnight clerk responded, “but the fire drums have gone off, so there’s really nothing to worry about. Everything will turn out well.  My suggestion is that you return to your rooms upstairs and go back to sleep.”

“Yes indeed,” the visitor replied, stretching and yawning. “That’s precisely what I’m going to do.  Have a good night . . .” the rural rube told the clerk. And without further ado, he climbed the stairs to the fourth floor, entered his quarters, and within a minute or two, was once again fast asleep.

The next morning at about 7:00, the visitor awoke and noticed that he was still wearing his trousers and boots.  Finding this a bit strange, he searched his slowly awakening mind until the situation with the fire came back to mind. Thinking at first this might have been a dream, he went to the window, pulled back the curtain, and saw in the next block, a bit of smoke emerging from a couple of tall buildings.  “My goodness,” he said to himself, “It wasn’t a dream . . . the fire drums really worked!  They put out the fire!!  I’ve got to get one for our town . . . I’ll be a hero!”

 Once fully dressed, the man ran downstairs and found that the same overnight clerk was still on duty.

 “Good morning friend; I’m so happy to see that last night’s fire didn’t destroy your lovely downtown,” he said to the clerk.  “Oh yes,” the clerk replied, “we here are well prepared for such eventualities.”

“Would you know where can I purchase one of those magical fire drums?” the visiting naïf asked.

“A ‘fire drum?’”  the clerk asked. “What in the world are you talking about?

“You know,” the visitor said, “one of those drums which were beating earlier this morning. The ones that put out the fire.”

“Oh yes,” the clerk said slowly and deliberately, with a bit of amusement in his voice.  “Your best bet is to go down to Solomon’s, which is about three blocks south of here on Fountain Street.  I am sure they will be happy to assist you.”

And with that, the visiting naïf made his way to Solomon’s Music Shoppe on Fountain, where he promptly told a sales clerk he wanted to purchase a “fire drum.”

“A fire drum?” the salesman asked.  “Whatever are you talking about my good man? We have snare drums, bass drums. bongos, tom-toms and timpani. What, pray tell, is this ‘fire drum’ you’re so all fired interested in purchasing?”

“You know: a fire drum . . . the drum that was making such a pounding racket during the night,” the visiting naïf told him.

“Oh yes!” the clerk blurted out. “A fire drum!  Many of us here in the big city also refer to it as a “timpano . . . and sometimes as a ‘kettle drum.’  Would you like to purchase one?”

“Actually,” the man said, “I would very much like to purchase two of them, if you’ve got them in stock.” 

“Yes, certainly,” the salesman eagerly replied.  “We actually have four of them in stock.  Would you perhaps be interested in purchasing all four?”  Then he told him the price per drum

“No, no,” the customer said.  “I only have enough money for two, and besides, I come from a small village.” The clerk went into the storeroom and within a few minutes returned with two large parcels, each containing a ‘fire drum.”  The visitor paid in cash, loaded up his wagon and was soon on his way back to his rural village.

His return caused quite a stir – due mostly to his filled-up wagon and the enthusiastic grin on his face as he neared the village square. He simply couldn’t wait to meet up with the members of the village council and show them his marvelous purchase.  And this he did within the first few minutes of his arrival.

“But what in the world is a ‘fire drum,’” the senior-most town councilor asked.  “What is its purpose?”

“My dear friend” the returning naïf answered, “it has one purpose and one purpose only.  As its name implies, it is a magic drum that puts out fires!”

“But that’s preposterous,” another council elder broke in.  “Who ever heard of a drum that puts out a fire?  How do you know it works?

“Simply stated,” the naïf said, “whenever a fire breaks out in town, it puts out the fire.  I know. I experienced its miraculous quality when I was in the city.  Why, two nights ago, I was awakened from a deep sleep by the sound of pounding drums. Moving to the window in my room, I saw with my own eyes a conflagration in the next block from the hotel where I was staying.  Running downstairs to see if I could be of assistance, the night clerk told me that I needn’t bother; that the fire drum was sounding and that everything would be just fine.  And so, I returned to my room and quickly fell asleep.  You can believe me when I tell you that when I awoke at about 7:00 the next morning, I remembered the fire of the night before, ran back downstairs only to be told that indeed, the fire had been put out and all was well.  Then I was directed to a store where they sold fire drums and purchased two for our village. We no longer have to worry about any of our wooden homes, shops or barns being ravaged by fire anymore, for we now possess not one, but two fire drums!”

Suddenly, the man, for the first time in his life, was a local hero.

Predictably, a fire broke out in the village about two weeks later.  The good people of the council ran into the village square and began pounding on their newly purchased fire drums, secure in the knowledge that they would same the town from a fiery disaster.  But alas, despite all the banging and pounding, half the village burned to the ground. In a state of overwhelming depression, distress and disbelief, they turned on the man who had purchased the drums and began pummeling him. He began to scream:

“STOP! STOP! STOP BEATING ME!  I swear by all that is holy that these drums do put out fires!”

“Then why has our village all but burnt to the ground?”  they demanded while continuing to beat him.

“They must be defective!” he said through his agony.  “I will take them back to the city and not only get our money back, but will demand that they pay for all our damages!”

Concluding that this was indeed a proper course of action, they stopped beating their former hero and told him to gather up the fire drums and return to the big city, which he did the very next morning.  Upon arriving in the city, he immediately proceeded to the store where he had made the original purchase.  Upon seeing the clerk who had made the original sale, he approached him and began talking loud, fast and with tremendous anger, accusing the man of having sold him two defective drums.

“What do you mean ‘defective?’ the salesman demanded. 

“I mean that they didn’t do what they were supposed to do!” the rube explained.  They didn’t put out the fire!  Much of our village burnt to the ground! Not only do we demand our money back; we want you to repay us for our losses!”  The salesman couldn’t believe what he was hearing . . .

“You idiot!” the salesman yelled.  “By what bit of twisted logic did you conclude that anyone can put out a fire by simply beating on a timpano?”

  “But I was led to believe this was their purpose,” the simpleton blurted out, beside himself with shock and anger.

“My good man,” the salesman said slowly, attempting to rein in his disbelief.  “Did it never dawn on you that the purpose of these drums was not to put out a fire but simply to awaken and notify the fire department to get to work?” 

The visitor stopped dead in his tracks, for obviously, this fact – which should have been obvious - had never dawned on him. 

The rube’s trek back to his village was not an easy one, for he knew that informing the council elders of his error would make him the object of scorn and derision . . . and make him into a laughing stock. From hero to goat in a matter of two weeks . . .

The above short short story is adapted from a brief parable originally told by the Maggid (itinerant preacher) of Dubno (Rabbi Yaakov Kranz, 1741-1804) more than 200 years ago. In the maggid’s mind, the “fire drum” was meant to remind his readers and listeners of the shofar - the ram’s horn sounded during the Jewish High Holidays. Just as the parable’s naïf foolishly believed that the mere pounding on a drum could put out a fire, so too, the maggid reasoned, are there many, many people who just as foolishly believe that merely hearing the sound of the shofar extinguishes (atones for) the fire which are represented by our sins, frailties, nastiness and overindulgence, to cite but a few of the things which make even the best of us a little lower than the angels.

For my Jewish friends, the story’s meaning is as obvious as 1+1=2: don’t expect that by merely attending Yom Kippur services, fasting and hearing the 100 blasts of the shofar you have cleaned the slate and are ready for another year. Maybe you’re OK in G-d’s Book of Life (sefer ha-hyyim) ; but what about in the life of humanity? This would be tantamount to a drum that puts out a fire; rather than what the fasting, services and shofar blasts are truly meant to be : an alarm which awakens one’s personal “fire department.”

Making of oneself a better, more honest, more thoughtful and compassionate human being is not easy; it takes a lot of work, contemplation and the constant battle against temptation.When one stops and thinks about it, it is not just religious life which presents us with ‘fire drum’-like situations. In secular life, the most obvious examples deal with shortcuts. Here are but two examples:

  • Take this pill (or drink this concoction or pay gobs of money for pre-cooked meals delivered to your door) and you will lose tons of pounds and take off scads of inches. Nothing could be easier! Never mind that the pill or concoction by itself likely won’t do diddly. It had better be paired with more than a modicum of self-sacrifice, a smart, smartly-concocted diet, a regular and rigorous exercise schedule, and a host of other things which can only be found in the small print. Merely switching to sugar-free soda or taking a fat-burning pill along with one’s bacon/cheese burger and fries is never going to do the trick;

  • Vote against the other party and everything will be just fine. We really don’t need to tell you what we’re prepared to do in order to make things different; just know that we won’t be like the other guys. Sorry, but as important as your vote is - or can be - what is far, far more important in helping shape tomorrow is rolling up one’s sleeves and becoming involved in the civic activities of your town or county or state . . . not to mention our country. Civic betterment requires time and tenacity. Remember: we are all in this together.

While it is certainly true that life is a challenge - and at times a painstaking gamble - these challenges cannot be met, accomplished or overcome by the mere pounding of a drum, the popping of a pill or hearing the sound of a shofar.  To expect otherwise makes us little better than the small-town naïf of the maggid’s parable.   Prepare yourself for the future by arming yourself with the understanding that true personal (and political) progress is not the product of a sprint, but rather of a marathon.

Here’s wishing my Jewish friends and readers an easy fast and the prospect of being sealed in the Book of Life . . . and my non-Jewish friends and readers a productive Fall.

52 days until the Midterm Elections . . .

Copyright2018 Kurt F. Stone



Stumbling Blocks

Stumbling Block.jpg

Anyone care to deny that society - nay the world - has become more negative, cynical and downright intolerant over the past generation or so? Is there anyone out there who has not seen the growth of victimization?  And mind you, it is most frequently those in the majority who are most loudly complaining about their victimization.  For those of us who are Jewish, we've seen the simultaneous growth of both pro-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric and reality.  And perhaps worst of all, is the breaking of one of the Bible's (both the Hebrew and Christian versions) most oft-repeated imprecations: to not place a stumbling block in the path of the blind. (In Hebrew, the shorthand for this principle is לִפְנֵי עִוֵּר  pronounced leefnay eevair.) Versions of this crucial statement can be found in - among other places - Leviticus 19:14,  Isaiah 57:14, I Corinthians 8:9 and Romans: 14:13-23.  In the various commentaries to the original Hebrew version, the sages stress that the word "blind" is not meant to be taken literally - i.e. without anatomical sight.  Rather, "blind" (in Hebrew, עִוֵר - pronounced eevaiyr)is understood in a figurative sense: one who is uneducated, unlettered or, highly gullible.  It is in this latter meaning - highly gullible - that we see the greatest - and one of the most common forms - of contemporary sin. 

When the leader of a great nation proclaims that anyone or anything that does not agree with him  or points out his or her shortcomings is a lying "enemy of the people," this is tantamount to putting a stumbling block in front of the blind.  How so? Precisely this: many of those  "blind" folk, now armed with the warped worldview of the stumble block maker, will spread their newfound knowledge to other gullible people. Whenever leaders or opinion-makers pull the wool over the eyes of the blind, a segment of society will respond to disagreement with vituperation and vile personal attacks. What we are experiencing is nothing less than the disintegration of civil society.  And to whose benefit?  When bigotry, racism and outright illegality are met with silence and tacit support, what we face is the unraveling of civil society.  Woe unto those who permit such things to occur  . . .  again and again and again.

Over countless centuries, commentators - ranging from the most ancient to the most recent - have greatly expanded the situational meaning of  leefnay eevair to include such prohibited acts as:

  • Selling anything that has the potential of causing harm to others. This interpretation, by the way, comes not from today's anti-NRA crowd, but rather from the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 16a).

  • In the rabbinic text Midrash ha-Gadol there is a commentary on Leviticus 19:14 which, roughly translated, understands leefnay eevair to mean that individuals who “strengthen the hand of sinners” or assist others to commit a misdeed have transgressed the prohibition against “placing a stumbling block before the blind.” One might argue that those remaining quiet in the face of evil, i.e., not blowing the whistle on iniquities, strengthens the hand of wrongdoers.

  • The renowned Bible teacher and scholar Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997) in her 1983 work Studies in Leviticus, notes: "But the Torah teaches us that even by sitting at home doing nothing, by complete passivity and divorcement from society, one cannot shake off responsibility for what is transpiring in the world at large, for the iniquity, violence and evil there. By not protesting, "not marking the graves" and danger spots, you have become responsible for any harm arising therefrom, and have violated the prohibition: "Thou shalt not put a stumbling block before the blind…"

Just as Leviticus 19:14 teaches an incredibly modern lesson, so too does verse 16.  To wit: to be neither  a gossip nor the kind of person who can stand by and watch their neighbor bleed.  In the first part of the verse we are admonished to " . . . not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people." In commenting on this admonition, the early medieval scholar  Rabbi David Kimchi (known by the acronym "Radak") quoted Psalm 34:13-15 which says:

Who is the person that desires life and loves days, that he may see good?
Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking guile
Stay far away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.

Radak explained that these verses embody both positive and negative precepts governing speech, thought and deed.  "Keep your tongue from evil" means positively do keep from speaking evil of other people.  "And your lips from speaking guile" - that you must not speak one way with your lips and mean another in your heart.  These days we are increasingly witnessing otherwise decent, honorable (though flawed) people being saddled with demeaning nicknames, such as "lying," "little," "low energy" and "Pocahontas," and "Rocket Man."  And to make matters far worse, when the time comes that those who insult need the support of those they once insulted, they show not a hint of remorse . . . and even deny ever having saddled these people with their  hurtful nicknames.  

Although Radak and his fellow scholars lived countless centuries before the Internet (Radak lived from 1160-1235), they wisely likened gossip, tale-bearing and verbal insults to spilled perfume; once the vial is broken, the aroma remained for all to sniff out.  In modern terms, this is likened to the lie or insult which is Tweeted or Facebooked: in all but the most vile cases, the words remain online spreading venom for all time.  Interestingly, another scholar - one who went by the nickname of "The Hafez Haim" - taught that the very listening to gossip poisons the atmosphere and causes hate.  Thus, both the talebearer and the listener are equally guilty of a sinful act.

Verse 16 ends with the words lo ta-ah-mode ahl dahm rayecha, namely," Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor."  Most commentators - again, from oldest to newest - agree that the text means to teach that we cannot remain on the sidelines of life when people are in danger or being mistreated . . . especially by the authorities.  Indeed, there are currently far too many injustices being perpetrated in the name of "patriotism," "liberty" or "morality."  But simply stated, one person or group's notion of patriotism is another's fear of autocracy; one person or group's profession of what is moral and necessary is another's nightmarish remembrance of things past.  This is where the admonition against sitting idly upon the blood of our neighbor resonates most clearly . . .

For those of us who are Jewish, the New Year, Rosh Hashana begins in in less than a week. Our ten solemn Days of Awe are meant to be a time when we reassess our standing in this world - both in our own eyes and those of our family, friends, neighbors and community - as well as coming to grips with both our successes and failures. May this New Year -5779 - be a year in which we all repair and repave that which is cracked and crumbling.

                                                   !לשנה טובה וּמתוּקה             

                                                                                         (Wishing you a happy and sweet new year . . . ) 

593 days down
867 days to go
63 days until the midterm elections.


Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone


Be Careful What You Wish For

Mike Pence.jpg

By now, it should be pretty obvious that few Democrats are using the "i" word in the run-up to November's midterm election. Savvy Democratic politicians avoid the word for a couple of good and obvious reasons . . . and a single, terrifyingly not so obvious one.  The first good and obvious reason is that making impeachment a central Democratic issue is both strategically dicey and, from a practical point of view, utterly rudderless. 

Secondly, trying to convince Democrats, Independents and disenchanted Republicans that a "Blue Wave" is all that stands between a strong, small-d democratic republic and a treacherous autocracy is likely a fool's errand. To anyone who's not part of the staunchly Democratic base, it sounds and feels like nothing more than an extension of cable news.  Simply stated, it isn't all that motivating.  Thirdly, the unspoken message becomes "We're going to spend a majority of the next 2 years issuing a ton of subpoenas, holding tens of dozens of investigative hearings and generally putting such issues as education, comprehensive immigration reform, gun safety, the opioid pandemic and climate change - to name but a few - on the back burner."  This is no way to convince the American voting public to put Congress back in the hands of Democrats.

Then there is that terrifyingly not-so-obvious reason why savvy Democrats aren't spending much time talking about indictment . . . let alone impeachment: it might just work.  "How's that?" you ask.  "And what's so all-fired wrong with that?  At least we'd be rid of the most crassly incompetent, most boorishly narcissistic POTUS in history."  Well yes, but wishing, working and praying for such a thing carries with it an even graver, more dangerous reality: Vice President Mike Pence would then become the 46th POTUS.

Famously, John Nance ("Cactus Jack") Garner, FDR's first V.P. described his office as "not worth a bucket of warm piss." Constitutionally, the Vice President could, in less graphic terms, be called "The Waiter-in-Chief." He waits for the chance to fulfill one of two duties prescribed by the Constitution: to break tie votes in the Senate, or to succeed presidents who, for whatever reason, cannot finish a term in office.  Vice President Mike Pence has already fulfilled the former.  After Paul Manafort’s guilty verdict, Michael Cohen’s guilty plea and the immunity deals worked out for the president's longtime CFO Allen Weisselberg and National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, (all within a single tumultuous week), it seems that Mr. Pence may fulfill the latter prescribed duty as well. And if it comes to pass, in the words of a recent piece by Los Angeles Times op-ed writers Michael D'Antonio and Peter Eisner, ". . . no one will be less surprised than Pence."  

From where I sit, the mere possibility of Mike Pence becoming POTUS scares me one whole hell of a lot more than the reality of his boss continuing to occupy the nation's highest office.  Why?  Well, where '45 can be counted on to be inconsistent, incompetent, frequently incoherent and largely lacking a moral compass, Mike Pence is dangerously consistent and tethered to an absolutist moral compass which sees  his presidency as preordained by God and the mass of humanity as enemies of the Divine Plan.  Pence has frequently described himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican," in that order. While it may at first blush trouble people that this very, very moral man has amicably stood by and lent sycophantic support to the nation's immoralist-in-chief, once one gets to know the underpinnings of his belief structure, this seeming inconsistency makes perfectly good sense.  To understand Pence, one must first get to know his favorite Biblical verse (Jeremiah 29:11) which is on proud display at the Vice President's residence.  In Hebrew, the verse reads: 

     כִּי֩ אָֽנֹכִ֨י יָדַ֜עְתִּי אֶת־הַמַּֽחֲשָׁבֹ֗ת אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י חֹשֵׁ֥ב עֲלֵיכֶ֖ם נְאֻם־יְהֹוָ֑ה מַחְשְׁב֚וֹת שָׁלוֹם֙ וְלֹ֣א לְרָעָ֔ה לָתֵ֥ת לָכֶ֖ם אַֽחֲרִ֥ית וְתִקְוָֽה

Literally translated as "For I know the thoughts that I think about you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope."  To Vice President Pence and those, like him, who were raised in the Calvinist tradition, everything, which happens - both the seemingly good and the wicked, the moral and immoral are predestined.  To those of us who were not raised or schooled in this translation, the actual meaning of Jeremiah 29:11 is somewhat different:

 “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  In other words, to Mike Pence's way of thinking the Lord has ordained the V.P. to lend support to the grossly immoral Donald Trump so that Mike Pence can become POTUS.  It's sort of like the Bible’s story of Cyrus, a pagan king who served God by protecting the Jews. In this case,  '45 plays the role of Cyrus, who is serving G-d by protecting conservative, Evangelical Christians, who believe themselves to be under mortal attack.  I don't know about you, but this scenario scares the daylights out of me.  In other words, Pence believes that God has a plan for him, and if that plan requires him to temporarily abandon his principles as well as his dignity, so be it.

Pence is regarded by some as the modern version of another Old Testament figure, Daniel, who safeguarded his fellow Jews while functioning as counselor to another pagan ruler, Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel aided the Israelites by appearing to abandon his Jewishness in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. Pence, the argument goes, sets aside his moral standards to retain access to Trump. From his insider's perch, he can do more good for religious conservatives than from the outside. And if he were to take that final step to the Oval Office, then the ends would justify the means.

Pence, unlike his boss, is not heeding the counsel of billionaires who ordain things to be done in the name of future riches. Rather, he heeds Biblical imperatives which ultimately lead to both a Christian nation and an "end-time" which will bring about the so-called "Second Coming" of the Messiah. (For Jewish people, please understand that in order for this "second coming" to come about, it will require all of us to return to Israel where we will be presented with one of two choices: conversion or annihilation.)  I don't know about you, but to my way of thinking, this is no way to run a government.  

Be careful about what you wish or pray for.  A Trumpless White House means the presidency of a man who firmly believes he has taken over the office because it is God's will that America become a nation devoted to Jesus.  We're all better off with at least one of the two houses of Congress being in the hands of the Democrats; not because we want to specialize in impeachment, but because we want to get on with making American work for us . . . the non-so-rich men, women and children who have the humility to know what they do not know, the strength to overcome their worst traits and the worth to see worth in everyone.  Better than Jeremiah 29:11, is the wisdom of an ancient sage named "ben Zoma," who, in an ancient work entitled פִּרְקֵי אָבוֹת  (pirkei avot - "The ethics of the fathers") we learn the following:

הַבְּרִיּוֹתאֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם? הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם.  אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר? הַכּוֹבֵשׁ אֶת יִצְרוֹ.  אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר הַשָמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ. אֵיזֶהוּ מְכֻבָּד? הַמְכַבֵּד אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת      

Roughly translated: Who is truly wise?  The one who can learn from anyone.  Who is truly powerful?  The one who can curb their inclinations.  Who is truly wealthy?  The one who is happy with what they have.  Who is truly honorable?  The one who honors all humanity."

Make what you wish for and/or pray for truly count.

583 days down,
894 days to go,
70 days until the Midterm election.


Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone