Cock-and-bull candidates


Did you make it through Sunday’s lunar eclipse OK?

When the moon turned blood red, I bet you didn’t shake spears at it, or beat your dogs to make them bark, as the Incas did to scare away the jaguar that had swallowed the moon. I also bet you didn’t shoot off cannons, or bang your pots and drums, as the Chinese did, to frighten the dragon that had swallowed the moon. I’m pretty sure you didn’t offer your utensils, rice and weapons to the demon Dhanko, as India’s Munda tribesmen do, to bail the moon out of debtor’s prison, where Dhanko had thrown it for failing to repay his loan.  And it’s dollars to donuts you didn’t believe that the eclipse announced the end of the world, or buy Pastor John Hagee’s best-selling “Four Blood Moons,” let alone the “Four Blood Moons Companion Study Guide and Journal” (Includes Full-Color Foldout Timeline, $11.69 on Amazon). 

The reason you didn’t swallow any of those stories is that you know the truth about a lunar eclipse: It happens because the earth comes between the sun and the moon. If truth can protect us from jaguars, dragons, demons and preachers, why can’t it protect us from presidential candidates whose cock-and-bull stories rank right up there with the Incas’ and the Mundas’? 

Consider Carly Fiorina.  She effortlessly reels off the benchmarks of her success as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, including doubling revenues.  But HP’s revenues rose largely because of her disastrous acquisition of Compaq. What counts isn’t revenues, but net earnings, which “>lost half of its value over the same period, while the stock price of its competitors, “>bogus.”

Facts turn out not to matter much in American politics.  It’s as if the Dhanko myth were to have the same standing as an astronomer’s explanation of a lunar eclipse. Journalists can fact check Fiorina all they want, and political rivals can ding her from dawn to dusk. The public’s trust goes not to the best truth-teller, but to the best storyteller. As Brad Whitworth, an 18-year HP veteran and former senior communications and marketing manager, “>hedge fund bro jacks up the price of a life-saving drug; no matter how cravenly General Motors covered up defective and sometimes deadly ignition switches in 2 million vehicles – the story remains the same: Overreach by government regulators is the root of all evil.  

That’s the story Mitt Romney told. If he hadn’t been caught on video writing off 47 percent of the country as freeloading rabble addicted to government handouts, he might have become president.  Instead, the Obama counter-narrative gained power. Its heroes are people of modest means who are still paying for the moral hazard of the billionaire class.  This is also the story that Bernie Sanders is telling to huge and enthusiastic crowds. Perhaps because of that, Hillary Clinton has been telling it, too, though her effectiveness as its messenger may be compromised by her dependence on Wall Street money.

This counter-narrative has the facts going for it. Practically every

Lance Armstrong and the disease of wild narcissism and ruthless ambition


Lance Armstrong proved surprisingly poor at backpedaling. His stone-faced, reluctant regret made many who watched the interview wonder if this was an illness. Why did this man mow down associates, besmirch employees, lie, cheat and bully his way to the top of a sport he is now insouciantly tearing down around him?

One way to understand disease is to map its contagion. So let’s look for Armstrong’s ailment throughout our society. In sports, Barry Bonds was headed for the hall of fame. But that was not enough. So the year Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were in a (steroid fueled) home run derby, Bonds began to dope as well. Five neck sizes later, his head swelled in every literal and metaphorical sense, people began to suspect. Of course Bonds was not alone; he is just a standout in a widespread scandal of those for whom good enough was not good enough. A keen diagnostician begins to detect signs of Armstrong illness.

Corporations are another place to look. CEOs now command salaries not twice as much as workers, which used to be the case, but 20, 30 and even 40 times as much. Even with this steroidal salary rage, there have been a string of indictments for misdeeds on Wall Street, because apparently hundreds of millions of dollars are no disincentive to cheating to make money.

The disease is a compound of wild narcissism and ruthless ambition. It threads its way unchecked through our social and political life. Music is a fertile breeding ground: Songs that once spoke of yearning or searching have turned increasingly to boasting and strutting. Awards shows proliferate as self-celebration becomes the preferred mode of public presentation. Turn on the radio at random: The socially conscious ode has given way to the sexually flamboyant shout-out. Sometimes it seems that the whole world is doing an end zone dance.

The illness is not ambition. Ambition is the engine that drives achievement. But Armstrong and Wall Street and sports figures and so many other areas parade before our weary eyes the wreckage of ruthless ambition. The greater good is a sucker’s succor feeding the individual good. Why don’t I want a background check if I sell a gun individually? Because it is me, that’s why! Any infringement on my autonomy, no matter how considerable the benefit to society, violates the code of ruthlessness that dictates that my good supersedes others. Ego needs are their own justification. The new motto is Ego ergo sum.

The biblical counterexample is worth remembering. When God chose Moses to lead the Jewish people, it was not because Moses leapt in the air, in the manner of Shrek’s donkey, yelling “Pick me! Pick me!” Rather Moses repeatedly protested his unworthiness. His humility qualified him for leadership. Self-effacement no longer gains traction in our age of wild narcissism. Television ads proclaim the perfection of each candidate. Our candidate is ideal and our positions unassailable. Partisan unwillingness to concede any wisdom to the other side reminds us of the great axiom of the age: anyone else’s triumph diminishes me.

As income disparities rise and social mobility freezes, good fortune is reinterpreted as merit. I am on the top of the heap not because I was born with certain attributes to certain parents but rather because I am, quite obviously, great. There was a generation (think the Kennedys, the Bushes) when enviable advantages of birth were a call to public service. Jacob Astor, one of the richest men of his day, deliberately stayed on the Titanic as it sank to give way on the lifeboats to women and children. How many modern hedge-fund tycoons would emulate him? Now riches are a call to steroidal self-regard. In the storm of the “I” no community can exist. We are alone together.

Lance Armstrong is the ugly face of American exceptionalism. This blessed country became prosperous with the ethic of individual work benefitting the larger community. Teamwork overrode stardom; the soloist paid obeisance to the band; public service was about being vessels, not victors. Now the plural is invoked to evade responsibility; so Armstrong cannot recalled who “we sued” as though he was part of the law firm of Armstrong and cannot be expected to remember all the small fish caught up in the netting of his litigation.

This spells trouble. The prophet Micah’s advice for life: to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God, no longer tracks for our children. To do deals, to love spotlights and to swagger self-importantly – that is more near the lesson they are learning. Such lessons come with consequences.

At the founding of the republic Ben Franklin put it crisply: We must all hang together, he said, or we will all hang separately. The gallows may be gilded but wise old Ben is still right. Our greatness, after all, is dependent on our goodness. 


Rabbi David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple.

Picture Imperfect


Although we had never met, I knew I would have no trouble recognizing Brenda the second she walked into the Melrose Avenue bar where I sat waiting for her. After all, it was her photograph — the leonine curve of her green eyes and coquettish cap of blond curls — that compelled me to contact her on an online dating site where I happened upon her profile. We conversed via e-mail and agreed to meet in person.

But when a woman who bore little resemblance came through the door and waved in my direction, I assumed she was motioning to someone behind me. When she introduced herself as Brenda, I was dumbstruck. It wasn’t only the deep-set streaks of facial acne scars that didn’t register in my memory of her picture; I also didn’t recall her mentioning traveling to the moon — the only place a scale would have informed her of the 110 pounds she claimed to weigh in her profile.

Brenda began gabbing away the second she sat down across from me, but I’ll be damned if I heard a single word. I smiled blankly as my brain studied the differences between the online and actual Brendas. It was as if Charlize Theron miraculously agreed to date me, but without informing me she would show up in her “Monster” makeup.

So bewildered was I that after two minutes I excused myself to go to the bathroom. Near panic, I spotted a fire exit in the back and froze in front of it. I silently debated the merits of making a break for my car outside.

Maybe you haven’t been in the position of contemplating escaping from a bad date. But chances are you have been affected by this pernicious trend common to both genders online: the often glaring discrepancies between the photo or listed physical dimensions on a profile and their flesh-and-blood appearance. My encounter with Brenda got me thinking about how to manage expectations in the dating world.

The horror stories are many. Many female acquaintances have encountered so many men who lied about their height that they simply deduct two inches from whatever they see listed. And then there was my friend Abby, who agreed to a date with a gentleman whose photo depicted a curly mane she was dying to run her fingers through. The guy turned out to have more hair on his chest than on his head.

If only these inconsistencies were confined to men. Nearly every male I consulted complained that many women misidentify their body type, such as those who characterize themselves as “proportional” when they in fact measure a longer distance horizontally than they do vertically.

In all seriousness, these incongruities must be treated sensitively; I suspect we all exaggerate our attributes to varying extents mostly out of self-delusion, not deceit. But you are crossing into the latter territory if you hire a professional photographer to deliver the kind of headshot an actor might seek. If the resulting image is something your own mother wouldn’t recognize, maybe it doesn’t belong on a dating Web site.

And to those of you who willingly enhance their images through the magic of Photoshop, for shame, I say. At least doctor your photos in moderation: I recently encountered a picture of a woman whose face was so illuminated by some sort of halogen light that I thought I recognized her from the final scene of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

I’ve been tempted plenty myself to do a little post-production work on my own face. I seem to add a new chin with each passing year, and the bags under my eyes are capable of growing to Hefty Cinch-Sak proportions. But is it dishonest of me to not post the worst possible photo of myself? As long as the image bears a resemblance to my actual face, my conscience is clear.

Exaggerating would probably get my foot in the door with more women I find appealing, and maybe my sparkling personality could even distract them from the fact I’ve distorted the truth. But even if that worked, it would bother me that I had to hide who I really am just to curry favor with someone I barely know.

As for Brenda, luckily enough I had downed a Corona before she arrived. That wasn’t quite enough to give me the dreaded “beer goggles” that have transformed many beasts into beauties, but it did embolden me enough to return to the table and look her in the eye.

“I’m gonna go,” I found myself saying, to which she responded with a quizzical look. Much as I wanted to angrily explain myself, I complained of a sudden headache. She may have deceived me to seem more attractive, but the truth would have been just as ugly.


Andrew Wallenstein writes for the
Hollywood Reporter and serves as a weekly commentator on National Public Radio’s
“Day to Day.” His work was included in the recently published “Best Jewish
Writing 2003” (Jossey-Bass). He can be reached at awally@aol.com
.

Monica Lewinsky is Jewish


The New York Times devoted 1,500 words last Sunday to a biographical profile of Monica Lewinsky, the 24-year-old woman who allegedly had an 18-month affair with President Clinton and who has been accused of lying about it under oath.

The New York Times’ reporters are nothing if not thorough. We learned just about everything about young Monica.

But nowhere was there a word indicating that she was Jewish.

Perhaps that is as it should be. There was no mention of Linda Tripp’s religious background or Kenneth W. Starr’s either. That Monica Lewinsky is Jewish clearly has no resonance in the mainstream media. The implication of that astonishing fact seems fairly straightforward: To be Jewish is simply to be American. Beyond the fringe world of Internet hate groups, most of which consist of marginal men and women in our society who have regaled fellow chat room users with references to her religion, there is no ethnic imputation, no stereotyped past or present. Monica Lewinsky, for many Americans, is just another young woman from a privileged, upper-middle-class family. Beverly Hills and Brentwood conjure up more associations than her Jewishness.

And that is the way it should be.

But, of course, we know that she is Jewish; that her parents are members of Sinai Temple; that she was a bat mitzvah there some 11 years ago; that there were relatively few strong affiliations with Jewish organizations here; but, nevertheless, a good number of friends who were Jewish, including her father’s attorney, William Ginsburg, a medical malpractice specialist who now represents her.

And so the question — so what? — hangs above us in some unstated way. To The New York Times and most of its readers, that she was Jewish remains largely beside the point. We are way past those days of the old anti-Semitic canard about the Jewish Temptress. And for that, if nothing else, we should be grateful.

But what about us, the Jewish community of Los Angeles? Are we, too, so thoroughly part and parcel of this wider America that her Jewishness is only an incidental sidebar, a curiosity that merely causes a blink of recognition and a guess at her genealogy?

We know that Fred Goldman turned to his fellow Jews in Los Angeles for support during the O.J. Simpson trial, after his son, Ron Goldman, was murdered along with Nicole Brown Simpson. Indeed, his havurah, a study group, became a rock that helped sustain him throughout those gray days of despair.

To be sure, there is no comparison between a father’s unrelieved grief in the face of his son’s killing and the charges that confront Lewinsky. But do we stand apart with most other media consumers, reading with fascination, and not a little incredulity, the next unfolding chapter of the story? Is Monica Lewinsky, for us, as she is for The New York Times, simply another young American woman wrapped in a startling series of tawdry episodes involving the president of the United States?

Or is she, by reason of birth and background, part of what we assume to be family, a member of the tribe? Someone who may or may not have acted foolishly and improperly, may or may not have broken the law, but someone we recognize, embarrassment aside, without exchanging a word?

And if so, without judging whether she behaved well or badly, within the bounds of the law or outside of it, do we offer a hand, a shoulder, a word, even a murmur of friendly encouragement? Do we extend just a show of personal acknowledgment and a joining of hands, a nod that says we all rise and fall together no matter what direction our journeys have taken us? — Gene Lichtenstein, Editor-in-Chief