Passover – A Celebration of Freedom

April 15, 2014

This is Passover, a holiday that comes straight out of the Bible, the Almighty commanding us to tell the story of the Exodus to each new generation as well as reminding ourselves. The Exodus, of course, is a story of freedom from slavery. The Biblical story is about the Hebrew exodus from slavery in Egypt. But we are very explicit about relating that story to the freedom of others.

In truth, whoever our ancestors, some were probably slaves. Some were serfs in Europe. Women and African-Americans have been bought and sold in much of the world. African-Americans and Native Americans have been enslaved in this country. The Haggadah, essentially the prayer-book for Passover, has been repeatedly rewritten in part to take account of new struggles for freedom. As we remind ourselves every year, “Not for ourselves alone do we pray, not for ourselves alone, but for all Your children.”

Sometimes it is also necessary to remind ourselves that freedom is indivisible – we all have a stake in each other’s freedom. The slavery of some makes the freedom of the rest of us less secure. I met my wife in 1966 because it was not safe for her to go to the Tehran bazaar without a male escort. White working men before the Civil War understood that their freedom was undermined by Black slavery – the terms and conditions of their employment undermined by what masters could get from their slaves, even as today the conditions of American workers are undermined by the abuse of workers all over the world, and the conditions of the middle class are affected by the abuse of less fortunate workers.

Freedom is not license and it implies caring about each other, not the freedom to ignore the plight of others.

We all grew up telling each other “It’s a free country.” But many of us don’t stop to figure out what that means. Free of taxes? Impossible; that was never true. Indeed the absence of government would reduce us all to slavery, naked and defenseless against every form of force, fraud, scam and abuse. Free to do anything you want without regard to other people? All of us used to call that idea license and distinguished it from freedom. License is uncivilized, the law of the jungle, that allowed and still allows some to enslave others.

Much of American history is about that fight for freedom and we celebrate it. Americans fought for significant freedoms. We fought for political freedom, the right to govern ourselves, the right to representation in the legislatures, the right to vote, the right to a fair trial and all the essential elements so that we would not convict and imprison the guiltless. We fought for civil freedoms – the right to buy and sell, to testify in courts, and the right to marry. Those freedoms are in our Constitution but it was only a few decades ago, in the context of the Civil Rights Movement, that the U.S. Supreme Court actually started enforcing them – another example of the indivisibility of freedom.

Freedom is the gift we share and it is the gift for which we work together. Jews try to celebrate it with family but we also celebrate it as a multi-cultural holiday. Freedom is indivisible.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 15, 2014.


Global Warming and Human Politics

April 8, 2014

I just got back from Chicago where I attended a national meeting of political scientists.  One of them described at length the local, national and international barriers to doing anything about climate change.  His basic point was that those whose livelihood seemed to depend on activities that are bringing on climate change  are strategically placed to prevent the rest of us from doing anything.  His point is that to make anything happen  it would be necessary to make people come to think about what they are doing as wrong  in the teeth of evidence that it is good for them in their own lifetimes.  That also makes them totally resistant to the idea that climate change is happening,  that human activity is a substantial cause of the change, that it will do any damage  and that it is worth dealing with.  Ouch for the rest of us.

Then I attended a meeting where the speaker described the change of ideas.  He regarded those changes as inexplicable.  For most of human history war had been considered noble, a good thing, that made people stronger and better.  Then just before World War I, that started to change.  After that war, no one makes claims about the generic benefit of war  – war has become an occasionally necessary evil, but not a good thing.  And for most of human history, people had slaves.  Those that could would.  Slaves and slavery were valued.  It made you a big shot, and made your life easier.  Then suddenly in the eighteenth century it changed dramatically in Europe.  England began to block the slave trade  and shortly it was banned in Latin America, the serfs were freed in Russia,  and only the U.S. clung to slavery of the modern nation states.

In the speaker’s description, both ideas turned in reaction  to novels that separately described war and slavery as disgusting, as indeed they are.  In regard to war,  the novel described the scene of rotting and dismembered corpses on a battlefield.  In the case of slavery,  another novel described the brutality of the way slaves were treated.  Both of course were accurate.  The facts, however, were not new.  What was new was disgust.

I’m no novelist but global warming is disgusting.  Global warming is an extinction of ourselves.  We and our children and children’s children  will be strewn on nature’s battlefield  gasping for water and air,  our bellies distended for lack of food,  our homes lost to the elements,  our skin alternately burned and frozen,  unable to protect our children, wives, husbands or parents,  indeed some will become too desperate to care.  Global warming will take everything from us that makes us human.  It has been doing that piecemeal in the aftermath of storms that have left people totally destitute in parts of the world.  It will exceed our capacity to put people back on their feet as the oceans take back the coasts.  It will poison us, as a warming climate spreads diseases for which we have no defenses,  leaving us to rot from diseases few of us have seen  and none of us care to see except as the noblest of doctors and nurses.  It will extinguish our food supplies  and it is attacking the supply of the air we breathe.

Global warming is disgusting. Pass it on.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 8, 2014.

 


Economics, Lawyers and the Risk to American Democracy

April 1, 2014

Ever notice that I frequently talk about economics. What’s a lawyer doing talking about economics? I did read and study economics but there are other reasons why economic issues are dear to this heart.

Lawyers do lots of different things. But for many of us, law is a helping profession. We work with people who are headed for bankruptcy and other events that will turn their lives upside down. We do our best to help them avoid personal tragedies – or pick up the pieces. We don’t think of clients as numbers but as people, most of whom we like and respect. We learn not to think of financial reverses as a judgment about their character, decency or personal value. It happens for all sorts of reasons, often beyond our clients’ control. When it is a mistake, it is often a part of learning how to do business or operate in this world. Some of the world’s most successful people have been through bankruptcy. Up close and personal, we care.

So the national recession wasn’t just a set of numbers for me. It was a catastrophe in the lives of many people. They were passengers on the national ship on a foggy night when the captain  crashed into another vessel. Millions of people went overboard, leaving their jobs and belongings behind. Rescuing people isn’t a choice; it’s an obligation just as it was not optional whether to pick our friends up from the wreck of the Achille Lauro. An S.O.S. has a clear and obligatory meaning.

But there is another reason. One could trace it to a famous French aristocrat who visited and wrote about the U.S. in the 1830s but statistical studies beginning after World War II keep making the point that poverty and inequality are both hostile to the survival of democracy. Historians studied the failure of democracies on multiple continents and reached the same conclusion. Others with different methodologies keep reaching similar conclusions.

It’s not a surprising conclusion. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, many were worried that we would lose our system of self-government, and some advised President Roosevelt to take dictatorial powers, but he refused. Now science has come to support common sense. Poverty can be dangerous, not only to individuals but to society. It makes people desperate and when they are, all bets are off.

With that knowledge, it is painful to me to watch Congress leave the victims of corporate shenanigans in the dirt as if they were so much trash. And as an attorney, it is particularly painful to me to watch the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice Roberts doing everything in its power to play the role of the Sheriff of Nottingham, robbing from the poor to pay the rich. Many of those decisions are complex legally as well as economically but their effect on the fairness of the contracts we sign daily and on the lives of many people are extensive and often tragic. To me, the Roberts Court is threatening our democratic patrimony.

The personal suffering would be enough. The risk to our country is hard to bear.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 1, 2014.


Ukraine – the Cold War again?

March 26, 2014

There has been a lot of loose talk about how to deal with Russia over Ukraine. Some people think Obama should be, or sound, tougher – or more careful. Toughness is mostly about impressing the home audience, and getting people fired up. But it has nothing to do with what actually has to happen, what the choices or consequences are – it’s all about posturing. Foreign affairs is not a simplistic referendum on “toughness,” and the avatars of toughness should be laughed out of the public space.

Read the rest of this entry »


Let’s understand the argument about balancing the budget

March 18, 2014

 Let’s understand the argument about balancing the budget

When the Bush Administration took us to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, they decided not to pay for those wars with taxes. In fact they insisted on giving people tax breaks, including those for whom war taxes would not have affected their lifestyles. The well-understood consequence was that someone else would pay for the wars. At the time the talk was that the next generation would have to pay. Read the rest of this entry »


Should we care about the fate of prisoners?

March 11, 2014

Should we care about the fate of prisoners?

A number of listeners have been raising that question in the wake of WAMC reports of lack of medical care in prisons, and my support for Cuomo’s position about educating prisoners.

Let’s assume that we don’t care about them at all. But we care about us. So what is the effect on us of what we do to them?

Actually the implications are huge. Read the rest of this entry »


Prisoners and the Price of Anger

February 25, 2014

People are angrily attacking Gov. Cuomo’s proposal to provide a college education for some prisoners in order to put them on a path toward more constructive, and law abiding, lives.

How much is anger worth? I understand the anger at funding an education for prisoners. They’re in prison because they have been adjudged guilty of a crime – some pretty minor but some pretty nasty.  Read the rest of this entry »


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