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.


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.


The Chemical Contamination in West Virginia

January 28, 2014

Before moving to Albany thirty-five years ago, we lived in Morgantown, West Virginia – a university town and a mining town. We knew people in both worlds. Our daughter was only seven, but after we moved she got letters from a little friend there who was the son of a miner. Miners lived all around.

Morgantown was very special, but the chemical leak and contamination in Charlestown reveals the naiveté of many in West Virginia and elsewhere in the U.S., who believe that whatever is good for the companies is good for us, that the companies are looking out for our welfare. Read the rest of this entry »


Environment Needs A Moral Revolution

October 29, 2013

I commented last week about the need to deal with global warming, population growth and protecting the lands and forests that produce the oxygen we depend on. Those problems are interrelated, and if the rising seas aren’t bad enough, the loss of atmospheric oxygen will suffocate us all. I confess that puts a different perspective on other issues. Can we improve people’s health and job prospects if we have to hold down the impact on the environment? Well yes, but the question is whether we are willing to share in the sandbox we call earth?  Read the rest of this entry »


Our Common Stake in Affirmative Action

October 15, 2013

The Court just heard argument in another affirmative action case. It is often put as if it is all about them and the rest of us are just losers as the result of any affirmative action for African-Americans. But do we have a stake in affirmative action, or whether African-Americans remain a permanent underclass? Read the rest of this entry »


The White House Butler

September 3, 2013

My wife and I went to see The Butler Saturday evening. There were important differences between the lives of the actual Butler, Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents, and Cecil Gaines, the butler in the film. But those differences actually got to larger truths it is worth thinking about.

In the film Cecil learns from the rape of his mother and the murder of his father what he has to do to survive in the white world. He creates a safe place for his family and is distraught when his son puts body and soul at risk in the Civil Rights Movement. That didn’t happen to Eugene Allen but it did happen to hordes of African-Americans in the South and many elsewhere. The demonstrators, trained to be peaceful and nonviolent, to take it without giving it back, were met with bombings, beatings, murders and jail. And their families were in anguish. Read the rest of this entry »


A 28th Amendment

April 30, 2013

I got into a discussion about a proposed 28th Amendment to our Constitution a few days ago. Turns out there’s more than one proposal calling itself the 28th Amendment. I’m talking about the one that begins, “The rights protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons only.” There may be similar ones. There certainly are some calling themselves the 28th Amendment that address very different subjects and are totally misinformed. But the restriction of constitutional rights to natural persons is worth talking about. Read the rest of this entry »


My wishes for 2013

December 18, 2012

Since the next two Tuesdays fall on Christmas and New Year’s Day when this station will be airing special holiday programming, I need to get my New Year’s wishes in now.  Read the rest of this entry »


Tax Rates and Business Investment

December 11, 2012

You and I have been hearing lots of rhetoric about the risk to small business if tax rates go up on people earning a quarter million or more. The expressed concern is that small businessmen won’t be able to invest and create more jobs. Of course in this world of sound bites it’s hard to get everything clear and correct. But this one is largely misleading. Tax rates and business investment in job producing enterprise are much less closely related than much of the commentary would make it appear. Read the rest of this entry »


But for the Grace of God

November 20, 2012

I have often thought back to a conversation I had many years ago with one of my students. She had come from a rural background with a strong, and in many ways admirable, streak of self-reliance. She was dumbfounded when I quoted the saying “There but for the grace of God go I,” often attributed to a sixteenth century evangelical preacher and martyr, John Bradford. How could I, her professor, imagine myself in the position of people who were down and out, people without jobs who needed help? Read the rest of this entry »


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