The System Subverts Our Values

May 4, 2020

This virus has been bringing out how much we depend on each other, rich and poor, black and white, men and women, immigrant and native. We used to talk about brotherhood and I’ve never found a good substitute for the vision of mutual concern and respect that people in my generation meant by brotherhood. Now two people who shouldn’t be named claim that Blue states don’t deserve help though we do a lot for the rest of the country, through our taxes, the business we generate and by repeatedly jumping to the aid of people all over this country when they suffer from natural disasters. What they’re really saying is that they feel no responsibility for those among us who need help, especially if they don’t have the skin color and ancestry that they honor.

I want to expand on how bad that is. When Mayor Sheehan was campaigning for her first term, I asked her about what the City could do for its poor. She pointed out that the City’s tax base was largely from property taxes. That meant that mayors inevitably had to focus on property values. She didn’t use the term but the implication was that Albany had to gentrify regardless of need and regardless of our values as human beings. Property taxes fund the schools and just about everything else the city does. So mayors have to function like developers.

It goes further. Suburbia contributes to the problems. Separately incorporated suburbs have no legal responsibility for city services. People there still work in the City, benefit from it, hire its workers, use all of the goods and services that are attracted to the area because of the City population. But they don’t share the legal responsibility.

The way this country has organized its laws is that only the federal government has responsibility for everyone in every part of the country and in communities at every level of the income scale and regardless of where its residents came from. When the federal government caters to the selfish instincts of those who are unwilling to help anyone else or who are only willing to help people who look like them and come from the same parts of the world, disaster is the result. You know the song:

Once I built a railroad, I made it run

Made it race against time

Once I built a railroad, now it’s done

Brother, can you spare a dime?

Just about everyone recorded it. But apparently America still has trouble sparing a dime for the people who built it and make it run. We’ve built that into the tax system and still it isn’t good enough for people who don’t want to accept responsibility for fellow Americans. On top of all the advantages they’ve given themselves they still cry about the crumbs that might fall off their tables because they might go to Blue states.

The unnamable man in the White House, the Majority Leader of the Senate and their enablers are doubling down on all the bastions of indecency they’ve already built into American law. But though they don’t understand it – and they don’t understand much – they will be bitten by the snake they’ve let loose because when the virus is free in any of the states, the people they cherish in Red states will end up in the hospital, the morgue and the graveyard. Pandemics don’t stop at political borders. We all suffer when we refuse to take care of each other.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on May 5, 2020.


A House Divided Cannot Stand

March 3, 2020

Trump’s base thinks they can make America great by kicking out people they don’t like, people with different heritage, faith or color. Yet the evidence is that there are more and better jobs available in communities with more recent immigrants. A larger economy creates jobs and opportunities. It needs more goods and services. By contrast the effort to get rid of people is what economists call a deadweight loss. Deadweight because it is costly but produces nothing. We accomplish more working together than working against each other.

America’s great accomplishments have all come from making it easier to work together. Even before the Constitution, the states gave each other’s citizens all the “privileges and immunities” they gave their own. Sadly, they left most African-Americans in slavery, but they created a common economy to take advantage of America’s size and scale. The Constitution tightened and enlarged those promises. A single economy gave us the resources to do what a great nation must do and do well.

Before we could adopt what were called internal improvements like roads and canals, we had to learn that jealousy beggars us all. Projects wouldn’t pass without spreading the benefits to the vast majority of us. The Washington Administration designed the first American financial system. The Jefferson Administration purchased the Louisiana territory from the French and built what they called “the national road,” connecting the seaboard with the Ohio River valley. Steps like that laid the foundation for America to connect the oceans and stave off the European powers that still kept land and garrisons to our north, west and south.

The Civil War threatened everything but for the fact that Lincoln kept the British from intervening on behalf of Confederate cotton, and he kept the Union together.

American power solidified after the Civil War made ours one country, ended slavery, and Lincoln signed, in 1862 alone, the transcontinental Railroad Act, the Homestead Act and the act that built the great land grant universities, which together laid the agricultural, commercial, industrial and intellectual basis for America as the dominant twentieth century power.

We can’t have a great nation by fighting among ourselves. We can’t maintain national infrastructure by jealously keeping others from the benefits. We can’t maintain a great educational system by fighting over whom to keep out. We can’t continue to grow and prosper by jealously excluding each other from important national institutions. As Lincoln told us, “A house divided cannot stand.”

Armed ethnic, religious and racial animosities threaten American power and success. We’re all threatened by domestic terrorists who target people because of the color of their skin, the words and language they use to pray, or where they came from.

America’s strength has always been Americans’ ability to work together. Our major institutions understood the importance of cross-cultural cooperation. The U.S. Army worked to unify soldiers with different heritage, faith or color and who spoke different languages so that all could work as a team. Corporations unified their workforces, capped with ceremonies in which new Americans stepped out of what were labeled melting pots. Major sports leagues learned to take advantage of talent regardless of where it came from. Schools taught each new wave of Americans about democracy and gave them the skills to participate in our government and our economy.

It’s time that all Americans get with the program for the greater good of all of us – including any orange-Americans.

—This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 3, 2020.

 

 


Heaven in Hawaii

November 11, 2019

We were out of town most of last month and the trip back took three separate flights, all the hassle of traveling by plane, and more than 24 hours from leaving my wife’s cousin to walking into our front door. We’re still recovering from the time difference, the lack of sleep and the heat wave in heaven.

Yes, I’ve been to heaven and back and made interesting discoveries. First, some locals call it HaVaii – no W in the sound. In heaven, there are people from all over the world, down under and up top, east and west, all the continents and colors, many of whom speak six languages and everybody smiles. Yes it’s possible to pull a muscle even in heaven but when I fell two men rushed to help me – one had ancestors in Africa, the other in Europe – and both were lovely, wonderful men, determined to get me back on my feet.

Strange things happen in heaven. Mark Twain thought it very strange that human beings assume that everyone will play the harp in heaven though most wouldn’t be caught near one on earth. Perhaps equally strange, my wife got me into the ocean. I hadn’t done that in decades since our children were small. I had good memories of the Atlantic near West Palm but I forgot about the surf in Jones Beach and it played with me like I was a toy. When my wife tried to help me, it knocked us both down.  One more thing an aging reader and sitter like me has to relearn – how to face the ocean, stare it down and charge.

Life is so different in Hawaii from the constant patter from Washington about race, color, ancestry and who the heck is better than everybody else. Hawaii is proof that life can be lovely. Except that so many people, and worse, builders and hotel magnates, have made that discovery that they have changed the climate. One of our taxi drivers told us how lovely the climate was on the hill behind Honolulu. And my wife remembered it from a trip half a century ago – though we were clearly a couple by then we came home from Iran at different times and by different routes so I missed seeing Hawaii before there were clouds in heaven.

A photo of my wife was taken in D.C. with a frame that said “citizen of the world.” That is what peace means – that we are citizens of the world and recognize the same in others, treating others, all others, like we ourselves would like to be treated, the Golden Rule, or loving our neighbors as ourselves, another biblical formulation.

I’ve had that pleasure before – on the mall in Washington the day Martin Luther King told us about his dream, or in the offices of the NAACP or the legal services program, in the company of many of this area’s great folk singers, former Peace Corps Volunteers, or sometimes just on the streets of New York where people have learned to live and love together, and among other dear family, friends, colleagues and neighbors – I’ve been lucky enough to live and work largely in supportive environments. It’s a wonderful feeling, to see the love without having to watch your back. It spells peace in many languages, and heaven too.

Even heaven isn’t perfect. There are justified complaints about the way those with native Hawaiian ancestry have been dispossessed of some of what should be theirs but it’s still a joy to see the way people live and work together. On the way out, I had a chance to interview two African-American women who’ve been working there, one a military officer, and they confirmed the rewarding pleasures of living and working with people there.

There’s so much more to enjoy in the islands than beaches and breezes, luaus and leis. You’ll find great examples there of the spirit that made America great.

  • This commentary was broadcast on Nov. 5, 2019, on WAMC/Northeast Public Radio

Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and Other Prejudices

March 10, 2019

Muslim representation in Congress is good for America. But with the racist demagoguery of the Trump Administration, it is important for Jews and Muslims to discuss intergroup rhetoric and prejudice. I’ve heard some nonsense about Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s remarks about Jews. Let’s clear it up.

First, criticism of Israel, Hamas or the PLO are neither anti-Semitism nor Islamophobia. Lots of us are critical of the regimes in places sacred to us.  So are many who live there.

But charging disloyalty is a problem. Omar said “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Charging disloyalty because people care about what happens to a country or people abroad is over the top and fans prejudice. Omar is one of those who cares and should be concerned about the implications of her own rhetoric.

Americans have cared about foreign nations and peoples since the acrimony here over the French Revolution. America’s first political parties split over it, with successive presidents Adams and Jefferson on opposite sides. Other prominent examples include American support for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire early in the 19th century. More recently many Americans supported the IRA, the PLO, Hamas and Israel though all are controversial here and abroad. Sympathy isn’t disloyalty though we disagree about who’s right. Treating sympathy as disloyalty would make traitors of us all.

Democracy cannot survive loose generalizations about disloyalty. Plus, they block sensible responses, tying us up fighting each other instead of dealing with the issues. Dealing sensibly with the Middle East requires coming back from the brink. Obama had a point in saying that we need to disengage from the Middle East because it’s more difficult and takes more attention and energy than it’s worth. My view is that America should refuse to support either side that breaks agreements and creates serious problems for America – killing innocents, uprooting people from their homes, expanding settlements – both sides have committed plenty of atrocities. But amid loose charges of disloyalty, sensible policies are off the table.

With good reason, Jews are very sensitive to anti-Semitism and Muslims to Islamophobia. Prejudices are fanned by sloppily extending disagreement to attacks on peoples’ decency and legitimacy. In my course on comparative constitutional law we took up the troubles in Ireland. There was plenty of criticism to go around. But it didn’t and shouldn’t have made any of us anti-Irish. Americans once were viciously so. Before Trump, those days seemed over for the Jews, Irish, Poles, Italians and they should end for the Muslims, Blacks and others. And good riddance. Americans have been attacked and killed not only over race but over support for unions, and sloppy, unsubstantiated charges of disloyalty against Catholics, Germans, Italians, and Japanese, to name a few – in some cases just for knowing people’s languages. It was a sordid past that we should be doing our best to put behind us, for everyone’s sake.

I would make it a criteria of loyalty to back off generalizations about people and deal with our work, our ideas, our contributions and our mistakes on their own terms. The very idea that some of us are better than others because of our ancestry is un-American to the core. The very idea that our sympathies for the peoples from whom we came justify charges of disloyalty is a threat to us all, and to everything that did make America great. The very fact that Trump and others are now challenging that consensus is the biggest threat to the future of our country. Prejudice and hatred are a disease that can destroy America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 12, 2019.


Democracy Needs Generosity

January 22, 2019

What’s wrong with our politics is its too common don’t-tread-on-me selfishness.

“What’s-in-it-for-me” politics in the early republic held up roads, canals and other internal improvements for decades until we learned to share. Democracy needs some generosity.

After 9/11, Congress passed appropriations for local safety and security. I spoke with a former congressman from this area about New York City’s share. He responded about his district’s various rural areas. I pointed out that the people in his district had important ties to New York City – family or friends there for jobs or schools. Others with close business ties. He responded that he hadn’t thought of that. Frankly that’s what’s wrong with our politics. We need to think about what binds us together instead of what splits us apart. And yes, even the subways New York City depends on. If we starve the subways because it’s there, not here, we starve ourselves; and vice versa.

The same connections are true of our ethnic, racial, religious and gender groups. Some hate paying for anyone else’s schooling. Yet it’s even costlier to clean up after or imprison people who’ve never been given the tools to pull their weight in society.

Should God forbid equalizers like Social Security or Obamacare, though they’re cheaper than the costs imposed by inequality?

The alt-atrocious white supremacists would give us a war of all against all, which makes only corpses and refugees, leaving no one safe – not supremacists, minorities, family, men, women or children.

Since Revolutionary America, colleges kept inviting broader, more diverse groups of students in order to sustain themselves. Industry learned production required people working together regardless of language or faith. Commercial firms learned that lesson to sell their products. The military learned that successful missions required soldiers to support each other regardless of color, origin, language, faith or sexual orientation. Whenever diversity looked problematic, it ended by strengthening American institutions.

America IS great, not in spite of diversity but because of it. Our ideals have led Americans to work well together. The lesson of brotherhood has been our great strength.

Meeting and introducing my classmates to an African-American Olympic champion who won four medals in front of a fuming Hitler did me no harm. Befriending fellow law students from every faith and continent hurt none of us! Just the contrary as we became comfortable with and learned from each other. Perhaps the biggest lesson we all learned is that both lovely and nasty people come in all colors, cultures and tongues.

Climate change, terrorism, threats of war, and economic collapse truly threaten to embitter our lives. Pulling together will be essential to combatting them. Prejudice is a distraction and an obstacle. No children should be left behind. We all have to take care of each other. From federal workers to the homeless, we all have to take care of each other.

Remember President Kennedy’s call: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Some of what we do has to benefit others. Without sharing the gains, there may be no gains to share.

The second President Bush turned Kennedy on his head. He wanted us to counter terrorism by shopping. Bush’s vision was victory without blood, sweat, tears, money or sacrifice. After all we’re number 1. But that’s a fantasy. People unwilling to take pains for the benefit of America and its democratic inheritance cannot enjoy its gains.

It’s broader than that. We must care about the welfare of the European Union, Mexicans, Hondurans and each other, or reap the whirlwind.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 22, 2019.


Racists and Self-Interest

August 14, 2018

I have no illusions that anything I can say would convince white nationalists to flip their political sides. Nevertheless, I think it is important to engage them.

There is of course a strong moral argument based on the Enlightenment, reflected in the Declaration of Independence, that all of us are born equal. But let me see if I can engage anyone with arguments based on their own self-interest?

First, I don’t know how many of the white nationalists have had their DNA checked by 23 and Me or similar organizations. They might find that their own backgrounds are multicultural much like the rest of us. And I’m not sure how many of the white nationalists want to reject or deport their own grandparents or other ancestors.

Beyond that, racial, religious and ethnic nationalism is basically what is called, in language stemming from game theory, a zero-sum game. That is to say, we have a pie of specific size and fight about how to cut it up. But that’s a faulty premise. In fact, the larger the group that participates in the productive process, the more there is for everyone to do. The success of this country was based on our own common market among the states from the very beginning from the Canadian to the Florida border. That gave us a big advantage and propelled this country into the forefront economically within a few years. The European Union was developed and has been prosperous for much the same reason. And there is plenty of factual data that multi-cultural workforces lead to expanding their businesses much more than homogenous ones. It’s easy to look at a single job and notice who has it and who might have had it, but without looking at whether that job and many others would exist in a narrower market one does not have anything close to a full picture. So, I don’t think trade among multiple different cultures, or the development of complex multi-cultural economies are zero sum games. I do think they expand opportunities for us all. And the economic risk from trying to cut oneself off from that is stagnation and decline.

I have another concern about rejecting multi-culturalism: China, not to mention the rest of Asia. One of the things Obama realized, a realization no less true or false if one objects to the color of the man, was that the nations of Asia were focused on their economic advancement, were working hard to grow and were quite successful at it. That was behind his hope to “pivot to Asia.” But our own treatment of people from all the Asian countries, as visitors, residents and citizens, can strengthen or weaken our relations and our cooperation in foreign and economic policy. Perceived as racist, we can become the target of attack. Nations like China and India have the size and fire power to be problems. In briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1950s, both the Democratic Truman Administration and the Republican Eisenhower Administration argued for an end to the separate but equal doctrine partly because it made international diplomacy difficult.

I don’t even want to talk about the possibility of internal war. Both for our country and for each of us, white nationalism is a dangerous mistake.

After writing this, we took our grandchildren to Tanglewood for a Young People’s Concert. At one point the BSO played Leonard Bernstein’s music for the rumble in West Side Story, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in Manhattan. The rumble pitted the white Jets gang against the Puerto Rican Sharks. It ends in universal disaster. In the suite that Bernstein created from the music, as Tony lies dying in Maria’s arms, the harsh, jagged music for the rumble dissolves into the lyrical, wistful music of Somewhere There is a Place for Us. Somewhere indeed. My granddaughter caught tears rolling down my face. Bernstein like Beethoven before him believed that music could somehow bring us together. I wish it were so.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 14, 2018.


The Sacredness, and the Uniqueness, of Brotherly Love

July 17, 2018

The ethnic slaughter in so many parts of the world – Kenya, Myanmar, Rwanda, Sudan, the former Yugoslavia, the “troubles” in Ireland, Ukraine, the blood shed at the separation of Pakistan and India – make the uniqueness of American anti-discrimination rules stand out both for their moral high ground and for their protection of human life.

They provided a way to live together in peace, even if getting there has been difficult. They provided a beacon, a light to the world, on living together. Conceived in part as a city on a hill; America was to light the world with our example. Indeed it has. That strong belief in the equality of mankind and the welcome to people from all across the globe has always been attractive.

The Enlightenment in Europe was largely about the idea of equality and learning to live with people despite differences in religion and diverse origins. America was founded on that Enlightenment ideal and, while never quite satisfying its own ideals, to an appreciable extent lived it. In the colonies, after the Revolution and until modern times, the U.S. has welcomed immigrants. Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and other faiths were here from the Founding and helped build this country. It is an experiment both in peacefulness and in the Biblical injunction to love thy neighbor, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. It has been a religious enterprise, a nation building enterprise, and an enterprise in foreign affairs for which this nation has been justly celebrated.

Until now.

Would Ireland, India and so many other places have escaped their rivers of blood had their colonial rulers sought to bring people together in fairness, and ruled from the moral high ground, rather than striving to divide that they might conquer? To imagine is to wish for them the brilliance of the American solution.

America has brought peoples together for centuries. Public schools were conceived to bring together rich and poor, and they were soon called to bring together boys and girls. The military and large businesses made it their mission to bring people together across ethnic, religious and language boundaries that they might have unified armies and a unified workforce. Businesses created Americanization programs from which immigrants emerged proud Americans. Teddy Roosevelt told America that nothing brings men together like the military tent. Even racial prejudices have been receding in the face of integration – this nation has been celebrating African-Americans in music and the arts from the beginning of the twentieth century if not before, in sports especially since Jackie Robinson joined the Dodger lineup in 1947, and in many other areas since as having colleagues, bosses, employees, neighbors, friends and even spouses from different communities of race, religion and ethnic identity has become much more common. This march toward realizing the promise of equality has been going on for two hundred fifty years. Much of America has been shaped by that march, by its progress, by its moral growth.

Nothing has been more American than reaching out – in private groups and NGOs that have provided services abroad, and in government groups like the Peace Corps, US AID, Volunteers in Service to America, programs to acculturate immigrants here, provide the tools to leave poverty behind, and bring people from all cultures together in our schools and businesses.

Nothing has been so attractive to the world, as the fact that people everywhere could see themselves in us. It is a great heritage, a bulwark against all the beasts of the world; we must not forsake it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 17, 2018.

 


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