The Middle East, European Colonialism and the Result of Blank Checks

February 27, 2018

Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of our Nature, argued we’ve become less bloody over the centuries. But so many issues involve life and death. For two weeks this country has been discussing how to stop school shootings. This week let’s address life and death in the Middle East. Next week, events permitting, let’s discuss two issues that threaten life worldwide.

I can count on hate mail whenever I speak about the Middle East. But let’s put some things in perspective.

The world’s refugee problem swamps most countries’ willingness to take people in. Our government wants to restrict immigration and we fight over who and why. Reaction to flows of refugees threaten democratic governments across Europe and contributed to the vote for Brexit. In addition to their own disputes, the American military footprint has aggravated war and population displacement in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine among many countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Stepping back historically and geographically, most countries are dominated by conquering populations. This country conquered and decimated Native Americans to create our bi-coastal America. A succession of warring populations, Huns, Visigoths, Franks, Saxons, Vikings and more, fought for Europe long before the modern wars.

This has hardly been a good way of solving problems or competition for land. But even more harm lurks in the suggestion that we undo it.

The creation of Israel was plainly the result of European refusal to accept its Jewish population. Historically, the Turks in the Ottoman Empire, and the Moors in Spain, before Ferdinand and Isabella Christianized it, were much more hospitable to Jews. The twentieth century brought the fate of the Jews to a head. Europe could have solved its integration problem. But seeing the handwriting on many walls in the 1930s, people like Justice Brandeis, then on the U.S. Supreme Court, were telling friends in Europe to get out quickly. But where to? Franklin Roosevelt, despite close personal and professional relationships with many Jews, blocked boatloads of Jewish refugees from our shores for political reasons.

So the west solved its problem by exporting it – to Palestine. Everyone was a victim in this process. Jewish refugees were uprooted and they in turn uprooted Palestinians. What to do?

At about the same time, Britain was facilitating the breakup of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan. It cost something like a million lives and uprooted many times that. The two countries still find it difficult to get along, but undoing 1948 is not on the table. It cannot be.

It is not true that whatever is, is just. That was proposed by the conservative philosopher Robert Nozick and I most emphatically reject it. But redressing all the wrongs of the past comes at a cost which will involve many who themselves were neither perpetrators nor victims and sometimes both. The argument about who was right and who was wrong in Palestine is not a soluble argument. No one was treated as they should have been. But even more important, fixing those wrongs implies a fight to the death of everyone there. That I cannot wish.

I cannot support complete and utter conquest for either side. We might once have insisted on an enforceable compromise. America once played a role as an honest broker and could have maximized the chance for peace. But we could not continue to play that role while giving Israel a blank check to violate its promises about settlements. The result, I fear, is going to be tragic. It may simply be too late to avert widespread disaster.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 27, 2018.

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Threats to Democracy – The Shadow Knows How to Divide and Conquer

January 16, 2018

Right after Trump won, a cousin offered to send me some anti-Hillary literature that she thought I’d find convincing. I responded that if Hillary had won, she and I would be safe. But Trump’s victory emboldened those who would be perfectly happy exercising what Trump euphemistically called their Second Amendment rights, getting rid of people who don’t fit their racial and religious criteria. They were already on the streets. That left neither of us safe.

Nor is the problem just what some of his supporters believe and do. His campaign and rhetoric were about who should not be here. He continually appeals to his most extreme supporters, people who barely conceal their admiration for Hitler.

Many of us have been talking about how polarized our politics have become. Polarized politics is dangerous because it is a predicate for autocracy. If people become convinced that they can’t live with the other side’s victory, that life is too dangerous, democracy becomes unsustainable. When a live and let live attitude is gone, democracy can’t be trusted.

Trump can’t be trusted. Trump stands for exactly the kind of politics that makes democracy feel more dangerous than valuable. During the campaign, he told his supporters to express their “second Amendment rights” at the polls, sending chills down the spines of loyal Americans. When neo-Fascists showed up to demonstrate in Charlottesville fully armed to sow fear and intimidation, and one of their sympathizers murdered a peaceful and unarmed woman in the crowd, Trump blamed their opponents for the carnage. To Trump and his white supremacist supporters, evil is racial – Hispanic, immigrant, Puerto Rican, or Muslim, Blacks, Jews, minorities and women. When he tried to export his racist friends to the Brits, they told him to stay out of Britain. Bless the Brits. They get what this country used to stand for – we are [quote] “one nation … indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Liberty and democracy are “indivisible”; they are and must be for ALL.

A descent into racism, Nazi or otherwise, would not make America great again. It would destroy our country. One of the things I found fascinating in the papers of the UN Commission on Human Rights which produced the UN Declaration of Human Rights, was that human rights was not an American idea foisted on the world. Hatred of the Nazis came from across the globe, all continents, all its peoples. What they saw, regardless of economic or political system or religious or ethnic heritage was that the Nazis were a threat to everyone. All countries worked with the single-minded goal that there should be no more Hitlers, no more Nazi control of any country. The world had defeated the Nazis and they weren’t about to have to do it again.

Trump doesn’t get or care that democracy depends on our agreement that all Americans are legitimate Americans, all Americans need to be respected and cared about, and all Americans need to feel safe here, or he is wielding the demonization of some of us precisely to end self-government.

When I was a kid, there was a radio program that some of you will remember. It’s tag line, voiced by actor Frank Readick Jr., was “what evil lurks in the hearts of men, the Shadow knows.” I make no claim to knowing what evil does or doesn’t lurk in the heart of Trump. But threatening America from the inside, he is the biggest threat to the survival of America since our Civil War.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 16, 2018.

 

 


My Undocumented Friend

September 26, 2017

A friend since my law school days knew he’d been adopted. We saw a lot of each other when we both lived in New York City, where I met his adoptive parents. In a distinguished career, he’s been president of his professional society, recipient of honorary degrees in the US, France, and Greece, an advisor to the Director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, and he taught at several of this country’s finest universities and war colleges.

A few years ago, when we ran into each other at a professional meeting, he told me that he had discovered that his birth mother had tossed him out the window of a train headed for the concentration camps into the waiting arms of someone she hoped would save her infant son. He was working on trying to learn more about what happened.

My friend has been traveling in Europe but we’ve been in touch and I wrote and asked him what if anything he had found out. He wrote me back:

The short take on my background is that fortuitous circumstances produced reasonable evidence that I was born in France to a foreign family who had fled the Nazis, most likely from Germany. I was hidden in a village, smuggled out of France by the Jewish underground, entered the US as an illegal immigrant, was sent to an orphanage and adopted by an American family.

That of course is the family I knew. He adds that “I’ve managed to track down and interview people involved in these several steps.”

My friend was a “childhood arrival” in the language of Obama’s executive order establishing “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” or D.A.C.A. It allows people who were brought here as children to stay, study and work here without being deported so long as they behaved themselves properly. That’s the order that President Trump is trying to terminate. My friend was brought here as an undocumented infant. His birth parents likely perished in the concentration camps, without knowing what became of their son.

When I asked him if I could quote him for this commentary, he expanded on the process of his becoming an American:

immigration officials [looked] the other way when the group of 100 children I was with – all older than me – were offloaded at night from our boat and entered the country as illegal immigrants. We were sent to orphanages, from which I was liberated [by] the American family who adopted me. In NYC in the 1940s adoptions took five years to become legal, so I well remember appearing in court and telling the judge, in response to his questions, that my parents loved me and treated me well. He in turn had the court issue me a birth certificate with NYC as my place of birth, thus laundering me.

Half a century later, my friend is widely admired. “Most remarkably,” he added: “my German colleagues – many of whom are former students or post-docs – took it upon themselves to do something,” even though he didn’t have his original surname or birthdate, so that, in addition to his American citizenship, “courtesy of the German parliament – I am [also] a German citizen.”

I can only thank heaven that he and his boat weren’t among those this country turned back during World War II. For me and my friend, the issue of DACA is very personal.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 26, 2017.


How Can We Protect American Workers

March 11, 2017

Trump’s power, and his policies on jobs, immigrants, religious and ethnic hatreds and the Alt-wrong are all related.

Scholars of intolerance tell us that threat breeds hate. I suspect that all we can say about why immigrants and Muslims are really good people only makes those who feel threatened feel more threatened, because instead of talking about their needs we’re praising someone else.

So I want to talk about the needs of Americans who feel threatened economically and what can be done regarding their economic losses, recognizing that the disfunction in American politics is partly due to the desperation of workers who’ve lost once good jobs.

Protecting American workers is crucial both because people suffer when they can’t find good jobs, and because desperate or threatened people take dangerous risks at the polls and elsewhere. We must protect workers both for their sakes and for ours; it’s much the same thing.

It’s our job because government fiscal, tax, programmatic and other policy decisions daily determine how many jobs there are. Some people can make their own opportunities, but, to be fair, most good, decent, hard-working people can’t.

What can we do about it? Sometimes it helps just to set out the options. Here are the choices I can see:

FDR created unemployment compensation and Nixon proposed a negative income tax – safety-net approaches based on direct income transfers. Many object, including those who benefit from handouts, tax loopholes, deductions, farm price supports, subsidies etc. – the tax code and the budget are replete with them. But direct financial transfers are one possibility.

A second approach is to pay for jobs indirectly through trade policies. All three presidential candidates talked about that. I understand the fear of foreign competition even though there are reasons to look for other solutions for American workers: limiting foreign imports hides the cost in the price of things we buy, and isolates the American economy from developments elsewhere. It also might not work; actual hiring decisions would rest on other people’s decisions. But we can’t overcome the fear if we can’t commit to other steps, and all the talk about the risk to Social Security fans that fear.

A third approach, the conservative free market approach, is not really a solution for the working person at all – it simply puts the monkey on workers’ backs to find jobs or starve.

A fourth approach is to create new jobs by government action – fiscal stimulus, infrastructure development, and investment in science and education, all of which call for construction, maintenance and technical jobs. That’s what Obama called for but Congress drastically whittled his effort down.

Why can’t government be employer of last resort? That would automatically support a minimum wage, create better communities, and make life better for all of us. It’s not the free lunch some people worry about; it’s a job. What’s so terrible about giving people what Tom Paxton called “a job of work to do”? There’s plenty to do if we were willing to invest in our people, our workers, our infrastructure, and our environment. Sometimes spending a little can make the community more attractive and the economy zing while providing a decent income to people who need a job.

Some countries use all of those methods and have quite robust economies.

Those are the alternatives I can see: the free marketeers’ defining it away as the workers’ problem, the safety net approach of income transfers, paying indirectly through trade policies or subsidies for the appearance of helping workers, or creating jobs through fiscal stimulus or hiring people to do needed work. My preference is to put people to work – that way protecting others is good for us all. One way or the other, standing up for each other is essential.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 7, 2017.


Iftar

June 28, 2016

This is Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. We were invited to Albany’s City Hall for an Iftar, the evening feast after the sun-up to sun-down fast. Meetings aren’t polls and people put their best feet forward at public events. But I also know these folks. We greeted friends: a physicist, President of a Mosque on Central Avenue; an engineer who escaped repression in Iran, and ran a radio program to celebrate and protect American freedoms. We greeted a doctor whose daughter was my student and valedictorian at Albany Law, now working for the NY Attorney General. There were scientists, programmers, medical professionals, Sunni and Shi’a, Muslim, Protestant and Catholic clerics and public officials.

One woman described her six year old daughter lying awake at night, terrified, crying and asking where they’ll go if they are kicked out of this country – mother and daughter were born in the U.S., raised in this area, and have no other homeland. Her mother spoke with the girl’s first grade teacher, and the two women shared their tears – this wasn’t schoolyard bullying; the girl had been terrified by what she was hearing over the air.

Speaker after speaker rose to describe how lucky they were to reach America, how grateful they felt for the welcome they received and the chance to rebuild their lives. They celebrated America’s protection for people of all faiths, from all parts of the world, and their own determination to protect that freedom for everyone. Muslim clerics speaking to fellow Muslims, rejoiced in what America offered and encouraged them to do what they could to protect those values for all. Others spoke about the need to remember the blessings of America in times which are quite worrisome for Muslim men, women and children, and to do their best to protect America and its liberties.

Some had made the greatest sacrifice. The Muslim woman I described a moment ago explained that an older brother, also Muslim, had enlisted in the U.S. Army right after 9/11 to defend this country – serving our country which was also his, her brother was killed in action in Afghanistan. To her and to all of us he was one of the heroes of this conflict. Stereotypes must not obscure the contributions of real and good people. It was important to her, and should be important to us, to recognize the sacrifice that her brother and other Muslims have made to protect American freedoms.

Sitting there I realized I was watching the way the best of American values are renewed, revived and passed on as they have been for centuries. Sometimes we Americans show surprisingly little confidence in the strength of our ideals to flower in the hearts of immigrants. That, after all, is why they came.

Mayor Sheehan delivered a warm welcome and later pointed out to some of us that Muslims had been part of Albany since the city’s Dutch beginnings. In fact many of America’s founders made it clear that Muslims, along with Jews, deists, Protestants and Catholics were all included in the Constitution’s protections, and some took steps to make sure that Muslims and immigrants from all continents would feel welcome to come to America.

Every community has bad apples. But the bad apples in non-Muslim communities have been responsible for the vast majority of murder, arson and domestic terrorism in America. Stereotyping hasn’t protected us. Reaching out and welcoming these new Americans is much healthier.

Like many of us, immigrants and their children try to preserve the good parts of their heritage. But they came from war zones. Many risked their lives to escape. They have the strongest reasons to love and celebrate America, because they know what was in store for them or their parents in the lands of their ancestors. They’re trying hard to be helpful and constructive. It’s important that the rest of us recognize that.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 28, 2016.


For Valentines Day 2016

February 9, 2016

It’s the time of year to think about love. I used to think that if you hadn’t heard Cho Cho San sing in Madame Butterfly about that fine day when Lieutenant Pinkerton would return to her, one had never heard a love song. Musically, I still think so. But what it really communicates is longing. Is that love?

Much of what we hear as popular music, or art songs or operatic love songs are songs of longing, loss or jealousy. Where’s the love?

Contrast that with Billy Bigelow’s soliloquy in Carousel where he starts thinking of the child he and Julie are expecting. First he thinks about the things he’ll do with “my boy Bill” until he realizes that the son he is dreaming about could be a she, and then realizes the ways that he will have to provide for her. Of course he is sexist in the ways that he thinks about his son or daughter, but he is also realizing and warming to the responsibilities of a loving husband and parent. Billy comes to understand that love is about the ways he can make his family’s lives better, not merely about his own pleasure.

Billy makes a big mistake and pays with his life. But the soliloquy that Rogers and Hammerstein wrote for him says a great deal about what love is about, the ways it transcends longing and jealousy, the joys of giving, the humanity of caring. I think that says a lot about the love that many of us experience. We seek the responsibility, the opportunity as well as pleasures of truly caring about others.

For me, that includes the satisfaction of taking seriously the needs of other Americans, of all origins, faiths and colors, and openness and respect toward visitors and immigrants. Respect and concern for others is part of asking the same for oneself. Ours is a very diverse country and it will be moreso in coming years. We can teach new generations of Americans that success is just a process of stomping on others to gain advantage or we can communicate the values of mutual concern and respect – toward others, and toward ourselves. Ultimately, peace depends on how well we treat each other, and how confident others are that they can live in peace and harmony with us.

The modern world has upended some ancient accommodations among peoples. Jews lived at peace in the Muslim world for a millenium and lived precariously in the Christian world for much of the same period. Colonialism played a part in changing that for the Muslim world. The racism and classism of colonialism stirred the Muslim soul and some of that has come out as anger. That illustrates the importance, as well as the morality, of the Golden Rule, treating others as we would want to be treated. For me it also points to the satisfaction of truly caring about others.

May I end with the words of the ancient Rabbi Hillel:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, who am I?
If not now, when?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 9, 2016.

 


For Whom the Bell Tolls Amid the Refugee Crisis

January 12, 2016

Wars in the Middle East are creating huge flows of refugees. If war creates refugees, we either have to have a way to stop the wars or a policy about refugees. Just saying we will or won’t let people in is a decision, not a policy. One must think past those decisions to the enormous consequences.

Countries can try to exclude refugees leaving them to fend for themselves wherever they are. Countries can also put them in camps, let them in but then leave them to fend for themselves, or help them settle. Surrounding countries can also stop them at borders, keep them in camps, or let or help them settle. The permutations produce very different results.

More than six decades ago, Arab states refused to let the Palestinians settle. Ipso facto they created a permanent Palestinian fighting force. But who would the Palestinians fight? The oppressors keeping them in the camps, or the oppressors who pushed them out of their land? Which story would they buy? Refugee issues can fester. Both Palestinians and Israelis feel their backs to the wall and feel themselves fighting for survival, with lethal results.

Incidentally at the same time, a much larger refugee crisis existed in the Indian subcontinent leading to the separate nations of India and Pakistan out of the British Raj. That land is still troubled, though neither denies the other’s right to exist. In both cases, the mass exoduses left powerful marks on the stability of the regions.

And on the US southern border what happens to the people we exclude and what happens to us because of it? Impoverished masses elsewhere are likely to do the same things that impoverished masses do here – turn to some forms of crime. I doubt, when one takes white collar crime and tax evasion into account, that crime is much more prevalent amongst the poor but it is different – mostly theft, drug dealing or prostitution for survival or quick cash.

Then there’s the effort to deport people who were brought here as small children, an effort some of the prominent Republican candidates have endorsed. Ok, what are those kids going to do when they are back in their countries of origin? Many of them will find themselves jobless because they are strangers in what Americans insist on calling their land. But those young people brought up in the United States will prove valuable to criminal enterprises abroad because they could cross the borders and pass here easily. From an American point of view, those likelihoods of crime and participation in organized crime abroad are dangerous here. Volatile borders do no one any good.

Would it be better to bring them in, settle, employ and educate them and our people too, than to insist that everyone is on their own volatile devices to deal with the cruelties of a world without mercy. And then think about the effect of refugees on the people they leave behind. Think about the letters home, and the money home. Who is the so-called Great Satan when family write back with ordinary family developments – marriages, jobs, babies – and send money.

Creating a population tsunami and then pushing people back into swirling lifeboats has consequences for all of us. “No man is an island,” wrote John Donne, “entire of itself….. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 12, 2016.


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