Take America Back

March 18, 2019

It is painful to see the forces of hate killing men, women and children on many continents and here in many states, in schools and public places, taking apart the work of what we have been honoring as the greatest American generation who spilt their blood for the America they loved. It is painful and frightening to see the effort of the alt-Wrong to rip apart the free world that this country took the lead in creating. It’s painful to see terrorists crediting an American president as their inspiration for murder.

When I was a small boy, American men were fighting, and dying, in the Pacific, Africa, Italy and, after the landing in Normandy, through France and Germany. They were struggling for freedom, democracy and brotherhood. As the war ended, Truman sent Franklin Roosevelt’s widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, to the UN. Truman sent her there to make clear to the world the depth of America’s commitment to building a robust and sustainable free world. She chaired the seventeen-­member UN Commission on Human Rights and led that body in the development of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You could have drawn much of it from our own Constitution. These were American ideals on the world stage.

In 1948, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Vinson held racially restrictive covenants unconstitutional. Then in 1952 the NAACP brought five cases to the Supreme Court challenging segregation and seeking to overrule Plessy v. Ferguson, the case that had upheld segregation in 1896. The Truman Administration told the Court that the US was being attacked around the globe because of segregation and that segregation complicated American foreign policy. Obviously important, the case was reargued after President Eisenhower took office and Chief Justice Vinson had died. Eisenhower’s Justice Department submitted its own brief to the Court, and it underscored the arguments of the Truman Administration that this country needed to end segregation. The Supreme Court agreed; in Brown and a series of cases it made clear that American government could make no distinction of race, creed or heritage in its treatment of Americans.

Americans cheered Brown and made clear it was a popular decision. We believed what they said in the Declaration, that “all men are created equal.” Americans fought a Civil War over that principle. By the time of Brown, this country had embraced people like Jesse Owens, Marion Anderson, and Ralph Bunche among many others. With some obvious and vocal exceptions, Americans embraced the end of segregation. That is the America embraced the world over, admired for its principles and its heart. That is the America that took all of us to its heart regardless of which country our ancestors came from, which faith they brought. That is the country that our ancestors embraced with both love and pride, the America they wanted to be part of and contribute to. That is the America they wanted for us. That is the America we need to take back.

An America with neither mind nor heart clearly needs a trip to see a Wizard of Oz. An America with a man in a position of power who gloats that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” with impunity is an America which actually does need to deport someone, and to wall out the orange-haired imposter before he corrupts our genetic inheritance.

— A version of this commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 19, 2019.

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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.


The Violence of Bigots; the Devil’s Pox on the Skin of America

November 6, 2018

October ended painfully: an anti-semitic attack in a Pittsburgh temple killed eleven; a racist attack at a Kentucky grocery store killed elderly African-Americans. Though hundreds of miles from here, friends and colleagues had losses. Close friends were married at that Pittsburgh Temple.

We missed the Sunday interfaith memorial in Albany but joined the Monday gathering at Temple Gates of Heaven in Schenectady. Approaching it, I saw friends who’d been Peace Corps Volunteers. Our job had been to extend this country’s hand of friendship to peoples abroad. Now we shared the pain from prejudice at home.

Schenectady Clergy Against Hate organized the memorial for a standing room only crowd, to share our grief for the dead, the injured, their families, and our country. The Clergy Against Hate consists of many denominations of Christian, Jewish, Islamic and eastern faiths, all of whom mourned the losses and stood for a world of love and concern. Minister Jonathan Vanderbeck, of Trinity Reform Church, told us “We stand against hate and oppression,” adding “that really carries throughout all our religious traditions.”

Our country included people of multiple faiths, origins, and languages from its founding. America’s revolutionary armies included free and enslaved Blacks, as well as Jews who had first settled in the colonies under the Dutch.

The Founders described America as a beacon shining a path from wicked, murderous hate elsewhere to an enlightened place of brother- and sisterhood. A “hundred years war” had scourged Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Thirty years of religious war devastated it in the seventeenth century. A global seven years’ war reached us as the French and Indian War. America’s Founders struggled to protect us from the killing, unifying us into one enlightened country, where we could learn to live with and benefit from each other.

Even before the First Amendment prohibited any establishment of religion or interference with each other’s freedom of religion, the Constitution made three references to religion, reading “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”[1] and providing for a secular affirmation as an alternative to each provision for an oath.[2]

The Founders welcomed and encouraged immigration in order to people the continent. Most understood freedom and human rights as universal. Prominent members of the Constitutional Convention led anti-slavery societies. Southern insistence on slavery postponed the extension of freedom to all until the Civil War, after which the opening words of the Fourteenth Amendment were “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

Think about the importance to America of that commitment to universal human rights. By coming here, immigrants from all over the world not only shared the effort and ingenuity that built our country, they showed by their presence that others could see themselves in America. Feeling that bond, civilized countries repeatedly allied with us to protect their freedom and ours. America helped create the European Union in order to bury centuries of warfare among European countries, uniting historic adversaries lest they fight again, and pull us into yet another World War. America led in developing international institutions and alliances which project the power of American ideals to protect us and much of humanity.

Racists claiming to represent the real America, are instead ripping out the veins and arteries that power our country. They’re doing the devil’s work to destroy all that has been great about America.

So don’t forget to vote – we’ve got work to do.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 6, 2018.

[1] Par. 3 of Article VI.

[2] Art. I, §3; Art. II, §1; Art. VI, §3; and the 4th Amendment.


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.


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