The Importance of Learning from Others

November 27, 2018

Americans have been reluctant to accept the importance of studying other countries. We tend to divide them into good and evil and assume that’s all we need to know.

As a teenager I was interested in science and in classical music. For both, I thought it wise to learn some German. But few schools taught it in the wake of World War II. Germans were the enemy.  But two World Wars provided reason enough to study German. President Roosevelt understood how vile and dangerous Hitler was long before Pearl Harbor and took steps to prepare the American military because he could and did read Hitler’s Mein Kampf in the original German.

Americans, however, seem more concerned about being subverted by knowledge of foreign places than by the costs of ignorance. It’s as if many of us have an inferiority complex about our own culture. White racists bask in western European skin color even while screaming America first. America has enormous worldwide influence, but many Americans continue to fear comparison to worldwide knowledge.

From the Napoleonic wars through the Franco-Prussian and two world wars, old World European nations repeatedly attempted world dominance and took a hundred million people to their graves. This country created or supported numerous international institutions to keep Europe at peace, the Soviet Union at bay and level out the boom and bust cycle of international economics, but too many Americans fear those same international institutions as if they were the work of foreign hands designed to subvert us.

The costs of ignorance are serious. Too many American Administrations have treated Saudi Arabia as an ally though it is run as a savage and medieval country, and too many, except for Obama, couldn’t accept talking or negotiating with Iran despite repeated overtures to the U.S. and the fact that they are one of the most westernized, even Americanized, countries in the Middle East. We’ve made similar mistakes trying to control who governs in Central and South America, Vietnam, and other countries. America seemed incapable of appreciating the strategic sense and the long game behind Obama’s attempt to strengthen America’s position in the Far East. It may be too late to recover the ground lost to China.

It’s time to get over our terror of learning about and respecting other peoples. It’s an odd terror for a country made up of so many different peoples. It’s an odd terror for a country in which we can walk out of a bus or train station in cities like New York and enjoy the kindness of strangers who themselves come from all over the world. It’s an odd terror in a country where we talk with taxi drivers about their immigration to and joy at being here. It’s a terror that undermines the benefits of our universally admired university system.

Does one really have to be from somewhere else to appreciate the strengths of our own country? Must appreciating our own country rest on ignorance of others? Or can we trust ourselves to learn about others, to appreciate their strengths as well as faults, to build on and incorporate their accomplishments into our own as we have done in art, literature, music, theatre, dance and so many other arts and sciences, to learn from others as well as from each other as we build our own strengths? Or are we really afraid that recognizing the strengths of others will sap our own?

The internet attributes to many people, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Sam Levenson, a family friend of ours, that we must learn from the mistakes of others because we don’t have time to make them all ourselves. First, however, we need to encourage each other to explore and learn.

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

 

 

 

 

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Pelosi

November 19, 2018

Republicans have been wagging their tongues and shaking their heads about Nancy Pelosi. Why? The obvious reason is that she has been so successful. She got significant legislation through, including the Affordable Care Act, which we’re all calling Obamacare – Republicans called it Obamacare when they thought it would fail and Democrats are happy to call it Obamacare now that it’s clear that it’s been very effective.

Now there are a group of Democrats shaking their heads and wagging their tongues about Pelosi. Why? Because the Republicans have managed to make so many disparaging remarks so often that it seemed like Pelosi must be bad – so bad the Democrats had to start inventing reasons to get rid of her. Boy are those Democrats smart – they can’t tell their friends from their enemies. Look guys, the Republicans are not your friends. The more they complain about Pelosi the clearer it is that she is a Democratic jewel.

This isn’t about age. It isn’t about familiarity. It’s about an excellent political mind and the will and willpower to make things work. Some Democrats were upset because she insisted that people zero in on the most effective campaign issues, particularly Obamacare, Medicare and jobs. And the House Democrats won and won big. In fact, their victory is still growing. But then there are the Democrats who complain that she wasn’t radical enough. So, I don’t get it: wasn’t she too radical or too conservative? She took the Republicans bug-a-boo and shoved it up their whatevers while rolling over the used to be Grand Old Party – they sure aren’t grand any more, thanks in part to Nancy Pelosi. Apparently, some Democrats don’t like to win, especially to win big. Embarrassing. We should be more modest and maybe just hold the House by a seat or two so the Republicans can demand nonpartisanship, like they kept demanding Obama be above partisanship while refusing to work with him no matter what. Oh God, we’ve enemies enough; save us from our friends.

Oh, did I mention that Pelosi is a woman? A powerful woman? That is a pretty obvious Republican problem – they’ve made it pretty clear by their language and their actions that their women are supposed to smile meekly and do what the guys want. It would ruin a guy’s ego to be told by a mere woman what to do. But that’s not what the Democrats are about – unless they’re hypocrites! We should be shouting with pride about Pelosi. No need to talk about her gender – everybody knows anyway. But she’s smart. She gets results. That is a credit to her; not a problem.

Oh, she’s not a young woman and the pretty smile she once had is now cross-crossed by lines. As our friend Peggy Lynn sings in a wonderful song, “I’ve earned these lines.” At her age so has Nancy Pelosi. And it’s pretty obvious that she hasn’t lost any of her so-called “marbles.” That’s what really bothers the Republicans. And that’s the same reason we shouldn’t listen to their objections, not for a minute.

— A version of this commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 20, 2018.

 

 


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.


Kavanaugh on Investigating the President

October 9, 2018

Brett Kavanaugh is now supposed to be called “Justice Kavanaugh.” The Constitution refers to members of the Supreme Court as judges. Whether the term “justice” will be appropriate depends entirely on his behavior. Of that I am doubtful. I think there was no justice for Dr. Christine Blasely Ford.

There is strong evidence that Kavanaugh will solidify a majority for repealing a half century of progress on voting rights, women’s rights, gay rights, anti-discrimination law and protections against our becoming a police state.  Kavanaugh invariably parried questions about his views with recitations of prior law, showing only that Kavanaugh could explain the cases, but never denying his likely impact.

Nevertheless, Trump and his Senate sycophants would have nominated and confirmed someone equally damaging to American law. More ominous are Kavanaugh’s views about whether it is OK to investigate a sitting president.

Kavanaugh joined the investigation of President Clinton on matters stemming from his relations with Paula Jones. That suit was dismissed because it didn’t claim Clinton violated the law. It was brought, however, for purposes unrelated to the suit, namely to enable fishing expeditions on Clinton’s behavior. That’s called abuse of process.  Those questioning Clinton eventually found Monica Lewinsky. By contrast to Trump’s behavior, she was a willing participant. In those days Republicans were puritans.  Kavanaugh pursued Clinton with gusto.

Then, with Bush in the White House before the election of President Obama, he told an audience at Minnesota Law School, that he had changed his mind. He wrote that defending against the Paula Jones litigation took Clinton’s attention off the growing threat from al Qaeda and similarly weighty matters. So Kavanaugh concluded that there were good reasons not to sue sitting presidents. He added that impeachment was always available. Left unsaid, however, was that to be more than a partisan political tool, impeachment must rest on investigating to determine what happened.

Unlike the Clinton investigation, the investigation of the Trump campaign is about the violation of multiple laws, both constitutional and statutory – whether Trump’s campaign worked with a foreign country to tamper with an American election and support that country’s interests in exchange for putting Mr. Trump in the White House. The Mueller investigation provides an independent, nonpartisan basis for considering impeachment. Without Mueller, we have only partisanship – a partisan whitewash or a partisan indictment.

So, Trump’s selection of a judge who doubts the legitimacy of investigating a sitting president strengthens his attacks on the ongoing investigation. That’s not news, given Trump’s tweets about pardons and remarks about firing Mueller. But we don’t allow people to be judge in their own cause. What we already know about the Trump campaign justifies a deeper look. And Trump’s effort to control the investigation can amount to impeachable behavior. For Democrats to take back the Court, the law and the cause of justice, they will have to defeat Kavanaugh’s senatorial supporters and elect a Congress prepared to prevent presidential abuse. In other words, the battle isn’t over and the stakes just got larger.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 9, 2018. This is a revised and updated version of commentary originally prepared for broadcast on September 18, 2018, pulled because of the Kavanaugh hearings, rescheduled for September 25 but pulled again at the last minute because of new developments in the Middle East. The earlier version was posted here.

 


Kavanaugh

September 18, 2018

Brett Kavanaugh no longer seems a shoo-in for appointment to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh has now been accused of attempted rape. Let’s be clear – there has never been a time when rape was just juvenile misbehavior. Rape is and has been a crime for centuries. Nevertheless, I doubt this president will make a better nomination, a point Akhil Amar, an old friend on the Yale Law faculty, made eloquently on these airwaves recently. If the Republicans can put another person on the Court, whoever it is will solidify a majority for repealing a half century of progress on social, procedural and political rights, repealing gay rights, women’s rights, anti-discrimination law and a host of protections against our becoming a police state.

Beyond the question of who Trump’s nominee is or will be, the larger question for both the Court and the country is the impact on the November congressional elections. Control of Congress is crucial not only for its legislative output, but also for eventually retaking the Court.

At the hearings, Kavanaugh invariably responded to questions about his own views with descriptions of prior law, showing only that Kavanaugh could explain the cases, which no one doubted. More interesting were his shifting views about whether it is OK to investigate a sitting president. It seems pretty clear that he believes it’s a bad idea to investigate and prosecute sitting presidents outside the impeachment process. But he hasn’t told us whether it is unconstitutional.

Kavanaugh joined the investigation of President Clinton on matters stemming from his relations with Paula Jones. The civil suit brought against Clinton was eventually dismissed because it did not claim Clinton violated the law. That suit, however, was brought for purposes unrelated to the claims in the suit, namely to conduct fishing expeditions on Clinton until they found something that might be illegal. That’s called abuse of process.

Those questioning Clinton eventually found Monica Lewinsky. By contrast to Trump’s behavior, she was a willing participant. The Republicans went after Clinton because it was sex and in those days Republicans were puritans.

Kavanaugh eventually wrote that defending against the Paula Jones litigation took Clinton’s attention off the growing threat from al Qaeda and similarly weighty matters. So he thought there were good reasons not to sue sitting presidents. But he did not slam the door shut. He expressed no view on the constitutionality of investigations or prosecutions. And he commented that there was always impeachment, which, if it is to be more than a partisan political tool, must be based on investigation to determine what happened.

Unlike the Clinton investigation, the investigation of the Trump campaign is about the violation of multiple laws, both constitutional and statutory – whether Trump’s campaign worked with a foreign country to tamper with an American election and to support that country’s interests in exchange for putting Mr. Trump in the White House. Whether or not a president can be prosecuted while in office, the Mueller investigation provides an independent, nonpartisan basis for considering impeachment. Without Mueller, we have only partisanship – a partisan whitewash or a partisan indictment.

So, for Trump to nominate a candidate for a crucial vacancy on the Supreme Court who doubts the legitimacy of investigating a sitting president, looks a lot like deliberate interference with the ongoing investigation. That’s not news, given Trump’s tweets about pardons and remarks about firing Mueller. But Trump’s efforts to control the investigation of his own behavior, making him the judge of his own case, offends a sense of justice. And that is directly relevant to the November elections. This president must have a Congress which is prepared to serve its constitutional function of preventing presidential abuses of power.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 25, 2018, but pulled at the last minute because of new developments in the Middle East.


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.

 


So-called “illegal aliens” and the Golden Door

July 10, 2018

We hear a lot of talk about legality and illegality, about illegal aliens as a wrong inflicted on the U.S. I think we need to address the significance of legality and illegality head on.

Law and morality are not the same. Slavery and the Holocaust were consistent with the written law. Assisting fugitive slaves was legally punishable in this country but those involved in the underground railroad are honored now and were often protected by people in free states while slave catchers sometimes faced riots and retribution.

This separation of law and morality is common to all parts of the political spectrum. There are arguments why laws should be obeyed but they are all contingent on how bad the violation of morality is.

The term “illegal aliens” is inappropriate for immigrants until their cases are decided. They have a right to apply regardless of how they got here. But I don’t want to get hung up on legality. My question is morality. Are immigrants morally wrong to come here at great risk to themselves and their families?

The Charter for the Nuremberg Trials took aim at crimes against humanity which included “Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population.” Is it then immoral to flee from likely murder, extermination, enslavement or other inhumane acts? It makes no moral sense to allege that parents were immoral because they broke American law, even if that were true, to avoid such fates, to save their children’s lives or their own.

But these arguments about immigrants miss what really matters to most of us – our willingness to share. The first time I visited the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus’ poem about the statue was on a brass plaque over the entrance. The next time it had been moved to the museum underneath. It’s the poem that ends “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Mama passed through that door as a girl of eight. She was brought here by her older brother Sam. He was 12, and they were brought up by sisters who were already here. My parents described the racism and religious prejudice that threatened many immigrant families. But it wasn’t nearly as dangerous as the pogroms that mama and my dad’s parents escaped. And no one knew yet how much more dangerous that part of the world was going to be for Jewish families.

Shortly before my graduation from college I got a phone call to rush to the hospital where mama was being treated for cancer. One of the last things she said to me was “It’s a good life; I don’t want to leave it.” This country was good to my parents and they loved it. They learned English, got an education and decent jobs, raised a son, and in the summers we traveled all over this state.

My reaction to those blessings is to see the blessings immigrants brought with them, to want to share, and to treat immigrants in humane ways that once made this country a beacon to the world.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 10, 2018

 

 


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