Why Its Values Made America Great & the alt-Wrong Would Impoverish It

March 25, 2019

Last week I spoke about Trump’s other threats to American principles, unity, democracy and world power. This week I’d like to address why they matter.

Equality is a central American value, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and throughout the Constitution. Racial, religious and ethnic discrimination are at the heart of Trump’s attacks on refugees from Islamic countries, the so-called caravan from Central America, Puerto Ricans after the hurricane, and kudos to his alt-wrong loyalists after deadly attacks. But discrimination is extremely costly to all of us, not just to the victims. It denies us the best available people for jobs and wastes our efforts in unproductive battles with each other. Lincoln told us that “a house divided cannot stand.” Economists describe such battles as deadweight loss – deadweight because they add nothing to national welfare, income or resources; loss because the battle is expensive in time, money, and lives. The Civil War was an extreme example, killing and maiming a large proportion of American men. Economists add opportunity costs – all the time, money and lives that could have been put to productive and useful purposes. In effect by dividing us and dividing our politics on unproductive issues, the alt-wrong is beggaring America, making it poor again.

Democracy is also central to American values, enshrined in our founding documents. But Trump tries to shred the freedom of the press to criticize elected leaders, principally him. He tries to dismantle the obligation of office-holders to obey the law. And he tries to dismantle democratic processes to solve issues by verbal discussion, not guns, what he has called “Second Amendment rights.” His misbehavior proves that democracy makes mistakes. But democracy invites America to focus on the general welfare, not the welfare of the “dear leader” as Kim is described in Korea or his American friend here. Sure, there is plenty of corruption which our emoluments clause would have reduced had the Republican leadership paid more attention to our Constitution. But the Constitution provides the means to kick the bastards out, encourages competitors to try and parties to appeal to the great bulk of us, not just the rich and famous. Democracy could do better if more Americans took the principles of democracy seriously, including fair elections with universal adult suffrage and honest campaigning. Democracy is the scaffold; we get its benefits only if we cling to it.

American values of equality and respect have had a unique power in this world, allowing people across this globe to see the value of our principles to them, as respected members of the world that America tried to create. Chris Giannou said on Alternative Radio that people in much of the globe “love you for your values. They hate you for your hypocrisy, because you do not live up to your values.” Our values galvanized a unified free world. They underlay all the institutions the free world created to keep us united and working together. We still talk freely about working together in the context of sports. But Trump and his alt-wrong see no value in unity and working together and despise it in politics and world affairs. They waste their energy and ours in destroying the ways this country spread its influence across the world and led the world in the protection of freedom and democracy.

So yes, America can be torn apart. But what awaits is the whirlwind, the war of all against all, in which none of us is safe. All the blessings of unity, democracy and world power are at stake.

—  This commentary is scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 26, 2019. For comments on the Mueller report that I included on air, see the next post.

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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.


Environmental Change and The Campaign Season

March 5, 2019

I’d like to start this campaign season by stating one of my primary objectives. Climate change is the rare major problem that has been warning us so that we could have had plenty of time to deal with it. Now in a film titled The Human Element, which is available on podcast, photographer James Balog shows global warming in time lapse photography.

But actually knowing what is going on seems to be a liability. Gore actually knew. He looked deeply into the issue of global warming and he understood. But the public reaction was horror – at Gore. He wasn’t like us. He knew stuff. In the first debate, Bush disposed of one of Gore’s points with a sneer, just calling it “fuzzy math.” I concluded on the spot that Bush was a bully. The American public apparently concluded that they couldn’t share a beer with someone who understood math. They judged sincerity as similarity – if he’s like us he’s sincere. So, if we didn’t study stuff, the president shouldn’t either. God. Try that for your choice of doctors. People got what they deserved except that they dumped it on the rest of us too.

Obama did know what he was talking about. Some of us loved him for it. Others were turned off because a Black man presumed to tell the rest of us what was going on – even if it was a loyal and dedicated Black man trying to save the rest of us from the hell we’re wandering into.

Hillary knew what she was talking about. She spent her life preparing for public office, not going to campaign methods and finance school but studying the public issues a president has to deal with for our sake. But her dedication to serving us, the people, was her apparent undoing. The guy or gal down the block doesn’t do that. So, she must be snooty because she knows stuff and proudly spent her life learning it for us. How bad is that?

Learned Hand, one of the great judges in our history wrote that elections are very hard to know enough about. I want presidents, senators, representatives and members of the Administration who have spent the time to know what they are talking about so that we don’t all fall off the cliff together, pulling our families off that cliff with us. This isn’t about my ego. It’s about survival.

Sincerity means to me that the candidate wants to take care of us, our health, our future, all of us.  Yes, experts disagree, and I spend some of my effort doing this commentary to distinguish between experts who have it right and those whose heads are screwed on backwards. But understanding issues is essential. Beyond what we can figure out ourselves, we have to be able to talk with experts who do understand. Lawyers have to do that all the time, from working with doctors to understand injuries to working with economists to understand how much money will have been lost. Expertise matters. Even to be able to talk with and explain the experts, one has to prepare. How better than by spending the time, energy and midnight oil to get things straight?

In this presidential campaign season, I want candidates who care enough to figure things out. Most important I want candidates who understand the urgency of dealing with climate change. And who build ways of dealing with the dislocations of capitalism by building their solutions onto the opportunities created by effective solutions to climate change.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 5, 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.


Happy New Year

January 1, 2019

In keeping with the spirit of the day I’d like to share a prayer that expresses ways in which collectively we have fallen short and need to do better. My hopes for the new year are entwined in that doing better. I think it makes little difference in whose house of worship I found the language because I think we all share it though the words may vary:

We dishonor You when we dishonor our society:

For our failures of justice, … [Lord], we seek forgiveness.

For being indifferent to deprivation and hunger,

while accepting a culture of self-indulgence and greed.

For abuse of power in board rooms, court rooms and classrooms,

and for accepting the neglect of children and elders, the ill and the weak.

For permitting social inequalities to prevail,

and for lacking the vision to transcend our selfishness.

For glorifying violence and turning hastily to war,

and for allowing history to repeat itself.

For behaviors that risk the future of our planet,

and for wreaking havoc on our only true inheritance – God’s creation.

What I always liked about attending religious services is that they create a time to hear and express the finer goals of life. And so too in those words.

In thinking about each other we recognize that everybody counts, that achieving our common goals depends on recognizing the importance and humanity of all, so that we can pull together to achieve what is crucial to us all.

In thinking about the ways these values resonate in each of our faiths, we recognize how much more we are linked than divided, whether because some of our faiths were bred on the same Middle Eastern mountains and deserts, or because of the miracle by which these ideas have been repeatedly reborn across the globe.

In thinking about the transcendence of these common values of generosity, caring, fairness, justice, peace and concern for the world we share, we think about the unity among our faiths and among us as people.

The narratives of how each of our faiths came to share those values differ but we share the values – the Golden Rule, Loving our neighbors – we share a tradition of mutual care and concern of which we can be justly proud and which deserves our commitment. Indeed, it is the only path to the survival of our earthly home and the possibility that our children and grandchildren will live lives unembittered by the world collapsing around them, from fire, flood, hunger, poison, thirst or scourge. I’m thinking about Maggie and Rebecca. Perhaps you’re thinking about Jodie and Joseph. We and all our children and grandchildren share this world. And how we and they come out of it depends on how well we share it and take care of each other.

Happy New Year


Happy Holidays to All

December 25, 2018

This is obviously a very special day. We’ve been fortunate enough to celebrate the season in many ways. Last night we celebrated a Peruvian Christmas with very dear friends, some of whom were immigrants, one who lived with us while attending college. In the Peruvian tradition we were supposed to wait ‘til after midnight to eat and share presents but the children made fast work of that!

 

A few nights ago, we took part in the Persian winter solstice celebration of Yalda with another group of friends, immigrants and proud Americans.

 

We’ve already celebrated the eight nights of the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, a holiday that became a bit bittersweet when my dad died on the first night of Hanukkah some years ago. And before my in-laws passed, around that same time, we used to drive down to North Carolina for Christmas, a delight for the adults which they made totally overwhelming for the grandchildren.

 

Here in Albany, our daughter used to play with the Empire State Youth Orchestra for Melodies of Christmas – I still have the sweatshirt!

 

One of the members of the North Carolina part of our family made her career directing 911 emergency response teams to scenes of distress and we quickly learned how hard that was around Christmas because the tragedies she had to deal with seemed that much harder during the holidays.

 

So, let’s include everyone with words from Pete Seeger’s Letter to Eve:

 

We’ got to get aworkin’ on []buildin’ … a decent home for all o’ God’s children!

Four thousand languages in this world, means the same thing to every boy and girl

Oh-oh Pacem in Teris, Mir, Shanti, Salaam, Heiwa!

Peace, for everyone.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 25, 2018.

 

 


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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