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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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

 

 


Others on the Plight of America

June 23, 2018

Permit me to recommend three articles. Each goes well beyond Trump but Trump is an engine of each.

Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale who wrote The Road to Unfreedom, reviewed Benjamin Carter Hett, The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic. Comparison with contemporary America are uncanny. Snyder ends his review saying “The conclusions for conservatives of today emerge clearly” from this history of the fall of German democracy: “Do not break the rules that hold a republic together, because one day you will need order. And do not destroy the opponents who respect those rules, because one day you will miss them.” But recent events suggest little respect for those lessons.

Kori Schake, deputy director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote The Trump Doctrine is Winning and the World is Losing. Summarizing a magnificent article is difficult but for me the kernel was that “if the United States doesn’t sustain” cooperation among the world’s democracies, “a rising power will eventually force it to defend its interests or succumb.” That’s been the pattern of power transitions except the transition from Britain to the United States, “an exception born of their democratic similarities, and one unlikely to be repeated between the United States and China.” At this point the U.S. handed over leadership in Asian trade to the Chinese with our withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and weakening alliances among democratic nations allows China to intimidate weaker countries and reshape Asian geography and maritime rules without cost. Moreover, the costs of the American led world order were small and declining, especially by comparison to the benefits.

And David Sanger, national security correspondent  for the Times and author of the forthcoming The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age, after exploring the extent of cyber-sabotage and American vulnerability, shows the cost of not dealing with growing Russian capability because of its political implications.

Will America choose another Roosevelt to pull us out of this deepening vortex of destruction or will it choose a Hindenburg to hand the reigns to a beast preparing to roast, gas and kill us all?


The Middle Class and the Poor

December 19, 2017

This is a season in which many of us make donations to help those with less than we do. But in the larger context, we need a better understanding of the poor.

For years now, politicians have been talking about the middle class. Being in the middle class doesn’t mean that one has it made. There are unfulfilled hopes and potential financial shocks that could knock almost any of us down and out. We know that and many of us are rightly concerned about it. The market has no feelings. It dispenses with people like so much trash. That should leave all of us concerned.

But when politicians talk about the middle class, I hear something else. I hear them telling us that no one else counts, especially not the poor. Many people treat the poor like trash. We even have names for it. A lawyer working for me once described his own family as poor white trash. He was nothing of the sort of course and his family couldn’t have been either – they brought up a very decent young man.

Tom Paxton wrote a song in which he says “If the poor don’t matter, then neither do I.” I had the pleasure of telling him after one of his concerts that song was very meaningful to me. I spent about ten years as a poverty lawyer in various positions in three different states. My clients weren’t trash and they did matter. They were decent, hardworking people who had suffered some reversal. Often, just as hard as the loss of income was the blow to their pride when they were out of work. The poor don’t have a financial cushion when things go bad. They can’t retire and rely on the pensions they don’t have. I remember working to get one of my clients who did have a right to a pension – it was thirty dollars a month.

With no money coming in, they spend most of their time trying to find things cheap enough to squeeze into their meager budgets. When people are poor, they are also very vulnerable not only to emergencies but also to fraud – they have little time or capacity to compare or investigate. Everything looks like an opportunity, even though too many offers are a mirage, squeezing out what little people have left.

We in the middle class are also linked to the poor because the worse they are treated, the worse we can be treated. That’s hardly a new observation. Free laborers in the pre-Civil War north objected to the way slavery lowered what they were paid for their labor. We are all affected by everyone’s wages. When the minimum wage goes up, so do lots of other peoples’ wages as well. When wages are set or negotiated it is always done with an eye to what other people are being paid.

The poor matter in another way. It’s very damaging to all of us to treat people like trash. Treat people like trash and train them to behave like it, and train ourselves to misbehave. George Mason spoke from experience when he told the Constitutional Convention that slavery made tyrants of the slaveholders. Civilization and civility require civilized behavior from all of us.

It’s also political. For all our fussing about corruption, Commonwealth United, respect for people of all backgrounds, and other issues of concern to those of us who feel like we are in more comfortable circumstances than the poor, who are our allies? And if we want allies, are we theirs?

Tom Paxton was right, if the poor don’t matter then neither do I.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 19, 2017.


From Chaos to Monopoly – the End of Net-Neutrality

December 12, 2017

Those of us warning that American democracy is threatened have still been stunned by how fast. Political polarization elsewhere has led democracies to collapse. Polarization here has largely been the unintended consequence of a legal transformation. But the cure may be even worse.

Over the past half-century, legal changes fractured the media by helping cable television  and available broadcast channels expand. Before fake news became an industry, the fractured media promised us a more democratic marketplace of ideas. But it made us a fractured audience, no longer watching or hearing the same news.

Court decisions eliminated liability for innocent misstatements that defamed people. The fairness doctrine once required all broadcasters to provide balanced coverage of controversial issues of public import. It was dismantled in the 70s. Now TV and radio are much more one-sided. A new statute and court decisions gave internet providers immunity even for fake news. The internet rapidly became both the intended source of valuable views and information, and the unintended bastion of garbage, leaving readers, viewers and listeners much less well-informed about the competing arguments over public issues.

Meanwhile, courts and state legislatures put presidential primary elections firmly in control of the nominating system.  Primaries often drive candidates to the extremes to capture majorities of their own parties, not toward the center to capture independent voters. Instead of balancing each other, therefore, the media and nominating systems increasingly radicalized each other since the 1970s.

President Theodore Roosevelt once said “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.” The draft ended in the 70s, a casualty of our disagreement about the war in Vietnam. The public schools have been hollowed out by charter schools and re-segregated with the help of suburbanization, zoning and Supreme Court decisions after Rehnquist took its helm in 1986. So neither schools nor the draft bring us together as they once did.

Federal agencies were at the heart of segregating the suburbs before and even after Brown v. Board, deepening polarization in the process. Financial institutions only compounded the damage with their sub-prime loans.

In this polarized, divided, segregated era, the Court in Washington decided the nation’s most contentious issues of race, police behavior, school prayer, abortion, equal rights for women and people with differing sexual orientations.  These were mighty battles over justice with enormous consequences. Mildred and Richard Loving could marry and live as a devoted couple near their relatives in Virginia despite their difference in racial origin.  Similar opportunities opened for women, African-Americans and members of the LGBTQ community. Some went free who would have been hanged for crimes they did not commit.

But the Court’s decisions sharpened the polarization among us. Where now can we hold a “national conversation”? In a fractured media? In a primary system designed to favor extremists? In the military tent? Or walking our kids to school? We have, unintentionally, torn the fabric of our community. Still we could rewrite some of the rules that aggravated our polarization.

But on Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission wants to eliminate net-neutrality and give a few large corporations control over what we see and hear. I’m concerned by which friends of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai would get control over our news sources. We’re going from chaos to monopoly. With Trump leading the charge against the most careful and professional news sources, it feels like we are headed to autocracy and bye-bye democracy.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 12, 2017.


Dealing with Hate

October 24, 2017

Dealing with Hate

Steve Gottlieb

 

Group epithets darken our world. It is particularly dangerous because the president encourages it. Trying to revive the language and practice of hate is shameful regardless of whom it comes from. How can we deal with it?

 

Somehow I grew up curious and sought out people who seemed different. I deliberately left New York City for college and law school to mix with people from other places. Students here come from distant parts of the country for the same reason. We discover our new companions have no horns and deal decently with us, although there are always exceptions.

 

I’ve never found a gender-neutral term for it but brotherhood makes sense. And it’s a survival strategy. Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor and outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler, spent seven years in Nazi concentration camps. He wrote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

His words urge us to stick together as a survival tactic – we can be selfish and altruistic at the same time and should be because brotherhood is valuable to us all.

Most of us learned not to generalize – branding people en masse makes little sense and lots of damage. Our language is full of ethnic slurs like welching on deals, Indian-givers, patty-wagons, not to mention all the ethnic slurs which most of us now regard as unmentionable but to which all our ancestors were subject. In other words, it’s too easy to break down into mutual distrust.

I’ve broken bread, worked and played with people around this country and across the globe, as an attorney, a Peace Corps Volunteer, tourist and student. It’s an education. Decent, caring people come in all colors, speak all languages, and worship in all kinds of places. That was as true in Iran as it was at college – I was a religious minority in both places but gained by both experiences as I learned to understand the needs, fears, desires and beliefs of others.

Unfortunately it’s too easy to fear what one hasn’t explored. We usually notice what goes wrong first, while what goes right seems too ordinary to notice. But that leaves lots of dangerous misimpressions. I grew up in an era when violence spewed out of white ghettos, from gangs in Black jackets but white skin. Should I fear every white American or every cleric because some went wrong? I’ve known a large number of wonderful African-Americans as well as people of other faiths and nationalities – some as clients, friends, colleagues and I’ve worked for several. The goodness of different peoples obviously doesn’t prove that none ever make mistakes but equally the mistakes of some don’t imply the absence of other wonderful people.

More significant than arguments, we need to condemn, resist and speak out. Hatred reveals the hater’s weakness. Our joint condemnations reveal how hatred destroys those who do the hating, costs them respect and other social and economic rewards. We must stand together.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 24, 2017.


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