Not If We Rest On Our Laurels

May 10, 2020

Americans like to say we’re no. 1, we’re the greatest, the world’s only superpower. So this is for the America greatsters. Not if we rest on our laurels, we’re not. Our genes came from all over the world. The science that’s been our glory, had many stages of development off our shores. The world doesn’t sit still waiting for the U.S. to create the next big thing. Several Asian countries have nuclear weapons. Several are challenging our digital developments, invading our privacy and platforms in ways that threaten the utility of what gets designed here.

Americans like to say we’re the richest country in the world but seldom want to do more than say it. If one examines the data, some Americans are extremely wealthy, but most of us aren’t and don’t live as well as average people in many industrialized countries. That’s in the data.

We like to say we have the world’s best health care system but it didn’t outperform everyone else in the Covid-19 crisis, and our life expectancy is not so high among westernized countries.

We developed the best education the world had known but we have largely abandoned it, abandoned the grade schools and abandoned the state colleges and universities.

We’re not the greatest if we rest on our laurels. We’re not the greatest if we treat scientific prowess as established, abandon science education from kindergarten through graduate schools and stop investing in scientific research. We’re not the greatest if we ideologically assume that government has been hamstringing our scientific prowess when in fact much American technological prowess was the result of government investment – in nuclear physics, in getting to the moon, in the initial development of the internet – programs which spawned modern broadcast and digital technology and virtually everything we use in modern life. American technological progress didn’t end with Thomas Edison; modern progress developed in tandem with government investment. Most of the important drugs we rely on depended on government investment and it’s crucial for vaccines.

We’re not the best if we assume everyone will still come to American universities while great universities develop abroad. We’re not the best if we insult everyone with our boasting and then expect them to continue coming here to study, live and work. We’re not the greatest if we continue to disparage people from eastern countries while failing to notice that they are closing the gap and even outstripping us in technological development.

We’re not the best if the method people adopt so that we are great again, let alone the best, is by dividing us against each other, blocking half the country from contributing to the extent of their abilities. Our sports teams were not at their best when we had a color line. And no field of activity will continue to rank at the top by excluding people with obvious talent. That’s just deadweight loss, using our energies to fight one another instead of building up our abilities.

No, America cannot be the best, or number 1, or great again if we rest on our laurels.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on May 12, 2020.

 


What are Americans that God is mindful of us?

January 14, 2020

Lots of people believe their countries are best. We do too. Caring for one’s country is good. Economic objections to admitting refugees don’t justify brutality. Strategic disagreements about Iran’s objectives don’t require going to war. But demonizing people changes the stakes. Treating them as nothing but vandals and killers, unworthy of concern, drives the ugliest parts of both the refugee and Iran crises, and threatens everyone in a chorus of hate.

Trump’s African-American predecessor created a path to peace in the Middle East. Obama was hardly the first African-American with diplomatic skills. Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche negotiated the 1949 Armistice Agreements. Powell and Rice are more recent. But Trump can’t recognize Obama’s achievements. So he shredded the path to peace, revived animosities that made it useless for the US to stay in Iraq, and demonized Iranians and Mexicans, while too many of his supporters murder those they demonize.

Insistence that other peoples are unworthy of concern is like throwing a hand grenade at our common Biblical, Judeo-Christian and Muslim heritage, for the Bible, and the Abrahamic tradition it embodies, is the common heritage to which so many of us in America cling.

The Bible asks in the Book of Psalms: “What is man that Thou art mindful of him?”

Must we, too, be mindful of others?

Or do we think that we’re only a little lower than the angels, entitled to rule over God’s other peoples, to disparage, demean and vilify refugees and entire countries?

America’s strength comes from protecting human rights and supporting international law. We, not just a statue in New York harbor, have been a torch of freedom throughout the world.

Our Declaration of Independence became a landmark in the development of universal human rights by showing “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” and proclaiming that all of us “are created equal … endowed by … [our] Creator with … unalienable Rights … [to] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Our Constitution guarantees rights to all. The Bill of Rights speaks to “the people,” every “person,” and any “accused.”

The 14th Amendment defined citizenship so that it could not be denied to African-Americans or any other race – red, brown, yellow, whatever. These are among the commitments in that torch of freedom.

When we refuse visas or reentry to refugees, returning citizens, residents or visitors simply because of ancestry or faith, we not only violate the Constitution, we dim and tarnish our torch.

For centuries, we’ve been devoted to a world of rules and mutual obligations as the best path to peace. America wrote the rules of international order after World War II for a grateful world. No one forced NATO, the UN, regional and world financial organizations on us. When this country dishonors our obligations, to Iran, to NATO, the EU, or to refugees, who’ll trust us? If we’ve become a rogue state, whose interests align with ours?

God rescued the ancient Israelites from Egypt. But the Lord reminded them, in Amos 9-7, that God also rescued other very different peoples. If God pays attention to America, it’s not so we can celebrate or claim to be #1, the best or most powerful. It is because we have a job to do for all humankind.


Heaven in Hawaii

November 11, 2019

We were out of town most of last month and the trip back took three separate flights, all the hassle of traveling by plane, and more than 24 hours from leaving my wife’s cousin to walking into our front door. We’re still recovering from the time difference, the lack of sleep and the heat wave in heaven.

Yes, I’ve been to heaven and back and made interesting discoveries. First, some locals call it HaVaii – no W in the sound. In heaven, there are people from all over the world, down under and up top, east and west, all the continents and colors, many of whom speak six languages and everybody smiles. Yes it’s possible to pull a muscle even in heaven but when I fell two men rushed to help me – one had ancestors in Africa, the other in Europe – and both were lovely, wonderful men, determined to get me back on my feet.

Strange things happen in heaven. Mark Twain thought it very strange that human beings assume that everyone will play the harp in heaven though most wouldn’t be caught near one on earth. Perhaps equally strange, my wife got me into the ocean. I hadn’t done that in decades since our children were small. I had good memories of the Atlantic near West Palm but I forgot about the surf in Jones Beach and it played with me like I was a toy. When my wife tried to help me, it knocked us both down.  One more thing an aging reader and sitter like me has to relearn – how to face the ocean, stare it down and charge.

Life is so different in Hawaii from the constant patter from Washington about race, color, ancestry and who the heck is better than everybody else. Hawaii is proof that life can be lovely. Except that so many people, and worse, builders and hotel magnates, have made that discovery that they have changed the climate. One of our taxi drivers told us how lovely the climate was on the hill behind Honolulu. And my wife remembered it from a trip half a century ago – though we were clearly a couple by then we came home from Iran at different times and by different routes so I missed seeing Hawaii before there were clouds in heaven.

A photo of my wife was taken in D.C. with a frame that said “citizen of the world.” That is what peace means – that we are citizens of the world and recognize the same in others, treating others, all others, like we ourselves would like to be treated, the Golden Rule, or loving our neighbors as ourselves, another biblical formulation.

I’ve had that pleasure before – on the mall in Washington the day Martin Luther King told us about his dream, or in the offices of the NAACP or the legal services program, in the company of many of this area’s great folk singers, former Peace Corps Volunteers, or sometimes just on the streets of New York where people have learned to live and love together, and among other dear family, friends, colleagues and neighbors – I’ve been lucky enough to live and work largely in supportive environments. It’s a wonderful feeling, to see the love without having to watch your back. It spells peace in many languages, and heaven too.

Even heaven isn’t perfect. There are justified complaints about the way those with native Hawaiian ancestry have been dispossessed of some of what should be theirs but it’s still a joy to see the way people live and work together. On the way out, I had a chance to interview two African-American women who’ve been working there, one a military officer, and they confirmed the rewarding pleasures of living and working with people there.

There’s so much more to enjoy in the islands than beaches and breezes, luaus and leis. You’ll find great examples there of the spirit that made America great.

  • This commentary was broadcast on Nov. 5, 2019, on WAMC/Northeast Public Radio

We Have Trump to Thank

September 24, 2019

The President has been taking apart all previously made progress handling the environment and global warming. His actions will contribute to what has been called the sixth extinction – the premature death of billions of people on this planet, large proportions of our children and grandchildren and the shrinking of any remaining habitable portions of earth, so that few can survive and those who manage to live on the meager remainder will have had to survive the bloodiest war of all against all just for the scraps remaining.

We have Trump to thank for trying to stop California from regulating its environment so that people can breathe in Los Angeles. We have Trump to thank for reversing the decline in greenhouse gasses from car engines and coal driven power plans. We have Trump to thank for encouraging the pollution and garbage that destroy fish and marine life, and poison the water we need to drink. We have Trump to thank for doing his best to put us out of our misery by making sure most of us cease to exist.

We have Trump to thank for making suckers out of those who supported him, putting all the resources which could have provided good jobs, into the hands of the richest among us, people who did everything except spend money on workers, who spent their tax breaks instead on stock buy-backs, dividends, McMansions, and outsourcing. We have Trump to thank for making suckers out of the people who thought he’d rebuild their jobs, their towns, their cities and their ways of life, and sacrificing them instead to twits about foreign countries.

Americans were famous across the globe for our ability to work together in everything from sports stadiums to armies and industry. America built its success on teamwork. But the President’s ego couldn’t stand it because he doesn’t get the credit. So, he found a way to destroy all those accomplishments by dividing us in order to conquer us.

So, we have Trump to thank for encouraging a war among Americans over race, religion, parentage and national origin. Alt-wrong mass killers have murdered a multiple of the Americans killed by any other source of domestic terrorism. They work individually as copy-cat killers, to defy blame and prevention, much like the Communists worked by separate cells. Yet the President praises and encourages them and prevents funding and enabling the surveillance the FBI should be doing to defend us.

We realize it’s very important to him to destroy all the strides we have been making to recognize each other’s strengths, talents and decency, to embrace each other as brothers, sisters, cousins and children of God so that he can stay in power riding a crest of hatred.

Instead, for Trump, only Trump counts. He has become the most corrupt president in the history of the country, the only one whose very loyalty is in doubt, who encourages violence against the public instead of protecting it from violence, and does all he can to weaken, not strengthen America.

I wouldn’t have thought it a good idea to lock up presidents and presidential candidates. It’s dangerous for democracies to do that. But Trump put it on the table by encouraging the chant to “Lock her up” directed against Hillary. It would be better for the rest of us to give him some of his own medicine, locking him up as he would have Hillary, but I’ll be satisfied by any legal means of getting him out of office. Then we can get back to saving our environment, strengthening the position of our workers, and protecting Americans from descending further into violence.


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.


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.


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