The Middle East, European Colonialism and the Result of Blank Checks

February 27, 2018

Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of our Nature, argued we’ve become less bloody over the centuries. But so many issues involve life and death. For two weeks this country has been discussing how to stop school shootings. This week let’s address life and death in the Middle East. Next week, events permitting, let’s discuss two issues that threaten life worldwide.

I can count on hate mail whenever I speak about the Middle East. But let’s put some things in perspective.

The world’s refugee problem swamps most countries’ willingness to take people in. Our government wants to restrict immigration and we fight over who and why. Reaction to flows of refugees threaten democratic governments across Europe and contributed to the vote for Brexit. In addition to their own disputes, the American military footprint has aggravated war and population displacement in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine among many countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Stepping back historically and geographically, most countries are dominated by conquering populations. This country conquered and decimated Native Americans to create our bi-coastal America. A succession of warring populations, Huns, Visigoths, Franks, Saxons, Vikings and more, fought for Europe long before the modern wars.

This has hardly been a good way of solving problems or competition for land. But even more harm lurks in the suggestion that we undo it.

The creation of Israel was plainly the result of European refusal to accept its Jewish population. Historically, the Turks in the Ottoman Empire, and the Moors in Spain, before Ferdinand and Isabella Christianized it, were much more hospitable to Jews. The twentieth century brought the fate of the Jews to a head. Europe could have solved its integration problem. But seeing the handwriting on many walls in the 1930s, people like Justice Brandeis, then on the U.S. Supreme Court, were telling friends in Europe to get out quickly. But where to? Franklin Roosevelt, despite close personal and professional relationships with many Jews, blocked boatloads of Jewish refugees from our shores for political reasons.

So the west solved its problem by exporting it – to Palestine. Everyone was a victim in this process. Jewish refugees were uprooted and they in turn uprooted Palestinians. What to do?

At about the same time, Britain was facilitating the breakup of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan. It cost something like a million lives and uprooted many times that. The two countries still find it difficult to get along, but undoing 1948 is not on the table. It cannot be.

It is not true that whatever is, is just. That was proposed by the conservative philosopher Robert Nozick and I most emphatically reject it. But redressing all the wrongs of the past comes at a cost which will involve many who themselves were neither perpetrators nor victims and sometimes both. The argument about who was right and who was wrong in Palestine is not a soluble argument. No one was treated as they should have been. But even more important, fixing those wrongs implies a fight to the death of everyone there. That I cannot wish.

I cannot support complete and utter conquest for either side. We might once have insisted on an enforceable compromise. America once played a role as an honest broker and could have maximized the chance for peace. But we could not continue to play that role while giving Israel a blank check to violate its promises about settlements. The result, I fear, is going to be tragic. It may simply be too late to avert widespread disaster.

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

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Threats to Democracy – The Shadow Knows How to Divide and Conquer

January 16, 2018

Right after Trump won, a cousin offered to send me some anti-Hillary literature that she thought I’d find convincing. I responded that if Hillary had won, she and I would be safe. But Trump’s victory emboldened those who would be perfectly happy exercising what Trump euphemistically called their Second Amendment rights, getting rid of people who don’t fit their racial and religious criteria. They were already on the streets. That left neither of us safe.

Nor is the problem just what some of his supporters believe and do. His campaign and rhetoric were about who should not be here. He continually appeals to his most extreme supporters, people who barely conceal their admiration for Hitler.

Many of us have been talking about how polarized our politics have become. Polarized politics is dangerous because it is a predicate for autocracy. If people become convinced that they can’t live with the other side’s victory, that life is too dangerous, democracy becomes unsustainable. When a live and let live attitude is gone, democracy can’t be trusted.

Trump can’t be trusted. Trump stands for exactly the kind of politics that makes democracy feel more dangerous than valuable. During the campaign, he told his supporters to express their “second Amendment rights” at the polls, sending chills down the spines of loyal Americans. When neo-Fascists showed up to demonstrate in Charlottesville fully armed to sow fear and intimidation, and one of their sympathizers murdered a peaceful and unarmed woman in the crowd, Trump blamed their opponents for the carnage. To Trump and his white supremacist supporters, evil is racial – Hispanic, immigrant, Puerto Rican, or Muslim, Blacks, Jews, minorities and women. When he tried to export his racist friends to the Brits, they told him to stay out of Britain. Bless the Brits. They get what this country used to stand for – we are [quote] “one nation … indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Liberty and democracy are “indivisible”; they are and must be for ALL.

A descent into racism, Nazi or otherwise, would not make America great again. It would destroy our country. One of the things I found fascinating in the papers of the UN Commission on Human Rights which produced the UN Declaration of Human Rights, was that human rights was not an American idea foisted on the world. Hatred of the Nazis came from across the globe, all continents, all its peoples. What they saw, regardless of economic or political system or religious or ethnic heritage was that the Nazis were a threat to everyone. All countries worked with the single-minded goal that there should be no more Hitlers, no more Nazi control of any country. The world had defeated the Nazis and they weren’t about to have to do it again.

Trump doesn’t get or care that democracy depends on our agreement that all Americans are legitimate Americans, all Americans need to be respected and cared about, and all Americans need to feel safe here, or he is wielding the demonization of some of us precisely to end self-government.

When I was a kid, there was a radio program that some of you will remember. It’s tag line, voiced by actor Frank Readick Jr., was “what evil lurks in the hearts of men, the Shadow knows.” I make no claim to knowing what evil does or doesn’t lurk in the heart of Trump. But threatening America from the inside, he is the biggest threat to the survival of America since our Civil War.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 16, 2018.

 

 


God and Texas

August 29, 2017

I mentioned to Ian a couple of weeks ago, as I was preparing to take a brief vacation, that I thought I had enough commentary ready for a couple of months. Ian just smiled and said it might depend on what happened. He didn’t mention a biblical flood in Texas.

There are many ways that we each address what is going on in the world. One of those is through the lens of religion. So is there a religious perspective on the flood in Texas? Of course. One could just build an ark and pray but really the religious perspective is much deeper and more important. God has set up the mechanisms that have turned human abuse of the earth’s environment into global climate change. Floods are part of the punishment for our carelessness with our natural heritage.

Notice that there is nothing in a religious perspective which contradicts a scientific one. Many scientists, religious themselves, describe their own work as trying to understand God’s work. Whether you or they think about the consequences of carbon and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere through a religious lens or not, the results are the same. The world gets warmer and one of the consequences are storms of biblical proportions.

Biblical? A body of water the size of Lake Michigan now covers a part of Texas and the storm is far from over, still bringing waters from the Gulf and dumping them on Texas. That’s biblical. Lake Michigan is huge, over three hundred miles long and more than a hundred miles wide. Lake Michigan reaches a depth of nearly a thousand feet – I hope that doesn’t happen in Texas but parts of Texas have already had more than four feet of rain fall on them in just a couple of days and the rains still fall.

This is just one of many storms and floods that have inundated parts of the country from New York to Texas. We have a president that pulled us out of a worldwide climate agreement and scoffs at climate change. And yes it is a matter of personal as well as political responsibility. We can limit the damage by our personal behavior. And our elected leaders, can limit the damage by facing and dealing with the ways that America contributes to the changes in the environment, and the ways that America could lead and support worldwide efforts to limit the damage. Anything less merits the wrath of God.

For those who do not think of the world through a religious lens, you need only think of your families, parents, brothers, sisters, children and grandchildren. This world is on a course to become a much tougher place for all of us. The burning of carbon based fuels that are causing climate change, are also causing changes in the oceans, killing the reefs that are the basis of the oceanic food chain, killing much of the sea life that gives many of us nourishment and fishermen their livelihoods. The same process is enlarging the deserts, killing forests, and ultimately threatening the oxygen supply that we depend on for life itself. The same process is spreading disease and spawning new pathogens that will overwhelm our bodies and our medical systems.

This is murder on a global scale. And yes, people are responsible, elected politicians are responsible, and people in or out of office who willfully ignore reality and believe climate deniers’ drivel are responsible. It is our moral and religious responsibility to stop it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 28, 2019.


Religion Chautauqua Style

August 1, 2017

Instead of the mess in Washington, let’s talk about something positive. We just got back from a brief vacation in Chautauqua. I’ve been going there whenever possible since 1955 and I think it is valuable to talk about what it has meant to me, especially in this time when discussion of religion is so fraught.

Chautauqua had been founded in 1874 as an ecumenical summer school for protestant Sunday School teachers. Before the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, ownership of property was still restricted to Protestants, although lots of us learned to love the place regardless of religious commitments. I’ve always felt welcome, no matter whom I’m talking with, who’s running things or whose chapel I’m in. Neighbor or stranger, I’ve been included and welcomed. That welcome was important to me; it influenced me to move beyond the familiar terrain of where I grew up in my choice of college, law school and subsequent career decisions.

The spirit of Chautauqua has always taken the sermon on the mount seriously. As Ben Franklin wrote in his Autobiography, “the most acceptable service of God is doing good to man.”[1] For Franklin that service to mankind was by no means limited to people of one’s own faith.

This summer I took a seat in the amphitheater at the Sunday evening Sacred Song Service. For some years, religious gatherings in the amphitheater included material from across the Abrahamic tradition, the three great religions which all trace themselves back to the patriarch Abraham. I have heard this religious and primarily Christian congregation recite from the Qu’ran along with Christian and Jewish liturgical prayers, poetry and song. This year I was particularly struck by the inclusion of a gorgeous Native American chant.

It’s a good feeling, affirming our mutual respect and appreciation. No one is diminished as we celebrate the best in ourselves and in each other. We walk out feeling stronger, wiser, more confident. Bridges among us are also bilateral entree, enlarging our options, prospects and opportunities as well as our understanding. They amplify both the good we can do in this world as well as our own security.

We shared embraces with friends from many traditions and from all over the country, shared a home cooked dinner with a pair of old friends, both of whom are Lutheran ministers, and went out for dinner with a former student of mine here in Albany who has become a Methodist minister. There is of course nothing unusual about this. But it is worth noticing that this is one of the strengths of our country and of Chautauqua in particular.

Nor, at my recent college reunions, was I diminished by reciting a Muslim prayer at a memorial service for deceased members of my college class along with prayers from the Christian and my own Jewish tradition. We are and were all human, with the strengths and frailties common to mankind. We find a common end in death as we shared the world in life. We remember each other fondly without regard to where they prayed.

Part of what made this country a beacon for the world was that we left our prejudices behind in the old world our ancestors left. Our First Amendment is, after all, a cry for brotherhood as much as it is a restraint on government. We keep government out of the religious tent because we celebrate both the rights of all faiths and our common humanity in brother- and sisterhood.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 1, 2017.

[1] The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin With Introduction And Notes (P F Collier & Son Company, ed. Charles W Eliot, New York (1909) [available online at The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Release Date: May 22, 2008 [EBook #148] [Last updated: November 10, 2011]]


The March in Albany

January 25, 2017

This weekend was busy. The New York Civil Liberties Union, the National Lawyers Guild and others trained people in nonviolence and to serve as observers for the Women’s March on Washington, including a couple of training sessions at Albany Law.

Saturday I joined the Inaugurate Resistance March here in Albany. People joined the crowd from every direction, walking toward the planned start of the march. With so many people it was long before I saw anyone I knew. State Senator Neil Breslin commented to me that a march of this size had never happened in Albany. The only numbers I’ve heard seemed much too conservative – this was really big.

I saw speakers and marchers from women’s groups, Citizen Action, Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood, the Coalition Against Islamophobia, labor unions, religious leaders, community service groups, gay rights groups, and many others.

Eventually I ran into friends who’d served in the Peace Corps, or been mainstays of activism in this area. I got close enough to the rear of the platform to see the back of speakers’ heads.

A common theme was solidarity across all the causes we each primarily work on. United we stand and can protect each other. Divided we fall; we’re all vulnerable separately. All for one and one for all.

When John Dunne wrote the immortal lines, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee,” he wasn’t whistling dixie. Our welfare is bound to each others’:

  • Slavery to northern workers was both morally indefensible and a threat to their own livelihoods.
  • Sweatshops bring down everyone’s paychecks and safety.
  • Minimum wages affect everybody’s wages. It’s about whether some people can take advantage of other people, and us.
  • Abuse of women threatens our families and our children – do I have to count the ways?
  • Abuse of any of us – racial minorities, immigrants, gays, lesbians and the trans-gendered, any of us – threatens all of us.

Treating people like trash threatens us all – by example, not to mention their business, their support for us, and the damage to all of us of making some people desperate – desperate for jobs at any price, desperate for food, clothing and shelter for themselves and their families, at any price. Desperation threatens everything and everyone.

The folks at the Inaugurate Resistance March got it. We celebrated our inter-dependence and we cared about each other. I like to quote the ancient Rabbi Hillel who asked the people, “If I am only for myself, who am I?” In that crowd I enjoyed the reaffirmation of our mutual concern. Need I point out for the doubters that a major reason for our country’s success was our ability to work with each other – it matters that we see each others’ humanity, brotherhood and sisterhood.

But that cannot be enough to deal with the blowhard in Chief. The Tea Party’s example was its organizing. Their targets were primaries to take over the Republican party and publicity to take over the public agenda. Obviously it worked. And it will work for liberals too.

It must. Obama’s election was a major step toward a just, decent world. The blowhard-in-Chief is poised to take the brotherhood of mankind apart. It’s our job to make that fail, never to be resurrected, and drive its proponents out of American politics. It’s our job to keep in touch, stay united, publicly push for a decent America until the racist blowhards are sobbing in their caves. We’re the majority and we’ll make OUR muscle felt.

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


A Scary Election

October 25, 2016

Over a century ago, populism was sweeping the country, with white and African-American workers standing together, until a scared Southern aristocracy started race-baiting. Whites took the bait, breaking the back of Southern populism. The rest of the country surged forward because their governments cared about the people, the regular people, not just the fancy financiers. But not in the South, which languished.

That race-baiting aristocracy also killed political competition, leading to the one-party South. No democracy, no concern for the people, no progress. Because race-baiting broke the back of Populism.

Trump uses rhetoric to divide the people hoping he and his cronies can conquer while the rest of us fight each other. Trump attacks everyone – immigrants, African-, Hispanic-, and Muslim-Americans, women, hard-working, warm-hearted, caring Americans of every background.

Democracy is in danger when people can’t accept the legitimacy of disagreement, drown out and threaten opponents, and don’t respect the right to vote of other people because of where they live or where their parents came from. Losing respect for others threatens democracy. Most of us believe that everyone has a right to their opinion. Democracy is in trouble when some try to shut down that right.

Democracy is threatened by campaign crowds yelling “Lock her up” and “Hang her in the streets.” Promising to appoint a special prosecutor to go after Hillary, Donald feeds their hostility to democracy. Like Italy’s Berlusconi, Donald tries to cover revelations about his behavior by throwing hate to angry crowds. Hillary responds “That happens in dictatorships, not democracies.” She’s nailed it; Trump does not want to lead a democratic country; he’s trying to sabotage it.

Trump’s racism and nativism has broken the back of the movement for economic justice. His invitation to settling the election by beating people up and using their Second Amendment rights encourages force, intimidation and even guns, to take Hillary out. Telling his supporters to prevent the polls being rigged codes Trump’s message to control the election by threats and intimidation.

Democracy is in serious trouble when police and military institutions take sides. Individuals in the uniformed services have every right to their political views. But we’ve had a tradition of keeping the military out of politics. We should be able to rely on them to protect every voter’s rights regardless of politics. The military and police need to be above politics or democracy is at risk.

Trump is trying to forge a coalition to muscle democracy out of the way.

If the self-proclaimed rich guy wins, he knows how to enrich himself and his cronies. But he pulls his supporters along with constantly repeated half-truths, lies and fabrications until they seem true because he says them so often – stringing them together like a rant overwhelming any attempt to answer because there’s too much to deal with.

Economic desperation leaves many open to his lies. But they cannot put a populist program together on the back of a divided America. They cannot get government to work on behalf of all the people, not just the super rich, by dividing over skin color, national origin and gender.

The Constitution, the Declaration, the Founders’ legacy, are in trouble when despondent and demoralized people lose faith in self-government. When democracy is in trouble, everyone is in trouble because dictators don’t take care of their people – they take care of themselves.

These same patterns have brought democracy down in many parts of the globe. But for Mr. Trump, we’re all losers and our democracy is a loser too. For Trump, only Trump counts.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 25, 2016.


Iftar

June 28, 2016

This is Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. We were invited to Albany’s City Hall for an Iftar, the evening feast after the sun-up to sun-down fast. Meetings aren’t polls and people put their best feet forward at public events. But I also know these folks. We greeted friends: a physicist, President of a Mosque on Central Avenue; an engineer who escaped repression in Iran, and ran a radio program to celebrate and protect American freedoms. We greeted a doctor whose daughter was my student and valedictorian at Albany Law, now working for the NY Attorney General. There were scientists, programmers, medical professionals, Sunni and Shi’a, Muslim, Protestant and Catholic clerics and public officials.

One woman described her six year old daughter lying awake at night, terrified, crying and asking where they’ll go if they are kicked out of this country – mother and daughter were born in the U.S., raised in this area, and have no other homeland. Her mother spoke with the girl’s first grade teacher, and the two women shared their tears – this wasn’t schoolyard bullying; the girl had been terrified by what she was hearing over the air.

Speaker after speaker rose to describe how lucky they were to reach America, how grateful they felt for the welcome they received and the chance to rebuild their lives. They celebrated America’s protection for people of all faiths, from all parts of the world, and their own determination to protect that freedom for everyone. Muslim clerics speaking to fellow Muslims, rejoiced in what America offered and encouraged them to do what they could to protect those values for all. Others spoke about the need to remember the blessings of America in times which are quite worrisome for Muslim men, women and children, and to do their best to protect America and its liberties.

Some had made the greatest sacrifice. The Muslim woman I described a moment ago explained that an older brother, also Muslim, had enlisted in the U.S. Army right after 9/11 to defend this country – serving our country which was also his, her brother was killed in action in Afghanistan. To her and to all of us he was one of the heroes of this conflict. Stereotypes must not obscure the contributions of real and good people. It was important to her, and should be important to us, to recognize the sacrifice that her brother and other Muslims have made to protect American freedoms.

Sitting there I realized I was watching the way the best of American values are renewed, revived and passed on as they have been for centuries. Sometimes we Americans show surprisingly little confidence in the strength of our ideals to flower in the hearts of immigrants. That, after all, is why they came.

Mayor Sheehan delivered a warm welcome and later pointed out to some of us that Muslims had been part of Albany since the city’s Dutch beginnings. In fact many of America’s founders made it clear that Muslims, along with Jews, deists, Protestants and Catholics were all included in the Constitution’s protections, and some took steps to make sure that Muslims and immigrants from all continents would feel welcome to come to America.

Every community has bad apples. But the bad apples in non-Muslim communities have been responsible for the vast majority of murder, arson and domestic terrorism in America. Stereotyping hasn’t protected us. Reaching out and welcoming these new Americans is much healthier.

Like many of us, immigrants and their children try to preserve the good parts of their heritage. But they came from war zones. Many risked their lives to escape. They have the strongest reasons to love and celebrate America, because they know what was in store for them or their parents in the lands of their ancestors. They’re trying hard to be helpful and constructive. It’s important that the rest of us recognize that.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 28, 2016.


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