In the Wake of Atrocities is Moderation Possible

November 28, 2015

In the wake of murders like those in Paris, is it possible to talk about moderation? The impulse to kill is very strong. I know I’d feel it if it came close. And yet we know that many innocent men are put to death. And if an innocent person is executed, the killer, or killers, are still alive. And kangaroo courts or lynch law threaten everyone. The circle of murder can widen, as it did with the infamous Hatfields and McCoys. I’ve taught a descendent of the McCoys, actually a lovely young woman in West Virginia. But a murder turned into a war and decimated the families. Was that worth it – all the innocent lives. We are taught that two wrongs don’t make a right, but in the aftermath, do we have the strength to see that?

It was very difficult to oppose the war in Iraq. We know now it was a mistake, and one that did a great deal of damage, in the lives of innocent men and women, in destabilizing the region, in creating the opportunity for Daesh to thrive.

I’m terrified of the political pressure behind the hawks now. So-called collateral damage can cause a reaction that engulfs the world in flames. Our own reactions to the Paris bombing demonstrate the fact. Yet Daesh clearly hopes that we in turn will cause so much collateral damage that it will pull all the Muslims that oppose Daesh now into the fray to defend an Islam that seems under attack.

We should have learned by now that what matters in war is not what we think is justified, but what our actions produce. Lincoln understood that, calculating carefully how and when he used the slavery issue in the Civil War. Vietnam should have brought home to us that what people think matters. But the atrocities of some both in the Administration and carrying the flag in Iraq showed that the lessons of Vietnam didn’t reach everyone. Iraq continues to be a problem for us not only because it destabilized the region but also because the crude things that some people did in the name of America continue to inflame many people about us. It’s not about appeasement; it’s about pacification. It’s about keeping conflicts as small as possible. Every conflict isn’t about Hitler in 1938; sometimes the right analogy is to Versailles at the end of World War I when the victorious allies imposed punishments that radicalized the German people. Notice how differently the end of World War II came out, when the allies reaffirmed the rule of law and found constructive ways forward, not only for us but for the German people, not only the Marshall Plan but also the European Union which gave Germany both an important role and an important stake in the future of a united Europe.

That’s hard. That takes real statesmanship. Vice-president Biden’s comments Saturday impressed me. He started by identifying Daesh’s goals and then pointed out that we should not play into their hands by widening the war against Islam. Think of Daesh as holding a match and trying to start a fire or a detonator and trying to set off an explosion. Daesh by itself is infuriating. One commentator compared them to pirates. But without sparking that wider war, they cannot defeat us or any significant country. In this conflict, we have to respond with our heads, not our hearts. Like forest fighters, we have to contain the blaze before we can put it out. President Obama’s talk about containment was absolutely right. Thank heaven that we have a president who uses his head. The question is whether the American people can rise to the challenge of supporting a policy that’s based on intelligent calculations instead of emotional displays of power.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 24, 2015.

This campaign makes me nostalgic for the draft

September 15, 2015

This campaign makes me nostalgic for the draft.

The Republican candidates have been telling us who they want to keep out, and whom they don’t like or wouldn’t lift a finger for – Mexicans, Iran, Muslims, the poor, women, peaceniks. And they make it pretty obvious whom they do like – whites, “real men,” cops, soldiers, guns, the U.S., especially the U.S. before any of us were born, and Christians. It’s all stereotypes, of course. No group of people is all good or all bad – not even conservatives, a big stretch for me. There are always gradations – people need to be judged on their behavior. But that’s too much work. Simplification is so much easier.

Let’s talk about something else they don’t like – democracy. All their blather about the free market and government is little more than an attack on democracy. In fact polls reveal that, on average, conservatives are typically less supportive of the freedoms in the Bill of Rights – except the freedom to carry guns so that, if what they define as the need arrives, you can blow whomever away. Heaven forbid we should have to live together. I glory in walking out of Penn Station in New York – it seems like the whole world is right there and managing to get along; how wonderful in this increasingly contentious world.

Oh on the subject of New York City, that’s a stereotype right there – for much of America New York City is Sodom and Gomorrah. Never mind that the City is actually composed of Americans from all over the country – their own relatives, friends and classmates – as well as a major first stop for immigrants, the same immigrant streams that composed the rest of the country. No, New York is heathen. I remember stopping downstairs for a haircut in a building where I had a temporary apartment in Ohio. The barber was a woman and as we chatted she told me that she was surprised that New Yorkers actually tried to help each other in the days after 9/11. Really – did she think we were coyotes?

It makes me nostalgic too – for the draft! There was actually a time when Americans from all over had to meet, interact, make friends, and did. They introduced each other to their eventual brides, formed business partnerships, learned to appreciate the best in each other’s backgrounds. The draft was truly the incubus of democracy. Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.”[i] Got that right.

Actually the military has been working on that problem since the country was formed. Contrary to what many people think, Americans at the founding spoke many languages and have continued to speak many languages. The military struggled with whipping those disparate forces into a unified fighting team. They tried separate local units and units recruited by leaders like Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” but they tossed all that aside and put people into those military tents without regard to their origins.

The racial divide forced the military to think again about the problem. It turned out that mixed race units in World War II came back positive about the possibilities of integration. But Vietnam was hard, a stalemate in the swamps in the middle of turmoil back home. But the military responded by making it a part of every officer’s responsibility not only to achieve racial peace and cooperation, but to make sure that soldiers of all races developed appropriately, got training and took on responsibilities leading to promotions.

As a youth I feared the draft; I knew my own physical weaknesses. For me the Peace Corps was a good choice, one that helped me develop as a human being. And there were problems with the way the draft was handled. But I miss it nonetheless. Truly national service is a very good idea for a democratic country.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 15, 2015.

[i] Quoted in John Whiteclay Chambers, II, Conscripting for Colossus: The Progressive Era and the Origin of the Modern Military Draft in the United States in World War I, in The Military in America From the Colonial Era to the Present 302 (New York: Free Press, Peter Karsten, ed., rev. ed. 1986).

Grateful on the Fourth of July

July 7, 2015

As we celebrated the Fourth of July I found myself thinking back to a trip my wife and I made to visit friends on Long Island by way of the Ferry. We knew that there was a ceremony taking place at my alma mater, Yale Law School, for the swearing in of Judge Calabresi to take his seat on the federal Court of Appeals. Justice Souter was coming to perform the ceremony. And one of my classmates was already on the Court and would be there. So it would be a great party.

Judge Calabresi had been one of my teachers. His appointment to the Court was the occasion for his resigning as Dean of the Law School, a position he’d held for a decade. When it was his turn to speak, Judge Calabresi described how he and his family had left Italy in the early days of World War II when he was young. Calabresi is one of the most gifted and eloquent speakers I know and he described how America had been ready to give people like him – an immigrant and a Jew – an opportunity when they arrived. And he spoke about how he hoped to continue that tradition as a Judge, to be able to extend the benefits America had to offer to others, whether new to our shores or people we have been calling minorities.

My father and I were lucky to be born here but my mother and my grandparents were not. Looking around, the world could only impress me with the great good fortune of being born an American, in an age when America was prepared to extend opportunities to people like me as it did for Calabresi. Looking around now, we have visions of genocide on several continents. The sanctuary of America is such a special blessing. It is no wonder that so many want to come.

Like Calabresi, though not nearly as eloquent a spokesman, I grew up wanting to share and extend those blessings. I grew up understanding instinctively the blessing of what before the feminist revolution we used to call brotherhood – I keep looking for a good successor to the warmth and humanity of that term. The understanding that we are all God’s children, that none of us is an island, that the world we want for ourselves depends on extending the benefits of that world to others, is our heritage, our glory and our security.

But those glories have been hard won and have never been secure. In our own generations we have struggled to extend the benefits of America to African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans and immigrants from the various struggles of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. After the Supreme Court declared segregation inherently unequal and unconstitutional, cities all over the country, tore down the areas where minorities lived, destroyed their communities, declared them unworthy of investment, and the federal government financed white, but not black movement to the new suburbs, a move that took the jobs too, leaving in their wake poor, dysfunctional communities where once decent, striving, and thankful communities had once stood.

America has been good to me. I do not take it for granted. I want to recognize, encourage and support decent people of all colors and languages. Truly they add to the strength and the glory of this country, and brotherhood adds to the security of all of us.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 7, 2015.

Canadian Comparative Religion Case

May 19, 2015

I’d like to tell you about a recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada regarding religious education.[1] Quebec has a “mandatory core curriculum” which includes a Program on Ethics and Religious Culture, to teach “about the beliefs and ethics of different world religions from a neutral and objective perspective” as the Court described it. It “requires teachers to be objective and impartial” and “to foster awareness of diverse values, beliefs and cultures.” The court decided that freedom of religion required Quebec to allow a Catholic school, to teach about Catholicism from a Catholic perspective, but the Court held that the school nevertheless needed to present other faiths in a neutral way, a position that the school largely accepted.

I understand the problems with the case. I understand that there will be difficulties interpreting and enforcing the decision and the law on which it is based, and in balancing the rights of the schools and the students. But it’s also very interesting.

It has always been legal to teach comparative religion or the history of religion in public schools in the United States. The so-called “wall of separation” has always been about fairness toward all the students, denying government the power to promote any religious viewpoint over others. It has not been about total exclusion from the classroom. Here’s what our Supreme Court wrote:

While study of religions and of the Bible from a literary and historic viewpoint, presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, need not collide with the First Amendment’s prohibition, the State may not adopt programs or practices in its public schools or colleges which “aid or oppose” any religion. [2]

We perceive “exclusion” from public places and programs because litigants typically want to promote a specific religion or doctrine rather than treat us to a display of inter-faith brotherly love. Multi-faith displays aren’t generally a problem – except for the promoters. Most Americans support that kind of basic fairness. And there is much to admire in what Quebec has tried to do.

Some congregations themselves teach their young people about the differences in the ways people pray, taking them as a group on tours of other houses of worship. Sometimes the little congregation where I pray plays host to such groups, a practice I admire very much.

I’ve felt lucky over the years to spend time at Chautauqua where religious lectures and services are programmed into the Amphitheatre, so even if you don’t plan on attending you may be mesmerized just passing by, as I was a few years ago hearing thousands of people in the Amphitheatre in this historically Protestant religious community reciting a prayer in Arabic as part of what they called their Abrahamic initiative, exploring the different faiths that have roots in the religious world of the patriarch Abraham and the ancient Hebrews. They explored it by including clerics from each of those traditions.

My college experience was similar – we had to go to services, regardless of whose, and programming in the main university chapel was ecumenical – so I heard some of the world’s finest theologians of the era, regardless of faith.

I came to appreciate the fact that the finest minds of most faiths understand the similarity of their religious worlds, and the identity of unanswerable questions with which we all struggle. Most of all I appreciate what unites us and the import of that unity for us all.

Given the rise of religious war and cruelty in many parts of the world, I can’t bring myself to take brotherhood for granted. It is the hard won prize of our America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 19, 2015.

[1] Loyola High School v. Quebec, 2015 SCC 12 (2015), available at

[2] Epperson v. Ark., 393 U.S. 97, 106 (U.S. 1968) quoting McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 225 (1948).

The American Melting Pot

February 17, 2015

I’d like to share with you some thoughts that came out of a short piece I was asked to write about the Roberts Court. I’d like to dedicate this commentary to Yusor Abu-Salha, who spoke on NPR’s Story Corps about how wonderful the U.S. is, where people of all backgrounds share one culture, shortly before she, her husband and sister-in-law were killed in Chapel Hill because they were Muslims, and to all the others, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and all who have been murdered or tortured because they had what bigots defined as the wrong parents or beliefs.

You might think that the melting pot is the result of a lot of individual private decisions. But you’d be mostly wrong. Actually the melting pot is the result of a series of very public decisions. We made the decision, centuries ago, to provide a public education to everyone. That put us in the forefront of the world as an educated, progressive, productive and egalitarian society. We made the decision almost two centuries ago to provide public coeducational schooling. That put us in the forefront of the world in creating decent and progressive gender relations. We made the decision long ago to provide an education to immigrant children alongside the children who had been born here. That made us one people, regardless of where we came from. And all the private decisions in the great American melting pot took place in a world defined by our public schools.

Finally in the mid-twentieth century, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that we would treat race the same way that we had treated gender, language, religion and ethnic differences – that is, we would bring everybody into the same public schools. That opened the melting pot to still more of us so that our racial divisions are less sharp than they were a century ago – nowhere close to erased, but less sharp.

Chief Justice Roberts famously wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”[1] But he wrote that in connection with a decision to prevent a pair of school districts from bringing people together across racial lines. No melting goes on with Roberts at the stove.

When decisions are made that advantage the majority, Justice Scalia makes it plain he thinks that’s just normal; he sees no need to ask whether anyone was discriminating or intending to treat minorities differently.[2] But there’s no vice versa for Scalia – any decision favoring racial minorities is automatically suspect for him. Indeed, he and Thomas have described “legal protection from the injuries caused by discrimination” as “special protection” and “favored status.”[3]

In 1782, French immigrant Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, famously wrote that immigrants “melted” easily into Americans, and freed themselves from the slavery of the Old World.[4] The same year, the Founders of our country adopted our motto, e pluribus unum, Latin for out of many one. Our Founders did all they could to welcome immigrants, making e pluribus unum a reality for us. That has been our country’s glory. That welcome has peopled our continental expanse, brought to our country the most talented and driven from all parts of the world, and allowed us all to share in the benefits of each other’s talents and accomplishments. That welcome has allowed us to build a country without the hostilities that have torn and still so blatantly tear other countries apart. There is nothing more truly American than e pluribus unum. And nothing more central to the development of our great country than the melting pot, even if some of those who now lead our highest institutions can no longer see it or enjoy its savory aroma. It was left for the British writer Israel Zangwill in 1909 to put the immigrants into “the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming!” adding, “Into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.”[5]

The Founders worked specifically to welcome Muslim immigrants to America. They would have been proud of the Abu-Salhas and ashamed of Craig Hicks, and would join us in cherishing the diversity of people who share decent lives in America and praying for that mutual respect everywhere.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 17, 2015.

[1] Parents Involved v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 551 U.S. 701, 748 (2007)

[2] League of United Latin Am. Citizens v. Perry, 548 U.S. 399, 515-18 (2006) (Scalia, J., dissenting in part).

[3] Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, 645, 652-53 (1996) (Scalia, J., dissenting).

[4] Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (1782).

[5] Israel Zangwill, The Melting Pot: Drama in Four Acts (1909).

Speaking Across the Aisle about the Killing of Babies

February 10, 2015

I’d like to speak across the aisle. We have values in common even though we sometimes draw different conclusions. My point is simple. We are all against killing babies, their brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. A religious revival in this country has focused on one form of what many consider baby-killing. There are, however, other ways of killing babies in unspeakable numbers.

Babies by the billions will be the first to die because manmade pollutants that change the climate will kill in innumerable and excruciating ways. That should be a cause that left and right, religious and nonreligious should join on, with passion, action, and dedication. Global warming and burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses should be the third rail of politics, an absolute no-no, IF we truly agree that killing billions of babies is a tragedy we cannot ignore, cannot be neutral about, must act about – unless we’re merely hypocrits. So I appeal to the religious right, and the religious left and all the rest of us, to all those who really care about babies and protecting them from killers, to stop the burning of carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses now.

  • Our babies will be the first to suffer as we lose our food sources. Burning carbon-based fuels acidifies the oceans, killing the reefs and much of the food we get from the sea. Burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates climate change, contributing to the extinction of the plants and animals we depend on for food as their climates disappear.
  • Our babies will be the first to suffer as we lose our water sources. Burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates the climate change that depletes the glaciers that feed the lakes, streams and rivers we depend on for water. And burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates climate change that contributes to the drought and the expansion of deserts that rob us of drinking water.
  • Our babies will be the first to suffer as unfamiliar diseases spread out of the tropics. Burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates climate change that brings tropical and hot weather illnesses to us.
  • Burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates climate change that takes our land as the sea encroaches on us, making refugees of families, mothers, fathers, babies and children.
  • Burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates climate change that adds to the violent storms that engulf cities, towns and villages all over the world including the U.S. where hurricanes and tornadoes have been striking with unaccustomed fury in places that seemed immune. As in all these tragedies the most vulnerable and first to die will be the babies and children.

In each case, the most vulnerable to the disease, drought, storms and starvation will be the babies. Who then are the baby-killers? Who wants to authorize pipelines that make it easier for millions of gallons to flow to be burned? Who wants to drill, baby, drill? Who opposes every measure to add to carbon neutral sources of power like wind and solar? Who are the baby killers? Would you support and vote for baby killers?

Really, let’s by all means talk about killing babies. Yours, mine, our children’s babies. Global warming does not distinguish by faith, color, ethnicity, or gender. It is and will be an equal opportunity killer. So let’s show some real heart and understand this is the number one threat to infants all over the world, and their brothers and sisters, parents, and the rest of us.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 10, 2015.

A Blessing on Both Their Houses

July 29, 2014

Listeners and readers of my commentary know that I have spoken out against what I believe is Israeli misbehavior. So I get flooded with one-sided petitions condemning Israeli behavior. To make myself completely clear, I see merit and fault on both sides. I will not sign one-sided petitions.

I am reminded of my conversation with a Palestinian student who argued with me that Palestinians have the right to kill Israelis, any Israelis, military or civilian, and they have no right to shoot back, only to accept their fate. I questioned him to make sure I was hearing him accurately. What he was making clear was the attitude, or brain-washing, that dehumanized the other side. That is the attitude we have to fight against. Read the rest of this entry »


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