Democracy Needs Generosity

January 22, 2019

What’s wrong with our politics is its too common don’t-tread-on-me selfishness.

“What’s-in-it-for-me” politics in the early republic held up roads, canals and other internal improvements for decades until we learned to share. Democracy needs some generosity.

After 9/11, Congress passed appropriations for local safety and security. I spoke with a former congressman from this area about New York City’s share. He responded about his district’s various rural areas. I pointed out that the people in his district had important ties to New York City – family or friends there for jobs or schools. Others with close business ties. He responded that he hadn’t thought of that. Frankly that’s what’s wrong with our politics. We need to think about what binds us together instead of what splits us apart. And yes, even the subways New York City depends on. If we starve the subways because it’s there, not here, we starve ourselves; and vice versa.

The same connections are true of our ethnic, racial, religious and gender groups. Some hate paying for anyone else’s schooling. Yet it’s even costlier to clean up after or imprison people who’ve never been given the tools to pull their weight in society.

Should God forbid equalizers like Social Security or Obamacare, though they’re cheaper than the costs imposed by inequality?

The alt-atrocious white supremacists would give us a war of all against all, which makes only corpses and refugees, leaving no one safe – not supremacists, minorities, family, men, women or children.

Since Revolutionary America, colleges kept inviting broader, more diverse groups of students in order to sustain themselves. Industry learned production required people working together regardless of language or faith. Commercial firms learned that lesson to sell their products. The military learned that successful missions required soldiers to support each other regardless of color, origin, language, faith or sexual orientation. Whenever diversity looked problematic, it ended by strengthening American institutions.

America IS great, not in spite of diversity but because of it. Our ideals have led Americans to work well together. The lesson of brotherhood has been our great strength.

Meeting and introducing my classmates to an African-American Olympic champion who won four medals in front of a fuming Hitler did me no harm. Befriending fellow law students from every faith and continent hurt none of us! Just the contrary as we became comfortable with and learned from each other. Perhaps the biggest lesson we all learned is that both lovely and nasty people come in all colors, cultures and tongues.

Climate change, terrorism, threats of war, and economic collapse truly threaten to embitter our lives. Pulling together will be essential to combatting them. Prejudice is a distraction and an obstacle. No children should be left behind. We all have to take care of each other. From federal workers to the homeless, we all have to take care of each other.

Remember President Kennedy’s call: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Some of what we do has to benefit others. Without sharing the gains, there may be no gains to share.

The second President Bush turned Kennedy on his head. He wanted us to counter terrorism by shopping. Bush’s vision was victory without blood, sweat, tears, money or sacrifice. After all we’re number 1. But that’s a fantasy. People unwilling to take pains for the benefit of America and its democratic inheritance cannot enjoy its gains.

It’s broader than that. We must care about the welfare of the European Union, Mexicans, Hondurans and each other, or reap the whirlwind.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 22, 2019.

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I’m an Affirmative Action Baby

September 20, 2017

I went out for an early walk recently. One of the things I like about taking a walk is the way it clears the mind. This morning, the fog lifted and I realized with great clarity that I was an affirmative action baby. About a decade before I applied, Princeton had made the decision, not just to eliminate the quota that limited the number of Jews admitted, but to actively encourage Jews to come.

When my high school college advisor suggested I apply to Princeton I was surprised. Princeton was not on my radar. But all the top students at Midwood wanted to go to Harvard, so I figured it was worth a try. I will never forget the day my parents drove me to campus for an interview. I expected to be grilled on whether I was good enough. The admissions office was on Cannon Green, cattycorner from Nassau Hall where the 1783 Treaty of Peace ending the Revolutionary War was signed. I don’t remember the man’s name, but I think he was an assistant Dean. And the whole interview was about trying to convince me to come.

I walked out and told my parents, in a tone that must have revealed both my joy and surprise, that they want me to come. Is it ever great to feel wanted. After that, there was never any question in my mind where I was going. I remember trying to conceal my sense of joy from fellow students at Midwood High – I didn’t want to be taken as bragging. And by the way, Yale Law School treated me much the same way four years later. This was not the education I expected. But I would have had to be dumb to turn it down.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone to challenge my credentials because Princeton decided to encourage Jews to apply and come. I think it was a good bargain for everyone. As a group we were hungry for knowledge, opportunity and a chance to make the world better. And Princeton designed its program so that we students got to know our professors. Some of them invited us to their homes; some of us invited them to dinner with our friends.

Only one African-American graduated with our class. So I was proud of the school when it made the same decision to bring African-Americans to campus and then did it again with women. That’s quite a transformation between about 1944 and 1969. And it didn’t hurt a bit. Princeton is still at the top of everybody’s chart of the best schools to go to 55 years after yours truly graduated.

When I got to law school, I really got to experience and appreciate the value of diversity. Students came from literally all over the world to study with a couple of my teachers. I learned a great deal. Some of it was comic, like the student who wanted to work for Pakistan in order to promote the independence of Kashmir, directly contrary to Pakistani policy. One of my fellow students nearly burned my stomach with Indian spices. And I was terrified to introduce my dates to him because they all thought he was gorgeous. But they all enriched my life, my understanding and my appreciation of different peoples.

So yes, I’m an affirmative action baby. I’m not the least bit embarrassed about it. I hope I’ve justified their confidence in me – I’ve certainly spent my life trying.

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

 

 


For Valentines Day 2016

February 9, 2016

It’s the time of year to think about love. I used to think that if you hadn’t heard Cho Cho San sing in Madame Butterfly about that fine day when Lieutenant Pinkerton would return to her, one had never heard a love song. Musically, I still think so. But what it really communicates is longing. Is that love?

Much of what we hear as popular music, or art songs or operatic love songs are songs of longing, loss or jealousy. Where’s the love?

Contrast that with Billy Bigelow’s soliloquy in Carousel where he starts thinking of the child he and Julie are expecting. First he thinks about the things he’ll do with “my boy Bill” until he realizes that the son he is dreaming about could be a she, and then realizes the ways that he will have to provide for her. Of course he is sexist in the ways that he thinks about his son or daughter, but he is also realizing and warming to the responsibilities of a loving husband and parent. Billy comes to understand that love is about the ways he can make his family’s lives better, not merely about his own pleasure.

Billy makes a big mistake and pays with his life. But the soliloquy that Rogers and Hammerstein wrote for him says a great deal about what love is about, the ways it transcends longing and jealousy, the joys of giving, the humanity of caring. I think that says a lot about the love that many of us experience. We seek the responsibility, the opportunity as well as pleasures of truly caring about others.

For me, that includes the satisfaction of taking seriously the needs of other Americans, of all origins, faiths and colors, and openness and respect toward visitors and immigrants. Respect and concern for others is part of asking the same for oneself. Ours is a very diverse country and it will be moreso in coming years. We can teach new generations of Americans that success is just a process of stomping on others to gain advantage or we can communicate the values of mutual concern and respect – toward others, and toward ourselves. Ultimately, peace depends on how well we treat each other, and how confident others are that they can live in peace and harmony with us.

The modern world has upended some ancient accommodations among peoples. Jews lived at peace in the Muslim world for a millenium and lived precariously in the Christian world for much of the same period. Colonialism played a part in changing that for the Muslim world. The racism and classism of colonialism stirred the Muslim soul and some of that has come out as anger. That illustrates the importance, as well as the morality, of the Golden Rule, treating others as we would want to be treated. For me it also points to the satisfaction of truly caring about others.

May I end with the words of the ancient Rabbi Hillel:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, who am I?
If not now, when?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 9, 2016.

 


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