Generosity and the Las Vegas Massacre

October 17, 2017

Two weeks ago, I’d prepared commentary about the value of generosity in foreign affairs but awoke to the horrible reports from Las Vegas. I went ahead with it while I caught my breath and planned commentary about guns. But generosity is very relevant and I want to return to it. Gun rights definitions which don’t account for the thousands of people killed with guns every year are simply selfish. The it’s-my-gun-so-you-have-no-right-to-regulate-it attitude is selfishness, not liberty.

Stephen Paddock shouldn’t have been able to climb to the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort with automatic weapons just because he claimed the right. Automatic weapons don’t prevent government tyranny as gun advocates sometimes claim; they’re weapons of war and provoke tyranny. We all have a right to safety and security but nuts with powerful weapons deprive us of that birthright. In a battle between self-defined freedom seekers and the military, everyone loses, permanently.

Generosity and its absence are underlie most of our political struggles and the gridlock in our national affairs. Selfish definitions of liberty which refuse to take account of the damage to others are out of keeping with our national history and traditions. Like misbegotten gun claims, arguments for an unregulated market, which ignore the hundreds of thousands of people injured by selfish business and corporate practices, are hypocritical cover for outrageous behavior. Selfishness is not a definition of freedom.

Generosity is relevant in yet another way. Our polarized politics and lack of respect for each other reflect declining generosity, when me, me, me is all that matters but opponents don’t. When people throw bricks through windows, and shoot bullets through skulls over politics, there’s no safety except in hiding. How many congressmen and women will have to be shot before Congress comes to its senses? Unwillingness to work with a president of the other party, lest he accomplish anything, is about disrespect, where only one’s own purposes count. If it was appropriate to prevent a vote on President Obama’s nominee, though a majority of the Senate would have supported Garland, is there any reason to respect any decision for which Gorsuch is essential? If it was all about them, then it’s equally appropriate that it’s all about us. That’s not democracy. That’s war.

President Trump says we all come together after a tragedies like these. We know that has been nonsense, that pleas for help after Sandy were scorned by representatives of other parts of the country, and Trump treats the efforts of Puerto Ricans as less worthy than those elsewhere. People in the continental US would have been equally helpless except that relief agencies and the Red Cross were able to organize supplies where they could be delivered, and the destructiveness of the hurricane in Puerto Rico went far beyond what happened elsewhere. But no, this was an opportunity to disparage people who aren’t part of the Trump coalition. Shame.

Even the right not to be shot in the back by officials with badges has somehow become a political issue, as if there are two sides to that question. By comparison, I’m all for the immigrants and their generous patriotism. I’ve had it with selfish imposters like Trump, Cruz, and McConnell. This country may be great again but only when we are rid of the people whose political ideal is to tear us apart.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 3, 2017.

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My Undocumented Friend

September 26, 2017

A friend since my law school days knew he’d been adopted. We saw a lot of each other when we both lived in New York City, where I met his adoptive parents. In a distinguished career, he’s been president of his professional society, recipient of honorary degrees in the US, France, and Greece, an advisor to the Director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, and he taught at several of this country’s finest universities and war colleges.

A few years ago, when we ran into each other at a professional meeting, he told me that he had discovered that his birth mother had tossed him out the window of a train headed for the concentration camps into the waiting arms of someone she hoped would save her infant son. He was working on trying to learn more about what happened.

My friend has been traveling in Europe but we’ve been in touch and I wrote and asked him what if anything he had found out. He wrote me back:

The short take on my background is that fortuitous circumstances produced reasonable evidence that I was born in France to a foreign family who had fled the Nazis, most likely from Germany. I was hidden in a village, smuggled out of France by the Jewish underground, entered the US as an illegal immigrant, was sent to an orphanage and adopted by an American family.

That of course is the family I knew. He adds that “I’ve managed to track down and interview people involved in these several steps.”

My friend was a “childhood arrival” in the language of Obama’s executive order establishing “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” or D.A.C.A. It allows people who were brought here as children to stay, study and work here without being deported so long as they behaved themselves properly. That’s the order that President Trump is trying to terminate. My friend was brought here as an undocumented infant. His birth parents likely perished in the concentration camps, without knowing what became of their son.

When I asked him if I could quote him for this commentary, he expanded on the process of his becoming an American:

immigration officials [looked] the other way when the group of 100 children I was with – all older than me – were offloaded at night from our boat and entered the country as illegal immigrants. We were sent to orphanages, from which I was liberated [by] the American family who adopted me. In NYC in the 1940s adoptions took five years to become legal, so I well remember appearing in court and telling the judge, in response to his questions, that my parents loved me and treated me well. He in turn had the court issue me a birth certificate with NYC as my place of birth, thus laundering me.

Half a century later, my friend is widely admired. “Most remarkably,” he added: “my German colleagues – many of whom are former students or post-docs – took it upon themselves to do something,” even though he didn’t have his original surname or birthdate, so that, in addition to his American citizenship, “courtesy of the German parliament – I am [also] a German citizen.”

I can only thank heaven that he and his boat weren’t among those this country turned back during World War II. For me and my friend, the issue of DACA is very personal.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 26, 2017.


The Value of Democracy

September 12, 2017

Driven by the Tea Party, Republicans gave us a Congress that hasn’t been able to get much done. Saying less government is better, they take credit for getting nothing done, and leave immigration, tax policy, and health care to fester. It took the Democrats to make a deal with Trump to open the spigot even on hurricane relief.

Republican scorched earth policy is scariest for the lesson we take from it. For some of us the lesson is partisan – the other party must be defeated, fast. But for some Americans the lesson is that democracy doesn’t work, isn’t worth standing up for, honoring and protecting.

Many Americans have seen nothing but gridlock. Unlike the ways the parties worked from the 30s through the 80s, we’ve been dominated by gridlock since the mid-90s, especially when Republicans controlled Congress and Democrats were in the White House. Newt Gingrich and then the Tea Party made gridlock both their goal and tactic – if government can’t get anything done, then there is less government, never mind all the things for which we depend on government.

Republicans literally shut the government down under Clinton, only to discover that the American people didn’t like it because, from fixing potholes to carrying the mail, from sending out Social Security checks to keeping the skies safe to fly, government does lots of things we depend on.

By the mathematical logic of a majority of a majority, a minority in Congress could rule the Republican caucus and that caucus could stop everything so long as they agreed to stick together. So that minority of Congress gives us gridlock. We often talk about minority rights. But we are experiencing something else, not democracy, but it’s opposite, rule by minorities.

Elsewhere, dissatisfaction with democracy paves the way for dictatorship, in places like Syria, Iraq, and much of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. What replaces democracy is not some kinder, gentler, godly leader but kleptocracy, the rule of thieves, taking as much as possible from everyone to fatten their own pockets. Want to start a business, give the tyrant a cut. Want to export or import, the tyrant gets a cut. Courts aren’t in the business of dispensing justice; they’re in the business of looking at who is higher in the hierarchy. That’s why the flow of refugees isn’t from democracy to tyranny, but from dictatorships to freedom and democracy.

Democracy has a key secret. We can argue about who was wrong about Vietnam, Iraq, Obamacare, whatever – the people make painful mistakes – but a democratic people have the ability to vote the bastards out. Generally that gets the people better results than passing the reigns to dictators who can twist everything for their own benefit while sneezing at the people’s misfortune.

Democracy is not to be sneezed at. It is the singular American contribution to this world and we must protect it from foreign powers and political bosses who would control the people by gerrymandering, manipulating the census, keeping people from the polls or not counting their votes, We must protect it from fraud, from lying to the public, and from autocrats who claim they can fix everything if we’d just let them do whatever they want, autocrats who would have us end up like Venezuela under Maduro, Turkey under Erdogan, or like Hungary, Syria or Iraq and from so-called leaders who claim the rules don’t apply to them. We must protect it for ourselves.

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

 


Book Picks for heart and mind

September 8, 2017

I’d like to recommend a pair of books, the first partly for very personal reasons. I worked with Lew Steel, who wrote The Butler’s Child, for four months at the legal office of the NAACP between graduating from law school and heading for Peace Corps training. I know many of the people he writes about and have enormous admiration for all of them. We knew that Lew had money though I didn’t know it came from a family connection to one of the Warner Brothers. We followed different career paths but not different goals. So for me his story is very personal. It’s a beautifully written book about the Civil Rights struggle. Bless Lew both for the memories and for carrying on the struggle.

The other by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith is called The Dictators’ Handbook and is the best explanation I’ve seen of what is going wrong in Washington. I met Bruce through a mutual friend but don’t know him well – this is all about admiration for his work and their ability to write a very readable and widely recognized book that beautifully explains the different incentives and behavior of autocrats and democrats. Written several years before Trump, the Donald is reflected on every page. Well worth reading.

Steve


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.


Is Trump responsible for violent rallies? Law says probably not.

August 29, 2017

The Hill asked me to analyze the likelihood that the president could be held legally responsible for the violence at demonstrations. For my analysis click here. As the saga of Jones v. Clinton and the subsequent impeachment made clear, high profile cases can have unpredictable results.


The World Beyond the Tweets

July 25, 2017

News media look for succinct sound bites that encapsulate one’s message. Even so, Bush simplified political language considerably. Things were good or bad, the right or wrong thing to do. When Al Gore confronted him with carefully researched numbers, Bush simply responded that Gore’s was “fuzzy math.” That was a put-down; not an explanation. It gave people no reason to agree or disagree except the bare fact that Bush used a put down.

Even Bush tried to explain some issues in order to get public support. Unfortunately, the weapons of mass destruction claim was false, despite the lengthy explanation and pictures.

Trump clearly learned from Bush. He’s all about unsupported sound bites.  That’s why tweets work – there’s no room for explanations. The world, however, is more complex, and short tweets allow Trump to keep changing the subject, burying thoughtful responses behind a flurry of new issues.

That brings me back to two basic points: First, what he’ll do for you can’t be limited to a tweet. Behind his tweets are claims about what causes what, how things will happen, for whom, whether he will follow through or ever meant to. His tweets bully us to listen only to him, though there is nothing backing his claims. That is truly talking down to the American people, talking to us as if we can’t and don’t need anything to back up his claims.

My second basic point is that the world is more complex than a tweet.

Global warming will be expensive, forcing us to repair or rebuild infrastructure, care for the injured, leave flooded lands and rebuild homes, business, industry and the lives disrupted. It has bred extremism, disease and refugees in Africa and the Middle East by drying fertile land, burning crops, salinating and flooding coastal lands.  Yet Trump backs away from everything that would make it more manageable.

Trump claims global warming is a hoax. But the chemical and physical process by which carbon and methane trap heat and how much heating they force is very well established. Scientists have been measuring atmospheric changes in those greenhouse gasses and changing temperatures on earth with a variety of techniques. They’ve measured the loss of the Arctic and Antarctic ice shelves. So many studies by so many scientists have examined the problem in different ways that their consistent conclusions simply make Trump look like a fool, a sucker or a misanthrope.

One can willfully ignore climate change but the climate doesn’t ignore us. Even now, it’s making refugees of many island nations peoples, pushing families out of their homes in exposed areas of Hawaii, Alaska, New Jersey and Long Island. The climate is aggravating the refugee problem in Africa and creating serious problems for the free world. Storms have hit towns and cities across the country with a fury beyond living memory. Don’t be fooled by the receding waters after Hurricane Katrina made refugees out of New Orleanians and Hurricane Sandy brought New York City to a halt by flooding its subways. Those storms revealed how close we are to creating millions of refugees in our own country and destroying trillions of dollars of investment, jobs, and transportation networks that nourish our entire economy. Trump may ignore it. We can’t.

Leaders who understand the world in its complexity are crucial to our very survival. Like the Founders of America, I think immigration is a net plus, but I understand the feelings of social and economic dislocation. Aggravating the flow of refugees, however, sharpens those feelings of injury and is threatening the very institutions that have united and protected the free world since 1945. Yet Trump’s policies will aggravate the refugee problem and its consequences. This is a very dangerous game, whatever his reasons.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 25, 2017.

 


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