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Monday, February 23, 2015

High horse deception.

Speaking at the annual National Prayer Breakfast earlier this month, President Obama addressed the challenges we face at a time where terrible acts of violence are, as he put it, “so often perpetrated in the name of religion”.  His audience included lawmakers asked to authorize military action against ISIS, which has used the Internet to broadcast its now all to familiar acts of atrocity.  The challenge of militant Islam hung over the room, and with good reason.  In that context and in the spirit of Mathew 7:1 — Judge not, that ye be not judged — the president expressed these cautionary words, “Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

Predictably, Republicans jumped on the president’s remarks culminating this past week in a venomous attack by former mayor Rudolph Giuliani.  Leaving aside his (debunked by fact) code-tinged questioning of Obama’s love for America, Giuliani made this assertion: “Now we know there’s something wrong with the guy. I thought that one [the comment about the Crusades] sort of went off the cliff.  What I don’t find with Obama…is a really deep knowledge of history. I think it’s a dilettante’s knowledge of history.”  Really?  Are we now to add Crusades denier, to evolution denier and climate change denier in the Republican songbook?  “Dilettante’s knowledge of history”, wow! 

Well here is what the late historian Edgar F. Johnson wrote in his two volume Introduction to The History of the Western Tradition.  Johnson, a Christian, quotes a contemporaneous 11th Century source (page 490):
The amount of blood that they shed on that day is incredible…Some of our men cut off the heads of their enemies, others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers, others tortured them longer by casting them into flames.   Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city….Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers. 
This was the work of warriors sent forth by no less than Pope Urban II in the name of Christianity.  Even so, we don’t assume that it represented the essence of Christian teachings and faith.  Indeed, Jesus would likely have been appalled.  For sure it doesn’t represent Christianity as we know it today or necessarily all Christians at the time.  That said, it is eerily and shockingly similar in both deed and detail to what’s proudly claimed by ISIS.  Hence, the reminder and a word of caution delivered at a prayer breakfast by a president who actually does have a sense of history. Speaking truth, however unpleasant and disturbing.

I am sure that people with Rudy Giuliani’s deep knowledge of history are likewise “scholars” of Islam and the Quran.  From their careful and comprehensive study they know that ISIS and other militant fundamentalist are following the obvious intent, the only proper reading, of Islam’s teachings.  Right. Does that make any more sense than to say those Crusaders, sanctioned by none other than the pope, were following the only logical read of Christianity?  The Crusades are a dark chapter in Christian and world history.  It is one that many Christians would like to forget, and understandably so.  Is it credible to think that the violence done today in name of Allah is any more reflective of Islam and its traditions than were the Crusades of Christianity and its teachings?  I don’t think so.  Now this is not to suggest the religious fringe, across many faiths, cannot find textual justification for their deeds.  Indeed many of the most brutal chapters of history relate to religious wars justified by selective reading of Scripture, but more importantly by a claim of possessing absolute truth.  They act in the name of God, an assertion that I characterized in my book, as “the arrogance of attribution”.  Claiming the one and only truth is always dangerous, and in fact can apply to atheists as well as those who profess a god-belief. 

President Obama is being criticized in some quarters for not characterizing our battle against violent extremists as a war against Islam.  Not only would it be a mistake to make such a blanket assertion, and an inaccurate one, but it should be noted that those who advocate it are not in office.   Even George W Bush avoided depicting Islam as the enemy, if for no other reason than that we rely on alliances with Muslim countries in combatting extremism.  The fallacy of tarring one religion with a broad and indiscriminate brush perhaps is no better illustrated than in the brutal murder of three young and very promising American Muslims — Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 — just a short distance from my home here in Chapel Hill.

In this case, the killer who turned himself in is an avowed atheist.  Whether it was a hate crime, as many of us fear it was, is yet to be determined.  What we do know is that blanket hate for Muslims and their religion is in the air, heightened by conflicts in the Middle East and wide coverage in both traditional and social media of brutality carried out in God’s name.  People like Giuliani, despite all their protestations to the contrary, add flame to that fire.  His comments about Obama are not racist, he laughably claims, because the president had a white mother.  That surely proves it.  In the same vein, how could one possibly hate Muslims when they were born in America and speak such perfect English?  Did Craig Hicks target these young people, as opposed to his other neighbors with whom he had similar “parking” disputes, because Yusor and Razan wore traditional hijabs?  Time will tell, but you may remember that in the aftermath of 911, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a turban wearing Sikh, was killed in front of his Arizona gas station because he was erroneously thought to be a Muslim.  Blanket and misguided hatred does that.  As a Jew, I can attest to what it has done to my people, including during those Crusades referenced by the president at the prayer meeting.


We are living in troubling and dangerous times.  And, yes, as Obama’s caution suggested, we all live in “glass houses”.  A medieval pope unleashed religious warfare and horrendous barbarism in sending forth a murderous mobs clad as soldiers.  In this century, we have a pope who speaks of serving the poor and calls for humility.  A violent but, relative to the many millions who follow Islam, small Muslim fanatical fringe group are proving once more how monstrous humans can be.  They claim to be doing their evil in Allah’s name,  But concurrently a young Muslim dental student living the peaceful university town of Chapel Hill spends his spare hours providing help to the disadvantaged here and in far flung lands.  A gentile life driven by his faith, snuffed out by, at best, irrational misplaced hatred.  ISIS and Deah Shaddy Barakat; does one speak for Islam and not the other?  How we view the two and what we attribute to them and their religious beliefs says everything about who we are.  It also says a lot about history, the kind Barack Obama knows and that the Rudy Giuliani’s of this world can only distort with their ignorance or self imposed blindness — sitting on their high horses.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

OMG. 2016 Already.

As kids wanting desperately to be older, age was measured in months — I’m six and a half — and years taken possession of before their time — almost twelve.  Quickly enough, our age turns only when we awake on our birthday morning (hours after the clock has turned) and is greeted with some measure of disbelief.  Sound familiar?  Having walked that path, I’m  always somewhat bemused and bewildered by hearing talk about, and vicariously living in, the year yet to come when this one has barely begun.  That's our way in anticipation of presidential elections.

The turn ahead began in earnest when Barack Obama declared “I have no more campaigns to run”, in his State of the Union.  Republicans listening couldn’t contain their pleasure and broke out in applause.  Departing from his text, the president reminded them that he had twice won.  Regardless, the assembled — in both parties — were already positioning themselves for 2016.  Some have been at it since the president’s second term inauguration two years ago.  Last April, I wrote that a “Ready for Hillary” promotional envelope had found its way to my mailbox.  That was eight months before the 2014 midterms, a full thirty-four months before we vote a year from November.  Yes, our elections have become obscene money races, calculated to make the playing field anything but level.  But equally disturbing is that, unlike other democracies, they are endless.  Of course, the money and the unending campaigning are not unrelated.  We pay a high toll for both.  The over saturation and fatigue they produce, may account in part for why so few of us vote.  When portraying oneself as “almost twelve”, getting there is bound to be somewhat of a “whatever”.  So, too, when the first Tuesday in November 2016 is in full throttle two years before its time.

It’s bound to be a very long and expensive slog for Republicans who are both blessed and cursed with a considerable, perhaps unprecedented, bench of presidential contenders.  I’m not drawn to any of them. Think about it.  When Jeb Bush, who governed as both a fiscal and social conservative (remember the disgraceful Terry Schiavo saga), is being touted as a “moderate” you can see what’s happened to the GOP.  There are no moderates on the scene.  Given the large field and, yes, the early date, it makes little sense to talk substantiveliy about these presidential wannabes yet.  That said, we can all imagine how the next 19 or so months are going to play out.  Are you excited yet?

If the Republicans have too many aspiring presidents, the Democrats have too few.  At this point, unless something very unforeseen occurs, Hillary Clinton will win the 2016 nomination in Philadelphia.  Are you ready for Hillary, the envelope in my box said last April.  My answer at the time was, not so much.  It hasn’t changed.  For one, I wish there were more contenders.  A contest of ideas and a real challenge would be good for the party, for America and perhaps especially so for her.  She was so much better a candidate at the end of the hard fought 2008 campaign than at the beginning, and so was Obama.  I think many will agree that his lack of challengers in 2012 contributed to the disastrous performance in debating Romney that could have cost him the election. He was out of practice and rusty.  For her that could be fatal.

Yes we hear names like Jim Webb, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but the first two haven’t a chance and Senator Warren says she won’t run.  So at this point, the Democrats have dropped any pretense of a contest.  Part of the reason is that polls suggest Clinton has a commanding lead against all others in her own party and against potential Republicans.   Not only is her candidacy assumed, so too is her nomination.  It may well be that there is an element of entitlement here, something that helped sink her in 2008, but it’s more that the assumption of victory has sucked the life out there being a contest.  The moving Hillary train has left no room on the tracks for the building of viable alternatives.  That’s too bad and maybe even dangerous.  Demographics alone seem to favor the Democrats for 2016.  Nonetheless, it’s worrisome that all the waiting for Hillary’s second “coming” and the “whatever” reaction to it, might this time tip the scale toward another Bush — or some other Republican — presidency.

Hillary is on her way, another potential Clinton presidency with Bill back on Air Force One.  Are you excited yet?  For many, my guess is, not so much.  That’s a problem.  Now in all fairness, should Jeb emerge as the GOP’s nominee, the same question might be asked about him, perhaps even more so.  Moreover, despite his conservative record, the vital base may well be less than excited, even turned off and frustrated portending many no shows on election day.  Don’t think that is lost on a party that desperately wants to get the White House back.  That’s why the establishment elites may not have their way this time around, and a non-Bush and even more conservative may ultimately prevail.  I actually think that’s likely, but it’s very early, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Hillary Clinton is an extremely capable person.  She was an excellent US Senator who did her homework and walked the walk.  She was a more than competent State Secretary, albeit not an extraordinary one.  Like most Democratic office holders and possible presidential candidates, she is considered fairly liberal.  On social issues she would not part from Obama’s views or policies.  At the same time, both in the Senate where she voted for Iraq and at State where she argued hard for Afghanistan escalation and Syria intervention, Clinton has proven herself quite hawkish.  Obama has been charged, and fairly so, with being too close to Wall Street during the financial crisis — his administration unwilling to seek punishment of its high flying executives who did so much damage.  That was especially so in the first term when he relied almost exclusively on Clinton Administration minted economic advisors.  It may be more so for her.  I’m indebted to my friend, the historian Val Hall, for alerting me to an excellent piece in the London Review of Books that, in discussing two Clinton books, details some of the concerns better than I ever could.  Check it out.

Am I excited about Hillary?  Not so much.  Do I have concerns, especially about her hawkishness?  Yes I do and they may become even sharper when she faces a conservative Republican in the general election.  Democrats always have this problem showing that they are tough enough to take command of our military and defend the nation in challenging times.  In case you’ve missed it, these are challenging, often alarming, times.  But, am I excited may be too simple, even simplistic, a question.  I was very excited about Obama and remain a supporter.  But in the end, president’s are captives of their office and even of policies made by others.  It is not a truly independent office.  It affects the officeholder as much as he affects it.  Continuity and consistency is always an issue. Power does corrupt, even if it simply imposes limits in decision making that often is bound to disappoint.  In a conversation that Times columnist David Carr moderated just hours before his untimely death, Edward Snowden pointed out that new presidents are overwhelmed by the security briefings that start from their first moment in office.  That’s a whole discussion, but as accurately and often noted, campaigning and governing are two different things.  The burden of the second can be overwhelming, even life-changing.  


In 2008 I was torn between my civil rights and feminist self.  I supported Obama but never have lost my commitment to feminism.  It’s time that we elected a woman as president, that we no longer mindlessly refer to our leader as “he”.  For sure that doesn’t mean any woman would do.  But Hillary is far from “any woman would do”.  I may not be super excited about her, but I am enthusiastic about the idea that such a capable woman has a real shot.  Even, at this point, the edge.  In time, concerns about another Clinton or even about her hawkishness may recede as the whole emerges as larger than its individual parts.  We’ll be looking at performance, the total walk not some of the words.  And be sure of one thing, there will be very special pressures on and expectations of a woman — many prejudices at play — just as there are for our first African American president.  I’ll leave those for another post, but take a look at Andrew Ross Sorkin’s recent Times article or Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s op-ed, “Madam C.E.O., Get Me a Coffee” and you’ll know what I mean.  Hillary Clinton may not be my ideal, but the time for a gender shift in the Oval Office is way over due.  It may well be that her time, and as such our time, has come.

Friday, January 30, 2015

A letter to Bibi

Dear Bibi

Let’s put it this way.   If you were running for office in the United States you might get a large number of evangelical votes and then some from the non-representative AIPAC cohort, but you’d lose among the majority of American Jews.  And likely by a landslide.  It isn’t only that your conservative politics are not shared by most of us, but that you don’t seem to understand that we care a lot more about our president and how he is treated than about you.  Some of us wonder why you seem to disregard the basic Jewish precept of derekh eretz – humility and respect when it should guide your interactions with all human beings including our chosen leader.  We still haven’t forgotten that arrogant and cheap lecture you gave him before cameras in his own office.  In case you haven’t followed our domestic politics, which I know you do, the vast majority of us voted for Barack Obama and continue to support him.  So when you dis him, you dis us, you dis me.  Let me repeat, he is our president.

Israel exists today because of Israelis.  You have built the country and take all the risks.  But let’s not underestimate how important support from the United States — beginning with Harry Truman — has been and specifically the support of American Jews.   You shouldn't take it for granted.  You may think AIPAC represents us and to be sure they have lobbied hard for Israel (always right, never wrong), but they have only a minority constituency.  It should concern you that, according to Pew’s October 2013 study, only 30% of American Jews feel “very attached” to Israel.  That number drops to 25% of those 18-49.  The numbers are better about feeling Israel is essential to being Jewish, but still not a majority: 42% and 35% respectively.  Another 39% of Jews feel somewhat attached to Israel.  In total 69%, a majority, in our community feels some link.  That's good, but putting that in some perspective, 73% of us voted for Obama in 2008 and 69% did so again in 2012.  A Majority of American Jews (54%) support the president’s policies regarding Israel — only 31% think we’re not supportive enough.

I count myself among American Jews who see Israel as an essential piece of the Jewish puzzle and with those who are dismayed at its current direction.  The low number of Jews who feel Israel is essential is deeply troubling.  To some degree it reflects the growing number of Americans, Jews and not, who are distancing themselves from religion.  But you should understand that the policies of your government, most particularly with regard to the West Bank, play a significant role in how American Jews, especially younger Jews, feel about and relate to Israel.  We are a well-educated and largely well-informed community.  We know that the Palestinians share blame for the failed peace talks, but we’re not fooled the tepid lip service you personally pay to the two state solution.  Your actions allowing further expansion of settlements speak much louder than your words.  We understand Israel’s need to defend itself and its citizens.  So the Gaza retaliation, under your watch, was understandable, but it’s scale leading to the disproportionate cost in human life paid by Palestinians seemed hard to justify.


You are passionate about Iran and its threat to Israel, some might say a passion that borders on obsession.  For sure that theocratic country has been a bad player in the past and continues to be in the conflicts that abound in your neighborhood.  No one wants to see Iran armed with nuclear weapons.  But the truth is that many of us feel than no country, including the United States and Israel, should possess weapons that everyone knows are too big to use.  But I don’t think the assumed menace of Iran is what brings you to accept John Boehner’s undiplomatic invitation.  Like him, your real motives are all about politics.  You and your former GOP acolyte ambassador think you can insert yourselves in ours while using the grander and symbolism of our capital to impact your own reelection.  Your agenda is so patently transparent.  How can you hurt Obama and help Bibi?  Not a very noble cause, not the motivation of a statesman.    The Republican leadership may welcome you in March, and the attendees at AIPAC may give you a standing ovation.  I’ll be one of those who won’t join in and I’m hardly alone.  That’s not good news for Israel.

Jonathan

Friday, January 16, 2015

Without a cause.

In his excellent New Yorker piece, The Power of Congress, Sam Tenenhaus noted that in the 1960s, “The paramount cause for liberals was civil rights.”  I was struck by the realization that more than fifty years on liberals, and indeed Democrats, lack a paramount cause.  Perhaps most telling, is that often they seem to have no cause at all.  The sixties, where civil rights played so large, ushered in a long overdue realignment and clarification of our heretofore-schizophrenic political parties.  Absent liberals pursuing a paramount cause that might not have happened.  Their passion empowered a Southern born president to promote and then sign legislation that would represent both a social and political watershed.  Johnson’s pen, as he knew it would, effectively drove Dixie Democrats into the Republican Party.  That shift effectively rationalized ideologies along party rather than purely regional lines.  Symbolically at least, the legacy of Lincoln migrated from Republicans to Democrats who as a result of the realignment had became his true ideological heirs.  

Since then, the dominant conservative South and (as Tenenhaus says) Midwest have merged into a more cohesive Republican whole, one that has shifted ever further to right in recent years.  At the same time, the Democrats still seem to be struggling with their identity.  Bill Clinton’s New Democrat approach, one that “ended welfare as we knew it” and eviscerated Glass Steagall, resulted in immediate electoral victories but badly muddied the ideological water.  Ironically, it probably helped drive the Republicans further right, if only to better distinguish themselves, while leaving the Democrats without a defined cause.  This of course was compounded by their running away from the liberal label and also, in my view, contributed heavily to the loss of the House in 2010 and the Senate this past November.

Having participated in the paramount civil rights cause in the 60s, it’s striking to me is how little has changed.  I’m not talking here about the undeniable achievements that we can all list, but of the underlying fundamentals.  What drove the South’s passionate resistance to integration is precisely what’s driving much of today’s Republican constituency.  For sure there is a considerable racial component in all of this, but that’s not the primary issue and concern.  Those who fought integration with such passion were just as much, if not far more, concerned about the erosion of their way of life — let me repeat, their way of life — as about what amounted to a second emancipation.  It wasn’t what Negroes would obtain, but rather what they would lose in the process.  That loss might be expressed in school integration and a more competitive job market, but more so in a societal shift.  Equality was seen as someone else’s gain at the cost of their loss.  Bluntly put, it was the loss of White Supremacy.

And this is what I mean in saying nothing has changed.  Today’s underlying struggle is between those who are increasingly taking a place at the table and those who feel they, at best have to move over and make room, at worst will lose their seat.  It is an ongoing fear of losing a way of life.  It’s why counter intuitively Republicans, the party of big business, are attracting the majority of low income, older and one time union Whites.  We think how crazy it is for them to support candidates who promote tax breaks for the rich and oppose increases in the minimum wage — against their best interests.  But we’re looking at the wrong driving concern.  Yes, economics are important, like keeping others from taking their jobs, but more so they are attracted to a party whose paramount cause is perceived as fighting to preserve their way of life.  In that fight, race may still play a big role, but holding on to majority status (symbolized, among others, in retaining English as our exclusive language) is far more important.  It isn’t simply a holding on to the past — some rejection of modernism — but a mortal fear of what the future will bring in the most personal and immediate terms.  It’s a sense of potential diminishment.

As the Republicans stamp out the last vestiges of moderation — the party of Lincoln — from their midst, the lines become more defined.  They may headline small government, tax cuts, business friendliness and the like, but their contract with followers promises much more than that.  The fine print, at times the subliminal message, is all about protecting a way of life, real or imagined.  It is, as I’ve written in other posts, a desperate effort with time and demographics working against them.  What I’m suggesting here is that today’s rightist cause mirrors exactly the battle and objectives taken up by the likes of George Wallace and company back in the 1960s.  That the South plays such a large role in today’s Republican party, part of that realignment mentioned earlier, is significant and perhaps symbolic, but to focus on geography is to again miss the point.  Fearful White voters of a certain demographic across the country feel no less threatened than those in Dixie, then and now.  The GOP’s leaders understand this and have tailored their message accordingly.  It has become or remains their paramount cause.

Early on opponents of the right to abortion took on the mantle of “pro-life”.   It was an example of tactical and branding brilliance, putting those who favored choice on the defensive.  Worse it implied that they were pro-death.  Pro-lifers turned a woman’s right to have dominion over her own body on it’s head, a position of control and strength into one of perceived weakness — daughters and wives into alleged murderers.  In the same way, Republicans defending “our way of life” have forced Democrats into a position of being those who are threatening and destroying it.  It isn’t gaining rights and better employment/wages for people, but taking “rights” and jobs away from others.   It isn’t welcoming new Americans, but taking space away from those who are already here, have been here for generations — challenging an entitlement.  That is the same story pitched in the 60s, a mark of how little has changed, but also a reminder that change takes time.  More important purveyors of change require both logic and passion to make their case.  They also have to understand that on the other side stand real people who are, reasonably or not, afraid.

The people who marched in Selma and other places had a paramount cause and the relentless passion to overcome.  They knew that the struggle would not be easy and the road long, perhaps even without end.  Those on the right have a similar take on their pursuit, albeit with a very different cause and end point.  Democrats, if they are to recoup their recent losses and indeed make new gains will require their own paramount cause.  It’s time for both an identity and a reality check.  It’s time to reassess what lies just below the surface of all the noise.  Unless we understand what’s at stake for those who have increasingly cast their lot with the right — low income and elderly Whites, union and former union members and all those who see their America at risk — we will keep on losing.  These people need answers and a reassurance that change will strengthen their position, make life even better, not undermine all they hold dear.  The case must be made, but without it becoming a paramount cause, it’s unlikely to resonate.  And by the way, Democrats themselves need that paramount cause, a jolt that will energize them to undertake what's required for 2016 and beyond.