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Saturday, September 13, 2014

La Mancha, redux.


Signet Classic book cover.
Watching Barack Obama last Wednesday evening, I couldn’t help but think of Michael Corleone’s desperate words in Godfather III, “Just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in”.  The president looked both strained and tired as he spoke to the nation.  It was a speech he hoped would never be necessary, a return to Iraq albeit with “no boots on the ground”.  It seems that this epic sectarian civil war, one in which we really have no direct interest, just won’t let us go.  And it’s clear to me, the players want it that way.  Why else would the medieval ISIS barbarians have beheaded two American journalists?  We’re a good distraction, easily distracted.

While not wanting a monarchy, the Founders saw no reason to term limit presidents.  And of course their judgment not to set bounds was vindicated by Washington’s precedent setting decision to serve only two.  Others followed suit until FDR reached for three and then four — the last when he was essentially dying.  That did it.  The twenty-second amendment, ratified in 1951, turned Washington’s voluntary gesture into a mandate.  I don’t know why the country’s father thought eight years enough; he might just as well have extended his tenure to twelve.  But looking at a graying Obama and thinking about his sagging popularity, it occurred to me that we Americans seem to tire of our presidents as they reach the midpoint of the final term.  We certainly tired of George W. Bush.  Perhaps Washington was on to something.

As our fatigue sets in, we latch on to some act or some image that justifies and reinforces our “un-Hail to the Chief”.  For Bush it was the photo of him looking down from Air Force 1 at the devastation of Katrina and for Obama his run to the golf course immediately after decrying the beheading of James Foley.  Those images, or what we read into them, remain fixed.  Thanks to modern media and the Internet, they are reinforced by repetition long after the fact.  Are they fair?  Well to the degree that they might reveal something in a president’s character and how he really feels about events or us, they may well be.  We view them, accurately or not, as a “window into the man’s soul”.

Obama’s low approval ratings may tell us something about ourselves as a nation, individually and collectively.  He was brought into office as an unabashed dove, at least to the degree that someone who carries the title of commander-in-chief can ever be.  Americans, regardless of party, were war weary and if we considered the Bush wars with any objectivity, dubious about any meaningful return on an extraordinary investment.  So while Obama won the election with a relatively narrow margin, his approval ratings in early 2009 were 64%, with only 16% disapproval.  Most of us had high hopes, even many of those who didn’t vote for him.  He was taking us where we wanted to go.  Sure the usual suspects — many of them neocon architects of the Iraq war — along with some in the media groused about his taking too much time considering options before escalating hostilities in Afghanistan.  But most of us, even those who opposed the troop buildup, felt better not having a shoot-from-the-hip, trigger happy chief executive.

That said, and despite a majority of Americans continuing to oppose boots on the ground in the Near East (or anywhere else), it’s clear that most are not doves.  They aren’t against war, only against wars that involve us soiling, or more accurately bloodying, our hands.  As I suggested in earlier posts and my book, Transcenders, “… there is little doubt the former Defense Secretary [Donald Rumsfeld] read the American psyche accurately.  He understood the public vastly prefers the mechanized (video game-like) images of shock and awe and unmanned lethal drones, to body bags coming home.”  Obama may be a dove, or a very reluctant warrior, but he deployed many more “antiseptic” drones into war’s theaters than his predecessor.  As to the public, what bothers them about Obama is not so much his reluctance to reenter combat, but the fact that he isn’t sufficiently aggressive, that he doesn’t talk tough enough.  That lack, they feel, communicates weakness.  Americans do not want to be considered weak.

Presidential popularity (approval ratings) has as much, and I’d say ultimately more, to do with perception than with performance.  We’re told time and again, don’t judge me by what I say, but by what I do.  Nonsense.  As any fact checker can tell you, our politics today is built on what is said, often what is inaccurately claimed or attributed, not on what actually is done.  The ACA is a bust not because it isn’t working — it is — but because a perception of failure has been purposefully created and heavily marketed by its opponents.  The same holds true, to some degree, with Obama’s leadership or lack thereof.   He is especially harshly judged because we expected so much; more than any president could possibly deliver.  So the let down is proportionally higher than it might normally be.  The heady night in Chicago and the millions taking part in the first Inauguration, all those unrealistic hopes, now weigh heavily on the man.   And on us.

We’re not doves.  This is macho America.  It’s not “an eye for an eye”, but a body for an eye.  We take affronts personally.  We value each human life, which is highly commendable.  But in the scheme of things, not to mention in light of how many of us die on our streets each day from gunshot wounds, we often have no sense of proportion.  The gruesome death of two Americans is horrific, but does that translate into our huge and powerful country being threatened?  Yes, Dick Chaney, his replaced heart giving him a renewed measure of strength, would like us to believe so.  Yes, he’s back with the same bag of tricks, the same campaign of misinformation and wolf crying.  Have we learned nothing from the high cost in lives and treasure brought on my him and his fellow snake oil sales folk — from Condi’s fanciful mushroom cloud?

“Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more.”  Not so fast, I say.  We’ve been in these waters before and they are shark infested.  We’ve been on this quest.  Unfortunately, neither bombing nor boots on the ground is likely yield a victory in the true sense of that word.  Our collective hearts may have been with the president during his painful speech, but our intellect should tell us to tread with great caution and to expect little in return, no material gain and certainly no love.  Perhaps that’s the burden of being a super power, the need always to take a stand and flex our muscles.  But it may also be another no-win Don Quixote venture.  We’ve read this story, seen this movie, before.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Binge reading.


Two seasons ago, Netflix allowed us to watch its entire House of Cards season, immediately and at will.  I know some people who engaged in uninterrupted binge viewing. Well, toward the end of August I heard an NPR piece about the tenth anniversary edition of Jacqueline Winspear’s 2003 best selling novel, Maisie Dobbs. The retrospective review was so intriguing that I immediately hit Amazon’s One-Click and minutes later started reading on my iPad.  I was hooked.  Forget the clever aunt Jane Marple or that pompous Belgian who walks like an overdressed penguin, Maisie Dobbs wins my vote.  I couldn’t put it down and, discovering that it was the first in a series of ten (more to come), I decided to read them all.  Given a life beyond Maisie Dobbs, my binge reading took a few weeks ending this past Saturday with number ten, Leaving Everything Most Loved.  You know a book is good when you don’t want it to end, and that happened to me ten times in a row.

Jacqueline Winspear is an engaging mystery writer, but what makes the Maisie Dobbs series so compelling is that, beyond telling a good story, she knows how to build characters.  I stayed with Maisie because I got to know her and to really care for and about her.   Maisie’s personal saga is, as are those of the “supporting cast”, captivating, but I won’t ruin it for you.  Save to say, she’s a great feminist character, a person of both soul and accomplishment; a professional woman from humble beginnings years ahead of her era’s time.  In part her accomplishments come from her own drive and superior smarts.  But she was also helped greatly by being at the right place early on and ultimately benefiting from the aftermath of war.  The stories are set between the two great twentieth century world wars when, because of the first, English men were in very short supply.  That limited women’s marriage options but also presented them with some unique opportunities.

The Maisie Dobbs saga plays out during the same period as PBS’s wildly successful Downton Abbey.  They share some things in common, not the least being set against the background of upstairs/downstairs dynamics.  The significant difference is that the Compton family, Maisie’s early patrons and eventual friends, are far more enlightened and embracing of modernity than Robert Crawley’s tradition bound Grantham aristocrats.  This of course is England where class matters and where self-pride is expressed at every level and place.  But the overriding theme that keeps on raising its head, especially in Winspear’s work, is World War I — the Great War — writ large.  It was a conflict that the British, perhaps more than others, experienced right up close and, with conscription that was universal.  Every family was somehow touched, and especially Miss Dobbs and those near and dear — patrons, friends, clients, and employees.  The lost limbs, impaired lungs, scars and what at the time was called shellshock loom over each of the 10 books.  So, too, does class, especially the disparity between the good fortunes of the rich or affluent and often the misfortunes of most everyone else.  Sound familiar?

Maisie Dobbs is a period piece, but the issues it confronts, or perhaps merely the state of things it exposes, are still present in our own time.  First and foremost, we’re reminded about the futility of war and especially of its often catastrophic consequences for both those who fought and those who either lost loved ones or who watched them return, a shadow of their earlier selves; physically, mentally or both.  Maisie’s best friend lost all her siblings and is married to a man who came home mind in tact but disabled.  Her assistant has gas damaged lungs that don’t bode well for a long healthy life.  Even Maisie, a volunteer triage nurse, was wounded and is challenged by a breakdown.  These stories could be told of those touched by the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, by multiple deployments that weakened both body and psyche.  Veterans of combat or those families touched by the horrors of the war no longer feel themselves fully whole.

World War II seems to have touched Americans more directly, in part because conscription forced it upon every segment of the population, but also because its fighting men have been romanticized as “The Greatest Generation”.  Viet Nam had conscription but, unlike the battles against Germany and Japan, was considered a senseless and then thankless conflict.  It was swept under the virtual rug of our national consciousness.  We’ve learned not to do that anymore — even when we oppose the conflict — and in some way have become much more acutely aware to war’s cost.  We are especially sensitive to shellshock, rebranded, PTSD.  We’re aware, but unlike what England experienced in Maisie Dobbs’ day, our recent fighting engaged only a tiny fraction of the population.  Most of us have remained personally untouched.

The Great War largely defined Maisie Dobbs’ world.  Is that an over simplification of England at the time?  Perhaps, but these are novels.  Nonetheless, it raises the question if every generation and indeed people is defined by its wars and the degree to which they have an impact.  At the very least, we seem to use wars as generational signposts.  War is horrendous but it plays and outsized role in our lives and often our identity.   The wars we fight, or chose to forgo, says something about who we are at any given time and of course within the flow of history.  In the twenty-first century we certainly are dominated or at least haunted by the presence of conflict and unwittingly forced to decide whether or not to join this or that battle.  It's a painful choice.  Perhaps that has always been true, always been a fundamental of the human condition.  The story of a Maisie Dobbs brings it to an individual human level.  It's what makes the a simple mystery tale so powerful.

Another part of Maisie Dobbs’ story is the Depression that devastated England much as it did Europe and the United States.  Thanks to vivid contemporaneous photography, the images of desolate Depression bread lines are fixed in our minds.  We think suicides of broken men and many more who lost both their jobs and their homes.  Jacqueline Winspear reminds us that, even in times like that, many among the affluent were essentially untouched.  Their lives went on as usual, spending on fashionable clothes, motorcars, parties and exclusive schools for their young.  The London social calendar is uninterrupted and weekends are happily spent in the country, a place where homes were if anything more resplendent.  Butlers still open doors, cooks prepare meals, and maids keep the place spic and span.  All this when the vast majority are just trying to keep their heads above water, many with little or no success.  It’s a story we all know too well — the 1% and everyone else.  Some things just don’t change. 

It is often said that history repeats itself, something many scholars consider nonsense.  Yes, we’re human and we do repeat the ways of our parents, but not precisely.  When I read of the multimillion dollar price tags on apartments in New York’s luxury buildings — or a million dollar parking space — and contrast that with how unaffordable our cities have become, the story of Maisie’s world rings disturbingly true.  It may be comforting to know that what’s happening now is nothing new, but it’s also deeply depressing.  Is this what we call progress?  That we can survive and move forward as Maisie Dobbs did reaffirms the endurance of the human spirit.  Perhaps we can’t change the fundamentals, the repugnant disparities, but we can avoid letting them paralyze us or lose our will to move forward.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Empty mail.


Groundwork Labs is an innovative program housed in one of Durham’s repurposed former American Tobacco warehouses.  Every quarter it accepts six fledgling enterprises for a three-month funded residency.  They are provided workspace and active mentoring.  It’s a running start for 24 North Carolina-based new ventures each year.  Among the mentors are experts (“gurus”) from relevant disciplines.  I am their branding guru.  With the arrival of each new set of budding entrepreneurs, I begin the process with a branding PowerPoint.  Following some introductory slides I say something on the order of “when thinking about branding, I think about this” flashing the image of a razor.  “Not this razor”, I say as the image morphs into a rendering of a Medieval Friar, “but this man, William of Ockham” (c 1287–1347).   As you may remember, he was the theologian and philosopher famous for expounding a principle known as Ockham’s Razor.  All things being equal, Ockham contended, the simplest solution is the best.  I learned about the Razor in college and it’s remained with me since.  In my work, it’s not much of a leap to infer that less is more.

Alas apparently no one in the Democratic Party and its various expressions has ever encountered Ockham’s Razor or the inference.  That’s really too bad. Last workweek was foreshortened by Labor Day.  Even so, forty-one emails found their way to my inbox soliciting contributions for the coming election.  Yes, you read that right: 41.  The prior week which closed out the month of August was undoubtedly higher, probably significantly so, but I didn’t bother to keep count.  Keep count — forget it.  Because I find both the volume and content a turn-off, my strategy is simply click and delete.  How could you, one might ask?  Don’t you feel singled out and flattered by those “dear Jonathan” messages from Joe (Biden), Harry (Reid), Bill (you know who) and even Barack?  Not so much.  I know robomail when I see it.  How about a chance to dine with the President, or “visit DC for free”?  Well, perhaps the odds are not as slim as winning the Mega Millions, but they remain strongly against me breaking bread.  Don’t get me wrong; I’d love to see Obama in an intimate setting, have a chance to chat.

Beginning with 2008, Democrats have prided themselves on being ahead of the political digital curve.  It gave Obama an edge both then and probably in 2012.  Among the tools in their kit was having and using millions of email addresses.  And the first time around, it seems to have worked for them.  These days, I’m reminded of an interview with a 1%’er who had just built his sixth luxurious house.  He was asked why — obviously he didn’t lack for shelter — to which he replied, “Because I can”.  Technology is a great equalizer; it potentially makes us all information billionaires.  The Internet is truly an open highway — creating and sending an email is both free and easy.  In that regard, we’re very much like that 1%‘er.  Why do they send all those emails — because they can!  How lame is that?  Don’t these supposedly smart people at the DNC and other campaign headquarters know that less is more?  Don’t they understand that a message to oft-repeated ceases to be special, ceases to demand any attention or, yes, respect?  Apparently, not.

And then there is the other side of the turn-off: the content.  It’s become a truism of the digital world that content is king.  We’ve all heard someone described as “an empty suit” and we know what it means.  Not much there, there.  If “empty mail” is content’s political king, then we’re all in trouble — not much there, there.   Certainly not of any substance that would make me want to read on, much less convince me that what’s being put forward is of any worth.  When I say, less is more, it’s not meant to constrain content.  Sure I’d go for the sparse compact language of Hemingway over the density of Faulkner, but let’s have some meat on those bones.  And let's have it more selectively — less is more.

Don’t ask me to support Democrats to keep the brothers Koch a bay.  Don’t continually insult my intelligence.  Treat me like a serious person living in a very complex and perplexing world and talk to me about substantive issues.  Don’t give me a bunch of Huffpost misleading hyperbolic headlines. “We’ve won August”, and here I stupidly thought the election is in November.   “I’m thrilled for you Jonathan”, oh, do you know something I don’t?  “Look’n pretty good”, of course only if you contribute x dollars.  “What do you think”, cast your vote for a car magnet beg your pardon.  “Add your name – refuse to be cynical.”   Well you get the point.  Over and over many times a day, more when some reporting deadline draws near an unending series of vapid messages.  Click, delete.

It’s depressing to see how dysfunctional our government has become.  No wonder many Americans have lost their confidence in a once wildly popular president and far more so in congress.   But what’s really depressing is how shallow and myopic the people for whom I generally vote  have become.  Content isn’t king in the land, politics and political expediency is.  It’s disheartening and very disappointing to learn that the president is putting off action on immigration, something so desperately needed.  Let's not to offend potential voters in “red” states before the election.  Right.  It probably won’t help, but that’s another story.

So why don’t I simply hit the unsubscribe button?  Now that is an excellent question, one I often ask myself.   For sure something inside doesn’t want me to lose touch with “my” party, doesn’t want me to signal a lack of support.  But perhaps more important, I’m hoping for something better.  That, alas, is unlikely to happen.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Epic battle, again.


Late in June I wrote a post entitled Beyond terrorism.  In it, I argued that since 9/11 we have been too quick and loose in using the word terrorism, too broad brush.  At that point ISIS had begun its dramatic advance from Syria into Iraq.  Their stated objective: to establish an Islamic Caliphate in the region.  Focusing on their horrendous brutality, like al Qaeda before them, we branded ISIS terrorists.  When masked men slaughter those who hold different beliefs and on two separate days behead two American journalists on camera, it’s hard not to consider them terrorists.

But defining and thus confining ISIS is not easy.  For sure they have adopted some terrorist tactics, but they look more like rebels, though not in the ordinary sense.  While the rebels whom they nominally joined in Syria seek to simply replace the Assad dynasty, it seems that ISIS’s goal is to replace it with something entirely different, in their view something transformative and theocratic.  It is a goal that transcends one nation state as exhibited in their lightening expansion into Iraq.  The march of ISIS is only another manifestation of an epic struggle, or perhaps more accurately a series of epic struggles overwhelming the Middle East.  In a sense were witnessing a series of complex, multi-layered and often seemingly inconsistent civil wars.  Tom Friedman’s recent Times column is worth reading in that regard, but especially for his underlying thesis that its time for us to take on a policy of “ready, aim, fire”, the polar opposite of what we have so often done in the past: think especially of Iraq.  In taking this view, he essentially stands (as do I) with President Obama, who is engaged in building a strategy for action before moving onto a more active battleground, however that manifests itself.

Truth is that the ISIS move into Iraq caught us all be surprise and that includes, it seems, our intelligence services.  It isn’t only that we underestimated their size and scope — we saw them as a small fringe rejected even by al Qaeda.  What remarkably passed under the radar was that ISIS was in fact a well organized, sophisticated and, thanks to conquered territory and plundering, extremely well financed.  Of course, Republicans blame the Obama administration for all this, which is quite ludicrous. It wasn’t that the president took us out of Iraq to quickly, but that we entered at all.  The John McCain’s wanted us to send heavy weapons to the Syrian rebels and now to send more of them to Iraqis.  The fact is, as again reported in the Times (and also sited by Friedman), that much of ISIS weaponry comes from US armed Iraqi soldiers who abandoned them in fleeing the battlefield.  Perhaps more significant, much of ISIS military prowess, including planning/command and control, derives from the leadership of the Iraqi army that we and then Maliki dismissed in an ill conceived fire, aim, ready policy. Essentially our neo-con motivated actions have played a big role in arming and then leading the ISIS throngs.

There is no question that ISIS would like to punish the United States much as bin Laden did before.  Indeed, it would be grossly wrong to think this is their primary mission.   Sure there is an element of wanting to impose Islam on the larger world, but really I think it’s more to punish us for getting in the middle of their sectarian battle and rivalry.   Bin Laden blamed us for landing troops on Saudi soil during the Gulf War, of non-believers defiling a “holy” land.  ISIS just blamed their beheading of the two American journalists on our bombing of them in Iraq.  This is certainly not to excuse either group or to make light of the threat they do pose, but to put in perspective.  Let’s remember that vastly more Moslems were slaughtered in Afghanistan and other Middle East countries that were Americans killed on 9/11 and thereafter.  We are not the primary enemy.

What adds to Obama’s dilemma and ours is that in a very fundamental sense, we fail to comprehend the full and nuanced dynamic of what’s afoot in the Muslim world.  Our rightist politicians, the media and sadly some Democrats are yelling for the light brigade to charge.  But who is the object of that charge and who are our allies chosen or de-facto.  When it comes ISIS it seems that our usual adversaries Iran and Assad are as opposed, and indeed far more opposed, to ISIS than are we.  After all this is their neighborhood and ISIS represents a much greater threat to their status quo than to ours.  Let’s also remember that the current conflict is not only between Sunni and Shia but also within each of these Muslim denominations.  It’s complicated and hard to keep tabs on the players and their individual concerns. 

What will Obama do to combat ISIS?  He hasn’t included me in his counsel and in any event decisions like that are way above my pay grade.  I don’t think wars have great outcomes, but do hope that before intervening in this epic struggle (for the primary players an existential struggle) we will at a minimum aim (fully access all the consequences known and unintended) and be ready before he gives the order to fire.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Without end/2.


The present Gaza hostilities will come to an end.  There will be no winners.  Yes Israel has again shown a willingness to protect its citizens and its superior ability to do so.  Yes Hamas, recently written off, has shown itself to be alive and far more resourceful than earlier thought.  But whatever “successes” each side may claim, absent resolving the underlying causes of the current conflict and indeed in reaching a two-state agreement, the most we can expect is yet another limited period of artificial calm.  Given the political realities on both sides, it’s hard to be optimistic, perhaps harder than ever.

Among the casualties of this particular conflict is Israel’s relationship with its most ardent and generous supporter, the United States.  As an American Jew that pains me, but let’s not pretend it just happened.  The claimed deterioration began on the day Barack Obama took office.   Bibi Netanyahu, who spent many years here and is more aligned with conservative Republicans, would vastly have preferred John McCain.  In fact, while he denied it, Israel’s prime minister was accused of trying to interfere with our presidential election in 2012.  No need, his loyal friend and soul mate, the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, took up the cause, pouring millions into trying unsuccessively, to unseat Obama.  And who can forget Bibi’s year earlier lengthy televised schoolteacher lecturing our president — my president — during their post meeting Oval Office photo op?  Given the general protocol of such occasions, the Hebrew word Hutzpah comes to mind.   So, too, with similar lecturing just days ago when, regarding Hamas, Bibi told the White House, “not to ever second guess me again”.

Encouraged by the AIPAC crowd, it seems that Israel’s current government expects not only support but also ask-no-questions support.   John Kerry, one of its most reliable and longtime friends, is now being dissed because, in working to bring about a peace, he has tried to be an honest broker.  And of course liberal Jewish writers (with whom I associate myself) — the likes of Roger Cohen, Ezra Klein, Jonathan Chait and Peter Beinart who dare criticize Israeli policies — are the objects of particular scorn, characterized as disloyal.  This week the influential conservative Israeli writer Shmuel Rozner lashed out at us in a blistering NY Times op-ed entitled “Israel’s Fare Weather Friends”.  “If all Jews are a family”, he wrote, “it would be natural for Israelis to expect the unconditional love of their non-Israeli Jewish kin.  If Jews aren’t a family, and their support can be withdrawn, then Israelis have no reason to pay special attention to the complaints of non-Israeli Jews.”  I guess his definition of “unconditional love” and mine are not aligned.  To me, and I’d guess for the named writers, honest criticism is often the truest expression of real, yes family, love.  When King David engineered the death of a rival, the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12:7) called his kin-king to task: “you are the (guilty) man”.  What might Rozner have said to and of Nathan?

I have no doubt that Israel will survive our criticism and moreover that our voiced concerns will ultimately support that survival as much or more than all of AIPAC and Sheldon Adelson’s unconditional cheers.  What Israel is less likely to survive, or to survive as a democratic Jewish state, is failing to end the untenable and, in my view, unsustainable status quo.  Nor should the descendants of prophets — truth tellers and exponents of “tell it like it is” moral outrage — allow their contemporary narrative to be one of subjugators and occupiers without end.  The repeated bloody confrontation with Gaza only underscores that point.  Is Hamas manipulating its citizenry for their own purposes?  Absolutely, but the continued virtual imprisonment of this highly populated piece of geography is providing fertile ground for both desperation and anger.

Returning for a moment to Israel’s relationship with us.  One of the things that sparked Bibi’s outrage was that Obama joined others including the UN in criticizing Israel’s killing of civilians, especially children.  I think we all watched in horror as these casualties mounted, just as we have during other conflicts in other places.  I am sure the president was expressing his personal discomfort as much as that of our government.  At the same time, and here the Israelis do have a point, there is something disingenuous about our and others selective expression of outrage.  Remember people in glass houses.

When the United States retaliated for the September 11th attacks, it dropped many bombs on Afghanistan ostensibly to wipe out al Qaeda and the Taliban.  For sure, many more civilians including children lost their lives then and in subsequent assaults, than have in Gaza.   When George W. Bush and company rained down “shock and awe” on Iraq  — a war against a manufactured “enemy” that had not attacked us — many thousands more innocent lives (including children) were lost.  Those losses are so large that we can’t even account for them.  When President Obama authorized drone strikes, so-called precise tools of destruction, there have been unintended fatalities including children.  Are we the only guilty parties in this regard?  Of course, not.  So-called unintended consequences, the loss of human beings we callously call “collateral damage” are the bi-product of any and all wars.  Bloodguilt is a universal.  We should all feel a sense of outrage when innocents die in Gaza, but so too should be feel the same when they die in other places and at our hand.  More important, we shouldn’t burden another country, friend or foe, with judgments we’re not willing to make of ourselves.  Israel often finds itself with just such a burden, one that is less than even-handed.

We all know what might solve the Israel/Palestine problem.   The lines of the two states have long been drawn and the path to peace laid out in multiple negotiations, most recently led by our Secretary of State.  But, as President Obama said of many conflicts in his excellent one-hour interview with Tom Friedman, the parties have to be willing.  No one can, or should, do it for them.  He also pointed out that the Near East region in particular was undoing an order that had been imposed (often without regard to history) after World War I.  Well the United Nations, for very good and compelling reasons, imposed partition on what was then Palestine, setting up what was to be two states, one Jewish and one Arab.  The Jews accepted, creating the State of Israel, the Arabs rejected going on the attack.  That’s a historic fact, but who started what and when is ultimately irrelevant when the shooting stops.  The only question then, is how the post-conflict world will look.

Again, it’s pretty well known what that will or should be.  So why isn’t it happening?  I think the answer lies largely in the fact that both Israel and its Palestinian counterpart (The Palestinian Authority) are prevented from doing the obvious by militant fundamentalists who may not be a majority but nonetheless currently hold the balance of power.  When I use the term fundamentalist here it is not entirely in a religious context, though that certainly pertains.  I’m talking rather about a fundamentalism grounded in long past history or tradition.  It’s what our own Justice Scalia calls “originalism”.  Among both Israelis and Palestinians there are those who hold a strong conviction that, by all rights, the whole of the land belongs to them.  Especially orthodox Jews, but some others as well, see the entire Holy Land as their rightful historic home, promised to them by no lesser than God.  On the other hand, Arabs look to centuries of their history concluding that they are entitled to that same whole.  Both, in effect, reject partition as arbitrary and synthetic.  For them, no mediation can legitimize what is fundamentally wrong — no one can undo Divine Will.

You and I may not agree with this position.  We may see Israel/Palestine in a contemporary context and with a worldview that not only accepts but also embraces change.  In many respects, all maps are synthetic and in their own way arbitrary.  Borders have long been the source of conflict but also are necessary as the defined lines to facilitate peaceful co-existence.  Most importantly, while many in the world that we call home may adhere to one or another religion, even devoutly so, we don’t generally see borders and territory as by divine right.  We may in this country be facing some issues about borders with regard to immigration, but even the most right wing among us don’t think God gave Texas or New Mexico to the United States. 

Looking at the world today, the underlying conflict that we see in so many places is grounded in a tug of war between yesterday and today, past and future.  Those who cling to the “good old days” however defined, see their known world, the place they could count on, turning into sand slipping through their fingers.  They are desperate to hold on.  That’s true with the creationists and climate deniers here in America.  It’s true for those who refuse to admit (to themselves) that our history isn’t one of a racial or ethnic homogeneity but rather that we are all children of immigrants, people of diversity many of whom came illegally.  So it is with Israel/Palestine where noble histories and holding on to a dream long since gone cloud rationality and pragmatic solutions.  That’s what makes embracing the obvious so very difficult, but hopefully not impossible.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Call our lawyers.


Oh that uppity president, how to rid ourselves of this embarrassment?  Forget about two elections — let’s sue.  It’s time to finally challenge the imperial presidency, a travesty on its own but all the more so with this interloper, this illegitimate holder of our office.  What are the grounds for this suit authorized by the House?  That Barack Obama has subverted Congress in using his pen — his executive orders — to alter passed legislation.  Let’s not even mention that the specific legislation in question is laughably the ACA, their Enemy #1.

To some degree we should be grateful to the Tea Party dominated House.  They are providing an opportunity to consider and assess White House abuse of power and the so-called Imperial Presidency.  We’ve often been told both by legislators and some in the media that the imperiousness of our chief executives has reached new heights of late.  Interestingly no one really challenges that notion, one that has no factual basis — quite the contrary.  As it happens, we do have an objective measure of relative imperiousness, one that has been tracked from the start: the executive order.  George Washington issued a modest eight, more than any other until Andrew Jackson who issued twelve.  That number swelled dramatically with U.S. Grant (217) a level that was not reached again until it was dwarfed by Teddy Roosevelt (1,081) who in turn was topped by his cousin Franklin (3,522).

To put Obama’s executive order record in context, let’s look at what happened in the 20th Century beginning with TR and ending with Bill Clinton.  In that period, 13,499 executive orders were issued with FDR (3,522) setting a still standing record and George HW Bush with the fewest (166).  On average the seventeen presidents of the last century each issued 794 executive orders but given the inclusion of both Roosevelts and varying terms of service, that number is clearly misleading.  A more telling one is how many each president issued in a single year — 124.  Since it’s the House Republicans who want to sue for what they claim is presidential overreach, let’s finally look at the record of recent Republican presidents: Ronald Reagan and the two Bush’s. Together they averaged 279 executive orders each or 41 for every year in office.

Drum roll please.  Barack Obama, the “imperial president” worthy of a lawsuit — the first of its kind — has issued a total of 183 executive orders at the rate of 33 per year.  This compares with an average of 794 for the 20th Century presidents (124 a year) and 279 (41 each year) for his three Republican predecessors including the GOP’s conservative hero Ronald Reagan.  In fact, when it comes to so-called “legislating on his own” Obama does it less often than any chief executive since Theodore Roosevelt.  Let’s repeat that, “less than any”.

My apologies for all the numbers but they explain my outrage about the action taken this week, one that fails to meet the most basic smell test.  Indeed, what the House did was no less than an election year publicity stunt, one that may never be followed by tangible legal action.  Their aim, one that has been echoed by Senator McConnell in the upper chamber, is to undo this presidency, if not in the polling booth where they have been unsuccessful then in causing paralysis in Washington.  What we’re witnessing in America is not an imperial presidency, not presidential overreach, but a politics of hate.   Bill Clinton, another interloper, was the object of such hate when he had the audacity to run for and be twice elected president.  The specter of a fabricated Whitewater “scandal” raised its head even before the he took his oath of office.  George W. Bush who, unlike Barack Obama, actually did enter office under a cloud of illegitimacy, engendered if not hate then certainly impassioned resentment.  It seems Democrats are not quite as good at hate as Republicans.  And then this chief executive, who carries not merely the burden of not coming of one of our political royal families but from the wrong kind of family, is threatened with a bogus lawsuit.

Looking ahead to November, we’re told that Republicans have a better than even chance of taking over the Senate and, of course, making further gains in the House.  This would suggest that their theater and relentless campaign of misinformation is working.  It leaves me dumbfounded.  I am outraged by this systematic attempt to undo an elected president and to put all of our needs — and there are many — on hold while those being paid to do “the people’s work” spend most of their time saying “no” while attempting to deconstruct.  Where is the outrage of the American people?  Are we to assume that people like Ted Cruz speak for them, that total gridlock is what they want?  Are we to assume that, despite all our advances, they still see large swathes of the population as second or third class citizens?   The current atmosphere would suggest that is so. i continue to hope it is not.

For the moment, as you can see, I’m mad as hell.  Think I’ll call my lawyers.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Without end.


Madness! Madness!  Those were the words spoken by Major Clipton at the end of David Lean’s masterly 1957 film on the absurdity of war.  What we’re witnessing today is quite different than the story he told in The Bridge on the River Kwai, but the absurdity of war, the madness of it, remains an ultimate truth.  If madness prevailed in that World War II Japanese prisoner camp, it seems to have reached some kind of shocking pervasiveness in our own time.  The notion that the fierce and costly conflict of 1914-18 was “the war to end all wars” was put to rest in the one in which Lean’s film is set, but seems all the more naïve today.  While magnified by press coverage that is and has always been focused on what’s going wrong not right, it does appear that the world order is coming apart at its seams.  Many, though not all, of the conflicts are rooted in either religious or ethnic differences (sometimes both), a tug of war over “your way” vs. “my way”.   It is a no-win argument, one without end.

That brings me to the madness now playing out between Israel and Hamas.  No one who reads these posts can have any doubt that I am a strong proponent of a two state solution and equally that I don’t hesitate to criticize the current and indeed past Israeli governments.  The unresolved occupation of the West Bank, of what should be the Palestinian State, is unconscionable and, in my view, inconsistent with the basic mores of what I understand as Judaism.  The withdrawal from Gaza by Ariel Sharon notwithstanding, to say that the life and freedom of movement of its residents is severely constrained would be a gross understatement.  That the residents of both the occupied territories and Gaza are deeply frustrated and, yes, terribly angry is unsurprising.

The current hostilities began with the kidnapping a brutal murder of three innocent Israeli boys still in their teens.  They were making their way home from school.  The subsequent murder of a Palestinian youth was, if anything, even more horrific.  He was burned alive.  Tit-for-tat.  From there things went badly down hill.  As usual, much of the world’s press is focused on the “imbalance” of deaths in part a function of the IDF’s superior force and the always less than precise nature of bombing.  But it’s also true that Hamas does use mosques, schools and even hospitals to store weapons or from which to fire rockets.  They have also embedded themselves and armaments in residential neighborhoods, and are not the first to use such tactics.  Again, the loss of innocent lives is horrendous, but it is as much a fact of war itself as of this particular conflict.  Just consider the untold number of civilian lives taken in our most recent wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The United States is standing by Israel and its right to self-defense.  Some attribute that to the Israel lobby and politics on the Hill.  Perhaps so, but it is also true that the Jewish people throughout their history have been short on friends and long on being victimized by history’s worst atrocities.  Anti-Semitism lives still in Europe.  NPR reported yesterday that Jews, fearing for their lives and future there, are leaving France in significant numbers.  If Jews suffer a degree of paranoia, it can be attributed to sufficient cause.  In 1968, the militant ultra right wing rabbi Meir Kahana founded a fringe group called the Jewish Defense League (JDL).   Their slogan, referring to the Holocaust, was “Never Again”.   Kahana in many ways was a precursor to today’s religious rightists in Israel and both his agenda and theirs are despicable.  That said, the idea of “never again” runs through the veins of the Israeli psyche.  Specifically an early intent of founders was not merely to reestablish a Jewish homeland but never again to allow Jews to be defenseless victims.  It’s why early settlers prepared for battle and why they were able to survive the attack of virtually every Arab state when Israel was founded — and since.  In looking at the current tragic situation, it is important to understand that mentality, that commitment to survival.  We should also imagine, ideologies aside, what we would do in similar circumstances, how we might react if Canadians or Mexicans were shooting rockets into our neighborhoods.

While writing this post, my sister forwarded me an email (written in English) from our Israeli cousin Naama Perry.  This first person account from a family member put a human “face” on the kind of statistical reports we get on the news.  Like many in Israel, she and her community try to live a “normal” life.  They decided to keep their kindergarten open.  That makes it possible for the parents to carry on with their daily activities.  Here is in part what Naama wrote:

…I can go to work though the driving is not nice (I work in Ashdod which gets bombed a lot). …I even went running yesterday and once had to hide in a tunnel and the second time barged into some family house which were outside when the siren went on so I invited myself in (complained they didn't offer any cake).

The general atmosphere is bad. There is some sense of despair not only because soldiers are dying and as you know as Israelis we see each one of them as our kid, brother, father, but also because it seems like this hate is going nowhere and this circle will never end.

…It’s so frustrating to learn that the world reacts in such ignorant way to what’s going on here, and I feel like I have the right to say so since I hold pretty left (some would say radical) opinions concerning the Middle East problems and yet I know the facts, I live here and I don't know what anyone else would do if they were bombed constantly, have tunnels of terrorists under their homes and their kids would feel unsafe at their own yards. I also know how our soldiers and pilots (which many of them are my friends) have the hard job of fighting when they need and want to be as moral as possible but are being shot by terrorists who hide in schools and ambulances. Even the fact that they choose to hide there can show they recognize the fact that our army has moral ideas...

Notice that she is not only trying to maintain a sense of normalcy, but also some sense of humor — “they didn’t offer cake”. A similar, albeit from a different vantage point and situation, email might have been sent from some Gaza resident to a cousin in America or elsewhere.  Things look so different, so personal, from the ground.  Without question there are bad people, with bad intentions, on both sides of this conflict.  That’s always the case.  But most ordinary people are caught in a crossfire they neither wanted nor precipitated.  Again, it’s the nature of war and that convenient evasive metaphor we use, the “fog” of it.  The death toll is rising and the real fog is that to most of us, much as we deplore the losses, these are just numbers, statistics.  We don’t really picture Naama and her many counterparts, individual women, men and children.  Nor do we, and especially they, dwell on the futility of the fighting; what will probably be a paltry return on investment of blood and treasure.  The idea that the fight was in vein, without a real victory or even some small yield, is just too painful to contemplate.

And as to bad guys or good guys — rights and wrongs — there is an abundance of both on every side.  Some time ago, I wrote about Ari Shavit’s excellent book My Promised Land.  The bottom line of that post was that when it comes to Israel and Palestine, things are complicated.  That Palestinians should remain a people in occupied or constricted land is wrong.  That Israel should be obliterated as Iran’s former president suggested or not be recognized as legitimate is unacceptable.  As a Jew with family there like Naama and with a sense of my people’s history, I admit to having special, even prejudiced, feelings in that regard.  I also know that this particular war without end will yield nothing for either side.  That only a status quo is likely to follow it is unacceptable.  Moreover, it’s my view, that this is ultimately very dangerous for Israel’s future as a democratic or Jewish state.

President Obama sent John Kerry to negotiate a settlement of the long conflict.  He made a valiant effort to bring about peace between two nations — Israel and Palestine.  He was not the first diplomat to fail in that mission and Obama was not the first American president to initiate such an effort.  But there have been some successes.  How did that happen and why isn’t it happening today?  There obviously is no single reason, but one thing is sure.  It takes leadership.  It takes courage to make peace and in the case of Israel the first step was taken by a rightist prime minister who himself had been a terrorist in the pre-state days.  Begin made peace with Egypt and it has held.  Both Rabin and Sharon, men on different sides of the political spectrum, had been warrior generals.  Both understood the futility and the cost of war.  They made strides toward peace.  John Kerry didn’t fail.  He had no committed partners for peace on the other side of the table.  They failed.

I put the current hostilities at the doorstep of Bibi Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas.  If we’re witnessing yet another war without end, we should ultimately blame a leadership vacuum.  I also blame the cheer leaders on either side who sit in far off or nearby lands and think that friendship means a kneejerk approval of whatever their “side” says or does.  Best of friends do just the opposite, they tell us when we are wrong, they use their distance to instill some objectivity.  It doesn’t cost or risk much to egg on the fighters when you’re snug in bed on a quiet street in America rather than in the heat of a battle zone.  Ultimately Israelis and Palestinians will have to hold up their collective hands and say, enough.  Then their chosen leaders will have to engage with some real or perceived “bad” guys — engage with words not rockets or bombs.  Perhaps that will have a real and hopefully lasting outcome — a peace without end.