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Monday, January 16, 2017

The end is near.

It’s going to be different, that’s for sure.  Eloquent, measured, thoughtful, respectful, humorous, inspiring and all such words go out the window.  Aside from a very brief reference in his victory speech – “it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division…[and] come together as one united people”— I haven’t seen the president-elect speaking of unity.  Maybe, in what will undoubtedly be a “very, very, very” important speech on January 20, we’ll finally get what Obama would call, that ask.  Don’t hold your breath.  I say that not because of my little regard for the upcoming mogul president, which is the case, but because nothing coming out of the Tower or the Mar in Florida in transition gives me reason to hope.  Sometimes when things don’t go our way we find some glimmer of that, some feeling that “maybe it won’t be as bad as we expected”.  Not yet, absolutely not.

What really troubles me most, yes scares me, is not only that the incoming chief executive still seems clueless of how government works – two pieces of legislation on the same day, same hour – but how thin skinned he continues to be, how undisciplined, dare I say “un-presidential”.  I don’t expect him to ignore Rep. John Lewis’ questioning the legitimacy of his election, but find the school yard name calling that was disturbing during the campaign to be frightening from the man whose finger will be on the button.  At the moment, that finger can’t get away from Twitter (though it’s been reported that he dictates his tweets).  Make no mistake, most of his tweeting, however mindless it seems, is carefully calculated to distract, shift blame elsewhere, or simply change the subject.  This is not to discount tweets that are more immediately visceral and reactive.  He seems, and often is, shooting into cyberspace from the hip, a raw expression of momentary pique or of braggadocio, “Ali stand aside, I’m the very, very, very greatest”.  Our politicians employ God far too often for my taste, but “the greatest jobs producer that God’s ever created”?  Give the Almighty a break.

Of course, John Lewis can take care of himself.  He has seen it all and faced up to men with clubs.  Trump has no power over him, can’t refuse to let him address the House or question one of his administration members at a hearing.  The press, however, are more vulnerable and his treatment of them, again much of it out of the moment’s pique, is nothing less than chilling.  Let’s not even mention that for someone whose campaign used manufactured news and outright lies, to characterize CNN as a purveyor of “fake news” is  laughable,  actually pathetic.  But to deny a credentialed journalist the right to a question, especially when his news organization has been unfairly maligned, suggests that this president will brook no real questioning or challenging.  Questioning and challenging are exactly what we depend on for a vigilant press to do on our behalf.  Investigative reporting is going to find it tough sledding in the four years ahead, and will need all of our firm and full support.  We and they will be tested.

The Congress will also be tested.  Dealing with them, Trump will be subject to both oversight and the need to gain approval before moving forward on a host of things.  He isn't used to that.  Father Fred exercised such power over the young Donald, but that was decades ago, long before he made “you’re fired” a sick punchline.  We have yet to see how he will react to the first rejection of either an appointee or some suggested legislation.  What will he do when one of his staff or cabinet members tells him that he is wrong about something?  It appears that he only truly trusts family members and one wonders if Don, Eric or Ivanka ever push back.  The same surely will be asked about his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is expected by some to be the first among equals in his advisor group, again family is most trusted.  It shouldn’t go unnoticed that this son by marriage is a likeminded real estate mogul in his own right, similarly having been given his start by a Fred Trump-like father of his own.  They are in some ways kindred spirits, mirror images, though I’m not sure with the same ego or thin skin.  We will soon learn.

The title of this post is no accident and it doesn’t refer to Obama’s final days.  The end is near suggests we’re coming on to a time where potentially much of what we have taken for granted in the past eight years will be no longer, will have come to an end.  Indeed, I don’t look forward to January 20 as the beginning of something, but as an end.  Hopefully I’m wrong about that, but so far there is little reason to believe that to be the case.  Eight years ago, also just days after MLK Day, I heard and saw the echoes of a great dream, not yet a fulfillment, but echoes of hope.  Are we heading into a nightmare this time around?  Sad to say, more likely than not.


Barack Obama remains optimistic.  As quoted in a NY Times editorial on Sunday, he concluded his farewell (about which I wrote last time) we these words: “Let me tell you, this generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair and just and inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace; you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.”  Knowing many such young people, I share his hope.  Close up, elections often look more momentous than they are in the long run.  Will there be many if any quotable speeches, much less uplifting thoughts, by the next president?  I doubt it and guess so do you.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Farewell to the Chief.

Barack Obama took to the stage in Chicago to bid us farewell.  He was following a tradition begun by George Washington whom he quoted.  Employing his unique oratorical skill, his message contained both an expected list of accomplishments, a sober discussion of the “state of our democracy” and a reaffirmation of his faith in the future.  “Yes we can.”  His words, and of course his style, stood in sharp relief against his successor’s coarse news event the following day.  So much has changed since the president began his term eight years ago.  A just released essay by Pew Research’s President Michael Dimok reviews and puts some statistical meat on the bones of what’s happened.  Some of those changes reflect the advance of technology (for example neither the iPhone or iPad existed when Obama started campaigning); some are products of a hardening partisan divide.

Obama hasn’t lost his hope, but is clear headed about where we stand and the challenges that lie ahead.  Some of them come directly from the ideological shifts that Dimok details, and also from the fact that we have yet to adjust to the social and economic impact of technology and wide scale automation.  A clear majority, 60%, of Americans expect that in the years to come robots and computers will be carry out much of the work now done by humans.  Obama underscored this saying, “…the next wave of economic dislocation won’t come from overseas.  It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes many good, middle-class jobs obsolete.”  Of course, this isn’t something happening in the distant future.  A recent NY Times article noted, “A century ago New York Harbor employed 40,000 longshoremen, who unloaded ships with hook and sling and brawn [think On the Waterfront].  Today, the entire workforce is just under 3,400 longshoremen, many perched behind the controls of cranes and straddle carriers.”  While obviously not happening all at once, the current workforce is less than 10% of what it was, a loss of 36,000 jobs just in one location.

Obama said this will require “a change in the social compact.”  Undoubtedly so, but instead of moving in that direction many people, encouraged by self-serving – and I believe irresponsible – politicians, are in denial.  Donald Trump’s promises to bring back manufacturing and touting his pre-inauguration successes completely bypasses the fact that, even if restored or maintained, those plants will employ far fewer workers than was once the case.  The longshoremen story is not an outlier but a reflection of what’s happening all over.  Just look at how technology has automated our own lives.  The computer on which I am typing and through which I receive my daily digital “newspapers” is a manifestation of that reality.  Welcome to my paperless life.  It’s been over twenty years since I employed a secretary.  I opt for self-check wherever it’s offered, pump my own gas, use an ATM to withdraw cash and my mobile phone to make deposits.  Like many of you, I purchase more books and goods on Amazon than from all the retailers in my area combined.  Sure Amazon employs a lot of people in their fulfillment centers but far fewer than might have been the case even a decade ago. It’s a trend that will continue.  Very soon a drone rather than a UPS driver will likely deliver to my doorstep.

Perhaps one of the most far reaching finding of the Pew study reflects on something will all sense anecdotally but whose impact we may not have given enough attention: super partisanship.  More than ever before people are lining up on virtually all issues along party lines.  That has trend solidified in the Obama years.  This doesn’t negate regional and economic factors entirely, but what my party says – and that tends to be fairly monolithic relative to issues – is where I stand.  We’ve all noticed that fewer legislators and executives share a common middle – there few if any liberal Republicans or conservative Democratic officeholders.  This suggests less, often no, compromise, but doesn’t totally explain why.  In former times a Congress member could veer away from the “party line” on individual issues.  She or he had some measure of independence because voters were diverse and broadly defined enough not to be threatening.  That’s no longer true as exemplified in the relatively new threat of them “being primaried” back home.  Today few dare to waver because their constituents have become so single minded.

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that we now face a polarization crisis.  Effective governance is predicated on the ability to compromise.  Obama’s presidency has been badly wounded by six years of increasing gridlock.  Donald Trump will have Republican majorities in both houses, but if he loses them or one of them in 2018 he, and most importantly we, will face the same problem.  Majority rule is clearly one of democracy’s attributes, but so too is giving force and voice to minorities, political and otherwise.  And to different viewpoints.  Obama included his concerns about this in outlining threats to our democracy, something that may be self-evident but, “have never been self-executing”.  Here is some of what he said:
 For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles…surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.  The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste – all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.  And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.”

And to my concern he added, “…without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible.”  I’ve written about this before, about our becoming religious-like political fundamentalists, claimers of the singular and only truth.  If we continue to buy into this self-focused vanity, you can kiss all progress goodbye.  Add to that learning which involves and depends on a broadening of ideas and an inquisitiveness that super partisanship seeks to undermine and ultimately crush.

Don’t misunderstand, I am not suggesting that there aren’t some things about which we can’t or shouldn’t compromise, some values that aren’t worth fighting and even dying for.  The point is that not everything, in fact a very limited number of things, fall into that do or die category.  Political scientists and ultimately historians will be dissecting the reasons for this ultra-polarization.  Each of us can make our own list, but I don’t think we have the luxury of time in addressing the why.  We urgently need to focus on what we can and must do about it.  We won’t be helped very much by the incoming president who seems more interested in widening the divide than in, to use Lyndon Johnson’s words, “reasoning together”.  Nor can we depend on the current class of elected officials, particularly legislators, who have succumbed to the kind of ugly partisanship that has become the problem.


Moving toward the conclusion Obama gave us some direction.  “It falls to each of us,” he said, “to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.  Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title:  Citizen.  Ultimately, that’s what our democracy demands.”  We know what’s happened here, and only we can address and fix it.  Voting is important  -- no it’s essential – but opening up a dialogue outside our bubble and listening as much, if not more, than talking is perhaps the only way forward.  I’ll deeply miss President Barack Obama both for who is and for the huge step forward that he represented on taking office and beyond.  For certain much of his legacy is under immediate threat, but his words, including those in his farewell address cannot be erased.  They should not be forgotten and, speaking for myself, they never will.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Cyril deGrasse Tyson

In July of 1964, while serving as a rabbi of Newark, New Jersey’s last remaining large Jewish congregation, I helped found The United Community Corporation.  It was the first community action agency funded by Lyndon Johnson’s Equal Opportunity Act.  The War on Poverty had come to the city where I had grown up and had watched succumb to debilitating white flight.  In July of 1967 the central ward of the city would be decimated by riot.  The UCC had been an effort to turn things around.  The corrupt Mayor – he would later go to jail – and City Council thought it would be their self-serving tool.  The structure of the federal law and funding obviated their plans.  The UCC was an independent entity, subject to the community and run by a board of which I was a vice president.  Its president was the remarkable C. Willard Heckel, Dean of the Rutgers Law School, later to become national moderator (president) of the Presbyterian Church.  Our first task was to find and hire an executive director.  That brought me together with Cyril deGrasse Tyson who came to us from the early anti-poverty effort HARYOU.   We all called him Ty. 

Cyril deGrasse Tyson
Ty came into Newark as in a whirlwind, a force of nature grounded in pragmatic idealism with an unshakable moral core.  We became instant like-minded warriors and friends.  Our time in Newark came to an end; the friendship endured.  Ty died yesterday in upstate New York.  2016 was what Queen Elizabeth would rightly describe as an Annus Horribilis, a horrible year.  A host of notables, people who accomplished important things, left us, many in its closing days.  Ty was one of them.  After Newark he would serve, among others, in John Lindsay’s administration as Commissioner of Manpower and Career Development.  His resume was impressive, but wherever and however he served professionally, Ty was a visionary.  That’s what set him apart.  He could see what could be and then worked determinedly to make it happen.  He was committed to the idea of “power to the people” not as an abstract but as an attainable reality.

One might say that the devastating riot in Newark was a repudiation of everything that the UCC and Ty had done in the years before.  He documented the story of the agency's formative years in his comprehensive volume, 2 Years Before the Riot.  In fact, the city’s decades long history of municipal corruption combined with the combustible frustration of an African American community that had long been rendered powerless is what lit the match.  Ty’s work and his relentless commitment to empowerment of the people had an immediate and lasting transformative impact.  The UCC was the first time that the Black majority was put in control of publically funded programs.  That could not have happened, certainly not with such intentionality, without Ty.  It was a transfer of power that would be the harbinger for the city’s future.  Ken Gibson, one of my fellow vice presidents, would become the city’s first African American mayor.  In a real sense, former mayor and now Senator Corey Booker owes his opportunity to the groundwork Ty laid in the 1960s.

Cyril deGrasse Tyson was an intense human being with a razor sharp mind, always  churning, always on the move.  Before anyone else, he saw the empowering potential of computer technology for community action agencies, documented in his book, The Unconditional War on Poverty.  He didn’t just encounter life but analyzed it to the core, transmitting his insightful conclusions to all who would listen.  He had a passion and urgency about ideas that never diminished.  The last time we were together in the home he shared with family a few years back, I was struck by how that passion and intensity was undiminished – Ty, almost like a kid who had just made a new discovery, was ever the force of nature.  Those who knew him and, like myself, called him dear friend were warmed by that glow.


I have always felt that the real and underlying quality of public figures, of whom Ty was certainly one, is best seen in what they are about at home not in the office.  Ty’s lifelong love and equal partner, a woman of grace and supreme intelligence, Sunchita (whom we call Toni) is at its core.  They have made the incredible journey together and parented three remarkable accomplished children: Stephen, Neil and Lynn.  When Ty and I first met they were all youngsters.  They are now contributors to society, something most assuredly facilitated by supportive and inspirational parents.  Ty is no longer with us physically, but he will always be a larger than life, yes transformative, part of mine.  We are all better for having crossed and dwelled in his path, for having had him touch our lives.