Monday, June 29, 2015

Amazing Grace

I can’t count the times I’ve heard Amazing Grace, the beautiful 18th Century Christian hymn that became the emblematic African American spiritual.  But two of those stand out for me, one intimate and very personal, the other sung just days ago.  It was a cold January evening in 1996 when a few of us — close friends and family — gathered at a shrub lined traffic circle on a stately Orange New Jersey street to spread the ashes of the American conductor Henry Lewis.  He loved the house across from that spot where he had lived with his then wife and still close friend, the great mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, and their daughter Angela.  My parents’ home had been just a few doors up the street.  As we stood shivering in the circle, Marilyn — I can hear his deep voice intoning her given name — spontaneously started to sing Amazing Grace.  The experience has stayed with me ever since.  I never hear it sung without thinking of that moment.

The second of course was a rendition of the spiritual by the President of the United States in a Charleston stadium.  It was the coda of his eulogy for Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney and the eight parishioners who had been massacred days earlier in their historic church.  I can’t think of another occasion where a president has incorporated song into a speech, though it is not that uncommon for preachers in an African American church.   And a sermon it was; one that prompted the presiding elder of the A.M.E. Church to “thank the Reverend President”.  So much for “no drama Obama”.  Now as much as I admire our chief executive, in contrast to my dear friend Marilyn Horne, when it comes to singing he should definitely stick to his day job.  Even so, like that night in Orange, I will never forget his Amazing Grace.  The entire eulogy, part tribute and part powerful and passionate message about the events and deficiencies that brought us to that stadium.  It was among the most important and compelling of his presidency — a must watch.

It was a full day for Obama.   Just hours before the funeral he stood in the Rose Garden praising the Supreme Court’s historic decision confirming the Constitutional right of gay and lesbian citizens to marry.  Only the day before, the Court essentially affirmed the Affordable Care Act.  But as important as healthcare is, the Obergefell vs. Hodges decision stands as a landmark along with Brown vs. Board of Education.  Like Brown it, beyond all else, is a civil rights — a human rights — ruling.  It’s not surprising that somehow I linked it with those two Amazing Grace experiences.  Henry and Marilyn were an interracial couple, exercising a right of marriage that had been the subject of Loving vs. Virginia, another historic Supreme Court case.  What happened in Charleston brought to the fore not only continuing racism (discussed in my last post) but also the need wipe the symbols of our dark past from public spaces.

To be gay or lesbian in our society, or more broadly part of the LGBT community, is to have experienced discrimination to which any African American can relate.  To paraphrase Martin King, they have only wanted to be judged by the content of their minds not by their sexual orientation.  Burdened with outmoded religious and societal doctrine and resultant misinformed imposed “norms” was often to endure great and undeserved personal pain.  For many it meant suffering unsupported in silence.  Frank Bruni, expresses movingly in his column, how that felt and how liberating it now feels after Friday’s ruling.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, will go down as the judicial hero of LGBT rights.  The foundation of his decision rested on four essentials.  First, the right of personal choice.  Second, support of two-person unions.  Third, safeguarding children and the family.  Fourth, marriage is the keystone of our social order.  In the Court’s view, these essentials are not the domain of only a portion of the community but of all.  It is much that same as was true when earlier courts, through a series of decisions, mandated an end to segregation and racial discrimination.

Kennedy ended his opinion with these memorable words:

“No union is more profound than marriage for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family.  In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.  As some of petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.  It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it so deeply that they seek to find it fulfillment for themselves.  Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.  The Constitution grants them that right.” 

A Constitutional right was exactly the broad decision for which all of us who support marriage equality had hoped.  It did not sit well with opponents.  Indeed, it provoked an almost sarcastic response from a dissenting Chief Justice who enumerated all the things that the majority decision will facilitate but asserted,  “…do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.”  Chief or not, dissents don’t count.   The majority decision stands as the law of the land.

In the days to come you’re likely to hear the charge that this and the ACA rulings are the product of an “activist court”.  Sound familiar?  It’s a charge that has been leveled at different times by all sides of the political spectrum.  As I understand it, “activist court” means only one thing.  It’s a court that makes decisions with which we disagree.   Citizens United was the product of an activist court and so too is Obergefell vs. Hodges.  The remarkable thing about this year is that looking at the major decisions of the current Roberts Court term, we see a clear — though it may be temporary — shift to the left.  A NY Times analysis points to one of the most liberal decision making courts in recent memory.  While mostly siding with fellow conservatives, Roberts authored one of those “left leaning” rulings, the very unambiguous affirmation of the ACA.

The ACA decision represents a setback for Republican critics.  Their claims that it is an unsuccessful even disastrous program sound hollower every day.  My guess is that polls still finding the country evenly split will begin to shift more positive.  Come Election Day 2016 the issue of GOP dominated states refusing to expand Medicaid may begin to hurt.  More significant may be the marriage decision.  Republicans are already having difficulty attracting young and minority voters.  The immediate reaction of all their presidential candidates was negative.  Not all were calling for a Constitutional Amendment, but most will be seeking ways to subvert the ruling or find ways around it under the guise of religious liberty.  To add to their problems, a number of them have received campaign contributions from Earl Holt, the White Supremacist who may have inspired the Charleston shooter.  They are returning the money and of course claim it was not solicited.  Perhaps, but the fact that a bigot like Holt finds these candidates attractive enough to support financially speaks volumes about the message going forth from what once was the party of Lincoln.

We will not soon forget the week of June 22, 2015.  What happened in Washington especially will touch the lives of millions for years to come.  The president characterized Friday’s marriage decision as another step in perfecting the Union.  That his day also included paying tribute to nine citizens who were the victim of hateful violence — whether a hate crime or home-grown terrorism — is a sober reminder that much perfection is yet to be achieved.  In the face of the good and evil that marked these past weeks, we must find a way to endure and, more importantly, to find a way forward toward that perfection.   In doing so we would do well to remember Amazing Grace and the sweetness of that sound.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Flags are easy.

When twenty children and six adults were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the country was outraged.   President Obama spoke at the memorial and many tears were shed.  Calls for gun control were immediate; the need for stricter rules seemed obvious.  Finally, many of us naively thought, some action would be taken.   None was.  After some verbal missteps by its leader, the NRA moved forward with confidence and legislators in Washington and elsewhere caved.  Gaining better control of this heavily armed country is very hard.  The NRA and more importantly the gun manufacturers, using the Second Amendment and friendly or intimidated legislators as their weapons of choice, have spent whatever is necessary to keep the cash register ringing.  Guns don’t kill, people do, they tell us.   They dish up this cruel non sequitur, and we as a nation let them get away with.   Hunters should have a right.  I know, I know — but would the world end if they had to find an alternative sport?

Well we’ve had yet another mass shooting, this time in an African American church in South Carolina and this time tied to racism.  As it happens, despite years of criticism, a Confederate flag flies over their state house.  They are not the only southern state to hold on to that symbol of what is often called America’s “original sin”.  Here in North Carolina, the controversial image can be found on vanity license plates and Georgia incorporates it into their state flag.  Supporters of the South’s war flag have always claimed that, rather from having any racial connotations, the image merely celebrates the state or region’s proud history.  For them, keeping it in place has always been a highly emotional issue. 

With the discovery that the Charleston shooter posed with the flag and other white supremacy symbols, voices began to gather demanding — at long last — the removal of the flag or its image from public places.  Within days the chorus grew and the governor of South Carolina, along with its two US Senators (one is running for president) called for its removal from the capital.  Legislators immediately agreed to place this issue on their agenda, a process that might take months with no guarantee of success.  North Carolina’s governor who is standing for re-election next year asked that the flag image be removed from state issued license plate.  Major retailers including giants Walmart and Amazon announced they would no longer sell Confederate flags.  Wow.

It is far too early to tell if all this support for taking down flags, discontinuing the license plates and taking them off the market will continue.  I’m not holding my breath.  Of course, unlike guns there is no NCFA (National Confederate Flag Association), no big revenues at stake.  Guns may “not kill”, but they make billions.  As one flag maker told an interviewer, we make all kinds of flags — a diversified product line — and it’s probably not a reach to assume that discontinuing one of many would not constitute hardship.  This practical dollar denominated difference between guns and flags tells you a lot.  Removing flags — even if some still fight tooth and nail — is relatively easy.  If and when the flags come down and the license plates are “cleaned”, many Americans are likely to pat themselves on the back and say “job well done”.

Not so fast.   I may argue with the notion that guns don’t kill, but would be the first to agree that flags are not, in and of themselves, lethal.  The alleged shooter in Charleston may have been “inspired” by a Confederate flag but he used a gun to kill those peacefully assembled for Bible study.  In his recent, perhaps precedent-setting garage podcast interview with Marc Maron, President Obama talked about race.   It took place only days after the shootings.  He noted that a great deal of progress has been made and that anyone who doubts it should ask a Black man who lived through the 1950’s or 60’s.  Nevertheless, the president said that our country lives with a legacy of racism, “in our DNA”.  He then went on, “We’re not cured of it.  And it’s not just a matter of not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public.  That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not.  It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened 200 or 300 years prior.”  Needless to say, his use of the “N word” (standing for the never saying the impolite word in public) shocked many, but its directnes was refreshing.

I’m all for removing those flags and symbols, images that both glorify and incite.  But focusing on the flags is a distraction.  It takes our attention away from gun control in general and from our continued and serious problem with racism.  This president knows everything about that.   Multiple and “heartfelt” disclaimers not withstanding, much of the opposition to him from day one has been all about race.  In fact, that racism is always piously denied makes it all the worse.  Bill Clinton was also subjected to irrational vitriol from his first to last days in office.  It’s no coincidence that he many in the civil rights community lovingly referred to him as our “first Black president”.  There is no getting around it, if you happened to be born as an African American in this country you are more likely to attend crowded and below part schools, be stopped by the police, overpopulate our jails and most certainly you don’t have the same opportunities as your White counterparts. 

Focus on the flag also averts our attention from, what was reported this week on the first/home page of the NY Times.  “Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims: 48 have been killed by extremists who are not Muslim, including the recent mass killing in Charleston, S.C., compared with 26 by self-proclaimed jihadists, according to a count by New America, a Washington research center.”  Domestic terrorism, much of it race hatred based, is a huge threat, one recognized by law enforcement.  The Times story went on to say, “A survey to be published this week asked 382 police and sheriff’s departments nationwide to rank the three biggest threats from violent extremism in their jurisdiction.  About 74 percent listed antigovernment violence, while 39 percent listed “Al Qaeda-inspired” violence….”

We may take the flags down, but that won’t erase the hatred that caused the killing in South Carolina or the many acts of violence that police and other authorities have prevented in the last years.  What brought Timothy McVeigh to bomb a federal office building in the 1990s — killing 168 people — still drives extreme right wingers and supremacists across the country.  What happened in Charleston is part of a much larger story.  Until 9/11, Oklahoma City was the largest and most costly terrorist attack in America.  Taking down flags, like not using the “N-word” in polite society, might make us feel better, but they won’t solve the problem.  Sure they are a low cost solutions, but as the adage says, “you get only what you pay for”.  Cheap doesn’t get you much — surely, not nearly enough.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Why not Joe?

Earlier this month, the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson posted a web column entitled Why Joe Biden Should Run (referenced briefly in my June 15 blog).  Davidson makes a compelling case and my reaction is: Biden indeed, why not?   I watched Hillary Clinton’s Roosevelt Island campaign debut.  Lot’s of good lines clearly aimed at a different time than when Bill first ran in 1992.  Centrist “New Democrat” talk doesn’t cut it with today’s activist and frustrated Democrats.  But as Frank Rich pointed out in a NY Magazine commentary, “her leftward tilt is mostly pandering” One can only hope that’s not the case, but at this juncture it’s certainly hard to say for sure that her new populism is more than rhetorical.  As I’ve written before, her message on income inequality with its implied critique of the 1% seems out of sync with the Clinton clan’s mega speechmaking fees, recently minted fortune and lifestyle.  She certainly is aware of the problem as reflected in the NY Times report that the they are agonizing about the optics of an August holiday in the pricy Hamptons. 

Joe Biden is no youngster and he has just suffered a terrible personal blow in the loss of his promising and beloved son Beau.  But there are many reasons why Biden may be exactly the right person.  Populism doesn’t ring false out of the mouth of a man who all these years in — and unlike many of his colleagues — remains a person of modest financial means.  No one could or would question his feel for the middle class or for those who can’t even cross over that relatively low economic bar.  In a time of posturing and opportunistic grandstanding, Biden always seems true to his essential self, his inner core, and as a result true to us.  He says what he thinks, sometimes refreshingly off script, and lacks the pretense and disingenuousness so often found in our political class of often-shallow cardboard figures.  This is not to suggest that he is faultless or totally immune to the ways of our politicians, but somehow he stands out.

Few, if any, Americans are better prepared than the Vice President.  He came to his present office with a deep knowledge of foreign and domestic affairs.  He has long been skeptical of our interventionism, something that has probably deepened in recent years.  If reports are correct, he has been a constant voice of moderation.  While chairing the Foreign Relations Committee, he advocated splitting Iraq into a federation of three more natural interdependent states.  While dismissed at the time, its an idea that seems more compelling all the time.  He has been at Obama’s side as a full partner in shepherding our economy back to its present health.  Decades in the Senate, including a stint chairing Judiciary, exposed him to every domestic problem that we have or have had over the years.   He has often been the president’s point man whether in dealing with the Iraqi government or with individual situations at home.  Without question Hillary Clinton has an impressive resume; Joe Biden’s is if anything deeper and broader.

All of which makes him an interesting choice, but it’s not the most compelling reason to think he might be a strong candidate and an excellent president.  Biden has an honesty and integrity that makes you feel he’s a person you can trust.  At a time when most Americans look at their leaders with mistrust, that’s an important attribute.  Republicans talk “family values”; Biden lives them.  Just take a look at Beau Biden’s funeral service, especially the family dynamics, and you’ll see what I mean.   Biden lacks the soaring oratory of Barack Obama, but then so does Hillary and so do all of the other contenders in both parties.  And Obama has his weaknesses — he’s better before large audiences than in intimate settings and, as Davidson points out, Biden can be a very effective debater.

Davidson’s case notwithstanding, the real question is not why Biden should run but rather will he?  My guess is that he won’t, and that’s really too bad.  The reasons are obvious.  Joining the race would put Obama in a very conflicted position.  Despite the heat of the ’08 campaign, Hillary agreed to join the president’s team and her husband became one of his most effective “explainers” or policy.  Also, the president having broken the “color’ barrier, must feel some obligation to helping break the glass ceiling.  It’s the latter that may ultimately make me, regardless of my reservations, an enthusiastic Hillary supporter.  So we know why Biden won’t run, or isn’t running right now, but in fact we desperately need a viable alternative to the Clinton candidacy.  A Biden race would give Democrats a real choice and a challenge would test Hillary’s metal.  Unlike Sanders and company, Biden has universal name recognition and probably a very broad following.

In an email a few days ago, one of the most astute commentators I know wrote me, “I also worry that the Democrats have no Plan B should things go wrong.”   Ah, Plan B.  And that is really the most compelling reason for Joe to run.  At this point we still have virtually all our eggs in one basket and that’s plain scary.  Biden wouldn’t merely be a Plan B, he would make an excellent Plan A.  That’s why he should consider entering the race.  And isn’t that what Democrats and liberals are all about — the right to chose.