Sunday, December 18, 2005

Together for the Holidays

Christmas and Hanukkah coincide this year, bringing them into special focus.  While sharing common Winter Solstice roots, they are in fact polar opposites in both intrinsic religious content and heft.  Christmas is a major holiday, celebrating the birth of a religion; Hanukkah a minor holiday, remembering but one event in a religion’s past.  That they are so closely and inaccurately linked has long been a matter of consternation to those who are affronted by that blurring of history into what is euphemistically described as “seasonal” celebration (which if you haven’t noticed is the Right’s talking point this month).  For them, saying that Christmas and Hanukkah clash (rather than coincide) this year might be more appropriate.  The idea of clashing is certainly in tune with the era of universal misunderstanding and discord in which we find ourselves.  But, in describing what’s happening this year, I would opt for the word “merge”.  That fits the kind of celebrations that for many (perhaps the majority) have come to constitute a difference with functionally no distinction at all.  To be sure many Churches will be filled to capacity at midnight mass or Christmas morning worship and some Jews will light the candles with special intent, but whatever religious content these holidays may have, it has been largely neutered away in most households.  Were it not for the presence of tree or Menorah (which is not always there), a visitor unfamiliar with the holidays’ content would likely discern little difference as young and old eagerly demolish the once carefully constructed wrappings that separate them for their gifts.

The merger of the holidays this year is a mixed religious metaphor.  On one hand the different celebratory songs being sung on the very same day remind us of a world so sadly and hopelessly divided.  On the other, if we can celebrate together, perhaps others of disparate beliefs can as well.  The rare occasions when Christmas and Hanukkah merge probably offers some relief to the ever growing number of interfaith couples who normally feel so conflicted at this time of year, or who may feel somewhat guilty in celebrating one holiday more lavishly than the other.  Of course, to which ancestral family they should go on December 25th could turn this seeming calendrical blessing on its head.  Well, in the larger scheme of things in this tumultuous year, they‘ll work that minor problem out.  That Christmas and Hanukkah come at the same time won’t foreshorten what has become an endless period of seasonal hype which now sneaks up on us right after Halloween.  Why wait for Thanksgiving and Black Friday, when you can get a few more shopping days into the calendar?

That commerce has taken Christ out of Christmas is a well worn but long outdated cliché.  The secularization of these holidays reflects something much more profound, the ambivalence so very many of us have about our respective faiths, the growing detachment.  Of course, suggesting that the way we celebrate these holidays mirrors the considerably diminished role religion plays in our lives goes against the conventional wisdom that mindlessly repeats the unchallenged truisms of both religious resurgence and of America being the most religious nation in the West.  I guess those who foster that myth haven’t noticed all those empty pews at weekly services, most likely because they themselves are among the absent.  Sure there are many who love the holiday decorations, the sound of carols or songs and, most especially, the gathering of family.  But for more people than might admit it themselves, this celebratory participation masks what in reality is nothing more than a most tangential tie to religion.  Being a lover of choral works, I look forward annually to the many performances of Handel’s Messiah this time of year. But however moved I may be by his music or by a great performance it is only that; as a Jew I have no relationship whatsoever to the masterwork’s content or message.  That’s pretty much how many others including Christians view the holidays themselves.

The most visible religion in our day, the one that plays a central role in domestic and global politics, seems more destructive than constructive.  People at its outer edges, which they proclaim to be its center, have taken hold of the megaphone.  Aside from a few lonely voices like Jimmy Carter in this latest book, they have met virtual silence from those whom we might expect to respond.  Religion, for many Americans, has become the neighborhood bully whether interfering with our health and reproductive choices, questioning the validity of our life partnerships or insinuating its ideology into our children’s education with the misinformation of pseudo-science.  It is a religion enamored of its own “truth” and of fundamental intolerance for other points of view.  That religion in today's world is the Grim Reaper, the executioner of the innocent carried out in the name of God.  Simply put, the face of religion we see on the daily news doesn't seem to be such a good thing.  No wonder that so many Christian and Jews (many of them our best and brightest) have minimized or neutralized it in their daily lives as long evidenced in how they celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah.  The only difference this year is that they will be doing their seasonal thing the same time.  We can blame its religious neutrality on Wal-Mart, Best Buy or Bloomingdales and on the fundamentalists of all stripe who are threatening our way of life (personal and societal) but in the end perhaps most of all on what is, and what is not, going on at the corner Church, Synagogue and to be fair, Mosque.  That's not merely a reality of this year of convergence.  It has been in the works for a very long time.  Happy holidays!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Trust Deficit

An article in The New York Times business section caught my attention earlier this week.  It reported on an investor survey conducted last summer by the Harris organization.  Of those polled, only 27% thought President Bush “very trustworthy”, only 25% the Supreme Court, 4% each the Congress and the media and an astoundingly low 2% the Fortune 500 CEOs.  While reflecting only a slice of the population, these troubling numbers were further confirmed by a poll I found on the Web where FOX asked a more representative audience in November how the Bush adminstration (to whom it is friendly) compared with previous ones on the trust question.  29% said it was more trustworthy, but 39% said less.  Polls can be very misleading.  Results are colored by the specific questions asked (which are often inconsistent across studies) and by timing.  That we are facing a real trust deficit, however, is becoming increasingly self evident.

Much has been made about the sharp divisions within the country and around the world.  From media hyped red state-blue state conflicts to the ongoing bitter and lethal cultural-religious battle for ideological and political supremacy between West and East.  We have become a world of adversarial shouters not mutually respectful conversationalists and it’s taking a big toll.  One of the most troubling findings in the Harris poll is that the Supreme Court is now less trusted than the president.  But that too shouldn’t be surprising.  Politicians and religious leaders on the Right have been consistently bashing the activist (code word) courts for years.  Nowhere was this more evident than during the hyperbolic rhetoric that accompanied the Terri Schiavo saga down in Florida and on the floors of the Senate and especially the House.  The controversial Bush vs. Gore decision shook people on the left who heretofore had been consistent supporters of the Court which, while not always deciding on their side, was always seen as a fair and impartial arbiter.

The trust deficit didn’t happen overnight, but it nonetheless emerged pretty quickly.  Business leaders who were at the bottom of the Harris list, are feeling the pinch in the wake of Enron et al, not to mention the bubble burst in whose aftermath even blue chip high-tech companies are still trading at a fraction of their previous valuation even when they report record earnings.  Who would have dreamed that a U.S. Secretary of State would find herself in daily damage control mode denying that a country built of human dignity and fair justice tortures prisoners?  Who would even have thought before Abu Ghraib and Gitmo that torture could be an option for us?  When the Catholic Church tried to cover up decades of known sexual child abuse by its priests and when the killing of the innocent in the “the name of God” (Muslim but also among other faiths) became routine, even religion on whose “truths” so many rely appears untrustworthy, or at least potentially so.  Perhaps most devastating and far reaching of all is that because these things are going on in the world not so much of the Patriot Act per se, but in its spirit, many of us no longer trust our “next door neighbor”.

The trust deficit is not a partisan problem despite the fact that much of its cause can be laid at the doorstep of the current administration.  When the United States can no longer be counted upon to live up to its previous commitments on issues like global warming (whose far reaching reality and urgency it inexplicably still denies) or when it disses long time allies and the United Nations which it helped create, trust is undermined.  But Democrats, the press, religious leaders and many of us individually are equally to blame either for our participation or in our silence – it’s hard to know which is worse.  The trust deficit is of all our doing and certainly is our collective problem.  We may ultimately be destroyed by a runaway nuclear weapon, or drowned by the rising tides coming from melting polar caps, but morally we could be done in by the trust deficit.  The polls suggest, it is a problem that's here, now and unmistakable.  How we face it may well be our greatest test yet.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

When Voting For is Voting Against

I pulled the lever for Freddy Ferrer on Tuesday.  I know that he didn’t run a very compelling campaign and that Mayor Mike (as the billionaire-everyman likes to be called) has done a pretty good job.  He is also much more appealing than the astoundingly bigger-than-life Mayor Rudy Ego whom he succeeded.  I’ll confess it, had Abe Lincoln or Fiorello LaGuardia been on the ballot, my fingers still couldn’t pull down the lever in the line headed Republican.  So I didn’t really vote for Freddy, but against the party of George W. Bush.  I was not alone in that.  I’m sure many in New Jersey (where I grew up and first voted including a vote for Cliff Case a Republican) held their noses and helped elect Jon Corzine governor.  Not that Corzine is a bad man – he’ll probably make a very good chief executive, but the campaign was despicable one load of garbage after another, an embarrassment not merely for the Garden State, but for America and democracy.  There was of course a sad consistency in this election that transcends my voting for Freddy.  Why couldn’t I find a Robert Rubin running for mayor of my great city instead?  Why couldn’t I for once vote for someone who excited me, someone who gave me a reason to really vote yes when I was voting no?  But that's another story.

With regard to where we are, I’m not sure we have yet turned the corner in this country, that my fellow citizens are finally waking up.  Polls exhibit massive displeasure with the administration which is both faulted for its policies and no longer trusted.  But the Democrats can’t crow, because while considered more honest, they aren’t held in high esteem.  Let’s face it, the state of our Union and the people who lead it is not good.  Scratch that, it’s horrible.  And we still don’t see anyone in the administration or out of it (that includes my party) taking responsibility.  Ahmad Chalabi is back in town and being warmly greeted by his good friends Dick Chaney and the neocons.  They don’t really like him that much, they belatedly claim, but hell he is a high ranking official of the sovereign government of Iraq so what can you do?  The lesson here is that liars in office are still liars, but they are our liars.  That’s a relief.

I pulled the lever for Freddy Ferrer, but George Bush will be sitting in the White House for three more years – so much for the power of representative government.  Jimmy Carter has written a new book suggesting that this administration has broken from all of its predecessors regardless of party (that includes dear old Dad) in disregarding international agreements, in its aggressive unilateral foreign policy and in breaking down the Jeffersonian barriers between church and state.  We are all suffering for these departures and thousands are dying in their wake.  The casualties in Iraq, our own and theirs must be laid at the doorstep of this misguided high noon shootout with weapons of truly substantial, if not massive, destruction.  People in Africa are getting and dying of AIDS because we’ve stopped funding condom use based solely on religious grounds, not science or modern medicine.  It’s bad enough that they want our children to be disinformed about how we all got here; it’s a crime to be culpable in these avoidable deaths.

It wasn’t that long ago that the Senate of the United States held an impeachment trial for a President who lied about his marital infidelity.  Don’t expect to see it hold one for a President who probably lied (unknowingly of course) about why he was taking the country to war or a Vice President who may well have been the key player in outing a CIA operative.  But what do we do about an administration that uses 9/11 for its own propagandistic purposes and that in the name of fighting a war against terrorism has in fact undermined your and my security?  I pulled the lever for Freddy Ferrer.  Perhaps he didn’t deserve it, perhaps Mayor Mike should have gotten a non-partisan nod from me, but if either one of them wonders why, let them look south to the banks of the Potomac.  My vote just couldn’t support that.

Saturday, November 5, 2005

No Response

A number of thoughtful Republicans were hoping that their standard bearer would respond to the first indictment of a sitting white house official since Ulysses S. Grant by cleaning house.  Apparently someone mislaid the Mr. Clean and Lysol over there on Pennsylvania Avenue.  Just as I found the charge of lying symbolically appropriate, Bush defenders (two different interviews at separate times on the same Chris Mathews Hardball broadcast) saw it as a vindication; Valerie Plame was not a covert operative.  You read that right, the fact that Mr. Libby (rhymes with Liddy of another White House) was not charged with outing her proves there was nothing to out.  Astounding!  As I remember it, this investigation was based upon a complaint by the CIA that one of its agents had been compromised.  I also don’t remember Mr. Fitzgerald saying anything about Ms. Plame-Wilson’s status, only that Mr. Libby’s lying made it impossible to determine if his were the prime lose lips.  Wonder what these same people will say if someone else is actually charged with the outing?

Meanwhile, like all presidents in trouble, George W made a quick exit and traveled south, unfortunately not to his beloved Crawford, but to South America.  People have been lamenting that this buttoned up White House has been showing a little skin of late, but who could have made a worse choice (both in timing and destination) than to dispatch the chief to Latin America.  Surely other presidents have also been less than welcome in those environs, but it seems this one adds insult to injury.  Sadly, our country has long been seen as the neighborhood bully and the aggressive Bush foreign policy only reinforces that image.  When President Chavez says the US has plans to invade his country, who can say that could never happen?  It has been pointed out that, despite his largely self inflicted troubles at home, Bill Clinton could always count on friendly crowds overseas to give him moral support, even adulation.  The problem is that, despite all those stories about how likable George II is, he seems to universally rub people around the world the wrong way.

Things are really a mess.  But part of the problem is that we have unrealistic expectations.  Even if we dislike the policies of this administration and even George Bush personally, our instincts are to hope that somehow he will prove us, if not wrong, then to have exaggerated.  It’s common dilemma we share in facing certain relationships.  We want people who always fail us to be different and thus keep on getting disappointed.  Bush hasn’t cleaned house because this is a man who is constitutionally incapable of admitting mistakes large or small, not to mention someone with misplaced loyalties.  Even Brownie, as many different columnists have pointed out, is still on the FEMA payroll.  If the guy who helped unmask the president’s callousness and self indulgence in the wake of Katrina – contributing to ever declining poll numbers and the perception that the once trusted CEO is untrustworthy – is still on the team how can we expect Bush to turn any significant corner.

Like Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon before him (this is not a partisan thing), Bush is receding into his fortress.  Talking to himself, which means talking to Karl and Dick, he is in the full throws of denial.  What does this little blip matter when things are going so well in Iraq, when we’re on our way to winning the war on terrorism and doing so without most of us even making the slightest sacrifice?  Sure the oil companies are making a bundle, but look at the taxes they will contribute (unless of course their incomes are subject to loophole or shelter).  Look at how we’re turning the whole Middle East to democracy, or was that theocracy I can never get those words straight.  Yes, things are really going well.

Remember the title of that show – “stop the world, I want to get off”?  Sometimes, no oft times, I want to do just that.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Context of Lies

It is fitting that the indictment coming out of Patrick Fitzgerald’s two year investigation is about lies not the outing Valerie Plame Wilson -- a real metaphor for our times.  After all, the Iraq invasion, whose rationale her husband had questioned, was initiated on a lie.  But before we get too sanctimonious, let’s remember this wasn’t the first time that America has fallen victim to misinformation.  More than forty years ago, Lyndon Johnson manipulated Congress into endorsing his escalation of the Viet Nam conflict with the notorious Gulf of Tonkin lie.  And there is a real connection between the two.  Not that quagmire one that is so often talked about.  Viet Nam was a war that came out of intellectual ideology (at the time from Democrats) waged in a conceptual framework of the domino theory.  If Viet Nam would fall to the Communists so too would all of Asia (and perhaps ultimately the world).  The Wiz kids like McNamara and the Bundy brothers, intellects who were driven by this idea convinced Johnson (and Kennedy before him) of its absolute “truth.”  The mirror image is Iraq a war driven this time by Republican neocon intellectuals obsessed with the notion that bringing democracy there will have what amounts a domino effect in reverse for the unwashed masses in the despotic Middle East .  Beware of (self proclaimed) super smart people of any kind espousing absolute truths and of absolute truths altogether.

We have not been the same since Viet Nam.  The lies of Johnson begot the lies of Nixon which begot the truthful but hapless Carter presidency and so on.  Viet Nam didn’t simply demoralize and confuse the military it decimated the spirit of the country and I would argue until this day, the Democratic Party.  Viet Nam, albeit with the brief and flawed interruptions brought life to the Republican Party led by its modern high priest Ronald Reagan.  It also damaged liberalism (the L word) and strengthened conservatism.  Liberals, and make no mistake about it (wiggling notwithstanding) that means Democrats, are distinguished by certain social values and by placing a high premium on tolerance.  They see and in fact embrace diversity and multiple truths.  But most of all liberals, who are the children of the Depression and World War II, believe in government.  Viet Nam severely undermined that belief.  Government failed in a very big way and liberals, for the first time since FDR, became unsure of themselves. 

Demoralized and confused, vulnerable to criticism, liberals lost their passion something which they have failed to recapture.  That, more than anything else, is why Democrats lose so many elections.  It is passion and a real belief in self that makes for victory, which has brought Republicans to power more than the “ideas” claimed by neocons.  Victory also requires charismatic leadership and no one testifies more to that than Reagan.  You can’t pull the lever for a decent but disappointing (lesser of two evils) candidate and expect to win.  The Republican reaction to Viet Nam was just the opposite of the Democrats.  Government failed which was fine with them.  That doesn’t mean they were not behind that war (which they were) but that its aftermath fit right into their ideological disdain for government which they passionately want to make smaller and significantly less pervasive.  They look at Viet Nam, beat their breasts about patriotism and how Democrats let down the troops and the country, but mostly they say “we told you so.”  They don’t like government but do hunger for the power which permits them, at least theoretically, to dismantle it.  Katrina wasn’t simply the result of a dedicated vacationer in the White House (or in this instance out of it) but of a failed agency that had been gutted both of its professional leadership and its resources.  Less government also explains in part the muck up in Iraq (whether you are for or against that conflict).  Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and company conducted a slimmed down offensive using less troops than were recommended by the professionals, consistent (though they would vigorously deny it) with their smaller government ideology.

Who knows where the Libby thing will go and whether or not Karl Rove will join him.  Some of the pundits are already downplaying his impact by suggesting it was a one person corruption just like Abu Ghraib was an isolated rogue incident.  That myth, thanks to a silent opposition, flew so why shouldn’t this?  In a larger sense, the particular doesn’t much matter because these men are ultimately minor players, one a neocon ideologue and the second a political technocrat, albeit a talented one.  I stress the word “ultimately”.  Lies caught up with the Johnson administration, with Nixon and, while in a very different class, with Bill Clinton (victims Al Gore and the country) and I have every reason to believe they will again.  The challenge for many of us, liberals who have been disillusioned and thus functionally on the sidelines and for the few leaders who still remain in national or state office, is finally get back to our basics.  Government is a good thing.  It can and should be an instrument to make for a better society.  Lesser government with smaller funding for things that make a difference in people’s lives, perhaps most disastrously for education that will ultimately dictate whether or not we can remain competitive, may take this great power under.  I knew the Viet Nam war, the Viet Nam war was an enemy of mine, but it’s time to let it go and move on.  Fellow liberals, fellow Democrats get over it!  It’s been killing us and, if we let it fester one day longer, it may well kill the country.  That’s the message we should take from the lies in Washington.  It’s a call to arms not to make hay of Mr. Bush’s vulnerability, but to make haste on an agenda of renewal and to finally do so with passion not with compromise.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


The chilling statement by the new President of Iran calling for Israel’s being wiped off the map has been rightly denounced by Western leaders including the Russian Foreign Minister who just happened to be Jerusalem at the time.  We Jews have heard this kind of rhetoric before and what followed was the slaughter of 6 Million, including some in my own family.  To be sure the sentiments expressed by its President are not new to Iran which, beyond anti-Israel statements has been a long term financial and “spiritual” supporter of the most radical and violent opponents of Israel.  Suicide bombers photos are plastered on billboards as heroes.

The question is when are the leaders of all our wonderful Arab and Muslim allies going to speak out and denounce the Iranian President’s statement.  What about the recently “re-elected” President of Egypt a country with whom Israel has signed a peace treaty or the seemingly progressive King of Jordan or George Bush’s hand holding buddy the new king Saudi Arabia or the General-President of Pakistan?  But their silence is only a symptom of a much greater and more pervasive problem.  We live in a world where either out of fear or perhaps an absence of their own moral compass people who claim to be leaders, especially in the mainstream (whatever that is) sit by while extremists take center stage and use the microphone for unchallenged vitriol and misinformation.

I listened with frustration tonight to a joint interview with Republican Senator Brownback and Democratic Senator Richard Durbin.  They were talking about Harriet Miers and Brownback kept on saying the American people had given George Bush a mandate to select a rightist ideologue (my translation of his somewhat less specific words) for the vacant seat on the Supreme Court.  He repeated over and over again that the majority of Americans not only wanted but were demanding that.  Not once did Durbin challenge this claimed majority, not once did he demand accuracy.  And so we’re governed by lies and our world is the captive of whoever can yell then the loudest.  What has happened to our collective sense of decency, to our sense of responsibility?  I’m still waiting for the religious community to really speak out on Abu Ghraib and to denounce torture done under the pretext that we’re fighting terrorists and the ends do justify the means.  I’m waiting to really hear a contrary religious voice – I mean really hear it – on issues like the right to choose or to die.  I’m waiting for someone not merely to say that Pat Robertson (or his like) is out of line, but that he doesn’t speak for evangelical religion much less for any kind of religion.

Sure the President of Iran’s statements were shocking and despicable.  But consider the source.  The audible silence of those who claim to be the good guys or the whimper that claims to be a voice usually virtually whispered in places where they are least likely to be heard – the “between the two of us, but you know I can’t say that in public – that’s what really hurts.  And that’s what likely will do us all in.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Stage Set

I arrived home late last evening after the annual 24 hours of Yom Kippur fasting broken by a lovely dinner with family.  I guess by reflex I flicked on the TV which happened to be tuned to C-Span.  I must confess that what was before my eyes looked so surreal that it made me wonder if the food deprivation had affected by brain.  Alas, it had not.  There was the President of the United States standing standing stiffly before a lectern facing what seemed like a large picture frame in which was the image of 10 uniformed military personnel stacked up in three rows like cardboard props.  It was purported to be a spontaneous “video conference” between the commander-in-chief and his troops on the ground in Iraq.  Among the assembled were a token woman and a token Iraqi soldier.  Isn’t this a great country?

George Bush and his handlers have made these stage sets their signature.  The same people who brought us embedded war correspondents, love to use “ordinary citizens” and if at all possible people in uniform as live scenery behind the great leader.  The granddaddy of all such stage sets was the famous Mission Accomplished aircraft carrier landing.  But there was something particularly disturbing about this performance.  And performance it was.  One didn’t have to be a genus to detect how stilted were the responses from this or that service person to the President’s self serving statement/questions.  The inelegance of W’s prose continues to make one want to cry or scream – painful!  The Pentagon has admitted staging the event including reviewing the questions and who would answer them.  They didn’t say that the answers were rehearsed, but then I hadn’t spent the day at services either.

George W. Bush’s polls continue to slide (38% approval as of yesterday), but there is no doubt that our troops on the ground, the individuals fighting his elective war, probably would poll in the very high 90%, very high.  Americans, regardless of their point of view, support and worry about our precious young people in uniform.  A premise of the President’s show was that by not supporting him, we don’t support them which is utter and nonsense and he knows it.  What is so disturbing, not as disturbing as to sending them into battle on a lie, but in its own way just as criminal is using these people for his own political purposes.  These are military in uniform essentially (yes, sir Mr. President) forced to put on a show, thinly veiled as supportive of the Iraq vote tomorrow, but clearly aimed at polishing Bush’s tarnished image.  It is a manipulation of the worst kind.  True to form, the one young lady officer, was selected so that she could tell the President she witnessed his greatness in New York on 911.  He remembered her, of course – and I didn’t attend services on Yom Kippur.  Aren’t you getting a little sick of hearing the slogan 9/11 come up in every utterance of this administration?  Oh yes, “make sure you get your flu shot this year, we’ve learned on 9/11 how important that is” or “Harriet is prepared for lifetime service on the Supreme Court because she was at the White House on 9/11”.  Ugh.

The days ahead should be interesting.  One can’t but hope that the Iraqis will make progress in establishing their own, really their own, government.  Would that one could be optimistic that this landmark will bring any more of a solution or peace than did the last dozen watershed "this will do it" events.  Mr. Fitzgerald may have some things to say, this time about stage set directors rather than reporters.  Who knows, but for the moment I haven’t recovered from late night TV.  I should have gone right to sleep.

Wednesday, October 5, 2005

When Religion Matters

Before Alfred E. Smith, the popular governor of New York, was nominated for President in 1928 his defeat some months later was almost a forgone conclusion.  He was a Roman Catholic.  By 1960 Americans felt differently, though the election that year was a real squeaker.  In fact, Jack Kennedy would never have made it to the White House had he not convinced the public that the Pope would not dictate his decisions much less would his personal faith.  In these days of hyped religiosity these old concerns may seem quaint.  In fact, it would probably be more difficult for an avowed atheist or even agnostic to be elected than someone overtly devout.  Neither a Thomas Paine nor a Thomas Jefferson would likely make it out of the starting gate.

I for one find all this mixing of politics and religion these days a most disturbing phenomenon.  I left the rabbinate in the late 1960s in part because I thought politics (which I was considering entering at the time) and religion didn’t mix.  The idea that either executive or legislative decisions are made based upon the religious convictions of any one or even group of public officials runs contrary to the idea of a pluralistic society and a secular state bound by a “wall of separation”.  At the same time, we have a very powerful tool for keeping excess in check – the ballot box.  I may not like George Bush's or other social conservative’s opposition to Choice or their attempt to intervene in the Terry Schiavo case, but their power is defined by a relatively short term two to six years.  They can be voted out of office (or in the President’s case be subject to term limits).

The same cannot be said of the federal courts and specifically the Supreme Court.  There religion matters because appointments are for a life.  This is not to suggest that people with strong religious beliefs should be disqualified from service, no matter what that religion may be.  But when an individual's faith, which by definition is unlikely to represent a universal point of view, impacts specific decision making it constitutes a real problem.  We know very little about Harriet Miers but two things that have emerged in the last days are troubling.  The first is that, as part of her mid-life embrace of Christ as interpreted by the Evangelical Valley View Christian Church, she specifically opted for active involvement in its anti-abortion mission.  Since she is purported not to do things lightly, that’s significant.  The second, is that Mr. Bush, one of the few people who claim to really know her, has characterized Ms. Miers as someone who doesn’t change her mind.  Wow.  Does that mean that she isn’t a person who grows, who can reconsider something when faced with new information or, most importantly, whose born-again faith might color her decisions?  If the court should decide that the right of choice is not guaranteed by a religiously neutral reading of the constitution that would be very disturbing.  If that decision were made because this possible Justice thought it contrary to her concept of God and the mandates of her particular faith it would be frightening.

Perhaps the appointment of Harriet Miers is the moment when this critical issue will finally come to a head.  The conerned rumblings of doctrinaire conservatives in the last few days, unless they are actually a smoke screen aimed to tricking moderates into voting for her, could be the catalyst for such a discussion.  We’ll have to see, but if you don’t think religion matters when it comes to the Court, you might want to consider changing your mind even if Ms. Miers never does.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Primitive Design

When Fredrick March’s fictional character Mathew Harrison Brady took the stand toward the end of the trial in the 1960 film classic Inherit the Wind, it wasn’t his opponent Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) that took him apart.  It was his own dogma and blind acceptance of Genesis, the unquestioned Word on creation.  It is almost unfathomable that these many years after the Scopes Trial which inspired that movie (and the play upon which it was based), people are once again going to court over whether evolution and real science should prevail in public education.  The very same hucksters who branded those opposed to reproductive choice “Pro-Life” have more recently invented the pseudo-science of "Intelligent Design".  In fact the mumbo jumbo that claims to give credibility to this notion and accord it equal standing with Darwin is nothing more than an ideological insistence that the words found in the first chapters of Genesis are literally true.  Its proponents aren’t defending the idea that God had a role, perhaps a defining role, in getting this life we have started, but their own proclaimed definitive version of that truth.  Whether or not you believe in God or in his role in creation, the fact remains that the narrative in the first chapters of the Bible reflects the view of people who were also convinced, among other things, that the earth was flat.  Be assured were it not for indisputable evidence that when we fly east we will eventually reach our starting point, not to mention all those photographs of the earth from outer space, the folks pushing repackaged creationism would probably want the kids to learn about flatness as well.

Opinion polls suggest that a large number of Americans think it’s OK, and perhaps even a good idea, to teach Intelligent Design as a counterpoint to Evolution – something with which our Commander in Faith agrees.  But polls today are so skewed by misinformation (huge numbers of Americans still think Saddam had a hand in 9/11) that they no longer have much credibility.  In fact, there are probably more than a few Americans who believe our president’s name in Barlet not Bush.  If only that were true.  No this creeping creationism is just another manifestation of an ongoing attempt to turn our democracy into a partisan theocracy, not merely ruled by religion but a certain kind of religion.  They decry Islamic fundamentalists who in fact are their true sole mates.  Perhaps Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and company don’t send forth suicide bombers, but ultimately it’s a distinction in tactical nuance not substance.  They are seeking to destroy the Republic envisioned by Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers.  At a time when we are sorely lagging in teaching the sciences (our kids can’t compete with their Indian or Asian contemporaries) this assault on Darwin transcends a simple dispute over our origins.  Primitive Design (a more descriptive and appropriate name) is an assault on our future, an attempt to turn the clocks back and rejoin the dark ages.  When will Americans wake up to its danger?  When will our political and mainstream religious leaders have the courage to challenge this, to paraphrase John Dean’s immortal words, “cancer on our democracy”?

Monday, September 19, 2005

Road Trip / 2

Just impressions, no more.

Our first excursion off I-40 took us down the Blue Ridge Parkway of North Carolina and into the Smoky Mountains across the Tennessee border, some of the most beautiful and pristine scenery you’ll find in the southeastern United States.  We passed one vista after another each more breathtaking than the one before.  Exiting all this peaceful beauty you find yourselves shocked back into some sort of horrendous reality as you pass immediately through a little strip of land called Pigeon Forge which probably can only be described as a very low rent Las Vegas (or at least what I imagine Las Vegas to be).  One after another are a series of honky-tonk amusement parklets (they are too small to be called parks), “as seen on TV” shops and eating or sleeping establishments where you would unlikely want to break bread or rest your head.  The contrast between the natural beauty you have feasted upon and human made trash that sits at its edge is a real metaphor for the worst of what we humans have done to our planet.  It’s not a pretty picture.

The same can be said of the Interstate itself which, while not without some very beautiful and unspoiled stretches, generally is a tribute to the “Fast Food Nation” and Motel 6 world that we have become.  It wasn’t easy to find fresh vegetables or fruit or to avoid fat laden fare without really trying on this voyage across the land of plenty.  Homogenized is probably the right way to describe it and, were it not for maps, changing license plates and  the new time zones recorded on our cell phones it was often hard to distinguish one state or region from another.  Hard to distinguish except for the changing landscape, the hints of beauty that continually drew us off the Interstate and into the real world that lay beyond.

Without dismissing the lush green mountains of the more easterly areas, I for one was taken most by the western deserts, landscapes that prevail in New Mexico, Arizona and into California.  I had a taste of them some years back when visiting Scottsdale and Sedona, but this was a ten course meal.  The colors and the vistas, the natural and at times surreal rock formations, the openness (thanks in part to the fact that reservations are protected land) and the magnificent unspoiled starkness of it all.  We saw the excavated remnants of Chaco Culture with buildings dating back more than a thousand years, a reminder that despite our puffed up self importance, something of great substance was here long before Columbus triggered the Europeanization of the continent bringing our “culture” to the “savages”.  We took in the Grand Canyon which reminds you that this planet is millions of years old, etched out of primordial waters.  So much for the thousands of years claimed by the Intellegent Design folk just because Genesis claims it's so.

Perhaps what is most striking about what one sees beyond the grandeur of the landscape is the human condition.  The fact that so many of our fellow citizens are in such dire straights is inescapable, and equally so that civilization often shows a very destructive face, trashing not enhancing the earth it finds.  It gives meaning to the campaign slogans decrying tax cuts for the rich and humanly created global warming.  Evidences of both abuses are right there before your eyes, not in mouthed platitudes but with human faces and spoiled landscapes.  What is also striking is how much more respect those in the center seem to have for the land, especially shared public land, than do we coastal folk.  The first trash we saw roadside (reminiscent of back home) was when we hit California – the other places even on I-40 are amazingly clean.  To be sure there was lot’s of trash and broken down cars and machinery around those hovels people call home, but that speaks more to their misery than to a lack of respect.  Perhaps these scraps can be recycled in the future.  Peerhaps carting that stuff off is just too expensive or too low on the priority list when survival is the order of the day.

I don’t pretend to really know the America we saw on this trip.  We were just passing through.  We ate in some local places walked some local paths, but we were visitors on our way to some place from some place.  We were onlookers not participants.  Perhaps all my impressions are off the mark, but I wouldn’t trade the experience and can only hope to expand upon it in the years to come.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Road Trip / 1

I’ve been on the road for most of the week driving cross country with my daughter-in-law Rachel from Chapel Hill North Carolina to Palo Alto California where she and my son Jesse are spending the academic year.  It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and the experience has been overwhelming.  Crossing America is a reality check for any one living in the New York bubble.  It’s also an incredible visual experience – I write these words from the Grand Canyon.  I don’t claim to have had a complete De Tocqueville experience (there is so much more of the country to see), but it has also left a deep impression on me.  Here are some preliminary thoughts.

America is a place of contrasts, great beauty and incredible ugliness.  Living among the affluent brick and mortar canyons of Manhattan, I was reminded about how modestly most of our fellow citizens live, how many of them so clearly at the margin.  America is not the Interstate (on our trip mostly I-40) but off on the roads which intersect it and even more so those that are unconnected.  Most people stay in place, many in very small and remote place.  They are stuck where they are by both habit and realistic circumstance.

Much of our trip has been through the so-called Red States.  We traveled many miles on those smaller roads, primarily to experience the country’s natural beauty – the Blue Ridge and the Smokies, the great deserts of New Mexico and Arizona and today, before starting the final leg, the Canyon.  Needless to say we only scratched the surface.  What we saw left me speechless.  Traveling through the back roads of places like Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas, one is struck immediately by the fact that John Kerry didn’t have a chance in these places.  And it isn’t only the liberal politics – Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter shared that, but the obvious disconnect between an aloof patrician and the down to earth people of these areas.  One also wonders how George Bush the faux plain country guy whose agenda is so pro big business and special interests could possibly have won their hearts which gives you even greater respect for Karl Rove’s image making machine.  Neither man ever had to put only a few gallons of regular in his tank instead of mindlessly filling up high test.

Ah gasoline.  Good timing to take to the road with current gas prices, wouldn’t you say?  Guess where we found the “cheapest” gas?  You got it, Texas.  Make of that what you will.  I for one am happy about these gas prices because until now the American public has had to pay no price for our elective war in Iraq which, more than Katrina, has caused them to rise.  The current spike notwithstanding, they had already more than doubled before the hurricane struck.  I couldn’t help thinking of what filling up was costing all those SUVs and PTs (personal trucks) that passed us on the road or what they are costing all those people who park them in the garage of my New York City building.  Perhaps this oil shock will wake people up though our government still is playing reckless head-in-the-sand about energy policies.  Of course the trouble is that these prices are inflicting tremendous hardship on just the people we saw on those back roads with old inefficient cars and trucks which they depend on so heavily.  Not to worry, Bush is not planning to raise the taxes that they probably don’t pay because they live below the poverty level.

Contrasts I suggested was a large part of what we saw.  The natural beauty juxtaposed against the flimsy shelters which so many Americans call home.  No where was this more poignantly evident than in the spectacular landscape of New Mexico and Arizona Navaho reservations where home is so often a wooden hovel, a dilapidated trailer or some kind of low cost dwelling that was delivered on a truck.  Perhaps some reservations in the country have benefited from Casino wealth, but for the most part we have not done well by the Native Americans whose way of life was disrupted by our invasion – the first time we brought democracy to a foreign land.

I’ve done a lot of different things in my life, had many eye opening and wonderful experiences, but this has been one of the best and most instructive.  More to come when I recapture my land legs.

Tuesday, September 6, 2005


I’m so relieved, aren’t you? Dick Chaney, The Man, will be landing in the Gulf – oh, I mean the Gulf States – on Thursday.  And it’s not surprising that he’s been dispatched to assess the situation because, as the New York Times reported today, Halliburton is already gearing up for major contracts to fix all that oil patch infrastructure mess. Someone has to identify the targets for their sales effort and who better than their very best friend in the world? Many displaced people are being given shelter in Houston which is commendable, but there will be compensation, if not for the victims then certainly for Bush’s city. The Times says Houston is looking forward to a “business boom.” Wow!  What surprising good fortune. That’s part of why I’m so relieved, but the least of it.

Here’s what’s really making me feel better. George W. Bush, the man with such an impressive record of disciplining the incompetent in his administration, is personally taking on the job of investigating what the government did right and did wrong in the aftermath of Katrina. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Brownie get the Freedom Medal or even a cabinet post when this assessment is complete.  Let’s see, ah yes, Secretary of Human Services, perfect.  A BBC reporter on the scene (the President in two trips still hasn’t set foot in New Orleans) was asked by the anchor to detail what Bush might find was done right and without missing a beat answered with what was done did wrong. Nancy Pelosi had the right advice for the commander-in-chief (he loves that title so), “start by looking in the mirror.” I’m sure the President sees his announcement as a signal that he is really taking charge. I see a conflict of interest.  Remember the howling of his administration when UN officials proposed investigating their own mismanagement of the Iraqi food program? How can the guy who couldn’t even mobilize himself in the wake of what was an obviously a historic catastrophe evaluate performance?  Where did Harry Truman say the buck stopped?

I’d love to feel better about this place we call home, our country. I want to be proud of it what it does, of its decency.  I really want to be relieved.  But here we are in year five of the new century and so many of us find ourselves frustrated and depressed. How could so much be going wrong, continue to go wrong?  Hurricanes are random. Leadership can’t be random, human response can’t be random.  It’s time that those who spend so much time espousing Intelligent Design, knocking randomness in how we evolved, start delivering on their ideology. Fat chance, with them it’s all talk.

Saturday, September 3, 2005

Delayed Reaction, Again

Delayed Reaction, Again

Compassion is not a photo-op.  If you read David Brooks’ column in the Times earlier in the week, you wouldn’t have been surprised to hear him tell Jim Lehrer that the government’s response to the Gulf States catastrophe represented a possible watershed (my word not his) event.  What surprised me was to hear that the images of President Bush yesterday hugging and lamenting made him angry.  Brooks, a long time supporter of Bush’s policies, wasn’t sure that we’ve reached the tipping point, but perhaps we have. Could it be that this awful disaster might awake America from its dream state coma?

What’s also clear this week, something which must come as a great shock to those cocky know-it-all neocons, is that what we need is more government not less.  Despite the valiant and commendable contributions being made by religious groups in this time of human crisis, all the faith-based initiatives in the world can’t rescue populations in the millions or help them rebuild their shattered lives.  Also, I can't help wondering what all those good church people who voted for George Bush primarily because he was a man of faith must be thinking today about the clueless government they brought into power, not to mention the man.  Here is a president who rushed back to Washington to sign the save-vegetative-state-Terry bill when he couldn’t muster an immediate action, not to mention picking himself up from the brush whacker, to address saving viable lives, many of whom will undoubtedly have died needlessly from neglect.

Bush had a delayed reaction to the Hurricane and it wasn’t the first time.  Remember how long it took him to react to September 11?  We forget it now because we had an activist mayor who stood in the breach and, without taking away from that moment of grand leadership, knew how to make everyone feel that, as Arthur Miller might have put it, “attention was being paid” even if it was not. I don’t know what it is about Bush.  When he first started the wrap was that he couldn’t think or do for himself, that Dick Chaney and others were simply pulling the strings.  Since then, we’re constantly told that the president really is a smart guy and that he’s in charge.  I find myself going back to the default.  At the very least his obvious lack of spontaneity suggests a man who, if not manipulated by handlers, calculates every move and, if required, will sacrifice any of us to make sure that his photo ops look right.  Some people said he waited to get down close and personal with what he calls “the folks” until the TV screens could simultaneously show the truck convoy of help, like him much delayed, on the way.  As usual, the compliant media pitched in with a lot of split screens – hugging scenes along with trucks filled to the brim.  Of course the idea of any such coordination would be cynical, wouldn’t it?  But be assured that he wasn’t about to go down there and give “Brownie” (his FEMA director) a thumbs up until something – anything – was happening.

I keep on trying to figure out George Bush’s problem?  The man talks of his faith and of his compassionate conservatism (now there is an oxymoron) and yet he lacks the basic instincts one would expect of someone so committed.  I think the answer may actually be quite simple.  Bush has never in his life experienced lack of resources much less any substantial discomfort.  John Kerry may have grown up in relative affluence, but at least he experienced the down and dirty in Viet Nam.

The problem with all the rich people whom we now have in government is not that they have money or even that it takes so much to play the game these days.  That’s an issue for election reform.  The problem is that they have no idea about how the vast majority of people live, the problems they face and their way of survival which so often is, of necessity, taking it one agonizing day at a time.  That it is time for new leadership is to state the obvious.  In thinking about what kind of president we need, perhaps it should be someone who at least started out poor.  Bill Clinton, no less political than Bush, didn’t have delayed reactions and, while he is not the only one, John Edwards probably wouldn’t have either.  Both, now well off, started with nothing.  Obviously, even the born rich can have compassion and good instincts (there are many examples) but having known struggle is not a bad thing to have on a presidential wannabe’s resume.  How did they put it back in the old days? “Power to the people.”

Friday, August 26, 2005

Time Off

WLIW (a local PBS station) broadcast an episode of Inspector Morse the other night. Of course I’d seen it before as I have all of the late John Thaw’s 33 wonderful performances as the erudite and emotionally complex Oxford detective created by Colin Dexter. In this story Morse and his deputy Sergeant Lewis once again arrive on the scene of what they determine is a murder. Morse is ready to commence the investigation as always, but there is a problem. Lewis informs him that he is about to take a week’s holiday, one that Morse had approved but as usual has forgotten. A holiday?  Morse will have none of it. Someone has been murdered and this is no time to be taking off. Not that Morse couldn’t solve a crime on his own, and usually does, but the idea that Lewis could walk off the job at this crucial moment just doesn’t fly.

There was a time in my own professional life when vacations seemed out of the question – I once went three or four years without taking time off. For some reason, I deluded myself into thinking that the show could not go on without me which definitely was not the case. There is no other way to describe my avoiding time off, it was stupid.  Everyone needs to recharge the batteries if only to maximize what little we have to offer. Lewis should have taken his time (which he didn’t) and Morse should have let him (which would have been out of character).

Much has been made of George W. Bush’s extended vacation in the time of war and indeed, as Maureen Dowd recently wrote in the NY Times, he has taken almost the equivalent of a full year’s vacation time since taking office (and he’s less than five years in). She and others have pointed to the hypocrisy of dismissing the French for their vacationing and work ethic (which they also do regularly on CNBC) in comparison. I couldn’t say it better than others have and won’t try.  I am intrigued however by what all this time off says about Bush and the presidency.

My shunning vacations was ultimately an act of inflated self importance, making sacrifices that were totally unnecessary and inappropriate. My family suffered for it.  I admit to that (and have long since corrected my ways). The fact is, however, that my decision also reflected that I really loved my work. Spending time in the office or out with clients gave me great satisfaction and, yes, joy. I think Bill Clinton (who did take vacations) felt the same way about his work as president (which he hated to leave). George W. Bush, I’ve decided, does not.  Oh for sure he loves the trappings of the job – the pomp and circumstance, the occasional opportunities to dress up, the sitting at the center of the table and having the last word on things. But I don’t think he really likes doing the presidency most of which has to be executed out of sight by men (sadly still the case) who put their pants on one leg at a time. He also clearly doesn’t like Washington which admittedly can be a tough place to do business. One wonders why he made a run for it in the first place. In any event, here we are, our lives and fortunes dominated by a man who has made some of the worst domestic and foreign policy decisions in recent memory, who manipulated himself into office with slogans, marketing and legal maneuvers and he doesn’t really like the job. Who would have thought?

Friday, August 19, 2005


The exodus from Gaza is nearing completion.  Some settlers have gone quietly, perhaps not happily but resigned to the reality that something has to give if the Israelis and the Palestinians are ever to dwell alongside each other in peace they both deserve.  Some are resisting (augmented by outsiders, ultra orthodox religious fanatics from the West Bank and elsewhere including from the United States).  There has been talk of how wrenching this experience is for many of those involved including the police and IDF personnel – the little guys on the ground are always left to do the heavy lifting.  I would be insensitive not to recognize their pain but find it difficult to empathize with it.  These settlements should never have been, nor should those on West Bank.

To be sure these occupations are the byproduct of a war that Israel neither wanted nor started.  That it treated these territories as booty, retained them for more than three decades and that it gave in to religious zealots who demanded they be annexed, is another thing altogether.  Occupation wherever it happens is a bad thing, destined to play out badly.  Some will suggest that, like it or not, events have a way of taking over and they are not easily, if ever, be undone.  But I don’t buy that notion. The fact is that we’ve all become victims of religious militants.  Israel all the more so by people who from the start refused to recognize the constituted State’s legitimacy – that is until it suited their purposes.  Among these were those goal has always been a theocratic (orthodox) Jewish state.  Even the more “moderate” among them always had a price for their participation in the coalitions that have always been necessary to govern. Ultimately the more radical elements forged an unholy alliance with the political hard right.  Sound familiar?  The fundamentalist religious agenda played well with Likud’s (a party with pre-state terrorist roots) aggressive hostility toward Arabs.  The two found real karma in their personalities and their objectives.  The ultimate expression of their alliance, the Gaza West Bank occupation settlements.

It’s time to move on.  Sharon seems to have come to that conclusion though it’s hard to forget the pivotal role he played in getting us to this place. Some still feel his aggressive grandstanding near the Temple Mount in the waning days of the Barak administration helped ignite the most recent Intifada.  It’s time to move on which is unquestionably hard.  IDFers cry with the unsettled which is only human, but let’s also do some crying for the many frustrated Palestinians caught in the political and violent crossfire all these thirty plus years.  I celebrate the exodus from Gaza.  Next, the West Bank.  If so, can peace be far behind?  Unsettled, that has a nice ring to it.

Israel was founded on the assumption of partition, that sharing of the land in which both Jews and Arabs had real, albeit different, history was fair.  You can point fingers especially at the Arab governments who used the Palestinians as pawns from the moment the United Nations acted, but where does that get us?  Certainly not to the peace and normalcy that ordinary citizens on both sides so desperately want, and that the world (including you and I) so desperately needs.

Monday, August 15, 2005

More Wrong Direction

New York is a never ending construction zone with old buildings coming down and new (usually taller and larger) ones going up. It’s less common to see a whole new street emerge, but that's exactly what happened in my neighborhood. Riverside Boulevard, has materialized over the past few years adjacent to my home thanks to Donald Trump, that master of smoked mirrors, unending public relations/promotion and (most of all) survival against all odds. A few years back, The Donald was in great trouble owing much more to our city’s fine banks than he could afford. He was functionally bankrupt. His development on the Hudson River near me was in danger of going belly up, but it didn’t. The truth was the banks had too much in the project and, not wanting to be left holding the bag, they bailed Mr. Trump out after which (as usual) he cashed in at someone else's expense. Some folks in my neighborhood still can’t let go of their anger that the Trump buildings have risen before our eyes (often obstructing our views), but I find such huffing a puffing a silly waste of energy. Riverside Boulevard (he likes to think of it as Trump Place) is a mammoth brick and mortar fact of life.

What made me think of The Donald today was a story in the NY Times suggesting that changes in Federal standards for improving SUV mileage are likely to be abandoned because the people in Washington are concerned about further weakening the already hobbled American automobile industry. The banks were too dependent on Trump as apparently is our economy on the people in Detroit, similarly under water. To be sure they are in deep trouble – I have not owned a GM, Ford or Chrysler in decades, nor do most people I know. But it’s hard to sympathize with these guys who haven’t been killed by competition, but who were suicidal co-conspirators; deaf, dumb and blind to what was going on around them. First there was the issue of quality. After taking delivery of my first foreign made car, I was astonished to look in the side mirror and see the front and rear doors line up – it was a first. Then of course there is that size thing. Even after the terrible gas lines of the Carter years, Detroit has been systematically sizing and bulking up and rather than improving gas consumption, building more and more trucks that are marketed as family cars which have insatiable thirsts for Saudi oil. My newest Japanese car – the exact same model as the last gets ten miles more per gallon.

I realize that our media is not what it used to be and our news is watered down to tepid nothingness dominated by shallow stories like Michael Jackson and brides who decide not to show up at the alter. Even so, most people have heard of a war in the Middle East and of oil prices going through the roof. Surly even members of the Bush gang have noticed that it costs twice as much to fill up the tank than it did a year ago even if they overlook the fact that there are a couple of Americans out there (some who have lost jobs in Detroit) who can ill afford such a swing in prices. But the energy bill recently past doesn’t address such mundane problems and while we hear much talk about rising demand little is done to reduce it. The President speaks out for the morality of saving embryos, thwarting stem cell research and the need to teach creationism (excuse me, Intelligent Design), but can’t use his bully pulpit to get citizens to think fuel economy by buying more efficient vehicles. That probably would get too close to emissions and global warming and all those other unproved theories about which the Bible was silent.

So here we are again bailing out the incompetent and telling ourselves we know they aren’t perfect, but what can we do? Plenty! We can do a great deal if we only had the will and the vision, not to mention our people and our planet's future in mind.

Tuesday, August 9, 2005

1776 Forgotten

Nothing beats turning the pages of a good book, but I confess that being able to download a volume onto my iPod transforms a long car trip turn into something special. That’s exactly what I did recently with the added dividend of David McCullough’s sonorous voice reading his own 1776. Like all McCullough books, it’s a great “read”, history beautifully told. This book was not merely satisfying. Whether intentional or not, it was surprisingly timely. What’s striking and often forgotten about 1776, a year that we celebrate with too little introspection, is how hard it was. We take Empire America so for granted, that we forget what an ill equipped rag tag bunch of novices fought for its Independence. To be sure Washington was a charismatic and towering (literally) figure but, as McCullough points out, a general with no combat experience surrounded by more on-the-job trainees than officers as we think of them today. The citizen soldiers who fought for the colonies were a tattered, often shoeless, lot. The British boasted the greatest military (Army and Navy) of its day – spit and polish with all the necessary tools of war within arm’s reach. By every measure, Washington with his inept grossly outnumbered fighting force (calling them an army is misleading) should have lost and decisively so. They did not. They were fighting for their land and the right to determine their own destiny, an unbeatable combination.

Does this have a familiar and immediate ring, like you just read it in today’s Times? You bet it does. 1776 wasn’t the only time in history that we’ve seen how the odds can be turned on their head when people are fighting for their homeland. Nor is it the only time the British confronted a rebellion of the under equipped. Remember India and Pakistan? And let’s not forget the odds against outnumbered little Israel prevailing in its war of independence. And how about Viet Nam (which supposedly is something totally different) where we were thinking creeping Communism and dominoes while the Vietnamese were fighting for homeland? Israel (with reversed fortunes as the dominant power) is about to vacate Gaza where, whatever their monstrous means, Palestinians have been fighting for their homeland too.

Perhaps there is a war on terrorism. But as with the war against Communism, it’s one that conveniently is used as cover when the cause at hand can't be justified. It isn’t simply that we shouldn’t be in Iraq but that 1776, the year and the book, informs us that we can’t possibly win when people think they are fighting for homeland and real self determination. Sure there are some non-Iraqi fighters involved in this conflict, many but probably not all of them terrorist jihadists. We got some help from the French in our war for independence and the Vietnamese had allies as well. Who has joined someone’s side and even the tactics they use doesn’t change the reality that we don’t want to see, admit, or remember from our own history. An Iraqi involved in writing their constitution complained to a reporter yesterday of being rushed by the Americans so that George Bush could claim a success. OK Mr. Bush, he said, you’ve had a success, now go away and let us write our constitution in our own time – it will take time to get it right. I guess some of our people in Washington have lost sight of the fact that, once completed, the Iraqi’s will have to live by that constitution or have forgotten how hard it is to change documents like that once they’ve been adopted.

David McCullough’s 1776 is a terrific book about a pivotal year. Too bad with all our bravado, flag waving and lapel buttons that we’ve forgotten its lessons.

Thursday, June 30, 2005


Judy Miller is in jail. Matt Cooper and Bob Novak are not. Judy Miller is in jail not for what she did or what she said, but for what she knows (and won’t say). Matt Cooper maintained his silence up to the moment he was given an "unconditional pardon" by his “source” after which he apparently sang. Bob Novak apparently never gave singing a second thought. After all it was he who outed Valerie Plame Wilson. Judith Miller works for The New York Times. She didn’t give an inch and didn’t get a inch. The Times backed her to the last and is still doing so. Matt and Bob both work for Time Warner – the first writing for Time, the second continuing to cash in big for CNN appearances. Time helped push Matt over the edge, and one wonders if Time Warner's connections with the Bush Administration facilitated the “pardon”. One also wonders if working for that bastion of Liberalism, The Times, sealed Judy Miller’s fate from the start. It’s ironic of course that she was one of those reporters whose stories (source Ahmad Chalabi) helped the Administration by giving credibility to those phantom WMDs. But that was then, this is now.

I see in Judy Miller and her being jailed for what she knows as a metaphor for our troubling times. Thanks to the Patriot Act there are others in jail (for more than four months) not necessarily for what they know and won’t say, but for who they are. To be sure among the detainees in Gitmo and elsewhere there are some really bad and dangerous people, but we know a significant number there are caught in the “usual suspects” net. As best I can remember whatever it is that resides in my head, even the most evil thoughts (which I don’t have), is not a crime in the United States. It’s a good thing because our penal system is even more stretched than our military. One can’t have lived through the McCarthy era without feeling a shiver down your spine in hearing about the government monitoring the books you check out of the library – I wonder if they will soon put surveillance on the booksellers who have set up shop in front of Zabars or at flea markets around America.

Some say the facts surrounding Judy Miller’s refusal to reveal sources is are not as clear cut First Amendment issues as they might be. Perhaps so. I leave that to the lawyers and the few in the press who may be trying to justify that from time to time they were not so careful about protecting sources. In my own view when it comes to maintaining a free press which may be our only protection in times like these, I err on the side of the broadest possible interpretation. Perhaps Judy Miller’s source for that unwritten story, that information she has in her head but never shared, doesn’t qualify as a whistle blower, but so what. We certainly don’t want to take the slightest chance that making a reporter spill the beans will have a chilling effect on future whistle blowers. Judy Miller is in an American jail for saying nothing when Colin Powell is free for saying what he knew (or at least thought might not be) true. Judy Miller's silence has had (from all reports) no impact on the case against Leaker X, thousands have died because of what Powell said. Miller seems to have more principles than Powell. That said, is there any doubt that Judy Miller and Colin Powell are equally loyal and proud Americans? Of course not. And as for the Supreme Court not taking on the case. I guess the courts aren’t such activists after all.