Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Talking to Bad People

As the world spins further toward confrontation, pushed there in large (but not exclusive) measure by the Bush Administration’s dangerious bravado, it’s time think about talking to bad people.  That’s precisely what Foreign Relations Chairman Lugar suggested last weekend with regard to Iran.  Talking to bad people is tough and those of us with historic memories will always have images of Neville Chamberlain and his ill conceived and fated talks with Adolf Hitler in mind.  But that’s probably the wrong point of reference.  I’m not na├»ve enough to think Hitler was a “never can happen again” phenomenon (we’ve seen his likes in the Balkans and Africa), but we’re much too facile about using him as a catchall reason for not communicating with bad people.

Let’s also be honest about it, we have been talking to (and doing business with) bad people for a long time.  We do so selectively, of course, to meet our own self interest, but we do it all the same.  A prime case is our ongoing interaction with the schizophrenic techno-medieval regime in Saudi Arabia whose oil we covet and on whose often repressive faith-based governance we cast a convenient blind eye.  We talked with the Soviet Union during all those years when it had nuclear armed missiles aimed at our shores, and we’re hosting the President of China even though democracy which we say all should have still eludes the people of his vast nation. 

While the Chamberlain misadventure had unparalleled tragic consequences, there is overwhelming evidence that talking to bad people can be vastly more powerful than meeting them on the battlefield.  While some will argue that today’s Russia is still essentially run by bad people, the Soviet Union did fall. Reagan’s arms buildup is routinely given credit for that but I think ongoing talk and a resulting freer flow of information may have played an equal if not greater role.  Conversely, our ridiculous almost five decade bipartisan refusal to engage Castro has probably kept him in power and given heart to the growing number of anti-American regimes that are taking root to our South including Hugo Chavez, with whom we seem heading toward the same mistake though, unlike Fidel, he has something we need more than cigars.

We talk to bad people and while we do so selectively claiming we don’t would be, to put it mildly, hypocritical.  That brings me to Iran and Hamas and to putting my “money” where my mouth is – reality verses high minded theory.  To put this into context, let me stipulate that as a Jew, the regime in Teheran and the newly elected party in power in Palestine, represent in both their rhetoric and past actions, everything I deplore.  Holocaust deniers like the present leader of Iran make my blood boil.  That Hitler’s survivors and other members of my people living in Israel have been subjected to violence against the innocent is impossible to overlook and on some very visceral level impossible to forgive.  That said, I still believe we should, indeed we desperately need to, talk with bad people.

In what was apparently the last interview before his recent illness, Charlie Rose engaged with President Assad of Syria.  British educated and western world wise, he speaks perfect English.  During the conversation, Assad noted that in the days following 9/11 he and his government had actively cooperated with the United States providing intelligence and other help as it launched the so-called War on Terrorism.  It is well known that Al Qaeda is anathema to many of the Middle East regimes (as it was to Saddam).  It was perplexing therefore for the Syrians to hear themselves vilified and painted with the same terrorist brush and to be threatened with invasion as we occupied neighboring Iraq.  A few days after that interview, filling in for Rose, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour spoke with the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations.  The brunt of his message was that his government was willing, indeed eager, to talk with the United States but that it had been thwarted at every effort to do so.  Now I don’t take these interviews at face value; both men have agendas and both were using Rose’s platform to promote them.  But even with that in mind, it was difficult to ignore their contentions or not to imagine them being dissed by the Bush administration.

Perhaps it’s hard for individuals to let go of past hurts or expressions of disrespect, but those in control of other people’s lives can’t afford that luxury.  To be sure Hamas says that it won’t accept Israel’s right to exist, but it wasn’t that long ago that similar words were being spoken (backed up by military attack) in Cairo and Amman.  Nothing excuses suicide bombing in the particular, but all of us can understand that perceived (and in this case very real) occupation can result in abject frustration and produce irrational behavior including unspeakable violence.  I remember vividly the day in 1948 when Israel declared itself a nation and the joy I shared even as a child with my family and with other Jews around the world.  Would it be any less for Palestinians in declaring their own Statehood, or would it be any less valid?  Of course not.

There comes a moment when someone, hopefully some two, have the courage to utter the word enough – not we’ve had enough and must strike back, but we’ve had enough killing even if we have no ideal “partner”.  How many Viet Nam’s and Iraq’s does it take for us to understand that bombing or marching into places like Iran is neither a short or long term solution?  Being the only country in the world to have actually used Atomic weaponry, one that remains resistant to meaningful disarmament, is it so hard for us to understand that a country sitting between numerous nuclear powers wonders why it should be denied what others have?  Am I missing something here?  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think India, Pakistan or Israel for that matter should have bombs, but they (admitted or not) do and we who covet our neighbor’s every luxury should understand that natural impulse called envy.

We pushed for free elections in Palestine and I think we made a huge mistake in immediately withdrawing financial support when its people overwhelmingly selected candidates we didn’t like.  I can’t abide George Bush and firmly believe he and his gang are ruining the country, putting it and the world into great peril, but nonetheless I pay my taxes.  Hamas may be the epitome of bad people, but we didn’t even give them a chance to take a different turn in the road.  Was condoning the Tel Aviv suicide bomber horrendous?  Of course, but was their reaction also an inevitable self fulfilling prophecy when we collectively put them in a corner?  They are unmistakably bad people, but the only game in town.  Iran’s rhetoric has risen in direct proportion to our own threats.  We simply can’t continue on that path and expect our children and grandchildren to live in a better world.  We had better start talking to bad people, before it’s too late, before we ourselves must assume responsibility for bad consequences and be perceived as bad people.

Friday, April 7, 2006

Family Gathering

Abigail Pogrebin, the gifted writer, has published a fascinating and beautifully written book called, Stars of David (see www.amazon.com or your local bookstore).  In it she reports on her interviews with sixty-two Jewish women and men who have made their public mark in the arts, politics, academia, journalism and letters.  What struck me at once about these overachievers was that while, with very few exceptions, all are disengaged from organized religious life, most consider their Jewishness integral to who they are.  A number do attend services on occasion (usually once a year) or have shepherded their child through a bar or bat mitzvah.  But that’s about it with one major exception.  The majority of those interviewed participate in, or host, a Passover Seder. I wasn’t surprised to read of that strong connection.

People often think that generally inactive Jews connect with their religion only on the High Holy Days (particularly Yom Kippur), if at all.  The fact is that Passover and particularly the Seder seems to have a much broader pull.  While those who pass on religous services altogether may do so without qualm, even the tangentially involved often feel they’ve missed something if they don’t participate in a Seder.  Ours have always involved extended and non-family members (often including Christian friends) who were eager and active participants.  There is something compelling about this holiday.

The prayers embodied in it the notwithstanding, the Hagaddah text strikes more of a universal rather than narrowly religious theme.  Its message of freedom resonates with everyone and not inconsequentially because it remains remarkably current.  The notion that setting people free will potentially have a generational impact – not merely Moses was set free but that I was set free with him – continues to be powerful.  Whatever residual problems and prejudices remain (and they can be significant), it is certainly a message to which African Americans can relate and which compelled so many Jews to join in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and before.  It’s also a message to which the authors of current American foreign policy might point to justify their actions aimed at bringing freedom (and democracy) to Iraq and elsewhere.  Of course, as is often the case, religious texts and messages are read and taken selectively.  The underlying message of the Exodus is that freedom resulted from a self motivated indigenous effort.  Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and eventually determined the need for laws to govern their everyday life.  Freedom can be taken (or sometimes given under duress), but can’t be imposed.

Perhaps even more compelling and in a profound way more enduring than the message (what probably brings Pogrebin’s Stars to the table) is the pull of family.  While other Holy Days and Festivals on the Jewish religious calendar are synagogue centered, the main event at Passover takes place at home.  While a certain historic order (Seder) is brought the proceedings, it is largly under full family control, often involving “proprietary” customs that are unique to each clan.  This may include how the Seder is conducted (my own family Hagaddah can be downloaded at www.jjprinz.com ) to what food is consumed.  For many people (and not only Jews) family is often the only remaining connection to their historic identity.  This is just another reason why promoting the existing family and the building of new families, including gay families, is so very important in our society, and ultimately to its survival.

I’ve always loved Thanksgiving because it is our most shared holiday, the one time religious and demographic differences melt away.  Passover is in its way the Jewish Thanksgiving that draws us in for many of the same reasons.  Even if no formal Seder is conducted in its observance (which is a pity), the importance of getting together with family and friends should in itself never be discounted.  Abby Pogrebin (whose mother was my college classmate) was motivated to write this book by her own journey in reassessing her roots.  Some of its most moving passages are found in the prologue and epilogue.  Her subjects, like so many contemporary children of religious backgrounds no longer have active contact with that side of their life (or of their ancestors' lives), but nonetheless want to maintain some thread of connection.  Passover and specifically the Seder seems to be a good place to start, and thus is a celebration not wisely cast aside.

Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Censure, Withdrawal and Hairdos

Three separate events caught my attention in recent days. The first was the pro forma Senate hearing on Russ Feingold’s proposal to censure George W. Bush.  The second, Tom DeLay’s decision to abandon his reelection bid.  The third was a purportedly confusing new hairdo. Feingold’s proposition was going nowhere and with good reason.  DeLay’s departure may augur well for November’s vote.  The hairdo? Well that's an altogether different story.

The history of censure and more significantly of impeachment which is on many liberal wish lists is not encouraging.  Two sitting Presidents have stood at the bar on the Senate floor and both prevailed against what were essentially politically motivated attempted coups.  Only Richard Nixon was in real danger and he decided to throw in the towel rather than submit himself to trail.  In his case, the crimes were real and straight forward – so much so that only Gerry Ford’s pardon took him out of harm’s way.  Much as I admire Senator Feingold, one of the few politicians with impeccable character, censure and impeachment end up being distractions that go nowhere, and distraction is the last thing we need at this moment.

DeLay who certainly is facing the possibility of prosecutions beyond the pending Texas cases has undoubtedly factored his legal situation into his decision.  But what may have tipped the scales was his real fear of losing to a Democrat in November.  There are lot’s of things that one can say about the gang in power these days including an oppressive religious-based social agenda (which DeLay championed in the Schiavo case among others), but perhaps the most stinging indictment lies not in what they think (it’s a free country) but in how they execute.  The Bush people are incompetent.  There is only one way to deal with incompetence: fire the perpetrators.  If this were almost any other democracy, Bush would have been sent walking papers long ago.  Sadly, Americans blew their chance two years ago (looking at the polls many must be suffering buyer’s remorse), but we have a shot of neutralizing him in November.  Tom DeLay isn’t the only Republican smelling the scent of potential defeat, and we better not get bogged down on our way to getting the job done.  As Ike proclaimed during his landslide ’52 campaign, “it’s time for a change”. Nobody involved in that victory wasted even a moment on dead ends.  Focus, everybody, focus!

And finally there is the famous hairdo.  Now none of us knows yet precisely what happened between Congresswoman Cynthia A. McKinney and the Capital Police, but clearly it was provoked when she was not recognized by them while on her way to work.  The reason given for the mix-up was Ms. McKinney’s new hair style.  Really?  Do you think the Capital Police would been thrown if say Elizabeth Dole, Dianne Feinstein or Hilary Clinton walked in with a new do?  Did they fail to recognize Arlen Specter when he lost his hair while undergoing chemotherapy or got it back recently?  I don’t think so.  Did I mention that Ms. McKinney is black?  Cynthia McKinney has a reputation for being outspoken, somewhat of a loose cannon.  Oh yes, women can be that way, unpredictable PMS and all that.  And an African American woman representing Georgia, you know the uppity type.  We’re told the Capital Police are lobbying for criminal prosecution (rumor still but it seems to be yet another cell phone attack by a black woman).  Ms. McKinney smells racial profiling and not without reason.  The same House member, experienced just that when attempting to enter the Clinton White House in the company of a very young white female assistant.  In that case, the guards there assumed that it was the white aide not the black lady who was the legislator on the list.  It’s the kind of thing that makes a lot of African Americans justifiably paranoiac, leads them to understandable rage. It reminds me of the time, when the then Director of Newark’s Anti-Poverty Program Cyril Tyson, told me of being stopped for no reason at all by a patrol car when driving up to its headquarters and of CNN Anchor Bernie Shaw’s experience of being assumed to be the doorman while waiting for his driver in front of a Manhattan hotel.  This stuff happens to people of color all the time, then and now.  So much for progress.

Russ Feingold is possessed of a kind of moral rage, Tom DeLay provokes it and Cynthia McKinney can’t escape it so long as she insists on displaying her colors.  Don’t these seemingly unconnected events typify our troubled times?