Monday, July 30, 2007

It's not K Street but K

The Jack Abramoff scandal focused much of our attention on the power and influence of K Street lobbyists in Washington.  But it isn’t K Street that comes to mind as I watch events unfold, listen to experts on international affairs or read the thoughtful columns of Frank Rich and others.  Rather it is K, the protagonist of a Kafka novel.  If you peel things down to the core, we’re mired in a Kafkaesque situation of vast proportions.  We know what the problem is, can see the mistakes we’re making and even have some idea of how, if not to fix them, then at least make things better.  The fact is that while we theoretically have the power of the ballot, we as citizens are essentially impotent, victims of what is at best flawed decision-making.  We see a deteriorating situation and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it.  We’re a collective K whose ability to determine our destiny in any substantial way is ephemeral, if non existent.

During these past years I have become increasingly convinced that, from a citizen’s standpoint, our approach to democracy is flawed.  It’s ironic that we hold ourselves out as a beacon to be followed by others.  The Founding Fathers set us on the wrong course, or at least one with unintended consequences.  George Washington didn’t want to become a monarch, which is why he limited his tenure in office.  But the structure he and his colleagues put in place led to monarchy all the same, even if limited to eight years.  While we may naively think that checks and balances govern, the fact remains that the presidency, as presently constituted, provides all but absolute power.  Congress finds itself in an impossible situation in which the only recourse they have is to cut off funds, a sure path to political suicide.  Executive privilege isn’t about holding back information; it’s about being able to do exactly as the chief executive wishes.  The war will continue as long as the President in office wants to stay the course.  Citizen K can’t do a damn thing about it.

It is said that our approach to things military is informed by the Viet Nam experience.  Most of us forget, and some of us are too young to remember, that the casualties in Iraq pale in comparison to that conflict where combat deaths were at one thousand a month when Lyndon Johnson delivered his famous “I will not run” declaration.  Two things came out of that experience.  The first was that we would no longer have a draft and the second that, wherever possible, we would avoid setting too many feet on the ground.  War after Viet Nam would, from an American perspective, be as antiseptic as possible, as few dirty hands and muddy feet as possible.  Machine and technology would be our front line of offence and defense.  The latter decision, and its unrealistic dream of arms length conflict, led to the minimal commitment of forces about which even proponents of the war have complained.  The Pentagon really saw the shock and awe of air power as a panacea of victory.  The abolishment of the draft, which meant that the vast majority of Americans would be voyeurs not participants, had profound political consequences. 

Any high school senior knows that feeling of dreaded anticipation that a slim envelope of rejection will come from their college of choice.  Eighteen year olds in the 1960s feared an envelope of acceptance, a command performance from their local draft board.  No American family was untouched, even if only living with the expectation that one of theirs would be called to arms.  There were no onlookers in Viet Nam only participants.  But there was nothing high-minded in the decision that followed to opt for an all-volunteer army.  Politicians were battle weary not from combat in South East Asia, but from combat on the streets.  Involving everyone meant that everyone was ready to engage.  When the population got “mad as hell” they wouldn’t “take it any more”.  Young and old took to the streets, something that simply could not be allowed to happen any more.  There is no underlying rationale for eliminating the draft for the real or wannabe “most powerful nation on earth”.  It makes no sense.  Sure we may not need large numbers of troops all of the time, but that can be controlled by limited call-ups and with the further offset of volunteerism.  In the face of Iraq, there are no masses in the streets and that’s precisely the way our government wants it.  Their absence eliminates pressure and gives voice to the myth that the polls don’t mean much because people don’t really care.  In this case, intended consequences resulting in a nation of K’s.

Finally, in or present state I don’t think merely of Kafka but also of Vance Packard and The Hidden Persuaders – not of K Street but of Madison Avenue.  It was Richard Nixon who brought in the Ad men and bestowed upon them tremendous power.  Since that time, the techniques of advertising have been used to influence in an unprecedented way, particularly words, taglines and their constant repetition.  “Tide’s in, dirt’s out” repeated thousands of times convinced us (especially the women who were the ordained laundresses) that only the powder in that orange box could get our cloths squeaky clean.  Good advertising means staying on message, telling not necessarily what is, but what you want people to think is.  Say you’re “pro-life” enough times and anyone who opposes you will be, by implication, “pro-death”.  Apply terrorist to all those you face in battle and anyone who questions you will be aiding and abetting a repeat of 9/11 (Bush and Giuliani’s favorite holiday).  It reminds one of McCarthy and his invented Communist menace.  The repetition of words (highlighted in Frank Rich’s recent column) is meant to brainwash, to make their message our message.  And doesn’t that bring us right back to K and, from a relative perspective, to the minor role of K Street in shaping the condition of our lives?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Sleeper Cells of Discontent

My son and daughter-in-law’s house is just minutes from mine here in Chapel Hill.  Her dad came down from D.C. for a visit last week.  Jim Bernstein is blessed with an inquisitive mind and a love of back roads.  So he and Rachel took off on a drive through the countryside, which in these parts means a totally different world.  Driving around Chapel Hill and neighboring Carrboro, Kerry-Edwards or even Dean bumper stickers can routinely be seen on the cars parked near Whole Foods, the farmers market or Lowe’s.  They are sad reminders of what didn’t happen, as are the new Edwards, Obama and Clinton stickers reminders of what might.  Drive out a few miles from here and the pickups are more likely to display the “proud to be an American” kind.  Even with a North Carolinian on the ticket, George Bush took the state which remains more red than blue.

Jim doesn’t only look (and there is much beauty to behold in the nearby back country), but he loves to engage.  So, wherever possible the man who lives in the nation’s capital talked to the farmers who live on the land.  “Where are you from?”  “I’m from Washington, D.C.”  That’s all it took to unleash a torrent of anger against the President of the United States.  “What is that guy doing, what’s he thinking*?”  Now these are folks who consider their neighbors down the road in Carrboro “hippies”, and that’s no complement.  They are also the kind of people who go to church on Sunday and might well return Elizabeth Dole to the Senate, though maybe not.  Perhaps they put their trust in that faux plain talking fellow from Texas, but not any more.  Living where he does, Jim doesn’t get surprised easily, but to hear him report on these conversations it’s clear that they were a real eye opener.

The Bush Administration is deeply concerned about Al Qaeda sleeper cells throughout the United States, and the threat they pose to the “homeland”.  But if Jim and Rachel’s experience in the farmland is indicative of what’s happening elsewhere (which polls suggest is the case), they should be equally concerned about sleeper cells of discontent in the heartland.  Perhaps Bush doesn’t care any more.  He continues to live in a dream state believing that history will vindicate his corroded presidency.  Dream on!  For Republicans, these American sleeper cells may spell real trouble, not the loss of the White House and a few seats but a blowout.  Perhaps that’s wishful thinking on my part, but I trust those farmers.  The young people who are “fighting them over there, so we don’t have to fight them here” are their kids.  They are the people who get those dreaded visits, attend those funerals or tend the permanently broken bodies of those whom they love.  Unlike most Americans, they’ve seen them go into harm’s way up close and personal, and now they’re pissed.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Newark Unforgotten

Some things you never forget. The bright streaks of light accompanied by sounds of gunfire invaded the darkness below, a bizarre contrast from the view of New York’s famed skyline seen to the east through our floor to ceiling glass windows.  We occupied the south east corner on the top floor in the largest of three ultra modern Mies van der Rohe designed buildings.  The other two sat between a group of those dreary city housing boxes of brick.  All three and, believe it or not, those brick cauldrons of discontent, were part of a tragically ill-conceived urban renewal.  It’s been forty years since the day Newark imploded and, in some respects, from which it has never recovered. 

Gone that night were the halcyon days of my childhood, growing up in the quiet tree lined Clinton Hill neighborhood.  Gone was the world, described so vividly in Philip Roth novels.  Never the same was the high school (which we both attended) with that funny impossible to pronounce and spell Indian name.  “W, double e, qua, hic, Weequahic!”  Gone were all those fabulous over qualified, mostly Jewish, teachers who lived at a time when, credentials or not, people of “their kind” simply couldn’t get college jobs.  That stupid prejudice was our gain; under their tutelage, more than 85% of us matriculated to university, well prepared and ready to take on the world.

It was all gone on that July night in 1967, but unlike Katrina years later, there had been much more than a few days’ warning.  No possible excuses could be made, no scapegoats could be found.  It was mayhem transparently waiting to happen; The City of Newark was the inevitable homicide victim.  A combination of white and business flight, deep-seated corruption, racial and ethnic prejudice, and the desperate poverty that goes with them, made up a lethal cocktail of root causes.  By the time the riot exploded, our synagogue, with it s large membership and magnificent 2000 seat sanctuary, was the only major one left in a city that had boasted a thriving Jewish community of 100,000.  I lived in Newark, albeit not in the old neighborhood, but our congregants had all long since retreated to the suburbs, paying only tentative visits to attend services or the programs that were still conducted there.

Hugh Addonizio was the mayor.  A rotund former Congressman, he lived by only two discernable rules:  take all you can (preferably in cash) and be disingenuous down to the core.  He would end up in jail, to become a rite of passage for Newark’s mayors.  Lou Danzig, a wannabe Robert Moses, autocratically ran the Housing Authority.  It erected all those prison-like structures with abandon and lot’s of government money.  Many of the city’s African Americans were forced to call these dreary, deteriorating rat-infested places home, and they were the lucky ones.

For Newark’s now majority population, there were no memories of halcyon days because such days had never been.  They were like a “Shiite” majority still living under minority “Sunni” rule, and the analogy is not that far off.  It was also something that had to change, if there would ever be any kind of Newark renaissance – such an unrealistic dream, that it pains me to use the word.  But we did give it a shot; in retrospect both too many dollars and too many days short.

It was particularly poignant and painful, therefore, watching the implosion below my window that night.  I was on my way out, having already started a new job and new life in New York.  Ironically it wasn’t the riot that was making me go, but the aftermath of trying to prevent it from happening, and we really tried.  It was the 1960s when we thought any problem could be solved if you only put your mind and muscle to it.  I was shockingly young at the time when a group of us founded the United Community Corporation.  It became the nation’s first community action anti-poverty program funded by Lyndon Johnson’s Equal Opportunity Act.  That we got it accomplished under crooked Hughie’s watch was nothing short of a miracle.  He was probably thinking of skimming when we were thinking of solving.  But somehow it happened.  We assembled an incredible board, dominated by blacks and Hispanics though electing the expected white man as its first president.  Fortunately, it was the straight-as-an-arrow C. Willard Heckel, dean of Rutgers Law and elder of the Presbyterian Church (of which he would one day become national presiding officer).  From the start, he was committed to being succeed by a more representative President.  We convinced Haryou veteran, the brilliant and visionary Cyril DeGrasse Tyson (later to hold senior posts under Mayor Lindsay in New York), to become our first executive director.  He has written a detailed account in “Two Years Before the Riot” (Jay Street Publishers).  Ken Gibson, then an engineer in the Housing Authority and community leader, and I served as Vice Presidents; he would eventually become the city’s first African American Mayor.

Under Tyson’s leadership, the UCC set up programs for kids and adults, all directly controlled and staffed by the community.   It was an intentional structure that laid the groundwork for an eventual transfer of power in the city itself.  It was the first time that the majority had experienced any modicum of control.  True to his word, Heckel turned leadership (sometime after the riot) over to Timothy Still, an ex-boxer and a leader of housing project residents.  But nothing could stop July 12, 1967 from steamrollering its way toward all of us, and transforming Newark into Riot City, USA.  It’s an image that has taken hold, even though there were other riots in places like Detroit and Watts. 

In reading this past week, that former Mayor Sharpe James had been indicted; I had the unmistakable feeling of déjà vu.  Another long-serving mayor, another potential of “go directly to jail and don’t pass go”.  It’s a bad movie that keeps on giving.  Corey Booker, his successor, has promised to be a different kind of leader.  I have no way of knowing if he will be up to the challenge, much less whether the Newark that is, and has always been, will let him.  Most of what led up to the riot remains in place; a ghettoized city, a culture of corruption, inadequate jobs and the like.  Those terrible brick boxes have been bull dozed and both Hughie and Lou are long gone, but Newark these 40 years on, remains more of a question than an answer.

I didn’t leave Newark because of the riots.  But it was the UCC, and my deep involvement in it, that became the catalyst for my departure from the city, not to mention a change in professional direction.  In the early spring before the riot, an officer of my congregation came to see me.  He indicated that he was speaking informally, but representing the views of his colleagues.  Apparently they were not so happy about my involvement in Newark affairs and, using the fact that my father was also engaged in outside activities as an excuse, he said, “We don’t need two rabbis doing that”.  While never asked to do so, because naively they never thought leaving was an option for me, I asked myself what might happen if I had to make a choice.  It took a remarkably short time to answer.  Speak of unintended consequences.  I resigned weeks later and would find myself living in New York by the fall.  Do I remember the riots?  You bet I do.