Wednesday, December 30, 2009

We still trust.

The year is drawing to a close, so one thinks about valedictory.  While there is so much to say about a
period whose content floweth over,
what caught my attention while ready to pay at Whole Foods today were the words
printed on the twenty in my hand.  In God we Trust.  What better symbol could there be for the year and
especially for those in the nation’s capital in whom we have placed so much of
our trust.  If you can say anything
about them it is that above all else they bow to two things: money and
God.  Money of course is tokened by
all those too-big-to-fail banks, and God in the fact that preventing coverage
for abortion was the price of passage for healthcare legislation in both

So those terrible Bush years are over, right?  Yes they are in a meaningful way, but
the seeds sown in the previous eight years are still yielding a crop of woe.  Dick Chaney rails against the President
urgently seeking to transfer blame for the results of that he helped put in
place.  But the Democrats also
haven’t figured out, if that were even possible, how to get from under.  In all fairness, we should remember
that our problems on the economic front have their roots in the Clinton years
and that Obama finds himself dependent on Rubinesque technocrats.  The many years that Democrats spent on
the beach left them with a sparse executive bench.  And on the Hill, Congressional leaders, specifically liberal
Schumer from New York and pragmatic Emanuel from Illinois made a pact with the
devil to gain their slim majority by recruiting a class of conservative
Democrats who could win red or reddish states and districts.  The result was more predictable than
unintended consequences, which brings us back to money and God.

The lingering effects of Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush rule is that
true to orthodox capitalism the banks had to be bailed out and that the hard religious
right is still playing the God game putting their particular brand of faith
over medicine, not to mention the law of the land.  If Barack Obama has learned two things in this year it is
that the Presidency is very powerful and totally impotent at the same
time.  It is powerful, because,
like Bush, he has learned to use executive orders, and to good effect.  Impotent, because as his successors
will learn, it’s not that easy to undo what those who came before have done.  Think Iraq, Guantanamo, a broken

So looking back at 2009, the corporate titans and money manipulators have
emerged from rehab in full recovery. 
Back to their old self-indulgent tin ear ways.  And the folks of self-proclaimed morality and megachurchdom
can, at least for the moment, breath a sigh of relief – not even self-funded
insurance can be used to allow those lowly women folk to exercise their
reproductive rights.  Bravo, year
past.  In God we Trust.

Happy New Year

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Celebrate imperfection.

Welcome to democracy in America. 
In one profound sense there is nothing new about the healthcare bills
passed by the House and Senate. 
Both are imperfect.  That
can be said about virtually every important piece of legislation passed in the history
of this Republic, certainly in modern times.  Sure this vote was along party lines – and the poisoned
partisan atmosphere in the country is something about which to be deeply concerned.  But even major bills that have been
passed with substantial bipartisan majorities have been flawed.  Liberals, including myself, obsess
about the absence of a public option, and understandably so.  But consider it unfinished
business.  It is only a matter of
time.  Cradle to death Medicare is
in America’s future.  About that,
if only for financial reasons, there will ultimately be no option.

So today was a big day, one that deserves celebration and the day that
the President signs a final bill, however imperfect it may be, will be one to
break out the bubbly.  Truman was
President when I heard adults in heated debate about the threat of “socialized
medicine”.  In those days the
doctors killed healthcare reform only to be replaced over the years by big
pharma and insurance interests. 
Today Mitch McConnell derides backroom deal making, and does it with a
straight face.  How disingenuous
can you be?  He and his colleagues have
never shied away from handing out sweeteners for votes when they were in the majority.  That’s how the place works and if it’s
a disgrace, it is a bi-partisan one.

McConnell also declares that the American people are overwhelming
against healthcare reform.  Well
we’ll see about that come November next. 
Republicans are placing a huge bet on the failure of this President and
this Democratic majority.  They may
say that we don’t want healthcare reform, but we all know that what they really
can’t afford is Obama’s success.  A
turn in employment figures would only add to their discomfort so expect them to
oppose any jobs programs that might require Congressional approval.  I think they’re making a very bad and shortsighted
bet in relying on the worst not the best in Americans.  I may be proven wrong.

For the moment, the Senate finally has passed a bill – Happy Holidays
to them and to us.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

At the movies, real time.

Joseph Wiseman died back on October 19.  He was 91.  You’ll be forgiven if his name isn’t top of mind.  After all, he was only what they call a
character actor.  It’s a label that has always mystified me.  Isn’t playing characters exactly what all actors do?   Whatever.  Wiseman’s career spanned almost seven decades, and he was superb
at his craft.  I remember taking note of
him first in Elia Kazan’s classic Viva
.  But his best known
role came ten years later when he played Dr.
in the first, and some feel best, James Bond film.  So we may not all remember his name,
but who could forget that emblematic 1962 performance? Despite Wiseman’s
demise, an invigorated Dr. No remains
with us, especially these days.

As we approach the final weeks of 2009 and await a vote on the Senate
healthcare bill, I don’t think of Ben Bernanke, Time’s Person of the Year, but
of Dr No.  When we looked toward the inauguration of President Obama last
December and of a widened majority for Democrats in both the House and Senate,
we had high hopes for the year to come. 
We had a leader who seemed bent on ending divisiveness and a Congress
that finally could address some long smoldering problems and do so with decisiveness.  That hasn’t quite happened.  This is not to suggest that there
weren’t significant accomplishments across many fronts, but each has fallen
short, been less (sometimes much less) than it might or should have been.

Yes we can.  How quickly a euphoric chant can fade
into distant memory, or more accurately be forced off the stage.  As controversial as he was, George W.
Bush could count on a few Democrats, often more than a few, to support The President on matters of national
interest, including his budget busting tax cuts and ill conceived venture into
Iraq.  That was not to be for
Barack Obama.  Considering that this President came in with a decisive popular and Electoral College
victory compared with Bush’s disputed elevation, that’s really
astounding.  In some measure of
course it reflects the unintended consequences of the Democrats regaining
power, much of it at the expense of the few moderate
Republicans that were still around. 
In fact, while the now majority party is even more diversified, the GOP is increasingly
homogeneous; a party that is ideologically right of right.

It’s been clear from the early votes on rescuing a tanking economy to
this moment that Republicans have made a strategic decision to play Dr. No.  They have always been better than Democrats at finding the
right battle cries and preemptive self-serving descriptors – partial birth abortion, death tax – but
now they have imposed a single voice rule that is truly impressive and equally disquieting.  It demands lockstep adherence to the
party line with an ever-present threat of primary challenges to any elected
official to strays from their now clearly defined reservation.  It’s a calculated gamble that may pay
off ideologically in the short term  and perhaps even at the polls in 2010, but
a high risk calculation nonetheless. 
It’s a stance that in the end is neither good from them or, I would
argue, for us.

Thoughtful opposition and alternative ideas are a necessary component in
making democracy work best.  It
isn’t merely checks and balances that are required but a broadening and
enrichment of legislation.  By
catering to their so-called ideological base, it has been said that the
Republicans are marginalizing themselves and embedding their minority status
into concrete.  Predictions like
that are often the product of wishful thinking or one of those media inventions
aimed at hyping and insuring the drama of those critical revenue-producing
election cycles.  What astounds me and challenges credulity is that there is not a single Republican Senator
ready to vote for better healthcare. 
What’s going on with Snowe and Collins from Maine or the otherwise non-ideological
(onetime mayor) Lugar of Indiana?  One
has to wonder how these people, and probably some unnamed others, really feel about their actions, how they can look themselves in the mirror.  It’s truly hard to forgive them for seemingly
thinking more about their own reelection than the good of their fellow citizens,
so many of them lacking healthcare. 
No Profiles in Courage here.

And Dr. No is not limited to
Republicans.  The duplicitous
arrogance of Joe Lieberman and the personal religiously motivated stance of Ben
Nelson who have used unvarnished blackmail to gain their 15 minutes of fame is
equally reprehensible.  The pious
Senator from Connecticut may deny influence by the fat cat Insurance companies
that make their home in his state.  Yes and there is a Santa and the Red Sea really parted at the raising of a staff.  Nelson’s stance, in this case used for
his own leverage and display of self-importance, represents yet another assault
on the wall of separation between church and state.  These two men apparently are not going to stand in the way
of passing a bill, but must be held accountable for a bill that is
significantly less than it should have been.  In that Lieberman may be the worst offender because his
stance denying a public option or an extension of Medicare affects the underlying
structure of the system, delaying the inevitable and destined to hurt a lot of
people in the interim.  Nelson’s
draconian abortion funding restrictions may well be Unconstitutional.

Come let us reason together.  These words have faded even more into
history than yes we can.  They were spoken by Lyndon Johnson, a
man who knew how to reach legislative consensus but who in the end may be responsible
for sewing the very seeds of division that plague us now.  It’s not too soon to suggest that the poison of mistrust in
this country began with Viet Nam, a war that absolutely tore us apart.  It was a time of hardening positions
for both citizens and politicians, something that now has morphed into an
environment driven and characterized by conflicting absolutes.  He was Vice President at Dr. No’s release, but assuredly could
never have dreamed how enduring the idea embodied in the villainous Ian Fleming named
character could be.  Watching this
year’s events has truly been experiencing a movie in real time.  Don't expect an Academy Award for this one.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Easy to say.

President Obama has made his long awaited Afghanistan speech.  I’m not thrilled about his decision to
add wood to that insatiable fire, nor convinced that it will make much
difference in the long run.  But
what came to mind in watching another eloquent performance was how much ink and
airtime would be expended in the following days parsing his words and opining
on his decision.  More precisely, I
thought about the difference between his job and the myriad of commentators
from broadcast and print to countless bloggers, myself included.  I also thought about that inspiring and
hopeful 2008 campaign for change.  My
conclusion: it is easier to say than
to do–far easier.

It is a clichéd truism that a democracy depends heavily and equally
upon citizens both having and exercising free speech.  In that, for all its weaknesses,
punditry of all stripes is essential.  Between elections especially, it’s all we have, and
fortunately there are many very thoughtful people across the political spectrum
to challenge office holders and us. 
An objective view from independent outsiders with little or no vested interest
is of particular value, but we shouldn’t discount the importance of subjective
opinion, which so often reflects what many of us are thinking.  That said, in the end talk is cheap.  We have no price (other than loss of credibility and perhaps reputation)
to pay for our expressed thoughts, no responsibility.  That makes it easy to be a purist and to deal in absolutes.

The President and those who serve with him find themselves in a
totally different situation.  With
the rhetoric of campaigns behind them (rhetoric often not unlike unfettered punditry),
they must move beyond saying to doing.  In December 2004, during a question and answer session with
troops, Army Specialist Thomas Wilson asked Donald Rumsfeld about the
deficiencies in equipment born by soldiers in Iraq.  He got a vintage and now legendary response.  You
go to war
, the Defense Secretary said, with
the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.
  The answer evoked universal outrage and,
in the context of an already controversial war, rightly so.  The now discredited Rumsfeld can be
accused of many things including vanity and insensitivity, but even his
harshest critics don’t think him stupid. 
His response to Wilson was ill timed but it was no doubt candid and,
hard as it is to admit, insightful. 
In fact, it applies precisely to the predicament faced by this
Administration.  You don’t lead the
government or deal with the problems you might want but the ones you have.

So Obama, the President verses the candidate, was destined to
disappoint not because his inspiring campaign words were without substance, but
because he (like all his predecessors) is constrained by all those pesky facts on the ground.  Frank Rich and Paul Krugman on the
Left, David Brooks and Ross Douthat on the Right are free to say whatever they
want, and all do it exceptionally well but, as Ram Emanuel once pointed out, they don’t have
to get anything through Congress or convert their words, no matter how on
target, into action.  Obama must
function in what I suggested in my last post are essentially dysfunctional
facts on the ground.  If you have
any doubt about that, tune into C-Span and watch the Senate debating healthcare.

Democracy is messy and cumbersome.  While Presidents have enormous power on some level (Bush
took us into war and curtailed stem cell research), they are severely
constrained in most matters of lasting import, especially those that involve
real change.  That’s not an excuse
for deficiencies of leadership and delivery, but the stark reality given voice
in Rumsfeld’s notorious remark.  It
is part of that sobering reality that makes it so much harder to do than to say.  Take healthcare
where the President doesn’t merely need concurrence, but 60 Senate votes, a
super majority, just to have any substantive doing considered. 

At issue during the long ’08 campaign was the importance of experience
for successful governance.  At one
point, Bill Clinton suggested to Charlie Rose that going with Obama was like
throwing the dice.  In the end,
voters settled the issue, bringing a fresh face in the White House.  But in the realm of doing rather than
saying, the new President opted for a highly experienced team.  Read Peter Baker’s interesting NY
Times report
on the Afghanistan decision and you’ll see him surrounded by a
group of the most seasoned hands. 
That’s both good and bad news and it does impact on doing.   On the one hand, as Jimmy Carter
discovered surrounding himself with bright, neophytes, you need people with
experience in facing tough issues. 
On the other, the same people bring baggage that constrains doing, if
only that you must take their been there
done that
view into serious account. 
They aren’t likely to want potted
roles.  They also aren’t
likely to be change agents, but the reality is you can’t function without
them.  Again, doing is much harder
than saying.

Don’t read this as an excuse for where we are or satisfaction with, or
acceptance of, the status quo.  I’m
far from being a happy camper. 
Like others, I’ll keep at the saying what I think and parenthetically keep
on hoping.  My only point in noting
the challenges of doing is that we with voices raised and keyboards struck
should be a little more humble–and yes forgiving–in our saying.  Many of us will find that part hard,
though not nearly as hard as doing.

Friday, November 27, 2009

What's happening?

Hey, what’s happening?  We
always want to know “what’s happening” when in fact, more often than not, nothing
is.  We have evolved into an emotionally
infantile generation with notoriously short attention spans and an obsessive
need for activity.  We have little
or no patience, demanding instant gratification even in the face of the most
complex problems.  Like children on
a long car trip, we’re incessantly asking that familiar question, “are we there
yet?” The news media, with our full blessing and support, obliges us by playing
into and feeding this state of affairs. 
So dependent upon and addicted to the idea that something must always be
happening, it often shamelessly invents news
to fill a totally arbitrary 24/7 cycle.  Much has been made of the precipitous decline, some would say
free fall, of our once robust newspapers. 
What may have gone unnoticed is that as The New York Times and others
shift online, they too have fallen into of
the moment
reporting, with stories appearing and disappearing on their home
pages with the blink of an eye.  Much
of this feverish pace is kept not so much to inform as to feed their often mega
corporate beast and insecurities.

Hey, what’s happening?  Of
course, there are times when something really is happening.  In fact, at present I would argue that
less is happening than should be, far less than is needed.  Following critical healthcare and
climate change legislation make its way through Congress is like watching paint
dry.  It’s an arduous procedure, one
purposefully designed by the Founders. 
Laws that may materially impact on our lives, they reasoned, should not
be taken lightly, dare not be rushed. 
That said, it’s highly unlikely they had in mind what’s currently playing
out in Washington. Congress and consequently our government have become
effectively dysfunctional, as grown and supposedly responsible people are
involved in a purposeful and methodical process of destructive engagementOn one side are the proposers on the other naysayers.  Consider the source rules the day; substantive
content or need seems irrelevant. 
To say witnessing this process is frustrating would be to grossly
understate the situation.  It’s grotesque
on its face, deeply depressing and potentially perilous.

Perilous is what Tom Friedman thinks and on this I could not agree
more.  In a democracy everything
depends on compromise, meeting each other at least half way.  In the best of circumstances, there are
enough people of good will and with the national interest at heart, to rise
above parochial concerns and find more than sub-optimal solutions, which is all we are doing these days, if at all.  At present, those charged with
guiding the ship of state don’t seem to share even the pretense of a common
goal.  It seems that only the
threat of Armageddon, as was the case when the financial system faced the
brink, will result in even a minimum of joint action, and that with a
substantial amount of bluster and posturing.  So, in those infrequent moments we often reach too far and, terrified
of losing the opportunity, too fast. 
The Patriot Act came that way, as did TARP.  But those moments are just that and soon the inmates descend
into their now assumed stance of governing
by irrational divisiveness.  That
can’t sustain us.

In assessing President Obama’s recent trip to Asia, a number of
analysts pointed to the fact that the Chinese take a longer view of things that
do we.  They think they have time,
and don’t like getting ahead of themselves.  In a sense, navigating the new world means facing deep and
multiple cultural divides on all fronts. 
For us, who like to begin each encounter with, Hey, what’s happening, it is tantamount to speaking a language whose
difference transcends, say English and Chinese.  It is a language difference of mindset not characters and
words.  When our side is comprised
of people with infantile impatience compounded by an inability to communicate,
much less work, with one another, it’s fair to wonder if the very democracy that
we’re practicing today remains viable. 
Can it get anything important done?  Let’s face it, the winners in the twenty-first century are
likely to be grownups.  I’m not
sure our current behavior, what’s happening and what is not, always makes the

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Render unto Caesar

Oh, that fragile wall of separation, so prone to dents and leaks.  Conventional wisdom has it that we are the
most religious Western democracy.  How
deep, widespread and enduring that religiosity is can be debated.  What’s clear is that some among those
seeking to maintain religion’s preeminence continue their assault on the
barriers erected by the Founders to separate church and state.  Nowhere was that more evident than in
the healthcare bill recently passed by the House.  Nowhere was the incursion more blatant.

Emblematic of that (as reported
by the AP’s Julie Hirschfeld Davis) was Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick’s call
made from Rome to Speaker Nancy Pelosi shortly before the final vote.  McCarrick, and staffers of the U.S.
Conference of Bishops who spent three subsequent hours lobbying the Speaker,
wanted to make sure that the bill specifically excluded the public funding of
abortions, with a provision that, in its sweeping application, exceeds the
restrictions embodied in the 1976 (Henry) Hyde Amendment.  Pelosi was told in no uncertain terms
that her Church was ready to withhold support of healthcare reform if its
demands were not met.

This is not the first time Catholic or other clergy have been involved
in matters of public concern.  Father Theodore Hesburgh, President Emeritus of Notre Dame,
along with other priests, ministers and rabbis were forceful advocates of civil
rights.  President Eisenhower
appointed him a charter member of The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a body
he later chaired.  Catholic clergy
and lay leaders, as noted in earlier posts, have advocated tirelessly for the
poor and indeed for universal healthcare. 
Without question, Hesburgh and others like him rooted that advocacy and
activism in their individual faiths. 
But their views on those issues were hardly exclusive to religious
teaching.  Rather they could be
characterized as universal and faith agnostic, with civil rights more specifically
Constitutional than Biblical.  Even
there, activism among clergy always risked wall infringement and indeed I left
the active rabbinate during that period feeling my political engagement might ultimately
cross that line.

Abortion is totally different than civil rights.  Opposition to the termination of a
pregnancy has no medical foundation. 
Indeed there are times when doctors perform abortions to save the
mother’s life – which is why the House bill provides a specific exception in
such instances.  That’s important
to understand in the context of a healthcare bill and in fact the exception
itself only underscores the point. 
Blanket opposition to abortion is rooted purely in specific (and not
universally held) religious dogma.  It is not something motivated
by their faith but demanded by it on
theological grounds, on dictum not social conscience.  Cardinal McCarrick was speaking for that Church doctrine and
in his official capacity when he called Pelosi.  In doing so, he was willfully breaching the wall of

The abortion issue is perhaps the most explosive on our political
landscape.  People have been killed
over it.  It is also an issue that
blinds and often overlooks (on both sides) how very traumatic the decision to
abort can be for any woman (or couple for that matter), religious or not.  Women make decisions to proceed with an
unplanned pregnancy every day without any regard to religious teachings.  Conversely, other women bring babies to
term mandated by deep religious conviction, a right all should and do have in
this democracy.  Citizens must
always be guaranteed the right to express their views and to live by them; that
includes clergy and laity, the religious and the secular.  For some people, abortion is a question
of choice for others it is not.  I
may see your action as the result of choice but fully understand that you do
not consider it so; your beliefs afford no such option.  I am bound respect that view and most
importantly would defend it absolutely and unconditionally.

The wall of separation was not erected to undermine religion, quite
the contrary.  The Founders wanted
us all to be free to exercise religion or not as we saw fit and to be fully
protected by government in doing so. 
A key component of that protection is not to impose the religious
doctrine of one over the other. 
When it comes to abortion, the Church’s intervention does exactly
that.  The Roe decision didn’t
impose abortion on anyone; it simply didn’t deny abortion to a woman who chooses
to have one.  Think of this
analogy.  When someone eats roast
pork for dinner, she is not infringing on the rights of a Jew whose dietary
laws forbid her doing so.  That may
seem a trivial example, but in fact it is precisely its seeming lack of
equivalency the makes the point. 
We don’t get emotional about cuisine choices, but (leaving aside safety
hazards) they too are an important part of our fundamental rights.  Would a legislated imposition of eating
only fish on Fridays (a onetime Church dictum) or forbidding consumption of
pork be fundamentally any different than restricting the right (or covering the cost) to reproductive
choice?  I think not.

Before the Roe decision, abortions were performed across America and,
if the current Court ever reverses it, be assured that will continue to be the case.  The well off can always find solutions
to special problems and highly
competent practitioners willing to act behind closed doors when properly compensated for their service.  The problem then, and if the House
bill’s restrictions hold, was and is what happens to the financially disadvantaged.  They are those often most in danger of
unwanted pregnancies and least likely to have the resources to address them, not to
mention support an unwanted child. 
Many such women died as the result of back alley abortions, just as the
uninsured are dying today for lack of medical attention.  From that perspective alone, it is
ironic that a healthcare bill aimed to covering all will lead straight back to
those dark and foreboding alleys. 
Welcome to Cardinal McCarrick’s twenty-first century and to that
dangerously compromised wall of separation.   

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Caught in the middle.

In his recent piece entitled Benedict’s Gambit,
Ross Douthat, the NY Times’ young and thoughtful conservative columnist,
assesses Rome’s outreach
to dissident Anglicans.  Douthat,
himself a Catholic, speaks of the concessions his Church is willing to make to
accommodate these potential Anglican converts, including accepting their
married clergy into the priesthood. 
He points, as have others, to its meaning as a reflection of the Church’s
move away from the ecumenism started in the 1960s and of the Pope’s more overt attempt
to bring those on the fringes back into the fold, most notably his “controversial
outreach to schismatic Latin Mass Catholics”.  But Douthat sees this in a larger, and largely missed,
context. “In making the opening to Anglicanism”, he suggests,  “Benedict also may have a deeper
conflict in mind — not the parochial Western struggle between conservative and
liberal believers, but Christianity’s global encounter with a resurgent Islam.”

His comments bring to mind George Bush’s instinctively evoking the Crusade
word in the early days of his war on terrorism.  While he backed away from it’s use, many believe it
accurately reflected his views about the real nature of the threat and consequent
response, both heavily laden with religious overtones.  And it isn’t only conservative
Christians who seem to hold that view. 
It is one shared by the ardent atheist Sam Harris who writes,
“The idea that Islam is a ‘peaceful religion hijacked by extremists’ is a
dangerous fantasy”.  

This fear of the other and its real agenda is hardly one sided.  Times journalist David Rhode, in the account
of his seven-month captivity by the Taliban, describes young fighters who are convinced
that Christians (and Jews) are out to destroy Islam.  So we may have arrived at the digital age but we remain
mired in medieval conflict.  In the
same vein, ultra-orthodox Jews digging in on the West Bank see themselves
engaged, if not in an overt religious war, then certainly in a struggle to
prevent Muslims from occupying their God-promised land and ultimately for their
own religious survival.

Perhaps there have been periods in which the religious did not feel
threatened by those who worshipped different or differently named gods, but for
many who consider themselves followers of the authentic way, the days of mister nice guy seem to be over, if they ever existed.  In Europe, as Douthat points out, devout
Christians find themselves caught between widespread secularism on one side and
growing Islam on the other.  While
both are threatening, Islam may be more so in that it offers a powerful
alternative, rather than any loss of, faith.  The existence Islam, in its very being, somehow questions Christianity’s
core beliefs and thus its legitimacy, not to mention supremacy.  It’s an age-old back and forth challenge
manifest, among others in Ferdinand and Isabella’s 15th century brutal
Spanish Inquisition focused on both Jews and Moslems.  In that, because its adherents had ruled their country, Islam may
have represented the greater threat.

We don’t yet know if the Fort Hood shootings were religiously
motivated, but even the idea that they might be evoked words of urgent caution
from Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr.   The potential for Christian-Muslim tinderbox tension
is palpable and ever-present in a post 9/11 United States.

To say that all the world’s conflicts are religion based would be a
gross overstatement, but that very many have a religious component is
undeniable.  To be sure, even those
that seem totally religious in nature have to be understood in a more nuanced
fashion.  The Taliban, for example,
are clearly motivated by extreme religious ideology and govern accordingly, but
also by nationalism.  Let’s
remember they aren’t merely fighting infidels but also an invasion by
foreigners.   That said, it is
the religious ideology that produces the passion and, in their case, with the
most cruel and lethal consequences.

Culture makes a huge difference in how we position ourselves.  Radical Islamists seem more prepared to
put religion forward as their standard bearer in conflict.  We in the West, which by virtue of
sheer numbers means the Christian West, are loathe to do so or even to admit
that religion plays any role in our actions – Bush pulled back on Crusade.  But we should not misread that cultural
affect.  To use an analogy, the
British are stereotypically known as people who don’t display emotions but that
doesn’t mean they lack feelings or indeed passion.  The religious tensions, labeled as such or not, are so close
to the surface that political leaders feel it necessary to regularly speak of
tolerance and inclusiveness.  From the day of his inauguration, President Obama
has sought to temper religious tensions and he continues to do so on a regular

Nonetheless, we find ourselves somehow caught in the middle of these religiously
tinged epoch conflicts.  The term
medieval wasn’t used lightly because for many of us the struggle we’re
witnessing and the turf being defended has little or no relevance to the
twenty-first century or to us.  It
is one of the reasons the Pope finds himself in a Europe much of which has
turned away from religion altogether and where even in Italy 75% of Catholics no longer attend mass.  It is perhaps why no-religion-at-all
is growing at a faster rate than any faith in America.   So Douthat may be right about Benedict’s real concerns, ones
no doubt shared in reverse by leaders of the Islamic faiths.  Many of us are just tired of being caught in the middle, collateral damage as the religious face off in unending no-win conflicts.  Their problem is the other’s faith.  Our problem is increasingly with all of them.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Two worlds: a morality tale.

Here are two vastly different worlds.  You decide which is more attractive, more in touch with reality.

The Chapel Hill News lands at the foot of my driveway every Wednesday
and Sunday morning.  Like many free
periodicals, it’s sparse editorial pages serve mostly as wrappers for
advertising supplements.  So it
usually goes directly into the recycle bin with no more than a cursory glance.  But last Wednesday’s headline really got
my attention, Top school leaders forgo bonuses.  Citing funding shortfalls and a freeze on teacher salaries, Superintendent
Neil Pederson and his top deputies asked the school board not to pay their
contracted performance bonuses. 
The top payout would have been a modest $12,000, but a significant sum to
any public school educator.

Two days later a New York Times story carried this heading: Bonuses
Uncertain for Bloomberg Election Aides
It seems that, considering a razor thin victory, the Mayor’s campaign
staff are concerned they might not receive the kind of bonuses paid them by His
Honor in past campaigns.  In their
case, top bonuses had been an eye popping $400,000, often for but a few months
work.  That’s probably close to the
combined annual salaries of Pederson and his three deputies in Chapel Hill.  By the way, Bloomberg spent twenty-five
times as much on his reelection campaign as the total Chapel Hill funding
shortfall, “pocket change” to him, an essential lifeline for teachers and

Two worlds – they are as if on different planets with divergent mindsets
and distinct sets of values: selflessness verses selfishness.  In the context of a nation in pain with
still growing unemployment and the struggle of so many who, like those teachers,
face wage freezes, cuts in pay or are underemployed there is something obscene
about the fretting of Bloomberg staffers.  To put this in a broader context, consider that in Charlotte,
a two hour drive from Chapel Hill where Pederson gave up his bonus, Ken Lewis whose
“leadership” almost brought down Bank of America will be walking away any day
now with $125 Million including $53 Million in severance.  His bank, which has already made
drastic cuts, is expected to lay off some 30-35,000 more people in the years
ahead.  The vast majority will exit
with nothing but a pink slip.   That’s the world in which most of us live, the one
Pederson clearly understands and that seems a mystery to the tin-eared in the
land of make believe.

Monday, October 26, 2009


In One and the Same Abigail
Pogrebin offers up an exquisitely written, moving, informative and, perhaps
above all else, courageous story. 
The prose throughout in its journalistic clarity and unpretentious
elegance is stunning, most especially in its introduction, which at times
borders on the lyrical.   I
think that’s because it’s so candidly personal.  As someone who spends considerable time trying to string the
right words into coherent sentences I confess my reaction to those pages was,
yes, twinish: a combination of
admiration and jealousy.  This book
is informative, if only in bringing into sharp focus why academics who devote their energy to understanding the human condition and dynamic spend so much
of their time studying twins.   It is moving because it tells, sometimes joyfully and
sometimes poignantly, her own and other twin stories.  And it is dually courageous because Abigail reveals so much
of herself and all the more so because Robin has given her permission to open
the door to that other personal self. 
Robin’s courage, as she would probably want us to acknowledge, is found in the
implicit permission given that is evident and permeates every page and
every word.

Full disclosure. 
Abigail’s mother Letty and I were college classmates.  We both ended up  living blocks apart on the Upper West Side of
Manhattan.  Two of our children, her
David and my older son Tommy DOG are age piers.  Interestingly Letty, who is one of the preeminent and most
articulate feminists of my generation, chose to use her husband’s name,
personally and professionally.  The
girls, like my sisters, have not. 
In Letty’s case, counter intuitive as it may be, it’s not
surprising.  Bert Pogrebin is one
of the most engaging and thoroughly decent human beings I have ever known.  Who wouldn’t want to associate with
that?  The age difference between the
girls and my kids was not that significant but in childhood a few years magnify.  So with what I would call an ad hoc
relationship with their parents, my contacts with Abby and Robin were sadly
tangential.  Seeing what has become
of each of them, makes me aware of how very much I missed.

One and the Same is an
important book.  Perhaps Kermit the
frog found that being green wasn’t easy, but his challenge couldn’t hold a
candle to being an identical twin.  In these
pages we’re introduced to twins in all flavors, ages and circumstances.  We see them gathered in convention,
making their twiness a business or leveraging it for all its worth.  We see twins who study twins, who live
together or in proximity and others who live far apart, in some few cases
purposefully as far as possible. 
We meet those who still more or less act twinish by dressing alike or in
one case creating works of art together.  We meet a twin who has adapted to  the other's sex change and now calls his once brother sister. 
We see wrenching tragedy in the twin who lost his brother in the Trade
Center (there were others) or the twins whose genes in a statistically unlikely
happenstance contributed to the deaths of one of each of their very young
children.   She makes us laugh
and cry.

Twins are (at least) two things, and Abigail is at once the thorough
journalist faithfully conveying tape recorded tales and quoting research that
adds substantive meat to the bones of her story but in a profound way always a
full participant.  In their narrative
or in the expert opinions gathered, she sees herself, she sees her sister.  This book is a very personal journey,
and you would think a therapeutic one. 
But that would diminish what it really is.   It’s power comes from an unmistakable personal voice, an
unvarnished, candid and sometimes emotional voice, but one that never makes you feel
like an unwanted onlooker spying into her private self, quite the
opposite.  There is, at least there
was for me, not a second of unease or discomfort that would befall an uninvited

The power of this story, and the draw of twins is that, while on the
surface they seem so different – on some level even exotic – they are as much a
mirror of us as they are of themselves. 
Their challenge, puts into focus what we all face in navigating between
togetherness and apartness.  In
that sense, as Abigail listens to these varied stories of fellow twins and sees
herself, we can all do so as well.  Perhaps the twin experience is unique, but it resonates.  To me one of the most moving lines
comes in a conversation when Abby asks Robin how her life would be if she were
gone.  Her sister responds simply, “it would be broken”.  Most of us can relate to that feeling
whether with siblings, partners, children or some especially dear friend.

The book’s dustcover presents us with photos of Abigail and Robin; prominently
as young children on the front and spine. 
But without any hesitation, my favorite is on the back showing two grown
women in loving embrace, still in loving embrace.  Abby says they don’t do that much any more, but it remains a
vivid window.  They are together,
but from everything we’ve learned they are equally singular.  Children together can be adorable;
adults engaged  in embrace are ultimately what life is really all about.  We strive so much to individuate, and
to do it well, but we yearn equally for connection.  To have both is perhaps best expressed as Nirvana.  This is the journey Abigail takes us on, the story she tells us.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Disgrace in the Moral Landscape

To say the pending Wall Street bonus feeding frenzy and the brazen use
of bogus “research” by the insurance industry in trying to kill healthcare
reform is troubling would be a gross understatement.  Both exhibit severe and shared moral compass
malfunction.  Giving them no slack,
which they surely don’t deserve, one still has to wonder why the captains of
industry should be held to such a high standard of morality when we see blatant
moral deficiency in religious institutions. Two such moral lapses could be
found in the pages of the New York Times
this past week.

The first, on October 14 was Paul Vitello’s report
that the Brooklyn ultra-orthodox Hassidic Jewish community is finally being
forced to let its child abusing rabbis and teachers go before civil
courts.  This is in effect a
follow-up on a previously covered story that, on a much smaller but nonetheless
equally disgraceful scale, mirrors the long running scandal of predator
Catholic priests. 

The second, on Oct 16 by Laurie Goodstein was something new, and no
less disturbing.  Goldstein reports
the story of Father Henry Willenborg, a Franciscan priest, his five-year romantic
relationship with religious retreat attendee Pat Bond and the resulting fallout, which
includes their son, Nathan, now grown and suffering terminal brain cancer.  The priest, supported by his order that
seems happily but stingingly to have tried paying Ms. Bond and her son off, not
only has kept his job, but has continued up the career track.  A relatively low level friar when
meeting Bond, he now serves as senior pastor of a 1,350 family Wisconsin church.  Do you detect a pattern here, one that echoes
the Church’s sex abuse saga, including cover-ups and consistent rewards for bad
behavior?  It appears that this
modus operandi remains alive and well and is more widespread than we might have

It shouldn’t be necessary to say so at this point, but as bad as a
crime may be, the cover-up, which is usually institutional and more pervasive,
is corrosive and often immoral. 
Sad to say so, but it seems standard practice in the billion- member
Catholic Church.  Let me hasten to
add, that bad behavior affects other religious groups of which the Brooklyn
Hasidic example is just one of many.

The Catholic Church seems to have a particular problem with sex.  That includes forcing its clergy to be
celibate (something not demanded by other churches) and opposing birth control
including the distribution of the condoms that consensus says can help prevent
the spread of HIV-AIDS.  To be fair,
many in the church continue to lobby aggressively for married priests and the
majority of Catholics in this country ignore their Church’s strictures
preventing safe, not to mention purely enjoyable, sex.  The problem is that the Church itself
not only exhibits a blind eye to infractions of its own rules, most especially
in its clergy, but goes to extraordinary lengths to both cover up the
wrongdoing and, most egregiously, to reward the culprits and punish the victims,
if only by outright neglect or delayed and inequitable compensation.   William Lobdell (Losing my Religion) gives a definitive
account of the sex abuse story and Ms. Goodstein opens our eyes to the
escapades of priests, a story that is probably but the tip of the iceberg.  Research she cites suggests 20% have
had such ongoing relationships and who knows how many Nathans and cover-ups are
out there.

There is no church that echoes corporate structure and hierarchy more
than the Roman Church.  It is run by
a Chief Executive and supported by a structure complete with vice presidents at
the executive, senior and regular level. 
It has its rules, which include severe caps on compensation, but the
higher personnel move up the executive ladder the greater the perks.  Perhaps the CEO and various vice
presidents don’t amass corporate millions and billions, but they live very well
indeed, especially in uppermost echelons. 
As to that moral compass in our society, and let’s not pretend it is
only off kilter on Wall Street, it seems that the “don’t follow what we say but
what we do” rule is in play.  One corporate
group follows another.  The
underlying problem is not only that the compass dial is running haywire, but
that those involved don’t even seem to understand something is terribly
amiss.  The Wall Street bankers are
clueless in the face of the widespread unemployment that can be laid directly at
their doorstep and the Church functions as if nothing terrible is hidden behind its
sacramental curtain.

At moments like this, we tend to excuse our behavior with the bad
defense.  Remember Abu
Ghraib, Enron and most certainly the events that precipitated this post.  Not so fast, there is disgrace in the
moral landscape, and it seems to have more to do with the tree than its fruit.

Friday, October 9, 2009

An aspirational prize.

The kids will always get it right.  You got a prize Daddy…but remember it’s the dog’s birthday and a
three day weekend from school. 
Translation.  Time to have
breakfast and get on with life. 
His brief statement invited no questions from the press.  Undaunted, one could be heard shouted
out as he walked back to the Oval. 
“What are you going to do with the money?”  Doesn’t that perfectly sum up the level to which much of the
“journalism” has fallen these days? 
Every once in a while a “lifetime achievement” award is given to someone
in early or midstream career.  How
to react? Like Malia and Sasha. 
Time to get back to life, back to work.

A Nobel at this juncture is much more campaign than governing appropriate
– it is a hope, an aspiration, for what might come.  Pundits on the right like Bill Kristol and on the left like
Nick Kristof (it pains me to put their names in the same sentence as if they
were somehow equivalent) question this seemingly premature award for predictably
different reasons.  But in some
respects they miss what the Nobel judges often do in seeking to use this high
profile symbol as more of a light on the path ahead than on the one already
traveled.  Everything is politics,
everything a campaign and this august body is not immune from trying to
influence the game.

Obama’s statement was measured, full of familiar phrases from a man
who some (not me) think comes before us too often.  I’d rather see a leader than have him hide in the rarified
bubble of power.  My major take away
from this particular statement was a reminder planted deep in the text. A
sitting president is commander
in chief
.  Peace Prizes
notwithstanding, he has more power to go to war than to bring about peace.  Sadly war takes only a command and is
too easily and readily justified. 
Obama inherited his wars, but that doesn’t get him off the hook.  Perhaps the speed with which the Nobel
folks acted shows how fast our world is moving and also that presidential
honeymoons are more part of our past folklore than of today’s reality.  The watch and all the responsibility starts on
day one.

Peace takes a lot of work and to a degree far more courage than
war.  In this “God blessed” country,
presidents sometimes have to defend their reaching out an olive branch much
more that rattling the sword.  We
all know where peace is needed. 
It’s easy to feel that the prize has put a special burden on Barack
Obama to reach with that branch and turn the spears and swords into pruning
hooks.  But he will depend on us to
support that effort.  I think he’s
up to the task.  I’m not always
sure about us.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Cash for New Jobs

One of the most visible and successful programs of the recovery act
was Cash for Clunkers.  It breathed
some life, however short lived, into the auto industry and its beleaguered
dealers and got some gas-guzzlers off the road.  Unfortunately it may have had little or no sustaining
benefit.  The fact is that what we
really need are investments that will have a lasting impact.  Among those of course are sorely needed
infrastructure projects and the like. 
We are still beneficiaries of Roosevelt era WPA efforts three quarters
of a century later.

But our most immediate problem, as illustrated again in another dismal
report, are saving and restoring jobs. 
While many of the losses can be attributed directly to the missteps of
past years – a misguided US auto industry, the nose dive of real estate and the
collapse of financial institutions, some of what we’re seeing now is the result
of businesses being overly cautious or running just plain scared.  Whatever the reason, it is feeding on
itself, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some economists believe that further stimulus will be necessary, and
unless we see a real upturn soon, they probably are right.  Whether the President will have the
will or more importantly Congress will have courage to do the right thing
remains to be seen.  I do think
that there is one program that they might consider, one that would have far
more lasting impact that the Clunker effort.

It’s time to offer employers Cash for New Jobs.  This might come in the form of an
outright payment or a tax credit. 
If we were willing to put $4 K on the table for a depreciating piece of
steel, glass and rubber, should we be willing to do any less for getting people
back on the road?  The idea I have
in mind is a payment to any employer that puts a new person to work, provided
that it legitimately adds to payroll and that the job be secure for at least
one year, ideally two. 

Think of what such a program would do.  First it would put food on the table of thousands of
American families not to mention secure their shelter.  That food would have to be purchased
which would accrue to the benefit of a whole other set of citizens.  Other purchases, now on hold, might be
initiated.  From day one, the newly
hired worker would become a taxpayer, in effect producing immediate financial
return on the government’s investment. 
And if things go well, if the ripple effect takes hold, that job will
sustain for years to come and will, in its success, spur further employment and
further tax revenues.  It is a gift
that will keep on giving.

Conventional wisdom has it that employment is a lagging indicator
(sounds like that terrible war euphemism, “collateral damage”).  That may well be true, but why do we
have to just sit by and wait.  More
to the point can we afford not to act now if we are to stem the tide and really
recover from this mess?  The time has come to
put cash on the table for jobs.

A further note on the healthcare debate:

Health Cooperatives are a sad, if not disgraceful, joke.  They don’t work competitively and,  based on those that exist, don’t reduce costs or necessarily lead to lower premiums.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

We have no option.

Somehow with all the give and take we’ve lost sight of the
fundamental healthcare issue before the nation.  A very large number of us either have totally inadequate
coverage or none at all. 
The second group is growing by the day, as unemployment threatens not
only foreclosures on their homes but on their insurance as well.  Those who can’t meet their mortgage
payments are likely unable to pay their premiums.

So we dance around the obvious and stand ready, or at least some of those
who can make it happen stand ready, to postpone the inevitable yet another
time.  We’ve stopped talking about
the disgrace of people left hung out to die in the wealthiest nation on earth
and rather are talking about what it might cost to at long last do the right
thing.  We don’t seem to lack the
will when it comes to building armaments and sending our citizens out to kill
and be killed, but somehow have become financial pacifists when it comes to
keeping them healthy.  We know that
other nations take care of all their people, spend less and have equal, or in
many cases better, outcomes.

To talk about healthcare reform without at least a public option (a
Medicare for juniors as well as seniors) is like Nero playing his fiddle as
Rome burns, but with blinders on.  Without
a public component, there is no reform, no a solution. It is a heartless joke.

On September 14, NPR reported on the results of new survey
conducted by Drs. Salomeh Keyhani and Alex Federman of Mount Sinai School of
Medicine and just published in the New England Journal of Medicine.   They found that 63% of the
physicians polled favored a public option and another 10% favored a public-only
program, in other words universal Medicare (my words not theirs).  That means that 73%, a decisive majority, were in favor of
at least the option.  Thinking back
to the historic opposition of the AMA and doctors in general to any public
program in earlier days, this is an astounding turn around for the people
closest to the problem.  I have
little doubt that if the same doctors were asked if they believe a Medicare
expansion and universal coverage is in our future, even a larger number would
agree.  It is inevitable.

So what are we waiting for? 
The facts speak for themselves, the solution is so obvious and now our
doctors want to write the prescription. 
Perhaps there has been no political incentive to join together, but I
really wonder how that will play out if Massachusetts, as now seems more than
likely, will allow its Governor to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat.  60 aye, 40 no?  For the sake of our democracy, for its moral compass, say it won’t be so.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Max Baucus has finally revealed his long heralded compromise
healthcare proposal, the one that promised some Republican support.  Perhaps that will happen, but for now
there was no joint press conference and even Senator Snow seems unready to commit.  Being the only one is impossibly lonely
these days.  In fact, unless you’re
angling for a Profile in Courage Award, it’s potentially suicidal. What’s going
on here?  Blame the system, a
system of disincentive.

We wring our hands a lot these days about a lack of
bi-partisanship.  The President,
who promised to seek collaboration, has thus far been disappointed and in fact
seems to be losing not gaining ground in that quest.  But this isn’t a problem reserved for Democratic
Presidents.   George W. Bush promised
to be a “uniter not a divider”, which after the acrimonious Clinton years
probably brought him more than a few votes.  He too failed. 
It serves no purpose here to question the sincerity of either man’s
campaign rhetoric; the system was against both of them from the start.

It’s hard to say whether democracy itself is inhospitable to
bi-partisanship, but if history tells us anything, it is that those in and out
of power mostly go their own way.  
Indeed the only time we see true bi-partisanship is at very extraordinary
moments and I stress the word “very”. 
On September 11, 2001 we saw it but, even then, only for a moment in
time. Why is that?

To answer this question, we have to ask another.  What’s in for the “other” party,
whomever that may be, to join hands with the opposition?  We would hope the answer to that is,
plenty, if nothing else the national good.  Dream on.  
The fact is that, whether Republican or Democrat, helping get things
done when someone else holds the White House is a no win game.   Presidents get all the credit or
the blame for what happens under their watch.  Joining in is a politically thankless exercise.  Why should a Republican want to support
a healthcare program that will always be known as an Obama achievement?  Conversely, while some Democrats, most
notably Ted Kennedy, supported it, No Child Left Behind is a Bush legacy, as
will be any improved version of it. 
Seen in that light, it may actually be better to stand in the way of
getting anything done and thus deprive the other party of any accomplishments,
or as few as possible.   Sound

Of course we all deserve much better than this.  We would hope those elected to office
have our mutual interest in mind. 
Even assuming that they want to do the best, there is no practical
incentive to behave differently than what has become the norm.  We can think little of them, and for
the most part we do, but as things stand any change in behavior is more likely
to result in them losing their office than in a getting a constituent note of
thanks or one of those courage awards. 
Don’t blame them for that.  Blame
all of us.  We, the voters, don't reward them for bi-partisanship, and in fact through the partisan primary process do just the opposite.  It’s a system of
disincentive that we are all perpetuating, all the more so in making the environment so hostile.  So disincentive it is, and that really

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Déjà vu

was spot on in suggesting Joe Wilson’s outburst was racial, especially
as seen in the context of the “birther” and other trash heard on talk radio and in rallies in the past two months. 
My son was right in pointing out that Wilson was “provoked” by the
thought that a penny of our money might land in the hands of immigrants.  He claimed to be talking the illegal
kind, but I’m not so sure.  When
Barack Obama was elected many of us naively, or at least hopefully, thought the
country had turned a new leaf.  For
the most part, it probably has – no it definitely has.  But Wilson, a son of a certain kind of
South, left me with an eerie sense of déjà vu, a sickening feeling in the pit of
my stomach.

Part of where we are bespeaks the culture of rage about which I wrote
on August 19, but this goes much deeper. 
The Republicans have been particularly deft at branding and slogan
making.  The Democrats still have
trouble with both.  As someone who
has spent decades helping clients invent or reposition themselves with labels
and words, I know something about this subject.  Some brands are stronger than others, and some companies can
change their name and still be thought of as who they were not who they are or
would like to be.  Altria is still
Philip Morris, the reigning riding cowboy of tobacco land.  Much of the Republican Party we know
today can proclaim itself “of Lincoln” all they want, but we know they remain
the Dixiecrats who ran Strum in 48 and (while not under that banner) George in
68.  Lyndon Johnson famously lost
these folks in signing the Civil Rights Act and the GOP gained them, dooming
all but the last whimper of Rockefellerism in their ranks.  Obama of Illinois is of Lincoln, the
newly infamous Joe Wilson and his ilk are not.

But let’s not put too much focus or blame on the messenger.  That outburst on the Floor and others
like it, many much worse, are giving us a message.  A fear of “the other” whether it’s of a different skin
color, a different sex orientation, a different belief system (include
atheists) or  a different (and funny) accent is alive and sick both here
and, for that matter, around the world. 
“That fella over there just ain’t like us – he don’t belong where he
is.”  Indeed, Dowd contends that
the fear and anger of the “other” is particularly heightened when it’s perceived
as being the “uppity N” kind, though she didn’t use those words.  It isn’t so much the audacity of hope,
but the audacity of being equal or, worse, better.  She summarized it best in quoting Don Fowler who remembers
his father’s dictum, “Boy, don’t get above your raising”.  The bounds of "raising" are just seen differently by many of us.

Part of the racist’s tool is to use fear.  Not merely fear of the other, but instilling the fear of
retribution in anyone who stands in their way.  That may explain the moral silence, the absent sense of
outrage, which is so audible in land.  The
few Republicans who still cling to some kind of center shy away from voicing
their opinions, or voting their conscience (if one remains), for fear of being
taken down in the next primary. 
Perhaps that’s why we don’t hear much about this growing problem from
any Republican “leaders”, those same people who proclaim themselves the
protectors of “values”.  But we
also aren’t hearing that much from those on the other side of the aisle.  Everyone is running scared, a fear that
can be our undoing – déjà vu!

I’ve asked it before and, sadly, must repeat it again.  Where are the religious leaders in all of  this and, for that matter, where are the captains of academia, industry and the professions?  Frank Rich complains, and appropriately
so, that the President has let too much go unanswered since taking office.  I agree, but what concerns me more is
what my father spoke of 46 years ago at the March on Washington – that “nation
of onlookers”, which is exactly what we are.  It isn’t enough to elect someone seen as an “other”
President.  The business isn’t
finished, but only begun…if that.

Hate, and that’s what we’re talking about, can grow and become
viral.   History suggests that
when “good people” sit on the sideline silently looking on, the potential of that
happening only increases.  The
Southern strategy put Republicans in power.  The thing about Reagan Democrats is that they remained in
play.  Nixon’s legacy is that he
turned over the store to what has become an increasingly entrenched and narrow group
of people who see anyone with whom they disagree as “the other”.  In that context, bi-partisan is as foreign a term as is
illegal alien.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that a disproportionate number of
those without healthcare coverage are of color or talk with one of those funny
accents.  As the Republicans stand
together in shouting and voting their NO, one has to consider what may lie not
so far below the surface.  Surely
not all Republicans think or feel that way but I find it harder to say of them,
“forgive them father, for they know not what they do.”  They know.  Ironically, liar is the tamest of
words, and indeed is only a word. 
What lies behind its utterance, well that’s déjà vu.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

An end we take personally.

Like many in my generation the name Kennedy and the word politics are
synonymous, not so much the family’s pivotal role on the national scene but in driving
own involvement.  The first
Presidential campaigns that captivated me were those of Adlai Stevenson, but I
was just a kid.  I cast my first
Presidential vote for Jack Kennedy and have been an unabashed political junky
ever since.  I never vote without
remembering him.  Kennedy was young,
especially in contrast to old guys like Truman and Eisenhower.  He was one of us and so we could
relate to him personally.  His
stunning death hit us hard and still evokes a visceral feeling of sadness for
me these many years after.   By
the time he ran, Bobby Kennedy was significantly more evolved than Jack had
been and in some respects also the emotionally more accessible.  So his loss was perhaps all the more
painful both because he seemed to have so much promise and because the times
were so much darker.  We were
convinced he could make a difference. 
I remain so, but where Jack and Bobby might have taken us is pure

We don’t have to be bothered with conjecture or caught up in myth when
it comes to Edward Moore Kennedy. 
He lived his three score years and ten, and in doing so set before us a
complete record.  Was he, as people
are saying, ultimately the most significant Kennedy?  Perhaps, but saying so probably does a disservice to his
brothers and to him.  Jack had a
unique charisma and was a memorable orator.  He gave politics a new image and, as someone who has spent
much of his career helping build brands, I don’t discount how important that
was at the time and still is. 
Bobby had passion and an aura of empathy that overshadowed the toughness
beneath.  As such, he touched our
hearts.  Teddy is the Kennedy we
really knew best, but who never evoked those larger than life stirrings within
us.  He was no more than real life size,
flawed like us, which is what made him so endearing.  He will be remembered solely for the

I think the real strength and substance of the Kennedy brothers was a
capacity to grow and in fact to thrive on adversity.  The Bay of Pigs made the Kennedy presidency, and Jack’s
death brought out a new Bobby. 
They thrived on defeat, not at the ballot box where they didn’t experience
it, but in real life where it seemed sometimes an irrational curse.  Ted Kennedy’s moment came in that
painful sunshine interview with Roger Mudd where he blew any chance of being
president and understood, probably for the first time, what job awaited doing
with the title he had already firmly in his grasp.

They came to call him the lion of the Senate.  I don’t quite know what that means.  Republicans vilified him as the poster
boy of liberalism, a handy dartboard to shoot at in their most vitriolic
campaign commercials.  In a way
both are cardboard images, too single dimensional to capture his large frame
and personality or the depth of his accomplishments.  Circumstance cast him into the role of family grownup and
patriarch at too early an age and, we should not forget, by a clan that still
somehow values men over women. 
From all we know, he was more than up to the task perhaps aided by that
famous Kennedy imperative to  suck it up and perform, regardless of pain or cost.

I never thought Ted Kennedy a great speaker.  He never had the emotional pull that his brothers had in
concretely influencing my life.  He
made some mistakes from which only a Kennedy could emerge in one piece –
countless politicians have ended in the dustbin for far less.  But he steadfastly stood for things in
a world where conviction has become a rare commodity.  Thanks to his older brothers learning curve, he came to them
earlier and held on even when it hurt him.  His absence in these last months of an often disgraceful,
heartless and disingenuous debate on healthcare is deeply felt and whatever
legislation comes will be less because of it.  He opposed the Iraq war and never wavered.  He stood with Barack Obama when the
talking heads were writing him off, again.  Whether that support was pivotal is conjecture, which doesn’t
pertain to this Kennedy or how he should be remembered.  His record needs no speculative embellishment.

Remembering Jack and Bobby still brings tears to my eyes, a sense of
personal loss and hurt that sometimes surprises me in its intensity.  The loss of Ted Kennedy is moving in
its own way, but not at all for what might have been. Bobby loved to quote George
Bernard Shaw’s "I dream of things that never were and ask why not?  Ted Kennedy’s life responded with, “why
not, indeed?  He pursued the dream contending that it would never die.   Let’s hope so, because that would be a legacy.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

The original "don't ask, don't tell".

There are few policies as innately hypocritical and fundamentally
cruel as “don’t ask, don’t tell”. 
It is disheartening that President Obama hasn’t acted to overturn
it.  The idea that we could deny a
man or a woman the right to die for their country because they happened to be
born gay or lesbian seems to go against everything that we claim to stand for
as a nation.  Don’t ask, don’t tell
promotes the very kind of “passing” that became a painful option for light
skinned African Americans or that forced Jews to gentrify their names to get
ahead in business or in Hollywood. 
It is an invitation to deception whose byproduct is often unbearable
self-loathing.  It is a basic civil
rights issue.

But we shouldn’t blame Bill Clinton or the generals for this
disgraceful charade.  They were
merely following what they learned in the house of God.  If any institutions have been guilty of
fostering don’t ask, don’t tell it has been religious ones across all
faiths.  The inevitable result of
this misguided practice is the wrenching unwinding that has been taking place
in numerous denominations over the past years, last week in the decision of
the Evangelical
Lutheran Church in America’s general national assembly to allow gays and lesbians
with “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships” to
serve as official ministers.  Thank
you Lord.

is fully expected that the decision, whose language in itself evidences a
continuing hypocrisy that I’ll come to later, will lead to the kind of schism facing the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians.  It might be different had they not
embraced don’t ask, don’t tell for so many years, in effect casting a blind eye
on what was there for everyone to see. 
What these churches are going through is reconciling reality with myth
and what they are painfully discovering is that half measures are not progressive but

In the Episcopal case, it was apparently
okay to have gay priests, even when not widely acknowledged, but not a gay
bishop.  High visibility makes a huge
difference, an opening not of the priest’s but of the church’s closet door.  In the other two, it was alright for
those in committed relationships to carry the burden of ministry but not the
title – a kind of system analogous to “wetback illegals” who do all the work
but at much reduced compensation and little if any psychic reward.  “I’m not really a minister but I play
one on TV.”  In their story on the
Lutheran vote, the NY Times quotes San Francisco’s Rev. Megan Roher, “To be
able to be a full member of the church is really a lifelong dream”.  She is in a committed same-sex
relationship and serves in three Lutheran congregations (think wetback) but is
not officially on the church’s roster of clergy members.  What was truly poignant was when she
added, “I don’t have to have an asterisk next to my name anymore.”  Asterisks, you will remember, are
applied to the suspect or drug induced misbegotten “records” of millionaire
athletes, a symbol of shame.  Note the
shame in that case transcends the individual in discrediting the sport (institution) and its

open secret of all religious orders is that being gay or lesbian is in fact the
very natural way for a segment of the population and aspiring to religious
leadership is as natural to them as to their heterosexual counterparts.  And of course, the institutions and the
pretending minority members have joined in playing the game, but not with the
same handicap.   Don’t ask,
don’t tell is just another form of blackmail in which both the perpetrator and
the victim are forced into an unholy partnership, but the first holds all the

back to that “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous” formulation.  Notice that there is no mention of
marriage, which in itself bespeaks both inequality and a continuing disingenuousness. 
I entered the rabbinate single though I left the pulpit married.  During those early days no one ever
suggested that the only kind of relationship I could have was publicly
accountable, lifelong and monogamous. 
This is not to suggest that synagogues or churches necessary want their
clergy living in “sin”, but somehow “normal” relationships between a man and
woman are accepted as, well (to borrow language from my friend Doug Smith)
“just the way we do things around here”. 
They are judged by an entirely different standard.  I suppose there is an element of don’t
ask, don’t tell in these situations, one equally as hypocritical, but you and I
know it’s not quite the same. 
Perhaps clergy living with someone of the opposite sex in other than the
sanctity of marriage would face criticism or in some cases the loss of a job,
but it would fall into the category of being thought of as a “bad boy”, a
second or third level sinner. 
Being a “bad girl” of course falls in an entirely different category,
but as Gail Collins likes to say, “I digress”.

Don’t ask, don’t tell is a charade that discredits the military and
those who risk their lives for us on the field of battle.  Don’t ask, don’t tell in the church
makes some wonder what other hypocrisies are afoot under God’s roof.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Supreme tilt of faith.

When Al Smith ran in 1928, Americans simply weren’t ready for a Roman Catholic
president.  It took another thirty-two
years for Jack Kennedy to break that barrier, but only after reassuring the
country of his independence from the Pope and with a razor thin plurality.  By 1960, term limits had been imposed
on the office, which possibly worked in his favor.  While no Catholic has held the presidency since, the idea
that a candidate’s personal beliefs should be an impediment seems, and hopefully
is, so “yesterday”, unless of course the person happens to be an avowed atheist
or a Moslem.

Perhaps the best evidence that most religious litmus tests are behind
us can be found in the Supreme Court where Catholics fared marginally
better early on. Roger B. Taney,
born during the revolutionary war, was the first to be appointed and indeed served
(1836-64) as our fifth Chief Justice, an office two others (Edward White and
John Roberts) have held since. We’ve
come a long way since the country rejected Al Smith, and fortunately so.  Catholics hold offices at almost every
level of government including two of the highest, Speaker of the House and Vice
President.  Not only was it
heartening that Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed as the first Hispanic Justice but
also that her religion was never at issue.  At the same time, while given only passing notice, one can’t
help being struck by the unprecedented religious tilt of the Roberts Court.  With her ascendancy, its life tenured
members comprise one Protestant, two Jews and now six Roman Catholics,
numerically a decisive majority.  From
the day Andrew Jackson appointed Taney 173 years ago, twelve more Roman Catholics
have come to the court and remarkably half of them sit today.  There is no reason to believe that a
Catholic justice will be any more or less ideologically bound by faith than
would a Protestant or a Jew.  Nor
can we assume one will lean more to the right or left than the other. Clarence
Thomas is seen by some as perhaps the most doctrinaire conservative on the
current court but the late William Brennan (also a Catholic) was its iconic
liberal.  That said, the
significant Catholic majority does raise at least the potential of a problem
worthy of discussion, if only academically.  Any good lawyer will tell you to consider not only the best
but also the worst-case possibilities in any situation. 

The Catholic Church remains among the most hierarchical of all faiths
and is especially distinguished in having a single, absolute and infallible leader.
What The Vicar of Christ promulgates is ultimate doctrine, subject to change
only by himself or a subsequent pope. Catholics are expected to follow his dicta.  Recent surveys suggest that in fact a
majority don’t necessarily do so, especially on hot button issues.  Nevertheless, it was the Church’s prescribed
way that gave voters pause in 1928 and 1960 and, in theory at least, remains
worth considering today in the face of such a lopsided tilt of faith on the Supreme
Court.  We do know that several of its
members are especially devout and, in at least one case for sure, that such
beliefs can carry into the courtroom. 
During formal arguments in 2005 regarding the placement of the Ten Commandments
in public places, Justice Antonin Scalia declared from the bench “that
[our] government comes – derives its authority from God”.  That view may account for what he
describes as his “originalist” view of the Constitution.  It is a term with theological overtones
that eschews the idea of dynamic evolving law.  It calls for adherence to original meaning, according a
sacrosanct aura consistent with an extension of the divinely revealed Word.  No other justice self describes as an
originalist or ascribes the divine to law in that way, but the Scalia example
shows what happens when the lines between faith and law blur.

So in that light, it’s not irrational to be concerned about the
religious affiliation of a majority on the court, especially if they belong to a
hierarchical church.  That’s especially
true when looking at what is likely to be on their docket in the years ahead.  In that, the issue of reproductive
choice comes to mind first but so do matters of same-sex marriage, end-of-life and stem cell research.  In each of these the Pope, and thus the
Church, have unambiguous positions based upon what are considered fundamental
tenants of their faith.  The American
Bishops, for example, generally support healthcare reform but have made it
clear that they will oppose any coverage of abortions, considered the taking of
human life which they believe begins with conception.  It seems reasonable to conclude that several of the Justices,
including Scalia, (assumably as a matter of personal faith) favor overturning
Roe and, at the very least, would be prone to imposing more restrictions on
abortions even were they to remain (as I would hope) legal.

The Church has already demonstrated how it views office holder members
who stray from doctrine.  During
the 2004 campaign several bishops withheld Communion from presidential candidate
John Kerry because of his pro-choice stand.  In the 1995 encyclical, "Evangelium Vitae," (The
Gospel of Life), considered among his most important, Pope John Paul, II (revered
by his successor) specifically condemned the growing acceptance of abortion and
for that matter of euthanasia.  So
it is fair to wonder what kind of pressure might be brought to bear on six
Roman Catholic justices who hold absolute determinative power over the fate of these

I know nothing of Justice Sotomayor’s religious beliefs; some describe
her as more a cultural than religious Catholic.  While it’s true that, as a group, Hispanics (whether Protestant
or Catholic) tend to be more religiously conservative that may have no bearing
on her decision-making.  Indeed, we
have every reason to think that, on civil matters, she will most likely side
with the court’s liberals.  At the
same time, and despite the disingenuous arguments to the contrary during her
hearings, I believe we all do come to our work with life experiences, not to
mention personal beliefs.  Who we
are and where we come from impacts on our decisions, sometimes determines them.  I wish it were possible to believe
without question that jurists check their personal religion at the courtroom
door, even if I’d like to think most or all do just that.  The reason for any concern in this
instance is that the political conservatism out of which many in the current court
members come has been so intertwined with far right religious ideology.  Perhaps Justice Scalia personally believes
that our government (and assumably laws) derives directly from God.  Many people of different faiths hold
that view not only about laws but also about everything we touch.  It is when he injects that idea into a
case before the court, that it becomes more than a personal view, especially if

Our democracy is founded on the idea of checks and balances.  The theory is that the three branches
of government keep each other honest and protect us against abuses.  The reality of checks and balances
doesn’t always live up to the promise, certainly not equally so.  The ultimate check in our system resides
not in the interaction of our governmental braches but in the voting booth with
one notable exception, our federal courts.  Having an overly religiously driven president, senator or representative
is correctable; having a similarly inclined Supreme Court Justice is not.  The idea that parochial religious views
might themselves be tenured in the highest court of the land, albeit only
hypothetically so, is unnerving and would be regardless of what faith they
might represent.  So to me, the
real question raised by the court’s Roman Catholic tilt is whether the
potential it raises, however remote, isn’t another reason to revisit the logic,
and indeed the possible danger, of lifetime tenure.  I say this knowing full well that some might construe such a
question generally prejudicial or specifically anti-Catholic.  After all, for virtually all of its
history the Supreme Court has been dominated by Protestants not to mention that
group called men and few have complained. 
It’s a valid point.  So let
me add that my concern is equally with the potential abuse of a majority tilted
to the right, left or for that matter one gender.

The unquestioned religious imbalance on today’s Court, whether it will
play out as I suggest it could in a worst case, is just another reason to consider
the merit of imposing some kind of term limits for Justices.  The existing system was conceived at a
much earlier time, and with the intention, I would suggest naively, of insuring
objectivity.  “Blind justice” is
perhaps a noble aspiration but it is largely a myth.  Given the relative young age of the ideological conservatives
now sitting, the court is likely to tack right for the foreseeable future,
regardless of where the public may be.  Now we can add that, and for the same reason, the likelihood
of a long standing Catholic majority.  We shouldn’t assume that having Catholics or Jews in the
majority would be any different than having had Protestants for all these years.  That said, life tenure is a very long
time and the current makeup of the court, religious and otherwise, only brings
that into sharper focus.