Monday, December 30, 2013

Annus Horibilis

1992 marked the 40th anniversary of Elizabeth II's ascension to the British throne.  She had already served almost three times as long as her farther, well on her way to being, thus far, the second longest serving monarch in British history.  She should have looked back on '92 with both joy and satisfaction.  She did not.  For Elizabeth, 1992 was an Annus Horibilis, a horrific year.  Her daughter Anne divorced.  Her younger son Andrew was separating from "Fergie", his fun loving wife.  A tell-all book was published detailing the affairs of Princess Dianna, the estranged wife of Crown Prince Charles.  If that were not enough, a destructive fire broke out at her beloved Windsor Castle.

2013 inaugurated Barack Obama's second term.  After a decisive win in November, the president might have expected a strong start.  Of course — and this isn't news — he experienced just the opposite.  A combination of relentless and often vicious mean-spirited rightist opposition coupled with a number of his own missteps resulted in his Annus Horibilis.  As the year comes to the close, his poll numbers are the lowest of his presidency.  Most troubling is that the confidence Americans have had in him has badly eroded.  A December Pew/USA poll showed that only 45% of Americans approve of his job performance.  Even worse, according to Pew: "The percentage viewing Obama as 'not trustworthy' has risen 15 points since January – from 30% to 45%.

That lack of trust can in part be attributed to Obama's erroneous claims that insured Americans could hold onto the policies they liked.  It is truly mystifying to me that the president could have allowed himself to repeatedly make that claim and that his "smart" staff didn't try to stop him from doing so.  Didn't he know it was inaccurate, didn't they?  If nothing else, they should have been aware of the fact that insurance is generally written for a single year and that companies routinely change or even cancel individual policies, especially those they deem unprofitable.  More to the point, the AFA specifically disallows policies that fail to meet minimum standards — ones that are bad insurance or effectively no insurance at all.  So, unlike what the president promised, not everyone could keep their policies even if they are "happy" with them.

Of, course while this misguided claim may have tipped the trustworthy numbers, the inept rollout overall did the core damage, a failing — or the ongoing perception of failing — that keeps on giving.  Before getting to that, let me say that I believe the Affordable Care Act will go down as one of Barack Obama's great achievements.  It won't be overturned and hopefully when the dust settles its real deficiencies, and there surely are some, will be addressed constructively and hopefully corrected.  Even then, will it fall short of what the country really needs?  Absolutely.  Until we achieve universal healthcare — Medicare for all — many Americans are likely to be seriously shortchanged.  That said, the ACA is a major step forward and its benefits should not be underestimated.  Think of just three transformative examples: disallowing denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions, equalizing premiums for women and men and eliminating lifetime caps.  These all translate into huge benefits — the first and last protecting many families from the treat of losing life savings or even bankruptcy if a major extended illness strikes.

From the day of its passage, Obama, one of our most gifted presidential orators, has been unable to explain or properly sell the Affordable Care Act to the nation.  For sure he has had to endure a constant barrage of political and interest groups opposition, people who are working tirelessly and spending heavily to prevent its success.  Just as Regan discredited liberalism by pejoratively calling it the L-Word, Republicans dubbed the AFA Obamacare, a branding aimed it discrediting it from the start — his personal overreaching plan, not the law of the land.  They followed with a systematic and relentless campaign of misinformation.  They created a mythology that has helped confuse the public, often leading to negative views that objectively speaking run counter to its own self-interest. 

But all that doesn't excuse Obama and his administration's deficiency.  Considering the importance of the ACA to their legacy, it's nothing less than astounding (and maddening) that they so mismanaged the early rollout.  Telling us that the website is not the program is clearly the case.  So, too, is the fact that constructing a site of this complexity is bound to produce startup glitches.   But that isn't an excuse for its complete opening days breakdown.  Not only weren't potential users properly cautioned, Obama predicted an ease of use comparable to making purchases on Amazon or buying an airplane ticket.  Insurance is not a book, a toaster or even booking a round trip flight.  The site has largely been fixed but the damage to the president and to this important program remains.

It isn't only the ACA cockup that contributed to Obama's Annus Horibilis.  The Edward Snowden affair, which exposed the extent of NSA surveillance, added greatly to our discontent.  Of course, Obama didn't start these programs.  As discussed in an earlier post, their real origin can be traced back to the Cold War in the late 1940s and 50s.  Moreover, every major government around the globe that has the means and the will engages in various forms of espionage, including cyber empowered eavesdropping.  So, much of the global outcry has been disingenuous to say the least.  But the revelations came on Obama's watch highlighting two important things.  First is that, with his approval, the seemingly overreaching surveillance initiated after 9/11 has continued unabated.  Second, and perhaps equally important, Obama's campaign for the presidency, his record and (not inconsequentially) our expectations of him suggested something quite different.

As with the ACA, perceptions play a significant role here, but in just the opposite way.  The ACA is far better than the perception, but it turns out that the reality of the NSA under Obama's watch falls far short of what we had perceived it would be.  With regard to Iraq, Afghanistan and even Gitmo, we can somehow excuse action falling behind rhetoric by recognizing that campaigning is different than governing.  Iraq took longer to exit as is Afghanistan and Guantanamo still hasn't been closed.  We may not like the reasons, but can at least understand them.  The seemingly unchecked eavesdropping is something else entirely, not the least for the fact that, unlike the other three, it directly impacts on all of us and our daily lives.

Those of us who consider ourselves the President's supporters are frustrated, perplexed and even infuriated by the inept rollout of the ACA.  We fear that if it isn't quickly and, most importantly perceptibly, fixed early in 2014, it may tip the balance in the Senate and effectively end any semblance of a meaningful Obama presidency going forward.  With regard to the NSA revelations, even if they should not have come as a complete surprise (as noted that earlier post), they leave many of us with a varying sense of outrage.  However great that may be for us individually, we are left disheartened by the gap between the dream and, in this instance, the reality of Barack Obama's presidency.  We understand that Democrats, especially those who lean somewhat left rather than right, have constantly to prove themselves on national security.  That may be especially the case for those who have not served in the military.  But it's not an excuse we can buy.  We wanted more, expected more.

These frustrations and disappointments bring me to the Annus Horibilis for Americans at large.  Of course, it hasn't been that bad a year for those at the top of the American scale and that goes well beyond the 1%.  The economy is recovering, housing prices have firmed and the stock market is at all time highs.  Of course that means the rich are richer, but millions of others are seeing a rise in their retirement accounts and the value of our homes.  Unemployment is down which means that some people who were out of work last January have found a job.  New York City's incoming mayor campaigned on a platform focused on the two Americas — one riding high, the other in or near a deep hole.  For the second group, and for more of us than was the case not so long ago, 2013 was yet another year of challenge.  Incomes continue to stagnate and they are falling further behind with each inadequate paycheck or no paycheck at all.  To borrow Michael Harrington's term, the Other America may be concerned about the ACA and the NSA, but survival takes precedence and that has become more problematic for a larger swath of the citizenry.

So in some very important ways very many of us are bidding farewell to an Annus Horibilis.  But we dare not let it get us down.  There are some hopeful signs on the horizon, or at least we should be making something out of what went wrong this year — some lemonade out of the lemons.  The ACA stumbled, but it has brought some people into the class of insured and it has gotten us to talk about healthcare and how to make it better.  President Obama is expected to make some, hopefully meaningful, changes in the NSA program.  And, while way overdue, there seems to be a rising conversation about income inequality.  Late in the year Obama forcefully spoke out about the inequities, as did the new pope.  In New York where so many things seem to be going well — a strong post 9/11 recovery — an overwhelming majority opted for the candidate who put economic inequality at the top of his agenda.  We'll see how all this turns out, how it translates from rhetoric into action.  It's not in my nature to be unhopeful.

Friday, December 13, 2013


My father joined the Blau-Weiss Zionist youth group in 1917.  The German Jewish Community and family in which he was reared were largely unsympathetic to the idea of Zionism.  They were an assimilated lot many of whom had prospered and felt secure in their Teutonic "homeland".  He was unconvinced that this security would endure and of course turned out to be a very prescient 15-year-old.  Our family didn't make  aliyah (going up to the land of our ancient ancestors), but landed in the United States.  In a sense, our life here continued that once happy integration of my German forbearers into the larger society.  Nonetheless, my liberal rabbi father never lost his attachment to the Zionist idea and counted many of Israel's founders including David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir among his friends.  My parents attended the historic 1947 United Nations session that approved the partition of Palestine and, in doing so, facilitated Israel's founding only months later in 1948.  I was a youngster caught up in the excitement of that time.

For Jews around the world, including here in the United States, the founding of Israel was momentous.  After perpetually living as a minority, essentially making gains only at the sufferance of others, the notion that people like us could be Prime Ministers, Generals and Justices — masters of their own destiny — was at one unimaginable and exciting.  That was especially so for our family that had seen the rise of National Socialism up close, and for whom, like many other Jews, the Holocaust was not an abstract horror.  It was personal.  We watched Israel come into being, marveled at its barren desert being transformed into productive farmland, not to mention the creation of a real democracy where there had been none.  We were also alarmed by the multiple wars that threatened its existence.   

In recent years many of us have been perplexed and frankly often dismayed by Israel six decades on, particularly its seemingly unending occupation of the "Territories".  We ask ourselves, as do others ask, what is Israel in 2013?  A response to this question comes in the distinguished journalist Ari Shavit's recently published, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.  It is a beautifully written and constructed book, a movingly personal statement brimming with information and insightful perspective on both Israel's past history and its immediate present.  What is Israel?  Well, it's complicated.

As anyone who regularly reads my posts knows, I am of the school that most things, personal and public, are complicated.  World and indeed national affairs are complex and don't lend themselves to or benefit from the often simplistic and glib analysis that we are given and then devour like sugar coated breakfast cereal or bitter pills.  It's easy to think you're getting your arms around what's assumed to be black and white when that's rarely the case.  So what we so confidently grasp as true is often an illusion.  In its pre-state early days, the time when Shavit's great-grandfather moved his affluent Jewish family from England, Palestine was settled by a relatively homogeneous group of pioneer immigrants.  They saw the land through idealistic but selective eyes.  What the family patriarch Herbert Bentwich beheld in 1897 was only the Zionist potential and future.  He averted his eyes from its then present — from the Arab villages, farms and population that in fact dominated the landscape.  It's complicated.

Bentwich came to Palestine by choice.  Britain has been good to him and his family bringing them wealth and a position in the larger community.  Like my father twenty years later in Germany, he was nonetheless uneasy about his people's prospects in the West.  He saw Theodor Herzl's vision and was determined to translate that dream into reality.  Of course the idealized picture Bentwich had in his head was remote from reality.  The small Jewish community that preceded and succeeded him would have to work hard to subdue the harsh land and ultimately could not avert its eyes from the presence of the neighbors whom they ultimately concluded stood in their way.  It would be a fight to survive.

Bentwich, my father and other early Zionists saw what others missed or refused to see.  European Jewry would still have some good years, but their worst fears (though not in England) came true and on a scale that even they never contemplated.  By the 1930s Zionism was no longer an option for many Jews, it was a necessity, one some tragically failed to see.  The next waves of Israeli immigration were not driven so much by that early idealism but by necessity and consequent displacement.  Many, especially the young, embraced their new home, its ways and language.  Some of their parents had a hard sometimes-impossible adjustment.  Interestingly, Shavit suggests, this was often more challenging for fathers than mothers.  The men had lost their hard earned place in society, their businesses or professions and thus their dignity.  They arrived dispirited, and sometimes remained so.  The women, with children to rear couldn't afford to succumb to depression and inertia.  They forced themselves to adjust and they acted — to move on.

Over the next decades leading to and beyond the founding of the State, waves followed waves of immigration.  They came not only from what was left of Central European Jewry but also from Arab countries — Orientals — and more recently from Russia — one million of them.  The early settlers were largely secular, non-religious.  Later ones included many Orthodox, some ultra-Orthodox.  The waves of immigration demonstrated that, unlike the assumed stereotype, all Jews are not alike.  Israel's gathering population was made up of a broad array of languages, cultures and colors.  Those who came first, or at least before the latest wave shared the same suspicions of the new, the same often-racial prejudices found in other places.  Israelis aimed to be normal, though Shavit consistently points to their extraordinary character, and suffered or benefited from all that goes with normalcy.

What we are reminded of throughout this insightful book is that for all its growth and accomplishments — what some have aptly called the miracle of Israel — this is a nation totally out of sync with its immediate surroundings.  Despite its diversified population, it is seen as Anglo-European misplaced in a naturally Eastern habitat.  Israel's population has grown dramatically but remains numerically a tiny spec encircled by a mammoth populous and hostile neighborhood.  Israelis see themselves as coming home after two thousand years of forced exile.  Palestinians see Israelis as having appropriated their home, one that they have occupied continually for centuries in the immediate past.  The larger Muslim world sees them as infidels that have taken hold of their holy ground.  The non-religious Jews see themselves as rightful proprietors of land they have tamed, creators of a productive society that never would have been absent their arrival, ingenuity and very hard work.  Like the Muslims, Israel's religious, especially the Haredim (ultra-orthodox), feel equally as strongly about infidels threatening their holy place, only in reverse.  It's complicated.

Israel's economy has been booming.  Its population has mushroomed through a combination of immigration and higher birth rates than other developed countries.  It's education system coupled with the arrival of the well educated from places like Russia has made it the hub of innovation, much of it, though not exclusively, in high tech and pharma.  At the same time, a large swath of its citizenry, the ultra religious, don't work nor do they serve in the military, something that is compulsory for all others.  It is an increasing sore point, an increasing economic and social drain.  Out of necessity, Israel has built the region's most powerful military, but the peace it hoped to attain remains elusive and worse, any prospect of it seems to be slipping away.  The occupation plays an important role here, but Shavit contends is neither the whole story nor would ending it be a silver bullet.  Whether Iran represents an existential threat (and Shavit thinks it does) may be debatable, but that the country faces a larger existential threat is not.  No threat is greater than what he calls "the elephant in the room", a demographic shift within that will make the Arab Palestinian minority the majority.  We're not talking here about the distant future, but about tomorrow morning.  Absent a two state solution, which is becoming more unlikely with every passing day, it is a rebalancing that truly will be complicated.

Some of Israel's young, to whom Shavit devotes an entire chapter, have decided to live life to the fullest.  They work hard, but at day's or week's end they party to the extreme.  Music, dancing, drugs and free sex abound to a degree that one has the sense that they, like the long dead Bentwich, have chosen to avert their eyes.  Perhaps that is the only way to maintain their sanity.  Perhaps they also are forced in that direction because those in charge just aren't delivering or solving the existential problem.  Israel has a totally dysfunctional government — sound familiar.

If you think you understand Israel you may be mistaken.  Many of us see it in a single dimension, simple not complicated.  Even if you have a greater sense of its history and even of its present, as do I, you will come off the pages of My Promised Land with a new and much more nuanced understanding.  It's complicated.  Reading through will be like the story of Israel itself, an experience of ups and downs; of promise and to some degree, despair.  Triumph and tragedy modifies promised in his title, and appropriately so.  The odds of ultimate success here are tough, not merely for Israel but also for the world as we know it and like it.  Shavit is sober.  He has enormous love and admiration for the country his family has called home for generations.  He is also critical — he knows and can feel the warts and all.  But he remains resolute.  This is home; he must have hope.  Regardless of what may lie ahead he's all in, committed to both the dream of his great-grandfather and the reality of his present life and time.  His words will inform, disturb and inspire — they will also touch.  They do so more effectively and better than anything else I've read on this subject of late.

My book Transcenders: Living beyond religion and the religion wars is available in print and as an eBook.  Both versions are available at Amazon; the electronic iBooks version can be found at iTunes; a Nook version at Barnes & Noble.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


They came by the many thousands, they were joined by a who's who of the World’s leaders and heads of state and they listened to laudatory speeches, among the best of them by our president.  Mandela — Madiba — is gone, or at least the physicality of him is no more.  Mandela, the father of a nation that took far too long to form, passed from the scene years ago, passed into the fog of infirmity and old age.  The democracy that evolved out of his remarkable journey remains frail and imperfect.  The people in whose name he rose remain largely at the social and economic margin.  His "successors" are that in name only, the present South Africa president was booed at Tuesday's memorial.

Joao Silva's photo from The New York Times
The dream of Madiba is portrayed in Joao Silva's New York Times photo (above) of interracial mourning at his loss.  It is a photo that could not have been taken, much less printed, in South Africa just a relatively short time ago.  Of course that doesn't mean that the post Mandela nation is without racism any more than our own democracy is without it after the election of Obama.  Racism exists in so many places.  I'm just finishing Ari Shavit's My Promised Land (the subject of a future post) and am reminded that, beyond many other issues, racism also plays in the story of an unresolved Israel.

President Obama ended his eulogy with the well-worn cliché that we will never see the likes of a Mandela again.  But of course, clichéd as it may be, the stark fact is that not only will we not see the likes of this man again, human history has seen relatively few like him.  This is not to suggest that Mandela was perfect, something of which Obama reminded us.  Most notably, while clearly explainable, he wasn't the perfect husband or father.  The same can be said about a number of "great" men, but that commonality doesn't change the failure.  Mandela was mortal and it is in that context, the story of greatness in the face of imperfection, that we judge him.

There is no need to retell Madiba's story here — that narrative has been fed to us on overdrive in the last days, as if we needed to hear what we already knew.  Rather, I'd like to reflect on the very sad fact that people like him are far too much the exception when we desperately need them to be more, or at least some of the norm.  Looking out at this world of ours, and particularly at its many trouble spots, the total absence of great leadership stands out like a malignantly sore thumb.  Angela Merkel is probably the most substantive of European leaders and yet there is nothing very special about her, certainly nothing remarkable about her leadership or vision.  Can you remember a single utterance of David Cameron (David who)?  The same can be said for almost everywhere else — the word almost being an exaggeration.  Reading "page" after page (pages are hard to define on an iPad) of Shavit's book one is painfully struck by how very much both Israel and Palestine need great leaders at a time when they are stuck with Bibi Netanyahu and Abu Mazen.

Time Magazine just named Pope Francis its Person-of-the-Year (they don't say "man" any more even though, by their own admission, they have named a scant number of women).  Benedict, the subject of a recent post, looks "great" not necessarily because he objectively earns such a designation, but in contrast to what are very slim pickings.

It is impossible to say for sure how Mandela will be judged a century from now or even 50 years.  How South Africa turns out may impact on his own reputation.  As an agent of change, of upending a very sorry status quo, he likely will come out all right.  Gandhi still looks good all these years later and Martin King is holding up in our own country.  Of course, like all the other icons of greatness, Mandela was just one man in a movement and dependent on both early groundwork and having comrades in the struggle.  We don't travel alone in this world. The thing is, it's hard to think of how South Africa would have turned out without him.  The ANC was there, but his visionary and at times solitary leadership made the difference.  That can also be said of both Gandhi and King.  Perhaps they all come forth when needed, are products of their time, but leaders do make a difference.
Perhaps we muddle through without great leaders, but isn't that the point?   Muddling through just doesn't get the really big jobs done.  Leaderless translates into rudderless and we're all suffering the consequences.  That's what keeps spinning through my head in this week of remembrance. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Kinder and gentler.

There's a new monarch in Rome.  He's been sitting on St. Peter's throne for about eight months.  265 men have preceded him, most ascending around age 62.  He was older, 76, not as old as his immediate predecessor (78) but the same age as the pope who took the name John and to whom he is often compared.  That was back in 1958 when people weren't expected to live quite as long as they do today.  So, at his elevation, John XXIII was considered a transitional leader who might be around for maybe a couple of quiet years.  His reign lasted almost five and the aged cleric turned out to be somewhat of a revolutionary.  He was a modest man, more pastor than monarch.  That appears to be the case for the present pope, whose selected name Francis (after Assisi) foreshadowed his already demonstrated humble approach to the throne.  This is no imperial pope, preferring relatively humble digs to the palatial papal residence and simple used compact cars to the sleek new "Mercs" usually consigned to the infallibles.  In short, Francis' seems to be a kindler and gentler papacy, quite a contrast from the now emeritus Benedict who cherished his red papal shoes and all that went with them. 

It's interesting that the two most recently elevated popes are relatively old.  In part that may be a reaction to the fact that Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, came to power at only 58 and kept hold of the office for more than 26 years (the second longest on record).  That meant many hopeful Cardinals didn't get their chance up at bat.  Perhaps far more important is that with a long tenured leader, already fixed in his ideas, the church may have been held back from responding dynamically to fast changing times.  So Benedict (though no one expected him to retire) like John XXIII was chosen for the short term and some of his fellow clerics may hope for the same with Francis.  Of course, it's far too early to tell how that will work out for them and their church.

Part of Francis' less imperial style is that he has made himself more accessible to the press.  He candidly and informally talked to reporters on the plane carrying him back from South America.  He made news when, in speaking about gays, he posed the question, "Who am I to judge them if they're seeking the Lord in good faith?"   He also gave a more far reaching and interesting interview to fellow Jesuit, Father Antonio Spadaro, published in the Catholic review America.  Some of what he said there has found its way into his newly published Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.

Since becoming pope, Francis has focused much of his attention on the less advantaged, especially the poor, something consistent with his earlier work as a priest and the bishop.  In this document, he pointedly speaks to both current economics and economic inequality.  His language is bold and candid:

"Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded...a 'throw away' culture, which is now spreading.  While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few.  Todays economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric.

Those of us who share his concern about the current economic disparity and its dire implications for our society could easily have written these words.  His may not be well received by conservatives in the Church many of whose "free market" economic views parallel their rightist approach to religion.  What's interesting here is that incorporating such bold statements in an official papal pronouncement moves beyond Francis' kinder gentler atmospherics — washing the feet of the poor and a modest non-regal lifestyle — into something substantive.  All this is coupled with greater efforts to decentralize — make less Rome-focused — the Church and to reach out more to the laity for advice.

The pope's words echo those of the Hebrew prophets, perhaps more so than some of his predecessors, though any difference may be more stylistic than substantive.  What seems clear is that he continues to exhibit a much more humble persona and thus papacy.  In that regard, Francis may be able to make some of the faithful feel better about an institution that so often has seemed out-of-touch.  He may well be able to engender greater loyalty and stem the tide of faithful Catholics migrating to evangelical churches as they have in Latin America.  Whether he can stem the tide of disaffiliation, of those empty pews, is another question.

I think not.  Yes this very descent and humble man has shown himself the caring pastor and champion of economic justice.  But when it comes to the church doctrines that have turned off so many, he holds the hard line.  Nowhere is this demonstrated more clearly than in the document's comments on the ordination of women, a hot button issue for many, including the community of nuns.  As Evangelii Gaudium puts it decisively, "The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion."  Not open to discussion.  Translation, style and even a substantively different approach to Church governess may be in play, but basic dogma absolutely not. 

While unsurprising, this will come as bad and very discouraging news to many Catholic women, especially the young.  The Church's attitude toward women and especially to equality where is counts is among the major alienators that are driving many women and men not only from the church but from religion. There are signs that there may be some wiggle room on this issue of celibacy.  One of the pope's close confidants recently pointed out that priestly celibacy, “is not a church dogma and it can be discussed because it is a church tradition.  That may be a sign of some progress, but for women and feminists it is beside the point.

The columnist Bill Keller, one of the many who have long left both Catholicism and religion behind, reported the possible flexibility on celibacy.  Like other "lapsed" Catholics and many non-Catholics like myself, Keller clearly admires this new pope and his humanity.  But kinder gentler goes only so far, especially for those who don't follow this faith or never have.  Francis places great emphasis on evangelism (given major attention in the new document), but what has moved so many to live beyond religion makes them unreceptive listeners.  Like Keller, they look at the Church with varying degrees of interest, but from afar.  He compares leaving Catholicism with moving to another country, to giving up your citizenship, ostensibly to take up another.  You may even look at the "Old Country" with some familial some interest, "and if you write for a living you may sometimes write about that world, from a distance".

From a distance is the key.  We and certainly I look at Francis with great interest, but the distance between how and why he sees the world we share and how we see it is immense.  Kinder and gentler may resonate with active Catholics, even reinforcing their faith.  But for transcenders, whether former members of his, another or no church it ultimately is at best an academic, albeit respectful, interest.  To be fair, the ordination of women or the end of priestly celibacy wouldn't really change things, certainly not at this late date.  Clearly Francis would love to bring more people under his tent.  So, too, would leaders of other religious groups.  That is unlikely to happen.  Kinder gentler is admirable but it just isn't enough to be compelling and it certainly can't mask old doctrines and points-of-view still very much in force — questions "not open for discussion".
My book Transcenders: Living beyond religion and the religion wars is available in print and as an eBook.  Both versions are available at Amazon; the electronic iBooks version can be found at iTunes; a Nook version at Barnes & Noble.

Friday, November 22, 2013

An end of innocence.

John F. Kennedy was not our first assassinated president, but in 1963 it had been sixty-two years since the last.  Well out-of-sight and most certainly out-of-mind as the president and first lady began that fateful drive in Dallas.  There had been two world wars and an unresolved one in Korea by the time JFK took office.  Violence was hardly a stranger in the American landscape — Medgar Evers had been gunned down in his driveway just months before.  It didn't matter.  The assassination of a president was the last thing on our minds and death seemed so distant for the youngest man ever elected to the office.  The Kennedy's embodied vibrancy and life.

There was of course a kind of naive innocence in all of that.  Not merely the recent Evers killing, just days before the assassination we had commemorated the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's stirring Gettysburg Address.  Lincoln said that "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here".  Of course the opposite is true.  Most every school child could recite his words in whole or in part — "Four score and seven years ago" without necessarily appreciating the unprecedented battle that took place there.  Americans may know that the Civil War was our most costly.  We certainly take note of the fallen in battle, but what we remember most is the fallen man from Illinois.  We remember but, with our generally sunny national disposition, assumed that nothing like that would happen to this man, to this couple.

Compared with Lincoln and Kennedy little is written about Garfield and McKinley and most of us know nothing about how Americans took their murders.  Garfield lingered for eleven weeks after he was shot, so the shock had likely worn off.  McKinley died eight days after being attacked.  Interestingly those deaths can probably be attributed more to poor medical treatment than from the bullets.  In fact, the wound McKinley sustained would likely not have been life threatening today.  Reagan survived his would-be assassin's bullet.  Perhaps we don't focus much on McKinley's end because the larger-than-life Teddy Roosevelt succeeded him.  TR, who actually ascended at a younger age (42) than JFK, is the man most of us remember from that era. 

In contrast, Lincoln died shortly after being shot and had no charismatic successor to distract us.   As with Kennedy, we all know/remember the name of his wife.  Mary Lincoln may not have been a cultural icon like Jackie, but to this day we can picture her melancholy knowing that, beyond losing her husband, she was still grieving for their son Willie.  Mary and Abe Lincoln went to the theater innocently with no expectations that this would be the last thing they did together.  Jack and Jackie, she decked out in her pink outfit and a trademark Pillbox hat, were on their way to just another political event.  They were all smiles, never dreaming that their drive together would be their last.  They too were innocent of what was coming and so were we.

Dying  is a solo experience, but most of us leave loved ones behind, especially life partners, who face their own aloneness.  With a public figure, national grief is often visualized in the altered facial expression of those closest to him or her.  The contrast between before and after, if we can witness it, tells the story of loss most powerfully.  That
Andy Warhol: Jackie I (private collection)
day in Dallas was one of multiple images.  It was one of the many trips presidents make, and most often they make them alone.  Dallas was different and consequently many of the photos taken on November 22nd were of the couple — Jack and Jackie.  Perhaps the most indelible was of the two sitting in the back seat of that stretch convertible, a picture-perfect husband and wife smiling broadly at the crowds and for the camera.  Andy Warhol captured it in the way only he could.  His silkscreen rendition of an iconic photographic image printed with silver ink on an off white paper fades away in some lights.  The fragility of the image mirrors the fragile story it tells.  And then there are all those shots of Jackie newly alone — watching LBJ being sworn in, standing with her children as the casket passes by and black veiled at the funeral and graveside.  Her pain was far greater than ours, but somehow she was expressing what we felt, her public display of sadness echoed our own and was broadcast so that everyone could see the mutual pain.

It is fitting that we pause to remember John F. Kennedy and that an earlier generation did the same with Abraham Lincoln.  But let's not forget Jackie and Mary and those who were really close, family left behind.  Going on is what we humans must do, but it's not easy.  Jackie brought up two children, remarried and had a productive professional life.  We do go on.  But we the public will always keep that dual image — before and after, the smiles and grief — in our minds.  Perhaps as much as anything else these very personal images that also projected how we felt are what still reinforces the memory of the day many of us lost our innocence.  When we see Secret Service Agents surrounding this and previous presidents, we no longer underestimate the real and potential dangers that lurk.  We don't and shouldn't obsess about another November 22nd, but, in its own way, that day changed everything.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Time out.

Okay, everyone, take a very deep breath.   No, deeper than that.  Things have been pretty dicey these last few weeks, actually much longer than a few weeks.  I'd characterize it as an amplified mess.  As to the mess, the launch of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been a colossal embarrassment with its not-ready-for-primetime website and communicative missteps.  The Administration screwed up and badly!  As to the amplified, a not so surprising rocky start to a very complicated undertaking has been blown way out of proportion.  This would have the ACA doomed and President Obama on his way to oblivion.  Right.  That may well be today's storyline put out by the program and his opponents, one opportunistically fueled by the media, but we're only about a month in for a program designed to last for many years to come.  Moreover, this is hardly the first time the President has been written off.  Remember that widely predicted (though never substantiated by polls) cliffhanger of a presidential election?

That deep breath, please!  Let's start with the basics.  There is nothing wrong or malfunctioning with the ACA program as enacted into law.  If it has faults, they lie in its doing too little, covering too few, not in doing too much or being too intrusive.  This legislation is the product of big time compromises. Republicans like to paint it as socialized medicine.  In truth, the private insurance industry, which lobbied hard against anything close to universal Medicare, was and is a big winner.  There has been a big brouhaha about people being thrown out of their (mostly sub-par) insurance plans.  In fact, not only are the vast majority of covered Americans keeping their plans, they no longer have to worry about pre-existing condition turndowns when or if they move to new ones.  Women can no longer be penalized with higher premiums.  And, perhaps most important, the kind of lifetime caps that brought families to the poorhouse are no longer legal.   Basic Medicare stands unchanged except for a significant enhancement: closing the so-called doughnut hole in prescription drug coverage.  Finally, unless living in a state like North Carolina or Texas controlled by (seemingly mean-spirited and cruel) right-wingers, millions of the heretofore-uninsured poor will have access to expanded Medicaid.

There is an abundance of misinformation about the ACA, facilitated in part by the fact that insurance — all insurance — is complicated.  This is a murky fine print terrain.  What is not in question is that even before its start, Republicans, especially but not exclusively in the House, have been relentlessly fighting it.  As of this writing they have voted to repeal or defund the program 47 times.  They made it a principal issue in 2010 and again in the 2012 presidential election.  They tried to use defunding as a bargaining chip during the manufactured crisis that ended up closing the government and threatening the country's full faith and credit.  They made gains in the House in 2010 but President Obama was reelected and with a higher margin than any recent chief executive.  So, despite all their efforts, the act is moving forward and by the still months away deadline millions of the uninsured will likely have signed up.

What the Republican opponents have been up to of late, including purposeful misinformation and fear mongering, is nothing new.  Back in 1961 Ronald Reagan, then a spokesman for the business right, cut a record for the American Medical Association opposing the establishment of Medicare.  Reagan considered the proposed approach to healthcare contrary to the American free enterprise way.  The future president argued that it was simply a foot-in-the-door toward socialism. 

Reagan concluded his argument and call to action with this dire warning about the bill's passage:
I promise you...just as surely as the sun will come up tomorrow and behind it will come other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country until one day...we will wake to find that we have socialism, and...one of these days we are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.
Needless to say, his prediction was totally off the mark.  Not only is Medicare an excellent and essential program, no American could even imagine being without it.  And in case you haven't noticed, our free enterprise system is alive and well with businesses raking in the billions, far more than back in 1961. Reagan was wrong, but worse was his fear mongering.

He remains the hero of today's Republicans — Reagan's party not Lincoln's.  Some say, the current crop are much more conservative, but look at this anti-Medicare message and you'll likely come to a different conclusion.  There is clearly a sense of déjà vu consistency in what Reagan's ideological descendants are doing and why they are so worked up about the AFA.  It isn't just about health insurance but about a perceived threat to their way of life.  One has to wonder what that "way of life" might be relative to other Americans, most especially those who have been deprived of something as basic as healthcare.

We should keep this in mind in watching the drama of a so-called ACA failure unfold.  We should remember that those who are yelling loudest about the launch problems are exactly those who oppose its implementation in the first place.  Their voiced concerns about difficulties in sign up are, to be generous, disingenuous.  They don't want to expand coverage, which they surely see (or pretend to see) as what Reagan characterized the end of our freedom.  Some Democrats in Congress, concerned about their own reelection in swing districts are being sucked into this hysteria — shame on them.  The Affordable Care Act is a modest step forward in bringing all Americans under the umbrella of healthcare coverage.  A bump in the early road to its implementation is troubling, but we can't let it stand in the way of progress.  We can't allow ourselves to be swayed by the calculated hysteria.  Far from being the end of the America that should be, it is a major step forward.  Let's all take that deep breath, see what's going on for what it really is, and continue our support.