Monday, April 29, 2013


Let's admit that you and I still know precious little about the brothers Tsarnaev.  Yes, the press is trying to patch together bits of information in constructing some semblance of a narrative.  Yes, we're told that Tamerlan was the classical big brother, Dzhokhar the loyal younger sibling.  The older seems to have achieved most (but not enough) in the boxing ring, the younger was apparently the better student with a seemingly active social media life.  But this "information" is largely second hand and thus as biography it remains largely conjecture.  There are also supposed reports of what Dzhokhar told his interrogators, but no journalists much less any of us were in his hospital room.  It is going to take some time, if ever, for us to know the whole story or the real motives of these two allegedly murderous young men.  Tamerlan is dead.  Perhaps Dzhokhar's trial (if there is one) will provide such insights, but even then perhaps only at the periphery.

Incorporated in the still emerging narrative is a tale of immigrants, especially Tamerlan, who were having significant problems adjusting to their home in America.  He is said to have been disconnected and alienated — friendless.  Attachment to the "old country" remained strong, perhaps loyalties at best divided.  How much of that played into their alleged criminal act remains to be seen.  Whether Tamerlane’s trip back to Chechnya and Dagestan somehow fueled anti-American feelings or actually provided guidance on how and where to act is unknown.  But the immigrant aspect of the saga should interest us all.  In fact, many of us can easily relate to it.

Coincident with the Boston tragedy, a Senate committee was beginning its consideration of long overdue immigration reform.  In an almost reflexive and predictable reaction to the tragedy that great sage Senator Charles Grassley suggested that the bombing should give us pause as we consider the bill.  He has since been walked back from that idea.  But the confluence of Boston and the immigration reform does present an opportunity to consider the state of immigrants and most especially the difficult task of balancing their past, present and future.  The brothers Tsarnaev may have taken their adjustment or lack of it to a very bad place, but the balancing problem, including a degree of disconnection, is hardly unique.  In fact, it always comes into play.

It may sound tired and trite, but we are truly a nation of immigrants.  Take Boston as a case in point.  The city lies at the geographic and in many ways ideological epicenter of our incipient national story.  Bostonians were there well before and at the moment of creation.  They were forefront independence fighters.  John and then John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts were our first father and son presidents — both were personally and directly informed by the revolution.  But when we think of Boston today, we think Irish as much as sons and daughters of the Revolution.  The not so distant ancestors of key Boston families came here, often penniless, to seek refuge from bad times in their native land.  Today, even those in the third and fourth generation still maintain strong identification with and ties to Ireland.  Not long before his death, President John F. Kennedy made an emotional journey to his family's ancestral home.  In the same vein, Barack Obama spent years searching out his African roots.  Immigrant adjustment is integral to our American story.

I was born one month after my immigrant parents arrived on these shores from Nazi Germany.  In 1776 my ancestors weren't any where near the place Boston celebrates on Patriot's Day but in various parts of Germany — we can trace them back to the 1600s.   So despite being a native born American, I grew up in an immigrant family adjusting to a new land.  My adult relatives all spoke with some degree of a foreign accent.  Since my mother still spoke no English at my birth German was my first language.  She quickly learned but my parents and their close circle of extended family and friends spoke a lot of German among themselves.  How much, I can't tell you because both languages were so natural to me and spoken interchangeably in our home that it's impossible to remember which one was used when and to what degree.

Our story is likely not that different from any other immigrant family, especially for those coming from non-English speaking countries.  For sure Mexican, Italian, French, Russian, Japanese, Chinese and Turkish families among others all know it well.  But it isn't only language, it's also cultural orientation, customs and, of course, food.  I still cook some dishes that come directly out of my family tradition, things my mother and grandmother would serve at their tables.  And how happy are we when our town has a food store that carries ingredients or a restaurant that serves food from our heritage world.  The aisle at Whole Foods with Asian products, the meat case with Italian sausage or a variety of tortillas in the cooler make us feel "at home".

I always marvel at how my extended family, many of whom arrived as adults, totally rebuilt their lives in America.  They experienced a personal "refresh" long before that word became part of the digital age's language.  My mother's English was accented but fluent.  From the first days, my father who made his reputation as a gifted orator in Berlin now made his living making equally compelling speeches in what he had learned as a second language.  He was fortunate both in knowing English and in having academic credentials (including a rabbinical ordination) that were transferrable.  But many of his friends had to struggle.  There were doctors and lawyers who, in order to continue their chosen careers, had to literally go back to school.   Many others had to find new lines of work or had to adjust to a vastly different economic circumstance.  It was extremely hard and for sure they often felt disconnected, some undoubtedly alienated.

Not everyone could make the adjustment cut, or make it without extraordinary pain.  Some older people never could learn the language, or really didn't want to.  Call it a fear of losing identity or just a kind of obstinacy every one of us who comes from an immigrant family can remember or knows the relative who still speaks the old tongue and, to the degree possible, lives the old way.  There was the grandmother who only spoke Yiddish or Italian, the dad who found a way to keep working while holding fast to his Chinese.  Ethnic neighborhoods, especially in larger cities like New York or Chicago, facilitated this kind of cocoon existence.   Little Italy and Chinatown are in New York, but in a way not so much.  For a long time and even today they are a protected slice of somewhere else.  And that doesn't only happen in America.  My paternal grandparents, for example, landed up in Palestine and lived to see the creation of the State of Israel.  But they lived in a tight German-Jewish conclave and never learned or spoke Hebrew.  The world is small and repetitive when it comes to the immigrant experience.

In working through the immigration bill, members of Congress should not be thinking of the brothers Tsarnaev in the sense of what harm people from other places ("people who don't belong") can do, but rather should understand that all immigrants face huge challenges.  The terms of adjustment including learning and using a new language, adopting new customs, working in a different environment and often with heretofore alien mores doesn't come with a snap of the fingers.  Good, peaceful and highly productive people will at times yearn for the old place and will have some degree of mixed if not dual loyalty.  That's true for our immigrant population today, but no more or less than was the case when my family and others settled in this new place.  That it was a wonderful place in reality as well as in the abstract took some time to discover and a considerable amount of adjustment.  But we would all be less — yes, less American — without them.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Bloody finish line.

One of the great joys of my life was running in Central Park.  Regardless of the season, Fredrick Olmstead's patch of constructed nature in the middle of the great bustling metropolis is a work of continuous wonder, an oasis of almost instantaneous calm.  I mostly ran the track surrounding the Jacqueline Onassis Reservoir, but getting there from home meant first moving through a good section of the park.  In the winter, when the track was either muddy or icy, I ran the perimeter road that encircles the park's entire 778 acres.  Living only blocks away, the park was always integral to my life.  Long before my late start at running, my daily routine included a refreshing trek from West to East on my way to work.  I got to know the place pretty well. 

In the late days of Autumn Central Park is a buzz with activity and anticipatory excitement.  Work crews begin preparations for the New York City Marathon, held on the every first Sunday in November.  Bleachers are erected adjacent to the park drive near the iconic Tavern on the Green.  A bridge-like structure emerges spanning the road at what will be the finish line.  Parallel to all the physical preparations, the number of park runners, some in the final stages of training, increases.  Each day is measured by progress and signs of the race that will soon upon us.  As the first Sunday of November draws closer, I find myself running along side people speaking with a wide range of regional American accents and a multitude of languages.  Unlike me, these are real runners. I can't possibly keep up but they provide an incentive to do better, if only in my own mind.  Every year it's the same, an annual rite of passage the City and the park.

I no longer live in New York, no longer am part of this autumnal ritual.  Before Ieaving my running had already morphed into speed walking I now do.  It's easier on the body, but much less fun.  This past November's NY Marathon was literally washed out by Super Storm Sandy.  To be sure, Central Park stood at the ready but a violent act of nature robbed the city and the runners of their glory and joy.  For obvious reasons I was thinking about this throughout the past week.  Less obvious was that what happened in Boston also brought to mind one of my most memorable experiences in making my way around the reservoir.  It was on a particularly glorious and crystal clear day when a fellow runner stopped me to report that a plane had hit the twin towers.  It was September 11, 2001.

The other marathon — Bostonians would call New York's "the other marathon — got off the ground and for four hours ran smoothly.  Patriots' day couldn't have been more festive: excellent weather, the Red Sox winning their specially timed morning game and a stream of dedicated runners.  And then, in an instant a man made storm full of sound and fury.  Perhaps it lacked the dramatic destructive power of 9/11 but tell that to the three families who lost a loved one or to the innocents who have lost legs or who are still fighting to recover some semblance of health.  To be sure, what happened at the marathon was no 9/11, not even close.  While we still no little there seems to be no link to a larger conspiracy, no Osama bin Laden in the picture.   Yet we got another reminder last week of the kind of violence that has come to characterize our lives in the twenty-first century.  In our time, so much damage is inflicted on us by individuals rather than by governments or even movements.  It was more than ironic — no it was infuriating — that the Senate killed even the most modest attempts at gun control just a day after Boston.  As we have now learned, the brothers Tsarnaev were armed to the teeth not only with homemade bombs but with unregistered fire arms and plenty of ammunition.  Maureen Dowd in a piece called No Bully in the Pulpit blames the President who, while doing a lot to bring the public arouind, didn't coddle or arm twist enough legislators.  Nonsense.  It seems if Obama concentrates on the Hill, he's blamed for not engaging the American people and if you does that he's blamed for engaging Congress.  The fact is that any senator who wasn't moved to act after all the Newtown’s we've seen in the last years has no excuse.   These are adult elected officials with responsibilities to fulfill are they not?  They are the ones who should be ashamed.

What's striking about our modern violence — what happened in both Boston and the Newtown's — is that it always seems to be directed at totally innocent people.  Just as are large magazine empowered assault weapons, bombs are designed to harm multiple victims.  This time around they were put in place precisely when the most people would be gathering at the finish line.  This is something about which government and law enforcement officials should be deeply concerned, but even more so something each of us should take personally.  This isn't some theoretical war against terrorists; it's a battle being engaged for the most part by individuals against you and me. 

The mantra voiced by NRA types that, "guns don't kill, people do", has worked as a slogan because it contains a literal grain of truth.  But people can't kill the way they do, can't kill the innocent, if they don't have guns.  The gun lobby says that gun safety laws are meant to undermine the Second Amendment, that we want to take their guns away.  The truth is that guns should be denied and indeed taken away from the irresponsible, a word that I use in the broadest sense.  I don't happen to think we should own guns, but recognize that our right to do so is built into the Constitution and moreover that the vast majority of gun owners are responsible.  That doesn't mean that the presence of a gun doesn't increase the chances that it may one day inflict harm — often self-harm.  What is incomprehensible to me is that gun owners shouldn't welcome universal registration, shouldn't see that we all have a right to be protected by it.  No one can drive a car in this country without a license.  Licensing hasn't stopped us from owning cars.

What happened in Boston was tragic and disheartening.  What happened in Washington during the same week was outrageous (there can be no excuse) and even more disheartening.  This may be a great country — the people in Boston bore witness to that — but we're not in a great place right now. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Newton reigns supreme.

The death of Margaret Thatcher comes at the beginning of a week that will see Obama's budget proposal and possible next steps in the crafting of gun and immigration legislation.  Thatcher was known as the figure that transformed British politics and life shifting both to the right in a monumental way.  She was dubbed the "iron lady", a term that spoke to her determination but I have always seen as a sexist moniker.  Who would describe a determined male Prime Minister as "iron man"?  Ladies, don't you know you are supposed to be soft lace not iron.  Well, that's a whole other conversation.

Thatcher's legacy is controversial.  In her determination to bring the UK into the conservative camp she alienated liberals and virtually destroyed much of the country's labor movement.  The prosperity that she sought was claimed to be universal but was in fact lopsided.  Her friend, and American counterpart, Ronald Reagan traveled the same path and for many of the same reasons.  He achieved what Barry Goldwater could only dream about; somehow transforming what had been largely fringe politics — extremism — into the mainstream.  Reagan, as George HW Bush might have put it, was (perceived as) a kind and gentler version of Goldwater. 

Thatcher, while unceremoniously ousted by her own party, remains an icon for the British Conservatives and understandably so.  Even Tony Blair, whose free market policies were in large measure an extension of her legacy, owes her a considerable debt.  The disparity between the rich and everyone else only grew further under New Labour.  Reagan of course is the only Republican past president ever mentioned by his own party and his conservative stewardship has the same, if not greater, iconic status on this side of the pond.  Thatcher and Reagan were figures with strong (and often unbending) conviction and while their once fringe views became mainstream in one sense, they also were the harbingers for the "my way or the highway" politics that now prevails, most especially in our country.

When it comes to politics and governance, we have choices to make.  I think it comes down to two choices: following the advice of the prophet Isaiah or being governed by Isaac Newton's third law of motion.  You may remember that Isaiah's counsel (1:18), "Come let us reason together".  As noted in an earlier post, Lyndon Johnson's employed it while addressing Congress but most importantly made it the touchstone of how he so successively interacted with legislators on both sides of the aisle.  Newton's third law of motion states, "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction."  Isaiah seems to have no place in today's politics.  In 2013, Newton reigns supreme.  

Presidential budgets are always taken as policy statements, goals the White House wants to achieve.  Only Congress can craft and pass a budget.  So saying that a presidential budget is "dead on arrival" is not that radical.  In a literal sense all the budgets that come from the White House might fairly be characterized as such.  But in the current environment, the response is not so much DOA as it is, drop dead!  Consider the source is the only thing that pertains in this Newtonian environment.   Everything is an action that awaits only a certain "opposite reaction".  So here we are, another election behind us with a president who did in fact get a substantial mandate (much larger than W's) and the only thing upon which our elected officials can agree is that they disagree — totally.  The result is not only a kind of rhetorical ugliness; it is that we find ourselves unable to move forward on anything.  And by the way, Paul Ryan's budget was greeted with a similar "drop dead" reaction.  Whether these budgets are of equal merit is not the question — I obviously stand more with the President — but that Isaiah has no place at the table.

Thatcher and Reagan played a significant role in bringing us this sorry state.  Thatcher was never  a consensus builder.  In contrast, some might argue that Reagan had the capacity of reasoning together (roll out the Tip O'Neil example), but it was he who popularized the "L word", making liberal a pejorative.  Not only has that notion prevailed among conservatives; it has influenced how liberals talk about (and often see) themselves.  Republicans proudly self-identify as conservative, Democrats as, well, Democrats.  Leaving self-description aside, today you are either on one team or  the other and any move toward "reasoning together" is seen as selling out.  Obama proposes entitlement reforms of even a modest level at his own peril and Republicans hold the now often Tea Party line in mortal fear of being "primaried". 

Altogether the outsized role that primary elections have taken in our politics is troublesome to say the least.  Making the most out of gerrymandering, primary elections are often much more determinative than the general.  Not only do primaries draw far fewer voters, participants are from a party's hard core.  The Tea Party didn't get its power in a series of November contests but in the primaries that select candidates.  And primaries are also being used by legislatures for sham expressions of democracy.  Here in North Carolina, as I've noted in other posts, a constitutional amendment baring marriage equality was "put before the voters" in a May primary when Democrats had no presidential contest.  The result was that 20% of the electorate effectively changed not merely a law but the State's core document.  Here, too, as the sides were drawn Newton's law prevailed.

Why does Newton rule?  Well there are probably a number of answers to that.  Hard economic times and controversial wars tend to push people apart, probably at the very moment when they most need to come together, to reason together.  The election of the first African American president can't be discounted nor can the growth of the Latino community — a president who "doesn't look the part" and an awful lot of folks who "don't talk like us".  The possibility of a woman reaching the White House, of an "iron lady" sitting in a "man's seat" may extend the Newtonian atmosphere.  Let's not even mention that LGBT citizens are being considered "brothers and sisters" not adopters of a lifestyle.  It's all too much for many of our fellow citizens to take, a sense of alienation when those who have gotten so used to being in control find themselves losing groudn.  Things are not as the used to be, or in the minds of some, what they should be.

It's hard not to despair of where we are, what's become of us in these last years.  I truly think the reign of Newton is perhaps our greatest threat, a condition that if continued is bound to have dire consequences.  It is already doing great damage.  But I am not without hope.  The demographic tables are turning, perhaps not quickly enough, but inescapably so.  Most significantly, young Americans across all strata of our society have a different view than their elders.  They don't see those who look, speak or function differently as "the other", but as an integral part of "us".  They lack some of the deep prejudice that has so plagued this country, in some respects from its inception.  When their parents or their parents' generation, obsess about things like marriage equality or the loss of WASP dominance, it just doesn't compute.  They know, almost instinctively but also out of experience that we're all in the same boat, share similar problems as aspirations.  They know Newton's way is getting us nowhere.  Perhaps a larger percentage of them have left religion behind and are governed by science not faith.  Nonetheless, my guess is that when it comes to moving forward they are more in tune with the prophet Isaiah than the scientist Isaac Newton.  Let's hope so.