Monday, December 28, 2015

Nearing an end.

2015 is drawing toward a close, time to think about this and the coming year.   Most years leave in their trail a mixed, often messy, story — the good and the bad.  As The Times reminded us in a Christmas Day editorial, ’15 brought us the Paris Agreement on global warming, the Supreme Court’s affirmation of marriage equality and much of Europe’s generously in opening its doors to countless refugees. I’d add to that, the Iran nuclear deal and reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba ending half a century of useless estrangement.  The year ending was also one of horrendous, seemingly unending, violence, and conflict.  It brought the massacres in Paris and San Bernardino, the killing at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs — all three terrorist acts.  Each received media attention, but countless more lives were lost to daily gun violence across the land.  Also on the negative ledger, is the stunningly mean spirited Republican primary campaign underway and destined to continue well into 2016.

The Times editorial reflected on President Obama’s remarkable Amazing Grace eulogy for the fallen victims of last June’s purely domestic terrorism in Charleston, South Carolina.  Another immediately came to mind — perhaps the greatest of his presidency — the soaring Selma speech at the bloody Edmund Pettus Bridge, 50 years on.  Thanks to the Internet, I was able to watch both again.  You should do the same.  Without question, he is one of our greatest presidential orators, perhaps unmatched before crowds on such momentous occasions.  As Mario Cuomo (1932-2015), another political orator of note, might have described them, his speeches can be pure poetry. They combine elegant text with compelling artful delivery.  Charleston and Selma were prime examples of his special gift.  In reliving them on the eve of 2016, I couldn’t help but wonder how Donald Trump or any of the other remaining thirteen might represent us on such occasions.  A horrifying thought to be sure.  Perhaps Macro Rubio fancies himself the Republican Obama — dream on — but I don’t see the oratorical likes of the President on the current scene or, for the matter, the horizon.  This is not to suggest that Obama doesn’t have faults, including at times in communicating with us, or that, for example Hillary Clinton isn’t articulate, talented and highly qualified.  It is merely to recognize his uniqueness.

Presidents are charged with crafting policy, decision-making (the “decider”) and generally leading the nation.  As such, they mirror other chief executives in the business and non-profit world.  Presidents are our voice and also our master accountants reporting yearly on the Union’s state.  They are our ambassadors to the world, the embodiment of our global leadership.  They don’t sit on the Hill, but are expected to drive key legislation.  That’s a tall order, but we ask, no expect, more, much more.  That’s what brought Obama to both Selma and Charleston this year and to Newtown in 2012.  Part of his mission in the latter two was to fulfill the role of “Comforter-in-Chief”.  But beyond offering consolation a president must inspire, must give special voice to our moral compass even when others seek to quiet or pervert it.   Obama on too many tragic occasions has pleaded with us to do something beyond invoking condolences, however heartfelt.  He wants us to curb or at a minimum better control the instruments of slaughter — not merely those who pull triggers but to the weapons that enable their atrocities. 

Presidents are there to remind us of our identity, our accomplishments and what is yet to be done.  “Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding”, he declared in Selma, “our union is not yet perfect”.  We still have unfinished business, which brings me to the year ahead.  It’s impossible to predict with any accuracy all that will transpire in 2016.  There will be surprises, the unexpected.  But we do know that by next summer, the presidential race will come into sharper focus.  Nominees will emerge in what is likely to give us the starkest ideological choice since Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson faced off in 1964.  One can’t overstate that the nation’s future will be on the ballot.  Some of what Obama said at the foot of that historic bridge speaks vividly to the year ahead:

 …our democracy is not the task of Congress alone, or the courts alone, or the President alone. If every new voter suppression law was struck down today, we’d still have one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples. Fifty years ago, registering to vote here in Selma and much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap. It meant risking your dignity, and sometimes, your life. What is our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought? How do we so fully give away our power, our voice, in shaping America’s future?

…so much has changed in fifty years. We’ve endured war, and fashioned peace. We’ve seen technological wonders that touch every aspect of our lives, and take for granted convenience our parents might scarcely imagine. But what has not changed is the imperative of citizenship, that willingness of a 26 year-old deacon, or a Unitarian minister, or a young mother of five, to decide they loved this country so much that they’d risk everything to realize its promise.

We can’t control much of what will happen to us and to our country.  That was true last year and will be in the years yet to come.  What we can impact is our nation’s response to whatever that will be.  If you were disappointed, yes even discouraged, especially in 2010 and 2012, blame it on low turnout, on the citizenship laziness that erodes our democracy.  “What is our excuse…?  How do we so fully give away our power, our voice in shaping America’s future?”  Ultimately, we are the government.  What elected officials do is done, they claim, in our name.  Those actions are to our collective credit but all too often, to our collective fault.  It won’t be enough to cast our individual vote next November.  We shouldn’t let a day pass without reminding others of their responsibility, of how much we need their voice, their help just as they need ours.  I know November 1st seems far off as December ebbs, but if we’re into resolutions come January 1, getting another voter to the polls — many other voters to the polls — should be at the top of our list.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Wilson Matters

“All lives matter” is a generalized truism.   “Black Lives Matter” is a specific truth.  Those who invoke the first as a corrective of the second just don’t get it.  By imposing the general “all”, they dismiss the stark fact of unfinished business.  The whole point of the Black Lives Matter movement is that the specific counts and to ignore or deny it can no longer be excused — even if it hurts or upends some of our myths.  I’m reminded that parents often hug a fallen and injured young child with the “comforting” words, “all better”.  Of course it isn’t always all better, sometimes far from it.  Despite undeniable progress, when it comes to race there remains an immense gap between “all better” and reality.

The Black Lives Matter protests gained real momentum after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner focusing specifically on police killings of unarmed young African Americans — twice as many as unarmed whites.  It is emerging as a leading force in a larger 21st Century civil rights movement.  The newest student initiated battleground of protest is universities, perhaps most notably the ivy covered campus of Princeton, First Lady Michelle Obama’s Alma Mater.   Here the focus is on the legacy of Woodrow Wilson its president (1902-10) who went on to serve as Governor of New Jersey and President of the United States.  

We think of Wilson as a two term progressive, a reformer usually ranked in the top ten of our presidents.  Among others, he supported and signed into law the Federal Reserve Act, the Clayton Anti-trust Act, the Federal Trade Commission Act and reinstated federal income taxes.  Wilson led the nation during World War I and then lobbied so intensively for the League of Nations that it permanently impared this health.  After a stroke, his wife Edith is said to have effectively taken over his executive duties.  While leaving office an enfeebled physical shadow of his former self, he is remembered as a vigorous pioneering champion of world peace.  But Wilson also had a far darker side — a Southern racist who intentionally turned back the progress that African Americans had made especially, writes Gordon Davis in a Times OP Ed, within the Civil Service.

The whole point of Black Lives Matter, and of the current movement as a whole, is that it's time we stop giving people or institutions a pass just because they also do or did good things.  The police who protect us are suffering such scrutiny.  Wilson’s case may be less obvious than that of William Sanders, the Confederate Army officer and alleged KKK member for whom a building was named on the UNC Chapel Hill campus.  After student protests, it has been replaced.  But as president of the university and then of the United States, Wilson had far more power, not to mention a biography that often glosses over his consequential racism.  The objective of the student led protest is to remove Wilson’s name from the campus including its distinguished Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.   A November 24 NY Times editorial supports their efforts.

Wilson presents a complex case, one marked by great inconsistencies.  His politics were generally progressive but his racist views reflected those held by many Southerners of his time and after.  The worst of Jim Crow was yet to come.  I would argue they continue in, for example, the region’s Republican controlled legislatures’ determination to undermine minority voting in the guise of protecting us from fraud.  The Twenty-fourth Amendment, ratified in 1964, may have outlawed poll taxes, but their progeny are alive and well in the form of ID laws in force or pending in mostly Southern states.  Wilson, according to Gordon Davis, ruined his grandfather’s life by upending a promising rising career in public service, downgrading him to messenger status at half his original salary just because he was Black.  “Wilson”, says Davis (a distinguished lawyer, public servant and civic leader), “was not just a racist. He believed in white supremacy as government policy, so much so that he reversed decades of racial progress.  But we would be wrong to see this as a mere policy change; in doing so, he ruined the lives of countless talented African-Americans and their families.”  The grandson still grieves. 

Enter another grandson, the late Francis Bowes Sayre, Jr., longtime Dean of Washington’s National Cathedral.  To those of us who grew up in the 1960s civil rights movement, Francis Sayre was among its heroes.  These decades after, you may not even know his name or that he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma.   But as dean of the Capital’s emblematic establishment church where funerals of presidents and notables are held, what Sayre said counted.  While clergy played a significant role in civil rights some among the leaders of more establishment institutions chose to remain quiet if not silent.  They opted for quiet, not wanting to stir things up or to offend.  Sayre would have none of that.  He was a social and liberal activist, vocally opposing segregation but also McCarthyism and the Viet Nam War; all of this from the seat of power in the nation’s capital.  Francis Sayre, Jr. was Woodrow Wilson’s first grandchild, born in his White House.

While meeting him once in his later years, I don’t know if Sayre’s civil rights activism was driven by his grandfather’s racism — an overt rejection of it or an effort of family redemption.  Surely he isn’t the only child of segregationist families to move in that direction; the South is replete with them.  What is significant here, and what makes it all so complex, is that the story of America’s “Original Sin” remains one of many contradictions.  Senator Sam Ervin a pivotal figure in bringing down Richard Nixon, was a dedicated Segregationist.  It’s our great enigma.  In 2008 we elected the first African American president and people were talking — in retrospect fanatisizing — of post-racialism.   The gap between the promise of that hope and reality proved enormous.  In the election’s euphoric wake we all averted our eyes.  Gerald Ford’s pronouncement that “our long national nightmare is over” may have pertained with Richard Nixon, but it surely can't be applied to race relations in this country.

Perhaps this realization is what’s driving the protests over the Wilson named school and building at Princeton.  It’s not so much his dark side per se, but that perhaps in giving him a pass, overlooking his bigotry, the nation as a whole is being kept from moving forward in private as well as in public.  Not one of our presidents has been without fault.  Some of those we admire and mythologize most were slaveholders.  That Obama was elected, has served nearly seven years, and that little if anything has changed on the race front, especially for young Black males, serves as a stark reminder. Were it not for this obvious contradiction, this disconnect, perhaps the current activism would not have taken root.

We can’t change history.  What’s happening at Princeton and other campuses seems aimed at correcting our perceptions of it, refusing to overlook sins, especially blatant ones.  I’m inclined to support this myth correcting.  At the same time, as with any broad brush, can’t help but be troubled by its one-dimensional simplicity.  Where do we draw the line?  Joseph P. Kennedy was an anti-Semite and Hitler sympathizer.  He played a significant role in getting his son Jack elected president.  Do we rename The Kennedy Center because of family sins?  Hypothetically transferring blame to the son may present a very different situation, to say the least a stretch, but hopefully makes the point.  Many significant contributors to society have come out of the Wilson school at Princeton.  They add its name on their resume with pride.  What about them?

Joseph Campbell, himself a man of many prejudices, spent a lifetime teaching us about the importance of myth.  Myths about our leaders continue to resonate; indeed we rely upon them.  The debate about Wilson at Princeton has if nothing else challenged, even shattered, one of our myths.  The contrast within his life presents a confusing contradiction.  Grandson Sayre’s contrary, yes redemptive, behavior only complicates the story.  Myths are and will remain of import, but so too is symbolism.  The names we attach to buildings and institutions embody symbolism, and as such can become targets of truth telling.  Where to start and where to stop is a valid question, one that acknowledges the complexities that mark us as humans.  Some do unquestioned good, some clearly bad.  Most of us are a mix, hopefully heavily weighted in the right direction. 

The question before us now is what symbol is more important: Woodrow Wilson the admired progressive or Wilson the willful bigot.  Is the cost too high in erasing the symbol of accomplishment or is it more important — and actually a relatively low cost — to recognize and admit that our eyes have too long been averted from an ugly truth.  Erasing Wilson’s name from the Princeton campus will be painful, but let’s not underestimate its positive shock value.  Perhaps that’s exactly what we need to help wake us up from the national fantasy that all is better, a necessary reminder that Black Lives Matter.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Lady Liberty is Crying.

France gifted us the Statute of Liberty. It became the iconic symbol of who and what we are.  In 1883 thirty-four year old poet Emma Lazarus, daughter of a Sephardic Jewish family that had settled in New York long before the Revolution, penned the defining verse affixed to its wall.  They were words of welcome:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Generations of refugees, my parents included, sailed past in New York Harbor, giving special meaning to Lazarus’ verse of welcome.  They became and are America.  Aside from the very few who can claim indigenous roots, we all descend from immigrants, many of them refugees from one tyranny or another.  We are a wonderful brew of races, ethnicities and religions.  It remains our unique identity.

It’s instructive that Lazarus’ words speak specifically to the “huddled masses”, the “wretched refuse” and the “homeless”.  Am I missing something, or have the xenophobic Republican presidential candidates, governors and legislators, not heard these words — even piously recited them at some patriotic event?  Apparently they are read or spoken by rote, without understanding.  Shame on them!  Of course, these are not the first American officials to turn their backs on endangered refugees.  In the early days of World War II, anti-Semitic State Department bureaucrats blocked Hitler refugees in the face of impending slaughter.   Japanese-American citizens were rounded up and put in detention because of who they were, not what they had done — nothing.

This past week, the governor of North Carolina joined mostly Republican colleagues across the country is asking the Obama Administration to halt its plans to welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees during the coming year.  He most certainly doesn’t want them in his state.  The House (with the support of 47 Democrats) passed a bill directing the director of the FBI, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence to personally certify each individual refugee.  Right.  Consider this in the context of the fact that since 9/11 we have welcomed 784,395 refugees.  Of these 3 — that’s right 3 — individuals have been arrested on terrorist charges.  On the other hand, between 2001 and 2013 406,496 Americans have died from gun violence verses 3,800 from acts of terrorism.  Since 2011 (a White House email told me) the UN referred 23,092 Syrian refugees to the United States resettlement program. Less than a third of them (7,014) qualified for Homeland Security interviews.  Of them only 2,034 were admitted, that’s about 500 per year.  The average wait is one-two years.

I could go on.  These numbers remind me that many of the same governors defend state adopted vote supression laws to combat non-existant voter fraud.  But even worse than last week’s sorry display were suggestions by cadidates Bush and Cruz that we welcome only Christian refugees — our kind of folks.  Not to be undone, Donald Trump, who as the current front runner must be taken seriously if only that he has a substantial following among GOP voters, asserted that all Muslims in America be somehow registered so that we can keep tabs on them.  As the child of immigrants who fled Nazi Germany and as Jew I am particularly sensitive to — no outraged by —any such notion.   I have my maternal grandparents German identity cards, each bearing a yellow “J” (Jude) to set them apart from their “pure” German fellow citizens.  We can trace both of their ancestors back to the 1600s.  
My grandfather Max Goldsmith's identity card.
Thankfully, they too came to the United States (1939), but so many others did not.  Many died because they were turned away from here or elsewhere.  So I look at the homeless huddled masses from Syria as sisters and brothers to whom we should be lifting or light holding arms in a sign of welcome.

It’s hard not to single out Donald Trump here, despite his opponents in the nomination race being no different.  His first words as a candidate disdained immigrants, in this case Mexicans.  He advocated building a wall to contain us, a barrier to their onslought.  At the start of his campaign many of us looked at The Donald as a showman, a bafoon in some mock reality show role.  I’ve changed my view.  I think he is more like Huey Long than a circus barker.  He is a demogogic who leverages fear and hate for his own power hungry ambitions.  He brings to mind numeroius dictators who came to power either after a coup or equally often by espopusing an ersatz populism that speaks to the worst human instincts.  He has to be taken seriously not only as an individual, but also as one who has, depspite the most outragerous pronouncements, found a substantial following.

I’ve written in other posts that this is an important election.  In light of the hysteria inflamed by candidates and public officials in the last week, 2016 will also be a test for America and our democracy.   Lady Liberty represents who we have been, our openness, hospitality and largesse.  The question is whether she reflects the America of both our time and going forward?  It seems to me that the task we face is to wipe the tears running down her cheek and, through our votes, reaffirm that we remain and will always be a home for the free and the brave.