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.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


October was good to Hillary Clinton.  After months of unease — the self-inflicted email troubles didn’t help — her star shined bright in both the first Democratic debate and before a Congressional lions den.  She came well prepared for both, something of a trademark attribute.  Hillary takes appearances seriously, sometimes at the cost of spontaneity.  But thoughtful preparation is exactly what one would hope to see in a president.  Rehearsed zingers aside, that is notably MIA on the Republican side.  Did she win in Las Vegas?  Probably yes, if you view the process as a sports event.  I prefer not to.  As to that circus  parading as serious fact-finding, she more than acquitted herself — the consummate professional in the presence of hostile blustering clowns.  Some say she looked presidential; they looked anything but.

What’s interesting in this primary season is how few policy differences there are between competing candidates on either side.  Style is another story, especially among Republicans (think Trump and Carson).  This partisan “togetherness” is just another reflection of how homogenous the parties have become within, and conversely, how polarized they are set against each other. Republicans have abandoned any pretense of even a small tent by effectively purging or marginalizing any member who does not march lockstep within a narrow conservative-right circle.  Moreover, they seem to be going out of their way in alienating Latinos, African Americans, Asians and, of course, women.  In contrast, the Democrats actively seek big tent diversity; they still accommodate some right of center office holders.  That said, Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley all identify as progressives, probably representative of where their party at large is or is heading.  The bottom line: more than in the past, we have a fairly closely defined party of the Moderate Left and a party of the Hard Right.  Those positions have solidified during the Obama years but they have been long in coming.  The result, as Jonathan Chait put it in a recent New York Magazine post, “…the dominant fact of American politics is that nobody is changing their mind about anything.”

The fluidity that existed within parities in much of the last century — their respective big tents — is gone.  I agree with Chait’s analysis.  If you share this view, it’s hardly surprising that the “debates”, on both sides exposed almost no substantive policy disagreements among each party’s candidates.  Democrats may express nuanced differences, and Bernie may claim to have come to progressive positions earlier, but today they sing from a single hymnal.  If for no other reason than the sheer number of contenders, Republicans seem most focused on projecting their differentiated persona.  They mouth slogans and pretend they are engaging on policy.  Since their ideology is indistinguishable, they spend time seeing how each can outdo the other in singing (or shouting) the same songs.  To distract us, they are now engaged in that old favorite, a full throttle attack on the unfair prejudiced “liberal media”, which I assume now includes Fox News.  They are not the first politicians to shift blame on journalists when things are not going their way or to avoid hard questions.  Nevertheless, listening to their collective gripe, one would think they are an unjustly persecuted and beleaguered minority rather than holders of the majority on the Hill and across many state legislatures and governor’s mansions.  It rings as true as claims that Christians are being persecuted in a country with a still predominantly Christian population.   We all should be so disadvantaged.

Anyone who regularly reads these posts knows I have been struggling with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 candidacy, much as I did eight years ago.  Dynasty has always been one of my concerns, perhaps too much so.  In all fairness since John Quincy Adams ascended to the presidency, and likely before, office holding has been a family business: fathers and sons, husbands and wives (often widows), siblings and cousins.  The disaster of George W Bush probably made many of us more sensitive to its downside.  Jeb’s candidacy, albeit inept, hasn’t helped.  On the other hand, the performance of father/son Governors Brown of California or brothers Senator/Congressman Levin of Michigan speak to the strengths of a family vocation.  There are countless examples, most notably the cousins Roosevelt.  I shouldn’t hold Bill against Hillary and indeed things went pretty well for us during his tenure.

I was also troubled by Hillary’s hawkishness and remain so.  While she regrets her Iraq vote, taking it wasn’t surprising when it came.  She was among Obama’s more hawkish advisors while at State.  That said, in contrast to the gun happy GOP field — there isn’t a war they wouldn’t have someone else’s kids fight — she is a raging dove. 

What Clinton does bring to the table, as she did in ’08, is her gender.  It’s what made having to choose between her and potentially the first African American president so painful.  It’s a gross understatement to say that we are long overdue in electing a woman to the White House.  It’s time to break, not merely to crack, that glass ceiling.  She alone — forget smooth talking Carly — is positioned to do so.  It isn’t only that she’s a woman, but perhaps the “perfect transitional figure”, as Gail Collins put it in her excellent column about women and the presidency.  Of course, being a woman is not enough.  Secretary Clinton doesn’t have to rely on her gender to make the case.   She has the résumé.  As the spot light shines on today’s presidential aspirants none on either side is more capable or more prepared.  She has had a central place at the table in facing our national/international opportunities and challenges for more than two decades.  She was a senior policy advisor to her husband; perhaps the most influential first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt.  She was respected across the aisle while serving in the Senate, and a hard working State Secretary.  I twice, and happily, voted for her to represent us in New York.

At this moment, Hillary is ahead in most polls, probably decisively.  Her lead was solidified by those star performances in Las Vegas and Washington.  Latest reports suggest that she sent no classified emails from her private account.  Bernie Sanders is out on the stump.  Perhaps behind in the polls, he nonetheless is drawing huge enthusiastic crowds including many young people.  He is successfully crowd-funding — his contributions are predominantly small.  Bernie’s success, contained as it might ultimately be, shines a light on Hillary’s primary weakness.  She suffers an enthusiasm gap, even as she gains support and seems headed for the nomination.  I was a passionate supporter of Barack Obama.  At this point, my support for Hillary Clinton is more muted, all from the head not the heart.

Intellectually, I know that she is more than qualified to be our president.  While I will continue to have concerns about her hawkishness, she has clearly moved to the left since last running and I have no reason to doubt that is backed up by conviction, a rethinking of issues and our needs.   I for one don’t fault leaders who change their mind; I am actually more comfortable with them.  One of our greatest problems today is that so many people in power, including sadly our highest court, have ideologically fixed positions that seem immune to facts, especially contrary facts.  I do feel passionately about the prospect of a Ms. President.  In that there is absolutely no enthusiasm gap.

It may well be that the head is enough, that it even trumps the heart.  As the author and former editor Jeffrey Frank put it so well in a New Yorker post this week, running for office is “dangerously removed from the realities of governing.”  That’s true for the candidate and equally true for us, the voters.  As I’ve noted before, it’s why so many of those who enthusiastically — heart over head — supported and turned out for Senator Barack Obama were disappointed in President Obama.  But however “dangerously removed”, I do think that enthusiasm does count if for no other reason than our being such an irresponsibly lazy electorate.   Only 30% of eligible voters turned out in Kentucky last week, likely a prime reason the governor’s mansion changed hands.   Democrats can be the laziest most irresponsible voters — good at complaining terrible at delivering the only thing we have in the political process.  Think not only last week but also 2014 and most “off year” elections.  Check out Republican victories in those years.  They vote.  We can’t afford to be lazy in fulfilling our obligation of citizenship.  Yes, Hillary, we need you to make us more enthusiastic, more passionate, about your candidacy, but most of all we have to get ourselves together.  No excuses, it must be done.