Saturday, September 27, 2008

SMALL TOWN VALUES

Those of you who haven’t yet acquired Moses the Heretic – and yes, I realize that still refers to virtually everybody – would not yet know what, to me, is its most important page. It is the dedication page, which reads as follows: “To the Memory of Julius Bertram Spiro (1912-2002) – A free thinker. And the most humble man I’ve ever known.”

That page allows me to pay tribute to my beloved father, who has always represented my ethical role model. But just as importantly, it permits me to introduce the reader to something profound about Judaism. As the book goes on to say at page 299, “Moshe Rabbenu [which literally means “Moses, Our Rabbi”] is considered to have been the greatest of Jews precisely because he was supreme in his humility. The rabbis teach that others surpassed him in learning, but no one was more humble.” The funny thing is that I hadn’t learned that rabbinic teaching until I was an adolescent, and by then, I had already come to associate the characteristic of humility with the teachings of another famous Jew: Jesus of Nazareth. It seems that, at least in this one regard, Judaism and Christianity agree. And yet, when you think about the most visible leaders of the Jewish and Christian communities – the big machas, as my dad like to call them -- humility is among the last words you would use to describe them.

Growing up, my mom used to joke about my dad being a “nice Jewish boy” from a hick town, and having lived a parochial life as a child. His “town” is known to the world as Brooklyn, New York, and for some reason, my mother – who grew up in the Bronx, only a stone’s throw from Manhattan – thought of her own upbringing as more cosmopolitan. She loved to tell me that when my dad was 14, the farthest he had traveled from Brooklyn was Hicksville, Long Island. The two towns are less than 30 miles apart on the map, but they must have felt like light years’ apart to my father. For dad, Hicksville represented small town USA, an impression that was reinforced by its very name. Perhaps he was unaware that, to a large segment of the American population, Hicksville is just another part of the great-place-to-visit-but-you-wouldn’t-want-to-live-there megalopolis known as the New York Metropolitan Area.

I’ve been thinking a lot about small town USA lately thanks to our Presidential election campaign. My interest was piqued during the primaries when Joe Scarborough used his morning TV show to bash Barack Obama incessantly for not doing enough to “connect” with the so-called “Reagan Democrats.” I would listen to these voters rhapsodized as men and women who hailed from towns (small and large), as opposed to metropolitan areas, and who would ultimately decide the outcome of November’s election. Every day on the Morning Joe program, Scarborough would invite Patrick Buchanan and other guests to hail the importance of these critical “swing voters”: invariably, they were described as white, Anglo-Saxon, Christian (though they could be either Catholic or Protestant), gun toting, non-elitest, and patriotic. And just as often as they were romanticized over the airwaves, Barack Obama was mocked for his inability to gain their affection. They had become the heirs of Jefferson’s “yeoman farmers” – the class of Americans whom the Sage of Monticello most trusted to decide the outcome of American elections. Scarborough et al. were crystal clear in their message: these rural Americans are the most authentic representatives of our nation, and any road to the White House necessarily goes first and foremost through their towns.

Scarborough’s message bothered me, for it came across as divisive, anti-democratic, and bigoted. Well, strike that. It struck me as all those things, but perhaps also a fourth: accurate. No, I wasn’t suggesting that rural folk are somehow more authentic exemplars of the American spirit than people who hail from Brooklyn or the Bronx. God forbid would I ever suggest that. But the rural Americans do appear to hold in their hands the key to the White House, despite their relatively small numbers. If a Presidential candidate’s themes will “play in Peoria,” they will likely play well in New York or Chicago, but not necessarily vice verse. That explains why so many Presidents from Truman to Bush Jr. either hailed from rural America or would like to pretend that they did. That explains why, in the past 60 years, if you hoped to win the Presidency representing the political party of the cities (i.e., the Democratic Party), and you didn’t have the genius of a JFK, you had better bring your best bucolic banter. Barack is a brilliant orator, and a thoughtful man, but he is “no John F. Kennedy.” That has made me worry that he simply isn’t rural enough to be elected President as a Democrat.

Those worries didn’t exactly dissipate when Sarah Palin accepted her party’s nomination for Vice President. Palin’s speech was beautifully delivered and extremely shrewd in its content. And at the heart of the speech was a message that resonated throughout America: “I, Sarah Palin, will bring small town values to Washington.”

Palin was a proud as a peacock when she uttered the following words: “A writer observed: ‘We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity.’" Succinct. To the point. And completely consistent with the American myth that small town Americans are somehow more authentic than the rest of us. Sarah went on to tout herself as a fighter, a reformer, a profile in courage – in short, just the kind of hero who is ready and willing to shake things up in the reptilian city of Washington. Who among us was unmoved by her charms?

Well, my wife, for one.

Kathleen Adele Ketcham was born on April 30, 1959, nearly five years before Sarah Palin. She spent her entire childhood in the northeast Indiana town of Albion, Indiana, which was roughly 30 miles from Ft. Wayne. Albion is the seat of Noble County, but the town itself is so small that you could quadruple its population and it would still pale in comparison to Sarah’s Wassila. What’s more, I have visited Albion on numerous occasions since Kathy and I started dating and I have never seen anyone with skin as dark as mine. And I’m white.

Back in the 19th century, there was actually a community of Jews living in Noble County. They lived in a town called Ligonier, 12 miles west of Albion. But that community was long since gone by the time Kathy was born. In the last half-century, Noble County consisted solely of Protestants and Catholics, and her family attended the local Methodist church, which was right next door to her school. The school, of course, was public – Albion had no private schools, not even Catholic ones.

I knew that Kathy’s parents were Methodist when I first visited their house, but I didn’t know much about their political views. Then, I came across a rug in their bedroom draped over a cedar chest. It contained a large picture of an elephant and bore the inscription “This is Hoosier Country.” Could the elephant possibly be a reference to the Republican Party, I wondered? No, I decided – I was thinking too much like a politics-obsessed Washingtonian. Surely, the elephant must be some kind of state symbol.

Well, it’s a state symbol, alright. But only in the sense that for decades, the state has voted Republican. And yes, the rug was intended to reveal my in-laws’ political affiliations. Kathy’s dad was actively involved in Republican politics, her brother was a member of the local Teenage Republican club (the TARS, as they were known), and she herself also identified herself as a Republican. In fact, as a young child, my wife rode on the Republican float in the town parades and threw candy to the people who lined the streets.

So yes, Sarah Palin would have viewed Kathy as an authentic small town American.

Except, perhaps, for one thing – Kathy made the mistake of thinking for herself when it comes to the true spirit of religion. She must have noted that Jesus of Nazareth was a community organizer, not a governor. She must have recognized that Jesus hung out with prostitutes, spoke out for the needs of the poor, and called out the odds against rich people entering the Kingdom of Heaven. She must have found all sorts of tributes in the gospels to the ethos of peace, but precious few about the need to be victorious in bloody war. And she must have read Jesus’s words, memorialized in Chapter 13 of the First Letter of Paul to the Church at Corinth, that while faith is important, love is even “greater” and that love “is never boastful or conceited, it is never rude or selfish, it does not take offence, and is not resentful. Love takes no pleasure in other people’s sins but delights in the truth. It is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes.”

Strange, but whenever I read about Jesus, I’m struck about how much that guy comes across as a lefty. Just like me. And just like most other Jews I’ve met. It seems that, as Christians like to say, “Jesus was [indeed] a Jew.”

My wife, as a child, read a lot. While the Sarah Palins of the world were figuring out how to become BWOCs (Big Women on Campus) at their local high schools, Kathy was hitting the books. It seems that, in her small town household, books were revered. And she was gifted with a good mind. So she became her school valedictorian. Then, like everyone else in her family, she went to her state college, Indiana University. It was at IU when she heard a speech given by a man who is surely known to Sarah Palin simply as a “loser.” His name was George McGovern. In listening to McGovern speak about the values of peace, service to the poor, and the need to fight bigotry and accept diversity, Kathy thought she was hearing a modern-day disciple of Jesus. Soon thereafter, she changed political affiliations.

I met Kathy when we were ILs together at Harvard Law School. She seemed somewhat out of place there. She not only hailed from a small town, but she didn’t seem especially full of herself or competitive. I’ll never forget how, before exams there, a guy would walk down the halls and say “Gentlemen, Start your Engines.” Well, that wasn’t Kathy. She tells me that when she enrolled, she had no particular passion to practice law. In fact, she didn’t even know why she went to law school except that a couple of her friends talked her into taking the LSAT and, without studying at all for it, she practically aced it. So she applied to Harvard, was accepted, and decided that enrolling there would be the sensible thing to do.

Kathy was a very successful lawyer for about seven years. Then, not surprisingly, she walked away from the profession for good. For the past several years, she has served as the Media Specialist at a public elementary school. That way, she can combine her love for books with her love for children, hopefully nurturing each of her students into becoming the same kind of thoughtful, compassionate person that she has always been and always will be.

I hope you can see by now that Kathy has never thrust aside the values that she learned in her small town. She attends religious services at least once a week and sings in the choir. There’s just one thing – the services she attends are Jewish services, and the language in which she sings, is Hebrew. But is that difference really so significant? The values espoused by our rabbi are hardly different from those found in the gospels. Indeed, anyone who studies the teachings of the great Rabbi Hillel, one of the leaders of the Pharisees in the decades before Jesus was born, will be struck by the similarities between Hillel’s ethical teachings and those of Jesus. It seems that Christianity has strayed from Judaism mainly in its metaphysical doctrines, and if you asked Kathy, she would tell you that she has studied the topic and has no confidence whatsoever that Jesus would adopt the metaphysical principles that have been advanced in his name.

When I think back about Sarah Palin’s “great” speech, certain lines offend me – the shot at community organizers, for one. But I can listen to Palin speak and nevertheless admire her for her spunk, self-confidence, and even her ambition. My wife seems to be a bit more cynical, which is odd because she is normally the more tolerant of the two of us. Clearly, something strikes her as very hypocritical about Palin cavorting around as a “small town hockey mom,” on the one hand, and a person qualified to be one heartbeat away from the Presidency, on the other.

I think it comes down to the value that my wife places on humility and its twin, modesty. When I look at Kathy, I see the same kind of person as my father. Both are very intelligent people, with hearts at least as big as their brains, and yet they also are sufficiently aware of what they DON’T know that they could never possibly boast about themselves in any way. Lord knows that they would never run for Vice President of the United States without a fundamental grounding in public policy issues, which Sarah Palin obviously does not begin to have. Of course, the difference is that neither my wife nor my father believe the nonsense that is peddled by extremists of all stripes that even a semi-literate representative of their own religious or political community is better suited to govern than one of the wisest exemplars of some “other” point of view. It’s just that attitude that has allowed Sarah Palin … and George W. Bush … to be so confident in their own gut instincts. Who needs books – who even needs reflection – when you are a conservative Christian and you have the teachings of your gut? That pretty much sums up the attitude of both our current President and the neophyte who could very possibly attain the Presidency in the next few years.

Like my dad, my wife has her opinions, but she doesn’t often preach them. In fact, she exudes the awareness that she may be wrong, for she is but a human being, and our minds are inherently limited and biased. It is precisely that perspective that allows her to be so tolerant of people who look different than she does, worship at a different church, and hail from a very different part of the country or world. My wife would have NEVER blasted community organizers, for she recognizes that these are people who could be making a whole lot more money elsewhere but are doing their best to serve the needs of low-income communities in urban areas. To insult them is about as slimy as insulting the members of the Peace Corps. Insult lawyers, insult politicians … they’re fair game. But leave community organizers alone. Please.

One day at work, I received an e-mail from Kathy. It included a passage from a blog-post written by Robert F. Kennedy Jr:

“Fascist writer Westbrook Pegler, an avowed racist who Sarah Palin approvingly quoted in her acceptance speech for the moral superiority of small town values, expressed his fervent hope about my father, Robert F. Kennedy, as he contemplated his own run for the presidency in 1965 that ‘some white patriot of the Southern tier will spatter his spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow flies.”

That’s right – the “writer” that Palin quoted, but didn’t name, in support of her tribute to small town values was just another bigoted fascist. But that doesn’t take away from at least the half truth that Palin’s quotation included. It remains accurate that there are plenty of “good people … with honesty, sincerity and dignity” living in small towns. I have come to know a number of these people when I have visited my wife’s family and friends. And I can appreciate why they would take pride in their upbringing. My own question is, why do so many small town folk seem so fearful and put off by those of us who represent the “values” of the city? Are we not also good? Are we any less honest, sincere or dignified?

Speaking for myself, I would never claim to have killed the Bridge to Nowhere if I had not only supported the project but kept the money for my state. I think that statement is neither honest nor sincere. But every politician is entitled to make some stupid comments. If we grant that privilege to Obama and Biden, why not do the same for Palin? What I find less forgivable – what my wife finds less forgivable – is the idea that she can be somehow sequestered so that she doesn’t have to reveal her thoughts to the American public. We’re being asked by McCain’s handlers to vote for her based not on her academic credentials, the substance of her views, or her ability to express those views when not spoonfed by a speechwriter. Rather, we’re being asked to elect Sarah because of her smile, her legs, and the “charm” of her blind ambition. And yet that is precisely what the defender of all things white and rural, Joe Scarborough, applauds.

Just yesterday, Scarborough quoted Oakland Raiders’ owner, Al Davis, in saying that in politics, as in football, the correct motto is “Just Win, Baby!” In other words, it really doesn’t matter whether you comport yourself according to conventional definitions of honorable conduct – all that matters is that you get elected, and whatever you do to get elected is fully appropriate.

Well, Mr. Scarborough, those may be your values, but they’re not consistent with the expressed values of small town America. The last my wife and I checked, those values are supposedly steeped in Scripture. And Scripture includes the following admonition, “Justice, justice shall you pursue!” (Deuteronomy, 16:20) The rabbis are clear about what that means – to practice justice, not only must your goals be laudable, but so must be the means employed to reach those goals. If indeed the cynics who have given us Sarah Palin – and asked us to consider her candidacy in light of small town values – are truly enamored about this great experiment called “democracy,” they have a duty to make her, and her ideas, fully available to all Americans. And that includes those of us heathen who live in big eastern cities, and who come from backgrounds that do not celebrate Jesus – or any other human being -- as God.


Three days ago, I went out to dinner with my wife, who is now named Kathleen Adele Spiro. We were celebrating the fact that 20 years ago, in a Unitarian church in Indianapolis, Indiana, the two of us were married. When we mentioned to the waiter that this was our anniversary, he brought us a delicious desert with a single candle on it. I suggested that before we blow it out, we make a wish. Immediately, my head started turning to thoughts about our daughters … but before I could focus those thoughts onto a single wish, my wife made a suggestion: “Let’s wish that Barack Obama wins the election.”

“Agreed,” I said. Then we blew out the candle. And I smiled.

3 comments:

Betty C. said...

Happy Anniversary! And I'm feeling more and more certain you'll get your wish.

Daniel Spiro said...

Thanks, Betty.

YoungMan said...

Did you go home afterward to discuss nuclear proliferation with Amy Carter?