Thursday, September 26, 2013

The New Normal

I’m off to the Midwest tomorrow for a few days.  That means I won’t be around DC for the customary annual budgetary brinksmanship battles.

This is truly one of those times when politicians resemble the Keystone Kops.  Everyone knows that the fun and games will end with the passage of a budget.  Everyone knows that next year’s  budget is going to be an embarrassment – a continuation of this year’s “sequestration” budget, which was  originally intended to be nothing more than a poison pill, but somehow found its way to becoming the law of the land.   Everyone knows that more and more federal employees will be subjected to repeated furloughs and more and more agencies will have trouble replacing the employees who leave.   In the meantime, we are all invited to witness just how ridiculous our “statesmen” can act.   As one of my friends said, there is no longer a point to identifying the “outrage of the day” on Capitol Hill.  Now, we need to start identifying the “outrage of the hour.”

Personally, I have trouble taking seriously the GOP’s strategy of threatening to shut down the government and/or destroying our nation’s credit rating if we don’t put off ObamaCare.  The dreaded ObamaCare was enacted by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the President.  It was held Constitutional by the Supreme Court in an opinion written by a highly conservative Chief Justice.  And then, not long ago, we held an election that the Republican Party tried to turn into a referendum on ObamaCare, and the President won it handily.   So unless I’m missing something, the law’s opponents have had one opportunity after another to kill this thing and have failed every time.  These suit-and-tied Ahabs are now left with but one option: to threaten to bring down the economic or political welfare of our nation unless the white whale (ObamaCare) is harpooned.  Friends, when we studied civics as schoolchildren, was that kind of threat considered to be an ethical means for a minority party to use in a republican form of government?  It sure doesn’t seem ethical – or republican – to me.

Here’s what I don’t get:  the folks who are threatening to destroy the village in order to save it call themselves “conservatives.”  But how is their conduct the hallmark of a conservative approach to governance?  It sounds like something you’d expect from ends-justify-the-means radicals.  I thought conservatives are the ones who speak out against judicial “activists” who refuse simply to apply the law.  Here, aren’t we talking about the willingness to use the most desperate of measures in order to stop the government from applying the law?   What can be more inappropriately “activist” than holding our economy hostage unless a law that was passed by Congress, approved by the courts, and favored by a recently elected President doesn’t get overturned? 

Those of you who read my last blogpost know that I have had things on my mind lately other than our budget follies.  Frankly, I haven’t given this budgetary nonsense much thought.   I expect to go to work on Tuesday, after the Republicans decide at the last minute to avoid a government shutdown.  And I assume that in three weeks, the Ahabs will cave on their debt ceiling threats as well.  In the meantime, though, Americans will once again lose what modicum of respect we have mustered for our elected officials.  We all recognize that watching politicians act like spoiled children is not the way the process is supposed to work.  Sadly, though, it has become the new normal.  Here’s hoping for better days … a smarter electorate … and altogether different elected officials in Washington. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A True Christian

Here in America, where Christianity is the majority religion, we all know of an individual or two who best exemplifies a truly Christian lifestyle.  For me, one such person is Laura Jane Ketcham.

Jane, as she is commonly known, was never one to wear her faith on her sleeve.  She was not an evangelist.   Nor did she come across as “holier than thou.”  Jane’s Christianity served as a foundation for her values and a source of hope.   It gave her an inner strength and an outer glow.  It impelled her to help others.   In fact, it inspired what would become her favorite quotation:   “Always be a little kinder than necessary.”   Jane posted that saying in her kitchen.  She tried to live that ethic throughout her life, but she failed.  She was a lot kinder than necessary.

As a prototypical Christian, Jane lived meekly and modestly.  She did so not in order to inherit the Earth but because she truly was humble.  She never wanted a fuss made about her.  She never thought she was worthy of anyone’s attention.  Still, she must have realized that she was loved and respected by everyone who knew her.   No sane person could have viewed her any other way.   

Jefferson had his ideal of the yeoman farmer.   For me, Jane became the ideal of the yeoman wife.  Having graduated from high school at 16 and having been elected into Phi Beta Kappa a few years later in college, Jane had a number of vocational choices available to her.   What she chose to do, for nearly 30 years, was to serve as the secretary to her husband, a small-town lawyer.   Jane typed her husband’s briefs, raised his children, and took care of his office and his house.   Hers was the smiling face that his clients saw as they walked into the law office, which was across the street from the county courthouse.   Jane lived and worked in a town of roughly 1,200 people that was surrounded by corn fields and not much else.  Everyone in the town knew her.  

Jane was a joiner.  She was active not only in her Methodist church but in other local societies as well.   When Alexis de Tocqueville cited voluntary associations as America’s characteristic institutions, he surely was thinking about people like Jane.  Jane became part of her town’s backbone.   Whenever it needed someone to help, it could always count on Laura Jane Ketcham.  

Jane had plenty of friends, and yet she was also one to enjoy her solitude.  She was an avid reader, crafter, quilter, Crossword Puzzle solver, and Scrabble player.  She had a Scotch-Irish background and, indeed, some of her favorite authors were British.  Yet sadly, she never got to visit Great Britain – or any other part of the world outside of North America.   Jane wasn’t especially affluent, but more to the point, she wasn’t especially covetous of what she had been missing in life.  Jane was always content in her lot.  Like I said, she was a true Christian.  

As a college student, it had been Jane’s dream to become a librarian.   While she never realized that dream, she did live long enough to see her daughter, the valedictorian of her high school class and a successful lawyer who was trained at Harvard, give up a career in law to become a school librarian.  Jane lived long enough to see a lot of things happen.   She had three children, nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.  Not a one could have mustered a single unkind thing to say about her.  

Jane was married only once, and the marriage lasted from 1942 until her husband’s death in 1990.  Roughly a decade later, she moved 150 miles southwest from her hometown of Albion to an independent living facility near Indianapolis, her state’s capital.  There, she could live near one of her children and several of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.   Jane remained healthy throughout her 80s, but her health gradually began to falter once she hit the age of 90.  Eventually, she needed to move into a nursing home, her eyes no longer permitted her to read, and the great energy level that had once sustained her (and her home town) was no longer available.   

This past Wednesday, Jane was admitted to a hospital.  I spoke to her daughter about the hospitalization late in the evening.  She told me, for the first time, that in her view, Jane would not want to keep on living.  Jane’s daughter added that her mother had such a strong heart that she may well continue to survive, despite her growing list of health problems.  

Thursday morning at 1:30, I received a phone call.  It was my brother-in-law.  Half asleep, I gave the phone to my wife.  She was informed that her beloved mother, Laura Jane Ketcham, had passed away at the age of 93.  On the one hand, my wife was devastated about the loss of her hero, the family matriarch, the truest of Christians.   On the other hand, she was relieved that her mother would not have to endure a life of intolerable suffering.   Her heart never did quit on her, but her liver and kidneys did.  

Jane passed away with a loving granddaughter holding one of her hands and a loving grandson holding the other.  She died at just the right time, having squeezed as much out of this life as possible, but not so much that she would overstay her welcome.  It was never Jane’s way to overstay her welcome.  She was here to help in whatever way was needed and never to ask anything in return.  

I owe Laura Jane Ketcham my happiness.  My children owe her their lives.  

I hope for your sake that you have one or more Laura Jane Ketchams in your life.  If not, head out to the middle of America, look for corn or wheat fields, and stay a while.  You might not find a great tourist attraction.  But then again, to borrow words from the great Ludwig Feuerbach, you just might find the essence of Christianity. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Prayers Answered

Some would say I’m crazy, but Yom Kippur is my favorite holiday.   There are no laughs to speak of.  Nor is there any good food.  In fact, there’s no food at all, or water.  But I do enjoy the  opportunity this holiday gives me every year to address God and confess my sins.   That’s right, boys and girls; my mother raised me with a healthy sense of guilt … and then some.

Yesterday, one of the things I atoned for the most was being overly self-centered.  And in that regard, I couldn’t help but notice that virtually every statement of repentance in the High Holidays prayer book is written in the first person plural, not the first person singular.  In other words, we are encouraged not to express what we as individuals have done wrong (or failed to do right), but how we as a community have fallen short.  Better yet, I think, we should atone for how we as a species have fallen short.  

The list of human sins during the past year is seemingly limitless.  And when the sins are expressed in general enough terms – as they are in my prayer book – it is amazing how many of them apply to most of us.   Just as a sample, “We have sinned against life by failing to work for peace.  We have sinned against life by keeping silent in the face of injustice.  We have sinned against life by ignoring those who suffer in distant lands.  We have sinned against life by forgetting the poor in our own midst.  We have failed to respect those made in the image of God.  We have withheld our love from those who depend on us.  We have engaged in gossip and in repeated slander.  We have distorted the truth for our own advantage.  We have conformed to fashion and not to conscience.  We have indulged in despair and trafficked with cynics.   We have given meager support to our Houses of Study.  We have neglected our heritage of learning.  We have sinned against ourselves and paid scant heed to the life of the spirit.  We have sinned against ourselves and have not risen to fulfill the best that is in us.”  And that’s just page 404 of The New Union Prayer Book.  There are plenty other pages where that one comes from -- plenty of reminders of just how inadequate human beings are, Jews are, and each of us is as an individual.

Yet despite all the pain I was feeling about the mess we have made of this world, there were times yesterday when I put that aside and breathed a deep sigh of relief.   Because this week, something really, really good was being played out on a world stage.   And it might make next Yom Kippur so much more manageable and so much less frightening.   I'm referring to the latest development in that crazy soap opera entitled "As Syria Turns."   

It was just last week that I was providing one reason after another to oppose a Congressional authorization of force against Syria.  And my post was, in no uncertain terms, a rebuke of the way the President has handled this situation.   But look what happened in the past several days -- Obama’s waffling threats of force, as bizarre as they might have appeared to folks like me, turned out to have worked (apparently).   We can still criticize the President for his thought process.  We can still compare him to a quarterback who, on first and ten, recklessly throws a long ball into double coverage down the middle of the field.  Sometimes, though, those passes are completed for touchdowns, and when they are, you’ve just got to sit back and applaud – because a touchdown is a touchdown.  In this case, when you reflect upon the prospect of a deal in which the threat of force by President Obama brought sufficient fear to the hearts of Putin and Assad that Syria is on the verge of giving up its chemical weapons, you’ve got to simply raise your hands straight up in the air.  Because this is the diplomatic equivalent of a touchdown.  Or so it appears at present.

I have long ago learned in life that it is better to be lucky than good.  And while it is also true that “we usually make our luck,” sometimes in life fortune inexplicably smiles upon us.  I will leave it to the President’s amen chorus and inveterate haters, respectively, to debate amongst themselves whether he made his luck in this case or simply had the gods smile upon him.   As for me, to quote another Democratic politician from the previous century, “I’m just pleased as punch” that the President brought Assad to the table and a stockpile of chemical weapons may be headed for destruction ... and the United States might not be getting involved in war after all.

That Democrat was, of course, Hubert Horatio Humphrey – a man who knows something about stupid wars.   If he were around today, I’m sure that HHH would be patting the President on the back right now.  But I also know what he would say to me:  “Why are you typing about religion and politics when the Vikings game is about to start?”   And to that question, I would have no good answer.

So, if yesterday afternoon was full of fasting, contemplating, and lavishing praise upon God, may this afternoon be full of eating, yelling, and lavishing praise on hard-hitting wildmen. 

Congratulations to the President for what appears to be a diplomatic coup.  But enough with politics and religion for the moment.  I am ready for some football.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Tell Your Congressperson Now What You Think about Declaring War on Syria

Allow me to begin this important discussion by wishing all of my fellow Jews a blessed New Year.  Unfortunately, this Jew found himself a little side-tracked at synagogue today.  I was thinking too much about the nightmare otherwise known as the “Syrian situation.”  Such is the way I inevitably react whenever America deliberates about going into war.  Sometimes, I find myself in support, but that’s the exception, not the rule.  I like to put a heavy burden of persuasion on the folks who are seeking permission to bomb, bomb again, and then keep on bombing.   In the case of Syria, as far as I’m concerned, the war advocates can’t possibly bear that burden.

            My most critical question is actually a rhetorical one, though it shouldn’t be:  What exactly do we hope to accomplish by implementing the President’s mini shock-and-awe strategy?   Do we hope to effectuate regime change in Syria?   Do we hope to punish and scare Assad by taking away some of his toys, but not so many as to destabilize his country?    Or do we simply hope to persuade all enemy regimes to take our “red line” statements seriously in the future?   I honestly don’t know which of those apply, and for good reason – it seems like the mission changes daily depending on whether the President is courting the hawks or the doves.   

            Folks, it is almost axiomatic that when the United States doesn’t define the goals of war in advance, it has no business thrusting itself into one.  The American public deserves to know WHY we are devoting our resources, let alone taking lives, before our Government can justify declaring war.   And the answer should not depend on how many votes are needed to obtain that declaration.   It is bad enough to have mission creep once a war has started, but it is ludicrous to have it during the period when you are courting votes.   

So what is the point here?   If you are as confused as I am, that should be all you need to know in determining whether to support the Congressional resolution.  

Leaving aside the issue of the goals, what exactly is the provocation that justifies a mini-shock-and-awe strategy?   Is it the fact that Assad has supposedly killed 100,000 of his own people?   Or is it the evidence that Assad has killed one percent of that number using chemical gas?  Most of the war’s advocates like to emphasize the second point and NOT the first.  That is how they justify the fact that we have continued to allow Assad to slaughter scores of thousands of people over the course of two years without doing anything about it.  But folks, there is no way you can tell me that the use of chemical weapons on 1,300 people is anywhere near as serious as the use of conventional weapons to kill 100,000.  

            Ask yourself this question.  Let’s say you lived in a county of one million people and someone with a crystal ball were to tell you that one of two things will happen to your county in the next thirty years: either 100,000 will be slaughtered with guns and bombs, or 1,300 will die from a chemical attack.   Can you honestly tell me that you wouldn’t prefer the latter scenario?    I’m not justifying the use of chemicals.  It is absolutely deplorable.  And I’m not even saying that the killing of 1,000 by chemicals is no more serious than the killing of 1,000 by guns.   Clearly, chemical weapons torture their victims, are especially likely to be used on non-combatants, and represent insidiously dangerous threats to the future stability of the planet.   I get all that.  But when I evaluate dictators in terms of their crimes against humanity, I’m looking above all else at the bottom line:  how many people did they butcher?   And it would be a strange statement for us to say that the murder of 1,300 warrants intervention whereas the murder of 100,000 does not.  

            You’ll note that I have been speaking as if it were a demonstrated fact that Assad didn’t merely stockpile chemicals but used them on his people.  That “fact,” however, has hardly been demonstrated to the American people.  The evidence used to support the Administration’s strongest chemical-weapons allegations have only been disclosed in closed-door sessions with Congress.  And you know what that means?  This war, just like the Iraq War, is being sold on a “just trust us” basis to the American people.

I submit that governments have no business going into war when (a) neither their country nor its allies are being directly threatened; (b) the war is being justified based only on evidence that their citizens cannot evaluate for themselves; and (c) their citizens overwhelmingly oppose the war.   For me, when it comes to war, that third condition is a big one.     

            Lest I sound like an isolationist, God forbid, allow me to reassure you that I am writing this in the name of world peace, not in the name of tending to one’s own garden.  Oh sure, there are plenty of things we can do in America with the money we would be using on bombing Syria (Detroit immediately comes to mind), but I’m happy to use our money in the Middle East if I thought it could help to build peace in the region.  The thing is, though, that I don’t think America has any business right now playing the role of the big, bad policeman.  It needs to earn that role.   It needs to show that it is as passionate about working for peace as it is willing to kill swarthy people with bombs.  

            If we are so concerned about peace, why won’t we give tough love to our Middle Eastern allies?  Where was America when the Palestinians came before the United Nations asking for recognition as a state?   We opposed that resolution, sadly, and have provided only skin-deep criticism of Israel’s continuing settlement construction.  That is hardly a profile in courage.  Similarly, where were we when, for decade after decade, the Saudis treated their women like chattel?  Because that regime gave us oil and friendship, we have apparently felt free to look the other way even though, until this last month, the Saudis had NEVER before banned domestic violence and other types of abuses against women.  

Before America assumes the role of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator II, shouldn’t Congress first take the baby steps needed to earn its street cred?  Perhaps instead of voting to bomb Syria, the Congress should show its willingness to stand up to Israel’s pro-settlement forces.  Or perhaps it should signal to the Middle East that we won’t tolerate human rights abuses regardless of whether they are perpetrated by friend or foe.    Then, maybe folks like me would be more willing to look the other way when it comes to supporting a war against a regime that has not directly threatened either America or any of its allies.  

Why should the burden of persuasion be so heavy against those who are banging the drumbeat of war?  For starters, because one never knows what will happen once you start bombing away – except of course that you will kill innocent people.  We cannot take lightly the prospect that more innocent lives will be lost because of our actions.  And we also cannot take lightly the prospect that once we start de-stabilizing a country like Syria, all hell could break loose.  Don’t rule out the prospect that we will need to involve ourselves in another quagmire in order to cap the bottle that we would have opened.   The next time someone promises that the mission will be limited, just remind them of W and his “Mission Accomplished” photo-op.   

            In conclusion, I personally am willing to assume that Assad is a butcher who has violated international norms as to how to wage war.   But then again, I’m sickened by what a lot of regimes and leaders do.   My knee-jerk reaction isn’t to bomb them all.   When I step back and reflect on this situation, I just see a President who made a regrettable statement about a “red line” and is now seeking the political cover for doing what must be done to stand behind his words.   Personally, I wouldn’t have looked askance at the President if, without Congressional approval, he took some measured military action to send a message to Assad.  (Call it a “shot across the bow.”)   He clearly thinks he has the authority to issue drone strikes, so nothing would have stopped him from taking symbolic actions against Assad.   But asking for an authorization to declare war is different.  After all this buildup, the President would feel the need to wreak some serious havoc.  And this is precisely what cannot be supported under the circumstances.

So, as I did when I came home from synagogue today, please write your Congressperson and tell him whether you support the Resolution.   In my case, though, I made sure not simply to say “vote no,” but to ensure that my Congressman understood that I wasn’t just another Rand Paul.  No matter where we stand on this particular resolution, our message should be for the Congress to stay engaged in the Middle East as activists for PEACE, rather than for war.  Surely, they can get more accomplished in the direction of peace by being tough on our friends than by bombing our enemies.