Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Voices of 400,000 Are Still Waiting to Be Counted

I remember when, not so long ago, my hometown of Washington,  D.C. was the place for protests.  We had the Million Man’s March, the Million Mom’s March (which I attended, despite my inability to give birth), the March on Washington … you name it, if it involved placards and chants, we had it.  But that was before Washington became known for a political process paralyzed by polarization, and a football team whose name you can’t mention in civilized company.  Now, apparently, even protesters are too good for my city.  If you’re going to take to the streets, New York is the place to be.  And so it was precisely one week ago, when 400,000 strong filled up the Big Apple to vent about climate change.

If you didn’t make the trip or don’t live in Gotham City, you may have missed the rally.   Lord knows that the television news stations decided that it wasn’t a worthy event to cover.  Nobody at the rally was getting beheaded.  No plane crashed on the way to the rally.  No tear gas was used there.   In short, the event was WAY too peaceful to interest today’s journalists, who seem hell bent on creating hell on earth … or at least on reporting about it.  But trust me, that rally happened.   And trust me, 400,000 participants makes for one big protest, even by the old-time Washington, D.C. standards.

I wasn’t in New York last Sunday.  I was home in DC, working for a different movement, one that is less prominent than the environmental movement but certainly simpatico with it.   I was at the "9/11 DC Unity Walk," celebrating with another 1000 or so Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Baha’i, and others who don’t identify with any one religion.  We came together in support of the principle that the world’s religions can become forces for social unity and enlightenment rather than polarization and bigotry.   That certainly is a principle worth trumpeting on any Sunday.   But I have to say that I’m so very proud of the 400,000 who showed up in New York in support of a very different, but equally righteous cause.  They were announcing to our nation and our world that the environment is not ours to destroy.   It doesn’t belong to any one generation, or even one species.  In fact, while the notion that God made this planet as a play toy for human beings may be teased out of certain interpretations of our holy books, we cannot allow ourselves to respect that notion.  There is no such thing as a holy book that would countenance destruction of the place we all call home.   A holy book is one that inspires us to recognize our roles as stewards and nurturers, not as greedy slobs.

This week, statistics were released indicating that our carbon emissions were on the increase during the first half of 2014.  And what is equally clear is the culprit – our economy improved.   So there you have it, fans of Catch 22: the better we do economically, the more we destroy our environment.  Talk about a battle between ourselves and our grandchildren!  But the reality is that, at least here in America, it won’t be our grandchildren who will feel the worst bites from climate change.  It will first be felt in continents like Africa.   And that’s where it is likely to destroy more human life, let alone animal and plant life, than all the world’s bombs, guns and beheadings combined.  

I hate war as much as the next guy.  In fact, judging from the amount of time I spend in the anti-war movement, I might even hate it more than many.  But folks, what those 400,000 people were talking about last week should be topic one right now, even above war and peace.   Climate change might not be the kind of killer they make Hollywood movies about, but it still is likely to be our greatest weapon of mass destruction.  The fact that such destruction will be put off for 50 or 150 years in the future shouldn’t comfort us.   It should shame us.  

Let’s join the 400,000.  Let’s ease up on the economics-obsession and save the planet.   Sacrifice is not a dirty word, it’s a holy one.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Our No-Fuss, No-Muss War in Syria

Who says we have a do-nothing Congress?  Who says that our men and women on Capitol Hill are completely polarized and can’t agree on anything?   Just this week, strong majorities of both parties decided after almost no debate to embrace a tiny rag-tag outfit of folks in Syria and lavish them with weapons.   We don’t need no stinkin’ debate when it comes time to littering the Middle East with weapons.  We’ve got ‘em, they need ‘em, so let’s just send ‘em and watch the killin’ begin!  Thank God our Congress is so decisive.

Honestly, I’m pretty confident that our Congress knows virtually nothing about the Syrian “moderates” who they’ve decided to arm.  My guess is that all Syrians have to do is announce that they’re willing to fight ISIS and aren’t supporting Assad, and they can claim a U.S. manufactured machine gun free of charge.  But who are these guys?   What gives us any confidence that this won’t be just another U.S.-botched adventure in an area where we seem to have a lower batting average than most pitchers?   If we arm “Group Good” thinking they will fight “Group Evil,” knowing that Group Good is likely to be disorganized, non-motivated and generally inept, won’t our weapons eventually end up in the hands of Group Evil?   It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out, and yet our representatives in Washington didn’t even think that scenario was worthy of debate.   It almost makes you long for the days of the Government shutdown.  At least then, we weren’t throwing gasoline onto fires. 

My friends, I’m not here to defend ISIS, which is obviously state of the art when it comes to depravity.   I’m also not here to call for isolationism, or to deny that a group that has been described as Al Qaeda on steroids cannot possibly threaten U.S. interests.  What I am saying is that if all the hype about ISIS is true -- if they truly are big, bad, and hell-bent on destroying Denver no less than Damascus -- we’re not going to defeat them merely with air power and an army composed of Billy Boy and his Droogies   (see  if you haven’t memorized A Clockwork Orange like I have).   You can take Billy Boy’s knife out of his hands and replace it with an Uzi, but that doesn’t mean he can defeat Isis.  It just means that soon enough Isis will get a brand spanking new Uzi.   

So, is ISIS a huge international threat or isn’t it?  If it isn’t, maybe we should think twice before we risk increasing its stock of weapons.  And if it is, maybe we should consider leading an army that will destroy it.   But that means that our soldiers would have to become part of that army.   We can’t simply watch the fight from the cheap seats.  Wars don’t work that way.   They get decided in villages, towns and cities.  And they get decided largely by boots on the ground.   Unless we’re prepared to do to Syria what Truman did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the victorious side will be the victorious army.   You don’t have to be Napoleon to figure that out. 

Unfortunately, Washington seems to run these days by politics.  No matter what part of Pennsylvania Avenue we’re talking about, the signals are all the same.  We don’t have the belly to fight a war that will risk American lives.  We care, but not enough to make real sacrifices.  That, at least, is the message I’m getting.  And you can better believe that this same message is being spun all over the Middle East by our enemies.  They’re saying that while the U.S. is happy to kill Arabs ourselves, and to assist one group of Arabs in killing another groups of Arabs, we aren’t willing to get our own hands bloody.    I fear that this message will be a nice recruiting tool for anti-American sentiment, as if they needed more such sentiment in that part of the world.

Perhaps the die is cast now.  Perhaps we have crossed the Rubicon in deciding to wage a no-fuss, no-muss war.  Perhaps our plan is to arm Billy Boy and his Droogies, see what happens, and if turns out that our troops are needed then we can send them.   But I don’t like the optics of what we’re doing.   I’m haunted by that old line, “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.”  If that “something” is fighting a war, I think it requires sending in some troops.   And if we don’t think it’s worth sending troops, then why we getting so involved in the first place?    Something here is just not adding up.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Boycott the NFL

It has been two weeks since I wrote my mea culpa about being a football fan.   I detailed all of my qualms with the National Football League, but essentially said that I would watch its games anyway because I am a lifelong “addict.”   Well, that attitude won’t cut it anymore.  People of conscience are, in my view, obliged to boycott the National Football League, no matter how much we love it.   I’m not calling for a lifelong boycott, but at least a temporary one.  We have that league on the defensive, and it is imperative that we send a message: if the owners don’t clean up their act, they will feel the consequences in the only place they care about, the wallet.

Mind you – I’m enough of a football fanatic to be willing to make an exception for Seahawks and Broncos fans.  Their teams are so stacked with talent, that it would be a cruel and unusual punishment to deny their fans the pleasure of watching them put a whoopin’ on the other teams.  But those are the only exceptions.

Since I wrote my mea culpa, a video was publicly released showing the Ravens’ top running back connecting with a knockout punch against a very thin woman, and then dragging her out of the elevator like a rag doll.  Then, we all learned that this video had been released to the league office’s months ago, but as we all know, the running back received only a two-game suspension.   (We call that a vacation in my line of work.)

The NFL is a violent sport.   When the players leave the field, they clearly have a lot of pent up aggression in them and suffer from physical wounds of their own.   It is hardly surprising that they’d take out their aggression on other people (women and children, included) and resort to such pain killers as mass quantities of alcohol.  The result is a ton of domestic violence and DUI citations.    
In my last post on the subject, I spoke a lot about the dangers that the game brings to those who play it.  But in this post, I’m concentrating on the game’s dangers to innocent third-parties.  Either way, something has got to change.  Football is inherently violent, and we’re stuck with that.  Yet the NFL can at least take a zero-tolerance policy regarding reckless conduct perpetrated against third parties.  And since it has demonstrated no interest in doing so without outside pressure, what do you say we boycott the sport for a while and make the owners feel some heat?

Don’t go to games.   Don’t buy their merchandise.  Don’t watch the NFL channel.  Don’t watch the games on TV.  Don’t watch the pre-games or post-game coverage if it is exclusively NFL related.  Don’t support anything that is a major revenue producer for the league.  If you want to stay up on the action (as I do), read about it over the internet or watch recaps of the games on stations that aren’t paying megabucks to the NFL.  Make the owners feel that they have no choice but to put an end to the off-the-field reckless conduct associated with their players. 

The events of yesterday demonstrate the value of protesting against NFL player-induced violence.  The NFL’s best running back was indicted for the crime of negligent or reckless injury to a child.  Adrian Peterson, the best player on my beloved Minnesota Vikings, admitted to beating one of his children with a switch (that’s a flexible tree branch).  Peterson allegedly gave his son ten cuts on his thighs, bruises on his lower back, tush and scrotum, and cuts on his hand.  Some of these were said to be open wounds.  According to one of Peterson’s alleged text messages to the boy’s mother, “He got about five more pops than normal.  He didn’t drop one tear!  So that was another indicator I’ll have to try a system with him.”   Apparently, this was one tough four year old.  Yes, that wasn’t a typo.  Peterson beat up his four year old child.

This time last year, there is no question whatsoever that Adrian Peterson would be running the ball for the Vikings in their game against the Patriots.  But thanks to all the protests, the Vikings have deactivated Peterson for the game.   Gradually, and I do mean gradually (because other teams aren't being nearly as responsive as the Vikings), the league is beginning to listen to its protesters.

What do you say we keep the heat on for a while longer?  Please join me in this boycott and take a stand for public safety.    

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Reflections on Living in an Atomized Society

This week, I have seen multiple examples where progressive leaders were being toasted for their career accomplishments.   And in each case, the same topic was highlighted: the work they did for LGBT rights.  I wasn’t surprised that that was the area where they were most successful.  An argument can be made that here in the United States, the extension of equal rights to the LGBT community is the singular achievement of this generation, just as the extension of rights to women and minorities was the singular achievement of the previous generation.    I’m not suggesting that complete equality has been achieved in those domains, but we’ve come a long way from the days when women were expected to avoid the workforce, African-Americans were forced to use different bathrooms, and gays could not publicly proclaim their undying love.  It’s no wonder that people so often quote Martin Luther King, Jr. for the proposition that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”    In some respects, that is clearly the case.  My concern, though, is that those respects are limited.

The ways in which we are growing morally tend to be confined to the domain of individuals’ rights.  Yes, we want to extend opportunities to more and more groups of individuals.  We hate to see anyone denied an opportunity to enjoy herself or use her talents simply on the basis of race, color, creed or sexual preference.   But that largely stems from the fact that we are increasingly seeing ourselves as isolated individuals.  We define ourselves less by our gender, race or creed, and more by our unique interests and aptitudes.  Consequently, we are inclined to fight for our own rights and interests and to empathize with other individuals who are waging similar battles.  

When, in the ’60s, Paul Simon wrote “I am a rock, I am an island,” he seemed to be ahead of his time.  Today, each of us is an island, and we don’t want anyone messing with our island.  So it stands to reason that we might not want other peoples’ islands being messed with either.  Our compassion extends that far.  

My question is, does it extend farther?   To the extent there are large groups of people living in poverty, do we care to make the societal changes necessary to eradicate their poverty?   To the extent our planet’s environment is being destroyed by global warming and other forms of climate change, do we care to make the sacrifices needed to reverse those trends?   To the extent our society’s infrastructure is falling apart and fixing it will become increasingly expensive the longer we wait, do we care to make these fixes now while we can still afford them?   To the extent our world is at war, and the soldiers are carrying around increasingly devastating weapons, do we care to fight for peace?   Or in each of these cases, have we simply decided that there isn’t much an isolated, atomized individual can do to solve any of those problems, so we might as well just tend to our own gardens?

When I was a kid, Paul Simon wasn’t our only songwriter.  We also had folks like Mick Jagger who sang: “Think the time is right for a palace revolution.  But where I live the game to play is compromise solution.  Well, then what can a poor boy do?    Except to sing for a rock 'n' roll band.  'Cause in sleepy London town.  There's no place for a street fighting man.”  Jagger was right.  In the major industrialized nations (like his and mine), the time for palace revolutions is over.   But at least back then, you had peaceful protests that mattered because folks flocked to the streets in droves, and there is power in numbers.  Those protestors, for example, literally changed the course of the war in Vietnam.

These days, some people still protest, but they are fringe players, whose protests are generally met with disrespect and fear.  Most of us feel every bit as powerless as Jagger did when it comes to making revolutionary progress, so we don’t bother to fight for social change.   We eat like pigs, escape through TV shows and ballgames, and sit alone in front of our computers.   Even when we’re in public, we spend much of our time looking down at a smart phone or an iPad.   This is life in the 21st century – live and let live.  And what we are “letting live” is poverty, climate change, rusting water and sewer systems, and seemingly-endless wars.  

Generations back, our ancestors also had wars and poverty … and they had rampant bigotry too.  But they also felt tied to their communities.  And those communities gave them a source of belonging and hope, not to mention a mission in life.   Was life better than it is now?   Perhaps not.   Technology has made us live longer and healthier lives – at least physically.  Spiritually, though, I’m not sure that we’re any healthier now than before.  And morally?   We’re different, but I’m not sure we’re better.

King was certainly right that the arc of the moral universe is long.   The jury is still out as to whether it bends toward justice.  Speaking for myself, though, I don't want to sit back and wait for the jury to return.   I want to help do my part in making King a prophet.   What do say we all make that commitment?   Let's be the ones who do the bending.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Confessions of an Enabler

Rick Reilly, of, wrote a column recently that spoke for countless Americans, myself included.   We will watch NFL football.   Yet we no longer feel good about doing so.  It’s almost like being a drug addict.   You’re not watching a beautiful game; you’re simply scratching an itch.   

Football has been my favorite spectator sport throughout my life.  Moreover, when I was a kid and it was time to play a pickup game, football would have been my sport of choice.  During Jewish school, when I was supposed to be learning the Hebrew language or the Jewish faith, I was instead day-dreaming about an upcoming NFL game.  If my team lost in an especially painful manner, I would go into my room and cry.   Even as an adult, I once walked into my closet, threw my butt on the ground, and sat there for 30 minutes.  During a trip to the upper Midwest, when my team was losing at halftime, I walked to the center of town without a winter coat on and made a phone call in the frigid cold – just to beat myself up over my team’s poor performance.   (Well, OK, that was my college team, but any NFL addict needs a little passion for college football, and I have more than a little.)

Only a few years ago, I spent a couple of days at an NFL training camp in a town that might as well be called Middle-of-Nowhere, Minnesota.  I had a great time watching the players stand around, run drills, and sign autographs.    If they had been looking at a wall watching paint dry, I might have enjoyed that too.  For each of the past 16 seasons, I have owned the NFL Sunday Ticket, which entitled me to watch any regular season football game no matter who was playing.  Based on any definition, I have been a loyal fan to “the shield” (i.e. the NFL insignia).  

This year, for the first time, I am starting a season without the NFL Sunday Ticket.  I am no longer paying a plug nickel to the league.  Will I watch games on TV?  Sure.  But not nearly as many of them.  I can no longer name all the players on any NFL roster.  Nor do I care to.  

The way I feel, I haven’t left the league.  The league has left me.   It left me when it refused to go public about the full consequences of repeated concussions.  It left me when it refused to impose stiff penalties for players who repeatedly endanger other players’ lives with dirty hits.   It left me when it decided to impose significant punishments for minor transgressions, but minor punishments for domestic violence.  It left me when it condoned bullying in NFL locker rooms.  It left me when it fined players for wearing low socks or orange shoes, but  has refused to take a stand against team names that are racist.  (See, e.g., my local team, where the billionaire white-skinned owner employs primarily brown-skinned men to fight for the “Redskins”.)   

I realize that there is only so much that the NFL can do to clean up its sport.  The game is inherently dangerous, and it will always involve more violence than, say, golf.   But this being the 21st century, the league has an obligation to at least do its best to stay within the bounds of sanity.  Ray Rice is filmed dragging a woman out of an elevator after knocking her unconscious, and he gets a two-game suspension.   Brandon Meriweather is filmed spearing another player – his sixth offense for a dangerous hit – and he gets a two-game suspension.   Meanwhile, multiple players have been suspended for entire seasons for smoking pot.   

The NFL talks about getting tough on concussions.  But right now, Wes Welker, who has been concussed three times in the past 10 months, is preparing to go for four.   And Darrius Hayward-Bey, whose career has included five concussions, is heading back to the field as the well.   Is the NFL standing in their way?  Heck no.  It’s not like they are preparing to violate the league’s uniform policies by wearing the wrong socks – then the league would step in.  

In 2012 and 2013, NFL players suffered a total of roughly 500 concussions.    We now have reason to believe that a number of the men who suffered these blows will ultimately undergo terrible physical and psychological anguish as a result, and some may even take their own lives.   Does the league care?    Ask the next guy who Brandon Meriweather spears when he finishes serving his two-game suspension.  

Periodically, fans hear rumblings that the league wants to increase the season from 16 games to 18 games.  That’s two more head-banging balls a year.   Just what the gladiators need, right?  The fans aren’t clamoring for more games.  The fans like it when the players can stay healthy for as many seasons as possible before the players finally “give in to father time” and prepare themselves for a life of such symptoms as:  “headache, confusion, memory loss, loss of consciousness, vision change, hearing change, mood change, fatigue, [and] malaise.”  Those symptoms are taken from the NFL Player Concussion Pamphlet.  And they only reference the head injuries.  As we all know, many a player has so mangled his knees or his feet that he has had to retire before he could destroy his brain.  Some can never again walk without a limp, but at least they’re not suffering from “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” like the players who have had their “bells rung” a few times too many. 
In 2012, when the NFL players suffered over 250 concussions, Roger Goodell, the league Commissioner, “earned” over $44 million.  A tiny fraction of that money came from my NFL Sunday Ticket revenues.   Well, my fellow addicts, I can’t claim to have clean hands here.  I’ll surely watch some games, and because of folks like me, the league will command higher advertising dollars.   But at least I won’t be tossing them the big bucks any more.  I don’t plan on going to any games.  And I don’t plan on buying any more merchandise.   If the league wants more of my support, it had better change its priorities.  And its Commissioner.

I wonder who feels worse – Goodell, for accepting $44 million per year for running his league into the ground, or the player who wakes up every morning with his ears ringing, eyes blurry, and head aching.   I think I’d rather be the guy with the injured brain but the clear conscience.