Saturday, August 27, 2016

Secularism Run Amuck

Thirty-five years ago, I started my professional career by enrolling in a so-called “professional school” program.   Many of my classmates were significantly older than I was and knew exactly what they wanted from their education.  Even some of the younger ones seemed to have figured it out – they were practical people who understood that in three years, they would be making a boatload of money working for a law firm.   They were in school to learn the tools of a trade.  

By contrast, I’m not sure why I was in law school.  I think it had something to do with wanting to work for fairness or justice – by which I meant the concept of justice, not the Department of Justice (that didn’t happen for another 16 years).  But I had no idea of what it meant to practice law, or what kind of law I wanted to practice.  Worse yet, I’m not sure I had in mind any particular “skills” to learn.  I only knew that if you wanted to fight for a more fair and just society, you’d better apply to law school. So I applied, then was accepted, and then “took a year off” to do what I really wanted to do – which was mostly to read and write about philosophy and religion.  That year included a lengthy trip to Israel, where I checked into a yeshiva, found God, and then returned to the States a changed person.

My first year in law school was a shock.  It involved reading a lot of judicial opinions where, from my vantage point, judges employed one method after another to defend the status quo – not merely in terms of legal doctrines but also in terms of the distribution of wealth and power in society.  I remember having all sorts of concerns about the inequities of capitalism, concerns that apparently were not shared by the judges responsible for shaping the common law.  But those legal opinions weren’t what alienated me the most about law school.  Nor, even, were the rat-racing students to whom I would be compared during exam time.  (The official law school paper actually published a comic strip entitled the “Rat Race” in which the students and professors alike were depicted as rodents.)   My problem, as a recently awoken baal teshuva (a/k/a born-again Jew), was that I found my American law school to be a spiritual wasteland.  

At Ohr Somayach (my Israeli yeshiva), we didn’t “study,” we “learned.”  At Harvard Law School, we either studied, or we felt guilty about not studying.   At Ohr Somayach, we spoke about building our souls and honoring our ancestors.  At Harvard Law School, we spoke about getting prestigious clerkships and making law review.  At Ohr Somayach, we spent reflective moments wondering whether we were insufficiently altruistic and spiritual.  At Harvard Law School, we spent reflective moments wondering whether we were insufficiently driven and focused on our career goals.   At Ohr Somayach, we deepened our love for God.  At Harvard Law School, we deepened our love to compete intellectually for money, status, power ... all the usual accoutrements of worldly success.  

I kept asking myself, “Couldn’t they at least give us a moment of silence before each class?”  I wasn’t looking for the dean of the law school to promote any particular religion, or even to promote religion over non-religion.  I just wanted an opportunity to begin each hour-long learning experience with a moment of reflection where we each could silently meditate or talk to ourselves – and people like me could say something to God.  I knew that I wasn’t in Israel any more.  The secular-Jewish dean made that very clear when, during his initial address to the class of 1984, he began with a story.  Boiled down to its essence, the Dean’s story went something like this:  Two guys go camping in the woods.  They see a bear. One starts running away from the bear.  The other says, “What are you doing? You can’t outrun that bear.”  His friend responds, while continuing to run, “I don’t have to outrun the bear.  I just have to outrun you.”  

Harvard Law School is supposedly a breeding ground for “the best and the brightest.”  The current Attorney General of the United States was in my class.  So were many judges and other elite members of the bar.  The next Vice President of the United States (and I don’t mean Mike Pence) graduated from the school one year before I did.   President Obama graduated seven years after me.  I would never suggest that the law school fails to develop the kinds of skills that people need to be successful in law or politics, or that it breeds evil hearts or pedestrian minds.  Maybe the American law school, of which Harvard is certainly a model, is doing just what our society wants it to do – produce nimble orators, writers and analytical thinkers who are as equipped as possible to compete in our adversarial system.  There is room in this society for praying and hugging, but that’s not what fuels our economy, and when it comes to America, the economy always comes first.

I offer that trip down memory lane because I have been thinking these past couple of days about France and the unfortunate willingness of French politicians to discriminate against religion in all its outward manifestations.   France has been one of the most secular countries in the world for a number of years.   According to a turn-of-the-century Pew study, only 11 percent of French adults said that religion was “very important” to them.   That percentage is perhaps the lowest of any nation in the world.   In 2004, France’s national legislature passed a law that banned conspicuous symbols of religion in public schools.  This included signs and symbols from all faiths – including Christianity, which once reigned supreme in France.  Most famously, though, the law banned the Muslim hijab, which is a symbol of modesty for Muslim females.  

In 2010, France became Europe’s first country to prohibit full-face head coverings in public places.  The vote in the National Assembly was an incredible 335-1.  

Now, this week, we are awash in stories about French mayors banning the use of the “burkini” -- bathing suits for Muslim women that leave only the face, hands and feet uncovered.   A ruling by the French Council of State overturned the ban in one of the towns, finding that it “seriously and clearly illegally breached fundamental freedoms.”  Allegedly, however, some local mayors plan to continue to impose the ban in their own jurisdictions for as long as they are able to do so.   The Burkini ban is seen by its advocates as a way to draw the line against an extreme form of religion that is ripping at the heart of secular society by precluding certain minority communities from assimilating.  Like the ban in 2010, this latest prohibition is squarely aimed at one group and one group only (the Muslims), and yet it emerges from a culture that wishes to promote Secularism to a preferred status in the public sphere.  In France, the key principle is no longer religious neutrality – it is religious marginalization.  In other words, it is Secularism run amuck.   Ironically, those who are behind the Burkini Ban have become exactly the kind of sectarian oppressors that secularism was originally designed to fight.

As I reflect on the various anti-religious bans in France, I am incapable of forgetting my own feelings of alienation in law school.  All that I wanted is some sort of nod to the relevance of spirituality in the lives of many students.  I felt that there were certain values inherent in a reverent lifestyle that were at odds with the “I just have to outrun you” mentality that truly did seep in through the air-ducts at Harvard.   It wasn’t enough for me that the university provided opportunities for students to practice their faith in separate buildings unaffiliated with the law school.  That is no better than leavening public school history classes with the occasional nod to “black history” day or “women’s history” day, all the while devoting the other 98 percent of the time to the history of white males.    

I wanted the law school to offer moments of silence because it was important to me that spirituality and religion not be marginalized, but rather that they be recognized as crucial elements of the moral foundation of many students – progressive as well as conservative.  I felt strongly that those students and professors whose lives are 100 percent secular have no special claim to dominate literally every class from the moment we matriculate to the moment we graduate.   To be sure, I felt that it was vital to protect their rights against any attempt to establish religion over non-religion; however, I also felt that the opposite principle applied as well.  In short, all that I was looking for was an effort to take religious neutrality seriously.

In order to graduate, every Harvard Law School student needs to complete a “Third Year Paper” that is supposed to be of publishable quality.  My paper, which eventually was published in different forms in multiple professional journals, involved – you guessed it – Church and State Law.  I wrote about how the United States has failed to honor its Constitutional duty to respect religious neutrality in public schools.  And I suggested that to the extent that we have, de facto, established an “American Civil Religion” in our schools, the foremost source of principles for that “religion” is Secularism.

Clearly, we in America have not run amuck in our love for Secularism anywhere near as much as France. Thankfully, our Constitution has a First Amendment, and our society has placed the respect for freedom of speech, association and religion at the forefront of its list of values.  Still, though, when we see a wonderful country like France go way too far in its fear of religion (equating traditional Islam with dangerous extremism), we should take a moment to ask ourselves whether we, too, have erred too far in the pro-Secularist direction.  Would it really kill our schools to have more moments of silence?  Would it really kill our students if they were given more exposure to comparative religion instruction as part of the regular secondary school curriculum?   Is the spiritual domain truly less important than the domains of literature, art and music, all of which have (correctly) come to be seen as integral parts of a student’s education?  And can we really count on our students’ parent(s) to expose them to the spiritual domain – as we certainly could 100 or 200 years ago?

It hurts me to write this piece because I am actually a Franco-phile, not a Franco-phobe.  I often feel that I was born a century or two too late, and that it would have been nice to be sitting in a Parisian cafĂ©, arguing politics or metaphysics, with the greatest of passion, while drinking or smoking whatever it is that lifted my mood to just the perfect intellectual height.  But then I am reminded that I am Jewish and no longer a 100 percent secular Jew, and that France, like much of Europe, hasn’t always been the kindest place to Jews who weren’t totally secular.   I want those countries – and my own – to embrace their religious Jews.  And their Muslims.  And that means that our schools, our streets and our beaches should be as welcoming to their religious minorities as they are to those secular lawyers who are invariably running away from bears.   Here in America, our Constitution demands nothing less.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Reflections on Rio

Today completes the 13th Summer Olympic games I have been privileged to witness, or at least the 13th  that I remember seeing.   I vividly recall watching live as Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the air in the Mexico City games of 1968.   Every four years thereafter, there has been one memorable moment after another.   This year, perhaps Rio’s most enduring moment was provided by Usain Bolt in a qualifying round, when he turned a 100 meter “sprint” into what appeared more like a casual jog.  He knew he was going to win the race – he seems to know he’s going to win every race – so why not put the event in cruise control, look over at a friendly competitor, and give him one of those big beautiful Jamaican smiles?  Talk about style points.

But there were other memorable visions, believe me.  

There was Chaunte Lowe, the high jumper, whose incredible display of sportsmanship was truly inspiring.  One moment, you could see Lowe consoling fellow-American Vashti Cunningham, when Cunningham was reduced to tears after an early exit from the competition.  Then, a while later, Lowe was eliminated without a medal despite the fact that if she had cleared the bar on her final jump she would have the gold.  So what did she do?  She ran over to the Spanish woman who won the event and gleefully hugged her long-time rival as if she was celebrating the victory of a family member.   It was a remarkable sight.

There was the beach volleyball team of Walsh and Ross, on the verge of elimination in the bronze medal match, until somehow they found magic in the sand and gutted their way to a medal.  Bronze was the perfect medal for that pair.   It made Walsh the single most decorated Olympic beach volleyball player of all time, while also reminding us that history will remember her not as a solo act but rather as part of the Kerri Walsh/Misty May juggernaut that together had won the three previous Olympic golds.  April Ross (who has now medaled with two different teams) is a great digger, but she’s no Misty May.   

There was Michael Phelps, grabbing medal after medal after medal, and each time making us wonder if he was setting the bar so high with his overall Olympic tally that nobody in our lifetime will ever catch him.  Phelps repeatedly told us that this would be his final Olympics.  Seriously?   I’ll believe that when I see it.   When you’ve won 23 gold medals and 28 total medals, I say that you keep trying to nab them until you’re either no longer able – or you turn 40.  I remember Ali taking a beating against Holmes, Willie Mays stinking it up for the Mets, and Michael Jordan attempting to give it a go for the Wizards.  When you’re that good – and I mean not just a championship, but arguably the best ever – you play until you can no longer compete.   You leave it all on the field.   Phelps is that good.   He’ll most likely be back, and I bet you he even crosses the 25/30 barrier.  

There was Katie Ledecky, the swimming phenom who could literally have given her competitors an 11 second head start in the 800 meter freestyle and still won the race.  The poor dear only won the 400 meter free by five seconds, but just think about how far a world class swimmer can go in five seconds.   By contrast, in winning gold medals in the 100 meter fly, Phelps has won by 0.01, 0.04 and .023 seconds, and he would have gone from silver to no-medal-at-all in that event this year if he were only .01 seconds slower.   So a margin of five seconds – let alone 11 – is a good amount, wouldn’t you say?

Katie and I share a membership in a relatively small group of people who are raised in Bethesda, Maryland and then head out to pursue our undergraduate studies at Stanford.  There can’t be more than five or ten such people every year.  Far more importantly, my sources here in B-Town tell me that she is actually a very nice person, someone who hasn’t let her swimming skills get to her head.    Here’s hoping she enjoys Stanford as much as I did and that she comes back to Tokyo in four years and duplicates her feats in Rio.

I could go on and on citing the amazing athletes and teams from Rio.   There was the American women’s basketball team, which has NEVER had any competition.  There was Mo Farah, the British long distance runner, who once again won two gold medals despite having literally been knocked to the ground in the 10,000 meter race.  There was Lilly King, who trash-talked a Russian competitor for taking PEDs and then backed up her talk with a gold medal in the pool.  And then there were the combat-sport competitors from Israel and India – two countries that rarely do well in the Olympics – who won bronze medals in judo or wrestling, thereby bringing far more joy to their countrymen then the zillionth gold could possibly bring to Olympic powerhouses like the US, Great Britain or China.  

The great irony of the Olympics is that it is typically enjoyed by people with flabby bodies who are loafing on their couches, while the performances are given by sculpted bodies who are often achieving  personal bests (if not setting records for their species).  What’s more, as the Olympics drag on, the flabby-bodied fans continue to stay up late, thereby making themselves more and more lethargic each day.   And yet, when they turn on their televisions, the athletes are every bit as freakishly perfect-looking as they were the previous day.  We tire; they shine.  And strangely enough, we enjoy it.

And so we should.  Witnessing human excellence in any endeavor – whether it’s swimming, running, painting, or acting – is a privilege.  You don’t have to be Chaunte Lowe to realize that it is our ability to appreciate excellence in our fellow human beings that truly demonstrates our character, far more than our ability to exalt in our own accomplishments.   What’s great about the Olympics is that you don’t have to be a “sports fan” to love them – you don’t have to read the sports pages every day, listen to sports radio, know all the player’s stats, etc.  You just have to show up one fortnight every four years, remember what country you come from, and you can root with as much vim and vigor as anyone else – that is, everyone except for Chaunte Lowe.  She obviously gets the gold medal when it comes to rooting for other people; if you can go crazy when your rival wins at your expense, you deserve the gold at something.

Think back one month.  All that we heard about was how awful these summer games would be.  It was as if our athletes would be performing in a hell-hole.  Big name golfers pulled out of the tournament, citing health concerns, and they weren’t even the ones who would have to swim or sail in the cesspools known as Rio’s waterways.      I’m not here to tell you that these Olympics have been pulled off without a glitch.  But to all the Chicken Littles out there, let me remind you that once again, a city hosted an Olympics and the results were a marvel to watch.   Just like anything else, negativism needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

In less than an hour, many of us will witness what I call the Greatest Moment in Sport.  It’s the point where the first Marathon runner enters the Olympic Stadium.   Imagine being that person.  You have ripped your body apart for 26 grueling miles and, as a result, you are at your most emotionally sensitive state, for all of your body’s defenses have long departed.  For some time you have recognized that you are poised to emerge victorious in the race that you’ve been pointing towards for years, and yet you experience these feelings all alone – for you have been pounding the pavement all by your lonesome stride after stride on the streets of the city.  Finally, you enter the stadium.  And then, within just a few seconds, you hear a roar of affirmation that must truly be deafening.  It has to be the most remarkable roar that any athlete can experience – tens of thousands of people marveling entirely at what you have accomplished, and will continue to accomplish, as adrenaline takes your exhausted body around a track while the roar continues, and perhaps even spikes, as your fellow competitors begin to enter the arena.

There must be nothing like winning the Marathon in the Olympics.  In my experience, the closest analogue would probably be the emotions of late-afternoon on Yom Kippur.  After depriving yourself of food and drink for 24 hours, your emotional sensitivities are at their maximum.  It is a great joy to place yourself in that state, and then join with a congregation of voices in praising God for the gift of life and cutting yourself slack for being human-all-too-human.

The Olympics are indeed an odd time to talk about people being human-all-too-human, because we keep hearing about the athletes as if they are super human.  Frankly, Ryan Lochte did us a favor this fortnight in reminding us that, deep down, world class athletes are no different than anyone else.  In fact, in some respects, they can be less virtuous and less attractive than the typical couch potato.

Pick a skill, any skill – someone has to be the best in the world at it.  That applies to arts, crafts and sports.  And while it doesn’t make the top athletes more virtuous people than the rest of us, it does mean that they have something notable to offer us.  Every four years, I plan on reveling in those accomplishments. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Time to Take the Hill

Just because Hillary Clinton is paranoid about right-wingers doesn’t mean they’re not out to get her. And just because Donald Trump is the media’s loudest critic doesn’t mean it isn’t biased.  That center-left bias was on display again this week, when the New York Times scooped the world on a possible Clinton pay-to-play scandal and yet buried its story on page 10.   

If you’re not familiar with the Times’ pay-to-play story, don’t worry about it.  Thanks to both Trump and the media, you don’t have to think about Hillary Clinton until her inauguration.   We really have just one Presidential candidate on the ballot this year, and America is prepared to vote for any qualified candidate who opposes him.  Constitutionally qualified, that is.  Whoever you are, if you’re 35, a 14-year resident of the U.S., and a natural born citizen, you’d probably be the favorite in this upcoming election.   By November, you see, Donald Trump will have alienated well over half of the electorate, and you’d probably be smart enough to spend the campaign season at a national park in Utah or the Florida Keys, rather than kissing babies in Youngstown.  Why go out of your way to campaign when your opponent apparently doesn’t want the job?

I hear a lot of Democrats talk about how “nervous” they are that Trump will win.   My suggestion is that they do something more productive and worry about their blood pressure.  (Then, at least, their worries might come true.)  I just came back from my second trip to the Midwest this summer.  Most of the people I spoke to were white, and many were Republicans.  Still, Trump’s popularity among this group is dismal, and a number of the Republicans I spoke to plan on voting for his Democratic opponent, even if they have to hold their nose while doing it.  

If I spoke to a Democrat, I’d hear about what a dangerous idiot Trump is, and how Hillary should be a decent President.  If I spoke to a Republican, I might hear some complaints about Hillary, but that would soon be followed by a “this is when he crossed the line for me” anecdote about Trump.  Whether these labels are true or not, in politics perception is reality, and “insanity” trumps “dishonesty” when it comes to choosing who to vote against.   

To be sure, the people I spent time with in Indiana and Wisconsin were college educated, and that’s why I wasn’t seeing too many Trump supporters.  In truth, I do know college-educated Trump supporters – died-in-the-wool Republicans all -- but they are outliers.  Hillary should take that demographic by a comfortable margin.  She should also take the non-college-educated African-American and Hispanic- American communities.  And I suspect she’ll do OK with white women who lack a college degree.  It’s only the non-college-educated white males who will go big for Trump, and that’s just not large enough a group to win the general election.  In short, the Fat Lady may not yet be singing, but if you turn on the news any morning and listen to the craziness Trump said the day before, you can see her warming up.

So yes, I’ll go out on the limb in saying with extreme confidence that for the sixth out of seven Presidential elections, the Democratic candidate will get the most votes, and for the fifth out of seven, that candidate will win the White House.  This victory will carry with it great significance not only for the executive branch of the government, but also the judicial branch.  In those two respects, you really can’t overestimate its importance.

Why then do I keep shaking my head about the third branch?  I’m referring to the so-called “people’s” branch, the one with the sole power to make laws.   Notably, the Washington Post op-ed page took a break from its customary all-Trump bashing-all-the-time philosophy to include a piece by James Downie entitled “A missed chance to take back the House.”   Downie argues that, with a likely train wreck on the top of the ticket for the GOP, the Democrats were given a golden opportunity to contest a large number of House seats, but in many races they haven’t bothered to put legitimate contenders on the ballot.  So now they face what is likely to be a significant House majority in the next Congress as well as midterm elections in 2018, in which the turnover is invariably lower, thereby favoring Republicans.    How then can Democrats possibly implement a progressive agenda?  

A GOP-controlled House is alone capable of continuing the gridlock that has plagued our government for years.  And it may continue to get plenty of help from the Senate.  I’m not going to predict that the GOP will hold on to its Senate majority in 2016, but I will repeat Downie’s admonition that in 2018, only eight Republican Senators will face re-election as compared to 23 Democrats.  Moreover, in such swing states as Ohio and Florida, the incumbent GOP Senators are currently ahead in the polls, even though Trump himself is trailing.  I suspect that part of the reason is that the Republican donors have decided to put all their eggs in the Capitol Hill basket and are already writing off the White House.  So while the Democrats are still fighting tooth and nail to ensure that Trump is demonized and Hillary prevails in all the swing states, Rob Portman and Marco Rubio are maintaining their leads in crucial Senate races.   

Perhaps some Democratic supporters have so given up on Congress as an institution that they’ve stopped caring so much about who holds the majority on the Hill.  Perhaps these Democrats would be more than satisfied with a progressive President and a progressive judiciary; that way, they figure, at least our basic protections will be preserved and we won’t get involved in any more Iraq Wars.  But allow me to remind my sheepish friends that global warming is worsening by the day, the distribution of wealth is gradually reaching Dickensian proportions, and a new generation of children is poised to enter adulthood with crippling debt.   These problems won’t get addressed without proactivity from Capitol Hill.   And no number of inaugural balls or progressive Supreme Court opinions will alter that fact.  

It’s time for the Democrats to take a cue from the GOP donors and re-direct our attention a bit.  Every House race and Senate race matters.   That’s where we need to focus.  Trust me, you don’t have to worry about Hillary.  Trump has made sure of that.