Saturday, August 26, 2017

Lessons about Charlottesville from a Dead Scotsman

At first, I thought the real story about Charlottesville involved the weekend itself – the March, the fighting and, finally, the murder.  Then I thought the story was the President’s subsequent statements – the moral relativism, the vilification of counter-protesters, and the suggestion that “very fine people” march with Nazis.   But now, I think that the story is the polls – in particular, the polls that indicated that roughly two out of three Republicans approved of how the President handled the situation.  What exactly does that say about today’s Republican Party?  And what does it say about our contemporary society? 

The President may have been motivated by the desire not to antagonize those of his supporters who sympathize with the Alt-Right movement.  But rank-and-file Republicans aren’t politicians; when they respond to a poll, they shouldn’t be worried about antagonizing anyone.   Could it be that two out of three of them are truly White Supremacists or Alt-Right sympathizers? 

No, I’m not cynical enough to believe that.  To me, the problem is both less dramatic and more pervasive.    To diagnose it, let’s go back to the 18th century and the writings of that great Scottish philosopher, David Hume. 

In discussing human nature, Hume focuses largely on what he calls “two principles which are very conspicuous in human nature.”  The first is “sympathy,” the second “comparison.”  In touting the extreme power of sympathy, Hume addressed something that many of us take for granted.   Who and what we love and how we think of beauty largely depend on that faculty.  Yes, even our sense of beauty – our appreciation for faces or for random acts of kindness – begins with our ability to sympathize.   It is precisely that ability that causes us to love other human beings, strangers included.   Indeed, it is our sympathy that leads us to try to heal our planet and nurture all its creatures.   Thank God for this faculty; on that point, I would hope we’d all agree.

But as was apparent from Charlottesville, we are not built on sympathy alone.  As Hume pointed out, sympathy impels us to act and feel in one direction, whereas the pressures to compare ourselves with one another push us in quite the opposite direction.  It is our tendency to view ourselves in contrast and in competition to other human beings that we locate the source of so much envy, hatred and hubris.   For just as sympathy has forged much of our sense of beauty, this tendency to view society through the prism of comparison has come to underlie our sense of ugliness.  Bullying, showing off, condescension, and all the other signs of insecurity – this is what results when our tendency to view ourselves in comparison to others goes hog wild and swallows up our ability to sympathize.  Sadly, however, this is a fact we tend to brush under the rug, at least if we don’t read Hume.   We’d rather celebrate this sense of comparison when it manifests itself in a great athlete, a confident attorney, or a diva on a stage – i.e., the achievers among us who best demonstrate the importance of being prideful and having a “winning” attitude.   Nobody wants to think about the “root of all evil” (comparison) when that same root has given rise to many a productive and successful tree.     

Thinking about Charlottesville and its aftermath, I’m struck by the extent to which our faculty of sympathy has narrowed and our thirst for comparison has fully bloomed.  This is a dangerous and combustible combination.   Charlottesville happened because so many of us are no longer able to sympathize with all human beings; we now sympathize only with our “own kind.”  We love them because we share the same religion, ethnicity, or political views.  But we sure as hell won’t sympathize across party lines and now, perhaps, not even across racial ones. 

As for the aftermath of Charlottesville – the polls suggesting that two out of three Republicans are fine and dandy with the President’s comments – I see this as a sign that our tendency to compare ourselves with one another is consuming us.  As soon as the President made his ill-advised statements and was justifiably called to account for them by the media, the battle lines were drawn.  The loyal Republicans weren’t so much defending the President as they were seizing yet another opportunity to attack his enemies and theirs.  These loyalists call their enemies by many names -- “fake news,” “commies,” “globalists,”  “Alt Left,” “politically correct”....    The first thing one does these days is to label and vilify the “other.”

Sadly, it has become the norm to identify oneself primarily in comparison with one’s enemies, rather than by looking ourselves in the mirror and taking stock in what we see.    In other words, we have come to feel good about ourselves primarily because  of who we’re not, rather than who we are.  More often than not, those “others” with whom we compare ourselves are seen as responsible for destroying our society and committing the ultimate sin of our generation: leaving our children poorer than we are.   Someone has to pay for that sin of sins, and inevitably, we identify groups and bogeymen to fit the bill.  In short, when the President was attacked by those groups after his comments on Charlottesville, his defenders rushed to his support – not because they agree with everything he said (some of which is impossible to agree with) but because they despise his attackers.   Our source of pride is that “we” are not like “them,” rather than that “we” have accomplished anything worth celebrating.

This is how far the balance in our society has swung away from “sympathy” and toward “comparison.”  The leaders we need in this society are the ones who can swing that pendulum back before it snaps.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Plea from a Child of Jacob ... and of Adam

“Jews will not replace us.  Jews will not replace us.   Jews will not replace us.”

Those words have been ringing in my ears ever since last weekend.  For some reason, they are the words to which I return, even more than “blood and soil,” “many sides,” or “not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch.”

Now don’t get me wrong.  All those phrases deeply wound me.   But “Jews will not replace us” – that’s the one I can’t stop saying to myself, over and over again.

Try it.  Repeat it like a mantra.   It goes very well with “Never again.  Never again.  Never again.”

I first encountered that latter phrase when I was in grade school.   I found it to be incredibly compelling.  It was as if a supernatural being had assigned me a mission to work for justice.  And that mission was triggered by a simple directive: “Never again.”   Never again will my people walk into the gas chambers like sheep to a slaughter.  Never again will my people assume that if we Jews are unable to fight evil for ourselves, The Holy One, Blessed Be He, will deliver us from evil.  Never again can my people count on being safe anywhere in the world until we can live in the majority in at least one country.

You can obviously see in my childhood thoughts why I’ve become a Zionist.  But more than that, I became committed to the cause of justice for all peoples and all individuals.  The Holocaust reminded me that justice is not the privilege of any one group.  It is a right that belongs to every human being, and with that right comes a whole set of duties.   None of us has the privilege to fight for our own kind unless we’re also willing to fight for others.   As we Jews would like to say, we are children of Adam even more fundamentally than we are children of Jacob.  If we take that seriously, it means that “Never again” applies to more than just Jews and Holocausts.  Never again can genocide be tolerated, no matter which group is murdered.  Never again can slavery be tolerated, no matter which group is enslaved.  And never again can virulent racism be ignored, even if it manifests itself in seemingly peaceful forms, because such “peaceful” racism is the seed of the most depraved violence that our species has ever known. 

Once Germany reached the point where Hitler won an election, those seeds of depravity were already planted.  They were planted in the ‘20s, as millions of Germans sowed their resentment toward the western powers that defeated them in World War I and decided to vent much of that resentment on “the Jews,” who supposedly wielded disproportionate power among the media and the financial system.  Today, I see similar winds blowing here in America.   Jews represent only two percent of our population.  Yet whether you’re talking about newspapers, TV, Wall Street, Hollywood, or the President’s inner sanctum, children of Jacob abound.  Apparently, this has come to be a source of resentment among the “Blood and Soil” set in rural America.

In the Good Old US of A, most people have been taught that true evil can never happen here.  We have a Statue of Liberty, a separation of powers, and a hatred of monarchy and even aristocracy.  What can go wrong?   In fact, however, our history is replete with large-scale injustice, from the African slave trade, to the Trail of Tears, to the Japanese Internment Camps, to Jim Crow.   Oh believe me, it can happen here.   It can happen wherever we allow the seeds to take root and we look the other way.

A few days ago, I called a dear friend who I know to be very loyal to the Administration.   I wanted to get his perspective on the events earlier in the week.   I asked him about the phrase “Jews will not replace us.”  And he replied that he was more concerned about the “Alt-Left” than these “fringe groups” on the right.

Believe me, these groups always start as fringe.  Whether they remain that way is up to us.   Do we take a stand against them before enough seeds are planted?  Or do we tend to our own gardens and let other people confront the problem?   That is up to us – not just our leaders. That’s our choice as grass roots individuals.  Choose wisely.  Please.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Numbers That Don't Add Up

0 out of 1

4 out of 9

16 out of 50

18 out of 50

46 out of 100

194 out of 435

Can you recognize these numbers?   I’ll give you a hint: I’m talking about politics.  I’m talking about numbers of people who are associated with a particular political organization.  The members of this political organization dominate Hollywood and the Fourth Estate. More specifically, they dominate late night talk shows, political comedy programs, and big-time screenwriting portfolios.   They dominate network newsrooms, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, and the Chicago Tribune.   The members of this political organization have spent most of the last two years laughing their butts off at their rivals’ ineptitude.  And when they’re not heaping ridicule on their rivals – when they’re purporting to get serious about the topic – they wax eloquent about how their rival organization may be in the process of imploding or splitting into pieces.  

If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that the political organization we’re talking about is the surviving party in a one-party system.  But I do know better.  In fact, I know that the party we’re talking about is a minority party in a two-party system.   Just don’t tell them that.  They’re as giddy and cocky as Baghdad Bob during Shock and Awe.

When I think about the Democratic Party these days, I am reminded of the so-called “Rumble in the Jungle,” the name given to the 1974 fight in Zaire between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali.  Today’s Democrats remind me of Foreman’s fans from that big fight.   In the early rounds, they would have watched their hero totally dominate.  Ali spent those rounds primarily with his back against the ropes and his arms covering his face.   Whenever he peeked out, he would have seen the massive Foreman pounding away, landing one mighty blow after another against Ali’s arms and sides.   Foreman’s fans must have felt a lot like the audience of Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, or Trevor Noah, who roar in approval as these comedians land haymaker after haymaker at the expense of “The Pussy Grabber,” “The Mooch” or “The Turtle.”   Party on, Wayne!   Here’s the part I don’t understand, though.   In the Ali-Foreman fight, the Loquacious One let Big George tire himself out by throwing all those bombs until, finally, Ali moved away from the ropes, unleashed a flurry of his own, and sent Foreman to the canvas like a rock.  That fight will forever be known as the “Rope-a-Dope” and has become one of the signature achievements of Ali’s legendary career.  

Now, those two heavyweights never fought again. (In fact, Big George’s boxing career was never the same after Zaire.)  But if they had, and if this second fight had started the same way as the first, I doubt Foreman’s fans would have been nearly as cocky.  I bet they’d have been concerned that the key to a fight isn’t starting strong but rather finishing strong.  And most importantly, I’d bet they would have been focused on the fact that their guy had better be smarter and more resourceful than he was the last time around.    You see, I apparently have more confidence in the intelligence of fight fans than in that of my fellow Democrats. 

You see, after Democrats spent 15 months laughing at their GOP rivals, the GOP won the election.  And I mean won it big.  Those numbers you saw at the top of the page are, respectively, the current tallies of Dems in the White House, US Supreme Court Justices nominated by Dems, Democratic Governors, State Legislatures controlled by the Dems, Dems in the US Senate, and Dems in the US House of Representatives.  For the most part, those pathetic numbers were fixed in stone after the November elections.  Yet for the past nine months, Democrats have continued to fall all over themselves mocking the GOP and predicting the eventual collapse of that party, all the while licking their chops at every opportunity to fight it out at the ballot box.  Somehow, they never got the memo that they were the dope who got roped ... and they have become neither smarter nor more resourceful since the last election.

Part of the problem is that the party is in denial.  It refuses to believe that it loses elections.   The House of Representatives?  “The GOP stole that because of gerrymandering.“   The US Senate?  “The GOP stole that because rural states have too many representatives.”  The Presidency?  “The Dems won the popular vote and the Russians stole the electoral vote.”  The State Houses?  “What’s a State House?”  

There was a time when the Democrats were the real deal.   They won five Presidential Elections in a row.  And during that time, their charismatic leaders had ideas, and programs and slogans that actually worked.  FDR had his “Fair Deal.”   Truman had his “Square Deal.”   So, it is not surprising that today’s Democrats, when they’re not making excuses, are figuring out how to summon the wisdom and the passion of their political ancestors from the 30s and 40s.   They rolled out a retro slogan: Better Deal.   And that is supposed to be shorthand for “better jobs, better wages, better future.”    But as others have pointed out, that sounds more like a Papa John’s commercial than it sounds like Truman or FDR.   After all, when Papa John’s  brags about “Better ingredients, better pizza,”  it wants to focus your attention on something in particular – Papa John’s attentiveness to product quality – just as when Truman or FDR bragged about their slogans, they were calling attention to Truman’s association with candor and plain-spokenness and FDR’s association with economic equity.   But the Democrats’ new slogan doesn’t summon anything in particular that we would associate with the party.  It sounds like empty rhetoric.  For who doesn’t want better jobs and wages and a better future?  And if I’m mistaken, during the 16 years when the Democrats have occupied the White House since 1980, weren’t the wage increases disproportionately enjoyed by the top five to ten percent? 

It’s no wonder, given all of these problems, that the Democratic Party has become a house divided between the Establishment Wing and the Berniecrats.   From what I can tell, they get along with each other about as well as Ali and Frazier – and far less than Ali and Foreman.  The Berniecrats think of the Establishment Wing as a bunch of opportunists who’ve demonstrated no real commitment to the working class and might as well call themselves Liberal Republicans because they’re basically your father’s Republicans when it comes to economics.  As for the Establishment Wing, they think of the Berniecrats as a bunch of self-righteous loudmouths who value their own sense of purity and could care less about actually winning, let alone figuring out how to govern.  Occasionally, party leaders – almost all of whom come from the Establishment Wing – talk about the need for party unity, while the Berniecrats grumble in private about how unity would be just fine, as long as THEY are in power and not their sell-out colleagues.  

Yup.  It’s one big happy family.  Or should I say, it’s one big happy family ... but ONLY when they stop paying attention to getting their own act together and instead turn their attention to the one activity they can enjoy together: ridiculing the Republicans.

As a Democrat, I sometimes get asked what my party must do to get its act together.   Sometimes I just respond glibly: bring in new leadership.   But more to the point, what the Dems need to do is divide their attention.  Obviously, any party out of power must resist; that’s how a functioning democracy works.  Yet a minority party cannot survive by resistance alone.  It needs to define itself, and not merely by reference to the other party.   It needs to identify goals that don’t sound like empty rhetoric.  And it needs to advocate courageous and sometimes unpopular reforms in order to advance those goals – and I’m talking about specific proposals that can both excite “the base” and actually sound doable.  Equally critically, it must promote leaders who are charismatic, passionate, likeable, authentic ... in short, leaders who would seem almost out of place in today’s Democratic Party.   Finally, whenever its leaders are communicating with the public about their agenda, they need to be forthcoming and honest.  That means, “NO MORE EXCUSES.”   It’s time for the Democratic Party to accept responsibility for its failings as willingly as it evaded responsibility in the recent past.