Sunday, February 25, 2018

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

I am just now returning from a meeting of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington.  This meeting kicked off the organization’s tenth year, and yet it was the very first meeting devoted to the figure of Abraham, the common father of Jews and Muslims (as well as Christians).  The stories that have been told about Abraham are some of the most inspiring stories ever told.  In this case, they inspire me to write a blogpost that is completely motivated by love, a blogpost without a single negative sentiment.   This will be short, to the point, and invariably positive. 

Abraham is not the only human figure who inspires me.  I also feel enlivened by the teenagers from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School who are determined to make a difference on the issue of gun control.  Already, these teenagers have caused a number of politicians to change their positions and support certain gun control measures.  I give credit to those politicians for evolving on issues like background checks, bump stocks and raising the legal age to buy guns.   But I give even more credit to the teenagers who are fighting for additional common sense gun laws, including laws banning AR-15s and other semi-automatic weapons. 

I plan on joining that fight.   On March 24, 2018, the teenagers from Stoneman Douglas will be coming to Washington, D.C. and leading a rally in support of stricter gun control measures.  They have applied with the National Park Service to hold a “March for Our Lives” somewhere in our nation’s capital.   I wouldn’t miss that for the world.

I call for all empathic rationalists who are able bodied, aren’t taking care of a baby under the age of one month (e.g., one of my daughters), live in the United States, and are affluent enough to travel to other parts of their country to make the trip to DC and listen to the teenagers tell their stories and share their wisdom.   For these kids to be successful, they need the rest of us to show up in the flesh and witness what democracy looks like.   

You don’t have to be Father Abraham to be a role model and a leader.  These Stoneman Douglas teenagers have also attained that status.  Sometimes, it’s not our job to lead, but it is our job to follow.  On March 24th, we should at least follow those kids to Washington and lend them our ears.   Innocent lives are in the balance.

Monday, February 19, 2018

How Long Must We Sing This Bloody Song

Yesterday, I took a neighborhood walk with two dogs and two teachers.  We must have gone ten full minutes before the teachers stopped talking about the safety measures in place at their schools.  One teaches high school, the other elementary school.  No matter – they both realize that they teach in dangerous environments.  That’s what the suburban American public school has become: a place where teachers and students alike increasingly go to die.

For some, the Broward massacre was the last straw.   For me, it was just the latest manifestation of the cancer that has been spreading for some time.  Other countries face the scourge of gun deaths and do something about it.  Here in America, our politicians dare not even try.  Consequently, we shoot and kill at a far greater rate than our “peer” countries.   Our politicians have blood on their hands, but they seem to sleep just fine.   They’ve bought into the principle that the annual death of tens of thousands of Americans is a small price to pay for the “right to bear arms” – just as it’s a small price to pay for the right to smoke cigarettes.   People realize, though, that deaths from smoking are due to a cancer stick.   Gun deaths stem from a different kind of cancer agent – yet, for some reason, it’s one we romanticize.

We romanticize guns in video games.  We romanticize guns on TV or in the movies.  We romanticize guns in the context of hunting defenseless animals, which we call “sport.”   We romanticize guns on political talk shows, when politicians wax eloquent about the childhood joy of learning how to shoot with their grandparents.   Yet nobody talks so romantically about cigarettes, at least not in public.  Why the double standard?  Both guns and cigarettes can be fun, and both can be deadly.   Is the difference that guns are needed by policemen and soldiers, whereas cigarettes aren’t needed by anyone?  As I’m neither a cop nor a soldier, I can’t imagine why I would need a gun – except, perhaps, to hand to my wife so she’ll have one when she goes out in the morning to teach kids in her elementary school.

By a ratio of about 24 to one, Americans support laws requiring background checks.  By a ratio of about four to one, Americans support laws banning assault weapons.    But even though we live in a “democracy,” neither of those laws have a prayer.   The officialdom of the Republican Party has made a decision that nothing is to be done to stop the scourge of gun violence.   These officials would rather watch young people die in droves than risk primary opposition fueled by the NRA.  They are gladly willing to gamble that those of their constituents who oppose assault weapons and support background checks won’t ultimately base their voting decisions on these issues.    Cynical, perhaps, but they’ve won plenty of elections using this reasoning.  You could call it shrewd; I find it disgusting.

If you’re a rank-in-file Republican, I would ask you in 2018 to take the plunge and vote Democrat – support a politician who isn’t bought and sold by the NRA.  If you’re a Democrat, I would ask that you stop going to movies or watching TV shows that glorify violence.   If you’re a parent, I would ask that you keep violent video games away from your children.  If you’re a cigarette smoker, I would ask that you explain to gun lovers why they are surely no saner than you are.

It also helps to start thinking about the individuals who died in this latest manifestation of the great American Gun Cancer.  Pick one who reminds you a bit of yourself – except that our gun culture never gave them a chance to live long enough to vote Democratic or to keep a child away from a violent video game.  Personally, I want to call your attention to one Alex Schachter, a 14-year-old Jewish boy.  Like yours truly, Alex played brass instruments.  I played trumpet in the band and orchestra, he played baritone in the band and trombone in the orchestra.  To be sure, it is far more impressive to play two brass instruments than one, and from his picture, it is clear that Alex was a lot better looking than I ever was.  But at least I can try to relate to his life.   Then again, I can’t really relate to being 14 years old, going to school one day, hearing gun shots, realizing that my society has chosen to do nothing in the face of one deadly school shooting after another,  and feeling a bullet pierce through my skin.

I can never imagine what it’s like to be Alex Schachter.  Sadly, Alex can never again imagine what it’s like to be me, either.   Empathic Rationalism requires me to try to empathize with his situation – to feel the pain he felt during the last few minutes of his life.  But more importantly, it requires me to work to confront this scourge once and for all so that the United States is no longer an outlier when it comes to the number of our Alex Schachters. 

The next time you contemplate voting for a Republican, please consider that Alex Schachter is gone, his parents are living in torment, and the guy you’re thinking about voting for is willing to do nothing about any of this.    Is that acceptable to you? 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Understanding the Meaning of Evil

The Washington Spinoza Society began in the fall of 2001 and has scheduled nine meetings a year ever since.  Coordinating that organization is truly one of my greatest joys in life.

As part of my involvement in that philosophical society, I write and deliver an essay each year.  This year's essay was delivered this past Monday night, and is entitled "'The Problem of Evil' in Light of the Hague, Lisbon, Auschwitz, Manhattan and Capitol Hill."   

Are you intrigued by that title?  If not, why the hell are you reading this blog?

Anyway, I think you'll enjoy the essay I wrote based on Monday night's talk.  And I know you'll find it provocative.  You can read a copy of the essay on the Spinoza Society page of my website.   Here's a link to that page:

Saturday, February 03, 2018

A New American Civil War

Tuesday night, while political junkies throughout America were preparing for one address, I was talking to my young niece about another.  Delivered 154 years ago, its writer didn’t think much of his own craftsmanship in penning the speech.  His mind was focused elsewhere, on the men who inspired him to write.   As I explained to my niece, a fourth grader from Zionsville, Indiana, some of those men fathered kids they would never get to know.  Duty required them to leave their families and head off to war, a conflict of cousin versus cousin, classmate versus classmate, American versus American.  One summer day, on a Southern Pennsylvania field, these men fell by the thousands, the victim of rifles, cannon balls or some other instrument of death.  “Imagine being one of their young children,” I explained to my niece.  “You’ll never remember your daddy, but you’ll sure come to honor him.”   After all, these men have been immortalized through a 154 year-old address that still moves folks like me to tears.

I read the entire speech that evening to my niece, and the final paragraph I read twice.

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

These men, I explained, gave their lives both for people they knew and for people they’d never know – folks like us who are alive in the year 2018.  They gave their lives so that the United States could exist forever as a bastion of freedom and democracy.  These men died so my niece and I can live in an America we can both be proud of.  A place where statesmen put the interests of “the people” first and foremost.  Where partisan bickering takes a backseat whenever the Union’s security or fundamental justice is threatened.  Where patriots come together, despite their ideological differences, and tackle whatever big projects the nation requires. Where the voters choose their leaders, but the leaders don’t get to choose their voters.    

How, I wondered, would the fallen of Gettysburg think about the state of our union right now?   A big speech was delivered Tuesday night, but nobody is talking about it.  Instead, we’re embroiled in what is yet another round of partisan squabbling, probably the 15th or 20th such round we’ve witnessed since the beginning of the Trump Presidency.   To be sure, this problem didn’t start in 2016 – ever since the rise of Talk Radio in the late 80s, our country has been on the verge of a second Civil War.  What we’re seeing now, though, is different.  The battles are heating up.  No, we don’t fight with bullets or swords or even leave a body count.  Nor, however, can we take seriously mottos like “E Pluribus Unum” – out of many, one.  This no longer feels like one country.  It feels like a battlefield.

In the new American landscape, our leaders use words and documents to metaphorically spit in each other’s faces.  This allows each group to fight on for another day, but it also leaves a field of spit for “we the people” to deal with.   Instead of representing the Blue and the Gray, our leaders represent the Blue and the Red.  They huddle in separate caucuses like football players, and then, when they are interact with each other, they fight like combatants on the gridiron – except that it always seems to be “we the people” who are getting the concussions. 

Last year was especially noteworthy for this new Civil War.  Didn’t it seem like the Redcoats were saying that the Bluecoats didn’t matter anymore?  That the war was over – the Redcoats won – and it was the Bluecoats’ job to step aside and let the victors decide alone who gets to have money, who gets to have health care, and who gets to decide what the Constitution means?  What was remarkable about last year was that there wasn’t even a token effort devoted to compromising between the two armies – the Redcoats simply told the Bluecoats to sit in the back of the bus and shut up because Blue means “minority” and Red means “majority” and that’s all there is to say.  To make matters even more comical, the Redcoats used this strong-armed strategy despite the fact that more people voted for the Bluecoats for President and for Senator in the past election.  These are the kinds of things that happen in the new American Civil War.

Honestly, as Civil Wars go, I prefer this one.  I abhor violence.  Now, thank God, we have figured out a way to threaten our union without killing one another.  That’s surely progress over the situation in the early 1860s.  But I’m not exactly pleased by the situation.   I still remember an America where, at least at times, we all seemed to be paddling in the same direction.  An America where Purple dominated Red and Blue.  Where Walter Cronkite reported, and the whole nation listened.  I still remember an America that would have done the fallen of Gettysburg proud.

Now?  We have an America where a President sets out to begin a speech called the “State of the Union” and nobody is even willing to hear it because we already think we know all we care to understand about the State of Union.

When you’re watching a mammoth tug of war, there is no union. There are just two groups of guys – one who will fall face-first in the mud and another who will fall butt-first on the ground.  These are not wars anyone wins.