Saturday, October 27, 2018

What it Means to be Democratic and Free

This past Thursday night I attended a salon populated primarily by foreign affairs professionals.  The guest speaker was Dan Twining, the President of the International Republican Institute (IRI).  IRI identifies its mission as to "advance democracy and freedom. We link people with their governments, guide politicians to be responsive to citizens, and motivate people to engage in the political process."  In short, IRI spreads American values throughout the world, and apparently emphasizes two such values above all else – the commitment to democracy and to freedom. 

After that salon, I’ve been reflecting on IRI’s charge.  Just how committed to those values are we?  In other words, just how “American” is America today?

Over the course of the last year or so, this blog has frequently addressed the state of American democracy.  I think it is safe to say our commitment to democratic values can be questioned.  Just consider, to take a few examples: the rampant efforts at voter suppression that come to light prior to each election; the high percentage of eligible voters who don’t even bother to cast a ballot (in the case of midterms, we’re talking about the vast majority of eligible voters); the existence of rampant gerrymandering in the U.S. Congressional Districts; the fact that there are populated areas that have no representation whatsoever in the Senate (just ask the folks of D.C. and Puerto Rico) or any voting representation in the House; the fact that four states with the largest populations have about as many people as the 35 states with the smallest populations, but the latter get nearly nine times as many representatives in the U.S. Senate; and the memory of two recent Presidential elections where the winner lost the popular vote.

If our society is committed to democracy, let’s just say that we have embraced a rather odd definition of that term.  Fortunately, however, for organizations like IRI and its blue analogue, the National Democratic Institute, our nation remains far and away more democratic than many others around the world. So we can still enjoy at least a modicum of credibility when we take our pro-democracy lectures across the pond.

The same can surely be said for our commitment to freedom, and then some.  If there is one value that continues to unify Americans, it’s the love of freedom.  In some respects, you can say that whatever is either best or worst about this country stems from our obsession with freedom.  To be sure, there are ways in which other countries surpass us in that regard.  Several countries have legalized euthanasia, and we have not.  But even in that regard we are ahead of the curve, for euthanasia is now legal in many states and that number is sure to increase over time.

As a Jew, I am incredibly thankful for America’s commitment to church/state neutrality and the sacred right to freely exercise one’s faith.  It’s not a coincidence that we have easily the world’s most thriving Jewish community outside of Israel.  As the President of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue of Washington, I also appreciate how difficult it would be for our government to outlaw certain traditional Muslim attire; Europeans might be able to get away with that sort of Islamophobic law, but it won’t fly here.

The American love for freedom is not just etched into our laws.  It’s ingrained in our culture.  Our national symbol, the bald eagle, says it all – we want to be able to soar in whatever direction we see fit.  To dress the way we want.  To love who we want.  To smoke what we want.  To worship in the morning and visit topless bars at night.  (Well, OK, not all of us want to do that, thankfully, but most of us believe in the right to be able to do it without Big Brother swooping down and stopping us.)  
It is not surprising that the two laws in our country that generate the most passion are the first two amendments of our Constitution: the right to freedom of expression in all its manifestations, and the right to bear arms.  Is it any wonder that opponents of the Second Amendment are left to flail away in failure despite the fact that this nation is thoroughly awash in firearms?  If America permits something that is valued by a substantial portion of society, God help whoever tries to outlaw it.  Fly, eagles, fly. 

Personally, I can appreciate this sentiment.  I despise guns, but I accept that in this culture, those who own them will probably get to keep them. I don’t smoke dope, but I wouldn’t deprive others of the right to do so.  Or to visit prostitutes, or to eat meat – neither of which I partake in.  Nor would I advocate restricting the freedom of speech except in very limited ways.  No engaging in fraud.  No shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater.  But if you want to say all sorts of obnoxious things on the campaign trail ... I wouldn’t stop you.

Free speech has always been the quintessential American right.  Our system has worked because, for the most part, we haven’t abused it.  At least not until now.  Today, for the first time in my lifetime, we’re putting our commitment to free speech to the test.

Every day you can turn on the radio and hear nationally syndicated personalities spew insults in the direction of “liberals,” “Feminazis,” or anyone else who gets in the way of their preferred political party.  Alternatively, you can turn on the television and watch the liberals get their revenge with incessant mockery against their own opponents.  Our President refers to the press as the “enemy of the people.”  Our campaign rallies are punctuated by nasty chants directed at media outlets and prominent politicians.   For some, this is all just fun and games. But for others, and I dare say most, it has become a Petri dish of hatred.  Today, if you want to be politically engaged and fit in with your environment, you better choose a team, demonize the opponent, and relish the name calling. 
In this past week, the chickens started coming home to roost.   Politically motivated mail bombs were sent all over the country to some of the nation’s most recognized citizens.  Immediately, the purveyors of hatred distanced themselves from these criminal acts.  And technically, they were right.   It’s illegal to send mail bombs, but legal to regularly spew hate.  That’s the American way.

It’s also a case of having-it-both-ways.  If we are going to use our commitment to freedom to wage a civil war of words in which members of each political party are taught to despise the other, how do we expect to export American values around the world?  And what exactly do we expect to happen here at home?  Frankly, if our political and cultural leaders viciously rip into their political opponents day after day, calling them names, questioning their patriotism, and effectively talking about them like a cancer on the American soul, isn’t more violence inevitable?  How can we subject 300 million people to these daily toxins and expect them all to figure out that the “game” is to be nasty, or even hateful, but not violent? 

This past week, we got lucky.  Nobody got hurt.  But remember, our commitment to freedom doesn’t simply permit lots of hate speech; it also permits lots of guns, including assault weapons.  In recent years, cultural and political leaders have seemed to think they can bombard 300 million people with disrespect, hatred and guns ... and expect everyone to keep their fingers off the trigger.  I realize freedom is a great thing.  But even great things have a price, and in this case it’s insanity.  Something has to give, my friends.  No scorched-earth civil war can possibly remain peacefully civil forever.    
Let’s hope that in ten days, we elect leaders who refuse to demagogue or demonize and who have the courage to speak out against those who do.  As for the rest of us, just please remember that no matter who you are or what political party you belong to, take a breath before you hate. 

Saturday, October 13, 2018

An Interfaith Address

After the madness of the previous few weeks, I am taking this blogpost off from politics -- partisan or otherwise.  What's more, I am taking this blogpost off from divisiveness generally.  Yes, I understand that what follows may be viewed as divisive by someone who is antagonized by the very existence of religion.  But if you fall into that category, I mean no offense.  For I assume that even the "non-religious" have their own world view, their own "ultimate concern," and I include you and others like you in any dialogue that is truly interfaith.

What follows is the substance of an address that I gave last week at a mosque in Lanham, Maryland.  It was part of an International World Islamic Conference entitled "The Spirit of Good Morals," and I was participating in a panel that focused on harmony and interfaith cooperation.  May you find these words meaningful --

In Judaism, the “Prophets” are known above all else for their love and their courage.  They are courageous enough to rail against even the most cherished of ceremonial rituals, whenever these rituals are placed above such values as justice and compassion.  For example, on the holiest day of fasting in the Jewish calendar, we read from the Prophet Isaiah:  “Because you fast in strife and contention ... your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high.  Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? [To] bow ... the[ir] heads like a bulrush and [lie] in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast...?  No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness ....  To let the oppressed go free.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home.” 

That is Prophetic Judaism.  It is why rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that the Prophets were absolutely consumed with the horrors of social injustice.  The Prophets, Heschel wrote, throw us “into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and affairs of the market place.  Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums. ... The[y] ... are scandalized and rave as if the whole world were a slum. ...  To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people, to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode, to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.”

To be a Jewish follower of the Prophets is to fight injustice.  And to love all expressions of God – and especially our fellow human beings.  We honor God, by loving humankind.  All of humankind.  Not just our family.  Not just our tribe.  Yet we live in a time where it is tempting to become tribal.  To circle the wagons and fight for our own kind.  White versus black, red versus blue, rich versus poor.  Such is life in 2018 in America.

But that is not a righteous life.  Righteousness requires us to transcend the tribal.  Yes, I am a son of Jacob.  But first and foremost, I am a son of Adam – and a lover of God.  My God commands me to open my heart to all people, and especially those most in need.  My God commands me to open my mind to all teachings, and not be afraid of dialoguing with those who disagree with me.  My God commands me to open my lips to speak truth to power, to preach based on hope not fear, and to be candid when others are circumspect.

While recognizing that interfaith is difficult whenever people dialogue with candor, I am proud to be a member of the interfaith movement.  And why not?  As Spinoza said, “all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”   If you ask me, few if any social movements are more excellent than interfaith.  Without it, we will never form the unity needed to the bridge the divides that plague our world.  If we don’t build these bridges, the poorest among us, the weakest among us, their bodies will suffer the most.  Their bodies, our souls.

I understand there are people who won’t dialogue with me because I am a Jew who has a love for the state of Israel. Decades ago, I left this country at the age of 20 to travel there.  When I left, I was a non-believer in God.  When I returned, I was a believer for life.  I have called out to all who are interested – come, let’s dialogue about the plight of Palestinians and Jews in that part of the world.  Some have answered my call.  Others would say “No. Don’t dialogue with him.  If you do that, you normalize the oppression for which his people are responsible.”

My brothers and sisters, that is what interfaith is up against.  Every tribe has its reasons NOT to dialogue with those who see the world differently.  Every tribe has its reasons to fear, to mistrust.  But that is not the path of the Prophets.  That is not the path of an open heart or an open mind.  To the Prophets, all human beings have dignity.  All voices should be heard.  All cries for help should be answered.  And to answer them, we must join hands, pool our resources, and work together. 

A week or so before this complex had its Grand Opening, a number of us from the interfaith community met here and shared a few reflections.  My message was simple.  The interfaith movement is beautiful, but it has a big problem.  For the most part, all we do is preach to the choir.  We see the same faces over and over again, and they all nod in agreement.  But we aren’t succeeding in reaching the mainstream of our congregations.  They are still apathetic or fearful.  So they’d rather not share their ideas about the hot-button issues outside their communities.  They prefer the comfort food of praying with their own kind, rather than, say, looking into the eyes of the “other” and seeing their own reflection.

How do we get the rank and file from our congregations to leave the comforts of home?  The answer starts with a commitment by our leaders to emphasize interfaith.  First, they must find fellow clergy from other faiths who they trust.  And then, these clergy must bring their congregations together and twin.  Congregational twinning is how you form trust and lasting friendships, and open up the preaching beyond the choir.  

In this world, there is nothing more inspiring than seeing people who disagree with each other nevertheless love each other.  Learn from each other.  And teach each other.  Yes, it’s difficult.  It takes time, patience, and plenty of humility.  But we have no choice.  We must take on the interfaith challenge.  Our Prophets require it.  You see, they demand that we, inspired by our love of God, heal our planet and care for our needy.  If we don’t work together, we can’t get that job done.  And that would be a catastrophe and a scandal that the Prophets cannot abide.   Nor should we.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

“When They Go Low, We Go High” – Yet Another Case Study

In mid-February 2008, Michelle Obama made a statement that, according to Republicans at the time, revealed her as a hater of America.  Reflecting on her husband’s popularity as a candidate for President, Michelle said that “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” 

Her statement was mocked far and wide over talk radio.  No matter what time of the day, you could listen to nationally syndicated voices blasting her as an ungrateful, militant feminist – and on those shows, there is no insult worse than “feminist.”  Rush Limbaugh, one of the pre-eminent voices of talk radio regularly uses the term “feminazi” instead of feminist to further illustrate the point that feminists are nothing short of a cancer on the nation.  I suspect he would use this term for any of the top women leaders of the Democratic Party – Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand.  Whichever of these women are actually seeking power at a given time are dehumanized on a regular basis throughout the day on stations all over America.  These are the programs through which Red America gets its talking points.  It has been this way for nearly three decades.  By contrast, Blue America tried to create its own network, Air America, but it failed in less than six years. 

Ten years have passed since Michelle Obama uttered those famous words about pride in her country.  She is pretty much out of the news now; since she is not threatening Rush, Mark, Laura, Sean and the other right-wing talking heads, nobody’s bothering to lash out at her.  Lucky woman.  The last time she was really at the center of the nation’s attention was when she delivered her speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2016.  Michelle was reflecting on the people – like our current President – who have questioned her husband’s citizenship or faith, using hateful language and acting like a bully (for what else do you call getting on the radio or television in front of an amen chorus and dehumanizing the leaders of the opposing party constantly for nearly 30 years).  And she was very clear about the proper way to react to such bigmouths:

“When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level.  No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”

There you have it – the motto of the Democratic Party.  So please allow me to translate – the Republicans can engage in mixed martial arts, throwing elbows, fists, knees, feet, you name it.  And we’ll respond with dressage – calm, composed, graceful, artistic.  Somehow, the good Lord has thrown us both into the same ring.  Naturally, the Republicans keep on winning battles (i.e., elections).  But we, the Democrats, feel like we’re winning the war.  Because in our minds, we’re the ones who can look ourselves in the mirror the next morning, proud of our performance, whereas they – those cruel bullies – they should be ashamed of themselves.

I assure you that they’re not.  In fact, right now, as we speak, all over the country, Republicans are laughing at their opponents, the way the Harlem Globetrotters must have laughed at the hapless Washington Generals.  They keep winning.  They have the Presidency, the Senate, the House, the State Houses, more and more courts, and now they are about to have the Supreme Court for a long, long time.  So much for the value of dressage.

The two sports were fully on display during the Kavanaugh hearings.  The Democrats brought calm, respectful Senators who asked questions and, indeed, elicited a number of “little lies” about the Senator’s high school yearbook and teenage alcohol habits.  “Well played,” as they probably say in dressage (you’ll forgive me but I’ve never learned dressage jargon, so I’ll have to speculate about it).  None of the Democrats lost his or her cool, or even broke a sweat.  Democrats rarely break a sweat – they’re surely fearful that if they did, it would look bad. And the one thing you can’t do in dressage is look bad – not you, not your horse.  Meanwhile, Kavanaugh came out like Ronda Rousey in her prime. He was ready to throw punches, show off his judo flips, and kick ass.   And when he was finished, Lindsay Graham was just warming up.  “This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics,” he hollered, “And if you really wanted to know the truth, you sure as hell wouldn’t have done what you’ve done to this guy.” 

Graham was yelling.  It’s the political equivalent of the knee to the face, which badly gashes the opponent and turns a white or brown face a red one.  Republicans don’t mind yelling.  Our President does it on a daily basis.  Bernie Sanders tried to do it on the Democratic side as well as Elizabeth Warren.  But they don’t get very far.  Bernie wasn’t even given a fair shake to win his Party’s nomination.  And Warren?  She’s viewed as unelectable – too “shrill,” too “negative.”  That’s another way of saying that there is no crying in baseball and no yelling in dressage.

As for mixed martial arts, there are comparatively few constraints.  It’s kind of no holds barred – you basically do whatever you have to do to win.  Principles are for pussies.  Uppercuts, armbars, and guillotines are for champions.  But there is one rule that applies AFTER you’ve won.  When you choke someone unconscious, for example, you’re supposed to let go.  You’re supposed to let the medics attend to the loser right away.  In Republican politics, the analogue is that you’re supposed to behave in a bi-partisan, statesmanlike way – after the choke hold has been successfully applied.  So, for example, when it became clear that Kavanaugh had the votes, he could go to the Wall Street Journal and write his op-ed about how maybe, just maybe, his performance in the ring last Thursday was a bit much.  Of course, there is no such thing as a bit much when you’re in the UFC and you’re fighting for the Title (in this case, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court).  You can make nice when the fight’s over, but only when the fight’s over.  Because if you let your guard down earlier, you might just get kicked in the face.  Even a Republican could have trouble rebounding from that.

It’s kind of funny, I guess, that the Republicans figured out a way to turn the would-be perpetrator into the victim.  Their passion has galvanized their base.  And the Democrats?  They have their base wondering about how things could have been different.  How Mitch McConnell could have said “Of course, sir,” when President Obama asked if his own nominee, Merrick Garland, would get a fair hearing.  Garland was a political moderate and AARP-eligible for 13 years, but still McConnell didn’t feel like giving him a fair hearing.  Again, no rules.  Elbows, knees, feet, fists – all good.  And how did Obama and the Democrats respond?  Rage?  Are you kidding.  There is no rage in dressage.  Seriously, if you want to win gold at that sport, you must exude class at all time.  You and your horse.
So President Obama took McConnell’s news like the class act we knew him to be when we elected him.  “No drama Obama,” we called him. Cool as the other side of the pillow.  No problem.  We don’t need our Supreme Court Justice this year.  We’ll wait until after we win the election in 2016.  In fact, we won’t even bother to campaign in the states where the polls are close, because our candidate is classy and your candidate is a lout, and Americans would never elect a lout.  What do you think this is, mixed martial arts?

Ah, yeah.  That’s exactly what it is.  You see, MMA is a battle between people with different specialties. You have boxers, wrestlers, judoka, and Muay Thai specialists, and they somehow get together in the same ring and fight it out – sometimes standing up, and sometimes on the mat, depending on whose skills are most dominant.  Similarly, the Republicans are using the full panoply of MMA skills to ignore the environment, cut taxes for the rich, and roll back reproductive rights and the Democrats are using the full panoply of dressage skills to ... well, let’s just say to look classy and feel good about themselves when they see themselves in the mirror after their inevitable defeats.
It’s not a fair fight.  Then again, nobody thinks about politics as being fundamentally fair.  Even the Democrats know that much.  Still, for reasons known only to the people at the last Democratic Convention, they cheered when Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.”

That’s insane.  Because in MMA, when a wrestler goes low, and the opponent goes high, he’ll swing and miss, get taken down, and then either get pummeled via the ground-and-pound or get arm-barred and need to tap out.  And then his opponent can hug him and behave in what we call in Washington a “bi-partisan” manner, until the next fight.  It’s a losing proposition.  But apparently the Democrats would rather stay classy than be effective.  You would forgive me for wondering if their heart was really in the competition.