Saturday, March 23, 2013

A New Start


One thing I’ll say for the President: he has learned a thing or two about Middle East diplomacy since his speech in Cairo four years ago.   That speech, combined with Obama’s failure to address its ramifications, turned out to be one of the biggest disasters of his first term.   This week, when our President returned to the region, he was a much wiser man.  What is far from clear, however, is whether the learning he gained from the school of hard knocks will make a difference on the ground.   Given that his Israeli approval rating when the trip began was a whopping 10 percent, I tend to be a bit skeptical.   We present-day Jews might not be as stiff-necked as our Biblical ancestors, but Obama had four years to create a decent “first impression” and never could get the job done.   It will take a lot of work to undo that damage, and a few days of speechmaking isn’t going to do the job.  

But it was a good start.

If you’ve been with me since the early days of this blog, you’ll note that one of the main reasons I supported Obama over Hillary was because I thought he was a born diplomat.  Accordingly, I felt that he offered the best chance of brokering a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.   I still think he has a disposition that in many ways is ideally suited to the job of mediator.  But what I didn’t bank on was how utterly ignorant he was about the region at the time he took office.  There is no other word to describe a President who made concrete demands of the Israelis, but not the Palestinians (other than to refrain from terrorism), and who seemed to suggest that Israel’s claim to exist was based on the Holocaust rather than on thousands of years of Jewish history (which included a lengthy period of control over the Land of Israel).  Even a casual observer of the Middle East should have known that such an approach would only get Israel’s back up.  And indeed, for much of his current tenure as Prime Minister, Netanyahu could count on increasing his own popularity domestically simply by using Obama as a punching bag.  That’s not exactly what I had in mind when I envisioned Barack as a natural peacemaker.

This past week, though, Obama was the mediator I had originally expected him to be.   He made no major gaffes.   He appeared to be even-handed.  And he seemed to be viscerally committed both to the idea of Israel as a Jewish State (a term he would have been afraid to use in Cairo) and the notion that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is an injustice to the Palestinian people, who deserve a state of their own.   When it comes to Hamas, Obama was sharply critical, even dismissive.  He might as well have been speaking about al Qaeda.   But when it came to the Palestinian Authority or the Netanyahu Government, Obama spoke as someone who was truly looking to extend his hand in friendship.   If anything, he was speaking empathically to those leaders of those governments by publicly recognizing that they have to deal with a lot of hard-liners whenever they wade into the peace process, and he of all people can sympathize with their plight.  

Those of us who are passionate about the cause of peace in the Holy Land should feel a little better this weekend than we felt last weekend.   And I say that notwithstanding the continual parade of horribles emerging from Syria.  Barack Obama has signaled that he may yet have a second act when it comes to the region.   But I use the word “may” with plenty of caution.   Let’s grant that our President has learned lessons from his past blunders.   Let’s grant that he has found his voice in presenting himself as a rare bird: someone who is deeply pro-Israel and pro-Palestine.   I still am not convinced that he is going to make peacemaking a major priority of his second term, for this issue has yet to captivate the interest of the American public and I have my doubts that it ever will.  What I don’t doubt is that unless Obama makes the issue a priority, he has little to offer the peace process.  You see, the Israelis and Palestinians are sophisticated when it comes to that process – they don’t need orators, they need warriors.   Specifically, they need an American President who will fight for peace as fervently and indefatigably as he might wage a war.  

The value of Barack Obama as a peacemaker is that he has the potential to be a trusted and respected friend of Netanyahu and Abbas alike.  But if he wants to be their friend, he has to show that he cares about the welfare of their people almost as much as they do.  It’s not a trick he can pull off without blood, sweat and tears.  

You can win political campaigns with rhetoric and fundraising.  But in this area, fundraising is irrelevant and high-level rhetoric, however beautifully packaged, is only slightly more useful.  Does Barack have the commitment, the energy, and the passion to get the job done?   My prayers say yes.  My mind is more skeptical.  

Note:  I expect to be out of town next weekend, so please don’t expect a post for the rest of the month.  Take care, enjoy the NCAA Tournaments (the men’s, as well as the women’s), and Go Stanford!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Could John Lennon Be Smiling in His Grave


“Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You, you may say
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

You, you may say
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one”

Imagine that John Lennon had never written those lyrics.  And imagine hearing them instead from a politician – say, at an acceptance speech at a Democratic National Convention. They would be viewed as nothing short of insane.  Irreligious.  Unpatriotic.  Anti-capitalist.  When it comes to American iconoclasm, Lennon captured the whole trifecta.  

            And yet, because he was a songwriter and not a politician, Lennon’s Imagine has gone down as arguably the most spiritually inspiring pop song in history.  I don’t doubt for a second that Unitarian Universalists view the song as essentially a religious hymn.  But even in the more mainstream faiths, devotees of Imagine surely abound.  And that is because Lennon has touched on many of the most sacred themes of organized religions.  Like all of the traditional religious leaders, Lennon is proclaiming the supreme value of a charitable mindset, where we strive to work together to feed the poor, clothe the needy and heal the infirm.   And he is not just calling for this ideal of a universal brotherhood; he is saying that we have the power to make it happen.  In other words, his song is asking us to envision what traditionalists have called the Messianic Age, the only differences being that for Lennon, instead of there being one Messiah, we are all, collectively, called upon to serve in that capacity, and instead of envisioning a heavenly realm above, he is asking us to envision a heavenly future on earth.   That heaven will be a place clearly recognizable by worshippers of all the great faiths.   It will be a place where greed is gone, sharing is the order of the day, and peace reigns supreme.

Nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war. … The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid; the calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together, with a little boy to herd them.” 

Lennon, Isaiah … all of a piece, right?  It’s called faith in the future.  And it rests upon a vision of humankind living righteously.  It’s a vision that has become increasingly rare in the thousands of years after Isaiah, and the more than four decades since the writing of Imagine.   

I’m not asking you to think of Lennon’s utopia as realistic, any more than I’m asking you to find realism in the words of Isaiah.   But for all the great songs he gave us, I think you owe him this much: just imagine the world he was talking about.   And now, if I may, let me ask you to imagine something else that might make that happen.   Imagine a man, emerging from a position as the leader of perhaps the most entrenched and conservative religious bureaucracy in the world, and becoming a passionate and tireless advocate for economic equity.   And imagine this man not merely preaching the value of private charity.  In fact, imagine him making a clarion call for the idea that private charity alone is inadequate to fighting the scourge of poverty, or to creating the type of access to health care that we all deserve, or to allowing rich and poor alike to enjoy the equitable educational opportunities that modern democracies require to function properly.

            Imagine this religious leader calling for a commitment throughout the world to the importance of public institutions, as a means of working for justice and fairness.  Imagine him advocating for progressive tax policy.   Imagine him saying that if Jesus were alive today, the last thing he would do is live in a gated community, earn his keep by producing goods that are destroying the environment, use his earnings on one luxury item after another, and look down upon the poor.  Imagine him saying that if we want to call ourselves religious people, we must act in a way that honors the highest principles of our religion.  And that nowhere in any of the world’s great religions does it say that we have the right to extol the value of greed.

            Imagine this religious leader saying that nowhere in any of the great world Scriptures does it talk about the existence of an invisible hand that will magically take care of us if all strive to work purely for our own self-interest.   Imagine this religious leader pointing out that Adam Smith is not a religious leader – but just one of many economists who had a theory.  

            Now imagine a pope who does not come from the continent of Europe, but rather, from the relative “backwater” of Argentina.  And imagine this pope naming himself after St. Francis of Assisi, that tireless advocate of the poor.  And imagine this pope living in a modestly furnished home, carrying his own bags while traveling, choosing public transportation over limousines, cooking his own food, and settling his own bills.

            And imagine this pope one day realizing that it is not enough for him to behave in a way that eschews greed, but he must actively preach against it – and use the powers of his conservative pulpit to call for progressive legislation that would make “economic equity” into one of the supreme religious virtues.

Just imagine it.  

And then imagine that when I was flying to New Orleans a few days ago, a woman asked me how it is possible that religious people (meaning Catholics) can actually vote Democratic even though the Democratic party is pro-choice on abortion and increasingly tolerant of gay marriage.  That’s easy to imagine, isn’t it?  In fact, it actually happened.  But so did the part about there being an Argentine pope whose lifestyle suggests that he takes his religion seriously.

So, even though this pope is anti-choice on abortion and doesn’t believe in equal rights for gay couples, I’m still going to imagine that he can become a lion in the fight for economic equity.  Join me in imagining that.  And maybe, someday, the world will live as one.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

The Chickens are Coming Home to Roost


You have to pardon me for not blogging extensively this weekend.  I’m spending the weekend the same way I’ve spent much of every weekend during the last 2 1/2 months – working on my job with the federal government.  It’s the same way I spent this past Wednesday – in the office, just like a number of my colleagues, even though the government was officially “closed” because of inclement weather.  And it’s the same way I will spend part of tomorrow.  Just doing my “cushy government job.”

The truth is that plenty of devoted civil servants regularly put in long, long hours working on the country’s business.   Nearly all of us are about to get a pay cut ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending upon how long this stupid “sequestration” situation is going to last.  And this pay cut – otherwise known as a “furlough” – is on top of having to endure years without a cost-of-living increase.  That’s the life of being a federal employee these days. 
Does America care about the lack of cost of living increases and impending furloughs for federal workers?  Or about the impending cuts to services that the federal government offers to the public?  I suspect most of America aren’t the least bit concerned.  In fact, roughly half of those who do care are probably happy about this development.   They have been bombarded over the radio and TV with the notion that cutting the pay of lazy, overpaid bureaucrats is surely a good thing, and trimming a bloated government is long overdue.   That’s the hard-right view of sequestration.  The amazing thing to me is how our progressive Democratic President agreed to this idea in the first place.

If I had a better sense of humor, perhaps I would view this whole sequestration situation as a big joke.  Supposedly, our President went down this road because he thought sequestration would be so asinine, because of the indiscriminate nature of the program cuts, that we couldn’t possibly allow it to happen.  Accordingly, we would by necessity come together and figure out a sensible way to trim the National Debt.    Apparently, he was sufficiently impressed by the rationality and moderation of our Congress that he was sure they would reach an agreement on how to deal with the budget.  And now that we’re looking those cuts in the face, what is the President doing?  What else but playing the blame game.  Allegedly, the situation is entirely the fault of the Republicans for not compromising with the President’s view of debt reduction.  I have no doubt that if I were to watch MSNBC in the evening, which I haven’t lately, I would hear pundit after pundit place the entire blame for this mess on Republican shoulders.  Personally, I’m not buying it.  A pox on both their houses, I say.  

Folks, we are finally reaping the consequences of being led by out-of-touch politicians who work in a thoroughly polarized political environment.  In this type of situation, we should expect irrational outcomes, and anyone who counts on rationality is the one who is truly clueless.  When the system works – that’s the real shocker.  For those of us who have been watching our political process for a number of decades, what’s particularly fascinating is how much worse it is now than it used to be in the mid-20th century.  When America was at its peak, our government worked efficiently.  We had strong, respected leaders in the executive branch, and the legislative branch was run by moderates.  Now?   We have a professor in the executive branch who doesn’t seem to understand the climate in which he operates, except on a theoretical basis.  And as for the legislative branch, that is increasingly populated by loopy ideologues and others who fear that they must pander to extremists or risk losing their seats.  Together, they’re about to perform surgery on the federal budget using a butcher knife instead of a scalpel.   Trust me – we will all pay for this insanity and not just federal employees.  

            The greatest irony of all is that there truly is fat to cut in our government, but we’re just not going to concentrate on cutting that fat; we’ll cut the lean, too.  Think about all the federal programs that are luxury items we can afford to live without.   And think about all the humongous outlays that go to government contractors who charge us for workers who cost a multiple of what they would cost if the government hired them directly.  Reflect, too, about all the retired-in-place employees who never seem to lose their jobs.  Every agency has them, and some have a lot of them, but they’ll do no worse under the sequestration rules than the most productive employees in the government.   

            If there was a good deal to be had, the time to broker it was around the New Year before our government decided to increase taxes on some high-income households.  After that point, the GOP could legitimately say that they compromised on taxes already, and now it is time for the Democrats to compromise on expenses.  In reality, we still need plenty of new revenues – in the form of gutting these absurd loopholes in the tax code.  Then again, changes are also needed in programs like Social Security and Medicare, which are facing one hell of a shock to the system as more and more of my fellow baby boomers retire.
            Both sides ought to have the will to compromise.  Right now, though, neither side can resist playing politics.  So what do we have?   Sacrifices that are NOT equitably shared.  As one of those who will bear more than his share of the brunt, let me just say that I’m disgusted by the politicians who are running this country into the ground.  
            In spite of those politicians, I still plan on getting the rest of my work done this weekend.   If some of my colleagues decide to approach their jobs more apathetically, however, I don’t plan on blaming them.  Not these days.  As the old saw goes, “you get what you pay for.”   And if America is apathetic about how much they’re paying for government services, don’t be surprised if they get their money’s worth – and no more.