Friday, August 22, 2014

On Leave

Strangely enough, I am actually leaving the friendly confines of the Washington, D.C. area this weekend and will not have time to post.   The Empathic Rationalist will return again on Labor Day weekend.

Enjoy the rest of the summer.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Two Americas

Bethesda, Maryland is, apparently, a long way from Ferguson, Missouri.  We don’t have military style police departments.  We don’t have gaping racial divides.   We don’t have any visible signs of poverty.   And sadly, we don’t have a clue about what’s going on throughout much of our country.
Bethesda is not a gated community.  Depending on whether you include North Bethesda (where I live) or just the southern part of the town, it has anywhere from 60,000-100,000 people -- far too many to wall off from the rest of the society.   Yet even though there’s no physical barrier setting Bethesda apart, there’s no doubting its exceptional status.  For one thing, over 83 percent of its adult residents have at least one college degree.   The median household income exceeds $140,000 (it would surely be more if you didn’t count retirees) and the median value of a detached house is over $900,000.  Bethesda is the home of the famous Congressional Country Club, a frequent stop on the PGA tour, not to mention the National Institutes of Health.   It’s a place where highly educated and highly affluent people sleep, eat at fancy restaurants, play golf, and talk about noblesse oblige.   If you don’t know what that means, you obviously don’t live here.

The scenes from Ferguson, Missouri are surely viewed as appalling to residents of Bethesda.  We’re used to seeing pictures of police states, but not from our own country.  The idea that local police departments in America commonly possess assault weapons wouldn’t surprise the locals; we recognize that not every American town is as squeaky clean as ours.  But what wasn’t widely known before this week was that local cops have been wielding grenade launchers, body armor, armored vehicles, and night vision lenses.  You just don’t need that stuff when you’re patrolling Old Georgetown Road and Democracy Boulevard.

I have been too busy lately obsessing about Israel and Palestine to devote enough attention to Ferguson.   And let’s face it – like the 96% of Bethesdians over 25 who are not unemployed, I’ve been too busy at work to give the news the full attention it deserves.  But I’m guessing that this episode in Ferguson has caught a fair amount of attention in my hometown, and I attribute that primarily to the fact that it is reminiscent of a Hollywood flick.  Yes, no matter how rich and educated you are, you’re still captivated by the sight of mean, not-too-lean, and all-too-anonymous cops,  protesters who are “mad as hell and [are] not going to take this anymore,” a martyred  teenager, and all sorts of racial overtones.  You can go online right now, pluck down a mere 16 bucks, and see a movie with those elements at the Regal Bethesda Theater.

I don’t mean to disrespect the entertainment value of the Ferguson story, but folks, popcorn and a Coke won’t do this story justice.   Yes, this raises issues about the militarization of American police forces.   Yes, this raises issues about racism in what many Fox News watchers call a “post-race” America.   But what it really raises most for me is the fact that America is no longer a nation defined by its middle-class.   It’s a land of “haves” and “have-nots.”   

The “haves” not only enjoy more wealth but hold disproportionate power over the political system.   Members of their social class dominate both houses of the U.S. Congress and the various state houses.   How do you think most of them got elected in the first place – money!  Then, once they come to power, they can enact regressive tax laws, like the one ensuring that regular income is taxed at a higher rate than capital gains.   Moreover, if you are affluent, you tend to live in a secure environment.   When you see a policeman, it’s likely because someone’s cat got caught in a tree.   Life is good in towns like Bethesda.  That’s why folks are so shocked when they are reminded of towns like Ferguson.

In present-day America, the rich get richer and the poor get incarcerated.   That’s especially the case when you are poor, black and male.   According to the NAACP, current trends suggest that one in three black males born today can expect to serve a prison sentence.   That number goes up even higher if you exclude relatively affluent families.  An article in Vox reports that when you compare prison sentences for similar crimes, black men serve for 20 times longer than white men.   I have no idea if those figures are accurate, but I don't doubt that there is a big, big problem here.  The upshot of all this is that we’re dealing with entire communities that have no political power, are being disrupted by lengthy prison stints, and are understandably alienated from the country that has been so good to people like me.

According to the great American myth, with a little “luck and pluck” any American can rise from rags to riches.  But I’ve read some of those Horatio Alger stories.   They don’t say anything about growing up in a place where your male role models have already been hauled off to prison, your schools are underfunded and dilapidated, and the authority figures put a target on your head simply because of your skin color and gender.  When I was growing up in – where else? – Bethesda, I could be pretty mischievous.  So were most of my friends.   As I put myself in the situation of someone who grows up in present-day Ferguson, Watts or Hunts Point, I somehow don’t picture ending up in Stanford or Harvard Law School.   

In the last couple of decades, only one Presidential candidate made much of a mention about the social-economic divide that is destroying this country.  He turned out to be a huckster.   When John “two Americas” Edwards built for himself a 28,000 square foot house, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.   Edwards became the perfect symbol of American hypocrisy.   We are a nation run by really rich people who act like they don’t care about the poor, and really rich people who act like they do.  And I do mean “act.”  As for those who truly are poor, they never get to see Pennsylvania Avenue or Capitol Hill from the inside; instead, they get to see places like Lompoc, Beaumont, and Leavenworth. 

Something must change, folks.  It’s time to have a national conversation about poverty, race, and gender.  And this time, the “gender” I have in mind is my own.   We need to take a very close look at the way poor black males live in this country.   Are we giving them the chances that the Declaration of Independence says are guaranteed to all “men”?   That beautiful document was written by a hero of mine who, unfortunately, was truly blind when it comes to skin color.  Nearly 2 ½ centuries have elapsed since he talked about the “unalienable rights … to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but it should be obvious to anyone that we’re still nearly as color "blind" now as we were then.  

America is on notice of the problem – much as we’re on notice of so many other societal and environmental scourges.  The question is, will we address it, or will this crisis fade from our collective consciousness once the protests in Ferguson have stopped?   I have my guess.   Hopefully, I’m wrong.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

It’s a Small World After All

The year was 1993.   Washington was all a buzz.   And at that moment, I was privileged to shake the hand of the one man who was causing the stir.   No, not Kenny G.   While it’s true that I had heard him perform a few minutes earlier and many of the folks in the room had the saxophone on our minds, we had come to meet another, lesser, saxophone player named William Jefferson Clinton.  And “we” were the members of the so-called Saxophone Club – donors to Clinton’s campaign. 

That evening, a lot of concepts had been running through my mind.   Political centrism.  Adultery.  Policy-wonkism.  Oratory.   The Democratic Party.  Supreme extroversion.  Supreme self-confidence.   Supreme campaigning.  I had no idea how Clinton would govern, but I knew how he had campaigned.  He seemed to adore the whole process.   He loved people (whether in big or small groups), analyzing public policy issues, and figuring out a way to explain his analysis on the campaign trail.   He was only the second American politician in my adult life who seemed to be a natural – a Hall of Famer, as it were.  Whereas the first, Ronald Reagan, came from that “other” party, Clinton was one of my guys.  And in early 1993, years before he would disgrace himself with “that woman,” Clinton made us Democrats proud.

Looking back at the situation more than two decades later, I have mixed feelings about Bill Clinton.   I guess I still kind of like him – in fact, I figure he’d make a better President than any other American politician I can think of, but there are a few things about him that stick in my craw.  One of those is the motto that was used in his War Room during the 1992 campaign.  That room came to be associated with guys like James Carville, George Stephanopoulos, and Paul Begala.  Wunderkinds all!  And their motto is now considered political gold:  “It’s the Economy, Stupid.”   According to conventional wisdom, Clinton’s minions hit the nail on the head.   Americans care about one thing – their wallets.  Here, on the west side of the Junior Pond, we can barely even name the continents across the sea, let alone the countries.   Who cares what happens there?   What matters is whether here in the Promised Land, the Dow is up, the unemployment rate is down, and the inflation rate is non-existent.  

In 1994, a year after I shook Clinton’s hand, genocide consumed roughly 800,000 Rwandans.   That’s almost 300 times as many as the people who died in 9/11.  What did the Clinton Administration do to stop that genocide?   Not much.  The Administration figured that this genocide didn’t have much to do with the American economy, and there weren’t a lot of big-time political donors from Rwanda.  According to conventional wisdom, wasting political capital on such a conflict would have been, what is the word, “interventionist.”   As President Number 1 put it, "It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world."   President Number 3, not wanting to be outdone, made the same point with just a little more rhetorical flair: "Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations -- entangling alliances with none."   I believe the key word there was “commerce.”   It’s the economy, stupid.  Always has been, always will be!

Well, maybe not.   I’ll grant that Carville, Begala and George the Short captured properly the American electorate of 1992 … or 1792, for that matter.   But to quote another great American, “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”  Gaza.   Isis.  Ebola.   Putin.  Netanyahu.  Hamas.  Ukraine.  Syria.  Iraq.   Assad.   No longer are these foreign concepts to Americans.   With one simple word, a whole series of thoughts rush in.   Now, try to do the same with domestic issues.   Here goes:  Obamacare.   Hillary.  Tea-party.   Not nearly as long a list, is it?

Do me this favor next week.  Turn on Fox News or MSNBC in the evening when they’re not talking about one of the international crises du jour and are instead focusing on domestic issues.  Immediately, the discussion will seem incredibly petty.  Plato once compared people who are unschooled in philosophy to troglodytes who are looking at shadows on their cave’s wall.   And truly, after you listen to a news report about the incredibly important things going on around the world, it’s hard not to listen to a discussion about domestic issues without thinking that the reporters or talking heads are, indeed, troglodytes.  Right now,  the world is facing threats from (a) an out-of-control killer virus, (b) a bully who wants to resurrect the old Soviet Union, (c) a never-ending war in the Holy Land that periodically ensconces the residents of that area in a combination of hatred and victimization, (d) a band of terrorists who wish to gobble up more and more territory and use it as a springboard for more and more attacks, (e) a thug who used chemical weapons on his own people and now is satisfying himself with more conventional, but equally lethal, weapons …    Now tell me, boys and girls, do we have anything going on here in the US of A that is equally compelling?  One-tenth as compelling?

I heard a newscaster ask the other day whether “America” faces a threat from Ebola.  Immediately, I laughed.  Did that newscaster have in mind my daughter who is in South Africa now for several weeks and who has a ticket to go to West Africa for several weeks later in the year?   Perhaps the newscaster could have asked the same question about whether “America” faces a threat from the war in Israel and Gaza.   And perhaps she has in mind my other daughter, whose American rabbinical school expects her to spend a year in Israel -- which in her case, begins this October.   In the 21st century, do we really still think we’re living in a time when the oceans that border our shores operate like force fields that keep the rest of the world out and that keep us ‘umericuns in?  

Bill Clinton says that he regrets his inaction in Rwanda, and I believe him, but it was completely predictable at that time.  He is, after all, a political campaigner first and foremost, and politicians here in America were never rewarded by taking care of the well-being of Africans.    Gradually, though, I’m thinking that the equation will change, and maybe not so gradually at that.  I doubt I’m alone in getting increasingly bored with partisan squabbling about microscopic economic changes at home, when so many lives are in danger abroad.  And I doubt I’m alone in realizing that nightmarish situations abroad increasingly threaten the lives of folks at home, not to mention those among us who spend time abroad.  

I suspect that this fall, our politicians will continue to campaign based on the “It’s the economy, stupid” theme.  If it’s worked for well over two centuries, it seems strange to change the model.   But don’t be surprised if huge swaths of voters stay away from the polls.   And don’t be surprised if campaign contributions dry up as well.    People vote in mid-terms because they are energized, and right now, the only energizing issues are foreign policy issues.   “It’s the economy, stupid,” is morphing into: “Don’t be stupid, pay attention to the world – it’s getting smaller every day.”

Saturday, August 02, 2014

What I’m Confused about and What I’m Confident about Regarding “The Conflict”

What I am confused about:

  1. Whether Martin Luther King is correct in saying that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
  2.  How, if at all, earthly events, such as conflicts between peoples, are influenced by one or more transcendent forces.
  3. What percentage of Israelis and Palestinians are truly willing to accept a peace agreement without then trying to undermine it in pursuit of greater “justice” for their own people.
  4. Precisely how Israel is striking the balance between its stated goals of destroying Hamas’s military capabilities and minimizing civilian casualties.
  5. The percentage of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank who currently support violent resistance.
  6. What will happen to Europe’s Jewish population during the next year or two, and where the Jews who flee Europe will go.  
  7. What will be the future of J Street – the American left-leaning organization that used to call itself “Zionist” but that made a conscious decision to stay away from a recent pro-Israel demonstration in Boston. 
  8. What the future has in store for the movement for a two-state solution – will it grow or shrink, become more impassioned or more muted.
  9. To what extent the Israel-Palestinian conflict will impact the broader interfaith movement.
  10. Whether America will ever impose preconditions to its military assistance to Israel. 

What I am Confident About

1.      In the face of Hamas’s threat, Israel has two choices: to respond with excessive force or inadequate force.  The so-called third alternative, “perfectly proportionate force,” is a utopian dream, one that only Hal the Computer might expect to accomplish.
2.      Until this latest round of fighting, Israelis had grown complacent about the status quo, despite how bleak it is for the Palestinians; that attitude was bound to alienate even those Palestinians who are willing to live in peace with a Zionist state.
3.      The United Nations can no more be trusted to protect Israeli security than a fox can be trusted to guard a hen house.
4.      Most Israelis will continue to believe that the fighting in Gaza has absolutely nothing to do with its continued settlement policies in the West Bank, but I will continue to believe that the two are related.
5.      Far from increasing Israeli security, its West Bank settlements merely undermine her security; they cause Palestinians to thoroughly mistrust any Israeli leader who claims to support the two-state solution but does not vocally advocate dismantling the settlements.
6.      The “two-state solution” involves a “Jewish State” side-by-side with a “Palestinian State,” and those who haven’t embraced those terms but who have claimed to support that solution have actually been undermining its chances.
7.      Nobody should talk publicly about the Conflict without carefully reading Hamas’s Charter and reflecting on the meaning of Articles 7, 31 and 32; it should convince anyone who cares about Israeli security that negotiating with Hamas is like negotiating with Al Qaeda.
8.      In this region, the ubiquitous fear and mistrust has now morphed into out-and-out hatred, which tragically enables people to feel good whenever the “enemy” suffers and causes them to view the death of “enemy civilians” primarily in terms of its public relations impact.
9.      If America was faced with the same situation that Israel faces, there would be far more Palestinian casualties and far less international criticism. 
10.  Those who truly care about peace, and not just justice for one side or the other, must continue to fight through their emotions and keep their eyes on the prize; now is no time to lose hope that, someday, peace will come to the Holy Land.