Saturday, May 28, 2016

Hope and Change

January 2009 was an exciting time for me to be in Washington, D.C.  We had a new President – an African-American with a silver tongue and a passion to unify.  I was in the process of co-founding a new organization called the “Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington” or “JIDS.”   And Middle East Peace Groups were sprouting up, including one I joined – Yes We Can, Middle East Peace, or “YES-MEP” – that was clearly inspired by the rhetoric of the new President. 

Boy, have things changed in seven years, don’t you think?  More precisely, we’ve seen change, but lost a lot of hope.   We have pulled ourselves out of a Great Recession, but for most of us, economic prospects look bleak.   Our kids leave school awash in debt, decent housing for them is unaffordable, and our transportation infrastructure is falling apart.  The rich get richer while every other family either stagnates or deteriorates.  What’s more, our climate has changed for the worse, and we’re running out of time before we can stem the effects of industrialization on Mother Nature.  Famines are likely to consume millions of lives across the Pond, and even here in the US, big coastal cities may soon disappear.   Our President has spoken about these problems, but the American public has long stopped listening to his oratory.  He’s now just another middle-aged guy with gray hair -- another cautionary tale about how difficult it is to change the culture of Washington, D.C. and enact forward-looking legislation.   Somehow, this well-meaning, diplomatic, thoughtful man has turned into a widely hated, divisive figure, and we will soon be engrossed in a nasty unpopularity contest for the next Custodian-in-Chief. 

But look at the bright side.  At least we’re not Israel/Palestine. 

People frequently ask me whether I started JIDS in order to work for peace in the Middle East.  In part, the answer is yes.   There didn’t seem to be much we could do here in DC to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together directly, but I thought we could at least model reconciliation and enlighten ourselves about what it means to be first cousins in the family of Abraham.   Just like Obama, JIDS has kept on trucking; we met as recently as May 15th, and we have a planning meeting set for June 5th.   We have no plans to give up, but nor do we suspect that the warm feelings we’ve generated in our interfaith community are replicated in Jerusalem.  When I traveled there in 2015, I was struck by how alienated the two peoples are from one another.   As for the peace movement, it seemed dead as a doornail.

This past fortnight has been another dark one in the Holy Land.  The consummate politician/survivor, Bibi Netanyahu, jettisoned his center-right Defense Minister, Moshe Yaalon, and replaced him with Avigdor Lieberman.  Lieberman has been one of those Israeli pols who have long attacked Bibi as being too moderate and wishy-washy on the topic of the Arabs.   If Lieberman had his way, the Palestinians would be sent on a trail of tears to Jordan as if to rid Israel of a pestilence problem.   This guy is the real deal – the id of Israeli tribalism.   Cold, ruthless, ideological, dangerous.   We’ve seen his type come to power before in many countries, and trouble almost always follows.    With Lieberman at his side, Bibi is now ready to lead the most right-wing government in the history of the Jewish State.

Here in Washington, D.C., the number of gatherings devoted to Middle East Peace isn’t anywhere near what it was seven years ago.   Yes-MEP, for example, is long gone – a victim of the ideological divisions that swallowed it up from the inside.   Many Palestinians here in the DC area will no longer tolerate dialogue; they want action – meaning efforts to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel (BDS).   Many American-Jewish peace advocates have grown fed up with the Jewish State and blame it, rather than the Palestinians, for the fact that a two-state solution has never been reached.  These Jews have generally disowned the term “Zionism,” viewing it as “divisive” if not downright pernicious.  Some explicitly affirm BDS; others refuse to go that far, but neither do they seem hopeful that the trend to the right in Israeli politics will ever be reversed.   Generally speaking, when it comes to the Middle East Peace movement, there is doom, gloom, and shame on the part of the Jews, and the only thing that brightens the hearts of the Palestinians is the prospect that BDS may bring Israel to its knees.  They must know that prospect is a long shot, but it’s the only hope they have at the moment.

At times like this, we’re all advised to take a breath and get a little perspective.  These trends we’re talking about are just that – trends.  They are signs of the times.  They are not permanent.  In fact, if anything, whenever times seem bleak, that’s usually an indication that the motivation will exist to react against recent developments and strongly impel us in the opposite direction. 

Look what’s happened in America with the young people clamoring for a real revolution – not one based on empty slogans and beautiful oratory, but on concrete proposals to identify a set of rights that are extended to all Americans.   No, Bernie Sanders won’t win the White House this year, and I dare say he won’t win in 2020 either.  (As we say in Brooklyn, “He’s not getting any younger.”)  But nor do I think he will quickly abandon his movement and fall in line, the way the Corporatist Wing of the Democratic Party would like him to after the California primary is over. 

For those who are mocking Bernie as not a “true Democrat,” most of his supporters would respond “Exactly. And that’s why we love him.”   Bernie is offering a progressive alternative to a Democratic Party that has been ruled by fat cats who gorge themselves on campaign contributions and re-elections.  Perhaps the generation that is “Feeling the Bern” will look for a different kind of politician – someone who is candid, straightforward, and in it primarily for the sake of the poor and the working class -- and stop fighting for sell-outs whose only legitimate rallying cry is that they are less right-wing than their Republican rivals.    Remember, even if some members of the Bern generation lose their souls as they become older and more established, there will be other, younger Americans who emerge from college with the same amount of idealism.  Maybe that’s the great benefit of coming into a stagnant economy with lots of debt: you tend to keep your idealism longer.   Every cloud has a silver lining.

As for Israel, the good news is that, like America, it is a democracy.   As more people throughout the world lose respect for the Jewish State, thanks in large part to leaders like Netanyahu and Lieberman, young Israelis will surely take notice.  The strategy of circling the wagons might work for a while, but my guess is that it will wear thin eventually.  

Now I know the common response – that by the time the majority of Israelis come to their senses and embrace peace, there will be too many West Bank Settlers to make room for a Palestinian State.  “You can’t unscramble an egg,” say the doomsayers.  Perhaps not, but you can surely roll back some settlements if the will of the Israeli majority is to do so.   And you can have a two-state solution based on 1967 borders with land swaps, which can include giving the Palestinians land that is on the Israeli side of the Green Line.   If the Israelis and Palestinians truly embrace peace, we can yet have a two-state solution.  And since Israel is a democracy, we only need a majority of Israelis to get on board.  (Sadly, when it comes to giving up land, this may ultimately require a majority of JEWISH Israelis – it may not be enough if the majority is composed of Palestinian Arabs and Jews -- but that is not out of reach either.)

The good news is that when it comes to peacemaking, time is on our side.  Eternity is a long time.  Sooner or later, we can find benign and pragmatic leadership in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ramallah and, yes, Gaza City.  Sooner or later, we can find leaders whose love for peace and reconciliation exceeds their passion for perfect justice.  We have found them before, and we’ll find them again.

And let’s not forget that even if one enlightened leader is assassinated by the evil in our midst, another enlightened successor can pop up in her place.   That’s the beauty of building movements from the grass roots.  Individuals come and go, but principles and values survive – and the greater they are, the more they manifest themselves.   

Thankfully, we are a resilient species.  So when it comes to change, never lose your hope. 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Empathic Rationalism Begins At Home

I will show you the courtesy of not boring you with too many medical details.  But the bottom line is that an upper-respiratory infection has left your humble scribe in quite a state this weekend.   Consequently, I'm going to essentially "call in sick" from my blogging duties, much as I did from my office duties on Friday. The hope is that on Monday, I will be back in the office to begin my 32nd year as an employee of the United States Government. 

That's right -- Monday the 23rd will be my 31st anniversary as a federal civil servant.  Over the decades, I've seen the public's respect for that career path drop, fueled in part by politicians who enjoy scapegoating federal workers as lazy and overpaid.  The truth is that some are lazy, and some are overpaid, but that can be said about private sector employees as well.  There are also plenty of  federal civil servants who are hard working and grossly underpaid and yet are willing to continue to do their jobs out of a sense of duty to their country.  I am proud to work with these people on a daily basis and would encourage young people who are looking to enter the workforce to do the same.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Infrastructural Rot in the Nation's Capital

From my admittedly limited observations, this week has been a relatively good week for the Metro, which is what everyone in Washington, D.C. calls our subway system.   Only once was I told that my train had to be off-loaded because of maintenance problems.  Only one of my business meetings was delayed because an attendee assumed that he could trust the Metro to run on schedule.  Only twice did I walk into a Metro car that literally smelled like a skunk.   And it was only about three or four times that I heard people complain about their subway-related commute, or about the prospects of going weeks at a time later in the year when their Metro line will be completely shut down.  I’d say that’s a pretty good week, all things considered.   Hey, at least I didn’t notice any fatalities or subway-related fires.  I didn’t even inhale any smoke.  So why should I whine?  Life is good here in the nation’s capital.

                The thing is, though, that I’ve been to European capital cities before and ridden their subways.  Somehow, their systems seem to function.   Why doesn’t ours?   How could the nation with by far the largest GNP in the world allow its infrastructure – as exemplified by the public transportation system of its capital city – to completely fall apart?   Did we not think this would be an embarrassment to tourists, both domestically and abroad?  Or that this would create tremendous inefficiencies with our workforce?  Or that this would discourage people from taking public transportation at a time when our environment desperately needs us to stop driving all the time?  Or did we flat out just not think?

                While the decrepit nature of the D.C. Metro system is merely a microcosm of the rotting infrastructure that is plaguing America generally, there is something especially illustrative about this example.  Our liberal politicians talk about the importance of public service or about the scourge of climate change.  Presumably, they should love the idea of a functioning DC Metro – how else can we get our public servants to the office efficiently and in a way that is gentle on the environment?   Indeed, the federal government provides subsidies to its employees to encourage them to take the subway or other forms of public transportation.  It all makes sense – except the part about the system being slow, unreliable, and sometimes even deadly.

                One thing you have to love about the deterioration of the Metro is that it has been a team effort.   The federal government has a general oversight role over the system, which includes the power to order that work be done to ensure that the trains run safely.  Then we have the local governments of Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., which are supposed to be working together on a regular basis to ensure that the system has all the support it needs.  No doubt, Congress could also lend a hand by appropriating money to protect the system from falling apart.  It would seem like a no-brainer that one way or another, the Metro wouldn’t be allowed to deteriorate.  

Then again, that would ignore the reality of America today.   Our citizens are sick of paying taxes – so they don’t clamor to pay more even if it means sacrificing necessities like a modernized infrastructure or quality schools.  Our politicians love to demagogue against public-sector hiring and out-of-control deficits – so they wash their hands with programs that involve government spending.   And to the extent money is given to the government to spend, it is handled by bureaucrats who are often more concerned with their own turf than their constituents’ needs – making it the exception, rather than the norm, when different government bodies work well together.  

It wasn’t that long ago when the DC subway system was the envy of the world.  And it could still be a great asset to the nation today, if only we had bothered to apply the basic principles that any of us who own property understand.  If you’re a homeowner, you either build in some periodic maintenance expenses or expect your home to fall apart.  If you’re a car owner, you either get regular tune ups and inspections or expect to replace your car every few years.   This isn’t rocket science – you can’t be in charge of bridges, roads, railroad tracks or whatever else and wait for fatalities before you address your system’s needs.  But that’s precisely what we Americans have decided to do with our infrastructure.   We wake up to problems only after the casualties start to mount.  

Here in D.C., the casualties on the Metro have already started to mount, and not coincidentally, we finally have a General Manager in charge of the system who finally seems to want to take his job seriously.  I support him in those efforts.  What I lament is that we have become a country of skilled damage-control experts, when what we need even more are those who can prevent the damage from happening in the first place.  You can have your top surgeons.  I’ll take the top nutritionists.  I think we both know who would live longer.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Time to Focus on Both Candidates -- Not Just Trump

Whether you read newspapers or watch cable TV news, you’re probably inundated by coverage about Trump.  This coverage is virtually 100 percent critical. Journalists hate Trump.  He calls them liars, and they return the favor, presenting him as an uninformed, uninquisitive, dangerous demagogue.   Some days, the Washington Post’s lead editorial is devoted to bashing the guy, and then when you flip to the Opinion page, you see two or three additional stories with the same theme.   When it comes to the journalist community, lung cancer and heart disease may be more popular than the mogul from Queens.   

And that, my friends, is helping to prop him up with the Republican electorate.  The majority of that electorate hates the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and MSNBC, and they may have crossed the line to hating Fox News as well.  Yet, as the saying goes, the enemy (Trump) of their enemy (the mainstream media) becomes their friend.  I think Trump realized that early on in this campaign.   That may have been his masterstroke as a candidate: egg on the media, and everything will fall into place, at least with the Republican electorate. 

            Personally, though, with the passage of time, I have grown less and less interested in this circus act.  As a fan of Rickles – the other master entertainer named “Don” -- I can enjoy some of Trump’s jokes at his rivals’ expense.  What’s more, I can even appreciate some of his substantive points.  Campaign finance absolutely needs to be reformed so that politicians can be independent of their financial benefactors.   And politicians also need the guts and the motivation to become more natural and authentic on the stump.   The ability to read watered-down, poll-tested drivel off a teleprompter is not my idea of a political credential.  

            So good for Trump to shake things up a bit.  But he has given us too many reasons to want him to stay the hell out of Washington.   First, there was his “Birtherism,” which was worthy of Joseph McCarthy.   And then came his crass insults of POWs, his threats forcibly to remove 12 million illegal immigrants from their homes, and last but not least, his un-American proposal to ban all Muslims who are not American citizens from this country.   That’s just a few of his gems, but each one is a doozy.   Those positions left me uninterested in him as a serious candidate.  And as a comedian, his shtick is getting to be old hat.  Rickles did a better job of keeping it fresh.   

            The media’s current obsession with the Donald is whether he can unify his party.  Honestly, I don’t much care.  That party was plenty unified under Mitt and it still got smoked; why should this election be any different?  At a time when young Americans no longer figure to be as affluent or as secure as their parents and grandparents, what does the Republican Party have to offer us?  Tax cuts for the rich?  More economic polarization?   A social agenda that caters entirely to the most Orthodox and right-wing portions of religious communities?    The one time during the last 24 years when they were in power, they also gave us a war backed by false evidence that turned into an international embarrassment and further destabilized the most dangerous part of the world.   How do these guys expect to get a majority of Americans to vote for their standard bearer?

            The truth, I believe, is that Trump can win ... but only if Hillary is unable to unify her own party and attract some independents.   She is the one who everyone should be thinking about now, not Trump.  She is ahead in the polls, ahead in the betting markets, ahead in her campaign infrastructure and war chest, and ahead in her command of the issues.   And yet, at the rate she is going, Hillary will have the highest unfavorability rating of any Democratic Party Presidential nominee in a generation.    
It has become conventional Washington, DC wisdom that whoever succeeds in getting the nation to focus primarily on the OTHER candidate will win in November.   That may be true about November.  But we’re six full months away from Election Day.  Right now is the time for the politicians to be introducing themselves so that they can develop a broad base of support and appear as a viable alternative to those who are yet undecided.  What we saw on Tuesday in Indiana is just how far Hillary is from accomplishing that goal.  Despite the fact that she had already effectively locked up the nomination and Americans like to vote for winners, the Hoosiers still gave Bernie the victory.   She seems to be more intellectually agile than Bernie, more informed, and more experienced, and he still beat her.  That is a troublesome sign for those who think that she should wipe the floor with the man she aptly calls the “Loose Cannon.”  

Truly, the nation needs to rally around Hillary.  We need her to beat Trump.  But it sure would be nice if the majority of the electorate voted FOR her, rather than simply pulled the lever for her while holding their nose.   I’m not kidding with that metaphor.   At the rate we’re going, you won’t know a voter from a guy who is drinking colonoscopy fluid – it will become an exercise in nostril tightening to dull the pain.  We can do better.  And Hillary has it in her to do better.  I just don’t know if she has the political courage to make it happen.

Here’s a simple way to understand the problem with the Clinton candidacy: she has learned too much from Al Gore’s mistake.  In 2000, Gore distanced himself from Hillary’s husband (the sitting President), and it cost him the election.  Understandably, Hillary has decided to take the opposite strategy and fully align herself with Barack Obama.   But at a time when voters are understandably frustrated and even scared, you don’t essentially campaign under the slogan “Four More Years.”  You demonstrate the passion and the vision to stand behind specific ways in which this country will change if you are elected.  And if that requires that you distinguish yourself from the current President, so be it.  

Personally, I’m not sure I can name a single area in which Hillary expects to change this country.  In other words, I can’t think of one way where she will depart from President Obama’s approach – and believe me, departures are very much in order.  For example, I see the infrastructure of my city crumbling (our once-revered subway system is an absolute disgrace), and yet Hillary doesn’t have much of anything to say about it.   Surely, she has issued policy statements about that and every other topic, but she has never brought passion and poetry to this cause.  

I want Hillary to become a cause candidate – and it’s not enough that the only cause is that we need to become something like the 81st country to elect a woman to our top governmental job.  We’ve never had a Native-American President either, but I don’t think people would be excited to elect one if all s/he spoke about passionately is the importance of Native-American rights.  

In short, Hillary needs to guarantee that to elect her is to create a mandate for certain specific causes – and not merely to guard against the cancer of Trump.  Otherwise, we will have plenty of voters in November who are excited about voting for Trump, and precious few voters excited about voting for Hillary.  That’s a dangerous scenario, one that permits the Democrats to lose the election even if the Republicans remain divided.