Saturday, January 26, 2019

Remembering the Holocaust

In Israel, Holocaust Remembrance Day is set for May 2nd this year. But this weekend, in various other parts of the world, the day set aside to commemorate the Holocaust will come this weekend. Tomorrow, January 27th, marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the most infamous concentration camp of Nazi Germany. Of the roughly 1.3 million people who were forced to enter the camp, more than 1.1 million died, roughly 90 percent of them Jews. In 2005, the United Nations designated January 27th as International Holocaust Memorial Day, and this is the primary date that the European Union marks to remember the atrocities of the Holocaust. Those who mark this date also use this opportunity as a day to remember other genocides across the world.

The Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington (JIDS), an interfaith group over which I preside, is one of many organizations around the world that will be holding an event tomorrow to remember the Holocaust and other genocides. I don’t normally speak at JIDS events, but this time I couldn’t resist the temptation. The Holocaust is, quite simply, the seminal historical event of my life, cutting to the heart of both my religious and political views. If you have read my most recent book, “Liberating the Holy Name: A Free-Thinker Grapples with the Meaning of Divinity,” you would have seen just how early in life I was exposed to information about the Nazi atrocities and how profoundly it would affect my thinking about God and humankind.

When reflecting on the Holocaust, different people have different focal points. There are those who think primarily about Hitler, arguably the most evil figure in world history. We all can understand why he is such a focus – people love to personalize situations. That’s why so much attention is paid to individual athletes, entertainers or for that matter serial killers, and why the media can’t stop talking about all things Donald Trump despite the fact that he derives most of his power from his followers in Congress and throughout the country. Another common focus of the Holocaust is the heroes. Hollywood loves to make movies about the “righteous gentiles” who saved lives during that period of history, or the way many of the victims of the Nazi atrocities (like Anne Frank) were able to live dignified lives despite the most trying of circumstances. Clearly, those are compelling stories that need to be told.

For me, however, the primary focal points are neither heroes nor villains. One of them is God. Where was God in Auschwitz? I refuse to stop asking that question. To those who want to know why I am so enamored with the conception of God associated with the philosopher Spinoza, a big part of my answer is Auschwitz. Spinoza’s theology anticipated the horrors of Auschwitz without sounding escapist or Pollyannaish. Personally, I simply cannot attribute that house of horrors, and the infinite number of other examples of “natural” and man-made suffering, to an omnipotent, omnibenevolent creator of all existence. My passion for the truth calls out for a more philosophical God than that, and no God more epitomizes the so-called “God of the Philosophers” than Spinoza’s. In short, Auschwitz hasn’t caused me to deny God’s existence any more than it made Spinoza an atheist, but my conception and the traditional conception of God are hardly the same thing. You can attribute that fact above all else to the Holocaust.

My other primary focal point when it comes to the Holocaust is the millions of people who didn’t die, didn’t murder, but rather enabled. They lived in Germany, Poland, and much of Europe. Some of them lived in America too. For the most part, they kept their heads down, went about their lives and minded their own business. And while they tended to their own gardens, they surely assumed little if any responsibility for the slaughter that was taking place. But believe me, they knew what was going on was horrific.

These people weren’t “evil” under any conventional understanding of that word. I assume that only a minority of them had hatred in their hearts for Jews, homosexuals, Roma or other victims of this genocide. They simply weren’t heroes, that’s all. They didn’t want to make sacrifices on behalf of strangers. Nobody told them that such sacrifices were truly their “duty” – and it was left up to them as to whether to engage in supererogatory acts of heroism.

For me, one of the two greatest lessons of the Holocaust is that, when push comes to shove, we have no choice but to be heroes or enablers. You see, suffering and injustice didn’t end in 1945. And until the proverbial “Moshiach” comes (or returns, under the Christian interpretation), suffering and injustice are bound to continue indefinitely. We can either make personal sacrifices to confront them. Or we can tend to our own gardens, disavow responsibility, and enable their seeds to grow once again. There is no third option. As for that other great lesson of the Holocaust, it’s that when developments truly go off the rails, the number of heroes pale in comparison to the number we need to stop the bleeding.

As I write this, America’s Government Shutdown has just ended and those of us who have been furloughed are about to dig out from the damage done over the past several weeks. This is a great time to be thankful that nobody died in a recent plane crash, no epidemics of food poisoning were reported, and no other out-and-out calamities have occurred as a direct result of the Shutdown.  But let’s not kid ourselves – we have put ourselves in the line of fire because our political system is not working the way the framers of our Constitution intended.  For me, the Holocaust provides plenty of lessons of what can happen if we don’t seize this moment and stand up for our principles and against those who threaten them.  You see, we can hardly count on the ability of any people to save the day once a society reaches a certain tipping point.  Our Founding Fathers understood that, and they didn’t even have the benefit of Auschwitz to use as a laboratory.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Time to Step up to the Plate

It is easy to be a member of a minority party.  All you have to do is throw mud.  You can channel Senator Mitch McConnell and, in essence, announce that you’re going to oppose everything the President does so your own party can take over the Presidency (even if it means hurting the country in the short run).   Hell, you can even channel Groucho Marx as Quincy Adams Wagstaff and say, “I don’t care what they have to say.  It makes no difference anyway.  Whatever it is, I’m against it!”

It worked for the Republicans in 2010.  It worked for the Democrats in 2018. 

But this is 2019.  It won’t work nearly so well for anybody now, because each side has some power and will be held accountable for how it wields it.  Accountability is critical to the functioning of society, both in the political and the business context.  Unfortunately, with accountability comes pressure, tough decisions and, yes, the risk of demonstrable failure.

This afternoon, the world will watch as President Donald Trump tries to hold the Democrats accountable.  His team has leaked that he will make a proposal to end the Government shutdown that will not remove funding for his cherished Wall/Barrier but will include other concessions to the Democrats.  His goal, presumably, is to include enough concessions so as to cause the nation’s attention to shift to the House Democrats.  Are they willing to find a reasonable way to end this national stalemate for the good of the country?  Or are they simply playing the role of Professor Wagstaff?  To date, nobody has been holding the Democrats accountable for this shutdown.  And why would you, given the famous meeting among Pelosi, Schumer and Trump in which the President announced that “I’ll take it.  Yes, if we don’t get what we want one way or the other, whether it’s through you, through military, through anything you want to call — I will shut down the government. I am proud to shut down the government. I will take the mantle.”   Today, the President’s job is to pass that mantle – or at least be perceived that way.

So let’s say he succeeds and sweetens the pot sufficiently to make the Democrats look bad if they don’t enter into negotiations to end the Shutdown without jettisoning the Wall.  And let’s say the Dems bite the bullet, fund the Wall, and re-open the government.  We would finally see something we haven’t seen in the past two years – vocal divisions within that party.  Some people might fear that development. Personally, I’d welcome it.  You see, I feel a desperate need to have the Democratic Party consciously redefine itself, even if it means tightening up the breadth of its coalition. 

The last time the Party of the Donkey redefined itself was in 1992, when the Governor of Arkansas and a Senator from Tennessee convinced the membership that they had moved too far to the left to be electable and needed to chart a “Third Way” between the path of the “old” Democrats and the majority (Republican) party.  That resulted in eight years of Clinton Gore Triangulation, followed by eight more years of Republican Rule, followed by an Obama Administration that campaigned on something as nebulous as “hope and change” and never really could define what it was about (other than saving the economy from collapse and implementing Romneycare), followed by two more years of Republican Rule. As for the Party of FDR, Truman and LBJ, we haven’t seen them in power for so long that if we attempted a New Deal or a Great Society today, it would probably be viewed as an act of socialism rather than a Democratic Party initiative.  To me, that must change.  A conscious re-definition is called for.  That starts with the willingness to tackle tough decisions and not shy away from public disagreements in doing so.  The Democrats might even lose a few points in the polls as such a family feud plays out in the press, but they also might just gain a soul in the process.  Do you have the guts to do that, my fellow Democrats?

On a local level, we’re seeing this kind of internal battle play out within my own community – the non-Orthodox Jewish community of Washington, D.C.  The vast majority of us are progressive Democrats.  But we’re totally split on the issue of whether to attend the Women’s March, which will be happening at the same time that President Trump makes his announcement.

In what can only be described as an “unforced error,” Tamika Mallory, one of the leaders of the Women’s March, turns out to be a big fan of Louis Farrakhan, the celebrated Jew-hater.  For reasons known only to God and Satan, Mallory won’t renounce Farrakhan’s hateful words, and to some degree appears to have endorsed them.   Now I think it’s safe to say that nobody in my local Jewish community sympathizes with Farrakhan or even Mallory.  The question is whether her conduct, and the lack of a stronger rebuke by the other leaders of the march, warrants a decision to avoid the march altogether.  Area rabbis are giving speeches or writing letters to their congregations, weighing in on one side or the other.   

Personally, I’m in the “Hell no, I won’t go,” camp.  But I have no inclination to bore you with the details of my reasoning.  What’s most important to me is not whether to attend the march, but how we can best build a center-left movement that will effectively meet the needs of our society and our planet.  It starts with the courage to frame the issues publicly, even if it means we air our disagreements.  It includes a deep desire to identify leaders who have distinguished themselves based on the righteousness of their values, rather than simply their opportunism and ambition.  And it involves the willingness to engage in civil, respectful dialogue whenever you disagree with members of the coalition. 

Now, in including that last sentence, I am aware that I violated that principle in the way that I discussed Farrakhan and Mallory.  I did so consciously to make a point.  It is vital that the members of this movement I’m discussing figure out just how big a tent it wants to create.  Should it include people like Farrakhan who have done plenty of good things for lower-income communities but who also have outed themselves as rank anti-Semites?  (I say no.)  Should it include people who strongly disagree with the progressives on hot-button issues like abortion rights but who nevertheless side with them on most other issues and support the Democratic Party?  (I say yes.)  Again, however, the important thing to me is not where we as individuals fall on these specific questions.  It’s that we embrace this kind of conscious, soul-searching process so that the movement we create is built carefully and wisely. 

In short, this is a crucial time in our history.  You can see that every time you turn on the news.  Clearly, the party in power is failing us.  Our challenge is how to replace it – and if we want to do this well, this will require soul-searching, courage, and some growing pains.  Are you ready to do your part?  Stay informed and stay active.  Please. 

Saturday, January 12, 2019

A Breath of Fresh Air

Politicians frequently spin.  But they don’t often dance.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) does both.    It drives the Republicans crazy.  And now even the Democrats are turning against her.

I’m with them on the spinning thing.  When politicians speak, I want them to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  I realize I won’t hear the whole truth.  But please, can we at least hear nothing but the truth?   AOC does herself no favors when she uses false analogies to understate the expenses of Medicare-for-All.  And when she makes a mistake, she should own it, rather than adding that “there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.”

Honestly, being factually correct IS a way to be morally right.  And being loose with facts is, sad to say, the opposite moral.

But damn it, I still love AOC.  I like her unbridled enthusiasm, her striking boldness, her authentic progressivism, her media savvy, and her willingness to take on the Democratic establishment.    In fact, I like that last characteristic the best of all.

In case you haven’t noticed, AOC is ruffling more than a few feathers with her Democratic colleagues.  She is committing the capital crime of -- gasp – supporting primary challengers to Democratic party incumbents.  She is looking for people who are deeply concerned about climate change, racial justice, and economic equity, and she is willing to fight for those candidates whenever they are running against conservatives, even if those conservatives are Democratic incumbents.  (Note to my readers:  a “conservative” is a proponent of the status quo, and these days, as many conservatives are Democrats as Republicans.)  Unfortunately, to the powers-that-be in Congress, taking on a party incumbent is practically a form of treason.  “I’m sure Ms. Cortez means well, but there’s almost an outstanding rule: Don’t attack your own people,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). “We just don’t need sniping in our Democratic Caucus.”  And then we have the reported comments of an unidentified Democratic Congressperson who is considered a fellow progressive: “She needs to decide: Does she want to be an effective legislator or just continue being a Twitter star?  There’s a difference between being an activist and a lawmaker in Congress.”

Indeed there is.  Activists, you see, reflect a wide range of political views.  They think for themselves.   They don’t feel straightjacketed by party discipline.  They may even make people like me proud to be Democrats.  But lawmakers?    Not so much.

Consider the primary campaign for President in 2016.   We had two candidates who basically split the members and the activists of the Democratic Party down the middle.  Personally, I’d say that roughly half of the Democrats I know were for Bernie, and half for Hillary.  Nationally, Bernie won roughly 3/7th of all Democratic Primary votes.  Pretty close, right?  But now consider the lawmakers and other power-brokers.  Bernie won the endorsement of only a single U.S. Senator (Jeff Merkley).  He also won the endorsement of only a single individual who had ever served as a Cabinet Member (Robert Reich).  In the House, you can count the number of Bernie’s endorsements on both hands.   As for sitting Governors, Bernie didn’t get a single endorsement.  When it came to the powers-that-be, Hillary cleaned his clock.

How did that all work out, America?

Believe me, AOC was watching.  She supported Bernie at the time, notwithstanding former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s comment (in reference to the Sanders/Clinton competition) that “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”  AOC would have also seen what happened when the Democratic Party controlled the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate (at one point, having 60 members of that body).  It failed to pass any meaningful gun control measure.  It failed to implement substantial progressive reforms to the tax system.  It failed to implement transformative climate change legislation.  And while it did succeed in implementing the same health care program that Mitt Romney once brought to Massachusetts (which, from a progressive standpoint, is a positive step toward universal health care), it failed to implement the public option, let alone Medicare-for-all – and now even our Romney Care is in jeopardy. 

In short, once we move beyond the ancien regime, with its Great Societies and its New Deals, the Democratic Party hasn’t done much to satisfy the needs of the working class, and not since Richard Nixon have we seen a massive governmental boost to help the environment.  AOC isn’t satisfied with those results.  Can you blame her?

At 29, AOC still has a lot to learn about Washington.  Most critically, she needs to guard her credibility like a hawk and recognize that a commitment to “truth” is every bit as important as a commitment to justice and compassion.   Empathic Rationalism demands that our politicians refrain from B.S., no matter what broader principles they are trying to serve.  But when it comes to fighting for high marginal tax rates, Green New Deals, or politicians whose greatest loyalties are to the needy, I am 100 percent behind her.  We’ve seen what happens when the old guard runs the party.  It’s time for AOC and others like her to assume the mantle. 

So keep dancing, AOC.  I’ve got your back.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

What Price Beauty

On Christmas morning, when millions upon millions of Americans were opening their presents, my wife and I were taking a road trip down Highway 95.   It can be one of the most congested, nightmarish freeways in America.  But on Christmas morning, it was practically a private drive.  Good weather, good music, no other cars – Christmas indeed.

Our destination on that day was Charleston, South Carolina.  I had once spent an entire summer at the other Charleston – the capital of West Virginia – but had never before visited the Carolina coast.  Neither had my wife.  For years we’ve heard about how beautiful it was.  Finally, we bit the bullet and saw it for ourselves.  I was blown away – by the beauty, the history, and the timeless lessons it can teach about the human condition.  Sadly, however, I left the area feeling worse about humankind rather than better.

Aesthetically, I adored Charleston and its surrounding area.  Ogling mansions has always been a hobby of mine, and I’ve never seen such an impressive array of mansions as I saw in Charleston.  The care and artistry that went into the building of those structures puts to shame any contemporary home I’ve set eyes on.  And though I’ve certainly seen a number of beautiful old homes in my life (Versailles comes immediately to mind), the sheer quantity of those structures in the historical district of Charleston blows away anything I’ve seen before.  Some would call these buildings gaudy, and surely they were built with the goal of showing off wealth.  But to me, they were gorgeous museum pieces – I felt that we were walking in a living, breathing outdoor museum and every mansion was just another work of priceless art.  I was in love.

Like any other visitor to Charleston, I had expected a considerable amount of architectural beauty.  I had also expected to hear about Charleston’s checkered past – a past grounded in slavery and Jim Crow laws.  The thing is though, what I wasn’t prepared for is the EXTENT of that architectural beauty, or just how many profound lessons Charleston’s history has to teach us about our contemporary world.

Consider, to begin, some basic facts. During the latter part of the colonial period, Charleston was far and away the most affluent city in the American colonies.  Not coincidentally, it was also the hub of those colonies’ slave trade.   Charleston was a city in which religion flourished – it became known for the quantity of its churches.  But as the contemporary visitor to Charleston is reminded upon visiting some of these places of worship, all these religious communities made their peace with slavery.  In fact, even among the religious groups now viewed as “progressive” (like Reform Judaism and Unitarian-Universalism), the white Charlestonians were as pro-slavery and as ruthless to their slaves as everyone else.

That’s not to say that all whites in anti-bellum Charleston had slaves.  But even those who didn’t benefited dramatically from the institution of slavery; the increased consumer demand generated by that institution enriched even those “humble” merchants who couldn’t afford to buy slaves of their own.  As for the less humble merchants, the planters who traded not only in rice and indigo but also in black people from Africa, they didn’t consider their African cargo to be “people.”  That enabled these merchants to rationalize a lifestyle in which they and their families could cultivate themselves with the finest of art, music, dance, literature, philosophy, science, architecture, religion, political theory, jurisprudence – ostensibly becoming our hemisphere’s greatest Renaissance Men -- while at the same time capturing, whipping, and at times even branding human beings as if they were beasts of burden. 

In fact, Charleston was so rich that the “owners” of the enslaved could develop the greatest rationalization tool of all: that they treated their “property” better than their counterparts on the cotton plantations further west.  In South Carolina, you see, it made economic sense to allow field hands to work limited portions of the plantation each day, and then allow some free time after their job was done.  The planters commonly even encouraged them to have families and pursue religion, both of which would motivate them to maintain their current lifestyles.  To be sure, by contemporary American standards, the enslaved suffered lives of unspeakably horrid abuses; nevertheless, the planters developed a system that was maximally designed to ensure obedience and economic productivity, building not simply on fear but also on a sense of appreciation that the enslaved had something to live for and something to look forward to once they pass away.    

After the war, life changed in Charleston for one and all, yet not nearly as dramatically as many might think.  Slavery soon gave way to Jim Crow -- and the same families who used to whip and brand their “property” continued to exploit these same individuals’ labor power through tenant farming.  Add in the institution of segregated schools, and you can see how the class system remained more or less intact, even though “freedom” had supposedly become universal.    

And now, here we are, in the 21st Century.  Most of the anti-bellum plantations are gone.  But the planters’ second homes in Charleston remain.  Indeed, they often continue to function as second homes for families who spend the rest of the year earning millions or tens of millions of dollars in cities that were never so dependent on the institution of slavery.  I saw people of color come in and out of these homes, yet once again, they were kept around to work, not to play.  The residents, it seems, are as white today as they were back in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Now, their property resides primarily in stocks and bonds – rather than in arms and legs – but their extreme wealth is as notable today as it ever was. 

Those are the facts that are difficult to ignore by any tourist.  It is up to each tourist to decide what to do with them.  For me, though, one set of lessons reign supreme.  They involve our capacity and inclination both to pursue great wealth for ourselves and our families and to rationalize our entitlement to that wealth if we are fortunate enough to satisfy our goals. 

Today, we look down our noses at the slave-owners of yesteryear who helped to build Charleston into the crown jewel of the Confederacy.  We decry their racism.  We deny their love for liberty.  But truly, how different is our society than theirs?  Are we not also growing by leaps and bounds in economic inequality?   Do we not have our own one percenters, whose wealth rests on the toil of overworked people?   If we compare the lives of the one percenters to those of their janitors, field hands, and other subordinates, do we not view the former as society’s “winners” and the latter as society’s “losers”?  Do we not continue to see human dignity as something that is enjoyed by some, but far from all, of our society?

Private planes, gated communities, prep schools, trust funds, bi-annual trips overseas, you name it – the successors to the old plantation owners continue to play in ways that their workers could only dream of.  And just as the plantation owners rationalized their right to enjoy all their play toys, so do the one percenters of today.  They attribute their wealth to their “intellectual property,” superior skills on the basketball court, or the God-given right of their parents to decide what to do with hard earned money.   Because the workers who clean their toilets or water their gardens are purportedly now “free” to pursue their own dreams of extreme wealth, rather than serving as someone else’s “property,” the one percenters don’t see themselves as violating anyone’s rights.  In fact, they believe that they are fully entitled to seize whatever the market economy gives them and to oppose any tax policies that are remotely seen as “leveling.”  

To me, however, nobody has the right to the degree of wealth enjoyed by the 18th century’s plantation owners or today’s one percent.  Such wealth is the product of living in a society that fails to recognize human interdependence, the true value of all human labor, and the universality of human dignity.  Make no mistake -- I support capitalism, recognize the value of private property, and appreciate why some degree of economic inequality is crucial in order to incentivize human productivity.  But when a society’s level of economic inequality blows up too much, the results can be a horror show.  Such a society makes a mockery of such concepts as freedom, justice, and above all else, religion.

It has become a truism that underneath its breathtaking beauty, anti-bellum Charleston was such a horror show.   Unfortunately, when I went to visit the scene of such a crime, I found everything to be way too familiar.  Do we really think that our species has learned the lessons from that episode of history?  Or are we simply revealing yet again our capacity for selfishness, greed and rationalization?  And if our sense of beauty is totally intertwined with our love for luxury goods and services, how are we ever going to break out of this trap?

These are a few things I’ve been thinking about since my vacation.  Now perhaps you can see why I generally prefer to spend my vacations reading and writing rather than traveling.  Traveling can be as sobering to the soul as it is awe-inspiring to the eyes.