Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Just One Day of Greatness

A Modest Proposal for an Ambitious Bumper Sticker

For some time now we have been living with a slogan promising to "Make America Great Again." Appearing first as the catchphrase for the Trump primary campaign, it then extended to the general election and ultimately became the mantra for the Trump administration as they began to govern the nation.

It has appeared on baseball caps, t-shirts, lawn signs, television screens, podiums, and other surfaces, some of which one would never imagine and I would avoid describing. It has been analyzed ad nauseam, become a stimulator of cheers and jeers, and likely will be soon forgotten depending on how successful are those who proclaim its message and program.

The phrase appeared unbidden on America's cultural landscape, promising much and delivering little. In fact, one could argue that its adherents have done more to divide than unite, more to coarsen the public discourse than to inspire it. Once considered the leader of the free world, America has become a bellicose bully without principles, an undependable ally and a dangerous foe. 

I have a modest proposal.

Let's try for just one day of greatness and see where it leads us.

Making America great again is a pretty daunting task. We bring mere humans to the job. At best they are imperfect vessels for virtuous objectives and worthy ideals. The realities of governing in this political climate make consensus elusive and succumbing to one's own self-interests very tempting. Given all the forces that conspire to derail our highest aspirations, maybe we should try something that is a little less demanding. Let's pull the target closer in, put suction cups on the arrows, and cheer all the archers for their best efforts rather than the sum of their bullseyes.

I don't pretend that shortening the distance simplifies the task. In some respects it might require us to stop something rather than do something.  Sometimes that is hardest of all.

Here for starters are a few things that might get us going toward our one day of greatness.
  • One Day of Silence. It is essential that we begin with 24 hours of all listening and no talking or communicating by our president and the White House staff. Not one word. Not a single tweet. No campaign rallies or backroom deals. No press-baiting or media schmoozing. He can discuss supper with Melania but that's it. No chatting with the kids about their latest fashion line in China or their plan for a branded hotel in Puerto Rico. For one blessed day, the only message to emanate from the White House is silence. On this foundation, the whole concept stands or falls.
  • One Day of Globalism. To the global community of friends and foes, we will send one message spoken with one voice, assuring the world that our country is committed to peace, justice, and to the common good. We will state unequivocally that putting America first is a statement of patriotism and not isolationism. We will hire on that one day experienced ambassadors and diplomats to fill critical vacancies representing our country around the world. We know who they are. Call them.
  • One Day of Decency. This an appeal to demonstrate sensitivity and common sense in matters of culture and politics. No berating pleading mayors of cities devastated by hurricanes, with bodies rotting in the streets, while you are playing golf at a luxurious resort. No instructions on using one's celebrity to get away with crotch-grabbing, especially while seeking election as leader of the free world. No dehumanizing name-calling for the leaders of other nations and one's own political opponents, or political friends for that matter. No commenting on professional athletes exercising their rights to free speech, threatening another culture war with no reason or value. If this cannot be achieved with the NFL and NBA, limit it to water polo teams, then let the courts sort it out. And finally, and this will be a tough one, no lying.
  • One Day of Equality. All three branches of government will affirm equal rights under the law for all persons regardless of race, religion, gender, and other basic human characteristics. Racism and white supremacy will not be tolerated in this society and all branches of government will act accordingly. If there is a question as to whether a certain person or group is eligible for inclusion under the equal protection clause of the Constitution, include them. 
  • One Day of Ecology. We will acknowledge the virtually unanimous consent within the international scientific community that human activity is largely responsible for global warming and other factors that question the long-term viability of the earth. For one day we will suspend the enforcement of devastating executive orders that repeal regulations essential to the earth's survival, including the Paris Accords. For this day all politicians will be forbidden to speak about science. Just to be on the safe side, this will include politicians who think they may actually be scientists.
  • One Day of Civility. While some of these ideas may be difficult for every American to connect with, this is one that every single person can do. Speak softly. Seek forgiveness. Do not judge. Try to understand. Seek the common good. Embrace pluralism. Try to compromise. Respect the religion of others. Be a global citizen. In respect to the president alone, the requirement to be civil shall extend to two days.
  • One Day of Kindness. I write this in the aftermath of the worst mass shooting in the history of the United States. The only response to such horrific events is to do what we saw our friends and neighbors do as they risked their own lives to assist victims, usually people they did not know. In such times we "appeal to the better angels of our nature" (Lincoln's First Inaugural). To be kind is to draw not so much from one's mind as one's heart. It is the outward measure of greatness.
I humbly offer this proposal, complete with occasional diversionary witticisms lest we take ourselves too seriously, as an encouragement to focus on the right things. Therein lies a viable future worthy of our nation's grand experiment in freedom, broken and fragile as it may seem right now. I welcome additions, suggestions, criticisms, even recommendations that I never write another word.

There is one response that I will neither welcome nor consider, and that is to tell me it is impractical. Practicality has snuffed out way too many dreams. We need much more than stifling predispositions and boring predictability. 

If we can do this for just one day, however imperfectly, we can demonstrate possibility, which is the pathway to hope.

Then perhaps we truly can make America great again.

Or proud again. Or kind again. Or respected again. Or inspiring again.

Not for the first time. Not for the last. But perhaps for our slice of human history, we should just take it one day at a time.

Monday, June 05, 2017

World Worry

I'm at a point in life where I've got plenty to worry about. I've had doctors screwing appliances into my back where discs should be. Like most seniors, I fret about whether we have sufficient income and savings to make our way to the grand exit without adversely affecting our family. I've got two marvelous grandchildren and I want them to live as full and meaningful lives as possible. I've been disfavored with an insidious disease (Parkinson's) that has its way with me without warning, slowing me to a snail's pace for a while and then sneaking away to visit another day. There's more, but I don't want to whine.

All of that is sufficient to make me feel that I've got enough on my plate. Surely someone else can worry about the world? Aren't there some people out there who are smart, responsible, and caring and who have the expertise to fix the big problems? If an asteroid is heading our way, somebody would shoot it out of the sky before it hits us, right? We are doing everything we can with our abundant resources to prevent famines, right? We'll keep atomic bombs out of the hands of dictators and deranged leaders, right? We understand the fragile nature of our world and will join with the international community to deal with climate change on behalf of the next generation and others to come, right? We realize that we live in a global society and cannot possibly exist as a country that proclaims a "me first" policy and ignores the larger world of which we are a part, right?

I'm right, right? Please tell me I don't have to worry about that stuff. I'm kind of busy with arthritis.

Alas, I'm beginning to feel that I'm not right, that our world is slowly coming apart and that it is time to worry about that world. I might even suggest a mild panic. 

The nexus of the problem is with the incendiary and divisive leadership of our president and his unprincipled administration. This piece isn't a critique of Trump. Pundits smarter than me have written about this incompetent and dangerous president, his litany of deeds and misdeeds, the twittering away of a privilege the American people have bestowed upon him to lead our nation and represent our values and interests on the world's stage. 

It has become an embarrassment of epic proportions. It's less than five months since inauguration and this country's stock in the world has dropped like a rock into the sea. A bully dressed up like a diplomat/negotiator has been to one meeting of European heads of state and managed to threaten the very existence of a coalition that has served the security interests of its members since 1949. Promised health care reform has become a sham, with the lives of millions in the balance. So-called tax reform has the wealthy lined up with wheelbarrows at the Federal Reserve or whatever agency dispenses welfare checks for the rich. (Photo ID's are recommended but not required; they know who you are.)

I could go on. I want to go on. But as I said, this isn't about him. It's about me and how this sudden sense of World Worry is burrowing into my soul and raising troublesome questions about the fate of our planet and the survival of the human race. I know it sounds like hyperbole, but I'm dead serious. And I don't think I'm the only one.

Back in August 2015, I posted on this blog a piece entitled "And the Walls Came Tumbling Up." This is how it began:

Early on the morning of November 10, 1989, I rousted my two sons, aged 11 and 15, out of their beds and parked their sleepy bodies in front of the television so they could see what had been happening overnight. The Berlin Wall was coming down.
This was obviously something that was significant to me. I mean, how often does one awaken sleeping children on an early morning to watch the news? I have referred to it in several places, but the impression that historic event made on me was not how wonderful it is that the Cold War is over and our enemy Russia is coming undone. Instead, I was set to pondering about how quickly these powerful adversaries had fallen. In the twinkling of an eye it happened, or so it seemed. If it could happen to them why couldn't it happen to us? 

I began to worry about our world.

I think of World Worry as a time when ordinary people going about everyday life begin to experience fear about the stability of their world, concern about their overall well-being, and a sense of helplessness to do anything about it. Some might call it angst, which one dictionary defines as "a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one, about the human condition or the state of the world in general."

That comes pretty close to what I've been feeling these days. But why?

It seems to me that there are a few things that lead to World Worry these days. Here's a beginning list:

  • Lack of confidence in leaders. Regardless of political or philosophical differences, there is a general belief that the world's leaders, and certainly our own, have our best interests at heart, seek the common good, and despite a few bad apples will generally do the right thing. When that bond of trust is broken the social contract we depend on can crack or even shatter. I worry about this.
  • Things seem out of control. Whether it's climate change that threatens to do damage to the earth or a terrorist culture that proclaims that no one anywhere is safe, there is a feeling that things are happening that we cannot control, leaving all of us to wonder who will be affected next. Perhaps it will be a tourist in New Orleans when the floods come, a third grader doing multiplication tables in the presumed safety of her school, or a modest investor unaware of the coming bank collapse or hedge fund fraud. Things happen, and the fact that we can't anticipate or stop them gives us abundant reasons to fret. I worry about this.
  • Random interpersonal conflict. We seem to be in a time when internal struggles are expressed as external anger. An ill-advised turn in front of someone on the highway results in a hail of bullets from the offended vehicle. A fired employee returns to his workplace with an AK47 and sprays ammunition everywhere, killing and maiming those who don't even know the termination occurred. Confrontation is commonplace, no longer limited to drunken bar fights, but in the grocery store, the library, even churches. These days anyone can be my enemy, even if I don't know who they are. A sense of community is broken down by suspicion and fear. I worry about this.
  • Economic disparity. The vast gulf between rich and poor, the middle class and the top one percent, is growing by leaps and bounds and threatens to worsen if proposed "tax reforms" make their way into law. While horrendous problems like ethnic cleansings, pandemic viruses, and widespread famine contribute to worldwide concerns, the income disparity probably has the most damaging impact in the United States. In other nations, this has led to violent protests in the streets and there is no reason to think we will escape the same result if we continue down this path. I worry about this.
  • Lack of respect for cultural diversity. America has always been the melting pot, embracing religious and ethnic differences and believing that cultural diversity strengthens our nation. But now there is movement at the highest levels of government to ban certain religious and cultural groups from entering the country, despite clear evidence that they pose little or no threat to national security. Acts of violence toward mosques and synagogues are increasing, fueled by ignorance and hatred. Calming words from respected leaders are muted and shouted down. Normal people are confused, wondering whether to succumb to their fears or support voices of reason. I worry about this.
  • Science gets replaced by politicians. This is a startling development. We have an issue such as climate change for which there is widespread and global agreement among scientists, but people are clamoring to hear what Trump thinks. He, of course, has not a clue and his opinion is totally irrelevant, but we wait breathlessly to see if he supports the almost 200 signatories of the Paris Agreement, including ours. He doesn't. Remember how Nero fiddled while Rome burned? Same thing, except that Trump twittered while the world burns. I worry about this.
  • When words become bullets. I have a high regard for the power and importance of words. Properly used, they can inspire and encourage and challenge. Improperly used, they can become a cudgel reaping hate and fear and confusion. Incredibly, we find ourselves at a time when 140 character tweets shape foreign policy or denounce political adversaries from the White House at three o'clock in the morning. Words lose their beauty and nuance and are transformed into fake facts and alternate truths. One yells by typing in all caps and emotes by clicking a smiley face. No one believes what is written anymore. I worry about this.
Nobody likes a worry wart. Chicken Little was convinced that the sky is falling. Jewish mothers are stereotypically depicted as sitting in the corner, steadily rocking away, fretting about the family. But on the other hand, worry is not an intrinsically bad thing. It is a side effect of caring. When a loved one is sick it is reasonable to worry. It's hard to imagine a parent who doesn't worry when they send their kids off for their first day of college. And it is impossible to read the newspaper without growing concern about violence in the streets and epidemics of drug and alcohol abuse everywhere. This is natural worry stitched into our everyday life.

World Worry is of a different order. It comes when those bigger, cosmic concerns become personal, indistinguishable from your kid's ear ache or figuring out how to afford a new car. It's when we internalize climate change, religious persecution, and leadership failures, making them seem like our problems. The difficulty is that we can do something about ear aches, much less about global warming. And that's where the angst sets in.

I watch several hours of news and analysis every day. It's probably more than is good for my mental health. World affairs are frequent points of discussions within my circles of friends and family. Some people think we should "get a life" if that's all we can talk about. They're wrong; I can talk about my pills and Medicare Plan B. So there!

But there is no question that I'm suffering from early stages of World Worry. Am I losing hope for our earth and its people? Have I lost trust in the folks I once counted on to give me hope and to infect me with a heart filled with joy and laughter? Is my soul too jaundiced to be surprised by the best instead of succumbing to the worst? Can I live today with an eye on tomorrow rather than incessantly glancing back at yesterday?

I don't know for sure about any of it but I'll tell you one thing. I worry about this.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

The Justice, the Unjust, and Just Us

Judge Neil Gorsuch has been nominated by President Trump
to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court

When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died almost a year ago on February 13, 2016, I was struck by the moving tributes that came from a wide array of people, including those who did not share in any way his judicial philosophy. The following day I posted on this blog a short piece entitled The Justice and the Unjust, which contrasted the rhetoric of the ongoing presidential debates with the behavior of the late justice. I posed the question of whether the presidential candidates who lauded his judicial legacy might have anything to learn from his style and temperament.

Since then, the vacancy on the Supreme Court occasioned by his death has been the target of internecine squabbling caused by the refusal of the Republican majority to allow a vote on President Obama's nominee, arguing that the seat should not be filled in the last year of the president's term and should await the outcome of the presidential election. Never mind that such an argument is preposterous and unconstitutional, it worked. A newly inaugurated President Trump has nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch, and a deeply divided Senate will take up the question of who will fill this position so crucial to the country's future. 

It seemed that it might be useful to revisit the previous essay and update the key ideas to the present circumstances. What follows is a major rewrite of the original piece, with a minor but perhaps significant adjustment to the title. I need to be clear and state unequivocally that I am no fan of Scalia's legal philosophy, and I believe that many of his decisions have been damaging to the country. Nonetheless, there are things he can teach us.

Justice Antonin Scalia was known for
his sense of humor

Unfortunately for the country, there was a Republican debate scheduled within hours of Scalia's passing. How grand it would have been if one message emanating from the death of a doctrinaire but widely respected Supreme Court justice--sometimes acerbic but often playful, willing to befriend those he opposed--would have been to see those values embraced in that debate. Within a matter of minutes, however, it was obvious that such was not to be. Instead, we got children playing in the sandbox and arguing over a pale of water and a plastic shovel.

I was struck by the glaring contrast between the whining, backbiting, inelegant, and completely shameful performances of those who would be president, and he whose death was being measured as much by the person he was as the views he held. 

But the more I reflected upon it, the more I thought that sometimes style can be just as important as substance, and may even be a pathway to achieving one's goals and fulfilling one's hopes. There is a long-standing American principle, and perhaps a larger human principle as well, suggesting that one does not have to make enemies of those who hold differing philosophical, religious, or political views. It appears that Justice Scalia was one who shared that perspective.

Justices Ginsburg and Scalia were judicial opposites
but were also the best of friends.

Justice Ruth Ginsburg, arguably the most liberal justice on the Supreme Court, was one of Scalia's closest friends. While he was the most intellectually rigorous conservative voice on the Court, he is also known for constantly seeking new insights, This can be illustrated by his role in transforming the importance of oral arguments.

Prior to Scalia coming on the Court, justices rarely asked more than a few questions and were mostly silent during Court hearings. Scalia changed all that, peppering the lawyers appearing before him with many questions in an effort to explore the legal boundaries and learn something. And most importantly, the warmth of his personality, his sense of humor, and his love of life injected a human element into his decisions and his relationships. Reading and watching television tributes about him changed my view of the man, although not my view of his jurisprudence.

The 2016 presidential election demonstrated how far we have moved away from the standards of public discourse we once knew and embodied. Now it seems that arguments are often demeaning, replete with name-calling, and accusations that opponents are liars. But rarely are these tactics constructive or informative. These politicians seem unable to prevent themselves from uttering outbursts that are immediately destined to become soundbites for hundreds, if not thousands, of replays on the 24/7 media. To the casual observer and to the international community, this is what our country is all about. Perhaps they are right. Soon we will see.

In the next few weeks, we will have a chance to test our mettle. If confirmed, Judge Gorsuch will be in a position to influence American jurisprudence, and many aspects of our lives, for over 30 years. There will be a need to explore his views at great length to determine his perspectives and qualifications. That would be true of any nominee. But there are other issues afoot that threaten to set us off on a destructive path for generations.

There will be political retribution for the intransigence of the Republicans in refusing to even call a hearing on Obama's nominee to replace Scalia. Judge Merrick Garland is a highly regarded and generally moderate judge. For no reason of his own, he was left to hang in limbo as a vacancy went unfilled for what has been a year and will undoubtedly extend for several months. Like it or not, the Democrats will exact their mess of pottage in return for this perceived sleight. It is both understandable and regrettable.

Likewise, delicate Senate procedures that have been in place for decades are at risk, driven in part by a president that seems to give not a whit about history, tradition, mutual respect or implied agreements. It is often unspoken understandings that make things work, and it is their dismissal that destroys coalitions that have served us well for a long time.

It is not a time for just us, looking out for our own interests and caring only for own victories. 

Nor is is it a time for every perceived injustice of our personal lives to be laundered in the public forum, however consequential those may have been.

Instead, we must find the inner strength to demand of others as well as ourselves that it is only justice for all that should guide our deliberations.

Whatever side we may be on, this is a time for carefully chosen words, respect for institutions and colleagues, understanding of what is really at stake, and a willingness to seek the common good.

And when the debate is over and the decision is made, perhaps our lawmakers can take counsel from Justice Scalia and slap each other on the back, tell a good story, and have dinner together.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A World Spinning on Black Ice

Most of us who have lived in the northern hemisphere have experienced the phenomenon of black ice. Its name is perhaps a bit of a misnomer because the ice is not really black, but a thin, clear sheet of glaze over a black pavement, making the road look normal when in fact it is treacherously slick. When motorists hit it unaware their car can unexpectedly spin out of control, often with tragic results.

Spinning on ice is a terrible feeling. You have all of the normal controls used to navigate the vehicle but none of them work in the usual fashion. Turning left often causes the car to go right. Pressing the brake hard doesn't stop or even slow you down; it only accelerates the spin. Normal reactions are usually the opposite of what you should do.

In these moments you realize that you are out of control and there is nothing you can do to stop it. You are going to spin until something intervenes--a guard rail, a shoulder of grass or dirt, another vehicle equally adrift. And it all happens in a manner of seconds.

I have been feeling just like that since January 20, only nine days into a new administration in Washington, D.C. I say this in a deeply heartfelt way and not as someone whining because my candidate didn't win. I have made no secret of my distaste for Donald Trump and for the entire 2016 presidential election, whatever party or person one may prefer. I posted an essay about seeing the election through the eyes of a Canadian immigrant and another trying to find some sense of equilibrium as I sorted through the voting outcome. Many of my friends checked out of watching the news, blocking out their despair over the new world order that seemed to be on its way. I didn't go that far, but my pain was palpable and made manifest in many ways.

I didn't even have time to articulate my desire to "give the guy a chance" before the executive orders and cabinet appointments made that impossible. I won't try to expand upon all the things that immediately became troubling, but the list is long. 

But it's not the list so much as the underlying issues that need to be sorted out. The real problem is the need to disentangle policies from their foundations. Where does immigration policy separate from racist and religious foundations? Where does economic policy separate from class and ethnic foundations? Where does foreign affairs policy separate from corporate profit foundations?  Where does domestic policy separate from human rights and special interest foundations?

And then there is the man who is our president. How does his immense wealth, and the relationships that attend it, shape the decisions that are made on behalf of the American people? To what degree does his personal behavior subject him to potential blackmail or other similar threats? What can we make of his enormous ego needs that push the country into having to deal with competing head counts at marches and other gatherings, or with bogus claims of election fraud?

How can we understand the ridiculous flirtation with the Russian thug who has amassed a vast fortune through theft, bullying, and even murder, all the while using his influences to affect the electoral outcome in the United States? What are we expected to do with policy pronouncements that come in the middle of the night by tweet, or with outraged reactions to SNL skits or movie star critiques? How can we live in a fragile world with a world leader who cannot measure his words or subdue his petty anger?

As I write this, airports are congested in response to an executive order banning a variety of nationals and persons of certain faiths from entering the country, despite being in possession of valid visas and passports. A silly argument about paying for a silly wall is occupying attention around the world. Europe is in an uproar over the future of NATO and questions about trade and treaty abound.

Yes, there have been protests on an impressive scale and around the world. But that is not necessarily a good thing, in comparison to what ought to be. Our president has triggered these marches, but it is our country that ultimately takes the hit. This is too much, too fast, too far.

All this in just nine days.

Which brings me back to black ice.

We have entered the road at full speed. There is no attention given to speaking with clarity and purpose, having taken the time to iron out the language and make certain that key players understand. There is little respect for the leaders of other nations and even less for other cultures. There is no room for subtlety. Where a small Phillips screwdriver is needed a jackhammer is preferred. We are led by someone on a huge learning curve who thinks he is always the smartest person in the room. There are too many earth-shattering, globe-changing issues on the table.

We've got to slow down. We must.

Nah! We're pushing the pedal all the way to the floor.

And why shouldn't we?

After all, there's just that long beautiful stretch of black road ahead.