A Reckoning

NOTE: Today’s blog post is written by Gary, my husband. He was reflecting on the fact that we have, depending on the data source, reached or exceeded 200,000 American deaths from Covid-19. Gary and I feel that we have become numb to the loss; maybe complacent is a better term. He wrote this as part of a letter to our children. I asked if he would allow me to share it on the blog. Obviously, he said yes.

            One other thing you need to know. In our family since Trump was elected, we have referred to him as the CF. CF stands for character flaw. We were naming his flaws, dishonest, misogynist, selfish, ignorant, when our daughter Leah noted that there were too many to count and that in fact, he was just a giant Character Flaw, hence he is the CF which is how Gary refers to him the letter that follows.

            Today is the final day of summer with fall well entrenched in the air and the days rapidly shortening.  Fall officially begins tomorrow morning.  It is a time for introspection for us as Jews with the high holidays underway and the annual fast less than a week away.  It is a time of bounty with harvests, apple picking and pumpkin picking and a time when leaves begin to change color leading to what will be the prettiest time of the year.  

            At the same time, it is a time when summer plants wither and die, flowers fade, and soon, frost covers the morning landscape.  You can smell the change in the air.  That warm, soft smell of summer is giving way to the smell of leaves and the mornings start to become foggy with the sun slower to burn off the haze.  So, while it is a time of beauty and bounty, it is also a time of loss and withering. 

            This year, of course, it is a time to mourn in very specific ways.  For so many people, it is a time to mourn the loss of certainty with jobs lost, incomes lost; with lives upended, people suddenly stuck at home.  People are working from home more than ever before; people are stuck home without daycare available to them and schools are still struggling, even with the school year already underway, to find ways to deal with COVID and still provide for the needs of their students, their teachers and other staff and the families that depend on them. 

            Everything is upended.  Things we have taken for granted are no longer true.  Going out to eat, going to a movie, going to a ballgame, a museum, a concert are all either no longer possible or are so very fraught.  

            There are different counts of how many Americans have died of COVID but it appears to me that we have, in fact, reached another tragic milestone:  200,000 dead Americans.  As brutal and horrible as this reality is, as many people have died, have lost loved ones, often dying alone in ICUs with family unable to be with them, the fact that it did not have to be this way makes it so much more tragic. 

            The CF has been accused of mismanaging the pandemic, but that accusation wildly understates what he has done and how serious the crimes he has committed are.  People make mistakes but they are not all created equal.  If a doctor makes a mistake, someone could be harmed, someone could die.  If an air traffic controller makes a mistake, many people may die. 

If a president makes a mistake – let’s say President Obama failing to block a resolution unfairly condemning Israel, there can be repercussions on an international level.  The Palestinians, in that case, became yet more emboldened in their rejectionist policies.  But that was, relatively speaking, a minor mistake.  A much larger mistake was President George W Bush invading Iraq.  It broke that country apart, opened a Pandora’s Box of Sunni and Shiite militant groups, bolstered the Iranian regime and paved the way for the creation of ISIS.  It cost many, many lives in the region, cost thousands of American soldiers’ lives and cost us enormous sums of money.  It also harmed Israel by permitting Iran to send advanced weapons to Hezbollah (and more recently also to other militant Shiite groups) over land through Iraq and Syria. 

That was a gigantic mistake.  It has repercussions that have continued to harm us and will continue to harm us for some time.  But it was still a mistake.  (Not a mistake by Cheney – intentional on his part and on the part of others.  But, I believe, a mistake on W’s part). 

            The CF, however, did not make a mistake.  He thought that his intentional sabotage of our efforts to confront the coronavirus pandemic would bolster him politically.  It has not worked out that way – that was a mistake.  But he absolutely, positively intentionally lied to us about the pandemic and he has blood on his hands.  I cannot tell you how many people have died because of the CF’s lies, but I am absolutely certain that he lied and that deaths resulted.  We know that from innumerable reports over these months.  We know that from the audio tapes recorded by Bob Woodward. 

            And we know it from the words of the CF himself.  He admitted that he lied.  He lied while admitting it – when he tried to sell us on the excuse that he did it to avoid fear among the American people.  Nonetheless, he lied to us.  And, because he lied to us, and because he also presided over an administration that left its job, the job of organizing our response to the virus, of generating strategies for confronting it, to the states, lots more Americans died.  Lots of Americans became sick, many suffering a devastating illness, many suffering a very long term illness, many never regaining all of what they lost.  Many lost loved ones.  Many will never be whole again. 

            Think about it for a minute.  Someone in that position, someone who has chosen to take a position that has enormous responsibilities, that places the health, safety, even the lives of the American people in his hands.  He has actively campaigned for the position, been in that position and had years to familiarize himself with the responsibilities inherent in it.  He has been given a huge challenge to save Americans’ lives.  That challenge is his duty – his sacred duty – as the person given all of the titles and powers and resources that come with the job he chose to take.  

            And he intentionally chose to let Americans die instead.  He said things – it’s a hoax, the media and the Democrats are hyping it, it’s no worse than the flu, it will soon disappear, it will magically disappear, the best thing you can do if you have a mild case is to go to work with it.  He’s said things – open up the economy, open up the schools, open up sporting events, open up anything and everything, open them up quickly and regardless of the consequences.  

Think about this for a moment, during the entire time that we have been confronting this horrific, deadly plague, he never once – never – took the position of waiting.  He never said that those people in that meat packing plant should not be there until they figure out how to safely operate it.  He never said that eating in a restaurant in a state with incredibly high virus prevalence might be dangerous.  Not even once. 

            The intent is as horrific as the crime itself; it is unforgivable.  It is something people should be learning about for generations to come, forever.  When we learn about American history and we think of people who have been traitors to our country, we should not first think about Benedict Arnold whose name itself has come to be synonymous with such treachery.  In the future, that distinction should belong to the CF.  (“He took money to provide classified information to the Russians.  He’s a CF.”  “She hacked into the computers of our electrical grid and demanded ransom payments in order to not plunge millions of Americans into darkness during a heat wave.  She’s a CF.”)

            200,000 Americans and counting.  It is sad, tragic, horrific.  It is worse than that because it is also treachery.  And it is a disaster that is far from over. 

            Another tragedy, of course, is the passing of the magnificent and beloved Ruth Bader Ginsburg whose life is exactly the opposite of his.  She did not come from wealth.  She faced obstacles that she ought not have had to face because of her gender, because she was a mother.  Nobody took her entrance exams for her.  Nobody used their money and influence to help her get into the places she got into.  And, once there, she was consistent, moral, ethical and used her passion, abilities and energies to help others.  She was a good and loyal friend to many and demanded more of herself than of others. 

            And she should also be remembered forever.  She should be remembered as a hero, a role model and an inspiration to us all.  Women, in particular, will find inspiration from her good works and, as Jewish people, we can allow ourselves just a bit of nachas that it was one of our own who did all of this. 

            Her story is one that we can all think of when we wonder what it is that we can do to make the world a better place.  For crying out loud, she was 5’ 1”  and probably never even weighed 100 pounds.  So much greatness in such a little package.  She could fit in aunt Rochelle’s clothing. (Editor’s note: Gary’s sister is also a petite person as anyone who knows her can attest – also, not a person to be underestimated.)

            While the political part of what is going on now is very concerning, and while it may take a while to know what the outcome of it will be, the greatness that she embodied is something we will hold onto and let us allow some of that light to shine on us.  

NOTE: I wanted to share this because I think we need to look at the totality of what Trump has done through this pandemic. It can’t be emphasized enough. We need to look for the light in the midst of the darkness, and RBG’s legacy can offer that, but we need to reckon with his actions and that many have been complicit in it. We can disagree about what would have been the best strategy to fight the virus, but his lies cannot be forgiven.

Moral Clarity

Image taken from Apple.com

Moral clarity. Those were the words that came to mind when I learned that Rep. John Lewis had died. He had a moral compass and followed it. I asked my husband, “Is that a rare quality?” Gary thought about it for a bit and said, “I don’t know.” “It sure seems like it is,” I responded.

I can’t help but compare our current president, who clearly doesn’t have a moral molecule in his heartless body, to John Lewis. There is no comparison. In fact, I can’t bring myself to type Trump’s name in the same sentence.

 After thinking for a bit, Gary looked at me, “You have moral clarity.”

“Really?”

Wow, that’s a major compliment. I thanked him but know that I am not in the same category – it is embarrassing to even write this. My family gives me more credit than I deserve for doing the right thing. I fall short often.

Thinking about John Lewis’s life I can’t help but be awed by his courage, consistency and vision. If I have moral clarity, I have not come close to living it in the way that he did. Some people live big lives. John Lewis did.  Why? What is the difference between those that lead on a national or international stage and those that don’t. I’m thinking it is a combination of having a compelling vision, a willingness to step up, a calling to shoulder responsibility, and seizing the opportunity to act.

Maybe the truth is that we all have opportunities to act, and either we don’t step up or we try and fail. Perhaps we don’t have the courage required to put ourselves on the line  – there is so much to fear, from losing a job to physical harm. Or maybe we try but don’t have the leadership qualities that inspire others, or maybe we don’t offer a message that resonates. It is amazing to think that John Lewis was 23 when he spoke at the March on Washington in 1963. So young and to already have ascended to that height! His willingness to put his body – his very life – on the line by participating in the Freedom Rides and the protests in Selma, among other activities, is awe inspiring.

I’m trying to think of times I have been in the presence of someone who had that kind of vision, determination and integrity. I can’t think of any. I can think of times I saw a speech on television that moved me. Mario Cuomo’s and Barack Obama’s convention speeches come to mind. But, again, that is different than a Black man sitting at a ‘Whites Only’ lunch counter and waiting for the painful consequences. Taking action is a different animal than soaring oratory. We need both to stir change. John Lewis did both – he used words and actions.

I think about my father who had a very strong sense of right and wrong and he communicated that in no uncertain terms to his children. The three of us benefitted from the clarity of his vision. He was a chapter chair in the teachers’ union and walked the picket line in New York City as a teacher in the 1960s, but he didn’t march on Washington or go to other protests. I wish I could talk to him about his choices. I’m not judging him – he lived an admirable life. I do wonder what he would say about leadership and courage, especially in this moment when both seem to be in such short supply.

We are living at a time where there is a paucity of leadership on the national level, certainly a lack of leadership that embraces an ethical code. We have a leader – we have a president. But he is so devoid of values, he has failed us miserably during this pandemic (and in addressing the systemic inequalities that the pandemic has made glaringly obvious).

I miss John Lewis already. Knowing his voice was out there gave me comfort. I know there are people doing good work, courageous work, trying to steer this country in a healthier direction. I hope leaders emerge who can bring us together. I am keeping an eye out for them.

White Privilege

Not that long ago ‘check your privilege’ was being bandied about. A white male student wrote a piece in the Princeton college newspaper in 2014 calling attention to the use of the phrase. Some were resentful of the comment (including the writer of that column), some were confused by it and others welcomed the dialogue. That conversation seemed to be limited to college campuses, then the moment faded away. Now we are in another moment where this idea of ‘privilege’ has currency – maybe this time it will have more traction. The murder of George Floyd was the latest example of brutality inflicted on an African American man that would be very unlikely to happen to a white one. While it is troubling to label that difference in treatment a privilege because one would hope that any living being would be treated with more respect than Mr. Floyd was afforded, what should we call it if not privilege?

My husband and I were having a discussion the other day about that idea. “I wish there was another way to say it,” Gary commented. “People reject the idea of privilege immediately, like it doesn’t apply to them. They say, ‘no one gave me anything,’ or ‘I worked hard for everything I’ve gotten.’ It’s hard to get people to see it.” Gary was reflecting on his experience talking with a range of people who come through his office – not that it comes up that often, but when it does, he has found resistance. I know he isn’t alone.

People can only see things through their own experience. If they didn’t grow up wealthy, and then they achieved a measure of success after working hard, it can be hard to accept that they were still advantaged (if that can be a verb). We want to believe in a meritocracy and that we earned what we have achieved. But the advantages can be taken for granted, and there is no reward for calling attention to it. The status quo has a lot invested in protecting itself.

The first time I read about the ‘invisible knapsack’ (otherwise known as white privilege) was in 2001. I was participating in training to be a facilitator for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in their World of Difference program. The World of Difference program is a multicultural awareness effort that had a number of components, some geared to schools, others to workplaces. I participated in five full days of exercises, each designed to examine our assumptions about all the ‘isms’ (racism, ableism, sexism, etc.) in our society. Though I had always been socially-conscious, or thought I was, I learned a great deal about the insidious ways that our biases impact our behavior. On one of the early days of the training, we were given an article to read (I highly recommend it:

https://nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEED-Texts/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack).

 

That article was first published in 1989, 31 years ago. I read it 19 years ago. It is getting attention again now.

Interestingly, the same has happened with video from a PBS special, broadcast originally in 1976. That video (written about in an article in the New York Times recently (https://www.nytimes.com/video/nyregion/100000006654178/rosedale-documentary-where-are-they-now.html or you can watch the original documentary here on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dv0n1xfNf1E&t=3619s) is from a Bill Moyers piece on Rosedale (Queens). Rosedale is the neighborhood where Gary grew up. Last week I reposted Gary’s essay on an incident that happened to him when he was a child.

On the one hand, I find this all very discouraging. We have been having the same conversation for most of my life and yet it still comes as ‘news’ to many. I don’t understand that. On the other hand, there finally seems to be more widespread acceptance of the existence of systemic racism. I am hopeful that maybe now we can finally make some meaningful change. In the course of a given day, my mood can shift from optimism on one hand to despair on the other.

I take comfort in the words of our former president, Barack Obama, when he points out that we have made progress – that for all the anger, pain and disappointment caused by continuing tragedies, we have made steps forward. Despite the setbacks, and reminders that there is still much work to be done, there are more opportunities for African Americans in America today than there was when I was born (in 1959). Of course, that isn’t enough, as we see every day, we haven’t made nearly enough progress.

One of the things I have realized over the course of my career as a school board member and as a trainer of school board members is that we need to periodically refresh our knowledge of the fundamentals. We think, since we are doing the work day-to-day, that we know the essentials. But the truth is, we forget, or at least lose sight of them. In the midst of whatever crisis, we are facing, or even when we are carrying out the mundane day-to-day tasks, we stop thinking about the fundamentals. We can easily lose our way. That is why continuing education is critical in every field – medicine, law, every workplace. It isn’t just that we need to learn about new developments, we need to be refreshed on the core values that inform our work. There is always more to learn and more awareness to be had – and this applies to being a citizen of a democracy. I hope Americans are willing to do the work.

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It’s Not Getting Easier

I thought this would get easier. When the quarantine started, I thought I would settle into the new routine without too much difficulty. After all, it wasn’t all that different from my life before coronavirus. In the beginning I didn’t feel particularly anxious – I had moments where I worried about my husband’s and our children’s health, but I wasn’t terribly fearful of getting ill myself. I was doing what I needed to do, spending more time cleaning and cooking, streaming more movies and t.v. shows, getting out to exercise. I thought, as time wore on, I would get used to it. I am surprised to be finding it harder and harder, even as restrictions are easing.

I’m thinking about why and I don’t have an answer. I have some possible explanations. Though we saw our daughter on Monday, which was wonderful, the ache of missing our kids gets deeper. Not seeing our two-year old granddaughter for three months is beyond painful. Though we FaceTime, I worry that she won’t be comfortable with us when we finally do see each other in person. When I think about it rationally, I don’t believe there will be long term damage to her or our relationship. But, that doesn’t ease the heaviness I feel.

I haven’t seen my mom in months either. On Tuesday the independent living community where she resides began a phased reopening, which is great news. Other than getting outside on her own porch, she has been confined to her one-bedroom apartment for the duration. I can’t imagine how I would have coped with that! Now she will be allowed to walk the grounds in accordance with a schedule (to maintain social distancing). I worry about the toll this has taken on her physical strength and mental acuity. It saddens me that I haven’t been to visit. Now that she can go outside, it is more practical for me to take the 3.5 hour drive to see her. I feel some relief knowing that, but again, we don’t fully understand the damage done or what the future holds. We aren’t out of the woods yet.

Before this happened, we were in the midst of planning our daughter’s wedding in December (2020) – a joyous occasion; an event I take great pleasure in helping to plan. We have not changed the date or arrangements, yet. I so want things to go off without a hitch, she deserves a great, festive celebration. Even if we didn’t have to deal with coronavirus, I would be worried about it all falling into place. Now with the specter of postponing or making major adjustments, all the unknowns weigh on me.

Perhaps more than anything, though, I am troubled by the news; I can’t tune it out. Whether it is the recent reminders that racism is alive and well or the latest effort by Trump to distract from the pandemic, I am sincerely worried about the fate of our country. I know there are good people – many of them. They may, in fact, outnumber the ignorant, ugly ones. But it seems that the latter have more power than their numbers should allow. Our president represents that ignorant, ugly strain of America. While it might be wrong to assume all of Trump’s supporters are of the same ilk, it hard for me to not think the worst. I am aware of Republicans who are ‘never Trumpers,’ but they aren’t in office and wield little power.

If all a Republican can say is that they wish Trump would ‘tone it down,’ as one person I know said recently, then they are blind to the damage being done. Toning it down doesn’t begin to undo the harm. They are unwilling to acknowledge the erosion of the rule of law, ethics and honesty. People may have been cynical about politics before his election, but after 3.5 years of Trump, the idea of virtue in public service appears to be almost dead. Can faith in public institutions be reclaimed?

I want to believe in the potential of our country, in the bedrock values that I thought were at the heart of our founding. Though we may not have fully realized those values – liberty and justice for all – I thought that the vast majority believed in those principles. I find myself asking if ethics, honesty and integrity aren’t part of the foundation of liberty and justice, then how do we achieve those ends?  We seem to have forgotten that the ends do not justify the means.

Just a couple of weeks ago, as I was walking with a friend, keeping an appropriate social distance, I was offering her optimism. She was feeling doubtful. I told her that science will triumph. A vaccine and/or treatment would be found, and we would emerge from the darkness. I still believe that scientists will find a solution to Covid-19, but I now fear that will not be enough. We are at a point where we seem to live in different realities, depending on where you get your news and your own predispositions. If a vaccine is found, will people believe in it and consent to take it? Will it be viewed as a hoax? Will it be made available to everyone?

The inequality, the inadequacy of our health care system, the vulnerability of our economy has been laid bare by coronavirus. Do we have the will to face these deeper issues? Do enough of us even see those issues? I never thought I would come to a point where I would ask these fundamental questions.

I need to reclaim my optimism. I’m not sure how to do that, other than to wait for election day and hope for a blue wave. The only thing to do is to keep on keeping on – writing, looking for constructive, productive activities, and caring for family and friends. Hopefully the gloom will lift long before November.

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I took this photo on my walk yesterday. Though I appreciated the beauty, it didn’t lift my spirits. That’s how I know I’m not in a good place.

I Am Angry

I am angry. I need to say it.

As I think about it, I am angry on a number of levels. First and foremost, I am furious at our president. Though I recognize that he is not responsible for the virus, he is exactly the wrong person to be leading us through this crisis. Let me count the ways:

  1. He is impulsive. Not a good quality in a crisis.
  2. He is unwilling to follow the experts or the data or the science. When asked what metrics he would use to decide when to open the economy, he pointed to his temple – his head!!! “It’s all in here,” he said. I can only shake mine.
  3. He is vindictive. He doles out aid and supplies to his political allies, or those who pay him compliments. I give Andrew Cuomo credit for being able to play that game – at least to some extent. It must be infuriating to deal with someone so juvenile and thin-skinned.
  4. He is a terrible role-model in every sense – from not following the CDC’s advice in his behavior and actions, to his shameless lying. I listened to his first major press conference where he announced that there would be a nationwide website we could consult to find out where to get tested; and that testing sites would be set up in parking lots of Wal-Mart and Target. All of that sounded good – and presidential. I was pleasantly surprised. Sadly, it was all lies; or if not outright lies, he was willfully misleading us.
  5. He never acknowledges when he is wrong or apologizes for lying or saying hurtful, insulting things.

I could go on and on, but I won’t.

I am angry that 43% of Americans still seem to approve of his performance.

I am angry that he will likely not be held accountable for any of this. His unwillingness to acknowledge the potential for pandemic months ago cost thousands of lives. I know others share responsibility, but he is the president! And, despite all of this, he could still be re-elected!

I am angry that he and his administration have rewritten the role of the federal government  – and the Republican party has stood by and watched (or tacitly supported it). The federal government is there to take on problems that extend beyond states’ borders. We can argue about when that comes into play, and we can differ on any number of policies. But, how is this virus different than an attack from a foreign enemy? A pandemic is a threat to our national security and safety. How can it be left to individual states to manage? The virus does not recognize state borders. It also pits states against each other. What is the point of being the United States of America if this is how we are going to operate?

I am angry because I feel powerless. I know the strategies one should employ when feeling powerless, but they are inadequate right now. And, given that I am hunkered down in my house, there are limitations.

I am angry because I have few useful skills for this situation. I don’t know how to sew so I can’t make masks. I don’t have the patience for sewing, knitting or crocheting, and I don’t own a sewing machine, so watching YouTube videos isn’t an option. I don’t have a factory that I can repurpose. I have no health care training. I wonder: what can I contribute? I am trying to be a good citizen by staying home.

I am also angry at myself because I realize that I have been selfish. Though I have been in mourning since Trump was elected, I have largely gone about my life, allowing the injustices that have been perpetrated (the separation of families at the border, the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, the treatment of immigrants generally, the increased threats to our environment, etc.) to pile up, but then roll off me. Maybe it was a matter of self-preservation, letting things go that you feel you can’t change. But now, with CoVid-19, even I can’t escape it. My privilege doesn’t protect me. It makes life easier – my quarantine is way more comfortable than most – but my life has been upended and I worry about family and friends being safe, healthy and able to withstand the economic impact of this calamity. Only now is my anger stirred to this level. How selfish is that?

It’s a lot of anger to be carrying around. I know the drill – do the things I can. Do good deeds for others. Focus on constructive actions – take care of my health, eat well, exercise. Stay connected to the people I love. Look to the helpers for inspiration, and there are many. There are many people stepping up to do good things (I love John Krasinski’s videos), courageous things (going to work at the risk of getting ill is courageous). All of that helps to quell the anger, until it boils up again and I need to vent. Thanks for listening.

The Education of an Idealist: A Book Review

I recently read The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power. To remind you, she was U.N. ambassador representing the United States during Obama’s second term as President. Prior to that she worked in his administration on the National Security Council. Hers is an interesting story. She was born in Ireland and lived there until her mother, unable to access a divorce in Ireland, took her two children and immigrated to America. Power’s and her mother’s journey is worth reading about. Not surprisingly, the issues raised in the book have spurred questions for me.

Some observations after reading the book:

It seems that immigrants have a clearer understanding of this country’s founding principles than many native-born Americans. Samantha Power and her family are examples of that. Fiona Hill and Alexander Vindman, NSC officials who testified in the House impeachment hearing, are two more examples.

Many of the events Power describes happened only four or five years ago, but I barely remember them. Or, more accurately, I remember the incident (for example, Assad gassing his own people in Syria or the killing of U.S. embassy staff in Benghazi) but have forgotten the specifics – if I ever knew them. It makes me wonder if it is information overload or a short attention span or not paying attention in the first place. Whatever the case, it is disturbing because how will we learn from these events if it all becomes an incomprehensible jumble swept under the rug.

As a person who has grappled with the causes and lasting impacts of the Holocaust, I was surprised to learn that Power made a name for herself by researching and writing a book about genocides in history (‘A Problem from Hell’ America in the Age of Genocide).  I will look for it next time I’m at the library. She was a reporter covering Bosnia in the 1990s and viewed her role as bringing the war crimes there to light so that the world would respond. I have always appreciated the importance of journalists educating us about events in far flung places, but this renewed my understanding of how crucial the press is. They may get things wrong or not tell a complete story but having eyes and ears on the ground is essential.

Reading about our conflicts with Russia, over its invasion of Ukraine and Assad’s actions in Syria, which Power had direct experience with at the U.N., brought into sharp relief the differences in values between our two countries. I studied Russian history (Soviet history at the time) when I was in college. I have some understanding of their single-minded concern with national security and their view of the world as an ‘us against them’ equation. They also have no legacy of democracy so when the Soviet Union crumbled it didn’t have a democratic tradition to call upon. Human rights never enter the equation for them. In the Russian scheme of things, what a country does in pursuit of its interests is not subject to any limitations – they don’t appear to apply a moral compass to the behavior of themselves or other nations. Power recounts her negotiations with Russia’s ambassador and those interactions illustrate very clearly that they are not our ally. We need to coexist with them, and we need to find opportunities to cooperate, but we cannot be confused about who they are. This reality makes Trump’s respect and affinity for Putin that much more frightening.

Another point that is driven home in the book is the power of politics. According to Power’s narrative, much of our country’s government action or inaction in foreign affairs is driven by perceptions of opinions/support of Congress, which, in turn, is driven both by their polling of their constituents and the influence of special interests. For example, Power describes Obama’s failure to act when Assad crossed the ‘red line’ in using chemical weapons, as mostly a political calculation based on lack of Congressional support for an air strike and fears of long-term engagement. After reading her analysis, in which she supported a military strike, I came away thinking that this was a failure of leadership on Obama’s part, but I have a better understanding of the factors that led to his inaction.

The notion of polling constituents or relying on phone calls/emails from constituents to gauge public opinion, raises a bunch of questions, some of which I thought quite a lot about when I was a school board member. The issues I faced were thankfully not life and death, but the fundamental question was the same: is my role as a representative to poll my constituents and vote accordingly; or is it to use my best judgment based on the information I have (which the public may not have) and apply my values to that data? Both paths are fraught. If I take the first approach, do I really know how my constituents feel? How many have I heard from and is it just the squeaky wheels? Do I poll on every issue, knowing that polling is not a perfect science?

If I choose the second approach, using my judgment, then I may be limited by the information I have and those who have provided it likely have an agenda. In the case of Congress, a lot of the information they rely on is supplied by special interests.

Whichever approach an elected official takes, representative democracy is flawed in some respects.

In my school board service, I generally went with the second approach. We didn’t do polling at that time, and I would have had some issues with it if we did. For me, it comes down to information, facts, data, analysis. If I could pull from different perspectives and look at data, I thought my decision-making would be stronger than basing it on a poll. Ultimately, the community would have their say in the most important poll – the voting booth. If they didn’t like where I came down on the issues, they would vote me out. Of course, I wasn’t terribly concerned about being voted out of a volunteer position. The challenge of taking my approach, relying on the data and applying one’s values, is that these days no one can seem to agree on a common set of facts or data. To make matters worse, there are those who benefit from exploiting the cynicism about science/data. At some point, we need to evaluate the information to assess its credibility and then trust in something!

So as not to leave you on a downer, I will share an example of the positive power of politics from the book. As Power describes the efforts to control and thwart the Ebola epidemic in West Africa a few years ago, the United States had the political will and resources to lead the way in addressing a terrifying public health emergency. This seemed to be a case where the data and science were believed, and political leaders overcame fear to do what needed to be done. One can only hope this problem-solving model can become the norm.

If you are interested in recent political history, and want to consider how values fit into public policy, I recommend reading The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power. By the way, I am not the only one recommending the book. It appeared on President Obama’s year-end list, too.

 

 

 

Another Day, Another Controversy

Last week the New York Times headline read: Trump Targets Anti-Semitism and Israeli Boycotts on College Campuses. It caused quite a stir in the Jewish community.

The first paragraph reported that the President planned to sign an Executive Order that would permit the federal government to withhold funding to colleges that fail to combat discrimination. That didn’t sound like a bad thing, but then I read the second paragraph (I added the bold):

“The order will effectively interpret Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion, to prompt a federal law penalizing colleges and universities deemed to be shirking their responsibility to foster an open climate for minority students. In recent years, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions — or B.D.S. — movement against Israel has roiled some campuses, leaving some Jewish students feeling unwelcome or attacked.”

Reading that the Executive Order would define Judaism as a nation and/or race made the hair on my neck stand up. As I surfed the Internet looking at reaction to this, I found a number of comments picking up on Judaism as nationality as problematic. I was more disturbed by the use of the term race.  That idea, of Jews as a separate race, struck terror in my heart. After all, that was one of the essential pieces of Hitler’s plan to exterminate us. Identifying us as a race, as ‘the other,’ as subhuman, made the Holocaust possible. I came to understand this when I took a class in college called The Making of Modern Germany. That class was the single most important one I have ever taken.

Professor George Stein taught every Tuesday and Thursday for ninety minutes during the fall semester of my sophomore year at SUNY-Binghamton. He stood at the podium, wearing a dark suit and tie, his black hair meticulously combed, and lectured to us. It might sound boring, but it was anything but. It was a history class, but he drew from music, art, folklore, science and philosophy to tell the story of a nation. In the telling he gave context and insight into bigger themes – What is a nation? What is modernity? It was fascinating. It wasn’t interactive. Professor Stein may have left a bit of time for questions, but essentially it was entirely lecture and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. You could hear a pin drop in the hall. I took notes furiously; I wanted to commit to memory all he was offering because it was so compelling and comprehensive. I never considered skipping class. I wish I could take it again. I held on to some of my notebooks from college and graduate school. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find that one. Over the years I have wanted to refresh my memory any number of times.

My mind went to that class when I read about the Executive Order. I remember clearly Professor Stein explaining the importance of Hitler’s manipulation of antisemitism. It was already entrenched in Eastern Europe based on the belief that the Jews killed Christ and the widely circulated lie that Jews used the blood of Christian children as part of the Passover ritual. Professor Stein traced how those seeds were exploited to take hatred to the next level. Judaism became more than a religion – Jews became a race with unique characteristics (a whole science was devoted to elucidating the differences). This was a critical step in building the case for genocide.

This is why reading that Trump was urging the United States government to begin defining Judaism as a race was alarming and terrifying, even as it was being offered to ostensibly combat harassment of Jews on college campuses. I could easily imagine it being turned on its head, as so many things are these days, for nefarious purposes.

When I saw that the Anti-Defamation League supported the Executive Order, I thought there’s no way they would if it was as explained in the New York Times article. I read as much as I could on the Internet. That first day I found a lot written about the Executive Order, but not the order itself – which was frustrating.

As I was reading, I was thinking, wasn’t antisemitism already covered by our nation’s laws? Why was this necessary? I went back to look at the Civil Rights Act and found that Title VI, which covers any entity that receives federal funds, prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin. Title VII of the same act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex, race, national origin or religion. Obviously the two lists are not the same.

Why aren’t they the same? I didn’t do deep research into this, but since educational institutions are permitted to be connected to a religion (e.g., Jesuit colleges, parochial schools) or same sex and still receive federal funds, I think they couldn’t include those categories in Title VI. Whether we should provide public funds to institutions affiliated with a religious denomination is a discussion for another day.

In my work with NYSSBA, though, I knew that this issue of schools addressing antisemitism has been litigated many times. So, the question remained, under what authority, could schools (colleges or public schools) act against antisemitism? The Civil Rights Act is enforced largely through the Department of Justice and the Department of Education. Those agencies are responsible for interpreting the law and have offices within them that receive complaints of discrimination and/or harassment (harassment can be a form of discrimination). Over the years, dating back to the Bush II administration, they issued guidance documents (the DOE calls them ‘Dear Colleague’ letters) which interpreted Title VI as covering religion. In the aftermath of September 11th, when Muslim students were especially vulnerable, the government explained that when students were targeted for being perceived as a different race the school district had an obligation to protect those being harassed. So, using the same logic, Jewish students and Sikh students (or any student whose religious practice or nation of origin may make them appear to be of a different race) are covered by Title VI.

Then the question becomes, what does this Executive Order offer that is different? After looking into this, I have no answer.  I came to the conclusion that it remains to be seen whether this is a positive thing, or a dangerous step, or not really a change at all (and just political pandering) – as with many things, it depends on how it is interpreted and implemented.

[By the way, it is worth noting that states also have laws that offer protections, too. New York State’s anti-discrimination laws are much more expansive than federal law and includes LGBT and disabled citizens, among others.]

The Executive Order was finally posted by the White House the next day – needless to say, I read it. I will point out that the Executive Order, and the source document it is based upon (a definition of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Recognition Alliance) does not say that Judaism is a race or a nation. It also does not say that being anti-Israel is equivalent to being anti-Semitic, despite what Jared Kushner opines; though that is where the waters get muddy. The IHRA document specifically says “….criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

As we know, on college campuses Israel gets a lot of criticism. Where it crosses over into antisemitism is complicated and often in the eye of the beholder. Can a person be anti-Zionist and not be anti-Semitic? If anti-Zionism means you oppose the existence of the State of Israel, it is hard not to get a whiff or more of antisemitism (other than Jews who believe that God – the messiah – is the only one that can create a Jewish homeland).

The founding of the State of Israel was, in my opinion, as legitimate as any nation. After the Holocaust, it was clear that Jews needed a homeland. As a result, the U.N. defined and authorized its creation. Every country I can think of has disputed boundaries and conquests in its history that contributed to their current configuration. The United States, Russia, China, Great Britain all come to mind. I’m not aware of any country that wasn’t built on the blood of a people in some way or another. Israel is no different.

I have lots of criticisms of Israel and how it conducts itself, especially under Netanyahu. But to suggest that it deserves to be isolated in the same way as North Korea or Iran, or to question its right to exist, is a bridge way too far. Students should be able to study in Israel. Academic exchanges should be welcomed. Individuals can choose not to buy its products if they don’t like their policies, as I don’t shop Walmart. But, I am not seeking to have Walmart driven into the sea, or cutting it off from civilized society. I would like Walmart to change – to treat its employees fairly and to operate as a good corporate citizen. Maybe it isn’t a perfect analogy, but I think it makes the point.

If this Executive Order is used to stifle protest of Israel’s actions, then it will be a misuse of governmental authority. If it bolsters the federal government’s authority to investigate harassment of Jews, that would be a positive outcome given the frightening increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes. If it gives authorities more cover, and suggests more political will to confront it, then maybe it can be helpful.

In sum, my two takeaways from this are: (1) the New York Times did a poor job of reporting on this and contributed mightily to the controversy by mischaracterizing the Executive Order. Some might not be surprised at that, I am disappointed.

And, (2) as with all things with the Trump administration, we will have to be vigilant to make sure power isn’t abused or turned on its head.

A Plea

There’s something I need to get off my chest. A thought has been percolating for well over a month and I need to put it out there. I was with a group of people and unfortunately discussion turned to politics. After some comments about the weaknesses of President Trump, a couple of people asked: But who can you vote for among the Democrats? Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am more than willing to vote for any of the Democratic candidates, except Bernie Sanders. I like a lot of the people running, actually. If Bernie were to somehow emerge as the nominee, I would either write someone else in or choose the Green candidate. Otherwise, I am prepared to vote for any of them. But that isn’t the point.

As I thought about that question I realized that I was angry about it. I don’t think that is the question at all. It is an easy out. The people asking were Republicans. They aren’t likely to support any Democrat no matter what. The question they should be asking is: Can’t our party (the GOP) offer a better candidate? Do we have to accept Trump as our candidate in 2020?

I recognize that we differ on policy matters. I’ve addressed this before on this blog (here). There is room for differences in ideas and beliefs about tax policy, immigration, environmental regulation, etc. But, it is impossible for me to believe that there are intelligent Republicans out there who don’t see Trump for the corrupt, dangerous person that he is. He is enriching himself and his family by virtue of his office. He has no ethics. He is a bully. Even if you like his policies, you have to acknowledge the harm he is doing – both domestically and internationally. His unwillingness to confront Russia about interfering in our elections is about his personal interests and his affinity for autocrats. The same can be said about Turkey’s President Erdogan.That should not be the basis of U.S. foreign policy. His willingness to enlist foreign actors to uncover dirt on his opponents is not politics as usual; he wants us to believe that everyone does the things he does. He appears to be counting on Americans’ cynicism or fatigue to get away with it. We can’t let that become the norm.

I don’t understand how the majority of Republicans aren’t demanding a change. I know that some, his base, like his style, like his bluster. They may even like his racism and misogyny. But I can’t believe that is the majority. Why are they, by and large, silent? I am aware that there are a few Republican columnists (Bill Kristol, David Frum) sounding the alarm about the harm Trump is doing. But I never hear from any elected Republican officials. And, more to the point, what about regular citizens who are members of the Republican party? Why aren’t they demanding either a change in his behavior or a different candidate for 2020? Where is the groundswell of anger that their party leader behaves so badly? People need to stand up to him – and that responsibility doesn’t fall to the Democrats. Republicans need to step up.

It is dangerous to accept that the ends justify the means. Even if you believe the US economy is doing well, can’t that be achieved with different Republican leadership? Mitch McConnell is willing to go to any lengths to put pro-life judges on the federal bench. Lindsay Graham is willing to sell his soul and whatever integrity he might have once had to be “in the room” of the powerful. I’m hopeful that karma (or their constituents) will deal with them. But what about everyone else? There must be someone who can champion the Republican agenda in 2020  – why does it have to be Trump?

I implore all Republicans with a conscience: demand an alternative to Trump! This isn’t about the Democrats at all. It is about the future of our country.

Patriotism

All through elementary school we began our day by reciting the pledge of allegiance. I recall standing, facing the flag, hand over my heart, earnestly saying the words with my classmates.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,

And to the Republic for which it stands,

One nation, under God, indivisible,

With liberty and justice for all.”

I said those words with pride. As I got older, it became a rote exercise. By the time I was in high school, in the early 1970s, it was hard to hear the words over the general din in homeroom.

The process of it losing my attention, and apparently my classmates’, too, might have been a function of our age. Or it may have reflected something else – a change in our country as a whole.

Two things made me think about this. First was the controversy over Megan Rapinoe, the women’s soccer player who got called out by President Trump for not singing the national anthem. The second thing is that the 4th of July is upon us, a good time to reflect on patriotism.

Over the years a lot of athletes have stirred controversy by their behavior during the national anthem. The first roiling I recall was when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their gloved fists in Black Power salutes at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. That touched off a firestorm. I was only 8 at the time, but I remember being upset by it. I think what disturbed me most was that it was detracting from the competition. I loved the Olympics, I loved it when Americans won an event, and I felt pride hearing our anthem played in the stadium. It reinforced that we were the good guys – and it was the Cold War, after all. I didn’t want Carlos and Smith to upset the applecart.

But, even at 8 years of age, I stopped to think about why they were doing it. They were making a statement and I felt it was important to try to understand it. They were calling attention to the fact that Black Americans were not being treated equally at home. It was hard to deny that truth. The athletes felt they had to use their platform literally and figuratively. They paid for their actions – they were kicked out of the Olympic Village and banned from the rest of the games. They also received death threats. One can only imagine what might have happened if this occurred in the age of the 24/7 news cycle and social media frenzies.

The idea that our country was falling short of its foundational values became more evident to me as the years rolled on. The Vietnam War and Watergate took their toll on my faith; they were stains on our nation’s history.

I don’t want to suggest that I didn’t feel pride in being an American – I did and do. But it is tempered by an awareness that we haven’t always met our own standards. We need people like Megan Rapinoe and Colin Kaepernick to keep us accountable. They raise legitimate issues. We can disagree with them. We can think that they are wrong. But they should be seen and heard.

I came to my own conclusion about the pledge of allegiance. When I became a school board member in 1997, I took an oath of office. It was simple and said the following:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New York, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of office of school board member of the Guilderland Central School District according to the best of my ability.”

I recited and signed that statement with honor and seriousness of purpose. I thought about my responsibility to the U.S. and New York State Constitutions, and to the students and members of my school community. I kept that in the forefront of my mind during the nine years I served. But, I stopped saying the pledge of allegiance.

It was our practice, and I believe it is the custom of most school boards, to begin meetings with the pledge. I stood up out of respect for my colleagues and the audience, but I didn’t put my hand over my heart, and I didn’t repeat the words. I had two reasons. First, I felt uncomfortable pledging allegiance to the flag. The flag is a symbol. I wouldn’t desecrate it, but I didn’t want to take an oath to it. I think it is beautiful waving against a clear blue sky, but my allegiance isn’t to the flag itself. If the pledge only said, “I pledge allegiance to the United States of America,” that would be fine. I recognize the value of symbols, but we shouldn’t confuse a representation with the actual thing that we venerate. Sometimes I think the flag itself becomes more important than the values it represents.

My second objection was the phrase “under God,” which was added in 1954. I’m not an atheist exactly, I’ll call myself a doubter. Given that I grew up believing that one of the great pillars of our country was the separation of church and state, I don’t think those words belong. So, I simply stopped reciting it.

Funny thing is that for all the years that I didn’t say the pledge, no one noticed! The meetings were televised locally. We were covered by a local reporter. No one ever asked. I wasn’t interested in calling attention to myself, so I didn’t make a point of it. I made a personal choice. I wonder if it had been noticed, if it would have become a “thing.”

I wish people wouldn’t get so angry when celebrities or regular people make these kinds of gestures. Why can’t they be noted, and then people make their own determination as to whether they agree or not. If you don’t like Megan Rapinoe because of her behavior or her values, that’s fine. But we don’t need the vitriol – how did we get to death threats so quickly? We have enough real problems to deal with, we don’t need to dwell on whether someone didn’t sing or if they knelt during the national anthem.

As we celebrate the 4th of July, I hope we think about the values that are the foundation of this country as expressed in that pledge: liberty and justice for all. These are still aspirational goals that I readily embrace and work towards achieving. We can and should enjoy the symbols: our majestic flag, the fireworks, the patriotic music, the hot dogs and beer. But let’s keep our eyes on the prize.

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A house in my neighborhood – ready to celebrate the Fourth of July

What’s the Deal, America?

It might seem that I have exhausted the topic of the teacher’s strike. But, alas, I have not! There is one more central issue to the strike that was not addressed that night at the Brooklyn Historical Society and that was: Do we value teachers? This question is still resonant today. Just look at Oakland where teachers walked out two weeks ago (they settled a couple of days ago) and shortly before that, the teachers’ strike in Los Angeles as examples.

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Associated Press photo – February 21, 2019 – Community members supporting Oakland teachers’ strike

Those two labor actions were, in large part, about pay – teachers need second jobs to make ends meet. The 1968 dispute in New York City didn’t hinge on salary, but that isn’t the only measure of whether we value the profession.

One aspect of treating teachers professionally is to provide due process before reassignment or termination. The attempt by the Ocean Hill Brownsville school board to fire people who had tenure without a hearing was offensive to my father. He would not want to protect teachers who were lazy or incompetent, but they were entitled to be heard first.

There is a reason that the teaching profession includes tenure. Tenure existed long before there were teachers’ unions (tenure came into practice in the early in the 1900s; though there were attempts to organize earlier, the UFT wasn’t formed until 1960). The reason was to protect teachers from political influence or corruption. People understood there was a danger that a new principal could come in, fire the staff and hire their relatives or give jobs to the highest bidders. There has long been recognition that the education of our children held a special status that needed to be protected.

As with all things, though, there is a need for balance and there is a perception that things have gotten out of whack with it becoming a long and expensive process to terminate a terrible teacher. In 1968 my Dad had no tolerance for those who were taking advantage of the system, skating by, making no effort. He had his own scornful word for them, “deadwood.” I don’t know if he invented that term, but I heard it often enough when Dad expressed his frustration with a colleague. It is an effective metaphor:  decaying branches clogging up a stream. But, he didn’t believe the majority of the teaching force was “deadwood” or racist. Finding the balance between due process and ridding the system of deadwood continues to be a struggle. Remember the headlines on the front page of the New York Post not long ago? – with pictures of ‘rubber rooms’ for teachers that can’t be trusted in the classroom but can’t be terminated either. We need to find the right balance, but that still doesn’t answer the central question of how much do we value teachers.

Our attitude toward teachers in America is a funny thing. We have a kind of schizophrenia about them. One the one hand, we think anyone can teach, everyone thinks they know how things should be done in the classroom. After all, we’ve all gone to school. And then there’s the old saying, “He who can does; he who cannot, teaches.” Hardly a statement of praise. As noted above, teachers are underpaid and that continues to be a sticking point. It’s also been considered ‘women’s work’ dating back to the nation’s westward expansion when the ‘schoolmarm’ taught in one room schoolhouses. Women’s work has never been given its due.

On the other hand, we expect so much of teachers. When poor achievement scores are reported, teachers are blamed. In New York State we require that they earn a master’s degree within five years of their appointment. There are demanding continuing education requirements – I believe 75 hours every five years.

We simultaneously believe that kids right out of college can step into a classroom to teach (as in Teach for America and exemplified by Rhody McCoy hiring strike replacements who were fresh out of college subject to a single interview) and yet we complain that inexperienced, uncertified teachers are disproportionately assigned to poor, underserved schools, and offer that as emblematic of the inequity of the system.

A number of years ago I had an interesting conversation with a gentleman who grew up in Finland. If you read about successful school systems, Finland is often cited as exemplary. He explained that students who went into teaching were the best and the brightest; teachers there were expected to have the equivalent of a PhD, were as revered as medical doctors, and were paid accordingly. Not exactly a description of our situation.

So, what’s the deal, America? Can anyone teach? Or, is it a profession? And, if it is a profession, is it an esteemed one that we are willing to pay for? We can’t have it both ways.