Monday, October 31, 2011

Five Chances to Stop the Killing

For the past couple of days, the headlines have reported on the killing of one suburban teenager. It is appropriate that we remember that more than two hundred sixty children were killed in Chicago in the past year – mostly by gunfire. Barely a day goes by without another killing. Some days there are more than one. I believe we can stop the violence.

This week, an interfaith coalition called Urban Dolorosa will read the names of the victims, and will present a program of music, poetry, and photography at five churches as part of its effort to make our community safer for everyone. The programs will be presented:

Tuesday, Nov 1, 7 pm – St Sabina Faith Community – 1210 W. 78th Place (Auburn Gresham)

Wednesday, Nov 2, 5:30 pm – 1st Methodist Chicago Temple – 77 W. Washington (the Loop)

Thursday, Nov 3, 7 pm – New Mount Pilgrim Baptist – 4301 W. Washington (Garfield Park)

Friday, Nov 4, 7 pm – Holy Cross / IHM – 46th & Hermitage (Back of the Yards)

Sunday, Nov 6, 5:30 pm – Hyde Park Union Church – 5600 S. Woodlawn (Hyde Park)

I plan on being at some of these programs, and I hope to see you there.

Whether or not you can make one of the programs, if you would like to get together with a small group of people to discuss helping with the effort to reduce violence, please let me know.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Fox Attacks

Throughout U.S. history, people have tried to create utopias – ideal worlds in which to live. Some established communal farms or workshops. Others tried to convert the general society to their vision. Utopians included Shakers and Oneidas and Amanas and hippies. In other countries, they were knows as Harmonites or Kibbutzniks. Depending upon the times they lived in, they were either romanticized, ostracized, ignored, or destroyed.

Today's occupiers are clearly not proposing the creation of a separate society, as some other utopians did. Quite the contrary, they are seeking to reform the society as a whole, not to create an alternative to it. For that reason, they are within the mainstream of American political history, and they are able to appeal to a wide cross-section of the country. They do not pose a threat to the majority of Americans, only to the one-percent whose power and influence they seek to diminish.

Enter Fox News, defender of the one-percent. Using the same misleading techniques that it has employed time and again, it is now trying to discredit the occupiers. Fox has “reported” that some people who used to work with the ACORN organization are now infiltrating the occupation. Fox has printed an opinion piece that claims, without any support, that “Behind the current Occupy Wall Street protests is a 'red army' of radicals seeking no less than to provoke a new, definitive economic crisis,with their goal being the full economic collapse of the U.S. financial system, with the ensuing chaos to be rebuilt into a utopian socialist vision.” Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly led off his segment by claiming there was “more violence from the occupiers” in Oakland, California, despite the fact that reporters from other news outlets who were at the scene attributed the violence to the police, and not to the protesters. When asked if they had been firing bean-bags, stun grenades, and rubber bullets at protesters, officials of the Oakland police said that they had so many officers there from so many neighboring communities that they didn't even know who had been firing what weapons at whom. Fox News has also been pushing the notion that the occupiers are anti-Semites , but Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, disagreed: “The movement is not about Jews; it's not about Israel. It's about 'the economy, stupid.'”

The immediate challenge that faces the occupiers is to keep talking about their message and not be distracted by the daily attempts of Fox News and other supporters of the one-percent to portray them as dangerous, evil, misguided, and who knows what else. It is generally not a good idea for a public figure to ignore attacks, as John Kerry learned when he did not respond to untrue attacks on his record in the military. Because the occupiers function as a leaderless movement, it could be difficult for them to respond to the Fox attacks. No one individual has the authority to speak for the occupiers. But in this case, the lack of a spokesperson does not seem to be hurting the Occupy movement. The responsible media have been reporting the truth, countering the attacks that Fox has been mounting. The responsible media's rebuttal is much more persuasive than anything the occupiers could say.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why No Leaders?

Reports about the Occupy Chicago protests and other occupations around the U.S. keep pointing out that there are no leaders of these groups. The reporters, with no leaders to talk to, have had to talk with several protesters each day in order to get a sense of what the protesters want. As a result, the reports have taken on a very different tone than what we usually see in political reporting, which is a quote from a leader on one side of an issue and a quote from a leader of a group that disagrees. Instead, we are getting quotes from a bunch of ordinary people. The quotes are not all polished, but they seem very authentic and sincere.

The stories that have been written about the Occupy protesters leave the reader thinking that the protesters are not all of one mind. It's really quite refreshing. People in any political movement are never all of one mind, but the usual reporting makes it look like they are.

I doubt that the Occupy protesters are consciously trying to alter the way they are covered in the news. I do think, however, that they see themselves as different, and they want the public to appreciate that difference. The Occupiers see themselves as being part of a popular uprising, not as followers of any particular leader or party. The protesters are, to a great extent, young. They believe in individuality, and in collective action, but they reject the political organizations that they see as having led us into our current difficulties. They not only do not trust leaders to represent them, they do not feel that leaders are necessary.

People who have been involved in other political efforts and reporters who have covered those efforts may think that the Occupiers are naïve and poorly organized. They probably are. But the way that the Occupiers are conducting themselves can also be viewed as profoundly uncomplicated. At the core of the Occupy movement is a desire for change in methods, not just in message. The Occupiers have seen, in the Obama presidency, the incompatibility between a message of change and a machinery that preserves the status quo. The Occupiers are getting their inspiration from protesters around the world who achieved their goals by working outside of the established power structure, and usually by toppling that structure.

The demands that the Occupiers are making don't sound very radical. But the image that the Occupiers have in their minds of how people can exert power is very different from the way that power is wielded right now. That image is what the reporters are having a hard time covering, because it is something they haven't seen in this country in a very long time.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

To the Barricades?

The Governor of New York ordered his state troopers to clear the Occupy protesters out of Albany, but the troopers decided not to try. They knew they were outnumbered and that they would not be able to control the protesters if they resisted arrest. The police in Oakland, California used teargas to disperse the protesters there. Some people on the scene said that the police had fired non-lethal projectiles at the protesters. Police in Chicago arrested more than one hundred protesters who refused to leave a city park where they had harmlessly camped out.

All over the country, police are trying to figure out what to do about the protesters, and the protesters are trying to decide how they want to protest. So far, no one has been seriously hurt. So far, the protesters have been peaceful. So far, no one has had to stay in jail more than a few hours. So far, the police have been restrained. History tells us this will probably not last.

No one knows how this will all end. In all likelihood, at some point the police in some of these cities will plant agent provocateurs among the protesters and have them throw bottles or rocks, so that the police will have an excuse for becoming violent. The press will initially accept the police story that the protesters became violent and that the police had to respond with force in order to protect innocent people and property. Later on, the truth may come out.

Once the police initiate violence against the protesters, most people will probably stay away from the protests, both because they will be afraid of being hurt by the police, and because Americans are peaceful people who won't want to have anything to do with violence, regardless of which side started the violence. If the scenario unfolds this way, the police will succeed in quashing the protests. People will feel dejected that the protests did not succeed in changing the country, and things will just keep getting worse. That is the most likely way the Occupy movement will end.

But successful police repression of the movement is not the inevitable outcome. It is possible that Americans will become outraged if the police use excessive force, as happened in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention of 1968. If the police get totally out of control, public opinion may become galvanized, as happened when Ohio National Guardsmen killed students at Kent State University. It is possible that the public will pour into the streets in support of the protest, as has happened any number of times around the world when people start to believe that they can make a difference, even if the police do not continue their efforts to stifle the protests.

The outcome of the Occupy protests will depend upon how committed some people are, how upset other people get, and how foolishly the police react. Nothing is predestined, which means there is hope.

Monday, October 24, 2011

What Occupiers Want

Any number of commentators have complained that the Occupy protesters have not set out their demands in sufficient detail. These commentators are not satisfied with the one-page lists of demands that have been adopted in New York and Chicago and other occupied areas. They want action plans, legislative proposals, lobbying briefs. Or so they say. What they really seem to want is to make the protesters look unsophisticated, unrealistic, disorganized, uninformed, and generally not worthy of the attention they are getting.

I have looked over some of the protesters' proposals, and they seem clear enough. They want more effective regulation of the banking and financial service industries, to prevent future catastrophes. They want criminal prosecution of criminals who have stolen millions of dollars. They want an economic stimulus package that will help young people enter the workforce and become consumers, in the form of student loan forgiveness. These proposals are at least as concrete as the ones that were in the original Declaration of Independence. King George was able to figure out what those protesters wanted.

But the written proposals don't really capture the flavor of what the Occupy protesters want. Listen to them and you will see that they really only want one thing: justice. They want their government to treat them fairly. They want the laws to be enforced equally. They want a chance.

The critics could probably figure out what the protesters want, if they would simply listen. But they don't want to listen. They'd rather not hear the message, and they'd rather not treat the protesters as if they deserved to be heard. They'd rather feel superior to the protesters, so they mock the protesters, call them names, and tell lies about them.

Our senator, Mark Kirk, even joined in the chorus of disrespect, suggesting on radio that the protesters were all on drugs, and laughing along when the radio-show host guffawed that the protesters smelled. There was no basis for these jibes, but the senator was having fun at the expense of his constituents. It was reminiscent of politicians who laughed as they unleashed dogs on civil rights protesters many years ago. That a U.S. senator would engage in such repulsive behavior would have been shocking, if the senator wasn't Mark Kirk. But, like George Wallace and Strom Thurmond and Bull Connor, we know what to expect from Mark Kirk. We know that when people are protesting because they are frustrated with their government, Mark Kirk will be smugly chortling with the defenders of privilege, showing disrespect for the very people whom he is supposed to represent. If the critics want to understand what the Occupy protesters are upset about, all they have to do is look at the way they are being treated by their own senator.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Victory in Iraq

The president announced that our mission in Iraq is about to end. He is bringing home most of our troops after nearly nine years of war and occupation. He said they could hold their heads high and be “proud of their success,” but he didn't say what that success was. He never said we had won. He didn't tell us what we had achieved. He just said it was going to be over. For years people have been predicting that we would eventually simply declare victory and go home. But we aren't even declaring victory. We are just going home.

It was sad. Despite the president's attempt to make our withdrawal look good, the most uplifting thing he was able to say was that our soldiers will be home in time for the holidays. We all know that they could have come home last year, or the year before, or the year before that. We know that there was never any good reason for them to leave home in the first place. More than 4,400 of them died for nothing. We destroyed our economy paying for the war. Tens of thousands of military personnel will bear the physical and mental scars of the war for many years to come. The country of Iraq will bear the terrible scars of our bombings for a long time.

It is tempting to say that the war has been a waste, but it has been much worse than that. You can't simply call the killing of all those people a waste, as if ending human lives were no more important than spilling some food on the ground. The war has been a disgrace. At least the president didn't lie about that. He kept his mouth shut.

There will be parades and television footage of soldiers and Christmas trees and Teddy bears. Every effort will be made to keep this withdrawal from resembling the end of the war in Viet Nam. But no one is going to be fooled. We lived through this war. We know the truth.

Once again, we have been defeated by our own arrogance. We have mistakenly placed our hope in guns and bombs. We told ourselves that this time would be different, and now we must face the fact that war in any time is never different.

In telling us that he was ending the war, the President was delivering a eulogy. He solemnly tried to put the best face on a mournful experience, hoping that we would remember the good times and forget the bad. He encouraged us to embrace one another and think about the future. But we must not be rushed. Before we can heal, we must grieve. We must be honest about what has happened. We must take responsibility.

We have failed in a way that only the mighty can fail. Now is not the time to pretend to glory. Now is the time to be humble and ashamed.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Beginning Again

When Osama bin Laden was killed, I wrote that we should not rejoice, and that we should not kill. Now officials at the highest levels of government are once again celebrating our role in the killing of the leader of another country, this time Moammar Qaddafi of Libya. Should I again speak out against the violence? Or is once enough?

Coincidentally, today Jews around the world are celebrating Simchat Torah, the day on which we read the last weekly portion of the Torah and begin the cycle again by reading the first portion. For untold centuries we have read these same portions, beginning anew over and over again. Reinforcing old lessons, hopefully finding new meanings. Teaching new generations. Recognizing the cyclical and endless nature of existence but hopefully not concluding that striving for better understanding is futile. A spiritual renewal, following closely upon the annual observance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and sandwiched between the weekly observance of the Sabbath, all of which also signal new beginnings.

The lesson that I choose to derive from these cyclical special days is that if a lesson is relevant and needed, it can be repeated as often as necessary. However, to keep from boring my readers, I suggest that we have something new to ponder as we reflect upon this latest elimination of a head of state: we may be getting better at assassination. We certainly seem to be embracing it more readily than before.

This time we were told almost immediately that our unmanned drone aircraft were used for round-the-clock surveillance of Qaddafi's hometown, because that was where our informants told us he might be hiding. When he tried to flee, we used manned and unmanned planes to shoot at his motorcade. We used our communications network to dispatch fighters to the scene. Those fighters captured Qaddafi, and then, once he was already in custody, they shot him to death. We were involved in the assassination from the beginning of the operation until its brutal, bloody end.

Earlier this week, the news reported that our military will soon begin giving soldiers their own personal mini-drone aircraft which they can launch like toy model airplanes. These aircraft, however, will not be toys. They will be armed to carry out attacks on individuals. Foot-soldiers will be able to kill whoever they want by remote-control, as if they were playing on a video game console. And, of course, we know that our military probably has even more capable weapons in development that they aren't even telling us about yet.

Our country seems to accept, even take pride, that the technology we produce for killing people is constantly improving. We don't seem very concerned that our willingness to kill may also be increasing. We don't seem upset that we used to think of political assassination as something that was done by tyrants or terrorists or madmen, and was abhorrent to civilized democracies. Today, it is something that we, supposedly a democracy, do to people whom we declare to be tyrants.

There is a cycle in life, but life is not endless repetition. Circumstances change, and not necessarily for the better. Our society has put faith in the idea that certain timeless lessons will guide us in the right direction, and so we re-read the lessons over and over.

Once again, let us reflect on what we have done.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Limits of Charity

My wife and I spent the night in a church with three homeless families. Each night, different volunteers like us stay overnight to act as hosts to people who hopefully will soon have their own places to live. These people are from our community. The volunteers come from sixteen different churches and synagogues. The congregations take turns hosting the families.

Earlier in the day, other volunteers had welcomed the families and cooked dinner for them. They were available to help the children with their homework and to play with the little ones, so that the parents could have a little time to take care of whatever they needed to. Or if they preferred, they could just retire to their rooms and have time to spend with their families. In the morning, we set out breakfast and cleaned up, the children went to school, their parents went to work or to look for work, and we locked up the church and went home.

I have only met a few other of the volunteers, but those I have talked with are motivated by all the best concerns for other people, and they are putting their concerns into action. The program gives them the valuable experience of being able to spend time and talk with people who they probably otherwise wouldn't meet, and the homeless people likewise get the opportunity to see that there are people who care about them, at a time when it may seem that the world isn't a very caring place.

Aside from the nights that the volunteers put in, an even greater effort goes into making this program work. A substantial effort is required to recruit the volunteers, train them, schedule them, and make arrangements with participating congregations. The participating congregations also put a lot of work into helping the homeless families during the day, in conjunction with various agencies.

All in all, a lot of money and time goes into helping a very small number of families – three families a night. Three out of thousands of homeless families. A very worthwhile effort, but so terribly inadequate.

I have been told by tea-partiers that government shouldn't pay for entitlement programs that provide services to needy people, because that is a job that churches and charities can do more efficiently. The tea-partiers were talking about programs like the one that we volunteered for, which drew volunteers from sixteen congregations to fill 120 volunteer shifts per month to house three families a night. Three families out of thousands in need.

Do the tea-partiers think that all that we need to do is help three out of thousands? Do they expect that thousands more volunteers will suddenly come forward if the government programs shut down? Do they not understand that it would be a far more efficient use of everyone's time and money to hire people to run homeless shelters than to organize volunteers to do the task? Do they not see that there will never be enough volunteers?

We spent the night with three families. We spent the same night with thousands more who were just as homeless and just as needy, but who did not have a warm church to sleep in. We all spent the night with tea-partiers who think three out of thousands is good enough.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Financing Housing

While standing outside the hotel where the Mortgage Bankers Association was holding its annual meeting, I struck up a conversation with one of the attendees. He turned out to be a recognized expert on the way mortgages are financed both in the U.S. and in other countries. He gave me some useful information, and I followed up by doing my own research. His basic premise was that the key to fixing the housing problem is finding a way for people to refinance their mortgages.

Mortgage rates have declined over the past few years to an all-time low, somewhere around four percent for a thirty-year fixed-rate loan. Normally when rates decline, people who are paying higher interest rates on their old mortgages refinance at the lower rates. The result is that the people who refinance spend less money each month on their new mortgage payments, and when they get through paying off their loans, they find they have spent less for their homes overall, giving them greater gains when they sell the homes. In the short and long term, homeowners have more money in their pockets. Whether they save or spend this money, the economy is healthier. The benefits of low rates are also enjoyed by people who are buying homes for the first time, although there are a lot fewer of them than there are people who already have homes and could benefit from refinancing.

For the past several years, people have not been refinancing, mostly because they can't get loans. Why? 1) Because their homes are not worth as much as they used to be, so the homes don't qualify for mortgages that are large enough to pay off the original loans. 2) Because homeowners don't have the closing costs. 3) Because people are not employed, so they don't meet lenders' criteria for good risks. 4) Because banks are toughening their standards for lending money, so they don't get burned again.

Unable to refinance, some people lose their homes to foreclosure. What happens? The foreclosed homes are sold for low prices so lenders can get some of their money back. This depresses the value of nearby homes, because the pricing of homes is based on the sale price of similar homes. People feel poorer, so they cut their spending, slowing the economy. New homes aren't constructed. Lower property values cause local governments to increase their tax rates just to collect same amount of revenue they collected before.

What has to happen in order make refinancing easier? The banker I spoke with is arguing for technical adjustments to the way the mortgage lending market operates. But in order for these adjustments to be made, the investors who hold the mortgages (largely in the form of mortgage-backed securities) will either have to decide that it is in their best interest to change, or the government will have to force the change. So far, the investors are not convinced. They figure that even though refinancing would make it possible for more people to pay their mortgages, they make more money off the majority of people who continue to pay their existing high-interest mortgages than they would if mortgages were refinanced.

To date, the government has not forced any significant change, and I think things will have to get a lot worse before it does. The public still subscribes to the idea that people who made bad decisions and can't make their mortgage payments should suffer the consequences, and, having seen the banks get bailed out, people who are still able to make their mortgage payments are against seeing anyone else get a break. Most people are still focused on themselves and not on how their well-being depends upon the well-being of others. This gives politicians, who are still more responsive to the investors who financed their campaigns than to the masses of people who voted for them, very little reason to push for change.

During the first Great Depression, the government initially did nothing to fix the economy. Later it tried to make things better by making technical adjustments. It took years before the government instituted more radical changes. It will probably take even longer this time for the government to get serious. First, the regressives are going to have to finish their work of repealing the New Deal reforms. Then there will be a time of great suffering. Then, maybe, we will get to the point where we once again start thinking in terms that are big and bold enough to allow us to rebuild a society that provides for the general welfare.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Jobs News

The same day that the Senate defeated Obama's jobs bill, they passed his free trade agreement with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama. Like other recent free trade agreements, this one will probably cause a decline in the number of American manufacturing jobs. In fact, the bill anticipates this job loss. It provides for benefits for workers who lose their jobs. The supposedly good news is that the agreement may cause an increase in some farm employment here. Oh boy. Wasn't the shift from agricultural work to industrial work what created an economic expansion and improvement of living conditions – what is called the industrial revolution? How are we benefiting as a country by moving backward on the path of development?

The news the next day was that UAW members rejected a proposed contract, in large part because it continued the practice of paying newly hired workers about half as much as workers who have been on the job longer. The two-tier wage practice was not designed to compensate more skilled workers. It is just there because the automakers realized they can now hire people for less money than they used to pay them. If it seems to you that people in America are making less money these days, this explains why: they are making less money! Anyone who has ever worked in a factory or almost any other workplace knows that there is nothing more dispiriting than finding out you are being paid less than someone else to do the same work.

In a related story the same day, Gap announced it is closing retail stores in the U.S. and opening stores in China. With the U.S. economy hurting, U.S. consumers are buying cheaper jeans at discount stores, not higher quality jeans at Gap.

While campaigning over the years, Obama has frequently said that if you are stuck in a hole, the first thing you do is stop digging. He also said that if your bus driver runs the bus into a ditch, fire the driver. Any day now we can expect him to issue retractions.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

No Place for a Revolution

Having spent some time with the Occupy Chicago folks on three days, I have concluded that it is not the social revolution that they would like it to be. It is not a popular uprising. It is not any threat to the government or to business. It is just a bunch of well-meaning people peacefully and creatively demonstrating their dissatisfaction with the way things are. There is nothing wrong with that, and it is probably a good thing that they are there. They have pushed some of their opinions onto the news. They have reinvigorated their base. They have shown the average person who is suffering in this economy that there is an alternative to the hate-based Tea Party. But they haven't mobilized a lot of people yet, and they aren't likely to, standing on the corner of LaSalle and Jackson in front of the Board of Trade and the Federal Reserve.

The problem isn't the message that the protesters are voicing. A lot of the people on the street expressed agreement with the protesters. But people who are at LaSalle and Jackson are there because they are going somewhere, mostly in a great hurry. They aren't there to stroll, like they might be on Michigan Avenue. There are no sidewalk cafes or open-air markets, such as those that are found in other countries where we have seen mass protests. There is no plaza where people relax and discuss the issues of the day. The train stations are underground or indoors, several blocks away. People don't wait around a public square as they do elsewhere for day labor jobs. Millennium and Grant Parks are not even in sight. This is not Madison, Wisconsin, where the state capital grounds are right in the middle of town.

Like most of downtown Chicago, all that there is at the corner the protesters are occupying is a sidewalk which is just wide enough to accommodate the pedestrians and a few smokers who have been banished from their workplaces. Hardly anyone lives downtown, and it costs money to take a bus or train or taxi there, so there are no mobs of restless unemployed people just waiting for some rally to gather around. Other than a few tourists who seemed amused by the protest, the only people who are there are the ones with jobs. They might be sympathetic to the protesters, but they aren't about to give up those jobs in order to join a movement of people who are protesting that there aren't enough jobs.

If people get upset enough, they might go to the trouble of joining the occupation. Tens of thousands assembled in Chicago a couple of years ago to protest the wars and to rally for immigration reform. But either people aren't that upset about the economy yet, or else they just don't see this occupation as the event they want to bother going all the way downtown for. So for now, the occupation isn't bringing the system to its knees. It is barely bringing people out on a beautiful autumn day.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Letting Go of Money

I am normally a cautious person. I wait for the outline of the little man to turn from red to white before I cross the street at a crosswalk. I have never tried to open a beer bottle with my teeth. I wear a helmet when I ride my bicycle. But today I decided to take a risk. I decided to let go of some money.

The Republicans in Congress have been telling us how dangerous it is to let go of even a little bit of one's money. Their opposition to even modest tax increases on wealthy people is based on the idea that calamity could strike if people had to part with money. The entire economy could be destroyed. The national security could be devastated. Not only would jobs not be created, but vast numbers of people would be thrown out of work, as the capitalist system crumbled under the burden of fair distribution of wealth.

I don't generally subscribe to Republican economic theory, but their warnings about letting go of money have become so pervasive that, as I prepared for my experiment in letting go, I was scared. I didn't want to be responsible for the destruction of our American way of life.

And what of the personal consequences? We have all been warned that if we let go of any of our money, we might live out our lives in poverty, and people may stop caring about us. There is, sadly, ample evidence supporting that Republican warning.

With trepidation, I prepared for the experiment. I took all the precautions I could think of. I made sure my will was up-to-date. I paid the bills that were on my desk, so as not to be any more of a burden on my survivors than necessary. I told my wife I loved her.

Not wanting to take any unnecessary risks, I removed just a single dollar bill from my wallet. I held it over my head. I took a deep breath, and I let go. Time seemed to stand still as the dollar drifted down to the ground. I stood staring at it where it landed. The Earth did not open up. I look skyward. No dark clouds formed. Lightning did not strike me down. The birds continued to sing. I had survived, and the world was intact!

In the interests of scientific rigor, I acknowledge that one experiment is not sufficient. The experiment must be repeated by others, under other conditions. Most importantly, it must be performed by some rich people, even some millionaires and billionaires. But I feel I have done my part. I took the risk. And now I turn my findings over to others to see if they will get the same result

Thursday, October 6, 2011


For several years, I have been puzzled about why some Jewish Americans were voting for certain conservative Republican candidates. They would say the candidates were “good for Israel.” It didn't make much sense to me, because the opposing candidates also seemed to be good for Israel, in that they supported Israel's right to exist, to have secure borders, to defend itself, and to conduct its affairs as it deemed best. Finally, today, I met a Jewish American who explained what he and his Republican friends considered to be “good for Israel.”

He said that George Bush was good for Israel because Bush thought that if he invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein, at some time in the future a democracy might be established in Iraq and this man figured that would be good for Israel. He explained that Bush's plan had only a one-percent chance of succeeding, but even that slight chance justified our invasion. He supports other candidates if they also are willing to take actions, such as going to war, if there is even the remotest chance that somehow Israel might benefit. In other words, he and his friends are concerned about one thing and one thing only: Israel. They are willing to have our government kill, torture,violate international law, displace people, and destroy property and the environment without limits, even if these efforts are almost certain to fail, all in the name of helping Israel.

Some people who are not familiar with Judaism might not be surprised at this man's views but most American Jews would be shocked. Judaism teaches peace and respect for all peoples. Over the centuries, a body of Jewish law has been developed which carefully protects and demands respect for enemies in war, competitors in business, and non-Jews in all circumstances. So I was puzzled to hear that this man, who is affiliated with an Orthodox community, seemed to have somehow jettisoned huge parts of the established Jewish religion which would be contrary to his extreme views that allegiance to the state of Israel justified violations of fundamental secular and religious laws. Fortunately, he explained that also.

He said that, in his and his friends' views, the more liberal branches of Judaism are no longer really Judaism, they are just secular liberalism. As examples, he pointed to reform Jews' acceptance of abortion and concern about the environment and social justice as beliefs that are just political and not really consistent with Judaism. I didn't argue with him. It was clear that he had selectively re-defined Judaism as supporting and justifying his personal fanaticism. As disturbing as it was for me to hear this, even more troubling was the thought that he was part of a community which seems to share his beliefs. But at least I now know why all the logical arguments and all the facts and evidence with which we have been trying to persuade the “good for Israel” voters has had so little effect. Now I know that these voters don't just mean “good for Israel,” they also mean “and to hell with everyone else.”

Certainly not all Jews agree with this man. But just as certainly, he is not alone in his views, and he and his friends have influence even in the broader Jewish community because of their relationships with rabbis and Jewish community organizations. When this man and his friends declare which candidates are good or bad for Israel, it can be nearly impossible to get a different viewpoint heard, let alone accepted. In fact, promoters of contrary viewpoints are frequently labeled as “anti-Semitic,” or if they are Jews themselves, as “self-hating Jews.”

My acquaintance and I had a very civil conversation, and I am grateful that he was honest about his beliefs. I have learned from him. But I am very much saddened by what I have learned. It portends possibly irreconcilable rifts within Judaism and potentially dangerous misunderstanding of Judaism from those of other faiths. Islam has suffered grievously from such divisions and distortions. Judaism may be headed down the same path.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Class Warfare

Progressives and regressives have been accusing each other of engaging in class warfare. It is not clear whether they are talking about the same thing. Apparently, some progressives think that by promoting tax policies which favor rich people and corporations over people with more average incomes, regressives are trying to establish and maintain domination and control by the rich over those who have less wealth. And some regressives seem to think that by advocating that rich people and corporations pay a larger share of taxes, the progressives are trying to dethrone the rich from their positions of power and privilege. If this is how the two sides perceive each other, I think they are both right.

But I don't think it is class warfare, because there is no war. War denotes violence, and to date, there is no violence in the so-called class war in America. There is, however, a question about what the division in this country is. Some say it is between classes. Some say it is between people in different economic situations. Some think there is a racial component. From what I see, the division is one of outlook.

There are wealthy people, such as Warren Buffett, who, surprising many, line up on the side of higher taxes on the wealthy. And there are a lot of people who are of much more modest means who would like to see their taxes reduced, but who are, again surprisingly, willing to be taxed more if the money will be spent for the good of the country. So, the division is not clearly demarcated by how much money one has or makes.

The division is similarly not clearly drawn between whether people work or are retired, whether they are black or white, whether they are professionals or non-professional workers, or whether they made their money or inherited it. The division seems to be most clearly drawn on the basis of one's personal philosophy. Right now, people who are concerned about other people are more likely to be willing to share the burden of funding an organized society than people who are concerned only or mostly with themselves.

This isn't to suggest that the people who are against taxes are inherently selfish. In better times, many of them would probably be more generous and socially responsible. But in these difficult economic times, they have let themselves be frightened into turning away from others. So, some doctors, for example, who might otherwise be showing compassion and acting charitably towards their patients, are grumbling that uninsured people are costing them money and protesting that they should not have to compensate people who are injured by incompetent doctors. And some parents, who would normally be praising their kids' teachers, are shouting that teachers' pay and benefits should be cut.

But these tough times are not evoking the same response from everyone. There are still some doctors who put their patients' interests first, some parents who support their schools, some rich people who are willing to pay their taxes, and some heirs who are willing to let go of a few of their pennies.

The struggle we are experiencing isn't between classes. It isn't between the haves and have nots. It is between the people who see themselves as part of society, and people who see only themselves.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Dold Lets Truth Slip Out

Republican Representative Bob Dold of Kenilworth faced an angry crowd at his town hall meeting in Wheeling. It was not clear whether the people who were angry were mostly Democrats or Republicans or even affiliated with a party. Dold's office, as usual, had not announced that the meeting would take place until the day before, so most of those in attendance probably were there because one group or another had notified them.

Some people said they were angry that Republicans in Congress have been standing in the way of efforts to get needed legislation passed, for purely political reasons. When Dold tried to escape blame, a man in the audience countered that Dold had run as a Republican and continued to affiliate with that party without criticizing his party's leadership.

Many people said they were angry about the economy. Dold spent a lot of time talking about imports and exports, taxes, and the national debt. He tried very hard to sound reasonable and moderate, but a lot of the people in the room showed they had been paying close attention to his record and pointed out that he was a lot more one-sided than he wanted them to think.

One revealing exchange came when a man criticized Dold for siding with one of the most extreme right-wing groups, the Americans for Tax Reform, which is headed by Grover Norquist. Dold squirmed as he admitted that he had taken Norquist's pledge to never raise any taxes, no matter how desperately the government would need the money. Norquist had used that pledge to pressure Republicans to refuse to support fiscal reform legislation, with the result that the country was recently brought to the brink of a government shut-down, for what most people in America saw as purely political purposes. Dold told the audience that although he had signed the pledge, he supported removing some tax subsidies, which some people consider to be raising taxes.

Several people, upon hearing Dold's attempt to defuse his critics and yet not disavow the pledge, asked him why he had signed it in the first place. Dold explained, rather sheepishly, “I signed the pledge back when I was running for office.”

And there you have it. Dold so desperately wanted to get elected that he signed a pledge that was specifically designed to lock him into a position on every single fiscal vote he took while in office, regardless of whether that position would turn out to be in the best interest of the country. He allowed the notorious Norquist to own his vote on all tax matters, so that he could get Norquist's money and support in his election bid.

Plenty of commentators decry the incivility of public discourse. I have been among them. But today, it wasn't until near the end of the meeting, when people's frustrations with Dold's attempts to avoid frankly answering their questions boiled up, that they started shouting questions at him. And that was when Dold, struggling to regain control of his audience, let a little bit of the truth slip out. Congratulations to the angry people.