Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Dream Lives On: Ted Kennedy 1932-2009

His is a uniquely American story, one of triumph and tragedy, sin and forgiveness, personal failing and public redemption, a life that, in the end, left the United States a more equal and just society and the world a better place. I was only three years old when Ted Kennedy was first elected to the U.S. Senate, so I am particularly saddened by his loss this week. For the past nearly 47 years, he has been a major force in American politics and a constant presence in the events of our time. I feel a profound sense of loss, as if his passing marks the end of an era, the final chapter of Camelot. He was not the brightest of the Kennedy brothers, nor the most eloquent, but he was the most hard working and, in the end, it was Ted, not John, not Robert, who materially improved the lives of millions of Americans – advancing the causes of economic justice, civil rights, health care, medical research, education, inclusiveness, and peace.

Although I always admired the flair and charisma of John Kennedy, through the years I have maintained a particular affinity for Robert Kennedy, a prophetic and unifying voice at a time when our nation was in turmoil, divided over Vietnam, civil rights, and the sexual revolution. He gave voice to reason and justice at a time when many Americans had lost faith in our institutions, our laws, and our values. It was Ted’s eulogy at Robert’s funeral, however, that captured best the significance and meaning of Bobby’s life:

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world.
41 years later, these words may just as easily be spoken of Ted, a flawed but decent man, whose public legacy lives on in the great legislative achievements of the past half-century. It was Ted who led the fight for, and helped to enact, virtually every major civil rights bill since 1964 -- laws that improved the lives of millions of ordinary and previously disenfranchised Americans, giving voice and political power to blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and women. Ted led the way in passing and later renewing the voting rights, fair housing, and public accommodation laws of the 1960’s, and fought the Reagan Administration’s attempt to gut these laws in the 1980’s. He led the fights for immigration reform, the abolition of the draft, and the right of 18 year-olds to vote. He was instrumental in passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and his fight for universal health care spanned nearly his entire legislative career and became, in some ways, the cause of his life.

A man of wealth and privilege, he became the voice of the poor and the outcast, the protector of working families and the middle class, and a passionate advocate for peace. He fought tirelessly to increase the minimum wage, to provide health care for the unemployed, to fund cancer research and services to those with HIV and AIDS; he was instrumental in obtaining federal funding for community health centers, Meals on Wheels, and health and nutrition programs for pregnant women and infants. He articulated the cause of peace in Northern Ireland and the end of apartheid in South Africa. And at a time when most of his Democratic colleagues lost their backbone, he passionately opposed the War in Iraq. The list goes on and on.

Ted will be remembered as one of the most effective Senators in U.S. history, one who understood when to hold firm to principle and when to compromise, when to fight and when to shake hands. He understood that politics is, and always has been, the art of the possible and, while he was unwavering in his desire to give voice to the least powerful in society, he understood that you must sometimes accept small victories before you can achieve larger ones. But even when he compromised, he never lost sight of the larger objectives, the dream of a better, safer, more equal and more just America.

He was fun loving and gregarious, the life of the party and, as we know, at times incredibly reckless. He was indeed an imperfect man. But intertwined among his many failures was profound suffering. He lost all three of his brothers and a sister by the time he was 36, buried three of his nephews, and experienced the pain only a father can feel when cancer and illness strikes a child. It would have been completely understandable on numerous occasions had he simply wallowed in self-pity and withdrawn from public life. Yet the pain and suffering he experienced internalized within him a profound sense of humility, and empathy for the sufferings of others. Despite his fame and fortune, he has frequently reached out in deeply personal ways to others burdened by pain, loss, and the need for redemption. Think what you may of his personal failings, but he has suffered more tragedy and loss than most of us will ever know in a lifetime, and yet he has shown a resilience and perseverance to work for a more just and caring society. And along the way, he helped raise three children and acted as the surrogate father to twelve nephews and nieces who had lost theirs.

The heart and soul of the Democratic Party, Ted was unapologetically moral in his public discourse, something very few Democrats over the years have been able to master. Unlike his ideological opponents on the right, however, Ted’s morality did not concern the private lives and failings of others – of which he knew he had fallen short – but instead concerned a public morality, the duty and obligation of Americans to take care of the weak and powerless.

One morning in the late 1970’s, I took a break from my college studies to watch an episode of the Phil Donahue Show, when Senator Kennedy was the guest. Pointing to charts and graphs, he argued his case for national health insurance. Although I cannot remember the statistics he recited that morning, I do remember the moral simplicity of his argument, one based on a strong sense of right and wrong – that in the richest country on earth, a nation blessed with abundant wealth, talent, and natural resources, basic medical care was a right, not a privilege. Kennedy understood just how privileged he was, and he believed with all his heart that the working class Irish family in South Boston and the poor black family in Roxbury had as much right to take a sick child to a doctor as did a millionaire from Martha’s Vineyard. He believed that, in America, health care was not a commodity to be bought and sold like soap and toothpaste. His concern for the poor, the disabled, the disenfranchised, came from his deep Catholic faith, one that stressed an obligation to care for the poor, the sick, and the less fortunate. It is no accident that the Gospel lesson at Kennedy’s funeral was a reading of Mathew 25:40, “whatever you did for the least of these my brethren, you did for me.”

On June 6, 1993, the 25th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s death, I attended a Mass for Courage and Reconciliation at Arlington Cemetery. It was a magnificent affair, attended by the entire Kennedy clan, along with President and Mrs. Clinton and an assortment of dignitaries. A beautiful summer evening, I was seated on the grass very close to the invited guests (I remain forever grateful to Patricia Riley, my then supervisor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, who had worked in Robert Kennedy’s senate office when he was assassinated and who invited me to attend this event). Senator Ted Kennedy read from Ulysses by Tennyson, one of his brother’s favorite poets. The words reflect, in part, why I continue to be inspired and moved by the mystique of the Kennedy brothers. It is not so much who they were as individuals – for they, like us, were flawed human beings with varying strengths and weaknesses – but for what they symbolized: A sense of purpose, a higher calling, a constant striving for perfection. I love the Kennedy brothers because they have inspired in me a desire to be a better person, to do more for my community and my country, to aspire to an ideal for which I cannot help but fall short. On that summer night in 1993, Ted recited these words:

Come, my friends
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are ---
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
I will miss you, my friend.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Step Forward for Lutherans

On Friday, August 21, 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) became the largest single religious denomination in the United States to permit openly gay and lesbian persons to serve as clergy, including those ordained members presently in committed, life-long relationships. The Churchwide Assembly also approved the efforts of individual congregations to "recognize, support and hold publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships."

I am proud of the Lutheran Church for making these long-awaited policy changes, which recognize that humanity in all its diversity is affirmed by God and not to be excluded in a house of worship. The ELCA action comes on the heels of similar declarations by the Episcopal Church U.S.A. and the United Church of Christ, two traditionally liberal denominations that often lead the way in Christian social justice. The Lutheran action is particularly significant, however, given its size (at 4.8 million members it is the seventh largest denomination in the United States) and its largely Midwestern, theologically middle-of-the-road membership, as it denotes a broader trend of tolerance and acceptance gradually taking hold in mainline U.S. churches.

I remain somewhat cautious, however, because the real test may be how individual Lutherans and congregations react to the ELCA declaration. As happened with the Episcopalians, already there is dissension in the ranks, threats of division and disunity over what is fundamentally a dispute over the authority and interpretation of Scripture. Lutherans traditionally believe in the doctrine of solo scriptura – that Scripture alone is the final authority on matters of faith and morality. Because one can find biblical verses that seemingly condemn the “sin” of homosexuality, and while Jesus was silent on the subject, those who emphasize Scriptural authority have difficulty accepting any church action that, in their view, would contradict Scripture. Thus, the Rev. Richard Mahan, pastor of St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Charleston, West Virginia, told the Associated Press on Friday, "I can't believe the church I loved and served for 40 years can condone what God condemns. Nowhere in Scripture does it say homosexuality and same-sex marriage is acceptable to God. Instead, it says it is immoral and perverted." Mahan predicted that a majority of his congregation would break away from the ELCA. Others indicated they might leave as well.

More theologically liberal Christians, including many who voted for the ELCA action, believe that Scriptural interpretations should occur in light of the essential teachings of Jesus, aided by modern insight and knowledge – including the near universal recognition among the scientific community that one’s sexual orientation is biologically driven and not a matter of choice. Thus, love and acceptance of all people, black or white, gay or straight, male or female, is a defining imperative: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you . . . By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34).

There is really nothing radical in a more flexible approach to biblical interpretation, for the Bible has very little to say about homosexuality; there are perhaps a half dozen references to it in all of Scripture, and it is a relatively minor concern in comparison to, for example, economic justice. To disregard verses condemning homosexuality, or to place them in the historical context in which they were written, is no different than what Christians (and Jews in the case of the Hebrew Scriptures) do with respect to the biblical acceptance of slavery (see, e.g., Leviticus 25:44-45; Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-25; 4:1; Titus 2:9-10; 1 Peter 2:18-19, 1 Corinthians 7:20-24). Logically, people who think homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says so, must also think that slavery is acceptable because the Bible says so. Yet I suspect that even Rev. Mahan and those opposed to the ELCA vote (approving openly gay clergy) on the authority of Scripture, would not condone slavery, although the Bible does.

I am glad that the Lutherans chose love and acceptance over ignorance and rejection, for it is only through a glowing ray of hope and love that the Church will remain relevant and valid in the future. It points the Church in the right direction, as a place of hospitality for all of humanity, and suggests openness to thinking, caring individuals who cannot accept an uncritical, inflexible view of the Bible and Scriptural authority.

I am the son of a Lutheran minister and have maintained at least one foot in the Lutheran Church my entire life, though my views on Christianity and Lutheranism are admittedly complex and, at times, contradictory. I have always felt a sense of pride in my Lutheran heritage, particularly when I see the Lutheran Church take a leadership role in advocating for social and political justice, working for peace, and committing resources to the service of others.
  • I am proud of my father, who in the early 1960’s traveled to Washington, D.C., with a group of concerned clergy to lobby for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and who helped several young men achieve conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War by proposing alternative, peaceful means of service.

  • I am proud of my mother, who has devoted her life to serving others, and who, at age 78, continues to feed the homeless and advocate on behalf of the poor and less fortunate, all of which is driven by her devout faith.

  • I am proud of the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, a privately-funded volunteer service program, which annually places over 100 young people into non-profit agencies devoted to social justice – aiding the homeless, advocating for a cleaner environment, providing mental health services to those who cannot afford it, and many other great things – and which helps in small, concrete ways to make the world a better place to live.

  • Finally, I am proud of my former congregation in Washington, D.C., Luther Place Memorial Church, which under the direction of its former pastor, the Rev. John Steinbruck, became a model of Christian hospitality and service. Steinbruck was (and remains) an extremely articulate and passionate preacher of the Social Gospel who constantly reminds Christians of their obligation to care for the least of our brethren. When thousands of mentally ill homeless were released from mental hospitals as the result of legal actions in the early 1970’s, Steinbruck successfully urged Luther Place to open its doors. When Salvadoran refugees fled civil war in their homeland and sought legal sanctuary in the United States, Luther Place again opened its doors as an act of Christian conscience in direct contravention of Reagan’s Justice Department.

If the Lutheran Church were more reflective of these examples, I would feel less ambivalent about my faith. In my experience, however, many Lutheran congregations place little emphasis on social justice and rarely challenge the beliefs and value systems of its members. And although the Lutheran Church has a rich tradition of scholarship and highly respected seminaries, those who struggle with questions of doctrine or who question the language and biases of conventional liturgy, often do so alone. The views of many everyday Lutherans, including most of those opposed to the recent ELCA action, reflect a pietistic faith that proclaims an unwavering belief in the Nicene Creed, declaring that all who fail to accept orthodox church doctrine are not legitimately Christian. To me, this misses the point of what Jesus was really all about, and leads to divisiveness and dissent. I prefer a progressive Christianity that struggles with doctrine but strives for a just world over a theologically certain, one-size-fits-all version that allows no doubters or dissenters.

Nevertheless, I am proud that the Lutheran Church has taken a firm stance for justice, inclusiveness, and hospitality by declaring itself open and welcoming to all persons, gay and straight, and by allowing committed and talented ordained members of the faith, who happen to be gay or lesbian, to serve and lead individual congregations. As stated by Bishop Gary Wollersheim of the ECLA Northern Illinois Synod, "It's a matter of justice, a matter of hospitality. It's what Jesus would have us do."

Sunday, August 16, 2009

American Demagogues and the Decline of Civility

America prides itself as a beacon of democracy, a model of hope and freedom for the rest of the world. We value freedom of speech and the First Amendment, citizen participation, and the right to vote. Although our system of governance is not perfect -- we are not, and have never been, above partisan bickering -- there is a history of bipartisanship in American politics that has achieved many good things. Democrats and Republicans together enacted environmental protections in the early 1970's, tax reform in the 1980's, and deficit reduction in the 1990's. Each of these things required mutual respect and cooperation among ideological opposites. It can be done.

I started following politics closely when I was nine years old, in 1968, one of the most volatile years in modern American history. It was 1968 when Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were assassinated; the Vietnam War and anti-war protests were at their peak in a nation divided; and race riots erupted in our cities. Since then, our political discourse has at times been nasty, mean-spirited, vindictive, and petty. I supported Barack Obama in 2008 in part because he wanted to change all of that. In distinguishing himself from his Democratic rivals, candidate Obama said that it was time to free the nation from the bitter partisanship of the past: "I don't want to see us spend the next year re-fighting the Washington battles of the 1990's. I don't want to pit Blue America against Red America; I want to lead a United States of America." In his inaugural address, the newly elected President renewed his call for unity:

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.
Many commentators thought Obama's hopeful idealism naive. Paul Krugman of the New York Times predicted prior to the election that whichever Democrat made it to the White House would be forced to confront "an unending procession of wild charges and fake scandals, dutifully given credence by major media organizations that somehow can't bring themselves to declare the accusations unequivocally false." As I observe the current health care debate, I am afraid that Krugman may already have been proven correct.

Last week, Sarah Palin, darling of the conservatives, declared on her Facebook page:
The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's "death panel" so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their "level of productivity in society" whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.
Is it any wonder that people are showing up at town hall meetings ready to rumble? If you think that the government is ready to deny your sick child medical care, or pull the plug on Grandma, you might be upset as well. But despite her down home Alaskan charm, Palin has always pitted her view of America against those she perceives as outside of the mainstream, the "other" Americans who do not fit the Ozzie and Harriet myth of middle America. During the presidential campaign, Palin falsely portrayed then-Senator Obama as a terrorist sympathizer because he served on the Board of a well respected Chicago educational reform organization with Bill Ayers, a college professor who was convicted of involvement in anti-Vietnam War bombings when Obama was a young child. That Obama, who has always condemned violent protests, was in elementary school when Ayers committed his criminal acts, did not matter to Palin, who has repeatedly demonstrated little knowledge of, or concern with, the facts. It should surprise no one, therefore, that her "death panel" statement was based on pure fantasy, entirely untrue, as not one legislative proposal has called for the creation of anything even resembling a governmental body that would eliminate care for the critically ill as a cost cutting measure (which is presumably what a "death panel" would be).

The United States has always had a lunatic fringe of self-deluded, right-wing wackos -- Jerry Falwell accusing President Bill Clinton of murder and drug smuggling; the Posse Comitatus and similar militia groups spewing hatred and plotting the overthrow of the government -- but Palin should know better. Unlike Falwell and the Posse Comitatus, Palin actually has the potential to be taken seriously. She is attractive and, at times, well-spoken. As a former Governor and Vice Presidential candidate, and as a possible presidential candidate in 2012, she has a duty to speak responsibly and to avoid emotional appeals to fear and prejudice solely for her own political gain.

It is one thing for Rush Limbaugh, a radio talk windbag, to spew hatred and lies. It is quite another for someone who desires to someday lead this country. It is the difference between Joe McCarthy and Father Coughlin. While both men are disgraced demagogues of America's past, one was more dangerous than the other. McCarthy held a position of authority. When he abused his powers, he harmed many innocent people. Coughlin was a crackpot with a radio station; while he influenced the views and affected the prejudices of a large number of Americans, he had no real power. Rush Limbaugh, the modern day Father Coughlin, stirs up passions, but when he compares the President's efforts at reforming a broken health care system to Hitler's Germany, he simply exposes himself as a foolish man. And while he, Glenn Beck, and others are partly to blame for the ridiculously misinformed folks who have been showing up, yelling and screaming, at the health care forums around the country, they are just voices on the radio -- they cannot pass any laws, issue subpoenas, or hold people in contempt.

It is not that these modern day demagogues are unintelligent people; they know that neither President Obama nor anyone else in the health care debate has proposed denying medical care to terminally-ill patients, children with Down's Syndrome, or the elderly. But like the witch hunters of the McCarthy era, who saw a Commie on every school board and opposed all social and political progress in the United States, the Limbaugh/Palin faction of American politics plays to fear, ignorance, and the boogie man. It has no interest in ensuring that all Americans have access to affordable health care, if it means that President Obama will get some of the praise.

To his credit, President Obama has continued to reach out to all factions. Part of his greatness as a leader is his willingness, indeed desire, to engage his opponents in a civil and respectful manner. When he gave the commencement address at Notre Dame University in May, the President asked, "As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?" Obama knows, and has the courage to insist, that we as a country will not get to where we need to be on issues surrounding health care, abortion, embryonic stem cell research, race relations, and foreign conflicts, until we cease demonizing the opposition. At Notre Dame, he said:

The soldier and the lawyer may both love this country with equal passion, and yet reach very different conclusions on the specific steps needed to protect us from harm. The gay activist and the evangelical pastor may both deplore the ravages of HIV/AIDS, but find themselves unable to bridge the cultural divide that might unite their efforts. Those who speak out against stem-cell research may be rooted in admirable conviction about the sacredness of life, but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son's or daughter's hardships can be relieved.
Perhaps applying lessons learned as a community organizer, the President takes a respectful, conciliatory approach to policy disputes. He believes in America as a shining city on a hill, and recognizes that, in a democracy, true reform will only be advanced by demonstrating respect for one's opponents and inviting them to a conversation about what needs to be done to solve the problems at hand. He knows that, if people are acting in good faith, even those philosophically opposed, a reasonable solution can be found in most instances.

Sarah Palin has a choice. She can act responsibly and join Americans of goodwill in finding a workable solution to our troubled health care system, or she can continue to engage in deceit and misinformation. As the Reverend John Jenkins, President of Notre Dame University, said when introducing President Obama at the May commencement, "Easing the hateful divisions between human beings is the supreme challenge" of our time. "If we can solve this problem, we have a chance to come together and solve all the others."

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Boy and the Rabbi: Lessons in Wisdom

William was a shy boy, not more than twelve, when he first met Rabbi Katz. He didn’t know much about religion, his faith consisting of an unwavering belief in the Yankees and a futile longing for his father, who died of cancer when William was six. One day after school, the dead chill of winter having finally given way to the first hint of spring, a warm sunshine bearing down on the cracked sidewalks of his Brooklyn neighborhood, William stopped into the corner drugstore to buy some bubble gum and to peruse the latest copy of Sports Illustrated. His thoughts a long way from social studies and arithmetic, he had been eagerly anticipating this issue, the annual baseball preview, with profiles of each team and predictions for the upcoming season.

William immediately spotted the glossy cover on the magazine rack, his heart racing with excitement at the sight of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez in Yankees’ pinstripes, both men casually leaning against their bats, smiling and relaxed, exuding a quiet confidence. It was the time of year when baseball fans are filled with hope and optimism, when a clean slate and the freshness of new beginnings erase the disappointments and heartbreaks of seasons past. As William slowly flipped each page, studying the rosters and reading the team profiles, he was slightly startled by an elderly man with a long grey beard, in a black suit and a yarmulke, peering over his shoulder.

It was Rabbi Emanuel Katz, the mysterious leader of the historic orthodox synagogue that lay adjacent to William’s two story brownstone on Washington Lane. William had seen the rabbi many times before, usually wandering on foot through the neighborhood and counseling other men in black suits, who would always appear intently locked onto his every word. The rabbi and his followers seemed very different from the more modern Jewish families William knew from school and little league, and from his mother’s job at City College. Over the years, their neighborhood had evolved from an insular, ethnic enclave of tailors and Talmudic scholars to a gentrified, upper middle class community of young professionals and academics. The old synagogue had become a mere remnant of a distant, more traditional past, of which William had little connection.

Rabbi Katz silently studied William and his magazine for a moment, his face embracing a look of mild bewilderment. He leaned forward and whispered, "This Derek Jeter . . . you like?"

Slightly startled, William looked up at the rabbi. "Uh, yeah, I do. He’s my favorite player."

"What is so special about this Mr. Derek? Has he discovered a cure for cancer?" Rabbi Katz appeared surprisingly tall as he stared down at William. He had a friendly way about him, though, a look of gentle sincerity, and William took the bait.

"Well, no. But he’s a really good shortstop." William believed that this resolved the matter. The rabbi was unmoved.

"Does he make a lot of money, this Jeter man?" the rabbi asked.

"I don’t know," replied William, "I think so. But he is really good. He deserves a lot of money."

"Young man, may I ask you something?"

"Sure. I mean, I guess." William worried about where this was going.

"Who does more good for the world, a scientist who devotes his life to finding cures for diseases, or a man who plays a child’s game – this, stop at short, as you call it?"

"Shortstop. He’s a shortstop. It is the most important position in the infield."

"Yes, whatever, but you did not answer my question."

"Well, the scientist, I guess," William answered. If not for his warm, understanding eyes, this rabbi fellow would be rather annoying, William thought.

"Then should not the scientist, who cures disease and wins a Nobel Prize, make more money than a fellow who plays a game? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we valued knowledge, learning, and scientific achievement more than we value ballplayers and rock stars?" The rabbi looked triumphantly at William, confident he had made his point.

"Did the scientist also win a Gold Glove?"

"What is a golden glove?" the rabbi asked.

"That is the award that goes to the best fielder at each position. Derek Jeter has won a Gold Glove, and he’s helped the Yankees win the pennant."

"What is so special about this, young man?" the rabbi asked with stern disapproval.

William pondered the question, his eyes fixated on his shoelaces. "This scientist friend of yours," he asked, "Can he bring my father back to life?"

Rabbi Katz stared blankly at William's Yankees' cap, seemingly fixated on the classic New York insignia. "I am afraid not," he replied sadly.

"My father took me to my first Yankees game shortly before he died. He told me all about Derek Jeter and the great history of Yankees’ captains. When I watch him play, it reminds me of my father."

The rabbi collected his thoughts, then sighed. "Perhaps I should learn more about this Jeter fellow." Rabbi Katz placed his hand on William’s shoulder and smiled. He took the magazine from William’s hand, paid the cashier, then handed it back to William. "You will teach me someday about this Derek?" the rabbi asked.

"Sure," William replied as he took hold of the magazine. He nodded to the rabbi and thanked him, a tear running down his cheek.

The rabbi walked from the store, glanced back and smiled, confident that he had become just a little wiser.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Steven Spielberg: The Power (and Limits) of Empathy

The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia announced recently that, on October 9, Hollywood director Steven Spielberg is to receive the 2009 Liberty Medal, awarded “to men and women of courage and conviction who have strived to secure the blessings of liberty to people the world over.” Upon reflection, Spielberg is a fitting recipient of the Liberty Medal. Many of his best works, including Schindler’s List, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan, underscore the triumph of freedom over tyranny. In 1994, inspired by his experience in making Schindler’s List, Spielberg created the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California), which preserves video and oral histories of Holocaust survivors from around the world. Immensely successful and fabulously wealthy, Spielberg has contributed much of his wealth and talent to improve the lives of others.

Spielberg’s work in such films as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan exemplify the best in historical filmmaking. Through the magic of the big screen, Spielberg enables us to visualize historical atrocities and the tragic events of our past in a manner that does justice to the facts, yet permits us to imagine, feel, and in some small way, experience the events. Such is the power of empathy in Spielberg’s films – allowing us emotionally to identify with those seemingly beyond our reach. Spielberg’s talent as a director and producer has touched millions of people, simultaneously entertaining and teaching. While there are many fine documentaries and books on the Normandy invasion, the Holocaust, the barbarity of slavery, and other human tragedies, Spielberg’s movies succeed at getting us to watch and experience on a larger scale. His films force us to live for a moment in the hearts and minds of those portrayed on the screen.

Of course, no film is fully capable of conveying the absolute horror and evil that was the Holocaust. Perhaps because it did not try to do too much – Schindler’s List avoids melodrama and sentimentality and portrays the evil perpetrated in Nazi Germany in a matter-of-fact, ordinary manner – Spielberg succeeded where others failed. The film limits its focus to the story of Oskar Schindler, a flawed German Catholic factory owner and Nazi-party member who, after benefiting from the Nazi war machine and Jewish slave labor, is eventually moved by act of conscience to protect and rescue 1,200 Polish Jews from almost certain death. Spielberg compels the viewer to identify, intellectually and emotionally, with the depth of human suffering that occurred, not abstractly or statistically (6,000,000 gassed to death), but individually; to children and family members, men and women, young and old – to people for whom you cannot help but care and feel a sense of kinship. He does this without explaining the Holocaust, and without forcing us to deal with the grotesquely overwhelming nature of it all.

Although Schindler’s actions are in the end heroic, his transformation into a man of virtue is gradual and ambiguous. His pragmatism and ability to compromise for the sake of profit and self-interest is resistant to his growing awareness that something has gone terribly wrong in his privileged German society. When he witnesses from a hillside, while riding horses with his mistress, the Nazis’ vicious liquidation of the Krakow ghetto – a scene portrayed by Spielberg with a sickening reality – Schindler only then begins to realize that the men and women working in his factory will have no future unless he acts, at no small risk to himself. Such is the inconvenient truth of heroism. Though Spielberg filmed Schindler’s List in black-and-white, in one famous scene, he used red to distinguish a little girl in a coat. The red coat symbolizes Schindler’s awareness – he has finally opened his eyes – of the cruelty perpetrated by the Nazis. Later in the film, the little girl is seen among many dead victims, recognizable only by the red coat she is still wearing.

If the film has any failing, it is the inability to explain how or why someone such as Commandant Amon Goeth, sadistically and brilliantly portrayed by Ralph Fiennes, could kill and torment his victims with such brutal yet ordinary callousness. In one scene, Goeth casually picks off Jewish workers with a rifle from his balcony, betraying not a tinge of moral guilt. The film also fails to explain how so many ordinary Germans and Poles could see, know, and participate in what was happening, yet fail to resist or come to the aid of their fellow citizens. How Nazi soldiers could so cruelly separate mothers from children, picking and choosing among thousands of frail men and women, slave labor in one direction, certain death in another, without any apparent moral or spiritual doubt. (Elie Weisel, survivor of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald death camps, has recalled that the German officers who conducted the daily work of the concentration camp at Auschwitz received weekly communion in the Catholic Parish church). While Schindler’s List portrays the brutality and banality of mass killings and eliminationist anti-Semitism with stark realism, it does not attempt to explain why any of this was allowed to happen. Yet that is all part of Spielberg’s genius. The savagery of genocide and the horrors of the Holocaust so defy our everyday experience, it is impossible for most of us to wrap our minds around it; Schindler’s List enables us, in a small but significant way, to imagine the evil, not as ancient history or mythic tragedy, but as acts of everyday, ordinary people. Such is the power of empathy.

The power to create empathy, however, even for something as unimaginable as the Holocaust, has its limits. One need only examine the decade following Schindler’s List to see that, even a film as empathetic and powerful as Spielberg’s masterpiece fails to influence human behavior and the response of policymakers. In 2002, Professor Samantha Power of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University wrote A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide (Basic Books, 2002), a brilliant book that explains the repeated indifference, ignorance, and failure of imagination that has been U.S. policy in response to genocide in the Twentieth Century. On page 503, she focused her attention on recent inaction:

Despite broad public consensus that genocide should ‘never again’ be allowed, and a good deal of triumphalism about the ascent of liberal democratic values, the last decade of the twentieth century was one of the most deadly in the grimmest century on record. Rwandan Hutus in 1994 could freely, joyfully, and systematically slaughter 8,000 Tutsi a day for 100 days without any foreign interference. Genocide occurred after the Cold War; after the growth of human rights groups; after the advent of technology that allowed for instant communication; after the erection of the Holocaust Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Power could have added that the genocides in Rwanda and the Sudan, and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, each occurred after the release of Schindler’s List to critical acclaim and seven Academy Awards. Despite constant refrains of “never again,” the world has rarely given genocide the moral attention it deserves. The Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1915, the Holocaust of 1939-1945, the mass killings by Pol Pot in 1975, the slaughter of tens of thousands of Rwandans in 1994 – in each instance, Americans and the world failed to act. We did so, not because we were ignorant of what was happening, but simply because we lacked the will to act and were not prepared to invest the military and financial resources, and domestic political capital, needed to stop it.

In almost all of the genocides and human tragedies of the 20th century, there existed protesters and screamers, individuals of courage and conviction who spoke out and pleaded for U.S. and world leaders to commit its resources and power to prevent further atrocities. In most cases, the screamers were ignored, or not believed, or dismissed because the facts could not be instantly verified. In her book’s conclusion, on page 516, Power asks some crucial questions:

. . . [H]ow many of us who look back at the genocides of the twentieth century, including the Holocaust, do not believe that these people were right? How many of us do not believe that the presidents, senators, bureaucrats, journalists, and ordinary citizens who did nothing, choosing to look away rather than to face hard choices and wrenching moral dilemmas, were wrong? And how can something so clear in retrospect become so muddled at the time by rationalizations, institutional constraints, and a lack of imagination? How can it be that those who fight on behalf of these principles are the ones deemed unreasonable?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Is This Guy Really Worth A Billion Dollars?

The Perverted Priorities of the American Economy

It was reported that Andrew J. Hall, the 58-year-old head of Phibro, a small commodities trading firm in Westport, Connecticut, is to receive a $100 million bonus from Citigroup, a company presently being bailed out of potential bankruptcy with $45 billion in public money. Legally and contractually, there is little dispute that Hall is owed the money, which supposedly constitutes his share of the profits from a year of aggressive trading in the oil market. I don’t know Mr. Hall, though I am sure he is a brilliant, skilled, and talented investor who helped his clients make an exorbitant amount of money. But even apart from the troubling thought of federal tax dollars being used to pay Hall’s bonus, I can’t help but wonder how, in a country that prides itself on the principles of political equality and equal opportunity for all, the average elementary school teacher earns an annual salary of $52,240, while someone who trades stocks "earns" $100 million because he helped a small group of already wealthy people make a lot of money from rising oil costs.

Lest we consider this an anomaly, just last week, the New York Attorney General reported that 5,000 traders and bankers at bailed-out firms received over $1 million each in year-end bonuses. That equates to over $5 billion in bonuses paid to individuals at firms that performed so poorly Uncle Sam is footing the bill. Of course, a select group of people making a lot of money from the stock market, or from trading in commodities and precious metals and other speculative endeavors, is nothing new. Any drive through Belle Haven, Connecticut; Pacific Heights, California; Jupiter Island, Florida; or countless other exclusive neighborhoods throughout the United States demonstrates that there are more than a few “winners” in the American economy. Indeed, just to be included on the Forbes list of the 400 richest people in the United States requires a net worth of $1.3 billion (Bill Gates leads the list at $57 billion).

It is not that I believe people should not be entitled to make a lot of money for work that is valued; those with special skills and highly advanced knowledge, like surgeons and biophysicists, should make more money than secretaries and garbage collectors. Income inequality encourages motivated people to commit the time and energy needed to attain the level of knowledge and expertise required of those professions. It also rewards those who are willing to take risks, such as entrepreneurs and investors, without which many of us would not be employed. This country was founded on the principles of a free market economy and I, for one, firmly believe in the merits of the free enterprise system (or at least a mixed capitalist system) over rigidly centralized economies. Although most market economies around the world have fallen far short of the competitive ideal, history has accumulated enough examples of failed economies in socialist and communist countries to put that argument to rest. And the long-term record of productivity and economic growth in the United States – despite this latest recession – has confirmed the validity of economic systems based on a market model.

But if society has any concern for fairness, ethics, and how we as a people make our mark on this planet, should we not be troubled by the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots?

A cursory glance at the May 2008 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics gives a pretty good idea of how the American economy values many professions and occupations, whose compensation stands in stark contrast to the Wall Street winners noted above.

Fast-Food Cooks $17,620
Maids and Housekeepers $20,290
Child Care Workers $20,350
Janitors $23,500
Nursing Aides and Orderlies $24,620
Security Guards $25,840
Medical Assistants $29,060
Police and Fire Dispatchers $35,340
Bus Drivers $35,700
Agricultural Inspectors $41,330
Clergy $45,440
Fire Fighters $45,700
Marriage/Family Therapists $46,930
Social Workers $48,180
Aircraft Mechanics $51,650
Middle School Teachers $52,570
Police Officers $52,810
Transportation Inspectors $59,200
Environmental Scientists $65,280
Health and Safety Engineers $73,830
Biochemists/Biophysicists $88,450
Aerospace Engineers $93,980

Over the last approximately 40 years, the gap between the rich and non-rich has greatly increased, in both income and wealth accumulation. According to the New York Times, at the end of 2005, the top 1% of American income earners made more than $1.1 million, and “the top 300,000 Americans collectively enjoyed almost as much income as the bottom 150 million Americans. Per person, the top group received 440 times as much as the average person in the bottom half earned, nearly doubling the gap from 1980.” (“The Gap Between Rich and Poor Grows in the United States,” by David Cay Johnston, The New York Times, March 29, 2007).

Of course, in this country, even the poor have dreams of one day becoming rich. Most Americans don’t begrudge the rich their fortunes and are rarely upset over reports of income inequality. But does our present economy justly and fairly reward those who are most productive, or who provide the most valued products and services? I have my doubts. As Paul Krugman of the New York Times recently noted, “Even before the crisis and the bailouts, many financial-industry high-fliers made fortunes through activities that were worthless if not destructive from a social point of view.” (“Rewarding Bad Actors,” by Paul Krugman, The New York Times, August 2, 2009). For example, the rise of high-speed trading, in which “some institutions, including Goldman Sachs, have been using superfast computers to get the jump on other investors, buying or selling stocks a tiny fraction of a second before anyone else can react. Profits from high-frequency trading are one reason Goldman is earning record profits and likely to pay record bonuses.” While all of this may be good for Goldman Sachs, is this really good for America? Are things just a little out of whack when the men and women responsible for teaching our children how to read and write make less than one-half of one-tenth of a percent (i.e., 0.0005%) of what Andrew Hall made in his Christmas bonus for buying and selling oil stocks? When an aerospace engineer makes less than one-tenth of a percent what 5,000 Wall Street traders made in their year-end bonuses?

In 1974, Arthur Okun, the late Yale economics professor and former Chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, gave a series of lectures at Harvard University, in which he explored the tradeoffs in American society between income equality and economic efficiency. The lectures were published in Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff (Brookings Institution Press, 1975), which remains one of the seminal works on this subject. On the first page of the book, Okun explained the American dichotomy between political equality and economic inequality:

American society proclaims the worth of every human being. All citizens are guaranteed equal justice and equal political rights. Everyone has a pledge of speedy response from the fire department and access to national monuments. As American citizens, we are all members of the same club.

Yet at the same time, our institutions say “find a job or go hungry,” “succeed or suffer.” They prod us to get ahead of our neighbors economically after telling us to stay in line socially. They award prizes that allow the big winners to feed their pets better than the losers can feed their children.

Such is the double standard of a capitalist democracy, professing and pursuing an egalitarian political and social system and simultaneously generating gaping disparities in economic well-being. . . . The contrasts among American families in living standards and in material wealth reflect a system of rewards and penalties that is intended to encourage effort and channel it into socially productive activity. To the extent that the system succeeds, it generates an efficient economy. But that pursuit of efficiency necessarily creates inequalities. And hence society faces a tradeoff between equality and efficiency.

At what point, however, does the degree of inequality become too much for a society that respects human dignity? Is everything market driven? Do we really value the work of commodities traders more than the work of our fire fighters and food inspectors, our child care workers and our military personnel? If we believe that the best and brightest of American society will migrate to where the rewards are greatest – is this because the needs of society are greatest there or simply because a condo in the Hamptons is waiting? I don’t claim to have the answers, but the questions raised have implications for how we approach the current debates over universal health care, progressive taxation, job programs, and assistance to the less fortunate. If an investment banker has to pay a slightly higher tax rate to help a poor, inner city kid afford to attend a decent college or to see a doctor, will the banker and economic efficiency really suffer? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Race and Privilege in Cambridge

Much has already been written about the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., by Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley, so I only reluctantly delve into this morass, filled as it is with issues of class, race, and privilege. My first reaction upon learning of Gates’ arrest in his own home after a neighbor reported a possible burglary-in-progress was, “You have got to be kidding. What was the police officer thinking?” I am quite familiar with Gates’ work, having watched him on PBS, read some of his writings, and seen him occasionally interviewed on network television. If I were the officer, I would have recognized Gates immediately and known right away that the 911 call was a well-intentioned mistake. The President’s initial reaction that the police had “acted stupidly” seemed accurate to me, as I simply could not fathom how a black professor was arrested in his own home, particularly after it had become clear that no crime had been committed and that the professor, a distinguished looking, slightly elderly, man who wears glasses and walks with a cane, was in his own house. However, as is often the case with issues so seemingly black and white, the facts often interfere with our initial instincts and pre-conceived notions of reality, and the truth turns out to be much greyer than originally thought.

Much of the commentary I have seen on this incident has concluded that this was another incident of racial profiling, Gates the innocent victim of white racism by yet another rogue police officer who assumes every black man is a criminal and cannot distinguish a Harvard professor from a crack addicted burglar. Had Gates been arrested for burglary, which many commentators have incorrectly implied, it would have been nearly impossible to argue otherwise. The history of black men being arrested for crimes they did not commit, for being stopped on the street because they did not “belong” in a particular neighborhood, for being falsely identified by white witnesses possessed of insufficient skill and care in making cross-racial identifications, lends instant credibility to charges of racial profiling, particularly where a black professor is arrested in his own home.

But the professor was arrested for disorderly conduct, not burglary, by an officer specially selected to teach other Cambridge police officers about the wrongs of racial profiling, which suggests a scenario at odds with the “black man arrested for burglary in his own home” narrative that so many commentators have assumed. According to the police report, and apparently not really in dispute (except for certain details as to what Gates may actually have said to Crowley), Gates was angry and belligerent, clearly upset that he was, in his mind, being accused of burglarizing his own home, such that he lost his temper and said a lot of things to the officer. Whatever Gates may have said or done, I do not believe the officer was correct in arresting Gates – in my view, at least, he was not – but it suggests many possibilities that have little or nothing to do with race in explaining why Gates was arrested.

Having served as a criminal prosecutor for over 18 years in two different cities, I have worked with and befriended many police officers and law enforcement agents. I have heard their war stories, ridden along in their police cruisers and, unfortunately, attended some of their funerals. Most of the police officers I have worked with – black and white – are hard working, honorable men and women who try to do the right thing and who patrol the streets with discretion and tactfulness. But officers tend to have varying degrees of self-control and patience; some are quick to bang heads, while others are more skillful at ratcheting down heated scenarios and exercising diplomacy. Issues of class and race are ever present in the exercise of their daily duties, and as can and should be expected, some officers are more sensitive to such issues than others are, and some have greater degrees of tolerance for abusive and disrespectful language.

With the understanding that, like the President and all other commentators on this subject, I was not there – this is what I take away from the incident:
  • Initial appearances to the contrary, I do not believe this was a case of racial profiling. Professor Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct, not burglary. This appears to be a case of an officer losing his patience with a belligerent citizen. Although Gates was understandably upset that a police officer was treating him as a burglary suspect in his own house – indeed, as someone who has spent his entire life studying and teaching the history of the African American experience in the United States, he perhaps is particularly sensitive to issues of racial profiling – his mistake was in automatically assuming that the police officer was acting out of racial bias.

  • Although I believe that Gates over-reacted – failing to see that the officer was actually doing his job, responding to an admittedly mistaken report of a burglary-in-progress, but nonetheless attempting to protect Gates’ home – we do not know how Sgt. Crowley handled the initial approach with Gates. If Crowley was initially overbearing or too authoritative, it would help explain why Gates became so belligerent – i.e., “How dare you suspect me of anything, this is my house, I am a Harvard professor, yeah, just assume I’m guilty of something, another white cop oppressing a black man in America….” Just as Gates may have been afflicted with feelings of intellectual superiority over this working-class cop who did not recognize that Gates was an academic celebrity, it is possible that Crowley bore some deep-seated resentment towards Harvard professors.

  • Contrary to the statements of many commentators, I believe that, had Gates been a white professor, all else being equal, he still would have been arrested. While I have never suffered the indignities of white racism in American society or been arrested for Driving While Black, I know better than to yell and scream at a cop. I will be arrested, possibly have my ass kicked to boot, if I treat an officer with a great deal of disrespect. I am not saying this is right – police officers need to have thick skins and should be able to tolerate a great deal of verbal friction – but I know enough cops, and have seen enough in action, to know that, you verbally abuse a cop and disrespect one, you are taking a big chance on getting handcuffed.

  • That being said, Sgt. Crowley should have known better than to escalate this incident into an arrest. Regardless of what Gates said – and I don’t care if he did say, “I’ll speak to your mama outside” as alleged by Crowley in his police report – the officer should have walked away and taken whatever verbal abuse Gates may have been dispensing. The fact remains that Gates was in his own home and, however reluctantly, did prove his identity. He was understandably upset, so let it go. Gates may have been acting like a jerk, but that is not a crime. As a professional police officer, Crowley should have exercised better judgment.

  • The President should not have commented on this story without first learning the facts, and even then it is probably unwise for a President to publicly comment on a local police matter that involves a friend of his. It is generally neither helpful nor wise for the President of the United States to express an opinion on every minor police skirmish, school board dispute, or zoning ordinance violation. Let us stick to the high-level issues, particularly when it is perceived that matters of race are involved.

  • As much as I would love this country to have a truly meaningful, productive conversation about race – racial reconciliation is a subject close to my heart – I do not believe that such a conversation can occur around the Gates arrest. I believe this was simply a case of two people making honest mistakes in how they reacted to an unfortunate situation. There are times in life when, due to differing historical circumstances, perspectives, and professional obligations, both sides can be reasonable and still be wrong. The officer failed to understand the source of the Professor’s angst, which may have been exacerbated by the Professor’s jet lag (he had just returned on a long flight from China) and frustration at having struggled to enter his own house. Conversely, the Professor unfairly assumed he was the victim of racial profiling and failed to appreciate that the officer was legitimately responding to a 911 call and attempting to protect the Professor’s property. And both men failed to control their tempers and penned-up resentments, which resulted in their acting immaturely (in the case of Gates) and unprofessionally (in the case of Crowley).

  • As a reader of Sojourners magazine recently commented in response to an article suggesting that white privilege was the culprit for this whole sordid affair, it may be that both men’s reactions “were reasonable, given their worldviews and their life experiences. There are in this episode neither culprits nor victims. Just a clash of two good but different people approaching a problem from two different perspectives and not having the time to sort out the differences.” Let us hope that Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley each learned something from the other over that beer at the White House and that we can all move on to more important matters.

  • While this country does need to have a conversation about race, this is not the conduit for such a discussion. The facts matter, and the complexities and subtleties of what happened here do not lend themselves to a teaching moment about race – though perhaps a teaching moment about judgment and common sense, courtesy and respect.

Hero for a Day

I had a friend was a big baseball player back in high school
He could throw that speedball by you
Make you look like a fool boy
Saw him the other night at this roadside bar
I was walking in, he was walking out
We went back inside sat down had a few drinks
but all he kept talking about was . . .
Glory days -- well they'll pass you by
Glory days -- in the wink of a young girl's eye
Glory days, glory days
(From “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen)

The weather was perfect for baseball, the sky a bright and distant blue, not a cloud in sight, with a cool breeze offsetting the warmth of a gentle sun. As was often the case in those days, my mind wandered to thoughts of that afternoon’s game, the dull, droning voice of my trigonometry teacher a distant hum in the background. I could not tell you one thing I learned in trigonometry, or much else during my senior year at Hightstown High School, but I remember the game we played that day as if it was yesterday, every detail permanently embedded in my memory, as clearly as a collection of photographs.

As seventh period came to a close, I began to feel nervous excitement, part fear, part anticipation, as butterflies filled my stomach. Craig Walker was to be the starting pitcher for the Allentown High Redbirds, our rival high school and that day’s scheduled opponent. I knew of him from when he played American Legion ball with my brother two years earlier, when Steve was a senior and Walker a sophomore. He was the team’s best pitcher then, even as its youngest player. Now a senior, he was the best pitcher in the Colonial Valley Conference, which encompassed fourteen high schools in Central New Jersey. Walker was a rugged, husky farm boy, with a serious demeanor, menacing mustache, and goatee. He was quietly intimidating and betrayed no sense of fear. He possessed that intangible quality God assigns to all hard throwing fireballers – the ability to make a batter think that, at any moment, he has the ability and will to inflict great pain.

Nothing creates more apprehension in a batter’s mind than a pitcher who throws high heat with movement. Catching up to the speed of the pitch – simply to make contact – is challenging enough. But velocity combined with a lack of control and erratic accuracy generates fear – the fear of striking out, yes, but more disconcertingly, the fear of getting beaned on the head. When a pitcher can generate fear in a batter’s mind, the joyful anticipation of coming to the plate is replaced by feelings of discomfort and apprehension. As Shoeless Joe Jackson so aptly advised Moonlight Graham in Field of Dreams, after Graham was brushed back twice in a row, “Look for the pitch down and away . . . but watch out for in your ear!” Craig Walker did not like batters feeling comfortable. He excelled at creating fear and apprehension.

When I stepped up to the plate for the first time in the bottom half of the second inning, the game scoreless and uneventful, my stomach turned somersaults. I took a deep breath, dug my back foot into the dirt at the low end of the batter’s box, and kicked up whatever white chalk remained. I did my best to present a cool fa├žade, swinging the bat back and forth, rhythmically pushing off the ball of my back foot, trying to appear confident as I completed a sort of stand-in-place pimp walk. But Walker maintained an unfriendly presence. From home plate, he appeared even more menacing, as he glared down from the slightly raised pitcher’s mound, his six foot, four inch frame now merely sixty feet, six inches away. He had mean, dark, brooding eyes which all but said, “Try me. Try crowding the plate. See what happens.” I mean, this kid looked like he would knock down his own grandmother if he thought she was crowding the plate.

As he started into his windup, I quickly tried to erase all background noises and distractions from my mind, but I could feel the ever present, judgmental eyes of spectators, like a pack of owls staring from treetops. I wanted nothing more than to solidly connect with the pitch, but could not shake the fear of being drilled in the back by an unforgiving, 90-mile an hour hardball. In a flash, the pitch whizzed by and pounded the catcher’s mitt with an echoing thud. “Strike One!” roared the umpire, who at this precise moment represented all of the dark forces in the world, an evil despot who ruled over our tranquil pastime, much like a dark cloud hovers over a sandy beach.

“Come on Ehlers, stand in there and swing at the ball,” yelled Charlie Pesce, our manager; tyrant, motivator, fierce competitor, Pesce was a man you did not cross. To him, life was baseball and baseball was simple – when a good pitch comes your way, you hit it. Swinging and missing at a good pitch was acceptable on occasion; watching a good pitch go by was not. Pesce invoked a level of anxiety in his players which counteracted the natural inclination to fear the opposing team’s pitcher. Getting hit by the pitch was a reasonable alternative to Pesce’s verbal chastisements and trite humiliations.

However easy it may appear on television, the art of hitting is not an easy one. Whether a pitch is hittable, not just in the strike zone but in the batter’s hitting zone, is a judgment that must be made within a split second of when the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. I took a deep breath and dug in for Walker’s next pitch. This one looked hittable, so I swung. I missed. “Strike two!” roared the man in black, who was really beginning to irritate me. I was convinced he beat up newborn puppies in his spare time. “Goddamit!” I whispered to myself, as I glanced down the third base line to look at Pesce, who stared back with his disdainful, penetrating glare.

Walker wound up for the next pitch. It came in high and hard, fat as a watermelon. I swung hard. I missed. “Strike three!” I looked down at the plate, and then to Walker, who let slip a slight grin as he brushed his long, dark, sweaty hair under his cap. I walked back to the bench and tossed my bat and helmet to the ground. Walker had gotten the best of me.

As the game progressed, a true pitcher’s duel developed, with neither side able to muster much offense. Allentown snuck a run in the fifth, and we responded with one in the sixth. Walker was still going strong. He struck me out for a second time in the fifth, his fast ball still blazing like a comet on a hot August night. Frustration was now my biggest enemy, self-forgiveness being one of my lesser traits; all I could think was how I should have hit this pitch or not swung at that one.

But sometimes the Gods are good to you, as I would have one more shot at the farm boy from Allentown. In the bottom of the seventh (the last inning in high school ball), I was to bat third. With Walker’s fastball still blazing (did this kid even throw a curveball?), the leadoff batter weakly popped up and the next went down swinging. Now it was my turn. With the score tied 1-1, two outs and nobody on, everybody believed that this game would be forced into extra innings.

I stepped up to the plate, determined at least to make contact. But before I sank my feet into the batter’s box, Pesce called time. “Come here, Ehlers.” Oh no, I thought, and slowly trotted to the coach’s position down the third base line, unable to look Pesce in the eye, not knowing what was coming. “Come on, son,” he said sternly, “You need to concentrate. I play you for a reason. Don’t disappoint me.” As I rushed back to the batter’s box, I felt my body reacting to the burdens of competition; nervous tension tore invisibly at my stomach and my lungs contracted, making it difficult to breathe, as if a restraint was wrapped tightly around my chest.

I took a deep breath and exhaled, then dug in once more. Walker looked down from the mound, waiting for the catcher’s sign – though everyone east of Trenton knew what was coming. “No sweat, Craig,” the catcher yelled, “this guy struck out twice already. He can’t hit.” Fuck you, I thought – in a Christian way –as I wiped the sweat from my brow. The butterflies in my stomach were more intense than before, each breath more difficult to extract.

As Walker started into his windup, I gripped the bat and lifted my right elbow, my arms locked in place, my armament ready for battle. Walker kicked up his leg and delivered his pitch, a fastball belt high, just over the outer half of the plate. My eyes glued to the pitch, this is as good as any, I thought, and took a rip. Crack! The ball sailed high and far into right field. I ran full speed toward first with my eyes planted on the ball as it went over and beyond the right fielder’s outstretched arm. I rounded first and sprinted towards second, relieved and exhilarated at the sound of the cheering spectators, vindicated of my prior failings, freed of the burdens of disappointment and Pesce’s glare. Approaching second, with the ball and right fielder no longer in view, my trust was now placed in Pesce, who was coaching third. Pesce rotated his right arm, signaling me to keep running. I raced towards third, then saw Pesce hesitate, briefly, his eyes firmly planted on the action taking place in right field as he quickly calculated the location of the ball projected against the distance of the outfielder’s throw and my running speed. “Go!” he shouted, as he wound his arm repeatedly, willing me to home plate. The entire game now came down to a 90-foot race between my feet and the right fielder’s throw. Almost breathless, I rounded third and went full stride, my teammates shouting, the crowd cheering.

I crossed home plate standing, just as the ball made it to the infield. Suddenly, almost unexpectedly, my teammates swarmed me, mugged me, slapped my helmet, each slap a little harder than the previous one, high fives generously exchanged all over. As I glanced toward the pitcher’s mound, I saw Craig Walker slowly walking away, dejected, his head bowed in shame, his spirit defeated. The game was over, Hightstown had won, and I was the reason. Charlie Pesce smiled broadly and extended a congratulatory handshake. “Nice work, son. I knew you could do it. I expect to see more of that.”

When I awoke the next morning, robins chirping outside my window, the sun shining through the curtains, I rushed downstairs and grabbed our home delivered copy of The Trentonian. Buried deep within the sports section, on page 42, was the headline, “Ehlers Home Run Beats Allentown.” Slightly embarrassed, but quietly relishing in the glory, I felt a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that has rarely been repeated since.

Looking back thirty years later, my body having betrayed me, my dreams of playing baseball professionally having long ago been forsaken for other, more realistic goals, I remember my sense of pride when, walking through the school hallways, everyone treated me as if I had done something really special. I hadn’t saved a life, or found a cure for cancer, but for one day at least, I was The Man, the school hero, a bright and shining star of an otherwise mediocre, suburban high school that achieved as much recognition as one would expect in central New Jersey, an area defined by split-level developments, fast food restaurants, and the exit number on the Turnpike. I would go on to college and law school, clerk for a judge, argue criminal cases before juries and U.S. courts of appeal, and lead a fairly distinguished career, full of minor accolades, a few awards, and some pats on the back. But as my youth recedes ever so distantly, as my personal and professional life continues to confront new challenges, I have come to learn that my moment of glory was but a short-lived moment in time, never to be matched in life’s other arenas.