Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Wish for Peace in a Time of Conflict

Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.
- John F. Kennedy
As I walked from the train station to work this morning, a cold December wind blew against my face. I pushed ahead, determined to trade the harshness of winter for the synthetically heated warmth of my office building, where I could sip hot coffee and look out over the horizon from my 21st floor window, past the Schuylkill River and the suburbs of western Philadelphia. Securing the scarf around my neck, my eyes focused on the sidewalk beneath my feet, I grabbed the top of my coat to insulate myself from the wind currents gusting violently between the city’s buildings. For three short blocks the cold air stung my face and I desired only to escape the harsh realities of the day’s weather. Meanwhile, a child of a drug addicted mother in Camden went hungry last night, lacking a nutritious meal and, more importantly, the love and support of a loving parent; a homeless man in Philadelphia found warmth on a subway grate and scrounged for food in city trash bins.

Yesterday, 3,500 Africans died of AIDS and 16,000 children died of starvation and malnutrition; another fifty children were killed or maimed by landmines in places like Cambodia, Iraq, and Mozambique; a dozen people were murdered in Ciudad Juarez, as drug cartels and corruption overtake major segments of Mexico. Every thirty minutes, someone in the United States is murdered and 60 more are assaulted.

As millions prepare to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, two people are killed every minute in conflicts around the world. Millions more perish from hunger and disease, malnutrition and extreme poverty. And yet, for most of us, as we sing carols and hymns, drink eggnog, and open presents, we know little about the people struggling and fighting and dying every day.

As a lighted Christmas tree adorns the Blue Room of the White House, the Obama administration escalates the military conflict into Pakistan’s tribal areas and continues to fire drone missiles into villages in northwest Pakistan and Yemen in the hopes of making the world a safer place. Air strikes are clean and precise, like a video game, yet the reality of these bombs are tragic.

Last year at this time, as Christians the world over prepared to celebrate the birth of Christ, a U.S. cruise missile struck an alleged al-Qaeda training camp in Yemen. The strike was a “successful” blow against terrorism, as fourteen al-Qaeda fighters were killed. But as The Nation reports this week, an investigation by the Yemen Parliament found that fourteen women and 21 children were also among the dead. One week later, U.S. missiles fired upon another Yemeni village with similar results. The folly of humankind continues.

The more advanced we become, the further backward we move. In an age when all seemed possible, when we invented the automobile and air travel, cured polio, created the information highway, and landed men on the moon, the 20th Century was the most violent in all human history; the nations of Europe and Asia fought wars of unparalleled magnitude, as death, destruction, and unimaginable carnage were the order of the day. In Normandy in 1915, a young man lay on the ground in eternal peace, one of the millions who perished in the war to end all wars. Found among his possessions was a card inscribed with the words of St. Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. . . .” Maybe he held the card for good luck, or perhaps it was a gift from his mother, who decades after suffered silently as she mourned the loss her only son.

Thirty years later, on the morning of August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima, a city of 255,000 people. In one blinding flash of heat and light, the equivalent of fifteen kilotons of explosives was dropped by U.S. forces, indiscriminately incinerating the bodies of 66,000 men, women, and children within a one mile radius. Tens of thousands more died from the bomb’s effects over the next few months. Two days after the bomb dropped, a survivor recorded this account in his diary:

Towards evening, a light, southerly wind blowing across the city wafted to us an odour suggestive of burning sardines. I wondered what could cause such a smell until somebody, noticing it too, informed that sanitation teams were cremating the remains of people who had been killed. Looking out, I could discern numerous fires scattered about the city. Previously I had assumed the fires were caused by burning rubble. Towards Nigitsu was an especially large fire where the dead were being burned by hundreds. Suddenly to realize that these fires were funeral pyres made me shudder, and I became a little nauseated. 8 Aug 1945.

--From Hiroshima Diary by Michihiko Hachiya.
A second atomic bomb packing even more kilotons of explosives soon befell the 195,000 citizens of Nagasaki, killing 60,000 more. Casualties are difficult to calculate with precision, however, because the great fires that raged in each city totally consumed many bodies and destroyed the city’s hospitals. It is said that the light emanating from an atomic explosion is comparable to that of the sun, the temperatures and pressure comparable to the sun’s interior. The light rays consist of thermal radiation that burns everything in its wake and penetrates the human body. In the immediate aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, nearly a third of the population was killed by burns, trauma, or radiation. Those who did not immediately perish developed various forms of cancer; babies born to mothers who had been exposed to the bomb suffered brain damage; the children of survivors experienced harmful genetic effects.

“We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount,” declared General Omar Bradley in 1948. “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”

As we sing carols on Christmas Eve, three dozen countries around the world will remain in a state of perpetual conflict and violence. U.S. troops will celebrate their tenth Christmas in Afghanistan. War will continue to cause untold economic and social damage to large portions of Africa, with civil strife in Nigeria, civil wars in Somalia, Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Burundi, and threats of genocide in Darfur. In many areas of conflict, food production is impossible, resulting in famine, starvation, and human suffering beyond description. Many of Africa’s children will be condemned to lives of misery, despair, and hopelessness.

In the time it takes to open presents on Christmas Day, four more children will be maimed or killed by landmines. Many of the victims will resemble an eight year-old Pakistani boy named Shiraz, who lost his leg when he attempted to walk home after army personnel told him that it was safe to do so. “But on the way I stepped on a bomb and it exploded there. My father tied a cloth around it but it kept bleeding. I was conscious so I could see the blood flowing out of my body. Then I was brought to the hospital.” Though he will never again walk like a normal child, he now wishes to become a doctor, so that he can help others.

“Peace cannot be obtained through violence,” said Albert Einstein, “it can only be attained through understanding.” As we celebrate the spirit of Christmas, sing our favorite carols, enjoy the dazzling displays of lights and ornaments, we can only hope for a day when humankind will put the kindness back into humanity, and the world will take stock of its senses. What can we do? We can start by promoting and supporting dialogue, by encouraging genuine exchanges among peoples and cultures that have otherwise convinced themselves they are at war. “If you want to make peace,” advised Moshe Dayan, “you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.”

Each year as Christmas approaches, I pray that nations and warriors will lay down their armaments and seek understanding and peace. History offers an occasional glimmer of hope. In the winter of 1914, on a battlefield in the Flanders region of Belgium, German forces were engaged in a fierce battle with French and British troops, when a most unusual thing occurred. With both sides dug deeply in their muddy trenches, some German troops placed small Christmas trees, lighted with candles, outside of their secured positions and began singing Stille Nacht (Silent Night). Soon, British and French troops joined in. A German signboard displayed, in broken English, “You No Fight, We No Fight” as British units improvised a sign containing a German version of “Merry Christmas.” A spontaneous truce soon developed, as soldiers from both sides put down their arms and left their trenches, meeting in the middle to shake hands. They helped each other bury their dead; they exchanged gifts – chocolate cake, cognac, postcards, tobacco – and they sang songs. In a few places, soldiers played each other in games of soccer. It didn’t last, of course, but for a few precious moments, there was peace on earth and good will toward men.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Ambiguity of Faith and the Language of Religion

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be; and whatever your labors and aspirations in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul. With all its shame, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. – Found on Old St. Paul's Church in Baltimore.
When I was a young child, my faith consisted of the teachings of my parents, church, and Sunday school classes. It was a simple, straightforward faith, founded in a firm and unquestioning belief in the holy trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and eternal salvation. It was a positive and uplifting message, emphasizing the benefits of devout faith. I recall little mention of Hell and Satan; there were no fire-and-brimstone preachers, at least none that I confronted, and the people and pastors I met in the Lutheran congregations of New Jersey appropriately combined their faith with humor, compassion, and a healthy dose of secularism.

As the son of a Lutheran minister, religion has always been a major influence in my life. My father’s professional standing in the Lutheran church, including eight years as Bishop of the New Jersey Lutheran Synod in the 1970’s, coupled with my mother’s deep and abiding Christian faith, has profoundly affected my outlook on life. From my ethical and moral values, my politics, to my interest in other faith traditions, the centrality of religion in my family’s life has undoubtedly influenced my own. Growing up, I took for granted my Lutheran heritage and Christian education. Although I lived in culturally and religiously diverse communities – particularly in New Jersey and Massachusetts, with large Catholic and Jewish populations – I rarely explored or considered in any depth the religious differences of my non-Lutheran friends.

As I grew older, in high school and early college, my faith was less centered on issues of personal salvation and more focused on social concerns and issues of justice. I contemplated how Christian principles and the teachings of Jesus should guide our thinking and actions on the Vietnam War, racism and discrimination, capital punishment, poverty and inequality. But I continued to accept without much question the core beliefs of doctrinal Christianity.

The first intellectual crisis of my faith journey happened around my junior year in college, when a classmate – a Philosophy major, naturally – questioned my certainty in the existence of God and the major tenets of traditional Christianity. He asked some hard questions and provided reasonable alternatives to a belief in God and the divinity of Jesus. Although my faith remained intact, I did not have answers and I appreciated the intellectual challenge of my friend’s questions.

In law school and after, I became more aware of the world’s other enduring faith traditions. I studied Judaism, explored Unitarianism, and educated myself on the many and varied denominations and traditions within Christianity itself. I became fascinated with Jewish theology and history and began to see the importance of the historical Jesus and the Jewish roots of Christianity. When I read of the origins and evolution of early Christianity, my questions only grew. I continued to feel a strong pull toward my Lutheran roots, but intellectually and spiritually, I was increasingly conflicted in matters of faith and harbored doubts concerning the continued validity of orthodox Christian beliefs. The religion of my youth was no longer persuasive and compelling. The Sunday morning recitations of the creeds – the Apostles, Nicene and (less frequently) Athanasian Creeds – gave me heartburn. I no longer accepted (if I ever did) that Christianity was the only true path to salvation.

I continue to believe deeply in God and remain spiritually connected to Jesus of Nazareth. But my faith consists of ambiguity and doubt. I am not alone. Although roughly 80% of Americans identify themselves as Christian, less than half are actively involved in the life of a church. Many Christians, myself included, hover on the edge of faith, or find themselves in “exile,” because what they encounter in a typical church is unrealistically absolutist, exclusivist, or impossible to reconcile with 21st century intellectual thought. Many find it increasingly difficult to find a non-judgmental place of worship that welcomes doubt, tough questions, and an unfettered search for truth.

Perhaps the need to doubt and question is a natural part of the human condition, itself a gift from God.  Verna Dozier, the late teacher, theologian and lay preacher of the Episcopal Church, called ambiguity “the essence of faith.” “Faith involves trusting God,” she explained. “I cast my life on a belief that there is a God, that God is for me and that I can trust that. But I can’t prove it.”

For many thinking Christians, however, the creeds are problematic, at least if understood literally. How can one reconcile skepticism in a faith that seems to require theological exactitude? For Dozier, such reconciliation is possible if one views the creeds in their historical context, as part of the church’s legacy. They are worth remembering and reciting because they arose out of a very tense time in the life of the early Christian community, when a "major effort was to do away with ambiguity." We say the Nicene Creed on Sundays because we are “part of a community that says the Nicene Creed.” Although perhaps less relevant today, for Christians the creeds remain a part of the history, language, and poetry of their faith tradition.

I have long searched for a progressive Christianity that is less centered on doctrine and more, as described by Marcus Borg, a professor of religion at Oregon State University, “non literalistic, non exclusivistic, deeply in touch with tradition, but with a historical metaphorical way of understanding tradition.” In Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (Harper Collins 1995) and The Heart of Christianity (Harper Collins 2003), as well as in subsequent writings, Borg has spoken of the divide between what he calls “absolutist” Christians – “those who believe that Christianity is the one absolute revelation of God and the only way of salvation” – and those who occupy an “emerging paradigm” – people of faith who feel most comfortable in the Christian tradition, but who need a Christianity not rooted in creeds or dogma, but in a life of spiritual challenge, compassion, and community.

While absolutist Christians insist on biblical inerrancy and a literal, unquestioning interpretation of the Bible, on the other side of the divide are those who, like me, attempt to reconcile Christianity with the modern world, and who embrace advances in science, historical scholarship, religious pluralism, and cultural diversity. We view the world’s enduring religions – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism – as “culturally-shaped responses to the experience of the sacred” for which there is not one road to understanding and enlightenment. The Bible, moreover, is a human response to God, to be interpreted historically and metaphorically, not literally. A life of faith is one centered on a transformative relationship to God, not on the afterlife and the desire to be saved.

I believe there are many equally valid paths to achieving internal peace with God and many sound ways to express one’s faith, to worship, and to pray. Whether done within the framework of the Christian tradition, the Jewish tradition, the Muslim tradition, is not important. For me, the language of the Bible is symbolic and figurative, an ancient people’s attempt to express their faith, to make sense of the universe, and to understand their connection to God. It is understood only within the historical and theological context within which it was written.

Absolutist Christians appear certain and confident about their faith and rarely question their most basic assumptions and beliefs. Doctrinal certitude brings order to a chaotic world and provides clear guidance on issues of morality and salvation. But if certainty is accompanied, as it so often is, with feelings of superiority over other faith traditions, does it not blind us to the wondrous reality in which we live?

My faith is less certain and more ambiguous. But as Dozier said, with ambiguity comes “the awareness that wherever you stand, someone just as reasonable, rational, and good as you stands in an opposite place.” Are my Jewish daughters condemned to perish because they were raised, with my blessing, to worship God, the same God to which I pray, within the rich traditions of Judaism, rather than Christianity? I cannot accept that God makes these sorts of distinctions, nor do I believe that the Jesus to whom Christians pray ever rejected the people of his own faith tradition.

There will always be a debate over absolutes and certainty in the context of faith. For me, the essence of faith is compassion and the commandment to love God “with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31). A life filled with compassion and love, a life selflessly devoted to pursuing justice on earth is, for me, best exemplified in the life of Jesus, a devout Jew who radically challenged the power structures of his day, who lived compassionately and selflessly for the sake of others. But Jesus is not for everyone, and that is okay, too. Christians do not have a monopoly on the truth, and many Christians get things wrong a lot of the time.

However one defines faith, whatever tradition one abides, whatever religion one practices (or does not practice), neither guarantees nor precludes the path to salvation, to spiritual fulfillment and peace with God. Differing faith traditions merely reflect the various ways in which God speaks to his people, his children, and in how his people choose to relate to the sacred in life. Religions are like languages. To be a Christian, a Jew, or a Muslim in a pluralistic society is, according to Borg, “knowing and understanding the stories and vocabularies of your tradition . . . while being able to recognize the riches and saints of other traditions.”

I do not mean to suggest that there should not be core principles that define one’s religious beliefs. But whatever faith journey you choose, whatever faith tradition you follow, what is most essential is that your faith provides opportunity for a deep and spiritual growth, a sense of compassion, the support of a community, a commitment to justice, and an interconnectedness with God that brings meaning and a sense of purpose to your life. If it provides a rock upon which to stand when life’s waters sometimes overflow, if it helps you achieve an internal peace with God, then all are enriched by your experiences.

Monday, November 15, 2010

In Defense of Bipartisanship and the Deficit Commission

As we peer into society's future, we -- you and I, and our government -- must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

--President Dwight Eisenhower, January 17, 1961.
When President Eisenhower voiced these words at the end of his presidency, he did so from the vantage point of experience and historical insight. Sixteen years earlier, he helped lead U.S. military forces to victory in the European theater and oversaw the occupation of post-war Germany. As president, he ended our involvement in the Korean conflict, stood up to McCarthyism, and oversaw the development of the interstate highway system. He had seen firsthand America’s capacity to set aside partisan differences to fulfill a sense of national purpose, in defeating tyranny, in mobilizing a war effort, and in building a modern economy. With the nation then on the verge of a New Frontier, about to inaugurate an idealistic, young president, our history was replete with examples of liberals and conservatives, the religious and non-religious, the working class and the educated elite, coming together for the common good. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy each understood the viability of American resolve, that when we commit our energies and resources to problems of national import, when we work together towards a common goal, there is little we as a people cannot accomplish.

In confronting the economic and budgetary crises of today, we once again need a bipartisan appeal to the national interest, a serious effort at compromise and problem solving. Although the rising tide of national debt is less understood, and often perceived as less urgent, by policy makers, the media, and the public, the long-term threat to our economy is real and substantial. It is a problem that affects us all, with the burdens particularly hard on future generations. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), this year’s deficit alone is expected to be $1.3 trillion (that’s $1,300,000,000,000). The total federal debt is now at approximately $14 trillion and growing. Absent major adjustments, we will pay over $1 trillion a year, or nearly 40% of every tax dollar, on nothing more than interest on the national debt by 2020. The CBO estimates that an additional $8 trillion will be added to the national debt in the next decade absent significant budgetary reform.

Over time, persistently large deficits of this magnitude will only increase national debt as a share of the economy, push up interest rates, crowd out productive investments, retard economic growth, and cause serious long-term damage to the economy. As the country borrows more money to finance the debt, increasing amounts are loaned by foreign investors who collect the interest payments and siphon much of our economic output. According to the Center on Budget Priorities and Policy (CBPP), absent positive adjustments, “the national debt will climb from 53 percent of GDP in 2009 to 314 percent of GDP by 2050, or more than three times the size of the U.S. economy.” It does not take a degree in mathematics to understand that this is unsustainable in the long-term, that our ability to repair our declining infrastructure, sustain a strong national defense, protect the environment, aid the poor, and provide medical care to the elderly, will become increasingly difficult.

It is true that the events and policies that have created the record deficits were largely outside of President Obama’s control. There is little disputing that a decade of Bush tax cuts and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, are almost exclusively responsible for the current deficits. But while President Obama may have inherited the present mess, that fact does not lessen his responsibility to address the fiscal imbalance and use the prestige and influence of his office to propose solutions.

Unless we wish simply to pass along the debt burden to our children and their children, it is time to set aside partisan differences and develop real solutions to what is a very real problem. Of course, there is no way to balance the budget and to unburden future generations from the mountains of debt that we have bequeathed them without some combination of (1) tax increases, and (2) spending cuts. Yet these are the very things that politicians most hate to do, because they make everyone unhappy. No one, especially those with partisan passions, enjoys the art of compromise and making hard choices. It is, however, essential to governing. For this very reason, President Obama established the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform by Executive Order in February 2010.

The Deficit Commission, co-chaired by Erskine Bowles (former Chief of Staff to President Clinton) and Alan Simpson (former Republican Senator from Wyoming), is made up of a respected mix of bipartisan experts who aim to offer politically realistic and economically viable solutions to the debt crisis. As Jonathan Chait of The New Republic notes, the premise of the Deficit Commission is that “reducing the long-term deficit is very hard. All the options are unpopular. If you try to do it while imposing your party’s ideal vision of federal priorities, the other party will demagogue you to death and you’ll fail. So you need to find some way to reduce the deficit that falls short of your ideal while constituting an improvement over a status quo of letting the deficit run unchecked.” Or as President Obama said recently, "If people are, in fact, concerned about spending, debt, deficits, and the future of our country, then they're going to need to be armed with the information about the kinds of choices that are going to be involved."

Unfortunately, the initial reaction to a draft proposal put forth by Bowles and Simpson has been decidedly chilly. Conservatives opposed to any type of tax increase, including most of the Tea Party movement and anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, are unhappy, while the Wall Street Journal editorial page is skeptical. The biggest outcry, however, has been from liberals. commenced a campaign to tell the President “that Americans will not stand for this Deficit Commission report and he must reject it immediately.” Paul Krugman of the New York Times has said that “the deficit commission should be told to fold its tents and go away.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the Bowles-Simpson plan “simply unacceptable.” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka stated that the proposal essentially tells “working Americans to drop dead.” This is disappointing.

To be sure, there is much wrong with the Simpson-Bowles proposal, but to reject it out of hand is irresponsible and short sighted. First, the Bowles-Simpson proposal is not the Deficit Commission’s report – that will come later and will need the support of at least 14 of its 18 members; Bowles-Simpson is nothing more than a 50-page power point presentation of key talking points. It is a discussion starter, nothing more, nothing less. Second, liberals are ignoring a fundamental principle of democracy – politics is the art of the possible. Unless they can successfully accomplish deficit reduction on their own (good luck with that, especially after the midterm elections), they will need to work with Republicans, independents, and moderate and conservative Democrats to achieve meaningful long-term deficit reductions. Third, some of the ideas presented by Bowles-Simpson on trimming $3.8 trillion in debt by 2020 are very good and should be embraced by Democrats.

Among other things, although the proposal calls for simplification of the tax code involving a reduction in overall rates, it also calls for eliminating many tax deductions and credits that mostly favor the affluent, thus preserving, even enhancing, the progressive nature of the tax structure. While the proposal to eliminate the mortgage interest deduction will prove politically infeasible, one alternative (based on a proposal by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire) would eliminate mortgage interest deductions on second homes and mortgages exceeding $500,000, while retaining the deduction for all other homeowners. This should receive serious consideration from Democrats. That someone should be allowed a tax deduction for mortgage interest on a second home in the Hamptons (or even Ocean City), while those who pay rent (generally the less affluent) receive no tax deduction, is unfair, regressive, and serves no rational policy interest. I understand that the real estate industry and its powerful lobbyists will be upset, but without some political courage and economic common sense from members of Congress, no progress on the deficit and budgetary reform will ever occur. As a Democrat, I am unwilling to allow my children’s future to rest on outdated assumptions and narrow special interests.

There are a number of other proposals in the Bowles-Simpson plan that liberals in particular should embrace. Reducing farm subsidies is long overdue, and the fifteen cent per gallon gasoline tax will simultaneously raise revenue and help reduce our dependence on foreign oil, encourage conservation and protect the environment. To its credit, the Bowles-Simpson proposal attempts to prevent cuts aimed at assisting low-income Americans and makes clear in principle that future budgets must protect the most vulnerable citizens.

Bowles-Simpson also refuses to treat the defense budget as sacrosanct and calls for tens of billions of dollars in cuts to unnecessary weapons programs and other wasteful military spending. Preserving our nation’s military strength does not require squandering billions of dollars on wasteful, largely useless Defense contracts and Pentagon programs. We spend almost as much on our military as the rest of the world combined. Including non-Pentagon, defense-related expenditures (e.g., Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, interest attributable to past debt-financed defense outlays), total defense spending in 2010 falls somewhere between $880 billion and $1 trillion. Even by more traditional measures, total spending on the Pentagon, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will exceed $700 billion. There is simply no way to get a handle on the deficit and national debt without ensuring, at a minimum, that we pay for these outlays, and better yet, reduce them. The Deficit Commission appears to recognize this.

My biggest problem with the Bowles-Simpson plan is its failure to take on the Bush tax cuts, which according to the CBPP account for $1.7 trillion in extra deficits from 2001 to 2008. If extended, these same tax cuts will add $3.4 trillion to the debt by 2019. This is no way to reduce the debt. Maintaining the Bush tax cuts, especially for those making more than $250,000 per year, is particularly galling, as eliminating only these tax cuts (which merely puts the top marginal rates back to 39% over the present 36%) would save us $700 billion over the next ten years.

I also am not satisfied with the manner in which Bowles-Simpson addresses the long-term budgetary concerns underlying Medicare and Medicaid (which make up the bulk of long-term deficit projections due to demographic changes and increasing life expectancies of the American population). But there will be plenty of time to debate these issues. For liberals to refrain from the discussion, to take their ball and go home, serves no purpose, and undermines our concern for the nation’s future.

Speaking to the nation from the Oval Office in 1979, President Jimmy Carter declared, "What you see too often in Washington . . . is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another." Are we really that selfish and short-sighted a nation that we cannot find ways to compromise and agree on deficit reduction? Although Carter lacked the leadership skills to overcome the paralysis of democracy that he described, his description is nevertheless as accurate now as it was in 1979. If the President and the Congress, Republicans and Democrats, cannot succeed where Carter failed, if they cannot summon the nation to embrace a sense of national purpose and to work for the common good on behalf of future generations, then they will be leaving a shameful legacy and forfeiting the right to govern.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Saying Goodbye to Camelot: Ted Sorensen (1928 - 2010)

Overlooked during the hype of the midterm elections was the loss of a great American. Theodore C. Sorensen, a clear-minded and eloquent speechwriter, lawyer, thinker, and speaker, died this past weekend. He was 82 years old. The substance behind John F. Kennedy, Sorensen was the single most important source of JFK’s words and actions during the final eleven years of Kennedy’s life. Unlike his friend and intellectual soul mate, who died at the hands of an assassin’s bullet nearly 47 years ago when the country still possessed an innocence of spirit, Sorensen lived a full and engaging life. Yet by his own account, the world came to a standstill on that dreadful November day, his grief surpassed perhaps only by Kennedy’s closest family members, a grief that would be re-lived five years later in the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968. The Age of Innocence lost, America matured into a more complex, more divisive, more cynical country, which has only grown angrier through the years.

Kennedy called Sorensen his “intellectual blood bank” and, for the nearly half century following that tragic November day, Sorensen remained a loyal advocate of the Kennedy legacy and a vibrant link to the aura of Camelot that defined Kennedy’s term in office. He believed in good government, but not necessarily big government; a government that helps people and serves the national interest. He rejected the politics of pork and the pursuit of narrowly focused special interests. A product of the Great Depression with modest Midwestern roots, Sorensen believed in a compassionate society that embraces enlightened change and rejects the status quo where human ills and injustice go untreated. A proud liberal, Sorensen saw many of JFK’s best attributes in Barack Obama and he remained optimistic to the end that progressive ideals would ultimately triumph in America.

Like Kennedy, Sorensen believed that America must stand firm in its quest for freedom and democracy. But he did not believe that America should go it alone and he was dismayed with the unilateralism of the Bush administration and conservative calls for abolishing the United Nations, an admittedly imperfect institution, but one that remains our best hope for promoting peace and for addressing humanitarian crises in the world’s most troubled regions.

I never met Ted Sorensen, and a letter I wrote to him two years ago, after I read his memoirs, Counselor: Life at the Edge of History (Harper Collins, 2008), went unanswered. But I have always admired that Sorensen’s sharp wit and keen intellect accompanied a poetic embrace of language, and that he was a serious and unassuming man, with none of the Ivy League pedigree enjoyed by most of the Kennedy entourage. A bit of an outsider, he lacked Kennedy’s glamour and sense of style and was excluded from the Kennedy social set, where everyone seemed rich and fashionable. He maintained a permanently bookish air that almost single-handedly fed Kennedy’s appetite for policy memos, speeches, and legislative initiatives. Kennedy and Sorensen made an odd pair – the glamorous, wealthy politician from Massachusetts and the socially reclusive bookworm from Nebraska. But as Sorensen noted in Counselor, their lifestyle differences were offset by the closeness of their minds, for each possessed a lively sense of humor, a love of books, and a high-minded sense of the public interest.

The quintessential counselor, advisor, and confidante, Sorensen helped a young Kennedy develop into the mature leader he would become. From when he joined the new senator’s staff in 1953 as a 24 year-old University of Nebraska law school graduate, until Kennedy’s death in 1963, Sorensen was at the center of it all. The poet of Camelot, he helped write the most inspirational of Kennedy’s speeches. In July 1960, Sorensen drafted Kennedy’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, at which Kennedy declared that the United States was at “a turning point in history” involving a “New Frontier” of “uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.” Six months later, Sorensen and Kennedy collaborated on one of the best inaugural addresses in American history, a masterful, fourteen-minute speech that contained these memorable phrases:

• “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

• “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

• “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

• “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
Sorensen’s greatest contribution to history may have been the calm guidance and counsel he provided during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when for thirteen days, the world stood on the brink of nuclear destruction. At Kennedy’s request, Sorensen drafted the famous letter to Nikita Khrushchev credited with persuading the Soviet Union to withdraw its missiles from Cuba and with averting war between the superpowers. The Khrushchev letter guaranteed, in exchange for immediate withdrawal of all Soviet missiles from Cuba, an end to the U.S. blockade and the withdrawal of American nuclear missiles from Turkey (aimed at the USSR). As Sorensen later explained, “Never had this country, this world, faced such great danger.” Helping to formulate a peaceful resolution was among his proudest lifetime achievements.

For students of speechwriting, however, it was Sorensen’s high-minded, inspirational prose from which Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric was born, and which helped make his presidency a lasting symbol of hope and idealism. Sorensen’s imprint was evident on Kennedy’s calls for self-sacrifice, civic engagement, and international peace. His eternal hope for a better world, his belief that the human race, however flawed, had the capacity to survive and even thrive amidst adversity, are themes that can be discerned from Kennedy’s speeches and statements in the early 1960’s.

My favorite Kennedy speech, for which Sorensen once again deserves much credit, was his commencement address at American University, which remains among the great foreign policy speeches of an American president. On that clear, sunny day in June 1963, Kennedy addressed “the most important topic on earth: peace.” At the height of the Cold War, this anti-Communist president called on Americans to see the humanity of the Soviet people, however repugnant may be the communist system. For only by recognizing that Soviet citizens were, like Americans, also people of substance, virtue, and accomplishment (in science, literature, and technology), could we find common interests and seek true peace.

. . . What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children -- not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time. . . .

. . . Today the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need them is essential to the keeping of peace. But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles -- which can only destroy and never create -- is not the only . . . means of assuring peace. I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary, rational end of rational men. I realize the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war, and frequently the words of the pursuers fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task. . . .

. . . So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal.
Kennedy’s address laid the groundwork for the Soviet Union to begin talks, six weeks later, on the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a major milestone in U.S.-Soviet relations and in the movement for disarmament. Forty years later, Sorensen was invited to Rome to speak to a local foreign policy group. He asked on what subject and was told, “Tell us about the good America, when Kennedy was president.” Thinking back on the American University speech, Sorensen reflected upon “an America admired for its values, respected for its principles, not feared for its might or resented for its success; an America that led by listening, worked with the rest of the world, and respected international law; an America that stood for peace, not one that started wars. That was America when Kennedy was president.”

Sorensen was a master at his craft. Today, presidents and candidates utilize entire teams of speechwriters, and most speeches are a hodgepodge of policy proposals and appeals to varying demographics and interests. When Sorensen worked for JFK, the effort was more intimate and collaborative, the results unmatched in modern political rhetoric. A speech should inspire, teach, and lead. Kennedy was masterful at this, and he could not have done it without Sorensen, who remained loyal and devoted to his friend and colleague until his dying day. Ted Sorensen having been laid to rest, it is fair to say that they don’t make speechwriters like they used to.

Looking back on Kennedy’s speeches and reflecting upon Sorensen’s life, it is hard not to be pained at what might have been had Kennedy lived to serve a second term. Sorensen lived a distinguished life and continued to provide advice to Kennedy’s younger brothers. He became an accomplished international lawyer, counseling the likes of Nelson Mandela and Anwar Sadat, and he remained always an advocate for peace and progressive ideals. But the pain of November 1963 never healed. “I do not know whether I have ever fully recovered from John F. Kennedy’s death,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Time passed. Love and laughter helped. But the deep sadness of that time remained, only to be reinforced five years later by the murder of his brother Robert. Those two senseless tragedies robbed me of my future.” Decades later, on the twilight of his life, the pain remained. “Deep in my soul, I have not stopped weeping, whenever those events are recalled.”

America lost its soul with the deaths of John and Robert Kennedy. With the death of Ted Sorensen, we have lost part of our idealism. We live now in a less poetic, less graceful time.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The View From Napa Valley

Drink wine, and you will sleep well. Sleep, and you will not sin. Avoid sin, and you will be saved. Ergo, drink wine and be saved.
--Medieval German saying
My past excursions to California were always work related, and always to the southern portions, Los Angeles or San Diego, where the weather is warm and the skies sunny. But the California of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, Malibu and The Palisades has never seemed entirely real to me. I longed for a more authentic experience, where the land and history combine fortunes, where the geography is rugged, the air brisk, and nature lends a hand. This past week, Andrea and I journeyed west, to the Golden State’s northern confines, to San Francisco and Napa Valley, for a week of rest, food, wine, and exploration. I hope to return soon.

Having never ventured previously to San Francisco, I soon discovered why Billy Graham once said of it, “The Bay Area is so beautiful, I hesitate to preach about heaven while I am here.” Although we had only two full days to explore and wander through the city’s streets and neighborhoods, I would have to place it among the most splendid and interesting cities in the United States. From the deck of our friends’ house in Pacific Heights, I viewed Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge with my morning coffee as the fog settled over the San Francisco Bay. The city’s incredibly steep inclines were a challenge to walk but provided spectacular views of San Francisco’s varied hillside neighborhoods, charming enclaves of houses and shops, restaurants and pubs, most of which have retained individual ethnic and historic flavors.

Although the fog in the Bay Area can be incredibly thick and, while the climate is not as warm as the state’s southern regions – Mark Twain once remarked that his coldest winter “was the summer I spent in San Francisco” – the region is possessed of an inherent beauty that blends with the natural landscape. From Fisherman’s Wharf, we walked along the San Francisco Bay to the Ferry Building, a grand and historic structure which has been transformed from a rundown train terminal into an architectural masterpiece, a marketplace of art galleries, shops and gourmet restaurants. The financial district contrasts sharply with the hills and valleys of the rest of the city. From Chinatown to the gay-friendly Castro district, to the remnants of post-hippie-culture in Haight-Ashbury, the streets are lined with a balanced blend of residential housing and small businesses, coffee shops, and diverse retail stores, each fitting nicely into the surrounding neighborhood.

“You wouldn’t think such a place as San Francisco could exist,” Dylan Thomas once wrote. “The wonderful sunlight there, the hills, the great bridges, the Pacific at your shoes. Beautiful Chinatown. Every race in the world. The sardine fleets sailing out. The little cable-cars whizzing down The City hills. And all the people are open and friendly." On our second day in the city, we drove through Golden Gate Park, admiring its lush, expansive, green lawns, intricate gardens, diverse geography, and its many walkways, museums, and trails. A model of city planning, it rivals the majesty of New York’s Central Park and ranks among the nicest, most impressive urban landscapes in America. We dined on a cliff overlooking a fog-covered view of the Pacific Ocean, then crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on our way to Sausalito, another gem by the Bay, a picturesque waterfront community of galleries, shops, and cafes.

Two days was hardly enough time to do San Francisco justice, but even so, I understand Rudyard Kipling’s sentiment, “San Francisco has only one drawback. ‘Tis hard to leave.’”

 * * *

A far different, but equally rich experience awaited us in Napa Valley, where rows upon rows of grape vines line up precisely on rolling hillsides, a perfect symmetry of beauty and sense-altering aromas in the mountain surrounded peaks and valleys of wine country. We tasted several of the region’s fine wines, from sweet Rieslings and smooth Zinfandels, to complex Merlots and deep, rich Cabernets. For obvious reasons, we visited the Ehlers Estate, a small but elegant winery in St. Helena, where I announced my presence as the “long lost cousin” who had finally arrived, in search of a “family” discount. They were unimpressed. Apparently, I was not the first Ehlers to have sought special dispensation at the winery, claiming lineage to our “Uncle Bernard” who made his way to these parts in 1886. But the wine was exceptionally good and the wine club manager, a pleasant sounding South African woman, led us on a tour of the grounds, where we tasted the grapes straight off the vine.

It was interesting to experience a part of the country so defined by one industry. Much as horse farms define Lexington, Kentucky, vineyards distinguish Napa, one vineyard after another, hundreds of family and corporate owned “grape farms” that support a multi-billion dollar wine industry. The wine here is among the best in the world and justifies the rhetorical question first asked by Cardinal Duc de-Richelieu of 17th century France, “If God forbade drinking, would He have made wine so good?”

In my younger days, I drank beer. Simple, straightforward, masculine, it fit my self-image as a slightly aging, unpretentious, ex-jock. Perhaps in a foolhardy attempt to round out my rough edges, Andrea introduced me to the world of wine several years ago. Now, as Vito Corleone exclaimed in The Godfather, though I suspect for different reasons, “I like to drink wine more than I used to.” There is nothing like three days of good wine and good food to relax the spirit and soothe the soul. Several vineyards and wine tastings later, I understand the sentiment expressed by Robert Louis Stevenson, “Wine is bottled poetry.”

* * *

A glass of wine in hand, and with Election Day approaching, I watched with some interest this past week the California governor’s race between Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman. I began following Jerry Brown’s career when, during winter break of my junior year in college, toward the end of 1979, I visited the campus of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. As I admired its Ivy League splendor and picturesque, tree-strewn campus, a barrage of television cameras and reporters interrupted me as they made their way across the commons. I moved a little closer and saw the then-Governor and presidential primary candidate strolling in my direction, greeting everyone in sight. I shook his hand and followed him into the auditorium, where he gave a thoughtful, intelligent speech that continues to impress.

Although jokingly called “Governor Moonbeam” back then, I was enamored of Brown’s political style in part because of his eccentricities. He was, and in some ways still is, a politician way ahead of his time. His platform in 1980 summed up his visionary simplicity, “Protect the earth, serve the people, explore the universe.” At Dartmouth, he discussed a book I was then reading, Energy Future: Report of the Energy Project at the Harvard Business School (Random House, 1979), which advocated, from a business school perspective, tax laws and spending priorities that encouraged conservation and promoted the development of clean and renewable energy sources. These were considered essential to end our dependence on foreign oil and to gradually shift us away from limited, costly conventional sources of energy: oil, coal, gas, and nuclear (for my previous essay on this topic, see America and Energy: A Failure of Vision). 

Brown was young and energetic, intelligent and progressive. He appealed to reason and common sense, and articulated a detached public interest. He was the only candidate at the time discussing energy policy with the right mixture of vision and practicality (Independent Party candidate John Anderson would do so later). I even liked his campaign buttons – a plain, brown (get it?) circle.

Brown also had an intriguing personal history. After completing his freshman year in college, Brown entered a Jesuit seminary, where he took a vow of poverty and lived in seclusion for three-and-a-half years. According to a recent profile by John Judis in The New Republic, Brown “later said that he learned two fundamental principles from the Jesuits – agere contra, or ‘go against yourself,’ and ignatian, ‘detachment from creature comforts and worldly desires.’” Brown’s countercultural instincts were welcome in post-sixties California, especially on the heels of Watergate in 1974 and, at the age of 36, he became Governor.

I found Brown’s disdain for the accoutrements of high office a refreshing change of pace; he refused to be chauffeured in the state-funded limousine, driving a Plymouth instead, and he declined the Governor’s mansion, choosing to live in a one-bedroom apartment in Sacramento. He eschewed interest group politics and Democratic power brokers. He surrounded himself with idealistic intellectuals and espoused the principles of E.F. Schumacher’s book, Small Is Beautiful, which advocated humane, ecologically-sound, soft technologies. He understood that the planet cannot forever sustain undisciplined and unlimited economic growth.

Brown’s response to the energy crisis of the 1970’s helped make California a world leader in conservation and renewable energy. Under his leadership, California adopted the nation’s toughest air and water pollution standards and enacted strict energy efficiency requirements for all new buildings. Through smartly-applied, targeted tax policies, he promoted the development of solar, wind, and geo-thermal energy. Brown championed public transportation and mass transit, including high-speed rail lines, placing California at the vanguard of environmentally conscious communities. Although “widely mocked at the time,” according to Judis, even such Brown-like ideas as installing designated lanes for car pools and cyclists “is now a staple of metro planning.”

Though he leans to the left on many issues, Brown governs very much from the center and caters to no one’s ideological impulses. As Governor, he aggressively countered public waste, railed against “big government,” vetoed bureaucratic pay raises, and cut spending on many traditionally liberal benchmarks, including education and welfare, where additional spending was not resulting in added benefits. From 1998 to 2006, he was a surprisingly effective mayor of Oakland, where he worked closely with developers to revitalize the city center, backed charter schools, and adopted crime fighting strategies that had been successfully applied in New York City, aggressively enforcing anti-nuisance and loitering ordnances that provided fresh life to Oakland’s deserted downtown. As a result, a thriving art scene has flourished in downtown Oakland, and shops, restaurants, and high-tech startups have moved there.

Brown also possesses a refreshingly authentic honesty, which distinguishes him from more typical politicians. The son of a charismatic and well-respected former Governor, Brown once said that in his youth he was both “attracted and repelled” by his father’s brand of politics: “The adventure. The opportunity. The grasping, the artificiality, the obvious manipulation and role-playing, the repetition of emotion without feeling. . . .” When he ran for President in 1980, he was opposed to national health insurance because, as he explained, “You smoke. You don’t exercise. You eat junk food. Then you get sick. And you want me to pay for it?” When a reporter asked him recently why voters should believe him when he says that he has no interest in running for President again (he ran in 1980 and 1992), Brown replied, “Age. Hell, if I was younger, you know I’d be running again.” Now 72 and married, he added, “. . . you know, I come home at night. I don’t try to close down the bars in Sacramento like I used to do when I was governor of California.”

Brown certainly loves the limelight and, like many high profile political leaders, perhaps he is more entertaining from a distance than for those who must observe him every day. But much as California is ahead of the nation on important benchmark issues, so too is Brown. More intelligent than the average politician, more dedicated to solving problems, he articulates the right mix of liberal and conservative policies. The rest of the country should take note. For a large state with enormous problems, California could do a lot worse than put Brown back into the Governor’s mansion . . . or in his case, at least, a Sacramento apartment. If elected, he will jumpstart the state’s conservation efforts and expand its capacity for clean and renewable energy, thereby providing jobs for scientists, engineers, and construction workers alike. And he will do so in an undoubtedly entertaining manner. Seems like a winning formula. Next time I’m in Napa, I’ll drink to that.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Almost Time to Rake the Leaves

The long shadows of September now behind us, the leaves change colors as the sun sets and darkness descends by early evening. Dried sunflowers, orange pumpkins, and the multi-colored gourds of autumn decorate neighborhood porches, as the brisk air and blue skies of October transform summer into fall. The Cardinals having fallen from grace with a mysterious and inexplicable late summer collapse, baseball season is essentially over for me and all of the unfortunate souls who embrace the 24 teams that failed to make the postseason. Weaker fans with football allegiances transferred their emotional investments to pigskin rivalries weeks ago, filling their weekends with tailgate parties and the sounds of clashing helmets. Soccer moms transport budding athletes to tournaments and practices, where soccer and lacrosse and field hockey are played on rectangular fields devoid of the charm and history that pepper the diamond-shaped pastures of our national pastime.

For the suffering baseball fan, whose team was mathematically eliminated or realistically out of the race by early September, the last weeks of the season are a slow, tortuous journey into the abyss of the soul. It ends only after the last out of the ninth inning of the 162nd game, when the season comes mercifully to a close and the baseball angels, at least those of non-playoff teams, pack up for winter.

After the locker rooms are emptied and clubhouses cleaned out, after the players and coaches return to their real lives, to their families and homes and off-season workouts, only then can one partake of a sabbatical from the excesses of fandom and the irrationality of caring so much for a team that knows not of your existence. The sports pages no longer filled with box scores and the running soap opera that is the pennant race, it is almost time to rake the leaves again.

For the third time in the last four seasons I have been forced to watch the post-season with an unwelcome dispassion. Granted, it is less stressful and, with the Cardinals a distant memory of a long, frustrating summer, I can watch and enjoy the games for the pure skill, strategy and drama that is baseball at its highest level. How could anyone not appreciate the masterful performance of Roy Halladay’s no-hitter in Game One of the National League Division Series, or the nearly equally impressive, fourteen strikeout performance by Tim Lincecum? I can relax and enjoy, as a baseball fan, the pitching matchups between the pesky Giants and the powerful Phillies, as I look forward to the much anticipated rematch between Philadelphia and New York in the World Series.

But in my solitary moments, if I am completely honest, thoughts of the postseason without the Cardinals – even the act of writing these words – brings a sharp and profound pain to my heart. If my lifelong love of the Cardinals has taught me anything, it is that there is far more losing than winning in baseball. “Strong feelings do not necessarily make a strong character,” wrote William Carleton. “The strength of a man is to be measured by the power of the feelings he subdues not by the power of those which subdue him.”

Baseball is a metaphor for life, or so it seems, and I could not help but feel sorry for Brooks Conrad, the 30 year-old journeyman infielder of the Atlanta Braves who made three errors in Game Three of the NLDS against the Giants, costing the Braves the game and, quite possibly, a chance at the World Series. Brooks is the Everyman, a hard working, career minor leaguer, who only made the post-season roster because of injuries to Chipper Jones and Martin Prado, two of the Braves best players. He had played a total of eleven games at second base in his major league career when, due to circumstances outside his control, he was called into duty against the Giants. But in baseball, as in life, when you seek anonymity, there is no place to hide. The ball will always find you.

Before a sellout crowd and a national television audience, with millions of people watching, Conrad made a wild throw to first base in the first inning, dropped a pop fly in the second, and let a routine ground ball go through his legs in the ninth. The last two errors resulted in two of the Giants’ three runs in what turned out to be a 3-2 Giants win. To make matters worse, the ninth inning error followed what would have been a heroic two-run homerun by the Braves’ Eric Hinske in the bottom of the eighth, a dramatic shot that propelled the Braves to a 2-1 lead and erupted a previously quiet hometown crowd. But when Buster Posey’s ground ball went through Conrad’s legs with two outs in the top of the ninth, the go-ahead run crossed the plate and the Giants won the game. Brooks Conrad is now forever tarnished as the kid who blew the playoffs for the city of Atlanta.

“Don’t you know how hard this all is?” Ted Williams famously asked a reporter who had criticized his team in the previous day’s paper. “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.” Baseball is a test of character that regularly challenges one’s capacity for handling adversity and coping with failure. Even a great player fails more than he succeeds, and a really good team will lose 60 to 70 times in a season. It is for this reason that the true fan develops defense mechanisms for coping with disappointment, for caring about a team that consistently breaks your heart.

But fans can be cruel. As the Braves came to bat in the bottom of the ninth, after Conrad’s two-out error had parlayed victory into possible loss, and as Conrad sat in the dugout, alone and head bowed in shame, the Atlanta scoreboard played a video of Conrad’s walk-off, pinch-hit grand slam that had beaten Cincinnati earlier in the season. The crowd at Turner Field booed mercilessly, even though it was that home run in May and a second pinch grand slam later in the season that helped the Braves earn the wild card berth and earned Conrad more playing time -- and the confidence of his teammates. “What have you done for me lately?” is today’s constant refrain, magnified in professional sports, where exceptional play and heroic efforts are expected every day.

"You hurt for him," Braves outfielder Matt Diaz said after the game. "This should be the time of his life." For Conrad, the memories of this one game will linger for a lifetime; his dream has become a nightmare.

Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” Conrad is hardly alone in the annals of baseball misery. When Bill Buckner let Mookie Wilson’s groundball slip under his legs in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, allowing the winning run to cross the plate for the Mets (who naturally went on to win Game Seven), it took Red Sox Nation two decades and two World Championships before it could offer forgiveness. No one suffered more than Buckner. Despite a magnificent career that spanned 22 years and compiled over 2,700 hits, he was forever marked with a scarlet “E” on his chest to the fans of Boston. When his son and daughter were cruelly mocked and taunted in school, Buckner, a strong, rugged first baseman, moved his family to Idaho, where he could live in peace and in the solitude of his own suffering.

“To err is human, to forgive divine,” wrote Alexander Pope in the 18th century. In 2008, twenty-two years after his misplayed groundball, Buckner was invited to Fenway Park to throw out the first pitch. When he walked from the Green Monster in left field to the pitcher’s mound, the Boston fans gave him a prolonged, apologetic standing ovation, as if to say, at long last, we forgive you. Buckner stood on the field overwhelmed with relief, tears streaming down his face. He had finally come to peace with his internal demons and soothed his misery; and in his own gentle way, he could now offer forgiveness for the unfairness of it all.

As fans, we too easily forget how truly difficult it is to play this game, even when the outcome is not magnified by world-wide television coverage and the exaggerated meaning individual fans ascribe to what is, in the end, just a game. Baseball is a team game, and the cumulative performance of the parts is what counts, not the individual success or failure of one player. “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success,” Babe Ruth once said. “You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”

Good teams not only have good players, they have chemistry, that intangible something that the Cardinals desperately lacked this year. I could sense it when I watched them play, especially in late August and early September, when the stress of the pennant race and the burdens of competition were at their peak. They looked uptight, a group of men blessed with the opportunity to play a child’s game, something that many of us can only dream of, that still dream of; and yet, it appeared, they were not having fun.

So, for me and the faithful loyalists of all but a few remaining teams, it is time to rake the leaves. Yet the sense of loss I feel at season’s end is inevitably and optimistically followed by a sense of hope. For a baseball fan, the end of one season opens up fresh dreams and new possibilities, the unbridled optimism that spring will once again bring a harvest of bright young stars and reliable veterans, when team chemistry will click, and when the baseball angels will reward my faithfulness and determination with a contender. “Wait ‘til next year” is the oft-repeated maxim, from which I have found comfort on many occasions. Although the darkness of fall has arrived and the harshness of winter beckons, for baseball fans, next year is never all that far away.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

American Exceptionalism vs. the Myth of National Superiority

America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents. . . . The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
--President Barack Obama, January 20, 2009.
Ever since our founding, Americans have believed that the United States plays a special and unique role in the world. 234 years into this grand experiment, most Americans continue to espouse some notion of American exceptionalism – the belief that the United States possesses a historical destiny placing it uniquely among the world’s nations as an arbiter of freedom and democracy. All American presidents, liberal and conservative, historically have spoken of the United States as the exemplar of liberty, and President Obama is no exception. Only in America, he often exclaims, could a black man with a funny sounding name become President.

But American conservatives in recent years have taken the concept of American exceptionalism further, believing that America is morally superior to other nations, and that our superiority entitles us aggressively to export our political and economic values to other parts of the world, with force if necessary. Where liberals and conservatives differ, where liberals become uncomfortable and conservatives unabashed, is in the notion of national superiority.

That we are superior to all countries in the world in every aspect of our governance, our culture, our society, is asserted often and rarely proved by empirical evidence or objective criteria. Ramesh Ponnuru and Richard Lowry of the National Review presented a conservative view of American exceptionalism in a March 2010 article, stating unequivocally that America is “freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.” While most Americans instinctively agree with this particular sentiment, it is essentially a statement of faith, not reason. Is America really the “most free, most democratic” country on earth? Conservatives tend to treat it as dogma, a theological creed essential for a true patriot. But is the sentiment supported by empirical facts? How substantially does the influence of money in our political system undermine our belief in one-man, one-vote? Is our two party system open to the establishment of new political parties? Four times in our history, the electoral college has allowed the popular-vote loser to become President of the United States. Corruption of our political leaders, particularly at the state and local level, is commonplace. Racism and discrimination have historically hampered economic mobility and educational advances. We imprison a larger share of our population than virtually any other democracy on earth.

If we could truly rate democracies on an objective, point-by-point scale, how would the United States stack up? Attempted earlier this year by Freedom House, a center-right, independent watchdog organization that, since 1941, has promoted democratic values and opposed dictatorships on the far right and the far left, Freedom House rated every country on earth for its commitment to “free” and “democratic” qualities. America, not surprisingly, scored well, as did many other democracies, mostly in Europe. But while we fell within the top tier (scoring the highest ranking of 1-1), we scored fairly low in comparison to many top tier countries on such things as “electoral process”, “rule of law”, and “freedom of expression”.

In several key social and economic indicators, we lag behind much of the advanced industrial world. Take health care. Conservatives claim that the United States has “the best health care system in the world,” as did House minority leader John Boehner last February. In reality, our for profit health care system, while providing very good care to those who can afford it, denies access to millions and covers fewer people at higher overall costs than do the health care systems of many other countries (mostly in Europe). And we have higher infant mortality rates and lower life expectancies than most of those countries. But it is deemed almost un-American to look to our European friends, or to Asia or Israel, for ideas on how to improve our health care system, or any other area of American life.

Many conservatives have criticized President Obama for stating during a European trip last spring, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” For conservatives, this statement proves that Obama rejects American exceptionalism, for if everyone claims to be exceptional then, in reality, no one is. There are two problems with this faulty logic. First, anyone who has ever met citizens of other countries knows that what Obama said is true – most Brits, most Greeks, most Germans, most Italians, most Swedes . . . each believe that their country is blessed with a uniquely special heritage; only Americans seem surprised to hear this. Second, the President actually endorsed American exceptionalism when he went on to say: “I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. . . . [T]he United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality that, though imperfect, are exceptional.”

Although the President nailed it exactly, to many conservatives, what makes America exceptional is the belief that America was uniquely blessed by God at its founding. Conservatives tend to glorify America’s mythological history with an uncritical eye and dislike anyone who shines light on America’s past blemishes. While conservatives love to espouse the fiction that America has always been a land of opportunity, is there any doubt that America’s creed of liberty and equality was not historically open to all? African Americans were enslaved and treated as chattel; women could not vote until the 1920’s; the Jim Crow south denied full emancipation to blacks until well into the 1960’s; Japanese Americans were interned during the 1940’s; and many ethnic groups were denied full access to our best schools and the professions until fairly recently. It is liberals, not conservatives, who have consistently advocated and enacted policies to bring the country into closer conformity to the ideal of equal opportunity for all, who have sought to make the United States a fairer and freer nation for more of its citizens. In return, some conservatives, like Newt Gingrich and Dinesh D’Souza, believe that liberal ideals are somehow less authentically American, the result of a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” mindset.

To believe that America is unique in its devotion to freedom and liberty, or that we have nothing to learn from the rest of the world, results in an arrogant glorification of military power and obedience to an anti-internationalist xenophobia. Are we exceptional, or do we stand out for other reasons? In The Myth of American Exceptionalism, British author Geoffrey Hodgson writes:

From the very beginnings of American history, the commitment to freedom had been mixed not only with the ‘damned inheritance’ of slavery but with the ambitions and interests – for land, for wealth, for military glory – that were scarcely different from those of other peoples and other rulers in other times. And why should they be different? Americans, after all, were not angels. . . . They were men and women of the same clay as the rest of us, and specifically they were, in their great majority, Europeans who brought with them to America European hopes, European fears, European ideals, European prejudices, and a European worship of the nation state.
What makes America exceptional are the ideals embedded in our Constitution, our unique history, and because we have succeeded at great things when we act as one nation. But when we blindly assert our superiority and act with inflated self-regard, when we refuse to examine the things that work in other democracies, we do so at our peril. America's social, political and economic values did not develop in a vacuum and were influenced and affected by many great historical events and transformations that occurred or originated outside of the continental United States – oceanic trade, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, migration, democratic government, industrialization, the scientific revolution, and the creation of a global economy.

Some conservatives long nostalgically for laissez-faire economics and believe that President Obama -- the same president who bailed out the banks and compromised on the public option -- is a dangerous socialist out to destroy America. These conservative voices operate with a very short memory and a selective sense of history. We came close to unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism in this country back in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The result? Unsafe working conditions, exploitation of child labor, no minimum wage, no 40-hour work week, no required overtime and holiday pay, no product safety regulations, dirty air, dirty water, and pandemic inequality, poverty and injustice. It took progressives, who believed that capitalism and the pursuit of wealth needed checks and balances and a regulatory framework upon which to enforce higher ideals without sacrificing creativity and America’s entrepreneurial spirit, to correct these shortcomings. Today, because of reform oriented laws and regulations, almost all of which have historically been opposed by conservative forces in this country, we have a safer, healthier, more just, and fairer economy and society. Some of these reforms were borrowed from our European friends, and we are a better nation because of it. What makes us exceptional is that we are empowered as a people to make our government, our society, and our country better.

America is exceptional when we strive to achieve the ideals of our founding principles and when we choose, in the words of President Obama, “our better history.” We are the most ethnically and racially diverse country on earth; we have mostly avoided class warfare and have historically opened our borders to many who sought unbridled opportunity (ironically, conservative forces have mostly been opposed to new waves of immigrants, and still are). What is exceptional is our willingness to correct past injustices, to recognize our shortcomings, to learn from other nations and cultures when they have something worthwhile to share. What makes us exceptional is when our national actions are, as President Obama stated last year, “based on our Constitution, our principles, our values and our ideals.” When America stays true to its ideals, when we respect humans around the world and at home, when we tap into the potential of all of our citizens regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or class, when we work together as one people to solve our national shortcomings – which requires a willingness to acknowledge and discuss them – only then is America truly exceptional.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Walking the Ben Franklin

Though I am old enough to have discovered that the dreams of youth are not to be realized in this state of existence, yet I think it would be the next greatest happiness always to be allowed to look under the eyelids of time and contemplate the perfect steadily, with the clear understanding that I do not attain to it.
--Henry David Thoreau, from the Journal (October 24, 1843)
When I was in high school in the mid-1970’s, my daily pre-occupations consisted mostly of baseball, girls, and marching band. I worried little about my future and understood even less about the problems of others. What I had planned for Friday night and whether the brown-haired girl in science class liked me were high on my list of concerns; the Energy Crisis, Watergate, the cessation of hostilities in Vietnam formed merely the historical backdrop of my existence. I was interested in the world’s problems, but only superficially, and without the perspective that life’s experiences can bring.

Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I was the all-American boy, achieving academic honors while earning varsity letters in two sports and playing snare drum with military precision during halftime at football games. I laughed a lot back then, told corny jokes, watched old fashioned cartoons, and made frozen soft pretzels on steamy summer nights when the Mets or Phillies were on television. Much has happened since and, though I miss those days, I long ago abandoned the intellectual provincialism of what was a simpler, more innocent time.

Upon graduating high school over 33 years ago, I left for college in the Midwest and discovered a love of learning that has stayed with me ever since. Then I was off to Washington, D.C, and three years of law school, where I developed skills in critical thinking and mixed with more ethnically diverse and worldly students, many having arrived from the nation’s top schools, others having left accomplished careers in journalism, science, politics, and business. The world and its opportunities seemed unlimited then; my greatest worries concerned grades and exams, summer job opportunities, and career choices.

Twenty-five years have passed since I finished law school and, life’s tribulations having taken their toll, I find myself worrying more than I used to, and laughing less. Money and finances, work and fatherhood, marriage and divorce, have all contributed to the reality of dreams deferred and plans unmet.

I walk a lot now. And think. At lunch hour on weekdays, when time and the demands of my job permit, I escape from my office on the 21st floor and walk a few blocks to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where the avenues are wide and expansive, the streets lined with trees and flags of many nations, the sidewalks less crowded. Walking along the Ben Franklin, I achieve a temporary reprieve from the stresses of work and the hustle of life. Starting from the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, I wander by the fountains of Logan Square, past the Free Library and the Franklin Institute, and stroll along the half-mile stretch of tree-lined sidewalks leading to the Art Museum. I would like to tell you that I think great thoughts, that I find solutions to the world’s most pressing troubles. But mostly I just think; and walk; and worry, about my kids and my family, the economy, my job, my life and the lives of those closest to me.

On certain days, particularly in the fall, when the air is crisp and the sky a deep blue, my daily walks aim to soothe the soul, though reminders of life’s realities are ever present. The exhaust fumes of passing buses assault my senses, while homeless men on park benches beg for change. The dust and debris of local construction projects penetrates my lungs and sticks to my clothes on warm, humid days. On certain walks, on my best days, I am reminded of the words of C.S. Lewis, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” It is then I develop perspective born of understanding, that my worries are of my own making and pale next to the genuine troubles seen in the many desperate faces I pass.

“To be awake is to be alive,” wrote Thoreau. When I look skyward and absorb the city air, when I let my mind wander ever so briefly, I feel awakened to life’s infinite beauty. Thoreau reminds us, “When we are unhurried and wise we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute value, that only petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of reality.”

Compared to when I was younger, my worries now are less mundane and self-centered, and extend beyond the confines of my limited, undeserving causes, for they concern the destiny of others; my daughters, who find themselves embarking on their own life journeys; my family and friends, who confront issues of health and jobs, of loss and love.

Thoreau wrote that most people “lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Although quoted and discussed for more than a century, the power of these words from Walden penetrates deeply. By them, I believe Thoreau meant that most of us live life complying with societal expectations and fail to find true meaning, ignoring life’s small joys and soulful pleasures. Many are afraid to discover passion and fail to find contentment in daily living. The need to conform, the failure to dream, for some even the failure to think for oneself, leads to the quiet desperation of which Thoreau speaks. “If a man does not keep pace with his companions,” writes Thoreau, “perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

When possible, I will continue to walk the Ben Franklin, absorbing the warmth of the sun and the vitality of the sky, listening to the whispers of God as I breathe in life and open my mind to the needs of the soul. I will think. I will worry. And on a good day, if I am lucky, I will be awakened to the wonders of life.