Saturday, January 30, 2010

Rebutting Podhoretz: In Defense of Jewish Democrats

Norman Podhoretz, a leading voice of neo-conservative thought in America and formerly the editor of Commentary magazine, recently spoke at a lecture I attended at Congregation Beth Or, a Reform synagogue in Maple Glen, Pennsylvania. A prolific author, Podhoretz was promoting his latest book, Why Are Jews Liberals?, in which he questions why 78% of American Jews voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, a voting pattern consistent with the political leanings of American Jews since 1928. Podhoretz acknowledges that prior to 1945 it made historical sense for American Jews to associate with the Democratic Party. He claims, however, that since Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War in 1967, the left has grown increasingly hostile to Jewish interests, while the right is far more hospitable to Jews in general and Israel in particular.

As Podhoretz explains in the first half of his new book, the answer to why Jews have tended to vote Democratic lies in history. Centuries of atrocities against Jews, committed mostly by the political forces on the right, caused European Jews naturally to align themselves with the left. During the Enlightenment and similarly tolerant moments in history, the European left favored Jewish emancipation, while the European right proved less hospitable. For centuries, Jews were persecuted in medieval Christendom, accused of blood libels, expelled from entire nations, forced to convert, and subjected to ghettoization. More recently -- the Dreyfus affair at the end of the 19th century, and the rise of Nazism in the 20th century -- the political forces on the right were openly hostile and antagonistic to Jewish people and Jewish concerns. Indeed, six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, their very existence as a people threatened with total annihilation. In fleeing the persecutions of czarist Russia and Nazi-occupied Europe, Jews emigrated in large numbers to the United States, where they found a home in the Democratic Party.

Prior to the second world war, most American Jews were poor and faced discrimination in housing, the professions, universities, and many other aspects of American life, with the most virulent forms of anti-Semitism originating from political conservatives. Most Jews, including many recent immigrants, naturally affiliated with the Democratic Party led by Franklin Roosevelt, who employed many high-level Jewish aides and advisers, and whose vision of a New Deal resembled the progressive ideals of the European left. Roosevelt’s leadership during the war, combined with the isolationist sentiments of conservatives, many of whom opposed fighting Hitler, and President Truman’s recognition of the State of Israel in 1948, kept Jews faithful to Democratic politics.

It was the Six-Day War in 1967 that, to Podhoretz, was a turning point for American Jewry. When Israel’s existence was threatened by surrounding Arab armies who vowed to wipe Israel off the map, a major community of Jews faced the threat of annihilation for the second time in 25 years, while most of the world sat idly by. This time, however, the Jews were not the victims. Israel’s quick and impressive military victory forced Arab armies into retreat and led to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. No longer was Israel perceived as a weak victim, as David fighting Goliath; Israel instead became the new military power in the Middle East and transformed into Goliath almost overnight. The political left, which more readily identifies with victims, underdogs, and the downtrodden, now viewed the Palestinians as victims of a powerful and oppressive occupier. Podhoretz credibly suggests that a new, more subtle form of anti-Semitism emerged in the form of anti-Zionism.

At the same time, while the left became more critical of Israel, support for the Jewish state grew on the right. The right also became less tolerant of traditional anti-Semitism, which was no longer acceptable in polite society. The National Review, for example, which had previously contributed to the genteel anti-Semitism prevalent in mid-20th century U.S. culture, underwent a transformation led by William Buckley, Jr., who excoriated conservative writers with anti-Semitic views and published articles sympathetic to Jewish concerns. Christian attitudes towards Israel also changed course, as liberal Christians, who previously viewed Israel with protective eyes, became increasingly critical of Israel’s military might, identifying far more frequently with the Palestinian victims of oppression and occupation, while ignoring the actions of Palestinian terrorists. By contrast, the Christian right, which previously had little interest in Israel as a nation state, is today among its staunchest defenders. Similar reversals have occurred among Republicans and Democrats. In his lecture at Beth Or, Podhoretz cited a recent poll in which 69% of Republicans, compared to just 42% of Democrats, expressed greater sympathy for Israel than for Palestinians.

Podhoretz also points to the political battles and threats to Jewish interests posed by quotas and affirmative action, which liberals supported (wrongly, in Podhoretz's view) and which conservatives opposed. But Podhoretz’s perspective on why Jews should be in the conservative camp of American politics is perhaps best summarized in his recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal:

The great issue between the two political communities is how they feel about the nature of American society. With all exceptions duly noted, I think it fair to say that what liberals mainly see when they look at this country is injustice and oppression of every kind – economic, social and political. By sharp contrast, conservatives see freedom and, even factoring in periodic economic downturns, more prosperity to more of its citizens than in any society in human history. . . [T]he social, political and moral systems that liberals wish to transform is the very system in and through which Jews found a home such as they had never discovered in all their forced wanderings throughout the centuries over the face of the earth. It follows that what liberals believe needs to be changed or discarded – and apologized for to other nations – is precisely what conservatives are dedicated to preserving, reinvigorating and proudly defending against attack.
Here, then, lies one of the many flaws in Podhoretz’s analysis. He essentially argues that, because conservatives love America more than do liberals, and since America has done more for Jews than any other country, Jews should be conservative. At Beth Or, Podhoretz added that Obama, as a “false messiah” out to radically transform American society, is a threat to the very society that has so benefited Jews (he, of course, offered no factual support for this ridiculously untrue assertion). Setting aside the offensive notion that liberals do not love America, for a man of such intellectual credentials as Podhoretz, his logic and analysis are disappointing.

Podhoretz arrogantly and simplistically dismisses the possibility that Jewish values have influenced the liberal leanings of American Jews. If that were true, he declares, the Orthodox Jewish community would be among the most liberal. Instead, Orthodox Jews, who know Jewish law and tradition better than anyone, are the most conservative of America’s Jews. He notes, for example, that Jewish law as expressed in the Torah forbids abortion except to save the life of the mother, and that it condemns homosexuality. Here, he sounds much like my fundamentalist Christian friends, selectively quoting from scripture and ignoring all else. Podhoretz contends that for many liberal and secular Jews, most of whom are pro-choice and support gay rights, political liberalism has become their religion, not Judaism.

I do agree with Podhoretz in one respect: there is a distinct segment on the left, in the United States and particularly in Europe, who now regards Israel coldly. This is a shame and something I have attempted to counter whenever the topic presents itself. The left indeed is far too quick to criticize Israel while ignoring the constant threats to Israel’s survival, and ignoring or justifying the daily missile attacks, acts of terrorism, and the corruption of Palestinian governance. But I think Podhoretz, in the interest of making his point, overstates his point, and ignores many inconvenient truths.

First, Podhoretz assumes that uncritical support for Israel is required to demonstrate support for Israel. Republicans are better for the Jews solely because, in his mind, Republicans are more uncritically supportive of Israel. It is true that enthusiasm for Israel among conservatives is sincere, and that sympathy for the Palestinians is mostly on the left. “The problem,” according to Leon Wieseltier, literary editor for the New Republic who critiqued Why Are Jews Liberals? in the New York Times, “is that he cannot suppose that sympathy for the Palestinians may coexist with sympathy, and even love, for Israel.” There are many pro-Israel supporters, Jewish and non-Jewish, who believe that the survival of Israel depends on the establishment of a Palestinian state; and that the absorption of millions of Palestinians into Israel, by annexation or occupation, will destroy the Jewish character or the democratic character, or both, of Israel. Podhoretz simply assumes that any sympathy expressed for the Palestinians is doctrinally incorrect and that any American President that does not automatically comply with the demands of the Israeli government is insufficiently supportive. He mistakenly assumes that all Jews think monolithically about Israel, and that Jewish interests equate with unabashed, uncritical support for the actions of the Israeli government – something that even Israelis do not agree with. And he is wrong to suggest that the Democratic Party is no longer pro-Israel – it is and always has been pro-Israel and, historically, has been a far more reliable supporter of Israel than has the Republican Party.

Second, Podhoretz overlooks the progressive strains of Zionism in his historical account of the emergence of Jewish liberalism. For the same reasons Jews fled Europe for America, they came to Israel, where at the beginning of the 20th century they proceeded to create a Jewish society in the Middle East that reflected and put into practice their progressive ideals. They formed kibbutzim, emphasized the value of community, and formed models of national health care and other forms of social democratic governance. The Israeli National Health System, for example, is one of the most advanced health care systems in the world, which rivals the United States on everything from quality to cost to coverage. It is extremely popular, well managed, and provides compulsory coverage for all Israeli citizens. Maybe Podhoretz believes that conservative principles need benefit only American Jews.

Third, Podhoretz fails to explain how Jewish values and interests are served by the Republican positions on the many other issues of governance and politics. He fails to explain why Jews should support Republican policies concerning the allocation of government resources, health care reform, abortion rights, gay rights, civil rights, environmental protections, gun control, school prayer, military expenditures, and U.S. foreign policy in areas like Latin America, Africa, and Asia. He contends that affirmative action has hurt Jews disproportionately, despite very little evidence of this, and fails to acknowledge that affirmative action is a complex issue for which many reasonable people disagree. “It is . . . a matter about which liberals differ not only with conservatives, but also among themselves,” as Wieseltier explained.

Fourth, Podhoretz argues that American Jews, as the most economically successful ethnic group in American life, should be more accepting of Republican economic policies, which favor the affluent. Yet he ignores that Jewish religious traditions and the Torah support such concepts as “welcoming the stranger,” providing for the poor, treating workers fairly, and other liberal tenets of American politics. It perplexes Podhoretz that anyone would vote against their economic self-interest, citing Milton Himmelfarb's once humorous observation, “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” Wieseltier eloquently counters this conception:

It is not a delusion, not a treason, to vote against your own economic interest. It is a recognition of the multiplicity of interests, the many purposes, that make up a citizen’s life. When, in the Torah of Judaism, Moses commands the Jews to perform acts of social welfare, he sometimes adds the admonition that they were themselves strangers and slaves. . . . The fact that we are no longer strangers and slaves is not all we need to know. We may not regard the world solely from the standpoint of our own prosperity, our own safety, our own contentment. . . . The question of whether liberalism or conservatism does more for the helpless and the downtrodden, for the ones who are not like us, will be endlessly debated, and it is not a Jewish debate; but if the answer is liberalism, then the political history of American Jewry is neither a mystery nor a scandal.
Indeed, what seems so difficult for Podhoretz to fathom is that many American Jews vote liberal, or at least vote Democratic, for the reasons many Americans vote Democratic – because they believe it is better for America.

Even Jewish Republicans over the years (Jacob Javits, Rudy Boschwitz, Arlen Specter) have traditionally been moderate to liberal on social issues, supporting abortion rights, environmental protections, the separation of church and state, issues that have become less welcome in the Republican Party since the Reagan Revolution in the 1980’s. The dominance of the religious right in the Republican Party scares a lot of American Jews. Many of the same Christian conservatives who so adamantly support Israel also support prayer in schools, believe in proselytizing among Jews (even in Israel), reject the theory of evolution and deny the impact of human activity of climate change despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary (a topic for another day). Is it really any surprise that, as a minority religious group, most Jews are opposed to letting conservative Christian dogma dictate the laws over a woman’s reproductive rights, or prayer in schools, or the civil rights of gays and lesbians?

Finally, while it may be true that Christian conservatives support Israel, for many it is tied to the belief that it will hasten the Rapture. I believe that Podhoretz is asking the wrong question. It is not, “Why are Jews liberal?” Rather, it should be, “Where else are Jews to go?” Many centrist and moderately conservative Jews continue to vote for Democrats simply because the right wing of the Republican Party makes them uncomfortable. Perhaps, rather than trying to convince Jews to vote for Republicans, Podhoretz should attempt to make the GOP less beholden to social and religious conservatives, less hostile to minority rights, more open to scientific knowledge and research, and more reflective of Jewish values of justice as reflected in the Torah.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Reflections on My Grandfather: Memories and Lost Opportunities

We stood at the door of my grandfather’s house, a country rancher on a horse farm in north central Ohio. My parents had been driving all day, three children and a dog in tow, so that we could make our annual summer visit to my mother’s father and her stepmom. It was dark outside and no porch light was on, when we rang the door bell. We stood there waiting, and waited some more, until it seemed like five or six minutes went by. Are they home? They are expecting us, aren’t they? Finally, my grandfather came to the door. “Oh, hi Janie,” he said to my mom impassively, “How are you?”

As a young boy, not more than eight years old, this was confusing. I was excited to arrive at my grandfather’s house. I knew that my brother and I would have a great time there, running up and down the long dirt-drive that connected the two horse barns; petting the horses while sneaking them sugar cubes and carrots; and hitting fly balls to each other in the open expanse of grass behind Grandpa’s granite back porch and goldfish pond. But Grandpa never seemed very glad to see us. Maybe he loved all of us and simply had a hard time showing it. He was not a man who expressed emotions freely; a lawyer and shrewd businessman, he had made good money in construction and real estate over the years, had two oil wells on his property, and at one time owned more than 30 thoroughbred race horses. Despite his wealth and good fortune, he did not share much of it with his family. When my father asked him for a small loan shortly after marrying my mom in the early 1950’s so that he could purchase a car, my grandfather declined, stating that his money “was all tied up.” When he died, he left my mom and her two brothers very little, instead passing almost all of his net worth onto his second wife, my Aunt Jean, a woman of independent means who would eventually leave it all to distant relatives (she had no children of her own).

He was not much of a father to my mom nor much of a grandfather to her children. Only once in my lifetime did he ever visit us. When I was six years old, he stopped by our house in southern New Jersey wearing his custom bow tie and fedora, said hello and sat on the living room couch for ten minutes, then continued to Atlantic City, where he was entering one of his horses in a stakes race. I sensed that he never greatly valued my mom as a daughter, though perhaps this was a reflection of his old-fashioned tastes and outdated, traditional views on the inferior roles of women. My mom and he had very little in common; she had long since expanded beyond her days as a boarding student at the prestigious Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, where Grandpa sent her throughout her teen years. She had developed into a liberal Democrat and devout Christian, while he remained very conservative in his politics and had little connection to whatever semblance of faith he may have retained. He was a country club Republican who viewed the world from very narrow lenses, with little sympathy for the less fortunate and little tolerance for people different than himself.

Despite this, now that he has been gone for nearly three decades, I sometimes wish that he had lived longer, so that I could have talked to him as an adult and gotten to know him better. I would have liked to have discussed areas of mutual interest – the law, politics, and even horse racing. He and Jennifer, my oldest daughter, might have bonded over horses – maybe he could have helped make real her dream of one day training race horses. I could have learned a lot from my grandfather, despite his significant shortcomings. As with so much of life, we can only wonder.

In reality, I know very little about my grandfather’s life. Although he graduated with a law degree in the early 1920’s and used his legal training to assist him in his business endeavors, he died during my first year in law school. I never had a chance to talk with him in depth about the law as a profession. Had he lived longer, maybe he would have been proud to have a grandson who became a federal prosecutor. I would have liked to have talked to him about my courtroom experiences, about the art of cross examination and arguing to judges and juries. I have always been a little envious of my colleagues who had family members in the law, who could turn to fathers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters, as professional mentors and guides.

Grandpa and I would not have agreed on much politically, but I would have enjoyed debating him. And had he lived longer, when I developed an interest in horse racing – a sport to which I am attracted for its speed, beauty and rich history – I would have loved accompanying him to the track, gaining insight into the business side of racing, and listening to his stories of hope and heartbreak, disappointment and exuberance. My favorite room in his house was always his study. I recall spending hours there examining his collection of trophies and pictures from the winner’s circle that lined the dark wood paneling and built-in book shelves. It was a room of someone important, of an accomplished man who had succeeded in life, or so I thought as a ten year-old child that knew little of life’s realities.

Whatever deficiencies he may have had as a man, Grandpa was the only grandfather I ever knew. My dad’s father died long before I was born. I know now, as I enter into my sixth decade of life, that those fortunate enough to have had a loving grandfather or two are very lucky, for grandfathers have a lot of wisdom and life experience to offer. Having lived through history, they have the benefit of hindsight from which to talk of the present. Grandfathers can teach you what they have learned in life, including mistakes made along the way. A grandfather’s perspective, formed from years of experience, can guide, inform, teach, and influence.

My grandfather was born in 1901 and, by the time he died in 1983, he had lived through the inventions of the automobile, the assembly line, airplane travel, television and the computer; he saw the growth of the interstate highway system and the development of space travel; and he experienced two world wars, a great depression, and the social and sexual revolutions of the sixties and seventies. Just when I was old enough and ready to learn from him, he was no longer around to talk to me. Would he have been there for me had he lived longer?

I don’t recall any truly meaningful conversation that I ever had with my grandfather. I am sure he is not fully to blame, as I was too young or too limited in my own interests – too focused on baseball, or girls, or basketball, or school, or football – to understand the importance of grandfathers. My grandmothers, not surprisingly, paid much closer attention to their grandchildren and made clear their love of us. I have few regrets about them. Grandmothers historically and universally perform their tasks much better than grandfathers. My grandfather certainly failed in this respect. But I do not want to judge him too harshly. I’d like to think he tried his best. I just wish he and I had tried a little harder.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Theology and Continued Relevance of Martin Luther King Jr.

Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions for our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.
--Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Stockholm, Sweden, December 11, 1964.
Although his life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet at the age of 39, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached a message of universal love and understanding. A fervent believer in Christian pacifism and nonviolent social change, by the time he died in 1968, King had led millions of people in shattering the legal system of racial segregation in the South and in exposing the economic and social inequities of the North. A powerfully passionate and effective advocate for racial justice and civil and human rights, he also was a leading voice of the peace movement that opposed the Vietnam War, and he remains one of the great moral voices of the Twentieth Century. However, what intellectual strains influenced King’s theology, and do they remain relevant today?

As a young seminary student, and throughout his life, King was impacted greatly (though by no means exclusively) by the Social Gospel movement of Walter Rauschenbusch. A ministry for the real world, the Social Gospel movement meant to bridge the gap between saving souls and saving lives, between the spiritual dimensions of religion and the Church’s obligation to seek justice and act as the moral conscience of society. Rauschenbusch, a progressive German-Lutheran turned Baptist minister, was profoundly affected by his ministry in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York in the late 1880’s, an experience that educated him on the injustices of poverty, educational deficiencies, and inequalities then prevalent in American society. In Christianity and the Social Crisis, one of the few books King would specifically cite as influencing his own theology, Rauschenbusch articulated the Christian duty to act in the spirit of love to improve social conditions.

As the minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and later at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King would emulate Rauschenbusch’s contention that the minister’s job is “to apply the teaching functions of the pulpit to the pressing questions of public morality.” Although critics denounced Rauschenbusch as a Utopian idealist, to King and others, the Social Gospel movement saved Christianity from irrelevance by defining social justice as the closest approximation of God’s kingdom on earth.

A religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man’s social conditions. . . . Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.
--Martin Luther King Jr.
A similar, if later influence on King was his friendship in the 1960’s with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who joined with King in the struggle for civil rights in the South and in efforts to oppose American involvement in Vietnam. Writing on the topic of “Religion in a Free Society,” Heschel contended that “when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless” (The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967). As Heschel explained:

Religion has often suffered from the tendency to become an end in itself, to seclude the holy, to become parochial, self-indulgent, self-seeking; as if the task were not to ennoble human nature but to enhance the power and beauty of its institutions or to enlarge the body of doctrines. It has often done more to canonize prejudices than to wrestle for truth; to petrify the sacred than to sanctify the secular. Yet the task of religion is to be a challenge to the stabilization of values.
Heschel contended that the prophets of old “dwelt more on the affairs of the royal palace, on the ways and views of the courts of justice, than on the problems of the priestly rituals at the temple of Jerusalem.” The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures confronted the world as it existed, and were not concerned with the hereafter. For this reason, according to Heschel, “Tranquility is unknown to the soul of a prophet. The miseries of the world give him no rest.” As a modern-day prophet, King understood precisely that to which Heschel referred in challenging the realities of racism, discrimination, hatred, and prejudice. King’s was not a tranquil time and he had little occasion for rest.

In his ministry to the poor and oppressed, King found solace in the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. King spoke of universal, or agape love, based on the Greek word in the New Testament that referenced God’s love for humanity and which King believed was at the essence of Christianity – a selfless form of love that remains constant even if no love is reciprocated. While King professed that “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend,” he knew that “the best way to assure oneself that love is disinterested is to have love for the enemy-neighbor from whom you can expect no good in return, but only hostility and persecution.” He would use this concept in leading non-violent civil disobedience during the sit-ins and demonstrations in the early 1960’s. King believed that nonviolent resistance, when practiced effectively, disarmed one’s opponent by disturbing his conscience.

Although he preached a message of universal love, King was also a Christian realist in the mold of Reinhold Niebuhr, the great Protestant theologian and author of Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) and The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941). Niebuhr, who considered the Social Gospel movement na├»ve in believing that human beings would respond collectively to calls for justice and love, had a major impact on King’s struggles for justice in the Jim Crow south. Large social groups, according to Niebuhr, whether corporations, labor unions, or nations, were by nature selfish. Society responded only to power; piety, charity, education, and reform could never hope to eliminate injustice without involving itself directly in power conflicts. “Even in a just and free society, there must be forms of pressure short of violence, but more potent than the vote, to establish justice in collective relations.” King’s study of Niebuhr led him to a fuller understanding of human motives, group behavior, and the connection between power and morality. In the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King’s methods put pressure on the finances of the white business community, which eventually “coerced” a negotiated settlement that improved the lot of blacks in Montgomery.

King’s reflections on Niebuhr’s theology helped him view more clearly the decade long protest campaign inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, which led to India’s independence from British control. In Stride Toward Freedom (Beacon Press, 1958), King wrote that “Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. . . . It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking.” King came to view “the Christian doctrine of love, operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence, [as] one of the most potent weapons available to an oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”

Like Niebuhr, King viewed the actions of Gandhi through the lens of power conflict and realism. While many religious idealists assumed that Gandhi’s methods were politically effective while avoiding the corruptions of the world, Niebuhr saw in Gandhi’s strikes, boycotts, marches, and demonstrations, a political strategy that was essentially coercive in forcing changes to the societal balance of power. In later years, King would describe Gandhian nonviolence as “merely a Niebuhrian stratagem of power.”

Another important aspect of King’s theology, and one often overlooked, is the concept of imago Dei, the belief that human beings are created in God’s image. For King, God’s creation of humanity was a powerful argument for the equality of all people. King believed that being made in God’s image meant that human beings had the right and the power to reshape society and to build a “beloved community” on earth. Rabbi Heschel reflected similar sentiments: “We are called upon to be an image of God. You see, God is absent, invisible, and the task of a human being is to represent the Divine, to be a reminder of the presence of God.”

Individually and collectively, these doctrines provided King with a theological rationale to address the needs of the community far outside the walls of his church, and were central to the dynamics of the modern civil rights movement. Although grounded in the concept of Christian love, King knew that love alone could not effect positive change. “Morals cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. The law cannot make an employer love me, but it can keep him from refusing to hire me because of the color of my skin.”

We have made substantial progress since King’s death in 1968. King’s legacy is reflected in part by our election of an African American president; by laws that prohibit racial and ethnic discrimination; by social mores that suppress outward expressions of racial hostility and prejudice; and by a growing black middle class, black mayors and congressional representatives, black police chiefs and astronauts, black military leaders and news anchors. Yet racial reconciliation in this country is far from complete. As King said, “Like life, racial understanding is not something that we find but something that we must create. And so the ability of [blacks] and whites to work together, to understand each other, will not be found ready-made; it must be created by the fact of contact.”

The struggles for justice, peace, and equal rights for all will remain with us for generations to come. The focus must necessarily shift at times to other parts of the world – the quest for peace in the Middle East; the cessation of hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan; the end of civil strife in Africa; the search for economic and political justice in Latin America and Asia. Had there ever been a Palestinian leader, for example, who applied the concept of Gandhian nonviolence to the Palestinians’ struggles with Israel, a two-state solution would have happened a long time ago. Yet rather than nonviolent resistance to West Bank settlements and the allocation of water resources, the Palestinians have mostly adopted the methods of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Yasir Arafat, shelling Israeli towns, organizing suicide bombings, and committing violence against innocent people. If they had asked King in 1968, he would have told them that such methods would render them just as powerless 40 years later.

For churches, synagogues, and mosques to remain relevant, they too must follow King’s lead and speak with a moral voice to the power dynamics of the world today, to government and industry, unions and military units, international governing bodies and news outlets. Only by applying the concept of universal love and understanding, combined with non-violent pressure, can justice truly be achieved among societies, nations, and institutions. “If there is to be peace on earth and goodwill toward men,” King said, “we must finally believe in the ultimate morality of the universe, and believe that all reality hinges on moral foundations.” While King’s message, teachings, and life remains ever so relevant today, will we as a people answer his call?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Confessions of a Home Run King in an Unforgiving World

Mark McGwire tried to come clean Monday, and in his heart he believes that he did. But understand that Big Mac was never very good at these things. A private and shy man, he’s never displayed much deftness in cultivating an image. He always wanted to hit the baseball out of sight, then remain out of sight himself.
--Bernie Miklasz, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

After a self-imposed exile and refusing “to talk about the past,” Mark McGwire has finally come clean. In a series of public statements this past Monday, McGwire acknowledged that he had used steroids on and off for a decade, starting before the 1990 season. He did not attempt to minimize his use of the drugs or suggest he took them by mistake, but explained that his use became more frequent in the mid-1990’s, when he was repeatedly on the disabled list, missing 228 games over five seasons. McGwire insisted that he did it not to gain a strength advantage, but for health reasons, to keep him on the baseball diamond and out of the trainer’s room. His career had been in jeopardy due to a ribcage strain and several heel injuries from 1993 to 1995, and he was led to believe that “steroids could help me recover faster” and might “help me heal and prevent injuries.” As it happens, McGwire’s best seasons were from 1996 to 1999, when he hit 52, 58, 70, and 65 home runs, respectively. His knees started to break down – he acknowledges now that it may have been because of steroids – in the 2000 season, when he played in only 89 games, and in 2001, when he hit a mere .187 with 29 home runs in 299 at bats (he retired after that season).

“I wish I had never touched steroids. It was foolish and it was a mistake. I truly apologize.” He said that using steroids is now his biggest regret, “a stupid act” for which he tainted his career and disappointed many people, including his family and biggest supporters. On the morning of his interview with Bob Costas on the MLB Network, McGwire called and apologized to Pat Maris, the widow of Roger Maris. It was a difficult call to make, but one that he believed was important. “She was disappointed,” said McGwire, but supportive. When Costas noted that some of Maris’s children believe their father’s record has never been authentically broken, McGwire replied, “I fully understand.” He cried several times during the interview, and to me, his tears seemed real and sincere. He was a man in pain, knowing that he had let down so many people, yet he seemed relieved to be finally letting it all out. It was a compelling interview, very moving, and one that needed to happen.

Yet I was disheartened to see that, rather than praise McGwire for finally admitting his transgressions and apologizing for his wrongs, he was immediately ridiculed and ripped apart. Ken Rosenthal of chastised McGwire for “still living a lie . . . [H]e did not admit – did not want to admit, or perhaps could not bring himself to admit – that steroids helped make him a better hitter.” Jay Mariotti of FanHouse said McGwire “hid it for much too long, coming clean only after he ended his personal exile” to become the hitting coach for the Cardinals. "He had no choice . . . but to confess and tell some details – though hardly the entire story – about his relationship with ‘roids’.” Many others expressed similar views. Although McGwire wants us to forgive and move on, a seemingly reasonable proposition, and while reporters and pundits have been insisting for the past five years that he needs to admit his wrongs, there are some people who will never be satisfied, who want their pound of flesh no matter what he says or does.

It should not be surprising, given how cynical and mean spirited the entire world has become in all other spheres of life. Although Rosenthal acknowledged that McGwire “seemed truly anguished, deeply troubled by what he had done,” it was simply not good enough for McGwire to admit that much of his career is tainted, or for him to confess his sins and break down in tears on national television. It makes one wonder whether the next player who wants to unburden his conscious will now have second thoughts. Why not instead take the Roger Clemens approach and essentially say, Screw you, everyone, I admit nothing.

One of the most astute observers of the whole McGwire affair is Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Miklasz took to task many of the baseball pundits and other critics who have ridiculed McGwire and relentlessly dissected his admissions. “[N]o matter what McGwire said, or how he said it, the guy was going to be picked apart.” For years, sportswriters and broadcasters have been demanding that McGwire break his silence and come clean on his use of steroids. Americans are a forgiving people, so it was generally assumed that, “so long as McGwire came clean, he’d score a lot of points and earn respect.” Yet that is not what happened.
McGwire was more honest and open and candid than any of the sluggers tainted by the steroid era. In terms of his forthrightness, McGwire easily surpassed the forced confessions of Alex Rodriguez and Andy Pettite, or assorted clowns who failed steroids tests and attributed it to taking the wrong medication by mistake. I didn’t agree with some of McGwire’s answers, but he was much more of a man than any of these other guys. But in the end, it didn’t matter much. This is what we do in the media, and it’s a two-step process: (1) moralize and demand a confession; (2) moralize and condemn after the confession is offered. . . . Let’s face it: these guys can’t win. Because even when they choose to ‘fess up, we change the parameters on them after the fact.
I will be the first to admit that, when McGwire was belting 480 foot home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in the late 1990’s, I was among his biggest fans. I personally saw McGwire hit 10 home runs over the course of four seasons, each one a monstrous blast, louder, higher, and farther than other players’ home runs. It was a thing of beauty. Whenever the Cardinals came to Philadelphia, I would get to the ballpark early so as not to miss batting practice. I must have seen McGwire hit at least 100 batting practice home runs; everyone stopped what they were doing to watch him swing the bat. Twice I saw McGwire hit three home runs in a single game at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, each one sailing high and deep into the upper deck of that vast, spacious ballpark, bouncing off the empty seats in no man’s land, one ricocheting off of the center-field scoreboard.

Fans and players alike were in awe of McGwire. Although I heard the whispers of suspicion, I believed it possible that he was a naturally big, strong athlete, who had simply worked hard to develop his Paul Bunyan physique. After all, no one disputed that McGwire was a gifted athlete, possessed with natural talent to hit a baseball. He hit a home run his first time up in Little League and, as he told Costas, people still talk about the home runs he hit in High School ball, in American Legion ball, and in the Minor Leagues. And McGwire hit 49 home runs as a skinny rookie in 1987, long before any steroids ever touched him. So I wanted to believe McGwire’s denials. I wanted to believe that he was a really good guy, honest and forthright, as well as a great hitter. I joined the Feel Good Party, made up of fans, sportswriters, managers, and front office personnel, all of whom turned a blind eye towards what in retrospect seemed obvious. The McGwire-Sosa home run battle of 1998 was fun and exciting and represented, so we thought, everything that was good and decent about the game, a positive diversion from the daily news cycle that talked non-stop of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, impeachment hearings, embassy bombings, and UN weapons inspections.

Of course, McGwire was hardly alone in his sins. It is generally assumed that a large number of players, possibly a majority, also used steroids from the late 1980’s through the 1990’s and beyond, that it was part of the game. The home run totals in the major leagues were off the charts during the Nineties, something that is difficult to attribute to better training methods and coincidence. Players are certainly better conditioned today than they used to be, more conscious of weight training, stronger and bigger (legitimately), but for certain players, like McGwire, Bonds, Sosa, and many others, the difference in body mass from their early playing days to their later playing days (when their skills should be on the decline), was too stark to ignore.

So while I am disappointed that one of my baseball heroes is less than perfect, and that his achievements and records are now to be forever questioned, I am happy that he has finally told the truth about his past, that he can get back into the game that he so loves and to which he has much to contribute. And I wish that people would be a little more forgiving, a little more compassionate. There are far worse things in life that people can do. McGwire has been punished and chastised enough. He will never be admitted into the Hall of Fame, despite his 583 career home runs. He will forever be associated with the Steroid Era. But he is a decent man who was an excellent teammate, is a generous contributor to worthy causes (he started a foundation to benefit the victims of child abuse, a subject very close to his heart), and who, by all accounts, is a good father.

I believe McGwire really does believe that steroids did not enhance his performance; it is understandable, for he was the one who actually hit the home runs. It was his hand-eye coordination, his timing, and his swing that connected with each 93 mile-an-hour fastball that sailed into the hinterlands. He cannot now take those home runs back, and in his mind, he hit them based on his skill as a baseball player, on the work he put in year-after-year in shortening his swing and studying the opposing pitchers. So, I understand his mindset, even if I think he may be wrong. For while he no doubt became a better hitter as he got older, shortening his swing and taking smarter at bats, and while he always had great bat speed and immense power (long before he ever started taking PEDs), if the steroids helped him stay healthy and helped his muscles recover more quickly when he was 35, 36, and 37 years old, then they enhanced his performance, allowing him to play at a high level when other players have to hang up their spikes.

McGwire deserves our praise for coming clean, and we should not chastise and ridicule his efforts, even if we disagree with some of his assertions and beliefs. We should understand that, as a proud and vulnerable man, McGwire gave a lot of himself to admit what he did. Does it really matter that he does not perceive all aspects of his transgressions in the same manner as Ken Rosenthal? Importantly, McGwire said that, had Major League Baseball tested for steroids in the 1990's, he would not have used them. But no one seemed to mind back then, indeed everyone embraced the home run displays of McGwire, Bonds, and Sosa. There are a lot of parties complicit in this whole sordid affair. We don't have to like that McGwire took steroids, we can keep him out of the Hall of Fame and place an asterisk by his home run records. But the Costas interview helped me, at least, better understand his motives and appreciate his humanity. It is time to accept his apology and grant him personal (if not professional) forgiveness; time to move forward and restore integrity to the game of baseball.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Where Have the Moderate Republicans Gone?

In watching the nightly news, I am struck by the intensity of the present political divide. The spirit of compromise, unity of purpose, and working together for the common good are concepts emblematic of a distant past. The extreme political Right, symbolized by the Tea Party movement, racist and anti-immigrant militias, and the aggressive hostility expressed by our former Vice President, contributes to the growing polarization of American politics as our country drifts ever deeper into a sea of hatred and division. Dick Cheney has stopped even pretending to be a Statesman, instead taking to the airwaves to accuse the President of weakening the country and lacking the will to fight terrorism. Sarah Palin continues to lie about government imposed death panels and gives a speech in Hong Kong stating that President Obama has weakened American influence in Asia. Congressman Joe Wilson calls the President a liar during his State of the Union address, while other mean-spirited, right-wing congressional representatives stand on their soapboxes and call the President a “radical” out to destroy America. If Congress is but a microcosm of the larger society, then we risk never again achieving a consensus in addressing national concerns that affect our nation’s future. It was not always so.

Not that long ago, the United States Senate was filled with such luminaries as Howard Baker, Jacob Javits, Nancy Kassebaum, Bob Dole, John Danforth, Mark Hatfield, John Heinz, Lowell Weicker, Rudy Boschwitz, and John Chafee. What did these individuals have in common? They were all Republicans, well respected, intelligent, willing to work with their Democratic colleagues, and amenable to compromise and conciliation for the advancement of the public good. It was a time when political disagreements were less personal – when issues were debated vigorously and discussed with passion, when constitutional principles were asserted, but the shared objective was effectively governing the country. It was a time when Republicans and Democrats worked together on issues as diverse as civil rights, environmental protection, fair trade, deregulation of the airline and trucking industries, antitrust laws, energy policy, and foreign affairs.

When John Chafee was elected to the Senate in 1976, he became the first Republican senator of Rhode Island since 1930. A moderate on taxes and spending, he was pro-choice, a strong environmentalist (he helped enact the 1986 Clean Water Act, the 1990 Clean Air Act, and the Superfund program that cleaned up toxic waste dumps), and a supporter of sensible social programs that aided the needy.

Howard Baker, the leader of the Senate Republicans for eight years as both the Minority Leader (1977-1981) and Majority Leader (1981-1985), had the respect of Senators and Presidents of both political parties. Known as the "Great Conciliator," Baker successfully brokered compromises, enacted legislation, and maintained civility. As the ranking minority member on the Senate Select Committee that investigated Watergate, Baker made famous the line, “What did the President know and when did he know it?” For Baker, getting at the truth and making the right decision was more important than protecting a President of his own party.

Dole, who succeeded Baker as the Senate Majority Leader, also had a moderate voting record and delicately bridged the gap between the moderate and conservative wings of the Kansas Republican Party. As a Congressman in the early 1960’s, Dole supported the major civil rights bills, and his first speech in the Senate in 1969 was a plea for federal aid for the handicapped. He later joined George McGovern, one of the Senate’s most liberal Democrats, to lower eligibility requirements for federal food stamps. How many Republican members of the Senate and House would do so today?

Danforth is a political moderate who, prior to stepping down in 1994, was elected three times as a Republican senator of Missouri, which until then had been home to such Democratic heavyweights as Harry Truman, Thomas Hart Benton, and Stuart Symington. An ordained Episcopal priest, Danforth is particularly outspoken about the Republican Party’s embrace of the radical Christian right, believing that the GOP has been building an intolerant, uncivil agenda from narrowly defined religious beliefs. In 2006, Danforth published Faith and Politics: How the “Moral Values” Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together (New York: Viking, 2006), which contends that conservative hardliners have deepened the nation’s social divide by imposing their views on a more moderate majority.

That not one single Republican voted for the health care reform bills recently passed in the House and the Senate is just the latest example of a political party that cares nothing about governing and is willing to sacrifice the public interest at the mantle of tactical politics. Even John McCain, who built a reputation as a maverick and independent spirit within the Republican Party, has recently descended into demagoguery on Medicare, flip-flopped on climate change legislation, and joined the “just-say-no vanguard” (as described by Maureen Dowd) of political obstructionism.

It is perfectly acceptable to have principled disagreements – indeed, passionate debate is the essence of a free society and of democracy. But when well-respected moderates like former Minnesota Congressman Jim Ramstad resign after 16 years in the House because their political party has moved so far from his philosophical beliefs – no longer embracing fiscal conservatism combined with social inclusiveness – it should be a sign that a time for reflection is needed within the Republican Party.

Democrats certainly have their problems as well – as Will Rogers once said, “I belong to no organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” But given the current state of our divisions, the meanness emanating from the right-wing talk shows, the ignorance stemming from certain conservative congressmen, and the dangerous reactionary radicalism of the Tea Party clans, I worry for the future of this country.

On February 10, 2007, candidate Barack Obama reminded the country of its past accomplishments, deeds that required unity and cooperation:

In the face of tyranny, a band of patriots brought an empire to its knees. In the face of secession, we unified a nation and set the captives free. In the face of the Depression, we put people back to work and lifted millions out of poverty. We welcomed immigrants to our shores, we opened railroads to the west, we landed a man on the moon, and we heard King’s call to let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Obama spoke these words from Springfield, Illinois, the birthplace of Lincoln who, if alive today, would not be able to tolerate, and would not be welcome, in his own party. Our country is in the midst of danger and despair, adrift in a world of increasing polarization. With long-term unemployment, massive deficits, two wars and increasing terrorist threats, rising economic inequality, the perils of climate change, nuclear proliferation, and a nation still grappling with crime, drugs, poverty, urban decay, corporate fraud, and a lack of professional ethics, we are in need of a political opposition that is willing to embrace the spirit of Lincoln. We need leaders willing, in these perilous times, to act in a spirit of cooperation and compromise for the good of all.

At a minimum, we need moderation and common sense to reassert control of the body politic. Who are the modern day Statesmen within the Republican Party? Where are the moderate, sensible legislators in the mold of Howard Baker and Jacob Javits, John Danforth and John Chafee, men and women willing to put the country’s interests above partisanship and narrowly defined interests? Where are the Republicans who, in a spirit of conciliation and cooperation, are willing to work with Democrats to solve the nation’s problems?