Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Steady Decline of American Democracy

I have refrained this past year from writing about the state of our political affairs, preferring instead to keep an open mind and to wait-and-see if things were really as bad as I had feared. They’re worse. The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has caused daily anxiety and stress, not only for me and other liberal minded, politically-interested citizens, but for the majority of Americans and the world at large. Trump as President has changed everything – he has cheapened our public discourse, undermined the rule of law, degraded our civic values, and methodically lowered our standards. One need not read Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House to understand that Trump lacks the skills needed to effectively govern. His actions and words have steadily frayed the societal bonds that hold us together. For the first time in my life, I awaken each morning with a sense of dread.

We live in dangerous times, with a mentally unstable, unpredictable leader of the free world; an uninformed, ignorant, angry and insecure man in the White House. Trump has weakened American democracy, because he does not respect the political and legal institutions on which our democracy depends and which have provided stability and security since the end of World War II. Our alliances have been shattered, trust in U.S. leadership is at an all-time low, and the country is deeply divided in ways that seem more serious and permanent than ever before.

I freely acknowledge this is not the first time we have experienced deep divisions – in my lifetime, the United States was torn apart by the struggle for civil rights, the Vietnam War, Watergate, abortion, the rights of gays and lesbians. But it seems different now. Where we used to disagree about the means to an end, we no longer agree on the ends. We no longer accept the same facts. The president throws out incendiary, fabricated terms like “fake news” and “deep state” and promotes paranoid conspiracy theories on such a routine basis that we risk losing our grip on bedrock reality.

It has only been one year since Trump’s inaugural address, when he spoke of “American carnage” and gave the darkest, most sinister and depressing presidential speech in American history. Over the course of the past year, Trump has insulted foreign leaders on Twitter, called for the arrest and prosecution of his political opponents, openly undermined members of his own Cabinet, mocked and denigrated the FBI and CIA, insulted the leaders of friendly nations, and sang the praises of some of the world’s worst dictators.

As president, Trump has diminished our 70 year-long alliance with Western Europe and placed in doubt our commitments under NATO. His calls for “America first” harken back to the isolationist and anti-Semitic America First Committee founded by Charles Lindbergh in 1940. His pre-presidential campaign behavior, when he bragged about the size of his penis, made fun of his opponents’ wives, and mocked a disabled reporter, has carried over to his similarly puerile conduct in office. No other president in modern times has treated his political adversaries in such a disgusting, dishonorable fashion. Being president has done nothing to sensitize Trump to the majestic arc of American history, the immense responsibilities of his office, and the reality that he presides over a diverse nation of 325 million people.

Trump has perhaps irreparably damaged the reputation and credibility of the United States with the rest of the world. He has threatened the use of nuclear weapons in ways so irresponsible and immature, it has made a mockery of America’s traditional role as the world’s foremost superpower. With no moral compass, no sense of decency or decorum, he has abandoned America’s commitment to human rights and the maintenance of world order as seminal principles of U.S. foreign policy. He has withdrawn the United States from the Paris Climate Accords and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, threatened repeatedly to withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal, and left a vacuum in world leadership that is already being filled by Germany, China, and Russia.

At home, he has done nothing to expand his appeal beyond the approximately one-third of Americans who continue to support him no matter what he does or says. He fundamentally misunderstands his constitutional responsibilities, the separation of powers, and his ethical duties, and instead acts like a morally bankrupt figurehead who has no qualms about exploiting his position for financial gain. He enjoys sparking the flames of racism and white identity politics with attacks on political correctness and civility. Having entered the political arena by promoting the blatantly racist and false claim that Barack Obama was not born in America, hardly a week goes by when Trump does not insult Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims, black athletes, or some other identifiable segment of humanity, including most recently the people of Haiti and the entire continent of Africa.

Among the most dangerous aspects of the Trump presidency are his attacks on truth, science, facts, and a free press. As Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona articulated on the Senate floor on January 17th, “2017 was a year which saw the truth – objective, empirical, evidence-based truth – more battered and abused than any other in the history of the country…It was a year which saw the White House enshrine ‘alternative facts’ into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods.” This president lies so frequently – as of a few days ago, The Washington Post had documented 2,140 falsehoods told by Trump since being sworn in as President – that his public pronouncements, and that of his press spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, are the source of daily outrage and embarrassment.

His phony cries of “fake news” and his disrespect for an independent press are direct attacks on the First Amendment. In calling the press not simply unfair but the “enemy of the American people,” he has attempted to delegitimize the one institution of our democracy that has any chance of holding Trump accountable. His personal insults directed at individual reporters whose stories he dislikes are among the most ugly and obscene aspects of this presidency, for attacking a free press is a tool historically used by despots and dictators. The effects are poisonous to American democracy.

As the year unfolded, we have learned just how actively Russia interfered with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with increasing evidence that Trump’s closest confidantes exploited and encouraged their Russian connections to create disinformation and corrupt the electoral process. I will wait for all of the facts to develop through the Mueller investigation before commenting further, but it is astonishing to me the lengths to which Trump’s supporters defend and excuse every aspect of this story.

Trump and the Republicans have done nothing to retaliate against the Russians for attacking our sovereignty, discrediting the U.S. political system, and distorting our democratic process. Instead, the president has repeatedly called the Russia story a “hoax” and ridiculed the Justice Department, the FBI, and his own intelligence agencies for telling him what he wants not to hear. As Senator Flake also warned in his remarks last week, “an American president who cannot take criticism – who must constantly deflect and distort and distract – who must find someone else to blame – is charting a very dangerous path. And a Congress that fails to act as a check on the president adds to the danger.”

It may well be for future historians to determine the full degree to which the Trump presidency has distorted the truth and damaged the institutions of American democracy. But it is self-evident that serious damage is being done. Trump has succeeded in lowering our standards and creating a new "normal." He has elevated pettiness and indecency to new heights, reduced presidential discourse to ignorant and childish Twitter feeds, personal attacks and insults. He does not read. He is ill informed on almost every policy issue. He has demonstrated not a scintilla of interest in personal growth since becoming president. If he had remained the mediocre, publicity-hungry real estate developer he once was, none of this would matter. But when such behavior and pettiness emanates from the leader of the free world, it is destructive of our politics and degrades our moral authority. Leadership requires judgment. Humility. Character. A true leader does not encourage the ugly and debased passions of white supremacists and appeal to our darkest impulses.

During his inaugural address in 1861, at a time when the nation was even more divided than we are today, newly elected President Abraham Lincoln spoke the words of a true leader:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
If only Trump would study the speeches and actions of some of our past presidents – Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan – men he claims to respect, who presided over the United States during tumultuous times in our history. They knew the importance of using the privilege of their office to heal divisions, to reach out to those who opposed them, and to seek common ground. No president is perfect. But Trump doesn’t even try.

In 1789, at the beginning of the American journey, George Washington observed that a president should not in any way “demean himself in his public character” and must act “in such a manner as to maintain the dignity of office.” It is a gross understatement to suggest that Trump has failed this test. He demeans himself and the office on a daily basis, and we as a nation are becoming inured to it. He has done immense damage to the rule of law, our constitutional system, our social fabric, and our sense of national unity. Although I would like to believe otherwise, I fear that, like the melting glaciers in the arctic, there will be a breaking point from which we cannot recover.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

On Love, Laughter, and Good Conversations

The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires, but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively. – Bob Marley
During a recent lunchtime walk, as I admired the sun’s reflection on the surface of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River a few blocks from my office, I reached for my phone to call my brother. For the past several years, I had called Steve every week or two. We would talk about how things were going in our respective lives, upcoming travel plans, and anything else that came to mind. But then I suddenly remembered that Steve was no longer with us, his number in my phone but a remnant of a past life. I placed the phone back into my pocket, looked at the still waters beside me and the blue skies above, and walked silently onward.

This has happened to me a few times since Steve died in early October. I am not sure why I experience these temporary lapses in memory. Others have told me it is a common experience and to be expected for anyone who has lost someone close to them. But it is at moments such as these when I am forced to contemplate the reality of loss, the certainty of death, and the fragility of life itself.

Another year has come and gone. Days pass ever so quickly as the steady drumbeat of life leaves me stranded on the abandoned tracks of time’s unrelenting forward progress. During a two-week stretch in early autumn, I forever lost the presence of two men I admired and respected – Andrea’s dad, my father-in-law, Marty Gelman, and my dear brother Steve. Through their deaths, Marty to natural causes at the age of 96 and Steve to brain cancer at 61, I am more intimately familiar with the temporary nature of life, compelled to appreciate more profoundly the importance of awakening to the wonder of each new day. For now and forever, it is the memories I will cherish, the shared experiences and momentary insights, the simple pleasures of a good meal and a good laugh.

I remember especially the little things, the quiet conversations with Marty on Sunday afternoons, the golf outings, ballgames, and childhood memories with Steve. “That’s when I realized that certain moments go on forever,” writes Lauren Oliver in the novel Before I Fall. “Even after they’re over they still go on, even after you're dead and buried, those moments are lasting still, backward and forward, on into infinity. They are everything and everywhere all at once.”

Marty and me, Thanksgiving 2016
Martin Gelman was a one-of-a-kind man who lived a full and meaningful life on his terms. (You can read of his many accomplishments and rich history here and here.) But what I will miss most are the many conversations I had with Marty about religion and politics, life and the world around us. Marty had a knack for listening and putting things into perspective – he provided a sense of historical insight, reminding us of the many ways life repeats itself. He had lived through the Great Depression, fought in World War II, and for fifty years taught anthropology and psychology at a local community college, where he became one of its most popular professors. For 35 of those years, he counseled patients from all walks of life in his center-city Philadelphia clinical psychology practice, earning the love and respect of countless admirers. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross as a B-24 navigator during the Good War and was a member of the Greatest Generation. And yet, through it all he retained a sense of humility and unpretentiousness that made you immediately comfortable and at ease in his presence.

I was especially inspired by Marty’s life-long love of learning, for he believed that, as members of the human race, we are on this planet to learn, think, question, and search. He was often the first person to read a new essay I had composed. I looked forward to talking with him about what I had written, eliciting his opinion and, hopefully, affirmation. Our talks typically led to a much longer conversation about related topics concerning philosophy, politics, family life, my love of the St. Louis Cardinals (which he admired and found amusing, even as it perplexed him), and other things about which we sometimes agreed and sometimes did not.

I debated often with Marty about the nature and existence of God, with my defense of God’s existence sharply challenged by Marty’s inherent skepticism. Having survived fifty bombing missions over the skies of Europe in World War II, having learned of the horrors of the Holocaust, having witnessed the repeated failures of human morality and humanity’s misuse of technology for the sake of greed and power, he had many rational and logical reasons to question God’s existence. But in all of our talks, while he asked good questions, he never insisted he was right, and he retained a hopeful sense of possibility, which allowed us always to find common ground.

He was intrigued by my embrace of the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who believed that God’s presence, though concealed, was everywhere, and that it was up to human beings to make God’s presence known by experiencing the everyday wonder of the universe. “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement,” wrote Heschel. “[T]o get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” I believe this resonated with Marty because, despite his secular rationalism and deep skepticism born of the evils of 20th Century atrocities, deep down he shared Heschel’s sense of wonder and amazement. And I loved that about him.

I will miss Marty and our talks, his wise counsel, and the love and compassion he had for all who entered his life. Even at the end of his life, when he had lost his physical agility and needed help with the daily things of life, with eating and sitting and getting dressed, he never lost his sense of humor, his compassion and concern for others, and his genuine interest in the wellbeing of us all. He was a living example of Heschel’s admonition, “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”

Steve and me at One World Trade Center
Fall 2016
My conversations with Steve were less intellectual, but he was my big brother, a source of encouragement and support I have always counted on. Steve and I shared a bond that went back a half century, to our childhood, when we found new and creative ways to have fun, played sports together, and shared life’s many adventures in a suburban New Jersey, Huck Finn sort of way. Steve was an incredibly fun-loving soul who never took life too seriously. When we were growing up in Moorestown, and later Hightstown, New Jersey, we did everything together. Although Steve was three years ahead of me in school, he let me hang out with his older friends and never excluded me from any activity. We played touch football in the backyard of our house with neighborhood friends, competed against each other in one-on-one basketball games, hit ground balls to each other in our backyard, pitched batting practice to each other at the local ball fields, and found all sorts of ways to have fun in the days before video games and technology kept all the kids indoors.

Although he possessed a perpetually childlike spirit, Steve was slightly defeated in later years, a touch beaten down by an adult life filled with heartache. When his first marriage ended in divorce, along with his career as an ordained Lutheran minister (a long story, to which I will say only that the then Bishop of the Southeastern Lutheran Synod was a rigid, unforgiving, and uncompassionate man who represented exactly the opposite of what the Church should be), he never fully recovered. He made his share of mistakes, but his negative experience with the church diminished his youthful zest for life. For years afterwards, though he retained his friendly nature and bright smile, a portion of his happy-go-lucky style disappeared and he developed emotional defenses that left him a touch guarded.  

And yet, Steve was among the most resilient and resourceful people I have ever known. He always found a way to make things work. Whatever sadness he harbored in later years, he continued on with dignity and fortitude. He found love and happiness again, restored his relationship with his two children, whom he dearly loved, and performed well in his new careers in banking and business.

Before he became too sick to speak at any length, when he still had his health and a sense of normalcy, Steve and I spoke nearly every week by phone. Some days we would talk about the pressures of work, the daily struggles to succeed and make a living. On other days we talked about politics, our kids, our shared passion for baseball and our past dreams of baseball glory. By the time we had reached mid-life, our childhood experiences were but faded memories of days long past. But even as time and distance came between us, we always remained friends and knew we would always be there for each other. Steve was one of the few people in life with whom I shared deep-seated memories and formative childhood experiences. And though we never made it to the major leagues, we understood our baseball dreams for what they were – the longings of young men learning as we go, providing support and encouragement along the way.

So, as a new year beckons and life journeys onward, here is to the memories of two kind and decent people who found a way to enrich the world with their presence, their dignity, and their generosity of spirit. Though they were distinctly different individuals, Marty and Steve each in their own way left the world a little better than they found it. I will miss them both, but I will forever cherish the many memories, of love, laughter, and good conversation.