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Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Trump Inauguration: To Go Or Not To Go, That Is The Question

We hold these truths to be self-evident, all men are created equal.  This is the bedrock value upon which our country was founded, and the basis for all of our constitutional rights and protections. 

The equality of humankind is a universal truth of all the great religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.   Created in the image of God, we are all God’s children no matter our race, gender, nationality or station in life. That does not mean that we are all equally likeable or that we all act in humane and decent ways.  Thus the conundrum facing decent people, how to respectfully treat those who do not respectfully treat others.

The bible lays out the aspirational goal -- love the other as thy self.  It is not a commandment to love the lovable other.  That is what decent people naturally do.  Rather, a commandment to treat the unlovable with the love/respect accorded to all of humanity.   It is a recognition that our inclination is to be wary of the other, to attribute negative characteristics to the stranger, and to disparage those who do not meet our expectations.

The requirement to love the other falls most heavily on religious leaders, the representatives of the religion.  Commandments are more than aspirational goals for religious leaders.  As the community role models, following the commandments is a necessary way of living.

Still, love the other does create dilemmas for religious leaders.  I recently heard of a most poignant one.  A rabbinic student came to a rabbi that I study with and asked for my Rabbi’s advice on whether to say the traditional prayer of mourning for her father.  The prayer is said in a public setting to honor the dead.  Her dilemma, her father had repeatedly raped her as a child.  My Rabbi was flummoxed and had no good answer.  Ultimately the rabbinic student came to her own resolution.  She did say the mourning prayer, not for the father she had but for the father she wished she had.

Our political leaders face a comparable dilemma.   A deplorable person is about to ascend to the highest office in the land.  Attending the inauguration implicitly honors a man not deserving of such respect.

Yet, the inauguration ceremony is not about any one person.  It represents the stirring ideals of the Gettysburg Address – “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people”.  Political power is transitory, given to our leaders by we the people, but only for a finite period of time. 

Attending the inauguration bears witness that the institutions of our country are stronger than any one man.  I want our leaders to attend, not only when it is easy to attend, but also when it is not easy to attend.  Especially when it is not easy to attend, for not attending disrespects our country’s ideals.
 
Hopefully those considering against attending will follow the lead of the rabbinate student who found the resolve to participate by considering the ideal rather than the actual.  I want our leaders to place the country’s ideals above their own feelings and judgements.
 

And bearing witness is why I will be watching the inaugural address on Friday.  Something I do not always do.  Will you join me? 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Israel -- Falling Support and Rising Anti-Semitism

Support for Israel has changed substantially over time.  From its birth in 1948 until “The Six Day War” support was unquestioned.  Two pillars undergirded the unconditional support -- the moral imperative derived from the Holocaust, and the existential threat posed by powerful Arab enemies surrounding the then weak and vulnerable Jewish state

The narrative began to change following the “Six Day War”.  Israel convincingly won the war and captured both the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  The David vs Goliath view reversed.  Israel became the Goliath, with its more powerful military.  The Palestinian Arabs, subjected to the humiliations of an occupying force, became the David.

With time and distance, the impact of the Holocaust faded.  Born decades later, a whole generation knew the Holocaust only from the cold pages of history.  The emotional connection replaced by an objective view. 

The generational split was most pronounced between the WW II generation and the millennials.  The WW II generation, the parents of the baby boomers, were either holocaust survivors, or had family members or friends murdered in the death camps of Nazi Germany.  Being Jewish, belonging to a synagogue, and seeing Israel’s survival as an essential safety hatch for Jewish survival was unquestioned.  To do otherwise denigrated the memory of the dead burned in the ovens.  Every Jew who assimilated or did not fully support the Jewish homeland was considered a symbolic victory for Adolph Hitler.

Religious doubts brought on by modernity hardly effected the World War II generation.  It was their children, the baby boomers that questioned the role of religion in a modern scientific world.  Many of the boomers became culturally Jewish, and this trend towards secularism accelerated with their children, the millennials.

With secularism came a shift in moral thinking.  The old moral divide of good vs evil was replaced by the new moral code -- strong vs weak and rich vs poor.  As such, the more powerful Israel was held by many on the secular left to a different standard of behavior than that of the weaker Palestinians. 

Witness the reactions to the Gaza war between Hamas and Israel.  Israel was criticized for the number of Palestinian casualties caused.  The body count defined the moral behavior of the two sides of the conflict.  With the lopsided Palestinian death count, Israel fared poorly in the court of public opinion.
 
Left out of this calculus was the moral view of good vs evil.  The disproportionate loss of life was an intentional Hamas strategy.  They placed their SCUD missiles in large population centers to ensure large loss of Palestinian lives, and daily launched the SCUD missiles from these population sites towards towns in Israel.

Faced with a “Sophie’s Choice” between saving the lives of Israelis or Palestinians, Israel tried to do both.  Deploying their anti-missile system to shoot down incoming SCUD missiles, and using their guided missiles to target the SCUDS without hitting Palestinian civilians.  Prior to launch, Israel warned the population to leave the area, only to be thwarted by the inhumanity of Hamas which prevented its citizens from evacuating. The missiles were not always accurate and there was loss of civilian life.  At the same time Israel deployed its anti-missile system to destroy incoming Hamas missiles.  Many, but not all, Hamas missiles were destroyed mid-air, preventing many Israeli deaths.  

The immorality of Hamas’ actions was summed up in one pithy sentence by the Prime Minister of Israel.  Israel used missiles to protect people, Hamas used people to protect missiles.  Nevertheless, through their evil strategy, Hamas had the “moral” victory it sought -- the optics of death and destruction by a powerful enemy against a weak and vulnerable people. 

The optics played well in the U.N. where Israel was condemned for its actions.  Indeed Israel has been condemned and sanctioned more often than any other member of the U.N.  The latest being the resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a flagrant violation of International Law based on the justification that the West Bank is “Occupied Palestinian Territory”.   

The U.N. justification twists the history of the West Bank for its twisted purpose of condemning Israel.  The West Bank was never Palestinian Territory, but an occupied territory of Jordan.  The West Bank was acquired by Israel in the course of defending itself in the 1967 Six Day War. International Law provides that territory seized in a defensive war may be occupied for defensive purposes, and that security measures may be implemented within that territory to defend against any future attacks.

The U.N resolutions against Israel bear heavily on the politics within the U.N. – politics grounded neither in history nor law, but rather in anti-Semitism.  How else to explain a different legal and moral standard applied to Israel than to any other nation state. 

By the moral standard of body count, there are many nation states that are far more immoral than Israel.  The most recent being Syria, bolstered by its allies Russia and Iran.  Using chemical weapons, barrel bombs, guided missiles, regular bombs, and starvation sieges, over 400,000 civilians have been killed in Syria.  Compare that to the U.N. count of 1462 Palestinians killed by Israel in the Gaza war.

Yet Israel has been singled out for far more sanctions or criticism than Syria, Russia, and Iran combined!  Consider the U.N. resolutions adopted during 2015, the last year I could find such a count.  Israel was singled out 20 times for criticism, Syria once, Iran once, and Russia never.

2015 was not an anomaly but rather part of a larger pattern to discredit and delegitimize Israel, the only State in the region which protects human rights.  De-legitimization is a troubling trend that has greatly infected the secular youth of our country, often through the educational environment of our liberal colleges. 

Once again the Jews are the canary in the coal mine.  How Israel will continue to be viewed and treated will say a lot about the value of the world body and the values of our colleges and country. 

For those wishing to read a short impassioned historical justification of the legitimacy of Israel’s actions in the Middle-East, check out this web site: 

http://bigarticlesoftheweek.blogspot.co.il/2017/01/an-open-letter-to-theresa-may.html    

Hat tip to Judy Gedali for telling me of the website                  

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Putin Smarter than Obama and Trump?

Trump’s recent tweet on Vladimir Putin, again raised legitimate concerns about the president-elect’s favorable bias towards Russia and the advisability of conducting foreign policy via tweets.  Setting aside these concerns, Trump’s assessment of Putin as being smart is very accurate.

Putin is much shrewder than Obama in international affairs.  Putin thinks strategically while our President thinks tactically.  Witness Putin’s versus Obama’s approach to the civil war in Syria.  Obama’s statement, “Assad must go”, was his initial foray into the Syrian civil war.  This tactical statement gave verbal support to the opposition.  Unfortunately it was not followed up strategically.  Obama ignored the advice of his Secretary of State and his Secretary of Defense to arm the Syrian rebels.  The chance to overthrow Assad lost.  Later, it was strategically impossible to arm the opposition who became contaminated with Islamic terrorists. 

The President drew a red line regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  Without regard to strategic consequences, Obama cancelled promised military action to uphold the red line.  Obama’s feckless behavior projected unreliability to our Middle-East allies and weakness to our enemies.

Putin acted strategically.  He offered to broker the removal of Syrian chemical weapons.  Acceptance by the U.S. of Russia’s role resulted in several strategic advantages for Putin.  It ended the U.S. push for international isolation of Russia for its use of military force in Crimea and Ukraine.  It inserted Russia back into the middle-east after thirty-five years of absence.  What followed was closer ties to Syria and its ally Iran, and the establishment of Russian military bases in the heart of the Middle-East. 

The roles of the U.S. and Russia in the Middle-East flipped.  Russia was now the key player in the Middle-East.  The U.S. marginalized.  In the past, Middle-East negotiations often took place in the United States.  This time, the peace negotiations between Assad and the rebels was on Russian soil.  The United States was not even invited to participate.  

Putin’s and Obama’s actions over Russian interference in the Presidential election will hopefully be instructive to our next President.  Acting tactically, Obama publically rebuked Russia rather than just relying on retaliation through secret cyberattacks.  Hoping to hamstring Russian relations with the next administration, Obama kicked out Russian ambassadors.  

Acting strategically, Putin did not respond in kind.  He did not retaliate by removing U.S. ambassadors from Russia.  In the process Putin projected statesmanship and removed a potential black cloud hanging over relations between Russia and the next U.S. administration.

Trump then made his infamous tweet about how smart Putin is.  Going forward, the question is this.  Will Trump, with his inflated ego, realize that Putin is so much smarter than him?          


Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Hanukkah and Christmas Hope for Our Country

Hanukkah is viewed as a trivial celebration, enlarged so Jewish children would not feel left out during the Christmas season.  In reality the story of Hanukkah marks a pivotal moment in mankind's history.   The belief in monotheism hung in the balance.  The story of Hanukkah unfolded at a time in history where only one nation out of the community of nations believed in one God.  

There were cracks in that belief.  The cracks created by a split between the Hellenists, assimilated into the then dominant Greek culture, and the Traditionalists, determined to maintain Jewish law.  Among the Hellenists was the top Jewish religious figure, the High Priest.  Comporting with his Hellenistic views, The High Priest introduced idols of Greek gods into the Holy Temple.  A civil war broke out.  The traditionalists prevailed.  The Temple was cleansed, the alter rebuilt, and the menorah above the alter lit.  Monotheism was saved, along with Christianity that followed two centuries later. 

Once again the clarion call of Judaism could be heard throughout the world -- "Hear, oh Israel, The lord Our God, the Lord is one.  Embedded within that clarion call is the message that the universe emanating from God is one.  We are all one.   All created in the image of God.

The message of unity is part of the biblical requirement to remember the stranger as we were once strangers in a strange land.  The message that we are all the same is part of The Declaration of Independence.  "We hold these truths to be sell evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights ..."  These truths animated those in the Civil Rights movement to risk their lives for justice.

Our country has gone through a bitter and ugly presidential election with the aftermath continuing to divide our country.  It is my hope that in these dark days the lights of Christmas and the candle lights of the Menorah inspire us to remember that no matter what political views we hold, we are united in a profound way by our common humanity. We can disagree with others without being disagreeable.  We can believe that another's political beliefs are wrong without believing that the other's views mean that they are deplorable.

And with that, have a Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukah. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

How And Why Trump Won

Half of America woke up to mourning in America following the election of Donald Trump.   Reactions varied.  Americans in denial pursued efforts to undo the election by rigging the Electoral College vote.  Others, angry and frightened took to the streets to protest #not my president.  All struggled to understand how a hate filled, insensitive, racist, bully won. 

Exit polls belie the popular explanations of “whitelash” and widespread racism.  Compared to 2012, the Republican white vote advantage did not increase.  Rather it was the minorities voting Republican that increased.  A long history of framing Republicans as racist and describing our country as filled with racists backfired.  The cry of wolf wasn’t believed.  To paraphrase Salino Zito’s insightful comment in a piece written for the Atlantic:  Clinton supporters took Trump literally but not seriously, while Trump supporters took him seriously but not literally. 

The Trump victory resulted from the lower economic tier leaving the Democratic Party.  Democratic victories depend on overwhelming support of this demographic to overcome the Republican advantage in all other income groups.  In 2012 Romney bested Obama in income levels above $50,000.    The President won because the under $50,000 income group voted overwhelmingly for him by a 22% margin.  In 2016 the margin narrowed considerably to 9%.

The lower class shift to the right is part of a world-wide phenomenon in developed countries like Britain, Germany, and France.  The issues are the same, lost wages and uncontrolled immigration.  Globalization and technological advances creates winners and losers.  Capitol is fluid, labor is not.   Emerging market laborers benefit from large capital inflows from developed countries while laborers in developed countries suffer.  Dwindling employment opportunities exacerbated by perceived increased job competition from recent immigrants.
 
Trump addressed the plight and suffering of the blue collar workers, campaigned in their districts, and promised to fix immigration and return lost jobs to America.  Clinton did not.

The uplifting Democratic Convention messaging of liberal democratic values – inclusiveness, diversity, multiculturalism – was out of sync with the working class circumstance.   Lacking economic stability, aspirational goals are a very low priority.  

  
Clinton’s lengthy government experience was a negative for the working class who culturally distrust government.  Trump’s message that the political system is corrupt and rigged against the little guy resonated with them.  Clinton was the perfect foil -- fabulous wealth achieved not by hard work in the private sector but by leveraging her political connections, use of a separate secret email server for government communications then lying about it in public, and being under FBI investigation for pay for play schemes.  

Clinton provided no personal vision for governing the country.  Rather she yoked herself to the President’s legislative agenda, believing that his popularity had coattails.  The President’s high approval rating masked a simmering discontent within the country beyond the tepid economic recovery that primarily benefited the moneyed class.  Obamacare was the Achilles heel.   Disliked from the start, more unpopular with time.  Promises of keeping your doctor, lower healthcare costs, and improved care, proved strikingly untrue.   
      
The shift towards Republicans began in 2010, right after the passage of Obamacare, and has continued with every election since.  The size of the shift is enormous.  Obama’s presidency began with 60 and ends with 48 Democratic Senators.  The House shift went from 257 to 197 Democrats.  A comparable large shift in power occurred at the state level.

Over the course of several decades the Democrat’s focus on the powerless working class shifted towards creating a more perfect society.  The little guy who bore the brunt of the social and economic programs emanating from that shift was not happy and ended up voting for a crude juvenile lout.  The antithesis of the liberal democratic aspirational values.  An ignoble ending to hope and change.   

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Danger of "Black Lives Matter"

The racial fault lines have emerged with a vengeance, tinged bright red with the blood of the black and blue in America.  High profile killings of unarmed black citizens by mostly white police officers are matched by high profile targeting and killings of police officers by mostly black shooters.

The American history of equal rights for blacks is tortuous and bloody, punctuated by slavery, lynchings, mutilations, rapes and beatings, and the indignities of segregation and Jim Crow laws.  It is also a history of white sacrifice for civil rights through the blood of Civil War soldiers and the grizzly deaths of white civil rights organizers at the hands of the KKK.   The journey to justice continues -- laws passed to end segregation, treasure spent to ease black poverty, “Head Start” and Affirmative Action” to provide a hand up.

There has been great progress on the road to justice for blacks, the penultimate being the election a black President.  So one would think … except the gulf between black and white perceptions on progress made and distance to go has widened not narrowed. 

The gap widened because the goal for justice changed for black youth from equality under the law to equality in the eyes of others.  Laws ending segregation and discrimination and programs to rectify historical injustices are insufficient for full acceptance.  Full acceptance requires America to live up to the truth contained in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, and by implication, to be treated with the respect and dignity accorded all human beings.
 
Dignity and respect are the youth’s metric for evaluating racial progress in America.  On campus, microaggressions are the measure of racial insensitivity.  For society at large, their litmus test is the interactions with the police, the front line of the government’s attitudes towards blacks.
   
Interactions with law enforcement are fraught with historical flashback moments.  The echoes of the slave master heard in the harsh authoritarian voice and the requirement of unquestioned obedience.  The poking and prodding of stop and frisk; the face down prone position of arrest; and the driving while black experiences, all reminiscent of the humiliating and degrading methods of Jim Crow policing.

 “Black Lives Matter” is the prominent voice on police treatment of blacks.  Not surprisingly the racial divide turns from a gap to a gulf over views of this movement.  Whites are confused and angered by the accusations of the movement, particularly the accusations that racism is widespread and systemic.  Blacks are angered that whites are tone deaf to the importance of focusing on black lives.  The problem is not that all lives matter, it is that black lives in America matter less or not at all.

Political leaders and pundits add to the racial divide by promoting false narratives and misleading statistics.  Two examples.  Michael Brown was not pleading don’t shoot while holding his hands up.  Instead, he attempted to wrest the police officer’s gun, ignored commands to stop, and was shot while moving towards the officer.  Police are not color blind in their actions.  A recent Harvard study shows police are significantly more likely to manhandle black suspects.

The philosophy of the “Black Lives Matter” movement is ominously radical and potentially dangerous.  The leaders believe all of America’s institutions are designed by the white privileged to suppress blacks.  Refusing to work within the system, they prefer to disrupt the system.  White Democrats have been flummoxed by “Black Lives Matter” protesting, interrupting, and taking over campaign appearances.   Blacks protesting Democrats instead of Republicans is new territory for Democrats who believe they have established bona fides on race relations.

“Black Lives Matter” leaders refuse to work within the system because it believes the institutions are inherently racist and therefore must be destroyed and rebuilt.  These views create the potential for the movement to turn violent.   There have been pockets of violent rhetoric against police, and property destruction, at some protest rallies.  Further, the anarchistic views encourage the likes of Gavon Long, the black supremacist, anti-government, cop killer in Baton Rouge.

This is the time for courage from our black and white political leaders.  Black leaders, while supporting the emphasis on dignity, must denounce the anarchistic rhetoric of “Black Lives Matter” and discourage the narrative that racism is in America’s DNA and is institutionally systemic.  White leaders must acknowledge that police officers, and many other segments of society, treat blacks differently, and that many whites fear blacks, particularly young black men.

In short, it is time to have an honest conversation about race in America.  Otherwise it will be a long hot summer.



Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Brexit Facts and Fancy

The Chicken Little reaction to Brexit was fast and furious.   The pound dropped to levels not seen since the waning years of Beatlemania, investors lost trillions of dollars in the global financial swoon, and credit agencies downgraded Britain's credit rating from the highest to a credit rating shared by the likes of Abu Dhabi and Kuwait.  The agencies indicated the credit rating could drop further.  One notch lower would put Britain in the company of Estonia, Taiwan and Chile.

The common Brexit narrative is that the European Union is a scapegoat for the effects of modernity facing Western societies.  Globalization offshores millions of jobs, societies are disaggregating by a growing income gulf between the advantaged and disadvantaged, and the erasure of borders between countries allows for undesirable immigrants.   The older, white, blue collar worker unable to adjust to modernity overwhelmingly votes to leave the European Union as a way back to the past of a middle class life style in a predominantly white culture.  The narrative is based on suppositions, unreliable statistics (there is no exit polling), and, most importantly, without considering the historical context of the relationship between Britain and Europe.

Historically, Britain considers itself of Europe but not in Europe.  Britain relishes its unique traditions and constancy born of a history that spans a thousand years.  Thus its road trip to the European Union, spanning fifty years, is filled with pot holes and detours.  Underlying the negotiations is the tension between the importance of maintaining sovereignty and the pragmatics of the economic benefits of being part of a European trading block.  Throughout the negotiations Britain insists on Sovereignty by retaining its own currency and by not signing portions of the European Union dealing with the internal affairs of Britain.  From this perspective the “remain” and “leave” vote represents different strategies in maintaining sovereignty.  The “remain” vote reflects working from within to maintain sovereignty while retaining economic benefits, and the “leave” vote represents the untenability of a sovereign Britain within a European Union and the priority of Sovereignty over short run economic benefits.

Personal identity is elemental to being human and is necessary for psychological health.  Psychologists consider individuals who lack boundaries as psychologically unstable.  Not only tyrants and cult leaders, but also leaders of good will have tried to erase personal identity without success.  The Israeli Kibbutzim, established as collectivist societies, disallowed private property ownership and raised children collectively rather than in family settings.  Family bonds and children’s attachment needs proved too strong and the practice of children in group settings was the first to go.  Eventually homes and the contents within were privatized, and the collectivist kibbutz died out.  


Private property rights is essential to liberty.  Democratic governments recognize this through unlawful search and seizure clauses within their legal systems.  So too is the freedom and identity of sovereign nations based on property rights. Secure boundaries establish sovereign identity and internal liberty.  This is the fundamental issue which animated the Brexit vote.  And like other modern ideas that go against the fundamentals of being human, the idea of a pan European organization will fade with time.    

Friday, June 24, 2016

ISIS Redefined

Leading Republicans criticize the President because he will not describe acts of terrorism committed by Muslims as “Radical Islamic Terrorism”.  The President insists that using the term “Radical Islam” does not actually affect how the war on terror is waged and in fact, impugns the religion of Islam and the vast majority of peace loving Muslims who practice their faith.

Ironically each side is both right and wrong.  The President's description of terrorists as violent extremists is broad and nonspecific.  The description is meaningless and creates a see no Islam evil mindset.  Witness the initial transcripts of the shooter’s calls to 911 released by the Justice Department.  The terrorist’s remarks on allegiance to ISIS were redacted and the transcript was scrubbed of Allah, substituting God in its place. 

Unwillingness to attribute terrorism to Islam does have consequences.  Designed to prevent prejudice against decent Muslims, dancing around an unpleasant reality creates the impression that criticizing Muslims is wrong.  Hence a witness does not report suspicious behavior of the San Bernardino shooters out of fear that she will be labelled an Islamaphobe.  This same mindset was behind the categorization of the Fort Hood shootings as workplace violence instead of Islamic terrorism, thereby denying soldiers wounded in the attack of additional benefits.

The Republicans make a different mistake.  Their use of the phrase “Radical Islamic Terrorism” misidentifies the religious ideology of the terrorist and that phrase does indeed impugn all of Islam.  The phrase implies that the terrorists practice an extreme form of modern day Islam.  As David Brooks states, “people don’t start out practicing Islam and then turn into terrorists because they become more faithful”.  Modern Islam is a vastly different version of the religion of ISIS.  The theological roots are the same, but the religious ideology and practices have little overlap.

ISIS adheres to medieval Islam practiced 1300 years ago by the first two Caliphs of Islam.   ISIS rejects all subsequent innovations and modernizations to the religion as a corruption of Islam.  Among numerous barbarities, medieval religious practices allow terrorizing infidels into submission using beheadings, crucifixions, rape and enslavement.   

The great attraction to ISIS flows from its perceived religious legitimacy, the establishment of the caliphate.  Unlike other terrorists groups where recruits pledge loyalty to a cause, ISIS recruits undergo conversion and pledge their lives to the Caliph, the representative of Allah on earth.

Religious conversion is powerful stuff.  It provides deep meaning and purpose and is rapturous to the disaffected, alienated, or marginalized.  It is not economic justice that drives these recruits to ISIS but the search for meaning, purpose, and positive identity. Similarly, religious conversion explains why recruits who show no history of violence are able to commit the most heinous acts.  They are acting for the glory of Allah to purify the world of subhumans in accordance with the Prophet Mohammad.

The phrase “Medieval Islam” clarifies for the average Joe how a religion of peace creates monsters.  Medieval Islam has parallels to Medieval Christianity where non-believers were tortured and burned at the stake during the Inquisition.  It is a small step from there to accept that modern Islam is as peace loving as modern Christianity.

Sharing the same terminology to describe and understand terrorists can promote meaningful policy dialogue between Republicans and Democrats.  Take the refugee issue as an example.  Muslim countries that practice medieval Sharia law reflect social and cultural values that are unamerican.  This recognition changes the dialogue on refugee immigration from issues of prejudice to issues of enculturation.  How do we (and can we) select refugees that will accommodate to and accept a very different culture and, if so, how to assist refugees in the assimilation process?  Here, American Muslims can play a pivotal role in guiding these policies.   

Words reflect perceived reality and influence actions.   Without a common perspective on reality, dialogue is fruitless. We end up talking at or past each other rather than to each other.  Goodness knows we've done enough of that already.   

   

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Transgender Bathroom Battle: Causes and Cures

The North Carolina bathroom law requiring people to use public restrooms based on their gender at birth is part of the ongoing cultural clash between the secular left and the religious right.  Responding to the current North Carolina law, President Obama issued national guidelines requiring public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms associated with their gender identity. 

The battle lines are drawn.  For President Obama and other transgender advocates, transgender bathroom choice is a civil rights issue comparable to the civil rights laws ending discrimination against racial minorities.  Conservative religious groups recoil from this topsy turvy new world of gender identity.  Gender is not a state of mind that can change on a whim.  It is a biological fact.  Bionically, men and women are created for companionship and to procreate and populate the world.  And from the fig leaf forward modesty between the sexes is a hallmark of the religious.  For them, separate bathrooms for the sexes makes obvious common sense and is in keeping with the natural order of the world.  

In reality, transgenderism is biologically based.  The biology of gender development involves chromosomes, hormones and brain structure.  Almost always, sex chromosomes and sex hormones work in concert so that our brain and our sexual characteristics match. For a small minority, significantly less than 1%, sex chromosomes and hormones interplay differently such that a male fetus develops with a female brain and a female fetus develops with a male brain.  Hence a transgender is born.

The use of gender language often confuses rather than clarifies the bathroom debate.  It can muddy the distinctions between biology, sexual preference, and sexual expression when talking about masculinity and femininity.  To the uninitiated, encountering gender language is a plunge down the rabbit hole.  You are not born male or female.  Instead you are assigned a gender at birth, as if your sexual designation is a choice comparable to how you are named.  Instead of the two sexes there are close to sixty genders and counting proclaimed by Facebook users.  They range from gender queer (someone who identifies with multiple genders), to gender fluid (someone who fluctuates between being male and female), to everything else in between.   These gender terms are completely subjective.  All it seems to take these days to establish an entirely new gender category is for someone to think one up.

Ironically, transgenderism suffers from being included in gender speak which implies that gender is a choice, sometimes a whimsical choice, rather than a biological imperative.  The intense and lifelong feeling of being trapped in the wrong body is a very real biological condition that often causes years of suffering.  Understandably there is pushback from the transgender community to the North Carolina law as they know that theirs is not a whimsical choice but a real condition.

It is tempting to consider disparate treatment of transgender citizens as a civil rights issue in the same way blacks were treated disparately by establishing separate bathrooms for whites and blacks.  But the transgender controversy is not about separate sets of bathrooms; rather it is about bathroom labelling.  The President’s effort to stretch civil rights discrimination around bathroom labelling leads to surprising consequences.

Discrimination occurs when decisions are based on a trait without a compelling or inherent justification.   For example, an employment decision not to hire based on gender identity absent another compelling basis is discriminatory.  The solution requires the employer to hire the individual.  Why then isn’t requiring bathroom choice based on gender identity a solution to gender discrimination?  Substitute the word race for gender identity in the last sentence – requiring bathroom choice based on race – and the gender identity solution now seems problematic.

Consider also the consequences of school bathroom choice based on gender identity.  Not only would boys who identify as girls rightfully use the girls’ restrooms but heterosexual boys would also have that right.  The only difference between these two anatomical boys is their gender identity and, according to transgender advocates, Title IX bars discrimination on the basis of gender identity which then logically encompasses heterosexual boys who self-identify as boys.  Ironically, the way to ensure that bathrooms do not discriminate against gender identity is to have two separate but equal bathrooms based on biological sex.

Still, male and female bathrooms remain problematic.  Transgender men and women often hesitate to enter bathrooms they identify with because of the very real threat of violence and or verbal abuse.  Without separate male and female bathrooms, traditionalists worry about their privacy being violated, and about the potential for sexual predators taking advantage of gender identity laws.  With documented cases of sexual deviants masquerading as transgender men entering bathrooms and locker rooms, this worry is not an excuse for discrimination but a concern based in fact.

Perhaps there is another way.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides a template for addressing these bathroom dilemmas, particularly the ADA concepts of major life functions, legitimate conditions, and reasonable accommodations.  Although established for the workplace, the conceptual framework of the ADA could be applied to any environment to address the needs of those with special requirements, along with a blueprint for addressing these special needs.  Under ADA guidelines, going to the bathroom is a major life function that qualifies for a reasonable accommodation to those with a legitimate condition effecting bathroom use. These accommodations are then created through discussion between the stakeholders.  Reasonable accommodations take into account the health and safety of everyone and the feasibility of making such accommodations, including any undue hardships such as available resources and organizational size.


Using the ADA approach legitimizes special needs and provides a dignified method to broach a delicate subject.  This measured, systematic, collaborative approach holds out hope for avoiding the divisive and contentious environment evident in imposing a one size fits all solution based on a questionable civil rights violation. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

In Defense of Religion


Like most of the world, Secularism is rising in America, while religious participation is sharply declining.  As more and more scientific principles explain what was once attributed to a creator, belief in God logically erodes.  It’s all too easy to see religion as merely quaint biblical myths and stories, comforting and palliative to believers, but dangerous when religious ideas are brought into the public square.  Or so the argument goes.  But there is another view.
For centuries, Judaeo Christian principles organized Western Civilization.  The old and new testaments served as blueprints for establishing social values and civic responsibilities, allowing for peaceful coexistence within stable, just societies.  The wisdom found in the bible served society well for two thousand years.
Clearly the idea of ethical monotheism was a great leap forward in mankind’s thinking—it replaced the self-centered animistic view of multiple totem gods with a universal God that required people to think beyond themselves.  The ideas of universality and of a non-corporeal being reflected abstract thinking that became essential for scientific reasoning.  Indeed, modern scientists, like Einstein, used God as a metaphorical guide when contemplating the principles of the universe.
Science and religion cover non overlapping spheres of human existence.  Science covers the physical sphere, and religion covers the social sphere, giving us rules for social conduct and ethics.  But science and religion intersect when explaining the creation of the universe.  The scientific view is that the universe was created from the inflation of a single infinitesimally small point containing all of the elements of the universe.  For our universe to coalesce and form, gravity and other forces needed to be so precise that it could not happen by chance … which sounds like the work of a creator. 
Scientists address the implication of a non-physical explanation for the creation of the universe with the multiverse theory.  In this theory universes are constantly being formed, indeed an infinite number of formations.  With an infinite number of formations our universe could happen by chance.  Importantly, however, there is no proof for the multiverse theory.  Like the religious view it remains an article of faith.
As America secularizes, the consequences to society are not favorable but predictable.  The concepts of sacred and profane are lost in a secular society as these concepts are embedded in religious beliefs.  Simply put, sacred thoughts and actions bring people closer to God; profane behavior does exactly the opposite.   
Without the restraint of the sacred, people can gravitate towards the profane of self-indulgence and self-gratification.   The trend towards the profane is evident – a coarsening of dialogue, immodesty, drug addiction and crime, alienation, and a breakdown of the nuclear family.  The profane has even entered the campaign for the highest office in the land in the form of Donald Trump. 
But what about the evil committed in the name of Christianity -- the medieval murders by Crusaders and the torture during the Inquisition?  This happened a long time ago, prior to the Protestant Reformation in 1517.  Obviously, Judaeo Christian leaders no longer advocate murder or torture.  True, some religious practitioners do not live up to religious teachings and act immorally or engage in cover-ups of evil deeds to protect religious institutions.   Yet there is an absolute standard to judge actions, and when evil is spotlighted and forced out of the shadows no religious figure is immune from religious condemnation.
For the non-religious, an absolute standard is replaced by an individual standard derived from reason and feeling.  The consequences of actions taken by countries and people un-moored from Judaeo Christian morality are devastating.   Many modern godless societies murdered and tortured millions upon millions of people – The Soviet Union, China, Nazi Germany, Cambodia, and North Korea to name some.  In this country, atheists used reason to advocate for eugenics and forced sterilization of undesirables.
Yet religion remains a question mark for many because of religiously conservative stances on a number of contentious social issues.  In my next blog I will explore some of these hot button issues.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Real Income Gap

The Panama Papers are making waves-- detailing the extensive use of shell corporations and secret offshore accounts as tax havens for the wealthy. We’ve long suspected that the rich made their own rules, but now there is positive proof that hiding money and shirking taxes is widespread. All it takes is a shady lawyer to look the other way when creating a faux corporation in the name of a pet, or some other bogus entity, and a willing financial institution to open an account in the name of Fido.

The left and right look at this story with different eyes. The left sees another example of greedy, wealthy tax evaders manipulating the system to their own advantage. The right sees excessive taxation forcing people to find creative ways to reduce their tax burden. Whether this story is an indictment of the rich or of the tax system itself misses the most important element of the story, an idea that strikes at the heart of a democratic society.

Many of the wealthy hiding their financial assets are political leaders and government officials. These leaders are not just corrupt despots and dictators from the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Swept up in the scandal are democratically elected leaders. David Cameron, the Prime Minister of England, and Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, the Prime Minister of Iceland, are connected with the scandal, and we can be sure that they are not alone.

These are democratically elected leaders avoiding paying taxes on their amassed wealth, but we need to wonder how they amassed such wealth in the first place? Politicians serve the people; they earn relatively modest salaries of politicians, yet they retired as multimillionaires. In an indirect way this is the question Bernie Sanders asks Hillary Clinton when he questions the enormous speaking fees she garners for talks given to financial institutions.

Virtually all career politicians become multimillionaires over the course of their careers. Yet every political cycle they talk of their humble roots. They mingle with the public, attend fairs, eat at diners, ride subways, and shop at supermarkets. This is a far cry from their actual lives, lives of power and prestige, with endless access to information and connections, which is the foundation for influence and wealth building. Politicians live lives of privilege where rules that govern the rest of the country do not always apply to them.

Several years back “60 Minutes” did a piece on members of congress engaging in insider trading for profit. Insider trading is the buying and selling of stocks by corporate insiders who have non-public information that could affect the price of a stock. It is an illegal practice for which Martha Stewart went to jail. Yet congressman conveniently wrote themselves exemption rules under the guise that they have no corporate responsibilities. As they saw it, it’s perfectly legal for a congressman sitting on a healthcare committee to buy stock in a pharmaceutical company with the knowledge that Medicare was about to approve reimbursement for a drug made by that pharmaceutical company.

The most egregious example covered in the “60 Minutes” piece was that of a Congressman sitting on the House Financial Services Committee. In the days leading up to the financial meltdown in 2008 he was briefed by the Treasury Secretary and The Federal Reserve Chairman about the impending financial crisis. Literally the next day this Congressman bought stock options that would increase in value if stock prices went down. While, presumably, this Congressman was working to avert a financial crisis, he was privately betting on the economy cratering. He profited while ordinary Americans were losing their shirts.

No wonder the elected class is so despised and that this is the year of the outsider in politics. A tipping point has been reached, the middle class is fed up with politicians, immune from the anxieties of ordinary citizens, overlooking the needs of the ordinary citizen except during an election cycle when much is promised and little is delivered.  Bernie Sanders highlights the growing income gap between the rich and the middle class and speaks of a rigged economy that only benefits the wealthy. His target is billionaires and large corporations. Instead his target should be the crony politicians who write legislation for their own benefit and the benefit of large corporations that they have cozy relationships with. The economic system of free market capitalism is not broken. It is our political system that is broken.




Thursday, March 10, 2016

Donald Trump: The FDR For The Blue Collar Worker?

Whether by design or happenstance, Donald Trump is the new spokesman for America’s long struggling white middle class. It would be a mistake to believe that bigoted rhetoric is the sole tie to white blue collar's attraction to Trump.  Racists groups like the KKK and Neo-Nazis do indeed show up at Trump rallies, but they represent the fringe elements of society.  Trump’s appeal to blue collar whites is far more nuanced than that.

White blue collar workers are angry.  They see feel marginalized the, invisible class that political leaders ignored and let down.  Political conversations center on the issues facing the poor and minority groups, but offer little or nothing to address the economic hardships facing working class whites.  Hardships created by American factories closing and relocating overseas.  Those who remain employed struggle to survive on wages that do not keep up with inflation due to long term trends of globalization and technological advances.  For them the American dream is dead.  They see fewer opportunities for themselves and even fewer on the horizon for their children.

Socially they feel abandoned. As America grows more secular, their religious and cultural views on gay marriage, abortion, and promiscuity are out of step.  The rapid shift in these values creates cognitive dissonance. The core values of a decent, moral society of the recent past are now seen as prejudiced, uncaring, quaint or even despicable.

When this group is referenced by mainstream political leaders it can be with an element of contempt.  Witness President Obama's remark that an anxious lower-middle class clinging to their guns and religion.  Or Mitt Romney's comment that the bottom 47% of the socioeconomic class are parasites on society.

Historically neither party addressed the economic anxieties of the white middle class. Democrats focused on minority rights and income inequality, even though for most working Americans their day to day concerns are about achieving a decent living and lifestyle for their families. Republicans focused on cultural and national security issues, on reforming taxes and business regulations, rather than on the dwindling standard of living for so many Americans. They are the forgotten Americans,  cynical that either political party will ever doing anything to address their needs and anxieties.

Into this cauldron of uncertainty and betrayal, enters Donald Trump. Despite his enormous wealth, he emotionally connects with blue collar workers. It doesn’t matter that Trump came from an upper class family as his wealth was earned though real estate development and construction, both seen as honest ways to earn a living.  Trump’s wealth is not a barrier to connection; it’s an asset, proof that with hard work anything can be accomplished.  It helps that Trump speaks like a blue collar worker-- unpolished, plain speaking, pugnacious, insulting, and totally unapologetic. The middle class are not invisible to him.  In his heart he’s one of them, and they can be darn sure he’ll address and solve their economic concerns.

Trump addresses the concerns of blue collar America by expressing their views in their language. He talks about incompetent politicians allowing China, Japan, and Mexico to steal jobs from America. He talks about deporting illegal immigrants because they take jobs meant for true Americans.   He talks about finding ways to help them make more money, just like he did for his own family.  It doesn’t matter that Trump doesn’t share their religious values, that his antics are outlandish and embarrassing, or even that he lies, because they know he will do right by them.  Trump hears them and he will not let them be marginalized.  They will have a powerful ally in Washington, finally a President who understands their concerns, and who will fight for their needs. 

In an odd way, Trump is replicating what FDR accomplished – a politician of great wealth that connects to the little guy.  Being the voice and protector of the little guy, for decades the province of Democrats, is now embraced by an unconventional Republican. 





Thursday, March 3, 2016

Donald Trump The Wizard Of Ozz

What to make of Donald Trump. Against all odds he is now the prohibitive favorite to capture the Republican nomination for President of the United States. The party of Lincoln and Reagan is about to nominate a crude, authoritarian, narcissistic blowhard whose claim on the presidency is that he is a “successful businessman”. Conventional political strategy is to attack him for not being a true Republican; for lacking the temperament, judgment, and core principles to be President; and for not having detailed policy proposals to address the issues facing America. This logical approach to criticizing Trump is spectacularly unsuccessful as his political strength is growing rather than diminishing.

Instead of a logical approach to undermining Trump, what is needed is a psycho-logical approach. Politics has a logic of its own that is based on meeting the psychological needs of people. To paraphrase Jonah Goldberg, when Trump says 2 + 2 = 5 he is considered an idiot by conventional standards. In politics, however, if a million people believe 2 + 2 = 5 they are not a million idiots but a “constituency” and as the constituency expands it becomes a “movement”, and the person proposing 2 + 2 = 5 is the opposite of an idiot. He is a savior.

Trump's core constituency are white blue collar workers most affected by the decades long trends of globalization and technological advances. Manufacturing shifts to countries with lower labor costs puts downward pressure on wages and technological advances replaces blue collar workers with machines. Blue collar workers no longer believe in the American dream and are considerably anxious about their economic future – particularly blue collar workers with no other job skills and too old for retraining.

Enter Donald Trump who promises to bring back jobs from China, Japan, and Mexico; eliminate illegal immigrants that are usurping jobs from Americans; and create a booming economy where wages grow and the American Dream is restored. This is catnip to his constituency and is taken as gospel because of Trump's track record of amassing a multi-billion fortune as a businessman.

Attacks on the feasibility of Trumps immigration or economic plans or his off the wall comments that range from childish to dangerous and bigoted do not persuade his core constituency. Not because they are stupid or ill informed, but because they have great faith in the Trump persona honed over many years as a TV reality host – the plain spoken, take no prisoners, feisty, and successful businessman.

Constituents re-construe criticisms of Trump through the lens of his persona. His outrageous comments and personal attacks evidences his unvarnished truthfulness. Details on his economic plans are unnecessary as his phenomenal success as a businessman demonstrates his economic acumen.

Tuesday night's primary result showed Trump expanding his constituency beyond blue collar workers. Exit polls indicated that Trump was overwhelmingly favored by voters who expressed anger or frustration with current politicians. The anti-establishment sentiment incorporates a wide swath of Republican voters. He won most states in the Super Tuesday primaries from the north to the south, from Massachusetts to Alabama. He solidified an ideologically diverse coalition of working and middle class families behind his clarion call that politicians have failed and only he can turn America around.

His followers see Trump as a fighter who speaks their language and has their back. He is the one that can make Washington work again. Never mind that Trump hints at using strong-arm tactics when he is opposed. His voters just want the proverbial trains to run on time again.

This will continue until the Trump persona is pierced, the curtain is pulled back, and he is revealed as just another Wizard of Oz. This requires questioning his business success and net worth, his concern for the vulnerable, and the consequences of having a strongman President. There is plenty of video of ordinary people affected by Trump's business scams and failings; of his roughshoding veterans and homeowners to further his business interests; of his threats to use law suits or the institutions of government to shut down freedom of speech; of his refusal to disclose prior tax returns because they reveal business reversals, lack of charitable contributions, and a considerably smaller net worth than his boastful claims.

It may be too late for saturation ads with these videos to turn the tide. The die may be cast, but the consequences of a Trump candidacy are too painful to contemplate. Truly a miracle is needed. I am going to pray for one.