America: A Progressive Elegy

During my recent trip to Berlin, I was struck by how seriously the Germans have taken their own descent into hell during the Nazi period.  Their Holocaust Memorial, with its maze of huge, gray granite blocks is a deeply moving testament to a tragedy they take responsibility for.  It is set right near the Brandenburg  Gate, the symbolic center of the city.  It is unavoidable. The brass “stumble stones” scattered throughout the city, mark thousands of homes where “murdered” Jews had lived and, with each name chiseled into the brass, personalize and publicize Nazi atrocities.  German law outlaws hate speech and Nazism, in any form.

Where, I wondered, is the American equivalent?  A memorial marking the centuries in which we embraced slavery and, subsequently, institutionalized racism?  How do we mark our own soul searching? Where is a memorial to the Native American tribes that we virtually destroyed in our imperialistic quest for more and more territory—what we called our Manifest Destiny?

I’ve had a lifelong romance with America, with its democratic ideals and its welcome to the oppressed peoples of the world.  Even when we faltered, I thought, we were on the way to redemption.  Slavery was followed by emancipation.  When the poor could not find jobs and earn decent wages, we empowered their unions and created programs that set them to work.  When our nativist and isolationist bent threatened to dominate, leaders like FDR found ways to turn our attention outwards to help win the war against Nazi Germany.  In other words, our failures were exceptions, soon to be remedied.

Recently, I’ve seen how naive I’ve been, looking through the lens of one who has prospered in this land, and giving too little weight to the experience of those who haven’t.  The emergence of the Republican Tea Party joined to the corrosive greed and bigotry of the Trump presidency, may have pushed me over the edge.  I now see current trends as deeply rooted in the American tradition. What I had seen as exceptions now seem as foundational as the American ideals I have cherished.

I am not alone in my reconsideration.  For decades now, historians have been unearthing uncomfortable truths and rewriting our narrative.  The differences are far too many and complex to list here but let me name just four areas of contention.  First, slavery was integral to the formation of our “perfect union.” During the Constitutional Convention, Northern states were ‘forced’ to accept slavery as the price of Southern participation.  When I was young, my history books insisted that Reconstruction failed because those terrible carpet baggers tried to impose their greedy capitalist way on the suffering South.  But we did not learn about the KKK terrorists who threatened Blacks and Whites who wanted to actually institutionalize emancipation.  How about now? There are over 2,300,000 Americans in prisons today, a large percentage of them men of color.  Racism has marked our culture from beginning to end.

Here’s a second area where the narrative has changed.  We were told that America was a land of immigrants, a melting pot.  But we were not supposed to form a stew with many ingredients; instead we were supposed to melt and melt until we all became the same: White Anglo Saxon Protestants.  As the signs noted, “No Irish need apply,” at least until they learned to be Americans.  No Southern Europeans, either. Their skin was too dark and they were said to smell of garlic.  We prefer blond, blue-eyed, clean-smelling folks from Northern Europe, the same people Trump prefers today.  And certainly this country has wanted to limit the number of Jews.  During the early years of the Nazi reign, we turned Jews away, turned back boatloads when their only alternative was almost certain death in concentration camps.  The people of the heartland—think of how we use that word—have always wanted their wall.

The third myth concerns our view of the Us as the land of opportunity, the land of unlimited social mobility.  After all, isn’t that why those “huddled masses” have clamored towards our shores.  Maybe this was once so but statistical studies tell us that now “there is considerably more mobility in most other developed economies…This cornerstone of US identity — that if you put in hard work, a better future awaited — long separated the US from other countries in the American imagination. But in practice, that idea is increasingly evading the country’s young people.”   In fact, the richest 1% of Americans owns almost half of our wealth, and they are holding on to it.

The fourth myth, sometimes called “American exceptionalism,” proclaims the United States as a democratic model that nations throughout the world should emulate.  Yet the increasing concentration of American wealth, fed by tax policies and hidden, thanks to the recent Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, has led to a concentration of political power.  We have become a plutocracy, where a few wealthy men exercise inordinate power over government policy.  In this plutocracy, the meaning of one man, one vote, is losing its meaning.  And indeed, this is not as new as you might think.  Our Founding Fathers never intended a majoritarian democracy.  They trusted landowners and White men and built political structures like the Electoral College to guard against the “tyranny of the majority.”  They empowered the real Americans—rural and White—by giving them the Senate.  How else do we justify Wyoming, population 573,000, having the same vote as California, population 39,000,000?

I could go on to explain how our country was built to share power only so much but, in the little space I have left, I want to offer a few thoughts about what we can and should do about it.  I have three recommendations.

First, we need to do some soul searching and acknowledge the inherent problems of our democracy, such that the Freedom Caucus, the Alt Right, and Trump, are not exceptions.  They are as American as Progressives are.  In other words, we must remove our veil and begin our reforms from an honest, realistic perspective.  We need to cleanse our mind and spirit in order to build a more just and equal American future.

Second, like Germany, we need to fashion and initiative a process of peace, reconciliation, and reparation.  Once we have searched our own souls, we need to talk honestly, directly with the people we have injured or their descendants and find out how they would build a better world.  I find it humiliating that the Germans could look inside, admit their guilt, and try to build a society where anti-Semitism cannot rise again, while America has undergone no such process for slavery.  As so many great and eloquent African Americans have already insisted, we need to own up to the racism in all of us.  We need to ban hate speech in all of its forms.  And like Germany, which has paid reparations to Israel, we should seriously consider reparation to the descendants of slaves—enough to give them real economic momentum in our society.  To heal our society, we can’t afford not to.

Third, we must rebuild, not tear down, the institutions and laws that guarantee all people have equal access to the educational, economic, and cultural wealth of our nation.  This might start by dismantling barriers, such as:  1) the Electoral College; 2) the practice of gerrymandering; 3) the restrictions on voting.  And it might proceed by reintroducing a much fuller guarantee of voting rights, fair progressive taxation, guaranteed by a government that is actually by, for, and of the people.

Call these suggestions idealistic, pie in the sky, aspirational.  But it looks to me like Trump and his Republican enablers are willing to sacrifice democratic ‘niceties’ in the service of ideological ends, and to avenge their base’s humiliation at the hands of the “elites.”. And it looks to me that they may win if we don’t directly and strongly engage this battle now.

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Fascism and Us: What Makes for a Credible Threat, and Are We There Yet?

When I first traveled in Europe in 1963, I kept my distance from Germany.  The very hint of the German language when we neared its borders frightened and repulsed me.  The Holocaust was still fresh in mind.

Last week, Franny and I spent a few days in Berlin.  Time has created distance, softened my feelings, allayed my fears.  Decades of German liberalism and cultural tolerance have attracted me.  The brass Stumble Stones (Solpersteines) in front of countless homes, each identifying the Jewish resident who lived there before being murdered in the Holocaust, speak to a deep reckoning among the German people.  Angela Merkel’s embrace of refugees has had me cheering.  Her attempt to stand firm against Trump’s abuses, though it might cost her her leadership position, has been admirable.  In those stark old terms, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

For the most part, we were not disappointed.  Berlin seems like open, optimistic city.  More like Paris than London, where we had just spent a week, with tree-lined avenues and thousands upon thousands of cafes line the streets, peopled by laughing and eagerly engaged young people.

But this may be what it appeared to Jews like me in the 1920’s and very early 1930’s, even as Nazis and Communists competed to overturn the Weimar Republic.  During that period, Berlin was bursting with a fierce and open discourse on the future of human society.

Then it happened.  Quickly, decisively and disastrously, Hitler and the Nazis were elected to power.  Remember that notion: they were elected. The liberals portrayed him as a thug, a buffoon, a liar and prophesied that he would soon be out of office.  They protected themselves with gallows humor.  They ‘knew’ that his rise represented an aberration in German society, when a minority outmaneuvered the majority.  Almost no one anticipated the use of the Reichstag Fire (the burning of the German Parliament) to serve as a national emergency that required the “temporary” creation of authoritarian rule.  But the ruse worked and the Nazis were instantly, and then inexorably, entrenched.

For decades after the defeat of Nazism in World War II, historians and social analysts searched for explanations for Hitler’s ascendance.  They argued that it grew directly out of German culture, with its myths of Aryan superiority.  They described the “authoritarian personality” that made the majority of Germans so responsive to Hitler’s call.  They noted how suffering during the Great Depression amplified the need for a savior.  In short, Nazism was portrayed as the inevitable outcome of cultural and economic forces.

But with the years, historians have come to see that the Nazi outcome was not inevitable.  The conditions were ripe, but people and decisions brought it to fruition.

When the Nazis first took power, people said that Hitler’s reign wouldn’t last, that the German people would come to their senses and the problems would pass.  This was the view of the Weimar liberals who had governed during the 1920’s; and it was the view of many Jews, who didn’t or, for lack of means, couldn’t, emigrate.  They missed the signs.  They simply couldn’t believe the Nazi menace would prove so cataclysmic.

This week, David Leonhardt, a New York Times journalist whom I admire, wrote that “this is not the time to despair or to panic.”  It is time to work as hard as we can, largely at the grassroots level, to build opposition to Trump and the hard right Republicans who protect him because they are convinced that he is useful in protecting their interests.

Normally, I would be in Leonhardt’s camp.  I have carried on a lifelong love affair with America and its Progressive traditions.  Over the years, though, I have grown more cautious, more skeptical about the untrammeled “power of the people,” more appreciative of the small “c” conservative checks and balances built into the Constitution and the trenchant dictates of our Bill of Rights. Still a patriot on my terms, I have become less of a romantic and more of a realistic democrat.

Where once the belief that the fundamental generosity of the human heart would lead to eternal progress, in which social and economic justice and equality would prevail, my eyes have now opened to the evil that men do.  I see the tendency to draw into tribes when we are threatened or simply feel threatened, then attack the “other” before the other attacks us.  I can’t help but see the almost explosive growth of nativism and outright racism in the United States and around the world.  And the nativists have formed into powerful groups, fueled, as Nazism was in Germany, by wealthy men, who thought it would serve their interests—and that they could control its excesses. These movements frighten me.

About a year ago, I wrote a couple of essays describing the parallels between Donald Trump and other fascist and authoritarian leaders.  I worried that fascism had grown too close.  Mostly the responses to these essays were tepid and slightly disapproving.  People thought me pessimistic, alarmist.  They thought my tone was too shrill.  The more psychologically minded wondered if I was just depressed.

I am sad to say that my fears have only grown. Trump and his Republican enablers have been systematically removing the constraints on his power.  With a second Supreme Court nominee, it is almost certain that the Court would deny challenges to his power.  With the disenfranchisement of the Meuller investigation, the challenge to Trump’s legitimacy is vanishing.  With the expansion of Executive Power, a century-long trend, the President can do more and more by fiat, claiming that he is the only one who knows the “will of the people.”  With our tendency to cover Executive Action of all sorts—from trade to immigration policy—under the veil of national security, the President is freer to dictate national policy.  As he does, Congress stands mute and impotent.  Finally, Trump has seemingly joined forces with Russia and against our European allies, which looks a little like the Nonaggression Pact that Hitler formed with Stalin prior to the second World War.

Despite the outrage of much of our press and of, I imagine, the disapproval of the majority of American citizens, Donald Trump seems to be moving almost ineluctably towards dictatorship.

Judge for yourselves.  Here is a definition of fascism: “…a form of radical authoritarian ultra-nationalism, characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition and control of industry and commerce…”  Does that not sound at least a little familiar? If Trump were to successfully muzzle the press, might this be possible?  Does Trump’s embrace of Putin, Erdogan in Turkey, Duerte in the Philippines, Kim in North Korea, Orban in Hungary, Duda in Poland, Assad in Syria, and other dictators around the world at least suggest that this is his ideal?

The accusation that we have hurled at pre-Nazi, “regular” Germans is that they missed the signs, that they never took Hitler seriously enough.  They didn’t fight hard enough or flee fast enough.  They couldn’t see how an elected leader could become a dictator.  How about us?

Could we have a Reichstag Fire of our own, a “national emergency” that “justifies” the consolidation of power in the hands of a narcissistic, power-hungry maniac?  Could he arrange a little war in Korea, Syria, or anyplace that demands greater executive strength—the quality he so admires in Putin?  How about an attack like the one in 2001?  By weakening our intelligence community, isn’t Trump making this more likely?   Might a few major hurricanes or wildfires provide an excuse?  There are so many potential crises that would do well enough as pretext to a “temporary” dictatorship.

Unlike Germany, the United States has not reckoned with it terrible past, with the enslavement, then oppression of Africans and African Americans, and with the virtual decimation of Native American nations.  We have been insufficiently reflective about our own culture, which may make us less able to deal with our current crisis.

Am I being alarmist here?  Maybe. But isn’t it worth sounding the alarm?  Shouldn’t we take more seriously this trend towards fascism? Shouldn’t we say that blinking light signaling a credible fascist threat has moved from yellow to red?.  And, if it has, what should we do?

Relationships as Covenants

Professor Jameson said very clearly that his church, evangelical and puritanical, was at the center of his family.  You could only understand them by understanding their faith in Jesus and their deep commitment to Christian doctrine.  His wife nodded.  His teenage daughters nodded.  Even his 15 year old son seemed to agree.

The occasion was an interview that I was conducting for a television pilot.  We wanted to explore—and celebrate, I thought—the great variety of American families.  As I began to explore Professor Jameson’s opening, there was a knock on the one way window that separated us from the camera man and the producer.  The producer was already bored.  The pilot needed something juicy in order to win over his audience.  He wanted to know how the parents dealt with the girls so-far-unexpressed dating desires.  I did too, I said.  Let’s see how a deeply Christian family deals with it.  He wanted to watch them negotiate or argue, which I already knew wouldn’t happen in public, if ever.

Over the next hour, the producer interrupted several times and I never got as deeply as I wanted into the specific covenant that bonded the family together.  That was about twenty-five years ago but I remember it perfectly because it spoke to an idea that has become thematic to me: marriages, families, organizations, and communities who are united by a belief in something beyond themselves, are more securely bonded than those who come together simply on the basis of mutual or negotiated agreement.

The origin of the covenantal idea is biblical.  For example, when Abimelech and Isaac decided to settle their land dispute, they made a binding agreement, a covenant, to live in peace.  When Moses brought the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people, their relationship to the Commandments was said to be covenantal, which I think means that the relationship with God sealed and strengthened the relationship between Moses, the secular leader, and his community.  Thus the Jews were said to be people of the covenant.

The best way to describe covenantal relationships may be by comparing them to what might be called transactional relationships.  In the law, these are written agreements or promises between two or more parties, generally “under seal” and concerning some performance or action.  Transactional contracts are quid pro quo arrangements.  I agree to do this if you do that.  If one of us fails, the other is no longer obligated to fulfill his part of the contract.  There is no assumed relationship, no necessary loyalty, and it can end when either chooses.

Free agency in sports is a good example of how this works.  The dramatic change in employer-employee relations, once a lifetime affair, ensured by loyalty to an almost family-style relationship, and now a matter of financial calculation, also illustrates the transactional style.

There can, of course, be common ground between the two types of agreements.  If, for example, both parties believe that the law, itself, is sacred, if the agreement is thought to be not only formal but also solemn and binding, then the agreement might be considered covenantal.  But in most cases this is not so.

The covenantal relationship is more like a three legged stool.  Two people or groups come to an agreement but another force is present.  It could be God.  It could be a shared sense of mission, a shared set of values—something larger, more important than the two people and the particular agreement.  If this is so, any breach in the agreement is a transgression, not just against the other party but also against God or sacred values.  In that case, you don’t violate the terms of the agreement very readily; nor do you leave the relationship with ease.

There is, however, a complicating factor in covenantal relationships: the assumption of free will.  As in a transactional agreement, a covenantal relationship must be elected.  You have to make a decision and, once made, you have to be all in.

The combination of a binding yet freely elected relationship has a paradoxical quality.  If you opt in why can’t you opt out?  How do you sustain the experience of permanence when you have free will?  I believe that solving this paradox is at the heart of virtually all spiritual and religious experience.  At the risk of extending myself way beyond my own understanding, let me propose a few keys to such a solution.

The first is a willing suspension of disbelief.  You simply insist, internally and externally, that the compact is forever—or, as they say, until death do us part.  During the marriage ceremony, for example, we are aware, cognitively, that divorce is a possibility, but we will ourselves to deny it.  The marriage is forever—and we believe it.

This brings me to the second key to sealing a covenantal relationship: ritual.  Over and again, rituals like anniversary celebrations and yearly religious celebrations of Easter,  Passover, and Ramadan consolidate our connection to past, present, and future.  They remind us emotionally, more than cognitively, that the covenant is eternal and sacred.

The third key is to hold both sides of the apparent contradiction—freedom of choice and permanence—together, in one hand, one breath, hold them so close that they touch and inform one another and no longer seem in conflict.

There is one last quality of covenantal relationships that I want to name.  In Hebrew, it is called hessed, which means loving kindness.  This speaks to the day by day quality of relationships, when discipline and spontaneity combine to bring generosity to one another.  By contrast, the binding power of relationships that lack hessed feels obligatory, tolerable, necessary, reasonable.  But not enhancing.  The very nature of obligatory relationships is that they are often bothersome and, in fact, unreasonable.  When that is so, the parties resist.  The thought of leaving can seem practical and relieving.  Leaving becomes easier.  Short of leaving, checking out, living within the relationship but without strong feelings becomes the norm.

When you combine the sacred quality of a covenantal relationship with free will and loving kindness, relationships become strong and life giving.  This is an idea—an image and a feeling—that has come to me late in life.  I could not be more grateful.

When We Summon Our Dear Ones

With glistening eyes, Lily told us this story: A friend’s mother, still lucid but dying, summoned her dear ones to share her last days with her and with one another.  I know neither daughter nor mother but found myself close to tears, choked up and unable to speak.  The same was true for others who listened to Lily tell her story.  There is something about the word ‘summoned,’ something about being summoned that is immensely evocative.

I picture an elderly woman with clear and commanding eyes and a strong, almost stern, expression on her face.  She’s resting in a large bed, covered very neatly with sheets and blankets.  She tells us that her time has come, that life has been filled with struggles and joy, with beauty and terror—just like this exact moment.  And she accepts this moment.  She accepts the finality.  She wants us to accept it too because, in its acceptance is the secret to a good life.

Of course, I have extrapolated this scene, constructing it in my own image and according to my own desires.  It’s an effort to explain to myself—and to you—what made Jenny’s story so powerful.

But my response may, in large part, be the simple awe that the word to “summon” evokes.  The dictionary tells us that it means to “authoritatively or urgently call on (someone) to be present.”  To me, it has a biblical and mythic feel to it.  Moses summons the Israelites when he descends from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.  Jesus summons his disciples at key moments.  In Islam, the “Da’wah” of Mohammed literally means issuing a summons or making an invitation.  In every case, a summons brings you into the presence of someone or some thing that is sacred and that speaks directly to the core of your being.

When God calls Moses, Moses answers: “I am here.”  He’s not talking about mere physical presence; not even normal attentiveness.  Moses signals that he is entirely present, with all of his senses.  Every fiber of his being is prepared to receive the word of God.  Here, then, is one of the keys to understanding a summons.  It isn’t just the august quality of the summoner.  It is, equally, the quality of our response.  Our response creates or fortifies a relationship, like no other in its intensity.  The connection is profound.

In all of the Western and Middle Eastern traditions, the connection is first initiated by a prophet, then built into a covenant between the prophet and his followers.  In its simplest sense, a covenant is an agreement among people.  But it isn’t the same as a contract, a quid pro quo among people that says “I’ll do this if you do that,” and can be severed at each person’s will.  It is stronger because it involves a third party — shared principles, or revered witnesses, and, in some cases, God.  Leader and followers are bonded together to serve, not only themselves but a higher purpose.

And it involves what Jews, the “people of the covenant,” call chesed, or loving kindness, which means that all transactions among the covenanted people must be infused with this spirit.

Among the most distinctive qualities of the covenantal relationship is that it is freely chosen.  Yes, there is compliance.  Lily’s friend complies with her mother’s powerful summons.   There is even submission.  We submit to the will of the summoner.  So, too, will the people of Israel, Jesus’ disciples, and Mohammed’s followers. This speaks to a powerful human urge, not often articulated in contemporary society, to submit to someone or something that is more knowing and more powerful.  There is relief.  Ah, we don’t have to struggle.  We don’t have to find our own way, at least not alone.  And there is an almost luxuriant pleasure in the surrender.

Yet, the compliance takes on its special meaning because it is chosen.  We are not required to surrender.  We can take another path.  But we don’t.  We choose to submit to the will of another.  And the act of choosing is exhilarating.  We want to leap and yell and laugh with the freedom of the moment.

For some of us, joining these two ideas, freedom and submission, seems confusing.  But living this paradox is at the heart of most religious practice.

So far, I’ve been talking about the person who responds to the call, but what about the person who summons others.  It may be the image of Lily’s friend’s mother summoned her flock that first drew me into this subject, but what does she feel and what might I feel in those final moments?

There she was, in her last moments, not even a religious person, not a person who believed in the afterlife.  In the spirit of dust-to-dust, she is about to disappear.  And, at that moment, she chooses to summon family and friends.  She is powerful enough to do so.  She believes in herself enough to do so.  Imagine: even as she departs, there is efficacy and dignity and the freedom to choose her way to die.

When my day comes, I want to be like this woman.  I want to be lucid and I want to love and be loved by family and friends right up to the end.  But there’s more.  I want to believe that I can summon them to my bedside, not to offer last words of wisdom, but to be with them: to laugh and cry together and to hold one another.  For me, that is a breathtaking image, as vivid and poignant as any afterlife could offer.