Monday, December 29, 2008

Fair Trade Chanukah

Now that the holiday is over, I find this fascinating piece over on

Something to remember for next year! (In the mean time, let's change the U.S. government's relations with El Salvador, not just our buying practices.)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, his memory a blessing

I was Arnie Wolf's student and Hillel congregant at Yale from 1976 to 1980. As a teacher, he was intellectually beyond me: one of the first people to appreciate the French Jewish ethical thinker Emmanuel Levinas, for example. As a spiritual leader and political activist, he was fearless and funny at the same time, a wonderful example for us all.

Following his example, when we reach the last paragraph of the Amidah, to this day I say out loud, le-takein olam b'malchut shaddai, "to repair and perfect the world with God as our Guide."

I also like to tell A.J. Wolf stories.

  • The year he began a High Holy Day sermon, "Karl Marx once wrote that the main thing Jews care about is money. And I think he was right." He went on to explain that because Jews take the power of money seriously, we take economic justice seriously: a true Marxian insight, but delivered in the provocative Rabbi Wolf style!

  • His insistence that teshuvah (repentance and return) really wipes away sin from our constitution. I remember objecting that when we have the habit of doing something wrong, it's in our brain cells and body chemistry and not so easily wished away. "I believe," he said, "that teshuvah wipes sin out of the brain." A neuroscientist before his time!

  • The time that the Yale Political Union wanted to arrange a debate on the Middle East. One of the organizers said, "We can invite Rabbi Wolf for one side, but then who will speak for the Jews?" When Arnie heard this, he roared with laughter. Back then, the two-state solution he advocated was a radical's dream. Now, it is everybody's pious hope. The times have changed, and he helped change them.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Don't Forget the Motor City

I don't usually post things that are floating around the internet, especially if they've been out there for a year and a half. This is an exception. I'm posting this bit of satire (sent to me by Beth M) because when auto makers and right-wing pundits are trying to blame labor for the woes of Detroit, it's good to remember where the decisions are made.

A Modern Parable.

A Japanese company ( Toyota ) and an American company (Ford Motors) decided to have a canoe race on the Missouri River . Both teams practiced long and hard to reach their peak performance before the race.

On the big day, the Japanese won by a mile.

The Americans, very discouraged and depressed, decided to investigate the reason for the crushing defeat. A management team made up of senior management was formed to investigate and recommend appropriate action.

Their conclusion was the Japanese had 8 people rowing and 1 person steering, while the American team had 7 people steering and 2 people rowing.

Feeling a deeper study was in order, American management hired a consulting company and paid them a large amount of money for a second opinion.

They advised, of course, that too many people were steering the boat, while not enough people were rowing.

Not sure of how to utilize that information, but wanting to prevent another loss to the Japanese, the rowing team's management structure was totally reorganized to 4 steering supervisors, 2 area steering superintendents and 1 assistant superintendent steering manager.

They also implemented a new performance system that would give the 2 people rowing the boat greater incentive to work harder. It was called the 'Rowing Team Quality First Program,' with meetings, dinners and free pens for the rowers. There was discussion of getting new paddles, canoes and other equipment, extra vacation days for practices and bonuses. The pension program was trimmed to 'equal the competition' and some of the resultant savings were channeled into morale-boosting programs and teamwork posters.

The next year the Japanese won by two miles.

Humiliated, the American management laid off one rower, halted development of a new canoe, sold all the paddles, and canceled all capital investments for new equipment. The money saved was distributed to the Senior Executives as bonuses.

The next year, try as he might, the lone designated rower was unable to even finish the race (having no paddles,) so he was laid off for unacceptable performance, all canoe equipment was sold and the next year's racing team was out-sourced to India .

Sadly, the End.

Here's something else to think about: Ford has spent the last thirty years moving all its factories out of the US , claiming they can't make money paying American wages.

TOYOTA has spent the last thirty years building more than a dozen plants inside the US . The last quarter's results:

TOYOTA makes 4 billion in profits while Ford racked up 9 billion in losses.

Ford folks are still scratching their heads, and collecting bonuses...


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The New Agent Orange? (part II)

Yet another reason not to join the military: death by cancer. According to the Boston Globe:
Sixteen Indiana national guardsmen filed a lawsuit yesterday accusing KBR, the Houston-based US defense contractor, of knowingly exposing them to "one of the most potent carcinogens" known to man while they guarded a water treatment plant in Iraq that the company was repairing.
Back on June 30, I asked whether sodium dichromate (the chemical in question) would turn out to be the new Agent Orange. The scariest thing is that it may take a generation to know the answer. Dr. Craig Hyams, chief consultant for environmental health at the Department of Veterans Affairs. said that three decades after U.S. troops bailed out of Vietnam, "Veterans Affairs is still analyzing the effects of Agent Orange."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Marching Orders for Organizers

Decades ago, Saul Alinsky wrote Rules for Radicals, explaining to a new generation how to organize--and keep organizing--to change America. Obama campaigners, are you listening? Michael Perschuk's article "Election's Over--Time to Begin" in the 12/15 issue of The Nation explains how Young Democrats in Maryland have updated Alinsky. If, like my friend Kate McCulley, you're in election withdrawal, here's the antidote. Let's get out there!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

If This Were Reform, It Would Have Different Friends

I've written before that the main problem with the Massachusetts mandatory health insurance plan is that it mandates coverage--but not care. Are we about to see that problem made larger on the national level?

"Lobbies backing health reforms," today's Boston Globe headline screams. "Insurers change their tune from 1993-94 debate." But the article makes it clear that insurance companies are getting involved only so they can protect their own interests, not those of the patients who need the care. It quotes Karen Ignagni, the president of "the nation's largest health insurance lobbying group":
"Strategically, industries have choices if they're at the epicenter of the discussion about a certain part of the economy," she said. "They can sit and wait for others to develop proposals or take the bull by the horns and look at what are the issues that are troubling the country, what are the issues that need to be resolved to help improve the productivity of the country. . . . It's not an altruistic strategy, it's a realistic leadership strategy."
And the insurance companies certainly do have a dog in this fight.
The insurance industry, meanwhile, could gain or lose depending on which reforms are adopted: Offering tax credits or subsidies to help pay for private coverage for the uninsured could bring insurers millions of new customers; but if a reform law also lets people choose a public Medicare-style plan, private insurers could lose business.
As they should! Here is an early warning signal that the Obama administration may become the third term of the Clinton era. To stop this backsliding in its tracks, check out Health Care for America Now. For the solution we really need, see your doctor: Physicians for a National Health Program.

Monday, December 1, 2008

"Cautious is the New Risky"

A final thought about changing Obama, for now:

The editor of The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel, has written, "I think that we progressives need to be as clear-eyed, tough and pragmatic about Obama as he is about us." She recommends "that progressives must avoid falling into either of two extremes--reflexively defensive or reflexively critical." Please see her cogent strategic advice at The Nation website.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

No Honeymoon

I've been reviewing some of the reasons Obama will need to be pushed if he is going to be a progressive President, and some of the major areas in which we need to push him. The key thing is, we can't wait.

Already, Obama is selecting Cabinet members and advisors who put the counsels of caution and the interests of corporations over the needs of the poor, the unemployed and under-employed, immigrants, people of color, youth, women, gays, and even the middle class--in short, ahead of everybody who helped Obama get elected.

Already, Obama is signaling that left to himself, he will use the economic crisis as an excuse not to do some of the things that would solve the economic crisis more speedily--let alone create more economic justice in the future.

It's traditional to give new Presidents a grace period, a time to wait and see what they will do. We can't afford that now. We just threw big business, the war hawks, and the religious right an eight-year wedding party. We can't afford to give Obama a honeymoon.

We need to follow the advice of another Democratic President during times of economic crisis, Franklin Roosevelt. "FDR was, of course, a consummate political leader. In one situation, a group came to him urging specific actions in support of a cause in which they deeply believed. He replied: I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it."

We can make the administration do what we deeply belive it must do. It's not too late, but it's not a moment too soon. As Dennis Kucinich said, "Wake up, America!"

What if Moveon were on the air today with videos calling the new administration to keep its campaign promises? What if all the $1o contributors to the campaign were now sending $10 a month to advocates and community organizers? What if people who went door-to-door for Obama and for a Democratic majority in Congress were out there today, signing people up for massive demonstrations one month after Election Day?

What would the next four years look like then? Let's find out, shall we?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Where We Need to Change Obama

I don't agree with his accusatory tone--I think most people voted for Obama with their eyes open--but Sam Smith has "listed nearly three dozen things that Obama supports or
opposes with which no good liberal or progressive would agree." Most prominent among them to my perspective:

  • Ending the occupation of Iraq only to send more troops into Afghanistan.
  • Trying to provide health insurance to people by mandating they buy it, instead of providing health care to people and cutting out the insurance industry completely.
  • Recognizing loving relationships between men and men or women and women through civil unions, and denying them the equal rights that the word marriage confers.
  • Double the funding for charter schools instead of working to make public schools into places of education for all.
On each of these points, we will have to use the movement tactics that Obama has mastered to bring pressure against him.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Did Somebody Mention Corporate Power?

How do we know that the Obama administration will be under pressure to cave to corporations? I couldn't say it any better than Derrick Jackson did the Globe:

For the first time since 1994, the defense and healthcare industries gave a majority of campaign contributions to the Democrats - albeit bare majorities. They will expect to be first in line for loopholes from Obama. Resistance to modernization is likely from energy companies and the transportation industry, which gave about two-thirds of their funds to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

For all the chaos this nation was thrown into by the $700 billion bank bailout, the Washington Post reported this week that $290 billion of it has been committed without anyone yet being hired to oversee it. It also happens that the banking industry was another sector that gave Democrats a bare majority of campaign contributions for the first time since the early 1990s. How much oversight will Obama truly insist upon?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Obama Silent on Corporate Power

Progressives in Somerville, as elsewhere, have invested a lot of hope in an Obama presidency. After the Bush administration's systematic attack on rights, liberties, and the common good, Obama can hardly help doing better! Yet on some of the most basic issues, Obama has been silent.

Issue #1: Corporate power. It's refreshing that the Obama-Biden campaign pledged to protect consumers. On issues like mortgage fraud, predatory credit card lending, and bankruptcy laws, the new administration has taken positions we should support, and there are plenty of other examples. We have to ask, though: why have Democrats not addressed these issues already? It's not because they just discovered the issues. It's because any attempt to help the majority of us runs into the buzzsaw of corporate power.
  • Corporate leaders directly intervene in elections by supporting some candidates over others. Obama may be less indebted to corporate funds than most candidates because of his ability to collect small donations in large numbers--but he has to work with Congress, most of which is already bought and paid for.
  • Corporate lobbyists have tight relationships of long standing with the Congressional committees that write laws and the bureaucracies that create and enforce policies in that corporation's line of work. These "iron triangles" are part of the reason the country is in the mortgage/foreclosure/banking crisis we are in right now. Out of sight, they worked in corporate interests and against the public interest.
  • Corporate capital often gets what it wants without bribes or explicit threats. They just say that a given policy would not be good for "the economy." (When I hear "the economy" these days, I think of men in $2,000 suits getting $2,000,000 bonuses for crashing their companies.) Or they say that if a certain policy were passed, it would "cost jobs." This is a threat in disguise. Jobs don't just disappear. Corporate leaders slash positions when they are not making the profits they want--which are much higher now than corporate profits have ever been!
The whole liberal idea is to use government power to rein in corporate power. Unfortunately, and especially in the era of globalization, corporate power has been stronger. Barack Obama shows no signs of recognizing this problem, let alone using people power as the solution. So, it's up to us.

If The People Lead The Leaders Will Follow

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Not Far Enough on the Rule of Law

Last week, I started to make the case: even if you have been the most fervent supporter of Obama all year, it's time to start pushing and prodding him to do better. I listed areas in which Obama promised changes we should support and explained why he'll be forced to abandon those promises unless we keep after him. I pointed out some areas where Obama's campaign promises move in the right direction, but not far enough, and we're going to have to hold his feet to the fire to get the change we need.

Another one of those "not far enough" positions is where Obama stands on constitutional civil liberties. In the Obama-Biden campaign platform, they pledge to work for the civil rights of women,people of color, and gay and lesbian people as well as people with disabilities. This is important, although transgendered people are not mentioned at all. But the Constitution is more than just a pact against discrimination. What about the right not to be thrown into prison at whim and kept there at the pleasure of the president? What about the right to a fair trial?

There are reports that Obama is considering closing Guantanamo, letting some people who were arrested for the wrong reasons (or no reasons) free, and bringing the rest back to the U.S. to stand trial. This is a move in the right direction. It is encouraging. But when a friend wrote, "Wow. I am so happy I want to cry, now. The restoration of rule of law is imminent," I thought, "Don't get fooled again!" If you read the article carefully, you see they are not going to the normal courts, but some kind of hybrid civilian/military court that would try them but not reveal state secrets in the process.

Says the article,
"I think that creating a new alternative court system in response to the abject failure of Guantanamo would be a profound mistake," Jonathan Hafetz, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represents detainees, said Monday. "We do not need a new court system. The last eight years are a testament to the problems of trying to create new systems."
The system created at Guantanamo and through the secret prisons and military commissions is so flawed, it may not be possible ever to give these people a fair trial! Obama should try people in the regular criminal courts or let them go. Then, he should address the serious task: ending warrantless wiretaps and other crimes against the American people while ensuring real security--something the bellicose Bush Administration has failed to do for going on eight years.

Monday, November 10, 2008

All Over this Land

When I said I was content with the results of the presidential election, I was not thinking about--had not even heard about--the passage of Proposition 8 in California. The voters narrowly voted to repeal marriage equality in California. It's the first time since slavery days that a state has taken rights away from a whole class of people. It is a tragedy, and living in Massachusetts (where I can look my gay and lesbian friends in the eye, since they have the same rights and privileges I have) doesn't take anything away from that tragedy. However...

I remember when a liberal Democratic governor of Massachusetts made a new rule that kept same-sex couples from being foster parents. I remember when it changed. I remember when two lesbian friends announced at shul that one of them had legally adopted the biological child of the other, and we all cheered. I remember when the marriage equality decision was the ONLY cheerful political news in the state of Massachusetts that year. I am going to live long enough to remember when marriage equality is the law of the land.

Obama's Promises Fall Short

On key issues, Obama either doesn't go far enough, or he hasn't said anything at all.

Not far enough:

  • Jobs. "Obama and Biden will invest $1 billion over five years in transitional jobs and career pathway programs." So what? That's about $100 per person for the 10.1 million people who are out of work now--and with a recession upon us, there are going to be a lot more unemployed soon! What's really needed is a massive employment program. Repair roads and bridges, redo government computer systems so they are as good as corporate systems, provide childcare and after-school tutoring to everyone who needs it...there are jobs needing to be done everywhere.
  • Making Work Pay. "Raise the Minimum Wage to $9.50 an Hour by 2011," says the Obama platform. This is pitiful. For a full-time worker, $9.50/hour comes to not quite $20,000/year. This is enough for a single person in Alabama, where the cost of living is low. It is not enough for a parent in any of the 50 states. In Massachusetts, a two-parent, two-children family would need to work three full-time jobs at $9.50/hour to make ends meet. And that's right now, not in 2011! Raise the minimum wage to $12/hour immediately, and push high-cost states to set their standards higher.
  • Saving the Environment. "Ensure 10 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025." Way too slow! By comparison, the European Union is aiming at a 20% cut by 2020. With recent evidence of how fast the climate is changing, even that is too modest.
I could go on and on, but you probably have an example of your own. What issues are most important to you, and how does Obama address them but fall short?

Along with pressing the new administration to keep its promises, we have to make them exceed them. WE have to. They won't do it on their own.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Get Up, Stand Up After the Election

To keep the promises made by the Obama campaign, the Obama Administration will need all the help it can get.

Here is a very partial and incomplete list of campaign promises that I think Obama should keep:

Economy: Create a new "Making Work Pay" tax credit of up to $500 per person, or $1,000 per working family. Eliminate all capital gains taxes on start-ups and small businesses. Use trade agreements to spread good labor and environmental standards around the world. Ensure the freedom to unionize. Raise the minimum wage, index it to inflation and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit. Expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to cover businesses with 25 or more employees (instead of the 50+ employee businesses it currently covers).

Health Care: Require insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions. Require coverage of preventive services, including cancer screenings, and increase state and local preparedness for terrorist attacks and natural disasters. Lower drug costs by allowing the importation of safe medicines from other developed countries, increasing the use of generic drugs in public programs and taking on drug companies that block cheaper generic medicines from the market.

Foreign Policy: Secure all loose nuclear materials in the world within four years. End the war in Iraq and remove U.S. troops through a phased withdrawal. Emphasize diplomacy over military intervention. Focus America's attention on the challenges facing Africa. Cut extreme poverty in half by 2015.

Immigration: Increase the number of legal immigrants. Promote economic development in Mexico to decrease illegal immigration.

Poverty: Invest $1 billion over five years in transitional jobs and career pathway programs. Increase benefits for working parents, raise the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2011, and provide tax relief to low- and middle-income workers. Create an Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Fully fund the Community Development Block Grant to aid cities, and invest in rural jobs, schools, and green industries.

Civil rights: Pass the Fair Pay Act to ensure that women receive equal pay for equal work and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. Pass the Matthew Shepard Act and strengthen federal hate crimes legislation. Enforce the laws we have.

Other women's issues (besides poverty, civil rights, etc.): Support research into women's health, help prevent unintended pregnancy (surely a men's issue too!), reduce domestic violence, preserve women's right to reproductive choice under Roe v. Wade.

Give Real Authority to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board: Created by Congress and recommended by the 9/11 Commission, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board needs to be substantially reformed and empowered to safeguard against an erosion in American civil liberties.

Reading this list after eight years of the Bush Administration is like taking a deep breath after eight years of chronic pneumonia! Still, just seeing the words is not enough. We must see action--and the President cannot do it by himself.

  • Lots of these initiatives cost money. Obama will have Robert Rubin and other voices of Clintonomics whispering into his ear that we can't afford these big plans, that we should settle for small victories. It would be easy for him to listen, to cop out, saying he didn't realize how bad the economy would be. We need to stand instead with Representative Rangel. When they ask him where he'll get the money for social programs, he says, "The same place Paulson gets it for the bailout." The more people tell Obama that, the more room he'll have to carry out his plans.

  • Some of Obama's promises will face corporate opposition. Raising the minimum wage and regulating the insurance industry are two proposals that every Chamber of Commerce across the country will scream about. We need to scream louder.

  • Some of them will be derided as "favoring special interests." But the groups being advanced--women, people of color, gays, immigrants--are the majority in America! What's more, they are being advanced by measures that promote justice. We need to make it clear that there is a large, vocal, and persistent body of people who will hold the Administration's feet to the fire on this, to protect them from knee-jerk reactions by people who feel their own privileges are being taken away.
I hope it is clear that we cannot sit back and let Barack do it. Just to make his own promises into policy, he will need us to stand up.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Time for a Change--but We Must Make It Happen

The results of last night's election are about as good as I could have wished. Obama-Biden won by a large enough margin that no amount of cheating could affect the outcome. Democrats widened their lead in Congress, and progressives held onto their seats. There's still a chance that Al Franken could become the next Senator from Minnesota. Most important to me personally, Massachusetts voted 2-1 against eliminating the state income tax.

It' s still important that every vote be counted--and that attempts to suppress the vote be identified and punished. Whoever tried to use text messages and Facebook to convince college students the election date had been moved should go to jail!

So, I hope everyone enjoyed last night. It's time to get back to work. The campaign isn't over. If we really want change, we're going to have to make it happen.

What? Am I really saying we can't leave everything in Obama's hands? Yes, I am. For one thing, that's not democracy: that's electing a king. For another, Obama has never called for the changes I believe in. He's a 21st-century liberal who wants to tinker around the edges of government, not revolutionize it. Even to get done what he says he wants to do, however, he will need us to give him visible, vocal support, to overwhelm the opposition he will face and to stiffen his own political backbone.

So, over the next few days, I'm going to be exploring these kinds of change:

  • the ones Obama has pledged to make
  • the ones he hasn't addressed which we vitally need
  • the wrongheaded policies Obama has proposed, where we will need to change him--or defeat him.
What would you put on the list? Write me and let me know.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Our Work Begins on Wednesday

In the progressive circles in which I travel, it's almost a cliche already: "The election is Tuesday, but our work really begins on Wednesday." What does this mean?

With any luck, all this week, I'll be exploring what people who care about justice and peace should be doing to push their agenda during an Obama administration. First, though, what if the election is stolen?

This is not a paranoid question. There is some reason to believe that both the 2000 and 2004 elections would have ended differently if many voters hadn't been removed from the rolls before the balloting began (let alone if all the votes had been counted or if the Supreme Court hadn't pulled a coup). Investigative reporter Greg Palast and voting rights attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. have found that the laws passed to make voting cleaner since then have actually made things worse.

How do we steal the election back? According to Palast and Kennedy:

  • Today, DO NOT ACCEPT A "PROVISIONAL" BALLOT. Chances are good it will never be counted. If someone tells you you're not entitled to vote, call a voter's rights hotline like 1-866-OUR-VOTE. Insist that your claim be adjudicated on the spot. Don't worry about slowing down the voting process: it's your right!

  • Tomorrow, if you have been prevented from voting, pursue legal action. If it's good enough for the Obama campaign, it's good enough for you!

- Go to the No More Stolen Elections website and look for a Voter Assembly in or near your community. If you don't see one, organize one. Go to:

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Play It Cool, Boy

It's not one of my usual blog topics, but in fact, I am fascinated with the way the brain works. This week, research came out that showed how people resist temptation--and it reminded me fondly of my dad! I have to take a moment to share it with you.

The question is about delaying gratification. Political economists have been interested in this for centuries: for instance, Max Weber thought that the capacity to work hard and wait for your reward was what made capitalism possible. Today, according to a Boston Globe article, Columbia University psychologist Walter Mitschel's research says the ability to delay gratification is linked to "everything from SAT scores to social skills to academic achievement."

So how do you wait for your pleasure, or even give up certain things indefinitely? Part of it is "the ability to imagine a future event clearly," according to Yale professor Jeremy Gray. As a planner, I do that all the time. I resist opening every email that comes across my desk right away, focusing on what I need to do to reach my deadlines.

But another part may be the ability to "cool the hot stimulus."

...the trick is to shift activity from "hot," more primitive areas deep in the brain to "cool," more rational areas mainly in the higher centers of the brain.
My dad, Mel Fischman, was a master at cooling the hot stimulus. I always remember the story he told me about how he quit smoking, long before I was born. "I knew smoking was bad for me, and I wanted to stop, but I was having trouble," he told me. "So I sat down and thought about what exactly I was doing when I smoked. I was burning a bunch of tobacco leaves and inhaling the smoke into my lungs. Now, would I stand in my backyard burning leaves, take a deep breath, and say "Mmm, that's good'? Of course not! So why should I say that when the leaves were in a little tube instead?"

When I first heard this story, I thought it was just too clear, too rational. It couldn't have happened like that. I am still convinced that my dad relied on social support more than he let on. But the research (and my own experience with breaking old habits and adopting others, like controlling what I eat and walking daily) shows me that what my dad said was probably mostly true. Thanks to his skill at shifting to a different part of his brain, I grew up in a non-smoking household. I am so grateful!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Organizing to End Poverty, 21st-Century Style

Wednesday was National Blog Action Day on poverty. Since I work at an anti-poverty agency, I had a lot to say about the topic, and I've been writing about how to end poverty all week. Here's the conclusion: It's necessary. It's possible. But it will take more than my agency can do, and more than politicians will do on their own.

Strategy 3: A New Social Movement

Even well-meaning liberal politicians consistently put other issues over poverty. Just a week ago, we saw the majority of Congress vote to give $700 billion to banks--with hardly a thought about the new wave of homeless people that are about to created, as banks evict people from houses on which the mortgages have been foreclosed.

Poor people and their allies don't have the money to buy politicians' attention. What we do have is numbers. Especially in an election year, elected officials run scared when they hear a large number of people all clamoring for the same thing. This election is almost over--but your Representative in Congress and most of your state and local officials face elections again in 2010. For them, the election never stops. That gives us an opportunity.

We have a long history of social movements for change in this country. In my lifetime alone, we have the Civil Rights Movement and antiwar movement , the women's and gay liberation movements, the antinuclear movement, movements to abolish nuclear weapons and to support people's movements in Central America, and the movement against global corporatism and for global democracy. We can learn lessons from them about how to get large numbers of people organized: not just for a rally or demonstration, but for the long haul.

We can combine those lessons with 21st century techniques. Meetups, viral messaging, DIY video, databases, Facebook pages, other online social networks, and yes, blogging: we can take advantage all of these techniques to get people to act as one. Technology does not replace face-to-face organizing: it empowers organizers. MoveOn does it. The Obama campaign has done it. We need to learn how to do it, too, but not to get candidates elected and then to forget about them. We get them elected, and then we hold their feet to the fire of public outrage.

It's not only the politicians who need to feel the heat. Banks that evict good tenants just because the owner of the house where they rent is in foreclosure need crowds on their doorsteps, at their stockholder meetings, writing Wikipedia articles about them, doing Michael Moore-style name it. Employers that keep wages down and squash unions, media that spend endless inches of print or minutes of air time on the lifestyles of the rich and famous but haven't a moment to spare all week for the poor...the possibilities are endless.

There's a lot of work to be done. If you want to join in but you don't know where to start, write me for suggestions. As a rabbinic saying states, "It is not incumbent on you to finish the task, but neither are you free to abstain from it."

Thursday, October 16, 2008

An Anti-Poverty Platform

Strategy 2: An Anti-Poverty Platform

Yesterday, I explained why all the work that agencies like the one I work for aren't enough to get everyone out of poverty and to a state of self-sufficiency. There just aren't enough well-paying jobs to go around, even with a whole lot of public benefits to reduce a family's need for cash. At minimum wage, a family would have to work 3-1/2 full-time jobs to reach self-sufficiency in Somerville. That's hard to do, with one or two adults.

People like me do our best at the family and city levels. What we need, though, are social and national changes. My boss, Jack Hamilton, has written that three policies would go a long way toward ending poverty:

1. A comprehensive, single-payer, universal plan for health coverage for all Americans;

2. A progressive reform of the tax system; and

3. An increase in the minimum wage, and the indexing of it to inflation.

Of course McCain is not in favor of any of the three policies. But neither is Obama. Yet. And he won't be, unless we can mobilize enough people to say long enough, loud enough, often enough, "Pass these policies or else!" In other words, we need more than self-sufficiency AND we need more than policy change. To achieve either of them, we need a social movement.

More about that tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Up from Poverty?

When Lyndon Johnson called for a War on Poverty, what he really meant was an all-out effort to eliminate it. But poverty is not an enemy. It's more like a neighborhood. You can't demolish it through head-on assault. You end up destroying the people who live there in the process.

For the next three days, we will discuss three strategies for rebuilding America so poverty isn't a part of the architecture any more.

Strategy 1: Family Economic Self-Sufficiency.

The amount of money that it takes to "escape poverty" according to the federal definition of poverty is so small, you wonder why so many are poor. The feds say that a family of three (typically a mother and her two children) are out of poverty if she earns more than $17,600 (roughly $8.75/hour for a full-time worker). Surely that's possible?

Possible, but unlikely. Consider. The federal minimum wage is $6.55/hour. The Massachusetts minimum wage, which is essentially tied for the highest in the country, is $8/hour. Neither one of these is as high as the poverty threshold. A minimum-wage worker can work full-time all year round and still not make nearly enough to get her family out of poverty. (And of course, many people work seasonally, or part-time. They have to try to survive on even less.)

Before we get people out of poverty, we need to get them up to poverty!

But is the poverty threshold really enough to live on? Actually, no. Family economic self-sufficiency (FESS) means earning a lot more than the federal poverty level, depending on the ages and needs of your family members and the cost of living where you are. The Crittenton Women's Union in Boston has provided us with an online "self-sufficiency calculator" so we can figure out the FESS level for any city in Massachusetts. For my home city of Somerville, for instance, what would it cost that three-person family to live?

Just for housing, child care, food, transportation, and health care expenses, plus a small amount of miscellaneous necessities, a Somerville resident with two children has to earn somewhere between $36,761 (if both her children are teens) to $95,284 (if both children are infants). That's at least $17.41/hour, and as much as $45.12/hour.

Go and look through the want ads. Ask around at Human Resource offices. How many job openings are there for jobs that pay that much? There aren't enough to raise the one out of eight families that live in poverty up to the self-sufficiency level. And that level is bare bones. It doesn't allow savings for college, or even for a rainy day.

That's why:
  1. We need to help people get the education and training to qualify for the high-paying jobs that exist.
  2. We need to make sure people get all the public benefits they're entitled to, from food stamps to subsidized housing, so their need for income drops.
  3. Even if we do all that, it will not be enough. Family economic self-sufficiency is a strategy for building up one family at a time. We need a strategy for developing a society without poverty.
More on that tomorrow!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Support the Troops in the War on Poverty!

I wrote yesterday that we have never fought a "war on poverty. " When the U.S. goes to war, it spends whatever is necessary to sustain the effort. It even spends more than is necessary, to boost the profits of the private companies that take part in fighting the war. Just look at the budget for the "global war on terror," and the way we have pumped money into Halliburton and Blackwater!

By contrast, the federal government barely funds the nation's anti-poverty efforts. It attempts to defund some of the major programs, and it carelessly lets the funding lapse when it's in the middle of a budget battle. Here's one story.

Community action agencies are the anti-poverty organizations in communities across America. There are about 2000 nationwide, including the Community Action Agency of Somerville (CAAS), where I have worked since 2003. At birth in the 1960's, these anti-poverty groups had their own specific appropriation in the federal budget.

By the Reagan administration, however, the very existence of these groups was threatened. Reagan successfully cutthe line item for them right out of the budget. They would have died on the operating table--except that our lobbyist deftly got Congress to restore funding in the form of a block grant. Money for anti-poverty work went from Washington to state capitals to disperse as they pleased. In Massachusetts, the state keeps 5% to pay its costs for administering the program and another 5% for special projects of its own choosing. The rest does flow to two dozen agencies across the state. Happy ending? Well, not quite.

Jump forward to 2005. Congress and the President cannot agree on a budget, and Congress passes a continuing resolution to keep the government running while they work out their differences. Nothing unusual about that: it happens all the time. What was unusual was the rules Congress set for spending during the continuing resolution. They said that any program that received federal funding could continue spending either at last year's level, or at the level proposed for next year by the House, or the level proposed by the Senate, whichever was least. And the House was proposing to cut the anti-poverty block grant by 50%!

The House (which was under Republican control at the time) knew that in the end, it was not going to succeed in halving the anti-poverty budget. It did succeed, however, from October 1, 2005 through right before Christmas. During that whole time, our agency had only half its normal block grant funds to spend. We left one Housing Advocate position unfilled, so Spanish-speaking people facing eviction in Somerville were out of luck. Everybody else worked four days a week. We don't pay people enough to live on 4/5 of their normal salary! The Portuguese-speaking Advocate was forced to find another job.

Even though funding was restored in the end, it took most of 2006 to hire new people, train them, get them working together as a team, and get back to the level of service we'd provided before October 2005.

Imagine the reaction if Congress decided, "Oh, we're going to cut funds for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan in half for the next few months." Contrast that with the resounding silence when Congress did just that to anti-poverty efforts. If we were serious about ending poverty, billions of dollars would not be going to Baghdad and Kabul and Kandahar. They'd be going to Boston and Kalamazoo and Kansas City instead.

Monday, October 13, 2008

We Can Still Win the War on Poverty

Ronald Reagan once said, "We fought a war on poverty and poverty won." Ronald Reagan lied.

  1. Poverty did not win. From 1963, when Lyndon Johnson took office, to 1968, poverty declined dramatically. The number of people in poverty stayed at that reduced level until 1980. All that changed when Reagan was elected. "The average number of people living under the poverty line during the eight years of the Reagan administration was 33.1 million, 25 percent more than the 26.2 million living in poverty during the previous administration."
  2. Reagan fought on the other side. It's not just that he propagandized against poor people. Reagan actively cut programs that helped families and individuals get out of poverty. Let's take just one example: housing. Reagan cut the federal investment in housing from $74 billion to $19 billion in constant dollars. Reagan's cuts almost single-handedly created the homeless problem as we know it today; then he said on Good Morning America that people sleeping on the streets "are homeless, you might say, by choice." If there really were a war on poverty, Reagan was a deserter and a traitor. But...
  3. There never was an all-out war on poverty--"rather a collection of small projects aimed to improve education and community development, such as Head Start and the Job Corps," as Peter Edelman points out. "A complete war on poverty would involve much more: ensuring a quality education for every child, the guarantee of good jobs, universal health coverage, quality child care, adequate housing assistance and a safety net for those not in a position to work. In other words, a jobs and income strategy."
The so-called war on poverty remains to be fought--and it can be won.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Putting the Credit Where It Belongs

I wrote last week that the main reason the Wall Street bailout might be a necessary evil was to keep credit flowing. It's not the big guys who are most affected when there's a credit crunch. It's students who can't get college loans, buyers with good income and down payments in the bank who still can't get mortgages, and small businesses, who depend on short-term loans (often from one day to the next) to pay their suppliers and issue checks to their employees.

Since then, two things have happened. The Federal Reserve has stepped in for the banks. It's become the lender of last resort. When businesses need to take out short-term loans (or "issue commercial paper," in the jargon that business people use), the Fed will lend them the money directly.

The other thing is that the bailout has failed. The stock market continues to drop, the home mortgage crisis is threatening to become a worldwide recession, and more banks are running into trouble, including Citizens, which is huge where I live.

So I wonder: If all along, the Fed could intervene to help people continue to get loans, and if the bailout didn't calm the investors anyway, then why didn't the Fed just help with credit in the first place and let the banks suffer for their actions?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

In Praise of Small and Mid-size Nonprofits - On the Side Streets of America

I am grateful for the cooperation that my anti-poverty agency gets from large nonprofits like Tufts University and the Cambridge Health Alliance. They are no substitute, however, for the dozens of community-based organizations that serve Somerville in the ways that Somerville needs most. Here's a great article on why closer to the grassroots is better.

Don Griesmann's Nonprofit Blog: In Praise of Small and Mid-size Nonprofits - On the Side Streets of America

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Money for Nothing?

What just happened in Congress this week? Was the bailout of Wall Street investment firms a necessary evil--or just evil?

1. In this corner, arguing that it needed to happen, are almost all the "experts" in mainstream economics and "leaders" in Washington. (There's a revolving door between the two, so it's hard to tell them apart sometimes.) Bush, Clinton, McCain, Obama, Pelosi, Paulson, and Barney Frank all come down in favor, and the Boston Globe editorialized, "Pass this dreadful bailout"--because they fear the alternative is worse.

It's not a question of which businesses are too big to fail. If it were, I would simply reply as Bernie Sanders does: "If it is too big to fail, it is too big to exist." The horrible possibility that makes all these people (and half of me) support the bailout is that if we do nothing, the loans will simply stop. No new mortgages, school loans, personal loans, no short-term working capital that enables small businesses to tide things over from a bad day to a good one. Many economists think that doing nothing would lead to a deep, long-lasting recession or a replay of the Great Depression.

That's scary. But a part of me wonders whether these "experts" and "leaders" are crying wolf. Some of them are the same people who panicked America into a Global War on Terror ( instead of targeting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and increaseing commonsense security at home) and into war in Iraq (completely optional, and it has turned out to be a disaster). Others are new voices speaking the same message: be afraid, be very afraid--and give us more power. Why did Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson originally ask for absolute power to buy and manage failing banks? Is it the same reason that Bush and Cheney have claimed more and more unreviewable power for the executive branch?

2. Over here, in this corner, are economists like Paul Krugman and James Galbraith. They thought the original Paulson plan was garbage but reluctantly support the compromise that passed on Friday. They are not convinced about the Depression scenario, but they believe government must act, and the bailout is only the first step. Robert Reich argues against them that the Democratic bill is not really any better than the Paulson bill, so they are selling their souls by supporting either one.

3. Sometimes these guys slip over into the third corner of the room, where economist Joseph Stiglitz is standing. Stiglitz reminds us that the basic problem isn't banking: it's housing. Banks made terrible loans because they had to find somewhere to invest the global pool of money. They were looking for payback that's just not sustainable over the long run. Stiglitz sees a need to restore the banks to solvency, but he doesn't want us to get stuck with the bill--and he does want us to control the banks more in the future, through regulation. That makes sense to me, I admit. (But isn't there a crisis that forces us to do something? See David Sirota for reasons to disbelieve.)

4. Over in the fourth corner of the room are people like Chuck Collins of United for a Fair Economy. He agrees with Stiglitz that the rich should pay for their miscalculations and greed, and he offers a practical plan on how to raise the money without soaking the taxpayers. But this is the smaller part of our problems. The bigger part is how to reverse the massive transfer of wealth from the poor and the middle class to the rich that's been going on for the last 30 years.

In other words, there's been a crisis in this country for a long time, especially for poor people and those who have become homeless. It's just now that the rich are noticing it, the government is being called to act. Now that the bailout bill has actually passed, the question of whether or not to act is moot. Our job is to make sure they don't act in a way that makes things worth for most of us--and to put pressure on to make things better. If we're going to spend $700 billion, it had better not be money for nothing.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hurricane Relief for Haiti

Over one million are affected in Haiti by the recent hurricanes: Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike. The actual death toll rose to more than 800. Cities and towns, including Gonaives, Jacmel, Cabaret and Mirebalais, are flooded, causing more than 1/8 of the population to become homeless, the loss of thousands of livestock, and the destruction of infrastructure (roads, bridges, and schools) and agricultural plantations. “I have never seen anything as painful”, said Dr. Paul Farmer.

The New England Haiti Relief Effort announces two initiatives:

• A Radiothon on Saturday, September 20th from 12 to 6PM, on Radio Concorde 1580 AM, Boston, and several other media outlets)

• A Megathon on Sunday, September 21st from 2PM to 6PM – at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center, 1350 Tremont St, Boston

Please make monetary contributions at:
• Citizens Bank, Account # 1313181878. Please make checks payable to “New England Haiti Hurricane Relief Fund."

Partial list of Supporting Organizations:

Association of Haitian Women (AFAB), Center for Community Health Education and Research (CCHER), Coalition des Roche-à-Batelais pour l’Expansion Locale (CORABEL), Foundation for the Technological and
Economic Advancement of Mirebalais (FATEM), Gonaives en Marche, Haitian Multi-Service Center/ Catholic Charities, Haitian American Public Health Initiatives (HAPHI), Haitian-Americans United (HAU), Home Town
Association Resource Group, Mass. Community Health Services in Brockton, The Road to Development, YOFES, EDEM Foundation, etc…

Monday, September 22, 2008

Female Bonding Isn't Feminism

Ellen Goodman wrote last week that some conservatives are calling liberal women out because they won't support Sarah Palin for Vice President. Aside from the fact that you can't do that without voting for McCain as President, the charges of hypocrisy ring all hollow.

Feminism is not, and never was, an attempt to replace the Good Old Boys with the Good Old Girls. Feminism is an analysis of how power works and how to end oppression.

From the 1960's to now, step by step, feminists have pointed out:

*Prejudice: the mental image of women as inferior.

*Discrimination: actions that keep women in an inferior position (whether the acts are based on prejudice, or on male self-interest, or inertia, or just plain obliviousness).

*Woman-hatred, as expressed in degrading images of women and degrading language about women.

*Rape and sexual violence.

*Institutionalized discrimination: where seemingly neutral standards, like long hours and no provision of child care for men or women, actually hurt women more.

Who would do more to oppose these strategies of domination? Good Old Girl Sarah Palin, who doesn't even recognize they exist? John McCain, who verbally abuses his wife in public? Or Michelle Obama's husband?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lipstick Traces

Last week, Barack Obama said:

"John McCain says he’s about change too, and so I guess his whole angle is, ‘Watch out George Bush — except for economic policy, health care policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy and Karl Rove-style politics — we’re really going to shake things up in Washington,'” he said.

“That’s not change. That’s just calling something the same thing something different. You know you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. You know you can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change, it’s still going to stink after eight years. We’ve had enough of the same old thing.”

This week's news: The McCain campaign accused Obama of slyly denigrating Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin. Former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift (R) says the comment is clearly about Palin. “There’s only one woman in the race.’”By that logic, Obama was calling Palin a pig.

Tomorrow's news: The Cosmetics Industry Association (CIA) denounced Obama for his association of lipstick with animals. "It's an insult to our tens of millions of customers to put the words 'lipstick' and 'pig' in the same sentence," said Bella Schweinhundt, CIA spokesperson. She called lipstick "a perfectly legal product" and threatened to stop Senator Obama at airports until informed that power belonged to the other CIA.

Weekend news: People for Ethical Verbiage about Animals (PEVA) called on Obama to stop associating animals with lipstick. "In real life, cosmetics testing harms countless cute, adorable animals every year. By talking about putting lipstick on pigs, Obama is condoning this form of exploitation, which is tantamount to torture," claimed PEVA spokesperson Lotta Katz. She then explained that "tantamount" is not a breed of horse, so no animals were harmed in the making of her statement, according to Katz.

Monday's news: Jews And Muslims Together Over Dietary Allusions, Yuck! (JAM TODAY) asked the Obama campaign to retract any statements that referred in any way to pork, shellfish, cheeseburgers, or alcohol. The Obama campaign welcomed the JAM TODAY statement. "See, I told you Obama was not a Muslim," campaign spokesperson Christian Nazarene said.

Nest week's news: it is revealed that John McCain used the expression "lipstick on a pig" long before Barack Obama did. (True!) The candidate shrugged off the comparison. "I've changed my position on immigration, on the Religious Right, and even on torture, and nobody cared. Why should they start paying attention now?"

Monday, September 8, 2008

Battered and neglected

Why is it that as soon as one storm leaves Haiti broken and bleeding, all the reporters leave too? Why do we open our hearts and our pocketbooks to victims of earthquakes and tsunamis but not to victims of floods and mudslides that bury houses? Haiti's revolution happened at about the same time as the American Revolution. Thousands of Haitian parents have named their boys Franklin, Jackson, Washington, Jefferson. Why is it so hard for people in the U.S. to care about Haiti?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Obama, a Liberal for the 21st Century

The 18th-century liberal (think John Locke) believed that lawlessness was the greatest evil, and government the lesser and necessary evil. Freedom is only possible when there's a greater force to keep the strong from despoiling the weak.

The 19th-century liberal (John Stuart Mill) saw that the "greater force" could be economic. Unrestrained capitalism creates chaos in people's lives. Government, in its place, can be a force for good, by using its power agains the power of the market.

The 20th-century liberal (Franklin Roosevelt, John Maynard Keynes, John Kenneth Galbraith) saw corporate power as potentially the most destructive force around, and democratic, constitutional government as the champion of the people.

Barack Obama is not the radical some have painted him. He is a 21st-century liberal.

“Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems,” the Illinois senator told a crowd of Democratic delegates and other supporters at Invesco Field, in Denver. “But what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves — protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools and new roads and new science and technology.”

This is vintage 20th-century liberalism. What's new is his redefinition of government's role. He sees government as investing in nonprofits more than it expands social welfare programs, and his language about social entrepreneurship (a big buzzword among philanthropic foundations these days) makes it sound like government is just the biggest, richest foundation out there.

I think this is an inadequate conception of government, but for better or worse, it is the new liberalism. I hope we get a chance to see it in action.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Making Workers Pay for Coverage without Care

A month ago, I wrote about business resistance to paying more for the Massachusetts health plan:

It just goes to show the reason they supported it in the first place. They didn't care about all the families in Massachusetts who can't afford health care. They wanted to shift the cost of health insurance to you and me.

Today's Boston Globe shows that journalists have bought into the business and state government point of view. They are measuring the success of the program by how little either corporations or the Commonwealth has to pay, and not by how sick or how well we are. A whole article under the title "439,000 more get health coverage, " and not one word about whether anyone will actually get more health care! On the other hand, the reporter makes a point of stating:

The dramatic expansion has spurred a substantial drop in patients seeking routine care in hospital emergency rooms, where treatment is much more expensive. The reduction is already saving the state millions of dollars, the quarterly report said.

Are the patients not using emergency rooms because they can get care in doctors' offices? Or, are they not using the ER because they've gotten the message they're not welcome there? No one knows. Who cares? "The reduction is already saving the state millions of dollars," and that was the point all along. Shame on the people perpetrating the fiction of universal health care in Massachusetts.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Violent Passion for the Good: Pinchas, Reading IV

In the strange and difficult story of Pinchas, there is one action that I would imitate, without need for interpretation. It's not what Pinchas does, however: it's what God does with Pinchas.

"Say, therefore, 'I grant him my pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.'"

Pinchas is already a member of the tribe of Levi, a tribe which is known for its righteous indignation and its tendency to violence. Way back in the book of Genesis, Levi himself (along with his brother Shimon) killed off a whole town full of people because their chief's son had raped their sister Dinah. The Levites had also been the executioners after the incident of the Golden Calf. They have a tendency to go to extremes.

God curbs this tendency by channeling it. The Levites have the job of meticulously assembling and disassembling the tent of meeting and carrying it all throughout the wilderness. When the Israelites camp for a period of time, the Levites have to prepare the sacrifices. Their passion flows into an attention to detail.

Pinchas is the grandson of Aaron, the high priest. He will inherit the even more careful job of offering sacrifices, even in the area designated as the Holy of Holies. He must know that his uncles Nadav and Abihu did the same job in a way that displeased God, and died for it. His passion will also be channeled--into a tremendous devotion.

As a community and as individuals, we have within us the capacity to go to extremes in the name of what we hold most holy, whether that is the God of the Torah, Jesus, the dar al-Islam, the revolution, or the Stars and Stripes. God does not expel Pinchas for expressing this capacity but gives him his pact of friendship. We need to find ways of honoring the zealot within us--ways that make passion for the good and the right a holy force for community. May we have the strength and the wisdom to find those ways.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

What About the Poor?

So now we know that former Presidential candidate John Edwards had an affair with a consultant to his campaign. Some people are shaking their heads and asking, "How could he do it?" Others are looking sympathetically at Elizabeth Edwards and asking, "How must she be feeling now?"

To me, those are both the wrong questions. The question in this election year is, "What about the poor?"

The only reason that John Edwards matters is because he put the issue of poverty squarely on the table. Both Obama and Clinton said nice things about that when Edwards left the race. Neither has said very much about poverty since.

According to Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson:

Reports say the Edwards family will not be at the convention. It will be interesting to see how the Democrats now handle the morals issue in Denver, let alone the notion as to whether the poor will have any voice at all.

Don't let that notion alone! Edwards made it clear during his campaign that how we end poverty in this country is THE moral issue of our time. Many religious leaders, progressive and conservative, have said the same. We should not get distracted by the personal troubles of the Edwards family when there is a paramount public issue at stake.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Time to Say No to the Torah: Pinchas, Reading III

Last week I said that I think there are four ways of dealing with difficult passages in the Torah. I've just discussed how to use two of them (asking a different question, and interpretation) to understand the difficult story of Pinchas. Here's the third approach out of four:

Rejection: ... a story like this cannot possibly have anything to teach us. It reflects the barbaric beliefs of our distant ancestors. We should try to separate the uplifting teachings of the Torah from the culture in which they first appeared.
In general, this approach is my last resort. But there is one part of the Pinchas story I don't want to reframe or reinterpret.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Assail the Midanites and defeat them--for they assailed you by the trickery the practiced against you--because of the affair of Peor and because of the affair of their kinswoman Cozbi, daughter of the Midianite chieftain, who was killed at the time of the plague on account of Peor."
I am sure there are ways of reading this passage to make it seem less objectionable. Some day, I may look in the midrash on the book of Numbers to find out how the rabbis of the Talmudic period read it. Today's need, however, is to reject certain attitudes without any reservation.

I reject group retaliation. If certain Midianites tried to practice cultural imperialism on the Israelites and assimilate them into their idol-worshipping society, that is no reason to wipe out the whole group. Then as now, collective responsibility is an abhorrent principle.

I reject the false equivalence of "trickery" and warfare.

I reject the widespread portrayal in the Torah of non-Jewish women as sinister and seductive. It is the flip side of the non-portrayal, the near-absence, of well-rounded Jewish women in the Torah narrative. I recognize here the Jewish parallel to the dichotomy Catholics often talk about between virgins and whores in their tradition. This stereotype is terrible for Jewish women as much as it is for shiksahs. It pits the two groups against each other, and it prevents them from claiming the right to be full, ambiguous, complicated human beings. It also absolves Jewish men of any responsibility for the choices they make in their sexual relationships.

Some day, when we have put ethnic warfare and sexism behind us, it may be time to look deeper into this text--but not yet. Today, our job is to say NO.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Being Human Has Its Advantages: Pinchas, Reading II

The Lord spoke to Moses saying, "Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in my passion."

The Hebrew word for "turned back," heshiv, comes from the same root as the word for repentance. T'shuvah is not simply feeling sorry, however. To make t'shuvah, one has to confess one's wrongdoing and go on to do everything in one's power to make the situation right again. It seems to me that is exactly what God does at the beginning of parshat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10). God makes t'shuvah.

What does God confess? A few verses earlier, in response to the Jews' idol-worship, the Torah quotes God as saying, "Take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before the Lord, so that the Lord's wrath may turn away from Israel." As harsh as this extremely unusual sentence may be, it is a judicial sentence, a punishment for a crime. Perhaps God could carry it out and go no further--but human beings cannot. As I recounted on July 30, Pinchas takes out his spear and stabs Zimri and Cozbi on the spot. The plague of disease called "the Lord's wrath" threatens to turn into a plague of vigilante justice.

As I interpret it, God is shaken. Throughout the Torah, human beings have the capacity to surprise the divine being. A God of justice cannot conceive that human beings could turn justice into slaughter until Pinchas' action rudely brings that fact to God's attention. "Here," says Pinchas' spear," is what happens when you command human beings to take life and death into their own hands. Is this really what you have in mind?"

Pinchas' action turns God's action back on itself. It reflects the consequences of drastic justice in the mirror of finite and fallible human beings. Finally, it turns back God's command itself. B'kino et kinati, "by being zealous with My zealousness," Pinchas has forced God to repent of God's harsh judgment and to make things right by ending the extermination then and there.

God needed Pinchas to show what untrammeled zealotry can do to human beings. Being human, we should already know that for ourselves. That is the advantage of being human--if we let it.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Taking Care Across Cultures: Pinchas, Reading I

Jews couple with Moabites. God sends a plague upon them. Pinchas, the grandson of the high priest, kills a particularly flagrant Moabite-lover. The plague stops, and God makes a special covenant with Pinchas. We could read this story as endorsing all kinds of attitudes that would make us moderns shudder.

As I suggested in the previous post, however, we don't have to read it that way. My first alternative reading owes a great deal to the teachings of my friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who sees the story of Pinchas as a story of first contact between two alien cultures.

The moment when strangers meet is fraught with pleasure and danger. After the initial response of fight or flight, some people thrill at being the first in their community to explore the ways of a different culture. We can think of the Europeans who looked at African art in the early twentieth century and made a fad of "primitivism." As their example shows, appreciating another culture rides dangerously close to making it a fetish and treating the people in that culture as exotic and exciting, but somehow less than people "like us."

In the Torah, the Israelites meet up with "fight or flight" in their encounters with Sihon, the king of the Amorites, and Og, the king of Bashan. Both refuse to let the Jews march through their territory on the way to Canaan. Attacking the caravan, they get slaughtered.

The Moabites take a softer approach. They welcome the Israelites in a seductive way--literally--and the men respond. They appreciate the Moabite women, but they also objectify them. Even in the midst of a plague, when the community is weeping over thousands of people dying, Zimri son of Salu from the tribe of Simeon thinks it's cool to parade by with Cozbi daughter of Zur, the daughter of a Midianite tribal chief.

Unusually, the Torah gives the woman's name (as it does not do with the wife of Noah, or any number of other women in the story). Is it trying to restore some of her personhood, even after her death? Is it a silent rebuke to the Jew who treated her only as a stranger for kinky sex?

And what about that plague? Arthur Waskow asks:

Is this just uncanny, a miracle? In a much more recent story, just 500 years ago, we hear of a canny, scientifically explicable, disaster that bears marks of similarity: When the age-old barriers of Ocean were torn apart in the 16th century, two cultures came together that had never met. One result: measles decimated the Native Americans; syphilis, the Europeans.

Was this because their intimate connection was in itself a "sin"? Or was it because the rush of new connection outran the care necessary to make the connection holy?

Perhaps for us, today, the story told in the chapters that mention Pinchas is not really about Pinchas. For us, today, the story is about taking care at the boundaries of difference. At the worst (the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan), we create a clash of civilizations that didn't have to happen. At best, we respect one another and learn from one another, as Rona does with the Daughters of Abraham interfaith book discussions. We find our selves in the Pinchas situation again and again, but that doesn't mean we have to act as Pinchas did. More on that in the next three blog entries.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Four Readings of a Difficult Story: Pinchas

Ever since it came up in the cycle of Torah readings two weeks ago, I've been thinking about the strange and difficult story of Pinchas (Numbers 25). After Balak the king of Moab calls on Balaam the prophet to curse the people of Israel, and God prevents Balaam from cursing them and ends up blessing them instead, we find this story:

While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their gods. The people partook of them and worshiped that god. Thus Israel attached itself to Baal-peor, and the Lord was incensed with Israel. The Lord said to Moses, "Take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before the Lord, so that the Lord's wrath may turn away from Israel." So Moses said to Israel's officials, "Each of you slay those of his men who attached themselves to Baal-peor."

Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. When Phinehas [or Pinchas], son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he left the assembly and, taking a spear in his hand, he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them. the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. Then the plague against the Israelites was checked. Those who died of the plague numbered twenty-four thousand.

The Lord spoke to Moses saying, "Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in my passion. Say, therefore, 'I grant him my pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.'" (Etz Hayim, pp. 907-908 and 918-919)

I don't need to point out what's troubling about this story for modern readers. How should we react to the story of Pinchas?

Over my lifetime, I have seen people respond to difficult stories in the Torah in four different ways.
  1. Acceptance: Some people believe that whatever in the Torah is a model for us to follow. If we have trouble with the model, it is we who need to readjust our thinking.
  2. Rejection: A second reaction is that a story like this cannot possibly have anything to teach us. It reflects the barbaric beliefs of our distant ancestors. We should try to separate the uplifting teachings of the Torah from the culture in which they first appeared.
  3. Interpretation: Both the stance of acceptance and the stance of rejection assume that the Torah offers us models to follow straightforwardly--they only differ on whether or not we should accept the offer. There is a third way. Some people look beyond the obvious reading of the text to find a different meaning for us in our time. This is actually the most traditional approach. The rabbis called it midrash, the searching and probing investigation of the words of the Torah.
  4. Asking a different question: Sometimes we get unacceptable answers from the Torah because we are asking the wrong questions. In the case of Pinchas, we might stop asking "What kind of action is this for a nice Jewish boy?" (not to mention a benevolent God), and we might start asking, "In this story, what is the situation the Jews face? When are we in similar situations? What can we learn from the story that's either a direction to follow or a wrong turn to avoid?"
I believe that ALL FOUR approaches can make the difficult story of Pinchas say something useful to us today. Let me start with #4, in my next post.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Fry Our Troops

At least 12 U.S. service members have died in Iraq, not from battle wounds, or explosions, or even from friendly fire like Pat Tillman. They died of electrocution. Army Times quoted Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA):

“When Staff Sergeant Maseth stepped into the shower and turned on the water, an electrical short in the pump sent an electrical current through the water pipes to the metal shower hose, and then through Staff Sergeant Maseth’s arm to his heart,” Waxman said.

The Boston Globe says that KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary, "subcontracted to Iraqi firms with unskilled workers earning a few dollars a day." Because Vice President Cheney's former firm wanted to make exorbitant profits by supplying war materiel on the cheap, a dozen men and women died horrible deaths.

Before we go sending more troops to war, in Afghanistan, in Iran (God forbid yet another war of choice!), or anywhere else, we must ask ourselves: Are we willing to see our young men and women die in agony like Ryan Maseth? Because that is what it means to send them to war.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Mandatory for Whom?

Enforce the mandate and damn the cost. That was the attitude that businesses, insurers, hospitals, and even the Commonwealth of Massachusetts took about the new mandatory health insurance plan--as long as it was health care consumers who had to pay the rapidly rising bills for the program.

But now, the Patrick administration is asking for $100 million out of the deep pockets of corporations and insurance companies and they're refusing to pay. It just goes to show the reason they supported it in the first place. They didn't care about all the families in Massachusetts who can't afford health care. They wanted to shift the cost of health insurance to you and me.

It also shows that mandatory private purchase of health insurance is a bad idea. The way to cover everyone is to cover everyone! Provide Medicare to all, not just to seniors. That will make us healthier and save us money at the same time. I won't cry if it puts health insurance companies out of business, will you?

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Persuasive Reading

One of the great things about being a Jew is that it's hard to be a fundamentalist. Our tradition enthusiastically endorses the idea that sacred texts can have multiple meanings, and we should study all of them. Here's a case in point.

Two weeks ago, I was in Willimantic, Connecticut attending the bat mitzvah celebration of my niece Fay Stoloff. Her Torah portion, Sh'lach Lecha, tells the story of how Moses sent spies to the land of Canaan for a report about the country and the people they were about to invade.

This is what they told him: "We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites [a legendary race of giants] there. Amalekites dwell in the Negev region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan."

Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, "Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it."

But the men who had gone up with him said, "We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we....All the people that we saw in it are men of great size...and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them." (Numbers 13: 27-33, Etz Hayim translation)
The traditional reading pictures Caleb (and to some extent Joshua) as confident men of faith, and the other ten spies as cowardly. Men who look like grasshoppers in their own eyes cannot be trusted to give accurate intelligence before a fight. On this reading, from the first word of their report, the ten are dissuading their fellow Israelites from going into the Promised Land.

But Fay's rabbi, Rav Jeremy Schwartz, urges us to read the passage a different way. Look again at that first paragraph, he says. It's a balanced report. The land is fruitful, but the people who live there are powerful, and here is how they're deployed: these ones here, those ones there. It's just the kind of military intelligence a commander would want. The ten have not said, "Be afraid. Be greatly afraid." They have said, "This is not going to be easy."

But Caleb, says Rav Jeremy, can't stand to hear a single word of discouragement. He jumps up on his own to give his rah-rah speech. It's only after that, and in response to his words, that the ten say, "The country that we traveled and scouted is one that devours its settlers." Because he paints such a rosy scenario, they stress the dangers and difficulties even more.

Iraq has turned out to be a country that devours U.S. troops, and we could have avoided this disastrous invasion and occupation if we had listened to the whole message that our spies had given us. But we the people never had that chance. The Bush administration played the part that Rav Jeremy thinks that Caleb played in Sh'lach Lecha. It jumped up and told us the invasion would be a piece of cake, that Iraqi oil wealth would repay all our costs, and that the Iraqis would welcome us with open arms. They knew better, because they had intelligence reports told them different. They read those reports only to find evidence that would support their aggressive intentions. They ignored and suppressed the rest.

The traditional reading of Sh'lach teaches us not to retreat from the powerful when our cause is just. Rav Jeremy's reading, in my opinion, teaches us not to listen to people urging us to ignore aspects of reality when people with a cause tell us to look the other way. It may also teach us that military intelligence is a contradiction in terms, and that if you look at a country from the perspective of how to conquer it, you will misread what's most important about its culture and people.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Incensed about "Incent"

I haven't been so mad at Joe Kennedy since he failed to oppose the first Gulf War.

What is it that has my dander up, you ask? Is it the proposal that he and his group, Citizen Energy, are advocating to tax Big Oil's profits so we can offer fuel assistance to the poor and invest in alternative energy? No, I am all in favor of that! Is it the development credits he wants the government to offer "to incent the industry to find new energy sources"? No. I think it's a bad idea to bribe the rich to do what they ought to do anyway--but that's not what irks me right now.

It's that word "incent." Or rather, non-word. I am perfectly willing to admit that language changes over time. Shakespeare invented hundreds of words that didn't exist before he wrote his plays. I am just not willing to admit "incent" to the language without a fight.

Here are ten ways Joe could have proposed his tax credits without polluting the English language:

  1. Motivate the industry
  2. Convince the industry
  3. Provide an incentive to the industry
  4. Offer an incentive to the industry
  5. Grant an incentive to the industry
  6. Nudge the industry
  7. Spur the industry on
  8. Give the industry a reason
  9. Attract the industry
  10. Light a fire under the industry
Joe could have chosen the turn of phrase that most precisely conveyed what he meant. "Providing" incentives, for instance, he would have emphasized what he was doing for those rascals in the oil industry, whereas "granting" an incentive would have placed the stress on how generous we, the public, would be to do so--and "spurring" the industry makes them seem like a lazy horse that won't go anywhere without a sharp kick in the sides.

Instead, it's Joe's language that's lazy, and it won't carry us where he wants us to go. Ask youself: when in my daily routine do I "incent" anyone? If you don't do it in normal life--if it takes you a moment even to understand what the word means--why would you be persuaded to do it in public affairs?

This post is dedicated to the Grammar Vandal, my tenant, Kate McCulley. Next month she moves into Boston to live with her sister. Her blog remains at, and I urge you to check it out.