Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Don't Get Fooled Again

Part of my schoolwork in the late 1960s was to make myself immune from media bias. I distinctly remember doing a report about the various ways to slant a news story. I turned the assignment into a set of "Wanted" posters, with descriptions of each technique for manipulating minds. The teacher thought it was very creative, but looking back, I believe I was simply reflecting the attitude of the time. People much older than me were reading Marshall McLuhan and Vance Packard and worrying about "the hidden persuaders." Our minds were under attack, and the enemies were in the advertising industry.

Soon, government got caught spinning the news as well. Instead of a "missile gap" between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (itself a storyline that fit the interests of the Kennedy campaign and the military industries but essentially propaganda), we were talking about a "credibility gap" between what the Johnson administration was saying about the Vietnam War and what the cameras were showing on the evening news. A few years later, the Nixon election campaign concerted its advertising in a way that would be immortalized in The Selling of the President 1968, and then the Nixon administration revealed its own mendacity with the press secretary having to tell reporters, "This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative."

I wonder how the schools I attended knew I would need the skills of media criticism--how democracy would need those skills to be shared broadly among the voting public. A recent article by In These Times senior editor David Sirota says those educators had witnessed a revolution in advertising epitomized by the current TV hit Mad Men, and, he implies, they decided to fight back. But Sirota says we are now in the midst of a new assault. The technique is not the advertising jingle, the purveyance of half-truths, or even the hip use of irony. Now, we are being manipulated by what he calls "outraged denial."

No, of course universal health care is not a viable option. You say different? Socialist!

No, of course Iraq was not a distraction and a terrible waste of money. You say different? Traitor!

No, of course the U.S. never tortures people. Pay no attention to that man beneath the curtain, getting electric shocks to his genitals. It was "enhanced interrogation," not torture, and it saved lives--never mind where or how, that is secret.

The idea is that if people just lie and deny, it will take us the public aback. Surely, we will say, they couldn’t be that cynical. They could never put on those faces of injured innocence and lie to our faces.

Except they have. They still do.

No, of course, the withdrawal of the opposition candidate
doesn’t mean that the Karzai government in Afghanistan (which committed fraud in the first round of the election and was poised to do so again) lacks all legitimacy. You say differently? Don't you believe in hope, and change?

Don't get fooled again!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where's the Outrage--and Where Should It Be?

Money is not the issue. Power is.

A year after causing the biggest economic meltdown since the Great Depression, corporate chieftains are paying themselves big bonuses again. Many of them get more in bonuses than you or I earn in salary or wages all year. The Obama administration is mildly chiding them. Some columnists (like the Boston Globe's Derrick Jackson) are calling it an outrage. But what they are looking at is just the symptom, not the disease.

Why do corporate CEO's, top managers, and boards get to decide what to pay one another, in an orgy of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours"? Why does the finance industry get to accept billions in bailout money from you and me, then refuse to lend to people with good credit, including the small business around the corner? Why, when the U.S. government just saved corporate capitalism from a complete breakdown, does the government still defer to the corporate capitalists who steered us into the ditch to begin with?

Corporations in this country are more powerful than the people we elect to represent our interests. Until we squarely face that problem, shouting about exorbitant bonuses is just a way of letting off steam.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Yom Kippur Story

Yom Kippur begins on Sunday night. This story happened, not on Yom Kippur Eve, but instead it happened late one Yom Kippur afternoon in the synagogue of Berdichev. The famous Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, who was known for his great love and compassion, fell asleep on the pulpit just as he was about beginning the day's concluding service.

Actually, he didn't really fall asleep. Those who knew, well realized that this great Rabbi would never really go to sleep in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. Rather, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak did what every wonder-working Rabbi does on Yom Kippur. He ascended to the highest heaven to stand before the throne of judgment in order to find out what the destiny of his beloved community would be for the coming year.

Levi Yitzhak stood in the presence of the great judge sitting on a grand throne -- with the scales of judgment before the Creator of All. The Rabbi eagerly searched the scales of his little town of Berdichev. When he finally did find it, he was shaken. He was terrified. The side of the scale with good deeds was high up in the air with a few pitiful items on it, while the side of the scale with the sins was so full, so heavily weighted that it was as low as it could go, strained to the breaking point.

In desperation, Levi Yitzhak turned to the good Lord and with panic and fear welling up inside he said to God, Master of the Universe, I know that the record of my people in Berdichev is dismal, but what do you expect,dear Lord? If you would have put us into a Garden of Eden, you could expect us to act like angels, but, dear Lord, You placed us into a harsh and difficult setting. What alternative do my poor downtrodden, miserable people have? Sometimes, we must take extreme measures, just to survive.

Levi Yitzhak was overjoyed to find the good Lord in a very receptive mood. With a benign, parental smile, God said to him, "Levi Yitzhak, you have a point. I haven't been fair. I promise that the Jews of Berdichev are going to have a fine year." As a matter of fact, Levi Yitzhak found God in such good humor that he suspected that this might be the moment to convince God to save not only the Jews of Berdichev, but to save all of humankind -- to send the messiah, the redeemer, to save the world.

And so, Levi Yitzhak turned to the good Lord and said: "Master of the Universe, Merciful Parent, how long? Haven Your poor children suffered long enough? They're drowning dear God. They're on the very edge of desperation. Before it is too late, show us Your grace and mercy and send us Your redeemer."

Slowly and behold, God was willing to discuss the matter with Levi Yitzhak. He said to him: "Levi Yitzhak, you put forth a very cogent argument. There is much meritin it. Please sit down. Convince me."

And so Levi Yitzhak was about to sit down to convince the Lord to save the world. When, out of the corner of his eye, he glanced down at his little town of Berdichev, and he noticed that Hayyim, the laundry man, (Hayyim) who was as old as time and as ugly as sin, to whom no one paid any attention -- neglected, isolated, lonely Hayyim -- [Hayyim] had fainted.

Hayyim had been fasting from the previous day; it was getting very late; he could not hold out any long and so he fainted. Levi Yitzhak knew well that he had to rush down to his synagogue and conclude the service so that Hayyim would eat -- otherwise Hayyim would die.

So, here was his dilemma: Whom shall he save? Shall he convince the good Lord to save the world, or shall he save the life of Hayyim, the laundry man?

Actually, the choice was an easy one... Levi Yitzhak turned to God and said, "I would love to sit here dear Merciful Father and convince You to save the world, -- but where is it written that the price of saving the world is the life of Hayyim the laundry man?" And with that, he turned to rush down and conclude the service.

(And) as he was descending from the heights, rushing to save the life of Hayyim, the story concluded, he heard a chorus of angels calling after him: "Levi Yitzhak, you are saving the world!"

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Labor Day and Day of Rest

At the alternative service at Temple B’nai Brith yesterday, my friend Marya Axner led in us a reflection on the rhythm of labor and rest in Jewish life. When we are being true to ourselves and true to God, we don’t work until we fall down exhausted and rest only to work again. Six days we labor, trying to make the world better. On the seventh we rest, thinking about things that matter. When we return to work, that sense of what matters is the mission statement that keeps us on track and helps us do what’s important, let go of what’s inconsequential, and be able to avoid burnout and keep on making a difference for the long haul.

It takes a lot of work to be able to rest.


Practically speaking, to make Shabbat, we have to prepare meals, buy or bake fresh challah, keep candles and wine at hand, sometimes invite guests. To put the week aside with a clear conscience, we have to organize our work in the workplace and our work to take care of our homes, our causes, and our communities so that everything gets done when it needs to and no one is left in the lurch. Even if we have done this, it’s not easy to cast off the uniform one’s mind and soul wear all week and don the splendid robes of the kings and queens we are supposed to become on Shabbat. It’s impossible to do if you work down to the last minute. It takes time, to leave those cares behind and put oneself in the frame of mind to receive a beloved guest, the Sabbath, which the tradition also pictures as a Queen who deserves all the honor we can give her.


I speak about this from personal experience. I am always true to the Sabbath, in my fashion (as the song says)…but it is not easy, only beautiful and right. Here is a poem I wrote about it nearly twenty-five years ago:

A Song of Songs, by Dennis Fischman

I have been a lover to the Queen before.

For me, she set her tender feet

to walking the long road stretching

from yesterday to tomorrow


and I met her halfway

as evening drew a woven shawl around

the bare shoulders of an innocent world

at the fork in the road I stood, singing

“Come, my friend, to meet the bride”

and our twinned flames spurted into falling night.


But now, though she seeks me, I sit

Amongst my books and papers, murmuring

“Not yet: I’m not ready yet,”

Muttering and fidgeting, as if my word

Could hold back the stars.

I have bought no wine, no braided bread—


and here she comes,

laughing, giving voice to song,

“Return us, and we shall return”

and I know


once again, I’ll cajole her with sweet incense

to stay one hour more

and she’ll slip away, whispering

“observe” and “remember” in the same short breath.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Election Distraction

Should we end the war in Afghanistan as quick as we can, or possibly send in more troops? Can we provide health care (not just insurance!) to everyone who needs it, and will that mean putting private health insurers out of business? Is the recession slowing down, and for whom: is it good news if unemployment is still in double digits in certain regions? How do we stop nuclear proliferation, and global warming? Is it really a sign of progress when a woman in Iran stands up for the right to wear pants without being flogged for it, but women in many parts of the U.S. have to travel for hours to get the reproductive services (including both contraception and abortion) that the Constitution protects? How can the states pay for vital services and schools without going bankrupt?

All these questions, and many more, are serious and should be at the top of the agenda. But in Massachusetts, we're arguing about whether the governor should be able to appoint an interim U.S. Senator to take Ted Kennedy's seat or whether we have to wait five months to elect somebody. Huh?

OK, I know these questions are related. I have a Ph.D. in political science: no need to rehearse the arguments with me. The point is that whether it's an appointment, an election, or a coronation, it's also a distraction. Whoever we elect will only do as good a job as we force him or her to do. We should be focusing on the issues, not the candidates.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

...and Beyond?

It would be much easier to dismiss Tisha B'Av from duty on the Jewish calendar and stop mourning the destruction of the Temple if history had come to an end. So comforting it would be to believe that the Judaism we have is the ultimate goal of a long dialectical process and that what is, is permanent.

We know that history goes on, however. Some years ago, I read an article which predicted that Judaism would continue in America for generations--but that it may not look anything like what we've been used to up to now. It made me wonder. What will go the way of the burnt-offering and the red heifer, into the realm of historical curiosities? Will Jews meet in chat rooms instead of synagogues? (In restaurants, more likely!) Will we study the collected works of Marge Piercy instead of the prophets? Will we all be involved in giving circles and social action and only let rabbis and cantors do the praying? Or, contrariwise, will an ever-tinier group keep the traditions of the synagogue alive while other people start saying, "I'm part Jewish" the way other people now confide, "I'm part Cherokee"?

On Tisha B'Av, and throughout the season of reflection that ends with the High Holy Days and begins again each year, it would be well for us to mourn--in preparation for turning the past into the future. The rabbis of 2000 years ago mourned the Temple even while they made the synagogue the hub of Jewish community. We must be ready to be as strong and creative as they.

Monday, September 7, 2009

From Temple to Synagogue...and Beyond? (part II)

Is Tisha B'Av a day of grief for us, 2000 years after the Roman Empire turned the Temple into a battered, solitary wall? As I started to say yesterday, my answer is "Yes--and no."

Yes. The destruction of the Temple was more than a symbolic blow, more even than the bitterness of actual conquest. With the Temple lost (as I discussed in my 1991 book Political Discourse in Exile), the Jews could not carry out many of the commandments of the Torah, by which they had lived. Their purpose, their identity, their culture were all in jeopardy. Tisha B'Av can stand for all the time (personal, like when my first wife left me, or social, like when the towers fell in New York and the Pentagon broke open to the sky eight years ago this week) when the world and all meaning seem to crumble.

But no! We do not need to mourn the daily ritual of animal sacrifice. We have not missed the hereditary priesthood and levitical caste living on the labors of the rest of the population. We have found other ways to express our gratitude and our ongoing relationship with the power of the universe, the source of life and justice. Practically everything that we now know as Judaism came about after the Temple was destroyed...because the Temple was destroyed. The rabbis who built the day of mourning into the calendar also build institutions like prayer, study, and fellowship that define Jewish identity today. In the moment after the Temple fell, of course they mourned. But today? Shouldn't we be rejoicing on Tisha B'Av? Shouldn't we be dancing?

And yet.... (see tomorrow's post for concluding thoughts)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

From Temple to Synagogue...and Beyond?

The summer months in America are typically a time for vacation and relaxation. Few Jews and hardly any non-Jews realize that on the Jewish calendar, we are in the middle of a season of reflection. This time of reflection began on Tisha B'Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, which fell on July 30 this year.

Tisha B'Av marks the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Before there were synagogues, the Temple was the center of religious and cultural life for the entire Jewish nation. The rabbis (textual scholars and teachers) who created the observance of Tisha B'Av clearly wanted it to be the most mournful day of the year. They found ways to believe that not just Solomon's temple was destroyed on that date by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., but the second temple, too, by the Romans, in 70 C.E., on the very same date. Many other historical tragedies were linked to the ninth day of Av. On the ninth day of Av, we read the book of Lamentations, in a haunting melody whose paradoxical sweetness tears the soul. The rabbis set up a series of special haftarot (prophetic readings chanted in the synagogue) leading up to Tisha B'Av--prophecies of rebuke--and a longer series from Tisha B'Av into the month of Elul--prophecies of consolation. Anyone who follows this whole progression must sense the enormity of the disaster that Tisha B'Av signified to the rabbinic tradition.

Today, for Jews of the 21st century, can we still feel the same way? Is Tisha B'Av a day of grief for us? I would answer, "Yes--and no." For why I would answer that way, please check in tomorrow.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Obama Living Up to Expectations (which is not saying much)

I am getting tired of hearing how disappointed my liberal friends are with Obama. I am not disappointed, for two reasons. He is precisely the kind of cautious, technocratic middle-of-the-roader he has been all along. And: electing a President is not the same thing as changing the system.

If you want real health care (not some bogus "reform"), you're going to have to agitate, organize, mobilize, stomp, shout, lobby, and in general do all those activist things that have gone out of fashion. Facebook Causes are no substitute for the real thing!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Argentina, and Chile, Cry for the U.S.!

When a democratically elected government replaced the brutal military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, it took years for the full truth about the former regime's tortures and murders of political opponents to see the light of day. The restoration of democracy was too fragile, and the country was too divided, to withstand an investigation immediately.

Do we live in Chile? President Obama has refused to set up an independent truth commission to find out exactly how much blood is on our hands because of the Bush/Cheney programs of "enhanced interrogation" (torture) and "rendition" (torture by other nations as subcontractors to the U.S.). He has resisted Congressional efforts to get to the bottom of it. It's true that he released more documents about waterboarding than we had ever seen before, and he has said he will not stand in the way if the Justice Department decides there are criminal cases to pursue. But his insistence on looking forward, not back, runs the risk of making him an accomplice after the fact.

How terrible are the crimes of the CIA under the last administration, anyway? According to Jane Mayer in The New Yorker:
The C.I.A. has apparently done nothing to penalize the officer who oversaw one of the most notorious renditions—that of a German car salesman named Khaled el-Masri. He was abducted while on a holiday in Macedonia, and flown by the agency to Afghanistan, where he was detained in a dungeon for five months without charges, before being released. From the start, the rendition team suspected that his case was one of mistaken identity. But the C.I.A. officer in charge at Langley—the agency asked that the officer’s name be withheld—insisted that Masri be further interrogated. “She just looked in her crystal ball and it said that he was bad,” a colleague recalls. Masri says that he was chained in a freezing cell with no bed, and given water so putrid that he could smell it across the room. He was threatened and stripped, and could hear other detainees crying all around him. After several weeks, the C.I.A. officer in charge learned that Masri’s German passport was not a forgery, as was originally suspected, and that he was not the terror suspect the agency thought he was. (The names were similar.) Even so, the officer in charge refused to release him. Eventually, Masri went on a hunger strike, losing sixty pounds. Skeptics in the agency went directly over the officer’s head to Tenet, who realized that his agency had been brutalizing an innocent man. Masri was released after a hundred and forty-nine days. But the officer in charge was not disciplined; in fact, a former colleague says, “she’s been promoted—twice.” Masri, meanwhile, has been unable to sue the U.S. government for either an apology or damages, because the courts consider the very existence of rendition a state secret—a position that the Obama Justice Department has so far supported.

If Obama believes he has no choice but to do this, cry for the United States and its victims!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Further Away from Universal Health Insurance in Massachusetts

"We don't really care whether everybody gets insurance."

The Massachusetts Health Connector might as well emblazon that message on a banner and hang it the middle of Boston Common. It's what they're saying anyway by cutting the plan back 12%.

Already, as I have noted, many people in Massachusetts had coverage without care, because they couldn't afford to pay for the plan AND the deductible. Instead of paying the doctors, they paid the health insurers for plans that didn't give them anything.

Tuesday, the board of the Commonwealth Health Connector, which runs the mandatory insurance plan, dropped the last vestige of a pretense that everyone would even get insurance (useable or not). Are you a low-income resident, entitled by law to a full subsidy, but you forgot to sign up? Too late now. You and 18,000 people like you are out of luck. Even if you did what you were supposed to and enrolled, the Connector just snapped its collective fingers and took away your dental care. Or were you born in Ireland, or Greece, or Haiti, or El Salvador, and came to this country with full legal status? Tough. The feds aren't going to pay their share to insure you, so Massachusetts has decided you're just too expensive.

What makes it worse is that groups like Health Care for All, who should be marching in the streets, are busy making excuses for Massachusetts instead.

But the group said state officials appear to have made the best of a bad situation. “There’s no other place to go for money,’’ said Lindsey Tucker, the organization’s healthcare reform manager. “. . . My concern is people will not get the care that they need.’


Damn straight they won't! And it is not a health advocate's place to take the state off the hook. There are plenty of places to go for money. We just need politicians with backbones, and voters with consciences. We won't get either by dumping low-income and immigrant residents over the side of the leaky health insurance plan to lighten the load for the rich and powerful in this state.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Finally, They Ask Who's GETTING Health Care

The Globe reports:

People with robust [sic] health insurance are putting off doctors’ appointments and skimping on prescriptions because they can’t afford the increasing costs of copayments and deductibles, according to managers of patient-assistance hot lines in Massachusetts.


All right, let's give the reporters credit. Never mind the logical impossibility of health insurance plan being "robust" if you can't actually use it. (The operation was successful, but the patient went broke?) Also, forget about the fact that this only becomes news when it affects middle-class people, the kind who thought they were already well insured.

Let's be happy that finally, it's front-page news that the Massachusetts individual mandate to buy health insurance is failing to deliver actual health care to a large and growing number of people. The key word here is "failing." This is not a model for national health insurance. It's an object lesson in what happens when the hospitals, insurance companies, and doctors all design a health plan without the slightest thought for its effects on actual patients.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Morphing into "Bush Light" on Security Issues

There's more than the proverbial dime's worth of difference between Obama and Bush on domestic policy. In fact, for the anti-poverty agency where I work, there's hundreds of thousands of dollars of difference! But on the questions of intervention abroad and secrecy at home, Obama is rapidly acquiring the taste for an imperial presidency that characterized the previous administration.

Item: wars of choice. Bush famously sent American men and women into the line of fire in Iraq on a fool's errand. There were no weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden had no alliance and very little in common, and Iraq did not threaten the U.S. But the new administration is getting ready for an expanded war in Afghanistan, where U.S. intervention thus far has shifted control from one set of warlords (the Taliban) to another (the Northern Alliance) without making any permanent improvement in the lives of Afghanis and where civil war as soon as the U.S. pulls out seems inevitable.

Obama is also sending money to Pakistan, which more than any other country has offered aid and comfort to al-Qaeda. If Obama has good reasons to believe that the Pakistani military and secret police have changed tunes and now regard al-Qaeda as more of a threat to them than India, he hasn't shared those reasons with the public.

Item: Guantanamo. (Not "Gitmo," an ugly name invented by people who have no respect for the country of Cuba, part of which the U.S. has occupied for decades--imagine if the Cubans had a military base in Baja California!) Obama has pledged to close the prison camp there, site for torture and war crimes that should make all Americans ashamed. Yet he is letting NIMBY opposition keep him from transferring prisoners to U.S. soil to stand trial, and threatening to hold those trials in military commissions that Bush created, not in U.S. courts where a fair trial could be guaranteed. He is also ignoring the well-documented phenomenon of people being held in Guantanamo (and other secret prisons) for no damn reason whatever--just because some local U.S. ally whom they had offended put the "terrorist" label on their heads.

Item: secrecy and assertions of executive privilege. The Obama administration refuses to release logs of visitors to the White House. Dick Cheney took the same stand when he cut deals with the energy industry in secret meetings. The Obama administration also refuses to publish photos of U.S. soldiers, mercenaries, and spies torturing Iraqis or to prosecute torturers. And Obama wants to reserve the right to wiretap people and then try them on the basis of secret evidence. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy:

President Obama’s administration has told a federal judge in San Francisco that it does not have to release top-secret documents connected to a wiretapping case in which a branch of an Islamic charity in Oregon is suing the government, reports the Associated Press.

The judge told the government in May he would punish it if it did not devise a plan for how the suit could go forward without the release of the documents, the news agency reports. However, the prosecution already had possession of the documents for a short time, when the Treasury Department inadvertently released them. The government has since taken them back.

The al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, whose Oregon chapter is now closed, was designated as an organization that supports terrorism by the federal government in 2004. The documents are a phone log documenting wiretapping of members of the charity, the news agency reports. It says the government did not obtain permission from a judge to place the wiretaps.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Feeling Ill about Health Care Debate

Following the health care debate is enough to make you sick.

Here in Massachusetts, supporters of the state's mandatory health insurance plan talk about how many people now have insurance and how much money that's going to save the hospitals and the state treasury. Critics mostly talk about the cost of the plan and how, soon, paying for those who can't pay for themselves will drive the state to the poorhouse. Some point out that businesses are providing their employees with health insurance plans that don't meet the minimum standards set out in state law, and daring the state to catch them.

All this is beside the point. The goal should not be to provide people with health insurance but to ensure their right to health care. Plans that cost low- to middle-income households a lot of money up front--plans with a high deductible, to use the industry's bland euphemism--insure coverage without care. And that leaves people just as sick as they were before, just a little poorer.

At the federal level, besides using Massachusetts as a model (!), Obama is doing the usual liberal dance: offering something that makes him feel good but doesn't do the job.

  • "President Obama will sign a presidential memorandum today to extend benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, administration officials said last night, but he will stop short of pledging full health insurance benefits," reports the Boston Globe.
  • "A key Senate committee voted yesterday to expand a children's health insurance program to cover an additional 4 million uninsured children," but that still leaves many uninsured, and it says nothing about what happens to children when their parents fall ill.
  • The current debate is over whether the federal plan should include a "public option." Proponents say that a public plan would give people more choices--which is only meaningful if the choices are any good, and if they differ in significant ways. They also say competition from a public plan would force private insurers to find ways to cut costs. Critics say the public plan could get a public subsidy and put private insurers out of business.
"In response, Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, has proposed setting ground rules for a public plan that would force it to compete on a level playing field with private insurers." In other words, get rid of the main reason for having a public plan in the first place, its ability to serve huge numbers of people at low cost!

Schumer is no different from the leader of his party in this respect. President Obama has done all but take a blood oath that his plan is not a "Trojan horse" leading the way for a single-payer system. That's exactly what's wrong with it! Single-payer means everybody gets health insurance as a right, the same as the right to vote or the right to a public education. The fact that the Democrats are falling all over themselves to rule out a single-payer solution is what's so sickening about what passes for a health care debate.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

You Probably Think This Report is about You

Are they so vain? Or are "conservatives" like Michelle Malkin decrying the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Rightwing Extremism Report because, despite the fact that it doesn't once use the word "conservative," the report hits too close to home?

According to The Nation (June 8):

The nine-page report was a routine threat assessment issued to law enforcement and counterterrorism officalis that warned of the potential for a raise in homegrown terrorism. It concluded that the combination of an economic downturn and the election of the first African-American president [sic] could cultivate a right-wing "resurgence in radicalization and recruitment," including among disgruntled veterans.
Specifically, as summarized by ThinkProgress:

Anti-immigration: “Rightwing extremist groups’ frustration over a perceived lack of government action on illegal immigration has the potential to incite individuals or small groups toward violence. If such violence were to occur, it likely would be isolated, small-scale, and directed at specific immigration-related targets.”


Recruiting returning vets: “Rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat.”

Gun-related violence: “Heightened interest in legislation for tighter firearms...may be invigorating rightwing extremist activity, specifically the white supremacist and militia movements.”

This is specific and (to anyone who remembers the Oklahoma City bombing) highly credible information. It does not bear the stigmata of ideological bias: "DHS had released a similar report on left-wing extremists a few months earlier." Anyway, who ever accused DHS of being a nest of leftists? Some attention to reality here, please!

It makes me wonder what conservative commentators are thinking when they hear "rightwing extremist" and think it applies to themselves. If they are identifying with the white nationalists and the militia movements, what does that say about so-called mainstream conservatives?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

How Fortunate!

We have been seeing how every clause of the first sentence of Bamidbar can be read as a testimony to God's love for the Jews.

  • "On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt"-- by specifying the date, the rabbis said, the Torah makes it clear that the census was a joyous occasion. (They actually go on to compare it to a wedding, and the census is the marriage contract or ketubah!)
  • "In the wilderness of Sinai"--in the desolate places, where human beings often leave their bones, God feeds, waters, shelters, and teaches the Jewish people God's ways for forty years.
  • "Take a census"--literally, "lift up the head." They will no longer hold their heads down like slaves.
For a coda, let me simply quote what the Midrash Rabbah says about "the Lord spoke to Moses":

How fortunate was Moses! Six hundred thousand people were present, and the priests, and the Levites and the elders, all were present, yet out of these [God] spoke only with Moses!
With midrash, the creative interpretation practiced by the rabbis, there are no boring parts of Torah. It is up to us to be equally creative.

Monday, June 1, 2009

You Must Buy Health Insurance--MGH Needs Your Money

I will get back to the delights of midrash in a bit--but first, the latest outrage from the Massachusetts health care system.

Massachusetts requires all residents to buy health insurance, even if it means coverage without care. Buying a health plan with a high deductible means paying for nothing, which is what thousands of Masschusetts residents are doing. But it's worse than that.

It turns out that our state government forced struggling young people and families into the insurance business partly so that hospitals didn't have to give them free care any more. "Today, hospitals typically spend about 1 percent of expenses on free medical care, as measured by the attorney general, half of what they spent before reform made insurance available to many more low-income people," according to Sunday's Boston Globe.

Meanwhile, nonprofit hospitals are making a profit out of their tax-exempt status--an exemption granted to them largely so that they could offer free care!

The 10 leading hospital companies benefited from an estimated $638 million in federal, state, and local tax breaks as well as state discounts on borrowing in 2007, the latest year for which complete data are available. More than half of that goes to two large and growing companies, Partners and Children's Hospital. Overall, the 10 hospital companies' tax breaks and other benefits were worth $264 million more than the value of the "community benefits" - care for the poor and other charity work - they reported to the state attorney general that year.
It's important to mention the hospitals that ARE offering a lot of free care: "Three companies - Tufts Medical Center, UMass Memorial Health Care (owner of UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester) and Boston Medical Center - reported spending more on community benefits than the value of their tax breaks as estimated by the Globe." But they are the shining exceptions--and Boston Medical Center is having severe financial troubles because of its commitment to serving the poor.

In short, so-called nonprofits like MGH and Children's Hospital are stiffing the poor, and we are giving them a tax break at the same time. This should be the shame of Massachusetts.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Honeymoon in the Wilderness

In my last post, I showed how the rabbinical commentary turns the date that Moses took the census of the Jews in the wilderness into an expression of God's love for the Jewish people. If you thought that was an amazing piece of interpretation, look at this: just the fact that God was providing for them in the wilderness was another love token.

"In the ordinary course of events," the commentators say, "when a mortal king goes forth into the wilderness":

  • Does he provide the same comfort to his courtiers that they would enjoy back in the palace? No. But God gave the Jews comfortable resting places even in the desert!
  • Does he provide tutors to their children? No. But God gave the Jews three teachers, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. (Yes the text mentions all three!)
  • Does he pay the salaries of these officials? No: usually the people have to provide, through taxes. But in this case, it was the other way around. Moses provided manna for the people; Aaron brought the pillars of cloud that shielded them from the desert sun; and Miriam brought a well of water that traveled with the Jews wherever they went!
In the rabbinic mind, the forty years in the wilderness were the honeymoon trip for the marriage of God and the Jewish people. They picture God fondly recalling to the Jews lechtech acharai ba-midbar beeretz lo zeruah, "you followed Me in the desert, in a land that was not sown." They pass over the hardships, the constant whining and complaining, and what they remember is the great love God showed in helping the Jews survive for a whole generation before they entered the Promised Land.

So, just the fact that the census took place in the wilderness becomes the occasion for this romantic nostalgia. Boring parts of Torah? Hardly!

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Day to Remember

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite community.... (Numbers 1:2, Etz Hayim translation)

The midrash on the Torah portion Bamidbar takes each clause of this exceedingly formal sentence and turns it into a passionate declaration of the love of God for the people Israel--starting with the date!

Look how carefully the date of the census is spelled out at the beginning of the Torah portion. According to the Soncino edition of the Midrash Rabbah, this shows that the census was a special recognition by God toward the Jews, a kind of divine thumbs-up.

How does it show that? By contrast. When God announced to the prophet Ezekiel that the Temple would be destroyed, God made the date of the disaster obscure. Ezekiel (according to one interpretation) thought the destruction would occur on the 20th of Av or (according to another interpretation) on the 1st, but the rabbis say it actually took place on the 9th of Av. This confusion, they say, was a punishment in itself: a further proof that Israel's sinfulness deserved the catastrophe that was about to befall.

It is not surprising that the midrash-makers would connect these two apparently disconnected events. The destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile was much more recent than the census. The 9th of Av weighed heavily on the authors of the midrash than the second of Nisan at the time they were interpreting this text about the census.

By contrast, however, in Bamidbar we read in detail,"On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt...." Instead of hiding or confusing the date of the census, the text specifies it and insists upon it. It is as if God were saying, "Pay attention to this date. The day when every one of you counted, when the people were unified and whole and headed toward their homeland--not into exile--the day when I lifted up your heads." (For lift up the head is a Hebrew expression that can mean "take a head count," but also, "make you proud and whole again.")

By remembering the census this way, the midrash-makers reminded themselves of the pride God took in the Jewish people back in the days of the wilderness, centuries ago. By remembering it this way, they gave themselves the hope that those happy days of being God's pride and joy would return.

What a romantic longing, that find signs of the lover's favor in the mere mention of a date! But I know I smile every time Rona mentions that we are about to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary on June 25th--and we see each other every day. How much more the Jews pined for God after years of Babylonian exile. How much more it must have meant to them to have a date that reminded them that they all counted in the eyes of God!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Boring Parts of Torah

My synagogue, Temple B'nai Brith of Somerville, once had a Sunday morning discussion on "The Difficult Parts of Torah." Stories about rape, war and conquest, and God blasting people for violating ritual commandments that (gulp!) we completely ignore most of the time--what do we make of those, and how do we tell the kids?

Not just that once but every year, as summer approaches, our weekly readings during Saturday morning services bring us around to what you might call the boring parts of Torah. Those can be even more challenging. No juicy stories about family feuds, no moments of divine revelation. Instead, over the last month we've been reading regulations for priests--and Jews have not had priests for 2000 years. Yesterday, in Bamidbar (the first portion of what is called in English the book of Numbers), we spent most of the Torah service looking at the census of the Israelites wandering in the desert, broken down by tribe and family. Not exactly summer blockbuster material. What's wonderful is that the Jewish tradition of interpreting the text can make even the census into a love story between God and the Jewish people.

Midrash (as I once wrote in my book Political Discourse in Exile) "means the creative style of textual interpretation developed by the rabbis of Palestine and Babylonia in the third to sixth centuries C.E. At least, that is one of its meanings." It can also mean the body of interpretations about a biblical book. As we have reached the point in the year when we read Bamidbar/ Numbers over the past few years, I have reached for Bamidbar Rabbah, the anthology of midrash about that book--and what I have found is amazing. Just from the first sentence of the Torah portion alone, the performance artists we call "rabbis" have piled on one demonstration after another that the period in the wilderness was the young, heated, passionate period of the Jewish love affair with God.

I'll explain about this in the next few posts.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Bad Week for Liberal Idealists

I feel bad for my liberal friends today, especially for those people (young and old) who thought electing Barack Obama as President would make the U.S. a different country.

Item: "President Obama's decision to overhaul and restart the Bush administration's military tribunals for Guantanamo Bay terrorism detainees won support from congressional Republicans yesterday, but deepened his estrangement from the liberal activists who helped sweep him into office."

Item: "KABUL - Human Rights Watch accused the US military of not doing enough to reduce civilian casualties during battles in Afghanistan and called yesterday for changes to prevent civilian deaths like those earlier this month."

Item: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi either knew about the torture of prisoners by waterboarding and said nothing at the time, or else she let the CIA fob off a bunch of misleading statements and significant omissions on as an official report. Either way, she made the Democrats complicit with the Bush administration in committing war crimes.

It's gotten to the point where political cartoonist Rob Rogers shows Obama reading all-too-familiar phrases from the Bush teleprompter!

Is this all a big surprise? It shouldn't be. As far back as June 2006, Obama revealed himself to be cautious in temperament, conservative in morality, non-confrontational, willing to test the limits of the possible but ready to retreat at the first sign that he'd gone too far. If we sit back and let the right wing exert all the pressure, Obama will do what's expedient and not what's really needed. As for the Democrats in Congress, they have always been more concerned about getting back their majority than about repairing the damage to the country that first the Clinton, then the Bush administrations created.

Liberals, this is your chance to give up wishful thinking. If you want progressive policies, you need to build a progressive movement. Putting new faces into office simply means hearing new voices try to explain why the U.S. has to keep pursuing failed and immoral policies. The officeholders are the ones who have to start hearing from us for a change!

Friday, May 15, 2009

I am shocked, shocked that there was gambling in our pension insurance system

It sounds like a Washington-based thriller, but it's today's news.

The former head of the nation's pension insurance agency, who last year pushed through a high-risk strategy that shifted the insurance fund heavily into stocks just before the market crash, committed a "clear violation" of agency rules by contacting Wall Street firms that were bidding to oversee the new policy, while also seeking the help of one firm in gaining employment, according to a government report.
All it would need is a murder and an investigator trying to salvage his tattered reputation to sell for $16.95 in paperback!

Seriously, folks, although what Charles E.F. Millard (and I am not making that name up) is alleged to have done is disgusting, he is not the problem. We have a system that makes this kind of thing possible, and close to inevitable. We saw the same kind of malfeasance and self-dealing 20+ years ago, in the Savings & Loan scandal. As I wrote on March 31: "We cannot rely on capitalism to save us from the shortfalls of capitalism. It takes serious government policy, made by grown-ups, to do that. "

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Boneyard


Annals of military spending:

Some stylish people--fewer, since the recession stated--trade in their used cars every year or two for the very latest model. The U.S. Air Force engages in even more conspicuous consumption. The third largest air force in the world is sitting on the ground in Tucson, Arizona. More than 4,400 aircraft and 13 aerospace vehicles sit idle at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARG), also known as the "Boneyard."

The Boneyard is not only a resting place for planes. I look at each of these airborne behemoths and I realize that it is an unwitting memorial to lives we could have saved.

This country had the choice to fund the war on poverty--to end cancer, or AIDS--to make sure every adult and child had top-quality health care from before birth to the final rest. Instead, we spent billions of dollars producing the aircraft that have ended up baking in the Arizona sun, just another tourist attraction.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Insuring pain--or poverty

Across Massachusetts, people are facing a stark choice: pain or poverty. The mandatory health insurance law forces people to buy some kind of coverage, but often, what people can afford won't pay for the care they need. In today's Boston Globe, Judi Campbell of Northampton says she's putting off hip surgery because she already owes the hospital $1,000 for arthritis-related surgeries her insurance wouldn't cover.

And yet the Globe and many policy makers proclaim the "success" of the Massachusetts health insurance plan. For shame!

Friday, May 1, 2009

A Tiger Set Loose

There was a young lady of Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger.

It's clear that some powerful forces in Pakistan have for thirty years supported Islamic radicals in Afghanistan. Primarily, they've backed the Taliban, but they've at least tolerated and at most cooperated with al-Qaeda as well. Pakistan is not dominated by jihadists, and they didn't get involved in Afghanistan for religious or ideological reasons. They supported the Taliban for political reasons: first to cause trouble for the Soviet Union when it controlled Afghanistan, then to train Islamic guerrillas who would tie down Pakistan's traditional adversary, India, in the territory of Kashmir, which India and Pakistan both claim.

It's not clear to me whether Pakistani policy was made by the government, the military, or the ISI, Pakistan's equivalent of the CIA. Without being sure, it is hard to tell whether Pakistan's current military campaign against Taliban forces inside its borders is for real. If it is real, it makes me wonder if whoever calls the shots in Islamabad has realized that the smile is on the face of the tiger. They thought they were using the Taliban, but the Taliban was using them even more.

The fighting is going on 60 miles from the capital city--as close to Islamabad as Worcester is to Boston. The Taliban is that close to taking control of a country that possesses nuclear weapons. God help us all if they do.

If they don't, if we are spared that, our country should learn from the experience. The U.S. actually encouraged Pakistan to support these people against the Soviets, sending money through Pakistan to the warlords who run Afghanistan now and the jihadists who want to run it, both. Our meddling has come back to haunt us. We should make covert wars a thing of the past. They have always hurt us in the long run.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Reality Obama Can't Face

I am a man of the Left, not a liberal, because liberals hold on too tight to their illusions. They think the problem with U.S. power is that the wrong people are wielding it. After Vietnam, after David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, they still think that.

I have more in common with a humane conservative like Andrew Bacevich. He writes in the Boston Globe, "But however much Obama may differ from Bush on particulars, he appears intent on sustaining the essentials on which the Bush policies were grounded...the Sacred Trinity of global power projection, global military presence, and global activism." It is far too late for that. Read Bacevich to find out why.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Impunity

I am not surprised that Obama is not going to prosecute the people who told George W. Bush what he wanted to hear: that it was legal to strip people naked and leave them in freezing cold interrogation rooms, or pour water down their throats until they nearly died from drowning. The right thing to do would be to prosecute Bush, Cheney, the Office of Legal Counsel who advised them, and the CIA and military people who carried out the torture, for conspiracy to violate human rights. It will not happen. I am not surprised, but I am dismayed, disheartened, and a bit more afraid of this government even than before. Tell me again that they are there to protect us.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Ghost Wars, conclusion: The Limits of Hard Power

The U.S. does not have the power to defend itself against terrorist attacks, and it is not doing the things it would take to build that power. That's the most important lesson I derive from reading Steve Coll's Ghost Wars : The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.

I want to make it clear: Steve Coll doesn't say that. He probably wouldn't agree. A lot of his book points out how the U.S. missed chances to stop al-Qaeda in its tracks by misunderstanding what was going on, or not sharing the information available in different branches of government. Some of the time, he even makes it sound like better use of futuristic technology would have let the CIA assassinate bin Laden and prevent the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in 2001.

Coll's own book argues against those conclusions, however. He is too good a journalist not to report that the U.S. could not know for sure where bin Laden was at any given moment--and that the consequences of missing him, and killing innocent people, would have been dire. We have also many, many reasons to believe that killing one man would not have stopped this movement--even if it were moral to do so.

The thing is: where are we today? The U.S. military is wounded from Iraq. Even if it were at full strength, it could not fight a successful counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan--no foreign power in history has been able to do that. The CIA still has very few spies who speak Dari or Pashto or any of the languages most common in Afghanistan, and almost none who could pass for Afghanis themselves. Secret war will not be any more successful than overt war.

This is not a counsel of despair, however. The U.S. has relied single-mindedly on hard power, when what is needed is soft power. According to the inventor of the term, Joseph Nye, soft power means
the ability to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than using the carrots and sticks of payment or coercion. As I describe in my new book The Powers to Lead, in individuals soft power rests on the skills of emotional intelligence, vision, and communication that Obama possesses in abundance. In nations, it rests upon culture (where it is attractive to others), values (when they are applied without hypocrisy), and policies (when they are inclusive and seen as legitimate in the eyes of others.)
I agree with Nye when he says, "American soft power has declined quite dramatically in much of the world over the past eight years." Just by being elected, Obama has halted the decline. He has not gained ground, however, and he will not make America a more attractive model to the world by sending more troops to Afghanistan or sending more prisoners to Bagram, the Iraqi Guantanamo. He will not gain a reputation for wisdom by pretending that the Karzai government in Kabul, the Maliki government in Baghdad, or the Zardari government in Islamabad is a reliable friend. The Bush administration has left us very little time to come to grips with reality. It is time to retrench and rebuild.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Yes, Mr. President, There is a Habeas Corpus

You can't call someone a terror suspect, lock him up, and throw away the key, whether the prison is in Guantanamo, Cuba or Bagram, Afghanistan.

Duh!

It's alarming that the Obama administration agreed with the Bush administration "that the Bagram prisoners were not entitled to question their detention in civil courts," according to an article in today's Boston Globe. Didn't Obama say we should elect him because of his good judgment? What kind of judgment does it demonstrate when he asserts the same kind of dictatorial powers that we have fought against for the last eight years?

A Life Sentence for Vets

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, was blunt about psychological and family problems of vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan--including high rates of homelessness.

"This is not a 10-year problem. It is a 50- or 60- or 70-year problem."

Think about that. The decision to go to war means condemning a certain number of the men and women in uniform to a lifetime of suffering. We call them heroes, but we punish them with a life sentence--them, their spouses, their children, and everyone who loves them and is forced to watch them struggle with horrors most of us will never see.

Think about it again, hard, whenever you imagine the U.S. using military force again. President Obama, think about that when you calculate your troop increases in Afghanistan. Know that when we go to war, we make our own soldiers the enemy. What is there in the world that could justify doing that to our friends, neighbors, and countrymen and women? How dare we?

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

It's Still the Same Sad Story

This is really big news--except that it's not new at all.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation may go bankrupt, and if it does, a lot of people--up to 44 million people--who are expecting to collect pensions after they retire may be pinching pennies instead.

Unlike 401k's, pensions are supposed to deliver a fixed amount of money that people can count on in retirement. And just like the FDIC insures your bank account against bank failure, the PBGC is supposed to insure your pension against a corporate pension fund running dry. You would think the very first priority of an insurer like that would be to take care of its own money. But according to the Boston Globe, "Just months before the start of last year's stock market collapse...the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation decided to pour billions of dollars into speculative investments such as stocks in emerging foreign markets, real estate, and private equity funds." Well, we know what has happened to the value of those investments!

This is really big news because so many older Americans will never get the chance to make up for those losses. If they are to be saved, it may cost the taxpayers "several hundred billion dollars"--on top of the money we are already spending to bail out the banks.

But it is also an old story. The name of the story is "double or nothing." During the Bush administration, the director of the PBGC realized that it was falling behind on its obligations. According to the Globe again, he said that "the prior strategy of relying mostly on bonds would never garner enough money to eliminate the agency's deficit." His answer? Gamble!

This was the same reasoning that led the Savings & Loans banks to make risky investments in the 1980's. Before that, they had been resolutely local, conventional, and conservative. Then, they tried to make up shortfalls by buying and flipping real estate for a profit and by investing in all kinds of high-risk ventures, foreign and domestic. We the taxpayers ended up on the hook then too.

We cannot rely on capitalism to save us from the shortfalls of capitalism. It takes serious government policy, made by grown-ups, to do that.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Ghost Wars, part II

The enemy of my enemy is NOT my friend. That's a second lesson I've learned by reading Steve Coll's history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan before 9/11/2001. I hope Obama has learned it too.

From 1979 straight through the CIA's secret war against the Soviet Union, then the Soviet-backed government, and then al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the U.S. largely relied on two nations with assets in country that the U.S. could not rival. Those two countries were Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. But Saudi Arabia could not go after bin Laden seriously for domestic political reasons, and they convinced themselves that the Taliban would gradually become more conservative, as the Saudis had done before them: more concerned with maintaining themselves in power than in spreading Islamic revolution. Saudi Arabia carried messages to both sides, but it never used its influence effectively to change the Taliban's stance toward the U.S., or to convince them to give up bin Laden.

Pakistan, meanwhile, had every reason to cooperate with bin Laden. He was training Islamic guerrillas that were tying down major parts of the Indian army in Kashmir, keeping India at bay without exposing Pakistan to direct confrontation. The ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency, found ways of accepting U.S. money and using it to build its own influence in Afghanistan without serving U.S. interests.

Besides these two state actors, there was the Northern Alliance, headed by Ahmed Shah Massoud. Coll clearly has a soft spot for Massoud, "the Lion of Panjshir," but his book portrays him as another repressive thug, motivated by religion and nationalism, who cared about taking Afghanistan over from the Taliban but didn't see bin Laden as any particular threat. He would have been willing to kill him if he could, but he was in northern territories and bin Laden was mostly in the south and east. As long as U.S. policy was neutral between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban (which it was for years), it only made sense that Massoud would not stick his neck out to help the U.S. either.

We have to learn that other people and nations have interests and strategies of their own. They are not good guys because they do what Washington wants them to do, nor are they bad guys because they do something different. They are in business for themselves. If we want to do business with them, that's the first thing to recognize.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ghost Wars, part I

Payback is a poor excuse for a foreign policy. That's one of the lessons I derive from reading Steve Coll's Ghost Wars : The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.

I'm only 2/3 of the way through this very detailed history, but some things are already clear. One is that in 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to ensure it would have a friendly government in a strategically located country, the U.S. was still licking its wounds from Vietnam. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security advisor, was still viewing the Soviets as the people who invaded Eastern Europe. The Carter administration felt betrayed by the Soviet move, and they took it personally. They saw Afghanistan not as a country of its own, with a people whose destiny mattered, but as a place where they could get back at the U.S.S.R. and humiliate them as the U.S. had been humiliated earlier in the decade.

The U.S. armed violent Islamic fundamentalists to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. With what result? Some of those became the warlords who carved up Afghanistan in the 1980's and early 1990's, after Gorbachev decided the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable: Hekmatyar, Massoud, etc. Some became the jihadists who replaced those warlords. We know them as the Taliban.

For over two decades, to spite the Soviet Union, the U.S. condemned Afghanistan to civil war and chaos. President Obama today is making tough choices (and I believe, wrong choices) about sending troops to Afghanistan partly because of the problems the U.S. made.

We did not create those problems all by ourselves, however. That's the subject of a future post.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Friday, March 13, 2009

Socialism, Reagan-style


It helps to have a historical memory! Republicans are calling Obama's recovery plan "socialist" in part because it raises taxes on the rich. But it doesn't raise them anywhere near as high as they were under Republican presidents Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon. They don't make Republicans like they used to! Or socialists, for that matter!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Nobody Knows All the Torture We Haven't Seen

Italian prosecutors say the CIA abducted a radical Egyptian cleric, Abu Omar, from a Milan street on Feb. 17, 2003, in an "extraordinary rendition" operation. It may have been a falling out among thieves. Back in 2005, the Chicago Tribune revealed that Abu Omar was once the CIA's most productive source of information within the tightly knit group of Islamic fundamentalists living in exile in Albania. The CIA may have kidnapped him to get him to become an informer again.

The Italian government protested the abduction and mounted a trial of Americans allegedly involved in it. Today, however, the AP reports,

Prosecutors say Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, was then transferred to US bases in Italy and Germany before being moved to Egypt, where he was imprisoned for four years. Nasr, who has been released, said he was tortured.
Did it happen that way? We might never know. Italy's Constitutional Court said some of the key evidence in the case was classified information. It could not be admitted in court. The case against 26 Americans may collapse because of that.

It is too much to expect that the Berlusconi government would declassify the information and let the trial proceed. But is it too much change to hope for that the Obama administration would conduct its own investigation into state-run kidnapping and torture, and bring the responsible parties to trial?

Monday, March 9, 2009

You Can't be Sick, There's a War to Fight!

My greatest respect to former Marine captain and rifle company commander Tyler E. Boudreau. In today's Globe, he reveals the dilemma he faced when the Iraq war began to drive his soldiers crazy:

In the spring of 2008, RAND released its well-known report in which it estimated that one in five service members returning from war will contend with symptoms of post-traumatic stress or depression. In a typical rifle company, those estimates would represent a loss of at least 30 men. I knew I couldn't afford that.


What good are soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder in the field? Yet what good is a company forced to fight at 80% of its strength? Boudreau states with stunning clarity, "A commander cannot serve in earnest both the mission and the psychologically wounded." The mission will come first, and people will be--have been--forced to fight when they should be receiving mental health care at home. Is there no Geneva Convention to keep us from torturing our own people?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Recession-proof but Not Bullet-Proof

In a recession, there are certain things people do to get by. They pinch pennies. They leave the work force and take the time to get more education. They go into the military.

One of these things is not like the others.

When you cut back on spending, it slows the economy down even further. Eventually, though, the economy recovers and you have more savings (or less debt).

Similarly, going to grad school during a recession takes you out of the work force at a time when there's less demand for workers. When demand picks up again, you have more knowledge and better credentials. You might be able to get a better job.

When people went into the military for the war in Iraq, as previously pointed out in this blog:
  • Young Americans came home with grave mental health problems.
  • The military tried its best to deny them medical coverage.
  • Many had problems adjusting to nonviolent civilian life.
  • Vets came home with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. They will be at greater risk for heart attack than the rest of us as they grow older.
  • The military also tried to cheat returning veterans out of their costly GI benefits, or "bait and switch," giving vets much less than they were promised when they joined.
  • Women in the military were sexually harassed and, too often, raped by their fellow soldiers.
  • KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary, exposed soldiers to sodium dichromate, "one of the most potent carcinogens" known to man while they guarded a water treatment plant in Iraq that the company was repairing.
  • Military contractors suffered the same mental and physical wounds as soldiers.

    "Typically a bad economy has worked to the benefit of the military," retired Navy Rear Admiral John D. Hutson told the Boston Globe. But it's worked to the injury of the people who joined the military.
  • Friday, February 13, 2009

    Working Hard and Hardly Blogging

    Since our new Executive Director came on board at CAAS, I have been helping her get oriented, then trying to address years of deferred maintenance in the fundraising department. I haven't had the brain cells left over to blog with. I hope that will change by March.

    Monday, February 2, 2009

    Natural Born Killers--Not

    We are not meant to fight and kill. It takes a terrible toll on us when we do it. According to the Boston Globe of January 30:

    WASHINGTON - Suicides among US soldiers rose last year to the highest level in decades, the Army announced yesterday.

    At least 128 soldiers killed themselves in 2008. But the final count is likely to be considerably higher because 15 more suspicious deaths are still being investigated and could also turn out to be self-inflicted, the Army said.

    Along with the many other reasons for thinking twice and ten times before sending our young men and women to war which I have been listing on this blog, let's add that we don't want to see them kill themselves.

    Wednesday, January 28, 2009

    It Takes My Breath Away


    What is the distance between a charismatic leader and his followers? What does it take to close the gap between them? These are questions that come up when we read the Torah portion Va'era, as Jews all over the world did last Saturday.


    6 Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. 7 And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. 8 I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord." 9 But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.

    My friend Phil Weiss, the darshan at Temple B'nai Brith in Somerville, calls our attention to the last line of this passage. Moses has one experience. He grows up in Pharaoh's court, a pampered prince, dimly aware of his Israelite heritage. Even when he has to flee the country, he marries the daughter of a local religious leader and chieftain in Midian. Moses sometimes doubts his own abilities--he has a temper, and he stutters--but once he gets his prophetic mission, he never doubts that God is behind him. How can he? He heard a divine voice speaking from a bush that burned and burned and was not consumed. What a tremendous privilege, to know for sure that your cause is just!

    Contrast this with the condition of the people Moses returns to liberate. They came to Egypt hundreds of years ago, escaping a famine. Initially welcomed, they were later enslaved. Their rulers tried gradually to wipe them out, commanding that every Israelite boy baby be thrown into the Nile (a command that two clever midwives figured out how to circumvent). They survived, but they did backbreaking manual labor for hundreds of years, building whole cities at Pharaoh's behest. This is "cruel bondage," or as the Hebrew says more literally, "hard work" indeed. And the expression for "their spirits crushed," b'kotzer ruach, can refer to the narrowing and truncating of their outlook on life--or it can mean "shortness of breath." What a definition of oppression: working so hard you don't have room to breathe, much less hope for the future.

    Is it any wonder that it took someone from a different class entirely to hear God's project of liberation? Is it any wonder that the enslaved people have trouble believing that things can ever be better than they are?

    I've been rehearsing Phil's interpretation in my own words, and it is not putting words in his mouth to say that we can look at the new American president in the same light. He is quite literally the son of a stranger in the land. He is in some senses an outsider to the African American community. He has enough distance from both white and black and all other shades of America to get a perspective on what we need to liberate this country from the "shortness of breath" we have experienced at least for the last eight years. But how will he be received? Will we (as I have suggested in previous posts) welcome him and push him to be a more transformational leader than even he knows he can be? Or will we refuse to listen to the word of liberation that comes, not from Obama, but through him, from beyond him?

    All Moses' life, I said to Phil, he had trouble making people listen to him--and trouble listening to them, too. Let's hope that a community organizer has better skills in this area than a prophet!

    Friday, January 16, 2009

    Interpreting the Dream Today: Joseph in Egypt and Obama in the White House

    The leader of a great and powerful nation looks ahead and sees economic disaster looming. He searches for an adviser who can help him create sweeping change and provide hope to the land. The qualifications of the person he elects are 1) that he has shown good judgment before in interpreting visions of life and death, and 2) that he comes from a group that was previously denigrated and despised in his country--to the point that the majority would not even sit down and eat with them at the same table.

    This is the story of Joseph in Egypt, too.

    In Parshat Miketz, which we read in synagogue a few weeks ago, the Pharaoh (or king) has a dream that seven fat cows are feeding by the great river of Egypt--and seven lean, emaciated cows come and swallow them up. He has the same dream again, only with ears of corn instead of cattle. The only one who can make sense of his dreams is Joseph, the enslaved Hebrew being held prisoner in Pharaoh's dungeon. Pharaoh's butler had met Joseph in prison, when he had been sent there in political disgrace, and Joseph had correctly predicted his return to a position of influence.

    On the butler's recommendation, Pharaoh listened to Joseph's dream interpretation: that seven years of prosperity would be swallowed up by seven years of famine, and that it was time to begin preparing now. Pharaoh makes Joseph his famine czar: "Thou shalt be over my house, and according unto thy word shall all my people be ruled; only in the throne will I be greater than thou."

    Barack Hussein Obama is the Joseph who has become the Pharaoh. After the eight relatively fat years of the Clinton administration, we have seen eight lean years, all of which were recession years for the poor of this country (and disasters for our rights and liberties). Obama famously showed good judgment in denouncing the Iraq war. Since his father was from Kenya and his wife's family includes the descendants of slaves, he is also associated with African Americans, who have not had such influence in Washington since the days of Reconstruction. Joseph (for good and for ill) centralized control at the national level. Obama promises to move in that direction too.

    As an American Pharaoh who has been treated as a god by many of his followers to date, will Obama choose his own advisers as well as the Egyptian Pharaoh did? His appointments do not look promising. On foreign policy, many of them are the same people who helped George W. Bush get us into Iraq in the first place. On economic policy, they are the same people who helped Bill Clinton fritter away America's "social contract with its citizens," leading us to the awful state we're in.

    The best we can hope for is that Obama will challenge his inner butler. He must remember where he came from--a community organizer who spent time with average people in the prison of poverty--and listen to the voices that tell him, "Make mention of me unto Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house."

    The best we can do is to organize, pressure him, and make it so. Pharaoh cannot be Moses, and Obama cannot be a movement leader from the White House. We need to lead from here.