Monday, December 9, 2013

On the Bimah and Off Broadway

Bravo's Andy Cohen and his bar mitzvah tutor Yitz Magence
It's been nineteen years since Rona's uncle, Dr. Jacob S. Rosen, passed away.  We will be lighting a yahrzeit candle Friday evening to mark the anniversary of his death. 

And I will be remembering a story that Uncle Jack told me.

Like me, Uncle Jack was a bar mitzvah tutor.  Sometime in the 1960's, someone showed him an album cover.  Two Jewish guys singing their hearts out.  Uncle Jack recognized the one with frizzy hair as one of his bar mitzvah students.

"That Garfunkel kid," he said, "always, he had a sweet voice!"

When I read this morning's Boston Globe article about a television star tipping his musical hat to his own bar mitzvah tutor, I smiled.  For me, it was a tribute to Uncle Jack. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Joseph, Jonah, Miriam, and Nelson

Some weeks in shul, I don't hear any cogent words about the Torah portion.  But today at Temple B'nai Brith, reading Parshat Vayigash, I heard at least three wonderful thoughts.

The Torah Portion

Parshat Vayigash brings the story of Joseph to its climax.  When he was young, his brothers sold him into slavery, but he rose to become the leader of Egypt, second in command to the Pharaoh.  At this point in the story, his brothers have come to Egypt three times, twice seeking food in a famine, the third time accused of stealing from the Egyptian leader whom they do not recognize as their brother. 

Joseph has threatened to keep the youngest brother (Benjamin, the son of Rachel, who was Joseph's mother too) in prison forever.  An older brother, Judah, offers to take Benjamin's place, to keep their father Jacob from dying of grief for his favorite remaining son.  Moved to tears, Joseph reveals himself.  He tells them that not they but God sent him to Egypt so that he could do good, and he gets Pharaoh's permission to invite them to bring the entire clan to Egypt to settle.

Today at shul, the twins Jonah and Miriam Freed Boardman celebrated their b'nai mitzvah.  Each said something penetrating about the story.

Three Interpretations

Jonah pointed out that even though the Egyptians regarded the children of Israel/Jacob as barbaric, in the midst of a famine, the Egyptian government invited the Israelites in and made them welcome.  Contrast this to our government, he said, which has been doing so much to turn immigrants and refugees away at the door!

Miriam called our attention to the name of Serach bat Asher, Joseph's niece, one of the only women to be mentioned in the list of Jews who came down to Egypt.  What was so special about Serach?  The text gives no clue, but as usual, that was no bar to the rabbinic imagination.  The rabbis came up with three midrashim about Serach:

  1. She was the one who broke the astonishing news that Joseph was alive to her grandfather Jacob.  He had been mourning Joseph for years, perhaps decades, and even good news might have shocked him and even killed him if not for her gentle manner.  As a reward for caring for her aged grandfather, she was granted a miraculous old age...and lived all the way until the time of Moses.
  2. Serach was the only one who knew the code word that God had given the Israelites to recognize a true prophet.  She vouched for Moses to her people.
  3. Before he died, Joseph arranged to have himself embalmed and made his people promise to take him back to the land of his ancestors.  Four hundred years later, during the Exodus, they had the chance to keep that promise--because Serach knew where Joseph was buried.
Miriam (the namesake of a prophet) reminded us that even a generation ago, she might not have been allowed to celebrate becoming bat mitzvah along with her brother.  With her words of wisdom, she brought women's voices back into the story...including her own.

In response, our congregation's senior leader, Phil Weiss, compared Joseph to another prisoner who rose to leadership: Nelson Mandela.  Like Joseph, Mandela refused to seek revenge on his oppressors.  He and Archbishop Tutu set up commissions for truth and reconciliation instead.  As a result, South Africa still faces many problems, but solving them will not take divine intervention, nor the death of the firstborn.  In this way, Mandela was greater than Joseph.  Joseph left Egypt in a feudal state.  Mandela left South Africa a democracy.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

We First, by Simon Mainwaring: a review

 We First book cover

There's a lot to like about Simon Mainwaring's We First. This former advertising executive pulls no punches. He tells his former clients that the way they do business has got to go.

Capitalism, Mainwaring points out, is flawed as a system. It leads to class rule, booms, bubbles, and busts. It promotes selfishness and greed. It sacrifices workers and their families and despoils the environment in a short-sighted grab for immediate profit. Capitalism is not sustainable, neither economically, environmentally, or ethically.

I agree with all of this, and I believe that if every reform Mainwaring proposed were put into practice, we would all be better off. Yet I finish the book profoundly dissatisfied.

This book proposes that:

  1. By changing their mentality, corporate capitalists will be able to make "purpose" as important as profit.
  2. If they won't change on their own, social media-savvy consumers will be able to compel them.
  3. The changes they make will create the world we want to live in (and avoid the hell we're headed toward).

But none of these is true.

1. The profit motive is not a matter of mentality. It is the engine of capitalism. Yes, it may just be possible for global corporations to swear off some of the pollution and exploitation that has given them such extraordinary profits in the last thirty years--and it would be a good thing if they did. Always, though, they will feel the pressure to grow or die. Inexorably, they will be forced to push products at the expense of people and the planet. Only a countervailing pressure will force them to put "we first."

2. Consumers on social media can embarrass corporations. We can cost them money by ruining their reputation and reducing their sales. And we should. But this is not enough to compel real change. Mainwaring himself cites the danger of "greenwashing": businesses adopting feel-good policies that don't ultimately change their environmental impact (or simply donating to good causes to buy themselves a better reputation). Corporate PR has kept many the company profitable despite its terrible labor practices. Consumers can add to, but not replace, government regulation, social activism, and labor unions. (Mainwaring never mentions unions. It is a telling silence.)

3. Even if corporations make huge changes in the direction that Mainwaring calls for--and it would be a good thing if they did--they would still be in charge. That means they'd make those changes on the schedule and in the way they find best--not what's best for the rest of us. It's not just corporate greed that's unsustainable. It's corporate power as well.

I give credit to the author for recognizing that capitalism is the problem. I fault him for his naivete in thinking capitalism can be the solution.

Friday, October 4, 2013

For Better Social Skills, A Little Chekhov? (NY Times)

As a confirmed reader, I felt smug when I read  But is that a sign that my social skills have lapsed?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Quiet, the Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain: a review

One point Cain makes about introverts is that they often express themselves more fluently in writing. For proof, simply look at all the Goodreads reviews of this book. One after another, reviewers who identify themselves as introverts go on and on! So, I'm not going to summarize the book here, only to share some of my strong reactions to it.

1. I appreciate the author's taking the time to tell extroverts, too, how they can take advantage of their strengths and learn strategies from introverts to help them cope with their weaknesses. If she had only boosted introverts' self-esteem, we might have thought she was overcompensating. As it is, we can take her claim that these are different temperaments with different advantages and drawbacks more seriously.

2. I also appreciate her study of how the Extrovert Ideal doesn't reign in Asian cultures, and in fact, may hold Asian Americans back in mixed company. I wish she would look at Jews, too. Jewish women are allowed to be much more extroverted than WASP women, and Jewish men are prized for being more introverted (in the sense of thoughtful, persistent, and scholarly) than the general idea of masculinity would permit.

3. Cain gives us a thoughtful analysis of when introverts should "to thine own self be true" and when they should "smile and the world smiles with you."

For the rest, please read the book!

Monday, September 9, 2013

My Prayers for Israel


Ever since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., Jews have prayed to be restored to the land of Israel.  But to do what?

The High Holy Day prayerbook, or machzor, that we use at Temple B'nai Brith  puts it one way.  Ve-sham naaseh l'fanecha et korbanot chovoteinu: "There we shall bring Thee our offerings...."  This is a vision of a rebuilt Temple, with priests, Levites, and sacrifices of animals and grains, all at their appointed times, the same way the Temple operated two thousand years ago.

The Sabbath prayerbook, or siddur, that we use puts it very differently.  She-sham asu avoteinu l'fanecha et korbanot chovoteichem: "There our ancestors sacrificed to you with their offerings...."  This is a vision of a renewed community in the territory of Israel, a community that remembers its history but does not repeat it.

I have great difficulties with the first version.  I purposefully attend an egalitarian synagogue: why would I pray for a hierarchical Temple?  Although I eat animals, I cannot see slaughtering them as any way to glorify God.  Then there is the difficulty that the Dome of the Rock, one of the most sacred sites in Islam, stands on the Temple mount.  Jews could only rebuild the Temple on its historic foundation by committing a horrific crime against our fellow children of Abraham.  God forbid!

But the second version has its problems too.  For two thousand years, Jews have offered prayers instead of sacrifices.  This is the hallmark of the kind of Judaism all of us know, rabbinic Judaism.  Without the substitution of prayers for sacrifices, there might be no Judaism today.  But prayer is portable.  Wherever ten adult Jews come together, we can pray and study, mourn and celebrate. 

We simply do not need a Temple in Jerusalem any more.  So, the reference to the Temple in our prayerbook seems like an empty piety, a reference to a past that we both respect and repudiate. 

I am not happy with "There we shall bring thee our offerings."  I am not satisfied with "There our ancestors sacrificed to you."  It gets me thinking: in an age when a State of Israel exists, what would it mean to be restored to our homeland?  To do what?

Two thousand years is a long time, and Jews have planted roots all over the world.  I am still going to live where I have made my life, in Somerville, Massachusetts.  But with family who live in Israel, and a Jewish identity that originates there, perhaps I could pray:

Can I get an "Amen"?

Saturday, August 31, 2013

You Had Me at "Forgive Me": a thought for the High Holy Days

Last year at this point in the Jewish calendar, I posted an entry entitled "It Is Not Too Hard for Us" (  I think it is worth reposting as we approach the High Holy Days. Happy 5774!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: a review

What is serendipity?  Is it stumbling upon something by a happy accident, or shrewd observation and deduction, Sherlock Holmes style?  Does it involve looking for something and finding something else, or coincidence occurring without any effort on the part of the finder?  Does it pertain to finding books and documents, or discovering facts and ideas?  Can it be taught, encouraged, solicited, and if so, through individual effort or through organizational structure?  Is it talent or pure luck, or a combination of the two?

Robert K. Merton and Elinor Barber chased down the word "serendipity" from its first use by Horace Walpole in 1754 through its use in scientific papers in the 1950's, when this book was begun.  Their answer is "All of the above."  At different times, people have used the word in all these different ways.  Serendipity clearly answered a need for a way to talk about the ways that we find out things when our rational plans and orderly methods would never bring them to light.  Because we still don't understand exactly how that happens, we use the word variously to express our reactions to it: surprise, amusement, disdain, wonder.

I am with the authors in appreciating serendipity.  I believe in planning, but that includes planning to improvise at appropriate moments.  Be prepared to be spontaneous!

Being mentally and morally prepared to act in the moment is a trait of character that anyone can cultivate.  It takes a particular kind of organization (whether it's a business, a lab, or a nonprofit) to welcome serendipity and learn from it.  That's the kind of place I'd like to work, and that's the kind of environment I'd like funders to support.  Thomas Szasz once wrote of "the seriousness of a child at play."  As a society, we need to loosen the reins and give a little play to our endeavors.  Imagine what might happen then!

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Return of Alien vs. Predator, or, Why Liberals Lose When They Take on Corporate Power: Part II

On August 2, I wrote, "Modern liberals use state power to check and constrain the power of capitalism, which they see as posing the greatest threat to our ability to live free and flourish....

Does the strategy of posing state power against corporate power work? Only if we control the state AND state power is stronger than the power of capitalism. But neither of these is true."

If you want to re-read Edward S. Greenberg's arguments demonstrating that elections don't keep elected leaders faithful to the wishes of the people, go back to August 2. But I think the point that corporations often escape government control is obvious if you've been reading the headlines for the last decade. Enron. Halliburton. Qwest. Arthur Anderssen. Global Crossing. In Massachusetts, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, which gave us leaky tunnels years after Bechtel gave us Iran-Contra criminals Caspar Weinberger and George Shultz. And these are just the ones that have gotten caught.

One of the biggest employers in America, Wal-Mart, has repeatedly been fined for paying workers less than minimum wage, making them work longer than legal hours, and allowing sexual harassment in the workplace but refusing to allow union organizing. They just pay the fines and keep on doing it. Some of the biggest financial institutions in the country knowingly lent money to people they knew could not afford to pay it back, then sold the loans to investors, creating the housing crash and the Great Recession.  And the conservatives complain we're an over-regulated society!

This all goes to the second reason the liberal strategy is just not enough to rein in corporate power. Government is frequently NOT stronger than corporations. Here are some of the reasons:

* Government officials rely on corporate money to run their election campaigns. It buys "access," which means the chance for the corporate leaders to explain what they want and, if the elected officials don't give it to them, to know the reason why.

* Government officials often ARE corporate leaders. They take a turn "serving their country" before going back to "making a profit"--but all too often the way they think and act in the two roles is exactly the same!

* If government creates rules or imposes taxes that corporate capitalists don't want to live with, they can do the big money equivalent of taking their ball and going home: namely, they can stop investing for a while and go on "capital strike." Alternatively, they can move their money to investments in other countries. Then, jobs will disappear, wages will decline, and "the economy" will be bad (in that phrase we use without thinking about it to describe what affects rich people--we never use "the economy" to mean the minimum wage, for example!). Without their overtly making it happen, corporations will exert power over government, using us as their tool. Politicians will come under public pressure to do something about "the economy"--with the public never realizing that it's "the economy" which is doing something nasty to them!

* For more than a hundred years, we have been taught that freedom = "free enterprise," meaning corporate power goes unchecked by democratic political power. Every law, regulation, and enforcement action is defined as a threat against freedom. It's ingrained in us to think government power used against Microsoft or McDonald's is power that could turn against you and me. So we give away our power in the name of a freedom that only other people enjoy.

And yet, and still...sometimes, in limited ways, government can force corporate business to act in the public interest. It's worth using the liberal approach, if not as a strategy, at least as one tactic, one tool, one finger in the dike to stop the flood from rising further. Moving people who haven't ever understood why you would WANT government regulation is a worthwhile endeavor, too.

It's simply not enough. It never will be enough. It doesn't change the underlying structure of power. Without that, we can count on seeing things get worse and worse. That's why I cheer and applaud my liberal friends, and at the same time, I encourage them to think deeper--more radically--about what it will take really to make things better.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Western Motel, by Wendy Drexler: a review


In bright detailed glimpses, Wendy Drexler shows us two landscapes: the Western landscape in which she grew up, and the terrain of her marriage, divorce, and falling in love again. 

My favorite section is the thread of poems entitled "Gas Stations, Drive-Ins, The Bright Motels."  My favorite single poem is "What Distance Brings." I know Wendy and her family personally, and other readers may close the book and think they do too.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Jewish Holiday Calendar 2013-2014

Here's a guide to scheduling around the Jewish holy days that I thought you might find useful.   I didn't write it, only edited it slightly and updated it each year, but I vouch for its accuracy.

Category I.     MOST JEWS PARTICIPATE.  Please do not schedule meetings around these dates.

ROSH HASHANAH (Jewish New Year) begins at sunset Wednesday, September 4, 2013 and continues through Friday, September 6.

YOM KIPPUR (Day of Repentance) begins at sunset on Friday, September 13 and continues through Saturday, September 14.  While Yom Kippur is a fasting day, meals are prepared in advance for the breaking of the fast at the end of 27 hours.

Typically, even some of the least religiously observant members of the Jewish community do not work on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah.   Please keep in mind that even though the holy day may begin at sunset, these are home ritual centered holy days, so a great deal of advance preparation is required.  In other words, please don't schedule a meeting for the afternoon preceding Rosh Hashanah because I will be cooking!

PASSOVER (Celebration of Freedom from Slavery in Egypt) begins at sunset on Monday, April 14, 2014; continues through nightfall on Tuesday, April 22.   THE FIRST TWO DAYS (through Wednesday evening, April 16) require refraining from work.   LOTS of cooking and preparation before this holy day.

Category II.   Many observant Jews refrain from work.  I count myself as

SUKKOT (Festival of Booths, or Tabernacles) begins at sunset Wednesday, September 18, and lasts through Wednesday, September 25.  THE FIRST TWO DAYS traditionally require abstaining from work.

SHMINI ATZERET (Eighth Day Assembly, ending Sukkot) begins at sunset on Wednesday, September 25, and lasts through Thursday, September 26.

SIMCHAT TORAH (Rejoicing with the Torah) begins at sunset on Thursday, September 26, and lasts through Friday, September 27.

The LAST TWO DAYS of PASSOVER begin at sunset Sunday, April 20, 2014 and last through Tuesday, April 22.

SHAVUOT (Festival of Weeks, or Pentecost) begins at sunset on Tuesday, June 3, 2014; continues through Thursday, June 5.

Category III. Observance doesn't require refraining from work.

(Festival of Lights) begins at sunset on Wednesday, November 27 and continues through nightfall Thursday, December 5.  Every night, candles on the Hanukkiah (eight-armed candelabra, sometimes called "menorah") are lit.

PURIM - Begins at sunset on Saturday, March 15, 2014; continues through Sunday, March 16.

And a few other seasonal and historical holy days that I won't mention, because enough already!  If you want to know more about the meaning of these holidays, you might consult or the book Seasons of Our Joy, by Arthur Waskow.

Typically, if you ask a Jewish man if the afternoon preceding a holy day is an acceptable time to have a meeting, he will say yes, because what most Jewish men do is show up at the dining table, fork in hand.  For women, the two days preceding each holiday are incredibly intense because of the cleaning, preparation and food preparation that takes place.  We look forward to the day when these tasks will be more equitably distributed.

A final note which I thought worth adding from my own experience: Even if someone (who might even be Jewish) tells you "It's no big deal" to schedule meetings and conferences on these days, doesn't mean that that's true for all Jews.   People maintain different levels of observance, and a more secular Jew may work on a day when I would not.   When in doubt, please ask!   I can't speak for other Jewish consultants, staff, board members, and interns, but I know I always prefer to be asked.

Thank you!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Alien vs. Predator, or, Why Liberals Lose When They Take on Corporate Power: Part I

All right, it's the moment you've been waiting for. I've been explaining why "liberal" is not a badge of shame (as the O'Reillys and Limbaughs of the world would have it be) but the name of an honorable tradition of thought about freedom, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. So why don't I call myself a liberal? What more do I want?

Plenty! Let's remember what liberalism has always been about: liberty, the freedom to make a good life of one's own design. And let's recall the strategy that liberals have used since the late nineteenth century to ensure liberty. Modern liberals use state power to check and constrain the power of capitalism, which they see as posing the greatest threat to our ability to live free and flourish. 

Does the strategy of posing state power against corporate power work? Only if we control the state AND state power is stronger than the power of capitalism. But neither of these is true.

Do We Control the State?

The primary tool of democracy is elections. Leave aside all the questions about stolen or fraudulent elections that agitated so many of my friends in 2000 and 2004, and even the voter repression tactics the Republicans practiced in 2008 and 2012. When elections run right, are they a powerful enough tool so we, the people, can use them to get the government we want?

Edward S. Greenberg once asked "what parties and elections would have to look like if they were to truly be vehicles by which political decision makers were kept responsible and responsive to the American people" (The American Political System: A Radical Approach, 1989). I like his answers.

1. Candidates and parties should present clear policy choices to the American people, and these policy choices should concern important issues.

2. Once elected, officials should try to carry out promises made during the campaign.

3. Once elected, officials should be able to transform campaign promises into binding public policy.

4. Elections should strongly influence the behavior of those elites responsible for making public policy.

It's not clear that ANY of these four conditions are met in America.

1. Sure, the last presidential race presented us with clear choices on some crucial issues. Some of these choices were very narrow, however.  Should we keep on using drone strikes abroad and surveillance at home at the current, unprecedented level, or become even more aggressive?  Should we cripple the economic recovery through across-the-board federal budget cuts or by targeted cuts?  For most of us (and especially for the poor and the unemployed), these are not choices but threats.

Meanwhile, out of 535 Congressional elections, only a handful were seriously contested. Bottom line: if you wanted to change the way government works by finding enough candidates who agreed with you and electing them into office, you were out of luck.

2. Do candidates try to keep their campaign promises? The answer seems to be, "When they must." But LBJ ran promising "no wider war" in Vietnam and then sent tens of thousands more troops. Ford (an unelected president) pardoned Nixon after swearing not to. Reagan ran against "big government" and created the biggest budget deficits in history, before the current administration! George H.W. Bush famously promised "no new taxes," but bowed to reality and broke his promise. Clinton ran on "putting people first," but as Bob Woodward documented, he actually put the needs of bond markets first--he cut social programs that help the many and the vulnerable in order to shrink the budget deficit, pleasing the few and the rich.

George W. was the dangerous exception to the rule. If we hadn't stopped him from keeping his campaign promises, God help us!  Obama was very careful to raise hope without making very many promises.  He also has the built-in excuse that whatever he tries to do, the Republicans automatically oppose.

3. American government is set up to keep elected officials from making broad changes in policy. Most of the time, control of the three branches of government is split between the two major parties. When the national government is split, it's difficult to make dramatic changes on issues people know and care about.

When the Presidency, the Congress, and the Supreme Court are all dominated by people from one side of the political spectrum, they still have a tough time making changes. Each branch is protective of its own powers and jealous of giving too much to either of the others. They compete as much as they coordinate, despite party. Besides, as we have seen in the recent NSA scandal, the Republican Party includes moralists and libertarians (and some out-and-out fascists). The Democrats house technocrats, progressives, and socialists. Party affiliation doesn't make them concert their efforts around one platform. Most are too busy calculating what will ensure their own personal re-election!

Finally, if the federal government seems united, then state and local governments can oppose and at least delay the national agenda. Look at Massachusetts with gay marriage, California with medical marijuana and tough clean air standards, or southern states' opposition to civil right and anti-poverty legislation and programs. For better or worse, we live in a system of fragmented state power. And this is the tool we want to use to humanize an entire economic system based on self-interest?

4. Even if we had competitive elections with choices that reflect what people truly need--and politicians tried to keep the promises that got them elected--and government weren't set up to impede the progress of any dramatic changes--most of the choices that affect our daily lives are not made by government. Quoting Greenberg again, "Elections hardly affect decisions relating to the location of businesses, the growth of cities, the development of technology, the center of work, the shape of educational experience, or the distribution of wealth and income."

Beyond Wishful Thinking

It's still worth fighting elections to put candidates in office who can use state power for what it's worth. But it's not worth as much as we imagine. We are strangers in our own land, and when liberals think they can address the alienation of vast parts of the population through another law or another policy, they are engaged in the wishful thinking that has become another synonym for "liberal."

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Moses' Family Stories: Reading Deuteronomy for Resilience

I heard an astonishing thing on WBUR's "On Point" this week.  Apparently, the more we tell our children their family stories, the stronger and happier they are. 

Bruce Feiler, who has also written about Abraham and about "walking the Bible," explained research that makes this point to host Tom Ashbrook.  Here's a succinct summary from a parenting website:

Marshall Duke, a psychologist from Emory University, began exploring resilience in children in the 1990s. His sense was that when children knew about their families that they handled the ups and downs of life more easily. He and a colleague, Dr. Fivush, developed a 20-question survey called “Do You Know” that they gave to children to find out what kinds of things they knew about their families. As reported recently in the New York Times, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Much to their surprise, the “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.
Today, Jews around the world let Moses tell us our family stories.  We begin reading D'varim, or the book of Deuteronomy.  In it, the aging Moses tells people two full generations younger than he all the things the research says they need to know: "stories featuring an oscillating narrative including both elements of success and failure, stories of living with and overcoming adversity."

Let us listen to these stories and become more resilient.  Let us teach them diligently to our children so that they can share the sources of strength.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Look for the Liberal Label

One of the tools we're going to need to change America is an accurate understanding of what "liberal" means. For 20 years, conservatives and right-wingers have tried to turn the name into a term of abuse. But I think the Rev. Jesse Jackson is right when he reminds us, "America was a liberal idea from the start." 

The Liberal Revolution

To understand what liberalism means, go back to the days when Christian kings and queens ruled their European nations in the name of God. Each person was assigned his or her role in life: rich and powerful aristocrat, poor peasant, serf tied to the land. You were not supposed to have a life of your own. That was considered unnatural, unnecessary, and even sinful. You were supposed to live out your role in this life and hope for a reward in the next one.

But a new idea about the good human life began to spread (first in cities), and its name was liberty, or freedom. To be free meant not to live a life determined in every detail by tradition but to have choices, and to make them as your own reason and tastes told you to. Free men (and to a limited extent, women) had property of their own they didn't owe to a lord or king. Free people made rules together to govern their relations with each other. They called these rules "laws," and they began to consider the laws free people imposed on themselves as equal or superior to the dictates of religion or the commands of the state. So, freedom and self-government became linked.

Notice that in those days at the end of the Middle Ages, the dominant forces shaping people's lives against their wills were government and religious authority. That's why liberals, people who believed in freedom, had to try to limit government and separate church from state. They confronted what they saw as the biggest forces against freedom in their times.

Enter Capitalism

Flash forward to the Industrial Revolution. The new system of production gave the people who had money to invest (capitalists) power over everyone else. If you wanted to work, increasingly, you had to work for them, for the hours and wages they set. If you didn't want to accept their terms, you were "free" to go elsewhere. But capitalists were "free" to wait you out. While you were looking for work at a decent wage, and starving, they were sitting on their wealth--or hiring your neighbor who got desperate earlier than you did.

Freedom in a capitalist system, in other words, had to mean something different from what it meant in the Middle Ages. Government and religious institutions still had the power to impose on people's lives, but so did the rich. And the tools liberals had developed to carve out a sphere of liberty in the middle ages didn't work against the power of capitalism. Indeed, the owners were oppressing the working class, all in the name of freedom!

Separation of church from state didn't separate wealth from power. Government under law could at the same time be government under class rule. As the writer Anatole France put it, "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." 

Redefining Liberalism

What was a liberal to do? People who believed in freedom had two choices.

1. They could stick with their old definition of liberty and give up the broader notion behind it: that to be free meant having the chance to live a flourishing human life of your own making. Many traditional-style liberals went with this option. Today, we call them conservatives! (That's why conservatism is such a mixed bag. It includes the people who respect religious tradition and political authority above all, as some people have done since the Middle Ages, and it also includes people who believe in limiting government even if that means inequality and immorality survive and spread.)

2. They could expand their definition of liberty to include ways of ensuring people had the material prerequisities of a good life. Without food, clothing, shelter, and education, the new liberals realized, people are just not in a position to make choices about what kind of life they want to live--or to put those choices into practice.

Liberalism: Still About Freedom

Sometimes conservatives accuse this new kind of liberalism of forgetting about freedom in order to achieve equality. But liberals don't see it that way. FranklinRoosevelt, for instance, spoke of the New Deal as involving Four Freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of every person to worship God in his or her own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The first two are expressions of traditional liberalism, and "freedom from want" is as clear an expression of the new liberalism as anyone has ever formulated.

The new liberals didn't stop worrying about the power of the state to oppress. They made a calculation that they could use state power to check and constrain the power of capitalism. Agree or disagree, but don't let anyone tell you liberalism is some wild notion ungrounded in reality. Liberalism has produced the greatest freedom as well as the greatest prosperity this country has ever known.

Then why am I not a liberal myself? That will wait for a future post.