Sunday, December 25, 2016

Taking the Sham Out of Christmas

This is not going to be one of those regularly heard messages about how Christmas has become so commercialized that the true meaning of Christmas, celebrating the birth of Christ, is almost an afterthought.

You know the saying, “Every day should be like Christmas?”  While that is taken by some to mean that we should get presents all the time (hopefully only children), most take it that there should be this feeling of love and brotherhood every day.  Unfortunately, there is not even love and brotherhood on Christmas.  It is just a sham, a facade, that people put on because it’s what one does; it’s expected.

Christmas was originally established as a day to celebrate the birth of Christ and Christians’ devotion to him.   It was a holy day … which in modern times has turned into a holiday.  The change in wording speaks volumes.  Two very different things.

On a holy day, it would be appropriate to immerse oneself in the teachings of Christ and truly ask “What would Jesus do?”  Those wristbands that young people, typically Evangelicals, used to wear were a great idea.  Unfortunately, they had no meaning.  Few really asked the question seriously; it was a fad.  

And those that did usually thought only about the issues of abortion and the culture wars, perhaps feeding the homeless, and then not through the words of Christ but through the words of their local minister.  Unfortunately, I never heard an Evangelical preacher speak about these issues with a tone or with thoughts even approximating what Christ would have said.  But that’s also not the point of this post.

The point is that on Christmas we put a lot of time, effort, and money into making those close to us, our “loved” ones, and perhaps some friends, happy.  We shower people with presents as well as our presence and a good dose of holiday cheer, good spirits.

But unfortunately, as I stated above, it’s just a sham, a facade, even on this one day.  Whether between spouses, siblings, parents and children, adults and their parents, the feelings typically expressed on Christmas just don’t hold water.  There is something there, but it’s mostly passive and confused.  Instead there is a vast reservoir of active memories and feelings about lack of respect, lack of love, lack of caring, envy, and all the other emotions and judgments that make up the typical dynamic between family members.

What most people do on Christmas is, for this one day, try to paper over all these negative feelings and be pleasant and cheerful.  But papering over really never works.  Either hard words are expressed at the time, or afterwards all the negative emotions come spilling out.

If people really immersed themselves in the teachings of Jesus, you would get past all these past slights that are embedded in your ego, you would not attach to these emotions, and you would respect the basic human dignity of all members of your family.  You would understand that we all suffer and anything that someone does that pushes our buttons is a direct expression of that person’s suffering, as well as our own.  That doesn’t change the “facts” but it does open the door to not blaming, to compassion and to loving kindness.

Sometimes, though, there are situations where the facts are so extreme, so bad, so dark, so all-encompassing … and continuing … that there is no way of getting around them spiritually.  One can find compassion perhaps but no spark of loving kindness.  Then it may be best to speak the truth with equanimity, calmly, and cut off relations.  This is extremely painful.  But putting oneself through a yearly charade, and all the negative feelings that arise during the year, is even more painful because it never ends and is denigrating.

The essence of Christmas should return to that of a holy day.  If one wants to exchange simple presents, that would be ok.  But the thrust of the day should be a spiritual observance.  All the excessiveness that have become basic to the commercial success of Xmas should end; it should certainly not be encouraged.  How one could accomplish that on a large scale given the nature of our culture and economy I can’t begin to imagine.  But that is the real meaning of Christmas to me (spoken as a JuBu, a Jewish Buddhist).

Friday, December 23, 2016

Friedman Is Trump’s Most Dangerous Pick Yet!

Trump’s selection of David Friedman as U.S. Ambassador to Israel is his most dangerous to America’s national security interests to date.

His other appointees may be against the very agencies they have been selected to head or cozy with the Russians, but the damage they can cause is of a limited nature and can mostly be undone by the next administration.  They are in many ways similar to the anti-agency people Reagan appointed to head agencies.  For example, James Watt was a disaster at Interior, but the damage was not irreparable.

One could make the argument that retired Lt. General Flynn is equally dangerous given the sensitive post he will have.  I assume there will be a lot of saber rattling, that’s Trump’s style, but with the intent of intimidating, not going to war.  But there is always the danger of miscalculation and the U.S. getting pulled into a war it did not want.  That is certainly a risk if the other party does not back off of war.  And that is where the safety trigger lies; many countries like to bully, but most don’t want war.  Only rebels want war.  And so although Flynn is perhaps scarier, I don’t think he is more dangerous to our national security interests.

David Friedman, on the other hand, will in all likelihood wreak a more devastating havoc on the United States as well as Israel.  His support of the Israeli far-right will smash any possibility of peace between Israel and the Arabs, could well lead to all-out war in the area, and will be a clarion call for increased jihadist terrorist activity against the U.S. both at home and abroad.

His appointment must not be approved by the Senate.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Perennial Search for the Democrat’s Mission

It’s sad to see Democrats once again thrashing around, after November’s defeat, trying to figure out where there message failed and what they need to do in the future.  (Everyone that is but the Clinton campaign, who apparently doesn’t think there was anything wrong with their message, but that’s another problem.)  Some advocate focusing on youth and minority voters … the “Obama coalition.”  Others argue that attention must be paid to the white middle class worker.  Others, rural America.  And from reports, these groups seem to be at odds with each other.

It’s not unreasonable to analyze this question, Republicans certainly do the same.  The problem is that Democrats seem incapable of seeing the light.  This is a familiar pattern.  After the 2004 loss, Walter Mondale said, “We really need to work on what we are for.  Unless we have a vision and the arguments to match, I don’t think we’re going to truly connect with the American people.”  Similar thoughts were voiced by many party leaders at the time.

As I said in the forward to the 2005 edition of my book, We Still Hold These Truths, “How sad and beyond belief that after a long and intense campaign, the quadrennial defining moment for the Party, it did not know the essence of what it stands for, what its vision is. How then could the American public?”  The same holds true today.

The problem does not arise because there is a conflict between the interests of the white middle class workers on the one hand and the interests of minorities and youth or rural America on the other.  The problem arises because Democratic leaders seem to think there is a conflict … they are trapped in identity politics.  I know the saying, “You can’t be all things to all people,” but in this case I don’t think it applies.  Let me explain why.

It comes back to the question of just what the Democratic Party’s mission is.  Mostly it’s been absent, at best implied.  Instead, the party has had a grab-bag of policies, the platform. But that is not a mission.  It makes it seem the party is just pandering to a bunch of different interests.  

They have presented no cohesive vision, no umbrella for all its policies.  And I don’t call Clinton’s “Stronger Together” slogan - cooperation is better than conflict - a vision.  John Kerry kept on saying that the 2004 election was about voting for change … but from what to what?  Obama certainly made clear what the change was, but he also had no clearly enunciated vision for the Party.  In response to Clinton's weak effort, I suggested the slogan, "Economic Justice for All," (see my post of that title, 7/24/16).

I wrote We Still Hold These Truths because I felt, as did many others, that the 2004 election could not be won on the basis of a negative, anti-Bush vote. The same held true for 2016 and a negative, anti-Trump vote.  To regain the White House and Congress, the Democrats had and still have to come up with a cohesive vision – an ideology – and communicate it forcefully in a way which resonates with the American people. 

Such a vision has not been forthcoming. My hope continues to be that my book will provide a new/old perspective with which to define what the Party stands for, a perspective at once so simple and familiar yet profound that it would be immediately grasped by the American people … the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence.

I therefore propose the following Mission Statement for the Democratic Party which will appeal to Americans rural and urban, regardless of faith, race, social status, gender, or sexual orientation, in red states and blue; a vision that reclaims the moral and spiritual bona fides of the Party (attacked by Republicans):

"To bring to life the promises set forth in our Declaration of Independence.
To build a country of greater opportunity where:

* each and every American has the best chance to experience the promise 
‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with 
certain unalienable Rights … Life,  Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’;

          * government meets its responsibility as set forth in the Declaration …  
          ‘to secure those rights’,  within the constraints of fiscal responsibility; and

        * all citizens have a shared responsibility to support the government’s efforts 
          to secure those rights and promote the public good, each according to his ability.”

These words from the Declaration of Independence are the moral philosophy, the heart, the soul of American democracy. This is America’s common faith.  This is America’s social contract.  To further that promise of equality and opportunity with fiscal responsibility should be the clear mission of the Democratic Party.

All the policies of the Party naturally flow from this mission statement.  All American men, women, and children are owed the support of government policies in education, health care, civil rights, security, the economy, the environment, and taxation that provide a foundation of equal opportunity for all.  That is the American social contract. 

It is these policies that make the Democratic Party a “life-affirming” force. It affirms the profound value of the lives of all living beings.  It acknowledges the suffering of millions of citizens … their lack of work, their lack of health insurance, their lack of enough food to eat, their lack of equal opportunity to acquire a good education … sometimes caused by economic forces, often simply the result of being born on the wrong side of the tracks.  It is these policies that make the Democratic Party a “pro-family” force. How can a family be strong, healthy, and viable without meeting these basic needs?

It is these policies, which respect the value of all human life and the environment, that make the Democratic Party a party of faith – not Christian, not Jewish, not Muslim … but deep religious faith. And because we respect freedom of religion, as well as the right to have no religious belief, we strongly support the Constitutional policy of the separation of church and state created by the Founders to insure the freedom of all to live according to their creed and conscience. The Democratic Party respects the valued and important place that religion has had and will always have in the fabric of American life.

But we must remember that no right, not even those in the Bill of Rights, are absolute.  For no person in the exercise of his or her rights can infringe on another person’s rights.  That is indeed the basis of all laws that control the relations of citizens in a civilized society, whether it be the criminal law, civil law, or government regulation.

In approaching our fellow citizens, we do ourselves and the people of this great country a disservice if we do not recognize the purity of their hearts and beliefs, their natural desire to provide for themselves and their families, and their basic desire to do what is just in the eyes of God.   Democrats must make the case to all Americans, not assuming that any American is ill-disposed to its vision, that their best interests and the best interests of the country lie in policies of the Democratic Party, not the Republican.

This focus on respect and equality must inform all of our actions.  If Democrats do not show that we practice what we preach, how can we expect anyone to believe us?  Legislators must voluntarily reduce the undue influence of lobbyists, big business, and the wealthy from our policy deliberations.  They deserve a place at the table, but they cannot displace or overwhelm the voice of the majority of citizens who have no realistic way, other than the vote, of expressing their point of view.  

Legislators can and should hold more town meetings with their constituents; they can survey their opinion on matters before Congress.  It is important that constituents know they are being listened to.

But because of the practical logistical limitations, constituents cannot compete in presence or volume with the voice of industry and wealth.  And so each legislator must in the end, on each matter before Congress, ask him- or herself what is in the best interests of average Americans, his constituents, versus the interests of industry and privilege.  Sometimes those interests will converge; sometimes they will not.  If they do not, it is the interests of the public that must prevail.  That is who legislators are elected to represent.

The message of We Still Hold These Truths is that Democrats must hold true to the heart of American democracy as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and further elaborated in our Constitution … to the American social contract. We Still Hold These Truths presents an overarching vision that will resonate with the broad American public in red states as well as blue and win their hearts and minds. It is a vision that will successfully counter the radical Republican Conservative movement and reclaim the moral and spiritual bona fides of the Democratic Party.

Friday, December 9, 2016

An Open Letter to President-elect Trump And the American People

For the next 4 years, you will be carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders.  All the suffering, all the conflicts, all the madness will come before you in some form or other for your leadership decision as President.  People and nations will look to you to make the right decisions for our country and for the world.  That is an awesome burden.  I am writing this open letter, from a spirit of loving-kindness towards you, your family, and the American people, because I have no other avenue for speaking with you directly.

If there is one thing that is true of life, it is that we all suffer.  Whether rich or poor, whether white or person of color, whether President or average citizen, we all suffer.  Many people think that the rich and powerful don’t suffer because they have so much, “all that one could possibly imagine,” and yet as a spiritual person I know they do.  You know this as well, I’m sure.

Why is it that we all suffer?  And what are the consequences?

We all suffer for two reasons: our basic needs and the world we live in.  When a child is born, he has four basic needs:  food, freedom from pain, warmth/nurturing, and physical security.  These are the four irreducible needs of all human beings.

In particular, a baby’s need for nurturing, for unconditional love, is almost without limit.  Birth, being thrust out of the womb, has to be a scary experience.  When an animal is born, it is typically licked all over by the mother and is always next to the mother’s warmth.  When a baby is born, it is slapped on the behind, washed by a stranger, rolled up in a blanket and given to its mother to be held and fed before being put in a basinet by itself.  So from the moment of its birth, a baby finds that its needs are not met, and so the first seeds of insecurity are sown. 

This pattern continues during the baby’s formative first years.  It’s not that parents don’t love their new child and shower it with attention; it’s that the needs of the baby go beyond what most parents are able to give.  Whether it’s how they were raised, whether it’s the demands of work or home, whether it’s having their own problems to worry about … it’s just the way it is.

And as the baby becomes a young child, proceeds through adolescence, and attains adulthood, the seed of insecurity that formed at birth grows to become a huge tumor inside each of us.  Why?  The tumor grows because it is fed by much of what we experience in life … in the home, in school, at work, and in the media.  We are either told or learn that we are clearly lacking in some way.  Or if we are praised, we know how easy it is to fall from grace, and so the successful often have even greater insecurities than the average person because they have more to lose.

And so we have ended up with a world full of insecure people.  We each compensate for it, mask it in many ways, but the insecurity is still there.  What are the consequences?  In a word, it means that human relations, including the relationships between nations, are fraught with conflict.  

All the fighting, all the abuse, all the hatred, all the discrimination … whether in the home, the country, or the world … is a function of man’s insecurity.  A Buddhist monk once said to me that if someone or something pushes your buttons, what agitates you is a direct expression of someone’s suffering, their insecurity, and your button is a result of your own insecurity.

So how should this knowledge be applied?  How should it impact how we deal with our fellow humans, whether it’s a family member, a colleague, someone with an opposing point of view, or even an enemy?  

First, it means that all persons should be treated with respect.  That’s really all that most people want.

Now, many people would say, “Why should I respect him when he doesn’t show me respect?”  A very understandable question, but one which doesn’t get us anywhere and continues the destructive cycle.   Someone has to start first.  And the bigger, the more powerful a person is, the more it is his responsibility to take the first step.  After showing respect, he or she will usually be rewarded by being shown respect in return. A win-win situation.

What also helps us have respect and compassion for ourselves and all people is the knowledge that we developed into the persons we are because of all the learned experiences of life, much of which is negative.  We were not born this way; and this is not our true self.  To put it in modern techno language, we are programmed the way we are because of the inputs we have received.  That’s why Buddhists and mystics of all religions say that there is no such thing as a bad person, just people who do bad things.

Second, understanding how we came to have certain beliefs and opinions gives us the ability to respect the fact that other people come to their opinions honestly as well.  There is no one right opinion.  That understanding changes the dynamics of human interaction.  For example, I used to be a Type A person.  I was always right and everyone else was wrong.  No more.  As a result, I treat others with respect; my interactions are not combative and are more productive.

Finally, wanting only the best for ourselves, our family, our fellow citizens, and our country, and being aware of the ill will cause by “normal” interactions, we seek to rise above the fray and, looking down from above, act and respond with wisdom rather than emotion.  We know we cannot make good judgments when we are consumed by our emotions and attitudes.   

And we have been so consumed because we are used to taking things very personally.  But we learn not to because we come to know that people’s actions, including our own, are a function of deep-seated insecurities.  It really has nothing to do with us.  And that allows us to rise above the fray and not contribute to conflict. 

And so Mr. President-elect, as you lead this great country for the next four years, I hope that you are able to have compassion for yourself and all others, that you are able to respect everyone’s human dignity and equality, and that for the good of our country you rise above the fray and exercise wisdom.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Case for Civil Disobedience

Millions of disheartened people across the country and many organizations are trying to figure out how to respond to the recent election.  The common denominator for most seems to be anger.  Some want to protest.  Some seek to prevent Democrats in Congress from working with Trump in any way, regardless the worth of the project.                                                  

I would urge a different tack in dealing with the very painful and serious situation we face.  I would make the case for civil disobedience on a massive scale in the spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The United States is a representative democracy.  Once the President and representatives are elected, the democratic tradition is for all to respect the vote and abide by majority rule.  Opposition both in the legislature and among the populace continues to play an important role in the formation of policy, but that opposition is expected to be civil and the laws obeyed.

But as Thomas Paine famously wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”  In the history of our country, we have had various times that have tried men’s (and women’s) souls.  To name just a few:  the debate over slavery, the Depression, the McCarthy witch-hunts, the Vietnam War,  the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Robert Kennedy, and now the simultaneous election of Donald Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress.

The public has reacted differently to these various crises.  The debate over slavery ultimately resulted in the Civil War, but most of these times have been met by the public with a spirit of resignation, broken only by scattered violent outbursts.

The civil rights movement and Vietnam War were however major exceptions for two basically different reasons.   The civil rights movement was a cause against such moral injustice that it ultimately became impossible for many black and white citizens to continue to react with resignation to racism and segregation.  

Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr, that upwelling of spirit demanding justice became a force of dignified civil disobedience, a la Gandhi, and not violent demonstrations or riots.  And as in the case of Gandhi, MLK’s tactics worked, not in bringing about peace and harmony, but in bringing about laws that protected civil rights and made equal opportunity a priority.

With Vietnam, I don’t believe it was so much the immorality of the war or its futileness that brought about the protests, it was the direct impact that the war had on almost the entire population because of the draft.  And because the country was clearly not under attack or direct threat, unlike WWII, people felt free to oppose and protest.

But the Vietnam protests were not dignified peaceful protests in the spirit of Gandhi.  These were typically angry, ranting, often violent, protests.  And they did not bring about an end to the war.  Instead, I believe they helped Richard Nixon in his 1968 Presidential campaign.

Now we once more face a crisis because President-Elect Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress appear hell bent on striking out at various groups in a decidedly un-American fashion.  Whether it’s Muslims, undocumented Latinos, LGBT people, or women, fundamental human rights (not always legal ones) are being threatened.  Certainly the spirit of the words of our Declaration of Independence are being violated.  

And although Trump and elected Republicans have clearly not spoken out against Jews, the white supremacy groups that have been empowered by Trump’s hate-filled campaign rhetoric are unleashing violence against Jews, as evidenced by an increase in hate crimes this year reported by the FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Together with increased attacks against the groups that have been vilified by Trump, this poses a real threat to our civil order and any civilized concept of human conduct.

Given the scope of these threatened un-American and immoral acts, it is the civic responsibility of the populace to protest such actions through peaceful civil disobedience.  There is no need to wait till Trump moves forward with his plans; indeed, by then it would be too late.  The people must act now in order to show Trump and his Republican colleagues that their proposed actions and the actions of the more extremist of his supporters do not have the support of the American people … even those who voted for him out of desperation. 

A number of cities have already stated that they, and their police departments, will not cooperate with efforts by the Federal government to deport undocumented Latinos.  Many people have signed a pledge to register as Muslim, even though they are not, if Trump proceeds with a proposal to initiate a registry for all Muslims in the country.  These statements show the beginnings of a movement of civil disobedience. 

But to be effective, we need peaceful demonstrations of civil disobedience that are massive, held across the country in every state, and visibly inclusive of Americans of every faith, color, ethnicity, walk of life, gender, sexual orientation, and political party, as well as those who don’t subscribe to any party or religious faith.  Ideally they will include people who voted for Trump.  Only in this way is there a chance of convincing those in government to back off from their more extreme plans. 

This does not, however, mean total non-cooperation.  If Trump and the Republicans propose, for example, infrastructure projects that would benefit the American people, it would be irresponsible for Democrats in Congress to not support such measures.  Such support would not be incompatible with the spirit of civil disobedience.

This is a time for all 64,000,000 of us who voted for Hillary Clinton as well as the millions who voted for Trump out of economic despair and other reasons, not hatred, to come together and say to Trump, “Yes, rebuild the country’s infrastructure, create jobs, but be, as you pledged, the president of all Americans.  Respect human dignity and the equality of all.”

For this to happen will require extraordinary leadership, cooperation among organizations, and discipline.  The leadership and cooperation necessary is obvious.  The discipline is needed to keep these demonstrations from degenerating into anti-Trump, anti-Republican rants and to keep them peaceful.  The object here is to persuade, not beat up.  If it is not done properly, it should not be undertaken at all because the result will only make the people look weak and ineffective.

The choice is the people’s.   We can either sit silently by while our fellow citizens are singled out for legal attack by the government and physical attack by vigilante mobs or we can stand together with those under attack, peacefully, massively, in a show of civil disobedience against this violation of the American spirit and in support of government’s duty to respect the human dignity of all people.