Archive for October 2016
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Martin Luther King
Implied in Dr. King’s quote is the notion that we, as a society, will occasionally take a step backward in terms of societal justice, but that over the long-term justice will prevail. The question is, whose justice? If those in society who want freedom from oppression and persecution, equal rights for all, respect and dignity for all, equal opportunity for all, if we are complacent, then the people deciding what is just, might not be the ones that we hope for and we would have no one to blame for that outcome other than ourselves. You can’t pray your way to justice, taking it on faith that morality will triumph, action is required. Dr. King knew that. Nelson Mandela knew that. Mahatma Gandhi knew that. This is nothing new. More than 2000 years ago Hillel, a Jewish philosopher and rabbi suggested not only the need to stand up for others, but also of the need for expediency when he wrote in Ethics of the Fathers, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”
In an effort to explain how people, no matter their point of view, can think that they are in the right, that their point of view is just and justified because of support from a higher power, Nobel prize-winning poet and song writer Bob Dylan, wrote “With God on our Side”. Here are the words to the first stanza:
“Oh my name it ain’t nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I was taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side”
In this song Dylan goes on to say that the horrific actions taken against the Indians, which can only be described as genocidal, and subsequently those that were taken as the USA was in its formative years and participated in wars, were justified by many with the notion that we were on the side of right, for after all God was on our side. Globally, this concept was and is often repeated as a justification for various actions, often by leaders who know better but realize these kinds of statements are a way to sway and justify actions to the masses (oftentimes as they seek to consolidate their own power).
When has there been a party to a conflict that does not feel that they are on the side of right? The Sunnis and Shias who are at each other’s throats? Each knows they are following the true path. The Israelis and Palestinians? Each can cite endless grievances against each other to justify their actions, and each believes that they represent morality. The Russians/Syrians vs. the rebels? Each can explain why their actions are morally justifiable, even as the Russians are a party to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions. How many children’s lives will be cut short or how much potential will be unfulfilled due to years wasted as refugees? One is too many. The story seems to repeat itself endlessly.
I am not willing to cede that each side of a conflict is equivalent, just because the people on both sides of a conflict can justify their actions. There is right and wrong, moral and immoral, and while it may not be clear in all conflicts, many times it is.
I am Jewish and even though I was born in and am a citizen of the United States, for my entire life I have heard over and over that you can’t take living in a safe environment for granted. While the United States has been the beacon of light and hope for many, that beacon is not guaranteed, unless you are willing to work for it speaking out and taking action as necessary. Can that beacon go out and be replaced by an authoritarian rule? Clearly it can. Stanley Milgram, a psychologist who studied adherence of ordinary folk to authoritarian instructions after WWII, would also say yes. So would Phillip Zimbardo, a social psychologist, whose famous prison experiment had to be curtailed early as people learned a bit too easily how to play the roles of oppressor and oppressed.
As a successful, wealthy society we can become complacent and take our safety for granted, but just below the surface a miasma can fester. It is too easy to brush off the African American who is killed at a routine traffic stop, or those who are harassed for walking down the street, or the doctor on a plane who efforts to assist an ill passenger are rejected by the crew, as an anomaly. But we all know that they are not an anomaly. They are symptoms of a greater underlying problem.
Can it happen here? That is a question that has been repeatedly asked of me and by me throughout my life. In my immediate context it is aimed at the rise of a government that would hold positions similar to Nazi Germany. While it is easy to say no, that we live in a different time and a different place, I am truly not so sure that it is all that different. Remember Hitler was elected to power due to a suffering middle class, and a liberal class that was ineffectual in developing an opposition. The persecution of the Jews in Germany and Europe were a method of blaming society’s problems on a group, on the “others”, that only if we did away with them everything would be great. And Hitler? He was the only one who could make it happen. Today we see a lot of blame being heaped on the “others”.
The whole things leaves me greatly conflicted, depressed and wishing I was doing more to improve our society. Who are we to live comfortable, safe lives when there is a single person out there whose life is imperiled or who suffers abuse, not because of any crime they committed, but simply because of who they are?
Donald Trump in his battle to brush away the claims of his sexual assaults on women, after calling them liars and ugly, mentioned, not for the first time, that there is an international cabal of bankers who are controlling things and bringing Hillary to power. This is an old meme, written about in the Protocol of the Elders of Zion, a Russian fabricated document, used by the Nazi’s which described how Jews were planning to take over the world and install a world government. Trump is one desperate speech away from saying that directly. He still has about 40% of the vote. Can it happen here? Yes, unless we prevent it.
I simply can’t believe what I see when I look at the candidacy of Donald Trump. How has the Republican Party, a main-stream political party devolved to reach such a low as to nominate a candidate that has the Klu Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party and other assorted racists and white supremacists advocating for its candidate? A candidate who numbers among his supporters a former KGB leader, Vladimir Putin, an autocrat and dictator running a corrupt kleptocracy, whose political and otherwise perceived opponents mysteriously disappear or die, who thinks nothing of bombing hospitals, and who actively supports Trump’s bid for the USA’s highest office with espionage.
Other support from the world of national leaders comes from Kim Jong-un, the missile-firing dynastic despot who kills people for “not showing the right attitude” during meetings, or for being perceived as a threat to his rule and from the Iranian hard right who want to dismantle the treaty that reduced their nuclear capability. So 2/3rd of George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” support the current Republican candidate. With this kind of support and role models it is no wonder that Trump threatens to imprison his political opponents, to make it easier to go after critical journalists and who constantly states that they only way he can lose is if the system is “rigged” against him. While it is easy to despair about the candidate, calling into question not only his policy positions but also his mental fitness, it is even more disappointing that he has garnered any support, let alone significant support from a proportion of the American public. This is not who we are or at least, based on the ideals of the founding fathers, not who we are supposed to be.
But we have been here before. Previously during times of economic and demographic transition the country has lurched toward populism, nativism, protectionism and the fear-mongering that we are currently seeing. And while as a national movement these periods have been relatively short-lived, there always has remained an undercurrent of baser populism by people who feel threatened by change or are simply racist, misogynist and xenophobic.
John Adams, perhaps the most religious of the founding fathers, signed a series of laws collectively called the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which made it harder for an immigrant to become a citizen, allowed for the imprisonment and deportation of non-citizens deemed “dangerous” or were from a hostile nation, and criminalized the making of false statements against the federal government. The argument was made that these laws were required to strengthen national security during a time of uncertainty.
The rise of the Know-Nothings in the mid-1800s, which began as the American Republican Party then became the Native American Party, and then later simply the American Party, came about because of a fear of the immigration of large numbers of Germans and Irish Catholics. A California chapter opposed Chinese immigration. This anti-immigrant party, whose base was protestant men, saw conspiracies everywhere they looked and when members carried out various criminal acts and were questioned their response was “I know nothing”. Abraham Lincoln despaired about the No-Nothings: “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equals, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
And more recently, after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, during the spring of 1942, well over 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to internment camps because of fears over their loyalty. Reviews of this policy later on could find little to no evidence of disloyalty among these citizens and the motivations for this forced internment were identified as institutional racism.
While it is easy to say that these episodic periods of populism were economically driven, and to an extent they were, they are also driven by some basic human tendencies towards tribalism and to see “otherness” as a threat rather than a benefit to society. But the evidence is incontrovertible, immigration rather than being the threat that these movements perceive has powered this country to the heights of economic prosperity and to be a leader in scientific and industry innovation. After all, except for a very few of us, we are all immigrants.
From a business and organizational health standpoint prosperity is not achieved by walling yourself or your organization off from the rest of the world, but by embracing it. Ronald Reagan who is often used as the ideal icon of the Republican Party stated in his farewell address to the nation: “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still”. You have to wonder what Reagan would say about what his party has become.