Thursday, December 30, 2010

Who's Un-American?

I try to avoid paying attention to the increasingly hateful rhetoric of right wing talk radio and Fox News television personalities. I recognize they are in the business of making money by appealing to people who want to believe they are somehow more American than other Americans and that all the problems we face are caused by people who are not like them. Rush and others have a remarkable ability convince listeners right wing pundits have command of secret, inside knowledge, wisdom or mental agility to interpret events through a lens of conservative, libertarian, or patriotic principals. In their narrative all other media and points of view are biased, left wing, socialist, or just plain wrong. They are creating an alternative view of American history, an alternative view of the world. There is a word for what they are engaged in: propaganda.

It upsets me to hear untruths being presented as facts and to hear respectable, hard working Americans giving service to their country being maligned and nefarious motives being attributed to them. Targets are many and I won’t list them, but the biggest target is the President of the United States, Barack Obama.

There is, apparently, nothing President Obama can do that would meet with their approval. Limbaugh, on Thanksgiving Day expressed shock that Obama had the nerve to make a proclamation on Thanksgiving. Ronald Reagan made one, as did Clinton; before a bill establishing it as a national holiday in 1941, most presidents did. Obama should not have, in Limbaugh’s eyes, proclaimed Thanksgiving Day “a time each year, dating back to our founding, when we lay aside the troubles and disagreements of the day and bow our heads in humble recognition of the providence bestowed upon our Nation.”  Nor does Limbaugh think he should have asked us to “reflect on the compassion and contributions of Native Americans, whose skill in agriculture helped the early colonists survive, and whose rich culture continues to add to our Nation's heritage.” Limbaugh lauds Washington’s proclamation in 1786, since it makes many references to thanking God, but doesn’t reference Native Americans (Reagan’s does). Interestingly, Limbaugh, who complains that Obama “believes America is fatally flawed” and shouldn’t “apologize for America,” doesn’t mention that Washington also recommends citizens ask God “to pardon our national and other transgressions” in his original Thanksgiving Proclamation.

Limbaugh calls the traditional Thanksgiving story in which we acknowledge the help given to the Pilgrims by Native Americans and applaud their joint celebration of the harvest a myth. “Is it possible he (Obama) actually believes it?” Limbaugh asks. “The true story of Thanksgiving,” Limbaugh says, “is socialism failed.”
If Jon Stewart or a Saturday Night Live sketch had made a similarly outrageous statement I’d be rolling on the floor laughing. Comedy uses the absurd for laughs, but people take Rush and others like him seriously. He influences the way people vote, the way members of congress and senators make decisions. Bill O’Reilly recently opined that Fox News is the most powerful news organization in the world. These guys aren’t looking for laughs, they want power, and radio and television are powerful instruments for promoting propaganda.

In talking about Thanksgiving, Limbaugh emphasizes that in the years following the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving feast, they learned that individuals would produce more if given their own plot of land than if working in a common plot. “Only when we turned capitalist did we have plenty. The Indians didn't teach us capitalism,” Rush observes.

But that we should worship unbridled capitalism is not Rush’s main point. He is upset that President Obama gives any credit to Native Americans for their contribution to America (instead of crediting self-reliant white Europeans). Rush mocks Obama’s words, saying the contribution of Native Americans is limited to their casinos and reservations. Rush and others like to scream that Obama hates America or is un-American. What’s un-American is Rush Limbaugh’s suggestion that the President of the United States should not be encouraging the American people to be thankful on Thanksgiving. What’s un-American is Rush Limbaugh’s racism towards Native Americans and other groups and his and others unending attack on the American government when it is in the hands of Democrats. What’s un-American is Republicans who with Rush’s encouragement make their first priority to regain power even if it means slowing the recovery, hurting those who have lost jobs in a severe recession by discontinuing their unemployment compensation, delaying important judicial and other needed government appointments, and putting the nation’s security at risk to do so (not ratifying the nuclear arms treaty). What’s un-American is resorting to propaganda instead of engaging in civil discourse.

In this holiday season, we should give thanks that we have access to many sources of information so we can seek a truly balanced viewpoint of the news of the day.

this essay was published December 18, 2010 in the Charleston Gazette 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Boehner's Tears

John Boehner’s Tears

I watched Boehner tear up in his victory speech and on 60 Minutes last Sunday during his interview with Leslie Stall. Gail Collins wrote a great op-ed on the subject in the NY Times yesterday ( ). I read the readers’ comments which followed, and believe many of them hit the mark perfectly. I agree with those who find his emotionality genuine, yet somewhat juvenile or self-centered. But, I believe others say it better than I can. Here are a few I agree with:

Gloria Endres, Philadelphia
If one did not know Boehner's legislative record, maybe his first display of emotion at "achieving the American dream" might be endearing. His background of scrubbing the floor of his dad's tavern is something almost Lincolnesque. So different from the silver spooned politicians like the Bushes, the Kennedys, or the Heintzes.

But his record does not compute with that biography at all. As Gail and many posters have commented, he has voted against the very class of people from which he emerged. His vote against help for the sickened 9/11 first responders is simply unfathomable…..

Jane, IL
My voice gets wobbly every year at the same spot in The Polar Express. It's because I remember how I once "believed" and it's an emotional moment to know that I'll never get that faith back. And that's what the Republican Party sells, belief in the beautiful story. But then they close the book and pitch it on the fire. It's easy to forget that part.

Philosophy Professor, Kent State, OH
"... beware of men who cry. It's true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own." -- Nora Ephron, quoted in An Uncommon Scold, ed. Abby Adams (Simon & Schuster, 1989), p. 155.

KC Bob, Kansas City, MO
John Boehner cries over his belief in the American Dream. All the while, he and his party have been pushing us into an American Nightmare of a declining middle class with lower pay and shrinking assets; a wealthier elite; and contempt for the poor among us. As this was being done to us, he was raising his wealth to over 5 million dollars while toiling as a "public servant".

Shouldn't we be crying instead?

Beata, Chicago, IL
Yep, the prospect of our incoming Speaker is enough to make this grown woman cry.

I'm crying real, wet, sad tears for my country, especially for the poor children who are denied education sufficient to make their own American dream come true, for the families who are denied the jobs that provide a living wage, for the ill who have no health care when a public option could do it so well, and for the loss of adequate governing we need to recover the American spirit.

I'm also crying "Foul!" Foul values, foul political maneuvering, foul policies that squash the ability of people to build sustainable lives while favoring the already rich. Foul, and reeking with dishonor as they pursue the starving of the beast while wrapping themselves in flags and pretended patriotism. Very foul.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Obama's Compromise Underscores Republican Hypocrisy

I count myself among those disgusted by the demand of Senate Republicans to reward millionaires with an extension of their current historically low tax rates before taking up anything else (START Treaty, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, DREAM Act), yet I refuse to throw Obama and other Democrats who support the compromise tax proposal overboard as some progressive Democrats suggest.

I was angry early in Obama’s administration when Democrats agreed to extend those tax cuts, because that was the time to have the showdown over the false Republican claim that returning tax rates on the wealthy to Clinton era rates would slow the recovery. Of course, had they not extended them then, what do you think the slow recovery would have been blamed on?

To the extent that some of the concessions Obama got from Republicans will put more money in people’s pockets and stimulate growth, such as the cut in Social Security tax and the unemployment compensation extension, the package can be viewed as a back door stimulus that will produce or save jobs. For the past year did it look like there was any chance to get Republicans to support anything stimulative?

And does anyone out there think the next Congress is going to jump right in and start spending up a storm to improve our infrastructure or help struggling states and municipalities, to keep police on the streets and teachers in the classroom, to aid college students or hire more safety inspectors for coal mines and food safety?

It’s hard to celebrate a deficit increase, but it is worth putting it in perspective: the tax cuts for those families earning over $250,000 adds about $140 billion to the deficit over two years. For that, Obama got about $700 billion more for middle income families. Republicans agreed to this despite the deficit increase of nearly a trillion dollars.

To me, the story is not that a Democrat caved to Republican demands to reward the rich before doing any of the nation’s other important business. The story is that Republicans have shown once again that all their talk of concern for deficits is pure posturing. 

Monday, December 6, 2010

Jerusalem Thanksgiving and Wedding, part 2

When the Epstein (Extended) Family Singers took the stage to sing our special tribute to Raya and Michael (during the wedding reception--see part 1 for more description of the wedding), we performed flawlessly, singing strongly and confidently in Hebrew of the love of place that brought Raya and Michael together and that Israelis feel for their homeland. And in English we sang as strongly to the version my brother David translated for me and I revised to fit the melody and express the romance of the occasion: “Open my heart; to love the only one; the only one my heart will take me to.”

There is apparently an old Jewish tradition of which I had never heard that after a wedding the couple should be entertained by various groups every night for a week, each time ending with a fifteen minute recitation of 7 wedding blessings. And so, for the rest of the week, various family and friends gathered for dinner at a restaurant, for Thanksgiving dinner, for a Friday evening Sabbath dinner, for a Saturday brunch after attending a Synagogue service in which representatives of each family read from Torah. Each time the couple was toasted, the party broke into song, speeches and appreciations were made, and hugs passed all around as family members who had not known each other well and families who hadn’t know each other at all got closer.

For someone who is not religious and does not believe in a supreme being (or ghosts or the tooth fairy), I could have been extremely bored or even uncomfortable with all the religiosity. At times, I admit I found it hard to acquiesce to the self-imposed and often quirky limitations their religious practice requires: for instance, you can use an electrical device on the Sabbath, but only if it is already turned on or if someone non-Jewish turns it on or off for you). But you would have to be Scrooge not to appreciate the joy their version of Judaism expresses. All the prayers are sung, and not in a monotone chant. It seems that almost every prayer has a unique melody (or more than one from which they choose), and Rina had even written a new melody to one of the common prayers that their synagogue had adopted. Music has always been an important part of my life—since my early twenties I’ve been playing in bands and writing tunes and songs, so I know the power of music to sooth the soul (I use the term soul secularly J).

During my week in Israel, my wife Rita, daughter Hannah, and I found a little time to be tourists, together or on our own. We took a wonderful guided tour of the City of David, the archaeological site a little outside the “Old City” that constituted the walled city of Jerusalem during the time King David. We also walked and shopped inside the Old City, enjoying the narrow alleyways crammed with small shops selling spices, souvenirs, art, glassware, falafels, and packed with tourists and pilgrims of many religions, monks and bearded Jews in black hats.

 I took a self-guided walk along the parapets of the old city and inside the Tower of David Museum, and one morning we took a quick tour through one of many wings of the Israel Museum, all of which reinforced our knowledge of the archaeological historical record and how it squares with Biblical history (remarkably well, though not completely). Hannah also toured an organic farm, Tent of Nations, owned by a Palestinian working for peace. We also were treated to a wonderful meal in the home of Muslim Palestinian neighbors of my brother, who were extremely hospitable, welcoming, and friendly. The food was simple and very tasty.

The weather was unusually good for November in Jerusalem when it usually rains, so though the locals were concerned about drought, we celebrated clear skies, no humidity, and temperatures reaching almost 80F. The city was wonderful to walk in, so we mostly got our exercise that way, though one morning I went for an 30K bike ride with my brother and two friends into a forest in the Judean Hills. Though the trees, planted over the years mostly through contributions from Jewish children in America, were much sparser than the forests of West Virginia, my home, the views were stunningly beautiful.

I felt safe at all times and found everyone, whether Jewish or Arab, to be friendly and helpful, though sometimes aggressive in their sales pitches. There were soldiers and police in evidence and they carried automatic weapons. They appeared vigilant, yet relaxed. We crossed through a few checkpoints, both permanent and informal, but were waved through quickly. Airport security was thorough, though there were no body scans or pat-downs. Instead, an Israeli security officer asked us a few questions about the purpose of our visit. Our interview lasted only a minute, though I overheard another family whose questioner went deeper, “Do you go to synagogue regularly at home?” she asked. The father seemed confused by the question. “Where do you go to pray?”

“Well, we go to church,” and he named it. She switched gears and asked if he had any explosives. After he assured her he didn’t, she put the all-clear sticker on his luggage.

To my Israeli family I say a huge toda (thank you) for your hospitality and love, and Mazel Tov (congratulations) for your joyful, celebratory, and loving approach to life!