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Nov 13 12

Occu-palogia

by Editor

Since Hurricane Sandy hit New York, I have been out to the Rockaways three times, and to Staten Island once. I have delivered supplies of food, water, diapers, cleaning materials, and other necessities. I have helped unload other cars and vans delivering similar items and load them into a distribution center that was being set up at Saint Camillus Church. I made a delivery of materials to Midland Park on Staten Island. I spent an entire day on assignment by Team Rubicon, emptying and stripping someone’s flooded, moldy basement, carting out mountains of hardware and electrical tools and what must have been a beloved model train installation. I carried water and other necessities up 17 flights of stairs in a high-rise building full of elderly people who had no power, and thus no elevators–and thus limited access to nearly everything they needed to keep themselves alive.

I have written “I” here, but I was hardly alone. I did all of this with friends new and old, with unaffiliated Upper West Side neighbors who responded to a call for help, with people from the Manhattan JCC, and with a group from my synagogue. I did it with the help of friends who used Facebook to post about places in need, people who posted to Twitter about people with needs, and the encouragement of many friends both within and outside the region.

And nearly everywhere I went in the Rockaways and Staten Island, I saw volunteers connected to Occupy Sandy.

So I write, now, to offer an apology to the folks at Occupy. Here you have it: I’m sorry.

In May of this year–before the hurricane, before the election–I stated that I was distinctly unimpressed with the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Among other things, I wrote:

Unfortunately, beyond gifting us the convenient marketing idea of the 99% versus the 1%, OWS has not accomplished much—and marketing slogans are useful, but they’re not enough to create or carry a movement over time. Beyond that one framing device, OWS hasn’t taken us anywhere new: complaining about capitalism is hardly a novelty, nor is focusing on the most nefarious or cronyistic aspects of it, especially after the spectacular crash we have gone through in the last three years.

Instead, I said, if…

“…the Occupy-ers really want to have an impact, a transformational effect on our society, then they should take steps to influence our society directly. Instead of expending oxygen saying there’s no explicit political agenda, or arguing over why it’s important that they remain leaderless … move away from political protest and get engaged in real social change. Perhaps the most valuable thing these people could give is their time—time spent doing something rather than, er, nothing.”

That is exactly what has happened, and I suppose one could say I called this outcome rather presciently. But I could never have predicted Hurricane Sandy, and what was missing from my complaint and my suggestion was the creation of the network in the first place. If OWS had not happened–whether you consider it a success or not, or whether you consider “success” beside the point–the network that enables Occupy Sandy to help so many people is clearly a direct outgrowth of the methods tested and the network built during the height of Occupy Wall Street.

Some issues still exist; the insistently leaderless nature of the Occupy movement has its drawbacks. On my first run with supplies, I was directed to go to a church in Belle Harbor. By the time I got there, an hour later, they were no longer accepting deliveries and there was some confusion as to where we should go. On my second run: same problem, a full distribution center and clearly we should have been sent somewhere else. This time, as it began to get dark, the shelters began to close–but no one (Occupy or otherwise) seemed to have a clear sense of where we could go to unload a car full of items, rather than haul them back to Manhattan. As responsive as the group has been, especially via Twitter, the lack of a “central command” means just that: there’s no single master plan.

Overall, though, the impact in hurricane-stricken areas been a well-deserved, well-earned triumph for Occupy. I would not wish the destruction of Hurricane Sandy on anyone, but it has demonstrated a capacity for caring and community engagement that goes miles beyond neighborliness. Personally, I am hoping to make another trip and put in another day of labor. So, I am sorry, Occupy folks, and you have my apology. And I hope when the hurricane crisis fades, you will be able to take what you have learned from this experience and reapply it back to the political arena. Clearly, our nation needs more hands-on help than just slogans about the things that divide us.

Coming soon, part II: New York Neighborly State of Mind

Oct 24 12

Fundamental Beliefs

by Editor

By now, if you’re paying attention to election politics nationally, you know that Richard Mourdock, the Indiana state treasurer and the Republican candidate for the state’s open Senate seat, made some interesting remarks during a debate with his opponent. Referring to his absolutist position against abortion, even in instances in which the pregnancy was the result of rape, he said:

“I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God,” Mr. Mourdock said. “And even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

Those two sentences caused a bit of a firestorm, resulting in a statement of clarification from Mourdock:

“God creates life, and that was my point. God does not want rape, and by no means was I suggesting that he does. Rape is a horrible thing, and for anyone to twist my words otherwise is absurd and sick.”

Feel better now? You probably shouldn’t–but likely not for the reasons you think.

***

I believe Mr. Mourdock when he says that rape is horrible and he hadn’t intended to suggest otherwise. I also believe him when he says that he’s pretty sure God doesn’t want rape either. But in reading and re-reading Mourdock’s different statements, his phrasing–perhaps less deliberate in his debate remarks, and surely more careful in his subsequent clarification–raises a different question about who is responsible for a rape, and for everything else that happens in the world.

If Mr. Mourdock believes, as he says, that God “intended” a pregnancy to happen after a rape, then surely this does also mean that God’s will is an active and omnipresent force, reigning over everything: from the decisions of the rapist, to the decisions of the rape victim, to the decisions of all the voters who might (or might not) elect him to the Senate, to every decision he has made or will make going forward. Including his remarks about rape, God, and pregnancy. In other words, if one espouses a view of God’s role in the world that is fundamental, how can one possibly draw lines to say this is where God is influential, focused, attentive … and this is where God is not? How would any of us know? For Mourdock himself: if wins his race, he will almost surely thank God. But will he also accept defeat as God’s will?

The only real alternative to this fundamentalist point of view is to ascribe certain actions and occurrences to a nearly as powerful but much more malign force, i.e., Satan. There is a long history of that, but it is also not without its problems: if Satan is responsible for the horrible actions of the rapist, how do we know that Satan is not also responsible for the pregnancy that might result from the rape? How can Mr. Mourdock be so sure that God didn’t intend for the rape to happen, but did intend for the pregnancy to happen?

***

Of course, hearing statements to the effect of “Life begins at conception” always makes me think: duh.

From a hardcore scientific perspective–let’s put God out of this equation for now–it seems quite likely that this is true: life begins at conception. The fertilization of an egg and the creation of a new being, one with a different (but related) genetic composition from its host, all sounds like “life.” Is it a life capable of an independent existence untethered from its host (also known as Mom)? In the case of humans not for many, many weeks. Is it a life about which anyone can say anything beyond the host’s individual hopes, expectations, anxieties, or devastations? No. Capable of independent thought? Not yet. (Is it a life according to Judaism? No.)

But this doesn’t mean that it isn’t a life, in a scientific way.

Nor does this mean that there aren’t priorities greater than this unborn, unsustainable life.

The abortion arguments remind me of the ways in which Democrats and Republicans, the devoutly religious and the devoutly atheistic, “liberals” and “conservatives,” can talk past each other without ever really getting it. I know very few people who support abortion rights who also believe that abortion itself is a good thing in and of itself. Yet too often people who are “pro-choice” are therefore accused of being “anti-life.”

This misunderstands the arguments in favor of legal abortion, which not only weigh the life of the mother over the unborn “life” that cannot exist without that mother, but also recognizes that illegal abortions have always occurred and are much more dangerous for everyone involved. Instead of fixating on making abortion illegal, those opposed might instead work harder to prevent unwanted pregnancies from happening in the first place. (And I don’t mean by teaching abstinence.)

At the same time, in the zeal to protect abortion rights, the question of “life” often gets less consideration than it might. Perhaps if those who are “pro-choice” acknowledged more readily the scientific possibilities for defining life–rationally, through empiricism and not theism, much the same way one believes in the truth of Darwin’s theory of the evolution of humans–they would find themselves with more respect, maybe even cooperation, from those who oppose abortion out of theological motives. People would continue to disagree, but might do so from a better perspective, one infused with respect rather than hatred.

And ultimately, we might be able to avoid having arguments that place men like Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock in the position of making statements that are offensive, even downright stupid, out of a desire to express their holiness while they sit in judgment of others.

Sep 6 12

Clintonian Nostalgia

by Editor

After last night’s speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, it is quite clear that former president Bill Clinton is the contemporary Democrat’s answer to Ronald Reagan. It isn’t just that he’s the only living two-term Democrat there is–though this helps. Clinton reflects an era that most Democrats feel they can be proud of, much the way that Republicans reflect on the halcyon days of the Reagan administration. For the older voters in the audience (based on their faces, as the cameras scanned the crowds) Clinton seemed to evoke an appropriate nostalgia, while the younger conventioneers seemed to be looking at him as an elder statesmen–which he now is, hand tremors and all.

It also doesn’t hurt that both the facts and the talking points for the Clinton era–in terms of economic expansion, bi-partisan management of Social Security, welfare, and other “entitlement” programs, and tax policy–are in many ways better than those of the Reagan era. (Especially since Republicans like to forget the ways in which Ronald Reagan raised taxes, skipped pursuing anti-abortion legislation, and subtly abandoned other conservative dogmas in favor of bi-partisan cooperation to expand the military and, of course, “bring down” the Soviet Union.) Yes, Clinton’s speech was long. But he gave the crowd what they seemed to want: a smart, policy driven rationale for electing Obama and rebutting the thin arguments of the Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan campaign.

However, as impressed as I was by Clinton’s speech, it was difficult not to escape a certain kind of negative nostalgia, too. Every time Clinton sucked on his cheek in between making a point, every time he raised his hands and wagged his fingers, it recalled the worst moments of his presidency. It isn’t that I care especially whether Clinton had affairs while in (or out of) office; I don’t. Ultimately these are issues between Bill and Hillary Clinton. It isn’t even that he lied about them, since this isn’t an especially shocking response. The problem was the person with whom he had the affair–and the collective Democratic response, as led by Hillary Clinton.

Because there is no getting around it. First, Clinton had an affair with someone who worked for him, an affair that can only have been between unequals. Who on a president’s staff is his equal? Certainly not an intern, a star-struck post-college intern. If he wanted to have an affair with some wealthy supporter or other outside lady–perhaps equally star-struck, but less implicitly susceptible to coercion–that would have been a different story. But if you or I had an affair with an office intern, whatever might have been “consensual” would have been immediately considered irrelevant in the face of the workplace power dynamic, a dynamic that could only be worse in the White House. Bill Clinton should have known better and should have done better.

Second, once it became known, Hillary Clinton and a generation of likeminded women rallied around him to condemn every voice that sought to question Bill Clinton’s integrity. No, the Oval Office blow job was not an impeachable offense; but neither was it forgivable. For Hillary Clinton to throw over all the feminist principles to which she had dedicated her life–including the principle (is it a stretch to call it that?) that women in the workplace should be treated as colleagues, not as sex objects–must have hurt. But apparently it didn’t hurt so much that she wasn’t willing to do it.

All these years later it is clear that the Republicans who tried to impeach Bill Clinton overreached. They paid for it politically, too, as well they should have. But all these years later, the Democrats who continue to rally for and be rallied by Clinton would do well not to gloss over this history too readily. This is not about the issues in the Clinton’s marriage; most marriages are complicated and difficult to understand from the outside. This is about being clear-headed in the face of an alluring nostalgia, and about remembering what your principles are, why you believe in them, and not allowing them to be swept away by rhetorical flourishes.

After all, if you want an example of the dangers of lost principles, just look at the Republicans. If Bill Clinton’s stature is like Ronald Reagan’s, then George W. Bush’s is the opposite: the Republicans’ 21st century Herbert Hoover and clearly The Man Who Will Not Be Named By Republicans During This Campaign.

Sep 4 12

Stairway to Vice President

by Editor

AC/DC – You Shook Me All Night Long
She was a fast machine
She kept her motor clean
She was the best damn woman I had ever seen
She had the sightless eyes
Telling me no lies
Knockin’ me out with those American thighs
Taking more than her share
Had me fighting for air
She told me to come but I was already there

There are plenty of policy based reasons to disagree with or even dislike Paul Ryan. If you need to rehash those arguments, feel free to Google them yourself, or just read this recent opinion piece from FOXNews. Instead, let’s look at a different and more obvious reason to distrust the Republican candidate for Vice President: his complete failure to understand rock music.

Shortly after his selection as VP candidate, there was a small dust-up over Ryan’s stated affections for Rage Against The Machine. This was firmly rebutted by the band’s Tom Morello. (Headline: “Tom Morello: ‘Paul Ryan Is the Embodiment of the Machine Our Music Rages Against’“) One might have thought such a simple episode would be enough, a hint to Ryan perhaps to stay away from those types of pop culture references since they’re so often loaded. Not to mention that it follows on a history of unfortunate Republican expropriations of rock music, such as problems with the McCain campaign and Jackson Browne in 2008 and Newt Gingrich and an argument with the band Survivor earlier this year.

No such luck for Paul Ryan. Instead, at the Republican National Convention last week, he said this: “We’re a full generation apart, Governor Romney and I.  And, in some ways, we’re a little different.  There are the songs on his iPod, which I’ve heard on the campaign bus and on many hotel elevators. He actually urged me to play some of these songs at campaign rallies.  I said, I hope it’s not a deal-breaker Mitt, but my playlist starts with AC/DC, and ends with Zeppelin.”

Hmmm.

Now, I believe it is possible to separate and distinguish between art and its politics: to seek and find aesthetic value in a work of art, even if I disagree with the artist’s politics. I’m no monarchist, yet the works of Velasquez, court painter to King Philip IV, still wow me. I find Wagner’s anti-Semitism despicable but some of his music appealing. And I think Ted Nugent is on the lunatic fringe of American politics, but I’ll own up to owning two of his songs.

But most of us don’t pretend. We don’t use our cultural likes or dislikes to help shape our public persona for the purposes of getting elected. Unlike Paul Ryan, I don’t espouse a view of the world that sounds more like an imaginary portrayal of pre-Hoover America, when there was not only no rock music but no safety net for those citizen in poverty, out of work, or in dire need of medical help. I don’t espouse politics and policy that are aligned with the hard-right elements of the Catholic Church, a group that no doubt has some very firm and erect positions on AC/DC’s delight in “American thighs.”

Paul Ryan, you will recall, is self-identified as an observant Roman Catholic. Ryan touts his “heartland” roots–though in fact it was often in “heartland” places like Janesville, Wisconsin that there were objections to the introduction of rock-and-roll music. Ryan and I are roughly the same age, so we are both too young to recall personally the era when Ed Sullivan didn’t want to show Elvis Presley to a “family audience,” and The Rolling Stones had to change the lyrics to “Let’s Spend The Night Together” for a live broadcast. We are too young to have experienced it personally, but not too young to know the history. And those examples–AC/DC, Elvis, the Stones–are not even political, they just reflect the cultural conservatism that Ryan also likes to display proudly. Except when he’s flaunting his AC/DC.

I would also like to know if Paul Ryan has any U2 on his iPod, and if so, what he thinks when he hears Bono on TV talking about our collective responsibility to help the poor around the world. Bono, after all, has taken his celebrity and notoriety and used it to raise the profile of many issues Ryan scorns. Bono presumably recognizes that Ryan-esque ideals of self-reliance are great–but unrealistic when you are hungry, have little access to food or clean water, and lack housing, health care, or any of the other assets that Paul Ryan and the rest of us largely take for granted. Oh, right: and Bono is someone who considers himself a Christian, too, and finds his faith and the life of Jesus meaningful in guiding his path. One can only admire how Christianity can embrace such divergent points of view; talk about a “big tent”!

Finally, Paul Ryan didn’t mention The Who, but I would definitely love to know if he has “Who’s Next” on his iPod. Can’t you picture it? Maybe he’s out for a run–on Capitol Hill or perhaps back home–and he’s plugged in and totally stoked. Out for a six mile run, and he’s in the last quarter mile, and the adrenaline is pumping. And there it is, shuffle serves it up: Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, loud and proud with Won’t Get Fooled Again:

There’s nothing in the street
Looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye
And the parting on the left
Is now the parting on the right
And the beards have all grown longer overnight

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again
Don’t get fooled again
No, no!

YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

Yes, I can see it all before me. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve been there myself. But meet the new boss? Not quite. Take a bow, Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan. But know this: I cannot possibly vote for someone who thinks he can appeal to me through his playlist and yet is so disconnected from what it all means.