Thursday, October 19, 2017

Feudal America

This month’s Atlantic Magazine has a depressing little article about how the idea of America—the set of beliefs that animated people like Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau—appears to be disappearing with each passing generation, leaving only a dry husk of nationalism, racism, and xenophobia in its place. According to the article, on a scale of 1-10, less than a third of Americans born since 1980 assign a 10 to the value of living in a democracy (as opposed to 3/4 of those born before WWII). A quarter of Millennials say it’s not important to choose leaders in free elections, and a little less than a third think civil rights are needed to protect civil liberties. The article doesn’t talk about what or who those people think will protect their liberties, absent a code of civil rights. Perhaps they think Mark Zuckerberg will have their back. I don’t know.

There was a time—just yesterday, really—when the average person’s safety depended on his allegiance to a local lord of some kind. The lord was part of the ruling class—the strong and wealthy and well-connected. They weren’t regular people, and regular people could not ascend or aspire to their level. In some places, rulers were considered gods; in others, they simply received their right to rule from God. Either way, they owned the wealth of the country, and they owned the land of the country, and those things were carefully managed and preserved and handed down from generation to generation. A local warlord or strongman was given a garrison and some parcel of land by the ruler, and his job was to hold it against invaders and other evil-doers. The regular people who happened to live on those lands were under the protection of that lord, and paid for that protection with…whatever was asked of them (just as the lord owed his life to his ruler). Perhaps the lord wanted a percentage of your crops. Perhaps the lord wanted you to serve as a soldier in his little army. Perhaps the lord wanted your daughter. All fair game. He didn’t just write the laws; he was the law. If you didn’t like the way he ran things, or the level of protection you and your family were afforded, or the price you had to pay to stay within his realm…too bad. In some lands and times, he actually, outright owned you. In others, he simply had such overwhelming power over you that he might as well have owned you.

That is the way things were, with minor variations, for most of us, for most of history. The strong and the wealthy ruled, and the rest of us served their interests, their needs, and their appetites. The rulers took care of the poor to whatever extent they felt it was affordable and manageable. After all, they needed farmers and soldiers. There was work to be done…and they, the lords, were the ultimate owners of that work, regardless of who did it for them. The rich assumed that the fact of their wealth was an indication of their moral and spiritual worth, and the poor were taught that their poverty was a sign that there was something wrong with them, something that their lords suffered with patience and magnanimity, as God himself did.

That dynamic is baked deep into our bones, as humans. Something in us yearns for the strongman, for the big daddy, for the god who rewards and punishes. Don’t let two hundred years of self-government fool you. Two hundred years is nothing.

If you look across human history, the idea of broadly applicable civil rights is not the norm—not by a long shot. Rule of law is not the norm. Representative democracy is not the norm. Even a merchant/entrepreneurial class standing between the peasantry and the aristocracy is not the norm. If we assume that these things just happen, and will always be there for us, then we’re fools. The founders of our country and their more progressive descendants fought hard to bring these things into existence, and without constant pressure, the old way of doing things can easily return. We saw it creep up during the Gilded Age, only to get pushed back by a couple of Presidents Roosevelt. And again, today, it’s returning.

The strong and the wealthy want to rule; they expect to rule; they are surprised and annoyed whenever constraints are put on them; and they fight, constantly, to remove those restraints and run free. They feel it is their right (or perhaps their burden), as exceptional people.

This is American politics at its core: a fight between those who want to constrain the pursuit of wealth and power to allow room for every citizen to pursue his or her own happiness, and those who feel the wealthy and powerful are entitled to everything they can grab. Some people call this “class warfare,” like it’s a bad thing. But it’s not a bad thing; it’s the only thing. We value the freedom to do as we please, but we also value equity and fairness. Two great ideas that fit together like oil and water.

If we value personal freedom but also social equity, we have to find ways to balance them. And “ways” means laws. Those with wealth and power are always well positioned to acquire more of both; those with neither are eternally at a disadvantage. Where we can’t do for ourselves, the force of law has to do for us. That’s what laws are for. We were not promised happiness, but we were promised the ability to pursue happiness, and the laws of the land exist, to some extent, to allow each citizen a reasonable shot at that pursuit. The fair and equitable pursuit of happiness, regardless of birth circumstances, has never existed without structures put in place and held in place for just that purpose. Without those laws, all you can do is ask pretty please for the wealthy and powerful to help you out. And they will, gladly….for a price. The historical norm, into which we could easily slide if we’re not careful, is some form of feudalism, where a tiny fraction of the population own everything…and everybody.

Donald Trump is not a Republican or a Democrat; he’s a feudal lord dressed in a bad suit, constantly confused about why all these little people are getting in his way. His every action, from the way he decorates his homes and addresses his adoring crowds to the way he takes what he wants, when he wants it, speaks to this self-image. He does not exist to serve us; we exist to serve him. The only reason for our existence is to exalt him. The country is his for the taking—his and his family’s. He has lived this way, unapologetically, for over 70 years. How he managed to bamboozle anyone into believing he cared about the “common man” as anything but the raw ingredients for his next meal is beyond belief.

What would an American feudalism look like? It would start with simple beliefs—things like basic health care not being not a right. The government not owing you anything. Taxation being theft. The government needing to be small enough to drown in the bathtub. The desire to be left alone, to do what we will, or what we can. Unfettered individualism. It sounds very American, very cowboy, very freeing. And it is freeing, and desirable…as long as you have cash.

What happens if you don’t have cash, or if the goods and services become crazily expensive? Well, in that case, health care is what you buy if you’re rich. If you’re not rich, it’s a gift to be bestowed upon you by your employer, who is rich. And you’d better behave yourself if you want to hold onto it. Or you can go with the rest of the bungled and the botched to the emergency room, and throw yourself on their mercy. Of course, if taxation is theft, and everyone has to pay their way, you may not have that merciful option open to you for very long. But…too bad for you. That’s life. You are owed nothing; you are promised nothing; you should have worked harder.

Roads? Schools? Protection from fire? Protection from thieves? The rich and the powerful are happy to pay for those things…for themselves. But they’ll be damned if they’re going to shell out their hard-earned cash to protect you. They’ll retreat to their gated compounds, where the roads are well tended. They will provision their estates wonderfully. And they will protect what they have ruthlessly. After all, there are so few of the blessed inside, and so many of the cursed outside. There is no social contract; there is only you, and you, and you.

Of course, a wide range of services will always be needed within these compounds. Someone will have to sweep the streets. Someone will need to teach the children. And so on. The gates will open, and the serving class will be allowed in, one by one—pledging their allegiance and their service to the lord, and accepting his protection in return. Of course we’ll pledge our allegiance. Without a working police force, or fire department, or sanitation system, what other choice will we have? We will destroy the idea of a government we choose, whose functionaries are beholden to voters, and replace it with a ruling class that gets to make all the decisions by itself, for itself. And for us, too, when it occurs to them. Your lord might be an actual person, or it might be a corporation, but either way, the lord will hold power and the lord will grant privileges. “Rights” will be what you earn through your loyalty and hard work.

When we look around the world today, we see a lot of representative democracies, and we think, “Well, that’s just how good, sane people do things, here in the 21st century.” But this century is just a dot on a very long timeline, and our nation’s whole history is just a tiny stretch of time between dots. Electing leaders and holding them accountable to our needs and desires is nothing like the norm, historically. Assuming our leaders should be held accountable to the same set of laws as all other citizens is equally unusual. If we think it’s a valuable thing, we’d better start valuing it.

We should not assume that what we have is safe, stable, or normal. It needs constant protection. If we care about it, we have to make sure we actually understand how it works, so that we can protect it. We have to teach it to our children and make sure they treasure it, as well. We have to be zealots about it. As unfashionable and un-ironic and un-detached as it may sound, we have to be patriots.

Friday, July 28, 2017

We Are Unhinged

We have become unhinged.

I don’t mean “crazy,” though perhaps we are crazy. We certainly think other people are crazy. Them. The other side. And it’s the other-side-ness I’m talking about when I say we are unhinged. Un-hinged.

We’ve always taken sides in political arguments, right from Day One, but the two sides used to be joined in the middle. There was a thing that held us together and connected us, that touched both sides but belonged to neither—a thing that formed a core or center around which the rest of us could freely swing, this way and that way. It allowed the two sides to function together to perform tasks that neither side, alone, could accomplish. A simple bolt can make two flaps of metal into a hinge. And something made separate people and conflicting ideas into a nation.

Was it the Constitution? The Declaration? The First Amendment? The flag? Was it a sense of shared history, or shared destiny? It wasn’t a shared ethnic identity, no matter what the screamers like Ann Coulter or Pat Buchanan want to believe. It wasn’t just white-ness, or WASP-ness, or even male-ness. We overcame substantial parts of those biases, and allowed outsiders to take part and feel ownership (albeit grudgingly). We may not have been ready to welcome this minority group or that one, but weirdly, maybe even perversely, they insisted on welcoming us. They demanded ownership in the country. They wanted the words to belong to them, as much as they belonged to us. They wanted to believe in the words, even when we didn’t seem to.

The power of the Civil Rights movement came, in part, from the demand that Thomas Jefferson’s words apply to all Americans, regardless of what Mister Tom himself might have wanted or intended. Throughout our years, groups of people of have read the words, “All men are created equal” and have said, “Make that real for me.” The work is far from finished—but that doesn’t mean it never began. A black man has been our president. A gay woman hosts a hugely popular daytime talk-show. A Latino man and his cast of black, white, Asian, gay, and straight actors has made the entire country fall in love with and sing about “the ten-dollar founding father.” Every generation, some new group of people reaches for the bolt that has held the hinge together, and has said, “I want to be part of that.”

But now…what is the “that?”  What is the bolt around which we cling, today, to form the hinge around which we can swing? We use freedom of speech to broadcast contempt of each other; freedom of religion to excuse bigotry against each other; the right to bear arms to protect us against the existential threat of each other. These things were meant to hold us together. Instead, they keep us apart. We birthed ourselves as a nation by saying that the pursuit of happiness was one of our inalienable rights, and that governments were formed—by us—to protect those rights. And yet, today, when people struggle because laws or behaviors hinder them from the free pursuit enjoyed by their neighbors, we sneer at them, call their pleas for equity and justice “special pleading,” and mouth off about the self-reliance and independence of our forefathers…our forefathers who would have perished a thousand times over if their neighbors had not been there to help them in times of trouble.

Why are the people next to us no longer our neighbors? Why doesn’t their pursuit of happiness deserve our sympathy and support? Is it because we are white and they are black? Is it because we are straight and they are gay? Is it because we are Christians and they are Moslems? Did our forefathers run through a checklist of acceptable beliefs and behaviors before offering a helping hand to someone whose crops had failed, or whose barn had burned down? 

No, of course not. They didn’t have to. The checklist was already assumed—pre-checked before the neighbors ever put down roots. If someone were living next door, it was because he had already passed muster as Acceptable. And anyone outside of that definition….lived elsewhere.

Is that what we want to go back to? And if far do we need to take it, in order to feel safe? Will it be enough for white people to hide themselves away from black people—even more than they already do? But so many white people despise each other these days. Maybe that’s not enough. Would it be enough for Democrats and Republicans to live in separate neighborhoods—even more than they already do? But the moderates and extremists within each party hate each other almost as much as they hate the opposition. Should devout believers of various religions be protected from having to come in contact with or provide commercial services to people whose beliefs or behaviors contradict their own? Should we have special districts where only white, straight, conservative Christians live and operate businesses? And if we build such things, will we need some kind of guarded entry gate to keep the wrong sort from being able to go shopping in their stores?

Must every nut be separated from every bolt? Every screw removed from every hole? Every piece of wood separated and stored with similar pieces of wood, and all metals arranged by type and color? Has the wonderful, awful, maddening, glorious house we have built become so difficult to maintain that we have to tear it to the ground and return all of its parts to the store for safe-keeping?

Friday, March 31, 2017

Music to Read by...


If you're reading my new mystery novel, "The Cat Came Back," you'll notice some jazz tunes spoken about and quoted throughout the text. Here are some versions of the tunes, to give you some music to read by...


Wednesday, February 22, 2017


I was wrong. I thought we were in agreement on the Big Things, and the fights and debates were about details, the how-do-you-get-there stuff. I thought we were on the same page about what America IS and what America is FOR. I was wrong.

I was wrong—and I think that’s why this election has been so difficult for me, and for so many other people. It revealed something I hadn’t seen before. Maybe I was too dumb to see it, or too sheltered and bubbled. I don’t know. But I’m seeing it now.

I thought America was for anyone who believed in and adopted the core beliefs of the country, as put down by the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—with, perhaps, some Thoreau, Whitman, Emerson, and Lincoln thrown in for good measure. I was raised to believe that those core beliefs were what made us American.

It’s not surprising that I was raised to believe this. My great-grandparents were immigrants, and were so committed to the project of becoming Americans that, within two generations, any stories or memories they had of the “old world” were forever lost to the family.

I was raised to believe that our core beliefs—and nothing else—were what made us Americans—that being American was (unlike being Greek, or French, or Irish, or Chinese) not about having a unique ethnicity or culture or rituals, not about having a deep history of peoplehood tied to a unique and particular place—that being American was an identity that was open to anyone.

Of course, there were caveats and hold-on-a-minutes laced all throughout that set of childhood beliefs, things I had to encounter and deal with as I got older—like the fact that there was a group who had a “deep history of peoplehood,” here, who our forefathers slaughtered. But even as a cynical teenager, I felt strongly that the failings were things we could fix—things we would fix—things that our core beliefs would simply not allow to continue existing. So, fine: Jefferson may not have thought of black men when he said “all men are created equal.” But having said it, it could never be unsaid, and it would eventually force us to do the right thing. The more we read and spoke and believed the words, the more they would transform us into the New People and the New Nation we wanted to be. The belief in those words made us who we were. They were our catechism; our dogma; our civic religion.

But I was wrong. Or—I wasn’t wrong in believing those things; I was wrong in thinking we all believed those things. I thought even the worst of us believed those things, but also—at the same time—held racist or sexist or xenophobic attitudes that contradicted those beliefs, creating an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. There are probably people about whom that is true. But there are also people who just flat-out disagree with everything I’ve written. They believe that America is for the Caucasian Europeans who first claimed and stole this land from its native population—that the history of the country should place those people front and center (not just in the early chapters, but in every chapter), and that the culture of the country should be deeply centered in and defined by the cultures of the English and northern European peoples who filled Independence Hall, 200+ years ago. Now and forever.

Columnist Pat Buchanan makes his America First (and White America even more-first) feelings very clear. America was, is, and must remain a “Western, Christian country.” People who are neither Western nor Christian can live in the country, of course, and be citizens here, but they can’t really own it like he can. For Buchanan, the American identity has nothing to do with our founding documents or our laws. There’s an American identity that existed before those documents were ever written, and has a deeper, more profound importance. Of course, as someone of Irish descent, Pat’s acceptance as a “Western Christian” would not have been a given, a hundred years ago. But whatever. He’s in, and the Mexicans are out. He’s in, and the Arabs are out. That’s the way it should be. Or—he warns us—we can let in all of those non-western and/or non-Christian folks and utterly lose our country. We can lose the country, no matter what those people believe, or desire, or commit their lives to, because they are the wrong kinds of people.

Ann Coulter, predictably, makes Pat Buchanan sound like Gandhi, talking about “Emma Lazarus' insane idea that all countries of the world should send their losers to us.” Of course she’s a loon, and a professional bomb-thrower, and all that. But when you hear her words and ideas being echoed by the new administration, you have to start paying attention. When your new president decides that only brown-skinned Muslims need watching as “terrorists”—that the government no longer has to spend money to keep an eye on white extremists—well, then you have to deal with the fact that you’re not using the same dictionary as other people. White people can’t be terrorists in their own land. I guess mass murderers in America who happen to be white, extremist Christians are just…protesters? I don’t know.

What I do know is this: I’m not an American because it pleases my neighbors’ sense of Christian charity and makes them feel big-hearted and tolerant. No thank you. My ancestors had to live at the pleasure of kings in one nation after another—never citizens, never under the protection of the law, always disposable when their presence became a problem. Their gravestones are in Yiddish, no matter what country they lived in, because they were kept so isolated—and were driven out so regularly—that it was never an advantage to learn the native language. They were forced to be a nation apart, with no home in the world—and were then held under eternal suspicion because they didn’t truly belong, anywhere they lived. That is not going to happen again.

So Pat, Ann, Donald: this isn’t your country, just because you love Jesus. This isn’t your country, just because you don’t tan well. This isn’t your country, just because your relatives got here before mine. This is your country, God help us, but it’s also mine.

It’s mine, not just because I was born here, but because I signed on the dotted line and said YES to the things that our best dreamers wrote and dreamed and believed: YES to, “All men are created equal;” YES to, “Consent of the governed;” YES to the first amendment (and the second, and the third…); YES to, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” And, while we’re at it: YES to, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist;” YES to, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately;” YES to those “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free;” YES to, “I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest;” YES to, “I celebrate myself and sing myself;” and YES to leaning forward to the, “next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

Those are my articles of faith. Those are my non-negotiables. What are yours?

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

How Much Choice Can You Handle?

So. Betsy DeVos will be our new Secretary of Education. Every educator I know is freaked out about the fact and what it portends for public education in this country. Will she use her power to divert public moneys to private and religious schools? (Definitely.) Will she preside over the complete dismantling of the Department of Education? (Who knows?) Will her actions bake racial and class segregation even more deeply into our educational system? (Probably.)

Freedom of individual choice does not sit comfortably alongside equality. We value both, but they often work against each other. The more we enforce equality of inputs and resources, the more likely we are to constrain individual choice. The more we empower individual freedom, the more likely we are to end up with un-equal outputs. It’s a difficult balancing act.

Democracy is hard because we are maddeningly inconsistent. We talk about the importance of individuality, freedom, and choice, but our advocacy kind of depends on the thing we’re choosing. The Right believes firmly in individual choice when it comes to guns, schools, and health care, but stands firmly against personal choice when it comes to things like family planning. The Left is exactly the opposite.

Individual liberty is obviously an important part of what makes us Americans. But where to put the boundary between the rights of the individual and the needs of society has been a tricky issue. It’s something our founders thought hard about, and it’s something that has troubled thinkers and authors through the ages. John Stuart Mill, writing in 1869, said:

As soon as any part of a person's conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion. But there is no room for entertaining any such question when a person's conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself, or needs not affect them unless they like (all the persons concerned being of full age, and the ordinary amount of understanding). In all such cases there should be perfect freedom, legal and social, to do the action and stand the consequences.

This is why the rights to and limits of individual choice are moving targets. There are personal decisions that, in 1869 or even 1939, would have affected no persons besides yourself--which, today, would absolutely affect other people. We force every driver to wear a seat belt and buy automobile insurance. We didn’t used to. Why are those limits to free action necessary now? Because today we are so pressed up against each other that every stupid action any one of us makes in a car will have consequences that affect other people, either directly (you hitting me) or indirectly (my rates going up because too many people are terrible drivers, or my taxes going up because too many people in too many road accidents have no insurance and have to go to the emergency room).

Individual freedom to make choices about children’s education was severely limited in the middle of the 19th century, when compulsory public schooling was introduced. At the time, some children went to school; some did not. Some children were educated at home by parents or tutors; some simply went to work. Some girls were taught the same things as boys; some girls weren’t taught how to read. It was very much a family-based decision, based on the values and needs of the family. The government decided that the needs of the industrial revolution and a rapidly diversifying population required some kind of Assimilation Machine that would spit out functional, employable Americans, regardless of what was fed into it. Which is why some families greeted the introduction of compulsory schooling with a snarl and a shotgun. They weren’t fighting to maintain their children’s ignorance; they were fighting for the right to make their own choices. Bad choices, you might say. Choices motivated by fear, racism, and xenophobia, you might say. But still: their choices.

A hundred and fifty years later, astonishingly, the fight goes on. Many parents want to send their children to private schools, religious schools, home schools—whatever kind of school they want-- and they want public moneys to pay for the choices they make, so that educational decisions aren’t just a privilege of wealth. Some of those choices are motivated by a fierce devotion to a good education and the feeling that their current options are limited and sub-standard. And some of those choices may well be motivated by things like fear, racism, and xenophobia.

So: their children; our society. Who gets to make the decisions?

It’s a tricky question, isn’t it?  On the one hand, we know that public schooling in this country has been a great equalizer, a way for children from different backgrounds, nationalities, and cultures to some together and become One People. On the other hand, our current generation values diversity and individuality over conformity, and many people fear the whole idea of assimilating into some “norm,” whether it’s a capitalist, consumerist, media-soaked kind of norm or a secularist, humanist, one-worldist kind of norm.  On the one hand, a public school is a place to inculcate the core ideals and values of a culture. On the other hand, families have their own core ideals and values, and should have the ability to protect their children from ideas they don’t believe in.

Or should they? Where is the line between public and private? The shrinking of our world makes it a very complicated problem. A hundred years ago, you could grow up thinking and believing any wacky thing as your parents might want you to believe, and it would have limited public consequences. Basically, your education would affect just you, and perhaps a small group of your friends and co-workers. Now, with social networking and with people changing jobs and home cities, you and your ideas may touch and affect hundreds, perhaps thousands or millions of other people. To what extent should government care about the effect of weird, bad, diverse schooling on the public at large?

And to what extent should government care about you--little old, individual you? When you are a minor, your parents get to make choices about your life. Should there any limits to that, for your own protection? Should you, as a minor, be protected from your parents’ bad choices? And if so, who gets to say which choices are bad?

When I was teaching in New York City, the department of education created a wide array of magnet middle and high schools, to provide some measure of choice without succumbing to charter schools or handing out vouchers. Every parent got a thick book in the spring, listing every possible school. Parents made their choices, and some computer algorithm figured out who would go where. But some parents chose not to choose. They let their children go to their regularly zoned, neighborhood school. And what happened? The better students went to small, magnet schools, all over the city. The students with more educated parents went there as well. The students with engaged, activist parents went there. The students whose parents paid attention and cared went there. And, by and large, whoever was left over ended up at the zoned school.

And who was left over? The kids whose parents chose not to choose, or didn’t know how to choose, or were too busy, distracted, or un-informed to know that the choice mattered. Choosing not to choose was unmistakably a bad idea; the old, zoned schools became depositories of the least motivated, hardest to educate children, staffed by teachers who lacked the seniority to transfer elsewhere.

Is that all right? In a system where parents get to choose what’s right for their children’s education, is there any role for “nanny-state-ism,” any role for the government—local, state, or federal—to say that certain choices are off the table because they will harm the child—for his own sake and on behalf of the larger society of which he will someday be a part?

From the most brutalist, Libertarian, Ayn Rand position, you’d say No—there is no role for government. If you’re too stupid to make good choices for your children, then they will fail and you will fail, and good riddance to the whole bunch of you. Excellence and strength should be allowed to rise, and weakness should be culled from the herd through its own bad actions. It’s the same position Jerry Seinfeld referenced when joking about motorcycle helmet laws. This is the position that values individual freedom to act over pretty much any other social good, because it sees extreme individualism as the greatest social good. It’s an extreme position, and you can easily imagine more moderate versions of it.

From the most collectivist, social-welfare-oriented position, you’d say Yes—there is a role for government to put forth rules and set legally binding and enforceable limits on behalf of the health and welfare of minors. This is the position that values equity and the health of the community over individual freedom. For the good of all of us, individuals have to be protected from their worst impulses and decisions. This, too, has extreme and more moderate versions.

When we’ve worked well as a society, we’ve found ways to move to the middle and honor both sides of the equation, providing choice but also accountability to standards of what Good looks like. Unfortunately, we’re not in a very moderate or understanding frame of mind, these days. We’ve come to believe that the life of the republic is a zero-sum game; only one side can be right, and each side, thinking it’s allied with God, must fight the forces of evil to the death.

That is a lie, and it is nonsense, and it will eventually destroy us. That much seems obvious to me. I wish it seemed obvious to more people.