A Letter to Martin

On MLK Day 2019, in a world filled with actual and perceived conflicts, let’s remember Dr. King’s words about peace.

 

“Somehow we must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle … to a positive contest to harness man’s creative genius for the purpose of making peace and prosperity a reality for all of the nations of the world.”  —Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1964

 

In the aftershock of 9-11 and as the country ramped toward the “War on Terror,” I penned an angst-filled letter to a dear New York City friend — also named Martin.  We had just attended Marty’s Chabad wedding, stood with him and his new spouse at a chuppah under a clear, star-filled sky and danced joyously to the klezmerim.

Then the towers fell.

I recently found my letter and post it here, in honor of Dr. King and his pleas for world peace.  [For sake of clarity, I have added some words in brackets.]

 

September 14, 2011

Dear Marty,

The plea for the U.S. to exercise restraint against Afghanistan causes me to wonder if this attack [on the World Trade Center buildings] (albeit described as an act of war against the U.S.) was really an attack against the whole of the developed world, of which the U.S. is just the most visible emblem and the most tantalizing target.

With time spent lately in developing countries (particularly in S.E. Asia and S. America), I have seen, heard and smelled the stink of the predominant presence [in those places] of destitution.  I have worked “cheek to jowl” with members of the miniscule “upper” class in the Philippines and in Brazil and seen the measures they must take to protect themselves from “crimes” committed by the underclasses.

In sum, those economies (even ones that are described as “democratic”) are “owned” by a handful of people who are perceived by the masses (or at least the intelligent portion of the masses) as exploiters.  Isn’t this same division going on in the world at large? 

Of course, we may not have come to this position in quite the same way (unless you count imperialism) but, in the Arab world, it is obvious that the perception of exploitation by the Western economies is more significant than whether the perception bears any connection to reality. (Of course, this perception has been further exploited and manipulated by the dictators and oligarchs of the Middle East.)

Our newly inspired nationalism makes us feel better, the promise of retaliation gives us purpose, but, I fear, these emotions may miss the larger, more complicated point:  We may be wasting our time and money in tracking down “the enemy.”

Indeed, we may be disappointed in the results.  As I was thinking this morning about the impossibility of tracking down Bin Laden (who with his followers will disappear in to the masses like the Viet Cong disappeared in to the countryside), I wondered if instead of flowing precious resources toward a “war” effort, it would be better to spend those same resources on the victims (college funds, etc.) and then use them to show resolve toward peace by reaching out to the impoverished third world in more than a token, or symbolic way (e.g., relief and development efforts, rather than war)?

What are we going to gain by more violence?  What would enhance our image more in the developing world?  The point is, regardless of whether or how we pursue the perpetrators, I am fearful that unless we start doing more (even at the expense of our own affluence) to reach out to the un-developed and under-developed countries, the chasm of misunderstanding and hatred will continue to grow and the terrorism will be unstoppable.

Like my rich friends in the Philippines, we as a country will be forced to close ourselves off from threats of the impoverished majority — metaphorically speaking, forced to live behind guarded walls, to eat from our own food supply and to drink from our self-contained water purification systems.

Yours,

Jerry

 

Now, fast forward to today . . . .

The Costs of War

From Business Insider

America’s ‘war on terror’ has cost the US nearly $6 trillion and killed roughly half a million people, and there’s no end in sight

Afghanistan
According to an annual report from the Costs of War project at Brown University’s Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, the total cost of the war on terror will reach roughly $5.9 billion through fiscal year 2019.
 AP

Analysis banner

  • The US will have spent nearly $6 trillion on the war on terror by the end of fiscal year 2019, according to a startling new report.
  • “If the US continues on its current path, war spending will continue to grow,” the Costs of War report states.
  • Between 480,000 and 507,000 people have been killed in the United States’ post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan – including nearly 7,000 US troops – according to the Costs of War project.
  • America is conducting counterterror operations in 76 countries and US troops are fighting and dying everywhere from Afghanistan to Niger.

 

Stop the Cheaters! Vote Democrat.

Political cheating has been allowed to undermine confidence in our political process and democratic institutions.

swift-boatverb [with object] informal target (a politician or public figure) with a campaign of personal attacks | (as noun swift-boating).[1]

“Republicans are cheaters!” Bob declared.

I considered his words carefully.  He is, after all, one of my best friends and perhaps the smartest person I know.

A series of political cheating episodes came to mind, a history now at its below-the-belt nadir with our current President and airwaves filled with lies and fear-mongering.

Historically, neither party may be blameless; however, in my lifetime, the Republicans have led out with what now seems a coordinated campaign of gerrymandering, voter suppression and media manipulation.

Of these three evils, voter media manipulation is the most visible (and so the focus of this blog post).

A notorious example is the 2004 Bush II campaign attack on John Kerry’s heroic Vietnam-War-Swift-Boat career.[2]  The attack ads (funded by Texas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens) were later proven false and resulted in the neologism.

Then, in 2010, to help fund future media strategies, the Republicans succeeded in opening the floodgates with Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission.  A Republican-led PAC, Citizens United, sought to reverse FEC restrictions on timing and funding of a smear campaign against then presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.

The case made it to the Supreme Court and was decided in a narrow, 5-4 decision that allowed corporations to be people and unlimited corporate funding to flow into our political system.[3]

In his dissenting opinion in the Citizens United case, Justice Stevens warned:

“The Court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. . . . A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.”

We now live in the future Justice Steven predicted: Untethered by Citizens United, corporations and special interest groups fill campaign coffers, to fund media and manipulate the vote.  Confidence in our most important democratic institutions has consequently been eroded.

And we have seen an escalation in the last two election cycles:  The volume of aggressive, false content in well-funded Republican attack ads has been unprecedented.

President Trump has set the example, honed the strategy and otherwise led with a steady stream of divisive, fear-inducing labels, lies and conspiracy theories — amplified and distributed by PAC-funded media campaigns, Fox Broadcasting and far right social media sites.  (Recent episodes of racial and anti-Semitic violence are within the tragic consequences.)

At this dangerous time, we must restrain the growing divisiveness by stopping the swift-boating cheaters.  We must elect candidates who will bring character and balance back to our political processes and repair our damaged democratic institutions.

___________________________________

[1] New Oxford American Dictionary (Second Edition).

[2] In Idaho, a similar example can be found in the 2014 governor race.  The Otter campaign, just before the election, aired attack ads against A.J. Balukoff falsely branding him as a “California liberal.”

[3] Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010) https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-205.pdf

Let’s Practice Abundance

We are living in a time dominated by selfish pursuit of the “zero sum game.” Instead we should practice “abundance.”

The legendary San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Steve Young, was in Boise last week and spoke at this year’s Idaho Innovation Awards banquet.  About a thousand Idaho business leaders leaned forward to capture every word.

Young described certain “truths” he learned on the football field, including this one:  a team wins when its members admire each other, cooperate and share (in successes and failures).

By contrast, teams more likely to lose are those divided by pursuers of self-interest, who grab success to themselves, deflect personal responsibility and blame others for failure.

Steve called the first approach one of “abundance” and the second, the “zero-sum game.”

Sharing of abundance brings people together.  The zero-sum game pits them against each other in self-centered and self-defeating competitions for fame and fortune.

Great leaders — like Steve Young, his longtime coach, Bill Walsh, and successful CEOs everywhere — advocate for abundance and deploy strategies to fight the tendencies to the zero-sum game.  They promote measures that foster acceptance, interaction, mutual affection, respect, collaboration and cooperation.

This analysis resonates with truth and applies in every setting that involves groups of human beings.

Families and children do better in caring, supportive environments, where love, respect and compassion prevail.  Neighborhoods that share these values are more supportive and resilient.

Businesses and employees do better when managers and employees admire, support and encourage each other in accomplishing a shared vision.

Cities, states and countries flourish if their constituents share common purpose, accept and value diversity and seek the best for the greatest number.  The adage that “everybody does better when everybody does better” is true.

By contrast, in the zero-sum game, only one side or party can win.  But the winning is selective and short-lived.  It may only last for the few who selfishly push others down to capture all benefit and recognition to themselves.

The zero-sum game results in factions and tribes and promotes distrust and fear.  These ends are accomplished through bullying techniques that include finger pointing, name calling, misrepresentation, exaggeration and rumor of conspiracy.

This approach leads to broken families, dysfunctional neighborhoods, failed businesses, and divided cities, states and countries — riven with anger, fear, belligerence and violence.

Surely, we can agree on this:  the zero-sum game approach is destructive of individual and group potential and tears at the fabric of our social and political institutions.

In today’s zero sum game environment, we must strive for a mentality of abundance — to find common good and common ground; to accept and respect one another; to listen carefully and respond thoughtfully; and, to lift each other up rather than pushing each other down.

With this, we, individually and as a people, will be happier and stronger.

Without it, we won’t.

 

 

“Kava-gnaw, gnaw, gnaw!”

With the Kavanaugh confirmation, the President and a Republican-controlled Senate have accomplished a feat that will gnaw away at the integrity and independence of the Supreme Court for decades to come.

Not so long ago, Supreme Court justices could be confirmed by acclamation.  The confirmation process focused on intellectual rigor, character and independence, not political leaning or affiliation.  Both sides of the political aisle could collaborate and agree.

In recent decades, the confirmation process has been progressively poisoned with politics.  Justices have been nominated for their support of the party in power, to add to a conservative or liberal bloc on the Court, and, ultimately, to secure a predictable, controlling majority.

As a result, the confirmation process has become more and more fractious and the Senate votes more narrowly partisan.

No matter your party (or idealogy), this is a dangerous trend.  It has reached crisis phase with the Kavanaugh nomination and confirmation.

The Kavanaugh confirmation will be remembered as the closest, most partisan vote in modern history — eclipsing even the Clarence Thomas vote in 1991.

The following illustration charts confirmation votes for Supreme Court justices since 1975.  It shows the growing partisan and cultural divide, the pinching off of collaboration, and the ruination of the confirmation process.

Think of the closing trend lines as a graphic illustration of the narrowing of the major arteries of balance, cooperation and deliberation (“Senatorial Arterioclerosis”).

votesmargin3
Prepared by Jerry Sturgill; Data Source:  www.senate.gov

Imagine if, in this latest round, the Senate – the “world’s greatest deliberative body” – had responded to the political pressures of the Kavanaugh nomination by stepping back, agreeing that the unseemly fight sure to follow would so damage the image of the Senate and the integrity of the Supreme Court that this nominee should be rejected and replaced with a more moderate one, one who could be supported by the largest number of members from both sides of the aisle — for the sake of institutional integrity.

Did not happen.

Instead, freed of the filibuster, the Republican majority charged ahead — the minority Democrat members sidelined and ignored.

Then came the allegations of sexual misconduct — echoes of the Clarence Thomas debacle — but this time set amidst the growing angst and awareness of the #MeToo movement.

With a deadline set ahead of the looming mid-term election, the theatrics of volcanic anger and the shock of mockery, careful inquiry and factual truth were avoided and obscured.  Credible testimony of sexual assault was dismissed as a “Democratic conspiracy” sponsored by George Soros and the vengeful Clintons.  A “hit job.”

Imagine if, as tempers rose and the accusations flew, the Senate had called a time out and agreed that the nomination should not proceed without, at the very least, an exhaustive FBI investigation — no matter how long it might take — for the sake of instituional integrity.

Did not happen.

Instead, art-of-the-dealstrong-man strategies — misdirection, hyperbole, fighting back – pushed the process forward, fed the news cycle and, supposedly, energized the Trump base.

In the aftermath, the institutions of the Senate and the Supreme Court have been damaged, the credibility of each, impaired.

The Senate process looked like an unplugged UFC fight fest.  The essential independence of the Supreme Court (actual and perceived) was overrun by politics.

More than ever, the Supreme Court has been made to look like a mere extension of the executive and legislative branches of government and their political “excesses.” Constitutional “checks and balances” have been eroded and the Court compromised.

Only the VOTE promises some measure of correction.  We must organize to get out a vote for change: this November and in 2020.  Out with the sclerotic old and in with the new.

Elect those able to return our democracy to fair representation, effective collaboration and service of the greater good.

The future of our great country and its democratic institutions depend on it.

To Bork or Not to Bork — That is the Question!

The debacle of the Reagan nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court and the US Senate’s rejection was the first warning to a young lawyer of the progressive degradation of the Court and its role in our democracy.

Bork  bôrk/verb, US informal, to obstruct (someone, especially a candidate for public office) through systematic defamation or vilification. “We’re going to bork him,” said an opponent.

Over the past few decades, and particularly since the Reagan Era, we have witnessed a “sweeping politicization” of the Supreme Court nomination and approval process.

In my lifetime, the first most dramatic example of this was the nomination and rejection of Robert Bork, who was to replace Justice Lewis Powell, the then “swing vote” at the Court.

Bork

President Reagan presented Bork as a “moderate” to replace Powell, although it was apparent Reagan intended to swing the Court to a majority five-member conservative bloc.  (Sound familiar?)

The ideological fire fight over Bork’s nomination began immediately, giving rise to the verb.  Senator Ted Kennedy famously bashed Bork with this statement, quoted in The New York Times:

“Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.”[1]

In the Democratic-controlled Senate, Bork’s nomination was defeated in the Judiciary Committee 9-5; then, after Bork insisted on going ahead with a vote of the full Senate, it was rejected on a 58-42 vote (with 2 Democrats voting in favor and 6 Republicans voting against).

[Significant historical fact:  Bork’s rejection ultimately led to the nomination and confirmation of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who became the Lewis Powell swing voter of the modern era, and for whose seat President Trump has nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh.]

I had briefly met and worked with Bork in 1980, just before his appointment to the United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.  I was a law student on summer clerkship, assigned to an antitrust case pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.  Bork was the anti-trust expert who argued the case. Together, one-on-one in a Chicago conference room, I shared my research and he tested with me the outline of his argument.  He seemed smart, practical and charming, not consistent with the persona later painted by Senator Kennedy.

Because I had met Bork, I watched the battle over his nomination with some sorrow, for him and for the process.  It was a dramatic, nationally-broadcast display of being “borked” and of the corrosive politicization of the Supreme Court nomination and approval process.   It is a process that has been replayed, with more or less drama, several times since, under multiple administrations and congresses, culminating in a Republican Senate’s treatment of the Obama nomination of Merrick Garland and now Trump’s nomination of Kavanaugh.

To be clear, I am writing about the process, not Bork or Kavanaugh–or Garland.  The process is partisan and poisonous, and it continues to erode the Supreme Court’s objectivity and independence.  As for the candidates themselves, those most politically expedient are rarely the best jurists.  The quality of our courts has fallen victim to our hyper-partisanship.

For example, I am convinced Bork was Reagan’s best political choice in the 1980s, rather than the best legal mind available.  (His originalist theories now sound shallow and partisan.  His consumer-focussed approach to antitrust law has been debunked.)

Same can be said about Kavanaugh and other conservative judicial nominees under Trump.

In short, partisan politics has corrupted and dumbed down our courts and it has had, and will continue to have, dangerous effect on our democracy.

Bork himself spoke to this concern.  After the defeat of his nomination in committee and before the Senate vote, he implored:

The process of confirming justices for our nation’s highest court has been transformed in a way that should not and indeed must not be permitted to occur again.

The tactics and techniques of national political campaigns have been unleashed on the process of confirming judges. That is not simply disturbing, it is dangerous.

Federal judges are not appointed to decide cases according to the latest opinion polls. They are appointed to decide cases impartially according to law.

But when judicial nominees are assessed and treated like political candidates, the effect will be to chill the climate in which judicial deliberations take place, to erode public confidence in the impartiality of courts and to endanger the independence of the judiciary.[2]

It has “occurred again,” now for thirty years.   With the Kavanaugh nomination (and all the other Trump conservative appointments to the federal courts), Trump will establish for decades a partisan imbalance that will erode public confidence in the impartiality of our courts and continue to endanger the independence of the judiciary.

As another pawn in this pernicious politicized process, Kavanaugh should not be confirmed.  The Senate should withhold confirmation until presented a candidate untainted by partisan politics, the best legal mind available and a record of focus on just doing the job of interpreting, not making the law.

At the least, the Senate should not vote until after the mid-term elections.  The people should have a voice.  After all, this is “about a principle, not a person.”[3]

[1] James Reston, “WASHINGTON; Kennedy and Bork,” The New York Times, July 5, 1987.  Retrieved July 11, 2018 

[2] “Bork Gives Reasons for Continuing the Fight,” The New York Times, October 10, 1987.  Retrieved July 11, 2018 

[3] McConnell: Blocking Supreme Court Nomination ‘About A Principle, Not A Person’, NPR Website, March 16, 2016 

 

 

“President Trump, please nominate Judge Merrick Garland!”

One of the tragedies (and travesties) of this political era is the refusal of a Republican-dominated U.S. Senate to give a hearing to President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Merrick B. Garland, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Garland was considered a “consensus” nominee, a highly respected and qualified candidate, Chief Judge of the next most prestigious appellate court in our country after the Supreme Court.

The Senate’s refusal to give Judge Garland a hearing was highly politicized and partisan, and now provides President Trump an opportunity to choose one of two options:

  • He can choose someone from the partisan list provided by the Federalist Society/Heritage Foundation, which will certainly lead to further dismay, division and systemic constitutional dysfunction, OR
  • He can choose the best candidate, a consensus candidate who will enhance, rather than undermine, the independence of the Supreme Court and who will help mitigate the widening of the partisan schism tearing at America and the checks and balances of our constitutional government.

President Trump should choose the latter option and nominate Judge Garland.

What a brilliant stroke this would be.  The shabby, partisan treatment of Judge Garland is and will continue to be a festering sore in the history of the 2016 election and the Trump presidency.  President Trump now has an opportunity to promote some healing.

I am reminded of an Idaho story.

During the Hoover administration, our own Idaho Senator William Borah was summoned to the White House to meet with the President.[1]  It was an election year (as it was when Judge Garland was nominated).  Ninety-

1101310126_400
Senator Borah, Time Magazine, January 26, 1931

one-year-old Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes had bowed to age and resigned from the Supreme Court.  President Hoover, a Republican, had a list of potential nominees.  On the list was Benjamin Cardozo, a New York Democrat and a Jew.

Cardozo was considered one of the most brilliant jurists of the day.  Hoover was sensitive to Western conservative reaction if he nominated Cardozo, because the Court already had one Eastern Jewish Democrat–Justice Louis Brandeis.

Borah was then the most senior member of the Senate (the “Dean of the Senate”).  Because of his influence in the Senate and his Western leanings, Hoover called him to the White House to discuss his list of  candidates.  The Westerners were at the top of the list.  Cardozo was at the bottom.

Hoover handed the list to Borah.  Borah glanced at it and declared, “Your list is all right, but you handed it to me upside down.”

Hoover protested that geography and religion had to be taken into account.  Borah famously said, “Cardozo belongs as much to Idaho as to New York” and added sternly, “anyone who raises the question of race [sic] is unfit to advise you concerning so important a matter.”

Borah returned to the Senate and led, immediately and proactively, approval of Cardozo’s nomination.

In summary, Idaho’s Borah supported the best candidate for an independent court, not one responsive to the ambient pressure of partisan demands.

Our current Idaho Senators abdicated their responsibility in the appointment of Judge Garland in 2016, although Garland was a “moderate” pick and may be the Cardozo of our day.

I would challenge them to remember Senator Borah’s example and show leadership in the nomination and approval of the best candidate to preserve the independence of the Supreme Court and to help avoid worsening of our partisan divide.

I challenge them to promote and support the nomination of Judge Garland.

[1] Henry Julian Abraham, Justices, Presidents and Senators:  A History of the U.S. Supreme Court Appointments from Washington to Bush II  160-61 (5th ed. 2008).

Celebrating MLK Day

In this seemingly regressive period in our history, we still have a dream.

Some say the outcome of the last election has an optimistic “silver lining”:  our values have been challenged and, in response, we have risen to their defense.  I know I feel this effect.

The other night we watched the first episode of David Letterman’s new Netflix show.  It reminded me of an experience last year, when I was on a business trip to Washington, D.C.

My last meeting was on a Friday and I decided to stay through Saturday to visit the newest Smithsonian Museum–the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

2 - 1

It was powerful.  I was deeply moved by my visit.  What followed, though, was unexpected and raw.

So much so, I recorded it with a poem, which I would like to share today, in honor of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and all who have been inspired and motivated by his words and example.

Friday at the New Museum

Closing time at the newest of the Smithsonian’s–
The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)–
On a warm Friday evening in Washington, D.C.,
I must have been the last, most reluctant visitor to be urged out the door.

I wandered across to the Mall,
Up to the Washington Monument
To look down to the Lincoln Memorial below, and the other way
To the Capitol Building hovering in the distance.

As I walked, I contemplated my visit
To this most important new museum,
With its auburn lattice work reaching upward,
Like lifted hands, toward the sky.

It had stirred me to my core,
As much–or more—
Than nearly anything
Before.

From my visit, I felt sadness for its record of abuse and holding back;
Anger for national plagues of “white” superiority and willingness to exploit;
Awareness of the effects of my own privileged “identity”;
Shame for my race, and a more certain desire to be cleansed.

Near the top of the hill, along the path,
Below the towering white obelisk of the Washington Monument:
I saw a mobile Jumbotron, and wandered in its direction.
It was looping the infamous “Access Hollywood” video of the last election.

There was the face and voice of the now President–
And his sad example of this other form of
Domination and abuse.
Boasting.  Blathering.

Behind the Jumbotron, in the distance,
Shrinking behind the trees,
As if with shame,
The White House.

I glanced back, to my right, at the new NMAAHC,
Where I had just witnessed its counterpoint.
A celebration of progress,
Against hateful mythologies and persistent abuse–

Concluding with an epiphany
For the grace, goodness and precedent of
Our last First Family.
Moved by an overwhelming contrast–

I began to weep.

 

meme2
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail