November 17, 2015

 The Refugee Crisis--What Does Christianity Demand? 

I am wrestling with this question, challenge, dilemma--call it what you will. It is a classic dilemma: trying to reconcile two "goods". Here are my thoughts. I am praying that our world leaders will reach the right conclusions. 

We know what the bible says. We know if the mantra, "Everyone Counts", means anything we in the United States need to play a leading role helping those women and men fleeing to save their lives and their children's lives from persecution. 

At the same time, governments owe their citizens and their families a safe environment. Governments should not take action which they believe introduce risk of murder of their citizens of the kind that took place in Paris last week. That means as we accept people into our country or any country we should be as sure as humanly possible through our vetting process that they will not do harm. In fact, the vetting process already in place, is extremely rigorous, especially for refugees from Syria. The average clearance time is 18-24 months. As many as 10 U.S Agencies are involved before the refugee is cleared to come to the U.S.

So what concretely do I believe is required of the U.S. and other nations:

1. All nations (West, Arab, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Syria, etc.) under the auspices of the United Nations or other broad based coalition must work together to achieve: a) a cease fire and then political settlement in Syria which will bring a halt to the Civil War and b) marshal the forces to eliminate the ISIS plague and the threat it represents to the civilized world. This is also essential to stop the outward flow of refugees  and enable those who have already left to safely return. We must set aside past grievances, real or manufactured, to do these two things. Specifically, we must work with Russia and, yes, Iran to that end. The discussions in Vienna are encouraging. We must use our leverage to demand participation by Saudi and other Arab nations. 

2. These same nations under the auspices of the United Nations or other broad coalition should create a plan to: 

a) support (and I mean really support) the refugees who have already left their home to locate in a safe location as close as possible to Syria until they can return to their home. This will probably require establishment of "safe zones" protected by joint forces including NATO, Russia, Turkey, Iran and others nations. It will be necessary to give much more financial support to the countries neighboring Syria (e.g. Jordan) to make this possible.  Following the achievement of a political settlement we will need a Marshall Plan like effort to rebuild the infrastructure of Syria to permit a return to viable life. Doing this has to be predicated on a political settlement and the elimination of the ISIS plague. It will require a massive investment far beyond what has been done to date; 

b) continue to draw on the best intelligence and security experts in the world to ensure that the Syrians who have already sought or are seeking asylum in other countries can be "vetted"  to assure they do not pose a threat to the local populations. As I wrote above, my reading indicates that the vetting process for our country is already extremely rigorous and steps will continue to be taken to make it stronger. We will never achieve "zero risk" on this anymore than we can achieve that with our own indigenous population but we have to provide convincing assurance that the risk is minimal. We have to recognize that this will delay and probably limit the number of immigrants who can be accepted. But we should not lead this to turn our back on playing the role we should in aiding those most threatened. We turned our backs before as sadly described in the article below. Let's not have it happen again on our  watch. 

Stepping back we should recognize and ACT on this as the greatest global crisis since WWII other than perhaps the threat of nuclear annihilation . If there ever was a reason for the United Nations or the G-20 to exist this is it. If there ever was a reason for the nations of the world to unite this is it. 

No one should be using this crisis to try to gain political advantage, for example in the U.S. Presidential campaign or anywhere else. 

People should get the facts on the refugee clearance process before shooting from the hip and calling for a ban on immigration.

Let us act on the best evidence of what we know to be true in protecting lives--all lives. 

ope’s fear of Muslim refugees echoes rhetoric of 1930s anti-Semitism

 September 2  
A humanitarian crisis of historic proportions has been growing in Europe, as hundreds of thousands of refugees and economic migrants from the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia have crossed the continent's borders this year alone.
The scale of the influx is now well-documented. According to the European Union's border agency, some 340,000 migrants crossed its borders in first seven months of 2015; in July, the figure was on its own an astonishing 107,500 people. The majority of those making the hazardous crossing across the eastern Mediterranean are Syrian refugees, displaced by a horrifying, grinding civil war that has forced roughly half of the country's population out of their homes.
According to U.N. figures, the current global levels of displacement have not been matched since World War II. In 2014, the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and people forced to flee within their country surged to nearly 60 million people.
It's hard to grasp the scope of this in real terms -- a nation of the displaced -- but it's been hideously dramatized in recent news. Desperate refugees and migrants, at the mercy of smugglers and human traffickers, have been confronted by walls and soldiers, have drowned in the Mediterranean, and suffocated in the back of trucks.
Over the past year, many in Europe have bristled at the influx -- from far-right political movements and fear-mongering tabloids to established politicians and leaders. The resentment has to do, in part, with the burden of coping with the refugees. But it's also activated a good amount of latent xenophobia--leading to anti-Islam protests, attacks on asylum centers and a good deal of bigoted bluster.
Some governments in Eastern Europe have even specifically indicated they don't want to accommodate non-Christian refugees, out of supposed fear over the ability of Muslims to integrate into Western society.
"Refugees are fleeing fear," urged a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency last week. "Refugees are not to be feared."
It's important to recognize that this is hardly the first time the West has warily eyed masses of refugees. And while some characterize Muslim arrivals as a supposedly unique threat, the xenophobia of the present carries direct echoes of a very different moment: The years before World War II, when tens of thousands of German Jews were compelled to flee Nazi Germany.
Consider this 1938 article in the Daily Mail, a British tabloid still known for its bouts of right-wing populism. Its headline warned of "German Jews Pouring Into This Country." And it began as follows:
"The way stateless Jews and Germans are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage. I intend to enforce the law to the fullest."
In these words, Mr Herbert Metcalde, the Old Street Magistrate yesterday referred to the number of aliens entering this country through the 'back door' -- a problem to which The Daily Mail has repeatedly pointed.
The number of aliens entering this country can be seen by the number of prosecutions in recent months. It is very difficult for the alien to escape the increasing vigilance of the police and port authorities.
Even if aliens manage to break through the defences, it is not long before they are caught and deported.
No matter the alarming rhetoric of Hitler's fascist state -- and the growing acts of violence against Jews and others -- popular sentiment in Western Europe and the United States was largely indifferent to the plight of German Jews.
"Of all the groups in the 20th century," write the authors of the 1999 book, "Refugees in the Age of Genocide," "refugees from Nazism are now widely and popularly perceived as 'genuine', but at the time German, Austrian and Czechoslovakian Jews were treated with ambivalence and outright hostility as well as sympathy."
Part of that hostility was fueled, as some of the European grievances are now, by stereotypes of the refugees as harbingers of a dangerous ideology, in this instance communism and anarchist violence.
There were also economic concerns. The world was coming off the Great Depression. In France alone, there were a million people unemployed. Resentment against French and foreign Jews (large numbers from Germany and Romania had arrived by the early 1930s) led to "a new wave of antisemitism," detailed by a report put out by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The Chamber of Commerce of the city of Metz, for example, grumbled in 1933 that "highly undesirable" Jews "have become a veritable plague for honest French merchants." By 1935, the then French government enacted a series of quotas on certain professions -- effectively blocking Jews out. This was a precursor for the more pernicious and deadly forms of antisemitism to come.
In Britain, as a 2002 article in the Guardian recounts, perhaps as many as half a million German Jewish asylum seekers were turned away by authorities ahead of the outbreak of World War II. Many who were admitted in were given asylum less out of altruism than a need to fill low-paying domestic work "spurned by the native British." The situation was no better elsewhere:
Canada accommodated only 5,000 European Jews between 1933 and 1945, Australia 10,000, South Africa some 6,000. And the US's unyielding quota system meant that, between 1933 and 1937, only 33,000 German Jews were admitted (and only 124,000 between 1938 and 1941).
Meanwhile, those trapped within Nazi-controlled Europe faced the horrors of the Holocaust. Millions were systematically killed. Yet it was only in 1944, when the extent of the genocide had become better known, that the United States made a real effort to rescue European Jews. Even during World War II, let alone before it started, antisemitism was rife in American political and public life.
Unwanted foreigners have always caused consternation among a section of any society. Thankfully, there's an equally vociferous chorus in Europe currently championing the plight of Syrian refugees, and urging others to help make a new home for those displaced by conflict and other hardships.
Everyone deserves the chance to live a better life, activists argue.


November 10, 2015

The Demise of Civility and the Need for a Common, Unifying Purpose

I’ve lived long enough and read enough history books to know that the vilification of political opponents and those who disagree with us is not new.  We have seen it before and we’ll see it again.

Especially with our two-party system, we are always going to have disagreements on policy and on philosophy and values, too.  That is healthy.  It is human, and it makes for progress.

However, recent events, marked by the broadside pronouncements of Donald Trump and the prosecutorial-like questioning of Hillary Clinton in the House Sub-Committee’s hearing on Benghazi last month, has brought the issue front and center for me in a more dramatic way.

The polarization of discussion has moved beyond what can be considered healthy.  It has moved to vilifying groups of people (e.g., immigrants and Muslims) and to character assassination (e.g., disloyalty to the country and accusations of outright lying).

I wouldn’t take the time to write this if the only thing that worried me about it was the distaste for uncivil and disrespectful discourse.  It is something much more important than that which concerns me.

I am concerned that this kind of attitude creates adversarial relationships that prevent us from working together to resolve the most important issues facing our nation, such as how do we help all young people grow up to be productive adults, stimulate greater growth in our economy, and advance policies and actions that make for a safer world.

It is also turning people off.  This back-biting discourse is one of the reasons voter turnout is at depressingly low levels.

What, I have asked myself, is driving this polarization, and increasing level of uncivil, disrespectful discourse?  I suspect one driver is what has always been with us:  the desire to show “we are right”—the desire to lift ourselves up versus “others” to prove our self-worth.

But there is something else, I believe.  There is the lack of a common, unifying purpose – a robust vision of what we can be as a country and what we can be as a world, for all people.  To be sure, there has never been a point in history when the people of our nation or perhaps any nation were in unanimous agreement on what such a vision would be.  But there have been times where there has been the leadership and vision that has brought the majority of people together.

When those times have been will vary in the eye of the beholder and as interpreted by historians, it will have varied over time.  I will not weigh in on that here.  What I will weigh in on is the conviction that there have been many times when our national leaders, in the Presidential Administration and our Houses of Congress, have worked together without the personal venom we see today and with the conviction that compromise is not equivalent to selling out one’s soul--that, indeed, compromise is essential to achieving outcomes to advance the most important needs and opportunities in our nation.

There is a substantive reason for the change I’m describing, and that is the genuine widening in what a majority of the Republican Party and of the Democratic Party view as the proper role of government in people’s lives.  It goes beyond the scope of this short paper to trace the magnitude of that gap over time.  It would be interesting in this regard to compare the party platforms in different presidential cycles over the past 150 years or so to note the differences that exist, large or small.  Whatever, perhaps exacerbated by gerrymandering and the role of money in elections, the gap in the judged proper role of government held by the majorities of our two parties has widened a great deal over the last 50 years.  As one illustration and drawing from Tim Wise’s excellent book, “Under the Affluence,” I cite this section of the 1956 Republican Party platform: 

“We are proud of and shall continue our far-reaching and sound advances in matters of basic human needs:
            --expansion of social security
            --broadened coverage in unemployment insurance
            --improved housing
            --better health protection for all our people 
We are determined that our government remain morally responsive to the urgent social and economic problems of our people.”

Later, in the same platform, the GOP bragged about the fact that, under the leadership of President Eisenhower, “The federal minimum wage has been raised for more than 2 million workers.  Social security has been extended to an additional 10 million workers, and the benefits raised for 6-1/2 million.”  Going even further, Republicans trumpeted the fact that union membership was up 2 million since 1952 and, later, the platform called for “equal pay for equal work, regardless of sex.”

How does one explain the tremendous difference in position between that platform and mainstream GOP ideology today?  Reading Wise’s book leads me to believe a key reason was that the social benefits, coming after World War II, were seen and in fact were benefiting the broad middle class, the great majority of the population, whereas today, quite incorrectly as it turns out, government support is portrayed by the majority of the members of the Republican Party as going to people who are “less deserving,” who perhaps just haven’t worked hard enough or have gotten themselves into trouble.  In too many ways, government support plans (unlike, say, the GI Bill and housing support which drove the improvement of life and the overall economy so strongly following World War II) are seen to be going to a small minority.  In fact, most of the government-provided benefits today, e.g., social security, Medicare, student loans, expanded health coverage and home mortgage interest deductions are going to the broad public.

I wouldn’t want my earlier example of how Hillary Clinton was quizzed in the Sub-Committee hearing to suggest that denigrating the “opposition” is confined to the right or to the Republican Party.  We see it on the left as well.  We are not going to bring this country together or solve the challenges in front of us by pilloring CEOs and their salaries or characterizing Wall Street and banks as the “source of all evil,” as some critics tend to do.

Yes, in general, CEO salaries have gone past the point of reasonableness.  It’s hard to deny that, when you read that the average salary of the CEOs of S&P 500 companies grew from 42 times the average American worker in 1980 to 372 times the average worker in 2014.  And, whatever it is, pay should be calibrated to performance!  But remember:  these CEOs have worked hard to get where they are.  Their jobs are on the line every day.  The average tenure in CEO jobs is less than it has ever been.

So, too, proper regulation of banks and industry are important matters.  But let’s remember two things; our economy would not begin to be what it is today nor where we need it to be in the future if we do not have thriving, innovating corporations, large and small, providing jobs and quality products and good careers for employees. 

Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, like it or not, we are not going to reduce our increasing income inequality by depicting business leaders as corrupt and mean-spirited.  First of all, it’s not generally true; second, we can be sure it will trigger a defensive reaction that will throttle the advance of social policies which are vital to give people of lesser means equal opportunity.

The bottom line is that we need to recognize that we are all in this together.  Not just in some rhetorical kumbaya sense but because if we are not together, we are not going to accomplish what we need to.

In this regard, we need to recognize that we are the common beneficiaries of many government programs.  The idea that government should be “stamped out,” that less is always better, is a glittering generality that defies knowledge of the realities of life.  Where would we be if we didn’t have government-sponsored research into disease, government-supported infrastructure, social security, or our nation’s defense?  Where would we be if we didn’t have the government underpinning of a law-abiding court system and laws?

Yes, government is sometimes too invasive.  We can ask it to do things that are best done by the private sector.  But this is not an “either/or” issue.  It is a question of choice and balanced judgment based on experience and the particular situation. 

We’ve got to turn away from having government versus non-government become an ideological wedge as opposed to a practical question of how to best provide the benefits that people and society need.

I believe that it will be as we recognize the common benefits being provided by government and by business, while providing constraints where we should, that we will come together as a nation.  That is what characterized the period during my lifetime where we came together more than any other.  That was the period following World War II, when our middle class was growing, benefiting from such government programs as the GI Bill and home loans and while corporate America was booming.

We are not going to go back to that time.  But there are principles of how we came together and what our common mindset was as evidenced by the Republican platform I cited earlier.  While a reading of the two party platforms in 1956 reveals party conflict, there was far greater agreement on the role government should play in advancing the welfare of the public than there is today.

There are many needs and opportunities in front of us which should draw us together across party lines; -- for example, the development of our children from the very earliest of age, the war against drugs, the growth of our economy, the rationalization of our penal codes and prison system, and the improvement of our infrastructure.

We have to stop pitting one group against another.

Whether you agree with my historical analysis or not, we would all agree in hoping, desperately, that we will achieve a more uniting vision and commitment to work together in the next administration.  Our country and the world need it and the people demand it.

We have great challenges ahead of us.  We will be not meet them unless/until we can work together with a far more mutual respect and trust than we have today.